Friday, November 30, 2012

Of Good Guys & Squirrels

The planet is filled with all sorts of people. Some good, some bad, some giving, some selfish, some talented, some cogs... The "news" (both within comics specifically and in the broader realm of journalism) tends to focus on the exceptional on either end, with seemingly a greater emphasis on the asshat end of the spectrum.

Me? I don't care about those people. If they're misogynists or jackasses, or they flap their mouths like idiots, I just avoid them. Both in person and online. I prefer to focus on the cool things people are doing. Particularly the cool things done by good people.

Here's a quick example of what I'm talking about. Cartoonist Frank Page had a sale over the Thanksgiving weekend. For ten bucks, he'd send you an original drawing of his Bob the Squirrel character saying anything you want. Here's the promo he was using...
I thought, "Ten bucks? Absolutely! That's a great deal!" But what would I want Bob to say? It occurred to me that it might be kind of cool to have him say hi to folks in the library that I'm going to have next year. But trying to keep Bob in character, I'd want a bit of cynicism too, so I decided on the simple "Kleefeld Comics Library... such as it is."

I sent off my ten bucks with a note about how I didn't need mine quickly, so please take care of everyone else first who might be using them as gifts or something. I'm in no rush. But I got a notice on Wednesday that the package had been sent already, and I found the envelope in my mailbox last night. And when I opened it, I found this...
That's a bit more than Bob and some text. Not only did Page add some extra effort into the fonts, but there's a significant context-appropriate background, tonal shading AND he went out of his way to come up with a Latin slogan to run underneath! I was expecting Bob, no background, and one or two word balloons. But Page went above and beyond here, sussing out the context which I was aiming for (based on nothing more than that the one line of dialogue I sent him) and providing a fairly extensive and well-thought-out design.

Did Page have to do all that? No. I would've been happy with the simplified version I had in my head. But he's one of those good guys that I like to support. Is he going to make the evening news for saving a baby from a burning building? Probably not. And he also doesn't land on comics news sites often because he's not talking shit about women or minorities or whomever. For me, personally, these are the types of people I want to support. These are the folks who are doing good, quality work without a lot of fanfare. How about we all talk about these kinds of creators and just ignore the asshats altogether?

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Finding New Old Strips Via Ebay

The comic strip pictured here is called Sir Bagby. It was by brothers Rick and Bill Hackney, and ran from 1959 until 1966. This particular strip is from 1960. I had never heard of the strip or either creator before tonight.

It wasn't particularly popular and only ran in about 20 papers at its height. The strip has never been collected in a single volume, although some reprints have run in Comics Revue. As far as I can tell, the two men never did another comic strip. I can find record of Bill dying in 2011 after spending most of his career as a claims manager for Nationwide Insurance. His obituary failed to mention Sir Bagby in any capacity.

The reason I know any of this is because I was trolling around on eBay and stumbled across several pieces of original art from the strip. Just in casually browsing the Original Comic Strip Art section. Once I had the names, I did a few Google searches to find out everything else.

Sir Bagby, if the handful of examples I saw listed on eBay are any indication, is not a strip I would particularly have enjoyed. I'd probably rank it around the same place as Wizard of Id -- I might read it if I happened to have a newspaper opened to the funnies in front of me, but I certainly wouldn't seek it out.

You probably won't find Sir Bagby in any history of comic strips. It's popularity, craftsmanship nor originality are in the same league as, say, Pogo or Li'l Abner. At best, it's a footnote.

But, you know, it was still a strip that survived in newspaper circulation for seven years. I've known better strips that didn't last that long. It strikes me that there are a LOT of comics (both strips and books) that I've never heard of. I've read plenty of histories with each taking a slightly different focus, and I have a good sense of who the movers and shakers were/are.

But there have been a lot of other folks who worked in the same fields, toiling away in much the same way, without the recognition of a Charles Schulz or Bill Watterson. I can't do much of anything for these cartoonists, many of whom have certainly passed away. Even if I really wanted to, I can only dig up so many to highlight here. But I do kind of enjoy making little "discoveries" like this, and just taking time for myself to note that there were other folks out there that aren't recorded in the history books. I don't believe in an afterlife or that these guys will bestow any sort of mystical karma on me for giving them whatever notioriety a blog post might bring, but it's still pretty cool to see what else was going on in the newspaper besides the names you already know.

And, hey, if something strikes you for some reason while you're on eBay, go ahead and buy it! They're often quite cheap. While writing this, I nabbed the original art for Allan Salisbury's June 2, 1974 Fingers and Foes Sunday strip for less than fifteen bucks!

Who's Allan Salisbury, you ask? Look him up!

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

How Is It Almost December Already Links

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

The Wranglers

The art you see with this post is a piece of original cartoon art recently given to me by my uncle. He's had it in his possession for the past 35-40 years, having inherited it from his grandfather. His grandfather, to the best of my mother's and uncle's recollection, always had it hanging up. The problem is that no one in my family seems to know anything about it any more. So I'm putting this online in the hopes that someone might be able to shed a little light on things.

Here's what we do know...

The piece is produced on a heavy, professional-quality paper and is about 13" x 10". It's been in the same picture frame as long as anyone can remember, so the odd notation in pencil on the back (seen here) is at least 60-some years old, if not original to the art.

Here's what I've been able to guess/infer...

The hyper-stylized signature and the stippling in the banner suggest to me that it's from a professional artist, and not just someone who could draw pretty well. The style of clothing pictured points to the early 1900s, and that would be consistent with my great grandfather's life -- he was born in 1885 and his father died in 1905, so it seems as if it was a piece of art that he obtained in his 20s or 30s and held onto for the rest of his life. Given how much he moved towards the end of his life, it clearly held some importance/significance to him.

My family had, by the early 1900s, been living in the Cleveland area for several decades, and they generally remained in the area for many decades after that, which would suggest a Cleveland area artist. The signature seems to read "C. Pimmelman" but I can't find any cartoonists by that name (or any variation like "Himmelman" or "Dimmelman") working in the Cleveland area in that time period. The staff cartoonists for The Plain Dealer that I'm aware of have names that bear no similarity to the signature here.

My mother's initial guess was that this cartoon was in reference to the Teamsters union, which her great grandfather helped establish. That original union was made up primarily of draymen and delivery services people, with a strong emphasis on wagons drawn by mules and/or horses. That might be what "The Wranglers" in part refers to.

There was also a pro-union newspaper called The Cleveland Citizen that began in 1891. I can't find any references to specific artists who worked there, but I did find some text references to editorial cartoons that were run in that paper.

The two main figures are clearly intended to be caricatures of real people. I can't really guess who. Maaaaybe the Teamsters first president, Edward Murphy, but the only pictures I can find of him are from years later and he's wearing glasses. There was a pretty big fight between the Teamsters and the Building Trades Council, but that didn't occur until the mid-1930s and I don't think the clothing would be very accurate for that period.

So that's what I've got. One piece of art from between 60-120 years ago by an unknown artists about an unknown subject for an unknown purpose. Well, that and a zillion guesses, assumptions and questions. I know this is a long shot, but does anyone have any thoughts or ideas about the origins of this piece?

