Friday, February 29, 2008

Marvel Women Unhealthily Underweight

Karen Healey (M.A. University of Canterbury, New Zealand) and Terry D. Johnson (M.S. Department of Bioengineering, UC Berkeley) have recently written a paper examining the comparative body mass indexes of real people versus those seen in the marvel comics. A quick look at their chart shows how far out of whack women are being portrayed, but it's really worth it to read through their whole paper.

(Special thanks to a certain you-know-who-you-are for pointing this out to me.)

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Subtle Racism Or Playing To Stereotypes?

I was having a conversation with my lady-friend the other night about racism in popular media. It came about because she read a comic in which the character was going down the "wrong" path and, to showcase that visually, the artist represented the character in a decidedly more "urban" manner. Her reaction was that the artist was using the stereotypical image of the contemporary "angry black man" as a way to say that the lead character was doing something he shouldn't. That his poor decisions were indicative of what a black man allegedly might make.

Whether or not that was the creator's intent, I don't know. I personally interpreted the image as simply "urban" without any racial connotations. In my mind, it's more of a commentary on socio-political differences. But, being a black woman, she said that was an uncommon attitude and she's found, through personal experience, that most people will use "urban" and "black" almost interchangeably. If not in actual practice, then at least in thinking.

Now being the incredibly white male that I am, many of the issues of race -- the more practical, substantive issues -- were only theoretical in nature. I've never really experienced racism in any form and I know that, no matter how much I might read about it, there's no way I can really get a first-hand understanding of the issues. That said, though, having that dialogue the other night did raise my awareness of other possible issues.

Take, for example, the latest issue of Abyss. I won't go into the whole story, but one portion features the white hero, Arrow, running into his former sidekick Shaafte, now a hero in his own right. Shaafte, as his name might suggest to those familiar with either the Richard Roundtree or Samuel Jackson movies, is black. His headquarters are located in a dock-side warehouse but seem to be almost as well-outfitted as Arrow's penthouse suite. At first glance, it would appear that both characters are treated with respect by the creators.

But when Arrow tries to leave, he finds his car resting on cinder blocks with the wheels, doors, bumpers, mirrors, seats and lights removed. Further, when they opt to take Shaaft's vehicle, it turns out to be a monster SUV with an obviously oversized sound system and personalized license plates. Shaaft even calls the vehicle "pretty fly."

So the question is: is this racism?

I'm sure the creators would say "no" and I'm optimistic enough to believe that they firmly had no intention of belittling African-Americans. I expect they have friends of different races, and don't see a problem with what they put down because they just wanted to put in a more urban character than the pure-bred white hero they'd already established. After all, the book is, in part, about playing around with existing comic book conventions. They wanted to counter the archtypical white hero with a contemporary urban counterpart.

But here's the thing: Shaaft here is the ONLY black character in the book. Even the generic crowd scenes are filled with Caucasians. The only character representing black culture, while heroic and powerful, is shown still living a fairly stereotypical black life. He lives in the city itself; he likes the hip-hop of Grandmaster Flash; he drives an extravagant SUV... The only representative of black culture in the book is little more than a hollow stereotype. The message: black people are all like the stereotypes you already believe.

I doubt that the creators really intended that as a message. I fully expect they thought they were doing something positive by putting in a black hero. But if nothing else, that conversation I had with my lady-friend brought to the forefront of my mind the importance of NOT relying on stereotypes. Yes, there almost always individuals who define and/or typify those stereotypes and, as a creator, you can get away with using them. But only if that's not all you use. If you put a black character in a story, you better make damn sure that we haven't seen them a thousand times before.

I gave Dennis O'Neil and Mark Waid props a while back for being white guys who introduced unique, positive and "real" black characters: John Stewart in Green Lantern and Jian Feeta in Fantastic Four. I certainly wouldn't mind seeing more folks like Dwayne McDuffie and Christopher Priest doing more good comics (Priest's Black Panther was absolutely stellar) but until the comic industry gets a less homogeneous collection of creators, how about all you white creators re-reading those issues where O'Neil and Waid were able to bring some positive ideas about race to the table? They might have been filtered through the eyes of white men, but it at least was an attempt at something more productive.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

RASL-DAZL

Jeff Smith's long-anticipated RASL was released today. Like many other folks who I expect will be buying this book, I was a big fan of Bone and are getting this primarily on the strength of Smith's name.

Let me start by saying that there are no "stupid, stupid rat creatures" in issue #1. I doubt anybody was seriously expecting to see them make an actual appearance here, but there are no metaphoric ones either. RASL has a very different feel and tone than Bone -- there's really no humor or levity at all. No amazingly fast oncoming winters, no cow races, no Ted the Bug, no giant parade balloons being worshiped as gods, no "Fone Bone! What's yours?!" or anything that you might remotely connect with Smith's earlier work. Bottom line: don't buy RASL expecting to see Smith rehash old material.

So what is RASL? The story opens with the lead character -- battered, bruised and bloody -- stumbling through a desert. We flash back to his breaking into an eighth-story apartment to steal Picasso's The Old Guitarist. After grabbing the painting, he spray paints "RASL" on the wall and soon finds himself being chased into a back alley by the police. He dons what looks like a couple of jet turbines and teleports away. He goes to a bar to recover from the effects of the teleport, where he learns he's teleported to the wrong place. Before he can act on that, however, he finds himself being shot at by a weasel-faced man in a black trenchcoat. A chase and a fight scene later, RASL turns his attention to trying to get home. The issue ends flashing forward again to RASL's trek through the desert.

There's lots of intriguing story points here. Obviously, there's the question of how RASL wound up in the desert and, although I skimmed over the point in my summary above, there's the big question of how RASL wound up in the wrong place. Because it's not just a matter of being in Manhattan instead of the Bronx, it's a matter of landing in a world where Bob Dylan is known and publicized as Robert Zimmerman (his given name). There's certainly a question about this so-called "Siren" who's after RASL, as well as how RASL came by the Kirby-inspired machinery to teleport around. There's a number of minor questions, too, such as whether or not the character is indeed called "RASL" or if that is, as the cover coloring of the book suggests, an acronym for something else; and who or what is the "Maya" that RASL has tattooed on his bicep? From a story perspective, it's an excellent start to get the reader interested, involved and coming back for more.

What I found more noteworthy, though, was the actual art of the storytelling itself. Smith has proven himself, over the years, to be a consummate master of comic book art. A large part of the humor we saw in Bone only worked because he has an incredible sense of design/timing when it comes to graphic storytelling. And, while he doesn't use humor here, that same sense of design/timing is clearly on display as Smith does a very effective job at giving readers exactly what they need to know to jump from panel to panel throughout the entire book. What's more, he seems to make a pointed effort to let his artwork tell the story. Captions and narration are kept to a minimum and, indeed, almost half of the pages have no dialogue on them at all. As many artists will no doubt tell you, that is a much more difficult task than might be readily apparent.

There is, in fact, a third "plot" running through the book as RASL idly throws pebbles into a body of water. These story elements are interspersed throughout the book and shows off more of Smith's brilliance as he navigates us through those, the "main" story, and the framing sequence with amazing ease. What's more, he does all this without falling back to "traditional" comic book trappings like scalloping the panel edges or changing artistic styles.

For as much as I've enjoyed Smith's work in the past, this first issue of RASL is the best work I've seen from him and I'm eagerly looking forward to seeing what else he does with this book. I would highly recommend this to anyone -- even if you don't care for this particular type of story, it's well worth looking at just to see a master craftsman working at the top of his game.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Newsstand Photos

So you're traipsing around the Internet and at a loss for something to look up. Try this as a challenge for your comic book sensibilities...

Find an old photograph of a newsstand...
Then, see if you can figure out when it might have been taken based on the comic books displayed. In the above photo, for example, one can discern More Fun Comics #48 and All-American Comics #8, cover dated October and November 1939 respectively...


Here's another shot of the store's interior...
Hanging up and clearly visible are: Hit Comics #11 (May 1941), Big 3 #2 (Spring 1941), Champ Comics #13 (May 1941), All-American Comics #25 (April 1941), World's Best Comics #1 (Spring 1941), Superman #10 (May/June 1941), Action Comics #35 (April 1941), All-Star Comics #4 (March/April 1941), Master Comics #13 (April 1941), and Blue Beetle #6 (March/April 1941)...

