Friday, November 30, 2007

Glorious Standing Around

I can't find the exact text of the story at the moment, but I've had this running through my head most of the day.

Early in the days of Jack Kirby starting to work on the Fourth World stuff for DC, he stopped into DC's offices. He met with, among others I'm sure, Carmine Infantino who was art director at the time. Evidently Infantino had just gotten a copy of Neal Adams' cover to DC's 100 Page Super Spectacular #6 and was gushing over it.

"Jack! Look at this! All of our biggest heroes sharing the stage together! Isn't this just glorious!" (I'm paraphrasing here, but I'm fairly certain he did use the word "glorious" -- hence the title of the post.)

"I don't like it."

"Why? What's wrong with it?"

"Well, look at them. Superheroes are all about action, but these guys are just standing around. They should be running and flying and moving. This is way too static."

Infantino disagreed, obviously, as he ran the cover as is. I can't say for sure, but I think Adams did agree with Jack on this and took it as a learning opportunity. Me? I happen to agree with Jack too.

So, in case you're wondering WHY this story has been running through my head, it's because I can easily envision the exact same conversation happening today between Jack (were he alive) and marvel editor Tom Brevoort. Normally, I think Tom's a great editor; I agree with a lot of his decisioning and I have a lot of respect for him. But I have to say that I disagree with him on this new direction for Fantastic Four covers...

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Gods Of Asgard

You've got your Eisners, you've got your Harveys, you've got any number of fan awards and recommendations, but I'm here to tell you that your best bet -- your absolutely greatest, guaranteed-to-be-a-great-read, not-really-even-a-bet -- comics are going to be the ones that have won a Xeric. These are books that are published by truly talented folks, regardless of the subject matter. Masters of the craft of sequential art. You're getting great stories told extremely well. And you have the added bonus of looking smug when you're talking about comics to other folks because you've read great books that, for some inexplicable reason, tend to fall below the radar of even that class of comic snobs who read books from Fantagraphics.

So it should come as no surprise that I enjoyed 2007 Xeric winner Gods of Asgard by Erik Evensen. I enjoyed it a lot. Seriously. A lot. Best comic I've read in quite a while. The only real complaint I can muster is that I didn't talk to Evensen more when I bought it from him at this year's Mid-Ohio-Con.

The book itself is a collection of stories from Norse mythology, starting with their Creation legend and ending in Ragnarok. The tales are broken up something like chapters according to the original legends, with each individual legend running somewhere between five and ten pages. Each story also pretty well stands on it's own; and Evensen doesn't try to invent connections between them, just as the original legends (or, at least, what survives of them) didn't have connections. Many of the stories I knew, after a fashion, thanks to Jack Kirby and Walt Simonson but those versions are colored (tainted?) by the surrounding superhero stories marvel published/publishes. Evensen's interpretations are not hampered by any of that, and he's clearly put a lot of time and effort into researching the original versions and tried to keep them as true as he can to what the ancient Norse would've actually told each other. He's even included his bibliography and several pages of notes on how he depicted characters or scenes.

One of the first things I noticed about the book was the character designs. While there are certainly some characters that show up more frequently than others, the cast on the whole is pretty large. With a "main" cast of around 20, it's important that each of them are visually unique. While this shows up in many comics -- especially ones with larger than life stories like this -- Evensen's characters are identifiably unique in their faces, not just their overall appearance. A Jack Kirby Thor, for example, is fairly indistinguishable from his Kamandi except for the clothing. Evensen's characters, though, are all unique and are still readily identifiable when they change clothes, put on armor, use an assumed name or what have you. No small feat, even with a small cast, but Evensen keeps things tight visually throughout the whole book. The only other comic artist I can think of offhand that I've known to be able to pull that off is Goseki Kojima.

Further, while the original stories aren't exactly laden with continuity, Evensen makes visual nods to it throughout the book. For example, an early story about Loki ends with his lips literally sewn shut. And throughout the remainder of his appearances, there are scars clearly visable around his mouth. Likewise, gifts that are given to characters are seen, even if they're not mentioned, in subsequent stories. It's nice touches like that that kick the book's overall high quality of the art to another level.

The script/dialogue was interesting. I admit that the Norse gods I grew up on were the ones that spoke in a faux-Shakespearian accent thanks to Stan Lee, and I suppose I have some tendency to expect that in comic books about Thor or vikings or what-have-you. Evensen smartly avoids that and uses contemporary English, but he has it written in such a way that, although it gives no overt hints at it being an older dialect, it still reads in a somewhat more historical manner. I haven't checked closely, but I suspect it's in part because he doesn't use contractions. That gives something of a more formal air about the language, thus making it seem to come from a different time.

What's also interesting about the script is that Evensen doesn't flinch at all when it comes to social mores that don't necessarily translate across the centuries. He presents the stories and characters react to situations as those stories were told, regardless of what might be a more acceptable/believeable reaction in today's world. What upsets the characters might not upset your or I, and what upsets us might not affect them.

Wait -- I thought of a complaint: the book's not in color. Oh, it looks great in black and white, and there's absolutely nothing about the interior that would really enhance the storytelling per se. It's much like Bone in that regard. But take a look at Evensen's coloring job on the cover! That is not just someone treating comic art like a coloring book and dropping in large swaths of color for the sake of color. Nor is it the work of someone who's figured out several of the filters in Photoshop. It's the work of someone (in this case, Evensen himself) who actually knows quite a bit about color and color theory, and how to apply it to enhance what's already evident in the linework. (The cover actually wraps around to the back, but I'm not going to showcase that for you here in the hopes that you'll go buy a copy of the book for yourself to see it!)

What struck me as I read the book, and as I'm writing this, is that I have to keep reminding myself that this is all fiction. The stories never happened. If you read something like 300, you have to assume that it's at least marginally fictionalized but it's still based on a true story. I keep wanting to think that about Gods of Asgard even though I know consciously that the original stories Evensen is drawing on were fiction in the first place. I think that speaks to the "truth" of the original legends and Evensen's work here today. No, the events did not actually take place but the stories touch on everything that makes us human in every true sense of the word. It's that "truth" that comes out in Gods of Asgard and I think says a lot about Evensen's abilities as a storyteller.

I can't wait to see what he does next.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Numb3rs

You know, I had planned on finishing Gods of Asgard today during my lunch hour, and writing a insightful and poignant review of it tonight, but I had the opportunity to have a nice, social lunch with the boss and, when I got home, the soon-to-be-ex-wife was here, packing up some of her belongings. While nothing particularly problematic came up while she was here, it really didn't put me in the mood for trying to catch up on reading I had intended to do earlier in the day. As much as I still love her, seeing her any more is the most painful because I know she doesn't want to be a part of my life any more. And while that normally puts a crimp in whatever I'd planned on doing, I took the opportunity of my semi-depressed state to catch up on television... which requires so much less of my head than just about anything else I do. So I was finally able to watch last week's Numb3rs which kept comic fans abuzz with anticipation as it featured a comic book convention and a guest appearance by Wil Wheaton.

I thought it was okay. Good representation of a big comic convention, not really at all degrading. I liked the mix of comic-related personalities on display. All the characters and their relationships to one another were fairly clearly defined. The plot made sense... although the hiding-a-name-in-a-special-code-of-the-artwork angle seemed a bit strained. The other thing I didn't like was that the one FBI agent (sorry, I don't watch the show regularly and didn't really pay attention to names) just happened to be a fan of comics enough to know where the local comic shop was, could recite Dr. Strange incantations, and was an old fan of the artist played by Christopher Lloyd. I mean, that's great to put a clearly positive spin on a comic book fan character, but it struck me as an ingenuine/lazy way to try to relay background information to the viewer. Yes, the writer has to assume that an average viewer knows nothing about comics and s/he has to find a way to communicate the specifics of the industry. But suddenly making an existing character who's shown no prior knowledge of the industry well-versed in it is, in my mind, poor/cheap storytelling.

And calling attention to it (Rob Morrow's character expressed surprise at the previously undisclosed hobby of his co-worker) emphasizes the issue. It ends up being a catch-22 situation because regular viewers will "need" an explanation for this character's sudden insights, but a new viewer like myself is also being expressly told that this character is acting in a way inconsistent with previous episodes. And especially in light of much of the story taking place AT a comic book convention, it seems to me that the same information could/should have been conveyed through other characters.

