Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Havoc Review

Havoc is the sequel to Chris Wooding's young adult novel, Malice. Havoc picks up right where Malice left off: Seth returned to his home to retrieve a mystical ornament that would somehow help Kady and Justin defeat Tall Jake. As the story picks up, Seth needs to find his way back into Malice without Tall Jake knowing, then find Kady and Justin, and then the three of them still have to figure out how this strange ornament works. Oh, and Kady and Justin need to manage to survive just being in Malice.

Not surprisingly, Havoc has much the same tone and feel as Malice. It is the same author writing about the same characters and world after all. The publishers have also brought back many of their typographic tricks to spice up the visual interest on the prose pages, and Dan Chernett returns to illustrate the comic book portions of the book. Probably the most significant change from the first book is the pace. Whereas Malice moved along a little more leisurely as the reader explores the new people and world of the book, Havoc runs along at a faster clip with more directed action. The dangers in Havoc are decidedly more aggressive, forcing the characters to react more quickly and directly.

The story here is very much the second act of the overall tale. Having read the first book, it's hard for me to say with any certainty, but it seemed like Wooding does a fair job in Havoc catching new readers up to speed if they missed Malice. But for those who are familiar with the set-up, there isn't much in the way of obvious redundancies. So kudos to Wooding for handling that well.

Returning readers will also be pleased, I expect, to see that Wooding elaborates on many of the points from the first book. We get rationales for the villains' actions, we get to meet Grendel, we see more directly how/why the cats were helping. Tall Jake's plot is explained and was, to me, surprisingly nuanced; I was a tad disappointed not to see deeper character motivations behind it, but sometimes a bad guy just needs to be a bad guy. Which is okay here since A) it's a book aimed at kids and B) Wooding did provide plenty of depth for just about everyone else. The one lingering question of the overall story that I think wasn't addressed was how the comics were not reproducible and faded after a few days. The comic was barely mentioned at all in Havoc and more attention was paid to the printing facility, which gave me the impression that Wooding realized he didn't have an explanation and simply tried to gloss over that point. It's a minor issue since it's not terribly relevant to the plot, but I would've liked to seen a bit more attention paid to that.

While I liked the story on the whole, I did find the comic portions again lacking. As in Malice, I had a couple of distinct instances where I simply could not tell what was happening in the art, and I was only able to figure it out by later references in the text. As I noted before, Chernett is a more than capable artist judging by his other works, but the issues here highlight the difference between being a good artist and being a good storyteller. I would've liked to have seen these books illustrated by someone perhaps with a little more experience in comic storytelling specifically.

That said, I don't feel let down by Havoc. I really did enjoy the story in Malice and Havoc continued on that path well. I think this would be a great read for kids, and not a bad one for adults either.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Cyber Monday Sale

Special one-day sale! Order a copy of my book (and/or anything else from Lulu), use the codeword CYBER305 and receive 25% off your entire order! But, hurry; the sale is today only!

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Superman’s Cleveland

This weekend, my friend Matt Kuhns posted a PDF download of one of his recent pieces, entitled "Superman's Cleveland." It's essentially a tourist map of the Cleveland area with Superman-related highlights called out. You can get a professionally printed copy from Carol & John’s Comic Shop or download the PDF version (and read some of production notes) from Matt's blog.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Bakuman Vol. 2 Review

I noted back in August that I read and liked the first volume of Bakuman, a manga about two kids trying to break into the manga industry. I picked up the second volume recently, and continue to enjoy the series.

In this installment, Moritaka and Akito meet up with a manga editor who likes their work and starts guiding them through industry processes. He's actually a young (and still relatively new) editor himself, but he thinks the boys have lots of potential. He helps them through some drafts, providing creative criticism and encouragement, guiding them through their first published story. The editor also explains that they're essentially in a contest with every other story in that book, with readers voting on their favorites. Much of this book deals with how that process works, and the personal and professional challenges young mangaka face.

The other aspect to the story are the love lives of Moritaka and Akito. Moritaka's is more unusual of the two, as he and his love interest remain extremely chaste, barely even speaking to each other, much less holding hands or kissing. Their relationship is so romanticized as to be unbelievable, but at least the creators here acknowledge that with repeated exclamations of incredulity from almost every other character. While I certainly never experienced a relationship like that, and can scarcely see that ever happening realistically, I'll also acknowledge that there's some deep part of my romantic 14-year-old self that still identifies with it. That part of me that hadn't quite been smacked around by reality just yet, and turned me into such a cynical bastard.

That part of the overall story speaks to a more naive version of myself and, I suppose, that's part of my enjoyment of the book. The same reason I like Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan. A nostalgia, of sorts, for a mindset that, once lost, can never be regained. The innocence that comes with being protected and sheltered, and where the good guys wear white hats. Where characters do spout lines like, "I'll wait [for you] forever" and it makes complete sense.

That said, though, I would still continue picking up the story even without that element. That's a bit of characterization that makes me more engaged with the story, but I still am finding that explaining the process of creating professional manga to be the more interesting draw. I don't know how long the story will be able to continue doling out information on that process before it starts becoming terribly intermittent and/or redundant, but it looks to me as if there will be continue to be at least several more volumes that will prove to be utterly fascinating on that portion alone.

Friday, November 26, 2010

The Shepherd's Tale Review

Serenity: The Shepherd's Tale presents the long-awaited origin of Shepherd Book. Throughout the TV show Firefly and the movie Serenity, Book was portrayed as a man of the cloth who seemed to be a little too familiar and comfortable with the seedier side of humanity. He tried to devoutly follow the word of God, but had no problem picking up a gun when the situation warranted. ("Preacher, don't the Bible have some pretty specific things to say about killin'?" "Quite specific. It is, however, somewhat fuzzier on the subject of kneecaps.")

The book, it seems to me, is both a great success and a great failure. It is a great success in that the story is well conceived and well executed. It provides an intriguing back-story to Book and adds quite a few layers that I don't think any fans would've expected. From a craft perspective, it's also quite interesting how well the story flows backwards hitting on key touchstones throughout Book's life, each glimpse providing a little new insight to the character. The characters readers would already be familiar with fall perfectly in line with how they were portrayed on the show.

The great failure, however, stems from the fact that it's entirely enmeshed in that same Firefly/Serenity continuity. From two of said touch points being direct references to the movie and show respectively to the ending only really having some impact based on the reader's familiarity with the character beyond this book. I think there's plenty there that would keep a new reader from being lost, but I think the only engagement one might get out of the story comes from knowing Shepherd Book already.

That may be calculated. They may have looked at the sales numbers on the previous Serenity comics and realized, "The only people who're buying these were fans of the show." It could be that no one picked up any of those previous comics unless they'd watched the DVDs a dozen times over, and picked up this book knowing exactly what it was about.

Then again, the show's fandom often quotes from the pilot episode: "We have done the impossible, and that makes us mighty." So maybe it's okay that Shepherd's Tale doesn't seem conventionally inviting. Maybe the strength of the characters and premise IS powerful enough to sway over new fans. Maybe there is no power in the 'verse that can stop it. Maybe you can't stop the signal.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Happy Thanksgiving

For Americans, today is Thanksgiving, the day we celebrate beating the snot out of Native Americans, raping the land they lived on and managing to make them feel ashamed for letting us do that.
We also pay lip service to homeless people by giving them a single meal.

But we dress all that up with kids in cute faux-pilgrim hats and anthropomorphic turkeys, so it's all good.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Old Brevoort Interview

I'm dusting off some mothballs here to keep the content flowing over the Thanksgiving Day week/weekend. Today, I'm bringing to you an interview I conducted with Tom Brevoort back in October 2001, shortly after he became editor on Fantastic Four. This interview takes place prior to Mark Waid and Mike Wieringo even having been announced as the creative team on that title...

S Kleefeld: I know that you've been getting increasingly busy over the past weeks and months, but I was hoping that you might have a few spare moments to answer some questions for my web site. You're certainly in a unique position when it comes to your relationship with the Fantastic Four, and I think you could provide some fascinating insights into the creation of the book.

If I'm not mistaken, you're earliest extended work with the FF was actually as co-writer of Fantastic Force. Since the team's creators, Tom DeFalco and Paul Ryan, were still working on the main FF book, how did the Fantastic Force comic come across your lap?

