Emad Hajjaj Responds To B'nai B'rith Charges Of Anti-Semitism
There's an intriguing article here about Jordanian cartoonist Emad Hajjaj responding to recent charges from B'nail B'rith that his work is virulently anti-Semitic. He gets off a nice crack about being Semitic himself. I've never thought of his work in that light, although of course some of the imagery is super-strong; I've also probably seen fewer than a hundred of his cartoons. The international perspective is also hard for me to process, in that I'm never quite sure how much my U.S. citizen's perspective on the ideal gentility of certain kinds of rhetoric is an indulgence made possible by the mostly lower stakes involved in what we have to discuss over here. It's also entirely possible I could be full of it, I'm not certain.
an Al-Jazeera article describes this as Hajjaj's, and it looks like one to me
I totally missed this moving across the wires yesterday: it looks like the writer Neil Gaiman and the cartoonist/toy maker Todd McFarlane have finally settled their longstanding dispute over work Gaiman did for the Spawn comic book series as of last Friday. Most of the details are confidential, but the Associated Press story describes the deal as making Gaiman "a 50 percent owner of Spawn issues 9 and 26, the first three issues of a spin-off series on the angels and the issues' contents." It's also believed that both sides will bear their own legal costs. Gaiman's attorney Jeffrey A. Simmons declined to discuss specifics with the press but claimed that all parties were pleased.
As I recall, Gaiman received a major judgment in 2009 or 2010 on these matters, with a court-ordered directive that the rest be settled within the next year. So what this settlement actually takes care of other than it maybe makes McFarlane stop seeking appeals and gets ride of any and all existing claims is a bit beyond what I know about the case. At any rate, it looks like Gaiman came out far ahead according to the original conception of each side in the case, which came down to a violation of an oral contract Gaiman believed he had for the exploitation via reprints and merchandise for characters on which he worked: first for the characters Angela, Cogliostro and Medieval Spawn; later roping the characters Dark Ages Spawn, Domina and Tiffany. McFarlane's maneuvers during the long-running case included trying to bring in the box of screaming crazies that is the Marvelman case in suggesting a swap for properties and, as I recall, arguing that the characters Gaiman introduced were derivative in a way that cut into Gaiman's right to claim unique creation.
* here's something straight from Angouleme via the on-the-ground reporting of Bart Beaty: Jean-Paul Gabilliet's biography of Robert Crumb is imminent. It's in French, but I can't think of an English-language one, or one in any other language. This sketchbook page is from Gabilliet's collection.
* I was happy to see Paul Duffield's next project get its desired funding. Rich Burlew was apparently getting close to record-breaking status with the amounts raked in for his when I initially prepared this article (last week), and has since gone on to obliterate all records for comics publishing fundraising. I mentioned this yesterday, but it's worth mentioning again. Hoo boy, that's a lot of money raised.
* Alan Gardner caught that Tom Batiuk has prepped a major archival collection of his Funky Winkerbean. I'd like to read the first few volumes of that, for sure.
* Johanna Draper Carlson catches that Capstone is going to be doing a bunch of DC-related titles in hardcover for its targeted market. It may be that one day all the comics being done will be licensed out this way. Not saying it's likely, just possible. Draper Carlson also picked up on IDW's price-point and page count for that digital-first Transformers comic they're doing.
* the web site for the longtime newspaper industry bible Editor & Publisherlooks different now.
* a few thing stuck out for me while reading the print version of the Drawn and Quarterly spring catalog. They'll be doing softcover editions of Yoshihiro Tatsumi's The Pushman, Good-Bye and Abandon The Old In Tokyo in April to coincide with the release of Fallen Words. They're publishing Michael Cho, which I hadn't heard, I don't think. (They may have published him before; I don't remember.) And they're also continuing Aya, but in larger omnibus form, starting with the first three books (of six) into one volume. I had given up on seeing more Aya. You can get a PDF of that catalog here.
* the only thing that popped for me in the same way from First Second's paper version of its 2012 catalog is that massive Mark Siegel Sailor Twain collection coming out right in time for the New York Comic-Con, which is nice given that that's a show that doesn't necessarily spotlight a lot of author-first publishers and works. There was a bunch of stuff in that little catalog that I hadn't heard about, which is on me, so I'm grateful for the paper edition.
* finally, there's nothing terribly surprising in this list of fall collections out from Vertigo. That's a lot of books... do they all sell? I also hadn't known about an original graphic novel due from Ronald Wimberly: Prince Of Cats. There's a Tumblr-driven site in support of the project, or however you're supposed to phrase that, here.
Missed It: The 2012 YALSA Great Graphic Novels For Teens Lists
The Young Adult Library Services Association has posted its great graphic novels lists: both the 56-item list drawn down from a set of nominees (this year there were 78), and the top ten list that comes from the 56-item list. I completely missed them, but luckily spotted a few publishers crowing about their books being on the list and went looking for the lists themselves. Their top ten list is:
* A Bride's Story Vol. 1, Kaoru Mori (Yen Press)
* Axe Cop Vol. 1, Ethan Nicolle and Malachai Nicolle (Dark Horse)
* Anya's Ghost, Vera Brosgal (First Second)
* Daybreak, Brian Ralph (Drawn And Quarterly)
* Infinite Kung Fu, Kagan McLeod (Top Shelf)
* Scarlet, Brian Michael Benis and Alex Maleev (Marvel/Icon)
* The Influencing Machine, Brooke Gladstone and Josh Neufeld (WW Norton)
* The: The Mighty Avenger Vols. 1-2, Roger Langridge and Chris Samnee (Marvel)
* Wandering Son Vol. 1, Takako Shimura (Fantagraphics)
* Zahra's Paradise, Amir and Khalil (First Second)
All of the books were out in 2011 except for the first Thor volume, which came out in 2010.
Comic-Con International Releases Final Special Guests List
Here. Katsuhiro Otomo is probably the one people are going to notice as an unexpected and major suprise, with good reason. I'm happy to see Los Bros given the special guest treatment, and am greatly looking forward to any and all programming featuring Kate Beaton, Lynn Johnston, Herb Trimpe, Angelo Torres or Brecht Evens -- among others.
After weeks of debate in various publications and even in the New Jersey legislature over the inclusion of prominent 19th Century cartoonist Thomas Nast in the Garden State's Hall Of Fame, that bid has apparently failed. According to this article, Nast's candidacy also failed a couple of other times when the scrutiny of anti-Catholic, anti-Irish elements in his cartoons wasn't as widespread or public. I've enjoyed what I've read in terms of folks debating those elements in Nast's work. I think it's a fair line of inquiry; I have a harder time working up a lot of energy for this kind of hall of fame pro or con in a way that allows me access to the question before folks here, but I like that these general issues are being hashed out in some way.
Three Men Jailed For Plot Against Jylland-Posten Newspaper
International wires crackled this morning with news of convictions in an Oslo court for the three men accused of plotting violence against the newspaper Jyllands-Posten for its publication of caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad in 2005. These are the first convictions under Norway's anti-terror laws and represented something of a gamble for prosecutors in terms of their focus on the Jyllands-Posten part of the accused men's activities.
Mikael Davud, identified by prosecutors as the group's ringleder, was sentenced to seven years in prison. Shawan Sadek Saeed Bujak was sentenced to three and a half years. David Jakobsen was cleared of terror charges but convicted for his role in helping the other two men acquire the explosives by which they hoped to perpetrate violence on the newspaper and its employees.
The judge said that Davud worked with the cooperation of the terror network Al Qaeda. During the trial it was suggested that the plot for which the men were convicted was intended to be part of a larger, coordinated effort that included attacks on New York and in the United Kingdom. Those plots were also foiled.
Ye Gods: Rich Burlew Raises A Quarter Million To Publish Collections
This might be the place to start for the story of Rich Burlew's extremely well-received Kickstarter campaign, although it's a story I've been accessing mostly through Gary Tyrrell's Fleen in posts like this one. I'm not sure what to say about it that isn't largely self-evident. A popular comic with devoted fans buttressed by a variety of well-conceived incentives seems to work really, really well on Kickstarter -- albeit in ways that you can't replicate working from the outside in.
I continue to worry about the possible exploitation of Kickstarter mechanism by a certain stratum of publisher, in that I wonder after the benefits of working with a publisher when they are absolved of bringing capital to the table. I also think that there's a major difference between well-executed campaigns of this type and others that are simply depending on friends and well-wishers to shoulder a burden based on the personal link they have with a creator. Neither line of thinking applies to cartoonists like Burlew and Shaenon Garrity in putting together collections of their work, and I'm happy to see it done.
Missed It: Graphic.ly Reaches Out To Self-Publishing Clients
The on-line publishing service Graphic.ly has apparently recently focused its efforts on reaching out to unattached publishing agents and possible publishing agents, including small-press companies and creators that hold publishing rights to certain comics material. You can read a basic analysis of the move and its implications here. What's new is the ability for the publisher to cross-publish across various digital platforms with greater ease than before (avoiding multiple uploads for selecting which platforms are to be employed/accessed through a single, major upload -- I could be saying that wrong, but that's my takeaway in the strangled English I have for it) as well as having access to a suite of analytical tools to monitor the results.
This is one of those things that I think flatters a certain kind of on-line rhetoric from the targeted client audience that this changes everything, in part because of the possibilities inherent in the move, and in part out of the interest in those potentially involved to be part of something groundbreaking and to cast themselves in that light. We'll have to see if it changes things when put into practice: if the platform becomes employed on behalf of content that hits with an audience in a significant way, there's plenty of time to celebrate the reality of that circumstance over the assertion that it will be so. It certainly seems like something that should be on the radar of everyone that's looking at these options.
Despite some criticism -- I think deserved -- about the nominations process and how scattered parts of it have become, I think most of the cited works on the following list are considerable and noteworthy, or are at least arguably so. I'm particularly happy to see Jim Woodring's recent work receive praise; I think North American comics audiences may take Woodring slightly for granted at this point, which is an astounding thing to suggest but there it is. His last two books would be an entire, distinguished career for many cartoonists. I look forward to the forthcoming, sure-to-be-quality tomes from Guy Delisle and Cyril Pedrosa. The award to the Latvian collective kuš! made me smile.
You can find link to BoDoï's coverage on many of these works through that initial link. Congratulations to all winners and nominees.
* I'm not sure that I outright recommended this much-discussed mini-essay by Image's Eric Stephenson about the short-term, gimmicky mind-set of the major two mainstream publishers, but it's worth your time if you haven't caught up to it yet and you have an interest in that part of the comics field. I think noting Marvel's scramble to maintain market share in light of the New 52 is a call that everyone should have shared, and to use that as a wider indictment as to how these companies operate is a useful line of inquiry. I like it when figures like Stephenson speak their mind, whether or not it opens them up to a charge of self-interest in making the statements they're making.
* not comics: I thought very, very odd this NYT piece on Barnes & Noble's uphill struggle against the forces of Amazon.com. It's ostensibly intended as a positive article, I think, but the picture it painted for me was that of a largely doomed company trying to take the fight to a battlefield for which it's undermanned and ill-suited.
* I have no idea whose studio this is that ended up as a link in my bookmarks, but it's a nice-looking place. I'd like to draw something there, and I don't draw.
* finally, a while back Robot 6pulls publicity stills from one of the odder -- right up there with the proposed Sub-Mariner show from a bit earlier -- potential TV shows in superhero comics history. I used to think this is why they moved Daredevil to San Francisco for a while there in the early- to mid-1970s, but I was later told that is not the case.
Rob Venditti is the kind of creator I don't get to talk to as often as I'd like, so I greatly appreciate him taking the time to speak with me. Venditti is a comics writer best known for the Top Shelf Productions project turned major movie vehicle The Surrogates. If it's true that every time someone gets into the comics industry the way they got there dies behind them, then I can imagine a significant number of people were made sad when Venditti's particular, remarkable pathway faded from the real of possibility. His is the classic story of mailroom to working professional, and he reflects a bit on that journey below. Today he splits time between his now-expanded duties at Top Shelf and his writing career, which includes work on the Percy Jackson franchise, one of the new Valiant titles, and his own comics.
Venditti's latest work of his own creation is 2011's political/medical thriller The Homeland Directive, about a plot by Americans against Americans, ostensibly to benefit still other Americans. The following was conducted via e-mail over a ten-day period and edited slightly by me for flow. -- Tom Spurgeon
TOM SPURGEON: You didn't read comics until you were in your twenties. What prompted you to begin reading them then? What were some of the comics that really struck you, that really had an impact on your reading of them?
ROBERT VENDITTI: I was working in the stockroom at a Borders Books & Music in Florida, where I met another employee named Marques. We became good friends -- still are -- and he was always trying to get me to read comics. I was in grad school at the time, earning my masters in creative writing, and I had the same misconceptions about comics that a lot of academics had back then -- that they were a lesser artistic medium. This was around 2000, so it was a much different time. Even at Borders, which would later become the vanguard of comics' acceptance among book retailers, the graphic novel section consisted of a couple of shelves of dog-eared trades like Batman vs. Aliens, or whatever.
During those long days in the stockroom, Marques would tell me about this comics story or that one. None of the stories really appealed to me, though, until one day he told me about Kurt Busiek's Astro City. Specifically, the "Confession" story arc (Vol. 2, Issues #4-9). The story dealt with a priest turned superhero, and that idea hooked me. So I hunted down the back issues, read them, and was all in. The complexity of the story, the conflicts driving the characters . . . the scales fell from my eyes, as it were, and I realized comics was a medium with tremendous storytelling potential. I read as much of the Astro City run as I could find, and then started branching out into other things.
Something that intimidated me, though, was all of the continuity involved in the Marvel and DC lines. I didn't feel like they had books I could pick up cold and know what was going on. So I went looking for other series with relatively low numbers of issues. The America's Best Comics imprint had just started up at WildStorm, and I remember seeing the first issue of Tom Strong -- this great cover with Tom Strong swinging a hammer at an anvil -- and I bought it. I enjoyed it and went looking for other comics written by this guy Alan Moore. Oh, he wrote something called Watchmen? Okay, I'll try that. Everything just kind of snowballed from there.
SPURGEON: Do you think you read comics differently than those creators and readers that have a connection going back to childhood -- do you find you're less hampered by a nostalgic reading of certain works, for example?
VENDITTI: I don't know if it helps or hurts me, but I do think having not read comics until my mid-twenties lets me see them differently as a writer. My influences come from other places, and hopefully that lets me bring a fresh perspective to the page.
SPURGEON: Was there a process in educating yourself in terms of the specifics of writing comics? I know there are scripts out there, and you can certainly reverse engineer those things; what was involved with you getting to the place where you felt you could make a comics script?
One of the biggest hurdles for me was that the prose I was writing in grad school tended to be long on description and interiority and short on dialogue, because dialogue was something that always intimidated me. Comics relies much more heavily on dialogue, so I really had to come out of my shell there.
When I did finally sit down and start writing, I was more or less in a vacuum. I had no idea who the artist was going to be when I wrote The Surrogates. I didn't even know any comic book artists I could bounce pages off of to see if I was making an idiot of myself. The script ended up being really verbose, with panel descriptions that went on forever. Camera angles and panel dimensions and descriptions of every last potted plant. I've changed quite a bit since then. Printing out the script for the second book in the series, The Surrogates: Flesh and Bone, requires the felling of far fewer trees.
SPURGEON: Who was influential on you as a young person in terms of prose? The authors that you've mentioned in interviews -- King, Clancy, Adams -- are all very popular authors, and their work is very accessible. Is there someone you think is an influence on your work that might be harder for other people to see in it?
VENDITTI: I was an English major as an undergrad, and my post-grad work was in creative writing, so I've read much more of authors like Hemingway and Gore Vidal than I have of King, Clancy, or Adams.
SPURGEON: [laughs] Right.
VENDITTI: If I had to pick a favorite book, it would be either 1984 or Of Mice and Men. Of Mice and Men is just amazing. Every time I read it, I think this time -- maybe this time -- George and Lennie will get to live off the fat of the land.
Now, I doubt anyone is ever going to read The Surrogates and say, "Hey, I bet this writer likes Steinbeck." But I will say that the principles of the literary novelists I studied -- writing character-centered stories with a straightforward approach -- is something I strive for with my comics work. I want to apply those principles to genre stories.
SPURGEON: How much do you read now? Some writers claim to have a very different relationship to others' writing when they start publishing their own work. Are you open to be influenced by a new voice, or is that something you might even avoid?
VENDITTI: I definitely don't read as much as I used to, but that isn't because the desire is lacking. I just don't have the time. My tastes have also changed pretty significantly from what they were ten years ago. I spent so many years in college reading nothing but fiction, so now I tend to prefer nonfiction. I will say, though, that if I'm writing something sci-fi like The Surrogates, I won't be reading sci-fi at the same time. You spend so much time with the genre you're writing, you want to get away from it in your free time.
I've found that the books I appreciate the most, particularly when it comes to comics, are the ones I know I could never write. As I said, I take a pretty straightforward approach to writing, but that doesn't mean I'm not a fan of more outside-the-box storytelling. Skyscrapers of the Midwest just floored me. My books tend to be serious in tone, too, so when I read something like Afrodisiac or Tales Designed to Thrizzle, I can really appreciate the creativity that went into them. But my all-time favorite is Eddie Campbell's Alec. Eddie's sense of pacing and his comedic timing is dead-on. If there are better comics out there, I have yet to read them.
SPURGEON: Tell me about the decision you made to want to start writing comics. What was the specific appeal of that kind of idea, what was it that you liked about comics that you wanted to make a home there as opposed to screenwriting or prose?
VENDITTI: Going back even farther than my time at Borders, when I was really young, I wanted to be an artist. To me, there was no higher profession than to draw Bugs Bunny cartoons. But I was just bad at it. I knew, no matter how hard I worked, I'd never be any good, and I think I turned to writing stories as a way of describing in words what I couldn't draw with my hand. So when I started reading comics, it occurred to me that here was a medium where I could write the words, and someone else could draw the images, and that's probably as close as I was ever going to get to that original childhood ambition. Why it took twenty-six years for that rather obvious notion to dawn on me, I have no idea.
That's not to say that I won't ever try another type of writing. I placed my first short story out of grad school in Berkeley Fiction Review, but by the time it was printed, I'd already started down the comics path. I'd like to return to prose someday, though.
SPURGEON: You famously starting working at Top Shelf doing various low-end editorial busy work like answering the mail before you pitched The Surrogates. Was that always your intention, to begin pitching work? What's it like pitching and then developing work with Chris Staros?
VENDITTI: Actually, it was quite a while before I moved up to doing editorial work. I started out in the warehouse, mailing out web orders and shipments to retailers and stuff like that. (I was living in an apartment at the time, so when the aforementioned story was published, I had Berkeley Fiction Review FedEx the copies to the Top Shelf warehouse. The FedEx driver dropped it off, and I kept right on packing orders.) My end goal was always to write comics, but I didn't make that the focus of my time there. I wasn't always pushing scripts in front of Chris or anything like that. He was paying me to do a job, so that needed to be the main focus. Plus, I knew Chris was a good guy and really well-respected in comics, so I hoped I'd be able to work the convention circuit with him and meet other industry pros. Happily, that turned out to be the case.
As for Chris, what can I say? He's just a quality person and a solid editor, too. Look at the number of people he's helped introduce to comics readers. Outstanding talent like Jeff Lemire, Jeffrey Brown, Matt Kindt, Craig Thompson, Nate Powell. The list goes on. I was there the day Andy Runton came to the Top Shelf booth at MegaCon and handed Chris an eight-page Owly minicomic. Now Andy has a series of books, t-shirts, toys, and so on. I stand behind the table at conventions with these guys, and I wonder who let the imposter into the room.
The thing about Chris's style that I really appreciate is he doesn't try to turn your story into his story. Instead, he finds out what it is you're trying to say, and he points out the places where you drop the ball, or maybe aren't saying it as clearly as you think. You can't ask for much more from an editor than that.
SPURGEON: When you think on the whole experience of The Surrogates, from its publication to its purchase for the motion picture, to the movie coming out, what are the first memories to spring to mind? What are your enduring recollections of that whole experience?
VENDITTI: As far as the film goes, definitely my first visit to the set. I had no idea at all the level of effort and expense that goes into making a major studio film. I was such a novice about the whole process I thought scenes were filmed in the same order they appear on the screen. Seeing all of the people involved, talking to the prop guy, and the set dressers -- it's mindboggling how detailed their jobs are and how efficient they are at them. I worked in a lot of restaurants growing up, so at one point I went inside the catering truck and watched the staff make lunch. I look back on the whole experience with nothing but positive emotions.
Overall, my best memory of The Surrogates is probably when I found out it was going to be published. My cell phone rang, and I saw it was Chris, but I couldn't answer it because I was working on the sales floor at Borders. I went to the back room and called him back, and he said he'd read the script and talked to Brett Warnock about it, and they'd always wanted to do a mainstream type of story, so Top Shelf wanted to publish it. I hung up the phone and blurted the news to the only other person around, an employee named Ginia. I said, "Top Shelf wants to publish my book!" She smiled kindly, but I don't think she knew what I was talking about.
SPURGEON: One thing I never ask enough of writers is how you write, the practicalities of getting ideas on the page. Do you keep a notebook? How did you develop the idea that became The Homeland Directive in practical terms? How much of the story do you know by the time you start writing a script, and how much of the writing is a process of unearthing the story as you go? Is it a script first, even?
VENDITTI: I'm a highly organized writer, so I don't start scripting until the entire story is mapped out in my head. Once I get an idea for a story, I'll spend however long it takes -- days, weeks -- taking notes. I'll jot down characters and snippets of dialogue, and I'll plot out the major arc of the story. If it's a story based in the real world, like The Homeland Directive, I'll do a fair amount of research, too. The research will go into the notes until I have what amounts to several pages of plain, white paper covered in barely legible handwriting. Once I know what my beginning, middle, and end are, I'll start writing. I stick pretty close to the outline, but that doesn't mean I don't let things develop organically as well. The best moments are when you're writing a story and something unexpected happens, and it's almost as though the story is writing itself. As a writer, you live for that.
For me, the process of writing isn't about answering questions or stating a specific point of view. I'm not an essayist. A story idea will interest me because it deals with a question I don't know the answer to, and I want to explore that question and present it to the audience. For The Surrogates, the primary question would be where is the line drawn between good technology and bad technology? What value system do we use to define that? With The Homeland Directive, it's how do we as Americans -- citizens and government -- reconcile our desire to be safe with our desire to be free? I still don't know the answers to those questions, even though I've spent enough time considering them to write books about them. Literally. Maybe the questions can't be answered.
SPURGEON: There are a couple of things out there on-line as we're e-mailing about the writing process as it pertains to comics. One is a short piece by Warren Ellis emphasizing that a script exists to get the best work possible from the artist; the other is a public falling-out between two creators over creative differences that were planning to work together on a Kickstarter-funded book. How do you approach the act of collaboration in terms of its give and take? With The Homeland Directive say, how much of what we end up reading clings to your script and how much involved Mike's contributions in terms of approach or style or even the nuts and bolts of the narrative?
VENDITTI: The only project I've ever written knowing in advance who the artist was going to be is Flesh and Bone -- I knew Brett [Weldele] was the artist because we'd already done The Surrogates together, and we were continuing the series. As with The Surrogates, The Homeland Directive was written over a year before the artist was attached. Even with the Percy Jackson adaptations, the majority of the first one was written before Attila Futaki was signed. So when it comes to things like style and coloring choices, I don't write them into the script. Even if I did know who the artist was in advance, I still don't know that I'd try to coach them like that. Comics made by a writer/artist team are collaborative by necessity, and I want the artist to feel like they can bring their own sensibilities to a project. It has to be fun for them, too. I try to challenge myself to do something different with each new project, and if the artist wants to challenge themselves, they should feel free to do so.
When Mike first came onboard, he told me he had some new techniques he wanted to try out. I said go for it. He said he wanted to use double-page spreads for the action sequences. I said no problem. If it keeps the artist interested and engaged, then that enthusiasm will find its way onto the page. I keep my comments to a minimum, and reserve them only for instances where there's a break in continuity or the storytelling isn't clear. Nine times out ten, it's the former. "You drew the coffee cup with a handle here, but in the previous panel it doesn't have a handle." Minor stuff like that.
I've never butted heads with anyone I've worked with -- artists, editors, or otherwise. I try to be as agreeable as I can be. If an artist came in and wanted to rewrite the plot or the dialogue, I wouldn't want that, but that hasn't happened.
SPURGEON: Do you have a different relationship with an artist doing some of your work-for-hire gigs than you do on something you're generating from scratch? Maybe not just in terms of the kind of story, but the fact that you probably have an editor on the former that's at least partly responsible for seeing that the team works together?
VENDITTI: Regarding a lot of the things we talked about above, my relationship with the artists on the work-for-hire jobs is for the most part the same. I suppose the only difference is when I suggest art changes, the editor has final say over whether they get made or not. With the Percy Jackson material, there are essentially two editors: Christian Trimmer, who oversees the projects for Hyperion, and Rick Riordan, the author of the source material.
Writing an adaptation has a substantial effect on the way I script, though. If I deviate from the source material, I embed red-fonted notes within the script to explain why I'm doing it, so everyone understands what my thought process is. I also feel more urgency to finish the script as quickly as possible because I prefer to have something entirely written before an artist starts penciling. That leaves me the freedom to make revisions all the way back to page one if need be.
SPURGEON: There are a few formal approaches here I wondered if you could comment on. The first is the layouts; the pages are very dense, but the layouts within those pages seem to vary wildly. How important was it to you to have this very packed page and to use a variety of approaches on that page?
VENDITTI: My scripts tend to average between six and seven panels per page. Not too crowded, but enough panels that you can tell a lot of story in a two-page spread. As far as layout, I leave that up to the artist. Again, we're getting into an area where if you don't know who the artist is beforehand, then you can't really script for that. Brett likes a page with three tiers. Mike is more varied in approach. They're both equally valid.
If I feel like something needs to be a certain way because of the storytelling, I'll note that in the script. For example, if I want an inset panel as part of a larger image, or if I want two panels to be side by side, so I can use the gutter a certain way. I'll also say if I think a panel should run vertical or horizontal, if one or the other is necessary.
I'm probably making it sound as though my scripts are nothing but dialogue. That certainly isn't the case. I'm pretty specific about the action I want to see in each panel, how the characters react, and what their emotions are. I'll also convey visual details regarding the setting and the position of the characters in relation to their surroundings and each other. Most importantly, I want the page breaks to happen where I specify. I'm a stickler about that.
SPURGEON: Another thing that kind of leaps out is the use of color: limited at times, wildly expressive and kind of swirling at others. How would you describe what you're attempting with the color there -- or if that's not you, what the book achieves by these shifts in approach?
VENDITTI: One of the things I've learned from the artists I've worked with is how important color can be to storytelling. Coming from a non-comics background and starting out with more traditional mainstream fare, that wasn't something that was immediately obvious to me. All of the comics I read in the beginning had coloring styles that were based in realism, so that was the way I tended to think. It wasn't until I started working for Top Shelf and started reading more indie comics that I realized the extent of the possibilities. Which isn't to say that there isn't a time and place for realistic coloring; there absolutely is. It just doesn't always have to be that way.
More than anything, the coloring in The Homeland Directive establishes the mood in each scene, but it also reinforces the subtext. During the scenes in the Oval Office, Mike uses a hazy gray coloring scheme, which supports the political tone -- after all, politics isn't as black and white as politicians would like us to believe. During more action-oriented scenes, he goes heavy on red to bolster the violence taking place.
My reaction when I saw the first colored pages of the book was that it was completely unlike anything I'd ever seen, and in a completely positive way. And it's nice to be able to learn from the artists I work with. As I get more projects under my belt and hopefully grow as a writer, I'm starting to incorporate into my scripts the things I've picked up from watching the people I've collaborated with.
SPURGEON: Last formal thing: the backgrounds also exist on a wide spectrum: sometimes they're rendered, others they're suggested, and sometimes they're dropped altogether. Is this a pacing thing with the book? Because certainly the eye moves in different ways with different amounts of visual density. How important is it to you as a writer to pay attention to how reacts to the page in the ways that move it from here to there to different parts of the page?
VENDITTI: It's extremely important, and I think as I writer, you have to be cognizant that sometimes there can be too much going on with a page. The individual notes can get lost in the cacophony. I can honestly say, though, it was never an issue with Mike. I didn't have any problem reading the pages, and I didn't figure anyone else would, either. Comics readers are a sophisticated bunch.
SPURGEON: More generally, now that you're doing some outside work for employers -- working on the Percy Jackson material; now doing at least one of the Valiant books, if I'm remembering correctly -- has that changed your perspective on your own work at all? Has that been informative to you in terms of how you view your own writing, your strengths and weaknesses, and so on?
VENDITTI: That's a good question. I don't know that I've ever thought about it that way. I'd say working on the Hyperion adaptations taught me that I'm not always as economical with the panels and dialogue as I could be. Page space is precious, and every panel and word should count. If there's one thing adapting a 375-page novel -- a first-person novel, where all of the interiority that prose does so well has to somehow be made exterior -- into 125 pages of comics will teach you, is how to say the most with as few words as possible. I could've done more self-editing in my earlier work.
Here's something else: Before I started scripting the first issue of X-O Manowar for Valiant, one of the things Executive Editor Warren Simons said to me was that my characters don't always have to be so rational. Stories should make sense, and the internal logic should hold up, but characters don't always have to behave rationally. I really took that to heart. Looking back on all of my creator-owned work to date, off the top of my head, I don't know that I can point out a single instance where a character of mine behaved irrationally. That just isn't, for lack of a better word, rational. So I'm letting loose and allowing characters to be more spontaneous, which opens up whole new avenues for storytelling.
SPURGEON: What makes a thriller -- or however you might define the genre employed in The Homeland Directive -- a suitable vehicle for the questions you're asking? I'm interested in the more formal aspects, such as the fact that a thriller usually demands a reduction of an issue into a situation facing a few individuals. Or are the questions you're asking about the demands we place on government, do those exist regardless of how you might tell the story?
VENDITTI: I think the questions are a constant, and it doesn't really matter which genre you choose to explore them in. In the early stages of The Homeland Directive, I had two separate stories in mind, one science fiction and the other a political/medical thriller (at least, that's how I categorize it). I went with the latter because I'd just written The Surrogates, which is heavily sci-fi, and I didn't want to do tread the same ground again. Had I gone the sci-fi route, though, the themes and subtext and the central question of the story would've been the same.
SPURGEON: Is it fair to say that in addition to asking the question about how we demand certain things from our government that may clash, you're also asking and maybe even a question about the limits to political expediency in crafting a solution to such questions? Because while there are some gray areas in terms of the questions raised, I'm not sure I ever doubted for whom I was supposed to be rooting.
VENDITTI: Sure. It's clear who the reader is supposed to root for, but that doesn't mean the antagonist can't be sympathetic. In some respects, we put government in an impossible position. We demand they protect us absolutely from the terrorist threat, but when they try to institute policies that we view as being intrusive, we rebel against them. If we were to be attacked again, however, we'd demand to know why they didn't protect us.
I was on a commercial flight flying into Philadelphia on the first anniversary of 9/11. There ended up being an incident during the flight, where a passenger was being disruptive. Things escalated, and two plainclothes air marshals decided to arrest the passenger and spend the remaining 45 minutes of the flight guarding the cockpit with their guns drawn. All of this happened less than ten feet from me. When I tell you one of the air marshals had his gun pointed right over my wife's head, I'm not exaggerating in the least. The thing is, though, in my opinion, the air marshals acted appropriately. Like I said, this was the first anniversary of 9/11, and we were flying into one of the most target-rich cities in the country. They did what they felt they had to do to keep us safe.
The next morning, the incident was all over the news. Several passengers had spoken out, saying how terrified they were, making it sound like the air marshals were waving their guns all around the cabin. It made me wonder: If the same events had taken place, but there hadn't been any air marshals to arrest the disruptive passenger, then those same people might've complained that they were terrified that a passenger could engage in disruptive behavior on a commercial flight and no one was there to stop it. "What if that passenger had been a terrorist?" and so on.
Now add to that a second layer of contradiction, where the freedoms we fight so hard for in the face of government intervention, we often give away willingly for the sake of something as simple as convenience. In The Homeland Directive, the government doesn't use satellites or cameras on street corners. There are no listening devices in bedside lamps or homing beacons under the bumpers of cars. They don't need them. There is already so much self-induced surveillance going on. Whether it's Facebook or smartphones or credit cards or prepaid electronic toll devices... we already leave a digital record of just about everything we do. Not because we have to, but because we choose to. Because it makes life easier.
These contradictions must be terribly frustrating for the people we entrust and elect to deal with the issue of public safety. I'm not passing judgment or assessing blame. I tweet from my iPhone while I'm zipping through the tollbooth just like everyone else does. Okay, maybe I'm not that bad, but you see what I mean. I don't know what the answer is here. I'm just aware there's a question.
SPURGEON: Was it important to you to show that this menace was confronted by other people working in the system as opposed to outright outsiders being portrayed in a struggle against government forces? How did that appeal to you? There's certainly a history of entertainment that focuses on the honorable efforts of public officials, from High And Low to Contagion.
VENDITTI: Again, this is one of those instances where I didn't want to write as though I was coming down on one side or the other. Almost everyone in the story works for the government in some capacity, and it was important to me that I show the good people and not just the wrongdoers. It's also why I intentionally didn't have the conspiracy go all the way up to the Presidency. Once you bring the President in, there can be a tendency for the audience to paint all of government with a broad brush. It bothers me when there's a story about government -- book, film, especially in the press -- and everyone from the government is portrayed in a negative light. I don't think that's reasonable.
SPURGEON: Rob, I should have asked this earlier, but I'm not sure I know exactly how your work day breaks down. I take it that you're still doing work for Top Shelf, but I don't know that for a fact? What is your workweek like?
VENDITTI: I do still work for Top Shelf, though I'm not full-time anymore. The way the day breaks down, I work on whatever needs to be done at any given moment. Sometimes that's a script I'm writing, and other times it's something for Top Shelf. I'm always multitasking, unless I'm behind the Top Shelf booth at a convention, and someone comes up to buy one of my books. Then it's synergy!
It'd be hard to explain just how important my job at Top Shelf has been to my career as a writer. Aside from the obvious benefits like having them publish my first book, there are so many intangibles, too. One I'd like to stress, though, something that might not occur to most people, is that when you're in the early stages of your career as a writer -- and I like to think that's where I am -- it pays to have a day job. I have a family, and they deserve a good life, so knowing the bills are paid takes a ton of pressure off. And it has kept me from ever taking a writing job because I had to put food on the table.
There's a tendency to assume that once your first work is published, everything else will fall into place. You can quit your day job and live the rest of your life in the Shangri-La of professional writerdom. Don't do it. The day job is what helps you ensure that the early stages of your career are going to happen the way you want them to, on your terms, instead of the way they had to out of necessity. My happy circumstance is that I actually enjoy my day job -- and it contributes to my career as a writer, and vice versa.
SPURGEON: How big a role do you see works like The Homeland Directive playing in your career as it continues to develop? Is there a perfect mix of projects for you? How studied and planned are your career objectives as a writer?
VENDITTI: Everything I've written and continue to write -- whether it's work for hire or not -- I'm working on because I want to. Somewhere recently I read a piece by someone suggesting that as a writer you should brand yourself consistently, so you become known as the person who writes sci-fi, or thriller, or horror, or whatever, because that consistent brand identity will build your fan base and ultimately make you more successful. If you look at what I've done to date, it's pretty much the opposite of that. I did sci-fi with The Surrogates, then went to thriller with The Homeland Directive. Then I switched to adapting a series of middle-grade novels, and now I'm working on a monthly mainstream comic book series. One of my unannounced projects is adapting a young adult gothic romance novel. I'm kind of all over the map.
Maybe I'm ignoring the branding advice at my own peril. I think it all goes back to what I was saying earlier, that I want to give the artist the freedom to challenge themselves. Because that's what I look for with my own projects -- to do something different, to challenge myself with new kinds of storytelling. That isn't to say I won't go back to any of those earlier genres, or even that there aren't common threads running throughout some of them. Certainly The Surrogates, The Homeland Directive, and now X-O Manowar all share an aspect of technology. They're also all very different.
Going from The Surrogates to Percy Jackson, one might not see the connection. But when I was offered the Percy Jackson project, I was coming off my experience seeing The Surrogates adapted to film. Anyone familiar with both the book and film versions of that story would probably agree that for the first fifteen minutes they're pretty similar, but then the film heads off in its own direction. That isn't a judgment about one being better or worse than the other. I wanted the people involved with the Surrogates film to have the freedom to do what they wanted with it. I mean, what do I know about making an $80 million movie? I got out of the way and enjoyed watching it from the sidelines. I started wondering, though, if that level of change is an inherent part of the adaptation process. What better way to find out than to take on an adaptation myself?
Compare The Surrogates and The Homeland Directive. One has a small cast of characters with a male lead, and the other has a large cast of characters with a female lead. In The Surrogates, you know what the antagonist's plan is, but not his identity. In The Homeland Directive, you know who the antagonist is from the opening pages, so his plot becomes the story's main reveal. Those were all conscious choices. So I guess if I have a plan, it's to keep doing projects that interest me and take me outside my comfort zone. And hopefully not lose any readers along the way.
* photo of Rob Venditti from I think 2010.
* the Tom Strong cover mentioned
* one of the books Venditti used to familiarize himself with the medium
* an image from The Surrogates
* an image from The Homeland Directive
* cover to a forthcoming Percy Jackson project
* some of the wild colors employed in The Homeland Directive
* X-O Manowar
* The Homeland Directive shows off its thriller side
* public officials are at the heart of The Homeland Directive
* image from the cover of The Homeland Directive (below)
Bit of a strange mix here on the banks of the Charente. On the one hand, a lot of things feel different, not the least because the Hotel Mercure refused to admit patrons after 2:00 AM. Scenes of dozens of cartoonists being turned away from the only open bar caused a lot to proclaim only semi-ironically that FIBD has lost its soul. It's just one of a number if cosmetic changes that seem so striking to longtime visitors.
On the other hand, there really is very little to report after two days. A mellow, enjoyable festival with good weather and few people. Crowds are noticeably down from recent years. Very noticeably.
No consensus breakthrough book. Expected hits are hits (new Brecht Evens!) but nothing shocks the system. Tout le monde loves the Spiegelman shows, with nary a dissenting voice.
A few seams are showing. Guests not present for panels, panels booked for rooms that are too small (good luck getting a seat for the RAW panel, booked in a closet), and ridiculous lines for the Fred exhibition at Hotel St Simon. I've been turned away from that four times and the wait is currently 45 minutes.
But that's nitpicking. This had been one of my favorite festivals, possibly because of -- rather than despite -- the lack of a big crowd.
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The top comics-related news stories from January 21 to January 27, 2012:
1. The Festival International de la Bande Dessinée d'Angouleme, Europe's largest comics festival, gets underway in France. Art Spiegelman is serving as this year's festival president, and has offered the crowds maybe the finest president's exhibition in the history of the show. The crowds for the first two days are apparently noticeably down.
2. A couple of days worth of media-protection protests in Colombo, Sri Lanka, mark the second anniversary of the disappearance of journalist and cartoonist Prageeth Ekneligoda, and the disinterest by police authorities in mounting any kind of search for the opinionated journalist who may have been killed for purely political means.
3. Zunar and his lawyer testify in a trial in Malaysia regarding that government and certain of its officials allegedly harassing and discriminating against the cartoonist with a 2010 arrest and confiscation of printed materials. The troubles facing Zunar are actually bigger than any case can encompass, as one pernicious element is that he's essentially kept from working with any printers in his home country, but a positive outcome to the case I imagine would be hugely welcome both for the artist and for artists generally in that region.
Winners Of The Week
While it's tempting to give the nod to Geoffrey Hook or Mike Peyton or Mario Miranda or Gareth Brookes, let's give it to the judges in Botswana that stepped in to support the rights of a cartoonist covering the court who was nearly expelled by an overprotective court official. That story had to make you smile.
Losers Of The Week
The industries supporting manga, both in terms of some of the real losses they suffered last year but also the fact that when an article like this one comes out, there's a slight downgrade in the triumphalist manga beliefs that were really important to some folks a few years back.
Quote Of The Week
"I see these kinds of classic comics reprints as works-in-progress, which is to say that the material will continue to be reprinted for years to come, for many years after I’m long gone, and that there won’t be any single, definitive collection but a series of collections, the format, design, and accompanying material of which will evolve to reflect the time in which it was created. -- Gary Groth
today's cover is from the thriving, small-press independent comics scene of the 1980s and 1990s
Conversational Euro-Comics: Bart Beaty In Angouleme 02
If you were one of those people who heard Art Spiegelman would be having a show at Angouleme this year and thought "Hmm, that sounds interesting; I should go," well, there's still time to catch a plane.
I've seen big shows of Spiegelman's art (Masters of American Comics) and intimate shows of his art (Galerie Martel) and I've never seen anything like this. More than 700 items -- some of them never before displayed. A perfectly arranged space (by Rena Mattotti). This is the best presidential show in the 16 years I've been coming, and probably top two or three overall.
Other exhibits are hit and miss, but more overall hits than misses.
Dupuis is not here (again), and Soleil has vacated its huge tent to join Dargaud, Casterman and Delcourt in the "main" tent. Busy on day one, but not painfully. Crowd seems down, but it did on Thursday last year, too.
The manga/US comics tent is a ghost town with the major manga publishers not present. The love affair with manga has seemingly ended.
Le Nouveau Monde, the indy/alt tent, has been enlarged. Lots of good books.
Weather is good. Mood is convivial. Vive le France!
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Chris Britt Let Go From Springfield's State Journal-Register
Alan Gardner at Daily Cartoonistcaught that the editorial cartoonist Chris Britt has been dismissed from his staff position at the State Journal-Register in Springfield, Illinois. You can see Britt's devoted page here, including a bunch of local/regional issue work and a special focus on state legislative issues. An unabashed liberal-perspective cartoonist, Britt is syndicated by Creators and was a former client of Copley News Service. He's been cartooning since 1990 and was in his current position for I believe a little over a dozen years. The reason for his firing seems to be straight-up economics; the paper apparently owes a lot of money to its creditors. A recent report on the state of editorial cartooning indicated that the number of fully-staffed practitioners could fit in a standard college classroom (about 40 people), so every loss is going to be even more deeply felt despite the numbing effect of so many cartoonists losing similar positions over the last decade.
One of those comments is that ICv2.com seems to support the release that came with Freeman's hiring that there are 2500 direct market retail outlets right now, which isn't something I knew (I'm sure that information is out there, but I hadn't thought about it and would have been stumped if pigeonholed). Another is that Freeman says that the retailers with whom he's talked -- about 500, according to a statement in the piece -- aren't high on Valiant using the kind of returnables strategy that was touted as a significant part of DC's New 52 relaunch.
A third thing in the pieces is that Freeman touts his hiring and the comics propers of the general Valiant team. I know that last is the kind of thing can make people roll their eyes, but part of the way Freeman phrases it makes me wonder if this might -- might -- be what I'd call a reduced media expectations publishing endeavor: businessmen that aren't necessarily in comics to prime the pump for that sweet, sweet movie money -- less of a realistic outcome than ever, given the huge number of properties angling for media transference and the general cost-cutting era settling into Hollywood right now -- but because of the low cost relative to other entertainment endeavors of a sustainable publishing program. Actually, I have no idea if this company is like that or not, and there's every reason to think this one isn't just on general principle (in fact, it seems more likely we'll see, say, another targeted-for-videogames company before we see a targeted-for comics long-haul company; plus comics is tougher than ever right now), but I imagine at some point we'll start to see a couple of companies more invested in the comics than the dedication or lack thereof we've seen embodied in the seemingly endless variations of the Tekno model that have sifted to the surface for the last decade and a half.
Go, Read: Gary Groth On Carl Barks Series Strategies
There's a lengthy comment here from Fantagraphics' Gary Groth underneath a TCJ review of the Lost In The Andes book where the publisher goes into some detail about the various moves they've made with their Carl Barks series and why. You almost never get to hear about reprint series in this way, and they're such a huge part of the market I thought some of you might be interested in that perspective. For instance, Groth notes the volumes are numbered, just not where we can see them (although they will be more clearly seen in reprints and subsequent releases). Groth's statement about seeing his company's time with the Barks material as one in a series of efforts republishing that material is enlightening, too.
Conversational Euro-Comics: Bart Beaty In Angouleme 01
By Bart Beaty
For the 39th time, the last Thursday in January brings the world of comics to a city on a hill in western France. This year, more than any in a decade, it is an American festival, with Art Spiegelman occupying the post of honorary president and a wave of American cartoonists (Chris Ware, Joe Sacco, Josh Neufeld, Charles Burns... ) in attendance. FIBD hasn't had an American "president" since R. Crumb in 2000, so it is hard to imagine how the show might be different.
One of the highlights of each year's FIBD are the exhibitions. Two potential blockbusters this year are the Spiegelman and RAW shows. The Spiegelman retrospective is a once in his lifetime event, as he says he doesn't want to go through this effort again: it will travel to Paris, Germany and the US (at least) later. The other big show is a retrospective of Fred, whose Philemon books have recently received a beautiful reprinting in three volumes. The sheer number of shows seems down this year, an effect perhaps of declining budgets.
Having passed the previous few days in Paris, it seems clear to me that the book-selling crisis will continue to dominate conversations. The comics shops of Rue Dante seemed to offer fewer innovations than in recent years, so I am hoping that exciting wares will be on offer at the show itself. French comics seem to be in a bit of a lull, with many of the highest profile works on sale being translations (Sacco occupying a lot of retail space) or stalwarts of the 1990s generation (notably Christophe Blain).
The schedule is roughly this: Today the show opens and the crowd will be busy, but manageable. People will be friendly. Tomorrow every school child in the region arrives on a field trip and they move in packs. Crowd is crazy and nerves are jangled by the presence of young people. Saturday tout le monde is in Angoumerde and the lines make it like Disney World on the Fourth of July. Hell on earth. Sunday the prizes are awarded, but I will have split the scene -- like all sane people, I will already be on a plane over the Atlantic by the time the winners are announced.
A final word on the prizes: over the past decade Angouleme has renamed and reframed their prizes about eight times, settling this year on a system that makes absolutely no sense at all in which about eighty books are nominated. In my mind, and the minds of many people I know, they have ruined them, making the prize totally meaningless. As a jury prize, they were never very predictable, but this year is a crapshoot. Best guess? Something American will win. It's America's year, after all.
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Notes On Recent, Rolling Discussions Of Piracy And Economics
* Tim Hodler drives our attention to this post by Heidi MacDonald that links up a bunch of recent Internet discussion and activity on the subject of general comic-book industry economics, with piracy as the main, driving force of that conversation.
* I reject wholeheartedly the notion floated in Heidi's post that I was making any variation of a "comics people are broken people" argument by suggesting that comics people are anxious about the future right now. I think comics people are worried not because they're broken, wacky folk, but because they genuinely have a lot of things to be worried about. Comics is an historically exploitative industry, saddled with certain unrealistic expectations as to profit and reach, facing a time of fundamental changes in the way art is processed. I stand behind what I actually said in that short statement: that I think people are anxious and that this anxiety is driving a lot of the particular dramatics in various comics-related news stories right now -- including gossipy "news" about dissolving creative teams. I think the resulting super-touchy, contentious comments thread underneath Heidi's post strongly underlines my point.
* whenever the subject of piracy comes up, I have to admit my personal difficulty in processing that issue the way it seems to be automatically processed -- as an economics of comics issue. I've never seen it that way, and I reject some of the assumptions that drive the conversation in that direction. I see piracy first and foremost as a violation of a creator's right to control what they've made and how it's sold, or their right to cede control over those decisions to an individual or institution of their choosing. I think the arguments on all sides that cast piracy as an economics issue assume that just by making something, a creator is entering into some unnamed compact that it be sold at maximum profit, thus opening up the floodgates of analysis as to how this is best achieved. I don't think this is true of my work, such as it is; I don't think it's true of a lot of folks' work. Further, I think once an artist lets us know what their aims are, those wishes are more important than the final result if we had sussed out the desired final result on our own or even if we think our final result is a better one for the creator. I think assuming control over someone else's work is wrong whether you make the creator $10 or cost them $10.
* on the other hand, I am greatly sympathetic to the argument, most recently articulated in lengthy fashion by David Brothers on his blog and on Twitter by Ivan Brandon, that the issue of piracy may serve as a smokescreen obscuring a lot of broader, more important issues that shape the current economic prospects for comics. I think this includes both structural issues and definite policy and strategy choices made by cartoonists and major industry players. I have a variation of my problem with cost analysis as applied to piracy here in that I think some things are wrong independent of how they may be argued to bottom-line benefit a creator or institution. For instance, I think the routine exploitation of creators -- past and present -- is wrong even if some of those creators are able to pay their bills more effectively than creators that enjoy greater freedom, because I think exploitation is an unnecessary evil. But in general, I agree with the notion that there are certainly more pressing, more distressing problems for comics-makers than people downloading comics somewhere.
* my big caveat as to where piracy stands in the constellation of today's issues, though, is that I'm open to the idea that the issue of comics piracy may be a crucial problem because of the fragile state of comics economics and the way that a relatively small shift in consumption and economic support might damage a system that's already strained in order to maximize profit in a direction that mostly flows away from the creators. I think it's pretty clear who bears the cost right now of any drop in profit levels no matter what the cause, and I would argue the first folks in line to shoulder a greater burden usually aren't a company's major shareholders. I also think that the future of major media conglomerate investment in the relatively modest margins of intellectual property development through the current model of comics publishing isn't a sure bet in the longterm for as long as it depends on that kind of profit expectation. It's a good bet, I think, particularly if you look at the bigger picture; it's just not a certain one, particularly as short-term goals tend to overwhelm longer ones across our culture. So I understand the attention, even if I believe the issue is much less complex than is frequently portrayed.
* in the end, we might admit that it's sort of fun to expound on various issues of the day and to make sweeping proclamations about The Future, or Why Everything Is Messed Up, or even Why What You're Doing Is Wrong If Not An Outright Denial Of Reality. Hell, "piracy" is even an entertaining word to type. I suspect, however, there's nothing all that glamorous or enjoyable to be found in the various tonics to all that ails the world of comics, and that things are bad enough we should maybe give up the search for a magic bullet, pick up a gun, and just start shooting. I believe it's still all about ethics in business and excellence in art, and finding ways to best facilitate both things in a way that supports and celebrates with dignity the best of what the medium has to offer. Every step in that direction seems to me worth taking; how broken you are matters less than how you move forward. Whether you're right or not matters less than what can be done.
The Never-Ending, Four-Color Festival: Cons, Shows, Events
By Tom Spurgeon
* it's really pretty much all Angouleme right now, and deservedly so. Bart Beaty's festival preview should be at the top of the blog by the time the cycle of news runs its course this morning. Matthias Wivel is apparently reporting on the show for The Comics Journal.
* my guess is that we've reached a saturation point with people on Twitter and the tools used to supplement tweets that the real action is going to be there. For instance, I harbor no illusions this site will have the Grand Prix winner up before a big chunk of North American fans learn about it via their twitter feeds, no matter how early I get up on Sunday or how vigilant I am in watching my e-mail and the French-language news sites.
* as if to underscore that point, looking at Twitter for ten seconds just now yieldsthreephotos from Gary Northfield, the last one a great shot of Art Spiegelman standing next to Francoise Mouly (I think) and catching a smoke.
* two hashtags to follow: #fibd2012 and #Angouleme. I'm guessing the latter is where you're going to get a lot of the North Americans and English people updating.
* I usually make a prediction about the next Grand Prix winner, allowing Dr. Beaty to riff off of whatever goofy thing I say to make a much better prediction, but I got nothing this year. You can pivot from a winner like Spiegelman in all sorts of directions. I imagine that they'll go for someone very much at the heart of current French alt-comics. I would, anyway.
* not a lot else springs to mind that couldn't wait for next week: Graeme McMillan takes a look at Marvel's official convention schedule. That sounds about right to me, actually. They don't do a lot of official shows. Depending on the presence of their various pros at non-official shows, it's almost like Marvel is exhibiting: I expect there will be panels to satisfy the Marvel fan attending the Emerald City Con, for instance.
