Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Bakuman Review

I got a chance to read Bakuman vol. 1 today. I've been eagerly anticipating its English translation for well over a year now, ever since I first heard about it during the early research for my book.

The basic premise that two teenagers, Moritaka and Akito, decide that they want to become mangaka. Obviously, with manga being so popular in Japan, it's a competitive field and they know they have the odds stacked against them. But they're very determined and begin working extremely hard to get their collective foot in the door.

My initial interest in the story was the meta-textual aspect of it. The creators, Tsugumi Ohba and Takeshi Obata, had already created the popular Death Note and were familiar with the industry. Bakuman, then, promised to provide a glimpse of how Japanese comics are actually made. Not just the creative end, but the entire process. How editors work, how works are chosen to continue within the confines of an anthology format, all the aspects of production. While there's some obvious similarities to Western comics, I wanted to see that whole process to see where differences might lie.

On that front, I was not disappointed. Even within this first volume -- which all takes place before the protagonists ever meet with an editor, much less have their work published -- there's a fair amount relayed about the process of manga production. I would happily buy at least the next few volumes on that alone.

Ah, but then there's an actual story going on, isn't there? As I said, Moritaka and Akito are teenagers. As such, they're susceptible to the trials of most teenagers like school and early (awkward) romantic encounters with the opposite sex. I caught another reviewer (can't recall who offhand) who thought this felt hollow, but I found it surprisingly engaging. I honestly was not expecting any additional drama beyond the trying-to-create-manga angle, but those life details really sung for me. At a basic level, I strongly identified with the notion of having a deep crush on a girl who I was too embarrassed to even talk to. But then the relationship Moritaka has with his parents -- one which was quite unlike my relationship with my parents -- still caught my attention.

I had dreams of being a comic book artist when I was a kid, but it wasn't something that I seriously pursued. It seemed like too much of a gamble (to borrow a theme from Bakuman itself) and, being largely only familiar with American superhero comics at the time, the idea of drawing Spider-Man six times a day every day seemed awfully damn tedious. Bakuman speaks to me first on that "what if" level but, more importantly, it also speaks to me as one of those guys who was shy around girls and would sooner dive into the bushes than have to talk to one.

These are the guys who created Death Note so it should go without saying that they know how to write and draw a comic. The storytelling is spot on. But it also seems like they tapped into the male adolescent mind and drew out his psyche. I made the mistake of trying to read this on my lunch hour, and it easily slipped into my lunch hour-and-then-some.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Success By Your Own Measure

This past weekend was an odd one for me, in part because of lots of running around. But in part because I was presented with several items that could have potentially dragged my ego down, but didn't.

First up, Tom Spurgeon recently asked who everyone's favorite writers of comic stuff were. There were definitely some excellent choices there, and I was definitely NOT among them. Considering that it's really my only claim to fame, I could have taken this poorly. I'll admit that I would've liked to have seen my name on that list somewhere, but I had actually JUST fired off an email to a friend of mine telling her that I do what I do for myself and not for any external validation. So the second or two of disappointment from not being cited quickly vanished.

Secondly, that person I had just sent an email too? She's an old friend of mine from high school that I was able to visit with this weekend for the first time in a decade. We'd already done most of our catching up online over the past year or two, so we just had a great time chatting all night. She started up and runs a very successful business, has a gorgeous house that she and her husband built, and has a wonderful family. Plus, she's still really grounded and is very appreciative of everything she's achieved. Quite frankly, she's got loads to be jealous of.

And, for that matter, so do two of my other friends from high school that I met the following night. Both of them are happily married to smart, attractive women (from all accounts I've heard -- I haven't actually met their wives) and both have some great kids. They both reveled in their dad-hood, had jobs they really enjoyed and generally seemed to be doing very well for themselves. We also spent several hours just chatting. Again, lots to be jealous of.

Now, by conventional measures, those friends are more successful than I am. Happily married with children, great jobs, cool houses. Contrast that again childless me, whose girlfriend lives 300 miles away and whose house falls pretty blandly against a backdrop of yet another subdivision that could be from Anywhere, USA.

But that's by conventional measures. That's using a standard of American life that was originally prescribed to everyone in the late 1940s. For someone who's NEVER wanted kids, I actually achieved that goal decades before my friends who wanted them. For someone who's conscious of my own failings as a salesman, I've never given any serious consideration to working for myself -- I couldn't drum up enough business to keep myself afloat financially and, besides, I'd much rather be doing the actual work at hand anyway and leave the business dealings to someone else.

What's important to me -- my free time, my ability to be creative as I see fit -- is something that I have. I can sit here and type out this blog post after my friends have gone to bed, and revel in the creative process. That's how I was able to write my book. If I would've been running my own business or taking care of kids or whatever, I simply would not have been able to do it. Certainly not in the timeframe I did!

You know, my friends all asked how my book sales have gone. I could only give them a ballpark number, despite it only being two digits, because it's not a measurement of success for me. My book was successful when I uploaded the digital files up to Lulu, and got my own first copy a week and half later. I didn't need to sell X number of books; I just needed to write one.

My point is that, as a comic creator, you're bound to make comparisons to other comic creators. Whether that's Jack Kirby and Will Eisner, or Jerry Holkins and Scott Kurtz. And those may be valid points of comparison, but what you should really be comparing yourself against is your own goals. YOUR own goals, not the ones set by someone else. Certainly not the ones set by someone else under different circumstances. Measure your success against yourself; you'll be happier for it.

(Hat Tip Department: Tom, Sandy, Jeff and John.)

Sunday, August 29, 2010

My Intentional Life

Grist recently (last month) started publishing a webcomic called My Intentional Life which is billed as "somewhat true stories of attempted sustainability in the city."

While I'm one of, if not the most 'green' person I personally know, that's not saying a whole lot. I know of many things I could do to help the environment more than I am. I drive a hybrid car... but I could try harder to find a way to not drive at all. I reuse and recycle everything I can think of... but there are probably more ways I haven't thought of to reuse things. I probably could make my own compost and grow my own garden if really worked hard at it, but I think I'm pretty terrible with plants. I try not to buy things I don't need, but I still want to live comfortably, and I like a good comfy sofa. I'd love to install solar panels in my home, but the upfront costs are beyond my immediate cash flow just now.

I'm interested in the subject for two reasons. First, I think we as a planet need to live much more sustainably to ensure our continued survival. Second, and of more immediate and direct concern, it's more efficient and, therefore, more cost-effective over the long term. It's because of that second reason -- that practical viewpoint -- that I try to keep up with reading about green issues. I take what ideas I can that make sense for me and incorporate them into my life.

So with that in mind, plus my long-standing interest in comics, that I'm pleased to see a comic ABOUT trying to live more sustainably. It's been a little slow-starting so far, but it still looks promising and I hope to gain some additional practical insights about living a more holistic life. I'm giving them a shout-out here in the hopes that you'll get some insights too.

Go check out My Intentional Life.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Kirby Cover Tributes

Today, of course, would have been Jack Kirby's 93rd birthday. I'm still super-hectic and don't have time to do something clever/original, so here's a piece I wrote several years ago discussing what is perhaps Kirby's most iconic cover: Fantastic Four #1.

Comic books covers are often one of the most memorable aspects of any title. It is the first image one sees and generally sums up the whole issue with that single image. Jack Kirby, with his powerful and creative layouts, has created some of the industries most memorable images in his covers. Many of those covers are so powerful that other artists have used Kirby's layouts in honor of him even decades after they were first created.

One of Kirby's most notable (and duplicated) covers is that of Fantastic Four #1. Nearly every serious comic book collector is at familiar with this image, but perhaps not with some of the stories behind it.

Marvel Comics had been producing comics for some time (under the names Atlas and Timely). Most of their stories in those comics were formulae. A terrifying monster or alien attacks and is defeated by the ingenuity of one man about eight pages later. Although exact nature of how the idea of the Fantatsic Four came into being is somewhat shrouded with contradicting details, it is fairly evident that Stan Lee and Jack Kirby were trying to utilize some of the popularity that was garnered by DC's Justice League of America.

What if JLA was a fluke? What if people still wanted monster stories? Kirby knew that the Fantastic Four were different and might not be taken well. To help retain the readers who had grown to love their monster stories, he not only added one of the Mole Man's creatures to the cover, but he also gave it a very prominent and central position. He also developed the Thing as a grotesquely disfigured being. Lee and Kirby's uncertainty with the superhero motif is also evident in their second comic book creation -- the Hulk.

