Monday, February 28, 2011

Bertram A. Fitzgerald

Let's close out Black History Month with a look at Bertram A. Fitzgerald.

In 1966, at the age of 34, Fitzgerald jumped in to the comic book publishing business, despite having no background in writing or publishing. He had been disillusioned with biographies of writers like Dumas and Pushkin, whose African heritage had been almost completed and deliberately eschewed. So he got an old army acquaintance, Leo Carty, to draw up a comic book biography of Toussaint L'Ouverture, leader of the Haitian Revolution of the late 1700s. Though he had difficulty finding a printer and distributors for the book, he went ahead with a second issue of Golden Legacy focusing on Harriet Tubman.

Frustrated with the distribution problems, he spoke with the folks at Coca-Cola and persuaded them to help. For the price of running ads on the back cover, Coke had the subsequent volumes printed and shipped to schools and libraries free of charge. The first eleven issues were published in this manner. Fitzgerald managed to strike similar deals with the likes of Avon Cosmetics, AT&T, Woolworths, Exxon, Columbia Pictures and McDonalds for another five issues.

In 1976, Fitzgerald tried another comic that was a little more mainstream. Fast Willie Jackson was similar in style and tone to Archie but featured a predominantly African-American cast. Though it did garner standard newsstand distribution, it was discontinued after seven issues. He also produced a drug awareness comic during this time as a public service publication.

Fitzgerald ran into some legal issues in 1983 when a con artist managed to (temporarily) convince people he had acquired the rights to Golden Legacy. Fitzgerald spent several years in court to secure his books back and try to receive some monetary award. Coupled with some significant incidents of racism he experienced, he got out of publishing to work for he New York City Mayor's Office.

The Golden Legacy books are still being published to this day, although I can't say how much direct involvement Fitzgerald still has with them. I know they made an impact on me as a teen (which I talked a bit about way back in 2006) and I'm sure quite a few other folks as well. It's probably high time I pulled those books out again for another reading.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

McDuffie's "To Hell & Back"

Like many folks, I was saddened to hear about the loss of Dwayne McDuffie last week. I didn't really have anything to add, and I opted not to rehash what others have said better than I could. But I did find in my archives this outline he had done back in 1987. It was for a proposed Fantastic Four graphic novel that ultimately never got made. I had saved it from McDuffie's old site around 2000 when he was still on AOL. Anyway, since it doesn't look like it's on his site now, I thought I'd post it here...

"To Hell And Back!"

Years ago, while still a graduate student at Columbia University, REED RICHARDS lives at the boardinghouse of JEWEL DINKINS. Jewel is the aunt of twelve-year-old SUSAN STORM and her younger brother, JOHNNY. Reed is hard at work on the "Star-drive" that he hopes will someday propel a spaceship to another solar system.

Despite Mrs. Dinkins' repeated warnings not to "open space-warps in the house," Reed has a small device in his room that he tinkers with incessantly. Whenever he tests it by opening a small dimensional "wormhole," Jewel appears to give him a firm dressing-down concerning the rules of her household. "How does she always know?", Reed wonders as he thumbs the warp closed with a remote control unit.

Reed also wonders, to the extent that he notices, what to do about the painful adolescent crush that Sue ("Susan", she insists) has on him. For her part Sue is equally embarrassed as her attempts to be seductively ladylike are frustrated at every turn by her omnipresent kid brother.

The big news in the boardinghouse these days is the impending visit of Reed's old roommate, All-American football star (Heisman Trophy winner? What position did he play? And what did he get his degree in anyway, Aviation? Also, why didn't he play pro ball?) Ben Grimm, who is coming by (perhaps on leave from the Air Force?) to spend some time with his old buddy.

On the roof of Jewel's brownstone, Johnny shows Sue the toy Reed built for him, a remote-controlled flying vehicle (which may visually prefigure the "flying bathtub" Fantasticar). They argue about Reed. Johnny thinks that Reed is too cool to be interested in "mushy stuff". Sue contends that Reed loves her. "He just doesn't know it yet."

Meanwhile, Jewel has let in a visitor, an old classmate of Reed's, and calls Reed down to meet him. The figure, who wears a hooded cloak that shrouds his face, is known to Reed but isn't who he expected. He is VICTOR VON DOOM. Doom claims, in an especially unconvincing manner, that his arrival is coincidence. He simply needs a room, and although this place isn't up to his usual standards... Sue and Johnny enter the sitting room. Johnny races towards Doom shouting, "Mister Grimm?" Doom pushes him away and Johnny hits the floor. Sue threatens, "You hit my brother again and I'll pound you !" "I don't need my dumb sister to stick up for me, I'll pound him myself!", Johnny protests.

"Don't call your sister 'dumb', kid. She was just lookin out for ya." It's Ben Grimm, standing in the doorway. "Hi, stretch. You didn't tell me this was a class reunion. I like the hood, Doomsie. But if I had a puss like yours, I'd do the public a favor and stay off the street !"

Ignoring Ben, Doom comes on courtly with Jewel. He made a mistake, Johnny surprised him. With Reed's encouragement, Jewel gives Doom a room. Doom retires to it.

Reed makes introductions. Johnny is impressed by Ben and adds to his sister's introduction. "She's Reed's fiancé." Embarrassment all around. Johnny is confused, Ben amused. Jewel shoos Sue and Johnny away to prepare for dinner, then leaves herself. On the way out, Sue smacks Johnny on the head. "What'd I dooo?", he whines.

Ben wants to know why Reed encouraged Jewel to let Doom stay. Doom has been obsessed with proving he's Reed's superior ever since "the accident."

FLASHBACK to Reed and Doom's first confrontation.

Reed suspects Doom is up to no good again, and wants to keep an eye on him. Ben concurs uneasily, then invites Reed to hit some nightclubs with him. Reed agrees. Ben wants to know if Reed'll ask Sue to fix him up with one of her friends, as he "don't want to be no third wheel." "Give me a break, Ben."

Much later, Jewel is checking up on the peacefully sleeping Johnny when Sue calls her into the next room, "Hurry Auntie, it's coming on !" Jewel enters the den, and sits on the couch next to Sue. They begin to watch The Avengers on television. Sue wants to be Mrs. Peel.

Reed and Ben are at a table in a Village nightclub. As a jazz trio plays behind them, Reed tells Ben about his plans for a spaceship. Even with the government's help, he's already spent over half of his considerable inheritance. However, he remains confident that he can solve the remaining technical and financial obstacles to his spaceflight. As once before, he asks Ben to fly his ship on its maiden voyage but this time he means it. Ben accepts, truly honored. They shake hands. A longtime friendship deepens.

Doom sneaks into Reed's room and ponders Reed's warp projection apparatus. Just as he thought, this will do. He attaches leads from a potentiometer-like device to the warp projector and opens a warp. "Yes, with a few, simple adjustments... Soon, Mother. Soon..."

"Mrs. Peel, we're nee...--fissssszt--" Back in the den, The TV picture turns to static. "Hey !", Sue complains. Jewel gets up muttering that "Reed's got that thing on again." Sue follows her out of the room.

Sue and Jewel discover Doom testing Reed's equipment. "What do you think you're doing?" Doom uses "the mists of Morpheus" or somesuch to put them to sleep.

Sometime later, Ben and Reed return to the boardinghouse. Ben banters as Reed pays for the cab. "I think the redhead would have gone with me if you'd've taken her friend." Johnny interrupts, running down the front steps in his pj's. "Aunt Jewel and Sue are 'sleep and won't wake up!"

By the time they arrive in Reed's room, Jewel and Sue are awake again but confused. "Doom!," Reed exclaims. Ben adds, "Hey, he stole your doohickey!" Jewel confirms, filling Ben and Reed in on what happened. "He just waved his hands and we fell asleep like magic," Sue finishes breathlessly. "Probably some sort of hypnosis," Reed allows. "What could Doom want with my warp drive?"

Doom explains his scheme-and the incredible apparatus surrounding them-to Boris. A few adjustments to Reed's projector and he can open a portal to Hell that his dead mother's spirit can pass. By using "Mephisto's Tears" -mystical gems somehow connected to the demon- the portal will bar Mephisto himself.

Johnny is flying his toy around. It annoys Jewel but gives Reed an idea. They can use the remote control to turn the projector on wherever it is. A device in Reed's Columbia University lab can detect the projector's signature radiation and they can find out where it is.

