Saturday, March 31, 2012

Shuteye Review

When I was in second grade, I unintentionally got our teacher upset with me. She was asking about some of our sleep habits -- what time we went to bed, or got up, or something -- and I said that I didn't sleep. Despite her insistence that I did, I was absolutely steadfast. I would put my pajamas on and lie in bed for a few minutes, and then get up and start getting ready for school; there was no sleeping involved.

Obviously, I was sleeping, but I earnestly didn't believe it. I have always fallen asleep VERY quickly, so I don't have any real sensation of going to sleep; I just lie down and I'm out. Secondly, I don't dream. Well, technically, I'm sure I do, but I very rarely remember my dreams at all, so I have no sense of time passing while I'm asleep. I think I've had maybe 7 or 8 dreams in my life that I had any recollection of when I woke up the next morning. When I was in second grade, I had never had an empirical evidence of my sleeping.

I've since learned a little bit about dreams, mostly via reading other people's experiences. But ideas like recurring dreams, lucid dreaming, and whatever are only concepts for me. Nothing I have a visceral understanding or appreciation of.

Enter Sarah Becan's Shuteye. The book contains six different stories of dreams and dreamers. Unlike a lot of the dream type stories I've read, though, they don't have a "and then she woke up" ending NOR do they have a "which is the dream and which is reality" take on things either. They're very clearly presented AS dreams, frequently with sometimes odd disconnects and the lack of context that (I'm told) come with dreaming.

I've been reading Becan's comics for about two years now (primarily her webcomic but also her Complete Ouija Interviews) and this is her first real long-form work that I've encountered. I'm always a little cautious approaching pieces that are, in some way, substantially different than what I've known them to do in the past. Just because someone can do a three-panel gag strip every day doesn't necessarily mean they can put together a full graphic novel. But Shuteye holds together very well, both as individual stories, but also as a complete package.

One of the things that struck me as particularly interesting is how the stories began weaving together more and more as the book progressed. Almost like dreaming itself when characters suddenly appear out of nowhere or scene shifts just randomly happen, but as your mind starts to sort out the jumble of images, it starts connecting the dots for you. Indeed, the epilogue circles back to the first story and ties them all together rather neatly.

One of the things I've also enjoyed about Becan's work generally is that you can see her and her work evolve over a comparatively short period of time. She's bold enough to try things out to see if they work or not for her, keeping the best bits and discarding the extraneous junk. You can see a bit of that in Shuteye as well. Most noticeable here are a smoothing of her drawing style and some experimentation with color/tone. Not surprisingly, the later stories most closely match what shows up in her webcomic currently.

Also of note is that these stories are comprised of dreams Becan (and her brother) actually had. So, though it might not seem it, Shuteye is every much about Becan herself as I Think You're Sauceome, despite Becan not really being a prominent character here. Though it's not bag, I'm sure there's plenty in here, too, for armchair Freudian psychologists!

I have to admit that Shuteye doesn't look like the type of book that jumps off the shelf and screams "READ ME NOW" -- that's possibly why I don't recall even seeing it when Becan funded this via Kickstarter late last year. But it's a book that, like Becan's other work, makes a quiet but noteworthy statement. Definitely a book I would've been really happy to discover in some random comic shop I wandered into.

The book is available via Shortpants Press for $20. The author provided a review copy.

Friday, March 30, 2012

80% Of Success Is Showing Up

The title of today's post comes from Woody Allen. Sort of. What he actually said in a New York Times article back in 1977 was, "Showing up is eighty percent of life." The quote's mutated a bit over the years, a combination of fuzzy memories and tweaking things to make a point. Also, what people also seem to forget is that he's a comedian, not some great sage or philosopher. There's no way to quantify life and/or success like that.

That said, the suggestion isn't entirely without merit.

This week has been crazy-busy for me. There was a new product launch that, shall we say, didn't exactly go smoothly. Nothing I could've done with it; the problems were all technical in nature, and I'm on the marketing end of things. But because I'm on the marketing end of things, that means I'm one of the folks doing a bit of scrambling trying to ensure that messaging out to our clients is both positive and informative. But what's helped my co-workers immensely -- and they've expressly said this in the past day or so -- is that I've been on-hand for whatever updates and revisions that needed to be made. Not that I just available, but I was in the office right in the midst of what was going on. Requests and confirmations and whatnot could be shouted over the cubicle walls, important meetings could happen on the spur of the moment in the hall, quick requests were literally just a few steps around the corner. Others, who were working online and over the phone, were undoubtedly contributing but the filters inherent in instant messaging, text messages, email, and even phone lines slowed communications down somewhat. I wasn't doing anything that any of a half dozen other co-workers can't do, but I was here, so I get to play more of a "hero" role.

Just because I showed up.

The same can be said for almost any profession, I think, including comic creators. If you put your comic out on the web, that's great. If you're able to garner however much audience you get via online advertising or word-of-mouth or whatever, that's even better. But how many more people will you connect with by doing signings at your local comic shops? Or getting a booth at a convention? For that matter, just going to a convention, even if you don't get a booth? I know creators who've gotten their self-published books into comic shops in large part because they walked in the front door and said to the owner, "Hey, would you like to sell my comics?"

Now, granted, you've got to actually DO something once you show up. You can't just stand there and expect to have accolades heaped upon you. You've got to talk and respond to people, you've got to have/do something worth remembering, you've got to have "the right stuff" (whatever that ephemeral phrase means). Being in the right place at the right time is certainly advantageous, but KNOWING that you're in the right place at the right time AND seizing upon that opportunity is critical as well.

But you can't be in the right place at the right time if you never show up in the first place.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Half-Asleep Mash-ups

I've been up since 3:30 this morning, and am totally brain-dead. Mash-ups are the order of the day. Text from today's Garfield, art from today's...
That Deaf Guy

Legend of Bill

Lots of extraneous hand gestures in That Deaf Guy which don't make much sense, but Legend of Bill winds up being quite amusing, I think, today. Or else I'm just really tired.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

End Of The Month Links


Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Morning Serial: Artist Panel

A couple weeks ago, I wrote a piece for MTV about an upcoming exhibition of webcomics out in Seattle. Then I blinked and the big panel discussion is only a couple days away! The panel features Dylan Meconis, Aaron Diaz, Evan Dahm, Spike Trotman, Erika Moen and Emily Ivie talking about their work -- some of which now hangs in the University of Washington's Henry Art Gallery.

Now, I know what you're thinking. You're thinking, "Wow, that sounds really cool, Sean! But isn't that, like, out in Seattle? I can't get out to Seattle on a Thursday!"

Well, let me entice you with this, too. This weekend, in the very same city, is the Emerald City Comicon. C'mon, have you seen the guest list for that show? Not to mention a really good-looking programming line-up.

No, huh? I get it. I'm stuck here in Ohio myself. Fortunately for us, we live in the future! You can still submit a question to the folks on the webcomics panel via this handy online form. Not quite the full-on participation of being there in person, but you can still be a part of the conversation.

Granted, this isn't exactly cutting-edge technology at work, but I think that's one of the things that intrigues me about this. The technology behind this exhibit is, in actuality, fairly low-tech by web standards. It was put together by someone who's studied history and museum curation, not design or web development. This is not only a celebration of webcomics as a unique medium apart from comics, but also a showcase of the pervasive nature of the webcomic culture. It's NOT some high-end, fringe group of people we're talking about; it's artists using the technology that's just readily available.

