Saturday, December 29, 2007

Ageism In Comics

20th Century Danny Boy has a great piece up on how older comic creators often get unofficially blackballed from the industry. This is an issue that deserves wider recognition. (Link via A Trout In The Milk.)

Friday, December 28, 2007

An Out-Of-Town LCS

I'm still visiting with my parents and this morning, Mom noted that she had recently seen a comic shop a couple towns over that she'd never seen/heard of before and it might be worth my checking out. So Dad and I hopped in the car and drove out after lunch.

Like most shops I've been in, it wasn't terribly large. The walls were adorned with superhero posters and such, and the back wall had new comics. Most of the center area was filled with long boxes, stacked two high -- maybe 200 of them in total. There was a counter on one side, opposite the front door, with a 30-something guy with long, blond hair sitting behind a computer monitor. The store, despite having few windows, was well-lit. It was clean and very free of clutter. Just inside the front door was a rack of newish comics aimed primarily at younger kids. The gentleman behind the counter smiled when we walked in and welcomed us straight away.

My first impression was very positive.

I noticed the long boxes were all actually of the drawer variety. First time I'd seen them in wide use, and I pointed them out to my father. He noticed quickly that, since they pull out like file cabinets, that allowed the tops to be used as additional, flat shelf space, which the owner had used to display a number of issues that were a few years old. I tested a couple of the drawer boxes, and they seemed to live up to the hype.

I made my way to the back wall and started scanning the merchandise. I noticed a number of titles that were somewhat more obscure than your typical mainstream books. Stuff that I know is selling in the 4-5,000 range. The guy made his way over to us, introduced himself as the owner and asked if there was anything he could help us find.

This is when things started to go downhill, though.

The radio that was playing started to more audibly register to me. He was listening to a local Howard Stern type DJ ranting about I-don't-know-who being a bleeping bleepity bleepy bleep who didn't know his bleep from a bleeping bleep. Granted, there weren't any customers in the store when we walked in but what if I had brought my seven-year-old niece in with me? Do I want her hearing that kind of language? Do I really want to hear that kind of language?

Strike two came when I turned back to the wall of new comics and realized that there didn't seem to be any order to them. It certainly wasn't alphabetical. It wasn't organized by publisher. I'm pretty sure it wasn't organized chronologically, although I didn't actually have a complete list of every comic that's come out in the past month and in what order. As near as I could tell, he just stocked new issues on the wall in the spots left when another title sold out.

The back issue bins were Strike Three, though. None of them were labeled. At all. The only way you could tell what was in any given drawer was to pull it out and then start rifling through. I think they were organized by publisher and then alphabetically by title, but I only pulled open a dozen or so drawers, so I can't be sure. I also didn't expressly ask, so it's possible that if I had inquired about Quasar #22, he could've pointed me to the appropriate drawer immediately, and I wouldn't have had to pull out ones starting with S, P and R first.

There were a couple of other guys who walked in while we were looking around. They all were greeted by name when the walked in, were given comics from their respective pull files fairly quickly, and left in short order. Not a lot of discussion or chit-chat, even with the semi-obligatory "How was your Christmas?"

The shop had very little in the way of trade paperbacks or manga. They had some Heroclix and about a half dozen action figures behind the counter. But absolutely no trading cards of any kind, no other games besides Heroclix, no posters, no statues, no t-shirts... It was a shop whose merchandise was almost exclusively made of pamphlet comics.

Oh, yeah. And he only took cash. I had to run around the block to the nearest ATM since I almost always use a debit card for everything.

Now, I'm painting a somewhat negative portrait here. And that's because it's not a shop I would really like to frequent. But if you wanted to buy your comics on a weekly or monthly basis, and just wanted to buy comics and the occasional TPB (the owner offered to order Laika for me) it would be a perfectly serviceable shop. The owner was friendly, he seemed knowledgeable (he recognized most of the OTBP titles my dad and I threw at him) and the store itself was located right on a corner of the town square so it's pretty easily accessible. But if you want a shop where you can hang out and talk comics with other local fans, this did not seem to be the place to do it. The place has been around for about 15 years, though (according to the owner) so he must have a decent handle on his clientele.

I always find it interesting to see how a comic shop runs their business in comparison to other shops. It certainly helps me to appreciate the guys who are trying really hard and staying afloat despite the torrent of obstacles in their paths.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

The Post-XMas Update

I'm recovering from the whirlwind that is my brother's family coming through. Great to see them and all, but proof once again that I am not the type of guy who should be a dad -- I really wanted to throttle the kids this morning. So a quick update...

ITEM: My nephew got quite a kick out of the "My First Batmobile" I gave him. Shortly after opening it, he was pushing it around the floor, saying "Nananananan... Batman!" Not quite the theme song, but still recognizable. No one's entirely sure where he got the "lyrics" from, but odds are on his 7-year-old sister.

ITEM: Thanks to my aunt and uncle, who sent me Alice in Sunderland and Bad Language, Naked Ladies, and Other Threats to the Nation: A Political History of Comic Books in Mexico. I'm looking forward to reading both. My dad, however, was quite surprised that they even MADE a book about the political history of Mexican comics, much less that I had an interest in it.

ITEM: Thanks to my brother, who got me several action figures from the Krypto the Superdog line of toys, including Krypto, Ace, Hot Dog and Mechanikat.

ITEM: Thanks to my brother, again, who got me most of the Pirates of the Caribbean action figures. Not the ones from the movie, mind you, the ones from the ride! Honestly, I did not know these even existed! Very cool. (Not exactly comics, but action figures are kind-of related.)

ITEM: Thanks to my folks for The Marvel Vault. I expect much of the history of the company written there I already know, but the reproduction artifacts are very interesting and look much better "for real" than the occasional photo or scan that I see from time to time. I'd actually been eyeballing it off and on for a while now.

ITEM: I had enough time the other day to borrow/read my dad's copy of The Invention of Hugo Cabret. It floats in a weird middle-ground, somewhere between a novel, a picture book, and a comic. Very well-done, though, and it's easy to see why it's up for various awards. For those who haven't read through it yet, the daunting-looking thickness belies the amount of time it actually takes to read. I got through the whole thing in certainly under two hours, probably less than ninety minutes. It's kind of like The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay in that it's content is in an odd hybrid territory of stage magic and comics, so that both my dad and I like it for different reasons.

All in all, not a bad Christmas, despite some minor flashes of depression. I'm definitely glad I opted NOT to stay home by myself for a couple of weeks -- I can't picture that have gone over well. In any event, I should be back to more regular blogging in the next day or so, and I'll relay more of my wonderful insights and observations about these trifles we call comics!

Monday, December 24, 2007

Merry Christmas

Been a busy couple of days with relatives & tomorrow looks to be even busier. So let me wish everyone who stops by a very merry Christmas. Believe it or not, but I deeply appreciate that anyone reads my blog at all & an even greater thanks to those who read this regulary.

My sincerest best wishes to you -- I hope you have a wonderful holiday season surrounded by those you care most about.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Babymouse

Thanks to my 7-year-old niece, today I learned about a comic called Babymouse. It's actually written something like a 'young reader' book but using sequential art. Oddly, the vocabulary is around a 2nd/3rd grade level but the story themes seem to be aimed at 6th/7th graders. I gather the books are somewhat popular with young girls, but I'll try to find out & post more about the series.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Sean's Anti-Year-In-Review

I was traveling yesterday and couldn't really get to a computer. But have no fear, I am not going to be one of those blogger sloths who goes on holiday just so they can "spend time with family." Phaugh! I'll be here plowing through the rest of the year!

