Sunday, October 31, 2010

The 14th Dalai Lama Review

First, a shout-out to Kate Dacey for sending me a copy of The 14th Dalai Lama: A Manga Biography by Tetsu Saiwai. Not only is Kate a darn fine internet presence with regards to her blogging, reviews, etc., but she's been gracious enough to share books with other folks, and I figure I'm going to have to follow that example at some point.

OK, the story itself is, as should be no surprise, a biography of the current Dalai Lama. The book starts with the death of his predecessor, progresses to his discovery and education, picks up the invasion of Tibet by China, and carries through to his escape into India. From there, it quickly wraps up his general teachings and philosophies, and how he's tried to apply that towards freeing Tibet for the better part of the past 50-some years.

I have to admit to coming to the book with a fair amount of ignorance. I did hear the Dalai Lama speak once at my college in the early 1990s, but it was mostly a talk on Buddhism generally and he didn't discuss his own past or Tibet very much. Before reading the book, I was certainly aware of Tibet's on-going struggle for independence from China, but I was unaware of the particulars. So from that standpoint, the book was very interesting and informative. I definitely have a much greater appreciation for the Dalai Lama himself and what his homeland has gone through. It did, I thought, a very good job of showing who the Dalai Lama is and where he came from, and it did it in a way that was engaging.

The one complaint I might wage on the story is that there are some seemingly significant gaps in peripheral characters. There's an early emphasis on the Dalai Lama's family, for obvious reasons, and various members continue to pop up throughout the book, with a noted appearance by his mother as they flee to India. But his father simply drops out of the story. Presumably, he died at some point, but it's not mentioned or referenced in any way. That'd be okay, I think, except for the repeated inclusion of his mother and the early emphasis on both his parents. Similarly, a visitor from Europe shows up who the Dalai Lama invites to stay in order to teach him more about that continent. The man agrees, but then disappears for 20-some pages. When he does pop up again, it's three years later and only appears in one panel to say good-bye. Admittedly, trying to cover someone's entire life story in a relatively small book is no easy task but, from a storytelling perspective, the inclusion of what are seemingly significant characters could have been handled more deftly as the story progressed.

That being said, it's still a laudable book. I don't think there's necessarily an attempt to push the boundaries of sequential art here, or provide a perfect story for readers. The goal, it seems to me, is to inform. Saiwai is out to educate people on the Dalai Lama, Tibet and civil rights. To raise awareness of what China has done to Tibet and its people. To let people know what kind of struggle has been going on there for so long. That, indeed, is a worthy goal and, as I said, Saiwai does a good job of educating and engaging the reader here.

Is this the best version of the life story of the Dalai Lama? I honestly have no clue; as I said before, this is really first foray into learning about him. But it definitely gets thumbs up for the choice of media, though, and I expect there are others like me out there who wouldn't mind seeing more biographies and histories told in this form.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

A Curmudgeon's Take On Halloween

I don't really care much for Halloween. I'm not a hater or anything; it's just not my thing.

Halloween when I was a kid was kind of cool. You got an excuse to pretend you were Batman or Luke Skywalker or Indiana Jones or whomever, and you got a bucket full of candy. Hard not to love that as a kid.

But somewhere when I got to be around 8 or 9, I started to realize that I really wasn't very good at it. The costuming part of it, I mean. There was always a matter of not wanting to spend a lot of money on a costume you'd wear once, maybe twice. And then there was the matter of being comfortable; the more elaborate the costume, the more uncomfortable it tended to be. The last time I even attempted a costume was 1991, when I was in college and my housemates all wanted to have a big Halloween party. I wore a pair of suede, knee-high boots I already had and a loincloth made of faux fur, carried around a cheap toy sword, and called myself "Shandor From The Village In The North!!!" That was probably my most successful costume, but mostly from the standpoint that it was me walking around almost naked. (Fortunately, it was quite warm that year.)

I understand the attraction of pretending to be someone else when you're a kid. You're still trying to figure out who you are and you can use Halloween as a sanctioned way to try on other roles. But I had a pretty good handle on who I was early on, and didn't feel any need to change identities. That sense of self has strengthened over the years and I have zero desire to pretend to be anyone else. In fact, I was a mildly irked when I first signed on to Second Life and couldn't use my real name as my screen name. I actually really like me, and don't have any interest in being anyone else. Even for one night.

(Semi-related: I have even less interest in trying my hand at cosplay.)

"OK, fine," you might say. "So you don' go to Halloween parties and dress up. You can still hang out at home and pass out candy to the neighbor kids."

My ex-wife insisted that we participate each year and hand out treats to the kids. Primarily out of fear that our house would get egged. I was never keen on getting up to answer the doorbell every few minutes, but I made it a little more tolerable for myself by handing out comics as well. While I did get one or two really good reactions each year ("WOW! Hey, guys! He's passing out comic books!") I didn't get much out of it. Because the youngest kids didn't even know what was going on, the older kids didn't care at all and just wanted free candy, and the ones in the middle didn't seem all that into it either.

Besides, it's not exactly cheap to buy a bunch of candy and/or comics mostly for people you don't know!

So once we got divorced, my house lights went off on beggar's night. Since then, I've even made it a point to not even be home. Tomorrow night, I'll head up to the local Panera, have a relatively quiet dinner and read for a couple hours next to the fireplace; I've got a copy of Founders of Comic Fandom I haven't cracked open yet.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

The Daily News, Take 2

Will Templeton wrote to me citing that, while looking around online, he stumbled across this photograph...
He saved it because he has some interest in pulp magazines. But, on a whim, he decided to try to date the photo using some of the magazine covers. And, in doing some of his online research, he came across this post I made back in 2008 trying to do the same thing. Much to his surprise, I was using a photo of the same store...
Notice, though, that they're distinctly different photographs. One has several additional racks of magazines in front, and the store sign up top has been changed. I missed that obvious little detail at first, and thought that it might be two photographs from different times on the same day. After all, most of the comics and magazine covers are the same in both pictures. But changing the name of the sign suggests otherwise.

I was originally only able to discern More Fun Comics #48 and All-American Comics #8 but the newly discovered picture is a little more clear and allows me to make out Detective Comics #32 and Mutt & Jeff #1 as well. Two of those books are cover-dated October and one is November 1939. (Mutt & Jeff is simply labeled "Summer".) Given that, I'm thinking both photos were taken prior to October 1939, but the appearance of a November-dated book might suggest it's not too much prior.

Given that the 1941 interior shot I originally posted shows definite expansion of the store over time, I'm inclined to think Templeton's find is a slightly more recent photo. Dad Bailey seems to have had an aggressive growth strategy, especially considering how much he seems to have expanded well within the time it took for a comic book to come out with a new issue!

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Yet Another Detective 27 Up For Sale?!?

Apparently, yet another Golden Age DC comic is up for auction. A copy of Detective Comics #27 that not only has a CGC rating of 7, but is known to have had exactly one owner. Sacramento resident Robert Irwin bought the issue for the original cover price of ten cents from a news agency owned by the father of a friend back in 1939. He's had it in a box with 1930's issues of National Geographic and Popular Mechanics. Bidding will run through mid-November and it's expected to sell somewhere in the $400,000 range.

I have two things to comment on here. First: ANOTHER one? Seriously? We just did this back in February! How rare is this book really?

Second: Where the #$@%*#@!!! are people getting the kind of money you need to be able to sell these types of books? I have a good job, pay my bills, don't splurge on extravagances (or anything else, for that matter) and I don't even make a third of what the current bid is, much less whatever the final might be. If you have $400,000 to blow on a comic book during a recession, you are an asshole. You know, how about a few bucks towards a charity? Any charity. Personally, I'd suggest the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund but the Hero Initiative does good work too. You want more personal, how about helping one of the several comics folks who are having trouble making the rent right now? I won't even laughingly suggest sending money to me this time -- there are more people out there with more dire needs than me. Could I use some more money? Sure, but I'm okay right now.

