Saturday, May 29, 2010

Wait -- Comic Characters Have Weight?

So I've been reading the new webcomic Dynagirl by Cary Kelley and Harold Edge. (The comic has no relation to the old Krofft TV show featuring "Electra Woman and Dyna Girl" in case you're wondering.) It's early enough in the story that I don't know if I'll ultimately like it or not, but I wanted to call attention to Edge's art. Here's a sample page...
The story actually starts with several women walking around a diner, but for some reason I was really struck here with how these two women are drawn. Both women have large breasts, asses and hips -- which is fairly typical for superhero comics -- but they also have a noticeable amount of weight to them as well. Their breasts decidedly are NOT perky and gravity-defying, as is so often seen. They could both easily be called zaftig.

I was curious if that was some kind of commentary or social statement or something on the part of the creators. The character design of Waypoint (not yet seen in the comic itself, but shown in the Characters portion of the site) is decidedly of the thinner variety, so it's not that it's just how Edge draws women. I popped over to Edge's blog to see if he provided any notes on his character development. Like many artists, he mostly just posts sketches and whatnot with little in the way of extended commentary. But I did find this...
... with the now almost self-evident, but simple, caption: "I love thick curvy woman...." Many of his character drawings -- even classic characters who have an established "look" -- are drawn with some real body fat on them.
I've always preferred Velma over Daphne, but that's the hottest Velma drawing I've ever seen. She's got chunky thighs and wide hips. She's got some meat on her. She has some weight.

So what we're seeing in Dynagirl, apparently, is just what Edge happens to think is attractive-looking and NOT what is generally presented as what men should find attractive.

It actually threw me for a bit. Here's a comic that's purportedly one in a long-line of superhero comics. A genre in which women (at least the superheroines) are portrayed in precisely one way with variations being almost exclusively limited to hair color and/or style. But what I'm presented with is something which, for me, is not only unexpected but more appealing. And after decades of seeing what I've been repeatedly told is "ideal" and after decades of having to mentally reject that in favor of my actual preferences, this took a bit of mental readjustment.

Do you remember that first time you read manga from right to left? How it felt kind of strange after years of reading left to right? How it took a little while to get into the groove of reading "backwards"? That's kind of how I feel with Dynagirl. I've been so conditioned to outright reject the presented "ideal" that I find myself having to consciously NOT reject what's presented here.

And I wonder if we, collectively as comicdom, just need more of that to combat the misogyny that's almost endemic to the industry. What would comics look like as a whole if people drew what they actually thought was attractive, and not just what marketing has been telling us is attractive for the past 100 years?

Keep up the good work, Mr. Edge!

Friday, May 28, 2010

The Salt Lake Tribune On Africa's Poachers

The Salt Lake Tribune recently posted this interesting article about Emmany Makonga's new book, Africa's Poachers: Tanuro and Environmental Protection. I haven't read the book, but it's certainly got my interest piqued, largely because I'm interested to see how the subject matter is handled. A lot of these types of things can get very preachy, and I like to see how different creators handle trying not to come off that way. (Or, by contrast, if they totally own their preachiness and just roll into it unashamed.) The book can be ordered for $20 here.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Wowio To Rebrand Itself?

MoneyTV recently talked with Wowio CEO, Brian Altounian. I'm actually not sure why something called MoneyTV spoke with Altounian without really talking about money or finances; it mostly comes across as a PR bit for Wowio. I'd also not heard of MoneyTV before, but their embarrassingly bad website suggests that they're not anybody worth paying attention to. That said, Altounian did mention two tidbits that might be of interest to folks here.

First, Wowio is going from a limited liability company (LLC) to a corporation (Inc). This is mostly just a legal distinction that provides some separation between the company's owners and the company itself. This will likely have little to no impact on their day-to-day operations.

Second, and of more noticeable impact to readers, is that Wowio will adopt a new site design on July 1. No mention if that will be just a cosmetic change or if there are functional improvements as well.

Altounian also made some vague reference to new acquisitions for Wowio, but it's wholly unclear if he was referring to new IPs they have the rights to publish or companies they've bought out or new staff members being brought on board or what. In any case, this implies that their overall financial situation is much more stable than it was a year ago.

Per their standard operating procedure, no mention of the impending changes is mentioned on Wowio's own website.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

A Revelation About Marvel & DC

I was just reading Augie De Blieck's latest Pipeline where he talks about why comics NEED to be sold digitally. It's a well-written piece but he uses the same arguments that the publishers have been actively ignoring for years, so I'm not hopeful it will accomplish much. The believers will continue to say, "Hell yeah!" and the naysayers will continue to say, "Lalalalala! I can't hear you!"

But I had something of epiphany when I was reading. It occurred early in the piece and stems directly from this passage...
The audience at the local comics shop isn't growing. It's an increasingly smaller portion of the possible readership for comics. But, for some reason, publishers are afraid to reach out to the rest.

I knew that. I've commented on that before. But I'd been sitting here thinking that publishers' fear came from potentially cutting the hamstrings of retailers. That if they truly embraced digital, it would immediately devastate the current direct market system by giving all of their loyal customers a cheaper, more attractive, alternative. The fear is that if they didn't do digital properly, they'd lose out on both the digital-supportive customers AND the already established and reliable direct market. So if they fail in this, it would be a complete failure and would severely damage their publishing business.

That's what I thought publishers were scared of.

But what if that's not it? What if their fear came from something else? (And here's the epiphany.) What if they're scared to find out that nobody wants yet another Spider-Man or Batman story? What if they're scared that switching to digital wouldn't increase their overall comic book sales, thus proving that the product they've relied on really is insularly myopic?

See, although comic fans have long collectively held some form of neurosis. Back in the 1940s and '50s, they were viewed as exclusively material for children and idiots who couldn't read a "real" book. Comics have matured as a medium, and I think there's a recognition that they can be an expressive art form. BUT I don't think that holds for superhero comics on the whole. The population at large thinks comics as a medium are okay, but they look to books like Maus and Persepolis and Palestine. Maybe Y: The Last Man or Transmetropolitan if they're more in-the-know. But Amazing Spider-Man? Detective Comics? The superhero genre is still considered the realm of the adolescent male (and his emotional equivalent).