Tom Brevoort: You're mistaken. The earliest work I did with the FF was the story in Fantastic Four Unlimited #8, which remains a favorite. It saw print after FanForce #1, so I can understand your confusion.

As for how I got involved with FanForce, originally, the series was to have been done by another creative team altogether. You may have seen previews for this version in Marvel Age and elsewhere. But after months of going back and forth, things reached an impasse, and that creative team resigned from the book -- which left the editors with a book to produce in short order and nobody to do it. That Unlimited story had been well-received by most people who read it, and assistant editor Joe Andreani was a very vocal advocate for giving Mike and I the book based on that. And so it came to pass.

SK: You actually worked on the book with your long-time friend and associate, Mike Kanterovich. How did the two of you work together on the book?

TB: The routine methodology was that we'd talk through the plot for a given issue over the phone, to the point where I had a sheet of paper listing what was on each page, and then I'd go off and type up the plot. When penciled pages came in, Mike would write the first draft of script, I'd write the second draft, then we'd get on the phone and read through the whole mess again and again, refining the script as we went until we were happy with it (or just too tired to care anymore.)

SK: At the time, the book struck me as unique for several production reasons, one of which was that the regular artist, Dante Bastianoni, was actually working out of Italy, if I'm not mistaken. It's one of the earliest instances I'm aware of where Marvel hired an overseas artist for a monthly series. Were there any logistical problems that came up as a result of that?

TB: Not at the start. Dante had penciled that Unlimited story and done a bang-up job, so he was all right with us. It became a problem later on, in that Dante could only manage to do about 16 pages a month. We were asked to switch over to a 16 page lead story and a 6 page back-up in terms of plotting after a while -- but whenever we'd write an issue that way, Dante or someone else'd end up drawing it all, thus defeating the purpose, and whenever we'd write a full 22-page issue somebody else would end up penciling the last 6 pages. That's not Dante's fault, of course -- it's more a question of poor editorial planning.

SK: One of the other unique "production" aspects of the book, as I recall, was your and Mike's online presence at the time. I believe the first online chat I attended was actually where you first announced that She-Hulk would be joining the team. Did you, at the time, have the sense what a big part the internet would soon play in promoting comics or were you more interested in the immediate feedback that was difficult to find until then?

TB: Well, I liked the immediate feedback, certainly. I think the Internet gives you a rather skewed picture of the readership as a whole, though, so I always try to keep it in context.

SK: In the years since then, I've come to learn some of your attitudes regarding how comics should be made and, looking back, it seems that Fantastic Force went counter to some of those notions. The concept, for example, seemed -- not to offend you, of course; I think the stories and character interactions were well done -- but the concept itself seemed a little contrived. And the series, being spun out of the main Fantastic Four book, had a lot more crossovers than it seems you'd be comfortable with. I'm curious how much of that came from various editors, and how much were simply things you've been thinking about differently since then.

TB: If there's a way not to launch a series, Fantastic Force was it. As I recall, the original idea came up in response to a column Tony Isabella had written in the aftermath of books like X-Force and Force Works, concerned that the same would be done to Fantastic Four. The plan was never to replace FF, but part of the strategy was to make it seem like FF was going to be replaced -- which was probably not the best idea in the world. So, inspired by this article, Tom DeFalco started brainstorming who would be in this new spin-off group. He came up with a roster, and then Mark Gruenwald and other tweaked it, turning it into something much like what it ended up being (Kismet would have been in the series at one point). But there wasn't any central core concept, nothing that separated FanForce from everything else -- no reason for being. And that was a big problem.

When we were brought in to write the series, Mike and I looked at the pieces that were there on the table, and tried to retrofit a central concept to what already existed. And what we came up with is that Fantastic Four is about four once-ordinary people who go out and get involved in the extraordinary, but Fantastic Force, given the roster of characters we had, would be about a group of extraordinary people, from diverse cultures, nations, times, who get involved in the ordinary world of downtown Manhattan. Everybody agreed that this made sense and was the way to go -- and yet, when we started working ont he book, we were always being pushed away from dealing with anything in this vein. There are a bunch of false starts that you can see in teh early issues, things that were being set up but really didn't get a chance to go anywhere because we were being told, "More fighting!" editorially. Also, the editor had taken Tom DeFalco's request for single issue stories initially a bit to literally -- Tom didn't mean not to have subplots, but that each issue should have a set-up and payoff in one installment (much like his later MC2 books). But this was interpreted so dogmatically that we couldn't get any sort of flow or momentum going.

Beyond that, the biggest drawback with the crossovers was that we hit them one after another, so for about three months right in the middle of the run we were telling anybody's story but our own. And the couple of things we asked other people to set up in other chapters ended up being botched. Fantastic Force was never a high priority editorally, so ti always seemed to get the short end of the stick in terms of people paying attention to it and making sure all of the ducks were in a row.

SK: Speaking of crossovers, the book had a lot of direct and indirect tie-ins with Tom and Paul's book. How much did you work with them to ensure that you weren't stepping on each others' toes?

TB: Tom and Paul were great. Tom particularly bent over backwards on some of our crazier ideas, such as bringing the Human Torch into FanForce as a member. We didn't work terribly closely with Tom and Paul -- most of the coordination was handled editorially -- and every once in a while there'd be some frustrating roadblock (as when the last page of #7 was rewritten poorly because Paul hadn't gotten the correct reference from the office when he came to draw the following FF chapter, and he'd set things up differently), but all in all they were great to deal with.

SK: The series ended more or less in tandem with the coming of Onslaught and Heroes Reborn. Was it cancelled directly because the organizational shuffling to get all of Marvel's characters back to their "status quo" or was it more of a sales concern?

TB: My understanding was that it was a sales issue. The book was simply not selling well by the end.

SK: Since then, of course, you've gone on to edit some of the most well-received titles in Marvel's stable. With your experience, I wouldn't think you would have been overly concerned about adding the Fantastic Four to your list, but you came on just before their 40th anniversary issue with the popular, regular creators choosing to leave shortly afterwards. Was there any sense of intimidation on your part, starting on a book with some of these big obstacles in front of you?

TB: Concern, but not intimidation. Fantastic Four is the book to have. I refer to it as "climbing the mountain." There's no other series I'd more want to edit. So sure, the problems were problems, but they weren't any more or less difficult than if I had similar problems on Thor or Avengers or Iron Man.

SK: It seems that most fans of the book have been fairly happy with the direction Carlos [Pacheco] and Rafael [Marin] have taken the book. Are you hoping to continue focusing on the same types of themes, or are there other angles that you'd care to bring to more prominence? Any long-term plans past the anniversary?

TB: In a nutshell, I think the malaise Fantastic Four has found itself in over the last decade stems from its longetivity. When the book began, and through much of its early years, it was a vibrant, colorful series with characters whose personalities crackled off the page. But four decades of familiarity have made the FF seem lifeless. The characters have often fallen into schtick, into narowly-defined roles (or, occasionally, written so far removed from those roles that they didn't seem like the same characters at all.) People have forgotten what makes these characters cool and interesting. They've ceased to see them with fresh eyes. So that's job one -- to remind people in the most direct way possible how fascinating and engaging the Fantastic Four can be.

SK: One of the first things fans saw you do as the new FF editor was to ask about what stories they'd like to see if you did a "monster" issue. I presume you're allowing some time after the over-sized 50th issue before asking fans to buy another giant issue. Any idea when a monster FF might show up? And have you made any decisions about what stories to include?

TB: Fantastic Four #54. It'll include the birth of Franklin story from FF Annual #6 (Stan and Jack's longest single FF story) as well as the Impossible Man's New York Adventure from FF #176 by Roy Thomas and George PĂ©rez.

SK: One last, obligatory question: who have you got lined up as the new, regular creative team for the FF?

TB: Wait and see. Once we're ready to announce who'll be working on the book, you'll certainly hear about it. But not until we're ready.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Happy Birthday, Doctor

Doctor Who debuted on this day back in 1963. Untold thousands of children have since enjoyed his adventures from behind the sofa. A lot of the charm of the show comes from the characters, and a lot of that does translate surprisingly well to comics. I haven't read ALL of them, unfortunately, but I've certainly enjoyed many of the more recent stories published by IDW.