The name of the exhibit suggests that reading webcomics at the breakfast table is now as commonplace as reading newspaper strips used to be. And I suspect that the occasional splash of milk will wipe off your tablet more easily than a piece of newsprint.

The panel will be on Thursday, March 29th at the Henry Art Gallery. It runs from 7:00 pm until 8:30 pm and costs $5 for general admission (free for students). You can RSVP and submit questions here.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Biographic Comics VS Autobiographic Comics

Yesterday's post got me thinking. I've read a number of autobiographical comics over the years. Everyone from Robert Crumb to Frank Page. And I've read a number of biographical comics over the years. Everyone from the Dalai Lama to Matthew Henson.

And it occurs to me that the autobigraphical ones are, on the whole, far superior to the merely biographical ones.

The most recent comic biography I read was of Leon Trotsky. The one by Rick Geary. You know, Rick Geary? Guy won an Inkpot Award and the NCA's Book and Magazine Illustration Award. Had his work show up National Lampoon, Mad, Rolling Stone, The Los Angeles Times... He's proved that he's talented many times over. But his Trotsky biography? Well, I was very disappointed.

The illustrations were fine, and it did a fine job of overviewing Trotsky's whole life. But it was dry and pretty unengaging. Part of the reason for that was that the story was told almost exclusively through captions. There was very little dialogue at all -- it's been a few weeks now since I read it, but I want to say there were less than a dozen dialogue balloons in the 100-some pages. I had difficulty relating to any of the characters because they were presented in a very flat way; I could have just read an encyclopedia entry. There was no sense of personal connection or dynamism or any real emotion whatsoever. I found similar issues with Spain Rodriguez's biography of Che Guevara. Che Guevara, for Pete's sake! The dude led a frickin' armed revolution in Cuba and overthrew the government! There's no reason that should be a dull story! If I can't relate to the guy, there should be plenty of guns and explosions and death to at least make things superficially interesting.

On the other hand, even autobiographies that I don't particularly care for generate an emotional reaction. I felt the second book of Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis was painfully ego-centric and self-indulgent, and got me to severely dislike the character I liked in the first book. But it still provided an emotional connection.

I suspect that much of the issue is that autobiographies are an inherently personal project, so creators invest much of themselves in it. Even the stories that start to go far afield from creator's actual life have an emotional truth that resonates about them. Biographic comics, by contrast, often are told with a distinct emotional reserve with an emphasis on getting the facts right. I suspect that's what happened with the Trotsky and Guevara pieces -- the authors were so concerned about depicting the characters accurately, they refused to put words into their subjects' mouths unless there was a record of something actually being said.

I suppose creators feel more able to tweak their own stories a bit for narrative purposes because, after all, it's their own story. Whereas tweaking someone else's story is less acceptable because the creators don't "own" it in the same way. I don't know that comics are necessarily the best medium to convey the facts of someone's life. If nothing else, it would be difficult at best to have a precise record of every significant or noteworthy moment for the comic creator to draw upon. But that's not to say that the truth of someone's life couldn't be readily conveyed through comics. I'll cite that book on the Dalai Lama as an example; there was almost certainly no record of the actual conversations that took place when he was initially found, but author Tetsu Saiwai relayed an engaging scene of it by getting to the emotions of that event, even if the specifics were lost to memory.

I still plan to keep my eye out for both biographies and autobiographies in comic form. Even the poorly executed biographies teach me something. But I think it'd serve creators of comic biographies well to take a few liberties with their subjects for the sake of making an impressionable and engaging story.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Autobio Comics ≠ Reality

Shortly after I first began collecting comics with any serious interest, Marvel published Fantastic Four #262 featuring "The Trial of Reed Richards." Part of the story included Uatu snatching up writer/artist John Byrne to record the trial as the chronicler of the FF's adventures. It was the first time I had seen a creator actually IN the story they were creating. I later learned this was a shtick that went back decades but, at the time, it was new to me.

However, I never for one second thought that Byrne had actually been spirited away to another part of the universe by a giant-headed, bald alien. It was clearly presented as fiction and Byrne injecting himself into the story was just a clever way to give the story a better sense of being grounded.

I recall a bit of a flap occurring many years ago when it was discovered that Funky Winkerbean cartoonist Tom Batiuk did not in fact carve watermelons instead of pumpkins for Halloween, despite his introducing the idea in his comic strip. I thought it was a rather silly thing to get upset about because, again, the comic strip was clearly presented as fiction and Batiuk didn't even appear as a character in it. It was like getting upset that Johnny Hart didn't go rolling around on a giant stone wheel.

But what about comics that aren't presented as fiction? Or at least not entirely. What about the ones that are largely autobiographic? Diary comics or slice of life strips that are drawn from the creator's experiences.

I saw someone post a note in Facebook recently recognizing the anniversary of their first meeting their significant other. I've been following his strip now for several years, and have become friends with him, so I naturally gave him a hearty congratulations. But I did some quick math in my head and realized the anniversary he cited was two years before he introduced her into the comic strip as a complete stranger, not even having a name for the several strips she was in.

Needless to say, he had taken some artistic license somewhere in there!

So I asked him about it. (One of the benefits of being friends with a cartoonist is that you can pointedly ask them what the hell they were trying to do with their comics.) It turns out that he first met her while he was in a relationship with someone else, and they didn't actually become close until a couple years later. So she was a little too far afield to really include in his comic at the outset, but obviously became much more important later on. Which meant that he had to introduce her as a character in a way that would make sense for his readers, despite her being in his life in some fashion for quite some time prior.

The problem boils down to this: life frequently does not follow a nice and simple narrative. Comics, by their nature, are an abstraction of life and necessarily need to have portions filtered out. But hindsight is 20/20 and we don't always know or recognize which bits are important and which bits can justifiably fall to the cutting room floor until sometimes years after the fact.

If the auto-biographic cartoonist is any good, they will still infuse their work with compassion and sincerity, and the basic truth of their life will be evident. However, the specifics of events that are depicted may not conform 100% with the reality that took place. There may well have been changes for any of a variety of reasons, from a simple mis-remembering of events to a deliberate change to make the story flow better.

It's a somewhat difficult thing to keep in mind, especially when a creator is laying out their most intimate moments on the page or screen for you. But while you may think you know Craig Thompson or Marjane Satrapi or Jennie Breeden or Dustin Harbin or whomever, odds are that you don't know everything and they've lived lives much larger and richer than what you've seen in their work.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Lessons From Jack Kirby

Jack Kirby had an undeniably large impact on comics. Much of Marvel's success is directly attributable to him, and he had more than a little impact on DC. Not to mention all the other publishers and creators who he inspired.

A lot of people, though, look at Kirby's work and try to emulate it in some direct way. Some are more obvious than others, but they try to take notes from his layouts or his sense of storytelling or his energy or what-have-you.

I recall hearing a story about a kid (a teenager, I think) who met Kirby at a convention sometime in the 1980s. They praised his work and said they tried to learn as much as they could from it. And then he asked Kirby what he thought was the most important aspect of his work to study and emulate. Should he be focusing on character designs or illustration style or what? Kirby answered that the ONLY thing he hoped anyone would take away from his stories as inspiration was the notion of doing your own thing. Don't copy what he was doing, but go out and do something new and different. What Kirby thought was most important was the ideas being put down, not the particulars of how they were executed.

That's one reason why he didn't care much who inked his work. Almost regardless of who it was inking over him, they would have to go far out of their way to really butcher things so badly that the ideas he was trying to get across became unclear. Kirby had no problems with Vinnie Colletta's inks because Colletta still let Kirby's story come through, even if he did erase figures and take sweeping shortcuts. Colletta was just doing his job under the pressure of deadlines, and it wasn't at the expense of the ideas Kirby laid down.