The artwork that was eventually used as the cover for Fantastic Four #1 was not exactly Kirby's original design. His original submission only had three bystanders and the rightmost one was on his knees facing away from the reader. This cover can be seen in the Marvel Masterworks reproduction and as a poster that was produced in the early 1980s. I have also reproduced a copy of it, as well as the original printed version and several tributes, below.

The position change of the rightmost pedestrian is quite understandable. In his original kneeling position, not only is he facing away from the reader but his left foot awkwardly hangs over Mr. Fantastic's word balloon. The addition of the police officer was most likely another design decision. The white space between the monster and the nearest building's corner is essentially a glaring dead space without someone to fill it. However adding just the officer spreads out the onlookers a little too evenly, which tends to detract from the eye's flow over the page. Kirby, it seems, added the last bystander to break up the others' spacing.

Curiously, a slightly altered version was released as part of Golden's record series of the 1960s. The reproduction that accompanied the record shows Kirby's original version (with three bystanders) with some alterations apparently made by Golden. The ommission of the 10 cent price tag was obviously a financial decision so people wouldn't mistakenly charge such a low price for a vinyl album. The unusual addition though is that of the police officer that Kirby had added to the first produced piece. While standing in the same position and pose, it is most definately not Kirby's artwork.

Could it be that Jack's revisions were done on additional pages that were adhered (poorly) to the original. Comic book art in the 1960s was still considered nearly useless after a comic's initial printing. It's easy to imagine an overlay being only taped down and the entire piece thrown in a drawer before realizing it's value. Carelessness and an ignorance of storage techniques could easily explain why reproductions of the comic omit the two figures seen on the original.

Jack Kirby left the Fantastic Four with issue 102, but many artists have paid tribute to his great legacy since then. John Buscema used the first issue's cover layout on #126, which also reproduced much of the first issue inside the book as well. While Buscema made it quite clear that the cover was in honor of Kirby, he also made it distinctly his own by giving the heroes their costumes and removing the onlookers from harm's way. This too appeared in a vinyl format when it was reproduced (with extensive modifications throughout the book) by Power Records in 1974.

John Byrne has been a long time fan of both Jack Kirby and the Fantastic Four. Byrne is also well-known for recognizing and honoring many of the great comic book artists in many of his books. His What If story in issue #36 that depicted the FF's first meeting with the Mole Man is a direct homage to Kirby, even though the FF are shown without their cosmic ray induced powers. Byrne has also used more modified versions of that cover with several Mole Man stories including Fantastic Four #264 and Avengers West Coast #54. He even took a humorous look at his role as the Fantastic Four's writer/artist, when he created the cover to Marvel Age #14 -- which depicted Byrne himself in place of the monster. Curiously, none of these covers have included the bystanders that gave Kirby problems.

Others have followed Kirby's lead as well. One of the most elaborate includes an oil painting by Alex Ross used in conjunction with the release of Marvels. Other tributes include Simpsons Comics #1 and Champion's role-playing game supplement Invaders from Below. It seems unusual, however, that several comics that would have been likely candidates for a Kirby tribute (FF volume 2 #1, for example) have ignored looking back to him for inspiration.

Probably the closest, albiet most unusual, tribute to Kirby's layout can be seen on the cover Married with Children: Quantum Quartet #1. Although the cover design has little, if any, similarity to the story within (the villain is actually Male Nurse Doom), it does an excellent job of poking fun at Kirby's dramatic flair by duplicating it so nearly. One of the most notable examples is Kelly Bundy (The Thingie) saying, "It's time for me to take a hand -- just as soon as I finish destroying this innocent person's car!"

By no means are these tributes to Kirby limited to that one initial cover. Several of his Fantastic Four covers have seen remakes as have several dozens of his interior panel layouts he created for the title. Not to mention Kirby's work in other books. The first appearance of Spider-Man in Amazing Fantasy #15 is possibly the most duplicated cover since Action Comics #1.

I look forward to the day when every cover he did has been redone. Kirby's dynamic and creative layouts still continue to be powerful images that other artists use to honor "The King." His memory will continue in these tributes for years to come.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

The History Of Latveria

Apparently, August and September are doing their best to kick my butt as I've been running behind in my blogging duties. I spent all of yesterday in meetings, until the evening which found me traveling. Today I spent a good chunk of the day in the hospital (my health is fine; I was in for my mom -- who's evidently also fine, though we, including the nurses, are all confused as to why the doctor had her come in) and am just now getting a chance to even sit in front of a computer. The next month or so looks pretty hectic as well, with lots more traveling and work and I think there's some wedding that I'm going to in there somewhere.

So in lieu of new content, I thought I'd throw up an article I had written for my old Fantastic Four website some years back. It was last updated in 2007 and obviously doesn't include any recent developments, but the earlier portions are obscure enough that I think some people might find it interesting...


The History of Latveria
Who rules Latveria? Dr. Doom, right? Well, not always. There was a monarchy before Doom and he has not ruled Latveria ever since his first appearance in a Marvel comic. This document will explain the rulership of the small Balkan country.

During World War II, Latveria was ruled by the Baron Tristian Mangegi de Sabbot. Even then, the country was a technological leader and Baron Von Strucker solicited their help in exchange for not overrunning the country with Nazis. Although Latveria was spared from the Nazi machine, the Baron took notes on leadership from Adolf Hitler. (X-Force #63) After his wife developed cancer, the Baron contacted Victor's father, Werner Von Doom, who did what he could but was too late to help. The Baron ordered Werner's death, at which time he ran off with his son. Werner died soon after and Victor vowed revenge on those who would destroy his family. (Fantastic Four Annual #2)

Doom studied both science and magik over the years and eventually won a scholarship to Empire State University. Shortly after his famous disfiguring accident, he left for Tibet and spent several years studying in a remote monastary. (Fantastic Four Annual #2; Fantastic Four #278) It was sometime during this extended leave that the Sabbat passed his power to King Rudolfo.

Rudolfo ruled the country poorly and it was relatively easy for Doom to usurp the dictator, using a robotic double of Rudolfo to deceive the citizens. (Astonishing Tales #2) Doom quickly re-established the country as a technological leader and used its resources to fund his own experiments (at this time, mainly time travel). He even travelled back to 1941 to study both his predecessor's and Adolf Hitler's leadership abilities. (Marvel Universe #2) After firmly establishing himself as monarch, he began using his intelligence and power to enact revenge on his only survivng rival, Reed Richards, and his family, the newly formed Fantastic Four. (Fantastic Four #5)

Doom continued to rule Latveria, occassionally using Doombots in his stead. Feeling a need for change, he began conducting cloning experiments to give himself an heir. While successful in cloning himself, he was forced into killing his clone on the day of Victor II's coronation. The ensuing battle left Victor incapacitated and Rudolfo's brother Zorba took control. (Fantastic Four #200)

Like his brother before him, Zorba was a poor king. Latveria quickly lost much of its previous prestige and wealth. Doom, having regained his sanity, was able to convince the Fantastic Four that he was a better monarch and Doom led a coup that resulted in Zorba's presumed death. It was during this uprising that Doom took a young Kristoff Vernard under his charge as an adopted son and heir. (Fantastic Four #247)

Doom was in the process of bringing the country back into a realm of financial prosperity until his apparent death at the hands of Terrax. (Fantastic Four #260) His Doombots continued to rule in his stead until his death was satisfactorally confirmed to them. At that time, they initiated a fail-safe Doom had installed where all of his memories and identity (which had been recorded earlier) were transferred into his heir, Kristoff. (Fantastic Four #278) Believing himself to be Doom, Kristoff ruled the country as Doom had when he first took control. Kristoff was captured by the Fantastic Four shortly after and exposed as the small child that he really was. (Fantastic Four #279) Although the FF kept Kristoff imprisoned under psychiatric care, he still was the official monarch of Latveria and was apparently able to run the country through his loyal Doombots while imprisoned. In fact, even after Doom's return (Fantastic Four #288), Kristoff was able to hold his power through his escape. (Fantastic Four Annual #20)

Several Doombots, also believing themselves to be the real Doom, fought for control of the country, enlisting the aid of several super-powered agents. Kristoff, however, was able to continually defeat them until the real Victor Von Doom returned and used an implanted memory switch to revert Kristoff back to his own personality. (Fantastic Four #350) Except for a very brief stint where one of the Magus' shades took control while Doom was searching for the Infinity Gems (Silver Sable #4-5), Victor remained in power until he was again believed killed. (Fantastic Four #381) It was at this time that Nathaniel Richards, Mr. Fantastic's father, stepped in and was able to take silent control. He ruled the country much like Doom and in fact made frequent use of Doombots to lead everyone to believe that Doom was still alive and in power.

