Thursday, September 30, 2010

Fantastic Four #3

Over at the Kirby Museum, Rob posted some original art from Fantastic Four #3. What's interesting is that on the back of page 16 is a series of sketches for possible logos to use on the FF's costumes. I sent off an email to Rob with some additional ideas/comments, but I thought I'd repeat it here because... this kind of stuff interests me. Here, though, I've also included some highlighted art for clarity.
The logo sketches were most likely Stan Lee's work. Some of the other earlier FF pages indeed have rough (i.e. really bad stick figures) "layouts." It's possible that someone else could have done them, but A) it almost certainly wasn't Jack and B) not many other people would've had access to the original art.

Now, the other possibility for the logos could be Sol Brodsky. He appears to have done some elaborate re-work on the Human Torch figures throughout that issue (at right, circled in red) to bring him more in line with the original Carl Burgos design. So Brodsky would have had access to the art boards, and he did create the "Fantastic Four" logo that shows up on the cover.

As for the sketches showing up on page 16 instead of 7, that doesn't strike me as particularly odd. Jack wouldn't have only turned in one or two pages at a time, he turned the art for an entire story at once. So when Stan (or Sol) opted to doodle some new logo ideas, he could've grabbed any page from the story at random.

In Pure Images #2, Greg Theakston goes back to the original art and inked some of the pages onto new boards using some of Jack's original pencil lines. Jack's original FF logo was an interlocking "FF" similar to one of the middle ones on the far right of that page. (Circled in red at the left. The final is circled in blue.) Further, the costumes included masks for everyone, hence that really weird close-up on Sue's face when she first steps out in the new costume. (See below.)

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The American Voice

A lot people, when first introduced to the works of William Shakespeare, are turned off by the language. Many of the words and phrases are obviously dated, but also the tenor and cadence are unfamiliar. (Also, it's often not taught very well, but that's another issue entirely!)

A friend today made reference to Jack London's A Call of the Wild and noted that he really liked both it and its sequel (of sorts) White Fang. I read both books a few years ago and, while I could see why they're considered great novels, I didn't get much out of them. Something about London's literary voice that didn't strike me as engaging.

But as I thought on things for a bit, I realized that I actually don't really care for any American authors from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Mark Twain, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, L. Frank Baum... Again, in all these cases, I can see why their works are considered good, but I just don't really care for them personally.

As I thought a bit further, it dawned on me that it really can't have much to do with the language specifically, as might be the case with Shakespeare. I actually do like many of their contemporaries... from other countries. Lewis Caroll, Arthur Conan Doyle, H.G. Wells, George Orwell... I don't really start enjoying American authors until the mid-to-late 1930s and, even then, it's primarily limited to science fiction and pulp novels.

What's striking about that is that it roughly coincides with the rise of comic books as we know them. So what is it about the American voice that's resonates with me at that time that wasn't there before?

Well, the obvious answer is that the Great Depression happened in there. That had a HUGE impact on the country that lasted for decades and, somehow, the lessons Americans learned during the Depression worked their way into their writing.

I have to wonder about that, though. Because I do respond well to comic strips like Little Nemo and Krazy Kat which clearly pre-date the Depression by at least a decade. And Art Deco, which also pre-dates the Depression, is one of my favorite styles regardless of the artist's country of origin.

I do note that early American novels tend to have themes surrounding man's self-reliance, but that's not exclusive to America certainly. Indeed, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland features a more self-reliant protagonist than just about any other author's work I've cited here. As do some of those later American works I enjoy like, say, Detective Comics.

Maybe something about agriculture and wilderness? Those early American novels focus on man's self-reliance because there was just nothing else around anywhere. London's books are set in middle of frickin' nowhere. But here again, that idea doesn't hold up unilaterally. Oz is a pretty bustling place, and The Great Gatsby takes place in New York City.

The only thing I can think of so far (which, admittedly, has only really been for a couple hours tonight) is that there's something about the tone those early American authors use. Something about the level of informality, perhaps? Or maybe that it comes across as a forced informality?

Anyone out there study that era more deeply and have any other ideas?

