Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Art AND Writing

I read a comic recently that was a bit hard for me to get through. I think there's an interesting story there, and the artist is really talented. But the problem I had was that he wrote the book as well, and his command of grammar proved to be overly distracting to me.

If you're an artist, I get that your forte is going to be the illustrations, rather than the text. I'm okay with that. I'm willing to forgive the occasional typo or some dialogue that sounds a bit cumbersome. Heck, I love Jack Kirby's 1970s work at DC despite his absurdly tin ear. But what Kirby did, despite having some goofy word combinations that probably would be hard to speak in context, his grammar and punctuation were right.

You've heard folks complain for years about the proper use of "their", "there" and "they're". And "your" versus "you're." And "its" versus "it's." And the zillion other homophone issues that are out there.

You've probably also heard, somewhere back in school, all the reasons why and where you should use commas, semicolons, colons, etc. "Let's eat, Grandma" versus "Let's eat grandma." Nothing new here.

Odds are that if you don't know those rules, you KNOW you don't know those rules. Every time you come to a point where you need to write there, their or they're, you're at a loss. You know there are some rules around them, but you can't remember them.

That's okay! That's why not everyone is a writer. That's why, despite almost everyone being able to publish any story they want, a lot of it is still dismissed as crap. Because not everyone can write.

Here's where I'm going with this, though. If you know you're not a good writer -- if you know you don't know those rules of grammar and spelling and punctuation -- then doesn't it make sense to AT LEAST get someone who does know something about them to look over your script?

I don't want to call this artist out; I respect his talent and have bought more than a couple independent pieces of his work. But I was really turned off on this latest because the script needed a lot of help. Just from a technical perspective. I bought the book, and I was hoping to review it here, but I won't because I didn't like it. Still great art, decent sounding story, but the actual script was problematic enough to keep me from liking it.

You don't want to or can't afford to hire an actual writer to polish your script? I totally understand. But please get someone to at least look it over. A really bad script over good art is almost as damaging as bad art over a really good story.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Is Steve Canyon A Turnip That Grew A Face?

Last night, the S.O. and I watched the Mystery Science Theater 3000 version of The Phantom Planet.
What a deplorably paced train wreck of a movie! Not even a grade B flick; we're talking grade D-minus at best!

Anyway, the movie's protagonist was played by one Dean Fredericks. He was kind of strange looking. (Tom Servo asked, "Is he a turnip that grew a face?") His hair was clearly bleached blonde but his facial features suggested a Native American or island heritage. The S.O. looked him up online. Although she didn't find anything about his heritage (that his given name was Frederick Foote and he frequently played an "Indian" in 1950s Westerns continue to suggest Native American, but there was nothing definitive) she was surprised to see this line in his Wikipedia entry... "an American actor best known for his portrayal of the comic strip character Steve Canyon in a 34-episode television series of the same name..."

And a few seconds later, we learn they're in the process RIGHT NOW of releasing all the old Steve Canyon shows on DVD with new interviews and documentaries plus cleaned up footage. The first two sets, as well as the as-yet-unreleased third set, can be ordered here. Here's a promo clip for the DVD restoration projeft...

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Rambling Thoughts On Getting Work Done On A Rigid Schedule

I was chatting with an old friend of mine a couple weeks ago. She's been out of the design business for about a decade now, and asked a few questions about how things have changed. She noted that the last time she was doing agency work, they all lived and died by FedEx deadlines. Things had to be on the client's desk the next morning, so you had to have comped up in time for the last FedEx delivery guy the night before.

I noted that considerably less of an issue these days. Obviously, we're able to shoot files around electronically a lot more easily these days, so the deadlines are almost exclusively the clients' and not those of any middlemen. What that means, though, is that instead of staying late at the office to finish something where the FedEx guy will be able to pick it up, you wind up working from home at all sorts of odd hours. I know I've worked on more than a few projects at 2 and 3 in the morning.

But those are largely electronic presentations. I'm working on web pages and emails, so the end products are all supposed to be electronic anyway.

Not long ago, I was working on the Fantasy Fest poster I mentioned yesterday. I had asked about submitting it electronically, but they noted that the judging would be done in a print format. I could submit my piece electronically, but they'd just print it on letter paper off their standard ink jet printer and tack it up on the wall against full-size final art pieces. So I resolved to have mine professionally printed to size and send down the physical object.

I finished working on the piece at around 11:00 one night, well after everywhere was closed. But I could still submit it electronically to FedEx/Kinkos and pick up the finished piece on my way home from work the next day. But that was only because I wanted to do a final check myself before sending it on. I could have, just as easily, had the file delivered to the submissions office from a FedEx/Kinkos that was already down there. It could have been there the very next day, having been sent well after the normal pick-up/drop-off hours.

How many folks do this for conventions? Obviously, creators try to prepare as much as they can for them, but it's not uncommon for something to get pushed to the last minute. And so a creator can submit files electronically at midnight, get on a flight to San Diego first thing in the morning, and have the printed documents (comics, posters, banners, whatever) waiting for them at the show.

It used to be that time was our enemy. We needed to have things complete in order that the objects themselves could be physically transported. We had to get our jobs done by 5:00 (or whenever) because that's what our mostly arbitrarily imposed limits were. Now, we're able to work more on our time and our own schedule. Though some people complain about this notion of bringing more work home, I dare say we're able to make up for it by reading comic strips at work or check Facebook and Twitter.

Stewe Boyd recently brought up an interesting point and one that seems to be gaining acceptance in the modern workplace. That is, that we're all working more like freelancers. We're working more on our own schedules, just getting the job done. If that means being online at 3:00 AM, then so be it. My job is to get my projects done. Sometimes that'll be 40 hours a week; sometimes it'll be 50 hours a week; sometimes it'll be 30. It's the results that matter, not the numbers you've punched in on the metaphoric clock.

The only question that really remains is: how long before that really becomes integrated into businesses? That's more or less how comic creators work -- I can't tell you the number of Tweets I see from writers working at 4:00 AM -- but there's no reason publishers can't do that as well. They don't need to be in the office for that meeting. They don't need to get the actual art files to send off to the printer. All that can be done from just about anywhere. So why not work on the schedule that suits your individual needs?

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Keeping Busy

OK, so what is Sean up to these days?

Team Cul de Sac: Favorites
In support of Richard Thompson, I contributed a piece to an old school 'zine Craig Fischer has put together where a bunch of writer types yammer on about their favorite comics. The contributor list includes: Derik Badman, Noah Berlatsky, Johanna Draper Carlson, Shaenon Garrity, Dustin Harbin, Charles Hatfield, Jeet Heer, Gene Kannenberg, Chris Mautner, Jim Rugg, Chris Schweizer, Tom Spurgeon, Ben Towle and myself among many others. Plus it sports a new cover by Thompson himself. All the proceeds go towards Parkinson's research and will be available for $5 at Heroes Con in Charlotte, NC next weekend. More info can be found here and here.

Graphic Novels
The Salem Press encyclopedia moves apace; I'm working on my fourth and fifth articles for them now. My most recent ones cover My Mommy is in America and She Met Buffalo Bill (brilliant title!) and You Are Here.

Fantasy Fest 2011: Aquatic Afrolic
OK, this isn't really comics, but I had fun with it. I'll be attending a wedding in Key West, FL in October and the timing happens to coincide with an island-wide party called Fantasy Fest. Sounds like a slightly smaller version of New Orleans' Mardi Gras from what I can tell. Anyway, I submitted a poster design for the event, which I think has a fair chance of being selected as the official art for the year.

The Jack Kirby Collector
I'm actually ahead of the game (barely!) on this one and have already turned in my column for issue #57, which won't hit the stands until August. An interesting look at Jack's intertations (yes, plural) of Prester John. And, although not really scheduled into the magazine yet, I've done some research that, I think, will make for another cool article. I'll be looking at the third surviving script that Stan Lee and Jack Kirby used in their collaborations on the Fantastic Four and how that sheds light on the evolution of their working relationship. (Bet you didn't know there were three scripts that have survived, did you?)