I try to look at my blog in much the same way. For the most part, I don't follow the broad discussions about comics online. Many of the topics du jour pass by unheeded. I didn't have anything meaningful to add to the discussion about Jean Giraud immediately following his death, so I wrote a review about an Alan Moore documentary. Many of the reviews I wind up doing here are for books that don't get much attention. Because what I learned from Kirby was that you need to go out to do your own thing, irrespective of what other people think. If you do it well and do it with integrity, you'll be rewarded. Perhaps not financially, but intellectually and emotionally. If that's not satisfactory for you, that's fine, too, but I'll not be joining you in seeing yet another relaunch of the Spider-Man property.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

What To Do With $1,000,000

When I was in my late 20s, I was hired on at a very large financial company. Large enough that they brought on 25-50 new employees almost every month at that location. So one thing they did to streamline their hiring process was have all the new hires for that month start on the same day. They would all be brought in to one room, and spend most, if not all, of the day going through all the basic new hire stuff. An HR person walked through all the general company rules and benefits and such, we filled out all our paperwork, they gave us pages of reference material on where the best parking was and what restaurants were in the area. All pretty typical first day processes. One HR person could get all of that repetitive stuff out of the way for the month in a single day.

One thing they did when we first got there was have everybody go around the room to introduce themselves. You had to say your name, what department you were going to be working for, and what you would do with a million dollars if you suddenly came into that amount of money tax free. It was clearly an ice-breaker type of question, and used to help people loosen up a bit from the stress of starting a new job. So one by one, people would recite their answers. The last question solicited mostly the types of responses you'd expect: one person wanted to travel, another would buy a Ferrari, another would buy a new house, another wanted to go to Las Vegas... People started repeating each other around then. My turn finally came up...

"Pay bills."

That was the entirety of my answer. Not that I had a million dollars' worth of bills, of course, but that was the first time I'd ever given any consideration to the "what would you do with a million dollars" question. No one had ever expressly asked the question of me before, and the notion that I would suddenly come into such a large pile of money was such a remote fantasy that you might as well ask, "Which solar system would you visit if you had to take a vacation outside the Milky Way?" It's just not going to happen, so why bother putting any time into thinking about it?

Since then, though, I have given the question some thought, largely because I was struck by how A) the question was considered common enough to be used in a situation like that, and B) that everyone did indeed have a ready answer. Why was that something I'd never thought about, and what did that say about me?

I spent about five years noodling the question off and on. I noticed that even my "extreme" fantasy scenarios usually revolved around still-fairly-practical uses, like automating house functions or installing solar panels.

The question really isn't about the money, per se. It's a means to examine your self-indulgent priorities. What's important to you if money is not a concern? I concluded that I was more interested focusing myself inward and being able to avoid dealing with the outside world (by becoming essentially more self-sufficient while not eating into my free time).

For some reason, the question popped into my head again within the past few months. And I find my answers today are quite different. First would be to hire a writer and artist to develop a comic (web and/or print) based on my old Propaganda of the Deed idea. I tried starting to write it at one point, but I'm just not very good at fiction, so I'd make sure to hire someone who could do something cool based on my broad outline. The other idea I had was to create a good-sized city playset for my 6" action figures. Something more cohesive than what I had kit-bashed together, and with some more detail and levels to work with. Built up off the ground, and maybe with a sewer system underneath and some kind of harbor set-up.

And you know what both of those things have in common? Paying individuals. The money would not go to some faceless corporation, but a handful of people who work freelance doing something they (hopefully) love doing. The work would not go quickly, I'm sure, so it could conceivably be their income for months, if not a year or longer.

What do you know? I think I've grown, just by thinking about a completely impractical question!

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Wednesday Links For Spring!

  • The official largest gathering of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles took place on St. Patrick's Day in the Mall of America. The Guinness people were on hand to make it official. That is, the World Record people, not the beer people. Though I expect, being St. Patrick's Day, there was some of the latter involved at some point.
  • The Internet Archive has recently digitized and posted online a large collection of public domain stock footage and short subjects in HD. Of possible interest to comics fans is the animated Globe Trotters from 1926 featuring Bud Fisher's Mutt & Jeff.
  • Here's a nice, but admittedly late, tribute to 1960s "Big Name Fan" Bill Dubay. It includes some good quality scans of his Fantasy Hero #4.
  • Comic Book Bin has a couple features on Malaysian comics. Specifically, they're looking at Lawak Shabu Shabu – Semanis Madu and Kampung Boy.
  • The debut issue of The Drawn Word is now available via Graphicly for a mere dollar. Featured in the issue are "a spotlight on Brian Wood... as he reveals the next stage of his dynamic writing career, a spotlight on artist Bill Sienkiewicz, and catching up with cartoonist John Kerschbaum and writer Kelly Sue DeConnick!"

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Gallagher VS Gately

George Gately created Heathcliff in 1973, after nearly 15 years of cartooning. The character became popular enough to warrant two animated cartoon shows (in 1980 and 1984) and a respectable 56-issue run of comic books from Marvel in the late 1980s. Gately eventually died in 2001 at age 73, but his nephew Peter Gallagher had already taken over the strip in 1998.

As a kid, I rather liked Heathcliff. He always carried himself with a high degree of confidence and didn't concern himself with what anyone else thought. True, he tended to be very self-centered and ego-centric, but a child's world-view isn't all that different really.

I stopped reading the strip when I left for college, primarily because I didn't buy daily newspapers like my parents did. I only started reading again a few years ago when I began looking at online comics in earnest, and saw that most syndicated newspaper strips were also available. It's certainly not a strip that's high on my list of funniest comics these days. Like many newspaper strips, it feels a bit tired with a lot of recycled ideas.

But it dawned on me recently, too, that Gallagher's art isn't all that good either. I mean, it looks like Heathcliff, but there doesn't seem to be as much skill in it as Gately had. Here's a handful of recent strips...

The backgrounds look very flat; there's little or no sense of depth shown. Lines just sort of fade out and don't connect with one another, so characters look like they're floating legless sometimes. There's also very little change in line weights; there's a thin line and a slightly thicker line, but there's no variation in the strokes.

I looked at these and thought, "Gately didn't draw like this, did he?" So I dug up some old Gately-drawn strips for comparison...
I was surprised to see that Gately didn't alter his line weights much either, and he also left backgrounds somewhat half-drawn and disconnected. In fact, in the examples I found, he uses fewer spotted blacks as well.

But Gately's work still looks better!

I've been staring at these a while now, and I think the main difference is in the compositions themselves. In Gallagher's strips, all of the individual elements have a similar visual weight to them. Despite the greater use of spotted blacks, the layouts present all of the characters on the same visual plane, taking up about the same amount of space. That first strip is a prime example -- the Capitol, the stork and Iggy/Heathcliff all seem to be of equal importance and there's nothing to really give a sense of perspective or scale. The Capitol could be quite a ways off, but we don't see any other figures for reference. Compare that to Gately's zoo cartoon above, in which the flamingo is so close in the foreground that it stretches right out of the panel and the zookeepers in the background are shown further away in perspective, relative to Heathcliff.

Notice, too, that Gallagher always keeps the same type of medium shot with his layout. All the figures are fully visible; Heathcliff is always pretty much the same size in every strip. Gately, by contrast, shows a wider variety of shots from strip to strip. Even all the medium shots are slightly different in size/ratio.

