Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Zuda Launches

Well, I'm sure some of you have had a chance by now to swing by Zuda Comics and check out some of the new material they've got. I made a point of reading through all of them to see what's working and what isn't, and generally see the execution of the various ideas noted in the original solicitations.

As of this writing, there appear to have been a little over 3,000 people who've stopped by to actually read the comics. The most widely viewed so far has been Alpha Monkey and the least viewed is Leprenomicon, which has less than half of AM's viewership thus far. I think this is reflective of the basic concepts presented, as it seems to follow what people were saying excited them thematically before the actual launch.

More interesting -- and more relevant to the contest aspect of the experiment -- are the votes cast thus far. Not everyone who's viewed the comics have voted (it appears that only about 2% of viewers have actually voted so far) but there are certainly some titles that seem to be pulling out to an early lead. Most notable is High Moon with the most votes, followed by Dead in the Now and Battlefield Babysitter. Also worth noting is that High Moon has the largest percentage of votes per views, suggesting that it's not only the best of these comics (in the eyes of viewers, at any rate) but also the most satisfying in terms of delivering on the promise of the original solicitation.

There are, it seems to me, some very clear and obvious factors working in High Moon's favor. First and foremost, readers are dropped right into the story. Some of the comics, such as Raining Cats and Dogs, have started off slowly by only giving readers some expository background. That's a difficult road to take in the short form of webcomics, and I think the patience required for such a story will prevent it from being successful in this decidedly finite contest set-up.

Another factor working in High Moon's favor is that we're given several characters (and indeed, they are already characters, not just bodies with names attached to them) to work with up-front, without over-burdening us with an excessively large cast. The Dead Seas and The Enders only give readers two characters each, and there's not much in the way of characterization so far -- plenty of action, but not a whole lot to identify with. Granted, there's not boatloads of characterization in High Moon yet either (we're only eight pages in to any of these stories, after all) but the actions and dialogue speaks to who we're dealing with right away.

On a more technical note, it strikes me that the most successful of these comics so far with regards to storytelling and narrative are the ones who have the writer and artist as separate entities. I personally find this curious in that I'm usually drawn towards works with fewer creators. I tend to prefer the singularity of vision that comes with doing the whole thing oneself, and I find myself here seeing that the writer/artist combo does not seem as effective here -- either because the artist's scripting is stilted or the writer's graphic storytelling is clumsy.

I think the delivery system is worth remarking on as well. The comics are presented within a Flash player created (presumably) especially for Zuda. Launching any given comic will give the user a new page with the first image of the story on it, and a small toolbar allowing the user to zoom in or out, page through on a screen-to-screen basis, or jump directly to any individual page. The user also has the option of blowing up the image to take up the entire screen -- and this is, in fact, necessary to read some of the smaller text in some comics. Interestingly, there are notes early on that reference keyboard commands for the menu options, but I could not get them to work on Firefox for Windows.

The full-screen format obviously allows readers to see more detail in the comics, and can provide for a fuller appreciation of the artwork going into it. I'm not sure how many people are opting for the full-screen over the partial screen, but I know I only opened it up to full-screen when it was impossible to read the text at the smaller side -- as was the case with High Moon. I'm left to wonder, then, whether that works in favor of a given comic or not. Those comics who used larger fonts, making it easier to read when at the smaller size may have contributed to my not liking those stories as much simply because I wasn't looking that closely at the artwork.

I have my personal favorites on Zuda so far, but I'll continue to read all of the stories for the time being, at least to see how the various creators work on the project over the longer term. Obviously, doing eight pages is considerably different than an extended series of pages over the course of a whole month. We'll see how things go, and I'll probably report at least once or twice more as the contest progresses.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Brownian Motion

No, I'm not trying to puree my comics, I'm talking about everyone's favorite loser, Charlie Brown.

Obviously, Chuck's been receiving a bit of attention lately with the recent Charles Schulz biography, the un-related PBS documentary, and the associated outrage (probably a tad too strong a term, but I'm at a loss for a better one at the moment) from the family. Consequently, the topic of Schulz's life and his most famous creations are a bit tread-worn at this point, but I'm going to talk about them anyway.

Peanuts was established as a staple of the comics long before I was born. Indeed, the Christmas and Halloween specials were already expected viewing on their respective holidays by that point as well. Snoopy, for me, has always been in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. The comic, for me and my generation, was not the revelation in comics that it was when it came out. Nor was it unique any longer. Ziggy bore many physical characteristics to Chuck, The Born Loser seemed to run into adult versions of the same problems that the Peanuts gang did, and Johnny Hart's various strips bore many of the (then) quasi-religious overtones shared by Schulz's work.

That said, though, Charlie Brown still stood out. He was the perpetual outcast that I could readily and regularly identify with. My Halloween costumes sucked. I never got Valentines. I was laughed out of the auditorium for not fitting in. I never had the courage to ask out the pretty redhead. I just could not seem to win. Ever.

Naturally, it was that sense of alienation that all children feel that Schulz was able to tap into. I'm more than certain I wasn't alone in my thinking. (I actually had a conversation several years ago with one of the most popular girls in my grade/high school. She was pretty, athletic, smart, talented, friendly... everyone liked her. But it turns out that despite being popular, she too felt estranged from her classmates!) What Schulz mastered was allowing us to see the pain of isolation and rejection, filtered through the printed page to make it more humorous. (Tragedy + time = comedy.) His drawing style was so simple that it was incredibly easy for readers to project themselves into the characters. What is Charlie Brown, after all, but a smiley face with a nose and ears?

But you've read/seen those types of comments in numerous places by now. The recent publicity/interest in Schulz has drawn out some of the artwork capitalizing on his work. I'm sure you've seen drawings of various superheroes drawn in Schulz's style. Or Michael Paulus' skeletal studies of Charlie, Linus, Pigpen, Patty and Lucy. Or the Peanuts crew drawn as manga characters. I recently bought/read Jason Yungbluth's Weapon Brown, which recasts Chuck as a post-apocalyptic mutant cyborg. (Good stuff!) Not mention the endless Photoshop riffs that give the old strips new (and often off-color) dialogue.

But, you know what I find particularly striking in reviewing all this material? That I still absolutely connect with the originals. I mentioned recently that I was taping up comic strips in my cubicle at work? Several of them feature Charlie Brown not being particularly funny, but making pointed statements about who we are, how we think, and how we react to the crap Life throws at us. And I'll be damned if that doesn't get to me.

For that matter, Schulz himself got to me. I was watching that documentary on PBS last night, and found myself wiping tears off my cheeks towards the end. Not because it was a particularly sad story in and of itself -- although Schultz's death was indeed quite sad -- but because I could see far too much of myself in Peanuts all of a sudden. I could almost see that iconic zig-zag strip running across my shirt: the tread tracks from Life effortlessly running me over. I saw myself paying a nickel for psychiatric advice from the closest thing I have to a female friend. I saw myself running towards that metaphoric football and landing smack on my back, causing little physical pain but more than enough mental anguish to prevent me from even bothering to get up.

Tonight, I'm going to go home, eat dinner, and read comics for a bit. Probably play with the dog. Much like Chuck would. And then I'll sit down for the ritualistic viewing of It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown and probably shed a few tears every time I hear, "I got a rock."

At least, though, I'm not the only one.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Books-A-Million

So I was running some errands last night, and popped into the local Books-A-Million store. I tend not to frequent the store because this particular outlet has notoriously bad organization skills. Not only are books regularly misplaced, by I often find whole sections that look like somebody just threw the books on the shelves in whatever haphazard fashion seemed to be quickest at the time. Consequently, books are ALWAYS out of order and just because you don't see something on the shelf where it's supposed to be doesn't mean it's not in the store. Not surprisingly, the staff are generally little help in these cases since they can only direct you to where any given book SHOULD be.

But I was browsing the manga section, surprised that it was in reasonable order and, at the end of the manga section before the marvel and DC graphic novels are the actual comic books. They were mostly current, maybe about a month behind what you can get in your LCS, but one book stood out: Four #30. If you don't recall, it was the last issue of marvel's attempt at pushing the Fantastic Four into their "Marvel Knights" line. (Courtesy of Bill Jemas.) Personally, I thought the series was terrible from the get-go and I was genuinely surprised to see it last that long.

Here's the thing, though: the last issue came out in May 2006, nearly a year and a half ago! That means that whoever's been restocking the comic racks is only pulling down issues as the new ones come out. And NO ONE has given the issue enough of a look to realize that it's the only periodical on that rack that has not had a new issue come out. Now, if it were buried towards the back, I might understand, but this was sitting front and center with the whole cover in plain view. Several copies were left and, I suspect, will continue to sit there for some time.

Another thing I noticed was that the store has a hidden, second section for graphic novels! Nestled between the science fiction and mystery racks was a whole shelving unit with comic related material on it. Not necessarily comics that would make sense there either, but an eclectic mix of manga, independent, and mainstream titles. They had Blankets next to Bleach next to Civil War: Front Line. Seriously -- no exaggeration! As near as I could tell, there was no real rhyme or reason to why these books were singled out, and not kept with the other comics/manga section, but it was clearly not accidental as they had a shelf sign labeling the section as "Graphic Novels."