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Can't Blog; I'm Busy Writing

No real post today, as I got a last minute request for a special piece that will show up at the New York Comic Con in a few weeks. More later.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Who Invented The Long Box?

Although of diminishing importance due to publishers' increasing focus on digital distribution and bound collections that rest nicely on bookshelves, the comic book long box has been ubiquitous in collectors' homes for many years. Though they vary slightly in size and construction, comic collectors are quite familiar with the bleached cardboard boxes that hold so many of their books. But... who invented them? And when?

The earliest U.S. patent I can find relating to comic book storage dates only back to 1993. It's actually a drawer-style box that was invented by Randy Burnett of Los Angeles, CA but his is clearly not the first comic storage box. Indeed, Burnett cites in the documentation that long boxes "are well known and have been commercially available since 1974 or 1975." He does not, however, reference any particular inventors, patents or manufacturers of long boxes.

The earliest photos of them I can find only date back to 1982. Here's Steve Johnson at the San Diego Comic Con...Though the signage up front is highlighting comic bags, there are several long boxes clearly visible on the right.

Interestingly, though, here's long-time retailer Bud Plant at the same convention...Note that his comics down in front are NOT in long boxes but something a little more generic. So, however "well known and commercially available" long boxes may have been, they don't appear to be quite as common as they would later become.

(Both photos were taken by Alan Light.)

That's really all I've been able to find unfortunately. I know I didn't get my first long box until 1984 or 1985, but that obviously post-dates even the photos above.

So who invented the long box? It's a fairly straight-forward and obvious (at least in hindsight) answer to comic book storage, but when/where did it come about? Anyone have any insights?

The Whale Review

I got a copy of Aidan Koch's new book, The Whale, in the mail the other day. I hadn't heard of it before, but the publisher, Gaze Books, is pretty new as well. (They made their first announcement in July and The Whale is their first book.) A quick scan through reminded me of Blaise Larmee's Young Lions, which I reviewed back in April and it turns out that Larmee was the editor on this book.

The Whale is a short story about a woman whose friend/lover died in a car accident while she survived, more or less unhurt. She goes through the story trying to understand and cope with the event. Why she survived and her companion didn't. It's not about survivor's guilt, but more coming to grips with the randomness of the event and the sense of loss that followed. How does one carry on if life loses its purpose or meaning?

The art itself is what reminded me of Larmee's work. It's all printed from the original pencils, complete with eraser marks and the occasional smudge. The Whale is notably cleaner overall, though, and looks more like it was drawn with its being printed in mind. Where Koch's work significantly differs, though, is that she tends to be more consistent with his imagery. That is, where Larmee might illustrate the same characters with more or less detail to help focus the reader's attention on specific portions of the art, Koch instead applies a more uniform illustrative style throughout and focuses attention through page and panel layouts.

The story is also more coherently narrative in structure than Young Lions. There's decidedly more ambiguity in The Whale's resolution than, say, any given story arc from a mainstream publisher, but that's clearly the point. This is definitely more of a think-piece than what most people would publish. For all the comics that try to tackle the deep emotions surrounding someone's death, this is one of the more realistically introspective portrayals I've seen.

It's a quiet book overall. It's largely the protagonist by herself, and that's one of the things I like about it. She's looking inward to try to find some answers instead of distracting herself from her questions. There's no therapist or nosy co-workers or overly attentive relatives. She has to deal with her emotions herself and, ultimately, it's up to her how to handle them. It's an approach that is exceptionally rare, I find, and I applaud Koch for highlighting it here.

The Whale is available for $10 in the US, $13 internationally or $25 for the deluxe edition. They all can be purchased through the Gaze Books website.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Dong Xoai, Vietnam 1965 Review

My earliest political memory -- the first time I consciously recall being part of a world larger than my hometown -- is from November 1979. I was seven years old and I have vague recollections of the first thirteen hostages from the "Iran hostage crisis" stepping off a plane that had just landed in the United States. It was shown on television, and I seem to recall a follow-up message from then-President Jimmy Carter, although that could have been older footage simply talking about the situation more generally at a previous news conference or something. I'm certain I didn't understand the broad picture of what was happening, but I do seem to remember that I understood that a lot of Americans were being held prisoner by some bad guys and that a few of them had just been let go.