Curiously, it appears that hiding behind the gumball machine is Batman #4 (Winter 1941) instead of #5 (Spring 1941)...

Monday, February 25, 2008

Can't Escape

I was out of town this weekend, focusing pretty intently on my hostess and very much not on the rest of the world. No internet access, no newspapers, no radio and the TV (when it was on at all) was primarily just used as a light source and mostly kept mute. Furthermore, the one book I brought in case I had time to kill was left in my bag all weekend, as I ended up with a relatively full schedule.

The basic gist here is that I was completely isolated from my main hobby for a few days. Given my passion for the medium of comic books, this was highly unusual. Even on the handful of occasions when I was unable to buy new comics, I was still able to stay somewhat in the feel of things by reading news accounts or message boards or whathaveyou.

I only say this as a preface to really stress my point here. Me without comics... it just doesn't happen.

With that firmly in mind then, picture me and my lady-friend walking back from dinner. It's cold out so she's in a parka and I'm sporting my long, not-quite-a-Doctor-Who scarf, blowing a bit in the wind. We're walking along the sidewalk, chatting about whatever. We've already passed the Barnes & Noble and are almost back to my hotel. As we come up on the next street corner, I stop short in front of a newspaper stand showcasing the day's Chicago Tribune. Taking up a solid quarter of the above-of-the-fold space on the front page is a picture of Dick Tracy with the headline: "Dick Tracy museum in Woodstock to close." (I tracked down the full article here this afternoon.)

What struck me wasn't so much the news in and of itself; I knew the museum wasn't on the best financial footing any more. What struck me was how the article popped into my line of sight. I was certainly not focusing on comics at the time, nor was I actively trying to look for the latest headlines. As I said, I was pretty well-focused on my hostess. But there it was, as obvious as if Dick Tracy's trademark yellow coat was shining against a black background.

"So what?" you ask.

The "so what" here is the notion of selective attention. It's not dissimilar to the notion of hearing your name above the din of a crowded cocktail party. Your brain is attuned to key thoughts more than others, and subconsciously selects external cues that you have already labeled, consciously or unconsciously, as important. Your name, for example. Generally speaking, your ears will "perk up" when someone says your name even if you weren't specifically listening to or focusing on that conversation. Visually, it works much the same way. You can scan through a large body of text fairly quickly and still pick out instances of your name without much direct concentration.

What strikes me, then, is that comic books are that significant to me that I can have my attention diverted like that. I was quite focused on my lady-friend and the small image of a comic strip character seen out of my peripheral vision in the dark was enough to stop me in my tracks. I think that's a very telling indicator of my psyche. I've known for years that comics are a significant part of my life, but that they're sitting top-of-mind in my subconscious is somewhat surprising.

Of course, the real key here, though, is what I did consciously at that point. While my attention was pulled away in a rather automatic fashion, I was able to refocus my mind towards my company rather quickly. The problem one runs into, it seems to me, is when you're NOT able to decide that comics are less important than some social interactions.

And I suppose that's what ultimately separates a "normal" comic book fan from your stereotypical fanboy. The fanboy's attention, once distracted by a comic, cannot or will not recenter on the more important/significant matters at hand. Comics have become a little too all-consuming, or a little too significant in that person's life. Don't get me wrong, I love comics but at the end of the day, they're just stories. And stories are no replacement for real living. You can't read about Life -- you need to experience it. And you're not going to be able to do that with your nose buried in a comic book.

Friday, February 22, 2008

They've Got Your Number

I like marvel editor Tom Brevoort. He seems to have a good head on his shoulders and approaches his job, more often than not, based on serving the needs of good storytelling. He'll be the first to admit when things go amiss, and is able to speak intelligently to whatever criticisms or general nastiness gets thrown his way.

He made this post on his blog recently, in which he actively solicits criticisms. But there's one bit that stands out for me, and I haven't seen it picked up yet by any other bloggers:
I hate it when letter writers invoke some version of, "Guess I'll be buying more DC books now" as if this implied threat is somehow going to get me to turn around on everything I'm doing. We both know that, in general, it's just not true... you're not going to suddenly like a whole bunch of titles you weren't even thinking about a wek [sic] earlier just because you're pissed about something in a Marvel book.

He's right, of course. There are easily hundreds, if not thousands, of people who claim a threat along those lines. (And I'm sure editors at DC get a similar stack of complaints, with people threatening to go buy marvel comics.) And, by and large, those very same people continue to buy Amazing Spider-Man and Uncanny X-Men month after month, proving with their wallets that they're just ranting for the sake of ranting. These readers prove, time and time again, that they really don't care about quality storytelling so much as simply seeing the ongoing adventures of a given character or characters.

I don't know that it's an issue unique to the comic industry, but it's one that seems to drive the business more than other industries. Tom is essentially acknowledging here that they know your habits are more significant than your convictions. You're going to keep buying Hulk or Iron Man primarily because of one thing...
Both marvel and DC have effectively established themselves as clubs. Stan Lee really did a lot of powerful work in this regard back in the 1960s, but it's considerably more formalized today. The primary reason readers continue to buy marvel comics is to say that they buy marvel comics. It's a status symbol as much as anything else. The club of marvel; price of admission: buying as many of their comics as possible.

"I read every book they put out. I know more continuity than you. I'm more important."

That's probably not a thought process most fans formally run through, but that's what it boils down to. They want to be a big fish in a small pond, and absorb as much information and trivia as they can. It raises their cultural capital within their group -- whether that's Moon Knight fans, or marvel fans, or superhero fans. The more expert they can prove themselves, the more prestige they garner within that clique.

And, if I'm being brutally honest, that's part of the reason for this very blog. That's my ego at work, making me believe that I have something worthwhile to contribute to the medium. The major difference being that I'm trying to play in the pond of "All Comicdom" instead of "The Marvel Universe."

And I think that difference is significant. From a practical point of view, each of us a finite amount of resources with which to procure comics. As a company, marvel (and DC and Dark Horse and everybody else) wants to garner as much of that as possible. So if you've devoted yourself to marvel comics, then you're going to drop whatever you comic allowance is on their products. Even if you switch from Captain America to Thor, they still get the same chunk of your change. Their business model is largely predicated on the fact that you're going to continue giving the same amount of money every month, and it's largely irrelevant on which titles you actually buy.

But in committing myself to the entire medium, I can (and do!) spread my money around. A little does still go to marvel and DC, but it also goes to Image and Dark Horse and Viper and Oni and Red 5 and Tokyopop and Viz and Slave Labor and Antarctic and Avatar and... The possibility that I may choose to send my money to one company over another fosters competition, and tends to improve the overall quality of all the material.

But an empty threat coming from someone who ALWAYS spends the same amount of money on the same company does little besides reinforcing their belief in the their business model. Comics are a business. Like all businesses, comic publishers are out to make money. And, if they know they can feed you whatever dreck they want and you'll keep coming back for more, they have no reason to try anything but what they've already been doing.

By all means, if you see a problem in a comic, it's usually a good idea to point it out to the creators and publishers. But if you point out the problem, but no one attempts to correct or improve on it, then your opinion is clearly not being considered. The publishers and creators have every right to ignore you but, if they do, it might be worth asking yourself if that's a relationship that's really worth continuing. After all, who wants to be in a relationship where one party ignores the other? That's the very definition of a toxic relationship.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Clockwork Creature

I just read Kyle Strahm's Clockwork Creature from Ambrosia Publishing. It was actually serialized online previously, but it was pretty clearly written as a piece that was intended to be published, so I opted for the printed version once it was complete.

The story is pretty straight-forward. Several local townspeople and a large number of chickens have begun mysteriously disappearing. A man named Baron Von Salt shows up claiming to know the beast that is responsible: a "cog-doom creature." He rallies the townspeople into a mob, as readers learn about the true nature of the Clockwork Creature and the fate of the missing townsfolk. The story ends with all but one character dead and he is last seen walking over the hillside.

It's a fairly light read. Not a lot of unnecessary dialogue and not a very complex plot. The main reason I liked this book, though, was the artwork. There is very little linework shown in the story itself -- most of the illustrations are rendered in blocks of black and white. It's very much a study in contrasts, and there's quite a lot of visual power in this stark approach. I might suggest a vague similarity in style to Frank Miller's Sin City however Strahm takes an approach that is less concerned with portraying striking light and shadow, and uses the black and white colors as non-representative elements that seek only to convey form. This makes for an arresting visual without replicating the pulpy noir feel of Sin City.

