A Moment Of Reflection: Some Of The Great Comics People Lost To Us In 2010
2010 was an amazing year for many reasons; one of the more tragic is the loss of several influential, key creators and related industry people. Here are few of them, represented visually:
There are many, many, many more, all of to whom we are grateful. Our prayers are with those that continue to feel the loss of friends and loved ones; our hopes and best wishes are with all those that seek to honor someone's memory.
I know of Daren White mostly through his stewardship of the Australian showcase-style anthology DeeVee, which had a proud, sustained run near the end of the lifespan of serial alternative comic books. He's also known for his collaborations with the cartoonist Eddie Campbell, in the Bacchus comic and on the stand-alone works Gotham Emergency (published in Batman: Legends Of The Dark Knight #200) and Batman: The Order Of The Beasts. I wanted to interview him in this series for his writing of the graphic novel The Playwright, jointly published by Top Shelf and Knockabout. Lushly drawn by Campbell, The Playwright seems to me the kind of book that is the lifeblood of comics' particular flowering as an art form: original work that is richly conceived and ruthlessly executed, with no tie at all to a media property or a prominent social issue. I worry that there are so many comics of so many kinds out there right now that books like The Playwright, with its attention to small moments and fealty to a slightly cockeyed perspective, may be easily brushed past for more sensational work. I greatly enjoyed exchanging e-mails with White, and hopefully we can convince you to give his book a try. -- Tom Spurgeon
TOM SPURGEON: Daren, one thing I saw reading other interviews is your statement that you're all pretty much done with DeeVee, the magazine where a few chapters of this work were initially serialized. If that's a closed chapter, how do you look back at the publication and its legacy? Did it do what you hoped it would when you started? Was it a worthwhile experience?
DAREN WHITE: I'm reasonably happy with the legacy of DeeVee although, I suspect in common with any creator looking back, some of the stories might not have aged too well. I'm proud of the fact that we kept to our publishing schedule, being quarterly for two years and bi-monthly for a year and, overall, think the quality trend was upwards. I tend to remember that time as the panic publishing period. Many midnight phone calls to overcome the time differences between Australia and pretty much the rest of the world. The three annuals, 2001, Molotov and 2007, reached the standard that I, personally, hoped we'd reach. I think they hold up well. But of course by then we'd blown the schedule. I'm happy that we provided an internationally distributed vehicle to Australian creators, at a time before online exposure was easily available. I do remember that period fondly.
SPURGEON: I think that in the broadest sense possible we're all familiar with the character type you put front and center in The Playwright -- the rough outlines, anyway -- but I wondered if you could describe what you found compelling enough you wanted to devote this kind of creative energy towards delving into this particular person.
WHITE: I was struggling, at the time, with the honesty and perspective required to produce even half decent autobiography. I wrote the first chapter for my own amusement, almost as an antidote to a story I had serialized in Bacchus, and abandoned incomplete. I was toying with writing something about the television playwright Dennis Potter (Brimstone and Treacle, Pennies From Heaven, The Singing Detective) whose real life sometimes appeared stranger and more tragic than his frequently strange and tragic works. Those ideas merged with a third notion of a character type that was very successful in their chosen field whilst being hopeless in every other facet of life. The various ideas gelled and resulted in a character who was, hopefully, more complex than the stereotypical unpleasant, loser style character that he might appear to resemble on the surface. I quickly settled on the conclusion as it appears in the final book, and then worked a plot towards it, whilst exploring the relentless mental narration within the characters head. Knowing how things would conclude gave me the freedom to ramp up the cringe factor at the start. I also got to channel my inner child and use lots of toilet humor.
SPURGEON: This may be an impossibly tedious question, for which I apologize, but can you describe how the work came to be as a stand-alone book? How does this final work resemble the work that you yourself pursued art chores on at one time? Also, am I right in thinking that the work shifted a bit conceptually when you went from the serial chapters and into this final single-volume work, and if so, how so?
WHITE: My own illustration of the early pages, only one of which was published (in DeeVee #14) quickly tipped me off that I'd need a collaborator. I showed the script for the first chapter to Eddie and he liked it enough to offer to illustrate it. I still joke that had he realized it was the first chapter of a longer work, he probably would have kept quiet. He illustrated three of the ten chapters, which appeared in black and white, in DeeVee over a six-year period. Mentioning that makes me question why I never gave it away, but Chris Staros later assured me that many a decent books has taken ten years to complete. I still hold a glimmer of hope that Big Numbers will one day continue. By the time these chapters had appeared I had a detailed plan for how the story would play out, and had arrived at the ten specific chapters that we adhere to in the final book.
After the last DeeVee I did flirt with the idea of serializing chapters in other anthologies, but nothing definite was agreed. I continued to write the scripts but didn't feel it fair to take Eddie away from paying work for something that was effectively on spec. Two of the existing chapters then appeared online at Modern Tales and were re-formatted into single tiers, resembling a newspaper strip, to better present on a monitor. A consequence of this was that Eddie and I much preferred the material presented in this format and so subsequent pages were produced in this format. Eddie continued to add pages over the period in which he produced the three, colorbooks for First Second, until we finished the bulk of the story. Eddie decided to color the pages and actually photocopied the originals onto watercolor paper, stretched them and painted over the existing artwork. He added far more background detail and generally added texture and richness to the imagery. The conceptual change in the story, around the halfway point, was intentional and planned rather than a result of the way it was then being produced. Although it had its genesis in a short story, it became a complete story in my mind, pretty much as published, quite early in the process. We agreed to a co-publication deal with Top Shelf and Knockabout in 2008, and finally saw print this year. Phew.
SPURGEON: [laughs] I was intrigued by some of your structural choices and I wondered if you could describe the reason you went in the general direction you did one some of them. The three-panel sequences I assume are to make it resemble comic strips rather as opposed to a series of comic book page, but why was that preferred? Was there something in the quick in and out structure that you were hoping to employ on your story's behalf? Also, is there a reference to which maybe I don't have natural access in terms of your telling the story via outside narration?
WHITE: As I mentioned before, the three-panel structure came about after the book was started but seemed obvious once stumbled across. As well as the resemblance to old newspaper strips, the outside narration was also used in old English comics aimed at young readers (things like Look and Learn). I wasn't trying to riff on these directly but they added to the sense of England that is intended as the setting. The narrative voice is supposed to be 1950s BBC newsreader English. I wanted a matter of fact reportage of the scatological humor and sex, to make the whole thing more absurd. Features such as adjectively describing, rather than naming, the characters were experiments that seemed to work and were retained for the duration.
SPURGEON: Why was the work set where it ends in the 1990s, as opposed to the present day? Was it just that you were interested in certain societal elements that were locked into certain time periods, or is there something about the Playwright's adult life being lived in a specific time frame that you think is more poignant or meaningful than if the last pages were set in 2010?
WHITE: I did plan the character's time line and wanted to reference specific historical events. I wanted the character to carry out his national service during the period in which Britain stopped clinging to the idea that it was still an influential Empire. Roughly around the time of the Suez crisis. This established that the story roughly concludes in the 1990s which fitted my idea that the character was always slightly out of date. A decade or so does not seem materially different to the present but in the details things have changed. The computer he purchases to keep in touch with modern technology is already hideously dated to the current reader. Hopefully this subtlety gives pointers to the reader.
I think that time gap is also the period at which nostalgia starts to cloud our memories. I migrated to Australia in 1994, and so my recollections of England are already skewered by nostalgia. I tried to make the Playwright character nostalgic, in the present, for the life he might have had if key decisions were made differently. Eddie's color palette was spot on with this, accentuating the sense of the recent past. The color schemes for the early chapters remind me of visiting elderly relatives in 1970's London. The first watercolors he added were for the red London buses and we shared a sentimental moment about how distinctive that particular red remains in our memories. We quickly regained composure and went back to arguing about whose turn it was to buy the beers.
SPURGEON: What is it, then, that you wanted to say about nostalgia through The Playwright? It's such a major force in so many of our lives -- and comics is almost soaked to the bone in it, from the act of reading comics themselves to all of the subject matter we ascribe to various times in our lives -- that I can't imagine you just have it in there as a kind of a floating loose idea. How does this character feel the effect of nostalgia, and how does his orientation change as part of the new life he settles into at story's end?
WHITE: I wanted to evoke a slight sense of nostalgia without it becoming a romp. Again, that's why it roughly concludes a decade and a half ago, rather than, say, 40 or 50 years. It was never going to be a story about the good old days. The Playwright character isn't overly nostalgic for the past. He can't selectively forget the bad bits because there'd be little left. Not because he had a miserable life, but because his life was so consistent, or flat. He had no real peaks or troughs. He is more nostalgic for a past he might have had. He doesn't dream of being Batman, because he wasn't particularly weak or bullied as a child. He dreams of having a normal life, where he interacts with people and has friends. Where his parents gave him the same attention as his brother. As the story unfolds this faux nostalgia drops away. The actual present becomes the place in which he chooses to live.
SPURGEON: Another structural question. How did you work in terms of the final script? Was a final script what you provided Eddie, or did you shape the individual pages as you went along via re-writes? I'm fascinated by the placement of the text, the proximity of words to individuals throughout the book. Was that all Eddie, or did you worry at all about the visual effect of the writing on the page?
WHITE: It was a full script, both panel descriptions and narrative, with minimal rewrites. However, Eddie had complete freedom to design the pages and did drop or add panels to best serve the story. The times where the text seems to lose the imagery was deliberate, as I often wanted the two to tell different, but complimentary, stories. However Eddie often took this and created great sequences that were far better than I had originally envisaged. The panel repetition was also scripted from the start of the first chapter. This was intended to save time as the page rates offered by DeeVee were a bit rubbish, and I thought he'd photocopy the panels and paste them down. Instead he enlarged them, often very much so, and redrew fine details to contrast the thick chunky photocopy lines. When he came to paint the pages he often added even more detail and so my cunning plan to save time actually had the opposite effect. There were a few instances where I did revise the script. I inexplicably changed the tense of a complete chapter. Eddie maintains I did this to see whether he was paying attention but I think it was due to the longish period since I'd written the previous chapter. Oh how we laughed about it later.
SPURGEON: One of the affecting ideas at work in The Playwright is the notion of obsessions and creativity, that someone can swap out one set of obsessions for another, even sex, and that an obsessive approach to creativity may be a great contributing factor to a certain kind of sex in that field. It's not presented in a polemical way, but rather through the characters, so I wondered how close these thoughts are to your own?
WHITE: I don't subscribe to this theory myself but think it's plausible enough to be used in a black comedy of this kind. As mentioned, one of the ideas I wanted to explore when planning the story was that a particular personality could be wildly successful within their field but wholly incompetent at everything else. I think this is prevalent in certain sportsmen, certainly in Australia and Britain. People who are at the top of their chosen fields are usually obsessive because that's a fundamental component of their success. That they often prove to be disastrous with other aspect of their lives is what I found interesting. I've said a few times that, sexually, the Playwright has had a dry run of such magnitude that it couldn't result in anything other than obsession. However, I didn't intend to suggest that sexual obsession drove his career. It's simply one factor that he has used to his advantage. Another is that he's good at writing a certain type of story. He clearly also uses, say, family matters within the plays.
SPURGEON: This may be an overlapping idea, but one appealing thing about the Playwright is that he has this compulsive side to his character, that there are things upon which he acts -- if imperceptibly -- that are slightly out of his control, and that this is mirrored in his art by the constant way in which life circumstances find purchase in his individual works. How much do you think a certain kind of impulsive behavior is part and parcel of creative work, how much is reacting without that kind of control a younger man's game?
WHITE: I quickly surmised that a writer as insular as the Playwright would be using any life experience or interaction, however minor, within his work. He hardly had great moments of personal drama to call on. That was one of the conceits that I tried to mine humorously. The play titles such as Tea for One and Rainy like Sunday morning suggest almost tragically mundane source material. I think this is why a few reviews have actually questioned whether he is in fact a playwright, outside of his mind, at all. At the start of the book, he had a far more juvenile approach to life than his age suggested. This would manifest itself in his creativity, because, let's face it, that was his only outlet valve at that time. In terms of impulsive creativity in general, I think an idea is at its most exiting, for the creator, at conception. At that precise moment it has almost impossible potential, and that potential will usually fade, be replaced or, worse, suddenly be realized as unoriginal. Obviously with maturity, control over the use of these ideas increases. The ability to filter the good ideas from the bad becomes easier. I'm not sure if I've answered your question.
SPURGEON: How much did Eddie's obvious skill with color surprise you in terms of seeing your work in a different light? You mentioned in one interview that you found his work with textures to be a surprising thing; what do you mean when you talk about texture?
WHITE: I was blown away when Eddie showed me the first few color pages, because he hadn't previously mentioned he was thinking about painting over the black and white art. Similar to the single tier reformat, it was immediately obvious that this was absolutely that right decision. We had, by then, arrived at a single volume approach for the material. Even if people had seen the odd chapters that had appeared in print, the pages were dramatically changed, and so we both consider it a new and original work.
I have always loved Eddie's line work on the Alec books, where he inks with a brush rather than the flexible nib pen used on From Hell. He creates magnificently expressive line with a few strokes. I also love the way certain panels contain beautifully observed detail and then disintegrate into almost random peripheral lines. Unlike his fully painted work, The Playwright was produced in a similar style to the Alec material and then had that added layer of color. I think it displays the strength of his line work and has the bonus the watercolors. These watercolors added richness to the already lively imagery. This added richness, or warmth, is what I meant by texture. The skin tones on the girls aren't merely functional but evoke peaches and cream, and are sexy the way they would be in the Playwright's mind. Uncle Ernie's trousers aren't just gray, they're the one thousand wash gray that are only found on elderly bachelors. The weather in Cyprus is immediately warmer than that at the English funeral. This artwork is my absolute favorite of Eddie's. But I suppose I would say that.
SPURGEON: I'm catching you fairly late in the publicity process on the book, Daren. What is it like to have a book out these days when there seems to be a staggering amount of material coming from all publishers all the time? Do you worry about not finding an audience? Are you comfortable with these kind of PR efforts?
WHITE: I do worry about the deluge of material and consequently not finding an audience, and to some extent this is accentuated by our distance from our core markets. It's not practical to make more than token appearances within the US and Britain, which does restrict publicity to online efforts. Also, we haven't exactly timed our run well in respect of the global economy. For that reason this type of PR is essential. I'm lucky that, as a relative unknown, working with a creator as established as Eddie will always generate a certain amount publicity. Certainly the rate of reviews we received during the first few months of publication was nice. Chris and Leigh [Walton] at Top Shelf were also very supportive of the book and got the word out. The Internet is your best friend when publicizing a book and your biggest competitor at the same time. The market is there but can still seem almost impossible to reach, at times.
SPURGEON: Will English audiences read this work differently, do you think? Whenever you set a work in a specific time and place as you have, the first thing that pops to mind is that there may be a broader satirical point about the setting and era. Did you intend The Playwright to be read as a kind a more general satire, or is it more of a specific character study in your eyes?
WHITE: I think of it as a character study. The exaggeration adds satire but it's meant to be an entertaining look inside the head of an odd man. The awkward, embarrassing humor might resonate more with an English audience but it should be fairly universal. I haven't received any reviews where the reader seems to have missed the point. A British audience might be more familiar with the type of writers I had in mind when establishing his career. Writers like Dennis Potter, Ken Loach, Mike Leigh, Alan Bleasdale and possibly Jimmy McGovern, who seem happy to work outside of the "big" story themes. One thing that has surprised me is that it seems to have been received similarly between the sexes. I was concerned that it might not appeal to a female readership, particularly when you consider the high ratio of female to male readers amongst books generally. So far the reaction seems equal.
SPURGEON: With both male and female readers having a positive reaction, have you noticed if they have the same kind of reaction, or have they focused on different things about the book? Has anyone's reaction surprised you?
WHITE: I have noticed that female readers seem more likely to be off put by the opening chapters but then enjoy the way it unfolds. I did a radio interview in Melbourne and one of the co-hosts said she almost abandoned the book about a third of the way through. Having stayed with it she really enjoyed the pay off, but initially did question why she was reading it. This has been reasonably typical, which is a touch dangerous for me, as author, because obviously I want, and need, people to complete it. Actually, a few female reviewers have almost justified their enjoyment of the story, given its subject matter. Almost as though they went in expecting to dislike it, and were pleasantly surprised at the way it played out.
SPURGEON: I found myself unexpectedly elated by the ending, and I'm not exactly sure why. At what point during the writing did the ending present itself to you, and was there any temptation that the work take a different turn, perhaps a darker one? Are you surprised at all by the reactions people have had to the work?
WHITE: I'm glad you experienced [it that way] as I do hope that the ending is uplifting. That was always the plan. The end, and the way the second half of the story develops, came to me early in the writing. As I mentioned before, knowing how it would develop gave me freedom to ramp up the sex and black humor during the first half of the book. I was trying to set up the main character in the first half and then explain why he's like he is and explore whether he can change. I also wanted the character development within the story to creep up on the reader. A lot of the changes only become apparent with hindsight. That was always a key element for me, and it's nice when readers get an unexpected reaction.
There wasn't any real temptation to veer away from this. I always wanted the book to be more than just poking fun at the strange man in the corner. I was concerned about the nudity and language, from time to time, but Eddie and Chris Staros both confirmed that it was an essential part of the story. The male nudity was Eddie's idea.
SPURGEON: Daren, you handle the professional side of the Playwright's life with such aplomb, while at the same time the effort of making this book comes from a completely different professional context. One thing that a lot of the interviewees have talked about this year is the state of the market, the shape of the industry. Are the rewards of making comics enough to keep you making them?
WHITE: When I wrote Batman: Order of Beasts, in 2004, a local newspaper did a short story about it and called me a Chartered Accountant by day who fights crime as a superhero by night. Beyond the joke I made about going to work wearing my underpants on the outside of my suit, that is my commercial reality. I think comics can support a professional writer, however I think publisher variety and speed are fundamental, and currently evade me. You need a constant flow of material, continually reaching publication. Australia doesn't have a comics industry, as such, and so most of my commercial work has come from the US, Britain or Europe. Again, referring to the geographical distance of Australia from those markets, it is very difficult to maintain the level of presence, at conventions and trade shows, to keep yourself in the editors' sights. I can't imagine a time when I won't be working on something comics related. I'm lucky that I can do this work without being wholly financially dependent upon it. I'd love to snag a movie or television deal as much as anyone, however I'm in a position where I didn't have to drop The Playwright to work on a proposal about wizards and vampire millionaires losing half of their body weight before renovating my garden.
* photo provided by White
* the DeeVee: Molotov annual
* cover to the new book
* three three-panel arrangements, just for the visual feel
* one of the many lovely women Campbell drew for the work
* that red
* stand-alone panel I liked
* black and white The Playwright illustration
* he uses everything
* a subtly, richly-colored panel
* a study from one of the panels as blown up by Campbell
* one of the sexually suggestive panels
* a blown-up image
* another partial-panel study (below)
* unearthed a trio of bookmarked posts on the story from weeks ago that the writer J. Michael Straczysnki was leaving high-profile serial comics gigs on the Wonder Woman and Superman characters: J. Caleb Mozzocco, Brian Hibbs, Straczynski himself, Warren Ellis. At one point I thought the Ellis piece worth responding to, but I guess I talked myself out of it. I agree with Ellis' argument that we should celebrate creators doing what they want, when they want. As someone once pointed out on Seattle sports radio's "Mitch In The Morning" when a prominent basketball player was holding out, none of these contracts are slavery: you're allowed to not perform a job if you don't want to; you just don't get the reward. That's a great, just, beautiful thing and makes for better art in the long run by a factor of about 10 billion. On the other hand, I think taking a look at the wiping out of a big-time creative hire -- pushed as such by DC -- is a justified endeavor by those who cover that field, not a waste of time, and the curious language of the release vis-a-vis the future of comics was worth noting as well. I know it always sounds like people beat these things to death if you read all of the pieces on a subject like that, but most people don't read all of the pieces.
One of the great pleasures of my professional life is that I get to know people like Dylan Horrocks. The New Zealand cartoonist created one of the most beloved graphic novels of the modern era, Hicksville, which was serialized in one of the perfect comic book series of the 1990s, Pickle, and has given us (at least) three intriguing looks thus far into one of the better ongoing works no matter how slowly released, Atlas. In 2010, Horrocks has taken to the on-line publication and support of his work in a big way, making not only some of the Internet's brightest and most buoyant comics, but advocating for various issues surrounding art in the digital age in an enthusiastic, eloquent fashion.
We don't 100 percent agree on those issues, so I wanted to ask him few questions about them, to get him on the record in a place where I can access his thoughts on some of those general matters. A fuller bibliography of perhaps more detailed conversations he's had on those matters, a list of links provided by Dylan, follows. I was so inspired by his final entreaty to continue such discussions as a way of potentially reaching a more widespread ethical consensus I actually reinforced my position in one question in the hopes that we get those arguments on-line in their best form -- I did send Dylan an e-mailed apology. I'm glad that if we agree on anything, it's in the hope that change is possible on a cultural basis. More important than any issue discussed, it feels great to have one of my favorite cartoonists so engaged and productive. I could talk to Dylan Horrocks just about every day, and I appreciate his taking so much time before slipping out the door on a holiday trip to speak with me. -- Tom Spurgeon
TOM SPURGEON: Dylan, I wanted to ask you maybe a half-dozen questions about your advocacy for digital creation of comics, and I thought the best way to start would be to talk about the comics that you put on-line. It seems to me you started, and then stopped, and then started more fully to put comics up through your site. Is that fair? Is this the primary outlet for your serial work from here on out? Is Atlas finished?
DYLAN HORROCKS: Well, truth is I'm like the world's worst web-cartoonist. Everyone says the number one rule for successful webcomics is to post regularly, but... When I started serializing online, I wasn't really trying to reach much of an audience; it was just a way of putting each page out there as I finished it, so I could get that warm satisfying glow you get from showing something to people. I think I hoped it would force me to work more consistently (I was just coming out of a few years of struggling to finish anything). But for the first while, I was only posting now and then. Sometimes a couple of months would pass and I'd be busy with other things (freelance work, etc). But in May I ran a week-long workshop in Melbourne, Australia for a really inspiring group of cartoonists, and when I came home from that I was all fired up to "just fucking do it" (that was the motto we came up with by the end of the week). So around the middle of the year, that's what I did -- I started posting two pages a week on The Magic Pen. And I've managed to stick to that since, apart from a gap when I went to Canada for a book festival in October/November.
I guess I treat the web site as a somewhat looser version of having an ongoing comic -- the way I used Pickle in the 1990s. So, yeah, Atlas the comic book is finished (although Atlas the graphic novel is still a work in progress, albeit shelved for now while I finish The Magic Pen). The reality is that pamphlet comics are on the way out, especially for "alternative" comics. Most people seem to have either given up doing them entirely, and are just publishing full graphic novels, or else they've turned them into big fat hardcover books (like the latest ACME Novelty Library and Palookaville issues). At the same time there's an explosion of comics online -- old hands putting up new work, new cartoonists getting their stuff out there, and a huge range of things that would have really struggled to find an audience ten years ago, but are thriving today.
My primary focus at the moment is finishing a couple of graphic novels, which I'm looking forward to seeing in book form. But serializing online is a great way to keep me motivated while I slowly draw them. It's not for everyone, but it's working really well for me.
SPURGEON: Is there a transformative effect in publishing your work that way? I've always loved your color comics, and I love seeing more of them, and I wondered if making comics that you know will have access to color where that's just probably not going to happen in serial print work is a big deal. Also, it seems if you work is generally looser: I noticed that recently in the Magic Pen serial you've tried different layouts, even a map-like page that was fun to look over. Has the way you do comics, look at comics even, changed?
HORROCKS: Yes, but I don't think that's due to the web. Well, the color part of it is, because The Magic Pen was originally being serialized in Atlas in black & white, but when I started putting it online I gave in to the temptation to do it in color. It seems to suit that story, too (whereas Atlas seems best in black & white). Besides, it seemed like most of the graphic novels I was reading were in full color, so I figured the economics of it must be changing. A lot of the freelance work I'd been doing was in color, and I felt ready to try using it in my more personal comics.
But the other changes -- the looseness, the playfulness -- I don't think that's from putting it online. I think it's the result of a few things. When I was working on those three issues of Atlas I was, frankly, pretty depressed. I wasn't enjoying the process of making comics. I mean, it still mattered to me a great deal, but it felt like a struggle, rather than fun. Looking back, I guess that affected the aesthetic choices I was making. With The Magic Pen, by chapter three -- and especially chapter four -- I was feeling better about life in general, and comics in particular, and I started really enjoying myself. Also, I've been very actively keeping a sketchbook again this year (after a few years where I only drew when I had to), and that's helped me to loosen up and to start thinking about comics visually, more than I ever have before. That diagram-map page you mention came straight out of me noodling around in the sketchbook (while playing D&D with old friends!). I was trying to design the setting because I knew I'd soon have to draw that scene, and the more I doodled, the more I started making up details, creatures, plants -- world-building stuff. In the end, I turned that diagram into a page because it was too much fun to resist.
In some ways it's like I've found my way back to where I was in the 1990s, when I was doing Pickle: drawing comics for pleasure. I don't know if the web-serialisation has anything to do with that, but it certainly hasn't hurt. I love the fact that I post a page and within minutes people are cracking jokes about it on Facebook or speculating where the story will go next. It's -- well, it's fun!
Having said that, it hasn't worked for The American Dream, which is the other book I started serializing on the site. Part way in, I started to feel that something wasn't right. And the more I looked at it, the more I felt that the art didn't suit what I was trying to do, and certain bits of dialogue were overdone -- that kind of thing. I reached the point where I stalled -- I was trying to work out how to fix it, and got kind of stuck. Actually, that was when my first period of patchy posting on the site became a long hiatus. Which is why when I resumed posting, I focused on The Magic Pen, which was just chugging away smoothly without any serious problems.
Since then, I've been experimenting with watercolors, and have started redesigning The American Dream in a way I'm much happier with. But I don't think I'll serialize that one online. It's the kind of book that needs to be done as a whole, and then tinkered with and refined, and then put out in public. Of course, I'm keen to still put it online once it's ready (especially as I'd like it reach as wide an audience as possible). But it don't want to actually build it in public, the way I am with The Magic Pen.
SPURGEON: You've always been someone I think of as in charge of the bulk of work they've done; what creative sensibilities are fulfilled by having this new work exist next to older work, like the late '90s political strips you just unloaded? Are you comfortable with the hosting aspects of having this kind of creative outlet, the implied to very real connection between artist and friends that the immediacy of publishing on-line facilitates?
HORROCKS I love the way my web site is completely mine. I can do whatever the hell I want on there -- from occasional blog posts that have nothing to do with comics to uploading sketches and short stories. I grew up involved with small press 'zines like Razor in New Zealand, which felt more like a scrapbook of comics, drawings, writing, ephemera -- rather than a slick magazine or "product." I feel totally comfortable in that kind of environment; it feels like you're reading these comics in a room full of friends, with conversations going on around you, and the cartoonist sitting right there, waiting to hear what you think of it. That's something I loved about the small press in the 80s and 90s -- that sense of freedom, of a lively unpolished discussion between art and people and back again. So it makes sense that I love the web so much. Blogs, Facebook, Twitter, tumblr -- I love it all. And having a blog where I publish my comics, post whatever old stuff seems relevant, plug things I like, vent about politics and get into conversations with people. Sheer pleasure.
So the web site isn't a creative project that I plan the way I do with, say, a book. I mean, it's not a fully-realized, completed object -- it's more like a venue for playing around and engaging with my work and the world in an everyday way. And it's only one part of that; at the same time, I'm also using Facebook and Twitter (and whatever social media fad takes my fancy that month) to explore and discuss ideas and art and music and relationships and -- er -- the hilarious shenanigans my nieces and nephews got up to the day before...
Actually, I was talking about the web with Seth at IFOA in Toronto, and he joked that maybe the reason he can't stand social media is the more he learns about people, the less he likes them. I guess I'm kind of the opposite; I just really really like people, warts and all -- which makes the web an endlessly fascinating place to hang out. Including my comics in the middle of all that just seems like a no-brainer.
SPURGEON: Let's stick it to Seth a bit. Can you pick an issue or an idea and talk about how discussing it on the Internet, or how presenting it via art and then hearing back from people through the Internet, changed the way you thought for the better?
HORROCKS: Oh lord, where to start? Way back when I first started using email (mid-90s?) -- you remember the Comix@ list? I was so excited by the fact I could have ongoing conversations with all these people about comics! As a result, I had far too many, but that process helped shape the arguments I explored in my essay on Scott McCloud, Inventing Comics and also fed directly into Hicksville itself. There were times later when I would say something on the Comics Journal message board and subsequent discussion would force me to refine, clarify or change my view. More recently (I haven't been on TCJ for years), there's been Facebook and Twitter, where I've had conversations about everything from politics to comics to the future of copyright -- with friends, cartoonists, writers I've admired from afar -- and my thinking on things has been deepened and enriched.
Even little factual things: when the New Zealand edition of Hicksville was finally published early in 2010, a NZ literary blogger wondered if it was the first NZ graphic novel. I responded, suggesting a few earlier candidates, and then linked to this on Facebook. Other friends there came up with more ideas, checking dates and so on. The hivemind was at work.
But above all, what I love most about the Internet is the way people share ideas and links and things they're excited by. So, for example, in five minutes of browsing my twitter feed, I get pointed to beautiful new sketches by cartoonists I've never heard of (first time I read work by Kate Beaton or Emily Carroll was via twitter), great journalism (twitter led to me to Mac McLelland's coverage of the Gulf oil spill, and then Haiti), insightful media commentary (following Jay Rosen has introduced me to some fascinating things), and -- of course -- plenty of hilarious kittens. Thanks to Facebook, I now know that India is producing a whole new wave of interesting comics -- and because of the way Facebook works, I not only get to see Amruta Patil's comics (how the hell would I have seen those without the Internet?!), I also get to hear what she's thinking about and listen in on discussions she has with Indian colleagues and peers.
Living in a small town in a tiny country a long way from anywhere else, this stuff is even more valuable for me. I'm enormously jealous of the Pizza Island gang (for example), who share a studio and hang out with other cartoonists all the time. But via the Internet, I feel a lot less isolated. Sitting in on the enthusiastic playful chatter of young cartoonists helps keep me inspired, and looking at their work has freed up a lot of my ideas about how I proceed with my own. It's a fantastic time to be making comics -- such an explosion of new and diverse voices, so much energy out there -- and the Internet makes it possible to dive in and immerse yourself in what's happening, all over the world and at every level of skill and achievement.