I mention that to emphasize that, despite being born while the Vietnam War was still going on, I have no direct memory of it. What's more, it was close enough to being current that it was never covered in any of my history books in school, but removed enough that it was never really addressed with regards to current events either. No one in my family served in Vietnam, and my friends parents at the time were either JUST a tad too young to have served or, if they had, never mentioned their service. My first, and for a long time primary, source of knowledge about the conflict was, sadly, Good Morning, Vietnam starring Robin Williams.

As an adult, I've tried to rectify as many of the holes from my public school education as possible. (Although, that's a decidedly long-term and ongoing effort, given how badly in need of reform our school system is!) So I try to read up on things like the Vietnam War and watch documentaries on the Dust Bowl and just generally keep trying to incorporate knowledge I should have been made aware of decades ago. But beyond just getting the facts and figures, I also try to get some sense of the cultural and societal impact those types of events had. I mean, I've heard about anti-war protests, for example, but I'm sure they looked quite a bit different than the ones that I see on TV now.

And that's how I come to Joe Kubert's Dong Xoai, Vietnam 1965. It's a story inspired by real events, but it's not actual history. The men who served as the story's inspiration have read it, and say that it has a sincerity and truth about it which factual accounts have not conveyed. This is the type of thing I'd like to see about Vietnam. This is what happened. Maybe not exactly how it happened, but this is how the men serving overseas lived. And died.

I was, not surprisingly, first struck by Kubert's art. As evidenced on the cover, his work is shown uninked and raw. His initial layout sketch marks are left in place, and the only coloring are a few spot highlights with some white paint applied right on top of his pencils. (A technique I first saw, and became enamored with, in the still shots from Ralph Bakshi's Wizards.) Although certainly unnecessary at this point in his career, Kubert uses this technique to highlight what an incredible draftsman he is. Even the particularly rough sketches are gorgeously rendered and every page was a joy to look at.

Interestingly, I was reminded of the last great graphic novel about Vietnam that I read: Will Eisner's Last Day in Vietnam. I recalled that, too, had a rough-hewn quality about it. When I went back to double-check, though, I noted that Eisner's work, while beautiful, was actually drawn and inked as he normally did, but had a textured pattern added afterwards that implied a less-polished feel. Where Kubert exceeded Eisner (wow - did I really just type that?!?) was in showing us the unrefined nature of war, using less elegant tools to emphasize the conflict itself.

The story itself is solid too. Despite being based on real events of a different era, it could easily have slipped in alongside so many of the old Sgt. Rock comics Kubert had worked on decades earlier. The hordes of Viet Cong soldiers pouring over the earthen battlements. A wounded and anrgy Ssgt. Barton fighting on despite overwhelming odds. With a piece of shrapnel in his shoulder, Lt. Kelly looking out for those in worse shape. Seabees Stewart and Belasco missing the evacuation and having to hide in the jungle for days, trying to avoid capture or worse, before Dong Xoai is re-taken by USSF and ARVN troops. It's powerful stuff, to say the least.

Regardless of your opinions on the Vietnam War itself or your political ideology, there's little question that the soldiers in Dong Xoai, Vietnam 1965 are heroes. Moreso than any cape and tights wearing do-gooder you'll ever read about. Maybe they didn't even agree with WHY they were fighting but to quote the last page of the story...
Called in times of war, these men are tried and tested in steel and fire. Battles are won and lost.. countries are broken and rise again... but the bravery of soldiers in war never flags or falters.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

How DC's Changes Will Affect More Than 80 Jobs

I've gotten asked repeatedly about my thoughts on the news from DC Comics this week, so I thought I might as well spew it out here. I did in fact want a little time to digest things and not just spit out some knee-jerk reaction, hence my running behind the news curve a bit compared to everyone else. But actually, no one's asked me about it at all; I'm just trying to delude myself into thinking somebody cares.

