Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Leap Year Links!

(Yes, I know you don't really, but bear with me; it's a feature.)
  • The Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum at Ohio State University has started a blog.
  • While we're on the subject of higher learning, has posted a listing of a dozen colleges that have courses that are using comic books in the course structure. What strikes me is that the list does NOT include any of the schools that I previously knew were using comics in the classroom, like MIT, the University of Southern California, the University of Minnesota and the University of Mississippi. Meanwhile on Google+, Scott McCloud asks about those not on the list.
  • Comic Book Bin is doing a series on the Thailand comic scene. Their first installment focuses on the Ramayana Mural, the world's longest painting (and, by extension, the world's longest comic). The second piece looks at a graphic novel biography of King Bhumibol Adulyadej.

I Made It Into The Avengers!

So the Avengers trailer that was released today? I'm in it. (Click to zoom in.)
OK, yeah, I'm blurry and WAAAAAY in the back for this particular shot, but I made it in! FOR THE TRAILER! Wohoo!

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Hardware Review

Let's wrap up Black History Month with a look at the debut title from Milestone Comics, Dwayne McDuffie and Denys Cowan's Hardware. (Yes, I realize February has another day tacked on this year, but that's my usual Wednesday Links day, so this is my last chance this month to do a review.) I'm actually going to just look at the trade paperback which collects the first eight issues of the 50-issue series. Sadly, it remains the ONLY collected edition of the title.

The basic premise is that Curtis Metcalf is a genius employed by Edwin Alva, a very wealthy man who owns Alva Technologies. Metcalf uncovers Alva's illegal activities and, when the police and media ignore his evidence, he takes justice into his own hands by secretly building a high-tech super suit to take down Alva personally. Despite Alva having tons of money to hire all manner of bodyguards, Metcalf is fueled by something much deeper. I'll get to what that is in a moment.

I've generally liked McDuffie's work over the years -- I think the first work of his I read was Damage Control -- but I have to admit to some trepidation upon opening Hardware and seeing the first story title as "Angry Black Man." I hadn't read any Milestone books before, so my familiarity with them was largely the general notion of a group of black creators making comics about black heroes. I wasn't expecting to see any reactionary or stereotypical type material that you might expect with, say, blacksploitation movies, but when "Angry Black Man" is thrown down in bold type on the title page as the grim, titular hero comes bursting through a skylight... well, I was a bit nervous about turning the page. Justifiably so, it turns out, as Hardware proceeds to blow up two manned helicopters and then forcibly pulls a pilot of a third through the cockpit window and throws him to the street from hundreds of feet above the skyscrapers.

We then get the obligatory origin, establishing Alva both as Metcalf's savior/mentor and as his jailor. Metcalf is then fueled to go after Alva by a somewhat two-dimensional sense of vengeance, with a tinge of righteous indignation. He goes around saying that killing Alva will solve his problems and make things right, and proceeds to kill anyone who gets in the way of his mission. I was actually quite struck by how flat the character was, since I knew McDuffie was easily capable of much more.

But then it got interesting.

Although McDuffie set up the first few issues with this rather cold, shallow character and a pretty straight-forward plot, he also began developing his protagonist. The story, then, slips from being about Metcalf versus Alva into being about Metcalf versus himself. The hero's journey goes from being an external, physical one to an internal, mental/emotional one. Rather than trying to start the series with Metcalf as a fully rounded character, McDuffie threw his hero down as a blank slate and let the character grow organically as the story evolved. What appears superficially to be a tale about overcoming the yoke of "The Man" in fact turns out to be a fable about overcoming the yokes we place on ourselves!

As I said, I'm reading this via the trade paperback so it came bundled in a nice chunk. I don't know if it would work as well in the individual issues on a month to month basis. That said, Milestone was providing a product that NO ONE else had, so I suspect their audience was willing to wait for the monthly installments. It seems very much like McDuffie would have liked to have released this as a series of graphic novels, but had to go the pamphlet route in order to make it financially viable. It makes me wonder if he was just a tad too early. It had a respectable run, sure, but what if it were introduced today as a webcomic with POD graphic novels every 120 pages? For as well as Milestone did in the 1990s, I bet they would really shot through the roof in the 21st century. Makes me wonder if someone should try to convince Christoper Priest and Olivier Coipel to try something online today.

Here's the thing, though. Milestone was a group of black creators. Their characters were mostly black as well. But in both cases, that was only the color of their skin. Hardware isn't a "black comic". Curtis Metcalf is just a guy who put on a suit of high-tech armor. What McDuffie was, I think, trying to do was show people that what color the characters' skin was didn't matter; it could still be a good story that's approachable by anyone.

A year ago, when McDuffie died, someone said the comics industry failed him. I took that to mean that he was always given the short shrift by publishers. That was certainly true, but the fans failed him as well. Hardware is a book that should have continued publication at least until his death. But fans said they didn't want "black comics" and didn't buy it, never bothering to see that it wasn't a "black comic"; it was a good comic.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Indies: The Natural Food Of Comics

A couple years ago, I was trying to track down a really good pizza sauce. I love pizza, and I spent a while honing a pretty good recipe for the dough. But then I needed a really good sauce for it. I tried any number of different brands and finally stumbled on one that just tasted far an away better than everything else. It wasn't even a contest at that point! So I looked at the ingredients to see if that might give a clue as to why it tasted so much better... tomatoes, canola oil, olive oil, Romano cheese, onion, garlic, oregano. That's it! Every item in the list was something I recognized, and you could really taste the difference. (It's from Rossi Pasta if you're interested.)

I visited my folks around Christmas. Mom had stocked the fridge with plenty of beverages (I tend to drink a lot) and I pulled down the jug of orange juice. Some local brand I'd never heard of. But I was surprised at how good it was. When I went to look at the label, it was actually difficult to find the ingredient listing. Not because it was small or hidden, but because it was on the front next to the logo: "100% orange juice".

Since then, I've taken to hunting down more natural foods. There's a health benefit, I'm sure, to not ingesting calcium propionates and sodium nitrites and whatever. But more to my purpose, those natural foods just taste better! I've found fantastic tasting foods and drinks in recent weeks because I've been selecting options without any extra chemicals added.

See, back in the 1940s the U.S. government wanted to make sure that A) all soldiers had plenty to eat and B) soldiers' food could get safely stored and shipped anywhere in the world. So they started putting a lot of additives and preservatives in everything so it wouldn't rot en route from New York to Normandy. The food didn't taste quite as good, but it stayed fresher for a lot longer. Then, after the War, food companies were encouraged to use the same additives so that everyone would have something familiar when they came back. Food companies saw a financial benefit to it as well, and they've had chemists working since then to improve their ability to make food cheaper and more profitable. Now, over a half century later, many Americans have never even tasted an apple that wasn't covered/doused in chemicals; people assume that's how they're supposed to taste.

You may have noticed an increasing backlash from that in recent years though. The natural/health food sections of many grocery stores has grown remarkably. Whole Foods is making a killing in that market sector, with effectively zero competition and plans on some natural growth in the next year or two. Yeah, Barbara's Whole Wheat Fig Bars are a bit pricier than Nabisco's Fig Newtons, but they're a hell of a lot tastier! There's a relatively small, but growing, group of people like myself who are willing to pay a little more for a better product.

You're wondering, of course, what any of this has to do with comics.

In a strange way, this natural foods movement is similar to independent comics. This natural foods thing isn't new; it's an extension of the reactions people had in the 1960s when there was a generation of kids who grew up on chemicals and wanted to go back to something less manufactured. They were called hippies. It wasn't a huge movement that got into grocery stores and fast food chains, but it was there.

Along with underground comix.

In one sense, the hippies of the 1960s lost to big agribusiness. You can't find an aisle in the supermarket that doesn't have something from Kraft in it. Or Procter & Gamble. A few huge companies essentially took over the entire retail food industry.

Not unlike how Marvel and DC took over the comics industry.

The costs of production, though, have dropped in recent years thanks to technological advances. It's more reasonable now to start your own micro-brewery or local cannery. The technology is fairly cheap and still produces a professional looking product. Distribution can be a bit difficult, but not insurmountable as long as you keep things local. Alternatively, you can sell your goods online to virtually anywhere.