In all seriousness, to whoever is putting in six figure bids on a comic book: I'm sure you've got a comfortable income and feel justified in splurging on yourself by buying a really rare comic book. I get that. And I'd wouldn't be surprised to learn that you DO actually donate quite a lot to various charities, and that $400,000 is a drop in your financial bucket. But, really, I have loved comics my whole life and I would be honored to own a copy of Detective #27, but that money can go to SO MANY better places. Even if you split it seven or eight ways, I'm sure that would still benefit those people I cited earlier a great deal more than you might think.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The Adventures Of Unemployed Man Review

Ultimatum is the "dark knight of self-help." He scours the city in search of people saving the citizens by teaching the power of positive thinking. "If you can believe it, you can achieve it!" He largely fights those who are freeloaders on the social system by trying to teach them how their destinies are entirely within their own control, and that if they aren't doing well within the American system, it's their own laziness to blame.

That is, until he encounters a woman foraging for food in a dumpster. She tells him that she DOES have a job and works hard, but is paid so little by the factory that she still has to go dumpster-diving to survive. It turns out that the factory in question is owned by the company his uncle founded and he is the mascot for. When he starts to question the Board of Directors, he's promptly fired and finds himself unable to get a job, despite his best efforts.

The story then carries on as he encounters other down-on-their-luck superheroes like Master of Degrees, Wonder Mother, Fellowman and White Rage. While he learns of their stories, the Just Us League of The Thumb, Golden Sack, Stern Bear, Stanley Morgan, the Lemur Brothers and others unleashes a Toxic Debt Blob from the Glass Steagall Containment Device that threatens the entire country. Unemployed Man (formerly Ultimatum) and his band of new-found heroes save the long-imprisoned Everyman, and try to help all of the heroes find their true calling.

As you might gather from my brief description, the plot is essentially a retelling of the financial meltdown that just occurred, using the Golden/Silver Age superhero motifs as a working palette. It sounds like a pretty cheesy concept, and in some respects it is, but I have to say that I was incredibly impressed with just how well authors Erich Origen and Gan Golan were able to weave some sometimes ethereal concepts into visual metaphors perfectly suited to the superhero genre. Here's a few examples from the heroes' origins...

Now, a lot of the gags are not subtle. Breaking the Glass Steagall Containment Device, for example. Even some of the background bits, like the Hall of Just Us has a hall of fame which includes busts of Ray Gun, Fried Man and Ayn Brand that look more than a little like Ronald Reagan, Milton Friedman and Ayn Rand. So, taken individually, some of the jokes might seem a little obvious or trite. But what really makes this book succeed, I think, is that there are just so many gags and puns packed into every page that you have to laugh at the marvel of collecting ALL of them in one story. The book is just packed with just about every metaphor and play on words that might be related to the financial crisis, and quite a number of them that refer back to superhero comics. After Ultimatum becomes unemployed, for example, the title of his comic book changes to Inaction Comics as he mopes around and reads the want ads. It's pun after sight gag after joke after clever word play throughout the whole book.

Scattered throughout the book, too, are ads drawn up in the fashion of old "classic" comic book ads. These are a little tangental to the main story, but still provide room for financial crisis related humor.

Oh, and did I mention that art credits include Ramona Fradon, Rick Veitch, Michael Netzer, Terry Beatty, Joe Rubinstein, Benton Jew, Thomas Yeates, Shawn Martinbrough and Thomas Mauer? Needless to say, the actual storytelling throughout the book is very smooth. Even more impressively, the changes in illustration style, while noticeable, do not seem to have any hindrance on the story flow. I've actually gone back to look at it several times, trying to figure out how they pulled that off so successfully. (I'm still looking.)

On the book's site, Origen states...
We want people to see how heroic they are in the face of all they’re up against. One of my roles in life has been to help people who are stressed or grieving have a moment of levity—not by being glib and acting above it all, but by being happy within the sadness and the struggle. It's being authentic, not denying reality. We want to give some soulful comic relief to people who are struggling.
While I'm certainly not struggling nearly to the extent that many others I know are, I think it's pretty safe, in this particular case, to say: mission accomplished. If you're comfortably employed right now, buy two copies: one for yourself and one for someone you know who's having a rough time making ends meet. I'm betting they can use a pick-me-up like this.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Fist Stick Knife Gun Review

As I noted yesterday, I just picked up the graphic novel version of Geoffrey Canada's Fist Stick Knife Gun: A Personal History of Violence. I haven't read the original to make direct comparisons, so I have to base the story exclusively on what's presented here.

The story is essentially an autobiography of Canada, chronicling his childhood in the Bronx from age 4 until age 19 when he went off to college. The story largely focuses on his street education. How to fight, how to deal with thugs, how to look out for one's own. It sounded like a very harsh life, and one that I could only distantly relate to, having grown up in a small rural town with a population just over 7,000. But it's a not unfamiliar tale, bearing some basic similarities to many other "growing up on the streets" stories, both real and fictional.

Jamar Nicholas' art works surprisingly well for me. His drawing style does not lend to a lot of facial details, but individual characters are still pretty well delineated throughout the book. Doubling challenging, of course, is that many of the characters age considerably and change their appearance as a consequence. But Nicholas is able to keep things moving smoothly, and there was only one instance going into a new scene where I had any question at all about some of the characters.

I also particularly liked some of the visual metaphors Nicholas used. Most notably, the chapter "titles" are actually icons relevant to the theme of that chapter. This is carried through to the Table of Contents, as well, which amusingly almost looks more like a worksheet for a kindergardener than a Table of Contents.

As near as I can tell, Nicholas also did the lettering, which I have to say was a little distracting unfortunately. First, the main font used didn't sit with me very well; it wasn't Comic Sans but it felt an awful lot like it. Second, there were any number of repeated gaffs on the capital "I" rule. (For those who don't know, you should only use an "I" with the upper and lower crossbars when it's meant to be a capital. A simple, straight vertical "I" is used for lower case. In this book, both versions are used intermittently.) Third, the font size changed repeatedly, sometimes within a single panel, with the only evident rationale seemingly being how well the amount of text filled up the space. Oh, there were instances where the font size was changed to show emphasis or volume, but there were also many times where the size changed for no obviously good reason.

As far as the story itself, it mostly flowed pretty well. As Canada grows up in the story, he faces more and more dangerous threats, and he's forced to learn more and more violent methods of resolving them. I felt a bit let down with the ending, though. Chapter 8 takes place when Canada was 12. Chapter 9 is noted dated, but Canada is drawn pretty much the same and it's presented as occurring not long after the previous part of the story. Chapter 10, though, jumps to Canada at age 19 and in college. Given the fairly slow and smooth transitions between previous chapters, this was a bit of discord.

In the chapter, he buys a gun and uses it for protection. This thematically follows along with much of the rest of the book and makes sense as his next logical step. But then, without actually using the gun on anyone, without even having to threaten anyone with it, he suddenly realizes what it might mean if he did. So he throws the gun out. End of story.

There's a prose epilogue about how violence begets violence, and how he believes that we have to start teaching children alternatives to violence. Which is a good message, certainly, and he backs it up with his public works, so kudos there. But from a story perspective, it falls a little flat. He's spent the entire story learning about how to be violent in the most effective means possible and then, literally on the second to last page, does a 180 and decides he doesn't want to do that any more. He cites strong religious convictions that won out but, given that religion wasn't mentioned anywhere prior to that point in any capacity, it seems a bit hollow.

Like I said, I haven't read the original version of the book. Given that it's clearly stated as being "adapted" to the graphic novel format, though, I have to wonder how much was omitted here. For as smoothly as the majority of the book goes, it almost seems to me as if three or four chapters were cut/reworked into the what's presented as the last chapter here. Whether that was a space or time limitation, or some sort of editorial fiat, I can't say, but I think it's unfortunate because it seems to diminish the impact the story could have had. Especially with the younger crowd who this seems to be aimed at.