Every time I start rolling things around in my head, the issue of people being out of work comes to the top of my mind. Though the initial numbers thrown out suggested there'd be around 50 people laid off, Heidi MacDonald has recently reported that it looks like it'll be closer to 80 and those will begin on December 27, the first weekday after Christmas. (Two days after Christmas? Damn, that is cold!)

I shouldn't think I need to remind anyone that the job market still pretty well sucks these days. Not only is the official unemployment rate hovering around 9.5%, the average length of unemployment is about 9 months. Not to mention that neither number really discusses underemployment (people who might be working one or multiple part-time jobs but would prefer a full-time position) or those who are out of work but have been out for so long that they've given up looking (and are, thus, not considered in unemployment numbers). On top of all that, I have strong suspicion that anyone working in publishing is going to have an unusually hard time because... well, publishing has had its own problems stemming from before the recession.

A few months ago, I took a count of the number of people I personally knew who were out of work and looking for a job. It seemed liked a number of my friends were posting, "Hey, if anybody knows of any openings..." types of messages via Facebook and Twitter. When I actually started counting those people up, though, I realized that I knew more people looking for work than I did back when I first graduated college and my friends and I were thrust into the job market simultaneously. It's no surprise that one out of every six Americans is now being served by at least one government anti-poverty program.

So my heart goes out to those people who are about to be thrown into a nasty job market. I certainly wish them all the best, and hope that they have some savings and/or a good support network to cushion the blow somewhat.

But here's a related angle I've not seen addressed anywhere yet. Those layoffs? Those are for actual employees. Those are going to be admins and accountants and file clerks and licensing specialists and whatnot. Probably an editor or three. People who come in to DC's offices in New York City to do their job. But what about the comic creators who also suddenly have the rug pulled out from under them? With Wildstorm and Zuda going away, won't that mean all those creators who were working on books under those imprints no longer have an outlet for their work?

It seems like the fans are, by and large, more worried about their favorite books being canceled. Which is disappointing, but not surprising. But the more significant aspect of a book being canceled is that its creators will no longer receive income from producing it. As far as I know, no titles have actually been announced as canceled yet but closing multiple imprints does lead one to that as an almost inevitable conclusion. In some cases, that might be a speed bump for creators as they take their properties to have them published under a new name. Kurt Busiek addressed concerns about Astro City by saying that even if DC didn't want to continue the book under its own banner, other publishers have already offered Busiek the opportunity to take his book to them. But what about books that don't have the longevity or name cache or flexibility as Astro City? The Zuda titles, for instance? How many of the titles that remained after the website was killed will continue on under a DC banner? David Gallaher noted in an email he sent out to his mailing list that suggested High Moon wasn't going to be picked up. Given that was arguably the most successful Zuda title and one of the oldest, it's hard to believe that they ALL aren't being left for dead at this point.

Honestly, I've lost track of how many books and under which imprints DC has currently, but I suspect that we're looking at another 75-100 creators who are going to lose their freelance work with DC on top of the layoffs. Granted, comic book freelancing has never been an especially stable position and having your title canned is always something of a danger, but to have so many of them cut simultaneously? That's going to make it tough for some people to find more comics work. I'm sure not every book will be able to be absorbed by the rest of the comics publishers, and it's going to be hard for those creators to be absorbed if no one picks up their books.

I obviously don't want to discourage any of those people affected, but I'm talking about this because, like I said, I haven't seen anyone else address it. I wish everyone involved the best and want to extend whatever help I can, even if it's just alerting everyone else to the situation.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Comics Scholars in Second Life

Beth Davies-Stofka sent out a message last night to announce Center for EduPunx's programming for the academic year 2010-2011. Of specific interest here is the Comics Scholars in Second Life who will meet on the fourth Wednesday of the month at 9:00 AM PT, beginning September 29th.

But who are the Comics Scholars in Second Life? Well, according to their website...
Comics Scholars in Second Life, founded in Summer 2008, has a two-fold mission:
  1. To bring comics scholars together for socializing, discussion, and peer review of works in progress;
  2. To develop and implement programs for comics education in virtual worlds such as Second Life and OpenSim.
Membership is open to all. There is as yet no hierarchy here, and we hope to maintain our democratic spirit. Teachers at all levels, from K12 through graduate school are welcome, as are adjuncts, independent scholars, undergraduate and graduate students, social science and policy researchers, software developers, and other interested parties. Our only expectation is that your interest be serious, and that you be willing to listen, contribute, and learn.