The only drawback is that there's so much out there, it could consume every waking moment. Which is another reason it's been good for me to publish my work online; it gives me an incentive to focus on drawing, not just looking at other people's stuff...
SPURGEON:We recently had a semi-tussle via Twitter about your reaction to Colleen Doran's mid-November posting about on-line piracy and what some argue is its tacit-by-proximity endorsement of the COICA bill. In your summary statement, you seemed to suggest that piracy is a non-issue that is used by corporations and perhaps even governmental interests to facilitate the passing of legal mechanism by which they gain greater control over the Internet. Is that a fair reading?
HORROCKS: Yeah, I guess so. I've followed the so-called "copy wars" for several years now -- since the days of Napster -- and ended up reading a lot of books, articles, essays and studies (and, of course, blog posts) on the history of copyright, the idea of "intellectual property" and the never-ending cycle of technological change and subsequent panic in the 'art' industries. It's amazing how often we can have the same hysterical argument about this stuff without apparently learning anything. Exactly the same things being said today about file-sharing and digital copying were said about the VCR, cassette machines, the introduction of television, radio, sound recording, player pianos -- and yet somehow we still have music, we still have movies, people still read books, and artists still make stuff. What's more, the art industries are making more money today than ever before, and continue to earn more every year. Online music "piracy" has been a fact of life now for a decade, and the music business is as strong as ever, even though The Pirate Bay is still up and running and millions of kids are still downloading music for free. Sure, the structure of the business has changed -- but the biggest change has been the disappearance of CD stores -- but that's not due to piracy; people have simply shifted their spending to iTunes and Amazon. So, y'know, I can't help but feel the frenzy of hair-pulling over file-sharing isn't much more meaningful than "home taping is killing music."
The biggest problem, in my opinion, is not so-called "piracy," it's that the "war on piracy" has grown so intense it is having a seriously damaging effect on the culture as a whole. The whole idea of copyright and our understanding of the relationship between artists and their audience and society as a whole has become distorted in a way I feel is increasingly toxic. It's being used to force control over the Internet by government and corporations, to justify increasing surveillance of online activity, to break down net neutrality, to extend copyright terms ad infinitum, to do away with fair use and the public domain, to curtail free speech, to stifle innovation and prevent young web-savvy experimenters from coming up with new business models that could liberate artists from the kind of constraints and dependency we've become accustomed to in dealing with the old art industries.
That, to me, is far more serious than some 13-year old in Alaska or Peru downloading my comics from an unauthorized site. For every 1000 such downloads, maybe one might have bought it if they could? Maybe more -- I don't know. But while we're fretting over all those possibly mythical lost potential sales, our fears are being exploited in a way that's causing much more serious harm.
SPURGEON: Dylan, I want to take a step back, and I hope I can do this in way that doesn't even begin to imply a personal criticism or, if it goes that direction, that you'll forgive me. You've been upfront in some of your interviews -- as well as earlier in this one -- that your thoughts on this general matter were developed via a very personal struggle you had about making art. Do you worry that it's too overly personal for you, that this is a reaction to that extended, bad experience first and foremost? Also, when I hear you talk -- or read your comics -- about your poor corporate comics making experience I never quite understand the core of what made that a bad experience for you? Was it the nature of what was created? The process? A moral objection you have to the result? Everything in equal measure?
HORROCKS: Well, you're definitely right that my views are shaped by all of that. And they are, after all, nothing more than my own personal thoughts and feelings. I don't think that worries me, as such, because I don't see how it could be any other way. And I try to be frank about the way my personal experiences affect how I feel. There are times when I find myself saying things about the mainstream comics industry that sound uncomfortably like venting and bitterness, and then I start furiously adding caveats and disclaimers.
But then, it's also possible my experiences have helped me explore certain aspects of the industry and of the relationship between art and commerce and so on -- so the fear of not being "fair and balanced" doesn't stop me thinking and talking about it. Especially given that Hicksville also deals with some of these issues, and I drew that long before I found myself working for DC. In fact, I often wonder how the person who wrote that story could have made the mistakes I made a few years later. But, y'know, sometimes our fictional selves are wiser than we are.
As for the precise nature of what made it difficult for me, I'm afraid I find it hard to pin down too. To be clear, though, it wasn't the people I was dealing with at DC; I worked with some great people and was generally treated well -- albeit within a corporate structure, so there were constraints and pressures on all of us. It's not like I was having big battles with editors -- if anything, one of the problems was the reverse. I was so keen for it to work out (after all, I really needed the money!) that I tried too hard to second-guess what DC might want from me, and then tried to accommodate that. Which is a terrible way to write, and led to me totally losing my way. I think part of what I did wrong was to go into it without a firm grip on my own vision, and being prepared to fight for it. Even when I did have strong ideas, they would quickly be watered down or weakened -- sometimes through editorial guidance, sometimes through my own misguided attempts to produce what I imagined DC wanted. I don't know. Maybe if I'd just said "Damn it, I want to write these comics the way I wrote Pickle -- slow and meandering and playful and personal, with very little violence or macho posturing and plenty of sitting around discussing the meaning of life!" -- maybe they'd have been thrilled. Or if I'd written about Batman as the Donald Rumsfeld of the DC Universe, and his "war on crime" as analogous to the "war on terror," about the need to end drug prohibition, about the way fetishising violence poisons and corrupts lives and societies -- maybe my editors would have said "hooray -- at last he's doing what we hired him for!" [Spurgeon laughs] But because I never had the courage or wherewithal to do that (and because I'd spent so long struggling financially!), I will never know.
So I don't want to act as though it was the DC editors who were at fault; it may have been as simple as me chickening out and failing to write what I should have been writing. Or even more simply: me being so confused and mixed up I didn't even know what to write. But having said all that, I did get to see the inside of the commercial comics production process, and much of what I've said or written about it since is just me trying to get my head around it. So yeah, everything you mention comes into it: the nature of what was created, the process, the morality of the result -- and other things too. The central mystery for me is this: for the first time in my life, I wrote numerous comics about which I felt deeply ambivalent -- emotionally, creatively and morally. How did that happen?
The political and ethical stuff is maybe the most interesting and complex. I remember watching Bowling for Columbine while writing Batgirl, and when it got to the scene where Michael Moore challenges one of the producers of the show Cops over its fear-mongering and underlying ethnic politics -- well, I really sat up then. The producer came across as liberal and reasonably aware of the issues, and unhappy at the suggestion that his show was contributing to the problems. He seemed to feel the things Moore was criticizing in Cops were just side effects of the structure of the show. That struck a chord with me because of the ambivalence I felt about the moral tone of the Batman comics. I felt I was trying to write stories that reflected my values, but actually I never really challenged the ethical and political assumptions built into the very structure of that universe and the conventions of the genre. By the end of it, I began to feel like Wertham was on to something, when he described the superhero genre as inherently fascist. Might makes right, good vs. evil, physical strength and the mastery of violence as virtues, the city as a decaying jungle, the criminal underclass as a weird inhuman enemy, and so on and so on. Of course, many great writers have challenged and dismantled all of those assumptions; but now I realize what an achievement that was. My stories, in contrast, became increasingly melancholy, tinged with introspective efforts to question what I myself was doing in that horrible world, and occasionally presenting the characters with a wistful vision of an alternative (fictional) reality (which invariably ended up crumbling by the final page).
Anyway, I don't want to pretend I'm anything like a dispassionate observer or critic of what's happening to mainstream comics. For one thing I can't be, and besides, I have little interest in "objective" analysis of art; I'm much more interested in personal responses anyway. I see things going on in mainstream superhero comics these days that resonate with some of the darker trends in American (and Western) culture and politics. That fascinates and disturbs me, but of course I have no idea whether that's a result of my own experience, or if others think so too. It's interesting, though, and enriches my thinking about those broader trends, or at least about the way I see them.
But the business side of it -- the relationship between art and commerce, the corporate structure of the industry and how that relates to personal creativity -- I'm still working through that stuff too. Writing for DC was a fascinating encounter with the vast corporate "culture industry" that spreads from Hollywood to television to comics to publishing and beyond -- and it was fascinating. I came out of it burned -- maybe because of my own weakness going in to it. But man, it was interesting. I'd been so far outside it for so much of my life (immersed in the small press and non-commercial art worlds) it was quite an eye-opener. I think a lot of people within that structure are so used to it they don't realize how weird it is, or how much it shapes what's going on around them and what they're producing. Or maybe it's just me, imagining things. Then again, I'm not the only person to have come out of that industry feeling creatively messed up. I've talked to other people who are still recovering from a stint at DC or Marvel or working in TV or movies. Some people can thrive in that world (Ed Brubaker, for example, who went into it with a clear vision and stuck to it). But for some people it's toxic. Working out why is part of what I'm doing these days.
That was a very long answer, and might not have clarified anything. But, y'know, it's a work in progress...
SPURGEON: You've talked about making stronger distinctions between commercial and non-commercial copying. What specific measure or what instances do you feel emphasize non-commercial copying to their overall detriment -- I can't think of any that aren't commercial copying focused. Also, isn't the dissolution of arts industries making the distinction between commercial and non-commercial a lot more difficult to make?
HORROCKS: Well, it seems to me the most vigorous efforts against piracy have been directed at file-sharing, which -- let's face it -- is hardly a lucrative commercial industry. It consists of millions of people sharing stuff with each other for free. And even if some torrent tracker sites are earning a heap money from advertising (and I've yet to see evidence for this), the lobby groups and lawyers and legislators aren't restricting their attacks on those, but are actively going after thousands of individual downloaders, harmless amateur web sites and Usenet communities.
The non-commercial -- commercial distinction is important to me because it goes to the heart of why I make art. Sure, I don't want some guy printing up 10,000 copies of my book and making a heap of money off them without permission. Because in that case he's exploiting my work for his own financial benefit. But some guy making a Hicksville t-shirt to give his girlfriend? This makes me happy. A small press cartoonist in Portland drawing a Lady Night mini-comic? I'm honored and pleased. A fan uploading scans of Pickle to share with curious strangers? Frankly, I'm touched that he went to all the trouble and delighted that new readers might discover my work. I don't like my comics being exploited. But being appreciated, read, drawn into people's dreams and creative efforts, passed around from enthusiast to potential new fan? All of those things are why I do this in the first place!
The current structure of copyright law makes almost no distinction between all those acts, and in recent years the trend has been to remove what distinctions still remain (by weakening fair use and extending copyright periods so far nothing ever enters the public domain). Creative Commons licenses do make that distinction -- which is why I use those now whenever I'm able. But the big media lobby groups like the RIAA, MPAA, FACT, etc. actively try to undermine Creative Commons and are doing their best to give them complete and permanent control over any copying ever.
And when you look at the way these groups have waged their "war on piracy" over the past 10 years, they've frequently ignored any such distinction, suing (or extorting money from) individuals who are downloading for their own use (students, children, grandmothers), shutting down non-commercial torrent sites, mash-up and remix sites, amateur mp3 blogs and even artists' own web sites. When you felt I was speaking in slogans on twitter, you were probably right. But I feel it's partly because I've been following this issue for several years now, and I've seen the so-called "copyright industry" brandish their simplistic slogans about defending artists' rights while they behave in the most appalling ways. The "war on piracy" is absurd, tragic and extremely destructive, and is waged indiscriminately against fans, amateurs, non-commercial sharers, innocent bystanders indiscriminately. And the collateral damage to net neutrality and online innovation and even freedom of speech means that the stakes are considerably higher than whether some 12 year old kid gets to read my comic for free. It's no coincidence that the very same powers the government is seeking through COICA were recently used to attack Wikileaks (the seizure of domain names, private companies withdrawing access and services under political pressure). When Amazon kicked Wikileaks off its cloud, its excuse was that Wikileaks was hosting copyrighted materials. There's a reason civil rights activists are worried by legislation like COICA.
As for your last question, are the arts industries dissolving? I don't see any sign of it. I mean, in some cases I'd love to see the existing industry structures dissolve in favor of structures in which artists and their audiences were more in control, but as time goes on, I'm more convinced this was a Utopian (or apocalyptic, depending on your perspective) fantasy and it just ain't happening.
Having said that, the Internet provides opportunities to experiment with new models and structures; and that's another reason the big lobby groups are trying to gain more control over it -- so they can try to influence the paths any new innovation might take. It's just another kind of vertical integration: like publishers buying up printers, distributors and retail chains. So far it's hard to see how successful they'll be; but anything that dilutes net neutrality makes that more likely.
SPURGEON: As you know, I'm wary of talking about these issues in terms of bottom-line costs. Who isn't making money or how much or what. I see it as a creators rights issue: that everyone should be granted the right to set the terms by which people access their material, and that assuming your right to set those terms over a creator expressed wishes is morally indefensible. Do you agree? Why is the discussion mired in bottom lines?
HORROCKS: I agree that the discussion among artists is depressingly focused on money. I mean, I know it's hard to make a living as an artist -- God, do I know it! But is that the most important thing to me? Is that why I choose to make art in the first place? No! It depresses me when you get a bunch of writers or artists or cartoonists together and all they'll talk about is royalty agreements and page rates and who's earning what. What, are we accountants now?
But no artist likes to be exploited, precisely because our work is precious to us in ways more important than money, and we want that relationship we have with our work to be respected. Unfortunately, we live in an economy where money is the most obvious measure of value, and so it's easy to end up focusing on that as the bottom line, as you put it. Often, when you scratch a little deeper, you find that what upsets artists even more is a lack of respect, of being exploited, taken for granted -- even when the work we make is earning someone, somewhere a heap of money and luxury.
But I disagree with your second step. I don't believe I have the right to set the terms by which people access my material, nor where they take it from there. Once I've written a story or drawn a comic -- certainly once I put it out into the world by publishing it (online or on paper), that comic is out there living its own life and interacting with all the people who come across it. It's like having kids. Once you've brought them into the world, they're not actually your property to do with as you will. You have a very important relationship with them, and you deserve to have people respect that relationship. But in the end, they're in the world and they have their own life. Eventually other people will have relationships with them as important as yours -- and it's not fair to try to dictate those terms until the day they die.
If everyone had to ask permission of the author before, say, making a crappy photocopy of a comic to send to a friend, I'd never have seen some of the comics that had the most powerful effect on me as a teenager. Or if an author had the right to prevent me reading their book while eating (in case I spilled food on their favorite page)? Maybe some poets would like to insist on the conditions under which their work could be read aloud ("No you can't read that love poem I wrote for my wife to your fat gay boyfriend!"). If painters could insist on their work only being seen in the original, well, the world would be an immeasurably poorer place.
So I don't agree with your interpretation of creator's rights. And I'd even take it further. I think our rights as creators need to be a lot more limited than they are today. I would like the term of copyright to be pushed back to where it was before the last couple of extensions. Because we also have rights as readers, viewers, audiences, fellow artists who are inspired and provoked by things we read and see and hear. Art is a contribution to the culture, and however important the creator's relationship to that art may be, it's not the only relationship. Ultimately, it might not even be the most important. I've heard from people whose lives were changed by Hicksville. I mean, really profoundly changed. I almost hesitate to even say that, because it seems arrogant of me to imagine my work could have so powerful an effect. But that's what a few people have told me. Now, Hicksville is very important to me. I love it dearly. But who am I to say it's more precious to me than it is to those people? If they choose to use it in some way that makes me uncomfortable, do I have the right to stop them?
I don't want anyone dictating the terms under which I can provide people with access to my work. But that doesn't mean I have an absolute right to dictate the terms or conditions under which everyone else can interact with my work from here to eternity. Where there's a conflict, I think the law should err on the side of openness, of work being able to spread through a society and culture. But it's not an absolute either-or proposition. It's a matter of balancing the different relationships that exist around a particular work, and respecting all of those relationships, rather than granting total control to one or another.
SPURGEON: I think you're distorting my position a bit, Dylan. I don't believe the creator has the right to dictate terms absolutely, certainly not to the degree you've suggested. I think they have the right to set the terms initially, and that this term-setting should have some moral impetus. But dictate absolutely? Or even have the expectation that what they've proclaimed will be met to the extent you've suggested? No. I've written several times about copyright limits, for instance, and agree that the cultural good is best served by a much more limited copyright term than what we have right now, which save for the loophole the Superman families are understandably trying to crawl through, tend to serve corporations to the culture's detriment.
That said, within those parameters I'd much rather err on the side of the creator over the individual because I think that also serves the greater good. You and I may not feel that art is best created for commerce, but some art is created that way, and even more art is created out of some expectation that it eventually leads to remuneration. I don't begrudge anyone the very human desire to profit from what they do. That doesn't mean they get to, but it also doesn't mean they have to be happy ceding any percentage of those aspirations to others' desire to consume. I'm also not certain that employing available means of legal redress automatically puts them in a different ethical/moral category than those who earlier apply available means of technological redress in changing the terms of engagement with that art.
I went to high school about the same time you did, albeit half a world away. We taped shows off of HBO and slipped into concerts at Market Square Arena. These were awesome experiences in some cases, you're right. Yet we never proposed this should be codified into standard practice or ever suggested that the usher or parent who stopped us was violating some right we had, or that Bruce Springsteen was an out-of-touch greedster for having security in the first place. I think there's a huge difference between people breaking with the full extent of a creator's wishes -- it's going to happen! -- and ascribing moral superiority to that position to the point that anyone objecting is mocked, ridiculed and even harassed. Even worse to my mind is then re-applying that framework of logic to primary commercial acts almost solely, it seems to me, because that's of maximum benefit to the person doing the applying.
This brings me to a last question. You seem to believe as a lot of people do that piracy is an intractable cost of doing business, that's it's always going to be there. Aren't we really talking about specific kinds of appropriation from a specific kind of person rather than piracy as a general reality? In the mid-1990s people were quick to cut and paste by-lined prose for their own purposes; people don't do that anymore, despite all the protests at the time that those who objected to this practice had it wrong and should continue to let it happen. You also have individual cases where a request is made to consider an addendum to behavior or even changed behavior and this is a success. Doesn't that suggest that these issues aren't all the way settled yet?
HORROCKS: Well, what you're talking about seems to me to be the gradual emergence of a kind of ethical consensus. And I agree that is far from settled. It's an ongoing process that never really stops. It feels especially volatile and unsettled at the moment because the technology has changed the playing field so dramatically, we're all running around trying to catch up. It's quite possible that in ten years I'll look back on this with a very different view. But it's also quite possible most of those currently upset about file sharing will look back with embarrassment, in the same way we look back on the "home taping is killing music" campaigns of the 1980s.
I also think it's interesting the way an etiquette has emerged around attribution on the web (at least among most serious bloggers). That hasn't been driven by legislation or lawsuits; it really does seem to be the result of ethical opinions being voiced and accepted. I would hope that the same thing can happen in the piracy debate -- that a consensus will gradually emerge over what is acceptable sharing and what constitutes unethical piracy or exploitation. My feeling is that the hysterical "war on piracy" being waged by large lobby groups is not helping at all; like any war, it pushes everyone to the extremes and leaves behind a ravaged landscape.
But it may be that articles like Colleen's and the responses of people like me can help shape a more meaningful consensus among artists -- which in turn might reign in the excesses and steer us toward some kind of decent outcome.
I do worry that the industry lobbyists are so loud and powerful that they drown us all out, whichever side we're on, and I worry that by the time we've reached a reasonable, well-balanced consensus, the law and the Internet will have already been reshaped in ways that suit the big corporate players to the detriment of both authors and readers. If I start to sound a little shrill myself at times, it's because that worry sometimes overwhelms me.
But I hope we can focus on what we, as artists, value the most -- and for me that is reaching out to people whose lives can be enriched in some small way by what I do. That's my bottom line. And that's why, for me, the freedom of the Internet is not a threat, but an extraordinary opportunity.
* photo of Horrocks provided by Horrocks, I think he said taken by his sister
* the lovely colors of The Magic Pen
* a stunning page in black and white from Atlas
* that killer, map-like page from Magic Pen
* another fun Magic Pen panel
* panel from American Dream
* two examples of random things Horrocks has posted to the site
* a mid-1990s on-line related Horrocks cartoon
* image from Hicksville
* a well-traveled Horrocks cartoon on on-line piracy
* Lady Night
* two panels or portions of panels ganked from Hicksville Comics
* a panel from Atlas that seemed to indicate our partial understanding
* a funny moment in Magic Pen (below)
Dylan Horrocks On Supplemental Reading
"If you want to read other places I've talked about the copyright stuff, Josh Flanagan on iFanboy threw some of it together after our twitter debate.
"In particular, this is an essay I wrote for a NZ magazine called Booknotes (published by the NZ Book Council).
"And here's an earlier submission I made on s92 (an amendment to the copyright act that was eventually overturned after a vigorous public campaign). Note the formatting is ugly as all hell on this post; it was on an old Vox blog, and when Vox closed down, I exported the contents over to Wordpress, but haven't had time to format any of it. One day..."
* Marvel goes day and date, digital/print with its next Spider-Man event. That's big news from a milestone standpoint, and I expect it to be hashed out by a lot of commentators. Me, I'm not sure what else I'd have to add that wouldn't be hot air. I mean, "there it is!" You know? I'm more confused as to why all the big comics announcements in the taint of the calendar year. The only thing I haven't seen reported yet -- I'm on the road -- is whether or not retailers were given advance word so that they could order accordingly.
* more Gabrielle Bell on her long, long winning streak with "White Out" at Lucky.
* I have dim memories of getting intoxicated and yelling at people on Twitter yesterday, but the only evidence I had upon waking up was a lone bookmark directed to this cartoon.
* finally, Comics Alliancejoins Douglas Wolk in endorsing Duncan The Wonder Dog Vol. 1 as the book of the year. I'm glad for a young talent working in ambitious fashion getting that recognition, especially as I thought the comics reportage hive mind at SPX when it debuted were super-parsimonious in covering its launch. I mean, I'm sorry, but SPX was made for a giant book from a new talent appearing out of nowhere and I think should remain so today; I didn't even go and I know that Duncan was the real book of that show. Number one book of the year is a different ballgame, though, and as I have to yet to make out my personal line-up card I'll be quiet for now.
I wanted to interview the cartoonist, 'zine distributor and alt-publisher employee Jason T. Miles for reasons having to do with each of the hats he wears, but I'll admit that my primary motivation was a conversation at San Diego we had about his switching jobs at foundational alt-comics publisher Fantagraphics. It was the kind of chat that I have with a lot of my friends, but rarely with those in comics: the excitement of taking on new responsibilities, the possibilities for certain skills to be applied. My friends in comics either don't stay around for very long, period, or dig in at one job for what seems like forever. I've been more and more convinced in recent years that one of the reasons the non-Big Two companies have been able to find a bigger place for themselves in the industry is that they've managed to hang onto more employees -- employees like Miles -- for a longer period of time. Miles is also a compelling cartoonist, working in a number of self-published formats and most memorably with Zak Sally of La Mano 21 on Dead Ringer. Owning and operating a 'zine distribution company, as is the case with Miles' Profanity Hill, intrigues me because of the sea change in that area of expression since the photocopy-happy 1990s. In other words, there's a lot to discuss. The following interview was conducted via e-mail and edited for clarity and flow by me. -- Tom Spurgeon
TOM SPURGEON: One of the things about which I'm talking to a lot of people this year is jobs, and you switched yours this year. Can you talk about what it is you're doing for Fantagraphics now, what you were doing, and what specifically appeals to you about your current duties?
JASON T. MILES: I was the "Director of Sales" for Fantagraphics for about three years and I worked in the warehouse for about four years prior to that. As the "Director of Sales" my primary functions were to process wholesale orders as well as drum up new wholesale business. In effect my job was to facilitate the movement of books from point A to point B and then payment from point B to point A in an efficient and sometimes creative way. A lot changed during my time in the position... in fact the job title is now "Inventory Manager."
My current job title is "Operations/Editorial" and I see my current position as an opportunity to utilize all of my experience in the publishing industry to assist just about every factor involved in making or attempting to make great books. I especially enjoy watching a book take shape from catalog copy to finished product... it's almost always a strange and surprising journey!
Back when I was working at the warehouse I was just working there... it was a cool place to work and I didn't have to sit in front of a computer all day and it helped pay the bills while I toiled away making art... and then the "Director of Sales" position opened and I thought, "Aw, hell..." I'd never tried to work towards the center of a company. I'd always just worked to pay bills and subsidize my non-working life... so here's this opportunity and... working joe jobs is easy, you put your time in and you go home... and I'd built this idea that the ease of joe job made it so I still had energy to make art, so I'd been nervous about working my up the ladder so to speak because I thought my art making practice would suffer, and I must admit I was nervous about being turned down... but I went for it because I love comics and making books and since I'd never tried working my way up the ladder, what did I know about how it was or was not going to go? And I got the job! I interviewed for it with Gary [Groth] and got it. I remember right away both Eric [Reynolds] and Jacob [Covey] were worried I was going to stop making art and I guess I'm proud to say I'm now making more art than ever before.
SPURGEON: What is your work day like? What are the nuts and bolts duties of your job? We know almost nothing about editors at these smaller companies because until recently companies of that size didn't really have a lot of people primarily devoted to working on the production side of things.
MILES: Lately, I've been getting to the office around noon and staying until 8 PM. When I first come into the office I turn on my computer and open old-fashioned mail while watching my e-mail counter jump to anywhere from 35 to 85 new e-mails. The old-fashioned mail usually consists of printer proofs and book dummies as well as other stuff. I give the other stuff to other people and then go over the proofs and dummies to suss out any problems. If it's necessary, I'll discuss the proofs or dummies with Gary, Kim [Thompson] or Eric or the designers in order to resolve any open issues on are end of production and then I'll contact the printers to let them know what needs to be changed or that everything looks great and to start the presses! By this time I've now got anywhere from 50 to 90 unread e-mails so I e-mail until lunch. I eat lunch while reading a couple of pages from a book or I skim web sites... I really hope people aren't finding this boring.
SPURGEON: [laughs] Most jobs are boring.
MILES: Lunch takes about 20 minutes to 30 minutes and I'm back at it, usually addressing the work generated by the pre-lunch emails until the end of the day. This work can consist of many different things including: talking with artists and editors about how their books are or are not taking shape, talking with Gary, Kim, Eric and the designers to see where their projects are at and what they need, running remainder sales with one or more of the various bargain book distributors, researching sales to help Gary or Kim set print runs, making bookplates for our mail order department, I might be working on putting together an art show for our bookstore/gallery, sending materials to authors and printers, running art and material by Disney and United Media for approval, advising on how to try and tackle a new found problem (there's a lot of this) etc. etc. etc.
SPURGEON: Now, was working for a publisher ever an ambition for you? What took you to Fantagraphics in the first place?
MILES: I tried to get a job at Fantagraphics when I was 13 or 14 years old. One of my cousins had given me a stack of comics which included Usagi Yojimbo, Frank and Love & Rockets. While reading these, I saw the address for the company was about seven miles from my house! It made my then cartooning aspirations seem possible. As a kid and into Junior High I made my own comics and books of drawings, so this is something I've always been excited about. So, I called Fantagraphics and asked them for a job interview... I literally had no idea what to expect... I had this fantasy that I would get an art job but was old enough and cynical enough -- this was the early 90's -- to know better, sorta.
The voice on the other end of the phone gave me a date and time to meet and a couple of days later my mom drove me to the Fantagraphics office. The house next to our office is owned by a really nice witch and she's covered her house with spells and art and it looks like no other house on the block and when I thought this was Fantagraphics I was very excited... but then we discovered it was the drab, gray house next door with busted up TV's and photocopiers in the yard. My mom and I knock on the door and someone yelled at us to come in, so we walk inside "... Hello?" and this guy is over in the corner and drunkenly yells "Oh shit! Hide the stuff! A kid's here!" My mom let out a nervous laugh (she's a school teacher) and someone asks why were there and I say, "I'm here for the interview" and the person laughs and says "Uhh... ok... follow me" and they take us to a fresh-faced Eric Reynolds! Eric gave us a tour of the house, which was a complete mess, I loved it, and then explained that I'm probably too young to work there because of the explicit material on hand -- Eros was in full schwing! sorry -- but if something comes up he'll call me. Of course he never called but the whole experience set me on fire and I went home and started my own comic book company and started drawing comics and enlisting my friends and... today I'm finally working for Fantagraphics and I'm still making and publishing my own comics.
SPURGEON: I'm not sure I know all that much about your general relationship to comics, but if we had met five or ten or 15 years ago would I have seen you reading comics? Or is comics something more contemporary for you?
MILES: My first remembered experience with comics was watching Saturday morning Spider-Man and Hulk cartoons. A little later on, I managed to cull together a small stack of comic books. My early years were in rural Wyoming so comics were not in abundance. My Grandma and Mom are artists so early on I cast off comics for fine art and spent a good part of my adolescence trying to draw from life. Summer after 3rd grade I discovered Calvin & Hobbes and The Far Side and I was back with the comics, drawing retarded Garfield and Lockhorns. Around 5th grade my awesome aunt gave me a subscription to Mad Magazine. The first issue I received had a cover spoofing the Garbage Pail Kids. I had no idea what Garbage Pail Kids were but the cover of this Mad had Alfred E. Neuman puking on himself... haw! So I got heavily into Mad, especially Don Martin, Al Jaffee and Dave Berg. Nobody draws spite and disgust like Dave Berg. All of his characters look like they just stepped in dogshit. Unbelievable.
Eventually I got heavily into Garbage Pail Kids and the other great Topps card series and then Superman died... and I got into superhero comics for about a year or two... until Batman died or had his back broken which was very clearly a sales ploy on the part of DC which really pissed me off. By this time I was listening to grunge music and everyone in Seattle was sad or depressed or pissed off and cynical and pointing out how lame everything was... the mainstream telling the mainstream how lame being mainstream is... so I was bitter and stopped reading superhero comics just in time to get that stack of comics from my cousins and find Love and Rockets and Frank.
SPURGEON: Got it. So are the people who knew you back then surprised by what you're doing now?