This all leads back to why I prefer comics to TV. There were some honestly good bits in the show, but there were also some bits that didn't really fit. And the reason is because it's television and there were simply too many people adding their two cents in. I'm glad -- thrilled even -- they gave the comic industry, on the whole, a fairly honest/reasonable representation. But it's still television, and I know I can walk into my Local Comic Shop tomorrow and easily/immediately find several dozen examples that will do a much better job at presenting a good, cohesive, engaging, entertaining, and enjoyable experience.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Prelude To Fandom

The daughter of my mother's best friend shares a birthday with me, so our families spent a fair amount of time together while I was growing up. Not long after my younger brother was born, though, I found myself bored at their house. After all, the adults were focusing on the baby and I couldn't entertainment myself by playing with Brooke's girlie dolls. (Cut me some slack; it was the '70s and gender roles were still pretty rigidly defined.) So I was given a small stack of comic books to occupy me/keep me out of trouble.

Looking back through old photos in Mom's albums was interesting in that all of the pictures of me prior to age three were largely unremarkable. They could be any other child, really. But after that incident with the comic books, a trend starts emerging fairly quickly. This is the earliest photo of me that I could find as a comic book fan, taken around Easter 1976, age three and a half...
A few months later, as the U.S. celebrated its bicentennial, I was clearly oblivious as I swam with not one but TWO different inflatable Batmen...
Clearly, by my fourth birthday, I had become quite enamored with superheroes. The cake decorations here were drawn by father, copied from various comics from that initial pile I was give, cut out on card stock, and held in the cake via popsicle sticks. The flash washed out the figures, but you should still be able to fairly easily discern Robin, Green Lantern, Superman, and a classic Neal Adams pose Batman. I believe that's Flash between Supes and Bats.

Same birthday with me showing off some of my haul...
"I'm Goddamn Batman!"

Hmmm. Not as powerful as when Frank Miller uses the line, for some reason. The mask, I believe, I had previously judging by the obvious rip in the paper. And for those who might question why I'm pretending I'm Batman while wearing a yellow plastic raincoat...That's Mom on the left, FYI.

I'm not sure exactly when this next photo was taken, but it looks like a trip to Grandma's house where my brother and I were actually being good. Note the Superman patch on my shirt.

OK, let me try this again...
"I'm Goddamn Batman!"

Still not working, is it? That's me on Halloween 1977.

This next one is later that year. My folks were finishing work on a new garage before winter got too nasty, and the photo is me finding/utilizing some of their scraps...The shirt I remember was a favorite of mine. It had a cool image of Batman on the left in color, and the right had three comic book panels of Batman trouncing various villains in black and white. (Probably the Joker, the Penguin and Catwoman but my memory's a bit hazy on that last one.) I remember vividly being disappointed when I outgrew the shirt and could no longer wear it. (Actually, it looks pretty small on me here already!)

And what kid can forget about Christmas?A Batman board game and a home-made Superman costume? How much cooler could things get? (I still have that board game, by the way! Absurdly cheaply made, though. The game board itself was only printed on card stock, and the playing pieces were generic leftover pawns from a cheap chess set.)

(Oh, as amazing as it would have been to have me flying over a fireball as it looks like I'm doing in the second photograph, I think that's just a chemical screw-up in the original Polaroid.)

May 1978...I have no clue about this photo's context, but it's clearly me eating an orange while wearing a Spider-Man shirt.

Then we have my birthday. Dad used the same figure cut-out as decoration idea from a few years earlier...As I study that picture more closely, I'm pretty sure that's actually a second cake that Grandma brought by some time after the initial celebration, and Dad re-appropriated some of the figures from the "primary" cake to decorate this one.

Birthday gifts from Grandma. I'm absolutely certain she had zero knowledge about who the Human Torch was...
Birthday gifts from the folks. You can see a Spider-Man velco dart board, a Batman mug set, and a Super-Friends lunch box.The dart board strikes me as particularly interesting because it's co-branded with The Electric Company, which partially explains the discrepency in art styles between the Romita Spidey and the cartoon villains.

I don't know exactly when this next shot was taken...... but I'll bet you didn't know that anyone ever made a Spider-Man pogo stick, did you?

Another birthday. I believe this is 1980...Look closely. I'm wearing Hulk pajamas. You can just about discern the basic pose and part of the logo. I remember coming home from school one day and playing in the yard for an hour or so before realizing that I somehow managed to get dressed without removing these pajamas at all. I spent the whole day wearing my PJs underneath my school clothes, just like a superhero, and I hadn't even intended to do it!

In the summer of 1982, we had our first significant family vacation (that I recall at any rate) and my folks took us to Florida. The shots of me at Disney World have me sporting a t-shirt with some cartoon mouse on it that I can't quite recognize, but we also hit several other tourist spots as well. This is a wax recreation of Christopher Reeve as Superman in his Fortress of Solitude from a museum of Hollywood icons...I recall that the only other exhibit there that I recognized was from The Wizard of Oz.

Same trip. The NASA Space Center...Tube socks? Check. Cheap, bulky camera dangling from my wrist? Check. Tinted plastic sun visor? Check. Fanny pack worn on my hip? Check. It's frightening to think that the Superman tank top is the only thing that doesn't make me look exactly like a stereotypical tourist.

And here it is: my infamous eleventh birthday and the defining moment which took me on the road to comic book fandom...On the left is a box Dad made for holding my comic book "collection" (such as it was at that time). He cut up a copy of Marvel Team-Up #129, glued the pages to a cardboard box (at the time, none of us had heard of long boxes), and covered the whole thing in clear contact paper. Not seen in the photo was the copy of Fantastic Four #254 which was so immensely original and absorbing to me that I had to get the next issue. And the next. And the next...

And there you have the TRUE origin of Sean Kleefeld, comic book fan.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Pirates VS Ninjas VS... Vikings?

I'm just now getting around to starting to read the comics I picked up last week. And, evidently, the question "Who would win in a fight: a pirate or a ninja?" is entirely a moot point. Vikings kick everyones' butts.

But the pirates still get the best lines!

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Me@MOC.2007

I spent part of the day today at the Mid-Ohio-Con. This was my first time at the MOC since they moved it to the Columbus Convention Center, so it was a little hard for me to compare crowds. Things had been physically crammed the last few that I'd attended, but the Convention Center has more floor space, allowing the booths to be more spread out. Things looked busy, but it was hard to tell since I didn't have to trip over anyone just to walk through the aisles.

What struck me about this year's con was a seemingly greater emphasis on a few "key" sub-markets. Obviously, a good representation of marvel and DC superheroes, mainly through the retailers, but also in the guest list. Star Wars was pretty well seen with several booths devoted exclusively to it. There were a smattering of independent folks, but their visual presence seemed more stifled by and large. And few retailers had any independent books. Admittedly, it's a pain to cart 100 long boxes to a convention hall like that, and you're going to want to focus on the stuff you have the least likelihood of having to haul back home, but the indie market was slim.

It also struck me the type of comics being sold. A lot of high grade Golden Age and early Silver Age books. A lot of new/current material. Not much in between. And not much in the way of TPBs or hardcovers, aside from a few folks who had some Masterworks and Archives titles. Also not much in the way of original art -- I think I looked at three small portfolios and one pile in the whole show. Lots of commission work, but not a lot of originals used for publication.

I only attended one panel discussion: "I Go Pogo" with Mark Evanier, Maggie Thompson and Carolyn Kelly. Not a large crowd there, but I did learn that the Fantagraphics Pogo collection has been delayed (probably until Fall '08) because they're having trouble getting some high quality artwork from some of the earlier strips. Mark was quite effusive on Carolyn's attention to detail regarding the Pogo license, and said that's helped a great deal in maintaining the high quality of Walt's legacy.

I wasn't able to catch up with Rich Buckler like I'd hoped (he seemed to be darting in and out most of the day) but I did get a chance to chat with Ron Wilson and Keith Pollard. Both guys seemed quite humble about their work and seemed to enjoy talking with old fans. Pollard was selling some old originals, and I picked up page 16 from Marvel Super-Heroes #1. It's a Hercules story, and the page in question has some interesting things going on visually with regard to the storytelling. I'll try to scan it in later and comment on it.

I wasn't able to catch up with Maggie Thompson until late in the day, so I tried not to take up too much of her time. She was quite willing to chat, though, and noted that everyone at the Con would probably be diagnosed with Asperger syndrome but the whole notion of the "disease" is a load of baloney. The only benefit she saw in the label was a specific example she cited of a young girl who was diagnosed with it and, because of that diagnosis, had access to grants and funding which Maggie was able to help channel in the direction of sequential art. The girl is evidently quite talented, and has already gone on to help get her school's gifted program involved in comic book creation classes. In any event, I'll be trying to follow up with Maggie in greater detail.