MTV Geek
Kleefeld on Webcomics is still going strong and I'm having a blast doing these columns. Yesterday's piece was on comics about and for differently abled folks and the one before that looked the guest strip. I don't know about you, but I'm finding this stuff fascinating.

Endeavor
You know that space shuttle that'll be landing in a few days from a two week trip up to the International Space Station? I'm on it. Well, a picture of me is. It's part of NASA's Face in Space program. I'm not all that special in going, though; there are over 300,000 participants among all these last three shuttle launches. But it's another kind of fun bit so I thought I'd mention here, even though I can't get my official certificate until Wednesday.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Speaking Of Old Art

Yesterday, I was talking about some artwork I did when I was a kid. While I was writing that piece, I did a quick look to see if I still had that t-shirt (I don't) and stumbled across some archive CDs that have some of the earliest computer artwork I did. I thought I'd share some of them here since many are comic-relate.

Here is, I believe, the first instance in which I really started using the computer as a drawing tool...
The file had a creation date of August 5, 1986 and was done in a program called MacPaint. Color was not an option at all, and grey scales were done in a still-pretty-binary fashion. Obviously, scalable fonts weren't a available. The Batman, Shatter and FF figures were based on some existing clip art, and the US 1 truck is largely lifted from some as well, but the other figures were all drawn pixel by pixel.

It would seem that I was able to improve a bit as I got used to the new format. Here's a Far Side cartoon I re-drew a couple months later...
Referring again to yesterday's post about intellectual property, I think it's note-worthy that I was very clear that I had copied Gary Larson's work here.

Jump to a few years later. June 1994. I believe I came across a cool-looking Thor image in Marc Spector: Moon Knight. It was drawn by hand (can't recall the original artist offhand) and I remember thinking it was cool image that would be fairly easy to replicate electronically. I redrew the piece in, I think, Altsys Freehand (This was before Macromedia and/or Adobe had it) during some free time I had during my internship at Kenner toys.

Still some artistic problems (only some of which I can blame on the software) but a definite improvement. Plus, this is still at least five years before computer coloring and/or lettering became common.

Just some interesting pseudo-historical pieces that I thought I'd share.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

My First Brush With IP

When I was in high school, a freshman I think, they held a t-shirt design contest for the city's spring festival 5K race. There were a few requirements
  • The design had to be one color.
  • It had to fit on the front of a t-shirt.
  • It had to include the name of the race and the dates.
  • It had to somehow reference that year's theme, which was something centered around Disney. The 60th birthday of Mickey Mouse, maybe?
So I sat down and sketched out a design. The race name ran in a slight arc across the top with the dates flush along the bottom. The main image was a frontal shot of Mickey running across a finish line with Donald and Goofy behind him racing to catch up. It wasn't a particularly stellar drawing, all things considered, but it was serviceable enough considering I was barely a teenager.

I ultimately won the contest. I never saw any of the other entries, but they couldn't have either been too many or they must have been really horrid. I mean, realistically, how is a 14 year old with no professional art training going beat out a talented 17 or 18 year old with several years of art classes under his/her belt?

I don't recall how much my folks knew about the contest beforehand. I'm sure I must have consulted my dad for at least the lettering portion, but I may have printed the text onto a sheet of paper first and then drawn the figures around it. It's somewhat relevant here because, after I told my dad about my success, he first expressed pride in his son doing a good job on something vaguely professional but then also noted some concern. The design, as I said, featured three major Disney characters fairly prominently. This design was going to be printed up on hundreds of t-shirts and used in helping promote this spring festival. Many of the folks in the race itself would inevitably be wearing it.

All without any consent from Disney.

So my father's concern was that this was a notable violation of Disney's trademarks and, potentially, the company could seek legal action against the artist. Me. Dad gave me a basic lesson in trademark law. That characters were owned by people and it wasn't legal for just anybody to make a cartoon about Mickey Mouse. Just as not anybody could make a comic book about Batman. It was okay if I wanted to sit at the kitchen table and draw them for myself, but trying to make money off somebody else's idea was wrong and illegal. Since these t-shirts were going to be for sale, that really wasn't right.

I had to sign a contract of some sort to complete things. It basically said that I was considered to have done work-for-hire and that the final artwork was theirs. I think I was paid $50 and a free t-shirt once it was printed. Dad ensured that I knew about the legal issues and that I ask specifically about them before I signed anything.

The woman in charge of the design contest, who also happened to be the high school art teacher, assured me that any and all legal responsibility would be on their shoulders. That they weren't all that concerned since the entire town population was something like 7,000 so no one from Disney would be likely to notice. And that my dad was pretty astute to think of that sort of thing.

To no great surprise, the t-shirt design never attracted any legal attention. As was pointed out, it was just too small a burb to get noticed. I don't know if Dad knew that, or if he was pretty sure that I was safe as contractor first, and as a minor second. But I am certain that he was taking advantage of the opportunity to teach me about intellectual property. The basics he gave me then were expanded upon in some of my design classes in college a few years later, but I wonder if more kids were presented with those basics like I was, would we see as much digital piracy as there is?

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Link Day, Link Day!

  • I haven't checked in on Brian Altounian for a little while now, but he will evidently be on Trend POV this Friday at noon EST to discuss Wowio and "converging trends." I don't think I'll be able to tune in, but the show will hopefully be archived for later viewing.
  • Neil Cohn finds some interesting differences in translating American comics for French publication. Beyond the text itself, some of the art was translated for French audiences.
  • The Hooded Utilitarian crew are conducting a poll to nail down the top ten greatest comics of all time. I'm generally not keen on lists like this, but Robert did ask me personally to weigh in. I haven't made all my choices yet, but I will give you this hint about my submission: my list will not include anything by Bil Keane.
  • Ben Huh criticizes how news in general is written. (Although his piece seems to be geared towards written articles, some of the same issues are present in video coverage.) While not directly related to comics, it's a good take on the problems inherent in the news industry. It seems that some of these general ideas could be applied to webcomics as well. Not unlike what I was talking about over at MTV a couple weeks ago.
  • And finally, Harold Camping versus Zombies. In comic book form.

Happy Towel Day!

Listen. It's a tough universe. There's all sorts of people and things trying to do you, kill you, rip you off, everything. If you're going to survive out there, you've really got to know where your towel is.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

One Hurdle At A Time

Yesterday, I went to lunch a little early and took a copy of Bourbon Island 1730 to read. I just finished it up and got up to leave, when I noticed a co-worker sit down not far from me. It was her first day back after an extended leave, so I went over to say hi. A couple other women sat down and we all chatted a bit. After an early pause in the conversation, one of them noticed the cover of the book and asked, "You're reading about ducks?"

"Pirate ducks, actually." I held the book up and she took it from me, starting to flip through the pages. "It's historical fiction about French pirates. Except they're drawn as ducks. And other animals."

"Historical fiction? Really?" She looked at some of the pages more intently. "It wouldn't have occurred to me to do it like this. That's a really interesting way of tackling it. It looks like it took a lot of work."

She seemed genuinely surprised at the book. Not interested enough to read it (I don't expect she'd care for the subject matter) but interested enough to make a mental note about it. Something like, "Comics can be historical fiction. Huh."

Now, did she rush back to her desk after lunch and fire up Amazon to look for other historical fiction comics? Probably not. She probably won't seek out historical fiction comics, or comics of any sort really, any time in the near future.

But she just might pause a bit the next time she's walking through the library or Half-Price Books or wherever when the shelves of graphic novels catch her attention. Maybe not long enough to pull anything down, but her memory might be jogged enough that she'd mention to whomever she's with.

Comics aren't for everybody; some people simply don't like to read. But, one person at a time, we can show them that there are nifty cool things being done with comics, and it's not all bulky guys with capes.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Age Of Reptiles Omnibus Mini-Review

A big storm's knocked out my power so I'm sitting here surrounded by a dozen formerly decorative candles banging out a quick review on my phone.

You know that portion of Fantasia with the dinosaurs? How that was one of the coolest parts when you were a kid because who the hell wanted to see dancing hippos anyway? How you wished they made a whole movie like that? And then you got a little older and it was still amazing? And somehow even more gorgeous?