While I did have some problems with some of the more technical aspects of the book, I think I could've gotten past those if it had a "proper" ending. As it stands, I'm not sure what young adults might get out of it, other than perhaps a Cliff's Notes version of the original if they need to do a book report on it.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Today's Adventures At B&N

I was out running some errands this afternoon and decided to pop into the Barnes & Noble that was sort of nearby. After I bowed down to some blatant consumerism by picking up an overpriced mocha frapaccino, I went about browsing the store.

My first stop was the magazine section. I was first struck by the cover of ESPN: THe Magazine. Partially because I was surprised ESPN has a magazine and partially because the cover was drawn by Joe Quesada and featured several NBA players sporting Marvel heroes' accoutrement. Evidently, Disney also owns ESPN so they called Marvel to get some comic book style covers drawn featuring all the NBA teams. It looked like a total fluff piece, but it certainly got me (who would never bother picking up the magazine under most circumstances) to notice. Of course, the magazine section also had the latest issues of Wizard, Super Hero Squad Magazine and several Archie books.

I then popped over to the humor section, where they typically house comic strip reprints. Lots of Calvin & Hobbes, Garfield, Pearls Before Swine... the usual suspects. But what also caught my eye was something called The Adventures of Unemployed Man which had a generic-ish superhero on the cover looking through the newspaper classifieds. Since the humor section also includes prose work by the likes of Dave Barry and Jon Stewart, I almost dismissed it as an almost stock cover image to a fairly typical let's-try-to-milk-some-humor-out-of-current-events prose book. But I went ahead and picked it up, only to be surprised that it was in fact a fully illustrated graphic novel. It includes art by the likes of Ramona Fadon, Rick Veitch, Michael Netzer, Terry Beatty and Joe Rubinstein among others. I was surprised not to have heard of it, but it was evidently only released last week.

Over to the graphic novel section. Smaller than a few years ago, but that seemed mostly due to a decreased manga selection. I also noticed that the superhero books were distinctly separated from non-superhero/non-manga graphic novels. I think I'd seen that before, but the distinction seemed more pronounced today for some reason. I didn't see anything of special interest here.

As I crossed over the middle of the store, there was a promotional table set up touting The Walking Dead graphic novels. There were some tangentially related materials like Night of the Living Trekkies and various Buffy graphic novels.

Over in the Young Adult section, I started looking for Chris Wooding's Havoc, the sequel to Malice that supposedly just came out. Before finding that, however, I was surprised to see prominently displayed a graphic novel version of Geoffrey Canada's autobiographical Fist Stick Knife Gun: A Personal History of Violence drawn by Jamar Nicholas. A quick flip-through looked quite enticing. I hadn't heard of this book before either, but it was only released late last month. (The original prose version came out in 1995.)

My brisk walk past the coffee table books to get to the cash register alerted me to several "How To Draw Manga" books and I realized that I had circled nearly the entire store stumbling across comics and graphic novels throughout the whole building. More interesting to me, too, was that what many comic fans typically think of when they think of comics and graphic novels (i.e. superheroes) were probably the least-represented throughout the store. Oh, they weren't hard to find, certainly, but they were far from being representative of all the comics in the store.

I did pick up Fist Stick Knife Gun and The Adventures of Unemployed Man and am just thrilled to have stumbled across both of these books in sections of the bookstore where most people wouldn't automatically go to for graphic novels.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

The Reconcilers Review

When I first heard about The Reconcilers, I was pretty intrigued. It sounded like an interesting story and the preview art I'd seen was attractive. Plus, they had this idea of each issue coming out in a graphic novel format, bypassing the "traditional" pamphlet-first method.

I have to admit that I started growing a little concerned once I got the book, though. There seemed to be a lot of creators involved, with relatively little experience in comic storytelling. Neal Adams name was being touted pretty heavily, but he didn't seem to contribute much more than the cover. And then the character cards they provided seemed geared towards a collectible card game, which suggested to me that this was one of those "do it as a comic first to try to sell it as a movie" deals. But all of this was me being my usual skeptical self.

The story is set in the mid-22nd century. Governments are gone, replaced by corporations. Pretty much anyone who isn't the CEO of a major company are second-class wage-slaves. The "legal system" is now a form of televised entertainment wherein companies resolve their differences by throwing proxy warriors into armed combat with one another in fights to the death.

The lead protagonist, Sean Hexhammer, works for a small mining outfit and he stumbles onto a motherlode. Max Sokor, the CEO of Sokor Industries, then tries to railroad Hexhammer's employer into legally giving up their rights to the find. This leads to a reconciliation process in which Hexhammer and a small band of co-workers are pitted against Sokor's trained soldiers.

I have to say that I was really impressed with the book. The story is solid and, while it is set in a dystopian future, it's not so dismal that it's incomprehensible. In fact, I was struck by the number of parallels they managed with contemporary American culture. The actual storytelling, too, was surprisingly easy to follow, given the number of potential places (flashbacks, dreams, viewscreens, etc.) to cause reader confusion. There was even a couple of really nice subtleties thrown in that provided some nice character moments almost in the background. There were some nice turns in the story that I wasn't expecting, and kept me engaged throughout the book.

One of the other kind of cool features I liked were the "chapter" breaks. The book isn't really divided into individual chapters per se, but in between some of the natural story breaks, they've included some design sketches (mostly architecture) that have been annotated with interesting, but not crucial, background details about the society and culture within the book. Coupled with the other sketches in the back of the book, and the additional description material surrounding the book, they've clearly put a lot of thought into world-building and how the entire place operates. As well as the characters. While some are obviously more three-dimensional than others, there's a lot that went into who these people are and what their relationships are to one another.

Overall, I was really impressed. There's a lot of good stuff going on in this book, and I'm definitely interested to see where they might go next with it. While it evidently was based on a screenplay, and there's clearly some cross-media thought going on in the development, it was still very well executed as a comic.

The first volume is available now on Amazon, and I believe will be hitting comic shops in December.

Friday, October 22, 2010

These Kids Today Don't Know Their History!

Some years ago, I moderated a Fantastic Four message board. We would chat about various aspects of the characters, and favorite issues, and what we thought of the current storyline, and all the normal stuff you would discuss on a comic book message board. Periodically, often shortly after a new creative team started work on the book, new folks would join in the discussion. Inevitably, they'd have questions that delved into the annals of history.

"What did Reed mean when he said...?"

"Who was that guy in the background with...?"

"When did they did they first fight against...?"

All of which was cool because A) they were new to the characters and were trying to learn more and B) I regularly got to show off my knowledge of FF trivia. It also not infrequently gave me ideas for content to post on the FF website I was also running at the time, as I figured those questions meant that further/extended explanations were not readily available online.

But, after a few years, some of the questions started to get old. Not because of anything different on the questioners' ends, but because I had already answered the exact same questions a half-dozen times already. (Or, just as likely, pointed people to the answer on my website.) It was totally self-centered, but these were questions that I knew the answers to because I had spent the time to look them up. I had already done my research on the subject and relayed those learnings on to others. I don't want to do that again.

(Despite having a number of teachers in my family, I absolutely could not do it myself. As should be fairly self-evident in the preceding paragraph.)

I eventually gave up moderating those boards, in part, because I didn't want to feel obligated to have those same conversations any more. Nothing against those who were participating in them for the first time, obviously, but I'd been there and done that far too often already.

While I don't have the same discussions any more, I am surprised that I see some of the same items come up on the comic "news" circuit every few years. Someone who hadn't seen it before re-discovers Jack Kirby's original design sketches for Herbie the Robot. Or the pre-Fantastic Four 1960 Stan Lee and Dan DeCarlo comic strip featuring Willie Lumpkin. Or the original Fantastic Four logo designs. Or the original Wonder Woman design.