Borrowing back from Davies-Stofka's email...
The Center for EduPunx hosts these meetings on behalf of the participants, so the participants determine what happens at the meetings. Examples of past activities include:
  • Sharing research in progress
  • Exhibits of original art
  • Paper presentations (use our giant screen and make your ppt. or other format appear three stories high!)
  • Grad student preparation for defense: Master's degree, dissertation proposal, dissertation defense
  • Dry run for upcoming real-life (RL) conference presentation
  • Classroom activities (faculty bring their students for extra credit projects or for student presentations of papers or reports)
  • Conference planning
  • Role-play or game play
  • Activism
This year, we are particularly interested in participation from graduate students, independent scholars, and faculty with specific projects in mind. We can help you build your dream classroom/conference/research project/out-of-body-experience, so dream, dream big, and come and pitch it.

The Center is happy to support activities that will benefit teaching, research, and learning. We're also just happy to hang out and b.s. Sometimes it's nice to take a break, visit with friends or classmates, and practice your virtual world skills.
As I told Davies-Stofka herself, it sounds like a great set-up and I wish I could attend but the current meeting time directly conflicts that whole work thing that allows me to make my mortgage payment every month! But don't let my absence prevent you from joining in! But if you want to pepper your conversations with, "Well, if that Kleefeld guy were here, I'm sure he'd have something to add..." I wouldn't object to it!

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

The Royal Historian Of Oz #1 Review

I understand The Royal Historian of Oz #2 comes out today, so I thought I'd take a moment to review issue #1 to catch everyone up to speed. (That, plus I don't actually have #2 yet!)

The story starts "sometime in the broke-down, weary future." Although no date is given, it's noted that the last "official" writer of Oz books died around 2050 but Frank Fizzle's dad Jasper is determined to be the next "Royal Historian of Oz" -- a title L. Frank Baum first bestowed upon himself oh-so-many years ago. The problem, though, is that Jasper isn't a very good writer. His work doesn't sell, so Jasper continues to support them on his dead wife's now nearly depleted savings. I don't want to give away the full plot of the issue, but suffice it to say that Jasper finds out that Oz is indeed real, and returns with proof which he plans to use to help him tell more Oz stories. It turns out, however, that Princess Ozma isn't exactly happy with Jasper's actions and decides to send four of her familiar subjects to "bargain" with him.

Let me start by saying that I'm not a huge Oz fan. Nothing wrong with the stories; they just never grabbed me. I think I've read maybe eight or ten of the Oz books, so I am decidedly more familiar with them than just what's presented in the MGM movie. But I'm sure a lot of the Oz references presented with Royal Historian go over my head. However, whatever continuity nods to previous Oz stories are in the comic, they seem to be done as background filler for sharp-eyed enthusiasts and don't hang up the pace of the storytelling at all. In fact, I daresay that you could read this book without any knowledge of the Oz story at all and not have any issues following along.

The only possible point of contention I can see anyone having, actually, is that Jasper finds Dorothy's magical slippers, noting their silver color. (The book is in black and white.) If you were ONLY familiar with the movie, you might argue that the slippers should be ruby red. I'll just reiterate here then that the slippers were silver in the books and changed to red for the movie because somebody thought it would show off the Technicolor better.

What all this should suggest to you is that the comic is very well done. Despite tackling a subject with literally a century of history, author Tommy Kovac (who also penned Slave Labor's excellent Wonderland comic) does a fine job of bringing the reader into the story and catching them up to speed seemingly without being saddled by continuity. He does this by focusing on Jasper and Frank, and the relationship they are trying to work through. There's a real sense Jasper's idealism and Frank's loving acceptance of that impracticality and how he might help the two of them to continue living somewhat comfortably despite it. The scene where Frank finds his father trying on the silver slippers is emblematic of their relationship, and touchingly (and realistically) well executed.

