Thursday, May 31, 2012

Today's Art Lesson: McFarlane's Spider-Man

It seems that the original art for the cover of Todd McFarlane's Spider-Man #1 will be going up for auction soon. I've never seen a McFarlane original, so I was checking it out to see if I could learn a bit about his drawing process. Or, at least, his drawing process from twenty years ago.

At the time, McFarlane was no stranger to drawing the web-slinger. He'd been drawing Amazing Spider-Man for about two years prior, so he had a pretty good handle on how he wanted to approach the character visually. So head on over to the Heritage Auction site for a good close-up of his art.

The first thing I noticed is that there's very little corrective work in the inking. Despite a lot of lines going on in all sorts of different directions, McFarlane's original art is fairly clean. Looking a little more closely, you can see some of his blue line sketches underneath the inks. Here again, things are pretty clean for that stage. It looks like he had a few minor issues with the specific placement of the lines defining Spidey's left leg, but by and large, it looks like he had a clear image of what he wanted and basically just had to copy that to paper.

Here's the one thing that really stands out for me though. Take a close look along the webbing of Spidey's costume. Here's a detail of his mask that I've color adjusted a bit to highlight some of the lighter linework...
There are some very light lines that arc over the mask. At first, I thought the couple I saw were indicative of possible placements of that highlight line that arcs across Spidey's forehead, but on closer inspection, they appear to be guidelines for the webbing. For the most part, the scalloped webbing joins with verticals at exactly the same points as the lightly drawn arcs. It's a fairly obvious way to ensure that Spider-Man's webbing is at least internally consistent, but it was never something I gave much thought to. The handful of times I've drawn the character, I just kind of eyeballed my way around his costume. I'd wager that's an approach a number of professional artists have used as well. But what McFarlane has done, by using these guides, is to provide a depth to the costume -- he can more easily figure out how the costume who wrap over the human form if he doesn't have to draw the scallops, but instead essentially provide a grid right on the character.

This is why I love examining original art. Even though comic art is designed to be printed in a mass production process, checking out the original art gives some insight into a creator's process and ideas. Fascinating stuff!

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Links For How-Is-May-Not-Over-Yet Wednesday

  • Tom Scioli has a new mini-comic out. You know, Tom Scioli? The Myth of 8-Opus and Gødland. He has the Kirby-esque vibe going on with both his art and his ideas? Yeah, that Tom Scioli. So, he has a new mini-comic that you currently can only pick up at conventions. I mention it here because the story is about Jack Kirby and his role in The Battle of Dornot. I think if anyone today should turn Jack's life into a comic, Scioli is the guy to do it.
  • Corey Blake alerts us to Graphic Medicine, a series of "graphic novels targeted to medical practitioners, patients, caregivers and their families." Definitely sounds intriguing to me!
  • How to make comic strips. In Brussels. Care of The Times in India. You know me; I always appreciate the non-American perspective.
  • Keeping with the international idea, when was the last time you heard about comic news from Russia? That's because until a "few years ago, no one talked about the comic book industry in Russia – there was nothing to talk about." Tatyana Shramchenko writes about how that's starting to change.
  • Speaking of international comics, Will Brooker over in the U.K. pens a piece on why Batman can't come out of the closet: "his whole character relies on him being in denial."
  • Neil Cohn points us to a new book called Linguistics and the Study of Comics, edited by Frank Bramlett. Topics included: "Image Schemas and Conceptual Metaphor in Action Comics", "Linguistic Codes and Character Identity in Afro Samurai" and "Representations of Irish English Speech in the Marvel Universe." Definitely sounds interesting!
  • And lastly, a five minute documentary on Joe Field and Flying Colors Comics.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Tastes Like Sith

I received this shirt in the mail today from my friend Matt...
As a Fantastic Four fan and a Star Wars fan, I quite enjoyed it. I'm surprised I haven't seen a Galactus/Death Star mashup before. (This and other shirts are available for $20 at Matt's store here.)

It's an interesting expression of creativity, this general notion of throwing two intellectual properties together. I'm not talking about the licensed ones like Star Trek/X-Men or Transformers/G.I. Joe, but the smaller, one-note jokes like this. Captain Kirk making out with Princess Leia. My Little Ponies battling the Power Rangers. Bill and Ted stealing Marty's Delorean. (All of which I've seen in the past 12 hours.) They're just quick "what if" scenarios that are only meant to thought about and chuckled at for a few seconds before moving on. For the most part, it's the idea of the idea that's interesting. What would Galactus do if he came across the Death Star? Well, he'd eat it, of course! You don't need to ponder over how Moff Tarkin reacts, or which herald mistook the space station for a planet, or whatever. If you analyze it too much, it ceases to be funny. The chicken is on the other side of the road; you don't need to know what it's motivations were!

And it's precisely because of that one-note nature of these gags that you likely won't see officially licensed variations on them. Think of all the paperwork and licensing fees and general red tape that Marvel and Lucasfilm would have to go through to produce an official version of that shirt. For that joke, totally not worth the expense. So you get guys like Matt filling a select market niche, skirting licensing laws by heavily implying specific characters without expressly mentioning them. It's the same idea I had with my Almost a Superhero shirts.

Is it as creative as creating Galactus or creating the Death Star? I don't know. Jack Kirby and George Lucas didn't come up with those ideas in a vacuum after all. It's definitely a different type of creative expression. Personally, I like the idea. We all have these stories and concepts floating around in our heads anyway, and we don't necessarily compartmentalize all of them. But the ways some ideas interact in one person's head are different than the way they interact in somebody else's. And if you can get how those ideas interact out WITHOUT blatantly stepping on the original source material (i.e. implying the creations without expressly stating/copying them) I think that's bound to get other people thinking outside their respective boxes. Which I can't help but believe is a good thing.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Is That Line Supposed To Be There?

I've been doing some work today digitally touching up some old comic art. Old meaning coming from the 1940s. The original art is long since lost, so I'm working from scans of the printed books. Many of these books seem to have printed particularly cheaply, so not only are the colors severely mis-registered, but the individual color plates appear to have moved while they were on the paper, causing some ghosting and smudging and other unpleasantness. I could swear some of these printing plates were carved out of a potato.

Suffice to say that some of these touch-ups are going slowly because there's simply a lot to do.

But as I'm going through each page, I find myself asking again and again, "Is that line supposed to be there?"

A lot of the things I'm cleaning up are fairly obvious errors. Mis-registrations, for example, or folds and tears in the comic pages. Some issues are less obvious, but still reasonably decipherable. An extra drop of ink between two lines, say. But many times, there are marks that I can't figure out if they're problems that stem from the printer or the original artist, who may have inked some lines he shouldn't have, but left them in place because he was on a deadline and who's going to notice anyway since it's a cheap comic book being sold in the 1940s.

My question, then, is an internal debate over whether it's better to present the page as close as possible to the final version that was sent off to the printers or as close as possible to the intention of the artist. Which approach serves the audience better? Historical accuracy or overall readability?

Easy example. I just came across a speech balloon that had been fully enclosed...
Clearly, the tail should not be cut off from the balloon like that. But that's how it was inked and, consequently, printed. Is that something I should correct?

It's a rhetorical question in this case because I know the audience here and how they'll be approaching the work. But I can't help but think of a comic book inker approaching another artist's pencils. How often do you suppose Vince Colletta looked at a page drawn up by Jack Kirby and thought, "Does this line need to be here?" I know I've asked myself that a dozen times on almost every page I've been working on today; how many more times did that get asked when the artwork was still in pencil form?

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Gestalt: Always Room For Pleasant Surprises

I like comics as a medium, and one of the things I find continually frustrating is the U.S.-focused attention in comics news. There's been some headway made in Japanese news, thanks to manga and anime, but we really don't hear much about other continents. Now, to be fair, a comic that's written in a language other than English and isn't translated has little chance for success in an English-speaking country. But there are, believe it or not, many publishers who print comics that were made in other countries but still printed in English. NBM is probably the biggest publisher of European comics in the U.S. and I'd wager that most of you reading this don't have any books on your shelf from them.