Another aspect I found striking in the visuals was the Clockwork Creature itself. It appears to be not unlike a mechanical horse, covered by some sort of light-weight quilt or blanket. The only clockwork we ever see are the beast's feet. But the quilt/blanket design is such that it's very easy to get a sense of the creature's shape and stance simply by following the contours of the stripes and/or checks on teh covering. To wit...
There's some really graceful work there and Strahm repeatedly shows a keen eye throughout the book.

I have to admit feeling a little disappointed when I first completed the book because it did, as I said, read pretty quickly. But then I realized that I only paid $6.95 for it instead of $12 or $14. That cover price also includes about two dozen pages of character studies, page layout sketches, and some other artwork that didn't make it into the story itself.

Personally, I really enjoyed the book, but I have to admit that's probably in part due to my background in graphic design. The beauty of this particular piece, though, is that you can head over to Ambrosia's web site and read the whole thing for free if you'd just like to give it a trial run for yourself. Like all good work you find online, though, you should do what you can to support the creator if you do indeed enjoy their work; if nothing else, it encourages them to do more.

Coincidence or Serendipity

By an unusual coincidence, Stuart Immonen and I share today as our respective blogs' second anniversary. Huzzah, us!

(Actual blogging to resume later this evening.)

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Endings

This week happened to see the release of three comics I've been getting that ended their respective titles: Return to Wonderland, Pirates vs. Ninjas and Umbrella Academy. It seems to invite a comparison, despite none of the three books really being similar to one another at all.

Return to Wonderland is a contemporary version of the Lewis Carroll "Alice" stories. It has a decidedly darker tone, and gets more into the terrorizing aspects of the tales. Alice's husband is an adulterer and her son is a sadist, while she herself goes far off the deep end, committing suicide in the penultimate issue. There's definitely a gruesome edge to this story and all of the threats are both more palpable and more emotionally scarring.

Umbrella Academy is much lighter in tone. It actually bears many hallmarks of more traditional superhero comics, but it stands above most of them for two reasons. First, the story is set early in the 20th century, giving it an almost Victorian steampunk veneer. Second, while the characters and their interactions are quite integral to the story and the main plot, the book does not seem to carry the burden of many superhero comics: namely, that each issue is merely a means to extend the franchise yet another month. The story, the titular team saving the world from one of their whose powers have gone awry, is quite deliberate and has a finite quality that is not seen in most of marvel and DC's output.

Finally, Pirates vs. Ninjas is the lightest book of the three, despite having the grand plot that places an unlikely team of pirates and ninjas against the Norse gods. The dialogue by all of the secondary is almost always comedic and the character drawings feature somewhat exaggerated features that become rather cartoony at times.

A direct comparison, in many respects, is not justifiable here. All three books had different goals and different approaches. They were all structured differently and spoke to readers in distinctly different ways. That said, however, they still all have to provide readers with a sense of completion if they want to be considered at least satisfactory.

In the cases of Umbrella Academy and Pirates vs. Ninjas the resolution of at least the superficial conflicts come when the antagonists are physically defeated. In both cases, the defeats come rather suddenly and with a high measure of finality. UA extends the threat, however, by forcing the protagonists to deal with the aftermath of what had already been started by the antagonist. In Return to Wonderland, by distinct contrast, does not have an antagonist to destroy but rather a problem to solve. "Man vs. nature" instead of "man vs. man."

Like most stories, the resolution is not at the very end of the book for any of these titles. Readers get to see something of how the characters deal with the aftermath of the conflict. Here, the stories all take distinctly different routes. Pirates vs. Ninjas provides several pages of summary at the end, providing highlights of the remainder of the characters lives. Something of a "happily ever after" ending. Return to Wonderland ends by giving the lead character a decisive turning point in her life; in effect, prompting a new beginning rather than just an ending. It is in this respect that the book is most like the more "traditional" superhero stories which promise perpetual adventures serialized month after month. (No judgment on this approach, by the way, I'm just making the observation.) Umbrella Academy leaves the door open enough to also continue in that fashion, but it's not nearly as blatant about it. Curiously, a portion just before the actual ending of UA has more of a summary approach seen in Pirates vs. Ninjas.

Personally, I find this summary idea somewhat hackneyed. It strikes me as something of a shortcut method to tie up whatever loose ends the author forgot to consider in the actual resolution. Because of that, I was somewhat disappointed in how Umbrella Academy and especially Pirates vs. Ninjas concluded. UA at least returned to something of an actual story after the summary section, but it still ended on a lower note than it might otherwise have. Return to Wonderland, while more involving in its ending, suffered a bit by introducing some new ideas just prior to the resolution that had not (to my recollection) been even suggested earlier. Not that they seem wholly out of place, but I think it would have improved the overall story if those newer elements could have been alluded to earlier.

I enjoyed all three titles during their respective runs and, that, in my mind, makes them all successful. I also recognize that my enjoyment of the stories over the course of several months make cause some bias in seeing them end. Indeed, none of the books finished so poorly as to color my view of the whole series, but I wish I could say more confidently that I was disappointed exclusively because some great work came to an end.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Iron Elvis

So my only question about marvel's May solicitations is this: how do you create a cover for a book called Iron Man: Viva Las Vegas and not Elvis-ize it? Isn't it almost mandatory to do something more like...

Sean's Shameless Shilling

Since I haven't done an old fashioned snake oil pitch in a little while, I thought I might point out that TwoMorrows has reduced the price of everything on their web site by 15%! So, for all you completists out there (who, by now, must number as many as two) you can use this as an opportunity to fill in holes in your "the works of Sean Kleefeld" collection! My debut, of course, was in Jack Kirby Collector #38, with my regular column beginning in JKC #40 and running through every issue since then. And don't forget my special "The last Jerry Bails interview" from Alter Ego #68.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Jeremiah Harm

I picked Boom Studios' Jeremiah Harm TPB up last week since it was a fairly light week for me. I didn't really have any knowledge of the book, but a quick flip-through showed it to be fairly clearly in the sci-fi genre and the art looked intriguing. It collects issue 1-5 of the pamphlet version.

The opening is basically a prison escape from a maximum security satellite. There's lots of mayhem and death, with the satellite itself blowing up. The chief of security, in order to salvage what may be left of his career, orders the release of the man who captured the villain in the first place. Jeremiah Harm negotiates some terms that leave him free and clear and causes some havoc trying to track where the trio of escapees left to.

The introduction here was excellent. There's a lot of things going, and the readers are given just enough information to follow along, but only just. Meaning that the story flow itself enhances the chaos of the prison break. We get a reasonable sense of the characters we're looking at, their motivations and the basic plot of the series. Plus some intricate and detailed artwork, it's a great start.

Unfortunately, things start going downhill from there.

Jeremiah tracks the villains to Earth where, it turns out, they're looking for something called the Basal Shard which they intend to use to destroy everything. Jeremiah runs across several native New Yorkers (including a doctor, a nurse, a police officer, and a gang member) who seem quite happy to follow him and the trail of dead bodies he leaves in his wake. The group eventually follow the bad guys to a hidden, underground teleporter that takes them all directly to the Basal Shard. There's some extended violence, the good guys win, the universe is saved, and Jeremiah blips off into the proverbial sunset while the gang member decides to reform entirely and help out the doc and nurse in their free clinic.

It's not that the story was executed poorly, but it was became increasingly trite as it progressed. The last two issues' worth read like a hundred movie scripts, down to much of the dialogue!

Oh, look. The Really Scared KidTM who left just before the Big ConfrontationTM showed up at the last minute to distract the Bad GuyTM long enough for the HeroTM to decisively win. Couldn't see that coming.

It was really a shame. There were some decent characters, and the interplay between Jeremiah and the psychotic killer, Ayoto, was interesting. There was a good set-up and introduction, but it didn't really deliver a satisfying payoff. The more it read like the latest Special Effects BlockbusterTM, the less I cared.

