Monday, April 30, 2007

Um... Yarr?

Okay, I'm a pirate-appreciating kind of guy, but I have to say that I'm a little confused by Marvel's recent announcement about putting out illustrated versions of classic stories like Treasure Island. Now don't get me wrong; I think the originals are all great stories and I think the comic format can lure readers into the stories, which will get them to reading the original novels. Lofty aspirations, certainly, but noble ones.

Which is why I'm not sure why Marvel's doing this.

Marvel's a publicly-traded company which reports to their shareholders. Profit is a key driving factor in what they do. It's in Marvel's best interests to tell the best stories they can, so that more people will buy their product and increase those profits, but it's still a profit-driven market. (This isn't a commentary on Marvel in that regard; nearly every comic book publisher runs with the same basic premise -- if it doesn't look like a product will be profitable at some level, it won't get published.) The industry has repeatedly proven that retellings of classic stories simply will not sell very well. The old Classics Illustrated only worked because they kept publishing the same stories over and over again for decades, and were able to recoup their initial cash outlays over a long period. Marvel doesn't work like that, and will effectively only get money within the first month or two of the comics' publication.

Plus, we've already seen several retellings of the various stories Marvel's trying to do. Offhand, I know of at least four different versions of Treasure Island that were published previously -- one of which by Marvel!

I'm not saying that any of these are masterpieces in the same way the original novel was, and I'm not suggesting that there's not a better interpretation that could be done in the comic format. In fact, given the creators involved, I don't doubt that these will be the best versions of the stories in comic format yet published. But I don't think it'll sell particularly well, and I'm curious what sort of projections Marvel's looking at with these. It'll definitely be interesting to see the sales numbers on these once they come in.

Saturday, April 28, 2007

Tom Fagan... Paging Tom Fagan!

I'm rolling around ideas for my eventual book on comic book fandom, and I'd like to be able to speak with the founder of the Rutland Halloween Parade, Tom Fagan. He's older now than those appearances he had in various 1970s comics, but doing reasonable I gather. An old friend of his, Ian Berger, tells me that he was in a nursing home but supposedly got better and is now out. (Ian's been trying to get back in touch with Tom for the past few years, with little success.)

So I thought I'd try to tap the comic community to see if anyone knows Tom or how to get in touch with him. I think he was a strong and, to many, vital force in comicdom back in the day, and I don't know that anyone's really chatted with him about that. I'd hate to let that opportunity fade away because of inaction.

Friday, April 27, 2007

Calling All Brits!

The Wife and I are planning our a trip to the United Kingdom this summer for our tenth anniversary. We're looking at the tail end of July and/or first week or two of August, and what I'd like to know is: what cool comic-related conventions, signings, museums, shops, etc. are out that way and worth a look-see? We'll be spending most of our time in England, but we'll be circling around a bit to hit Scotland, Ireland and Wales as well. I know of the Cartoon Museum in London (Gah -- I'll be just missing the Bryan Talbot exhibit!) and... that's really about it, actually.

So if anyone reading this who knows a thing or two about the area (and I've checked the logs -- I know at least a few of you are reading!) I'd really appreciate any insights, suggestions, and directives that you might be able to pass along. Thank you.

We now return you to your irregularly scheduled blog.

Why I Write The Way I Do

I'm going to start today's blog entry with some required reading. You'll first need to download the second issue of Comics Comics (PDF) and then read Peter Bagge's article about Spider-Man. Don't worry -- it's only a page long.

The first thing that leaps out at me about Bagge's piece is that it's full of venom. (That's "venom" with a lower-case "v".) Towards Spider-Man, certainly, but also towards Steve Ditko and Marvel and DC and comic book fans and people who know comics only casually and society on the whole and... The whole piece is just dripping with disgust for just about everything. It's bound to cloud everyone's judgement reading it (except perhaps those who also are disgusted with just about everything). You can't really take what he says with any seriousness because there's so much negativity packed into it. Readers are going to have their view colored in reading the material so that the material itself won't soak in. Which is a shame, here at least, because Bagge does actually make some valid points. You don't see them, though, because you're thinking about he just called you "some fat ugly kid who can't throw a baseball."

One thing I've actively tried to cultivate is a sense of self that's rooted in rationality. Even in my most vile posts, I've still tried to keep a sense of decorum about myself and present my arguements rationally and with something to back them up. I don't try to conceal my emotions, mind you, I only make a point of presenting them in a way that provides readers with some way of determining how and why I have them. It doesn't do any good to say, "I hate Spider-Man" if you don't say why. So I take some time to think about what I like and don't and why. What about this book works? What about that creator is cringe-worthy? How does that relate to the overall context in which it was created?

How about a metaphor to illustrate my point?

Classic stereotype of the guy walking around with a placard or sandwich board that says, "The end is near!" No one takes this guy seriously. That's why he's a stereotype -- it's a flat arguement with nothing behind it. Compare that against Al Gore, who's spent a great deal of time and money explaining WHY the end is near and what we might do to avert it. Even if you disbelieve everything he says, he holds more credence than the first guy because he at least had a reason to think the end of the world is coming.

So I'm just saying, if you're going to come online and rant about how Marvel's recent storylines suck or that DC is putting out nothing but garbage, back it up with some rationale. Convince me that you're right, don't just demand to be heard!

Finally, on a semi-related side note, there's also a decent article in Comics Comics about Steve Gerber. Worth checking out, especially if you contributed to the old Seven Soliders of Steve meme from a while back.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Double-Review Thursday!

It's Double-Review Thursday! (He says as if it's an ongoing feature.)

I picked up God Save the Queen yesterday largely on the basis of one line in the solicitation copy: "GOD SAVE THE QUEEN tells the story of a rebellious teenager who falls in with a group of slacker faeries." Now I don't know about you but I, for one, am really curious to see what a 'slacker faery' is! And since I only spent about ten bucks on pamphlet books this week, I had just enough of my comic allowance left over to get this.

I've only got a handful of books by Mike Carey, and none of them particularly stood out for any reason. Nothing wrong with any of them, either, but he's not an author I've been particularly inclined to follow. John Bolton I was almost wholly unfamiliar with, but his skill and style as an illustrator at least seemed pretty self-evident on the cover. So I really was sold on the book because of the 'slacker faery' bit.

Indeed, the heroine does indeed fall in with what you might call 'slacker faeries' -- I'd be more inclined to call them 'faery punks', but that might just be my American upbringing. And indeed the Queen of the fairies ultimately enlists her help to regain her throne. And everyone lives happily ever after. Sort of. (I could go into more detail, but I don't want to spoil the book for anyone.)

A few things struck me in particular. First, the storytelling was quite interesting because it was continually presented as a small chapter of a larger story. So, as I was reading, I kept coming to scenes that seemed like I should know a lot more backstory and/or explanations than I did. And just as I started thinking that, the next page would slyly catch me up to speed. The timing was excellent across the board. I had all my questions answered just as I began to realize that I needed to ask questions. And, in taking that approach, the story seems much larger than it is by making it appear as if it's part of a larger canon.

The next aspect of storytelling that I liked was how the book was presented as two separate storylines at first -- one with this teenaged girl, the other in the faery realm -- and they began slowly weaving together, so that at the end, we had one resolution for both stories. I was rather impressed with how masterfully that was done.

Bolton's artwork was well-done overall. He seemed to know how to handle Carey's story from a layout/structural perspective, and his illustration skills are quite good, as noted above. There was a consistency to the characters, even though some of them went through some substantial physical changes throughout the story. It was also an interesting blend of realistic and emotive artwork -- somewhere strangely between Alex Ross and David Mack. A difficult place to try to sit, but Bolton pulled it off well, I thought.