* finally, I don't know that I ever ran Spiegelman's poster image for this year's big show. I quite like it. Spiegelman sent out an e-mail when he arrived in France that one of the perks of the show was that he was being described as an underground cartoonist again in the ramp-up. I hope everyone has a great time over there.
* Graeme McMillan giddily predicts the possible return of the Malibu Ultraverse.
* speaking of McMillan, his endorsement of David Brothers' essay on comics piracy takes a different tack than my post on the same piece yesterday. McMillan suggests that Brothers needs to be engaged not in terms of that post being a suitable response to the piracy issue but for the potency of the writer's take on the general, continuing viability of comics given that they're losing out to the tidal wave of other media out there.
* also not comics: still one of the best fight pairings. I wonder if the Avengers Vs. X-Men series Marvel is doing will come through on the physical choreography end. That's such an underrated thing with comics like those.
How I Voted For The Eisners Hall Of Fame This Year And Why
I urge everyone to take the time to vote for the Eisner Awards Hall of Fame. This is available for you to do now, long in advance of the voting for the rest of the awards this Spring. If you don't know if you're qualified to vote or not, I suggest trying to register and vote; put it on them to disqualify you.
I know that a lot of people out there don't feel a connection to awards programs generally, and perhaps this awards program specifically. The way I look at it, a Hall Of Fame is a cultural document that has a chance of surviving decades into the future when things like our on-line text jeremiads and late-night hotel room conversations about what's valuable in the medium will have long faded from memory. It's worth having whatever small input one can have on something like that, particularly as time will also drive any objections we have from relevance. Besides, it takes next to no time to do something like this, and given the way that economics both accidental and practiced seem determined to obliterate anything that might connect two or more comics people for more than a few seconds, these kinds of courtesies matter a bit more than they do when everything's healthy.
I like the slate of nominees this year, and I'd be happy to see them all eventually go into a Hall Of Fame with the Eisners' comic book focus. I'm also personally enthusiastic about the work of the vast majority of the slate the judges have put in front of the voters. So I think no matter what happens, this will likely be a decent class.
I voted for Bill Blackbeard, Jesse Marsh, Mort Meskin and Gilbert Shelton.
Bill Blackbeard's candidacy I've talked about before a bunch, here and in other places. The archivist and historian is partly responsible for one of the three most influential comics publications of the last 50 years, The Smithsonian Collection Of Newspaper Comics. He should get consideration just for that; comic books as a whole would be vastly different now without that volume. Blackbeard's work collecting and archiving innumerable runs of comic strips has increased our knowledge of what was done and how in a past to which we'd have extremely limited access without him, and has led to a huge percentage of the thriving comic-book publisher and comic-book shop business in terms of strip collections and archival volumes. I think if you walked into an elite comic book shop, Blackbeard would have a hand in more books you'd find there than would be true of any other person, with the possible exception of Jack Kirby. I think we should honor him with a place in every Hall Of Fame for which he's eligible, starting with this one.
Jesse Marsh and Mort Meskin are great beneficiaries of this era of comic-book reprints -- both formally, like the Dark Horse Tarzan hardcovers featuring some of Jesse Marsh's best work, and informally, on-line, as is the case with Ger Apeldoorn's attention to Mort Meskin and artist Jesse Hamm's various essays on Marsh. Marsh has started to receive his just due because of our broadened appreciation of what constitutes great art in comics-making, an idea which in the 1970s and 1980s careened dangerously close to being specifically identified as an art style favored by a half-dozen superhero comics illustrators rather than as a series of aim and aspirations for what happens on the page. Meskin has benefited just by having more of his work that's not superhero material seen and subsequently appreciated. Meskin's inclusion would be particularly sweet in the year after one of his great champions, the late Dylan Williams, was lost to the comics community.
I think Gilbert Shelton -- despite his low profile in standard comic-book circles -- is one of the divine talents of the underground era, and a crucial publishing figure besides. It's almost like the relatively smooth path of his career works against him in a way, as well as there may exist some lingering biases about humor and its importance as a component of art. He's a humorist in the same basic phylum as Matt Groening and Peter Bagge, that rare combination of broad appeal and refined taste. There are underground comix makers I may personally love a little bit more, but other than Crumb I can't think of someone whose work is more representative of that era in ways it's almost impossible to appreciate because Shelton nailed it so hard the first time. Saying someone's work became the standard against which others are compared is a cliché, but I think it's true for Shelton. You read one of his comics and you can sort of understand the rough outline of what the underground was all about, and there's maybe only one or two other figures through which a reader can do that for any era. He's foundational.
* the late Mario Miranda has been named one of five people to receive this year's Padma Vibhushan, India's second-highest civilian honor. It's given out for outstanding service in a variety of fields, including the arts. Miranda died in mid-December last year.
Sri Lankan Protests Today And Yesterday Linked To Cartoonist
There were protests in Colombo, Sri Lanka today and yesterday connected to the second anniversary of the disappearance of cartoonist and journalist Prageeth Ekneligoda right before a crucial election. In addition to strong suspicions that Ekneligoda was kidnapped and subsequently almost certainly killed because of his work in covering that election and making commentary on the likely outcome, the family has several times since contended authorities showed no interest to outright disinterest in finding their family patriarch when his missing status was reported to them. Yesterday's demonstrations seemed focused on missing people like the journalist/cartoonist; today's was apparently more focused on abuse and harassment of media figures.
This Isn't A Library: Notable Releases To The Comics Direct Market
Here are the books that make an impression on me staring at this week's no-doubt largely accurate list of books shipping from Diamond Comic Distributors, Inc. to comic book and hobby shops across North America.
I might not buy all of the works listed here. I might not buy any. You never know. I'd sure look at the following, though.
NOV110979 SILENCE OF OUR FRIENDS GN $16.99
I don't know a single thing about this Nate Powell-drawn work set in the Civil Rights era -- I googled the unfamiliar title I saw on Diamond's list. I had a hard time finding more than a preview on the First Second site, and even then I accessed that from a google search. There's a dedicated site, though, and Powell also has some information up on it. I'd certainly check it out were I in a shop today.
OCT110059 MANARA LIBRARY HC VOL 02 $59.99
In his CR holiday interview. Kim Thompson strongly endorsed the overall production values of this series he's translating for Dark Horse. It sounds like it's compiled in careful fashion, too. This volume contains El Gaucho -- Manara's other famed collaboration with Hugo Pratt -- and a bunch of shorts not released in English before now. That's pretty much the kind of line-up you want from this kind of book.
NOV110013 BPRD HELL ON EARTH RUSSIA #5 $3.50 NOV110049 USAGI YOJIMBO #143 $3.50 NOV110472 WALKING DEAD #93 (MR) $2.99 NOV110363 BULLETPROOF COFFIN DISINTERRED #1 (OF 6) (MR) $3.99
Three of the market's reliable, quality, comic-book format performers and the latest in the Shaky Kane oeuvre make up this week's likely "I want a little pile of pop culture" purchase.
NOV110348 LIL ABNER HC VOL 04 $49.99 MAY111109 BRENDA STARR REPORTER STRIPS VOL 01 $60.00
Not a great week for me personally on the strip front. Of all the great strips, Al Capp's is one I'm least likely to naturally consume. I want to like it. I recognize the skill of its creation and appreciate its energetic humor. I just don't have that personal connection to it that would lead me to make routine $50 purchases. Brenda Starr I access more as a historical achievement than as an artistic one, and this latest volume is priced way out of my ability to give it a second shot. Your mileage may vary, and probably does.
NOV110632 DAREDEVIL BY BRUBAKER AND LARK ULT COLL TP BOOK 01 $29.99 NOV110611 DAREDEVIL BY MARK WAID PREM HC VOL 01 $19.99 NOV110610 CAPTAIN AMERICA BY ED BRUBAKER PREM HC VOL 01 $19.99 NOV110618 FF BY JONATHAN HICKMAN PREM HC VOL 02 $24.99
Four books of recent, well-regarded, Marvel superhero work by three of its best writers. I think I'd prefer to have whatever of this kind of Marvel comic book work I'd want to read in comic book form, but the market isn't only my market.
SEP111260 WALLY WOOD STRANGE WORLDS OF SCIENCE FICTION TP $24.95
I thought this came out last week, but whatever week a new Wally Wood comes up, I'm picking it up and looking it over.
NOV110775 FANTASTIC LIFE GN $9.95
I'm also pretty sure that this work by Kevin Mutch was out last year -- at least to the point it could be reviewed -- which makes this either a delayed release through the direct market or some sort of re-release. Whatever it is, there's very little stand-alone work of this kind released, and were I unaware of it before seeing it on the stands I'd certainly walk over and give it a shot. You can read a preview here.
The full list of this week's releases, including some titles with multiple cover variations and a long, impressive list of toys and other stuff that isn't comics, can be found here. Despite this official list there's no guarantee a comic will show up in the stores as promised, or in all of the stores as opposed to just a few. Also, stores choose what they carry and don't carry so your shop may not carry a specific publication. There are a lot of comics out there.
To find your local comic book store, check this list; and for one I can personally recommend because I've shopped there, albeit a while back, try this.
The above titles are listed with their Diamond order code in the first field, which may assist you in finding comics at your shop or having them order something for you they don't have in-stock. Ordering through a direct market shop can be a frustrating experience, so if you have a direct line to something -- you know another shop has it, you know a bookstore has it -- I'd urge you to consider all of your options.
If I failed to list your comic, that's on me. I apologize.
* Josh Fialkov wrote an anti-piracy post, and David Brothers disagreed with that post. That's a strange thing for me to read, because while I agree with Brothers that piracy isn't solely responsible for eating away at the comics infrastructure, I think a smart person could make an argument that it's crucially responsible for putting the current model into a specific state of distress that may -- like it or not -- lead to greater exploitation and even risks the eventual abandonment of certain markets by key players. If we're asked to be realistic about the behavior of certain consumers and the necessity of new models, we also have to be realistic about the devastating costs of a sea change for an entire class of creators not necessarily ready to have that change forced upon them on someone else's time schedule. Also, I have a hard time processing any discussion of piracy that ropes in financial reward as a standard, as I think the creators rights element supersedes those concerns. I don't see most piracy issues in terms of a broader analysis of economic reward; I tend to see them as a very specific usurpation of a creator's right to choose how to sell her product or enter into contracts to have the work sold on her behalf. It's wrong no matter what the financial cost may be.
* the original art for one of Adrian Tomine's most memorable stories is up for auction.
* I'm not a big fan of making Norman Osborn a line-wide super-villain. I've written about this before, but I think Osborn's "my good friend's asshole dad" thing works really well in Spider-Man's comic books but loses something when you take the character outside of that very specific context. Then again, I'm pretty sure as far as all the Spider-Man comic books I'll ever need to read, Norman Osborn dies somewhere in the last third of them.
The comics in question were first published from 1957 to 1959, a little more than a decade into the success of the worldwide children's book icon: the comics came between the first three chapter books and the late '60s return of the characters in another series of books. D+Q Creative Director Tom Devlin apparently discovered the comics while attending the Helsinki Comics Festival in September 2011. The press material mentions that Devlin was apparently quite taken with Vang Nyman's work. The artist committed suicide in 1959 after a battle with mental health issues.
The first Pippi book will be released this Fall.
In an additional move that should further consolidate and strengthen the company's kid-friendly comics endeavors, D+Q is also set to announce they will be re-publishing their Moomin comics in flexi-cover editions, with full-color. Unlike the Moomin hardcovers, the new editions will focus on individual stories, making each 48 pages. The first two editions are Moominvalley Turns Jungle and Moomin's Winter Follies.
Go, Read: Jason Thompson On The State Of The Manga Industry
You can find a much linked-to -- and rightly so -- article from Jason Thompson on the state of the industries that support the publication of manga here. It's a solid, entertaining read, and even the fact that Thompson's piece puts some statements into bold lettering is helpful in orienting the reader towards major points. Like a lot of state-of-entertainment-industry articles right now, it's a combination of intractable issues (the aging of the fandom), specific technological developments and the way that industry must scale itself down in order to match the kind of profits being made and how they're made rather than the other way around.
I think Dirks and Lucey are solid choices in that I could have sworn they'd be in there already, plus it's likely they'd have a hard time finding enough supporters as voters begin to have available to them popular, considerable, still-living creators that found their start in the 1970s.
I like all of the nominees available to voters, too, for eventual inclusion, and am personally enthusiastic and passionate about the work of all but one or two. I'm particularly happy that voters get another chance to include the comics historian and archivist Bill Blackbeard, who despite not being a cartoonist had his hand in more books on the stands than anyone out there this side of Jack Kirby. It strikes me that Art Spiegelman cited Blackbeard as the inspiration for one of his major exhibits at next weekend's Angouleme Festival and that we have yet to honor the man himself in the country that's most directly benefited from his comics work. There are no bad choices above, but I'd love to see Blackbeard receive the consideration of voters, even if they go in another direction.
I think there's also something to be said about the Otomo nomination, in that he barely got work out there in the 1970s, making him pretty much the beginning of the 1980s nominees.
* congratulations to the Library Of American Comics on their fifth anniversary at the end of this year and their 50th (yow!) book this month, the first Steve Canyon volume. (I think that's the library's promotional image; if not, my apologies to Rich Johnston.)
* a couple of recent comments on posts had publishing news in them. Denis Kitchen mentions here he's co-writing a biography of Al Capp. Dean Mullaney says here that a Red Barry collection is in the works from the Library Of American Comics. Related: the writer Matt Fraction tweeted he's working on a second book for Marvel's Icon imprint.
* finally, it's been a while since I stopped by Amazon for what used to be fairly frequent double-checks at what's coming out in the months ahead. There was a sweet spot there at Amazon for a time that came after they added the comics and graphic novels designation but before their search engine allowed home-sellers to put their books on top of the list with dates like 2019 for whatever comic book they're trying to sell. Those days are gone, of course, but if you go to page nine or so you of a search you start to see books from actual publishers. I'm way behind on my publishing news, so a lot of this may already be known to everyone but me. For instance, I wasn't all the way aware that Stephanie McMillan's The Beginning Of The American Fall was going to have a book version from Seven Stories. I bet I knew and forgot that Francoise Mouly was going to be the editor on the next Best American Comics -- if that's what this listing means -- which is interesting in that Mouly may be the first publisher asked to do that. September 1 dates for both the Raina Telgemeier and Kazu Kibuishi books probably mean that they'll be out sometime that Fall rather than on exactly that day, but you never know. Still, that's a couple of big-hitters in that segment of the market. Finally, I think I was completely unaware of a collection for Stumble Inn -- in the tradition of my not understanding the joke behind Andy Capp and The Lockhorns titles until I was 30, I just got the gag in Herriman's title.
* not comics: they should make a movie about resentful 1970s geeks traveling forward in time to wreak revenge on today's teenaged nerds for all the cool stuff that they get to do now that wouldn't have ever happened back then.
* the business news and analysis site ICv2.com catches that a file-sharing site tweaks what it does in the wake of the US Justice Department pursuing Internet piracy all the way into someone else's country.
* there's a bunch of stuff out there right now on creative teams fighting and/or dissolving. It's not something I care to link to, but you can find it pretty easily if you look around. The thing that I wanted to note is that this kind of public griping always seems to happen when comics is in a real emotionally stressful period; I think the mini-era we're in qualifies, for sure. I think we're past the point where people are just starting to realize that all the exciting things happening around them may not happen to them, and into a phase where people are beginning to worry that comics may have a detrimental effect on their lives.
Zunar, Lawyer Testify In Suit Against Malaysian Officials
There's a compelling wire story up here about the testimony of the Malaysian cartoonist Zunar and that of his lawyer Latheefa Koya in the artist's civil suit against various government officials for an arrest, business disruption and confiscations made in September 2010 on the eve of a book launch collecting Zunar's cartoons. If I have the timeline down correctly, they're disputing a claim made in previous testimony that Zunar had been informed of the arrival of officials at his office on the evening in question. They also advance their general claims of abuse of police authority and that Zunar's work should be seen as political commentary rather than potentially seditious activity.
You can learn about Zunar's case in the context of a wide range of media and rights abuses in Malaysia here.
Gareth Brookes Wins First Graphic Novel Competition
The good folks at the always-thriving Forbidden Planet International blog had a post up yesterday announcing that cartoonist Gareth Brookes won the First Graphic Novel competition for The Black Project. The book will be published in 2013 by contest sponsor Myriad Editions.
The contest was held as part of the Fast Fictions literary festival at the University of Sussex this past weekend.
Finalists in addition to Brookes were:
* Adam Blackman & Dylan Shipley (A Rat's Tale)
* Konstantinos Chrisoulis (Dryland)
* Hannah Eaton (Naming Monsters)
* Tom Eglington (Amber Sands)
* Thom Ferrier (The Enlightenment of Iwan James)
* Paula Knight (The Facts of Life)
Given the quality of the entries was apparently quite high, it's a fair bet that a lot of these other works will find an audience as well.
The judges were Steve Bell, Hannah Berry, Ed Hillyer, Corinne Pearlman, Ian Rankin and Bryan Talbot.
Here's one where I'm bound to get something wrong in the details, but it's too interesting to pretend it doesn't exist. The French-language comics news clearinghouse ActuaBD.com has a post up here commenting on the discovery of some British newspaper comics from the late 19th and early 20th Century. The article seems skeptical of a claim by the historian Thierry Smolderen that these are some sort of crucial, connecting link -- Smolderen disputes that he made this claim, and from a brief look at the initial announcement he has a point in that at least there he emphasized the elements of the comics themselves rather than their developmental aspects -- between the serial picture tradition of the 19th Century and the early comic strips of the 20th Century. Made up point or not I have to share that skepticism, but not from anything approaching a learned position. I'm just pretty bone-ignorant when it comes to summary academic judgment of early comics and proto-comics material.
That said, barring a complete failure on my part to understand what the article is presenting (which is entirely possible), at the very least the pages included in the report seem extremely sophisticated and accomplished. It seems to me that at minimum they can add to our knowledge of who was doing what and when, and give us new material with which to grapple, if not just stare at.
It also strikes me this is a very nice discovery for this year's Angouleme given early comics super-fan Art Spiegelman's involvement with the Festival.
Own Set Of Heavenly Blessings Due Dorothy Gambrell
I thanked God the other day for the frank discussion from Ryan Estrada concerning how much he makes through is cartooning. ComicsAlliance reminds me that Dorothy Gambrell is due the same kind of appreciation. The site analyzes, compares and contrasts the charts. Like I mentioned when I recommended Estrada's, because of the wildly different beliefs out there in terms of how much money is enough/too little/a lot of money, I'm not sure I can add much in the way of substantive conversation other than to point you in the direction of those confessional postings.
TCAF Announces Initial Slate Of Guests For 2012 Show
The Toronto Comic Arts Festival has released its first slate of guests for its now-yearly show, held the first weekend in May. Headline announcements are Jeff Smith, Alison Bechdel, Guy Delisle and the cartoonist brothers Gabriel Bá and Fábio Moon. Smith will be there in support of Bone's extended 20th anniversary celebration and his RASL. Bechdel and Delisle will have major festival debuts (Are You My Mother? and Jerusalem, respectively). Bá and Moon will be making their first appearance in Canada.
Other debuts announced were The Song Of Roland (Rabagliati) and the new edition of My Friend Dahmer (Derf).
I greatly enjoyed the TCAF I attended in 2011. Taking place in a huge public library space gives the free show a nice backdrop and access to a significant, enthusiastic audience. The depth of the cartooning roster lends itself to a number of excellent programming moments, if like me that's your kind of thing. I have comics-interested friends for whom this is now their only real, reliable comics show. In addition, the primary sponsor (The Beguiling) is worth its own visit and Toronto's a swell city.
There's an article up here on the Wall Street Journal site that while talking about prose books seems to have heavy and obvious implications for comics publishers. First, despite the push by publishers to keep prices for digital inflated, that doesn't mean that there won't be plenty of use for heavily discounted titles; rather, that will be employed as a sales technique. Second, models are by no means settled. Not only are you going to have various initiatives and sales driven by, say, 99-cent book offerings, but the article describes a subscription model one publisher is employing to move a variety of its lower-selling titles by bundling them with works from its higher-selling authors.
This is only idle speculation on my part, but it struck me back when comics publishers by and large decided to hold their prices at a certain point comparable to their print offerings that one result would be the ability to use lower-price points as a targeted sales inducement. Not only would that make sense in terms of targeting lower-selling books, as the article describes, it might be a way to pump life into that sales avenue generally. Further, it would seem that combination subscription models are ideally suited for the kind of cross-branding that these companies do, particularly in how much product they put out and how much material they have available to them in their libraries.
* for some reason, I never posted a link to this lengthy blog post about a young girl that decided she was Calvin of Calvin and Hobbes. Someone just re-sent it, so I thought I'd finally slip it in here.
I've been a big fan of the cartoonist Tom Gauld for several years now, devouring the bits and pieces of the Scottish-born artist's comics and illustration work that makes it to our shores and snapping up any and all publications in which that work appears. Gauld makes comics in a lot of the minor-key ways, many of which were also utilized by influence Edward Gorey: an almost textural feel to individual images, startling contrasts in terms of size of figures and narrative elements, a casual reduction of visual keys into a more rudimentary drawing style, incremental changes in design elements from panel to panel. I got in the habit of reading Tom Gauld whether he was appearing in an oversized, lavish book from an outfit like Buenaventura Press or on the backs of postcards I want to keep but have to share.
Gauld's latest is Goliath, a full-length book project from Drawn and Quarterly that in ways he describes below has been in the works for over seven years. It's his longest narrative to date, and distinguishes itself for the smart execution of what in other hands could be an overly-clever, high-concept exercise: the story of David and Goliath told from the perspective of Goliath. Gauld uses several design elements to fine effect here, but the heart of the book can be found in the lonely landscape he depicts and the lonelier main figure he places in its midst. I think it's an accessible work, too, the kind you pass on. I hope that by interviewing Tom Gauld several of you might consider the book when it comes out in a few weeks, and that some of you in an ordering capacity might take an extra look. -- Tom Spurgeon
TOM SPURGEON: One thing that intrigues me about your comics-reading past is that you claim to have been a British comics-only kind of kid. How do you think you're a different artist for having that specific reading experience? Do you still value anything you learned from reading Battle and 2000 AD?
TOM GAULD: It's true that I never got into mainstream American comics as a kid, but I did read Asterix and Tintin a lot. Our local paper started running The Far Side and I loved that and [Gary] Larson inspired me a great deal.
But to answer your question, I think maybe the science fiction and black humour of 2000 AD fed into my work.
Probably more importantly Battle led me into reading 2000 AD which led me into reading Deadline which got me interested in alternative comics generally.
SPURGEON: You've said that you discovered you could actually do comics and cartoons for a living while in art school; do you remember how you figured that out, and what the effect of suddenly having that possibility open up for you was like?
GAULD: Before I went to art school (Edinburgh College of Art) I thought I'd have to do something like graphic design to earn a living, but when I got there I tried the illustration course (in the first year you did a bit of everything) and realised if I did that I could just draw all the time. That really appealed to me, there were/are aspects of design, painting and making things that I liked but it was drawing that I really loved. At Edinburgh I was mainly doing illustrations but towards the end I started making more narrative work then sort of ran out of time to do what I wanted, so I applied to study for two more years at The Royal College of Art in London. That's when I really got into making comics, the course was really open and I had lots of time to do my own thing, my tutors and fellow students were really encouraging. I also met Simone Lia there and we made our first comic (called First).
SPURGEON: How much do your comics reflect things that you learned in art school? What are some things you think you might do differently for having what sounds like some extensive training?
GAULD: Both the art schools I was at were very relaxed, there were sometimes briefs to work to and drawing classes but most of the time we were left to do what interested us. I spent a lot of time doodling, in the library and going to the cinema. Without all that time I might well not have started drawing comics at all. I'm very into the design of my books and I think that interest comes from my time at art school.
SPURGEON: You're obviously influenced by Edward Gorey, but your work lacks his camp sensibility; in fact, I think the influence is mostly felt visually. Can you talk about how you discovered Edward Gorey, why his work is important to you? He's such a massive influence on cartoonists but he's also one of those guys like B. Kliban that's not all the way seen as a comics maker.
GAULD: I discovered Gorey's work in the college library when I was at Edinburgh and I was immediately fascinated by it. I think it was the atmosphere in particular which attracted me, the idea of opening these little books and going into his imagined, self-contained worlds. I like the design of his books, you've started going into his world as soon as you see the cover. The restrained drawings, deadpan/black humour and mock seriousness all appeal to me too.
For a while at college I was just copying Gorey, but then as I made more work I did more my own thing, though I still crosshatch like he did.
I didn't know B. Kliban till you mentioned him here. I've just been looking at his work which is great, thanks for that!
SPURGEON: [laughs] You're welcome.
There's a tension in your work between atmospherics and foregrounded action. You have a very filmic sense of atmosphere, and mood; the worlds you create are very palpably yours; at the same time, a lot of your work, especially the early stuff, is very reminiscent of theater in the way you craft dialogue and you focus on interactions between your characters. Is it fair for me to say that you're interested in both of these elements? How much is the feel of a work important to you?
GAULD: Yes, I'd agree with that. I find that when I'm drawing I'm quite happy to come up with larger than life, epic things but when I write things tend to be more down to earth. The contrast between greatness and everyday reality is something which interests me.
Atmosphere is very important to me. None of my comics are set in the real world and I want the reader to feel they are somewhere else.
SPURGEON: How natural was it for you to do your clean-up and color on computer? I think of you as being just about the age where that would come absolutely naturally. Is there a part of comics making you'd never consider taking to the computer?
GAULD: I learned how to use photoshop mainly because I wanted to print comics while I was at college and you had to pay for photocopies whereas the laser printer was free. As I got more into it I realized it was the perfect way for me to do color. Partly because I'm not very good with color so I can fiddle around till I get something I like and as I'm a bit colorblind I can check the CMYK values and be sure the colors are what I think they are. Also I do like the clean, flat coloring you get with a computer.
These days I scan in and fiddle around with my pencil drawings in photoshop quite a lot to get them how I want them before I print them out and trace them on a lightbox in ink. So a computer is used quite a lot in my process, but I can't see myself stopping doing pencils and inks by hand for a while. But I'd never say never, if the technology seemed right I'd at least try it.
SPURGEON: How much does having published your own work, even on a limited scale, have an effect on how you approach publishers? For example, are you harder on publishers for the option of doing something yourself, or are you easier on them because you need how rough a big that might be? What does a successful publishing relationship entail in order to satisfy you?
GAULD: I hope that having self-published makes me more realistic about what a publisher can do for me, and hopefully a bit easier to deal with. With self-publishing I love working on the design and production but I have very little interest in sales and distribution, so for me a good publisher gets me involved in the former and takes care of the latter. Drawn and Quarterly and previously Buenaventura were both very much "tell us how you want it and we'll try to do that."
SPURGEON: When you're involved with a publisher like that, how deep does that involvement go? Where would your influence be most directly felt? Book size, paper stock, the overall look, how you're doing color and shading? How important are these production to the final book for you? Given complete control, how much would you manage those elements of a work?
GAULD: I'm interested in all those elements. Initially I intended Goliath to be black and white but as I worked on it I realised it needed something more and asked D&Q if it was ok to use a second colour which they were fine about.
I'm not sure how the other artists at D&Q work, but I had clear ideas about all the elements of the book design and they seemed happy to go with those and offer some good suggestions on improvements.
SPURGEON: Tell me more about working with Alvin [Buenaventura] and Buenaventura Press. Hunter and Painter seemed to be an extension of some of the work you had been doing -- these kind of comic dialogues held across some sort of abstracted space -- but The Giant Robot seemed more an expression of maybe your printmaking side. Is that a fair assessment? What was the thinking behind the series of static images that make up Giant Robot, the idea of a comic whose transitions emphasize time over space? It's something that pops up in your work quite a bit. Was there a particular kind of project you thought BP did well?
GAULD: The idea came from a cartoon I did for the Guardian and I thought it would make a funny/sad narrative to see this thing -- initially a sculpture but then I changed it to a robot -- which was grand and full of potential to just fall away to nothing.
I like repeating images with small changes to tell the story, and this took that to an extreme. I suppose this was more about the idea and the drawings than a narrative.
I think Buenaventura were good at making that sort of slightly odd thing which is still in the world of comics, but a bit art book-ish, too.
SPURGEON: Let me jump back a bit. The Move To The City strip -- your drawing seems less refined there, in a sense, but the page layouts and the structure of the story seems more complex than some of your earliest work. Was that an important work in terms of you trying out new things? What do you remember about doing that work now?
GAULD:Move to the City appeared weekly in Timeout London for about a year (2001-2002 ish). I'd just finished college and went to see them with my portfolio, they really liked Guardians of the Kingdom and asked if I could turn it into a weekly strip. It was great getting a weekly paying job at that time. The idea was very simple and I tried to play around with layouts and different ideas within that as much as I could. Looking back at it there are some parts which make me wince, but it was a good learning experience.
SPURGEON: How did your current gig with the Guardian settle into the recurring space in the Saturday Review letters section? My understanding is you went from irregular cartoons to these more regular ones. Those are essentially gag strips; how do the gags develop in terms of the writing of them? Are they positively received? I'm trying to figure out if that would be the kind of audience amenable to having a cartoon on that general subject or an audience hostile to how you treat the general subject matters involved.
GAULD: The art director at The Guardian Review is Roger Browning, who is a great guy. He hired me to do occasional illustrations and cartoons straight out of college then when the cartoon spot on the letters page opened up he asked me to do that. I'ver been doing it for six years and it's been a really good experience. I've learned a lot from it, for example from having a tight turnaround and having to keep to such a small space.
On Tueday afternoons I get sent the lead letter for the page and I have to take that as my theme then I sit and doodle in my sketchbook 'til I come up with something. I try to look at the theme -- almost always something to do with the arts -- from an unusual angle, or juxtapose unexpected things. Then I have most of Wednesday to draw it up.
It's interesting being forced to come up with something for a deadline like that: some weeks I might have to go with what I think is a mediocre idea but then sometimes -- though not always -- when I've finished I look at it and realize it was actually good idea.
The reception to the cartoon has been really nice. I think everyone realizes that most of the time I'm making fun of things that I love too, and even when I might be more critical it's quite gentle teasing.
SPURGEON: Did Goliath come out of a desire to do a longer, more involved piece? I see some hints in past interviews that you maybe wanted to try something of greater length at some point. Did the idea develop before, after or independently of the idea of doing a book with D+Q?
GAULD: I've been wanting to do a longer piece for quite a while, but since I spend most of my time working as an illustrator and squeeze comics in around that, it was hard to find the time to concentrate on one. In 2005, I wrote to D+Q and asked if they'd publish a book if I wrote one and they said yes so I signed a contract to do a book. I thought that if I agreed to do one for a publisher it would spur me on to get it done but things kept getting in the way: I had two children just after that, I was busy with illustration work and I was also quite daunted by the prospect of making a longer comic and couldn't settle on an idea. In the end I didn't properly start work on Goliath till 2009.
SPURGEON: For that matter, how did you end up working with Drawn and Quarterly? Their focus seems to be in a slightly different place than a lot of your works have been over the years. There also seem to be any number of publishers for art comics and graphic novels in Great Britain now. Was there something about their catalog that had a specific appeal? Something they did well? Do you feel an artistic kinship with the other cartoonists on their publishing slate?
GAULD: I went to D&Q because I love their books, they seemed good with stories and design. The stuff they were publishing by Sammy Harkham, Kevin Huizenga and Anders Nilsen felt like work which mine would fit in with, in some way or other.I'm speaking in the past tense as I made the decision to go to them seven years ago, but I'd make the same choice today.
As for British publishers there are some great publishers around now, it feels like a real boom, which is fantastic, but either they weren't around or I didn't know about most of them till the last few years.
SPURGEON: Goliath is one of those iconic characters, but he's may not be the most iconic even of his type in the Bible -- that would probably be Samson. Why Goliath? The twist you provide the character is strong and fairly straight-forward, but I'm interested in what struck you about the character or his situation that you wanted to work with him at all.
GAULD: I wanted to make a story about a giant, I started a story about a giant being hidden away by his family to avoid being called up by the army then abandoned it. Then I made a story for Kramers Ergot Vol. 7 about Noah and got thinking about other Bible stories I could work with.
When I read the Goliath story in the Bible I realized how little it said about him: basically just a description of his height, weapons and armour, his challenge and a short dialogue with David. So there was space for me to make my story in. I liked the idea that David's triumph is Goliath's tragedy.
SPURGEON: I love the kid foil for Goliath, but he's not a full partner the way that some of your characters have been in past works. Was there something you hoped to draw out of the story for having that particular character serve as a kind of witness for what's going on?
GAULD: I wanted all the elements in the Bible version of Goliath to be in my version too, but the fact that he had a shield-bearer was a problem at first. I wanted Goliath to become isolated and lonely in the valley, but if he had a colleague that wouldn't really happen, and having two equals stuck out there felt like something I'd done before. When I figured out that the shield-bearer could be a little boy it solved that problem and he seemed to work well in the rest of the story. I'm not sure exactly why, but he just felt right.
SPURGEON: You've satirized war before, and its theatrical aspects and the cynicism behind some of the ploys -- this work seems to be more directly tragic in terms of our getting to know this one particular character and your not maintaining a satirist's distance but portraying his kind of settling into this strange role. Were you happy with this work as a character study?
GAULD: I wanted to push my work on a bit with Goliath, but still keep to the things which interest me. I think its inevitable that in a longer piece, where we -- me and the reader -- are spending more time with a character, that things work out differently than in a short piece. Yes, I'm pretty happy with it.
SPURGEON: I wanted to ask you about two artistic elements of Goliath, just get your general thoughts on how you worked them into the story. Why did you change the lettering on things like Goliath's declaration and with David?
GAULD: I use the serif lettering whenever the text is quoted from the bible. It's intended to be a bit of an ominous reminder of where he's inevitably headed. When Goliath speaks his declaration for the first time it's in that style to suggest that it's not natural to him, that he's being manipulated into the role by what he's been forced to read out, as time goes on and he settles into the role he starts just saying it like anything else.
At the end when David appears talking in King James Bible quotes in serif I wanted it to feel like he's not there just as a person, he's an unstoppable force of nature, or God. Or as if he's part of a bigger story which has overpowered Goliath's story.
SPURGEON: The use of shading and darker panels; how much of that was a design consideration, just how it looked on the page, and how much of that was used by you to convey specific changes in mood?
GAULD: It was initially a design decision, but once I had it I tried to use it to convey atmosphere.
SPURGEON: Moving forward, how much ambition do you have in terms of the longer narrative side of your artistic output? Will we see more books. And when will we get that big Tom Gauld collection?
GAULD: I'm working on some shorter things right at the moment, but I'd like to do another long narrative. I feel I took quite a few wrong turns before settling on how to do Goliath, so I hope from what I've learned I can make another one without taking so long.
I'm definitely going to put together a collection of shorter pieces at some point; I'll keep you posted.
* cover image to the new book
* two stand-alone cartoon images by Gauld
* from The Giant Robot
* a Guardian Saturday Review letters page cartoon
* a page from Goliath
* the kid foil
* biblical lettering in Goliath
* another moody page from Goliath
* I just like this little sequence; there's no real reason it's here (below)
2. Jack Staff
3. Dead Girl
4. U-Go Girl
5. Street Angel
* night thrasher
* king mob
1. Jack Staff
2. Spoiler (Stephanie Brown)
4. Die Fledermaus (The Tick)
5. Lobster Johnson
2. The Maxx
3. The Great Machine
4. Tom Strong
5. Savage Dragon
3. Agent Liberty
4. Spider-Man 2099
5. Goliath from "Gargoyles" [I hope this one counts as those SLG comics were fun. It'd be nice if someone at Disney found a way to let Greg Weisman do more.]
1. Ace Face, the Mod with the Metal Arms
2. Convenient Boy (from Jon Lewis's The Power of 6)
3. Billy Dogma
4. Joe Pi (among several others from Top 10)
5. the Jack Knight version of Starman
1. Jack "Starman" Knight
2. Street Angel
3. Elsa Bloodstone (The Nextwave version)
4. The Manhattan Guardian
5. Elastigirl (Pixar's version, of course)
1. Rocky Grimm (from Challengers of the Fantastic)
2. Tom Strong
3. Elijah Snow
4. Captain Hip (from Marvel: The Lost Generation)
1. Hourman (android)
2. Misfit (from Birds Of Prey)
3. Starman (Jack Knight)
4. Altar Boy
5. The Captain (from Nextwave)
2. Jack Knight
5. Six Pack
1. Jenny Sparks
3. The Pro
4. Elijah Snow
I don't know if you folks took the extra emphasis on staying on topic as a dare or what, but I eliminated about a half-dozen entries for fundamentally not answering the question and probably could have deleted a couple of others but got tired and gave up. This doesn't seem like it should happen 279 of these things in. I appreciate people responding, but please cut me some slack on that stuff. Pretty please?
The top comics-related news stories from January 14 to January 20, 2012:
1. A week of fundamental change and recognition of same across the comics industry. As Tundra crosses the 500-client plateau, Alan Gardner takes a look at those strips that are operating at that level, even as a Herblock Foundation releases a report that paints a picture of the editorial cartooning side of newspaper comics as a vocational Dresden. Meanwhile, R Stevens releases an e-book free of any kind of DRM-related hassles to copying same, and IDW announces a digital only comics series with one of its licenses.
Winner Of The Week
Richard Thompson, always classy, announcing with great humility and humor that he's taking a month or so away from Cul De Sac in order to facilitate some focused rehabilitation work due to his Parkinson's.
French Tax Authorities Extend Designation To Cartoonists
A long-time, simmering story about the state of taxation on comics-makers in France, in which certain a certain beneficial designation that went to composers and prose authors was not extended to cartoonists, has been altered to favor those visual artists. The article at ActuaBD.com suggests that announcing this new policy days before the Angouleme Festival is no accident, and that Albert Uderzo's back-taxes situation that developed because of the policy -- a story reported internationally -- likely played a critical role in the policy reversal.
The Comics Journal co-editor Timothy Hodler has a bit of writing up here on the latest Optic Nerve and the shattering change in context that comes with the republication of and attention to classic strip comics. It's a good piece, and I want to do what little I can to encourage both Hodler and his editing partner Dan Nadel to contribute more original writing to that site. Hodler's piece is instigated by this year-in-review type piece from Ken Parille, which is well-illustrated and insight-driven. It even includes letter grades.
Megaupload Seizure, Charges Throw Gasoline On Piracy Debate Fire
This is going to be way too charged for all the facts and implications to be sussed out in a rational way, but apparently the FBI and US Justice Department in conjunction with New Zealand have seized the site Megaupload and arrested several of its major players. I'm totally unfamiliar with such sites including that one, but the French-language comics news clearinghouse ActuaBD.com has a screen capture up that suggests comics content was available through the site in addition to the film and music one could obtain there.
This puts a number of ideas into play, which I imagine will break down for most individuals according to their previous beliefs and thoughts on the matter. There was some retaliatory hacking in response. That will get played up because it's cool-sounding, and some people will be on board with it, but I imagine there's probably a bit of distaste for that sort of thing from a lot of people largely undecided or uncommitted on the issues involved which should make it a PR wash. The visual and first impression of the site's primary mover and shaker isn't a good one, nor are initial reports about how much the site has profited. On the other hand, US legal authorities pushing for the arrest of people in another country and their subsequent extradition also has obvious negative connotations, as does word that private e-mails will be used to build a case against some of the arrested. Even if all charges are true in a way that might aid pro-SOPA/PIPA folks in that it establishes that sites like these exist and do harm in the shape of X, Y and Z, what you gain that way might be lost in that it didn't take a new law to take these folks down. This dramatic action could also be portrayed as proof authorities are willing to act at the outermost edges of what the law permits, which could play into fears of abuse concerning the specific laws on the table. And so on and so on.
Another GLAAD Comics Slate Clings To The Spinner Rack
Various sites have by now passed along the announcement from the Gay And Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation's Media Awards program about the comic book category of their high-profile, yearly awards round. The awards honor portrayals of the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender communities.
The nominees in the comic book category are:
* Avengers: The Children's Crusade, Allan Heinberg and Jimmy Cheung (Marvel)
* Batwoman, J.H. Williams III and W. Haden Blackman (DC Comics)
* Secret Six, Gail Simone and Jim Calafiore (DC Comics)
* Veronica Presents: Kevin Keller, by Dan Parent (Archie)
* X-Factor, by Peter David, Emanuela Lupacchino and Valentine De Landro (Marvel)
The X-Factor comic book won the award last year. I'm happy for the nominees, and I'm glad there are several mainstream comics that portray these communities in a positive light. Kudos to those creators.
As has frequently been the case since they started this category, it's a tiny bit distressing to encounter a viewpoint that all of the best portrayals of this community in a calendar year come in mainstream comic books, or that these portrayals are more worthy of notice than those in other comics to the point that other kinds of comics seem to be considered much less frequently.
* Brandon Graham accuses the site Newsarama of cutting a roundtable interview to exclude criticism of the Catwoman comic book while leaving in some criticism of Rob Liefeld. It's brutally difficult to figure out exactly why some stuff gets cut and other stuff doesn't, but it has to be frustrating to be cut at all for something like that: he runs the excised material.
* I have to imagine Lynda Barry would be an ideal university artist-in-residence. I can't even fathom what that would be like -- I don't think I even saw a single comic book from September 1987 to June 1991.
* Johanna Draper Carlson catches someone's suggestion that if there were more good comics stores there'd be less on-line sharing. That doesn't seem to me a contentious point; there probably would be. There's no reason to think the practice would go away, though. In general, the comics market left itself open to piracy in ways that include the abandonment of a serious commitment to geographical coverage starting in the distributor wars.
* Graeme McMillan notices a drop in page count on forthcoming Marvel collections, but is reminded that this is because the page count of the comic books has been dropped.
* if you've ever heard heterosexual male superhero fans claim that the male figure is as objectified in comics as the female form and wondered what people that actually want to see those figures think as opposed to those that just want such portrayals to exist so they can win an argument, well, here you go.
* a convention based around a specific creator seems like a natural idea, given how publishers are doing conventions and stores as a way to solidify their commercial brand. How Mark Millar didn't think to do something more like this with his own convention efforts is beyond me.
* finally, a report from the Tony Millionaire portraits book-related show at Fantagraphics a while back.
Go, Read: Alan Gardner Compiles List Of 500-Client Strips
Alan Gardner at The Daily Cartoonist was apparently made curious by the 500-client benchmark that drove a recent story about Chad Carpenter's Tundra. He's now compiled a list of the features from all of the syndicates save potential Tribune Media Services that have that many clients (dailies and Sundays are traditionally counted separately, so if newspaper runs both the dailies and the Sundays that's counted as two sales).
It's an intriguing list, perhaps most notably for the relative absence of female creators, the number of legacy strips on the list, and the fact that two are flat-out re-runs. The re-run thing is compelling to me because while almost no editor is going to kill Snoopy, I have to imagine there's a ton of resentment from certain cartoonists that these strips are still taking so many slots in so many newspapers. It's like NBC having Cheers re-runs on Thursday at 9 PM. I always thought it worth noting, too, that Gary Larson and Bill Watterson, both of whom were criticized at one time or another as disrespectful mavericks in terms of various cartooning traditions, have never sought this avenue of publication, as both could probably eventually make it right back onto this kind of list were they to do so.
The youngest strip to reach that plateau is either Tundra or Pearls Before Swine, depending on how you measure Tundra's lifespan. I also think it's worth noting the general fact that anyone with this kind of client list is probably making a pretty good living from their work, and is likely to be able to count on work in the future because of the slow grind that is strips being dropped or replaced even if they fall from popularity. As much as people criticize the fading fortunes of the daily newspaper strip, that's a significant number of cartoonists super-comfortably employed.
* here's a thorough update on the matter of a Jesus And Mo cartoon being posted on a British university group's Facebook page and the resulting firestorm of controversy that's developed. I guess the head of that organization stepped down in a kind of "screw this" fashion, and that the group still refuses to remove the cartoon. As harsh as I've been over the years regarding the dick-move aspects of Jyllands-Posten publishing the original cartoons, I don't buy the argument that such cartoons are only ever published to offend, nor that one should have the right to expect to live free from offense. I also think there's a huge degree of difference between a cynical stunt performed by a newspaper that has a clear, public, societal role and something that's posted on a group's web site. I can't imagine it'd be hard to avoid seeing such a cartoon, and even when I put on my sensitive scarf it's hard to muster a sense of betrayal that a bunch of student skeptics would endorse a satirical cartoon featuring a religious figure.
Sri Lankans Plan Black January Protests For January 25
The Alliance Of Media Organizations, a Sri Lankan group dedicated to the rights of media people in that country, will mark their annual protest of rights abuses on January 25. This will be two years and a day since the last sighting of journalist/cartoonist Prageeth Eknaligoda, who is suspected of being kidnapped and killed before a pivotal election for some of the political work he'd done. The family of the cartoonist endured not only the loss of their loved one by massive resistance from authorities in terms of recognizing the missing man's status and searching for him.
* Graeme McMillan questions whether or not lower-priced promotional comics work well at all.
* the author and comics-maker Neil Gaiman has a letter up to which he's signed on, protesting the proposed SOPA/PIPA regulations. It sounds about right to me, although I've certainly encountered people shouting "Nuh-UH!" at some of the statements the letter makes. I believe it's possible to have better legislation on the matter, and that it's important enough to do so above and beyond some of the really strident rhetoric in play.
Catching Up With Zunar: London Exhibit, Civil Suit Defendant Claims Cartoons Could Do Harm
* the Wall Street Journalhas profiled the Malaysian cartoonist Zunar in advance of a London show featuring about 80 of his cartoons. There's a pretty decent contextual placement of the cartoonist's struggles with is government and where that stands in terms of more general political realities facing that regime.
* I have no idea why this article on the ongoing civil suit pursued by Zunar against government agencies and actors identifies one of the defendants as a witness in the first graph; it seems like someone testifying that the cartoonist's work could incite hatred and cause confusion really doesn't have as much weight when it's exactly the kind of testimony required to get that person out of the consequences of the suit. In other words, it'd only be news if the testimony was directed in any other way than that characterization. Other than that curious presentation, the article seems a thorough piece about the current effort by Zunar to receive some relief from efforts that came to a head in 2010 and have effectively disrupted significant elements of his career as a cartoonist in his home country.
This Is The First Time I've Noticed A Digital-Only Announcement
I have no idea if it's the first time someone has done a digital-only series from one of its print-series aimed properties, but IDW's announcement today of a digital-only Transformers series -- something that a few sites picked up on before the announcement -- is the first time that specific kind of press has made an impression with me.
I imagine we'll see more than a few comics like this this year, if not outright campaigns featuring a half-dozen comics or something along those lines. I figure that's likely at mainstream comics companies with some select titles, and possible at the alt-/arts- companies with some titles they'll pursue specifically for their digital programs with no desire to invest in a print version. The profits don't seem to be there right now for digital to sustain a series in the same way that a successful print comic book will show profit -- it's the inability of such series under most models to pay for the costs of the company's involvement that's the big factor, really -- but the costs folded back into a mostly-print effort don't seem like they'd be so bad, and I think a lot of people feel there may be a trigger out there for someone to find in terms of a series that would appeal that way.
It's worth noting there's seemingly a lot of room for editorial initiatives left to come to digital comics in a sustained, forceful way. Just to name three: there's digital-only series like this one, subscription models bolstered by free access to back-issue libraries as is done with movies, and even 99-cent republishing of old series in a digital format as if they're new comics. It should be a fun year.
This Isn't A Library: Notable Releases To The Comics Direct Market
Here are the books that make an impression on me staring at this week's no-doubt largely accurate list of books shipping from Diamond Comic Distributors, Inc. to comic book and hobby shops across North America.
I might not buy all of the works listed here. I might not buy any. You never know. I'd sure look at the following, though.
AUG111044 BILL GRIFFITH LOST AND FOUND 1970 -- 1994 TP $35.00
I've always enjoyed Bill Griffith's not-Zippy work whenever I've encountered it, and actively sought some out when some of his underground comics were praised by various cartoonist back in the Fantagraphics office in the mid-1990s. This volume is a welcome surprise, and I hope it's not totally buried in the forthcoming year's worth of archival work ahead. For this week at least, it's the belle of the new comics ball.
NOV110340 STEVE CANYON HC VOL 01 1947-1948 $49.99 AUG110688 MMW ATLAS ERA TALES TO ASTONISH HC VOL 04 $64.99 AUG110689 MMW ATLAS ERA TALES TO ASTONISH HC VOL 04 DM VAR ED 174 $64.99 OCT111329 HAND OF FIRE COMICS ART OF JACK KIRBY HC $65.00 AUG111228 WALLY WOOD STRANGE WORLDS OF SCIENCE FICTION HC $39.95
It's not exactly a flush week for comics at the comics shop from my viewpoint, but it's worth noting I seem to be a bit more interested in works that cost an arm and a leg over those priced at a finger. The Steve Canyon work I remember being handsome (of course) and more engaging at the start than later on in its run, so this would be one to have. The Atlas volumes -- god knows why there's a variant edition on a $65 hardcover, but okay -- finish Marvel's reprinting of the Tales To Astonish series, and those are solid, fun comics. I'd be most interested in checking out Charles Hatfield's monograph on Jack Kirby, as I don't get to read enough Charles Hatfield and I can't get enough information about Jack Kirby. Similarly, everything by Wally Wood is worth every bit of attention and consideration one can give it.
NOV111118 TWIN SPICA GN VOL 11 $13.95
This is the only manga series offering that jumped out at me. It's been a while since I've seen a volume of this series, but the later one were better than the early ones, which is a promising sign.
NOV110529 DAREDEVIL #8 $2.99 NOV110491 INVINCIBLE IRON MAN #512 $3.99 NOV110133 BATMAN #5 $2.99 NOV110222 TINY TITANS #48 $2.99 NOV110111 WONDER WOMAN #5 $2.99 NOV110358 PROPHET #21 CHURCHLAND CVR $2.99 NOV110359 PROPHET #21 LIEFELD VAR CVR $2.99
Here's what looks worth a look in the superhero comic book realm. Daredevil and the Iron Man series are two of Marvel's solid performers; Daredevil in particularly is well-regarded right now. That same kind of fan seems predisposed towards the Batman and Wonder Woman relaunches from DC, although I've barely seen them. I have to think it's a strength to have strong performing comics named after your character as opposed to "Ascendancy Of The Chartreuse Lanterns" or whatever. I like that Tiny Titans comic book; more importantly, little kids genuinely like that Tiny Titans comic book. The Prophet soft re-launch is the one to watch, and I enjoyed that comic when I read it recently. I bet it sells well, too, in the better shops.
The full list of this week's releases, including some titles with multiple cover variations and a long, impressive list of toys and other stuff that isn't comics, can be found here. Despite this official list there's no guarantee a comic will show up in the stores as promised, or in all of the stores as opposed to just a few. Also, stores choose what they carry and don't carry so your shop may not carry a specific publication. There are a lot of comics out there.
To find your local comic book store, check this list; and for one I can personally recommend because I've shopped there, albeit a while back, try this.
The above titles are listed with their Diamond order code in the first field, which may assist you in finding comics at your shop or having them order something for you they don't have in-stock. Ordering through a direct market shop can be a frustrating experience, so if you have a direct line to something -- you know another shop has it, you know a bookstore has it -- I'd urge you to consider all of your options.
If I failed to list your comic, that's on me. I apologize.
Herblock Foundation: The Golden Age For Editorial Cartoonists And The Nation's Newspapers Is Over
I urge you read a couple of articles today about the distressing state of editorial cartooning: Bob Duggan's thoughtful article at Big Think, and the PDF of the report from the Herblock Foundation that triggered Duggan's piece. There has been no more stark presentation of the travails facing that form of cartoon expression that this: approximately 40 practitioners (down from 2000 at its height, and even 100-120 within my professional lifetime covering comics), most of whom are very old, young and promising cartoonists leaving the field altogether, little in the way of a potential profit center for anyone to hold onto those positions five, ten twenty years from now.
Duggan's piece is helpful because he personalizes reading editorial cartoons in the course of reading all comics: it's partly how he learned about the adult world (it's in this way that Doonesbury very much functioned like an editorial cartoon for a lot of kids now adults). He also nails the way the great cartoons were once able to shift debate on important issues, like Herblock calling out Joseph McCarthy's nonsense and exposing it to ridicule. I think most of the great cartoons function like that, whether or not they have a wide readership like that one from Herblock or Bill Mauldin's weeping Lincoln Memorial. I know there are maybe a few dozen times I've seen a cartoon on issues of reduced national import and thought, "whoa, game over" because of a particularly poignant cartoon. I'll miss that when they're gone. I miss it already.
