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The Sage King
Badische LandesBibliothek
First, I would like thank those of you who expressed support for my continued blogging. That means a lot to me. Really. And the feedback about reading my blog via other venues is helpful, too. As I mentioned to at least some of you, I still very much enjoy comics and very much enjoy writing, so there was never danger of that stopping; my only concern was with this blog itself and whether or not it was serving its purpose.

As I noted last week, how this blog worked hasn't appreciably changed since it's inception back in 2006. Nearly a decade. The internet's changed a bit since then and, while I think my tactics have largely been able to keep pace, I don't know that my strategies have. Hence the disconnect I saw.

If you're actually on my blog site itself to read this, you're seeing some structural changes in the site layout. Some of my previous posts don't translate particularly well to the new format, but I think most come across okay. You might also be seeing some smaller changes if you're reading this (directly or indirectly) through a feed. There are some minor things I'll be doing differently in terms of formatting that should help both the UX and SEO overall. I still need to sort out how I might gather more reliable metrics for things that appear outside the blog proper, and I'll be digging around the next couple weeks to see if there any other tricks I can implement as well.

From what people have been telling me, there's nothing inherently wrong with my topics or style of writing. I didn't announce a potential scrapping of this blog specifically to draw reactions -- I honestly didn't expect to hear anything in terms of a response -- but it was nice to hear that my thoughts here are appreciated. So I'll be continuing my writing in the same vein that I have been. Most of the changes that seem to be needed are on the back-end; hence, the stuff I noted in the previous paragraph.

The problem largely stemmed from my focusing on the day-to-day operations (i.e. writing something new every day) without stopping to look at the broader picture. Tactics over strategy. That's long been an issue for me and, evidently, one still in need of development. *sigh*

So, where does that leave us?
  1. Actual comics blogging will resume shortly. You might experinece the occasional oddity in formatting as I sort out some of the tactical specifics of the recent updates. My apologies in advance for that.
  2. I've still got my ongoing column "Incidental Iconography" column in The Jack Kirby Collector. Issue #64 just came out in which I look at his unproduced The Frog Prince and I just submitted my column for #65 on Socko the Seadog!
  3. I've also got my two columns (one on webcomics, another on fans/fandoms) and a small assortment of reviews and commentary pieces over at FreakSugar.com. I think all the folks there are doing great work, and we're queuing up some things later this year that should make 2015 a really good year for the site.
  4. As you may have noticed from my Patreon page, I've been able to return to working on my next book about the Blackstone comics of the 1940s. The past two years have been crazy busy with almost my entire pile of research in storage for much of that time. I've gotten everything organized again now, and have been able to start back into this. I don't have a precise timeline yet, but this will be my big project to complete and have published in 2015.
  5. I may as well mention my appearances circuit that I've got tenatively planned for the next several months. (I should note that these are basically just where I'll be; I won't have any booths set up or Artist Alley tables or anything. The one exception is the Wisconsin Marathon where I'll actually one of the runners.)
    • Feb 13 -- Scott McCloud talk at the Chicago Humanities Festival
    • Feb 18 -- Lucy Knisley signing at Challengers Comics
    • Feb 28 -- Mighty Con
    • Mar 14-15 -- Indiana Comic Con
    • Apr 11-12 -- SPACE
    • Apr 24-26 -- C2E2
    • May 2 -- Wisconsin Marathon
    • May 14-17 -- Atlantic City Boardwalk Con (very tenative)
    • Jun 6-7 -- CAKE
    • Aug 22 -- Wizard World Chicago
    • Aug 29-30 -- Lake Count-I-Con
Ultimately it's about continuing to try making a presence of sorts within comicdom. This blog is a part of that, as are the various columns and personal appearnaces. I want to not only add my voice to the broader, ongoing discussion of comics, but I want that voice to mean something. As long as what I do keeps working towards that end, I'm happy.
I've spent most of my time on this blog not overly concerned about who's reading it. Sure, it's great when Heidi or Tom or someone link to me, but since I never generate much feedback regardless of how much traffic any given post generates, I mostly just write for myself. I watched my site analytics for a while when I first set those up, and I was mostly fascinated by how any given post might generate traffic while others that I thought were equally compelling didn't. But I eventually got over that and I don't think I've logged in to check for over a year.

So imagine my surprise when I happened to log in last night to see that my traffic has been on a steady decline since last January, and is now hovering at a four-year low. Yeouch. Like I said, I mostly write for myself, but that's still a bit of hit to the ego.

As it happens, the timing closely coincides with the new format I adopted in mid-December 2013, where I had a defined topic for five days of the week and nothing over the weekends. Previously, I just threw online whatever I happened to think of, and did that seven days a week. Naturally, my immediate thinking is that this revised format has been a complete failure. Perhaps the topics I chose were so uninteresting to most people that it drove them away. Perhaps the lack of weekend blogging proved detrimental (despite historical trends that showed very few people reading the site on weekends anyway). Perhaps the very nature of having prescribed topics somehow hampered my writing ability.