Grab a handful of jelly babies, don your best piece of celery and your brainy-specs, and curl up with your favorite iteration of the character. I might suggest, though, trying not to lose track of time in the process! ;)

Monday, November 22, 2010

Turkey Soup

This went online a few days ago, but let's see if I can give it some more attention. Tom Brevoort's wife Jess has a series of cooking videos online, which I know are at least well received in my neck of the woods. (Not that I can cook, but the S.O. does and she quite enjoys Jess' approach.)

In this installment, we learn how to make a turkey soup, with two brief cameos by a certain Marvel editor...

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Wink Wink Nudge Nudge

I'm sitting here watching The Sarah Jane Adventures, a BBC children's series spun off from Doctor Who. Like many works of fiction aimed at young adults, the storytelling makes it fairly evident that it's aimed at that particular audience. The kids are given primary roles and frequently are crucial to resolving the plot conflicts, which are generally pretty cut and dried when it comes to morals and right versus wrong. But SJA has been well-done and been nominated for several television awards.

The opening of the show features one of the main characters, Clyde, providing an overview of the premise to the audience.

After a brief break in his narration with dramatic music playing over a series of shots from the show, Sarah Jane opens the door to greet him and asks, "Ready?" He responds eagerly and confidently, "Always," and then turns to look directly at the camera.

Breaking the fourth wall is nothing new. The opening of William Shakespeare's Richard III starts with one of the more famous examples of that type of acknowledgement of the audience. I think with the advent of television and movies, actors were able to engage individual viewers in a way that wasn't quite possible with plays and operas. Richard III talks to the audience, but the audience as a whole. With television and it's solitary perspective, looking right at the camera like that provides a direct connection with each viewer on an individual basis. The actor is no longer just generally acknowledging that an audience exists, as is the case with Shakespeare, but he/she is specifically acknowledging that YOU as an individual exist and the story (or, at least, some of the actor's specific remarks) are for your individual benefit.

It might seem like a fine distinction, but it speaks to a lack of subtlety. The show's producers are making it plainly obvious that they are trying to engage you as a viewer as viscerally as possible. With children's programming, that's more necessary as youngsters often haven't developed the type of mental skills necessary to parse that all out for themselves. So I don't have a problem with that in shows like Sesame Street or Sarah Jane Adventures or whatever.

But in watching SJA today, it struck me that that same type of viewer acknowledgement often appears in comic books as well. Generally, not in the same breaking-the-fourth-wall sense, but that basic lack of subtlety. You know that "wink wink nudge nudge say no more say no more" straight-forwardness of overtly broadcasting when you're supposed to be in on the joke? That hit-you-over-the-head with references to make sure that you don't miss the punchline that's only intended for die-hard fans.

Not every comic does that, of course. It can vary widely with the skill of the writer. But there's something about that self-referential continuity that seems to make it more prevalent than it needs to be. Like I said, that's fine if you're aiming for a younger audience who won't get it otherwise. But I wonder if continuing to spoon feed that type of thing to 20- and 30- and 40-somethings helps to keep them in some state of arrested development.

Maybe I'm being (uncharacteristically) overly optimistic, but aren't some of the best comics NOT telegraphing everything to the audience so flagrantly? Watchmen, Palestine, Maus, etc. Aren't the greats of the industry -- the Will Eisners and Jim Sterankos and Jeff Smiths -- folks who use subtlety and nuance, and don't knock the reader over the head with The Point?

Again, I'm not saying that every comic comes across so juvenile, but that so many of them do may be part of the reason why so many comic shops also come across as juvenile locations. What if we were able to ramp up creators' games across the board? What if, instead of working down to the reader as if they were 12, creators required the cerebral processing of at least a 21 year old for their audience?

Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe that wouldn't sell. Maybe most people do have the brainpower of a tweenager. That would certainly go a long way towards explaining a lot of what goes on in this world. But, damn, that's a scary proposition.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

It Loses Something In The Translation

I first saw Fritz Lang's Metropolis back in college. I don't recall when I first heard about the movie, but I know I jumped when the university's film society started posting that they were going to play it one Friday night. It was the first chance I had the opportunity to see the film, as it wasn't exactly common in video stores back in the day.

The version they showed was a 1984 restoration by Giorgio Moroder. Although he was able to add back in previously lost plot point using some still photos that had been uncovered, he also replaced the intertitles with subtitles, added various color overlays throughout the film and re-scored it using pop music ranging from Adam Ant to Freddie Mercury to Pat Benatar. Here's a sample...

The image quality was so bad that, in some scenes, it was really difficult to tell what was going on, even on a big screen. Not to mention that the movie is shown slightly faster than it was originally filmed, sometimes giving the characters awkward and jerky movements. Plus the score really just did not fit AT ALL with the imagery you could see.

But I was still able to see beyond all that. I could discern what Lang had done, at least in part, and I could tell that he had still created an incredible piece of storytelling. That was definitively proved to me last night when I saw the recent "complete" version that was just released.

I also had a similar impression when I saw the movie Tank Girl. I generally don't like "comic book movies" but I do periodically get into extended moods where I do try to watch some of them just so I have a point of reference when a non-comics person says, "You like comics? Cool! I thought the Iron Man movie was really awesome!" So I sat through Tank Girl about five or six years ago. I won't irritate you with a clip from that, but suffice it to say that it wasn't very good.

But I could still see remnants of Jamie Hewlett's and Alan Martin's original creation throughout the movie. (In some cases, literally, since some of Hewlett's art makes it onto the screen.) Sure enough, when I picked up some Tank Girl books, I was not disappointed.

It's much more difficult to go the other way, though, it seems. I saw the Howard the Duck movie well after I was acquainted with the comic, and couldn't find anything redeeming in the film. I had trouble liking the Fantastic Four movies or the Flash television show or the Batman films or...

It's easy to say "it loses something in the translation" but I think there's more to it. I think I respond to a slightly different set of elements than most people. So when I see a movie like Ghost World, I'm responding to aspects of the original themes and ideas, not whatever may have been inserted for larger movie-going audiences. So when I return to the original, I find at least those same elements and, often, a few others that had been stripped out for the movie.

It's not just comics to movies, of course. I often run into the same issue going from movies to comics. Or novels to films. Or whatever. It's rare that I respond more strongly to the adaptation than the original. (In fact, the only real exceptions I can think of are the works of Jules Verne.)

I suspect that has something to do with a "too many cooks" factor. That the second creator is adding/reinforcing his/her own ideas, which don't necessarily mesh with what I get from the original. If I'm not yet aware of what exactly the first creator is saying, I can parse out some of it from the derivative work, which then leads me back to the original. It's that "too many cooks" idea that's why I generally don't like movies and TV in the first place. Get me as close to a single source of good ideas as possible, and don't cloud (what I interpret as) their message with additional noise.

But that's probably just me. Here, have some more of Moroder's Metropolis...

Friday, November 19, 2010

$492,937.50

I didn't see this make the usual comic news rounds, but $492,937.50 is the final selling price of the latest copy of Detective Comics #27 to go up for auction. The sale concluded on Wednesday.

[begin sarcasm] On a completely-unrelated-but-still-this-doesn't-infuriate-me note, [/end sarcasm] The Washington Post just published this article about a woman who lost her job 18 months ago, after years of stellar performance, and is now living on $11,000 a year.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Mash-ups (By Request!)

Well, it's sort of a "by request" mashup. Krishna Sadasivam drew a blank PC Weenies today and asked readers for captions. If that doesn't sound like an excuse for a mashup, I don't know what does! (Also, I've been in a mood all day, and can't seem to come up with anything halfway decent.) So, as usual, dialogue from today's Garfield and art from...

PC Weenies


American Barbarian

Sinfest


I find the American Barbarian version to be the most interesting since it puts an entirely new spin on the dialogue as well as Tom Scioli's original storyline. Now there's a cage full of locked up crazies that physically look normal compared to the weirdness outside. There's a large story beyond that page with the new dialogue. PC Weenies is also somewhat interesting since the conversation changes considerably with the altered timing and different speakers. Now the questioner is asking about the cat in earnest, and requires someone else to answer for him. There's also a nice bit of surrealism with the non-speaking character.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Justifying Illegal Scanlations?