Sue and Johnny plan to go with. Sue is dressed in a black leotard and ballet shoes, the closest she can come to an Emma Peel jumpsuit. Johnny refuses to wear a bowler.

Sue and Johnny arrive in the vestibule, ready to go. Both Reed and Jewel insist, "No!" Ben says to Reed, "Sure, we're just gonna go get your doohickey back. Let's give Mrs. Dinkins a break and take 'em along."

At his Columbia lab, Reed tries to turn on his projector by remote control. No go, it's out of range. If only they had a more powerful transmitter. Ben's got an idea. Reed thinks it could work. Johnny and Ben go off to the college transmitter. Reed explains the plan to Sue who embarrasses the hell out of him by flirting shamelessly, if inexpertly.

Ben and Johnny sneak past a guard at Columbia's WKCR radio transmitter. Johnny "cries," distracting the other guard, who Ben grabs in a bear hug from the rear and tosses into a closet. They then reset the frequency of the transmitter, in effect turning the entire station into a remote control for Reed's projector. "Hope the FCC doesn't hear about this," Ben mutters.

As Doom continues to prepare his spell/experiment, Reed's warp projector suddenly switches itself on. "Richards is often more intelligent than I give him credit for. Still, he is too late. I am ready."

Back at Reed's lab, Sue helps Reed pinpoint the energy surge on a map. Ben calls and gets directions.

Everyone meets outside of a warehouse. Reed is holding a detection device and proclaims, "This is the place. Ben and I are going in. You two stay right here." Ben disagrees. "No way we're leaving them outside in this neighborhood at this time o' night. They'll be safer in there with Doom!"

The pre-fantastic four enter through an ominously open front door and head up the stairs. Steel bars shoot up and form a cage around them. Ben can't budge them. Doom reveals his plot and boasts of his genius. His melding of Science and Magic has accomplished something that neither could alone. He tells them about his mother. Reed explains the set-up but doesn't understand the mystical aspect. Doom laughs. Sue listens very carefully. Doom turns back to his preparations.

The Pre-FF discuss the morality of the situation. Reed doesn't believe in Hell and wonders what Doom is really up to. Johnny thinks that trying to save your mom isn't such an evil thing. Sue agrees, it won't hurt to let him try. "Yeah," says Ben. "Let him use the doohickey. Then punch him out!" At least they all agree that they have to get out of the cage. No problem. Sue squeezes between the bars. Johnny doesn't even have to squeeze. With directions from Reed, Sue opens the cage. Doom doesn't have time to fool with them. He sics primitive Doombots on them.

Ben takes a poke at one, probably breaking his hand. Sue takes a powder. Reed is distant, thinking it out. Johnny buzzes a bunch of them with his flying toy. Three of the robots chase the toy out of a window and fall to the ground several stories below. The toy flies back in. "Not too bright," Johnny says. Reed has found the control panel and gives Ben instructions how to turn the robots off. Ben runs through the robots like a kick-off return specialist as robots close threateningly on Johnny and Sue. After making his way through the bulk of them, even tricking some into crashing into each other, Ben's way is blocked by one last robot. There's no way around it. Reed bowls it over by blocking it across the knees. Ben shuts them down and they freeze in mid-motion. Sue pushes over the one that was reaching for her. Reed is shaken up but okay. All of this is too late. Doom finishes his spell.

A mystical portal opens at the center of Doom's apparatus, debris sails across the chamber. Demons and spirits pour out freely and the warp widens. Mephisto's Tears are not acting as a barrier the way Doom thought they would. Reed says that Doom didn't consider negative pressure. Obviously this dimension Doom's tapped into has a higher energy density than our own. The warp will widen, and draw in ever greater amounts of matter, perhaps the entire city, before the effect exhausts itself. Ben is disinterested in the lecture. "How do ya shut the blasted thing off?" Reed turns off the projector with his remote control. Nothing happens. "Ben, disconnect the power supply!" Ben rips a heavy power cable from the apparatus. Sparks fly, and the effect is reversed, everything in the lab is sucked towards the warp, which is shrinking, but not quickly enough.

Sue notices that a scrap of paper inside of the pentagram isn't moving. It's safe in there. Reed doesn't see why this should be but hauls the unconscious Doom into the safety zone nonetheless. Ben does the same with Boris. Johnny and Sue are also safe inside the pentagram. Reed does some quick calculation and realizes that at the moment before the warp closes, there will be a point singularity in the room with them. Even if a full-fledged black hole isn't formed, there will an incredibly dense object suddenly appearing in real space. It will create intense gravitic waves and deadly radiation fully sufficient to destroy the Earth. It shouldn't be happening but it is. There has to be some way to cut it off from whatever its energy source is. "I know what it is!," Sue says. "It's magic!" She fastens her lipstick to the side of Johnny's flying car and tells him to draw a star around Mephisto's Tears just like the one they're standing in. Johnny draws a pentagram around the tears and the warp disappears. The Tears, which were hovering a foot above the ground, fall to the floor in the pentagram's center.

Doom awakens just in time to see the warp close. His mother's spirit, along with all of the others, Johnny's toy, and Reed's projector are all pulled spectacularly to the warp, then trapped on the other side. Doom curses Reed and launches himself at him. Ben intercepts, flattening Doom with a hard right. Boris rushes to Doom's aid. "You want some too, pal?" He does not. As the Pre-FF are intruders on Doom's property they decide to get out. Doom nurses his busted lip, clutching the Tears in his hand and hiding the tears on his face. Today's indignities will not be forgotten. But, if he is to free his mother, he must first learn more magic.

In Hell, Mephisto laughs at Doom's failure. He's been watching the whole thing. When Doom is ready to try again, he will be waiting.

Meanwhile, in a deserted corner of Mephisto's realm, the warp projector lays ignored only a few feet from Johnny's broken toy.

Back at the boardinghouse, Ben says his good-byes. He's sure that they'll all meet again. "Yes," Reed muses. "We do make quite a team, don't we?"

A giant two-or-three page splash illustrates highlights of the Fantastic Four's career aided by a series of captions that go something like this: "A daring spaceflight. A billion-to-one accident. The discovery of power. And of purpose. Righting wrongs. Saving worlds. Discovering new worlds. Love, marriage, life. Heartbreak, separation, death. Secrets revealed. Victories won. And...a loose end or two..." At the last, we see an inset panel of Reed's warp projector coming to life where it lies half-buried in Hell.

It's the present. The Thing is walking the streets in his somewhat concealing trenchcoat. There'll be captions to let us know that this is the Ben we met in the first half of the story. He sees a car spin out of control and smash into a wall. Throwing aside his trenchcoat [this is the first time we see him clearly -now we know what the caption was referring to when it spoke of him gaining the power to do a price], he rushes to the side of the badly crushed car. When he tears the car's roof off he reveals Mrs. Dinkins. She's older, he only met her once -and that years ago- but he remembers her. "Lady, are you alright? Hey, don't I know you?" Jewel claps her palms over the Thing's ears. He howls in pain and grabs his ringing head. She punches him in the face with a roundhouse right. The impact sends him sailing through the air. He lands in a heap at the foot of a building and struggles gamely to his feet. "It's clobberin' time..." he offers weakly. Indeed it is. Jewel pulls the pin from a hand grenade with her teeth, then extends the arm in front of her so that it is pointing towards the Thing. Her arm detaches midway between elbow and shoulder and flies off, rocket exhaust streaming from its rear. The new angle reveals that the arm she punched the Thing with is now a twisted mass of metal and wires. The other arm, with a live grenade clenched in its fist slams into the wall behind the still-dazed Thing, exploding and burying him under tons of rubble.

Johnny Storm, "the Human Torch," and his wife Alicia are taking advantage of Indian Summer with a walk through the country. Johnny is shocked to see Aunt Jewel, who appears from nowhere asking for help. Johnny sits Alicia on a bench and follows Jewel to a nine foot wide metal pipe set into the side of a hill. Using his finger as a light source, he follows Jewel down the long pipe until they reach its end: an iris. Jewel pushes a button and the iris opens. A wall of water pours out at deadly speed. Johnny bursts into flames -except for his arms- and grabbing Jewel under the arms, flies towards the open end of the pipe. The water is gaining on him. We are looking at the exterior of the pipe when abruptly, water rushes out, dumping an extinguished and unconscious Johnny , and a "broken" Jewel on the ground.