Anyway, we're in the final weeks of 2007 and a lot of folks are doing Year-In-Review posts or Best-of-2007 or whatever. It makes sense, since transitions of all sorts (even artificial ones like the changing of the year) give people enough pause to stop and reflect. What's worked, what hasn't worked, how can I use my previous experiences to make things better in the future...? I did one of these myself last year.

This year, though, I'm not going to do that because, frankly, 2007 sucked. Oh, there were some good -- even excellent -- comics that came out, but my wife of ten years left me and that's colored my whole year. I'm trying to stay positive. 2008 has to be better. I mean, both my parents would have to die horrible deaths and George Bush would have to get re-elected (he hasn't let U.S. law get in his way so far) for 2008 to be worse than 2007!

So what am I looking forward to in 2008? Let me start with some comics that are already scheduled in some capacity...
  • The Nearly Complete Essential Fred Hembeck Archives Omnibus
  • High Moon
  • Dr. Who
  • Scud: The Disposable Assassin collection
  • The Rainbow Orchid in hardcover
  • Erik Larsen's "Next Issue Project"
  • Captain Victory in hardcover
  • Jack Kirby's "lost" Fantastic Four #108
There's probably some other stuff I can't think of offhand, but you can get the general gist of things.

What am I looking forward to that may not be quite so solidified? Well, that's harder to answer. I don't have enough contacts or insider knowledge in the industry to really even guesstimate what may or may not happen. What I'd like to see -- and let me stress that I'm not even going to claim these are predictions -- in the next 12 months...

Well, you know, I started an enlightened and high-minded list but I'm just going to be selfish here instead. I want to see more me. I'm not going buy more mirrors or gain a lot of weight, but I want to see my name out there in the industry more. I want to see "Written by Sean Kleefeld" on more articles. I want to see "When I interviewed Sean Kleefeld about..." in other articles. I want to be a topic of conversation. I want to be referenced. I want to be able to claim to be a BNF and bring back the term "Big Name Fan." I want 2008 to be The Year of Kleefeld.

Ambitious? Yes. Egotistical? Yes. Improbable? Yes.

But, it's also a kick in the pants for me to actually get myself together and really try to become the best person I can be on my own terms. I don't doubt 2008 will be a better year than 2007, but the trick is going to be seeing how much better a year I can make it. Stan Lee usually defines "excelsior" as something of a battle cry, meaning: "Onward and upward to greater glory!" Let's see if I can't live up to that.

Excelsior!

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Missed It: Raj Patel

I caught part of an interview yesterday with the editor of East West and she touted an article in their latest issue (seen at right) in which they discuss the introduction of an Indian character, Raj Patel, to the Archie pantheon. (The article itself does not appear to be online, so I haven't read it personally.)

I don't recall hearing this news earlier, but there's a welcome of the character on ArchieComics.com from July. Kudos to the folks at Archie Comics for starting to get hip to racial diversity.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Superheroes Reviewed By Snoots

This is my final post in responding to Dick Hyacinth's uncannily insightful, but potentially flame-inducing, claims. This time, I'm tackling his final point: "Every snooty 'art comix' critic should be forced to review a stack of superhero comics every year to prove that they really like comics."

In this case, I don't know that it's actually that bad of an idea. I mean, if you claim to be a lover of comics/sequential art, then you should be able to look at and study it in all its forms. Some of Dick's finer points here, I disagree with but the general concept makes sense to me.

First off, "forced" is a bit strong. I don't think anybody should be "forced" to do anything. But I think that if a "snooty art comix critic" did review superhero books from time to time, it would certainly help their credibility. The problem with snoots, often, is that they stick their noses up at whatever they're being snooty about without actually having sampled it. If a "snooty art comix critic" can say, "You know, I read Amazing Spider-Man and just didn't like it" they've got some justification behind that.

The other thing that I disagree with is that Dick seems to imply that these "snooty art comix critics" need to actually like some of the superhero comics they review. This is, naturally, absurd as any given sampling of comics (whatever the genre) is going to contain some poorly executed works. Given the large number of superhero comics on the market, and following the rule of thumb that 90% of everything is lousy, there's more than a fair chance that whatever superhero titles the reviewer samples aren't very good. If, for example, there are 100 superhero comics to choose from, there's only a 10% chance that a reviewer will randomly select a good one. By contrast, if there are only 10 non-superhero comics to choose from, there's a 100% chance that one of them will be good. The odds are stacked against the reviewer if we demand them to enjoy a superhero title.

There's nothing inherently wrong with any genre of fiction. Some genres speak better to certain ideas and themes than others, and naturally those differences are why some people prefer certain genres over others. But a person who claims to love a medium should be able to speak to all aspects of that medium regardless of the genre, whether that's slice-of-life, superheroes, Westerns, romance, whatever... I think a person who reviews comic books should review all manner of comics, if for no other reason than to keep themselves abreast of what all is being published.

Personally, I'm pretty pleased with the variety of material I've reviewed on this blog. I like to think I cover a pretty wide range of material, and I try to be fair to all of it. But, hey, I've answered to worse things than "snooty art comix critic" so Dick's free to call me whatever he likes.

Comic Shops Should Sell Comics

Continuing my postings responding to Dick Hyacinth, I'm now tackling his second argument: "Comics shops should quit selling toys, models, sculptures, and other three dimensional merchandise."

There's a basic tenant that's being overlooked in this argument. Namely, that "comics shops" is a misnomer. Obviously, they sell more than comics, otherwise the debate doesn't even arise. But beyond that, nobody makes comic books any more anyway.

Let me clarify. DC publishes Action Comics and Superman and however many other titles every month, right? But what are they selling? They're not selling a 32-page story featuring Superman; they're selling the right to be with Superman in a limited capacity. The money you hand over for that issue only allows you a finite experience with DC's character.

It's actually easier to see with marvel since their business practices are broken out a little more clearly in their quarterly earnings reports. They make money publishing comic books. But they make considerably MORE money leasing their character rights to people who make t-shirts, action figures, video games, busts, and whatever else they can think of. They make their money as a licensing company, not as a publisher. And when they DO produce a comic book, what they're actually doing is selling you -- the comic book reader -- a license to one individual comic.

You might argue that that's only the big companies, and the smaller ones are still publishers. To which, I'll point towards the following movies (i.e. licensed properties used by movie companies): Ghost World, American Splendor, Road to Perdition, History of Violence, Art School Confidential, Tank Girl, Richie Rich, Sabrina the Teenage Witch, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Whiteout, The Crow... Platinum Studios in fact started with the very premise of being a comic book company that could turn their comics into movie deals.

So when you go into your Local "Comics" Shop, what you're actually entering is a Local "Licensed Properties" Shop that specializes in properties that started in the comic book medium. That being the case, it's hardly fair to claim that they should sell exclusively comic books. Especially considering the size of comic book market. Even if those statues and action figures didn't exist at all, could a comic book shop really stand on its own financially just selling $3 pamphlets? Not likely.

Indeed, the most successful shops tend to be ones that recognize that they need to draw in a crowd larger than just comic book fans. They need to sell trading card games and rent table space to play games and sell chips and soda for the games and sell DVDs of anime... all just to keep themselves afloat financially.

So, yeah, while I would love to frequent a shop that did NOT sell anything but comics, that's not realistic from a business perspective. And I am perfectly willing and able to walk past the statues and busts that I have no interest in, mentally scoff at them, and pick up a stylish and well-done comic book off the wall of new material.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Newspaper Strips Kill Comics Industry

Dick Hyacinth dropped a few thoughts into the electronic ether yesterday, and I thought I'd go ahead and follow up/expand on them. The next couple of days' worth of posts here will be my responses to his points. (Of course, what Dick doesn't know is that I have a tendency to kill a topic by simply responding to it in any capacity, so I'll actually be ruining his experiment.) On to Dick's first topic...