So, lately, I've been actively looking for more comics that come from outside the United States. From countries that view the world from a different perspective, possibly pointing out some truths that I haven't been able to see from within America's borders. I was quite happy, then, to hear from the folks at Gestalt Comics. They're a comics publisher out of Australia. Though they've been around since 2005, this was the first I'd heard of them.

Well, that's not hugely surprising, given the industry. Their American distributor is Last Gasp, which is a fine company but it's fighting against the distribution monopoly that is Diamond. So there's a fairly small percentage of comic shops that ever use Last Gasp. But Gestalt is also available via Graphicly, so you can still get your (virtual) hands on their publications.

There are several titles that Gestalt has that sound interesting. The only one I've been able to sample so far is Unmasked, which has a take on superheroes that I don't recall seeing before. Mark Waid did a series several years ago called Empire in which the bad guy won, and what would the world look like after that. In Christian Read and Emily Smith's Unmasked, the heroes have won, and pretty well put the complete kibosh on super-villainy. What does that world look like? And you might say, "But, Sean, wasn't that the plot of Squadron Supreme?" Yes, but that was told from the heroes' perspective. Unmasked looks at the world from the villains' perspective. It's those two combined angles that I don't think I've seen before. It's only one issue in so far, but it's definitely a good start. His Dream of the Skyland and The Eldritch Kid also look intriguing, but I haven't seen those yet.

I've a bit of a skeptic when it comes to new comic book companies. Publishing is a tough business, and comic publishing is even tougher. I could probably count on one hand the number of even moderately successful comic companies that have launched in the past couple of decades. You've got to really have your stuff together to make a go of it. I like what I'm seeing in Gestalt so far, and I hope they can keep up their commitment to quality storytelling and reach a wide enough audience in the process.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Jack Kirby's Julius Caesar

In 1969, Jack Kirby contributed costume designs to the University Theater Company at the University of California, Santa Cruz for a production of "Julius Caesar." The designs were typical Kirby, with artistic flair that you just don't get anywhere else. More interestingly, the designs were indeed used and there are a handful of photos from the show (though I can't find any good reproductions of them online).

It's a really minor part of Jack's overall career, and it frequently gets overlooked, so I thought I'd run the text from an article from the May 3, 1969 issue of Peninsula Living which talks about the production and how Kirby got involved. Scans of the article and several of Jack's designs can be seen over at the Kirby Museum site. Almost ironically, the last sentence of the piece is about Stan Lee, who did nothing more than relay director Sheldon Feldner's letter to Jack.
Caesar Seen Marvel-ously
GET A GOOD GRASP on your sense of reality, friends!!! Honest!!! It's true!! Brutus and Dr. Doom have nothing in common!! SSKATATCH??!!! Julius Caesar and The Mighty Thor are not look-alikes!!!??? The Fantastic Four never visited Shakespeare -- via Time Funnel -- on his set at the Globe!!!

No. NO!! Back to REALITY!!

Sheldon Feldner offers a pleasant, smiling kind of reality, until he starts to explain things about comic books, especially MARVEL-type comic books, and Caesar, and assorted other exotica, the nature of which will presently be manifest. And then it becomes a kind of 4-D super-R-E-A-L-I-T-Y (! ! !) that brings us back to the point of beginning. Hold on.

This is about Sheldon, and Caesar, and Marvel, and Shakespeare.

And most particularly, it is about "Julius Caesar," a play by Shakespeare, which will be presented by the University Theater Company at the University of California, Santa Cruz, Thursdays through Sundays, May 15-25. (Reservations, telephone 429-2934 in Santa Cruz.)

Sheldon is director. The "Caesar" he's putting together is far from the traditional. The idea is to emphasize the concept of the play, its essential reality, by translating it into technical terms.

A fundamental idea in Shakespeare was that when the world of man was about to undergo chaos, the heavens signaled it -- for example, the storm in "Caesar," before the assassination. So an appropriately wired dome will hang over the stage to flash lightning in storm, or change color to bode a universe of blood.

It is important, Sheldon feels, to show the division between the public and private lives of man, the political and the personal. And so, closed-circuit television will be used, with monitors in the audience. Viewers will see scenes as "political" events on television -- the riots in the streets of Rome, for example -- as well as on stage.

A laser-like device will create Caesar's ghost and when it speaks, the voice will be broken down into an oscilloscopic image and projected on a huge screen. Talented students produced a tape combining electronic music and sounds of the riots at the Democratic convention to run with the civil war and riot scenes.

And then, having conjured up all these electronic marvels, Sheldon faced a terrible problem: the costumes. Sandals and togas certainly wouldn't be suitable. Modern dress wouldn't be, either. Besides, it's been done.

"So I was taking a walk one night," says Sheldon, who joined the University staff last fall as a fellow in Merrill College, "and I thought of Marvel Comics."

Sheldon has had previous experience with Actors' Workshop and Stanford Repertory Theater. "Last year I worked in summer stocK with a guy who was a big Marvel Comics buff. It's a cult. He turned me onto it, and I was hooked."

So the next thing he knew, Sheldon was writing this letter to the president of Marvel: "Dear Sir: I think I'm crazy, but..."

"Marvel Comics ARE different," Sheldon says. "They're not the Superman or Batman type. They're not the Bugs Bunny type.

"No, all the characters in Marvel Comics have some sort of identity crisis. "Like. Captain America, for example. He was a World War II hero. After the war, his sidekick was killed by Red Skull. And he always blamed himself, because he didn't tell his sidekick to jump off the rocket in time.

"Then he was frozen alive in a glacier. But years later, he was brought back. Here he is, a 50-year-old super-hero, and he can't relate to the new generation of young super-heroes.

"All the 'Marvel Comics heroes have something like that wrong with them.

"They're anti-war super-heroes. In one of last month's issues, a whole army marched by wearing peace symbol arm patches.

"Marvel characters use Robert Frost poetry sometimes, and one magazine recently ended an episode with a poem by Keats.

"Anyway, my letter. It turned out that Stan (The Man) Lee, president of Marvel, is a Shakespeare buff. And so is Jack (King) Kirby, who finally designed our costumes.

"Marvel has about a dozen magazines, and authors. Stan Lee wrote back, said he'd ask his artists and see if anyone was interested. And Kirby, who recently moved West to live in Irvine, was.

"An assistant and I drove down, and stayed at Jack's overnight. We watched 'Spartacus' on TV and talked about Roman armor. But mostly, we listened to Jack talk about "Julius Caesar.'"

Kirby was the creator of Captain America and the Silver Surfer, but no longer draws them, Sheldon said. Currently, he is doing The Fantastic Four and Mighty Thor magazines. Again, he created the characters.

"All the comic people I've talked to, talk about their characters the way a puppeteer talks about his puppets. They know their characters aren't real people, but they talk about them as if the were. Talking about the Mighty Thor, Jack would say, 'Oh, he wouldn't do that because...'

"Talking about Thor, Jack said he doesn't draw authentic Norse armor, but tries to get the essence of it. I said that was what we wanted to get at, too -- something that could be both ancient and modern."

Kirby talked a great deal about color and its use, Sheldon recalls, as well as the use of expectation -- in the sense that the title page of a comic book starts off with the climax that it will build up to out in back.

Kirby very definitely had some of his own ideas about staging "Julius Caesar," and many of them will be reflected in the production. The conspirators all throw open their robes after the assassination, wearing them over the shoulder. Inside, the robes are all blood red. The very cut of the robes is modeled after the silhouette of the vulture.

Another of Kirby's ideas is the costume Caesar wears when he first comes on. It is traditional for him to wear civilian clothes. But Kirby has him come on in military attire like some sort of fantastic creature.

"But, why not?" Sheldon asks. "This way, the people have every reason to believe he may install himself as a dictator."

The costumes for the cast of 50 are being made primarily from military surplus materials. The cloaks are old army blankets which had been consigned to the rag bin. Old GI longjohns were converted into tights for the plebians. Headgear is made from old helmet liners. "We're using a lot of vinyl and plastic," Sheldon says, "with no attempt to disguise the materials."

Overseeing production of the costumes is one of Deena Ferrigno's chores as technical director, and it's no small chore. A full-time University employe [sic], she shares responsibility for the production with Sheldon.