I didn't get much in the way of loot. There's the original art I mentioned earlier, of course. I stumbled across Erik Evensen's table and picked up his Gods of Asgard and Sketchbook Diary. (More on those when I get a chance to read them.) I also grabbed the last volume of Transmetropolitan TPB and the hardcover, slipcased The Deadman Collection which has been wavering in and out of stock for the past several years.

All in all, a decent show for the limited time I had to spend there. As always, I think I'd have a more enjoyable time if I had friends to go with and hang out during the con, but it was still a pretty good show.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Mid-Ohio Reminder

Thanksgiving weekend is always a killer for me. The holiday/traveling/relatives thing is generally pretty exhausting in and of itself. This year is hitting me additionally hard with an appointment earlier this evening with my soon-to-be ex-wife, and tomorrow I'm heading up to Columbus for the Mid-Ohio-Con. It's after 9:00, I'm already wiped out, and I have done about zero prep work for tomorrow. So rather than my usually clever, insightful and entertaining blogging, I'm going to spend the next hour or so getting ready stuff together for Sunday; after which, I will go to sleep and hope the dog got enough excitement with my folks this morning that he won't mind missing a walk tonight.

So, do me a favor and make my trip up to Columbus worthwhile by stopping me and saying, "Hi, Sean. I love your blog!"

Friday, November 23, 2007

Meanwhile...

I know what you're thinking. You're thinking, "What the hell am I going to read about during this extended holiday weekend?" (Bear in mind, of course, that my mind-reading abilities are limited to the United States.) "Everyone is out running around and spending time with their relatives, so there's not much in the way of news and all the good bloggers are on a multi-day hiatus!"

Well, that's where you're in luck. Sort of. I'm blogging today from my folks' place (spending the Thanksgiving holiday with them) and I was able to go through some old photo albums. While I don't have the resources to scan and touch up all of the images of me being all comic booky, I thought I'd share a quick preview of what I'll try to post sometime next week. So, in all it's glory, my sixth birthday...

The cake decorations were drawings of several heroes that my father copied from various comics. cut out, and glued to popsicle sticks. Green Lantern, Wonder Woman, Supergirl and Tarzan are immediately recognizable. And in the lower corner, you can clearly see the Super Friends themed birthday plates.

More later!

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

DCU Inventory

So I was looking through the list of books that are in marvel's initial offering of issues in the Digital Comics Unlimited program. There are some books that I think make a lot of sense, and some others that make me wonder what they were thinking.

Golden Age Books
All-Winners Comics #1-8
Astonishing #3-6
Captain America Comics #1-2
Human Torch #2-5A
Love Romances #89
Marvel Boy #1-2
Marvel Comics #1
Sub-Mariner Comics #1-2, 5
Tales to Astonish #1-10
Young Men #24-28
While I personally would rather see more of the older books, I understand that they're not as popular generally speaking. But kudos to marvel for having at least a sampling of them available. On the downside, I don't see any of their older Westerns and there's only the one romance book.

Multiple Character Iterations
Amazing Spider-Man
Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man
House of M: Spider-Man
Marvel Adventures Spider-Man
Marvel Age Spider-Man
Marvel Knights Spider-Man
Marvel Mangaverse: Spider-Man
Peter Parker, Spectacular Spider-Man
Sensational Spider-Man
Spectacular Spider-Man Adventures
Spider-Man and Power Pack
Spider-Man India
Spider-Man Loves Mary Jane
Spider-Man: Blue
Ultimate Spider-Man
The same concept holds true for other characters beyond Spidey, but there are multiple versions of the character available; it's not just the in-continuity stories that we're looking at. I'm actually surprised at the number of versions that marvel's using here, and the only notable omissions I can think of offhand are the version licensed out to the Electric Company (and that could well have been a rights issue) and Spider-Man 2099. I think this is reflective of marvel's relatively recent realization that they're no longer a comic book publisher but the holder of several significant character licenses.

Heroes Reborn
Avengers #1
Captain America #1-12
Fantastic Four #1-6
Iron Man #1-6
I have to admit to some confusion here. I understand why they're putting some of the Heroes Reborn books online, but the specific choices don't make sense. All of these titles' sixth issue were part of a single storyline, of which Avengers #6 sat smack in the middle, and all of the titles' twelfth issues were part of a single storyline, of which Captain America #12 was the finale. I would think it would make more sense to post the earlier parts of the story and leave off the ending, coercing readers to search out the trade paperbacks for the conclusion, rather than publishing the endings and leaving out earlier sections.

Heroes for Hire
Daughters of the Dragon #1-6
Daughters of the Dragon: Deadly Hands Special #1
Heroes for Hire (2006) #1, 6
Immortal Iron Fist #1
Iron Fist (2006) #1
White Tiger (2006) #1
As near as I can see, there's no reprints of the original Heroes for Hire title or, for that matter, any Power Man or Iron Fist stories of any sort written before 2004. I can understand somewhat not wanting to highlight some of the more naive attempts at urban relevance or cultural equality or whatever turn of phrase you want to use, but ignoring it entirely? I'm not saying marvel's deliberately trying to whitewash their history, but it still strikes me as a curious set of omissions.

Death of Captain America
Fallen Son: Death of Captain America: Wolverine
One of marvel's biggest PR successes in the past several years, and the only acknowledgment of it in any capacity is this one book. I would think, if nothing else, you'd want to include the actual death scene itself since that would be an easy way to "hook" more casual readers. Especially with the launch of DCU, it would be a good extra step towards drawing in all the people who couldn't find the issue when it first came out.

1970s Oddities
Adventures into Fear #1
Champions #1, 12
Devil Dinosaur #1
Now, some of the 1970s books marvel's putting out make complete sense to me. Omega the Unknown #1 of course can help bring awareness to the new title of the same name. I suppose Champions here might be done to indirectly highlight Hercules' new prominence, so does that mean they've got plans to reinvigorate Devil Dinosaur? Also the book that was known as Adventures Into Fear was actually just titled Fear (although later issues sported "Adventures" on the cover, the first issue only uses the word "Fear" by itself). More interesting, though, is that the book only reprinted older monster stories, mostly from Tales to Astonish. Which means the DCU is reprinting reprints?

Limited Series
There's any number that I could list out here, but let me just generalize that I don't understand the thinking behind these. Some of the titles are captured in their entirety, but others only have the first issue or two. At first, I thought it was that older books were getting the full treatment while newer books (which are more likely to be on the shelves in TPB form) only get a teaser, but that doesn't seem to be the case. Why Strange (2006) #1-6 but only Dr. Strange: The Oath (2006) #1-2 for example?

Unintentionally(?) Humorous
Spider-Man/Black Cat: Evil That Men Do #1-3
So do people have to wait five years for marvel to post the second half of the series?

In general, I understand that marvel's library is huge and trying to whittle down all of the possible comics they choose to put online to online 250 is a daunting task. And I get that many of their decisions are going to be based on marketing "hot" properties. But a lot of the decision making here seems to be inconsistent. Now it's certainly possible that they've got a larger plan, with staged roll-outs that make sense in the broader context. And it's possible that there were extenuating circumstances (technical or legal) that prevented them from posting certain issues. But I'm just not seeing the logic. It's like they're going along a straight path, making fairly wise choices, but then fall asleep at the wheel for a bit and are woken by the rumble strips before getting back on the road again.

Every time I start to think marvel's getting the hang of this whole "we're now a character licensing company" thing, they highlight that they're really just winging it every bit as much as Stan Lee used to do as a editor-in-chief/publisher. And while Stan may have been able to succeed at that in the 1960s and 70s, I don't think that approach is going to work now in the 21st century.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Gaiman On Kindle

The recent release of Amazon's Kindle has been making news. Conceptually, it sounds great and Amazon seems to have directly addressed the screen resolution issue I was discussing just the other day. (Although, Amazon would still need to address the issue of color, but I went through more than a couple PDAs before they started making them available with color screens.) The physical design of the unit looks incredibly clunky -- especially when compared to indirect competitors like the iPhone -- but it sounds like that the usability is still fairly high.

Being obviously interested in comics, one of the first questions I had was whether or not it handled images. And, if so, how well. Not surprisingly, one of the testimonials that addresses this very question is that of Neil Gaiman.