"Newspaper strips set back the comics industry/medium 50 years."

Dick's main point here seems to be that newspaper comics, with their small and rigidly defined format, have had a dramatic impact on people's perception of comic books as the two are inextrictably linked by the medium of sequential art.

Well, let's look at the history of the two here for a minute first. Newspaper comic strips came first by at least three decades, and the first comic books were nothing more than reprints of some of those strips. In fact, the size of comic books was originally defined by just dividing a standard piece of newsprint twice more than you would for a newspaper. (For those who don't know, those old comics were about 30% larger than today's.) And when More Fun Comics came about a little later, it's original content wasn't terribly clever or well-executed, especially when compared against, say, the masterful work of Windsor McCay's Little Nemo or E.C. Segar's Thimble Theatre.

Indeed, newspaper strips far outweighed comic books with regard to their level of quality for many years. While comic books did have the originality of Superman and Batman, comic strips were drawn by such notable talents as Hal Foster, Lee Falk, Milt Caniff, Alex Raymond, etc. The newspaper strip, having been around longer, had more prestige and had already developed as lucrative outlet, both creatively and financially, for sequential artists. The larger format (many comics took up an entire newspaper page by themselves) allowed for greater detail and format flexibility. Comic books were the bastard child of comic strips at the outset, with their smaller format and often lower print standards relegating only those hack artists who weren't good enough to draw a newspaper strip to the pages of comic books. Indeed, the original Superman story was written and drawn as a comic strip, and careful study shows much of the first story has been cut and pasted together to fit the comic book format.

The comic strip indeed continued as the more respected outlet at least through the 1960s. Evidence of this can be seen in many forms. Despite some cartoonists like Walt Kelly being called to testify at the Kefauver hearings in the 1950s, comic strips were largely given a pass in lieu of the significant "problems" that were found in comic books. Many of the "great" comic strip artists like Foster and Caniff stopped working in the 1960s and 1970s. Will Eisner designed his seminal creation, The Spirit, as a newspaper comic strip. Jack Kirby, seeking to graduate beyond comic books, continued to actively pursue a syndicated newspaper strip as late as 1961 and only then gave up because of a painful legal battle over his Sky Masters strip.

The notion of comic books being the primary goal of sequential artists didn't really arise until the late 1960s/early 1970s, when artists like Neal Adams began really pushing the boundaries of what could be accomplished artistically. Writers, too, began to see the potential and we see a proliferation of graphic novels, as well as the actual coining of that term. Underground comic creators like Gilbert Shelton and Robert Crumb began experimenting with new themes. Simultaneously, newspapers began clamping down on comic strip formats, trying to define the structure and content of the strips more uniformly. I don't think it's coincidental that a comic book collector market began emerging around the time that we stop seeing really great newspaper strips.

The problem we run into here, though, is that people's memories tend to linger. People who spent years growing up on great comic strips and lousy comic books continued to see the two art forms in that light, despite the change that was taking place. So it would take another decade or so for people to look up and see things like Watchmen and Maus, and see that Hagar the Horrible and Beetle Bailey really weren't funny any more.

Our next real convergence of the comic strips and comic books comes in the 1990s, when businesses really began to see them as outlets for licensable properties over a result in and of themselves. So we see a proliferation of Garfield and Opus stuffed animals, poorly written animated cartoons with even lousier animation, foil-stamped holographic die-cut cut comic book covers, and character names and likenesses showing up on just about every product imaginable. In both cases, the stories themselves took a back-seat to marketing and the quality of both suffered -- although comic strip quality had declined considerably already so it didn't have as far to fall at that point.

The 21st century has seen a continuation of that marketing emphasis; however, there seems to be some recognition that marketing without quality material behind it is not worth much. So today, we have some legitimately good material, both in terms of comic books and comic strips. What isn't as good, I feel, isn't from a lack of good intentions; but from simply misguided judgment, a lack of true talent, or a series of unforseeable external factors hampering the quality of the end product. In the case of superhero comics, I think there's actually some good talent there and some quality product, but what it comes down to is, I believe, misguided judgments from various parties, resulting in overall themes and directions that I don't personally care for.

Of course, what I consider "misguided" is really "misguided if they're aiming for me as a member of their audience" and I don't know that's necessarily the case. They could very well be hitting exactly where their target market is, and I just happen to no longer be a part of that demographic. Indeed, that may well be a lot of what's happening as many of the comic fans I've seen complain about the current state of superhero books are ones who are passing into their 30s now, and starting to age beyond what marvel and DC want as their readership.

Ultimately, though, the history of newspaper comics and comic books shows pretty concretely that they're generally treated by the lay public as two distinct animals, and whatever public opinion may be held of one has little to no bearing on the public opinion of the other.

Monday, December 17, 2007

The Holiday Lull/Rush

I don't seem to recall this being a significant/noticeable trend more than a few years ago, but it's certainly prevalent today in the U.S. that a certain segment of businesses taper off to about nil as we get deeper into December. You'll notice that comic book news coming from the publishers has slowed considerably, and many of the secondary sources (i.e. bloggers) have announced some down time as well. Here at work, too, the office is quickly becoming a ghost town as more and more people use up whatever remains of their vacation time.

Conversely, of course, retail operations move like gangbusters. Toys R Us does something like 90% of it's annual business in the month of December, and there are noticeable spikes in many other retail sectors. Naturally, this stems from consumers doing Christmas shopping for their friends and relatives.

What this points to, among other things, is the growing disparity between the classes. Once workers reach a certain status in their employment -- notably, when they move from hourly to salaried positions -- they gain benefits such as paid vacation. They can take time off from work to do holiday shopping (or whatever) and still get paid for doing so. Most of your laborer types, though, can't take time off without taking an economic hit from the wages that they don't get paid. So your retail outlets that employ those hourly folks can continue operations more-or-less as normal while the offices throughout the country largely shut down as throngs of people take time off. Even for those who still go into the office every day can get very little done, as there's no one to work with. I suspect that if you hit the offices of marvel or DC right now -- and certainly next week -- you'd be hard-pressed to find many of the folks whose names you might actually recognize.

I don't really know what kind of judgment I might pass on something like this, with regard to what that says about our society. Is it just another indication of how consumer-focused we've become, or is there something else there? Is it really a distinction between the haves and the have-nots?

In any event, the new comics that you might buy over the next week or three were designed some time back. I can almost guarantee that the writers had done most of their work on these issues before Halloween, and I daresay most of the pencillers were at least a good chunk of the way through as well. But there are folks manning the printing presses and shipping boxes and manning your local comic shops that really don't get the same kind of vacation that you might.

So might I suggest, if you are one of those fortunate people who's able to not worry about work over the next couple weeks, to thank whomever you come across that isn't quite as fortunate and has to work extra hard to compensate for everyone else who doesn't. The guy you hand your twenty bucks to at your LCS. The mailman who drops off your order from Amazon. If you know them, the guys who put the staples in your comics.

And, while you're at it, how about the kid who takes your order at McDonald's. Or the store employee who went into the back to see if there was an unopened case of Legendary Heroes, so you could get the last one to complete your Monkeyman figure.

The season of goodwill and all that, you know?

Sunday, December 16, 2007

One Year Ago...

One year ago today, my buddy Gregg Allinson died. I'll spare you the details -- what few I know, at any rate -- but one thing that his passing taught me was the importance of comic book fandom.