UPDATE: Mom found a Carl P. Himmelman that worked at the Singleton-Hunting ad agency for a few years before joining the advertising department of The Plain Dealer in 1917. Here's his 1963 obituary...
The name, timeframe and occupation certainly fit. Now just to figure out what this Wranglers art was for!

Monday, November 26, 2012

Amulet Book 5 Review

I just got a chance to read Kazu Kibuishi's Amulet, Book 5: Prince of the Elves tonight. Like most good YA books, it hasn't gotten nearly the press it should in the comics news circles, so I'm going to try to do my part to help rectify that.

I've been on board with the Amulet series since Day One, primarily on the strength of Kibuishi's previous Daisy Kutter book. (Which he's re-releasing through a recently successful Kickstarter.) Amulet, though, is decidedly in the fantasy realm, whereas Kutter was a Western. Different genres, but great art and storytelling.

The basic premise of the Amulet series is that Emily and her family stumble into a Wonderland-type world in which Emily becomes a stone keeper of great power. She eventually comes across and is helped by her great-grandfather's old friends, some robots and anthropomorphic animals. Book 5 specifically focuses on the history of the Elves, the prepartions for the impending battle/war, and a little more insight into the mysterious "voices" of the stones.

On the down-side, this is probably the weakest of the Amulet books thus far. Not as a fault of Kibuishi per se; it's just that the overall story is to the point where readers need a little more exposition and that happens to fall just before the impending climax. I suppose you could argueably claim that Kibuishi could have paced the story a little differently, so that some of the exposition got spread around a bit more, but I think it will work well enough when the entire series is viewed in its entirety. I don't think many people would deliberately START on Book 5, so Kibuishi has built up enough character investment over the previous four books to warrant a slower moving chapter like this.

Note that it's not written badly by any means; it's just not as viscerally engaging as the previous installments.

Irrespective of the story, the artwork is fantastic. All of these books are goregous, but each one seems to be more gorgeous than the last. A lot of that is immediately and most obviously attributable to the digital painting throughout. This is no mere coloring job; the colors add a very clear sense of place and feel and tone. The full-bleed slash pages in particular are incredibly striking.

But less obvious, I think, but equally significant is the depth that Kibuishi puts in the panels. There's more than a simple foreground/mid-ground/background set of elements; there's always a sense of flowing depth with objects weaving in and out of a very three-dimensional space. Even figures that, for all intents and purposes, are standing next to each other have just enough variation to put one a little closer to the reader than the other. Often, this is barely perceptible, but in the larger scheme of things, it gives the book a richness that many others lack.

Along those lines, Kibuishi provides a wide array of perspectives for his characters. He doesn't have one or two standard close-up shots, and one or two medium shots, etc. Every panel has a specific and almost unique staging that contribute to the aforementioned depth, but also give a greater sense of movement that might be actually occuring. By continually circling around the characters, the reader doesn't realize that they're really just standing around talking.

Despite this being a weaker Amulet book on its own, it still ranks more highly than many other comics I've read. I think this series as a whole is going to hold up very well for a long time, in much the same way Bone has. The first of this series came out in 2008 and I daresay that the kids who grew up reading this are going to be writing college essays on it by the end of the decade.

Kleefeld's Mandatory Cyber Monday Sale

Today is officially "Cyber Monday" when you're supposed to use your work computer to buy a bunch of stuff online that you couldn't find in the stores over the weekend. To cash in on that trend, you can use the coupon code DELIRITAS to get 30% off your order of Comic Book Fanthropology and/or Edward Lear & the Snargetted Flartlethants of Nonsense. Great books, if I do say so myself! (Although I expect I'm a tad biased.)

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Comic Book Mentalism

There's a genre of magic called mentalism. The basic hook is that the performer largely focuses on either reading or influencing people's minds. The "classic" version is when a performer is on stage, often blindfolded, and has his assistant find an audience member, and then then the mentalist proceeds to rattle off what's in the person's pockets or purse or whatever. This was often accomplished with either a series of coded signals from the assistant, or a wireless radio receiver hidden under the blindfold.

But that's pretty old hat as far as mentalism goes, and there are updated versions of the same basic idea. One of them is that an audience member is given a book (or a choice of books) and they're asked to randomly select a page. The mentalist then proceeds to tell them the first word on the page, or the first sentence, or the last word, or whatever. There are a number of different ways this is accomplished, some more clever than others.

Now, evidently, there's a comic book version, created by Yoan Tanuji and Guillaume Bienné out of France. The effect is the same -- an audience member is given a graphic novel and chooses a random page. The mentalist can then describe different elements on the page, both particular words like a more 'traditional' effect and specific graphics that are on the page, an element unique to comics. Plus, if I'm understanding the promotional materials properly, there's even a way to have the reader decide the murder weapon.

I only got a chance to flip through a copy of this briefly, and I'm no expert in mentalism, but it seems to be one of the more cleverly devised mentalist tricks. Tanuji is a noted magician and has created similar effects using prose books. I'm unable to find anything on Bienné, however, and this seems to be his first comics work. The art seems serviceable, but nothing particularly spectacular. But in any event, it seems like quite an interesting and challenging undertaking on their part, and I'd be curious to see a professional actually perform it in front of a full audience.

It's a little surprising to me, honestly, that no one has thought to try a comic version of this trick for as long as the effect has been around, but it's definitely cool that someone has gotten around to it!

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Png! Png! Png!

Random thought of the day.

You know how Orion's Mother Box always went "Ping Ping Ping"? What if it wasn't saying "Ping" but rather "PNG"?

Jack Kirby was suggesting digital file formats for graphics decades before the format was even invented! The man was a genius!

Friday, November 23, 2012

Comic-Con & The Buisness Of Pop Culture Review

Rob Salkowitz's recent book, Comic-Con and the Business of Pop Culture, hasn't seemed to get much attention in the comics blogosphere, so I thought I'd give my shot at a review here.

As I sit down to write this, I'm having a little difficulty getting a good hook across. Salkowitz talks about the business of comics, but not in such a way that I could describe easily or concisely here. And he talks about his personal experiences at Comic-Con, but those are more window-dressing to make getting to the meat of the book a little easier. It's really in his last chapter that everything really clicks together, but it wouldn't make much sense without the context of the preceeding chapters.

Salkowitz uses his experiences of preparing for and attending Comic-Con 2011 as the structural narrative of his look at the comic book business. He uses events that happened to him and his wife as springboards to larger business ideas about the comic industry, but he doesn't delve deep into hard number-crunching, and gets his points across using real-world examples that comic fans might already be familiar with. This makes for easy and accessible forays into an area of comics that a lot of fans often don't care to discuss, and repeated returns to the "action" on the convention floor should keep any readers from getting bored.

One thing Salkowitz does not do is make a definitive prediction about what the future holds for the comic industry, despite the book's subtitle: "What the World's Wildest Trade Show Can Tell Us About the Future of Entertainment." Rather, he provides four potential scenarios depending on a host of factors. He notes that this scenario planning allows people to look at a variety of possible directions and assume that reality will eventually develop as some sort of hybrid. By looking at the extremes in all directions, you can at least consider worst-case scenarios and understand what you might need to prepare for.

