Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Point Of Discussion

Scott McCloud's definition of comics is "juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence, intended to convey information and/or to produce an aesthetic response in the viewer." Using that definition, does a rebus puzzle count as comics? We have images in a sequence which (at least in this example) is used to convey information. But it's hardly something most people would consider comics.

Other definitions of comics are around, certainly, and some have argued that comics defy a rigid definition. Derik Badman brought up a point to my attention from an article a little over a year ago that works discussing "novels" don't start by trying to define what a novel is. One just assumes that we're all on the same page from the beginning.

Neil Cohn has been wrestling with the vocabulary of comics and, more significantly, visual language (a distinctly different beast) for some time. One of his points is that "comics" are essentially what people call "comics." Meaning that, if you give Joe Average an installment of Family Circus and ask him if he would consider it a comic, he'll say yes. If you give the same guy the your-seat-can-be-used-as-a-flotation-device instructions found on the airplane and ask him the same question, he'll say no. Comics in that sense are defined in much the same way as pornography: "I know it when I see it." (Though Cohn freely admits that McCloud's definition has deeply permeated comics culture, and is frequently accepted as the only definition available.)

What piques my interest here is that, by McCloud's definition, the rebus is considered comics. But, by Cohn's definition, not only is the rebus not comics, but it doesn't really even qualify as "visual language" but is rather just of a hybrid of words and pictures, as opposed to a unique language in and of itself. At least, as I understand it in my limited readings of Cohn's work. I'd certainly be interested to hear/read his thoughts on the subject.

What I'd also like to know are YOUR thoughts on the subject. Does the rebus indeed defy McCloud's definition, rendering it invalid (at worst) or incomplete (at best)? If it's incomplete, what needs changed or added? If it's invalid, how does Cohn's definition hold up?

In short, what ARE comics?

Monday, March 30, 2009

Publishers Or Distributors?

I saw a couple of attendees to this year's annual ComicsPRO meeting note how some of the larger publishers were committed to continuing to push their product towards/through the direct market. (The most detailed account of this I've found is from Brian Hibbs.) And it got me thinking about why publishers have been so reluctant to explore digital distribution.

Let me repeat that: "why publishers have been so reluctant to explore digital distribution."

It was phrasing the question like that that really made things stand out for me. Publishers (at least in comicdom) are NOT distributors. By and large, they haven't had the infrastructure for distribution and were almost entirely focused on publication -- which, not surprisingly, requires a different mindset and set of skills. What Diamond does bears little to no resemblance to what Marvel and DC do.

In fact, that's one of the reasons Heroes World failed. Marvel did not have the knowledge or ability to handle distribution of their product. Not as a slam against them, but even "back in the day" they had their books distributed by Independent News, and that was after a series of other small distributors had closed, so they had NEVER had anyone who really understood periodical distribution from a hands-on perspective.

"Ah," you might protest, "but what about subscriptions? Isn't that a means of distribution, and isn't that handled by the publishers?"

Quite true, but that has typically been a small sub-set of comics' readership. Indeed, many publishers don't have subscription options available at all, and even Marvel (I believe) discontinued it for a few years. It's certainly a far cry from really large scale distribution.

So it strikes me that the various publishers are looking at their organizations and saying to themselves, "Putting all our materials online is so vastly different than what we've done in the past that we don't know where to begin." And, really, that shouldn't be surprising. It's the exact same problem many creators have online -- they might know how to produce comics, but getting that comic out to an audience is a whole other ball of wax. Hence, the reliance many webcomic creators put on word-of-mouth.

Diamond, of course, has no incentive to pursue online distribution either. They've got a good set-up going now (from their perspective, at least) and no one to compete against. Why put effort into changing?

Which means we've got publishers with no real way to change their current processes themselves, and a monopolistic distributor with no desire to change their current processes.

Regular readers should know that I'm bullish on webcomics in general; I want to see them succeed and I want to see more options and more diversity there. But I have to admit to being at a loss on how to accomplish that for traditional comic publishers. I think it would take a radical restructuring and a substantial infusion of cash (mainly to hire new talent) to get traditional publishers online with an appreciable presence.

This was actually seen, to a smaller degree, with Zuda. Zuda runs largely independently from parent DC Comics with staff hired specifically to run it. Imagine, though, if DC put some real resources behind it. Can you imagine the traffic (and subsequent revenue) that would be generated if they posted a Grant Morrison/Frank Quitely Superman story? It's certainly NOT the type of thing I would be interested in, but I'm betting readership would easily be a dozen times larger than All-Star Superman. From my understanding, Zuda is considered a success as it stands now, and that's largely without a lot of big name recognition of either the creators or the creations, and without a lot of marketing efforts behind it compared to DC's pamphlet books.

But we're certainly NOT going to see that kind of effort put forth right now if for no other reason than the economy not being so hot and most companies are scaling back and saving resources. But beyond that, I suspect (cynically, I'll admit) that I'm sure the major publishers will continue to support the direct market system in large part because they really don't know what other options to pursue and are hesitant to hire enough resources to change that.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Why Even The iPhone Can't Do Digital Comics

There's something of a rush these days to design the "killer" comic book app for PDAs or smart phones or something. I'm here to tell you, though, that they won't work. Any of them. See, there's an inherent problem with the basic premise: the screen size is WAY too small to read comics.

Think about how much screen real estate you have with any of those hand-held gadgets. Maybe 2 by 3 inches? You can only get one or two comic panels in that space and maintain legibility. Even if you had an incredible screen resolution, you'd still be stuck at one or two panels at a time, just because the text would be too small to read for most people if you tried to get any more on the screen at one time.

"So?" you're thinking. "Sure, you wouldn't be able to read the whole page at once, but as long as there was a good navigation system, you could do one panel at a time."

Wrong.

How long does it take you to read a comic panel? One or two seconds? Then what? You'd have to scroll/click/slide/whatever to the next panel. Then you spend another second or two reading that panel, and then you'd have to scroll/click/slide/whatever to the third one. You'd end up spending as much time navigating the document as you would reading. And that's an inherent problem for two reasons: 1) the reader is constantly being removed from the story in order to manipulate the delivery object, and 2) the reader would increase the amount of time interacting with the comic, but spend a significantly portion of the time engaging the comic. That last one sounds like semantics, but it's a note-worthy point, I think.

When a user "interacts" with the comic, they're picking up their iPhone, loading the comic, reading a panel, clicking to the next one, reading a panel, clicking to the next one, etc. That's a lot of interaction, but most of it (the loading process, the clicking) is not "engaging" the comic. If a user, for example, would normally spend 15 minutes reading a comic, they might increase that time to 20-25 minutes if they had to click between each panel. But since the clicking is not part of the story (as is the case with video games) the reader essentially wastes an extra 5-10 minutes for each comic.

I don't know exactly where the market for transportable digital comics is going, but I know that most people won't tolerate the click/read/click/read/click read methodology. The delivery mechanism will need to be larger enough to get several panels on the screen at once, suggesting something more akin to a tablet PC.

That said, though, I'm thinking that the letter-size format most tablets resort to isn't exactly necessary, but you would need something with a screen at least the size of the Kindle's (roughly four by five inches) to even start making digital comics reading viable to mass audiences (well, "mass" being relative to existing comics readership). Tablets seem to work reasonably well, but they're collectively still a tad too bulky to make extended reading comfortable.

Somebody let me know when Fujitsu's FLEPia is available.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

They're Foreigners, I Tell Ya!

I recently finished Bad Language, Naked Ladies, And Other Threats To The Nation: A Political History Of Comic Books In Mexico by Anne Rubenstein. It's a fascinating (if occasionally dry) examination of the Mexican comic book industry, viewed through the eyes of politics. Hence, there's more discussion about censorship fights and publishers' business dealings than the actual content and creators. (Though those subjects are indeed covered.)