That said, I would NOT recommend this book to everyone. It definitely feels like it comes from the Vertigo line (which it indeed is from) and, as such, probably isn't the type of thing your average comic book fan is going to latch onto. But it IS good book, and worth picking up if you're looking for a good story and to see good comic book art. If you like Sandman, you'll probably enjoy this... though, if you like Sandman, you probably got this already anyway.

Gone With The Blastwave

Yesterday, I stumbled across an online comic called Gone with the Blastwave. I have NO idea how I found it, but I'm quite happy I did.

It's created by a gent named Kimmo Lemetti out of Finland. My understanding is that it's just something he putzes around with in his spare time, so in the two years or so that it's been online, he's only created 30-some pages of artwork. Ah, but some funny stuff!

The basic premise is that there are three warring factions (Reds, Yellows, and Blues) all in the same city. The war's apparently been going on for a while, and no one seems to be entirely sure what the heck they're doing any more. So we (mostly) follow the story of two Reds, as they try to figure out how to keep going.

What strikes me about Blastwave is the absurd levels of cynicism that permeate everyone's psyche. War has become the status quo, and death is so commonplace as to become the subject of ridicule. It's as if every worry of every opponent of violent video games has come true. (Which, I might add, runs contrary to all evidence.) It's an interesting examination of contemporary social consciousness, and I've found myself reflecting on the stories quite a bit, in part, because I think Lemetti is subconsciously touching on some very significant points.

I understand that Lemetti has had publisher approach him about getting the work in print, and it will be available as a standalone pamphlet comic in the next week or so. (Details to come.) Kudos for striking upon a great idea, and pulling it off with a fair degree of style, talent and wit. With only 35 comics to read online -- and translations into several languages available -- there's hardly a reason for for you to NOT check it out.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Who Does Mary Love?

Visual punnery today with a meme courtesy of Lady, That's My Skull...
I can't believe no one's done this one yet.

Why I Don't Run A Comic Shop

Two stories from this afternoon's trek to pick up my weekly fix of comics from my local comic shop...

1) I've gotten the comics from my file, checked out the new stuff on the shelves, and am ready to make my purchase. As I walk up to the counter, the comic shop owner and his wife are going through two copies of Barry Ween in TPB page by page. Turns out that page 14 was evidently printed twice by accident. As it further turns out, they had two copies of the book previously in stock, saw the error and returned them to Diamond already for an exchange. They had just gotten the two replacement books back... with the exact same error in them! He was going to place a call into Diamond after he checked on something else.

2) I was scanning this week's new books and caught something called New Avengers: Illuminati Secret History. Though I'm not keen on the storyline in general, I am somewhat appreciative of the puzzle aspect of Illuminati -- trying to figure when/how/if these stories can be placed within the greater existing chronology of these characters. So I flipped through this new book, and shortly discovered that it's just a reprint of the first two issues of Illuminati. I promptly put it back.

Well, as the owner and I were discussing the Barry Ween issue, he mentioned that he was surprised at the content of Secret History as well. Of course, he was actually rather upset about it because he had ordered 60 copies -- about the same as what he sold for the two issues it reprints. He didn't recall reading anything in advance about the book being a reprint or second printing, which is precisely why he ordered so many. He's not going to be able to move nearly as many as he ordered because just about every one of his customers that wants the story already has it.

When I left, he was going through all of his old information from Diamond to ensure that he was indeed remembering things correctly and the issue was NOT solicited with any information about it being reprint material. If he's wrong, he's going to have to eat the cost of 50+ of those 60 books. I recall Chuck Rozanski saying a year or three back that, from a business perspective, the value of any new comic that doesn't sell within the first two months is around ten cents. So if my LCS is wrong... well, let's do some quick math...

$3.99 cover price times 60 copies = $239.40 possible revenue. Minus an estimated 45% discount from Diamond = $131.67 initial cost to the LCS. Assume five copies sold at MSRP = $19.95 revenue. Ten cent value per remaining unsold issue = $5.50 (which actually would likely not be realized for quite some time). That leaves the LCS $106.22 in the hole from an originally estimated $107.73 profit. For one error in one week. They'd be down about $200 from the original projections, which might mean they couldn't buy groceries that week.

I left the store before he found the original solicitation. I don't know at this point who was in error. I don't know the shop's finances well enough to know whether that really does mean they can or can't buy groceries that week. But multiply those types of concerns for every issue of every title that comes out every week. All the more kudos to someone who can do that on an ongoing basis, but I think I'll pass on playing THAT risky of a game.

Digital Coloring

I've got a graphic design background, so I'm pretty familiar with design tools like Photoshop. But it's interesting, to me at least, to watch how other people work and use the program in a way not dissimilar (but not quite the same) as I do....

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Pamphlets vs. TPB/OGNs

I started responding to a Guy LeCharles Gonzalez's latest blog entry regarding switching from the traditional pamphlet/floppy comic periodical to trade paperbacks and graphic novels, and I quickly realized that I had a lot more to say on the matter than a comment in someone else's blog.

Like most folks who enjoy comics, I grew up on the monthly 32-page format. When I was younger and couldn't get to a comic shop with, I'd get subscriptions directly from the publisher. As I got older, and grew a little more concerned with the condition my new comics were in, I began stopping by my Local Comic Shop on a semi-regular basis.

So, here I am, a bona fide comic afficiando, 30-some years old, quickly becoming disenchanted with the content put out in most all of the pamphlet format books. And the ones that I do seem to enjoy are collected later in either TPB or HC formats anyway. The need to be up-to-speed with continuity is less and less important to me, and I'm just looking for good stories in a comic medium.

The problem I find myself facing, however, is that I know a fair amount about the business of comic book retailing. (A fair amount, that is, for someone who isn't in the business of comic book retailing!) And I know that my LCS needs a reasonably steady income to pay their overhead costs such as rent, lighting and heating. If I were to switch entirely to a "wait for the trade" buying habit, that's going to put a reasonably wonky dent in their revenue stream. Sure, year over year, I'm probably going to spend the same amount, but their expenditures come ever month, like everybody else's.

Even in the 7 or 8 months that I've been a regular at my "new" LCS, I've developed enough of a relationship with them that I've felt somewhat guilty dropping some monthly titles in favor of TPBs. I still enjoy the books I'm reading on a monthly basis well enough to warrant the price of admission -- I refuse to buy bad comics out of habit! -- but I could just as easily skip the regular influx in my pull box in favor of the more sporadic waves as I pick up particular story arcs, instead of story chapters. But that would put a strain on the shop economically. Their revenue stream would be inconsistent at best, and they would certainly have trouble predicting when they could expect to pay their utilities.

Most comic book shops are small operations. They often work on a week-to-week schedule and any shop that hasn't been around for ten years has their work cut out for them to be sure. If I regularly hit a big shop like Mile High or Midtown, I might not be as concerned -- they've been in the business long enough and have enough of a cash flow that paying the rent isn't a huge concern. My LCS, though, has only been around for a little over three years and is owned and operated exclusively by a husband and wife team. If they don't make money at their shop, they not only can't pay the rent for the store, they probably can't pay the rent on their home!

For now, I'm going keep getting at least some of the pamphlets on a monthly basis. I don't want to contribute to the demise of my LCS (which has treated me quite well!) -- oh, I'm going to keep buying TPBs and the like (those purchases will likely increase in fact) but I want my LCS to know that they can count on at least some regular revenue from me on a weekly basis.