In fact, the only comics that I thought would've made sense there -- namely, well-known science fiction properties like Star Wars -- were absent. One had to walk to literally the other side of the story to find those. That I found this stack at all was entirely by chance, as I happened to wander down the aisle quite aimlessly.

Another thing I found curious was that this section had a still-shrink-wrapped copy of Lost Girls. That it was with the other comics wasn't so surprising, but I was struck that they carried a copy at all! The store has tendency to cater to a more religious crowd, and even has an entire section devoted to Bibles. I suppose I shouldn't be overly surprised, as the store also carries Playboy and Penthouse but it very much seemed like a book that they would actively choose not to stock. I can see people coming in and requesting Playboy, but I can't imagine there's that much of a drive for people to track down Lost Girls. I certainly have no evidence to back this up, but I suspect anyone with any interest in it whatsoever has either already picked it up, or has half a dozen other venues to purchasing before they'd think to wander into their local Books-A-Million.

I also noted that they had three copies of the new Don Martin collection. In a similar vein, I'd be surprised to see that many people walk in to a local Books-A-Million, in search of that volume.

This particular store is only a year or two old, but it just seems to be run extraordinarily poorly. I have to wonder how long this brick-and-mortar store will last, because it's almost certainly being propped up financially by the larger chain and/or online sales.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Batiuk In USA Weekend

Today's USA Weekend has an article on Tom Batiuk's Lisa's Story. Interestingly, as I've seen with other similar articles, the print version is illustrated with artwork by John Byrne. Presumably, because it looks more 'comic book-y.'

Friday, October 26, 2007

New York Comic Con

You know, I was actually kicking around the notion of heading up to New York to see this, as I understand it, pretty decent comic convention. As I'm sure you know, they recently began announcing some of the guests that will be in attendance in April 2008, and there's a couple of names that make the idea of driving up there tempting.

But, more tempting to me at the moment is the prospect of meeting some folks I know from online. As I blogged about over a year ago, the small convention circuit I hit had no longer become an entirely enjoyable experience primarily because there was no one to share that enjoyment with. But there are indeed some folks in New York that I would like to hang out with -- and I don't think they'd mind my company.

Of course, at this point, I still have no idea if they're actually planning on hitting NYCC or not. Methinks I ought to make a few inquiries before trying to make any arrangements.

(OK, I know this is a weak post compared to those from earlier in the week. Cut me some slack, though -- they can't all be winners!)

(Besides, my mind at the moment is on My Next Big AdventureTM -- playing drums in a rock band! My audition last night went very well, and they offered me the gig before I left. We're still looking for a lead guitarist, but once we start playing live gigs, you'll probably have to tolerate my occasional plugs for upcoming appearances. I'll try not to go overboard on that, though, and limit those plugs to no more than the plugs I've given to various written pieces I've had published.)

(Oh, and since you asked nicely, we're shooting for a Southern rock kind of sound. Lynyrd Skynyrd, Allman Brothers, that sort of thing. Definitely a bar band vibe going on. I'll probably point to some music samples once we record them. And once I build a web site for us.)

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Thoughts On Zuda Comics

Well, this Zuda Comics experiment has been garnering some attention in recent weeks, mainly surrounding the basic contract framework (since that's about all most people really had to look at). But it's been a little over 24 hours now since it's been announced who's working on what and I thought I'd put together some thoughts on the various projects and who's working on them.

The first folks I want to call attention to are (in alphabetical order) David Gallaher, Matthew Humphreys, and Pop Mahn. The reason I'd like to single them out is because, as of this writing, they appear to be the only participants I can find who've made any sort of online acknowledgment/promotion of their respective projects. I was speaking just the other day about how one needs to have more than just raw talent to succeed, and it's only been these three gents out of the eleven participants that have done anything beyond the actual creation of their comics. I've checked the web sites that made the announcement as well as the creators' respective web sites, blogs and MySpace pages -- and there's not a whole lot going on with respect to the creators. (Admittedly, I haven't checked non-web sources, but we are talking about a WEB COMIC contest here!) While that certainly doesn't mean that the other creators' works are lacking in any respect, but it does seem to give three projects an early edge over the others as the contest is being voted on by the viewing public at large. Given that we're dealing with an online forum for the contest itself, it seems to me that the folks who are the most savvy at web marketing in general (whether by innate skill or formal education) will stay at the head of the pack.

Gallaher and Mahn have given themselves a slightly greater edge as well by posting some promotional artwork online. We're talking comics here which, by any definition, are a visual medium. That means that the readers/judges are going to be responding to not just the writing, but also the illustration. Many a great story has been ruined by poor artwork, and many a mediocre story has been saved by a talented artist. Ignoring even the "elevator pitch" concepts we're read thus far, The Dead Seas and High Moon stand out because we've got a tone clearly established in the illustration styles.

Now, looking at the concepts themselves, there's a pretty wide range of material. We've got comedy, adventure, horror, science fiction, Western, superhero... There should be something for just about everyone. The downside to this, however, is that some ideas are going to become popular for the genre alone. For example, Dead in the Now -- at a conceptual level -- holds zero interest for me because I really don't care for zombie stories on the whole. My personal preference aside, though, zombies are fairly popular these days, so that could well work in Corey Lewis' favor. (Assuming, of course, that marvel hasn't completely drained that well dry already! There's certainly such a thing as over-exposure.)

Superheroes continue to remain popular, so Alpha Monkey and Battlefield Babysitter have that going for them conceptually. I do have to wonder about Alpha Monkey, though. It's sounds like a great concept, but could potentially be an extremely shallow one depending on how it's executed. Simply recasting the Superman mythos in a simian vein is essentially a one-note joke and wouldn't be sustainable in the long-term. What will really keep viewers coming back to the strip will be if Bobbie Rubio and Howard M. Shum can develop their characters into unique personalities. Parody by itself has short life span -- one really needs to delve into something deeper and take it beyond a simple parody to make it sustainable. Whether or not that's evident in Alpha Monkey, I don't know yet.

Although many of the creators involved have worked in the comics industry professionally before, I'd bet that Pop Mahn is probably the biggest "name", having worked on a number of recognizable characters/titles for both marvel and DC. However, it's worth noting that he's writing his own material here, and I think that's going to work against him. While I don't doubt his ability to tell a story, I've seen him falter with good characterization and plot nuances. They're subtleties that can make the difference between a good story and a great story, and that some of the other projects have dedicated writers might put a dent in Mahn's ability to draw (no pun intended) on his name recognition.

At this point, based purely on the extremely limited material I've seen so far and my reasoning above, I think Alpha Monkey, The Dead Seas and High Moon have the best chances out of the gate. Whether or not they can sustain whatever initial momentum they have, though, is a matter of execution to a large degree, but I'll certainly be interested to see how the contest plays out and how well the creators can garner support for their respective strips. Will it be exclusively a matter of talent? I doubt it. I think we can expect the winner here to be the person who's able to put together the most welcoming, comprehensive web presence with an eye directed at making not just a comic strip, but a user experience.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

The Importance Of Wednesdays

A little while back, I noted how much of a relief it was to not feel like I needed to go to my LCS every week. But I find myself still taking my lunch hour on Wednesday to swing by anyway. Not each and every week, mind you, but at least as often as not. It's actually a decidedly conscious and deliberate decision on my part for one main reason: ritual.

Rituals of all sorts have been with man since... well, the dawn of man. We use them as a stabilizer in our lives. Back in the day, mankind simply didn't understand much of what was going on around him, so he fell back on rituals to provide some continuity in his life. He wasn't sure if he would be able to even find a mammoth, much less be able to kill and eat it. So he developed a ritual to perform in advance of the hunt because it was a way to give him security and confidence before taking steps outside his cave into the unknown. He knew that, even though he couldn't count on the outcome of the hunt, he could count on the activities proceeding it.

By the twentieth century, man had figured out a great many things. Everything from fire and the wheel to creating and harnessing electricity to bring a small amount of daylight to the city streets at night. But while man's knowledge has increased, providing a great many answers to what was previously unknown, we keep raising new questions at an increasingly rapid pace. So while I -- a resident of the 21st century -- can rest pretty comfortably knowing that I can reliably get something to eat any time I step outside my dwelling, I don't have any clue what my long-term future looks like. In effect, my future is just as uncertain as that of our Australopithecus afarensis friend, Lucy -- the only difference is that my future extends further out than my next meal.

(Bear with me, this will circle back to comics.)

Alvin Toffler, back in the early 1970s, noted this and began touting the notion of "future shock." The idea being that life is indeed moving much faster than at any point in man's history (and, indeed, man's prehistory!) and we, as human beings, are being forced to constantly adapt ourselves to ever-changing status quo; further, that some people simply cannot keep up mentally and experience a form of culture shock within the very culture they've been living in. In extreme cases, future shock can resemble post-traumatic stress disorder.

