Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Me, Today


Regular blogging to resume as soon as I can breathe again.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Holiday Stories

Well, the holidays ended up being quite a bit more whirlwind than I anticipated. I took the S.O. up to visit with my family for Christmas. My brother, his wife, and their brood were in town, as were some of my mom's family. It was definitely interesting, I think, as S.O. normally doesn't really celebrate Christmas, plus most of said relatives she was meeting for the first time. It could've been extremely awkward for her, but she took even the most oddball moments in stride.

Our first night in town, we were relaxing on the couch when my mom calls up the Tivo and said she had something interesting to show us. She zips through the previous night's 10:00 news until she gets to their weekly "Fugitive of the Week" segment. It turns out that my cousin's former boyfriend -- and the father of her three-year-old child -- was the highlighted fugitive, wanted for multiple federal charges. While he had been using an alias when we knew him, my cousin still called the police and he was apprehended within 12 hours of being shown on television.

None of us were terribly surprised, frankly, but it does help to explain some of the behavior of his son, who we've nicknamed the Free Range Kid in recognition of his backyard potty training. Later that evening, I spent a fairly long time explaining that portion of the family to the S.O. (As a an aside, anyone want to draw a comedy Western comic called "The Free Range Kid"? I've got plenty of ideas now -- call me.)

Christmas morning was excited, with three youngsters running around opening presents.
I continued my efforts to make geeks of my niece and nephew with these gifts...(I'll let you figure out who got what.)

I also picked up a copy of Viper Comics' Kid Houdini & The Silver Dollar Misfits for my dad, the magician.

Most of the rest of the weekend was spent keeping tabs on the kids as they tore through my folks' house, and trying to keep Mom from going nuts by helping with some of the household chores. I did take a half hour or so to borrow Dad's laminating machine to laminate pages from New Warriors #27 and Spider-Man #24 to include in my copy of The Infinity War but much of the week was something of a blur.

I did get a chance to read through Holy Sh*t: The World's Weirdest Comic Books. It's a light read, just touching on some of comics' more off-the-wall books, ranging from underground fetish porn to Jack Chick to Mr. A to promotional comics blatantly touting the benefits of their supplier. I'm not sure what struck me more, though: that none of the books presented struck me as particularly weird, or that I actually had a few of them in my collection! For a relatively small book, I was impressed that as much information as there is about each comic is presented, and it has certainly much more than I've typically found in this type of book. Readers, then, who are a bit more savvy about comics and want to track down more information about, say, Octobriana or Reagan's Raiders. Overall, a fun book, just not one that you should leave out where kids might see it. (My folks actually placed an "R" rating on the gift tag, since they knew there'd be yung'uns around when it was given to me.)

There was also plenty of Playmobil and Playstation, and general laughter at 20-year-old pictures of me sporting a mullet. More laughter ensued at 30-year-old pictures of Dad sporting a handlebar mustache. Not to mention extended stories about Hot Pants Carol and being able to witness the Free Range Kid in person! (And the S.O. thought I was exaggerating!) All in all, an entertaining -- if not exactly Rockwellian -- Christmas with family. Hope yours has been just as interesting!

X-Mas Loot

I'm back from an unintended blogging break, so while I get back into the swing of the comics scene, I thought I'd share some of the comic-related goodies I received for Christmas from various relatives...

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

How To Fall In Love With Pogo

My dad recently found and passed along to me his copy of The Return of Pogo. I'd read bits and pieces of Walt Kelly's work before, but never to my recollection more than a strip or two at a time. I was excited to see one of the greats "in action."

As I began reading through the book, though, I remembered that I had in fact read it before. That very book in fact. I didn't get past page one without laughing out loud and recalling that I laughed out loud at the very same joke years ago when I must have snagged it off Dad's bookshelf. (The joke, by the way, centered around that fact that Churchy was worried because Friday the 13th was fast approaching, and it was on a Monday!)

But reading through it again, some two and a half decades after my initial run-through, I wasn't surprised that it didn't leave a greater impression on me as a kid. The jokes that a 10/11 year old might get are amusing, certainly, but largely pretty broad in scope. What impressed me reading through the book this weekend was how much social and political commentary Kelly filled his stories with. Lots of references that make no sense without some semblance of understanding the various complexities grown-ups face in day-to-day life. Brilliance in nuanced subtlety.

Like many children of the 1970s, I grew up on Sesame Street. I stumbled across the show again in college and realized just how much of it was in fact aimed at adults. An architect named Frank Lloyd Left, for example. Or the derby-wearing Brit who provided absurd non-sequiturs and went by the name Monty. It was a kid's show that understood that parents might well be watching as well.

I think Kelly took a different approach. He wrote a comic strip for adults, with the understanding that kids would probably read it too. The funniest stuff is clever and insightful and thought-provoking, but a good pie-in-the-face gag never hurt anyone either!

So, how do you fall in love with Pogo? Simple. Wait until you're out of college, then pick up any collection of his work. You won't be sorry!

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Comic Cost Per Minute

Aaron Albert sat down to calculate how much it costs per minute to be entertained by a comic, movie or video game. While perhaps not the most scientific survey, his back-of-the-envelope math still brings up some interesting points worthy of discussion.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Dogs of War

Next week, as everyone knows, will present us with something folks have been looking forward to for months: the finale to the current volume of Atomic Robo. (What? You thought I was talking about Christmas or something?)

The first series introduced readers to Atomic Robo and his world with lots of exciting adventures. In "Dogs of War" we go back to an earlier period in Robo's history, as he fought for the U.S. during World War II. This series is more cohesive from a storytelling perspective than the first. Most of the original issues were one-off tales, showing Robo fighting a giant pyramid or getting stuck on Mars or whatever the conflict du jour was. This time around, Robo is recruited by the U.S. army to fight Nazis and the whole of the series follows Robo's exploits during WWII.

It seems that Hitler has been funding several top secret projects throughout the war, trying to develop the newest/best/deadliest war machines. He's been supporting all sorts of ideas from genetically enhanced warriors to walking-tank body armor. Robo, specifically, has taken on the Nazi scientist Skorzeny who manages to stay, like all good arch-nemesises, a half step ahead of Robo throughout the war. Plots are foiled, labs are blown up, but the villain is still able to escape shouting, "I'll get you next time!"