My browser of choice is Google's Chrome. Without going into an extended explanation, I'll just say that it works better for me than anything else I've looked at. Like some other browsers, though, there are extensions available for it. Little add-ons that can improve/change the functionality of the browser. I've got one that, when turned on, will display the style sheet characteristics assigned to any element on a web page. I've got another that rounds the corners on the images in Facebook and, oh, hey, it also eliminates all the ads that run down the right side.

I was browsing the extensions that are available and stumbled across one called "All Mangas Reader." Naturally, my curiosity was piqued.

It was developed by Duhoux Pierre-Louis and currently has just shy of 30,000 users. In the About dialogue, it describes AMR like this...
If you are a manga reader, this extension is made for you, it helps you reading mangas on your favorite web site by displaying full chapter scans instead of single pages and warns you when a new chapter of your favorite manga has been published.

If you are not a manga reader, i hope this extension will help you to become one !
Sounds great, right? So I install it. A small icon shows up in my toolbar, and clicking it presents a drop-down from which I can select from what looks like hundreds of titles. (No, I didn't count, but I honestly don't think I'm exaggerating.) Once I select a title, it shows up like this...
I can go directly to either the last chapter I read or the latest chapter, using those numbers; the drop-down presents all of the chapters; the forward/reverse buttons go to the next/previous chapters. The pages just pop open in your browser window. From a usability standpoint, this thing seems pretty well done. And, while I haven't played with it, there are some notes about being able to sync up your reading among several computers, so your reading isn't interrupted between work and home and your laptop and wherever.

It seems pretty cool, and well-executed. Plus it's a free extension for a free browser, so what's not to like?

Well, there is that minor issue of the pages that come up being illegal.

All the extension does, really, is just direct users to existing scanlation sites. It does an excellent job of it, but the material it's pointing to has been scanned from published manga, translated by a fan, and posted online for free. Without the publisher's permission. This is what said publisher's have started cracking down on the past year.

But the browser extension? It's downloadable from one of Google's servers. You know, Google? They just posted 3rd quarter (that's just three months) revenues of $7.29 billion. They are a big player and generally have a good reputation for staying on the right side of the law.

I'm not about to argue that they're liable for the content that somebody using one of their platforms links to. But if you didn't know any better -- and a LOT of people aren't very 'net savvy -- I can easily see how you might think that the content being linked to through AMR was completely legit.

I don't think many (most?) people recognize that most extensions aren't actually made BY Google. I think a lot of people would see the AMR extension as something Google specifically created for their browser, just to make it easier to link to all the wonderful free things that are online. Just like their search engine, only a little more specialized.

Certainly, that won't be everybody. I'm not naive enough to think that a good number of people download the extension without knowing full well that the pages they subsequently look at are illegal. But I'm betting it's fooling some folks. Some folks who don't really put much thought into those types of things because, hey, this is America and we're not supposed to actually think for ourselves. I'm betting that a good chunk of those 30,000 or so users of AMR don't know exactly what they're looking at when they read manga online.

I notice, too, that Pierre-Louis had previously created and posted a Chrome extension called "One Manga Reader" which, as near as I can tell, functioned largely the same way, but was more limited in which scanlation sites it referenced. That one no longer works but he seemed to have gotten enough support and encouragement to extend his initial effort much further. Indeed, the Help section of AMR has detailed instructions for how to get your favorite site included in his list.

I've been noodling this for only a couple of days, and don't really have any answers yet. I'm still not even sure of most of the questions, honestly. But I figured I could at least point this out as a part of the broader scanlation discussion, and see if it sparks any other thoughts or ideas.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Missing Pieces #1 Review

Alec Keating sent me a review copy of his new comic, Missing Pieces #1. The story is pretty straight-forward: Jeremy got dumped by his girlfriend and, while driving out to San Diego to start a new job/life, he picks up a hitchhiker by the name of Sophia. They have a somewhat tense and awkward (but still generally cordial) discussion as they continue westward. That is, until they stop off at a gas station where Sophia seems to go a bit off the rails.

It's a story that a lot of creators, I expect, would not attempt. The vast majority of the issue takes place in Jeremy's car and, with the exception of the last two pages, the story is all about these two characters talking. Most of the book, in fact, is a talking heads piece. Keating doesn't even attempt the story cliche of starting with the action from the end and then presenting the rest of it as a "here's how we got to that point" journey. (Effective though that approach is in small doses, it's become rather an overused trick if you asked me.) Again, except for the last two pages, we're really talking My Dinner with Andre storytelling here.

So, to Keating's credit, he's set himself up for a challenging first issue. Also to Keating's credit, he doesn't just present two static headshots for page after page after page; he changes angles and perspective repeatedly, so the reader doesn't get bored from the art. Keating also makes pretty good use of spotted blacks throughout the book. I'd personally like to see a little more variability in line weights, but the spotted blacks do a very good job of preventing that from being a real issue.

As for the story itself, there's not a lot of story there yet. This issue is mostly set-up, and establishing the characters. Creatively, this probably works well in the context of the overall story, but it does leave this first issue feeling a little light. Especially in lieu of the fact that of the only two characters we really have in the issue, one of them is deliberately guarded and mysterious, leaving readers with only one character to get to know and almost no action. Like I said, this probably works in the larger tale, but it feels a little sparse for an introductory issue.

At this point, I can't tell where Keating's going to take the story. There are lots of places he can go from here, all of which will certainly take Jeremy places he hasn't been before. A lot of the options, at this point, could be relatively predictable from a story perspective too, but given the path Keating's chosen to open with, I suspect that predictable is one thing Missing Pieces won't be.

The first issue is for sale on the author's website and at most Newbury Comics locations in the New England area. He also notes that the second issue should be available in early December.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Balance

Some years ago, I noticed that I seemed to be on an unusual cycle of corrective actions. After not really paying attention to my health/diet/exercise regimin, I would work harder to improve myself in that arena. But then I'd start having difficulties with my personal relationships. When I began to address that, I noticed a decline in my comic book interactions. When I worked harder to engage on that dimension, I noticed my professional work slipping. When I got my game on back at work, I somehow dropped the ball on making sure my finances were in order. And so on... None of it ever really seemed to get devastatingly out of control, but it seemed like a constant juggling act as I kept trying to ensure that none of it did slip too far. It always seemed like there was one more aspect to my life than I could keep under control.

The issue at hand, of course, is balance. Ensuring that no one aspect of your life becomes so time/thought/energy consuming that you neglect anything else that might actually be important. The difficulty, though, is that we all have a great many aspects of our lives to concern ourselves with, and it's almost impossible to quantify portions of your life. Is an hour spent at work equal to an hour spent with friends? How does that compare against an hour exercising? Or sleeping? Or reading? For that matter, does the hour you spend working between 9:00 and 10:00 equal the hour you spent working between 2:00 and 3:00 (with regard to your productivity)?

One of the options -- one that seems to be frequently taken, in fact -- is to simply ignore parts of your life that difficult and let them atrophy. I think this is where a lot of people run into problems. Their relationships fall apart, or they find themselves with a mountain of debt, or they get stuck in a dead-end job they hate, or they wind up living in Indiana, or whatever.

One of the issues facing people these days is a wide array of seemingly contradictory information on how to live healthily. Some red meat is good for you, but it can clog your arteries. Eggs are healthy, except when they're not. Strength training or endurance? Biking to work is a great idea, but you wind up inhaling all the exhaust fumes from the cars you ride next to. You need to get some sun for your body to process vitamin D, but too much sun will give you cancer. You want to avoid germs that get you sick, but avoiding them too much can compromise your immune system.

The answer frequently seems to come down to some variation of "everything in moderation."

There's a kind of common sense logic to that, I think. If you focus too exclusively on any one part of your life, you're bound to ignore others, some of which, like I suggested above, can be pretty important.

What's interesting, too, is that same thinking applies even WITHIN segments. If you work out exclusively on your upper body, your legs are going to be look and feel weak by comparison. If you put all your work energy towards creating web pages, you'll miss the social media aspects that need attention.

So doesn't it make sense that an industry that puts all its energy/focus on superheroes is going to be unhealthy in some fashion?