Yeah. Ricardo Delgado's Age of Reptiles is the comic book equivalent of that. Absolutely stunning work all the way through.

Plus it's wordless so you won't strain your eyes much if you read it by candlelight.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Why Study Comics?

Part of this afternoon's efforts for me was finalizing my research for and writing my next Jack Kirby Collector column. As always, I had a lot of fun doing it. It never ceases to amaze me how much insight I can get just studying a person's art for an extended period of time. By looking at not only what they did, but what they didn't do (in the case where another creator may have changed the original art). Or what might have influenced them (in the form of other contemporary elements that were floating around in pop culture at the time).

Me? I happen to get a lot out of Jack Kirby in particular. But I get that he's not everybody's cup of tea. Some people prefer some of Kirby's contemporaries. Some people might prefer more current creators. But digging past the published comic and getting to the how and why of what the creators were doing, I think, is as interesting as the finished work itself.

Art, after all, isn't an end product. What you're paying for is only, in part, to cover the basic supplies needed for it, whether that's the ink and paper it's printed on or the original bristol boards, pencils and brushes used in the original. What you're really paying for is the IDEAS represented in the piece. You're paying for the thought that goes into it. You're paying for a form of communication.

And the more communications you can get out of a piece of art, by studying it more closely and trying to sort through the decisions that must have been made to get to the end result, the more you'll be able to appreciate it.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Batmen Galore

You ever stop to consider how many versions of Batman are running around in your head? Almost irrespective of how many/which Batman stories you've actively sought out over the years, there's bound to be at least a few distinctly different versions up there.

Off the top of my head, here are some of the ones inhabiting my brain:
  • The original Bat-Man
  • The rather sanitized, if kooky, Batman of the 1950s
  • The "New Look" Batman of 1960s and 70s
  • Adam West
  • The dumbed down version from The Super Friends and assorted Saturday morning cartoons
  • Frank Miller's Dark Knight
  • Michael Keaton
  • Bruce Timm's animated version
  • The more-or-less current continuity Batman
Those are just the ones I'm familiar enough with to recognize easily. But they all inhabit my brain, and inform what I think Batman is supposed to be. Some of the imagery I accept, some I discard. I have to, since many of these ideas of Batman are at least partially contradictory.

In my case, the "New Look" and Keaton versions of Batman are the strongest, with the Dark Knight running a close third. Consequently, I think of Batman largely in terms of how he was depicted in the comics in the 1970s, with his Bruce Wayne persona largely informed by Keaton's performance. The Dark Knight angle just punches up his raw power a bit, so he's a little more willing to brawl than the karate expert I grew up with. That's who my Batman is.

And yet, I'm still able to keep all those Batmen separate in my head. I can sit and watch one of the cartoons or read through DC Free Comic Book Day offering and not get bothered by the fact that this Batman doesn't precisely match the one in my head. The closer he does come, of course, the more inclined I'll be to become engaged with the piece and enjoy it. The further from my version, the less likely I'll care.

I think it's a fascinating prospect, though, that I can juggle distinctly different versions of one character in my head and actively keep them all separate while at the same time amalgamating them into a sort of gestalt Batman.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Reacting To The Smallville Reaction Video

I'm guessing this reaction video to the finale of Smallville has already made the usual rounds, but in case you haven't seen it yet (I just found it today) take a gander.

I've never even watched one episode before, so I obviously don't have any emotional attachment to the show. That said, I get it. Ten years of growing up and becoming his own man and the whole bit, culminating with donning the red and blue pajamas, given to him by his dead father. Really, I understand how/why this is a big climactic moment for the whole series. Plus the John Williams music at the very end. Ten years of fans waiting for Clark to finally become Superman. I get it.

I even understand the first 30 seconds or so of the viewer's reaction. Dude's been watching the show for a decade, probably through most of his formative teenager years. Could understandably be an emotional touchstone for him. Hell, even never having watched the show, I got a little choked up when I started hearing bits of the old movie theme through the guy's screaming.

But, really? Six solid minutes of "YES! YES! YES! YES! YES! YES! AMERICA! AMERICA! YES! YES! YES! YES!"???

And then he adds the visual tagline: "Smallville. The best ten years of my life!"

OK, so I'm sure there's the usual level of snark that follows around videos like this. I mean, how could it not? But he's got another much-less-viewed video out there that he posted as a tribute to the show. In the description, he notes...
This show changed my life! It is the only show that was there for me through hardtimes, goodtimes, badtimes and just times! lol! This is my TRIBUTE! DEDICATED TO THE CAST, CREW, WRITERS, DIRECTORS, EXTRAS, FANS, SUPPORTERS, FINANCIAL SUPPORTERS, HATERS, LOVERS, AND CLUELESS ONES OF SMALLVILLE! 10 SEASONS! 2001-2011!!! THE GREATEST SHOW TO EVER ENTER THE STAGE OF HOME ENTERTAINMENT!!! GOD BLESS AMERICA!!! GOD BLESS SMALLVILLE! GOD BLES THE FANS!! ENJOY!!!!
Clearly, he's passionate about the show.

Like I said, he probably spent much of his teenage years with the show, and I don't doubt that he was able to use it to help process and understand some of the problems he faced growing up. That's what fiction is supposed to do. He identified somehow with the characters on the show, and that identification led him to emotional engagement.

Smallville is interestingly different, though, in that from the very start, everybody knew how it would end. Everyone who knew anything about the show knew that the last episode was going to be Clark putting on the suit. I'm pretty sure I recall an early interview where the creators said precisely that. Everyone knows the Superman story AFTER he puts on the suit -- we've got literally decades of movies, plays, radio shows, cartoons and, yes, comics in which Superman flies around with the cape and saves the planet. Superman is usually cited as one of the top five or ten most recognizable characters in the world.

And here's the other interesting bit with Superman: the never-ending battle. That's an embedded part of the mythology. "Fighting a never-ending battle for truth, justice and the American way!" Superman is essentially all-powerful, including the ability to stave off death. There is absolutely no reason to believe we're EVER going to run out of Superman stories. Superman is a constant. He will never age or die, and he will always be back to save the planet in its time of need. He might not look like Tom Welling any more, and somebody might decide that the Williams theme song has been played too often, but he'll be back.

Which, in turn, means: no climax. Take a story like Thor (to borrow another contemporary comic-turned-franchise). He's a god. He's immortal. He's been around centuries longer than Superman already and also has no sign of stopping. But there's an ending built in with him. Part of the Norse mythology includes the death of all the great gods and the destruction of the Earth. It's called Ragnarök. There's an ending out there. The audience might never actually see it, but they know it's out there.

Superman has no ending. There's, in effect, nothing to look forward to. Even when DC killed him off, the comics continued to be published bearing his name. Superman will never end. There will always be another chapter.

So the only climax the Superman mythos can really have is exactly what Smallville presented. That is, the climax to the origin. True, it was technically done way back in 1938 but Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster completed the whole shebang in less than a page, making it more than a little hard to get emotionally engaged. Over a period of years, the trick actually becomes keeping the audience engaged.

But for this one guy, at least, the Smallville folks seemed to do a good job there.

Of course, now, this guy has nothing to look forward to. If his life was as engrossed by Smallville as his reaction makes it seem -- which, I feel compelled to point out, also makes him seem MUCH less passionate about Christianity than his YouTube page would otherwise imply -- then all he's got to look forward to are re-runs. In fact, with both Superman and Christ, there's no new climax for him. The ending for both characters, in effect, will never happen.

Now, that's not to suggest he doesn't have a reason for living. He might well find a new fiction that he enjoys and, if it is indeed new, there could well be a denouement to look forward to. A happily ever after.

Honestly, though, I prefer the never-ending battle. Yeah, I appreciate a story that has a good conclusion, but I also want that acknowledgement that life goes on. There are no happily ever afters in real life, and I tend to think it's a bit of a trite cop-out to use them in fiction.

