Saturday, April 30, 2011

Moral Geometry Review

Well, this weekend has been a bit of a mind-trip so far. I've taken in the 1972 filmed version of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, the graphic novel adaption of the 2010 Alice in Wonderland movie, Mahendra Singh's illustrated version of The Hunting of the Snark, several philosophical essays by Steve Ditko, and Sean Andress's first two issues of Moral Geometry. Having absorbed all that in the past day or two, you'll excuse me if I'm not entirely coherent with this post.

When Andress first contacted me about his comics, he likened them to "a violent car crash between a Terry Gilliam film and sleazy German Expressionistic art." When I got them and flipped through them initially, it was pretty obvious that I wasn't going to "get" these books right away. That was about two weeks ago, I don't think I'm any closer to understanding them now than I was then.

The stories are mostly wordless, and rely primarily on Andress' brushwork. (Despite the covers, the interiors do not feature any collages.) As suggested by his original description, the illustrations themselves are fairly impressionistic -- you can make out characters AS characters but, for the most part, they make the cast of Tod Browning's Freaks seem ordinary. With the exception of perhaps the first few pages of the first book, Andress is able to make the panel-to-panel and page-to-page transitions smooth, so the reader can focus on what's actually going on, rather than trying to decipher the flow.

Which, I think, is critical here. The pieces aren't easy to really grasp here beyond a superficial level. It's easy enough to see what is going on, but much more difficult to figure out why. Because of that, I'm more inclined to take his later description of "a violent car crash between a David Lynch film and sleazy German Expressionistic art."

Overall, I'm going to have to go back and borrow a line from Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking-Glass... "Somehow it seems to fill my head with ideas---only I don't exactly know what they are! However, somebody killed something: that's clear, at any rate."

Andress has begun posting pages at a new Moral Geometry blog while printed copies can be purchased from his broader art blog.

Friday, April 29, 2011

Barks Also Enjoyed Other Ducks

Carl Barks, Disney's famed "Good Duck Artist", is seen here laughing heartily at the antics of Howard the Duck by Steve Gerber and Frank Brunner.
The photo was used as the cover to the 1976 Newcon program booklet. This image should make any comics fan smile.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Mash-Up Day

I spent too much time today coming up with superhero-themed Dozens comments and ran out of time for actual blogging. (If you don't know, The Dozens is basically two people making "yo mama" jokes back and forth to each other. Check out the #superherodozens hashtag on Twitter to read through some of them.) Anyway, on with today's mash-up. Dialogue from Garfield, and art from...
Legend of Bill

Bob the Squirrel

I'm amused that it makes Frank there look like he's barking mad, but it doesn't really change Bill's mentality all that much.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

If This Be Wednesday...

... this must be a link-blog!
  • So you've heard people throw around the term "transmedia" or maybe "transmedia storytelling" but you really don't get what they're talking about? Dr. Pamela Rutledge has this excellent and concise summary of what it is and why it's significant in the 21st century over at Psychology Today.
  • Charles Forceville has a blog set up called Adventures in Multimodality. "Multimodality" is just a fancy term for "using multiple forms of communication." Like, say, words and pictures. Several of his posts focus specifically on comics and, while I haven't read them yet, the abstracts make them all sound fascinating. (via Neil Cohn)
  • The theme of the latest issue of Image & Narrative is "Visual Language of Manga." Again, I haven't read everything there yet, but several articles look good. (again, via Neil Cohn)
  • These next two are actually from Stumptown, but I don't recall seeing them making the usual rounds, so let me point to the Stumptown Trade Review's video interviews with Carla Speed McNeil and Nate Simpson.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Happy World Intellectual Property Day!

Bet you didn't know that today was World Intellectual Property Day, did you? Almost certainly not if you live in the United States. Since 2001, the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO, an agency of the United Nations) has held conferences and symposiums on April 26 "to celebrate creativity, and the contribution made by creators and innovators to the development of societies across the globe". As near as I can tell, though, it's almost wholly ignored here in the States.

I only first heard of the organization and the event this morning. Now, admittedly, it usually takes a few years for holidays and celebrations to catch on, but what I've been able to find online so far suggests that more people are aware of the event in Mexico than here in the States, despite the population difference and, ostensibly, a greater importance put upon idea generation up here. The event is, by comparison, HUGE in most European countries and has a strong base in the Middle East, South America and Southern Asia.

Which leads me to wonder why it's not bigger here.

I mean, arguably, America is founded on the notion of creativity, isn't it? If you don't like the way something works or think of a better way to do it, work it up on your own, sell it and make yourself a millionaire. That's the America DreamTM, isn't it? Haven't many of the great inventions over the past 100 years come from the U.S.? Aren't many of the best-known characters in pop culture from the U.S.? Doesn't a huge chunk of our export revenue come from movies, video games and television? If so much of our society stems from the promotion of intellectual properties, shouldn't we be more interested in something called World Intellectual Property Day?

We should, of course. But we're not.

The issue, as I see it, stems from the fact that putting on World Intellectual Property Day events requires money. Money that is largely in the pockets of large corporations. Corporations that have invested millions of dollars over decades to secure intellectual property rights for themselves. Corporations that have lobbied hard to repeatedly extend copyright laws that prevent works from entering the public domain for generations longer than they used to. (My friend Matt had an excellent post about that many years ago. Hey, Matt, I don't suppose you still have that, do you? It was on your blog prior to Alchemy.) These corporations fully realize the value of intellectual property and also know that they (as an organization) can't really generate more ideas; they're reliant upon individuals working for the organization. Further, they know that the people who CAN generate great I.P. ideas generally don't need the corporation to secure the rights to those ideas.

There was a chart in a Jack Kirby Collector several years ago where someone analyzed all the issues of the Fantastic Four and plotted how many new characters Jack introduced each year. I can't find it offhand to check the specifics, but the numbers went up and up, until around issue #70 and the last two years or so of the title saw mostly variations on old ideas. The reason had nothing to do with Jack's creativity -- he was still dreaming up new characters and story ideas. But now, he was keeping the best ideas to himself. He didn't want give Stan Lee (and Marvel) anything else that would make them a lot of money. That's why, when Jack finally quit Marvel and went to DC, he had this incredible flurry of output with his Fourth World material. That was all stuff he'd been saving up.

Of course, he realized that DC wasn't any better in that regard after a year or two, so he held back on his ideas. That's where Kurt Busiek's and Alex Ross' upcoming Kirby: Genesis comes from: all the brilliant ideas Jack had after he left DC.

You can look at some of the legal fights that have been going on in comicdom lately to see the same thing. The ongoing Siegel/Shuster battle against DC over Superman. The ongoing battle between Lee and Stan Lee Media, Inc. The various lawsuits from the Kirby estate and Joe Simon against Marvel. Those are all about a large corporation trying to hold on to intellectual property that was created by someone else.

I'm not saying that your not hearing about World Intellectual Property Day before now is part of some grand conspiracy. I'm just saying that I suspect most corporations who might sponsor such an event see it as going against their best interests to help educate creators about their rights.

