Sunday, January 31, 2010

Last Day For 10% Off Comic Book Fanthropology!

Just a gentle/blatantly self-serving reminder that today is the last day that you can use the codeword READMORE2010 to get 10% off my book! It's really, really good and I think you'll like it! And I'm not just saying that because I wrote it!

That's not true. I am saying that because I wrote it. But other people have told me it's good, and who am I to doubt them?

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Crossover Genius Or Crossover Fail?

So by a complete accident, I stumble across Gary Anderson's deviantART page. He has posted quite a number of drawings of various characters from a wide variety of pop culture references. Since they were all done in the exact same style, and utilized a fairly blank background, it occurred to me that I could pick and choose several characters to create a dream crossover of sorts with a little help from Photoshop. There'd be NO WAY you could realistically obtain all of the licenses to get something like this to work. Plus any sort of story built around this type of thing would be more fanservice than anything actually even halfway decent.



It would almost have to be done as a comic since actor Jon Pertwee is dead, and both Gil Gerard and Masaaki Sakai are well into their 60s. (So is Peter Mayhew for that matter, but it'd be less noticeable on screen given his costume.) I suppose it could be animated, but then you'd still have to try to replicate Pertwee's voice. Janet Waldo is in her 80s, and retired a decade ago so you'd probably need to get another actor there too.

So I envision this as a comic. Kind of cross between Secret Wars and The Dirty Dozen, I suppose. But I find it mildly entertaining to imagine some of the character interactions with this group. Picture a conversation between the Doctor, Chewbacca and Kryten. How long would Worf be able to tolerate either Spider-Man or Sun Wu-Kong? Who would start hitting on Princess first: Animal or Buck Rogers?

Anyway, that's the type of stuff that rolls around in my head sometimes.

Friday, January 29, 2010

I'm Gettin' All Social Media On Your Behind Now!

I finally did it. I broke down and started a Twitter account. Not that I have anything particularly poignant to say there, but it's the thing to do, right?

See, the issue is that I am a celebrity. Not in the way that you typically think, of course! Even the vast majority of people in "my" fandom of choice don't know me from anyone. In fact, I daresay that much of my work, even when it's seen, is not really associated with me. "Oh, yeah, I think I flipped through a copy of Jack Kirby Collector once and saw some Big Barda/Lainie Kazan picture. Was that yours?"

No, I mean that I'm a celebrity in how I need to approach my online presence. Over the past two decades (yes, I was logging online back in the late 1980s) I have developed an internet presence. In many ways separate and distinct from my presence in real life. I made a deliberately conscious decision to keep the same 'voice' in everything I do both online and off, but my focus is slightly different. Whether I'm telling some story about my family to my S.O. or I'm explaining a technical problem to my boss or I'm chatting with you here about comics, I relay what I need to in much the same manner.

Here's the problem with social media, though: each social media application is designed for a slightly different function. Twitter does short bursts of information rapidly. Blogs give you more long-form discussion. Flickr is great for graphics. And so on. There's some overlap, naturally, but individuals are going to be more suited to certain forms of social media over others, based on their talents and abilities. Which poses a dilemma for any creator (comics or otherwise) trying to work online. Which outlet(s) do you choose to engage, and in what capacity?

See, that's where the marketing is. You've created your book or comic or film or whatever, and you need to draw attention to it. But, if you're like most creators, you don't have a huge studio budget to pay for TV ads and whatnot. So you do online marketing. Mostly by yourself. Mostly with your personal finances. Guys like me with my one book, guys like Dave Gallaher who've got several noteworthy books under his belt, guys like Kurt Busiek who've got an impressive career's worth of books under his belt. We're all banging on our pots and pans, trying to cause enough of a ruckus to get you to look at our work long enough to garner some interest. But where to bang those pots and pans?

And that's where we start running into problems. If you're a Kurt Busiek, who's got a huge body of work and a legion of fans, those same fans are likely going to seek him out whatever platform he's using. If you're a Dave Gallaher, you don't have quite the same luxury. You've got to go where your audience tends to hang out. So that makes sense for him to be Tweeting more often because his audience is primarily very tech savvy. Gallaher's best known and most popular works are online, after all, and that's where he really made a name for himself. I see myself having a greater problem in that my work isn't tied to a particular media format, nor does my audience seem to congregate in any one location. Which "forces" me to take a multipronged approach. Hence, now I'm on Twitter.

What I have to do here is essentially make myself as available as possible. But then tie all my work together so that I don't have to run myself ragged keeping it all up to date. So here's the plan...

My trusty blog, Kleefeld on Comics, will remain a 'home base' of sorts. It's got a convenient RSS feed that you can pick up on any feed reader of your choice. I've also got that feeding my Facebook account, where you can read the full entries there, plus a handful of other odds and ends I post, mostly for the benefit of old friends and family. The same feed also kicks over to my Twitter account, but it only posts the title and a link back to the blog. (140 character limit, you know.) In both of these two cases, I've had to adjust my blogging approach slightly. For Facebook, I try to make a more deliberate point of not referencing the visuals of my blog or embedding items that won't show up in Facebook, without an actual HTML link back to the source. (This post from several days ago is a perfect case in point: although I embedded a movie file in the post, it doesn't get displayed within Facebook, but that's okay because it still reads/links fine without it.) For Twitter, I'm having to adjust how I title my posts. They have to be more enticingly descriptive than I sometimes have made them. Which is doubly true, in fact, since my Twitter account feeds my LinkedIn profile. I'll probably throw a few "bonus" Tweets out there from time to time so it doesn't look like I'm being a total schlep with Twitter.

I only just wish I had had a chance to set this all up BEFORE my book came out; I think I could've garnered more attention for it accordingly. But we'll see how much more traffic/interest I can generate about my book on comic book fandom now that I am using Twitter. (Did you see what I did there with that link? That's for the benefit of people NOT coming here via my blog.)

So, please, follow me around on Facebook or Twitter or wherever works for you. Spread the word, convince people to buy my book and I'll do whatever I can to continue professing whatever drivel about comics happens to be sloshing around in my brain.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Fun Things To Learn From Original Art

I think examining original comic art is fascinating. The comic stories themselves are great and enjoyable, but seeing the production process "in action" as it were provides the viewer with insights into the creative decision making process. To wit...

Heritage Auction Galleries is currently auctioning off page 1 from Whiz Comics #7 by C.C. Beck circa 1940. (For those of you playing along at home, this issue was reprinted in The Shazam! Archives volume 1.)

There are plenty of cool things to take note of here.

Probably the most obvious is the header graphics of Captain Marvel, Billy and the logo. Clearly, that part was pasted in placed over the original board. That's not very surprising, given that many of the Captain Marvel stories started exactly that same way. They would have made photostats of the artwork in question and pasted it directly on the art board. More noteworthy, though -- and you'll have to head over to Heritage's sight to really see this in the hi-res version -- is that the photostatted art isn't actually very clean. It has some roughness to the lines that suggest that the photostat was taken from either a printed copy instead of the original artwork and/or it was enlarged considerably. I had always assumed that faults that I had seen like that in reprints were from poor reproduction, but I hadn't realized that it was poor reproduction from 60+ years ago and didn't have anything to do with current technological issues.

Also of note in that same header area is a horizontal cut that runs through the original art board. There's no obvious reason for it, but it's exact placement does suggest a theory. The artwork above the cut, with the exception of Billy's dialogue balloon, are photostats. The photostats are pasted down on top of the cut, meaning they were added after the cut was made. The cut happens to horizontally align just about with the most amount of paste up running from left to right. So the scenario I think this suggests is: Beck drew up the whole page. There was a decision made (by either Beck or his editor) to change Billy's opening dialogue. Rather than trying to paint out the whole word balloon and letter over it, the top of the page that included that dialogue was entirely removed. A new top portion was attached, using the new photostats to help hold it place, and a new dialogue balloon was drawn in. The Grand Comics Database suggests that this was lettered by Bill Parker, but the lettering in that first panel looks different enough to me to suggest that someone else may have done that one balloon.