I don't know how to respond to this type of thing any more. It's presented as a new find and, for a lot of people, I don't doubt that it is. And I don't want to discourage anyone from discovering that type of thing for themselves. But at the same time, it's decidedly old news for me. But on the other hand I'm also the type of person who really studies this type of thing, so I'm at a complete loss for how widespread some of this knowledge/trivia is. Is it something that I'm only one of a handful of people who actually know? Or is it something that everyone except the most recent comic converts has known for years?

It's one of those times that I wish I did have a better understanding of the mass of fandom, and had a more acute sense of what's popular within comics. I suppose I'll just have to crawl back into my cave and continue grumbling about "these kids today!"

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Comic Fandom: Don't Be Doing It Wrong

I am not a follower. I just don't care to tag along just because somebody said this was the way to go; I'd rather think for myself and decide which way I want to go (if anywhere!) and why. I'm just going to go out and do my thing whether or not someone else is going that way.

On the flip side, I'm not a leader either. I'm not terribly commanding or inspiring, and who am I to presume to think for somebody else anyway? I'll be happy to throw out my thoughts and ideas if you like, but I don't expect you to agree with all of them. In fact, I'm used to people disagreeing with most of them.

I had this bit of self-actualization understood at least as far back as high school, so by the time I got to college, I was accustomed to just being myself regardless of what else was going on. What I hadn't yet realized, though, was that being independent was a very different thing than being isolated.

The way the design program was set up when I went to college was that our first year covered most all of the basic school requirements. We got our English and psychology and history classes, as well as the basic art classes (drawing, color theory, etc.) out of the way right off the bat. Then the rest of our time in college was set up to focus almost exclusively on design courses specific to our major. Which meant that A) starting in our second year, we essentially had the same half dozen or so professors for the rest of all our classes, and B) our classes got progressively less restrictive. By our third year, our classes largely consisted of showing up for the first day to get that course's assignment and then making sure it was done for a critique during finals week 2-3 months later. Class time essentially became office hours for the instructors.

I was totally cool with that. In effect, I didn't have a schedule and could work when/where/how/as I needed to. Obviously, it took a fair amount of discipline to make sure you didn't wait until the last minute to do everything. But I had got that part mostly figured out, so I essentially stayed in my apartment, working by myself, for the entire term. I didn't have to go to class, and didn't have many questions for the professors, so why leave my apartment?

What I was surprised to find, though, was that I did in fact miss the human contact. Me, the guy who's hated people all of his adult life and who was yelling at kids to "stay off my damn lawn" before I even had a lawn! My only human interaction at all was when I paid for groceries. I did get a lot of reading done around that time, but after around six weeks, it got to be too much. Not only was I going stir-crazy from being in a small apartment all the time, but I could tell I was starting to feel out of sorts all the time. As much as I didn't want to admit it, I needed people. I wound up going to class more regularly, only to find very few other people were going either. But one of my friends was there and, in a desperate plea for being around someone, I literally put her over my shoulder and carried her back to my apartment.

My point to this rambling is that, while reading is something of an isolationist hobby, comic books shouldn't be. What I mean by that is that when you read a comic book, you pretty much HAVE to do it by yourself. There can be other people around, but if you're trying to get into the story, you have to shut out the outside world and focus on the comic itself. But that doesn't mean you should stay in that world. You can and absolutely should talk to people at your local comic shop, or chat with folks on Twitter and Facebook and online message boards. You should strike up a conversation with somebody at a convention.

Speaking as someone who's generally pretty introverted AND who doesn't generally like people, I know this type of thing can be difficult for a lot of people. I'm absolute rubbish at conventions; I do little talking and most of it is centered around buying old comics or asking for creators' signatures. I hate getting into long conversations at comic shops because A) I'm usually on a fairly tight schedule and don't have time to chat then and there, and B) the topics of conversation tend to be overly fanboyish for my tastes.

BUT!

That's not to say that I don't try. Because, as I point out towards the end of my book, the best part about being in a fandom like comics is being able to share that experience with others. Humans are inherently social creators and need to make connections with other humans. Comics are a means of doing making those connections. And, yeah, maybe you're scared or nervous about putting yourself out there and getting hurt. But if you don't do anything, you'll definitely end up hurting yourself.

Back in college, my circle of friends was largely limited to who I was going to class with. My circle is much larger now, in no small part, thanks to comics. I know folks working in the business, I know folks who just comment on it, I know folks who keep up with it but we don't actually talk about it much. All of those are cool because it's not about the comics themselves, it's about using the comics to connect with Life. Take advantage of that!

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

My UW Comics

I blogged earlier this month about some... ah... creative differences we were having about an internal United Way campaign here at work. Since the campaign officially launches today, I thought I'd provide some updates.

I was, fortunately, able to skew folks away from a strictly Arayan male and got them to go for more of a silhouetted figure. He's still pretty decidedly male, but at least he's not race-specific. There was also a week-long, contracted debate with the legal department about how close all of my designs were to Superman. They argued that, and I'm not making this up, that anyone in tights with a cape regardless of coloring or the specifics of the design was too close to the man of steel and opened us up for a potential lawsuit from DC. We ultimately had to use several arguments combined together before they tentatively agreed that it was passable.

The scripts were largely written by the project manager, and obviously tout the benefits of contributing to the United Way. The newspaper and radio tower were my additions beyond the script. The first and penultimate strips she left more open-ended, and I had a little more freedom to play with the format. I actually quite like that penultimate strip, with the second figure breaking the confines of the panel and the third figure breaking the confines of the entire strip.

Another interesting creative note, in the first strip, I was deliberately trying to obscure the character to provide some sense of anticipation. Although with a figure that has no details or decipherable features, that's a bit difficult. Hence, that strip features the fast-moving, blurry version of the character as well as a close-up that centers on his chest.

On a final note, that last piece features a mirror in the hero's face, so the reader winds up staring at their own reflection.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Odds-N-Ends

Halloween is a couple weeks away and my boss was complaining a bit today about the lack of age-appropriate costumes for her 16 year old daughter. To complicate matters, the girl is, I think, around 6'2" making any commercial costumes with a full-length dress look uncomfortably short. She apparently did briefly try on a Supergirl costume, without her or her parents having seen what passes for a Supergirl costume these days. It was put back once the girl took a look at herself in the mirror.

Which means that, so far, I only know of one person donning a comic-related costume this year. A friend is going as Hit Girl, although I suspect that has more to do with the movie than the comic.

A little over a year ago, I posted a graphic Spider-Man timeline my friend Matt Kuhns had created. Yesterday, he posted an updated version over at his own blog with a more elaborate explanation on how he went about developing it.

I don't usually pay much attention to movie related tidbits, and when I do I'm pretty skeptical about them in general, but I just came across this surprisingly heart-warming story about Chris Evans (who played the Human Torch in the two recent Fantastic Four movies and is currently filming as the lead character in a Captain America movie) and how he really made a seven-year-old's day.

Final link of the night, Tokyopop is giving away copies of every title they're releasing in October to one lucky winner. This includes the first volumes of Black Gate, Demon Sacred and Hetalia Axis Powers. Head over here to enter.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Fummetti/Illustrated Comics?

OK, how many of you remember Cool World? It was a 1992 movie by Ralph Bakshi that featured a mixture of live action and animated characters. It featured Gabriel Byrne, Brad Pitt and the voice of Kim Basinger. Like Who Framed Roger Rabbit? a few years earlier, it featured real people who were able to step into a cartoon world. However in light of it coming out just a few years after Roger Rabbit and bearing some superficial similarities, it really wasn't very good.