Victor managed to escape his imprisonment from Hyperstorm and resumed control as Nathaniel quietly slipped out. (Fantastic Four #409) This, however, proved to be extremely temporary as Doom was dragged into the Franklinverse by Iron Man. (Marvel: Onslaught) While the real Victor ruled the Latveria of the Franklinverse, Kristoff and Nathaniel returned to Doom's castle, only to be repelled by Doom's reprogrammed robots. (Tales of the Marvel Universe #1) Nathaniel was able to eventually return, but not before the illegitimate grandson of Baron Sabbat, Dimitri Fortunov, tried to take control in the name of his ancestors. (X-Force #63) Since Doom's departure from the Marvel Continuum had been so widely publicized, it was difficult for Nathaniel to maintain control of the country and Dreadknight attempted a coup that was thwarted by Silver Sable and Spider-Man. (Spider-Man Unlimited #16)

Nathaniel ruled the country in Doom's absence and seemed to be recognized as only the head of a transitional government. Unfortunately, the mutant known as Stryfe unexpectedly landed his ship on Castle Doom (X-Man #45) and forcibly took control of the country, causing a vast amount of destruction to nearby Doomstadt. (X-Man #46-47, Cable #64) Although Dr. Doom returned to his native planet (Heroes Reborn: Doom), he was prevented from returning to Latveria by the Dreaming Celestial. (Fantastic Four vol. 3 #26) Also being punished was Reed Richards, who was forced into playing the role of Dr. Doom while trapped in his armor. (Fantastic Four vol. 3 #26) It appears that Reed was accepted as the sovereign of Latveria, but it wasn't long before Victor reclaimed his homeland. (Fantastic Four vol. 3 #31) Curiously, once doing so, he promptly left for Counter Earth, ruling Latveria only by proxy. At some undetermined point, Doom returned to Earth as part of a plan to destroy the Fantastic Four. Indeed, he was nearly successful, but ultimately was thrown into Hell. (Fantastic Four vol. 3 #500) Shortly afterwards, Reed took it upon himself to take control of Latveria in order to prevent other nations from stepping into the power vacuum and gaining control of Doom's arsenal. While he was successful briefly, the international community (led by the United Nations and S.H.I.E.L.D.) removed him from power. No formal charges against Reed or the Fantastic Four were filed, but that was at the expense of Reed having to turn all of his patents over to the United Nations.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Society VS Abby Normal's Brain

Earlier this week, cartoonist Scott Adams (I have to delineate him as a cartoonist because old guys like me were first aware of the game programmer Scott Adams) noted on his blog about a relative failure of one of his recent Dilbert comics. He said, in part...
The Artist's Secret is that all art comes from abnormal brains. So if you create art that satisfies your own tastes, you have created for a market of exactly one abnormal person. If you're lucky, a handful of other freaks get some joy from your creations too. But it won't be enough to pay your bills. It's not a career until you learn to create products that normal people like.

To some degree, this goes back to my point last week about creativity and how some is needed in your everyday life. While I was talking earlier about how so much of our society stifles creativity, the extension of that thought is that being creative is considered abnormal. Society, on the whole, doesn't want you to be creative; it wants you to fall in line with everybody else and do what's expected of you. For as much lip service as is given to "thinking outside the box", what's really being asked is, "See what we can swipe from somebody else's box." The people who really ARE thinking outside the box aren't even aware that there's a box to be thinking outside of and just come across as lunatics or blasphemers or non-entities.

Take a look at Jack Kirby's work in the 1970s. OMAC, 2001, New Gods, etc. By and large, that work fell flat in the marketplace. No one understood it. It didn't sell. The only people who did buy it were the people who were buying it exclusively because Kirby's name was on it and he MUST be up to something interesting. But that work ruffled a lot of people the wrong way within comicdom and he essentially had to drop out of comics for a while. (He took up a career in the animation industry for several years.) It's only now, three decades later, that his work from that period looks inspired and visionary.

Visionary. A term that's almost exclusively used in retrospect.

Vincent van Gogh died destitute and lonely in 1890. The 1927 release of Fritz Lang's Metropolis was said to be filled with "foolishness, cliché, platitude, and muddlement" by no less than H.G. Wells. In 1969, no one called Jim Henson a visionary for coming up with Seasame Street. These people, and countless other creative geniuses, were never labeled as such at the time they were being brilliantly creative. It was only after people were able to absorb the work and reflect on it for a period of years before the depth of vision was recognized.

The frustration, then, of many creative people is having to reign in their ideas for the sake of earning of living. They work in mundane jobs doing dull and repetitive tasks (Albert Einstein famously worked in a patent office before he began publishing scientific papers) or try to be as creative as they commercially can, creating superhero comic books or storyboards for animated TV shows.

But there's some level of frustration that remains because their brains are considered abnormal. Something different from everybody else. Something "other." To have a way of thinking that is outside the norm inherently means that you have to mask at least some of that to connect with other people.

You know, I didn't get that Dilbert cartoon when I first read it; I think there's some failures there from a craft perspective (mainly that key components to the gag were drawn to small to be seen, depending on how/where the comic was displayed). And I think Adams recognizes that. But reading through some of the comments, I don't think a lot of people liked it even after it was explained. It was too unusual. Too removed from the normal Dilbert format. Too out of the box.

And that's just a really sad state of affairs that society is like that. That to be able to create is considered odd or unusual. That coming up with ideas that are different from the vast majority of the population is abnormal. I don't know that there's a solution, other than for creative types to accept some level of outsider status for thinking "abnormally."

Monday, August 23, 2010

Everybody Loves Mash-Ups (Not!)

I got some linkage recently to some of my old mash-ups so I thought I'd throw some new material out there. As always, the dialogue is from today's Garfield using art from today's installments of...
Comics Critics!

Cleopatra in Spaaaaace!

Not Invented Here

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Apologies For Lame Blogging This Weekend

OK, somehow I just wound up watching WAAAAAAAAY too much Star Wars this weekend. (Mostly the various Clone Wars cartoons.) Consequently, I've given about zero thought to actual comics -- well, "about zero thought" for me; that's probably still more than most people give them.

Anyway, it's now midnight and I've got no comic-related thoughts to post here for the day. Which might not be so bad except that I just did some lame link-blogging yesterday too.

So please accept my apologies for the lack of decent content this weekend, and I'll try to come up with something brilliant tomorrow.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Saturday Link-Blogging

I spent probably way too much time today watching Star Wars stuff (Episodes II and III, and the first five episodes of The Clone Wars) so I'm going to do a bit of a cop-out today with just some link-blogging...

Doc Jenkins interviewed Cultural Sociology professor Jorn Ahrens about the intersection of comics and urban studies here.

Botgirl Questi dug out a comic she made a few years ago regarding "Agile Development Methodology" for a non-technical audience. She's posted it online here.

Maggie Thompson has been doing a lot of blogging live from Wizard World Chicago. Here's Day One (part 1, part 2, part 3), Day Two (part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4) and Day 3 (part 1, part 2, part 3). And she might well have posted more by the time you read this!

Also, thanks to everyone who sent along birthday wishes yesterday! It was very much appreciated and helped counter the feeling of looking like a monkey and smelling like one too.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Curious Birthday Convergences

Here are a couple of screen grabs from "Survival", the very last episode of the original Doctor Who television series.
It's interesting because the three main actors here, Sylvestor McCoy (the Doctor), Sophie Aldred (Ace) and Anthony Ainley (the Master), were all born on August 20. Ainley in 1932, McCoy in 1943 and Aldred in 1962. Though they all appeared in this particular story and actually worked with each other on location, the three never actually shared screen-time at all. In fact, the only image I could find where of all three of them appeared in the same shot was a behind-the-scenes picture taken during shooting that appears on the DVD of the episode...Sadly, McCoy (with the umbrella) and Aldred (in red) are out of focus. The VHS release of the story did feature a collage of their images painted together, but they were clearly taken from three different points of the story.