Just something to think about.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Buffalo Soldiers & The American West Review

I stumbled across the Graphic Library series from Capstone Press. It's a series of around 150 graphic novels aimed at 3rd and 4th graders covering a wide range of history and science. Each book covers a single topic: hurricanes, the Battle of Gettysburg, the first moon landing, the life of Harry Houdini, etc. They're high-level summaries, only clocking in at 32 pages each, and are told in broad strokes that nine and ten year olds could readily absorb. Despite the low page count, they're square-bound and have a bit more heft to them than a typical monthly pamphlet comic.

I read through The Buffalo Soldiers and the American West, one of the many, many topics woefully skipped over entirely in my public school history classes. After the Civil War, the government promoted westward expansion through the Homestead Act. Not surprisingly, the Native Americans were often not thrilled about this, and fights occurred from time to time. (This much I did learn in school.) The government wanted to sent armed forces out to protect the Homesteaders, but didn't feel it was fair to send all these troops out to fight under harsh conditions so soon after the Civil War. So they sent out African American troops. Despite having the worst supplies and harsh treatment from their white superiors. (Blacks weren't then allowed to be officers.) These troops were so effective and powerful, the Native Americans started comparing them to the ferocious buffalo. The troops went on to round up Mexican bandits and Native American "troublemakers" like Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse; they went on to serve valiantly with the Rough Riders under Teddy Roosevelt, and continued on through the Spanish-American War up through World War II. Their long unsung bravery led Colin Powell to dedicate a memorial to them in 1990.

As I said, this is a book aimed at kids. The language is pretty simple, and there's not a lot of nuance to the story or art. That said, it's well done and does a good job taking advantage of both the words and pictures. That is, it's definitely NOT just a straight narrative with some illustrations. The text and imagery are very well-integrated.

The other interesting thing here, and one of the reasons I opted to look at this book over some of their other titles, is to see how they handled racism and bigotry. Obviously, during that time in American history, any non-Caucasian was looked down upon. But for kids of that age group, you probably don't want to include the derogatory epitaphs or depict lynchings or anything. This is where the book REALLY surprised me.

The poor treatment of blacks was definitely not glossed over at all. They flatly state that a lot of whites didn't like African Americans and treated them poorly, like sending them out in the place of white soldiers and only providing inferior equipment. But once they're out West, the story largely focuses on their bravery and military successes. It comes across as an almost Campbell-ian hero's journey, just using an entire cavalry troop instead of a single individual.

But the REALLY elegant part is the depiction of the Native Americans. The Buffalo Soldiers are clearly the heroes of the book (they're the ones it's titled for, after all!) and the were largely created to deal with Native Americans. But rather than making the Native Americans the bad guys, they're actually depicted as people who were cornered into oppressive and unfair circumstances. Not victims, mind you, and not as noble, ignorant savages. They're simply shown as what they really were.

It's an incredible balancing act. The American Indians aren't really to blame for resisting their lands being forcibly taken away and their food supplies slaughtered. So you can't depict them too poorly, despite them needing to play the role of the villains here. The Buffalo Soldiers chase down a lot of these Native Americans unfairly on the orders of their superiors, but they're supposed to be the heroes so you don't want to really put any significant faults of conscience on them. If there's a real bad guy here, it's the (broadly labeled) U.S. government but you don't want to depict them too badly either, since they were the ones ordering the Buffalo Soldiers around in the first place. Amazingly, writer Jason Glaser handles all of those angles superbly such that the reader still roots for the heroes, but doesn't really disparage the villains.

I suppose, in that sense, it's not a 100% fair assessment of history but A) you can't reasonably provide ALL the details and nuances and expect children to comprehend them, and B) it's still more accurate than any school history book I've ever seen/read. Now, Glaser hasn't written all of the books in this series, but if this is any indication of the level of expertise going into these, I heartily recommend the whole series to anyone with kids in that age range.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Comics Through The Eyes Of A Teenager

I arrived in LaGuardia on Friday afternoon and took a taxi over to my S.O.'s cousin's place. (She had said it was close to the World Trade Center, but I hadn't realized that she meant 1/2 a block from Ground Zero!) This cousin has two kids, 14 and 11.

The 14-year-old had heard (from my S.O.) that I was big into comic books, which he thought was pretty cool, so he offered to take me over to Forbidden Planet. (I'll do a proper shop review later.) Now, this was a bright and mature kid; he's read most of the works of Shakespeare in his free time. Anyway, while we were in the apartment, he was playing Call of Duty, chatting with his friends via headset, chatting with us in person and periodically checking his phone and laptop all at the same time. I understand that's the norm for kids today, but I'm not around young people very much, so it was kind of fascinating to watch in action. It was also interesting to note how quickly his mom, the S.O. and myself got accustomed to discerning when he was talking to us versus when he was talking to his friends, despite no real obvious outward signs of who his comments were directed towards. (No change in tone or volume, and his eyes remained directed towards the television.)

Naturally, he and I chatted about comics on our way to and at the comic shop. His interest is primarily in manga, and the two he cited as reading the most of were Naruto and Bleach. Kingdom Hearts came up as well, as did Deadpool. He was also relatively familiar with Justice League but primarily through the cartoons, I think. While he was looking over the latest volumes of Naruto, I noted that I hadn't seen any of the books around the apartment. He responded that he read the first couple dozen volumes from the library, and had read the rest of them online. As far as I can tell, only the first volume is online legally, so I'm presuming he's read pirated versions of the rest. He didn't say so expressly, but it struck me that the legal issues surrounding that barely registered, if at all. Although, interestingly, he did later make a comment about another manga artist who was clearly borrowing character designs from someone else; his thought here was more focused on the lack of originality than the potential copyright infringement.

Coming out from their manga section, I found and started flipping through a collection of Steve Ditko's work. The kid asked what it was, and I explained that it was a collection of stories by the guy who created Spider-Man. His response was something along the lines of, "Spider-Man's cool and all, but Deadpool kicks his butt!" One of the folks who worked at the store came up, wearing a Spider-Man shirt. Within moments, he was in a friendly argument with my young guide, noting the Deadpool is a pale imitation of Spider-Man and without Spidey, there would be no Deadpool. That got cleverly segued into the kid trying to haggle down the price of the book since Spider-Man wasn't all that anyway.

The Spider-Man/Deadpool debate continued off and on throughout the rest of the weekend.

At some point, while we were browsing, I came across and pulled out a Darkstar and the Winter Guard TPB. I opened it to the credits page and explained, "This guy, the guy who wrote this? He's the one whose wedding I'm going to tomorrow."

"You know him?"

"Yeah. And this other guy who drew this? He'll be there tomorrow too."

He was really impressed. I tapped on the latest issue of Amazing Spider-Man on the wall. "This writer will be there too."

"Dude! You've got CONNECTIONS!" (Not that I'd ever met Dan Slott. I didn't get a chance to meet him at the event, either, for that matter.)

When we got back to the apartment, he played at being upset with my S.O. for downplaying my interest in comics. "You just told me he liked comics! That he was a Fantastic Four fan! You didn't say anything about him being all connected in with the business and everything!" Apparently, working in comics is still pretty impressive by a 14-year-old's standards. And I never even gave him the full run-down of all the comics folks who were at the wedding.
WeddingCon 2011.
(The S.O. and I are seen here chatting casually with DC's online technology manager, Dave McCullough. You can't see him, though, because he's sitting behind writer Frank Tieri. Greg Sanderson on the left there used to intern at Marvel with McCullough and Tieri. The photo itself is by artist Chris Cross.)