Now, why do I think the editor wanted to make a change to the dialogue? Check out the far left side of the page beginning next to Captain Marvel's boot. (I've uploaded at close-up to the right.) There's a hand-written note in red. It's mostly ripped off now, but some letters are still visible, including the last three letters of the first word: ...ECK! The first letter looks like it could be a B but I have to admit to it being very hard to tell for certain. Given the sparsity with which Beck himself left margin notes on his own artwork, I'm led to believe this came from someone else and was sent back to Beck. Although I can't make out each and every word, what I can make out coupled with the art touch-ups shown (more on that in a second) suggest that this is a direction to Beck that all of the scenes on THIS PAGE need to take place at niGHT. While that doesn't really speak to the header portion of the page, it does point to art corrections being sent back to Beck before the art was used in production.

Art corrections. Beck's artwork is generally fairly clean. Even on this one page, you can tell that he doesn't make many corrections as he inked a page. And most of the ones here tend to be ensuring the integrity of line strips of white: Billy's antenna, the ship railing, etc. What also seems to show up here (compared to other Beck pages) are some touch-ups along the edges of large black areas. The sides of the ship in panel two and the crates in panel three. Also the gutter above panel four seems to have rather a lot of spillover. Now I could possibly just be reading a little too much into things, but I get the impression that much of these large black areas were added after the original linework was put down. There just seems to be less precision given to these large swaths of black than anything else. Admittedly, that could easily just be a stylistic difference but, combined with what I think I'm seeing in that editor's note, it makes me consider this differently.

The one whited-out area that I don't have a complete answer for is in panel three. The area around Billy's hand clearly shows that a deep shadow was being cast by Billy onto the crate and partially removed board. Beck then evidently decided that didn't work very well and painted over it white. Exactly why he made that change, though, I couldn't hazard a guess at the moment.

Two more things of interest, but not particularly striking. 1) there are notations throughout the art in red pencil marking up some of the color specs. (Billy's shirt is Red and his backback is Yellow.) 2) The blue pencil mark at the bottom noting the final page size to the printer. 1940 was still early enough in comic book printing that apparently someone felt the need to expressly note the page size on the art itself, and not rely on anything that might've been written up in the order specifications.

Anyway, that's what I find fascinating about this page. Anything that anyone else sees?

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Superhero City

In lieu of real content today, I thought I'd just present one of my battles from the superhero-themed Facebook game: Superhero City. If you're on Facebook and are curious about it, this is a portion of what it looks like (if this works the way it's supposed to, that is)...

Monday, January 25, 2010

The Fantasti-Font Lives On!

Back in 1995, I picked up a copy of a program called Fontographer. It was a vector-based illustration program that was specifically designed for making your own fonts! You drew the letterforms in a template, hit "convert" and you were all set with your own custom font!

The first font I made, Ergime, was really easy. I took a standard serif font (I can't remember now if it was Times or Garamond) and ran it through Aldus Freehand's trace feature. The program worked fairly poorly, so after doing that two or three successive times, I wound up with this funky-looking Emigre-style grunge font, which were rather popular at the time. I think I sold my cheap knockoff version to a small publisher for $50.

I eventually got it into my head to create a font based off the original Fantastic Four logo. I knew there must be a font available, since it was by then being used on the computer-typeset letters pages. But it wasn't available outside the Marvel offices. So I started by tracing the original letterforms from a scanned logo. I also pulled out copies of Fantastic Four Annual and Fantastic Four Roast which had a few more letters, and included those as well. I moved on to letters that had similar forms as what I had already started. The capital "E" was just the "F" with a baseline, the "m" was a doubled-up "n", etc. After a little while, I got the 'rhythm' of the font and outlying characters like capital "G" and capital "N" weren't that difficult to extrapolate. Soon enough, I had a set of 221 characters that I could easily convert into a bona fide font.

One deliberate deviation I made was the lower-case "g". There was one being used on "The Fantastic Four Fan Page" at the top of the letters column, but I couldn't stand it. It looked something like this...
That was just WAAAAY too ugly for me. Especially since there's a much better lower-case "g" design available. Hence, my version...
They look mostly the same, but the "g" is a stand-out difference. You can also note that mine has a lower x-height to better distinguish the upper and lower cases. I was never terribly happy with my kerning job on the Fantasti-Font, but it was meant as a display font anyway, so I figured I would almost always be able to adjust things as needed.

So I uploaded the font to the Fantastic Four website I was running at the time, and made it available to everyone for free. I figured that A) not many people would be interested in it and B) they certainly wouldn't be interested enough to pay for it. The website has since come down, but my Fantasti-Font still crops up from time to time. Notably when comics folks are trying to illicit the impression of 1960s-era Marvel comics. It was used for Monkey Man Unleashed #2 which sported an FF cover homage. Wiz Kids used it for subtitles on their HeroClix "Clobberin' Time" packaging and ads. And now I see that it's been used on the cover and main splash page of Comic Book Comics #4, which I gather was published towards the tail end of 2009. As clunky and awkward as the font itself is -- even given the clunky and awkward basic design I started from -- I always get a warm-fuzzy when I see that it still gets used on occasion.

I believe Fantasti-Font was the last font I ever tried designing, as Fontographer wasn't maintained with ongoing OS updates. But it remains available for download here, and possibly other places online, if you have any interest in getting your own copy.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Weekend Reading

I spent a good chunk of this weekend reading The Toon Treasury of Classic Children's Comics from Art Spiegelman and Françoise Mouly. I originally thought it would mostly be a fun-filled romp through some old comic stories that were originally aimed squarely at kids. Which it was, but it was a lot more than that too.

When I first scanned through the book, I saw reprints from Little Lulu, Captain Marvel, Sugar & Spike, Pogo, Nutsy Squirrel and a number of seemingly random characters I hadn't seen or heard of before. I started reading through them, and what first struck me was how amazingly well printed the book is. The reproductions themselves are phenomenal, and they're printed on a slightly off-white heavier stock that, while is decidedly of a higher quality than newsprint, gives the visual impression of reading a half-century old comic with a slight yellowing of the paper. Unlike other attempts I've seen to "age" the paper by printing a pale yellow color onto white paper, this uses a paper that's already been dyed slightly, giving that somewhat muted effect to what would otherwise be a garish color palette.

Then, maybe about six or eight stories into the book, I began seeing a pattern in the comics being reprinted. Namely, they were all really great comics! I mean, that sounds kind of obvious on the face of it, but they really seemed to have chosen some incredible material and not just whatever happened to be most conveniently available. There were several beautiful non-Pogo stories by Walt Kelly. The Sheldon Mayer pieces were refreshingly original, especially in light of their having been written so long ago. Carl Barks, as always, does some impressive work.

You know, I've read a number of Captain Marvel stories before, but I never really understood why he was so popular. Granted, I hadn't looked at the the whole oeuvre, but I didn't see anything all that special about them. But if "Captain Marvel in the Land of Surrealism" is at all indicative of what I haven't seen, then I totally get it now.

And then there's André LeBlanc with his "Intellectual Amos" stories? Why have I never seen those before?!? Holy cow! Those were some of the most gorgeous comics I've seen this side of Walt Kelly! Not to mention incredibly well-written. There doesn't seem to be much about either of them online, but here are a couple sample stories (not particularly well-reproduced, sadly) to whet your appetites! And here's a short bio of LeBlanc for those further interested. Wow -- I really need to track down some more of these!

And I think that's one of the greatest strengths of Toon Treasury: that you're almost certain to find something interesting and wonderful that will make you want to track down more Golden Age comics. The ones presented here, as I said, are all exceptionally well chosen, and their reproduction is of such high quality that it's hard not to fall in love with something here. It's not a small book, or a cheap one, but it's well worth checking out. It certainly ranks up there as one of the best Golden Age reprint books I've ever seen.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Defining Comics

Patric Lewandowski presents his attempt at defining comics, notably contrasting it against Will Eisner's and Scott McCloud's definitions.