Andy Hirsch turns in solid artwork as well. The characters are all well-designed, and the storytelling flows smoothly. The Oz inhabitants in particular are intriguing as they seem to fit well with Baum's original descriptions (from what I can recall of them) but do not seem to be tied to either the theatrical interpretations nor W.W. Denslow's original illustrations. Further, Hirsch seems to use an ever-so-slightly thicker pen line for all the characters, which helps separate them from the background. My only real complaint about his art was in his rendering of the cage Jasper keeps a flying monkey in. It wasn't bad, but the actual rendering of it didn't seem to stylistically tie in with how the rest of the book was inked. It was just enough for me to be a tad distracting in those handful of pages where it appears.

Overall, I found the book charmingly well done. It's not one that requires any previous knowledge of Oz lore or, indeed, any prior appreciation of Baum's creation. It's just a well-done comic, and I'm looking forward to picking up the whole series.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

A Post You Won't Read Because It's Not About DC

This is a follow-up to my post the other day about price changes and content concerns. Tom Spurgeon responded over on his blog and indicated that he didn't really understand my original piece. It took me a couple of readings of his response, but I think I would agree as I don't think he was really responding to what I was shooting for. That's a failing on my part. I tend not to edit myself very careful here on this blog, so I'm often surprised my posts come out as coherent as they do. But for anyone who didn't get what I was shooting for originally, let me see if I can clarify things.

I haven't tracked down all of the articles I read that helped spur my original post, but this one from Comics Alliance and this one from Robot 6 are typical of what I was responding to. They say, in essence, that comic book prices are too high, customers are cutting back the purchases accordingly, and that hurts everybody.

My first point is that the number of issues sold is down, but the amount of money publishers are making isn't. I did cite that sales numbers are down 7% from five years ago, but what I didn't cite is that they're still up 20% from ten years ago! Again, here's John Jackson Miller's analysis for the August sales. What that means is that publishers are making MORE money off FEWER books.

Let's say you sell widgets. If you sell 10 widgets at $5 each, you would take in $50 if you sold them all, right? Now, what if you increased the price to $7? You'd probably sell fewer of them. But if you sold eight of them, you'd take in $56! As a widget retailer, it would make more sense to sell fewer of them at a higher price because you'd make more money. That's EXACTLY what comic publishers are doing right now and that's EXACTLY why they're not going to drop their prices.

So, if you define the health of the comic industry by how many comics are sold (which is a definition that makes sense for most of us) then, yes, it is absolutely crappier than it's been in a while and something to be concerned about. But if you define the health of the comic industry by how much money is made (which is a definition that makes sense to a company officer or shareholder) then there's nothing wrong at all. It's a view that absolutely is looking at the short-term prospects over the long-term ones, and has less an emphasis on the love and appreciation of the medium and more of an emphasis on the business of selling superhero fantasies. Which is to say that the bigger publishers are doing precisely what they are designed to do: make money.

Yes, it absolutely means fans won't be able to read as many comics as they used to. But why should the publisher care if they're getting more money from their audience? It's all well and good to talk about craft and artistry, but comics are still a business and no one should be surprised to see publishers treat it like one.

And, hey, if that runs smaller publishers out of business, why should Marvel or DC care? That's not going to impact how many copies of Amazing Spider-Man they sell. If anything, that's one less competitor they have to worry about!

(As a slight tangent, this is why Vince Colletta is maligned as Jack Kirby's inker so much. Fans of Kirby's work look at the artistic butchering Colletta did to those pencils and cringe. But what they often seem to forget is that Colletta was doing a job. He wasn't out to create capital-A Art; he was getting pencil drawings prepped to be sent to the printer on a deadline. If there was a way he could accomplish that goal faster or more efficiently, he did it. He recognized comics as a business and did his job accordingly. That is to say, deadlines trump artistic integrity.)

My second point was to reinforce that it's not just a matter of price. It's a matter of value. It may seem like some semantics, but the difference is significant. The price of a comic is simply the amount of cash you have to part with to obtain it. The value of the comic is relative to how much entertainment (in the case of Marvel and DC comics) you get out of it. One person may like an issue more than someone else, and thus would be willing to pay a higher price for it. They value it more. If all of Marvel's books were superb and no one could every find anything in the story to complain about, you wouldn't hear much outcry over the price tag on them.

