Thursday, July 30, 2009

Meet The Crenshaws

Back in the day, my father was a cartoonist for his high school paper. He developed an ongoing strip called "The Crenshaws" which detailed the lives of the Crenshaw family who, for unexplained reasons, absolutely nobody could stand to be around. Dad's twist, though, was that the reader never actually saw the Crenshaws at all. All of the stories centered around the Crenshaws and how everybody else reacted to them.

Dad found some copies of the old papers, and passed them along to me as something of a family curiosity. Dad's drawing ability has improved over the years, and he's even illustrated a handful of books. He continues to look at whatever projects he works on from unusual/different perspectives, however.

I've scanned half a dozen examples of "The Crenshaws" to showcase here...





Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Comic Book Heroes, The Band

You know, with a name like Comic Book Heroes, you'd think a band's visual identity would at least vaguely reflect -- oh, I don't know -- comic books?

Monday, July 27, 2009

Paradigm Shift

So, I've seen/talked with a few people who saw Google's superhero logo from this past weekend and were trying to figure out the benefit of having a home page with Batman across the top. Their thoughts generally ran along the "why bother, since I'm going to click over to another site in 2 seconds anyway" line of thinking. I've also had a few conversations recently with Baby Boomers, who I've had to explain implications of new technology; they understood WHAT a new piece of technology did, but they didn't quite get WHY you would want that. I also recently heard the question posed to a roomful of coworkers, "If your Tivo wasn't working, and you couldn't record anything, what one TV show would you absolutely stay home to watch instead of going out with friends?"

What all of these scenarios point to are people trying to understand new ideas and processes using old thought processes. As I heard put recently, "We're always fighting the last war." In essence, people try to force new situations into an old context they're already comfortable with. And that makes sense that people can and often do exactly that, so I don't begrudge or judge people on having that disconnect in their thinking. (I'm sure I'm guilty of doing that far more often than I even recognize myself!)

The idea is NOT to use your web browser to search out and track down pages and sites that you know you want to catch up with. The idea is to have your portal pull those pages' latest updates back to you, all on one screen. Let the computer do the repetitive work that they're good at for you.

The idea that you're limited to what TV networks show, and when, is similarly outdated when you can go to any number of web sites (often, the networks' own web sites) and select individual episodes to play at your convenience, regardless if you'd planned on watching them at all in the first place. It's the TV-on-demand people have been prophetizing for years.

The same applies across all industries. With today's electronic efficiencies in delivery mechanisms, why can't individual consumers order directly from Diamond and have their new books shipped to their home every Wednesday? Why can't publishers do a better job of offering their stories online? Why do publishers look at themselves as publishers instead of licensors, as many of them really are? It all stems from old thinking.

Trying to teach people to think in terms of new paradigms isn't as easy as teaching rocket science; it's more akin to trying to teach creativity. There's not a simple, straight-forward process with numbered steps. But I think alerting people to the need to think in new ways is a minimum requirement (hence this post).

So try looking beyond the functionality of everything that's going on and look at what that new/improved functionality means.

Welcome to the 21st century! Good luck!

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Why Micropayments Failed

Last week, I referenced Chris Anderson's new book, Free: The Future of a Radical Price. I've been reading it since then with great enthusiasm and, interestingly, Anderson specifically notes why the paying for webcomics in some kind of micropayment system (as promoted by Scott McCloud in Reinventing Comics) was doomed to fail...
The proper name for that flag is what George Washington University economist Nick Szabo has dubbed "mental transaction costs." These are, simply, the toll of thinking. We're all a bit lazy and we'd rather not think about things if we don't have to. So we tend to choose things that require the least thinking...

Szabo extended this to purchasing decisions. He looked at the idea of "micropayments," financial systems that would allow you to pay fractions of a cent per Web page you read, or millieuros for each comic strip you download. All these schemes are destined to fail, Szabo concluded, because although they minimize the economic costs of choices, they still have all the cognitive costs.

In effect, he's saying that by charging ANY amount, you're forcing the reader to make a choice. By not charging anything, there's no real choice to make, and you eliminate the mental barrier of the user deliberating whether or not the comic is worth whatever money you're asking for it. If it's free, it must be worth AT LEAST that much, so there's really no decision to make.

The book has been, so far, quite fascinating and -- given that HE'S GIVING IT AWAY -- I highly encourage everyone to read it.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

The Wrath Of Con

In the spirit of CCI, the Happy Tree Friends attend a comic book convention in the Hall of Justice...

Friday, July 24, 2009

Thursday, July 23, 2009

The Amazing Bag-Man Action Figure????

I really didn't want to comment on CCI news this week, but...

REALLY? He appeared in ONE comic for less than half the issue! And they're making an action figure out of him? How many collectors these days have even read that story?

Bag-Man? Seriously?

(Image courtesy of MarvelousNews.com)

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

And So It Begins...

The Official Star Wars Blog today began posting pictures from this year's Comic-Con International, which doesn't actually open until Thursday. (Although tomorrow is a "Preview Night" which presumably means that the convention floor will be pretty much ready to go by then.)

Expect a barrage of coverage from just about every comic-related blog and news outlet for the next several days. Since I'm not in San Diego, though, I'll just continue posting my usually esoteric thoughts and opinions which, at most, will be only tangentially related to news from CCI for those of you sick of hearing about the Green Lantern movie or Twilight manga or whathaveyou.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Room With A Deja View

IDW has been fairly successful lately with their various Dr. Who comics, following on the success of the revived TV franchise. (Thank you, Russell T Davies!) The latest installment in IDW's comic line is Dr. Who: A Room with a Déjà View by Rich Johnston and Eric J.

Johnston is, of course, best known for his "Lying in the Gutters" column, which he's recently segued into Bleeding Cool. He has written a few comics before, but this was the first of his I'd read so I have to admit to being skeptical going in. He noted, too, when he sent me a review copy that he'd established "time travel in the actual structure of the comic itself, which can make it intentionally hard to read as a comic..." So I was going in extremely skeptically.