Brett Ewins Suffers Head Injuries After Stabbing Police Officer
The artist Brett Ewins has apparently suffered serious head injuries after stabbing a police officer in an incident over the weekend. The article suggests that Ewins had suffered through some mental illness issues in recent times -- my memory is that he withdrew from work in the comics industry about 20 years ago for something along those same kinds of issues, but I could be remembering that really, really wrong. It's also good to remember that in a case like that, I'm going off of one newspaper report, so the story we have now might not be the entire story as it develops.
The artist is best known for his work on the Rogue Trooper and Judge Dredd features starting in the very late '70s; he also did the Johnny Nemo character comics publisher Eclipse's Strange Days and Johnny Nemo Magazine publications, as well as the series Skreemer for DC Comics.
* the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund takes notice of the latest brouhaha over a Muhammed-related cartoon being featured on a UK university site and the various organizations that have stood up to back the publication of said cartoon and criticize pressure to take it down.
* Garth Ennis having settled in at Dynamite reminds me of how some sports television personalities have moved from ESPN to positions at the Golf Network and the NFL Network. Sometimes moves like that are perfect for the people involved, and it's only our lingering biases that might make them seem odd in any way.
* Dave Kiersh has launched a kickstarter campaign for his next book. I'm still not sure how I want to cover these things. I guess it might be worth noting that Kiersh isn't offering any heavy-reward type incentives, which makes this more of a straight-up pre-order deal, with an extra book thrown in as a bonus. I'll figure it out eventually.
* finally, Lauren Davis provides a survey of contemporary, on-line, autobiographical comics here.
Go, Read: Dan Nadel On Milo Manara, Milton Caniff, Richard Sala
Dan Nadel has a nice piece up at The Comics Journal on a trio of master cartoonists that are only rarely invited to the alt-comics appreciation party -- Milo Manara, Alex Raymond, Milton Caniff -- as well as a few notes on the always-overlooked Richard Sala. It's a nice, smart reading of the material Nadel has in front of him, and seems to continue a thread that has been winding through some of the stuff you may have read here in the last several weeks: how cartoonists and critics whose primary interests seem to lie in authorial idiosyncratic comics-making process works by incredibly skilled practitioners of the art form who had either no interest or a diminished interest in making that kind of art. Think of Colleen Coover citing Caniff as a major influence or Oliver East admitting to not quite getting some of the great mainstream comic book artists of the past. That should be a fruitful discussion for years to come.
This strikes me as more of the classic "free introductory book" model than it does the "I'm going to make money by trusting the audience not to exploit me via free copies available everywhere without anyone paying me" model, but it still seems worth noting. Even if you have no interest in the issue of releasing this kind of content this particular way, I figure you might want the PDF.
* DC Comics has cancelled some of the lower selling titles in its New 52 initiative in order to make room for an equal number of new ongoing titles. I'm not sure there are any surprises in either the list of cancelled books or the list of added ones. Still, while I like the idea of keeping the number of series at a stable, easy-to-remember level, giving these series eight issues to hit -- and probably less than that, considering that all the titles launched pretty well -- is a brutal reality for ongoing mainstream series. It's worth noting that some of the mainstream companies' most fruitful creative runs of the last few decades (X-Men, Daredevil) came under a system where a comic book series did generally well enough to stick around just by showing up, so they could host really young creators and new directions without a lot of scrutiny or pressure.
* a sneak peek at the next Peanuts volume. The Complete Peanuts has this odd quirk to it in that the strips they're getting now aren't as lauded as some of the earlier ones, but they haven't been combed over by Peanuts readers in paperback form as much, either.
* Justice League #5 will miss its ship date. I'm not even sure how to analyze that one; it certainly doesn't speak well of DC's adherence to a strict schedule of shipping dates, but it's also by two of its lead creator/editors and it's going to sell like a billion copies even if it took two months off. I am a little worried that between this and the cancellation of titles at an eighth issue, we're going to see strategies begin to seep back in that aren't about long-term publishing success but more about managing the entire enterprise. Here's the thing: it's going to take a while for the market to learn how to react positively to anyone instilling elements of publishing discipline. This means it's going to be extra-hard to stay the course on a lot of them.
* I am made very uneasy when publishers that aren't the creators themselves decide to abandon one of the traditional duties of publishing -- providing capital -- and turn to the pre-orders model offered by Kickstarter. It makes me worry that the person being published isn't really getting their part of what a publisher should offer the overall deal. Then again, I find this kind of thing creepy, too, so maybe I'm just old.
"Injustice Anywhere Is A Threat To Justice Everywhere"
As far as I can tell, there's no archive of editorial cartoons featuring work that's of the same era as Martin Luther King, Jr.'s life and assassination; I'd love for somebody to do that. I'm intrigued by King's treatment by cartoonists of that time. I'm not sure that Herblock ever drew him, and this is the only Bill Mauldin I'm certain exists. Paul Conrad drew him maybe a half-dozen times. From my cursory reading of editorial cartoons from that era, it seems like a number of cartoonists went for the richer, more damning images of specific events that took place during the Civil Rights movement over depicting the personalities involved.
Richard Thompson Takes Time Off To Treat Parkinson's Disease
The award-winning cartoonist Richard Thompson has taken a few weeks off from his Cul De Sac to pursue opportunities in physical therapy for his Parkinson's, he announced yesterday. Thompson announced he had the disease in 2009, and has since become an open, courageous advocate for living with Parkinson's. A benefit book featuring other artists doing Thompson's characters will appear this year. Thompson dropped the vast majority of work that's not Cul De Sac in order to focus his energies on the strip, so this should be a solid period of time off so that he may focus on the rehabilitation. Since the hiatus began yesterday, even with Thompson's famously close-to-publication date schedule he has to be at least somewhere along this latest course if not outright finished.
If you're a fan, I imagine Thompson would be happy to hear from you in the comments section of that post. I'm a fan of the strip and the man, and wish him all the best with this course of treatment.
Go, Read: Ryan Estrada's Net Income Chart And Comments
God bless Ryan Estrada for publishing his net income as a cartoonist, demystifying -- if only an incremental bit -- one of the most important things that artistic communities never talk about. The other common difficulty in talking about money still applies here: everyone has different standards as to what constitutes too little money, enough money, more than enough money. One person's "I spend more on shoes" is another person's "that's enough money for me not to have a boss or commute." So please take in Estrada's commentary as well to experience how he's oriented towards the various amounts. A real service.
* a pretty good outing from retailer/industry advocate Brian Hibbs at his regular column. I imagine it helps he's shooting at the biggest fish in the modest barrel that is North American comic books as a publishing enterprise: Marvel's largely insane approach to the book trade. I would disagree with Hibbs in two ways: 1) I would maintain that Marvel seems to lack perennials because it never orients itself that way (they don't have the big-hitters DC has, but they have plenty of second-tier players, for sure) and 2) I think a rational policy for collections, starting with the identification of such core books, would benefit Marvel in all channels, not just direct market retail. Update: Hibbs wrote in to complain that I didn't cover the material in the same column about creators and self-publishing nurturing a relationship with stores, and you can hit the original link for that if that stuff excites you and the Marvel stuff doesn't; I thought that stuff was vaguely insulting in that "you people aren't doing enough to make me feel special" way that retailers sometimes have about them -- it should be more important that Ed Brubaker makes great comics in an ethical fashion that people want than he "has a retailer's back" or whatever -- but more importantly it was obvious, and by itself would have made for a non-memorable, every-other-weekday post on the old Warren Ellis forum.
* a few Happy New Year images from various European cartoonists can be found here.
Oliver East is one of the more compelling cartoonists to emerge from Great Britain's re-energized small-press scene, moving from self-published books in his Trains Are... Mint series to what looks like a fruitful, long-term relationship with the increasingly vital Blank Slate Books.
East works mostly in painted comics -- watered-down acrylics, he points out below -- and all of his work that I've seen is documentarian in nature, rooted in the act of depicting what the cartoonist sees moving from one point to another. In that way, his work connects to some of the best 'zine-style comics of the 1990s, although the lyrical elements to many of East's pages set him apart from just about everyone.
The following was done via e-mail; I tweaked a tiny bit for flow. I was surprised we had not interviewed before now. -- Tom Spurgeon
TOM SPURGEON: I thought for sure we'd talked before, but we haven't -- at least not to the best of my memory as assisted by a quick phrase search through my publishing software.
OLIVER EAST: We haven't spoken before, no, but it may be the over-friendly tone of my e-mails to you over the years that could have given you the impression we have.
SPURGEON: [laughs] My first question is still the same, though. I want to hear about the landscape comics you're doing. Why is this current project specifically important to you to the point you'd send me one of those friendly e-mails?
EAST: The one-page landscape comics I'm doing are part of a wider group of work under the title Swear Down. I'm walking in as straight a line as possible, out of my front door in Old Trafford, Manchester, and following the line of longitude through England, Brittany in France, the length of Spain and then West Africa. The walking of this line will inform this body of work. It's impractical to think I can fit all that into a series of books -- impractical to think I can walk it to start with -- so it will be a mixture of comic books, drawings, paintings, comic pamphlets and other forms like film and sculpture. It's a life's work to keep me busy.
The first book from this walk is Swear Down, which I'm halfway through and should be out this year. At the moment, I'm thinking that the rest of the English leg will be shown through drawings, film and sculpture. That's where those landscape comics come in.
SPURGEON: Why "landscape comics"?
EAST: I say "landscape comics" as that's kind of what I'm calling all my comics at the moment: they're about landscape. I had no money last year to buy books to help research Swear Down so I did a drive on Twitter where I offered to draw you a tree if you bought me a book off of my Amazon wish list. One was a book on landscape theory which made me realize, "This is what I do. I'm studying the landscape." I'll read another book this year which will change my thinking again but for now, yeah, landscape comics sounds about right. Also I have art friends who won't go near my comics. I didn't want them thinking I'd taken time off comics to do some landscape drawings. It was to make sure they're read as comics by everyone not just you guys.
SPURGEON: Can you locate me in terms of where you with your comics making generally? How much time do you get to make comics? Are you primarily a comics maker?
EAST: Yeah, it's pretty much all comics and has been for a while. I'm working on a short film/animation at the moment, but apart from commercial work, which is few and far between, I just want to make comics until I can't hold a pen anymore. Then I'll try my feet. I love it: it's all I want to do all of the time.
I married nearly seven years ago when I was working in bars. We always planned to have children, but didn't see the point in all my salary going on childcare so I could just stand behind a bar. So the plan was to quit work, put art on hold for two to three years and just look after the kid while my wife works. To soften this considerable blow, my wife let me quit work three years early and supported me while I just made comics 24/7. I was a very lucky boy. Proper Go Well High and Berlin And That were created in this time.
When our son Hunter was born, and after my wife went back to school, I'd work in his naps, but it's hard to get a run at a page in half-hour stints. Now he's two and in daycare two days a week. I still try and get away with as much work at the weekend as I can during "family time." I could work harder, but it would affect my marriage and I like my wife where she is thank you very much. I have a good work life balance now. I can't work nights though, rubbish at it. 7 AM starts for me, please.
At the moment I've just finished Frank Santoro's correspondence course and I'm doing a series of those landscape comics before restarting Swear Down, which I'd put on hold for the course. Swear Down is about the landscape from Old Trafford, my home, to Cheshire, about 20 miles south. There's another narrative alongside this, about the premature birth of my son and near death of my wife in childbirth. She's coming along for the second part of the book. She's pretty damn funny and it's not all hard going but it is the most autobio stuff yet. I'll have that finished by August and hopefully published by November. I'll have a break in August then I want to expand on a rejected short story I did for Nelson, the Blank Slate anthology. I'll take what I learned from the course and apply it to that. Fill any remaining gaps with more one-page landscape comics, and that's pretty much my year.
SPURGEON: What has your experience been like dealing with Blank Slate? I've talked to very few of their artists. Are you happy with the way your books turned out, how they were sold? I noticed you were looking to self-publish your latest story -- do you have an ongoing relationship with BSB or has that concluded?
EAST: Nah, they're my boys, always will be. I'm with them to the bitter end and it will be bitter, they'll have to drag me out. I'm so very lucky that Kenny [Penman] is a fan of mine because I've had zero interest from anyone else from day one til today. Kenny has said on more than one occasion that he'll put out whatever chicken scratches I can muster and that's an amazing belief to have behind me as I work. He's like an old fashioned patron. At the same time I've never taken him for granted. Berlin and That is the only book I've done where I thought, "This'll probably be published," but for the most part I'm never happy until I get those words "Yes, we'll do it" from him. He's got a thick skin which helps as well, as I'm prone to react rather than respond, and when I'm insecure about a project the emails fly thick and fast.
Kenny's become a friend, and while I've always dreamt of working with one of the US/Canadian publishers, he'll get first refusal every time. He's also keen to find new stuff and I've pointed him in the direction of a few artists, one of which he has published; another is a future project. My stuff doesn't sell that well -- it's a tad niche if I'm being polite -- so for him to still be behind whatever book I'm doing, I love him for it.
I was looking to self publish a book in separate issues I've since put on hiatus: a biography of a child abuse survivor who went on to spend 20 years in a cult. Funnier than it sounds. Anyway, like anyone else, I want people to see my stuff, and I'd seen the massive audience Darryl Cunningham was getting for serializing his Psychiatric Tales online. So I started Trains Are... Mint back up again at a web site with #6. It got a good response, but I was doing it for the wrong reasons. I wasn't very happy at the time and I didn't like the reasons why I was sharing work on-line; it wasn't making me happy. So I stopped doing it. Plus I have a god-awful history with designing websites. Check it out now: look, it's well shit.
SPURGEON: So is Trains Are… Mint done? Done for now? Is there something to that central idea, the organizing principle of depicting what you're seeing in that fashion, that you think works best within specific parameters, or do you even begin to see that certain project that way?
EAST:Trains Are... Mint (TAM) as a title, or umbrella for titles, is done; but as a concept, it's everything I do. I self-published the first five TAMs. Numbers 1-3 involved me walking from Manchester to Blackpool sticking as close to the train lines as possible without trespassing. Number 4 was a unique edition of one. Before I started my drawing career I'd written an art book called Allemenstratten -- Norwegian for "every man's right" -- in which I try to camp exactly 150 metres away from people's houses. Once I started drawing, as an exercise, I went back and illustrated a copy of the book, creating TAM #4. Blank Slate'll reprint it some time in 2013. TAM #5 is the first 30 or so pages of what became Proper Go Well High: again [a] train line, from Manchester to Liverpool. The last TAM book was Berlin And That, from Berlin's Alexanderplatz station to Frankfurt (Oder) on the Polish border.
It was Kenny's idea that that should probably be the last TAM book. And he was right. Law of diminishing returns and that. But walking and telling people about my walking is what I've done for years and I'm far from finished yet. I'll still be doing it in some form after people stop listening. I just want to do one thing really well. Swear Down is just Trains Are... Mint with fewer trains and a different title. I will always be walking then telling you about it somehow. I think Kenny might want this next book because it's the first mainly autobio work I've done. After that, because it's been hard to write, I'll swing back the other way and it will be about the concept again and that may stretch Kenny's faith. I don't know. i'd like to collect these landscape drawings into a book maybe next year, but I'm not sure art books are his thing at the moment. He loves me though; I can do no wrong in his eyes. Kind of.
SPURGEON: Were there any disadvantages to having such a unique concept hit for you ahead of maybe you more generally hitting with readers? Did you ever feel limited by people's desire to see more of that very specific kind of work?
EAST: No, I don't think so. Quite the opposite, really. I think the concept helped some readers got over my early rough drawing. They could see past the practical naivete and see someone trying to do something different. Some people really got the book and ran with it. I'm never going to have mass appeal but there's a tiny group who are really into what I do, they get it. And that's enough isn't it? I thought it would be more popular than it is, to be honest. Just because it's my passion, you know? "I love doing this so you'll love reading about it." Hasn't really worked out like that. If there's a desire to see more of that specific work then no one's told me. [Spurgeon laughs] I think each book sold worse than the last. If that's what people want, then game on, because that's what I'm doing. I just don't think it is. A few people have followed my walks with copies of the book, though. That's pretty cool.
I like being the go-to "British kinda weird walking comics" guy. It's a cool guy to be. Doesn't pay, though.
SPURGEON: How welcoming are comics readers to your kind of work, do you think? I mean, I don't think I would have heard of you without hearing the noise in the distance of other people clamoring over your work, but at the same time comics is a pretty conservative place in terms of formal audacity and comics that can't be boiled down into a high concept. Do you have any sense of your readership?
EAST: Ha! Kenny said in an interview recently, "You won't have to go very far to find someone who thinks Ollie can't draw." Bang on. When I started comics, from my first b&w minis, I'd never drawn before. Not since little school. I was 26 -- I'm 33 now -- when I first picked up a pen in anger. But I was impatient to get a move on so, rather than squirrel myself away for two years learning my craft, I decided from page two of TAM #1 that every first attempt at a page would go in the book. That way whatever audience I got could watch me learn how to draw as the book, and books, went on. TAM is color because I thought if I made it full-color people might not realize I can't draw, or something.
TAM works because the concept is interesting and I'm a good writer. I'm honest and I can be funny. So that carried some pretty ropey drawing until I got better. If you love your linework, then you're not going to find much in my stuff, really.
To be fair, though, comic folk have been a lot more welcoming than fine art folk. I borrowed £500 off a best friend of mine, who's an artist, to publish TAM #1. He loved it but he visibly greyed when I called it a comic to someone else.
I have fans I guess. I get a couple of pieces of fan mail every month. They're laminated and filed away for when it all goes tits up and I need a little lovin'. I did two album sleeves for a famous -- over here, anyway -- band called Elbow and I've got a load of fans through that but that was very particular work, work of a place and a mood. And that's not what I do most of the time. I don't know, with social media you can kind of mind fuck yourself into thinking you've got loads of fans. But when I put a show on in Manchester with John P, Santoro, Blaise Larmee, Warren Craghead and so on, and like 10 people turn up... I don't know how accepted into comics I am, really.
SPURGEON: How much of what we see in your comics can you trace back to your art school education? Because answers from artists tend to be all over the place regarding the effect of art school, from the notion that it's everything to the idea that comics develop on their own completely sealed off from the education itself.
EAST: Well, I didn't draw until I'd been out of art school for three years, so visually maybe nothing. But conceptually? Everything, I guess. At the end I was making work about making work, and how it can go wrong. So after college, over the course of a year, I read Dr. Dolittle to a herd of cows once or twice a week, filmed it and wrote little skits about my efforts. This was when I found out I could write. I'd figured out a style of writing I liked, in short bursts -- I stammer so maybe there's something in that -- and wrote a handbook of walks around Manchester, from art institutions to places in town from where you could see a local peak. This had some rudimentary line drawings in it. The cow thing was shown in a gallery but I didn't want to have to wait for a gallery opportunity to do my next work so the natural progression from video and text seemed to be drawing and text. So I made my first minis, The House Of Fire To Black Hill.
I didn't know these were comics at the time. But a friend of mine used to review comics, saw these, showed me Jeffrey Brown and it clicked: "I'm making comics." I wouldn't be making the kind of comics I am if I'd have done an illustration degree and studied drawing. Because I made the drawing fit around the concept, I forced it to. I'm not as gung ho about it now but back then I assumed people would love to see these. I'd pass them over the bar to friends alongside their pint. On the first day of my first year at art school, they said, "Do what you like; just don't get arrested," and just left us to it. Now that worked for about half the students. The other half needed more structure around them and floundered a bit, but it was perfect for me. That same year, at college, I was diagnosed with double triple bad dyslexia. I was 21. The absence of structure and the new learning methods my special needs tutor taught me set me on the road to Trains Are... Mint, I guess. I'm a very poor reader, and couldn't get the grades to study archaeology and become Indiana Jones. Apart from that, I'm lucky to be dyslexic.
SPURGEON: I like the way your colors look, the palette you use. Are you picky about color? Is there a basic approach to comics color to which you adhere?
EAST: Thanks, that's kind of you to say so. I have a six-well palette and if I can do a whole page using just those six wells, then it'll probably be a decent page. That's not six colors, mind. It'll be, say, a strong green, then a bit shoved over to the next well to make a weaker green. I put a bit of black in everything because nothing's that bright. In Trains Are... Mint, the first three, that's me trying to draw. Like trying to make things look like what they look like. And it's set in Northwest England, where, a friend of mine once said, the big grey skies are like the lid of a Tupperware box over the world.
I've got a good hang of the materials now; I can make them do nice things. I'm not picky about my tools. The brushes I use today are the same ones I used on TAM #1 about six years ago. The points haven't been points for a long time, but I know how they'll roll. They're absolutely knackered. But colors I'm picky about, yes. There's a few exceptions where I'll forget myself, see someone else's cool work, and a bit of brightness will creep in, but mainly I like it to look like everything's overcast. Even when the days walk I'm drawing was sunny, it'll still be a bit grey. It's all acrylic inks very watered down. I used to bristle when people said I use watercolors, but I've chilled out a bit now. If they're good enough for Turner, then, you know...
SPURGEON: While I'm asking you incredibly basic questions about color, let me do the same for the way you draw generally, in a way that maybe allows and avenue access for people that haven't been able to get into your work. You're drawing from reality in many circumstances, but you're not drawing in what comics people have come to understand is a valuable, "realistic" rendering of what you're seeing. What's important to you that an image convey? How impressionistic do you want your visuals to be?
EAST: I've not changed my actual working method much from book to book, but the one set in concrete constant is that I don't work from sketchbooks or photographs. I like the idea of sketchbooks -- other peoples' look great -- but I don't feel a need for one. I've started them and never filled a page. On my walks I take written notes along the way; of things I see, things I think, events and such like and it's these I work from one page at a time.
Trains Are... Mint was me trying to draw things as they looked and being quick about it. In TAM, you're looking at someone who's only just started drawing. Hardly a surprise, I know! I'm looking at a copy now, actually. In all my books you're watching someone learn to draw page by page. I didn't know how I wanted to do figures, either realistic or cartoons. I hadn't seen many comics at that point and my ignorance leads to some pretty interesting layouts. So yeah, from day one I'm drawing from memory and written notes. So things aren't meant to look like what they're meant to be, they're how I remember them -- which was a great "get out of jail" card for a while when I couldn't draw.
I still do this now: drawing from memory, I mean. I did TAM #4 in between Trains Are... Mint and Proper Go Well High as an exercise in learning to draw. With PGWH, I tried to focus my drawing down to a set of symbols, so I'd draw trees this way all the time and girls hair that way. Creating short cuts, and a style, to get round or hide my lack of talent. I hated this before I got to the end of PGHW but I needed to finish the book the same way.
A few shortcuts stuck around for Berlin And That, but I'd hit my stride by then and found a bit more of my drawing voice. Some people might tell you different but there's good stuff in that book. Might be noteworthy to mention that I didn't really pause for a breath between books for like three years, just bam bam bam, page page page; one long very public drawing practice.
I pretty much stuck with my self-imposed "every first attempt" rule. With Berlin, there's 158 pages, I think, and I redid two of them. I like letting go of a page quickly. I won't dwell on it. With general non-book destined drawings, I like to throw them up online as quickly as possible so then I can't go back and change it. People have seen it; then it's done. Move on.
SPURGEON: You mentioned the correspondence school course you did with Frank Santoro. What made you want to do that? Can you share one or two focused memories of that course, something you learned or an experience you had to which you'll return in future years when thinking about the course? How are you a different cartoonist now -- if you're a different cartoonist at all?
EAST: Man, that was hard. [Spurgeon laughs] Frank said at the start that he was going to "get you doing drills" and end of week crits would "be brutal." I lied through my teeth and said, "I've got a thick skin, bring it on!"
I did that course in part to try and figure out what everyone else sees when they see the classic cartoonists. There was a wee running joke online that every review of mine used the word "unique": "Another unique book from Oliver East". If you had asked me before I started would I want to be thought of as unique, I would have bit your hand off. But I always feel left out when reading people enthusing about the greats of comics, because I just don't see it. One confident line doesn't turn me on. I've tried, though. Kenny lent me a bin bag full of Ditko, Kirbyet al and it was nice enough but it didn't move me. But Brian Chippendale writes those passionate blog posts about mainstream comics but he also makes the art he makes, so there's got to be something to it. Taking this course was, in part, to find out what everyone else is going on about.
Also it was a chance to work with someone who's very talented, obsessed with our craft's history and, well... it's Frank Santoro! It was a no-brainer really. Work with Santoro for eight weeks! Where do I sign? I just wanted to make a comic like everyone else for a change. I'd also had his work in a show I organized and he'd sent over a lot of his layout riffs, the ones with pink and blue circles and squares? I didn't really understand his blog posts about them and wanted to get my head around that.
It was very labour intensive for the first four to five weeks of the eight. Frank told us what music to listen to while we were working! Every time we Skyped there'd be some jazz on in the background. He insisted we must listen to stuff without lyrics. Classical or jazz; he told us which artists to listen to. There's only so much jazz I can take, so after a while I exclusively listened to an Icelandic band called Sigur Ros, who sing in a foreign language, which is kind of the same.
When I do my thing I do it one page at a time. There's no plan apart from my notes and I work through them as they come. So I don't know how it'll pan out. With this we had to work out a story first on index cards, then expand that out into our chosen layout. He had tons of layouts ready to choose. I don't really want to give too much away because I know he's doing the course again. One thing he did make me realize is that just because I know what something is, doesn't mean my audience will. I was doing a work of fiction, a silent story with a slight fantasy element, so you'd need to know what things are. I'll have that in the back of my mind now forever.
I'll work like that again, maybe once a year. I'd just read The Man Who Grew His Beard before the course, and fancy doing a few loosely-linked fiction works. I'll work the Santoro way in these every time. It produces some really satisfying original art. I'm looking at it now: each page is made up of three plates taped together. It's substantial, you know? Weighty. And it took forever to make. There are a few tweaks to make, as I've shown it to three comics people and it went down like a bag of shite. I've just remembered how he had me working like; apparently the method of making comics, in layers like I did, was similar to Harvey Kurtzman.
To be honest, I may have abused the "correspondence" part of the course! But I had the ears and eyes of Frank Santoro for eight weeks and I wasn't going to let that go to waste. Plus I'd paid for the privilege so I milked his email and Skype for all it was worth. I taught him about Manchester colloquialisms and he turned me onto roller derby.
Have I sold the course enough there? I want to recommend it. I didn't need everything from it. It turns out, over the six years I've been doing this, I'm pretty intuitive about page symmetry. All those layout riffs with circles and squares? I already had that in my locker. It was good to slow down over a page, take time, redo. Was good to have my very first comics tutor as well. I'm self-taught, Kenny leaves me to it, and people online who like your stuff aren't the best critics. I've developed a nice friendship with Derik Badman, the critic, and he's always offered to look at my stuff, but here, on this course, I had twice weekly crits and Skype and e-mails. It was like being back at school in a good way.
One downside is this super-cool artist, who you'd like to see you as a super-cool artist, instead sees you getting stressed and, the worst thing, gets to see all your mistakes and shit work. Plus I told him to fuck off once. Friend for life now; I'm taking the family over to that space ship he lives in for next Christmas.
SPURGEON: I'm kind of generally fascinated by British comics right now, particularly their version of the art comics and small press scene. Can you name a couple of peers to whom you think we should pay more attention, and what you like about their work? For that matter, where would prefer people start with you? Is there something in your comics that you see as coming from that tradition as well as adding to it?
EAST: Why Malcy Duff isn't huge over your way is beyond me. If he were American, he would be. He's been making some beautifully twisted art comics for years now. He's awfully prolific. I had him in one of the comic shows I put on last year and he did a "reading" of one of his comics called The Simpsons. But it was like no comics reading you've seen before. On a table he had contact mics over which he'd placed two pairs of old stained brown corduroy pants, the fabric of which he "played" with a guitar pick while he re-enacted his birth. There was also a flipchart of the comic itself, so there was that to ground it. I couldn't find a video camera that day, which I'm gutted about. I don't know, you guys might already have him over there, but he'd fit in right at home at Picturebox and it's weird to me that he's not. Make him famous, America, please.
Also Rob Jackson. He's the hardest working man in comics. It would be pretty rich of me to call anyone else's drawings raw, but he's an acquired taste. His drawings aren't great but he's got a wicked imagination. He just never stops. They're not all hits but I'm convinced someday, someone in a position of authority is going to say, "Hey, this guy's amazing" and he'll take off as a cult concern. Then everyone will pretend they were down all along.
Can I have three? Dan Berry is a solid cartoonist. I've told him before, but he's our Mawil. He's super talented, got mainstream alt-comics appeal and he's a really nice bloke. He'll do well, attention or no attention.
Being part of the scene over here, although I'm not that active a member on the social side, is pretty mint right now. If you're just starting out, making your first mini and attending shows, you've got Blank Slate, Solipsistic Pop, NoBrow, Self Made Hero and others I've forgotten and will probably pay for... basically if you don't want to stay making minis you've something local to aim for. When I did TAM #1 there was no one. I fired it over to everyone in America and Canada and no one was interested. There wasn't anyone in Britain that would have been interested in anything remotely like what I was making. Maybe NoBrow might have been around but they were just about illustration then.
I'd always like people to start with the last thing I did because it's usually the best. Kenny's favorite is Proper Go Well High, so maybe that. I prefer Berlin And That. But I'm pretty excited about these landscape drawings I'm doing. Swear Down will be more accessible than Berlin I think.
I'd like to think I've added something to the British comics landscape (sorry), yeah. If it all goes to pot now, I've been lucky enough to have three decent books published. They'll always be there and that's more than most.
SPURGEON: Why wont you kickstart your new project? I've never heard any declare against kickstarting something.
EAST: I don't want to be answerable to hundreds of backers. I wouldn't get hundreds of backers. And I don't want to give away hundreds of pages of original art. I like my art and I hate having to sell it. Kind of a negative to end on, no?
* photo provided by the cartoonist
* landscape comic
* from Berlin And That
* early Oliver East work
* Oliver East Reading Dr. Doolittle To Some Cows
* a commission
* Frank Santoro
* Malcy Duff Giving The Performance Mentioned Above
* another piece from Swear Down (below)
1. New Gods, Jack Kirby
2. Howard The Duck, Steve Gerber
3. Thriller, Robert Loren Fleming and Trevor Von Eeden
4. Tomb Of Dracula, Marv Wolfman and Gene Colan
5. Miracleman, Alan Moore
* Animal Man (Vertigo) -- Grant Morrison
* Amazing Spider-Man -- Steve Ditko
* Sgt. Fury -- John Severin
* Hellblazer -- Garth Ennis
* Uncle Scrooge -- Carl Barks (But Don Rosa made up for the empty years until he came along.)
Sean T. Collins
1. New X-Men, Grant Morrison
2. Runaways, Brian K. Vaughan & Adrian Alphona
3. Peanuts, Charles Schulz
4. Immortal Iron Fist, David Aja
5. Watchmen, Alan Moore (preemptively)
1. Nexus -- Steve Rude
2. Little Orphan Annie -- Harold Gray
3. Kamandi -- Jack Kirby
4. Master of Kung Fu -- Gene Day
5. The Spirit 2.0 -- Darwyn Cooke
* The Fantastic Four -- Jack Kirby
* Thor -- Jack Kirby
* Uncle Scrooge -- Carl Barks
* The Spirit -- Will Eisner
* Dr. Strange -- Steve Ditko
1. Avengers, Kurt Busiek
2. X-Men, Grant Morrison
3. Astérix, René Goscinny
4. Wildcats, Joe Casey
5. The Authority, Warren Ellis
The top comics-related news stories from January 7 to January 13, 2012:
1. A recent attempt by the Mumbai police department to silence an Indian cartoonist by going after the company that hosts his cartoons may or may not be part of a wider campaign against certain kinds of speech in that country.
Diamond Nabs Chris Powell For Key DM-Related Position
Comics news sites get a lot of press releases about new hires -- as much as comic book businesses hire people anymore -- but the one that slipped over the transom today from Diamond Comic Distributors, Inc. strikes me as particularly significant and well worth noting. Longtime, well-regarded industry veteran Chris Powell will be making a move from his General Manager and Chief Relationship Officer at the Lone Star Comics empire to a position at Diamond: Executive Director of Business Development, a newly-created job with a focus on the comic book speciality market. The position apparently places a special emphasis on the creation of new brick-and-mortar accounts, which seems to me something where a lot of work could be done and where a successful program could be a real strength of that part of the comics business moving forward.
Powell is a major, connected industry figure with point-to successes at ComicsPro (where he was a founding board member), the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund (where he was President) and with Lone Star and its mycomicshop.com business generally. He'll start in March, and will work in the company's Maryland offices. I wish him the best in the transition and with the new gig.
I don't think this is his first interview since his odyssey began last year with his beating at the hands of pro-government thugs for drawing cartoons critical of the current Syrian regime -- there was one or more of recent vintage, even -- but the BBC has to be the biggest one the peace-prize winner, cartoonist and gallery owner has done with an English-language news source. I'll be listening the moment I get done with the morning news links, and hope you will, too.
* columnist Sonia Farid examines the less-discussed boycott element to the original Danish Cartoons Crisis.
* there were a couple of developments in the latest, and mostly modestly unfolding trial with Danish Cartoons Controversy roots: the prosecution has asserted that the plan of which they accuse the defendants was brought about by the flush of success felt by the organizers of the Mumbai massacre. Sentences of up to 11 years are being sought.
RSF: Anti-Cartoonist Efforts In India Part Of Wider Crackdown
While it's worth noting that an article like this one from the advocacy group Reporters Sans Frontières is going to make its case in dramatic terms, it's difficult not to be alarmed by the way they've contextualized recent efforts against cartoonists in India that chose to post sensitive commentary. According to that piece, it's potentially part of a wider crackdown on commentary both lascivious and politically imprudent, right down to the hiring of outside firms that can provide better information as to what's being fomented out there. It's also intriguing to suss out that as India is a democracy, this isn't a wholly autocratic crackdown by one that has its own political advocates. That doesn't make my stomach hurt any less, though.
I apologize for not paying much attention to the Stop On-Line Piracy Act (SOPA) and Protect IP Act (PIPA) legislation currently and rapidly winding their respective ways through the US House of Representatives and the US Senate. I'm not very good with technology-based issues, and the fervor with which both of these pieces of potential law have been opposed have managed to raise all of the usual sweeping drama, stance-taking and borderline histrionics that comes with an on-line cause. I find these things difficult to navigate. In fact, just now calling some of this rhetoric "borderline histrionics" is bound to make someone's head out there explode and brand anyone who would write such a thing as clueless or hostile or both. It's that kind of issue.
Both of these acts sound like bad law to me. I think they should be opposed.
To that end, I've written the letters I usually write in these situations, put in the phone calls that I usually make to have my opinion registered and contacted via e-mail the people I know that seem useful to contact when Congress may be about to do something hinky. I'll do more in the days ahead as I'm able; by being so late to the issue, I have a very limited window with which to do anything. In terms of how these sets of laws might function, I'm essentially a small business owner that could be dramatically harmed by how this legislation vests power in the authorities to punish those who are simply believed to even tacitly support the targeted behavior. I'm also, incidentally, someone that believes that there's nothing noble about piracy and that for the most part people that believe this are acting like entitled children or as self-defeating, "that's just the way things are" mopes. (Granted, I have a lot of work to do so that my linking activity fully matches these beliefs.) My professional identity and general sympathy to the desire for legislation are two things I've decided to emphasize in my interactions. I really do oppose hardcore piracy; I think we need effective law to do so; I don't believe this will be effective law.
You don't have to have a direct interest to be involved. Being a voter, being a consumer, being a concerned citizen, being a citizen of the world that hopes for certain practices and policies from the US, these are also all perfectly legitimate avenues for letting your opinion be known on any issue, including this one. If you don't have the information on hand to make your opinion be known to your representatives, you can start here. I suspect that being mad on the Internet probably won't be enough. One aspect of the law's potential passage that's most disturbing is that US legislators are massively, almost humorously under-informed on technology issues; they're not likely to have access to your rage on a message board or see posts like this one.
The arts-comics publisher Fantagraphics came out against SOPA this week, and good for them. Marvel and DC, appendages of gigantic entertainment companies that have a huge interest in seeing piracy stopped no matter what and almost no interest at all in helping those that might be damaged that aren't shareholders -- and not even then, really, if you stop and think about it -- have signed on as corporate entities in support, and shame on them. If anyone out there is surprised that giant entertainment companies will act in their limited self-interest rather than for any conception of wider good, or even necessarily for the best overall outcome, if this is somehow the first time you've considered that the big funnybook companies may not be your friend, well, I'm not sure why this hasn't occurred to you before now but I'm happy to see your consciousness raised.
So: crappy law with potentially horrific implications not made any less crappy or horrific by the fact that we need better coverage on the issue. I'm going to do what admittedly little I can to see that it hopefully doesn't pass. I urge you to look into it yourself, and if you need to carve some time out to do so, I'll perfectly understand if you don't stop by CR for a couple of mornings. I'll still be here. If these laws are passed, there could come a time I might not be.
Does my use of the above image fall under Fair Use or other legitimate uses? Even if not, I'd rather not be shut down while someone figures it out...
Eric Resetar, a pioneering New Zealand cartoonist best known for self-publishing several issues of his own work in the 1940s, passed away on December 21, 2011. He was 83 years old.
Resetar was a comics reader as a child despite the difficulties inherent in finding such work, due to their exclusively foreign production and the general in which they were held. Resetar described a teacher destroying a Buck Rogers comic in a portion of Shirley Horrocks' The Comics Show documentary.
Despite the low repute of comic books, Resetar began publishing them as a high school student during World War 2. He secured rationed paper from the New Zealand government with the idea that locally-produced comics might improve national morale. He traded many of his earliest efforts -- Thrills on the Planet Jupiter! starring John Power #1, Treasure Comics: Black Cobra and the Red Gold #1, Childrens Xmas Comic #1 and three issues of Crash Carson of the Future -- with sailors stationed in New Zealand port cities during the war and directly after. Those comics, the cover stock and inside paper stock derived from the same rationed sources, featured the youthful artist's boisterous mix of science fiction and more standard, newspaper-strip style adventure; the style employed would be familiar to anyone that's spent time looking at early North American comic books. He was sometimes -- perhaps all the time, it's unclear -- credited in the comic books as "Hec Rose."
Corn Stone wrote of the early Resetar comics: "The sheer snazzyiness of these incredibly isolated comics is still in full evidence. Time takes nothing away from Crash Carson of the Future. It adds to it. They have an ingenuity that goes hand in hand with the character that believed he could get these printed in a time of rations and shortages."
Resetar continued with intermittent publication in the 1940 and 1950s (Captain Sinister #1 in the late '40s, and the wonderfully-titled Crash O'Kane -- An All Black On Mars #1 in the 1950s.) In the early 1960s, Resetar reprinted his earlier, Christmas-related comic book and two new books: Mo and Jo, Invisible Smith and two issues of Half-Back Comics. Resetar eventually found employment in bookstores. When interest in the historical roots of New Zealand comics started to coalesce in the 1990s, Resetar was widely hailed for his innovative self-publishing. His work was a significant part of the 2000-2001 Cartoon Show at the Auckland Art Gallery honoring New Zealand comics history. Resetar would go on to sell facsimiles of his comics in New Zealand shops.
An awards program named after Resetar and focusing on New Zealand comics creation was begun in 2000 by an on-line discussion group. The "Eric Awards" program was held in 2001-2004, again in 2006, and once again in 2010. The awards are now biannual. Restar joined Barry Linton and Cornelius Stone as the awards' first Hall Of Fame class.
Numerous on-line mentions note that Resetar lived in the greater Auckland City area, in the suburb of Onehunga. He never married, and his nearest surviving relative is a cousin.
Gary Tyrrell has the best, most succinct explanation of how the National Cartoonists Society has tweaked the vocational qualification for its webcomics award to embrace any creation by someone that makes the majority of their living cartooning as opposed to language that seemed to require the webcomic in question provide that chunk of their living. While I guess one might prefer that no such vocational qualification exist, this does bring that award in line with the other categories and reflects the awards' identity as a kind of society of professional cartoonists' program.
Finding out about this general, across-the-board qualification does suggest some potential institutional support for something a lot of people have noticed about the NCS awards program over the years, that they tend to favor well-known cartoonists working in categories for which they're maybe not best known, and I imagine that might be the case as this category develops. It's not like you'd need institutional support for an awards program that counts on votes -- people would have a natural tendency to vote for cartoonists they know. But it's worth tracking, if you're terribly interested in those kinds of things.
* finally, thank you to the CR readers who bought some of my doubles this week. I was able to purchase some recording equipment, my LA to San Diego Con train ticket, my PDX to Emerald Con train ticket, and a few random computer-type things to make the audio stuff go a bit easier. All will be put to use in the making of this site. I hope you enjoy the funnybooks.
The comics business news and analysis site ICv2.com has offered up their usual array of lists, estimates and analysis regarding the performance of comic books and graphic novels in the Direct Market of comic and hobby shops, this time for December 2011.
My favorite numbers cruncher John Jackson Miller at The Comics Chronicles has completed his analysis of the month here, and presents his sales chart here. He also provides some year-end analysis here and here.
I'm not sure where to begin. I imagine the takeaway for most people will be that Marvel regaining its status as the overall front-runner in its monthly battles with DC Comics. There will be a lot of permutations to that. DC executives made some hilarious passive-aggressive criticisms of that conclusion, once again indicting the estimates process they could at any second make obsolete forever by releasing its full slate of numbers to a source like Miller or Griepp and returning to that line of spin -- excuse me, "clarification" -- that they don't care about market share measurables despite spending most of the fall with a puffed-out chest in large part because of their performance by those measurables. There are also avenues for analysis in terms of how Marvel has scrambled to protect its own market share, and there's also some end-of-year type stuff to be had where we all gaze in wonder and horror about all the industry changes in the last half-year for what may amount to a temporary sales bump for one of the companies.
I wonder if the bigger story isn't so much Hulk Vs. Superman but both heroes against malaise and decline, and how the short-term story and resultant hype has genuinely become more important to the fate of these companies and their major players than long-term publishing success. There are only three comic books in the top 20 that have issue numbers beyond a half-dozen issues or so, that are in other words reliable market players for their content; Marvel didn't chart anything over 86,000 copies sold. Maybe a half-dozen or so of the New 52 books have already fallen under that point of sales that was astonishing when any comic book from a mainstream company started charting there in the mid-1990s. The graphic novel side of things seems to be all about Robert Kirkman and the occasional flash of sales from a dependable brand, with not a lot of reliable sales leaders otherwise. In other words, I think the market is still sick from its first-half-of-2011 troubles, with a lot of hard and not very glamorous work to be done in order to freshen up the place now that the sales-stunt-of-all-sales-stunts has faded into recent memory.
That's why I'm sort of saddened to read that DC is going to goose the price on more of its more popular comic books. I think that the vast majority of DC's books remaining under $3 has been a big boon for them in recent months in the same way their discounting/returns program has been, the same way their soft influence with shops has been. I've gone on at length about how there being as many $3 comic books is also an industry boon because comics fans don't make rational one-for-one choices; they up and quit when their personal mix of comics becomes too expensive for the pleasure they derive from same. So I think raising the prices, while it makes a certain kind of short-term sense in that DC's other $4 offerings have done just fine, mutes one of their quiet advantages right now and also weakens customer retention generally. We seem to live in a market reality where a long-term effort is one that lasts for four months or so, and I worry about the eventual outcome.
ComicsPro Names Its Industry Appreciation Award Nominees
The comics retailing organization ComicsPro has announced the nominees for its 2012 Industry Appreciation Award, which are split into appreciation award (living recipients) and memorial award (recipients that have passed away) categories. The nominees in the still-living category are Cindy Fournier, David Gabriel, Robert Kirkman, Eric Stephenson and Bob Wayne. Those up for the memorial award are Julius Schwartz and Phil Seuling. You can read mini-bios at the ComicsPro page in order to get an idea as to how this portion of the retailing community sees those industry folk.
I believe winners are announced at the yearly meeting, which this year is to be held in Dallas. Past winners in the still-living category are Paul Levitz and Stan Lee; the memorial award has gone to Jack Kirby and Carol Kalish. I think I would vote for Wayne and Sueling, if I had a vote.
This Isn't A Library: Notable Releases To The Comics Direct Market
Here are the books that make an impression on me staring at this week's no-doubt largely accurate list of books shipping from Diamond Comic Distributors, Inc. to comic book and hobby shops across North America.
I might not buy all of the works listed here. I might not buy any. You never know. I'd sure look at the following, though.
NOV111056 MONSTER MESS HC $9.99
This is the second in the English-language reprinting of Lewis Trondheim's series of popular monster books for Delcourt, which I remember once reading were super-popular and came at a crucial time in Trondheim's rise as a successful comics author in the French-language market. I enjoyed the Christmas-related book in the series; Trondheim is one of the few authors that can make this format work without seeming like you're getting too few pages for too much cash.
NOV110011 LOBSTER JOHNSON THE BURNING HAND #1 (OF 5) JOHNSON CVR $3.50
Another week, another no-doubt quality, genre-comics effort from the House Of Mignola. This series features art from the Who Is Jake Ellis artist, Tonci Zonjic.
NOV110840 ROGER LANGRIDGES SNARKED #4 $3.99
One of the three new comic-book comics I'd likely snap up this week if I were in a funnybook store, grumbling as the $10 bill left my hand but still happy to do so. I haven't really caught up with this one yet, and for all I know it has become the worst comic book in the world. I'm going solely on the Roger Langridge name here.
NOV110500 AVENGERS 1959 #5 (OF 5) $2.99
I'm on a Howard Chaykin mini-kick right now, and would buy this in a second were I to have a store nearby. As it is, I'll likely end up waiting a couple of years so that I can get individual issues for less than a dollar somewhere. Sad, but true: the flip side to the occasional threat that comics that don't sell super well won't have a trade is that except in rare, Flex-Mentallo-like cases the individual issues of just about any mainstream series eventually become really cheap no matter if there's a trade or not. I know that's something of a pillow to the sleeping face of comics, but one reason you want to have a broad audience for this kind of material and plenty of opportunities for people to buy them on impulse is that you don't have to then rely on readers choosing not to game the system a bit.
OCT110428 ARCHIE BEST OF DAN DECARLO HC VOL 03 $24.99
I like Archie and enjoy Dan DeCarlo, so even though I'm baffled by all the Archie collected material out there right now I'd be interested in looking at this one.
NOV111057 SMURFS GN VOL 10 RETURN OF SMURFETTE $5.99 NOV111058 SMURFS HC VOL 10 RETURN OF SMURFETTE $10.99
I wasn't aware she'd gone. These are very popular books with three different families of young children that I know, so it's hard to begrudge them anything. I was never a big fiend for Peyo, but I've certainly read all of these new books. Even Kim Thompson has praise for their handling.
SEP110345 BROOKLYN DREAMS HC $39.99 AUG110054 TARZAN THE JESSE MARSH YEARS HC VOL 10 $49.99 AUG110256 STEVE DITKO OMNIBUS HC VOL 02 $59.99 OCT111137 BEFORE THE INCAL CLASSIC COLL DLX HC (MR) $99.95
Here's a sign of the times: there are more comics out this week in the $40 or more category that I'd be dying to see in the store than there are in the comic books of the $5 or less variety that I'd likely pick up. The Brooklyn Dreams effort would be more of a curiosity look than an anticipation look. That's one of those lauded books from the 1990s that I heard about all of the time but can't remember ever seeing -- a Paradox Press effort, of all things, which I think is a nostalgic, fanciful look book at childhood in the borough so named. To think that there are ten volumes of Jesse Marsh Tarzan hardcovers out there for purchase is either alarming or awesome or both. Probably both. Emphasis on the awesome, though. I think that Steve Ditko material is the intermittent work he did in the late '60s and early '70s, but everything by the inventive Ditko is worth a look if not a blind purchase. As soon as I saw there was a Alejandro Jodorowsky book out this week -- a massive, slip-cased collection no less -- I knew that Jog's weekly round-up over at TCJ would have a much better description of the project than I could ever muster. And I'm right.
The full list of this week's releases, including some titles with multiple cover variations and a long, impressive list of toys and other stuff that isn't comics, can be found here. Despite this official list there's no guarantee a comic will show up in the stores as promised, or in all of the stores as opposed to just a few. Also, stores choose what they carry and don't carry so your shop may not carry a specific publication. There are a lot of comics out there.
To find your local comic book store, check this list; and for one I can personally recommend because I've shopped there, albeit a while back, try this.
The above titles are listed with their Diamond order code in the first field, which may assist you in finding comics at your shop or having them order something for you they don't have in-stock. Ordering through a direct market shop can be a frustrating experience, so if you have a direct line to something -- you know another shop has it, you know a bookstore has it -- I'd urge you to consider all of your options.
If I failed to list your comic, that's on me. I apologize.
Oregon Book Awards Name Graphic Literature Finalists
The Oregon-focused Literary Arts site has posted a list of the finalists for the graphic literature category among several in the 25th Annual Oregon Book Awards. Matt Madden is listed under "judge." The nominees for the Pacific Northwest College Of Art Graphic Literature Award are:
* Graham Annable, The Book of Grickle (Dark Horse Comics)
* Aidan Koch, The Whale (Gaze Books)
* Sarah Oleksyk, Ivy (Oni Press)
* Greg Rucka, Stumptown (Oni Press)
* Joe Sacco, Footnotes in Gaza (Metropolitan Books)
All are Portland residents.
You can apparently vote here. A winner will be announced on April 23. This is the first time the award has included a category for comics.
Mumbai Police Again Accused Of Working Against A Cartoonist
A young Indian cartoonist has moved his domain and hosting to an American-based service after complaints from Mumbai's police department caused a local carrier to take down his web site. The cartoonist is 24-year-old Aseem Trivedi, and while I can't find the "Cartoons Against Corruption" site named in the article, new or old, his personal web site seems to be here and is up and running. The cartoons in question are like many on his site in that they apparently had a political, satirical focus; the linked-to article says the nature of the complain was not about the supposedly satirical content directly, but the way Trivedi employed the nation's flag.
In September, the Mumbai police department denied asking that a cartoon by Satish Acharya be taken down. Trivedi is considering legal options.
I think Association of American Editorial Cartoonists President John Cole has some of the best material in this round-up of people spouting off on plagiarism, which in 2011 became a noticeable issue in several fields including cartooning. Cole doesn't dither around in the psychology, which I appreciate just because that's never very interesting to me, but instead talks about the distinction between moving through the laborious and sustained, intentional effort of tracing something and producing ideas that are similar to other people's ideas. It's the latter that usually gets blown out of proportion, I think, in part because people aren't willing to make those kind of distinctions. I'm not saying that coming up with an idea someone else had is a good thing, and it certainly can be an avenue for plagiarism: Cole thinks this is the case with Jeff Stahler, mostly due to the resignation. It's just that if someone is producing humorous content 365 days a year, they're bound to tell a joke that is similar to another person's joke. Lock an infinite number of monkeys and typewriters in a room and one may eventually type out Hamlet; lock 30 comedy writers in separate rooms with Internet access and ask for a Mitt Romney joke on the events of January 5, 2012, and it's not hard to imagine three to five writing something similar.
* not comics: I'm bookmarking this much linked-to article about newspapers and changing revenue models for later, more focused consumption, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't go right ahead and start your reading of it if you're so inclined. My problem with a lot of these kinds of pieces -- and I have no idea if this applies here based on my initial, super-cursory read -- is that I don't always think that something going out of favor automatically means it's going to fall the rest of the way out of favor. Media overlap, they don't exterminate each other; otherwise we wouldn't have radio, or books, or theater. I also still hold out a bit of hope that someone out there in newspapers is going to unlock how to replicate on-line the service aspect that newspapers used to offer their readers -- the stuff that Shirky seems to suggest gave newspapers a mass audience. In fact, I'm not sure why that hasn't been done yet. Did people try and did that maybe just not take?
* I always love Todd Klein's logo studies. Here's athree-parter on Steven Bové.
