Thursday, February 28, 2013

Black History Months

I'm always a little torn by how to write during Black History Month. I think it's important to honor and revel in the accomplishments of black folks who are often forgotten in the news cycle of comics, but at the same time, I don't like the idea of pandering to that idea for only 1/12 of the year. Over the years, I've waffled back and forth with some years making a point of featuring lots more black creators and characters, and others not so much. I do try to make a point to be even-handed all the time, though, and provide fair represenation regardless of what month it is.

But then, of course, there's the issue of me not being black. What can I say about race that a black person (or any other non-Caucasian, for that matter) can't say better? I mean, look at that Keith Knight cartoon I've included here. Is there anything I can say more poignant than that? Certianly nothing from first-hand experience.

Typically, most of the Black History Month feature pieces you see are shoved at the beginning of the month. February rolls around, and folks trot out their remembrances of Dwayne McDuffie or favorite Luke Cage moments. Some of the more knowledgeable people talk about Matt Baker or Lobo. They flip the calendar, see that it's Black History Month, and make some obligatory posts. This year, I made a deliberate effort to put my big Black History Month piece on the very last day of February. Not because I'd forgotten about it, but I want to make a point of trying to continue the conversation beyond the shortest month of the year.

Should EVERY day be an extended discussion about race? I think that might get pretty tedious, personally. But how about folks still make a point of doing non-Caucasian comics stories in March? And maybe April? And May? June...? I don't know that I'm expert in doing that myself, but I make an effort and sure wouldn't mind seeing other bloggers/commentators/journalists doing the same.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Loads O' Links

  • New 52 style "Fold & Super" heroes from goobeetsa. You know you want them sitting on your desk; go ahead and download them.
  • Garen Ewing highlights some old manhua. Not just any old Chinese comics, but it's actually a 17th century porcelain vase featuring art that looks as if it "could have been transferred directly from the pages of a Tintin album."
  • The How to Draw Cartoons group on Facebook has posted scans of Joe Musial's 1937 book Popeye's How to Draw Cartoons.
  • I don't know if this made the rounds whenever it was first posted, but Eliot R. Brown has several pages of candid photos from the Marvel Bullpen crica 1979-1982. My personal favorites are an armed and deadly-looking Marie Severin and Mark Gruenwald paddleballing like a pro.
  • Finally, Kirk Taylor points us to video from Derf BackDerf's presentation "Beyond Fiction: Using Journalism as a basis for Creating Comics and Cartoons" from last Friday in Columbus, Ohio.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Loud Creepy Guy

I was in the bookstore the other day, browsing the comics/manga section. I'd gotten most of the way down the aisle, and two young girls started studying the endcap display and slowly working their way down the aisle itself. They were both somwhere in the 8-10 year old range, and it kind of sounded like they were sisters. No adult supervision that I could immediately see, but the shelves were tall enough that Dad could've been in the next aisle and I wouldn't have known.

I stopped to flip through a couple of books, the girls were still checking out whatever they were interested in, and another guy walked into the aisle. Late 20s, early 30s maybe. A bit scruffy, very overweight. He then proceeded to very loudly talk about how the store layout is different now than it used to be, and this one section was over by the magazines and that next section was down farther. I couldn't tell if he was trying to strike up a conversation with the girls, who he was standing in the immediate vicinity of, or he was just talking to no one in particular. In either case, the girls, who had been carrying on their own conversation, both clammed up and immediately looked really uncomfortable. But they kept browsing in silence. The guy didn't go on long about the store layout -- a couple sentences at most -- and started looking at what was on the shelves.

Another minute passed.

"MISTER POTATO HEAD DRESSED UP AS DARTH VADER? THAT'S SILLY!"

He was at least looking at some Star Wars material. He spoke in a way that sounded like he maybe had an actual mental disability and wasn't just really socially awkward, but it was hard to tell. I didn't get the impression he was trying trick the girls into coming with him or anything sinister -- he was way to off-putting in that respect. But he still made the girls visibily uncomfortable. They started glancing around, trying to decide what to do, and how to escape. I went out one end of the aisle and the girls darted out the other.

I wasn't really sure who to feel worse for: the girls or the guy. I mean, the guy was bothering the girls and they didn't know what to do, so I'm sure they were scared. But at the same time, I don't think the guy was trying to be creepy. Did he actually have mental problems, or was he just really socially inept? And in either of those cases, he just would have been reaching out to another human being, right?

You know, maybe if I were a better person I would've engaged him. At least to give the girls an easy out. I could make excuses about how I was fed up with people thanks to the family who had just brought their whistle-blowing four-year-old into the restaurant I was at. But really, he was creeping me out too between not using his inside voice and his series of seeming non-sequitirs.

I didn't have a good experience because of this guy. But you can't blame the store or the employees there. The guy wasn't doing anything wrong; he was just behaving with little regard to cultural norms and mores. And I guess that's kind of my point here tonight. I've been in plenty of weird and uncomfortable comic shops and used bookstores in my day. And while many of them creeped me out because of the employees or that odd stain on the floor or the wafting B.O. in the corner, some of those bad experiences were through no fault of the store itself. So as a suggestion for future trips, might I suggest trying to pinpoint exactly why you're made uncomfortable in a store -- if it's something the store doesn't have complete control over, it might be worth cutting them a little slack.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Guest Week At Marvel & DC

Ryan Estrada (who's been known to shake up people's ideas on comics before) had a Tweet last week that I immediately liked...
The guest strip, if you're not very familiar with it, is something of a tradition in webcomics in which a creator takes a bit of time away from his/her comic (sometimes for vacation, often because they're forced to for health and/or financial reason) so they ask a few friends to contribute a strip or two. The idea is that, if you can get five or six friends to each contribute one strip, you can continue the strip's momentum when you're not able to make any updates personally.

Frequently, the guest creators are given free reign to do whatever they like. Many try to match the style and tenor of the original, just using their own artistic style, but some go off to do bizarre interpretations just for the sake of providing a new take.

Now think about that in the context of Marvel circa 1970. Jack Kirby and Stan Lee had been working on the Fantastic Four just shy of ten years and Thor almost as long. Regardless of where you stand on the "who did what" debate, there's no question that those books reflected their unique vision. Then Kirby left Marvel. Art chores were given to a few different guys, mostly John Buscema. About a year later, Lee took some time off to work with director Alain Resnais, so the books were written by Archie Goodwin and Gerry Conway, under the editorship of Roy Thomas. Thomas later picked up some of the writing duties himself. There's nothing inherently wrong about those issues, but they're definitely NOT the same stories that Lee and Kirby were doing.

Even though John Romita tried aping Kirby's style as much as he could in those immediate FF issues, and even though inker Joe Sinnott carried through to provide some consistency, it was still a different book. It had different emphasis, different pacing. It wasn't what Kirby would've done. It was as if Kirby had called Romita and asked him to do a few guest issues. As Lee was also in charge of handing out story assignments, that is in fact literally what happened with Goodwin and Conway. Lee said he needed some time off to write a movie, and he asked those two writers to fill in for him. And that's pretty much been what's been happening since then.

"Hey, George Pérez, you want to do a stint on the FF?"

"Hey, John Byrne, you want to take a crack at the FF?"

"Hey, Jim Lee, how about a few FF issues?"