But there are other possibilities as well. I've been noodling for a couple months now that my site's last redesign of any signifcance was... well, never. I've updated the main image a few times, and changed the side panel a few times, but the basic structure and layout hasn't changed since I launched this blog way back in 2006. I did add a more mobile-friendly version a few years back, but I put very little thought into that design since smart phones weren't that big a thing yet. Despite my overall traffic going down, mobile traffic is up over 40% year over year. So maybe it's that my blog isn't written very well to be read on smart phones.

Another big change on the landscape, too, has been social media. All of my posts do get automatically re-posted on Tumblr, so I'm sure that's undermining some traffic. My RSS feed, too, provides the full text of each post, so people could be reading it that way. And when links get posted to LinkedIn, Google+ or SeanKleefeld.com, there's a short introduction shown, that provides a little more context about the actual post; it's possible some people are seeing that, and just being more selective with clicking over.

And here's the other thing: it's a blog! Who the hell writes blogs any more?!? Especially solo efforts like this one!

When I said I mostly write for myself, that's true. The audience of just about any individual post is just me. But one of the reasons I started the blog in the first place was to get my name out there so that when I started writing professionally, I would have built up a small audience and some level of credibility. So while a post might be for me, the blog as a whole serves the broader purpose of marketing. But if it's no longer serving that purpose, or not serving it very well, maybe I need to do something else.

I'll need to mull this over a bit. I'm not sure when/if blogging will resume, but suggestions and ideas would certainly be welcome in the meantime.
A well-linked-to article in The Washington Post yesterday heralded the announcement that Reggie Hudlin, Denys Cowan and Derek Dingle are bringing Milestone comics back later this year. A lot of the big comics news sites said "YAY!" and excerpted a few quotes, but what I haven't seen is what the return of Milestone means.

Milestone first debuted in 1993 and, as a publisher, was defunct by 1997. DC licensed the characters and several stayed in some degree of circulation beyond that, but wrapped in the blanket of DC contunity. Which meant they were frequently relegated to guest star roles behind Batman or Superman. What that means is that, effectively, no one under 20 really knows Milestone at all, and you'd have to be at least 25 or 30 for the characters to have had any sort of lasting impact.

Milestone was a fantastic idea. The characters they published were almost all minorities, and the books themselves were made by almost entirely minority creators. Not just any Black guy who can write kind of okay, but they went out of their way to hire really talented people. Who happened to be Black. That meant two things. First, the stories they produced could easily stand up on their own against anything else being sold at the time. These weren't your typical "out trying to create the next Marvel Universe" wannabes, these were really talented creators, many of whom had already worked for Marvel and/or DC. The whole company came with a good set of creative credentials.

Second, because the creators were all minorities, they could speak more personally and directly to many of the issues face by minorities in the real world. If a character in one of the stories was slighted because of some institutional racism, the artist wouldn't draw just a generic gritted-teeth angry character, they could pull from their own first-hand experiences to show the nuance of being outraged but trying to bite their lip and hold it in for the time being. They know that face from having experienced it a thousand times. That gave the characters a greater authenticity than if they were simply crafted at a corporate level for the sake of filling a self-imposed quota.

And what does that mean?

Let me share a quick story from Aw Yeah Comics that I heard this past weekend...
A family was just in picking up some books for their 12 year old son, who is just getting into comics thanks to the Marvel movies. He sees the new Captain America, and excitedly yells to his Dad... "Dad! Captain America looks just like us!"
A child just getting into comics, and he sees that one of the heroes he was shown on the big screen is now Black, just like him. He sees that superheroes don't HAVE to be white. He sees that the heroes who hold ideals he wants to live up to are JUST LIKE HIM. He sees that he has a role model reflective of him. Of his life. Of his experiences.

And that's what Milestone did. With EVERY. SINGLE. BOOK. They gave minority audiences role models to look up to and root for. They gave them not just a single hero to play second-fiddle to Aquaman; they created a whole line of comics filled with heroes that reflected who they were.

Try talking to some Black guys in their 30s and 40s who read Milestone comics back in the day. I can almost guarantee that you will hear a revenence for those short-lived comics that you might expect to hear from a Browncoat talking about Firefly. I can almost guarantee they will have no end of respect for Dwayne McDuffie and the other creators responsible. Those books were what those guys had been looking for their entire comic-reading lives.

I will freely admit that I largely missed Milestone back in the day. I was a poor student back then, and my comics reading was essentially limited to my one favorite book. The books I've read since then were good. My understanding is that they didn't do better because A) the comics market began crashing hard just as they were getting started, and B) insufficient marketing to counter the piles of cash Marvel and DC were throwing at just about everything. Just as a quick reminder, in 1993 Marvel was producing 140 titles every month (compared to Milestone's four), in 1994 Marvel bought Heroes World, in 1996 Capital City was bought by Diamond (making it essentially the only comics distributor) and Marvel filed for bankruptcy. The market was in massive turmoil, largely due to the shenanigans of the biggest players. That Milestone was as commercially successful as it was at that time is, especially in hindsight, amazing.