Kind of like how print-on-demand works for self-publishers.

Tom McLean just posted about his leaving the mainstream comics arena in favor of higher quality stories. That's not all that different from my reasons for dropping out of the Wednesday crowd (though McLean articulated himself much better). Here, much like the natural food trend, there's a relatively small, but growing, group of people like myself who are willing to pay a little more for a better product.

I'm sure the analogy isn't perfect; I've only given it as much thought as it took to write this post. But, offhand at least, it seems like there are some interesting parallels there. I wonder if there's some lessons that independent comic creators can learn from their brothers-in-spirit of the food world.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

History Over Nostalgia

Like a lot of kids growing up in the 1970s and '80s, Saturday mornings for me meant cartoons. We had three broadcast networks, one UHF station and one PBS affiliate. And on Saturday mornings, those three networks filled their airwaves with cartoons. I recall that, at the beginning of each new season, I would take the TV listings from the local paper and spend far too much time plotting out which channels I would watch at which times. Super Friends was on one network, The Batman/Tarzan Hour on another, and Flash Gordon on the third.

Superheroes figured prominently in my selections, even if they were characters I'd never heard about. (How many of you remember "Hero High"?) And when there weren't any superheroes or decidedly-boy-targeted-action-shows on, I'd still have made selections about what to watch as I waited for the next show. Often my channel decision was based on the show AFTER so I wouldn't miss anything.

I don't recall when exactly, but I woke up unusually early one morning and turned on the TV before anything I knew about had started. The TV listings began, I think, at 6:00, so I must've been in the family room around 5:45 or 5:50. It had never really occurred to me previously that anything was on before 6:00 -- if there were, the newspaper would've listed it, right? So imagine my surprise when I caught the last few minutes of Battle of the Planets. I had no clue what it was, but it was radically different than anything else I'd seen on Saturday mornings! It was like Star Wars but with superheroes!

Well, getting up at 5:30 to watch this was quite a bear for a non-morning person like myself, so I missed it at least as often as not. And what I did catch was often only the last half of an episode. But one day, I recall, I forced myself to get up EVEN EARLIER to make sure I saw the whole thing. And I caught the ending credits for Star Blazers before BotP started.

I had even less idea what this was, but they had a huge space ship that was essentially a BIG FRICKIN' GUN! That looked even more awesome!

Except, I could never get out of bed any earlier to see anything more than the end credits.

I was far too young to understand either of the shows anyway, and barely retained enough memory of them to warrant even trying to hunt them down prior to the internet. I did eventually buy some of the Battle of the Planet DVDs, largely to wax nostalgic a bit and see if they really were as good as I remembered. They hold up reasonably well, although the original Japanese versions (also included on the discs) are much better.

Even more recently, I discovered that Star Blazers is available on Hulu. Thirty-some years later, it's high time I see what I missed.

The show is actually pretty dull from the first dozen or so episodes I've seen so far. A combination of inadequate animation, poor voice acting, and too many talking heads explaining the action instead of actually showing it. That said, I can still see how it would have been unlike anything on American television back then.

I plan to continue watching it, as it's one of the first real breakthroughs in bringing anime and manga over to a mainstream U.S. audience. I was hoping to relive some childhood nostalgia for a show I'd never seen, but it turns out that I'm getting a history lesson instead. And I can't say that I'm disappointed in that regard.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

National Pretty Brown Girl Day

Today is the first National Pretty Brown Girl Day. According to the website, it's a call "for all girls and women across the globe to celebrate themselves, families and friends" and "is a great way for brown girls of all ages, cultures and ethnicities to empower themselves and boost their self-confidence."

Now, if you happen to be of the mindset that says, "Why do they get a special day?" I'll point to this piece I heard on NPR yesterday citing that African Americans account for 13% of the entire U.S. population, but 40% of missing persons! You wouldn't know that judging by the attention media at large gives missing children; if you're not a cute blonde, you won't get any attention at all. If we live in a society that flatly dismisses nearly half of the missing children in America because they're the "wrong" skin color, then we absolutely need to recognize that disparity and do something to counter it. Which is why it's perfectly valid to have Black History Month and Nation Pretty Brown Girl Day.

Now, since this is a comic related blog, I had thought about doing a piece just showcasing photos of black female comic creators. All I could come up with on my own was Charlie Trotman and Ashley Woods. Jackie Ormes if I didn't limit myself to those that are still alive. I thought there's no way that could be it, so I did some searching online.

I quickly found The Ormes Society, "an organization dedicated to supporting black female comic creators and promoting the inclusion of black women in the comics industry as creators, characters, and consumers." Lo and behold, they've already compiled a list black female comic creators! With links to their websites and/or Wikipedia entries to boot!

But, wow, their complete list has only 37 names on it. This is a group specifically organized around supporting black female comic creators, and they only know of 37 people to cite. And some of those names are folks like Rashida Jones (an actress who thought of an idea for a comic book story but didn't actually write it) and Jada Pinkett Smith (an actress who wrote one very badly-received comic back in 1998). This is precisely why we need a National Pretty Brown Girl Day!

Look, it's a Saturday. Football season is over. March Madness hasn't started yet. Take some time to check out those 37 women creators. Read their Wikipedia entries if they have them, check out their sites to see examples of their work. There's only 37 names, and some of them don't even have links associated with them; it's not going to take you that long.

Now, you might look at their work and say, "No, this isn't for me." That's okay! Not every comic is meant for every person. But maybe one or two of them will stand out and you'll say, "Hey, this is interesting. I might need to check out some more of this person's work." And you know what you'd be doing then? You'd be supporting that individual, and you'd be celebrating National Pretty Brown Girl Day.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Tip Of The Day

Never let a man who usually runs around in nothing but his underwear provide you with fashion advice.
From Avengers #161 by Jim Shooter and George Pérez.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Better Man Review

I honestly have no recollection of discovering Bob the Squirrel for the first time. I'm guessing mid- to late-2007 as that was when I really started getting into webcomics in earnest. At any rate, I know I was reading it when creator Frank Page started showcasing his divorce in the strip, and I know that because I was going through mine about the same time. The comic because infinitely more relevant for me because, not only was I able to see my emotional self in the comic, but I knew that it was more-or-less contemporaneous. I had several Bob strip tacked up around my cubicle at work to help get through some of those darker days. (I still have several strips up, but more recent ones.)

I paid a little closer attention to Bob after that, and I saw a lot of myself in Frank. He was like the me I would have become if I really tried to be a cartoonist instead of a graphic designer.

A little over a year ago, out of the blue, I got a message from Frank just saying that he was a fan of my blog. A very nice gesture, and one that I deeply appreciated since I don't tend to get a lot of feedback. But since then, we've chatted on a number of topics and gotten to know one another a bit better outside of what everyone else sees on the internet. I even enlisted his help in obtaining a really cool Christmas present for my S.O. this last season.

Now, with that background in mind, I finally got myself a copy of his self-published graphic novel better man. He'd mentioned it from time to time on his site over the years, but it's not something he's really plugged much. (For that matter, he does little self-promotion compared to... well, just about every other webcartoonist out there, I think!) I knew it was an autobiographical piece, not really related to Bob but that was about it.

The story mostly covers Frank's life from about ages 13 to 17. Possibly the worst years of everyone's life. In Page's case, it involved being on the receiving end of a lot of spit balls, locker slams, gut punches and a host of other physical assaults that prompted him to spend as little time as possible in the school hallways. It also involved living with his mother and her parents, his father having split shortly after Page was born. The crux of the story then revolves around Frank learning from and bonding with his grandpa as a surrogate father, and the challenges a man in his 60s faces after having worked himself almost to death just trying to keep his family afloat.

One of the dangers with autobiographical comics is that they can be too self-absorbed. As the reader, it can come across as just a self-indulgent ego-trip. What makes this creator think s/he's so interesting that I'd want to read about it? Worse, why should I even care about this person/character? But in the case of better man, Page displays an excellent ability to draw the reader in and really convey the emotions at a fairly raw level. It's an amazing contrast to Bob in that, while Page wears his emotions on his sleeve in the daily strip, he rips them out of his chest, throws them down in front of you and you can't help but look at them here. It's much more raw and powerful.