It was a fascinating weekend for me, in part for the awesome people I met at WeddingCon, but also in part for being able to get some insights from an intelligent and well-read teenager on how teenagers themselves look at the comics industry and media in general.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Congrats, Dave & Val

I had a great time at WeddingCon (aka the wedding of David Gallaher & Valerie D'Orazio) earlier today. Lots of cool/fun comics folks and some great food. I sadly didn't get any decent photos but it was clear that everybody had a great time.

Friday, April 22, 2011

SmarterComics Review

SmarterComics has their work cut out for them. In the first place, they're a new publisher. That's going to be a challenge for anybody in this day and age. In the second place, the comics they producing are based on non-fiction works, generally, without a clear narrative structure. That's going to make translating the stories into a compelling graphic format more challenging. But having read two of their books so far, I have to say that I think they're going to make a good go of it.

The books that I looked at were The Long Tail by Chris Anderson and The Art of War by Sun Tzu. Both of which were illustrated by Shane Clester. I was generally familiar with the contents of both of the original books these comics were adapted from, but I've never actually sat down and read either.

Since both books were drawn by Clester, it's a little easier to see how the source material impacted the "story" flow. Anderson's book, while not containing a strict narrative, does follow a progression that takes the reader from one concept to the next in a fairly linear fashion. Art of War is more like a series of only generally related pronouncements, with some back-up explanations. Consequently, War is more disjointed and doesn't hold together as a single book as well as Tail. The sequences in War could be taken more independently and out of context without having a dramatic impact on the messaging. Trying to read Tail non-sequentially would not be unlike trying to read a couple of random pages of Understanding Comics.

Another notable difference between Art of War and Long Tail is, not surprisingly, how contemporary the contents are. War was, of course, written several centuries ago, while Tail first came out in 2006. There's a note in the forward of War alluding to the timeless nature of the contents and how, in order to make it more deliberately contemporary, the artwork depicts decidedly more modern settings. In that respect, I think War will hold up better in the long run, but that has more to do with the basic content itself. Anderson's book, while extremely relevant and insightful now, almost certainly has a more finite shelf-life.

Personally, I enjoyed Tail more than War. The more linear narrative in Tail seemed to make for a smoother read, and the messages weren't ones that have been well-worn over the past several thousand years. I suspect that most people, even if they haven't read Tzu's original, are at least nominally aware of the ideas presented in it. Anderson's ideas are less on focused on the general truisms of mankind, and more on some specific cultural shifts that are occurring in our society right now.

I can't speak to how well these works are adapted from the originals. As I said, I haven't read those. So I don't know how much editing may have been done, or where written examples are simply depicted graphicly. Moreover, it's unclear which translation might've been used as the basis for Art of War. But these comics do seem to do a good job of getting across the main points of the originals.

I think SmarterComics would do well to continue focusing on more contemporary books, and not try to work on older works in the public domain. Given their upcoming lineup, this indeed appears to be the direction they're headed. I think what will make them successful is providing poignent messages for a modern audience that can be read and understood much more quickly than the original sources. (I read through each book in under an hour.) I don't know that the subject matter of EVERY book they've got coming will be my cup of tea, but there's several others that look promising and their initial efforts here are quite welcome.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

A.G.O. Concluded

The last episode of America's Greatest Otaku debuted tonight on Hulu. I've been watching along since the first episode (reviewed here) and now, having seen the entire series, I have to say that I'm surprised it didn't seem more bogged down.

The set-up of every show was that Stu Levy would provide a wooden welcome. Then the "Otaku Six", having already divided up into teams of two, would randomly choose which cities they would focus on. The bus would take them all to that city, where the two interns would get the low-down on one or two local otaku-ish venues, interview one or two AGO candidates and try to perform some silly challenge Levy issued. The bus would go to the next city where the next two interns would do the same thing. Then a third city with the last two interns. Then Levy and the Otaku Six would chat a bit about the challenges and quickly review the places they'd just seen.

The challenges made no sense. They were allegedly inspired by Japanese proverbs about otaku culture, but that was really a stretch in most cases. Not to mention that the winners of the challenges got... bragging rights, I suppose? There were no prizes or penalties, so the challenges were both unrelated and pointless.

The AGO candidate interviews were, for me, uncomfortable. The Otaku Six did most of the interviewing and none of them really seemed to come across as being very adept at it. By and large, they didn't seem to engage the candidates so much as just recite a series of questions. That could well have been a problem with the editing.

From a technical perspective, that was a noticeable detraction for me. The shows, on the whole, didn't strike me as very well edited. I felt I was WAAAAY too conscious of it. Intermediary text pages seemed to linger too long, overuse of inappropriate filters between key shots, abrupt jump cuts that disconnected images that shouldn't have been disconnect, uneven pacing...

Despite its problems, though, I kept watching because the location pieces were generally interesting. I mean, a ninja-themed restaurant? A J-pop hair salon? A kyudo dojo? Here in the U.S.? That's some pretty cool stuff. Some locations were more otaku-related than others, not surprisingly, but there was a really good mix of things.

The series finale was decidedly anti-climactic. The first half was spent saying good-bye to the Otaku Six, which may have been more poignant if we got to know them through the show. We saw glimpses, certainly, but we didn't see much of who they were as individuals. So the parting, while genuine for them, came across as overly dramatic for viewers. Then five judges (who had never been named or referenced throughout the show) spoke a bit about the AGO candidates, and why they selected winner and two runners up. While I liked hearing what they had to say in explaining what aspects of the candidates stood out as particularly otaku, I didn't much care for the rest of the episode, which followed the winner around a week-long trip to Japan. He was clearly thrilled and in awe but, here again, they had him conduct unengaging interviews. (No fault of his, though! Everyone was answering his questions in Japanese, which he obviously didn't understand.)

OK, so if you drop the last episode, all the AGO interview stuff, the challenges, the excessively long screens of text, the introductions, the closings -- basically everything but the otaku locations -- I think this could've made for a really good two-hour documentary. Those location portions were really interesting and insightful. Eight forty-some minute episodes didn't really work that well though. It seemed like they were putting a lot of padding in to get eight episodes out of it.

Of course, it's almost impossible to watch this without putting it in the context of Tokyopop closing its American manga operations. I've got a small collection of manga, but I don't follow it that closely. Levy, though, has been something of a personality in the manga industry and the show reflects that personality, I think. A lot of people have commented that he had some great ideas for Tokyopop but his execution was disjointed with poor follow-through. A lot of that shows through in America's Greatest Otaku. There's the germ of an idea there, but he tried taking it into too many different directions at once. I'd love to have seen what a really strong video editor could've done with all the footage he collected, because it looks like there's some really great stuff in there.

