Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Links

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

On History: Launching Pads

I attended the Comic Mania Convention in Elgin, IL this past weekend. It's not a large convention, by any means. It's one-day event with around two dozen people tabling, and organizer Bob Cassinelli said that they had less than 1,000 attendees. It was a really nice, intimate show in a great venue (The Gail Borden Public Library).

One of the cool things about a smaller show like that is that there's a little more flexibility when it comes to talking with creators. Not only is there less background noise to contend with, but there are fewer people poking around at the tables while you talk with them. Which, in some ways, is a bit of detriment to the folks tabling (they make less money that way, after all) but it definitely works in the attendees favor. Which leads me to getting a good chance to chat with Chris Ecker (who co-founded Big Bang Comics and created the Knight Watchman) and Matt Hansel (who inks the Knight Watchmen webcomic).

I'd been reading the Knight Watchmen webcomic since it launched about six months back. It's a fun spin on Golden Age Batman-type stories, and does a good job re-creating the feel of those old books and strips, particularly the Shelly Moldoff stuff. What I didn't realize -- and I kicked myself over this repeatedly while standing there -- was that Ecker has been doing these for about 20 years! His first Big Bang Comics came out in 1994, and Image started publishing them in 1996! How I completely missed these for this long, I have no idea! But I quickly dropped a small chunk of change to pick up several of the trade paperbacks, and some original art.

As it happened, I also received this weekend the copy of The Shadow Hero which I pre-ordered months ago. It's a graphic novel by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew recounting a new origin story for an incredibly obscure superhero named the Green Turtle. Evidently, the character was created by Chu F. Hing as the first Asian superhero in an American comic, but his publisher refused to accept that a non-Caucasian could take a lead role like that and Chu spent the entire time hiding the character's intended race from his boss, blocking even the reader from getting a good look at him. In Shadow Hero, Yang and Liew expand on the character's mythos and try to figure out some in-story rationale for some seemingly odd design decisions. (They do a fantastic job of it, I might add!)

Finally, I also found in the quarter bins at Comic Mania, about half of the run on Kirby Genesis, a relatively recent comic series imagining all of Jack Kirby's creator-owned characters inhabiting the same universe. While the style is marketedly different (Kirby's concepts here are primarily from decades after the previous items) and the content is licensed from the Kirby estate, they're still using older work as a platform to launch new works.

At some level, you could say that any continuing comic (Superman, Archie, X-Men, etc.) is basing the new work on what's been previously published, but in those ongoing series, the build-up is slow, taking place over decades one issue at a time. There really very little connection between Action Comics #1 and the latest issue of Superman. The characters have evolved significantly over the past century. Current creators aren't evoking older stories, so much as evoking just the previous issue.

It's kind of curious that I happened to wind up with a number of different works deliberately skipping over the immediate history and diving at least a few decades into the past. And these newer works aren't slaving over the existing material, as is done with contemporary stories, but just using the basic ideas and concepts and exploring them further with some degree of hindsight. I don't know that it's really popular enough to be a thing per se, and it's certainly not something that's never done elsewhere, but seeing these varied pieces come in at the same time makes one appreciate the effort new creators take in examining the old concepts and seeing how/why they might still be relevant today.

Monday, July 21, 2014

On Business: Foil Covers, Take 2

Last week saw several comic announcements of note in advance of Comic-Con. (And for those expressing any level of surprise that they didn't wait until Comic-Con, I have to ask if you've been paying attention? You haven't been able to announce anything AT Comic-Con if you wanted it to get any attention for at least six or eight years now.) Regardless of what you think of the announcements themselves, Marvel probably did the best job of working the media outlets, devulging upcoming revelations on The View and The Colbert Report. I don't recall hearing about any major changes in Marvel's PR/marketing department, but they've either hired a wicked-talented CMO to little fanfare, or they're been getting a lot of help/attention from Disney. Either way, good on them for stepping up their marketing game.