You regularly hear, when a new creator comes on to a long-running book like these, something along the lines of, "I'd like to take the character back to his roots." And the reason why that's said SO OFTEN is because everybody's interpretation of what the original creators were doing is a little different. And the key here isn't that the new guys are doing something they think harkens back to the original, but that they're not the original creators in the first place. They just stepped in to help out for a bit, while the original creator is taking a break to write a movie. Or because he needed to do some work that paid a little better. Or -- at this late a date -- because he died.

I think everyone reading this is pretty conscious of the fact that the folks currently working on Thor and the FF don't actually own the characters, but I think putting it in the context of "a decades-long guest comic week" really hammers the point home by putting a slightly different 9and perhaps more relatable) spin on the legal arguments that often get bandied about.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Hatter M Zen Of Wonder Review

Hatter M: Zen Of Wonder is part of the growing collection of works surrounding Frank Beddor's "Looking Glass Wars" story. There have been three prose novels, a webcomic, a card game and this is the fourth graphic novel. Zen of Wonder has not been published yet -- it's up on Kickstarter now -- but Beddor sent over an electronic review copy.

To recap, Wonderland is a very real place, though not quite so innocent as Lewis Carroll's story would have you believe. Princess Alyss saw her parents killed by her own Aunt Redd, and Alyss only escaped by crossing over into our world. Her bodyguard Hatter Madigan tried to follow, but lost her en route. The prose novels follow the overall story, while the graphic novels focus on Madigan's search for Alyss here on Earth.

This story really starts in San Francisco's Chinatown in 1870. Madigan somewhat inadvertently falls in with a strange girl named Nekko. She is very playful and seemingly wise, but she speaks largely in fortune cookie proverbs. She convinces Madigan to take her back to Japan, after he comes across a samurai sword that bears another Hatter's insignia. After a brief layover in Hawaii, they arrive in Japan where Madigan soon finds himself battling demons using unconventional techniques taught to him by Nekko. Madigan soon comes to find that the other Hatter is none other than his brother, and the two escape with Nekko to her former monastery and then onward to find Alysss...

This book is by the same creative team who did the last two, and seem to be working well together. That said, Zen of Wonder has a very different tone than the previous books in the series. Madigan has been the central focus of the comics and, as a deliberately dour character, the stories have been fairly grim and serious. While he remains fairly dour here as well, the character of Nekko is exceptionally light-hearted, not only providing some comic relief, but changing the overall tone of the whole book. It's kind of like watching Worf from Star Trek go on an adventure with Pippi Longstocking.

The other thing that's a bit of a change from before is that, as I suggested, Nekko's dialogue is largely a string of vaguely oriental sounding platitudes. Further, many of them are deliberately anachronistic and actually attributable to 20th century figures. So not only is the basic tone different, the text itself has a different rythm to it.

Neither of these is inherently a bad thing, of course, just a marked difference from previous stories.

The story is designed to put Madigan on a more internal, spiritual journey than the ones we've seen before. There's an apparently conscious effort to throw many variations of Zen teachings into the story, none of which however touch on specific religions, but rather seem to reflect an ongoing theme of broadening one's horizons. Instead of trying to "follow the glow" of Alyss' imagination, which has gotten Madigan no closer to finding her over the better part of a decade, he should instead "go with the flow" and take a less dogmatic approach to his job. Nekko, then, and her Happy Cat Monastery represent not a specific sect or set of Buddhist teachings, but rather a more generalized approach to knowing yourself.

I have to admit that I had a little trouble getting into this one as much as the previous stories. I see how something like this was necessary for the overall story arc, and I really liked that Nekko's approach and style very much did NOT mimic the way most mentor characters are shown any more. She not only has a different look, but also has a radically different teaching style than what you see in most Western media. The fortune cookie approach, I think, does a bit of a disservice to the overall story, though. Much of it comes across as a series of almost non-sequiturs in the context of the story, and it's only in the epilogue that everything gels together and makes sense. At least to me. Perhaps coming at this without a deeper connection with the previous stories would allow a reader to see it more readily, or perhaps I was just unusually thick-headed when I read through it initially.

I think the creative team here had to walk a really fine line to get this installment to work exactly the way it should, and I hate to admit that I'm not convinced they nailed it. It's not a bad story, certainly, but I think it strays a little far from the path of the others to really be as engaging to existing readers. Then again, the very theme of the story is being able to veer off the path in order to find what's at the end of it, so maybe this book works better on a meta-textual level for the creators and the readers both.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Happy Valerie Day!

As you know, February 23 is Valerie Day in which all persons named Valerie get to celebrate as if they are awesome. Those Valeries which I know personally (all of which are pictured at the right) are actually awesome, so they should celebrate accordingly. This year, too, Valerie Day falls on a weekend so any Davids a Valerie might be married to have no excuse to not take them out for a nice dinner tonight.

Friday, February 22, 2013

How Many Comics Do You Own?

Augie De Blieck commented on my post about comics storage from the other day, saying that, even with a house, his collection's grown to the point where he's having to get rid of about 1000 "books with spines" comics. I did a quick check against my collection and realized that, yup, a purge like that would totally eliminate the "books with spines" part of my library.

Which got me to wondering: how big are the collections of most people? So, in a highly unscientific survey, I'd like to request that you answer my survey question below. Feel free to comment as well, if you're so moved. I'm just curious what a "typical" comic collection looks like.

How many comics are in your physical collection, including pamphlets, TPBs, HC, etc.?










Thursday, February 21, 2013

Impulse Purchases

I heard a report on NPR this morning that made mention of the anecdote that a lot of stores live and die by impulse buys. The suggestion is that stores which just about break even on their main stock and trade can push themselves into a nice profit territory by goading customers into making impulse purchases while they're there. The classic example of this is the checkout lines in grocery stores, where they have a rack of candy bars, gum and sodas. Those items seem relatively innocuous, with price points frequently less than one dollar, but they are so cheap to make that they have a very high profit margin. Indulge me in a couple of non-comics anecdotes.

I once stopped in a gas station to fill up my tank. Gas was a bit cheaper back then, but I think I still spent $20 or so. I then went into the convenience store portion and bought a bottled water for a buck and change. The clerk (presumably the owner) rang me up and noted that he was making more money from the bottle of water than he was off the full tank of gas I just bought.

The bass player in my last band once tried to open his own hot dog restaurant. He ultimately had problems getting an actual location, but he had put a lot of time and thought into lining up as much as he could. That included talking with Pepsi representatives about drink dispensers. The price Pepsi would charge him for buying their soda and selling it to customers was three cents per cup. And that included the cup, lid and straw. Almost regardless of what he ultimately would've charged customers, that's a pretty hefty profit!

Now, with the almost universal understanding that comic shop retailers are not exactly rolling in dough, I find myself wondering where their impulse buys are. I've seen booster packs for Magic and other trading card games near the registers of some shops, but I suspect the profits there are only moderate. I have seen one or two shops that had sodas and some chips in the store, but the purchases of those seemed to be more from people who were there for extended periods on gaming night or whatever. Impulse buys, sure, but seemingly only for a small subset of a store's full customer base. I suspect the collector mentality that is so pervasive with comic collectors precludes food purchases because of the potential danger of staining the comics they also just purchased.

So what, in comicdom, would make sense as an impulse buy? Something relatively cheap for customers, but insanely cheap to produce, giving a nice profit to shops. Offhand, the only thing I can think of would be sketch cards for maybe 99¢ a piece. But that would only really work if you had a good (preferably name) artist that could provide an ongoing supply of them for the price of materials.