But it had not only a comic book adaptation, but also a comic book sequel written by Michael Eury. I don't actually recall the storyline of the comic -- I know that, at the time, I could only find the first two issues -- but I do remember be disappointed in the art. Not that the illustrations by Stephen DeStefano and Chuck Fiala were bad, but the problem was that it was ALL illustrated. It was very difficult to tell which bits were supposed to take place in the real world and which were taking place in the cartoon world because everything had a black outline around it.

There was actually ANOTHER comic that beat Cool World to the conceptual punch in that regard. Mirror Walker featured a cartoon character that fell through a mirror, Alice in Wonderland style, into the real world. However, in this series, while the main character was drawn in an animated style, he was placed on photographs so it looked as if he were inhabiting a different world. The series only lasted two issues before it was canceled, so the story didn't get very far but, for the record, it was by Marv Wolfman and Barry Petersen.

The question at hand, though, is: what other comics are out there that feature a deliberate mixing of illustrations and photography to show a distinction/difference between two worlds. Jack Kirby sometimes used photo collages in his comics, but they weren't intended to showcase a difference between two realities. (And don't you go bringing up his introduction of the Negative Zone to me! You know what I'm talking about here!) Where else have cartoons and real people interacted on the comic page, and shared their respective worlds with one another?

Sunday, October 17, 2010

A Non-Partisan Political Rant Which Lightly Touches On Comics

Every year, usually in mid-October, I take an afternoon to sit down and study what's going to appear on the upcoming ballot. I don't align myself with any particular political party and, if I choose to participate in the elections, I want to go in with real knowledge of what's at hand, not the screaming rhetoric that comes from ad campaigns. For as much media attention as folks Harry Reid or Christine O'Donnell get, the bottom line is that I'm ineligible to vote for them anyway, so I focus on studying the candidates and issues I can vote for.

A number of media outlets create "voter guides." The ones I've seen generally have every candidate provide short written responses to some basic questions about the issues of the day. Although that obviously only provides the candidates' viewpoints and are not necessarily statements of fact, it does allow voters to line up the candidates' credentials side-by-side and provide some measure of comparison. I do find going through these to be helpful, especially since I'm usually able to do it without looking at the candidates' political affiliations or, sometimes, even their names. I'm able to judge them and their ideas with as little external bias as possible. I've been doing this every year for the past six or eight years, I think.

After spending my time going through everything, including actually reading the language of any new bills or tax levies or whatever else may be on the docket, I write down all of my preferences. That sheet goes with me to the local polling station on election day, and I basically copy down onto my ballot what I had already decided upon.

Yesterday was the day I opted to go through an read up on all the candidates. As with every year, there are some candidates that I agree with and others I don't. There are some candidates that I might be a little closer to ideologically, but I just don't think have the skills to do the job. There are some candidates that I wholly disagree with, but they're running unopposed so it doesn't really matter. But what was different this year was that, not only was I unimpressed by anybody running for any office, I was downright disappointed with pretty much everybody. I mean, there's usually at least one or two folks where I could say, "Yeah, this is definitely the guy I want in office," but this year? It was closer to, "Well, this guy seems the least unqualified." Seriously, if I were a hiring manager and this was a private sector thing, I would throw out all their resumes and wait to get some more.

Here's how bad it is. After I got done making my selections yesterday, I started reading V for Vendetta thinking that might lift my spirits. Seriously. I'd never read it before (or seen the movie) but I know it's by Alan Moore and I know it's set in this messed up political hellhole, and I seriously thought it would be more refreshing than thinking about this next election. At least in the comics, there's somebody out there doing something positive.

But what Vendetta also does, albeit almost tangentally to the main themes, is to show the short-sightedness and small-mindedness of most people. As long as they've got their booze and their television and some half-naked dancer waving her butt cheeks in front of you, that's as much as the vast majority of people want out of life. It doesn't matter if all the "other" folks get rounded up and killed, just so long as I can drink and zone out on some old re-runs.

It's not what you do with your life. Not exactly. Not every person can be a great leader or scientist or whatever. It's how you approach your life. It's how you absorb what's going on around you, and how you think and react to it. More to the point, though, it's that you DO think and THEN react. If all you're doing is reacting, if you're just following along because that's what the guy next to you is doing or what they're claiming is popular on television, you're really not doing anything differently than animals. You're sheep.

Obviously, no one -- myself included -- wants to think of themselves as sheep. We like to think we're individuals with our own minds thinking our own thoughts. We like to think that advertisements and propaganda don't hold any sway over us. We like to think we reach our own conclusions. Although if that were indeed true for even most of us, do you think advertisers would spend so many billions of dollars every year on TV commercials and banner ads and email campaigns and all of that? So somebody is clearly playing the sheep here, buying into whatever the latest whiz-bang whatzits the international hype-machine factory tells us.

Look. Ultimately, I don't know care who you vote for. You're most likely not even voting for anyone or thing that will impact me in any way. Similarly, I don't care what comics you buy. It doesn't impact my pocketbook if you drop all your discretionary cash on the latest epic crossover event book of the moment. All I'm suggesting here is that maybe -- just maybe -- you're more swayed by the ads than you realize you are. That maybe if you sat down for a second and thought about why you are really buying the comics you're buying, why you are really voting for who you're voting for, you might come to the conclusion that what YOU want doesn't exactly line up with what you've been told you want.

You want to know how to fix the electoral system AND the comic distribution system at the same time? They're both horribly broken. That is, they do what they're designed to do very well, but they don't do what you're told they do. The electoral system SHOULD allow the people to vote for the best, most qualified leaders to run their government. The comic distribution system SHOULD allow publishers (all of them) to connect with an audience via a local retailer. And if you have to ask, "Don't they do that now?" then you're one of those people who isn't thinking for themselves, because that's exactly what you've been told they do. No, those systems are both horribly broken and only pay lip service to the ideals of what they should be. Both systems are primarily about catering to a couple of deep-pocketed groups who make decisions based on whatever's best for them, almost irrespective of how it impacts anyone else. But I'm not about to suggest that, like V, you start blowing up important buildings and killing those in control. What I'm suggesting is much more subversive...

Think.

I don't have all the answers. I don't know have implement-these-ideas-now-to-fix-things solutions. But if you all started thinking for yourselves, and stopped taking all that lip service at face value, I guarantee you that things would start to happen. If people actually thought about how broken these systems are, they'd start to come up with ways of fixing them. It wouldn't happen overnight. It wouldn't be flashy and dramatic. But it would happen.

It's not about being a Democrat or Republican. It's not about being an independent publisher or comic retailer. It's about exercising that big muscle in your head that you've left rotting for the past few decades. There are too few people in the world doing that any more.

Just think about it, okay?

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Arrests Made In Comic Book Burglary Case

A friend of mine (thanks, Jeff!) recently pointed me to this report of an update to a July comic book burglary...

What strikes me as curious is that this sounds like they lifted the plot directly from Comic Book Villains. Here's the hyperbolic trailer if you haven't seen it...

I mean, I know times are difficult these days and people are looking for any way they can to (often illegally) get some extra money, but do you really want to take your cues from a bad movie that didn't end well for the characters anyway?

Friday, October 15, 2010

Mad Friday Night Ramblings

As a sort of spark off something Brian Hibbs recently wrote, I'm wondering about the viability of the monthly pamphlet comic. He's got a valid point about regularity and predictability in scheduling. If Batman slips from shipping the second week of every month to some vague time period 45-60 days (or more) from when the last issue shipped, and the story quality isn't absolutely top-notch, you're going to lose readers. Especially after you tell them it's going to ship on a certain date, but subsequently miss that.

Now, over at The Beat, Torsten Adair in the comments section brings up the notion of inventory stories. The ready-to-go single issue filler a publisher would have ready for every regular title they did, on the chance that something happened and the next regular installment couldn't be completed in time. They'd drop in the filler story instead of what was supposed to be there and, boom, the comic would ship on time. Just with a different story than you were anticipating. You still got 20-some pages of a comic about Spider-Man (or whomever) but the cliffhanger at the end of the previous month would have to wait another 30 days before you could see what happens next.