What's interesting here is that we're looking at a now-legacy strip in which the successor actually does a good job replicating the tone of the original, as well as copying the look of all the figures very well. But there's still a noticeable difference between Gallagher and Gately, with Gately seemingly the better all-around artist as evidenced by his superior compositions.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Time For Frank & His Friend Review

A little while back, I reviewed Finding Frank and His Friend, which reprints a recently discovered cache of previously unpublished Frank and His Friend comics. It was a wonderful book devoted to Clarence 'Otis' Dooley's most famous creation and was nominated for an Eisner.

Of course, everything about the book except for that Eisner nomination is a complete fabrication. Dooley never existed, nor did Frank and His Friend. The whole book was an exploration of nostalgia by showcasing a fine example of it objectively. And the only way you could be objective about nostalgia is to look at something that never existed and you couldn't possibly have nostalgia for. Brilliant work, I thought, and exceptionally well executed.

Now comes Time for Frank & His Friend. Although it was the fourth book of Frank and His Friend comics, this was the first that contained all new material, the previous books simply reprinting his newspaper strip. Curio & Co found a stash of "deadstock" copies and are now selling them alongside Finding Frank.

But, again, Dooley never existed.

I was really curious to see this new book. A collection showcasing "lost" comics is one thing, but a full collection of original comics is another. You've essentially got to create a whole new strip, keeping in mind the technical limitations, social mores and overall conventions of the time you're trying to replicate. In this case, the late 1970s. Plus, if the "lost" material wasn't funny or didn't really work as a comic, you could always claim that's why it was discarded. This material would have to hold up as something that could have been legitimately published and accepted by the 1979 reading public.

In 1979, I was seven years old. We didn't have air conditioning, so on particularly hot summer days, I would go down into the basement and read. My mom's parents had given us an old couch of theirs at one point, and that was downstairs next to a bookcase Dad had built into the wall. Most of the books on those shelves were older; stuff he and/or Mom had gotten when they were in high school and college. Among the books were a dozen or two paperback collections of comics. Some reprint material, some new. Some newspaper strips, some unrelated to anything else. Some juvenile, some mature. Pogo, Peanuts, Andy Capp, Addams Family, Spy vs Spy, Captain Klutz... They were all at least ten years old by the time I got to them. Cracked spines, dog-eared pages, thumb prints. I think a couple of them had their covers taped back on. But I read them. Repeatedly. Some were funnier than others. Some were funnier a few years later when I started to understand the humor better. But I spent many an hour reading on that couch.

The couch is long gone now. I suspect most of the books are, too. But I sat on my own couch tonight with a copy of Time for Frank & His Friend and became seven years old again. The book physically captures the essence of those old paperbacks. From the size and shape, to the design, to that red color on the paper's edges. (Why was that ever done in the first place?) The only thing that didn't feel authentic about it was that it was new and hadn't been read a thousand times over the past ten years. They really put a LOT of attention to the details on this book and it really shows.

The content also "felt" right. It's not a strip I would read on its own merits today in the 21st century, but it does read very much like a comic I (and much of America) would have followed in the late 1970s. Especially some of the recurring character bits, like a particularly strong aversion to broccoli and a love/hate relationship with the idea of monsters. It's not funny in the same way Calvin & Hobbes was, but it's clearly not meant to be either.

I think the Curio & Co crew did a fine job putting this together, and it works as a great companion piece to Finding Frank. Between these and the material for the Spaceman Jax animated cartoon (just as fictitious) they're creating a fascinating world very close to, but distinctly apart from, our own. "Instant memorabilia" is the phrase they used at one point; it'll be interesting to see what other ephemera they find. Old maps from an amusement park? A high school yearbook from the school that produced several minor celebrities thanks to a talented art teacher? The diary of Charles Schulz's long-lost, orphaned brother? The legal procedural documents that helped launch a lawsuit against the post office for copyright infringement? If they put as much care and attention to whatever it is as they have with with Finding Frank and now Tim for Frank, I'm sure it would make for a fascinating broader perspective on the world once inhabited by Otis Dooley.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Pamphlets: The Red Meat Of Comics

You may have seen some news recently about red meat having a significantly higher risk of dying. While the specifics of the study are new, there have been a variety of negative health associations with red meat that have been made over the years. I actually cut red meat out of my diet entirely about a month ago before the latest round of reports. But that decision came after a two or three years of largely choosing chicken and fish over red meats anyway. My decision to make an abrupt cut with red meat was made, in part, because I realized that I really wasn't eating that much any more anyway. Maybe one hamburger every other month, an occasional burrito from Chipotle, and pepperoni on my pizza. So when I put a definitive break on red meat, it was really just a small adjustment, not a large one.

Right now, I'm working on cutting back on caffeine. I've never been a big fan of coffee, but I could easily down 5-6 Mountain Dews every day. I tried quitting cold turkey once about 6-8 years ago, but I had several days of massive migraines and really had difficulty thinking clearly. My plan this time is to slowly reduce my caffeine intake over time, and then cutting out corn syrup laden beverages altogether after that. That initial ripping-off-the-Band-Aid approach I tried didn't work because it wasn't just about the initial pain of withdrawal, but that I was trying to force a dramatic behavioral change on myself. I didn't always drink several Dews a day -- that was something I learned over time in college. A soda with lunch or dinner became a couple. Which became another soda when I was trying to stay up late to finish a project. Which became yet another soda when I was trying to wake myself back up after spending all night working on a project and only got a couple hours sleep and now needed to get to class. Which eventually became a soda every time I was thirsty.

Much of what we do is learned behavior. Breathing, keeping our hearts beating, blinking... those are automatic behaviors that we're born doing naturally. But talking, walking, chewing, typing... just about anything that involves movement, really... that is all learned. And many of those things we learn so well that we do them almost without thinking. The ability to lean forward slightly from a standing position, swing your leg out to catch yourself from falling over, and doing it over and over and over again so that you can move forward... adjusting your balance with a constantly shifting center of gravity... navigating around obstacles without missing a beat... The "simple" process of walking involves a mind-bogglingly complex set of spur-of-the-moment computations that you don't even realize you're making. You barely need to think, "I want to walk over there" and your body is already in motion as you weave your way through a crowd while balancing four drinks.

That's one reason why it's often difficult for people to learn how to walk again after a debilitating accident: they had learned how to walk so long ago, and it had become so ingrained in themselves, that they haven't had to consciously think about how to walk for decades.

Buying comics is a learned behavior, too. You didn't always buy comics. Maybe you only bought one every now and again. Later that became one a month. That maybe spread out to two or three. Then six. Before long, you're getting 20-30 books every week! Trying to go from that to digital comics or webcomics or none at all is a huge behavioral change. Like cutting out red meat out of a typically American diet.

But like cutting out red meat, it can be done reasonably painlessly if you ramp down your behavior. Trying to cut comics cold turkey is not the way to go because it's more about the act of going to the shop on a regular basis than the actual purchases themselves. (At least as far as the actual behavior is concerned.) I've had to drop my pamphlet comic purchases entirely on a few occasions (all financially related) and I don't mind telling you that it was dreadfully painful each time.

"But why would you want to drop comics in the first place?"

I'm not suggesting that you do. But there are certainly times when it has to be done. As I noted, I've had to do it for financial reasons in the past; I'm sure others have as well. But perhaps you're no longer getting enough entertainment out of superhero comics and your local shop does a miserable job of bringing in other types of books. (J. Caleb Mozzocco expressed frustration at exactly this earlier this week!) Maybe you've seen too much of the sausage factory, and need to step away for a while. Maybe it's getting too costly and you want to switch over to webcomics because they're decidedly cheaper.