And that's part of what gives people so much excitement and hope for the new Milestone. Sure, there's a nostalgia factor there, but they're also stepping into a radically different market. One which is much more conducive to independent voices. (Raina Telgemeier's been on The New York Times best-selling list for how long now? Like, five or six years straight or something, isn't it?) I think there's much more potential for Milestone to reach the audience it needs in order to survive now. I think they have a shot at being much more successful this time around. And that means that many more kids can walk into a comic shop and yell to their dad... "Dad! Static Shock looks just like us! And so does Hardware! And so does Icon! And so does Rocket! And..."
Last year, Congressman John Lewis' graphic novel March came out to much critical acclaim. It was the first part of his biography that only covered the first twenty years of his life. Book Two was released yesterday, picking up where the first book left off, but covering only the next three years.

Of course, 1960-1963 were very turbulent years for the civil rights movement. Sit-ins in restaurants and stand-ins at theaters were still ongoing, the Freedom Rides took place in 1961, and the march on Washington which culminated in Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s famous "I Have a Dream" speech happened in 1963. And Lewis was very directly a part of all of that. Consequently, all of that is covered in Book Two with the Freedom Rides themselves taking up over half the pages.

What was striking to me was the excellent use of the comic medium here. Lewis' story is indeed a powerful one in and of itself, but artist Nate Powell does an excellent job illustrating key moments that really bring the story home emotionally. The imagery that simply was not possible to capture at the time -- notably many of the beatings and phsyical confrontations both in and out of prison walls -- is on display to hammer home the truely graphic nature of what Lewis and his peers endured. The book is not gory by any means, but Powell doesn't hesitate to show just how horribly Blacks were being treated. The non-violent methods the Freedom Riders used compared to the incredibly violent methods used by the racists they encountered is very much on display throughout the book. You may have seen some photos of the burning bus, or various Riders with bandages covering their wounds, but seeing the actual moments of impact -- perhaps one of the strongest elements of comic art -- makes the story that much more powerful than had it been prose or film.

The historical story is couched against the inauguration of President Barack Obama. Snippets of that event are peppered throughout the book, as an ongoing reminder that the civil rights movement was worth fighting for. Included here is Aretha Franklin's singing of "My Country 'Tis of Thee." In the book, Franklin is depicted exactly once. In her hat. It's an absolutely inconsequential part of the overall story, but I bring it up because Franklin's hat -- possibly one of the most visual remembrances people have of that particular inauguration -- is incredibly understated in Powell's illustration. Which suggests (to me, at least) that all the horrific things I alluded to in the previous paragraph were also understated. The most powerful graphic elements of the story -- the parts that really hit emotionally in ways that no documentary I've seen have ever been able to do -- those graphic elements don't even begin to describe the horrors that Lewis faced.

Regardless of how much you've seen/read about the civil rights era, and especially if that isn't very much, March, Book Two should absolutely be on your must-read list. Everyone knew this was going to be a powerful story going into it, but they delivered in spades and took good advantage of the comic medium.
With Congressman John Lewis' March: Book Two being released tying in with Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, you'll no doubt hear at least a few references to how Lewis, as a teenager, was inspired by a comic book called Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story. Here's one of, I'm sure, many clips where Lewis speaks to that.
That suggests that comics can have a lot of power and influence, if they have a strong enough message. Go read The Montgomery Story. From a critical perspective, it's not a very good comic book. The illustrations are serviceable, but not especially dramatic or engaging. The story is very heavy in its narration. But the message it conveys was/is strong and obviously got a lot of people, including a then-teenaged Lewis, to move to action.

I've read any number of comics over the years that have changed the way I act or think. I've talked to that point before. There's a part of my brain that despises bigotry thanks to Chris Claremont. There's a part of my brain that loves the medium of comic books -- not just the genre of superheroes -- thanks to Scott McCloud. There's a part of my brain that has me living life on my own terms thanks to Frank Page.

There are books and movies and (of course) people I've met who have changed how I act and think as well, but comics are significant factor for me. And, I don't doubt, for a huge number of others. Whether that's a long-running message that might be thematic throughout an entire publisher's run like Milestone or a short, but topically poignant, point in a single editorial cartoon. Comics can be simple entertainment, but they can also be powerful and uplifting messages that people take to heart.

There are cartoonists out there who try to do provide a strong message with whatever they're working on. Keith Knight springs to mind. But I wonder if more publishers got behind those types of messages, what kind of work could be put out there. Dwayne McDuffie had a fantastic idea with Milestone, but I wonder if he came to the table too much as a editor/creator and not enough as a publisher. The stories Milestone turned out were top-notch, but they had trouble gaining a business foothold. Contrast that against The Montgomery Story which had top-notch business distribution, but only adequate craft. Both are fondly remembered today, but Milestone more for what it could have been, and Montgomery Story for what it did.