* I'm a bit unclear as to why this is a story. There's been a significant strain of self-publishing and DIY and creator-to-customer outreach on several levels of comics-making for at least a quarter century. The on-line component of it has been around for years now, too. In fact, this site is a one-man (well, technically two men with different time commitments and an occasional, part-time Canadian academic/expert on Euro-Comics -- but mostly one-man), self-directed effort that came about because I couldn't find a publisher that would return a single one of my phone calls or letters, let alone go into business with me. Maybe there will be an increase in the kind of models we'll see (as Warren Ellis points out) and/or the number of participants (as Dean Haspiel suggests), but they'll be working out of a tradition that's goes way beyond the admirable Louis CK. It's the rest of the world that's catching up.
* David Brothers takes a look at a couple of pages of One Piece. Maybe the biggest difference between people that write about comics that are older than 40 years old and those that write about comics that happen to be younger than 40 is that the younger group has an ease with manga that most of the older crew can only pretend to have.
Commercial Break: The CR Never-Annual 50-Cent Funnybook Sale
While many of you spent time with your wonderful families over the holidays, I spent a few hours culling comics from my funnybook collection. I'm a terrible collector. I'd love to find as many of the following as nice a home as possible, and I'd like to do so without costing me any money and maybe do so in a way that facilitates paying some small, random site expenses.
I'd like to offer the following for sale at 50 cents a pop to anyone in the continental US. I'll pay postage, but you have to buy at least $5 worth of comics. I can do paypal or take a check; I don't care. I'd give them away for free, and I do have some sources that will take the remainder, but when you offer something for free you tend to attract people that want stuff because it's free. Anyway, I hope this appeals to a few of you.
* 30 Days Of Night: Bloodsucker Tales #3
* Age Of Bronze #9, 20-21
* Amazing Spider Man Collectible Series #14-17, 20
* Amethyst (first series) #1-3, 5
* Animal Man #12
* Beyond! #3
* Billy Batson And The Magic Of Shazam! #1
* Bone #38-55
* Cerebus #294
* Cud Comics #8
* Dead Ahead #2
* Demon (Matt Wagner) #1-4
* The Demon (Ennis/McCrea) #0
* Estrus Comics #4
* Eternals (Gaiman/Romita) #6-7
* Ex Machina #7, 15-16
* Final Crisis: Legion Of 3 Worlds #1-2, 4-5
* Final Crisis: Superman Beyond 3D #1
* Finder #19, 26-29
* Firearm #3
* Gamekeeper #1
* Gotham Central #30
* Grendel: The Devil Inside #1
* Heart Of Empire #2
* Hunter: The Age Of Magic #1-2, 5, 11, 21-22
* The Incredible Hercules #118, 135-136
* Infestation #1
* Infinite Crisis #3, 6
* The Invisbles #25
* Iron Man #246
* Johnny The Homicidal Maniac #3
* Justice Society Of America #5 (2007)
* Kull #21
* FCBD: Love And Capes
* The Desert Peach #26
* Minimum Wage Vol. 2 #3
* The Nightly News #3
* Odessa Steps Magazine #4
* Preacher #60
* Promethea #11, 13
* PVP #30
* Sadhu Sundar Singh
* Sandman #47
* The Secret History #6, 8-14
* Spongebob Comics #1
* Stalagmite #2
* Starman #64, 67, 69
* True Story: Swear To God #3, 8, 12-13
* The New Two-Fisted Tales (Much Later Reprint) #22
* Ultimate Fantastic Four #3-5
* Ultimate Nightmare #1
* Ultimate Spider-Man #56
* WildCATS 3.0 #19
* X-Force #118, 122
* Zango #3
Please note: these are all doubles, or at least it's my intention that they are -- that means either actual doubles (my brother and I both buy comics) or stuff that I have in comic book form that I have in another format. If they aren't doubles, I apologize. I don't believe in getting rid of comics sent to me that aren't redundant in some way, and I only started doing that when it became necessary for space reasons. Some of these comic books are bagged; some of these aren't.
Also, I'm a comics reader, not a collector. I don't know anything about values or conditions (assume VG to Fine, I guess?) and I don't pay attention to subsequent printings, reprints or director's cut issues.
Anyway, I could use the money to apply towards some nagging, minor expenses that won't otherwise be taken care of, and I thought 50-cent comic books might appeal to someone out there the way they would to me.
* just as I was putting this up, First Second announced their Spring 2012 catalog:
*Baby's in Black, Arne Bellstorf
*The Moon Moth, Jack Vance and Humayoun Ibrahim
*Marathon, Boaz Yakin and Joe Infurnari
*Bloody Chester, JT Petty and Hilary Florido
*Victory, Carla Jablonski and Leland Purvis
*Mastering Comics, Jessica Abel and Matt Madden
I guess it's worth noting that they're doing the Bellstorf Beatles book; that thing looks really pretty. I was told that the Bellstorf book's deal with a small UK publisher was enough to keep any US publisher from getting it; the person that told me that was apparently wrong. Here's the PDF for more information -- MCPG_Spring12_FirstSecond.pdf
* this is not comics, but cartoonist/essayist Tim Kreider passed along the cover to his book of essays due out this year. I'd link to it, but I can't find a direct link. It should be good, though.
* I don't agree with the general thrust of this analysis of Marvel's latest move to use comic book stores to generate a database of customers through which they can directly sell their comics in digital form -- I don't think it's automatically about the death knell of print, I mean; at the very least I don't think that it's a given -- but the fact that Marvel seems to be trying to start a way to directly sell digital is worth noting all by itself on a ton of levels. It's also always worth noting that the last time Marvel assumed it could cut out middlemen because their work was so awesome they could sell it itself, we got the 1990s Heroes World debacle, a bankrupt Marvel, an industry reeling for several years, and massive collateral damage. So everyone should maybe stare at Marvel for a while like they're one of those huge, dangerous, disintegrating beasts from a Miyazaki movie. Just in case.
* Sequential catches one of a few publishing news stories one might pull from the CR Holiday Interview series, namely that a new edition of Chester Brown's Ed The Happy Clown is imminent. Other ones that came out during the series include Rina Piccolo's announcement she'll be ending the traditional strip-style webcomic phase of her Velia, Dear in favor of more involved stories and that Jeff Smith has settled on a creative project to follow his RASL with RASL is set to conclude approximately around issue #15. Given Smith's endorsement of serial storytelling in that same interview, it seems likely this will mean another comic book series as opposed to a one-off or stand-alone book project.
* one of the reasons I wish Marvel weren't firing through their "season one" concepts the way they seem to be firing through them is that there's some creative potential there, particularly with series that are at this point pretty disconnected from elements of their initial issues, like the Cold War-soaked Incredible Hulk. I mean, I get that companies like that make big plans and execute them, but I think they sometimes squander opportunities for that kind of execution.
* Richard Thompson provides three rough sketches on the way to the final sketch for the next Cul De Sac book. It's been a while since a new book for that strip, so that's very exciting.
* so I guess the writer Mark Millar is consolidating his various comic book plans into kind of a mini-Image thing for the next phase of his career. I guess that's reasonably interesting; no one has worked the industry like Millar the last decade or so. Graeme McMillan writes about Millar's spin on high-concept, although I think that in comics execution is always overlooked, and Millar does some things really well that a lot of writers don't right now.
* finally, Derik A Badman pulled out a couple of pieces of publishing news from this interview with Loïc Néhou of Ego Comme X: 1) they've doubled their commission to authors on on-line book sales, and on-line book sales have doubled. They plan to publish Fabrice Neaud's Journal series in English via a print-on-demand initiative if a deal with an American publisher falls through. It'd be swell to have those book any way they come out. Thanks, Derik.
I believe this is the first major interview with the cartoonist Ali Ferzat following the tumultuous events of 2011 that saw him injured in an attempt to silence his criticisms of the current Syrian regime, followed by his becoming an international news story and major peace-prize winner. If not, it's the first one I can recall seeing accessible in English. It's very encouraging, and I'm grateful to see Ferzat devoted to both his embattled country and the cartooning profession.
Tom Richmond has details here about the National Cartoonists Society adding a divisional award for on-line comics making to their yearly program, centered around the Reuben to outstanding cartoonist of the year. It makes sense they'd want to do this. The NCS has made significant informal overtures to webcomics people over the last several years, and prominent members of that community have attended the yearly meeting during which the Reubens are held. Despite some natural conflict between members of that world and syndicated cartoonists over income streams and a certain amount of declared -- I'd say unearned -- certainty that the other side is somehow doing it wrong, the NCS needs members, and there's a rich vein of webcomics makers that might be served by that membership, if only for the status/solidity that can be conferred from being in a group of professionals when the entirety of what you do is self-directed. (Some would argue this is desirable.)
The restrictions are interesting. They're only interested in replications of classic comic-strip formats, and they want the strip to drive the greater part of a cartoonist's living. As to the former, that seems to me an arbitrary choice but perhaps one made for the sake of members not accustomed to webcomics more generally. I'm not all the way certain. As to the latter, I bet that's what people pick up on. It also seems arbitrary, as I'm sure that when syndicated cartoonists keep their day job or take in a huge sum from a one-time source this doesn't disqualify their strips for consideration. On one level I sort of get it as a screening method and as a way for the NCS to establish its interest in on-line comics making as a vocational option; on the other hand, it can also be viewed that the organization is willing to look at changes in the art form but not in changes in the revenue models that have come with it.
Update: I'm told that NCS does require syndicated cartoonists to make a living from their works as well. I'm curious about this and how judiciously it's applied across the board -- Would Velia, Dear be disqualified because Rina Piccolo makes a living from her print cartoon work rather than that webcomic? How can anyone be nominated in two categories? -- and will endeavor to sort it out.
* not comics: a bunch of folks posted yesterday about the Disney/Marvel announcement of details concerning a much-discussed programming bloc featuring Marvel characters, pointing out the obvious: that the purchase of Marvel by Disney was in part for the access to boy-targeted programming on their aggressive plans for original programming-driven cable offerings both in North America and around the world.
* not comics: Gary Groth talks about time spent in the company of the late Christopher Hitchens, and how the writer's legacy as a public intellectual was shaped by celebrity and 9/11. Speaking of Groth, if you've never read his interview with Kevin Eastman, you should bookmark it for later consumption. I don't really understand why it has to be split up, though; it's no longer 1998. But that's an astonishing, crazy interview about an astonishing, crazy enterprise.
* not comics: the coverage of a new edition of the venerable table-top game Dungeons and Dragons will probably yield a lot for writers-about-comics that also have a familiarity with the gaming field. I think industry-wise part of the traditional gaming culture have the same relationship to comics that rap had to rock and roll: a compressed version of the same kinds of events and developments. I do find 1970s gaming culture and its cloth books and college students in various basements a really compelling thing, but not really in relation to comics. I imagine this story will happen to a comics company at some point, too.
* Joe Keatinge writes about the advantage that comics have in the Image line to engage dramatic plot points of the kind that many comics fans like. That reminds me of the point that Tucker Stone made during his holiday interview about the Hellboy/BPRD books at Dark Horse, that they're less encumbered by the needs of servicing the brand.
* finally, it's always worth noting anew every now and then how in comic strip the decision to extend familiar brands is looked down upon by the most fervent fans of that form, but in comic books the decision to do new comics with only the limited involvement of its creator -- or no involvement at all -- is usually seen as a savvy business move and is much more welcome creatively by some of the most fervent fans of that form.
For a half dozen years now, my new year hasn't really begun until the conclusion of the CR Holiday Interview Series. I've come to see the few weeks between my mid-December birthday and the last interview as a sort of non-time, filled with Christmas, and friends, and touching base with loved ones, and celebration, and reflection. It's a great time.
Last night as a final act of reflection I made a list of goals for the year 2012 -- or resolutions, I guess, as the term goes. Some of them had to do with comics. Here are five of them, in the hopes that maybe they'll spur an idea or two of your own.
1. Gain More Control Over My Comics Collection
I thought that I had solved this problem years ago. In 1991, as a grad student, I realized I spent too much money on my weekly comics with too little enjoyment in return. I took three months off from buying comics, started depositing 2/3 of the average amount of money I was spending each week into a dedicated, no-fee checking account, and then returned to regular comics buying with the idea of maximizing the amount of money spent every time out. It worked. When I moved to Seattle, the twin realities of free comics and general, young-creative-person poverty took care of this problem for me.
I have to confess: the problem never went all the way away. I took a look at my collection this last month. I am not a very good collector; I don't have that gene. Just about any of my comics-reading friends would be Gallant to my Goofus when it comes to picking up and keeping funnybooks on hand. But I do have a lot of comics, if mostly by accident, which means that with some work and some time devoted I should be able to pull from their midst a comics library to get me through my final years on the planet without anyone subsequently cursing me about having to dispose of them once I'm gone.
I bought an edition of a comics-related software sorting system to get a handle on what I have. That was helpful just in terms of getting everything into one place, but it was also super-interesting in terms of showing me what I actually had, what I had lost in years of moving around the country, and what formats in which I had stuff available. I pulled doubles -- way too many doubles -- to sell off at a modest price (and then give away). I made some lists and generally separated, at least in my mind, the four-color wheat from the Baxter paper chaff. From now on when I buy comics it will be to fill holes in worthwhile runs and series and to have one copy of all the comics I love in the format I like those comics best. Because seriously, my having The Next Nexus #2-3, four copies of Captain America #201 and six random issues of Neil The Horse wasn't doing anyone any good at all.
2. Write At Least A Dozen Fan Letters
I regret not writing a letter or otherwise reaching out to Jerry Robinson before his passing. I admired a lot of what Robinson did and how he did it, and there would have been no harm and some pleasure (for me and hopefully for him) in my saying so. It sounds silly, but I hope to make time to write a few people I enjoy, respect and admire this year -- not like homework, or on a schedule, but as I encounter something of theirs that makes me want to say so. I'm hoping this might happen a dozen or so times. It's great to say nice things on the Internet about someone, and it's fun to write for publication, and I have a professional platform for public praise that I also hope to use. I think this can be its own thing, though. It's worth a try.
3. Resist Participating In Any And All Comments Threads And Message Boards
This has been a goal most years, and if I were keeping track of these kinds of thoughts in terms of resolutions, I would have had to have crossed this particular one off of my list every year by about January 15. Hell, if I had made today's list on December 31, 2010 like most people do I'd have failed to keep this promise already. I enjoy arguing with people, and I do think there's something to be said for not leaving a spin/interpretation on an industry or historical or aesthetic matter to the people with the most time to burn, the most vitriol to splash around and the nicknames that provide the most insulation from backlash.
That being said, I think it's time to stop indulging myself this way, even if it's a much tinier percentage of my work week than when public boards at TCJ and Comicon.com were in full effect. It struck me the other month -- I said something like this in the CR holiday interview with Laura Hudson, who can testify in convincing fashion as to the downside of this aspect of comics culture -- that a big chunk of comics people have been on-line for something like 15 years now. Some have been having these kinds of discussions for far longer via the Internet, and there are antecedents in letter-writing circles and in fanzine/comic letters pages for sure (someone once told me that Joshua Quagmire was a message board star before message boards), but I really think talking about comics a certain way reached something of a critical mass for the first time in the mid-'90s with the CompuServe forums and the growing attraction of various Usenet groups.
And like I said: I get the arguing thing. I really do. These things can actually be about important issues (if only to you), in many comics circumstances the feeling of being right is the only reward one has, engaging with other comics fans after years of having a very limited interaction with other people that even know what you're talking about can be an awesome thing to experience, and having people get in your face about opinions that you hadn't had challenged before can be a thrilling opportunity to put on a stern expression and heroically dig your heels in. It's even very democratic. But seriously: 15 years now. That's been more than enough time to argue and say mean things and pick the strategy that you know will make you look best to those reading. It's way past time to put the energies elsewhere -- even if it's just a tiny bit of energy now -- and to isolate by example some of the cruel nonsense perpetrated by those brave warriors of rhetoric Wolverine356 and BrowncoatSam. If you're a latecomer to on-line that still finds that kind of thing intoxicating, maybe it's best if you just get to feel left out on this one.
4. Learn At Least A Little Bit More About Comics I Don't Know That Much About
One of the comforting illusions that the Internet shattered is that we're all Comics Experts of the First Order. At least I know I can no longer think this way. The on-line world and our continued exposure there to writing about comics and the comics themselves has been one long, first week in the college dorms for a lot of us that fancied ourselves gatekeepers for a world that only we truly understood. Fact is, I get to think about comics a lot, and one of the few things I've concluded is that I'm in no shape to make many conclusions. There are fields within fields within fields when it comes to comics. Take something as well known as the underground era: our knowledge of their general contribution to culture may stand, but for a lot of us the individual cartoonists and their unique contributions can still be pretty slippery outside of Robert Crumb and maybe Gilbert Shelton. It seems like every year someone pulls someone from the vast avalanche of pulpy nonsense that was mainstream comics production and makes us look at certain work in a way that allows for a low whistle of appreciation to push past our lips. There are enough handmade comics and SPX-era comics makers that have slipped from view to fill a dozen afternoons of dream-soaked, lie-around-the-house reading. There are more intriguing comics done by young people in Latvia than as a 17-year-old angling to write an article for my local newspaper to lecture Middletown USA about Cerebus and American Splendor I was certain existed in the entire medium.
This year I hope to unearth more about those comics about which I presently know next to nothing. I hope this includes some of the newer ones -- I was a little lost at BCGF, to be honest with you -- but I hope it will also include the new British comics, editorial cartooning from the second half of the 20th Century, those aforementioned undergrounds past the usual suspects, and webcomics that aren't Achewood or by Kate Beaton. The great thing is I know that meeting this goal will be rewarding and pleasurable, in almost direct relation to what extent I'm able to commit. Comics is good like that.
5. Be A More Respectful Industry Member
I'm not all the way sure that I should be considered "in comics," but let's face it: the way comics is currently constructed, I'm kind of in there by many of the standard ways of measuring one's involvement. Working with comics and in their proximity is definitely a part of my professional and personal life. You're probably involved, too, like it or not. Something that the cartoonist Colleen Coover said in her interview the other day struck me, about how her relationships with other Periscope Studio members were valuable in part because they got past the hierarchical divisions that comics like to put up. They all like each other, and they all like each other's work, and they all socialize together -- I have to imagine that's a very fun, good thing.
I'm not sure I agree with it as a desirable goal for everyone, though. That's not a criticism of what they have going on at Periscope, or the way Colleen sees things. That sounds wonderful. It's my hope, however, that there might be a chance for comics-makers, comics-facilitators, comics fans and comics commentators to have a positive relationship with one another based on a mutual respect for all that we share above and beyond those personal ties, so that even if you strongly dislike someone or someone's work -- or they dislike you and yours -- there are certain things we can agree on as being important and worth having in common above and beyond our personal likes and dislikes. I think the reason people sometimes say that comics is like high school isn't because that our high schools provided such a strong model of social organization that people naturally replicate that everywhere. In fact, a lot of comics people sucked at being in high school and have no natural inclination towards that model at all. I think the way comics feels like high school is that a lot of our relationships are based on liking and being liked. That's not necessarily a bad thing, either, but I think it's limiting to the individual and to the wider community.
I like Stan Sakai's work. He probably wouldn't make my short list of top all-time comics creators, but I genuinely think much of and enjoy his Usagi Yojimbo. Much more importantly, Stan Sakai seems to conduct himself with admirable, outright class: he values his craft, he's solicitous and kind, and he's found a way to do exactly what he wants to do with his creative energies. What monster wouldn't want a Stan Sakai to have every success and bit of good fortune that might come to him? In contrast, I actively dislike some of Brian Bendis' superhero comics (I do like some of them very much), but from what I know about his background he's a terrific story of hard work and perseverance. There are people you can say you remember when they were a lone presence behind a mostly lonely convention table, and Bendis fits that bill, but from what I know about Brian he used to be the guy that got left at the comics shop while everyone else went to the convention and becoming the guy with a few comics behind his own table was step two or three on his professional journey. Why would I begrudge a Brian Bendis any success he's enjoyed? I may disagree with Paul Levitz on just about everything comics-related, but I can respect the work he's done with the CBLDF and with certain older comics-makers. And so on.
I know that this sounds dangerously close to self-congratulation on my seeing comics people in a certain way. That's not how I intend it. At least I hope not. The bigger point is that I do a terrible job at participating in the industry -- even if there is no real industry now, or even if there's just a made-up one -- in a way that would afford me the same kind of respect I hope to afford others, that I think they deserve. I hope this year to do a better job at the job I've been given to do -- to really do the job, and not just settle for sort of doing the job well enough I can feel I belong and then making myself feel better by finessing a comparison between myself and someone I feel doesn't do exactly what I do. I also hope to show outward respect towards the field I'm in. I'm going to try to vote in everything I can. I'm going to try and save enough money to donate to industry organizations at year's end. I'm going to try and return phone calls and e-mails promptly, and speak my mind in honest, forthright, and considered fashion when asked. I hope to better advocate for positive outcomes in several comics arenas. I further hope to conduct myself in comics' public settings in a way that would not make a 14-year-old embarrassed by my dress or behavior. And eventually, I hope this all becomes second nature.
The 2011-2012 CR Holiday Interview Series Concludes
My deepest thanks to all the interview subjects in this year's CR Holiday Interview Series, and to each and every one of you that took some time to read one or more of them. A special thanks to those that put the word out on a favorite interview. If anyone out there wanted to tweet, post on Facebook or their blog, or otherwise link to this summary post, I'd also greatly appreciate that.
This series should return in December, and I will also endeavor to be better about posting regular Sunday interviews on the site in 2012.
* Mike Lynch reminds us that yesterday was that greatest of all cartooning-related holidays, Peter Arno Day. I wrote a few weeks back that Bill Mauldin was a fine role-model for cartoonists, and I still believe that, but it'd also be awfully nice if some sort of infatuation with Peter Arno's basic public style took hold. (Also, don't try to click through on any of those links on the linked-to page; all but one is dead.)
* Chris Mautner selects a fine bunch of overlooked books for 2011. I thought Eye Of The Majestic Creature was overlooked.
* this is a very funny story, the humor of which will occur to you if you've ever read Marvel's mutant books. Funnily, it's only the second douchebaggiest thing that company has ever done with a toy line and shifting credit.
I think Chester Brown is one of the world's great cartoonists, someone whose every panel seems to hold something for a reader's interest. There are a lot of cartoonists whose body of work I'll read as completely and thoroughly as I'm able, but very few whose work has an immediate power over my attention the way that Brown's does. That's always been the case. His seminal alt-comc series Yummy Fur was the last comic of my youth, in that I hurtled myself around my home state with a friend or two tracking them down when I finally discovered them due to the acclaim of other cartoonists, and the first comic of my adult comics readeing, in that I was forced to grapple with the art Brown created more on his terms than my own. I also think Brown's books are just about perfectly designed -- both the comics and the stand-alone trade format works -- something we get into a bit below.
In 2011, Brown released Paying For It, about his experiences paying for sex. While he intended it and hopes it is read as a graphic novel of ideas with which one may argue or find agreement, it's hard for me to separate the book's message from the general, consistent and sometimes astonishing power of Brown's cartooning. We spoke earlier this week by phone. -- Tom Spurgeon
TOM SPURGEON: You're probably out of the cycle of talking about this work.
CHESTER BROWN: Oh, no. It's fine. I suppose it's out of the cycle of talking about the English-language market for it, but it's also being published in Europe. I've been doing European interviews about it lately. I'm still used to talking about it.
SPURGEON: Do you tend to work with one or two publishers over there?
BROWN: I don't have much contact with European publishers. Drawn And Quarterly handles on the foreign stuff. They advise me as to who they think I should go with.
SPURGEON: Do you have a sense of your readership over there at all?
BROWN: Hmm... nope. Not really. [Spurgeon laughs] I don't got to the European comics festivals that much. I've only been to Angouleme once, and that was back in the early '90s. I'm sure it's not that different from my readership over here. I don't have that much contact with my European readership, I guess.
SPURGEON: There was a news item over the holiday that Drawn And Quarterly was going to be doing digital books, and your work is going to be the first featured in their digital program. I was told you were kind of enthusiastic, or at least happy to see your work in this format. Is that true?
BROWN: I'm not that crazy about the whole... I mean, I love print. I'm not really a computer person at all. I've never read an e-book. But I can see that's where things are going, and it doesn't bother me the idea of people looking at my work on screens rather than on paper. Personally, if I'm reading something, certainly a comic, I would much rather look at a print version than an e-book version. People are different. If someone wants to read an e-book version, I don't see why we shouldn't provide it.
SPURGEON: It seems that your work would be suited to that experience, as much as your cartooning values a certain kind of clarity. You're not a widescreen guy or a double-page guy, and it seems like it would be a comfortable reading experience.
BROWN: I hope so. [Spurgeon laughs]
SPURGEON: Do you have to do anything specific for that promotion-wise?
BROWN: Not so far. I didn't even think that that might be something I'd have to do promotion for. Peggy [Burns, D+Q Associate Publisher] hasn't set up any interviews about it.
SPURGEON: Talk to me about publicity experiences more generally. Do you enjoy that on any level, engaging with the press and meeting readers at conventions? Would you say you tolerate it? I saw you out there quite a bit, and there was a lot a press generally on Paying For It. You're still in the midst of it. Have you become accustomed to that? Are there things you like about it?
BROWN: This last time around, with this book, I did enjoy going out to the conventions. I haven't always felt that way. Maybe it was because with this book, it was about subject I felt very passionately about, where something like Ed The Happy Clown was just a stupid story. [laughs] Maybe that was the difference this time. And maybe it's just a matter of maturing and being less self-obsessed and enjoying meeting people. Getting out of the house. It does feel a bit different now.
SPURGEON: Speaking of differences, you've been with Drawn And Quarterly. It seems like from a comics-publishing nerd standpoint that they publish somewhat differently now. They seem to have more of a strategy concerned with taking some of their bigger books, like yours, and focusing press and attention on them for an entire publishing season. Not to the detriment of other books, but it just seems like they have books that sort of lead their seasons now. Do you get a sense of how the D+Q publishing enterprise is different?
BROWN: They're certainly doing a better job from a publicity point of view. There was no publicity planned back in the early days. [laughter] My first book with Drawn And Quarterly was The Playboy. I don't think I did a single interview for that. Maybe I did one or two, I can't remember. It wasn't anything like what we did with Paying For It. So yeah, things are way different now, in large part because Peggy Burns has joined the company. She has a very different way of approaching things. That's just added to what [D+Q Publisher] Chris [Oliveros] was able to do.
I'm certainly not saying anything against Chris. Chris is an amazing publisher. I'm so happy that two of them are working together now.
SPURGEON: Do you have any input into what you want to do, and what you don't want to do? How much is a campaign like that shaped around you? Or do you mostly trust them to present you in a way that shows you off in a good light?
BROWN: Peggy certainly makes sure I'm comfortable with what's going on. She asks are you okay with doing this or that. It's not like I'm ordered to do anything. [Spurgeon laughs] In fact, I guess there's been some level of miscommunication. She had the impression that I didn't want to do US conventions, and was surprised when I said I'd be fine with doing them. So I think she was trying to be sensitive to what I wanted to do, and she was maybe being over-sensitive based on not fully understanding what I was willing to do.
SPURGEON: Is there a reason to believe you wouldn't be willing to do US conventions? How different are they for you from doing like a TCAF beyond the specific strengths of each show?
BROWN: TCAF is very different from San Diego. [laughs] And most conventions in general. I'm not sure how she got that impression. I must have said something, or maybe I made a joke or something. I don't know. She does try to be sensitive to what I want to do.
SPURGEON: You said just now you feel very passionately about the issues involved in this book. You're at mostly the tail end of this cycle, even with some European material to do. Are you happy with the way people engaged with issues you wanted to discuss? Or were you disappointed at all in what people chose to pick up on?
BROWN: The disappointment was more in my ability to express myself in interviews. Really I said what I wanted to say in the book. And then you get a question in an interview and you're like, "Wow... how did I express myself in the book again? What is the best way to answer this question?" This happens a lot with interviews. You finish the interview and you think, "Now I know how I should have answered that question." A half-hour later, you're going over the question in your mind, re-answering it. When it's an issue you really care about, well, I tend to really beat myself up about it. I wasn't disappointed with the interviews approached it. It seemed like I was getting the questions one would want on a subject like that. They weren't trying to pussyfoot around the subject or anything.
SPURGEON: Is there anything you had a particular problem articulating? And was there a modification in your views due to the back and forth, now that book is on its feet and a done thing? Do you feel differently now about anything presented in the book?
BROWN: [slight pause] Only on minor points. There's that scene -- and this is a very minor thing, as I said -- there's that scene where Seth says something about me going through a mid-life crisis. And I dispute that. Now I would tend to more agree with him, that it probably was something like a mid-life crisis. That doesn't go to the heart of the real issues of the book?
SPURGEON: I'm surprised you would see that as a minor issue; at least I can see an interpretation of the book where that wouldn't be a minor issue. Do you think the core of the book exists apart from the experiences you portray? Or do you feel that the experience you were having might have been not directly engaged with the issues? Wasn't your personal experience crucial to the book?
SPURGEON: Do you see your book that strongly as a book of ideas over this thing you went through?
BROWN: Yeah. I'm more concerned with the rights issue and less concerned with -- even though I call it a comic-strip memoir, I was less interested in the memoir-ish aspects of the book.
SPURGEON: I feel you're a natural-born cartoonist and that there's no range of effect outside of what you can do with your cartooning. Given what you just said, why was it a personal memoir? Why did you go that route rather than a straight-up essay, or a direct presentation of the ideas? Were you interested at all in working through what happened to yourself? Was it that you felt that bringing yourself into the work was more engaging to a readership?
BROWN: I tend to think that comics work well when there's some sort of a storyline, some sort of a narrative. I did consider fictionalizing my experiences, having a stand-in character. But because this was something important to me, I felt I should be straight-up, admitting that these events really happened, and that this is an important issue to me. If you fictionalize things, they might go, "That's just the character saying that. That's not Chester's real opinion." Or whatever, you know? It's easier to make it clear that you really believe something if it's you as a character in the work actually saying the words.
SPURGEON: Something that people have asked me: was there any discussion about not having the essay section that makes up the latter part of the book? It sounds like that it's vital to how you see the book, and for it being a book of ideas, but I wonder if it was ever debated, maybe even through an editorial suggestion, that you might just stick with the comics portion of Paying For It?
BROWN: [laughs] Yes, it definitely was. Neither Peggy nor Chris liked that part of the book. They both put pressure on me to take it out. Again, that speaks to their willingness to let the artist do what he or she wants to do. When I firmly said it was staying in, they backed off. But yeah, they thought the book would work better without that material.
SPURGEON: Was this because of the nature of the material, or was it that it was an illustrated essay rather than comics? Do you remember the nature of the objections?
BROWN: They thought that I'd made my points well enough in the comic strips portion of the book, and that all the essay stuff, all the appendices, kind of repeated what I'd already said. At least on the key points. So they thought it was unnecessary to have that stuff and that it would detract from the power of the comic strip portion.
SPURGEON: And your disagreement was that it didn't detract, or you felt it was necessary even if it did, or that you needed to re-emphasize some things... ?
BROWN: I did think there were some key additional points that should be made, and I expected that this would be my one and only book about prostitution. [Spurgeon laughs] I should be as clear as possible about all this stuff. Having those appendices tended to emphasize everything. I don't regret putting them in. I've heard both sides: people who didn't think they were necessary, and people who really enjoyed them. A lot of people have said they liked that part of the book than the front material.
SPURGEON: Do you think you're a good essayist?
BROWN: No, no, I'm not. I'm more comfortable drawing than writing stuff out as prose. [laughs] I don't know. It seems... hmm. For whatever reason, I like doing these appendices now, these note sections. I did the big one for Riel. Ed's being reprinted this year with a big notes section at the back. I guess it's my version of the director's commentary.
SPURGEON: With Paying For It, how does that section develop? Do you keep notes as you go along? Do you look at the completed comics work and go, "Okay, I'm going to write appendices now." How does that section develop in the context of the entire creative process?
BROWN: Huh. [pause] I'm trying to remember. I think I wrote some of the appendices at the same time I was writing the script, if I remember correctly. At the same time I was drawing the book -- if I remember -- I think was writing material for the appendices. The real serious writing then started once I finished drawing the book, the writing and rewriting. Yeah. I had written a lot of stuff prior to finishing the drawing portion of the book, but a lot of that got thrown out once I really started writing the appendices, so to speak.
SPURGEON: When you say you write a script, how tight is that script. Is it a full, exacting script for that portion of the book?
BROWN: It was pretty close to what's actually in the book. The only thing I left open is the ending, because when I wrote the script it was 2006, I guess. I didn't know how things were going to go with me and Denise. At that point I figured she was going to move on, or I might move on. I didn't know we were going to continue and that she would stop seeing her other clients and all that stuff. I left the ending open, because I didn't know how it was going to end. But all the scenes prior to that I knew, so all of that was tightly scripted.
SPURGEON: Was it a relief when an ending presented itself to you? It's not like your relationship to the issues involved would end in a significant way. When you realized what the ending might be... were you relieved? And are you happy with the ending?
BROWN: [laughs] I'm happy with ending. Ending anything is difficult, especially when it's autobiographical, because life does go on. But no, for this type of work, I think that ending works as well as any sort of ending you could come up with. It certainly worked better than if things hadn't continued with Denise and I. If I had gone onto some other woman, and then a woman after that, if that cycle just kept repeating... this ending I think works better. It was nice that real life provided me with that material. [laughs]
SPURGEON: The eight panel grid, the basic structure of the page. Did your arrive at that very early? It's a very dense book because of that, I think.
BROWN: I drew maybe 20 or 30 pages of square panels, like the panels in Louis Riel. And then... why did I switch... ? Switching to the more horizontal panels is definitely because that's what Joe had used in Spent. And I loved the look of Spent. I don't know. I don't think there was a real reason beyonod that, just liking the look of Spent, and let's go for a different look this time.
SPURGEON: How open are you to bringing in new influences? A lot was made with the last book about your processing through Harold Gray, but are you consciously open to tweaking things or changing things according to what you're seeing? Do you look at others' work in the same way you might have as a younger cartoonist? Or is this the mature style, is this totally you at this point?
BROWN: [pause] It feels like I'm always changing. I can't stay still in one set way of working. The main reason is I'm looking for an easier way to work. But also the way I want to present the material keeps changing, I guess. Paying For It is a smaller book in size. Its pages are smaller. I wanted to work in a way that I thought would make sense for a smaller page. That was part of it. I don't know. There are always various things, considerations to keep in mind, that are going to change how you approach things. I don't feel like I've settled into a style that's going to work for me the rest of my life.
SPURGEON: I think a real underrated part of your career is generally how forward and influential the look of your material has been. I remember standing in a bookstore with Jim Woodring in the late '90s and him picking up one of your books and saying that's what all of the books are going to look like from now on. A pronouncement from Jim Woodring. [Brown laughs] Certainly the lasttwo comic book series you did were fairly immaculate looking. I wonder how important those kind of presentation issues are to you.
BROWN: Yeah, I didn't used to think about these issues at all.
SPURGEON: And that is part of your reputation, too. You don't come across in your early autobiographical work as a cartoonist with an interest in these things.
BROWN: At least for me, and for Seth, too, because he's talked about this in interviews and we've talked about this with each other, it was Chris Ware that made us think differently about design and how a book should look and what a cartoonist could do as a designer. I'm not trying to make my stuff look like Chris Ware's work, but that showed us what was possible and that we should re-evaluate our work based on what Chris was doing. He was a huge influence for so many people. That's what really got me thinking about design with book and with comic books, too.
SPURGEON: I'm going to ask you a couple more nerdy cartooning questions, because I can. [Brown laughs] I wondered about some of the effects you use in Paying For It. One is the blackout panels. You drop the imagery and just use the text. You use that as a specific panel. I wondered how considered an effect that was for you, and what you wanted to emphasize. How does that work in the rhythm of a page?
BROWN: Are you talking about the opening scene, or the scenes where I just have narrative captions?
SPURGEON: I actually meant the latter, although you do use blacked out panels to striking effecting that opening scene.
BROWN: Yeah. I see those as two different things. As for narrative captions, again I think that's something I got from Chris Ware. No, wait. I'm wrong. I think I saw it before I saw it in Chris Ware, although Chris Ware does use narrative caption panels where it's just the words. I seem to remember a Peanuts parody mini-comic many years ago where one of the cartoonists used narrative captions and thinking it worked well and thinking I should use it.
SPURGEON: What works about that for you? Is it in terms of a break or in terms of the emphasis on the words?
BROWN: I guess it's the way it emphasizes the words. Yeah. That must be it. For whatever reason I thought it would work better if the narrative captions weren't in the same panel as the images. It probably is a matter of just emphasis.
SPURGEON: For me it was also a constant reminder that there was a narrative force behind the story, that the story itself wasn't just unfolding. It was a reminder of your authorial presence. Now that first chapter, that was a remarkable sequence. What led you to do that with that sequence?
BROWN: I just couldn't draw that scene, for whatever reason. A lot has been made that I've dropped emotion out of my drawings, that I'm putting as little emotion as possible into the facial expressions.
SPURGEON: I must know a lot of grim people, because that didn't occur to me until I read others making that observations. Maybe everyone I know looks like you guys.
BROWN: [laughs] Drawing that scene, I couldn't get the emotional tone right. Whatever expression I put on our faces, it didn't seem right. I tried drawing us so that only the backs of our heads were showing... I must have drawn that scene at least five times. It wasn't working no matter how I tried to draw it. I moved on. The second scene with Seth, Joe and I walking was fine. I was like, "Well, there's no problem here." So at a certain point I decided I'm just going to black out that scene. I can't draw it. I had the same problem with the Riel book. I didn't like how the first scene worked in the comic book version and I redrew that scene for the graphic novel. I don't like how it works there. I have trouble with opening scenes. Blacking it out seemed... even there I'm worried that it might convey my mood is black, or that this is a big, devastating blow. It might put a peculiar emphasis on it I didn't intend. But it's the only way I could come close to making it work.
SPURGEON: Re-reading the book, one thing that stood out for me that didn't the first time was how engaging and actually fun the scenes were where you led the reader through how you started having these relationships. I'd love to know why you wanted to emphasize the step-by-step process of that? I wonder if it plays into your desire to de-mystify that whole world?
BROWN: Well, it's a book of advocacy. I wouldn't mind if there were readers out there that maybe considered the idea of paying for sex and decided not to the same way I was at the beginning of the book, and seeing me going through those steps thinking it isn't so daunting. It's a simple thing to do. I don't know, because I was approaching the book as a memoir, that's what happened to me. You go for the emotional... the points that seemed emotionally significant. All the worries I had, the process, those were the emotionally significant things when I began paying for sex.
SPURGEON: I went to the Doug Wright Awards this year, and there was a bit of humor about Paying For It. Did you worry about that reaction? Did you worry that the contrast between this work and your last one was so strong, or that there might even be tittering, jokes at your expense?
BROWN: I don't mind the jokes at my expense. I'm used to it. Seth and Joe have teased me about paying for sex for years. I'm used to it.
SPURGEON: Were you worried at all that it might have an effect on the way the work was received?
BROWN: [slight pause] No, I was confident enough in what I'd done in the work itself. I didn't worry about that at all. As far as the contrast to the previous book, I wanted [laughs] to deflate the image the public had of me as Mr. Canada or something because I'd done this book about a significant Canadian figure. A lot of people I meet saw me as Mr. Canadian History. So getting away from that was something I wanted to do that.
SPURGEON: Well, you've certainly gotten away from that. [Brown laughs] That's a clean break. I know that you are interested in history, or at least I assume so: Canadian history and in the previous practitioners of your craft. Did you really find being seen that way a major impediment? Or was it more of a minor annoyance?
BROWN: Oh, yeah. More of a minor annoyance. Minor.
SPURGEON: And no one's gone back and indicted your work generally because of this specific book?
BROWN: Not that I've seen yet. Even the on-line reviewers that reviewed Paying For It very harshly, they seemed to hold my earlier work in high regard. There didn't seem to be a reevaluation going on. Although maybe there will be in the future. We'll see.
SPURGEON: How do you see this book in the overall context of your work? You probably don't think like that, because no one does [Brown laughs], but do you feel very strongly about being seen as an issues-oriented cartoonist, for example? Is that something you'd like to be known for? Or do you even have that considered a self-conception?
BROWN: I'm not totally sure what my next project will be, but if it's what I think it will be... it's not going to be an issues-oriented work. It won't be a work of advocacy in the same way this one was?
SPURGEON: Have you felt comfortable with that kind of focus to your work? Is that something you'd like to return to?
SPURGEON: I'm just trying to scope out the next issue, Chester, so I can start reading.
BROWN: [laughs] Well, actually, even though I thought this would be my one and only book about prostitution, the next one might be a prostitution-related book. A film director approached me about doing an adaptation of Paying For It. The way he saw the film working was that we would have to beef up the relationship between Denise and I, make that more of a central focus of the story. He said "I understand she has certain sensitivities and she wouldn't her real life depicted. We can fictionalize stuff."
After we talked, I thought that would be interesting. How would that work? It got me thinking not from a film script point of view, but a graphic novel point of view, what I might do. I started thinking about it seriously as a graphic novel. Then I thought if I did this I'd have to talk to Denise about it and see if it's okay, and then I thought why don't I collaborate it on with Denise. Maybe if she were working on it, maybe she would want to do something more on it from her point of view, about how she got into the business and everything. This is all unraveling in my mind. So I talked to her about it. She's thinking about it. If she wants to do a book about her experiences as a prostitute, then that will probably be my next book. If she doesn't want to do that, then my next book probably won't be about this. It'll be about something completely different.
SPURGEON: Two of the criticisms of Paying For It were particularly intriguing to me, and I'm not sure I saw your full response. Do you have any sympathy at all for the criticism -- or any response to the criticism -- that obscuring the faces of the workers created a kind of dehumanizing aspect within the book? I thought that criticism spoke to the heart of some of your creative choices.
BROWN: Yeah. I can see why people would feel that way. Obviously I hoped it wouldn't be taken that way. That wasn't my intention.
SPURGEON: Was it something you thought of while doing that, that it might be seen that way?
BROWN: I don't remember worrying about that. I probably didn't think that would be an issue. From my point of view, I thought I was being sensitive to not depicting things, giving any indication of who they might be in real life. But I can see where people are coming from. But why is the face particularly associated with humanness whereas the rest of the body isn't? I'm not sure I completely understand that. But you know. [laughs] Whatever. If people want to ignore the rest of the work and see this as the significant way of reading the work and this is proof I see them as less than human, who know? Obviously, I disagree.
SPURGEON: When you talk about maybe doing from Denise's point of view, I wonder how you react to the criticism that the way you've focused the narrative in Paying For It means that in a fundamental sense the reader is only getting the one side of the story, that those interactions so specifically from your point of view don't get to the whole truth. Did you ever think of telling the story from different viewpoints?
BROWN: When I started the book, I did intend -- as I said in the introduction, the women told me such interesting stories about their lives, I was initially thinking that that material was all going to go in the book. It was only when I started writing the script that I realized this stuff could be revealing and I can't include it. So I wished I had been able to. But even if I had permission to include some of that stuff -- if I'd known I was going to be doing a graphic novel and I'd gotten permission when I saw the women to include it, or whatever, it still would have been all from my point of view. Anyone that's really interested in this subject should read other books or talk to women in the business. Obviously you shouldn't rely on one source of information. And there are a lot of books out there that are written from the perspective of sex workers.
SPURGEON: Do you see your work as part of a bunch of works that advocate from the same position?
BROWN: Definitely. [laughs] Yeah. Although there aren't a lot of books written by clients. It's a bit unique from that point of view. Quite a few prostitutes have written books that are basically arguing the same sort of things I'm arguing.
SPURGEON: Are you involved with the issues in Paying For It outside of having written the book? Has having written the book made you a source for opinions on these issues? Are there specific things you want to see happen, do you track specific permutations of these issues as they develop, or is the book your summary statement on the matter?
BROWN: [laughs] I probably should be tracking it more closely than I am. I've done one event so far. There was a fundraising event for a prostitute outreach organization here in Toronto called Maggie's. I was asked to do a reading for this. Many people were doing presentations and performances for this thing; it wasn't just me. I wasn't sure that my doing a reading would work in this forum, but it worked actually really well. I was happy I was asked.
As far as doing presentations of the material in front of an audience, it was the most positive experience I've had so far. It was an audience made up in large part of sex workers, and they were very enthusiastic. [laughs] They were applauding wildly when I hit the stage. They were laughing in all the right places. It was a very positive experience doing the presentation for that audience.
SPURGEON: What do you think they were reacting to? Was it the familiar milieu, the ideas... ?
BROWN: I only read two scenes: my first experience paying for it, and then the follow-up scene where I'm talking about it afterwards with Seth and Joe. [laughs] I think my paranoia and stuff, a lot of it would be familiar to them. I think it was so true to life for them. They knew where I was coming from. They found it hilarious. And they found the reactions of Seth and Joe, particularly Joe's reaction, to be funny, too.
SPURGEON: I have a couple of last questions about your cartooning, more about comic book things. Paying For It is the first book you've done that wasn't serialized, am I right?
BROWN: That's right, yes.
SPURGEON: Was that a different experience at all? I consider you one of the great comic book makers, and I wondered if this was a different experience, if you liked working this way.
BROWN: When I started, it was because I loved comic books, and comic books are what I wanted to do. So obviously I didn't see it as an annoyance, even if I was telling a longer story, to serialize it in comic book form. At a certain point, my focuse changed and I became more interested in the book. When I proposed doing Louis Riel to Chris, I didn't want to serialize it. He was the once that convinced me to serialize it. By that point I found serialization to be just an annoyance. I would finish a chunk of the book, and then I'd have to stop working on it and do a cover and some sort of letters page or whatever -- do whatever packaging stuff was necessary to put it out as a comic book. That kind of stop and start, plus having to chop the work up into 24-page installments... I had written the script to be a graphic novel. I knew the book would consist of those four parts, and I didn't want it to be subdivided into ten installments. Whatever. Chris thought it made sense at the time. When we decided not to serialize Paying For It, I was happy.
SPURGEON: Finally, it struck me while re-reading Paying For It that you evince a certain confidence in portraying reality, or portraying a specific circumstance. That's not always easy in comics. Do you have confidence in your ability to portray something accurately?
BROWN: It's almost impossible to really capture what happened if you're doing autobiographical material. Even if all the dialogue is remembered exactly and you do a good job of capturing likenesses, you're still going to be missing things. My main concern is does it work well as a scenes -- does it work dramatically, or is it funny? Is it saying what I want it to say? I'm not going to go out of my way to misrepresent things, but you can't worry too much about being totally accurate. It's impossible. If you're drawing a restaurant scene, who was sitting in the booth beside you or whatever, you just can't worry about that sort of stuff.
SPURGEON: If it works dramatically, it tends to work for your purposes; it's not the documentation but the truth of the matter. That's glib, I know.
BROWN: If I'm including a specific scene, it's because what I said to a certain person, or what they said to me, makes a particular point. I hope I'm remembering the dialogue more or less accurately, but I'm focusing on how it works in the book overall, how that scene works in making the point I'm trying to work.
SPURGEON: Is there a danger in loading your arguments?
BROWN: There probably is that danger. You have to be sensitive to that possibility, keep it in mind. Maybe I did stack the deck. I don't know.
* photo of Chester Brown from TCAF 2009 by Amy Beadle Roth
* cover to the new book
* photo of Chester Brown from TCAF 2009 again by Roth
* two-panel sequence from Paying For It
* panel from the essay portion of Paying For It
* page utilizing the eight-panel grid in Paying For It
* an explicit use of the narrative caption panel we're discussing
* from the section on Brown's experiences entering in the world of paying for sex
* obscuring the face
* a self-portrayal from Paying For It
* cover to one of the Louis Riel comic books
* one last image from Paying For It (below)
I hope in particular that any retailers or ordering-folks out there reading this might consider taking a chance on Sally's work, or, if they're already interested, consider maybe investing in a few more copies or making a point to remember that it's out there for folks to order through them. Sammy The Mouse is not only an intriguing comics work, Sally has controlled every aspect of this particular iteration right down to the printing. It's a key book for his company's survival. As commercial entertainment gets more and more crass and manipulative, or even just more precisely done, and, as a result, I'd argue more eminently replaceable (whether by the consumers or by the makers), the role that can be played by works that are utterly, idiosyncratically and lovingly expressive of comics as an art form may be able to play an increasingly vital role in forging connections with devoted readers looking for the experience that only great comics provide. A few extra copies here and there, maybe even one pressed into the hands of a certain subscriber, can have an impact medium-wide.
I'm grateful Sally made some time on a late Friday afternoon to have a brief chat. I hope to return periodically to Sammy to see how it's doing. -- Tom Spurgeon
TOM SPURGEON: I haven't been so blunt as to just ask someone this: how was your 2011?
ZAK SALLY: It was all right. From a publishing viewpoint, it was same as it ever was. I got some beautiful books done and it was laughing in the face of death, constantly.
SPURGEON: Now, how long has it been since you refocused your energies on La Mano 21? I remember speaking to you at a MoCCA Festival pretty early on after you decided to emphasize your publishing efforts in the constellation of things that you do. Was that four or five years now?
SALLY: I think it's more. I should check. I just made new La Mano shirts, because I'm re-starting the La Mano site and setting up ZakSally.com. The new shirts have this awesome tagline I came up with. "La Mano," and underneath it, it says, "Invisible Since 1992." [Spurgeon laughs] It's been 20 years since I've been putting stuff out on this little thing called La Mano. But like you said, the focus, when I got the printing press and all that, that was for John P.'s book. It looks like 2005.
SPURGEON: Wow. Okay. Has it been like you just described, laughing in the face of death ever since? Has there been an arc to your publishing experiences at all? Have things gotten better, gotten worse? Have you been able to track it?
SALLY: I think it's just changed. We talked about this before, and I've spoken about this in interviews elsewhere. When I sort of went over the top with La Mano, I had some ideas about what I wanted to do and how I wanted it to go. That whole idea bit the dust pretty quickly. That idea being that I was going to be -- not a real comics publisher necessarily, but I was going to enter this world and engage this world on a certain level in a way that speaks to validity, trying to make a full time thing of it.
I'm kind of glad that it didn't work out. At first it was really demoralizing, and really depressing. Sales have been fine. My books move. [laughs] It's just slowly been a process of me figuring out where my real interests lie -- what I'm capable of doing, and what I actually want to do. The short version is me trying to swim in the same rivers as what other people are doing, that was a total... I just wasn't enjoying it, and I wasn't very good at it. And which one comes first?
SPURGEON: So the misapprehension was the kind of work you were taking on? I'm a little lost. It wasn't as you hoped for in terms of the work itself?
SALLY: I read your interview with Barry and Leon from Secret Acres. And as well with Dylan Williams, he kind of turned Sparkplug into a more valid proposition at the same time as La Mano was. We were doing very different things. Reading your interview with Barry and Leon, and being friends with Dylan while Sparkplug was going through these changes, it just made me realize where my strengths lay. [laughs] And it wasn't in necessarily going out and doing the things you should do in terms of moving books: selling them and getting them to people. I took a long, hard look in the mirror and realized after seeing a book through, whether it's my own book or working with Nate Denver or Kim Deitch or whomever, I just sort of move onto the next thing. That's only 30 percent of the work you need to do. The other 70 percent is letting people know that it's out there, and getting it to people, and working with distribution chains. And I do all that. But it's not my strong suit.
SPURGEON: It sounds like a pretty joyless process for you.
SALLY: I wouldn't even say that. There's nothing I want more after I make these things than to get them into people's hands. It's not a hermetic thing. I spend so much time getting these things made, I want people to have them and see them and enjoy them. But there's a lot of work in doing that. There's a number of different ways to go at that. You can do the Dylan Williams thing. He just did shows. He did tons of tons of shows, and his raw enthusiasm in talking about the books... Dylan was a really good businessman. He was a good, ethical businessman. He ran a tight ship. He had control. He knew who he wanted to deal with, and why he wanted to deal with them, and kind of operated from that perspective.