The finale of Smallville impressed this one guy, obviously, but the show ended by saying "Don't worry; Superman is always here to save the day!" Artistically, it was done well, especially for being so predictable. But I'd rather get excited about what I don't know is coming. About the journey on my way forwards into... wherever it is that I'm headed.

"It is good to have an end to journey towards; but it is the journey that matters in the end."
-- Ursula K. LeGuin

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Newspapers Digging Their Own Graves

Tom Spurgeon recently linked to this article on the "state of digital transformation of newspapers." Despite the article's upbeat, progressive tone, Spurgeon noted that he still found it depressing and couldn't figure out why. My interest piqued, I tried reading the article myself.

"Tried" being the operative word.

In point of fact, I tried reading it repeatedly. I deliberately went back to it again and again, and found that it showed such an absolute lack of understanding what century we live in that I had to quit. It wasn't quite re-arranging deck chairs on the Titanic, but it doesn't seem that far removed.

This quote is a prime example of what I'm talking about: "Newspapers still account for more than half of all originally reported journalism in the United States." I don't have the exact study that they're using as the basis for that claim, but I can tell you right now that it's wrong. Why? Because "journalism", despite what newspapers would like to believe, is NOT definitively defined. "Journalism is the practice of investigation and reporting of events, issues, and trends to a broad audience." The number of journalists out there used to be pretty small simply because there were very few outlets for reporting to a broad audience.

Today, here and now in the 21st century, that is not the case. The internet changed that. In 2010, there were roughly 255 million web sites in existence and 152 million blogs. Even if only 1/2 of one percent of those blogs were doing something that might be considered "investigation and reporting of events" that's still 3/4 of a million! A damn sight more than the 9,000-ish TV stations and 50,000-ish newspapers combined -- and that's assuming most of their content wasn't regurgitated from someplace else.

And that's not even considering what might be being reported via email, online video, or through social media. Did everybody miss that whole Arab Spring deal that has been told most immediately and directly through Twitter?

That ties in with this piece I read yesterday in which the author calls out Aaron Sorkin as an idiot because he thinks that working for the Wall Street Journal or New York Times automatically means you're inherently a better journalist and less prone to making mistakes than everyone else on the planet. No, whether or not you do good research and present your findings well and with accuracy makes you a good journalist; it has zero to do with who signs your paycheck.

Here's another big issue: "We need a gold standard of measurement: one way of looking at digital audiences..." I really am astounded by this. They're still trying to look at news consumers as a single block of people? They're still trying to be report everything to everybody? They still don't understand that the internet allows for -- and almost forces you to adopt -- a more narrowcast approach to your message? When most people's information came from one of maybe five or six accessible sources, it makes sense that they'd want to reach as broad an audience as possible. But the internet simply does not work that way. Each user can specify very niche interests and receive news on those very individualized topics. Maybe that niche is as small as Chicago Bulls home games in which Luol Deng scores more than a dozen points in the first half. Maybe that's as broad as all sports.

But even with the case as broad as "all sports" THAT'S STILL NARROWER THAN WHAT NEWSPAPERS ATTEMPT TO PROVIDE!!!

That almost inherently means that they can't do as good/comprehensive/insightful a job reporting on that as someone who only looks at sports. People are going to gravitate towards who's doing a better job and it should come as no surprise that that ain't newspapers! By design, they spread themselves to thin to do a decent job relative to everybody else who's on the internet.

I don't have anything against newspapers. I think they have performed admirable services over the years, often under less than tolerable circumstances. And I don't necessarily think they should go away; there is something to be said for having a broad overview of news, even if you can't get into or aren't interested in pursuing any of it very deeply as a reader. But that whole article just smacks of trying to apply old methodologies to entirely different venues. Which makes sense if you're coming to this venue for the first time and there are no precedents yet, but c'mon! The world wide web has been around for 20 years now! There are models out there that work, and they're refusing to look at them because... it's not like what they've done before, I guess?

Book publishers are changing how they do things. Comic book publishers are changing how they do things. TV is changing. Radio is changing. Movies are changing. Every media format out there seems to be moving faster than the glacial pace that newspapers are. That they seem bound and determined to try to hold on to the exact same position they had in society 100 years ago just strikes me as insanely mind-boggling. There's no reason that newspapers HAVE to die, but if they keep digging their own graves, it's hard to see a world in which they don't.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Link Day Wednesday

  • Marilee Vergati reports for the Dallas Examainer on Todd Kent's award-winning documentary Comic Book Literacy. I have yet to hear of screening I could get to, but the next one evidently is May 28, 2011 at Comicpalooza, in Houston, Texas. Check it out if you're in the area.
  • Scientists have found a link suggesting that simply looking at art stimulates the pleasure centers of the brain. While comics aren't specifically mentioned, it stands to reason that the same effect would apply to them. While any individual panel or page may not be rendered in the same way classical art is, they do have volume on their side so the lessened impact of any individual drawing might be made up for by the number of panels/pages per comic. But that's just my casual extrapolation.
  • Recently found: The Medieval Comics Project. An "ongoing effort conducted by a small (but dedicated) group of comics scholars, Arthurian enthusiasts, and medievalists to compile a comprehensive listing of the representations of the medieval in the comics medium." I did not know such a group existed.
  • Matt Kuhns received and is impressed by Alan Moore's unfinished Big Numbers.
  • Finally, "Tokyo Marriage Agency to Start Service for Otaku." I have no words.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Don't Answer Me

The S.O. pointed me to this video for Alan Parsons Project's "Don't Answer Me"
It's obviously inspired by comic books. You can even see the likes of Wonder Woman and the Sub-Mariner when they show the cover to The Adventures of Nick and Sugar.

While the video itself is not that different, stylistically, from the old Grantray-Lawrence Marvel cartoons of the 1960s, the addition of word balloons throughout is a departure. More interestingly, they're used in the video as a counter-point to the actual song lyrics. We don't see precisely what is being sung (with one minor exception) but rather they help to tell a story only thematically related to the song. Every other "motion comic" (to use the current naming) that I've seen either omits them altogether or simply uses them to reinforce the spoken dialogue. While I'm sure there must be other examples, I can't recall any instances where a motion comic displays word balloons that help to tell a different story than what's being told with the audio component.

(Because someone will inevitably think of it in response to this post, I'll make note that A-ha's more famous "Take on Me" video doesn't actually use dialogue balloons anywhere, and only a couple of instances of onomatopoeic sound effects.)

Also of note, the illustrations and animations for the Parsons video were by none other than Mike Kaluta. Which might explain why it's so different from everything else!

Monday, May 16, 2011

Missing Linx Review

I was a bit of a fan of monsters, mostly of the folk tale variety but also the classic Greek myths and the Universal Pictures classics. In fact, I started playing AD&D by picking up the Monster Manual first since it had all those cool creatures listed in it. Although I stopped paying much attention around the time I learned about the scientific method, I still have a bit of a soft spot for those cryptids.

Enter Missing Linx. Owen Crockett is taking his two boys camping when they get caught in a battle between a Mantricore and a Sasquatch, Big Foot, Skunk Ape and Yeti. The primates defeat the beast and contain it using a shrink ray. As they decide what to do with the human witnesses, Dr. Bedfellow blows up a nearby nuclear power plant and they race to contain the damage. Bedfellow captures the humans and the team of ape-men launch on a race to save them (and the planet) from Bedfellow's machinations. A few battles later, as the good guys are on the verge of defeat, they're saved by a somewhat unlikely source and good triumphs over evil once again.

Now, the idea of a Sasquatch type beast with a fair amount of intelligence isn't new to comics. Both Proof and Perhapnauts placed one in government agencies, and there were more than a few running around in The Yeti Wars. That's just in recent memory -- Jack Kirby put a talking Yeti in Fantastic Four #99 back in 1970. So, Missing Linx isn't original in that respect. That they're teamed up here does make for some interesting contrasts in character personalities. There's some interesting parallels with the Fantastic Four, but I suspect that's somewhat inevitable given the number of heroes we're talking about.