But I'm sitting back here at Kleefeld HQ, and watching the various debates around gay characters in Archie, racism in Captain America and sexism in Batgirl; and there are a lot of interesting points being brought up. "You were okay with Frog Thor, but not okay with a female Thor?" "Is this going to be a Black Captain America, or a Captain America in blackface?" "How are lace-up boots less practical than spandex and high heels?" And so on. Lots of valid points being made there, as I said.

I've seen a few other people note that all this buzz isn't going to do much good because the books are pretty impenatrable to new readers. The Archie issue evidently has two full pages of backstory to get people caught up to speed. Two pages! On Archie, what has historically been one of the most consistently accessible franchises in the past 40-50 years!

So people hear some of the buzz, and call their LCS and maybe pick up a copy or two. Because it's important. Because it's significant. Because it's a piece of comic book history. Because it's collectible.

And therein lies my concern. You know, it was a nice bit of marketing a few years ago when Marvel killed off Captain America. They got some good PR out of it, and it got a lot of people to pick up the book who might not otherwise. But that was done pretty much in isolation. It happened to be a slow news day, as I recall, which helped but that was pretty much the only comic announcement of consequence for some time on either side of that date. It was an event because it stood out as an event.

But with all the publishers jumping on the "we have a PR-worthy event" bandwagon, it cheapens the importance of all of them. How much has the Batgirl talk died down in the wake of a female Thor? Hell, the most I heard about Batgirl after that were jokes about how DC was making these super-timid advances, even compared to Marvel's pretty timid advances.

But that whole "everybody's doing something special which makes nothing special" idea? That was last seen in comicdom when we were inundated with a flood of foil covers, embossed covers, die-cut covers, neon ink covers... And, as you'll recall, that led to a pretty nasty collapse when all the non-comics people realized that they were buying gimmicks that ultimately wouldn't be worth the fortune they thought they would be and stopped buying altogether.

Now, granted, a good story in a comic is more likely than a foil cover to pull in a reader for the long-term, even if the initial hook is pretty gimmicky. And all the announcements we've seen could potentially lead to good, even great, stories.

But, we've heard retailers weigh in and talk about how they would get a flood of phone calls after, say, Spider-Man teamed up with Barack Obama, and a bunch of people would rush in to buy the issue, and the retailer would never see those customers again. So the question I'm wondering is: will these media event stories be the cause of another comics industry implosion? I certainly hope not, but it's something I'll be keep my eye on to see other signs for.

Friday, July 18, 2014

On Strips: Capp vs Lennon

In 1969, John Lennon and Yoko Ono performed a pair of "bed-ins" (one in Amesterdam, one in Montreal) to protest the Vietnam War. It was kind of like a sit-in, but they stayed in bed. It was a form of non-violent protest to try to encourage... well, non-violence, I suppose. They garnered a fair amount of publicity, but not much else from what I understand. Part of the publicity in their Montreal stay came from their inviting a variety of celebrities to come meet with them and talk about issues surrounding the war. One such guest, who was by pretty much all accounts the most adversarial, was cartoonist Al Capp.

Capp spent ten minutes with them, clearly disagreeing on many points, and he put forth more than a little effort into goading Lennon and/or Ono into violence by repeatedly and deliberately insulting and aggitating them. Capp had been growing increasingly out of step with the popular culture, and his personal indescretions were less frequently ignored. This didn't help, though Li'l Abner continued to appear in newspapers under his hand until 1977.

Here's the complete footage of Capp meeting Lennon and Ono for the first (and, I believe, only) time...