MILES: I doubt people who knew me way back would be that surprised by what I'm doing now. I'm probably more surprised than anyone else. Way back, I thought I was going to be making movies. I've always been into stuff like publishing. I worked on the high school paper not because I liked high school and had a jones to write and draw about it but because I wanted to learn how a paper was made. And working at Fantagraphics has been the best most practical experience I continue to have learning how to try make things. But it's different from making art even though art is part of the publishing process.
SPURGEON: Can you talk about working with the Humbug material as a cartoonist? You're in many ways a very different cartoonist than those men and working from a context divorced almost entirely from their commercial art world. How did you regard the material when you were holding it in your hands, living with it for a while? Did your perspective change on those comics while working with them?
MILES: Working on Humbug continues to be a huge influence on me. I learned a lot working on those books. We were very lucky to have a lot of the original artwork to shoot from and therefore I was able to live with a lot of amazing artwork which is not that common anymore thanks to the digital age. I had the opportunity to pore over a lot original artwork by the likes of Will Elder, Al Jaffee and Arnold Roth and what really left a lasting impression on me, personally, was how collaged there stuff is. Some of the Elder stuff was three or four different pieces of board patched together to make a single beautiful perfect image. This gave me license to loosen up with my stuff and not hesitate to cut it up or collage things into it, which is a lot of fun and feels totally appropriate to the nature of comics.
One day I was walking through the art department with a box of Will Elder originals and someone comes up to me and tells me Will Elder just passed away. That was something. He's one of my all time heroes -- my favorite artist -- and we were trying hard to get the book done so he could see it. I'll never forget that moment... I don't even know how to describe it.
SPURGEON: Sometimes I still find myself anticipating the Humbug collection and I have to remind myself that not only did it come out, it was just about everything I expected it to be. Do you feel that projects like the Humbug collection receive the attention they deserve on an individual basis considering this absolute flood of quality publishing right now? Is that an issue, do you think, that projects may not be getting their just due?
MILES: For as long as I've been following stuff like this -- since 1996 or so -- it's never been out of the realm for great work to go unnoticed and for lousy work to receive worship... and vice-versa. When it comes to this stuff, I guess I get frustrated the most by how we (as an industry or species, thanks to internet participation) can create a bullshit story around a book or author or publisher or perceived movement or trend. I mean, how do you measure the attention a book gets anymore? The next question of course should be, how do you measure a book's success? There are so many factors that go into a book's production and reception that I think we'd all be surprised by how a book is truly received, provided we could devise a universally accepted audit of the process.
SPURGEON: If I recall correctly, your first minis came out in about ten years ago. How long had you been making comics before that? What circumstances led you to self-publish your work? What was rewarding about it for you that kept you doing it?
MILES: Yeah, I started making zines in the late 90s and my first somewhat mature mini comic came out in 2003. All through Junior High and High School I tried making comics, to very little success. I'd usually get to the third panel or second page and just start drawing. I come from a very pragmatic family and I figured early on that if I was going to do something in art it would be as member of an assembly line -- something like a penciler or inker or animator or something like that -- and so I did a lot of just drawing through my teen years and by the time I went to college I was making videos and animation and still drawing but only reading comics.
The moment I finished college I immediately started drawing comics. I don't know why exactly but I did and thanks to being in a place like Olympia I knew I could publish my own comics and that by doing so didn't negate the validity of what I was doing in the face Marvel or DC or Fantagraphics. I'd been making zines and working at Kinko's. I knew how to paste up a 'zine, so I knew how to paste up a comic.
Around 2002, I was a big fan of Highwater and I related to almost everything Tom [Devlin] put out. It was the first time I felt like there was art being made for me. So that was and continues to be very inspiring. My dream back then was to do a comic for Highwater and I was supposed to do something for that ill-fated issue of Coober Skeber. About two weeks before Highwater folded Tom e-mailed me to ask if I'd do a comic book pamphlet for Highwater... my dream comes true! But then he folded and my personal life folded -- not because of Tom -- and I spent four or five years putting myself back together and eventually started making a lot more work starting in 2007.
SPURGEON: I'm more familiar with the small-press and 'zine scene from the 1990s than I am the one that exists now. Do things work differently? Does the fact that on-line publication exists now mean that a certain kind of artist works on-line and a certain in print, or does it overlap? Can you sort of describe the landscape for me?â€¨
MILES: Things are different. It's a different time. I mean, back in 1996 if you lived in the suburbs, you had to work to encounter 'zines and other counter-culture, it took time and bus rides across town and seeking and hunting, it was fun, but now... There's stuff still like that, but the layers of obscurity combined with the perception of digital immediacy have braided and mashed the whole experience to a pulp. Before I started Profanity Hill I was really of the mind that the old centralized counter-culture stuff was better and more fun than the Internet din. Then I got to know Dylan Williams and had to face the fact that I didn't know nothing and had been selling my experience short by being lazy and stymied by the digital age. If I could explain the 'zine landscape for you, I don't think I'd have started Profanity Hill.
SPURGEON: Can you talk as explicitly as possible about what led you to start a 'zine and minis distributor, what that work entails, how much business you're doing, just generally what that experience has been like so far? Has anything surprised you, positively or negatively? What's the long-term goal in taking on such a project?
MILES: I was tired of hearing myself complain. Seattle used to be a hot bed of 'zine activity and I knew people were still doing stuff but it seemed invisible to me. I could barely find the stuff anywhere. I knew that might be my problem so I decided to start Profanity Hill to see how wrong I was. I mean, you go down to Portland and the town is lousy with 'zines! It's amazing. Everywhere you go there's zines... I actually think there's too many 'zines in Portland. I usually don't pick anything up when I go to one of the Portland shops because there's too many to choose from.
I also started Profanity Hill because I was tired of hearing other people complain about 'zine or comic distribution and Diamond. Profanity Hill started not too long after the Diamond minimum thing. In my opinion, the popular "alternative comix" reaction to that was simply ridiculous. If you don't like something, do something about it. Profanity Hill's been around for almost a year and I do as much business as I want. Whatever I put into Profanity Hill I get back and then some. Does Profanity Hill make enough money to pay the rent? Not on your life. But its a great life. What's surprised me about Profanity Hill is that only two of my orders have been from Seattle... the rest come primarily from California, New York and Texas.
I don't have a long term plan or goal for Profanity Hill other than to stay small and relevant. The only new dimension for 2011 for Profanity Hill is that I'm going to start carrying stuff by out of town 'zinesters and cartoonists.
SPURGEON: A lot of people think of the 'zine and micro-press comics scene as being more community-oriented than comics. Are there differences between the way those two worlds operate? For that matter, is there something about the work you do with Profanity Hill that informs what you do at Fantagraphics or vice-versa?
MILES: That's a good question and one I'm still investigating. I don't know how different 'zines or comics are from each other or anything else. I do know that the most valuable discoveries I've made about either 'zines or comics has come from how the two operate financially. There are things 'zines can do that comics can't and vice-versa. I've heard a lot of people speculate about Fantagraphics and why it doesn't do some of the things that 'zines or small press people or publishers do. More often than not, the reason we don't do t-shirts and silkscreen posters, etc., is because it doesn't make financial sense due in part by the size of our operation. The cartoonists, retailers, publishers, press and readership tend to compare a company like Fantagraphics with other companies that produce material of a similar aesthetic. That makes sense to a certain to degree but when you take into account that Fantagraphics publishes 70 to 80 products each year, compared to Drawn & Quarterly's [suggested number] and PictureBox's and Sparkplug's [another suggested number] and a different picture begins to develop. I'm not saying Fantagraphics is better because they publish more. I'm also not saying 'zinester X is better because they publish less. It's just different.
SPURGEON: Looking very quickly at your bibliography, a potentially ridiculous question popped to mind. What is it that you accomplish through a series, such as Pines, that you can't with the multiple one-shots that you do? For that matter, how much of what you've created do you feel is of a single voice, an overriding creative effort, and how much do you feel you're oriented towards individual projects one at a time?
MILES: In theory, Pines is a way for me to chart my progress. What's difficult about such an ambition is that I'm constantly trying to get out of my own way. I think if you were to spread out all my stuff and look at it all at the same time... I don't know if you would immediately recognize it was all made by the same person. I'm told that if you read it all then you know it's all by the same person. I dunno... I'm restless and curious about trying different things. Sometimes I wish I weren't. Sometimes it feels like its a misstep because there's this prevailing sense that you need the perceived focus and consistency of Schulz or Guston. In reality, I feel closer to Picasso and Hockney whether I like it or not. Picasso and Hockney don't let idiosyncratic style quirks define their work; those guys need to try all this different stuff. I feel that way as well. The difference between me and any of those guys I just mentioned is that they're all masters. I'm constantly trying to find my orientation with comics... I always have five projects going at once and its exhausting. I really wish I could just work on a thing, finish that thing and then start the next thing. But what I wish and what I do are strangers to one another.
SPURGEON: Your highest-profile project to date is Dead Ringer, which you did with Zak Sally's La Mano 21. What was the genesis of that project, and what kind of working relationship have you developed with Sally? What's special or distinctive about working with him as opposed to the other people with whom you work?
MILES: The genesis of Dead Ringer was an accident I came upon. It was an accident I'd been in, I don't really want to give the genesis away if that's ok.
SPURGEON: That's all up to you.
MILES: I made Dead Ringer to try and alleviate this thing that was bothering me and I made it without worrying about where it was going to go both in terms of content and in terms of publishing. I made it very large and just did it. It was great to cast off all that comics format baggage... which is something I'm trying to do more of. Just because the Kirby two-by-three grid worked great for Kirby doesn't mean it works great for Billy Graham or Brandon Graham or Austin English or me.
Zak and I basically talked a bunch, and I'd have to say he really edited the thing. The last page had a different line of text and he rightfully questioned what I wrote and I'm glad he did because we I changed it with the help of my Grandmother and its a better book for it. For me, working with Zak was special because I really felt like I was in this hard wake of oblique comic narratives starting with Justin Green to Jim Woodring to Zak... so I was feeling this strong spiritual connection even if Zak wasn't. I mean, maybe he was... I should ask him.
SPURGEON: It's been about two years now, how do you feel about Dead Ringer now? Do you think it succeeds? How self-critical are you generally?
MILES: Yeah, I think it succeeds. It's the best thing I've done. But what I think about it shouldn't matter. I'm self-critical but I don't know how much or how little. How do you measure something like that? Do you compare yourself to other artists, maybe...? I care for my work, I don't hate it. Sometimes I wish I had more control of my work and other times I wish I had no control of it. I've noticed trends about my stuff or my experience making stuff and I've found I have almost zero recall when it comes to the experience of making what I think is my most potent work.
SPURGEON: To take you back into your Fanta-job for a second -- you worked on Weathercraft, with Jim Woodring, a book of the year candidate. Is there anything to working with that material or with Jim in an editorial capacity that provides a different perspective than we might have just picking it up in the store? What is he like to work with?
SPURGEON My bad. I'm sorry about that. Well, do you have memories of that experience? Was there any carryover between the work you did with him on the comic and what ended up in the book?
MILES: The only editorial input I had on Weathercraft the graphic novel was batting around ideas for the cover with Jim, Gary, Kim and Eric. What was weird about that was I suggested a cover image off a beaten and battered Man-Hog looking backwards to the left -- very simple and Shakespearean -- and something like the next day Jim e-mails a drawing of something very similar to what I described and Eric and I looked at each other and wondered aloud if Jim was already drawing such an image or if he ran with my suggestion because the drawing, which ended up on the case -- the case is just the hardcover book cover without the dust jacket -- is very elaborate and looked as if it took a long time to execute. For some reason I've never asked Jim about it. So that was cool and mysterious as are many things with Jim.
While working on Weathercraft and Other Unusual Tales I quickly learned that I simply needed to stay out of Jim's way because he knows what's best for his stuff. So in that case I hesitate to say I "edited" anything because I immediately saw my job as facilitating the production of Jim's vision for the comic. Which isn't to say I didn't make suggestions that ended up in the final comic... it was an amazing opportunity to work with one of my heroes and to discuss how the thing should read and how the thing shouldn't read.
To address your question about a "different perspective" from a reader picking up the book or any of the books we publish, yeah, I have a different perspective and I don't see how I couldn't. I usually read the stuff Fantagraphics publishes as print-outs, photocopies and printer proofs and sometimes I never have the book reading experience with the material. I still haven't read Humbug as the two-volume set we published. There are times I seriously miss having just the perspective of being someone that picks up a Fantagraphics to read.
SPURGEON: How ambitious are you? If there was a best-case scenario not for next year but for the next five, where would you be in terms of your various creative outlets and job? Would you have settled in on one or two things, maybe? Picked up several more?
MILES: I'm ambitious. I have a lot of ambition... and I've found when I focus too much on my ambition I usually make poor work or my ego gets unhealthy and my work suffers. For the past few years, I've been working towards reducing my ambition. I wish to live without ambition. That sounds pompous, but that's how I feel. For me, the best case scenario five years from now is to still be alive and making stuff. And there's a lot of other stuff I'd like to do besides comics and publishing and distro-ing. I'd love to make a radio play or build some stuff out of wood.
* photo of Miles provided by the cartoonist
* photo of Miles with Fantagraphics' Eric Reynolds
* Humbug cover
* cover to a Miles mini-comic
* from Miles' mini-comics series Pines
* Dead Ringer
* photo of Miles with Jim Woodring and Kim Deitch
* the Woodring-related FCBD project that was one of Miles' projects
* photo of Miles provided by the cartoonist (below)
* today's lost bookmark that I didn't end up using, and in this case I have no idea why, is Gabe Bridwell's massive write-up of his Atlantic Center For The Arts experience working with and learning from a trio of established cartoonists and a bunch of up and coming ones. I am so fond of personal-experience blogging of the old-fashioned kind, and this fits the bill nicely.
* again, I see this Charles Yoakum piece as another instance of anecdotal support for the notion that the things afflicting sales in print comic books aren't the kind of things you can fix and see a short-term, measurable benefit.
* a bit of art: Roger Langridge draws the cast from Father Ted, one of the best of its era. First Second continues its peeks at oddball art from Paul Pope in his forthcoming Battling Boy. Actually, it's probably lovely, luscious and completely sensible art and just looks odd to me in these small snippets.
* this is a very curious bunch of top news stories for 2010. A couple of those stories I wouldn't have remembered asked to write out fifty such stories in comics for 2010. Then again, it's not my list.
* comics historian RC Harvey says goodbye to Brenda Starr in twoparts. If Dirk Deppey being let go is part of a bunch of forthcoming changes at TCJ, I hope they'll consider not breaking up their pieces as part of those changes. There's really no reason to do that anymore other than trying to maximize hits.
* finally, there were a number of tributes to Stan Lee up around the Internet yesterday for The Man's 88th birthday. Here's one from Mark Evanier.
Kiel Phegley is one of a tiny handful of people whose primary job is writing news related to the making of comics, which he does for the dominant North American comic book industry news source of the day, Comic Book Resources. It's not a gig I can fathom. My two forays as a newshound whose nose was aimed, in part, at the crotches of the North American comic book industry, came in what are now completely different and far-removed eras. In my first gig I was required to write six or seven stories over a four- to five-week period; in the second I was encouraged although not required to file a story one or twice a week. Phegley seems to post articles all the freakin' time, and from the outside looking in seems to spend a significant majority of his work week playing catch on publishing news stories with heavy-hitters on their home turf -- an easy gig to criticize, a nearly impossible gig to maintain with aplomb. I'd say Phegley makes it look easy, but I'd be lying: it looks hard. It's more than worth our attention that the former Wizard employee and current Chicago resident makes his job look achievable and honorable. I thought 2010 was a transitional, slippery year to understand in terms of comics news, and I'm happy Phegley agreed to explain some things to me. -- Tom Spurgeon
TOM SPURGEON: Kiel, I'm aware of your work story to story but I'm not certain that I know exactly what it is you do on a comprehensive scale. What is your actual job title, and what does that entail in terms of how much writing you'd doing and what kind of writing you're doing? What's your comics-related workday like?
KIEL PHEGLEY: My title is CBR News Editor, which I'm not sure is a new job, though site owner/executive producer Jonah Weiland is fond of blowing smoke up my ass by telling people I'm "CBR's first true News Editor" whatever that means. Basically, I'm the lead writer for the News section of the site, which encompasses a lot of what you see on the front page, and I help to coordinate our News staff for product, arts and event coverage. I spend most of my days e-mailing the other staffers (too many excellent talents to name without forgetting someone and feeling awful about it) to make sure we're hitting the major releases with interviews and new stories, and when things like conventions or Hollywood events come up, I'm helping Jonah divide the labor amongst whoever we have on hand and chasing embargoed stories.
As for my own writing, I try to turn around at least one meaty feature with comics talent each and every day, though sometimes I'm off that pace. In between conducting and transcribing interviews, I'm responsible for writing the copy that goes along with any breaking news we feel is relevant to our audience. For example, is Mark Millar declaring that he's purchased Australia to turn it into his own media empire/Hit Girl-themed amusement park? I'll write that up. Has Marvel just announced that Alan Thicke has been cast as Dr. Strange? I'll write that up. Did some asshole just stab a kid in the eye at San Diego? I'll... etc., etc., etc.
I should also note that while people who follow the journalism side of the comics equation may be passingly familiar with my name or Jonah's name, the real unsung hero of CBR is Senior Editor Stephen Gerding who deals with most of the design and posting of stories on the site. Damn near every feature, preview, video, review and miscellaneous piece of text that makes its way to the front page goes through Stephen's hands at some point, and overall, I think his job is much more stressful and vital than mine, so it's a shame that his name only gets published to the site like three times a year.
SPURGEON: A couple of quick follow-ups: first, where does the writing you do about comics fit into your wider career? If someone asks, is there enough comics work that this can be said to be your full-time job? If it's one job among many, how much of your time is spent writing about comics? Is there a job or a gig that if it materialized you'd do less writing about comics -- is this a gateway to something else for you?
PHEGLEY: Though I do freelance for a few assorted pop culture sites and magazines, CBR accounts for at least 85 to 90 percent of my income. So when I meet people at the dentist's office or wherever and they ask what I do, I say "Comic Book Journalist" and let them try and figure out what it means. Usually, they just want to know what I really make my money from because they don't believe anyone would pay to advertise on a site about comic books. However, I should probably note that I'm in the very fortunate position to call this a full-time gig. I know that the majority of people who work jobs like mine work day jobs and do the journalism gig "for the love." I'm one of the lucky ones.
In honesty, journalism only accounts for maybe 30 to 35 hours of work on an average, non-convention week, so I have some leeway to work on other projects. I was just recently accepted into Hamline University's M.F.A. program in Writing for Children and Young Adults in St. Paul (I start my first residency in January) so I think that qualifies as something that I view as eventually taking me away from what I'm doing now. I actually have a degree in English with a focus on prose fiction and never worked for so much as a high school newspaper before starting the comics journo gig. Still, the M.F.A. is a distance-learning program where I'll still be working from home, and time-wise it looks like this just means I'll be doing a lot more fiction writing during nights and weekends rather than doing less CBR work. I'm really happy with my job now and figure I'll stay in it for a few years yet, and I doubt I'll ever leave comics behind entirely.
SPURGEON: I probably should have asked this right off the bat, but how did you score your current gig? I think of you as someone who was around before that, but I can't for the life of me remember where that is or what caused you to move from that position to this one? I'm thinking your relationship to comics has been a lifetime, but you've actually worked in comics most of your adult life, haven't you? What is something that you might use in this current job that you learned or developed in an older one?
PHEGLEY: I worked at Wizard Magazine for a few years before this. It's funny. There are far more former Wizard guys kicking around the industry in jobs from journalism to editorial to marketing to creative than most people would ever suspect, and I've taken to joking that being at Wizard comes in three phases. First, there's the phase where you meet someone at the bar, and they say, "Oh hey... don't you work for Wizard?" Next, you bump into someone and they ask, "Didn't you used to work at Wizard?" Finally, people respond to the news by going, "You used to work at WIZARD?!?!" I'm not quite sure I've hit phase three yet.
The CBR gig came almost immediately on the heels of that job. I was let go from Wizard for... I'm not sure I've ever been able to divine all the specific reasons as very little were given to me at the time, but driving home that day, I called some of my contacts at publishers to let them know the news. By the time I'd gone from my office to my apartment, someone had informed Jonah what happened, and he'd already sent me a Facebook message offering work. I started as a CBR freelancer a few weeks later -- my first gig being live coverage of Wizard's Philly convention -- and after a little over a year freelancing took the News Editor gig.
Before that incredibly long-winded series of events, I was an editorial intern at DC Comics back in college, and I couldn't talk about my work in the industry without mentioning that I pretty much owe my entire career to the insanely rad Ivan Cohen at DC who picked my paltry resume out of a stack of blind submissions and gave me the gig sight unseen (Ivan's since gone on to work for DC's Hollywood wing, recently getting a producing credit on that 75th Anniversary DVD Ryan Reynolds narrated). So yes, aside from some scattered teaching work, I've pretty much been in comics career-wise since I got out of college.
Overall, I think what I being most from my past work into CBR is a preference for magazine-style writing in general over the day-to-day news stuff, but I'm not sure how much anyone who reads the site will see that. I'm constantly looking for ways to plan out our coverage in a way where we're not just scrambling to get the news out but are bringing a bit more thought and time to feature writing. In some ways, we've been successful with more "column-style" interview series attached to specific publishing lines and with the news burden being shared on some fronts by our excellent Robot 6 and Spinoff Online blogs. Still, my broader goal on CBR for 2011 is to build a space in the staff's scheduling where people can make time for longer, more in-depth writing on what interests them about the medium and the business.
SPURGEON: You mentioned that you were part of the slow, grinding, terrible crash to earth that was Wizard Entertainment's downsizing a few years back. I find it kind of remarkable given what must have been a distressing time that you immediately reached out to comics folks and found purchase rather than fleeing comics with all deliberate speed. Do you have lingering memories how things were at the end for so many of you at Wizard? Also, I find it interesting that so many of you are still working in different areas of comics, it was kind of like there was a Wizard diaspora -- is there a fraternity of ex-Wizard people of which you're a part?
PHEGLEY: It's strange to look back at that. Wizard was in many ways a great place to work because creatively, editorial was filled with a lot of people who were very passionate and dedicated to making comics (or toys or anime or what have you) really fun and engaging for a general audience and for the hardcores. But there was also a real divide at that company between the folks making the editorial content of the magazines and the people in charge of things like conventions or the online store that Gareb Shamus' brother ran, who were all placed on a separate floor at Wizard's offices. Not to say the people who worked "upstairs" at the company were necessarily bad people or anything, but there was a definite disconnect for a lot of us between what they did and what we did. I hardly ever spoke to anyone upstairs outside of chit chat at the bar at cons, and even people in editorial who had to interact with them in the general course of business seemed to get handed weird requests and edicts from on high.
When the layoffs started rolling through, I think what sticks most with me was a kind of total uncertainty about what was going on with the company in general. For example, I remember after Editor-in-Chief Pat McCallum was fired they held a meeting for us where we were told that overall, we were doing a great job. Despite a lax market for print magazines in general and a migration of a lot of comics news to the internet, we'd apparently done a fine job of making Wizard a magazine that did well in bookstores. Covering Hollywood superhero movies had kept circulation up. Pat's firing should not be taken as a sign that things would turn bad financially for the company. And on and on. Within a year, the staff had gone from around 17 or 18 people to less than a dozen, and by now I think there are three editorial and one researcher putting Wizard out monthly (guys who, I should add, are a talented, smart bunch whom I wish the best for). How could we have done such a fine job and also have gotten laid off in such big numbers? Who the fuck knows, man. I doubt anybody really has a clear picture of that company's finances and choices outside of Gareb, and it certainly was tough to work there never knowing when the other shoe would drop. Although, in retrospect I'm not sure that's much different than any company entering a tailspin.
As for a fraternity of ex-Wizard people, I'm not sure there's anything as organized as that. I certainly talk to a lot of folks from that place -- maybe as many as 20 or 25 -- but I don't think our connection is built on anyone trying to keep industry contacts going or doing networking. Like I said, the editorial staff at Wizard was full of some of the smartest, funniest, most comics-loving people you can imagine, and the people I still talk to I consider my close friends rather than my former co-workers.
SPURGEON: I think it's fair to say -- let me know if if you disagree! -- that a lot of CBR's news is tied into promotion cycles. You get the access you get in part because somebody has a specific agenda in terms of getting a product or an idea over with your audience. I know you've probably heard the accusations that come with a job like yours. How do you keep your journalistic skepticism alive when dealing with what are sometimes charismatic, convincing people that want to get you on their side? Have you ever done a piece where you think that maybe the subject thought you were coming on a bit too strong?
PHEGLEY: No, it's fair to say that a lot of our coverage is driven by product being released, and a lot of the product covered has its basic information dolled out in bits and bobs by publishers trying to maximize their PR potential. At the same time, I'm not sure that's very different from any entertainment field from movies to books to theater or what have you. And yes, I've heard plenty of accusations or criticisms of what we do ranging from the simple, "Your line of questioning is uninteresting to me" through to the wildly mean-spirited, "Fuck you, you obviously-paid shill for Marvel and DC... you're nothing but a Goddamned liar!" And honestly, I think those kinds of responses from my readership (well, the reasoned ones) affect how I approach my job far more than the charms of publicists and publishing executives do.
To a large extent, I feel that way because Jonah is fiercely independent with how he runs CBR and how we generate our content. Surely, there are times when publishers release promotional items -- teasers or limited product information or solicitation copy -- where we feel the information is still newsworthy and of interest to our audience. But at the same time, there are plenty of things we turn down or opt not to cover as much if we don't feel it has an impact on the readers and the business. And if ever a publisher tries to tell us that there are questions we have that we "can't ask" or a story they want us to kill otherwise we won't be granted access to things like previews or even interviews with company representative -- in other words, if they ever try to strong arm us into playing news to their advantage -- I have 100 percent faith that Jonah will tell them to take a walk. He's done so before with companies large and small, and working in an environment where you know that telling a story in an honest way is valued over weird backdoor business deals is a great relief.
But that doesn't really answer the question, does it? I'm not sure I can recall a time where I upset an interview subject, though there are a few occasions where people would have preferred I switched to a different line of questioning -- a run of "Cup O' Joe" columns where we continued to come back to the $3.99 price point comes to mind. Generally, I think people find me kind of non-threatening -- mostly because I sound like the world's wimpiest 12-year-old on the phone. There are times I wish for myself that I would've pushed harder on a question or two, but usually I find that getting better information from people comes from having more specific questions on hand that don't allow for PR hand-waving responses. Still, some people are going to give you the answer they've decided on no matter how you phrase the question, which you learn to deal with.
SPURGEON: Before I start asking you about specific 2010 news stories, I wonder if you would step back and tell me, as honestly as you can, what kind of year you thought it was for comics. Good? Bad? Indifferent? Trouble on the horizon? A transitional year? If you had to sum the year for your industry for an interested person at a cocktail party, what would you tell them?
PHEGLEY: I don't think 2010 was so hot for comics, but it wasn't the kind of major downturn a lot of people have been fearing for a while. It's hard to take the shape of the business side of comics as so much of the hard information is locked down like state's secrets by the publishers, but my best guess would be that people sold less comics than in 2009, even when you factor in the abstract idea of digital sales. The direct market certainly seemed to wither ever so slightly while manga continued to spiral through its first "post-craze" crash. Although I think the former may be more an effect of the long tail of the recession while the latter is more of a cultural shift. At the same time, I don't think there were any massive hits for comics in 2010 -- no new series or ideas that took off in a way that screamed "this is the thing" either on the superhero mainstream side of things or in the broader graphic novel category. My best guess would be that the last major hits on either end of what I'm thinking would still be Blackest Night or Crumb's Genesis, which both really belong to 2009.
In cocktail party terms, I'd say that print comics respectably limped their way through what's been a much tougher period for other retail segments (most notably general book stores) while digital comics grew quite a bit in a lot of ways that I'm not sure people have a real grasp on or that will even remain this way by the end of 2011.
SPURGEON: I'm sort of generally confused by DC Comics, and as someone who has both written and editorialized on the company's recent spate of moves, I wondered if for following them more closely you have any insights on some of the things that confuse me. For instance, what does Diane Nelson do? I don't mean that in a confrontational sense, I'm just slightly baffled as to her unique contribution. What DC thing have we seen that feels to you like it has Nelson's fingerprints on it, even if only something that is different than could have happened three years ago? I mean, for example, I could have sworn when she was hired that someone with her famous people skills would have meant DC would reach a better place with Alan Moore, and the opposite has happened.
PHEGLEY: Search me, Tom. Actually, that may be a bit too dumb of an answer to give. I'll say this: I find myself generally perplexed by what executives at big media companies do period aside from oversee massive budgets and look for weird opportunities to exploit tax breaks in Australia or whatever. I know that in the past decade or so we've seen a rise in so-called "Creative Executives" who are supposedly better at coming up with story ideas on the company end, but in practice just seem to end up pissing off talent. Diane Nelson doesn't strike me as doing either of these things.
* a few random publishing news bookmarks unearthed and stared at early today: Kodansha planning an English site for Morning on the way to more coordinated worldwide releases, Bob Eckstein has launched a humor magazine called The Basement, and maybe the best news at all, DC planning Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko omnibus-sized collections.
* not comics: this secret history of Captain Hook is just lovely, and I had no idea it existed, let alone existed in its unique form. Really, really cool. Maybe the best monologue in a children's stageplay belongs to Captain Hook.
* Kenny Penman looks at the state of the comics blogosphere from the vantage point of the fine FPI blog and its apparent need to justify its own existence to the company's board every now and then. It's a good piece. I think what's going on is that writing about comics isn't very profitable in the first place. Not all that many people want to read that kind of writing, and fewer people wish to all the time. In addition, I think there are subtle but major changes in the way information is disseminated generally that kind of works against there being a ton of voices out there.
* the Free Comic Book Day promotion has released its list of second-tier sponsors and their offerings. Included will be a John Stanley comic from Drawn and Quarterly, a classic Mickey Mouse comic from Fantagraphics and a kids' comic from Top Shelf.
* not comics: I always seize on links to prominent articles about social networking, because I don't understand it and wish to, and the jargon of the focused material loses me. However, it always seems like I'm disappointed by the articles being sort of dumb. Does anyone outside of the most dimwitted or pathetically sad and wounded soul really think that Facebook friends function like real friends and are therefore subject to psychoanalytical constructs that folks have applied to the latter? Also, and this is more of personal bugaboo, but weren't people forging relationships with other people on-line long before Facebook? I know I was, and I'm not in the top 20 percent of savvy, on-line people. You wouldn't know it from these articles, though, the vast majority of which seem to suggest through their lack of important, competing, instructive models that the phenomenon was invented by Mr. Zuckerberg and friends.