And while you might suggest that I was predisposed to feel something because we'd already established a rapport, I discovered in reading it that I don't know jack. Yeah, I got bullied and pushed around in school, but not like that. Not to mention that my home life was much more stable; hell, my folks are both still alive and still married to each other! The teenage Frank Page bears zero resemblance to the teenage Sean Kleefeld.

And now, having Page's "origin" story, that puts Bob in a different context. There've been more than a few instances when, upon reading about a personal challenge Page was facing, I'd say to myself, "Sure, I've been there; you just need to..." (Though I never actually told Frank any of that since I knew it'd be too late, as he draws the strip several weeks ahead of time.) But in the context of better man, I can't say that. Because even if his challenges and mine are superficially the same, the unspoken psychological ones running in our heads are different. Maybe just different by degrees, but different nonetheless.

I'd also like to take a moment to compliment Page's design skills here. Bob is mostly a short-form gag strip, so we don't see a lot in the way of storytelling. In better man, though, Page largely retains his illustration style, but takes full advantage of the graphic novel format. Throughout the book, he does an excellent job drawing readers' attention around the page using a variety of different layouts and visual narrative devices that serve the story well. He doesn't quite in getting in those wild Neal Adams or Jim Steranko layouts, but there are plenty of unconventional ones that are well executed here.

This is an excellent work. For autobiographic comics, I'd easily put this in the same league as Blankets and Pedro and Me. It's possible I'm showing some bias here, although, I don't think much. For fans of Page's online work, better man is not Bob. Very different tone and feel. But I don't think that's a bad thing at all.

Happy Valerie Day!

I hereby declare today Valerie Day! All those people who are named Valerie get to celebrate as if they're awesome! Any Valeries that I personally know can skip the "as if" portion and just celebrate because they are actually awesome!

(Happy birthday, Val!)

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Here, There Be Wednesday Links

  • Sarah McIntyre relays her adventures at the recent IMAGINE Children's Festival. There were lots of kids, lots of pirate drawings and, it looks like, lots of fun.
  • It would seem that Mark Waid is going digital. Will he be breaking new ground? Maybe, maybe not. But that it's Mark Waid will almost certainly draw in some of his fans from the print-only side of comics.
  • The Pasadina Star-News has a piece focused on illustrator David Russell who helped storyboard movies from Return of the Jedi to Red Tails. Of possible interest to comic fans is that it's noted that Russell, beginning at the age of 13, met and was mentored by Jack Kirby.
  • Mark D. White points to a free online samplings of the upcoming book, The Avengers and Philosophy: Earth's Mightiest Thinkers. You can pre-order the book here.
  • I had to check the date on this article several times because it's one that seems like it should've been written at least a decade ago. There's absolutely nothing note-worthy in the piece other than that the author seems phenomenally naive about and/or out of touch with pop culture trends.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Green Dragon Interview

Last year, I posited the idea that Ithaca, NY is the next notable comic community. Turns out that I was more right than I knew. A few months after that post, Michael Doll opened the Green Dragon Comic Shop, only a few blocks down the road from the long-established Comics for Collectors. That someone's opening a brand new comic shop in this economy is noteworthy in and of itself, but in an city of 30,000 that already has a comic shop? Well, my interest was piqued!
I caught up with Doll and he was kind enough to answer some of my questions...

Kleefeld: I'd like to start with just some of your personal background. What got you interested in comics originally? You're a long-time fan, right?

Doll: I started reading comics at a young age. My first comic that I remember reading was Uncanny X-Men 122. My brother, who is 5 years older, was a Hulk fan. But I was always drawn to the X-Men for some reason. I didn't pick up more comics until I was a couple years older and picked up Uncanny X-Men 165. This was during the Brood Saga. I stepped away from comics for many years (I was a GI Joe, He-Man, and Transformers fan) until one day my family and I were shopping and I saw a rack of comics. I was bored shopping so I went over to the racks and saw another Uncanny X-Men (issue 232 with the Brood). I remembered this from my childhood, and picked up the comic and been a fan ever since. I've been reading and collecting comics for almost 25 years now.

Kleefeld: Did your fandom lapse as you grew older? I can't help but imagine some teenage ribbing around DC's "Doll Man" or in reference to the old "they're not dolls, they're action figures" trope. Were you able to make it through school unscathed in that regard?

Doll: I pretty much had a very close knit group of friends in high school and they were all very accepting of me reading comics. In high school I was still a fan of X-Men, but branched out into other genres. I was an avid Sandman fan and also of Grant Morrison's Doom Patrol (I still have nightmares about that book!).

Kleefeld: Prior to opening Green Dragon, what kind of experience did you have in with comics retailing? Had you worked at other comic shops before, or perhaps seen the retailing industry from the publishing or distribution sides?

Doll: I had no prior experience in the comic retailing, but had always wanted to open my own shop. I thought that it would be cool to sell comics and talk to people about them and really just show the passion that I have for them. Then of course came the comic boom/bust and that dashed all hopes of that. So I ventured to college and got "a real job". I was then laid off from my "real job" and needed work so I got a job in retail management. I really enjoyed that and was in retail management for nearly 11 years. So I have an extensive background in customer service and I wanted to take that knowledge and open my own shop.

Kleefeld: It sounds like, then, like you had some basic business experience going in. I've seen many folks over the years dive into retailing only because of their love of comics, and get burned because they don't have business skills. I'm guessing in your case, "on the job training" mostly revolved around the specifics of dealing with Diamond and such?

Doll: That's correct. OTJ training really consisted of the best hours to be open and still have a semblance of a life outside of the store as I'm the only one working here. But also another thing was ordering correct quantities. My first month's ordering was way over what I should've been ordering. So I have that under control now.

Kleefeld: So, what ultimately prompted the plunge? I've seen you reference "an opportunity" but what was that exactly? I'm guessing you came across a large collection to use for as your initial stock?

Doll: What really drove me into opening my own comic store was a "nudge" from a friend who is also a comic fan. He said that I should open my own shop since I have the comic knowledge and the customer service skills to really make a great shop. I was in a position with a company that I wasn't going anywhere unless I relocated to the Midwest and I didn't want to do that. So I did some research on opening up a store and decided, "What the hell have I got to lose?". Well, I mean a lot beside my house, any assets I have and such, but I knew that if I didn't do this now, I would kick myself in the ass for not doing it later in life. I used the majority of my collection to open the store and set up with the distributor to get new comics.

Kleefeld: Even coming across such an opportunity, what were your thoughts/concerns around the launching a new shop in this environment? While Ithaca does have a strong comics community, they also already had a long-standing comic shop plus some hobbyist and gaming stores, I believe, that overlap a typical comic shop's bailiwick. Not to mention the overall economic climate. Opening a new store of any kind certainly isn't easy, but it looks to me like you had some additional challenges to face from the start. So, at the risk of coming across as offensive, what the heck were you thinking?!?

Doll: I was nervous about opening a shop in several ways: cash flow, bills, getting my name out there, start up costs, learning curves, you name it, I went through the entire gambit. Luckily I have a great family and set of friends to help me out with the store and provide those shoulders to cry on when needed. I've worked in the Ithaca area for nearly 10 years and I knew that the area could support a second comic shop. Going up against an established competitor in any market is risky, but if you don't take risks in life, where would you be? I told myself that if the shop doesn't work out, that at least I gave it my all. I was going to do right by myself and the customers and put my love for comics out there for everyone to see. I asked around to see what the pulse of the comic industry in Ithaca was and really thought that I could make a name for myself here.

Kleefeld: Speaking of making a name for yourself, your shop's opening pretty closely coincided with DC's "new 52." Was that something you were able to take advantage of from a marketing perspective, perhaps getting in lapsed comic fans or garnering some additional news attention from local media? One of the photos I did see looks like you commissioned a Superman logo ice sculpture?