A man living in the 1800s could pretty well assume that his day-to-day activities weren't likely to change that radically over the course of his lifetime. He still had to question whether or not he could earn enough of a living to buy food and keep his belongings secure, but he knew that if he was a cobbler, his job wasn't going to appreciably change. At all. By contrast, today's jobs are radically different than they were even ten years ago. A decade ago, people found it amusing to see Leonard Nimoy with a cell phone, unintentionally mimicking Mr. Spock using a communicator. But that visual is not only passe but it's out of date, as it's almost common to see people wearing bluetooth headsets. How ubiquitous today are the iPod and Blackberry, neither of which existed before 2000? Compare the political landscape of 2000 (which, I shouldn't need to remind you, was pre-9/11) and that of today? We truly live in a completely different world than the one we inhabited a decade ago.

All of which points back to mankind's ability to adapt. We can, collectively, push societies and cultures forward with leaps and bounds on many levels but, as individuals, it becomes increasingly difficult to keep pace as we affronted from all sides by different forces, of which we may have only the most peripheral knowledge. Check out Beloit's latest Mindset List if you have any doubts about the wide range of changes going on in our lives. And do you know HOW we're able to keep up and adapt?

Rituals.

In an age when the jobs we have today will not be functional in tomorrow's economy, in an age when whole nations are leap-frogging themselves in technological revolutions, in an age where planning for anything beyond next week is almost laughable, we use rituals to keep ourselves sane. It provides that sense of stability and comfort in our lives so that we know there's at least that small portion of our life that we can rely on to be there over and over. The ritual gives us a focal point to relax and unwind -- however briefly -- from the rest of the world racing past us. Some people have a routine/ritualistic approach to how they get ready in the morning. Others focus around their favorite TV show on a weekly basis. Holidays provide annual outlets that work on a decidedly longer-term basis. And those of us who live and breath comic books have New Comic Day.

New Comic Day gives us an oasis for our lives' stresses. Whether you go on your lunch hour or after work or whenever, you stop by your Local Comic Shop for some period of time during which you can drop whatever's troubling you on their doorstep. You can, for the time you're in the shop, have your biggest worry be whether or not the new Captain America costume sucks. If you hit the shop at the same time every week, you're likely going to run into the same folks week after week as well, all doing the same thing. They've checked their concerns at the door, too, and can discuss Identity Crisis (or Ultimate Crisis or Crisis Crisis or whatever crossover DC's plugging these days) instead of the real ones in the rest of your life.

Maybe you take that a step further, and you scan through the wall of new comics in ritualistic manner as well. Maybe you take an extra few moments in every visit to admire the CGC 7.5 Detective Comics #27 beneath the glass counter. Maybe you flip through the latest issue featuring Spider-Man, even though you don't have any intent to buy it. It's all about creating a mental comfort zone for yourself, so that you can forget -- for a short while -- about Iraq and Web 2.0 and presidential campaigns and MRSA and global warming and...

It's pretty well documented now that the more life changes you might face in a short period of time, the more at risk you are to physical illness. With life speeding up on the whole, it's increasingly more likely for you to experience more and more of these life changes. Marriages don't last as long as they used to. Knowing more people almost inevitably leads to going to more funerals. Changing jobs, if not whole vocations, is commonplace. We're in a society now that reshapes itself on an almost daily basis, and I think that helps account for the seemingly increased problems we're collectively having. People are using more drugs to fight off sicknesses because their immune systems are collapsing under the weight of the life stressors. Crime, especially violent crime, is becoming harder to combat because more and more people are not able to adjust to the world changing around them and flip out by going on a shooting spree.

I've come to realize that I still need my New Comic Day. But where I used to think I needed it to keep my favorite stories from getting spoiled or being more "in the know" than the rest of the comic book community, I now need New Comic Day for my mental and physical health. I need the day as an anchor with which I can tether my sad little rowboat of sanity for an hour or so, not having to battle the increasingly turbulent societal waves crashing down on a daily basis.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

One To Watch: David O'Connell

Back in June, I noted my discovery of David O'Connell's Tozo. Well, David's been cruising along on the story, posting a new installment every week, and it's gotten better the more involved with the story I get. So, naturally, I was thrilled when he actually published a first issue collecting the strips he has planned through mid-November. I promptly ordered the book, which arrived yesterday.

As I've been reading the strip online, I was already familiar with much of the story. In fact, the printed comic only has two pages of story that aren't already online. But the printed version does two things that, I think, help the overall story. First, and most obvious, is that it does a better job of showcasing David's linework. There's a lot of nuanced detail that doesn't carry through online very well, by virtue of screen resolution limitations. The artwork really is stunning, and I really enjoyed going through the book a second time just to study the art. Secondly, the story holds together more cohesively since, in the printed format, the reader is presented with a larger portion of the story at a glance. The online format truncates what a reader can see by about 1/6 and breaks up the flow of the overall narrative. This is something of an inherent problem (in my mind) with web comics, and precisely why I prefer reading many of them in printed form.

But there are a lot of talented people out there making good stories. That David is one of them certainly works in his favor, but that's not the only reason why I think he's going to become pretty successful with Tozo. What David also has that I feel a lot of folks lack is a distinct marketing savvy. I'm not sure if he's been trained formally, or if it's more intuitive but he's making some excellent decisions with regard to promoting Tozo. (I get the impression that it's largely intuitive, but that's just a guess.)

The published comic itself, as I said, only contains two pages of story that aren't online. I think the timing works decidedly in David's favor since it allows fans (like myself) to see the full story -- or at least the entirety of Chapter 1 -- before most people, but I won't have to wait for inordinate amount of time before he'll start Chapter 2 online.

But the comic also contains a number of extras, not found anywhere online. It includes a map of Tozo's homeland, including callouts for locations mentioned within the story. The book also includes several pages of a fictional newspaper highlighting life in David's world that goes beyond the story itself; there're sections on fashion and sports and weather and science... And while this certainly provides an additional nice-to-have for readers/fans, it also makes clear that David has put a LOT of thought into the world he's creating. He's not throwing stuff together on a whim -- like, say, Stan Lee did -- but he's put thought into how his world works. And what this does is provide a solid framework as his story moves forward. Even if he doesn't utilize much of what he's got in his head, the details he can drop in provide a unique color to his story that will, I think, help draw readers in.

Here's the other bit that I think speaks to David's marketing technique. He included with my comic a sketch of his lead character with a quick note of thanks. But more than that, he drew Tozo with a Mr. Fantatsic style neck and put him in a uniform that's sort of a Nova Venezia/Fantastic Four hybrid. Which means that at some point, he looked me up and saw that I was a long-time FF fan. Not that the piece of knowledge is particularly difficult to find, but it shows a presence of mind that he's interested in people's enjoyment of his world, and not just a crass commercialization of it. He's actually got a decided interest in both his world, and the people like me who come to visit.

He's also got some good marketing ideas showing up on his web site. It's a clean site, in the first place, which says a lot; readers get to the main content they're interested in (the comic) right away. But he's also got a reasonable amount of background information on both the world he's creating as well as how he's creating it. Although it's a little limited in scope just now, David notes that a TozoWiki will be coming online in early November, roughly coinciding with the end of Chapter 1 of the online serializtion. In the meantime, though, he still has a "Make Your Own Klikker" available to keep folks entertained. (A "klikker" is a small robot in the comic -- something of a cross between a PDA, a PA and a dog.)

I liked the story and artwork in Tozo pretty much from the start. But David's also doing a great job of winning me over as not only a Tozo fan, but as a Tozo advocate! And while that might take a little while longer as a way to develop a following, taking time out for individuals like me, it's also going prove, I think, more beneficial to him in the long run since people are going to be less likely to lose interest over time due to an increased emotional connection.

Now, is David sitting there consciously looking for ways to exploit people for the sake of promoting his comic? I doubt it. I think there would be other things he'd be doing as well if it were really just part of some grand marketing ploy. I get the sense that David is genuinely pleased that people are reading and connecting with his work, and is just showing his appreciation in whatever ways he can. But it's that sincerity on top of some high quality work that I at least am responding to, and I think that will help propel David up through the ranks of comic book pros.

Talent will take you so far. Being able to get people to support your talent, THAT is decidedly trickier and often makes the difference between making and breaking a career.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Chris Ware Saves Penguin

I ran across this article in the latest issue of Creativity. Chris Ware, Frank Miller and Art Spiegelman are cited in the article itself, and the book covers shown in the print version feature the (uncredited) artwork of Ware, Joe Sacco, Chester Brown, Yoshihiro Tatsumi and Daniel Clowes.

View From The Outside

I was talking with my dad this weekend, telling him about the incredibly and insanely funny new collection of Don Martin material, and we got to talking about comics in general. Now Dad grew up in the 1950s, so most of his early comic book memories center on what was generally pretty bland material. He would've been just getting into comics around the same time as Seduction of the Innocent came out and the Kefauver hearings were on. Comics -- with the notable exceptions of Mad in high school and Heavy Metal in college -- weren't a big part of his life until yours truly started getting into them. (Although Mom recently noted that she just uncovered a picture of me at age 2 in a kiddie pool with an inflatable Batman figure, so I clearly started early!)