I know what you're thinking. You're thinking, "But what about all the money that's been made on superhero movies and video games?" There's money to be made there, of course, but there's two distinctions worth nothing here. First, the actors cast in superhero movies -- even the ridiculously silicone-enhanced ones -- don't hold a candle to the impossibly proportioned depictions of the same heroes in many (most?) superhero comics. Regardless of how much makeup, prosthetics, good lighting, etc. is on an actor, they still have something akin to 'normal' human proportions. Second, when a customer is asked to shell out $12 for a movie, it's a one-time expense. Yes, it's a silly, stupid popcorn film, but the customer only has to buy into the absurdity of it for 90 minutes. Maybe 270 over the course of 4-5 years if it does phenomenally well and spawns two sequels. A comic book customer, by contrast, is asked to shell out $4 for a 15 minute experience every month. Indefinitely. That 270 minute mark gets hit in a year and half. After four years, they're up to 720 minutes.

One of the reasons that sequels tend to not perform as well as the originals is because people stop holding their suspension of disbelief. Whereas the first thoughts might be, "Wow, he just build himself this super-cool suit of armor that lets him fly and shoot people! Awesome!" After thinking about it for a couple of years, they start coming up with, "Wait, how does he go to the bathroom?" You can convince people that a man can fly. But only for so long before they start seeing the wires.

So what if that's it? What if the superhero publishers are scared to find out that, yeah, maybe all of these books they're pushing out really are just repetitious adolescent power fantasies? What if they're really not all that deep? How come there hasn't been another good look at the genre since Watchmen?

Because as long as they're not confronted with that fact head-on from the population at large, they can continue pushing books to the same group of fans who continue to validate them. They can continue to pretend that they're not acceptable to everybody because of some other factor that has nothing to do with their content. They can keep saying, "We do GREAT work but it's only a select few that see it."

Maybe they're not try to expand their market because they're scared that they've already expanded it as much as they can.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

My Avengers Application Was Approved

I just got the following in my in box...
I'm pleasantly surprised that they were able to either overlook or rectify that unfortunate business between SHIELD and the Atlas Foundation from a while back.

Secret Avengers #1 is due out tomorrow.

Happy Towel Day!

A towel, it says, is about the most massively useful thing an interstellar hitchhiker can have. Partly it has great practical value. You can wrap it around you for warmth as you bound across the cold moons of Jaglan Beta; you can lie on it on the brilliant marble-sanded beaches of Santraginus V, inhaling the heady sea vapors; you can sleep under it beneath the stars which shine so redly on the desert world of Kakrafoon; use it to sail a miniraft down the slow heavy River Moth; wet it for use in hand-to-hand-combat; wrap it round your head to ward off noxious fumes or avoid the gaze of the Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal (such a mind-bogglingly stupid animal, it assumes that if you can't see it, it can't see you); you can wave your towel in emergencies as a distress signal, and of course dry yourself off with it if it still seems to be clean enough.

More importantly, a towel has immense psychological value. For some reason, if a strag (strag: non-hitch hiker) discovers that a hitch hiker has his towel with him, he will automatically assume that he is also in possession of a toothbrush, face flannel, soap, tin of biscuits, flask, compass, map, ball of string, gnat spray, wet weather gear, space suit etc., etc. Furthermore, the strag will then happily lend the hitch hiker any of these or a dozen other items that the hitch hiker might accidentally have "lost". What the strag will think is that any man who can hitch the length and breadth of the galaxy, rough it, slum it, struggle against terrible odds, win through, and still knows where his towel is is clearly a man to be reckoned with.
So long, Doug, and thanks for all the fish.

Monday, May 24, 2010

The Impact Of Resolution

I understand that Lost has finally ended. It's a non-event to me since I think I've seen a total of one half of one episode ever. But a lot of people have watched over the past six years and were anxiously awaiting a finale that answers all sorts of questions. I have no idea what those questions may have been, but my Twitter stream suggests that not everyone was entirely happy with the ending. I've seen the claim, too, that some people are justifying the quality of the resolution because the alternative would be to admit that they've wasted six years of watching the show.

As I said, I haven't seen the show so I can't comment on the finale, much less whether or not it was "worth it." But I do find it curious that some of the people making these arguments are comic book readers. Because, in the most common form of comic books available, there is no ending. It's the "never-ending battle for truth and justice." How many characters have outright died, only to have their comic book continue on while they're dead? Or depowered? Or split-up? I distinctly recall coming to grips with the marketing hyperbole Marvel (and comics in general) used when I picked up Fantastic Four #191, which was all about the dissolution of the team. See, I had picked the book up as a back issue and knew that they'd return to the old status quo inside of ten issues. There was no "ending" per se; it was all about getting the characters to run in perpetual circles. Fighting the same three or four battles over and over again.

Don't get me wrong; I'm not knocking Marvel here or the superhero genre or anything. I continued on as a devout follower of Fantastic Four and many other Marvel titles for around two decades after I came to that conclusion. But I knew that, for all the hype, Superman wasn't going to stay dead. Peter Parker wasn't going to remain out of the Spider-Man costume. Batman was going to fully recover from a broken spine. Bruce Banner would always be attached to/burdened by the Hulk, regardless of what color he might be. Stuff happens, there's conflict, and you reset to where you were before the stuff happened. That's how "mainstream" comics work.

I used to use this as a point of distinction between myself and my ex-wife. Whereas I grew up reading comics, she grew up reading fantasy prose. Similarly, I looked at life as a series of ongoing struggles that will keep coming in perpetuity while she thought that there should be a "happily ever after." Which, of course, there never is. Because, even if you do get comfortable and settled and have your house with the picket fence and your 2.5 kids or whatever, shit happens that is completely outside your control. Some of it is just annoying (somebody breaks your tail light in the parking lot) and some of it is devastating (a tornado rips through your house). But there will be drama of some sort because that's what life is!

Alfred Hitchcock: "Drama is life with the dull bits cut out."