As I mentioned when issue #2 came out, this is a slightly different Atomic Robo than we saw in volume 1. As the second volume occurs (almost entirely) during the 1940s, the titular hero has half a century less experience than when readers first saw him. So what struck me in particular throughout this new series were the backup stories in #4 and #5.

The backup story in #4 takes place during the Korean War, and shows us an Atomic Robo that has grown distasteful of war. While he still is willing to help the U.S., he comes to the conclusion that he is not just their fancy war toy -- he wasn't built for that, and it diminishes the legacy of his creator, Nikola Tesla.

In #5, we see Robo confront Skorzeny once again, this time in 1974. Skorzeny is now an old man and finally tells Robo that it was he himself that killed Tesla. Robo's response and subsequent actions are clearly NOT those of the Atomic Robo we see throughout the rest of this volume. It's a Robo who has grown and evolved, and become his own being.

I was really pleased with this final backup story. Many of the previous backups are largely unrelated to the main feature, so I was struck by how curt the ending to that was in #5, even though we all know how WWII ultimately turned out. But this backup acts more as an epilogue to the not only the issue, but the whole volume, and I think speaks well to writer Brian Clevinger's abilities.

You know, the first volume of Atomic Robo was impressive, and I don't think I saw one bad review. This second volume is more impressive, I think. Not that it stands that much above the previous one in and of itself, but when taken altogether, the eleven issues showcase a really talented team, who have a more than impressive grasp on sequential storytelling. There haven't been as many reviews of volume two, I expect, because, frankly, there's not much more people can say. "Hey, this is STILL really good" doesn't make for engaging blog reading. But it is still really good, and that the creative team can keep up such high levels of quality over an extended period is doubly impressive.

Issue #5 is due out, as I said, next week. If you missed the previous issues (and shame on you, if you did!) the whole volume will be available as a trade paperback in Feburary.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Ciara: Fantasy Ride

Late last week, singer Ciara released the cover art for her next album: Fantasy Ride. It's by comic artist Bernard Chang and showcases Ciara's supeheroic alter ego, Super C. Ciara herself talks a bit about the character with Chang in the following video...
In the video, Ciara makes reference to a comic book also called Fantasy Ride but it's unclear if that's just the singer mis-speaking or if there'll be an actual comic book story to accompany the album.

(Props to the S.O. for passing along the info on this to me.)

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Us Versus Them

In his own comments section, my bud pillock, before drowning himself in beer, followed up his rant against Blogorama how and why this schism between the "likes art; hates capes" and "likes capes; hates art" sects of comic fandom came about.

When I first started becoming interested in comic fandom, I wrote an essay about the "stages" of fandom, and how a person becomes a comic fan in the first place and "evolves" from one stage to the next. It was never published (thankfully -- it comes across as more than a bit sophomoric in retrospect) but I still hold to some of the basic ideas I presented in it. The reason I bring it up here is that writing that piece forced me to examine my own history as a comic book fan, and reflect on my own evolving tastes.

The comics that really grabbed my attention as a kid were mostly now-classic Superman and Batman comics from the early 1970s. At the time I wasn't very discerning about whether I read them in Action Comics, Detective Comics, Justice League, World's Finest or whatever. (But to this day, I think Curt Swan is the only Superman artist worth seeking out.) Eventually that led to more "advanced" comics like Fantastic Four and Avengers. Jack Kirby's legal art-fight with Marvel was headlining comic news by then, and I started seeking out more information about the creators behind the comics and how they created the comics in the first place. Which eventually led me to Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics.
(That comic was one of five I made for that original essay. The odd panel structure was patterned after the lightning bolt on the chest of Captain Marvel, who I used as one of the narrative hooks of the essay.)

But what Understanding Comics has showed me -- a point which I didn't realize before -- was that I had been a fan of superheroes whose exploits were frequently delivered in comic book form, and not comics themselves. It was quite a revelation for me at the time (you might say it was like I was struck by a bolt of lightning) and it marked a very clear turn for me to actively seek out good comics not just good superhero stories presented within comics.

In my research at the time, I was discovering, too, that many fans experienced similar transitions. Not necessarily from reading McCloud, but from reading some comic that suddenly opened their eyes to the possibilities beyond what they had been reading. Not everyone experiences it, naturally, and those that don't are the ones who primarily read superhero books and don't care for "art comix".

And there's absolutely nothing wrong with that.

But that's why there's a divide between these two camps. One group of people are fans of the medium of sequential art, while another are fans of superheroes who happen to be frequently sold to them in comic form. And because they're primarily digested as comics, the reader assumes (as I once did) that s/he is a fan of comics. The primary vehicle for their enjoyment is being mistaken for the subject of their enjoyment. (And let me make myself perfectly clear that I'm not making any value judgments with that statement. It's an easy mistake to make, and one that I made for nearly 20 years.) I was talking just the other day about how the "comics" industry is largely a "superhero/fantasy" industry that happens to include some comics.

And that is where the conflicts stem from. While both groups are using the same terminology -- scripting, line weights, page layouts, etc. -- they're speaking different languages. One group is applying those terms to and discussing them in relation to a medium, while another is applying the terms and discussing them in relation to a genre. So when one side claims Maus as a great example of comics, the other is left confused because they're applying genre criteria to a work outside that genre. Conversely, a group lauding the workmanship in X-Men confuse the other side because they're applying the full range of considerations for the medium against a specific genre piece. Same words, different languages.

These misunderstandings can (understandably) lead to anger and resentment, and further divide the two groups. It becomes an us/not-us scenario and, coupled with some of that anger, gives rise to a "if you're not with us, then you're against us" mentality. And, naturally, if somebody is always against you, you're going to quickly take a defensive posture when dealing with them. It's almost instinctive. You ever read Lord of the Flies?

I'm over-emphasizing the schism (I hope) by referencing William Goulding's novel, but the basic premise remains. People dislike what they fear; they fear the unknown; and they associate the message with the messenger.

"I don't understand what you're saying. I don't know how to interpret your message. I don't like your message. I don't like you."

That's a bit overly simplistic, but I think that's what it amounts to.