Monday, November 19, 2007

The Rise of "Pamphlet" Comics

In a response to my post the other day, someone questioned the increased usage of the term "pamphlet" to describe the comic format we've spent the past several decades simply calling "comic book." So, today I'm going to explain why it's an appropriate word to use and is not necessarily intended to be derogatory.

For many years, the term "comic book" was sufficient to describe the format in which people typically saw sequential art. The only venue besides the pamphlet for seeing it was in the funny pages of a newspaper. Comics were considered too "low" to warrant publication in anything resembling a premium format. Your options were comic books or comic pages in the newspaper. Even when stories started getting reprinted in small paperbacks back in the 1960s and 70s, they were still only reprint collections of what people were still simply calling "comic books" so that term was still used.

Eventually, though, people started coming up with longer form stories. (Feel free to argue about whether it was Will Eisner or Jim Steranko who got the ball rolling with this.) They, understandably, wanted to differentiate their longer works from simple collections of shorter, deadline-driven stories and the industry soon settled on the term "graphic novel" to identify these pieces. "Novel" to suggest the longer format, and "graphic" to convey the visual elements not inherent in a "regular" novel.

And here's where things start to get muddy. Because with the birth of the "graphic novel" people began to really see the storytelling options available to them, and that stories could be told in formats other than the traditional pamphlet format. So we start seeing "Treasury Editions" and "Prestige Formats" and "Mini-Comics" and who-knows-what-else. It's still all sequential art -- comics -- but they look decidedly different from one another. Not even a comic newbie is going to mistake Superman vs. Muhammad Ali with Arkham Asylum with Cynicalman with Amazing Spider-Man #167. They're just all physically very different in their production.

And so the term "comic book" essentially took on too many meanings to use in differentiating different formats. It worked well enough (and still works well, for that matter) when you're just talking about sequential art generally, but you have to start using other terms if you want to specify that you're only discussing one particular format. Since most of the newer formats were generating a new taxonomy for themselves already, we were only left with the old pamphlet comics using a phrase that was now doing double-duty.

Enter "periodical." Periodical was a good word for the pamphlet comics at the time. They came out regularly on a (generally) monthly schedule and were largely the only format who followed that. Graphic novels were one-offs, mini-comics were all over the map schedule-wise depending on the creator... with only a couple exceptions, the pamphlet comics were the only form of "comic book" that came out on a regular schedule.

Ah, but here comes the 21st century! There have been two significant changes in the comic book market that make "periodical" an imprecise term. First we have the rise of manga. These books are of a decidedly different format than pamphlets but still come out on a fairly regular (i.e. periodic) basis. Then we have a change in attitude from the major publishers towards how they approach their stories. Once upon a time, the goal was to put out a new issue of each title every month, regardless of content. It's easy to find examples in older books where ongoing storylines are completely interrupted with inventory material or reprints that are dropped in place to make a monthly deadline. These days, though, publishers tend to skew towards the continuity of the story over the deadline and it can actually be difficult these days to find a pamphlet comic that has maintained a rigorous monthly schedule. So "periodic" is hardly an apt word when your publishing schedule becomes so erratic.

Which brings us to "pamphlet." Like much of the rest of this, I can't track down it's first usage, but it seemed to start filtering out with regard to comic books around the turn of the century. I think people feel it might be considered derogatory because they associate the word with a single sheet of a paper folded a few times. However, the definition of "pamphlet" according to the Random House dictionary is: a complete publication of generally less than 80 pages stitched or stapled together and usually having a paper cover. This pretty clearly includes what would historically have been called a "comic book." It doesn't mention a publication schedule, and it's page count prevents most manga (and digest) books from making the cut.

Wikipedia notes some of the word's etymology as well: The word pamphlet... came into Middle English ca 1387 as pamphilet or panflet, generalized from a twelfth-century amatory comic poem with a satiric flavor, Pamphilus, seu de Amore... Pamphilus's name was derived from Greek, meaning "loved by all".

So is there a better word that more accurately encapsulates what I refer to as pamphlet comics? Possibly. But that's come to be a fairly understood term these days. And, yeah, maybe "loved by all" is overly optimistic when it comes to discussing the pamphlet format of comics, but it certainly doesn't strike me as derogatory by any means.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

The Simpsons Telling It Like It Is

"You wanna know what I think?"

"Does Galactus eat planets? Of course I do!"

"Wow -- I was in such a bad relationship with my ex-comic book guy, I forgot how good it could be."

Best dialogue from tonight's episode of The Simpsons. And lines that are far too telling of the industry!

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Comics: Print Versus Online, Part 2

You sit down to watch television. You turn on one of your local stations, and see some promos that they're going to be starting one of your favorite movies in just a few minutes. As you settle in, a black screen comes up with white lettering that says something to the effect of: "This film has been modified from its original version. It has been re-formatted to fit your television screen and has been edited for content and commercial interruptions." Then the movie begins.

The reason they put that message up is simple: television was not the delivery mechanism that the movie was designed to. The movie was designed to be shown in a movie theater. Different aspect ratio, different business model, different environment, different technological equipment... Yes, you can technically display the same movie on a TV, but it wasn't made to be shown that way. Similarly, TV shows are not designed to be shown in a movie theater. Or on a cell phone. Or on your computer.

People, on the whole, seem to understand this at some intuitive level. They can accept commercial breaks during a movie they watch on television. They can accept the pan/scan editing to adjust for the different aspect ratio. They can accept incredibly bad dubbing that have, since 1986, made Ferris Bueller envious of Cameron's "piece of tin." People know this is inherently going to be a different experience than what the movie-makers originally intended.

So why do people NOT get this when it comes to comics?

Comic creators, by and large, know how their work is going to be presented. There was an old "rule" in writing comic scripts that you couldn't end a sentence with a period because there was no guarantee it would actually get printed. It wasn't a naive way to generate excitement in the story; it was a manner to work around a technical limitation of the printing technology they had available. Likewise, the comics back in the day were colored using lots of solid, bright colors because they didn't have the capability then to publish anything more nuanced.

This latter issue began raising its head several years ago when printing and paper technology had advanced considerably. There were more than a fair share of complaints fired that reprints of old books looked garish because these bright colors were intensified with better ink and whiter paper. It didn't look quite right because it was being presented in a format it wasn't originally intended to be presented in.

The same holds true for online comics. Yes, I can sit here at my computer and scan every page of a comic and post it online. I can even reconfigure the page scans so that they're all embedded in one file. But it's not going to be an entirely good reading experience, regardless of whether that's a PDF or I run it through a Flash player of some kind or whatever, because the original was not intended to be read like that. Of course a gorgeous page layout from Neal Adams is going to suffer when it's read on a computer -- he created it to be read in a pamphlet comic!

Adams is actually a good person to bring up here. Setting aside his incredible illustration skills, he's very conscious of how his work is being presented and adjusts his designs accordingly. Before his famed work on Batman, he was in DC's coloring department. He spent quite a deal of time and energy learning about what was and wasn't possible with the printing technology available at that time. His studies led him to realize that marvel had a different deal with the printers than DC did that allowed them to use more colors in their books, making them look more sophisticated visually. Adams was able to take the ideas to his superiors and eventually get a better coloring deal for DC -- because he knew how things were being produced. Years later, when DC started to reprint his Batman stories in a nice, hardcover format, he opted to go back and recolor them all himself (for free, I believe) because he knew that the printing technology had changed sufficiently that the old coloring would not translate well to these new printings. And if you look at those books, you can see that, sure enough, the couple of stories Adams didn't recolor look decidedly muddier than everything else. Not that Adams changed the actual colors themselves, but he utilized the new coloring technology to achieve the same effects he created using a decidedly different -- and not immediately transferable -- technology decades earlier.

So when you look at marvel's new Digital Comics Unlimited books, or if you illegally download scans of the same books from a torrent, you're reading a story in a manner in which it wasn't intended to be read. Likewise, if you go to Wowio or wherever, you're going to be reading comics that were designed to be printed, and your satisfaction is going to be less than what's possible.

So, is it possible to write comics for an online venue? Absolutely, but very few people are doing it.

One of the obvious things that should be addressed is that computer monitors are formatted horizontally, instead of vertically. But it really requires more than just turning your art board 90 degrees! There's an issue web designers need to focus on as well: namely, that not everyone has the same size monitor. That means your online comic should work and be easily read regardless of whether somebody's using a 15 or 20 inch screen. You need to realize that some thinner lines could get lost and smaller text might be illegible. Take a quick flip through the stories on Zuda and you can see a range of people who, while they've all adopted the horizontal format, still have varying degrees of success with the online format irrespective of the quality of the narrative itself.