But picture a person getting ready to check out at their local shop on a Wednesday. They bring a stack of comics to the register and, as the clerk is ringing them up, there's a neat original sketch of Batman sitting right there. "Hey, neat. Only 99¢? Sure, throw this in too." Original comic book art, but at an affordable level. Seems like a neat idea to me, at least if you could afford to sell them cheaply enough.

ComicsPRO is having their annual meeting right now. Any other ideas we could send out to them?

Seventh Blogiversary

Seven years ago today, I started this blog. At the time, I had no audience as almost all my previous comics "work" was tied to the Fantastic Four specifically. It's weird to think that my babblings are read by anyone, much less sometimes linked to by venerable comics folks like Tom Spurgeon. (Who I'm name-dropping here for the sole purpose of being able to call him 'venerable.' And, yes, I fully expect him to start Ignatz-chucking bricks at me any second now.) But thanks to everyone who has interest enough in seeing what I have to say, and even more to those folks who've offered support over the years. Cheers, all!

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Insert Clever Name Here Links

  • I've been deliberately trying to avoid talking about the Orson Scott Card/Superman thing, but Glen Weldon provides the best response to the whole thing. By highlighting some of the best LGBT characters in indie comics. I am a tad disappointed he doesn't include webcomics in there as well, as there are some really great ones out there that would make for easy, no-investment-necessary places for readers to go to, but Weldon's still got the right approach.
  • Neil Cohn tries to sum up the body of his research, clearly identifying his idea that comics are not so much a medium but a language. Interestingly, he wraps up by asking why should comics NOT be processed like language?
  • First Second editor Calista Brill posts about her trip to Comic-Con India. Includes mandatory cosplay photos... well, photo.
  • Lawrence Specker has an overview and interview with Terry Stewart, former Marvel Comics president.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Comics In Storage

I saw someone on Facebook note the other day that he had to dig out a couple of his comics from storage for some research he was doing. He doesn't keep most of his collection at home because of space reasons. He went out to his first storage unit and couldn't find the books. So he went to the second, only to discover that a recent, localized earthquake had shifted the building just enough that he couldn't open the door to get to his books. It sounded like his collection was still relativly safe as far as he could tell, but half of it remained inaccessible.

Another friend noted on Facebook that he's trimming his collection down, as he periodically does. This time through, he's getting rid of everything except for thirty-five books. Yes, 35. I'm not 100% certain, but I believe this culling of his collection is mostly to keep them from overtaking his living space as he's donating many of them to libraries and charities, as opposed to trying to make any money from them.

Most of my collection right now resides in a storage unit as well, but that's entirely because I needed to get them (and a bunch of other stuff) out of my house to make it more saleable. In looking for a new house, I've been very keen on making sure it has enough space for me to build a comic book library, where I can keep my collection and be able to get some work/research done in the same space. The last few years, I've had all my collection in one location, but I couldn't really get a computer workstation there as well to be able to do all my writing in the same spot. I could (and did) walk up and down through the house carrying books back and forth, but that becomes tedious, especially when I'm just looking for a specific quote or other piece of trivia.

That I've been able to keep my collection like that for years, and that I can entertain the notion of creating a library in my new house, is in part because I live in the Midwest. More specifically, I live in the suburbs of the Midwest. I suspect folks along the East coast and in major metropolitan areas don't have that luxury. It's easy to see why digital comics might be popular in those areas.

I'm not married to the notion of comics as individual artifacts. I'm not in this for the collectibility aspect, I want to read the stories. Whether that comes in a pamphlet or part of a bound collection or a digital version, I don't really care. But I appreciate that a lot of comics have already been printed and, before digital comics were viable, I bought a lot of them. As comics are a large part of my entertainment and research, I don't want to get rid of them as they do constitute a part of my research. You never know when you might need to reference some obscure issue of Radioactive Black Belt Hamsters or something. And while I could conceivably replace many of them with digital copies, I loathe the idea of paying for the same story twice. My run of Avengers is woefully spotty, but I still have virtually every story in some form, through reprints and trade paperbacks. No need to buy #55 when it was reprinted in Marvel Super Action #14!

Not to mention that some books are unlikely to ever get a digital treatment. Sometimes because of rights issues (e.g. Rom and Micronauts) and sometimes just because the original creator doesn't have any interest (e.g. Mr. A).

It's important to me to have access to my collection because I refer to it a lot. The type of writing I do is inherently referal in nature, and I regularly go back to not only the comics but fanzines and biographies and other printed materials. These past several months of having my collection in storage have been difficult, and much of my research has ground to a halt. But I like my collection well enough that I don't think I'll be moving into an urban area any time soon. The Chicago burbs I can swing, but I'm not so sure I'm willing to sacrfice my collection for space reasons.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Family Bones Review

Thanks to the generosity of Shawn Granger and the Webcomic Beacon team, I've got my hands on the two Family Bones collections from King Tractor Press. They reprint the 2006 comic of the same name.

The basic story is that a teenager named Sean is taken to his grandparents' farm to help out over the summer. The specific reason isn't cited, but it seems to be largely a disciplinary measure. Once on the farm, Sean's very roughly put to work doing very laborious chores like clearing rocks out of a field. The grandfather is a violent, codgerly ass of a man, equally likely to curse as to beat the crap out of you. Both of which he does to Sean repeatedly. The grandmother, while not violent, tacitly approves of her husband. Sean does find some refuge in the Wendy, a local farmgirl who's fed up with the shithole that she's grown up in. There's also an assortment of other locals and homeless people who flit in and out of the story, acting every bit the hicks that they possibly can. The grandfather's violent streak continues on unchecked and Sean eventually finds the bodies of several men he had killed. Though the sheriff is friends with the grandparents and doesn't believe Sean's story, he does search their property mostly to relieve the boredom, only to discover a large collection of bodies.

Fortunately, I was never personally sent out to a farm or anything remotely like this, and I never had any relatives this mean-spirited. So it's hard for me to relate at that level. Additionally, Granger makes a point of making every adult character completely unlikeable; there just doesn't seem to be anything redeeming about any of them. The tricky part Granger undertakes is making Sean pretty unlikeable at the start as well. Wendy is pleasant enough, but a little two-dimensional -- not a real complaint as she's just a side character, really -- so there's the danger of making the entire book filled with people the reader doesn't like. Sean's character journey does seem to be one of becoming a better person, but the ending is left a bit ambiguous in terms of Sean's fate. Presumably, he goes back to living with his parents, but whether he carries the same antagonism towards them that he had at the outside or harbors even more resentment for their having put him through this is unresolved.

The art was a bit of a mixed bag. Nearly every chapter is tackled by a different artist. The storytelling works surprisingly well despite the change of artists with the exception of how grandpa is depicted. Obviously, different artists have different styles and I didn't have any problem with that, but the grandfather's broad appearance changed a bit from artist to artist, sometimes making me wonder if it was a different character altogether. In some parts, he's thin; in others, he's overweight; sometimes he's frail, sometimes he's muscular. Coupled with some dramatic mood swings, he became a hard character to keep track of even when he was so prominent to the story. None of the iterations were drawn poorly, just inconsistently. But strangely, that was pretty well limited to the grandfather and not Sean or Wendy or the other characters.

Overall, it wasn't a bad story. Granger wanted to make sure readers didn't like the grandparent characters and I really did come to loathe them as horrible people. I think I would've liked to have seen my namesake be a little more likeable and/or relatable at the start. I've also got a copy of Granger's later work, Innocent, which I'm still game to try. From what I gather, it's got a few more likeable characters at the outset, so I'm curious to see if that makes me perhaps a tad less critical.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Trudeau V. Davis

Here's a Doonesbury strip from 1973...
That the dialogue comes from the White House implies that one of the speakers is the U.S. President, at the time Richard Nixon. The other speaker is the President's counsel with the name "Leonard" pointing specifically to Leonard Garment.