Tokyopop did some really great things over the years, but Levy's scattershot approach seemed to hinder things more than help, and look where the company wound up. Unfortunately, much the same could be said about AGO.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Wednesday Morning Linkage

  • The Atlantic recently posted a special report called "How Genius Works" in which they discuss the creative process with several big names like Paul Simon, Tim Burton, Frank Gehry and Ben Katchor.
  • The Georgia Institute of Technology recently held a symposium on that asked "how changes in technology, especially digital media, affect comics’ identities and industries." Comic professionals Tony Harris, Van Jensen and Andy Runton were in attendance. Technique has a good write-up.
  • Newsweek Pakistan has an article up on Naif Al-Mutawa's The 99. Given the limited attention it's received in the U.S., I'm always happy to throw in a plug for the book!
  • Showcasing the cliche that traditional news media are perpetually behind when it comes to trends, The Daily Titan has a new article citing that, hey, there are a number of movies out there that come from comic books now.
  • The StarTribune also has a somewhat old school article on Gary Dahlberg, who recently passed away. The write-up centers around Dahlberg's collection of comics, valued at $1,000,000, but it tends to paint a less-than-flattering picture of him citing that he was "more committed to his comic books than to the idea of marriage" and "put toys in his fridge because he liked to open it up and have something fun to look at." It has the kind of vibe that says, "This guy was a social outcast and very eccentric, but his weird hobby is now making some money, so we'll tolerate his weirdness." I'm mostly surprised that people still write articles like that any more.
  • The Comics That Comics Buy! The first of what appears to be a series over at The Nerdist wherein a comedian talks about some comic book they purchase. This first one features Kumail Nanjiani talking (quickly) about Asterix...

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Oldest Comics

I'm not much of an actual collector of comics. I prefer the stories themselves to the artifacts they were originally printed on. But there was a long time where those two approaches were one and the same. Reprints just weren't that widely available for a lot of older books. So I do have a few older comics in my collection that I've picked up over the years.

For no other reason than it struck my fancy tonight, here are the oldest three comics in my physical collection, all of which were published about a quarter-century before I was born...
WHIZ Comics #114 circa 1949. My copy is actually coverless. It was actually my dad's and I picked it up when he gave me his comic collection a few years ago. No idea where he got it or why, but it may well have been just for the Ibis story.

Classics Illustrated #10. This is the reprint from 1947, not the 1943 original. My copy is in bad shape; lots of water damage. It was found by a relative in the back of a garage with a handful of other issues and given to me. I have to admit that I have yet to actually read this.

Green Lama #5. May 1945. I found this in a consignment shop for a couple of bucks several years ago. (Well before the Golden Age revival stuff that Dyanmite and Image put out in more recent years.) I'm not a big Lama fan but I'd heard about him when reading about Lou Fine, so I figured this was a good way to see some of his work first-hand.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Step AWAY From The Computer

I'm sitting in front of my computer tonight. It's just after 8:00. I haven't come up with even an idea for today's blog post, much less something for my MTV Geek column that I was hoping to have done early this week. I was reading a number of creators' tweets and Facebook messages, went through all of the day's comic news, read all of my daily comics and caught up on last week's episode of America's Greatest Otaku... and I've got bupkis.

So I decided to take the dog for a walk.

Not as a means of procrastination, though! But as a conduit for The Muse.

I've walked the dog just about every night for the past eight years or so. I've walked in front of just about every house within a two mile radius a couple thousand times. (No exaggeration; I did the math.) And I've walked by them usually at night. Which means that A) I can't see them very well through the darkness and B) what I can see is pretty much the same thing I've seen a thousand other times.

So my mind wanders...

And wanders...

And wanders...

Because it's the basically the same schtick every night and because my sensory inputs are diminished (it's darker, there's less noise because fewer people are out, etc.) it almost forces me to turn inwards, and start rolling things around in my head. My train of thought can jump all over the place and, in that process, inadvertently make connections that might not have been there before.

Sure enough, after only ten minutes of walking, I had an idea for my MTV column. After another 20 minutes, I had written a good chunk of it in my head. I probably could have written the whole thing, but I deliberately stopped so I could come up with a blog post idea.

Despite the post title, what I'd like to get to is NOT to say that creative ideas only come from walking the dog or anything like that. I've had more than a few ideas precisely because I was sitting in front of the computer with half a dozen articles open. The ideas come when you start making connections in your head. The trick is in knowing how to set yourself up to be able to make those connections.

I was mowing the lawn earlier tonight. First time this year. And I noticed a tree had started growing in the spot where one I had planted three years ago had died. It was like the old tree was being risen from the dead. A zombie tree. A zombie Ent.

That's how those connections work. If you're not able to make them with what's sitting in front of you, you have to turn your focus inward. Which is easier to do if you're not distracted by Facebook and Twitter and Angry Birds and ticklish penguin videos.

Don't fear the blank page in front of you; it's just a mirror for what's going on upstairs.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Bonnie Lass 4 Review

Well, I've already looked at the first three issues so I may as well wrap up Bonnie Lass with a review of the final issue, which came out this past week.

With this being the final issue, obviously, the overall storyline needs to get wrapped up. Not an easy task when we start the issue with her facing down a giant sea monster who's just opened a ethereal portal to who-knows-where. Oh, and she's got her arch nemesis on board her ship.

The first dozen or so pages of this book were pretty chaotic. Not impossible to follow, but there were a few spots where it was a little difficult to tell exactly what was going on. Given the relative smooth narrative in previous issues, even during the action scenes, I'm inclined to think this was deliberate on Michael Mayne's part. I suspect he was trying to provide a more visceral sense of what the characters were going through, so we see a lot of quick flashes of story that race by too fast to really process very well.

The second half of the issue flows much more smoothly as the dénouement. It wraps up the adventure, touching on and sets the stage for future ones. (That's even before the mysterious epilogue!) Whether or not Red 5 is opting to continue Bonnie Lass with a second series, I don't know but I suspect we haven't seen the last of her.

Oh, it shouldn't need to be said, but in case anyone was wondering, they do win out in the end. Bonnie and her crew end up with the treasure, Fischer gets a manga-style nosebleed from the outfit Bonnie winds up in and they all party with a group of tribal villagers.

Speaking of outfits, though, Mayne also posted the image below earlier this week in honor of Bonnie Lass finishing up. It doesn't really have anything to do with my review or the story, but I liked it well enough that I wanted to share.
All four issues are currently available at comixology and iVerse for $1.99 each.

So, um, Red 5 people? Volume two gets approved when?