"This is the first time I've had to do a show that somebody else designed," she said. "The first time I saw them, I wondered, "What are they supposed to look like from the back and from the side?" And then I thought, 'Our students aren't built like that.'"

But somehow or other, the costumes are being made -- complete in back and front, though of materials of sometimes dubious origin. "Like those soldier costumes," Deena said. "They're decorated with some kind of sliced sponge. We got it in this old warehouse. I don't even know what it's for..."

How well is she doing? They look good, but perhaps the final verdict should be reserved until opening night. Kirby, who has visited the campus once already, is coming back for the opening.

Seeing the production is going to be his principal reward for the costume designs.

"I asked about paying him," Sheldon says, "but he said not to worry about it -- we couldn't afford him. He felt that because it was for college students, that it was a contribution he wanted to make.

"Stan Lee is the same way -- loose, friendly, inertested [sic] in other people."

Happy Towel Day!

Artwork created by Yeah, it's more of an infographic than a comic, but I didn't want to just throw up another HHGTTG comic book cover this year.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Getting To The Fun In Comics

It was one of those long and dreary days today. Nothing bad in particular, just where you're ready to be done with work at lunchtime. So the prospect of hitting the gym after another four hours wasn't very enticing. But I went anyway, not wanting to fall off the wagon, so to speak. I did my half hour of weights, and hopped over to the treadmill for a 3 mile run. As I was getting down to the final minutes, one of my favorite songs to run to came over the iPod. It's a live version of Tomoyasu Hotei's "Battle Without Honor or Humanity." What's great about it is that he speeds up the tempo as the song continues and the band is absolutely racing by the end of it. It just sounds like the band is having a blast playing, and I almost can't help but run faster during the last couple minutes. I actually measured it tonight: 30% faster. From my normal 6.5 miles per hour to 8.5 miles per hour. Despite the sweat flying off me by the bucketload, I started smiling. I probably would've been laughing if I could've gotten in enough air for it. It was fun! I was able to revel in what my body was doing.

That's a lot of what being a kid is about. They're figuring out how their bodies move and work. A teeter-totter isn't very fun in and of itself; it's the new (or at least relatively new) sensations a child experiences while s/he is on it. Recess was awesome because you could just run -- or skip or swing or slide or whatever -- for the sake of doing it and experiencing what your body does and how it reacts. That's why kids often squeal with delight just going down a slide or climbing on the jungle gym.

As adults, we tend to forget that, though. We can remember running and swinging and playing, and we know what those experiences feel like. We've been there and done that. So there's no real novelty or freshness to the experience if we do it again. Additionally, we're often doing it for some other reason -- whether it's some manual labor that needs to be performed or it's part of a different goal like weight loss. We get caught up in the ends that we entirely overlook the means.

I wonder how much of that goes on in comics, too. How often do people let their ends -- whether that's completing a run of some title or breaking into the field or knowing more than anyone else about a character or whatever -- how often do people let their ends overshadow their means -- being entertained? How many people read a title out of some sense of duty? I know the last year or two that I was reading the Fantastic Four regularly, I know it felt that way to me. I don't mean that as a knock against Marvel or any of the creators necessarily; I could appreciate when they were well-crafted stories, but I felt like I had to read them. There was a greater sense of obligation than of anticipation or eagerness.

I think the notion is distinctly different than reading out of habit. Periodically, you'll hear someone bring up the "don't read bad comics out of habit" argument. Which is a perfectly valid argument; you shouldn't read comics out of habit. But I think that's different than reading them out of obligation. A habit is something you don't put any conscious thought into, whereas an obligation is something that you do make a conscious decision about. You might not WANT to do something, but you feel that you should.

When that song came on tonight, I was at the end of my run. I had essentially completed the exercise that I was trying to accomplish. The few minutes that I put on a burst of speed was on top of what I wanted to get done, and basically just for fun. How many comics would be more enjoyable if you didn't feel obliged to do blog posts about them, or talk about them on Twitter, or wherever? Just a thought.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

I'm Running Out Of Clever "Links" Titles

  • Over at Comic Riffs, Michael Cavna promotes the idea that "Disney should smartly gift Kirby heirs with a cool million." I noted last week that I thought it would be more likely if it came from Whedon personally, but I'm all for the Kirby estate getting reasonably compensated for Jack's work.
  • While Dan Peretti is waiting for the publishing wheels to spin on Superman in Myth and Folklore, he's keeping busy by firing up his blog (A Job for Superman) again and posting some interesting stuff about the man of steel, and some other comics stuff. Worth a look!
  • It's already gotten a fair amount of traction, so I'm tempted to skip this last one, but it's a light week for me and this seems noteworthy. Mark Andrew Smith pens "The A to B Manifesto. The creator as retailer."

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Comics Philosophy & Practice Summation/Review

Lynda Barry
Alison Bechdel
Ivan Brunetti
Charles Burns
Dan Clowes
Robert Crumb
Phoebe Gloeckner
Justin Green
Ben Katchor
Aline Kominsky-Crumb
Françoise Mouly
Gary Panter
Joe Sacco
Art Spiegelman
Carol Tyler
Chris Ware

These are some of the most influential names in American comics in the last few decades. It would be hard to underestimate the collective impact they've had on the medium. And the folks at the University of Chicago got them all in the same room at the same time to talk about comics from May 18-20. It was an opportunity I -- and I suspect at least a few others -- could not pass up, even to the point of circumventing traffic issues caused by the NATO conference only a few miles away. (Although, truth be told, I took the train from the north side of Chicago to get there and, aside from seeing a few extra cops at some of the downtown train stops, had zero issues.)

I missed the Friday night opening remarks and discussion with Art Spiegelman. But Saturday opened with a rousing panel discussion featuring Gloeckner, Green, Kominsky-Crumb and Tyler talking about their autobiographic comics. These four folks were probably the least familiar to me and much of what they relayed was entirely new because of that. What struck me was how familiar Gloeckner, Kominsky-Crumb and Tyler were right off the bat, picking up on each others' thoughts and ideas, making for a quite energetic discussion. Interesting, too, was that Green piped up, they all immediately quieted and almost reverentially gave him the floor to speak his mind. They all noted, in varying ways, how they had a deep-seated need to express themselves through their work. There was almost uniformly an almost inability to do anything else. And yet, also uniformly, they noted that the experiences were, by and large, not cathartic at all.

Sacco took the stage next, being interviewed by W.J.T. Mitchell, one of the University professors. (And let me apologize now, but I didn't catch the positions or departments of the various UC people who did any of the presenting.) I personally like Sacco's work the most of the guests, and I probably learned the least from this talk. The gentlemen I sat next to throughout the weekend early on noted that he was hoping to see the creators go "off script" as they talked with one another; that is, many of these creators have been asked the same/similar questions often enough that they have stock answers. Not that they're invalid, by any means, just that the questions aren't new, so neither are their answers. This was most evident to me in what Sacco said because, as I was most familiar with him and his work, I had already read quite a bit about him. It was good to see him in person and hear/see his personality come through more immediately, but it was the least enlightening portion for me.

Kominsky-Crumb was interviewed by Kristen Schilt next. There was a little rehash of material from the earlier panel she was on, but not much. I was mostly familiar with her history through the works of historians like Trina Robbins, so I was surprised to learn that there's still some animosity from some of those other female comic creators from back in the day. Robbins wasn't named specifically -- no one was -- but I didn't realize there was that deep a wedge between some of those creators. It would've been fascinating to get Robbins or another contemporary on the stage at the same time to get both sides of that story. One of the unique things about this discussion was Crumb providing additional commentary and remarks from the audience.

Burns, Clowes, Seth and Ware then took some time to talk about their work. Notably they focused on the printed comic/graphic novel as an object in and of itself, almost separate from its content. It provided an interesting contrast against the first panel, in that they all had a precision about their work that bordered on obsessive. A particularly odd contrast, considering that Green noted having OCD earlier in the day. But these (slightly) younger gentlemen definitely had a stronger eye towards the graphic design of the entire package to the point of citing specific board weights for the covers and such. This is Ware announced his impressive looking package for the upcoming Building Stories and there was an almost collective audible drool from the audience as they began to grasp what he was describing.