Sue Richards, "the Invisible Woman" finishes a charity performance that allows us to see the range of her powers. She finally makes it to her dressing room where, no surprise by now, Jewel is waiting for her. Sue greets her warmly. "Aunt Jewel! I didn't know you were going to be here tonight." As she hugs her, Jewel injects her with a hypodermic hidden in her index finger. Sue falls to the ground unconscious.

Reed Richards is at a big university's particle accelerator looking at some fusion-power research. Jewel appears but Reed isn't buying it, he recognizes the subtle but tell-tale motion that gives away even the best robots. He stretches towards it to attack. Jewel discharges a massive amount of electricity into Reed's body. Reed writhes in pain as only he can and then, mercifully, passes out.

The Fantastic Four awaken in a gigantic room in Doom's castle. They are each bound in traps designed to neutralize their powers. Johnny floats in a tube of liquid; his arms behind his back, his feet lashed together, and an oxygen mask obscuring his face. Ben has been cast into a solid block of metal, only his neck and head are free. Reed is in a plastic bubble [actually that's kind of boring -maybe he's wound painfully around some kind of reel?-I'm still working on this but I'll think of something]. Sue's arms are bound behind her and her head is in some Kirbyesque helmet to prevent her from using her force-field powers. They are all facing a platform -almost a stage- that is dominated by a large screen. On the platform is Doom, who stands at the center of an apparatus that looks like an updated and much more powerful version of the one he tried to use to free his mother years ago. Doom's armor has been altered in a high-tech and visually appealing manner. Reed might comment that it looks like an ELF reception web has been bonded to his armor. Doom begins to explain what he's up to. The Fantastic Four were all present when he suffered his most humiliating failure. Now they will watch him succeed at the same task. He has a new approach to the problem of his mother's imprisonment. "Boris?"

Boris hits a switch and the screen comes to life, showing that Reed's warp projector is already operational. Johnny's flying toy rests in the background. Doom enters a pentagram amid the tangle of high-tech and mystical artifacts and exits (we see on the screen) through the warp into Hell.

Mephisto greets Doom gleefully and torments him by torturing his mother's spirit as graphically as I can get away with. Doom is enraged and threatens Mephisto. Mephisto laughs and reminds Doom that this is his realm and that here, his word is reality. Doom's only response is to say, "Now, Boris."

Back on Earth, Boris is ready. He presses the enter key on a computer that has a mystic spell displayed on its monitor. The spell vanishes, replaced by the word "Running."

Doom 's armor unfolds into a huge receptor web not unlike solar collector panels. Mephisto is amused. "Do you think a machine can protect you from even a fraction of my power? Burn, Doom!" Mephisto fires a mystic bolt at Doom and is horrified to discover that he can't stop -his power is flowing out of him and into Doom! Mephisto discorporates painfully. Doom's armor glows until we can't see him within its glare. When the glow fades, Doom is transformed, his green robes are now red, and are those flames flickering behind his faceplate? "This world is mine!," he shouts, turning to look out on the FF from the screen. "Do you see, Richards? do you grasp my plan?"

Reed does, and begs Doom not to do it. "Do what?, asks Johnny. "He can't free his mother from Hell so..." "So I am bringing her the Earth!," Doom concludes. He has usurped Hell, and when he moves Earth into his dimension, he will rule over it as well. Doom creates a giant warp and the Earth moves through it as he speaks. "I have had but three goals in my life, Richards: To free my mother from Mephisto, to prove that I am your superior, and to rule this world. Today, my grandest dreams and your worst nightmares have come to pass at once. Today is Doom's day!"

The Earth now rests securely in Hell. It is hideously transformed. Everything is recognizable but twisted into the Dante version of same. This is really a chance for the artist to go nuts. Everything is disturbing, familiar but hellish, even Doom's playroom, where the FF are still bound, has been changed. The Doombots that guard the room, for instance, have been transformed from ultra sleek, high-tech, fighting machines to metallic demons. Doom appears. "Boris! Take a note, we must do something about the decor." Boris, also transformed, does as he's told. Doom uses a fraction of his power to transport his mother into the room. She is dazed and confused (as anyone would be after decades of torture) but she understands that somehow, her son has rescued her. They hug. "Mother, I would like to introduce you to my most hated enemy, Reed Richards, and his lackeys the Fantastic Four. Richards, my mother, Cynthia von Doom!" Mom is tired. Doom creates a doorway to an elegantly decorated bedroom and sends her to rest.

Doom turn his attention to the FF. He informs them that they are the only four free minds in Hell. He has done this both to provide him with the challenge of opposition missing the last time he conquered the Earth, and to allow him to prove his continued superiority to Reed. With a wave of his hand he frees the FF from their bonds. "We can't fool around. Take him!," Sue shouts, projecting a spike-shaped force field through the torso of one of the Doombots. "Flame on!," cries Johnny. He fires a flame blast at one of the robots, then realizes that his power isn't the most useful one to have in Hell. "Great. Now what do I do?" The Thing sinks his fingers into the chest of one robot and smashes it into a second one. Reed winds his way through the feet of several of the robots, tripping them and sling-shoting one into several more. Johnny buzzes around a handful of robots, annoying them. A robots hand and arm are smashed against Sue's force field when it tries to punch her. "Reed, how can we put the Earth back where it belongs?" Reed is absorbing force blasts with his elastic body. He is confused by the mystical aspects of the apparatus. Johnny flies out of a window and the three Doombots on his tail follow him, then fall to the ground far below. Johnny flies back in. "Hee hee hee!" Sue tells Reed not to think of it as a magical problem but just as a problem. The Thing bashes Doombots with great success and makes it to the control panel. Reed has an idea. Sue blocks a force blast that was about to hit Ben from his blindside. Reed postulates the mystical power totems as 3-D shadows of Nth dimensional machines, if so this device can return the Earth to its normal hyper and real space coordinates... "Never mind the lecture!, Ben bellows. "How do ya turn the blamed thing on?" "Oh. Pull the red lever." Ben reaches for it then he the rest of the FF are suddenly transported to Times Square.

Imagine Times Square if it really were the Hell that some people think it is. The FF are in the middle of it, and Doom's face is on the screen above the Coke sign. "Ne deja vu pas.." says Johnny. "What?"

"That's the persistant feeling that you've never been somewhere before." Doom speaks. He is surprised that Reed's formidable but rigid intellect could solve the problem but it's not going to be quite that simple. He will see them when they get back to Latveria.

The FF plan their next move. Sue wants to go find Franklin. No. He wont even know you. Our first priority has to be transportation to get back to Latveria, Johnny believes. If we save the world then Franklin will be safe too. Reed is wrestling with a plan. It's difficult to do because Doom is so much more powerful than they. Ben says that power isn't the point. "It wuz never power that beat him. We sure didn't have no power the first time we took him. It wuz...I dunno. Us together." They are going to go to Four Freedom's Plaza and see if they can get a Fantasticar going.

Mama Doom has been watching her son and she is shocked at his behavior. She realizes that the misshapen creature beside him is Boris, her husband's best friend. "What kind of man have you become?" Doom restores Boris to human, and explains to his mother that he plans to change Hell to paradise. He begins with the castle which he returns to its normal opulence. The FF crash through the wall flying a Fantasticar that looks like everything else does in Hell. After quickly routing a few Doombots, the FF face Doom. Ben tells Cynthia that Doom hasn't just come to Hell -he's brought the entire Earth here.

Doom roars with anger and throws himself at Ben. His gauntlets crackle with energy. He is tearing Ben apart. The rest of the FF try to restrain him. Sue projects a field to separate Ben from Doom and a second thicker one to protect them from him. It's not going to hold for long. Reed says that they have to get to the console. How can they keep Doom away? "A pentagram!" Sue's isn't carrying lipstick. Reed has an idea but they'll need Cynthia's help. "My son..." she says sadly, then agrees. Reed orders the FF to form a pentagon with each of them forming a corner and Cynthia, who is standing by the console, forming the fifth corner. "Hurry. please," Says Sue, whose shield is withering under Doom's attack. Reed stretches his arms around and through them forming a pentagram. Sue drops her shield. Doom rushes forward but is barred by the pentagram. "Mother, no!" Reed asks her if she understands what she's doing. She does. "Victor, never again do evil in my name." She pulls the lever...

...And reality shatters. The Earth returns to its place in real space. Things and people regain their normal appearance. And inside Castle Doom...