The story begins with the Doctor answering a distress call from the "Dead Zone." He naturally goes to investigate and stumbles across a murder. The main suspect, somewhat surprisingly, has already been apprehended; however, the accused is from a race who -- well, I don't know that I want to reveal too much, but let's just say that only a Time Lord like the Doctor has any hope of communicating with him. The Doctor extracts a confession out of the murderer who, after a brief visit with his family, is born. (Trust me, it actually makes sense within the context of the comic.)

Now, I'm not up to speed with all the Doctor's non-TV adventures, but this story is something of a tonal departure from the show. Johnston certainly keeps the Doctor in character (his dialogue especially is spot-on) and the story is very fitting for the Doctor Who universe, but the David Tennant episodes tend to have more running. Lots and lots of running...


Here, though, the story is more cerebral. Which makes sense given the change in medium; comics are inherently more cerebral than television. Indeed, it requires more effort here on the part of the reader than most comics, and I think it's safe to say that you'll need to read it at least twice. But that's deliberate on Johnston's part ("I'm trying to get the reader to work a little") and not entirely a bad thing.

Eric J.'s depiction of Tennant is recognizable, but he naturally runs into a generally difficult aspect of such a comic: namely, having to draw an actor's likeness from any number of angles and perspectives over and over again. But I discussed that topic in general a few years ago, and I won't dwell on it here. The other difficulty he faces is actually Johnston's story itself, where he has to show the Doctor communicating with the murderer. It would certainly be a challenge for any artist to convey exactly what's going on for that sequence, and kudos to Eric J. for not shirking away from it. I've only seen anything like this attempted once before in comics (by Walt Simonson) and while Eric J. does a commendable job, I'm not sure it was entirely successful.

To be fair, I'm not privy to either Johnston's script or any conversations the two creators (and any other involved parties) had, so I wouldn't presume any less-than-ideal storytelling execution here is due to any single individual. The concept is rather difficult to wrap one's head around, after all. But the interview sequence, I think, could stand a little more delineation on exactly how the Doctor is able to interview the murderer. The reader gets a general impression of the process, but the specifics are somewhat glossed over. I think this would be fine if it were a smaller or less significant portion of the story but, as the book's concept really hinges on the idea, I should like to see it expanded a tad more.

It's not a book that I think Doctor Who fans will be disappointed with. Like some of the best episodes of the series, it challenges people with new ideas and concepts. I think it might be a harder sell for folks not familiar/comfortable with the themes of Doctor Who. It's a book I can almost guarantee you'll need to read repeatedly and, because of that, it's not a book you're going to forget about soon.

Dr. Who: A Room with a Déjà View will be released this Wednesday. Johnston will be at Comic-Con International this week, signing copies.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Amend On CCI

Bill Amend comments on Comic-Con International in today's Foxtrot. (Although last I checked, Marcus was black.)

Saturday, July 18, 2009

1976 Fumetti

A Maxwell House ad from the November 1976 issue of Woman's Day featuring Vivian "Ethel Mertz" Vance...

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Comics In Libraries

Graphic Novel Reporter recently spoke with three librarians who work primarily with middle school students. All three had (within the past few years) helped initiate graphic novel programs into their respective libraries, and have been unilaterally been delighted with the results.

The takeaway here is that a great way to broaden the overall comics market is simply to get comics into places where kids have access to them. All three librarians were not just pleased, but floored at how well their graphic novel programs were doing. Especially with so little (if any) promotion on their part.

Which ultimately points us back to the major limitation of the direct market. It's a closed-loop system; newcomers are inherently kept from getting on board and the system is forced to perpetually feed on itself. And unlike Ouroboros, that does NOT make it immortal but, rather, it ensures a decidedly finite lifespan.

What would the cost be, I wonder, for a publisher to ship some of their books out to libraries for free? Not everything -- that would almost certainly be prohibitively expensive -- and not necessarily to ALL libraries -- again, too expensive. But maybe five or ten books to the biggest, most-trafficked libraries. Some good, all-ages material. Wouldn't that kind of exposure almost guarantee more sales? And, more to the point, those sales would most likely be from completely new customers entirely removed from those of us already in that loop.

Seeing how financially feasible that was strikes me as a project somebody with access to some hard numbers ought to take up!

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Marvel Stock

Offered without comment (largely because I'm pretty dumbstruck by this)...

As of the moment I'm typing this, Marvel's stock price is $38.79 -- the highest it has EVER been.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Extending A Brilliant Idea

Yesterday, I posited the suggestion that a comic publisher should provide a retailer portal where an LCS could download and/or order all sorts of nifty stuff from one place for free. Today, I thought of a way to expand on that idea...

What if a publisher created such a portal, and then let ANYONE have access? Sign up for free, regardless of who you are, and have access to all sorts of content.

"Okay, Sean, now you've just gone crazy!"

Hear me out.

Not everyone would have access to all the same materials. Since a user would have to log in, the portal would know who they are and could provide access to only specific levels of material. An average reader, for example, wouldn't need to order self-standing brochure holders, for example. Retailers would be set up by the publisher, as would reviewers and press-type folks. All of these people would be given access to advance PDF copies of the actual books (watermarked to identify who's downloaded them) and some basic promotional materials -- some hi-res art files, for example. Retailers would have the added benefits of the posters and tchotchkes, as I detailed earlier.

Folks without such retail or press credentials could sign up for individual accounts. They would have access to -- are you ready for this? -- the publisher's entire library of content. Every book they'd published online. For free.

"OK, Sean, now I know you're nuts!"

I've got logic behind this, though.

First, the downloads would all be of the individual pamphlet comics, not collections. Second, the files would be EXACTLY as they originally went to press with ads, letter columns, and all. Third, like the retailer versions, each issue would be watermarked with the downloader's name. Finally, the available-to-the-public versions would only be made available some time (a week or two?) after the printed books were available in stores.