The discussions I've been seeing focus almost exclusively on price. Again, my point there was that it's really a discussion of value.

Combing those two points gets me to the conclusion that you can bitch about higher prices all you want, it's not going to do a damn bit of good. Prices are higher, and publishers are going to act like businesses and happily make more profits off fewer books. It's not a matter of what you like, it's a matter of what makes the publishers the most money.

Monday, September 20, 2010

How Much A Real Webcomic Creator Earns, Part 2

Back in April, I highlighted that Dorothy Gambrell -- creator of Cat & Girl -- had posted her income for everyone to see online. I thought I'd check back and see how things are going. She's got her chart updated to include everything through August...
Her grand total, for a little over half the year, is just over $10,000. But as she notes in the asterisk, that's income, not revenue. You can see those bars heading below the zero line represent money she's had to shell out to print up books and whatnot. That cuts that $10,000 number roughly in half. Though she obviously hasn't recouped that cost as of August 31, it should be noted that that large run of books she paid for in June and July didn't actually go on sale until August. What's especially interesting to note here is in one of the secondary charts which shows that most of her book sales occurred in August but, more significantly, sales for all of her previous books increased considerably that month on top of the sales for her latest one. (If you look at her store, you can see that she has a couple of book bundles, suggesting that the sales noted in the chart are reflective of people buying either the new book by itself or one of the bundles. I'd like to emphasize that because of that, we're looking at about 45 individual orders throughout August. Certainly respectable by webcomic standards, but it obviously wouldn't make Diamond's Top 300 list.)

The new book sales are likely continuing through September and my guess is that there'll be a spike in the November/December area as well. She's averaging about $600 a month on t-shirts and $300-$400 on sales that aren't books or shirts. That's about another $3800 for the rest of the year. Based on some VERY rough guestimates, I'd say that will put her around $20,000 for the year before expenses, taxes, etc. I would like to think that's a conservative estimate, and I hope she does much better than that because, frankly, I like her work and would like to see it be profitable enough to continue.

I'd also like to point out again that I have ZERO knowledge of Gambrell's financial situation outside of what is presented on this chart. I don't know if this is over and above a day job she holds, how much debt she might carry, or where she might have other sources of income. I think she's being exceptionally generous in sharing this information, and I think it provides an incredibly useful (and, so far, unique) look at what a webcomic creator might expect to gain from their creation.

I know I certainly find this absolutely fascinating and I'm eager to see how Gambrell does throughout the rest of the year. If she's willing to continue to provide this data, I'll be sure to report back on in it in early 2011.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

It's NOT The Economy, Stupid

There's been some chatter recently about how comic readers are getting tired of the higher price points on many new comics, and how they can't buy as much as they used to which is, in turn, hurting retailers. I didn't really buy that line of discussion, as I think it's overly simplistic and doesn't really address some of the larger issues. I wasn't going to comment on it, but Bill Radford's sign-off from comics reporting suggested to me that it might be worth bringing up here after all.

First off, let me say that I'm not saying that price is not a factor at work here. It almost certainly is. BUT it's not the only factor involved by any means. If Marvel dropped all their books back to $2.99, I'm fairly confident (and I suspect they are, too) that sales would not return to what they were before they hiked their books up to $3.99. Despite the claims of many online who think dropping the price back will make everything better, it won't.

I noted back in 2008 that a price increase would cause some customers to leave, but it wouldn't have a large negative impact on the bottom line. More recently, John Jackson Miller surveyed the August numbers to find that they're really still in line with what we've seen over the past decade: "So the narrative is not that sales haven't increased since 2000; rather, we are not keeping pace with the best years of our run." While unit sales are down 23% from five years ago, dollar sales are only down by 7%.

Basically, irrespective of the price increase mainstream comics are doing okay, just not as great as they could be.