Everything is as it was. Doom's robes are green again, the FF stand in their positions in the pentagram and Cynthia is gone. Reed's warp projector is on the floor forever closing the doorway to Hell. Doom sinks to his knees, throws back his head, and screams.

Sometime later, the FF visit the real Jewel in her boarding house. The current college residents swarm them in the lobby. The real Jewel appears and announces to everyone that these are 'her kids' and that she's proud of them. She always has been.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

The American Dream

There's a gent that lives not far from me by the name of Jim Bonaminio. I've never met him, but he's something of a minor celebrity. He's appeared on Good Morning America and NPR and all sorts of outlets. He's certainly a celebrity in the local market, and gets mentioned pretty regularly on the local news.

Back in the early 1970s, he sold produce out of the back of his pick-up truck in an empty parking lot. He did well enough that, after several years, he was able to buy a small plot of land and erect a more permanent structure. By which I mean some two-by-fours supporting a plastic corrugated roof. After several years of doing that, he built an actual building. That expanded and got added on to. By the time I first heard about and walked through in the late 1990s, the store interior was about 3 acres. Now, it's about 6 and 1/2 acres. Inside.

He sells much more than produce these days. In fact, it's by far the largest grocery store I've ever seen. He has whole sections devoted to different countries, importing foodstuffs from Mexico, Britain, the Netherlands, Germany, Greece, China, Belgium, Switzerland, Italy and a host of other countries. The last time I was there, I bought spicy Indian ketchup, frozen Filipino lumpias, a Japanese coconut drink and several bottles of root beer from different American microbreweries I had never heard of. The guy stocks just about everything edible that can legally be bought/sold in the U.S.

And, if that weren't enough, the store is also peppered with animatronic figures. Mostly bought from a Chuck E. Cheese that went under, but he's also got several General Mills cereal mascots, an anthropomorphic can of Campbell's soup and some less animated, but still quite chatty, Robin Hood characters.

I've taken out-of-town guests there on occasion and we always spend 3-4 hours in the store. It's just really frickin' huge with lots and lots to see. And believe me when I say that I'm seriously under-playing things here. There's no way I could really give you a true sense of what you're getting into when you walk into this place.

But that's WHY he's a celebrity. Here's a guy who started in the back of a pick-up truck and now has what has to be one of, if not the most successful independent grocery store in America. That's the American DreamTM in action. Dude worked hard and honestly, and became very successful as a result. He has enough money that he can afford to buy a monorail and just park it in his lot for a decade. (Which he actually did.)

Here's the thing, though. He's celebrated as one of the folks who "made it." That's great that he did, but the reason we continue to celebrate him is because THERE IS NO ONE ELSE. That American Dream of becoming a great success through hard work and determination is largely a myth. Comicdom is rife with examples.

There are, of course, the notable examples of older creators getting screwed out their due. Siegel and Shuster, Bill Finger, Marty Nodell, Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, the list goes on and on. Even those who didn't get completely shafted -- guys like Bob Kane and Will Eisner -- weren't leading exorbitant or lavish lifestyles. They made a living, but not a whole lot more. Stan Lee is probably the only one who might be able to make a claim success along those lines.

More recent creators that might be considered successful aren't exactly rolling in dough, either. Robert Crumb lives a pretty modest life in France and Jeff Smith remains near his childhood home in Ohio. Wendy and Richard Pini always seem to be doing well, but again, we're not talking vast commercial empire here either. Todd McFarlane is about the only other comic creator I can think of that can claim the kind of success that's idealized in the "American Dream."

That's nothing to say for the thousands of professional comic creators who worked incessantly on their projects, did excellent work on them, only to be largely ignored. Now, granted, the crop of 20-something folks out there now really haven't had a chance to become wildly successful, and you could make the same argument about many 30-somethings as well. But in the past several decades since comics as we know them were invented, and the thousands and thousands of people who worked on them during that time, that we might only point to two individuals who were able to turn comics into the "American Dream" says to me that it's not very rooted in reality. It says to me that there's either something inherently wrong with that ideal and/or that we live in a society that, contrary to popular belief, does not support true entrepreneurialism. Which is not to say that you can't start your own business; just that your new start-up has a great many barriers placed in front of it to prevent it from becoming "American Dream" level successful.

It's worth celebrating those individuals, like Bonaminio and McFarlane, who are able to somehow sneak through the cracks and become successes despite themselves. (And in both those cases, I really do mean despite themselves. Listen to them speak, and you'll wonder how they were able to keep their checkbooks balanced before they were able to pay someone to do it.) But it's also necessary to recognize that their successes are exceptionally, exceptionally rare, patriotic dogma to the contrary.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Circle Of Friends

When I was growing up, I was absolute rubbish with rock music. Oh, I liked it and I played a number of rock songs in bands. But I was terrible with the word end of things. In the first place, I rarely listen to song lyrics; the singers may as well being singing scat. In the second place, I didn't spend much money on albums so I was limited to what I heard on the radio and, then, couldn't always catch the DJ explaining what the song title or even the name of the band was. I had trouble for years differentiating between Journey, Yes, Chicago and Boston.

I also generally didn't catch musicians' names. I knew the headliners like Bruce Springsteen and Billy Idol, but I never heard who the guitarist for AC/DC was. Or the drummer for The Who. I remember being really surprised when this new group called the Honeydrippers came out and got so much attention. "Why the heck is this brand new band getting so much hype," I wondered. Of course, it wouldn't be until a few years later that I learned the lead singer was the same guy who used to sing for this other band called Led Zeppelin.

Since I didn't really travel in music circles, even the small local ones, the notion of fame and celebrity among musicians was lost on me. Not only did I not know who was talented and/or influential, but I didn't know anybody. I didn't even hear about bands like Devo or Talking Heads until they were largely off the American stage.

This is all about cultural capital. (I talk about it at length in chapter six of my book.) If I'm outside someone's sphere of influence, however much cultural capital they have is completely worthless to me.

I'll give you a comics example. Doug TenNapel recently started up a new webcomic called Ratfist. A lot of people were hyping it up in the first week or two it was out there and my first thought was, "Yes, it looks interesting, judging by the three pages he has up right now, but there's a lot of hype for just three pages." It wasn't until a week or two later that I caught the "From the Creator of Earthworm Jim" line at the top of the home page. "Ooooooh! That guy! Yeah, this'll be cool!"

(I still have my Sega Genesis hooked up in the basement, and I have been known to fire up Earthworm Jim from time to time. Still a really cool game.)

I didn't have TenNapel's name in my mental database, so his cultural capital (all the creative ideas he had, including EJ) wasn't worth anything to me. Once I was able to connect TenNapel to something I was familiar with, then I was also able to see the value of his cultural capital.

Reverse example. I've known David Gallaher for several years now. Nearly a decade, I think. (Yes, Dave, it's been that long!) So when High Moon came out, I knew what he was bringing to the table with it. I was familiar with his other work and how he approached his stories. For me, he had a reasonably high level of cultural capital going into the Zuda contest. For me, more than the then-more established creator/competitor Pop Mahn. For me.

This is what makes it hard to gauge your own cultural capital. If I don't know your frame of reference (which I most likely don't) then I can't say whether or not you even know who I am, much less be any sort of judge about my significance. Just because I know who I am doesn't mean you do as well.

I catch myself doing that probably more than I should. I'll see someone's name get touted as some great writer or artist or whatever, and my first (and second and third and...) is not infrequently, "Who the hell is this guy? I've never heard of him before!" So I find I'll have to remind myself that just because I don't know someone doesn't mean they're not important. Even within the realm of comics. And someone else who I've been following for years still might not be very well-known.

Just something to keep my/your own perspectives in check.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

America's Greatest Otaku Review

Last summer, Tokyopop founder Stu Levy took a crew of six American otaku and a film crew in order to explore otaku culture in the continental U.S. and find "America's Greatest Otaku." Tonight, the first episode of the show debuted on Hulu.

The show is set up fairly linearly. They visit one city, check out some otaku location and/or event, interview some potential AGO candidates and then drive on to the next city of their tour. The events and locations are pretty radically different, so there's no sense (at least as of this first episode) of repetitiveness. Anime Expo obviously doesn't look/feel like the Cartoon Art Museum, which doesn't look/feel like Royal T, a "café/shop/art space" inspired by the maid cafés in Japan. The AGO contenders are also surprisingly varied, expressing themselves differently through collection, cosplay, illustration and song.