Switching artists mid-way through didn't help matters either. The intricacies and details that Rael Lyra put in the earlier chapters were replaced with Rafael Albuquerque's blockier, less illustrative style towards the end. The characters, fortunately, remained readily identifiable but the art that helped attract me to the book initially was not present throughout. There was an increase in panels towards the end that utilized previously drawn artwork and, while I'm not about to cite that a necessarily bad thing in and of itself, it did serve to further highlight the differences between the two artists.

I could easily see this being picked up a movie studio and trotted out as the next action flick starring Vin Diesel. And that is precisely what's wrong with Jeremiah Harm.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Imagination

I was engaged in a wonderful conversation last night (well, technically, it was early this morning) in which a substantive portion of the discussion centered around some use of our imaginations. We started with a single photograph and extrapolated scenes that might have occurred immediately after the picture was taken. Some of the imagery that we discussed was very well-detailed, while other imagery left more room for interpretation on the part of each individual. I think we both left the conversation in a better mood than we when started, and I suspect that at least some of that imagery peppered our dreams afterwards. (I can't even speak for myself with 100% certainty on this point, though, since I almost never remember my dreams.)

Wikipedia's entry for Imagination begins thus...
Imagination is the ability to form mental images, or the ability to spontaneously generate images within one's own mind. It helps provide meaning to experience and understanding to knowledge; it is a fundamental facility through which people make sense of the world, and it also plays a key role in the learning process. A basic training for imagination is the listening to storytelling (narrative), in which the exactness of the chosen words is the fundamental factor to 'evoke worlds'.

In my particular example from last night, I think each of us learned a fair amount about the other that might have been extremely difficult to communicate more directly. Given that we were speaking by phone, it was impossible to use any concrete visuals -- such as gestures or facial expressions -- to help articulate impressions and emotions that words alone cannot not adequately describe. But in utilizing our imaginations, we were able to express more complicated ideas via a sort of proxy.

It should come as no shock that comic book creators frequently and repeatedly need to use their imaginations to develop the stories they do. They are, in effect, trying to communicate a set of ideas from their brain to ours, and they use the comic book story as a more easily digestible metaphor. Some of the ideas are simpler: Good triumphs over evil. But some ideas don't boil down quite so easily. Would Alan Moore have been as effective, do you suppose, if he said, "Hey, comic characters don't have to be this two-dimensional garbage that we've been reading for decades" instead of writing Watchmen? The larger metaphor was able to capture our collective imagination, and the ideas he presented there have been swirling around people's head for over 20 years now.

How about Steve Gerber? He could have simply said, "Hey, publishers shouldn't treat their creative freelancers like crap." But by bringing Howard the Duck (and his cousin Destroyer Duck) into the argument, he's placed more concrete images into our heads. He deliberately spoke to our imaginations, knowing that a more rational approach using logic wouldn't be as effective. (Not that Steve didn't do that, too, but it didn't "take" as well as the more imaginative imagery he conjured up.

His imagination is one of the greatest reasons I have so much admiration and respect for Jack Kirby. His illustration skills weren't the best, but his neurons were firing full-blast all the time. He could develop whole universes in the blink of an eye. He could start a story not knowing where it was going to end up because he knew he'd think of something by the time he got to a point where he needed it. He could throw away brilliant ideas casually because there was never a question that another one would hit any second now. And it was a lack of respect for those imaginative powers that led Jack to leave Stan Lee in the first place. And it wasn't just limited to storytelling itself -- how many times did he single-handedly revolutionize the entire industry? Jack wasn't a great comic book creator because he could draw good stories; Jack was a great comic book creator because he threw literally thousands of incredible ideas and concepts out to the world via his work.

So, for as much as you might appreciate the writing of a Warren Ellis or an Ed Brubaker, or the artwork of an Alex Ross or a John Cassaday, their greatest talents are not so much that they can write or draw well; rather, it's that they can effectively present their imaginations to you.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Steampunk Superheroes

So I was reading through High Moon last week and got to page 13...

David Gallaher and Steve Ellis have many cool things going on here, but I'd like to call specific attention to one of the details shown in Mac's files...

The question arises, quite naturally, why does Mac have a file on Nikola Tesla? Well, my first thought is that it may have something to do with the havoc he took part in, when he was written by Matt Fraction...
And you know, we've also seen his name crop up recently as the creator of the hero in one of my current favorite books...
Now, I don't know about you, but I know I would love to see Gallaher's MacGregor, Fraction's Tesla, and Clevinger's Atomic Robo all battling an army of werewolves controlled by Thomas Edison! Tell me that wouldn't be a kick-ass story! I ran the idea by David already and he seemed to like it, so let's see if we can't drum up some motivation for to at least get Clevinger on board! (Tesla, of course, being a very real public figure and wouldn't fall under the same trademark laws. Not that I'd mind having Fraction work on the story, mind you, but I'm trying to think at least somewhat realistically here.)

So, c'mon, Brian! Give my buddy Dave a call and get something worked out already!

Thursday, February 14, 2008

The Anti-Valentine's Day Post

Let's start off by taking a look at today's edition of Newsarama...

I would like to draw your attention specifically to the description under "The Science of Jumper" headline. It's an obvious reference to Valentine's Day, the day set aside especially for lovers to express their feelings for one another. The suggestion is that, if you're looking at their site on February 14, there's a more than fair chance that you don't have anyone to celebrate Valentine's Day with. Or, at least, you're not celebrating the holiday, even if you do have someone. You're not a romantic person. You don't have a social life, you loser. You're going to die cold and alone without ever having known the touch of a woman.

A bit extreme towards the end there, but that's the connotation that comes to mind when one thinks of a comic book fan NOT celebrating today. The unhygienic, disheveled, overweight, socially awkward loner who's more at home basking the cold glow of a computer monitor in his mother's dark basement than anywhere else. Sure, Comic Book Guy is the stereotype, but can you honestly tell me that you've never met someone who looked and acted just like him? Odds are, you probably see someone like him every time you hit your Local Comic Shop or go to a convention.

Which is, of course, where my classic/infamous "Dudes vs. Chicks" posts came from.

But in those posts, I was intentionally being very snarky and trying to stir up a bit of trouble. I don't get that sense with the Newsarama line. It comes across sounding more casual and matter-of-fact. "What? You're a comic geek, aren't you? Obviously, you'll be sitting at home alone tonight."

(Side note: I'm speaking almost exclusively in terms of the U.S. It occurs to me that I have about zero knowledge of how romantic comic fans are believed to be in other countries, nor do I have any real understanding of how Valentine's Day is celebrated elsewhere. My apologies for my ego-centric approach to this particular topic.)

So, my question is: how valid an assumption is that? Is the general population of comic book fans and professionals any more or less romantically engaged than the body public? I mean, I think it's safe to assume that people who like comic books aren't exactly 100% with "mainstream" America in a lot respects and, speaking from anecdotal experience, they're largely a bit more socially awkward than most people. But does that necessarily translate to romantic isolation?

I happen to know quite a number of comic fans who have found that "someone special." Now maybe they don't celebrate Valentine's Day with chocolates and flowers. And maybe that "someone special" won't be there one year from now. But that's not my point. My point is that right here, right now, they have someone who cares for them. They have a romantic relationship with someone, and they're able (regardless of whether they do or not) to celebrate Valentine's Day.

(Another side note: Hey, Val! Do me a favor and smack Dave around if he doesn't do anything special for you tonight. He damn well better realize what a lucky bastard he is!)

If you're not able to celebrate with someone today, I wouldn't despair or let yourself feed into that foul stereotype. Finding someone you care about is an insanely difficult process, and it's not necessarily a permanent one. Even if you spend tonight dining with Chef Boyardee in front of your computer wishing that you didn't have to take the dog out, that's not to say you might not meet someone wonderful next weekend.

Believe it or not, that's how Life works. There's ups and downs for everyone, and just because The Simpsons portray comic fans in a generally negative light doesn't mean you have to live down to that image!

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

The Unappreciated Genius Of Stan Lee

In my experience, comic fans seem to fall into one of two camps on the subject of Stan Lee. They either fully believe all the hype and think he's the greatest thing to happen to comics, or they think he's a bastard hack writer who took advantage of truly talented people like Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko building his entire career on their backs. Today saw the release of a comic that, I think, proves that the truth lies somewhere in between. (As if common sense didn't already suggest that.)