Although it would have been a nice touch of serendipity, the filming, original airing, and releases of the VHS, novelization and DVDs did NOT occur on any August 20.

What DID occur on August 20 in 1972, though, was the birth of yours truly, a Who fan for about a quarter century now. However I have never been photographed in relation to any Doctor Who actors regardless of what their birthday was.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Health VS Creativity

My day job generally involves some amount of creativity. I work on websites and email campaigns and portals and that type of thing. A good chunk of my day is spent playing around on the computer and trying to solve design issues. Taking some vague ideas from project managers and turning them into something Joe Average can use. I enjoy doing that, and I like to think I'm pretty good at it.

Some days I get to be more creative than others, not surprisingly, but it's rare that I have a day where I do nothing creative. Today, though, was one of those rare days. There were just a lot of pages that needed to be built and no one but me to do them. But that was cool because, for whatever reason, I wasn't in the mood for doing anything creative.

The strange thing, though, was that despite sitting at my desk doing little of interest, I came home pretty tired. Not physically tired, but kind of emotionally drained. Like I wanted to collapse in front of the TV, have someone deliver a pizza and zone out on bad sitcoms (is "bad sitcoms" redundant?) until it was time to crawl into bed.

Now, while I REALLY appreciate a good pizza, I don't watch television. At all. I have one, but it's unplugged most of the time. I can't stand turning my mind off like that for hours on end. In fact, I'd rather sit there with the TV off and just do some navel-gazing; I find that preferable to watching Two and Half Men (or whatever).

I did forgo the television tonight, and I did do a bit of introspection. It occurred to me that my lack of any creativity today was what was so debilitating. Being able to take a blank page and make it into something is energizing. While creation of any sort -- graphics, music, dance, etc. -- involves expending physical energy, a lot of that can be fed back emotionally by seeing your creation spring from nowhere. That's very powerful and can keep you going when you might not otherwise feel like it.

I think that's part of where Americans poor health comes from. Collectively, we're conditioned to NOT be creative. In our schools, in our jobs, in our home lives. Somebody who goes to work all day, does a lot but none of it creative... well, it's little wonder they come home exhausted, plop themselves in front of the television and order a pizza. And if you do that every day, it takes its toll. The pizza clogs your arteries and the lack of physical exercise atrophies your muscles. I'm not saying that a lack of creativity is the cause of the obesity epidemic, by any means, but I'm sure it's a contributing factor to the overall poor health of the nation.

On the other hand, having complete creative freedom -- as, say, a fine artist might have -- tends to be somewhat limiting with regards to your income and/or health insurance. Unless you happen to be "discovered" when you're young and healthy, you're not likely going to make tons of money off your craft. So, while you might enjoy a great deal of work satisfaction, the trade-off is you're less likely to be able to deal with any unexpected problems. You'd also be less likely to be eating healthy as cheaper foods tend to be worse for you. Plus, you still have to pay your bills and you end up worrying about where the next month's rent is coming from.

(Note that I'm using "tend to" here a lot. I'm not trying to piss anyone off with overly broad generalizations.)

So what we've got is a situation where your health tends to be worse off either the more or less creative your job is. Comic creators are generally better off (health-wise) than fine artists and dull accountant managers, but a commercial artist working at an ad agency is probably better off than the comic creators.

Where, then, is the sweet spot? That magical job that's creative enough to give you plenty of opportunities for expression, but not so open that they don't pay you crap?

I don't have a good answer for that. I think that's something that's going to vary from person to person based on how many other venues might they have available for creative expression. It also depends a lot, of course, on how naturally creative a person is. The key is finding what works best for you.

Maybe your job is deadly dull, and you turn your brain off for eight hours a day at work. But if you can survive that and bust out some incredible webcomics on your lunch hour, maybe that's your place. Maybe your spouse has some killer job that rakes in tons of money, and you can afford to be 100% creative all the time without having to reign it in for anybody.

This isn't anything new. This isn't anything you don't already understand at some level. I bring it up here, though, in the hopes that you give it some conscious thought and compare what you do all day with how you feel at the end of it. Or do I need to remind you all about my old Dudes vs. Chicks post?

Reed's Character Assassination

I've mentioned before how I thought Mr. Fantastic's character was assassinated under the hands of Mark Millar (and, to a lesser extent, Brian Bendis) but I never really thought about how exactly. The character clearly wasn't acting as I thought he should act; he seemed more soulless than he should. But I never really analyzed how and why.

But I was mulling over Jonathan Hickman's first Fantastic Four story and realized that he hit the nail on the head right out of the gate. The problem was that Reed had been written with far too much hubris. Hickman never says that explicitly, but the notion that Reed would seriously consider trying to "solve everything" is the ultimate expression of ego. But that's really the antithesis of who Reed is; he was always a fount of humility.

See, Mr. Fantastic is easily one of the most brilliant scientists on Marvel's version of Earth. And he knows that. But he also knows that he doesn't know everything. He repeatedly would call in and work with other scientists, happily collaborating on whatever the scientific dilemma du jour was. And when the other scientist would balk and say something like, "But, Dr. Richards, you're the smartest man on the planet; how could I possibly help you?" Reed would come back with, "Well, you've done more work in (insert scientific field) than I have and I could use your expertise." He was always an open scientist, calling in Hank Pym or Tony Stark or Hank McCoy or whomever had a specialty that he was perhaps not as experienced with. He recognized that others could and did provide valuable contributions to his (and everybody else's) work.

But, even if you ignored that aspect of his character, he is a scientist and follows the scientific method. What that means is that, unless he tested the intelligence level of each and every individual on the planet, there is no way that anyone could prove he was definitively the smartest person. He could say that he was smarter than any single individual that he might know and be able to test, but he couldn't say he was more intelligent than EVERYBODY. Which is what inherently comes with the "solve everything" mindset. And while Millar and Bendis (as far as I know) didn't actually use the phrase "solve everything" themselves, it was evident in their writing of the character that he was attempting to solve everyone's problems. That he knew better than them by virtue of his intelligence and therefore his social policies were inherently correct.

Reed, however, is not that man. In fact, he's made it a repeated and explicit point of not being that man. So much so that he willingly looks in the face of his self-confessed greatest failure every day of his life. He takes the blame for changing Ben Grimm into the Thing and he is a constant reminder that A) Reed is human and makes mistakes and B) some mistakes cannot be corrected. Seeing Ben every day helps to keep Reed humble. He screwed up the life of his best friend and that is baggage he willingly carries around.

Let me repeat this: Reed willingly looks in the face of his self-confessed greatest failure every day of his life.

That is not the type of man who would take it upon himself to fix all the wrongs of the world to his liking. This is a man who devotes his life to making things decent and, if possible, enjoyable for his family: Sue, Johnny, Franklin, Val and, yes, Ben.

Sure, Reed wants to know as much as he can and studies a great deal, sometimes to the exclusion of interacting with others. But he does that for the sake of knowledge itself, for furthering his own understanding of the world, not so he can make it better. What he knows often DOES make the world a better place, but that's a consequence of his work, not the point of it.

And because his work is often dangerous and because he's irreparably harmed his best friend from one of his mistakes, he's not going to gamble the lives of the entire planet over whatever social theories he might hold. He's much more humble than that because he's not the type of person to sacrifice others for his own ideas.

Is Reed the smartest man in Marvel's Earth? Probably. Does he know that? Yes. Does he feel that entitles him to anything? No.

And that's why Mr. Fantastic was written so poorly for several years and why it appears that Hickman, at least, understands that. (Although that doesn't mean the current comics are any less dense than I was saying yesterday.)

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Marvel Myopia

As I noted yesterday, I just received a copy of the first collection of Fantastic Four stories by Jonathan Hickman and Dale Eaglesham. It's the first FF story I've read since issue #555 from almost two and half years ago.

