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One of the first books about cartooning that I ever got was Alan McKenzie's How to Draw & Sell Comic Strips for Newspapers & Comic Books! I think I got it new back in 1987. I had books previously on the illustation end of making comics, but never one that really got into production and salesmanship.

I recall reading it as a kid and being struck by two main things. First, despite "Comic Strips" being the largest words on the cover, there seemed to be a greater emphasis on comic books. Second, I'd never heard of the author in any capacity. (I was 15 at the time and anything beyond my personal experience was effectively non-existent.) While I didn't dismiss him entirely, I do remember thinking of the "those who can't do, teach" line.

Looking back at the book now, I can see that it was doing things few others were doing at the time. While there was some basics about art, McKenzie wasn't trying to compete with other books on illustration. It's not a book for learning how to draw in perspective, or how lighting and shadows work. It's a book that provides a wing-to-wing approach to making comics. By which I mean that covers not only the creative parts of comics, but also the business of comics. It's not completely comprehensive, but it goes over a lot of ground in 144 pages.

Of course, I'm also now more familiar with McKenzie's work as a professional. He never rose to the prominence of a Dave Gibbons or Mark Millar, obviously, but he had a solid career, beginning in the late 1970s and running up through the mid-1990s when he largely moved away from comics. He had more than enough professional chops to tackle this book in 1987.

And as I was also largely unfamiliar with comics outside the United States back in the day, the title does make a little more sense now. While fairly uncommon here, the anthology format which might use several comic strips in a single book is more widely known in Europe. At the time, "strips" to me meant newspapers because "comic books" were all about superheroes. Despite McKenzie covering what comics look like internationally in his book! (I might add that, in retrospect, this was immensely useful as any discussion of comics among American audiences focused exclusively on American comics at the time.)

The basics which McKenzie covers are still valid today. Obviously, though, much of the production and business portions are wildly out of date in my copy as it predates pretty much digital anything. I understand that a second edition was produced in 1997 and a third edition in 2005. I don't know precisely what was updated or how, but there's a large enough chunk of time between each edition that I would think they would almost have to be three entirely different books.

By the time I read this, I was already familiar with the basics of art that McKenzie had outlined. Not that I had mastered any of them, but I knew what he was presenting in the book. But what I got out of it was an understanding and appreciation of comics beyond what I saw in the my local comic shops, as well as a better understanding and apprecation of what happens on the business and production end of comics. I half wonder if the breadth of my interest in comics today started back in 1987 when I first saw how much more there were to comics than the completed strips and books I read.
Life and Death in Paradise #4
One of the issues/concerns that gets bandied about in comics these days is, of course, that publishers aren't doing enough to support women and minorities. They're not hiring enough creators or featuring enough characters outside of a white cishetero male pool, relative to the population. And while there are some extremely talented individuals out there, who happen to be women and minorities, that they're producing and publishing their own works can make it difficult to even find, much less support them. Turtel Onli, for example, has been publishing his own Afrocentric comics for over 30 years, but you'd be hard-pressed to find them in a comic shop outside of his hometown of Chicago.

Now, most comic shops are happy to order books for you that they wouldn't normally stock, but this still generally requires that they work with publishers and distributors. They're going to call up their local distribution rep, and ask for your book and if it isn't available through a known publisher, they're mostly likely going to shrug and say they can't get it. Generally, if you see self-published comics in a local shop, it's because the creator was physically in that shop at some point and handed them her or his comics to sell.

So how can you add diversity to your pull list if the big American publishers aren't producing much?

The key is in that question itself. Whether you're consciously thinking of this or not when you're talking "comic publishers" or the "comics industry", you're most likely limiting your thinking to American publishers of American materials. That's not completely unreasonable, given that you're in America and want to read comics in your native language. But if you're looking for diversification, why not look at a more diverse base in the first place? We're not the only country that speaks English, after all.

Gestalt Comics, for example, is out of Australia. Campfire is out of India. JR*Comics is out of Korea. Beyond Publishing is out of Barbados. And they're all publishing in English.

Admittedly, I can't say whether their complete lines are all top-notch; I've only read one or two books from each of them. But the point is that you, as a reader, don't have to limit yourself to American publishers. I don't know the full extent to which non-US publishers utilize people other than white cishetero men as their creative talent, but they're largely using local talent. So a comic out of Egypt would likely be created mostly by Egyptians, a comic out of Brazil would like be created mostly by Brazilians, a comic out of Zimbabwe would likely be created mostly by Zimbabweans. That will inherently make the make-up of creators you read more diverse. And isn't that what we're trying to get to?
At the opening of Comic Book Apocalypse: The Graphic World of Jack Kirby, curator Charles Hatfield was asked by a reporter to describe Kirby's career in seven words or less. Several folks made their own suggestions on Facebook, and I thought I'd share some of them here since they're all accurate...
"Stan Lee took all of the credit."

"That is a stupid question. You dork."