The Expert You've Never Heard Of

One of the reasons I switched from focusing my studies/research on comic book characters to comic history itself is that it's much more expansive. There are a huge number of stories featuring Spider-Man, for example, and I could read each and every one of them and have them all memorized backwards and forwards. And at that point, I would know everything there is about Spider-Man. See, he's a fictional character. Which means that his existance, despite his longevity, is decidedly finite. We (collectively) know everything there is to know about him because anything that is known about him has already been published in the forms of the stories themselves. What we don't know about him simply doesn't exist. We don't know, for example, what he had for breakfast yesterday because, simply, breakfast didn't exist for him yesterday. More to the point, Spider-Man himself didn't exist yesterday to have breakfast.

So, continuing to study these characters, it seems to me, was becoming decreasingly useful because it would cost (financially) more and more to learn about increasingly trivial minutia. And I started studying the art form itself, as well as its history and its impact in the real world. There's more there to study and a greater challenge to uncover that obscura since much of it happened but was not recorded. What about that infamous golf game where Martin Goodman was told how great the JLA was selling? If it wasn't with DC's publisher -- which I always thought sounded questionable -- who was it with? (For the record, my money's on Paul Sampliner, who founded Independent News, the distributor of both DC and Marvel's comics at the time.)

In any event, in my studies of comic book writings, the name of M. Thomas Inge has cropped up repeatedly. On my lunch hour today, I started on his book Comics as Culture and was impressed with his chapter showing the preponderance of common expressions and collaquialisms that came directly from comic books and strips. He also had an impressive arguement for embracing the word "comics" despite many of them not actually being funny. I haven't personally seen most of them, but he reportedly has over 50 books to his credit and has donated quite a collection to Virginia Commonwealth University.

From the little I've read of his work thus far -- I have a few scattered essays on top of the book I cited earlier -- he not only treats comics with an inordinate amount of respect, but he understands them in a way few people seem to. He's able to keep things in a historical context, and show their social relevance at the time. I can't think of anyone offhand who really has this sort of perspective across the entire medium and speak to it in a freshingly simple, yet intelligent manner.

If you haven't come across Inge's work -- and it would honestly surprise me if you did -- I recommend trying to track down some of his comic book writings, and seeing if he can't enlighten your own comic book sensibilities.

Monday, April 23, 2007

30 Days Of Kleefeld In Print

I'm drawing a blank so far today on any significant topics to discuss, so I'll just take some time to plug some things that are coming out with my name on them over the next thirty days. (These are alleged shipping dates, mind you. I don't have any word that they will or won't actually ship on time.)
Jack Kirby Collector #48
Ships April 25.
I've got a regular column in this mag called "Incidental Iconography" looking at how Jack Kirby subconsciously injected his character designs with a sense of iconography; allowing him to play around with the specific design, but keep the same general idea through a use of generalized visuals. In this installment, I examine Machine Man and see how Jack filled the character's visual appearance with loads of pshycological metaphors. (As I noted earlier, I was actually quite impressed with myself in this article. Definitely better than the last several installments I've turned in!)
Alter Ego #68
Ships May 9.
This issue is a tribute to the father of comic book fandom, Jerry Bails. My contribution here is an interview I conducted with Jerry a few years before he died. Personally, I think it was interesting because I touched on several aspects of his life that hadn't really been in the public record. (At least, I don't believe they were.) In any event, I don't doubt that the issue has lots of other great material about Jerry and I'm looking forward to seeing what else is in it.
Marvel Spotlight: Fantastic Four
Ships May 23.
A buddy of mine was working on this and needed some help pulling parts together. My contributions -- and I honestly don't know how much of my work will actually make it into the book -- focus mainly around the "Top Ten Thing Stories of All Time." If you disagree with the listings there, I'm probably the person you want to argue with.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

How NOT To Run A Publishing House

Back in January, Silent Devil announced they were having a contest to redesign the banner at the top of their home page. According to the original announcement posted on Newsarama, "The winner will get a full compliment of Silent Devil comics and will be listed on the Silent Devil website as one of its creators... In addition, the winning designer of the Monsters of Comics banner and logo will receive $50..."

I sent in my entry a few days before the deadline, and the publisher posted it in a message board thread about the contest. He posted a couple more over the following few days and, at the end of January, he posted an announcment that the winner would be announced the following Monday.

A couple of weeks went by and a new banner went up on their web site. It wasn't mine -- no surprise; I wasn't terribly happy with what I turned in anyway -- but it wasn't one of the entries that had previously be shown on the message boards either. So one of the other contestants asked, on said message board, who had actually won. An hour later, the publisher responded that they were "Sending out the PR next week..."

A month and half later, with still no notice anywhere, I'd pretty well convinced myself that the new banner was actually done internally by the folks at Silent Devil. Not only was there no press, but the credits page distinctly does not list a creator for the banner, as was part of the promised prize package. And it wasn't as if the publisher folded either; there had been plenty of announcements about this new book or that and appearances at upcoming conventions. I sent the publisher an e-mail inquiring about the winner, as it had not yet been announced despite two very clear and concise messages that it was forthcoming. It's about two weeks later and I haven't even gotten a response.

Now, I can understand that they didn't get many entries, and weren't very happy with the ones they did get. You know, I went to school to study graphic design and if I walked away with anything, it's that not everyone has the same taste in visuals. I developed a pretty thick skin when it comes to my artwork; if someone doesn't like it, I'll listen to their feedback and incorporate whatever ideas I can to present them something they will like. My job as a graphic designer is to make the person I'm working for happy. So, for me personally, I don't care that I didn't win. I actually like the bannner they have up more than what I did anyway.

What I don't like, though, is the lack of respect the publisher has given to the folks who entered the contest. Not liking their work is one thing, but not providing answers to direct questions on the outcome is something else entirely. It feels like the publisher has just avoided the issue so that he didn't have to say, "Sorry, I just don't like what you did." The presumption is that either none of the contestants are worthy of an honest answer, or that they're too emotionally stunted to handle it. In either case, it shows a fair amount of disrespect for the contestants -- which in this instance are comic book readers who could have potentially been turned into Silent Devil proponents.

I had read a couple of SD books before, and The Devil's Panties sounded kind of interesting, so I have to admit that I was hoping to win to see the overall line they have. But a publisher who doesn't seem to respect his readers..? Kind of turns me off to the whole company. I've been to plenty of shops who DON'T carry many of their books, and I don't now really have the inclanation to even ask.

So, the morale of today's story is that, if you're trying to promote your books -- whether you're a writer, artist, publisher, whomever -- you can't really afford to disrespect your potential customers. (Unless, of course, you've got a proven product like, say, Batman or Spider-Man. But even then, it's not exactly a wise move.)

Friday, April 20, 2007

Damn And Blast!!

I'm late to the game on this, but I was actually hoping to go to S.P.A.C.E. this weekend. There are actually a few people there that I've had conversations with online in the past, and I'd like to meet in person. The problem is that extenuating circumstances have kept The Wife and I very busy, to the point where our schedules haven't overlapped much at all lately. This weekend will be the first opportunity we've had in a while to really spend some quality time with one another.

Oh, there's really no question that The Wife will win this popularity contest, but I wish I could do both.

Hey, someone go to S.P.A.C.E. and say, "Hi" to Tim Stroup and Josh Roberts for me. And maybe pick up a few books that look interesting -- this would've been a great opportunity for me to learn about some new and different books.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

How To Be A Better Writer

Ah, the Internet is a wonderful thing, isn't it? I was just reading someone talk about how real improvisation experts don't really like Thank God You're Here (the alleged improv show from David Grier and David Foley) which led to a link from an improvisation expert explaining why he didn't like the show which led to a link on How To Be A Better Improviser.