The realization I had was that a comic book's shelf life is, by and large, one week. The vast majority of sales of any given issue occur in the week that it's released. Sales drop over the next three weeks and, a month later, the book is next to worthless. Certainly any book that's been out for six months or longer is likely to sit in with all the other long boxes until it's inevitably moved to the quarter bin.

Which means that neither the retailer or the publisher is financially hurt by giving away back issues.

Further, the content of a comic book is, as I've tauted before, is NOT what customers/readers are paying for. They are paying for the delivery system. If they are solely interested in the story, they'll download the free copy. If they want a copy they can hold in their hands and read while sunning themselves on the beach, they'll have to pay for either the pamphlet or TPB version. Or perhaps the iPhone-specific version. But the basic content? That's not what they're paying for.

Another consideration is that, if a publisher of decent size offers up their entire library of material, most people would be too overwhelmed to digest all of it anyway. How much content sitting on Hulu have you actually watched online? Although this is entirely speculation, I sincerely doubt Friday's episode of Eureka being on Hulu is going to prevent anyone who was a potential customer from buying the DVD later.

Now, here's where the real key idea behind the portal comes in. Every person has to sign in. That means that there's a record of not only who they are (the sign in process obviously would require some basic contact information) but the publisher would be able to track what they're looking at. Are they targeting specific books, specific creators, an overall genre, what? That information could then be used to target users with ads specifically catered to their tastes. Ads selling tangible goods uniquely related to their interests like t-shirts and statues and action figures.

Frankly, that's a concept that I really do find fascinating and should study more: that people are willing to pay for the privilege of advertising your goods...

But I can almost guarantee that if a publisher starts giving away their comics, they'll more than make up for potential lost comic sales in the sales of ancillary material. This is precisely how your Phil Foglios and Jen Breedens make a living, albiet on a smaller scale. Despite giving away their content, people are still willing to pay for collected books and mousepads and calendars and all sorts of other material, which has been traditionally secondary to the process of making comics. The main difference I'm talking about is that, where Foglio and Breeden have a more open (i.e. you don't have to log in) environment, a more "traditional" publisher could expand the goals and reach of the same idea exponentially with their larger content base.

The more I think about it, the more convinced I am that a publisher would be best-served by giving away all their content for free. Wired's Chris Anderson just released a book on the subject, which I'll be reading shortly. (The book by the way is being given away for free, putting Anderson's money where his mouth is.) The question at the moment is only one of who's going to be the brave soul to be first?

Monday, July 13, 2009

The Publisher's Dilemma

Question: If you were a comic book publisher, who would you try to sell your comics to? What type of audience would your marketing (in whatever form it took) speak to?

The obvious answer, of course, is some subset of comic book fans.

"It's kind of like The Goon only with a more contemporary flavor."

"I'm aiming this towards superhero fans who want to see Latino's better represented in comics."

"It's a manga version of Bone."

"Think of it as a cross between Witchblade and Power Girl."

The issue, though, is that that's not exactly who you, as a publisher, need to be aiming for. Yes, you definitely want to create interest around the book with the audience most likely to respond; that's how you get people to be more than just fans, but vocal advocates of your book.

But there's a LOT out there clamoring for people's attention. Based on volume alone, Marvel and DC eat up a lot of comic fans' attention, even if they're actively trying to ignore it. Which means that setting up an RSS feed from your site and sending press releases to Newsarama is not enough. That will certainly buy some traction and it's a necessity of doing business in the comic industry these days, but you likely won't get much new interest from those, again, thanks to the sheer enormity of everything else.

The key to grab people's attention is to utilize the attentions they're already honed in to listen to. If you can target a handful of folks who can sell the book for you, you have a better chance of making it. I spoke to this, in a more general sense, a few months back. However, I neglected to mention a specific key influencer that is worthy of attention: the comic shop retailer.

They're noteworthy for a couple of reasons. First, they are generally seen as subject matter experts when it comes to comic books. Since they, by the very nature of their job, deal with comic books all day, every day, they HAVE to know what's going on just to keep their business running. If they tell every customer that they think Captain Wonderschmuck is a great book, they're almost certainly going to sell more of them than if they never mentioned it unless somebody asked. Seems fairly obvious, right?

The second reason that they're significant is that they're the ones who are actually on the front lines. They're the people your readers are going to interact with about the purchase. Which means that they are a publisher's sales force. If a publisher treats retailers well, the retailers are going to be more open to that publisher's books.

Hypothetical example...

Let's say you've created Captain Wonderschmuck and it's a pretty good comic. You're no Will Eisner, but it's a decent book. You've got your web site set up and you've got accounts set up on Facebook and Twitter and everything. You've sent out press releases to all the comic news outlets. You even got a couple of decent reviews from Tom Spurgeon and Blair Butler. All of which is done in advance of the book actually hitting the stands.

Now, you've got Joe Reader who goes into his Local Comic Shop. He sees the book on the shelf of new comics, picks it up and flips through it. He hems and haws and finally turns to the retailer and says, "I don't know; I've heard some good things about this, but..."

If the retailer is like many of them, they might say, "Yeah, I've heard some good things too." Which may or may not sway the potential reader. It's an understandably non-committal statement from the retailer -- they don't want to lose creditibility by saying it's good if they haven't read it. And if the book just came in, they likely haven't had a chance. (One retailer I knew admitted to being two years behind on Captain America and was trying to race through them to catch up in time for when Marvel was going to kill the character off.) So the potential sale in this instance is reliant on any number of factors now outside the publisher's control. How much cash does the customer have right then? Did they have a decent lunch? How much crap is their boss giving them at work? None of these things will overtly tell the customer to buy the comic or not, but it will influence his mood. If he's sitting on the fence about it, though, a bad tuna melt might be enough to get him to put it back on the shelf unsold.

On the other hand, if the retailer had gotten an advance copy of the book, they might have had time to read it before putting it on display. If they ALWAYS got advance copies of ALL your books, they might be predisposed to liking that one title, since they liked the last ones you sent in advance. If they got cool promotional materials for free, they might be that much more inclined to look positively on your work. If the publisher treats the retailer well, the conversation with the customer might go something like...