I don't particularly agree with him any more than I agree with McCloud as far as the definition goes -- indeed, I find several more points with which to disagree with Lewandowski -- but I'm always interested in the discussion.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Julie Larson On Webcomics, Take 2

Back in November, I referred to an article in which The Dinette Set cartoonist Julie Larson was bemoaning the problems traditionally syndicated cartoonists were having in light of those hot-shot whipper-snappers who did webcomics. We've got an interesting update to that story now.

Interesting Point 1 -- This new article comes from the same paper that did the last one. That's only mildly interesting in that they're running an update to a story that I wouldn't think would garner that much interest to a general audience.

Interesting Point 2 -- The new article is written by Steve Tarter, the same gent who wrote the previous one. Not surprising that he'd be the one to follow up on his own story, but the reason this is of interest will be seen momentarily.

Interesting Point 3 -- Though the article opens and closes around Larson, several of the quotes used in the new article were lifted from the previous one. What strikes me as interesting here is that such actions make it unclear if Tarter actually talked to Larson again for this new article, or if he's simply using old material. There are more people quoted in the newer piece, but that old quotes are used at all (without noting that they are old quotes) it calls into question -- at least for me -- how current the other quotations are. Were these interviews conducted earlier or later than the November article?

Interesting Point 4 -- The article implies that Larson has changed her approach since November. The previous article suggested that she was generally fuming and blaming her syndicate for not doing their jobs; today's piece implies that she's gotten past that and is taking matters into her own hands. But, in light of Interesting Points 2 and 3, that could well only be a change in opinion of Tarter himself and not necessarily Larson. Close reading of both pieces shows decidedly more ambiguity on the matter; the "new" comments attributed to Larson could easily have come from the earlier interview. It's only the way in which they're presented that suggests Larson has changed her approach.

Interesting Point 5 -- In the comments of the original article, there are few responses from "julars2" who, aside from one glitchy comment mistakenly attributed to her, seems to actually be Julie Larson. In them, she seems to have more conflicting feelings, on the one hand noting how she's trying to read up on becoming successful via a webcomics route, but on the other hand also noting (seemingly sarcastically) that her being syndicated in newspapers evidently didn't qualify her as being successful at all. The comments were from "2 months ago" (around the time the original article ran) further suggesting that the new article is more reflective of Tarter changing his opinion than Larson.

All of which makes me wonder, then, who is really upset about these new web cartoonists? Is it really the "old guard" newspaper cartoonists who've made a more-or-less successful living doing it for the past 100-some years? Is it really Dean Young (Blondie), Peter Gallagher (Heathcliff) and Perri Hart (B.C.) who are pissed off? Their jobs are more in danger than they were, say, 10 years ago, but they still own some well-established intellectual properties. They still have reprint rights and royalties and such. They could easily follow the lead of other "traditional" newspaper cartoonists who've added a web presence/following with a fair degree of success. Gary Trudeau (Doonesbury) and Dan Piraro (Bizarro) for example.

Is it, then, the ire of newspaper journalists and editors whose jobs are just as, if not more, at risk but without any real fallback in sight? While successful webcomics (i.e. the ones that earn enough money to pay the rent) aren't exactly plentiful, the newspaper cartoonists all have established IPs and fan bases who would likely follow them online. Journalists, however, generally don't have such a following; the success rate of blogs is considerably lower; and their previous body of work often loses value much faster than that of a cartoonist due to its greater reliance on being of immediate importance.

Sure, every cartoonist -- both in print or on the web -- is going to have their own personal take on the whole situation. Didn't Jim Davis, after all, embrace the webcomic Garfield Minus Garfield, at least so much as the Paws Inc. lawyers allowed? But I'm beginning to think that the number of "old guard" cartoonists, by and large, aren't nearly as miffed at these interweb upstarts as the press has made them out to be.

File under: Things that make you go 'Hmmmm'

Beerbohm Update

Back in March 2008, I noted that long-time comic retailing veteran Robert Beerbohm was running up against some health/insurance issues stemming from a 35-year-old comic related accident. (I'll have to post the full story behind that sometime. It'd almost be funny if Beerbohm wasn't still having to deal with it.) He had the surgery and I reported in December that his recovery was going well, and he planned on being back on the comic convention circuit by April.

I learned early this week, though, that he was going under the knife again, this time for issues related to a hernia. The surgery was yesterday and his daughter Kati noted that it went well.

HOWEVER, as Beerbohm was getting ready to leave today, he slipped and fractured his left femur near the metal ball joint he had put in a few months back!

Although I don't have much more in the way of details, Kati seemed to imply that her dad is okay, all things considered, and their bigger concern is trying to figure out how the family is going to pay for that in addition to her skull surgery towards the end of February. I'm certainly in no position to speak to the Beerbohm's collective financial situation, but I will point out that over 60% of all bankruptcies in the U.S. are at least partially caused from medical expenses.

The family didn't seem too keen on accepting charity before, and I'm not sure if that's changed, but I would recommend heading over to BLBComics.com and/or their eBay storefront and purchasing some of their great stuff! (I mean, come on! Original 1939 model sheets for Goofy, Donald Duck and Pluto? An 1897 music sheet featuring the Yellow Kid? A Spy Smasher Republic serial press kit from 1942? How could you not want those?)

Questions and well-wishing can be directed to kati (AT) blbcomics (DOT) com

Get well soon, Bob!

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Everybody Dance Now

I was reminded recently of the early 1990s hit song "Gonna Make You Sweat (Everybody Dance Now)" from C + C Music Factory...

It was wildly popular back in the day. The kind of popular that gets immediately picked up and imitated and/or used by other commercial enterprises, and is played to death everywhere from dance clubs to Target commercials.

But the song was pretty good originally. While I certainly can't speak for everyone, I liked it because of the melding of Freedom Williams' rhythmic monotone against Martha Wash's powerfully melodic voice. (That ain't Wash in the video, by the way. The producers thought she was "unmarketable" because of her size and got a skinny chick to lip sync for it.) It was the disparate contrast in styles that, when brought together, made for audible interest.

Try to imagine, for example, listening to Williams' lyrics without the backbeat or the music or Wash's vocals. It'd be dreadfully dull precisely because he has very little inflection in his voice and relies primarily on rhythm. In and of himself, there's little contrast. Wash's vocals, on the other, do have some changes in pitch, tone, and volume, making those somewhat more interesting. More contrast, more interest.

One of my favorite bands, Genesis, used to use contrast like that frequently. I heard at one point that keyboardist Tony Banks in particular really tried to put that concept into a lot of songs because he understood that a piece of art is more interesting when it presents itself in contrast to something. And if you can bring that contrast within the piece of art itself, it's then independent of contextual surroundings. Witness the slow-moving and quiet opening of "Fading Lights" against the more caustic feel it brings forth with much heavier drumming, staccato keyboarding and distorting on the guitar about a third of the way in. Which then resorts back to the original ballad for the final third...


And why am I discussing music on a comic book site? Because, of course, contrast is equally important and significant in visual arts like comics.

Here's the opening splash page from Fantastic Four #51, "This Man, This Monster"...

The issue is considered a favorite among many comics fans. One of the reasons, I suspect, is that there are several types of sharp contrasts in the book.

First, of course, is the Thing himself. He was very much designed as a character to look monstrous, but act exceptionally heroically. Even when he reverts to human form, as he does in this issue, he's not exactly the most handsome fellow.

Second, the series by this point was being drawn by Jack Kirby and inked by Joe Sinnott. Jack worked incredibly fast and turned out extremely imaginative ideas. However, the technical merit of his illustration skills was often sacrificed. His pencil work is powerful, certainly, but in a very raw sense. Sinnott comes in with clean and precise brush work over the pencils and makes Kirby look much more slick and polished. I seem to recall reading an interview with Sinnott where he noted that he basically just traced Kirby's work, but straightened up the lines a bit. And understatement, certainly, but Sinnott's solid blacks contrasted nicely against Kirby's excited sketches.