Now why would I bring that up here on my blog about comic books?

Because the "rules" for improvisation comedy denoted in that last link are ALSO excellent rules for writing in general, and comic books in particular! The basic idea behind/summation of all of these improv rules is to get the ball rolling quickly so that your audience knows what's going on and can follow along as the scene grows organically. Which is exactly what comic book writers should be doing as well!

If you've read a bad comic book -- and I'm sure you have -- what types of problems did it suffer from? Aside from possible problems with the artwork end of things, it was likely either because A) the story, or at least parts of it, didn't make sense; B) characters were not identified well or didn't serve a useful purpose in the story; and/or C) nothing significant happened. Go back and pull out the worst issue in your collection, and see if it wouldn't have been immensely helped if the author had followed those rules of improv.

And, of course, the over-arching rule of everything is what I've been tacitly implying: don't overly compartmentalize your learning. Don't focus on writing comic books; take everything you've ever learned and apply it to your writing in general. Being able to do that is what separates an Alan Moore from... well, anyone else who doesn't write that well!

Meet Joaquin Murrieta and John Henry

I was playing in Second Life again last night and started trying to draft up some character designs for "Propaganda of the Deed." Using largely what I already had stashed away in my inventory, I came up with some basic designs for Joaquin Murrieta (right) and John Henry (below) in about two hours.

Henry still needs some work. He needs more muscle definition certainly, and I'm not entirely happy with the shape of his torso in general. Obviously, his nipples need to be tweaked down a notch or three. And his hammer is more of a battle hammer than a sledgehammer. But like I said, it's using what I had on hand.
There's an interesting bonus with my character choices that I hadn't even considered before last night. They all have pretty inherently significant visuals because of their respective races. Murrieta's Mexican, Wukong is Chinese, Henry is African-American. Liddell and Watson are both English, but they're opposite genders, so there's little chance of confusing the two visually. It's making character design go pretty smoothly since I don't have to concern myself overmuch with whether or not the characters are distinctive enough visually.

The downside that occurred to me, though, is that Sun Wukong will be difficult to design in his monkey form. I'll have to do some searching to see what might already be available as far as monkey avatars is concerned.

And, while I'm on the subject, let me throw out there again that I could use some help in making this happen. I've got one volunteer so far, but it'd make things a lot easier with a few more!

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

If It'd Been A Snake, It'd Have Bit Me

Good grief! Sometimes I astound myself with my own myopia!

Last week, I relayed some of my thought process in doing some development work in Second Life. My thought process continued by suggesting that I could still be a part of that same community within SL by creating what would essentially be fan fiction in a fashion not too far removed from the works of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells. That's why I was talking yesterday about creating stories based around what can be found within SL. And I ended my post by saying, "And you put a little more time into some actual character and plot development? With a little prep work, you could create your own comic book without being able to draw a single thing!"

But it didn't occur to me until several hours later that I already have a comic book story I've been trying to tell! This is, in fact, a great environment for me to develop Propaganda of the Deed as an actual comic book! It's got several Victorian cities already and plenty of costuming and prop-making already done. All I would need to do is design the characters in the world and set them up in poses that I could then screen-grab and drop into a comic book page layout! Holy cow! Why did I not make that connection earlier?!

The problem I have, though, is that I'm still only one guy; I can only run/operate one avatar within Second Life at a time. So what I'd like to do is request the assistance of anyone out there who might be interested in working with me on this "Propaganda of the Deed" comic. You would NOT need any special skills, other than perhaps a nominal interest in the comic and/or Second Life. You don't even have to be a current Second Life user!

Let me recap with a brief overview of my story idea, and what I'd need from folks.

In the 1880s, there was a notion going around that small groups of individuals could make their voices be heard with dramatic and poignant showings of violence. There were a pretty high number of assassination attempts of various political figures, and a number of notable locations were blown up. These types of events indirectly bring together Alice Liddell (of Alice in Wonderland), John Watson (of the Sherlock Holmes mysteries), John Henry (of American ballads), Joaquin Murrieta (the Mexican patriot) and Sun Wukong (from Journey to the West); and the five of them use their particular skills to battle these forces of anarchy and terrorism. This first story will be about bringing them together to fight a particularly obscure sect of Italian anarchists. (You can read a more of my notes at length here, here, here, and here.)

Now, what I need is a handful of people to help control avatars of these characters within Second Life. Accounts are free, and you'd obviously be able to do whatever you like in SL. I would just need some time on occassion to have you pose your avatar with some others. Changing your appearance in Second Life is incredibly simple, so you could create your avatar to look however you like and only "suit up" for some occassional screen capture sessions. Indeed, depending on how many people would be willing to help and who was available at what time, any one person could portray any number of different characters -- they might be John Henry for some scenes and Alice Liddell for others.

I would naturally provide all the costumes, props, etc. within Second Life. I've still got to flesh out the storyboards on my loose script, as well as do some more location scouting in SL. But I'd also be willing to listen to any ideas on character designs, story possibilities, etc. that you might bring to the table, too!

So if you're interested in helping, please contact me. If you're not comfortable leaving a response here, you can either e-mail me at kleefeld@ffplaza.com or send an instant message to me within Second Life at "Feldane Klees".

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

More On Digital Comic Downloads

Heroic Publishing just announced their plan for putting their entire library of comics online. What struck me as most interesting is that it specifically includes Liberty Girl, which I happened to know was already available as a download through Wowio. I know because I already downloaded the first two issues and have them sitting on my hard drive!

So I did some digging and realized that Heroic only has two issues of Liberty Girl on Wowio, and nothing else. None of the other issues, nor any other titles. I pulled them down in late January, but they only came out in late 2006 in the first place, so I have to presume that Heroic knew that these two issues would be available for free in direct "competition" with what they were going to be making available through ComicsOnScreen.com.

That further means that the Wowio downloads were set up as a loss-leader. The idea being that you get your Wowio account for free, download the two issues of Liberty Girl for free, and then head over to CoS to get the subsequent issues.

I'm not sure that Heroic's business plan with CoS is entirely sound -- I think the price point is too high and the delivery format is questionable -- but I do think they hit the marketing on this fairly well.

As with these different ideas in online comic distribution coming about these days, it'll be interesting to watch the players and see which ideas take hold and which are left by the wayside. I'd hate to be a publisher having to deal with it myself, but I think it's a fascinating study from a third-party perspective.

Better Storytelling Through Technology

I'm a big proponent of using currently available technology to streamline existing processes. I still get a kick out of leaving the house and knowing that when I get back, clothes will have been washed, dishes will have been cleaned and the floor will have been vaccumed. But is there a way to take advantage of computer software to tell stories?

Obviously, there is. The lead time need these days for comic book production is much less than in years past -- the inker, letterer and colorist can all work on the same project at the same time thanks to digital scanning, and zap their files off to the publisher from across the country hours before it's due at the printer. Writers can bang through scripts with greater/faster effeciency thanks to word processors, and spell checkers can aid writers, editors and letterers. There's been talk lately that mainstream artists are using more 3-D rendering programs to figure out multiple perspectives on unique architectures. Well, let me add one more element to the mix: digital artistry.

Oh, sure, artists have been using computers to create comic book artwork for at least a couple of decades now. Mike Saenz's Shatter (a great read, by the way) was started way back in 1985 and, as the technology has improved, so has the digital art. But there still needed to be an artist who knew the tools available and work with them. Even with the advent of comparitively simple programs like Poser, there still was something of a minimum artistic knowledgebase needed.