One of the things I really liked about comics back when I was in high school was that I could use them as an escape from my problems. I was socially ostracized and outcast most of the time, often even among the handful of people I could call friends. It was extremely painful for me, and I suspect I had to grow up a bit faster than a lot of other kids because of it. I actually had someone in college later tell me that I looked a good decade older than I was because my eyes betrayed some emotional scarring.

Later, after I graduated from college and began really living out in the real world, I began to meet people who shared my interest in comic books. I could have extended conversations about characters and creators we were familiar with, and establish some sort of bond with somebody else in a way I'd never experienced before. It was sort of under that guise that I first got to know Gregg.

But it wasn't until after he died that I really realized how much more our relationship had become. We didn't talk about comics much after a while -- we talked about all manner of other things. Problems I had with my job. Problems he had with girls he dated. Movies. News. Forty year old TV shows. Whatever. And when I started thinking back over the years I knew him, I realized that it was comic book fandom that really provided a bridge for us to get to know one another. Had we not both been interested in the same comics, I almost certainly would never have gotten to know him.

And isn't that what it's all about? Making connections with other people and getting to know them? What's the point of Life if we're racing through by ourselves, looking out for no one but #1? What's the point if you don't have people to share your experiences with? What's the point if you don't have people who share their experiences with you? Sure, people are going to move in and out of your life and you're not likely going to really connect with more than a few people in a way that carries through your entire life, but it's being connected that's important.

Do you need to connect with people through comic book fandom? Of course not. It's just a bridge, like I said. You could just as easily connect with them on work or sports or TV or food or music or just about anything else. But if you get to know someone through comic fandom, see if you can't pursue that a bit further. See if you can't cross that bridge and make a solid connection with someone else. Go beyond the confines of which character is stronger or which creator has a greater mastery of their craft, and find out what drives that other person. Who are they really?

I miss Gregg, and I still think about him. My heart goes out to his family. But he taught me something about Life that I'm glad I learned, and I only wish he were around so I could share that back with him.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Wonton Soup

If somebody would have told me, "Hey, you should read this. It's about a space trucker who's a really good cook," I'd probably have smiled, nodded politely, and completely dismissed the recommendation. But that's exactly what Wonton Soup is, and I'm going to tell you: Hey, you should read this.

I kind of bought Wonton Soup by accident. My pull file this week got mixed up with somebody else's and I got handed a stack of books I don't normally read. As I started to bring the matter to the owner's attention, I noticed that this was in the stack. It looked kind of interesting and, since I haven't gotten a good science fiction story in a little while, I figured I'd give it a shot anyway. (No, I didn't snag the one from the other guy's file; there was an extra copy.)

Anyway, Johnny and Deacon are space truckers with very concentrated interests. Deacon's mostly interested in getting laid, but Johnny enjoys "high risk cooking." That's "high risk" as in: the food will attack and kill you if you don't prepare it properly. No, not like eating food contaminated with eboli will kill you. More like, the food will climb down off the counter, grab you with a tentacle, and strangle you. That kind of high risk.

A small accident with some space ninjas forces the guys to land at Johnny's old school, where he was "the number one ranked sanooch style student" before he dropped out. This naturally caused some friction with other students and Johnny's challenged to a cook-off not long after arriving. Think Iron Chef with more exotic ingredients and higher stakes.

James Stokoe does double-duty as the writer and artist here. There's no question that this is his baby, and he's the man who deserves all the credit for it. Both the story and the art show a lot of originality and I'm strangely reminded of Dr. Seuss while I read it. Certainly with some of the more unusual names he gives to things, but the architecture and vehicles have a certain surreal quality to them as well. Not that it really looks like Dr. Suess artwork, but I can sense a little Suessian influence alongside the obvious Japanese and European styles that are more visable.

One of the things I found interesting was that, despite having food as a strong central theme, it wasn't about the food. Even the "recipes" provided within the context of the story seemed to be there more to establish a sense of location and character than to highlight the actual dish. The sequence showing Johnny learning how to cook magma carp (a fish that lives in molten lava) was more about lateral thinking than the actual meal preparation for example. In fact, I might even go so far as to say that people who really enjoy studying cooking techniques will be somewhat disappointed with the references to electro spongers and meng beast steaks.

But the storytelling is well-paced, the characterization is strong, the art is detailed and expressive, and the wordsmithing is surprisingly natural for all the alien terms thrown around. All in all, a great book and it's a pretty sure bet that I'm going to keep my eye out for Stokoe's name in the future.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Publisher Ad Practices

I got books today from several different publishers and noticed some substantial differences in the number and placement of ads they ran. The point of ads, for those who don't know, is to offset the cost of publishing. The publisher can defray some of their costs by charging what's effectively rent within the pages of their comic. But what struck me is that I'm looking at four different publishers charging the same price for what's essentially the same product, and yet they have distinctly different ad practices.
  • Fantastic Four #552 from marvel. Full page ads on the inside front cover; pages 5, 9, 16-17, 19, 21, 23, 25, and 29; the inside back cover; and the outside back cover.
  • Captain Carrot and the Final Ark #3 from DC. Full page ads on the inside front cover; pages 5, 7, 9, 12, 14, 18, 20, 23, 28; the inside back cover; and the outside back cover. Six of those are house ads for other DC comics. Additionally, page 32 is an editorial page which does some more promotion.
  • Abyss #2 from Red 5. Full page ads on pages 25, 28-32; the inside back cover; and the outside back cover. Four of those are house ads for other Red 5 comics.
  • Pirates of Coney Island #6 from Image. Full page ads on pages 31-32, the inside back cover, and the outside back cover. Pages 29-30 are letters pages with some promotion of the next issue.
DC and marvel tie for the most ads per issue, although marvel is almost certainly generating more revenue since half of DC's ads are for their own material. Both of them are certainly making more than Image or Red 5 both in terms of volume and, likely, higher rates.

I've got no problems with ads conceptually. I'm willing to deal with them if that means I don't have to pay as much for my entertainment. But since I'm paying the same for all four books (technically, Abyss is four cents cheaper than the other three), and the Image and Red 5 books are on higher quality paper, and they have fewer ads -- none of which interrupt the story... well, that doesn't exactly feel like I'm getting as much bang for buck with the marvel and DC books.

That aside, I think it's also worth noting that marvel's ads are heavier towards the back of the book interrupting the story as the reader gets closer to the (theoretically, more exciting) climax. DC front-loads their ads, so you have fewer bumps towards the end of the story. I'm not sure who exactly lays out a company's ad plan, but I appreciate DC's focus on "not hampering the story too much" over marvel's "more likely to catch my attention as I become more invested in the story" approach. To be fair, most television programming uses that same tactic -- but then again, I'm definitely not a big fan of television.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

The Middleman, Vol. 3

If you've read any of the previous Middleman stories and liked them, I'll save you some time by just telling you to buy the third volume now. Everything you enjoyed about the first two adventures is here in #3.

OK, now for you folks who aren't familiar with The Middleman...

The Middleman is an agent for a secret organization that may or may not be affiliated with the government that vows to save the world from international threats. His organization is so secret that he doesn't even know who he reports to, much less what the name of the group is. The Middleman and the A.I. computer he deals with just refer to their employers as O2STK (Organization Too Secret To Know).

The Middleman's a talented fellow, evidently a brilliant strategist and master at most -- if not all -- forms of combat. He's also been trained and has mastered, as we learn in this volume, hundreds of games in the eventuality that an adversary might challenge him to one. The training works well, as The Middleman wins here at one of the few games he's never played before: Elephant Polo. The guy is just absolutely oozing with secret agent/super spy goodness.