Doll: The new 52 launch really did help me and the store out. I was open on the second month of the launch and that really did continue to draw people in to the store. I also got in touch with the Downtown Ithaca Alliance to have them help spread the word that there's a new place in town. They really do a great job in helping a new business get their name out there. The REALTOR I used to secure the place (I'm also a licensed NYS real estate sales person) helps spread word with new business too and had me do a new business profile that was distributed to over 25 different media outlets. I've had about 7 interviews so far for the store and a couple more on the way.

The ice sculpture was the result of placing an ad in the Downtown Ithaca Winter Guide. The Commons host "Ice Wars" where ice sculpture artists compete in a nationally sanctioned ice carving competition. The first 50 business to secure an ad received an ice sculpture. I had no idea what my sculpture would be until that morning when the artist told me what he was doing. As you can imagine, I was completely in awe of what was done.

Kleefeld: Once you made the decision to open Green Dragon, what was your thinking about the nature of the shop itself? What were/are some of the ideas that you wanted to bring to the store from other shops you've seen, and what were some you wanted to avoid?

Doll: What I wanted to do with the store is have a completely different feel from the competition. My store is in the basement of a building so it has a kind of "underground" feel. I really wanted this to be at the risk of sounding dorky "your store". So I wanted to start out with just comics and see what my customers wanted in the store. So after a couple months, with getting the pulse of the customers and what they really wanted I expanded some with action figures and busts/statues. Like I said, I want this to be my customers store. I've taken a lot of constructive criticism from customers and used many of their ideas to really turn the store into something that everyone would like. I think as a retailer that you need to have an open mind, learn from your mistakes and grow as a business. If you're staunch in your pursuit, you'll never get anywhere. I also wanted to create a fun environment for everyone from kids to seniors. I have a great area for kids to look at books and relax. Getting kids to read has always been a passion of mine and how I really got into reading was in comics. I feel that comics are a great way for kids to start reading and have fun at the same time.

Kleefeld: What's your clientele been like so far? It's clear you're trying to make it as friendly and open as possible, but it's also an industry that's been fairly insular for some time now. Have you been able to draw in a good crowd of children as well as established comic fans?

Doll: My clientele is just like Ithaca. Very unique. I have established creators coming in each week, I have dedicated families that come in each week, and I have the typical comic book readers. A thing that is very odd (at least I thought so) is that about 40% of my customers are female. I knew that there were female readers out there, but being a comic fan for years it was primarily a male base. When I first opened at the end of October there was a haunted house in an empty space next to me, so I cross promoted with them. After the haunted house, stop in to the store for a free comic. I handed out over 100 comics and got many a kid to come back into the store over the next couple of weeks.

Kleefeld: It's been a couple years since I visited Ithaca and I can't seem to find many photos of Green Dragon's interior. Can you provide folks with a sense of the layout and structure of the shop? What have you tried to do with the space itself?

Doll: The layout of the store is unique. Like I stated above, my store is in the basement of a building. I do have a display window and a sandwich board to let people know where I'm located. You enter the store to a foyer and a large staircase. Above the staircase is a ledge and a huge wall where I have a banner of the store logo and name. As you come down the steps you see posters of comic characters. At the base of the stairs is a double set of doors that are always opened and I have current comics posters posted there. You'll walk down about 8 feet from the base of the stairs and you'll see my store to the right. There are other store fronts that are currently unrented so you could call me the anchor for the basement. There is a yoga studio that is expanding to the space behind me in the next few months. My store has no windows so I opted for a very bright color scheme. Walls are currently white and the floor is a basic grey. The previous tenant was a clothing store and their color scheme was chocolate brown and cobalt blue. That needed to be changed immediately! It made the space seem very dark and off-putting. I changed all of the light bulbs to a "daylight" design to really give the space some much needed light. With being in the basement, the store has an "underground" feel with pipe work above. I have the store set up in a couple different areas: New Comic wall, which is the first thing you see when you walk in besides my smiling face, then previous weeks comics, the kids comics section, back issues/action figures/busts/statues, then a "set" wall (these are collected single issue comics like a mini series, all packaged together, then the trade section. I'm also currently working on having an artist exhibition at the beginning of March with the Downtown Ithaca Alliance group that sponsors First Friday Art Crawl. This is where artists display their works for everyone and brings in a lot of people to the places that hold the event. With Ithaca having such a great comic and art crowd, I really wanted to reach out to both groups since they are both lovers of art (be it in a different medium).

Kleefeld: I think that's a fantastic idea! So you'd have essentially a small art exhibition in your store, presumably of comic art? Do you have any specific artists lined up yet?

Doll: These are actually many different artists. Photographers, painters, etc. I have one lined up for March already.

Kleefeld: You've been open less than a year so far, but it sounds like things are going pretty well. What's been the most surprising challenge that you've had; what were you really not expecting to have to deal with in opening and runnning a new comic shop?

Doll: I guess what I really had the hardest time with was knowing what to order for people. I know what titles nationally sell well, but was unsure of what my customers were really looking for. So I had no problem asking them what they were looking for or having them suggest titles to carry in the store.

Kleefeld: What about the broad shift from customers purchasing individual issues to waiting for collections? Again, coming to this discussion as a new retailer, what has that meant for your in terms of setting up your store and what stock you carry? I would guess you'd be at an advantage in that sense since you wouldn't have years of back issues taking up real estate. Or have your customers been more traditional in that regard, on the hunt for elusive older issues?

Doll: I have my customers that are looking for current books, and then I have the trades people. It's about a 60/40 mix (issues/trades).I knew that the trades would be a learning curve for me, but I really didn't realize how many people would wait for trades. Even with the new 52, I have customers that are waiting for the trades to come out instead of buying the single issues.

Kleefeld: You're also stepping into a market that's had a lot of discussion recently about competition from both pirates and publishers themselves who publish digitally. As someone who's coming to the situation without a long history of comic retailing, I'd like to hear your thoughts on the matter.

Doll: As for the market going into same day digital, I feel that digital is helping the comic industry. It's getting more people to read comics. If you think of it, there really aren't that many comic stores around anymore. That can be attributed to many things: comic store owners retiring, readers being slighted at the stores (in many different fashions), and old fashioned economics. There are many books being published now that have a digital code that you can enter in the respective company's database and boom, your comic is there on your computer. It's the same way with DVD's. You buy the DVD, and you get a code for a digital copy. I really feel that the digital era is only going to help comics, not hinder it. When you think of it this way: What would you pay for a digital copy of Action Comics #1? Now what would you pay for a near mint/mint condition Action Comics #1?

Thanks very much, Mike! I know opening a new shop of any kind is difficult, so I wish him all the best. I'll also mention that he's trying to finalize details about hosting some "draw-ins" on Free Comic Book Day in May. Details about Green Dragon can be found on their website and Facebook page.

Celebrating Six Years Of Blogging

Six years ago today, I began blogging here at Kleefeld on Comics. Quite a bit has changed in my life since then, and it's strange to think this blog has been one of the constants. Who's game for another six years?

Monday, February 20, 2012

Tale Of Sand Review

Jim Henson is, of course, most well known for his creation of the Muppets. Whether you know them through Sesame Street, The Muppet Show, Fraggle Rock or any of the other TV shows and movies, his work with creating fantasy worlds of whimsy is fondly remembered.

Less well-known are his non-Muppet works. From the obscure short film Time Piece to the more well-known, but not-as-well-associated-with-the-Henson-name pieces like Dark Crystal. The Muppets' popularity does a fair job of subsuming the Henson name, as it indeed subsumed much of Jim Henson's life. I don't mean that in a negative way. He seemed to truly enjoy working on Muppet projects. But it meant that he wasn't able to focus his attentions as much on other types of work.

Enter Tale of Sand. It was a screenplay he and Jerry Juhl first wrote in the late 1960s prior to Sesame Street. It largely sat unused for decades. Although the pair did try a couple of re-writes, no one was willing to help produce it. The scripts came to light again recently, and Archaia enlisted Ramón Pérez to illustrate it as a graphic novel.

The story starts in a small south western town. Everyone is partying and having a great time. A stranger, Mac, gets dragged into the celebrations unknowingly and is taken to the sheriff, who hands him a few supplies and says he has a ten minute head start. Confused, Mac is pushed to the edge of town and finds himself running for his life from an assassin. Mac races through the desert on a somewhat surreal adventure encountering lions, sharks, tanks, Arabs, linebackers, and used car salesmen among others. All the while being pursued by the assassin.