There are essentially three stories here, coming from five individual issues (#570-574). The first story revolves around Mr. Fantastic being approached by several parallel universe versions of himself, who've gathered together to solve all the problems of the universe. They collectively pool their resources to create a series of what appear to be technocratic socialist states, centrally governed from a sort-of pocket limbo dimension. During an invasion by some Celestials, Mr. Fantastic learns that he must give up everything else in his life to pursue the goals of group, and he chooses to return to his family. The second story is an adventure on "Nu-Earth" in which the Torch, Thing, and Franklin and Val Richards find themselves dropped into a war zone, and they have to fight just to make it back home. The last story, then, changes pace a bit and presents Franklin's birthday party as a light-hearted gathering of friends, but ends with an ominous warning from a future version of himself.

What I did like about the book was that the main characters seemed more familiar than when I had last read the series. I had some concerns about the Reed-as-socialist-savior bit, but was pleased to see how he renounced that path in favor of being a better father/husband/friend. In fact, there was a scene that almost literally erased the character assassination that Mark Millar inflicted on Reed, and I was quite pleased with that. I was a little disappointed that the Invisible Woman was given so little attention here, but I also understand that I'm catching just a snapshot of the overall series and that might not be indicative of Hickman's approach on the whole. I could make the same comment, too, on the very distinct separation of adventure stories and family stories; we don't see them acting as a family during an adventure. But, again, that could be just because we're seeing a snapshot of Hickman's larger work on the characters.

What struck me, though, was how dense the book was. I am pretty expert when it comes to the Fantastic Four, and reasonably familiar with writing techniques, but there were some parts of the book that I had trouble following along. Not because they were poorly written (they weren't) but because they were so tied up with recent continuity that it was exceptionally difficult to follow those pieces along. I was vaguely aware of Nu-Earth because that was just getting started when I stopped reading, but everything within that part of the story seemed... well, it just seemed like there was a lot of action predicated on the fact that the reader already understood what was going on. Oh, there was enough exposition within the story that I didn't feel totally lost, but it was mostly along the lines of, "Hey, this is why things look a bit different from the last time anyone saw Nu-Earth" not "Hey, this is what Nu-Earth is for anyone picking this book up for the first time."

How much exposition you need in any given story can be debated and, as I said, there was enough here to follow along with the basic plot. But it didn't strike me as inviting. I didn't get the sense that I was being asked along for the ride, but rather that I had to ask what was going on and the conductor reluctantly agreed to tell me after I spent an hour pestering him. I had less of a sense of that with the first story, probably because it was largely all new ideas, but even the birthday party seemed a little dense in that manner. Yes, the Power family was identified by name and there's an implied history with Franklin, but there's no mention of who they are and what that relationship with Franklin is. Same with Artie and Leech. If I wasn't as familiar with the long history of the FF as I already am, I most certainly would not have understood their relationships.

Random: And who, by the way, was Johnny's date in that story? It looked like it might be Alicia Masters, but she's never named in any capacity.

The stories weren't bad. I don't particularly care for Eaglesham's drawing style, but his storytelling abilities were smooth enough. Hickman did a fair job, too, making sure that new readers weren't left totally out alone to fend for themselves. But I can totally see the argument that the book isn't very friendly to new readers. I kept getting the feeling that I was trying to climb over the walls of some secret club that only really wanted people who were already members. There was a reluctance to letting outsiders in, even with my only having been an outsider for a very short time.

"Nope. You said weren't going to read this comic any more, so we're going to make sure you have to work your ass off to get back in."

I don't think that's deliberate. I don't think Marvel is intentionally trying to dissuade new readers. But it seems as if that it's become SO insular and self-referential that there's a kind of comic myopia that's going on. Despite clear efforts to make sure there's sufficient exposition for new readers, there seems to be an inability to see that the larger story is inherently closed to outsiders. The exposition that's there, then, just serves to puncture small holes in a very large wall.

Lest you think I'm hating on Marvel because I'm anti-superheroes or whatever, bear in mind that prior to 2008, I had read and absorbed not only every issue of every Fantastic Four title every published, but the vast majority of FF appearances in any title and a good number of comics in which any one member of the team, regardless of how short-lived their tenure was (Yes, I'm talking Power Man here), made an appearance. I had Mark Waid asking me continuity questions when he was writing the book. I have a long and deep investment in the characters, but I still felt like that book was written for people who have never stopped reading the title.

It was good to see the FF acting something more like how I remember instead of how I left them. But it was disappointing to feel like I wasn't being invited back, but was only allowed to watch from afar. I might try to go back and visit with the team again some day, but I don't expect it will be any time soon.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Tales Of Woe Review

The back cover of John Reed's Tales of Woe reads, in its entirety, as follows...
True stories of totally undeserved suffering.
Spectacularly depressing.
Nobody gets their just desserts.

Crushing defeats.
No happy endings.
Abject misery.
Pointless, endless grief.

Sin, suffering, redemption. That’s the movie, that’s the front page news, that’s the story of popular culture—of American culture. A ray of hope. A comeuppance. An all-for-the-best. Makes it easier to deal with the world’s suffering—to know that there’s a reason behind it, that it’ll always work out in the end, that people get what they deserve.

The fact: sometimes people suffer for no reason. No sin, no redemption—just suffering, suffering, suffering. Tales of Woe compiles today’s most awful narratives of human wretchedness. This is not Hollywood catharsis (someone overcomes something and the viewer is uplifted), this is Greek Catharsis: you watch people suffer horribly, and then feel better about your own life. Tales of Woe tells stories of murder, accident, depravity, cruelty, and senseless unhappiness: and all true.

I'm opting to use the sales copy here because it really does describe the book very accurately. There are two dozen short stories here, all accounts of real events, mostly from within the past decade. And every one of them ends unhappily. A freak accident lifts an inflatable castle skyward and then drops to the ground, killing two people trapped inside. A mother recovering from a drug addiction dies unexpectedly in her home; her young son then starves to death before either are found. A chemical plant dumps their waste in the local brook causing a number of local children to be stricken with cancer as they enter their teens. These are absolutely horrific tales with no heroes to root for and no villains to despise.

While the book is written in prose, it is punctuated with a number of spot illustrations by various artists. Several of them (notably Delia Gable, Kiki Jones, Sarah Oleksyk, Chadwick Whitehead and Ralph Niese) are comics artists, and some of that shows in their work here. Not so much in the style of execution -- their art styles range all over the map -- but their choice of subjects. The artists with some comic education take an approach which centers on specific moments in time, whereas the other artists tend to focus on emotional portraits or broad themes. Even if you opted not to look up which artists did which pieces or what other types of art the create, it's not difficult to pick out those who more often work in some form of comics. While there are certainly any number of artists in the world who also choose to depict specific moments but do not actually work in comics, it's interesting to note the division here and makes me mildly curious how all of the artists were selected.

The stories themselves are well-written. Some are as short as two or three pages, some are considerably longer. It's an interesting mix, too, in that it's not all just people who died in drunk driving accidents or something. Every story has a different ending with a different kind of tragedy.

I get where Reed is coming from with this. Every movie and comic book and TV show runs kind of the same way. The hero not only resoundingly wins against the forces of evil, but he gets the girl and all is right with the world. It's a bunch of pap and it gets tiring. I sat down to watch Kick-Ass last week, and I found it dull and predictable; the best thing I could say about it was that I liked the musical score and the lead actor did a pretty decent job with what he was given. That's one of the reasons I don't go to movies more; I just get bored with how predictable the vast majority of it is.

But I had a hard time reading through Tales of Woe. I could only get through two or three stories at a sitting before I had to set the book aside. That Greek Catharsis they mention on the back cover? I totally did not get that at all. Maybe that's just me, but the stories just came across as sad and depressing to me. I guess it's supposed to be something like, "Wow, my life might suck, but it's not as bad as THAT guy" but I never got that as a takeaway.

Coincidentally, I'm also currently reading a book called The Devil and Sherlock Holmes which also details true stories of the unusual. The author's approach there, however, is decidedly more upbeat. Some of the stories end not-so-great, but they're not written in a way to specifically cater to a negative impression. I've gotten more from the stories there than in Tales of Woe.

But that could very well just be me. I also generally don't like horror stories or disaster movies. I did rather enjoy a lot of the art here, and I'll be looking at the various artists, especially their comic work, more closely. Tales of Woe is in fact well done overall, but it's just not my cup of tea at all.