In the first comic series, The Middleman met a budding artist by the name of Wendy Watson and he's brought her on as a Middleman-In-Training. She still lives in an "illegal sublet Wendy shares with her nubile roommate Lacey." In volume three here, Wendy's managed to procure an audience with a prominent gallery owner but has to pull a Cyrano de Bergerac number with Lacey while she and The Middleman battle illiterate-deaf-mute ninjas in kendo armor with sixguns. Part of her dilemma, of course, is deciding to save the world alongside The Middleman or trying to achieve fame as an artist.

As you might have figured out by now, The Middleman isn't exactly a straight adventure series. It does have quite a bit of adventure to it, but through a lens that highlights the basic problems of other adventure series such as -- and notably -- the James Bond franchise. (In fact, the annotations at the end note that a "variation of the plot point described by The Middleman... has been used in in over 75% of James Bond films, with the almost exact chain of events described occurring specifically in some 40%...") But while it might be easy to mock standard conventions, the enjoyment that comes from The Middleman is in how it's able to embrace the absurdities in an appreciative and almost reverent way. The Middleman knows the plot every bit as well as the rest of us and thus, we're able to skim past all the details we already collectively know to get on with the unique aspects of the story. It's not unlike how Shaun of the Dead looks at the zombie movie genre.

Obviously, all this speaks to writer Javier Grillo-Marxuach talents and it should come as no surprise that the property was optioned to ABC. (For anyone concerned, I believe all the initial filming was in the can before the writer's strike; the show was able to get into post-production before any significant hindrances that might result from the strike. In fact, the pilot might actually be well-served by the strike as there could be little competition if the strikes continues long enough.) I need to mention, though, the talents of artist Les McClaine as well. Grillo-Marxuach's script demands a lot of McClaine here, but he's able to deliver across the board...

One of the particularly impressive scenes from an art perspective, I felt, was where Wendy had to talk Lacey through an interview with a gallery owner while fighting several ninjas. McClaine shuttled readers back and forth between both women's trials without missing a beat. I was impressed because repeated scene-shifting can be tricky in the first place, but to be able to choreograph an followable fight scene on one end of that requires more than a modicum of talent. The other fight scenes with giant robots, mutant sharks and the mandatory sexy female henchman are all equally well laid out and worth mentioning here.

In fact, the only real art problem I could find was because of Grillo-Marxuach's annotations. He noted that Manservant Neville was based on actor Mark A. Sheppard. Indeed the character does look something like Sheppard, but the error is that -- in drawing him from memory -- McClaine put the character in a fur coat as he mis-remembered how the actor dressed while playing Badger in Firefly. The fur coat was quickly modified to a gorilla suit (naturally) with no modification to the script, and the result is the somewhat disquieting, but humorously absurdist, notion that it's perfectly normal and acceptable for an evil henchman to wear a gorilla suit over his shirt and tie.

If you like the secret agent genre, I think this is worth picking up. If you think the secret agent genre is silly, this pokes enough jabs in it to make it worth picking up. If you're ambivalent about the secret agent genre, but just like good comic storytelling, this is worth picking up.

(Special thanks once again to Guy LeCharles Gonzales, who turned me on to The Middleman series back in March.)

Virigin Comics on NPR

As part of Laura Sydell's series on how India has been making significant in-roads with the American entertainment industry, her report this morning focused on Virgin Comics.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Letters Pages? In Comics?

Oni Press debuted Resurrection last week. I haven't picked it up yet, but I ran across an announcement online (though, curiously, not on Oni's web site) that they'll be running a letters column. While that's an unusual move in and of itself these days, they're additionally going to be sending a free copy of the next issue to every individual who gets their letter printed. Furthermore, the writer of the best letter in any given month will be sent an autographed copy of the issue #1 plus some original art by series artist, David Dumeer.

On the off chance that you're missing their point: it's a promotional tool to get people to buy the comic. It's a little unconventional in several ways, but Oni's somewhat unconventional as a publisher.

Obviously, it's far to early to even begin looking at what kind of sales volume we're realistically looking at with this title. ("Realistically" being something of a misnomer here anyway, since we'll only have estimates based on Diamond figures, at best.) But I think it's safe to assume that Resurrection won't break 10,000 issues this early on; I'd wager we're looking at somewhere around 5-6,000 for the first issue and just shy of 4,000 for subsequent issues.

Assuming a nice, round figure of 10 letters published per issue (I chose 10 largely because it makes my math easy and it's likely to at least be in the right ballpark) that would mean that .25% of the lay public* reading the issue on a regular basis get it for free in any given month. A $15 investment per issue (it certainly doesn't cost Oni a full $3.50 to produce each issue!) to sustain sales on a book that might generate $14,000 in revenue each month. Not increase sales, just sustain them.

But, you know, that strikes me as a pretty sound investment.

While it varies from industry to industry, there's a pretty good rule of thumb that it will cost you more to get a customer than it will to keep an existing one. To get a customer in the first place, you need to first attract their attention, then convince them to use your product/service. Once you've done that, all you need to do is make sure that it's easier/better for them to stay with you than move on to the next guy.

You ever listen to an editor from marvel or DC? One of their biggest complaints/frustrations is that they keep having to come up with new ways to make sure that people who are already buying their books don't stop. That's one of the reasons why they change creators out more frequently than they used to. There's a natural "bleed rate" at which readers will leave a title unless they come up with some incredibly compelling reason for them to stay, such as a new creative team. The other answer DC and marvel often resort to is the notion of trying one-up themselves. Each issue needs to be bigger/better/faster/more than the last one. They'll drop in popular characters or try to tie multiple storylines together.

It can be a horrendously cyclical, and ultimately over-extended, process as they try to top themselves with every issue. At some point, you're beyond the realm of most readers' imaginations. This issue, they save the city. Next issue, the country. Then the planet. The galaxy. The universe. All of time itself. Even though the stakes keep getting higher, the threat to your average bloke-on-the-street is still the same: s/he might die. Whether that's a car running him/her over, or Vogons blowing up the planet, s/he winds up dead. That's where your reader identification comes from, so is there really a difference whether the galaxy blinks out or all of time is erased?

Oni, though, is taking a different tact. While the creators are focusing on just telling a story (and not continually trying to ramp it up to keep readers), the editors have chosen to focus on a lottery/reward system for staying with the book. If you keep reading, you've got a chance of being able to continue doing so for free. Even if the title is one that starts to lose a reader's interest over the long term, the possibility of "free" can be compelling. It might not be their favorite comic, but they're more likely to continue if the only thing they stand to lose is the time they spent reading it.

Granted, you've got to have at least a decent product to do this. Free doesn't mean anything if you're giving away something people actively don't like. (Like I said, I haven't sampled Resurrection so I can't comment on it's quality one way or another.) But that the editors at Oni are willing to make that gamble on this title suggests that they are pretty confident with it, if nothing else.

Now, where I think this idea of Oni's is particularly clever is by tagging the promotion to a dialogue about their book. Not only does this ensure some manner of ongoing feedback, but it also helps to develop a better sense of community. True, Oni has message boards and such available on their web site, but they're not exactly crashing the servers from overuse! Unlike marvel and DC, Oni's titles are generally unrelated to each other so there's less of the inherent sense of all of the publisher's readers seeing the same world through different windows. The Courtney Crumrin crowd doesn't necessarily overlap with Local subscribers in the same way Batman and Superman fans do. So the return of the letters page can help bring together fans that might not even think to visit the Oni forums.

I know I, for one, am curious to see how this plays out. I'll be picking up Resurrection #1 in part to see how good it is, but now in part to see how a promotion like this might keep a book afloat over a longer term. I'll keep you posted on how things go.