I don't know. It could have also corresponded with me having kids. [laughs] All of a sudden, I had x-amount of time in the day to work on something. I didn't have limitless time anymore. It became -- and it still is -- a decision of, "I have four hours here. What am I going to spend my time doing?" If you're a good book publisher, you spend that time on promotion. On talking to retailers. Establishing those things. When I had that four hours, it was always like, "Shit, I haven't done a new issue of Sammy The Mouse in six months." You know? Or I told Kim [Deitch] that I would have this thing out a year ago. I kind of cursed myself for that for a long time. But I think we've both seen small publishers come and go, and me getting out one book a year and not going out of business... it's... each year I'm less and less in that world. I think each year, with each La Mano release, it honestly gets a little bit different. To my mind. I feel like I'm doing something different than just about anyone else, anyway, in ways that I can define for myself. I'm not sure if that's making it out into the world.
SPURGEON: [slight pause] I'm not even sure what to ask next. I'm imagining people are weeping now at their monitors. We went dark pretty quickly there.
SALLY: I remember the last interview, where you went, "Jesus Christ. Is he okay?" I gotta say, I'm happy.
SPURGEON: What changes do you make in order to better facilitate doing what you enjoy doing and what you're good at, then? Is it concentrating on your own books? Is it taking more control over the projects? Is it letting go of those expectations that you'll be doing certain things?
SALLY: It's the last thing. And maybe the earlier interview we did was a little bit more of that. I think I had expectations as to how I would like this to go, how it went for other people, and compared my expectations to that. This new Sammy book was one of the most frustrating things I've ever done in my life. Period. And I've never been so proud in my life.
SPURGEON: Can you break the Sammy project down for me in practical, how-it-happened terms? I'm sort of fundamentally unsure how you ended up doing this project, and what it encompasses. This is basically a republication of the Ignatz line material to date. Are you taking this on because it's completed material? Is publishing Sammy something you'd always wanted to do? Is it something that you have to do to continue the project? I'm a little bit confused as to the nuts-and-bolts aspects as to how you ended up with this on your plate.
SALLY: It was kind of a Hail Mary, and when I look back it was a progression I wouldn't have chosen, but it's a natural one for me and La Mano. I got this printing press when I started La Mano, and it's been this crazy, slow process of learning to use it and being in any way comfortable with it.
I was doing the Sammy book -- now people may weep. The sales on the Ignatz line as a whole were... dropping. I'm really proud to have been part of that whole thing. I think you described it as the last, most beautiful gasp of the floppy, or whatever the fuck they call it.
SPURGEON: That's a really pretty part of my bookshelf. It really is.
SALLY: Some amazing, overlooked work happened in those. But it was sort of a beautiful failure. A lot of work got done. Some beautiful books happened. But as a whole, the project didn't have legs. And I think it didn't have legs because people who buy comic books are getting fewer and fewer -- people who buy art comic books, that pool is getting even smaller. So to ask people to buy not only a floppy comic book instead of a trade, they have to pay eight bucks for it...? And in my case, where it's a serialized book where you get one episode every year and a half or something, it's not sustainable.
So the writing for the Ignatz line was one the wall -- whatever that analogy is [laughter]. The writing was on the wall for the Ignatz line, and it certainly was for Sammy The Mouse. I called up Kim [Thompson] and I said, "I don't know if I can get all the business I want to get into 32 pages for the next Sammy The Mouse. Can we make it 40?" And Kim said, "We can probably do one more issue, but this thing is basically dying." We started talking about options: format options and all that sort of thing. Fantagraphics was open to it. We were in the midst of those discussions.
The original printing press I had was an AB Dick 360. As far as we can tell, it was from maybe the '40s, the '50s. It was a one-color press. Around that time, I went to a guy I buy ink from, and he had a newer version of that press sitting in the back of his shop. It was the same as the AB Dick 360, but about 40 years later. It's from around the '80s. It's a 9810. It has a second color head on it. The printing industry is tanking as well, so he had bought this thing for 2500 bucks or whatever. I asked him, "Are you getting rid of that thing?" He said, "Yeah." I said, "What are you asking for it?" He said, "500 bucks." I thought, "Well... if I put this kind of sweat equity into learning to be a printer, here's this thing." At the same time, this stuff was happening with Sammy. Everybody's trying to figure out what the fuck to do with comics right now. I was pitching a sort of printed-style serialization thing, and Eric was into that. Some other folks were kind of like, "Why don't we just wait and do a big collection?" And I was like, "I can't do that." So I thought," I have this two-color press, this is previous material, if I'm ever going to try doing this, it's now. If I'm ever going to try and print Sammy The Mouse, I just got a two-color press for $500." I'm putting out other people's stuff and printing it, I need to try this once and I need to put my money where my mouth is.
To belabor the point, with each La Mano release it's become more of something I do here in this space. When I started out, I was producing bigger numbers, because I thought I was going to be living in the world where you sell 5000 books or 2500 books or whatever. Each project gets more hands-on and handmade and just the idea of doing this Sammy The Mouse collection, and every single part of it occurring here, with me doing it, I think turned into an idea that I just am totally in love with.
SPURGEON: When you talk about choosing to print this yourself, it seems very logical that you'd want to do this project, but... those books were beautiful. Those Ignatz books were beautiful. It doesn't seem like a low-level-of-complexity printing job in terms of matching the quality of those previous ones.
SALLY: Well, I gave you one, right?
SALLY: It's not! [laughs] It's not that level of elegance!
SPURGEON: No, no. It looks really good. But the degree of difficulty you chose... was that daunting to you at all, to try and match that previous level of print quality? Or did that matter as much that this would be your printing job?
SALLY: A little of both. For any guy who's worked in a print shop for any length of time, this job would be a gimme. This job would be a nothing. The complexity there isn't huge. It's not like I’m running a four-color job with spot colors in there or anything. It should be eminently doable. I have a very good friend who's helping me, he was a press man for years and years and years. He said, "Nah, you'll be able to do that easy. There's going to be a learning curve with this new machine that you're going to have to figure out, but you can get it." And I did, but the nightmare happened in that this $500 machine I bought? There's a reason it's a $500 machine. For me learning how to do this, and at the same time learning a new machine so every time something goes wrong -- and things went wrong consistently every day for three months -- it was always like, "Am I doing something wrong? Is it something wrong with the machine?" There was quite a bit wrong with the machine, just because it had been sitting for so long. The people that had owned it before me had done some dodgy shit when they were running it. I thought I could get it close, get it passable. And I think the book is... there are pages where I can see, there are page in the book where it's everything I want out of them, I think they look great. And there's other pages where I was just fighting it the whole time and I can definitely see some printing weirdness.
SPURGEON: I think it's a very handsome book. I was just struck by the audacity of you in looking for a project to publish on your own choosing such an ambitious one to do. Maybe there wasn't a huge range of projects available to you, but the thought of reproducing one of those books makes me want to crawl into bed and hide under the covers.
SALLY: Yeah. I thought I had more press time than I had going in. The amount I learned doing this book was huge.
SPURGEON: Can you give me an example of something you learned during the hands-on process of printing it?
SALLY: The whole two-color thing... On my old machine, to do a second color, you'd have to run all your sheets through printing once, you'd have to sit, let that dry, get a new plate, put a new plate, and run those all again and try and set the registration again for each color. There's an element of jog for each sheet that goes through, so you're never going to get a precise registration on the machine I had. This new machine lays down two colors at the same time, so you can dial it in pretty well.
I literally took apart half of the machine and put it back together physically -- something would go wrong and I'd take this part and figure it what was wrong, and then figure out how to put it back on. By the time I had taken apart half of the machine and put it back together, it was the end of the project. But I knew my machine. I knew if this thing goes wrong, I could follow this chain here, and this was doing this. My friend Clint, who ran the press, told me that's the deal. [laughs] You just gotta put in a certain amount of time screaming and crying.
SPURGEON: You kickstarted this project.
SPURGEON: How was that experience for you? That was a big issue this year. You don't sound like you were particularly satisfied.
SALLY: No, I was. I didn't have the funds in the La Mano coffers to do it. Again, I read that interview with Leon and Barry from Secret Acres. I think Secret Acres is amazing. I read that and I... when I first hard about Kickstarter, I also thought it was like, "Wait, people are going out and begging for money to do their creative project?" But I wouldn't be able to do this without raising some money. I became okay with Kickstarter when I started thinking, "This is a pre-sale." You know? All I'm asking is, "Do you want this thing when it's done?" It's no different than Diamond except there's no distro cut. I know the model can be misused, and is misused all of the time, but that's a currency I can be okay with. I'm making this book, you want it, and I'm going to send it to you. You saying you wanted it helped me get this thing done.
SPURGEON: Here's a standard question. Going back and over and working the material directly, did anything reveal itself about Sammy that you hadn't seen before? Do you look at it with new eyes for having this experience?
SALLY: No. Going back and looking at all the pages, there are a couple of things I changed, and there was perhaps a tone to the first issue that popped out at me a little bit. I don't know if that answers your question.
SPURGEON: What was something that popped for you?
SALLY: I still have three or four hundred more pages to go. The longest thing I had ever done was 20 pages. I can see myself in the first issue doing some, "Holy shit this is big" sort of stuff, and we'll see when I get further down the line -- that might even be too specific to say out loud. This is a long-haul thing, and I have to keep trying to assess it on those ground rather than individual things that stick out at me.
SPURGEON: One thing that struck me on re-reading it is how dense it is just in terms how the pages are constructed. It's not like it's dense in terms of the amount of visuals conveyed, but the panels are crowded together and there are multiple tiers on most pages. I wonder if that was intentional, to structurally support the experience of the characters in the way you present the pages.
SALLY: I think in a serialization I was very conscious of the fact that it was taking me a year to finish each issue. I wanted to give the reader some bang for their buck. We all know of alt-comics where you wait a year and a half for it and you read it in ten minutes. I don't know how long it takes to read an issue of Sammy, but I want it to be dense. I want it to have content. It's like with a Deitch story, you sometimes feel like you're drowning in content because there's so much to those stories, so much going on. Maybe a mixture of that. Also with those old Lee/Kirby comics: they certainly don't have that pacing and that tone or anything, but I'm not trying to draw a comparison there other than I want it to be a thick, immersive reading experience.
SPURGEON:I talked to Jeff Smith earlier in the series, and he talked about in doing his science fiction serial RASL that because of some basic creative choices he made, he can only communicate to the reader the things his lead character knows. Sammy plays around with that notion a bit, because you make it clear that there are things your lead doesn't know and doesn't understand, and he's constantly frustrated by that. There's a tradition of that in storytelling, movies and books where someone is beset by several incidents they can't quite process. Is that dilemma in which he finds himself a key to the overall work, or is that just maybe something you find funny?
SALLY: Yes. [laughter] All of the above. I do know what's going to happen. I've always know what's going to happen, but the problem with comics is that it takes... I now what's going to happen but doing comics without leaving space for things to happen and allowing for things to change somehow I think is sort of a miserable experience. I've gotten out three issues of Sammy in five years, and in that five years I've had two kids, I've been married. My life has changed extraordinarily. That's just the way art works, you know. I was doing issue #2 -- maybe #3, I can't remember -- and there was stuff going on in my life. Six months later I look at that issue and I was like, "Oh my sweet God." It was absolutely reflective of what had been going on at the time, and I was completely unaware of it. I just think that's part of it, and that's the way it works.
SPURGEON: Does Sammy's recurring confusion evince some sort of worldview of yours? Do you feel similarly befuddled by the people that float in and out of your life?
SALLY: Kind of. Yeah. But I also believe that there's a point and structure. An indefinable point and a structure to what happens. You can massage that, and try your best to move towards those things, but there's a certain element of that you just can't control. The whole thing with Sammy The Mouse is that I'm trying not to think too hard, and just be a cartoonist and make myself laugh and tell a good story and not get myself into corners I can't get out of storytelling-wise. Be a good cartoonist and get this story across. So I'm comfortable with the fact that shit's going to happen. I know what's going to happen, but the process of getting there a lot of stuff is going to happen, too.
SPURGEON: In your attempt to play the role of classic cartoonist, is that why classic cartoon iconography is used? I'm used to in a lot of popular art seeing a befuddled actor moving through life as things happen to them, but I'm not as used to seeing this through specific imagery like what exists in Sammy. Is there anything you can explain about your decision to use that particular trope? It's such an accepted way of doing comics, I don't think anyone would question it, but why the cartoon characters?
SALLY: I don't know. I think a lot people question that, actually. I've had people come up to me and say that it's obviously an ironic take on the Disney characters. I feel almost stupid saying it, but I honest-to-God feel like they're not. You know? The cartoon mouse... it's certainly not in any way a post-modern take on those characters.
SPURGEON: And I don't suspect that, which is a reason for my confusion. That would be one strong, traditional way of interpreting those characters' use, and as I so very much don't suspect that I'm left without an answer of any kind as to why you made that choice.
SALLY: I'm going to sound stupid saying this, but I think that was a direct result of me trying not to think about it. All of the stuff I'd done up to that point were thinly-veiled attempts to try and craft a narrative, trying to make sense of certain things that were real.
I don't know why I made that decision specifically, other than I wanted to make comic books. I wanted to get at that thing that comic books are. To tell the story I'm trying to tell with real people would have been... just thinking that makes me want to throw up. [laughter] I needed them to be imaginary, and when I think of comic books and imaginary, that's what I coughed up.
SPURGEON: One thing that's interesting to me about what you're saying... when we first started talking about your publishing skills, you said there was a realization about what you do well and what you don't do very well and there's a process towards orienting yourself towards what you do well. There's almost an inversion of that when you talk about the printing responsibilities. That expands the number of things you're doing when you make these comics. Does that make any sense?
SALLY: Yes. Yeah. And I think that may be a good explanation for what I was trying to say earlier. I don't want to sound like too much of a jackass [Spurgeon laughs] but... I think John P. wrote me about this. I sent John P. Jason Miles' Dead Ringer. Who knows what the hell that book is? [laughs] It's a 'zine and it's not a 'zine, and it's just like none of the above of anything you can think of. It's this weird, strange object, not classifiable as any of those things. That's very much to do with Jason's work -- we went back and forth on the format of it. That one happened, and I was like, "This is it." [laughs] It's like a new... again, I don't want to sound like a jackass, but it's a new thing. It's part 'zine and it's part comic and it's part art comic and it's part printmaker's thing. It's all of those things, but also none of the above.
SPURGEON: I think if you contrast Dead Ringer with something like the Nate Denver book you did, that one seemed to me something that could have come out from a number of different publishers. That's a handsome book, and a good book, but it's something we're used to seeing. That book that Jason did, that thing is like something that crawled out of primordial goo. It's not something someone else could have done, really, if that makes sense.
SALLY: Yeah. It does. And that's actually how I feel about the Sammy book. To the degree that me doing it -- and this is bizarre -- me printing it is part of the story of what you're reading. It's part of the physical experience of you reading this thing. Not in the same way as Jason's, but... when you were asking earlier about if it matters to me or not if it's of a certain quality, I mean, I don't want the thing to look like garbage.
SPURGEON: And I certainly, certainly didn't want to suggest it does.
SALLY: And you weren't. You weren't. But it's a weird book. Any other publisher, they would have sent that shit to China. [Spurgeon laughs] Every fucking book that you get is like... you can't tell anyone made it. With this Sammy book, you can. Whether you consciously... it feels like somebody made it. And that's what I want out of the world now. You know?
SPURGEON: When more people started baking their own bread, you'd get artisanal bread, and it might be weird and lumpy -- and it seems stupid to talk about this now because of its ubiquity -- but the first time you encountered something like that there was a lot that was remarkable about engaging this handmade food when you were used to precision and craft on a level that without trying to kind of homogenizes that experience.
Now, someone reading this might think that the principles you're espousing is similar to what they hear from a devoted mini-comics maker. When James Kochalka and I initially talked in the mid-'90s, I was struck by the way he enthused about cranking out copies of his comics at a photocopier, and how that was part of the joy of making the books in a lines on paper fashion. With Sammy is there a reconnection with a kind of comics-making you once did? Or is this new project a different beast altogether?
SALLY: I think it's a direct line. It's a totally direct line from when I was making comics that way. It's a direct line from John P.
SALLY: It is. There was a part of me that didn't know about the underground era, and that book was great in explaining all that. I didn't know that those guys had their own presses. It made me realize that this wasn't the first time anyone had done this. [laughs] It was the same situation, except this was the '60s.
I remember when Donahue died, Dan Nadel wrote this nice thing about how back in the day he got his own press and learned that stuff and none of us do that now. And I remember reading that and being like, "I'm doing that right fucking now." [laughter]
It is a natural progression of my interests and the things I love, but it's also a natural progression of the world. Why do you want, in this day and age, a physical object? I'm not one of those old crusties that says, "Books are the best." There are a lot of books where I don't want to waste a tree. I'll read those books on a Kindle. It's information, and if you don't need to kill a tree to get that information... we're entering a world where if there's going to be a physical object there, there should be a damn good reason for there to be that physical object. And this is mine. I'm a printmaker [laughs], I'm doing 36,000 sheets, you know?
SPURGEON: I've seen photos and videos of you at your press. You had some cartoonists over during the MIX show, and some of those cartoonists wrote about how much they enjoyed seeing you work this press and -- this is going to sound totally asinine -- it's sort of like it awakened something in some of these artists, that this could be a part of their comics-making experience. And I also wonder if there isn't a similar effect that takes a hold with comics readers. There's an unspoken sentiment when you talk to comics people about getting comics digitally, where for many it just sort of comes down to not owning an actual comic. There's a need to own the comic. And people make fun of that: "Okay, Grandpa. Have fun with your longboxes." But I wonder if there isn't something to this relationship to a physical object that may make comics readers an ideal audience for what you're trying. Have you seen people react to this notion of handmade comics? Do you hope people respond?
SALLY: I hope people respond. And to what we were talking about earlier, there's two ends to that. There's one that me and you and our people know, which is we grew up with this sort of fetishistic relationship with comics.
SPURGEON: And how.
SALLY: I still have that. There's great things about that, and there are also weird, "What's wrong with me?" problems. [laughs] I like both of them. In the next ten years -- next three years -- I think those things are only going to become clearer and clearer. Or more and more distinctive.
Let's put it this way. I just got Spotify, and I'm having a really tough time with my conscience with Spotify. I love it. I totally love it. I found this like crazy Bitch Magnet song from 1989, and it turns out this guy I know had re-issued it. He has a record label. I wrote him and I said, "Oh my God, you reissued the Bitch Magnet catalog. Please tell me that Spotify isn't the worst thing in the world." And he wrote me back, "No, it's the worst thing. It's going to destroy independent music. The artist gets .3 of a penny per stream." I don't know how to square it with that idea of... "independent" music -- I hate all this stupid terminology! But that's the world that's had the most influence over what I do and how I do it. Those ideas, whether they're found in 'zines or records or bands or whatever. Art. Whatever. And I can't square that with my conscience.
At the same time, I look at this model and I'm like, "It's coming." You know? This model is coming. It's here for music. But music doesn't have a physical property. It's intrinsic to that experience because historically it's intrinsic to that experience. You separated your weed on a gatefolded Yes record. You know? So if this is happening, what parts are important to you and what are you going to do with that model? It's only going to destroy things if you let it. You're going to have to pick out the pieces of things that you value, that you care about, and try and move forward with those. There are a bunch of comics I don't care to have forever. And for those a Kindle is okay. There's books I'm going to be fine with reading on one of those things. But there are books where it existing is important, where it existing in physical space is important. It existing with physical properties is part of what makes it that thing for me. The part of that that's important is that somebody made it. And for me this is it, you know? I made it. [laughs]
* photo of Sally at the 2011 TCAF
* from La Mano's Kim Deitch project, The Kim Deitch Files
* cover to the new La Mano Sammy The Mouse collection
* from Sammy
* another from Sammy
* the cover image to Dead Ringer
* Nate Denver's book
* video of Zak Sally and his printer
* another image from Sammy (below)
Laura Hudson is the Editor-In-Chief at the new site ComicsAlliance. I met Hudson at one of the first couple of New York Comic-Cons, back when I believe she was either splitting time between Virgin Comics and the magazine project Comic Foundry or she had just left the former gig. I mention that only because I remember thinking that it seemed like she'd been around for a while, which of course was impossible -- if nothing else, due to her age. It was more that Laura Hudson seemed like a comics lifer. So far, so good. ComicsAlliance is one of the few successful about-comics publishing initiatives of any kind to launch these last few years. It employs a significant percentage of the younger, active writers on the comics medium and all of its shared-culture satellite industries. These writers include Hudson, who in addition to her duties managing the site in 2011 conducted several of its best interviews and penned forceful essays on gender issues, particularly as they apply to mainstream comic books. I appreciate her perspective, and sought her out for an interview in a year where the subjects on which she's done her best writing to date seem even more relevant than usual. -- Tom Spurgeon
TOM SPURGEON: Laura, I don't know much about you, particularly your past as it brought you to your current position. Can you talk about how you initially became engaged by comics as a reader, enough so that you began to orient yourself in a way that led you to the job you have now? Were there two or three important comics that you read that got you thinking about them in a way that was beyond being someone that read and enjoyed comics?
LAURA HUDSON: I got into comics when I was about 12 years old, thanks to the X-Men cartoon that aired on Fox during the early to the mid-'90s. I think the strong female cast of characters like Rogue, Jean Grey, Storm and yes... even Jubilee played a big role in that for me. I also realize as I say this that every one of those characters was fully clothed, which I'd never thought about before. The X-Men were also particularly relatable because at the time I had an immune disorder and was missing something like 50 days of school a year, so the misfit quality of the X-Men and the power fantasy of being a mutant had a lot of appeal.
I fell out of comics for a bit in high school but found my way back in during college thanks to my friend Ian, who kept handing me graphic novels. I was an English major at the time, and something about the sequential art narrative format suddenly clicked into place for me in a way that went beyond nostalgia or emotional escapism. Grant Morrison's run on New X-Men really grabbed me since it took characters I'd been following since my youth and really pushed them to grow beyond the status quo -- and to grow up, in a way, even if most of it ended up getting retconned away in the end. Powers by Brian Bendis and Mike Oeming also had a big impact on my return to comics, as did Alias, which was another example of a more mature take on the the superhero genre. Later, I fell in love with both Sleeper and Gotham Central, so I guess it's fair to say that noir was a big part of my return to comics. I'm pretty disenchanted at this point with the more juvenile, grim and gritty approach to "mature" superhero books that seems to dominate the industry today, but those titles handled it so well.
SPURGEON: It's my understanding that you worked in retail, that you worked at Virgin Comics and that you worked with Tim Leong at Comic Foundry. Can you rebuild the primary experiences that led you to ComicsAlliance, and how they related to one another?
HUDSON: I taught English in Japan for a while after college, and subsequently moved to New York City to work in book publishing, where I got a job at a literary agency. I was an assistant and an office manager, and pretty ill-suited to the latter role of managing the day-to-day communications and finances of a small business. About six months into it, I realized how much I hated my life and decided that I was going to quit. When I was doing my exit interview with my boss -- who seemed certain that I had failed at life and was now destined to move home -- I mentioned that I wanted to work in comic books, which I'm sure sounded insane. The woman I'd just hired to replace me was sitting outside the room listening to all this, and it turned out she was a friend of Tim Leong, an art director at Complex magazine who had recently launched Comic Foundry magazine. She put us in touch and I started freelancing for him, though we'd never met.
Meanwhile, I applied to work as a cashier at a comic book shop at just about every store in Manhattan, which many people felt was not a great career move at 26, but at that point I wanted to do something that I loved so much more than I wanted to make money. (I feel this is somewhat essential to a career in comics.) I was so poor by the end that I couldn't afford even afford a subway pass, so I literally walked all over the island of Manhattan handing out my resume. Just about the time when I started to think that I might have to give up and leave the city, Midtown Comics called and offered me a tentative position, which turned into a full-time one. That's where I made a lot of my initial contacts in the business, especially Heidi MacDonald, who hired me for my first paying freelance gig at Publishers Weekly, and later took me on as an intern.
Also, one day a customer walked into the store and when I pulled up his customer file, it turned out it was Tim Leong. I'd been writing for him for several months at that point but we'd never met. My involvement with the magazine slowly expanded over time, and when he decided to take it to print, he asked me to play a major role and ultimately made me Senior Editor. Tim is insanely talented, which is why he works for Wired now, and it's impossible to overestimate how much I learned from him during the Comic Foundry years. The aesthetics and approach of ComicsAlliance is directly informed by everything we did together, and I don't think there'd be a CA without him.
While it's impossible to attach a dollar value to my time working with Tim, there wasn't actually any money in Comic Foundry, and after I'd been grinding out 10-hour shifts for about a year at Midtown, I started looking for something else. Virgin Comics was hiring and I was initially interested in editorial, but I guess they didn't feel like I was qualified so I ended up with a job in PR instead. I find it really, really difficult not to speak honestly, so PR was yet another job I was very poorly suited to doing. It lasted almost exactly as long as the book publishing gig before I decided that poverty was preferable. I quit and went back to freelancing, and at that point I had enough contacts in the magazine world that I was able to eke out a ramen living. I'd been working consistently not only with Comic Foundry but also Publishers Weekly, and doing some comics blogging on the side.
SPURGEON: Is there a story behind how you got the job? I don't think of Portland as the kind of place that generates media jobs.
HUDSON: Portland was and is entirely irrelevant to my job; it's just where I happen to be. I moved out to Portland in 2008 in large part because I'd gotten burned out on NYC, and particularly on being painfully broke all of the time and hustling freelance non-stop to make ends meet. The cost of living in Portland is far lower; it's very laid-back, and it has a thriving comics and arts community that made it a really good fit. I assumed, at least, since I packed everything in my car and drove out here without ever visiting, but it's worked out well.
Comic Foundry ended up closing shop a few months after I arrived, due in large part to Tim Leong being too damn successful in his day job, but almost immediately afterwards AOL contacted me about launching a comics blog for them. They're based in NYC, so it was actually less convenient that I'd left, but not prohibitively so. It was a freelance position at first, and just me writing seven posts a day with no staff budget. I brought over a number of writers from Comic Foundry, including Caleb Goellner, who is now my Senior Editor at ComicsAlliance. Every goddamn time I asked for help that guy put his hand up, and it's why I survived and why the site survived. Chris Sims was also one of the first people I contacted, because I knew that I wanted him on the team from day one.
Initially I was just paying people out of pocket, but after I established how much traffic these guys could generate I got a small budget, and like everything else about the staff, it grew over time in proportion to the audience response. The traffic growth was almost unnervingly rapid, and it felt like holding on to a rocket at times. It was exciting, but kind of scary, and I had no real road map for how to handle it except the one that I made. I kept bringing in people that I felt fit with the tone and vision of the site, and ended up with a really tight-knit staff of smart, funny, interesting writers, all 30 and under. I think we have a great sort of energy, and we've never stopped having fun, which I think is essential to a site as personality-driven as CA.
SPURGEON: I have a sense that this is a full-time gig for you, although as I'm not 100 percent sure. Is it? Can you talk a bit about your daily work, how much time you spend on what general tasks and what resources you use to accomplish them?
HUDSON: When AOL merged with Huffington Post earlier this year it was a pretty uncertain time, because a lot of things were changing. If it hadn't been for Brian Childs, an AOL employee who got involved and fought constantly to make the site and its successes more visible, I'm not sure what would have happened. In the end, all three editors at the site -- myself, Caleb, and Andy Khouri -- were hired full-time, which was stunning and incredibly transformative for us. I'd spent my whole adult life taking chances and risking everything to have a job that I loved and believed in, but you know -- some part of you never really believes that it's going to work out.
As I mentioned before, my job was initially to work strictly as a blogger posting seven times a day, but I've redefined it numerous times over the course of my tenure, and now my work is far more managerial and editorial. Caleb and Andy tend to handle the news and the short culture posts, while I tend to manage features like op-eds, original art, reviews by Chris Sims and a variety of freelancers, although Andy contributes long-form interviews and editorials from time to time as well. Just managing the editorial schedule, payroll, and content of my writers could easily be a full-time job, but I can't seem to stop myself from taking on features myself and wanting to have more of a writing presence on the site, even though amps up my stress level exponentially.
The division of labor has been an evolving thing, and again, something I had no road map for. Figuring it out, and figuring it out very publicly, has consumed everything in my life for nearly three years, often to unhealthy degrees. It's been a problem in personal relationships. There were times when I was putting 12 to 14 hours a day into the site, including weekends. I've had to focus really hard on creating boundaries, which isn't easy on the 24-hour Internet, especially for a borderline workaholic. I love writing, and I miss doing it more regularly, but the bulk of my work now is shaping the larger tone and original content of the site, and thus the work of other writers and artists. That's the reality of management at almost any job, though.
Despite many of us living in different places, the work on the site is very collaborative. We're all in constant contact, all day every day, asking for input and bouncing ideas off each other. I find that tremendously important. Just about everything significant that happens on the site is a conversation among the senior staff, and and since I intentionally hired smart people with similar sensibilities whose opinions I respect, I value that so profoundly. I think it makes our content richer and more innovative, and our decisions better and more nuanced.
SPURGEON: How much editorial freedom do you have? Are there edicts in terms of coverage areas, language, expected outcomes in terms of hits...?
HUDSON: AOL and Huffington Post have been wonderful about granting me broad editorial freedom. When I first started out it took me a while to find the voice and footing for the site that I wanted, and of course contributors like Caleb, Andy, and Chris Sims played a huge role in shaping that as well. They've always let me do my own thing, which I imagine is at least partially a function of our traffic, but has really allowed our more humor-oriented and personality-driven approach to flourish. There are content limitations that apply to all AOL sites in terms of some of the stronger swear words and nudity. I'm not a big fan of black barring indie comics, but considering how much leeway I get in most other senses, I really can't complain. There are definitely expectations in terms of hits, and expectations for growth as there are in any large business, but I wouldn't want it any other way. We definitely want to appeal to a broader audience beyond the niche, but that's something that I think is very important for comics at this point in time and something that I would want to do regardless. I think we should be constantly striving to be better, to try new things and push for next steps, not just sit on our laurels.
SPURGEON: Can you talk to me a little more about Chris Sims, why you wanted to hire him, and what you think he does well? I know you like all of your team, but Sims is the writer I think of when I think of your site. Do you work with him at all on the stuff he does?
HUDSON: I'm Chris's primary editor, although both Andy Khouri and Caleb Goellner also work with him to develop features. Again, we're extremely collaborative, and while Chris certainly generates a lot of his own pitches, we're all going back and forth on a daily basis about article ideas. As editors, it's our responsibility to oversee the balance of content and create the situations that produce the best and most relevant work from each of our writers. Part of the joy of being an editor as opposed to being a writer is often putting a tremendous amount of work into things you never put your name on, and I know that's been true not only for me but for Andy and Caleb.
As for what I think Chris does well... It's pretty obvious, isn't it? Or it always was to me. I was pushing to have Chris do more on Comic Foundry, and then the second I got the ComicsAlliance job, I knew I wanted him on board. He's an undeniably funny writer, and aside from our hard news posts, humor is a big part of our editorial tone. I can teach writers how to structure their essays better, or how to interact with publishers, or how to write more accessibly, but I don't know how to teach someone to be funny. I assure you, if I knew I would teach myself first.
If you get to know Chris and read his writing for any period of time, you also realize that he's more than chuckles. He's someone who really thinks about the media he consumes, which is how he produced that amazing essay about why the monsters in Scooby Doo are a great analogy for the quest for truth in secular humanism. Anyone can say that something sucks, but Chris is the sort of writer who explains not only why something fails but what that means, all while making you laugh about it. He connects what happens in comics to larger ideas, and that's kind of the whole point of site and its culture focus. And he clearly has a great love for the material, which is the primary motivating factor behind most of our coverage. Even when he hates, he hates with love, and that's such a hard balance to strike.
SPURGEON: I feel sort of stupid asking this in terms of how well you've just said the site has performed, but can you talk about its structure and format? It's basically a blog, and stuff gets scrolled offscreen before I see it. I know this is probably because I go and look at the thing rather than take posts off of a feed, but still: are you happy with the way your site looks, how it's organized? Is that where you're going to stay in the long term? How much input do you have in things like the look and feel and usability of the site?
HUDSON: I have very little control over the physical layout of the site. It was a template that was originally used by sites in the Asylum network, where ComicsAlliance first resided, and as you can see, we're still using it. The scroll pushes new content down the page too fast for my liking, and it's an incredible pain to update the sliders and the other featured content, which is why it doesn't happen very often. It's something we've talked about changing. One thing I do like about the site is that the main well is fairly wide, which allows us to display bigger images. We're very visual and art-oriented, which again is a big holdover from my time in magazines and working with designers like Tim Leong, so the ability to do that is integral to our approach to content.
SPURGEON: I've talked to a bunch of Portland people this series, and I've asked them all some version of this. What is it about Portland that you think attracts so many cartoonists and comics-makers? Can you talk about a specific time when being in Portland was an advantage for you?
HUDSON: Being in Portland was a huge advantage to me when I first moved here as a freelance writer, because I was incredibly poor, and the cost of living is much lower here than New York City. That makes it a much more welcoming place for writers and artists, who are not famous for their riches, and there's a fantastic comics community in the area. We've got Dark Horse Comics, Top Shelf, two studios -- Periscope and Tranquility Base -- chock full of creators, not to mention talent like Matt Fraction, Brian Bendis and Chris Onstad just, you know, hanging out. It's a great environment to be in if you want to keep your finger on the pulse of the community. It's definitely easier to stay plugged into superhero comics gossip if you live in New York, but superhero comics is not the whole community. In fact, I think the diversity of creators and projects in Portland is a far better embodiment of what's happening in the medium as a whole and what's exciting about it right now (to me, at least).
SPURGEON: was wondering if you could talk a bit about your initial conception of CA, where you thought it fit into the constellation of coverage sources out there, and how that's developed. How would you describe your place in the overall landscape of sources for comics coverage? What do I get from your site that I can't get elsewhere? I don't really mean that in a confrontational way, either, I'm just as interested if you see what you do as a unique series of features or an overall experience, for example.
HUDSON: A lot of comics news site approach the medium in a way that is useful primarily for existing fans, but it doesn't do a lot to invite more casual or new readers. The writing I always found most compelling in the comics blogosphere involved personality, thoughtful commentary, and humor. I think CA is an overall experience, and one that is largely driven by the things we care about. A lot of the tone is funny, conversational, satirical, and in a sense very personal. Part of what we offer is who we are, what we love, and what we really think. And believe me, doing it this way takes a lot more out of us.
The tone and content of our posts can vary widely, but the same is true of a newspaper. The same is true of a magazine. They have hard journalism features and funny infographics and humor columns and original comics and weird news. Original content is a big thing for me, and it's why we have zero dependence on exclusives from Marvel and DC, which is very freeing. We run a lot of original comics, both by rotating artists and regular features by the "Let's Be Friends Again" creators. Coming from where I come from, it just seemed natural to cultivate these varied types of content, so I find it kind of bizarre when trolls show up on humor posts and savagely attack them for not being hard journalism. In a way, it reminds me of ludicrous accusations I get about how I'm anti-sex because I've criticized sexism. There's no sense that things can be different ways in different situations -- that maybe sexuality in one situation could be different from another, rather than just being good or bad. There's this knee-jerk sense something has to be true all the time, or not at all. I reject this categorically as a boring and reductive way to look at the world.
SPURGEON: How do you guys divvy up what everyone does in nuts and bolts fashion? I know that you've written some of what I'd call the lead editorials, and I wondered when you did that if you let everyone know that it's hands off because you're covering it.
HUDSON: I've done so occasionally, but then, so has everyone else. As I mentioned, our coverage is very driven by what the editors and writers personally care about and enjoy, and our areas of interest tend to be fairly distinct. Even with something like Batman, who is of special interest to both Chris Sims and David Uzumeri, they both have such different ways of approaching their articles that they rarely seem to conflict. Half of my e-mails to writers involve me asking questions like, "What are you guys really into right now? What's on your mind? What do you feel needs to be discussed?" Sometimes I'll come up with an op-ed angle or issue and toss it out to see if anyone bites, but aside from mandatory big news, unless someone is feeling it and wants to get behind it sincerely, it doesn't happen. If there were a big enough story and two people really wanted to say something about it, I'd probably try to assign different types of pieces to them -- like an op-ed and a review -- or else make it a point-counterpoint. I just can't really recall those sorts of fights happening. We work things out pretty organically, usually by deferring to the person who cares the most and has the most to say.
SPURGEON: Did you end up making your coverage comics and items related to comics -- as opposed to being hardcore super-comics people, or covering comics and films explicitly, or any of the other strategies out there -- by your choice? How do you approach what you cover, and what's your thinking in terms of the breadth of your coverage?
HUDSON: The culture focus is very much informed by my time with Comic Foundry, which very explicitly wanted to deal with comics and the places where what happened on the page overlapped with the broader world both in terms of political and social issues, but also across media like fine art, movies, videos, fashion, toys. If I'm interested in something, I'm interested in how it intersects with the larger culture, and anything else seems kind of myopic to me. At a time when superhero comics in particular -- but realistically, all of comics, always -- is working to expand its audience, I think one of the best way to bring more readers in is by making those connections to the world outside comics side-by-side with more niche content, rather than focusing exclusively on the latter.
SPURGEON: How would you describe the tone of the site? It seems to me -- and I'm not the best reader for your site, I'll admit this -- that you guys will get snarky about some of the material. It further seems to me that there has to be a really fine line between putting on display any kind of attitude regarding the material covered and pissing off people that without irony love this stuff. Do you think you have a consistent tone? Is this a concern of yours at all?
HUDSON: I mean, we definitely do, for all the reasons that inform our general approach to coverage. The way we write really is the way we are as people and a big part of how we talk to each other. More importantly, it's what we ourselves find entertaining in content. As much as we can, as much as is possible, we're having fun, and that makes it fun for the readers -- or at least, the ones on our wavelength. But we're always speaking as people who love comics, and whose lives, every day, revolve around them. I don't understand why people would think that we're coming from a place of derision in the same way I don't understand why trolls come to the site every single day just to say how much they hate it. Why would anyone do that?
I remember one time when I worked at Midtown Comics, a customer came up to the counter and got super defensive with me apropos of nothing about how he thought I must look down on him because he was a nerd or something. And I was like, "Dude, do you not see where I am working right now? Do you not get the nerdiness is coming from inside the building?" We joke about comics on CA, and poke fun at aspects of the culture, because it's our culture and because again, this is part of how we see the world. Caleb and Andy and I sit in chat windows all day busting each other's chops. It's how I am with my friends. This may not be everyone's cup of the tea in the same way that any editorial tone -- or any individual, for that matter -- is not going to be universally appealing, and I'm ok with that. There are plenty of sites playing it totally straight and dealing with comics unironically. Those needs are being serviced quite adequately. But if ComicsAlliance exploded tomorrow, I'd want to somehow find another comics site that does what we do, which is why I do it.
SPURGEON: You've talked a bit about this here and there, and usually in a very funny, forthright way: how difficult has it been for you to manage active commentary threads? First of all, do you have comments by your choice or is that something you'd do without but need it for the traffic or as dictated to by your employers? Second, do you detect that there's a kind of general throwing-up-of-one's-hands about some of the acting out that takes place on comments thread from comics culture. Because in a way, we're 15-20 years into active on-line comments of some sort, and it seems like comments culture is as acrimonious and nasty as it was in the CompuServe days.
HUDSON: It's been, hands down, the hardest part of the job. The only thing I can really compare it to is probably being bullied. In what other situation do you spend your day constantly being verbally attacked by people who seem laser-focused on tearing you down and letting you know in real time the very specific reason why you and everything you do sucks? It's an incredibly bizarre experience. I think the bullying comparison is apt, particularly when it becomes a daily struggle not to let the constant flow of abuse affect you, the way you think or the choices you make. Because if you are not very careful, it can wear you down and make you feel like the world is kind of a terrible place, because so much of what you see and hear is this very misrepresentative sample of the angry, cruel people who shout the loudest.
There's basically no sane reason why I've received death threats, and yet I have, repeatedly. I don't understand what motivates people to tag me on Twitter and accost me about my perceived sexuality or weigh in on whether I'm attractive or ugly. But this is my life every day, and there's basically no way to step away from it significantly and still do my job. And I love my job. I'm very lucky. But it's definitely been something I've struggled with, and I know Andy and Caleb have as well. It is something we are taking some concrete steps to improve, however, both for ourselves and for the community of readers that actually wants to talk to each other without constant drive-by ragebombs getting dropped in their conversations.
SPURGEON: How much do you consider your own Twitter postings do you consider an extension of what you're doing at CA? Because you seem pretty unafraid of criticizing elements of your job, and you certainly don't seem to keep certain personal elements separate from your professional life.
HUDSON: Twitter is a public space, and what I do on Twitter is... I guess you could call it part of my personal brand, although that still sounds a little strange to say. It's an extension of who I am online and I think it fits pretty neatly with how the tone of the site tends to reflect aspects of the personal. That's not to say that there isn't a very clear division with part of my private life. Twitter isn't a diary; it's a somewhat performative, curated space where I talk about the things I think and do and like. Everything on there is who I am, but not all of who I am is on there, is that makes sense. If you like my style and enjoy my taste or worldview, it is a place where you can get more of it. I'm honest on there about comics and my job because I'm a pretty forthright person and I have no reason not to be, I guess. There are plenty of thoughts and conversations I have that don't go on Twitter, though. I don't betray confidences, break embargoes, or talk shit for no reason. And I try to avoid drama and passive aggression when possible because that's not very fun for me and doesn't serve any useful purpose.
SPURGEON: Have you ever received any grief at all for most of your editorial staff being male? I may not be looking in the right place, but it seems you have at least one female contributor listed now, and I'm not sure she's been there as long as some of the others -- again, I could be totally wrong. Is that a concern of yours at all, giving writers a chance the way you were given a chance, and does gender play into that at all?
HUDSON: I do think it's important to include female writers on the site, and it's definitely something that I've worked towards. We currently have two regular female contributors outside myself, Lauren Davis and Bethany Fong, who post multiple times a week.
SPURGEON: Okay. I did get that wrong.
HUDSON: When I first started the site, before Caleb even came on full-time, the person who helped out the most during that initial awkward period was Adri Cowan, and Esther Inglis-Arkell also contributed work for a while. If we're talking about why I didn't hire a female Andy or Caleb in editorial, I assure you that I've looked. The superhero audience is overwhelmingly male, I'd be searching for a writer from within that minority of female readers who has not only a very high caliber of ability but also a fair amount of experience in the superhero comics news realm specifically. And even among those writers, people who aren't quite fast enough or consistent enough or don't quite fit the tone aren't going to be able to do the job. I turn down 99.9 percent of male writers who want to write for the site because it's so specific and so few people fit the bill. It's hard to find appropriate writers for the site, period, and finding women that fit all the criteria is even harder.
But again, we do have several women on staff, and obviously me. I don't think people always understand the role of the Editor-in-Chief and how much what I do shapes the content that gets produced in countless ways where you never see my name. I agree that having and cultivating female writers is important for a host of reasons, but my role also has a fundamental impact that isn't really captured if you focus on bylines.
SPURGEON: Do you think you're perceived differently or that stances you take or editorials you've written or processed differently for being female?
HUDSON: Sure. I talk a lot about how gender is portrayed in comics, and I've been critical of superhero comics in particular for this. It's made a lot of people dislike me, and I've been told both indirectly and explicitly that some people in comics think I want to erase all the pretty ladies because I'm some shrill, prudish harpy that hates sex. First of all, they vastly overestimate my powers, and second, it's kind of weird for me because I have a very sex-positive approach to, well... sex generally and erotica and porn comics creators in comics specifically. Sexuality is not some binary thing where it's always good or always bad. Just because you don't like McDonalds doesn't mean you hate food. I just think it's really important to consider about how sex and gender are portrayed in media, and what those portrayals are actually saying, and who those portrayals affect -- especially because one of the people it affects pretty directly is me.
But yeah, commenters show up on pretty much every post where I talk about gender and the commentary can get very personal. I've seen people positing that I have these opinions because I'm fat or ugly or don't have a boyfriend or whatever. I find it hard to believe that those comments would be directed at a male writer. (Although conversely, male writers do have to deal with the "you're just pretending to be feminist to get laid" accusation, which is equally bullshit.) I don't know, Chris Sims has written feminist stuff on the site too, and I don't think anyone accuses him of hating sex.
I tweeted during New York Comic Con about a guy on Facebook who spent days and days talking about how he wanted to see me beaten with baseball bats and comparing my attractiveness to various types of bodily waste, purely because of my op-eds on sexism. It was very, very gender-specific stuff, and still there were people on Twitter being like, "it's not misogynistic; he's just attacking your ideas." No, he's not. You know, there's a reason my Twitter icon is a cat. You don't have to spend very long either on the internet or in actual life as a woman before you realize that the more you put yourself out there in terms of your gender, the more you open yourself up to all kinds of weirdness. Take a read through Fat, Ugly, or Slutty, guys, and imagine that this is your life.
At the same time, I've gotten the most amazing responses from so many great people who reached out about those same op-eds, both women and men. Some of the most best e-mails I've ever gotten have been from guys who said that something I wrote made them think about women, or women in comics, from a different perspective. That's how hearts and minds change: by talking reasonably to people who have open minds and are willing to consider other points of view. That's what I'm really trying to do when I address these kinds of social issues, but the reality of our society (and the Internet) is that I have to wade through all the other stuff to do it. It's still work worth doing.
SPURGEON: You wrote effectively about the stunted sexuality on display in some of DC Comics' New 52 books. Why is mainstream comics so slow in terms of using female creators and in making comic that have this pathetic take on sex and gender, even at this late date? Is it the culture? Is it just that there's money to be made? How confident are you this will ever change?
HUDSON: I'm not confident at all. I'm probably less confident than I've ever been. I think the problem is two-fold: It is predicated on both institutional makeup of the major publishers, and the fact that they need to make money. The superhero comics audience has some pretty discriminating notions and expectations about what superhero comics should be, but nuanced and fully-clothed portrayals of women are not one of them. It's not something the audience really demands and not something that the publishers really provide, and you can go chicken and egg with that but it seems pretty self-perpetuating to me at this point. If you think of men who make comics and men who buy superhero comics as a closed circuit, there's no real need to change, I suppose. But if you genuinely want to expand the readership beyond people who have been buying comics their whole lives -- and to some degree, lapsed fans who used to buy comics -- you have to start thinking differently about your product. If you want to attract an audience beyond that closed loop, that means bringing in editors, writers, and artists who exist outside of it as well.
And listen, these are difficult economic times, and you're not seeing staff cuts at major publishers because profit margins are so luxuriously wide. I have no doubt that it's difficult to strike a balance between trying to maintain a very discriminating and particular audience that shows signs of attrition and growing a new audience, particularly when the former is such a comfortable and known quantity, and the latter so uncertain and in many ways outside your wheelhouse. But if you want to talk about the New 52, for example, going outside the wheelhouse was the explicit and stated goal. And that is quite simply why I've been so critical of the New 52: because it claimed to have the ambition and the daring to really reach out for that ring, but with a few exceptions, what it gave us was more of the same.
SPURGEON: Other realms of comics -- webcomics, alt-comics -- seem to me to do fine in terms of featuring and valuing female authors. Drawn and Quarterly's lead book of the Fall was Kate Beaton's, for example; Cartoon Movement has been trumpeting the work of Susie Cagle -- whom you interviewed -- and other female journalist-cartoonists; a big recent get for Archaia was Marjane Satrapi. Do you ever share my frustration in hearing people describe some of the worst of these issues as ones facing all of comics rather than choosing to indict this one specific part of the industry? I'm not suggesting that things are great everywhere. Sexism can be found just about any place you look hard enough, and there are areas like editorial cartooning, for example, that offer even fewer creators than mainstream comics does. But do you believe that mainstream comics has a special, specific problem with these issues?
HUDSON: Yes. If it helps, I'm willing to say it: Superhero comics has a very specific problem with these issues. Comics is a visual medium and I feel like it's very difficult to divorce superhero comics from the institutional issues of house style, and the way that women are drawn by default in mainstream superhero comics. If you tell a superhero artist to draw "a woman," chances are you're gonna get an 18 inch waist and double-D cup breasts. It's as automatic as stimulus-response. The way women are drawn in superhero comics is kind of like a bell factory; if you spend enough time in it, you stop hearing the bells. You stop even noticing how weirdly distorted and fundamentally bizarre a lot of the representations are, because it becomes familiar and unremarkable. Even as someone who has been very critical of these things, I've had friends -- male and female -- pick up comics lying around my house and remark on how weird the women look, and it has made me realize that I've stopped noticing in a lot of situations, too. That is the background radiation of superhero comics, as Shortpacked recently put it. That is the visual reality of superhero comics. The narrative reality of women in comics is a little more complicated since it isn't as visually obvious, but it's also problematic and will continue to be problematic for as long as the gender ratio of creators and readers continues to be massively disproportionate. I don't know what else to say about it except that this is just the way it is.
And yes, this is special problem for superhero comics, although not exclusively so -- stupid sexist bullshit can happen anywhere, it just happens in superhero comics a lot more. Yet "comics" as a medium gets painted with that brush because people are too lazy, superhero-centric or politic to specify the genre. I suppose it doesn't offend me quite so much because my experience of comics is very much dominated by the superhero genre and the reality that comes with that. In a way, that lackadasical characterization really does reflect my personal experience in "comics," so I personally do not feel a massive sense of dissonance, although I recognize that how inaccurate and dismissive it is to every other aspect of comics.
SPURGEON: You did two very interesting interviews with the writer Matt Fraction, sort of back to back -- one about his mainstream comics and one about his creator-owned title Casanova: Avaritia. I thought together they painted a very interesting portrait of that kind of creator, the ambitions they have and the hurdles they face. What was your takeaway from those two pieces? How are things in comics for writers like Fraction right now?
HUDSON: I guess it depends on what you mean by "writers like Fraction." Mainstream comics writers who also have a background in indie comics and significant creator-owned projects outside the Big Two?
SPURGEON: Basically. Yeah.
HUDSON: If you're talented and lucky enough, working full-time as a creator and Marvel and DC is... I don't know, I guess it's like a lot of things. It's the fulfillment of an absurd and unlikely dream, but like any reality it doesn't come without its own share of baggage and constraints. And as difficult as it is to make it as a creator at Marvel or DC, it's a whole order of magnitude harder to make an equivalent living doing creator-owned indie comics. I think it's great to see these guys feeding their superhero fans into indie projects, but -- I can't speak for Matt or anyone else, but I just personally wish guys like him and Ed Brubaker could sit around making comics like Casanova and Fatale all day. I wish the market supported that.
SPURGEON: How far along on the arc of what looks to be a digital comics revolution are we? Do you see the basic model as it started to take shape this year -- same day, same price point, third party distribution -- holding for the next five years? What's the next game-changing development in that field as it pertains to comics? What do you read digitally?
HUDSON: Well, from the numbers we've actually seen there's been tremendous growth, but it's important to remember that very small numbers, even when increased exponentially, are still pretty small. I believe there's a tremendous amount of potential for digital in comics, and that's incredibly exciting, particularly in terms of its ability to reach beyond the users that currently access comic book shops. It's just still very inchoate right now, which is why publishers are so resistant to releasing numbers on digital sales. I remember when Ultimate Comics Spider-Man #1 came out, Marvel put out a press release about how it Broke Digital Sales Records! But they wouldn't say what that actually meant, or what the record was, or what the numbers were on the issue that broke it. And I get it; people are trying to nurture this aspect of the market rather than crush it with harsh realities, and so am I, for what it's worth.
I do think the same-day model is going to largely hold over the next five years, but that price point and distribution are going to shake out in different ways as publishers grow more comfortable with experimentation and how digital sales do and do not affect the retail world. Giving digital comics the same price point as print is unrealistic and untenable, in my mind, and ultimately cannot hold, particularly when that price point is $3.99 for around 20 pages.
SPURGEON: To jump back a bit: how surprised were you by the success of the New 52 intiative by DC? Is there an underreported aspect to what they did this Fall? For example, I thought the launch put on display their traditional strengths in terms of DM retailer relations.
HUDSON: I'm not surprised at all that the New 52 did so well after its massive media blitz, in the same way that I'm not surprised when graphic novels that inspire movies sell enormous numbers, by comic book standards. Of course they do. Whether that translates to something more lasting and compels new readers to go back to the shop over and over has always been a dicier proposition, however.