* here's a link to a nice-looking craft post from the very stylish artist David Aja.
* I guess I don't blame DC for trying to make something of its price-retreat to $2.99 serial comics, although I'm not sure anyone will respond. The good, I think, comes from the number of readers that don't see their weekly purchase pile jump up $5-$7 and bail out, which is one hell of a tricky measurable. That's where we are with the direct market right now, though: things that need to be done that may not have a measurable benefit.
* finally, the New York Timesprofiles how manga programs in Japan are attracting western students. (thx, Fabrice Stroun)
I can't imagine a more deserving cartoonist right now in terms of our attention than Malaysia's Zulkiflee Anawar Ulhaque, who works under the pen name Zunar. As he so ably describes below, his off-and-on struggles with censorious factions within his own country came to a head this year with the banning of multiple books, the disruption of a new book launch, sedition charges threatened against the cartoonist, and a general atmosphere of intimidation and influence pressed not just against the Zunar -- who simply isn't having it -- but on potential business partners. I consider his matter-of-fact resistance against these pernicious actions to be heroic, and admire the consistency with which he continues to assert his rights as an artist and his role to be a watchdog over the activities of his government.
TOM SPURGEON: Zunar, as of today, what's the status of the legal battle facing you? When is your next appearance in court and what does the immediate future hold?
ZUNAR: For readers' information, I am a political cartoonist from Malaysia. I have been drawing cartoons for the past 20 years. My works mainly appear in Malaysiakini.com website. Here is the link.
My work focuses on the popular issues in Malaysian politics such as the murder of Altantuya, the conspiracy against ex-Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim, racism, corruption, waste of public funds, among others.
Last June, three of my political cartoon publications, 1Funny Malaysia, Perak Darul Kartun and Isu Dalam Kartun were banned by the Malaysian government.
The government claimed that "my cartoons can influence the people to revolt against the leaders and government policies and detrimental to public order".
On August 2010 I failed a writ to challenge the banning, and have obtained a "go ahead" from the court. The hearing has been set on 10th of March 2011.
SPURGEON: We haven't e-mailed since the extraordinary events surrounding your September book signing, where you were warned, accosted, then detained, with your books seized, and your wife appeared in your place. Now that you've had a couple of months to process those events, what do you find most remarkable or noteworthy or even upsetting about that specific situation?
ZUNAR: On the 24th of September 2010, ten police officers raided my office in Brickfields in Kuala Lumpur and seized 66 copies of my latest cartoon book, Cartoon-O-Phobia.
Subsequently, I was arrested and jailed for two days over the publishing of the book. On top of that, I was investigated under the Sedition Act, which carries the maximum three-year jail if found guilty.
I was released on bail and might be charged any time. On the latest development, my lawyers and I are now finalizing the documents to sue the Malaysian government over the incident on the grounds of "unlawful detention." I am also seeking a court order for the authorities to return all my seized books.
SPURGEON: Is it true that you went into hiding after incident? Are you still laying low? If I may ask, how are you and your family and friends personally dealing with what you're facing? Has it taken an emotional toll?
ZUNAR: That is not true. Immediately after I was released, I went to Bali to visit the Indonesian Cartoon Museum. That was a pre-planned official visit since June 2010. Unfortunately, some people interpreted it as 'hiding.' I would like to clarify that I will face the consequences. I am responsible for my cartoon and I will stand by it.
My family, especially my wife is 100 percent behind me. In fact their support is my strength.
SPURGEON: One thing that a bunch of my site's readers have commented upon during this phase of your ordeal is how much they've enjoyed discovering your work on-line. Who are your influences? Who do you consider your peers, perhaps at home or even internationally, in terms of doing the same kind of work that you pursue? Are there cartoonists or satirists that you admire?
ZUNAR: I read and study the works of many local and international political cartoonists. I admire most of them, but to be specific I am most inspired by Thomas Nast.
SPURGEON: While we have access to the occasional article from a rights organization or press people that have come out in support of you, it's hard to discern the breadth and depth of that support on the ground. Who are your supporters locally and nationally? Do you have any sense where public opinion lies in terms of your struggles with the government? Are there areas of society from which your issues draw more support than from others?
ZUNAR: As mentioned above, my subjects are based on popular public issues in Malaysia. However, in terms of reporting, these issues are purposely being "blacked-out" by the government-controlled mainstream medias. With that, people in Malaysia turn to alternative media, which include my cartoons.
Based on feedback I received from fans/supporters via emails and mobile texts, they liked my cartoons because my cartoons are funny and sharp. Most importantly, they told me that my works touched on the issues that are being discussed by them everyday. The only setback is that they cannot draw.
SPURGEON: Have 2010's events had an effect on you vocationally? Are you still in business, still making art, still selling books and t-shirts and magazines? Or has that slowed down or even stopped?
ZUNAR: When the government banned my publication, they also took action on the printers and distributors. The printers and distributors have been warned not to sell or print my books. That is the major problem and setback I am facing right now.
So, with nobody who dare to print and sell, it affects my business greatly. I had to close down my operation and downsize the office and staffing. But I am still producing cartoons for the Malaysiakini website. However, the online sale is still going on though limited to internet users.
I need to think of a new strategy to publish my future books. Nonetheless, I will keep drawing until the last drop of my ink!
SPURGEON: Forgive me if I'm misunderstanding this, but is it true that much of the work that has been objected to in print form was already seen on-line? If so, why do you think this is? Is it just that these censorious forces aren't sophisticated enough to see it on the Internet. Has there been a political change that has cast your work in a different light?
ZUNAR: Yes, it is true that most of my work in my books can be seen on-line. I think they are not worried about my on-line works because there are still many people in Malaysia who are not accessible to the internet, unlike the hard-copies which can be easily obtainable from the stores. That is what I think the reason why they try to prevent the sales of my books.
SPURGEON: There's a long history to your work running afoul of officials; is there something in your nature that you feel it's important to fight these battles, or do you feel more like an artist that is merely trying to express himself? How comfortable are you with the national and international attention this has brought?
ZUNAR: Currently Malaysia is facing a moral crisis in which corruption has become some sort of a culture, a judicial system which is controlled by politicians, to name a few. The social gap between the poor and the rich is getting wider each day. Those in power only have their personal interests in mind and neglect the interests of the people.
The 13th Century poet Dante Alighieri once said in his Divine Comedy: Inferno: "The hottest places in hell are reserved for those who in times of great moral crisis maintain their neutrality."
Hence, as simple as that quote, I have to take a stand and take the risk to fight for a change. Drawing cartoons is a fight for justice. How can I be neutral, when even my pen has a stand?
My intention is to give the correct perspectives and information to the readers. To me, it is a duty for any political cartoonist to be a "watchdog" to the authorities and to represent the voice of the people through art.
SPURGEON: If a person were interested in your seeing justice, what would be the best thing to do? Could you use more customers at your on-line store? Is there a specific embassy or agency a person could contact registering their support? Is there an organization we can support that is perhaps more directly and effectively supporting you?
ZUNAR: There are many ways to help. Recently, Paris-based NGO, Reporters Sans Frontières purchased 75 copies of Cartoon-O-Phobia in order to relieve me from my financial difficulties.
Last week, Cartoonists Rights Network International (CRNI) initiated a petition urging the Malaysian government to drop all charges against me and to allow my books to be printed and sold freely.
SPURGEON: How encouraged are you about the days ahead, about 2011?
ZUNAR: I am looking forward to go international. I am thinking of drawing international or regional subjects to cater for wider audience. That way I will not be too dependent on the government's actions and law in Malaysia.
Addendum: Body Of A Recent Letter Sent To High Government Officials In Malaysia By Robert Russell On Behalf Of Several Rights Organization
Cartoonists Rights Network, International
Fairfax Station, VA
Tel / Fax:1 703 543 8727 email: firstname.lastname@example.org
December 7, 2010
Office of The Prime Minister
Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak
The Prime Minister of Malaysia
Perdana Putra Building
Federal Government Administrative Centre
62502 Putrajaya, MALAYSIA
Honorable Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Hussein
Ministry of Home Affairs
Blok D1 & D2
Honorable Prime Mister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak and Home Minister Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Hussein,
Sir, we send all our greetings and assure you of our full cooperation and support.
We are an international NGO working in the field of free speech and human rights, protecting the rights of editorial cartoonists who find themselves in difficulties because of the impact of their professional work. We represent hundreds of the leading editorial cartoonists from all over the world.
It has come to our attention that on the 24th of September, 2010 Malaysian cartoonist Zulkiflee SM Anwar "Zunar" was detained for two days and now faces possible charges under the Sedition Act because of his publishing a carton book titled Cartoon-O-Phobia. Previously, his other cartoon books have also been banned. His printers and distributors have been warned not to sell or print his books. He still risks being charged with "sedition".
Because of Malaysia's excellent record as a strong defender of democracy, and recognizing Malaysia as a friend of free speech and personal liberties, we find it contradictory that Mr. Zunar's rather pointed yet affectionate cartoons would be thought to encourage sedition. They rather encourage accountability, transparency and are really very powerful anti-corruption devices. Anyone fighting against these political qualities cannot be for democracy and must be for tyranny. We understand that during US Secretary of State Clinton's recent visit she was assured of Malaysia's good faith in adhering to basic human rights assuring fair and independent trials.
I have personally reviewed Cartoon-0-Phobia, and I find the cartoons, while politically embarrassing to some important people, speak so much more strongly for Malaysia's recognition of the important of free speech in a healthy democracy.
Censorship rears it's ugly and futile head when states start to fail and leaders begin to fear their own inability to govern. Healthy democracies have nothing to fear from criticism. Based on our 20 years of experience working with cartoonists under pressure we feel that censoring Zunar's work is counter productive to Malaysia's best interests in the region.
On behalf of all of our interested political cartoonist members and clients, we respectfully request that the harassment of Mr. Zunar, and all charges against him are withdrawn. We further recommend that his cartoon books be allowed to be printed freely and distributed with no restrictions, a policy that will represent Malaysia's openness and trust in the democratic process.
Please also note the attached copy of our universal petition for free speech, signed by the top American cartoonists and then also hundreds of international cartoonists, human rights workers and common citizens.
Dr. Robert Russell
UN's Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Frank La Rue, UN Human rights
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton
Human Rights Watch
Committee to Protect Journalists
Reporters sans Frontieres
Centre for Independent Journalism
Cartoonist Zulkiflee SM Anwar
* before he was a prominent writer of comics, Matt Fraction was a well-regarded writer about comics. He engages a handful of books from the perspective of the holiday season here, here, here, here and here.
* should we be so quick to give racist dipshits all this press? I don't mean that in accusatory way -- I'm posting this link, after all -- but I've been thinking about it in a wondering out loud way. Anyway, the latest douchebaggery is sort of interesting in that it the analysis actually goes past the company or creative choices and seems to assume that Batman himself should worry about the symbolic aspects important to many of today's conservative-values bloggers, as opposed to simply stocking his International Legion Of Ass-Kickers with the finest folks out there devoted to the kicking of ass. Also, the character as constituted so easily fits into the basic DC conception of immigrant/outsider heroes, it's weird that anyone would question it if they thought about things for half a second.
* Nighthawk is kind of a tool. I always thought there was some room to do some things with both of Marvel's Batman-homages, Nighthawk and The Shroud. Is The Shroud even still around? Does he still want to kill Doctor Doom? I also kind of always liked the idea that the big-name heroes and villains would attract folks who thought of themselves as that character's "nemesis" when in actuality they weren't even close to being a long-term, serious threat.
* the more I dig into my unused or already-used bookmarks folder, the weirder and more random they become. Today's: an anonymous manga artist's work schedule. I'm sure there are people in North American comics that have schedules to match, and I'm sure there are many more people in North American comics that think they work this much. David Petersen interviews Karl Kerschl -- not about Teen Titans: Year One, of course, but I just liked this image. Darby Conley interviews Bill Amend. Jon Chad's site. A list of black creators of BD. Reviews of a BCGF haul, a Ragman comic book, and the Kidd/Spear Shazam! book.
* not comics: sad to hear 13.5 months later -- I'm afraid I don't keep up with news from those quarters -- that a man with whom I went to school and played football, Chris Coffland, died in Afghanistan. I have no doubt that he was a heroic figure and in his early forties was in better shape than just about any soldier serving. I benefited from his kindness, and I hope he rests in peace.
* finally, here's the comics-related programming from the forthcoming meeting of the Modern Language Association in Los Angeles, plus a lot of contextual information so you'll know why that's being linked to here.
One of the best at her craft, Peggy Burns is a model for how comics publishers generally and alt-comics publishers specifically have come to more significantly value their publicity and marketing arms. Burns is the associate publisher of the world-class boutique publishing house Drawn and Quarterly, where she's managed tricky, complex and sustained publicity campaigns for some of the industry's finest works, pushing to the North American translated-manga forefront Yoshihiro Tatsumi, renewing comics' interest in the great Lynda Barry and driving attention to Dan Clowes' first ever stand-alone graphic novel. She is both one of the people in comics I like best and in the top one percent of people whom I'm careful never to cross -- if we end up on two different sides of an issue, I'm almost certainly on the wrong side. We've been meaning to talk for years but work and personal issues always cropped up. When we finally decided to get this done for this year's series, Burns agreed only if it didn't knock one of her cartoonists from a slot. She lives in Montreal with Tom Devlin and their two children. -- Tom Spurgeon
TOM SPURGEON: Peggy, can you describe how you worked your way into your current position as Associate Publisher? Did your job considerably when you took on that title or was it more in recognition of the success you were having at that point in the course of you work at D+Q?
PEGGY BURNS: My job did not change, only my title. Associate Publisher is a more accurate description of my role in the company and the variety of things I am in charge of. On any given day, I am working on publicity, authors relations, marketing, distribution, editorial, retailers, grants, foreign rights, art direction, managing a staff, contracts, working with accounting, inventory, shipping, our retail store and since we don't have a cleaning staff, I probably am literally mopping up the place, or at least asking someone to. I was mopping yesterday.
As proud as I am to be a good publicist, there is an inherent bias/disrespect against publicists. If a book bombs, blame the publicist. If a book succeeds, it would have done well anyway. Quite honestly, I had many people tell me to my face that I was "only the publicist," even people who should know better that in any small independent company the lines of responsibilities are much blurred than at a big company, like my previous employer DC Comics where the corporate atmosphere frowned on doing more than your title. The reality is that a title is a powerful thing, so I can understand why people's reaction to "Publicity Director" is different than "Associate Publisher." Chris [Oliveros] and I also thought the title reflected the changes the company itself had undergone at that point. D+Q was no longer a company with 10 books a year, helmed only by the Chief, we published three times as many titles, by three times as many authors as when I came on, and of course at the same time Tom was made Creative Director. Lastly, as there are so few women on the business side of independent comic book companies in publisher roles, having me as second in command signified how gender blind D+Q has always been since first issue of Dirty Plotte, the company's first title. Why not promote that. On the independent side of comics, there's me and Jennifer de Guzman at SLG, and before that Françoise at RAW. Of course as I type, I realize I may be missing someone...
SPURGEON: I don't want to suggest this is all you've done, or that you've overspent your time on any single facet of what you do, but I've admired from a distance the job you've done the last few years with your big Spring books -- What It Is and Wilson, a pattern that I assume will repeat with Paying For It? Can you talk a little in broad terms about the strategy that you've developed for those books?
BURNS: Well, What It Is, Wilson as well as Shortcomings, and others have a lot in common that the authors had never received a concerted press campaign from beginning to end. Yes, Adrian [Tomine], Dan, Lynda, all had received a lot of press and attention, and they were not short of accolades. A campaign for a book, however, is different than reviews here or there over a long span of time. It is thinking about what press will have the biggest impact and when in regard to one brand new title. And while I'm very aware that we have these "big" books, but I very much try to concentrate on our whole list. I am always begging Tom and Chris not to add too many titles in a season so I can focus and not be overloaded. They want more, and I am always cutting. It's a careful balance with as much proactivity as I can muster while dealing with daily work.
This past Spring, with Wilson on the horizon in May, we sent James Sturm on tour in April and Market Day was reviewed in the NYT, [on] NPR and [in] many other outlets and has since made many best-of lists. We made sure to get Market Day out on time and give it the attention it deserved as James' first graphic novel in some time, while knowing that Dan's book was sure to get a lot attention. In Spring 2009, we had brand new books by Seth and Tatsumi. Tatsumi was in the NYT Arts section and Seth on the cover of the Globe & Mail and reviewed in the NYT as well, and interviewed on the CBC; both authors had North American events. It's a careful balancing act. But it can be done. And I think D+Q does a very good job of not putting all its eggs in one basket, nor trying to not put any eggs in any basket.
We send as many authors as we can out on the road; especially authors with books who probably wouldn't get to go on the road at other companies. We think it's important for the company, the stores, fans and authors. In the past few years we have sent out R. Sikoryak, Vanessa Davis, Rutu Modan, Marc Bell, John Porcellino, Gabrielle Bell, Yoshihiro Tatsumi, Jason Lutes, Leanne Shapton out to do events. We just published Lynda Barry, but made sure that we supported Vanessa Davis with a four-city tour, too. And yes, for Spring 2011, I am gearing up for Chester Brown as Paying For It will certainly have a life of its own, but right now I am plotting out campaigns for Shigeru Mizuki, Anders Nilsen, Pascal Girard, Joe Ollmann and others. That said, I do try my best to not focus all of my attention on the "big books" but the reality is having "big books" is healthy for the company overall, it signifies to retailers that your books have the ability to perform on a top level, they trust your list and are willing to take more chances. I don't think it benefits anyone to treat your books as though they will all perform the same in the marketplace.
SPURGEON: To follow up with something a bit more specific, what has it been like working with Lynda Barry as she's roared back into comics' consciousness?
BURNS: Working with Lynda has been nothing short of incredible. She's very giving, open and friendly. What It Is came out right during a period when I was diagnosed with cancer and my son was sick. And while I was able to place a profile in the NYT and an interview on Talk of the Nation before taking a personal leave, I think it speaks to her as a person that she didn't freak out that she just signed with a new company and the publicist was checking out. We love publishing her though; we were taken aback in 2008 with just how visceral a response her fans have to her work and meeting her in person. This is comics, right, the fans are rabid. But with Lynda, it's a whole new level. I remember Chris coming back from BEA in 2008, saying he had never seen anything like the variety of fans and their excitement level surrounding What It Is. And then you watch her interact with her fans, and I do not mean on her blog, twitter or Facebook page as she doesn't have any of that, I just mean in person at a signing or a show. She's very genuine with her fans. She enjoys her fans. And while I can't speak for Lynda, I feel like in the past two to three years, she enjoys the process of promotion and dealing with a publisher more with D+Q than perhaps she has in the past. When her tour ended after the Brooklyn Comics Festival, she said she was sad. That's a high compliment to me as a publicist.
SPURGEON: As explicitly as possible, can you describe how the differences in the personalities of the various D+Q artists have an impact on how you roll out their books? Do you play to the strengths of individual cartoonists -- is it ever a worry taking a cartoonist out of their comfort zone, and can you think of anything a cartoonist has backed away from doing?
BURNS: Yes, each cartoonist is different, but so is each press outlet. It's developing a marketing plan in advance that benefits the book, the author and the outlet: not throwing everything at an outlet to see what sticks; not saying yes to every interview; and not sending a review copy to everyone who asks. Once in a while there's an awkward moment, misquoting, inane commenter, bad headlines, etc, most of my authors understand that shilling is part of the job. I think Adrian says it best when he says that he knows he is lucky that he has a job that suits his quiet personality, and if he has to do a few months of promotion every few years so he can sit at his drawing table everyday in between, he knows it's good deal. It's all been fairly civil, I can't think of anything too outlandish. I can recall a funny conversation during the photo shoot for the NYT magazine, where all the cartoonists were lamenting about how photographers always want them to act, or to pretend or to have funny props, and how you don't make any author pretend they're typing for a photo. At the same time as this, the NYT photographer was hearing all of this, and instructing his assistant to put away a feather boa, stuffed animals and some teacups. Now, I make sure to say beforehand "no acting" for photos and TV. The most I have to do now is remember which authors like do their interviews via email or the phone.
SPURGEON: You've been doing this long enough to note what some say is a near-paradigm shift in the way books are marketed and promoted. I'm not sure that I agree 100 percent, but I do get the sense that there's more of a fractured media with which folks like you deal -- so many web site, so many podcasts, so many media outlets with an interest in comics now -- and that there are elements to social media that may represent something that's different and new as opposed to when you were starting out. Do you think it's changed? How? Are there aspects to what's developing you're think you're better at doing than some other aspects? Where would you like to become better at your job?
BURNS: Well, it's funny I started in the year 2000. Basically the first year of the graphic novel golden age. And leading the golden age -- rightfully -- were David Boring and Jimmy Corrigan from Pantheon, which of course wasn't easy for a DC Comics publicist. And now I think things have changed in that now that I am publicist for Dan and Chris [Ware], there's almost a reverse bias against independent comics. It's probably just the contrarian streak of journalists who ten years ago were saying, "It's not all superheroes" and now are saying, "Superheroes are literature, too" or wanting to be the first to discover the book no one else is writing about. The contrarian streak is probably a few years ago, say about two to three. I think we are just coming into an age where comics are being treated on an individual basis. You're seeing more and more individual reviews of comics, by a variety of companies and authors, and not just a lumping by medium and not genre. Though, lumping by medium and not genre, with nary a segue happens too often in publications who should know better. We're not really there, but close.
As for social media, I think there are two great things about it. It allows very easily for the author to complement the company's efforts, which wasn't the case pre-Internet. Because we do so many events, it makes marketing an event or a tour so much easier. While getting the coveted calendar slot in an alt-weekly, a radio interview, newspaper interview is always preferable, Facebook and twitter has made it such that the store, the author, the publisher and the fans can all promote an event at the same time, guaranteeing a better outcome.
As for my job? I would like to do every single aspect of it better. I'm trying to plan out all of 2011 press, trying to get better with pre-pitching and follow-up -- basically the tenants of the PR, so I've been trying to improve upon those for about 15 years now. One of the many things I would like to get better is marketing our reprint comics. It's tough, especially when they get into the later volumes. I asked Gary Groth how they handle this at the reprint panel in San Diego, and he was very honest, he answered "you can't." Fantagraphics does a great job with their reprint comics, and I would like to emulate that performance.
Some nuts and bolts -- I'm upgrading my CRM software right now as my filemaker files are 10 years old. We signed up with a better e-mail mass marketer (you may have noticed!), I need to wean myself off Quark and into Indesign. We need to find the time and money to redo our website, though I am very happy with both of our blogs -- D+Q and our store's 211. I think we keep a great balance of promotional, topical and fun so it's not too dry a read.
SPURGEON: I wanted to ask you about working with another cartoonist in the D+Q stable that seems to me an interesting story: Yoshihiro Tatsumi. What are you memories of promoting his books, particularly those that involve him? He seemed to me genuinely and deeply touched by the reaction his work received in North America, and a gracious man generally.
BURNS: Tatsumi-san! The sweetest ever! Due to the kindness of CCI and PEN, I've been able to spend a lot of time with Tatsumi, more than I have with Lynda or Rutu and others. Some favorite memories include him falling asleep on the Hollywood mansion tour we took him on (he was right; it was boring), having lunch at the Getty in LA and taking a photo of Donald Duck's star on the Walk of Fame. A one-day stock-signing schedule stretched into two days in NYC as he elaborately signed each book. As he explained to us, if someone had told him when he was 20 that he would be in NYC one day signing hundreds of books the least he can do is leave little surprise for the fans who will buy them. There's also how much he and his wife loved Pokez in San Diego. Tatsumi being floored by how many women attend comic conventions in the US. He and his wife enjoying my kids so much at TCAF. He really is the sweetest.
Technically, the success of Tatsumi is due to a number of reasons. The Push Man came out at exactly the tipping point of the manga in book culture. Press, customers and retailers were looking for literary manga. And while Vertical was doing a phenomenal job with [Osamu] Tezuka, especially Buddha, I think the fact that due to our small list and that we had never published manga before, combined with Adrian's involvement and impeccable design, just tipped everything to his favor.
Tatsumi's comics are very straightforward and extremely readable. I strongly believe that the fact that we published it left to right was a huge reason of why it was able to make such an immediate impact. You sent the book, and Adrian's design made people want to read an unknown author, the left to right allowed people to read them, and the comics themselves kept them reading. He also benefited from being able to come to the US, with the first invite by Comic-con International, and then for A Drifting Life with TCAF and the Pen Festival. The one memory I have that is peculiar about working on his book was the comic industry's response to A Drifting Life. So many people said "who wants to read this 600-page if they don't read comics?" I found that reaction very strange. Yes, who doesn't want to read and learn about a fascinating life. I think it said more about the low self-esteem of comics fans than the quality of the book.
SPURGEON: Can you talk a little bit more about comics' self-loathing? That's something you and I have talked about in the past in terms of, for instance, when you started out that no one believed certain media gets were possible. How much of comics' success the last decade was just realizing how talented and interesting its best cartoonists are, and how much still needs to be done in terms of comics getting out of its own way?
BURNS: I read a lot of comics press and reviews. And it always amazes me when a reviewer makes the assumption that a non-avid-comics reader wouldn't like the book, like A Drifting Life. I don't really think there is "us vs. them" attitude in other mediums. Perhaps in poetry. If the past ten years have proved anything, it's that the general public does like comics, and all kinds of comics. I feel like the press hasn't really caught on to that fact yet, not to mention that it is weird when anyone in comics appoints themselves the spokesperson for the public at large.
SPURGEON: How has D+Q negotiated the worldwide economic slump? Has there been any change at all in the way you do business because of the way the economy has performed over the last few years? How worried are you about long-term damage to the bookstore infrastructure? How worried are you about DM retailers like Comic Relief and Pitkamies either being on the brink or going out of business outright?
BURNS: Some segments of our business are fine: our front list is still strong; we pre-shipped our titles in record numbers this year; many books went back to print; foreign rights are in place; shows were decent; and our store had its best October and November to date. But what happened this year is that we saw a hit in some of the backlist, stemming from stores cutting back on carrying older titles or complete list and maybe from universities not ordering as many books. And a five percent drop in backlist sales can mean $80,000 less coming in. We can't complain though, if this is the reverberation we feel from the recession it could be much worse. We also just received a 400-unit order for each Berlin from a university class, so perhaps we are on the mend. God bless professors who adopt our books.
Operating a store has taught us how hard it can be. We now understand why stores do not order books in the Q1. How a book that may get press, may not sell. Or that a book that doesn't get press, may sell. Or keeping in stock the book that is selling. Or how hard it is to get books from a certain distributor or wholesaler and seeing if that is the same for stores with our books. I am worried about any store on the brink. But I feel like in independent comics from the artist, to the publisher, to the distributor to the store, we are all on the brink. It's the nature of the business.
SPURGEON: From a marketing standpoint, is there anything you miss about D+Q's sustained shift away from the comic-book format? Was there any advantage to that kind of publishing, say, for instance, putting something in front of people on a more regular basis?
BURNS: The pamphlet was been dead way before D+Q ended ours. I've been in comics for ten years, and it never has been a collective vital force in my time. Everything about the market has changed in the past decade, from retailers to printing to artists to readers; the expectations for the comics reading experience is just different in the new century. People want heft. People want to know how a story ends. I only miss pamphlets from a fan standpoint: the letters, end notes, etc. Towards the end, there was little marketing value in pamphlets. The margins were so razor thin, if there were any, that even sending a press mailing was losing money. And for publicity, books always outshine comics. It's like trying to promote one short story vs. a full-length graphic novel, a short film vs. a full-length film, it just doesn't compare. Did we hear anything about the end of Big Questions even though it debuted at the Brooklyn Comics & Graphics Festival, its perfect audience with Anders in attendance? No, and that surprised me. Will the 600-page collection of Big Questions stun people this Spring, will we hear about it? Yes.
SPURGEON: Where does D+Q stand in terms of developing a digital strategy, or is that even on your radar? Have you given any thought as to how to launch a successful digital initiative, and what that might entail from a marketing/publicity perspective? Are there on-line initiatives with comics that you admire?
BURNS: We're taking the lead from our artists. Most have said they don't mind being the last ones to the party and are willing to wait until a certain platform presents itself as the appropriate method for digital comics. Actually, I am excited to do an e-book and see how it works. I'm a believer on some level; I think it has huge potential for the backlist. A large proportion of our backlist is academic sales. Can I blame an 18-year-old freshman who is reading Pyongyang for class for not wanting the actual copy and for wanting to read it digitally? No, of course not. What I am not excited about is what it means for the printed book. We benefit from the Random Houses of the world fueling the print industry and making it cheaper for us, the little guy. If there are less people printing, paper costs go up, printers charge more, shipping goes up, and inevitably the costs of our books go up. Comics isn't kind to raising cover prices, this is an industry still fighting over the cost of a superhero pamphlet. Even in 2010, people expect their comics to be cheap. I think that is the comics industry, though, the general book buying population understands that the new hardcover of Freedom costs $28 and you can choose to wait for the paperback.
SPURGEON: One thing I've always wanted to ask you about is that you and Tom are US citizens that have found a home working in a country other than the one of your birth. Now that you have some years between the decision to go and now, how do you look back on that decision? Was that difficult transition to make? Do you expect to eventually apply for citizenship? Are you happy in Canada?
BURNS: Looking back the decision seems kind of nuts. I took a pay cut the size of a middle management salary. I wouldn't even tell people what the cut was, because I knew there would probably be an intervention from friends and family. Not to mention canceling a wedding, moving to another country where we didn't speak the language, a city we never lived in and to work for a man we barely knew. I can't emphasize it enough that I do not regret it at all. I didn't want to be a lifer at DC and work 60 hours a week. I wanted the satisfaction that if you work really hard, it makes an immediate impact, that I wasn't a cog in the wheel. I wanted to fervently believe in what I was promoting. And in that respect, every reason of why I left a corporate company in NYC is no longer an issue at D+Q.