Cartoonist Gary Trudeau regularly makes political commentary in his cartoons, but has long avoided drawing specific depictions of politicians. (With an exception of sorts in Ronald Reagan and Sarah Palin, interestingly two people who started their careers AWAY from politics.) I've never seen a reason given why he opts not to draw them; I'd always assumed he found it difficult to capture likenesses that worked within the context of the cartooning style of his strip. Or perhaps he simply wasn't confident in his abilities as a caricaturist. Regardless, he managed to devise ways to show politicians without actually showing them. In the case of the President, it was easy (mentally speaking, at least) to just show the outside of the White House with dialogue coming from somewhere inside.

I didn't really start reading Doonesbury until the mid-1980s, when I was old enough to understand at least the basics of Trudeau's jokes, even if I didn't grasp the full context. I think by that point, Trudeau had begun using the Ron Headrest character, and readers rarely got a strip that consisted of four panels of the White House front lawn. I must have remarked on it to my father because I have a recollection of his talking about a number of complaints that had been lodged against Trudeau regarding his White House strips. How it was a cop-out and that he just used one drawing that he photocopied over and over. I don't think I saw any of those complaints myself, and a cursory search online now doesn't turn up any overt references to such complaints, so I'm not sure who was making them or where. But I do know that around that time, I saw Trudeau start changing the angles he showed of the White House. Here's a strip from 2005 to show the difference...
It's still just four shots of a building exterior, but it's at least four different shots. No one can accuse him of copying one panel several times here.

I bring this up as an obvious example of Trudeau trying to improve his craft. If you look at his old strips, particularly his college ones, he was not a very good artist. In the decades since then, though, he's actively worked on improving his abilities and there's a clear progression over time. His brushwork became cleaner, he would experiment with different layouts and angles, he began adding more graphic elements... Regardless of what you think of his humor, his art has improved and how he depicts the White House is a pretty obvious example.

Now maybe this is just me, but this is how artists SHOULD change, I think. They should always be looking for ways to make their art better. Maybe some experiments fail and wind up looking worse in places, but there should be a broad evolution visible when examined as a whole.

You know, I hadn't really thought of the allegations of Trudeau's photocopying in years since he's been so active in his artistic efforts. I'm only reminded of it now because, as I noted last week, Les McClaine has been grading the new Garfield strips. Even after only a week, he's complaining, "I am running out of ways to say 'static art, lackluster joke.'" And it really is amazing to me how static Garfield has become. You have to go back to January to find a strip that doesn't look like every panel is a copy of the one before. Or where there's any panels that are not flat, straight-on shots. Or where there's a background of any sort. And even those are distinct aberrations.

I know that a daily comic strip is hard work, especially after decades of doing it. Not every day is going to be a winner. But, wow, it's amazing to see the artistic trajectory of Jim Davis when you compare it against Gary Trudeau.

Friday, February 15, 2013

I Can Haz An Audience?

It's Friday night, so you're not paying attention to me and I can get a bit meta here.

I recently interviewed Will Brooker for my MTV Geek column. Part 1 of the interview went up tonight; part 2 comes out next week. Will seemed pretty jazzed, and I think that was for a few reasons. First, his new webcomic launches Monday so the timing here works well. Second, I believe it's the longest/most substantive interview he's done so far that's tied to his new comic. Third, and this is the one that I didn't really catch until today, that it would give him some decent visibility to a lot of people being on MTV's website and all.

Actually, what he pointed out was that if the interview was sent out in a Tweet through the official MTV Geek account, that would be "a whole lotta followers". Probably more than he's got looking at his Twitter account, at any rate.

I generally gave up on looking for a wide audience many years ago. I've been online in various capacities since the mid-1980s (I started on a 300 baud modem!) and whatever I wrote or posted, regardless of the subject or forum, was responded to with the sound of crickets. Even when I was asking direct questions, I'd get nothing. When I was moderating message boards, the surest way I knew how to kill a thread was to add my two cents on the matter. It was a bit disenchanting for a while, of course, especially after spending so many years feeling ostracized in person, but all those years spending Friday nights in my room by myself reading comics paid off in a way. In the physical world, I'd gotten used to just doing my own thing and not really being bothered by anyone else, so it was a relatively smooth transition online as well. I could do what I wanted in my own little corner of the internet, and nobody paid much heed.

But when Will pointed out the "whole lotta followers" thing, it dawned on me that I'd never really looked into what traffic comes to outlets I don't own. I think I asked my editor what the circulation of Jack Kirby Collector was once and he said he didn't like to divulge those numbers. It never occurred to me to ask about MTV.

It turns out that MTV Geek has over 51,000 Twitter followers. They've got 280,000 Likes on Facebook.

That doesn't mean all of those people read my column every week, of course, but I never realized that that many people are being sent messages to check out something I've written.
I don't really have a point here. I mean, I know that using the internet means there are potentially millions of people who could read my work, but I've spent decades assuming that I didn't say anything more than a few hundred people might care about. And it's still possible that's all the traffic my MTV Geek columns get. But tonight I'm a little more aware of the audience looking back at me on the stage here. They've dimmed the spotlight and raised the houselights enough that I can see I'm not playing to an empty room. I just hope I don't succumb to a bout of stage fright.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Not Enough Creative Outlets

I was talking with a co-worker the other day, and they made some an allusion to having more creative outlets in the office. Not in a "oh, I wish there were more ways I could be creative at work" way, but in more of a "you seem like you're not creatively challenged enough here, Sean" way. Maybe I was reading a bit more into his commment than was intended, but it sparked some reflection on my own creative endeavors generally.

I have a job that, by most measures, is relatively creative; I design and build web pages. It's not free-form, expressionistic painting, but there's a level of artistry that goes into it. But, at the same time, I work within the confines of branding standards and such. So I'm not sure if my co-worker was responding to some (allegedly humorous) Photoshopped images I whipped up of other co-workers last week, or he found this blog, or he saw my MTV columns over on my LinkedIn profile, or what. But I think he got the sense that I have more creative energy than can be funneled into my day job as it's currently structured.

And that wouldn't be inaccurate.

But the "as it's currently structured" part is misleading. I'm pretty confindent that, no matter how my job was structured and what I actually got paid to do for 40 hours a week, it would still be inadequate to express myself creatively. Not in terms of any limits that might be imposed by branding or whatever, but by the simple matter of time.

See, the thing about creativity is that, when you've spent time to develop your creativity (regardless of how or in what disciplines) it doesn't really get turned off. Ever. When I walk out of the door of my office building at 5:00, I don't suddenly switch off all the projects that I'm working on. My brain keeps going and making connections. Maybe I catch some interest custom license plate in the parking lot, maybe I hear an interesting news article on the radio while I'm driving home, maybe there's some clever new billboard that went up, maybe they've reorganized the grocery store I stopped at before I got home...

The very notion of creativity involves putting together disparate ideas, and part of training your mind to do that means constantly and continually seeking out new inputs. Yeah, that news article on the radio may be the exact same one that hundreds of thousands of people are listening to at that exact moment, but you might be the only one who happens to be passing by a billboard with imagery that inadvertently relates back to what they're talking about. That new store layout is experienced by a lot of people, but you might be the only one who's looking for just toothpaste, deodorant, whole wheat fig bars and oats.