The issue I'm talking about is the long-awaited Fantastic Four: The Lost Adventure. For those who don't know the story behind it, Stan and collaborator Jack Kirby had been creating the Fantastic Four comic for several years when Jack decided he wanted to quit. He turned in his pencil artwork for what would have been FF #103 and left. Stan, at that point, decided he didn't like the story as it was and did something else entirely. (After all, Jack had just quit -- Stan couldn't very well ask him to make changes.) But he did see a lot of potential in the story, so he had the original artwork chopped up and reorganized; he wrote a new story around that, and got John Romita and John Buscema to add some additional artwork to fill in some of the gaps created in the process. Joe Sinnott came through and inked the whole thing, to give it some semblance of uniformity. The results of that were published as FF #108.

But Jack had kept copies of his original art and, years later, Jack Kirby Collector publisher John Morrow was able to dig them out and print them in his magazine. (In fact, that particular issue was what drew my attention to the publication initially and eventually led to the creation of my column for it!) A few years later, and marvel editor Tom Brevoort led an effort to get Joe Sinnott to re-ink Jack's original pencils (with a few add-ins from Ron Frenz to cover some of pieces lost to the cutting room floor) and Stan Lee to re-script the dialogue based on Jack's margin notes.

The result is Fantastic Four: The Lost Adventure which tells the story of two brothers, one of whom terrorizes New York City for his own selfish monetary gain with the help of a "mega-power control module."

Despite a few contemporary references in the script, it reads very much like a story created in 1969. Joe's inking is, as always, absolutely wonderful and Jack's page and panel layouts are, as always, powerful and striking. Stan's dialogue still maintains a classic mix of drama and humor, and isn't nearly as tongue-in-cheek as many of his stories have been in recent years.

The issue also reprints Jack's original pencil artwork with some liner notes courtesy of John Morrow, as well as the final published story seen in FF #108. This allows the reader to very directly make comparisons between what Jack intended and what it morphed into.

Jack's version of the story is, frankly, disappointing. Oh, it's not bad by any means, but it has none of the rampant creativity and originality that tend to be hallmarks of anything he works on. Jack really just phoned this one in. Of course, for Jack, that only means it's just better than everything else instead of his usual far-and-away-better-than-anything-you've-ever-seen.

Here's where Stan's unappreciated (or, at best, underappreciated) genius comes in.

The new story that was published in FF #108 is one that is decidedly more in line with the FF mythos. The stakes are much greater than a simple, unusually powerful thief; and the mythological Janus notion is played up by making the Nega-Man an extension of one man, instead of a brother of one. Furthermore, while both stories are created as flashbacks, Jack's has a more placid approach since the threat is over and the heroes have safely won; the revised version treats the flashback as an origin to an even-greater, looming threat. In many respects, it's a story much better suited to the comic.

That's not to say FF #108 is without its flaws. The story was essentially cobbled together from leftover art, and wavering in and out of flashbacks makes things a bit overly confusing in terms of story flow. (Indeed, Stan's caption notes allude to this.) While Joe's inking provides something of a smoothing effect throughout the story, the frequent changes in artistic styles from the multiple pencillers is still somewhat distracting.

But even with those issues, the story seems to work better. It's more interesting and more engaging, and leads to an extended adventure over the subsequent several issues. Stan was acting in one of his more talented capacities as a true editor.

In this particular case, the editing is very heavy-handed but, again, he was working without having access to the original writer/artist. But having studied Jack (and Stan) over the years, I think it's indicative of the working relationship they had in the 1960s. Jack's imagination was a little too wild and unrestrained to really make sense, and Stan was able to keep it in focus.

Jack's creativity was a soap-box derby car that was already careening down the hill at top speed. Jack's problem was that he never bothered to build in brakes or a steering wheel. Oh, he was clever enough to get the crate to swerve a bit by leaning from side to side, and he could slow down with Fred Flintstone style brakes, but it was Stan who actually provided a steering wheel and a brake lever that was connected directly to the wheels. Stan kept Jack from crashing into the telephone pole by Dead Man's Curve.

Like I said, I think that's pretty evidently on display in Fantastic Four: The Lost Adventure. (Stan's editing, that is. Not Jack's creativity.) It's a nice package overall, and I get the distinct (and rare) impression that it was put together with more of a mind to doing something worthwhile, rather than finding another way to financially exploit Jack's creativity.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

The Warriors

An impending snow/ice storm sent us all home from work early today, so I had the opportunity to relax a bit and watch the 1979 movie The Warriors, at the suggestion of a lady-friend.

The movie is about a New York City gang who's wrongly believed to have killed a sort of urban gang messiah. They're then forced to fight their way back to their home turf through an assortment of "theme" gangs. It's based loosely on a novel of the same name by Sol Yurick.

The first thing that struck me is that each gang's "colors" were outrageous. The Warriors all sported leather vests and looked pretty normal, but rival gang The Baseball Furies wore modified Yankees uniforms and face paint which borrowed heavily from Kiss. Another gang, The Punks, all dress in overalls and striped shirts. The High Hats all appear as mimes. It was a kind of disturbing visual at first, seeing these often over-the-top designs, but there was a consistency to it throughout the movie that seemed to click after a little while.

The almost iconic visuals make even more sense with the Director's Cut. (I haven't seen the original, but I can guess what some of the changes were.) Scene transitions often have the live action sequence fade into a still-frame illustration, which then pans back to reveal the story as a comic book before zooming in on another comic book panel. New locations are then identified with caption boxes filled with Comic Sans lettering.

This idea of the story as a comic book is emphasized directly in the director's opening comments, and the additional documentary about the film. He very clearly saw the movie as a live-action comic book with many of the same larger-than-life images that one can find in almost any superhero book. The costumes are a bit too outlandish for real life. The fight scenes aren't terribly gorey or bloody, but they have a violence to them that would almost certainly have killed all the characters within the first 20 minutes if it were real.

Watching the movie with those hints in mind, it was easy to see that many, if not most, of the shots were framed very deliberately throughout the film. It struck me very much as a photographic visual precursor to Sin City. This is again amplified by most of the scenes taking place at night with strong solitary light sources.

What was refreshing, though, was that even with director Walter Hill's deliberate and conscious attempts to borrow elements from comic books, the movie is treated with complete seriousness. The characters, while slightly exaggerated like a comic book, are still real. There's no pandering or looking down at the comic medium as you would typically have seen back then. The Batman TV show still had a powerful impact on how people treated comic books and superheroes, but Hill went against that. The action and the drama here are heightened while the visuals are made more iconic, all like a comic, but the movie does not denigrate itself with camp.

I understand the movie had some reasonable commercial success, and is regarded highly in some circles. (Indeed, that lady-friend who suggested it to me cited it as her favorite.) As I said, I don't know for certain the changes that were made for the Director's Cut, but Hill claims that it's closer to what he intended than the original release. If that's true, then the movie's comic book roots are unmistakable and it's definitely a film worth watching for comic fans.

Steve Gerber Memoriam

I'm sure you've heard by now the passing of Steve Gerber. I'm sure you've read several "news" accounts versions, and seen any number of blog postings talking about Steve and his work. Do you need to read mine, too? Probably not, but I'm writing it anyway...

Steve Gerber snuck his way into my comics. When I first began really getting into comics, I was a Fantastic Four guy. I bought that one book, and that was pretty much it -- all I could afford. As I got older, I was able to find additional sources of income and I soon saw that John Byrne, the guy who made me fall in love with the FF, was working on this new She-Hulk comic; I was so there.

Of course, less than a year later John departed She-Hulk rather suddenly. There was a fill-in issue or two, and then things got wacky.

John's premise behind She-Hulk initially was that she was going to go through the normal superhero absurdities, but in full knowledge of the fact that she was just a character in a comic book. She repeatedly broke the fourth wall, and I still think that her escaping from a prison cell by ripping open the bottom part of the page and running across the subsequent advertisement was brilliantly done. ("I think I scraped my shin on a staple.") The book was unique.

But after John left, it took a decidedly different turn. The fourth wall was rebuilt, A-list guest stars like Spider-Man were replaced by oddball creations like Pseudoman, and the plots went from defeating Mysterio and the Head-Men to escaping from a universe made entirely out of baloney. Weird, wacky stuff. And, for as much as I enjoyed John Byrne's take on She-Hulk, this new version was more nuanced in its clever approach to things. (I reviewed all those issues here.)