So here's the thing. Many, many more comics were written and designed to be presented in a format other than online than were made for the web. That's mostly just a function of how long the web has been around compared to pamphlet comics. But as long as creators continue developing comics with a "traditional" presentation in mind, their success is going to be limited in the online world. The problem isn't that the delivery mechanisms online are flawed; it's that people are using them to deliver the wrong material. Comics of any sort need to be created to take advantage of the unique properties of how they're being created to be truly effective.

What this all means (coupled with yesterday's notes) is that as long as it's easier to read paper than it is a monitor, most creators will develop their materials to the easier-on-the-eye format. And as long as most creators are creating works geared for print publication, web publication will remain a niche for a comparatively small band of enthusiasts. Meaning that your LCS is safe from the online "threat" for the time being.

Of course, that's not to say how long it will be before that changes, but I don't plan on doing any sooth-saying today!

Friday, November 16, 2007

Comics: Print Versus Online

Most of the decent-sized traditional comic publishers have now officially thrown their hats into the online comics ring. And for every new entrant into the market, we see the same arguments trotted out again about whether this format will work, or that business model will be profitable, and whether this will hinder pamphlet sales, and on and on... Typically, you'll have proponents of web dissemination on one side citing low barriers to entry and creative freedom and laissez-faire economics; then you'll have another group citing that people don't like reading comics online because the format's all wrong and clicking a button or using a scroll wheel is more annoying than just turning a page and you can't carry around online comics in your back pocket.

But while both sides have some valid points, they're both completely missing some extremely fundamental issues.

Let's start with a technology lesson. Monitors of all sorts work in the same basic way: a beam of light is transmitted onto a plane of glass. Televisions and old CRTs use a single beam that shoots an imperceptably brief pulse to each spot on the screen over and over again, changing its color as needed. LCD monitors have what are essentially a series of miniature light bulbs that cover an entire screen's surface and are lit up as needed with the correct color. (For technical experts out there, yes, I fully realize I'm way over-simplifying this.) In either case, each portion of your screen is lit up by a pinpoint of light.

In effect, your computer screen (or cell phone screen or PDA screen or whatever) works like a pointlist painting. Or, to borrow an analogy perhaps more familiar, an old comic book. Lots of little points of color that, when you step back just a bit, look like an array of colors that form an image. (Irony: using a digital image of a Lichtenstein painting swiped from a comic book to illustrate the process of how a digital image is made.) What that means, though, is that when you look at your computer screen, your screen is showing you a series of dots over a specific space. A number of dots per inch. This is actually called "dot pitch" when referring to computer screens, but it's the same idea as the "dots per inch" (DPI) that printers refer to. (Again, for the tech savvy, I'm simplifying here.) Commercially available computer screens these days typically hover at around 100 pixels per inch; older monitors were on the low end in the 70s and 80s, newer ones upwards of 120.

Why does this matter to our discussion? Well, it matters because the average human eyeball can discern resolutions up to around 360 dots per inch. (Typically measured at a normal reading distance. Obviously, if you press your nose up against something, you're going to see finer details.) Ink jet printers print at around 300 dpi, and commericial personal laser printers tend to max out around 600. That means that you can't see about a third of the detail that's possible from a laser printer, and you'd have to look pretty closely at an ink jet image to start seeing the individual specs of ink. But that also means you can see about three times more clearly than what's presented to you on a computer screen.

Now we get to the point that most people miss in the online/print comics debate. If you're looking at a printed comic, it's probably run between 300-600 dpi. Your eyes are going to absorb as much detail as they can. If you're looking at a web comic, it's being presented at 100 dpi and your brain has to fill in the 200 or so extra pixels for every inch of the screen to complete the image. You're literally having to connect the dots to make a series of small squares into a recognizable shape, like a hand or a word. This is an extension of the notion of "closure" Scott McCloud talked about in Understanding Comics. You have to fill in the spaces left by the source. In the case of a printed comics, it's just the actions that happen "in the gutters." In the case of web comics, it's that plus the thousands upon thousands individual pixels needed to complete each image.

Think about it like this. If you look at a connect-the-dots image, you generally can't tell what the image is supposed to be. Your brain has to work to mentally connect those dots into an outline that's recognizable to you. The more dots you're given to start with, the easier it is to tell what the image is of. The fewer dots, the more abstract it looks, and the harder your brain has to work to make it into something understandable.

Scientific studies (by Jakob Nielsen, no less!) have been done that prove people read text off a screen 25% slower than off a sheet of paper. That extra time is what is taken up by your brain piecing together all those pixels into letters. Computer Vision Syndrome (CVS) was identified as legitimate ongoing problem for people who spend more than two hours of their day looking at computer screens. Put simply, looking at a screen is harder on your eyes than looking at a sheet of paper.

So what?

So that means short-form comic strips are going be inherently easier to read online than longer-form comic books. (I'm not even going to start to address how the "traditional" comic strip format is also better suited to monitors than the "traditional" comic book format. That's another blog entry.) Readers, because of the eye strain, want to get in, read your piece, and get out. If they spend too much time reading in one place, their eyes are going to start to tire and dry out, making them physically uncomfortable, detracting from whatever possible enjoyment they might otherwise get out of the comic they're reading online.

You can forget portability, compatibility, usability, economics, and pretty much any other argument for either side until computer screen manufacturers start producing affordable, high-resolution monitors and a significant number of people start adopting them. The technology is there -- that's what HDTVs are after all -- but you still need to bring them down in price enough for people to start using them with their desktops and cellphones. Alternatively, you could theoretically convince people to start running their computer systems through their televisions, accessing the system with wireless input devices, but I personally think that's a steeper hill to climb.

Tomorrow, I'll see if I can address some of the other technological aspects of online versus print comics that no one else seems to have touched on yet.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Zuda By The Numbers

The Zuda experiment continues apace, but they're upping the game a notch by actively ranking the various comics and presenting them in their ranking order. (Whereas previously, if you hadn't noticed, they were just being listed alphabetically by title.)

High Moon has maintained a reasonably comfortable lead by most stats so far, and it's currently sitting in the #1 spot. It's got the most votes, listed in more people's favorites, the most views, and the highest average rating. (Let me point out that a vote is a different criteria than being listed as a favorite. Casual viewers are not privy to vote counts.) Writer David Gallaher noted a little while back on his High Moon Production Blog why all three are significant...
First off, there is the vote... This is your number one decision making tool...

While you can only Vote for one comic at a time, you can Rate them all. This will be a crucial tool in close races where more nuance is needed in order to accurately express your opinions...

Jumping around that Comic Information section you'll see that we're tracking the VIEWS as well. We figure some people just like to read without any greater level of participation. That's ok by us and as far as the competition goes, having a widely read comic is a great indicator of success.
Supposedly, these notes all came from Zuda, and the entire piece is written as if it's directed towards readers, but I can't seem to find this same information anywhere on Zuda's own site.

David posted another note more recently, also from the Zuda staff...
We're still about two weeks away from closing the polls and so far only 50% of the users have cast their ballot!


A curious ranking I would like to point out is that of The Dead Seas. It's currently ranked at #7, but it is listed in more favorites and a higher average rating than both Alpha Monkey and This American Strife which are in the #5 and #6 slots respectively. What it lacks, though, are views. Both Alpha Monkey and This American Strife have each been opened/viewed by roughly 50% more users than The Dead Seas. (Going back to Zuda's note above about viewings being significant.) What I'm not sure of, though, is whether Zuda is counting the number of views or the number of unique views. One person could come in and look at the same comic a few dozen times to bump up a specific comics' numbers, unless the Zuda folks were on the ball enough to track the views against users' IP addresses, thus making "ballot stuffing" such as that more difficult.

More curious, however, is the #2 and #3 ranked comics: Dead in the Now and Battlefield Babysitter. However, Babysitter has a higher average rating, more views, and is a favorite of more people. One has to presume that it has been voted on more often, but it seems strangely nebulous exactly how Zuda is arriving at some of their ranking calculations. One would presume that a comic which is viewed more, has a higher degree of critical acclaim, and is tagged as a favorite more often would ALSO be voted on more often, so for Zuda to show that's evidently not the case can certainly raise some questions about the transparency/honesty of the judging. (I'm not saying that Zuda is rigging the voting, mind you, just that they seem to be leaving the door open for some of the competitors to argue the final results.)