"I don't know; I've heard some good things about this, but..."

"Same here! I haven't read that particular issue yet, but they've been putting out some great stuff in general lately."

The question then becomes, how does a publisher court a retailer? More to the point, how does a publisher court ALL retailers?

One could print up advance copies of comics and posters and flyers and some small tchotchkes, and send a care package to every retailer individually. Which is doable, but pricey. And it would likely be a waste on some retailers, who might not have wall space to hang a poster in the first place, even if they do like the art.

Ah, but this is the 21st century, my friends, and we have 21st century technology at our disposal! What about this...?

How about a portal web site where retailers could log in, and get all sorts of free material to use? PDF copies of every new issue a week before they come out, downloadable flyers or tent-cards to print off and hang around the store, posters available for order through some POD system. Some kind of downloadable papercrafts that could be folded up easily and made into a cool counter display? Maybe even some POD key chains or pens or Post-It pads or whatever do-dads make sense for that publisher or comic title?

"Wait, Sean," you're saying, "no publisher is going to release ALL of their comics online before they might sell them in the store. They'll end up as torrents in no time!"

If you had them downloadable in the same way as they're available for print, sure. But you could watermark the ones in the retailer portal. You could even watermark them on the fly, so that each page is stamped with the retailer's name and address; that way, even if they did upload it for torrents, it would be immediately obvious who was doing it, and their access rights could be revoked.

"Sean, this is sounding pretty complex. I don't think even guys like Marvel and DC have the technical know-how to do something like this."

As I said, this is the 21st century. This kind of software is available for off-the-shelf purchase from any number of places. I'd bet any IT guy worth his salt even has three or four products in his mind that could be installed within a week. The only issues then would be setting it up for the 3,000 or so retailers (no small task, to be sure, but one that doesn't require specialized skills) and then populating it with content (again, no small task, and would be dependent on the material that publisher produced).

Not every retailer would actually use such a portal, certainly, but think of the goodwill and PR that would generate within the industry. Your more savvy retailers would almost certainly jump all over that and, being savvy retailers, probably have more influence than most other comic influencers. I certainly haven't tried doing anything resembling number crunching here, but I can see that kind of set-up paying for itself fairly quickly.

Any publishers out there reading this?

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Mr. Miracle, Take 2

My first exposure to Mr. Miracle was in Brave and the Bold #112. I received my copy of the comic, along with a couple dozen others, from a friend of my parents who gave them to me, I suspect, to keep me out of trouble while the grown-ups were talking. I really enjoyed the issue, as evidenced by the fact that, while I still have that old copy, it's about as beat up as it could get and still present all of the stories intact.

I remember thinking, as a child, that the Mr. Miracle/Batman story in that issue stood out as the most "adult," which probably had more to do with Jim Aparo's art than anything else since it was the least cartoon-ish. I was reminded of the story today, and I dug out my battered copy to re-read once again. (It's actually so battered, I couldn't actually hold the book in my hands; I had to lay it on my desk in order to read it.)

I was surprised at how much it tied back to Jack Kirby's version of the character, which I had only read for the first time a few years ago. I didn't remember Big Barda or Oberon being in the B&B story, largely because they were only in two panels. That would also why, to this day, I tend to think of Mr. Miracle as complete loner instead of alongside Barda. Th Egyptian theme of the story, too, influenced my thoughts on the character, and I tend to think of him in more noir-ish environments than the high-tech world of Apokolips.

I also didn't remember any references to any other aspects of The Fourth World, but Mr. Miracle is there using his Mother Box repeatedly and exclaiming things like, "By Darkseid's demons!!" I find it easy to chalk this up to simply not even being aware of The Fourth World books until at least a decade after I'd last read this. Likewise, his "powers" in this issue aren't explained particularly well, so I recall thinking he was basically Batman with a less powerful set of Superman's powers. Indeed, Mr. Miracle was, in my mind, far superior to Batman since he clearly out-thought, out-ran, and generally out-classed the Caped Crusader at every turn.

It's a very different Mr. Miracle than what Kirby had originally created. Which isn't to say that this one doesn't make sense; just that going from Kirby's version to this one without reading any intervening material is a bit of a jump.

And, as I'm sitting here, reading this version for the first time in over 20 years, I'm wondering about why I can relate to the later Mr. Miracle more. I'm a HUGE fan of Kirby's work, so I find myself debating whether this newer Bob Haney/Jim Aparo version is that much better for me, or am I just applying a veneer of nostalgia over it. Which I'm perhaps wrestling with even more since I just sat through THE movie of my childhood: Star Wars. (The old school one, mind you, not the "Special Edition" or whatever.) I suspect, ultimately, that the nostalgia factor does weigh in on my thinking here, but given that I've never really felt trapped by anything or had any deep emotional issues with my grandmother, the super-powered magician-cum-detective resonates more closely with me.

And maybe the fact that Aparo drew flowing capes really well had a little to do with it too.

Friday, July 10, 2009

CCI By Proxy

I have never made it out to San Diego for Comic-Con International. As it has been, for at least the past decade, the event in which publishers release a great deal of news, I have always been forced to retrieve news and information stemming from the event third-hand through various news outlets. For the past ten years, my primary source for that has been the Internet.

I recall that, during the 1998 show, one of the exhibitors (I want to say it was Wizard) set up a live webcam at their booth. It consisted of jumpy video (something like 1 frame every 5 seconds) and no audio, but it was the first time I got any real sense of what the convention was like. I watched as people meandered by, some in costume. Sometimes someone would stop by the booth and present some of their recently obtained swag to the camera. It was very exciting for me, stuck at the time in Ohio, to even participate that tangentially.

Connection speeds and general 'net savvy have improved greatly since then. Like many comic fans who aren't able to attend CCI, I rely on comic news sites for not only after-the-fact reports but also near real-time coverage. In 2007, the G4 network even set up shop on the convention floor and broadcast live for two hours during the show. Last year's coverage was increasing to four hours, and I believe this year is scheduled for five.