Whatever the reason, I'm just saying that you're better off making a gradual transition than an abrupt one. It really isn't like ripping off a Band Aid because you're really trying to change something that you've spent years, if not decades, learning. You're not trying to just unlearn a behavior, you're trying to learn a new replacement behavior as well. And that's not something that comes quickly or easily.

Besides, those webcomics and digital comics you're switching to will still be there! ;)

Friday, March 16, 2012

Looking Across The Planet

The book cover I'm showing here is from what, I believe, is generally considered the premier history of Australian comics. It's been out of print for a several years, so it wouldn't be surprising if you haven't seen it. Also, it's about Australian comics, so you probably wouldn't have heard about it at all if you live in the United States. (For the record, author John Ryan is a different John Ryan than the British cartoonist that created Captain Pugwash.)

It strikes me as a bit curious that here in the 21st century, where we have the internet at our fingertips and nearly instantaneous worldwide communications, we still collectively focus on where we were born. I think comic folks generally recognize that comics are being made around the world, but I daresay that even most comic fans would be hard pressed to name any outside a select list. Manga has certainly gained some traction in the past couple of decades, but there's scarcely even acknowledgement of any work coming out of anywhere else. How many of the tributes to Mobius in the past week focused on the work he did for American companies? I actually made a point of not talking about him precisely because I'm really only familiar with his Marvel work, which I understand is decidedly NOT what he should be remembered for. (And that's a total fail on my part. I really should track down Blueberry or Airtight Garage or something at least.)

Now, to be fair, there are difficulties in getting foreign comics into the U.S. (or getting U.S. comics into other countries). In some cases, there's a translation issue that needs to be addressed. An Italian-language comic wouldn't sell very well here simply because there's not a large enough Italian-speaking customer base here. The technology isn't quite to the point where you could run an entire comic through some computerized translation program and get a readable comic, so you do need to hire people to individually translate and then re-letter books. There's also intellectual property rights issues that need to be addressed. One of the most well-known in the U.S. is the whole Marvelman/Miracleman thing that's effectively prevented any good reprint programs.

But it's not impossible, by any means. Much of the material in the original Heavy Metal was European, and NBM has been one of the primary (if not quite sole) sources of Euro-comics in the U.S. That manga (and, to a lesser extent, manhwa) is a widely dispersed here as it is shows that it's certainly possible, as long as a publisher wants to put some resources behind it.

Info on Euro-comics, though? What do we have here? Pretty much just Tom Spurgeon, I think. Comic Book Bin has done a series on comics from Thailand, which is most welcome, but I gather that it's largely based on a recent trip Hervé St-Louis took there, suggesting it won't be an ongoing feature. I've come across enough articles in Indian newspapers to understand there's a good-sized comic scene going on over there, but what do you hear about it in American-based outlets? What about Australian comics? They're in English and you don't even hear anything about them here in the States? The most we tend to hear about any foreign comics info is when it's someone like Alan Moore, who's fighting with American comics publishers.

I do what I can from my small seat in this cultural insular corner of Ohio. I try to use my Wednesday links posts to throw at least one international piece out there regularly (admittedly, I'm frequently unsuccessful on that front); I designed my upcoming column in Drawn Word (the first issue should be on sale next week!) to focus on European creators; I try to talk about cool international comics info when I find it. But that's certainly not much, and it's largely limited to what I can find in English.

There's absolutely some fantastic comics created here in the U.S. but we by no means have a monopoly on fantastic comics. Keep your eyes and ears open, and you might find some work you really enjoy that's really outside your normal circles.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Featured Wednesday Links

  • J. J. Sedelmaier stumbled across a rare 1942 Superman novel by George Lowther with chapter illustrations by Joe Shuster. Some of the other art, though, is clearly not Shuster's and goes uncredited. (h/t Robert Beerbohm)
  • In, I think, a new twist on outside media being late to the game in comics, The CSU Signal asks Do deaths in comic books mean anything? The money quote that proves they haven't done any real research: "For a long time, many in the industry lived by the motto that 'dead means dead'..."
  • Profiles in History will be auctioning off a great number of items from the Captain America movie, and a few pieces from the Iron Man and Thor movies as well. The auction will be on April 14 and several key items are expected to get into the five figure range.
  • Tom Heintjes points out, via Twitter, that on this day in 1969, Snoopy landed on the moon. Several months before Neil Armstrong got so many accolades for doing the same.

Happy Ellis Day!

Steve Ellis celebrates a birthday today! Give him a present and pledge to The Only Living Boy, his current Kickstarter project.

(I understand that this picture I've included will not be in The Only Living Boy nor is it a self-portrait. I can't confirm either of those allegations though. I just know that Steve drew it.)

Happy Pi Day!

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Why Cross-Overs Don't Work

Earlier today, Dynamite Entertainment sent out a press release about an upcoming comic called Prophecy, featuring a host of characters from different genres and IP owners. Vampirella, Red Sonja, Kulan Gath, Dracula, Eva, Herbert West The Reanimator, Alan Quatermain, Athena, Dorian Gray, Purgatory and Pantha were among those named. The problem, though, is that it won't work. Not that I doubt Ron Marz or his ability as a writer, but there's too many pieces that inherently don't work together.

The last cross-property team-up that I read was JLA/99, written by Stuart Moore and Fabian Nicieza. The basic plot is that Rughal (the main villain from The 99) teams up with Starro (the first villain from Justice League) to destroy the world and it's up to the JLA and the 99 to stop them. The story itself isn't bad and in fact holds together pretty well, considering how many characters are being juggled.

But the story doesn't really work at a more conceptual level. The world which is inhabited by Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman is a different world than the one inhabited by Noora, Jabbar and Hadya. They're both based off the real Earth, of course, but take off in slightly different directions. Super powers exist in both worlds, but people react to them very differently. In JLA/the 99, the heroes are all dropped into the same world with no explanation, but it's the DC world they're in and the 99 feel out of place. The unwritten "rules" that govern the powers and actions of the League aren't the same as those that govern the 99.

Kurt Busiek took note of this problem in the JLA/Avengers crossover from a few years back. He smartly did a couple of different things to get it to work. First, he maintained two distinct and separate worlds. The Avengers were very clearly tied to the Marvel universe and the JLA was very clearly tied to the DC universe. When characters crossed over, they noted some of the differences. Secondly, once he needed everybody in the same place, he had the worlds merge into a deliberate hybrid but, third, he eliminated any references to what that merged world looked like, keeping the focus almost squarely on the main characters until the threat was over and the realities returned to normal.

Alan Moore took a different approach with The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen by entirely redefining all of the characters. The Allan Quatermain in LoEG is a very different one from King Solomon's Mines. The same holds true for Mina Harker, Captain Nemo, Henry Jekyll, etc. None of them bear anything but the faintest resemblance to their originals. Although ostensibly a pulp novel cross-over of sorts, Moore really created more new and original characters here than in Watchmen.

It's not impossible to make a cross-over work, as the last two examples I pulled out demonstrate. But simply dropping the characters into the same space won't work. Either the characters themselves need to be changed to better mesh with one another's worlds, or the world the characters inhabit has to be markedly different than their original homes.