As it stands, we're about two weeks away from seeing how things end for these comics. If things continue as they have so far, I think it shouldn't be hard to predict with reasonable accuracy all of the comics' rankings. There are definitely some clear favorites here. But to all of the participants, congratulations across the board -- you're all doing a heck of a lot better job than I could!

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Mid-Ohio-Con 2007

A little over a year ago, I noted that I was probably going to be skipping future comic conventions unless I would be able to attend with or meet a friend there; I just wasn't getting a lot out of them in my solo ventures. But I think I will actually be attending next week's Mid-Ohio-Con for one day. Mainly for two reasons: Maggie Thompson and Rich Buckler.

Rich Buckler was essentially my third favorite artist for several years. Once I started reading Fantastic Four, I was most enamored with artists who worked on the book. So it should come as little surprise that I loved the work of John Byrne (who's FF turned me on to the book in the first place), George Perez (who came shortly before Byrne and is just abso-frickin-lutely brilliant) and Rich Buckler. Rich was third largely because -- and by no means do I mean to disrespect him in ANY capacity -- I hadn't yet discovered Jack Kirby or John Buscema. My esteem for those two earlier artists has grown considerably, especially in seeing much of their other work, while Rich's work beyond the FF remained elusive to me for many years. And, though I've since learned that the idea was actually from Roy Thomas, I still like how distinctive Rich's version of the Human Torch was.

Maggie is known these days as the editor of CBG but she was in there as one of the major players in the founding days of comic fandom. My biggest interest in hitting the MOC this year is being able to chat with her for a little while about those early days of comic fandom. (I'm still rolling that book idea around in my head. I swear, one of these days, I'll actually start the damn thing!)

But, let me throw this out there as well: for anyone who wants/feels inclined and happens to see me wandering around the show, please step up and say hi. Conventions are as much about connecting with other comic fans as anything else, so the more connecting I can do, I'm betting the better a convention experience I think I'll have. I'll be at the show probably just about all day Sunday, most likely in my FFPlaza.com t-shirt.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

John Deering

John Deering's cartoon Strange Brew from today...
One thing I like about Deering's work in general is that his cartoons often are a good symbiosis of text and visuals. Neither is particularly funny without the other; indeed, many are wholly incomprehensible without both. In this particular case, there is no actual dialogue, but the "Pleez Heulp" and "Give" are wholly necessary for the joke to work. Without those, you simply have two mice looking at another caught in a mousetrap. We need that text to tell us that the unfortunate mouse is not dead but merely "down on his luck."

What I find curious about this cartoon, though, is the layout. Roughly a quarter of the space is devoted to the black shadow of the mousetrap, and another significant portion in the upper left is left as dead space. All of the really necessary linework needed for the gag -- the text, the expressions of the onlooking mice, and a portion of the trapped mouse -- is in a small square-ish area centered around the "Give" cup. A large majority of the space used in this cartoon is wasted or, at best, not used very economically.

Now, admittedly, this would have to be a difficult cartoon to pull off. A mouse trapped in a mousetrap is not a particularly funny sight in and of itself. One would need the to also show that the mouse is in fact trapped -- bearing in mind that an anthropomorphic mouse should in theory be able to release himself from such a device. fairly easily. Which means that the mousetrap needs to be conveyed in such a way as to become something akin to a wheelchair -- a device that the mouse lives with voluntarily because of some other concern. I expect not finding a good way to convey that visually is what led to Deering's choice to show the trap from the back.

That being said, though, why devote so much space to it? We could truncate 1/5 of the image off the right and have no loss of information. This, I suspect, was from the dreaded deadline monster. Deering's strip appears daily, and the amount of time he has to work on any single gag is extremely limited. I've read of other cartoonists, notably Gary Larson, that while working on how to execute a particular joke, you eventually cross the point of no return. You run out of time to think of and draw another cartoon before your deadline, so you have to run with what you've got and just try to do better the next day. I think that's what happened here. Deering had the notion of a mousetrapped mouse asking for handouts -- which is an amusing idea in its absurdity -- but had difficulty executing it in a manner that best conveyed that idea. I can easily imagine Deering doing sketch after sketch after sketch all day trying to figure out the best way to draw this. Trying different perspectives and points of view. Trying to highlight different visual elements. Is it funnier to focus on the child's expression, or the mother's trying to shuffle her along? For that matter, what should the child's expression be? Amusement? Horror? Concern? Inquisitiveness? What should the trapped mouse's sign say? How "trapped" should he be? There are a million questions to be asked here in a short amount of time.

None of which addresses anything else he may have had going on in his life when he drew that. Maybe he just had a tooth pulled at the dentist. Maybe he had just fallen down the stairs and broke his ankle. Maybe his wife just left him. Maybe his mother just died.

I don't think this is Deering's best work. I suspect he's not wholly satisfied with it either. But that he does his strip day in and day out is impressive, and that it's usually (for me, at least) original and funny even more so. But it's useful, I think, to examine the good with the bad; and figuring out why something doesn't work as well as it could is just as productive as why something does work.

Another Disgruntled Fan

J.A. Fludd recounts some current problems with marvel and DC, and how his comic habits have changed recently.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Balancing Pop Culture & Reality

I've spent most of this weekend in front of a paper cutter. My department has something of a dog and pony show to present this coming week, and my boss wanted to be able to present something to the attendees that was kind of clever/memorable and cheap. I suggested that we make trading cards for each person in the department, as we would also be able to include useful information on the backs of the cards along with novelty of getting a series of trading cards. She loved the idea, but it fell to me to actually make 150 sets of cards by hand. (No budget to take them anywhere, it turned out.) Hence, I spent much of the weekend hunched over a paper cutter.

I've actually developed something of a reputation at work as the pop culture guy. My interdepartmental project update emails have featured the likes of Max Headroom and the Muppet News anchor. My last formal PowerPoint presentation was decorated with images from Office Space, Robocop, Star Trek, Batman, and two James Bond movies. My cubicle is covered in comic strips. My white board has a drawing of the Joker on it. I've a comic-book-of-the-week display on my desk. And needless to say, many of my conversations get peppered with TV and movie references.

It seems to work well for me professionally. It tends to put people at ease by referencing cultural touchstones, and casts me in the light of a real human being, and not just that-guy-who-works-on-web-sites.

The danger, of course, is over-emphasizing the geek factor. To come across as Comic Book Guy from The Simpsons, or John Cuszak's character from High Fidelity. There's a line between referencing popular culture to put people at ease, and geeking out and alienating everyone. I think a lot of the fanboy stereotype comes from those folks who cross that line without realizing it.

As I see it, the best approach is to, first, stick with fairly common and readily identifiable reference points. Star Wars, Wizard of Oz, Superman, Popeye... Most folks these days have not seen The Bicycle Thief or My Dinner With Andre. Try to keep in mind that most people (well, most Americans at any rate) are going to be more familiar with intellectual properties that had some major marketing efforts behind them. Iron Man references, for example, won't work very well outside of comic book circles now, but wait until the movie comes out and you'll be able to name-drop Pepper Potts more readily.

(My Max Headroom reference noted early is something of an aberration to that rule. But I played up his role as a Coca-Cola spokesman, and wrote the email in his distinctive staccato, scratched-record speech. So even if someone didn't get the specific reference, the content itself would still have been amusing. In theory.)

The other thing you need to remember is DON'T QUOTE ANYONE! With a few rare exceptions, most folks will not remember any specific dialogue from a TV/movie/whatever. And the lines they will remember are repeated so often (and frequently repeated inaccurately) as to be cliche. Trust me, as cool a set of lines as these were, no one will understand:
  • "Snakes - why did it have to be snakes?"
  • "You will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy."
  • "They killed Kenny! You bastards!"
  • "No soup for you!"
  • "You know, there's a million fine looking women in the world, dude. But they don't all bring you lasagna at work."
You get the idea. Doesn't matter how popular you think the original reference material was, quoting it to a non-geek marks you as someone who's spent WAY too much time absorbed in fiction and not nearly enough time in reality. Not to mention that it suggests that you're not smart or original enough to think of your own response, and are forced to borrow from others.

Now, if you establish that your audience is geek-oriented in some way, you're naturally free to geek out along those lines. My boss' husband is a big fan of the Star Wars mythos, so I can usually quote the movies around her without worrying about her not understanding the reference or thinking that I've seen them too many times. I can usually make more obscure references in general with her because she's something of a geek herself. Another co-worker turned out to be a fan of Babylon 5 so I can reference that show pretty safely.