Third, in this story in particular, Lee and Kirby balance the fantastic with the mundane. Reed Richards goes out to explore the Negative Zone for the first time utilizing room-sized machinery that looks like it could've come from a surrealist painting. His exploration is wrought with danger and almost invites death. But the underlying story is all about the Thing's inherent humanity. The climax of the story is quiet, somber and reserved in opposition to the explosive panels showing Reed's brush with death.

Finally, the individual pages of artwork themselves (such as the one shown above) provide contrasts using light and dark elements. Particularly noticeable here are the shadows on the Thing; his left side is largely covered in deep, rich shadows. His right side with more light on it is then offset by the black silhouettes of the buildings behind him.

That's one of the factors that made the Fantastic Four work. Quiet moments of contemplation opposite world-devouring antagonists. The ultimate man of high science working alongside one of the most down-to-earth men on the planet. The main villain vacillating between science and sorcery. Trying to have a simple, family life but also having the most fantastic powers imaginable. The book resonated with readers around these (and other) contrasting elements.

The moments of high energy, excitement and drama in a book are all well and good, but only when put in relief against the slower, quieter moments. Creators shouldn't need to "shake things up" so much as just not keep resorting to the same tropes (both with regards to story and art) all the time with nothing for readers to balance it against.

Now, add some contrast to yourself by getting your ass up out of that chair, flipping on some favorite tunes and boogiein' down!

Godin On McCloud

Seth Godin apparently thinks Scott McCloud is a marketing genius.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Aaaand We're Done!

For those of you keeping track, the final portion of the final chapter to my book, Comic Book Fanthropology went online yesterday morning. You can now read it from virtual cover to virtual cover. (With a couple of minor exceptions, not central to the main thrust of the book.)

I'll be keeping it online because... well, let's face it: I'm not a 'name' writer and I'm not covering a popular topic. There are more reasons for someone not to buy it if they can't prove to themselves it's worth reading than there are reasons for not buying it if it's already online.

Although I haven't gotten much press about the book, I have gotten some good feedback. A chap who goes by the handle Professor Randall Dowling said...
This book belongs on your top shelf of your library, up there with Kirby, Frank Miller, Alan Moore, Kipling, Shakespeare, and H.G. Wells!


Daniel Peretti, who provided a solid critical review of the book over at his blog, noted...
The early chapters of the book are quite good. The discussion of cultural capital is rewarding and thorough. He gives a description of the ritual of buying comic books that I find absolutely wonderful and will quote in my book about Superman.


The book's also been linked up (not by me!) to encyclopedic projects like Fan History and Wikipedia.

None of which is to say that the book is perfect! This weekend, my buddy Matt graciously sent over a detailed list of around 30 typos and similar errors he ran across. While that's certainly far more than I'd like to have (and ones I'll obviously be correcting in the Second Edition, whenever that comes out) I am relatively impressed with how few problems there seem to be, given that I wrote, edited, laid out and designed the whole thing by myself in two months. (On top of my day job, mind you!) I know I've seen other books written by full-time writers, edited by professional editors, and designed/laid out by full-time graphics folks which wound up having as many, if not, more errors. And I daresay many of those took longer to get from concept to market as well!

Anyway, this is a post to say: I've put all my cards on the table. Everything's out there to read, digest and critique. Please check it out, if you haven't already, and buy a copy if you like what you read. (Better yet, buy a copy if you DON'T like what you read! I'll probably make more money that way!)

I'll remind you, too, that using the codeword READMORE2010 when you check out will snag you a 10% discount off the cover price as well. That lasts though the end of January and, at this point, I don't know when I'll be able to offer a discount to you again.

Thanks again for everyone's support!

Monday, January 18, 2010

The Montgomery Story: In English, Spanish, Arabic & Now Farsi

Two years ago, I presented here a comic called The Montgomery Story about Martin Luther King, Jr. Last summer, Hands Across the Mideast Support Alliance (HAMSA) had the comic translated into Farsi. The year before, they had it translated into Arabic. In both cases, they wanted to showcase King's power with non-violent protests to Middle Eastern countries. HAMSA has both versions, as well as the original English, available for free on their website.



A Spanish version was also printed back in the late 1950s, and can be found online here.

UPDATE: The S.O. pointed me to this article about the series which also makes note of a Vietnamese version of the comic. I can't seem to find a copy of that one online unfortunately.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Happy Birthday, Tom!

Happy birthday wishes go out today to Marvel editor and all-around swell guy Tom Brevoort!

Have I mentioned lately that he generously wrote the Foreword to my book?

"Oh, nice one, Sean! Turn a sincere birthday wish into some shameless plug for your stupid little book that no one wants to read anyway! Real classy!"

What? It's not like Tom follows my blog anyway? Plus, he's going to get, like, a million well-wishers today; there's no way he's even going to bother to read this. So I figure I may as well get some mileage out of it! Wait -- what do you mean no one wants to read my book?

"Come on! How many have you sold that weren't bought by your mom? I'm sure she told you it was very nice and has it up on the refrigerator, but name one other person who bought one."

That's not fair! You know I don't see the names of who actually buys them. And some people have said some very nice things about it!

"Sure. Like what?"

Well, my friend Dave said it was compelling and enjoyable.

"Your friend?"

OK, well, this Daniel Peretti guy said he was going to quote parts of it in his book.

"A book that he hasn't published yet?"

Well, Laura Hale has been linking to a lot of it from various places.

"And how many sales has that generated?"

I can't tell that! *snif* It's a good book... *snif* I worked really, really, really hard on it! *snifsnif* You're just jealous 'cuz you didn't write it! You're just a big ol' meanie! *snif* I'm gonna go tell! DAAAAAAD!

"Hmph. Idiot! Of course no one's buying it; he put the whole damn thing online! And then he tries to muck up Tom's birthday with this shameless crap? Disgraceful!"

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Neil Gaiman Engaged

I don't tend to follow/report gossip-y stuff like this, but it would appear that Neil Gaiman and Amanda Palmer are engaged. What surprises me more than anything is that I, "Comics' #1 Fan", caught this through Palmer's music blog before any comic-related blog or news outlet.

Huh.

So, uh... congrats to Gaiman and Palmer, I suppose.

Huh.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Blake's 7, Metropolis & Best Of Lists

For the past few months, I've been watching Blake's 7 for the first time. Now, for those of you who have never even heard of it (which wouldn't be surprising given how little attention it's ever been given here in the U.S.) it's a British sci-fi series that ran from 1978 to 1981. The series centered around the adventures of a small group of resistance fighters who pirated the most advanced ship in the galaxy, and used it in an ongoing attempt to bring down the totalitarian Terran Federation.

I started watching it because it's come up repeatedly in my studies of fandom. Any time a British sci-fi enthusiast was interviewed Blake's 7 would almost invariably come up. It's reportedly influenced everything from Firefly to Battlestar Galactica to Aeon Flux. As of this evening, I'm two episodes in to the final season of the show. There are definitely some interesting bits and pieces throughout the series, and I certainly wouldn't call it bad, but I'm not really enjoying it.

The first thought that might cross people's minds (especially those who have seen and enjoyed the show) is that I'm probably too spoiled on more recent science fiction shows with better effects and such. That I can't appreciate the show for what it was back when it first aired, and how original it was compared to 1978 standards.

No, I get all that. Indeed, one of my favorite films of all time is Fritz Lang's Metropolis which first came out in 1927. It, too, was original compared to it's contemporaries. But I can still sit here, nearly a century after it was made, and note what went into the production of the film and be impressed by it. By today's standards, the film doesn't hold up very well. The story is almost irrelevant, and I hold the opinion that it can't really be remade because it's too thematically embedded in it's own time. The alterations that would be needed to connect with today's audiences would be so great that only the thinnest shadows of the original might remain, effectively separating any potential remake as entirely different movie. (And heaven forbid that anyone today stumbles across that pseudo-colorized version with the Adam Ant soundtrack!)