Salkowitz outlines four specific scenarios for how he thinks the comic industry might play out over the next several years. He notes the winners and losers in each instance, and points out that it's these groups who have the potential to "win" this fight who are pulling the industry in different directions. Will any one of these groups get a definitive win that will send everyone else to other businesses? Probably not. But some groups will make more headway than others, and whatever outcome we end up at, some will be happier with it than others.

I don't think I can summarize Salkowitz's ideas any better than he's already done in the book. But I think there's very interesting and useful ideas to consider for anybody working in and around the comics industry. This is worth reading and taking his projections under consideration whether you're a publisher, a retailer, a freelancer, a distributor... every aspect of comics could be affected, so I think it's worth taking a look at this book if you've got any skin in this comics game at all.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Turkey VS Sgt. Fury!

If you're in the United States today, happy Thanksgiving!
Unpublished Sgt. Fury artwork by Dick Ayers.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Pre-Turkey-Coma Links

  • El Santo provides a look back at Puck, the original American humor magazine. His "Know Thy History" series is good, and I've linked to them before, but this was, for me, the most enlightening and informative one yet.
  • Also in the category of "Things that have been around a while but I knew nothing about", Bibi Andrade is apparently celebrating 13 years of The Adventures of Bibi & Friends comic books. I honestly can't tell if the stories are about business and PR, or if they actually are business and PR. But, hey, if anyone can make an independent comics for over a decade, more power to 'em!
  • Pierre Villeneuve looks at the old Legion of the Super-Heroes story, The Great Darkness Saga and concludes that, by comparison, the Darkseid that shows up in the current Justice League book is "weak and damaged" because he doesn't do anything, and writer Geoff Johns relies on your existing knowledge of the character to provide any gravitas.
  • Matt Kuhns takes a look at the new Superman movie logo, and extrapolates the conflict filmmakers have in making superhero movies. They're serious, but still fun, but not too fun, and not too serious...
  • Finally, here's a 1983 interview with Marie Severin. The production quality isn't the greatest, but it's nearly twenty minutes of Marie Frickin' Severin!

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Comics Libriarian As A Career Path

I'm still kicking around some thoughts from my visit to the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum yesterday. Not so much the work that I saw, but the people working there. Caitlin McGurk noted at one point that working at the BICLM this was really part of a deliberate and decidedly conscious career path. She had previously worked in research/librarian capacities for the Center for Cartoon Studies, the Bulliet Comics Collection at Columbia University and Marvel among others.

It's that last item at Marvel that caught my attention. Not so much because "Ooo, it's Marvel" but because they were the first comics outfit of any sort that I had heard of to have a librarian/archivist. That would've been Peter Sanderson. When I first learned of Sanderson and his role at Marvel, I was quite jealous. I mean, reading and organizing comics all day? And getting paid for it? How awesome is that?

But that was pretty much it, as far as job possibilities went at the time. There was no set of courses you could take at college to train for "comics librarian" or "comics archivist" or anything like that, because that simply was not a job opportunity. It wasn't like saying you wanted to be a rock-and-roll star, where there's also no standard path to that job and your odds of landing in the position are extremely remote. No, back in the 1980s, there was not a single job opportunity like that anywhere! There was Sanderson's job and that was it!

Now, you could go into library sciences and become a "regular" librarian and maybe you could push for a comics collection of some sort. That's what some people were trying to do in the 1980s. But if there weren't comics involved, honestly, the librarian aspect doesn't appeal to me all that much. That's why I went into graphics as a profession.

But, now, you've got people like McGurk who has carved out a career path as a comics librarian! Not a librarian who does some stuff with comics, a comics librarian! She's held (to my knowledge) five different positions at five different, wholly unrelated places, as a comics librarian. I can't speak to the career histories of the other folks working at BICLM, but they're all comics librarians too. There are five (I think) of them working full-time at the BICLM.

Five. At one location. Now check out this list of libraries that have reasonably sized comics holdings. Not a bad list, eh?

How cool is it that we're at a point now where "comics librarian" is not just a possible vocation, but one where, if you really dislike your boss or the surroundings or whatever, you still have a decent shot at being a comics librarian somewhere else? I honestly don't know if I would've enjoyed the librarian angle enough to have enjoyed the non-comics stuff that I would've almost certainly had to have done before getting to now, but that the occupation is viable now where it was barely realistic a decade ago is phenominal.

Anyone reading this who's still in high school or can change majors in college? Take your interest in comics to go get a library sciences degree!

Monday, November 19, 2012

Today's Billy Ireland Visit

I set aside some time today to finally visit the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum. It's been practically in my backyard for years, but I never made the trek to stop by. Boy, am I pissed at myself for waiting this long!

I've known about it (under it's various names) for years, but honestly it's really been Caitlin McGurk's deliberate outreach efforts in the past year or so she's been there that have really put it more in the forefront of my radar. So I contacted her last week, asking about a tour, and she was happy to oblige.

The BICLM itself is a little unassuming at first. It's tucked away a bit and, except for the life-sized Garfield sitting on a bench out front, it looks like just a nice reading room. In fact, there's a larger, similar-looking reading room across the hall. There's a handful of bookshelves half-filled with comic-related books and a couple dozen pieces of original art on the walls (currently all sporting a "dancing" theme), and a desk for some student workers.

But at the risk of using an absurdly corny metaphor, that is just the Clark Kent to the Superman that is the BICLM.

McGurk took myself and a visiting professor (who's name escapes me at the moment) from James Madison University through a set of doors labeled "Staff Only" to the heart of the Library. Behind the doors was easily the most impressive single collection of comics and comic-related material I have ever seen. The Library was packed to the rafters with collection after collection after collection.

The initial library shelves were filled with comics and graphic novels. I believe she cited 30,000 individual pamphlet comics, and that's with them not even trying to focus on collecting them. That also includes the Jay Kennedy collection of underground comix, dating back to the 1950s! They also have the largest collection of Japanese-language manga outside of Japan.

They also have in their possession now the Bill Blackbeard collection. Which is basically every newspaper strip ever, individually clipped and sorted. She pulled a box down at random -- five years of Blondie from the 1950s. I asked to see the March 1949 strips of Li'l Abner -- Boom! Here's all of 1949 in order; March is about 1/4 of the way down. It took six filled semi-trucks to deliver all of these clipped newspaper strips!

And then we got back to the original art. She started by showing us the Milton Caniff stuff that helped start the Library back in the 1970s. Gorgeous work. And huge! Those old Terry and the Pirates Sunday strips took up an entire newspaper page and Caniff did his originals oversized! And he saved everything, so they have all of it. Not just completed strips, but random panels that he drew, inked, decided he didn't like and cast aside -- BUT STILL SAVED!