Birthday Gifts From My Brother's Family

I got home from work last night, and there was nothing on the porch. I stayed in all evening, and never heard the anyone knock or ring the doorbell. But as I was leaving for work this morning, I saw a package leaning up against the door. I grabbed it, drove to work and opened it once I got in to find birthday gifts from my brother and his family...
Fantastic Four by Jonathan Hickman and Dale Eaglesham
After a quarter century of buying the comic every month, I finally stopped buying this comic monthly shortly after Marvel's "Civil War" storyline. The book just wasn't fun any more. And, although I haven't really been paying attention to it at all since then, I heard a few good (if vague) things about Hickman's run on the book. It'll be interesting to see not only what he's done here, but also what my reaction to my old favorite will be after a multi-year hiatus.
Fear Agent: Hatchet Job by Rick Remender, Jerome Opena and Kieron Dwyer
I've got the first three TPBs of this from a little while back and enjoyed the character of Heath Huston and storyline. I'm interested to see how things progress after all the reality-changing and whatnot from the previous work.

Thanks to my brother and his fam!

Monday, August 16, 2010

Birthday Gifts From The Folks

My dad was passing through town this weekend and stopped overnight with some slightly early birthday gifts from Mom and him. Certainly not necessary, but much appreciated. The comics related stuff you might be interested was...
The Creeper by Steve Ditko
I'm still not entirely sure what DC was thinking in the 1970s when they got Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko to just do whatever weird and wacky stuff they wanted. I missed all of it the first time around (I was a bit too young to be reading those back then) and am grateful that they're being reprinted now. I've never read any of Ditko's Creeper stories, so I'm eager to get into this.
Perhapanauts: Second Chances by Todd DeZago and Craig Rousseau
I read the first volume of Perhapanauts a little while back, shortly after discovering Alex Grecian's and Riley Rossmo's Proof. I'm intrigued by the vaguely similar concepts and how different they're turning out. Both series are very good, though I am a tad more partial to Rossmo's illustration style.
Planetes Volume 4, Book 2 by Makoto Yukimura
I'd read the first three volumes of this and was summarily impressed with everything in them. I've had difficulty tracking down the last two books, though, so this is a welcome addition. Now, I just need to get Volume 4, Book 1 and I'll have the complete series. I'm still left with the question of why they opted to have five books total, and label the first three as Volumes 1-3 (which seems obvious and straightforward) but then the last two books are BOTH labeled Volume 4 but broken into two parts. Why not just Volumes 4-5? In any event, great reading here!

Thanks much to Mom and Dad!

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Pàng, The Wandering Shàolín Monk Review

Ben Costa's been working on his webcomic, Shì Lóng Pàng, The Wandering Shàolín Monk, for a little while now but he won a Xeric award late last year to get the book into print. He's got it listed in the August issue of Previews for an October release, and was kind enough to send me an advance copy for review.

Now, if you've read my blog for a reasonable length of time, you might know that I'm admittedly biased towards Xeric-winning comics. I haven't read every Xeric winner, but I've had more luck using that as a measure when looking out for new material than just about anything else. What's interesting to me this time, though, is that I had sampled Costa's comic a while back online and decided not to follow it. When I first picked up the printed copy, I couldn't recall the reason why and in fact thought it rather strange since it looked very much like a book I would enjoy.

The story takes place in 17th century China. It centers around a Shàolín monk by the name of Pàng who is in search of his fellow monks after the destruction of their temple at the hands of the Qing dynasty. It is said that Qing feared the Shàolín's power and tried to wipe them out, so now Pàng is left essentially as a refugee in his own land. Coupled with the fact that he's lived a sheltered life as a monk for his 20-ish years, Pàng really does have a difficult road ahead of him.

The destruction of the temple and how Pàng finds himself homeless is mostly told through flashbacks. But despite flipping between time periods regularly, Costa does a good job of telling the reader where they are in the story. He also eschews, from time to time, the conventional Western storytelling technique of reading right to left, and adds directional indicators to guide the reader with how he wants the page to be read. I don't think these are always 100% successful, but they work more often than not and make for some interesting reading arrangements. Serious kudos for taking up some difficult storytelling challenges and making them work.

The book is filled with a great deal of Chinese history and culture. While the characters generally have their dialogue written in contemporary and colloquial English, Costa maintains Chinese names and sayings, and provides footnotes for extended explanations. It turns out, I think, that this is why I opted to discontinue reading it online.

The footnotes are presented like you'd expect footnotes to be presented. A little superscript number after an unusual word or phrase, and an extended explanation at the bottom of the page. Since Costa posts a full page at a time online, this means that a notation cited at the top of the page can't be shown on your computer screen along with the explanation. And for me, who reads all footnotes as they come up within the body of the text, that meant that I'd have to scroll down and back up several times with a page that might have one or two footnotes. With the number of footnotes provided in the first 30-40 pages, that got annoying really quickly.

The printed version solves this entirely by allowing the reader to see an entire page at a glance. Pàng, The Wandering Shàolín Monk in printed form very much seems how Costa intended the book to be read from its inception. Unlike many webcomics that get made into print products, Pàng seems very much more at home in this format. You certainly CAN read the whole thing online for free, but I think you definitely get a greatly improved presentment in printed form.

(It's worth noting, though, that the regularity of footnotes drops off dramatically after those first 30-40 pages. Costa mostly uses them for background since Westerns are, by and large, extremely unfamiliar with Chinese history at all. Of course, if you don't read footnotes in the first place, this is all totally a moot point!)

Now that I've read through the story, it's easy to see why this was a Xeric winner. It's charming and entertaining and educational. It's got a good mix of action, drama (not the same as action!) and some fun light-hearted moments. It's an excellent read, and that it's couched in a significant historical context make it that much more worth your time and money!

You can preorder the book through Diamond Comic Distributors using order code AUG101056 or directly from Costa online for $20. Do the latter before August 16 and Costa will sign and sketch in your copy for free!

Friday, August 13, 2010

The Lure Of Nostalgia Is Safety

A friend of mine had the following thought this morning and posted it on Facebook just to get it out of his head:
The lure of nostalgia is safety. You already know the outcome; you survived. Find someone who yearns for yesterday and you've probably found someone who is afraid of tomorrow.
He quickly received a number of positive comments, and elaborated a bit...
... I think there is a distinct difference between appreciating something, remembering it fondly, and yearning, which connotes, to me at least, an aching quality. We can ache for a past that includes loved ones we miss or happy events without necessarily feeling fear of what tomorrow may bring. But I think the less specific way in which some people view the past in a nostalgic way -- that vague sense that it was all better yesterday -- is fueled by the comfort of knowing we made it through the trials and tribulations we faced and the fear of not knowing whether we will be able to do the same with today's or tomorrow's challenges. That's really what the thought was all about.
How much of that plays into reading comics then? How much of reading the same title month in and month out for decades on end is an appreciation of the character, and how much is an appreciation of what those stories helped you with when you first started reading it? I mean...

If you read Detective Comics because you think Batman is cool, that's one thing. But if you read Detective Comics because you really related to the stories that were being told in the title years ago when you were feeling alone and alienated in high school and you don't think the current creators really get Batman the same way that they did back then, that's something else entirely.

The problem, of course, is being able to recognize that distinction (or one like it) in yourself. Because an emotional shift like that tends not to happen overnight. It's a gradual process, and not one that's easily quantifiable either. So you wind up reading the same comics for decades with only the vague sense that the stories aren't nearly as good now as they used to be. It takes some time for you to stop and consciously contemplate why you're reading the books you're reading, and whether or not that's based on the actual (and current) merits of the book or it's primarily a holdover from days gone by.

You could still enjoy the book, and even enjoy it for very different reasons than before, but if you're enjoyment is based more on nostalgia than anything else it might be time to see what's going on in your life NOW and what you might respond better to.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Interesting Comic-Animation Hybrid

French artist Vincent Giard has apparently been playing around with comic-animation hybrids. The basic story is laid out and structured like a comic, but he adds animation to highlight the mood. Check out this silent comic he posted back in May...
01 02
030405
06
07
080910

Note that none of the animations actually depict motion at all, the typical use for animation. Instead, the animations are used to enhance the feel of the individual panel. Not all of his online comics use animation, and there are a few panels that use it for the purpose of conveying motion of some sort, but by and large, he uses animation judiciously and to specific emotive effect. Probably the most interesting/unique mix of comics and animation that I've seen. Cool stuff and makes me wish I'd take French in high school instead of Spanish.