It's that notion of changing the story that keeps publishers from doing filler issues any more. See, with the current direct market distribution system, the retailers order their comics based on what the publisher says will be in an issue. Who the creators are, what the basic plot is, what characters guest star, etc. If you put a hot artist on a book and talk about a guest appearance by Wolverine, it's going to sell more than if you get some artist nobody's ever heard of drawing characters no one cares about. So retailers rely on that advance information to place their orders. And since those orders are generally non-returnable and unable to be altered, that's understandably a big deal to them.

People might be willing to wait an extra month or three for a Grant Morrison/Frank Quietly Batman story, but they're not going happy with what was sold to them as a Grant Morrison/Frank Quietly Batman story if it's really an Steve Malin/Jesse Chen Commissioner Gordon story even if it IS on time. (Malin and Chen worked on some of the comics published by the Federal Reserve. Not bad pieces, per se, but not exactly heady page-turners!) So while retailers do have some recourse available to them if a publisher sells them something other than what they promised, it's still pretty damaging for all parties involved.

The system worked before because readers primarily followed characters. They wanted a Fantastic Four story every month and if Rick Parker had to fill in for George Perez one month, so be it. Now there are certainly still an audience like that, but there's also a substantial audience for people who just follow creators. They just think Brian Bendis is the best writer in the world and will pick up any book that he had a hand in writing, regardless if it features Iron Man or Deena Pilgrim.

Publishers have generally taken the stance of: "You can have the characters you want, the creators we told you about, or the issue in your hands on time; pick two." To which fans have primarily responded that occasional lateness was okay.

But notice that in all of this discussion so far, it's the publishers who are calling the shots. They're controlling the comics' content, of course, but they're also controlling what options retailers and consumers can choose. They're providing some selections, but they're ones of their choosing that aren't necessarily mutually exclusive.

Look at comic strips. In print or online. Regular (often daily) schedule for years, sometimes decades at a time. Recurring creative team that's effectively there for life. And a cast of characters that show up day in and day out. And for those of you who might claim that that's old school and cartoonists don't really hold to that any more, most of the ones listed down the right side of my blog follow those guidelines. (Note to Self: Update that list.) Some of the agreements there (i.e. those comics going through a syndicate) are more formal and some (i.e. webcomics) less so. But there's an agreement there that is upheld on all three fronts: characters, creative team and deadlines.

Now what that says about the treatment of comic strip creators versus comic book creators, and who might be compensated more fairly, I'm not going speculate on tonight. My point is just that comic book publishers are suggesting options are more limited than they might really be.

What about this? The big publishers essentially split their respect lines down the middle. There's one title for each of their big characters (Superman, Wolverine, etc.) that comes out spot-on regularly every month. They're not necessarily all individual done-in-one inventory stories, but you essentially line up a long series of inventory type stories that might play out over one or two or three or four issues. Get them done. Completely. THEN schedule them in that title for however many months. So for those people who want to read about Green Lantern every month, there's a GL book there every third Wednesday of every month.

Then, on another track, you do the more creator-driven projects. Like the infamous Morrison/Quietly Batman. I don't think doing this is a bad thing in and of itself, but it needs to be countered by the regularity of other material. Marvel and DC are not doing that currently and are essentially treating every title as one of these creator-driven projects. And it's not working.

Of course, the quality of those more inventory-ish stories has to be there, or else you're back to that value question again. (Which, I might add, I was discussing well before it's current run through the comics press.) Given also the notion of having each issue complete before it's even solicited, this would essentially mean moving production months ahead of its current schedule. Which doesn't strike me as likely, given everyone's (not just in comics) propensity for taking maximum advantage of just-in-time deliveries the past several years. (That's not exactly a criticism, mind you; there are definitely benefits from a business perspective.)

Which leads me to the larger idea. That nothing substantial will change within the current mainstream system. Because the publishers have to provide advance information to the distributor who provides it to the retailers. Retailers use that info for ordering purposes, so if you switched the system to something where the advance information was unnecessary (because you'd have the same creators every month, or that the issue was in fact complete and retailers could review it for themselves) that eliminates a large need for a specialized distribution process. (Since distribution could then be handled by, say, FedEx or UPS.)

All of the issues comicdom is facing -- well, many of them at any rate -- remain problems because of the distribution system we're currently saddled with. I'm not blaming Diamond here, mind you; it's the whole system that's faulty. It was designed for a very different era and does not have the internal infrastructure to handle contemporary needs. Much like our school system was designed in a very different era and doesn't meet the needs of today's kids. The system isn't the problem, but it's preventing any real solutions from being enacted.

I could try going down some prophetic path about how digital is going to destroy comic retailers because the current system can't adapt itself, but I've had a really long week and I'm not even sure what I just banged out is even coherent at this point. I'm going to bed now and, if I read this tomorrow sometime and think it still resembles something intelligible, I'll try to continue onward in some thoughts about the future.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

I'm Calling Mash-Ups On Account Of Sickness

Food poisoning last weekend left me with too little sleep and/or nutrition, which led to me contracting a cold. Been fighting that all week and I'm too tired at this point for original content, so you get some mash-ups today. As usual, dialogue courtesy of Jim Davis...

Sinfest

Legend of Bill

Evil, Inc.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

I Think You're Sauceome

I briefly met Sarah Becan during the last Free Comic Book Day and quickly dove into her Xeric-winning The Complete Ouija Interviews. Since then, I've been reading her food diary comic thing called "I Think You're Sauceome" which I think she only started a month or two before.

Read from an outsider's perspective (I am, in fact, a perennial outsider) it's one part illustrated food diary and one part slice-of-life comic. Becan is the central character and most of the strips center around her health. More specifically, what she weighs, her exercise and eating habits, and how she feels about all that. As I sit and type that out, it sounds dreadfully like the recently retired Cathy but, trust me, there are no "AAACK"s to be found!

The comic is less an attempt at comedy or parody, and seems more deliberately personal than Cathy Guisewite's intentionally broad-stroked newspaper strip. It comes across very much as Becan trying to figure herself out and using the comic as an attempt at catharsis.

Like many modern women in the U.S., Becan isn't terribly happy with her self-image. She thinks she's overweight and thinks she should exercise more, and if only she was a couple sizes smaller, everything would be cool. Indeed, in reading her "About" page (which I only first read tonight) she says...
I have believed I was overweight since, well, pretty much since I learned what the word “overweight” meant – whether I actually was overweight or not didn’t seem to make a difference.

Now, here's why I'm calling attention to the comic. It's a daily comic, so she doesn't spend a lot of time on fancy layouts or particularly intricate drawings or anything like that. And since I personally don't have any weight or self-image issues, I can only really sympathize with the issues she's working on and not empathize. No, here's what I find really engaging about the comic...

Becan's doing it. I mean, she's trying to figure out what the hell makes her dive into a plate of nachos after a harsh day at work. She dives into her own head every day and looks for answers. Not in that namby-pamby, self-help-books, quick-fix, The Secret, Oprah, I-blame-society, bullshit kind of way. But in a manner that's real and honest and sincere. She's not pretending to be a victim; she's taking charge of the parts of her life that she doesn't like and damn it, she's doing something about it!

I'm sure there are people out there who are interested in the different foods that she's eating but, personally, I barely even register that part of the comic is there. I'm more interested in seeing Becan fight her inner demons because A) not nearly enough people are even willing to attempt that and ignorantly blame everything/body else, and B) she's winning! There is very decided and noticeable growth over the course of the comic, especially in the past several weeks, and that is amazingly cool to see unfold in front of you. She is becoming a better/happier person right in front of your eyes, and I would love to see more people doing that.

Sarah Becan, I think you're sauceome! Keep it up! Everybody else, go read her comic: "I Think You're Sauceome!"