That was my introduction to Steve Gerber.

At the time, my knowledge of comic books and creators was limited. I knew a handful of characters -- mostly because of guest appearances in Fantastic Four -- and I knew of a handful of creators -- mostly because of their work on Fantastic Four. And all of what I knew was decidedly standard superhero fare. (Well, it's standard now; I think some of the ideas at the time were then still pretty unusual in comics.)

As I got older and more interested in comics, I wound up dragging my folks (Dad particularly) to comic shops and flea markets and such hunting for back issues. And while I was looking for superheroes, Dad stumbled across other stuff to keep him interested. Books like Howard the Duck. Man-Thing. Destroyer Duck. Void Indigo.

And that's where I really got to know Steve. Because, after reading the latest issue of Fantastic Four for the tenth time, I'd go downstairs and pull out Dad's comics, introducing me to a wonderfully diverse set of ideas and opinions that weren't -- couldn't be -- expressed in a superhero story.

To be perfectly honest, it wasn't just Steve. There was Alan Moore, Scott McCloud, Howard Chaykin, Rick Veitch, Mike Saenz... to name just a few. But each creator brought something new and different to the table, and was able to express themselves in a way that no one else really seemed capable of. They were able to throw out unique ideas, and open my mind up to new ways of thinking. They were the first people's work I was able to read as socio-political commentary. The first works that I could read on multiple levels. What I didn't realize at the time, though, was that the things being presented here were new not only to me, but to the entire industry! I lived and grew up through a revolution in comics that, at the time, just struck me as increasing my own knowledge about how the business worked.

Later I learned something of the fight that Steve had with marvel about the ownership of Howard the Duck. When I first learned of the issue, I could only grasp the basics of it and certainly wasn't able to see the extended implications. But you know what? It still brought the issue to my attention years, and made me at least conscious of the situation at a relatively young age. That I became aware of creators' rights in any capacity was in large part because of Steve Gerber.

The death of any human being is a sad one. That a person's life can be snuffed out so easily and so quickly is chilling. But the death of someone who had a positive impact on your life is more painful. It means that the positive influence they had is no longer available. The last Dr. Fate stories Steve was working on will be published over the next few months, and then the world will have no more new work coming from him. That's a tremendous loss to our culture because Steve had a decidedly positive impact on many people through his work.

But you know? His work remains. It'll take me no more than a few minutes to rifle through my long boxes and pull out Omega the Unknown. I can read and re-read his run on The Defenders as often as I wish. Steve's work had a lot of depth to it and I'd be willing to bet that you'll be able to get something new out of most of it if you run through it again. I can't tell you how exciting it was to really sit down and analyze his work on She-Hulk years after it had first began swirling around in my head. I can't begin to list what I've learned from Steve over the years. So join with me in mourning the loss of Steve Gerber, but take some time with me as well to celebrate all the wonderful things he passed along to us while he was here.

Monday, February 11, 2008

The Problem With Comics Today

You know, I am thrilled, seriously thrilled, to see comic creators thinking consciously about their craft. I was just talking with someone last night, trying to explain why so many comics come across as created for and by emotionally immature males, and part of my explanation included the notion that a lot of creators, in trying to earn a living, crank their work out based largely on what they've done or seen done in the past; and they put little thought into actively improving on what was done before or, worse, put no thought into actively improving their own craft.

I give a lot of credit to Stuart Immonen as an artist. Sure, he's talented and can draw some really incredible stories, but if you've read his blog for any length of time, it's easy to see that the reason why he's so good is because he continuously works at improving his ability. He spends a lot of time thinking about and considering capital-a Art, and how that may or may not be applicable to the commercial art he produces in whatever comic(s) he's working on this month. He's willing to try relatively significant experiments in his comics and he's one of the few comic artists working in the business today who doesn't always fall back on a singular personal style. He's constantly adapting his linework and layouts to serve the story he's trying to tell. Stuart's not the only one doing this, to be sure, but it definitely seems to be top-of-mind for him more frequently than for a lot of other people.

The guys working on Atomic Robo evidently talk about the same types of things among themselves, too. They recently posted a list of five rules they constantly follow in creating each issue. Excellent rules, all, but if I might pull out a particularly memorable quote:
I mean, come on, 99 times out of a 100, there is no reason at all to frame a panel from the perspective of a girl's ass. Grow up already.


I love these guys!

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Moffat For President

"Who?"

No, the main writer for Who, Steven Moffat. Also, the writer/creator of Coupling (the original British version, not that half-assed piece of garbage they did here in the States), and a writer on The Office (again, the original British version, not that half-assed piece of garbage they're doing here in the States), Murder Most Horrid and a bunch of other really clever TV shows that no one over here has heard of because the U.S. is too ego-centric to bother really looking outside its borders for cultural entertainments.

"Why you would you want him for President, Sean?"

Well, I don't really. He's not eligible anyway. But it's an election year, and "Moffat For Writer" isn't terribly catchy.

But here's my thought: Joe Quesada and the folks at marvel have been keeping their eyes and ears out for writing talent that normally work in entertainment industries OTHER than comics, right? Well, how about scooping up Steven Moffat? His work on Dr. Who has won multiple awards and shows that he's quite adept at working within a long-running adventure franchise without A) screwing up continuity left, right and sideways and B) pandering to an emotionally immature, short-sighted fan base. Seriously, Dr. Who bears a number of similarities to quite a few marvel titles -- I think Moffat, if he would be able to work without having crossover event plotlines shoved down his throat, would do a fantastic job. I know I would start buying marvel comics again!

He writes for TV for a living, so he's already got something of a visual sense for storytelling. Plus, I've heard he's already a fan of some of their characters! How could things go wrong?

So, how about it, Joe? It's just a phone call, right? Worst he can say is, "No."

Saturday, February 09, 2008

How To Letter A Web Comic

Bobby Timony shares with everyone how he letters his Zuda comic Night Owls in Adobe Illustrator. He's got a very straight-foward approach, and his accompanying screen shots make it that much easier to follow. (Thanks to David the G for pointing this one out!)

Thursday, February 07, 2008

The Bane Of The Big Two

In the past year or so, I've managed to re-ignite a co-worker's interest in comics. He used to read various Batman and Spider-Man titles back in the early 90s, but left in part because of the frenzied collector, holo-foil, die-cut, 12-cover-variations garbage that marvel and DC started putting out. Seeing me bring back new comics every week coupled with some good comic-related movies and video games that he's seen, though, has piqued his interest again. He started borrowing some of the books I'd bring to read during his breaks, and actively asks whether or not the latest issue of such-and-such title has come in.

A month or three back, he started actively ordering TPBs from Amazon. He started with, I believe, Marvels and Kingdom Come primarily for Alex Ross' work. Over the next month or two, he quickly segued into Dave McKean and David Mack. Then on to Frank Miller and Dave Gibbons. He recently commented about being impressed with some of Ben Templesmith's work. Obviously, he's an art-centric guy, which is hardly surprising since he's a graphic designer by education and trade.

His last purchase from Amazon included Tales of the New Gods, a reprinting of a good chunk of 1997's Jack Kirby's New Gods and 2000's Orion. I hadn't actually read that particular series, so I could only tell him about the characters a bit. But he went ahead and purchased it primarily on the strength of Frank Miller's name being attached to it.

He brought the book in today and handed it to me, "Here. You can have this."

Turns out that he couldn't stand it. He got 15-20 pages into it and then started skipping around, looking for art that stood out for some reason. It was precisely the type of story he was NOT looking for.

"Wait a second, Sean! I thought you said he was an art guy? But he set aside the book because of the writing?"

Exactly.

Like I said, I haven't read these stories so I can't comment on their quality, but given the list of creators involved, I can't imagine that it's that bad. But I got the impression, from his comments, that it was all about continuing the adventures of the New Gods characters. He had no vested interest in the Fourth World beforehand, certainly, and these stories seemed to him to be written precisely towards somebody who was.

Think about that for a minute.

There didn't seem to be an issue with the storytelling -- he could follow along who each character was and how they related to one another. That would also suggest that the stories weren't so laden with continuity references as to be incomprehensible to a newcomer. Both of which (again, not having read these personally) are reinforced in my mind by the creators involved -- like their ideas or not, they generally all have proven themselves as solid storytellers. My co-worker didn't have a problem with the genre, certainly, as he's gone to reading a few superhero titles again.