The story itself isn't terribly complex, but it flows along pretty smoothly. I wasn't previously familiar with Dale Mettam's work, but I certainly enjoyed Courtney Huddleston's art back on A Bit Haywire. As in that book, Linx is friendly and approachable, but far from saccharine. Perhaps most notably impressive is the distinct visuals for the four protagonists that, normally, would be drawn almost identically. But Huddleston provides unique visuals for each that suit their respective personalities.

Overall, it was a fun book. I might've liked to seen a tad more character development on Big Foot and Owen but it is a decent sized cast for a fairly short book. And the ending does suggest further adventures await. As I said, it's not as complex a story as you might see in Proof but it would definitely be a good way to catch a younger reader's attention and interest in cryptid-human relations in comics!

Sunday, May 15, 2011

The Blackbeard Of The Marvel Universe

Here's one of the earliest articles I wrote for my FF web site many years ago. I once started to write up a synopsis for a limited series based on Ben-as-Blackbeard's adventures, but soon realized that I didn't have the story-telling chops to pull off more than the basic premise of how it might fit into continuity. (I'd still love it if Marvel did put something along these lines. Hint, hint!)
The pirate known as Blackbeard is perhaps the most famous pirate in the Americas. His career lasted a scant 27 months, but his name is one of the most prominent in pirate legends. This fame helped prompt Stan Lee and Jack Kirby's story for Fantastic Four #5 -- where Reed, Ben and Johnny are sent back in time by Dr. Doom to retrieve Blackbeard's treasure. I doubt Lee and Kirby paid much attention to the details of the real Blackbeard's life and tried to faithfully incorporate the Thing into the already existing legends. But did they inadvertently do just that anyway? With the knowledge we have of the dreaded pirate, could Ben slip into the legendary role of Blackbeard as easily as Lee and Kirby implied?

What we know of Edward Teach, the man who has been named Blackbeard by history, is sketchy at best. Almost everything about him prior to his becoming a privateer in 1713 is a mystery. He took up with Captain Hornigold, who trained Blackbeard in the art of piracy. In 1716, Horningold soon gave Teach his own ship, the Queen Anne's Revenge, and accepted a general amnesty to Teach's disgust. Blackbeard then set out on his comparitively well-documented capaign in the Bahamas.

Supposedly Blackbeard stood at six foot four and weighed 250 pounds. As most measurement devices were relatively inaccurate in the 1700s, it stands to reason that Ben's height could have been mismeasured by four inches and any scale he would have stepped on is unlikely to have gone beyond 250 pounds. (The Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe puts the Thing at six feet and 500 pounds.) It is also quite conceivable that Blackbeard was never even measured, but men had estimated his height and weight compared to their own. In fact, most of the descriptions of the historical Blackbeard focus so intently on his long, dark beard that they neglect to mention much else.

Blackbeard was known for his physical prowess. On a long boring day, he shouted to his crew, "Come, let's make a hell of our own, and try how long we can bear it." Taking three crewmen below deck, he lit several large pots of sulfur and closed the hatches. The three men nearly choked to death before rushing back to the deck, but Blackbeard remained below dancing and laughing in the smoke for several more minutes. On other occassions, he was known to prepare for battle by mixing gunpowder and rum, lighting the unusual beverage, and drinking the still-flaming concontion. His lungs and stomach were obviously far more powerful than an average pirate's.

When pirate-hunter Robert Maynard boarded Blackbeard's ship, Maynard confronted the pirate directly. They immediately fired at each; Blackbeard missed his mark, while Maynard's shot landed square in Teach's chest. Maynard began to rejoice in his easy victory, before realizing that the shot barely stunned the pirate. Their intense battle continued and when Blackbeard finally fell, Maynard's crew counted five gunshot wounds, at least twenty deep stab wounds, and a sliced throat. Very few men could have endured such a multitude of wounds in one battle.

Ben could easily have possessed these strengths associated with Blackbeard, but what of Blackbeard's personailty? As a hero, Ben would seemingly be reluctant to take up a pirate's greedy and bloodthirsty attitudes. However, Ben was still becoming accustomed to his rocky hide since it was so early in his career as the Thing. The acceptance the other pirates gave him could easily have swayed Ben to take up a new life in history, as Lee and Kirby show in the story itself. And, while Blackbeard was a pirate, he still went to great pains to keep his men healthy and happy. His capture of Charleston, North Carolina for example was simply to obtain medicine for an outbreak of veneral disease that threatened his crew.

There are a few inconsistences that bear mentioning however. No record mentions Blackbeard wearing an eyepatch as Ben does in the story. Blackbeard may have only used it occassionally, or perhaps his beard (which he infused with lit gunners' matches during battle to frighten his opponents) was distracting enough for people not to notice it. Ben could have easliy lied about his prior privateering career; such records were difficult to verify. Blackbeard was supposed to have had fourteen wives, which is not generally in line with Ben's thinking after he later established his monogomous relationship with Alicia Masters, but Ben did make a comment to support this flirtatious thinking within the story: "Ahoy, Matey! Let's see if we can date one of these pretty barmaids! Heh heh!"

Timing would seem to be the most critical issue. Could Ben have spent over two years as Blackbeard? Initial reading of the story would determine that the timing would have been impossible. But several possibilites arise that could entirely resolve those issues.

The story as it stands takes place over the course of forty-eight hours, but there are two instances where we can place portions of Blackbeard's adventures within the context of the story. The first is between pages 16 and 17. Although the story seems to flow nearly seemlessly, running from a discussion of foiling Dr. Doom's plot to Ben's insistence on staying behind, it is conceivable that a majority of Blackbeard's adventures took place during this time. Dr. Doom originally gave the trio only two days to return with the treasure. That time could have easily ended between the pages in question and, had Ben stayed behind with the chest, Reed and Johnny would have pleaded with Dr. Doom to send them back again for the remainder of Blackbeard's career, arguing that the passage of that time for Doom would be neglible. Doom's character could have been amused easily by pulling Ben back to his tormented life in the present and he would have granted the request. Reed and Johnny could have spent the next several months in search of their comrade before finally finding him and winding up on his ship once more.

As mentioned earlier, Blackbeard died at the hands of Robert Maynard, not by the hurricane that destroys his ship in the story. This final battle could have taken place between panels five and six on page 18 while Reed and Johnny were recovering. Ben could have pulled himself onto one of Blackbeard's other ship after the twister destroyed the one shown in Lee and Kirby's story, going on to confront Maynard. During the fight Ben may have realized who he had become and decided to find Reed and Johnny to return to their proper time. Feigning death would have been easy (his thick, rocky hide prevents anyone from hearing his heartbeat) and he could have jumped ship as the battle waned. A shocked Maynard may have picked up Ben's discarded beard and placed it on another pirate's head to claim victory. Although the body types would have varied considerably, Maynard is recorded to have severed the villain's head and placed it on his ship's bowsprit to announce his victory to the nearby Carolinas while the remainder of Blackbeard's crew was hanged.

Another distinct possibility is that the story stands as it was presented. However at some later point in his career, Ben could have used any number of time travel devices to return to the moment when he originally left and resumed his role for the next twenty-seven months. The Thing that was supposedly killed in 2099: World of Tomorrow #1 may have encountered a rift in time or Ben could have voluntarily returned during one of his many bouts of depression. He could of course return to the 1700s at some undetermined point in his future as well.

It's entirely plausible too that Marvel's Blackbeard was not Ben Grimm at all. After making an impression during his first trip in time, another pirate may picked up the mantle that Ben helped create. Perhaps Reed Richards of Alternate Earth (Fantastic Four #118) learned of Ben's brief second identity and choose to continue that role himself. Sharon Ventura had evolved into a Thing-like beast; she may have gone back in time to hide herself from the embarassment of facing Ben again after she aided the Frightful Four. (Fantastic Four Unlimited #5) Of course, there is the possibility of any pirate finding the Temple of the Ancient Sun Demons in Brazil (Fantastic Four #403) and taking a Thing-like form for himself.