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Comings & Goings

I try to not do TOO much self-promotion here, but I do actually have people tell me from time to time that they enjoy my ramblings. So here's some other recent and upcoming places to find me...
  • Jack Kirby Collector #56
    The latest issue of JKC came out a little over a week ago and contains my regular "Incidental Iconography" column, this time looking at the blatant white-washing of the Dingbats of Danger Street!
  • MTV Geek
    My "Kleefeld on Webcomics" columns continue on over at the MTV Geek blog as well. My latest ones include:
  • Graphic Novels
    Graphic Novels
    is the upcoming three-volume reference set from Salem Press. It's essentially an encyclopedia of comics. I've already contributed the entries for Alice in Sunderland and Fax from Sarajevo. I'm currently working on one for Laika.
  • WeddingCon
    David Gallaher (writer of Winter Guard, Box 13 and High Moon) and Valerie D'Orazio (writer of Punisher MAX: Butterfly and X-Men Origins: Emma Frost) will be tying the knot next week, and I have the honor of being in attendance. I mention it partially because they're both cool people and friends, but also because they're both pretty embedded in the comics community and, since the wedding will be held in Brooklyn, there'll be more than a few comics type folks in attendance as well. (Hence, Gallaher dubbing the event "WeddingCon.")
  • Comic Book Fanthropology
    I've made some minor revisions to my book, mostly fixing typos and adjusting the print quality of the photos. You can buy it through Lulu now or (and here's why I'm mentioning this) wait a few weeks and purchase it through Amazon. My initial outing with the book has pretty well run it's course, so let's see if some of the big retailers can give it some more life! Obviously, I'll post the link here as soon as it's available.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Beerbohm's Comics Reality

Lately, I've been reading some files I found buried in my archives from several years ago. It was a series of text pieces written by comics retailer Robert Beerbohm called "Comics Reality." They were all written in 1997 and '98 for the Comic Book Network Electronic Magazine. There have an interesting look at comics retailing, partially being a history lesson, but also addressing some issues that were JUST old enough to no longer be current.

I think I came across the pieces around 2001/2002, so they were slightly dated at the time. Still in the "just old enough to not be current" ballpark. But I vaguely recall thinking at the time that I'd save them and read them later when I had a chance. Apparently the chance didn't show up for a decade, as I've just pulled these out to start reading them!

I'm only on the fifth installment out of (I think) twelve. But all that "not quite current" stuff is now at least fifteen years past and Beerbohm's writing about it with then-little hindsight is quite interesting relative to having a few years to reflect on things. History as it was happening, if you will.

I bring this up for a few reasons. First, I think it's fascinating and I'd like to highlight Beerbohm's work/research in particular to encourage him to finish his book on comic retailing. I knew he'd been working on it for a while, but I found several references to it in "Comics Reality", meaning that "a while" has been well over a decade. (To be fair, I've heard he does have at least a partial draft and estimates the completed version will be over 600 pages.) Robert, if you read this, I'd love to see you finish it; if that's not likely any time soon, I'd still love to see what you've put together so far.

Second, what he has written for "Comics Reality" is incredibly enlightening, if a tad unpolished, and I'd like to encourage anyone who has the remotest interest in comic retailing to check out at least the first two installments. Sadly, the only place I can seem to find them online is through the Internet Archive. There's a very good explanations of why Jack Kirby's Fourth World books were canceled despite their popularity and how/why Howard the Duck commanded such erratic pricing when it was first published.

Beerbohm's still around. Still selling comics. Despite some health set-backs in recent years, this recent WonderCon photo suggests he's doing pretty well. (That's him on the right.) But he won't be around forever. (Not trying to sound cold here; he made exactly that point in one of his "Comics Reality" pieces!) So how about talking to him and the other "first generation" comic retailers to get some sense of perspective? To get a sense of where this industry was two, three, four decades ago? To get more of the type of stories in "Comics Reality" out to more people?

Because if we can't get one of those first gen guys don't do it, I'm going to have to write that book myself! And you don't want that, do you?

Thursday, April 14, 2011

BBC Profiles Tom Brevoort

Well, technically it was BBC America. And it wasn't so much a Tom Brevoort profile as Doctor Who event profile. And it didn't so much feature Brevoort as it happened to pan across a crowd of people where he was standing. That's him with the tan duster and black messenger bag.
I couldn't find any other comic folks in the footage, though I know several others that were in attendance.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Who Doesn't Love Link-Blogging

  • The Worcester Telegram recently profiled Paul B. Howley and his That’s Entertainment comic shop. Just a nice piece on an LCS.
  • I just found out about a Kickstarter campaign to fund a documentary about Frederic Wertham. As most comic fans only know Wertham by reputation, and many have never actually even read Seduction of the Innocent much less anything else he wrote, this is some research I think is well worth pursuing.
  • Harvard University is holding some panel discussions on April 30 that explore "the role of comics and graphic novels in teaching and learning about the Middle East and Muslim communities." I'm always for fighting ignorance. More info here.
  • Ian Gordon has made his book Comic Strips and Consumer Culture, 1890-1945 available online for free. I haven't read it yet, but long-form, thoughtful discussions about comics are always welcome in my house. Especially when they're free! It can be read in your browser here or can be downloaded as a PDF from that location if you sign in.
  • And don't forget that Free Comic Book Day is less than a month away!

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Secrets Behind The Comics Remains A Secret

One of the books that I've heard about for years, but never actually had a chance to read in full is Stan Lee's Secrets Behind the Comics from 1947. It's a 100-page book in which Lee explains (in his typical hyperbolic style) how comics are made with lots of spot illustrations by Ken Bald. It's sometimes credited as the first book of its kind.

It shows up on auction sites every so often, so it's not impossible to find, but it's not exactly cheap when it does come up. The one on eBay right now has an asking price of $200. Marvel actually did reprint it as a limited edition retailer incentive back in the 1990s, but even those go for around $100.

From the handful of pages I've seen (bits are occasionally reprinted in Alter Ego) it looks like a neat book, and one in which I think a number of people would be interested in seeing in a more accessible form.

And so I thought, "Hey! If I could get my hands on one half-decent copy, I could scan all the pages in and reprint it myself. Since it was first published in 1947, I bet it's lapsed into public domain!"

So I started trying to sort through U.S. copyright laws. After a little digging, I find that anything published after 1922 but before 1950 needed to have its copyright actively renewed within 28 years of its original publication or it falls into public domain. 1947 + 28 = 1975. Clearly well before the 1994 reprint, and I can't imagine Lee would've thought to renew the copyright on such a small and, at the time, almost wholly unrecognized book. His memory is notoriously lousy, after all.

Now, I had seen/heard rumors of a reprint version sometime in the 1970s. But some people had suggested it was an illegal version, and I couldn't pinpoint when it was actually published either. If it had been published after '75, it wouldn't matter who published it. If it had been published before by someone other than Lee, it would've been technically illegal, but it wouldn't have impacted the copyright. If it had been published before '75 by Lee, that would have constituted a copyright renewal and it would be off limits.

That was where my thought process left off as I went to bed last night. I was excited at the prospect of maybe being able to bring some bit of comics history back into print.

This morning, I thought, "OK, I was having trouble trying to track down info on this supposedly illegal version. If it was illegal, then it wouldn't have an impact on what I might do. I can probably proceed with plans to get a copy and start putting it together as a new print-on-demand book. You know, though... just to be safe, let me absolutely verify that it's lapsed into public domain."

And one search through Stanford's Copyright Renewal Database later...
Title: Secrets behind the comics
Author: Stan Lee, pseud. of Stanley Lieber
Registration Date: 28Oct47
Renewal Date: 15Sep75
Registration Number: AA35863
Renewal Id: R613727
Renewing Entity: Stan Lee (A)
Amazing. Lee managed to renew the copyright on the book the month before it lapsed! One month! Which means, going back to some copyright research, Secrets Behind the Comics will not fall into public domain until the year 2042. It's off limits until then.

Now, I have to admit a LOT of surprise when it comes to the amount of obscure comics material that has been reprinted the past several years, but until/unless Lee decides it's okay to print up another version, the book will elusive to the vast majority of comics fans. Even the ones who really want to read a copy!