There have been studies that suggest that people are more creative when they're really tired or drunk. The reason for that is that in those states, you tend to lose focus. You start picking up things more on the periphery, and are able to see those in conjunction with either other things on the periphery and/or what's in your immediate focus. The difference between stereotypically creative individuals and non-creative ones is that the creatives are more readily able to lose focus.

There's a somewhat famous anecdote about Jack Kirby where he almost ran over his son while picking him up from school. Jack drove up to the school, pulled into the driveway, and proceeded to launch the car up on the sidewalk where his son was standing. It wasn't a deliberate act, certainly, and not a problem with Jack's physical ability. What happened was essentially that he was dreaming up some new comic book story, and lost all focus from the road. His wife Roz soon took away Jack's car keys because he simply could not drive a car without his creative mind making an endless series of connections with all that he was seeing out before him, both inside the car and out. The shape of the steering wheel, the dials and guages on the dash, the lighting as he broke through a line of trees, the guy on the corner trying to fix an awning... Jack just spent all the time making connections from one thing to another.

So when I sit down to write a blog post or an MTV column, or when I get behind a drum set to play, or when I pull out my tools and start building something, or when I fire up Photoshop here at home... all of that is because I can't not create. I can focus long enough to drive a car for a few hours or sit and read, but 40 hours a week isn't enough time for me to get done everything that's going on in my head. I'm glad I have a job that has some creativity to it, but I can't just stop because I'm not getting paid any longer. I've spent far more money than I've earned in writing my two books. But I honestly don't think I could've NOT written them. I put together a Dr. Who time war trailer several years ago, not because I'm any good at video production, but because it was something that I just could not get out of my head.

My point is that creativity does need an outlet. And a really creative person can't get that JUST within the confines of any one job, no matter how enjoyable or creative it is. That's why you see so many artists who also write or play an instrument or dance or whatever. There aren't enough hours in the day to get out everything that's going on inside a creative person's brain, and their life is likely a constant flow of ideas, only some of which may be relevant to what they're paid to do.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Ashy Links

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Nina Allender & Other Cartoonists You Don't Know

The cartoon seen here is one by Nina Allender. It's dated August 5, 1916 but it was published some weeks later in The Suffragist, a weekly publication from the National Woman's Party. The woman in the cartoon obviously represents the Woman's Party while the Donkey is the long-time symbol of the Democratic Party. The woman's weapons are metaphors for the votes women represented and the title of the piece, ”Sic Semper Tyrannis”, means ”Thus Always to Tyrants.” The implication is that if Democrats kept their elitist attitude towards voting and did not work in favor of women's suffrage at the federal level, they would be forced into oblivion. (Prior to the 19th Ammendment's passage in 1919, women's voting rights were dictated at a state level, leading to a strange hodge-podge of voting laws across the country.)

I'm no expert on women's voting rights, far from it. I looked that up on Wikipedia just now. The portions about the cartoon itself came from that link to the Sewall-Belmont House & Museum, "one of the premier women's history sites in the country". It was Mike Rhode who tipped me off to its existence a couple weeks ago in one of the comment threads on my blog.

It turns out that the Museum is trying to preserve this large collection of cartoons from Allender, and are asking for donors to come forward to "adopt" a piece of art to help in their restoration. Rhode had a good write-up about the project from back in November. I've adopted the one I highlighted above.

I'm not big on women's voting history, as I said, but I am interested in comics. And while histories of comics of the early 20th century generally focus on the names you've probably heard of -- Outcault, McCay, Herriman... -- there are also plenty of folks like Allender and Carl Himmelman who did pieces with a smaller audience. Just like Charles Schulz and Jim Davis cast a long shadow over the folks who turned in niche cartoons to fanzines, the artists from those fanzines are worth looking at too.

So might I suggest that, when you do stumble across an Allender or Himmelman, do some investigation to find out who they are and what they did. You might find some interesting corner of comics history that might surprise you.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Life In The FORTHELOVEOFGODSLOWDOWN Lane

Do you recall how I said 2012 was my best year ever? Well, 2013 already looks to be giving that a run for its money.

Last week, I accepted an offer for my house. You know, the one I put up for sale back in September? For the next month or so, I'm going to be really busy getting that finalized and moving 300-ish miles away to the Chicago area. That is, I'll be moving up there after I find and buy a house up there. One of the nice things about getting my house ready for sale, though, is that I've already packed and moved a lot of the little stuff already. All my comics and action figures and all that are already in a storage unit up in Chicago, so most of what I have to contend with are clothes and furniture. (And probably a zillion other things I've forgotten about. But at least it's not a zillion and one things!)

As you may know, this is part of my grand plan.
  • I get to live with the S.O.
  • I get a more flexible work arrangement with my FT employer, so I don't have to go into an office every day.
  • I'll be in an area that's less restrictive and less restricting in its acceptance of others.
  • I'll be in an area with a more active comic book community.
  • I'll be able to put together my actual comics library to better facilitate my research and writing.
Speaking of which, I've already got some new writing projects lined up for 2013. I've been doing a tad more writing for MTV Geek beyond my current Kleefeld on Webcomics column. Mostly just some one-off articles so far, but those will be increasing in number as the year goes on. (Well, once I get this house thing settled.) And I might be doing some convention coverage, too -- we'll see on that. What's more, I'm going to have a brand new column starting up in a few weeks! Totally different from my webcomics one, but it should still be fun and interesting. More on that as we get closer to launch.

I'm also going to be providing one of the essays in an upcoming book entitled The Ages of the Avengers: Essays on Earth’s Mightiest Heroes in Changing Times edited by Joseph J. Darowski. He did a similar book on Superman early last year, but this one obviously will be focused on Marvel's big team. My essay in particular will be an examination of Avengers Forever. I don't have a complete timeline yet, but I wouldn't expect to see this before mid-2014 at the earliest, but I need to start writing my portion soon.

Plus, I'm aiming to run the Chicago Marathon in October. Registration opens next week; while it's not as nuts as trying to get Comic-Con passes, it fills up pretty quickly, so we'll see if I can get signed up for that.

So that's what's going on in Casa de Kleefeld right now. I mention this partly to start drumming up interest in the comics projects I've got lined up, but also to apologize in advance if I miss a day or two of blogging over the next month or so. I'll be busy, of course, but I think the greater issue will be in trying to avoid my brain going in 12 different directions at once. I don't doubt the house thing will eat up a lot of my brain capacity (it already has!) but I'll try to make sure I have some time set aside for at least some comics commentary.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

The Bumsteads At A Truck Stop

I found these Dagwood and Blondie salt and pepper shakers at a truck stop in the middle of Indiana. Seriously, who goes into a truck stop and says, "You know what I need while I'm traversing America's highways? A set of comic strip characters cast in porcelin with a nominal use on my kitchen table"?

Saturday, February 09, 2013

Nobody Loves The Hulk!

I never cease to be amazed by discovering radically new twists on things I thought I knew more than a bit about. The Traits recorded and sold "Nobody Loves the Hulk" in 1969, but despite the Marvel copyright notice shown, this wasn't an officially licensed product. "Better Things" was the b-side of the 45.

Friday, February 08, 2013

The Nemo Snow Battle Circa 1907

This of course isn't the first time a dreaded snow battle involved the name Nemo. Winsor McCay's Feburary 10, 1907 strip is below.
To my friends in the path of this year's Nemo, stay safe and warm.