Obviously, there is no definitive proof that the legendary pirate Blackbeard and Ben Grimm are the same person. I have merely shown that they could have been. Until a new writer devises a canonical story based on one the ideas presented here (or an entirely new one), we can only speculate at Marvel's legends of bygone eras.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

The Jack & Jill Problem

I picked up a book several years ago called Visual Literacy by Judith and Richard Wilde. It's basically a book presenting a series of increasingly complex graphic design problems as they'd been posed to students. Actual college students learning graphic design. What these professors had done, essentially, was compile their assignments into book form and present some of the students' results to show how the process worked.

Of particular interest to comics scholars might be "The Jack and Jill Problem." The assignment is basically to illustrate the nursery rhyme in six panels using only a decidedly finite set of dingbats. Here's how it's presented in the book...
I was quite impressed with the assignment -- one unlike any I had undertaken during my undergrad days -- and used a variation of it while I was teaching. (Different set of dingbats to illustrate "Old King Cole".) There are several things going on at work in this assignment. First, is to force people to re-define preconceived notions of representation; for example, "Jack" and "Jill" can't be represented as people because there are no people graphics to work with. Next it breaks the rhyme down into discrete chunks and designates a long sequence into fixed moments -- in essence, taking a story and breaking it down into the most relevant portions. Between thinking in those discrete chunks and putting a set of visuals to them, you have to (by the guidelines inherent in the assignment) make a comic. Perhaps one that's more abstract than, say, the latest issue of Action Comics, but a comic nonetheless. It's a fun challenge and is an excellent way to bring comics into the design classroom.

Here's some of the student solutions presented in the book...

Friday, May 13, 2011

Windfalls & Confusion

There are a variety of reward programs here at my day job. Beyond the normal compensation package and whatnot, there are ways that you can earn a bit more by going "above and beyond." And that goes all the way through the organization, so people on the more operations side of things get recognized about as often as those in more strategic roles. (Though there are considerably fewer in strategic roles, so the same names tend to come up a little more often.) All in all, it's a reasonably meritocratic system.

One of the reward set-ups -- the one I tend to find myself a recipient of most often -- is an award of points. The number of points depends on the importance of the work and/or the quality of what you did, but they tend to range between 25 and 100. A person can redeem those points in the company online store, mostly for gift cards to a variety of businesses with each point being worth about a dollar. So if I get two awards of 25 points each, I can "purchase" a $50 gift card for Hat World, for example.

Now, despite there being a pretty diverse and wide-ranging selection of stores, the only one that has anything I'd really consider worth buying is Amazon. Which is totally cool, of course, since Amazon has such a wide selection. So my points generally get translated directly to Amazon gift cards.

But what happens is that these points get awarded based on when I happen to get something especially good done. And someone chooses to recognize me for that. And their boss approves the reward. And the electronic paperwork gets filed. I'm always told exactly what I'm getting any given reward for, so there's rarely a disconnect in that regard, but the timing is a bit unpredictable. I can never really say, "Well, I did great on Project A so that means I'll get X number of points by Date B which I can turn around to spend on Book Y."

That's not a complaint, by any means. It's just stating that I can use the system to plan any book purchases I make. (Amazon, of course, has much more than books, but that's what I tend be most interested in.)

So here's my problem. When these rewards come up, I've either gotten the books that I really wanted already (that's usually a pretty short list since I started reading webcomics) or I don't even know where to start. Additionally, it means my book buying tends to come in bulks. So when I get books, I get a fair number of them at once and it takes a while to read through them all.

And you know, that is NOT a bad problem to have!

Thursday, May 12, 2011

This Is Spider-Man?

I was walking past a co-worker's office this morning and couldn't help but notice that she had a large cache of superheroes on her desk. Action figures, coloring books, all sorts of stuff. Apparently, her kids are getting old enough to start outgrowing some of the very-well-played-with toys and she didn't want to just throw them out -- but they weren't quite worthy of giving to Goodwill, she felt. So she brought things in for any co-workers who might find some home for them.

There was a healthy representation of Spider-Man. Three or four various Spider-Man figures, a couple of Spidey villains, several coloring/activity books... The kids are healthy Spider-Man fans, but actually have more stuff than they're able to keep up with thanks to Grandma and Grandpa, as well as their regular baby-sitter.

I flipped through a couple of the activity books to find there were barely opened. One or two puzzles done and a few pages of half-completed coloring. So, with her blessing, I walked off with one of the books. Here's a pretty typical page...

Like most coloring books, it's on cheap newsprint so you can see something of the pages behind. But look a little more closely. The perspective on the buildings is wrong. They're not even drawn with a straight-edge; they were just freehanded. The Spider-Man figure isn't all that well executed; it looks like a bad tracing of some promotional artwork; there's no variability in line weight at all. Except for the eyes, which look like they were inked using a Sharpie. You can see remnants of the original pencil marks before it was inked, too. There was a glitch when they tried drawing the moon; it's not a perfect circle. Oh, there's just all sorts of problems with the art that make it clear that the book's credited illustrators, Ronald and Donald Williams, never had any art training of any sort.

Other pages also show impossible perspective and poor anatomy. Several poses are readily recognizable as copies from comic covers and, more frequently, promotional stills. It looks very much like a coloring book designed by a couple of 13-year-olds who were just a tad more artistic than their classmates. Realistically, it's probably more akin to some guys who got the rights to do a Spider-Man coloring book (Marvel copyright notices are on every page) but either didn't ask for or couldn't get enough line art to fill the book they had planned, so they dug up any Spidey-related image they could find and traced them.

I really wonder about the legality of the book, though. I mean, it provides a copyright notice and has the Marvel logo as if the rights were obtained, but I'm dubious. In the first place, there's a 2004 copyright for Paradise Press, Inc. on the first page, presumably for the whole book, but they also put 2004 copyright for Marvel on every page. Except, normally, the individual pages would NOT have a Marvel copyright since they didn't actually create any of the actual images. The trademark image of Spider-Man is Marvel, but the individual page, since they are original -- if derivative -- creations would be copyright Paradise Press. As they seem to have it displayed here, any individual page is owned by Marvel and Paradise Press only owns the idea of collecting all the pages in this particular book format.

So, between the lack of understand of copyright/trademark issues and the lack of artistic talent, Paradise Press strikes me as something of a questionable organization. A little Google searching just now turned up: "On July 1, 2009, an involuntary petition for liquidation under Chapter 7 was filed against Paradise Press, Inc. in the U.S. Bankruptcy Court..." Involuntary petition, as in, the people who Paradise owed money to had to convince the courts to force Paradise into bankruptcy because they were continuing to do business without paying anyone.

Plus, unless they put on one HECK of a dog and pony show, I can't imagine Marvel agreed to license Spider-Man to these guys. Whether or not they actually, I'm betting the story behind all this is A LOT more interesting than the coloring book itself.

In any event, it's not going to prevent me from doing some ball-point pen coloring while I'm on conference calls!

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Wednesday Link Ups

  • Long-time F.O.O.K. (Friends of Ol' Kleefeld) Matt Kuhns has been on a roll with comics-related posts lately. His recent trip to France allowed him to look at the Bayeux Tapestry and the much-lesser-known the Scroll of Great Counsellor. His thoughts are here.
  • Another F.O.O.K. Valerie Gallaher nee D'Orazio not only has a new name, but a new blog called Valerie Inc. It's still early yet, but it looks like they'll be distinctly less hacking off her own arm here. (Something of an inside joke there. No actual arms were harmed in her previous blogs.)
  • Maggie Thompson forgot she helped write two issues of Thor. I'm actually looking forward to the point where I've contributed so much to comicdom that I start to forget what I've done.
  • David Elfanbaum put together this comic to help promote visual thinking and gamestorming as a standard business practice. While it is a promotional piece for his Asynchrony Solutions, there's some interesting things going on, both with the ideas as well as the presentation. You can see him pitching the idea and the comic in this video, which also (amusingly) features Mr. Spock riding an elephant.
  • Last week, Al Bigley posted the back cover from Batman DC Limited Collector's Edition which featured a cut-out diorama. I don't know how many kids actually cut into their comic for this back in the day, but the print out version makes it much more feasible. Plus, it's a neat way to add some color to your cubicle at work!