"Ripped the fabric of space and time."

"Tough Jewish street kid as cosmic visionary."
And my own personal favorite (because it's mine)...
Can you come up with anything better?
Fantastic Four #555
As I have mentioned here before, I am a long-time fan of the Fantastic Four. But shortly after the "Civil War" storyline, I found the title so far removed from what I liked about the team and the book that I stopped reading entirely. FF #555 was my last issue.

I did read a few stories after that. My brother got me a trade paperback of some of Jonathan Hickman's stories, and I picked up a few issues around Johnny Storm's death to write a piece for MTV. But, for the most part, I stayed away.

Now that the book's been cancelled, I thought, "You know, I could finish my collection. I mean, I've got every issue up through #555 already and I bet I could get the rest of them fairly cheaply." So I've spent a little time this year rooting through quarter and dollar bins, picking up stray issues. As of right now, I've gotten 36 of the 49 issues from the original title, every issue of the 2013 title, all but three of the issues from the 2014 title, 15 of the 23 issues from the 2011 FF, and 10 of the 16 issues from the 2013 FF. Plus an assortment of the one-offs and limited series like Dark Reign and Secret Invasion.

I haven't kept super-close track of how much each issue cost, but most of them came from dollar bins. A number of them from quarter bins. The most I've paid for any one of those issues is about $1.70 (12 issues from a $2 bin, and the guy threw a thirteenth issue in for free.) For the sake of arguement, let's say the average was a dollar a book for the lot of them. It's probably a little less than that, but the math is easier if we go with a dollar.

If I would have bought those issues off the stands new, I would've paid $2.99 for each issue the first year, and $3.99 for each issue after that. Not including tax, that comes to about $387. If I bought the trade paperbacks those all came in, I would have spent $390. Essentially the same cost either way. (Though the cost per story would be cheaper if I had bought the TPBs because there are some issues included there that I already had in my collection.)

But at a dollar a book, that's only $100 I've spent so far. And if I continue finding books at that cost, my grand total should be around $130. That's almost exactly one-third the price of buying them new or taking a "wait for the trade" approach.

So far it hasn't been at all difficult to find the issues I'd missed. I'm clearly in no hurry to keep current since I'm seven years out of date already, so I haven't been particularly aggressive in hunting down issues. In fact, everything I've purchased came from discount boxes that I happened across at a show/event this year that I was going to for other reasons anyway. I think it's been five cons/events? And I can guarantee you I've missed plenty of issues that were in boxes I didn't even check. (I'm not going to spend my entire time at a convention bent over long boxes!)

My point is that in a matter of a few months, I've picked up 75% of what I missed from the past seven years, for a third of the cost had I bought them new, with minimal effort. I actually tossed this idea out as a theoretical one several years back as a means to make your personal reading of comics a little more green and, now, putting it into practice seems to be working rather effectively.

But I'm left to wonder about the financial impact on the industry. The retailers I'm buying these issues from are largely just trying to recoup some costs from over-ordering the issues when they came out. In that sense, I suppose I'm helping to correct for some less-than-perfect earlier business decsisions. (Which, by the way, I don't mean as a way to denigrate retailers! The pre-order system in comics is wicked complicated, and even the best retailers struggle with it every month.)

But that seems to encourage a bottom-feeder mentality for retailers. The past couple of conventions I've been to, there were a lot of dealers doing nothing but discount bins. I don't know how many of them have "regular" shops that do much of their business on new issue Wednesdays, but they certainly weren't bringing recent releases to these shows. Will that lead to some kind of stratification of retailers? We already have something of a distinction between new issue retailers and those who deal in the expensive Golden Age stuff; will we be getting another layer of retailers who deal in nothing but cheap, discount bin material? Or is that already in place and I'm just now noticing?
The Blue Beetle was originally developed for Victor Fox's comic book Mystery Men Comics in mid-1939 by Charles Nicholas Wojtkoski, who went by the pen name Charles Nicholas. The character was created after Fox was sued by Detective Comics because his Wonderman character allegedly was too similar to Superman. The case had only just started when Nicholas created the Blue Beetle, and the book debuted about four months after Batman suggesting that Beetle was created as a Batman clone that was far enough removed to keep Fox from getting sued again. (Though influences from the Green Hornet are clearly evident.)

With Wonderman off limits during the lawsuit, Fox turned to Blue Beetle as his company's cornerstone character. The book sold reasonably well, and in the tail end of 1939, Fox decided to try to emulate Superman's media saturation by putting Beetle into his own comic strip. He began putting out ads to this effect in November of that year.
You'll note that the ad highlights Nicholas as the creator of the strip and, indeed, when the strip debuted in early 1940, it had Nicholas listed as the creator. However, it was actually the hand of a young Jack Kirby who did the strip. He makes no attempt to mimic Nicholas' style and, while the artwork in the strip is hardly Kirby's best, it is very classically idetifiable. While Kirby had done several other comic strips previously, this was his first superhero.