At the end, though, what ultimately struck me most -- aside from some curious parallels with the U.S. comics industry's fights against censorship -- was how few books are available here in the States discussing non-American comics. We can pick up reprints of Judge Dredd and Asterix, as well as a good selection of manga, but broader discussions are limited here, thanks largely to our collective ego-centrism.

So, in the interest of cultural awareness, I thought I'd note some sources available here which discuss non-American comics.

Manga is probably the most widely read non-American comics form here, and there are in fact a number of books on the subject. A quick search on Amazon turns up: One Thousand Years of Manga by Brigitte Koyama-Richard, Manga: 60 Years of Japanese Comics by Paul Gravett, Manga: Webster's Timeline History, 1615 - 2007 by Philip M. Parker, and Manga: The Complete Guide by Jason Thompson. All published in the past few years. Going back a few years, there's also Manga! Manga!: The World of Japanese Comics by Frederik L. Schodt from 1986. I can't say I've read any of these book personally, but I am familiar with some of Gravett's other books and he has a great grasp on the subject of comics overall and writes well.

Speaking of Gravett, one of his books that I have read is Great British Comics: Celebrating a Century of Ripping Yarns and Wizard Wheezes. It's a good overview of British comics, with lots of excellent examples. While I'm sure he had to gloss over a number of good comics because of limited space issues, he certainly provides a wealth of information for those looking to get caught up to speed. (Hint: there's a lot more to British comics than 2000AD.)

Martin Baker focused more specifically on the anti-comics backlash from the middle of the 20th century in A Haunt of Fear: The Strange History of the British Horror Comics Campaign. As this has some eerie-sounding echoes of the American and Mexican anti-comics attacks from about the same period, I'm interested in seeing this to make comparisons across cultures.

As far as Canadian comics go, the only book I'm aware of is The Great Canadian Comic Books by Michael Hirsh. It was originally published in 1971 and has been long out-of-print in book form. However, Roy Thomas was able to re-publish it (with some small updates/corrections) a couple years ago in Alter Ego #71. It's a bit shorter than I'd prefer, but still a solid overview with some concentration on the key movers and shakers, both in regards to creators as well as characters.

Finally, while not actually "foreign", I feel I should also mention some books focusing on other under-represented (at least here in the U.S.) comic histories...
You know, I'm all for good books on comic history like The Ten-Cent Plague and Men of Tomorrow but I'd personally like to see more inclusiveness in the overall tapestry of comics history. It is refreshing to see a lot of recent acknowledgment of Jewish influences on comics, but given the comparatively large number of Jews in the industry, it's difficult not to make that acknowledgment.

That said, I think it's important that people interested in comics have at least some knowledge or basic understanding of comics, as it pertains to cultures beyond American white guys making comics about American white guys for American white guys. Pick up a few of the books I've mentioned here, and expand your horizons.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Old Schooling "Weapon Brown"

If you haven't seen it, Jason Yungbluth has been raping your childhood with Weapon Brown in which all your favorite comic strips have survived a nuclear holocaust. On top of having extremely clever uses and recharacterizations of famous characters, it's actually a pretty solid story, too. And I know I've said this before, but what I want to see now is someone go through and re-do the whole series using the original artists' drawings of the characters.

So this...
becomes this...

But with clean scans.

Anyone have enough free time to take that on as a project?

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Story Number 3

I dug out Eugene Ionesco's four children's books tonight. I commented briefly on them some time back.

For the most part, they're presented as any children's book you'd expect. Each double page spread has some text, written simply, and an accompanying illustration. It's not really comics since, generally, the words and pictures aren't interdependent. Occasionally, there's a brief sequence of just pictures, but the story remains completely comprehensible if you use the text by itself.

But, as I was going through Story Number 3 tonight, I came across these two pages...


(You'll pardon that they're photos and not scans, as Microsoft opted to make Vista completely NOT backwards compatible with most hardware like, say, my scanner.)

Both pages are still portrayed next to the adjoining text, but they're sequenced internally to themselves, marking a clear and distinct progression of actions. The first sequence clearly shows, from the the narrator's perspective, walking down the hall, opening the door, and finding an old woman, who has some vision of a young girl caught in a tree. (Admittedly, the "vision" portion must read in the text, but the narrator does indeed accost the woman once he sees her, as is shown in the graphics.) The actual text reads:
Papa: After that, we'll go to the end of the hall and then we'll turn left. The hall isn't dark there. It's lit by the light that comes through the living room windows on the left. We come to the kitchen. There is Jacqueline preparing the noon lunch. We'll say to her: "Goodbye, Jacqueline."

Josette: Goodbye, Jacqueline.

Jacqueline will say: "Where are you going, sir?... Where are you going with your papa, my little Josette?"

Josette: We're going on a trip. We're going to fly in an airplane. We're going to the sky.

Jacqueline will say: "Watch Josette carefully when you are up there, sir. She must not lean out of the window; it's dangerous. She might fall. She might get a bump on her forehead falling on the neighbor's roof. Or she might get caught in the branches of a tree by the seat of her underpants. We would have to get a ladder to take her down."

Josette: No, I will be very careful.

One illustration, broken up into four distinct panels depicting the text. that's sequential art, isn't it?

The next illustration is actually on the very next page of the book. It shows Papa and Josette leaving their apartment and taking the elevator down, where they encounter another old woman.
Papa: Then I take the key; I open the door with the key.

Josette: In the keyhole.

Papa: I open the door, I close the door. I don't slam the door; I close it very quietly. I get into the elevator with you, I push the button...

Josette: No, me! I push the button. Pick me up in your arms because I'm too small to reach it.

Papa: I pick you up in my arms. You push the button. The elevator goes down. We have to go down first so that, later on, we can go up. We reach the ground floor. We step out of the elevator, and we see the superintendant's wife sweeping the hall in front of her apartment.

Josette: Good morning, Mrs. Superintendant.

Papa: Then Mrs. Superintendant will say: "Good morning, sir; good morning, my little one. Oh! how pretty she is this morning with her beautiful little coat, with her lovely little boots, with her sweet little gloves!... Oh! what tiny hands!..."

Josette: And my hat.

This particular page strikes me as more interesting since we have only one delineated panel, but the separate floors act as implied panel borders. The act of the characters moving through a single space implies the passage of time and, therefore, the sequence. I discussed that issue back here in reference to an installment of Andy Capp. Here, however, the artist has chosen not to specify the borders as explicitly, though, it's not quite as subtle an indication as I suggested could be done with that Andy Capp strip.

As I noted, Story Number 3 is the only one of the four books to have sequences like that. The first two were illustrated by Etienn Delessert, and the final by Jean-Michel Nicollet. This third volume, however -- the only one with actual sequential art -- is credited to Philippe Corentin, a pseudonym of Philippe Le Saux. Story Number 3 is evidently one of his earlier published works, the most popular (I gather) of which came out in the late 1980s and early 1990s. As near as I can tell, his other works have not been translated into English, so I have to admit to ignorance of whether or not he continued injecting comics into his children's books or not.

Interestingly, Story Number 3 was my least favorite as a child because I found Corentin's illustration style disturbing. All of Ionesco's books have a decidedly dark edge to them, but Delessert's and Nicolett's art somehow seemed to make that more palatable. Now that I'm able to get beyond the really frightening cover, I find that I have more respect for Corentin's work than the others. Not only because of the use of comics in the story, but he also adds a number of subtle touches that speak better to some of the implied meta-textually, adult themes Ionesco wrote into the books.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Sinfest

Today's Sinfest as it was drawn...


Today's Sinfest as I saw it...


I'm not sure WHY I saw that toilet drawing as a Green Lantern symbol, though. I mean, sure, there's some basic structural similarities but it's completely out of place contextually.

Any Freudian psychologists out there that want to tackle this one?