Of course, I don't have cable any more, so I won't be watching that.

Which led me back to the internet. Surely, with the popularity of video sites like YouTube and Hulu, there's bound to be more video coverage online, right? Maybe so. As I just discovered that NBC actually posted a couple hours of footage on Hulu last year, I'm hopeful that will bear something of a repeat performance this year.

Comic Book Resources has also provided a decent amount of coverage in the past, and will likely to continue to do so. They have the further advantage -- from my perspective -- of focusing on the actual comic industry moreso than the general geekery-at-large that's provided by more "mainstream" outlets.

But the reason why I bring it up is the curious phenomenon I found myself staring at. "Mainstream" coverage of CCI is only a few years old, and I'd already gotten accustomed to it. I found myself disappointed that I don't subscribe to cable any longer, having decided last year that just about anything I would watch is available as a download or via DVD. But here is a situation in which the incomplete convergence of TV and the Internet left a gaping hole in my comic news milieu.

Which brought on a second phenomenon in that that was a hole I wasn't even aware of two years ago. The gap between what TV and the Internet provided was still so large that I found it impossible to even consider bridging. Nevermind that it wasn't much more than a decade ago when comic news would take weeks to filter back from San Diego.

I don't really have a point to this post, other than to point out the change in expectations. It will be curious to watch how that further evolves over the next year or two, as well as seeing how the lines between outlets continue to blur.

(As something of a sidebar, I actually will be largely off the grid that weekend anyway and probably won't be able to read/see much of the coverage until early August. Which, as something of a second sidebar, is perfectly fine with me since I've lost much of my fan interest in CCI -- given the increasing prevalence of non-comics media -- and would much rather put my focus on the New York Comic-Con, where the focus still seems to be on comics.)

Thursday, July 09, 2009

Altounian On Bibliotech

Last week's episode of Bibliotech featured a half-hour interview with Plantinum/Wowio president Brian Altounian. There really isn't anything particularly earth-shattering in the interview and, in point of fact, I was quite struck at how ignorant interviewer Mark Jeffrey seemed regarding digital media delivery in general. It really seemed to me as if the interview would've been one conducted five -- maybe even ten -- years ago. He had a distinctly "Gee, wow, I didn't realize you can embed an audio file in an electronic book" attitude. Hence, Altounian is given some really banal questions, and the interview winds up being a Wowio primer more than anything else.

That said, they do speak to Wowio's comic book content specifically a few times, so I'm embedding the video below. As I said, it runs about 30 minutes...

What If Dr. Doom Did Stand-Up Comedy? (NSFW)


(Hat tip: J.A Fludd)

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Webcomic Outlets In A Recession

According to this article from eMarketer, consumers in general currently have a distinct preference for broadband access over mobile access by some noticeable margins. I'll provide their charts if you don't want to read the full article...





As you can see, the use of mobile devices (regardless of platform) for data transmission is considerably less important to people than a solid broadband connection at home. Although their research doesn't get into the reason(s) for that difference, it seems to me that usability is probably the biggest factor here. The combination of small screen sizes which don't always adapt "normal" web page layouts well, plus a typically clumsier set of input options which make navigation more difficult than it ought to be, plus inherently slower -- sometimes even intermittent -- connection speeds all point to users having a much better user experience on their desktops than on a typical mobile device. Being able to find movie listings or a restaurant's menu in the car is useful, to be sure, but the old Spider-Man cartoons look/run better from the computer sitting on your desk.

What I'm getting at here is that people seem to view their desktop computer as their "home base" when it comes to internet, and their mobile devices are still just communications tools that provide more flexible access to that base station. (Although I feel that dynamic will shift over the next decade or so. People are still thinking in terms of personal hard drives and floppy disks, but I see the trend as shifting to more decentralization, where your personal files and data -- and even applications -- are all stored on a server which has full-time broadband access to the Internet, and can be accessed and worked on from any other computer regardless of platform. More of a thin client model than a thick client one, if you want to use the IT vernacular. Indeed, much of how I personally work today is along those lines; the last column I sent in to Jack Kirby Collector was seamlessly written from three different computers in two different states, without having to transport files around on CDs or via email. Right now, in 2009, though, most people do NOT think or work in that manner, and still consider their desktop unit as their central processing computer, as opposed to simply an outlet through which they can get to their online data. But I digress...)

The upshot is that, if the recession continues through 2010 or even into 2011 as some experts predict, people will increase their reliance on broadband through their desktops and will be more likely to drop data services from their mobile devices.

Now, what does that have to do with webcomics?

What that has to do with webcomics is the manner with which they are delivered.

There are a number of sort-of-competing formats for delivering webcomics right now. Some folks use a specialized flash viewer, some rely on the CBR or CBZ format, some present JPGs on hard-coded HTML pages, some use dynamic web page/RSS feed generators, some are just sent via email... not to mention iPhone apps and other similar programs specific to certain platforms. Generally speaking, most of the options available are flexible enough to work under a variety of conditions. For example, while a PDF comic relies on the user have a PDF viewer of some sort unique to their operating system, PDF viewers are readily available for nearly every platform, so you can read a PDF file regardless of whether you're on a Mac or a PC or a Palm or...

And that, I think, is the key to webcomics at least for the next five years, if not longer. To make them as fundamentally accessible for flexible reading as possible. Unless you're comic is THE ABSOLUTE BEST THING EVER, people are not going to spend a lot of time dealing with your delivery mechanism. This is a distinct failing, I think of flash-based comics in general. They are inherently based on hitting a specific page on the internet and require the latest version of a flash player to view them at all. There's nothing wrong if someone WANTS to go to a specific web page with their flash player, but you won't be able to rely on that for delivery.

Early this year, when Diamond changed some of their policies, a lot of people went into a panic not knowing how or even whether their books would be distributed. A handful of us said, basically, that comic creators need to explore as many outlets as possible and ensure that as many people can get to/read their material as possible. There are, in essence, two ways of doing that.