Now, check out these unmodified screen captures from Second Life...
They give rise to some story possibilities, don't they? A little cropping and some basic text could easily make these into a story. How about these same images (and a few others) with some slight modifications?
"We were ready to set sail the next morning."

"As the pirates began their boarding raid, I dove off the starboard side side of the vessel."

"I awoke, having washed up on the shore of a rocky beach."

"I whirlled around, trying to surprise my pursuer."


All I've done is applied a couple of built-in Photoshop filters to the artwork to make give it something of an old engraving feel, and added some captions that might be reminiscent of a on older pulp novel. But it's almost a story already for what was literally no more than an hour's work.

Now supposing you had a few different avatars to work with? And you put a little more time into some actual character and plot development? With a little prep work, you could create your own comic book without being able to draw a single thing!

Quick Comparison

Apologies for not blogging for the past few days. No excuse for it; it just didn't happen.

As a quick hit as I start to catch up, I happened across a list of comics I was regularly buying in September 2003. It consisted of 23 titles and the publisher ratio was: 57% Marvel, 35% independant, and 9% DC. Looking at my list today, I see I'm getting 25 titles. The publisher ratio is: 40% Marvel, 40% independant, and 20% DC. I'm actually a little surprised that Marvel is as high as it is, but I still think it's noteworthy that, in three years, my Marvel purchasing has dropped 17%. All is not well in the house that Jack built.

Friday, April 13, 2007

Cartooning The Real World

The Wife and I have a niece named Samantha who's a little over two years old. We see her about once every three or four weeks and generally spend several hours at a time with her. So, even at a young age, she's very cognizent of who we are and she's comfortable with our presence. (Although, curiously, she knows me as "Man" instead of "Uncle Sean." I suppose that's because I've been the predominant older male in her life besides "Daddy.")

Anyway, The Wife has been somewhat frustrated that Sam seems to be more emotionally attached to me over her, despite the fact that she's generally the one who spends more time with the kid. The Wife's initial reasoning was that she spent more time doing the less fun stuff (changing diapers, getting dressed, etc.) while I was almost exclusively a source of entertainment. But that didn't really seem to be it, since I have a tendency to attract young children despite a general lack of involvement with them. My other niece, at six years old, nearly tackled me with a running bear hug in the airport the last time I saw her, and we only see her once every 12-18 months or so.

We saw Samantha again recently and when her father asked her to point out where "Man" was, she immediately pointed to me. However, when Sam was asked where The Wife was, there was a slight moment of hesitation, evidently because she had to think about who The Wife was and what she looked like. And that moment, after being replayed in The Wife's head several times this past week, solidified what it was that makes me appealling to young children: I cartoon well.

I don't mean that I'm an especially good cartoonist; rather, my facial features are such that they're quickly and easily identifiable. I'm easy to draw a cartoon of. Take a look at this...
It's a self-portrait I whipped up in about 60 seconds. It's not very good and not terribly accurate, but if you compared this against a series of photographs, you'd probably be able to single me out fairly easily based on this alone. The combination of hair color, glasses, and goatee distinguish me from most other people pretty readily and it's that visual shorthand that Samantha is using to identify her favorite uncle. (She does have other uncles, but none of them have even met her, so I think I can say that pretty safely.) I expect the strong chin, bulbous nose and high forehead help, too.

The Wife, attractive though she is, doesn't have many unique features. A drawing or cartoon of her probably wouldn't look much different than one of Gillian Anderson. (In fact, they both had similar hair styles for a while, prompting The Wife's own brother to make a similar comparison.) So, to Samantha, the iconography isn't there to help make a distinction.

Let me tie this even more directly to comics. Here's a portion of Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics...
Amplifcation through simplifcation. The usefulness in cartooning should be obvious, but it also applies to the real world as well, as seen by my niece's ease of recognizing me over The Wife. My face can be simplfied to almost the barest essentials that still convey a face, and still be fairly recognizable as me; whereas The Wife can't get nearly as abstract without become anonymous. Consequently, Samantha, even at two years old, can recognize me more readily than almost anyone besides her parents.

Where am I going with this? Merely pointing out that comic artists -- and, more significantly, aspiring comic artists -- would do well to study graphic design. Specifically on things like iconography. How do you take a person or object and amplify its presence by simplifying its design?

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Josh Howard, Dead@17, and The Lost Books of Eve

I've been doing a lot of reviews lately, and not much in the way of general comics disucssion. With this post, though, I'll have talked about pretty much all the bonus books I've gotten lately and I'll probably go back to general discussion material in short order.

Today, I'm talking about several of the books I've seen lately by Josh Howard. He's the creative force behind Dead@17 which was a book I had heard good -- but vague -- things about. Indeed the original was evidently successful enough to spawn several sequels including the two I read called Dead@17: Revolution and Dead@17 volume 2. The basic plot revolves a 17-year-old girl named Nara, who is killed but was apparently one of a select group who are brought back to life with great powers. The evil Bolabogg is trying to manifest himself on Earth, and it's mainly up to Nara to stop him. Those two sentences are more than I knew about the series before reading any of it. The Lost Books of Eve is about the Biblical Eve. Her counterpart, Adam, was been kidnapped and Eve is convinced to leave the Garden of Eden to look for him.

Now, with Eve, I was fairly prepared what to expect just from the cover. There's a naked girl under an apple tree, a classic font on the cover... I think it's fair to assume we're talking about the stories about the Biblical Eve that have never been told. (Hence the "Lost Books" part of the title.)

With all of the Dead@17 books, the covers depicted a girl who clearly is not dead. Or a zombie. Or anything that would suggest to me that she had ever died. So I assumed -- wrongly, as it turns out -- that the title was more metaphoric. Whoever this girl was had her life interrupted when she was 17 for some reason, and she couldn't finish high school or go to college or whatever. Maybe her parents died and she had to live on her own.

So even my limited expectations for the book were thrown a 180 right from the start. Strike one.

Well, Nara and her companion/protector are fighting some nasties early in the book. They mostly look human until they break out in a case of evil, and get pitch black eyes and a tentacle-like tongue. I'm thinking aliens, maybe, or genetic mutations. Side effect of being possessed perhaps?

Nope. No, no. After all the baddies are taken out, there's a comment about them being zombies.

Have I ever mentioned how much I dislike the concept of zombies?

There are so many problems with the concept of zombies. If you're looking at walking skeletons or something, there's generally a suspension of disbelief already going on. You've had a wizard or something resurrect them, right? Not so with zombies! No, they just seem to pop up wholly of their own volition for no real reason with no motivation. Well, except to kill/eat the living. Which they do why...? And, if they're so slow mentally and physically, why are they a problem to deal with? And they move too slowly to generate enough force to really do any damage to people. And why do they stop fighting once they're beheaded? They're clearly not being controlled by their brain functions anyway.

I could go on and on, but let's just say I find the concept of zombies absurd. There just too many holes with even the basic premise for me to buy into it. Strike two.

So, I'm still reading through. Nara's teamed up with this rebel group trying to destroy Bolabogg, and it's really starting to get very blatantly good versus evil. Not just cowboy Western good and evil, but really Biblical good and evil. Angels from Heaven, Fires of Hell, the whole bit... And there we have Strike Three.

I am, as I've mentioned before, an atheist. At the risk of alienating what small readership I have, I tend to find stories that use religion -- Christianity especially -- as a basis offensive. Not that I don't read ABOUT religion. Non-fiction works about religion are often quite informative, and help in understanding why people do the things they do. But the stories based on religion don't sit well with me. They tend to come across to me as proselytizing, regardless of whether or not that was the creator's intention.