What I liked about the show overall was that it was very much set up for general audiences. There were generally good verbal explanations of different aspects of otaku culture, and the screen was annotated when a creator's or character's name was thrown out by anyone without a verbal frame of reference. That the show also highlighted very different aspects to otaku was also beneficial, I think, for anyone who might understand it to only be about anime or manga. So, speaking as someone whose familiarity with otaku is reasonably limited, I liked that aspect.

As a general rule, I'm not a fan of "reality" type shows, though. The contests and set-ups always seem to me to be forced and unnatural. This show isn't all about that, fortunately, but the parts that do delve into that area (namely, the tail end of interviews when Levy says something to the effect of, "Is this America's greatest otaku? What do you think?") feel uncomfortable. Though some of that is just my personal preference, I also think Levy's at his least comfortable during those bits as well. He definitely comes across much better when he's just chatting extemporaneously than when he's reciting memorized lines.

The first show centered around Levy, as his "Otaku Six" got their feet wet. At the end of this first episode, he promises to let them loose with the next episode, so I'm sure we'll be seeing a lot more of them in coming shows. By the time I caught up with them several weeks into their tour, Levy was indeed leaving them to their own devices, so I'm just not sure how their time will be divided on screen.

Overall, not a bad show so far. Personally, I prefer the more documentary portions of it, but it still works surprisingly well given the sort of split focus between that and the contest angle. The pace is a tad uneven, but not jarringly so; this also might smooth out as they get past the introductions and get into more of a rhythm. But it's definitely interesting and enticing enough that I'll continue watching the whole series.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Technology In Paper

At my day job, we hosted a "lunch and learn" session with a local printing firm this afternoon. The graphics folks here (including me) got together and thought it would behoove a lot of our co-workers to have a better understanding of what these printers -- who already do a fair amount of work with us -- actually do and are capable of. So we asked these guys to come in and give an hour-ish long presentation. For them, it was an opportunity to shmooze a bit and highlight their abilities which we may not be taking full advantage of. It was, to some extent, free advertising for them. For us, it was educational as they talked about some things that many of us -- even the designers -- didn't know were possible.

When I was working on my undergrad degree, we were taught about then-current and some up-and-coming printing techniques. Many of our internships involved working with printers and going on press checks and studying bluelines. And there were these new-fangled places that were able to run film negatives for printing plates directly from your desktop, so a lot of us learned about that. Lots of cool, innovative stuff!

But since then, I've been working primarily online so I haven't kept up with printing technologies. So there was a lot of new stuff for me to absorb today. But I didn't feel as bad since much of it was new to the decidedly younger designers who work in print all the time. A couple of things that struck me...

They have the ability now to combine metallic inks with a standard CMYK process. CMYK is that standard set of printing inks used on virtually every piece of printed material you see. The specific shades of blue, red, yellow and black are combined in different amounts to form a wide array of colors. But now, apparently, they can lay down a metallic ink underneath them, which then mixes with the colors to create almost any color you like with a metallic sheen! I can't reproduce the results on the screen here, but it was REALLY impressive. And, unlike traditional metallic colors, it's far and away cheaper on top of having that wider color flexibility.

Question: Couldn't Marvel start running, say, Iron Man comics using these metallic inks? Not like the '90s where every other cover had some metallic foil highlight, but a more subtle effect throughout the entire book? Yes, it'd be a bit more costly, but if they're worried about bringing something to the table that CAN'T be replicated digitally (not that the publishers necessarily are, but I think many retailers have this concern) it would be a definite option. Whether or not it'd be successful and/or financially viable in the long-term, I don't know, but it's an interesting prospect to think about.

Another bit they talked about today was embedding technology in the paper itself that could launch a cell phone or tablet application just by being in the same vicinity. Kind of like an RFID tag, but it would be a part of the paper itself and could act a little more proactively. Food manufacturers are interested because they could just drop these into their packaging, and send customers to a website with nutritional information, saving a good chunk of their packaging real estate for more marketing.

Again, applying this idea to comics, something embedded in the cover of their books might launch something with additional character details or a related game or something. Last month, Marvel debuted that very notion in a strangely analog fashion but providing a URL on the last page of Amazing Spider-Man for users to type in. But what if that typing was removed, and a user just had to wave their iPhone over the cover logo? Or the character image itself? Additional creator info could be added. Maybe the equivalent of the director commentary on DVDs? Here, again, though, I couldn't speak to the cost-effectiveness of this.

But this is me. Digital guy sitting in Southwest Ohio, playing armchair print publisher. I'm just here to throw out really, frickin' cool ideas; it's up to the actual publishers to get them to work!

Happy Birthday, Val!

Happy birthday to my editor and all-around cool comics person, Valerie D'Orazio! Send some extra good wishes to her this year, since she's marrying David Gallaher in April!

Happy birthday, Val! (And... er... I'll have my next column to you by tonight.)

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Bonnie Lass 2 Review

When we last saw Bonnie Lass, she had just escaped with her two-man by successfully launching her ship off the edge of a waterfall. We start off issue 2 with the team relaxing with her Uncle Doogan amid the Drunken Leviathan Festival of Kilkenny. The totem she made off with before sparks Doogan's memory and pulls out a similarly styled tablet. They spend several hours (drinking and) figuring out how to read the symbols on it, and eventually believe that it helps direct someone to the famed Eye of the Leviathan. The ship gets fixed up, the crew is off and we get a flashback telling the origin of Bonnie Lass herself. Without getting into too many details here, let's just say it wasn't a particularly happy childhood. But they do find the first marker, only to be surprised by Monet who had been following them all along. To be continued...

This issue is more expository than the first. Given the amount of action in issue one, it would almost have to be. It's not all talking and dialogue here, though, and we do see some action in the flashback, and the overall plot moves along well. Some good character motivations are established, and there's a nice bit about Bonnie reaching physical maturity and dealing with her father's lecherous crew. (Though that is me seeing the book as a man; it seemed reasonably realistic, but I can't speak from experience. As a more quantifiable measure, we're two issues in with a female lead and it hasn't passed the Bechdel Test yet.)

The art continues to impress me. Lots of nice linework, particularly on the flowing bits of business like hair and the Art Nouveau flourishes. I especially liked the shot from under the water of the ship sailing off. The character designs for young Bonnie and her mother were quite enjoyable too.

As before, Bonnie Lass is being released digitally first on comixology and iVerse for $1.99. I hope this experiment of Red 5's goes well because A) I'm enjoying Michael Mayne's work and would like to see more of it, and B) it might have a lot to say about other publishers making some serious forays into digital distribution.

Morning Name-Checks

To my pleasant surprise, I discovered this morning that I just got name-checked a couple of times in the past 12 hours or so.

First, Matt Kuhns gives me a shout-out in his Fantastic Four series timeline. It's a cool infographic showing the publication history of many of the main FF titles over the years. I'm reproducing it below, but Matt's got a larger version at his blog and promises more details on its development later. (The name-check here is that he gives me credit for my Fantasti-Font.)

Next, I noted last week that The History of the Universe as Told by Wonder Woman had started a Kickstarter campaign. In the past week, they've managed to receive pledges for over half of the funds they're looking for and, as a thank you, created this quick video credits piece for their current backers. I'm third in the list so you don't have to sit through the whole thing if you just want to see my name. More importantly, though, it gives me another chance to highlight their work in fund-raising and plug their film again. Go check it out!

So to Matt, Kristy and Kelcey, thanks much for the acknowledgments. To everyone else, go check out those two projects!

Monday, February 21, 2011

Taco Bell Comics Review

I was doing some travelling this weekend, and made a couple of stops at Taco Bell. I normally try to eat at least something vaguely healthy on the road (Subway, generally) but since I kind of have to eat some lousier than my usual fare anyway, I might as well get some comics out of it since they're running that Marvel Comics promotion with their kids' meals right now.

I picked up the Iron Man and Fantastic Four issues. Each issue has a new eleven-page story, plus an unrelated one-page backup by Colleen Coover.

The FF story starts with the Human Torch on a date. The lights go out, and he soon discovers a giant robot sucking the energy out of all of New York City. He calls the rest of the FF, who battle the creature for a bit before Mr. Fantastic figures out its origin. The Invisible Woman goes off to nab the Wizard, and the Silver Surfer, noticing the creature from orbit, ultimately intervenes to stop it.