Monday, March 23, 2009

20 Minutes Into The Future

Did you ever actually see the TV show Max Headroom? Not all the media hype surrounding the character, but the actual show? Max was actually a pretty minor character, hanging out in the shadows behind his template, the top-rated reporter Edison Carter. Take a look at this still shot of Edison filming his show for Network 23 and tell me what you see...
The image is grainy and dark. The shot isn't framed very well, primarily because it's clearly evident that Edison is holding the camera himself. Nearly all of the footage of Edison's show shown on Max Headroom is filmed in this way. One man and a video camera. Let's compare that with this still shot of an independent reporter on YouTube...
Look familiar?

Now Max Headroom, like most science fiction, got many of the particulars wrong about the future. W'ere not using "credit tubes", there aren't 3 second commercials that make people explode, and there's certainly not an independently conscious head that pops up on TV screens making bad puns. Although, I rarely carry cash any more, commercials usually make me feel like my head's going to explode, and there is a virtual version of me walking around online in Second Life...
Which brings me to my point: that science fiction is NOT about what lies in our future. People can dream up all sorts of wondrous technology like phasers and A.I. computers and whatnot, but the actual implementation of said technologies will certainly differ. Sometimes for technological reasons, sometimes for commercial reasons, sometimes just because of a different sense of style. No, the reason -- well, one of the reasons -- we have science fiction is to explore how mankind reacts to those new and upcoming technologies. What if no one used cash any more, and every transaction was conducted electronically? What if cybernetics were so inexpensive as to be ubiquitous? What if our government was a technocracy? How would we be different because of that?

"Sean, you're rambling again. I came here to read about comics!"

Well, there's been plenty of discussion lately about the death of newspapers and what might happen to editorial cartoonists. There's been plenty of discussions about traditional comic book publishing, and whether the decades-old business model is still viable. There's been plenty of discussions about exclusively digital comics and whether they're best viewed on a Kindle or an iPhone.

The thing is: all of these discussions -- and certainly many more -- are talking about the future. The root question at every one of these discussions is: what will tomorrow be like? Will my comics -- the flattened wood pulp splattered with colored chemicals -- be impacted by what's changing in the world right now? Some people's interest is their very livelihood-- comic creators and retailers for example. Others' interests are simply nostalgic -- "I want my kids to love comics they way I did." Others are just being selfishly lazy and don't want to even consider having to change their weekly habit of heading down to their Local Comic Shop. (And I really hope those people are in a distinct minority.) I'm sure there are any number of completely valid reasons to question the future of comics.

Now, we can speculate from now until the cows come home about what the face of editorial cartooning will look like in ten years, or whether or not there will be an electronic book device that displays comics as easily as anything. But whatever we'd predict, we'd be wrong. Because we (mankind) always are.

I remember ten years ago, trying to figure out what file format worked best for playing songs digitally. Since there was essentially no such thing as a portable MP3 player (the first ones were introduced in 1998) I tended to simply continue using CDs. Naptser was still a year or two away, and the iPod another couple years after that. Sure, we had portable CD players back then, and I'm sure somebody dreamed of having what was essentially a portable hard drive to carry that many more songs than a CD could hold. But did anyone figure on a device that fits into your shoe? And then is also able to track your workout data?

What will comics look like in ten years? In five years? In 2010? Will we have a souped-up Kindle or a toned-down tablet PC? Will we have electronic paper? Will we have comics beamed directly into our brains? No one has those answers.

But what I can tell you is that comics as a medium will continue. You'll be able to continue reading about Superman and Garfield and Judge Dredd. And you'll be able to find reprints of Tintin and Asterix. And, while Robert Crumb might not be around to continue making his unique brand of comix, his daughter Sophie will be continuing on in his footsteps, just as there will almost assuredly be another generation of Kuberts and Romitas, drawing comics in a manner befitting the reproduction technology of their time.

It's terrible that individuals have to experience massive industry shake-ups, as their professions are being redefined out from under them. But the planet isn't going to stop just to make sure the last newspaper editorial cartoonist can keep his job. Things are going to move onward, like it or not, and your best bet is to stay as informed as you can and try to morph with the industry before it leaves you behind.

Guys like me, who are big proponents of advancing commercial technologies, can't see the future. No matter how hard I strain, things are a hazy blur at best. But, as long as I continue to look, I'll be able to see where things are heading the moment those blurs begin to come into focus. I can kind of make out some outlines now, which is why I'm big on webcomics, but I can tell that won't be ultimate expression of comic art in years to come. At least, not as we know webcomics today! But keep looking; maybe your vision is better than mine!

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Financial Stimulus Or Security?

It's time once again here in the U.S. to get your federal tax forms in order. I was actually pretty on the ball this year, and filed a couple weeks ago. The government (astonishingly) was on the ball, too, and I received my refund in the past week.

Now, like many people, my initial reaction was something along the lines of, "Wohoo! I'm gonna go get my something fun with this extra money! There are some nice looking graphic novels that have come out recently, and some of those DC Universe action figures look great!" But that didn't last very long as my intelligence kicked in, and I started bashing that line of thinking like it was a child's piñata.

In the first place, of course, it's not "extra" money. It's my money. It's money I earned working 40+ hours a week throughout 2008. It's money that the government has held from me, without interest, and is only now allowing me to have it back. It's "extra" only in the sense that I have adjusted to living a lifestyle I can afford on a certain amount of money I take home every two weeks, and this is above and beyond that. But it's still my money that I earned.

In the second place, I'm in the process of straightening out my finances. Key among that process is putting together enough savings that I could continue to live off that for several months if I were to lose my job. I understand most personal finance experts suggest that you have 6-8 months of your regular monthly expenses in savings under normal circumstances; given the job prospects these days, I've seen many people citing 8-10 months. That can add up to quite a chunk of change when you factor in a mortgage and typical debt payments.

So, like any other "extra" money I end up with at the end of the month, my tax refund went into my savings account, and I'm still at a loss on how Y: The Last Man and Gøland ended, and I haven't been able to pick up Nancy Goldstein's biography of Jackie Ormes. Not to mention Laika, Che, Aetheric Mechanics, Cleburne or a host of other books that have come out in the past year or two that sounded really good.

But this weekend, using my free time, I opted to start coalescing my comic book collection with the ones I was given by my father. It's literally been a pain in the ass, as I've been sitting on the concrete floor in my basement sorting through everything, but I am seeing a lot of interesting looking books that I certainly wouldn't mind reading. Some are more mainstream -- like a complete run of the 1988 Green Arrow series started by Mike Grell -- and some are considerably farther off the beaten path -- like P. Craig Russell's graphic interpretation of Mozart's The Magic Flute. Plenty of material to suit my tastes, regardless of what I'm in the mood to read.

Now, I realize that most of you probably have NOT recently come into a free collection of comics you largely hadn't read, but my point is this: if/when you receive a refund from your taxes, remember that it's your money and, given the economic environment we're in, you'd do well to use it wisely. Indeed, you'd do well to spend ALL your money wisely, but I think there's probably a greater risk of that not happening with your refund. So, my suggestion is to take at least a week or two off from spending your refund check, and think about whether or not that 12" bust of Harley Quinn is really necessary.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Collectors Or Readers?

A few years ago, I was chatting online with Kurt Busiek, asking him about the differences he experienced between being a fan of comics versus a creator of them. At some point during the discussion, I made reference to him being a comic collector, to which he pointedly corrected me. He noted that a collector is someone whose interest is in the objects themselves, as opposed to their content or meaning. He made the analogy of a book collector.

A book collector is someone who buys original printings, leather-bound editions and otherwise rare books. Someone who buys books to read them, and then just never gets rid of them, is just an avid book reader, not a collector.