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

"New" Photos Of Wheeler-Nicholson

Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson was the person who founded National Allied Publications, which later became DC Comics. He was the one who first thought to put brand new comics in the pamphlet format, essentially creating what we now know of as comic books, and was the first person to professionally publish Superman. Obviously, he hasn't had any new photos of himself taken since he died back in 1968, but I did stumble across these two images in the Library of Congress, neither of which I'd ever seen before so I thought I'd share.

Sunday, May 08, 2011

Littered With Comics

Sitting next to my computer here are a small stack of comics I picked up yesterday. I keep track of my collection on ComicBookDB so I was logging them in. There's also a few trade paperbacks that I got in the mail recently. Logged, but they haven't been read or moved to the bookshelf yet.

On the nightstand in my bedroom is a half-read collection of pieces by Steve Ditko and an unread copy of Mike Madrid's The Supergirls: Fashion, Feminism, Fantasy, and the History of Comic Book Heroines that I just received. Both are for more casual reading before bed.

The small coffee table in the living room has about a dozen Fantastic Four comics from 1966/1967. There's also a copy of an old Herald-Tribune article about Marvel Comics from the same period. Research for a pair of articles I'm working on.

The kitchen table has a poster promoting The Outlaw Prince, a graphic novel based on Edgar Rice Burrough's The Outlaw of Torn. There's also a pair of books highlighting some local area attractions; they're done in something akin to a comic book style, though I'm not entirely sold on the idea that they're actually comics yet.

There's another graphic novel in my work bag, which is resting near the door. Something to read on my lunch breaks at the office.

That's all of course in addition to where my comic collection is actually stored in the basement.

This is why being an adult and owning your own home is cool.

Saturday, May 07, 2011

My Free Comic Book Day

Well, I won't bore you with the details of my ENTIRE day, but I took a trip slightly out of my way to stop by Up, Up and Away Comics for their FCBD celebrations. The parking lot was packed, but I got the last open spot, as I was directed in by a TIE-bomber pilot and Spider-Man. I thanked them and stepped inside to find a pretty packed house. I tried to step through and off to the side a bit to get a lay of the place.

Fortunately, I had been there before and knew the basic set-up. But they had evidently cleared out a little area towards the back for Tony Moore, who was already signing and sketching away. One of the bookshelves which I think normally holds just Superman books had been populated with the Free Comic Book Day material. Mostly just the Gold Sponsor books by the time I got there, but a few Silver were left.

In their usual gaming area, they had set down 40-50 long boxes of discount comics. Fifty cents each, as many as you want. Fairly quick way to unload a lot of mostly dead inventory, more than likely. One of the employees was standing nearby with heavy bags and boxes for those people who were finding lots and lots of books. (And there were no shortage of them! I easily saw several people through there with a couple hundred comics each.) It should come as no surprise that there was little in there of enormous value. Lots of semi-recent Marvel and DC, a number of fair/poor range Charlton and Harvey, and a smattering of independents from the late 1980s. I picked up both issues of Hulked-Out Heroes (which I had just learned featured an appearance by the Thing as Blackbeard), The Return of Skyman by Steve Ditko, and a curious promotional book called The Adventures of Comicretailman and Mr. Assistant, the Electronic Super Clerk. (I'm going to have to post a full review of that one later. You won't believe it!)

The hardcovers, paperbacks and manga seemed pretty much how I remembered them. Some new books in stock of course. The back wall also had several new books, including a few small press books that I hadn't realized had even come out.
I was in the store about an hour, and it was hopping the whole time. Not so crowded that you couldn't move or had to trip over people, but a very healthy crowd. A fair number of young kids, too. I think I saw around a dozen that were short enough that you had to be standing right next to them to see them in the store.

I've been to FCBD events before where the owners/managers seemed to only go along with it grudgingly. I've been to one other where the owner embraced the celebration and really made folks feel welcome. There's a HUGE difference in how successful that makes the event, and (coincidentally or not) it also seems to track closely with the overall atmosphere of the store.

Friday, May 06, 2011

The Best Video Game The Torch Played...

You're telling me that, in the headquarters of the Fantastic Four, in the building that houses perhaps the greatest collection of technological wizardry on the planet, with the nearly infinite resources of one of the world's premier super teams, the Human Torch's best option for alleviating boredom is playing Atari's obscenely repetitive Spider-Man game from 1982?!?
From The Fantastic Four: Island of Danger by David Anthony Kraft and Earl Norem. Circa 1984. As in, two years' of technological advances after the Spider-Man game came out.

Thursday, May 05, 2011

The Status Quo & The Birth Of Comics' Direct Market

Before Diamond became a virtual monopoly, there were several dedicated comic book distributors. Before any of them, however, comics were distributed by the same folks who also distributed magazines an paperback books. The comics were shipped in bundles to these middlemen, who sorted them and sent them off to local newsstands and such along with the latest copies of Time, People, Playboy as well as the latest Harry Harrison or Stephen King novels. Comics were a comparatively minor part of their business, and weren't well-regarded as money makers. Especially in light of the fact that these distributors could get their money refunded from the publishers.

Comics were, for these distributors, a burden as often as not. Rather than deal with them and actually send them on to comic book shops, they would sometimes just shred them, get their refund and not worry too much about them. The newsstand dealers didn't care since that was a small part of their business, and there were few enough dedicated comic shops that they didn't have much economic power.

What comic shop owners started doing, then, was driving down to the distributors and picking the comics up themselves. The distributors didn't care; they just didn't want to deal with them. So what happened was that one guy would drive over, buy up ALL the comics, and essentially hold a local monopoly on that week's issues. Sometimes, he'd pick up all the books and the distributor would still claim the refund from the publisher! It was a decidedly unfair and unbalanced system.

(Side note: because the distributors were claimed the books were shredded, the publishers took that to mean they were unsold. So even though books were sometimes selling like hotcakes at the retailer level, the publishers didn't hear about them. That's why Jack Kirby's Fourth World titles got canceled so early. Same with the Dennis O'Neil/Neal Adams Green Lantern/Green Arrow.)

Suffice it to say the system was broken. That's when Phil Seuling stepped in and suggested something like the direct market system we have now.

(Obviously, that's the EXTREMELY condensed version of what happened.)

But here's the thing. The situation didn't change until it essentially became untenable. That's usually how humans work -- we collectively only tackle issues when our backs are up against the wall. That's why Marvel and DC are still publishing print comics almost exactly the same way they've been doing for decades; there's no real impetus for them to change.

But that doesn't mean that YOU have to wait for it. Don't let things get to the point where you HAVE to change. Try to take a look at your options now and make them better, if you can. For some ideas in the webcomics arena, check out this discussion going on over at The System.

Wednesday, May 04, 2011

Wednesday Link-O-Rama

  • The Cincinnati Art Museum is currently running an exhibit called The Way We Are Now: Selections from the 21c Collection. I gather the pieces range all over the map artistically, but the centerpiece seems to be one called "Fat Bat." CityBeat has more details.
  • Matt Kuhns examines the cover art for the upcoming Red Skull: Incarnate series, comparing them with actual Nazi imagery that they're supposed to be alluding to.
  • Can't justify the extra bucks for a toy Mjolnir to wield when you see the Thor movie later this week? Now you can make your own out of paper!
  • C.J. Renner and Jim Clark have been teaching a Creating Comic Books class in Hopkins, MN the past several weeks. It's been going so well, they'll be doing another one in the fall.
  • Wired has an interesting piece on the Pentagon formally starting a program that allows veterans to create comics and graphic novels as a form of therapy to deal with what they may have witnessed in combat. This kind of 'art therapy' has known to be useful for years, so it's good to see encouragement in all its forms. What strikes me as interesting, though, is this line about how "the black-and-white comic is precisely the kind of thing Darpa apparently has in mind — and also exactly the sort of thing that could embarrass the military if the comics leaked into general circulation." Leaked would imply that the soliders are only allowed to create this material if they vow never to publish it.
  • And don't forget that Free Comic Book Day is this weekend!