With that said, though, Dad has always been appreciative of any form of artistic expression and saw the huge wealth of options beyond the standard superhero fare I was reading at the time. Indeed, he started getting into comics himself back then picking up things as diverse as Judge Dredd, The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers, Zot, Somerset Holmes and Shatter. (I later discovered that his tastes also included the likes of Cherry Poptart and Time Wankers.)

Dad's interest in comics waned after I moved out. That was due in part to my influence not being present, but it was mainly from the 1990's implosion which saw the demise of many comic book shops. The only ones left for a while in his area were a solid hour's drive away. Most of his interest in comics these days are old Golden Age books that feature magicians as the lead characters.

All this is to say that, while Dad's not really plugged into the comics industry, he's not completely oblivious either. And he's noticed, as so many people have, that many bookstores' manga section has increased dramatically in recent years. It's a topic we've actually discussed before -- in fact, the last time he stopped by for a visit we stopped in a Barnes and Noble and I answered his question about who's buying all these by pointing to the 14-year-old girl who happened to walk up and start browsing. This weekend, though, his question was something roughly equivalent to, "Why are there so many volumes of these things? As much as I've looked at them, it all looks pretty much exactly the same. The same style of artwork and similar-looking storylines." This coming from a man who A) knows a thing or two about comics in the first place, and B) actually took a number of art classes in college.

Now I don't claim to be an expert in manga, by any means, but I've read at least enough to recognize that while, yes, there are some similarities in style in many manga titles, there are distinct differences in execution when compared side-by-side. By way of comparison, look at superhero comics -- to someone not familiar with them, any given issue of Superman isn't that distinguishable from any given issue of Captain America. One guy's got a cape and a big S, the other guy has a shield and a big star but it might otherwise look pretty much the same. He realized the point and added the similar notion that, to the uninitiated, contemporary mystery novels all might look the same too, with some allusion to death on the cover and a title bearing a bad pun.

Which raises the question of diversity. How much is really necessary to sustain the business? People, I think, are intrigued by manga because it looks so different than "typical" American comics. How many folks reading them are actually aware that a good percentage are actually OEL capitalizing on the trend? (Not to collectively dismiss OEL books, mind you! I'm just pointing out that some of what is being sold as manga, technically, isn't and could just as easily been created in something more "traditional" for an American market.) But at the same time, people often stick with the familiar and will gravitate towards books that look/feel like things they've already read.

It ends up being a balancing act. You need comics that a large population will buy to sustain yourself as a business. At the moment, that seems to be "classic" superhero fare and manga. There are some people who are going to work within the superficial notions of that but push the boundaries in other areas. (Jack Kirby doing superheroes in the 1960s for example. Or Alan Moore doing them in the 1980s.) But you also need to folks to really test the limits of what is possible. People who are willing to do some trailblazing for others, putting out books that might not be commercial successes now, but set the stage for other styles to gain popular acceptance. (Robert Crumb and Harvey Pekar spring to mind. Can you see Brian Bendis trying to write in his styule if it weren't for the underground comix folks? I can guarantee it'd go over like a lead balloon!)

The problem is, of course, that no one really knows what that balance is. How much are you willing to gamble on the next Frank Espinosa when you know that you can make a decent number of guaranteed sales by going with someone like John Romita, Jr.? For some folks, they have to make that gamble simply for economic reasons. If you can't afford an Andy Kubert, you might have to "settle" for a Scott Dalrymple. If you have the money, why put yourself at greater risk than necessary? Why not hire someone people are familiar with? For as much as I would love to see more experimentation from marvel and DC, I can't find fault with them for not doing more. They're in this comic book business to make money, not to extend the art form.

I showed the first handful of issues of Rocketo to my father when it first came out. Like (I suspect) everyone who's enjoyed the series, he was initially attracted to the absolutely gorgeous brushwork. It looked like a very different type of book. I give a lot of credit to Erik Larsen for picking this up from Speakeasy relatively quickly. (Actually, I've developed a LOT of respect for Larsen since he became publisher at Image; he's made some fairly bold decisions that seem to work both on creative and commercial levels.) But for every Rocketo, how many "standard" titles are out there? Is there an ideal mix? If so, should that mix be distributed among several publishers, or does it make sense for each publisher to hold to that mix individually?

I don't know the answers. But I do know that my dad's eyes were drawn to the stuff that stood out from everything else on the shelf. He wasn't interested in manga since it all looked the same; he wasn't interested in superheroes since that all looked the same. But maybe something along the lines of Joann Sfar? Or Michel Rabagliati? Maybe that's why he was interested in my Don Martin book -- who else looks like Don Martin?

Saturday, October 20, 2007

The Completely Mad Don Martin

For some reason, it didn't occur to me until I saw it in the bookstore this afternoon, but the very notion of a hardcover, slipcased collection of Don Martin cartoons is funny in & of itself.

I've only read up through the 1959 material so far but it's every bit as funny/bizarre/mad as I'd remebered Martin's stuff being. Plus a gorgeous presentation, I'm really pleased with this.

Some people might be reluctant to buy it based on the price, but I'm here to tell you it's cheap! It even says so right next to the UPC: "$150.00 USA (Cheap!)"

Buy this set!

Friday, October 19, 2007

Cubicle Art

Well, as I noted yesterday, things have been a bit... odd this week. Coupled with a few other occurrences, the week on the whole had a lot of potential in dragging down one's spirits. Well, my spirits, at least. (I still can't the shake the mental imagery associated with those Superman briefs, though!)

Rather than yielding to depression, though, I'm trying to keep a positive, forward-thinking outlook. And one of the ways to do that is by surrounding oneself with positivity. If you, for example, try to fake a good temper while talking with friends and co-workers, it's likely to rub off a bit and help improve your mood. So, what's an anti-social comic book geek's approach to keeping things up-beat? Why, comics, of course!

I've actually spent probably too much time at work the past day or two looking through the archives of comic strips online. Some strips that I regularly enjoy, some I know of but don't see that often, and some that I've never even seen before. The best ones -- the ones that I actually laugh out loud at -- are getting printed and hung up in my cubicle here at work. I've only got about a half dozen hung up so far, but I've also been making it something of a point to keep some variety going. Today's "Non-Sequitur", a "PvP" from back in January, a "Peanuts" from 1960, a "Krazy Kat" from 1919... All different types of strips from all periods. Whatever speaks to me for whatever reason.

The office -- any office -- has a penchant for office style humor. It's not hard to walk around and find "Dilbert" pinned up somewhere. And many of those strips are funny and poignant, to be sure, but they've become ubiquitous enough with office culture that it doesn't say much about the person hanging the comic up. I figure that if I'm going to hang up a comic in my cubicle, it ought to be something that speaks to my personality in some manner. I'd actually like to get enough comics hanging up that a person casually walking by can make a fair assessment of who I am, just by reading the comics I have posted.

Heck, even just posting those cartoons, I think, says something about me. And maybe it'll help invite people into my cube and put them in a mood more conducive to getting to know me. Even if they don't find each and every one of the strips funny, I hope to have enough of them posted soon that there'll be a little something for everyone. And that will provide a means by which I can put people at ease around me, and maybe -- just maybe -- get me to open up around them.

But, if nothing else, they make me smile. And what better way to spend your day than working in an environment that makes you smile?

Thursday, October 18, 2007

My American Splendor Week

I finally got a chance to see American Splendor last night. Darn fine film, I must say, and I highly recommend that even if you're not familiar with Harvey Pekar and/or his work. But it occurred to me this morning that I've had an unusual number of what might be called "American Splendor Moments" this week already. Those odd little conversations that could easily have a definite twinge of gloom to them if you're not careful.

Monday, 9:00 am: Conversation With A Co-Worker
"Morning, Sean."
"Morning, Nic-- Whoa! What happened to your arm?"
"Umm... OK, this sounds totally worse than it really was, but I had tumor removed from my bicep, and they had to take some of the muscle out with it as well, so I'm supposed to keep my arm in a sling and not doing anything too strenuous with it for a while."


Tuesday, 8:00 am: Voicemail Message From My Soon-To-Be Ex-Wife
"Hi, it's me. Dad just called and told me my grandfather passed away earlier this morning. I thought you might want to know."


Wednesday, 10:30 am: Conversation With My Boss
"Hey, Sean. Sorry I'm late -- family emergency this morning."
"Everything okay?"
"Yeah, I just... My sister-in-law called and told me that she just found out that her husband's been cheating on her for the past couple of years. Not exactly something I could just stop her and say, 'You know... I really should be heading off to work now.' I haven't even had my coffee yet!"


My grandfather-in-law's funeral is this afternoon and it'll be the first time I've seen most of my soon-to-be Ex's family since she left. So I'm sure there'll be more than plenty more awkward/uncomfortably odd conversations there too. Not to mention all the "Hey, Sean, why are you wearing a tie today"s I'm bound to get this morning.