The Iron Man story starts with MODOK meeting with Tony Stark about a plan to solve the world's energy problems by converting all living matter to energy. When Tony dismisses this as yet another attempt to destroy the world, MODOK and his "lawyers" attack. Tony soon dons his Iron Man armor, and has a melee against MODOK and a giant (until now, cloaked) carrier hovering over Manhattan. To no one's surprise, Iron Man kicks MODOK's butt and calls in SHIELD to help clean up.

Obviously, with only eleven pages to work with, there's not a lot of time for character building and such. But, in both cases, the main actors are all pretty clearly defined in a fairly naturalistic way without a condescending attitude or anything. (That should go without saying, but given the history of promotional aimed-at-kids comics over the years...) The stories are short, but fun. The Iron Man one was especially entertaining thanks to Brian Clevinger's dialogue -- although Tony spoke more like Atomic Robo than I've known him to speak in the past. (To be fair, though, I am by no means an Iron Man expert, so it might be perfectly in line with how he's being depicted in his "normal" appearances these days.)

I found a couple of glitches on the first page of the FF story that kept me from jumping into that story as quickly. (A note-worthy issue, I think, in so short a story.) The first thing was that the coloring didn't appreciably change when the lights went out, leaving the reader to ONLY understand that through the dialogue. Made for a bit of confusion reconciling the art and the text. Also, when Johnny sees the giant robot for the first time, it's really unclear what he's looking at. Which, in itself, might not be that big an concern as we do see the robot much clearer later, but the next panel is a discussion between Johnny and his date about the obvious danger and how he should alert the rest of the team. Leaving the reader to wonder what the danger is and how would Johnny know it's something bigger than he can handle. Those points of confusion only last a couple of seconds and, if this were part of a 120 graphic novel, wouldn't be worth mentioning. But, again, given the concise nature of the story, I think it's a little overly distracting. The storytelling isn't really as concise and to the point as it should be for the eleven page limitation.

Both the Colleen Coover one-pagers are fun and well-done. I think the only complaint you could lodge against either was that they're too short!

Both the comics are entertaining and it was good to see that Marvel put a solid effort into making these unique pieces instead of throwing out generic reprints or some pieces of thrown-together schlock. I expect you can get over-priced copies on eBay; I don't know that they'd be worth what you pay for there unless you're a completist about those things. As for getting them via a Taco Bell... well, I will say that I don't do fast food very much at all, so it's not the type of thing I have a palette for these days. For my options on the road in the middle of Indiana, it's not the worst, though not particularly enjoyable either. I enjoyed them enough that I don't regret picking them up, but not so much that I'm going to waste another two meals getting the X-Men and Avengers books. But if you're cool with their food, these comics are a fun treat.

Five Years Of Blather

Five years ago today, I made my first post on this blog. And you know what that means! That means... well, I've been writing this blog for five years.

I'm not one for reminiscing overmuch, but I did scan through my earliest posts to remind myself of where I was, as a point of comparison. When I started, I hadn't really read manga at all and had only looked at a couple of webcomics. My purchasing habits mostly consisted of Marvel titles. My book was still something of a pipe dream.

One of the more interesting (certainly in hindsight) pieces I wrote was my second post in which I traced the history of cover prices from the early 1960s through 2006. The interesting part was my prediction that cover prices would largely remain under $3.00 through 2010. I wasn't entirely spot-on with the prediction, but I wasn't that far off either. Especially considering that was based on the historical analysis of a single title.

OK, for my next five-year-out prediction, I think AOL will purchase my blog for $300,000,000.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

How To Draw The Thing!

From Thing #5 (November 1983) by John Byrne. (Posted today for no particular reason.)

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Burt Warred

Adobe Photoshop: Allowing talented people to waste time creating bad visual puns since 1990.

Friday, February 18, 2011

I Fear For All Humanity

Earlier this week, I watched a documentary called Digital Media: New Learners of the 21st Century. It went about showing some of the schools out there that are really progressively and aggressively finding new ways to teach that are far more effective and applicable that the wildly out-of-date traditional model that most of us learned under. They showcased several different groups taking some pretty different, but all innovative, approaches and, they all seemed to be doing well. Certainly a lot better than traditional models.

Not to say they weren't without problems, of course, but they were addressing learning as it pertains to the early 21st century, not learning as it pertained to the early 20th century. That had me excited, since I've long thought that the education model I was instructed under was tremendously inappropriate for the time. But, towards the end of the documentary, one of the commentators (whose name I don't recall offhand) noted that we really have two options going forward: we can see the country divide into two groups, the poor following along with the same outdated teaching models that leave them functionally illiterate (as defined in the 21st century) and the rich who are able to afford these more "avante garde" programs that actually teach their children how to successfully navigate the world; or we could scrap the whole current system and start over with something closer to these new models that are being developed and raise the bar for everyone.

Earlier this year, the Chronicle for Higher Education released this interactive chart highlighting the percentage of Americans who have received a college degree. It allows you to examine the country's progress in that regard going back to 1940. Not surprisingly, the numbers increase over time, most dramatically in areas with denser populations. But the first thing I noticed was that, as of 2009, the percentage of Americans with college degrees is only 27.5%. Barely over a quarter of the country. Now, I'm the first to admit that a college degree definitely does NOT correlate with intelligence, and there are a lot of brilliant people out there who either can't or simply won't go to school after it's no longer mandatory. But what I do find equally striking is that, if you study the numbers over time, the rate at which degreed individuals increases slows down dramatically after 1990.

Nielsen (the people who monitor TV ratings) released the following infographic early last month, showing a lot of statistics about TV and cell phone usage...

Lots of interesting things to look at, but what I want to call your specific attention to is the small bar chart on the left. The average American watches 35.6 hours of television per week. That's over five hours per day! I understand that work can be draining and you might not have much energy for much beyond vegetating in front of the idiot box after a hard day of work, but... for five hours?!? Really? That's coming home from work at 5:30, sitting in front of the TV while you eat dinner and not doing anything else until you're ready to go to bed after the evening news. I honestly have trouble processing that.

"Yes, Sean, we get it! You're a cynical bastard, Americans are all idiots and you hate everyone. Get to your point!"

Hang on a moment. Let me throw this quote at you...
Healthy people — who know how to deal with disappointment, who have given up on the idea of magic bullets, who don’t watch TV indiscriminately, who are fulfilled by things that don’t cost money — are poor consumers, and so the very-high-level marketers have nurtured a culture which produces the exact opposite.

You are being encouraged, from virtually every angle, to become or remain unhealthy and unfulfilled, because then you will buy more. Not to make you paranoid, but that’s the primary purpose of the glowing rectangle in your living room — to encourage poor (but not quite failing) health, general complacency, and an unconscious reflex for parting with money.

It's from this Raptitude post which I've been mulling on for the past week or two. His blog, subtitled "Getting better at being human", is about trying to achieve a higher quality of life, about recognizing what does and doesn't further that end and why, and how to live a happy life. But not in the "quick fix" methodology that lines the self-help sections of bookstores, but about asking hard questions about yourself.

No. Not the hard questions. The hard question. Singular. Why?

That's the question that most people don't ask. Not seriously. Why they distract themselves with five hours of television every night. Why they don't further their education after high school. Why those new models of education won't be implemented nationally.

"It's always been done this way," is not an answer. Ever.

"But that guy does it like this," is not an answer. Ever.

"I don't know," is not an answer. Ever.

Why has it always been done that way? Even if it was the best method once, have things changed that warrant a new approach? Why does he do things like that? Do you have different resources, abilities or goals that might suggest a different method? Why don't you know, and why can't you find out?

There are WAAAAAAY too many people on this planet who don't think about what they're doing or why. Don't be one of them.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Taking Advantage Of Technology

The nature of comic book conventions is that you go largely for the ability to be in direct proximity of lots of other like-minded people. Some of them may be creators that you're able to have personal interactions with. Some may be dealers that have some rare comic you've been searching for ages for. Some may be friends. Some may be people you've corresponded with but have never actually met. The point is that the convention is all about interacting with others in person.

Now, not everybody can go to every convention, of course. I dare say that most folks can't even got to most conventions. There's quite a few who can never go to any. And for those people, they're forced to experience the cons by proxy. Back in the day, they'd read con reports in fanzines months after the fact. These days they're able to read Tweets and blogs in nearly real time. How many of you have been paying attention to Toy Fair this week by hitting various websites and following others' comments on Twitter?

(Side Note: Kind of strange this year. I saw very little out of Toy Fair I had any interest in whatsoever.)