From there, it kind of became a whirlwind of originals. "Did you guys want to see anything in particular?" "Do you have any Herriman?" "Yeah, here's some dailies here. Wait; I think the Sundays are in... this drawer." "McCay?" "Well, most of the Little Nemos are on loan for a show in Florida, but we do have these hand-colored originals of Tales of the Jungle Imps."

We pretty much went through the list of every cartoonist you could think to name: Charles Schulz, Mort Walker, Gahan Wilson, Steve Bissett, Will Eisner, Hal Foster, Wendy Pini, Burne Hogarth... Amazing originals, just one after another.

"Did one of you ask earlier about Pogo?" "No, but we're not about to turn down the opportunity to see them!"

They are way over-crowded in there, and we had to move stuff out of the way a few times to get to some of the drawers. But they're actually opening a new, much larger facility next Fall, which will include much more exhibit space. As part of that process, they were pulling out and framing a number of choice pieces to exhibit. Those were set aside separately, and she was going through those with us. I had to laugh as she just flipped right past an original Sunday Peanuts because, you know, it's just Schulz and we'd already looked at a drawer-full of him. What's one more?

We spent so much time looking at other pieces, she almost forgot to mention until the very end that they're holding ALL of Bill Watterson's work (dating back to his high school material, they have literally everything except for one or two pieces!) and all the originals for Jeff Smith's Bone. Technically, the Watterson and Smith pieces aren't formally part of the Library yet, but they're still there.

We also briefly met curator Jenny Robb, and I saw the founder and initial curator Lucy Caswell doing some work as well. McGurk also introduced us to Jared Gardner, who's an English professor there and happened to stop by doing some research of his own.

What an awesome resource this place is! But that's not what really thrilled me. I mean, yes, I totally was geeking out over an original Preventative Maintenance cover by Eisner and drooled over Walt Kelly's lettering, but that wasn't the best part.

The best part were the people there. Everyone there was totally willing to help with whatever research you wanted to do. I noted in one of my emails to McGurk that I was doing research on Walter Gibson and Jack Kirby, and when I got there, she had several books about Gibson pulled out and set aside... as well as all of their original Kirby pages -- two of which I don't think have ever been published before! Those were all sitting in their reading room with my name tagged to them. "You need photocopies of anything? Let us know. You need hi-res scans for print? Those cost a little bit but we can totally do that for you." Everybody there wanted to make the work -- all of it -- as available as they could. I've never been to a Library before where everyone there was not only able/willing to help, but really eager and enthused to help people! There was definitely a sense of actively advocating comics research.

Just from the small amount that I saw -- they also have another warehouse filled with material that hasn't even been catelogued yet -- it's almost overwhelming how much can still be researched and just hasn't been for whatever reason. I think that's the real genius of the BICLM -- not just that it's got literally tons and tons of great material in one place, but that the people there are trying to go out of their way to get more people interested in studying it in, thereby further advancing our collective understanding of comics.

I am not at all doing this place justice in my summary here! But if you have the ability, I highly suggest taking some time to visit. The work they've done there, both in curating and advocating comics, is nothing short of awe-inspiring. And, hey, if you're thinking about getting into comics research in either an academic or commerical venue, and want to make sure your subject matter isn't one that's been covered to death already, absolutely take a tour of this place! Not that I wasn't exactly hurting for ideas before, but after today's tour, I've gotten so many new ideas, I'm wondering how I could ever possibly get to all of them in my lifetime!

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Whirling Dervishes

From Blackstone, Master Magician Comics #2 circa 1946...
TRANSLATION: "Look, I just write comics. Don't expect me to actually research this crap! I just liked the name, alright?"

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Today's Lesson

In the space of 10-15 minutes this afternoon, I saw the following three things.

1) This webcomic by Christian Beranek, Tony DiGerolamo and Greg Eales.
2) This tweet from Jason Thibault.
3) This blog post from Scott Hamilton.

Artist’s block.

“Blank brain”.

Creative winter…

Whatever you call it, I’m in it.

It started as a brief ‘pause’ after my 100 Portraits project in order to re-assess the direction I’m headed as an artist, because I was feeling a bit aimless and unsatisfied, moving around in tiny circles. I think it’s ok to take a break if you’re experiencing frustration with your work; wipe the slate clean and take a good objective view at what you’ve done and what you want to accomplish. Am I headed toward that goal? Am I satisfied with the direction that I’m going? Be careful, however, that the intended short self-examination doesn’t stretch into a long-term hiatus.

It’s not that I haven’t done anything at all- in fact I have four unfinished works sitting in my studio at the moment, none of which I will probably ever bring to completion, because in the midst of the process I’ve turned a corner and said, “oh,”. So I ask myself, am I just making excuses? Am I creating roadblocks for myself subconsciously? Time has dragged on, and it has now been five months since I have actually completed a piece of art, save for one morning sketch I did about 2 weeks ago. That was refreshing. However, in my own defence, during this period I have closed my business and gone back to work full time, I have taken on the position of assistant coach for my daughter’s soccer team, and begun the process of rebuilding a motorcycle… And hey, I have four kids. That’s the number one excuse that others give to me freely.

So here is an examination of the ten worst habits that I have developed which keep me safe from being productive. Feel free to add to my list if I’ve missed anything.

Number one: Television. Best creativity killer on the planet.

Number two: Go to bed late and get up early. Being tired all the time is really helpful.

Number three: Put all kinds of non art-related junk in your studio space so that you don’t even want to look at it.

Number four: Become obsessed with Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and Instagram, and check your iphone every five minutes to see if anybody loves you.

Number five: Don’t bother doing anything small- make sure that all art projects you want to do will take at least 50 to 100 hours.

Number six: If you do feel the urge to make some art, make sure there are tons of distractions around; if there are none, see number four.

Number seven: Decide to completely re-invent yourself as an artist. (Never take small steps in this regard- always good for a personal crisis.)

Number eight: Listen carefully to all the voices in your head telling you to give it up, you’re not a real artist anyways.

Number nine: Completely alienate yourself from all of your artist friends, and secretly creep them on Facebook so nobody asks what you’ve been up to…

Number ten: Busy yourself as much as possible with other things- home renos, rebuilding motorcycles… and faithfully do these during your studio times.

Did I miss anything?

Yours in procrastination,

Now, with those three items in mind, let me ask you: WHY ARE YOU STILL SITTING THERE READING THIS? GO MAKE SOMETHING!

Experiments In Funding

Despite having an MBA, I am not a master of business. That's why I hold a Day JobTM and this writing about comics schtick is on the side. I have a steady income and health insurance and all that fun stuff that allows me a measure of security to kick around other ideas more-or-less freely. And, while I'm not looking to change that basic situation, I would like to see if I can accrue some extra funds both in the short and long term from writing.

You may have noticed on the right side of my blog, there is now some Project Wonderful ad space. As of this writing, it's got a not-at-all relevant ad that I'm sure was put in just for the sake of having something cheap. I'm hoping someone thinks well enough of my blog that they find it worthy of content-relevant advertising, and I certainly wouldn't mind getting a little extra coinage from the deal. If you want to speak to whatever passes for my audience, please feel free to jump in on the ground floor!