The Blue Beetle strip debuted in The Boston Evening Transcript on January 8, 1940. As far as anyone's been able to actually prove, that's the only paper it ever actually ran in. Kirby seemed to be largely left to his own devices with the strip. Aside from the Blue Beetle himself, Kirby seemed to be using his own cast of characters. Even with little continuity established in the comic book at this point, Kirby seemed unconcerned that it even existed.

While it's not Kirby's best art, he was more already more adept than most others at the storytelling of a daily strip. In the few sequences I've seen, he's able to run one installment to the next without either clumsily recapping what happened previously or letting readers get lost. Much like how he handled his Sky Masters strip decades later.
Kirby was only on the Blue Beetle strip for a few months, replaced by Louis Cazaneuve. At Fox's studio, Kirby had met Joe Simon and both men, who were independently moonlighting for other companies, saw the advantages of pairing up to become a studio of their own. "Simon and Kirby" was born in the pages of Blue Bolt comics by July 1940.

Fox continued trying to hype Blue Beetle, getting him his own radio show by May 1940 and hosting a "Blue Beetle Day" at the World's Fair in August. That radio program only lasted until September, though, and comic strip died out at the year's end. He never became the media sensation that Superman was. One wonders, though, what might have become of the character had Kirby never met Simon and continued on the strip.

While we're talking Kirby, this would have been his 98th birthday. Several years ago, his granddaughter Jillian started a Kirby 4 Heroes campaign that she runs every August to help raise money for the Hero Initiative. So please take a moment to head over to the Kirby 4 Heroes site and donate what you can to help comic creators in need.
One class of people that continue to get the short shrift are Native Americans. Within comics in particular, there are amazingly few creators out there and how they're represented as characters is frequently based on horrendously outdated stereotypes. I attended a "Native American Portrayals in Comics" mini-convention about eight years ago in Indiana and, from my perspective, things haven't changed all that much since. So I was pleasantly surprised to stumble acros The Outside Circle from Anansi Press about a week ago. It came out in May in Canada, and in June in the U.S. but I haven't seen any press about it.

The story is about an Aboriginal (that's Canadian for "Native American") young man who's arrested from gang-related activities. Much of the book follows his emotional journey while he's in prison, while touching briefly on some the difficult lives of some of his immediate relatives outside the prison walls. His younger brother gets himself wrapped up in gang after running away from the foster home system, his mother dies under "suspicious" circumstances probably related to her heroin addiction, and an uncle he never knew he had shows up while trying to locate their incredibly dispersed extended family.

I'd heard a report a couple months ago on the horrible treatment of Aboriginals by the Canadian government starting around 1870 and running for well over a century. There was an overt system of insitutional racism where Aboriginal children were removed from their parents' care, placed in state homes, and forced to separate themselves from any and every part of their native heritage. This obviously ravaged their collective culture, and caused immense and very personal pain and suffering on all of the families involved. To make matters worse, many of the children were flatly abused while in state custody.

The Outside Circle covers much of that ground. Although neither Pete (the protagonist) nor his brother spend any real time in that system themselves, they do see its effects very clearly. Much of the tale is very tragic in that regard, although I will say that it ends on a more positive and hopeful note.

One of the more interesting things about the story, to me, is that author Patti LaBoucane-Benson drops in a few pages of what could be mistaken for textbook material. The text of the contract where the mother signs over custody of her youngest son, for example, is actually a summary about that dreadful school system. When Pete gets a gang tattoo, it bleeds a timeline of government actions against Aboriginals. Coupled with some pages of exposition where a tribal elder details some of the broader effects of various government policies, a review of the book could easily sound like it's a dreadfully long-winded and boring history. But it really isn't. It's very much a well-crafted, personal story of Pete's journey, as I noted above, and the historical pieces are woven in for context. The exposition all flows very well into the story and makes sense narratively, plus it's given emotional resonance by tying it directly to Pete's current situation. Some of the infographic type pieces aren't quite as successfully integrated into the story, but those are considerably fewer in number and can easily be skipped over.

I have to say that I was really impressed with both the story overall, as well as the integration of the historical context. As I said, I was nominally familiar with the history thanks to that report I'd heard, but I suspect most readers would not be and there's more than sufficient material here to appreciate the tragedy what the Canadian government did to so many families. That it's intergrated at all into a very personal story is impressive, and that it's integrated as smoothly as it is doubly so. Given that (I believe) this is LaBoucane-Benson's first comic work of any sort, and it does not seem to have been a deep area of study for her, I think a lot of credit goes to illustrator Kelly Mellings for some top-notch storytelling abilities.

Like I said at the top of the piece, I think far too little attention is given towards Native American representation in comics. The Outside Circle not only helps to remedy that, but it does a damn fine job of showcasing part of the reason why we don't see more in the first place. I was incredibly impressed and highly recommend everyone pick this up!