Mouly then spent time talking about the history of The New Yorker covers, showing some (for the times) racy images from the 1930s before it settled into a more banal postcard approach later. She segued into rejected covers that she's seen on her watch over the past two decades, and then brought out three of the artists who've provided covers for her: Clowes, Crumb and Ware. Crumb was pretty closed at first, seemingly still hurt by the rejection of his last work. Not so much the rejection itself, but that the piece was sent back with no explanation. Mouly apologized on stage, but Crumb remained a bit dour on things. Clowes and Ware were able to talk for a bit and, as Mouly largely let them go off on their own, Crumb opened up a bit more to them.

The day ended with Hillary Chute discussing Are You My Mother? with Bechdel. Bechdel has been in residence at UC for a little while, so Chute had a good first-hand knowledge and appreciation of her work. The book only came out a week prior, so not many people had had a chance to read it yet, and most of the discussion was centered on the new material. More striking, I thought, was that Bechdel herself hadn't seemed to have really processed the book yet either. She was able to address questions about her prior work well enough, as well as pointed technical questions about materials or what-have-you, but she seemed to be at a bit of a loss over the why/wherefore questions about her new book. Also, photo reference shots of her in a suit rolling around on the floor? Priceless!

Day Two was shorter. It began with a discussion with Barry, Brunetti, Crumb and Panter. It started a bit slow as the moderator had a somewhat lengthy preface, but as he backed away somewhat and let the creators just talk, it got to be quite engaging. Brunetti looked like he felt overwhelmed or outclassed to be on stage with the others, but he had some interesting things to say about what he was doing in his comics classes. Crumb was also decidedly more engaged than the previous day, possibly due to Barry's seemingly boundless energy. What I liked, too, was that Crumb seemed at least nominally familiar with the other artists' work, and had a professional respect for what each one of them did, DESPITE some obvious differences of opinion on various subjects. Most of what I've seen from him previously suggested that he hated anyone not like him, but he clearly showed that he understood and appreciated that other people were following different dreams and that as long as you pursued your dreams, didn't "sell out" and always did your best, he respected you. This was by far the most engaged and engaging panel with discussion ranging all over the comics map, and a lot of energy (and non-sequitur anecdotes) provided by Barry. I was ready to be disappointed when the last audience question was why Barry drew herself as a monkey -- a decidedly banal query if you want to know what I think -- but it led to an impromptu verse of You're Bound to Look Like a Monkey When You Grow Old sung by Crumb. I felt it was, by far, the best panel of the conference and worth attending the whole thing just for these 90 minutes.

As Crumb and Kominsky-Crumb ducked out to catch a plane, Katchor lectured on "Halftone Printing in the Yiddish Press and Other Objects of Idol Worship." It skewed a bit away from comics and focused more on 19th and 20th century printing technology, but it was still interesting. Though I must admit that I found Katchor himself to be a bit stiff as a presenter.

Overall, it was an absolutely fantastic conference. Especially considering that it was the first of its kind. There were some folks who tried grabbing autographs, and there were a few "can I get a picture with you"s heard but it was more about the information than the celebrity. The guests all sat in the audience when they weren't on stage, often asking questions just like any of the other audience members. I also saw Gary Groth walking around for a bit, and Jessica Abel was there live-tweeting things. (Though I didn't actually see her myself.) I overheard several people who had gone through the Center for Cartoon Studies, others who ran extensive graphic novel sections of university libraries, and others still who taught college level classes on comics. This was all about the medium of comics and exchanging information in a way and to a degree that simply doesn't happen at conventions, possibly because the commerce angle tends to get in the way. There were some tables set up to buy various works of the guests, but that was clearly not the focus. People came in to talk about comics in an extended and intelligent manner. And they did. And it was brilliant!

There Are Too Many Comics

I like comics. A lot. I read comics. A lot of them. But I've officially come to the conclusion that there are too many of them.

The conference I attended this past week (and I'll get to a more formal review/summary of that later) was attended by many notable comics luminaries. Very talented people who have been making comics for years -- at 40, Chris Ware was the youngest participant -- and have been lauded by any number of groups over the years. All of them had names that were easily recognizable, from Robert Crumb to Art Spiegelman to Lynda Barry to Joe Sacco to Alison Bechdel. And, geez, even the audience members who were NOT on stage included the likes of Jessica Abel and Gary Groth!

While the general works that these exceptionally talented folks have done was known to me, I have to admit that the vast majority of it I have not read. Maus? Sure. Zap Comix? Yeah. Palestine? Yes. But the vast majority of their collective work? No. Jimmy Corrigan? No. Fun Home. Missed it. David Boring? Sounds good, but no. Binky Brown Meets the Holy Virgin Mary? Don't think I've even seen it before this weekend. Nothing against the creators by any means; I just haven't gotten to everything I'd like to read.

While the creators were on stage talking, there were pages and panels from their various works displaying on a large screen behind them. It was immediately obvious that the works were very well done -- even the snippets of things I hadn't seen before were clearly well done and worth reading in their entirety. And, if that weren't enough, there was plenty of cross-referencing done by the various creators, talking about how each others' works inspired them to do more or challenged them to push their own limits.

And, to really hammer the point home, there were a couple tables set up with copies of many of these works on them. Just flipping through them was an amazing experience to see all of that skill on display in such a small area. I quickly racked up a good sized wish list of books that I want to really look at now.

But we're talking about the works of exactly seventeen people. They don't have the market on good comics cornered. They don't have the market on good comics published in America cornered. They don't even have the market on good independent comics published in America in the past few decades cornered.

I try not to waste my time with bad comics. I accidentally pick up some stinkers from time to time, but I like to think that most of what I read is good. But that has yet to include many almost-universally-hailed-as-great comics. In large part because I don't have the money to buy all the books I want or the time to read them all even if I could afford to. Before heading to this conference, I had over $100 of comics in my cart over at Amazon, plus another $50 worth in my "save for later" category. Plus another $100-$150 or so on my wishlist. That was before this weekend; it didn't include any works by any of the creators I saw. And I'm barely even scratching the surface on American comics!

Anyone want to provide me a fellowship where I could sit and read comics all day without having to pay for them all?

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Comics Philosophy & Practice Day 2

There was only one lecture and one panel discussion today. There is nothing in comics more awesome than seeing Robert Crumb, Lynda Barry, Gary Panter and Ivan Brunetti on stage together. Especially when Panter calls you out from on stage. (I was 'the guy in the hat.') And even more especially when Crumb closed things down by singing -- yes, singing -- You're Bound to Look Like a Monkey When You Grow Old.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Comics Philosophy & Practice Day 1

WOW! What an incredible amount of talent all in one place talking comics. A few quick thoughts...

The multi-creator panels were most fascinating as creators bounced off one another. The individual panels were good but mostly rehashed things I've seen/heard before. Watching Ware and Clowes on stage with Crumb was brilliant; they were able to get him loosen up despite his obvious discomfort. Lot of kudos on Justin Green; will need to find some his work.

Not nearly the packed house I was expecting. But I was able to sit in Row 3 among several creators; only a chair away from the whole Spiegelman/Mouly family.

Can't wait until tomorrow!

Friday, May 18, 2012

Me & Crumb

At Tom Spurgeon's request, here's a picture of me in a SHIELD uniform with Robert Crumb.
This was totally not Photoshopped, and now Tom owes me twenty bucks.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Visual Impact?

I grew up in an area of the country where a sugary carbonated beverage was called "pop." I can't imagine not having heard "soda" before college, but it was around that time that I consciously decided that "pop" was an ugly word, and "soda" was rolled off the tongue much more easily. I suspect the change had something to do with drinking more soda in college than I had previously, and possibly being in a more diverse environment where I heard different slang from other parts of the country, but it was a deliberate choice on my part. I made active choice to change my internal dictionary to reflect my thoughts.