Busiek made the same distinction in comics. He was interested in the stories and read comics, but he didn't actively go around looking to buy a copy of Amazing Spider-Man #1 -- he was quite content to read the issue in one of its many reprinted forms.

While it was similar a value judgment I had made back in my early 20s, it was the first real articulation of differentiation in terminology. The collector mindset I had when I was a teenager -- when I was making an active attempt to get a complete run of Fantastic Four -- had changed while I was in college to the realization that I was more interested in the stories about the FF than I was in the actual comics they were originally printed in. The point was really driven home for me when I graduated and my parents got me, as a graduation gift, an original copy of Fantastic Four #1. I was very touched and appreciative, naturally, but I felt a little awkward in that I had no real reason to remove the issue from its mylar housing -- I'd already seen the contents a thousand times before.

The differentiation, of course, didn't used to be available. There was a time not that long ago when reprints were far from guaranteed and digital comics were unheard of. If I wanted to read Fantastic Four #24, my only option was to get my hands on an original printing of that issue. It wasn't reprinted at all until 2001, and then only in black and white. So if I wanted to be an avid reader of the FF's adventures, I also had to be a collector, looking for those rare issues.

But today, in the 21st century, we've got a great many more options available. The wealth of the reprint market is staggering compared to even a decade ago -- you can buy old Captain Atom reprints, for Pete's sake! How many people even knew the character existed before 2004? Not to mention the digital options that have become available, thanks to the ever-increasing speed of computers and internet connections.

My point is that I don't need to be a collector any longer. There's been a clear and successful distinction between content and its delivery mechanisms. I can focus my resources on the content, which is what interests me, and ignore the delivery system that collectors follow. (Not that there's anything inherently wrong with being a collector, mind you! If someone actively wants to own first print run copies of whatever comics they like, more power to them. I'm just not one of those people.)

So, let me ask you: are you a comic book collector or an avid reader who just doesn't get rid of his reading material?

Friday, March 20, 2009

Retailers Unite... I'm Told

If you weren't aware (and given the lack of internet chatter I've seen on the subject, I'm guessing you weren't) members of ComicSPRO are having their annual meeting this weekend in Memphis.

There was an informal first day on Thursday, which Matt Price felt was optimistic in general. Yesterday was an all-day, DC-hosted event and Price has alluded to several upcoming items from Vertigo, WildStorm and DC Direct projects. The real meat of the event, though, seems to have been scheduled for today and tomorrow where there appear to be a more widely diverse set of panels and discussion groups. Though Price has continued blogging throughout today, I have yet to see any real substantive retailer discussion/information coming through.

To be fair, Price is actually an editor at The Oklahoman and not an actual retailer. Plus, two of comics' most outspoken retailers -- Joe Field and Brian Hibbs -- are on ComciPRO's board of directors, so I'm sure they're a bit too busy right now to be doing much blogging. So, while we're not exactly seeing a news blackout from the event, what we are seeing isn't that different from what you might expect to see on Newsarama of Comic Book Resources on any given day.

But I must say that I find it curious not to have seen any discussion about the event. No one seems to be asking, "Hey, what's going on down there? What's the 'vibe' on the floor?" Granted, trends in retailing are not exactly buzz-worthy to the masses compared to, say, spoilers about the upcoming Wolverine movie, but given the current economic climate, I should think there'd be at least some interest. Kudos to Heidi MacDonald for at least mentioning Price's blog, but that's the only mention of the meeting I can find.

According to the initial announcement, "Other attending sponsors will be on hand to demonstrate POS systems and discuss products and services with attending retailers... There will also be meetings among the membership to discuss projects and priorities going forward into 2009, and we will finalize the election of 3 open Director positions for the ComicsPRO Board of Directors." Now I don't know about you, butI think some of that sounds kind of significant for a fairly small -- some would say struggling -- industry, especially in a time when "The number of unemployed persons increased by 851,000 to 12.5 million in February, and the unemployment rate rose to 8.1 percent. Over the past 12 months, the number of unemployed persons has increased by about 5.0 million, and the unemployment rate has risen by 3.3 percentage points."

You turn on the news these days -- regardless of what medium or source -- and you're going to hear something about the lousy state of the economy. Even in the comics industry, there are stories about how consumers are switching reading venues to save money and how changes in distributor policies will hurt all but the largest publishers. But despite that, no one seems concerned about what the retailers are actively trying to do about it.

Now, let me go on record as saying that I don't particularly care for unions and union-type groups. I understand there was need for them once upon a time, but I think they do more harm than good any more. And, while ComicsPRO is clearly not a union, the idea is similar and I don't know that it's necessarily the best use of the retailers' resources. My personal opinion only, and I don't actually begrudge any retailers who are members of ComicsPRO. They're doing something more than whine and complain, and I'll give them credit for that; I just think there are better avenues to pursue the same goals. (But that's another discussion for another time.)

That being said, the fact remains that ComicsPRO does exist as a collective of retailers, many of whom are quite prominent retailers in the industry. Flying Colors, Comix Experience, Golden Apple, Lone Star, Midtown, Laughing Ogre... just to name a few. So where's the coverage? Like I said, I don't expect Hibbs or Field to do live-blogging or anything since they're running the darned thing, but is Price really the ONLY person who actually cares about this?

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Thoreau, Shakespeare & Comics

You ever read Walden by Henry David Thoreau?

Don't bother; it's a crock of shit. I forced myself to wade through it about seven years ago and, despite how lauded it often is in literary circles, I found myself almost immediately disliking it. Thoreau struck me as a hypocritical slouch who wouldn't know what self-reliance or responsibility were if they spit in his face, made fun of his mother's army boots, gave him a wedgie and then beat him up and took his lunch money. You ever see that episode of Friends where the woman claims Dead Poets Society was a life-affirming film because she thought it was the worst piece of trash she ever wasted two hours on and she was going to spend the rest of her life trying to make up for that? That's my feeling about Walden.

Now, if you're interested in something philosophical in nature, I'll point to one line from William Shakespeare:
This above all: to thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.

Act I, Scene III, Hamlet

Most of the speech from which those lines come from is advice a father gives his son, and most of that is rather generic. But what Shakespeare hits towards the end with these lines, I think, does get to the crux of living a life well-lived. If you follow your own path -- a path you actively choose, not one laid down by someone else -- and stay true to it regardless of obstacles or opposition, then your honesty with yourself will give rise to an honest life without regret or remorse.

I don't know that I'd go so far as to claim that I use those words as a credo of any kind, but I have spent a lot of time in my own head over the years and I have a pretty good grasp on who I am and what I believe. I live my life in a way that I can lie in bed every night, and go to sleep secure in the knowledge that I did nothing that day worth losing sleep over. I did my best, learned from my mistakes and, tomorrow, I'm going to do that again.

For the past several years, I've had an idea for a book rolling around in my head. I've done most of my research, and have a pretty good grasp on the subject. I don't know that it'd sell -- in all honesty, it probably wouldn't, given the subject matter: comic book fandom -- but it's something I'd like to do because... well, no one else is. (At least not from the angle I'm thinking.) I haven't yet sat down and written Word One, though, because I haven't really developed a hook for it. A unifying theme(s) that tie the whole thing together. I did talk to my editor/publisher about it once and he said that it would really have to be an Understanding Comics level of impressive to sell.

Which is why I need a good hook for the whole thing and why I haven't started writing it yet.

BUT...

I'm not sitting here complaining that I haven't done anything. I'm not making excuses to myself for not getting anything done. In fact, this very blog is, in part, in preparation for my book. Not only am I practicing the craft of writing on a regular basis, but I'm also able to jot down thoughts and ideas directly related to the subject matter.