Now if a character is used who happens to be of any religious persuation, I can deal with that. After all, many people in the real world are religious themselves. (I actually quite like the show Vicar of Dibley and Father Ted wasn't too bad.) But stories that focus on telling a religious or religously inspired message, that gets under my skin more often than not. I feel like the author(s) are using a medium, whether that be comics or movies or prose or whatever, to tout their religion over others in a subversive manner. It seems to me that, if you want to deliver your message of salvation, don't try to wrap it up in something other than what it is. Be honest with your approach and don't think you're being clever by sneaking it in under the guise of zombie-hunting revolutionaries (or whatever).

It was a shame really. I rather like Josh's artistic style, and his storytelling was pretty solid in these books. Indeed, there may well be a good story there that a lot of people will/already do latch onto. But I don't have any intention of paying someone to tell me how wondeful their belief system -- or, more often than not, the belief system their parents sold them -- is, regardless of what kind of superficial trappings are placed around it.

I was kind of interesting in his upcoming book called Sasquatch actually, until I read his other stuff. The art is still interesting, but I just have the sneaking suspicion that Divine Providence will play a role in the story.

I'm fully aware that my anti-relgion stance is a decided bias I bring to the table. My opinion of Josh Howard's work is largely based on the subject matter he chooses to deal with, and not the work itself. I know that. He seems pretty talented (certainly moreso than me when it comes to comic book creation) and he might well be a great guy to be with. But I, for one, don't really care to waste my time on the message it looks like he's sending.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

The Comics Online Conversation Continues

Couple of interesting pieces to note about getting comic books online...

First, the next volume of Lullaby has a preview comic avaialble exclusively as a download from Wowio. I just scanned through it kind of quickly, but it looks like a majority of issue #1 in pencil format, and a good number of the same pages in color. There's also what looks to be some alternate cover sketches. No script/dialogue in place, but lots of pretty pictures. What caught my attention was the exclusivity of the preview. Not available from anywhere BUT Wowio. And here I was getting concerned about Wowio's comic library since it hadn't been touched in a few months!

Second, Newsarama conducted an interesting interview with Slave Labor Graphics publisher Dan Vado. I think this quote typifies the direction (and reasoning for this direction) that SLG is taking: "We are going to be moving a lot of stuff that would have come out as comics onto our download site. The comic book format seems to be breathing its last and I think releasing a comic with sales under 1,000 copies not only is a money-loser for us, it doesn't do anything to build circulation. At 69¢ and with the notion of instant gratification, the barrier to trying something becomes reduced."

I find it intriguing that all of the "real" discussions about the topic of downloadable comics seem to point towards the same general idea -- that comics should be able to be downloaded from a web site at little or no cost -- and nearly all of the publishers are STILL hedging their bets on this. Kudos to folks like SLG and Alias for recognizing the realities of the industry and doing something significant with that knowledge.

It's All About The Comics

When I was a teenage, I had three hobbies/interests that I was willing to spend my (limited) money on: comic books, role-playing games, and G.I.Joe action figures. I started on the Joe figures when they came out in 1982, probably with money that I got for my tenth birthday. I'm pretty certain that my first figure was Rock N Roll, since he clearly was the coolest of the bunch. (Snake Eyes looked too much like Cobra. He must've been a double-agent, I figured.) Well, that and he had the biggest gun. I know my mother was dubious initially because she thought that it was promoting guns/violence/war, but she relented after a little while. And so I went through and bought just about every Joe figure until about 1987, when Hasbro started coming out with these neon-colored characters that just looked silly. I kept my collection intact, but in storage, until sometime around 1997 when I sold the whole lot on eBay to make a few extra bucks.

My interest in RPGs came about as a friend of mine became interested in AD&D. I bought the DM and Player Guides, and my buddy helped walk me through a couple of small adventures. So I kept reading things, picking up the Monster Manual and Dragon Magazine and Unearthed Arcana and Oriental Adventures and... And I was reading comics, too, so I picked up the Marvel Super Heroes RPG and the Judge Dredd RPG and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles RPG and Steve Jackson's Toons RPG... And I read the rules and created characters and scenarios and rolled dice, and rarely actually played because all of my friends lived on the other side of town. Everything got stored away when I went to college, and I sold most of it on eBay in the late-1990s, again looking to make a few extra bucks.

So, here I am now in 2007. I don't regret getting rid of any of that material -- what I actually regret is that I bought it at all in the first place. If I'd have taken all the money I gave to Hasbro and TSR and spent it on comic books, my collection would easily be double what it is now. (Okay, maybe double what it was a five or six years ago.) I'd have read a lot more and, more significantly, would have absorbed a lot more since all the free time that I did spend on GIJoe and D&D could have been put towards comics.

I got to thinking about this last night because of Second Life. Once I got the hang of the interface and the protocols and such, I thought it'd be really cool to make some robots to sell there. A lot of the big names are already in there, but how cool would it be to see a Gort or a Tik-Tok? You know? Some of the smaller name guys who still have a following.

The problem with that, I soon realized, was that I don't have the vast amounts of free time I had when I was a kid. So I don't know that I'd have the time to really learn/get into the more complex programming to get something like that working. Well, maybe I could just limit things to flying robots that wouldn't need any programming to walk? Maybe V.I.N.C.E.N.T. or H.E.R.B.I.E.?

Ooo! And wouldn't it be cool to sell them off a great pirate ship, rather than a tradtional storefront? And I found one for sale for only L$2000 (about ten bucks American). I could make that up with the sale of just one robot!

Ah, but wait. The ship is really huge, and won't really fit in most places. Well, I suppose I could do a simpler building -- it'd be cheaper anyway.

Say, here's some land coming available in a relatively new, but well-trafficked area. Cool! I could drop a castle-style building on that, no problem!

Hmmm... not sure if I can afford the time to learn the scripting AND create all the robots I'd need to by the time this place will open. Well, what if I just made a museum type of deal with a gift shop? Smaller items that wouldn't even necessarily need to be scripted. I'll just reserve that space and start work on things.

Boy, this castle deal really isn't turning out as well as I'd like. Even starting with an existing structure, I can't really make this look as slick as I'd like. I remember that this is why I never went into architecture.

Wait, now -- it's HOW MUCH for rent? That's quadruple what I was expecting, which was already double what The Wife is paying!

That was last night. I realized that I was pretty far away from what I originally wanted to do, and would have to take money that I normally spend on comics to put towards this venture. And so I recalled the lesson I learned from GIJoe and D&D. It's not even going to be something that will last for a long time, and I'll end up regretting having diverted money away from my comics.

It's all about the comics. Even if I forget that from time to time.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Quick Hit - Death Jr.

Double-hit on the ol' blog today to make up for missing Saturday.

I read Death Jr. volume 2 #1 on the plane this weekend. (Digital download from Image's web site, copied onto my PDA. I do so love technology!) Like most of the comics I read, I came to this with pretty much zero fore-knowledge beyond some guesses based on the title.

The first thing I'll say is that it must be, in the publisher's mind, at least moderately successful. Generally speaking, you're not going to publish a volume two if volume one tanked. (I could go off on a tangent about marketing and catching a cultural zeitgeist and such, but let's set that aside for now.)

The basic story is that Death (with a capital D) is basically just your average guy with an almost too stereotypical 1950s sitcom housewife and a kid. He lives in suburbia and drives into work to run Terminal Industries. Death Jr. (known to his friends as DJ) is excited because he's taking a summer internship at Terminal Industries to learn the family business. Dad drives him into work, shows him around, and then drops him off in accounting. There's also a side story about DJ's classmates going to summer camp.