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Happy Birthday, Jerk!

Cool Jerk, that is!

Today is mumblemumblemuble-th birthday of Paul Horn, creator of the ever-popular (or is that will-this-ever-be-popular?) online comic strip, Cool Jerk. The current storyline touches on current topics like the economy and the jobless rate, as well as time-worn favorites like prostitution and telephone smashing! So head over to his site now to check it out, and once you've done that, buy some stuff from his online store! (If you buy enough of it, I might be able to weasel a commission out of him!)

Monday, October 11, 2010

The Power Of Branding

My niece turned 10 a couple weeks ago. Kind of a big deal since it's into double-digits and all, so my brother and sister-in-law gave her a big party. Not surprisingly, my brother asked about some of the particulars my niece would be interested in. What kind of presents she wanted, what kind of cake to have, etc. Somewhere in there, the birthday party became a sleep-over and so one of the questions was, "What would you like for breakfast once everybody wakes up?" My niece answered that she wanted Dunkin' Donuts. Because Dunkin' Donuts are better than regular doughnuts and she never gets to have Dunkin' Donuts because they're more expensive and so they never go there.

My brother then starts doing some of the math in his head, and suggests that maybe regular doughnuts from the grocery store would be just as good. After all, Dunkin' Donuts are more expensive than what he could get from the grocery store and, with a dozen young girls sleeping over, that's going to add up to a decent chunk of change in what's still a tight economy. But, no, she insisted that it had to be Dunkin' Donuts.

So my brother heads off to Dunkin' Donuts. But instead of buying anything, he just asks for a box. An empty box that most people don't see unless it's filled with doughtnuts. Or at least the obvious remnants of doughnuts before everyone ate them. They gave him the box. For free. An empty box with their logo on it. He then went to the grocery store and bought some regular doughnuts. Which he then proceeded to arrange neatly in the Dunkin' Donut box. He took the box of doughnuts home, and the girls were all delighted and said those were the best doughnuts ever and thanks so much for getting Dunkin' Donuts because those are so much more awesome and he's the best dad ever, etc.

What my brother realized, of course, was that a logo and an ad campaign don't necessarily make something better. It's just perceived as more desirable because the company spent more money on marketing. It's not uncommon really. Perception IS reality more often than not, which is why many companies do so much better than others -- not because they have a better product/service, but because they've done a better job at telling people they have a better product/service.

So I wonder how much of that plays in with comics. Because comics, though, deal with intellectual property, there aren't generally exact substitutes for characters. If you like Batman, there's only one company who publishes Batman comics. If you like a series of comics where Spider-Man, the Hulk and Wolverine can and do interact, you have to get those from Marvel. But if you are just looking for superheroes with real-world problems and act in a reasonably realistic way, there are any number of publishers where you can get that from. If you're looking for wise-cracking space-faring cosmic heroes or emotionally charged monster hunters or whatever, there are multiple outlets for that.

I wonder how many comic readers think about that. Are they buying Detective Comics (or whatever) because it does the best job of providing what they want or because, well, it's Batman! And how many people don't take a look at comics that aren't published by one of the big names precisely because they're not a big name? I mean, I can see that some indie books just don't have the distribution of a typical Marvel or DC book, so any number of people will never see it in the first place, but do some people actually see some of those books and dismiss them out of hand because it doesn't have a Marvel logo on it?

It's a difficult question, I think. At some level, a glazed doughnut is a glazed doughnut is a glazed doughnut regardless of where it comes from. (I, for one, can't taste a difference between the ever-popular Krispy Kreme and just about anybody else's. They've got the still-warm thing going for them if you get them fresh, but that doesn't impact the taste at all.) But comic books aren't quite at the level of commodification that doughnuts are, so direct comparisons are imperfect at best. But it still makes me wonder how much people are buying the company logo over the characters inside?

Saturday, October 09, 2010

Hatter M, Nature of Wonder Review

The Hatter M adventures continue in the latest installment of the Looking Glass Wars stories: Hatter M: The Nature of Wonder. To catch you up to speed, Frank Beddor's LGW prose books detail the real story behind Lewis Carroll's Wonderland books and how Princess Alyss rose to power after her mother's death at the hands of her aunt. The Hatter M graphic novels flesh out the details of Alyss' bodyguard as he searches for the exiled princess on Earth in the mid-19th century. Nature of Wonder is the third graphic novel in the series and begins not long after the end of the previous book.

This novel has two stories. The first concerns Hatter Madigan's involvement with the American Civil War. He was told that all secrets are kept in the White House, so he naturally heads out in search of President Lincoln. He helps ward off an attack that was helped by the proponents of Black Imagination, and garners the trust of two scientists who work at the Bureau of Illuminated Forces, a sort of prototypical X-Files agency. With their help, he's able to track down a powerful Native American shaman who is able to tap into White Imagination. In return for helping her tribe evade some potentially deadly soldiers, she provides a means for Hatter to track the stream of White Imagination which would theoretically lead to Alyss.

The second story is much shorter and is a simple tale of Hatter coming to a small Western town dominated by a corrupt sheriff. Hatter discovers a Wonderland milliner who's able to repair his equipment, after which Hatter dispatches of the boorish official before continuing on his quest.

This book was done by the same creative team who worked on the last one. Structurally, it seems a bit tricker, though. There are a couple of decent-sized flashbacks, one of which is woven into a mystical vision of sorts. Plus a prologue and epilogue that hearken back to the previous book, but have no direct impact on the stories here. There's some raucous action scenes, and more than a couple dramatic scene changes. Artist Sami Makkonen does an able job throughout, somewhat improved from the last book. Some of the bits aren't as elegant as they could be, but I was never at a loss for what was going on, despite some of the intentionally unusual shifts in the story. I dare say they'd give any comic artist a bit of a challenge.

The stories here are tied a little more to the previous book than some of the other elements of the whole series. I think the Prologue and Epilogue especially will make little sense if you hadn't read Mad with Wonder. The main points of the story, though, are clear enough and, except where I just noted, the other books don't strike me as required reading for a new reader to follow along.

There's a curious thing about these stories, too. The LGW prose books are complete with Hatter and Alyss returning to Wonderland. So we, as readers, know he's ultimately successful and in no real danger throughout these Hatter M graphic novels. But what they cleverly do here is not present a real danger to Hatter per se; they don't try to play up the drama as if he might die. There's no real question even within the book of his mortality. Instead, they use what could be those types of moments and, instead, provide insights into Hatter as a character much deeper than what is shown in the other books. That's a very interesting (to me) way of handling that type of story element.

I also have to confess that I liked the greater sense of the overall continuity here. The first story is very clearly dated and tied around the assassination of President Lincoln, and the transition to the second story provides enough insight to suggest a chronological placement of the webisodes that were run online back in 2008. That continuity watching on my part probably comes from far too many years immersed in the Marvel Universe!

Overall, an enjoyable read. Certainly enjoyable enough that I'm already looking to Volume 4, which is previewed in the back of the book!

Friday, October 08, 2010

Time For Some Self-Promotion

I haven't done much shilling lately, so without further ado...

Lulu is having a Columbus Day Weekend Sale. You can get 14.92% (clever, eh?) off any order by using the code EXPLOR305. That means, for the mathematically disinclined, that you can get a softcover copy of Comic Book Fanthropology for $14.42 and a hardcover version for $25.48! The code is valid through Monday, October 11, 2011. Order here!

At the tail end of the month, Jack Kirby Collector #55 will hit the stands. It's actually scheduled for October 27. My "Incidental Iconography" article looks at the villains of the old Thundarr cartoon, and there's some really cool character art sketches for the series which I'm pretty sure haven't been published before! Somehow my timing was spot-on as Warner Brothers just released the entire series on DVD! Call me a trend-setter!