Seven or eight years ago, my (at the time) brother-in-law came out of his kitchen with something he called an I.C.D -- improvised chocolate desert. It was my birthday, and he knew my penchant for chocolate so he put together this combination of chocolate ice cream with chocolate chips, chocolate syrup and a Kit Kat bar. He handed it to me, wishing me a happy birthday, and I responded "Cheers!" It's not a word used much in the "hey, thanks" sense here in the United States. In fact, I think, prior to that utterance, I had only heard it on British TV shows and movies. But I had watched enough of them over the years that it slipped into my personal vocabulary. That was the first time I'd actively noticed that my own word selection had been surreptitiously affected by media consumption.

More recently, I was trying to explain a technical problem to a group of non-technical people at work. Technical jargon obviously won't work in this instance, so I believe I said something to the effect of, "If the two computers have trouble talking to each other, the data gets all wonky." Someone stopped me immediately. "Did you just say 'wonky'?" The word has since cropped up in a number of other meetings.

My individual word choices are based on a combination of conscious and subconscious decisions. If I hear a word or phrase that I like, I might decide to adopt it. If I hear a word or phrase that I don't necessarily like, but hear repeatedly over an extended period, I might adopt that as well.

How many people do you suppose have started trying to find an excuse to drop "mewling quim" since Avengers came out?

What I'm wondering, in light of that, is what kind of impact visuals have on our language. Does seeing drawings of Spider-Man swinging by a web with his arms and legs going every which way influence how we think about... something? I don't know what that something might be, but it seems like there ought to be some effect based on the repetition of seeing that same type of image over and over. I'm sure it would influence how other artists draw Spidey, but what about people who don't draw?

Not just Spidey, of course. How do all of the repeated images of our favorite characters impact how we see? I'm not just talking about how being able to read comics impacts our thought process, but how do specific images -- or types of images, like the Superman akimbo pose or the brooding, wrapped in his cape Batman pose -- impact how we express ourselves?

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Time For Some Wednesday Links

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Avengers Isn't Feminist

Let me be clear right up front: I really liked the Avengers movie. I thought Joss Whedon put together a fine film, especially considering that A) he was juggling a number of significant characters and B) they were largely portrayed by big name actors who could easily have gotten into competitions of ego. I generally think Whedon does a good job as a storyteller. Plus, I can say I helped by being an extra in the film. So, I'm totally biased towards enjoying the movie.
But, despite Whedon having a reputation for being a feminist, Avengers doesn't have the hallmarks of promoting feminism. Yes, Black Widow is shown to be a strong, independent character. Maria Hill has some moments as well. Gweneth Paltrow portrays a strong Pepper Potts, but her role is so limited in this movie than her strength is really only inferred from the Iron Man films. But think on this: Avengers does not pass the Bechdel Test. Nowhere in the movie do any of the named female characters talk with one another.

The thing is, that's a very low hurdle in the first place. Just to have two female characters talking about something other than a man. That happens in real life ALL THE TIME. And yet women are so frequently are pushed aside in our popular entertainment that something like the Bechdel Test had to be created! In the second place, both Widow and Hill work for SHIELD. It would've taken almost no effort to switch a few of Agent Coulson's or Fury's lines towards Widow over to Hill, and met a still very low bar.

From a feminist perspective, Avengers is a stronger movie than, say, any of the original Star Wars triology. But it's still very much a male-focused movie. One could argue that's not necessarily a solid criticism of Whedon himself; despite being the writer and director, he was working with a specific set of characters more or less assigned to him. And, in that context, Whedon did do a pretty good job in representing the women he had.

To be fair, too, the Bechdel Test is not the end-all, be-all set of criteria to use. As one of the posters on noted:
The purpose of the test isn't at all to comment on the quality of any one movie or to comment on whether any one movie is feminist or not. Anybody using the test for that purpose is misusing it. A movie can pass this test and be awful and horribly sexist (SuckerPunch?), or a movie could fail this test and be a cinematic masterpiece with messages that no feminist would object to (Up? Wall-E?).

The purpose of this test is just to show a pattern -across- movies. The pattern is that, when taken as a whole, the medium of film does not include female characters and interactions as often or as positively as it includes male characters and interactions.
My point is that, of Whedon's various films and shows and whatnot over the years, Avengers is probably the least feminist among them. Widow is indeed shown to be a very strong character in many respects and, to a much lesser degree, so is Hill. But within the confines of one movie that also features Captain America, Thor, Iron Man, Hulk, Nick Fury, Hawkeye and Loki, they do tend to get wrapped into the boys' club feel.

Avengers really is a well-done movie, but it's not a feminist one by any stretch.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Jack & Roz Candids

Greg Theakston recently posted several Jack Kirby photographs to his Facebook account. I thought I'd take a quick moment to share my two favorites, both of which feature his wife Roz...
These look like they were taken on the same night, based on the clothes, hair, etc. I love that they're just having a good time together. Jack's so well known as a comic creator, but I think a lot of people forget that he was a devoted husband and father first and foremost. And Roz made sure that Jack had the freedom to be who he was, sometimes in spite of himself.

One of my very few regrets in life is that I never got say thank you to either Jack or Roz. It's probably one of the reasons I keep doing research and writing about him.

Many more photos of Jack (and others) are available in Theakston's Facebook album.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

A Variety Of Thoughts About The Avengers Movie

I went and saw the Avengers movie for the first time yesterday. I've got a handful of thoughts circling around the movie and the rights issue. Spoilers ahead.
  • Overall, I think the movie was very well done. I've been impressed with Joss Whedon's storytelling abilities in the past, and this showcases many of his particular talents.
  • The biggest detriment to the previous Marvel movies, I felt, was in the portrayal of the heroes themselves. Not that they were written poorly necessarily, but I felt Chris Evans' and Chris Hemsworth's acting was fairly wooden. Tom Hiddleston was the only reason I didn't think Thor was terrible, and Hugo Weaving was the best part of Captain America. Here, however, Evans and Hemsworth seemed to step up their game and turned in notably improved performances.
  • One of the things I liked was that Whedon almost seemed to have written the movie backwards. There's an old saw that if you see a gun in Act One, it needs to be fired by Act Three. Basically, it means that you shouldn't drop in significant plot points out of nowhere. Hawkeye on the rooftops providing strategy against the aliens, for example, was established in the opening scenes where he's holded up in his "hawk's nest" watching the Cube. Nearly everything that happened in the climax was foreshadowed in some way earlier in the film.
  • ... except Black Widow's gauntlets. Was a tad disappointed with that.
  • Also, I didn't quite get why Banner shows up on a motorcycle just before the final battle, or why Stark was so sure he would arrive in time? Seemed a little too deus ex machina to me. But if that's the worst part of the script, I don't think there's much to complain about.
  • The scene where the Avengers get irritated and started bickering with each other? You don't see enough scenes like that generally. Did you notice that much of it was one continuous pan with no cuts? That means all of the actors had to be perfectly on point for the duration of that scene. Typically, you don't see that any more because directors like to cut and paste the best parts from multiple shootings, and that's very hard to do with people talking over one another. Kudos to Whedon for even trying it.
  • I thought Whedon, as scriptwriter, also had a particularly good handle on the characters. Banner especially. Also a very credible tension between Stark and Rogers.
  • Nice nod to the comics by making Hawkeye a bad guy initially. (Even if it was under Loki's influence.)
  • Interesting to see differences between the trailers and the final film. I noticed the initial scene between Banner and Romanov had decidedly different cuts. In the trailer, Banner has an intriguing pause in "What if I say... no?" A different take with no pause was used in the movie. I'm kind of curious why because I personally liked the original version from the trailer. By contrast, Cap's "Hulk, smash" line has more of a pause in the final cut, but that could be from the editing.
  • I've largely tried avoiding anything about the movie between when it opened and when I saw it to bypass potential spoilers. So I was quite surprised to see Jack Kirby's name in the credits TWICE (as co-creator of the Avengers with Stan Lee, and co-creator of Captain America with Joe Simon). I don't recall nearly as much fuss made over the Green Lantern movie, which gave more credit to a David Bowie poster than to creators John Broome and Gil Kane. So, um... what the hell, fandom?
  • Also, Brian Bendis did get a "special thanks" credit, but he did NOT get a creator credit for this version of Nick Fury or Maria Hill. No uproar over that that I've heard.
  • I get why Marvel isn't going to pay the Kirby estate any royalties for this (it starts to grey the legal area around who actually owns what) but wouldn't it be amazingly awesome if Whedon donated, say, 1/2% of his earnings from the movie to the Kirby estate? That would probably be more than Kirby ever earned from the characters, and would have a minimal impact on Whedon's bank account given how much revenue this film is already generating!
  • After all, the couple hundred bucks I got working as an extra for three days on the movie is probably more than Kirby will receive for it.
  • Speaking of me as an extra, there's no super obvious spot where you can say, "Hey, there's Sean!" Definitely will be a one-frame-at-a-time deal with the DVD later. But here's perhaps the "easiest" place you can spot me in the movie...
    Kenneth Tigar is standing between me and the camera for most of the shots from this angle, but just before Loki blasts at him, Tigar leans back a bit and you can see my back for a split second.
  • The three, 14-hour days of filming I did took less than two and half minutes of screen time. A second car being blown up, and a doorman getting slaughtered were both filmed during that period and evidently didn't make the final cut. (Presumably for time reasons.)
  • Also, it's weird to see the names of people I met as the credits rolled. None of the extras, of course, but some of the costume and casting folks.
  • Speaking of credits, that waitress that Cap saves, who thanks him on TV later? She seemed familiar to me, so I looked her up. Ashley Johnson. She played the youngest daughter on the last two seasons of Growing Pains.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Thoughts On Thoughts