(Hat tip to the S.O. for pointing this out to me!)

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

The Fantastic Four As A Model For Gay Acceptance

The Fantastic Four was my first permanent hook into comics. It was a great book, filled with everything that I was looking for in my entertainment.

There was one thing, though, that... I don't want to say "puzzled" but it never seemed to sit quite right with me. When people talked about the essence of the Fantastic Four, they always said it boiled down to "family." That always struck me as an odd notion because "family" -- as it was generally defined in the 1970s and '80s in America -- was Dad and Mom with their 2.5 kids. Which the Fantastic Four clearly were not. People would use the Thing and Human Torch as euphemisms for the kids, but that always seemed a bit of stretch for me. Sure, they acted juvenile on occasion but I saw them as adults who just weren't as serious as Mr. Fantastic.

I looked at the relationships there as they were presented. Reed and Sue were married. Johnny was Sue's brother, but had no real relationship to Reed. And Ben was just a friend of everybody's. And then you had these orbiting friends who stopped in frequently like Alicia Masters and Wyatt Wingfoot and Crystal, who weren't actually related to anybody, but everybody knew and liked.

What that did for me, back in the day, was re-define "family." It didn't mean Dad, Mom and the kids. It didn't have anything to do with blood relationships or marriage vows. Family was the people you loved and spent the majority of your time with. The notion of a stereotypical nuclear family didn't make sense in the context I was seeing it. Family was defined by the individual.

That concept took deeper root with me as I continued reading the book. The Thing was replaced by She-Hulk. Ben returned, but Reed and Sue left to be replaced by Ms. Marvel II and Crystal. When Reed and Sue came back, Ms. Marvel stayed on as a fifth member, much like Nova II had done years earlier. It reflected life in that individuals move in and out of your circle over the course of time -- sometimes for extended periods, sometimes shorter ones. But you embrace those who you care about, bring them into your home and make them a part of your life. Your family.

And isn't that how all families work at some level? Maybe your brother comes to live with you while he's looking for a new job or you spend all your free time with your co-workers or you maintain close ties with your armies buddies for years after you're out of the service. That's family, right? Maybe not a direct blood-line between people, but a direct emotional connection.

So how is gay marriage any different? They're just trying to make a family like the rest of us. No, it won't be Dad, Mom and 2.5 kids but that rigid definition was never really even valid in the first place. That's one of the themes I picked up from The Fantastic Four and something I go out of my way to look for in other fictions, and something I'm always striving for in my real life.

(Interestingly, I was once told by a gay friend of mine (and I can't find where he cited this from originally) that Fantastic Four #251 by John Byrne features the first instance of homosexuality being mentioned in a mainstream comic book. Juliette D'Angelo pines for actor Grey Landers, but then dismisses the notion by thinking that he must be gay.)

Monday, August 09, 2010

Comics Bartering

A co-worker instant messaged me this afternoon asking me to swing over to her cube to help sort out a minor problem. Just as I was turning to get up, two of the office admins popped in. The one who doesn't work for our office, but I'm somewhat familiar with because we see each other in the cafeteria periodically, said, "Uh, do you like comic books?"

I answered in the affirmative, to which the other admin that worked directly with my office waved her arm at the cube walls filled with comic strips and superhero doodles and whatnot. "See! What'd I tell you?"

Apparently, the first admin was trying to help get her sister's 12-year-old to read more. She happened to stumble on the comics being sold at a local Half-Price Bookstore and thought that would be a great way to incent her nephew. She picked up a dozen issues from a title that she thought looked like he might enjoy. However, when she started looking at them more closely once she got home, she realized that the language was a bit harsh in places and didn't figure her sister would appreciate having her child learn how to swear. It turns out the title in question was Tom Strong. (I've never read it, but it was created by Alan Moore so I'm not surprised.)

Since she didn't want to give them to her nephew any longer, she figured she'd try to pass them to somebody at work because it'd be a shame to just throw them out, so would I want them?

"Sure!" Who am I to turn down free comics after all?

She then proceeded to ask if I knew what might be more appropriate for a 12-year-old boy? I had to decline answering since I'm a bit out-of-the-loop when it comes to what types of things a kid like that would even read, much less what would be available. She noted that she'd seen some of the Archie digests in the supermarket, but he evidently wasn't too keen on those.

Fortunately, there happens to be a pretty decent comic book shop not five minutes away from the office! I told her that the folks there would have a much better handle on what's currently available for kids. I said, "Talk to Peter, the owner. Tell him what kind of movies and video games your nephew likes, and Pete should be able to direct you to something appropriate. Just don't go over there on a Wednesday; they get crazy-busy on Wednesdays."

She thanked me and said she'd swing over on her lunch break tomorrow.

I went off to the co-worker who had IM'd me in the first place. By that point, I was due for a meeting and I trucked off to that for the last hour of the work day.

The meeting wound down right around 5:00 and I went back to my desk. Sitting there, just in front of my keyboard, were Tom Strong #1-12! Twelve comics that I haven't read but have heard good things about in exchange for an off-hand suggestion. Not a bad deal at all! By the time I got over to the woman's cubicle to thank her, she had already left for the day, but that was a really great way to end an otherwise lousy Monday.

I can't wait to hear how she makes out at the comic shop!

Sunday, August 08, 2010

Tokyopop Tour

The Tokyopop tour bus swung by the Books & Co. near my office today, so I stopped over to see what the deal was. I got there about 2:50 and the bus was already parked out front.Inside there were some chairs, tables and a podium set up already where the store often holds signings and whatnot. Conveniently for this event, the store's graphic novel/manga section was right there. The crew, all wearing America’s Greatest Otaku t-shirts, were still setting the tables up with swag of various kinds and Stu Levy was chatting with someone who, even at a glance, appeared to be the store manager. One of the crew members passed out raffle tickets to everyone who had taken a seat, and the store manager then provided a short welcome speech.

After a quick introduction of the "Otaku Six"......Levy talked a bit about Tokyopop's beginnings and answered a number of questions from the audience. Most of them suggested the audience knew little about manga and/or anything about publication in general. There were a few teenage girls in the front row (all cosplaying) who seemed to know their stuff, but I got the sense that most of the audience were folks who happened to be in the bookstore at the time anyway.The Otaku Six then took over the remainder of the program. They plugged a few of Tokyopop's books, some new some older and then raffled off a number of items from t-shirts and hats to DVDs and CDs to manga. They then called up the handful of cosplayers in the audience for some kudos.(I haven't read any of the series these come from, so I can't comment on how 'accurate' they are. Though I will say the girl with the shiny belt buckle above -- cosplaying as Italy from Hetalia -- had on a killer pair of boots, which you obviously can't see very well here because of the heavy backlighting from the windows.) I believe all of these folks got some Tokyopop swag for their efforts.

The Otaku Six (well, two of them) performed a skit of sorts to teach some simple Japanese phrases, and held a trivia contest. The contest was another indicator that the crowd wasn't terribly into manga -- they had to keep resorting to the easiest questions and even some of those didn't get answered by the audience. There was another round of raffles.

That all took about an hour and gave them, in theory, another hour for the crowd to pick up some of the promo materials and get stuff signed by Levy.

The event seemed a little loose, and was largely run by the Otaku Six. Aside from the Q&A, Levy provided little obvious direction. They all seemed pretty enthused, despite having been on the road for over a month (apparently including sleeping in the bus itself) and it was easy to see why those six folks were chosen for this tour.

I think they were thrown off a bit by this particular stop NOT being a part of their America’s Greatest Otaku filming though. I suspect that was a timing issue more than anything, but without a large, dedicated contingent of existing Tokyopop/manga fans, I think they were thrown slightly by what to do with everyone. Still, it was a decent event. Everyone walked away with sampler copies of Deadman Wonderland and Fruits Basket, and I scored Sokora Refugees vol. 2 in one of the raffles. (Which I hadn't heard of before, but the art, at least, looks quite interesting.) Several of the other folks who won items from the raffle seemed genuinely pleased with their loot, and those last two photos show there was a decent crowd who hung around after the main event.

Friday, August 06, 2010

Transmedia Panel From San Diego

The panel discussion on transmedia storytelling from this year's Comic-Con International. It mostly centers around the Red Faction property but it's still relevant to comic books. It highlights, I think, just how much the biggest comic book companies aren't really utilizing this transmedia approach despite being so focused on broad continuity.