The one other thing I want to plug hasn't formally been announced (and it's not my baby so I can't really do that here) but if you're dying to get the COMPLETE collection of my published writings, swing by Booth #2641 at New York Comic Con this weekend and talk with either David or Steve. Tell them I sent you, and they'll help hook you up!

Thursday, October 07, 2010

The Hero Who Could Be You... As Long As You're A White Male

I'm helping out at work with an internal United Way campaign. I really haven't done print work in ages, but they wanted a superhero theme to show up on some printed flyers and posters and such, which makes me the default go-to guy. "Sounds like fun," I said, "Happy to help!"

The initial idea the project manager had was to have a superhero mascot for this campaign. Showcased through a series of comic strips over the course of a week with a "big reveal" at the end that the superhero's secret identity was in fact you, the reader. The final comic was to be a close-up head shot of the hero with a mirror over the face area. Kind of a "You can be a hero by donating to the United Way" message.

OK, cool. Not a bad idea. But it poses a distinct design challenge for the actual hero. It'd have to be fairly androgynous and devoid of any racial characteristics, so that the "You can be a hero" bit works regardless of who's looking at it.

So I sketched out some designs. One was a pretty obvious Iron Man rip-off. One was kind of a shadowy cloud character. The one the project manager and I ultimately liked best was...
The colors were chosen because they're official UW colors, but the design is modeled off the Invincible Man, a Jack Kirby design that I always really liked and think was/is sorely under-utilized. (A red cape was one of the design stipulations, since they're doing some photo pieces with employees wearing a red cape.)

The manager was really happy with it, and I started working up some of the materials for the project. But she called things to a quick halt last night because one of the higher ups finally got a look at it. He didn't like it at all. No, a hero should be decidedly male. With big muscles. And you need to see his face. Maybe just a domino mask or something. Short, dark hair. You know, a comic book superhero? Oh, and this total redesign obviously doesn't impact the schedule at all, so I have to have this approved and in several design pieces and off to the printer in less than a week. So the current version of our intrepid hero looks like...
I'll make no bones about it -- I traced Superman. Literally traced. This is pretty obviously what the head honcho was asking for anyway, and I don't have time to be clever with it. I don't have the time now to make sure the anatomy and perspective and whatever are correct. I'm going with getting the job done as fast as possible. If I'd happen to have a cleaner version available, I would've just removed the S shield in Photoshop and used that.

Now, setting aside that this totally wrecks the whole "could be you" angle for over half the people seeing it, I'm more concerned about the fact that the hero had to be a white male. It's not even an instance of a white male just drawing another white male because it's easiest to look in the mirror -- we're talking about being presented with an intentionally nondescript hero specifically for the purpose of being as inclusive as possible, and being told that's essentially wrong because superheroes are white men.

Granted, there are more white male superheroes out there than anything else, but to completely shut down the idea that someone other than a white male could be a superhero...? That that default is (supposedly) so well known that anything else is wrong? That the stereotype is so pervasive that no other options are even viable? I can't even begin to describe how frustrated and disheartened I am right now.

If he doesn't like my original design, that's fine. I'm okay with that. I'm not a character designer. If he doesn't like the illustration itself, I can totally see that. I create websites, not illustrations. I'd be fine if he wanted to critique the specifics of what I actually did; I'm used to that kind of thing. I'm receptive to criticism.

But to dismiss the entire idea of trying to being inclusive? To actively reject that superheroes can be something other than white men? I don't know the guy who said this personally, so I can't say if he's really sexist or racist or anything but, speaking as a white male, I will harbor absolutely no resentment if/when all the minorities rise up and beat the living shit out of all of us.

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Arcana Who?

In lieu of the announcement today that Arcana was picking up Devils Due's characters (full announcement here -- apparently it's not on either Arcana's or Devils Due's sites), Heidi MacDonald tweeted...
Idle question: What comics does Arcana publish that anyone ever head of?

I didn't read any of the responses, but Heidi's next tweet read...
Hey you guys! Arcana and ARCHAIA are not the same companies!

Now it seems to me that if...
  1. You don't post your press releases on your own website
  2. What is arguably your biggest release of the year has multiple typos in it that any spell-checker would've caught
  3. You spend any part of your press release talking about other companies not directly involved in the announcement
... then it's absolutely no wonder that people are paying so little attention to you that they can't tell one company from another.

Granted, not every publisher can afford a dedicated marketing team with a huge budget to ensure that every Wal-Mart and Target in America has t-shirts with your characters on them, but couldn't you at least read through somebody else's press releases that does and make an attempt to emulate it?

I'm just saying.

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Weighing In On This Comics Journalism Hoohah... Again

So, Brian Bendis caused a bit of stir a couple weeks back with his incendiary comments about the state of comics journalism. Which (intentionally, I'm sure) raised the ire of a number of folks who consider themselves comics journalists. And it led to CBR's Chris Arrant holding some enlightening interviews with Tom Spurgeon, Vaneta Rogers and Heidi MacDonald.

I should think we can all agree Bendis was acting like a prick, most likely just to gain some short-term attention. But what I think is interesting in this discussion is that about everyone else involved is using an exceptionally narrow and, to my mind, outdated definition of journalism. I think MacDonald unintentionally hits on a telling point...
So in a way every little jot and tittle is being covered, which is something I foresaw from the git-go. What I didn’t really foresee is how this would create such a dearth of authority. And the ubiquity of information makes real information even harder to find.

That notion of having authority is based on a 20th century approach to journalism. That is, that the reporters who work at newspapers and TV are authoritative because the people who produce newspapers and TV say so. It took a lot of time and energy to make a newspaper or TV show, so it was easy for producers to claim that they were authoritative sources because, well, why would you spend so much time and energy on the things if you weren't?

But that was the 20th century. Here in the 21st century, almost anyone can put out really high-quality media using commercially available products. The mere fact that you have a newspaper or a website or even a TV show grants you absolutely zero authority over anyone else. Which means that A) almost anyone can jump in to (in this case) comics reporter game and B) there is no central figure(s) to tell the reading audience who has authority. I've been trying to make this point for at least two years now...
But when you're discussing the state of comics journalism, you need to include the blogosphere. I've complained before about some things that have flown under my radar despite my best attempts, but there's also any number of things that have shown up on my radar precisely because I was paying attention to various blogs. Sometimes they're from professionals shilling their own products, sometimes they're from folks who have a different outlook based simply on their geography, sometimes they're from a guy who knows a guy who knows a guy who overheard something significant. The onus is on the reader to decipher what s/he feels is important/note-worthy to him/her.
(Newly added emphasis.)

The whole point of having a global communications network is to democratize information. Everyone can have their say and, as a reader, you're NOT limited by what a handful of people think you want to hear about. Literacy in the 21st century is not limited to being able to read and write, but to read, write and determine the legitimacy of other authors/works. Wikipedia isn't inherently wrong or a bad source of information but, like any other encyclopedia ever made, it inevitably has errors. But now, with so many other sources available to us, we have the ability to cross-check and validate in a way that was almost impossible even a couple decades ago.

Don't get me wrong. I very much like what Spurgeon, Rogers, MacDonald, and a host of other comics journalists are doing. I don't always read each and every thing they write, and I don't always agree with their opinions, but I have judged them to be good at reporting on comics news and providing well-reasoned analyses. They're good journalists. But, as I said here last year...
Comics journalism does NOT rely on the narrowly-defined model of journalism that's been taught in schools for generations; it's every discussion you have and every post you make. Every time you log in and say, "Here I am," you have joined the ranks of comics journalists whether you know it or not, whether you intend to or not. Just because you don't have a business card that says you work for Wizard doesn't mean you're not as much of a news/information/gossip source as they are. You are seeing comics journalism here, on Facebook, on Twitter, on YouTube, on every other social media outlet available. Comics journalism isn't just a handful of websites; it's everywhere.

Welcome to the 21st century.