I won't spoil how it ends, since that's a key component to the whole story, but let's just say that it's unconventional.

Pérez uses a variety of styles throughout the book. Much of it is an illustration style that is similar to, but less cartoony than, his online comics like kukuburi and butternut squash. Other portions are done in more of a wash technique, sometimes within the same panel. Also, scattered throughout the book and integrated into the art are typewritten pages from the original script. (Or, at least, what appear to be the original script.) Even more interestingly, Pérez changes up his storytelling throughout the piece. While he follows a straight grid panel structure, it gets more compressed and (deliberately) harder to follow around sequences that are more chaotic, like the opening party scene or the bar brawl later. I don't know how Henson and Juhl envisioned any of this playing out on camera, or what sort of directions might have been included in the screenplay, but I'm certain that these page and panel layouts would not have been delineated. So kudos to Pérez for executing so well on a script that was intended for an entirely different format.

It's a very good story, but one that I think must be a hard sell. It has a very different flavor than what Henson is known for, so it would be more for die-hard Henson fans and not necessarily Muppet fans. It's not even really similar to The Storyteller or Labyrinth. Stylistically, it's probably most similar to Time Piece if you're at all familiar with that. It's also not something that could be easily categorized and explained with a quick elevator speech. That synopsis I gave above is woefully inadequate to explain what happens; it's like summarizing the entire body of Salvador Dali's work by saying "melting clocks."

Honestly, I don't have a good way to tell you it's a story worth getting. If you've read my blog for any length of time, you're maybe at least kind of familiar with my tastes and style. I thought Tale of Sand was cool. Take that for whatever you think a recommendation from me is worth.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Your "Oh, Crap! I'm Old!" Moment For The Day

I referenced last month the notion of Marvel using a sliding ten year timescale. It's the notion that all of the continuity stories that occurred in Marvel's comics since Fantastic Four #1 have taken place in a ten year timeframe, and will always take place in a ten year timeframe, regardless of how much time has passed in real life. It's basically a way to keep the characters frozen in time, so they don't age themselves out of being viable characters.

Now maybe this hit everyone else a few months ago and I just wasn't paying attention, but it hit me tonight that that means that the FF's first rocket flight, the death of Uncle Ben, the formation of the Avengers, the Galactus Trilogy, the Kree-Skrull War... all the great stories from the early days of Marvel? They now all happen after September 11, 2001.

Johnny Storm and Peter Parker were still in high school when the World Trade Center collapsed. The Power Pack kids have no memory of taking commercial flights that didn't involve removing their shows and receiving full body scans. Captain America was thawed out of a block of ice in a post-9/11 America. All depictions of the WTC in the comics are now chalked up to "artistic license." This issue...
... can't have happened.

Marvel has a long history of referencing real events in their stories, and it makes sense to do that. Most of the events they reference, though, were either well into history by the time I learned about them or were superficial and largely irrelevant. Broad references like "dirty Commies" would transfer to other countries easily enough. I have no memory of Vietnam, nor did I read those issues when Flash Thompson served until decades after the fact. The changing face of the President is fairly inconsequential in the comics; it's just a means to show "hey, this must be big; the President is involved!" And, of course, fashion trends change so quickly and tended to be out of date by the time an issue hit the stands anyway.

9/11 is the first significant event in my recollection had an impact on the comic stories I read as I was reading them. And while I'm not reading Marvel comics these days, it's a curious notion to try to put every story I've ever read from them in the context of a post-9/11 mindset.

Guess I need to add some grey hairs to that drawing of me that I use all over the web.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Unlearn Joseph Campbell

I first watched Star Wars when it came out in the 70s. I was six. Everything about the movie was absolutely new to me. I had no conception of what old serials Lucas was alluding to, or who Alec Guinness and Peter Cushing were, or the cultural impact of naming them "Stormtroopers"... I didn't question what a womp rat was because, by the time they got to that reference in the movie, my head so over-flowing with other new ideas that I didn't even have room for anything else.

Star Wars then became a cultural education of sorts for me. I thought it was a fun movie, of course, but my interest spread out into seeing where Lucas' ideas came from. From Buster Crabbe to World War I. Not surprisingly, the works of Joseph Campbell came to my attention since Lucas specifically cited his works as a model/template for his basic story structure.

Campbell, if you don't know, studied and wrote about mythology. Rather than just relay old myths or study their origins, he focused on broad themes and ideas that were common among many cultures. His research led him to what he called the "monomyth". In The Hero with a Thousand Faces he outlined the basic plot structure of many major myths, pointing out not just the story beats but how they work and why they're important. It's become more commonly known as "the hero's journey." You see it in stories from Gilgamesh to King Arthur to Beowulf.

What's happened, though, is that modern writers have been formally taught to this. They're told to study Campbell and learn how to write stories that follow the hero's journey because it's effective storytelling. Which it is.

Until it isn't.

See, the problem is that EVERY fiction writer has studied Campbell at this point and, while they often try to still write their own unique stories, they often resort to pat rehashes of Campbell's structure. While you can deviate from Campbell's work (indeed, Campbell himself notes that there are many potential deviations in the monomyth) many who work in overly commercial ventures like comic books and movies stick to the same patterns, most likely because of external pressures like deadlines.

One of the reasons I stopped going to movies was because I kept seeing Campbell being used over and over again. The films became exceedingly predictable and, therefore, boring. You can frequently pick out the archetypes Campbell identified within seconds of the actor stepping in front of the camera.

The longer form works that I've been enjoying lately are the ones that bear the least resemblance to the monomyth. While there are still elements of the hero's journey in play, and I can spot those pretty readily, they're changed pretty significantly in some way so they don't feel hackneyed. In One Piece for example, the wizened old teacher that takes the hero under his wing doesn't really show up until nearly 600 chapters into the story! At which point, the story jumps to two years later after the training is complete. In Bakuman, the same archetype is embodied in 28-year-old Hattori who, instead of teaching the protagonists, maneuvers people and situations around them so they educate themselves. Compare this against the more obvious Merlin/Yoda style versions that show up everywhere.

I was reading the latest installment of Bakuman last night and found myself laughing out loud. The story wasn't particularly funny but it was just so different and unexpected that I was just happy and entertained. I do that frequently with One Piece as well. Sure, I know that the hero will ultimately win in the end, but their hero's journey doesn't HAVE to follow Campbell's outline verbatim each and every time. In fact, it's the further afield you can go with it, the more enjoyable the result can be!

Friday, February 17, 2012

Millenia War Review

A few years ago, after deciding to go to a comic convention (Wizard World Chicago maybe?), I was browsing the list of attendees and guests, making notes on who I wanted to speak to. One of the names was Ashley Wood, whose work I had just seen on Tank Girl. I got to the convention and was going through the artists' alley, talking with this person and that. I finally got to the area where Wood's table was supposed to be. Except he wasn't there. The table wasn't empty, mind you, with a simple "Back in 5 minutes" note or anything, though; there was a woman standing there with a small crowd of folks pushing her to sign their books. I did not recognize her, but was pretty confident that she wasn't the decidedly male artist I was looking for.

I went about the show some more, talking with other creators, picking up a few new books. I eventually sat down to rest in one of the rooms with a panel discussion. Waiting for things to get rolling, I pulled out my convention guide and looked up to make sure I wasn't looking for Wood at the wrong place or something. To my surprise, Ashley Wood was not at the convention at all! But there was a young woman by the name of Ashley Woods who had apparently just self-published a book called Millenia War.

I finally got around to reading Millenia War. The story starts 1000 years ago when a group of obnoxious teens accidentally kill an elven princess. That, in turn, leads to a war between humans and elves, and the humans use their superior technology to all but eliminate the entire elven population.

A century later, a group of human soldiers get ambushed by elves. All but one of the humans are killed, and she winds up being captured. The girl's sister, then, makes it her mission to find her and so, with the help of her friends, sets out to see what happened. They're given some assistance by the fairies but over the years, the elves have taken precautions to plant moles into human society...