Bear in mind, though, that I still have to keep my comic book references limited! Anything that's hit the movie screen (essentially, intellectual properties with a marketing budget) is fair game, but even those folks who can catch a Battlestar Galactica or Stargate reference are going to likely miss nods to the New Gods, the Eternals, The Question or The Creeper.

My point with all this is to let you know that it's okay to show you geek side at work, or in other traditionally non-geeky circles. Bringing up the idea of trading cards is cool; being able to reference all the producers of trading cards and which properties they have the rights to, not so much. Just be sure to not let your geekery get away from you. You don't want to geek out so much that you launch yourself well over that line between "that guy who can make pop culture references" and "unsociable geek who you can't relate to."

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Late Five For Friday

Somehow, I seem to regularly miss Tom Spurgeon's Five for Fridays until he's closed the barn doors, but I still try to play on occasion. This week, he's asking to list five senior citizen-ish comics characters you like.
  1. Allan Quatermain (yes, I know he wasn't originally a comic character, but Haggard's version wasn't that old)
  2. Batman a la The Dark Knight Returns
  3. John Hartigan
  4. "Uncle Ben" Parker
  5. Elijah Snow

Friday, November 09, 2007

For The Enterprising Comic Fan

Stereotypically, comic book fans tend to be a bit socially awkward, right? That's where the 40-year-old, virgin, living-in-their-parents'-basement image comes from. The comic book fan who simply can't interact with society on the whole well enough to engage in a "normal" conversation.

This is part of the reason why we have ComicSpace.com -- the comic book equivalent of MySpace, but directed specifically towards the comic book crowd.

So, here's my thought: what about a web site like an eHarmony or Match.com, but directed towards comic fans? Online dating for folks who've already got the comic book habit in common. Maybe the opening questionnaire has you list out what titles/creators you like, how big your collection is, whether you're more of a pamphlet kind of person or in the wait-for-the-trade camp... You could list out side hobbies like cosplay, gaming, slash-fiction... Maybe Amazon-style recommendations like, "If you liked Planetary, you might also like John Smith of Springfield, OH."

Hey, Josh, when the merger stuff settles down, how about looking into doing something along those line?

(Honestly, I really have no idea if I'm being snarky or not with this post.)

Thursday, November 08, 2007

The Arrival

Hot damn tamales, Ahab! That's one great book! Much better than that Melville guy!

(Sorry for the light post. Haven't been in front of a comuter much today.)

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

By Jove, I've Outgrown My Childhood!

I've been reading comics as long as I can remember, but the single issue that really made me latch on to comic books in a big way was Fantastic Four #254 by John Byrne. I was just absolutely captivated by the story; there was friendly reparte among the FF, a villain they didn't/couldn't just wallop into next week, an alien dimension, pop culture references, a good action sequence... There was a great sense that I was stepping into the middle of a story, but one that was easy to step into the middle of. There was stuff that happened earlier, but I didn't need to know that because I was in the story NOW.

Today I picked up Fantastic Four #551 by Dwayne McDuffie and Paul Pelletier. I was struck by how, despite it being a very different story than #254, the book had much the same feel. There's the friendly reparte, multiple villains they can't wallop into next week, time travel, a little action... There was again that sense of stepping into the middle of a story, but one that was easy to step into the middle of. There was stuff that happened earlier, but I didn't need to know that because I was in the story NOW.

On all accounts, it was a good, well-crafted comic. The story, as implied above, is solid in that the reader is given everything they need to know. It's also well written so that the reader is not left feeling like s/he is just reading exposition to make sure they have all of that information. I feel as if I've read a good complete comic, but there's still an incentive to get the next issue based on the story alone. The art is superb as well. The characters from the future actually look older, as opposed to just having white hair. And you can see a great depth of emotion in everyone's facial expressions. I was even struck by some of the textured inking that was done to emphasize some of the more "raw" moments. Kudos to the whole team that put this issue together!

For anyone who's been reading this blog, you'll know that I'd dropped all of my marvel reading except Fantastic Four because the sandbox wasn't fun any more. Their whole line just reeked of negative emotions, and I've continued to read FF almost exclusively for the nostalgia factor. So let me say that #551 is precisely the manner in which I'd hoped to continue reading the title. It felt akin to what I fell in love with, but without re-treading old material. No small feat, to be sure, so let me provide more kudos to the creative team on that front.

Here's the thing, though...

It still wasn't fun. There really wasn't that negative weightiness which caused me to drop all the other marvel books I was getting. By all rights, this issue should elicit in me a very similar reaction that #254 did all those years ago. Oh, sure, I understand that part of what grabbed me with #254 was the simple newness of everything, and it's wholly unreasonable for me to ever expect from the Fantastic Four anywhere near the level of excitement I got when I first discovered them. But #551 really wasn't all that nostalgic for me. I suppose it must have been on some level -- after all, I'm writing this post and actively remembering how I felt when I first read #254. But my recollections are strangely more academic than emotive.

"Ah, yes. Byrne opened his story with a seemingly disconnected prologue as well."

"Good to see McDuffie has brought back some of the banter that used to be a hallmark of the book."

If I were 11 years old again, and waffling on whether or not I should give up comics, I'd bet that this issue would've sucked me in just as readily as Byrne's did. But I'm 35 now, and I spent over two decades hanging out in that universe. A couple of years ago, I'd have told you that a romp in a superhero-laden world was fun and a great way to relive my childhood. But it's just not doing it for me any more, and I can't even say that it's because I'm just not reading quality material. This was a darn fine comic book, but I'm getting more "warm fuzzies" these days from the three or four decent comic strips in my local newspaper.

Today's LCS Conversation

I walked into my Local Comic Shop during my lunch break today and left all of Life's problems at the door, as I do most Wednesdays. The folks working at the shop were, not surprisingly, busy putting new issues on the racks and sorting through customers' pull lists.

The question at hand when I walked in was posed by one of the helpers to the LCS owner. "What should this issue get filed as?" The issue in question was Tranquility Armageddon #1, whose cover makes the title appear to be "Welcome To Tranquility Armageddon." So, should it get filed under T for "Tranquility" or W for "Welcome"?

This led to a discussion about the occasional absurd ways Diamond lists titles. Although the notion Frank Frazetta's Death Dealer being listed under "Frank" was tolerable, the owner claimed listings under "Death" or "Frazetta" would've been more appropriate. The owner's wife chimed in that when they first opened the shop, she had an extremely difficult time with The Punisher as it sometimes listed as PUNISHER, THE and sometimes as THE PUNISHER forcing her to hunt for it through their paperwork each and every month, as it was rarely listed the same way as the previous month.

It was at this point that I suggested they place this week's Midnighter #13 on the shelf under "W" for Wildstorm and Star Wars Legacy #7 under "D" for Dark Horse.

More strangely, the first issue of the latest Battlestar Galactica series took them forever to find apparently, since it was listed under "N" for "NEW." Despite the word "New" not actually appearing anywhere on the cover! That rant lasted a little while.

So I picked up my various books and noticed that a copy of The Arrival had just come in, but hadn't actually been set out yet. I went to grab it and the owner's wife went to double-check that it was the one I had ordered and not somebody else's. At this point, it should come as no surprise that it took her to a while to find it. But there it was, listed with the other Ts as THE ARRIVAL.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Odd Fanboy Moment

Follow my train of thought on this one, if you will...
  1. "Hey, here are some pictures online from people's Halloween parties this year."
  2. "I see there're several of them that seem to be superhero themed."
  3. "I've never been big on costume parties and such, but that might be kind of fun to go to a superhero themed party once."
  4. "If I did, it'd probably have to be as Green Arrow. I think I could actually pull off a reasonable GA costume."
  5. "Wouldn't that be really neat if I had a girlfriend who could go as Black Canary?"

Man, I must be having a rough week already. Not only am I thinking of "couples costuming", but I go right to the fishnet motif on top of it? I'm not even that much of a fishnet-appreciating type of guy!

Don't get me wrong! I do enjoy the old-school Black Canary costume, and especially when a woman can fill it out even reasonably well. And I don't know that I'd embarrass myself if Green Arrow get-up either. But that is so NOT who I am, and I'm not really sure how my brain went down that path so quickly today.

Monday, November 05, 2007

TMI!!!

I was talking with Mom last night, and she brought up the Charles Schulz biography from a week ago. She'd always liked Peanuts in part because she grew up with it. She remembered when it first began running in the local paper, and how wildly different it was from everything else she'd seen. So Mom was interested to see some of the things that went into the production of the strip.