On the flip side, I think the hardest part of the move was working at such a small company. You don't really meet people in a two-person company. I had a wonderful network of friends in NYC and it was a difficult process moving away. We have been here seven years now, and have made friends, outside of comics even, if you can imagine. We are happy in Montreal, it feels right as it's a city that supports its arts, families and middle class. Honestly, though, we never would have been able to make the transition, if it weren't for Chris Oliveros. Chris is really everything that people say and more. We're opposites in personality (no surprise there) and I must drive him crazy with my obnoxious, bossiness, non-stop chatter and he is still the kindest, most supportive and loyal friend we have ever had, not to mention a boss. He really would do anything for Tom and I or any of his artists, Chris always does the right thing. He really is a model citizen.
SPURGEON: Do you want to talk at all about the circumstances that kept you from doing this interview the last time we planned on doing one? You alluded to those reasons earlier in the interview, and brought up one of them in San Diego last summer, so I thought it might be something you'd be comfortable talking about.
BURNS: I know, I'm sorry; we have tried to do this for the past several years. There are the obvious health issues and time constraints that prevented me before. But truthfully, I always panic and I can't finish. Here's the first rule I was ever taught back when I was a wee publicity assistant at PolyGram. My first boss Kristen Foster (who's now SVP of music at PMK/HBH) taught me that a good publicist is never the news, never does an interview and always puts the client first. Your name is not even to be mentioned. It's the old school idea of a publicist. As such, I just can't shake that doing this interview is wrong, Tom. Wrong. You should be talking to one of my authors. That would be right. Which one do you want to talk to?
my thanks to Peggy Burns. I will be interviewing six D+Q creators next week
* photo of Peggy Burns supplied by Burns
* image from Wilson
* Joe Ollmann's imminent next book
* Lynda Barry envelope art
* photo of Chester Brown by Gil Roth
* work by Seth
* photo of Tatsumi by Gil Roth
* an awe-inspiring Jason Lutes Berlin image
* Big Questions #15
* from Pyongyang
* Adrian Tomine draws the family
* Burns and Devlin, Halloween costumes a-ready (below)
Like so many cartoonists before him, Dustin Harbin moved from his day job into creative work full-time in 2010. Unlike many of the cartoonists he calls his peers, Harbin has been working in comics for more than a decade as an employee of the Heroes Aren't Hard To Find comic book and convention-throwing empire, headquartered in Charlotte, North Carolina. This gives him I think an insider's perspective on two of the broader news stories of the year: the growing appeal and intensity of comic book conventions and the unique vocational prospects of alternative-leaning cartoonists younger than the age of 40. Koyama Press published his Diary Comics #1, a compilation of the work he's been putting on-line, and the nature of that milestone intrigued me as well. I found Dustin to be forthright about all of the issues raised in what follows, embracing rather than avoiding some of the economic realities that come with the choices he's made. I'm grateful for his participation in this series. -- Tom Spurgeon
TOM SPURGEON: Dustin, this was a big year for you in a lot of ways, but I can't imagine there was any bigger moment than deciding to end your retail/convention gig to pursue comics in more full-time fashion. Can you talk about what led up to that decision and what the transition has been like? Is it working so far?
DUSTIN HARBIN: Well, the short answer is that it's hard to draw comics when you're busy selling them. I mean, you can do it -- I'm just not very good at it. I'm not the best multi-tasker in the world -- I might actually be the worst. I left in 2006 as well, for about nine months, after the Great Wizard Kerfuffle of 2006 -- that dust-up with Wizard, where they scheduled a show over our 2006 dates in July of 2005, meant we were pretty much in full-on convention mode for 11 months. Plus running a pretty big comics shop with a deep and broad stock -- I was crushed after that year. I came back in 2007, but I'm not sure I ever got my mojo back. This year wasn't anything like that, but the more I've been cartooning, the plainer it is that in order to improve and get, I guess, serious, I have to do it pretty much full-on.
Of course, I'm not actually. Doing comics doesn't really pay, so I do illustration work wherever I can find it (bows deeply to potential clients) and letter Casanova and so forth. And I'm still barely scraping by. I'm actually doing kinda crappy in terms of money, but I just have to knuckle down and get used to being broke and make more comics and faster. I'm pretty disappointed in my comics output, actually. Jeez, thanks, Tom.
SPURGEON: A lot of what I think of as your peer group is in their mid- to late-20s, while you're in your late 30s. What connection do you have with those younger artists that you might not have with that older one -- is it simply a connection based on where you stand with your art and career? Certainly comics is full of people at all ages and all stages of development, is there an advantage to having those extra years under your belt, finding your voice through your art after having perhaps found it in life? I know that I wrote differently for starting at age 28-29 rather than right out of college.
HARBIN: Ooh, great question. Hmm. You're right, I am much older than a lot of the cartoonists I'm close to, including a lot of those who I look up to. I think I do have a connection with older cartoonists, or even ones closer to my age, but the big difference is that they're there, whereas I'm still working toward being the kind of cartoonist I want to be. That's kind of cloudy, but I mean in developmental terms. Like, Jordan Crane is one of my favorite cartoonists, and a guy I really enjoy talking to at shows, but he's light years ahead of me in terms of development. Ditto Sammy Harkham, who's bizarrely young for the amount of craft and skill and talent inside his body. He's like, maybe six years younger than me? But I wouldn't for a second consider myself part of his generation of cartoonists. I'm younger than him by a good bit in those terms.
Plus, while I think of myself as a print cartoonist, at least insofar that I draw and design for print, I feel closer to the web cartoonists I know -- they're all hustlers, nearly all of them have more business acumen and pure drive than a roomful of print cartoonists. Generalization alert, but maybe you see what I mean. It's intoxicating, and as someone whose first experiences in comics were from a business/retail direction, it's a mindset that appeals very naturally to me.
Uh, but listen, 36 is late-mid 30s, not "late 30s." Point of order.
SPURGEON: I apologize; I thought I read you were 37. Hey, the last time I saw you was at HeroesCon last summer. I thought it was an interesting year for HeroesCon in that just comparing it to 2008's show the growth was obvious; it was finally a show big enough you couldn't take it all in. From your perspective, why has a show like Heroes enjoyed such significant growth the last few years? Why have cons generally grown in importance and stature? Do people just like conventions now?
HARBIN: I think maybe they do! I've watched with interest your convention reporting -- I'm always surprised to see how well all the conventions have been doing -- well, all the good ones, anyway -- despite recessions and malaise and what-have-you. It's hard for me to comment on HeroesCon, just because I worked there for almost 15 years, starting in the mid-90's bust years to the present. So the show has changed a ton in that time, but at its core it's still Shelton Drum throwing a party every summer for a bunch of creators he loves. I know it sounds altruistic, but that's pretty much his business model -- we differ a lot on how to do certain things, but there isn't anyone in comics who believes more in what he's doing than Shelton. He's a pretty amazing guy. I think people respond to that, a lot of the creators and fans that come to HeroesCon have been coming since they were kids in the '80s, and now they're bringing their kids.
But that's probably me rooting for my home team. All the shows I've been to this year have been pretty great -- even APE, which has a terrible reputation for low sales, turned out to be a profitable show. And the Brooklyn Comics and Graphics Festival I just got back from was the closest thing to an American TCAF there is -- impeccably well-run, well-attended, and with really stellar sales. SPX was my best show ever. This is anecdotal of course -- lots of people didn't do as well as I did, and I come to shows loaded for bear and work my ass the whole time.
SPURGEON: Your special area of focus at Heroes the last few years, as I understand it, has been trying to build a dependable indie presence at the show. What do you count as your successes and failure on that count? What is the biggest difficulty in building a year-in, year-out alt-comics scene at a show like Heroes? Taking into account what you thought you did well and what you thought you have done better, what would you advise someone who wanted to do something similar at their show?
HARBIN: I don't know if it was my special area of focus "officially" -- if anything, promoting Indie Island was a labor of love, and took me away from more profitable avenues I should have been exploring. That's my failing, though. I've worked in comics long enough to be pretty burned out on a lot of them, so Indie Island was my way to stay charged up, and Shelton was generous to let me do it, and right at the center of the artists area to boot. But it was probably my biggest failing -- putting effort into Indie Island was time I could have been spending on improved marketing for the show in general, not to mention teaching myself how to do basic stuff like sell tickets online, etc.
The biggest difficulty in building Indie Island, and the challenge going forward for the current crew at HeroesCon, is time. Habitual convention attendees recognize exhibitors who return year to year, and generally spend more money over time. But lord, it can be a slog for someone who travels halfway across the country to exhibit for the first time -- HeroesCon's core base is in the mainstream/superhero world, so there's not always a readership ready to jump right into a new group of works. Plus I hope they'll maintain a high level of curation on Indie Island, so it doesn't become a catch-all mish-mash section. I was pretty proud of the quality level in that little 10,000 square-foot space.
I'll tell you what, if I were to start my own convention tomorrow, an indie-based convention, I'd have it in a smallish hall, pay for three "name" guests to come, so I could build advertising around them, then curate the rest of the room from a pool of applicants. Period. Maybe 40-50 tables or so, $100 apiece, and free admission. Boom! Recipe for a great show right there.
SPURGEON: Go with that a bit. How have your experiences as a creator at certain shows changed your attitude towards what conventions/festivals can and should be? Perhaps more trickily, how does having been on the other side of thing change how you approach shows as a creator?
HARBIN: Oh man, this is the kind of question that will get me in trouble. I have acres of ideas about this stuff.
First of all, my experiences as a creator exhibiting at shows have been almost entirely positive. I think pretty much every bad thing has been my fault; waiting til the last minute to ship stuff, overspending, bad hotels, etc.
As to what shows can and should be, and this is talking about the kind of shows I do as an "indie" guy, not mainstream "big" shows like HeroesCon, I think the gold standard is the Toronto Comic Arts Festival. I sing that show's praises wherever I go, and I'm pretty sure their success rests footstool-like on these three legs:
1) Smart curation by the organizers, led by Christopher Butcher. While it can lead to bruised egos when someone doesn't get in, it means the overall quality of the room is of the highest possible level. It creates better value for the attendees, and a better overall vibe in the room. I'm a snob, I won't lie -- I don't want to have my table next to somebody drawing scat comics on toilet paper with a half-dry Sharpie. If I pay to fly to Toronto for TCAF, I know I'm part of an A-list group, which pushes me to bring my A-game as well.
2) Free! Explaining to a group of giggling grandmas that I'm from Charlotte and that yes I did make all these myself is something that just doesn't happen at most shows. While the demographic at shows has sloooowwwwly been getting a little more "IRL"-like over the last ten years, it's still mostly male dominated. Having a broad demographic in the room, which a free show promotes, means you're guaranteed to see new readers, which are life's blood for a creator working at my level. Not to diss existing readers! But you have to grow to make money in a small market, and comics are nothing if not a small market. I'd say this applied more or less to the recent -- awesome -- Brooklyn Comics And Graphics Festival, although it was a decidedly more bohemian crowd than at TCAF, which takes place in the middle of town in the public library.
3) Toronto! Best city on Earth, jewel of all Canada! A free show in the middle of a really world-class city, which means that you could come to TCAF, have a terrible time, not sell anything, but then walk out the door and puzzle over which amazing restaurant to eat in, or what site to see, or whether to visit the lake or The Beguiling or wherever. As opposed to -- no offense, SPX -- Rockville, Maryland, where everyone stays in the one hotel or maybe the weird vegetarian restaurant next door.
Man, I'm taking too much time with this question, sorry Tom.
SPURGEON: This is the holiday interview series, Dustin. There's no such thing as too much time with any single question.
HARBIN: Last thing: the big lesson from running a convention that I bring to exhibiting at them is to be super-proactive in all cases. I don't know about Chris Butcher or Gabe Fowler or whoever, but when I was trying to figure out how to fit 300 guests into a sensible seating chart, knowing that this person wanted to sit next to that person was helpful. I always am making requests, making sure I'm listed correctly, trying to get seated near friends or in high-profile spots. Why not? I go to shows to make money, first and foremost, and if I were setting up a store I would try to put it in the best sales spot I could afford.
SPURGEON: You made a wisecrack in your recent flickr set on the Brooklyn Comics and Graphics Festival that you'd love to live in New York but you'd have to be able to do it on a Charlotte budget, which you're barely making. Do you feel it's an impediment on any level, living in Charlotte? Would you move if you could? Do you think there's something to the experience of being an artist in Charlotte that you feel you might miss?
HARBIN: In a digital age, I can do what I do from wherever -- even stuff like networking and whatnot. But I would not miss being an artist in Charlotte, no not at all. The only thing that keeps me here is money and my close friends and mostly my girlfriend, and she would move in a trice for a good job. When I was in Brooklyn, the highlight of a very pleasant trip was spending an afternoon working in the Pizza Island studio with Kate Beaton and Julia Wertz and Lisa Hanawalt and Domitille Adebimpe-Collardey. I mean, all I did was ink a diary strip and make some doodles and write my girlfriend a postcard. But. The effect of me as an artist was kind of profound. The idea of being pushed by a real, visceral, present community of artists -- of badasses -- it was amazing. Domitille had gorgeous pages up on the wall, Kate was in the corner curled over her comics, Julia was doing paste-up on her laptop, Lisa was light-boxing an illustration job. It was pure heaven for me. Pure. Heaven.
I never went to college, I dropped out of high school and a few years later started clerking at a comics shop. I've never experienced that feeling of working with other artists in a room, the conversations that pop up, then quiet back down to the noise of pencil skritches. It was really amazing, and I have not stopped thinking of it. If I one day move to Brooklyn, it will be because of that. And possibly to evade taxes or something.
SPURGEON: I don't know how long you've been tweeting, but you're in the 20,000-tweet range and most of what I've read from you comes in the form of communication with other comics folk. Is it important for you to keep that network of fellow artists around, if only virtually? How important is it to you to have that community vibe, that feedback loop, those connections? Is there any downside to it, beyond the mathematical fact of the time involved?
HARBIN: Yeah, I tweet too much, but I'm getting better about that. Most of it is, as you say, replies to other artists about this and that. Often not art, honestly. Twitter has been enormously useful to me as a tool to discover other artists, learn from them, and in a few cases befriend them. I don't follow a lot of people, although I follow a lot through "lists," so I can manage the level of distraction I have on any given day. But yeah, it's been huge for me. But I see the biggest benefit less as a networking-with-other-artists, and more just building a readership. I have gotten a lot of new readers not only from discussing my own comics, but through the very kind mentions of friends on Twitter. So there's that. The downside is for sure the distraction -- talking about comics < making comics -- and, like the convention scene, the echo-chamber perpetual press release of a space where people talk about themselves incessantly.
SPURGEON: Let me ask you about building a readership, and I mean this in the most honest, open way, not as an attempt to trap you or make you feel bad -- what's the plan, Dustin? What's the best-case scenario for how this moves forward? You know the business side of comics better than most cartoonists starting out, so I have to think you've given this some thought or at least had the opportunity to do so. Is it a successful web comics presence that you're able to monetize? As many job and outlets as you're able to put together? A combination of your own work and mainstream-comics craft-type jobs? Teaching? For that matter, who is a cartoonist -- or a few cartoonists -- that have the kind of career you'd like to have moving forward. What's the model?
HARBIN: I wonder about this pretty much constantly. I think the answer is everything you listed and more. I'm fairly well-known as a personality in the comics industry, but my readership is comparatively small despite that. I honestly feel like part of that is due to spending pretty much the whole year doing these diary comics, which are pretty off-putting to some people. And outright boring to others, including myself a lot of the time.
At this point I think my broad plan is mainly to do things, to make comics until I feel like my craft and storytelling chops have gotten to a place where I can create a piece of real art, whether it be a book or a series of books or a webcomic or whatever it is. I don't think I'm there yet, but in the meantime I feel strongly that making comics as much as possible is the best way to get there. Gathering a readership during this "practice" phase will hopefully provide me with a ready-made audience when I finally have something worth saying with my whole voice. I'm very much a proponent of [James] Kochalka's "craft is the enemy" idea, or at least the parts of that idea that promote doing over fretting.
This sounds petty, but when I think of a track I'd like to take, it's very much in the Jeff Smith/Bryan Lee O'Malley vector -- I want to create something of real value and quality that's personally satisfying to me as an artist and a human being, and which is successful enough to allow me the breathing room to relax a little about how I'll pay rent, or whether I can afford to work out of my house in a studio, etc. Frankly, I want to be financially successful. Unfortunately, unless Hollywood decides they want to adapt the silent, slightly comical adventures of some elephants in the Serengeti, "instant" money is still a ways off for me.
Really, the big block to my readership right now though is just quality. As I make better comics, more people will read them. It's not like I can't get eyeballs, I've been very lucky to have people like yourself, Kate Beaton, the Drawn! guys and more post links to my site which has resulted in a lot of readers I wouldn't otherwise have. But I need to have more substance for them when they show up, which is my challenge going forward.
SPURGEON: You released a comic this year through Koyama Press. How did you show up in their orbit? How would you describe Koyama to people who had no idea what it is and what it does?
HARBIN: Man, talk about a lucky break. I met Anne Koyama at TCAF this year; she essentially walked up and bought one of everything from my table. As in, "oh this looks great, give me one of everything." That by itself was a great compliment, but she emailed me a month or two later to ask if I'd be interested in publishing something with her, and of course I was.
It's hard to describe Anne -- I'm working on a comic about her now, which hopefully will be done in the next couple of weeks. She's essentially -- no bullshit here -- a woman who had a small amount of money, got sick enough to start thinking in that "bucket list" way people do, then when she got better she started using her money to support artists she likes. Period. She's only a businesswoman insofar as she tracks expenses and fills out tax forms and so forth. But she's not interested in profits. We printed 500 Diary Comics #1's: she paid for everything, had them sent to my door, and then paid for me to ship 50 to her for review copies, to give away to other artists she publishes, etc. She sold some to The Beguiling and then sent me money for them, if you can believe it. I keep every cent of the money I make from that book.
It's hard to describe what that feels like. It's valuable not just personally -- and it's very, very valuable to me there, I definitely have made rent the last couple of months thanks to Anne and her generosity -- but in a much larger sense, in terms of the larger comics industry. Anne's business model isn't sustainable, but the kind of goodwill she generates, just by acting altruistically, plus the encouragement her actions give to the artists she publishes... well, it feels really good. It's nice to know there are Anne Koyamas out there, along with the Chris Pitzers and others who do what they do for reasons other than -- and often contrary to -- profit margins.
SPURGEON: To maybe take a half-step back, when did you start doing a diary comic and what was the immediate impulse? From the craft side, I think I have the same question as Evan Dorkin: why are you working so small? And maybe another: why the 2x2 grid?
HARBIN: Initially, Kate Beaton had mentioned on Twitter that January was hourly comics month or something -- I can't remember exactly now. Related to this thing by the brilliant John Campbell, I think Kate was mentioning that and encouraging people to take part. I love this sort of weird exercise, so I started doing them, but without really worrying about publishing them. That's why the first third of my book is so crappy looking. I started posting them on my Flickr and people started commenting or complaining or whatever people do online. As soon as I perceived some kind of audience, I started trying to sharpen them up and put more consideration into how they were made and what I wanted to say. Gradually they got (a little) better.
I make them as small as I can because I'm a compulsive person, and I will fill any available space with hatching and details and surface noise that almost never adds any tangible quality to what I'm doing. Once I started thinking about the strips more, I decided if I was going to do them for a little bit, I might as well try to learn something, so I try hard to think about composition and blacks and space. Any one of them that you think is overcrowded, or too wordy, or hard to decipher, I can guarantee you it's one that I hate and want to burn with real, hot fire.
As for the grid, that's just easiest. I started doing them in a little teeny notebook, so the grid lent itself to those rectangular pages. Four beats is about as much as you need for most slight stories or jokes, and a good limiter so you don't try to shoehorn in every single nuance of the situation. "Oh I'd better point out that it was drizzling outside, that's important."
SPURGEON: You started a relationship while doing the diary comic. I asked this of Karl Stevens, because this happened to him, too. Does having this happen change the comic, or your orientation towards it? Do you suddenly worry that it's going to dominate the comic and push back against it? Are you worried about extending the mode you've established into work about your relationship -- for instance, are you worried that the relationship material might be more guarded than the rest of it, for understandable reasons, but in a way that has an effect on the strip?
HARBIN: I'm not any more guarded about the relationship stuff than I am about anything else in the strip -- which, while it seems very honest, is not really. You would be surprised at how private I am, despite all the talking I do. So a lot of stuff gets left out, and then with respect to my girlfriend's privacy, I leave a lot out there too. For instance, I'm not even sure I've ever drawn us kissing, you know? Our relationship could almost take place inside a Sunday School classroom, as far as what I'm showing goes.
Putting Kate (not Beaton; I get asked that a lot), and the early stages of our relationship, and how I feel about her in general, into the diary strip made it way more interesting for me to work on. Not to mention gave it some sort of narrative arc. Not to mention, that relationship is easily the most important part of every day for me. Plus, I'm super, super, super bored with doing that strip, so putting Kate into it makes me interested more in what I'm doing. I do them in the morning first thing while I'm drinking my coffee, so there's something very pleasant to me about spending the first hour or two of my day thinking about her. Does that sound too sweet? It's true. I don't really have any worries though. I'm ending the strip soon, so all these problems will go away, and I can probably think about Kate without drawing her (poorly), I'm pretty sure.
SPURGEON: Did having the Koyama book come out bring with it any reflection on your part? I know that cartoonists and authors and even actors the first time they have a book published by someone else, or appear in a show where they were cast professionally, that this sometimes causes you to look hard at what you're doing and why in way that you haven't before. Did this experience make you look at things differently?
HARBIN: Definitely. First of all, having Anne want to publish it was a huge vote of confidence. Anne isn't just some lady with some disposable income, she's deeply involved in the arts and has a real aesthetic sense and knows what she likes. Someone like that saying, "I want to put X dollars behind you and what you're doing," is a real boost to your confidence creatively. "Okay I will keep doing this." And more importantly, "Now I have to be worthy of this gift, this attention."
There's a weird thing too where, because Anne paid straight up for everything and isn't getting any money back, I'm very careful about giving the book away to anyone. Like it's too valuable to give away, except to a few reviewers and in a couple of limited instances at shows. I feel like it would be somehow disrespectful to her and what she does, I know that's kinda juvenile, but it's how I'm wired. Plus, giving away copies of my comics to my friends is the #1 greatest block to me making money at shows. So having a reason not to is great. Instead I give away my newspaper, or the diary strip originals, which rarely sell even though I charge like ten bucks for most of them.
There's not going to be a Diary Comics #2, at least not through Koyama -- Anne has got 40 million other projects on her plate, and I'm not sure there's a real "need" for a second volume. So in terms of momentum I'm working off of Anne's initial bump, and thinking about what to do next with the jump in altitude she's given me. Although I might do some Diary Comics minis, just as revenue generators.
SPURGEON: I was kind of frustrated by Diary Comics #1, in that while many of the individual comics were clever I never got a clear picture of anything from reading a bunch of it at once, the way I do with other autobiographical works. Ideally, what would you have people take away from reading the comic? Do you mean to just entertain on a strip to strip basis? Do you intend to communicate something about your life?
HARBIN: I'm glad to hear you say that -- I'm also frustrated by that book. I'm a very vain person, and even I can't read it for very long without getting bored. And I'm one of the many many people who don't care for autobio comics in general -- but passionate about the few I do love. Chester Brown, for instance, could do an autobio comic about how he spreads mayonnaise on rye bread and I would buy it and pore over it like the Dead Sea Scrolls. But when I hear that someone is doing autobiographical work, the first thing I think is "is that the only story they could come up with?" I think there can be real, tangible value in autobiographical art, real communication between an artist and an audience. But I think it's rare, and I don't think I've achieved it. My diary comics are slight, occasionally clever, but on the whole they lack... something, some animating factor that would make the sum larger than its parts. Soul? Spirit? They lack the gristle and tendons that a Chester Brown has.
But there is one thing I do like very much about that book, and that's the book as a whole. I worked hard to make the book, its shape, and its design operate as a sort of delineation of the kind of vanity and hubris that would make someone think that a diary comic -- which, let's face it, isn't about anything truly dramatic past the occasional depression -- is important. I crammed the strips in four to a page, printed on the crappiest paper available, included every single strip, from the ugliest to the most banal to the most amateurish, and then wrapped everything up in fancy die-cut covers with obsessively-illustrated endpapers and everything I could stick in there to say the opposite thing.
If there's anything I wanted to say with the book as a whole, it was, "here is six months of a person's life, a person vain enough to think there's something to say about every single day of that life, and also vain enough to know how stupid that is." I know that doesn't make a lot of sense, but I think that, when I hit the place I want to get to, a lot of my voice will be a refined version of that, the push and pull of being alive and human and fallible and gorgeous and petty, turning into the same push and pull in a piece of art.
SPURGEON: I wanted to ask you a question about lettering along the way, but I'm not sure that I know what to ask. There aren't a ton of alt-cartoonists known for their skill at lettering; Jeremy Eaton is one. Do you enjoy the craft elements like lettering, does working a pay job like the Casanova gig provided you with skills you're able to employ with the work you do that's maybe closer to your heart? Is that a kind of work you'd like to do more of?
HARBIN: The best question to ask about lettering is "why?" Hand-lettering is an increasingly frustrating anachronism in a digital world. I'm very ambivalent about the necessity of hand-lettering, which I see very much as a throwback to old ideas in comics. For instance, why are comics lettered in all upper-case? Why do they still follow those typical Artie Simek-type letterforms? I love all that stuff, and strive for that level of excellence, but why??? Kids reading a comic for the first time today -- and I bet 70 percent of those kids are reading them on a screen instead of on paper -- don't have 100 years of nostalgia for the aesthetics of newspaper strips and golden age comics and all that.
Oh man, I could go on. I'm suspicious of anything throwback-ish in comics. I worry a lot that comics' weird tail-eating tradition is creating a tighter, smaller, less sophisticated readership for comics, especially superhero comics. Lettering is just a surface version of that. I keep typing stuff here and then deleting it, because it sounds so negative and pissy. But I do love lettering comics, believe me. Lettering my own comics is my favorite part, it's very pleasant for me. Lettering Casanova is less pleasant, but only because they're not my comics. I'm lettering over existing art -- amazing art -- so I'm constrained in where I can put balloons, how tricky I can get, stuff like that. When I letter my comics I do the balloon placements and lettering first, it's part of my compositional process.
I worry I'm making it sound like I don't like lettering Casanova, which is untrue. I kind of love it, although it's harder than I ever imagined it would be and enormously, incredibly time-consuming. I could never spend all that time hand-lettering, drawing the letterforms, inking them, scanning, retouching, doing all the paste-up and trapping and stuff, on a crappy book. Lettering Casanova is like meditating on Matt Fraction's scripts -- I'm essentially copying and recopying every word he writes over and over again, which I know is making me a better writer just by osmosis. Can you imagine spending all that time poring over an issue of Warriors of Plasm or something? Or one of those Sarah Palin biography things? Of course, the idea that they'd want hand-lettering is kind of crazy, but still. I'm pretty sure I'd be unable to letter a comic I wasn't incredibly enthusiastic about being a part of, which is the case with Casanova.
But if I -- speaking as a fan of Casanova and not a part it -- had my druthers, I'd have Gabriel Bá and Fábio Moon hand-letter it themselves. I always think an artist's own letters look best, they're more organic and of a piece with the art. I'm happy to have the work and honored to have been asked and especially thankful for the increased attention it gives me for my own comics, but aesthetically I think any artist who is capable should just letter on the boards themselves, it's easy! Ames Guide! Paul Pope is one of my favorite cartoonists but also one of my favorite letterers, his chunky letters are perfect with his big sexy brushstrokes. Ditto the R. Crumbs, Jaime Hernandez', Chris Wares. There's no brain disconnect where your mind says "hey that doesn't fit" -- you absorb all the page elements, including the letters, as a whole. Wait now I'm arguing for hand-lettering, aren't I? Well I'm only human.
Man I went way off the topic, all the way into talking Matt into firing me. Clever Dharbin! I really enjoy lettering and feel like I'm way better at that than actual cartooning. I just have ideas about how useful it is anymore. John Martz is making me a digital font from my letters, so in the future I'll be able to take more "regular" work lettering, which will be much much faster. But Casanova will remain hand-lettered for the duration, I'm pretty sure. Good thing too; that check each month is the lion's share of my income lately, and that is a hungry lion, oh yes.
SPURGEON: If we talk on your 40th birthday, what would you like to have done, what would you like to have achieved, what would you like to have happened between now and then?
HARBIN: First of all, I hope that we're talking at my 40th birthday party, which you are throwing me. Thank you in advance.
SPURGEON: Oh, you're definitely welcome.
HARBIN: By the time I'm 40, not quite four years from now as of this writing, I want to have one important book-length project completed and done and out there. I want to have hit my stride in terms of cartooning chops and storytelling ability. And I want to have a large body of work behind me, not just alone but collaborating with other artists as a writer. Basically I want to have enough work done and out and percolating that I have enough money coming from enough directions that I can relax and concentrate and telling better stories and making better art and building a creative life that I'm proud of, that sustains me financially and emotionally.
* photo of Dustin Harbin at 2010 HeroesCon
* cover to Diary Comics #1
* panel from early Diary Comic
* Indie Island promotional design by Harbin
* five panels from various Diary Comics, hopefully contextually appropriate
* from Harbin's introduction to the Diary Comics work
* another hopefully contextually appropriate panel
* a later, crisper diary comic about having the book out
* Casanova lettering sample
* another Diary Comic, one selected by Harbin
* the Eisner Family pledges $250K to the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum.
* comics veteran Buzz Dixon has completed a six-part look at the year in comic strips (or at least the ones he read regularly): one, two, three, four, five, six. He intended five, but there were too many strips.
* it'd be difficult for me to pretend to know what the hell is going on with Comic Relief, but I don't know a comic store anywhere that couldn't make use of patronage at a holiday sale. In fact, if you're done with your shopping and find yourself having to head out into town today -- I always end up being sent out for sticks of butter -- consider a stop at your local comics shop. Buy something you wouldn't necessarily buy otherwise.
* CBR readers select the top two comics writers. I'm not certain who my top comics writer not also an artist would be -- although, come to think of it, both of those guys draw.