First, a creator (or his/her representative) can essentially bust their butt getting their product into as many venues as possible. They have it on their web site; they've set it up with some POD service; they've made it available through Wowio and iTunes; they've posted CBR torrents... All of which would help, certainly, but it would take a considerable amount of time -- time which could be instead spent on, say, actually making the comic.

An alternative would be to have a set-up in which, once the source files are created, they could be uploaded to a server which then automatically propagates the files out to an array of venues via an XML (or equivalent) feed. This second method would essentially take the source files as they come in, automatically reformat them, and route the reformatted versions to the appropriate outlets. So, a 300 dpi page scan gets sent to a POD server, while the 72 dpi version is posted on website, whose relevant information is included in an RSS feed, which is in part read to display the pages on a web site. As a person who has NOT even attempted creating their own webcomic, I haven't looked in to whether or not this type of set-up currently exists, but it's at least conceptually do-able. Further, it could be implemented in several different ways such that a variety of companies could realistically compete in such a market. Maybe one provides really high quality paper to print the books on, while another does a better job formatting the XML, while still a third looks exclusively at making it as cheap/affordable as possible. Perhaps, then, a fourth has developed a unique iPhone app that's able to utilize the same files as well.

That, I think, is what needs to happen for the webcomic market generally. It absolutely can continue on in the higgedly-piggeldy manner that's characterized webcomics to date (as my reading list has grown, my online comics reader has gotten almost obnoxiously cumbersome -- I'll have to post some status updates on that sometime) but I think for webcomics to be more viable as a sustainable commercial venture, it needs to be at least a little more codified.

Because, if those original numbers I cited at the start of this post are any indication at all, there's still a lot of uncertainty in preferred delivery formats. Readers (i.e. consumers, i.e. where comic creators will get their money from) are NOT married to a particular format (with the possible exception of iPhone users) and that lack of definition with regard to delivery systems can and should be exploited. Readers are not going to choose one method over another simply because YOUR comic is available (or easier to get to) -- the comic creator, if they're going to survive -- needs to make their material as widely available as possible. And, while the creators themselves likely don't have the expertise to do that, other companies do and need to step up to the plate. The "killer app" for comics isn't going to be the best CBR reader, or something for the iPhone; it's going to be the company that develops a process by which any number of people can read your comic in any number of ways.

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Reading Backwards

Typically, when I come across a serialized comic, I try to find a good jumping-on point where I can begin reading, and watch the comic evolve. If it's new enough, I'll just zip back to the very beginning. If it's more of a gag-a-day strip with some serial elements to it, I just pick up wherever I happen across and assume I'll be able to figure out the rest as I go.

The trick with finding that jumping-on point, though, is... well, finding it. It's pretty rare that you just happen to start reading at such a point; more likely, you stumble into the middle of a storyline and have to backtrack at least a bit until you find the start of that chapter/episode/adventure. This is the primary reason why, back in the day, writers were told to write every issue as if it were somebody's first. And it worked. I started reading Fantastic Four smack dab in the middle of John Byrne's Negative Zone story that ran through a good chunk of 1983 and, despite not knowing how the story got to that point, I was easily able to hit the ground running without any more details of the 250-some issues that came before. (These days, writers are directed to write "for the trade" so any single pamphlet might not have sufficient information to start anywhere, but any given trade paperback will.)

Serialized webcomics have a different challenge in that regard. Any single installment of a serialized webcomic is not likely to contain everything a reader knows to start at that point. There's generally just not enough time/space in that one page/panel to convey that much of the whole story. But if it's done well, there'll be enough to entice readers -- to pique their interest enough to return regularly or shoot back to the nearest jumping-on point. (Hopefully, it's conveniently labeled as such for them by the creator(s)!)

This morning, I came across Sin Titulo for the first time. Dropped in 148 pages into the story. It had good artwork, and I was intrigued enough to want to read more. Now, I could have easily clicked back to the beginning to start reading, but instead I just click for the previous installment to see a little more about the two characters. And I clicked to the next previous installment. And the next.

Before I knew it, I found myself 50 pages into the story, having worked backwards from page 148. One page at a time. And the whole thing made complete sense.

That I was actually able to read the story backwards actually made a point of interest in and of itself. How had creator Cameron Stewart been able to successfully -- and, I believe, unintentionally -- written a comic that could be read backwards?

His first success in this regard is breaking down each installment into a relatively self-contained scene. Any one page holds its own independent of the previous and/or the next. That means readers are NOT left with portions of speeches or half-completed actions to pick up on. Each page starts a new scene, so each page effectively becomes a new jumping-on point. Additionally, the page layouts and scene shifts between pages are treated identically throughout the story, so going forward or backward does not change the reading experience. The reader goes through eight equally-sized panels to get a single scene, then reads another eight equally-sized panels to read a different scene.

The other thing working in Stewart's favor with regards to reading his comic backwards is that the story inherently revolves around a series of small mysteries. The puzzle pieces are being revealed through the story slowly. The thing that Alex (the hero) thinks he sees in the 147th episode didn't really make sense until I got up to page 22 and even then, it's still unclear what exactly it is. Who exactly is Vacek? I think the story, if read forwards, would bear some similarities to one of those "accidental spy" stories where the protagonist becomes involved in some plot by a freak coincidence and is forced into a unique situation with no foreknowledge, just like the audience. And, like the best of those accidental spy stories, the pieces only put together the whole picture slowly. Whether going forwards or backwards, we're given the pieces (albeit in a different order) but not enough of them to see a complete picture either way. But it's enough to show the reader that Stewart knows what he's doing, giving the audience enough reassurances that the ultimate conclusion will result in a satisfying payoff.

I wouldn't necessarily recommend reading Sin Titulo, or any other comic, backwards but it's a fascinating experiment in storytelling, and an enlightening examination of good techniques. I'm looking forward to reading the rest of the tale forwards, and don't doubt that it'll be an even better read that way!