Not that I seriously think that Pekar is at a loss for material, but gimme a buzz if you get hit some writer's block, Harvey. I've got more than plenty of ideas these days.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

A Matter Of Perspective

I stumbled across the Mascaras de TheKamisama blog this morning for the first time. What I found immediately interesting in his posts from the past week or so is that, as an experiment, he has plans for completely dropping out of the superhero comics market throughout 2008 and, perhaps more significantly, blogging about the experience. "So over the next two months I am going to start dropping a number of regular comics I get. All superhero genre books. The capes and spandex stuff. The genre that seems to make it's fans the most frustrated. I figure that if I took out all the negativity that this fan-dumb seems to cause, I might in turn become a happier person? If not, then anyone reading this will be able to enjoy the record of my decent into nerd madness."

What I find interesting in particular is that this is effectively a more formalized version of the same experiment I began earlier this year. For nearly the same reasons. Bottom line: superhero books aren't really enjoyable these days.

Now, obviously, that's a matter of personal taste and preference. Since there are well over 100,000 people in the U.S. buying superhero comics every month, there's clearly still a market for those books. But what I have to wonder is whether or not the anecdotal evidence of increasing disillusionment with marvel and DC is in fact evidence of a sea change of some sort, or if I just happen to be seeing patterns because of my own changed mindset/perspective.

Let's say you're at a party. Music going on in the background, lots of people talking and laughing about all sorts of topics. Aside from the people you're talking with at any given moment, the din becomes white noise for all intents and purposes. That is, until someone mentions your name. Your brain was able to isolate the sound of your name from the cacophony, despite the decibel levels being roughly equal. Your brain will naturally and automatically attune itself to things that are of particular interest to you.

With that in mind, then, is my perception that more people are questioning whether or not they should buy marvel and DC books a real change of some sort, or is it merely my attention focusing on like-minded individuals? Am I seeing a legitimate decline in message board traffic on some of the old superhero boards I used to visit, or am I misremembering older instances when traffic may have dropped?

I would like to think that my views aren't tainted that much, but somehow I doubt that's the case. Because I do take a look at monthly sales numbers which, even if they're not wholly accurate are at least somewhat quantifiable, indicate that sales are continuing to increase in year-over-year comparisons. Now, one could argue that a portion of that are due to gimmicks the larger publishers are resorting to (line-wide crossovers, for example) but that would really only be note-worthy if readers did NOT seem privvy to the fact that they were gimmicks. I don't think I've seen anyone who even claims to believe that all the "World War Hulk" extras were designed to be anything but ways to play off the hype of the main story.

Or, geez, how about writing out one of their oldest characters, only to bring back a new version of the character in an updated outfit? Captain America's the most recent victim, but haven't we already seen this with Batman (Azrael)? And Robin ("Death in the Family")? And Dr. Doom (Kristoff)? And Spider-Man (Clone Saga)? And... well, you get the idea. I remember thinking that the whole concept was trite back when they killed Superman. I mean, seriously -- they're going to permanently kill off one of their staple characters? I don't think so. Hell, marvel hasn't even been able to keep Bucky dead!

Honestly, I don't begrudge a company for using tricks like that. I don't begrudge them for the foil-holo-stamped-multiple-variation covers either. The publishers are/were simply responding to the tides of the market. So, provided they're upfront about it -- which marvel and DC, to their credit, are -- then the issue is really with the fanbase. Because for as much complaining and griping as you might see about "Oh, they ruined this character" or "They're just using this crossover as a way to suck more money from my wallet" the fans still buy it. They're acknowledging that their recognition of the situation by complaining, but they're also signifying their approval of it by laying down their three bucks per title every month.

It's an old trope any more, but the publishers are going to listen to the market. If you buy two zombie cover variants now, and you buy three zombie variants next month, and four zombie variants the month after that, it's a good bet that you'll buy at least a couple zombie variants the month after that. But if you didn't buy any zombie variant covers, and none of your friends bought zombie variants, it wouldn't take long for a publisher to realize that zombie covers aren't very profitable.

So, to TheKamisama and anyone else who's dropping superhero books in favor of something good, you have my support. I'll continue to make suggestions and recommendations from here, and hopefully expose you to something cool and/or different. I found very quickly that there's really a lot of good titles out there, and something for pretty much every taste. Let me know if there's any genres/themes/styles/oeuvres you're interested in, and I'll see if I can't point you in the right direction. Hey, maybe it'll help me find some new stuff, too!

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Marie Severin

Yes, I know -- you've already heard that Marie had a hospitalizing stroke last week. What I'd like to do here is something of an appreciation of her contributions to comicdom. Although I'll be the first to admit it will be sorely inadequate...

I don't recall exactly where I first saw Marie's name or her work. I suspect it was in some 1970s marvel books, but anything beyond that would be complete speculation. I know I was familiar with her brother's work from Cracked and, at the time, briefly wondered about the connection between them. Were they brother and sister, husband and wife, cousins...? The question lay idle for years, as I was too young to really seek out the body of comic fandom and, thus, my resources were extremely limited. But a few short years later, when I did start realizing the breadth of people who read comics, I stopped seeing Marie's name for whatever reasons.

As time went on, I began getting older comics and seeing Marie's name again. Again, I don't recall where exactly, but I know it was pervasive. It seemingly popped up everywhere. (I was reading almost exclusively "classic" marvel books at this point.) She'd do a cover here, or interior pencils there, or inks, or coloring... Her name became almost ubiquitous with marvel.

And the shame of it is, she was always floating just beyond the limelight. Stan Lee was marvel for many years, and his famed Bullpen consisted of guys who he could count on for all sorts of things. Jack Kirby and John Buscema and John Romita... these guys were marvel second only to Stan. But Marie was there, too, pushed into their shadows.

The potential question of sexism arises. Were Marie's talents squandered or overlooked because of her gender? It's possible that some element of that was in play but, to be fair, the shadows that she was pushed into were those of incredible talents. I mean, it's like saying you came in last place in a foot race with the Quicksilver, Flash, and Hermes! Maybe there was some sexism there, but she was working next to some phenomenally talented people whose stars happened to shine brighter anyway.

And by no means should that diminish her work. That she was as ever-present -- if not as center stage -- as Romita says a lot, I think, about her own abilities and what Stan Lee (and later Roy Thomas) thought of them. And, now, looking back at her body of work from that time with a somewhat more critical eye, it's easy to see that talent shine through. Good grief, she was doing layouts for Jack Kirby at one point! It boggles my mind that he would even consider following somebody else's lead like that!

It was some time after that when I learned of Marie's even earlier history with EC. And, when I went back to study her color work there, it was powerful stuff. I was actually rather disappointed when I realized that most of my EC reprints are in black and white, and there's no evidence of Marie's handiwork which clearly and repeatedly highlighted what was being done in the storytelling.

Later still, people seemed to start realizing what a great talent and treasure Marie was and I began seeing more interviews and such with her. (I'm personally quite partial to her extended interview on the extras of Tales from the Crypt: From Comic Books to Television. She was friendly and charming and she struck me as exactly the type of woman I would've loved to have had as my grandmother!) I expect over the next days and weeks, you'll be hearing more about Marie as people remember just how great a talent she was and how limited our time with her will be (regardless of how well she recovers from her stroke). Even now, I realize that I haven't studied her work as closely as I should like -- that's why this commentary is so vague when it comes to tauting specific highlights from her body of work. But she's one of the great veterans of comicdom whose work was never less than exemplary, and I don't think there's enough good things that can be said about the woman.

Get well soon, Marie.

Morning Humor

Couple of quick comic-related hits to start your day off with a chuckle...

Michael Heaton, the Plain Dealer "Minister of Culture", asks What if all the comics got serious?

Meanwhile, writer Mark Evanier has a PSA warning people about Candy Corn Soda. (OK, this one isn't strictly comic book related, but it's by a guy who writes comics.)

Monday, October 15, 2007

Speaking Of Diamond...

I forgot to mention this last week...

Periodically, I'll ask my Local Comic Shop to order various trade paperbacks for me. Sometimes new, sometimes a little older. Sometimes they're pre-orders for stuff that's not out yet. I generally try to batch my requests together to make it a little easier for them, and I write down as much information about the books as I can since many of them are relatively obscure works from smaller publishers.

A few months back, I made such a request. Included on the list were Batman Chronicles vol. 3 and 4, Dr. 13, Walk In, Agnes Quill, Necronauts and Nothing Better. At the time, about half of the books hadn't been released yet. The week after I made the request, I stopped back in the shop to pick up my new stuff and the owner specifically mentioned that he put the order in but that Diamond wasn't sure if they could get one or two of the oldest books. Given the age and publishers behind some of them, that didn't entirely surprise me and when I stumbled across a copy of Agnes Quill in Half Price Books, I snatched it up.