* I'm sure Oni will also be sending comp copies out for review to various folks as well, but I'm not even going to attempt to guess what those numbers might be.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Persepolis

The latest Newsweek has a short article talking about how Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis went from a comic to a film. They also have a short, but very positive, review of the movie.

Puppet Nemo In Slumberland

I'll try to post something more significant later tonight, but I wanted to make sure I passed along this info about some puppet shows this month at the Cincinnati Art Museum...
Adventures in Slumberland
Using the magic and wonder of Black Light Theatre Madcap vividly brings to life Winsor McCay’s creation of a young boy’s adventures. From the Golden Age of newspaper comic strips and in celebration of the 100th anniversary of Little Nemo in Slumberland, Madcap creates the surreal landscape of the Kingdom of Slumberland that Little Nemo can explore only in his sleep. We meet the astonishing characters that made his adventures famous and follow little Nemo in his quest to reach the Princess.

Come live the wonders of Little Nemo's dreams as children around the world did a century ago. But reserve your seat soon! Adventures in Slumberland will leave Cincinnati at the end of December to tour the country!
It seems they already performed last weekend, but they have shows at 11:30 am and 1:30 pm on the 15th and 16th.

I've actually seen a few Madcap Puppets' shows and they generally entertaining. Not always my cup of tea, but certainly professionally done. More importantly, though, young kids really seem entertained by them and the puppeteers do a good job of dealing with the young ones.

If I can weasel it into my schedule, I'll try to attend just to see what they do with McCay's material.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Quick Update

GAH! How the heck did I get so busy all of a sudden? Must be the holiday thing. Or maybe it had something to do with my being too sick to actually get much of anything accomplished over the weekend. I was hoping to post a nice piece on the suspension of disbelief in comics, but I do not have nearly the time for that today. Most of what is keeping me busy is comic related though, so I'll mention that here...

1) Holiday shopping. Gotta get comic related gifts for relatives and continue to try to drag them into the fun that is comics! I mentioned my gift for my nephew already, so it's just the rest of my relatives I need to find something for!

2) Band practice. OK, this one's not comic related but it completely eats up my Monday and Thursday evenings.

3) Jack Kirby Collector #50. Due out in February, I need to finish my column by Friday, and I'm not nearly as far along as I'd like. But it focuses on Jack's 50 Greatest Character Designs -- and I'll warn you now, you won't agree with me. Dave, for example, was quite adamant last night that Dr. Doom should rate much higher than I've placed him, and my choice for the number one spot was absurd.

4) Super-Secret Project X. I can't reveal too much about this one yet, but I'm busy working behind-the-scenes on something cool with several comic industry folks. I won't try to claim it'll crack the internet in half or anything, but I think it's cool in a kind of Friends of Lulu/CBLDF sort-of way. I'm currently working on the initial press release announcing the project to the world, and hopefully we'll go public by the end of the year. I'll definitely post more on this as I can. But you can blame the Occasional Superheroine for getting me tied up with this group!

5) I've been flooded with requests -- well, one request -- to check out all the new Zuda comics and post some commentary here. I haven't had a chance to even swing by the site since the last batch ended, but it's on my To-Do list.

6) The Day Job. Yeah, well, this one is only comic related in that it's how I pay for all the comics I talk about here. But it does have a tendency to eat up a good chunk of the day.

More later!

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Secret Identities

So, I've been fazing in and out of lucidity the past few days thanks to a flu bug and I ended up zoning out on the movie Sky High -- Disney's answer to the superhero genre movie. A couple of things struck me as I was watching: 1) All of the cast members playing teachers should've been former superhero actors themselves: Burt Ward, William Katt, Lou Ferrigno. Lynda Carter was a nice touch, but how cool would it have been to have an Adam West retirement party where he meets his successor, Michael Keaton? 2) I really hated high school, and I'd be perfectly content if I was never reminded about it every again. 3) Secret identities for superheroes are no longer plausible. (At least here in the U.S.)

I'm sure you've all seen some riff on "Why was Lois Lane never able to figure Superman and Clark Kent were the same person? He's just wearing glasses!" But if a comic is purporting to reflect today's society, then the notion of keeping a secret identity is ludicrous.

We are captured on film every day. Security cameras, camcorders, cell phones, increasing news outlets... Cameras are so ubiquitous to our culture as to be invisible, even when they're in plain view. Which means that a person, even in some kind of mask, is going to be seen by someone even in the middle of the night. Furthermore, a hero in today's society is going to become an instant celebrity, meaning that people will be going out of their way to record their actions.

Now, there's going to be someone out there who take so great an interest in the superhero that they're going to start tracking their movements. Easy enough to do with readily available tools like GoogleMaps. Inevitably, the hero's going to develop a pattern of some sort and it wouldn't be at all difficult to triangulate on a central area of interest. A base of operations, if you will.

Then it would only be a matter of doing some pattern recognition between images of the hero and images of residents of that area. And while that might not garner a 100% guaranteed identity, it will narrow the field of candidates considerably, allowing someone to focus on a handful of individuals for closer scrutiny.

I don't think it would take long at all for a Batman or a Booster Gold to be uncovered. It might take a little longer for a shapershifter (Martian Manhunter) or someone whose costume hides their features (Iron Man) but I think that, in today's world, somebody would make it a point to track these guys down. Heck, Peter David did almost that exact story over 20 years ago in Peter Parker, the Spectacular Spider-Man #103, and two decades of technological improvements have made things infinitely easier to sort through and analyze data.

Heh. Yet another instance of Jack Kirby being ahead of his time, ditching the notion of secret identities back in the 1960s!

Friday, December 07, 2007

"If This Be Yuletide!"

Well, being December and all, it's time to start sending out holiday cards to everyone. My buddy, J.A. Fludd, is one of those guys talented enough to draw up his own every year, and this season he holds the honor, such as it is, of being the first person to wish me a Merry Christmas. With the help of his own creation, the Environauts. (Card at right.)

Of course, I suppose this means that I need to get off my duff and send out some Christmas cards of my own.

Fandom Artifact

Lew Stringer recently came across his old copy of The Comicollector's Companion & Price Guide from 1975. Over at his blog, he provides a great write-up with some excellent scans.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

My First Batmobile

I was at Toys R Us last night doing some Christmas shopping. I wandered over to the pre-school section for my three-year-old nephew, and was pleasantly surprised to find a small area devoted to the DC and marvel superhero lines of chunky, young-child-sized action figures. I was aware they were designed for little kids, but it never quite registered before that my nephew was now one of those little kids.

"But, wait," I thought. "He's more interested in trucks and cars than figures."

And my eye quickly landed on the Batmobile toy that's associated with that set of figures. It's designed precisely for kids like him and when I saw that it was officially called "My First Batmobile" I had to get it for him.

My brother and his wife are great folks. Very caring people who work very hard to raise their kids "properly." Now, admittedly, I don't agree 100% with every parenting decision they make, but it's not my place to judge them on that. One of the decisions they've made in raising their children has been to, by and large, avoid overtly commercialized products. No Barbie or Bratz for the older daughter, and no Dora or Bob the Builder for the son. Seemingly discongruously, though, they don't seem to have a problem with Disney. I'm hoping Batman falls into that same arena.

But, ultimately, the name "My First Batmobile" got me to thinking about my first Batmobile. Or, at least, my first Batmobiles...
These are, of course, the Batmobiles made by Mego and Corgi at very different scales in the mid-1970s. Clearly designed from the version used in the 1960's Batman TV show (itself designed from a 1955 Lincoln Furtura). I suspect I got the Corgi car first, as I have a very clear recollection of taking it to show-and-tell in kindergarten and, while the Mego version would certainly have been available then, I also seem to recall wanting the Wayne Manor playset at the same time. But that wasn't released until the following year. Of course, we're talking about 30-year-old memories now, so things may be a little muddled.

