Friday, December 19, 2014

On Strips: No Longer Relevant

There are any number of ways to divide the types of jokes and gags that appear in comic strips. One way is timeless versus contemporary. Timeless jokes are the type that can pretty much be pulled from any time period and still work. The specific trappings may be tied to a specific period, but the joke itself remains viable regardless of the level of technology we've achieved or what the current social climate is. Most of the "classic" comic strips you can read in the newspaper follow this premise.

Here's a recent Beetle Bailey strip...
Whatever you think of the quality of the joke, it would be equally funny if it were written in 1950 when the strip first launched, and it will probably be equally as funny in 2050. The joke is not reliant on the reader knowing much beyond how it's generally absurd/silly that grown adult might be confused about how to put on a pair of pants.

Now, compare that against a contemporarious joke in La Cucaracha...
Again, regardless of how funny you think this is/isn't, it references a very specific set of events. The events are a few weeks old already, so it's starting to sound a little dated in our ever-faster society, but in a year or two, this will fall fairly flat as a joke because it's so tied to events in the past. Readers (most of them at any rate) won't have a very direct connection to these events and probably won't remember them. A lot of editorial cartoons fall into this category, where they're really only funny within the cultural context in which they were written. One you remove yourself from that context, the humor (usually) fails.

There is also a third pseudo-category that I'd like to rail against: jokes that try to be contemporary but the cartoonist is out of touch enough with the current status quo that the joke seems dated as soon as it's published. For example, any comic that attempts to poke fun at how people use phones these days. Kids that want to talk to Facetime Santa instead of going to the mall. Couples who spend their entire date staring at their phones. The guy who pauses the lunch conversation to take a picture of his food. The woman who asks a celebrity for a joint selfie instead of an autograph. That type of thing, here in 2014, isn't funny. There's (frequently) no snide commentary involved; the cartoonist is just suggesting that the situation itself is absurd enough to warrant laughing at.

Except these aren't absurd situations. This is how people live and act. Not everyone, of course, but none of those situations are uncommon. Why wouldn't a kid want to Facetime Santa? When don't you see a couple both check their phones on a date? This is how society works in 2014. Whether you think things were better "in the good ol' days" or not, this is the reality in which we all live. Typical modern life can be funny if you hold up a mirror to it, and distort the image a bit to make things a little more extreme than they currently are, but just holding up a mirror to show a straight reflection is pretty uninteresting. We take selfies like that every day already. Sometimes with celebrities.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

On -isms: Unsounded

One of the webcomics I've discovered in the past year that I've really enjoyed is Ashley Cope's Unsounded. Cope describes it on her site like this...
Daughter of the Lord of Thieves, Sette Frummagem is on a mission, and she'll lie, cheat, and steal to make sure it's a success (she'll lie, cheat, and steal anyway). Condemned to aid her in her rotten endeavours is a rotten corpse who seems oddly talented with the supernatural, and oddly not laying motionless in the dirt.
The road is long and no one is what they seem. Never trust a thief, and never trust anyone who won't let you look into their eyes.
I like the story for several reasons. Not only is the basic art very good, but despite the basic look of "formatted as a graphic novel and presented on the web" she does make some interesting uses of the web format, with occassional animations as well as the "infinite canvas." The story is pretty interesting, as well, with a fairly straight-forward main plot yet with a number of interesting sub-plots. There are lots of solid characters, none of whom really seem to fall into 'standard cliche' range. Cope's also flesh a very solid world -- one that she's evidently been thinking about for decades before she started her comic.

But here's one thing I'd like to bring up today regarding her comic: race. She has characters of different races featured prominently throughout the story, and makes almost no mention of it. Characters interact with one another on as characters, without seemingly any regard for color skin the other has. I can only find one extra-narrative reference to this, in an interview from 2013 in which Cope says, "I wanted a setting that felt a little closer to our own; something seedier, more political, more ugly, with theoretical gods, unproven religion, people of all races, and characters who weren’t bogged down by frivolous… I can only call it design-yness. I don’t want my characters to feel designed, I want them to feel real."

But it's not as if Cope is ignoring bigotry. There's plenty of it in display in the story, but it's shown primarily in the form of class and/or nativity -- where someone is born. So people are still acting like people in that they continue to view others in often stark "us versus them" categories, often based on superficial qualities like birthplace, but pigmentation is irrelevant. What I find interesting about that is that she's able to address bigotry and racism pretty directly with her metaphors almost non-existent. But at the same time, she's showcasing a world in which literal racism -- stereotyping people based on their race at a societal level -- is absent.

And here's the thing: the race issue has zero impact on the story. Whether a character is colored brown or pink or almost white does nothing for the story. And since there are multiple characters with similar pigmentation, none of them represent that race as a whole. Characters are just characters. And some of them happen to be darker/lighter than others.