But that's okay. It's not a movie for everybody. Leave it for film buffs and old school science fiction fans. Time marches on in only one direction, and today more people want their blue CGI cat-people. A century from now, it'll look just as dated as Metropolis does now. Audiences will be interested in whatever the entertainment du jour is, however that best speaks to their lives.

Which leads me to this question: why are we still seeing "Best of 2009" lists?!?!?

See, Blake's 7 was reviewed when it first came out. Metropolis was reviewed when it first came out. The stories haven't changed. (Well... much. Some footage from Metropolis was lost.) Everything that was written about Blake's 7 and Metropolis is just as valid as it was at the time, right? They're rated on their own merits. It's not fair to compare Metropolis to, say Matrix -- they're completely different movies, made under completely different circumstances, for completely different reasons. Likewise, you can't compare Blake's 7 to the old Commando Cody serials.

A little over a year ago, I noted how I thought "Best Of" lists were crap in the first place. But then to summarize those titles using an artificial and arbitrary designation of time? Yes, there is something to be said about art reflecting life and one could argue that all works of art made during the same time period reflect different aspects of the same time, but we're talking about at least a year and half span here. A book released in early January 2009 (thereby "qualifying" it for inclusion in a "Best of 2009" list) could easily have been worked on in August 2008. Which, I might point out, was before the world economy went to hell in a handbasket and before Barack Obama had actually won the Presidency.

And to make matters worse, here we are, comfortably into 2010 (again, an artificial designation) but people are still yammering on about them! They're not even following their own arbitrary timeframes by dragging this crap out!

Here's my point: review whatever books you like. Review them however you like. If it's a good book, it's a good book. When I see a promising book review, I make note of it when I see it. If I can't buy the book right away, it goes on a list of stuff I'm looking for. If it's a book that came out a couple of years ago, I'll still make note of it and track it down. Regardless of whether it made it to some silly "Best of" list.

I tracked down Blake's 7 because of the individual reviews I'd seen. I don't know (or care) if it ever made it to any "Best sci-fi of 1978" list. It's valid on it's own terms. I do have some problems with it, myself, but that still doesn't invalidate what I'd previously read. Difference of opinions. I originally tracked down Metropolis for similar reasons and I know it didn't make any "Best of 1927" lists.

Listen, if you MUST do a "best of" list, can you PLEASE confine it to the year you're doing it in? I'm sure you put a lot of effort into them, but they really are a terrible waste of time and I don't think we really need to be bothered with last year's business any longer. Time, as I noted earlier, only heads in one direction. How about looking forward, and not staring in the rear view mirror any longer? A glance or two behind you is fine, but you're going to run off the road if you spent so much time looking backwards.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Comic Book Survey!

I don't have a very large audience in the first place and I have a tendency to not elicit responses from stuff like this, but I'm really curious, so I'll ask anyway...

We've been into this recession for some time. How are your comic buying habits different now than they were at this time last year?

You're certainly welcome to leave your comments on my blog anonymously if you like. I'd just like to get an anecdotal reading of things as they stand today.

Thanks in advance for any input and insights you can provide.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Chaos In Comics?

Yesterday's earthquake in Haiti got me thinking. More precisely, that it was a complete and total surprise to everyone. Granted, earthquakes are generally pretty surprising events and scientists haven't quite figured out how to predict them with any accuracy yet, but if you live in, say, California, you kind of have to expect an earthquake from time to time. News outlets are saying that this is the worst quake to hit Haiti in 200 years. This is about as random of an event as you can get.

And that's what most of Life is, really. A serious of random events that you have little to no control over. Most of them aren't nearly as devastating or wide-reaching as an earthquake, certainly, but we all go from day to day not knowing what's going to happen tomorrow. We make the best predictions we can and try to plan accordingly, but in the end, we don't really get a dress rehearsal. We've got a vague outline of a plot, and are shoved onto the stage with a bunch of other actors who are in precisely the same predicament.

Over the next days and weeks, we're bound to hear more stories coming out of Haiti. Some -- probably many -- will be astoundingly tragic. The woman who lost her husband, children and parents. The man who was crushed to death trying to help his neighbor. The teacher and all of her students whose last sight was the school roof dropping down. The priest who was trapped in the rubble of a fallen church and starved to death before he could be rescued. We're going to hear horrible, horrible stories that will make you want to hide in the closet for the rest of your life.

And there'll be stories of true heroes. The man who foraged enough food to keep his friends from starving. The woman who repaired a hospital generator and allowed doctors to treat patients for another two days. The doctors who flew down this morning and won't get a wink of sleep until they collapse from exhaustion. We're going to hear uplifting stories that reaffirm what we colloquially call the human spirit.

All of that, and everything in between, will be born of this massive, entropic event. None of it was scripted. Or planned. Or rehearsed. The storylines won't be able to get wrapped up with a tidy ending. There's no sunset to ride off into, no happily ever after. We do have our never-ending battles, but somehow it's not quite the same, is it?

Of course not. Because we invariably know that Lex Luthor is not going to get away with it. How many of you honestly believed that Superman was never going to be brought back after he died? What about Captain America? Readers aren't stupid; they know that, at the end of the day, good will triumph over evil and the hero will stand there triumphantly just as surely as he stood there triumphantly yesterday. Just a surely as he'll stand there triumphantly tomorrow.

Legend has it that one of the final straws that convinced Steve Ditko to leave Amazing Spider-Man back in the day was a disagreement about the true identity of the Green Goblin. Stan Lee argued that it should be someone Peter Parker already knew. Someone that he was familiar with and looked up to. Ditko, on the other, said that, realistically, it's more likely that a Green Goblin character would just be some random nutjob no one had ever heard of before. He would be a Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab or a Richard Reed. Ditko was right, of course, but Lee's point was that didn't make good storytelling.

Look up Abdulmutallab's story. How much of the reporting is about him? Very little. It's all about the "actors" we already know and have some relationship with. Barack Obama, Janet Napolitano, Al-Qaida... heck, I've heard more about Anwar al-Awlaki lately than Abdulmutallab! That's because journalists are storytellers (not meant as a slight, by any means) and they're framing this whole crotch-bomber story around people, places and ideas the audience is already familiar with.

That's why here in the U.S. we hear more about the plane heading to Detroit than leaving from Amsterdam. We know about Detroit! Home of the Pistons and the Lions! Motown! Ford and GM! Motor City Comic Con! An all-American city of ever there was one! What's the extent that Americans know about Amsterdam? Um... it's in Europe somewhere and prostitution is legal. (If they know that much.)

I don't begrudge journalists for doing that. It's a way for their audience to connect with and better understand what they're saying. "How does that relate to me?" It's a selfish mindset at some level, certainly, but we really can only understand the world from our own vantage point, so it makes sense to try to relate events back to ourselves. Journalists, and storytellers of all sorts, know that and frequently work that angle to make their writing more accessible.

And that's precisely why you don't see anything really random like that in comics. (Well, commercial ones at any rate.) Even if you follow one protagonist that readers get to know, throwing random crap at them all the time will make readers feel less connected with the character and the story ultimately fails.

At a meta-textual level, it's impossible to put something truly random. Comics have to be created by people. People who sit down and actively create everything about the world they're telling a story about. But, from a practical level, they can't put what the reader will perceive as Life's randomness into the story either. At least, not at the level that Real Life occurs.

Which is just as well. We get enough of that as it is.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

The History Of Comic Books

The following was written as my senior term paper in high school. While it glosses over quite a bit of comics history (we had a 10-page limit, as I recall) and there are a few bits that are somewhat misleading, I'm pleasantly surprised to see how it holds up. I'm particularly proud of accurately "predicting" the comic bubble bust of the 1990s. (This was written in late 1989, predating the Heroes World collapse.) While it would be more accurately entitled "The History of American Comic Books", I'm pleasantly surprised that my 17-year-old self had a solid recognition of comics well beyond the superhero genre.

I will confess, though, that I fudged a bit on my bibliography. The Guide to Comics Collecting that I repeatedly cited was more of a brochure than a book. I think it was maybe four pages. While I didn't plagiarize any of it, they didn't have much more information than what's presented here. Although no author was listed, I would guess it was actually written by either Don or Maggie Thompson, given the references to Alter Ego, Comic Art and Xero. I know I certainly wouldn't even have been aware of those fanzines otherwise.

So with all of my original errors intact, here's my January 8, 1990 version of The History of Comic Books...

While the history of comic books is generally considered relatively concise, covering only about one hundred years, a complete documentation would be amazingly extensive. It would have to include decifering the Egyptian Book of the Dead, accounting for every medieval crime known to have been committed, and "reading" William Hogarth's The Rake's Progress among a number of other things. However, modern comic book historians generally accept the first comic to have appeared on October 18, 1896. It was published in the New York Journal as a comic strip called Hogan's Alley. The strip, by Richard Outcault, featured the Yellow Kid, who was almost immediately adored by youngsters. (Guide to Comics Collecting, 11)

Other comic strips followed, copying Outcault's style and humor. It was not, however, until 1929, thirty-three years later, that another event of worthy note took place in comic book history. The first comic book itself was published. Dubbed simply The Funnies, it was a reprinting of several newspaper strips. Unlike modern comics, however, it was of a much larger size. In fact, it was about the same size as a small newspaper or tabloid.

With the success of The Funnies, other comic books similar in nature came out and, in 1932, the first Big Little Book was published. The Adventures of Dick Tracy led to many other Big Little Books, many of which are still being published today.

Procter and Gamble also wanted to get their share from the growing comic book industry. Collecting a multitude of newspaper strips such as Joe Palooka, they published their own comic book, Funnies on Parade. It was printed in 1933 and used as a giveaway to entice young readers to buy their products at an early age. (Marschall, Encyclopedia of Collectibles, 151)

The first great comic book success, published by Eastern Color, started in May of 1934. Unlike its predecessors, Famous Funnies came out each month; previously comic books were published fairly irregularly. By Max C. Gaines, this comic book ran for 218 consecutive issues and was cancelled in 1952. Part of its success was that it was dependable and it only cost a mere dime. Another reason was that since it was published with three first issues, it appealed to a wide range of audiences.

One of the major break-throughs in comic books occurred in 1935. A small publishing company called National put out a comic entitled New Fun. It was an accurate title if nothing else, for New Fun was the first comic book ever to be published with all new material. While earlier comic books did include some new comics, they had always had reprints of newspaper strips as well. (Guide to Comics Collecting, 11-12)

The Golden Age of Comic Books started in 1938 with the introduction of one of the most recognizable fictional characters in American history. Two teen-agers from Glenville High School in Cleveland, Ohio created a comic strip designed for their school newspaper. The main character had good points from many famous fictional heroes including the ancient Norse god of thunder, Thor, and the Greek Hercules. National, which had recently changed its name to DC, liked some of the strips Jerome Siegel, the author, and Joseph Shuster, the artist, had sent them and published Action Comics number one, the first comic book to have a story about Superman. Superman was the first super-hero of comic books and was immediately coveted by the public, who bought over a million copies each month by 1941. (Barrier & Williams, Smithsonian Book of Comics, 17-18)

In 1939, DC wanted to increase sales with another super-hero; however, they did not want the hero to resemble Superman too closely. DC turned to writer William Finger and artist Robert Kane to come with another hero. After a number of long discussions that kept both creative geniuses up late at night, their first story was published in Detective Comics number thirty-eight. Superman now had a competitor of some stature known as Batman — originally spelled Bat-Man — took the comic world by storm. To increase sales even further, Robin was introduced in 1940. (33) Their high popularity has kept them alive and all three still can be seen at least once each month in a new comic book story.

In the autumn of 1940, Walt Disney's creations stepped off the silver screen and into comic books. Walt Disney's Comics and Stories brought Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, and the rest of Disney's creations to many young readers who did not have enough money to go to the cinema. Warner Brothers apparently thought that this was a grand concept and published Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies. It gave their new cartoons an interesting view, as they could not have been characterized by the immortal voice of Mel Blanc in the comic book. (Marschall, 154)

A wider variety of comic books was beginning to come into circulation. Pep Comics introduced America's oldest teen-ager, Archie, to the public with issue twenty-two in 1942. (Marschall, 154) Westerns were being adapted for comics as well as love stories and famous novels. Crime Does Not Pay gave a new outlook on the comic business; the stories revolved around a crime instead of a super-hero catching someone who committed a crime. (Guide to Comics Collecting, 12)

However, some people stayed with the things that made comic books famous - cartoons. In 1942, Walter Kelly introduced what would soon be a very politically oriented comic book called Animal Comics. While the original comic did not involve itself too much in political matters, his comic strip, Pogo, did so later with the same characters. (Barrier & Williams, 225-226)

With the American involvement in World War II, comic books became more popular than ever. Now, not only did children read them, but soldiers did as well. The comics provided cheap, disposable and easily transportable entertainment for military personnel in Europe. They also included messages aimed at supporting the war for those still in the United States. Heroes like Captain America and Fighting American became en vogue with American patriots. (Guide to Comics Collecting, 13)

Around 1950, horror comics became increasingly popular. William M. Gaines started EC Comics and published a number of horror titles including The Crypt of Terror, The Vault of Horror, The Haunt of Fear, and Weird Science. Gaines later went on to become the founder of Mad, a satirical magazine directed against politics, movies, books, and jut about anything else. (Marschall, 154)

With such comic books bombarding the market, complaints against them began to rise. Parents were aghast to find, due largely to the outspoken tenacity of pyschiatrist Dr. Fredric Wertham, that their children reading materials that had absolutely no censorship whatsoever. To satisfy the public's outrage, the Comics Code Authority was created in 1954. This group inspected each comic book and determined whether or not it was suitable for young audiences. While comics do not have to undergo this inspection, those that do are generally more acceptable to the public at large. Unfortunately, however, after the code went into affect in the spring of 1955, the comic book industry plummeted. (Guide to Comics Collecting, 13-14)

The Silver Age of Comic Books began about a year after the code went into effect with the re-introduction of the Flash in the September/October issue of Showcase. Fan magazines devoted to comics began to rise with the Silver Age. Although a few were previously published, the first one of note was originally seen Labor Day weekend of 1960. Dick and Pat Lupoff began a fanzine entitled Xero as a giveaway trial item at the World Science Fiction Convention. The magazine's popularity brought out others such as Alter Ego and Comic Art in early 1961. (14-15)

Later in 1961, a small company changed its name to Marvel. It had seen the Golden Age as both Timely and Atlas, but with limited success. A four-man operation, Marvel put out a comic book that passed the Comics Code Authority's inspection, yet still broke all of the previous rules of super-heroes. With the first issue of Fantastic Four, the four main characters wore no costumes, had no secret identities, and fought amongst themselves. This, plus the fact that the villain was not captured, shed new light onto the possibilities of comic books. Stan Lee, writer, and Jack Kirby, artist and co-plotter, began a revolution in the comic book field widely known as the "Marvel Age of Comics." (15)

In November of 1967, a small publishing company did not let the Comics Code Authority look at its new comic. Zap Comix became the first major comic book in what is known collectively as underground comic books. Also known as comix, — the x on the end denotes that the comic is an underground one — these appeal mainly to mature readers. (15)

Robert M. Overstreet decided that there should be an easy way of finding out how much an old comic book is worth. After a great deal of research, which included going to a great deal of conventions and auctions, he published the first copy of The Official Overstreet Comic Book Price Guide. It has been published every year since its first appearance in 1971, being updated with each new edition. Because it was the first of its kind, most comic book collectors and historians generally accept the book as the official price guide of comics, although technically there is none. (17)