Now, to be fair, the industry overall has a wide selection of genres beyond superheroes, as I tried to illustrate from my Barnes & Noble trip last month. But in a sense, that's outside the comic book publishing industry and more within the broader context of book publishing. I think a quick flip through any Previews will show pretty readily where the comic book publishers (broadly speaking) have put their efforts.

This isn't new. I'm not telling you anything you don't already know. It's just another way of illustrating the problem. Balance, people. Balance.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

The Smith Brown Jones Instant Blues Kit

Waaaaaaay back in 1998, my friend Mick introduced me to Smith Brown Jones. It was a very funny and clever comic by a gent named Jon "Bean" Hastings and was one of the first non-superhero books that I started buying. I'd read plenty of my dad's indie-type books but this was the first I sought out and purchased on my own.

I recall that Hastings had put a call out somehow (probably in the back of one of his comics) that he was looking for new/different/interesting music that he could play while he was drawing. I sent him a CD of a band called Brand X, a jazz fusion group that released a handful of albums in the late 1970s. I think I sent a copy of their first album, Unorthodox Behaviour, which featured Phil Collins, Percy Jones, John Goodsall and Robin Lumley.

In return/thanks/appreciation, Hastings sent me this Smith Brown Jones Instant Blues Kit...
Yes, it's a half-sheet of paper with a small, plastic harmonica twist-tied to it. The instructions, if you're having trouble with the photo, read as follows...
  1. Remove Mini-Harmonica from backing.
    (Kiwi Studios is not responsible for any papercuts incurred while trying to play Mini-Harmonica if it is still in its package.)
  2. Try to play anything remotely resembling a tune on your Mini-Harmonica.
  3. Get the Blues.
  4. Write a song about the funk your Mini-Harmonica has put you in. (Bonus points for mentioning your baby leaving you, that old devil alcohol or the man taking your money.)
  5. Enjoy your new career as a master blues musician!
I don't know how many of these Hastings actually sent out over the years, or how many are still around, but it's definitely a treasured part of my comic collection!

Friday, November 12, 2010

The Graphic Revolve Classic Fiction Series

Our office had a book fair come through earlier this week; they come through three or four times I year. And every time, I browse through but never really find much of interest to me. About a year ago, I did notice that they had some comics that I hadn't seen before. Kids' versions of classic works of fiction like Robin Hood, King Arthur, Frankenstein and Tom Sayer. I finally broke down this week and bought two bundled sets of four books since the prices had been marked down so much.

I was curious how they were set up and how the stories were adapted for comics, so I started with the titles where I've read the originals and am most familiar with the source material. Gulliver's Travels, Treasure Island and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. All three comics were adapted by different writers and artists with varying degrees of skill and in markedly different styles. Which, given the differences in the source material, only makes sense. I should probably also note that these three books, I believe, were created earlier in the series (all have 2008 copyrights) and publisher Stone Arch has continued since then with other titles. (The latest are Aladdin and the Magic Lamp, Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, The Fisherman and the Genie and The Seven Voyages of Sinbad.)

Naturally, when you're trying to condense books down for younger audiences, much of the nuances and subtleties are going to be overlooked. Jonathan Swift's social commentary is unsurprisingly absent, as is much of the character interplay from Robert Louis Stevenson and the scientific details from Jules Verne. The adapters are trying to distill down the stories to something that's comprehensible to a 10 year old, who generally don't have the life experience to fully comprehend much of the subtexts. Which means that these stories tend to focus on the more action-oriented parts of the originals. Gulliver getting captured by giants, Jim Hawkins in a one-on-one fight against Israel Hands, the crew of the Nautilus defending themselves against giant squid, etc. In a lot of respects, it's the same thing that happens when movies are made from these books.

What was also noticeable (to me) in these books is that they've gone through some measure of "sanitation" for youngsters. That scene where Gulliver describes just how ugly human skin looks where you're really examining it closely? Gone. Nemo's attacks against slave traders? Gone. The descriptions of Long John Silver's other duties as cook? Gone. The few deaths that are left occur off-panel. This all largely done without any hugely significant impact to the storytelling itself. Of the three I've read so far,Treasure Island seems to suffer the most from this treatment; it certainly remains coherent, but it's not as elegantly handled as the others. I was a little disappointed with 20,000 Leagues as well, since it almost completely glosses over Nemo's motivations. This doesn't impact the story if you're unfamiliar with it, but it does render Nemo rather flat as a character.

Some of the edits, of course, have to do with space considerations. Trying to condense a several hundred page book of prose down to 72 page sof illustrations ain't easy, after all! I think Gulliver's Travels is the most successful in this regard by completely dropping the last half of the book, instead of trying to eliminate bits and pieces throughout the entirety of the text. The way Swift had written the original (as essentially four almost stand-alone adventures) it's obviously easier to do that here than with others, but there's a note at the end specifically stating that further tales are in the original.

The original books these stories come from remain literary classics for a variety of reasons. They're worth reading. They're worth getting kids interested in. These books from Stone Arch could easily be useful in that regard. Do they replace the originals? Of course not, but that's hardly the intent. If you read these, you'll have just as solid an understanding of the books as any of the movie versions of the same stories. We're not looking at "high art" here; we're looking at a teaser to get people (mainly kids) interested in "high art." And while they probably wouldn't be found in (or possibly even suitable for) your local comic shop, these are certainly worthy of discovery in the children's book section of your local big box bookstore.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Lords Of Death & Life Review

Lords of Death and Life review, the short version: Xeric winner. 'Nuff said.

Lords of Death and Life review, the long version: Jonathan Dalton actually produced the story (primarily) between 2006 and 2008, serializing it online. He then sold it as a hand-crafted, accordion-fold piece. That was, not surprisingly, a lot of work so he published it as a 'regular' book with the help of a Xeric grant. Now, if you've read this blog for any length of time, you'll know that I'm a sucker for Xeric winning books. But some I do make a greater effort to seek out. Such is the case with Dalton's book.

The story is about a Mayan named Mol Kupul. Though he lives a content life with his family, he has repeated visions of a strange being enshrouded in a blue flame. He travels to the city of Xicalango to see if he can find someone to explain these dreams to him. He's accidentally caught in a riot and taken captive by some Aztecs, one of whom tries to kill him to release his companion spirit. Mol's escape attempt is thwarted, and his spirit is released revealing itself to be Xiuhcoatl, the creature from his dreams. One of the Aztecs tries coercing Xiuhcoatl into attacking the king and, while he does get into the palace, refuses to attack the ruler. The Aztec then reveals his spirit to be Tezcatlipoca, god of sorcery and dark fate. His intent is, in fact, to instigate an war between the Aztec and Maya, hopefully obliterating both.

I'll leave off there, to encourage you to read the whole thing for yourself.

This is one of those books which reads much better in print than online. The artwork online comes across as fairly harsh in places, but the printing process mutes that harshness enough to make it feel more natural. You know how the colors of an Golden Age comic book look when printed on new, bright, glossy paper? That's the kind of difference I see here as well. Setting aside Dalton's additions to the print edition, the coloring pretty clearly indicates that it was meant to be read in print.

I must admit that I have a mild interest in the Aztec and Mayan cultures, which was one of the reasons I made a point of tracking this book down. Both cultures are largely overlooked here in the U.S. despite being very socially wealthy and impressive societies. In fact, they were so looked down upon that the anthropological definition of "civilization" was altered repeatedly to specifically exclude them.

And I think that, because of that, it will make this book a little harder for people to pick up and get into. First, because we as a society have passed over their histories, we're largely unfamiliar with how their language even looks and feels. We're familiar enough with, say, French or Japanese that we can understand naming conventions and styles. While Nicolas Sarkozy and Naoto Kan might not be household names here in the States, we're comfortable enough pronouncing and repeating them. But, since the Aztec and Mayan cultures were all but obliterated, names like Tenochtitlan and Popol Vuh seem more like randomly assembled letters than actual words. Even having studied some of this in college, it still took me a bit to pick up on Dalton's use of the Mayan calendar throughout the book.

Dalton does recognize this and has an illustrated glossary in the back. Definitely very useful. But, if you're like so many other close-minded Americans (which, if you're reading this blog, I really hope you're not) that won't be enough to overcome the not insignificant cultural barriers. And that would be a shame.