I have to say that I was generally unimpressed. The story is told well enough and the characters are pretty solid and believable, but I just couldn't get into it. I felt like most of the humor was in the basic concept, and everything after that was just padding. It's not that there wasn't any humor in the writing, but it just kind of sat there.

I didn't know this before reading the book, but I gather that Death Jr. was introduced as a video game first. And I think that might be what the book is sufferring from: cross media pollination. Some of the elements that (I presume) worked in the game don't necessarily translate to the comic page, and we're left with a concept that's at least one-generation removed from the core premise. I'm never keen on that type of thing because there tends to be too much watering down of the concept. Because so many people are bringing their take of that concept to the table, they end up compromising the variations in their individual approaches, agree on the broadest generalities and come back to present the original concept without the soul that made it the creator's original vision.

It's not a bad story by any means. But it wasn't really a great one either. I suspect fans of the media property will get a kick out of it, and I'm sure Ted Naifeh fans have already picked it up, but I'm pretty sure I won't be looking for #2 any time soon.

The Middleman

Still trying to catch up on all the reading goodies I've gotten lately. Today I'm blogging about volume two of The Middleman from Viper Comics.

Since this is a second volume, that generally implies a first. And going into this, I felt I might be at a disadvantage. I've run into series before where there's a presumption of knowing what happened in volume one, AND the creators taking shortcuts in volume two because of it. That wasn't the case here. I didn't even bother to read the summary on the inside cover of #1, and it was still a solidly constructed story, telling me -- as a new reader -- everything that I needed to know about the characters and their world. I have no idea how many of the characters were wholly new to the series and how many were returning to it, but that was irrelevant -- I got enough backstory to know how they all fit together.

The dialogue was also fairly sharp. It flowed very naturally, and each character was given their own voice. Even the clearly-stitled-for-humorous-effect dialogue of Sensei Ping fits in surprisingly well. Kudos all around to writer Javier Grillo-Marxuach. (Doing a bit of research for the blog here, I just discovered he's actually a fairly prolific writer for television, having worked on Lost, Medium, Charmed, and several other well-received shows.)

The art was also stylish and slick. The illustrations were consistent throughout the series, and the storytelling was generally solid. There were couple of minor bits that didn't work terribly well, but they only stand out because everything else worked so smoothly. Good use of the double-page splash towards the end, I might add. (And, if you pick up the series, be sure to study that spread for a couple of interesting cameos!)

So far, though, I've been rather vague on the story itself. That's very deliberate, because... well, this is an odd duck to try to explain. There's this spy agency, right? The Middleman is kind of a cross between James Bond and Brock Samson. Wendy's his trainee, and they work for... well, they don't actually know who they work for. But their next job is to protect/escort Sensei Ping. But he gets captured by some Mexican wrestlers, and things kind of spiral out of control.

"Wait! Sean, did you say Mexican wrestlers?"

Yeah. It actually makes a weird kind of sense in the story, but you really have to read it. It kind of reminds me of the best Muppet Show sketches: things are going along fine at first, but they slowly devolve into chaos with Kermit eventually giving up and submitting to the inevitable entropy. Actually, the more I think about it, the more the comparison works. It's got a lot of the same type of humor you remember from The Muppet Show; it's just couched in a secret agent motif instead of a variety show. And they are Mexican wrestlers instead of chickens. But Fozzie's there and is just as confused and clueless in both! Worth a look-see.

(Heh. I'll bet Javier never figured The Middleman would be positively compared to The Muppet Show.)

Monday, April 09, 2007

Animal Man and Grant Morrison

Okay, so I read the first two TPBs of Animal Man courtesy of Spencer Carnage. (Thanks again, Spencer!) But, as I noted earlier, I'd never run across anything really worthwhile in Grant Morrison's writing; it was supposedly Animal Man that was key to understanding everything Morrison's ever written.

Let me say first that I'm going to focus on the writing and not the art. It was largely serviceable but lackluster (with the exception of two issues by Tom Grummett and the covers by Briand Bolland). There are a few instances where it's hard to tell where problems occurred because of the writer or the artist or some miscommunication between them, but I'm going to try to give Morrison the benefit of the doubt in those cases.

So, what do I think of Morrison now that I've read Animal Man?

Meh.

I was decidedly unimpressed. Oh, the stories were definitely superior to what I'd read from him before, no question. I was coming to this with zero fore-knowledge of the character -- I've never read ANYTHING featuring him so it was a completely blank slate in that regard. But Morrison did make sure all the basic elements were there. He identified each character and their relationship to one another pretty readily; the stories were fairly clear about what was going on, and the Animal Man world, as it were, is fairly well-defined.

As I was reading the books, I was making some mental notes about things I felt worked or didn't. And I will say that there were bits that looked initially liked random elements or dangling sub-plots did wind up getting expanded on later, which was pleasantly surprising. I suspect, too, that some of the elements that did NOT get tied up in the first two collections are finished in the third. Seems to me a risky gamble to extend a sub-plot like that over several years, but I'll give Morrison credit for it.

But there were a number of things that I didn't like, too.

First, the book was preachy as all get-out on the animal rights issue. I whole-heartedly disagree with hunting for sport. I completely sympathize with vegetarians. I get disgusted when I see animals treated poorly. I appreciate that an "Animal Man" would get behind those types of issues -- and I'll give Morrison credit here for making that connection -- but it got really heavy-handed, I felt. Not that it was the focus of every issue, just that every time it came up, the message was very blunt and obvious. There was no nuance or elegance to it. I kept thinking, "Yeah, I got it. You could've stopped after he saved the fox, and not gone through the whole speechifying afterwards."

Second, I didn't feel the characters were very consistent. Animal Man himself seemed well-defined enough (with a few noticable gaffs in character, like dropping a couple of people from heights that would likely kill them) but everyone else seemed to go through variations of character. His wife was all over the map, and never did get around to dealing with any consequences of the near-rape she faced for the first three issues. She threw an enormous fit when Animal Man decided the family should become vegetarians, but didn't miss a beat when engineers showed up to install a laser-based security system that almost killed her son.

Third, there were some functional questions within the story that don't make sense. Why team up with water-breathing, dolphin-speaking Dolphin when Animal Man could (and did!) do the exact same thing himself? The "What If Wile E. Coyote Were Real" story? Why use that as an introduction to the comic-creator-as-God bit that the series was obviously heading towards? It's a pointless story aside from introducing the concept, which he went ahead and introduced again (much better this time) with the yellow aliens. Lots of stuff like that which didn't make sense structurally.

Indeed, that seemed to be a big problem throughout the series: the structure was poorly paced. Some ideas and concepts were introduced slowly, over the course of several issues, to the point where it really seemed disjointed with the main story. Other plot points were dropped in a bombshell fashion with little or no forewarning. The book kept shifting gears and never seemed to develop any sort of rythm and/or momentum.

I'll grant that Morrison (pun intended) isn't quite as miserable a writer as I had believed before; he can string his thoughts together sufficiently well to get his point across. I'll grant that he's actually got some good story ideas. But good ideas don't necessarily translate into good stories. I don't see in Animal Man anything that really says Morrison is a good writer. The execution of his ideas left a lot to be desired, I think, and it seemed a shame to waste some honestly good concepts on someone with his mediocre writing ability.

Sunday, April 08, 2007

Quick Cartoon

Spent the weekend mostly on airplanes, so I didn't have a chance to update the blog here. I did get some solid reading done, and I'll try to post some reviews of the first two Animal Man TPBs and Death Jr. #1 in the next day or so.

In the meantime, I thought I'd share this cartoon by Pete Von Sholly courtesy of TwoMorrows...