Thursday, February 07, 2013

Grading Garfield

At the beginning of February, Les McClaine started grading Garfield on a daily basis. Was the gag/joke funny, did the art adequately convey the story, was Jim Davis asleep that day...? A short, Twitter-length commentary plus a letter grade. We're only seven days in, so I'll post the main bits here...
If you were being generous with those B-minuses and weighted the Sunday strip, that averages to around a D+.

I think McClaine's comment, "The joke would fall flat in an amateurish webcomic" is partiuclarly note-worthy. Can you imagine a comic like this surviving in the context of webcomics? I can't. I'll let you decide, though, whether Garfield's success is due primarily to marketing or just the context of other newspaper comics that were around when the strip debuted in 1978.

Wednesday, February 06, 2013

Feb-link-uary

  • Yolo Akili interviews Dr. Jonathan Gayles about his film White Scripts and Black Supermen: Black Masculinities in Comic Books. I haven't seen the film yet, but it's definitely on my To See list.
  • Michael A. Johnson ponders the connection between dreams and comics. Interestingly, while two Little Nemo graphics decorate the page, Johnson doesn't actually refer to that particular comic at all. Or any of Winsor McCay's comics, for that matter.
  • The popular French children's comic Tchô! has ceased publication. I don't have a terribly good sense of the significance here, but it does seem noteworthy. (Fair warning: the linked to column is in French.)
  • The BBC has a short piece about The Phantom, which I can't seem to embed here for some reason.
  • Richard Tyler is interviewed about his Jaycen Wise character by the Fox affiliate out of Baltimore.

Tuesday, February 05, 2013

Energizer, Blondie & Batman

This is a "bear with me; this will circle back to comics" post. So bear with me; this will circle back to comics.

An old buddy of mine got laid off yesterday. He's been at Energizer for the past fifteen years. I don't know his official title, but he's an engineer helping in their R&D labs. I know for sure he's got one patent with his name on it, and I think several. I had a discussion with him a year or two back where he was giving me the specs on the computer that he used at work -- I think he said they had installed something on the order of 100 gigabytes of RAM to handle all the computations he had to do. (Point of reference for non-tech folks, a top of the line Mac today, two years later, only comes with 12 gigs and only has the capacity for 64.) So, you know, we're not talking about an easily replaceable cog here, nor are we talking about a low man on the totem pole, nor are we talking about somebody who doesn't know what they're doing or has a history of causing problems.

This wasn't totally unforeseen. Energizer, Ray-O-Vac and all the other commercial battery manufacturers have been having problems in recent years since fewer and fewer devices actually use replaceable batteries. Walkmans have largely been replaced by iPods; you just recharge your iPod, not shove a couple more AAs into it. So when Energizer announced they were going to cut 10% of their work force globally, it was hardly a surprise. My friend said that his location specifically was cut about over a third, and he's guessing that location will close entirely within the next couple years.

Feel free to make your own snarky comments about CEO Ward Klein's $10,000,000 bonus compensation.

If it were my company, I'd be trying to keep as many R&D people as I could to develop some better rechargeables that could be sold to someone like Apple. It'd necessitate a very different business model, and wouldn't happen overnight in all likelihood, but it strikes me as a viable strategy. I've talked about this with a few folks, including my friend here, and they've generally come back with the idea that the CEO is pretty exclusively focused on short-term profits. Strategy doesn't enter into the equation at all because they're not in business with a long-term-enough goal that would require strategy; they're focused on tactics which address the immediate concerns of the here and now. How do you show more profits in a dwindling marketplace? Slash your overhead, of which employees are typically the most expensive portion. Really, this is a pretty common refrain when critics discuss current business practices in general any more. Nothing new or surprising there, sadly.

Now, let's take that bit of cheerfulness and put it next to the current story about King Features providing expensive, crappy service to the Duluth News Tribune. The short version, if you haven't read the story, is that King is charging the Tribune more than twice the rate for "Blondie" as any other comic. Not because it's a better strip, but because the Tribune has been running it since 1937. And when the Tribune tried telling King that they would drop the strip if they couldn't get it cheaper, King just ignored them. No response of any kind. "Blondie" is getting replaced by "Pearls Before Swine" syndicated by United Feature Syndicate not because it's a better strip (even though it generally is, IMO) but because it's cheaper and United actually called the Tribune back.
Now what exactly is the problem here? Set aside whatever your personal opinions are on "Blondie" and "Pearls" -- the quality and style and tone and humor of those strips is largely irrelevant in this discussion because they were largely irrelevant in the Tribune's decision. And you know something? Ironically enough, that's exactly the problem here.

As a syndicate, it's not unreasonable to charge newspapers more for one comic strip over another. The law of supply and demand isn't perfectly applicable here since a syndicate can send out the same strip any number of newspapers, but it does make sense to charge a premium for a product that is more in demand. That's because the reason it's in demand is (generally) because it's perceived as a superior product. So a newspaper should be willing to pay more to have higher quality comics. That makes sense.

But the approach King seems to be taking here is that a newspaper should pay more not because of scarcity or quality but because there's a long legacy there and why would they bother changing now? They're assuming that the Tribune is essentially getting "Blondie" out of habit and that their bluster about canceling is just empty rhetoric. They don't care about quality, they care about how they can play on human tendencies to make a larger profit.

The exact same thought process that Marvel and DC have with regards to their audience. Readers might whine about how Batman sucks and they're going to stop buying, but the sales numbers frequently show otherwise. Why should they stop producing event comics when people keep buying them? Why should they stop creating artificial crossovers when they promote sales of lower tier books? These tactics work. They've been proven to work. Over and over again. Readers can compare the quality of storytelling now compared to 20-30 years ago, but they keep buying. Readers can bemoan how they're not producing any comics for kids or women or minorities, but they keep buying. It's not about quality, it's about profits.

Energizer is looking at its short-term profits and seeing that it can lay off employees they, by all rights, shouldn't. Because it's in their best interest FOR RIGHT NOW. King Features can ignore most of the calls they get about threatening to cancel "Blondie" because its a waster of their time FOR RIGHT NOW. That Tribune story caught people's attention because it's the aberration, not the norm. Marvel and DC aren't establishing life-long readers in favor of getting more money out of the ones they already have because its in their best interest FOR RIGHT NOW.

I bring up the Energize example in part because it's new, but it's perfectly emblematic of the business practices that so many pundits rail against. This is exactly where Occupy Wall Street came from. This is why people complain about big, faceless corporations. I know the Energizer story in a little more detail because I know someone personally and immediately affected.

But how exactly are King Features, Marvel and DC acting any differently? I'm not telling what comics you should/shouldn't read; I'm just reminding you that these places are businesses first and foremost. They're here to take your money, and you can't guarantee that the money you give them will be anything resembling a fair exchange for what you get in return.

Monday, February 04, 2013

Do We Still Use "LCS"?

"LCS" is comics shorthand for "local comic shop." I don't recall where or when exactly I first heard/saw it used, but I'm pretty sure I've been using it for pretty much the entirety of my talking to people online about comics. It was a useful shorthand, particularly online, where so many discussions take place across vast distances. The name of the small comic shop I frequent might not have any meaning to somebody from 600 miles away, and the guy that lives 600 miles in the other direction probably uses a shop that neither of us have heard of. So "LCS" became a nice abbreviation that everyone on your discussion board or chat room knew what you were talking about, without having to go through and explain that you actually get your comics from a place called "Thee Keep" or "Cosmic Cards" or something that doesn't immediately scream "WE SELL COMICS" in the name.