Here's a Peanuts strip from many years ago...
Charlie Brown's comment at the end is not directed toward any of the other characters, but to the readers. It's an aside from the actual story, and meant to convey information about the situation that might not be readily apparent with a strictly naturalistic narrative. That is, the humor isn't evident in the actions themselves but Charlie Brown's interpretations and feelings about the actions.

The basic idea actually goes back thousands of years, easily dating back to at least ancient Greece. Classical Greek plays used what is known as a Greek Chrous, a group of 12-50 actors who comment on the play as it's being acted out, but don't directly interact with the other performers. The concept is so old, in fact, that use of the Greek Chorus began falling out of favor 2,000 years ago.

Comic books and strips picked up the same idea and used it throughout much of the 20th century. In many instances, it got over-used to the point where characters essentially narrated exactly what they were doing while they were doing it. The practice began noticeably dropping off in the 1980s, and it's pretty rare to see it in comic books these days.

The immediate preference seemed to be to move internal monologues into caption boxes. Initially, they acted identically to thought balloons and open narration, just without a tail visibly tied to the speaker. Generally, these have also fallen by the wayside (at least to some extent) and creators are finding more interesting and dramatic ways to convey that type of information.

Interestingly, though, it hasn't completely vanished. Here's an episode of Apartment 3-G from earlier this week...
All but two words of dialogue here are essentially internal narration. It's unlikely that a real person in Margo's situation would actually complain about Scott out loud on a busy street corner to no one in particular. The initial groan might be audible, but her thoughts probably wouldn't be nearly so grammatically salient. Just a jumble of emotions (frustration, concern, bitterness, etc.) that likely wouldn't congeal into coherent sentences. Because, while she's clearly upset, she has no one to express her feelings to and wouldn't take the time to organize and express herself verbally.

One more comic. Today's Zits...
I find this fascinating. They've taken the same basic idea of an internal monologue, and applied it to a 21st century teenager. He might be sitting alone on the couch but with his cell phone, he has his entire group of friends readily available to complain to. Furthermore, doing so via a text message means that, unlike Margo, he does have to organize and formalize his thoughts and feelings. So the internal monologue makes sense in an external manner.

Doubly fascinating, I think, is that Margo is in THE EXACT SAME SITUATION! She's frustrated from the messages ON HER PHONE but, instead of texting her friends or tweeting about it, she speaks out loud. Having Margo use the very device she's already holding would make sense narratively AND would allow for a more natural-sounding expression of her emotions. But that is ignored for a more "traditional" and klunky approach.

TRIPLY fascinating is that the text messaging icon used in Zits is a word balloon! The very graphic device that Charles Schulz used in a less sophisticated narrative manner above is, in fact, what's been appropriated by many texting and tweeting applications to convey and differentiate one person's messages from another's! The word balloon in that last panel isn't a word balloon as we normally see them in comics; it's a graphic of a word balloon that Jeremy is seeing on his phone!

It's not an uncommon narrative device to put some plot information into media that's consumed by the characters. Newspaper headlines, TV reports, etc. But it's interesting that we have devices now that allow for what could essentially be a return to using an internal monologue, just with the caveat that it's a monologue that could actually be shared around the character's world.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Shout-Out To Murray, Sanderson & Theakston

A co-worker and I were chatting this morning and, at some point, he asked what my next book was going to be about?

"Blackstone, the comic magician detective," I answered.

At which point he laughed, amused at the consistency with which I can find topics so obscure and esoteric that no one else is writing about it. He continued to point out that I also tend to go into great detail on these topics, probably much moreso than anyone else cares about. I agreed, saying that was more or less deliberate on my part.

He then proceeded to tell me about how he was a Doc Savage fan growing up, and he had 100-some of the novels. And how he was recently reading a book about the history of Lester Dent and his famous creation, and noted how the author of that piece also went into great detail about this character that no one today was all that familiar with, much like I do.

I asked if he was talking about Will Murray. After a split-second of surprise that I would know that name, he affirmed that he was indeed talking about Murray, a noted Doc Savage fan who's actually gone on to write several Doc Savage novels as well.

I'm not a big Doc Savage fan myself, but I've been familiar with Murray's work for many years now. I don't recall exactly when I first read something by him, or even when/where I started seeing his name with any regularity, but I do know that I've read any number of articles and such by him that have delved into the depths of comic book and pulp histories. I pointed out to my co-worker that I had actually used Murray as a sort of template for my own authorship.
But he wasn't the only one. As much as he knew about the medium, comics weren't his forte. Two other authors whose work was influential to me, in terms of how I've approached what passes for my writing "career", are Peter Sanderson and Greg Theakston. Sanderson is perhaps best known as one of the primary writers for The Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe and Marvel Saga. Theakston is best known as an illustrator, and is one of the go-to guys for prepping for reprint Golden Age comics for which usable art is no longer available.

I recall being in awe of Sanderson because, when I first heard of him, his title was Marvel Comics Archivist. That sounded liked an incredible job, and one which I hoped I could land one day. (Sanderson turned out to be the first and only person to hold that position. I believe he was let go during the Marvel's bankruptcy in the 1990s and the position was never filled again.)
I actually wasn't aware that Theakston did any artwork at all until 1999 when I saw his cover for The Golden Age of Marvel Comics. Prior to that I had only read research articles by him, primarily about Jack Kirby. I tell a lie; I did some of his art in his self-published Pure Images series, but those were largely text pieces with only a few pages of his original art. Regardless, I knew him more as a comics historian than anything else.

Murray, Sanderson and Theakston were/are three writers who would dig deep into the annals of comic history and cover their subjects with a depth and precision that I wasn't seeing anywhere else. Other writers who were trying to do the same type of thing came across as fanboys who wrote a little better than average. These guys, though, researched and wrote almost as if they were writing for academic journals. They wrote with a love of their subject, of course, but they also wrote intelligently and covered territory no one else seemed to be covering. These were the guys who had the most direct impact on my sense of what writing ABOUT comics should be. Much of my writing -- for Jack Kirby Collector, MTV Geek, Drawn Word and my own work -- is modeled off theirs.

Will, Peter, Greg -- if you happen across this, thanks very much. One of my goals in writing about comics is to have the same impact that you had on me. I'm quite confident that I'm not there yet, but that's part of why I keep coming back day after day.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Why Does Batman Carry Shark Repellent? Review

Why Does Batman Carry Shark Repellent? is the latest book from Brian Cronin, author of Was Superman a Spy? and the long-running Comics Should Be Good. In his new book, Cronin pulls out all sorts of comic ephemera and collects them into lists like "Nine Goofiest Moments in the First 20 Issues of Batman" and "Four Comic Book Creators Who Have Received Death Threats over Their Work." He also includes some similar lists from comic creators like Mark Waid and Dave Gibbons, and a few Top Rated lists based on some online surveys he conducted over at CBR.