Monday, July 06, 2009

Skirball Exhibits

From now through August 9, the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles, CA will be hosting two comic-related exhibits. First is the unfortunately titled "ZAP! POW! BAM! The Superhero: The Golden Age of Comic Books, 1938–1950" which "examines the creative processes and influences that drove young Jewish artists to express their talents through the storylines and art of comic books." The show features GA comics and original art from the period. Jerry Robinson is a guest curator. The companion exhibit, "Lights, Camera, Action: Comic Book Heroes of Film and Television", unsuprisingly looks at the cultural connections between comics and film/television. Included in the show are the Batcycle from the 1966 TV show and one of Christopher Reeve's Superman costumes.

Saturday, July 04, 2009

It's Still Raining

It's raining outside. It started around lunchtime, and there's been a constant heavy drizzle since then. Just enough keep people from their parades and picnics.

I talked with Mom on the phone earlier today. It was the first time she'd talked about my brother without mentioning that, "Oh, by the way, he still doesn't have a job," in a couple months. Though she did point out he could be using money they spent on paint for the living room to buy a couple more meals.

Mom also casually mentioned that Dad had just turned 60. Somehow, I managed to completely forget his birthday this year; I didn't even remember to call him. I also didn't do much for Mom's birthday back in February. Or Mother's Day. Or Father's Day.

It's still raining.

I came home from work Thursday to see a house just up the street with its entire contents on the front lawn. A U-Haul appeared an hour later, and most of it was taken away. The fourteen-year-old daughter remained sitting on a couch in the yard, guarding what remained until the U-Haul reappeared a couple hours later. The house's contents have been replaced with a sign citing a foreclosure auction later this month.

I'd planned on taking my dog for an early walk today. He isn't too bothered by firecrackers and fireworks if he's inside, but he gets pretty anxious if he's outside while they're going off. I figured going earlier in the day would mean there wouldn't be as many people shooting stuff off. Doesn't look like we'll get our walk in today at this point.

It's still raining.

But you know, I'm inside my own house. I have a secure job, but I don't have anywhere I have to be this weekend. I was sitting by the window earlier, reading Palestine. I can spend time logging comics into my database. My dog is comfortable. And while she's not here right now, I've got a beautiful girlfriend out there who loves me.

I had intended to write some diatribe today on how I don't fully understand patriotism and, as a consequence, I don't really understand patriotic comic book heroes like Captain America or the Shield. But it would have inevitably pissed somebody off, and there's too much crap going on in the world today to intentionally rain on someone else's parade.

It's still raining.

But I can hear people enjoying their picnics indoors with their doors and windows open. I can hear people lighting firecrackers, presumably from in their garages or under umbrellas. Presumably, they spent less money this year on fireworks and grilling supplies, thanks to the economy. (My girlfriend cited that the U.S. savings rate has gone from negative numbers to 6% in less than a year!) The country is in too lousy a shape to not let people celebrate whatever they can. There are enough forces trying to dampen their spirits, and who am I to add to that? Just because I can't afford to celebrate and don't feel the emotional need to doesn't mean I should spit on others' emotional releases.

Happy Independence Day, Americans.

Friday, July 03, 2009

Art, Awards & Other Nonsense

Weighing in on the Harvey Awards...

All awards are bunk. Yes, recognition for a job well done is always a nice ego-boost and, potentially, provides additional attention (i.e. revenue) to whatever person or project they're celebrating. But ultimately they're pretty meaningless, I think. Doesn't matter if you're talking Harveys or Eisners or Oscars or Emmys or Grammys or some trinket award that's only relevant in any capacity to the dozen or two people in your department at work. Awards don't mark achievement; they only mark recognition.

Are any of the Harvey nominees the unqualified, absolute best in their respective categories? No.

But NOT because they're not great works, but because it's a false question. There's no such thing as an unqualified best when it comes to art. You can't measure quality in a quantitative fashion, so any measurement that IS done is inherently subjective. Basically meaning that what I think is the best isn't necessarily what you think is best. We can both be right and completely disagree. It's all just opinion. The Harveys (and any other awards) are just a way of providing a nice "thanks for making something a number of us liked" to the creators.

Those receiving a Harvey should only imbue as much worth in it as they would imbue on somebody telling them they did a good job.

Me? I clearly don't care about awards or wide-spread recognition. I do what I do for one of two reasons: 1) for my own creative expression, and 2) for the money. In the case of the former, a job well done is its own reward and my pride stems from what I did, not what other people tell me they think of what I did.

Which isn't to say that a "nice job" isn't welcome. Definitely a pleasant ego-boost. But if I feel the work I'm being congratulated on is sub-standard, then no amount of praise is going to make me feel better about it. If I'm praised for lackluster work, I'll just assume that the person(s) providing the praise clearly doesn't know what the hell they're talking about, making their opinion valueless. But if I do like the work, and I'm praised by an individual (not some un-named collection of people) whose opinion I do consider valid, then sure, I'll take the kudos. But because of the connection I made with the individual.

I've actually tried to make a point over the years of telling people how/when/where their thoughts and expressions mattered and made an impact on me. I've written letters to old school-teachers, and sent emails to old friends I haven't talked to in 20 years. I can't speak to them, certainly, but I know I'd prefer that kind of response than a trophy or plaque with no emotion attached to it.

On the subject or art versus Art, anyone making the argument that the Harveys are clearly worthless because Nascar Heroes #5 is a nominee, their arguments are bunk. I haven't read Nascar Heroes but it's every bit as valid as anything else that was nominated. Regardless of how much of a forced commercial endeavor it may have been, it still took some measure of creativity to produce. Art is no less art when it's specifically being requested from an outside source. Michelangelo was paid to paint the Sistine Chapel, you know, and there are anecdotal reports that state he even argued with the Pope about receiving payments in a timely manner. The Sistine Chapel is NOT a work of divine inspiration, it's a piece of commercial art.

Just like Nascar Heroes.