I've gotten compliments about this blog a number of times in how I'm not one to follow whatever the current comic topic du jour is, and how I speak to things that aren't necessarily popular within the comic community. And you know what that comes from? "To thine own self be true." I know who I am and what I like and where my interests lie. I don't especially care how expertly (or not) the Watchmen movie was made; I don't especially care what DC's next company-wide crossover is; I don't especially care who the next creative team on Uncanny X-Men is.

So I just write about comics' topics that interest me. If you'd like to come along for the ride, that's great! Welcome! If not, so be it. But, if you do get something out of what I have to say, I encourage you to think and talk about it more. I encourage you to get into your own head for a while and roll around the subjects I touch on here. Am I right? Am I wrong? Am I just spouting my own brand of blinkered, philistine pig-ignorance?

I've heard that Jack Kirby didn't want people to imitate him. He took it as a much greater compliment if his work inspired people to go off and tell their own story. Similarly, I hope my work gets you to think your own thoughts. I don't care if you agree with me or not, or respond or not, but take the time to reflect and make up your own mind. Just make sure it's your own mind.

"To thine own self be true."

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Missed It!

Dang! Due to my own schedule going to pot today, I wasn't able to attend the Mini-Morph online convention today.

Derik Badman, however, was there and has a few pictures posted here.

Dead Man Holiday #-2

Last year, I reviewed Colin Panetta's first issue of Dead Man Holiday. He's recently released his second issue, and sent me a review copy.

If you'll recall, Thad (the protagonist) had a strange encounter last issue that scared the bejeezus out of him. In this issue, he returns to the location of said encounter and runs across more creatures like the first one, as well as some humanoid creature they're either worshiping or taking care of. He manages to overcome his fears, but is later accosted by some enigmatic Siamese twins. As he and Bethany fall asleep at their respective apartments, they seem to share a dream. A dream in which Thad is awoken from by security forces who've stormed his apartment after one of his neighbors complained of the screaming.

The quickest thing I can say about the book is that all the positive aspects I saw in the previous issue remain. Panetta's got good page and panel construction across the board, and it's easy to follow the action. It's even more impressive in this issue, in fact, since he goes through fully half of the book without using any dialogue at all, just a few sound effects.

I also particularly liked how he handled the dream sequence. Rather than any typical art tricks to highlight the unreal nature of the action, Panetta left his pencils remain underneath the inks, utilizing the medium in a way that simply can't be replicated in other forms. I've only seen a few artists present their comics with pencils still showing and they have either been unilateral style decisions (where the pencil marks show throughout the entire work) or are used to convey a more meta-textual meaning (alerting the reader to the presence of the artist him/herself). I won't go so far as to say Panetta's use of pencils here is wholly original, but it's certainly not very widely utilized. It works especially well here when he shifts from the dream sequence back to reality, and speaks well to his artistic capabilities.

Like the previous issue, I find myself thinking that all of the individual parts of this issue are well done, but I can't bring myself to call it successful just yet. Panetta is clearly working towards a larger story here, but readers gain little headway on seeing what that might be. It looks like it's leading somewhere, but I can't see what at this point. Which, as noted before, is part of Panetta's point.

And this is where decisions get complicated. It's beginning to strike me that the story would be better told as a graphic novel; one big chunk of a story where it's all told in one go. The individual issue approach seems to reveal too little about the overall structure in the 30-odd page installments. That said, though, I totally understand that, financially, it's immensely more feasible for Panetta to take the pamphlet approach. I also understand that it's creatively a lot easier to develop the story in smaller increments. So the question arises: do you serve the needs of the art or the artist? I don't know Panetta apart from a couple of notes specifically pertaining to Dead Man Holiday, so I can't make a judgment on his decision; all I can say is that I think the art would be better served in the graphic novel form as the story is now being told.

Having said that, however, I've seen enough of Panetta's work now to know that he A) takes criticism well and consciously reflects on it, and B) continues to work on improving his craft. The two of which suggest to me that, regardless of what he has planned on the horizon for this, he's willing/able to make changes to better serve the art. And considering that he's only now just released issue #-2, I'm fairly confident that he'll have something really attention-grabbing by the time he gets to #1.

You can download both issues #-3 and #-2, as well as order pulped wood copies of both (and they really do look much better printed), from the Dead Man Holiday website.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

You're All Bastards!

I've always tended to be a bit more on the cynical side. Still hopeful, but cynical nonetheless. Lately, though, I've felt that cynicism growing more pronounced and I suspect it's due to several factors. First, there's news almost every day about some selfish bastard screwing over hundreds, if not thousands, of people for their own greedy purposes. AIG execs, Madoff, take your pick. I also happen to be reading two books that deal with the issue: Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand and Leadership Redefined by Todd Dewett.

Rand's book is a work of fiction, but there are any number of characters whose petty and small-minded schemes continually hamper the few characters that are trying to improve things. True to Rand's Objectivist philosophy, the most sympathetic characters are indeed money-loving capitalists, but they are honest and forthright about their intentions. They speak plainly and seek the most efficient and elegant ways of achieving their ends, and are repeatedly thwarted by myopic dimwits who are more interested in maintaining their comfortable status quo.

Dewett's book is non-fiction and is squarely aimed at business managers who want to become better leaders. His style is considerably more casual, even flippant at times, but he tends to take a cut-the-bullshit-hype approach. (I had him as a professor in one of my MBA classes, and he's like that in person as well.) But, despite his generally upbeat and positive approach, he still acknowledges that some people you'll deal with in the business world are smarmy, power-hungry so-and-sos who will actively get in your way if your attempts at efficiency also happens to tread into their little cubicle fiefdom.

And don't get me started on some of the crap I'm dealing with at my day job these days!

All of this has fed my own cynicism, and I've caught myself thinking how pleasant my neighborhood is because I can walk my dog 9:00 at night and everyone's already gone in for the night.

"Sean, what in the hell does this have to do with comics?!?"

Civil War. Countdown. Secret Invasion. 52...

Pick any company produced comic series. Heck, any of their regular titles: Action Comics. Uncanny X-Men. Justice League. Amazing Spider-Man...

These books are created under the same business circumstances. No, I'm not talking about "editorial interference" or anything like that. Editors, by and large, hire the writers and artists they think will do a good job on a specific title. But there's a much larger business behind that. Do you think Tom Brevoort or Matt Idelson or Mike Marts or Axel Alonso only have to deal with their creative teams?

No, of course not! They have to deal with their bosses, their peers, the printing reps, the distributor reps, the office admins at all sorts of locations... the list goes on and on. Now, certainly, some of those people are going to try to be helpful and do the best job that they can. But some of those people will also undoubtedly have their own agendas, which may or may not coincide with the production of a good comic book.

Maybe the printing rep is just hanging on to her job because he gets to fly from Winnipeg to New York regularly and wants to sit in on a taping of Letterman. Maybe the editor from down the hall feels like he's gotten all the crap assignments and conveniently mislays other editors' files in a petty attempt at sabotaging their projects. Maybe the office admin really wants to be a fashion model, and is only working there to pay the bills until his "real" career takes off.

The individual impact of any one of these people might be small, but the cumulative effect can be huge. Especially if you're not Marvel or DC (whose relative sizes give them at least a little leverage).

"So what?"

The 'So What' here is that there is an alternative. An option where there aren't dozens of people getting between the creator and the reader. An option where the only person to be cynical of is the creator him/herself. There're no office politics. There's no catering to sensitive egos. There's no having to deal with incessant fools if you don't want to.

The option, of course, is webcomics.

(You knew that was coming, right?)

Now, go read Tozo or Charles Christopher or Odysseus or something!

Monday, March 16, 2009

Hero Complex

My apologies if this is old news, but the LA Times has been running a series for several weeks now on "Comic Book Store Clerks of America." Installment #6 features Dayton, Ohio's Bell, Book & Comic where I used to frequent when I was still buying pamphlet comics.

The Answer: Still Guarding

The Question: What's Sean been up to the past couple weeks?