The returnability of the comics in the New 52 is certainly a factor to consider when you're looking at the recent market share dominance, and we've also seen that lead dipping month over month since the launch. I want more people buying comics, period, so I'd love to find out that the relaunch brought in tons of new readers who are going to keep buying not only DC Comics but comics in general, but I'm very skeptical. I had high hopes for the idea of a huge mainstream media push aimed at expanding the audience base for comics that displayed a wide diversity of genre, art style, and character. While there have been a few ambitious and successful experiments, on the whole I don't think DC made the New 52 an accessible enough product to continue to reach a much wider audience in the long-term, and I fear that will be reflected in a continued decline in sales. Maybe I'm wrong, though. I wouldn't mind being wrong on this one.
HUDSON: I'd love to hear Andy Khouri's answer to that question since he did such a great and comprehensive piece on the subject in regards to Womanthology. Personally, I think Kickstarter can play a valuable role for independent creators, particularly at a time when profit margins are so narrow, and a lot of creators can't expect to see advances that would make their comics projects possible without economic hardship. I do think it's critically important that both creators and organizers helming projects like Womanthology are prepared to be accountable for large sums of other people's money and transparent in regards to the way that money will be used. Part of the difficulty with independent comics has always been the fact that in many ways, you can't just be a creator; you also have to be a businessperson, and it's a very different skill set. But good intentions aren't enough if you're going to launch a project and accept money from customers and supporters, particularly in the case of anthologies, which are organizational monsters. You can't yell "all aboard" on this shit unless you know how to conduct a train.
The issue of payment versus exposure is a sticky one, and I tend to largely agree with the Should I Work For Free? flowchart. There's a time and place in many people's careers (including mine, as a blogger) where working for free -- for exposure -- helps you get a foot in the door. When you become a professional, however, it's desperately important that you learn to value your own work monetarily and demand your worth, because it is highly unlikely that anyone will do this for you. That said, there is certainly room for charity and instances where your personal passions, convictions, and relationships make a project worthwhile regardless of money. Most creators are pretty busy and not running around with giant sacks of money covered in dollar signs, though, so those instances really should be exceptional. Your time as a professional is valuable, so value it the way you value money when you give it away.
SPURGEON:You went big behind Duncan, The Wonder Dog last year in terms of a book of the year. What were you most thrilled about after reading it this year? Do you think there was an undervalued book out there?
HUDSON:Duncan really was an exceptional tour de force completely out of left field, and I don't think 2011 had a book with that kind of surprise factor. We did see Finder by Carla Speed McNeil finally get picked up by a major publisher with Dark Horse Comics, and I continue to think it's one of the most undervalued comics masterpieces out there. Her level of craft world-building is just so tremendous and nuanced, and I'm always struck by how rich and subtle her choices are in terms of narrative and characterization. Everything that happens in Finder feels so fully-realized because of the depth of the backstory, even though -- and especially because -- you never see most of it, unless you sit there and pore through her endnotes. Which of course I do. They're out now in two convenient libraries, and everyone should buy them.
* photo provided by Laura Hudson
* an issue of Comic Foundry
* the ComicsAlliance logo
* one of Chris Sims' features on the ComicsAlliance site
* the look of ComicsAlliance in snapshot form
* the range of subject at CA
* Hudson's corner of the public space that is Twitter
* some of the odd-emphasis sexuality on display in DC's New 52
* wisdom from Shortpacked
* Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips on Fatale
* the relaunched Flash
* from Duncan, The Wonder Dog
* from Finder (below)
* the writer Paul Di Filippo brought to my attention a letter from the latest Bud Plant catalog that says that the company won't just be going on-line, and ending the famous catalog's print iteration, they'll from now on be focusing on the antiquarian and used-books end of their business and are selling the more new-books material at a deep discount to get the company to that place. I'm not sure of the exact nature of the reporting on the status of that company -- I think it had Plant retiring and this facilitating some sort of status change at the company -- but it wouldn't be harmful to repeat the information we have if that's what this is. Plant's importance in the early days of the Direct Market can't be overstated. In fact, it's not in any way an exaggeration to suggest that art comics in North America would have developed in much different fashion if it hadn't been for Plant carrying early issues of The Comics Journal and other seminal publications. For a long while, there really was no other reliable, organizing principle for finding the comics being done off-newstand -- and even some of those books as well! -- except for people like Bud Plant. Hell, the Bud Plant advertisement on the back of newsstand magazines is the first place many young fans like me heard about comics like Cerebus and Elfquest. This crucial role is above and beyond all the times the company served thousands of customers in terms of just putting books they wanted into their hands. So any major refocus or status change is definitely worthy of our attention, and important aspects of that company coming to an end are worth a salute and a thank you.
* Heidi MacDonald caught something I failed to notice when I read the story in question: the Hollywood Reporter piece on DC Comics' 2011 uses sales figures from DC Comics that seem to be actual sales figures. It's only on their top three performers, so it's not like it's information that's going to hurt the company, but still, that's a good thing even if it suggests the real reason the rest of the numbers aren't released with regularity.
* finally, the writer Warren Ellis makes five predictions (non-predictions?) about the immediate future of comics. For me, the takeaway is that an explosion of creator-driven distribution of digital comics material is inevitable, and could have intriguing effects when it arrives. This piece by Dean Haspiel suggests that at the very least the tough market for freelancers -- despite the all-time profits being made from the fruits of their intellectual properties -- may make DIY tools a very valuable thing for each and every creator.
The Columbus, Ohio-based cartoonist has continued to put his comics chops on display in the series RASL, four years old this March. RASL combines science fiction with true science literature and, of all things, noir. The latest issue, #12, featured a classic, all-time information dump that related the story of Nikola Tesla while underscoring how dependent we are on narratives -- personal, biographical, pulp -- and narrators to help us figure out the truth. Smith is closing in on the final sequences of that book, and will finish the saga in the next few issues.
Smith has always been extremely supportive of this site and my work generally, for which I'm forever grateful. It was fun to catch up with him on the phone in early December. -- Tom Spurgeon
TOM SPURGEON: Did you get a chance to reflect on the occasion of this year's anniversary? Did you look back at all on how things have developed over the last 20 years? Was that a part of your year at all?
JEFF SMITH: Actually, it was, but the year before. That's when I spent a lot of time thinking back. Vijaya and I were talking what we were going to do the next year. I knew our 20th anniversary was coming up, so in 2010 we put our heads together to figure out what we could do to celebrate. We came up with this idea for the color one-volume edition. Make it deluxe. We have the absolute-type thing, and we have the fancy one with the gold coin and all of that stuff. I had to write an essay and do a timeline. That really made me reflect on the last 20 years. I was kind of amazed looking back on it. Twenty years is a lot of time. You can do a lot of shit in 20 years. [laughter]
So I did spend quite a bit of time in reflection.
SPURGEON: Did anything pop out at you from that 20 years, maybe something you hadn't thought of before?
SMITH: One thing that popped out at me that I hadn't really thought about was some of the bad times. [laughs] You kind of move past those and keep moving.
SPURGEON: Is there an example of a bad time? Because your career path looks pretty positive from the outside-in.
SMITH: [laughs] Well, good. I'm glad. [laughter] 2001 was a bad year for me. We had a lot of money troubles. I got into these rows with Dave Sim and Linda Medley, and it was very demoralizing. I forgot how close we came to going out of business. We put a bunch of money into toys -- toys were really big -- in 1999 and 2000. We didn't lose any money in the long run, but it tied up a whole bunch of money for a long time. Then the problems we had with Linda. I was slowing down my output right around that time, because I was getting into the heavy parts of the story and it was hard to write. Just a lot of factors came together. I forgot how tough that was. We had to let all our employees go. We had to leave our office. I completely forgot that there was a year when Vijaya and I and Kathleen -- Kathleen Glosan, our production manager -- the three of us were all in my one-room studio above the garage trying to survive. Eventually we did.
SPURGEON: Was it just a matter of getting the book out until the money situation improved? Did you... stop fighting with people? [laughter] Did people stop fighting with you? What led you out of the desert?
SMITH: I don't know, man. I don't know why I got into fights with people that year. I didn't feel like I was fighting with people. I just mostly felt like people were getting upset with me. I don't know. We just had to tighten our belts in the hopes we could ride it out, and eventually we did. We were smarter about things. We stopped doing the toys, obviously. That was silly. We were always thinking about ways to repackage the books. Eventually we pulled it together.
SPURGEON: People might be astonished to hear that you went through that tough of a time, given your reputation for being very successful after Bone finally hit. That makes me wonder... do we underestimate the degree of difficulty in you getting where you are? People wonder at times why we don't see more people following the Jeff Smith model, why we don't see stories similar to yours.
SMITH: [laughs] I'm sure I don't know the answer to why anybody else hasn't done it like that, except they're probably sane. [laughter] You're constantly battling with distributors, or people that aren't doing their job. It's a pretty big enterprise. You're dealing with printers that are sometimes overseas -- sometimes they're in Michigan. You're dealing with licensing in foreign languages and suddenly a publisher goes out of business and hasn't paid you. It's fairly complicated.
SPURGEON: It seems like you're at a similar point right now, at least creatively, in terms of gearing up for a final push on RASL. Is it fair to say you're locking into that last phase on that series?
SMITH: I was entering the final arc on Bone at that time. The final movement. It became very difficult because of how complicated the task is. And I am right there with RASL right now.
SPURGEON: Is it different this time around? Are things going more smoothly for having that earlier experience?
SMITH: Well, I think so. It's surprisingly the same when it comes down to struggling to meet deadlines and tearing your hair out. I haven't gotten any better at that in 20 years. What's different is that after this long I have a team that's got my back. A really, really good team. Obviously Vijaya has been my partner since before my first issue. Vijaya and I actually came up with the plan together for Cartoon Books, to do a black and white comic book every two months and each one will be a chapter in this larger novel. Vijaya knew the ending of the story before we even started. I've got Kathleen, who I mentioned earlier, Kathleen Glosan, who's helped Vijaya run the office. She's the contact with most of the outside world. She sets up publicity, takes care of things, makes sure what I'm supposed to be doing. I've got Steve Hamaker, who does not only the color on Bone but about any art-related job that needs to be done at Cartoon Books that isn't actual comic book pages. I still have to do those by myself. And we have Tom Gaadt, who does all the web stuff. He handles the store, and goes on the road. Everyone's been with us for years. We've had a good group for a long time.
SPURGEON: Tell me about the creative part of moving into a final chapter on a book like RASL. How much of it is figuring out the book in addition to deciding where you want to take it? How much is learning where the book wants to take you?
SMITH: I start out thinking I know what the ending is and where I'm going. And I do. Mostly. The ending will be the same ending. But as you write, especially a serialized book, which is what comic books do really well, I think, the story grows. You get ideas as you're going along. In RASL, there's that spooky little girl that doesn't talk. She was not in my original plan. She just kind of popped onto the page one time. I was suggesting that Rasl, by going to different universes and traveling back and forth, was altering something. He was messing with nature. It popped into my head that it would be super-creepy and really freaky that this little girl would be standing there that can't talk. She's taken her place in the comic and has grown and is now going to be part of the ending. I'm a little nervous about the ending I came up with for her, because it's a little intense. I think I'm going to do it anyway.
Does that answer your question?
SPURGEON: It does. And you're close enough we might see this in the next year or year and a half, right?
SMITH: Yeah, I'm shooting to have it done by next summer. Here's what's weird, though. My original plan was to have it done in nine issues. Then I expanded that to fifteen issues because the story kind of got bigger. Now I wonder if I can fit it into 15. I'm really close. It's either going to be 15 or 16 or maybe 15 will have 48 pages. It's kind of embarrassing to admit that it's that unplanned, that out of control. [laughs] But that's the way I lay into these projects, and see what happens.
SPURGEON: You and I talked a bit about this yesterday, setting up this phone call: you mentioned that when you utilize certain genres that the way the lead is oriented within them restricts your narrative a bit. Specially, the hallmarks of one of the genres you're using, noir, limits the readers' information to what the lead knows.
SPURGEON: Can you talk about the challenges there? When you mentioned that you used to switch perspective in Bone, this wasn't a particular memory I had of that story. But when I looked, I found you did do that rather frequently. And now with RASL, you can't. We've been in this guy's pocket for the whole trip.
SMITH: It's one of the tropes of noir that I didn't think through when I committed to this project. [laughs] I've had a lot of fun. RASL kind of gestated in my mind, Tom, for about eight years. While I was finishing Bone, while I was finishing Shazam... I finally got into it and had a lot of fun reading Dashiell Hammett and reading Raymond Chandler and watching movies. Just getting into that hardboiled thing. Figuring out here's my character, and here's the triangle. Plus I was getting into the physics. I was doing all that, and then it got down to finally writing the comic. Then I realized you can only know what the main hero knows.
So as you were alluding to, in Bone I can just cut away to the bad guys. I can show what the Hooded One and Kingdok are talking about and plotting against the Bones. Add tension that way. Or if I finished up a bit with Fone Bone and Thorn, I could cut to the shenanigans of Smiley and Phoney. That way it would never get boring. You could hop around and see what everyone else was doing. Then I started RASL, and in noir you can't know... Rasl is in every frame. You only know what he knows, and that's incredibly difficult. I can't just set up the plot and have exposition done by a villain. It all has to be uncovered by Rasl. It's a fun thing to read, and to watch in a movie; it's very difficult to write.
SPURGEON: Do you like Rasl? He's very different than the more iconic characters you used in Bone.
SMITH: I like him. I like him a lot. I think he's very interesting. He's tough. He's a lot of things I wish I was. He's a lot of things I'm glad I'm not -- he's a fuck-up. [Spurgeon laughs]
I started this series with him being portrayed as an art thief. I wanted the audience to meet him as a questionable character, and wonder what this guy is all about and can you sympathize with him. That's why I pushed the whole art thief/heist thing. He's not a goody two-shoes guy, that's for sure. As we uncover his past, we find out he was sleeping with his partner's wife. He's made all sorts of bad decisions. Some were on purpose, the kind of destruction he's left in his wake. I think slowly we're discovering that he did it all for a reason, even if it wasn't really well thought-out. We're finding out that the things he's rebelling against and fighting against were really powerful, bad things. We'll get more information on that even in these final chapters.
SPURGEON: When I think of your work with theme with Bone, I think of you putting together different elements from the genres with which you were working, but not really pushing a very specific lesson or moral. Certain themes very gently revealed themselves, and really had to be engaged by the reader. Is that also true of RASL, do you think? One thing that occurs to me is that a lot of what we see is him fixing things, fixing the situation, and a kind of redemption arc. But it's so delicate I'm not even sure about that. Do you think in terms of theme?
SMITH: I do. Some things will drift to the surface, and you can decide to highlight them or not. But yeah, I definitely think of theme. My favorite book is Moby Dick. And it's a genre book. It's a high seas adventure book. But you can read it on many levels -- I'm not saying anything new there, Tom. [laughter] But it's not an accident that it works that way. Melville really layered it in a certain way, and used symbolism -- some of it heavy-handed, but some of it very subtle. It's meant to be open-ended. When you're working in genre and you're using those kind of symbols, the idea is not to give someone a lesson, but to leave these portals open for people to go into and experience the story and have it reflect something in their own lives and things they're going through. So even though the story has forward motion and has themes and arcs, the stories I like is where the themes are created specifically to be open to the reader. [pause] Did I say that very well? [laughter]
SPURGEON: I sometimes wonder how people are reacting to RASL. You know, Bone had this thing where it started out as this pastoral, Walt Kelly/Carl Barks-ish comedy and then pulled itself together into this full-blown fantasy, taking readers to a different place entirely than where they started. Even so, I could sort of guess how people were reacting to it. But with RASL, I don't know. The only thing that comes up as a recurring element in the writing about it is that everyone notes that this is a more mature work -- at least in that you're drawing naughty. [Smith laughs] Do you hear back from people? Are you surprised by anything you're heard about the work?
SMITH: My favorite reaction was my friend Terry Moore. He wrote somewhere that it was weird to see a Jeff Smtih drawing doing dirty things. [laughter] In terms of what I was picking up people started reading it eager to pick up on what I was doing? In the last year I'm definitely feeling a connection. I was talking to my Italian publisher, and he had said something very insightful that made me realize that he was really paying attention to it. He's my Bone publisher there; we haven't licensed RASL in any foreign languages yet, because we're waiting until it's done. The pages where I talk about Tesla, where I ruminate on Tesla for a while, he said, "Oh, that's the part of Moby Dick where he talks about the whale heads." That's exactly it. That's exactly what I'm doing. It's fun. It's connected to the story; it has something to do with it. But really I'm just doing that. I'm going to spend a couple of pages and talk about something I like that. Try to hypnotize people while they're reading it.
SPURGEON: Has this one been a struggle at all as a publisher? The industry is different now, and you're doing it in multiple formats -- you like the serial format, and a lot of people have given up on serial publishing. Has it been difficult at all as a publisher to get this one out there?
SMITH: A little bit. I don't see it getting the kind of traction that Bone got. On the other hand, I've only been doing it for three years. Bone was three years in before it got any traction itself. But yeah, it's been a little bit of a struggle. I've thrown a couople of formats out there just to see what people want. I got some push back on the over-sized volumes. I did those large, album-sized volumes. I liked them. But people were not liking them. So we tried the pocket book. And that got some reviews, in Publishers Weekly. Some of the reviews actually said, specifically, "Oh, this solves the problem of this stupid, over-sized things that doesn't fit in my bookshelf and my longbox." So okay: that's who I made the pocket book for.
SPURGEON: Do you get any sense that people's consumption habits are different now. People have told me that even if a new comic had the exact level of appeal that say, Bone had, that structurally you might not be able to do another Bone. The market is just wholly resistant to many of the factors that made Bone a hit. Do you have any sense of that?
SMITH: I don't, Tom, to be honest. I don't really see what's so different about right now. What would be different? That Marvel and DC are trying to swamp the shelves and wipe everything else out? That's the same as it was back then.
SPURGEON: One thing that might be different is you have fewer similar books on the stands now.
SMITH: There weren't too many back then, either. [laughter] There never were that many. And even all together we weren't that big of a deal. I think if a comic book showed up and had that spark, I don't see why somebody couldn't do it. RASL's obviously not that one. [laughter] It's doing all right. This issue #12, the one that just shipped, the numbers started to go up again. So I don't think it's that different. It's just that it's still fucking hard.
SPURGEON: What's your digital footprint like on RASL? I probably should have researched that before we talked. [Smith laughs] But are you publishing that way?
SMITH: I'm getting my toes wet. We worked with comiXology to develop two stand-alone apps: one for Bone and one for RASL. And that went very well. RASL sold just as well as Bone that way. That was exciting to see. We're developing books for the book readers with a couple of companies. We're still gathering information. We're using comiXology to see how people are buying. It looks to me like comiXology is trying to move the -- what am I trying to say? -- it looks to me like they're replicating the direct market into the digital arena. They're a digital comic book store. They're selling comic books, and they're hoping people will come back and buy them and they'll feed the habit the same way. The same thing comic book stores are doing. I bet there are other ways to get your digital comic out there. There are some decisions still to be made, I think.
SPURGEON: You're talking basic decisions...?
SMITH: Yes. Right now there are comic books where you get a new issue every month. There are books -- the readers, everyone's got at least one. Then there are the apps. There's quite a bit still out there to be done digitally that hasn't been done yet. We're looking into it. We're going to spend some time to get it right. But we think it's a way for self-publishing to really work.
SPURGEON: So if you figured out your 2011 in 2010, have you figured out your 2012 yet? Do you know what's next? Do you have a next creative project?
SMITH: I've got the next two years kind of mapped out, the big events I want to hit. One of them is a new project. The one I'm doing after RASL. It's still too soon to talk about that stuff -- I don't have names for anything yet. I'm still talking with just Vijaya right now.
SPURGEON: Was it always a foregone conclusion that there would be a next project? Are you used to working on a new project -- do you like having something new on the plate?
SMITH: I think as long as I have something to do, I'll want to do it. You just made me think of something. When I began RASL I did it with this idea that I did Bone at pretty much five issues a year. I was regular, even though my reputation was not that. [laughs] I worked really hard, and I got Bone out. I thought with RASL, instead of killing myself and doing a book every two months, I'd do a book every four months and it'd be fine. How often does [Dan] Clowes put out a book? Or [Chris] Ware? But boy, that was not met with much sympathy at all. Readers got mad, and retailers... so I tried to step it up. I would love to coast a little bit, but it might not be possible.
SPURGEON: You've always been supportive of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund. It's their anniversary this year as well. While you haven't gone to an obscenity trial with Bone, you have been hassled for the not all-the-way G-rated, not 1970s Disney version of fantasy that gets portrayed in that work. Do you have any reflection on the Fund's anniversary? Do you think your fellow creators are still behind what they do over there?
SMITH: Yeah. I think it's actually grown. For a long time, Marvel and DC wouldn't have anything to do with it. Then DC jumped in. I think it's important. As you just mentioned: Bone, for god's sake, is under attack. Good Christ. If Bone can be under attack... and it is one of the most contested books in school right now. We have to have some way of standing up to people that think they can control others' freedom of speech, that can tell a medium what to do.
SPURGEON: When you arrived, and started to become a bigger name, it seemed like the free speech issues were part of many issues. Even the act of self-publishing had an political element to it.
SMITH: Ah, remember those days? [laughter]
SPURGEON: It doesn't seem like you have that kind of focused attention on a range of issues. Certainly I think you're right that the support for the Fund has broadened, but it sometimes seems like it's the only set of issues with which people engage. Do you think that's a generational thing? Are is it that the options for creators are pretty good right now?
SMITH: Keep going, keep going. [laughs]
SPURGEON: Do you ever want to sit down with the young people and tell them why these things are important?
SMITH: [laughs] "Sit down, children, and let me tell you about the olden days." [laughter]
SPURGEON: "Uncle Jeff's Indy Comics Tales."
SMITH: You raise some good points. I think some of the issues were settled. What were our issues? I think we were trying to get shelf space. We were trying to get equal time in the critical press -- Fantagraphics rose to that. We were trying to change the model, the business model of comics. Instead of just being pamphlets, we wanted graphic novels accepted by the retail market. And it was eventually. We wanted to get out of the comic stores and get out into the real world, the big box stores. We did that. We won a lot of those battles.
I still go to shows, because I love talking to cartoonists who are right on that edge where I used to be. I still am, maybe not financially anymore, but artistically you never feel like you're secure. I still go to SPX and MoCCA -- not every year, but I love to talking to those guys. And what I see is they have a different set of problems. They feel secure in their art. There's no question that they can draw a story about whatever they want. And they don't apologize for it. [laughs] They do everything. But the marketplace is weird. They moved away from where we were, which was based in the comic book store, to the web. They have communion on the web. I say "they" because I feel a little old and out of touch. You know what I'm saying?
SPURGEON: I do. And if I made you feel old and out of touch, then my mission here is accomplished. [Smith laughs]
SMITH: Hey, I like being a veteran that survived. That's a fine place to be!
SPURGEON: It's just that you were in that last burst of great cartoonists that essentially transformed the industry underneath you, or at least created more options -- it made me wonder what you thought there was left to do.
SMITH: I do think there's work to do. It's figuring out how the cartoonists will make money through web distribution, through the Internet. Right now there's not just that much money. There's just not a lot of money in having an app and selling a comic that way. It's not going to pay your rent. It might help with the grocery bill, but it's not significant enough. There is a problem to be solved. I'm in it, too. Vijaya and I are trying to figure it out right now, just like everybody else. Marvel, DC, Dark Horse, Fantagraphics -- nobody has this figured out. We're right there. It's exciting. I don't think it's solved. The young people... listen to me! "The young people." Let's stop this. [laughter]
SPURGEON: You mentioned Vijaya again... I was going to interview you and Vijaya at San Diego last summer, but I wasn't able to make it out there. We've talked about this before, but I think Vijaya's contributions are under-appreciated. Is there something you feel she's added to the landscape that you wished more people recognized?
SMITH: When I talk to people, I know they recognize what she's done.
SPURGEON: Oh, sure.
SMITH: She's my partner. I get a lot of credit for making smart moves in the industry. She made those decisions with me. A lot of them were led by her, like making sure our rights were intact so we could use them again on the next thing. She's written a lot of contracts that have gone on to be used by other people in the industry. Anything anyone gives me credit for, they should give credit to her, too.
* the Hollywood Reporteranalyzes DC's 2011 sales figures. It's not so much that this is a compelling or very deep analysis, but that you can kind of apprise what a publication focused on media companies and their properties emphasizes on this subject.
Rina Piccolo is one of the more prolific cartoonists working. She has a daily syndicated strip, Tina's Groove, has anchored the Wednesday slot of the Six Chix feature for more than a decade, makes a multiple-installments-per-week webcomic Velia, Dear and produces any number of gag panels for a series of clients. Any one of those could conceivably take up a cartoonist's entire drawing-table workweek. Piccolo's comics are consistently well-crafted. It's a consistent delight how fundamentally good-looking Velia, Dear remains episode to episode, for example, given Piccolo's overall workload. I was happy this daughter of Toronto (currently living in New York City) was able to make time for an interview despite all that she has on her plate, and greatly enjoyed our conversation. – Tom Spurgeon
TOM SPURGEON: I was wondering how you arrange your work week. Given how prolific you are, I assume you're one of those disciplined, regimented cartoonists that everyone else hates.
RINA PICCOLO: That everyone else hates? [laughs] Why do they hate us?
SPURGEON: You're too organized; you're too on the ball, Rina.
PICCOLO: Well, you know what? Here's the thing. This is what I believe. If you want to put out a lot of work, it has to in some way be organized. There's gotta be some kind of rhythm to it. Because without it, nothing gets done. The way I look at it, my schedule is like a guide. I don't have to think of what I'm doing next, because I've got a schedule that tells me that. So I just jump right in, without wondering, "Now what do I do?" It saves a lot of time. It kind of gets you -- I hate to use this word -- but it kind of gets you into a groove [Spurgeon laughs] and it really helps. It helps. Especially if you've got a lot on your plate. It's kind of like making a list. Are you a list-maker?
SPURGEON: I am sort of a list-maker, yeah.
PICCOLO: Doesn't it organize your mind a bit?
SPURGEON: I... think so. At the point it's so ingrained I don't know what it does to me. I know I'd be lost without one.
PICCOLO: Right. Exactly. So in some ways it not only makes things tidy in your head, it makes things easier to do.
SPURGEON: So I'm guessing you're a bloc of time cartoonist.
PICCOLO: That means…
SPURGEON: "Monday afternoon, I do this."
PICCOLO: Yes. Absolutely.
SPURGEON: Can you break down a week for me?
PICCOLO: I do more of a bi-weekly thing because of my gag cartooning, so sometimes I'll have a little change here and there. But Mondays... Mondays are my hardest day. I try to complete six Tina's Groove dailies on Monday. Not the writing -- just the penciling and the inking. It takes me all day. It's the kind of day I don't want to do anything else, because that would get me out of it and I wouldn't have that rhythm where I just get it done. Mondays are just the artwork. On Tuesdays, I sit down and write Tina's Groove for the following week. The reason I do it for the following week is because if there are any problems with the writing I can iron them out. I have time. I don't have to stress over, "Oh no, that one's not going to work." I give myself a whole day to do that, and I usually pump them out -- I get my quota done. Wednesdays I write for Velia, Dear, and then Thursdays I draw it. I draw three Velia, Dear strips. It takes me another whole day to do that. And then Friday is an open day. I can either tie up loose ends if I didn't get something done during the week, like the story on Velia, Dear if there's a problem with it and it needs tightening up, I'll do that. Or anything still to do with Tina's Groove, I'll do. Friday I use to write gag panels. The drawing of the gag panels I'll do a week later. [laughs] This is where it gets dicey, because I have to use one of my days -- or at least half a day -- to draw up sketches for gag panels. Which I then submit to a number of places.
I forgot Saturday! [laughs] Saturday is basically a shorter day. I do a Tina's Groove Sunday, pencil and ink. And my one Six Chix. That's when I get my Six Chix done. On Saturday. It takes no time at all, so Saturday is an easy day.
PICCOLO: Oh, it's tight when I'm drawing it. I might make slight changes here and there, but once it's written it's pretty tight.
SPURGEON: And you employ an actual, written script?
PICCOLO: Yeah. I break it down before I draw it; I do a little thumbnail. I know how the panels are going to look. You know all of this stuff.
SPURGEON: I do, but I wondered if you considered that element of it part of the writing or if you considered that part of the drawing.
PICCOLO: That's an interesting question. Oh my God. You do know this stuff. [laughs] Of course you do.
It's both. Sometimes if it's the type of writing that has no words, then it is the breaking down of panels -- what's the action in this panel, what's the action in that panel -- that I consider part of the writing. And if there's a strip that's more action than dialogue, I will write it with pictures. In thumbnails. So that it will hopefully carry the story.
SPURGEON: You've been around for quite some time now. 1989 is what sources like Wikipedia suggest was your starting date. The thing is, you were pretty deeply involved fairly quickly -- you weren't just scrambling for a placement here and there; you did books and collections of your work in the '90s.
PICCOLO: Oh, my God. That was like another life. [laughs]
SPURGEON: Do you remember the initial impulse, the moment you decided, "I can do this professionally."
PICCOLO: Yeah, and it was around 1989. I mark that date as my first published cartoon. I'm pretty amazed by that. I had no idea how publishing worked. I was completely ignorant. I didn't know that there were people out there that did illustrations and cartoons and they submit things, and then magazines and books publish them. I had no idea of the mechanics of how things worked. I read an ad in Toronto's weekly magazine which is kind of like The Village Voice: Now Magazine -- it still exists in Toronto. They had a comics guest spot. They were going to do one cartoonist a week. I had these drawings, I had these cartoons and I had some comics. And I thought, "Why don't I just send them in and see what happens?" And I was urged by friends as well. I would show these things to my friends. They'd say, "This is hilarious; this is really great." If they liked them, maybe others would like them.
So I sent them in. And let me tell you I was pretty shocked to get a response back. And they not only published the first one, they published five of them. So I was in for five consecutive weeks. And then they dropped the feature. [laughter] At that point, I kind of started to think, "Hey, I've had luck here... what's to stop me from having luck somewhere else?" This is always my advice to young cartoonists who ask, "How do you know if you've got it, if you've got work that saleable?" I always tell them don't ask your friends and family. They love you, so they're not going to give you the right answer. Get the opinions of strangers, complete strangers. Editors of magazines. Preferably in a professional situation, so you can get a good answer. And that's going to be the true answer.
SPURGEON: One of the things I'm tracking with some of the younger cartoonists out there is that we live in a very social media-oriented world, and it seems like more and more people are finding feedback just from a circle of friends. If you get 40 of your friends to comment on something you did, you think, "That's great." And if you get 80, you think, "Wow, I'm killing it." What was in your character do you think that you wanted to publish? Because showing work to your friends can be a very satisfying thing. What was it about getting it out there professionally that appealed to you?
PICCOLO: That's a good question. I have no idea. I often ask that myself to this day. Apart from the fact that there's money involved, and that gives you a little bit of "Wow, I drew a picture and someone gave me money for drawing a picture." I come from a family of workers. I mean real workers. My dad was an Italian immigrant who worked in construction for half of his life. For me growing up, work itself was torture. It was hard. To think that I could sit down and draw a picture and then someone sends me a check for it? Forget it: that's like a dream!
Like I said before, I didn't even think that happened. [laughs] I didn't know who these people were that were drawing comics for the comics page. So I guess it was a thrill. It was a real thrill for me and I think for anybody to see their name in a publication and see their work in a magazine viewed by a million people or whatever -- I don't know what their circulation was -- and getting a reward, a financial reward for it...? At the time, that was enough for me, and that's when it became an idea in my head that I could possibly make a career out of it. I could spend my days, spend my life doing this. It was like, "I have to start doing it earnestly now." And it just snowballed. [pause] Very slowly. A very slow snowball moving very, very slowly. [laughs]
SPURGEON: What kind of support were you getting from your family as your career developed?
PICCOLO: My parents were very supportive of anything I wanted to do. They did question it. "Is this going to be your job?" "Are you going to make enough money?" I think it was because they thought... you know, this is something I've been inwardly analyzing. If my brothers did this, I think if my brothers had done this, my parents wouldn't have been as supportive. Because they're men, right? They have to grow up and get real jobs. I was the girl. In a weird sense that was an advantage. It was like, "Oh, she's going to grow up and get married and settle down. And her husband will take care of her." That's how they look at life, or at least looked at it back then.
So they were supportive of me because they thought, "Let her do this and see where it goes. It doesn't matter because she's a girl anyway." [laughs] It's kind of like an advantage. I think that has a lot to do with it. I'm talking about the older generation: my parents and my uncle and aunts. There was also a generation down from that, with a little bit more education and a little more Canada-ized, having grown up with the culture. They were a little more understanding of what I was trying to do. What I am trying to do. [laughs] I'm still trying to do it!
Some of my biggest fans are right there, my family. That's nice to know.
SPURGEON: The offer to be part of the group of cartoonists doing Six Chix... When that came in back in 2000 or so, was there any hesitation to take on that gig? That's a unique offer in that you're not getting your own strip, you're working with other people; there's also a very strong identity placed on it because of the premise. Was it easy to accept that gig?
PICCOLO: Yeah, I have to say it was easy. It was exciting for me because it meant syndication. At the time, when [then King Features editor] Jay Kennedy offered me a contract for Six Chix, we were still working together on Tina's Groove -- even though it wasn't called that yet. It was just a strip. He came to me and said, "There's something else I've got for you, but it's only one cartoon a week, so we can still do a strip."
At the time I didn't feel, "Oh, well, that's too much work for me." I felt like I could do one gag panel and still do the strip if it were to happen. So yeah, it was something I did not hesitate on at all. Because it was the kind of the thing I knew I could do. I started out doing panels. It was the strip thing that gave me a lot of anxiety. I wasn't yet a comic strip artist at that time. I was a gag panelist.
SPURGEON: So what was the impetus to move from gag panels into strips, then? Was this something you were personally motivated to do? Did Jay convince you it was a good idea?
PICCOLO: I think Jay had a lot to do with it. One of the things he used to talk to me about was sale-ability and marketability. It's not that they just want a great comic strip, they want to be able to sell it. The thing he kept harping on me about was that gag panels don't really work on the page. They're very hard to sell. There are fewer spaces for gag panels than there are for strips. So your best bet if you wanted to be syndicated was to do a comic strip. I thought about it, and he asked me to come up with a few premises to work on... the whole thing took years. The first year I would say I was learning how to deal with characters and situations. So yeah, he had a lot to do with that. I went with it, and I learned how to do a comic strip through him.
SPURGEON: I was edited by Jay Kennedy for a time period, too, and my memory was that I was fairly resistant to some of his advice, not exactly to my credit. Was that a good relationship for you?
PICCOLO: I know what you mean by that, because Jay was very hands-on. I know from talking to other cartoonists at other syndicates that their editors basically said, "Okay, there you go. Bye. Do your strip." [laughter] And I was like, "Really? It's like that?" Because Jay would literally hold my hand.
I have to tell you, though. I needed it. I wasn't confident enough. He really did help me. In the very beginning, the first year or two years of syndication, I did want him to call me and tell me if something was off, or if something didn't make sense. That's what I needed, I really needed that coaching. After about three years, I literally went into his office with this big speech prepared on how I think I could do it on my own now and he doesn't have to call me every week and I don't want to have to send in sketches before inking things. I wanted to be independent of his day-to-day, hands-on editorship.
So I walked into his office and he said, "Before you begin" -- he knew I wanted to talk -- "I think you're okay to go on your own now. I won't call you every week." [laughter] I was so happy because I was confident. This was three years in, three years of syndication. I knew I could do this. He would still read them. Tina's Groove was still a relatively new strip, so he would read the proofs before they went out. If there was anything out of line, he would call. But by then I knew the rules. [laughs] "The rules."
SPURGEON: What was the hardest thing for you to learn? Where was your learning curve the most dramatic?
PICCOLO: The characters. Yeah. That was the toughest thing. I guess I grew up -- at least as a cartoonist doing comics. Doing four-panel comics and gag cartoons, there's very little character involvement there. My comics were very plot-driven at first, or just straight humor. Here I was with this cast of characters, and I didn't know you could just put them in situations and the gag would come that way. I would work backwards. I would come up with a gag and then have my characters deliver it. Which sometimes I still do, because it makes for a good gag, I think.
SPURGEON: In your gag work, do you have recurring characters like some cartoonists do? I looked at a bunch of the Six Chix Wednesdays, and that's essentially a gag strip shaped to fit where a daily goes. It looked like there were a few character types that recur.
PICCOLO: Yeah, they do recur. The old lady is in there -- I do a lot of little old ladies. I'm probably just influenced over the years by other gag cartoonists. There's the everywoman and everyman character; I use them a lot. They do recur.
SPURGEON: Now, the lead in Tina's Groove is a traditional everywoman, at least in that the other characters are a bit wackier and bounce off of her.
SPURGEON: Is that a comfortable way to write -- to have this character reacting to the others rather than having to drive the action?
PICCOLO: I think it works. I think she had more guts at the beginning. Jay's input on Tina, the character Tina, and he really believed this and he was right: your main character should be thoughtful and lovable and good. Wholesome good. All the other characters are allowed to have the stuff that in real life most people have -- you know what I'm saying. Most people are Tina's best friend rather than Tina. Tina is so good. She'd never do anything evil to anyone. You know what I'm saying?
I think the humor in Tina's Groove is that she's a bit of a fish out of water. She's the straight man. She's the only sane person in a world of crazy people, freaks. So that's basically how I started writing it. I was like, "Oh! I get it! It's like Green Acres. He's the only sane guy and everybody else is crazy." So I started writing it like that. And that started very early on. You can see it in how she looks at everything: "Oh, okay..."
SPURGEON: I wonder if it's difficult to not lose your lead in a strip like that, seeing as how the other characters are a bit looser and maybe more obviously funny. Do you have to, for example, do a Tina day every so often so that the other characters don't run away with the strip?
PICCOLO: I've thought of that. Because there is a character that sometimes tries to run away with the strip: the crazy Monica character -- she's the weirdo of the group. I have to be careful it's not all about her. I bring it back. I do find a voice for Tina. Her voice is more... if the joke is coming from Tina, it's going to be a smart, observational type of joke. An insightful kind of thing. If it's a quirky thing, I'll give it to another one of the characters depending on what the joke is.
SPURGEON: One thing I thought reading a bunch of strips going back into 2010 was how strong the other characters are -- and how unpleasant one character was. A wholly unpleasant character is not something I think of with a daily strip. This character was bad enough that if he were on a network television show they might ask you to scale him back a little bit. The character I'm thinking of is called Noel...?
PICCOLO: Oh, that. Oh God.
SPURGEON: You just want to throw a rock at his head half the time.
PICCOLO: I know. I know. I really dug that one deep. [Spurgeon laughs] I wanted to do a long story. Some people liked it. Other people were like, "Get rid of this character. Because I hate him."
SPURGEON: [laughs] So how intentional was it on your part to push at those elements of daily strip making, to kind of stir up those reactions?
PICCOLO: It was and it wasn't. I wanted to see where it would go. It went on too long, and I mean that. I thought, "I need to do this long storyline." People were like, "Get rid of him! We want Tina back to how she was." And I'm like, "Oh, okay." [laughs] "Well, that's a good sign at least."
SPURGEON: It's all a loyalty test, you're saying.
PICCOLO: I also did it so I could push her character. How secure is Tina? She is human. She's a girl. She has feelings. So let's make her fall in love with a jerk and see what happens. That's what happened. She fell in love with an idiot. And readers wanted him out of the picture.
SPURGEON:Tina's Groove is a workplace strip -- much of the action focuses around a specific work setting. Part of the idea with a strip like that is that people who share that experience with the characters are better able to identify with the strip, and you find champions in that segment of the populace. Has that concept as seen in Tina's Groove been a strength of the feature, do you think? Have you liked that aspect of it?
PICCOLO: Yeah, I think so. I get a lot of mail from restaurant people. When I go to Toronto, a lot of family members work in restaurants and the service industry and they always tell me, "Oh my God, I saw another one of your cartoons on a kitchen wall." Or a bathroom wall. Or on a cash register somewhere. I do get mail from people in the service industry: "I can tell you've worked in restaurants before."
Have you ever worked in a restaurant?
SPURGEON: Nothing past the kitchen at a summer camp.
PICCOLO: It really does get as freakish as what you see in the strip. So that's a strength, I really think it is.
SPURGEON: Did you get a sales bump when Cathy decided to go? It was thought your strip might be one of the beneficiaries of the open slots that came with Cathy Guisewite's retirement.
PICCOLO: A little bit but not a lot. I don't think anyone did. I think it was overestimated the number of papers that she was in. It wasn't as many as everyone thought. And papers just dropped Cathy and then didn't pick up any other strips. Which was bad, because it was their way of going, "Okay, another one we don't have to pay for." I think that's what happened. That might be wrong. This is what other cartoonists were saying at the time. This was buzzing.
SPURGEON: Cathy Guisewite and Cathy had this sales hook of "This is a strip about a female character from a female cartoonist. You want one of these in your paper for your female readers." Do people still think in those terms? Do people see your strip that way -- is that a way in which it appeals to newspapers?
PICCOLO: I think syndicate people still see it that way, and to some extent newspaper editors as well. "We don't have this kind of strip; we don't have that kind." Even if you look at the sales kit, it's all, "Yeah, this is a girls' strip." I hate that term, but that's the mentality out there. "We already have Cathy; that's our girl strip." There isn't just one female voice. There are many female voices. You can have two girls strips. [laughs]
I don't think most readers look at it that way. To them it's just a comic strip about a waitress.
SPURGEON: She is a waitress. Some commentators on pop culture have written recently about an interest from consumers of entertainment in downturn culture. Tina's a working person, not a successful businessperson or anything high-powered. Have you received any interest in the feature based on that? Like if she were a well-connected lawyer, she wouldn't be as interesting as she is with this very real job. Have you seen any interest in the feature based on that?
PICCOLO: No, I haven't. That's interesting, though, because Jay used to say that. This was years ago. He'd say there were too many prominent lawyer-type characters on television; there was almost nothing on the regular girl next door. What does she do? She works at Wal-Mart, she works at this restaurant. He used to talk about that a lot.
SPURGEON: So he was prescient.
PICCOLO: Yeah. Strange. [laughter] I do see it on television over the last few years, but I haven't had any interest in the strip that way.
SPURGEON: Your webcomic, /Velia, Dear -- it's almost like you had too many reasons to do it to not go ahead and do it. You wanted to do another strip, you had more ideas than you could use, you wanted something set in Toronto, you wanted something a little freer than the restrictions you have in mass syndication, you had some process things you thought you might enjoy in doing it. The question I have is that even though you wanted to free yourself up with a new project, Velia, Dear is a very traditional strip. What made you want to do another traditional strip?
PICCOLO: You think it's a traditional strip?
SPURGEON: In terms of the form.
PICCOLO: I must have a one-track mind. It's interesting that you ask that question because it will lead me to tell you something else. But you're right. Yeah, it is traditional. It's a three- or four-panel strip that ends in something -- a gag or whatever. And you know what? I'm telling you, I had a one-track mind. I'd been working on Tina's Groove for so long, that when I sat down to work on a webcomic, it was like that was the only comic I could think of doing. The same arrangement of three or four panels. The only thing that differed is that I took it in another direction. I started writing longer stories. It wasn't gag a day. If you look at it today, there's no way you could understand it without knowing what is going on. It became a continuity strip.
SPURGEON: What's the other thing you wanted to tell me?
PICCOLO: I'm planning -- I haven't said anything yet -- I'm planning to break away from that traditional comic strip format. What I'm saying is that it's going to stop being a traditional webcomic and I'm going to try and do more comic-book like stories. What would you call that format? I'd just be doing a two-page story, or a three-page story or a one-page story. And I'd be using the same character.
SPURGEON: I think that's just called a comic. [laughter]
PICCOLO: I'm too close to it now! It's a comic, all right? [laughs]
To tell you the truth, Tom, it's like this. It's a treadmill doing the daily strip and then the three webcomics: Velia, Dear has run almost two years now. In the next two or three months it will be two years. I did say it would be a two-year experiment. I want to produce stuff that is not deadline driven. And so Velia, Dear will become... it's not going away. I think people presume that they're always going to get the thrice-weekly dose of the strip, and that's going to stop. But the site will still be up, and I'll offer the readers more comics -- it might be every couple of months or so -- so that I can do a collection.
I really love these characters. I don't want to end the webcomic and say goodbye to them forever. The reason why I'm ending it isn't that I don't like it. I really like it. It's just the time, the time involved.
SPURGEON: Doing the longer storylines in Velia, Dear seems like it was a big deal for you. Did you have fun figuring out you liked doing the longer storylines?
PICCOLO: Yeah, absolutely. Also figuring out how to do them. I'm figuring out how to write... well, fiction. And it came at the same time I started writing a lot of prose. Going to the new format for Velia, Dear will give me more time to write and work on the Velia, Dear project. It should free up a couple of days a week. That will be enough time to delve into this fiction stuff.
SPURGEON: Are you happy with Velia, Dear as a creative project? Has it been rewarding?
PICCOLO: I'm very happy. I'm very happy with it. Yesterday I was writing -- not really writing, what was I doing...? I was writing Tina's Groove but thinking about Velia, Dear and thinking about how I was going to end the current story. I didn't know how it was going to end. It just came to me. While I'm not going to tell you the ending, it gave me a lot of joy to know it could end like that. I can end the webcomic like that. It totally turns it around.
I'm not making any sense, because I'm not telling you what it is. [laughs] It was exciting to me yesterday.
SPURGEON: We need more mysteries, Rina.
PICCOLO: I tend to get a little crazy with these stories, but that's the fun in it.
SPURGEON: How Toronto is that strip? You did PR early on about drawing specific places and making references you can't make in a syndicated strip. Do you have Toronto readers?
PICCOLO: I do have Toronto readers. I had this one strip -- it ran this last Monday. It had a lot to do with an inside joke about the Toronto Transit System, the public transportation in Toronto. Everyone likes to make fun of the transit system in their city, and I got some response where people not even from Toronto knew that being from there I'd make fun of that system.
It is a Toronto strip, and I want to give it a sense of place. The way the houses look... that's my city. I've had subway scenes where I show what station it is. Every time I need to refer to a street name or an intersection, it'll be a real intersection. With Tina's Groove, it's kind of like a no-place place. I say "Main Street" a lot. But in Velia, Dear the characters are definitely Torontonians making references to things that are solely in and of Toronto. I wanted that. I love that city. [laughs]
SPURGEON: Comics used to chase after a more specific sense of place a bit more frequently than they do now.
PICCOLO: That's one of those things I think you learn after you do this stuff for a while. Even if your place is fictional -- like in Tina's Groove, where they're just in a town -- it's still important to have a sense of place for the characters. It's one of those things that readers subconsciously pick up.
SPURGEON: The wash technique you use in Velia, Dear is very attractive.
PICCOLO: Thank you.
SPURGEON: I wish I had a really cool question about that approach, but I don't. I mean, is that just something you enjoy? Is it something you wanted to do because you can't do that on the newspaper page? Because I'm pretty sure you couldn't send a wash strip down to Reed Brennan.
PICCOLO: For newspaper stuff? No. You couldn't. Otherwise, Patrick McDonnell would be all over that. If they suddenly said you could do that, he'd be all over it. He'd be the best, too.
SPURGEON: So doing wash in Velia, Dear was a way of just getting to work with that technique?
PICCOLO: Oh, yeah. Absolutely. I've always loved the wash. I love the half-tones. The first year of Tina's Groove I used Zip-a-tone and it's not the same.
SPURGEON: The general desire for that artistic effect, that look: that's a holdover from your gag-panel work, right?
PICCOLO: The gag panels later on. Earlier they were just black and white. I didn't even know what wash was. That's how ignorant I was. I'm like, "How did they get that gray part there?" I had no idea. It wasn't like I could jump on google and ask. There was no google. So I spent a lot of time figuring things out for myself.
SPURGEON: What were you seeing that made you think this would be attractive?
PICCOLO: I read The New Yorker every week, so I'd see those. And the collections, I would buy those. A lot of the old stuff. I would look at collections, like the Sam Gross collections. I loved them. I was like, "Wow. I want to learn how to do that."
SPURGEON: Will that technique continue into the newer work as well?
PICCOLO: Yeah, absolutely. The basic look will be the same.
SPURGEON: Was it difficult at all in the print collection of Velia, Dear you released getting the art to print correctly?
PICCOLO: To tell you the truth, Brendan [Burford, Piccolo's husband] took care of the production on that. I don't know that stuff. [laughter] It looks nice on the page.
SPURGEON: Do you like your lead in Velia, Dear? Because there are unpleasant aspects to her personality. Do you find working with that character satisfying above and beyond the novelty of working with someone that's not a daily syndicated strip lead?
PICCOLO: I do like her. She's not perfect. That's the thing about Velia, Dear; I can get away with a lot more. It's satisfying to me. After a while, when people say "You can't say this" and you have these other stories, you just want to do them. I like the stuff in Tina's Groove; not everything I do has to have an emotional undercurrent. I like to think the character in Velia, Dear are less two-dimensional than the ones you see in Tina's Groove.
SPURGEON: Spirituality and religion is a recurring source of plot and humor in Velia, Dear. Has that been a satisfying place for you to go, a place you personally find amusing?
PICCOLO: I tend to naturally go there. You mentioned my earlier collections... one of them was Kicking The Habit, which was cartoons about the Catholic Church. I was raised Catholic, and I'll probably never get over it. [laughter]
SPURGEON: You're not mean-spirited, though. The characters in Velia, Dear may evince a point of view, but they're not savagely critical of the choices other characters make.
PICCOLO: Even if you read those gag panels, they're not mean. It's silly. It's silliness.
SPURGEON: Speaking of which, you spend a good chunk of your work week on the gag cartoons. How much material are you placing with clients?
PICCOLO: It's been pretty good. Not including Six Chix I have three clients. I assume you mean the magazine stuff. Parade is ongoing. I just got into Barron's, and then there's Reader's Digest. There's another thing I can't talk about yet, because I'm very superstitious, but there's another outlet for my gag cartoons that's not exactly a publication.
It's pretty worth it for me to keep doing them, and they're a lot of fun.
SPURGEON: As opposed to the joys of telling a story, is a gag strip more of a problem-solving creative process? When a gag strip works for you, what do you like about it?
PICCOLO: I like that it makes me laugh. If when it pops into my head it makes me smile or laugh, there's something in it to hold onto. That does happen, although usually that phase only lasts a couple of minutes. When you're working with something and it's a shock to you, a surprise to you, and it makes you laugh -- you instantly want to show it someone else. When it works, it's a lot of fun. When it doesn't, it's not fun at all.
SPURGEON: One thing when I look at your panels is that they're very accomplished in terms of the basic craft elements -- you're not going to get in your own way, not going to be unable to do something on the page. How long did it take you to get that comfortable with that element of your work?
PICCOLO: I think years. [laughs] I remember doing cartoons for fashion magazines: Glamour, Mademoiselle. That was mid-'90s.
SPURGEON: I am unfamiliar with the tradition of gag cartooning in 1990s fashion magazines.
PICCOLO: I remember Lynda Barry took my spot. I love her, but.... [Spurgeon laughs] I was like, "That's great. They're going to buy her every month." They later dropped the cartoons. They don't run any now, which is unfortunate.
Even back then I felt I knew what I was doing. I became even more comfortable with it in the last five years; I became extremely comfortable with it.
SPURGEON: What's the difference between your work now and the work you used to do?
PICCOLO: The older work is ugly? [laughter] It's embarrassing? [laughter] King Features took over the Tina's Groove web site, and when I saw they had the archives back to 2003, I cringed. That stuff is up there where people can see it...!? I'm so embarrassed. But then I think of other cartoons and how those characters went through transitions as well. I imagine every cartoonist is embarrassed by the look of their earlier stuff. I can safely say that, because talking to my friends they say that as well.
SPURGEON: You're locked into a cycle with the strip where you're at the slow grind stage in terms of sales -- it's unlikely you'll ever go through another period where you pick up a bunch of clients at once like a strip might when it first comes out. Is that frustrating at all, that you can only pick up strips a few at a time? Does that cause anxiety for you?
PICCOLO: It did cause a little anxiety. With print vs. digital becoming an issue, I was worried about what was going to happen there. Around 2008, those were the worst years: the recession hit, and the strips suffered for that, too.