I'd also like to point out again that I've got a couple of books out on the market now. Comic Book Fanthropology is my first and focuses on the who/what/why of comic fans. Edward Lear & the Snargetted Flartlethants of Nonsense examines Lear's famous limericks and puts them in context with additional essays by yours truely. Both are available here. My boss flipped through a copy at work the other day and just said, "You know, you're pretty odd, Sean." Naturally, the idea with these books is to get something on the market that can continue to sell over the long term.

You know, I frequently talk about business practices and generating revenue for webcomics over at my MTV Geek column, but I am phenomenally bad at putting those ideas into practice. I just can't generate a decent-enough-sized audience to make my work financially self-sustaining. But there's no harm in trying some ideas out from time to time, and seeing if I can't make a little something extra when/where I can.

I don't plan on changing my content style or structure or anything, but I figured I should be honest with you about what I'm doing. Project Wonderful ads and the ocassional book, in an attempt to make a little extra money. Let's see how that works.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Can We Finally Stop Calling Marvel & DC "Mainstream"?

Here's a link to Amazon's Top 10 best-selling comics and graphic novels of 2012. Read that list please. No Superman, no Batman, no Spider-Man, no Hulk. There are, in fact, only two superhero comics on there at all, and only three that are published by comics' "Big Two." In fact, of the publishers on that Top 10 list, there are more books from Pantheon than there are from Marvel.

And look at the creators of these books! Chris Ware, Jeff Lemire, Charles Burns, Jeffrey Brown... All very talented folks, and all very much NOT the type of people who you would expect to write about spandex-clad musclemen.

And bear in mind that Amazon usually categorizes manga and Young Adult comics separately, so those don't likely even factor into this list.

"But, Sean," you say, "this is only one retailer. That's hardly representative of the entire industry."

Yes, Amazon is one retailer compared with the 2000-3000 comic book shops across the US. But they also account for around 1/3 of all book sales here. One third of every dollar spent on books in the US is spent at Amazon! That makes any top-selling title in every comic shop look like chicken feed! Is Amazon perfectly representative of comic sales? No, but they're much closer than what we see in the Diamond sales charts.

"So what?"

So I'm done with people talking about the "comics industry" or "mainstream comics" and only referring to Marvel and DC. They're fighting over an increasingly smaller piece of the pie when it comes to the local comic shop scene, and that scene wasn't very large in the first place.

Look, I'm not down on comic shops here. When they're done well, they make for a great experience that you can't get anywhere else. The personal attention you get from employees is great, and the interactions you can have with other patrons is fantastic. I am all for more great comic shops.

But they're not mainstream, and they don't represent the comics industry.

I have been to exactly zero comic book shops that have a larger manga selection than my local Books-a-Million, and my local Books-a-Million sucks. The great strides in YA comics from the past few years? Almost completely unseen in local shops -- try getting a copy of something from the Baby Mouse series from your LCS. And, although it's still a nascent industry, webcomics aren't even on the table with this discussion.

I'm not dissing superheroes. I'm an old school superhero guy. Really. Over half of my collection is from Marvel. It was John Byrne's run on Fantastic Four that got me hooked on comics in the first place. Add in DC and those two publishers make up nearly 70% of the comics I own. Count 'em yourself.

I'm just saying that people should be honest with the terminology. Mainstream is defined as "the principal or dominant course, tendency, or trend" and that is NOT what superheroes are. Spandex and capes do show up in the broader market, but they are by far not dominant. Two out of the Top 10. Two. Twenty percent. Hardly dominant.

It sounds like a stupid semantics discussion, but it's really just indicative of the broader issue. Namely, that when people are looking to "fix" or "save" the comics industry, their solutions won't work because they're not looking at the whole industry, just the superhero corner of it. Comics is much, much broader than the direct market and trying to fix a system that's specifically designed to cater to very small, niche market of comic collectors is like trying to impact our entire political system by changing the platforms of the Green Party. However much people may be devoted to the Green Party and their (decidedly worthy) policies, the reality is that they're a small player in a much larger market. So too is the direct market a small player in the broader book market. You know, the one where those "elusive" new readers are.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

On Fandom

One of the reasons I wrote Comic Book Fanthropology was to help explain to comic book fans why other fans do what they do. You probably know why you like the comics you like, but why does the next guy or gal like something else? And why feuds can erupt between them. My hope was that improving people's understanding of the hobby would minimize those fights.

Honestly, I was under no illusions about how it would sell, but I thought it might make a little dent. That's partially why I serialized the whole thing online for free, and why I've kept it online since.

Adrianne Curry has been running a show on YouTube for a little over a month now called "Super Fans." It's a look at those people who make fandom their life. She spent the first five episodes looking at Star Wars fandom -- mostly Steve Sansweet actually. But with today's episode, she turns her attention to Alan Stewart and his Hall of Heroes.
Curry is one of those women who have likely had her geek credibility challenged. ("Fake fan girls" seems to be this week's topic.) She's conventionally attractive and cosplays and has no conpunctions about displaying her feminitity. She also goes out of her way in the first episode to justify her geek cred, so I suspect it's a topic that's been raised before for her.

I don't doubt her geek status. She claims to be big on Star Wars? That's good enough for me. But she seems, at least in the episodes so far, to miss the point of fandom itself. Sansweet touched on it, and I went on about it at length in my book. It's not about the collections. It's not about having more or bigger stuff than the next guy. It's not about the trivia. It's not about rattling off arcane facts that even the original authors have long forgotten.

The main reason for a fandom -- any fandom -- to exist to share your joy with others. It doesn't matter if you camp out in San Diego for hours on end in front of Hall H for Twilight or Futurama or Firefly or DC Comics, the reason you're there is to share that experience with everybody else in line. You're there to laugh and joke and analyze and commiserate and eat and sleep and tell stories and live. And if your fandom is so obscure that you can only find a dozen other people who like the same thing you do, the greatest joy you're going to get out of it is when you share that experience with them.

The problems start cropping up when a fandom looks at itself and begins to define a prototypical member. I'm going to quote from my book...
Looking at the existing characteristics of individual group members, they subconsciously create a mental ideal of what traits are most acceptable or most valuable within their circle.
Prototypes are ordinarily unlikely to be checklists of attributes... rather, they are fuzzy-sets which capture the context-dependent features of group membership often in the form of exemplary members (actual group members who best embody the group) or ideal types (an abstraction of group features). People are able to assess the prototypicality of real group members, including self—that is, the extent to which a member is perceived to be close or similar to the group prototype.
—Michael Hogg, Social Groups & Identities
What Hogg is saying here, as it relates to comic fans, is that people develop prototypes based on the best examples from fandom and then, with such a prototype defined, individuals can weigh their, or anyone else’s, characteristics against the prototype’s. In effect, they use the prototype as the basis by which to judge how much of a “real” fan someone is; a “real” fan would meet all or most of the criteria embodied by the prototype.
If you don't fit that prototype at all, you're not part of the group. This is why comic fans -- who've been decidedly insular for the past several decades thanks to the direct market system -- are generally thought to look/act like the guys on Big Bang Theory. Note: the guys on Big Bang Theory. The industry as a whole wrote off half of the population sometime in the 1960s or '70s. So the prototype developed into a decidedly male one and even when women were "allowed" in the club, it was because they had some mannish qualities. And on the flip side, women who looked more stereotypically feminine are seen as outsiders.