* a bunch of oddities unearthed today from deep with my bookmarks folders. Man, I gotta get better about keeping rational and organized bookmarks folders. Here's a note that Diamond is planning a digital comics service, which seems to me a perfectly reasonable thing they should be doing and something I think I'd rather cover when they actually come up with the digital comics service rather than its possibility. I think I bookmarked this post because I liked the art. I'm pretty sure I failed to cover a few of DC's late-year hires, like this one. Kate Dacey picks the best manga of 2010. Here's the original "Marvel Architects" release/article; I'm not sure what I was going to do with it. Danzig and Crystar. Miriam Almeida's blog. An STGCC publication in PDF form. A press kit for Gates. A cool-looking, late-period Kirby drawing.
Most profiles of cartoonist Matt Bors point out that he's a young man -- younger than 30 -- working in an older man's field. Bors' youth feels important in that the Portland-based cartoonist is in the process of putting together a career far removed from the previous generations' tendency to staff up and let the work flow through their desks. In 2010, Bors provided the book War Is Boring with art far removed from his idiosyncratic editorial cartooning style. He also took a highly publicized trip to Afghanistan with Ted Rall and Steven Cloud and created a variety of work in different styles throughout and afterward. Bors was recently named Comics Journalism Editor at Cartoon Movement, and it's hard to think of anyone of any age more qualified: a cartoonist that's worked in a variety of styles to several different and artistically fruitful ends. I've never met Matt Bors and contacted him cold; I greatly enjoyed his considered answers to my questions, and their persuasive tone. -- Tom Spurgeon
TOM SPURGEON: Matt, I think of you as a Portland person, so I was surprised to learn that you're from Canton, Ohio. Is there anything that you think of particularly Midwestern about your work? Are there influences or experiences or perspective that inform your work that might not have been there if you were originally from a city like Portland?
MATT BORS: I'm glad I didn't grow up in Portland. There's zero diversity here, racially and ideologically. It's a complete bubble.
I had been wanting to get out of Ohio since I was a child, but now that I'm out I appreciate the perspective it gave me. It's better to become a liberal elitist on your own during adulthood than be raised into it. Gives you better perspective on the country. Growing up in Portland you would barely see a black person or ever know what it was like to be religious. And you'd be weirdly passive aggressive.
If I were a politician running for office I could say, "My mother worked her whole life as a waitress, my father struggled with being laid off multiple times, I fired every kind of gun there was by the time I was 15, and I was the first person in my family to graduate from college." It all sounds ridiculous laid out like that but it's factually correct. There is something to the stereotype of people being a little too laid back about things out here on the West Coast. I credit the Midwest with implanting a good work ethic in me -- which I then used to escape from it. Also, I really like drawing urban decay.
SPURGEON: I know that you read comics as a child, but did you have any interest at all in editorial cartooning? Were there cartoonists in that particular field of which you were aware or even admired? Have you furthered your education in that kind of cartoon work since, and is there anyone you feel particularly connected to in the long history of that expression of comics?
BORS: I was not aware of any editorial cartoonist as a child as they weren't published by Marvel and Image, though records indicate I drew my first editorial cartoon for a school project in opposition to the Brady Bill. At the time I thought regulating the obscenely large Liefeldian guns of super-heroes was a bad idea. [Spurgeon laughs]
To tell you the truth, short-form comics like strips and panels didn't interest me for the longest time -- until I had something short to say. I don't know if I'd say I feel connected to anyone in particular other than attempting to carry on the tradition of those before me, but I have tremendous respect for [Jules] Feiffer and [Bill] Mauldin. Not the most original choices, but they are guys who advanced the field and didn't waste their goddamn ink on something trivial. Mauldin's cartooning from war greatly interest me having done a recent trip where I cartooned from Afghanistan. I'm moving into comics journalism these days and I have plans to do a lot more non-fiction work and editorial cartoons from places that aren't my drawing table.
SPURGEON: Was comics part of the basis for you going to art school in Pittsburgh, or were you looking to pursue purer forms of visual media? How satisfied are you with your arts education; do you see practical applications of what you learned in your everyday work? Can you conceive of a different path you might have pursued to get where you are today?
BORS: Going to the Art Institute of Pittsburgh was more of a back-up plan if comics didn't work out -- something to assure my parents, and myself, that I would actually have an income. If you wanted to pursue purer forms of visual media than comics, I wouldn't recommend going to school for graphic design. I appreciate graphic design a lot and still do some freelance in the field, but the school was a breeding ground for people eager to land a position at a firm where they could start doing magazine ads for Hefty bags. There was nothing pure about it. I didn't have a bad experience, really, and I did learn a lot. It just wasn't about comics.The whole time I was there I worked on comics and used everything I learned -- Photoshop, web design, printing -- and applied it to me drawing comics for a living. It's all I cared about doing.
SPURGEON: Matt, when I mentioned to a friend of mine that I interviewing you, he shot back something along the lines that he only knew you for your style, what I imagine some folks call "cartoony" in an attempt to distinguish how you draw from people working in an illustration-influenced style. I know that you can draw in more than one style. I hate to ask this because I'm sure you've answered it a bunch of times, but what strengths do you think your specific editorial cartooning style affords you that a traditional approach might now. Is it simply the style you prefer to draw in? Does it distinguish your work on the page? Does it soften some of the criticism you dole out? I like it quite a bit, but I wonder how you were reconciled to this style of art.
BORS: I would have never thought I'd end up drawing cartoony but maybe I have. The style I used for War Is Boring is closest to what I would describe my "natural" style. I had to work to simplify my style when drawing political cartoons and it's become the work I'm known for (to the extent anyone knows of me). I think that approach is better for political cartoons. It take less time, which helps when doing multiple cartoons a week, and it doesn't so much soften the blow as distract you from it coming in.
Even within my editorial cartoons I'll alter the style slightly depending on what the seriousness or silliness of the strip calls for. One cartoonist who does this effectively is [Ivan] Brunetti, who goes between highly rendered and highly simplified strips seamlessly in his books. I see the way I draw as similar to that, employing whatever level of realism or simplification the comic calls for, though I don't vary my style as widely as someone like Brunetti. And drawing leaders in a cartoony way is simply more fun to look at, I think.
SPURGEON: An older newspaperman once asked me something I couldn't answer all that well because it's not my background, but let me try it on you. Do you think making editorial cartoons is different today because of the saturation of opinion-making that the Internet and shifts in radio and television broadcast media have encouraged? Our media is soaked in opinion. I'm wondering if it might change the context of doing that kind of work when you're competing for a chance to hold forth among dozens of other people as opposed to the one or two that might share an editorial page in the old days. I also wondered if this had an effect on the way you build your opinion, this kind of near-endless opportunity to sample other ways of thinking.
BORS: There was a time not that long when cable news, The Daily Show and the Internet didn't exist. To even see more than one or two editorial cartoonists regularly would have been difficult. I haven't gone through most of these earth-shattering changes so much as showed up in the middle of them and tried to figure out how to make it work. Once a news story breaks people are instantly tweeting one-liners about it. The writers of The Daily Show are busily typing scripts for a show going out that night. A lot of great takes are already out there by the time the next day's paper hits the stoop. So when your next strip comes out in four days, as sometimes is the case with me, there's a challenge in trying to have a unique take on it. I've tossed off comments on Facebook or something that I get a good reaction from and think to incorporate into a comic instead of throwing it away. So I've used it as a lab in that way and to see what people are talking about, but I don't have relentless daily deadlines so I try not to force a comic on any issue unless something comes to me.
Some guys who work in a more traditional style will have virtually the same comic on a topic and you can usually predict the incoming cliche days in advance. That type of work is the road to irrelevancy for this field.
SPURGEON: Matt, you've had a terribly interesting year, and no period more so than your trip to Afghanistan. What do you think of looking back on the period after you agreed to go and before you actually went? Was that an anxious time? Was the nuts and bolts of putting it together difficult, including trying to figure out what to do with the experience in a professional sense? That health club cartoon you did may be the funniest and scariest cartoon I read this year, and I wondered if there were other experiences like that.
BORS: There was a lot of planning. I don't so much as take the weekend off for a camping trip so everything I needed, from a backpack and sleeping sack to a pair of sunglasses, had to be purchased before I left. The hardest part might have been getting five weeks ahead on comics. I didn't want to miss a deadline if I couldn't file -- then when I got over there I immediately started filing so many cartoons to my syndicate they ran for weeks after I got back.
The period between when I agreed to go and when I left was a blur of work and preparation. The gym strip you mentioned was literally the last thing I did before I left. I had made a giant laundry list of small tasks that needed done and the morning I left I was frantically trying to get to the bottom of it. When I hung up from that gym phone call I went straight to the air port. The next day I was sitting in Moscow with Steven Cloud on a seven-hour layover and decided to draw it up.
It was interesting trying to translate these experiences into my comics. I had been alternating between drawing War Is Boring and my editorial cartoons for a year and a half. Trying to figure out how to translate real-life experience into my editorial cartoons presented the question of whether the cartoony style was serious enough for the subject matter or even if I had enough space to tell the stories I wanted. I ended up doing strips that were funny, slice-of-life, and in a few cases quoting Afghans directly in comics that were more depressing.
SPURGEON: What about being on the ground changed your approach to the trip -- what decisions did you make on the fly in terms of what to draw, what to focus on?
BORS: Ted was working on a book and doing daily comics. All three of us were in each other's presence for nearly the entire trip which meant we went the same places and talked to pretty much all the same people. Immediately Ted and I were in a sort of competition, pushing each other to see who could do the most work. Eventually I got sick and fell behind. We'd sort of talk about who felt strongly about doing a certain event and let that person do it if they really wanted.
There was so much material you had to figure out what not to draw so you could be out getting more material. Everyone had an interesting story. Just to draw people's portraits and sketch from life was a real treat, since I don't get to do that any more. I decided before I went I wanted to focus on the people I met and not have the comics be all about me, me, me on a trip. When we were over there the controversy around the so-called Ground Zero Mosque was heating up and it occurred to me immediately to ask Afghans what they thought of it. I found a guy in our hotel lobby who had a real interesting story with once working for the Taliban and saying how this controversy in America depressed him. I drew it up and filed the cartoon three hours later. There was a giant cesspool of opinion around that whole event but I was proud to toss in a droplet of something relevant that no one else would have been able to get.
SPURGEON: Was there anything about the experience in Afghanistan that you found particularly affecting or that surprised you in the way that it hit you? It seemed like you were surprised by how much you enjoyed certain experiences after traveling, and there was a really funny strip where you caught yourself looking at a woman's hair because you had suddenly grown use to not seeing women not covered. Matt, I don't even know, are you an experienced traveler. How much of the experience was new for you?
BORS: Oh, I'm not an experienced traveler at all. That was my first trip outside the U.S as an adult. There may be no more radical a culture shock than from America to Afghanistan. It's one of poorest, most fundamentalist, war-torn places on earth. I was pretty well-read on the country at that point and I didn't have any naive notions about what life is like in these places. So I was prepared, but there's nothing like going an experiencing it for yourself. You can only gain a better perspective about the way you live from places like that.
SPURGEON: This may be way too nerdy a question, but between War Is Boring and the Afghanistan work you've covered the two ways that most comics journalism is made -- direct and experiential and more of a reflective, studied approach. Do you contrast those experiences in your mind at all -- do they form a continuum for you, or are they singular in terms of what they were like to do?
BORS: They were very, very different. But there is also a link there. In my mind (and I think in reality as well) there's a connection between all this work; editorial cartoons, War Is Boring, my own comic journalism. I'm into non-fiction, politics, journalism. War Is Boring was new to me. I'd never drawn someone else's work and I ended spending so much time on it I wondered if it was worth it. You're just sitting there drawing for days and making sure you have all the clothing and architecture right for the six or so countries the book takes place in. It can become mind numbing. But after all is said and done I'm really proud to have recreated the events in the book.
Then I went to Afghanistan. All of the sudden I could write whatever I wanted. It was such a relief. You have the excitement of being there and reporting and gathering information and then you come back, hole up and draw it all out. It felt like it fit for me and I knew I wanted to do more of this kind of work.
SPURGEON: Am I right that it's the trip that you began the work that saw you named editor at Cartoon Movement mid-Month. At what point did you initial work with them become this full-fledged, funded position, with a freelancer budget and everything. What are your immediate goals in getting the site up on its feet?
BORS: I met the Cartoon Editor of the site VJMovement, Tjeerd Royaards, at the AAEC convention last year in Portland. I don't remember if he came to me or if I pitched it first, but he agreed to print some stories from the Afghanistan trip.
I stopped to see him in Amsterdam on the way home as an excuse to see Amsterdam, of course, but also see what other work I could do for him. He was going to launch Cartoon Movement at that point and, in the tradition of many great business deals, we drank a lot of beer and determined we should work together. It didn't actually happen that quickly, but we talked over the next month or so and I assured him I was serious. We are both freelancers of the same age in the same field that aren't yet ready to see editorial cartoons die and I wanted to really push the comics journalism angle. And now I'm "Comics Journalism Editor," a position I'm quite sure has never existed before now.
I do have a budget and am looking to get about one piece a month, anywhere from 5-20 pages. And I'm scouring the globe looking for people who can do this stuff. No other site or publication is doing it so I feel a real opportunity here. It's going to take me some time to roll out some of the bigger ideas I have, but I'm real eager to help comic journalism make a come-up. Right now, there's funding but we have to figure out how to keep it going in the long run.
Will it succeed? I don't know. But I feel great that I'm in a position to have a say in the matter beyond my own personal work. I'm not willing to throw my hands in the air just yet and say there's no way to make money doing this.
SPURGEON: One thing with new editorship and the opportunity afforded by the trip to Afghanistan and your work on War Is Boring that seems pretty obvious is that you've gone to where the work is, you're not an editorial cartoonist that's at home kind of processing opinions and shaping work in order to hit the market you're aiming towards but in a way that doesn't anger anyone. Is that a fair assessment of your situation, do you think, that you're going out to get the work as much as counting on what must be rapidly disintegrating infrastructure to bring the work your way?
BORS: In a word, yes. Not to be too dramatic, but I felt some personal and professional responsibility to go to Afghanistan. Like, "Here I am working with Rall and Axe who go to these places, and here I am drawing editorial cartoons about world affairs from Portland -- I need to fucking go there myself." And you are ultimately a tourist. Because you can leave and they can't. But what's the alternative? To never leave America? To spend your entire life being an editorial cartoonist with an opinion on every matter of importance (and on many of none whatsoever) but never having seen anything for yourself. It sounds like a dishonest. I wouldn't suggest everyone go to Afghanistan or that you have to in order to have an opinion about it. But I really wanted that experience.
SPURGEON: Is it as bad out there market-wise as the conventional wisdom about your kind of cartoonists suggests it is right now? What was 2010 like from your perspective for you and your peers?
BORS: For the profession? Horrible. For me professionally? Great. I came out with a book, cartooned from Afghanistan and landed the gig with Cartoon Movement. For me financially? Not my best year but not my worst. Editorial cartooning is imploding. Lay offs everywhere. The staff position numbers will never climb back up.
I lost a lot of clients in the two years after the financial meltdown and only picked up a small number. Dailies aren't hiring, alt-weeklies won't run as many comics as they used to, print rates are shit, web rates are worse and multi-millionaires like Ariana Huffington build sites with thousands of contributors who work for free while they write books with titles like Third World America. The web turned out to be harder to monetize than everyone fancied during its inception -- or maybe it just turned out it was easier to exploit people. Still, this is the reality we live in. It seems like there's nowhere to go. But I'm still going to draw cartoons.
I go to the AAEC conventions and I'm practically the only one under 30. Most staffers are in their 50s and they lived through a different era. These guys make good money and have families and houses to think of. They find the idea of working the hours I do for the money I do frightening. We like to talk about political cartoons as if they are some grand necessity to a free and democratic society. They're not. If they were, we'd live in one. Truth is, people can go through life without editorial cartoons. But I don't want to let them. I want to stop them and make them laugh at the things they are outraged about and scream at them for the things they aren't.
* photo provided by the cartoonist
* two examples of Bors working in a relatively exaggerated style
* a two-panel sequence that takes advantage of Bors' style
* another style for Bors
* three panels showing the variety of material that spun out of Bors' trip to Afghanistan, including sketches/character studies
* comics journalism of the kind Editor Bors now seeks
* a self-portrait (below)
* our friends at Cartoon Books has made official their announcement of a color one-volume edition of Bone. I'm a great fan of that work, and think it looks great in color -- I have to admit, I'm not sure I understand how a book that looks good in black-and-white also looks that good in color except that maybe Jeff Smith leads a super-charmed life -- and I'm looking forward to seeing the book, re-reading the saga, and adding it to the library. By the way, Jeff's not kidding when he writes that technology finally made this possible. My understanding is that they were having difficulties finding a way to do the printing right on this one for quite some time now.
* speaking of on-line comics, two related to Christmas are on the heavy link-to circuit right now, and deservedly so. The first is the hybrid-ish "The Year Kenny Loggins Ruined Christmas" and the second is Kate Beaton's excellently-told short story "Cookies."
* this artificially thrown-together but very real impasse between retailer Brian Hibbs and Marvel mainstay Tom Brevoort over the issue of overlapping titles and the effect on sales overall is exactly the kind of rhetorical construction that worries me. They're not really getting at precisely the same things, and when we look at these arguments as two competing views I'm not sure numbers being employed measure those sides according to their merit. I'd suggest the way the Direct Market is set up -- its near-blind ordering, the fear of being stuck without copies, the way momentum keeps some figures artificially inflated -- softens or outright conceals structural damage being done. I think we're in enough of an obvious, slow-boil crisis that action should be taken towards the best outcome as opposed to a manageable, advantageous one.
* I totally missed this, but looking at something on the TCJ message board reminded me that Peter Bagge did a three-part strip about Isabel Paterson for Reason that ran across three consecutive issues -- one, two, three -- and is still on-line.
* if you're a comics fan that hasn't bookmarked Uncivilized Books, you'll probably want to.
* I don't know but about 60 percent of the people in this illustration, and that's with getting to call half of them "Dr. Who." I'm sure it will thrill a lot of people, though.
* I'm going to do my best this holiday to burn off some lingering bookmarks. Here are some for today: Diamond an exempt company from new health care laws; I know I ran a link to some variation of this story, that Japanese publishers are putting pressure on Apple to curtail the facilitation of illegal copying of their material; the CBLDF is concerned about the seizure of electronic device with adult comics on them; and, finally, the Village Voice and IGN name their comics of the year.
* and then suddenly, as if out of of nowhere, an English-language Tezuka bibliography. This is the weirdest holiday posting season ever. While we're in that translated-into-English part of the comics world, here are 25 forthcoming manga titles worthy of note.
* finally, I haven't read the article all the way through, but I agree that the multi-player role-playing game set in and around the DC Universe could be a huge, huge deal. I'm convinced of the possibility, although I couldn't in any way predict if that success happens or not. Not my field + general sucking at prognostication.
I hadn't heard of writer and artist Matt Seneca before this year, and getting to read his critical writing on comics over the course of the last several months has been one of 2010's happy surprises. Seneca's work exhibits a mental agility that takes some writers decades to develop and is always thoroughly engaged with the material at hand. I wish we had a dozen like Seneca, writers out there grappling with great works and new ones with equal, considered passion. On the other hand, I think he may be up to the job all by himself. Seneca supplements his more standard single-work reviews with posts on individual panels, samples of his own comics work, and critical crossover team-ups, two of which we talk about below. I really enjoyed how he answered the following barrage of questions, the vast majority of which were on the state of the art form 2010. I think you will, too. -- Tom Spurgeon
TOM SPURGEON: Matt, you're a 2010 Internet discovery for me, where a reader had to ask "Why aren't you linking to Matt Seneca?" before I went and found you. Can you talk about when you started to write about comics in the way you currently, what drove you to start posting considerable reviews on-line?
MATT SENECA: Let's see, I started writing about comics online almost exactly a year ago, in late December 2009. It was something I'd been thinking about doing for a while -- I almost started a blog at the beginning of that year but decided not to -- and I guess I finally took the plunge because it was the end of what I had found to be a really interesting decade in comics and I wanted to participate in the summing-up that was going on around the comics internet. Of course, the flip side of the end-of-the-decade thing was that this year was also the first of a new decade, and I figured if I was going to be part of the 2010s in comics it couldn't hurt to start at the beginning.
It was also just a really inspiring time for me personally with comics. There was about a month there where it seemed like every week was pulling me way deeper into thinking about the medium than I'd ever been before: first it was reading the 300th issue of The Comics Journal, with all the creator back-and-forths on the brass tacks of making comics, then a few days later it was getting the Collected Doug Wright book and having the life of a comics artist presented to me in the most aesthetically satisfying way I'd ever seen it. That and the Dash Shaw/David Mazzucchelli Journal interview got me drawing my own comics again for the first time since I was a kid, which in turn got me focused much more intensely on what the medium is and what it does than I'd previously had cause to be. Just a bit later I read Flex Mentallo for the first time, which I think is probably all anybody could ever need to convince them of the comics medium's importance, then it was the Unclothed Man collection and Afrodisiac one Wednesday after the next, and after that I couldn't have looked back if I wanted to.
It might not seem like there's much of a common thread to all that, but for me it was all part of one big motion: comics finally proving out as active engagement to me after I'd spent years using them as passive entertainment. Discovering those particular books, all of which I think have a common denominator in the way they offer comics as vital, incredibly fun, and artistically accessible, just set me on fire to be coming at the medium as more than just a reader, to be out there doing something in it. It was like that one Paper Rad story in Kramers Ergot: "Now I must make comics." The blogging started as almost an afterthought -- I wanted a place to show the pages I was drawing to some kind of wider audience, and I figured the best way to get it was to offer the same thing I like looking at on the internet, namely long-form comics criticism. It took me a while to really get into writing-about-comics as a creative act, but as far back as I can remember I've wanted to say things about the stuff I read. Encountering a print copy of Josh Simmons' Batman mini-comic was another big moment for me around that same time; as an artistic inspiration but even more so as my first explicitly critical one. I really wanted to write out what's in that book, so I gave it a shot, and from there it was just scanning in images and posting the articles and deciding not to stop.
SPURGEON: I get the sense from some of your interview introductions that your was a life filled with interactions to comics, that you're not one of the newer breed of people getting into comics at a later age. Is that a fair statement? Can you unpack your relationship to comics a bit, how far back it goes?
SENECA: The volume has varied, but yeah, I've had comics around me for a long time.
I learned to read really early, and neither of my parents had any interest in the medium, so it wasn't there quite from the start, which I think might be somewhat unique among comics lifers. I'd been reading prose books for a good two years by the time I remember really encountering comics and the way I read was already quite fully formed, so I didn't come to comics as a step toward "real" reading, but as a totally separate experience. Maybe that explains why I like to focus more on the visual aspect of them than the story part, I don't know. Anyway, yeah, I was maybe five or six when I got the Greatest Superman Stories Ever Told book with all the Curt Swan stories and a Calvin and Hobbes collection one right after the other, and they totally blew my little mind... my strongest memories from that period are all asking whatever adult I happened to be with at the moment questions about comics-specific visual devices. Stuff like why the balloons got all spiky (they were shouting) or why there were lines coming out of the characters' backs (they were moving really fast). Having to figure out that visual language for myself intellectually, rather than in the instinctual way I'd imagine it comes to most young comics readers, really got me focused on the way comics construct what they construct, and that remains as much an aspect of reading the stuff for me as parsing the story is even now.
So I was pretty big into comics all through my childhood, but I was big into a lot of other stuff too, and it wasn't until I was eight or nine that they started to take on a more significance for me than any number of other things had. The public libraries in the Bay Area where I grew up tend to have really strong comics sections, and my parents, to their eternal credit, were never at all interested in overseeing what I was reading, so by the time I was a teenager I'd pretty much absorbed all the classic "grownup genre" stuff that so many adult readers seem to get stuck on, the [Frank] Miller and [Alan] Moore and [Will] Eisner and [Neil] Gaiman mainstream canon. I was making my own comics and selling photocopied issues at school there for a couple years too. I also got hooked into the Diamond-distributed, every-Wednesday swing of things when I was ten or eleven because of the X-Men movie, which drove me into a specialty shop and a waiting copy of Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely's first X-Men issue. Yes, superhero movies actually do create new comics buyers, folks, even when their allowance is a dollar a week.
When I was 14, I was lucky enough to walk onto the staff of what at the time was easily the Bay Area's best comic shop, Comic Relief, owned by the minor local legend Rory Root (one of the most passionate people about comics you could possibly meet, if a completely impossible man to have as your boss; he died in 2008, long before his time) and managed by now-Image Comics executive Todd Martinez. It was about the best place a teenage comics enthusiast could possibly end up: surrounded by comics, working with people who loved them as much as I did, and I got paid in comics for the first year or two, long before that stopped sounding like a really good deal. I guess that's kind of my origin story: I managed the back room, which was a massive, incredibly dusty, back issue-encrusted archive of goddamn near every comic to have come out in pamphlet form since 1955 or so. I filed new books away, I reorganized when the need arose, but mostly I sat on piles of old Diamond boxes underneath a few tacked-up light bulbs that would totally set your hair on fire if you weren't extra careful, and I read. Took about a year on post-1980 genre comics, another year on the Silver Age and the undergrounds, another year on classic newspaper strips, and I was starting Eurocomics and alt-comix when the girl I was dating decided she was born to be an actress and we ended up flat broke in LA, which is about the worst thing that can possibly happen to you as an American citizen.
I worked a comics-industry job here for a while, realized it wasn't for me after a few months of anxiety attacks and anorexia, and when I quit I finally went back to comics as pure reading, not an outgrowth of my job but just fun and edification. After a while I got into the comics internet -- I'd looked at reviews when I worked retail to keep up with the product, but never blogs -- and I went from Tim Callahan and Chad Nevett to the TCJ site and Comics Comics to Jog and Tucker Stone to deciding yeah, I'm going to do this too. Which is about where we came in, I think.
SPURGEON: Can you describe in broad terms the relationship of your creative work to your critical art? Does either provide a different viewpoint that's useful in making and/or articulating thoughts about comics? Has there ever been a time when the approaches have been at loggerheads with you?
SENECA: Oh man... well, in a lot of ways it's like they're totally separate, and in a lot of other ways they're really the same thing. Drawing comics is like candy to me, like doing drugs or something. Just pure transportive bliss. Once I've roughed out a sequence and I know what I'm doing with it I get taken over by a part of my brain that never comes into play when I'm writing anything. It's the same part of myself I use in playing music: I've gone past the ideas and concerns involved in the larger "piece" and I'm just swimming in the surrender/control dynamic of my hands moving, producing creative work as soon as they've touched tool to page. There's nothing of that immediacy in comics criticism (I'll very occasionally get it in my fiction writing, but even there hardly ever), where the process is all about developing an idea. It's a lot like the process I go through when I'm reading comics in a foreign language, actually: I look at the book, I digest what it's saying, then I try to translate that from comics-language into text and draw conclusions about the whys and wherefores of what the book is telling me. Both things are based in reading comics -- that's where I get the inspiration -- but with drawing the fully-formed idea is just the beginning whereas with criticism it's the end goal.
In terms of the two things informing each other, oh yeah, happens all the time. As soon as I can define what an artist's doing in words I have the option of telling myself "okay, now in your next comic you should do that." The kind of close, craft-based reading I do when I read a book knowing I'll be reviewing it later on is the place where I engage with whatever items from the comics-making toolbox that are being brought to bear, and studying their use in search of understanding is like artistic research. In that way my comics criticisms are almost like a diary of what I'm learning about the form, the ways I'm comprehending it and filing it for future use. And of course, drawing comics makes you so much more aware of what's going on with the pages of the stuff you read. I never used to notice things like visible brush grain or anatomical distortion until I was making choices about whether or not to use them myself. You read a page, a panel even, way deeper once you're making them too. So they flow in and out of one another, I guess. Both things go into how I see comics, into my interactions with the medium. Both things bring me closer, make me think about it more. Maybe it's because I started doing both right at the same time, but I can't imagine one without the other.
As for the two conflicting with one another, only when I realize I have to go to sleep at some point. Honestly, I would've liked to have drawn a lot more comics this year, and there's also stuff I wanted to write about but couldn't get to. It's always tough when I have a set amount of time in which I know I can lay out a page or write a review but not both. Blogging's so addictive, too -- when I can slam out a finished product that I know I'll have a few hundred people reading by the end of the day in the same time it takes me to make one incremental step forward in drawing something nobody's going to see for a week, the slow path is a tough one to take.
SPURGEON: Because of your limited window as an active blogger, you may be the most qualified person to whom I've ever asked this question. How do you characterize 2010 for comics as an art form? Did we have a good year, a bad one, an indifferent one? When someone asks later on about that first year of you doing this in devoted fashion, what will you tell them about the times in which you landed?
SENECA: I thought this was a great year for comics. We got some individual books that I think are going to stand the test of time and become classics of the medium (ACME #20, Powr Mastrs 3, X'ed Out, Afrodisiac), we got a few up-to-this-point missing gems reprinted (Captain Easy, more Nipper, Art In Time, a solid chunk of the early, and in my opinion the best Krazy Kat), and on a broader level I think a few really appealing trends surfaced. We got "fusion comics," to chalk a term from Frank Santoro, proving that the Diamond-distribution, specialty shop warhorse still has some kick to it. We got Seth and Charles Burns moving to the serialized-book format, which with its mass-market appeal and increased accommodation of design I think is a pretty swell future for mainstream comics (not superhero comics, mainstream comics). We got two gorgeous straight-to-book-form collections of high-end anthology work in the Unclothed Man and Wally Gropius collections, which is really something new and exciting -- like, if I want to read all David Mazzucchelli's anthology shorts from the past 15 years or whatever it is there's no way to do it but to comb the internet, but with Shaw and Hensley it got put right there. And we got a few artists doing little patches of absolutely brilliant work here and there, from Michael DeForge's appearance-by-appearance takeover of the alt-comix scene to Paul Pope's single, beautiful THB pamphlet to Brendan McCarthy's appropriately bizarre return to the medium.
I guess if I had to characterize it as one thing, 2010 felt like a beginning, with a lot of great new talent emerging, the Golden Age of Reprints moving into real esoterica, the pantheon of old dogs putting out books that had some bracing new tricks to them, tons of disparate influences flying this way and that through a lot of the best material, and a good amount of experimentation with new ways of getting the stuff to its market, from AdDistro to Picturebox's presales to (what seemed to me) a rise in essential books that were sold mainly through their creators' websites.