But her one complaint was that now she knows too much. She still reads Peanuts every day, but for the past week since viewing the documentary, she's had difficulty reading the strip at face value. She can't help but see Sparky's first wife in Lucy now, and begins wondering at what must have been going on in his life when he wrote any given strip. Plok was thinking along these same lines last week as well.

For me, though, I'm quite interested in this type of thing. I realized back in college that if I have more knowledge about the actual creation of a piece of art, the more I can appreciate it. I've always been a big fan of the classic Warner Brothers cartoons, for example. But I enjoy them more after having spent some years digging through music archives to find the original songs modified and used throughout many of the toons. (In the case of Warner Brothers, in particular, I in fact became quite fond of Tchaikovsky after listening to his 1812 Overture in full.) Likewise, with comics, the more I understand what went into their creation, the more appreciation I have of them.

The trick, it seems to me, is in being able to distinguish from the creator(s), the creative process, and the final creation. It's easy to see when that does NOT occur in somebody's thought process; how many message boards are littered with blatantly derogatory comments aimed at creators whom the message writer has never met? How many people have sworn off John Byrne or Dave Sim because of some of their comments unrelated to their work? The work, regardless of the opinions of the individuals behind it, should stand on its own merits (or lack thereof). Whether or not Leonardo da Vinci was a homosexual -- regardless of your beliefs of the homosexuality in general -- has no real bearing on the artistic mastery with which he painted The Last Supper or Mona Lisa.

That said, though, studying da Vinci's life and/or his painting techniques can put his work into better focus. It might seem like something of a contradiction, but it goes back to separating the creator from the creation. As I sit down and read Peanuts (or any comparable work), I mentally go through the strip twice. First, I go through and read strictly on the basis of its own merits. Then I read through it again to appreciate the context in which it was created. While this may sound like double the work for a single comic strip, I've found that the second "reading" is in fact just replaying the strip in my head rather than a formalized and actual second reading.

In effect, the two readings provide two decidedly different types responses. One is more intuitive and emotional, and the other is more academic and intellectual. While they are not mutually exclusive, they do generally require some level of distinction. This lack of distinction winds up being a significant reason "flame wars" occur: when one party is not able to separate their emotional and intellectual responses. I saw this played out last night in a documentary on 9/11 -- where conspiracy theorists were trying to persuade relatives of the 9/11 victims to believe in the veracity of their conspiracy claims. Whether or not the conspiracy theorists were/are right on any accounts, the events of 9/11 are so emotionally charged, especially for relatives of the victims, that there's almost no chance they can listen to ANY argument on a strictly rationale level.

So, do I have a secret for making the distinction and/or separation needed for this type of thinking? Not at all. I think it just happens to be the way my mind is hardwired. I've always been able good at compartmentalizing information pretty readily. (Indeed, sometimes I'm too good at it, and it's gotten me into trouble from time to time!) I wouldn't necessarily advocate trying to readjust your whole mindset to think along those lines, but it might be an interesting experiment if you gave it a shot with something simple and familiar, like Peanuts. You never know; maybe you'll find that you get a deeper appreciation for something.

Comics As Civic Media

Abhimanyu Das, a veteran culture reporter from India and student in MIT's graduate Comparative Media Studies Program, wrote this semi-recent account of the work being done by the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund. (Link via Henry Jenkins.)

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Jef Mallett

Jef Mallett does the comic strip Frazz on a daily basis. It is, in my opinion, one of the funnier strips on the comics' page today. But what has struck me about Mallett in particular is that he's often willing to play with the sequential art format within the confines of his strip. Here's today's example...
The balloon that is launched in "panel" 3 flies backwards through "panels" 1 and 2 before landing in "panel" 4. The flight path breaks the invisible boundaries we, the readers, have placed within the illustration. If we were to follow the artwork in a more literal/traditional sense, we would be forced to believe that either a) the balloon's path takes it back in time or b) there are in fact four identical sets of characters standing next to one another. Yet the "obvious" reading of this strip really suggests neither of those. We merely see the balloon take an extremely erratic flight after having been blown up and let go by a single character. It's a clever use of the space, and plays against the norms of the Sunday strips.

I've seen references, not made by the creators, that Frazz is an adult Calvin from Bill Watterson's Calvin and Hobbes. This was highlighted in a series of strips in which Frazz played a variation of the classic "Calvin-ball." But people often point to a similar illustration style in the characters. Whether and/or how much influence Watterson had on Mallett, I don't know, but I think what is the greater honor is that Mallett has tried to push the boundaries of comic strip storytelling in much the same way that Watterson did. (See The Calvin and Hobbes Tenth Anniversary Book for Watterson's account of how he tried to push the artistry in the funny pages.)

Good on you, Jef, for playing with comic strip format. Always a pleasure to see something besides the standard panel layouts!

Friday, November 02, 2007

Love Romances

I've got something of an open-ended question today: is it possible/advisable to seek romance within the comic book community?

Comics, as you've probably figured out, are a BIG part of my life. And, although my soon-to-be-ex-wife has denied that they had anything to do with her leaving, I can't help but figure that there was some negative impact on our relationship because of them. If nothing else, it was a big part of my life that she actively did not want to share. (To be fair, though, she made quite an effort. And even though she enjoyed some of what she read -- heck, I'm the guy who turned her on to Neil Gaiman in the first place -- she never really "got" the medium on the whole.) I think it stands to reason that, in any healthy relationship, the two people involved are not going to completely agree on everything. Take that as a given. But it makes sense that there ought to be some overlap, at least on the most significant aspects of your life. It's not infrequently cited that significant differences in religious beliefs often are the cause of marital problems -- in large part because those beliefs generally form the very core of a person's identity.

So for someone like myself, who really, really enjoys comic books, I have to wonder if my "soul-mate" can really only be someone who's relatively passionate about the medium as well. Or would it be sufficient to be with someone who at least appreciates what comics have to offer, and regularly read a handful of titles?

I'm aware of a handful of folks who met and/or fell in love through their comic book connections. Harvey Pekar met his wife Joyce while she was hunting down a copy of American Splendor #6. I believe Kurt Busiek and Roger Stern met their respective wives at comic book conventions. The owners of my LCS are a husband and wife team. And my buddy Dave is dating a woman he met at a convention -- I also happen to know their first date was at a showing of Ghost Rider.

That being said, though, I'm obviously only aware of a small portion of those relationships. I'm certain that my own marriage looked perfectly happy to any outsiders before she left. But it seems that comic books can at least provide something of an anchor for those couples to help prevent them from drifting apart. So maybe part of what I need to do is simply keep a more attuned eye out on the convention circuit. Someone attending a comic book convention is likely to have more than a passing interest in comics, right?

The downside, of course, is that comic book conventions aren't exactly prime hangouts for the fairer sex. The industry on the whole tends to cater to a Y-chromosome crowd, which makes for a significant initial gender disparity. Then, of course, you've got to figure there's a percentage of women who are unavailable -- either because they're in an existing relationship and/or they simply aren't interested in pursuing one with a man. And that doesn't even begin to speak to other issues of compatibility!

The next hurdle, it seems to me, is the nature of conventions themselves. What percentage of people at any given convention do you suppose are going to take time away from the convention-ing to do something else? For the women who dress themselves up in skimpy Wonder Woman or slave Leia costumes, they're going to be in a state of perpetual defense to ward off the inevitable gawking fanboys. Then most of the rest of them are going to focus their attentions on the back issue bins or the creator signings or the industry panels or whatever it is that interests them. The convention, by its nature, has a finite time limit and forces people to budget their time.

The next problem I'm sure is not unique to me, but it's not one that necessarily is universal: striking up a conversation. Me? I'm absolutely abysmal at starting conversations out of the blue. Or, for that matter, engaging in an existing conversation with more than one or two people. I'm not even talking about chat-up lines here. ("I've got a Giant-Size Man-Thing in my pocket...") Anything beyond "Hi" and I'm pretty much at a loss. I suppose I could carry on a conversation in a more informational sense ("Do you know where the Warren Ellis panel is?") but unless I was the one answering questions, it'd sound forced. Because I'd already know the answer to any question like that.

That all being said, I'm not discounting all hope! Stranger things have happened. (Hell, I got married in the first place, and I was sure that was never going to happen!) But the reason I'm bringing all this up, mainly, is to solicit stories from you folks. If you and your significant other met somehow through comics, how did that come about? Are comic books necessarily a part of your continuing relationship? Am I just way over-thinking this whole subject?

Thoughts, stories and anecdotes would be appreciated.