Part of the reason women started flocking to manga was that it didn't necessarily contain only superheroes, but part of the reason was because they were sold in bookstores instead of comic shops, and there was no defined prototype for manga fans. They didn't have to face down a large group of people who told them either explicitly or implicitly that they didn't belong. Same thing with the rise in Young Adult graphic novels.

Here's the thing about prototypes, though: they're not static. As more and different people join the group, the prototype changes to essentially become an amalgam of all the members. But if the group isn't willing to adapt and adopt people perhaps a little more removed from their prototype, the group becomes more and more insular. They become known for being uninviting. New people don't join and the membership slowly dwindles as old members pass on.

This happens in nature all the time. If, as a species, you don't try to incorporate some genetic diversity, you will die out.

Now what is the complaint about "mainstream" comics today? Too few people and those that are in the group are growing older.

There is not a damn thing wrong with anyone liking comics. And if you happen to know more obscure trivia about Ambush Bug than they do, that's great. But even if they are just a casual fan and only buy an ocassional Batman graphic novel, just let them! They're not in "your group" anyway! Your group is the one who does like the extended continuities and complete runs and collectibility. There's nothing wrong with that. And there's nothing wrong if they prefer emotional drama of Fruits Basket. And there's nothing wrong if they only like comics' visuals to give them ideas to make cool costumes. Let them do their thing, and they'll let you do yours.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Is It Christmas Yet Links

  • I suppose this is flying under the radar because comic fandom's internet contingent has been in a tizzy over cosplaying, but Al Feldstein and the estate of Harvey Kurtzman have evidently been trying to get the copyrights to their old EC work.
  • I have to admit not having heard of Fiddlestix before, but it's evidently been around for a quarter century now. David Wasting Paper has a pretty comprehensive interview with creator Michael Pohrer.
  • Frank Beddor notes that he's continuing with the adventures of Hatter M, and provides this synopsis of his next graphic novel. The cover was posted back here.
  • Jillian Tamaki describes the difference between drawing and illustration. Interesting way to look at it, but while I've long considered the two notably different, my distinction speaks more towards the execution end of the process.
  • ICv2 notes that nearly half of "independent merchants" (which would include comic book shops) intend to use Small Business Saturday -- November 24 -- as part of their overall holiday strategy. Coupons and discounts were the most popular ideas, but contests and giveaways were cited often as well.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Vocab Lesson: Indicia

I was recently chatting with a reasonably smart friend who is pretty familiar with books, comics and publishing in general. He surprised me a bit by not knowing the word "indicia" so I thought I'd do a quick blog post for anyone else who's not familiar with the term.

Indicia (pronounced in-DISH-ee-ah) are all those copyright and publishing bits that you see on the insides of comics but really don't pertain to the story. Here's a classic example...
All that text stuff at the bottom of the page is considered indicia. It's the plural form of the Latin word indicium, which means a distinguishing mark. So you'll typically find all sorts of relevant publishing information in the indicia -- what makes that particularly publication different from another, like the issue and volume numbers, the formal copyright notice, the publisher, etc. For graphic novels and books, this would also include the ISBN and Library of Congress information.

There's not a formal or standard format this text needs to take. Here's two other examples that change from the old layout a bit...
There's also not a single location it has to appear. Early comics from the 1940s tended to run the information on the inside front cover underneath a slew of ads. This largely migrated to the first interior page, I believe, in the early 1960s. More recently, it's been included on whatever additional page the comic may have that is already somewhat text-heavy and not germaine to the story -- like the summary pages Marvel has used or the letters pages over at DC. (Although I haven't bought a pamphlet book from either publisher recently, so I don't know if they're still doing this currently.)

So if anyone starts referring to "all that copyright info" you can correct them by telling them that it's called the indicia and includes a lot more information beyond the copyright.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Sturgeon's Law & The Quest For Maintaining Relevance

Sturgeon's Law says that 90% of everything is crap. Although he was originally expressing the sentiment with regards to a macro-level of art (i.e. 90% of films are crap, 90% of books are crap, etc.) I think it also applies at decidedly more micro-level as well. Meaning that 90% of everything you or I produce is crap.

Obviously, crap is relative here. If 90% of what I make is crap, but I always produce something better (or worse) than the next guy, then a strict definition of crap would mean 100% of his (or my) output is crap. What I'm saying, though, is that 90% of what I make is crap only when compared to what I make. The next guy might be infinitely better or worse than me, but his stuff is still 90% crap... relative only to the broader body of work he produces.

With that in mind, then, it makes sense, as a creative individual, to create as much as you possibly can so that the 10% of your work that isn't crap is enough to make a living on. And, if you're extremely talented or incredibly lucky, some of your non-crap work will even find it's way up to the 10% of non-crap work overall.

But here's the other thing: the 10% of your non-crap work changes over time. You don't just create 10% of your life-long awesomness when you're 20 and produce nothing but crap for the rest of your life. By the same token, you don't produce crap exclusively until you're 60 and suddenly come up with your 10% of non-crap. No, 90% of what you've made by the time you're 20 is crap, and 90% of what you've made by the time you're 60 is crap. Some of that latter crap may well include things that were part of your 10% non-crap work from when you were 20!

You ever look at something you created years earlier? An old drawing or a poem or whatever? You thought it was absolutely fantastic at the time but, now, 5... 10... 20 years on, it looks like crap. That's what I'm talking about. In fact, if your older work doesn't look any worse to you now than it did before, then you haven't really grown or improved in the intervening time.

Now, if you took a decade off from painting to focus on raising your kids (or whatever), obviously your painting skills wouldn't improve over that time, and your older paintings probably look just as good to you now as they did then. That's perfectly reasonable, I think. But once you get back into painting, you should start improving again (once you've gotten past whatever level of atrophy your skills fell into) and you should soon see your older work as crap.

Everything is changing all around us. Technology, of course, but also the way we interact with the rest of the world. Twitter didn't exist ten years ago, and internet-connected cell phones were quite the rarity. But not only do they exist now, but they've changed the face of how we think and act on a day-to-day level. How much of your Twitter stream got filled up with election day coverage on November 6? That wasn't a news feed like you might see scrolling across the bottom of CNN; that was running commentary shared by your friends and acquaintences from around the country, if not the world. That was you and hundreds, if not thousands, of loosely connected individuals having a large group discussion in real time about an event that was going on throughout the country. Ten years ago, you could do something approximating that with a dozen or two people in a chat room or message board. Twenty years ago? Almost unheard of. You sat in a room, and any discussion was limited to the people in that room. Maybe one or two people on the phone line. The technology has enabled a fundamental change in how we operate as a society.