For some reason, this book just didn't click for me. Which strikes me as odd. I could point out a few technical bits here and there that could use a little improvement/clarification, but it wasn't a bad book by any means. The plot was interesting, a bit different (in a good way). The characters didn't come across as flat. The illustrations were good. But it just didn't grab me. I thought the font size was a tad large, but that wasn't a big deal. A couple of the fight scenes did get a bit difficult to follow, but the specifics weren't really critical to understanding the story.

After first learning who Woods was, I do recall hearing generally good things about Millenia War. (Though at this point, I couldn't tell you anything in particular.) It was a book I certainly wanted to like; after all, I just dropped $25 for my own copy. But I'm at something of a loss to say why it didn't really do anything for me.

I suspect it has a lot to do with the characters. Again, they're not flat, but I don't think I really recognized any of them. They didn't remind of anyone I'd ever met nor did they remind me of any other characters, or even broad archetypes I'm familiar with. And while I've certainly read books with less relatable characters, that's typically only for books that really, really wow me with the art. Here again, it's not bad by any means, but I didn't see enough contrasts (line weight, color, etc.) to stand out for me.

I'm glad to have read it, and it looks like Woods has promise, but I'm not yearning for more. I gather she's worked on a few other projects since this was first published, and I hope they do (have done?) well.

Millenia War volume 1 is available through IndyPlanet.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Measure Against Your True Competitor

About a year and a half ago, I decided I wanted to run a marathon. I was interested in getting more fit anyway, and that seemed like it'd be kind of cool to be able to put one of those "26.2" stickers on my car. Except I'd never run before. So I did some reading and most people seemed to say that before you start training for a marathon, you should be able to run about three miles non-stop. My first day on the treadmill was not nearly that; I think I did maybe one slow mile and had to slow down even further to a walk for a bit in the middle.

But I improved over time and eventually got myself to where I got run four miles non-stop. It wound up being a little late for me to sign up for that year's marathons -- the ones I could reasonably get to sold out MUCH earlier than I would've guessed -- but I went ahead with training anyway, just to see what I could do. Last summer, I was able to regularly put in runs over 15 miles. But since I wasn't actually signed up for a marathon and my runs were starting to get well past three hours each, I opted to cut back to a reasonable holding pattern of 6-7 mile runs until I could sign up for the next marathon I could get to.

All of which is a preface to say that six and a half miles on the treadmill at the gym is no big deal for me.

Late last year, I had a really bad day at work. Lots of stress from a major project that wasn't going well, plus an unusual number of annoyances. I went to the gym mad and ready to burn off some adrenalin. On the treadmill. Go!

I'd been on the treadmill maybe 5-10 minutes, and I see a guy start up on the one next to me. Mid-20s, looked to be in reasonably good health. He warmed up walking for a minute or two before cranking the speed up to a run. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw him glance over in my direction several times, but I assumed he was looking past me at some woman working out on the level below or something. After he ran for about 15 minutes, he slowed down to a walk again. Another minute later, he's back to running. That lasted maybe 6-7 minutes.

I'm actually starting to notice him now because he's still glancing over at me. I finally realized that he was looking at the readout on my treadmill. He was trying to see how fast and how far I was going. At this point, I'd been running just shy of 7 miles an hour for nearly 30 minutes. I was sweaty, sure, but not out of breath.

Unlike my friend who, by now, has planted his feet on the unmoving sides of the treadmill, squatted down while holding the hand rails, and begun heaving trying to catch his breath. He eventually stood back up, walked for a bit longer and finally turned the treadmill off, looking over at me one more time while he wiped the machine down.

Now, I'm relaying this story not as a way to try to brag about my running ability. Really, I've got nothing compared any number of folks at my gym alone. I'm relaying the story to highlight where your competition really is.

See, this guy next to me? He was trying to compete with me. He didn't know that I can easily outlast any of the treadmills at our gym (which all cut out after an hour). He didn't know that I'm aiming to run a marathon and have been specifically training myself to run long distances. He didn't know that I'd had a crappy day and had more adrenaline flowing than usual.

By the same token, I don't know the stories of anyone else at the gym either. I don't know how much of their lives have been in training, or whether they're recovering from some injury or illness, or how much sleep they got the night before, or what their diet is, or anything. There's no reason for me to try to compete with them on any level, because I frankly don't know what level they're at!

My competition, really, is myself. I need to run farther this week than I did last week. I need to run farther still next week. But those benchmarks are against my own record, not anybody else's. I don't care how fast the guy next to me runs, or how long, or what his heart rate is. The only thing that matters is how I do compared to myself.

That holds for all other aspects of life, as well. Don't compare your comic book sales against the Action Comics. Don't compare your web stats against Penny Arcade's. Don't compare your place against Joe Quesada's. Just do better than you did before.

After all, isn't that something you learned from the comics themselves anyway? Onward and upward to greater glory? Excelsior!

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

It's Link Wednesday

  • Robert Beerbohm provides a somewhat lengthy piece on the work-for-hire situation between Marvel and Jack Kirby & Steve Ditko. There's a few tangents in there, as well, but some good nuggets and personal interactions he talks about as well.
  • If you haven't seen/heard Mike Richardson's keynote address at the recent ComicsPRO meeting, it's worth a read. Nice reminder that Richardson is more than Dark Horse's publisher.
  • The Times of India has another report on the increasing popularity of comic books India. I've seen enough reports on this over the past few months to confidently say that there is something big going on there. I'm hoping it's big enough that some of it starts getting exported to the U.S. soon.
  • Here's a short piece on the old Alley Award -- the physical statue itself -- including a photo of one awarded to Julius Schwartz.
  • Lastly, we have this promo video for Patrick Redford's Pentagon, the fourth graphic novel in his Shape series. It teaches five mentalist type magic tricks with art by Jesse Rubenfeld.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

An Inadequate John Severin Appreciation

I first saw John Severin's work in the pages of Cracked. I want to say it was a parody of one of the Planet of the Apes movies (maybe even the original?) which I had heard about but, at the time, had never actually seen. I wasn't an avid buyer of Cracked or its rival Mad but, based on the handful of issues of each that I had, I actually preferred Cracked. Largely because of Severin's artwork. The lines didn't seem as smooth as what was over in Mad (who's primary parody artist at the time was Mort Drucker) and the text was much more mechanical, but I thought Severin did a better job of consistently capturing actors' likenesses. It was especially evident when I managed to get the issues of both Mad and Cracked that both ran their own parodies of The Empire Strikes Back. I knew these actors, and Severin's just looked better! More like the actors, and not cartoonish approximations of them.

Several years later, I was hunting down obscure early appearances of the Fantastic Four. I managed to learn of a brief cameo of Reed Richards in Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos #3, and it had been reprinted (and was therefore cheaper!) in Special Marvel Edition #5. Though the original was by Jack Kirby, this reprint featured a new cover by Severin. I thought it was incredibly well done and spoke well to the grittiness of a war story. Imagine my surprise when it dawned on me that this was the same guy who had done those humor stories I had enjoyed years earlier!

I tracked down some of his other 1960s work for Marvel. Captain Savage and His Leatherneck Raiders. The Nick Fury stories in Strange Tales. And I went back a little earlier. Two-Gun Kid, Gunsmoke Western and the like. Severin did a phenomenal job on war stories and Westerns. His style seem rough and gritty in a way that really suited the genres.

Off and on throughout all this, I wondered about his relationship with this "Marie Severin" whose name kept popping up. Were they siblings? Husband and wife? Totally unrelated, and just happened to share a last name? A minor concern, certainly, but one that seemed to elude my cursory research. (Keep in mind, kids, this is in the days before the internet!) Clearly, though, they were both very talented.

For a combination of reasons, John largely feel off my comic radar for years until he came back for a new take on the Rawhide Kid in 2003. I thought the story was crap -- it didn't even sound remotely appealing from the solicits and writer Ron Zimmerman already proved to be... not ideally suited to comics -- but I bought it exclusively for Severin's art. At 82 years old, he was still absolutely kicking artistic ass!