I was having a dicussion on Twitter earlier today and used "LCS" in a more ubiquitious sense. I wasn't talking about MY local comic shop necessarily, just any comic shop that happened to be local for the generic anybody I could be referring to. It makes even more sense on Twitter, given that you've only got 140 characters to work with, right?

But I thought about it for a bit, and realized that I don't think I've actually seen anybody use "LCS" in several years now. Not to say NO ONE is using it, of course, just that I don't remember seeing it lately. There are several possibilities that spring to mind...
  1. Maybe my memory is just total crap. I've seen it plenty, and I'm just blanking on that.
  2. Maybe people are still using it plenty, and I just happen to not be in those discussions any more. I do travel in different online circles now than I did, say, five or ten years ago.
  3. Maybe most of the small comic shops that gave rise to "LCS" have died out, primarily leaving stores with noticeable brands/reptuations. I know The Beguiling and The Isotope and Flying Colors even though I've never been to any of them. Maybe peole can say, "I picked it up at Forbidden Planet" and everyone knows what they'r talking about.
  4. Somewhat related, maybe most of the small comic shops that gave rise to "LCS" have died, and there just simply AREN'T local comic shops any more. I know I've heard Tom Spurgeon mention that he's at least an hour's drive away from one; I'm sure he's not alone in that predicament.
  5. Maybe the fact that over the last few years I've focused a lot more on comics that typically aren't available through Diamond (webcomics, digital, indies...) means that local comic shops are a lot less relevant to me, so I don't pay attention. Why talk about them when I can't get the latest installment of Bob the Squirrel from them in the first place?
  6. Maybe more people are doing the "wait for the trade" game and picking their books up from Amazon more cheaply than they would at an LCS.
  7. Maybe a combination of all of the above
So, a question out to the internet: is it just me? Is it just me not seeing the term as much as I used to? If it's not just me, what reason(s) do you think people are using it less? I'm genuinely curious for your feedback on this one. Thanks!

Sunday, February 03, 2013

The Absence Of Doonesbury

Here's Doonesbury from yesterday in case you missed it...
Not surprisingly, a number of webcomics people took a bit of umbrage at the idea that the loss of newspapers means the loss of comics. As if comics were ONLY available through newspapers. Very quickly, several people took Gary Trudeau's comic and filled that blank space with tons and tons of webcomics.

The question is, though: what is Trudeau's actual tone here? Is he saying that comics would literally cease to exist if newspapers weren't around? Or is he being more satirical, pointing out the absurdity of that same idea?

I read through some of the discussions, and there were a variety of points raised and positions taken. Doonesbury is serialized online at slate.com and is a webcomic itself in that respect. Trudeau has shown himself to be a very smart and savvy cartoonist over the past four decades; don't forget the man was the first cartoonist to win a Pulitzer. He also makes a great deal of money selling books, which are distinctly not newspapers; would those books still sell -- at least enough to be profitable -- if the newspapers weren't around to subsidize the original comics? There's really no one in webcomics doing anything remotely like Doonesbury -- does Trudeau's style of humor really work online?

But here's another interesting point that was brought up. A lot of people don't read Doonesbury. Some cited his political leanings, others cited that he's past his prime, but many of the people who were complaining read the strip in isolation. That they saw it at all seems to stem from Spike Trotman running across it in an actual newspaper and posting a scan of it.

There's an editor's note on the aforementioned Slate site...
I checked with the home office, and the strip is nothing more than a simple gag about the state of newspapers. It was intended for the readers of the 1,100 daily and Sunday print editions that publish the strip. While understandably sentimental about his roots in print media, GBT was an enthusiastic, early adapter to digital platforms, creating three different CD-ROMS (1995), a web-based motion-capture video project (Duke2000), a milblog (2006), e-book editions of his anthologies, and of course, this website, launched in 1995, long before most webcomics were created. He first wrote about the social impact of computers, a favorite topic, in 1972.
I read Doonesbury daily. (Online, of course!) I've been reading it off and on for about 20 years, and pretty consistently for the past 7 or 8, I think. In the context of that, I didn't think Trudeau had any malicious intent, which is backed up by that editor's note. I think he was being deliberately satirical.

But readers need some context to get that. And the problem, I think, arose because so many webcomics people don't read newspaper strips, having dismissed them years ago as banal garbage ever since Calvin & Hobbes and The Far Side left the funny pages. (Curious aside: newspapers comics have ALWAYS been seen as funnier from when people were kids. People in the 1950s thought the current comics were crap and the stuff from the 1930s was the best. People in the 1970s thought the current comics were crap and the stuff from the 1950s was the best. Small wonder that people today are looking to comics from 20-30 years ago as the best material.) Humor is inherently contextual at least at some level; if you start making fun of a friend, they might take it in fun, light-hearted manner, but a stranger trying to make the same joke comes across like a jerk. That's because you and your friend have a historical context for the comment, where the stranger does not. Can you imagine sitting through a Don Rickles show if you came to it not knowing his shtick? Humor is an acquired taste.

Trudeau's joke is, I think, successful. But only in the context of those 1,100 regular newspapers that carry it. Trudeau was speaking to a decidedly known and finite audience and, for them, the satire is recognizeable. But the comic is not successful outside of that context, as evidenced by the number of people who took it more at face value. You know, though, that's been Trudeau's M.O. for years though -- looking at his caricatures of George W. Bush or Dan Quayle outside of reading the strip regularly wouldn't even make sense!

While one could suggest Trudeau is not being inclusive enough in his comics, writing them in such a way that only a relatively small number of people appreciate the humor, isn't that what webcomics do?

Saturday, February 02, 2013

Cartoons & Comic Strips Review

Cartoons & Comic Strips is the autobiography of Terry Bave, published earlier this year. If you're not familiar with him, he's been working in the British comics industry since the late 1960s. I don't believe much of his work's been shipped out beyond the UK, although I seem to recall him mentioning at least some of it made it over to France. In any event, he's been working almost non-stop in British comics since he started contributing regular features -- originally uncreditted -- to the likes of Dandy and Beano among a host of other similar titles.

Once he got into the field, Bave's life as a cartoonist seems to pretty closely align with the British comics industry as a whole. In the boom years, he had so much work that some of the strips he created got picked up by other artists and editors kept asking him to come up with more ideas. In lean years, he wound up hopping from title to title as they got canceled out from under him. Though technically a freelancer, he seems to have had almost full-time employment from just a handful of publishers for his whole career. There was even a period of about a year (I can't seem to find the anecdote offhand to verify the timeframe) where he had to stop drawing as a result of some eye problems, but once that was taken care of, his old editors welcomed him back and had him up and running again in no time! I don't know if that type of relationship between editors and freelancers was common in British comics at the time, or if Bave was just particularly well-ensconced thanks to his incredibly up-beat attitude but, either way, I don't think you'd run into many instances of that happening in American comics today!

Even though I wasn't familiar with Bave's work prior to reading this, it was a very insightful look at how the British comic industry worked over the years. The focus is obviously from Bave's perspective, but he talks about how he and his wife (his frequent co-writer) worked, how comics voting worked, how he interacted with editors, how he interacted with schoolchildren as a local celebrity... As I said, Bave's career seems to closely follow the industry's at large. And though he largely stays in the realm of "kids' comics" without getting into the Judge Dredd/Dan Dare/Miracleman ouvre, he does note some of the challenges he faced as those types of comics became more popular.