Man, I wish more creators would write like that.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014


Tuesday, December 16, 2014

On History: These Kids Today

There is pretty much always a generational gap. The people who are in their 60s today grew up with a different set of mores and technologies and global backdrop than people who are in their 40s. Who grew up with a different set of mores and technologies and global backdrop than people who are in their 20s. So naturally, even in cases where individuals are related to each, they're not going to follow the same paths. Adam and Andy Kubert aren't doing what Joe Kubert did. Brian and Greg Walker aren't doing what Mort Walker did. They're not even approaching the same basic material in a similar way. They couldn't, even if they wanted to because the situations have changed.

Joe Kubert set up a school for cartooning in 1976 when he was 50 years old. It wasn't the first school of its kind, but there wasn't anything else like it at the time. Will Adam or Andy set up another cartooning school when they're approaching 50? Well, since Adam hit 50 in 2009, and Andy in did in 2012, I'd say probably not. The thing is, is another cartooning school necessary? Speaking strictly from a market perspective; does the industry have enough people that could sustain another cartooning school? Because what Joe Kubert started is still around, but it's no longer the only player. There's the Center for Cartoon Studies and the International School of Comics Chicago that I happen to know off the top of my head.

Mort Walker founded the National Cartoon Museum in 1974. It survived until 2002, about when the Charles Shultz Museum opened. The Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum was founded in 1977 and the Cartoon Art Museum opened in 1984. Would it have made sense for Brian and Greg Walker to try to replicate something that itself had already been replicated?

Regardless of skill or accumen, a younger generation is going to have to approach their work differently than their predecessors. Which means that the advice of older generation may not be applicable. Not that it should be dismissed outright, but it needs to be weighed against whatever new factors may have emerged. And I suspect that's part of where the older generation gets upset at "these kids today." They see them doing things differently than they did, or trying things they "know" won't work because it didn't work for them, and don't seem to understand that circumstances may have changed radically in the past 20 years.

Maybe the time for a cartooning school just wasn't right in 1956, but it was in 1976. Maybe the time for a cartoon museum was right in 1974, but not in 1994.

There is a lot to be said for experience, and learning from those who have gone before you. But for as foolish as it might be to completely ignore or dismiss their advice, it's equally foolish to simply take it at face value, even if it comes from a trusted source. We're only a couple weeks away from 2015 -- that's 20 years since 1995, 40 years since 1975, and 60 years since 1955. You want to tell me that everything that's applicable in any of those years is equally as relevant today?

Monday, December 15, 2014

On Business: Don't Do What He Did

I was at a small, local comic and toy show this weekend. Two or three dozen dealers. The Artists Alley was maybe twenty tables or so; maybe two of three were people you may have heard of. Decent show for what it was, especially if you didn't have to travel very far.

One of the creators I was talking to had his first, and so far, only book out. It was the first issue of what he hoped would be a six-issue story, chronicling the origin and rise to prominence of a pole dancer that becomes a superhero. It didn't strike me as particularly compelling premise (for a host of reasons) and the artwork was more cartoony than realistic, so it wasn't even able to play up on the cheesecake angle very well. (For the record, the creator I spoke with only wrote it; he had someone else do the art.) I was ready to dismiss him as another in a long line of guys who just wanted to break into Marvel or DC, but never really thought about what writing a story really entails.

But then he launched into the backstory of the book. It turns out that this stripper character is based on an actual porn star. She and/or her manager wanted to try to transition her out of adult films and into other media, and launching a comic book based on her seemed like a good way to do that. The guy I was talking with was essentially commissioned to write this book by the manager.

The writer was knowledgeable enough of his and the artist's limitations and lack of name recognition to tell the manager that the only way this would really sell was if she was the one promoting/endorsing it. And sure enough, when they attended an adult film convention earlier in the year with a ten page preview, they sold out very quickly even at $25 a piece. When the writer to do a Wizard World convention a couple months later with the full book, she evidently went AWOL. The writer couldn't find her, her manager couldn't find her, even her mother had no idea where she was. The creator was naturally worried about being what amounted to an episode of CSI, but she did eventually turn up. Though not at the convention. And without her presence at the table, the books sold very poorly even with their compartiviely cheap five-dollar price tag.

(At this point, there were a number of jokes about how, despite the idea of working with a porn star on comic books was absolutely mind-bogglingly fantastic when we were sixteen, the reality is far, far less pleasureable.)

Then there was some issue of payments. The artist was, not surprisingly, asking for money up front and the writer asked that of the manager, as this whole project was his idea. Discussions apparently devolved at that point, and there were some threats of legal action. I didn't quite catch where things stood as of today.

My first thought was, "Dude, that's the story you should be telling, not this stripper superhero bullshit!" I said as much to him. I also purchased a copy of his comic; the story he told me in person was worth five bucks, even if the comic itself didn't seem like it was.