I can't explain, or even excuse, why I didn't spend more time supporting Severin's art. I saw it rarely, but it always impressed me, even as a kid. The man leaves behind a huge body of fantastic work. And that he was able to bounce between, not only genres, but entire tonal styles, handling everything from slapstick gag comedy to war stories with equal aplomb speaks mightily to his ability. I suppose that I haven't spent more time studying him because I spent so many years with my eyes glued to the superhero sector, and he just tended to work for companies whose product I didn't normally delve into. That's a poor excuse, at best, though.

You'll undoubtedly see various obituaries and remembrances of him in the next day or three. They'll almost certainly do a better job summarizing his career. But that he remained active and showed no appreciable loss of talent well into his 80s is phenomenal. I know a stroke has largely removed his sister from continuing to do any work, but I hope people take this opportunity to not only remember all the great works that John Severin produced, but also take a few moments to thank Marie Severin for hers as well.

Monday, February 13, 2012

State Of The Comics Blogosphere, Ethnic Edition

I got a nice response to yesterday's post over in Google+ but the commenter finished by reflecting on my notes about my race: "...what's interesting that we're seeing in the reviewer/columnist world online is that almsot none of them are black, because of several factors related to how blacks access the internet."

He later followed up with some more details about how blacks tend to access the internet via mobile devices and not via desktops and laptops. That, in turn, limits their ability to create content online. Phones, after all, were not designed for content creation. While you certainly CAN do things like take pictures and videos, and many have a keyboard of some sort (real or virtual) that allows for text input, the ability to pull all those elements together to create a blog post or website is difficult at best. I've made a few posts here via my phone, but they were short, difficult to create, and only worked at all because I had already used a desktop to set up my blog to handle phone inputs.

What this means is that, regardless of how ethnically diverse comics fandom is as a collective group (from what I can tell, ethnicity was not asked in the recent Nielsen study on DC's "52") the voice of comics fandom online is skewed away from blacks. It's not absent entirely, of course, but if you look around the blogosphere, especially if you remove creators from the equation, it is overwhelmingly white. Quick, name a black comics blogger/journalist that isn't David Brothers...


Let that sink in for a bit.

Comic editors have long understood that vocal fans aren't necessarily representative of fans on the whole. It was almost a stock answer that just because a bunch of fans sent in letters about something didn't mean that all of a book's readers felt the same way.

That said, I can't imagine that a lack of dialogue online coming specifically from an ethnically diverse group of fans has no impact. Generally speaking, the best you're going to find are white guys like me saying, "Hey, shouldn't we take into consideration some non-white points of view?" That's almost surely just going to reinforce an already heavily padded echo chamber that says the industry is doing just fine on that front, thankyouverymuch. But how many of us are really bringing the point up in the first place? And when we do, does that lead to any substantive thinking, or just more tokenism?

I don't have an answer here. If a group of people are accessing the internet via phones more than desktops, the likelihood of them contributing to the online conversation in a large, substantive way is minimal. Phones just aren't a good device for that. But getting those same people devices which ARE good for content development is not cheap. And not easy. Having internet access is one thing; having internet access that's a viable platform for anything longer than 140 characters is something else. But it's still an issue that should be discussed, instead of being ignored.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

African-American Classics Review

I reviewed an old Classics Illustrated last week, and Eureka's Graphic Classics line follows the same basic idea of adapting older works into a comic format. The idea is again to entice readers to pick up the originals based on what they enjoyed in the comic version. Eureka, though, has a slightly different model than Classics Illustrated by A) doing full-on graphic novels with 140-ish pages and B) getting some name talent like Roger Langridge, Rick Geary and Richard Corben to work on their books. Their latest volume, African-American Classics, includes works by Kyle Baker, Christopher Priest and Trevor von Eeden.

The book adapts over twenty short stories and poems "by America's earliest black authors" like Langston Hughes, Paul Laurence Dunbar and W.E.B. Du Bois. The amount of adaptation varies from piece to piece; the poems are largely just presented in their original form with an accompanying illustration while the short stories are formatted to a more typical comic narrative. Before reading, I was vaguely aware of about half of the original authors, but the only piece I was at all familiar with was Dunbar's Sympathy, known for the "I know why the caged bird sings" line that inspired Maya Angelou's book of that title. So I can't really comment (yet) on how well or poorly the adaptations did at capturing the originals.

That said, I thought all the contributors did good jobs overall. The artistic styles seem to match well with the intent and themes of the various stories, and definitely helped smooth some of the instances where 100-year-old phonetically-written slang didn't immediately make sense to me. I was more partial to the longer stories in the collection, I suspect, primarily because I'm not a big fan of poetry in the first place. Though the art accompanying the poems was excellent.

Most of the source material here was written in the first two decades of the 20th century. So it shouldn't be surprising that several of the works address inequality between races. This was still a time, recall, when some of the older people could still remember slavery and had experienced it first-hand. But they don't all try to address the topic; the last several stories in fact don't look at it at all, and the couple before that only touch on the subject obliquely. So, speaking as a white guy who never had to personally deal with racism or bigotry growing up, the book as a whole didn't come across as preachy or evangelistic.

I think this is a really good book for people to look at. I know my formal education largely went from the Civil War and Reconstruction pretty directly to World War I, and then skipped over to the Great Depression and World War II pretty quickly. I suspect a lot of American school kids got (are still getting?) a similar education, and know very little about American culture and society in the early 1900s. That these stories come from an area of American culture that's acknowledged even less is a bonus.

I don't pretend to really understand what it means to be black in America. I never will. Nor will anybody who isn't black and living in America. But works like these do help to make me appreciate, at least at some level, what it might be like. And that kind of understanding, I think, makes for a better planet.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

"Are You Reading... Backwards?"

I went to Chipotle for lunch today and sat down with a copy of Bakuman. I found it was a bit difficult to juggle the manga and the burrito simultaneously, so I opted for a leisurely read after I'd finished eating.

I wasn't timing myself, but I'm sure I was sitting there for over an hour. Mostly engrossed in the story. I got up periodically to refill my drink, and I'd occasionally catch some movement out of the corner of my eye, but for the most part, I just sat there with my nose in the book.

At one point, I did see that a guy at the next table was looking over my way. I didn't think much of it, though. Then I got up for another soda, and noticed he was family man with his wife and young kid. On my way back, he was looking in the direction of my table again. All that was on the table at this point was my book and a closed Chipotle bag with my leftovers. My coat was draped over one of the seats, but he pretty clearly wasn't looking at that. So, given that the Chipotle bag is pretty generic in the first place and pretty common in a Choptle in the second place, I'm left to assume he was trying to see what I was reading. The book was facing cover up but, as you know, manga reads "backwards" so the cover image he was seeing was on the "wrong" side of the book.

I noticed him glancing over my way a few more times before they left. I have to wonder what he was thinking. If he were already interested in manga and just wanted to know what I was reading, he could've easily seen that while I was getting my drink. Given the area I live in, I'm more inclined to think he's never seen manga before, possibly never even heard of it. If he had seen me turning pages "backwards" while I was reading -- not at all improbable since my seat was essentially right next to the cash register -- that might have looked very strange if he had never seen that before.

I wonder, then, how many people that confuses. If you're sitting in a public space reading manga for a while, and someone who's never looked at the medium sees you, what goes through their heads when they notice you reading "backwards"? Is it an idle curiosity that slips their mind as soon as you're out of sight? Do they assume you're some weird performance artist? Do they think you're actually reading Japanese?

Anyone have an experience where someone's actually asked you about manga while you were reading it?

Friday, February 10, 2012

Classics Illustrated, Uncle Tom's Cabin Review

The Classics Illustrated line of comics started in 1941 under the Classic Comics title. Each issue retold a piece of prose literature that was considered a "classic" in a comic book format, the idea being that if you liked the comic, you'd find the original at least as engaging.

Uncle Tom's Cabin was #15 in the series. While I was initially surprised that such a direct look at slavery in the U.S. would've been promoted in the early 1940s, I did discover that Harriet Beecher Stowe's original book was in fact THE most widely sold novel of the 19th century. It stands to reason that it was most assuredly very well-known and well-read even as late as the 1940s, thus making it an early candidate for the Classics Illustrated treatment.