Thursday, August 05, 2010

Three Questions I'd Like Answered

1. I just noticed that Of Comics and Men: A Cultural History of American Comic Books by Jean-Paul Gabilliet has been translated into English. Has anyone read this and/or could someone point me to a review?

2. If I go see the Scott Pilgrim movie wearing this t-shirt...

... would that make me a hipster? Or only if wear the shirt ironically? Mine isn't the one sold by Hot Topic if that makes a difference. Oh, and it was given to me for free. Does that matter?

3. Anyone go to one of the Tokyopop Tour events this summer? There's one close enough for me to get to on Sunday, but I haven't seen much in the way of reactions to these stops. I'm definitely going anyway -- in part because I don't have anything else to do on Sunday -- but I'm curious how these events have been handled/managed so far.

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Crazy From The Heat

It was around this time last year that I decided to finally write the book I'd been threatening to write for the previous six or seven years. I'd obviously been writing articles and blog posts for a while, but I'd never tackled anything like a book before. Books are long, and require a lot of planning, and they take a fair amount of dedication to write. But, hey, it was something long past due, so it was high time I charged ahead with it!

I got a little ways into it and started setting some deadlines for myself. They were aggressive, but seemed doable. And they kept me on task, though I really wound up pushing myself to my limits because of them. I was pretty exhausted by the time I finally sent the final files off.

But, despite a few typos and a couple of other minor glitches in production, I'm really proud of it. I periodically look at a copy on my desk and think, "Damn. I did that. That is so awesome."

So here it is roughly a year later and I get another idea in my head. "You know what'd be cool, Sean? Another checkmark you could put on your 'I did that' list?" It's not something that I've been kicking around for any real length of time, but it's something that would definitely set me apart from most of the population. Estimates place the number of Americans who actually write a book (though not necessarily get one published!) at a little over 2%. Other stats I've found place my next goal as being completed by less than 1% of Americans. So it's something I can pretty safely chalk up there in the Life Accomplishments column.

I've only just started, and I can't say that I'm fully committed to this idea just yet. So I'm not going to actually tell you what it is. (Yet.) I might find I will totally fail right out of the gate somehow. Especially after my first couple of real forays didn't go nearly as well as I'd hoped. But that's actually where I wanted to head with this post.

Anything that comes easily isn't really a goal. It's not worth striving for if you can achieve it without much effort. Part of the reason I'm proud of my book is that it took a substantial amount of effort. It was the proverbial hard-fought battle in some ways, and it's a sweeter reward knowing that I persevered through its challenges. I tested my limits, pushed them beyond what I knew I could do, and still succeeded. That's extremely satisfying. My next goal looks like that now. When I'm able to cross that finish line, I will able to look back and say, "Yeah, I did that. Me. Not some guy I read about online. Me. Because I can do anything I damn well want if I really set my mind to it."

So if you've been thinking about doing your own comic or going back to school to learn how to paint or trying to get a job at Marvel or whatever your ambitions are, what are you waiting for? Define your goal, figure out what needs to happen to achieve it, get some realistic deadlines and GO! That's how I got my house. That's why I charged through my Masters degree. That's how I found my current girlfriend after my divorce. That's how I wrote my book. That's how I'm tackling my next big goal. Go already!

As to why I come up with these brilliant charges of insane ideas to work on in the middle of the summer, I don't know, but you don't question those types of things!

(For those curious, I will indeed reveal my Life Accomplishment goal at a later date. Definitely before the end of the year. Though actually achieving it won't happen until next spring.)

Seriously, though, get going already!

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

Entreprenuers VS Great Ideas

Tell me if you've seen this happen...

Somebody you've heard of in comics starts publicly talking about their Next Big ProjectTM. It's not something connected to a well-known, existing player like Marvel or DC or anything, though. Maybe it's a new website or a magazine or a self-published comic... whatever. They start talking it up, and pulling people in to help build/produce it. They probably don't have a huge budget, but it's a genuinely good idea so they're able to convince other folks to help for relatively minimal compensation. After all, it's a good -- maybe even great -- idea and worth pursuing in its own right.

Some time goes by, some buzz starts building and... things just peter out.

I'm not talking about a big launch with lots of money spent that's never recouped. Or the execution is just bad and they lose money hand over fist. I'm talking about things just never really materializing in the first place. Or if they do, it's clearly not to the full intentions of the original idea and it comes across as "Well, we promised you something, so here's what we've got; please don't get too mad at us."

You've seen this, right?

You ever wonder what happens to those projects? Obviously, something happened that's prevented them to really coming to fruition, but what?

About five or six years ago, I had this idea for a comic book database. Something where you could log in the issues in your collection (something not possible with the Grand Comic Database) without having to manually enter a bunch of data yourself. I had been using ComicBase for a few years at that point, but I saw a lot of limitations in it, partially stemming from the fact that it wasn't (at that point) online in any capacity and partially from the fact that the database structure wasn't conducive to cross-referencing anything. You couldn't easily look up, for example, all of the works by Barry Windsor-Smith because he might be listed under Barry Smith or Barry Windsor-Smith or simply Windsor-Smith. So my idea was to create a really great, cross-referential comic book database online. It would be maintained by a number of comic experts and all a user would have to do was select which issues were in their collection. And, as new issues came, they could simply tag which titles they subscribed to so they wouldn't even have to input things every Wednesday.

I got about a half-dozen guys on board conceptually. Between us, we had literally every Marvel comic published since the mid-1950s and almost everything from DC since the 1970s, PLUS reasonably sized collections of a slew of other publishers. It would take some time, but we could populate and maintain such a database. The next step, which took a little time, was tracking down a database programmer would would be able to work for a share of the profits. My startup capital was essentially nil, so I found someone who was interested in the project as a long-term proposition.

Income would be generated two ways. First, not surprisingly, by advertising. Secondly, while the database's contents would be freely viewed by anyone, being able to tag your own collection would require a subscription. I think I was kicking around something in the $12-$15 annually range. I had actually written up a formal business proposal and went through the calculations on realistic costs and income projections and whatnot. (I probably still have that document somewhere, but I'm not in the mood to dig for it just now.)

My competition was scarce. ComicBase had a good foothold in the market, but had some definite limitations. There was Grand Comic Database (and a few similar projects) that didn't allow users to log their own collections. And then there was this new thing that came online right around the time I was putting all this together. It was called ComicBookDB and was pretty much EXACTLY the type of database set-up I was thinking of. Turns out the guy behind it was a programmer himself who saw the same limitations and problems I had, so he started messing around for his own interest and threw the results online.

I was torn. On the one hand, this would be a direct competitor to what I was trying to put together. And he was GIVING it away for free. Anyone could sign up and start tracking their collection. But what I still thought worked in my favor was that he wasn't doing all that much inputting of data. He set the site up so that the users themselves would have to log each and every issue. "A-ha!" I thought, "This will never catch on. No one would be willing to log in the tens if not hundreds of thousands of issues for free!"

I went back to rounding up my partners -- at the time, I was still trying to get a solid commitment from a programmer, who was busy with several other immediately paying projects. A few months passed. I would periodically keep tabs on other sites to see about new developments and was soon shocked to discover something I hadn't considered viable: people were in fact loading issue information into ComicBookDB for free. Lots of issue information. Issues were going in by the hundreds; I want to say something like 400+ issues per day! Most of the low-hanging fruit (the Marvel and DC libraries) was done.

And he was giving the site away for free.

I just couldn't compete with that. Maybe if he had done a lousy job, or even if he did a sort-of-okay job, but he had put together everything I could think of for a good comic book database and then some. Any more efforts on my part would have been a waste of time. And I couldn't even get mad at him because he had done such a fine job with it! In fact, I not only started contributing issue information myself (I've remained in the top 12 most prolific contributors for several years, despite my contributions dropping off considerably since 2008) but I also provided some now-implemented layout suggestions to help improve functionality and usability.

Of course, that doesn't explain all the OTHER stalled-before-they-launched projects you may have heard about over the years. I'm sure financing was an issue in several cases, or other more immediately pressing matters for those involved coming to the forefront, or maybe just the fickleness of the originator. But I wonder sometimes about those projects. What happened to them? Why did they not even get a chance to sink or swim? What are the stories behind them?