But those are facilitated by the technology of smart phones and laptops with built-in wi-fi. And while the con organizers can make some accommodations for that type of thing, it's primarily the event centers themselves that set that type of thing up.

Which is to say that the con organizers have done VERY little over the years with the technology at their disposal to facilitate the main attraction of cons: interacting with others. In fact, about the only thing I've seen con organizers do was set up online stores to buy tickets in advance.

Until this year.

Now I don't attend a lot of conventions, but I do try to scan the sites of the bigger ones at least. And this is the first year I've noticed that a convention has created a portal site for their show to help people organize their con experience in advance. If you register with the C2E2 site you can sort through the guests, exhibitors, panels, etc. that they have scheduled and check off which ones you're interested in seeing. Then you can call up a list of just those folks, along with where they'll be located.

Which means that you can sort through your favorites and print off a list of JUST those booths you want to hit.

I think this is a great tool that I'd love to see more conventions pick up. Rather than going through the whole program guide with a highlighter or a red Sharpie, I can concentrate on whatever interests me and not have to worry about accidentally skipping over something because it was wedged between two highly promoted panels.

That said, I don't think the C2E2 piece is completely where it needs to be yet. It doesn't seem to be able to roll up the exhibitor/guest list with the panels/screenings list at all. In fact, even though I can check off my favorites and it saves them, I haven't found a good way to look at just my favorite panels.

What I'd also like to see is have this piece tied to a map of the con floor. So, I could download/print a layout that only labeled those exhibitors/guests/panel rooms that I had marked off. I might not give a hoot who's at the third table in the fourth row of Artist Alley, so it just gets in my way if it's labeled on a map.

What if you could also tag your friends within their site? Then you could see where your schedule and theirs overlapped? Or maybe have some kind of meet-up thing where you could pick a spot and say, "I'm going to be hanging around this area from 2:00 - 2:15." An event sign-up for the portfolio reviews? I'm sure there's dozens of other functional and practical enhancements you could add in.

It's late and I haven't had too much opportunity to thing of other ways you could enhance that, but I think there's a GREAT idea there and I'd love to see ReedPop and other con organizers expand on it.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Quick Hits

Yeah, that whole busy schedule thing I mentioned the other day? Hitting me pretty hard today, so just a couple of quick bits...
  • My bud Matt has a good write-up on the 1990's Ghost Rider logo.
  • Semi-related, he also has a nice piece on the Doom 2099 logo.
  • Normally, I try not to do heavy plugs for upcoming books, but Viper is coming out with something called Missing Linx featuring Big Foot, Sasquatch, Skunk Ape and the Yeti. It's by Dale Mettam and Courtney Huddleston. While I'm not familiar with Mettam's work, I did really like Huddleston's A Bit Haywire. They've got a trailer with some really nifty looking art in it...
I'll try to get back to original content tomorrow.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Backing A Kickstarter

You've probably heard the name Kickstarter in the past year or two as a way folks are trying to raise capital for projects that might not have a base of support that includes one person/group with a huge sum of cash on hand. It's set up so that a larger number of supporters can donate much smaller amounts, and thereby fund the project. What's more, the supporters only start by PLEDGING their support; they won't actually have to lay out anything if it doesn't generate enough interest to raise all of the funds necessary.

It sounds like a great idea, at least as long as you've already got a decent sized base of supporters in the first place. I think it'd be hard to raise funds for a project without some kind of network to start from.

I've been watching some Kickstarter projects from the sidelines for a while now, and decided (now that my own financial situation has somewhat stabilized) that I should look into this from the perspective of an actual backer. As it happened, this coincided with the Kickstarter launch for a project entitled The History of the Universe as Told by Wonder Woman. I first heard about this a while back, and it's drawn my attention and interest for reasons I haven't quite been able to put my finger on. It's basically a documentary about powerful, heroic women in popular culture, centered primarily around Wonder Woman. They've already interviewed and have footage from Gloria Steinem, Lynda Carter, Trina Robbins, George Pérez, Danny Fingeroth and a host of other folks with expertise on Wonder Woman and/or feminism and other related topics. Here's the promo clip they've got on Kickstarter...

I have to say that I do see the reason why Kickstarter is becoming as popular as it is. It's got it's obvious benefits from the creators' point-of-view, but it was also dead easy to make my pledge, even for never having made a Kickstarter account before. After confirming the amount you want to donate and which backer benefit package you want, it then ties in with your account (because who here doesn't have an Amazon account?) and allows you to just pick up one of the payment options you've already saved there. So there was no issue with having to dig out my credit card and typing the account number and re-typing the account number and... Yeah, it sounds like it's not a big deal to not have to fill out a few extra fields, but A) it's Amazon so I'm not concerned so much about my account security; they've proven themselves thousands of times over already in that regard, and B) reducing as many entry barriers as possible like that makes me more inclined to donate to another project. I happened to be in a meeting just this morning where we were looking at data that showed how much higher completion rates as you're able to eliminate more and more fields the customer (e.g. me) has to fill out. There's a very distinct and easily measurable drop-off rate as you add more and more fields someone has to fill out. Kudos to the Kickstarter team for streamlining things so much.

Anyway, I'd like to encourage people to support cool-sounding Kickstarter projects. The History of the Universe as Told by Wonder Woman strikes me as a great place to start, but there's likely other projects to suit your particular interests.

Monday, February 14, 2011

"No, Just For Cake"

Here's today's My Cardboard Life...
I sent this to my S.O. this morning with the simple note, "I love you." No jewelry. No roses or chocolates. No cards from Hallmark or American Greetings. We won't be going out to dinner tonight. In fact, I actually won't even see her until Friday evening.

We're actually not very big on celebrating holidays. It's, in part, an oppositional response to the commercialist nature of our culture. Sure, there are folks out there who spend a great deal of time and put a lot of care into really expressing how they feel to their significant other. But you know as well as I do that the grocery stores are all going to be PACKED tonight with guys buying some over-priced flowers on their way home from work because they got caught up in a bunch of garbage at work and totally forgot that today was Valentine's Day and holy crap, if I forget it again this years, I'll be sleeping on the couch for a month! So the S.O. and I decided we just weren't going to play that game at all.

Well, at least, as minimally as we're forced to by living in 21st century America.

And that, as I'm sure you'll agree, is insanely difficult. Our entire culture is based on this consumerist mentality. That every widget is specifically designed with a limited life-span so you're forced to buy an upgrade on a regular basis. Provided you haven't already upgraded because the slightly newer widget they just released is shinier than yours.

I fully admit to willingly submitting myself prey to this mentality from time to time. Did I really need an OMAC action figure just because, "Holy crap! I never thought anyone would even think of making an OMAC action figure"? No, of course not. But I stood there in the store, stunned that I was seeing one hanging on a pegs in a Wal-Mart. I recognized that buying it would do absolutely nothing for my emotional well-being, yet here it sits on my desk.

I'm not about to suggest you storm the proverbial castle. You know marketing hype when you hear it, and know when something sounds genuinely good or interesting. You know when something's a basic press release, and when an interviewer is softballing questions to a publisher. It's not wrong to buy things and it's not wrong to want things you don't have, but don't just buy it because it's new. Or because you already have the 500-some issues that came before. Or because the publisher's marketing arm told you that the "whole" story is going to run through 14 different titles written by nine different authors, only two of which you actually like.