Say, anyone want to put a bug in Lee's ear about reprinting this puppy? I'm betting a print-on-demand version would be quite easy and profitable!

Monday, April 11, 2011

Outside The Box Isn't

You've heard the phrase "thinking outside the box", I presume? I don't particularly care for it myself, but it comes up regularly as a euphemism for being creative. It's an attempt at visualizing the notion of creativity. The rules you have to work under are expressed as rigid lines that constrain your boundaries...
Some of the rules may be common (the project needs to fit in a standard #10 envelope). Some of the the rules may be vague (it needs to be eye-catching). Some of the rules may be legal (you can't use someone else's intellectual property without paying for it). Some of the rules may unstated (the text has to be in English so it can be understood by Americans). Some of the rules may be entirely arbitrary (the piece should be predominantly yellow because the project manager happens to like yellow). Those rules limit what you can do; they box you in.

At least, that's the perception.

There ARE indeed rules in place, but they rarely box you in completely. They provide a framework to start from and might SUGGEST a box but, in reality, the confines of your box probably look more like this...
...or this...
In each of these cases, you can pretty readily discern the edges of a box. This is that "closure" Scott McCloud talks about in Understanding Comics. You see enough of the framework to mentally complete the idea; you don't need to see the full outline of the box to understand what it's supposed to look like.

But here's the thing: there's a lot of white space breaking through that box already. Those four sides are NOT solid. The suggested outlines aren't necessarily the exact confines that you have to follow.

The four outlines above still reference that same lines as that broken box, and still reflect that same basic box structure, but are all interpreted differently. (Note that I still imposed upon myself an additional restriction here that all the box edges had to be straight!) The box edges remain perfectly intact; I just took liberties with the spaces that were available.

"The box" is a pretty tired metaphor at this point. But regardless of whether or not it's invoked, there are rules dropped down on you all the time for every project. But none of them are ever so complete as you might find in a Schrödinger's cat experiment. The rules are just guidelines that provide a loose structure to work from. The actual implementation based on that structure always remains up to the individual.

Harry Houdini made a name for himself by proving no box was escape-proof. I've spent most of my career online finding ways to circumvent the technical roadblocks that are put in front of me. Jack Kirby repeatedly found ways to work around the storytelling restraints that were continually placed on him.
The work that people remember, the work that people will credit you for is the work in which you do something different from the implied structure that you're given. Find the rules you need to follow, but don't feel constrained. Take those rules as a challenge to find where the holes in the box are. Don't look outside the box; look for how it's not even a box in the first place.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Marvel Coupons?

This came in my Sunday advertising supplement today...
It's an ad for Marvel toys, including coupons. I've seen ads from Toys R Us and Target and the like promoting Marvel goods, but this is the first time I've seen a circular ad specifically for Marvel from a toy manufacturer. (As near as I can tell, the ad was paid for by Hasbro.)

And that it includes coupons is a bit surprising, too. Especially that they're worth upwards of 25% of the suggested retail price.

Now, my understanding is that a retailer doesn't HAVE to accept coupons. But wouldn't doesn't this incentivize consumers to go somewhere OTHER than comic shops? I doubt many comic shops accept them (since there are so very few coupons that would even be applicable to their merchandise) and, with their already typically slightly-higher-than-discount-stores prices, we're talking about a decent price break just by going to a big box store than you were probably going to stop at anyway.

Obviously, Hasbro really doesn't care where you buy their toys. But this also suggests that Marvel doesn't either. Which further suggests that they're just as comfortable dealing with Wal-Mart as they are with your LCS. By no means is this any kind of proof that Marvel doesn't care about the direct market system; in fact, it probably says nothing at all, as it's possible that Marvel had zero knowledge about this ad prior to today. But it doesn't actually look all that great for Marvel from a DM perspective.

Saturday, April 09, 2011

Petrograd Review

The past couple of years, I've developed an affinity for non-fiction comics. They have all the elements of the medium that I enjoy, plus I usually learn something from them. Closely related to non-fiction is historical fiction. Typically, these take elements of history and try to tell stories around the periphery. They try to give a feel of what things were like for the people who don't show up in the history books.

That's where Phil Gelatt and Tyler Crook's upcoming graphic novel, Petrograd, comes from. It's set primarily in Russia during World War I. Agent Cleary, a British spy, is trying to keep tabs on things from his connections with the Russian secret police and, where possible, push events in directions that are more favorable towards Great Britain. It's in this fashion he picks up on some drunken ramblings of Prince Felix Yusupov, who suggested killing Grigori Rasputin to quit his influence on the Tsaritsa. Cleary nudges the plot forward and, despite his efforts to remain removed from the assassination attempt, winds up in the final struggle. Cleary is then sold out to the police, with the British government claiming he's gone rogue. Cleary manages to escape but is left to try to start a new life for himself.

Almost any story involving the death of Rasputin is going to contain some element of fiction. First-hand accounts at the time varied, and the original documents were destroyed in one fashion or another. Further, his reputation at the time suggested he had magic powers and it was easy for people to believe exaggerated stories about him. Consequently, we don't definitively know how he died.

What Gelatt and Crook have done, then, is take the best information that's available, and try to craft a compelling, logical tale around that. The secret service, the involvement of the Prince, the motives... all of that fits in just about perfectly with what we do know. From what I've gleaned, the only significant change is that Cleary appears to be a fictional stand-in for someone named Oswald Rayner. But otherwise, it all seems pretty accurate. So, while this is technically historical fiction, it's probably closer to non-fiction than many other supposedly non-fiction books and, from that sense, was incredibly fascinating for me.

The artwork is beautifully rendered in orange/red duotones throughout. I did have a little difficulty discerning individuals in a few scenes where people were bundled up heavily to ward off the cold outside (that a couple were cross-dressers didn't help matters) but considering how little I knew of Rasputin and Russia's involvement in WWI prior to reading this, it still wasn't that difficult to follow along. Certainly, once the story got rolling and I established who all the characters were -- about two dozen pages in -- things progressed along nicely. Although that two dozen pages might sound like a lot, keep in mind that the whole book is 274 pages long and the actual murder of Rasputin, beginning with his first sip of poison, takes over 40 pages.

All in all, I quite enjoyed the book. I think it's an excellent example of taking real events to tell a gripping story. Especially in light of how much Rasputin floats in the public perception as this vague and mysterious, almost mythical, villain, I think Petrograd does a superb job of showing what people really thought of him and what he was really like. Oh, he's still plenty villainous, and that helps to make this a compelling story, but he's villainous in a decidedly more debauchedly human way than he's often depicted. Writers don't NEED to make embellishments to make Rasputin the bad guy, and that's part of what makes Petrograd successful.

Friday, April 08, 2011

What Happened To My Friday?

Mash-ups today because it's suddenly 11:30 and I don't know where the day went. Text from today's Garfield, art from today's...
Laugh-Out-Loud Cats
Gronk

Thursday, April 07, 2011

Let All Beware... THE CUBE!

My quick phone test from the other day seemed to garner an unusual (i.e. some) amount of interest, so I thought I'd follow it up with a quick look around my day-to-day workspace, as there are more than a few comic references around. Not exactly shelf-porn, but someone might be interested.