The one thing that I thought was really disappointing this year was superhero comics. There were some definite bright spots, and I think some of the most beautifully drawn hero comics ever came out this year, but by and large I think there was absolutely no feeling of excitement or forward pull at either Marvel or DC in 2010, and honestly that's always been their biggest selling point for me. Much as I hated the big "event" comics that dominated the genre from 2005-2009 or so -- much as I didn't even read a one of them except for Final Crisis -- the illusion of change they fostered kept the stuff from crashing down under its own weight. It seemed like both Marvel and DC were trying to make this year a back to basics thing to some extent, stripping away the massive marketing platforms everyone's gotten so tired of and just telling simple superhero stories again. But the thing is that the culture that produced those event books -- the fragmentary, elliptical storytelling, the de-emphasis of art, the dependence on one vague overarching plot instead of solidly written scenes and characters, the treatment of the comics as pure product and not as creative work or hell, even entertainment, cause it doesn't need to be entertaining if the fans are buying everything on the checklist, it just needs to come out on time -- it's all really, really poorly suited to telling simple superhero stories.
A good superhero comic is, in my opinion, mainly an artist who's passionate, who's experimenting, and who's drawing the whole issue, paired with a story that just makes sense, that doesn't have any obvious holes. And for Christ's sake, it's short and satisfying, it doesn't dunder on and wait for the value of the money you paid for it to prove out in six months and a hundred more pages. It's immediate gratification, it's a hit of populist art that gets you back for more. Since the big Miller/Moore/Gaiman boom a lot of ideas about being more and aiming higher have crept into the hero-comics culture -- both in the way they're produced and in what the fans ask from them -- and that's not a bad thing, I mean we wouldn't have gotten Grant Morrison or JH Williams or Frazer Irving or a lot of what's great about the stuff these days without those lofty ideals. But honestly, if I wanted to read smart comics I wouldn't be reading the kind with Batman in them, and if I wanted to read an intricate, finely crafted story I'd pick up, yeah, a "real book." By the very nature of what they are, all-ages corporate-owned superhero comics can never break through to even ground with the rest of the higher-art material, and when they try it's only good if all the hyper-action, done-in-one, Kirby/Ditko basics are already in place. In my opinion, superhero comics that set themselves up to be epic sagas -- which pretty much everything people got excited about in that genre this year did -- are starting from failure, because that's just not what they're supposed to be.
Boy, I didn't mean to get that far off track... yeah, this was a really great year for comics, despite the minor blemish that the hero stuff turned out to be.
SPURGEON: When we talked briefly about comics that were interesting to you this year, you paired Batman: Odyssey and Deadpool: MAX together. Why? Because I think conventional wisdom would be that the former is representative of a way of doing comics that's lost and the latter may be best seen as a way of doing comics that's never caught on. Is it just their being out of step that unites them in your mind?
SENECA: Ah, some good superhero comics! Those two books being out of step with an incredibly tepid mainstream definitely does make me put them together to a certain extent, but I think there's more to it than that. I guess it's that both seem so aggressively different from what's selling right now, so not part of the multi-issue tapestry approach, and are done in styles that come off really differently from the prevailing mode of over-naturalistic, TV-sitcom-meets-TV-drama superhero comics. They exist as property-driven moneymaking schemes, yeah, but they also seem like legitimate vehicles for artistic expression, places where t
Andrew Farago On A Financial Crisis At San Francisco Retailer Al’s Comics
Andrew Farago has written in with news of another retailer in major trouble, this time Al's Comics in San Francisco. Al's is seeking immediate help in the form of sales, and an outside angel-style investor. Farago:
"One of my favorite San Francisco comic shop's, Al's Comics, is in big financial trouble, and basically needs a Christmas miracle to survive into 2011. As with many comics shops, Al's business had been getting by for years (21 of them!) on a week-to-week basis, but this past year has been very tough for retailers, and the past three months have been especially difficult.
Al's Comics has a great location on San Francisco's historic Market Street, and I've got no doubt that if Al can find an investor to help with this round of bills, he'll get everything back on track pretty quickly. Unfortunately, the hammer's coming down on Thursday, so Al needs immediate help from someone. If you can get the word out, please consider posting something on your web site. His e-mail address is email@example.com, and his phone number is 415-861-1220 to place an order.
Comic fans in San Francisco should drop by the shop and buy what they can -- I'm sure anything helps at this point. In addition to that, though, it would be great if someone with deep pockets and a love of comics can talk to Al about bigger -- and immediate -- help.
Thanks for your consideration.
I would imagine anything anyone can do to help would be appreciated, even though it's clear they need major help not just a boost in sale. We wish the retailer and its patrons the best of luck.
* when I started doing the CR Holiday Interviews, part of the reason was that nothing ever happened -- except the occasional mass firing at Marvel -- between December 15 and January 10. Now it's like all huge announcements, all the time!
* one such announcement is one I thought we were supposed to get Monday: writer Matt Fraction and artist Stuart Immonen are spearheading an event series for Marvel called Fear Itself. Those are cream of the crop mainstream comics makers, so count me in -- for the core of it, at least. I also like the idea of this one because it sets up the next event as something really, really external, featuring classic bad guy/good guy romps. Or maybe this one will be external-threat oriented. Either way, works for me.
* speaking of Marvel, one of the Fantastic Four will apparently die in a comic book out today. Merry Christmas, everyone! It saddens me that there seems to be a stunt-aspect to that title right now, which is as fundamentally solid as it's been in a while. I guess the shape of the market is the shape of the market, and anything you can do to boost the basic sales profile deserves to be tried.
* Icerocket doesn't do the best blog searches, though, so a lot more came up when I looked around. Noah Berlatsky thanks Deppey here. FPI blog notes Deppey's imminent departure here. Gary Tyrrell notes that Deppey was a friend to webcomics here. Sean T. Collins smartly notes that as big a role as he played in recent years, Deppey was a titanic figure in the early days of the comics blogosphere. One of those early on-line folks, Alan David Doane, says goodbye. Sean Kleefeld takes a look at what this means for consumers of comics news.
* I wish I had more to add. I didn't get the response I hoped for from the Journal about the matter, which I understand, but I was told by a Fantagraphics representative that while they couldn't comment at length they all wish Dirk well and this is part of the Journal moving in a different direction. I mention that for the second part, because I know that some people have assumed it's a cost-cutting measure. I don't think we can do that yet.
* the critic with the best gigs Douglas Wolk picks his top 10 of 2010. It's a solid list, but I wish he hadn't qualified his #1 choice -- it makes the selection seem like a stunt, and I don't think that's what he intended.
* Brian Sendelbach is boycotting Conan O'Brien over his use of a Black Aquaman character, joining the vast majority of late-night television watchers in their more general boycott of O'Brien's show. (I kid, I kid.)
* finally, I'm not certain why anyone would think that the Muslim world didn't have a political cartoon culture. I'm not sure I agree with the details of this article's descriptions of individual scenes, but yeah, there are plenty of cartoonists in Muslim-oriented countries and plenty of publications that serve them. In fact, instances of horrible fallout suffered by such publications in the wake of the Danish Cartoons Controversy was one of the more distressing -- and now forgotten -- aspects of that whole ordeal.
Karl Stevens fascinates me because I'm not exactly sure why his obviously accomplished work isn't yet received with greater fanfare. That's not to say he lacks an audience now: his work has been successfully serialized by the Boston Phoenix, and his ongoing feature Failurewon an AAN award last summer. All of the books he's released to the comics market received a fair share of praise, too. Stevens' latest offering, The Lodger features the autobiographically-driven, realistically-rendered, quick-in and quick-out strips that are nearly his exclusive purview in this comics era. Dramatic shifts in living arrangements, romantic entanglements and an increased ambition for his art provide the book with a great deal of energy from the first page onwards. Stevens sees his more standard visual arts practices and comics as part of a single visual continuum, something he discussed below. What makes this approach fun as comics is that you get to see those pages as work product, visual narratives themselves like the ones before and after them, or as a way to track what's on the author's mind that breaks with other parts of the story being told. The material blends so smoothly you almost feel bad making a point of it at all. The following discussion took place in almost scatter-shot fashion over the last couple of months and was tweaked very slightly for flow. My greatest hope is that a few more people will look into Stevens' work as a result. -- Tom Spurgeon
TOM SPURGEON: Karl, I'm pretty sure that most CR readers don't know the history behind the serialization, and where this fits in with past projects. Can you unpack that as deliberately as possible? This was a new serial to replace an old serial, am I right? Is it still ongoing?
KARL STEVENS: Failure is an ongoing weekly comic for the Boston Phoenix that deals with autobiographical and humorous slice-of-life narratives and can be viewed every week on the phx.com website for non-Boston area readers. It started in January 2009 as the replacement for my previous comic feature called Succe$$, which was a fictional account of four eco-financiers and was co-written with the writer/critic Gustavo Turner. That strip only lasted 35 installments because of my desire to return to a more personal way of expressing myself, more in the vein of Whatever, my first weekly feature for the paper (the three-year run of which was collected in 2008 by Alternative Comics). Whatever, though, focused on fictional characters, whereas Failure is based more in autobiographical anecdotes and observations. It has been very rewarding artistically over the past two years and the strip even won the AAN award this year for Best Cartoon!
SPURGEON: Can you talk a bit about that choice to move away from autobiographically-informed work in more of a straight autobiographical approach? What made you think that this was the way to go? Has anything about that approach surprised you?
STEVENS: My choice to move away from the autobiographically-informed work into the more straight auto-bio work was simply a matter of curiosity. I always wanted to try my hand at it, being a big admirer of the work of Julie Doucet, David Chelsea, and Eddie Campbell. It seemed like a natural progression with the weekly deadline for the Phoenix, too, a lazy way to stay afloat -- "If all else fails, I can just write about how stoned I got last week." Also, using myself as a model was ideal; I'm usually pretty available. But seriously, I thought it would be interesting to use my friends' real names and try to imbue them with my impressions of their personalities. Which is something that I quickly found out to be problematic. "What the fuck, I would never say anything like that!" is something I heard a lot. [Spurgeon laughs] I shouldn't have been surprised by that.
SPURGEON: Is there a scene of individual installment that you think works better for being done this way instead of through fiction?
STEVENS: I don't really think there's a particular scene in the book that works better through this approach. The way I conceived it was as a narrative, and I used various methods and tropes of fiction to tell the story. It still reads as fiction to me in a sense, since the characters' lines are being written by me. That may be my friend Jamie O'Brien drawn there on the page and he may have said something similar to what's in that word balloon, but ultimately it's me that's pulling the strings. Though, I say all this as I'm now currently moving away from auto-bio and back to longer fiction.
SPURGEON: This is I think a third or fourth book for you -- are you a devoted self-publisher, or would you prefer to work with an established publisher if that were an option? What do you enjoy about that hands-on approach? Is there anything you dislike?
STEVENS: This is my third book and second that I've self-published. My first book Guilty was self-published through the assistance of a Xeric Foundation grant, and the follow up, Whatever, a collection of my early weekly strips for the Phoenix, was published by Alternative Comics. I do enjoy the hands-on aspects of self-publishing, and being able to have the books in stock for talks and conventions and what not. That said, I would be open to have future books being published by an established publisher.
SPURGEON: One of the more striking aspects of the work is that you fold in portraiture and other expressions of your art right there into the flow of your more standard cartoons. Was that something you were able to approximate/accomplish in the serial or is that just something that occurred to you as you assembled this book? Did you make any of those pieces of art or even all of them with where they fit into the narrative, or did any exist independently of this project?
STEVENS: The other aspects of the work -- the oil paintings, watercolors, and graphite drawings -- were worked in more or less around the same time that the traditional comics were being produced for the newspaper. The book was conceived as a year-long project from the beginning. I had a general idea for how I wanted the narrative to be played out, and I was interested in approaching it in a way that combined my other visual art inclinations. I've always been interested in how forms of representational art are connected to each other. I don't believe there is much difference between what can be expressed in the different mediums. For me Michelangelo is working in the same visual language as Charles Schulz: the only difference is content and style, but both create powerful and personal worlds. This to me is the core of what I want to achieve as an artist.
SPURGEON: I want to follow up on both part of that answer, latter part first. What do you mean by creating powerful and personal worlds? Where do we see that in your work? Where and how do you think that element of your work finds its best expression in The Lodger.
STEVENS: By creating powerful and personal worlds, I mean taking a conception and extracting, it in a way that best suits it, through style. This is something that I believe is developed over a long period of time by working within a certain number of self-imposed stylistic limitations that allow the artist to grow into him or herself. In turn, the artist develops a "personal world" that can be traced throughout each different work. In Michelangelo, you can see it in the difference between the Sistine Chapel and the Last Judgment, in the development of the way that he executes anatomy and space: the latter work is more exaggerated, but it's still clearly Michelangelo. It's the same thing with Schulz; the limitations of the four-panel comic and the simple drawing style enabled him to concentrate on developing the conception of what the whole of the work was. It freed his thinking to allow the work to do the talking.
In my own work, with The Lodger, I find myself trying to bridge my forms of other art-making together -- meaning, specifically, incorporating the paintings into the book. I spent years thinking that I was both a cartoonist and a painter and that those worlds were separate entities. Lately I have realized that I am neither: I am an artist who uses both mediums to create a story. The Lodger is my first book to explore this direction.
SPURGEON: That seems like a pretty heady discovery to make in the process of working on a book. Do you think the work might be different if you had had a firmer grasp on working with multiple approaches to the same end? Is there anything, perhaps early on in the work, that you think shows how far you've come since?
STEVENS: No, looking back on it, I feel I kept the pacing pretty consistent and that forced me to approach the story in a certain way. I think the way the early pages differ from the later ones is very small, maybe a slight shift technically in the way I was using more brush with the pen. Loosening up the line work a little.
SPURGEON: When you say you had a general idea of how you wanted the narrative to be played out -- how much of that were you able to execute? Because it seems when you enter into a new relationship your book changes direction suddenly. Was that kind of personal development included in your conception of how you wanted the book to play out?
STEVENS: When I say general, I mean I knew that it would be a year-long chronicle of what I chose to reveal about my life. Of course I couldn't plan on meeting and dating Anne during that time, that would be sociopathic! The book was an experiment in narrative; I wanted to see how the growth of a character could be depicted though the chronicle of a year. I could've easily have descended deeper into alcoholism or even developed a harder drug habit. Or maybe have joined the marines--okay, maybe not that.
SPURGEON: I thought this book was funnier than my memory of your past work, or at least more expansively funny. Can you talk a bit about what you find funny, how you deal with humor in the kind of work that you do? For one thing, I imagine there's an expectation that a strip in an alt-weekly will be funny.
STEVENS: Thanks, I think it's funnier too. Humor is something that I've always been attracted to, and actually prefer in art. I was raised on the Mad magazine of the 80's and early 90's, and would scour the back issue bins at my local comic shop looking for old ones from the earlier decades. I learned how to draw with pen and ink through studying those things, staring at the line work of Drucker, Woodbridge, Martin, Wood, and Torres. I spent a lot time time copying them, and making my own little minis that were complete rip-offs. This work formed me and in turn led me to the work of Dave Sim, Peter Bagge, Eddie Campbell, and R. Crumb. Their work and the MAD stuff are the core of where I wanted to go as a cartoonist. Even later when I started painting and became a student of art history, their influence was still present in how I wanted to proceed as an artist.
As far as the weekly strip goes, there isn't an expectation that Failure be funny every week. I just kind of like it that way, especially since the art is so naturalistic. I like the juxtaposition of the two.
SPURGEON: Do you think the techniques themselves that you employ makes your work different than those of some of the more "cartoony" comics memoir makers out there? Your work seems to share some of the somber qualities that Gabrielle Bell has, and some the self-lacerating qualities that Jeffrey Brown exhibits, but at the same time it also feels very different. Is that at least in part because of the way you approach the visual aspect of the work?
STEVENS: It probably is. The naturalism of my imagery goes hand in hand with the dialogue and I think creates a more realized mood of the characters. There isn't that perverse quality of childhood innocence that lurks over the more cartoony looking autobio work. I find a lot of my peers are drawn towards that certain style, pared down and crude. I find it to be limiting.
SPURGEON: This might be kind of a dicey area, but I don't see your work in the anthologies and other than the brief stopover with Alternative Comics before it settled into present white dwarf state, I can't remember you working with any established comics publishers or collectives. Is there a reason for that, do you think? Could you see yourself in partnership with publishers like that at some point in your career?
STEVENS: I'm not sure what the reason is. I would very much like to work with a Drawn and Quarterly, Fantagraphics, or a Top Shelf type. I've never been asked to be in the anthologies either. I guess I'm just not on their radar, or maybe my work is too artistic for them, too edgy or something.
SPURGEON: You mentioned David Chelsea in passing... how big an influence is he? There's certainly an overlap in tone and subject matter regarding each of your best-known works, and you're both trained artists that bring those skill-sets to your comics.
STEVENS: Yes, I love David Chelsea's work! I was definitely reading and re-reading David Chelsea in Love throughout the project. Genius stuff. I had the pleasure of meeting him briefly at Stumptown in '08, which is where I picked up the book actually. I had always been aware of it but could never track down a copy. We're friends on Facebook, and correspond every now and then. He's turned me on to some great golden-age era pen and ink illustrators.
SPURGEON: Are the Lodger strips revelatory to you at all, once you've had some distance? Do you read the strips and suddenly think, "I had no idea I was so depressed" or, "Hey, look how happy I was" or anything similar? What is it like having this involved of an artistic mechanism aimed at your own life?
STEVENS: Yes, when I do look back, I do have a clearer sense of self. Mostly though, I think about what I left out of the story. Things that I was too shy to include because I didn't want to offend the people closest to me. Which is, for me, the biggest limitation of the genre.
SPURGEON: How refined a sense do you have of what your books says about you and the situations in which you've found yourselves during the time represented in the book? Do you know when you give the book to someone that they'll have a specific, definable insight into your life, or do you have any idea at all how someone will react. For that matter, how do your circle of friends and acquaintances react to this work?
STEVENS: I'd say it's about half accurate. I consider the book to be rather lighthearted and domestic, which is what my life became when I moved into Tony and Natasha's. The other half of the story -- the darkest parts -- I decided to keep out because of what I was saying before about stepping over boundaries.
SPURGEON: You're part of my Holiday Interview Series, and one thing I'm talking with as many people as I can remember to is vocation, or jobs, what it's like to fill up a certain amount of your life on an artistic activity like comics and the range of viewpoints that comes with this kind of devotion. I get the sense some time from younger artists that there's a point where they're being published and where their work is starting to be something they can employ on their own behalf in whatever direction they wish, and yet there doesn't seem to be any signs as to what to do beyond that. Are you a lifer, Karl?
STEVENS: I have long ago accepted the act of creating comics as my life's work, that includes the painting too, which again I feel is an extension of the work. I can't really see a future where I'm not working in the medium on a consistent, day to day basis. You might say it's hard-wired into my blood. I think there will always be ups and downs financially, but hey, that's par for the course in any artistic endeavor. My confidence to go forward has never changed. I just would like to be a regular producer of beautifully illustrated personal stories that will hopefully continue to find an audience.
So yeah, Spurge, I'm a lifer.
SPURGEON: I'm intrigued by that response, because the bulk of the people that stay in comics for an extended period of time seem to have be part of a group of contemporaries, and you seem to stick out on your own. Are there cartoonists out there, particularly those roughly in your peer group, with whom you feel sympathy or a common cause?
STEVENS: I do feel rather alone, but I feel like it was always like that. When I first moved to Boston in 1999, I hung around some of the Highwater guys. Tom Devlin was still working as a clerk at The Million Year Picnic in Cambridge and I would stop there on my way home from work a lot to chat. I never really felt like I fit in with his aesthetic though, I remember once pronouncing (as 20 year olds sometimes do) that I wanted to be the Rembrandt of comics and he just gave me a blank look and said "who's Rembrandt? I only know comics." Anyways, I would bug him a lot to publish what I was doing, which looked like early cruder versions of what I'm basically doing now. He would always pass, but I guess he was under a lot of financial juggling from what I read recently.
Other than that, I like Lauren Weinstein and Vanessa Davis's work; we often hang when we cross paths at cons or openings. Tim Kreider is someone whose work I admire and who I hang with. But I guess, no, I'm still the lone wolf.
* Dirk Deppey has been laid off by Fantagraphics. Deppey's blog ¡Journalista! has been the on-line voice of industry standard-bearer The Comics Journal since its inception, and it has remained a primary point of emphasis throughout the magazine's current, more web-involved run. Its noticeable absence during a hiatus period when he took over the print Journal facilitated the launch of this site. I wish him the best in all future endeavors. Dirk's twitter account is here, if you wish to send him a message or be there to see what he does next; you could also leave something in the comments thread here, or here.
* great publishing news: DC Comics is reprinting Sugar And Spike in their Archives program. Not the format I'd choose and the fact that it's been so long while so much other stuff has been reprinted is worthy of criticism from the standpoint of that company acting as a caretaker for that particular artistic legacy, but good to hear.
* not comics: it was fun to see Andrew Sullivan's blog spotlight the Canterbury, 200 feet from the front door of one of the places I lived while in Seattle. It truly meets the definition of providing a place to do a lot of public things but not a place you'd make a destination of from anywhere other than almost directly nearby.
* Corey Blake outlines the comic book resume of Los Angeles.
* not one but two pieces on comics at Ta-Nehisi Coates' blog. I like how Coates always roots his posts about comics in the comic books with which he's familiar, I imagine because those are the ones that are important to him.
* I am lucky enough that Devlin Thompson semi-frequently e-mails me with oddball, mostly comics-related photos, imagery and posts he collects off of what I'm guessing is a fairly lively feed. Here and here are two of the latest.
* Nathan Schreiber works in the autobiographical realm for a bit with the short story, "I Came As A Rat." Cameo by Charles Burns.
* all these racist dipshits out there would make me root for Thor save for the fact I can't take them seriously. The only thing that's sort of interesting about this stuff is how open racists sound a lot like comics fans irritated because they think an actor is too ugly to play a certain role, or have some other physical objection beyond that which is necessary to suspend belief, or feel zapped by the dreaded political correctness ray when a character of color takes on a superhero mantle usually held by some white dude. It's probably best to ignore this kind of thing as a general rule, although someone really needs to do a dramatization of the guys behind the Thor boycott movement and have black actors play all those roles.
* I was totally baffled as to why Bob Levin was talking about God in a review of Wilson, and then I realized that the Greatest Writer About Comics didn't write the review, he just sent it to me. The review is by J. Marc Schmidt, and is well worth your time.
* I once wrote that if mainstream companies had these imagery-related coming-soon campaigns, I think I would have had fun with them. That's why I bought the Amazing Heroes Preview Special, after all. But I'm not sure how far and to what degree of abstraction I would have remained interested, either.
I can't think of a better way to kick off 2010's round of holiday interviews than a chat with CR pal the writer Joe Casey. I'm hoping for a focus on vocational issues in this year's series discussions -- jobs being precious right now and jobs in comics being hard to come by in the best years let alone one where various comics industries are in flux. Casey's move over the last couple of years from mainstream scripting mainstay to a combination of producer on animated series with his Man Of Action cohorts and prolific maker of slightly odd and idiosyncratically-tinged comic book projects mostly his own but at times other people's, well, this seemed to me the kind of natural move for a lot of creators that on its better days today's market helps enable. I found a lot of what Casey has to say about orienting himself to the realities of today's industry sobering and intriguing in equal measure. Casey and I had the following conversation over several weeks following Comic-Con International 2010, where we had the talk referenced below that initiated the back and forth. He and I both edited the manuscript for clarity and flow. As always, I'm thankful to Joe for holding forth in honest fashion on an area of comics about which I sometimes understand very little. -- Tom Spurgeon
TOM SPURGEON: Joe, the idea for this specific interview came about when I ran into you at Comic-Con International and the biggest, newest thing on your plate was a deal with Man Of Action to work on Marvel's latest Spider-Man TV show project. It hit me that this is the kind of thing you should be doing right now, that it's a natural progression for a lot of writers to branch out into different kinds of projects at a certain point in their careers. How do you feel about the way your career has progressed over the last 7-10 years?
CASEY: You know, it's only when I do interviews that I'm forced to have any perspective on it. For the most part, I'm too busy working to think about it or how it's progressed. I guess I feel like I'm just trying to keep up some forward momentum, to keep challenging myself. Something like Ben 10 came almost out of the blue. Not necessarily the show, because we busted our ass to make that happen, but the subsequent, global domination of the property and the massive merchandising that sprang out of it. It's something I can't even comprehend, the scope and the size of it. Definitely a once-in-a-lifetime kind of thing. Nevertheless, that's been a game changer for me, for our company and how we move forward with our business. It's tough to even speculate what things would be like for me if that show and its success hadn't happened in the manner it did. But, y'know, that kind of thinking can drive you nuts. In some ways, I feel a little like I'm shedding one skin and being forced to get comfortable in another. With Ben 10, then Generator Rex and now Ultimate Spider-Man, I find myself damn near full-time in the animated television business... a place where I never imagined myself ending up.
Of course, back in the warm embrace of the comic book medium, at this point I'm actually quite satisfied with maybe/possibly/hopefully being counted among a nice tradition of cult writers who tried to push the envelope, each in their own ways, and who had occasional flashes of mass, mainstream exposure. Don McGregor. Steve Gerber. Peter Milligan. Mike Baron. Howard Chaykin. These are writers I admire a lot, some of them are bonafide heroes of mine, so if I can even get close to the kind of contribution they made to the medium, that ain't bad at all. It's a niche where maybe I actually fit in.
Honestly, I have mixed emotions about the whole thing, about where things have gone for us. Mainly because when I broke in, back in the mid-'90s, comic books were considered a dead-end career. Marvel was bankrupt, on multiple levels. DC had no real identity to speak of, other than turning Superman into an electric blue ice skater. There was no real notion that writing comics would lead to anything else in the entertainment business. In fact, there was a sense that being a comic book writer might hinder your chances of branching out into screenwriting or television or any jobs like that. But that was completely fine with me. I was more than happy to be a comic book writer. Hell, I was proud of it and still am. I never saw it as a "stepping stone" to anything. I'm too respectful and enamored of the art form to think of it like that. It was all about the love of the game. And it still is, really. But the industry's just not like that anymore, it's not the (perceived) dead-end career choice it used to be. Not at all. But that "natural progression" you're referring to has only happened inside the last decade.
SPURGEON: What do you mean when you say the industry's not like that anymore. You mean that there are opportunities now that there weren't when you started? Do you ultimately think it's good or bad for comics, all this heat and attention on an industry and an art form that was until so very recently an absolute afterthought in terms of wider entertainment?
CASEY: What I'm saying is, a new kid entering the business can look at someone like Geoff Johns and instead of saying, "I want to be like Geoff and write Flash one day," they can say, "I want to be like Geoff and write comics, write for the Smallville TV show and become the Chief Creative Officer for DC Entertainment!" Being a comic book creator is a stepping stone to other things now... like being a producer on the Spider-Man show. You could argue that the love of the game is still there to some degree, but I would think that, for most people, the game itself isn't simply the personal fulfillment of writing the adventures of your favorite childhood heroes or trying to advance the art form in some way or, God forbid, creating your own comics. I mean, how many "creator-owned" comics look more and more like straight-up movie pitches these days? But I don't think comics are in any danger... they've survived far too long and far too much bullshit to let the current climate of nonsense stamp them out. And, y'know, there are still those select creators out there -- in the mainstream, even -- claiming to be fully committed to the medium, and God bless 'em, one and all.
SPURGEON: Another thing we talked about on the CCI floor is that when a writer gets to a certain point in their career some of the traditional carrots that mainstream comics companies will dangle take on a different tone -- you see them more as an inducement than as an actual, serious job offer. Is that an accurate description? Do you think sometimes that people at comics companies, maybe employers in general, over-estimate what they have to offer a working writer?
CASEY: Well, I think it's up to the individual writer to personally assess the value of whatever work is being offered up. For instance, normally a three-issue Marvel mini-series that's meant to tie in to their "Dark Reign" event would have little or no appeal for me. However, when I get a certain level of autonomy to come up with a new villain and work with Nathan Fox (one of my faves) and, in many ways, take the piss out of the event I'm supposed to be a tangential part of, that's worth something. Turned out to be a lot of fun and one of the best things I ever did at Marvel. But, y'know, a fill-in issue of Wolverine or Captain America? I'm probably not the guy you wanna ask right now. I mean, not for nothing, but I'm a supervising producer/story editor/head writer on the new Spider-Man animated series premiering in 2012 on Disney XD (as the press releases say)...! I dunno, seems like it's a fairly big deal, there's a lot riding on it for Marvel moving forward and we're responsible for it. If any editor at either Marvel or DC can't acknowledge that when they're talking to me in a business capacity, they shouldn't talk to me at all. And I'm not looking for an ego stroke, simply an acknowledgment. Myself and the guys in my company... we've worked like motherfuckers to get where we are. We've built ourselves up to the point where, sentimental reasons aside and strictly from a career point of view, it's not as big a deal to work on a book for Marvel and/or DC as it used to be. Are there still WFH gigs that would be fun to write? Hell, yes. Is either getting or not getting those gigs going to affect my overall career at this point? I wouldn't think so. They're not the carrots they used to be.
So, really, if you look at how the comics industry has evolved just over the past few years, there are other carrots now. When you consider the more corporate-level positions that Jeph Loeb or Geoff Johns now hold at their respective companies, it's obvious there are all-new, all-different carrots for the folks who do what we do. Myself and my business partners were just lucky that we made a significant mark with a property that we created. We forged our own path... one that was more in line with our personal, creative philosophies. I don't think we were ever interested in being 100% dependent on servicing corporate-owned characters that have been around decades longer than we have. And I say that being perfectly happy to work with the guys at Marvel and Disney XD, like we're doing right now. The Spider-Man TV gig is a lot of fun and we're working extremely hard on it, but it's things like Ben 10 and Generator Rex and our creator-owned comics -- and, of course, whatever comes next -- that's going to be our true legacy (for better or for worse... heh...).