As one might expect if you're familiar with Cronin's work, he doesn't just simply everything out with a series of bullets, but provides explanations and context for everything. Some of the anecdotes he includes were ones I was already familiar with, but many were not. Drops of KISS members' blood in the ink used in their comic? Knew that, seen the publicity photos. That two separate MLB players were nicknamed Flash Gordon? News to me. Bob Kane repeatedly swiping from Gang Busters in Action? Seen those. The guy who claimed he was working on the next issue of Wolverine: Origins while talking with Mike Deodato, who was the artist actually working on the next issue of Wolverine: Origins? Hilarious, but I'd never heard that. I suspect that there's something in here that's new to just about everyone.

Cronin's casual writing style here fits the subject matter well. It's light-hearted, and generally meant to be taken with a bit of a wink and a nudge, as suggested by the title. The individual pieces are concise, and worked really for me this past week when I only had a few moments to spare here and there. I could read a page or two and be done with that piece, or go on for 20-30 minutes if I had more time. While the lists are grouped into broad topic areas, they don't necessarily have to be read in any sequence. Honestly, I did find some of the creator lists a bit distracting because they often took a decidedly different (i.e. more serious) tone than Cronin, although I did appreciate some of the personal anecdotes they included as well.

I received a copy of the book from the publisher, but I don't think I'm really the best target audience for it. I was going cite my biggest complaint was an emphasis on Marvel and DC, but as I think on that, it makes sense for the type of person this book is aimed for. It's written very much for readers who are regularly picking up monthly superhero comics and enjoy the kitsch factor in some older comics featuring their favorite characters. It's not really for people looking for wholly new (to them) material; it's for people looking for new (to them) material about a character they already know. The goofiest moments of Batman. Characters who've wielded Thor's hammer. The weirdest powers of Superman. Even with list titles that frequently include words like "weird", "strange" and "goofy", there's no mention of Fletcher Hanks anywhere. No mention of the Carl Burgos version of Captain Marvel. With other list titles that include "awesome", "great" and "top 25", there's no reference at all to Maus. No talk about Milton Caniff.

And I honestly don't mean that as a complaint -- these are mostly lists compiled by one person, after all, and no one is going to agree with everything he places on them -- but it's an observation of the type of mindset that the book is geared towards. The book, while well-written and put together, was not written for someone like me. I enjoyed it for what it is, but I think I would've enjoyed it a lot more when I was hitting my local comic book shop every week and walking out with a stack of superhero comics.

Brian Cronin's Why Does Batman Carry Shark Repellent? should become available on May 29.

Wednesday, May 09, 2012

Post-Pig Links

  • Let's kick off this week's links with a potential firecracker. Matt Kuhns weighs in on the debate about Jack Kirby getting a credit in the Avengers movie. He elaborates in some detail, but he says: "I think that we are at the point where, in any meaningful sense, Jack Kirby has received the credit he’s due."
  • Kuhns also points us to this article over at The Economist, focusing on Rich Stevens' successful Kickstarter campaign for Diesel Sweeties. There's little in the article that's new for folks who follow webcomics news, but it's interesting in that it touches on (lightly) the idea of making a living from an incredibly niche market that doesn't even remotely appeal to a broad audience. And, while that also isn't entirely news to webcomickers, that it's being brought up in The Economist is noteworthy, I think.
  • Will Brooker also shows up again in our links post with a Huffington Post article looking specifically at the viral campaign around the new Batman movie.
  • I totally missed seeing the launch last week, but throughout May, Blake Bell is doing a blog post every day on Steve Ditko. Despite claiming that his work speaks for itself and that he doesn't have anything to add to it, Ditko has remained a fairly elusive figure to comics culture on the whole, I think. More work about him -- especially when it delves deeper than "creator of Spider-Man" -- is a good thing.
  • Maggie Thompson talks up the upcoming Barnaby collection from Fantagraphics. (For the record, I knew of Barnaby, but I've never seen more than a handful of strips.)
  • Jim Amash points us to a "Spiderman" (no hyphen) design allegedly by Jack Kirby predating the famous costume everybody is familiar with. This is, of course, a fake that's circulated before, based on the Giant-Man splash page from Tales to Astonish #51. There are more details on Amash's Facebook page.
(The post title, by the way, is in reference to the marathon I ran this past weekend; it's called the Flying Pig. No actual sausage links were made in the production of this blog post.)

Tuesday, May 08, 2012

Where Did My Heroes Go?

Interesting thing about running a marathon: despite several hours of doing an extremely repetitive motion that leaves your brain open to the possibility of wandering all over, one does very little thinking or daydreaming during a race like that. It's not just me; I've heard from several people who recall only the briefest snippets from running a marathon, even immediately afterwards. It's fascinatingly different, even, from doing training runs.

Training runs, after all, are training runs. You monitor your pace and breathing and whatnot, but if anything starts to go awry, you know you can safely stop and check things out. So your mind wanders around, maybe watching houses go by or listening to some good tunes. In an actual race, I think you register it as a different type of event -- one with consequences if you falter in any way. So there's a lot more internal monitoring going on. "How was that last step? Did I roll my ankle? Am I bending my knees enough? What are my energy levels like? I'm not over-hydrating myself, am I?"

That processing lasts throughout most of the race. It's important, for obvious reasons, but it also crowds out some OTHER important thoughts. Namely: WWBJGD? What would Benjamin J. Grimm do?

Or Green Arrow. Or Luffy. Or whoever your favorite hero is.

I can't speak for everyone who runs, of course, but I can't tell you the number of times during my training that I got sore and tired and thought to myself, "Would Luffy quit just because he was tired? No, he'd keep going until the fight was over. Now keep running!" These heroes from comic books, despite being completely fictional, frequently kept me going.

But they weren't available to me during the marathon. The closest I came to thinking of them was when Mark Snow's theme from Jake Speed came though my headphones somewhere around mile 16, and I had a brief flash of, "I can't stop now! This is hero music!" But I barely heard the song because my focus almost immediately went back to the state of my health.

And, if you've never run a marathon, let me tell you that there is absolutely no way I can explain what your body goes through. You go through your first and second winds, as well as a third wind you never knew about. Then you run out of energy completely and keep going on willpower. Then you run out of willpower and continue on momentum, hoping that you don't actually stop for any reason because you know you'll never be able to start again. If you EVER have an experience where you need a hero to guide you and coax you on, it's that type of situation where you have gone through your internal reserves twice over and have absolutely NOTHING left.

But Ben? Ollie? Luffy? Nowhere to be found. My heroes abandoned me. Right when I needed them the most.

Or did they?

The thing about heroes is: they're our inspiration. We look to heroes as the ideals we want to become. We read about the Fantastic Four or Justice League or Straw Hat Pirates to help us find our own compasses and suggest directions and actions for when we're faced with our own challenges and difficult situations. Because those heroes won't actually be there when your back is against the wall.

But maybe, if you were paying attention, you'll find an inner strength to become those very heroes. Oh, you probably won't be able to punch your fist through a brick wall, but you might find that your heroes have become part of you in a very real sense, allowing you to achieve more than you thought you were capable of.

(Photo of Tabitha Thompson care of alzimmermanoh.)

Monday, May 07, 2012

Go Buy Snarked!

I've been eagerly anticipating the first trade paperback collection of Roger Langridge's Snarked! for some time. I just managed to pick up and read a copy this weekend, and Holy Cow! This is a fantastic book!

It's too late and I'm too tired to do a full-on, proper review, but this far exceeded my expectations. I mean, sure, I know Langridge is a talented and funny storyteller, and that's evident in Snarked! But what really wowed me was how A) he kept to many of the same themes, ideas and characters from Lewis Carroll's works WITHOUT doing almost any rehashing, B) it was funny and easily approachable on its own terms if you weren't at all familiar with Carroll's originals, and C) it was made funnier still by loads of small in-references to Carroll's fans.

I was actually so taken with it that, when I got to the "to be continued" at the end, I was quite excited because that meant there's more! I hadn't heard any news about the book recently and had assumed it concluded, since Langridge had started work on Popeye. Boy, am I glad to have been wrong about that!