Some of my other thoughts included, "Why the hell did this manager hire someone who's never written a comic book in his life to write this?" As far as I could tell, he had never really written anything before. I get that you might sometimes have a friend-of-a-friend thing going on, but if you are looking to make a professional looking book to promote something (whether that's a porn star, a pair of sneakers, government policies, whatever) you have to hire professionals. This writer freely admitted that he made a bunch of mistakes in putting this book together because he was learning on the go. Which is fine if you're pursuing a personal project, but when you hire out someone else... well, you get what you pay for.

Here's another helpful piece of advice for making comics. Whether you're farming out the comic creation as a whole, or just hiring an artist, have a contract in place. A lot of the problems this group faced/faces could've been solved with some documentation.

Comics, as fun as they can be, are still a business. If you're an aspiring creator or publisher, treat it like one.

Friday, December 12, 2014

On Strips: 1963 James Swinnerton Interview

Though not often discussed in even the niche circles within popular comics press, James Swinnerton was one of the early pioneers of newspaper comics. The cartoons (alternately called "California Bears", "The Little Bears" and "Little Bears and Tykes") he did for the San Francisco Examiner began in 1892, three years before "The Yellow Kid." He continued working in comics until 1958, and spent the next decade and half painting landscapes before his death in 1974.

In 1963, MSgt. Percy Brown Jr. interviewed Swinnerton for Armed Forces Radio. Comics fan Milt Kagen, who helped arrange the interview in the first place, saved a tape of the program. It's the only known public audio recording of Swinnerton.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

On -isms: And Furries Too!

Normally, with my On -isms pieces, I focus on issues of race, gender, etc. -- things that are very much considered built-in to a person's make-up. People don't choose their race. People don't choose their gender identity. People don't choose to have autism. And my premise here is that, because people don't choose these things about themselves, it's hardly fair to discriminate against them, intentionally or not. But I'm going to be even more inclusive than usual in my piece today.

This past weekend, a jar of powdered chlorine was smashed in a hotel where a furry convention was taking place. The hotel was evacuated, sending hundreds of hotel guests -- including many convention-goers still in costume -- into the parking lot for several hours. News reports pretty unilaterally referenced the furry convention and, in my early findings that I wrote about on FreakSugar, they were generally pretty respectful.

Of course, not more than an hour after I posted that article, MSNBC reported on the incident this way...
"And everyone got a good chuckle at Mika Brzezinski's on-camera breakdown," he said sarcastically.

I get the schadenfreude in watching a professional completely flub their job in such a public way like that. But let's break this down...

Brzezinski expressed confusion in reading the teleprompter initially. She was unaware of what furries are, so she stumbled a bit, asking if the teleprompter was correct. Fair enough. Most people consider "furry" an adjective, and using it as a noun doesn't make sense if you're ignorant of the fandom.

But when they cut to footage of the incident itself, not only does Brzezinski see the folks in costume, but I'm sure someone from the control room explained things via her ear piece. So when the camera comes back to Brzezinski, she's hunched over the desk laughing inaudibly and, seemingly, uncontrollably.

Why is Brzezinski laughing? Well, laughter isn't entirely understood, but there's often an element of surprise. We clearly have that here. But it's not just surprise that's got Brzezinski in fits. While I realize I can't get into her brain, a fairly obvious reading of her behavior is that she can't believe what she's seeing/hearing. She can't reconcile why anyone would be that interested in anthropomorphic animals that they would want to dress up as one as a hobby. She thinks it's absurd, and is laughing here in much the same way I laughed the first time I watched Monty Python's Flying Circus. It has to be a joke, because it's so farcical to be treated seriously.

So, basically, Brzezinski is laughing at furries. Not just the ones at the convention. Not just the ones in costume. But all of them. Furry fandom as a whole. She's laughing at them.

And if she's laughing at them, are we then laughing at Brzezinski? Or with her? Are we allowing her public breakdown as a way of pointing out (if you'll pardon the expression) the elephant in the room -- that we think furries are absurd too? Are we using Brzezinski as a shield for our internal reaction?

I can't answer that question for everybody. Personally, I watched the clip and felt saddened that she was mocking a group that are just trying to live a lifestyle they enjoy. Furries deserve better than that.

I suspect there are some within the furry community that see their engagement as integral to their very personality. As part of the genetic makeup, much the way gender and sexual preference are. They act as a furry because they ARE a furry, plain and simple. But regardless of whether it's a conscious decision or an innate part of their very being, what Brzezinski did was denigrate an entire group of people based on a superficial characteristic they share. You know damn well it's wrong to do that when it comes to race or gender or sexuality or physical capabilities, why would it be okay to do it based on anything else?

I expect many in the furry community saw Brzezinski's outburst and gave a depressed sigh. Sadly, they're probably accustomed to reactions not unlike this one. And while they're sometimes maligned as being at the bottom of the fandom barrel, they really shouldn't be. There is no bottom. We're all here, whether you're a fan of superheroes, sci-fi, fantasy, furries, whatever. We're all in this together.

As far as I can discern, Brzezinski has not apologized.