Thursday, July 17, 2014

On -isms: Chunky Girl Comics

There are, of course, all sorts of body types out in the world, most of which are not really reflected in comics. When Marisa Garcia continued to NOT see heroes that looked like her, she eventually just said she'd just make comics featuring the heroes she wanted to see. She wanted to include her friends, who also had body types not featured in comics, and developed a new team called The Heavy Response Unit to be published under the Chunky Girl Comics name. To quote from their Facebook page...
Chunky Girl Comics is breaking down barriers and introducing the world of comics to Rosie, Sage, Sweet Pea and Candy, a group of ladies with curves in all of the right places that are determined to break the standards of what a typical superhero should look like.
They've been trying to build interest online and at convention over the past year or two. The comic isn't out yet, so I can't speak to whether or not this will be any good, but I want to highlight them for trying to put something out there that's different, at least in terms of how it depicts women.

Whether you chalk up to hubris the fact that the characters are direct representations of the women themselves, or simply a convenient set of ready-made models for the artist(s), they certainly get lots of extra credit for cosplaying as their comic book alter egos when they attend conventions. That speaks to a healthy confidence in both themselves as well as their publishing venture.

As I said, I don't know how good or bad the comic will be or, for that matter, if it ever indeed gets published. I certainly hope they'll have something out in the near future, and I hope it's really brilliant. But even if it isn't, it should act as encouragement to everyone else who doesn't see themselves represented in comics. If you can't find a hero that really speaks to you directly, one that you can't 100% identify with, then go ahead and create your own! Odds are, somebody else is having the same problem.

I'll leave you with this: an interview with Chunky Girl at this year's Big Wow Comicfest...

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Links

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

On History: The Comicmobile

The gent on the right in this image is Bob Rozakis, formerly a writer and production director at DC Comics. That's his wife on the left. Behind them is DC's official Comicmobile.

In the early 1970s, DC's vice-president Sol Harrison had the idea for a van that would drive around the suburbs selling comics in much the same way an ice cream truck would sell frozen treats. Recall that this is just as the direct market was starting and dedicated comic shops were pretty rare, so publishers were still willing to try a variety of different methods to sell more comics. Harrison got a hold of a van, painted "Here comes the comicsman!" on the side and slapped a bunch of commercially available stickers of DC's characters on the sides. He then sent Michael Uslan (the same one who went on to produce the Michael Keaton Batman movie) out to the suburbs of New Jersey with the van stocked with leftover material from the in-house library. Uslan would drive around to local beaches and parks and such, ring some bells out the window, and sell comics out of the van.

This would have been the summer of 1973. When Uslan had to go back to school in the fall, the van was turned over to Rozakis. Instead of driving through New Jersey, though, Harrison decided they should try Long Island, New York. Rozakis took a train out to Jersey, and then drove the van back.

However, what Rozakis quickly discovered, though, was that the legalities of selling were a bit different in New York. In the first place, he had to get a vendor's license for each of the townships he would be selling in. In the second place, none of them allowed him to stop in local beaches and parks, where Uslan seemed to have the most success. So he had to simply drive up and down the streets of Long Island, hoping to attract some passing attention with the bells he held out the window.

It's not terribly surprising that sales were absymal. Rozakis claims he barely made enough money to cover gasoline expenses. (And this was back when a gallon of gas cost the same price as a comic book -- a mere 20¢!) Interestingly, though Uslan's best-seller was Plop #1 which had just recently come out, and Rozakis says #2 sold very well (compared to everything else) when it came out while he was driving. But the sales did not justify the experiment and Rozakis was called back into the DC offices after about six weeks.

The van was sold/traded/given to Bruce Hamilton, later the publisher of Gladstone Comics. He tested the Comicmobile concept in Arizona for a few months. (I can't find any record of how successful it was there, but I suspect not very.) The van ultimately was demolished when it was hit by a semi.

The experiment was such a failure that no one seems to have seriously considered repeating it until the past few years. One could argue (easily) that Harrison's plan was a little too loose on the details, and wasn't given sufficient planning and/or funding. One could argue that it wasn't given enough time to develop; Rozakis has noted that most of his clients were regulars, much like a local comic shop. One could argue that the market was radically different forty years ago. So maybe a comicmobile today will have much better results; whoever wants to try this again, I wish them far better luck than Uslan, Rozakis and Hamilton had!