Go buy Snarked! This book is brilliant!

Sunday, May 06, 2012

So, This Happened

As I've mentioned before on my blog, I was signed up for the Flying Pig marathon this weekend. I started running about a year and a half ago, and this was my first race of any kind. Not a good finish time-wise (4:52) but given how badly my knee hurt and how much sun I'd been getting in the last half of the race, I'm mostly impressed that I finished at all. Not much comic related happenings that I saw, aside from one guy on the sidelines cheering in a Flash costume, but I'm mentioning it because my brain is mostly focused on OWOWOWOWOWOWOWOWOWOWOWOWOWOW! and I doubt I'll be able to come up with anything comic related to blog about today.

Anyway, here's me a few hundred yards from the finish...

Saturday, May 05, 2012


Just a quick note to say I stopped by Up, Up and Away Comics for Free Comic Book Day. It was extremely busy thanks in part to Tony Moore doing a signing there but everyone seemed quite cordial. Many good deals there to boot.

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Make-Up Post

Apologies for the lack of blogging yesterday. I'm kind of obsessing over this marathon I'm running tomorrow, so it's been kind of hard to focus on just about anything else. I'll try to make some notes later today about how Free Comic Book Day goes for me, but in the meantime, please enjoy this Double Bifrost that I saw from my deck the other day.

Thursday, May 03, 2012

No Gnus Is Bad Gnus

Someone was asking on Google+ the other day which sites people used most often for comic related news. Not surprisingly, Comics Alliance, CBR and Newsarama came up more than a couple times. But I responded that I get most of my comic news directly from the sources themselves by monitoring them on Twitter, Google+ and Facebook. With all of the interest around Thrillbent, for example, I heard most of it because I read it on Mark Waid's Twitter feed. Not that I never check comic news sites, of course, but they're not my primary go-to sources.

Which makes for an interesting dilemma for those who aren't looking far down the road yet. If enough people get their information directly from the source -- whether that's Twitter or some new-fangled shiny doodad of the moment -- then how does one get the word out about their projects? What I mean by that is: how does a creator who's new to the field and no one has ever heard make his message heard if all of his/her potential audience isn't congregating in one place like Newsarama? If the potential audience is following creators they know they like, how do they discover others that they might also like?

Well, currently, there are two solutions to this, but neither are guaranteed or ideally realized just yet.

First is to rely on some algorithm to tell your potential audience, "Hey, if you like this creator that you already follow, you might also like this new guy!" The technology for that is in its infancy right now, so it's hit or miss, at best. This also seems to only work well for relatively well-established folks who have a pretty good following already. Right now, for example, Twitter is suggesting I follow Brian Michael Bendis and Publishers Weekly -- both pretty well-known names in comics and publishing. And, as if to prove just how bad this technology is right now, it's also suggesting Adam Schefter, who's apparently an NFL reporter for ESPN. I don't even like sports, much less football, and have never Tweeted or blogged about either so I have to assume he's being suggested only because he has 1.5 million followers. It's certainly possible, if not inevitable, this type of technology will improve over time, but it'll be a while before this is really a viable avenue for getting the word out.

The second option is to hit up people that you know. Currently, a lot of folks send their PR material to the various news outlets, but I think that's started to shift to their being sent to taste-makers. Your name might not be well-known, but if you can catch the attention of someone whose name is more popular, they might be able to redirect some traffic your way. How many projects have gotten huge boosts, for example, because Warren Ellis said something about them? Or Neil Gaiman? Or Wil Wheaton? These are guys who command a lot of attention and when they say, "Hey, this looks cool" a lot of people will turn their attention to it. Even if only 1% of Ellis' Twitter followers decide to start following my blog, for example, that's over 20 times the traffic I get right now. But if 1% of my readers turned their attention to some project I highlighted, that's still a significant step up from zero. So while it probably wouldn't help Gaiman perceptibly if I reviewed his Sandman books, for example, a review of a new comic from a creator few people have heard of could help sales there.

Of course, catching someone's attention and keeping it are two very different things. You're still on the hook for delivering on whatever it was that caught someone's attention in the first place. But it's going to be interesting to watch over the next few years as people start figuring this out, and send more material to Ellis or Gaiman than they do to CBR or any of the other big news web sites. Interesting, too, to see how those taste-makers react and start formally addressing what they will and won't look through.

Wednesday, May 02, 2012

Links, Pre- Free Comic Book Day Edition

Free Comic Book Day: May 5, 2012
  • As they've done for the past several years, Hogan's Alley is giving out free copies of their magazine on Free Comic Book Day. Rather than pick them up in your local store, however, you need to send them an email ON SATURDAY with your mailing address; then they'll shoot a copy to you via snail mail. A great deal, especially if you won't be able to make it to a comic book shop in person.
  • There will undoubtedly be many good ideas and stories surrounding Free Comic Book Day, but I have to give credit to Carol & John’s Comic Shop in Cleveland for serving Cleveland Action Brewery’s FCBD 2012 Ale to their first 90 of-drinking-age patrons at midnight on Saturday! (I don't even drink and it sounds cool!) (h/t Matt Kuhns)
  • Umika Pidaparthy has a two-part article (Part 1, Part 2) on the Indian comic book industry over at CNN's Geek Out. I'm always for looking at our favorite subject without the usual America-centered myopia.
  • Apparently, making cross-stitch manga is a thing. I did not know this.
  • KPBS profiles Rebecca Hicks and Paul Horn. It's a decent piece, but it kind of feels like someone just discovered that webcomics were a thing. (Also of note: the video opens with a shot of Horn working next to some very nice Fantastic Four and Dr. Doom statues.)

Tuesday, May 01, 2012

Hands Of Vision

I was doing some drawing yesterday for my next MTV column. I'm not much of an illustrator, but I can make something generally recognizable. (Which gets to the point of my next column, and why you don't see more Sean Kleefeld originals around!) The "finished" art was a little sketchy by design, but it looks like a cartoon of two people talking. Mid-range shot, so you just see from the torso up. Most of it is serviceable, but I rather liked the hands.

Well, not the actual linework or anything, but the basic pose and composition of the hands looked decent, I thought. Especially given the size and level of detail I was aiming for. They looked like they were in a fairly natural pose.

The reason for that is that, back when I was still young and thinking about being a comic book artist for a living, I was looking at how comic book artists drew hands. For some reason, Avengers #242 with Al Milgrom/Brett Breeding art stands out. There was a panel of the Vision just standing there with his hand at his side. And there was this interesting bit where his thumb and index finger were clearly visible, but his remaining three fingers were shadowed. But you could still distinguish the individual fingers because they all curled a little differently. It was subtle bit, but it caught my eye for some reason. I guess it was just a very natural-looking hand gesture and, because most of it was in shadow, fairly easy to draw. Since then, I would tend to notice when artists drew particularly smooth, natural gestures and tried to copy them.

I did enough copying that, when I was drawing yesterday, I didn't use a hand model but still got some decent poses. But -- and here's the critical bit -- it's essentially copied from other artists. Not copied verbatim; I didn't have any reference in front of me, but copied in the sense that my anatomy of hands is based on the works of others, not on actual hands.

I took some drawing classes in high school and college. I can recall that we spent a couple weeks on hands, in fact. Set our own hand down in front of us and draw it. When we finished, we'd change our position and draw it again. (Heh. I recall once contorting my hand in such a way that only three fingers were visible. I'd been on an ElfQuest kick at the time!) But that was two weeks of drawing hands from real life.

The same is generally true of most of my art. I learned to draw women's lips by copying Mort Walker. I studied John Byrne's faces. Musculature care of George Perez. Feet via Mike Zeck.

Which is why I'm not a very good artist. I'd spent time studying interpretations of anatomy instead of actual anatomy. I never really fully studied how joints and muscle and tendons connect together in real life. So anything I put down on paper is my interpretation of somebody else's interpretation of the human body. And that's why it will always remain, at best, serviceable.

It's all well and good to study other artists and writers to see how they handle certain things, but the closer you can get to actual source material -- the more you study anatomy or human interactions or whatever -- the better and more successful you can be as a creator.