So, here's the tricky bit for the 21st century. The work of a creative individual tends to be most successful (i.e. not part of the 90% of crap) when it's a good reflection of the culture it's in. Looking at old comics, they tend not to work as well today because they reflect a very different time and place. Yellow-skinned, buck-toothed depictions of the Japanese look horrible today, but it was almost unpatriotic (for Americans) to depict them any other way in the 1940s. But if the technology keeps changing at a faster and faster pace (which it is) and that keeps impacting society at a faster and faster pace (which it is) then it's inherently more difficult to make art that's reflective of society. The time you might take creating a piece might be longer than the time it takes for the culture to change around you.

And if the art you create isn't reflective of society, it's more likely to be seen as a failure. That is, it's more likely to be seen as crap. The implication here is that it's becoming harder and harder to create art that's not crap, and that the improvements that you used to see in your work are potentially less relevant/important. Meaning that your more recent work is going to be less likely to supplant your previous work, and your window for creating additional non-crap gets smaller instead of larger. After all, how many comic creators do you know that made something fantastic in their 20s or 30s, and have produced nothing of any particular note since?

I might be full of crap with this. This post could well be part of the 90% of my work that is crap. But I tell you, this is the kind of stuff that scares me personally. For whatever insignificant level of relevance I have here and now, how much less do I have to look forward to because I can't keep up? I'm certainly going to try to fight that notion as long as I can, but mankind as a whole does not have a good track record in that department.

Here's hoping this post is part of my 90%!

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Expensive Missing Artist

This is a piece of original comic book art that's currently up for auction on eBay. If you notice, the piece is not signed, and the seller doesn't know the identity of the aritst(s). In fact, the seller doesn't know anything about the piece at all! Where it comes from, where it may have been published or in what capacity, or if it was even published at all! He suggests possibly Ditko or Kirby, but it's clearly neither. (Maybe he just threw those names out there to get some additional hits from people searching for those artists?) He also suggests it's from the 1960s, but a couple people I know (and I wholy agree with them) say it looks to be no older than the mid-1970s at most.

If you have ideas, I'm sure folks would be interested, BUT that's not why I'm posting this. I'm posting this because the seller has set the price tag for this piece at $3,000!!! I just can't figure how you can even begin to justify asking for that kind of money for a piece that you can't identify in any way. If it were a proven Kirby or Ditko piece, sure, but one that is clearly not either of them and could well be from no one of any significance in comics? I can't imagine anyone paying even half that amount for this!

It's not a terrible piece of art, a little internally inconsistent with regard to the inking , but not appreciably worse than a lot of known published comic art. But I could get a new version of this piece commissioned from any number of named artists for quite a bit less than $3,000. It doesn't look like he deals much in original art, but would you randomly throw a four-figure price tag on a piece you knew nothing about?

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Cynical Quote Of The Day

Even the biggest film stars who come to San Diego now act as if they are casual comics fans, as steeped in esoteric trivia as the guy in the third row wearing the Ambush Bug costume... The burden of having to seem geek-tolerant and totally not the kind of popular girl that dissed nerds in high school falls especially heavily on the shoulders of the hot young actresses cast in comics-oriented action movies. Luckily, it doesn't take much work for them to win over most comics fans. If every star who professed fandom from the stage at Comic-Con actually bought comics, there wouldn't be a sales problem. But, you know, they're actors. They can pull it off.
Rob Salkowitz, Comic-Con and the Business of Pop Culture

Friday, November 09, 2012

Buy Snargetted Flartlethants

I have a new book out, for anyone interested: Edward Lear & the Snargetted Flartlethants of Nonsense. Lear was originally a skilled painter, but failing eyesight pushed him towards verse and he began writing nonsense limericks. He popularized the limerick format and went on to write several more books, illustrating them in a loose, approachable style.

What I always find interesting, though, is getting some context behind the original material, so I've written two new pieces to accompany Lear's first collection limericks. First is an examination of nonsense poetry, looking at how and why it works the way it does. Next is a short biography of Lear himself, including some reproductions of his detailed, pre-nonsense paintings. Combine those with Lear's own work, and you've got a book that's fun for kids but with some intellectual context to put the work in perspective.

Plus, it's got a really catchy title!

Anyway, it's $13.95 and available online now. It'd make a great Christmas gift for the kids, I'm sure!

Thursday, November 08, 2012

Mad As Media Literacy

Peter Gutierrez recently posted a sort-of review of Totally MAD: 60 Years of Humor, Satire, Stupidity and Stupidity. But he makes a really interesting point in there about Mad in general -- one that I hadn't considered before. Namely, that Mad was/is a fantastic educational tool when it comes to media literacy.

First, what is media literacy? Media literacy is the ability to critically look at and analyze media. It's being able to sit down to watch TV or a movie, and understand why it's written the way it is, or why the actors are portraying their parts in a certain way, or what the broader socio-political context of the piece is. It's the ability to understand the media you're consuming, not just consume it.

So how does Mad teach media literacy? Primarily through their parodies and satires. The films and shows they lampooned frequently contained heavily meta-textual references. The one I immediately recalled once Gutierrez noted the idea was in the parody of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. I had enjoyed the movie as a child when it came out, but the Mad version contained a scene in which Steven Spielberg and George Lucas appear about 2/3 of the way through. The two talk about the progress of the film as its creators and dream up the mine car chash as a way to keep the action moving along so fast that nobody will realize that they don't have much of a plot. It wasn't until reading that that I realized just how flimsy a premise the movie had, and how a film's creators can add in big, flashy sequences that aren't anything more than big, flashy, hollow sequences.

The other thing Mad did for my media literacy, particularly when I was even younger, was to provide a cultural touchstone with pop culture. I didn't actually see all the movies they made fun of, but I was aware of them, their basic plots, and probably a particularly scathing analysis of the them through the pages of Mad. Other cultural references seeped in as well. I recall a Mort Drucker piece in which he created the "perfect" politician by taking bits and pieces of particularly famous ones. Linocoln's beard, Ted Kennedy's shock of white hair, Carter's lips... I got a civics lesson in notable politicians YEARS before I paid attention to politics. (The punchline, by the way, was that all the parts, when assembled properly, looked like Mr. T.)

The fact that Mad kept poking fun at American culture in a critical and intelligent way (admittedly, amid some sophomoric gags and general sillyness) it required its audience to look at what it was parodying with the same critical eye. "It's funny because it's true" is a kind of verbal shorthand that speaks to how a good comedian can cast light on the absurdities of a culture through exaggeration, but that phrase could also well be applied to Mad. They regularly skewered media of all sorts through comic exaggeration, and the only way to really understand what they were doing was to understand what they were really criticizing.

You know, I read Mad as a kid only sporadically. But I have to admit that I did not realize until this week just how significant even those few issues I read really were!

Wednesday, November 07, 2012

Post-Election (But Not At All Election Related) Links

  • Recently uncovered: unpublished Osamu Tezuka comics from when he was a teenager in the 1940s! While certainly not as powerful as his later Astro Boy, these help to show Tezuka's progress as a creator. I just wish they showed more images from this newly found collection.
  • PLB Comics will be presenting a "Creating Comics" seminar for teens this Saturday at Wicomico Public Library, Centre Branch, Salisbury. I've seen a number of "how to" sessions like this before, but I think this is the first I've heard of that was geared specifically towards teenagers.
  • Katherine Dacey is closing down The Manga Critic. We're sorry to see that resource go, but Kate's still in the game, as she'll be starting up a column for Manga Bookshelf.