So what was his issue?

As near as I can surmise, it was too fanboyish. It seems to have been aimed exclusively at the folks who just want to see Darkseid and Orion and Mr. Miracle and the rest of the New Gods. It's a placeholder. It was designed to get those people who must have all things Fourth World to part with their money. It's a pay-to-play option for kids who are already in the club.

It seems to me that it's not dissimilar to the industry's problem catering to women. The content of the material is designed in such as way that it not only keeps the existing customer base coming back (and make no mistake, in the publishers' minds, you are customers, not fans) and dissuade new customers from other market segments from trying their product. Now, granted, not every product is going to be suitable for everyone but when the vast majority of your product actively turns away customers -- my co-worker paid for the book, disliked it after only a few pages, and then gave it away -- it seems to me that you're shooting yourself in the foot. Yes, it's easier and cheaper to keep an existing customer than generate new ones, but if you don't generate new ones at all, then you're not going to be in business very long.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Doktor Sleepless #5

I'm going to start off by saying that this is going to be a pointless review. Why? Because if you're a fan of Warren Ellis, you're already buying this book. And, while I don't have anything resembling even anecdotal evidence to support this claim, I suspect that no one besides Warren Ellis fans are remotely interested in this title for whatever reasons. That being said, though, I'm going to try to convince you -- the non-Ellis fan -- why it's worth picking this up.

Ellis seems to be writing this series with something of a dichotomic approach. On the one hand, he has the superficial story of Doktor Sleepless waging his own style of war against the status quo, not unlike Spider Jerusalem did in Transmetropolitan. In this particular issue, Sleepless discovers that an old friend has been murdered and, despite a lack of hard evidence, confronts the man he believes ordered that killing. Like many of Ellis' protagonists, Sleepless is more clever than anyone else in the story by half and is able to cover his tracks from whatever technically illegal activities he might be pursuing in the name of a greater good.

The other element in Sleepless is several pages of Ellis espousing his thoughts on the subject du jour through Sleepless' broadcasts. In this particular issue, it's about what it really means to follow your dreams in a technologically advanced society. This is the dangerous part of the book.

I'm talking from a storytelling perspective, mind you. It's dangerous because, frankly, it's unabashedly, unashamedly preachy. No ifs, ands, or buts. The story effectively stops while Ellis gets a chance to bare his thoughts on the page. "Here's the capital-t Truth as I see it" he's essentially saying. And that's dangerous in storytelling because you have to stop the flow of the story, change gears to stand on your metaphoric soapbox, and then change gears again to get back into the story.

It's actually not a dissimilar approach to musicals, and the primary reason why I don't like them. The story is stopped cold while the characters take time out to sing what generally amounts to a character study. Me? I'm a story kind of guy. Characterization is great, but it shouldn't get in the way of the story as far as I'm concerned.

But Ellis manages to pull it off here. Not because it's a particularly graceful or sly transition from one portion to another, but because his message is itself extremely powerful. You don't mind being pulled out of the story because you're pulled out by something that makes you say, "Damn! He has a great handle on... (insert topic du jour)!" It makes the comic something of an excuse to read Ellis' thoughts more directly.

Which is why I think it's only Ellis fans who are reading it.

In one the earliest arguments my Ex and I had when we were first dating, the crux of the disagreement boiled down to a simple misunderstanding. At the time, I pointed out that "Perception is reality." Meaning that, whatever it was that she intended, I was reacting to how I perceived what she meant. The argument was really moot because we actually shared the same opinion, and it was only a perception of disagreement that caused the row.

Ellis talks to that idea here, using a few more examples, and couching it more in terms of "authenticity" and "branding." Which -- given where the world stands now, over a decade since I declared "perception is reality" -- is more timely and speaks more directly to the often blatantly capitalistic consumerism on display.

What I find particularly interesting here is that Ellis has now assumed the role of Spider Jerusalem himself. When Ellis was still writing Transmetropolitan, he was writing Spider writing about and reacting to a not-too-distant future. Today, though, Ellis is writing directly about and reacting to the present. Sure, there's some sci-fi elements thrown into Doktor Sleepless but it's barely discernible from March 6, 2008. And the reason Ellis' assumption of the role of Spider is particularly interesting here is because we're actively watching Ellis cultivate that reality in front of us. The Ellis "brand" is every bit as cultivated as Pepsi's or Disney's or Oprah's.

OK, so why should you -- the guy sitting back complaining about Amazing Spider-Man -- buy Doktor Sleepless? Well, in the first place, it's got an intriguing story with good art (including a gratuitously voluptuous female in a slinky nurse's uniform). But more significantly, it's the contemporary, technologically-oriented equivalent of Walden. Except that it's not a pretentious pile of dreck.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

It's Contest Time

No, I'm not giving up any of my loot, but Tozo creator David O'Connell is! He's been working hard on his online Tozo strip for a full year now and he's celebrating his first anniversary with a contest to win some original Tozo art.

I love comic book contests because A) they tend to have really cool prizes, and B) not too many people actually enter them. To be honest, I usually don't mention them here because I'm a selfish bastard and it gives me a greater chance of winning the fewer people I tell! But in this case, the odds of my winning aren't as dramatically hindered since David's not leaving the entries entirely up to random chance. I tend to think I'm inordinately clever, so my entry, I think, is pretty close to the mark. We'll see when David announces the winner on March 2.

But, hey, even if you -- or I, for that matter -- don't win the contest, we still get the added anniversary bonus of getting new Tozo strips twice a week now for the rest of the month!

Happy anniversary, David! I'm eager to see what's in store for Year Two!

Monday, February 04, 2008

Sequential Heart

Back in December, I hinted at a "Super-Secret Project X" I was involved in. Well, Sequential Tart has the honor of announcing the debut of Sequential Heart (no relation). The basic upshot of the idea is to get comics in the hands of less fortunate kids because... well, because comics are cool. It's the brainchild of Dark Horse assistant editor Rachel Edidin and she was able to get creator Dean Trippe on board pretty quickly. You can read all the details at the article I just linked to.

It's a fledgling organization, obviously, and one that I don't think is pretentious enough to think we're saving the world through comics or anything like that. It's just about getting comics in the hands of kids who might not otherwise get a chance to read them, plain and simple. It's a great idea, I think, and certainly one with a much broader scope than my handing one or two comics at a time to trick-or-treaters every Halloween.

If you're interested in helping out, please email us at volunteers@sequentialheart.org. (The web site is still in progress, but will obviously sport greater details once it's up and running.) As Rachel is quoted in that article as saying, "we won't turn down offers of help from anyone - if we don't have something for you to do immediately, there's no doubt that we will soon!" I'm psyched!

Saturday, February 02, 2008

Matt Ogden Interview

Henry Jenkins recently posted an interview with Matt Ogden, director of Confessions of a Superhero.

Sangiacomo On Classics Illustrated

My mom actually called this morning to alert me to Mike Sangiacomo's article in today's Plain Dealer about Classics Illustrated. Now I've done the same for you, but I didn't have to wake you up to do it!

Friday, February 01, 2008

Black History Month

February here is Black History Month. I covered my personal background/history about that particular topic last year, so I thought I'd try something more forward-looking this year.

Most of what we might recognize as the United States was created by older white men. Often on the backs of Africans dragged over here against their will. Often by kicking the Native Americans to the wayside. So it's hardly surprising that, a century ago, the earliest comic book heroes were white men. Certainly not to dismiss minorities, but the older white men were in positions of power and authority, and directed the writers and artists to draw white men as heroes. I make no apologies for that history -- it was all well before I was born, after all -- so as unfair as that may have been, that's the starting point we had.

In the past century, though, there have been great strides made with regard to social tolerance. There's plenty of room to grow, but can you imagine what a citizen of 1908 would say if you told them that there's an African-American poised as a serious contender for the presidency of the United States? I mean, there were still plenty of Jim Crow laws on the books when Barak Obama was born.

So, if you'll indulge me, let me run through the new comics coming out in the month of February that feature an African-American...

DC Comics...
CHECKMATE #23
Written by Greg Rucka & Eric Trautmann
Art by Joe Bennett & Jack Jadson
Cover by Kalman Andrasovfsky
"Castling" begins here! It's been over a year since Pawn 502 went deep undercover inside the cult of Kobra. Now he's resurfaced, warning of a plot that will cost hundreds of thousands of lives and ignite a holy war across the planet, a plot that the Royals may not be able to stop in time. But can Pawn 502 still be trusted? This 3-part epic lays bare the workings of the DC intelligence community worldwide -- and threatens to destroy it altogether!
(I gather from the cover art that "Kobra" is a black guy?)
TINY TITANS #1
Written by Art Baltazar & Franco
Art and cover by Baltazar & Franco
Awwww yeah, Titans! Join us for the exciting first issue of Tiny Titans written and drawn by the amazing Art Baltazar and Franco! See what life is like at Sidekick Elementary and meet the new staff! Follow the madness that ensues when Beast Boy gets a puppy friend! Witness what happens when the girls meet a pink stranger with a melted ice cream cone! Find out what makes Cassie such a trendsetter!
All your favorite Titans, in their cutest possible form, are here and waiting for you!
(Well, Cyborg is shown on the cover...)
TEEN TITANS GO! #52
Written by J. Torres
Art by Alexander Serra
Cover by Joe Quinones
The Teen Titans thought they were the only game in town -- so who are all these new teen superheroes popping up all over Jump City? With some of the Titans experiencing some problems with their own super powers, maybe it's a good thing!
(Cyborg on the cover, again...)
LOVELESS #22
Written by Brian Azzarello
Art by Danijel Zezelj
Cover by Marcelo Frusin
The year is 1927. In the hills and back roads of Missouri, two fugitives are about to experience how little times change, as they come across secrets from a not too distant past, and a local legend guarding them closely...
(Do I need to start making snarky comments yet?)

marvel comics...
BLACK PANTHER # 34
The Story: “GANGSTA LEAN,” PART 3
It's clobberin’ time—in the arena and in the streets, between the Gangsters and Panthers, and between the Fantastic Four and the elusive, malicious Golden Frogs!
(Ah... here we go! This is a progressive company! Should be plenty of stuff to look forward to here!)
NEW AVENGERS # 38
The Story: The break up! CONSPIRACY, PARANOIA, BETRAYAL may have taken their toll on the Avengers newlyweds Jessica Jones and Luke Cage. After the shocking turn of events at the end of last month's NEW AVENGERS ANNUAL, has Jessica Jones turned her back on THE AVENGERS? Who better to help tell this story than Alias artist Michael Gaydos returning to Marvel for this special issue. Guest-Starring the Mighty Avengers. WHO DO YOU TRUST?
NEW EXILES # 2
The Story: The Exiles have barely arrived in a new dimension before they’re struck by disaster! Sabretooth, Psylocke and Mystiq find themselves in the middle of a long-running conflict between the two most powerful figures on the African Continent, the Black Panther and Ororo. As for Rogue, her fate ends up in the hands of a young man who calls himself Gambit — but if you think that tells you what to expect from this character and this story, try again! He needs Rogue to help him save his parents — Oh, and did we mention he breathes water?
MARVEL ADVENTURES THE AVENGERS #21
The Story: The Russians are coming! The Russians are coming! Get ready to cry "Wolverine!" at the top of your lungs, 'cause Avengers Tower is about to go all "Red Dawn" when the Crimson Dynamo invades! But who is the super-spy on the armored villain's trail...and can she be trusted?
(Yeah, there's Storm. Now, we're talking! She's popular, isn't she? She'll be all over with guest appearances!)
BLACK PANTHER ANNUAL # 1
The Story: “BLACK TO THE FUTURE”: A special double-sized issue to commemorate Black History Month.
It’s 2057 and the Watcher’s prediction came true: Wakanda is an Imperial Power steering the course for humanity’s future. As T’Challa prepares the next Black Panther for the great responsibility ahead, he must first reflect on the road traveled–a long and winding journey filled with surprises.
CRIMINAL 2 # 1
The Story: That’s right, the most acclaimed crime comic in the industry is giving readers and retailers a second chance to get onboard as we relaunch with a new format, featuring more pages, longer main stories, and an expanded magazine section! “Second Chance In Hell” begins the first of three standalone issues, this one focusing on Gnarly the bartenders and telling the story of the last days of his life as a boxer and revealing how the Undertow bar came into his hands. It’s a hard-hitting period-piece, set in the grimy early 70s, where crime, seduction and betrayal go hand-in-hand. And on top of this longer-than-usual length main story, CRIMINAL now features an expanded back-pages section, as well – with articles by Brubaker and other top crime writers, from novelists to screenwriters to comic writers. These noir articles have become a popular piece of the CRIMINAL package, and are something that can only be found in the comics, not in any collections. So please take this SECOND CHANCE IN HELL to find out what everyone’s been talking about!
HOUSE OF M: AVENGERS # 5
The Story: The action-packed conclusion! Thunderbird and the Brotherhood begin their purge of Sapien Town, backed by the authority of the House of M! Only Luke Cage and The Avengers stand in their way! But will there be anything left of Sapien Town when the smoke clears...? (Wait -- are there THREE black folks on the cover here? Can they do that?)

Image Comics...
’76 #2 (of 8)
written by B. CLAY MOORE & SETH PECK
art by ED TADEM & TIGH WALKER
cover by ED TADEM
In 1976 New York, Jackie Karma reconnects with his sixties street–fighting partner Marcus King, and the two consider a return to kicking ass. In the second chapter of “Cool,” LA bounty hunters Pete Walker & Leon Campbell begin the hunt for a runaway stripper and we meet Jimmy Length, porn star turned hit man.
(Hang on! We're done with marvel already? I only saw Storm once!)
THE CIRCLE #4
written by BRIAN REED
art & cover IAN HOSFELD
“THE GOLIATH TRAP,” Part Four
The new series from best–selling writer BRIAN REED (Captain Marvel, Mercenaries, Ms. Marvel, New Avengers: Illuminati, Red Sonja) and artist IAN HOSFELD continues! As the history between The Circle and the murderous CIA Agent Y is revealed, MI–6 Agent Wallace Christopher and an unlikely ally chase the Goliath missile train through the wilds of Kazakhstan!
(And what about John "Green Lantern" Stewart? I didn't see him anywhere!)
SPAWN #179
Spawn #179 previewwritten by DAVID HINE
art by BRIAN HABERLIN
cover by GREG CAPULLO
Spawn battles his greatest enemy... HIMSELF! When Al Simmons was resurrected as a Hellspawn, he became symbiotically connected to his living necroplasmic costume. Now that costume has turned against him, and it’s tearing him apart...
(Or Black Lightning? I mean, he was created as the token black guy for DC!)


... and that's about it. I didn't go through each and every publisher and I'm sure I glossed over a few things, but out of a couple hundred new issues coming out this month, and I only saw 14 that seem to feature an African-American at all, and most of those appear to be smaller characters in an ensemble cast. That seems... well... wrong. Especially when these publishers have great black characters at their disposal. I can almost see not having a lot of black characters appearing regularly, but it's not like the publishers didn't realize Black History Month was coming -- it's the same month every year, you know? Proven by the fact that it IS referenced once!

I wouldn't go so far as to start making claims of racism, only that it's the sort of blinkered, philistine pig ignorance I've come to expect from the publishers. They sit there on their loathsome, spotty behinds squeezing blackheads, not caring a tinker's cuss for other cultures. They're excrement! Whining, hypocritical toadies, with their color TV sets and their Tony Jacklin golf clubs and their bleeding Masonic secret handshakes! They wouldn't let me join, would they, those blackballing bastards! Well, I wouldn't become a comic pro now if they went down on their lousy, stinking knees and begged me!

Sorry -- started channeling John Cleese there for some reason...

Seriously, though, it does seem awfully obtuse of the entire industry to largely ignore vast segments of potential markets. It's not that black folks don't like comics as a medium; they just don't see them themselves reflected in it very often. And yeah, I know that putting out even a really good Black Lightening comic isn't going to bring African-Americans into comic shops in droves, but Milestone had a fair measure of success but couldn't really keep up with the bursting comic bubble back in the 1990s. But whatever successes they had didn't happen overnight. It took time to build an audience and I don't see the major publishers granting that time. And the smaller publishers don't have the money to afford that kind of time.

But it still seems to me that there's a large potential audience that's just waiting to be asked back to the party, if only the comic industry served up something palatable.