You can argue that Michelangelo's work transcended his commission, or that his mastery of the craft marks his creations worthy of the title Capital-A Art, or whatever you want. But the bottom line is that the Pope came to Michelangelo and paid him to paint his ceiling. His success, relative to Nascar Heroes, can be debated but, as before, it's wholly subjective and neither can rightly be defined as necessarily better than the other.

Should the Harveys be changed or discontinued entirely? If someone wants to keep running them, more power to them. If no one cares about them, and they fade into oblivion, so be it. If I or anyone I know ever wins, that's just peachy. But if I and everyone I know NEVER wins, it's no skin off my nose. I know the quality of work I'm doing, and I know the quality of work others are doing. If I think you're doing a good job, I'll tell you myself and not hide behind a collection of ballots.

I haven't read all of the works nominated for this year's Harveys. The ones I have read are certainly praise-worthy, and I wish their creators good luck on all their current and future endeavors.

Thursday, July 02, 2009

Thor In VPN Wars

For the past couple weeks, I've been playing Vikings, Pirates, Ninjas online. It's kind of amusing, and it's definitely got some charm to it.

Anyway, I recently decided that, even though I was playing a pirate, I could still check out the Viking-ware. And wouldn't you know that up for sale was the Thunder God's Tunic...
Somehow, I don't think you get the ability to hurl thunderbolts by wearing it, but it was a random bit of amusement for me in the game.

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Wowio 3.0?

One of the portal gadgets I have set up monitors tweets that mention the word "Wowio" (since Twitter has proven to the be the primary source of information about the company). A few hours ago, the following tweet popped up from Plantinum president and COO Brian Altounian...
1.0 gets the ball rolling, 2.0 shifts into high gear, but 3.0 blows it into outer space. Welcome to July 1, the launch of WOWIO 3.0!

"That's interesting," I thought. "I haven't looked at the site in several months; I'll go check out what exactly is going on with this re-launch." The last I'd really checked in at all was back in January when some creators were complaining that they still hadn't been paid from early 2008.

So I swang by Wowio.com but didn't see anything appreciably different. I logged in, thinking maybe their updates were more on the back end. It seemed like there were some more content than six months ago, but about what you might expect to accrue over that time. Other than that, I wasn't really seeing anything different. The interface hadn't changed, the pricing structure was about the same, I still had books in my download queue left over from a year ago...

So I checked their news area. There's one note from two weeks ago about a new book about Iranians using new media to tell stories that can't be told by journalists. The next most recent entry is from April, announcing some downloadable books that are available for free. Not exactly 3.0 material.

So I checked Plantinum's site. Sure enough, there's something on the home page about Wowio announcing a global relaunch and details can be found on their blog. Which, it turned out, hadn't been updated at all this year. The noted relaunch was from August 2008.

There's got to be something, right?

I called up everything Altounian has tweeted. There's a tweet from around midnight noting a "new non-profit initiative" and one from Monday that cites "Completed paperwork on a new non-profit initiative for WOWIO, helping groups raise funds and promote literacy at same time. July 1 start!" OK, so this literacy promotion thing must be the 3.0 that "blows it into outer space" I suppose.

Going back to Wowio.com, I did notice that some of the ad space on the home page plugging donations for the Hero Initiative. Evidently, consumers can now elect to donate to one of three charities when they purchase one of Wowio's ebooks as a gift for someone else. Ads for each of the three organizations (Hero Initative, YWCA Santa Monica and LIFT) circulate on the home page -- which is why I hadn't noticed the Hero Initiative ad earlier: it wasn't on the page at the time.

I'm left a little confused. I certainly think all three organizations are worthy causes, and kudos to Altounian/Wowio for giving them some attention. I think the only complaint anyone could possibly lodge there would just be that other causes are more worthwhile -- but that's a decidedly qualitative judgement and not really valid accordingly. That's not what confuses me.

I'm not confused by the Whys and Wherefores either. I can rattle off half a dozen reasons why they're choosing to do this, ranging from the absurdly cynical to the optimisitcally altruistic. I'm sure there were any number of rationales used, all of which make sense to me. And since the end result of supporting laudable organizations is the same, regardless of the motives, I'm not going to explore all those reasons here.

I guess I'm confused mostly around the promotion of the change. I grew up on Marvel comics, so I'm used to Stan Lee style hyperbole, but I think "3.0 blows it into outer space" is a bit much by any account. Especially in comparison to the 1.0 and 2.0 already cited. Furthermore, if it were really that momentous a change, why announce it ONLY through one Twitter account? True, there is the ad space on Wowio's home page, but the ads are taking up the same space that ads have always taken up on Wowio, effectively becoming a kind of visual white noise. The ads themselves are fine, but they just look like any other ads on Wowio's home page which I've learned to ignore. Just like I've learned to ignore all those banner ads with someone dancing because of low interest rates.

On June 11, Altounian tweeted about "an exploding initiative!" which I have to presume was this. A week later, he tweeted about 10 deals he was working on. Even if one assumes this counts as three separate deals, I think it's safe to presume he's still got several in some form of development. So this launch seems to be something less than what they intend to roll out.

I get the impression that Altounian is genuinely and honestly excited about this, and really does think it's a huge deal. Now I'll be the first to admit that I'm not omniscient, so it's likely I'm not seeing the whole picture here. But I'm at a loss on how this is anything more than kind of a "hey, that's nice" addition. It might provide a few tax breaks and increase the goodwill of the company a bit, but I don't see this moving the needle very much on either of those. I don't see people getting drawn TO the site in order to donate to any of those causes (those likely to do just that are going to go to the organization's own web sites). Not to mention that it only tangentially (at best) ties into their core mission.

Maybe I'm completely off-base here. Maybe the 3.0 is something I've altogether missed in some kind of mental myopia. Maybe there are some really huge implications for the company that I'm just not seeing, regardless of how blatant they are. Maybe I'm missing some really critical piece of information.

Insights/comments/reactions from any Wowio employees, or those more in the know on the subject, would be appreciated.