Tuesday, November 06, 2012

Go Vote!

Hey, all you U.S. citizens! I don't care who you vote for today, but go out and vote! (Well, I do care in the broader sense of who gets elected, but I'm not going to hold it against you personally if you vote for the "wrong" candidate.)

Monday, November 05, 2012

Sidebar Question

You know, it occurs to me that my "What I'm Reading" portion of the sidebar on my blog site is a tad out of date. It almost always is, frankly, since I'm continually adding new titles to my reading list, or webcomics stop updating, or whatever. I could keep updating it periodically, as I've tried to do in the past, but I'd like to ask my reader(s) if it's worth keeping that list at all? Do people find any value in it? It takes up a good chunk of real estate, and I half-wonder if there's something else I might put in its place that would be of more interest/use to readers.

Thoughts, opinions and comments are welcome.

Happy Guy Fawkes Day!

Please blow up your Parliaments responsibly.

Saturday, November 03, 2012

Discovering Recon Academy

One of those travelling book fairs was at work this week, and I stumbled across a new (to me) set of graphic novels collectively called "Recon Academy." They were only asking $2.50 for each 60-ish page book, so I bought all four.

Conceptually, they're about four 13-15 year olds who form a team of secret agents, and they find themselves frequently at odds with a group known as Shadow Cell, who are behind various nefarious plots around the city. Each of the four books focuses on one character in particular, though they always work as group, with each kid contributing a special skillset. These are all decidedly in the Young Adult category, so it should come as no surprise that Shadow Cell gets their collective butt kicked each and every time.

The books were all written by Chris Everheart and drawn by Arcana Studio. They were published by Stone Arch, whom some of you may remember when I talked about their graphic fiction series a couple years ago. The stories and art were okay. Not great, but okay. And that's setting aside some of the basic concept holes like, why are these kids secret agents? Who are they actually reporting to -- they seem to be acting totally independent of any government group? Why is Shadow Cell's actual agenda -- they seem to be break the law for the sake of breaking the law?

Although I was intitially a little turned off by the fact that, of the four kids, you have four distinctly differnt races represented. It seemed a little forced but, to be fair, though, race is never brought up at any point; they're just four kids who happen to be Caucasian, Asian, Black and (I think) Latina. And most of the standard stereotypes are eschewed as well -- it's the Latina who's the martial arts expert, while the Asian kid is an expert in chemistry and forensics. Although it was the Caucasian who led the team, which I think was a bit trite.

I get the impression that this line was created so that Stone Arch had it's own (licensable) line of original comics. But it also seems like, as a publisher, they just farmed all the work out to whoever they might have in their address book. That's not meant as a disservice to the creators, but it seems to me like Stone Arch just wanted comics to have comics and didn't really know how to go about becoming a comics publisher in any sort of organic way. The whole thing seems just a little too forced and mechanical to me.

With their earlier takes on classic works of fiction, I could at least see using them to introduce kids to great authors like Jonathan Swift, Robert Louis Stevenson and Jules Verne. With these, while they're not bad by any means, I don't see a compelling reason to get them. Maybe it's just that I'm too used to reading YA comics by talents like Raina Telgemeier, Jeff Smith, Doug TenNapel and Jimmy Gownley. For $2.50 a pop, some of the Recon Academy books might make for a neat surprise to spring on your child if you stumble across them at a book fair, but I wouldn't expect them to fall in love with these in the same way they might with something like Drama.

Friday, November 02, 2012

Happy Birthday, Steve Ditko!

For the longest time, I thought Steve Ditko's head was engulfed in flames.

Thursday, November 01, 2012

Secret Of The Stone Frog Review

My plan this evening was to casually read The Secret of the Stone Frog while eating dinner, then go write out my next column for MTV Geek. But, after reading Stone Frog, I was too excited about it to not start writing a review immediately! (Don't worry, Val -- I'll still get my column to you in plenty of time. It will be just a tad later than usual!)

The story is about Leah and her younger brother Alan, who wake up one night in the middle of the a forest. They naturally start looking for a way home, and a stone frog points them on the path. The kids spend the remainder of the book trying to get back home, encountering various strange creatures. They periodically come across other stone frogs, who continue providing them with directions. But the "bee lady", the anthropamorphic anglerfish, the coachman and the talking police station are decidedly less friendly. As their surroundings get more and more chaotic, the kids find the final stone frog who points them to the door to their bedroom. They arrive just as the sun is coming and, despite the excitement that hasn't worn off yet, they quickly fall asleep.

I don't recall where I heard about David Nytra's new book, but I vaguely remember there being a positive comparison to Windsor McCay. The character designs of Leah and Alan, and the lush, detailed backgrounds are probably the biggest evidence for that. But I also detect a strong influence of Lewis Carroll through the basic plot and story structure, and some of the creature designs seem reminiscent of Carroll-collaborator and Punch cartoonist John Tenniel. What's fantastic about this, though, is while these were pretty clearly influences for Nytra, he's not simply regurgitating their work. Nytra is still working within the same basic type of dreamscape that those other creators worked in, but providing his own world for readers to view.

In Carroll's works, the author primarily worked in the realm of nonsense. The character of Alice was a very logically-minded young girl, but much of her challenge was trying to navigate a world in which logic does not necessarily apply. In McCay's works, his protagonists were frequently just observers to the action going on around them. Little Nemo's biggest challenge was simply to not wake up, so he could see what happened next. Leah and Alan, by contrast, are active participants in the world in which they find themselves and, although it is certainly strange and different, it follows the basic rules of cause and effect. This makes for an interesting and entertaining blend of approaches, resulting in a work that is not derivative of either of its primary influences and charming in its own unique way.

One of the tricks with working in dream worlds is that it can be seen as not really counting. "And then he woke up" makes for something of a lousy ending because readers can feel that all the great adventures they just read about didn't even matter within the fictional context in which they were presented. I think one of the keys is making sure that they dreams are still very well grounded in the characters' reality. Think of the ending to The Wizard of Oz movie where Judy Garland recognizes the farm hands as her companions on the Yellow Brick Road. (I feel obliged to point out, though, that the dream aspect was developed specifically for the movie. The original L. Frank Baum books made Oz a very real place to which Dorothy, Aunt Em and Uncle Henry eventually moved.) In Stone Frog, Nytra not only makes Leah and Alan's adventures potentially real -- as opposed to specifically dreamt -- but almost poetically alludes to the basis in their normal world for the imagery they saw.

All in all, I found the Stone Frog to be absolutely brilliant on all fronts. I'll fully admit bias in that I'm already a big fan of both McCay and Carroll, so this was right up my alley from the get-go, but the execution on this was exceptional and I can't wait to see if Nytra does anything else in this same vein!