In any event, both of my Batmobiles became very well used over the years. The Mego one was the only two-person vehicle I had for my action figures, and the Corgi version was the most distinctive car in my Matchbox/Hot Wheels collection. (With the possible exception -- if you classify it as a 'car' -- of Corgi's Supermobile!) The spiked tailfins, bubbled windshield, and an exhaust system where the back seat should have been clearly made this car stand out. Not to mention that it was covered with bat-symbols, inexorably linking it to a popular comic book character.

In my case, the interest in comic books came first. I got the toys because I loved acting out the stories I had already read. But the designs are still intriguing and, even though my nephew can't read yet, he might still be intrigued enough by the design to seek out variations on it. Perhaps through comics, perhaps through cartoons. But I think it's groovy way to ingratiate my nephew into the world of comic books and sequential art.

Of course, assuming that works, and I am able to get him interested in Batman, then I've got to get him moved over to some good comics!

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Transmedia & Comics

"Comics have emerged as a key vehicle for constructing transmedia narratives," according to MIT Media Studies professor Henry Jenkins. For a lengthier foray on the topic, go read his blog entry from Monday entitled "We Had So Many Stories to Tell": The Heroes Comics as Transmedia Storytelling. Great stuff!

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

The Michael Ellis Post

You like comic books, right? Sure, you do. Otherwise you wouldn't be here. (Well, probably not universally true given the title of this post, but you'll just have to excuse my cross-cultural references today.) So you like comic books.

Why?

What makes you spend money on comics that might otherwise go towards movies or video games or even something substantial like food or shelter? Why is it that you visit Metropolis or Astro City or wherever on a regular basis, fully aware in the knowledge that no matter who much you study the place, you will never be able to experience first-hand? Why is that learn about Spider-Man or The Phantom or whomever, knowing you have precisely zero chance of actually meeting them?

Let me back up a bit as those questions point to a more extreme end of comic book hobbyists.

The term "hobby" first appeared in relation to the "hobby horse" -- an artificial horse used originally in a specific type of dance. By the 1500s, the term broadened a bit to include any sort of mock horse and it was frequently used to speak of a child's toy (as children were the ones who had the most use of fake horses). It about a century for the word "hobby" to stand on it's own and carry the meaning we generally associate with it today, with the original tie being that, like a hobby horse, one's hobbies don't really go anywhere.

(Yes, while there are a number of comic book collectors who do turn into professionals of some sort, there are many, many more who do not. Their comic book hobby, from a functional/practical point of view, leads nowhere and those people need to earn a living in some other manner.)

The reason, of course, that a term like hobby was needed was because people began to develop technology enough that they weren't required to focus on their survival every waking moment. While there was entertainment earlier than the sixteenth century certainly, there was still a great deal of time spent in making it to the next day. What free time one might have had could be spent in hobby-like pursuits, but not in sufficient quantity to really need a name for it. One could hardly say they played cards as a hobby if they only played once in a while.

Well, technology continued to improve and provide people with more free time. So towards the end of the nineteenth century, we see the rise of the term "fan." People not only had enough time to pursue an outside interest, but they could afford to pursue it often enough and with enough intensity that something stronger than "hobby" was needed. Sure, it may have been a hobby to play the violin, but Conan-Doyle's work had people excited enough to talk about it around the 1890's equivalent of the water cooler the day after his latest installment was released.

(What, exactly, would have been the 1890's equivalent of the water cooler anyway? A rusty pail and ladle filled with dirty water and backwash?)

Alright, so going back to that original question: why put some of your hard-earned money towards comics? The answer is Michael Ellis.

For those unfamiliar with the reference, there was Monty Python episode in which the unassuming protagonist, Chris Quinn, is mistaken for a man named Michael Ellis. Chris' interest in this stranger is piqued, naturally, and his life for the next half hour is riddled with obscure references to the elusive Ellis. But, by the show's end, Chris has not only been unable to find Mr. Ellis, he has no more information about the man than he did at the start of the show.

Although the show was really nothing more than absurdist humor, one can read a great deal into it. Quinn of course represents an average man in contemporary society. He shops at department stores, he watches TV, he waits in queues... Absolutely nothing special about him whatsoever. But, by whatever metaphysic intervention, he is suddenly and inexplicably dealt a string of coincidences involving Michael Ellis. Quinn, being an average man, largely ignores the coincidences except when they're directly in front of him. His interest in who Ellis is wanes quickly as the shop attendants distract him with foolishness, or as soon as the television is turned off.

So, who or what does Michael Ellis represent here?

How well do you remember The Muppet Show or Seasame Street? The classic ones, mind you, when Jim Henson was still around. The stuff that's most memorable, for many people, are the bits that revolve around chaos theory. All the best routines start off as more-or-less straightforward skits, but each error, miscommunication or lapse in judgement flows directly to another problem, each one expounding upon the next until the scene is one of havoc. (That's kind of a misleading example of chaos theory, but I think it'll suffice for it's common, albiet inaccurate, usage.) My friends in college and I used to claim that it wasn't a good Muppet skit until you had chickens running rampant on the stage.

But the theme of the shows were generally that you had a small band of friends trying to accomplish a goal and whether or not they successfully achieved it was immaterial since they were attempting it together. It was the friendship of Bert and Ernie that was important, not that Ernie had to rip off Bert's nose to finish his bust. It was that Kermit and Fozzie were signing together in a Studabaker that was important, not that they got to meet Orson Wells. The chaos that inevitably ensued in any Muppet venture was ultimately irrelevant, because that end result wasn't the point. It was the journey that mattered.

Eastern philosophy via felt and ping pong balls.

("Where the hell is Sean going with this?!?")

The thing of it is that we, as humans, are going through Life, not knowing what we're doing. No one can really answer the meaning of Life in any definitive manner, so each of us has to come to our own understanding of the universe and the nature of existence and try to act accordingly. And, in a world where mere survival is no longer the only concern, we look to external sources for whatever insights and guidance they might be able to provide, however nominal. That's why people still perform Lysistrata. That's why people study Shakespeare. That's why we read comic books.

Yeah, a lot of comics have guys and gals in spandex beating the snot out of one another. And there are a lot whose primary intention seemingly is to provide titillation to (emotionally) adolescent males. And there are folks who look down on the dominant superhero genre, or argue that comics are an art form or are literature.

But at the end of the day, every person who reads a comic is looking to understand their life a little more. They're looking to understand how the sum total of their actions have led them to where they're at today. Why are they socially inept? What are the arguments for and against starting an unprovoked war? Does it make sense for me to elect a businessman to run the country? What are the possible results of my actions? They're using chaos theory to define their current situation and probably futures.

But no one has a universal grasp on chaos theory. The guys and gals writing those comic book stories really don't know any more than you or I certainly. They're guessing as much as we are. And that's why we keep reading. We never get the answers. Not really. It turns into a hobby when we keep looking in the same types of places over and over again. We turn into fans when we start to get enjoyment out that continual search for meaning that is always just beyond out grasp. We are Chris Quinn perpetually a few steps behind Michael Ellis.

Back to the original question again: why do you like comics?

You're looking for answers, the same as everybody else. Your mind, unlike everybody else's, is keyed to the visual language of comic books. In reading comics, you see Michael Ellis a little more often. Oh, he's still not identifiable on sight, but you know he's there, wedged between the sunset and the happy ending. Somewhere between the hero's victory on the last page and the never-ending battle. You know as well as I do that you're not going to get the answers anywhere, but you enjoy the journey a little more when it's through the pages of a comic.