But when I went into my LCS last week, there was my usual assortment of new pamphlet titles, plus a note that six of my TPBs had come in. There were enough of them, that they wouldn't fit in with the normal file area, so they had to store them under the counter for me. Included in the batch of books were Batman Chronicles (both volumes), Dr. 13, Walk In, Agnes Quill and Nothing Better. For the record, these books were originally released on May 9, October 4, September 19, July 18, October 18 of last year, and August 29 respectively. And even though many of them were ordered well in advance of those release dates, Diamond did not ship them until last week. Now I can understand that it might take a while to get new copies of books that had been already released -- in this case Batman Chronicles Vol. 3 and Agnes Quill. And I can almost see that my order for Walk In was a little too close to it's publication that that might've caused problems. But why in the world would you hold a guaranteed sale for up to two and a half months after it's publication before delivering it to a location that you're making deliveries to on a weekly basis? It's not like the shop is insanely remote or something -- they get new deliveries from Diamond every week!

Am I upset with my LCS? Absolutely not. He placed the order with his distributor promptly, and confirmed that to me with additional information shortly after making the order. At that point, he's done his job and is dependent on others. But I simply can't fathom why it would take Diamond that long to ship books out to a customer that they clearly had on hand. I'd seen online reviews of all these books, so I know somebody was getting copies.

The only explanation I can realistically think of is that Diamond has some hugely inefficient practices in place when it comes to non-pamphlet sales. And the only way a business can get away with that is if they have an effective monopoly on the market. If they didn't, their clients would head off to another distributor that was able to either provide better service or had a more efficient process which would lead towards lower prices. Running a business like Diamond seems to be doing is simply untenable unless there's no competition to worry about.

If it weren't for the fact that I want to see my LCS (and, indeed, all LCSes that are even half-way decent) succeed, I'd switch over to getting my books exclusively from larger chain bookstores that have a seemingly better distribution set-up with comic book publishers.

September's Top 300 Comics

Me reading ICv2's list of top-selling comics from Diamond for September...

"I wonder where the books that I bought fell on the list? Let's see... didn't buy that... or that... or that... no... no... no... no... Ah! Umbrella Acadamy #1 came in at... #58! What else have we got here? No... no... no... Aquaman comes in at... #140? Wow, only sold 13,000? Geez, I knew I wasn't buying popular stuff but this is nuts! What else is on here? Uh... no... no... Doktor Sleepless: 11,000... Galactic Bounty Hunters - holy crap! Only 4,000? Killing Girl only 3,000? And... that's it? I know I bought more than that last month -- does that mean everything else I bought sold less than 1500 copies each? Wait -- what about graphic novels? Er... nothing? What the hell? I can't be THAT far outside the mainstream, can I?"

Now, admittedly, by and large I'm not buying the superhero stuff that sells the most these days, but I don't honestly think my buying habits are THAT different from the rest of the United States that half the items on my pull list are special orders or anything. I'm inclined to think that what this disconnect speaks to is just how inaccurate these types of lists are. (Through no fault of ICv2, mind you! They're only working with what they can get from Diamond.) Off the top of my head, I don't see any manga at all and there are at least a few trade paperbacks that I know came out that aren't showing up on the list.

I used to think that these types of numbers were imprecise, but at least gave a general sense of scale. X-Men is selling better than Superman for example. But I think my focusing on the bottom portion of the list instead of the top showcases the inaccuracies more poignantly, and begins to speak more towards why the industry collectively needs a better system. Not that I necessarily know what would be best, but I think it's becoming increasingly obvious that there's lots of room for improvement.

Seriously?

I just heard about a new Hembeck Omnibus coming from Image in February and... seriously? Don't get me wrong -- I love Hembeck's work and I'm totally buying a copy, but... seriously? I mean, kudos to Erik Larsen for publishing this, but... seriously?

By the way, I suspect now would be a good time to die if you've committed a bunch of really nasty sins since Hell has apparently frozen over.

A Hembeck Omnibus? Seriously?

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Dave Stewart's Walk In

I'm still having computer issues but I thought I'd try a quick review of Dave Stewart's Walk In.

The basic plot is that a young Brit begins to find himself having mysterious blackouts. When he comes to days or weeks later, everyone he knows is urious with him, forcing him to leave. He eventually finds himself in Moscow working as a stage mentalist. That runs him afoul of some strange folks who capture him and subject him to a bizarre fish torture. He's saved by a Russian ninja stripper and learns about his true origins on Terra.

According to Stewat's intro, the story is vaguely autobiographical, which goes a long way towards explaining 1980's pop music. Writer Jeff Parker, though, takes what could easily have been a nonsensical jumble and ties a solid, cohesive story around it. Ashish Pandlekar's art flows very smoothly as well, effortlessly swinging from reailty to a dream world to another dimension. Though I'd be remiss if I didn't give colorist Sheetal Tanaji Patil some credit for that as well.

An excellent read overall -- indeed, the best I've seen from Virgin Comics thus far. But, speaking from experience, I wouldn't recommend reading it in the morning before your first cup of coffee; you really need to ground yourself in your own reality first.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Technical Difficulties

Just a quick note to say that I've been having a series of computer issues which are making difficult (at best) to blog.

More later.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Existentialism, Part 2

I'm not entirely surprised by the quality of the responses I got to yesterday's post on Existentialism. (Although plok's recounting of his seven-year-old self playing chicken with Destiny in a McDonald's was decidedly unexpected, I have to say!) I was also reminded of Jim Roeg's excellent essay on existentialism from last year. I highly recommend reading that if you haven't already. (For that matter, it's worth reading a second time if it's been a while.) But between those, I still see plenty more ground to cover...

The curious notion about free will, here in the real world, is that it is ultimately a question of faith. There simply is no way I can prove or disprove that my actions were or weren't preordained in some fashion. Even if I try, as plok once did, to continue making last second decisions of what flavor milkshake to get, there's no way I can show that I wasn't always going to make that exact decision at that exact time. Regardless of what I normally would do, and regardless of what I felt at the exact moment of making the decision, it still amounts to a matter of whether or not I believe that I was fully in control of that decision. Was I making that decision for myself, or was some unseen force guiding my thought processes for some reason?

The problem we have, as mere mortals, is a lack of omniscience. We simply can't know anything beyond our immediate realm of experience. Even our learning from the experience of others is something that we have to undertake ourselves, whether by reading or listening or some other method of knowledge transfer. And even then, there's still the matter of interpretation -- the original experience is recounted to us in some manner by someone(s) who will invariably leave out some level of detail and we, in the process of absorbing the information, will process and filter it based on our own personal experiences. We cannot know, with any accuracy, what it's like to walk on the moon unless we actually go there ourselves.

In comics, however, many characters are granted a level of omniscience that is impossible for us to truly fathom. There's a certainty in Ignatz's or Sluggo's or She-Hulk's knowledge that they are, at the end of the day, drawings on a piece of paper. We don't have that luxury. For as much as you may know that God exists or doesn't, your certainty in that "fact" is just an act of faith. We don't have the actual knowledge because our creator/s (if indeed we even have them in the larger context -- I'm not talking about your parents here) have not imbued us with it in the way Windsor McCay might have done with Little Nemo. The act of creating a character -- a paper doll to pick up on Roeg's metaphor -- gives the creator the right to implant as much or as little knowledge into him/her as is appropriate. Reed Richards is a genius because Stan Lee said he was. Dr. Manhattan was omniscient because Alan Moore wanted him to be.

This, of course, can lead to what is considered bad writing. Can you imagine the uproar among fans if, for example, Commissioner Gordon asked Batman about how Alfred the butler was doing? The relationship between Batman and Alfred is one that Gordon should have no knowledge of because his character has never been given that information within the context of continuity. But a writer, being the unseen force behind that exchange, does have omniscience of that world and can give that specialized piece of knowledge to any character at any time. It wouldn't make sense within how the story is presented, in all likelihood, but it's still the creator's prerogative.

Of course, there's the rub. For any story that presents free will and/or existentialism as "correct" the characters in the story are following a prescribed destiny. For any knowledge that a character might possess about the nature of free will -- for that matter, any knowledge the character possesses at all -- they are inherently bound by the will of their creator(s). The paper dolls simply cannot exist, much less have any meaning, without someone to create them. You can say Kang chose to defy Destiny itself in Avengers Forever but Kang really didn't have any say in the matter; his course of actions were laid down by writers Kurt Busiek and Roger Stern. "All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players."

Where does that leave us? That free will simply cannot exist because nothing we humans create is capable of it? Of course not. As noted earlier, we humans are stuck with limitations that make us decidedly less than all-powerful. Once upon a time, we couldn't create apples that tasted like grapes, either, but look where we are now. Who's to say that creating independent, free will characters is that far off? Wasn't that part of the reason why Phineas Horton created the original Human Torch? Why Noonien Soong created Data? Why Sivasubramanian Chandrasegarampillai created HAL 9000?

(As a curious aside, all those characters I just cited were used, in part, to explore the very notion of self. Is a being's own quest for life's meaning sufficient to consider it "alive"? Is life and a sense of self strictly limited to biological organisms? Does the origin of one's existence truly impact whether or not one can have free will?)