Granted, it can be kind of fun/amusing to imagine Captain Kirk trying to phaser his way past Darth Vader. But if you try to start building a story around that, it falls apart quickly. How does the Federation exist alongside the Empire? Even if you assume they're just from star systems that are very far apart, can you imagine the Federation not getting immediately infiltrated by Palpatine's henchmen? Wouldn't the replicator technology effectively eradicate the poverty on Tatooine almost overnight? This is the type of stuff I'm talking about when I say the worlds don't work together.

And Dynamite wants to put Vampirella, Red Sonja, Athena and Dorian Gray in the same book? You can say I've got a limited imagination, but I can't see a way that works well, even given the limited information we have on it so far. Marz may well have fun working on it, and there will probably be some good individual scenes, but a whole story? Don't think so.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Lingering Questions

I was just scanning through some old posts, seeing if I could spark some ideas for tonight when I came across this post from about two years ago. I posed four questions about some old video footage, and am no closer to the answers now as I was then. So I thought I'd try posing the questions again in the hopes that someone might be able help me out...
I've been looking, off and on, for some video footage I know is out there somewhere, but I can't seem to track down actual copies of. So I'd like to put the word out there to see if anybody might be able to help point me to where I might find copies of these (preferably online).

The 1954 Senate Hearings on Juvenile Delinquency
Part of the big comic book scare that spread throughout the United States back in the '50s came about, in part, because these infamous Senate hearings were televised. The U.S. public got to see Bill Gaines himself presenting his uncomfortable rebuttals to accusations against his graphic comic covers. I've seen snippets in various documentaries over the years, but my understanding is that these were originally televised pretty much in their entirety. Anyone know where I can see them?

Jackie Ormes on Kukla, Fran and Ollie

I recently discovered that Ormes made an appearance on the children's puppet show that ran between 1947 and 1957. Ormes was an active cartoonist for just about that entire time and theoretically could have appeared at any point. I suspect her appearance, though, had more to do with her Patty-Jo doll than her cartooning and that was produced from 1947 until 1949. That's pretty much all I know about the appearance though. Has anyone seen this, or know anything more about it?

Jack Kirby's Popeye cartoons

I believe all of the old Fleischer Studio Popeye cartoons have been floating around for a while, but I'm curious if anyone knows which ones specifically Kirby may have worked on. I believe he was only there for a brief period in 1939, but the studio released seven entirely new cartoons then and another in Janaury 1940, which was probably in production the previous year. (1939's Customers Wanted was made by editing two previous cartoons together, so it's unlikely that any additional animation was needed for that particular one.) Given the specific release dates, it seems likely to me that multiple cartoons were in production simultaneously, making the chances of working on all of the pieces small. But then again, Kirby was just an in-betweener and might've worked on short pieces throughout all of them.

Stan Lee's cameo in Nick Fury: Agent of SHIELD
David Hasselhoff appeared as the title character in this 1998 made-for-TV movie. My understanding is that Lee was used as a SHIELD agent for a cameo; however, that particular scene was cut from the final film. I saw the movie when it first aired, and I believe it was released on DVD a couple years ago. But I'd just like to see that scene with Lee. Was that included on the DVD as an extra or anything?

Thanks for any information/assistance you might be able to provide.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Social Change Via Comics

The notion that comics can have an impact on our culture is hardly new. Sadie Hawkins Day was introduced in Al Capp's Li'l Abner back in 1937. Bert the Turtle taught kids how to "duck and cover" in the 1950s. Jack Chick has been converting heathens to his particular brand of Christianity via Chick Publications since 1970. And comic fans are still painfully aware of news headlines that continue to harken back to decades-old Batman adventures.

Comics are, of course, an art form and act as both reflector and commentary on the culture in which it is produced. Comics of any given era look like comics of their time precisely because they are. Even the most forward-thinking, progressive creators have to use the aesthetics and language and technology that's available to them at the time in order to get their message across to readers. Watchmen, while still lauded as a great comic, is very rooted in the mid-1980s environment in which it was created.

Similarly, the culture we're in right can be seen in the comics that are being produced. I predicted a general tonal shift back in 2008 and I don't think I was that far off the mark. The comics of a few years prior to that felt different, I think, than the comics we're seeing today.

One change I'm always for (and there always seems to be far too little of it) is tolerance for others' views. I finally got a chance to read Craig Thompson's Habibi today, and there's a lot in there about respecting others regardless of their social status or background. Well, there's actually a lot in there about NOT respecting others because of their social status and background, but it's depicted as wrong and that you should avoid any people who behave that way. In fact, the only characters in the book who go on to a lead happy, contented lives are the ones who are more open and accepting of others.

A subset of that tolerance issue that's circulating these days is marriage equality. It's shown up in editorial comics and some webcomics, but it has quite gotten enough momentum to make a big statement in print comics, I don't think. One book, though, that is trying to say something is Little Heart, an anthology being funded through Kickstarter that I only just learned about...
With this book, our desire is to help get people talking about marriage equality. Little Heart was not created with the idea to shove any ideology down your throat. Instead, it was created to illustrate that relationships and love should be left to individuals to discover on their own. Our hope is that, this is exactly what this book will allow us to show.

Should we raise enough funds for this project to be a success, a portion of the proceeds from sales of the comic will go towards the non-profit [MN]Love -- allowing them to keep fighting for marriage equality, tolerance, and love.
The book is very close to the end of its pledge drive and needs a little more help to make it the rest of the way. I've backed several Kickstarter projects before because I thought they sounded cool or looked neat, but this is the first one I've seen that really is trying to make a difference. The radically socially conservative agenda that's being hammered through any number of venues (especially in my neck of the woods) these days is, to me, frightening to say the least and I'd like to support anyone who promotes the notion of "live and let live".

There's just a few days left on their Kickstarter campaign. I'm sure they'd appreciate any support you might provide.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

The Mindscape Of Alan Moore Review

The Mindscape of Alan Moore is a 2003 documentary about, no surprise, Alan Moore. It's now available to watch for free on Hulu.

Honestly, though, called it a documentary is a bit of a misnomer. The one hour and seventeen minute movie is basically just Moore talking about himself. Not in an ego-centric way, really; he's clearly being prompted with specific questions, but we never hear anyone besides Moore. So we heard a bit about his childhood (though, curiously, absolutely no mention of his parents -- he spends more time talking about his school's headmaster than he does about his family in even a general sense), his struggle trying to find a livelihood, an overview of his comics work and, finally, his philosophies on writing/magic. The visuals shown are generally either a relatively close-up shot of Moore speaking, or a combination of art from comics he's written and impressionistic shots vaguely related to whatever Moore was speaking about. There are also a few brief live-action recreations of John Constantine, Rorschach and V. (Note that this was prior to the Constantine, V for Vendetta or Watchmen movies.)

The timing is somewhat noteworthy. Though the film came out in 2003, it was (obviously) filmed prior to that. Which means that Moore distinctly does NOT speak to his dealings with Hollywood, as this occurs before any of his works really made it to the screen. He makes a few remarks about some conversations with Terry Gilliam about his writing Watchmen specifically to be unfilmable, but nothing about intellectual property agreements and royalties and whatnot. This is, in effect, the last Moore interview before he really soured on all the crap that mass media is/has become. He does speak to some annoyance with TV and movies and comics largely just limiting themselves to simple entertainment, but he hasn't quite picked that first-hand disdain he seems to have now.

Moore also speaks very little to the specifics of individual stories he's written. He makes some very broad statements about his most notable works, what he was trying to accomplish generally and that sort of thing, but nothing about individual scenes or any of the artists he worked with. (Although Melinda Gibbie does get a passing mention.)