The book is really well-executed and thematically, I would think, appeal to people who like superhumans battling it out in a good-sized metropolis. As one of the comparatively few comics tackling Aztec or Mayan ideas, I think it definitely stands out in that regard and I hope encourages others to try bringing some of those cultural elements into their works. Dalton's work is really enjoyable, and I hope that "weirdness" of using some non-Western touchstones doesn't deter too many people from checking it out.

Lords of Death and Life is available from the author for $10 here.

Quick (And Inadequate) Veterans Day Commemoration

The two veterans with the most significant impact on my life: Grandpa Phil Kearney and imaginaut Jack Kirby.


Thank you.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Immonen's 50 Reasons, Take 2

Sometimes Stuart Immonen takes pictures of himself for drawing reference. Sometimes , he posts them online. Sometimes folks like me take those pictures and repurpose them as new covers for his 2006 book 50 Reasons To Stop Sketching At Conventions...

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

The Broadcast Review

Thanks first to Johanna Draper Carlson for sending me a copy of The Broadcast by Eric Hobbs and Noel Tuazon.

You know the basic story of Orson Welles' "War of the Worlds" broadcast, right? Welles and his radio troupe staged a loose adaptation of H.G. Wells' novel of the same name. The presentation was done in a style that resembled actual news reporting, and many listeners who tuned in late never heard the announcement that it was a work of fiction, therefore assuming it was a real broadcast. Hearing of this dangerous alien invasion frightened a number of people, and it's been estimated that nearly 2 million listeners believed the show to be true. However many people actually panicked to the point of behaving dangerously is a matter of some debate, but it's safe to say that a good number of people were fooled.

(I recall watching a made-for-TV movie called Special Bulletin back in 1983 which was about a group of terrorists who had a bomb in South Carolina. It was presented as actual news coverage, much the same way "War of the Worlds" was, only using the media tropes of the time. In '83 though, every commercial break prominently featured a "this is fiction" message twice and it still managed to fool enough people to clog some phone lines. So it's almost certain that Welles did indeed cause more than a little hysteria among some people.)

Anyway, that's the backdrop for The Broadcast. The main story takes place in a small Indiana town where things are going pretty much as normal for the townsfolk. They're struggling to make ends meet, they're trying to get out and make something of themselves in the world. They have their own desires, which aren't necessarily in line with everyone else's. They have their own personalities, which don't always mesh well with others'. And that's really the key to this book.

There are several characters here who all have distinctly different relationships to one another. None of whom feel like stereotypes or cliches. Which is impressive given A) the number of characters in the story and B) the ease with which some of the characters could have been written as cliches. Jacob, for example, is the resident "heavy." He's clearly upset about his situation (having to literally beg his neighbors to help feed his family) and has a lot of anger directed towards the local wealthy land-owner. But while he acts in despicable ways throughout the story, he's still trying to do what he can for his family and, in some meager ways, acts quite honorably.

The way young Gavin acts around and towards his girlfriend's father is another example. He's clearly intimidated and nervous, but still refuses to back down from the older/richer/more powerful man. And, while he is willing to do anything for the hand of his girl, he still maintains a strong relationship with his own father.

A storm knocks out the local power shortly after the Welles' broadcast begins, so the characters here all miss a significant portion of the show. Notably, the disclaimer that it's fiction. Between the raging storm and the threat of an alien invasion, the people are all put under an enormous strain and their ongoing emotions and tensions that have been restrained just under their skin are let loose. It's an excellent study of social classes and human dynamics under duress and, with the way the story progresses, it really keeps the reader on his/her toes not giving them much to predict the story's outcome.

Tuazon's artwork did take me a bit to get used to. He works here in a loose, scratchy style which I'll admit isn't what I'm generally drawn to. That said, though Tuazon's character delineations were surprisingly clear and he was able to consistently portray the characters as unique individuals even with a few pen strokes. The storytelling, too, is generally very smooth; I only stumbled briefly around the introduction of Marvin.

Ultimately, what I really liked about the book was that it had a number of really strong characters, and it was those characters and their interactions that drove the plot. But more, the characters were all expounded on by their actions in the story itself; we learn about them all by what they do. A strong plot that's driven entirely by strong characters. Using "War of the Worlds" as a hook might not have been necessary but it does make for an interesting lure for readers who might otherwise pass this one by. And that's something that we should ensure happens as infrequently as possible: The Broadcast is definitely NOT one that should be passed by.

Monday, November 08, 2010

Time To Read

My parents both heavily encouraged my brother and I to read as we were growing up. Regular and frequent trips to the local library, and almost every gift-giving occasion resulting in at least a few books as presents. Dad built bookcases into several walls throughout the house, and I think we had at least one standalone bookshelf in every room (and hall!) in the house, except the half-bath. My folks read to us when we were too young to read and, even when things were financially tight, Mom somehow managed to scrape together enough for something when the Scholastic Book Club order sheet came home from school. I recall that Dad always had three or four books going at any given time; he kept one in the car, one in his briefcase and one next to his chair in the family room.

When a new couple moved in next door (I think when I was in my early teens) she was absolutely dumb-struck by seeing the bookcases in the family room. "I have never seen so many books in one place before!" I was incredulous because, though I had learned we had more books than most families, it certainly didn't even remotely compare with our small town local library, much less the awe-inspiring (to me at that age) one at the nearby community college. I assumed she MUST have meant "in a personal collection."

I've had a few people note to me at work how impressive it is that I read so much. Not immediate co-workers, just random folks who I see from time to time in the break room or wherever. They've said that they should read more but never have the time (or whatever the excuse du jour is) and how it's really great to see someone reading as much as I do. I don't think I read that much. Maybe for 30-45 minutes or so on my lunch hour three or four days a week. (This is not counting comics, obviously.) But apparently that was significant enough that it was noticed by people I don't know and note-worthy enough for them to comment on to a total stranger.

It was around that time that I saw Matt Blind comment on some reading statistics he had come across. A third of Americans don't read even one book a year. 40-ish percent of households (not individuals, mind you, but households) do not purchase ANY books. Two-thirds of Americans never set foot in a bookstore.

Given those stats (and some of the others like it that Blind references) it's not nearly as surprising that people are taken aback by someone who actually, you know, reads.

This weekend, I caught a bit of Bill Maher's latest Real Time in which he was dumbfounded by the fact that so many Americans just voted against their best interests. He posed the question to his panelists: "Why would people do that?" The short answer I quipped back to the screen -- but no one on the show managed to even touch on -- refers back to all those people who don't read. My answer, in it's entirety was: "Because Americans are idiots."

This country has long been enamored with the idea that we're powerful because we're bigger than everybody else. Physical prowess is what's honored here. So much so that it's become part of our culture to look down on intelligence. That's why the lowest paid athletes still bring home far more in their paycheck than what the most highly respected educators do. I've argued this last point at least since high school. But commentators like Maureen Dowd and Seth Godin have recently noted the trend worsening.

So here's what I'm going to suggest... READ. Read everything you can get your hands on. Read whenever you're able. I don't care what it is. Fiction or non-fiction, obscure or popular, old or current.... just READ. You get ideas from reading. You get your brain to think of things that you might not have thought of by yourself. You get to consider thoughts and opinions of people beyond yourself.

Unlike television, reading is an active medium. It engages you and your brain. It makes you focus on the ideas and their significance. You can't really just parrot a book's text as you can a talking head from the idiot box.

I know that our school system really discourages reading. (Despite lip service to the contrary.) I know you got through school and felt relieved that you never have to read another book ever again. But here's the beauty of reading for yourself: there will NEVER be a test on what you choose to read. If you skip over parts you don't care for, or put a book away unfinished, or just plain forgot half of it, IT DOESN'T MATTER. You take from a book what YOU find interesting and useful.

READ.

In public. Let other people see you read. All the time. Let people see you every day in the break room or on the train or at the airport or wherever you are. Let them see that reading is NOT just an aberration for you, but something that you actively choose do on a regular basis. Oh, it's totally old school passive-aggressive guilt, but if you do it enough, people do start feeling embarrassed that they don't read more. That's where those folks were coming from when they commented to me about it.

I'm not out here trying to save the book industry or anything like that. If book sales rise dramatically, that's awesome, but it's not where I'm coming from. I'm just tired of dealing with idiots all the time and want to raise the intellectual bar here a bit. Because that one-third of Americans who don't even read one book a year? That two-thirds that has never set foot in a bookstore? Those are the people electing our officials. And that should scare the shit out of you.