Tuesday, May 03, 2011

6 Comics Per Person Per Year

I was doing some reading at lunch today and came across the quotes below. They were originally written by Robert Klein, but I only found them referenced in Robert Beerbohm's "Comics Reality" #7...
According to your figures during the 1948-1953 span, when yearly circulation was edging up to one billion issues, the U.S. population was about 160 million. That means the yearly per-capita purchase of comics then was about 6 comics for every man, woman and child in the U.S.

We know that every man, woman and child didn't buy comics, so it means that those who did, bought a lot more than the per-capita average. When you consider the pass-along readership was estimated at 5 readers for every copy sold, there's a very interesting conclusion to be drawn. During this era, comics were a mainstream entertainment medium for children and some older people...

With the huge circulation figures of the sort we see for the post-war/pre-code era, comics were definitely mainstream. When I was growing up, I struggled to figure out what motivated people to stir up the Comics Code fuss. Why were parents, Congressmen, etc. dedicating so much energy to cleaning up the contemporary comics? After all, I though, comics simply aren't that important. It took a while for me to realize there was a very different situation in that era -- comics really were that important back then. Television hadn't yet taken root and the comic book was a staple of a kid's entertainment, and that comics really must have been everywhere.
To put that in perspective, if the same amount of comics were sold today, relative to the current population, that would be about 1,867,708,734 comics per year. Nearly two trillion. Compare that against what John Jackson Miller calculated to be about 69,200,000 in 2010. If you're not that great at math, the number of comics sold in 2010 was a little less than 4% of what was sold in 1950 on a per-capita basis. Instead of 6 comics per person per year, we're closer to less than a quarter of a comic per person per year. Keep in mind, too, that comic books in 1950 were about twice as long as they are now.

Now, that doesn't take into account graphic novels and bound collections. It doesn't take into account anything outside the Diamond distribution system (print-on-demand, digital, etc.). The Diamond reporting isn't terribly accurate, since we don't have actual numbers to work from. And, to one of the points Klein alluded to, we now have a wealth more options for our entertainment dollars.

But even with those caveats, it's still pretty sobering.

Monday, May 02, 2011

Semi-Obligatory Thoughts On BinLaden's Death

Like, I suspect, many of you, I was online last night when news of Osama bin Laden's death started flying across my screen. Rumors floating around on Twitter first, followed by confirmation on CNN and eventually the President Barack Obama's formal announcement. Also like many of you, my Tweet stream then got filled with short recaps, quips about Obama's success relative to G.W. Bush and general shouts of jubilation and/or patriotism. The same thing happened on Facebook.

Look at that Savage Dragon cover at the right. It's from a couple years ago, and is clearly meant to evoke the imagery from the first issue of Captain America Comics #1 where Cap makes his publication debut by whacking Adolf Hitler on the jaw. A full year before the U.S. entered World War II.The analogy is apt in that bin Laden has been viewed by Americans in much the same way that Hitler was. The idea of Hitler (and bin Laden) is a more powerful image than the actual individual. That both Hitler and bin Laden had so little control within U.S. media and propaganda circles meant that they weren't portrayed as simple bad guys but as evil incarnate. The ultimate comic book villain with no redeeming qualities whatsoever.

Which isn't to say that I support anything they did. I'm just saying that our media hype machine was so forceful that there was nothing either of them did that wasn't portrayed as absolute evil. There's scarcely an attempt to even understand what their thinking was; they did what they did because they were evil. Two-dimensional villains who committed abominable acts for their own sake. Who or what they actually were is irrelevant; they were the living embodiment of everything bad in the universe as far as we're concerned.

For those of you old enough to have lived through and remember the Cold War, the United States' biggest enemy was the Soviet Union. Why? They were Communists and our government told us that they were bad and trying to take over our country. Not that there was an actual plot or anything, but they were sold to us as a dangerous boogyman that we needed to be fearful of. It was an image that was so engrained in our collective psyche that our pop culture of the time is littered with references to the Soviets being bad guys. Just within comics' sphere, we've got everything from Superman IV to American Flagg! to all the Soviet Super-Soldiers appearances throughout Marvel's entire comics line.

Most Americans have never been to the U.S.S.R. or Russia. Most haven't even met someone from there. Collectively, we relied on the government and our culture at large to tell us who were our enemies. That gave us something to fight against. Nazis were an easy go-to villain in the 1940s because everyone hated them, and Russians made for a decent go-to villain during the Cold War for the same reason. The hatred was a little less intense, of course, since they weren't, you know, slaughtering whole cities full of people, but "Better Dead than Red!" was a common-enough battle cry that you could pretty easily rally Americans behind.

Such is the role bin Laden has played in recent years. He's been America's Bad GuyTM despite no one having actually seen him for the better part of a decade. He's a man so inherently evil that he even didn't deserve a trial (much less a fair one) in the same way Saddam Hussein did. He's a man so inherently evil that the government didn't even bother to TRY to claim that he took his own life rather than potentially get captured by Americans. He's a man so inherently evil that the only place he could hide would be a remote cave in the mountains.

Again, I don't condone anything bin Laden said or did. I don't know what effects his death will have on al-Qaida. But I do know that this isn't a comic book villain we're talking about. Which, on the plus side, means he won't be advocating America's destruction any longer but, on the down side, means that there will almost certainly be consequences of some sort. The "Mission Accomplished" banner was premature in 2003, and I think it's be premature in 2011.

Just something to think about if/when you find yourself in a crowd of people chanting, "USA! USA! USA!"

Sunday, May 01, 2011

Whatever Happened To...?

OK, here's a page from the original origin sequence of the Fantastic Four...
It's been reprinted and redrawn often enough that most of you are probably pretty familiar with it. Can I get you to focus on one panel for a moment, though?
The team is clearly sneaking past a guard and taking the rocket against policy. It says so right in that very panel. Four civilians, one of whom was a minor, sneaked past an armed military guard. The guard is clearly oblivious. They lift off in the rocket, right under the nose of this guard. The guy has one job, a relatively important job given that this new rocket is an experimental prototype for the military, and he blows it. Big time.

So what happens to him? Aside from that one panel, we never see him again. Sure, the FF were picked up by the military again after they crashed, but the guard still screwed up. That might not warrant a court martial, but it's most definitely going to put a black spot on your record.

At some point, I wrote up an outline of a story where he was found of no overt wrong-doing but was so demoralized that he started messing up everywhere. He eventually got drummed out of the service and took a job as a security officer for an insignificant warehouse in the private sector. He screwed up there, too, and got fired. His fiancée eventually left him. His confidence was shot and he was in this downward spiral of self-destruction.

Then, while he was on the bus to yet another job interview he was certain he'd mess up, the vehicle is slammed sideways into a building. The villain (I forget who I had as the villain -- Trapster? Wizard, maybe?) groggily climbs out of the hole he just made in the bus and readies for another attack. The Human Torch flies into view; the two adversaries exchange some quips and get back to fighting. This guard, though, is on the sidelines watching. He's wracked with emotion -- there's one of the guys who destroyed his career and yet...

The villain eventually gets the upper-hand and has Johnny down. (I think this was via a ripped-out-of-the-pavement fire hydrant.) Then, just as the villain looks down on the Torch and is about to conduct the final blow, a brick cracks him right between the eyes, knocking him unconscious. The former guard looks at his own hands, stunned. Eventually, he regains his composure and helps the Torch, who asks what happened.

The scene cuts to Mr. Fantastic welcoming the guard on as a new security chief at the Baxter Building in front of the rest of their headquarters' staff. The guard thanks Reed and says something uplifting about second chances and positive outlooks and living up to your potential. As everyone disperses, Johnny asks if the guard wants to grab something to eat after work to which he declines, citing that he's got a date with his former (and future!) fiancée.

End.

So somebody write that up and make that into a comic for me, will you? I'm freely giving that idea out to anyone who wants to take it. It's just a half-decent (I think) idea that I'll never really be able to do anything with. But it seems like it'd make kind of a nice fill-in issue at some point, right? Maybe a back-up in an oversized issue? Just a thought.