Most interesting, to me at least, was towards the end where Moore begins talking more about philosophy and magic. He comes across as someone who's put a great deal of thought into the subjects and arrived at some interesting conclusions, if by way of some spurious quirks of language. Still, his argument that ancient storytellers were seen as magicians in a sense isn't wholly without merit, and listening to Moore explain himself fully (as opposed to the sound bytes and half-snippets of quotes I've heard previously) it's not difficult to see where he's coming from. He's not some whacked-out madman who listens to the voices in his head, but rather a smart individual who's maybe just spent a few too many hours inhaling mind-altering drugs. Not that he's a drug-addled hippie, just that his speech reminds me of the types of conversations I had in college with people who were high on something or other. (To clarify, I wasn't high myself! That's why I remember the conversations!)

I'm not an avid follower of Moore, but I certainly appreciate what work of his that I've read. And though this film didn't provide any real enlightenment on those specific stories, it does provide quite a lot of insight towards Moore himself.

Friday, March 09, 2012

Cut Me Some Slack! It's Friday!

And now, for everybody's least favorite gimmick: today's Garfield's dialogue dropped into some of today's webcomics...

The Princess

Devil's Panties

(I'd like to say I couldn't originate any fantastic ideas that compared with some of my posts earlier this week but, really, I just wasted most of the night playing Avengers Alliance.)

Thursday, March 08, 2012

Andy Capp Joining Alcoholics Anonymous?

Reg Smyth's Andy Capp debuted in 1957. The title character was a working class man who didn't actually work. He smoked and drank and gambled, and was quick with a backhand to his wife if she screwed up. In the 1980s, Smythe quietly stopped drawing the cigarettes that often dangled from Andy's mouth and the wife beating jokes dropped off in favor of marriage counseling jokes. Smythe died in 1998 but the strip continued on under the auspicies of Roger Mahoney and Roger Kettle with Andy still out of work, and throwing away his gambling earnings on beer and pool. In April of last year, Kettle was replaced by "Goldsmith and Garnett" with Mahoney still handling the art chores. (I believe it's Lawrence Goldsmith, but I can't find a first name credit for Garnett.)

This strip from February 13 is pretty typical for what Mahoney, Goldsmith and Garnett were coming up with...

And here's the next day's...

And the rest of the week...
Well, it's not unusual for cartoonists to do a week's strips all around a central theme. But the theme continued with almost every weekday having a joke centered around Andy eating healthier, working out or trying not drink...

February 23...

March 1...

Today...

And here's what struck me: they didn't just have him quit cold turkey. It's actually been shown (comically) to be a bit of a struggle...

It's certainly not without precedent that modern comic strips makes significant character changes. In 1992, Tom Batiuk changed Funky Winkerbean from a gag strip in a perennial high school setting to an aging-in-real-time dramedy. More recently, Jim Davis gave long-standing loser and perpetual bachelor Jon Arbuckle a girlfriend. And, of course, Smythe himself dropped smoking and wife beating from Andy's repertoire, as noted above.

I asked Batiuk once, several years ago, how he was able to make such radical changes to his strip, given syndicates' penchant for maintaining the status quo. He whole-heartedly agreed with my assessment of their willingness to change, but noted that he was able to push that through because he tied that change to his contract negotiations he was going through at the time. Davis, I expect, has enough clout that he can pretty much do what he wants.

So I'm curious about the change here. Is this something the creators are trying to slide in on their own? Something mandated by their syndicate acting on comments from a health agency? Just an attempt to change things up because newspapers are flailing and willing to try anything different at this point? I just doubt that the current Andy Capp crew has leverage that someone like Davis has.

If you liked Andy Capp as a lout, though, I don't think you'll have much to worry about in the near future, based on this March 2 strip...

Wednesday, March 07, 2012

Links On Wednesday? Again?

  • Letterheady has two old Bob Kane letterheads online, one with a simple Batman logo and another with headshots of Batman, Robin and the Joker.
  • Al Bigley shares some nice scans from True: The Man's Magazine circa 1967. The article he actually posted shines the spotlight on Jay Emmettt and Allan Stone, who were the licensing agents for a certain caped crusader who was taking pop culture by storm at the time.
  • In another edition of Webcomic Overlook's "Know The History", they take a look at Percy Crosby's Skippy for which the peanut butter was named. None of this was information I knew.
  • Neil Cohn posts his first brainwave study on comics. You know, it wasn't that long ago that studies like this would've been openly laughed at. That this is real and legit and people are taking it seriously is just plain awesome!
  • Apparently, I'm now immune. I totally missed the "Holy leaky roof, Batman!!!" sub-headline on my initial reading.

Tuesday, March 06, 2012

A Harsh Reality for Newspapers... & Comics?

The Project for Excellence in Journalism just published this report on the status of the newspaper industry. It's about what you'd expect in the broader sense: most newspapers are doing poorly, yadda yadda yadda... But I came to the report via this article in the The New York Times. In light of my blog post yesterday, I'd like to represent the Times piece here, but with perhaps a few creative edits on my part...
Last year, researchers at the Project for Excellence in Journalism persuaded... companies... to share private data about the financial performance of many of their papers comics. And the findings were grim.

On average, for every new dollar... in new digital advertising revenue, they were losing $7 in print advertising revenue. The papers comics seemed not to be diversifying their revenue streams or coming up with innovative products at a fast enough clip.

“Some of those we talked to seem frustrated and even uncertain about how to proceed,” said Tom Rosenstiel, the director of the project, which is part of the nonprofit Pew Research Center. “But we also found signs that, if you can break out of old cultural patterns, there is another way.”

...

Mr. Rosenstiel said he and the researchers came away thinking that the future of newspapers comics could be affected quite a bit by business culture.

“The papers comics that are succeeding,” he said in an e-mail, “are those that... have pushed digital even at the risk of putting less effort into the old categories that pay the bills, have taken more risks — have fought against the deep ‘inertia’ that many of the executives describe.”

...
Hmmm. Didn't take much editing to make this sound very poignant for the comics industry, did it?

It's really those quotes from Rosenstiel that stand out to me. Even if you business model was sound a decade ago, the rest of the world continues to change and evolve; you need to be able to recognize those changes and adapt to them. Granted, that kind of adapting is not easy! But haven't we exhausted all of the superficial nonsense in comics (variant covers, new #1s, mega-crossovers, new costumes, etc.) several times over by now? Yes, those things provide a minor blip on the radar, but it's always temporary and only for one title.

You can't really blame the creators, and even the editors have fairly narrow confines to work within. There needs to be a person at the top setting a stronger direction instead of demanding rehashing the same tricks over and over. I think Mike Richardson has the right idea; I don't know that they've pushed far enough yet, but offhand I think, of the traditional comic publishers, they're in the best strategic position going forward. Marvel and DC will be alright by the virtue of having large enough companies behind them to throw piles of money at the situation late in the game. But that shift will be jolting for Diamond and all the local comic shops across the U.S. as it's going to come in late and come down fast.

I have a ton of respect for folks who own/operate comic shops. I know that is NOT an easy job. And I don't envy the day when Marvel and DC suddenly change their game plan because they no longer have any choice not to. That day is going to be a very painful one for a lot of people.

Monday, March 05, 2012

Shazam, A Publishing Misstep?

DC announced today, via The New York Post, that the new revamp of Captain Marvel will A) officially change the character's name to Shazam, B) "be far more rooted in fantasy and magic than it ever was before", and C) apparently be a darker character. Though this last point hasn't be explicated stated anywhere I can see, the promotional image and the tone of Geoff Johns' and Brian Cunningham's comments suggest it.