So, if comic fans, then are so used to this never-ending battle, why would there be even the slightest hint of disappointment if Lost doesn't solve everything. One of the most honest TV show finales I've ever seen was that of Cheers which ended with a very deliberate "We'll all always be here" message to the audience. Which they are! A new show hasn't been made in almost twenty years, but you can still find the show in syndication or pick up a copy of one of the DVDs. You can tune in to any episode and essentially pick up right where you left off: just another day in the bar.

Now, admittedly, Lost, with one long cohesive story, had a very different structure than Cheers, a series of short stories that were largely interchangeable. But my point is this: the story is NEVER over. It's NEVER tied up with a handy bow with every plot twist and character aberration explained in full. And comic fans should be used to that.

Even in the case of someone's favorite C-list title that's canceled before it's found it's audience, the story will go on. Either formally -- with other creators picking up on character and plot points years down the road (see: Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season 8) -- or informally -- with fans creating their own fanfic or continuing to expound on theories through message boards or whatever (see: any of a zillion Star Wars fan pieces).

So regardless of the resolution(s) in Lost, the issue of whether or not the finale was "worth it" is really a moot point. Because it's not over. it's just another one of those never-ending stories that are part and parcel for storytelling in the 21st century. TV, movies, comics, video games, fanfic... it all blurs together into a collective world built by a wide range of creators.

Including the audience itself!

Which means that a story's resolution -- not necessarily the finale, but the resolution -- is up to the audience. Think of Scott McCloud's contention of closure within comics. The audience is going to take what they see in the parting shots (whether we're talking comics or TV or whatever) and interpret them as it makes the most sense to them! Which is why Stanley Kubrick's 2001 is a radically different story than Jack Kirby's 2001. Kirby got something out of the movie that many (most?) people did not. That's not necessarily good or bad, but that's just how it is. (Think back to your Psych 101 class and recall David Berlo.)

Where does that leave us? That leaves us with the question we should ask of any story: is it worth reading? And for all the work a creator puts into it, and for however well-reviewed the final product is, it boils down to this: you can get out of it what you put into it. I've taken to heart some great messages out of really lousy stories and I've hated others that garner widespread popular acclaim. If somebody asks me, "Is it worth it?" I'll reply what I think about it, but then turn the question back on them: "But what do YOU think?"

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Ode To Kirihito Review

A little while back, Katherine Dacey sent me a copy of Ode to Kirihito Part One. (Thanks again, Kate!) It was pretty daunting-looking at first, clocking in just shy of 500 pages, but it was by Osamu "Father of Manga" Tezuka, so I was keen to dive in anyway.

The story starts in a hospital with several high-ranking doctors examining a patient with a curious ailment. His body has been wracked by distorting bone and muscle structure, and he's essentially transforming into a dog-like creature. The toll is too much for the human body to take and, to date, all known patients have died. Though the head doctor is convinced the disease is somehow contagious, the protagonist -- Dr. Kirihito Osanai -- firmly believes otherwise. He leaves the city to trace the source of this rare malady.

I was was quite struck by the story. Kirihito had largely discovered the source of the disease in just over 100 pages and Tezuka had, by that point, established a number of different plot elements that could be carried out. However, I couldn't see how he could carry the story out for another 900 or so pages. (This is only volume one, you'll recall.) One hundred pages later, I realized what I had forgotten before -- namely that Tezuka is a master storyteller. He had, by that point, added several clever plot twists and turned the story down any number of paths that, while they made complete sense, struck me as quite unexpected. Which is, of course, what any good story does!

The art throughout Kirihito is superb. I really enjoyed seeing Tezuka work the style of illustration to good effect throughout the story, frequently utilizing his pen- and/or brush-work to emphasize moods and emotional states. And the scenery shots were absolutely breathtaking! If there was ever any doubt of Tezuka's mastery of craft, this will dispel it.

One thing I found particularly interesting from a historical/cultural perspective was also my one disappointment with the book. Tezuka began work on this in the late 1960s and, as such, it bears the cultural hallmarks of that time. Notably, the social interactions between different races and genders viewed though a Japanese lens. There's some very clear indications, in particular, on how women were viewed in Japan at that time and, to Tezuka's credit, some highlighting that attitude in -- what seems to me -- an attempt to show just how ignorant it was. It's not preachy, by any means, making it all the more laudable.

However, Tezuka's depictions of other races -- especially Africans and Chinese -- are much less forgiving. And while that might be at least partially understandable from the time period this was written, he makes a point of calling out a decidedly racist attitude of an American towards the Japanese but then, as a creator, applies a similar racism towards his depictions of Rhodesians, who all appear in blackface. Fortunately, they're not also given to stereotypically black attitudes and mannerisms, but the depiction itself is jarring. It's a minor point of the story, but stood out to me as fairly glaring, again, in light of just having commented on racism towards the Japanese only a few pages earlier.

On the whole, though, the book was very well-executed. Good story, good pacing, good characters, good illustrations... there's very little not to like here. I'll definitely be picking up Part Two when I can.

Atari Superman Online

Did you know you can play the old Superman video game for the Atari 2600 online? Despite somewhat lacking in the graphics and sound departments, it had, perhaps, one of the more well thought-out storylines for console-based games back in the day. Certainly a fair piece more complex that the Spider-Man game that game a few years later!

Friday, May 21, 2010

30 Years Ago...


I know. Kind of a lame post for today, but I did actually celebrate by watching The Empire Strikes Back and playing a few rounds of Pac-Man.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Symbolism

Today, we're talking about symbols. According to Wikipedia, a symbol "is something such as an object, picture, written word, sound, or particular mark that represents something else by association, resemblance, or convention." It's kind of a complex notion, really, but one that we, as humans, are so bombarded with all the time that we have an almost inherent understanding of the concept. Even primitive cultures used symbols -- painting hunting expeditions on cave walls, dressing in the skins of animals, carving rocks into fertility totems, etc. Using one thing to represent another is essentially how we communicate with the others. But let's look specifically at visual symbols for now.

Take the American flag for example...
You're probably familiar enough with it to have some understanding of what it represents. For Americans particularly, it represents an entire way of life that can't be easily summed up. It's everything in our Declaration of Independence, Constitution and Bill of Rights. It's all the goods we produce and all the services we render. It's our government and our people, as well as our cities and our towns. It boils down to everything you associate with the United States.

Here's the thing, though. It's everything YOU associate with the United States. What that actually might be is going to vary from person to person. It should come as no surprise that an Afghan national is going to have a different set of beliefs about the U.S. than someone born in Cincinnati, but that Cincinnati native is going to have a different understanding the U.S. than someone born in Louisville. Or, for that matter, even across town. Or, for that matter, next door.

Of course, those born and raised metaphorically under that banner are still probably going to be relatively close in their understanding of what that flag means. Certainly relative to those who aren't.

Here, then, is one of the interesting things about symbols. Because a simple symbol can encapsulate a large, complicated set of thoughts and ideas, it makes it easy to pair multiple symbols together to form an even more complex set of thoughts that might not be easy to verbalize. Continuing our American flag example, here are several images that use the flag as a symbol and, because they're paired with other different symbols, show how very different messages can be expressed.

All of those uses of the symbol express something different. Precisely because they're pairing one symbol (the American flag) with others (Mickey Mouse, death, the Olympics, etc.) And those messages largely work because, again, we generally have pretty similar ideas about what at least one of those symbols represents.

But let's take another symbols you're probably familiar with...
We have less of an idea about what that represents. Oh, you could simply say it represents Batman, but Batman's a fairly amorphous character.

For that matter, it doesn't even necessarily represent Batman, but the whole Bat-family... Batwoman, Batgirl, Bat-mite, Ace the Bat-Hound, etc. The point is that, though well-known, the Bat-symbol has a less precise meaning/interpretation than a number of other things.

Which means that, if you wear a shirt sporting a Batman logo, what does that say about you? That you read Batman comics? That you watch Batman cartoons? That you used to watch Adam West portray the character on a TV show and thought it was funny in its campiness?

A while back, I posted a picture of some sneakers I found...

What does wearing those say? (Besides that I have no fashion sense.) It says, effectively, nothing. DC has diluted and altered their Batman property so much over the decades that it has little meaning to the world at large.

Now, you could argue the same about the American flag. Or Ronald McDonald. Or the Ford logo. And, while they have certainly changed their meaning over the years -- as any symbol almost assuredly will -- they're all generally kept pretty contemporaneous. The Ford logo means the same thing if you see it on a pickup truck or in a TV ad or on the sidelines of a sporting event. The context only matters insomuch as its proximity to other symbols. The Bat-symbol (as well as the Superman shield and, to a lesser degree, the stylized Spider-Man spider silhouette) have enough permutations concurrently viewable that the meaning is lost.

And I'm not just talking that you can go into Best Buy and pick up the old serials on DVD. That bears enough historical context that it's honestly not too big of an issue. But Batman shows up in how many distinctly different venues in radically different ways now? There's at least two or three versions in comic book form, plus the Brave & the Bold cartoon, plus the Christian Bale movies, plus several different video games including a Lego-themed one, plus I don't know what else.

I get that DC/Time Warner want to spread him around enough to make money off several different not-entirely-overlapping populations, but I think they've spread the brand too thin. The symbol -- and indeed the character -- start to lose meaning when you try to apply several different meanings to it simultaneously.

Of course, Time Warner's making a bajillion dollars off Batman and I'm making diddly off anything, so what do I know? Maybe those different markets overlap a lot less than I would've figured, so very few people see different versions of the character. Maybe there's just enough consistency that people don't particularly care all that much. Maybe people are somehow able to reconcile all the variations in the same way they can believe irreconcilable religious and scientific ideas simultaneously.

You know, it's when I start thinking about crap like this that I really wonder why I got into marketing. My brain seems so far out of sync with the rest of the planet that I really have zero idea what motivates/interests/drives people. Maybe I should just go back to school and get a degree in sociology.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

SD Paper Superheroes

Xavier Leo Gale-Sides makes paper models of Marvel superheroes, and then posts the templates and directions online. He usually focuses on the X-Men heroes, but he just put up this pretty slick-looking Captain America. Go check them out, and make your own fairly inexpensive desk toys!

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Free Access: Underground & Independent Comics, Comix & Graphic Novels

"Underground and Independent Comics, Comix, and Graphic Novels is the first ever scholarly, primary source database focusing on adult comic books and graphic novels. Beginning with the first underground comix from the 1960’s to the works of modern sequential artists, this collection will contain more than 75,000 pages of comics and graphic novels, along with 25,000 pages of interviews, criticism, and journal articles that document the continual growth and evolution of this artform."

And, according to Gene Kannenberg, it's all legal too! As the group's advisors/partners include Denis Kitchen and Gary Groth, I'm inclined to believe it!

Access it now, registration-free, through Friday, May 21st.

http://comx.alexanderstreet.com
username: comics
password: sneakpeek

Onward & Upward To Greater Glory!

I have a co-worker who sometimes asks, by means of a greeting, "Are you more excited now than you've ever been?" Within the context of a sea of beige cubicles, it's obviously meant to be taken ironically. But, on the occasions he's asked me, I answer with an unflinchingly serious, "Absolutely." Because, on the whole, I am more excited now than I've ever been.

Like many comic fans, I've read my fair share of Stan Lee stories with his penchant for unabashed hyperbole. It was a style that Roy Thomas adopted early on, as well. I've got a lot of that style of writing rolling around in the back of my head, and it's absurdly easy to tap into. Especially since I also watched the Marvel cartoons where Lee did the narration, so his inflections and the cadence of his voice are a very real parts of my childhood.

But I think I also picked up on the perpetual enthusiasm that's inherent in "Excelsior!" Lee always used it when he was parting company, but there was an inherent implication that things would be EVEN BETTER the next time your paths crossed. The next issue was going to be that much more powerful. The next "Stan's Soapbox" was going to be that much more insightful. The next episode was going to be that much more awesome. "Onward and upward to greater glory!"

The notion is, at a philosophical level that I suspect Lee didn't necessarily take entirely seriously, one of a deliberate attempt at continued and ongoing progress. Do better today than you did yesterday. Don't dwell on the past because it's over and done with; focus on what's coming next. It's not necessarily optimistic in a "sun will come out tomorrow" sense, but it seems to acknowledge that stumbles and backsteps will occur. But you keep going and, on the whole, you make progress in the long run.

Several years ago, a colleague commented how he was looking forward to the upcoming holiday because we got a three-day weekend. I responded that was great, but I was ALSO looking forward to the subsequent four-day work week. He said something to the effect of, "That's what I like about you, Sean. You're always looking ahead."

A curious by-product of this notion of always moving forward is that I have little sense of nostalgia. Oh, there's some there! There are some comics I have an unusually high fondness for because of some memory associated with them, despite critical scrutiny that might suggest a more tempered opinion. But I know the "good ol' days" didn't really exist and I don't long to return to any previous part of my life. In any capacity.

No, there's something deep within me that says, "This is the first day of the rest of your life." I can't go back. I can't even try to re-live past glories. I have right here and right now, and I can only go forward. Oh, sure, there was good stuff that happened before now, but any re-visitation of that is going to be tainted. It will be imperfect. All I can do is make the best of where I'm at now, and move on from there.

See, I'm the creator of my own destiny. I'm the one who chooses who I am and who I'm going to be. I can wallow in self-pity on the days when my life sucks, or I can choose to make the best of it. I can work to make my life better tomorrow than it is today. Some days I won't achieve that, but most days I will. Maybe only by smidge, but it's still progress. "Onward and upward to greater glory!"

There are all sorts of reasons I love comic books, but that I'm able to extract a life-long personal philosophy out them that has served me well for the past 30-some years has to rank pretty high on that list.

Am I more excited now than I've ever been? Absolutely; I am going to do something awesome tomorrow! And wait 'til you see what I have in store for the day after that!

Monday, May 17, 2010

Minor Housecleaning

I just wanted to call attention to a couple of small housecleaning notes on my blog.

On the right side, underneath where I've had my RSS feed, I've added a series of links to various other sites that I have information on. I continue to use my blog as the "main" source of wonderfulness which is me online, but I drop other/different info at the other sites as well. I'll add new sites there as I sign up or begin using them.

Also, I've updated the list of comics I read further down and to the right. I pulled off five or ten that have either finished or I just no longer read, and added another dozen or so.

Filtering Through Your Own Lens

Last week, Brian Hibbs wrote an article talking about what he thought should be done with regards to digital comics. Tom Spurgeon and Johanna Draper Carlson have some thoughtful responses (and my thoughts specifically are in the comments section of the latter). In both cases, it's pointed out that Hibbs is very clearly looking at the issue through the lens of a retailer. Which makes perfect sense since he is, after all, a retailer. But it highlights the point that we all look at any issue with a lens that's not necessarily the same one someone else is using.

At some level, that's fairly obvious, right? For example, someone who's been on the receiving end of a lot of racism since they were young is more likely to see issues in terms of race, if only because it was continually reinforced AS an issue throughout his/her life. On the other hand, if someone else grew up in a community where racism was non-existent (because that community was either socially progressive or completely homogenized) that person is decidedly less likely to think of race as a significant factor. Race is an obvious, headline-grabbing example, but it holds true for many other areas of discussion as well.

Including comics.

Using myself as a prime example, I've spent a lot of time studying comic fandom (do I need to plug my book again?) and one of the conclusions I came to was that a vast amount of what goes on in fandom stems from an individual's self-identity. And after coming to that conclusion, I've noticed that I tend to filter a lot of other things through the spectacle of self-identity.

Now take the issue of not enough women being in comics. I see that as a bunch of white men making stories in which they are able to readily identify with the male protagonists and lust after the female ones. It's not so much that they don't like women or are trying to keep them out of the industry, they're just interested in reinforcing their sense of self by portraying the fantasies they ascribe to. That so many of them do it is because it's been defined as what they're supposed to do, as comic creators. To be a "real" comic creator, it's your life's dream to make Batman, Superman and Spider-Man comics. So creators wishing to identify themselves as "real" comic creator adopt all of the traits associated with it, including doing lots of comics about white guys in spandex beating the snot out of other white guys in spandex.

However, that's how I look at it through my lens of self-identity, developed from research in comics fandom. Other folks certainly have other ways of seeing that same issue. Having read Valerie D'Orazio's memoir, I feel pretty confident in saying that's precisely NOT how she sees things. In fact, I think it'd be pretty safe to say that most women in comics don't see things that way!

But that's okay. Because We wouldn't have any progress if everyone always saw things the same way. I realize that sounds rather trite, but it's still valid.

What I think is key in this, and any other, discussion is to realize that you are absolutely looking through a specific lens when you think about any issue, and the next person may be looking through an entirely different lens. With that recognition, you can better address where your disagreements lie and avoid a lot of frustration. That's not to say, of course, that your lens is "more correct" than somebody else's. After all, in my opening example, Hibbs is a retailer and it's in his best interests as a retailer to hold a retailer's perspective. BUT, as has been repeatedly been pointed out in varying manners by Spurgeon, Draper Carlson and myself, the reality of what happens isn't exclusively dependent on retailers -- there are other parties involved viewing the same situation through their own lenses. The lenses of a publisher, a creator and a reader for some easy examples.

But knowing that those other lenses are being used, to make a corollary to the point I was trying to make over in the comments, is able to empower you to make more informed (and presumably more intelligent) decisions based on what you're able to figure out other people are doing based on their own self-interests.

Happy Birthday, Brigid!

Happy birthday wishes go out today to Brigid Alverson of, among other things, MangaBlog. I'd suggest taking some time off to relax, but I think that would still wind up being a busy/hectic day for her!

Sunday, May 16, 2010

20 Out Of 30 Days Review

I first "met" Derik Badman at the first Met@Morph online comics convention in 2008 and was impressed with both his presentation and his blog which I had quickly started following. By day, he's a librarian at Temple University, and has proven to me to be one of the more thoughtful and original thinkers on the subject of comics and comics research. So when he asked if anyone had an interest in reviewing his new comic, 20 Out of 30 Days, I jumped at the chance.

As noted in the book's introduction, the contents are a series of experiments Badman undertook in November writing a new comic sequence every day for the whole month. Some are abstract comics, some are poetry, some layout experiments, some are just a short narrative. Badman selected the best 2/3 of what he created and presents them here. All 30 of his comics can still be found on his blog here. So why buy the printed version?

Well, let me start by saying that I think there's some really interesting work here. Badman is very open about these being experiments and, as such, it should come as no surprise that some are more successful than others. But what I like about the series is that there's a lot there people can learn from. Most of Badman's page layouts are fairly straightforward and there's no really whiz-bang illustration techniques, but rather there's a lot of ideas behind the individual comics. There's varying levels of abstraction to examine and what a reappropriation of text and images to convey a meaning different from the original can achieve. I was especially partial to this piece...
... which is, in effect, nothing more than an extended and focused look at this image from The Best Years of Our Lives...
The inside back cover of the book cites some of Badman's sources (such as the photo above). I was a little disappointed, however, that more wasn't included about the specific pieces. While the experiments themselves are largely self-evident, I found the added explanations and commentary Badman posted on his site to make everything that much more enlightening. Something like watching a good movie on DVD and then getting that much more out of it when you watch it again with the director's commentary track turned on. Knowing that at least some additional notes were out there and available, but not included here, was surprising to me. But, then again, I seem to recall hearing that only 15-20% of people who get DVDs bother with the commentary tracks anyway so maybe I'm the exception here too. (On the rare occasion I go to the movies, I watch all of the credits at the end as well.)

There's definitely some interesting ideas to ponder over here. Not the type of stuff that everybody can go and start utilizing in the next issues of whatever Marvel and DC books they're working on, certainly, but the type that you have rolling around in the back of your head for a long while.

20 Out of 30 Days can be bought online here for $5 US post-paid.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Green Arrow AKA Robin

I mentioned last month about how a co-worker was working on a Batman-themed birthday party for her son. She was somewhat disappointed that her Cricut cartridge didn't have any Robin figures, and her son had asked about him specifically. So she asked me if one of the existing characters might be close enough to tweak.

So here's what the Green Arrow looks like...

I said, "Hey, you could switch some of the colors around and maybe add a quick cape, and you'd be close enough so that a four-year-old wouldn't know the difference." I whipped up a quick color scheme for her to follow...

And, sure enough, the kids at the party didn't think twice about Robin's costume being a tad off-model, and my co-worker was quite happy with how the party turned out.

The moral of the story is: don't get too hung up on the geekery. If a kid can't even tell substantial costume changes, they're not going to worry about continuity, much less whether or not the characters are completely consistent from one story to the next.

Friday, May 14, 2010

To Tell the Truth: William M. Gaines

Mad Magazine publisher Bill Gaines appeared on the game show To Tell the Truth in 1970, where four panelists try to guess which of three people is really Gaines. I really love his expression when host Garry Moore finally asks, "Will the real William Gaines please stand up?" Dick DeBartolo also shows up on camera during the end credits. Enjoy!

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Link Blogging

Robert Beerbohm points me to this well-researched article by Ken Quattro detailing the life of Elmer Cecil Stoner. "Elmer who" you ask? EC Stoner was the creator of Planter's Mr. Peanut character and, more significantly for comics' fans, the first African-American comic book creator, who's credits include The Witch's Tales #1 (1936) and Detective Comics #1 (1937). Stoner remained in the industry until the early 1950s working on other notable titles like Blackstone, Master Magician and Blue Beetle.

Speaking of Blue Beetle, Shocker Toys has released their first promotional image of their Dan Garrett action figure...

Raina Telgemeier notes that Smile is "out of stock pretty much everywhere" but adds that a second printing should be hitting stores soon.

Tokyopop is going to spend this summer looking for America's Greatest Otaku. Having a noted interest in comic fandom, I'm curious what they'll be looking for to qualify as a great otaku. The rules state that you have to include a five minute video touting why you are, but they're noticeably ambiguous about how they might be judging your 'qualifications.' I suppose that's so they don't have to define otaku too rigidly, and can see how the actual entrants define it.

Finally, Ray Wall sends notice that he's posted an excerpt of his latest superhero song: "Iron Man Movie Star." It's available to preview on his MySpace site.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Comixed

From the folks who brought you the likes of I Can Has Cheezburger and Engrish Funny comes their first (so far as I know) fumetti-based site: Comixed.

The basic idea is simple. Take a few photos, add captions and/or word balloons, and create your own mini story. Let me throw out a few examples from the site; it's probably easier to see it in action...

As you can see in the above examples, the photos may or may not directly relate to one another. In the first example above, all of the shots are taken from The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr. and three of the panels are screen grabs from within a few seconds of one another. The dialogue, of course, is generic enough that any two figures could be dropped in with the same effect.

The second example mixes the 1960's Batman TV show with 2008's The Dark Knight. It places Cesar Romero's portrayal of the Joker in direct contrast with Heath Ledger's. It goes beyond the simple gag shown in the first example, and provides a social commentary by way of contrasting the same character as he was realized several decades apart.

The comics posted on the site take other forms as well. Sometimes, two similar but noticeably different images are juxtaposed with "reaction guys" -- two images of the same group but showing vastly different emotional states. The reader is then forced to piece together how the creator thinks something might be improved or changed...
All of this, like their other sites, is user-submitted. People are tracking down their own images, finding ways they might relate to one another, and writing a script to tie the whole thing into a cohesive (if short) narrative. That process, it seems to me, is pretty advanced as far as developing sequential art goes. At least, to do it well enough that readers are able to decipher the message.

Obviously, some creators are better than others. But I think it's brilliant in that the site is actively encouraging people to create their own comics. They even have their own Flash-based creation tool to let users upload individual photos and add their own text right online. These are people who may have read newspaper strips once upon a time, but might not have picked up a pamphlet comic in years, if at all! Although, given a fairly high propensity for geek-style images (lots of Star Trek and Star Wars images -- there's even an Admiral Akbar "It's a trap!" meme that pops up not infrequently) I wonder how many users are actually comic fans already.

But, hey! Anything on the interwebs that promotes actual comics AND comics creation is aces with me!

Thanks to the S.O. for bringing it to my attention, and now I'm passing its wonderfulness along to you!

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

The Post In Which Sean Responds To Everybody By Way Of A Lengthy Rant

I'm not usually one to follow up on the postings of other bloggers and journalists, in part because I don't care about what they're talking about and, in part, because I don't think it's worth either your or my time to just say, "Me too!" But there have been a few comic topics floating around the past week or so that I feel compelled to address.

I read Superman and Batman and whatnot in the 1970s and, despite having the racially insightful Green Lantern issue introducing John Stewart, Marvel comics seemed more culturally and socially aware/relevant when I became old enough to notice such things. As companies go, that's probably pretty accurate as any of DC's powerful/conscientious stuff at that time was written almost exclusively by one man: Denny O'Neil. I think I must have had some kind of subconscious awareness of the tokenism that brought about (for example) Apache Chief, Black Vulcan and Samurai. But, while the Marvel Comics I read didn't feature minority characters, they did have an ongoing presence that spoke more to reality as I saw it from my white-bred, middle-class suburbia back in the early 1980s.

Over the years, I'd heard about new characters stepping into the roles of DC's pantheon. Not only was there an African American Green Lantern, but now there was a Hispanic Blue Beetle and The Question and a bunch of other minority representations that didn't feel like token characters (so far as I know -- again, I've heard about them and haven't actively read DC books for decades). And this fell in line with DC's standard procedure -- they'd long established that their characters were known by their powers and icons moreso than actual characterization. Witness the birth of the Silver Age with a total revamping of The Flash. Marvel has less of a history of that kind mantle adoption, but they did fairly regularly introduce new non-Caucasian characters. (None with the enduring power of your Spider-Mans and your Hulks, obviously, but still...)

Now I hear through Chris Sims that DC is turning the clock back and brushing aside some unique and interesting characters in favor of those that were around in the 1960s and '70s. And, bizarrely for the company, Archie Comics -- long the bastion of white 1950s' anachronistic America -- has introduced previously-unseen-in-their-comics minorities, inter-racial dating and even a homosexual character. Which puts both companies firmly into the social consciousness of the late 1970s, where racial and gender issues can be openly discussed but only within the context of "a very special episode" of the predominantly male Caucasian protagonists.

Have I ever mentioned how little I liked the 1970s?

There were a lot of reasons to not like the 1970s. The United States had a President who resigned over issues regarding his ethics, there was a lingering war that everyone was tired of, there was pretty deep economic recession... not to mention most of the fashions sucked. And, while executives decided that maybe Blacks and Asians didn't want to see only white characters, they made trite gestures of inclusiveness, despite nearly a decade of inter-racial casts in (for the time, unusually) socially progressive shows like Star Trek and I Spy.

That kind of thing was perhaps most evident in movies. The whole Blacksploitation and martial arts genres came about, in part, from that. Movie execs didn't want to put different races in the same movie, so you wind up with movies that tend to feature predominantly one race. (There are outliers, of course, but with the exception of perhaps Enter the Dragon, they're generally limited to comedies like Blazing Saddles or don't appear until the very tail end of the decade -- Yaphet Kotto in 1979's Alien or Billy Dee Williams in 1980's The Empire Strikes Back for examples.)

But that's almost to be expected. Hollywood had, even by the 1970s, been very much a product-oriented culture. They weren't producing great works of art; they were producing entertainment for the masses -- then perceived in distinctive and segregated blocks. Black people wouldn't bother to go see Superman: The Movie, it would've been argued, because Superman's a white guy and they wouldn't be able to relate. Minorities didn't really begin getting shown in superhero films until the 1980s with Superman III (with Richard Pryor) and The Punisher (with Lou Gossett, Jr.) and even then the hero is still a white guy with a dark sidekick. That's a mentality that's evidently on display in comicdom today, highlighting Sims' notion of regressive storytelling.

I know I gave you all a headache just bringing up those two abysmal attempts at movie-making as some examples, but that feeds directly into my next main point: movies suck.

Salon columnist Matt Seit called superhero movies morally and creatively bankrupt, but he misses the bigger notion that the movie industry on the whole is bankrupt. Tom Spurgeon followed up by saying, among other things, that there's no reason we can't hold superhero movies to a higher standard, but the reality is that most movies -- certainly anything produced by a film studio -- are shooting for a lowest common denominator. I don't think it's fair to expect every film to come out looking like it was directed by Fritz Lang, but the bar is insanely low. Oh, sure, there's a large spectacle on the screen with lots of money thrown at computer effects or 3D or whatever, but the storylines and acting in most movies anymore is mediocre at best.

Most actors these days really only create one character and repeat it for every movie (and TV show) with minor alterations. Most scripts follow the same fairly predictable plot points. You can tell easily sum up entire movies, complete with sub-plots and character arcs almost to the minute, just by watching a two- or three-minute trailer. Producers and directors aren't out to make Citizen Kane, they're out to make Harold & Kumar Go To White Castle.

Don't get me wrong; I'm not knocking it (that much). It's meant as banal, mindless entertainment and it comes across and is sold as exactly that. Movies aren't made to make you think, they're made so you can "Oooo" and "Aaah" at the big explosions. People go in expecting that, and that's what they get. No harm, no foul. Is Fantastic Four 2 really that much worse than Zardoz? Or Herbie Rides Again? Or The Golden Voyage of Sinbad? (Staying with my "The 1970s Sucked" theme.)

Sturgeon's Law: Ninety percent of everything is crap. Yes, most superhero movies suck. But most movies suck anyway, so any subset of that is statistically going to follow that same percentage. Most Westerns suck. Most crime noir films suck. Most comedies suck. Most sci-fi movies suck. That superhero movies have garnered more attention the past several years means they're more likely to be called out, but it's not a condition unique to one genre. It's mindless pop culture entertainment. Should superhero movies be held to a higher standard than any other genre? Sure, I'd like to see better superhero movies, but I wouldn't expect it any more than I'd expect better movies overall.

[Insert clever segue here.]

Which brings me to my last point. Brigid Alverson recently followed up with some retailers on the crackdown of HTMLComics.com. What stands out to me are some comments by Jud Meyers...
I had heard talk of a site and a guy who had been doing something like this but I didn't know the exact name of the site and like everyone else, I didn't pay much attention. We are all busy doing business...

I was shocked at the number of people, the number of high level creators and publishers who don't pay attention and think it's just a shitty little site, some guy sitting in the basement somewhere. And then they look at a site like that and what do the publishers say? 'Oh my God, this guy is giving away our product for free!' And then they say 'Why don't we have a site like this? Why don't we hire this guy? We should have someone like this to do this for us.'

Granted, we're talking about only one retailer's comments here, but ARE YOU FRICKIN' KIDDING ME?!? If your business model does not include keeping abreast of competition, which at some level piracy is, then you are going to fail. Period. Business conditions change constantly and if you're not at least keeping up with what the people next to you are doing, they're going to start to outpace you.

Just a couple hours ago, we had a guest speaker come in to work to talk about blogging and social media. All of it was old-hat for me, but he made a poignant comment that I personally have not been able to sufficiently impress on my superiors. Namely, that any decent sized company these days is EXPECTED to have a blog or a Facebook page or a Twitter account or something. SOME kind of presence online. Not having that online presence is the aberration, not the norm. Most companies have nothing to do (directly) with Twitter or Facebook, and many aren't that tech-savvy at all, but those applications have had a direct impact on how they're conducting business. It's an external change in business conditions that companies (and individuals) have had to adapt to. Even if your business works just fine and dandy right here and right now, there are other forces well beyond your control -- sometimes beyond the entire industry's control -- that will impact how you need to do business.

Digital piracy is one of those things. The general policy among publishers, so far as I can tell until very recently, has been to ignore it. But they at least have acknowledged it was out there. Meyer didn't seem to have done even that until a month or two back.

Now, again, Meyer is one guy. When I spoke with retailer Joe Field last year, he was certainly cognizant of the issue, but didn't seem to have a good handle on how best to address it. Field is, of course, one of the most prominent retailers in comicdom today, I think in part, because he's a good businessman. So he might represent the other end of the spectrum. Where the bulk of comics retailers fall, I don't know.

But, regardless of your personal feelings on the issue, comics being distributed digitally IS THE REALITY. Whether publishers decide to do it or not, or how they might implement it, somebody is going to put online comics that were meant for print. It is absolutely dirt easy to do and they're dirt easy to find. In many cases, you don't even have to be familiar with torrents and you can just download them directly through any web browser! We're not talking about unusually high-tech programming here; we're talking about folks with a scanner and a WYSIWYG web editor. We're talking about technology that has been widely available to the general U.S. population for at least 15 years! At a fairly minimal cost to boot! This is NOT a new and upcoming threat -- this is something that the comic book industry has been professionally and collectively avoiding dealing with for well over a decade!

To have not seen that before this year is willful ignorance.

Last month, I made a post about how comic shops shouldn't be in the business of selling comics. I resolutely hold to that notion and this is precisely why. Even if every Gregory Hart is arrested and every scanlations site is pulled down, that will not alter the fact that digital comics will continue to be posted online in direct competition with the pulped wood copies of the same books. I'm not saying that I condone the behavior, but no matter how much fear is generated by publishers and retailers and law enforcement, and no matter how regulated and monitored the process becomes, there will be people who actively seek to thwart it. That is the reality. That is retailers' competition.

And since the retailers do not have the legal authority to press charges (any violations would be against the publisher and/or IP owner) nor are they likely to have the financial resources to pursue such cases anyway, they need to, as a business, offer a product/service that cannot be replicated.

And that is the personality and culture of the store. I won't rehash my argument from last month, but piracy is one of the reasons I spoke so directly to that notion.

Look: I'm not claiming to have all the answers. I'm one guy with a handful of opinions and an Internet connection. I absolutely think comics should provide a better reflection of the diversity inherent in mankind and, if I wrote comics, I'd like to think my work would reflect that. I absolutely think superhero movies, by and large, suck and should be made without falling back on tired clich├ęs for stories. I'd like to think a superhero movie I might produce would be better than the vast majority of them out there.(As I'm sure most producers think.) And I absolutely think comic piracy can cut into retailers' business, and I'd like to think that if I ran a comic shop, I'd take steps to address that.

But I'm not any of those things. I'm a guy with opinions. I like to think that they're well-reasoned and intelligent. I'd like to think they're reasonably well-informed. I'd like to think somebody out there feels what I have to say is of value. If they're not, somebody please call me out on it and I'll go back to doing mash-ups or something. If there's something I'm just totally missing -- some angle I've overlooked or some vital information I just don't have -- feel free to let me know. This is an interactive forum, after all, and if you don't feel the need to correct me on any of, I'm left with the inescapable conclusion that I'm a genius, and I should tackle that tricky problem of proving that black is white while at a zebra crossing.

Sunday, May 09, 2010

The Awesomeness Of August 1972

"What happened in August 1972," you ask? How about this...
  • DC released their big, honkin' Justice League of America #100
  • Marvel kicked off two new titles: Defenders and Warlock...
  • Archie's new series: Archie at Riverdale High...
  • The fourth comic convention in San Diego, later to become known as Comicon International, took place. It was the first time to be held at El Cortez Hotel, which was the show's primary location for the rest of the 1970s. Bob Clampett, Harry Harrison, Jack Kirby, Mel Lazarus and Roy Thomas were guests.
  • John Barrett, Bud Plant and Robert Beerbohm opened the first Comics & Comix, about a week after the convention. Though it was not the first comic book shop to open, it helped paved the way for a number of other shops and shop owners, notably Beerbohm and Plant who are both still active today.
  • Yours truly was born.
  • Ben Affleck, who later went on to play Daredevil, was born.
    OK, so maybe not everything that happened in August 1972 was awesome. but there definitely was some comic-related awesomeness going on!