The story is mostly about the titular "Uncle Tom" who we first meet as a slave in the mid-1800s. Readers follow his life as he's sold repeatedly, eventually dying after a severe beating from his owner. Tom is shown to be fairly accepting of the status quo, and resigns himself to a life of slavery. He's largely driven by a desire to not rock the boat, and just deal with the short term issues at hand. Here in the 21st century, it's not difficult to see how the book helped to really push the abolitionist movement at the time it was first published, but also how the depictions of the characters are fairly shallow and led to broad negative stereotypes.

This comic adaptation, not surprisingly, skips over bits of the original. Largely for space reasons, I should think. There's no compunction about depicting Topsy as a pickaninny, for example, despite her not being germane to the main plot. There's no hesitation in the language either, as dialects are written phonetically and the N-bomb is dropped a couple times. So they clearly weren't concerned about editing for cultural reasons. Still, the story mostly flows pretty well; although the ultimate fates of Eliza and her son, and Cassy and Emmeline are left unresolved in the comic. It's implied they completed their escapes as planned, but that leaves a lot to the reader's assumptions.

The art here is credited to Rolland H. Livingstone. His name does show up a few times in early comics, but little is known about him. His illustrations are serviceable, but very stiff. I don't think there's a single character here that actually bends their back in any way. People bend over at the hips and knees, but praying, falling, sitting, getting beaten... everyone has perfect posture all the time. Additionally, the text is all typeset, which adds to the book's overall stiffness. Everything in the comic feels very static, so there's no real sense of danger or excitement when, for example, Eliza is leaping across the Ohio river on chunks of floating ice.

Further, Livingstone seems to have trouble drawing black people, sometimes inking their faces so heavily that they almost become silhouettes. The coloring is also awkward in places. Credit to the unnamed colorist for providing the various characters with a fairly wide variety of skin tones (which is, in fact, a plot point) but it's very inconsistent with individual characters' skin colors lightening and darkening throughout the book. Understandable, to a degree, given the printing technology of the time but, again, specific skin tones are a plot point so it's more noticeable when it gets garfed up.

Overall, I think this adaptation of Uncle Tom's Cabin is a reasonable, but definitely not great, one. If your sole interest is getting across the basic story and maybe suggesting a read of the original, this would probably suffice. It does suffer some of the same problems as the original, but it includes them deliberately, I think, so as to honor Stowe's work. Consequently, if you're offended by the story, you'll be offended by Classics Illustrated #15. If you can keep a sense of perspective about the contexts of both the original and this adaptation, I think you'll find that it served it's intended purpose.

Thursday, February 09, 2012

Old Characters: Do They Still Hold Value?

The question was posed on Facebook whether or not a character retains any literary weight after being written by so many different authors in so many different ways as to retain almost none of their original meaning. To my point the other day, Captain America played by Chris Evans is a far different character than the one Jack Kirby was drawing in the 1960s, who was already a far different character than the one Joe Simon created in the 1940s. Then you throw in Ultimate Captain America and Cap-Wolf and (the original) Nomad and the Heroes Reborn Captain America and the over-armored/over-pouched 1990s Cap and Captain America For President and the Captain America Hotline and Reb Brown and Captain America: The Musical and... (Am I showing off enough geek cred here?) At this point, the character of Captain America represents so many different things that the character, as a whole, is essentially meaningless.

Same thing goes for Superman, Wonder Woman, Spider-Man, Dick Tracy, the Phantom... These guys have all been around so long and re-written in so many different ways that they're primarily just ciphers for whatever any given writer wants to do with them. So, the question is: do they retain any literary value they may have once had?

I say yes. But just not in the aggregate.

Batman's a good example. Frank Miller's The Dark Knight remains one of the seminal Batman stories. Indeed, it's not hard to argue it's importance in the history of American comic books. But that's clearly a very different Batman presented there than what Bill Finger and Bob Kane created. It's a very different Batman that what Denny O'Neil and Neal Adams produced. It's a very different Batman than the one portrayed by Adam West. The gestalt Batman -- the Batman you might come up with if you mashed all the different interpretations together -- would be pretty banal, as many of the individual bits that stand out on one end of the spectrum would be canceled out by the stand-out bits from the other end.

But The Dark Knight remains a story with significant literary value. Precisely because it's an interpretation of Batman that was very well done. It does NOT match the Batmen that came before, or the Batmen that came after. But it's a valuable interpretation. And, therefore, a valuable character of literary merit.

Regardless of what happens to your favorite characters -- if they're sanitized for big budget movies or "reinterpreted" or "rebooted" or whatever -- that doesn't diminish the great works that came before. Regardless of how many Watchmen prequels we get or their relative quality, that doesn't detract from what Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons did originally. The overall brand might get diluted, but the best material does not.

Wednesday, February 08, 2012

Link Day, International Edition

  • FocusTaiwan has this piece on several Asian artists who are headed up to the Planete Manga festival in France later this month. Guy Delisle and Christophe Blain are also referenced.
  • David Whitley takes a Tintin-focused tour of Beligum for the Sydney Morning Herald.
  • Derik Badman points us to the 28th issue of the Canadian (to keep the international theme) "hybrid literary and arts" magazine Carousel, which features a number of four-panel comics by folks like Mark Laliberte, Andrei Molotiu, Ethan Rilly, Michael DeForge, and Badman himself.
  • On the U.S. front, Action Figure Insider has a look back at the first Batman action figure from Toy Biz, who held the license ever-so-briefly before DC gave it back to Kenner.

Tuesday, February 07, 2012

Boycotts & Moving On

James Sturm is boycotting the upcoming Avengers movie. Steve Bissette goes a step further and suggests boycotting anything bearing a Marvel character created or co-created by Jack. It's a little unclear to me, though, if they've got a result thier looking for: whether he wants Kirby's heirs to receive some compensation, or Jack to get a creator credit, or if nothing will satisfy them. Regardless, I'm not going to pass judgement on him.

I'd offer to do the same, but I largely stopped buying Marvel products several years ago. A boycott by me means little since I don't really give money to Marvel anyway. I've run into this before with other companies. I stopped going to BP stations years before their disastrous oil spill in 2010 (largely because their stations tended to be more expensive and decidedly inconvenient to get into and out of) and I stopped going to Chic-Fil-A because they used styrofoam containers, only finding out later their discriminatory practices against gays.

True, I did just purchase these decals a couple weeks ago, but I think my previous contribution to Marvel's coffers was when my folks took me to see the Captain America movie last summer. I did see Thor as well, but that was actually on Marvel's dime.

I'm not one to throw cold water on either Bissette or Sturm, and I'm a big fan of Jack Kirby's work (I'm a regular contributor to The Jack Kirby Collector after all) but here's my thinking...

Marvel has made a shit-ton of money off Jack's work. Jack got screwed out of a LOT of money that he (ethically) should have received. But, in the first place, both he and his wife are dead and will never see any more benefits beyond what they saw while they were still alive. In the second place, the stuff that Marvel is producing, whether you're talking comics or movies or action figures or whatever, is not what Jack created anyway.

Yeah, there's still an orange rock-guy called the Thing and a long-haired muscle dude with a big hammer and cape called Thor, but they bear little resemblance to the characters Jack created. That is why I stopped buying Marvel comics several years ago -- the characters were no longer ones that I recognized. It may have been the house that Jack built, but it had been repainted, gutted, restructured, added on to, renovated, re-sided, re-decorated, sold, re-sold, foreclosed on, sold yet again, rented out, repainted again, added on to some more, thrown through a worm hole, and repainted again to the point that it's barely recognizable as the original house. Legally, of course, Marvel has every right do all that just as I have every right to muck around with a historical home if I bought one for myself. But just as I don't want to live in a 75-year-old house that's been re-worked so often, I don't want to play in a 75-year-old playground that's been re-worked as often as it has.

See, whatever the origins of the movie, this...
... is not this...
I'm not going to boycott the Avengers movie because a boycott from me would only make sense if I gave Marvel some reasonable portion of my income in the first place. Twenty bucks in a year or more, I don't think, qualifies. Do I begrudge anyone who does opt to boycott the movie? Not at all. I hope your message gets through in fact. But I'm going to focus my energies trying to help the folks who are still with us and would personally benefit from the help: