Saturday, June 30, 2012

Should Publishers Push Subscriptions?

Used to be that you could order a subscription for just about every comic in America. It's not nearly as common a practice any more, but it's apparently still around. I have to admit to being surprised to see that Archie, DC and Marvel are offering them, though; they certainly don't seem to go out of their way to promote their subscription services. But they're still orderable through the companies' respective web sites.

I get why a publisher might not want to do subscriptions. It's more of a distribution concern than a publishing one, so it wouldn't really be part of the same bailiwick that a publisher would normally be used to. Also, given the current direct market system, it could easily be seen as a means to undercut local comic shops and it's understandable that publishers wouldn't want to shake up the basket into which they've put all their eggs.

But I wonder if there's not some great value to subscriptions that publishers aren't really capitalizing on. Namely, customer data.

Now, I'm not thinking in terms of selling customer lists or anything so blatant, but a lot of what drives business these days is customer data. Historically, publishers used the sales numbers to gauge the success of their magazines, which is good data to have, but what if you could tell what region(s) certain books were more popular? Or get gender breakdowns? Or simply just having an address to send a survey to? Depending on what information a company asked when a customer had to provide their mailing address, they could gain a number of insights about their customers. Even if you put questions in that were optional and largely unrelated to the subscription itself. And then comparing all that data against what they're getting through their digital subscriptions!

Comic publishing is littered with anecdotal evidence as to who reads their wares, why and how. Even the survey that DC is sending out now is, in part, just going to pull in anecdotal information. But anecdotal evidence is unreliable in the first place and not at all representative of an entire customer base in the second.

Obviously, I'm on the outside looking in, so maybe they do have hard core analysts who are parsing all the data they already do have into valuable and actionable information. It doesn't look like it from my vantage point but, as I said, I'm on the outside here. But from here, it looks like a lot of the same. And while that may well be backed up by data-driven evidence, I have the sneaking suspicion that it's not.

Friday, June 29, 2012

Alice Wadsworth Knows Her Superman

Here's a two-page spread from the October 14, 1940 issue of Life...

It was part of a story on Japanese and Japanese-Americans living in California. This would have been a little over a year before Pearl Harbor and the subsequent American internment of anybody who looked remotely Japanese. The full article starts off...
The shadow of the treaty by which Japan joined Germany and Italy in military alliance fell more darkly over Washington last week than it did over the flowered fields and coastal cliffs of Southern California. To Americans in the West it sounded a summons for increased watchfulness over the big Japanese minority swelling in their midst.
I can only find one response to the piece in the various Letters to the Editor that followed from the October 28 issue. It refers specifically to the spread I've included above and reads, in its entirety...

Thursday, June 28, 2012

How To Prepare For NOT Going To San Diego

As you probably know, Comic-Con International is right around the corner. Over the next couple of weeks, you'll undoubtedly hear about people preparing to go. There will be (in fact, there already are) lists out there about what to bring, where to go, how to traverse the con floor without getting killed, etc. There's even a full-on survival guide.

But, odds are that you're not going. You're going to be sitting around at home, thinking it would be cool to go, but stuck taking in the news and events vicariously through a screen of some kind. Last year, I started trying to follow the convention in real-time using a specific set of feeds, and it worked out pretty well. So I thought I'd put together a guide of sorts for those of you trying to play the home game version of SDCC.

First, keep in mind that there are a lot of outlets vying for your attention in presenting news from Comic-Con. You certainly have the option of following them all individually, or just focusing on one or two of the big name productions, but I think there's a good chance you'll miss something, given the volume of news that comes out of SDCC and a specific focus each outlet has. Attack of the Show, for example, has been doing live coverage on the G4 network for the past several years, but they tend to focus more on big budget movies and, to a lesser degree, video games over comics. Nothing wrong with that, but if you're interested in comics specifically, it might not be the best source for you. So my first suggestion is to find multiple outlets that are generally covering the types of things about the convention you're most interested in.

Second, and directly related to my first suggestion, is to coalesce those sources into one location. That is, use an online portal (Google and Yahoo both have free ones, but they're by far not the only players in town) to basically create a news page. With a portal, you can choose to drop in different components from different sources and place them all in one location. Personally, I prefer Google's, but your mileage may vary. As of this morning, mine looks like this...

The first element I think is critical in terms of real-time info is, not surprisingly, Twitter. On the far right, I'm using the Twitter Gadget to pull in all tweets that use the #SDCC hashtag. This provides short blurbs from people that I might not normally think to follow. While not everyone is going to always use the #SDCC hashtag, it catches a huge chunk of info about what's going on during the show.

On the left, I'm pulling two RSS feeds. One is Comic Alliance's "convention news" and one is Comic Book Resource's regular news feed. I like that CA pulls out con-specific news and I can skip over their commentary or whatever else might available. With CBR, their news feed (speaking from past experience) will be almost exclusively Comic-Con coverage once the show gets underway anyway. I pull in my SDCC news feeds here to easily separate them out from anything I might catch in my normal feed reader. And, again, place them directly in the broader context of SDCC news.

MTV Geek does not have a special news feed, and their broad coverage goes a fair bit beyond the purview of Comic-Con. But they do have a San Diego Comic-Con tag they use on their stories, so I can pull in a page of theirs with just SDCC news. Here, though, I have to use an iframe to pull in their whole page. It's a little cumbersome and takes up a fair amount of real estate, but I do generally like their coverage. There are plenty of iframe gadgets to choose from that make this relatively easy. (Full disclosure: I write a weekly column for them, so I'm probably somewhat biased.)

Under the MTV bit is a slide show of images from Flickr that are tagged with "Comic-Con", presented in order reverse chronological order. (Meaning the most recent images get seen first.) Again, not every image will be tagged "Comic-Con" but there will be plenty that includes everything from celebrities to cosplayers to product shots to family snaps. The slide show is actually a feature of Flickr itself, and I used the Flash Wrapper gadget and plugged in the appropriate Flash file information. If you're interested, the relevant info you need is:
Flash/SWF URL: http://www.flickr.com/apps/slideshow/show.swf?v=109615
FlashVars: offsite=true&lang=en-us&page_show_url=%2Fsearch%2Fshow%2F%3Fq%3Dcomic-con%26s%3Drec%26ss%3D2&page_show_back_url=%2Fsearch%2F%3Fq%3Dcomic-con%26s%3Drec%26ss%3D2&method=flickr.photos.search&api_params_str=&api_text=comic-con&api_tag_mode=bool&api_safe_search=3&api_media=all&api_sort=date-posted-desc&jump_to=&start_index=0
In the bottom left is a gadget that pulls in a single YouTube video channel. I've selected the Things From Another World channel because they did a fair amount of not-quite-live coverage last year. I'm hoping they'll be providing the same this year.

Marvel itself had live video feeds last year as well which were able to be dropped in place. Those were quite useful to get a feel of the floor itself, as well as provide some high-profile extended interviews. If/when they provide another feed, it will probably be able to tapped into using a similar technique as I've noted with Flickr. G4 also promises they'll stream live editions of Feedback on the 13th and 14th. I believe this will be new for their SDCC coverage, though, so I'm not sure if/how that might be implemented.

With Google specifically (and others might have this as well, but I haven't looked into them in this level of detail) you can also change the theme on the page. Mine is a general Marvel heroes theme that changes hero images about once every hour or so. Most of my portal pages feature a more abstract design, but I thought it might be fun to throw something a bit more topically relevant on this page, since it's temporary anyway.

Last year, I threw a bunch of this together at the last minute as the convention was starting. I'm pretty savvy at building this type of thing, though, so it was easy to make updates/changes on the fly. If you're not as familiar with the tools and won't be attending the show this year, it might not be a bad idea to start your preparations now to make sure you don't miss out on everything.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Wait; It's The End of June? Here's Some Last Minute Links!

  • Will Brooker has a piece over at io9 with four ways to reboot the Batman franchise in a post-Christopher-Nolan bat-media space. I honestly can't tell how serious he is with any of these... which I find disturbing in an of itself.
  • The Dayton Art Institute will be hosting a "You Are My Superhero" exhibition from July 22 - September 23. While they make definite acknowledgement of comic books and comic book art, they're also clear that it's not limited to the one medium. As this is decidedly in my neck of the woods, I'll make a concerted effort to attend and report back here after it opens.
  • Wendy Chan writes up an overview of her designing the logo for Alice in the Country of Hearts. While she doesn't go into really deep detail, I do like the acknowledgement/reference to the original Japanese logo.
  • Salon has a piece up about Italian fumetti. A bit light on substance, but there's some gorgeous examples to look. One point of contention: "fumetti" is just the Italian word for comics, just as "manga" is the Japanese word for comics. While English-speakers have used "fumetti" to describe comics made out of photographs, that's something of a bastardization of the term and suggests something much more limited in scope than the actual definition.
  • The Geek Speak Show now has a Geek Speak Video Show. The pilot episode, in which they interview Joe Field of Flying Colors, went up on Monday.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Lee Falk, Comedian

Lee Falk is, of course, known for some of the most famous adventure comic strips from the early part of the 20th century. The Phantom is probably his best-known creation, but Mandrake the Magician runs a close second. It's Mandrake who really set the stage (if you'll excuse the pun) for so many magician characters, from Ibis to Zatara and, by extension, Zatanna. But Mandrake was first, appearing in 1934. Some comic historians consider him comics' first superhero. (I don't want to get into that debate, though!)

In both his Phantom and Mandrake stories, Falk largely focused on adventure. The stories had a very pulp feel to them, and concentrated more on the propelling the story forward with action, moreso than characterization or drama. In Mandrake, Falk was assisted by artist Phil Davis essentially from the start

So I was surprised to stumble across this Mandrake comic strip from 1939...
Let's set aside the ugly racial stereotypes in the dialogue and art for a moment, and just look at the basic structure of this particular comic. A barker encourages Lothar to pay ten cents for a half-hour of entertainment in his arcade. Lothar promptly tries several machines geared to test one's strength in various ways, and he turns out to be so strong that he inadvertently wrecks each machine, seemingly oblivious to both his own strength and the intent of the barker. It's... a gag. From Lee Falk.

Lee Falk, action/adventure writer, did a gag strip. In a five-year old comic that had been firmly established as not-a-gag-strip. I'm just left scratching my head on what prompted the sudden change for this one strip. Anyone else ever see examples of Falk's attempts at gag strips like this?

Monday, June 25, 2012

Giving Up Comics?

I generally like Tom Spurgeon's weekly "Five for Friday" posts. They're kind of quirky and fun, but more interestingly, they make me reflect on my own relationship with comics. And with so many diverse topics, I've found myself delving into long neglected memories and analyzing modern themes that I might not otherwise have considered. Plus, when Tom posts them all on Sunday, I can see how other people think about the same subject. I try to participate in those "Five for Friday"s as often as I can, but I often find myself travelling on Friday evenings and don't even find out what the week's theme is until the next day after he's closed submissions.

This past weekend's subject was "Name The Last Five Comics-Buying Impulses/Strategies You'd Give Up." I was actually sitting around the house Friday evening, but I decided not to participate. I was reminded of an informal poll Valerie Gallaher conducted a few years back, right after the recession kicked into overdrive. One of her questions was:
2. Rank the following in the order of (top) would drop last to (bottom) would drop first, if you had to save money:
  1. Comic Books
  2. Video Games
  3. Collectibles
  4. Cable TV
  5. Music
  6. Internet
  7. Medication and Medical Procedures (assuming you aren't covered for them, includes dental care)
  8. Movies (either DVDs or going out to theatre)
  9. Eating Out For Dinner
My answer was that I already had cut everything, except my internet connection. This was down from a $30 per week budget on pamphlet comics. Down to nothing. The decision was not "should I drop Fantastic Four titles before or after I drop Warren Ellis books" -- it was "should I drop comics or eat".

(I should clarify, I suppose, that I only gave up "comics I had to pay for." At the time, I largely switched over to webcomics that were freely available online. And, since my financial situation has improved since then, I've gone back and made many purchases from webcomic creators whose work I particularly enjoy or appreciate.)

It's an interesting notion to consider hypotheticals like that, but I'm wondering how realistic this particular one is. I mean, do people actually cut back in the ways that are suggested in the various responses there, or do they simply stop buying comics altogether like I did, or do their purchasing strategies become irrelevant because they're no longer viable (when a creator stops producing new work or when they complete the collection one of their strategies was targeted at)?

I'm sure fans change their purchasing strategies all the time, based on any number of changing variables. But the suggestion inherent in Tom's theme was that you had to whittle down your comic purchasing habits more gradually and deliberately. My question is: does that actually happen? Do people have purchasing strategies that, for whatever reason(s), they slowly chip away at over time?

I don't know. I don't know if my approach is unique or common. I don't know how other people go about deciding which comics to buy or not. What do most comic fans actually do?

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Summit Of The Gods 3 Review

In the early part of the 20th century, the challenges in mountain climbing got many people interested in the activity. It bred heroes in the same vein as Charles Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart were in aviation. George Mallory was one such mountaineering hero, having gone on the first three British expeditions up Mount Everest, the tallest mountain on Earth. He was the one who famously responded, "Because it's there," when asked why he was trying to climb Everest.

In 1924, on his third expedition, he and his climbing partner Andrew Irvine vanished and were never heard from again. If they managed to reach the summit before disappearing, they would be the first humans to ever reach the peak, a honor that is officially held by Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay in 1953, nearly three decades later! But because Mallory and Irvine were lost before they could speak to anyone about their attempt, their success has been a matter of speculation in the mountaineering community for the past three quarters of a century!

Mallory's body was eventually found in 1999. It was at a little over 8,100 feet above sea level, 600-some feet from the summit. Irvine's body has never been found, but his ice axe was discovered more than 8,400 feet up. The markings on Mallory's frozen body suggest that he and Irvine were still tethered together; presumably, one of them slipped, pulling the other with him. Mallory had gouge in his forehead that was about the size of his axe, which has led to the popular theory that, as the two men were falling down the slope, Mallory jammed his axe into the ice and snow to slow their fall; the axe caught a rock and bounced out, smacking Mallory in the head and killing him.

But that doesn't answer the question of whether or not they reached the summit. Were they still on their way up when they slipped, or on their way back down? Since it was 30 years before the next group was able to reach the peak, any evidence Mallory and Irvine may have left there would certainly have been blown away or destroyed by the elements. The only real hope of answering the question with any finality would be if someone found the camera Mallory and Irvine had with them, and were able to develop the film. But the camera, not surprisingly, has never been found.

Most of what I've explained so far is not in The Summit of the Gods. It's background information I looked up. Not because I needed to in order to understand the story, but because the story was so compelling that I wanted to know more.

The premise of Summit is that a young man finds what he believes to be Mallory's camera in a pawn shop in Kathmandu. It's stolen before he can do anything with it, and he's driven on an adventure to unravel the mystery. But that mystery is leads to another... and another. The classic "riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma."

The manga is actually based on a prose story by Baku Yumemakura, which was written before Mallory's body was found. But Jiro Taniguchi's storytelling makes the story, to me at least, incredibly engaging. Especially considering that all the mountaineering history makes sense, despite so very little of it actually making its way into the story. The artwork is gorgeous throughout and one really gets a sense of the bleakness people feel when they run into problems on a climb. That Ponent Mon publishes this on good quality paper with crisp ink makes it that much more an attractive package.

There will be five books in total. I have no idea where the story is going, but I've thoroughly enjoyed all three books so far. Certainly enough to spend a lot of additional time reading about Mallory and Everest, above and beyond what's presented in Summit. And I think that speaks to the story's quality moreso than any simple recommendation I could make.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Tye's Superman Book Review

You've probably heard/seen something about Larry Tye's new book, Superman: The High-Flying History of America's Most Enduring Hero. It's gotten a fair amount of press, due in large part, I suspect, to some heavy marketing and promotion. I mean, they sent me a comp copy and how often do I talk about Superman here? (Although, hey, I just noticed I'm cited in the Bibliography for my Paul Sampliner post! Neat!)

At a high level, the book traces the history of Superman from Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster's upbringing in Cleveland through DC's "New 52" event. Tye covers not just the comics, but the serials, movies, TV and radio shows as well as the promotional items that managed to slap Superman's image on it. Tye addresses both the creative decisions, as well as the legal and personal ones that fall outside the realm of the Superman stories themselves. So, not surprisingly, it's a reasonably thick book at 432 pages, although the last 100 or so are the Appendix and Index.

I'm no Superman expert, by any means. I've only got a few dozen issues of Superman and Action Comics and I don't think I've seen any of the shows or movies in maybe 15 years. I've briefly considered going to Superman Celebration a couple of times, but never did because the six hour drive didn't seem worth it for me. That said, I am more than passingly familiar with the history here, so a lot of what Tye chronicles wasn't new for me. Certainly not the broad strokes. I think the biggest thing I walked away from the book learning was many of the legal issues that came up specifically around the first Christopher Reeve movie.

So the book struck me as a bit odd in that respect. Tye even notes as much in his Acknowledgments: "Why did the world, which already had two hundred books about the comics and their leading man, need two hundred and one?" Tye claimed that none of them included a "full-fledged account that approaches him as if he were human". I don't have a huge library of Superman books, as I've suggested, but I have trouble believing that no one has covered everything Tye covers in one book before, with the possible exception of the most recent events. Maybe I'm wrong on that front but, as I said, very little came across as new information to me.

One of the difficulties inherent in tackling a subject like Superman is that, unlike a real person's biography, many things were going with Superman simultaneously. Both the Fleischer cartoons and the Kirk Alyn serials, for example, overlapped with the Bud Collyer radio program. Later, the Super Friends cartoon was on the air during the filming and release of the first three Reeve movies. So a strict chronological organization would be difficult, at best, and would almost inevitably wind up being confusing for the reader. Tye, therefore, tends to chunk the details on more of a project by project basis. He talks about the radio show first, then goes back to talk about the Fleischer cartoons, and then goes on to the serials. But even in that context, there wind up being some uncomfortable segues and he still darts back and forth a bit more than he should need to. Especially given that he keeps returning to the lives of Siegel and Shuster periodically. It's not terribly difficult to sort the chronology, as he provides context throughout, but it gets a little dicey, especially towards the beginning of the 21st century when more and more projects are going on simultaneously.

Maybe Tye was right about no one ever collecting everything into one book before. Maybe it's not because other people haven't tried, but because they realized it was too big to include everything in one book. "The superhero was back onstage in Dallas, a featured attraction in Warner Bros.' bustling store in Shanghai, a prominent player in movies as eclectic as Kill Bill and Hollywoodland, the focus of college courses on everything from sociology and immigration to gender studies, and a centerpiece exhibition at Jewish museums in Berlin, Paris, and Amsterdam." Maybe that's too much for one book.

Tye's book tries to be as comprehensive as possible, and I'm sure that all but the most avid Superman aficionados will find something new. My biggest complaint about the book is that, in trying to be comprehensive, it winds up being a little more convoluted than necessary. The book is broader than it is deep, not surprisingly, and Tye's attempt makes me think the Man of Steel has outgrown his ability to be fully captured in a single volume.

Superman: The High-Flying History of America's Most Enduring Herois available now and retails for $27.00 (although it looks like many online retailers are discounting it to around $18.00 currently).

Friday, June 22, 2012

Comic Creator Biographies

I just got a notice from TwoMorrows that they'll be releasing a new biography of Marie Severin on Wednesday, July 18 called Marie Severin: The Mirthful Mistress of Comics. TwoMorrows does really quality work overall, so I don't doubt this will be a great read. (Full disclosure: I have a column in Jack Kirby Collector and have contributed to some of their other magazines as well.) They've also got biographies of Nick Cardy and Matt Baker on top of their Modern Masters series. Marc Nobleman has a Bill Finger biography coming out shortly and Irwin Hansen has an autobiography out that I've been interested in getting my hands on. The Jackie Ormes biography was brilliantly insightful and the Julie Schwartz autobiography was pretty cool too. There's the 2007 biography of Bill Mantlo whose proceeds were used to help Mantlo's ongoing care.

All of this is in addition to the comic biographies and autobiographies of the "usual suspects" Stan Lee, Bob Kane, Jack Kirby, Charles Schulz, etc.

How awesome is that? Jerry Robinson! Curt Swan! Dick Giordano! Gus Arriola! Lily Renée! Twenty years ago, I would NEVER have guessed there'd be biographies about these people! Twenty years ago, I didn't even know some of these people even existed!

You know, I haven't read all of these books, so I can only speak to the quality of a a few of them. But the fact that there's enough interest out there that somebody is willing to even try to put together a biography of these comparatively obscure comic creators is absolutely fantastic! (Tell the truth: were you able to recognize each and every name I've cited in the post?) And that STILL doesn't even get into the memoir-as-comic genre that would include the likes of Marjane Satrapi and Craig Thompson. And that STILL only covers material that's been printed into book form!

I just think the volume of material out there on comic creators is really fantastic, and I urge everyone to read up on their favorite creators, as they all have fascinating stories.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

We Need You, Superman

I'm in the middle of reading Larry Tye's new Superman book (full review once I finish it) and it's got this passage buried on page 203 that kind of stands out for me...
Periodically we all need to recapture our youth and idealism, especially at a moment when America was mired in a malaise that President Jimmy Carter called a "crisis of confidence." Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster understood that when they introduced their hero in the midst of the Depression and on the eve of a world war. The Salkinds understood it when the bought the rights to Superman and hired two grown-up kids -- Donner and Makiewicz -- to make the movie.
That snippet comes from the chapter talking about specifically about the first Christopher Reeve movie, a movie I saw in the theater as a kid when it first came out. I, of course, already knew Superman from the comics and the Super Friends cartoon and I think I had already seen some of the George Reeves shows in syndication. But in Reeve, I totally bought into how Reeve transformed from Clark Kent to Superman and made it totally believable. And with the effects (and a six-year-old's brain) I really did believe a man could fly.

My childhood in the 1970s was, by and large, enjoyable. We had a tree house in the backyard, we could bike over to the playground at the school a half mile up the road, we had our Mego (and later Star Wars) action figures, and there were some brilliantly wacky shows on TV like H.R. Pufnstuf and The Hot Fudge Show. But I also recall a good portion of the decade tinged with a pervasive shadow of pessimism. At the time, I of course had little to no grasp on the recession, stagflation, Vietnam, Watergate, or any of the other events that seemed to beat to death whatever optimism people might've had in the 1960s. But the feelings they brought forth in adults were palpable.

My impressions of the 1970s are naturally skewed a bit by my young age at the time, but I look back on the decade as one where society as a whole was miserable and grasped at anything they could that provided any sort of light or hope. Which is where we got crazy things like Pufnstuff. I think that led, in part, to the enormous success of Star Wars -- a simple premise of good versus evil that spoke directly to a great escapist fantasy.

And that led to the Reeve Superman. The movie is so filled with hope and optimism about a savior for mankind that we desperately needed right at that moment. "You've got me? Who's got you?!?" doesn't need to be answered because it doesn't matter -- somebody needed to be there to rescue us at the last minute as we fell and there he was in blue spandex. We didn't care HOW we got saved, just that we were. And Superman was there at just the right time, with just the right casual smile, with just the right sense of comfortable confidence, with just the right set of simple answers. "Easy, miss. I've got you," was all we really needed.

You heard about Mike Meyer's story late last year, didn't you? He was the Superman fan who had a good chunk of his collection stolen. I heard a follow-up recently on State of the Re:Union about how much had been collected and sent to him, even after his stolen collection was retrieved. At Superman Celebration a couple weeks ago, Meyer noted that he'd also gotten a personal call from Brandon Routh, visited the set of Man of Steel to meet Henry Cavill and Amy Adams, and was able to draw his own Superman on Jerry Siegel's writing desk in the Cleveland home where Siegel grew up. It's an incredibly touching story, made all the more powerful by such heart-warming ending. All because of Superman.

Superman is indeed a powerful character that, when done well, touches on exactly what we need in times of desperation. He is hope and optimism and idealism and peace and unconditional love and inspiration and personal conviction and inner strength and all the things that humanity should be striving for. I can completely see why so many people gravitate towards the character.

But that quote I started with stands out because that's where we are today in 2012. That's where we've been since 2007, and one of the reasons why Obama's message of hope and change helped get him into office. But he's not Superman, despite some of the visual analogies made to that effect. And because Obama is not Superman, we still need Superman. And I think that's where DC and Time-Warner have faltered.

I don't see the Superman we need anywhere right now. The Brandon Routh movie was a tad too early, and was perhaps a little too grounded with the subplots to become really good escapism. Same with Smallville. I think the same holds for what's in the comics -- interacting with a darker hero like Batman dampens the optimism people respond to when they latch onto Superman and doesn't get free enough to be pure escapism. I can't speak directly to the cartoons, but I get the sense those are in the same vein as the comics.

Will the Cavill version be the version we need? Maybe, maybe not. I don't know. Personally, I'm getting more of a Kirk Alyn vibe from him, and I don't think that would go over as well, but it's obviously too early to say for sure. But we're at one of those dark times when our culture needs a hero with a casual smile, a wink and a nod, and the power and confidence to handle any problem that gets thrown at him. We've got enough struggles; we need to see someone who we know can rise above them all. Siegel and Shuster saw that in the 1930s. Richard Donner saw that in the 1970s.

Despite the catchphrase, Superman's not out fighting for truth, justice and the American Way. He's there to fight for a brighter future when it looks like we don't have one. Superman is the light at the end of the tunnel. And right now, I think we need that Superman; we've been in this darkness for too long.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

It's Summer! It's Links!

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Racism, Bigotry & Green Lantern

I don't generally bother covering stuff that's already getting a fair amount of attention because I don't know that I have anything valuable to add to the conversation, but I've been asked to comment on the gun-toting, ski-mask-wearing Green Lantern thing. If you don't follow mainstream comic news, it stems from this promotional image of an upcoming Green Lantern book...

A lot of folks have lobbed the word "racism" around because it's one of the few (only?) black men shown on a DC cover, and he's portrayed with a gun and a ski mask. Others have come back and said that it's racist to claim that's racist.

It's possible there's some racism behind the image -- I don't know artist Doug Mahnke or any of the editors that might've had input into the design -- but without having any insights about the thoughts that went into the image, we can't say. Furthermore, the image by itself is just a single figure, so there's no one we can put Green Lantern into context with. Since racism is defined as "a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race" there's no way we can show the image is inherently racist. Basically, anyone throwing the "racism" around here doesn't know the actual definition of the word.

You might be able to claim there's some bigotry involved. A bigot is defined as "a person who is obstinately or intolerantly devoted to his or her own opinions and prejudices; especially : one who regards or treats the members of a group (as a racial or ethnic group) with hatred and intolerance." So to claim that there's evidence of bigotry here, you'd essentially have to say that Mahnke (or, again, any editors who influenced the design) was insistent that Green Lantern wear a mask and carry a gun because they firmly believed that's what black people do. Or that black people are thugs and thugs wear masks and carry guns. Something along those lines. Basically that a black person, regardless of their individual characteristics, has to conform to some pre-conceived notion.

This is where stereotypes comes from. The angry black man. The sassy black woman. The socially awkward genius Asian. The overbearing Jewish mother. The stereotypes become easy go-to images that we, as humans, use as a sort of mental short-hand to classify people before we get to know them. It gives us a place to start interacting with them from when we don't have any other knowledge about them. It becomes bigotry when we adhere to the stereotype even after we've gotten to know someone, or when we force their words and actions to fit the stereotype.

I'm a white guy who's been dating a black woman for over four years now. The relationship has been great, despite us living 300 miles apart. But other people I've known for years longer have mentally assigned her that sassy black woman stereotype, and pigeonhole her comments to fit that mold. Despite four years of evidence to the contrary. There's clearly some bigotry there, possibly some racism as well, and it's saddening to see that kind of small-mindedness in people I know. I can understand how someone might start with the idea of her being a sassy black woman, but four years on? That's bigotry.

Right now, we have exactly one image of this Green Lantern. We won't see him in a story until September. The image presented plays heavily into racial stereotypes, especially in the absence of anything else. It could be that the creators play against that stereotype, though, and make readers think about why they thought what they did about the character shown on the cover. That's not infrequently a clever use of the stereotype. Personally, though, I'm not encouraged given the distinct lack of progressive and/or creative thought I've seen coming out of DC lately, but anything is possible.

Of course, given that giving a character who already has the most powerful weapon in the universe a handgun is about the most uncreative thing I've seen in a long time -- and even if the gun were a manifestation of Green Lantern's, it's still about the least creative uses for a power ring -- I'm not about to hold my breath for brilliant characterization that plays against the stereotype. And if that stereotype is indeed used, that's still not necessarily bigotry; but it would be not at all creative and very small-minded.

Personally, I'm not going to bother looking it up in September to find out. I'd rather take a chance on a comic by some total unknown to me than go with a company that has a long track record of ethnographic obliviousness.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Old Wolfman/Wein Interview

Here's an interview with Len Wein and Marv Wolfman conducted by Jay Zilber for The Fantastic Four Chronicles circa 1981. I republished it on my old FFPlaza web site in the late 1990s and thought I'd drag it out again for you here. (Read as: I'm drawing a blank on new content today, and didn't want to dip into the mashup well.) I always got a kick of how the two of the recap the FF's origin; it's almost like a performance piece in and of itself!

Jay Zilber: What did it mean to you to be writing "The World's Greatest Comics Magazine?" Was it something you always wanted to do, or was it thrust upon you by chance?

Len Wein: It was thrust upon me by chance. I was the next in the logical order...

JZ: Roy Thomas had been writing the book for a time, and the there were a couple of Bill Mantlo fill-in issues, and then...

LW: ... me. I was the logical choice to replace Roy at the time. Gerry [Conway] was then over at DC -- as I recall, the sequence of FF writers was Stan, Roy, Gerry, Roy, me, and Marv. Since Gerry was not around at the time, and since I was doing, at that point, Spider-Man, Hulk and Thor, it seemed like it was the logical addition to the triumvirate of "biggie" titles, the old Stan Lee titles. I didn't last very long though... I did about a half-dozen issues.

Marv Wolfman: And when Len got off the book. I had wanted it, because I like the Fantastic Four.

LW: Oh, I liked them too, by the way. I didn't drop the book for lack of enjoying the characters. I left the company, as I recall.

JZ:
Those were the circumstances for both of you -- when Len left the book, you left the company.

MW:
No, I had actually quit the book before I left the company. I had said I would quit FF at a certain issue, before I even knew I was leaving Marvel. It just turned out that the issue I said I would leave on was at the same time I would have left anyway. I took on the assignment because Len got off, and it was a book I really wanted to write. I was given FF and Spider-Man at the same time.

JZ:
What were you trying to accomplish during each of your respective tenures on the book? Were you trying to return to the Lee-Kirby roots, or to be faithful to what had just preceded you, or to develop your own interpretations of the characters?

LW:
Yes.

MW:
Yes, that's actually a correct answer. I think we all wanted to go back to what Stan had done because he had already done it! -- but to the same concept...

LW:
...the feel...

MW:
...The feel that he was trying to get through, as opposed to just mimmicking what he was doing (which is currently what's happening in the book). It was that sort of a desire -- and also to go into other directions. You couldn't do another Dr. Doom story. You couldn't do just another Galactus story. If you were to use those characters, you had to do something totally different with them.

LW:
That's why I was trying to infuse a little bit of cynicism, by breaking them up -- in what turned out to be my last full issue, I wouldn't have been as presumptuous as that, to break up the group and leave someone else with the loose ends. I had planned almost a year's worth of continuity, where I would have done rotations. Every issue would have focused on one of the members, while the others would be in subplots, which would in turn build unt il they all came back together in a major story a year or so later.

JZ:
Do you think you having had control over Fantastic Four as both writer and editor was beneficial to what you were trying to do? How do you feel about that system, which has now been dismantled, as opposed to the separate writer/separate editor policy that you have at both DC and Marvel now?

LW:
I may be one of a dying breed, but I liked the writer/editor concept. I Iiked being able to do what I wanted to do without having to explain to somebody else why.

MW:
I find, personally -- and this is not always true, but for the most part -- that editors, because they have to answer to the company, tend to be very timid about experiments, and about trying something real strange. I didn't really do much on the Fantastic Four that would have been considered that way. But certainly some of the stuff I was doing on Spider-Man would not have been approved by any editor. It could only have been approved because I decided to do it. The same way, of course, Stan decided to do t hings that had never been done. He could do it. If he had needed the approval of somebody else, they'd have said, "Well, this has never worked before, this has never..." So I tend to feel that writers could be their own editor for ideas. They do need somebody to sound the stuff off of, and to go over the actual writing -- but that could be either a glorified proofreader or an assistant editor who has the power to make corrections.

JZ:
Have either or both of you followed Fantastic Four since you left the book?

LW:
Haven't missed an issue.

MW:
I missed one. It was one of Doug's [Moench]. I couldn't read it.

LW:
Oh, I'm sorry but he's right. It was possibly the same one.

MW:
With Thor [FF 225-RG].

LW:
The second part of the... yes!

MW:
Couldn't get past the third page!

LW:
It was the only issue of Fantastic Four I could not read. The same one. I wonder what that tells us.

MW:
Doug writes Master of Kung Fu, which is one of the top three books up there. There are writers who are just not right for certain strips.

JZ:
In general, what is your opinion of what followed your work? How do you feel about what John Byrne is doing now?

LW:
I liked it when Stan did It. My principal complaint -- and I may feel stronger about this than Marvin -- is that I muchly resent what John is doing, I resent his implication that everything in the past 20 years hasn't happened, that it's still 1964. Everything he's doing is throwbacks to the past. I resent him tampering with so much of the legend. In the space of a couple of months, he's taken care of the Inhumans and moved them to the moon; he's taken care of a couple other things like that. It's really very imperious to suddenly decide to change so much that is integral to the whole Marvel mythos, as opposed to just a supporting character in a book.

MW:
He decided to change the visuals on his own, after all this time, when they're not changed in any other book.

LW:
He draws The Watcher the way he was drawn in the first story. Nobody else draws him that way. There's a whole issue The Watcher stars in, where he doesn't look the way he does in any other book.

MW:
John may be right; but unless it's company policy to make the change throughout the whole line, it's really wrong for him to do it alone.

I did really like his triple-sized anniversary issue [FF 236]. I thought that was excellently handled. It was certainly not a traditional Marvel plot. It was a John Broome/Gardner Fox plot for DC, the way it was worked, But it was a very good story.

LW:
The actual writing I have no complaints about. As the words scan, I think he's writing It beautifully. Some of the actual writing is wonderful. But a lot of the psychology disturbs me a great deal. I think it was a terrible mistake to introduce Aunt Petunia after 20 years,

MW:
Various things like that.

JZ:
But to compare it to a similar situation, isn't what you did in Fantastic Four 200, writing off Dr. Doom in the way you did -- wasn't that a comparable alteration of the legend?

MW:
No, because I had already told everybody what the sequel was. The entire company knew where I was going to go with that story. Several people had wanted to use Doom, and I told them, "No, you can't do it until I've done this particular story," I had done a very straightforward science story about Doom, how Doom's personality was twofold. The second part of the series, which would have appeared about a year from that point if I had stayed on the book, was about Doom's people taking him down to Mephisto, to play on the sorcery aspect. So I was not writing Doom out of the book. I was just trying to write a type of story that you hadn't seen before in Doom.

JZ:
You were both involved in the series of Marvel prose novels, including Fantastic Four and others.

MW:
I wrote them, yes.

JZ:
And Len was listed as the "packager," which I assume has something to do with editing them.

LW:
No, I got to go around the country in a truck and hand them out to bookstores.

MW:
Basically, they didn't want the term "editor" or "producer" on the books.

LW:
We were going to use "produced and edited by," and they didn't like "produced by," because they wanted people to believe that Marvel had produced them -- which, actually, they didn't. Did they?

MW:
No, Marvel had nothing to do with the books,

JZ:
How did you approach the problem of translating a concept that was developed for sequential pictures into a format of straight prose, and do you really consider that a valid thing to do?

MW:
My own personal feeling on it was that, when I wrote the Fantastic Four book -- which, I'm always quick to say, had to be written really fast for deadline purposes -- was basically to write an action/adventure story. I didn't think in terms of it being a comic book. I knew that I had to describe things that you would otherwise see in the artwork, but I treated it as just writing a story. I didn't see it as just trying to make a comic book come to life, or come to prose; I just saw it as writing a prose story featuring comic book characters.

Certain things had to give way. For instance, in my first draft, I spent three chapters doing the origin of the Fantastic Four, as Ben Grimm is explaining it. But when you really analyze the origin of the Fantastic Four, it's dumb! It's incredIbly dumb! I can go through it, and probably have you on the floor laughing!

JZ:
Go through it, then!

MW:
Okay. First of all, you have this absolutely brilliant scientist who decides he's going to beat the Russians on his own. Now, he goes to the spaceport on the edge of town -- there's always spaceports at the edge of small towns like Littleville, or wherever they were in the first story...

LW:
...Central City. The Flash wasn't around there, apparently.

MW:
Naturally, he tells his girlfriend that he's going to steal a spaceship, even though he was one of the scientists who designed it. He invites his girlfriend, his girlfriend's kid brother, and this big lummox of a pilot. Now that's understood that he had to invite Ben to fly it. Why he invited the girl and the kid on a mission that would technically cause them to be considered spies and traitors, for stealing a rocket ship...?

LW:
If they survived!

MW:
Yes, if they survived! Now, he's a master scientist, but it's Ben Grimm who says, "Hey, you know this thing doesn't have shieldrng and the cosmic rays are gonna get us." But he says, "Don't worry about it, we're going to fly it up anyway." So, getting past guards -- if you remember the shot, they're running past these two guards to the spaceport; every space-port has those two guards...

LW:
...they're the famous "stuffed guards." They stand at the gate to frighten you away, but they're not real people.

MW:
Okay, so they somehow get past these two guards in this very well-secured area, and they get into the spaceship. Now, of course, spaceships do not require set-up, priming, using outside computers, any technicians whatsoever -- right inside the spaceship, they can blow it up!

LW:
Well, in 1961, they used to be able to shake a lot of seltzer at the bottom of the ship...

MW:
So they shoot off into space, and Ben says, "You know, we have these cosmic rays," again. This is the second time he mentions it. Reed says, "No problem," as the cosmic rays start shooting at him. Why he built a spaceship that would not be shielded against cosmic rays, I don't know. But, okay, this is only the most intelligent person on Earth, as the story goes.

They land. It crashes. Somehow, they survive. Nobody comes to rescue them, nobody has spotted them during this entire time.

Let me see if I can get the order they discovered their powers correctly. Sue turns invisible. Okay, we understand she can turn invisible. Later on, of course, we learn she has to think about it, but there she must have been thinking about turning invisible. Johnny flames on and flies. Now, the first thing I would do if I had suddenly ignited would not be to fly. I would not ordinarily say, "Well, I ought to jump upwards," and attempt to fly.

LW:
You'd roll around on the ground trying to put the flame out!

MW:
And Ben becomes the monster. Now, the first thing he thinks of -- not yet even knowing what his powers are -- is to lift up a tree and attack Reed Richards. A normal human being would naturally think, "Well, I can lift up a tree!" But of course, Ben lifts up a tree. And of course, Reed stretches.

None of this works! So I took three chapters from my first draft, in which I described all of this in more detail than I've just done now, and knocked it down to one paragraph wherein Ben says something to the effect of, "We went up in space, got hit by cosmic rays, and landed." That was the whole origin, because I was in hysterics as I wrote this stuff, realizing it was really dumb!

Anyway, that's the only type of reworking that I had to do in my head, to take the things that didn't work, and fluff over them. On the other hand, Dr. Doom's origin did work, and it works very well in a pulpy style. That, I did spend the full chapters on. So where it works, you do it, and where it doesn't work, you just get around it. Otherwise, it was an action/adventure story.

JZ:
And that was "the world's greatest comics magazine."

MW:
And it was! They were doing things in there that no comic had done previously to that time.

LW:
For about twenty Issues. on either side of 50, it was possibly the best comic book ever done.

MW:
The best superhero comic, certainly.

LW:
Oh boy, I mean... the Silver Surfer, a throwaway character who wasn't even in the plot...!

MW:
The Inhumans, all of that stuff! The book really was the world's greatest comic -- for awhile, at least. It hasn't been for a long time, including the time I wrote it and including part of the time Stan wrote it, near the end.

JZ:
While you were doing FF, you tied up the plotlines of the discontinued Nova book. Was this something you really wanted to do, for the fans who followed Nova, or...

MW:
No. What I had done was to start a storyline In both books. During the course of the storyline they cancelled Nova. The story had already begun in Fantastic Four. The idea was to have two separate stories In the two books that the readers wouldn't even realize came together until they met in one issue. When they cancelled Nova, I had to rejuggle the entire plotline, which is why it extended so long in Fantastic Four. Half the stuff I did in FF would have been in Nova, and nobody would have said, "Oh, this again."

JZ:
But do you think there's a danger in wrapping up plotlines of presumably unpopular characters in a popular book and possible damaging the popular book?

MW:
It's hard for me to say. I wouldn't go out of my way to do it normally. With the FF/Nova thing, it wasn't a wrapup of a storyline: it had begun on its own. We just did that in the Teen Titans, but it made sense because one of the members of the Titans was the adoptive son of one character in, and a member of, the Doom Patrol. But normally I wouldn't go out of my way. There are enough people out there who live and breathe that stuff -- let them do it.

JZ:
At the time you were writing Fantastic Four, you were also writing some or most of the other major Marvel titles Len, as you mentioned. you were doing Spider-Man, Hulk and Thor, and Marv was also doing Spider-Man and Dracula at the same time. Was there ever any concern that having the same writer/editor on the major books, in this fashion, tended to reinforce the notion of a house style? Or did you specifically structure the style of each book differently?

LW:
I don't think I wrote the four books very much alike. A house style is subjective, it's not a matter of whether it's good or bad. Every editor has his own Style. In fact, just this morning I was talking to my wife about the whole concept of editorial opinion and approach. You could pick up a Julie Schwartz comic -- any Schwartz comic, long before there were credits given -- and you knew Julie Schwartz had edited that book. Same thing whether with Murray Boltinoff, or Mort Weisinger, or God help us, Bob Kanigher... or Stan Lee! They all had their own styles as editors, let alone as writers. Stan simply reinforced his editorial style with his writing. because it was his style, and he was in charge of it all!

MW:
Even Stan did not write the Fantastic Four at all the same way he wrote Spider-Man or Thor.

LW:
The FF was incredibly melodramatic. There was more adjective, more every-panel-life-and-death-ishness to the FF than there ever was for any other Marvel character or any other Marvel book. Every panel was a trauma, every panel was up to its ears in drama. Everyone worried constantly about whether the world was going to come to an end tomorrow or now. That was unlike any other book. I don't think any of us took the same approach with that book that we ever took with any other book...

MW:
You couldn't, because of its nature. Spider-Man had to be realistic, and funny. The Fantastic Four was more cosmic, even if they had "straight" stories.

LW:
Spidey's villains, as a matter of course, are not super-powered; or even the super-powered ones are super-powered at a lower level. ln the old days of Stan, there was never a super-powered villain, really. They had weaponry, but if you took off the costumes, they were just normal guys. The FF, on the other hand, fought Galactus, who eats worlds for a living!

MW:
Every time Stan created a super-powered villain for Spider-Man, they'd only appear once and then be put in another book, like Sandman.

JZ:
If the circumstances were different, would you like to be writing FF again, now or in the future?

MW:
I wouldn't have minded. As I said, I got off the book on my own because I didn't think I was doing the job I wanted. If I had the choice, I'd prefer getting on Spider-Man. That's the only Marvel book I really miss writing.

LW:
Yeah! I didn't necessarily like to give up any of the books I gave up when I left the company. It was a strange set of circumstances that lead me to leave. Unlike any time previously in my career, I had years worth of storylines for every one of those books, which had never happened before. I could have stuck with them for quite a while.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Dad à la Gomez

When I was a teenager, I used to joke that growing up in my house was kind of a cross between Leave It To Beaver and The Addams Family. Mom never liked that analogy, but it seemed like a convenient shorthand to suggest that things might look "normal" at first glance, but there was something a bit different going on. In more recent years, though, I've internally dropped the Cleaver's from my point of reference as I've seen more of the Charles Addams strips.

The TV show did a lot to expand on the characterizations, since the strip didn't really have any ongoing continuity and was really just clever snippets. But the basis was still there in those strips. It was very much a loving family that enjoyed each other's company; Gomez still helped the kids with their projects, Morticia tended to domestic duties, Uncle Fester taught Pugsley things that you're not supposed to learn from your dad... It was a very much a normal, extended family just that their specific interests tended to be a bit on the uncommon side.

What was interesting, too, was that they did their own thing, and held many of the same values as the rest of society. Be honest, work hard, help friends in need... Honorable virtues. And, in part because of that, they always seemed oblivious to the superficial differences that separated them from the rest of the world. Their interests focused a bit more on the macabre and (sometimes) dangerous, and not on commonly popular passtimes likes baseball or hanging out at bars.

Our family wasn't macabre, but we weren't exactly run-of-the-mill either. I went to one professional sports game growing up, and that was an Indians game I won two free tickets for. Dad took me, but I couldn't tell you anything about the game. But I can rattle off any number of movies he and I went to see at the Cleveland Cinematheque: some of the short films of Jan Švankmajer and the Brothers Quay, multiple Hayao Miyazaki features, Spike & Mike's Sick & Twisted Festival of Animation... Stuff that, back in the 1980s, no one else I knew had even heard of, much less seen.

But, despite being as culturally off-center as Gomez Addams was, Dad was also a dad just like Gomez. He cared for his kids and loved his wife, and it didn't matter what the neighbors thought off the hot air balloon he made out of newspaper and coat hangers, and launched using the grill in the front yard.

Happy Father's Day to my Dad, and all the other Gomez Addamses out there!

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Captain Tax Time

Yes, Captain Tax Time is a real thing. I stumbled across this in a Half Price Books this afternoon for 49¢ and it looked odd and quirky enough to be more than worth that price. Produced in 1990 by Paul Haynes Comics, it's a black and white comic very much in the vein of the independent comics scene of the 1980s. That is to say, it kind of looks and feels like it was done by some very talented high school students.

I won't belabor the story, but it's a fairly simple tale of a finance minister who tries taxing the citizens of Canada into oblivion, whereupon Captain Tax Time and Sergeant Saver beat the snot out of him, take the money he had been earning from illegal drug dealings and donate that to the government to eliminate the deficit that the finance minister caused in the first place. I shouldn't need to say it, but there are more than a couple "Wha-huh?" moments for the reader.

It turns out that Haynes and his wife Jean were the owners/proprietors of Tax Time Services Limited, a Canadian tax preparation firm. He notes in his short biography at the end of the book that the story is deliberately satirical, and one gets the sense that he knows it's not the greatest comic in the world but he had fun with it and it was a neat little side project he did when he wasn't working on taxes.

The back cover (inside and out) includes an essay about taxes, with a very clear message about how one of the big problems in the Canadian tax system is that the wealthy are able to deduct their tax preparations services/fees by burying them under misleading accounting codes, whereas most people are required to pay taxes on their tax preparation services. I can see his point, but it seems kind of minor issue with regard to tax equality when, as he points out in his bio, "that wealthy people... use high priced talent to eliminate their taxes entirely..."

The last two pages of the book include ads (each featuring a four-panel comic) encouraging people to sign up for a "Personal Income tax Return Preparation Course" through Tax Time Services, apparently to become franchisees of the company. Nothing about using Tax Time Services as your own tax preparers, though, so I'm not entirely sure who this was aimed at. Particularly with the $4 CDN cover price.

Still, an odd little snapshot of a Canadian indie comic circa 1990. It's interesting to note, too, that little extra research turns up that Tax Time Services was bought by H&R Block in 1991, although there were some legal issues that tied them up in court for five years, by which point Tax Time Services was out of business.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Everything You Need To Know About Dr. Doom In A Single Panel

Fantastic Four #200 was, no surprise, a big anniversary type special issue. The FF had broken up after Reed became powerless, and Dr. Doom took advantage of that to try to create a clone of himself with the FF's powers amid a coup d'état led by the (allegedly) legitimate heir to Latveria. I'm sure readers at the time were expecting something big (I hadn't started reading the book yet myself) and boy, did the creative team deliver.

Marv Wolfman and Keith Pollard had picked up the reins less than a year earlier, after Len Wein and George Pérez's well-received stint on the book. The book also sported a cover by Jack Kirby himself, which turned out to be the last time the man who created the characters worked on the book.

The story opens with Doom cradling his dead clone, whom he was forced to kill in the previous issue. The story starts racing by and readers are treated to seeing the FF tackle death traps, heat-seeking missiles, a mind-controlled mob, a tornado, killer robots... On top of which, we see a recap of Doom's origin, Alicia Masters getting rescued, Zorba successfully leading the coup, plus an epic man-to-man fight between Doom and Reed.

Wow.

The focus of the issue, and the story leading up to this issue, is Dr. Doom. Not that the FF are bit-players, by any means, but there's a lot of Doom in this story. Plenty of room to really delve into the character to see what makes him tick. Which Wolfman does. But the brilliance is that, with so much going on, he's able to tell the reader everything you really need to know about Dr. Doom in a single panel. He's got Doom's character down so well that, with an impressive visual assist from Pollard, you can effectively replace any description of of Dr. Doom with this one piece of art and people won't have any questions...

THAT is professional comic storytelling, people.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Reflections On An LCS Closing

As you may have heard, the Washington comic book shop Comic Book Ink will be closing. The store has been openly struggling for a year now, and can't really continue any longer.

I've never been to Comic Book Ink, nor have I ever met owner John Munn. I don't know much about them, one way or another, so I don't have any skin in this game emotionally. But I still find this a bit sad and hugely disappointing.

A few years ago, I attended a comic retailing panel at a convention. Chuck Rozanski of Mile High Comics was one of the panelists, and he flatly suggested that anyone thinking of opening a comic shop should drop the idea now before they sunk any (more) money into it. The cynic in me realizes that he could have just been trying to dissuade anyone from being one of his competitors, but I don't think that's the case. Everything I've ever heard about comic retailing is that it is an insanely difficult business even in the best of times and, given the number of shops I've seen close their doors over the years, I don't doubt that.

There are several issues that I think lead to that difficulty. First is the size of the market; we're talking about something like 150-200,000 people nationwide. That's 4000 people per state if it breaks down evenly (which I'm sure it doesn't). That's only double the number of people THAT WORK IN THE SAME BUILDING THAT I DO! For the whole state! Sure, there's the potential for more customers of comics in broad terms, but given what the biggest publishers are generally limiting themselves to in terms of genre, style, tone, etc. (this is retailers' second difficulty, by the way) that's not likely to draw in many more people any time soon. I've spoken to DC's inability to even consider a potential audience twice recently.

Although the numbers that get bandied about vary -- depending on industry, time period covered, etc. -- most studies show that a majority of new start-ups fail pretty quickly after a formal launch. And though you might not think of a comic shop as a start-up, that's effectively what they are. They're not clubhouses or hang-outs or libraries, they're businesses. Usually owned by a single individual, maybe two. With a very few exceptions, they're not chains. And, ultimately, they often run into the same basic problem that most start-ups run into: the people running them don't have enough business knowledge and/or experience.

I don't mean that in a disparaging or derogatory way. There are as many comic shops as there are -- which isn't nearly enough in my opinion -- because people opened them out of a love of comics. Profit margins on comics are pretty slim for retailers (another difficulty they face) and a lot of good business folks likely don't open shops because of that. So we're left with people who love comics opening shops, regardless of what business acumen they have.

Comic Book Ink has been more than Munn's livelihood; it's been his life. Reading through his farewell letter, it's clear that this was not just a job for him. He repeatedly apologizes to his customers and the industry at large. He notes that his first bout of tears came not at his own failure, but at the disappointment he would see in his regular customers.
I was going to let each and every one of you down in such a way that I have fought against with all of my might. I was going to have to close the store.

I can't begin to tell you how many of your faces rushed by me in my mind. Seeing the hurt in your eyes.

I broke down.
I understand that Munn is going to get emotional over this. It's been the past ten years of his life, and it's going away. He has every right to break down into tears.

But that his first thoughts were about his customers suggests that he thought of Comic Book Ink less like a business and more like an informal fraternity. Now, to be fair, ten years as a comic book retailer is pretty respectable, especially considering he started not long after the speculation bubble burst in 1997 and weathered the heavy financial storms of the Great Recession which began in 2008. That Munn was able to stay afloat that long is commendable to be sure.

And while your business is dependent, at least in part, on good customer service and being friendly with regular customers, thinking of them as friends first and customers second is, unfortunately, going to lead to problems.

Munn noted that the bank was very good with their flexibility, allowing him to over-extend his credit repeatedly knowing that New Comic Day was tomorrow and he would get an influx of cash. You can tell he had a friendly relationship with his loan officer, and that type of positive relationship is great for making businesses like Munn's operate. But, at the same time, the bank eventually had to make a business decision on Munn's account. It's that type of thinking that keeps a business running; allowing people some slack to account for unexpected issues, but still running the business as a business.

As I said, I don't know Munn or how he ran Comic Book Ink. I don't know the specifics of his situation, so my ramblings here may or may not be fully applicable to him. But I know that I have seen plenty of comic shops run their stores to closure by not running it like a business.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Link-A-Doodle-Do

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

On The Ms. Anniversary

Tomorrow is the 40th anniversary of the feminist Ms. magazine, created by Gloria Steinem and Letty Cottin Pogrebin. Steinem since recalled that, "I realized as a journalist that there really was nothing for women to read that was controlled by women, and this caused me along with a number of other women to start Ms. magazine." It famously featured Wonder Woman on the cover of its first regular issue and the Wonder Woman cover theme has been revisited a few times since then.

The cover image is well-known, in part, because it was the magazine's inaugural issue, but it also happened to harbor a call to return the character her superheroic status, after having been de-powered for a few years. Writer Denny O'Neil has since apologized profusely and repeatedly for not fully understanding what the character meant to so many women. Steinem and Ms. effectively brought Wonder Woman some broad media attention, and essentially got her powers reinstated and put Lynda Carter in Wonder Woman's costume on television.

I was trying to do some research on this after I learned of the impending magazine anniversary, but I haven't actually been able to read the contents of that iconic magazine. I kept finding references to it but, oddly, there doesn't seem to be much in the way of page scans or torrents or anything. I found one poor scan of the first page of Joanne Edgar's "Wonder Woman Revisited" article, but I gather the real meat of the piece is after that. I also understand Ms. republished several pages of Wonder Woman's origin story, but I don't know which version or how well it was reprinted either. I'm sure I could track down an actual copy of the magazine given time, but I only had the anniversary pointed out to me on Facebook last night.

For a long time, Wonder Woman was in perpetual publication for legal reasons. Kurt Busiek noted in 2005:
... as I understand it, the terms were that DC had to publish at least four issues with "Wonder Woman" as the banner lead feature or rights would revert [to the Marston Estate]. That's why DC did the LEGEND OF WONDER WOMAN mini-series that I wrote and Trina Robbins drew — the Perez revamp was in development, but coming along slowly, and they had to publish something to fulfil the contract terms.

They specifically didn't want something that would be attention-getting, because they didn't want to undercut the revamp. So they wanted something gentle and nostalgic, and we had fun doing it.

In the intervening years, though, I'm given to understand that at some point DC bought the character outright, and thus those contract terms are no longer in force.
This was backed up by Wonder Woman über-fan Andy Mangles, who also confirmed (as much as he's able to) that the stipulations of the original contract and subsequent purchase include a non-disclosure clause, meaning that no one who's actually seen the paperwork is legally allowed to talk about it.

What that means is: William Moulton Marston, by generating a very specific, very deliberate contract with DC, singled-handedly kept Wonder Woman in publication and in the public consciousness in some form for at least 45 years. (From her debut in in 1942 until the 1987 Perez book Busiek noted.)

Marston's personal life tends to color history's view of him (which is why, I suspect, there isn't a printed biography of the man available -- somebody please get on that!) but it was basically Marston and his lawyer that kept Wonder Woman around long enough to become the icon she is. Odds are that, without the continual publication stipulation, Wonder Woman would've vanished from the newsstands in the 1950s, perhaps only seeing a modest revival as an Earth-2 inhabitant alongside Jay Garrick and Alan Scott. She might not have had the de-powering stories to contend with, but she would've faced a much bigger enemy: obscurity. And if that were the case, who would've graced the cover of Ms. #1? Rosie the Riveter?

Marston is remembered for creating a great character in Wonder Woman, but perhaps equally significant is that he created the means by which this great character would get continued exposure long enough to become ingrained in the public consciousness. Marston didn't actually create an icon, but he set Wonder Woman up to ensure that she would become one.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Amethyst, Princess Of Homogeneity

Interesting confluence of influences this weekend. Evidently, on Friday, it was revealed that the upcoming Sword and Sorcery from DC will see the return of Amethyst, The Princess of Gemworld. I say "evidently" because I didn't hear about it until Saturday when the S.O. said something about it. She had read about it on io9, completely independent of anything I might've said. She's not really a comic fan by any means, so it was kind of cool that she learned about comic book news from somewhere OTHER than me.

I'm familiar with Amethyst primarily from my ex-wife. She had, at one point, mentioned that was one of the few comics she read as a kid, but had trouble finding all the issues and got frustrated with the story because of it. It was one of the few comics she could relate to, as it was one of the few that had a strong female lead. It was one of the few comics that featured a protagonist where she could say, "That looks like me." After I discovered this, I tracked down all the issues in the various iterations of the title as a gift.