As noted here, G.L. Nelson is drawing some of his readers into his comic, The Sergeant and Professor Skeary Winslow. I was "hired" to guard the Professor and you'll notice that I've been diligently sticking to my duties these past couple weeks.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Next Month

Well, it looks like it will be another year that I won't be attending S.P.A.C.E. despite it being practically in my backyard. (Dang recession!) As always, it looks like some good folks will be there, too! If you can, by all means, attend and let me know how it goes. And, hey, if you want to pick up some cool comics and send my way, I won't stop you!

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Kickin' It Old School With Gardner Fox

So I woke up this morning with absolutely nothing to accomplish the whole weekend. I don't have to put in any overtime at work; the fridge is stocked; I've got enough clean clothes that I can skip laundry for several more days... the first weekend in quite a while where I've got nothing to do but relax. "Great! I think I'll just kick back and have a leisurely read for a bit this morning." Of course, between making a conscious attempt to have a leisurely read, and the fact that it was still before I'd had any caffeine, I didn't want to get into anything that might be too taxing. A quick browse through one of my comic shelves later, I came across JLA: Zatanna's Search.

I'd originally bought the book when it came out a few years ago as a gift for my father. But shortly after purchasing it, I decided it wasn't really a very good present and I never gave it to him. So it's sat on my shelf, unread, since then.

The book reprints a series of Gardner Fox stories from the mid-1960s in which Zatanna is searching for her missing father, the great magician/hero Zatara. The stories originally ran through various comic titles, allowing Zatanna to team up with the likes of Hawkman, Atom and Green Lantern. Each story stands alone well enough, and they all have a naive sort of charm that's almost inherent in DC comics from the 1960s. There are astounding leaps of logic and insane coincidences, which make no real sense if you give them more than a passing thought. But, like many other classic comics from the 1960s, the story moves so fast that you really don't have time to give anything more than a passing thought. So, not surprisingly, Zatanna does find her father with the help of various superheroes and all is right with the world at the end. Which is precisely the type of reading that I wanted this morning.

But the story strikes me as interesting for some other reasons. I had actually read a few chapters (including the conclusion) of it when I was a kid because they had been reprinted in various DC 100-page giants in the mid-1970s. I remember it because it was one of the only multi-issue stories I'd ever been able to read the conclusion of. (My comic collection back then was spotty at best, and my transportation and budget options were roughly nil.) To a ten year old, the stories made perfect sense. Sure, the bounds of logic were strained but everything was explained within the story so that, no matter how absurd the explanation, a young child could follow along pretty easily. And there was always sufficient flashback explanations and character identifications that it didn't faze me at all that I was missing the first, second and fifth chapters.

I'm a quarter century older now, and generally look at stories more critically than I did when I was ten. I study plot structure and dialogue; I analyze "facts" presented in the book ("I Ching is imbued with black magic? Really? It's a book of philosophy!"); I look to see how subtle the foreshadowing is... But back in the day, those stories were fun. There was enough pseudo-science to make me feel smart, but there was plenty of action to carry me through the plot holes.

Not to mention Gil Kane was at the top of his game, and the often under-appreciated Mike Sekowsky turned in some darn memorable work as well! Geez, even Carmine Infantino's cover to Detective Comics #336 stands out in my childhood memory, and I only recall seeing that from some house ads!

All in all, I had a great time reading the story again this morning. It's definitely not the type of material I could indulge myself in all the time by any means, but it was exactly the type of thing I needed to start a casual weekend.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Oddly Normal For Free

Viper Comics has posted Oddly Normal volume 3 in its entirety on their web site. For free. Go read it.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

How NOT To Talk About Domestic Violence

The S.O. alerted me to this Kevin Moore comic highlighting not only the issue of domestic violence, but also the manner in which it's discussed in mainstream media. Moore uses his blog to discuss the subject, and his treatment of it, in more detail.
I've caught only bits and pieces of the media "discussion" surrounding Chris Brown's abuse of Rihanna, but what I have caught has almost entirely fallen within that third panel. Even some of what I heard Oprah talking about fell into that vein.

One should expect, I think, some level of vapidity with TV and the talk show circuit. It's very much geared towards that lowest common denominator. The nature of TV (and movies) is that it comes and goes so quickly that the viewer has little (if any) time to reflect, which is conducive to lots and lots of style with very little substance.

Comics, on the other hand, have a greater permanence to them and give the viewer to digest the message. There's a much greater capacity for substance. (Indeed, this is exactly what some critics have said is the greatest disappointment of the Watchmen movie compared to the comic.) Kevin Moore, I think, gets that and makes a very concerted effort to not dismiss the subject too casually. His concern is a completely valid one and, readers might note, that he doesn't so much discuss the abuse itself as the media's discussion of the abuse. It's not a dissimilar approach to The Daily Show which spends at least as much time criticizing the media and their reporting as it does the subjects of their reports. Moore's comic is criticism of the discussion.

Which isn't to say that's not a valid subject! Just that he needn't have worried so much about tackling domestic abuse as a subject since, effectively, he didn't.

Which further leads me to wonder if domestic abuse itself is a subject that warrants more attention in comics. Moore certainly has a point that it's not something that should be taken lightly or laughed at, but comics as a medium haven't spent much time discussing the subject. A few occasional superheroines try to highlight the misogyny inherent in metaphorically locking women in refrigerators, but the subject of domestic abuse is tackled very seldomly.

Now it's a subject that I, personally, am by no means an expert -- I don't know that I'm qualified enough to even bring the topic up -- but I would be interested to see somebody tackle the issue as a serious subject of comics. We've got people out there smartly writing about all sorts of political and social issues; why doesn't this one get more play?

Watchmen: The Song

My buddy Ray Wall has put together a new song entitled "Watchmen" inspired, not surprisingly, by the release of the movie. (Kudos, though, to Ray for plugging the graphic novel version.) It's certainly my favorite so far of all the comic book based songs he's written, in large part because it's the most sophisticated musically.

Check it out at Ray's MySpace.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Mini-Morph: A Second Life Web Comics Comic-Con & Conference

Back in October, I reported on the first Met@Morph comic convention in Second Life. Next week, on March 18, they're returning with a mini-con which looks to have a fascinating schedule...
8:30 a.m. SL/PST: Front Range Island Opens

9:00 - 9:30 a.m. SL/PST: Make Like an Action Figure!

Not only can you dress like comics characters in SL, you can act like them too! Let us show you how, following opening remarks from Hervé St.-Louis, publisher and editor, The Comic Book Bin

9:30 - 10:00 a.m. SL/PST: The Importance of Watchmen and Its Place in the Comics Survey Course
A discussion of Alan Moore's importance by Andrew Edwards of Sequart.

10:00 - 11:30 a.m. SL/PST: Teaching the College Comics Course
Advice and experience from panelists Leonard Rifas of Seattle Central Community College and Gail de Vos of the University of Alberta. Moderated by Peter Coogan of the The Institute for Comics Studies

11:30 - 12:00 p.m. SL/PST: The Librarian's Role in the College Comics Course
An examination of how librarians support the college comics course, especially by adding resources such as web comics and Web 2.0 tools to the course toolbox. Mini-Morph librarian-in-residence: Derik Badman, Temple University

12:00 - 1:00 p.m. SL/PST: Open Gallery and Discussion from Comics Creators

Unfortunately, as before, I won't be able to attend the full day, but I'm certainly looking forward to being there as much as I can. In an period when many people can't afford to trek out to a comic convention in person, this is certainly an excellent alternative. Indeed, it's well worth attending even if you can afford to go to your favorite real world cons!

I highly encourage you to take some time this weekend to check out Second Life so you can get it set up on your computer and familiarize yourself a bit with the environment before the con. The software is free; there are no SL connection charges; the con is free... the only thing it will cost you is your time. (Admittedly, there are lots of ways you COULD spend money in SL, but you don't have to.) It really was a great experience for me, and I'm absolutely looking forward to next Wednesday.

For inquiries and clarifications about Mini-Morph, please contact organizer Beth Davies-Stofka.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Welcome, Kaylee Horton!

Congrats to comic writer Steve Horton and his wife Lori on the birth of their daughter Kaylee this morning!

(And, yes, Matt, this is the same Steve Horton who used to hang out with us on alan's old Fantastic Four message board back in the day!)

Quick Software Question

Anybody have a copy of Radical Breeze's comic book reader/organizer RadicalCodex? Is it any good/useful?

Monday, March 09, 2009

Regret Is A Four Letter Word

I've been thinking about high school a bit lately. Mainly because a former classmate has recently been gathering many of us together for a sort of virtual reunion on Facebook. As I noted the other day, I didn't find high school particularly enjoyable so, aside from a few folks, most of my interest has essentially been seeing how far off I was in my predictions of their lives. (I haven't taken a complete survey of my accuracy, but I seem to floating around 50/50.)

With that introduction, I recently finished reading Alex Robinson's Too Cool to be Forgotten. It's about a 40-year-old who undergoes hypnosis therapy to try to quit smoking. While he's under, he winds up reliving his high school days shortly before he had his first cigarette. He comes to the conclusion that if he's able to avoid having that first cigarette, that will snap him back to reality and he'll have no further cravings for nicotine. He eventually comes to realize, though, that it wasn't just the first cigarette that has kept him smoking for so many years, and it's some other unresolved issues from that same period that are the real cause. It's not until he confronts those that he returns to the present.

At face value, the book is confronts a philosophical question: how much different would your current self be, if you were able to change one aspect of your past? The deeper underpinning, though, is more intriguing, I think, in that it asks what are the REAL causes for your contemporary problems and insecurities. In the case of protagonist Robert Wicks, smoking was an escape from parts of his teenage home life. Although we don't see it, we learn that his younger sister responded to the same situation with sexual promiscuity. Our motives in adulthood are not always as obvious as we might expect, but the rationale is there. It's just buried deep sometimes.

The story flow is very good. There was never an issue figuring out how one panel moved to the next, even though Robert's appearance would fluctuate from his gangly teenage self to his older, slightly saggier frame. Even though those appearances would change in detail to reflect the intensity of emotion of the scene. Robinson always seemed to know how to best handle change-ups like that to ensure the reader was never left confused.

The sole exception, though, is the intentional typo on page 84. (There's a note about it at the end of the book, making a point to absolve the editors from any blame for missing it.) I was able to figure out the Freudian slip Robinson was attempting there, but the placement of said typo within the word balloon made it look more like a word was omitted, not that an existing one was spelled wrong. It actually took me several readings of the page to figure out how that was supposed to be read. I think something as simple as moving the word to the previous line would have alleviated the problem entirely, and may have made the foreshadowing it portends more subtle.

That said, it was really the only issue I took with the story. One problem with one word's placement in 128 pages? It's an absolute nitpick, but the rest of the work runs so smoothly that it does stand out. The book is excellent and well worth your time, and I suspect most people won't even notice the one word.

And hopefully, some of you aging Gen X-ers might learn something to boot. Robert's cigarette smoking is a form of regret over not having done what he wanted to do when he was 15. Me? I don't have regrets. I've always been happy with who I am as a person, and that person is the sum total of everything I've experienced in my life, good and bad. I am who I am because of who I was and, if anything about who I was changed, I would be a different person today. Maybe better, maybe worse, but definitely different. But since I like who I am right here and right now, there's no reason in the world I'd want to change that.

I don't begrudge the bitches and bullies who gave me whatever emotional scars I received because those people no longer exist. They're 20 years older now, just like I am, and have 20 years of life piled on. And at the same time, the people I might have called friends aren't around either -- they've been replaced by responsible, respectable adults. I can't change that, and I don't want to. I live in the present (and, when I can, the future) -- the past is over and done with, and there's nothing I can do to change that. You can either wallow in the what ifs and coulda beens, or you can take what you have right here and right now and work towards the future, because that's the direction of the time line you can change.

My goal has always been being/doing better than the day before. I'm not always successful, admittedly, but regret is just a way of looking in the rear view mirror; I'd rather see what's coming up ahead.

Sunday, March 08, 2009

Thanks, Frazz

We had the brief discussion at work on Friday, but I totally forgot this was daylight savings weekend until I read today's Frazz...
Seeing as I don't get a newspaper any longer, I unplugged my TV over a month ago, and my main source of news is listening to NPR on the car ride to work, this will likely be the ONLY reminder I'll get today. So a special thanks go out to Jef Mallett, who just kept me from being late to work tomorrow!

Saturday, March 07, 2009

Caliber

I got a chance to read the collected edition of Caliber: First Canon of Justice this afternoon. It's from Radical Publishing and reprints the five issues of last year's comic by the same name.

The first thing I noticed was the high production values. The cover felt surprisingly solid, given its light weight and the paper stock used inside was excellent. I don't normally notice those types of things unless they're problematic or decidedly inferior, so I was pleasantly surprised to notice the quality here.

The story is essentially a take on the King Arthur legends, but set in the American West. I didn't see anything to date the story specifically, but it appears to be late in the 1800s. A Shaman named Whitefeather is in possession of a powerful handgun that can only be fired by one man who is the living embodiment of the law. The book opens with Whitefeather searching for whoever this might be. Whitefeather finds his man when an illegal gunfight draws the attention of one Arthur Pendergon, who's rage of the injustice prompts him to grab the weapon and blast a bolt of blue lightning through the criminal. The corrupt town officials are soon after Arthur and Whitefeather. On the run, the two accumulate a decent circle of friends and are able to return to the town to bring law, order and justice to it.

Some of the Arthurian allusions are pretty obvious. Arthur's buddy is named Lance; his girlfriend is named Gwen. There's a tarot card reader named Morgan. The aformentioned gun is clearly a substitute for Excaliber. I started reading it with no knowledge of what it was about, and it didn't take long at all to realize it was a Western version of King Arthur. (Naming the main character Arthur Pendergon is a bit of a giveaway if there were ANY doubts by the time you got to the second chapter.) But, fortunately, the book is NOT just a straight re-telling of the original myths. The basic structure is there, and there's plenty of direct and conscious nods to the source, but the story takes some different turns. Having the climactic battle hinge on the rage and almost ninja-like skills of an indentured mistress named Sheng Yi was a bit of a surprise, for example.

By and large, it was a good story. Well plotted and decent dialogue throughout. I did find a couple of instances of the gun being fired somewhat discongruous with its stated abilities; while there's some in-story dialogue to acknowledge those instances, they still seem to slide over the explanations a bit.

The art was excellent throughout. It actually read surprisingly well given the darker and muted colors used everywhere. I was never at a loss for following the action. There were a couple instances where I felt the word balloons could've been placed better, but those couple of times were the exceptions and not the rule.

One thing about the art bothered me, though. All of the figures were drawn very well, and maintained a solid consistency throughout the story. Even characters who bore similar facial features were pretty easily distinguishable from one another. However, the character of Lance was clearly modeled after actor Colin Farrell. It's actually a very good likeness in every depiction of him, but that he's the only character that's directly based on a famous actor, it was slightly distracting. The images of Gwen, too, had a quality that suggested she's based more directly on a specific individual, but I couldn't place who that might be.

Despite those nitpicks, I actually enjoyed the book quite a bit. It's very well done overall, and was a pleasure to read. I don't think I've liked the Arthurian legends that much since Mage.

Friday, March 06, 2009

"This Isn't General Motors!"

Question: How do you make a make four-decade-plus comic modern and relevant to this very week's headlines?