Monday, December 03, 2007

Tin Man

Huh... For some reason, I missed this earlier, but Sci-Fi Channel created a prequel comic for their new Tin Man mini-series and it's available online. It's decidedly a prequel, with a lot of expository set-up, thus making it a little redundant after having watched part one last night. It's also a little odd in that the character renderings look almost nothing like the actors playing the same parts, which makes a substantial disconnect.

The overall story is good. I actually like the overall updates they've made. It's decidedly not the original story, but there are some clever changes/additions on the basic structure and themes. However, I've been less than impressed with the actual script, as much of the dialogue sounds clunky and a bit forced. That might be in part because of the delivery, but I doubt even the best actors could successfully pull off some of those lines. The prequel has some of the same problems but, as it was essentially a promotional preview, coupled with the lines not actually being spoken aloud by an actor, it's a little more forgiving on that front.

Speaking more directly to the movie itself, I want to like Zooey Deschanel but her performance isn't that great. She's not really performing badly, but it seems like she's at a bit of a loss when she doesn't have to actively speak her lines or directly react to someone else's. I don't recall that being a problem for her in Hitchhiker's (the only other thing I've seen her in) but it's been a little while since I've seen that. So perhaps I'm misremembering or perhaps she had more time to work on things with the big-budget Hollywood production. The other cast members have decent performances but nothing especially inspired (even from Richard Dreyfuss).

Anyway, like I said, there's still some good ideas throughout the series, some of which are on display in the comic. Worth a look, if for no other reason than Sci-Fi Channel felt that comics were a worthwhile pursuit in promoting their new mini-series.

Mandatory Zuda Post

Yeah, yeah, you've seen crudloads of news items about how High Moon won the Zuda competition but, given my schedule the past few days, I'm going to shortcut my blog entry just now by using it as my subject here, rather than doing something original.

First off, I'm glad High Moon won. Not only because writer Dave Gallaher's a friend of mine, but I thought it was the best of the stories from an objective viewpoint. And, having spoken with David a while back, it's clear that a lot of thought went into not only the basic story elements, but also the construction as it was going to be implemented on Zuda. I think all of the contestants had great ideas, but the High Moon team seemed more in tune with the online execution of the final product. Congrats, guys! Well-deserved. Side Note: Hey, Dave -- I'll give you a call in the next couple of days once your celebrating has calmed down! ;)

You might also have seen some interviews and such with the creators. Of the ones I've seen, I might point you to this podcast of It Came Out On Wednesday as the most comprehensive/substantive interview so far.

Stay tuned to see how High Moon continues and whether or not Dave and Steve can keep up the great work! (No pressure, guys!)

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Defining The Superhero

I was going some Christmas shopping today in a Barnes & Noble, and stumbled across a new biography entitled The Secret Life of Houdini: The Making of America's First Superhero. It was the first association I'd seen been Houdini's name and the term "superhero" and that gave me a bit of pause to consider the whole title.

I can actually see an argument for Houdini being a superhero. After all, he pulled off many seemingly miraculous escapes over his earlier career and he spent much of his later career debunking charlatan mystics who took people's money under false pretenses. But "America's First"?

If he's not America's first superhero, why? Who might be considered for that position? What would a superhero prior to 1899 (Houdini's first real performance as a magician) look/sound/act like?

In 1954, the New York Court of Appeals, in speaking of the infamous legal battle between Superman and Captain Marvel, defined superheroes as characters "of unprecedented physical prowess dedicated to acts of derring-do in the public interest." Webster's has a more broad definition: "a fictional hero having extraordinary or superhuman powers." In either case, though, we're generally looking at someone with beyond normal human abilities who acts in a socially positive manner.

My first thought was to go to American folklore. Pecos Bill, Paul Bunyan and the like. The first recorded accounts of Paul Bunyan, though, don't occur until 1906 and Pecos Bill wasn't invented until 1923. John Henry seems like a contender -- the latest anyone's suggested his story started has been the 1870s. Davy Crockett (1786-1836) and Jim Bowie (1796-1836) are possible, too, but their legends tend not to get too much into the superhuman category. Mark Twain's characters are all fairly solidly grounded in reality -- even the Connecticut Yankee Hank Morgan was just a normal guy caught in an extraordinary circumstance. The first Oz book appeared in 1900.

Who else can we consider? The Yellow Kid wasn't really heroic, nor super (unless you count a constantly-changing nightshirt). John "Johnny Appleseed" Chapman could be considered heroic, but not really super. Natty Bumppo doesn't really get into the super range either. What about Thomas Edison? While his feats are considered standard science today, he was called "The Wizard of Menlo Park" once upon a time. Were his inventions magical enough at the time to be considered super?

I'm drawing a blank on any other possible contenders beyond John Henry or Thomas Edison. Any other nominations? Can we put these guys to a vote somewhere?

Saturday, December 01, 2007

Ignore This Post

Here it is, almost the end of the day, and I've got nothing comic-related to talk about. (This post, BTW, will not touch on comics so by all means, skip on to something else if you're here only for that.) I spent a significant portion of the day with my soon-to-be-ex-wife going through our collective stuff, and sorting who gets what. And even though she left around dinner time, I've been in something of a funk since then.

The interesting thing about our marriage being dissolved is that I'm definitely learning some things about myself. Hard lessons, certainly, and they're not exactly being delivered in an easy manner. For example, I came to the realization today that I'm largely "dealing" with the day-to-day living without her by completely ignoring the situation. She actually came by to sort stuff on Wednesday, but I got really angry and bitter almost as soon as I got home and saw her sorting out DVDs. Because, despite going to therapy every week, it was one of the few instances where I've had to really deal with the situation in a practical sense. That upset her, and she left with an upset stomach before finishing. (Which, I learned today, kept her up most of that night vomiting.)

Another event this week showcased just how far I've got to go emotionally as well. With the holiday traveling and wonky schedule around Thanksgiving, followed by two consecutive nights of band practice in the dining room, the dog was fairly upset and ended up throwing up Monday night, after I went to bed. I obviously cleaned things up when I woke up the next morning, but when I found that he threw up again after I left for work (which at that point was nothing but bile) I found myself screaming with frustration and pounding my fists on the table. To the point where my voice was audibly sore the next day, and a few co-workers asked if I was getting sick. Evidently my tolerance for dealing with unexpected life events is really low, because my reaction was clearly out of scale with the trigger event.

So, as much as I make an active point of trying to stay upbeat and cheerful and busy and positive and all that, I get days like today where I can really see what's festering just beneath the surface. And, yeah, I know that's part of the healing process and some days are going to be worse than others. And I know that it'll all sort out sooner or later, and I'll move on with my life. And I know this is absurdly trivial for just about everyone who even might read this. But since a person's blog is about their own ego as much as anything else (after all, who am I to say that I have anything worth reading?) I'm going to be perfectly honest in saying that this particular entry is strictly being written for selfish reasons. I'm writing this here and now for the sake of getting this out of my head and trying to come to terms with it in some fashion.

Tomorrow, the guys from the band are stopping by. I'll put my mask back on and smile and make jokes. We'll practice and probably try to record a few things like there was nothing else more important in the world. I'll go to work on Monday and work on a presentation that I have to give on Tuesday. And, if anybody asks how my weekend went, I'll probably mention band practice and completely omit any reference to today. I'll smile and nod and say everything's peachy and try to get back to ignoring things again.

But until then, please excuse my saying that this really sucks and I really don't want to be here in my skin right now. Here's to a (hopefully) dreamless night...