Now, where this gets interesting (to me, at least) is that my S.O. had never heard of the character before. But she took one look at the design...

... and said, "Another character that doesn't look like me? I'm done already."

I'm sure a number of people are looking at this move by DC and saying, "A strong female lead! That's awesome!" But it's not. Not really. The character is just as Aryan as Captain America. It's Barbie in a purple Wonder Woman costume.

With backup stories featuring another white male hero, Beowulf.

This isn't progressive. We're talking about a character who titled three separate titles back in the '80s, none of which had backup features. She's in half of a generically-titled comic. That's considerably down the ladder from where she was. And, as I noted, she's still pretty darned Aryan in the first place.

Now, to DC's credit, Team Seven looks to have a diverse cast. But here's the thing: EVERY BOOK SHOULD HAVE A DIVERSE CAST! When you go to work or the store or the park, there are more than just Caucasians there. EVERY BOOK SHOULD HAVE A DIVERSE CAST! That reflects the reality we live in.

I don't want to judge Sword and Sorcery sight-unseen; it might be very well done. And that it's not directly squarely at DC's usual Wednesday crowd is different. But it shouldn't be! It should NOT look like an outlier book and, more importantly, there should not be so few books with a female lead that this and Wonder Woman have to be asked to represent all women.

There's nothing wrong with publishing new Princess of Gemworld stories. But don't expect one title that looks a lot like Wonder Woman to broaden your approach to diversity. Especially with DC rebooting everything, why not make Amethyst black? Or Latina? Or Asian? I'm sure there's a contingent of old fans who want Amethyst to remain a blonde, Disney-esque princess but weren't there fans who thought Alan Scott was a heterosexual?

The more DC gets into their big reboot here, the more it looks like their old stuff.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Where Does "Marvel Comics" Come From?

Where do you suppose the company Marvel got its name? If you answered that it's from the title of the first comic book they published, you would be only partly right.

Martin Goodman did indeed publish his first comic book in 1939 and it was called Marvel Comics, changed to Marvel Mystery Comics for its second issue. The book featured what would become two of the company's most iconic characters of the 1940s, the Human Torch and the Sub-Mariner.

Goodman had been a magazine publisher for several years before dipping his toe into the world of comics. He spent much of his career trying to tap into the zeitgeist of popular culture, and his magazine efforts were no different in that regard. Seeing the popularity of science fiction stories like Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon, Goodman launched a pulp magazine called Marvel Science Stories in 1938. The contents were fairly typical pulp sci-fi stories of the period, and the only reference I can find to any pieces that might be considered noteworthy is a story entitled "The Test-Tube Monster" by George E. Clark, which ran in the May 1940 issue, after the series itself had been retitled Marvel Tales. (The series was retitled again to Marvel Stories with the next issue.)

In any event, the "Marvel" name was in place before Marvel Comics #1. Whether Goodman was actively trying to build a sort of "Marvel" brand or he just happened to like the word is unknown.

But that's still only part of the story.

Something to keep in mind is that comics distribution in the mid-20th century was very different than it is today. There were a wider array of distributors in place, and a newsstand (there were no comic shops back then) could choose to order from any number of them. Which meant that they spent fairly little amount of time looking through all the lists of things they could order. Lots of titles from lots of publishers meant that a newsstand operator scanned quickly, sometimes completely missing titles and even whole groups of titles. Unless you had the name recognition of Life there was no guarantee your title would show up at the same newsstand even two months in a row.

One thing that publishers did to help counter this was to group titles together. You didn't order Superman, you ordered the group of comics that included Superman. Which meant that you also got, by default: Detective Comics, Green Lantern, World's Finest, etc. Even if you only wanted Superman.

Fortunately, magazines and comics were returnable, so there was little risk on the newsstands' part if a given issue didn't sell. You ordered Superman and got a bunch of other stuff too. Maybe those would sell, maybe not. If they didn't, you shipped the covers back to the publisher and got reimbursed for the whole issue. The actual contents of the issue would get thrown out, but comics were cheap and considered disposable entertainment, so no one cared. But what this set-up did -- from a publisher's perspective -- was get new titles out into the newsstands on the coattails of a proven seller. Kids came asking for "the comic with Superman in it" so you ordered that. Maybe you'd sell an extra few copies of Detective while you were at it.

Here's a page from the 1963 N.W. Ayer and Son's American Newspaper Annual and Directory. This particular page includes the listing for Marvel, where you can see a couple of the group breakdowns. (As a side note, too, you also see those bold numbers at the end? Those are circulation figures. But they're only listed for entire groups, not individual titles.)


(More on the directory and what it was here.)

Now, where am I going with all that? Prior to the 1960s, Goodman was publishing north of 30 comics a month. Some adventure, some Western, some romance... And you ordered them by groups. There was an adventure group, a Western group, a romance group... And what do you suppose the group with all the science fictiony monster comics was called? Marvel Comics Group.

If you ordered the Marvel Comics Group of comics, you got Strange Tales, Tales of Suspense, Tales to Astonish, Amazing Adult Fantasy... Lots of aliens and monsters and whatnot. And eventually, in 1961, something new called Fantastic Four featuring another big monster on the cover.

The superhero thing was a hit, so the creative folks at still-not-quite-yet-Marvel added more superheroes into the books that were in the same group as Fantastic Four. So we see the debut of Spider-Man in Amazing Fantasy, the debut of Iron Man in Tales of Suspense, the debut of Thor in Journey into Mystery... Lee was putting superheroes into books that were already being shipped out to the people who bought Fantastic Four. Or, more accurately, he was putting superheroes into books that were already being shipped out to the people who bought the comics group with other superheroes in it.

Eventually, the superhero genre took off and largely pushed out the romance and Western books they had been doing. The biggest comics they were publishing were superheroes, all of which were under the Marvel Comics Group. A little bit of directed branding later and Goodman had a new name for his company.

Saturday, June 09, 2012

He Looks Like Me

You ever hear the argument that there needs to be more role models in comics for African-Americans, Asians, women, homosexuals, etc.? That part of the problem with mainstream comics is that it's so filled with Caucasian men that it's harder than it should be to draw in those other fans? That they look at those comics and say, "Where are the heroes that look like me?"

It was something I was aware of and understood, certainly, but speaking as a white male, I found it difficult to relate to. After all, most comic book heroes do look like me in that regard. But somehow, and I don't know what caused me to remember this, but my very first favorite superhero was Sun Boy from the Legion of the Super-Heroes. Not because I liked his powers, or he had a cool costume, but because he had red hair. Just like me.

I remember thinking as a kid that was kind of a silly notion. I really knew nothing about the character; he wasn't one of the big names in the Legion stories in the first place, and I didn't have very many Legion comics anyway. But he was the only hero that had red hair. In fact, the only other comic characters I knew that had red hair were Jimmy Olsen and Archie Andrews, and neither of them came across as particularly strong, positive characters. But, nonetheless, I still liked Sun Boy.

Eventually, I "graduated" to Marvel comics. I didn't see ANY redheads there, but the Human Torch had kind of similar powers to Sun Boy and the Torch remained my favorite characters for years.

At some point in the early/mid-1980s, my dad picked up some of the ElfQuest graphic novels. I read them in my free time, and was struck by everything about the story. And who stood out as my favorite character? Redlance.

To be fair, I felt more in touch with the only male lead character in ElfQuest (at the time) that was NOT a warrior but an artist, and I appreciated the kind of hippie vibe that he and his soulmate Nightfall had. But it was by no means lost on me that, of all the characters in the story, Redlance was the one who looked most like me.

A few decades on now, and my hair's gotten more of a dirty-strawberry-blonde look to it. And it's been getting peppered with white the past few years as well. Add on top of that a receding (receded?) hairline, and I really look nothing like those characters any more. Would I have still gotten into comics if I hadn't seen those ginger characters? Almost certainly. I may have gravitated towards some other characters -- maybe Clark Kent because he wore glasses or Spider-Man because he was picked on in school. But the further removed you are as a reader from feeling a connection with the character, the less likely you are to be involved. And in comics, that connection is going to be sparked, at least in part, by the character's visual appearance; it's the most easily and quickly read part of who they are.

While I always appreciated why people bemoan the lack of characters that "look like me", the sudden recollection of my early favorites makes it a lot more visceral. Maybe a trip through your own earliest comic memories might trigger a similar understanding.