Answer: Just change a little dialogue in the last two panels...

From Amazing Spider-Man #1.

Mostly.

Thursday, March 05, 2009

Schulz Goes Meta!

Today's Peanuts...
(Well, I say "today" but it was originally published back on March 8, 1962.)

I'll be the first to admit that I probably haven't read as much Peanuts as I should -- especially given the sheer volume Schulz produced in his lifetime -- but I don't recall many in which he made active use of the comic strip format to comment on the strip itself.

What strikes me first is that there's very little in the way of comics here. We've got two heads talking. It could easily have been accomplished in one (admittedly long) panel, like so...
Although, by Scott McCloud's definition, we're no longer looking at a comic. There's no sequence.

Of course, that starts to ask the question of approach. What if the same art had been used throughout this particular strip?
In content, it's scarcely different. After all, Charlie Brown remains motionless in the original anyway, and Linus does nothing more than turn his head a couple times. But since we're seeing exactly the same thing throughout, the implication isn't any different than the single panel version. Does that mean it's not a comic (again, using McCloud's rarely disputed definition)?

Schulz didn't take this approach, though. (I daresay he would've considered it cheating.) He confirmed the panels do follow a series of actions, albeit minimal ones.

What this also does is highlight how unconcerned Charlie Brown is with the conversation. That he remains perfectly motionless throughout Linus' speech, despite Linus' obvious attempts at engaging in a discussion by repeatedly attempting to make eye contact. In Charlie Brown's estimation, the subject is not really worth worrying about.

Which brings us back to the meta-textuality of the joke. Schulz is using the strip to respond to concerns about comics being too driven by the text and not really being a marriage or words and pictures. He parodies the concern by using fairly minimal movements. And that he deliberately took the time to draw each panel separately and distinctly differently (two different poses, each shown from two different vantage points), he's shown that he's not saving himself any time or effort in his work. It's just as time consuming to draw someone standing as it is to draw someone kicking a football.

So Schulz's minimal changes to each panel actually serve multiple purposes here. Within the context of the comic itself, it highlights the character differences between the two kids. But at a meta-textual level, it reinforces the commentary on the subject of overly verbose comics.

You know, I'd never been a huge fan of Peanuts growing up, but the more I study the strips, the more impressed I become. Schulz's simplicity of line belies his sublime mastery of the craft.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Saved By Comics

High school was a difficult time for me, like it was/is for many people. The feelings of ostracization and solitude that came from being an outcast (to some degree, even among my friends) made Life seem very trying. I was never so miserable that I gave suicide any real contemplation, but miserable enough that I can empathize with those kids who shot up Columbine High School.

So around this time of feeling like crap, I stumbled across a copy of New Mutants #45. The story was a self-contained one, wholly unrelated to the anniversary cover. I found the following synopsis of the story online...
The New Mutants go to a dance at the Salem Center High School. Larry Bodine sees Dani leave on Brightwind, and reveals to the reader he too is a mutant. Bodine, a victim of verbal bullying, is threatened that they'll call X-Factor on him as a prank by the 'popular' crowd. Larry goes off with the New Mutants back to Xavier's for a bit, but wears out his welcome by telling the new joke going around school, which is about mutants. He goes home alone to sulk. Rahne, however, trusting her instinct, follows him home and sees his light sculpture, and rushes off to tell the New Mutants. Just then, the bullies call Larry's home, and tell him they called X-Factor. Afraid of X-Factor, he commits suicide. The next morning at breakfast, Rahne is about to let everyone know he's a mutant when Magneto interrupts to let them know he committed suicide. Dani and the others talk Rahne out of killing the people who caused Larry's death. Shadowcat gives a speech at an assembly at Salem Center High School to urge people to be careful how they label others.

The story, by Chris Claremont, was exceptionally well-written -- even by Claremont standards -- and did a phenomenal job of speaking to the fear and loneliness that's almost inherent in high school. Kitty Pryde's speech at the end was preachy, but the rest of the story was so powerful that the epilogue really was pretty ancillary to the tale.

The story, as you've no doubt surmised, touched me very deeply. It helped put the crapfest that is/was school in perspective. It helped make me a stronger person and believe in my own self and my own integrity, despite the name calling and pranks and any host of other emotionally distressing events. I learned that I don't need validation from others if I know I'm being true and honest with myself. I don't need to cater to others in an effort to win their respect or approval if I respect and approve of myself.

I haven't actually looked at the issue for several years now, and I'm sure I'm inflating it's prowess a bit more than is truly warranted. But, ultimately, a critical analysis of the book would be meaningless to me because I found so much meaning in what it meant. I think I carried that issue around with me to school and back every day for a month when I first found it. It's certainly the most well-read individual issue in my collection to this day, despite not having read it recently.

And, really, for the analytical eye I turn to Jack Kirby and Art Spiegelman and David O'Connell, none of them can compete with the comic that kept me going throughout high school and taught me how to keep going throughout Life.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

American Widow

Despite a fairly hectic schedule recently, I did manage to weasel out some time to read American Widow by Alissa Torres and illustrated by Sungyoon Choi.

This is a difficult book to review, I think. Not that I have any particular connection to the creators, or anyone mentioned in the story, but because it's about 9/11. I think it'd be exceedingly difficult to tell a personal story about someone who died during the attacks on that day and NOT turn out a very powerful story. That day is still wrapped with a great deal of emotional baggage that everyone who watched that day unfold has not fully distanced themselves from. (Although it might be worth noting that, for kids in middle school, that day is already ancient history; they were at most only 3 or 4 when it happened.) So reading the story of how one woman lived through that experience -- her husband having started work in the World Trade Center only the day before -- it was very difficult to not be gripped by the story.

"Of course it's a powerful book! How could it not be?"

What's easy to lose sight of, though, is that it's very well crafted. The book opens shortly after the first plane hit the World Trade Center. It's a somewhat obvious opening -- almost a mandatory one -- but from then on, the story hops from past to present repeatedly, as we piece together the life that Alissa and Eddie had, and the life Alissa has to continue on with. And that's where, I think, the excellence in craft is most evident. Although the overall story is told more-or-less chronologically, it does a lot of jumping back and forth. And while this could easily get pretty confusing, it never really is. Yes, there are dates captioned when necessary to provide a specific "historical" context, but they're back of the subject matter and flow smoothly. Torres has smartly chosen to tell the story as it makes the most sense, not necessarily in the order that everything happened.

Life is what you make, the saying goes. And the story here is a heartening one; it's the story of Life, and how we cope. It's the story of adversity in all its forms, and how we can choose to deal with it. It's how someone can experience the worst that can be thrown at them and still stand tall and walk onward, despite whatever scars they might accrue.

This story could've been a "gimme." It could have been simply one person's cathartic re-telling of what happened to them because of 9/11, and it would've sold reasonably well. But American Widow is much more than that; it's a well-crafted tale of tragedy and the human spirit, and is only made all the more visceral by the emotional weight of 9/11 that we still carry.

Monday, March 02, 2009

The Time War

OK, this is TOTALLY not comics related...

"Sean, the recession has hurt my budget and I haven't been able to purchase comics and DVDs like I used to. What can I do to keep myself entertained?"

"Well, friend, you can do what I do and create your own video of a story you don't think will ever be professionally made!"

"Huh?"

"I'm pretty sure the BBC isn't going to produce an actual Time War story that supposedly preceded the recent Dr. Who revival, so I made my own, based on what I'd like to see!"

(Yes, this post is exclusively to show off my first real attempt at video editing.)

En Garde!

Say, who's that standing guard behind the Sergeant and Prof. Skeary Winslow? Why, if not for the extradimensional sensory organs and purple eyes, I'd have to say it was... well... me!

To find out what I'm doing, you'll need to read the latest installment of G.L. Nelson's The Sergeant and Professor Skeary Winslow.