While comic books' popularity began to increase, one could not find all of the comics on the market at the local drugstore. This gave rise to specialty shops that sold only comic books. One of the first, Comics and Comix, opened on September 5, 1972. At the time, there were only about five in the entire United States. That number increased dramatically over the next twenty years and there were roughly five stores in every major U.S. city by the late 1980s. (16-17)

Phil Seuling was a comic book fan and found it hard to believe that the only way one could get comic books on a large scale was to order them directly through the publisher. So in 1975, he started a business in which comic book shop dealers could order both Marvel and DC comics, the two biggest comic book publishers at the time, through one association. Jonni Levas later helped him and calling the business Sea Gate Distributions, the first wide-scale comic book distributor. Many more similar companies have since been founded. (17)

Other companies have become increasingly popular, giving now-business-giants Marvel and DC some more competition. Eclipse comics began publishing Sabre in late 1978. Another competitor was First Comics, who started with Warp in November of 1982. Both have since added about a dozen more titles, many of which are rather popular. (18)

The majority of the popular comics have been in color, but some have not used coloring techniques in order to save money. However, this also has become increasingly popular and sales of black and white comics sky-rocketed in late 1987. This rise in demand of black and white comics makes many older ones valuable. For example, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, originally created by Kevin B. Eastman and Peter A. Laird, had its first issue in the spring of 1984. That first issue, which originally cost under a dollar, is now worth over two hundred dollars. (18-19)

As the saying goes, "What goes around, comes around," and a lull in the comic book industry can be expected within the next ten to fifteen years. Hopefully, this will not discourage publishers and the history of comic books will continue to grow and flourish.

----------------------------------------

Bibliography

Barrier, Michael & Martin Williams. A Smithsonian Book of Comic-Book Comics (c)1981 Smithsonian Institution Press.

The Comics Buyer's Guide to Comics Collecting
(c)1988 Krause Publications, Inc.

Marschall, Richard, et. al. The Encyclopedia of Collectibles (c)1978 Time-Life Books.

Monday, January 11, 2010

And Because I Love You Guys...

Buy Comic Book FanthropologyYou know, I have to say that I really do appreciate the support I've gotten for Comic Book Fanthropology. If I'd have written it even just a few years ago, I'm sure I wouldn't have gotten nearly as warm a reception with it as I have. The December sales were about on par with what I expected, and I'd like to see if I can keep the momentum going a bit. So here's the offer... if you enter in READMORE2010 as the codeword when you're checking out from buying my book, you'll get 10% off the cover price. The people who just see my ad won't have that privilege; I'm extending it just to you guys.

Dr. Kleefeld?

No, it's not going to happen with this Kleefeld, I'm fairly sure; however, I am at least nominally tempted to fly out to California to get a degree, just so I can have the opportunity to sit in some of Henry Jenkins' classes, when he posts documents like this phenomenal-looking syllabus. I'm going to have to opt for the cheaper (saner?) route, though, of just taking advantage of the collection of reading material he references. Fortunately, I've already read much of it and reference a number of the pieces in my own book, but there still look to be several other interesting pieces that I haven't read yet. (Man, I can't imagine trying to have researched all this and tracked down other reference material before the internet!)

Anyway, for now, I'll have to settle for dreaming about having Comic Book Fanthropology show up on a syllabus like this one day. Hopefully, it will get into enough libraries and get some promotion for the online version to make it (what I think) a valuable reference piece.

Upcoming Kirby Collector

I haven't done any shameless shilling in at least a week, so...

The next issue of The Jack Kirby Collector should be arriving in comic shops next month and, as usual, it will have one of my spectacularly well-received and critically acclaimed "Incidental Iconography" column. The theme of the issue is Jack Kirby's collaborations with Stan Lee, and since I covered Jack "King" Kirby in the last issue, this column's focus is on Stan "The Man" Lee. Mostly Funky Flashman, actually, since Jack did relatively few drawings of Stan. (And, don't worry -- I also talk about that What If issue and Stan's three Jack-drawn appearances in Fantastic Four and FF Annual.) Flashman in particular provides a fascinating look at Stan's changing appearance over the years, and speaks quite a bit to Stan's penchant for image and marketing. I'm always surprised by how much I learn about Jack every time I start researching a column.

Also of interest is that the issue will have a small ad promoting that book thingy I wrote called Comic Book Fanthropology. Here's a preview you can keep your eyes peeled for...



Speaking of my book, there's about a week left of its serialization. I've received positive feedback from it so far, so if you're not reading, you are definitely missing out!

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Ten Random Kleefeld Facts

For no reason other than I thought it might be interesting, here are several random facts about me related to comic books...
  1. I have zero recollection of not having comic books. They have been an important part of my life literally as far back as I can remember. I started showing up in family photos wearing Spider-Man and Batman shirts when I was three.
  2. When I wore my Ben Cooper Batman costume to kindergarten for Halloween, I discovered my best friend in the class had the exact same one. Naturally we were close friends that year, but his parents moved before first grade.
  3. For years I thought the Falcon's powers stemmed from accidentally getting sucked through a strange tornado. This was because a friend of mine down the street had the Mego figure and, having never seen the character before, I asked who he was. The explanation he gave was imaginative, certainly, but hardly accurate.
  4. My first encounter with the Fantastic Four was via Marvel's Greatest Comics #91, which reprinted Fantastic Four #111. I absolutely hated it because everyone was mad at everyone else, and one of the main characters died at the end. Ironically, I later started collecting Fantastic Four beginning with #254 precisely because one of the main characters dies at the end.
  5. My first letter was published in Fantastic Four #318. I won a No-Prize in it.
  6. I still have my old video game record log. My best time for the Atari 2600 Superman game was three minutes flat, recorded on April 4, 1987. My previous best time was 3:15 from June 16, 1985.
  7. My introduction to many classics of literature was through comic book adaptations. My mental visuals for 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde and Treasure Island come directly from comic versions.
  8. I decorated my high school locker with the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle action figures when they first came out. I also taped up Berkley Breathed's first Outland comic up when that was printed.
  9. I started listening to Joe Satriani's music exclusively because the cover to his Surfin' with the Alien album features the Silver Surfer. Although it was a friend of mine who made a tape of it for me; I didn't actually buy the album. I did buy Can's Monster Movie for the Galactus cover, but didn't care for their music.
  10. My senior "thesis" in high school was a history of comic books. Although the bulk of it started with The Yellow Kid, I noted even then that it was an artificial starting point and it should really date back to cave paintings if you wanted to follow it in its entirety. I got an "A" on the paper. I think I still have a copy of it somewhere and should post it here sometime.

Saturday, January 09, 2010

Kirby Speaks

Audio from San Diego Comic Con circa 1970, 'borrowed' from Comic-Convention Memories...



Go check out everything else there too!

Indiana Jones & The Secret Of Lost Fandom

I finally got around to watching Indiana Jones & the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Contrary to some of the internet hubbub I'd heard when it was first released, I thought it wasn't too bad. Not a great movie, I don't think, but not bad. Certainly not in the "they raped my childhood" sense that some people have criticized of it.

But what it did do was provide the opportunity to show me that, really, it's not you, it's me.

Background... I saw Raiders of the Lost Ark when it first came out in theaters and loved it. I had the action figures and the Atari video game and the comic adaptation and a t-shirt I wore to shreds. I went out for Halloween one year as Indy. Great stuff.

I also enjoyed Temple of Doom when it came out. Got the action figures, did a book report on the novelization of the movie in costume, etc.

Then several years without anything new, my interest waned. I saw and enjoyed The Last Crusade when it came out, and it seemed like a good endcap for the license. A few years later, my dad got a review copy of Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis and I played that, I think, the last summer break I had in college. A decent game, but it wasn't Harrison Ford.

The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles came out around that time, too. I caught a couple episodes, but it seemed aimed at a younger crowd and it too didn't feature Ford. And, to me, the Indiana Jones franchise had really become all about Harrison Ford. Ford really made Jones come alive, I thought, providing some nuanced performances that few actors can match in any capacity. I didn't fully understand that in 1981, but certainly by the time the third movie came out, I recognized how very much Ford brought to the role of Indiana Jones. I don't think I would've liked the character nearly as much if Tom Selleck had won the role.