I think it's turning around. Something I had not thought possible two years ago is happening. There are web sites out there that are news web sites that are buying comic strips from syndicate at the same rate as newspapers. So when I heard that, and I'm in one of them -- they want to curate their comics section the way an old-fashioned newspaper curated their page. This is on the Internet. When you hear of that happening, things are turning around. They're turning around.
SPURGEON: But is there any reaction when you go through a really strong period, you feel you have a great year and the strip is hitting on all cylinders, and the end result is you pick up four papers?
PICCOLO: Oh, absolutely. But you can't even think of it in those terms. If you do, it just cripples you. I used to be very anxious at the very beginning, because I heard the stories of strips launching and crashing six months or a year later. Once I passed two years, people were saying, "You're in enough papers, and it's two years. You're okay." So I started feeling a little better.
I can't think about stuff like you just said. [laughter] Thank you for putting that in my head, Tom.
SPURGEON: I'm here for you.
PICCOLO: Anxiety is not good for creativity. I've learned that. It's not good at all.
* the cartoonist as photographed at TCAF 2011
* a Six Chix gag
* one of Piccolo's magazine gag cartoons
* two from Piccolo's Wednesday slot at Six Chix
* the wacky Monica character
* Noel at his Noel-iest
* the workplace setting of Tina's Groove
* three from Velia, Dear
* two from the gag cartoon archives
* one more gag cartoon I like (below)
* Abhay Khosla found a nice quote from Eddie Campbell. Part of me thinks that the quote is an awesome rejoinder; the other part of me agrees about that awesomeness of the quote but is more dismayed that we're still having conversations in 2012 that require people like Campbell to make such points.
* Daryl Cagle sorts through some reader opinions on a Taylor Jones cartoon about Ron Paul. After who knows however many weeks of high idiocy on the campaign trail this Fall, it doesn't surprise me that something like this Paul issue has pretty much stumped everyone in terms of sharp, concise opinion-making.
* Maya Jaggi has a really long article on graphic novels here. I'm sure I could find something to be grumpy about in terms of its content, but I can't imagine writing an article like this with all the work that's out there right now.
Steve Bissette is currently a teacher at the Center For Cartoon Studies, which as he discusses below is an appropriate late-afternoon-in-life destination for the talented, 56-year-old artist. Bissette is a Vermont native, and was a member of the first class at The Kubert School. He was one of those students that published while enrolled, and by the time he graduated Bissette plunged into multiple opportunities in four-color comic books, the beginnings of the stand-alone graphic moment, and the final months of the 1960s/1970s/1980s comics magazine mini-boom. He is perhaps best known for his stint in collaboration with Alan Moore and John Totleben on the industry changing Saga Of The Swamp Thing, his editing and publishing the anthology Taboo and his short-lived self-publishing effort Tyrant; his other professional gigs run the range from the ill-fated 1963 to an early-career adaptation of the movie 1941 with fellow cartoonist Rick Veitch that far more than the film on which it was based has proved worth re-visiting. Earlier this year, Bissette wrote about one of Veitch's work in a book called Teen Angels & New Mutants, which we discuss below.
Bissette was also a key member of a generation of cartoonists that straddled the mainstream American comic book industry and its various alternatives in the late 1970s into the 1990s, and has become over the years an eloquent defender of creators rights. There are very few experience in comics Steve hasn't had -- he even retired from comics in 1999. Bissette is also, as I came to understand things as we discussed them upon our meeting for the first time last Spring, one of the great collectors among comics-makers.
I was super-psyched to do the following interview, and I'm happy with the result: I think it's pretty pure Bissette, and I admire the way the artist and educator struggles with certain truths and their moral dimensions and is willing to turn the spotlight on his own actions. I don't agree with several of the arguments made in what follows -- you likely won't, either -- but I'm happy Steve chooses to make them. We could use a hundred like him. (photo of Bissette by Joseph A. Citro and used by permission; all copyright claims to him, and our thanks) -- Tom Spurgeon
TOM SPURGEON: Steve, it seems such a natural to me that you're working with the Center For Cartoon Studies that I just realized I have no idea how this came about. Is there a story there? What made you decide to make that particular move?
STEVE BISSETTE: Well, James Sturm came to me. It was, essentially, as simple as that. Having retired from the American comics industry at the end of 1999, and already shifted my energies completely to the video market (as an active shareholder in Brattleboro, VT's First Run Video since 1991, occasionally promo manager since 1992, and full-time employee since 1998, working my way up from video clerk on the floor to co-manager/buyer from 2000-2005), I'd pretty much given up on comics, except for those I did for myself in my sketchbooks. James and I had exchanged a couple of letters and packages since his The Cereal Killings in the mid-1990s, but he actively reached out to me around 2003 or 2004, when he was living in White River Junction and starting work in earnest on CCS.
I recall spending a full day with James in, I think, the summer of 2004; we walked around downtown White River Junction, and he pointed out possible homes for the planned school among the empty storefronts, and we concluded that session with lunch at the Four Aces Diner, just across the river in Lebanon NH. James was dead serious, and I'd seen myself how nurturing and building upon a vital creative community had saved downtown Brattleboro, VT in the 1990s, when multiple factors (including the opening of a nearby Walmart just across the river in NH) threatened its downtown; at the time James walked me through WRJ, Bellows Falls VT and other towns were already imitating Brattleboro's model, with mixed success.
You also have to understand that White River had always been, all my life, a depressed Vermont village, a shell of what it once was. Whenever I took the bus any destination south while growing up in northern VT, or back to northern VT from New Jersey while I attended the Joe Kubert School, White River was the town you ended up stranded in, with nowhere to spend time, save the damned bus station -- there was literally nothing left downtown. It reminded me of Dover, NJ in a lot of ways, and I'd seen first-hand how Joe and Muriel Kubert's decision to build their cartooning school in Dover had made a difference to the local economy there. So between that life experience in Dover NJ, and seeing first-hand how investment in the creative community had rescued downtown Brattleboro, what James was seeing not just for the proposed school, but for the local WRJ community, made absolute, perfect sense to me.
Nothing more came of it for a few months, then James and I reconnected in spades at a weekend academic comics symposium at Bennington College in Bennington, VT. We were guest speakers along with Mike Mignola, Walt and Louise Simonson, Ramona Fradon, and others; it was terrific, I brought my son Daniel along, who was 19 at the time. James had color roughs of Seth's original art for the first Center for Cartoon Studies brochure, and they'd settled on where they were basing operations in White River; James also spent some time trying to convince Daniel to consider being part of the first CCS class. I presented a considerably condensed version of my "Journeys into Fear" slide lecture on Fredric Wertham, the 1954 Senate Subcommittee investigation, and the birth of the Comics Code, which impressed James enough to meet me at the back of the hall after the talk and say, "Look, you have to teach the comics history class at CCS." That cinched it.
James had no idea how perfect the timing was: I'd just been let go at First Run Video, and the contract negotiations for a Swamp Thing trio of novels I'd been working on for Byron Preiss were going south (Byron's terms were ridiculous, and he was refusing to pay the agreed-upon advance, making it ultimately easy to walk away from). I was also aching to pass on, in some way, what I'd learned with three decades of professional experience under my belt -- my own kids were into other things, and I was wondering how I could engage with comics again in a way that would be productive and beneficial to others. CCS was knocking, and I couldn't believe it was happening in my home state! It would be a bit of a haul -- it was about a 90 minute commute each way to WRJ from where my wife Marge and I lived in Marlboro, VT -- but I jumped on board. I was part of CCS's first-ever summer workshop, working closely with our first Fellow Robyn Chapman, who was and is terrific, and with James and Michelle Ollie. That one-week summer workshop was all the prep we had working together before the doors opened in September, 2005, but we were a working unit by then. It's really one of the greatest experiences in my life, and I'm lucky to be part of CCS. I count my lucky stars every single day. It's a dream job, really, and again, the timing was just ideal: I was at the right point in my personal life to embrace CCS fully, and having already retired from comics professionally, I could give my all to teaching and CCS. The timing was in so many ways perfect: my own kids were now adults and out of the house, I was eager to get out of the video rental and retail business, and this was a way to stay creatively engaged with comics without having to deal with the American comics industry per se. I frankly couldn't have done it if I were still a freelancer, or still doing Tyrant; I wouldn't have had the time or inclination. Funny how things work out.
Finally, what a life opportunity James and Michelle were handing me: I was a member of the first-ever class of the Joe Kubert School, which had completely changed my life for the better. I now had the opportunity to teach the first-ever class of the brand-new Center for Cartoon Studies -- and, more importantly, I was ready to be on the other side of the classroom. I had the knowledge, the storytelling and drawing chops, the life experience; I really had something to offer the students. By 1996, I'd actively worked in almost every stage of the comics industry, from freelance penciler to editing, publishing, co-publishing, and self-publishing. I'd worked every aspect of pre-digital production, from pasteups and mechanicals to typesetting, stripping film, and hand-separations on color, and even had my feet wet with working digitally (with Murphy Anderson, Jr. on production for 1963, Tyrant, and Spiderbaby Comix). I had a lot to bring to the table, and a need to pass that on to the next generation, while I still could.
SPURGEON: How much are you able to draw on what I'm assuming is the very different experience that you had as a student in your comics-related schooling? I know that James comes from a background of doing a master's at SVA and then teaching in different programs… are your experiences informative in a different way than his and other teachers and artists at the school, do you think?
BISSETTE: God, we all have such different experiential backgrounds, Tom. If you want, I'll talk about my teaching background a bit prior to CCS, but for now, let's just talk about my comics background.
James knew my generational experience was profoundly different from his. Sometimes that leads to sparks, but that keeps things lively. My generation is the last of the "old school" American comics generation, in many ways, and as I came to learn in my first year at CCS, James and his generation are the first of the graphic novel generation.
Look, we -- my generation, particularly coming out of Kubert School -- were trained to work for the industry as it was, and went through the transformative years (1977-1997) still carrying a lot of baggage from how comics used to be done. I'm talking not just in terms of pre-digital technology, but thinking creatively, aesthetically and commercially -- comics as monthly pamphlets, with novel-length works necessarily serialized as periodicals in format, or wherein anthologies were necessarily genre constructions -- while James really was and is of the first generation of American cartoonists who work as novelists, per se. James is also part of the post-RAW, Fantagraphics generation (he in fact interned at RAW, so he had an insider's view of that definitive turning point in American comics), in terms of his perceptions of what comics are and can be, as opposed to my generation, where most of my peers were still mired in "mainstream" tunnel-vision of what comics were and could be -- the post-Showcase/Marvel Age generation, as it were.
I was unusual, though, in that I was part of a generation that had cut its teeth on the underground comix of the 1960s and early 1970s. But as my experiences as a student at the Kubert School and my initial freelance years proved to me, classmates and peers like Rick Veitch and I were the exceptions, not the rule: most of my Kubert School classmates and my first pro peers didn't even recognize comix as comics, if you will. I remember vividly arguments about Heavy Metal, then RAW: "Those aren't real comics," many of my peers would say, flat out, and refuse to look at them (especially RAW). "Real comics" were still four-color pamphlets sold on the newsstand to most members of my own generation; few considered underground comix, or black-and-whites like Cerebus or Elfquest, "real" comics. There were all these peculiar, myopic perceptions constraining my own generation, which is why I from the start gravitated more toward Heavy Metal, Scholastic, and what remained of an underground comix scene when I first landed work in the field in 1977 and '78. I was more excited by Metal Hurlant, Arcade, and this new thing Will Eisner talked to us about at the Kubert School in 1977 -- these "graphic novels" -- and Rick Veitch was pretty much alone in my immediate peer group in really, truly seizing the opportunities the presented themselves to us via Archie Goodwin and Epic after 1979. We were oddballs among our peers; our fellow Kubert School classmates like Ron Zalme embraced full-time bullpen work at Marvel, in the production department, and that made "more sense" to our Kubert School teachers than Veitch and I hacking away at odd freelance jobs while living in Vermont. Another classmate, Tom Yeates, took the more sensible route when he took on a monthly comic (Swamp Thing) with DC in 1982. That is what you aspired to if you were part of the first generation out of Kubert School: we had been groomed to work in the industry. And I would forever be a failure in that blue-collar cartoonist freelance mold, if you know what I mean, where classmates like Tom, Rick, or (a year or two behind us at Kubert School) Tom Mandrake, Jan Duursema and Tim Truman would and did excel.
Aesthetically, it's light years away from graphic novels, created by individual creators. It's even further away from the experimental, formalist comix of RAW -- form as content -- and the very different confessional, autobiographical genre embodied by Harvey Pekar, Art Spiegelman's Maus, Alison Bechdel's Fun Home, David B.'s Epileptic, and so on. I knew my career was over, so to speak, when I read Jack Survives, one of the RAW one-shots; decades-calcified presumptions about representational cartooning and what made comics comics had irrevocably dissolved. It was a brave, new world, and my generation's tool kit simply no longer applied in many ways.
My generation cranked out comics, almost always working collaboratively. With the exception of my freelance for Scholastic, Heavy Metal, and Epic, and occasional sales to what was left of the underground (Dr. Wirtham's Comix And Stories, Larry Shell's one-shots), individual work was discouraged and an aberration. The one time I sold my own stories to DC -- short ghost comics stories sold to Secrets Of Haunted House -- I was essentially "punished" because they couldn't have work-for-hire comics written, penciled, and inked by the same person; I had to find a writer friend (the late Bill Kelley, then very much alive and freelancing for DC) willing to put his name on my script, so the editor could push through the invoices with me just penciling and inking, which was in and of itself a problem. That happened in 1980, and was a formative experience. If you wanted to make a living, you worked for DC or Marvel, at least when you could. They owned whatever you did. You crank out x-number of pages a month, or you lose. You labored in periodical formats, never looking back at completed pages or issues save for reference to stay on model sheet or character design; you hadn't the time, venue, or indulgence to rework panels or pages, unless your editor instructed or required you to. You didn't shape a story or rework drafts -- you turned in pages as soon as they were off your board, most often to have some other creative hands letter them from the script you penciled from, and ink them, and color them. It was comics created collaboratively via industrialized assembly-line production, and any deviation from that was problematic. We were lucky to have the occasional venue, like Heavy Metal or Epic or Dr. Wirtham's, to deviate from the industrialized process.
Even my first brush with this new format, "graphic novels," just a year or so after Eisner's A Contract With God was published, was a tortuous pressure-cooker: Rick Veitch, Alan Asherman, and I did Heavy Metal's adaptation of Steven Spielberg's 1941, as part of the first wave of bookstore graphic novels -- a full-color adaptation cranked out from a stolen film script working from stolen images (the rep from Universal/Columbia expected Rick and I to work from a singular closed-door session with a bunch of slides; art director John Workman saw to it we left with unsanctioned stats of those slides, for character reference -- it was insane, really) in something like two months. Rick almost fucking killed me, it was a bone-crushing pace and I barely held up my end of that nightmarish confection. So, even graphic novels were industrialized for me, and for my generation, from the get-go.
For James and his generation, that had and has nothing to do with it. Those industrial constraints and structures were and are, in fact, antithetical to the process. Comics were to be worked through multiple drafts, crafted carefully like true short stories and true novels. Yes, you work to deadlines, but you fully own that which you create -- emotionally, most often legally, fully -- or you devote yourself in that manner to the occasion work-for-hire project, as James did to Unstable Molecules for Marvel, but that isn't a norm, that's an experiment, engaging with old-school modes of creation and production.
So, I bring a living dimension of 1970s and 1980s "old school" American comics to the mix -- and all that entails, including some of the baggage. I teach old-school drawing, I teach the comics history class, and I co-teach one semester with the seniors. In the mix, I share everything from working from scripts by an outside writer to designing splash pages to old-school comicbook cover design and execution, to (with the seniors) in-class overviews of copyright, trademark, and actual contracts, walking the students through the infinite permutations of contracts, including the evolution and devolution of work-for-hire in the comics field from 1976 to the present. Of late, I've even broken my retirement to do one work-for-hire gig (Spongebob Squarepants) so I could share everything about that kind of current job, while also experimenting with print-on-demand (as a writer), including one (Teen Angels & New Mutants) with full distribution online and via traditional book market (Ingram, Baker & Taylor, etc.) and Direct Market (Diamond Dist.) channels in place. Writing book introductions for Marvel (just one) and DC allows me to assess current work-for-hire standards and practices with those publishers, and how they treat freelancers. Every year I experiment with another current mode of publishing and/or freelance, so I can bring that into the classroom -- 2012 I'll be experimenting with ebooks, if all goes well. And so on.
James and fellow faculty like Jason Lutes and Alec Longstreth and Jon Chad are living the reality of the new generation -- James with his various projects, Jason working through his massive Berlin, and so on. Jon Chad approaches his expansive projects, like Leo Geo, on a different level: for Jon, books and comic are in and of themselves art objects, and watching Jon work through sort of retrofitting his incredibly creative Leo Geo package to fit a book publisher's needs, and the whole process of reworking a completed graphic novel for a new format, is an incredible thing to have happening at CCS. Alec just completed his first full graphic novel Basewood, and half the CCS community turned out the night he celebrated its completion with free copies of the final chapter and a ritualistic shearing of the beard and hair he announced he wouldn't cut until he was done -- another incredible backdrop to the regular classwork always happening here. It's part of the living, breathing environment at CCS. And yeh, I think I bring something different to the mix, for sure. James and Michelle (Ollie) were certain I would, and I'm pretty sure I have and do.
SPURGEON: I also don't know that I know exactly what that very specific gig entails. Is there a specific course you teach, an expected course load? Do you have advisory or supervisory duties as well?
BISSETTE: Well, there's some staples I teach every year, since 2005 -- Survey of the Drawn Story, which is James and Michelle's fancy term for comics history class; Drawing Workshop I (single semester); Senior Thesis (one semester); CCS Movie Club (one movie shown/shared per week). Each year something different or new may emerge in the mix. This is the third year Survey has been two instead of one semester, which really allows us to spend time on some key aspects of comics history, but even two semesters requires considerable compression and leaves unfortunate blind spots; Robyn Chapman co-taught Survey II with me for two years, and this year is my first time solo teaching both semesters. I also co-teach a second semester cartooning workshop course with the first-year (freshmen) students, which allows me to get into storytelling, character introduction, and so on -- material I can't justify including in drawing workshop.
Since my first year or so involved a long-distance commute, teaching Tuesdays and Wednesdays (with an overnight stay between those) became the template for my time and workload; that's expanded a bit since my wife Marge and I moved closer to our respective jobs, which now puts me a short drive from CCS, but that kept me apart from much in the way of administrative or supervisory duties or obligations, and we've kept it that way. "Advisory," yes, in terms of one-on-one meetings and every year or two working as a thesis advisor with a senior, but just the classroom prep and active class time keeps me pretty preoccupied.
It's a pretty full workload, despite the tight student body (20-22 students per class, tops). There's seemingly infinite prep and revision of prior material for each year. I always head into class feeling I'm not covering enough, and find I've timed that session to the minute, or have overprepared. I'll eventually get it down within some comfort zone, just in time for the retirement Mickey Mouse watch and the "laurel and a hardy handshake," no doubt!
I taught as part of the summer workshop teams, too, until this past year -- I'll likely step away from those, save for a guest lecture or two, as I really need some time to do my own creative work, writing and drawing. I still try to get out a book project or two per year, and that's a fierce juggling act at times. We also have an annual event that adds spice: James curated the "Mentors and Monsters" gallery show from my original art collection in the fall of 2010, and this fall CCS hosted ICAF, and I was slated to deliver a 90-minute illustrated lecture, which was a major additional effort but seemed to work out to everyone's satisfaction. God, I loved having ICAF here -- I attended every single lecture and event, didn't miss a one. Wish I could do it every year, but time and money mean I can only attend when it's at CCS. I really don't travel any longer: quite doing conventions altogether as of 1999, and simply can't afford to participate in academic conferences, though that would be terrific. So, CCS is my bubble of choice, and that it will remain as long as they'll have me and I'm of use to CCS.
SPURGEON: Can you tell me about those pre-CCS teaching experience and how they've had an impact on your teaching now?
BISSETTE: As for many folks, teaching began to interest me once I had kids of my own. My daughter Maia was born in 1983, as I was beginning work on Saga Of The Swamp Thing; my son Daniel was born in 1985, while I was still in the thick of that tenure. By the late 1980s, I started to field requests from nearby schools to come in and speak in classrooms, and I started doing that off and on: Vermont, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts elementary schools, for the most part. Once Maia and Daniel were in school, their elementary school asked me occasionally to come in and talk, but that's not really teaching, per se. It got my feet wet, and I loved it.
Just after leaving Swamp Thing and before the end of the 1980s, I prepared a slide show lecture on the history of horror comics. I presented it for the first time at Necon, a horror writers summer conference I attended faithfully for over a decade (God, I miss Necon), and it went over well. That grew into "Journeys Into Fear," my illustrated slide lecture on horror comics, which in its shortest form was about 90 minutes and in its longest format was a week-long, five-session interim class I presented at Smith College in Northampton, MA. That really got my lecturing chops down, especially after the CBLDF asked me to present it at San Diego as a fundraiser, prompting my self-financed combination of participating in the Spirit of Independence national tour in the early 1990s co-presenting "Journeys Into Fear" at every stop as a CBLDF fundraiser. I have fond memories of a packed-house at the longest CBLDF version of that lecture in Toronto, with Dave Sim introducing the event -- standing-room only. I ended up presenting various permutations of that lecture for over a decade in a variety of university settings, ending with the 2005 Bennington College Symposium I mentioned earlier, where James proposed I teach at CCS.
There's other threads in this tapestry. In the early 1990s, Tom Roberts at the University of Connecticut in Storrs, CT invited me down to talk to his comics class and do an evening presentation of "Journeys Into Fear." That initiated an annual pilgrimage down to UConn and Tom's classes, where I made some lasting friendships with folks like Charles Hatfield, Katie Laity, Gene Kannenberg, Mark Bilokur (who later graduated from CCS!), and others -- so, it was Tom Roberts who really ushered me into the hallowed halls of the colleges, in many ways, and encouraged me in countless ways. We used to lunch together before or after a session, and he'd psychoanalyze what I was doing in Tyrant, which was invigorating and fascinating -- it always pushed me to go deeper with the next issue's effort, really explore the possibilities -- and he'd always wonder aloud if comics were the 21st Century equivalent of "the buggy whip" industry, doomed to extinction.
Around the same time, three local school systems began to engage me from time to time as a tutor. In one case, I ended up feeling a bit used: the school didn't pay anything for the time spent, while pushing for a regular schedule, and the student involved wasn't really interested in being there with me -- he "liked comics," but wasn't really keen to put any work in to the process -- and in the end they popped me in the yearbook, as if it was something the school offered, and I politely declined to continue indulging that academic relationship. The nadir of that kind of thing when when a local parent petitioned me to meet with her son for weeks, and when I finally agreed to meet, she dropped him off with me and disappeared for three hours, as if I were a baby-sitting service. I nipped that in the bud promptly.
Sometimes, it would be the parents of a gifted student asking me to take on tutoring sessions: sometimes those were fruitless, but I had a great year or so working with a young man named Will who ended up channeling our time together into his history class final assignment, doing a brilliant little minicomic entitled Ratsputin (don't steal his concept, I'll nail you for it) applying Spiegelman's Maus tropes to a clever biographical comic on Rasputin. But those were difficult to maintain, as I usually donated the time, or worked out some barter arrangement (Will's father was a marvelous dessert chef, and would trade me a dessert for each session) -- it didn't help pay the rent, let's say, and few high school level students were really interested in maintaining any focus. Comics are a demanding skill-set, involving multiple disciplines, and for some teens nothing will kill an affection for drawing their own comics quicker than their parents taking an active interest and bringing another adult into the mix as a tutor.
More often, though, the money was only there for the students in need. While a high-aptitude student with a genuine interest in making comics had no access to parental or school funds to engage with a comics tutor, a special needs student's parents would have those financial resources made available to them. This culminated in two tutoring/mentoring relationships that were enormously rewarding: one where our meeting every week culminated in the student really taking off, from his initial interest in graffiti and tagging to self-initialized pushing himself to really learn to draw the human figure, a process that began when he asked me how to draw the alien creature from the Alien movies. It was initially just to enhance his graffiti art, but it was, as they say, a "teachable moment": explaining that all the Alien really involved was an imaginative conversion of internal human anatomy into an exoskeleton, he became fascinated with drawing skeletons, then fleshing those out, and eventually working through a crash-course in drawing and anatomical studies from available art anatomy reference books. Due to his learning disabilities, though, as we moved into his senior year, he bemoaned he was flunking reading courses and was missing a necessary "health" credit -- so I brought to his mother's attention that he was reading and we were discussing Sandman every week or two, and that his cumulative anatomical sketch studies demonstrated a college-level grasp of drawing human anatomy. I helped the student prepare his sketches for a proper presentation; I mean, typical high school kid, his sketches were on all kinds of paper, crammed into a looseleaf notebook without rhyme or reason. We gathered all he'd done, organized the material, and I showed him how to use the school photocopier to make them more presentable, and he pulled that together into a properly organized overview of his ability to draw the human body, inside and out, from head to toe. That was excepted as a more than adequate fulfillment of the missing "health" credit. I was also asked to speak to the teachers and administrators involved with the reading issues -- which basically meant arguing for the legitimacy of reading comics and graphic novels as valid reading, and took the extra step of loaning two volumes of the collected Sandman to his reading teacher -- and the end result was that he did graduate. It of course made a huge difference to the teacher than Neil Gaiman is such an extraordinary writer, and Sandman covered, in her words, "so many educational disciplines," but then again, I knew how to frame that argument, and the student was a devoted Sandman reader, with a full grasp of the material and ability to verbally articulate his passion for Neil's work in ways he couldn't put down in writing, do to his issues with writing -- but in the end, it worked. He indeed graduated at the end of his senior year of high school. Making a difference in a student's life in that way was enormously rewarding.
The other student I worked with in the same school system was another special needs student with all kinds of problems I won't go into here -- but he loved, loved, loved to draw monsters. Thankfully, this we before 9/11, and he was in a school where the principle recognized this wasn't a "problem," this was a gift and an avenue to engaging the student on a different level. The principle called me, and we worked out a weekly schedule in which I'd just come in and draw monsters with him. He was very young, suspicious of adults and of school, so it was relatively unstructured "tutoring," in that I wasn't there to teach him anything per se, but rather just encourage him pursuing a passion he already had. The kid was amazing: he drew hundreds of crude monsters, no two alike. So, it was education as pure play. He came to look forward to and enjoy the sessions enormously, and once he trusted me, I could sneak in an educational component as a further element of play: for instance, getting him to engage, every so slightly, with sharpening his skills by drawing a little from reference, and from a live model. I brought in moose photos one week and said, "OK, let's draw moose monsters." He'd never done that, consciously: choose a "model" animal, and riff on it. He liked that. Once he was comfortable with occasionally doing that -- drawing using photo reference as a springboard -- his monsters got more elaborate, with a bit of thought given to how they might eat, and move, and live, and behave. It enriched his monsters, if you will. That led to my asking the teacher with a live painted turtle in his classroom aquarium if we could borrow the turtle for one session, and so we drew turtle monsters for a session, being able to draw from a live specimen that moved and behaved certain ways. And so on -- it was a lot of fun, and expanded his imaginative universe and drawings by opening his eyes to elements of the real world around us, the lifeforms around us. He produced hundreds and hundreds of drawings. In the end, the principle capped his school year by arranging, with his permission, a school-wide "gallery exhibition" of his monster drawings, celebrating his artwork. Man, that made this kid's year, validating him in ways no adult, much less school, ever had. Again, it was enormously satisfying to be part of this process, and to work in this way with someone who really wanted to draw, needed to draw, and to coax him out of his shell a bit and help him find wings, if only for that school year.
There were two other things, both in Marlboro, VT, where I lived then. The first was being asked by my friends Paul and Jane to get involved with a collective home-schooling experience for their son Jake and a circle of same-aged teenagers who were home-schooled. Paul and Jane asked me to work with this group of teens teaching storytelling, which I embraced as a multi-media exploration, using comics, films, video, music, literature, etc. This was an extraordinary group of teenagers, and most of them really took to our sessions, which often culminated in either watching a feature film or group of short films together, or my assigning their watching a film before our next session. The synthesis of using short fiction, songs, comics, short films, and features really allowed me for the first time to explore the art of storytelling. Once I brought Scott McCloud's and my own 24 hour comic experiment into the classroom, the students, on their own initiative, surprised me the following week by presenting their own 24-hour movie: a 24 minute short narrative film they'd written, rehearsed, shot, and scored with their own music in a 24 hour period. Now, that's an educational experience -- they knocked me right out of my brainpan with that. As Alejandro Jodorowsky would say, "Fantastic!" Working with Jake and his peers, working with Paul and Jane and that adventurous collective, was, well, fantastic.
I also found myself presenting "Journeys Into Fear" at Marlboro College as a fundraiser for the Marlboro School class trip one year, and acting as an outside examiner for a Marlboro College senior or two. This led to my being asked to lecture occasionally at the College and, eventually, encouraged by the College itself to apply for a position teaching film studies when that position opened up. I applied, and predictably lost out to a real filmmaker, Jay Craven (Where The Rivers Flow NorthDisappearances, etc.). I have no teaching credentials; I have no college degrees, save my certificate from the Joe Kubert School, and I've never actually made movies since my high school 8mm collaborations with friends like Bill Hunter, Jay Harvey, and Alan Finn, so of course my application fell short. Jay invited me in a few times, though, to speak and a couple times handle his class when he was away, so I kept myself involved a bit. I also began offering one-night film classes to my fellow employees at First Run Video in Brattleboro, VT, as a job perk; those were fun, and really helped expand their excitement and knowledge about movies in ways that improved morale at the video store and made them more valuable to our customers.
I have to note, too, that by 1999 and 2000, I could clearly see we'd culturally turned a corner. Where before that time I was to most of my neighbors a curio at best, if they knew what I did at all, for being a cartoonist, around 1999 there was a major sea-change. I started getting phone calls out of the blue -- and by 2000, I mean, a lot of phone calls out of the blue -- from parents who wondered what, if anything, I could do to help their kids who loved to draw comics. Something fundamental changed in America, or at least New England, but I suspect what I was being confronted with was pretty universal in America at the time: comics were no longer something to be reviled, or suspect of. Parents saw their kids drawing, it was now something to be encouraged, not discouraged. Parents saw their kids drawing their own comics, and they saw something to encourage. Whatever the factors were -- more comics being recognized as legitimate media events, more comics spawning more movies, comics being recognized as reading material instead of an obstacle to reading, self-expression being more highly valued, etc. -- something basic, primal changed between 1999 and 2000. Comics weren't just OK, comics were to be encouraged. It was measurable and obvious and becoming quite intrusive: "Look, you don't know me, but can you help my kid draw his/her comics?" More often than not, I couldn't: there were no structures in place, no way to justify the time, there was no place to do it, they or the schools couldn't afford even the most meager proposal or schedule or timeframe (however cheaply I made myself available), and so on -- and, as I said, the poor school systems only had money for the students struggling with educational obstacles, not the gifted students.
Well, you get the idea. There's more I could cite and talk about, but there it is. Lacking any official degrees in education or even art, I can't teach academically in 99.9 percent of the colleges that exist. I just have three or four decades of hard experience in the field, doing what I do, and that includes now a decade or more of cumulative teaching experience. But whenever opportunities presented themselves to teach, particularly paying opportunities that helped with the monthly bills, I stepped up to the plate and did my best, which led to further opportunities as a result. It wasn't a career path, but it was something I love doing and was pretty good at, and always pushing myself to improve upon with each venue or task. I also wrote constantly, and Tyrant allowed me to incorporate a strong educational component into my comics work, which led to my joining the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology for a couple of years, and work with real paleontologists while researching Tyrant -- and that was a major source of pleasure for me. I love the process of learning, of researching, of digging as deeply as possible into sources and resources, and that feeds my teaching jones, too.
By the time James and I were really talking about CCS in 2005, I'd had a few years under my belt as a guest speaker, lecturer, tutor, and occasional teacher. I'd handled entire semesters of structured classes, and worked with a pretty wide variety of ages and types of educational venues. By then, Tom Roberts and UConn had really whet my appetite for working on the college level, too, with adult students who wanted to be in that classroom. Working with young kids is demanding, and having organized a couple of summer workshops -- just one or two day affairs, for ages five to teenagers -- and having by this time raised two of my own, I was wary of how damaging discipline issues can be to beneficial educational opportunities. Comics are a tough combination of skills to introduce, much less dance with, and the fun component that fuels the passion to draw comics must be nurtured and maintained, or you kill it. My drawing and comics workshops always involved scheduled "run around the school building three times" sorts of physical exercise between drawing exercises: younger kids just can't sit still for long, and older kids are easily bored, so if you don't work in physical burn-off-that-kid-energy blocks, you're courting disaster. But I have to say I found the comics work with high school and college students -- the ones who really wanted to be there -- the most useful and rewarding.
And for the most part, everyone at CCS worked their asses off to be in that classroom. I give 'em 150 percent, every day, every week, for their one or two years, and always will. I'm lucky to be at CCS, and I give it my all.
SPURGEON: Tell me about what you teach there. It's my understanding you do the history of comics course, and I was wondering if you could talk about developing that course from when you first taught it to now, and to what you've noticed the students reacting and maybe even not reacting. How much of the history course has what you describe above, this kind of active, informative streak on the way things are now? Do you have an itch to teach anything you haven't had a chance to yet?
BISSETTE: Well, that's about four questions, Tom. [Spurgeon laughs] Let's see...
Last query first. Even given the expansive experience and opportunity I've had and have at CCS, I really wish I could teach more storytelling -- but, well, there isn't time enough for everything, and besides, the aesthetics of the contemporary comics scenes is more attuned to the aesthetics James, Jason and their peers are steeped in. I'm "old school" by compare, and that may be a factor, too, unconsciously. Let's face it, the old vocabularies -- splash pages, sound effects, inset panels, etc. -- are out of fashion, for the most part. I squeeze them in, when and if I can, but there's aspects of my own communication idiom that are artifacts of a past that falls between the beloved comic strip tropes currently being resurrected (Frank King, Harold Gray, George McManus, etc.) and the graphic novel templates of the 21st Century. We'll see. I'm co-teaching a cartooning workshop this spring semester coming up with Bob Sikoryak, and this is a fresh opportunity to push in those directions, if Bob is up for it. We'll see.
The comics history class changes annually, and there's never enough time. Randy Duncan at Henderson State University once joked, "I can teach the history of comics in a half hour," or some such. And hey, I can synopsize Moby Dick in three words (I can, I won that bet at a table with Bill Sienkiewicz, Scott and Ivy McCloud, and Cat Yronwode one year). But there's always some key creator or movement or publisher or element I fear I've shortshrifted or neglected, and I incorporate that into the following year's revisions. It drives my wife nuts: "You've been teaching this course since 2005; isn't all the work done?" No, it's never-ending. Part of it is my ravenous research obsession, part of it is my constantly learning more about comics history myself, part of it trying to address things students ask about or express exasperation over the year before. It's never enough, and it's never going to be.
What can I say? I revise it every year, at times every week. I start with the prehistory of comics, including glyphs, pictograms, codices, illuminated manuscripts, Chinese and Japanese scrolls, and so on, and show them never to believe any claims to "first" anything. The British weekly comics industry was thriving before there was anything remotely like a "comic book" in America: we didn't invent it. There were American comics and cartoonists before the Yellow Kid: get used to it. There were graphic novels before the coming of the 20th Century, and certainly before 1977: here they are. I discuss the dime novels and penny dreadfuls and pulps as prototypes for what became the comics industry, and Robyn Chapman and I tag-teamed lectures covering chapbooks, self-publishing, and fanzines. When we were co-teaching the first time on Survey of the Drawn Story 2, Robyn showed me her minicomics lecture (which I'd seen an earlier form of during the summer workshops at CCS), and I responded with an introductory lecture to her lecture covering the first minicomics, from the "minicomics" of the 1940s to product giveaways of the 1960s to Clay Geerdes and the "Newave" of the 1970s, which was all new to Robyn at that time. We learn from and teach one another, and it's ever-expanding. I learn so much from my co-instructors and the students at CCS, every week. There's so much I don't know, so much to learn, so much to get a handle on before I can teach it myself.
I also have the students present timed ten-minute oral presentations on any aspect of art or comics they are interested in, and I've learned soooooo much from that every single year, some of which I then research further and incorporate into subsequent classes. I'd never heard of Archigram and their sophisticated use of comics and zines to articulate their progressive architectural agendas before Alex Kim (who came to CCS with a background as a professional architect) presented his ten-minute talk in my classroom; Sam Gaskin (pioneer CCS class alumnus, Pizza Wizard creator, etc.) turned me on to the whole Fort Thunder scene with his presentation in 2005. I'd completely missed Fort Thunder when it was happening, in part because I was stepping away from comics the very years Fort Thunder worked up its head of steam (1995–2001), in part because it was inherently antithetical to everything my generation's aesthetics were about, save the love of comics and creating. With CCSers who come from other cultures and countries and infinitely different backgrounds, they bring their own specialties and experiences and passions into the community, and I do all I can to cultivate sharing that in the classroom -- which is, in part, quite selfish. I want to learn all I can, too. I want to glean what I can of what they know, what they're into.
Look, it's endless. My son Daniel turns me on to a lot of new and different stuff, too, just as he picks up on new "old" stuff that excites him every time he spend an overnight and combs my collection and library. I'm always seeking a peek at something I've missed, or didn't know existed, or that's just coming into existence, or whatever. There's no end to it.
As for the class and contemporary comics, shit, I always fall short. We usually make it to the 1990s, just cresting into the 2000s, and run out of class time. But then again, we have visiting artists coming in a speaking every week at CCS, sometimes more than one. We have Fellows from all over the world, and they bring their scenes and peers and contemporaries in. We sneak it into other classes in different ways. By osmosis, CCS pretty much lives and breathes the current scenes, and the students themselves part and parcel of the current scene, so I reckon we do OK covering what's happening now in comics just by being here, doing what we do.
SPURGEON: Here's something that often gets asked of me about places like CCS, and while you touch on this a bit I was wondering if maybe you could more explicit in terms of a direct answer. Are you confident that the students get their money's worth from a place like CCS -- from education about comics in general? Comics has a history of self-teaching and apprenticeship that allow for different models. I know how obnoxious this question might sound, but I've even heard other educators bringing this up: their doubts that the gig of being taught comics is as good a deal for the students as the gig of teaching comics is for the teachers.
BISSETTE: The short answer is: No. Of course not. Really, all you really need is something to draw with, something to draw on, endless dedication, absolute tenacity, and the will and patience and time to continually draw comics. Draw thousands upon thousands of pages, and you will improve.
There's plenty of self-taught cartoonists throughout the history of comics, many who made livings at it, some who became quite successful, and that's that.
Then again, there's plenty of schooled cartoonists throughout the history of comics, generation after generation of them, who owe much if not all in their careers to art colleges, intensive correspondence courses, Burne Hogarth and the Manhattan Academy of Newspaper Art, which became the Cartoonists and Illustrators School and then the School of Visual Arts, and classes later taught there by the likes of Harvey Kurtzman or Art Spiegelman; Joe and Muriel Kubert and the Joe Kubert School of Cartoon and Graphic Art; and now James Sturm and the Center for Cartoon Studies. Of course there's value there, but it's not a passive process: "here, I pay you good money, turn me into a cartoonist."
Look, you wouldn't even be talking to me right now, Tom, if I hadn't attended the Joe Kubert School. Joe Kubert never would have been my mentor. I never would have met Rick Veitch, among others, with whom I worked on many comics for the first stretch of my career, and with and through whom I collaborated on much that was vital to my life and body of work. I never would have met Tom Yeates, or John Totleben; I wouldn't have drawn Swamp Thing, there would have been no Taboo, and those alone are, I think, sans any hubris, measurable contributions to the current comics environment and reality. I wouldn't be teaching at CCS. We simply wouldn't be talking, or if by some stretch of parallel realities we were, I can't imagine it being a conversation worth sharing.
Joe and Muriel opened every door to the world for me. While I'd gone as far as I could essentially self-educated before attending Johnson State College in Johnson, VT, and benefitted enormously from what Peter Heller (head of the JSC Art Department) worked with me on, and from my circle of friends there, many of whom convinced me the Kubert School was where I needed to be and go, JSC didn't give me anything I could have eked out a living with. Without the Kubert School, I'd have ended up pumping gas or taking over the family business (a grocery store) instead; fine art colleges offered nothing that would have opened a single door for me.
I went from drawing almost exclusively with ballpoint pens and markers in August of 1976 to picking up a brush in September 1976, and working professionally by spring of 1977, and everything that gestalt leap of faith and work entailed. I was only able to do that thanks to Joe and Muriel (who were like second parents to me) and our instructors (Dick Giordano, Ric Estrada, Hy Eisman, Irwin Hasen, Lee Elias, etc.) and friends/classmates like Rick Veitch, Tom Yeates, Ron Zalme, Rick Taylor, Cara Sherman-Tereno, Sam Kujava and everyone else in that pioneer class. Without Kubert School, and those two years, and that creative community, I never would have entered comics. I wouldn't be who I am, wouldn't have done what I've done, lived what I've lived, be where I am now. Period.
I hope CCS is that for our students. We try hard to open doors for all our students; the doors within, the doors outside. I think we are doing that. I think we are, that it is. I hope it is. We all work hard to make that the reality. I'm not a huckster or salesperson for either the Kubert School or CCS, but if I wasn't convinced of their value, I wouldn't have invested myself fully in either of them. I did, and everything about my life and my creative life was the better for it. With CCS, I am lucky to be able to do so (invest myself fully there) now; if I instead lived closer to the Kubert School, maybe that would be where I'd be. In any case, my life is infinitely better for what I've gained from both communities and schools, and I think that's the case for many who attend either of them.
Do you need comics college to draw comics? No. Do you need comics college to make a living in comics? No.
But, if you make that leap, that commitment, and work as hard as you can -- will you draw better comics? You bet. Will you draw more comics? You have to. Will you meet and live with and know and be part of and steep yourself in a community comprised almost entirely of fellow creators? You bet.
Is it worth it?
Make your decision, and live with it. I made mine, and I haven't regretted it for a nanosecond. If I consider what my life might have been without that experience, it isn't anything I can imagine being anything like what I have been through and been part of.
If you're afraid or unable to work your ass off, don't attend CCS or Kubert School. If you're into passive self-education, steer clear. I can tell you from hands-on experience, on both ends of the classroom at both schools, that you either invest yourself fully as a student in both schools, or you crash and burn. You are expected and must work hard; both schools are like boot camp, at least in their initial semesters or year. Then it gets tougher. Making comics is not an easy way to make a living.
So, the question begs: How much do you want it? How hard do you work? How hard are you willing to work? And how hard are you willing to work for your OWN benefit?
Bear in mind that the Kubert School, as it was when I attended, and CCS are in many ways trade schools. We teach every aspect we can of a profession, including, in both schools, classes involving Professional Practices -- the nuts and bolts of building and presenting a portfolio, self-packaging and promotion, seeking work, how to conduct oneself in the profession, contracts, etc. What the Kubert School, as it was and (I believe) as it is (I did get to tour the facility as a parent of a prospective student in 2006 or 2007), and CCS offer are full-saturation classes, facilities, and communities quite unlike anything else I've found anywhere else in North America.
I got my money's worth in spades from the Kubert School -- I was working professionally to some extent by the end of my first year, and transitioned into earning a living exclusively as a freelancer by the time I graduated -- and I saw nothing when I visited the new Kubert School with my son a few years ago to even suggest one doesn't get their money's worth today; if anything, it's a far more expansive, ambitious facility than the one I attended in its first year of operation in 1976-77. I can honestly say we give a student their money's worth at CCS; the visiting artists alone offer more than money can buy in any other imaginable venue outside of Kubert School and CCS.
As with any education, not all students are seeking what these institutions offer. As with any education, not all students are a "fit," and not all students invest themselves, as one must, in the process. If one isn't invested, I don't care how much you have or haven't paid in money and time -- it'll be a waste of that student's time, and reflective of the lack of personal, creative, and emotional investment. In that arena, personal assessments are all that matter, and there will always be those who come out of either tentative or full tenure at any school who will bemoan their experience. No school can be all things to all students, however hard they may try.
The question isn't obnoxious, per se, but ignorance is bliss. I believe that question does reflect an attitude that there is nothing to learn from others, that self-education (which has enormous value, I'm not belittling or dismissing that is has value, having been essentially self-educated until I was 20 or so) in relative or complete isolation is inherently preferable to investing oneself in a day-to-day creative community and structured educational process in which those who do and have done for years, even decades.
You may work in a vacuum, and argue for its virtues by denigrating schools like Kubert School and CCS, and that may have illusory value, but creative communities and schools have greater value, and can help one feed oneself. If you refute the craft of comics having any value, well, have fun. Make your own, and good luck to you. I hope I get to read them someday. Henry Darger may be a St. Francis of sorts to some artists, but no one was aware of what he was doing or had done while he was alive, and it certainly didn't "feed" him in any way other than his personal emotional life: he was a janitor all his adult life, as far as we know. Sweeping floors fed him, and no one saw his work.
I have long loved Fletcher Hanks' work since seeing that Fantomah reprinted in an issue of Cartoonist Profiles in the late 1970s and the couple of comics Jerry DeFuccio showed me in the MAD office (during my one and only job interview at MAD, in 1978), and I completely understand why RAW and Paul Karasik embraced and republished his work, but hey, he had, what? Two, three years of eking out income as a Golden Age cartoonist? Any sane individual knows that Fletcher Hanks is hardly a role model for anything save obscurity, alcoholism, despair, and death. Then again, as Paul Karasik discovered, even Hanks had his "school": he wasn't self-educated, he took a mail-order correspondence course in cartooning.
The rise of primitive comix is legit and I love many of them, but they're still utterly dependent on the work being made public (whether as performance or via publication), building a viable creative community, feeding a viable consumer community, and nurturing that as best as one can by being able to feed oneself with one's work.
Given the value perceived in many essentially primal, instinctive cartoonists and comix being published, I can't out of hand argue that an education is of value in the current market. I'd in fact argue the contrary. The rise of the primitive comix aesthetic may feed the belief that lack of education is desirable, a badge of integrity, but I don't buy that; you're still better able to earn a living at doing what you do if you ground yourself in some exposure to the basics of the art, the trade, and the business.
You can't escape the business aspects, come hell or high water; if you're going to earn your keep, you can't work for nothing, give all your art away, or have absolutely zero social skills.
Fort Thunder is properly celebrated for all they accomplished as a creative community, and became their own "school" for a time, if you will. Those who don't attend cartooning colleges generate their own "schools," their own scenes, and it costs money to be there instead. So, choose your scene, gravitate to or build your own school.
It costs whatever you do, and it yields only what you put into it -- "the love you take is equal to the love you make," as the Beatles sang at the end of Abbey Road. The same goes for cartooning and comics.
I could also argue the utter lack of any standards of business ethics, professional practices, or proper training and compensation for or from the business environment is benefiting publishers while impoverishing a new generation of creators in ways some of my generation worked very hard to redress. Given the contracts I see bandied about as "typical" and the bizarre nature of the current marketplace, including the rise and proliferation of standard work-for-hire and duration-of-copyright contractual terms, where cartoonists are either grossly over or undervalued and lip-service to copyright ownership on page one is taking away with a contract's page two duration-of-copyright definition of the proprietary timeframe the publisher claims, I can see myself that a lot of ground that was hard-won in the 1980s and early 1990s has been lost -- and I'd argue that a lack of education in general has fueled that degeneration.
SPURGEON: Are you a different cartoonist now for having taught?
BISSETTE: Yes, of course. Teaching has changed everything about my life. I'm not sure how to parse that out apart from simply maturing, aging, and keeping at it: I'm 56 now, and I'd have been "a different cartoonist" at 56 whether CCS existed, and I were or weren't part of it, in any case. I retired from the American comics industry in 1999 -- I'd still be cartooning and drawing my own comics, but they likely wouldn't be seeing print. CCS and teaching at CCS necessarily re-engaged me with comics at a far deeper level of commitment than I would have otherwise been working, and that alone makes me "a different cartoonist" than I would have been without CCS.
But I may never again be the cartoonist I was when I was at my peak with Tyrant #4 -- I may never get back to that zone. Having freelanced almost exclusively since entering the Kubert School in the fall of 1976, I was living in what I like to call "the trance" -- a perpetual state of mind, of grace, if you will, in which the creating of comics was the be-all and end-all of my focus in life. Yes, I was married and became a father, and that was a vital and all-consuming focus, but I supported my family with my comics work exclusively. Every fiber of my being not involved with my family went exclusively into my comics: whatever I was doing, anywhere, at all times, was still meditating upon and working through comics -- whatever was on my board, whatever was next on my board, whatever comics I intended to work on down the road, in a constant trance masticating consciously and unconsciously comics intended to eventually come out of my fingers onto paper.
Deviations from that -- writing, for instance, which I began engaging with in earnest in the late 1980s thanks to my late, dear friend Chas Balun -- were still creative in nature, still fed and fed by the trance, and inevitably fed my comics. Writing for Chas Balun's Deep Red fanzine, which led to my writing an entire book We Are Going To Eat You which Chas edited down to a long chapter for The Deep Red Horror Handbook, which led to a column for the newsstand horror movie magazine Gorezone, which led to my writing the novella Aliens: Tribes, all sharpened that set of skills for my eventual writing of Tyrant, which was a better synthesis of writing and art than I could have mustered without having worked with Alan Moore on Swamp Thing, writing for Chas and the horror film zines, and writing fiction and Aliens: Tribes -- so, even the apparent deviations from comics with my ongoing writing labors directly fed my comics.
Living in the trance was all of a piece, a unifying focal point and technique for my entire adult life.
Circumstances forced me to break that trance in 1997–1998. Given my life situation (divorce), and the implosion of the direct sales market, I put my family's survival first and foremost and got a day job, working in the video industry. It was a necessary step, and I don't regret it a bit. But it necessitated the breaking of the trance, simply to function as one must in retail and management, working a day job with other people and the public.
In short, by joining the work-a-day world of retail -- which working for my father's grocery stores from age six to about age 20 trained me for -- I had to break the trance I'd nurtured and thrived within and upon from 1976–1997. The culmination of those years of work and living in the trance yielded Tyrant #4, which may remain the best I can or will ever do in comics. I don't know, time will tell -- I've still got strong drawing chops, and sharp instincts and skills, but I've never returned to the trance. I've not achieved that state of being since, Tom. Teaching is a bit like retail, if you will, in that you're constantly working with others, and it's also a bit like editing, which I did plenty of in the late 1980s and 1990s. Teaching is quite the opposite of instinctual life in the trance: for instance, you must deconstruct process constantly in order to articulate process to yourself and then to your students, then work up lectures, exercises, etc. to walk your classes through that deconstruction of process in order to construct, for them, the process. That uses a very different part of the brain than simply doing comics does -- I'm not sure I could have been an effective teacher living in the trance, to be honest. I'm working hard to find a balance, and to carve out a way and passage to regaining some aspect of life in the trance, but we'll see.
Joe Kubert somehow managed to build, launch, co-manage, and teach at his school while never stopping doing comics; he's arguably done some of his best work since 1976, as did Will Eisner in his later years. But Joe was always quite direct about his relative discomfort with teaching: he told us so from the beginning, though he was a natural at it. But Joe wasn't comfortable doing it, and I think now I understand that a bit better -- if you're in the trance, it's hard to talk about the trance, which is part of what teaching comics necessarily is. It sounds a bit lunatic even talking about it, but having had to break that mode of being in the late 1990s, and feeling the very real mix of agony and relief letting it go, and experiencing first-hand the loss created by breaking the trance, I can appreciate completely now its importance. In hindsight, I can even articulate what it was, what it needs to be, and how it endlessly fed my life and work.
So, am I "a different cartoonist" at 56? Yes, primarily because I had to break my trance of two decades to function in the real world, and I've not found a way back to the trance. Has CCS changed me as a cartoonist? Yes, I think so, but I'd have to place that secondary to the primal repercussions of having broken my trance in 1997 -- and thank CCS for making it possible to return to making a living in a far more creative path than retail ever was or ever could be.