Sunday, November 07, 2010

Me & Schaffenberger

Kurt Schaffenberger holds an odd place in my brain as far as comics artists go. The comics I read at a very young age were largely DC books from the early to mid-1970s. Mostly their big heroes. So lots of Curt Swan and Neal Adams and Jim Aparo and all those cats. Looking back, it strikes me as interesting that, except for Batman, it seemed that every time I picked up a book with a certain character in it, it was drawn by the same guy. I wasn't actually reading the credits at the early age, but every time I saw Superman, he was drawn by Swan. Every time I saw Green Arrow, he was drawn by Adams. Every time I saw the Flash, he was drawn by Irv Novick. There was, as far as I was concerned, only one way to draw Superman and that was how Swan did it.

(Curious side note, my Batman comics of that time alternated between Adams and Aparo. But I was apparently too young to discern any appreciable difference between them, and I've held more of a melded image of Batman in my head at that time. I think I had a few Nick Cardy drawn stories, too, which I could tell were somehow different but, I think, only in that Batman's cape seemed a little short.)

While I had a decent range of DC superhero comics back then, I did not have any of their then-recent revival of Captain Marvel. I somehow missed the Filmation cartoon and the live-action series (although I must've seen at least one episode of the latter as I do have extremely vague recollections of Les Tremayne's role in the show for some reason). Most of my familiarity with the Marvel family came from a set of ViewMaster reels and the Little Golden Book pictured at the right.

Shazam: A Circus Adventure was published in 1977. It was written by Bob Ottum and drawn by Schaffenberger (misspelled "Shafenburger"). It was, as I recall, a silly story of the Marvel family stepping in to perform all the acts in a circus because the regular performers had walked out. They did a trapeze act with no trapezes and some old school lion taming, and there was a particularly embarrassing looking clown outfit for Captain Marvel himself at one point. But because of the superhero angle, it held the longest shelf-life of any of the Little Golden books I read as a child.

Now what struck me, at least a little while later, was when I picked up Super Friends #32, which also features art by Schaffenberger. I recall noticing that, not only did Superman not look like the Swan version I was familiar with, but he looked a lot like Captain Marvel. A lot. As in, "That's not really Superman, that's Shazam in Superman's costume!" (Bear in mind, I was eight years old at the time, so not only did I not understand the distinction between Captain Marvel and Shazam, but I also couldn't accept that Superman might be drawn by somebody other than Curt Swan. Although, I strangely never seemed to have issues with reprint material by the likes of Joe Shuster and Wayne Boring.)

I have another vague recollection of re-reading Super Friends a couple years later, and realizing then that it obviously wasn't Captain Marvel wearing red and blue tights, it just happened to be the same artist who worked on both stories. And by then I had seen Schaffenberger's work in a few other places. Rarely any of the big name titles, and usually characters whose "look" was defined (for me) by other artists.

Today, decades later, I still don't have a very large collection of comics featuring Schaffenberger art. But I'm always quick to notice his style, probably as he was the first comic artist that I recognized beyond a single character. There always seems to be a classy simplicity about his work and, as I think about it, probably helped to pre-dispose me to the elegant brushwork of Joe Sinnott once I started reading Marvel titles. It also helped define how the Marvel family "should" be drawn, and Schaffenberger's version remains my default visual for Captain Marvel.

Even when he's wearing Superman's costume.

Saturday, November 06, 2010

Amelia Earhart This Broad Ocean Review

Another shout-out to Kate Dacey for sending me her copy of Amelia Earhart: This Broad Ocean. She wanted to make sure the book found a good home, and I hope that the book finds my humble abode suitable. Thanks again, Kate!

The book is a partial biography of Amelia Earhart. Deliberately partial, I should note. Most of the story takes place during June 1928. Earhart was still early in her career as a pilot, and was racing to be the first woman to cross the Atlantic ocean by plane. She wouldn't be flying it herself, but she would certainly contribute more to the trip than her non-pilot competitors like Mabel Boll.

The story is actually told through the eyes of budding reporter Grace "Nosy Nelly" Goodland. She's a young teenager from Trepassey, Newfoundland and takes a keen interest when Earhart, her pilot and her mechanic show up with the intention of using the harbor as launching point for their trans-Atlantic journey. The crew then spend the next couple of weeks repeatedly attempting to launch their flight, which is repeatedly thwarted due to weather and/or weight issues with the plane. With their extended stay, Goodland is able to find out a few things about Earhart and her pilot.

As I'm sitting here writing this review, it only now occurs to me that not much actually happens in the book. Earhart's team hangs out in Trepassey for a couple weeks before taking off, all the while Goodland follows them (primarily Earhart) around. Even when Goodland lands an interview with Earhart and she expands on how she got interested in flying in general and with this flight in particular, there's not a lot to expound on.

Which makes the book sound tediously dull.

Which it isn't.

I think most Americans are at least aware of Earhart and her famous final flight. I can't recall how many comics, let alone stories in general, pick up on the "what happened to Amelia" plot thread. But I suspect considerably fewer people know of her life and accomplishments prior to that flight. Who Earhart was and, more importantly, what she meant to other women at the time. And that is one of the crucial elements to This Broad Ocean. It really isn't a biography about Amelia Earhart. It does indeed have biographic elements (including a detailed set of annotations in the back) but that's not really the point of the story.

The book is more about women's role in Western society in the late 1920s and early 1930s. Who did young girls look up to as role models back then and why? In the days before the 24/7 media circus of famous-for-being-famous celebrities, what was it about certain women that put them in spotlight, and make others strive to reach the same types of achievements? There were progressive women like Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton who worked for equal women's rights from a political standpoint, it was women like Earhart who indirectly moved a more cultural agenda by providing an emotionally attractive and concrete set of aspirations through their examples.

In 1928, there was no Wonder Woman. Or Lois Lane. Or Nancy Drew. Or Princess Leia. Or Lara Croft. Pop culture in America didn't yet have icons for women, and women like Earhart filled that void. This Broad Ocean really speaks to just how powerful and important she was. Certainly to the character of Goodland, but also to thousands of other women just like her. Writer Sarah Stewart Taylor and artist Ben Towle have crafted an understated, but still powerful tale that lets the reader see a little about who Amelia Earhart was but, more poignantly, what she meant. And still means.

Friday, November 05, 2010

Stan Lee Floored By Original FF#12 Art

In the footage below, Joe Maddalena of the Profiles in History auction house sits down with Stan Lee to show him the original artwork from Fantastic Four #12. It's one of the few Marvel stories from that time where the original art is complete and in one place.

I find the video interesting for a couple of reasons. First, Lee makes a comment about his drawing quick layout sketches on the backs of Jack Kirby's art boards. I knew that and had made mention of it last month but this is the first time I've heard it right from Lee's own mouth. Second, I've seen (reprints of) some Marvel art pages from that time period and find the interplay between Lee and Kirby fascinating. Although he may not have seen them, as he states, many of Lee's notes have survived on art boards. However, Kirby's notes tend to take over more and more as their partnership progressed. It's interesting to see here how prevalent Lee's notes are at this time. Third, and most significant to me, is that we see Lee here largely drop his typical "always on" persona that we're all familiar with. He seems so stunned by the find that he essentially falls out of character, and provides an amazingly genuine reaction.

I don't have cable to watch SyFy, but I might have to see if I can track down this episode of Hollywood Treasure when it airs.

Thursday, November 04, 2010

Of Hobbyism, Logos & Innovation

Over at The Learned Fangirl, Keidra responds to a Salon article in which the author rails against National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) as a "breeding ground of sub-standard literature, filling amateur novelists with false hope of publication and a potential audience." Keidra goes on to make a distinction between writing-as-a-profession and writing-as-a-hobby, and take umbrage that the Salon author can't seem to even fathom a distinction there. I respond there with a note about the teachings of capitalism and Western vs Eastern philosophies. The parallels with comics creation should be obvious.

Over at Modern Alchemy, Matt begins an examination of Fantastic Four logos used over the years. This first post focuses on the original design and its modifications over the years. My response there adds in a few obscure/esoteric details.