Friday, April 06, 2007

Bizenghast

My lunch hour(ish) reading today was M. Alice LeGrow's first volume of Bizenghast. I bought it mostly on the strength of the LeGrow's linework; I find it rather elegant and somewhat reminiscent of Aubrey Beardsely. I've also been on something of a steampunk kick lately, and the gothic flavor of the art is (for me, at least) currently appealing.

I didn't know what to expect with the story going into it, but I have to say that I was pleasantly surprised by it. Young Dinah, whose doctor is worried about her fits and convulsions, finds some quiet and rest on secret excursions with her friend Victor. The two accidentally stumble upon a graveyard and are conscripted into returning on a nightly basis to help the trapped spirits on their way.

I really like the set-up here. It's a pretty flexible concept and allows the author to flex her abilities in different ways in different stories. Some adventures are going to be scarier than others; some problems are going to be solved more intellectually, while others are going to be physical and/or emotive ones; some stories can focus on the protagonists and others can focus on the spirits... There's a wealth of possibilities there, and this first volume already shows that LeGrow plans to explore many of them.

The book has a dream-like quality, not unlike Alice in Wonderland or Wizard of Oz but with a gothic twist. At the same time, though, it hasn't lost the romanticism of those originals, too, in the way that American McGee's Alice or Frank Beddor's Looking Glass Wars do. (Not to disparage either of those works, mind you! There's a lot of good in both of them; they just don't carry the romanticism of the originals.)

I'm finding it difficult to put into words the good things about the story. Not that there aren't plenty, just that it's hard to articulate them coherently. There's lots to take in and process, and most of it is quite attractive, and what isn't particularly attractive is still ornately intriguing. Both in the art and in the story.

If you're looking for something different, and simply well done, Bizenghast is worth a peek. It might not be your cup of tea, but it has uniqueness that you ought to at least be personally and directly aware of.

Blank

I just stumbled across Pop Mhan's Blank the other day. I'd heard about it a couple of times, but hadn't actually seen it anywhere. I enjoyed his work on SpyBoy, so I figured I'd give this a shot.

I read it last night and the strangest thing occurred to me about two-thirds of the way through. What I liked best about the book was -- are you ready for this? -- how Mhan draws hair. Not the story, not the fairly gratuitous T-and-A, not the humor, not the concept... the hair. Mhan did a really excellent job drawing hair on this book. In just a few lines, he was able to convey exceptionally well what each person hair was actually doing. When one character commented on another's appearance, it made totally sense but she had clearly NOT done much with her hair. And yes, I realize that is one of the most trivial and obscure things about the book to lead off a review, but I did say it was "the strangest thing."

Anyway, the basic plot is that Aki Clark is a 17 year old in a normal school. Her dad is raising her by himself, but his work demands him to be away from home most of the time. So Aki busies herself with school and friends. She then discovers that she's being stalked by another teenager claiming to be a secret agent... except that he can't remember who he is. Things start getting hairy when somebody DOES try to kidnap Aki, and we start learning just who really is looking out for her!

The story is pretty solid, which was pleasantly surprising -- I'm usually skeptical about artists trying to write their own stories. It's also freshingly different than SpyBoy which, since Mhan worked on that as well, is going to invite some obvious and immediate comparisons. It certainly has some of the same elements as that series, but they're mixed together in a wholly different manner and it did not at all feel like I was reading a re-hash of that.

But one of the things that really attracted me to SpyBoy was Peter David's writing. Now, as I said, Mhan turns in a solid story here, but it wasn't quite as nuanced or polished as what David typically turns in. David, I think, does a better job blending action and humor, and all of the characters have a clearly defined purpose for being in the story. Mhan's humor is a bit more abrupt -- not wholly out of place, mind you, just not as woven into the story and characters as with SpyBoy -- and some of his characters are less defined from a storytelling standpoint. Now that may be because I'm only looking at one volume of Blank (192 pages) as opposed to multiple series of SpyBoy (floating somewhere around 600 pages), but I don't think that's the case here; I seem to recall being more aware of the SpyBoy's characters' raison d'etre early in the series.

All in all, it was a worthy read. I think fans of Mhan won't be disappointed, and I think people who haven't read SpyBoy (and, therefore, won't have something to directly contrast to it) will be pleased. I suspect the people who will appreciate this the least will be those who already read SpyBoy on the strength of David's writing. But I figure, if that's the bar you're going to set for yourself -- as Mhan obviously did -- it's not a bad foray.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

A Dummy's Guide To Danger

I just went through A Dummy's Guide to Danger during lunch. It was part of the loot that I mentioned last week.

The basic premise is that Alan Sirois and his partner, Mr. Bloomberg, are detectives. They get caught up in the case of a killer who's stealing body parts of famous celebrities after killing them in horribly brutal fashions. The twist is that Mr. Bloomberg is actually a ventriliquist dummy (hence, the title) who's been paralyzed from the neck down. Yes, paralyzed. As in, he used to be able to walk around on his own two feet until a gun-shot pierced his spine.

There are three significant elements about the series I want to cover here.

First, the lettering. I was blogging just yesterday about problems in the comic book lettering, and there's a number of exactly those types of issues on display here. There are several instances where word balloons are mis-placed. Not placed poorly, but placed well enough only to be shifted (presumably by accident) somewhere in the production process. Not whole pages that one might be able to blame on the production crew, either, but individual panels indicative of problems of the letterer himself. There was also a noticeable instance in issue #2 where the same word balloons were repeated on two separate pages. I don't want to call the letterer out by name here, but I can't find any other books that he's worked on. It's pretty clear that lettering is NOT his main vocation, and this is a prime example of why comics, if they want to appear professional, should hire good letterers.

The second thing I'd like to address is what I liked about the concept. Throughout the series, Mr. Bloomberg is treated as a bona fide person, who just happens to be a vent dummy. Not unlike Pinnochio. What I think was well-done throughout the whole series is that there's something of a question on whether this is the reality of the situation or Alan is just plain nuts and throwing his voice into the puppet. As Bloomberg is "paralyzed", it provides a perfect excuse for him to simply sit there, doing nothing. There are no instances of him talking when Alan is not around or unconscious, and he is only shown moving on his own in a flashback Alan has. Is he just crazy and everybody is (generally) humoring him, or is the dummy for real? It's not a wholly original concept, mind you, (what is?) but it's handled very well throughout the book.

I was less keen on the main plot of the book, though. The dialogue was fine, the characterization was solid -- if modest -- and the story did flow fairly smoothly. What didn't work for me were the inconsistencies within the plot. The killer turns out to be a loon who's creating his own Frankenstein monster type of creature using random parts from other people. Except his second victim, he just left a hole in her throat. And his third, he just took her liver instead of an appendage.

The other problem with the story reminded me of why Steve Ditko originally quit Amazing Spider-Man. Legend has it that, when Ditko and Stan Lee got to where they wanted to reveal the identity of the Green Goblin for the first time, Ditko thought it should be a complete nobody that had hitherto not been seen because that's how real life worked. Lee felt that wasn't good storytelling and had the Goblin reveal himself to be a character already established in the book. Ditko took that as the last straw and left Marvel soon afterwards. A Dummy's Guide to Danger explores that "controversy" in a way that... well, for the sake of spoilers, let's just say it proves to me who was right and who was wrong in the Osborn-as-Green-Goblin debate Lee and Ditko had all those years ago.

It was an adequate story overall. An interesting combination of elements to make something unique and solid enough to prevent me from saying it was bad, but it wasn't that well executed for me to suggest rushing out to the back issue bins to hunt for it.