I haven't read any comments/reaction to the news, but I can almost hear the cry of fandom now. "NOOOOOO!!!! You're going to ruin him!"

I don't want to get into a character discussion, though.

But character issues aside, this really makes me wonder if the folks at DC really know what they're doing. My initial thoughts ran along the lines of, "Well, of course they're pushing the character deeper into the DC mythos; that's all their audience buys through Diamond. A book too far flung outside Marvel or DC continuity doesn't stand much of a chance."

I was going to throw Jeff Smith's Shazam: Monster Society of Evil out as proof. The story was not in continuity and took its cues from the original 1940s stories more than contemporary ones. Even with Smith's name on it, I didn't figure it sold very well. But a quick check on The Comics Chronicles says otherwise. In fact, the final issue sold almost 29,000 copies. Not exactly setting sales records, sure, but it still outsold several debut issues from both Marvel and DC. The only two non-Marvel/non-DC books that did better than it were Buffy and Star Wars.

Ah, but the trade paperback of the book sold pretty poorly. Less than 3,000 copies for all of 2009, the year it was published.

In theory, MSoE should be a great perennial seller. It's a self-contained story. It's fun. It's very kid-friendly. It's by the same guy who put his self-published, independent, nine-volume magnum opus Bone in every half-decent bookstore and library across America. The very same series, I might add, that continues to show up in librarians' Top 10 Most Checked Out Books For Kids almost a decade after it ended! So why DC hasn't pushed MSoE more, I don't know. I mean, in an era when trade paperback collections are solicited before the final pamphlet issues hit the stands, it took DC almost two years to get a TPB version of MSoE out.

I'm a bit torn on the issue. On one hand, DC is essentially giving fans what they want. What they're willing to pay for. There was a great deal interest, as I recall, when they turned Mary Marvel evil. You can't really blame DC if they focus on the iterations of the characters that sell. On the other hand, I don't think anyone at DC can really see any difference between Superman and Captain Marvel. To be fair, there is a bit of nuance there and it's not helped by the fact that Captain Marvel was a very direct response to Superman's initial success. I feel like that both DC and fans are responsible for this new Shazam.

BUT!

People are almost certainly claiming (again, I haven't actually read any comments but I know this is what they're saying) that DC doesn't know the character. But if you look closely at Johns' and Cunningham's comments, I don't think they know ANY of their characters. We're talking about a company who has a lead character that is most readily defined as "space cop with a magic ring." We're talking about a company whose cache of villains includes talking gorillas and magic imps. We're talking about a company who has among their top tier characters a woman who was sculpted out of clay and given life by a goddess. We're talking about a company who's primary character who is indestructible and can fly anywhere in the world with no means of propulsion. And you're going to tell me that Captain Marvel is based more on magic than anyone else?

Really, I have no skin in this game. I'm not really a Captain Marvel fan; I'm not even much of a DC fan. They can do whatever they want with the character. Whether they call him Shazam or Captain Marvel or whatever, I'm not going to buy it. I only bought MSoE because of Smith; I'd have been just as happy if he worked on Brother Power the Geek. But I can't help but see either an inability or unwillingness for DC to look beyond the direct market here. They have a family of characters specifically made to appeal to a broad younger audience, and an easy avenue to get them interested in superhero comics before "graduating" to more adult titles like Batman or Justice League but instead, they seem to be at a complete loss. All of this effort that they're putting into "New 52" and they're still mostly just selling to the same audience they had before.

Many years ago, I read an interview with a comic book writer (Kurt Busiek maybe?) who said that reading was a key element for writers. But more importantly, reading a wide variety of things. If you wanted to be a comic book writer and read nothing but comic books, you would just wind up regurgitating what was already in the comics. I think the same is true for publishing. If you do nothing but look at how comic books are published, you're not going to bring any new ideas to the table. You need to look outside your immediate industry, even outside your not-so-immediate industry, in order to break a perpetual downward spiral of sales numbers.

DC is making Shazam into a character they think people want. Whether or not the people they're looking at want this new Shazam misses the point, though. DC is just looking at their existing audience and not their potential audience. And given these types of decisions, I'm beginning to doubt they even know what a potential audience is.

Sunday, March 04, 2012

Who's Signature Is This?

I received a copy of Comics Between the Panels for Christmas. It was a used copy my mom found online, and she pointed out that it was even signed on the title page...
The problem is, though, I have no idea whose signature that might be. It's clearly not one of the authors, but the book is basically an encyclopedia of comics people, so it could very well be someone listed in the book. The two initials look pretty clearly like "BW" to me, but the rest is just squiggles as far as I can tell. The last name seems to be only a few letters. I thought it might have been "Ward" but Bill Ward died in 1998 and this is dated 2004.

Anyone out there able to read/decipher who this might be? It's been bugging me for months now.

Saturday, March 03, 2012

The Ever-Growing Library

When I first started really getting interested in comics, I went about trying to read as many stories as I could that involved my favorite characters. At the time, reprints were generally limited to the best/most popular stories and, even then, they tended to get reprinted in a scattershot fashion. There were occasional reprint titles like Marvel's Greatest Comics Starring the Fantastic Four and Marvel Tales Starring Spider-Man plus DC usually filled most of their 80-page giants with old material. But if you were trying to track down a specific issue, it was often easier (and sometimes even cheaper!) to get the original rather than the reprint.

Part of the problem was that information in those pre-internet days was harder to come by. You might find a listing of Marvel Greatest Comics issues that were printed and you could count forward or back from an issue you actually had, but they didn't always print each and every issue, so there was no guarantees that issue #42 was in fact the one you wanted.

I recall in my early days on the internet, I was thrilled to find a RACMU post on Usenet that listed all the old Strange Tales issues and where the stories were reprinted. That title had been especially problematic since each issue featured two stories which frequently were NOT reprinted together. Which meant that you might find an reprint book that allegedly reprinted something from Strange Tales #122 but you didn't know if that was the Human Torch story or the Dr. Strange story.

All of this led to something of a collector mentality. Even if you were more interested in the story that the actual first printing of the issue, you often had no choice but to track down and collect that specific issue in order to read the story.

I've always been very deliberate in my collection. I was more concerned getting books that served a specific purpose, rather than simply every issue of a title. That specific purpose might be getting as much information as I could in order to write an article about the Negative Zone or one about the events prior to Fantastic Four #1. What my collection essentially became was a large, ongoing research project with an ever-changing focus.

I've seen and heard repeatedly over the years about people trying to clear out the collection. In fact, I've picked up many comics for little more than the cost of postage from people who were simply thinning their libraries. While I certainly understand people that some people live in areas where living space is at a premium, I think some of those folks clearing out their long boxes don't really have that concern. So it seems strange to me to willingly relinquish a chunk of what could be used as future research. I know I went digging through my existing collection repeatedly while I was working on my book, and I came up with many fine examples that I ended up using that were only available precisely because I've never trimmed my collection.

I know that it would be much more efficient if I simply got digital copies of everything, but that's not entirely practical since so much of what I have isn't currently available digitally already. I'd have to scan every page myself.

But in any event, I want to make sure I keep as much of my research around as possible since I'm always coming up with new ideas and angles to think about surrounding comics. So I guess my solution for now is to just keep buying long boxes and book cases. (Although I could swear that I just bought bookcases a couple months ago; I really don't know how they're already full!)