Now me? I come from the superhero camp originally, so I understand that side of the discussion, and I don't harbor any misunderstandings about what that group is talking about. If/when I read something whose author clearly is writing to that mentality, I put my own, well-worn superhero cap on and read with that mindset. If/when I read something from somebody writing to the "art comix" crowd, I put on that hat and read accordingly. I expect most people who grew up on superhero comics, as I did, do the same thing.

But if you come to comics via, say, an art history background. Maybe via William Hogarth. Or through Egyptian hieroglyphics. You might not have any background/understanding of that superhero fan perspective, and respond to one of the "likes capes; hates art" folks with that same mix of confusion and anger.

"I don't understand what you're saying. I don't know how to interpret your message. I don't like your message. I don't like you."

Maybe I don't read superhero comics any more, but I have spent most of my life in fandom engrossed stories about people with fantastic powers wearing spandex. I still have fond memories of watching The Super Friends and The Batman/Tarzan Hour. Michael Keaton remains my favorite Batman. I still wear t-shirts sporting Fantastic Four artwork. 62% of my own comic book collection was published by Marvel. I own DVD collections of Wonder Woman and The Greatest American Hero. But I also enjoy the works of Joe Sacco, Jim Ottaviani, Spike, Windsor McCay, Bryan Talbot, Bill Watterson, George Herriman, Jane Irwin, and a host of other comic creators who rarely, if ever, made/make superhero comics. And I don't think there's anything wrong with that.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Presentations = Comics?

Derik Badman has a fascinating post comparing presentations (speech + visual slides) and comics (text + visual imagery). Derik's quickly become one of the more prominent (in my mind) contemporary thinkers about comic books, and he's got some fascinating.

Julius Schwartz Lecture Series

Henry Jenkins talks with Neil Gaiman about key themes in his work, his ideas about myth, storytelling, and popular entertainment. Here are two excerpts...


DVD copies of the full interview are available here. The next interview in the Julius Schwartz Lecture Series will be with J. Michael Straczinski on May 22.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Random Pun

It just occurred to me that if the local newspaper in Little Rock, Arkansas ran a photograph of a pair of scissors on their front page, you'd have to call them Little Rock Paper Scissors.

Thank you, I'll be here all week!

Monday, December 15, 2008

Answers For Spurgeon

Tom Spurgeon recently asked a number of questions that he'll be mulling over this holiday season. I've got some thoughts on several of them, and felt that both the questions and some of my answers were worth sharing with a broader audience.

1. Why Don't Alternative Comic Books Sell Better In Comics Shops?
6. Why Is No One Alarmed That DC/Marvel Dominate Market Share?
7. Whatever Happened to Traditional Self-Publishing?


I think these three questions tie together and so I'd like to address them simultaneously.

The issue with self-publishing starts from a convergence of several factors. First and foremost is something of an industry maturation. Any successful business or society follows the basic notion that, as it becomes more successful, it becomes more and more suited to specialization through a division of labor. As it serves an increasing population, more individuals are required for production to serve the larger base. As you have more and more people involved, it becomes more efficient to divide the labor among them so that each person specializes in a particular aspect of the production process.

Think of agriculture. Back in the day, any given farmer might plant corn and lettuce and tomatoes and wheat and carrots and tobacco, as well as raise cows and chickens and pigs and sheep. But as farms serve an ever-growing population, they've become more specialized so that each farmer now focuses one element of that list. Rather than having EVERY farmer plant several types of crops and raise different types of animals, each only provides one items from that list, so they can be more efficient in (for example) growing carrots and get more and better carrots for the effort put into them. This has gone so far now that some farmers specialize in only sub-sets of those categories: dairy cows versus beef cows, for example. Or organic lettuce versus 'traditional' lettuce versus hydroponic lettuce.

Comics work in much the same way. Will Eisner famously started a division of labor back in the 1940s by separating out the tasks of writing, penciling, inking, lettering and coloring. Today, the self-publishing movement has matured and realized that they can more effectively get their story out to the public if the writer/artist does NOT also have to worry about publication issues. Wasn't there a internet discussion just last week that looked at various options creators had in going with Image over Dark Horse or whomever?

A couple decades ago, the outlets creators had for publishing their works (and maintaining their copyrights!) were extremely limited and not necessarily suited for comics anyway. The industry has matured sufficiently since then that creators now have a number of different options (online, print-on-demand, etc.) that allow them to focus on their storytelling, and not worry about the mechanics of book publishing and distribution.

Now, this ties in with a lack of sales in alt comics and the dominance of Marvel/DC by the nature of that specialization. With the industry maturation, comics shops have also matured. When creators' outlets were limited, so too were customers'. When there were only a handful of paper products being printed, a newsstand was adequate for providing all of a customer's reading needs. But as the number of periodicals grew, so too did the need for specialization. This gave rise to the comics shop which sold, not surprisingly, comic books. But, as comics have become increasingly specialized, the comic shop has also had to specialize more.

"But, Sean, my shop has more ancillary material than ever before! I can get DVDs, CCGs, statues, action figures..."

That's most likely true, but that shop has not specialized in media, but specialized in genre. Those busts and t-shirts and paraphernalia, by and large, are superhero-related. The comic shops of old aren't really comic shops any more, but superhero shops. They are peddlers in fantasy and escapism. The same holds true for Diamond. How much of their monthly catalog is actually taken up by comics? How much of it, by contrast, is taken up with statues and prop replicas and posters and...? (I've never done an actual comparison here, but I'd certainly be interested in seeing someone who did.)

Most alt comics don't really deal with the fantasy/escapist element that's seen in superhero comics. (That's not to say, of course, that there's no fantasy or escapism in alt comics, just that it's generally not the point of them.) And, of course, that's not to say that ALL comic shops sell exclusively superhero comics -- clearly, that's not the case -- but those that specialize in the superhero genre (that is to say, most of them) tend not to have much in the way of alt comics. In contrast, comic shops that specialize in comics focus more on the medium itself and have less in the way of ancillary products.

That being said, it should come as no surprise whatsoever that Marvel and DC -- the dominant players in superhero fantasy -- overwhelmingly dominate the market. Comic shops are selling the superhero genre, where Marvel and DC are almost the only real players. Folks like Image and Dark Horse, while often contributing to fantasy comic milieux, have comparatively little in the way of straight-up superheroes. That we see Marvel and DC swamp the Diamond charts every month isn't an indicator of their overall media dominance, just an indicator of their genre dominance.

So, while saying that comic shops don't cater to anything but the superhero set is something of a pat answer, that really is the case. But only because "comic shops" aren't really "shops that sell comic books" so much as "shops that sell superhero fantasies."

2. Why On Earth Does Marvel Think $3.99 Comic Books Is A Good Idea?

It's simple math.

Let's say a Marvel comic costs $2.99 and it sells 30,000 issues a month. That's $89,700 in revenue. If Marvel jacks up the price to $3.99, they will inevitably lose readers. How about we assume 25% for the sake of simplicity? If a dollar price increase drops monthly sales by 25%, Marvel will actually bring in more money. 22,500 x 3.99 = 89,775. Yes, that's only a $75 increase in this example, but that's also just using off-the-top-of-my-head figures. I suspect Marvel has done some number crunching and figured that they won't lose nearly that many readers for most of their books.

What Marvel realizes here -- and I've heard Marvel editors speak to this point directly -- is that Marvel comics are what economists call price inelastic. That means that the price you pay can fluctuate quite a bit without a change in your buying habits. Gasoline is a more classic example of having price inelasticity. But, as we've seen recently with gas, there IS a point at which people will start changing their buying habits based on price. But, in the case of gas, that didn't really start until after we'd staying north of $3.50 a gallon for several months and we started seeing that reflected in the price of moving goods around the country. Marvel is betting (accurately, I'd wager) that a $3.99 cover price won't send away too many of their customers.

Consumers don't have an infinite bank account, though, so that price change is going impact them. But, I'd bet (as I'm sure Marvel is) that most of their customers are going to drop books from other publishers before theirs. Sure, the folks who buy mostly DC books and only one or two Marvel books are more likely to drop the Marvel books over their DC ones. But the bulk of Marvel's readership, I'd guess, is comprised of people who buy mostly Marvel comics. Most superhero fans seem to have a preference to which universe they visit, and the Marvel fans which comprise the majority of their overall readership are more likely to drop non-Marvel books. Especially in this era of perpetual company-wide crossovers. Does it make more sense to drop Final Crisis (which doesn't really make sense unless you're also reading a half dozen other DC titles) or Secret Invasion (which ties in with another dozen or two books that you were already reading anyway)?

The issue I'm sure many of you have thought of is, of course, that this will likely have a detrimental impact on smaller publishers, as people drop their one Slave Labor title to afford their Marvels. This will, overall, almost certainly hurt the industry and I expect we'll see Marvel actually increase their market share with regard to dollar value. It doesn't strike me as a positive move for the industry overall, but I'm pretty sure the bean counters at Marvel aren't focused on that.

8. Why Is The Fact That A Few People Are Making That Kind Of Money On Webcomics Not A Bigger Story?

I think there's a couple of issues here. First is that, as Tom points out, the vast majority of webcomic creators are NOT making a living off their site. I think the number of self-sustaining webcomics are decidedly the aberration and not the norm. So any discussion that does happen is going to center around those handful of nearly unique creators. Which leads to a second issue.

People, and Americans in particular, don't like divulging their financial information. It's considered a distinct breach of etiquette to ask someone how much money they're making. We can see what the going page rate is at Marvel or DC because there's enough folks working there that the number is inherently NOT indicative of what they earn. But if we mention the going rate is for self-sustaining webcomics, we're essentially talking about what Phil Foglio earns.

(Even though the small number of financially successful webcomics is very small as to inevitably skew the data. It'd be like asking what Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos and myself earn in a year, and assuming that's a pretty good indicator of what all computer type folks make. The extremely limited sampling makes the margin of error so great as to render the numbers unreliable.)

All of which means that, so far, webcomics creators dodge the issue by saying, simply, that they make enough to earn a living. There's a general assumption that that means at least roughly twice the poverty level (currently about $20,000/year/person) but there's a lot of room for interpretation there. There's a big difference, after all, between $20,000 and $30,000.

So until we have a substantial number of webcomic creators earning a living, and we're able to start generating some reasonable average numbers, I think any matter-of-fact discussions are going to continue centering around the unique experiences of a small handful of individuals -- which more likely than not don't apply to anyone else. There simply aren't enough folks to determine what "best practices" are for the business.

9. How Many Staffed Editorial Cartoonist Positions Will There Be Ten Years From Now?

I won't even BEGIN to speculate this one. As recently as a couple weeks ago, he also posed the question of how many editorial cartoonist positions will there be by the end of 2009. At the time, he cited there were about 60. I think we've seen a half dozen cartoonists let go since then!?!

Technology is moving to fast to speculate ten years out. Try to recall what the newspaper or comics field looked like in 1998. The New York Times web site had been online for maybe 12-18 months. Girl Genius hadn't been published at all, much less been transferred to a web-only comic. Achewood was still several years out. Most news was still consumed via television. The number of cell phone users had just topped 50 million, compared to the 3 billion users today.

I think speculating ten years out on such a specific point is about impossible. I think it's safe to say that we're going to see a decrease in staff newspaper cartoonists over the next several years, but I can't even begin to imagine what the news/media outlets are going to look like in a decade, much less what sort of business models they'll be using, much less how many cartoonists will be on staff of those organizations.

As to Tom's other questions, I'm not sure I have any reasonable answers/thoughts about those beyond what he's already noted.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Comics For Shriners Kids

Here's an article that made the front page of today's Cincinnati Enquirer about wrestler Ric Connely, who donates comics and games to kids in Shriners Hospital for Children.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Lolcat

The S.O. shared a pic of her cat, who's getting used to being in its new environment: my house. It had to be lolcat-ed...

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Favorite Covers

Here are some of my favorite comic book covers as a kid...

Bit of a range when it comes to artistic skill and page layout, eh? I was a kid; what did I know about that kind of stuff? No, my criteria for a "favorite cover" was -- are you ready for this? -- whether or not there was a full-figure character on it suitable for cutting out.

"Wait -- did you say 'cutting out'?"

Yup. I actually still have most of the comics from when I was a kid, but many of the covers are gone because I ripped them off and cut out the figures.

"In the name of all that's holy, why would you do something like that?!?"

Well, those were my "action" figures. I only had a handful of those super-cool Mego figures, so I resorted to the two-dimensional artwork on the covers of comics. Each figure was limited to one pose, but a handful of comics could yield all sorts of different poses.

"Why the covers, though?"

A few reasons, actually, of them entirely practical. First, the cover was of a better stock of paper than the interiors, so they'd last longer. Second, all those panels in the story meant that the figures were smaller and frequently incomplete. The cover was often the only place you could see the full figure of the character. Third, because of the way DC at least designed their covers, they didn't tend to do a whole lot in the fore- or backgrounds; everything was placed in a conveniently middle-ground area. Which meant that many of the figures were roughly the same size.

Besides, back in the 1970s, where else were you going to get Zan and Jayna action figures? Superman and Batman you could come by; Saturn Girl, not so much.

When I was a kid, I enjoyed my comics. I got hours upon hours of fun out of my 20 or 30 cents. And, you know, that's why I dig comics -- not for any collectibility or investment or anything. But because I enjoy them. Nothing against those who do have other reasons for getting in to comics, but I just want be entertained.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Bollocks To "Best Of"

Well, it's the time of year when the blogosphere starts rolling out their "best of" lists for the year. It seems like everyone who's got an opinion on anything sits down and compiles their top 10 (or 20 or 50 or whatever) picks for the best of whatever it is they have an interest in. And, not surprisingly, that includes comics.

I say "Bollocks!" to the whole concept. Especially when it comes to bloggers.

First off, I don't think it's humanly possible to read EACH and EVERY comic book and graphic novel that comes out in a year's time. Maybe if you had absolutely nothing else to do at all, including write or talk about them. There's just too much material out there. So the very premise of a "best of" list is inherently flawed from the fact it implies a comprehensive overview when, in fact, it's limited to what the critic has seen him/herself. This is the main reason why I don't write "Best Of" lists myself: I've never felt that I read NEARLY enough to feel I have any justification in putting together such a list. There are easily dozens of really phenomenal-sounding books I hear about every year that I simply don't get a chance to read.

Of course, another main flaw is that "best" is entirely subjective. You can cite all sorts of critical analyses of wordsmithing and line and form and all that, but at the end of the day, if somebody just doesn't like that particular genre or artistic style or overall messaging, they just won't like the work. Period. For example, many folks (including myself) have praised the level of quality in High Moon, but if you just can't stand Westerns, it won't qualify for your "best of" list.

Then we have a problem which doesn't apply to every "best of" list, but certainly more than a few of them: there's little or no reason given for a book's inclusion on said list. Why does one title make it but another doesn't? I suppose there's an assumption that the blog reader has something of a feel for the blogger's tastes and can guess, but I might not be a regular reader and might be unfamiliar with the fact that a blogger might have some complete loathing of Peter Bagge on a deeply personal level and refuses to acknowledge his work in any capacity.

Then we also have the problem of comparing apples to oranges. Even if you really loved all of the individual issues of Amazing Spider-Man from this year, how can you compare that to how much you absolutely loved the Split Lip anthology? Completely different types of stories, completely different delivery mechanism, completely different in almost every way imaginable, except for the root notion of them both using sequential art to tell a story. By saying one is better than the other, you're putting a value judgment on things that can't realistically be compared.

Here's my thing: I read the reviews people have of comics. I'm familiar with many of the creators' work. I can judge for myself whether or not I enjoy it, and I can write my own reviews here if I want to tell you what I thought, if I actually read it. I'm going to judge and value each comic on its own merits and not really weigh it against everything else.

I enjoy different comics for different reasons. The level and type of enjoyment isn't universal across "everything" which probably is really only a subset of everything in the first place. If you like a book, great, tell me you like it and why -- that's what makes a good review. If you don't like a book, that's cool, tell me why you don't like it and why -- that also makes for a good review. But don't compile some arbitrary list of titles that you happen to like at the end of the year, and expect me to give it any credence.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

The Mother Of All Demos

Forty years ago today, Douglas Engelbart -- then working at Stanford Research Institute -- unveiled his new computing device, the mouse, at "the mother of all demos" which also showcased his ground-breaking work on interactive text, video conferencing, teleconferencing, email and hypertext...


Collectively, this was effectively the first public appearance of what was to become all this hoohah we call the Internet.

1968! Let's take a look at what the world looked like in 1968...
  • The Tet Offensive of the Vietnam War
  • The U.S. goes off the gold standard
  • 2001: A Space Odyssey premiers
  • Martin Luther King, Jr. assassinated
  • Richard Nixon elected U.S. President
  • Eric Bana and Hugh Jackman are born
  • Mister Rogers' Neighborhood debuts

Of all the things that were going on in 1968, Englebart's presentation probably had the greatest impact on the comic book industry. Not just the online comics you're reading, but every comic book that's in production in any almost capacity is developed or printed or distributed using computers and electronic communications. It's easy to see the online comics in this light, but how many comics today are sent back and forth via email or FTP servers as they're being produced? How many are sent electronically to the printers? How many are solicited via emails, online news sites and blogs? Business on the whole would look completely different today if it weren't for the invention of the computer and the internet. The importance of easily-used input devices and inter-computer communications cannot be understated here.

I'm 100% certain that Engelbart had zero clue as to all the facets of 21st century life he was to have an impact on. In 1968, all of these fanciful ideas were almost purely science fiction. And, heck, most of the science fiction being generated back then was still only trying to predict the impossibly distant future of the 1980s. (Either that, or going into the REALLY impossibly distant futures seen in shows like Star Trek or The Jetsons.)

Engelbart's presentation was stealthy, in a way. Even though what was he doing was revolutionary to those who knew about it, no one could foresee it's impact. What he was doing in real-time outclassed the science fiction gadgetry of Mr. Spock. But, because it wasn't shiny (that's his original mouse at the right) and didn't have big tail fins, and it didn't remind people of Buck Rogers or Flash Gordon, it didn't capture the imagination in the same way as people like Julie Schwartz and Gene Roddenberry were doing. It was, in effect, poorly marketed.

In fact, the personal computer wouldn't really take off for another 15-20 years. Some of that, admittedly, was getting the price point down to something Joe Average could afford, but much of it had to do with making the computer sexy and functional for some day-to-day operations.

I don't want to get in to an extended discussion of Bill Gates and Steve Jobs here, though, so let me end by taking a moment to honor Douglas Engelbart and his team who made history 40 years ago today. And who are "honored" every day by people like me who are able to ramble on about the trivialities of comic books in a truly world-wide forum like this.

Apologies & Links

My apologies for veering from daily blogging more than once recently. Lots of holiday-related travel this year. I'll try to still end the year with 365 blog posts, hopefully with a minimum level of "oh, hey, check out this cool link" themes.

That said, Tom Spurgeon recently published a couple of upbeat posts about comics and the economy. While they're definitely interesting reading in general, I would like to point out that I found the following passage particularly clever: "When it comes to the North American comics industry there are a lot more t-shirts than ties, a lot more Keepers of the Flame than holder of MBAs, and a lot more personal loans than revolving lines of credit." Go read post one and post two

Friday, December 05, 2008

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Comics = Windows To Your Soul

One of the comics I regularly read these days is Chris Harding's We The Robots. I generally find his work enjoyable, as he often provides absurdly cynical social commentary in an intelligently simple, metaphoric manner. But his last comic from Tuesday has been bothering me, and I'm writing about it here in the hopes to provide a sort of catharsis for me.

First, here's the comic in question...
In terms of the style and type of humor, it's about on par with his other comics. I'm not overly prone to bodily function gags, as a rule, but the vomiting here doesn't bother me. It's a route to his point, not the joke in and of itself.

I'm actually bothered by the set-up in the first two panels. It makes perfect sense for the message of the strip and works well from a critical perspective. But it also shoots right to the darkest depths of my subconscious, and grabs hold of one of my life-motivating fears: willfully losing my self-control.

(This is where I get into all sorts of fun personal insights about me, and starts shying away from actual comics discussion. You've been warned.)

I firmly believe in free will. I believe that I, and I alone, choose what decisions I make and what actions I take. I, and I alone, am wholly responsible for my actions at all times and under all circumstances. I made a conscious and deliberate decision when I was still in my teens that I would not partake in alcohol precisely because I do not want to lose any of my cognitive judgment capabilities in any capacity for any period of time. In fact, I'm such a strong believer in free will that I can't logically reconcile that belief at all with any sort of divine entity. And that means that a lot that goes on in this world is entirely out of anyone's control, and all I can do is act/react the best that I can to whatever situations get thrown at me. Which reinforces a need for me to be in control of what I do actually have control over: myself.

Let me make a distinction here. I'm not a control-freak and feel the need to direct everything that my life touches. The only control that I'm concerned about is what I say or do. There will always be parts of my life that I will never have full control over. My employer, through no fault of my own, could go belly up. Some idiot could get drunk and plow his car into my living room. A cougar could get loose from the local zoo and kill my dog while he's in the back yard. Those are the types of things that Life throws at people from time to time, and I can't really do anything about that but try to continue on with my life.

But that notion of losing self-control scares the crap out of me. Of being unable to stop myself from doing something that I recognize I shouldn't be doing. Of being unable to take responsibility for my own actions. I find that prospect absolutely terrifying at very primal level.

And that's what those first two panels of We The Robots speaks to. He clearly recognizes that he's full and should stop eating, but doesn't have the willpower to be able to. He's succumbing to his gluttony over his rational thought. He's checked his responsibility at the door, and has willingly given up his self-control.

That control, in my mind, is all we really have in life. Without it, we're nothing more than zombies. Whether it's the way he actually intended it or not, it's how I interpret Jack Kirby's Anti-Life Equation. Going through the motions of living without actually doing so.

I fully realize -- and accept -- that it is a deep fear of mine. And fear, by it's very nature, is very irrational. But I know that and take the fear with me as a subconscious motivator. I try to use it to my advantage, by working harder to continually improve myself and have more control over my words and actions. For example, it's actually made me, I think, a much better writer than I might otherwise be because I'm more conscious of what I write, of which words I choose, of how I portray myself linguistically. I'm a better writer because I've trained myself to be in command of the English language. I'm a better drummer than I might otherwise be because I'm very conscious of what my limbs are doing while I'm playing, of what sounds and rhythms I'm trying to produce and how best to produce them. So, despite this irrational fear, I don't let it's inherent irrationality hamper my rational decision-making abilities.

Now, did Harding intend for his comic to be an emotional dredger, giving his readers an opportunity for root-level self-reflection? I'm pretty sure he didn't. And I'm pretty sure most people didn't have quite the same deeply seated, almost pathological reaction to it.

But, when confronted with any piece of art that elicits such a visceral reaction, I think it's important to really examine the piece of art, as well as yourself, to understand why you reacted the way you did. I've done plenty of naval-gazing in the past, so it didn't take me long to understand what was going on when I read Harding's strip the other day, but the emotions it touches on are so much a part of who I am that I felt the need to address it more directly and openly than usual here.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

I'm Not A Serial Guy

Recently, Tim Callahan wrote this piece on why he prefers pamphlet comics over trade paperbacks. He talks about how he likes that Green Lantern and Ghost Rider are rolling around in his head a little more than Fables because he reads the former on a monthly basis and the latter in the decidedly less-frequent TPB format. Green Lantern is more top-of-mind because of the greater frequency.

He also notes that because of that, he's able to get into those stories more. They're more visceral. He feels as if he's exploring the world with Hal Jordan, whereas Fables has more of a flies-in-amber feel to him. That world, for him, is already over and done, and he just happens to be reading about it after the fact.

It's an interesting way of looking at his format preference, but he's wrong.

Well, to put it more accurately, he's not exactly right. He's connected enough of the dots to get a sense of what the picture is, but he's missing some crucial details.

"Kind of presumptuous to claim that a guy you've never met doesn't know his own opinions, don't you think, Sean?"

Oh, I'm sure he's fully sincere about preferring pamphlets to trades, and I've got no reason to doubt him on that. But he's wrong about why he's more in tune with Green Lantern than Fables.

The frequency of pamphlet books over trades DOES have an impact, to be sure. But, more significantly, fans TALK about the issues between releases. The latest issue isn't more visceral because it's any more current than a TPB, it's more visceral because, after you read the issue, you spend the next couple of weeks talking about it with everybody else who read it. As part of the Wednesday crowd, he's taking part in a community event. A shared experience.

New comics come out on Wednesday, right? A good percentage of comic fans dutifully stop by their Local Comic Shop on that day, pick up their favorite comics, and read them (or, at least, many of them) that day. At some point in the evening, or perhaps early the next day, they're online talking about all of the relevant story points. It's a visceral experience because it lasts considerably longer than the actual reading of the comic.

You read the comic. It rolls around in your head for anywhere from a few hours to a day, and you post your thoughts online. Soon afterwards, somebody else posts their thoughts. And somebody ELSE responds to your thoughts with new thoughts of their own. And so on. You're participating in an active community, discussing the life -- indeed, the whole universe -- of Green Lantern. There's a very active and social engagement there.

When you read a trade, though, it takes longer because, there's more pages there. You might not finish it the day it comes out. It might be reprinting material that was already published months, if not years, earlier. When you do go online to discuss it, your peers aren't necessarily going to be joining you on the same page. Maybe they read the pamphlet issues as they came out. Maybe they stayed up all night reading the TPB a week ago when it came out. Maybe they read the pamphlet issues, but missed one somewhere in the middle. It might be fresh and top-of-mind for you right then and there, but not necessarily for everyone else. So the discussion is slower. It's not as energized, as people struggle to recall specifics. Your interaction with them is less exciting as a result, and it becomes less of a salon and more of a soapbox.

"Hmm? Oh, yeah. Death of Jason Todd, I remember that. I think I phoned in to let him live. Or did I only mean to do that?"

It's not the immediacy in and of itself. It's the sense of community that you're a part of. It's the sense of belonging. It's the sense that, in this whole fucked-up mudball we call Earth, you're part of something that many people finding meaning in. That you're not alone shouting in the darkness.

Me? Not my bag. As much as I like engaging in discussions of comic books, I've had a long tendency of inadvertently stopping them cold. No real agreements or disagreements, just crickets chirping. I've long since come to accept that, though, and so when I read comics, I tend to focus on the craft of the comic itself. The messages it conveys and whether or not it does a good job of transporting me to that world for the duration of the story. The social aspect outside the comic never really worked for me, so I don't have a particular preference for the pamphlet format.

But for many people, the comic is absolutely MORE than the 22 page story they read every month. It's a 22 page story that they share with dozens, if not hundreds, of other people. And, although the publishers often do, it's not something to be taken lightly.

Comic Magazine Deathwatch

In the past few months, we've seen Wizard lay off a good chunk of its staff and Comic Foundry announce it's winding down. Today, we get word that WriteNow! will bow out with issue #20. Although no reason is cited, I would guess that it's NOT a financial decision. At least, not exclusively. TwoMorrows sales numbers are closely guarded, but I've gotten the impression that WriteNow! does reasonably well compared to, say, Draw! or Back Issue.

On the plus side, Jack Kirby Collector continues onward with an incredibly well-written and insightful column by some chap named Kleefeld! Issue #51 (where I discuss the Simon/Kirby Sandman) came out about a month ago, and #52 (where I take a look at Kirby vampires) is slated for late February.

"Hey! How did a 'deathwatch' turn into a self-promotional plug?"

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Change Is Bad!

Despite the recent Presidential election results, people aren't generally too keen to accept change, much less embrace it. It usually boils down to "fear of the unknown" and going beyond one's established comfort zone. It's all a matter of perspective, of course, and I'm generally of the opinion that there's always room for improvement and that can't be achieved if you don't change. Change isn't always a good thing, of course, and change should have meaning and at least make an attempt to improve on what had been the status quo. But many people often don't/won't/can't see that.

Case in point...

I went to the comics page I have set up in my iGoogle last night to find that one of the comics gadgets I subscribed to was behaving differently. Instead of pulling in my comics and displaying them at the very bottom of the page, it was now asking for me to reselect which comics I wanted to view to display them in with the rest of my content. And when I did so, it now began placing the comics within the context of my page, instead of at the very bottom like it had before. Since there was no announcement per se, it did take a few moments to understand what had happened, but it also took me very little time to see how this was an improvement.

First, it allows users to place their selected comics where they might best enjoy them, instead of forcing everyone to view them in the same place. The programmer had also re-written some of the code to adjust the width of each comic to fit whatever space it was put within, a very useful feature for especially wide comics. (Which, I might add, comes in doubly-usefully in the wake of last week's sudden change over at comics.com whereby any single panel cartoons are now twice as large as they used to be. While I appreciate being able to see more detail, it did cause some significant layout problems on my comics page.)

Now, the changes this programmer put in place aren't perfect. There's some comments about problems in certain versions of Internet Explorer, and there are some usability issues that could stand to be addressed in my opinion. But, his previous version of the gadget wasn't perfect either. And, rather than trying to fix a bunch of minor problems, he gave the whole thing an overhaul.

Comments about it over the past couple of days include...
...Please give us back the old style...

...The comics displayed better the old way...

...I don't like this one...

...Please change your gadget back to the way it was a week ago. Please! Please...

...It's Terrible...

...Change it back...

...Nope. Don't like it all....

...WTF???

Now, granted, some people were complaining because they were running into specific problems with IE. But most seemed to be irritated that things were different. "It's not what I'm used to!" I think I was the only one who left an even remotely positive comment.

Or how about the fact that no traditional comic publish has done more than tip their toe into the webcomic waters?

Or how about the whole "Spider-Man no longer married to MJ" business?

Like I said, not all change is good. But when it does happen, take a step back and see what opportunities the changes provides for you. Doing it the old way just because it's how you've always done it is why buggy whip manufacturers are few and far between any more.

Monday, December 01, 2008

Digital File Formats

"Alright, so what's the deal with these different file formats for digital comics? I just want to read comics -- I don't really care about what file type it is!"

Fortunately for you, I happen to be a bit of a computer geek who also deals with varying art file formats in my day job, so I'm here to explain things for everyone!

First, let's look at the two basic models for content delivery: downloadable versus reading it online exclusively. The two approaches come mainly from differing business models. With a downloadable version of the file, you're able to hold on to the file and keep it on any drive you might choose, but reading it online means that you have to look at the file via a live internet connection. The original concern for users here was that, in having to read it online, they had to essentially download a new copy every time they wanted to read it, and that could be time-consuming on slower internet connections. And you weren't exactly guaranteed to be able to get to the internet in the first place, depending on where you were. But download speeds have improved markedly over the past few years, and connectivity is almost ubiquitous. The two issues that remain outstanding in favor of downloads (from a user perspective) are 1) that users are not dependent on the whims of the content publisher to continue sharing the files, and 2) that they are able to centralize/aggregate the issues they want in a manner that makes sense to them.

For example, on my hard drive, I have a directory called "Comics." Within that are a series of folders labeled by publisher. Each publisher folder has a number of folders within it, each labeled with a comic's title. And each title folder has the issue files within that, titled with simply a three-digit issue number (such as 001.cbr or 023.pdf). That makes sense for me. I can quickly and easily find any issue in my digital collection. But that might not make sense to somebody else who, for example, only collects books from one publisher. Or is trying to organize their books chronologically. If the user is limited to how the content publisher organizes their selections, they're forced to follow that format -- which might be different from publisher to publisher.

Online read-only comics are typically delivered using Flash, an interactive OS-independent development system currently owned by Adobe. Flash is designed to create open-ended files, so navigation must be built into the final file. (That's why you see so many different treatments in how these types of comics are displayed. Each creator has their own idea on what works best.) These files COULD be developed as completely stand-alone, downloadable files but it would be a bit cumbersome since the navigation would need to be built in each comic file AND because Flash is not very good at optimizing rasterized graphics that are used in comic pages.

"Wait -- what does rasterized mean?"

Digital graphics can be saved in one of two ways: vector or raster. A vector image is one that is saved mathematically. A saved file will say something to the effect of, "Place one circle in the middle of the page, with a radius of 3 inches. Color the interior with 100% cyan, and give the edge a 5 point stroke, colored with 100% black." A raster image is one in which each pixel is defined independently. "The pixel in location 1, 200 is black; the pixel in location 1, 201 is black; the pixel in location 1, 202 is black; the pixel in location 2, 199 is black; the pixel in location 2, 200 is black..." It shouldn't take much to realize that file sizes can vary quite a bit between raster and vector images!

Another benefit of vector images is that, since they're mathematically based, there's no file resolution to worry about. You can infinitely scale the artwork up or down with no image degradation. But when you scale up a raster image, the individual pixels become larger and more noticeable. This is the source of pixelization that you see when you try to zoom in too much on a raster image...
(Enlargement from Sunday's Sinfest.)

Flash does a good job of handling vector images. It's a mathematically oriented program. Web browsers and most paint programs are better suited to reading raster images -- there's no real math to figure out. But where Flash runs into problems is that when you tell it to render a raster image, it has to, in effect, translate the raster image into a mathematical formula before displaying it. That takes more time and resources, and the program simply isn't designed to render that type of image AND compress it to a reasonable file size.

I should point out, too, that vector and raster are NOT file formats in an of themselves. They're both broad categorizations of file formats. If you think of individual file formats (HTM, DOC, BMP, etc.) as languages (English, Spanish, Japanese, etc.) then think of raster and vector files as "Romance and Germanic languages." Broad categories than encompass multiple languages.

Now, looking at downloadable comics, there are few prevalent forms out there and, interestingly, the technology end of the argument is pretty similar.

The main two forms are PostScript and Joint Photographic Experts Group, more commonly known by their abbreviations: PS and JPG. The JPG format you're likely familiar with, as it's often used on the web. It's a raster style file format that's particularly well suited to compressing images. PostScript is the format that your PC uses when it talks to a printer. Like Flash, it converts your file (whatever it's native format) to a specific mathematical language. Also like Flash, it's not particularly conducive to compressing images -- that's why it takes so long to send a photo to your printer, but pages of text run so quickly.

"But, I've never seen downloadable comics in either PS or JPG forms!"

Ah, but you HAVE seen PDFs and CBRs, no doubt!

PDF stands for "Portable Document Format" and was created by Adobe. For all practical purposes, it's the same as a PS file. it's kind of like the difference between English spoken by East and West Coast Americans -- it's the same, except for a handful of words and a slight change of inflection. PDFs work in much the same ways as PS files do. And, more significantly, they have the same limitations. They work really well with vector graphics that are mathematically based, but start to run into issues with raster images. Given that most comics are still drawn on paper with pencil and ink, and are then scanned into a computer, that means PDF is not an ideal format for most comics.

CBR (and close cousin CBZ) is actually something of a non-format. CBRs are actually nothing more than a RAR file and CBZ is just a ZIP. Exactly the same.

"Well, I've heard of ZIP, but isn't that just a compression format?"

Yes, both RAR and ZIP are file compression formats. RAR does a little better job at the actual compression but, for practical purposes, it's the same as a ZIP. (Indeed, many compression/decompression software utilities handle both formats.) All that CBR and CBZ are, are renamed RAR and ZIP files that contain a series of JPG scans of comic book pages. Each page is scanned individually, saved as a JPG, and numbered in sequential order. Programs that read CBR and CBZ files are really nothing more than image display programs that are designed to decompress RAR and ZIP files on the fly, one or two pages at a time. (You can see in the screen shot that, despite having opened "Pirates_Comics_001.cbz", my computer is displaying the image called "PiratesComics01 04.jpg".)

Quick experiment: try changing one of your CBR files to a RAR by altering the three-letter extension. Now open that file in whatever you use to decompress RAR and ZIP files. You'll see each of the pages as a separate JPGs that you can copy wherever you like and edit in your favorite paint program.

Logically, this all means that CBR makes the most sense as a file format for serving most comics. It's got the best compression (meaning the smallest file sizes), is the most versatile, and is very easy to create. It does require a specialized reader, but so do PDFs and Flash-based comics, and the only disadvantage in that respect is that most computers come with Adobe readers pre-installed on them any more.

However, it's rare that logic actually dictates winning technology wars, and Adobe is the 800-pound gorilla in this debate. And you know how much comics love their primates!