Man's quest for life's meaning is, for all intents and purposes, perpetual. Every day, we wake up and try to muddle our way through life, acting on a nearly infinite number of judgment calls. The next day, we do the same thing. Comics -- and, indeed, any media -- can show us possible alternatives that other people have considered; they can pass along messages about what other people think life means. They can go so far as to give us a taste of omniscience, seeing events through the eyes of any number of characters. But, again, the ultimate irony of the situation is that the very mouthpieces that we see as proponents of self-direction and choice are they themselves shackled to the will of others.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Existentialism

I've been giving thought lately to my personal belief system and, to a lesser extent, how that relates back to my comic book reading.

For as long as I can recall thinking about such things, I've been a big proponent of free will. The notion that I, and I alone, control my actions and that any consequences of those actions are mine to bear. As near as I can determine, it was this firm belief in free will that has guided/directed my thinking towards religion, politics, entertainment, and just about everything else. After college, I began mentally exploring that notion further and have come to think of myself as something of an existentialist. While there are any number of variations of existentialist philosophy, the basic premise takes free will a step further by stating that the meaning(s) of our very existence is entirely up to the individual.

I seem to recall seeing/reading an article some years back discussing Krazy Kat in an existentialist (instead of the more typical surrealist) light, but I can't seem to find that at the moment. This particular strip (from December 25, 1919) speaks directly to the two characters' differing approaches to what is or isn't their respective realities. But it's certainly not the only comic that brings up the notion of existentialism.

Time travel is a notion that comes up frequently in comics -- as well as other media, but I'm talking comics here. The two primary notions that tend to come up in some fashion are A) that anything a character does in his/her past is in fact already a part of his/her part and s/he was destined to carry out those actions, and B) history is mutable and subject to change -- a media-centric shortcut to explaining that position is Back to the Future. (There are variations on these ideas, obviously, with alternate timelines and such, but they still tend to generally follow one of those two premises.) It should be needless to say that I tend to favor stories that dismiss the notion of destiny or inevitability. Because of my fairly strong feelings on the matter, I tend to approach stories involving time travel with some trepidation, especially with properties that haven't previously taken a definitive stance on the issue of time travel. Both DC and marvel have wavered back and forth on the issue repeatedly, seemingly dependent on the whims of the writer and/or editor of any particular story.

That said, I can still appreciate a time travel story that holds to the notion of determinism, if it's done well. Steve Englehart, for example, did a fine job in West Coast Avengers #17-24. Technically, it holds together extremely well, keeping multiple storylines/timelines straight and still tying into established continuity on any number of points. I don't agree with the basic premise, but I have to admire the skill with which the story was executed. By contrast, Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa's Knights 4 #15-17 is fraught with plot holes stemming precisely from the time travel aspects of the story, and I disliked that story despite his holding up the notion of free will and some excellent artwork by Jim Muniz.

But that's only an obvious way to see existentialism in comics. Another issue that stands out for me is one that was never published: Captain America #14 by Mark Waid and Andy Kubert. The issue, as written by Waid, recounts a history of the Red Skull -- as told by the Red Skull himself. (Waid's original script is online here courtesy of the Star-Spangled Site. Editor Bob Harras re-wrote much of the script before it was published, putting Red Skull in a more typical -- and safe -- role as the bad guy.) The original narrative is insightful because it is that of a character who believes in what he himself is doing, regardless of the fact that most people would consider those actions "evil." He doesn't consider his actions anything less than justified because of his own goals and that Captain America is an obstacle to them. Although the Skull's thoughts themselves don't necessarily relay an existentialist message, the very notion that his perception of events differs from the title's usual protagonist speaks to the idea that each man is creating a reality based on his own thoughts and opinions.

I think that one of the (subconscious) reasons I took to the Fantastic Four early was that it readily exposed the difference in approaches with Mr. Fantastic and Dr. Doom. Doom's very character is based in large part on revenge against Reed Richards for a perceived slight back in college. Reed, by contrast, always takes the opinion that the error was Doom's himself and he has never acknowledged that fact -- Doom is, in effect, absolving himself of any responsibility for his situation. The difference in characters are further highlighted by Reed repeatedly taking responsibility for the accident that caused his friends' conditions -- most notably that of his best friend, Ben Grimm. And similarly, Ben does NOT blame Reed for his own state (at least, he didn't by the time I started reading the book; the first dozen or so issues, Ben very clearly and adamantly did blame Reed). Ben has accepted that he elected to take on the risk of piloting that fateful space flight, fully knowing that there was a great amount of risk. The Fantastic Four (the good guys) believe they created themselves, while Dr. Doom (the bad guy) believes he was created by others.

Now whether or not you agree with me on how much responsibility we have for our own actions is immaterial here. But I think it's an especially intriguing notion to examine how some of my core belief system ties in to what I like to read. As I write this, I am the product of every decision I've ever made, and so I'm left to wonder who would I be if I had made different choices? Would I have taken to the Fantastic Four -- or, indeed, comics in general -- if I was more determinist in nature? Would I be reacting differently to events in my personal life the way I am? Would I even need to be dealing with the same things with a different outlook? Certainly interesting, if ultimately unanswerable, questions.

But let me put the question to you: how do your personal philosophies impact your choice of comics reading? I don't expect answers here, mind you -- I can only address the issue now because of the insane amount of navel-gazing I've been doing lately -- but it might be something worth examining for your own personal edification.

Self-actualization through comic books! Who knew?

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

The State Of Comics Journalism

Alright, so Chris Butcher and Dick Hyacinth have started discussing the state of comics journalism and it got me thinking. (Which should be the point of any real discussion -- so kudos to both Chris and Dick for that!)

Both Chris and Dick make some excellent observations about some of the "big name" comics journalists like Rich Johnston and Matt Brady. But I think they're missing the bigger picture, and are trying to comment on contemporary journalism using outdated models.

Throughout most of the 20th century, journalism was controlled by an elite group. Essentially the handful of people/groups with money to broadcast the news they wanted to broadcast. Your average man-on-the-street could not afford to go out and buy, build or even rent the equipment to broadcast a TV or radio signal with any reasonable strength, or a printing press suitable for publishing a newspaper or magazine with a circulation outside of a few hundred. Those people/groups who could afford to do so did exactly that, and provided news coverage based on what they felt was important.

And they're hardly to blame for that, I think. There is simply too much news to report on everything so a news team has to have some filters in place, based on whatever priorities they hold. Maybe they limit themselves by geography (most local TV news coverage is of that region) or by subject (the Jewish-American paper The Forward was founded in 1897) or some other combination of factors, but the fact remains that some establishment of filters need to be in place.

That can, of course, be taken to extremes. Newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst was claimed to have said, "You provide the pictures, I'll provide the war" back in 1897 in relation to his focus on using sensationalism over honest reporting to sell newspapers. While the quote is likely fabricated, it points to the concerns over 100 years ago that rich/powerful men had the ability to skew the news to their whims. And, of course, news makers are just as guilty of skewing things as news reporters. We've all heard of how the White House press secretary (whoever s/he is under any administration) has to "spin" the details of an event to present the image/message they want.

Of course, we are living in the 21st century and news doesn't work like that any more. Sure, there's a handful of comparatively wealthy folks who own TV networks and/or newspapers or what-have-you. But they are largely hold-overs from that out-dated system. News today comes from a much more diverse group of people, often working independently. I tend to listen to NPR for my daily sources of news/world events, and the experts they bring in are increasingly folks that happen to run a blog or small site devoted to the subject at hand. Even though they run comparatively small operations, they've proven their expertise through their continued commenting/reporting on their subject of choice. And "legitimate" news sources now use them as their resident experts.

Which leads us back to Chris and Dick. They both claim that your Newsaramas and CBRs cow to pressures from the larger comic publishers to the loss of more honest journalism. Whether or not that's true, though, is ultimately irrelevant. In the first place, they are reporting on what their readership wants to read. We know that they want to read that because those sites have become successful -- clearly, there's an audience for what they're producing.

But, as with journalism in general, they can't report on everything. Even just within the comics market. There's just too much information. But that's where the myriad of comics blogs come in. You come here (or, just as likely, you have this delivered to you via some blog reader) and you get some information that's based on MY filters instead of Heidi MacDonald's. Or you go to Dick's blog to get information based on HIS filters. Or you go to Chris' to get information based on HIS filters.

Now, obviously, you're going to get a range in quality by doing that. Some people are better writers than others, some people have better reporting skills than others, and some people have better contacts than others. But when you're discussing the state of comics journalism, you need to include the blogosphere. I've complained before about some things that have flown under my radar despite my best attempts, but there's also any number of things that have shown up on my radar precisely because I was paying attention to various blogs. Sometimes they're from professionals shilling their own products, sometimes they're from folks who have a different outlook based simply on their geography, sometimes they're from a guy who knows a guy who knows a guy who overheard something significant. The onus is on the reader to decipher what s/he feels is important/note-worthy to him/her.