I still have my drawing chops -- working for a year on The Vermont Monster Guide let me flex those muscles and regaining a certain comfort with drawing for publication again -- and as and when I do comics, they're very different from what I was doing in the mid-1990s, and that's thanks in large part to the benefits of living in the beehive that is CCS. Like all truly creative communities, you inevitably learn a great deal from everyone in the hive, and that informs your own work. It certainly has mine. But I'm not at the peak of my abilities I was at with Tyrant #4 and the work I had completed on #5, and I don't know if I'll ever get back that zen state -- but if I do, CCS will have helped me get there, or get close to it. It's a process I'm still very much in.
Then again, I'm also "a different cartoonist" because there's no outlet for my comics any longer, period. I'm never going to be part of the Kramer's Ergot universe, and I'm certainly not part of the DC universe, and as 2010 taught me, the Image universe doesn't want me. There's no means of creating comics for me that would feed me, much less help pay the mortgage. What I've done since 1999 for publication is scattered like a madman's shit. It's all fragmentary -- I contribute every year to this or that, including a few of the anthologies the students invite me into -- but I've absolutely no will to re-engage with the American comics industry, and it doesn't seem to want me in any case, which is fine with me. It's a toxic environment in so many ways, particularly for a cartoonist in my age bracket and situation, and not a single thing has enticed me to re-engage since I left in 1999.
The occasional offers are laughable: "would you do a cover for [insert licensed work-for-hire monster title here] for the rate that prompted you to stop doing cover work for DC Comics in 1988?" is not an enticement. I haven't the energy to even engage in that pointless conversation. The best offers of the past two years I steered to my peers and old Kubert School classmates who are still in the game. Going through the 2010 meatgrinder involved in trying to get the 1963 reprint out, and the time wasted with Image Comics on their fickle, tentative interest in working with me on my quartet of 1963 characters, was completely counterproductive and an absolute waste of time. I'd frankly rather do something that pays nothing for AccentUK or one of the CCS community anthologies: it's clean, pleasurable, trouble-free, I own it, nobody is blowing sunshine up my ass, and my meager contributions at least gives something to those communities, which are creative communities I do care about. Very little has changed, except for the worse, in terms of the business of American comics. The contracts are odious: I see what's offered to me, my students come to me seeking advice on those offered to them. I get offers and invites -- I almost did a story or two for Joe Kubert, in fact -- but I haven't the will or desire any longer to put up with it. I know it may one day change -- I can't tell you how happy reading Bernie Wrightson's collaborations with Steve Niles makes me, evidence that there are creators like Steve (who I was friends with back in the Taboo days) out there in vital creative partnerships with a seasoned vet like Bernie, and that Bernie's still flexing and stretching those incredible chops -- but for now, that's just not happening for me. Sometimes old jazz musicians get to play in the arena, sometimes they just play at home. C'est la vie. My son Daniel got me back into wanting to see my comics in print when he asked me to do one for his first zine a few years ago, and my students build on that every year.
I'm keeping busy. I'm working on my contracted instructional art book for Watson-Guptill, which is coming along, and writing substantial books like Teen Angels & New Mutants and getting a book out every year come what may (print-on-demand and, for 2012, ebooks keep me going), and occasionally doing comics for publication, and I know nobody gives a damn. I know those are only seen by a handful of people; I know the print runs, and what we laughably refer to as the sales, and that's OK. I'm having fun when I do the work; it's all gravy.
It's not about me in any case. It's about the current generation, and their path. They're doing the vital work. It's different for my students: they're young, their work is fresh and needed, and (as I tell them, though they don't believe me) there's doors open for them that will never be open for me.
Just as my generation carved niches, nooks, crannies, venues, and opportunities out of the very toxic comics environment of the late 1970s -- remember, we were trying to enter the field as newsstand distribution of comics was collapsing, the DC implosion occurred during our first year at the Kubert School, and the underground comix scene was essentially gone -- they'll find and create venues for their work, and for some, the venues will come to them. The publishing community that does come to CCS is looking at their work, and some are finding venues through that. It's their time, absolutely, and this generation is creating some of the greatest comics I've ever read in my life.
I'd rather give my all to CCS and the CCS community, day in and day out; that feeds me, and I apparently feed CCS, too. That's a healthy symbiosis and dynamic, for all of us. So, now, I am indeed "a different cartoonist" -- and part and parcel of that is my teaching work, and that's decidedly different from who and what I used to do and be.
SPURGEON: How big a loss is the end of the Xeric grant going to cartoonists? You were a self-publisher, and that was a self-publishing focused grant, particularly in its early years. Also, you're dealing with students that may have directly benefited from that program at some near-future point. But mostly I'm struck by the way you constructed that point about people making their own schools if they don't have one -- it reminds of the statement from the Xeric people that cartoonists have the tools on-line to do what the grant did for them.
BISSETTE: Oh, it's a huge loss. I can only access it as an outsider looking in: of course, I never applied for a Xeric myself -- I'm friends with Peter Laird, and I knew folks on the selection committee, and as a vet working pro couldn't have pursued it in any case, it was properly meant entirely for new talent -- but the Xeric was brilliant and essential. Look at how different in every way Peter's Xeric was from Kevin Eastman's Tundra: both of which were their respective means of "paying back" the comics communities, if you will. The Xeric was an elegant, self-perpetuating solution, for Peter, and for the community. It launched so many worthy cartoonists and comics careers; it was a sorely-needed haven in the stretch between the Direct Market implosion, when the Diamond Dist. monopoly and its partnership with the major surviving comics mainstream publishers essentially dismantled viable self-publishing distribution and the rise of online media that has presently culminated in digital comics, print-on-demand, and funding organs like Kickstarter. The Xeric was an essential life-support system for new comics and new creators.
Perhaps more importantly, the Xeric was a real, concrete goalpost: something to work toward and for. I saw that once I was part of CCS, and I saw how the students who applied were so fully invested in that process. I don't want to talk too much about that -- as you may have noticed, I'm find talking about my life with and at CCS, but beyond that, not so much, as it's their lives and their experience, and that's not mine to discuss or share. But I tell you, I've seen how vital the Xeric was to this community. We had a lot of CCSers applying and winning Xerics. It meant a great deal, and that's hard to quantify. The evaporation of the Xeric for cartoonists is already being felt here, and as more than a vacuum. It's a real loss.
I don't think the decision to terminate the Xeric grant for cartoonists understood its own import and function for young cartoonists, and how vital that was to them, personally, professionally, creatively, and in being part of a continuity, a living history. Ah, well, it's all over now. I loathe how our culture sees everything in terms of money and cash investment and reward: it's a horribly myopic way of seeing and being in the world. The Xeric meant more than just that. Kickstarter doesn't supplant the Xeric. The Xeric wasn't just a fiscal means to an end: it was a hard-won goal, and the most vital kind of goal -- one of those that is, by its nature, proof of a new beginning, a starting point, a launch pad. There's nothing to replace that.
SPURGEON: You've done a lot of admirable advocacy for Creators Rights, which this year took the form of a call for a boycott of the companies that exploited Jack Kirby and debating the moral issues involved. What is it about the nature of comics fandom and many professionals that there's such hostility towards creators and their families chasing after rights and remuneration for these absolute founts of monies made? Are you distressed at all -- and perhaps you'll just disagree with this -- that there seems to be less agreement now about some of these issues than there was 25 years ago? How do you think these issues will develop from here?
BISSETTE: Actually, you've inverted what I said this year, which is OK, since most anyone who even noticed I said anything at all about Kirby has, too.
I called attention to the moral dimensions of the summer of 2011 Marvel Comics/Jack Kirby judgment, first and foremost; and I publicly announced my boycott of Marvel Comics product derivative in any way of Kirby's work.
I didn't call for a boycott: I said, "look, this is wrong. I understand the legal argument, I understand Kirby didn't fight for his own rights properly or adequately in his own lifetime, that he didn't join forces with Joe Simon when he could/should have, that he signed what he signed under duress, and I understand the judgment. But I also see Stan Lee was rewarded every step of the way for working on the very same properties, and still benefits and is rewarded. This is wrong, and I personally won't support this corrupt system any longer with my dime -- I owe too much to Jack Kirby."
It was and remains my personal call, make of that what you will. I'm not rallying anyone or anything. Do what you will: this what I'm doing, until and unless Marvel changes how it treats Kirby's heirs.
I won't go into the entire argument yet again: it's all out there to be read or heard.
But frankly, the comics community at large -- and hardly the fan community, Tom, but the pro community, too -- doesn't care, as far as I can see. Oh, some care: Mark Evanier cares, and John Morrow cares, and James Sturm cares, and honorable pros like Steve Rude refused to work with Marvel after a certain point because of how Marvel has dealt with the Kirby legacy and Jack's family. Thousands of fans care, a handful of pros care, and there's plenty of folks who said, publicly and privately, "yes, you're right" when I posted what I did the week of the judgment, but the utter indifference and often outright hostility that followed wasn't a surprise to me at all.
John Byrne publicly accused me of naiveté, but that's hardly the case. Anyone who worked at Marvel, and many of us who worked at DC, and arguably anyone who worked in mainstream comics after 1963, period, owe too much to Kirby to ever repay. Byrne's right, legally, and correct to raise the issue over Steve Ditko and Spider-Man; that doesn't alter the fact that the Kirby/Lee and Kirby/Ditko creations irrevocably changed the entire landscape, and that Marvel owes its very existence to Kirby, and should have long ago done right by Kirby and the Kirby heirs. John and the usual lineup of those who benefitted from Marvel's post-1977 copyright revisionism and more progressive 1980s royalty policies have instead ridiculed and even pilloried Kirby and his heirs: born on third base, strutting around like they hit a triple, pissing on Kirby's grave on their way to home base. It confirmed what the 1990s proved to me: whatever solidarity there might have been in circles of the comics community of the 1980s long ago evaporated.
Even the die-hard Kirby fans, and die-hard Kirby pro fans, who posted with such enthusiasm on Facebook the week the Captain America movie opened, actively resented, reviled, and/or shunned my stance and argument. When I can't convince as rabid a Kirby lover (as well as nice guy and terrific cartoonist) as Scott Shaw! that this doesn't outweigh the addiction to Kirby-derivative media that doesn't pay a red cent to Kirby's family -- and I'm not meaning to be unfair to pick on Scott here, but he's a clear example of the passionate Kirby fan and devotee who isn't a Marvel employee who continues to support the status quo -- I'm not sure there is any traction to be had, frankly. So, I speak up whenever I see that happening. Which, as far as I can see, has only made me a pariah in new arenas. Big deal. The whole vicious cycle will play out when The Avengers movie promo machine revs up and then hits.
If you have to stick your fingers in your ears and go "lalalalalala" anytime anyone points out the gross injustice of Marvel's ongoing relations with Kirby's heirs, you're hopeless.
Thus, as far as I can see, there's absolute and almost total "agreement now" about the current environment: "If it exists and/or can be exploited, and I want it, anything that gets in the way of my instant gratification is hateful." Something as vague as ethics or morality should hinder "my" seeing an X-Men or Thor or Captain America movie? What, Jack Kirby's heirs are in "my" way? Shit on that! Spit on them! "What did they ever create?"
The almost pathological nature of the arguments are fascinating in and of themselves.
There's the "if you're drawing that line in the sand, why not draw every line in the sand?" non-argument: Kirby's role in comics and Marvel history was and remains exceptional, the Marvel/Kirby judgment is a landmark, and you pick your battles, and picking one distinctive, clearly significant battle doesn't mean one either fights all battles or one's evaluation and decision is, ipso facto, meaningless and without merit. This isn't about Kirby and DC, or [insert creator name here] and [insert corporate name here] over [insert injustice and/or intellectual property name here], it's about Marvel Comics and Jack Kirby, and we all know exactly what that means and entails.
There's the "Kirby's heirs didn't create anything, why should they benefit at all?" argument, which is hilarious coming from some of the quarters it comes from: I mean, really, doesn't John Byrne's entire Marvel career make him quite literally one of "Kirby's heirs"? Jack didn't "earn" enough from Marvel to reclaim his own original artwork without further legal, moral, and public degradation and absolute subjugation to Marvel's will; John Byrne earned enough from Marvel to collect and own Kirby original art. Isn't Stan Lee post-Kirby/Lee one of "Kirby's heirs"? Isn't every person who worked at Marvel from the time it was Marvel and took up more than one room post-1962 one of "Kirby's heirs"? Aren't the legal teams that are crushing the genetic real-life Kirby heirs under their virtual boot heels "Kirby's heirs"? Kirby's creations are still paying their paychecks every fucking Friday, that's for sure.
More to the point: of course, I want my own kids to benefit from whatever I manage to create in may lifetime; doesn't every creator who happens to be a parent wish and work for that? So, only corporations wielding unfair legal abuses and rich families revered as new aristocracies should benefit from inherited legacies? Why the scions of inherited wealth in corporate America should be elevated and feted while Kirby and Kirby's heirs are reviled is emblematic of many of the arguments: for example, George W. Bush, who created nothing, should enjoy the sanctioned inherited wealth and station that led to the Presidency while Kirby's heirs deserve only brickbats, ire, and resentment?
We can all see, and are all invested in, creative work being the coin of the realm. Why should nepotism rationalize Stan alone benefitting while Jack and Jack's heirs suck wind? Lee built his personal fortune on the uncontracted, unspoken market presumptions of the era when Timely/Atlas/Marvel was a one-room office; it was only the success of the Kirby/Lee and Ditko/Lee creations that turned all that around, nurtured and bankrolled the very legal departments that allowed Marvel to crush Kirby into signed submission in his lifetime, and to grow into the media giant Disney bought in 2010, bankrolling the very legal machines that just crushed Kirby's heirs. If you just break it down to active American economic exports in the years 2008-2011, what is more valuable in the 21st Century than intellectual properties, and all that's derivative of successful, marketable intellectual properties like the Stan Lee/Jack Kirby legacy?
It really comes down to, in most cases, "how dare you muddy my desire/fun with Kirby-derivative products I crave!" Even those who agree with me come to me with crazy conversations: "So, what if I wait and only buy the Captain America DVD from the used sale bins? What if -- " blahblahblah. If you're looking for a way to sneak around money going into Marvel's pockets while getting your Kirby-derivative hit, you're hopeless, you don't get it. There's the "mail Kirby's heirs a dollar for every Kirby movie you see," which accomplishes nothing. If Marvel doesn't feel the fiscal pinch or shame, nothing will ever change.
I've no illusions or pretensions. I'm one person, with no market presence or power per se, speaking on a personal blog and occasionally on Facebook. All I said, and am saying, is "This is legal; this is wrong. I'm not spending another penny with Marvel's Kirby-derived products." It matters not a whit to most people. Fine.
But we see time and time again how consumers simply saying "enough!" can bring certain product lines and producers to change their ways. It's not impossible, it's not crazy, and it's not too much to hope for.
But it's a stretch. Generationally, we're into the first generation of creators who have grown up totally without Jack Kirby being an active presence. That's part of it. It's also a generation that, if it bothers to go back and read the Lee/Kirby comics, primarily sees the seams and shortcomings; you can't expect the generation that grew up with Maus, Watchmen and all that followed to react as the readers of the 1960s did to the ramshackle, crazy-quilt periodicals Lee and Kirby were grinding out at a furious pace, inventive and imaginative and marvelous as they were and in many ways remain. So much of what Kirby innovated was so quickly and completely absorbed by the pop culture, codified by Marvel's own procession of Kirby imitators and chameleons working to what was, by 1967, the "Marvel look," that it's no surprise a new generation looking back just can't see the definitive ways Kirby reshaped and redefined the landscape: they grew up in the new world he built, and only saw Stan's name and lasting imprint on it.
We're also into the first generation of creators who have grown up with mass media super-saturated with adaptations of comics, from X-Men to Art School Confidential, in every nook and cranny of their environment. That's part of it. They've grown up consuming endless media streams without worrying for a flicker of an eyelid who might have created it, or been ripped off: I mean, the author who created Cheetah Girls was completely ripped off by Disney, they bought all rights for a song. You think the generation that grew up with Cheetah Girls being a fleeting spike in their Disney Channel confections consumption to give a rat's ass about that? Why should, or could, they give a rat's ass about Jack Kirby, much less Kirby's heirs?
And we're amid the first generation utterly addicted to free media: the seemingly infinite, illusory "free" flow of the internet.
Part of the toxic comics industry environment I referred to earlier has to do with this, Tom, and I'll do my best to be succinct. There's precious little sense of debt or obligation to our predecessors, and that permeates every corner of the current wide community, from how it embodies and expresses our country's radical swing to the Right -- so-called "Conservative" values that conserve nothing, as far as I can tell, save the enshrinement of the wealthy, their "right" to amass, mobilize, and wield that wealth through any means deemed "legal," and the deification of corporate culture -- to how it actively embraces the rampant exploitation of old and new talent sans compensation.
Honestly, I don't see much difference between the cottage economy based on handsome, high-priced reprints of past comics creations that pay nothing to the creators or their heirs -- and in this I'm including everything from the Dark Horse Dell reprints to the PreCode horror reprints to the Kirby and Ditko reprint collections to the Archie reprints (and arguably no comics publisher with that company's longevity has badly used and ill-treated more creators than Archie) to the Fantagraphics reprints to Munden's Bar and First Comics reprints that pay nothing (having experienced that first-hand with the Munden's Bar reprint) -- and the post-RAW generation of anthologies that pay creators zip. The oversized Kramer's Ergot was a benchmark for that, in my mind: did anyone involved creatively in that venture earn what it cost to buy a copy of that monster volume? If it's a creator-owned collective trying to build an audience by collectively publishing their own work, that's one thing, but many of these lavish contemporary anthologies are quite another.
It doesn't have to be this way -- but it is.
Whenever I hold in my hand a book that I know, for a fact, paid more to the printer than that book cumulative paid the creator(s) whose work is between those covers, what can I say except, "This is fucked." They're lovely books, and it's great having all this work back in print, but this is fucked. There's simply no other way to put it.
Where will it go from here? That's up to this generation of creators. They've a lot of decks stacked against them -- mainstream book publishers have unfortunately appropriated variations on the legal conceits of traditional comics publishers and gaming industries amid this graphic novel boom. I regularly see deceptively worded contracts that lock down so many rights contractually that they might as well be work-for-hire, trying to lock down all media rights and claiming to pay "advances" that aren't actually advances but paid incrementally, with the final payment coming months after completion (that's hardly an "advance"). We've lost as much ground as we thought we'd gained in the 1980s.
But the other side of the equation, which leaves them both vulnerable and empowered, is the fact they've also been essentially abandoned by all previous viable modes of publishing and distribution. They've been shut out of Diamond and the direct sales market, they're shut out of the book market. They've no choice but to congregate like tribes, at regional conventions, and sell their creations as if they were at a craft fair, which essentially they are. They've no choice but to build their OWN venues and revenue streams (income), from the ground up.
As I say to many of my students, "If you're addicted to free media, how do you expect to make a living creating new media?" That's the central challenge and conundrum.
Furthermore, what I see of this generation of cartoonists, unlike the majority of my generation, is that they aren't addicted to simply feeding the system. We don't have many students at CCS who dream primarily of drawing Batman or Spider-Man. They grew up with the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Eastman and Laird's legacy instead of Jack Kirby's, and however convoluted and bizarre Kevin and Peter's path, they know as cartoonists that initially, at least, Peter and Kevin owned and shaped the TMNT. They grew up reading comics and graphic novels created in the wake of Harvey Pekar, MAUS, and such, and have their own stories to tell. They're not predisposed toward feeding the Marvel, DC, Image, Archie coffers, and that's a great source of optimism and hope for me.
SPURGEON: You're in your mid-fifties now, as is most of your remarkable generation of comics-makers, if not a bit older. Have you ever thought about the beginning of a generational legacy, all that you've done? This year we saw Alan Moore and Frank Miller receive a lot of public grief for certain public positions, and while I know that may be difficult to comment upon, I wonder if you see the kind of vehemence that certain creators experience at a certain point in their careers as a natural tearing down of idols?
BISSETTE: Well, we made quite a mess of things, didn't we? I don't feel so "remarkable" most days, and I don't want to get into particulars about my peers; what a clusterfuck, is all I can say.
As I mentioned earlier, it's great to see from time to time something like the Steve Niles/Bernie Wrightson collaborations working and cooking and contemporary, to see Colleen Doran carry on and become (essentially) a lobbyist for our rights as she keeps up her creative work, or more to the point seeing Jeff Smith and Bone become an international hit while Jeff and Vijaya maintain ownership of everything, seeing my friend Neil Gaiman soar in so many media and venues (all the while throwing his muscle behind the CBLDF, mind you) -- there's been a lot of good, a lot of highs. But for every one of those, there's something utterly heartbreaking from another corner.
It's not just the "tearing down of idols," whether natural or unnatural as a process, but reaping what has been sown, and it's still got a long way to go, I'm afraid. The highs are pretty high, given how high the stakes have become, but the lows are horrifically low (as the murder of my old friend Steve Perry in the spring of 2010 demonstrated). Frankly, the terms under which some pretty big fish in the pool agreed to work within -- and thus perpetuated -- when they could have made a difference, should have known better, and could have insisted on better have had a decidedly negative impact on everyone, except for those with the powerbase or clout to transcend the reconfigurations of the market and the new contractual paradigms.
For me, personally, by 1999 I'd just had it with my own generation in comics. It's like Peter Fonda at the end of Easy Rider: "We blew it." There was the killer one-two punch of the Florida Mike Diana obscenity verdict and the Oklahoma City retailer prosecution ending in resignation -- the retailers understandably walked away, having been jailed and had their livelihoods and personal lives completely ravaged, leaving it to far more visible media (video, specifically the videocassette of Volker Schlondorff's adaptation of Gunter Grass's The Tin Drum) and defenders (the VSDA -- Video Software Dealers Association -- and a far more aggressive alliance with the ACLU, since it was no longer comics they were saddled with) to knock the tar out of the unholy alliance of local religious and police zealots involved. That's pretty much forgotten today, but those were very real signposts for me of what was happening in the 1990s. The CBLDF survived that, and thankfully carried on, but I was glad Taboo was behind me by then.
Personally being in the rooms and witnessing first-hand Will Eisner's paid speaking gigs at the last of the 1990s distribution trade shows, with Will essentially sponsored by Diamond and Capital to speak and him clearly saying to all gathered there, "this direct sale market experiment is an extraordinary thing, it's precious and fragile, don't mess this up," only to see the whole show dismantled into a monopoly-by-proxy within two or three years -- well, that was mortifying. The grand creator-owned publishing experiments were remarkable: Image Comics did as much harm as it did good, especially if you explore the whole McFarlane/Gaiman debacle and what followed (in which I still can't see anyone finding McFarlane's actions defensible, much less something to champion), and I've caused enough trouble talking about experiments like Tundra and the Spirit of Independence tours and the like: the big experiments in collective creator publishing really mucked things up, in the end. Dave Sim was right about a lot of things, but nobody wanted to listen; they were too busy villifying him over gender issues.
The creeping contagion I saw in 1990s contracts, too, wherein language in the Vertigo/DC contracts began to creep into others as a sort of codified lip-service to creator rights while establishing terrible new "norms," and the capitulation to work-for-hire in some circles (as some book publishers adopted terms from traditional comics publishing and gaming industries, including some publishers and imprints I could cite that would frankly surprise you) even as the book industry's embrace of graphic novels could have revolutionized everything for the better just sickened me. Instead of graphic novels benefitting via the adoption of traditonal book practices, the boom in graphic novel and comics-based movie, TV shows, and games prompted publisher legal departments to go, "hmmmm, these comics publishers might be right, securing all media rights," and so on and so forth.
A core new aristocracy of creators emerged in the 1990s who benefitting from more traditional, and (for comics) progressive, book deals -- the RAW circles, for instance, and as I said Jeff and Vijaya Smith negotiated the minefields admirably and with aplomb -- and that's all to the good. Jeff and Bone is such a sterling role model to have out there -- the work itself, Jeff and Vijaya themselves, and the fact they've managed it all so well, for the good of themselves and of Bone and Jeff's ongoing, new creative work. But far more pervasive influences in contracts I've been offered or have been asked to review are boilerplate contracts and agreements refuting limiting termination language and insisting upon "duration of copyright" agreements, meaning they're still your publisher long after you're dead; work-for-hire terms cloaked in other legal language; rights reversions are either excluded altogether, or they're sliding in some variation the fucking Vertigo/DC claus in which rights revert only after you've paid back any advances, even when the contract and work was completed and accepted for publication. That means they're not required to even publish what they agree to publish, and lock up rights unless you buy them back: it's inverted the option principle. I'm seeing suspicious Hollywood accounting practices are sliding into contracts, and so on. The money has dried up, too, and the corporate umbrella structure has even peeled away clear royalty terms: if your contract states you're earning not a percentage of cover price, but a percentage of what the imprint you've signed with earns, it's frankly impossible to audit and you know then you're getting a fraction of what the imprint earns only after their parent corporate proprietors skim off the top. It's not that "the grass was greener" on the other side of the fence; it's that the terms have fundamentally changed, and unless you've got a potent agent or rep, or have the necessary boxoffice clout or name value, the pickings are mighty slim.
I've watched it all from some distance, mind you. Nobody wants me to speak about it, precious few of my peers want to offer their own testimonials, and essentially punish me if I dare mention them by name, and any sense of collective will or action has blurred or evaporated. I've given up, in a lot of ways.
Then again, I'm doing my part, as best I can, at and with CCS. In the classroom at CCS, I can share what I've learned and my perceptions of what I've seen with a part of the next generation. I can walk them through what worked, what went wrong, what to emulate, and what to avoid like the plague. The next generation is all I find worth investing in, and thankfully there's plenty of like-minded creators doing the same, and with far more influence and clarity than someone in my position can muster or manage.
On the other hand, the best comics I've ever read are being created -- just terrific stuff, some of it mainstream, some of it from CCSers, some of it in tiny print runs and in precious art objects that happen to be comics. The academic dialogue about comics (CCS just hosted ICAF, and it was positively intoxicating to attend, I didn't miss a single lecture or presentation) is a positive development, and I hope that will elevate the conversation in ways that will directly confront, challenge, and benefit the new generation of creators. As I said, it's up to this new generation to revolutionize and change the paradigms. I see that they're doing it creatively, with the work itself, but it also has to reinvigorate and revolutionize the industry or industries that emerge over time -- embracing progressive and fair terms and treatment of creators necessarily requires refuting all that is regressive and detrimental to personal and professional growth, well-being, and the individual and (by proxy) collective good.
In this, CCS brings in the creators of the previous generation that can be their strongest advocates and allies -- the threesome of Seth, Chris Ware, and Ivan Brunetti, Jeff Smith, Charles Burns, Art Spiegelman, Alison Bechdel, and I could go on and on. Those are the healthy, positive voices and examples that immediately come to mind; there are too many to cite, given all who have graced CCS with their visits, voices, visions, and time. Those are some of the voices that engage and have something to offer, Tom. The "tearing down" process is just a din that occasionally rises to cacophony then subsides.
SPURGEON: We had a very fun discussion in Vermont this year about collections, and one thing I think people began to take stock of this year is the amount of stuff that people with certain passions accumulate over time, and what's to be done with it. Do you know what the ultimate destination is for the stuff you have? Do you have any thoughts on all of this material being put back into circulation or used in a different, more directed way over the next 20-40 years?
BISSETTE: A large portion -- or so I thought -- of my papers and materials have already been donated to the HUIE Library at Henderson State University in Arkadelphia, Arkansas. It's a vast collection they have in hand, and that's accessible to scholars, researchers, fans, etc. right now, and has been for a number of years. I'm overjoyed with having worked with Lea Ann Alexander and her staff, and Randy Duncan, at Henderson, but I eventually overwhelmed them, I fear. Then I moved in 2006, and holy shit, I still have literally tons of stuff. It's quite a collection, but what to do with it all before I check out? Having helped my late friend Steve Perry deal with his copyrights and such before his death was pretty goddamned sobering, as has been my peripheral involvement with other late friends passing and their collections, which has lit a fire under my own ass to deal sooner than later with my own collections.
I had hoped CCS might be interested in the rest, but that's not the case. I offered to photocopy all the comics scripts in my archives, for instance, and the response was, "Uh, how about just a couple?" You'd think the complete Alan Moore/Bissette/Totleben/Veitch Swamp Thing scripts would be of interest and use, but what do I know? Any institution I've approached in the past either express interest and do nothing, or want to (understandably) cherry-pick, which defeats the purpose. Thankfully, HUIE Library accepted (and has) a lot, but that connection has drifted -- my fault, as much as anyone's, I reckon, but -- well, we'll see. Maybe it'll all end up there.
I'll be donating a few choice bits of my comic original art collection to CCS, I'm sure; James and I have talked about that, and I'll be making decisions shortly. I'm dealing with what to do with the rest now, and my now-adult daughter, son, and stepson will be brought into the decisions at some point, but right now it's just so much shit to them -- you know, "Dad's shit," some with sentimental value, some desirable, mostly clutter. I've no desire to just sell my original art all off, and it's still of use to me and must be completely scanned, catalogued, etc. Who knows. I'll sort it out, hopefully with more sense and responsibility than I've seen in how my late friends have dealt with their respective life clutter, and hopefully in time... which, per usual, "time will tell."
More difficult to navigate or predict is what I'll do with the intangibles: the intellectual properties, all my writing, illustration, artwork, stories, copyrights, trademarks. I'm sorting some of that out now, and I'll use print-on-demand and ebooks to gather digital files for publication (if only to sort and prep it for my kids to access after I'm gone), but nobody's interested in the stuff that requires long-term vigilance or work: the copyrights, the trademarks, and they're frankly of little or no value until and unless I elevate their value by getting it all back into print and developing it further. The irony is after I'm dead, it'll be of interest and value, I reckon; but right now, it's all sort of inert, save for the occasional reprint option, and frankly the interviews I've done over the years generated more interest and revenue for me in 2009-2011 than anything I did in comics outside of Swamp Thing. It's a weird limbo to be in. I'm struggling with related issues -- work-for-hire being the only legal terms under which I can work with others on my quartet of the 1963 characters in order to protect the trademarks and copyrights; division of shared creative properties; and so on -- which slows everything down terribly at times, but there it is. I'm only hurting my now-adult offspring if I don't sort all this shit out now, and once and for all.
But back to the material collections: being in the economic Depression we're in nationally, most collections are either under lock and key, or being sold off to make ends meet. I find it amusing that some of my peers talk about selling their collections to institutions; I thought myself lucky to find one (HUIE Library) willing to accept the donation. Maybe this interview answer will prompt some action about this for me.
SPURGEON: Your book, Teen Angels & New Mutants, is very ambitious in terms of all that it could be said to encompass. It can be seen as a book about process, and one about a historical moment, and about making art generally, graphic novels as a kind of art-making, and just about this specific work. Can you talk about your aims going in, considering how many ways a reader can dig into the final result?
BISSETTE: Personally, I think a book like Teen Angels is long overdue -- I wish I could have simply read such a book, instead of writing it myself, but there you go. More often than not, you make the media you need yourself. As sometimes happens, this emerged from a freelance commission.
Teen Angels & New Mutants was, going in, simply an essay Rick Veitch was commissioning me to write about the genesis of Rick Veitch's Brat Pack, the Tundra miniseries and the King Hell revised graphic novel. Sitting on our back lawn in the summer of 2007, Rick specifically asked for me to give him "both barrels," cover everything in detail, for a planned King Hell anniversary hardcover Brat Pack collected edition; we agreed it would not be a hagiography, but rather an extensive and intensive dissection of all the led to Brat Pack, we agreed on payment, and I jumped in. I wrote multiple drafts, each time submitting the current draft to Rick for input, corrections, and revisions, responding to Rick's needs (remove this, add that) and push to go deeper -- and I ended up with a book manuscript. In the end, I had to strip back the final draft to abridge it to long essay form, for the Brat Pack hardcover.
As a professional writer who loves writing nonfiction, this is a pretty familiar process for me: The same happened when Christopher Golden, Tom Sniegoski and I wrote The Monster Book: Buffy The Vampire Slayer for Pocket Books, and when I did extensive monster research and a full examination of relevant monster myths, lore, and pop cultural archetypes for the law firm representing Pixar in a lawsuit about Monster, Inc. (which I didn't think I was ever supposed to discuss, but since it's discussed in David A. Price's book The Pixar Touch, I reckon it's all right for me to do so, now). The client -- Pocket Books, the Pixar legal reps, Rick Veitch -- ask for an expansive study of something, followed by ever-more-extensive revisions, for deeper research and analysis, and in the end we end up with a monstrous book manuscript, which I (or, in the case of The Monster Book, we) have to abridge it into a tighter publishable page count or format. I cut my teeth on the same process in 1991 with the novella Aliens: Tribes, completing what I thought was a final draft for Dark Horse to the contractual word count, only to have to cut that by 10,000 words when Dark Horse realized the contractual word count was too expansive for the physical format of the book. That was insane on Aliens: Tribes, having to all be done as a sweeping rethink/rewrite in a single pressure-cooker week (due to DH sitting on the ms. for months without attention or activity; after the extensive rewrite, it sat for another few months sans attention, business as usual at Dark Horse, by my experience). With Rick, it was a much saner, measured process, and we were both happy with the end result, in both the complete book length and the abridged essay form.
It's an odd book, one I never would have written without being commissioned to do so, but it is a book I'm intensely proud of and pleased with, and the kind of analysis of a singular graphic novel work I always wanted to read. There was nothing else like it, as far as I knew: a full autopsy of a single work, tracing (to the best of my ability, within the time constraints and deadline I was working within) all the cultural and pop cultural threads that culminated in this creator's life, this creator's body of work, and this creator's business affairs and career arc, and how all those threads coalesced into Brat Pack, and then following the ripples from the publication of the singular work and all that came after it, in the culture, the pop culture, and comics. In the best of all worlds, I'd love to write such a book about, say, Binky Brown Meets The Holy Virgin Mary, or American Splendor, or, closer to home, Swamp Thing, or From Hell, but Brat Pack was the creation I was assigned to autopsy, and like a good coroner, I rolled up my sleeves and got to work.
I ended up working on the project for two and a half years, and completing both a full book version and abridged version that Rick accepted; in the end, the ever-declining direct sales market conditions prompted Rick to pull the plug on his planned hardcover definitive Brat Pack edition, and Rick gave the full ms. back to me with his blessings to publish it as a solo book and keep the fee he'd paid me. He furthermore offered to let me include whatever Brat Pack artwork I needed for the book, sans cost, recognizing (as publishers don't seem to these days) that it would ultimately only promote him and his work. In the end, I gave the whole book one more revision and polish through the winter of 2009–2010, ran that past Rick one last time to be sure I'd betrayed no confidences or inadvertently compromised him in some way, and he graciously agreed to allowing me to use two of his commissioned Brat Pack sketch portraits for the front and back cover art. I briefly shopped Teen Angels around, and was declined by a clutch of publishers (including Headpress in the UK, who I really hoped would take it on), and turned to the more modest print-on-demand with my long-time friend Jean-Marc Lofficier at Black Coat Press to finally get it out there. My pal Cayetano "Cat" Garza, Jr., with whom I've done a procession of covers for various books and publications, took on the final coloring of Rick's cover pieces and cover design, and Jean-Marc helped me winnow down the plethora of illustrations I had to what you see in the final book, and reformatted the files as necessary for print-on-demand in black and white. Black Coat no longer distributes through Diamond, but does have distribution via Ingram, Baker and Taylor, amazon, and all the various internet venues, so I reactivated my long-defunct SpiderBaby account with Diamond, and we got Teen Angel out with as wide a possible distribution as was possible. For me, by that time, it was a grand experiment with expanding upon my initial print-on-demand experiments: regional with Green Mountain Cinema, a book on Vermont films and filmmakers I did back in 2000 and self-distributed in my home state, and S.R. Bissette's Blur, a complete five-volume collection of my weekly newspaper "Video Views" film review columns (circa 1999-2002) and other film-related writing I'd done in the past. I've learned something with each venture, and Teen Angels allowed me to assess the current possibilities a bit, though I naturally recognized from the get-go it was a peculiar book with a limited audience.
Personally, Teen Angels was immensely satisfying, too, because it was the ideal and proper vehicle to finally sort out, make sense of, and really chart disturbing pop cultural and cultural trends that had intruded upon and in ways shaped my own life: not just comics industry trends, transformations, and upheavals that Rick and I worked within and through, but also aspects of American culture and teen pop culture, specifically the ongoing exploitation and abuse of youth in myriad media. My friend G. Michael Dobbs had once jokingly suggested America needed a book on "pedophile pop culture," and Brat Pack certainly was the ideal catalyst for addressing that sick aspect of our culture, which is quite real and pervasive, particularly on the Disney Channel and shows like Tots And Tiaras these days. As it was Rick's and Brat Pack's story, not my own, there were formative experiences I left out of the book: the details of Joe Orlando's abusive portfolio review of yours truly back in 1977, in which he told me "we're not selling comics, we're selling sex," which is cited but not detailed; my first wife Marlene's and my brush with the child model industry, when our daughter Maia passionately wanted to be part of a sweeping audition for child models, which we reluctantly engaged with -- what an experience that was!; the wide-sweeping late 1980s/early 1990s wave of adults overwhelmed by "recovered memories" of having been sexually abused as a child, which spilled fully into our lives via Marlene's experiencing just that (which I referenced in two footnotes in Teen Angels, but didn't get into beyond that); the Catholic Church sexual abuse scandals, which exploded just after Mike Diana's trial in Florida and after Brat Pack, but are still ongoing. Since both Rick and I were raised Catholic, that had great significance to us both, and in one draft of the book I did have a more expansive chapter on Mike Diana, the CBLDF, and the Catholic sexual abuse scandal, but I decided it was too peripheral to Brat Pack -- Rick was involved with none of that, nor was Brat Pack, so I cut that completely and I'm glad I did, just as I'm glad I cut the chapter I was working on about Dave Sim, the Spirits of Independence tours, and the Fantagraphics-fomented "misogynist Dave" character assassination and consequences -- that wasn't part of the Brat Pack years or experience, that came afterwards, and again Rick and Brat Pack weren't directly involved (those were the Roarin' Rick's Rarebit Fiends years, which wasn't the focus of this book). As it is, it clocks in at 400 pages, and that's after trimming away such fat.
But it was appropriate, both Rick and I thought, to really dig into Fredric Wertham's writings and their impact on comics, and Harvey Kurtzman and MAD, though again the focal point of Brat Pack determined which aspects of Wertham and Kurtzman it was appropriate to discuss. Teen Angels did provide a stellar vehicle for tracing how preteen and teen culture played a role in Rick's life (those Davey Crockett hats, sex drugs & rock 'n' roll in Rick's rural Vermont teen years, becoming a young father before entering Kubert School) and the teen idol phenomenon (which I initially experienced via my younger sister growing up -- she was the David Cassidy generation -- and later via my daughter -- who was part of the Jonathan Brandis and Leonardo DiCaprio generation) and its relationship with comicbook teen sidekick archetype and iconography. The political dimensions were essential, too, but since that component wasn't as central to Brat Pack as it was to, say, Rick's The One, I thought it best to save that for the final chapter of the book, where I speed-dial the reader through a synopsis of the Reagan and George H.W. Bush years Brat Pack emerged from and existed within.
I wish I could have included, as an appendix, certain documentation -- the Brat Pack proposals and pitch art, which, understandably, Rick is reserving for that someday-to-be-published definitive King Hell Brat Pack special edition -- and was compelled to hire Bill Volk to prepare the Brat Pack synopsis appendices, which would have been unnecessary in the proper context of the planned Brat Pack definitive edition, it's pretty much the book Rick wanted, too. I wish I could have provided somewhere a more intimate snapshot of Rick's process, as an artist, writer, and freelancer, but he resisted that and I didn't push it. Rick's got one of the strongest work ethics I've ever seen in a human being, the kind I've seen in only a handful of cartoonists -- Joe Kubert, Tim Truman, Alec Longstreth -- but that would have come across as hagiography, and we'd agreed from the start not to go there. I think tracing, instead, the insider details of Brat Pack's genesis, from a proposal for DC Comics and its brush with Piranha Press, to its eventual publication as a coproduction of King Hell and Tundra, does the job of detailing process in its twin threads of creative process and the necessary business of selling and publishing such a project.
There were concessions I made to not sharing certain privileged, insider knowledge we had, either individually or together; I let Rick determine that comfort level, not just because he was initially the client, but because he was the one who had to live with Teen Angels existing at all. With certain passages, like discussion of the Tundra years and Alan Moore, it just seemed wiser to cite only the public record, specifically the print (not the online) public record on Tundra, and more specifically Rick's and Kevin Eastman's public interviews concerning Tundra, and leave it at that. I think I negotiated that minefield with some precision, losing no limbs, fingers, toes, or readers. The fact that once it was published Rick wanted copies for his sons Ezra and Kirby spoke volumes to me -- I think it's a pretty solid piece of work, accomplishing everything I'd set out to do. It does, I hope, establish a new threshold for the kind of analysis of graphic novels there should be much, much more of, for those works deserving or rewarding such scrutiny. The fact that 2010 closed with Teen Angels making it on to one academic's amazon.com list of "Essential Books on Comics History" was awfully gratifying; I hope this book eventually builds an audience and prompts similar books on other comics and graphic novels of merit.
SPURGEON: This was something I asked Art Spiegelman about his MetaMaus. Did you intend any part of the book to be critical -- of a certain kind of comics making, or a certain poverty in the collective critical apparatus -- perhaps using Rick's book as an positive example?
BISSETTE: I've just finished reading MetaMaus -- Marge gave it to me for Christmas -- so I think I can fairly address this. Yes, I completely intended it as just that, Tom. I came to see Teen Angles as a gauntlet of sorts: "here, take up this challenge. I dare you." Ya, that was part of it, for sure.
I think our cultural dialogue about our own culture and pop culture is horribly shallow and impoverished, and despite the blossoming of academic comics studies, I think "the collective critical apparatus" applied to comics and graphic novels is also terribly shallow, myopic, and inadequate.
Now, Brat Pack is admittedly an odd choice: Rick's comics are an acquired taste, Swamp Thing remains his most mainstream venue and success (with Army@Love a close second, possibly), Brat Pack was never a blockbuster hit (except in the context of Rick's self-publishing King Hell Press ventures), and the topic and graphic novel itself remain pretty unsavory fare for the casual reader. But then again, so is the Holocaust -- but I put it to you that the Holocaust as the focus of a graphic novel still is considered more palatable than a graphic novel about how we devour our young. Be that as it may, Brat Pack was the subject at hand because this book grew out of a commission -- just as MetaMaus grew out of a commission of sorts, from his publisher, for Art to reissue his Maus CD-Rom for a new generation, and to publish a new Maus artifact that was in keeping with the serious nature of Maus and the considerable (deserved) high esteem Maus is held in. So, there's a mercantile agenda to both books, and both those mercantile agendas either originated with, or were sanctioned by, the creators of the graphic novels that are the singular subjects of each book. In his discussion of working with art and Holocaust galleries in MetaMaus, Art clearly states his discomfort with the commercial aspects of all this, but there it is: MetaMaus exists because it is a commercial package, just as Teen Angels exists at all because Rick had a commercial impulse that initiated its creation. They're really odd companion volumes, book-ending 2010, though of course MetaMaus will be much, much wider known, read, and appraised; MetaMaus is a prestige full-color book with a bonus DVD/CD component by a prestige author from a prestige publisher about a prestige Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel getting prestige promotion and book store distribution. Teen Angels is, by comparison, a rather paltry black-and-white brick that's reached, at best, about 500 readers; it isn't even a small fish in a small pond, it's a walking catfish gasping its way from a dried-out mud-baked canal in search of a puddle with enough water to breath in.
That said, and all due bowing and scraping to Art and Maus and all that embodies, I wish MetaMaus had some distance from Art in order to offer as expansive an analysis of Maus as Maus richly deserves, and that the creative community (rather than the New YorkerMaus audience) needs. The interviews with family members are illuminating, but again, its insular, and all very protective of Art's bubble, wherein looking and probing outside the creator's own bubble is what's essential for full assessment of any such, or similar, magnitude or scope. There is a very real cartography aspect to this kind of nonfiction work, and one really needs to be in love with mapping everything, including the subterranean currents, eddies, and abysses.
Without being either too glib or unduly critical, there are self-evident blindspots in Metamaus that I wish weren't there, as there are questions I've long had about Maus are not only aren't answered, they aren't even addressed. It's one thing to terminate the discussion of Holocaust literature and pop culture without even mentioning, much less illuminating, the darker abysses of the really overt and fleetingly popular at a mainstream level Holocaust-exploitation of Hogan's Heroes (1965–1971; it's almost unthinkable that TV series isn't even mentioned in MetaMaus!) to the mid-1970s Holocaust porn wave, soft and hard, from Liliana Cavani's Il Portiere Di Notte/The Night Porter (1974) to Tinto Brass's Salon Kitty (1976) or Don Edmond's Ilsa, She-Wolf Of The SS (1975, perversely shot on the to-be-demolished sets of Hogan's Heroes, which only adds to the sick electricity of the whole endeavor) to the really trashy Italian imitators. On the one hand, that's arguably a matter of personal taste -- Art's, surely -- and such fare is dismissed as glibly as Art dismisses the EC horror comics, given brief scrutiny via the showing of one men's adventure magazine cover, mention and showing of one suspect paperback slice of Holocaust porn, and his reference to "the Big Taboo" all this stuff was in his life. But part of the import, power, and necessity of Maus is its powerful redress of those base exploitations of the Holocaust -- which were very pervasive components of the 1970s, domestically and internationally -- and to my mind quite relevant to the nerves Maus struck, and for its success, aesthetically and commercially. Art admittedly addresses some of the relevant issues, if not the content, in his own self-analysis of his own underground comix work he's less than proud of (the Viper, etc.), but I wish some further context were there, or at least more than merely hinted at.
I wish Art had gotten into the nuts and bolts of Maus's extensive, odd publishing history, which really is extraordinary -- it's there, piecemeal, in MetaMaus, efficiently summarized in one paragraph and that glorious double-page spread of rejection letters, but it's not cohesively scrutinized or assessed. Nor is there discussion of the inherent problem Maus or any work of similar scope presents for the graphic novel creators and publishers: how the hell does any publishing model adequately nurture, much less subsidize, a substantial work that took over a decade, four publishing venues, and a fucking Guggenheim grant to complete? I was relieved when he got into the crazy ride associated with Don Bluth appropriating Maus iconography to convert it into pre-digested sugary pop pabulum with An American Tail (1986) as an immediate contemporary of Maus, even as Art was still working on Maus; that was, in its way, another form of Holocaust porn, if you will, as was Steven Spielberg's Schindler's List (1993), both closer in their ways to Hogan's Heroes than Ilsa, but there you go. But what about the Air Pirates? How did the emergence, and the fate, of the Air Pirates and their appropriation of Disney characters and iconography influence, or dissuade, Art's evolution of Maus? Why not, in context with mentioning Harvey Pekar's attack on Maus and Art in The Comics Journal, reprint a portion of Harvey's essay? Why didn't they interview Harvey while he was still with us?
Now, I completely understand why Art doesn't, and didn't, go there, or in same cases only goes there in with the briefest of discussion or flirtation, but it's part of the cultural stew that Maus emerged from and exists within. For all I know, Art's editor(s) may have resisted or edited out discussion of those elements, or Art may even resent my raising the issues or making the point. In any case, it unfortunately makes MetaMaus a shallower work than Maus deserves, and I say that with all due humility, respect, and regret, and mean absolutely no disrespect to Art or the book that exists, which is nonetheless a fantastic and invaluable tome. It just should have gone deeper, and cast its net wider, than the format and decorum (if you will) allowed, and in that there's an aspect of hagiography: only Art's self-critical capacity affords any measure of critical analysis, and that's always going to be an issue when it's an artist dissecting their own "body," so to speak.
That's the problem with interview-based, or autobiographical, self-analysis: you skirt the elements you simply don't wish to discuss, or have out there, for whatever reason, or you're too close to your own creation: you can't see the forest for the trees, and nobody involved with the project (MetaMaus) is going to risk pointing that out to you. There was a bit of that in writing Teen Angels -- the entire Tundra chapter really was a potential minefield, but Rick's candor in his own interviews about the subject made it relatively straightforward to navigate; discussion of Alan Moore was tougher, given the complexities of that 25+ years inter-relationship, but since it was peripheral to Brat Pack, I think I managed that just fine, too. Besides, I challenged Rick about that during our first conversation about the project in the summer of 2007, and that's when he said, "I want both barrels, Steve." So, I had a certain license to perform my autopsy of Rick's career and Brat Pack that I don't think Art can or would give himself to autopsy himself, or Maus.
I also think, in the case of both MetaMaus and Teen Angels, we've got relatively expansive illustrated texts only because the books were sanctioned and completed with the full participation of the creators of the works being scrutinized: of course, Art is going to allow the reprinting of any component of his work or of Maus to service his own self-analysis (which make MetaMaus, oddly enough, as much a confessional memoir as Alison Bechdel's Fun Home). Rick Veitch withheld only a few components I would have loved to have included in Teen Angels, and that was because he's saving them for the eventual definitive Brat Pack edition, not because he didn't want that material to ever see print. But would Art have so fully sanctioned an autonomous outsider author's fully-illustrated autopsy of Maus? Would his publisher allow it? Would any publisher publish it? Would Rick have so fully cooperated with an outside author on some equivalent to Teen Angels? Would he have allowed the use of the registered Brat Pack trademark, and the artwork? Those are the questions these books beg, really. These are steps in the right direction, but only steps, though I think both are substantial and significant works, if I may say so.
As with so many aspects of American life, our collective conscious and unconscious capitulation to corporate proprietary belief systems has in part crippled that apparatus, or its development. We've long been in a publishing environment wherein asking permission of corporate proprietors to include images or illustrations -- from comics, from films, from TV shows, concerts, whatever -- usually results in punitive threats and the removal of any such illustrations. I've seen it first hand -- University Press of New England, the publisher of two books I illustrated, The Vermont Ghost Guide (2000) and The Vermont Monster Guide (2009), was publishing an academic text on pop cultural images of Africa, and the author wanted to include one illustration of DC's Congorilla from the 1950s. Being an academic press, they required the author to secure permission, rather than evoking (as they should, I believe) fair use laws, and as a result DC's legal department issued a letter threatening legal action if they dared reprint a single panel image of Congorilla. My friends who write film and cinema studies have long told me "don't ask" when it comes to using stills to illustrate an article or book, with ample case histories and personal anecdotes to make their point. If dialogue about pop culture ipso facto necessitates extravagant illustration budgets far in excess of what the writer might earn simply to illustrate the book or certain chapters, or the elimination of illustrations altogether because the corporate proprietors demand either excessive permission fees and/or scrutiny of the manuscript to ensure no negative criticism of their property, practices, or policies exists, we're firmly in the era of legally-enforced corporate rule of any dialogue about corporate-owned pop culture.
I briefly chart in Teen Angels DC's legacy of tolerating certain cultural play and appropriation of Batman iconography, issuing "cease and desist" primarily when that play and appropriation edges into the taboo turf of homosexuality in the Batman iconography. Why are Mel Ramos's famed Pop Art paintings celebrated and published in every Pop Art history book, while any artist introducing overt homosexual elements is shut down? When a serious journal like John Lent's International Journal Of Comic Art, out of rational dread of legal prosecution, avoids fair use publication of certain Batman archival images to illustrate analysis of that pop cultural artifact, and instead The Comics Journal publishes every one of those images in their news coverage of the self-censorship of IJCA because the corporate owners have a long-standing policy of tolerating fan publications publishing archival images of their characters, comics, and properties, something is inherently broken, and fair use laws are being shunned in the shadow of being able to only write, if you will, corporate-sanctioned hagiographies of fictional entities.
I think it bodes well for the evolving dialogue that we've seen these two books emerge in 2010, and from such divergent reaches of the current publishing spectrum: an ambitious but lowly black-and-white print-on-demand 400+ page book on Brat Pack, and a handsome, full-color, polished jewel of a mainstream book on Maus, both sanctioned by the authors of the graphic novels being studied. It's a great first step, and it's sheer providence that both emerged separately in the same year, as they have. But the real test lies ahead: what comes next? Who is up to the challenge? For instance, is a genuine critical analysis of From Hell possible without it being a licensed spinoff, or (again) essentially a hagiography of Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell? Would, say, a comprehensive Vertigo Comics history and analysis be possible without the sanction and involvement of DC Comics? Can anyone but Fantagraphics publish a critical history of Fantagraphic