The office environment, generally speaking, is a cube farm. Beige as far as the eye can see. I've done what I can to make things a little more visually interesting. Here's the view walking into my cube...
Of particular note for comics fans are the Batman Rescue Zone sign (an idea liberally swiped from an online meme from a little while back), a Captain Marvel action figure above my name plate and a "Doodle Wall" where I pin up random sketches (not infrequently relating back to comics) that I might make during particularly long and boring meetings. I might also point out the papercraft chimp in a Hawaiian shirt sitting on my name plate.

Stepping inside...
The overhead bin is plastered with comic strips that made me chuckle. Mostly newer stuff that was printed as I read them online, but there is a Bloom County strip and an old Ron Cobb editorial cartoon. On the wall underneath that bin are a couple lightning-related cartoons, one by Don Martin and the other two (both featuring Captain Marvel) by one of the designers here at work. Those are in commemoration of when I was struck by lightning. The color comic next to the calendar is the sequence in Tozo where I made an appearance. (My favorite comment about it: "Why is the elephant dude giving you the evil eye? Oh, man! That's Babar and he's pissed you swiped his crown!" Also visible are several The Cubes action figures, mostly being overrun by plastic spiders.

Swinging around to the right, we have...
Another overhead bin with some comics. Underneath are some cut out figures from Tozo and Girl Genius. Above the computer is an Aubrey Beardsley print. The "Design This" sign was actually done for a short semi-educational video we did here at work.

And, yes, that's a 27" iMac that I work on. Sitting next to a barely visible PC that I have to use for work email and chat.

So that's where I spent 40-ish hours every week. Not exactly the ideal environment for designing, but I've tried to make it at least moderately more engaging with some comics material.

Wednesday, April 06, 2011

Link-Blog: The Feature!

  • Leipzig University of Applied Sciences grad student Mia Wiesner is working on her dissertation on U.S. digital comics. To that end, she's conducting this short, anonymous survey to help identify reader expectations. It only takes a few minutes, and I'm sure she'd be appreciative of your help.
  • Do you recall that bizarre Batdance song Prince recorded for the first Tim Burton Batman movie? That was actually a replacement for a song he wrote entitled "Dance with the Devil." It was allegedly pulled because Prince thought it was too dark, and it's never formally been released. A Prince fan called "abelflexes" posted a little over two minutes from the dropped song with a fan-made video. Even though we don't hear the complete version, it seems to me a much better and more appropriate tune than Batdance (which I'm refusing to link to).
  • I just stumbled on Shawn Swanson's Raaarr! blog, which focuses on marketing comic books. As far as I can tell, he just started it a few months ago. I don't know that I agree with everything he's saying/doing there, but there's quite a lot there that is useful and I'm sure a lot of comic creators could benefit from.
  • Nick Barrucci has held some level of fascination for me for over a decade now. In large part because I'm astounded that he's been as successful as he's been for as long as he's been. He's clearly doing something right, but I'll be damned if I know what that is. No disrespect intended towards him, but I would've predicted he'd had to switch careers years ago. I give him a LOT of credit for being able to do what he's doing. So it's in that mindset that I read ICv2's recent three-part interview with him with interest; they cover Barrucci's current thoughts on most business aspects of the comics industry.
  • Lastly, we have video footage from the New York Fire Department announcing their fire safety comic book published by Marvel...

Tuesday, April 05, 2011

TMNT Artobiography Review

I first heard of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, I believe, in the summer of 1985. They were being used as art on a flyer for that year's Mid-Ohio-Con and I remember thinking, "You have GOT to be kidding! How does that make ANY sense?" The art was actually an early drawing of them, too, where they were still all lanky and a little goofy looking prior to their actual publication as a comic. (The following year, Mid-Ohio-Con was all about John Byrne and his then-recent revamp of Superman.) I don't recall if either Kevin Eastman or Peter Laird were at the show as I was very preoccupied with the Fantastic Four at the time, pretty much to exclusion of everything else.

At some point in the next couple of years, my father had begun buying comics here and there, and eventually picked up the four TMNT paperbacks that First Comics started putting out in 1986. By that point, I had more or less exhausted my own comic reading material, as well as my funds for obtaining any more, so I started reading Dad's comics. Including those TMNT books. So by the time the cartoon came around in late '87, I was pretty well-versed in the characters. I watched the cartoon, read all four TPBs my dad got, bought the action figures, got the role-playing game and played the arcade game.

And then I went off to college.

I don't think I've read, heard or watched a single Turtles story since then. They were just interesting enough for me to hold my attention at that time, but I think it was largely predicated off the momentum Eastman and Laird generated in their first dozen issues of the comic. So that's me coming to Eastman's Teenage Mutant Turtles Artobiography, which I won earlier this year.

The book is a history of Eastman's creative work on the Turtles. There is LOADS of artwork. Lots of sketches, pencil layouts, pre- and post-toned comic pages, paintings... the works. Much of it is annotated with notes about what this piece was used for, and how that piece was developed. There's also something of an introduction that explains how Eastman and Laird got started, and a bit about their work process for those early issues.

The book focuses mostly Eastman and Laird's collaborative efforts. There's a few pieces about Eastman's solo stories, and almost nothing regarding the cartoon or the movies or the action figures. I think a passing mention or two of each, but that's about it. The book is really about Kevin Eastman's Turtles.

With that in mind, it's an interesting look at Eastman's early development as a comic book artist. There's a very clear progression in his methodology and technique. (The book is arranged chronologically, so this the progression is easily apparent.) Eastman makes note, from time to time, too, of changes in style or direction.

As I said, there's tons of art and much of it is annotated. If I had a complaint about the book, though, is that it's JUST annotated. There's not a lot of substantive text. Eastman does a sufficient enough job of explaining what we're looking at, but I would certainly be interested in hearing more. But if you want to study Eastman's art in detail, I can't imagine a better tome.

Just Testing. Please Ignore.

Phone Post Test...

Monday, April 04, 2011

ElfQuest Fan Film Trailer

I'd heard this was being worked, but I usually dismiss fan films 1) because I'm interested in the comics themselves more than the intellectual properties (i.e. characters) and 2) well, frankly because so many of them are poorly done. Anyway, this teaser trailer for an ElfQuest fan video looks excellent...

I have to admit to some disappointment at not seeing my favorite character, Redlance, but that closing shot that closing shot of Winnowill just about makes up for it by itself!

I also like that the film is produced and directed by women, with an almost entirely female cast. The original ElfQuest story (for those who haven't read it) has a really good male/female mix, and depicts a range of characters in often atypical roles for their respective gender. Case in point: Redlance is more of a pacifistic while his lifemate, Nightfall, is a huntress. That this film is largely a product of women counters, albeit slightly, the overwhelmingly male-dominated world of fan films.

Anyway, it looks great, and I can't wait to see the rest of it now!

Sunday, April 03, 2011

Random Thoughts On The IDW/Marvel Book

Announced over the weekend was a book from IDW entitled Walter Simonson's Thor: Artist's Edition reprinting all of the original art from Thor #337 from Marvel. I suspect the initial thought from many people upon hearing about this was, "Wha-huh?" So let me throw out a few vaguely related thoughts that I can't really seem to flow in a cohesive narrative right now...