Admittedly, that sounds like more work on the part of the reader. And it is, but not as much as you might think. It's because you, as a reader, are making value judgments on the source(s) as a whole, and not on individual stories. You're taking what I have to say here and now, and running it through the filters you've already set up around this blog. Just as you did when you read an article over at Newsarama. Or wherever. The additional work you have to put in is simply in having a greater variety of sources to select from. However, at the same time, those greater number of sources give you a greater chance of finding some that appeal specifically to your sensibilities, so your value judgment can be made on a larger scale. You're no longer running every individual Wizard article through your own filters, but you've run Wizard as a collective whole through your filter. You've likely already got this blog and any other that you might read categorized in your head somewhere, and your reaction to a specific blog entry is going right into that same spot.

So, what's my point? My point is that comics journalism does not start and end with the "name" players. Kudos to the guys at Newsarama for being able to make some money off their work. But they're not the only game in town. They're not even one of a dozen games. They're one of an ever-increasing mass of folks like me who sit down, from my remote personal computer in southwest Ohio, and bang out some thoughts like these. Is this blog ever going to achieve the recognition of someone like them? No. But, hopefully, it serves a niche for some of those things that don't hit the "mainstream" comics radar. Just like a hundred other blogs out there.

The players in the comics journalism arena are more diverse than ever. There's a constant turnover of folks who get in, dabble a bit with the whole blogging bit and then get out. And there are folks who have a longer constancy. It requires a little more on the reader's part to find the source(s) of comic news and information they trust. But for any complaints that the comics journalism industry caters to the publishers whims, I say that you're not really looking at the full scope of the landscape. Because for every softball that allows Joe Quesada to dismiss allegations of tentacle porn, there are a slew of fastballs and sliders that the rest of us can (and generally do) throw.

Monday, October 08, 2007

Kleefeld NOT On Comics, Part 2

I know what you're thinking. You're thinking, "Gee, I wonder what's going on with Sean. His blogging has been a little sporadic these past few days."

I'd like to say that I've been extremely busy working on some really cool comic book related project that will knock everybody's socks off. The reality, though, is that my mind's been on other things. Namely, my failing marriage. Although I'm still not really emotionally ready to deal with it yet, I've come to at least recognize that my wife wants out of the relationship and there's absolutely nothing I, or anyone else, can do to change her mind on the matter. We've been going to martial counseling every week, during which she's repeatedly said that the only reason she agreed to go was to try to explain to me why she's leaving. I still don't understand, honestly, but it has sunk in enough to know that she has no intentions on working to save our relationship.

In our session this weekend, I surprised her and our therapist by saying that I could at least now recognize that, and we're starting to shift our collective focus to dealing with how to separate our lives definitively. I even met with an attorney this afternoon to see what kinds of issues I need to pay attention to and watch out for. Emotionally, I'm really not ready for this, but I also don't want to spend the next several months spinning my wheels needlessly, trying to salvage something that my wife actively does not want salvaged. She emotionally divorced herself from me several months ago, and she's not about to change her mind on the matter.

What I suppose I find curious about my reaction is that I have NOT taken any real solace in comic books. I've read a few, certainly, but I didn't go to my LCS last week, nor have I been able to muster much enthusiasm for writing about any aspects of comics. (You might note that most of my postings here the past week or so have been light on content.) In fact, the most thought I've put into comics was when I realized Maggie Thompson was going to be at this year's Mid-Ohio-Con, and I should try to schedule some time to talk with her in person. I've no idea what I'd ask at this point but, like I said, I haven't been able to focus on comics too much. My readings of Plastic Farm, Lost Girls and Alter Ego were decidedly more sedate than I would think would be normal for me.

Another thing that surprised my wife and counselor was that I made an active effort to recruit a new friend this week as well. As I noted before, my circle of friends has been more of a single point, and I opted to go out on a limb and bear my soul to someone at work. In part because I was having a lousy week and I needed someone to talk to, but also because I thought it might be a way to become an active friend of this person. She was extremely sympathetic and I'm hopeful that we might become really close friends. (In a platonic sense -- get your mind out the gutter!)

It was interesting in that I found myself this week making active choices to deflect the overall sadness I'm feeling at the failing of my marriage. I switched the playlist on my MP3 player from audio books to a collection of happy/funny songs (including concept pieces like Dread Zeppelin and Bill Shatner's spoken-word rendition of "Rocket Man") to use when walking the dog. I managed to line up an audition with a band for sometime next week (still working on the details there). I even broke out some old video games that I haven't looked at in a few years. I suppose they're at least different enough that it requires a bit more mental engagement than just reading comics for fun, but not so much that I typically allocate towards reading comics on a more academic level.

Anyway, I wanted to let whatever readership I might have know that I'm still here, and still trying to blog on a daily basis. I figure I'll get back into the swing of things over the next day or so. But I'll provide fair warning now that I'm sure I'll have another lapse in blogging right around the time we actually sign the papers, and have the marriage officially terminated. I don't know exactly when that will be yet, obviously, but I'm guessing no later than the end of the year. I suppose the positive way of looking at that is that 2008 has GOT to look brighter than the tail end of 2007!

Saturday, October 06, 2007

Plastic Farm

Today, I'm taking a look at Rafer Roberts' Plastic Farm: Sowing Seeds on Fertile Soil from Ambrosia Publishing, which has recently begun its serialization on Ambrosia's site. The stories were originally published, as I understand it, by Roberts himself over the course of 12 issues, and garnered some praise from the likes of Dave Sim and Larry Young.

According to the site: "Planned as a continuing series, PLASTIC FARM follows the life of a man named Chester and his slow descent into complete insanity, and chronicles how that madness reshapes the world around him. Chester has had a rough childhood, has a magic cowboy that rides a dinosaur living inside of his head, and is now, late in life, sitting in a nameless airport bar during a blizzard telling his life story to a group of people who really couldn’t care less."

The book itself is divided into a prologue and three individual chapters. The prologue and chapter one were drawn by Roberts himself, but the art on chapters two and three is by Dave Morgan and Jake Warrenfeltz respectfully. While their individual styles are strikingly different, they all convey the stories fairly well. While I personally was more taken with Morgan's illustration very textured pencil style, I have to give a lot of credit to Roberts, who's able to keep his portions of the story moving along well despite some downright surreal imagery. Indeed, his story flows in out of the conscious mind, but I never had trouble determining what I was looking at or how to follow along. I think it takes more than a little talent to pull something like that off.

The overall story struck me in an odd manner, given the solicitation/set-up text going into it. The prologue does indeed introduce us to Chester "Cheezer" Carter and the enigmatic dinosaur-riding cowboy he thinks is real. (And, indeed, we get more than enough rationale for WHY Chester thinks this!) Chapter One occurs many years later, in which Chester recalls of the time he spent at an orphanage as a young boy. But, curiously, chapters two and three seem wholly disconnected to the previous portions of the book. Had I come to the book entirely devoid of any promotional information, I would have thought it merely an anthology of short stories. It's hard for me to tell at this point if it is indeed supposed to be that, and the other text I had read was simply misleading, or if further chapters will shed light on how everything connects together.

Part of my reaction, too, is that the prologue and chapter one seem much more substantive in terms of both character development and plot. Chapter two is a fairly simple tale that I could swear I saw in an episode of Twilight Zone at one point, and chapter three is just a short drug-bust-gone-awry story. I was left wondering about Cheezer and felt very much like I wanted to see more of him after the strong opening. I'll be curious to see if Cheezer returns for chapter four.

There are a handful of quotes from William S. Burroughs throughout the book. I think they're significant, not because they make an obvious point towards the actual story but because they're from William Burroughs, and it helps establish a tone of discongruity with reality. Roberts actually does this with the opening pages, but the Burroughs' quotes underscore the point, so there's no question of it just being unintentional on Roberts' part. I think that once you've established with yourself that Plastic Farm is not going to read like a simple, straight, narrative that Americans at least tend to expect with comics, a number of people will be interested in reading this.

That said, I don't think anyone should hold this up as a work that's suitable for the comic reading public on the hold. It's definitely sitting in its own niche and, therefore, not something I would uniformly recommend to everyone. It is, however, a book I would recommend if, for example, you like/appreciate the work of William Burroughs, Jack Kerouac, or any of their ilk. It's a book I would also recommend to folks looking for something different in comics -- Plastic Farm, as far as I know, is sitting in a place all by itself. I'm sure you won't find something quite like it at least for some time.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Comics Survey

From today's Cincinnati Enquirer...
Welcome to The Enquirer's first survey of daily comics in four years - a look into what you think about our funny pages. Why now? We'd like to re-examine the Monday-Saturday lineup but thought we'd consult you first. So we can use this information to help select comics for our entire readership, we ask that you give us some basic information about yourself. Simply rate each comic on a scale of 1-5, with 5 being best. We'll compile the results, before launching a new lineup Jan. 6.
For those wishing to vote, go here.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Because...


Because a) my day's felt like this and b) you can never go wrong with Don Martin onomatopoeia.