The actual writing of the book is decent. A bit casual and conversational, but I think that fits given Bave's career. The one bit that struck me as a little odd was that he mostly relays everything chronologically beginning in 1967. But then, he diverges back to his childhood and early life for Chapter Six before picking up in Chapter Seven where he'd left off in Chapter Five. It's of course possible to pull that kind of flip-flopping around off, but it didn't flow very well here. If he'd move Chapter Six to the start, I think work just fine.

There's plenty of his artwork throughout the book as well. Some of his published work, some sketches, some spot character illustrations. And they generally all fit well with what he's talking about, so you get a sense of the characters and types of humor that he was actually using when he refers to Draculass or Odd-Ball. It looks like most of the art is scanned from his originals, though several of the older published pieces are clearly scanned from printed copies. They're all completely legible and are decent scans, but I personally would've liked to see a bit more digital clean-up work done on those older pieces so they popped off the page a little more.

Bave seems to be mostly retired now (he's in his 80s, after all) but clearly looks back on his career in comics as a really enjoyable one. With as much nastiness as I often see in the comics industry -- from petty online bickering to the seemingly never-ending legal fights stemming from two Cleveland kids getting shafted back in 1938 -- it's refreshing to see someone who can look back at a nearly half-century long career and not say a bad thing about it.

Cartoons and Comic Strips is available as a print-on-demand book from Lulu for $23.75.

Friday, February 01, 2013

Indie Comic Marketing & Broader Racial Issues

I'm probably one of the last people that ought to be talking up issues of women and minorities in comics. In the first place, I'm a white male. I see myself reflected all up and in throughout comics, and always have. In the second place, I have absolutely zero power to influence things. I'm not an editor or publisher or anything, so I can't call up or hire anyone to make comics. I'm essentially one guy shouting at the wind.

That said, I try to keep my eye for good comics by women and minorities, and I try to talk them up here when I can. But not in a "hey, look, here's a black guy making comics" way but just a "hey, look, here's a good comic" manner. That's my intent, at any rate. I don't know if it comes across that way, or if my pointing to those types of books has any impact on their sales, but it's what I can do.

I recently picked up the book Black Comix: African American Independent Comics, Art and Culture which is a kind of showcase/overview of Black comic creators doing work outside the larger publishing houses. Lots of samples to look at it with more than a fair amount of perspective from those creators. I didn't like every piece highlighted, but there was such a wide range of material in there, that's hardly surprising. Not everything is going to appeal to everybody, naturally. But there were a number of works that looked really interesting to me, and worth tracking down.

There were three works in particular that struck me. A combination of a good story premise and an art style that looked pretty slick (based largely on my personal preferences, of course). One of the works I found relatively easily; the creator's website was listed in the book and from there he had links to an online shop where you could buy his books online. A tad expensive compared to what you'd find in a comic shop, but these were independently published with a print run likely no greater than a couple thousand at most. The second work I was intrigued by also had a link to the creator's site, but she hadn't seem to have updated since before the book was published. I did follow around a series of links, and eventually got to her (unused) Twitter account and her deviantART page. From her deviantART page, I found her Tumblr and eventually scrolled back to see that she hadn't made any updates about the book I was interested in for about two years -- around the time Black Comix came out. As near as I can tell, the book remains unfinished, but I couldn't find anywhere that's expressly stated.

The third creator has work all over the place. He's got Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr and deviantART accounts and they all seem relatively current. And he was still posting character art from the story I wanted to see. I even found video clips of him talking with local TV stations about the comic! But I couldn't find an online shop anywhere. And he didn't seem to point to any P.O.D. houses where they might have his book. I eventually found a question posed by someone else about the comic to which he responded that it was indeed available, just to send him a Paypal payment. Which is fine and works, but as I said, that was buried in a comments page.

Now, I bring up these three examples in relation to Black History Month because, well, that aspect of the story happens to be topical. There might be some racial issues in there that I'll touch on in a moment, but let me first speak more broadly to all indie comic creators. If you've got a comic that you want to catch people's attention, you need to make sure people can get to it. I was actively trying to seek out these three specific works and had a hell of a lot of difficulty in even finding two of them, and that's with having URLs handed to me! If your website gets published in something relatively permanent like a book or magazine, you need to make sure it has, at the very least, the basic information people will be looking for. If you provide a website for the comic but then drop it a few years later, then refer that site over to your creator page or whatever you're currently using.

You know, it's great to use Facebook and deviantART and the like to connect with different audiences. But those are services YOU DON'T OWN. They can close up shop and walk away or change their terms of service or something, and you can be left out in a lurch if that's your primary go-to location online. I think it's critical to keep your own website domain if you want to do comics (or anything vaguely similar) because, even though that will be hosted by a third party, that's still YOUR site. You can carry it to another host if you like or hire someone to do the design/development so you don't have to, but it's still yours. So that, regardless of what ends up happening with MySpace or LinkedIn or whatever, you always send people to one location. Even if you have nothing on the page, but "Hey, check out my Facebook page" it's still something that you can always keep track of and a place where potential fans/customers can always find you.

I think a lot of creators don't think of that kind of thing because that's more of a marketing aspect to making comics. Most creators, I think, just want to tell stories; they don't want to do any of that business crap. I get that. I was firmly in the meritocracy camp for decades! I thought that, as long as you did good work, an audience would find it. The cream would rise to the top, and what was most important was the quality of the creations you made. One of the more harsh life lessons I learned about ten years ago was that was total bullshit. Quality isn't irrelevant, of course, but without some marketing and salesmanship, no one is going to pay you a minute's notice. Despite the old adage, people DO judge a book by its cover. And in comics, that goes beyond the physical cover of the book you're creating! That's your online presence, your convention presence, your interactions... all of it. You don't have to necessarily change who you are and try to become just like everybody else (which was a long-held fear of mine, and part of why I believed in the idea of a strict meritocracy for as long as I did) but you do have to be conscious about every aspect of your persona and what that projects.

I certainly haven't done any formal research in this area, but I suspect that minorities in particular are susceptible to missing that marketing angle. Here in the U.S., there's very little done to encourage minorities to work in marketing. They're told (often implicitly) that it's okay to go out and be creative, but not to worry about the business side of things. Just go out and paint or write or sing or whatever. You get a handful of folks like Quincy Jones who seem to have an innate understanding of business but, by and large, they're told to just stick to the more traditionally creative endeavors. How deliberate that is is up for debate, and certainly some of that is part of a set of tacit societal norms, but regardless of the reasons for it, what it does is foster an environment where old white men hold the reins of power. Where they control the broader conversation and say that Superman is an ideal hero that can be looked up to by whites and blacks and Latinos, and why do they need an African hero or a Hispanic one?

But at a smaller level, it means that the creators who can recognize they won't get anywhere in a larger organization have marketing troubles like what I just outlined. I went way out of my way trying to track down those books, and 2/3 of my experiences were pretty negative. Even if the actual content is fantastic, I'm now coming to them with a severely deflated interest and bias. If the work isn't what I thought it would be, my disappointed reaction might now be more harsh. I try to avoid negative reviews here, but that's not necessarily going to be the same for everybody with a blog.

I don't have all the answers. I'm just some schmuck with a blog -- hell, I don't even have my own comic to say I've at least been in the trenches for a little while! But in a society in which discouraging minorities from becoming successful is part of the cultural norm, I would like to suggest all independent creators -- particularly women and minorities -- to pick up some books on marketing and/or talk to folks who do seem to know a thing or two about marketing. These experiences I've had recently were far from positive, and that's me trying really hard to give them money for what they (in theory) like to do.