All of which is to say that, while I deeply enjoyed the Indiana Jones franchise, it wasn't quite as integral a part of my childhood as either comic books or Star Wars.

And that makes my watching of Crystal Skull all the more interesting, I think. While I still have nostalgia for the character, it's not as deeply embedded as other intellectual properties. I can still sit back and say, "Good ol' Indy," but remain emotionally distant enough to analyze things more critically. (By contrast, when I saw the 1997 release of Star Wars in the theater, I found myself tearing up during the opening fanfare despite having seen that movie in some form every year since 1977. All hail Betamax!)

(I'll be getting around to comics eventually. Bear with me.)

As I sat and watched Crystal Skull, I kept thinking, "Yup, that makes sense." Indy would definitely act older and slightly different by the late 1950s, and would seem somewhat out of place and that sort of bookends the alien thing at the end. And I caught many of the continuity nods to previous stories. (Henry Sr., Marcus, Pancho Villa, etc.) And I got that, despite the title, the story was about Indy and Mutt, so Indy's screen time would be cut compared to previous movies. I caught all of the foreshadowing bits and understood that Spielberg doesn't tend to be subtle with them. And I didn't have a problem when it seemed like Ford was just kind of phoning it in. (To be fair, though, even when Ford phones it in, he's still a better actor than most of what Hollywood has to offer.) I saw all that, processed it, understood it, and came to the conclusion that it was an okay movie. It's not going down as a favorite of mine, but it was okay.

Now, here's where things get REALLY interesting. (For me, at least.)

I pulled out Temple of Doom. First time I've watched that particular movie in several years at least. It was generally considered the weakest of the first three movies and I agreed, but mostly on some vague notion of it having sequelitis.

From an effects perspective, it's obviously a lesser movie than Crystal Skull. I mean, there's over 20 years of technological advances between the two. Watching the two in close succession really highlights that. But more significantly, the story doesn't make much sense. It's pretty much just an excuse to run from one action scene to another. I mean, why the hell is that ceiling-lowering spikey room there in the first place? And why would you put the activator switches for it INSIDE the room itself? Harrison Ford and Ke Huy Quan turn in some solid performances, and have some good interplay, but story-wise there's barely anything coherent there. The plot with the Sankara stones doesn't make sense at all, and the slave children seem to be an incidental concern to all of the protagonists.

And that's when things began to click for me.

I mentioned earlier that I enjoyed Temple of Doom when it came out. Certainly well enough to read the novelization of the movie. But two decades later, I spent most of the two hours noticing all of its flaws. A film that I had some nostalgic attachment to. By contrast, Crystal Skull was a movie I had minimal attachment to (just two of the characters, really) but spent more time simply enjoying on its own merits.

This tells me that they're not necessarily changing the comics I used to enjoy, but my tastes have changed.

See, Temple of Doom hasn't changed; it's still the exact same movie I enjoyed as a kid. But the veneer of... whatever veneer I might have placed on it back then has worn off, and I can see the movie for it was and is. And it's NOT a movie made for a 37-year-old Sean Kleefeld. Neither is Crystal Skull but for different reasons.

Seeing Crystal Skull, I could recognize that it wasn't made for me. But Steven Spielberg and George Lucas have aged, and they are necessarily going to make different films than they did 10 or 20 years ago. I can't definitively say that I would've liked Crystal Skull any more or less if I had seen it in 1984.

But Temple of Doom was made in 1984. I saw it in 1984. I liked it in 1984. The movie was made, effectively, for people like me. Or rather, people like who I was in 1984. Because the person I am now didn't especially care for it.

This is significant because I've never been able to look at comics in quite that same light. I've been too close to them for far too long for me to look at them that objectively. I'm always going to have SOME emotional connection there. So I'd never been 100% convinced that the superhero comics I spent so much of my life reading had changed, or had I? I can still go back and enjoy my old Fantastic Four comics, but I can't remove enough nostalgia from them to adequately compare the reactions I have now to ones I had when I first read them.

There's nothing wrong with nostalgia over comics, of course. But you can't see the same story over and over again, and expect to have the same reactions over and over again. What I'm looking for in comics these days isn't what I was looking for two decades ago. While I knew that, what I didn't fully understand is that that is the really the only reason I'm not keeping up with Marvel comics any more; they haven't necessarily changed the stories they're telling, I'm just looking for something different. It's not you, it's me.

Friday, January 08, 2010

Malice

Not unlike EC's Crypt Keeper, the character called Tall Jake hosts a series of comic book stories. They appear in a comic called Malice and, like the old EC horror books, feature a number of seemingly unrelated vignettes where the protagonists are put through all sorts of hellish tests. Unlike the EC stories, though, the ones in Malice are incomplete -- the stories jump from one to another almost at random, sometimes leaving off tales without every returning to see their conclusion. Other times dropping into the midst of stories with no explanation ever given.

Malice, according to all official channels, doesn't exist. No one ever finds it by simply picking it up off the racks at a local comic shop. Even if you ask the store owner, he'll tell you the book is just a rumor.

And once someone DOES find a copy, it's temporary at best. Once the protective envelope it comes in is broken, the ink on the pages begins to fade. After a few days, it's gone entirely leaving only a comic full of empty paper. And don't bother trying to photocopy or scan it before then; scans and copies always turn out totally blank.

The stories are always signed by the artist, Grendel. But no one knows anything about him. No one has even seen him! He allegedly uses recently missing children as the models for his characters.

Tall Jake is allegedly real as well. And, by performing a simple ritual, including calling for him to take you away, he's usually more than happy to remove you from the real world and take you into the dark shadows seen in Malice.

But, of course, all of this is merely heresay.

Isn't it?

That's the basic premise of Chris Wooding's new young adult novel, Malice. It's a really clever concept, further enhanced by several "gimmicks" within the book itself. Most notably, several of the passages within the book are rendered as comic book pages. What the reader sees are, in effect, the contents of the comic stories being talked about throughout the book. Which is why I'm surprised I haven't seen any real discussion of the book in comic fandom. (Although it shouldn't surprise me, given how little attention the Babymouse series has gotten around here.)

Wooding turns in a really excellent story. Although it's clearly written for a young adult audience, he does a great job establishing characters and plot points and motivation. Typically, when I think of YA novels, I think of trite crap like Harry Potter but Wooding's book here is really, really good. (Yes, I'm glad so many people have enjoyed Harry Potter, but I didn't find it anything but banal.) Malice has some exceptionally clever turns to it, and the author makes some fairly bold writing decisions. The characters all have solid development behind them, and their motivations all make sense.

That said, however, I was disappointed with the comic portions of the book. They're still written by Wooding and flow surprisingly seamlessly with the text portions of the book. But I felt illustrator Dan Chernett's storytelling abilities were rather lacking, and several scenes were rather difficult to decipher. I've looked at some of his portfolio pieces and he definitely has a lot of drawing talent, but the panel to panel and page to page flow doesn't always work that well. There were a couple of places where I wasn't sure what exactly had happened, until it was referenced later in the text. Seriously, I had two distinct, "Oh, so THAT'S what happened back there!" moments stemming from the comic portions.

The "gimmicks" I mentioned largely fall along the lines of changing fonts and font sizes, and manipulating page layouts to affect the way the story is read. They're used judiciously and to good effect, I think. Kudos to Wooding and his uncredited editor for their work on those. This was definitely NOT a book that could've been set up from a simple Word document, and Wooding uses the unusual alterations to yield excellent results. I was especially pleased to see this after my initial dismissal of the (in my opinion) excessively embossed cover.

This was a great, and fairly quick, read and I'm interested to see what Wooding does for a sequel. (The back page announces that the second book, Havoc, is "coming soon.") I really rather enjoyed Malice, despite my problems with the comic portions. (Which is why I was initially interested in the book.) Definitely worth picking up if you've got a YA reader in your life, and not too bad for you big kids too.