This morning, I attended a webinar hosted by Beth Comstock (Senior VP of Marketing at GE) featuring Chris Trimble, author of The Other Side of Innovation. He spoke mainly about trying to be innovative in a corporate culture that generally runs at direct odds at innovation. What was striking (from a comics perspective) was that how he showed just how badly corporations are being innovative -- even places like Google. It's easy to see how/why big corporate publishers like Marvel and DC, while allegedly in the business of being creative, inadvertently stifle themselves all the time. And I don't mean this to be malicious towards those publishers; it's just the nature of being a large corporation almost inherently puts you at odds with generating new ideas. I was reminded of a anecdote from the 1980s when somebody asked what Jack Kirby thought the next big thing in comics was going to be. He responded that he didn't know, but it would almost certainly come from some person you'd never heard of working out of his basement or back room.

Also, in a comics nod, Trimble referred to as myth the notion of some lone individual in an organization that comes up with a brilliantly innovative idea and fights the corporate bureaucracy to see it realized. This "Innovation Man" as he called him (Trimble's drawing below) was only as real as Superman. Which is to say: that never happens in real life.

Finally, I'll unfortunately be out of town during this weekend's Mid-Ohio-Con but the S.O. and I will be dining with the State Representative Elect of Illinois' 56th district and her family. That's not really comic related at all, but I'm really proud of and thrilled for Michelle; she and I go back almost 20 years and I know how hard she's worked for this. Congrats again, 'Chelle!

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Ultimate Warrior Review

Thanks to Heidi MacDonald for alerting me to Alvin Greene's Ultimate Warrior comic so I could make today's post election related! Of course, then I actually read Ultimate Warrior so I might have to rescind that thanks.

Alvin Greene, for those who don't know, was the Democratic nominee running for Senate in South Carolina. He was note-worthy mainly for securing the nomination out of seemingly nowhere. He was also later indicted on felony obscenity charges for showing pornography to a university student. The incidents managed to rankle more than a few feathers and he was even snubbed by the party by not being invited to the official Democratic post-election party, despite his being their candidate!

At Greene's own sparsely-attended post-election party, he announced he would now be focusing his attention on his new Ultimate Warrior comic book in which he is portrayed as a superhero. "I will save your house and your job."

The initial five page story is available as a free download from his campaign site. The story is evidently by Greene himself with art by Bob Raymond, who also acted as "story consultant."

In the comic, Greene (I presume that's who the main character is intended to be; he's not actually named anywhere) is given a dishonorable discharge for saying that he was confused about some reports out of Iraq that he couldn't authenticate. While he's walking the streets, he sees a homeless vet. He then encounters a woman being evicted. He beats up the movers hauling out her sofa, but happens to have his shirt opened, revealing part of his costume. The woman cries a relieved, "I don't believe it. You're him!" but promises not to tell anyone. So Greene(?) hands her a large wad of cash and then chases after some guy who happened to be standing in a trenchcoat nearby. The two run into a library, and Greene(?) loses the other man among the stacks. As he searches the stacks, some girl asks him to help her with her term paper on "the effects of microwave electromagnetic field irradiation on glioblastoma cell lines." He promptly sits down to start helping and some totally new guy stands in the shadows and says, "We can use this to get rid of him once and for all."

The end.

If you think I've left something out or skimmed over some critical details, feel free to download the book and read it yourself. I'm pretty confident that it'll leave you scratching your head. It really doesn't make a lick of sense. I don't think it's Raymond's fault here. The individual panel-to-panel transitions aren't hard to follow. Problems like the fact that none of the characters are ever named and that the protagonist's catch-phrase (and I swear I'm not making this up) is the amazingly clunky and awkward "Something's not right!" suggest that the person doing the majority of the writing isn't really a writer.

Honestly, I came to the book with a pretty positive attitude. Yeah, maybe there was some shadiness around his nomination and he didn't seem to take the campaign seriously at all, but I thought that using a national platform to launch an independent comic with a black protagonist would be kind of cool. Greene has some name-recognition so maybe that could play into even more/better coverage of comics from the mainstream press.

But no. This book sucks. The art's not bad (even though it doesn't look like Greene at all) but the "story" is all but incomprehensible. I've read fiction by nine-year-olds that is A) more creative and B) more cohesive. I'm not being hyperbolic there; I would definitely prefer reading my friend's kid's Taco-shima stories (shout out to Nick!) than any more of this drivel.

So there you go. Yet another political disappointment on top of the dozens of others you might have experienced today.

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Get A Free Comic Book Fanthropology Hardcover!

Warning: shameless shilling below...

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Monday, November 01, 2010

Thoughts On Sales Numbers

OK, the big news piece that I'm sure will be making (or has already made) the rounds by the time you see this is John Jackson Miller's latest sales analysis. As always, he provides an excellent analysis from some heavy number-crunching. The bottom line, if you haven't read it, is that "There's more sales volume 'bubbling under' than there used to be" and that many more comics are being sold than the typical Top 300 that we normally hear about.

But let me throw a wrinkle out there. It's this piece from Tom Brevoort in Friday's T&A over at Comic Book Resources...
As I understand it, in the panel that David was in speaking about digital comics, he said that our digital comics sales had been really successful and that as a result of that, beginning in January we'd be able to start pricing some of our upcoming limited series and other releases at $2.99.

What's noteworthy here is that the money Marvel is making from their digital sales -- which, I would like to emphasize, are NOT considered in the regular sales numbers -- is sufficient enough to at least partially subsidize their printed comics. Obviously, that doesn't speak to precise numbers, far from it, but it does strongly suggest that digital comic sales are reasonably healthy considering that their current digital comics initiative only began just over a year ago.

I'm not a subscriber to MDCU, but from what I can tell, their digital subscriptions are running about a year behind the printed versions. So digital sales obviously wouldn't directly correspond to print sales. That is, someone who regularly reads Fantastic Four in print is getting a different story from someone regularly reading digitally. Possibly with entirely different creative teams and/or overall thematic directions. Which means that, if a reader follows particular creators, their reading habits online are likely going to have a year-long lag compared against print.

However, if a reader is interested in following characters, then reading Amazing Spider-Man online, while a different story than what's currently available in print, is still, in effect, a "current" sale of the book. They'd read Amazing Spider-Man regardless of how "current" the storyline is.

Interestingly, this is not that different from what happens with trade paperback sales. Joe Average, standing in his local Barnes & Noble, doesn't care so much how "current" the latest story is, he just wants to read a good Captain America story. He'll pick up something off the shelf, often irrespective of when it was originally written. He's just making a financial 'vote' for the character, not the current-ness of the continuity. If you play the "wait for the trade" game, you've inherently bought into the notion that you're willing to hang somewhat behind the continuity curve.

The point of all this? That the numbers Miller was looking at represent essentially just the people who have, by and large, been reading pamphlet comics on a regular basis for some time. The digital readers, by and large, represent another set of readers ON TOP OF that. So while pamphlet sales have remained relatively flat on an individual title basis, we not only have more titles out there selling better -- that 'bubbling under' Miller refers to -- but we have a growing contingent of readers who are still interested in the Hulk and Thor and Black Panther and all the other classic Marvel (and I would have to presume DC) heroes, but aren't being counted in these numbers AT ALL.

Now, it might seem fairly self-evident that a reader buying pamphlet comics at the local comic shop is not likely to be the same person buying them digitally as well. And it might seem fairly self-evident that there's potential there to reach a wider audience since the distribution method inherently has a wider reach. But let me reiterate what Brevoort alluded to: DIGITAL COMIC SALES AT MARVEL ARE SUBSTANTIAL ENOUGH TO PARTIALLY SUBSIDIZE LOWER PRICES ON PAMPHLET COMICS. Not all pamphlet comics, obviously. And not the whole price of comics either. But that it's significant enough to justify not increasing all of their price points? I think that indicates there's a HUGE market in legitimate digital comics that Marvel only just started tapping into.

And with the color Nook on the way and increasing distribution of iPads, I think there's something big there. Really, really big. I don't think it's a death knell for comic shops any more than Amazon or eBay has been, but this is big. I think it signals a shift in how publishers, particularly the largest ones, are setting themselves up for how they earn their profits down the road. Or at least how they're trying to set themselves up. How long will it be before it's the pamphlet sales that are subsidizing the digital books?