Earlier this year, Ogilvy & Mather Chicago and Communispace Corporation released the results of a study they did on the American consumer and how they've been impacted by this recession. The report, which is where I got the title of this post from, obviously looks well beyond the confines of comicdom, but there are a number of things in the report that apply very directly to it.
Today’s consumers look at the world through the lens of hard won experience; they are not na├»ve, they are acutely aware, their eyes are wide open... Consumers are emerging from this recession deliberate and discerning, and with their wallets half shut.

This mind-shift can be likened to a raising of consciousness that intersects with every aspect of living. The recession has been painful, but it has also brought people’s lifestyles in line with what really matters...
One of the themes throughout the piece is that consumers are concerned less with the actual money that is spent, but more with obtaining the most value for the money they do spend. Is the $5.00 coffee from Starbucks really that much better than making it at home? Maybe it is for some people, but that's a value judgement each individual is making more deliberately and more consciously than before.

But what they also note is that those value judgements are not limited to direct comparisons! That $5.00 coffee is not being weighed against what you can make at home, but every other $5.00 purchase you make with your discretionary income. Do you get the same enjoyment from that coffee as five songs off iTunes? Or a bag of cookies from the grocery store? Or a slightly larger than usual comic book?
Consumers are evaluating how they spend their time and money on a very macro level. Their eyes are wide open and they are making trade-offs and choices across seemingly unrelated things. Marketers need to get a better grasp on what they are really competing with and to be aware that the competition outside their category may be more of a threat than those within it.
On this front, I think the publishers actually DO have a very good handle on what they're offering comic fans. I think they know that many, if not most, fanboys ARE willing to spend their money on Action Comics or Uncanny X-Men or whatever. What's going to get dropped are the books that aren't part of that overall package. The fan whose pull list include all the X-Men titles and two books from DC is going to drop the DC books. They're not a "real" DC customer, and Marvel isn't marketing to them.

Which means that, yes, overall sales decline for retailers. Sales also decline for publishers, but less so with the bigger players whose marketing angle has largely been the broader continuity over the adventures of any single character. The fans' value lies in seeing how all the stories interact and they're largely still willing to pay for that.

Where Marvel and DC are screwing up, though, is in the content that they're presenting. Getting back to Bill Radford, he cites that he's largely getting out of the game because of all the heavy, dark events that have populated those publishers' works lately. "...through blackest nights and secret invasions and superhero civil wars and dark reigns... Wednesday — new comics day — isn’t the lure that it once was." The Ogilvy/Communispace report points to the same thing...
It is no longer productive or new news to remind Americans of how bad it is out there. Americans are feeling stronger than we give them credit for and are ready to rise to the occasion, brands just need to align with this can-do attitude and be helpful to people in their quest for something better.
That so many mainstream comics are highlighting the dark fears and problems in the world only reminds readers of what they have to face when they return from their attempts at escapism. It's absolutely why I stopped reading Marvel books!

What all this boils down to is that people cut back on their comic purchases because the recession on the whole has forced them to re-evaluate their values. What, specifically, are they looking to get out of a comic book reading experience and which title(s) deliver that? And if they can't find what they're looking for in comics, they're not above going elsewhere, even if that means spending more money. A lot of people over the years have paid lip service to the notion of comics being in competition with movies and video games and the Internet and whatever. But I think the American consumer is making more active and conscious choices about where their money goes, such that even the consumer is considering comics in direct relation to other media.

So to all those who are bitching about a higher price point, you can please stop now. In the first place, no publisher would roll back their prices unless they see a sufficient decrease in revenue. Which isn't happening. In the second place, the price increase isn't the real issue anyway; it just happened to coincide with a recession that's deep enough and long enough for people re-evaluate the wallet.

Pirates Comics #4

Yar! It be September 19th an' that be meanin' it be Talk Like a Pirate Day! ('R more t' the point, Talk Like Robert Newton Day!) Since the number o' pirate comics in th' market seems t' be dastardly low, I'll be takin' it 'pon meself to provide ye with one that ye might not o' seen a'fore. Here be a copy o' 'Illman's Pirate Comics #4, th' last issue of th' series from nineteen hundred an' fifty.