Marvel actually has a history of letting other people use it's characters dating back to the 1940s Captain America serials. So that's nothing new.

Marvel has also worked with other comic publishers to develop new comic books. Even if you leave aside the one-off team-up specials between Marvel and DC, Marvel also farmed out four of its core titles in the mid-1990s to Image. (That would be the "Heroes Reborn" books.)

Marvel has also has a history of letting other comic publishers reprint their earlier work. Most notable is Dark Horse's reprinting of Marvel's original Conan the Barbarian series.

IDW, despite being a comic book publisher, isn't really a direct competitor with Marvel. The books they sell, generally, don't overlap much in terms of theme, tone or audience.

Marvel has repeatedly licensed the use of its characters in comics that, while published by Marvel, were created for use in specific channels. The Taco Bell comics are probably the most recent example there.

Sometime around 1999, Marvel switched from being a comic book publisher to a character licensing company. These days comics comprise less than a third of Marvel's overall revenue and they make most of their money from letting people OTHER than Marvel do stuff with their characters. Though this is typically in the form single images -- shirts, toys, games, candy, etc.

A little over a year ago, Marvel was bought by Disney. Currently, Disney farms out character licenses for use in publishing comics to Slave Labor and BOOM! Studios, despite some speculation at the time of the acquisition that those titles would be handed over to Marvel.

Various TwoMorrows magazines (most notably Jack Kirby Collector) publish large chunks of original art from Marvel books. In fact, they published Fantastic Four #108 in its entirety in JKC #53... which led to Marvel getting Stan Lee to re-script it and publish it themselves!

All that said, I'm not surprised Marvel is letting IDW have a crack at reprinting their old work. (Albeit, in a slightly different than the original form.) I suspect we'll be seeing more of those types of projects as time goes on. Assuming, of course, this first one is profitable! I'll be curious to see, if this is successful, how Marvel moves forward and whether they'll start licensing their characters to other publishers on a more regular basis.

Saturday, April 02, 2011

The Arctic Marauder Review

Have you ever read 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea? I know you know the basic story, but have you read the actual book? The original by Jules Verne? (Or at least a translated version.) Put aside everything you saw in the Disney movie or remember from Classics Illustrated or any of the myriad of adaptations that have been done over the years.

The original story, as with most of Verne's fictions, is incredibly dull. Yes, the giant squid is still there and Nemo blows up some ships and all, but Verne's writing style tends to be overly precise at the expense of the story pacing. I'm always ambivalent towards his books; he's got a lot of brilliant ideas and solid scientific extrapolations, but there's generally only the barest characterizations and not a lot by way of story narrative.

I point this out as a preface to Fantagraphics' recently published translation of Jacques Tardi's The Arctic Marauder. The story is pretty similar to 20,000 Leagues -- two scientists get fed up with the world, build a ship that's invisible to normal modes of detection and take their aggressions out on everyone who aren't on board. Like Verne's book, the story is largely told from the point of view of someone outside the main crew -- in this case, one of the scientists' nephews. Which allows Tardi to have some exposition that makes sense within the context of the story, as both the main character and the reader largely have the same perspective.

Also like Verne's work, the story itself is a little shallow and not terribly engaging at an emotional level. It feels very much like it comes out of the same late-1800s/early-1900s European writing style. It's not badly written, by any means, just in a very different style than what we're accustomed to these days.

What I think would attract most people to the book is the absolutely gorgeous artwork. The whole piece is very clearly influenced by the engraving style illustrations from that same period, and every page is a delight to look at. Even the small chapter illustrations are striking. Unlike those old engravings, though, there's a slightly more graphic element to Tardi's work here. There's a very conscious use of negative space, and makes good use of an absence of lines in his shading.

While some people may find the story not to their liking (namely those who don't care for Verne's work) the artwork more than makes up for it, in my opinion. I personally have a hard time slogging through Verne's work because the then-new scientific ideas that may have kept his original audience engaged were well-known by the time I read of his material; I had nothing in his work to engage me at any level. And while Tardi doesn't come up with any new scientific theories either, the artwork more than makes up for the flatness of characters in the story for me.

Friday, April 01, 2011

As The Heroes World Debacle Began...

I was doing some reading/research at lunch today on the birth of the Direct Market. In the process, I came across some articles and opinion pieces that were written shortly after Marvel announced they had bought Heroes World.

Now, if you're not up pretty conversant in comics retailing history, there used to be several distributors of comics in the Direct Market. Diamond was among them, of course, but so were places like Capital and Heroes World. In late 1994, Marvel actually bought Heroes World outright and, nine weeks later, announced that they would, from there on out, ONLY distribute their comics through Heroes World. In effect, they were saying that if retailers wanted to sell Marvel comics, they would have to buy them directly Marvel itself. Oh and, by the way, Heroes World also distributed other publishers' comics.

The fairly obvious intent here was to drive all other distributors out of business. It'd naturally be MUCH easier for a retailer to order all of their comics from one distributor, rather than order just Marvel books from Heroes World and utilize other distributors for DC and Dark Horse and everyone else. Which, it turns out, had to be done at some level as DC announced an exclusive deal with Diamond a few weeks later.

Heroes World failed after about a year. There simply wasn't the internalized knowledge/infrastructure to run a successful distributing company at the scale Marvel needed.

OK, with that (extremely shortened) background, I found some comments that were written shortly after Marvel announced their exclusive distribution through Heroes World...
Mike Richardson, president of Dark Horse Comics: "In its company catalogue, Marvel points to dissatisfaction with
current performance levels as the reason for the dramatic change. It leads one to believe that further changes will be made if performance doesn't improve. One can only hope that these changes will not devastate a market that has served our industry well."

Frank Miller, author of Sin City and The Dark Knight Returns: "Marvel Comics is out of steam. They aren't even trying to compete on a creative level. They've declared war on the free market. They've made it clear that they want to exercise dictatorial power over the comics market, and, from all appearances, they're willing to destroy the market before they are willing to change their stupid policies or to take their proper place in the market as a fading giant."

Ryan Brewster, writer for Comic Book Network Electronic Magazine: "However, there are many different possibilities that open up as a result of Marvel's Actions... The Pebble-in-a-stream Theory: This theory claims that Marvel's actions will backfire on them and they will come crawling back to Diamond and Capital."

William Hughes, writer for Comic Book Network Electronic Magazine: "The only thing to do is to boycott Marvel Comics entirely. Replace every Marvel book you buy with another companies, to send a message to Marvel while still supporting your retailer. Believe me, he'll be tickled pink to discover he no longer has to bow down to the blackmail of Marvel Comics."
Generally, not a very positive response from what I can find. There's also references to rumors running around about Marvel also buying Capital City and Diamond! Those purchases never actually happened (and were likely stemming from fear more than anything) but I have yet to find a single person outside of Marvel who thought this was a good idea at the time. And considering how it pretty much destroyed any number of comic shops and every comic distributor besides Diamond, it's hard to argue with the later assessment of Mile High Comics' Chuck Rozanski: "The word 'fiasco' simply doesn't come close to describing the depth of the problem."