Be deliberate with your choices. You don't need to buy all the books that are promoted to you just as you don't need to buy ever-more-expensive gifts for your sweetheart on Valentine's Day. If you like those books anyway, great! But buy them for that. If you're going to make a cake, just make it for cake.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Kleefeld's Coming Attractions

Since you're all paying attention to either Toy Fair or the Grammys, I figure it's safe to slide in some self-promotion without seeming too obnoxious.
  • MTV Geek
    Those Fantastic Four pieces I wrote for MTV Geek a few weeks ago? Well, they helped land me a regular gig with them. I now have a regular column called "Kleefeld on Webcomics" in which I talk about, um... webcomics. (Perhaps not the most original title, but I'm going to claim it's a branding thing.) I'm writing it for a pretty broad audience, so I'm trying to cover some basic points with my initial pieces. My first two discuss what are webcomics and RSS feeds. I'll get into more detailed topics as I go on. It looks like a new column will be going up every Friday, so keep your eyes tuned to MTV Geek for more!
  • Graphic Novels
    Graphic Novels is the upcoming three-volume reference set from Salem Press. It's essentially an encyclopedia of comics. My Alice in Sunderland and Fax from Sarajevo articles seem to have been approved ("...very high quality of analysis and authoritative coverage. We are pleased with how this publication is shaping up, and much of that is due to your enthusiastic response and good work.") and they need some more articles written. So I think I'll be doing a couple more for them. I'm not sure which, yet, but I've submitted my top choices.
  • Back Issue
    I finally got a chance to read the latest Back Issue -- the one I referenced back here. In the piece on the aborted "Fantastic Four: Fathers and Sons" graphic novel, Danny Fingeroth name-checks me and a few quotes from me make it in there as well. Jarrod Buttery does a good job tracking things down and there's a lot of good art shown. I also liked the articles on the aborted Captain America musical and John Byrne's never-completed "Last Galactus Story."
  • Jack Kirby Collector
    While I'm talking about TwoMorrows mags, I'll mention that I'm finishing up my next column for The Jack Kirby Collector. It never ceases to amaze me where my research into Jack's work takes me. Issue #56 will come out towards the end March, and my "Incidental Iconography" column looks at the white-washing of the Dingbats of Danger Street. I also just shot another article idea over to my editor about the eternal "who contributed what" question in the Stan/Jack debate; we'll see what he thinks and whether or not that's worth writing up.
  • C2E2
    It looks like I'll be attending the C2E2 convention in March. Not as a guest or exhibitor or anything, but just as some random guy walking around the con floor. I'm not sure of which day(s) I'll be able to attend, but if you're going, let me know and we can see if schedules line up once I get things a little more nailed down. (Probably dependent, in part, on what panels ultimately get scheduled.) If you want to keep an eye out for me on the con floor, just look for The Hat.
  • Kleefeld on Comics
    It almost goes without saying, but in case you're reading this on some site other than mine, I still plan on keeping up with daily posts for my Kleefeld on Comics blog. I have no clue what tomorrow's post will be about yet, but I'll worry about that tomorrow!
So that's me for the next month or two. At least, as it pertains to comics. Would you believe I hold a full-time job on top of this?

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Film Threat On Corman's FF Movie

I was digging through my digital archives and stumbled across this article from Film Threat focusing on Roger Corman's Fantastic Four movie. I recall it being one of the most detailed articles on the film that I'd seen at that point, and it remains so over a decade later. I just skimmed through it again now, but what strikes me is at the very end of the piece, there's some talk about how it might be shelved in favor of a Chris Columbus version, but that had evidently fallen by the wayside and the movie was scheduled for a Labor Day weekend opening.

It's a matter of history now, but the movie was never intended to be released and was made just to hold on to the licensing rights. The film has been circulating the bootleg movie market for years, but has never been formally released in any capacity.

Anyway, I thought I'd reproduce the article here for anyone interested...

Friday, February 11, 2011

Harold Edge

You know, it occurs to me that a lot of the comic creators that get talked about during Black History Month are the same ones everyone always chats about during Black History Month. Herriman, Ormes, McDuffie, McGruder, etc. I'm guilty of that to some degree myself. It's a lot easier to talk about a creator when there's already been a lot written about them. And to be fair, a lot of those creators that do get repeatedly brought up did some really awesome things and are worth talking about.

But, today, let me call your attention to someone who's perhaps not as well known: Harold Edge. Edge is a 33-year-old artist working out of Yonkers, currently drawing Dynagirl for Red Handed Studios. His first professional comic was Sixgun Samurai for Alias in 2005. He went on to draw Fallen Justice for which he was nominated for the Project Fanboy Best Independent Artist award in 2009.

Although Edge has been drawing a lot of superheroes the past few years, his character designs don't follow after many typical conventions of the genre. Not so much with the basic costumes themselves -- they still have capes and chest emblems and all that -- but the way Edge draws them, they're often ill-fitting and dropped on differently proportioned body types. Very few characters look like they the perfectly toned guardians of justice that we've come to expect in comics.
Usually most women [in comics] are thin and slightly muscular. I always wanted to see a thick or husky woman getting the job done. "Meaty" woman win my heart time and time again. Needless to say DynaGirl isn't bony at all, she has a thick physique but isn't fat; there's a big difference.
Edge doesn't have an easy way to describe his illustration style. Something between anime and American animation. Which points to his interest in movement. He doesn't just draw characters posing; they have a dynamism about them like they're always doing something even when they're standing still. Though his actual illustration style and design sense seem to have little obvious comparison, it's a technique that comic greats like Jack Kirby and John Romita Sr. always adhered to. They felt (rightly so, in my opinion) that a comic is much more interesting and compelling when the characters are doing something.

Edge may not be as well-known as Herriman or McGruder, but he's a very talented artist and worth keeping an eye on. I've only really studied his work on Dynagirl so far (hopefully, a situation I'll correct soon) but even within that, he's shown a range of abilities, handling major fight scenes and quiet, personal moments with equal skill and aplomb. Keep an eye on this guy!

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Marketing Terminology

I was reading this interview The Beat conducted with Diamond's David Bowen, and it occurred to me that some of the marketing language he used might not readily known to a lot of people. As I happen to work in marketing, I thought I might take a blog post to make sure we're all speaking the same language here.

One of the first things he mentions are POP Displays. "POP" is an acronym for "point of purchase." It's a general term used to describe any promotional material that's designed to be placed at the location where you actually buy something. It could be a sticker meant to actually be adhered to the cash register or a poster intended to hang behind the counter or an old-school spinner rack that's displaying comics or even a life-size figure. Sometimes they're made by the publisher, sometimes the retailer. Really, it's just about anything that a retailers utilize as a way to promote their products.

"POS" stands for "point of sale" and is a sub-set of POP. The point of sale is where the actual transaction takes place, where the cash register is. These are typically smaller items, and try to play more heavily on the impulse purchase mentality, whereas POP can be (but not necessarily always are) larger and geared more towards overall awareness.

There are some standards that often get thought of with regard to POP. The "tent card" is a classic because they're easy to create and can be tweaked to fit a wide variety of sizes and proportions. It's essentially just piece of heavy paper folded in half. The V shape is placed upside down on the counter, allowing the text and graphics to be seen/read while the customer is standing near it. Because there's so little involved in the actual production of tent cards, creators not infrequently provide PDFs for retailers to print out themselves.

"Table tents" are essentially a more elaborate version of tent cards. Unlike their namesake, table tents do not necessarily fold up in a tent-like shape but, rather can be nearly any sort of self-standing piece designed to be placed on a table or counter. You see this type of thing a lot in mid-scale restaurants. Sometimes they're just cardboard standups plugging the desserts, sometimes they're more elaborate and hold copies of the menu or napkins. (Though don't confuse table tents with napkin holders; there needs to be a marketing/sales angle here.) Those cardboard cut-outs of characters you sometimes see on comic convention tables with the speech balloon hawking the latest book? Those are table tents.

Another simple, and common, POP for comics are "header cards." These are basically a flat piece of card stock that's as wide as, but an inch or two taller than, a comic book. They're designed to be placed behind a stack of comics on the rack, and the portion that sticks up above the actual comic has some type of promotional message. I've seen store-specific ones frequently that highlight staff picks, while publisher ones use them to tie together storylines that cross over multiple titles.

Also used right next to the comics are "shelf talkers." These are also generally simple card stock pieces, but they rest underneath a stack of comics and stick out slightly beyond the shelf. Publishers again can create title-specific shelf talkers, but many stores also use them to highlight "New Comics This Week" or "Featured" books as seen in this photo.

Less used, because they're a tad more expensive in large quantities, are "window clings." These are thin plastic, usually translucent, promotional pieces that adhere to smooth surfaces like windows via static electricity. I have to admit that I haven't seen these used much in comicdom; the only instance I can think of offhand are the Visa/Mastercard pieces often stuck on the front door.

From time to time, "standees" are available. These basically large cardboard cutouts that are free-standing. You tend not to see too many of them in comic shops since they take up a fair amount of precious floor space. They also are fairly expensive for as quickly as they begin to look worn. Some of the more popular characters have commercially available versions for fans. I recall there was an Arthur Adams drawn Wolverine that was rather prolific in the 1980s.

That's certainly not all of the POP items that are available, but that covers some of the more common ones that use terms you might not be familiar with. Check out the promotional kit below and see how many different POP pieces you can identify!