And for me, personally, conceiving and creating my own books from the ground up at Image Comics... it turns out that was the ultimate goal all along. Having that kind of freedom -- not to mention the level of trust we get at Image -- is a true achievement in this industry. Anyone who's lucky enough to have it shouldn't take it for granted. Now, having said that, it's all about context. Writing something for the Big Two is great once in awhile, a ride definitely worth taking, but why would I waste another moment of my life trying to execute an editor's lame-ass idea for -- to cite a recent, personal example that still kinda stings -- a Superman/Batman story? If it had been my idea, fine... but his?! I honestly don't know what I was thinking there... and I got my just desserts by getting fucked around on a story I had no real interest in writing to begin with. Live and learn, I guess.
SPURGEON: To follow up on that, just the idea that certain editors and other gatekeepers get to offer work to the writers: is that something that fuels the dysfunctional relationship within comics we've talked about in the past, the lack of respect that you've talked about in the past being at the heart of a lot of day-to-day interaction that creators have with editors and publishers?
CASEY: I think maybe the real situation there is that WFH editors are forced to split focus between dealing with creators that are either new to the biz or they're new to the Big Two (and, let's face it, might be relatively green and need some hand-holding) and creators that have been around the block a few times, have their shit together, don't need their hand held, etc. I guess they get confused sometimes. I can understand it, these guys have a fuckton of work on their desks. But, on the other hand, I'm a professional and I want to be treated as such. I'm not going to allow myself to be mistaken for a newbie, just because someone hasn't taken the time or made the minimal amount of effort to do their homework on me. Everyone on both sides should just be professional and the rest will take care of itself.
For my part, I take my comic book deadlines as seriously as I do my television deadlines. And, believe me, I don't have to. It seems like you can get away with a level of unprofessional behavior in comics that you'd never try to get away with in television. Publishers will allow a book to ship late. They're complicit in that type of behavior. We've all seen it happen. At the networks... well, that's not even part of their thinking. On air dates are pretty much set in stone. So anyway, for anyone I'm working with -- even the goofiest editors out there -- I respect them enough to be a professional, to do exactly what I've agreed to do for them, whatever it may be. It doesn't always go both ways. But, y'know, it is what it is, I guess.
SPURGEON: You really think they're just confused as to who has what resume? Because that would mean sometimes newbies would get treated like a longtime pro, and from what I've seen it's never that. Also, why do you think publishers are complicit in certain kinds of behavior? What do they gain by fostering an atmosphere of indulgence?
CASEY: No, you're right... it only goes one way. I'd imagine there are probably more newbies actively working in the biz than longtime pros at the moment, so that treatment has to swing that way more often than not. And therein lies part of the problem, right? It's frustrating as hell for the guys with experience and bonafide track records. I do think there are probably a few editors at the Big Two who don't know the extent of my resume, and I simply can't be the only pro that's true of.
And, listen, the reason publishers are often complicit in the kind of behavior I'm talking about -- soft deadlines which lead to late shipping books -- is because there are times when quality is worth waiting for. I'm not damning them for being complicit, but I do know that lateness is tolerated -- okay, maybe even indulged (to use your word) -- when publishers feel they're getting something in return, like big sales from popular creators. But you can never count on them giving you that leeway. They'll always use blown deadlines against you, when it's convenient. But you're talking to someone who doesn't really have deadline problems... I like the fast fiction aspect of the monthly (or even the weekly) grind. I impose it on myself with my own comics. That kind of relentless pace can pull something out of my work that I enjoy... some kind of energy that translates to the page, I think. Any indulgence should be in the ideas, y'know...?
SPURGEON: To back things up a bit, can you talk about your 2010 in terms of the vocational aspects of your writing? In a typical month, how much time do you spend on different projects. Can you ballpark that for me, at least, or talk as explicitly as possible as to how you approach what you work on and when? Do you set priorities and then go out and find work that scratches different itches, or do you take what comes and make room for it? This many years in, are you more productive than you used to be? Less?
CASEY: Oh, jeezus, I would think that I'm a lot more productive now. Mainly because I'm forced to be, simply by the nature of the work we're doing. I don't know if I can quantify it, because it's just everything, all the time. The television work has picked up to the point where it's become a lot of my day-to-day ditch digging. The Spider-Man show has kicked into high gear, and we're still involved in every Rex episode from premise to rough cut, all the way up the production chain. Plus, we're consultants on the Bakugan animated show, giving notes on season arcs, episode outlines and scripts. Then there are the endless meetings as we get deeper into new projects. Being a partner in Man Of Action is a full-time job.
At the same time, I've got seven (!) major creator-owned comic book projects in various stages of production. But that stuff is like... well, it's the most fun you can have. To come up with an idea and to be able to craft it, develop it, and see it through to eventual publication, basically on your own timetable, it's a real joy for me. It's more of a passion than bona fide "work". The collaborations with the artists I've been working with... Tom Scioli, Andy Suriano, Chris Burnham, Mike Huddleston, David Messina, Wilfredo Torres, Christian Ward, Alexis Ziritt... most of them have been so much more organic than a typical WFH gig. In fact, when I'd finally cleared the decks of any WFH comic gigs, I ended up tapping into a real freedom of creative thought that I didn't expect to happen. But I'm enjoying the hell out of it. I'm back to making comics out of pure love and inspiration. So, I guess I am working my ass off... but I'm digging every minute of it.
SPURGEON: To follow up with maybe a more focused version of the previous question. Is there a tendency to favor one kind of gig over another? You've had a pretty well-rounded year, Joe, just in comics, with Gǿdland still hanging in there, and Avengers: The Origin and Officer Downe. And then with your other material... is it hard to not want to go all in one one project or another. Are there advantages to spreading yourself out in the manner that you do?
CASEY: Well, come on... my creator-owned projects are "all in," whether I'm conscious of it or not. They have to be, otherwise what's the point in even doing them? But I get what you're saying. When I did the film, that was a situation where I had to completely immerse myself in the process. And it was an extremely rewarding experience. I really loved doing it. The fact that the movie is now out on DVD, that someone can add it to their Netflix queue, is almost beside the point. It was the process that I loved. The advantage of having so many irons in the fire -- even as it might seem overwhelming sometimes -- is that life is never boring. And that's all you can really ask for, isn't it? Choosing to work on one thing over another is more instinctual than anything else. To be at a point in my career where no one gig is going to make or break me... there ends up being a lot of freedom there.
SPURGEON: So with this greater freedom to work on creator-owned projects and this significant amount of work you're doing... have those conditions changed the work itself at all, do you think? How are you a different writer than you were seven years ago?
CASEY: I think I'm a lot looser in my writing than I used to be. A lot more improvisational, writing more on instinct, letting it fly a lot more freely than I have in the past. But I wouldn't say that applies only to my creator-owned work. Some of the WFH stuff I've done in the past two years -- the Zodiac book, the Super Young Team book -- would definitely fall into the "looser" category. I do think the conditions of having to do all this work in animation has made the process of creating comic books both more precious and more fun. I mean, I always knew it was a special thing, but when you finally hop off the WFH treadmill for a while and you're really doing comics as a pure creative artist, it does make a difference in your attitude. The highs are higher and, consequently, the lows can be that much lower. But, y'know, that's what being a creative person is all about... leaving yourself open to have your heart broken every so often. And having no fear of that. Embracing it, in fact. I guess I am in a specific phase where a lot of creator-owned work is happening right now, and I'm pretty thankful for that. At some point, it might swing the other way again, but right now I'm having a moment and I'm gonna' ride this fucker all the way up the mountain.
SPURGEON: Since this will run the same year that WildStorm is shutting down, I was wondering if you could talk a bit about the culture of the company, and what it was about writing books for them that you think resulted in the work you did for them -- which I think is among your very best. They had a reputation for a certain amount of creative freedom, but also maybe not always staying on top of their end of things, production and administrative issues. What do you remember about it now? What does comics lose by not having that specific company around any more?
CASEY: Ah, Tom... it was the best of times, it was the worst of times. I learned a lot of valuable lessons about doing WFH comics while I was there. I had some great creative highs and I got burned a few times. I definitely look back with a sizable degree of pride for the work that I did there, and I'm grateful that there seems to be a few readers who still remember those books, even though -- in the case of Automatic Kafka and The Intimates -- they never put collected editions into print... collections that I'm pretty sure would at least make their money back. And this is after seeing foreign hardcover collections of Kafka that are beautifully done. Yet they'd never hesitate to collect the weirdest, low-selling stuff, books that sold much less and had much less buzz than anything I ever wrote for them. Now, I'm not sure where their rep for lacking in production or admin issues came from, because I always felt like, on average, they had fairly high production values when I was there. As far as the culture of the company overall... I think I would classify it as "confused." It certainly wasn't a corporate ethos to try and do cutting edge superhero comics... that came from individual creators and a few capable, simpatico editors taking advantage of a company that had no real ethos.
On a personal level, I'll admit it would get on my nerves when they acted like DC's bitch. They rolled over numerous times when DC wanted them to, not only when it came to censoring Mark Millar's Authority or pulping books written by Alan Moore, but also when it came to poaching artists from my books to work on -- wait for it -- Superman or Batman. And it happened all the time. From what I understand, it was DC editorial going to Wildstorm editorial and then Wildstorm editorial going to the artists and suggesting that they take the DC gigs. I would've had more respect if DC editorial went directly to the artists. But Wildstorm editorial never seemed to put up a fight... in fact, they seemed happy to facilitate the theft. So, obviously, there were times when they clearly did not value the quality and the uniqueness of their own books. Then again, neither did some of the artists who allowed themselves to be poached, so what're you gonna do...?
So all in all, a well-rounded work experience, I guess. Sometimes it was great, sometimes it sucked. And to answer your question, at this point, comics really loses nothing from them closing up shop. Not being able to read the continuing adventures of Grifter or Deathblow or Stormwatch is no great loss to humanity. Sorry, but it was never about the characters. It was about the creators' passion for the work we were doing. And the influence has been felt, the effects can be seen at other companies, on other creators, on other books.
And, just because I probably won't talk much about this again publicly, I might as well point out something I said to Fraction in our old "Basement Tapes" column at CBR, when discussing the end of The Intimates, which was my last work for Wildstorm (probably because of what I said in the column). I know it pissed Jim Lee off, and I'm sure he's still pissed off. I know it pissed Scott Dunbier off. Anyway, this is what I said back in fucking October of 2005...
"Because one thing publishers have to understand, especially a little-fish-in-a-big-pond like Wildstorm, is that quality counts. It'll never be about big sales for them. That time is over. The only thing they have control over... is quality of product. Putting out good material. Keeping artists on their books and not letting them get stolen or lured away by the chance to draw fucking Batman. For chrissakes, Batman will always be there and it will always need more bodies to throw on that monthly fire... The few significant creative successes they've had have been when the creatives involved stuck it out for an entire run. Warren and Hitch on the first twelve Authoritys. Warren and Cassaday on Planetary. Sean Phillips and I on WildCATS Vol. 2. Sean and Ed Brubaker on Sleeper. Ash and I on Kafka. Now it's happening with BKV and Tony Harris on Ex Machina. These are the series readers will remember over time, not the editorial events that are supposed to "fix" things... because whenever WS has treated their books like assembly line products ("Oh, we'll just stick Artist X in on a couple of fill-ins... no one'll care.") it's always ended up a clusterfuck, both creatively and saleswise. Always."
Oh well. I suppose the fact that they got so pissed off at me meant that they heard me. And yet, they didn't listen, did they?
Now, forget about the actual comics for a minute and forget about my own personal experience. What's semi-interesting to me is the larger corporate landscape. The loss of Wildstorm and what it meant within the overall DC brand could -- and probably should -- be seen as a cautionary tale. When Wildstorm was making some cutting edge comics, they were vital. They were important. They were alive. They helped make DC a lot cooler than they would be without them. But, as they say... when you snooze, you lose. When Wildstorm stopped being cutting edge, they were instantly a millstone around DC's neck. They brought nothing to the table, creatively. The fact that their videogame tie-in comic was reportedly DC's biggest seller didn't even register, because what does that have to do with Wildstorm as a brand? Now go even wider and consider Warners in general. They just had that shake-up at the highest levels of management. A big-time studio head is basically pushed out, and it's been suggested that it was possibly in part because he couldn't get his shit together when it came to exploiting DC properties in the wider mediaspace, where billions of dollars in profits are at stake. When you don't know what to do with the assets you've got, when it comes across like you're too paralyzed to take action (for whatever reason), it's time to step aside and let the adults take the wheel. Or, in the case of Wildstorm, it's time to be taken back behind the barn and be put out of your misery.
Is my point of view at all reasonable? Maybe not. Do I care? Absolutely not. I'm a crazy, unpredictable artistic type, remember? Wildstorm was the place where I put my blood, sweat and tears into WFH projects... so, clearly, I was the fuckin' asshole.
SPURGEON: Another thing that I think marks 2010 is the increased profile enjoyed by the Hero Initiative, a charity that looks after the desperate financial needs of mostly older cartoonists and comic book people. This is kind of a delicate question, but I always wonder what it's like as a working pro to see these hard-luck cases and if doing so informs choices that you make. I think of you as part of that group of guys that has it together for the most part; do you pay more attention to that aspect of career because of some of the tough examples from the past? Do you think about those things in personal terms at all?
CASEY: To be honest, it's not in my nature to depend on anyone else to take care of me or my family, no matter what my circumstances. Maybe it's a pride thing, I dunno. But it keeps me out of trouble, keeps me thinking straight. Or maybe it has to do with the fact that my ambitions to create comics as a career included going in with my eyes wide open, knowing full well that this is not an industry with a stellar track record of taking care of its own. The hard luck cases that are happening right now are heartbreaking, to be sure. Steve Perry's story chilled me to the bone. It does make me realize how lucky I am that I found additional revenue streams and that my business sense, such as it is, has served me fairly well. But even that reflects my attitude towards work in general, especially the freelancer life: Don't put all your eggs in one basket. I never signed an exclusive with any publisher, because I figured I could do more work -- make more money -- in more places as a free agent. And even though Ben 10 hit big, we're still out there selling more shows, getting more projects happening in a number of areas. We're certainly not resting on anything. That said, something like the Hero Initiative was long overdue, and those folks do tremendous work for people who absolutely deserve it.
SPURGEON: One thing I've always liked about your work is your frequent thematic noodling on the issue of vocation, and role and job -- why are we doing what we do with the majority of our time, whether that involves putting on a costume or making some kind of choice for the future or having to really sit down and think through what we've done in the past. Do you have a different perspective on those issues now that you're a little bit older, do you think? Do you look at the grappling with those kinds of questions in a different light now that you're in a different place in your life?
CASEY: Obviously, I'm in a different place in my life, with different priorities that are way outside of myself. Very different priorities. I used to come first, now I come third or fourth (if I'm lucky). But, y'know, I still I find myself going back and forth on what my work life actually means to me. How much are you your job, and how much are you not your job? When your job is a creative endeavor, it can get even more confusing. I look back at some of the stuff I've written -- even things that you might not consider "personal" work -- and I'm surprised how much of myself is in them. Who knew that superhero comics could serve as personal diary entries?
In the past year or two, I realized one of the reasons I do this is because, to put it bluntly, I'm addicted to the buzz of creating. It's such a rush to have an idea that actually gets you off, that you feel has some real merit (even if only to yourself). Now, I don't know how much that feeling "defines" me, but I've come to appreciate how important it is. It's what keeps me in the game, I think. I'm as competitive as the next guy, but not about sales. I just want to have better ideas, have better-looking comics, throw down the (meaningless) gauntlet to other creators out there and say, "Top this, bitches!" It's all part of the fun for me.
I guess one way I look at the concept of "work" these days... is as a vehicle for growth. I'm not so interested in "busy work" anymore as I am in doing work where I can discover something about myself, maybe find some sort of enlightenment or illumination. And I'm not looking for massive, personal revelations that'll completely change my life (although those do happen every so often)... true growth tends to happen in tiny increments. The trick is to be self-aware enough to know when it does happen, so you can take advantage of it and maybe channel it back into your work.
I'll admit... I feel sorta self-conscious talking about this stuff when you think about my stock-in-trade, which is essentially genre work of one kind or another. I'm not writing War & Peace or the U.S. Constitution. I'm writing comic books in the so-called mainstream where, more often than not, shit blows up and characters tend to knock the holy hell out of each other. Maybe that doesn't lend itself to immediate, artistic self-reflection... but, hey, I gotta be me.
SPURGEON: When we first talked years ago now, you were a writer that I'd characterize as working ahead of your generation -- your opportunities and gigs were higher profile than a lot of the guys in your approximate age group. Now that more and more people in your general age range are getting those same opportunities, do you feel that you're part of a generational shift in comic creators? Are there creators that when you look at what they do and how they do it you recognize more of yourself in what they do as opposed to maybe some of your older colleagues earlier on in your career. Are there creators with whom you feel a sense of shared outlook and camaraderie? And if not, can you talk about some of the things you think are different about, or maybe simply unique to, your creative experience and way of looking at things?
CASEY: It's funny... when I got the Deathlok gig, it was my first time launching a continuing, monthly series at Marvel. I remember thinking, "Holy shit, it's a motherfucking Marvel Comic with a #1 on the cover and I'm writing it...!" I was more used to the notion of taking over a book well into its run. Y'know, Frank Miller did Batman: Year One in issues #404-407 of the Batman monthly. Alan Moore took over Swamp Thing with issue #20. So launching a new series was kind of a big deal, something I never thought would happen in my career. Now, that's more likely to happen for a new writer, where some of their first gigs are a #1 issue of a Marvel Comic. And when I landed the Uncanny X-Men gig after being in the biz -- as a full-time pro -- for only about four years, I thought I was on a fast track. Maybe too fast, considering how that gig turned out. But it was the number one book in the Direct Market and I went after it and I'm the one who got it. Nowadays, that kind of WFH career trajectory would be considered a slow burn. I'd written maybe 100 published comics by the time I was offered that book.
These days, a writer can have a tenth of that experience and be offered a big flagship title. And more power to 'em, I say. It probably speaks more to a shorter attention span in pop culture than anything else. Unfortunately, if you want to look at it another way, it may also speak to the lessening power of these once mighty franchises in the comic book landscape. Writing Superman or the X-Men used to be a prestige gig that would be tough to get. Not so much now, it seems. But that's cool. Maybe that's how it should be. Then again, the lower tier characters sell so poorly, it's difficult for new writers to cut their teeth on books that aren't just going to get canceled out from under them after five issues. You've said it yourself... the "mid-list" is disappearing. Actually, when I stop and think about it... Superman and the X-books don't sell all that well these days, either. They're becoming mid-list themselves. Seems like a bizarre Catch-22 to me...
I'll tell you what else... I'm actually seeing things in WFH comics now that I was doing seven or eight years ago. Not just techniques, but actual ideas. I love me some Fraction, but seeing that Tony Stark wants to "change the world" by manufacturing a car that isn't dependent on gasoline and runs on a possibly limitless energy source that only he can provide... where have I seen that before? Grant Morrison, of all people, had the confidence and the grace to name check me in a Wired magazine interview when it comes to whatever minor contribution I've made to the "corporate" angle in modern comics, but he seems to be the only one. And there are other little things I see here and there that I recognize as having done myself, ten years ago. Things that are so specific, I know where they came from, I know it's not just coincidence. Now before certain people go crazy because I dared say that... no one should read this as me being at all bitter, because I actually think it's fine. Let 'em all pick at the bones of the carcasses I chased down and slaughtered in the field... I'm on to the next kill. I certainly did it with the creators that I dug when I was a newbie. It's just weird to be on the other side of it. Any creators out there who don't think we all share the same ideaspace are deluding themselves.
But, y'know, it all adds up to one thing for me, personally... mainstream comics have become so boring that I can barely stand it. There are a few exceptions. Morrison's work still gives me a helluva charge, Allan Heinberg's a favorite (when he's able to carve out the time to write comics), but it's mostly lot of insanely talented creators at Marvel and DC and elsewhere just boring the shit out of me as a reader and as a fan of comics. I hope that doesn't come across as a slam on anyone's work, that's just my honest reaction to a lot of what's out there right now. Most of it, I've seen it all before. Some of it, I've done myself...! But more than anything, that's what gets me off my ass to bust out a plethora of creator-owned material... to try and shake things up a little. Maybe I've done it before, to varying degrees -- I guess that's a matter of opinion -- but I'm more than a little curious whether or not it's possible to do it again with these new books. On a pure showmanship level, I'm calling out all of the comic book-creatin' motherfuckers stuck out there in the mainstream wilderness... saying, "Let's put some swing back into this thing!" Let's give all the bloggers and the podcasters stuff they can really sink their teeth into. There are amazing online writers out there that are dying for something good to write about in the mainstream arena, not to mention the podcasters that want to talk about comics in a more in-depth way, but seem to have less and less to talk about.
And all the things that meant so much to me as a creator, say, back when I was doing books at Wildstorm: alternative character archetypes, next generation design aesthetics, thinking in broader concepts, improvisational writing, cult callbacks, scratch mix dialogue... they still mean something to me. Only now I feel like I'm in competition with myself. I can look at a fucking ancient series like Automatic Kafka and challenge myself to try and push things into new areas. New areas for me, anyway.
Wow. Talk about an answer full of weird tangents. I wonder how you get all this shit outta me, Tom...
SPURGEON: I stay really quiet, Joe. Now, why do you think those mainstream comics are boring? Is it that they've run out of ideas? Is it that being boring suits the corporate goals right now? Is it lack of talent overall? And is it the quality of the ideas that you find bracing about Heinberg and Morrison? If not that, why do they stand out to you?
CASEY: Okay, c'mon... those two certainly don't need me doing their PR for them. I dig Grant's work for the same reasons everyone else does: not only are his ideas great, but more importantly, it's the execution of those ideas that's completely unique and always energetic as hell. That is fucking rare in the mainstream these days. Not only that, who else would've taken on a big DC Corporate Crossover and turned it into a personal artistic statement, to the point where DC Editorial was so freaked out by it, they backed off their support and appreciation of that project -- quite publicly, if anyone cares to remember -- quicker than you can actually say the words, "Final Crisis"? As for Allan, he once happily confirmed my suspicions about his approach to writing superhero comics... that he tries to distill exactly what we all loved about them when we were kids onto each page. I love that it's so deliberate on his part. You can just see it in his work. Every page, there's cool stuff happening, wall-to-wall capes and costumes, dramatic moments, you'll never see him writing endless scenes of characters out of costume, having coffee and indulging in endless conversation like they're on some boring primetime TV drama. He provides that whacked out, four-color hit on every page. There's no filler, and if you like what superhero comics do best, he provides it. Those two, each in their own way, have a boldness in their work that still keeps me engaged as a reader and often inspired as a writer.
Why do I think mainstream comics are so boring? That's an excellent question, Tom. Maybe they aren't and I'm just not seeing their particular virtues. As far as my personal opinion goes, that's all it really is... I'm just talking from the perspective of a reader who doesn't feel like he has enough good stuff to read. There's definitely stuff out there I've loved over the past year... like Rugg and Maruca's Afrodisiac. Grant turned me onto Tales Designed to Thrizzle, which is a good laugh. Clowes' Wilson was pretty satisfying. Mignola's collection of The Amazing Screw-On Head and Other Curious Objects reminded me how wacky and weird that original one-shot really was and how much it influenced me. His work in that book is, to me, so improvisational that you can actually feel the creative energy vibrating off the pages. The Wednesday Comics hardcover had some really cool strips in it. Charles Burns' X'ed Out was great and I'm really looking forward to reading Paul Pope's Battling Boy. But, y'know, read that list back and compare it to the majority of monthly comics output from Marvel and DC. Need I say more?
What's interesting to me is how much it feels like the mid-90's. Remember how fucking mind-numbingly vapid Marvel and DC books were back then? It was just a sea of relentless blandness. What was there to read, as far as monthly superhero comics were concerned? James Robinson's Starman, the Wagner/Seagle/Davis Sandman Mystery Theatre, Kurt Busiek's Astro City and Mark Waid on Flash and his first run on Captain America. Some of Alan Moore's Image Comics work. Hitman was great. But, for my money, that was about it. That's not much. Next thing you know, Grant single-handedly revitalized DC via his JLA book, Wildstorm got bought and got interesting, and finally Quesada and Jemas took over Marvel and turned the entire company -- and by extension, the industry -- on its head by making radical creative moves. I know this first-hand, because I was right there in the middle of it. All of it. Of course, there was less to lose back then, wasn't there?
My feeling about mainstream, monthly superhero books is that they should contain more invention, be more daring, take more chances... because they can. They're so transitory, they're so "here this week, gone later this week", why not go balls out on every single every issue? Especially with DC reducing their page counts. That makes it even more of an imperative that every page matters, motherfuckers! That old chestnut, "writing for the trade" is so over but not everybody has realized it. The way I've always seen it, comics are such a direct form of communication -- even superhero comics -- why waste them saying absolutely nothing? And I'm not talking about saying something profound... I'm saying, "Entertain my ass! Show me something I've never seen before!"
I may be stepping into a minefield of supreme pretention here, but fuck it. It's probably not fashionable to even think this much about genre fiction, let alone superhero comics. But the best superhero comics that have ever been created are both completely timeless and completely of their time. Their power lies simultaneously in both their simplicity and their complexity. When you break them down to some sort of essence, they're supposed to present pure, human emotion inflated and expanded to Wagnerian proportions. That's what they do best. Hey, I'm well aware that my work falls short of my own high standards every time... but I feel like I'm always in there swinging for the fences, like I'm trying to put my own work up against the acknowledged classics or the favorites that I grew up on and seeing how -- or even if -- it compares.
SPURGEON: This is the 20th anniversary of the publication of The Creator's Bill Of Rights. Does that particular expression of the wider issue of creator's right have any meaning to you. How did you feel when Alan Moore made another round of complaints about his treatment by DC? Do you feel like that stuff is even relevant to where you are and what you do, or is all that stuff 100 years ago?
CASEY: I've said it before and I'll say it again, the existence of Image Comics and the kind of deal they provide has been my personal comic book salvation. I see now that all the years I spent slogging away at WFH jobs were a journey that led me to this place. I get to create my own comics and, along with my collaborators, I get to own them completely. Not partially... completely. Why would I create original comics anywhere else? I've worked with almost every other publisher that's out there, but none of their business models can hold a candle to Image Comics when it comes to original work. Creators of my generation... we really owe a huge debt to the Image founders for what they built. It's not all that fashionable to cite those guys, but when have I ever been fashionable? So, obviously, creators' rights are extremely important to me, because I live in that world. I'm in it with both feet. So, to answer your question, I'm clearly benefiting from the hard work of the generations that came before me, the shit they put up with, whatever struggles they went through to change things, to make things better for the rest of us.
Now, regarding Alan Moore's -- now ancient -- interview at Bleeding Cool... from a purely voyeuristic point of view, I got as much of a kick out of it as everyone else seemed to. I think you were right on when you predicted the majority of people's response to it. But, jeezus, the old man's entitled to be as weird as he wants, isn't he? I guess, at the end of the day, as far as Alan Moore is concerned, he's been such an inspiration and given me such pleasure as a reader over the years... if he's happy, I'm happy for him. I mean, I have specific memories of reading specific comics that he wrote... I remember exactly where I was when I read Saga of the Swamp Thing #53 (the Batman/Gotham City issue drawn by John Totleben), I remember where I was when I read Miracleman #2, I remember reading The Killing Joke for the first time, where I was and how it felt. Those are indelible, cherished memories for me. When I look back on those comics now, it's like pressing a button on a time machine. I get that same warm feeling. What a gift that is. So, y'know, more power to him.
SPURGEON: If you met someone that was at the same place you found yourself two or three years into your career, what advice would you give them in order that they best succeed? Is it the same advice you wish you were given, or are things different now?
CASEY: I'm getting a bit of déjà vu from this question, Tom. I think you've asked me this before. [Spurgeon laughs] And maybe I've answered this in the same way before. But anyway... at this point, I can think of nothing worse than going back and telling the twentysomething me anything. I'd probably just fuck things up for him. Not to be too New Age-y here, but the mistakes I made over the years, I needed to make. But, even more importantly, the writing I did, the writing I've done throughout my career, I look at it as an ongoing process. The early, rough work that I did has an energy and enthusiasm that I've probably been trying to get back ever since, and I feel like lately I've been coming close. Maybe. I guess I had a middle period, where I wrote big, mainstream franchises... but that work helped me find and refine my voice. Actually, I'd like to think that I'm still in that middle period, since I've still got a lot to learn. I've got a voice but I'm still discovering how best to use it. When it comes to writing comic books, I've set aside a lot of the "career aspirations" I might've had when I was younger... because I feel like I exceeded those dreams many years ago. But, oddly enough, as ambitious as I thought I was, they were still fairly small dreams. Life has turned out to be so much bigger than what I ever imagined it could be. And maybe I'm better equipped to deal with it.
Probably not, though.
* photo provided by Mr. Casey
* Nathan Fox, making it worthwhile for Casey
* image from that Super Young Team series from several months ago
* Gǿdland 4-Ever
* from this year's Officer Downe
* page from Automatic Kafka
* cover from Intimates
* Hero Initiative logo
* that Deathlok gig
* Andy Suriano, one of many quality artists with whom Casey works
* cover to Avengers: The Origin #3 (below)
* while so many folks have shut it down for the year 2010, Robert Boyd is still hanging in there, hacking away at the BCGF pile: part three, part four. Boy, it looks like a lot of intriguing comics were available for sale at that show.
* the very nice Craig Fischer discusses the closure of Thought Balloonists and the migration of himself and partner-in-blogging Charles Hatfield to a new TCJ-aligned blog.
* not comics: sad to see that Heather Havrilesky won't be writing about television for Salon as of... well, as of last week, it seems. I am very much looking forward to reading her book. Havrilesky wrote Filler, one of the most successful early web-comics.
"Michael Grabowski is, of course, correct in tagging 'Linus and Lucy' as a tune that is part of the Christmas scene without actually being about Christmas; he is, however, in error when he says that it premiered on A Charlie Brown Christmas. "Linus and Lucy" appears on Jazz Impressions of A Boy Named Charlie Brown, the soundtrack for a documentary. While the documentary itself never aired, and was unreleased on home video until the next century (it's now available exclusively from the Charles M. Schulz Museum store), the soundtrack was released in 1964, the year before A Charlie Brown Christmas was produced. (The soundtrack is still available, under the shortened title A Boy Named Charlie Brown.)
* finally, it may be lost in whatever gets announced by Marvel big event-wise later this morning, but the artist Mark Bagley is returning to Marvel after a time at DC. Marvel does the right thing and makes it sound like a big deal even if you asked 10 comics fans five would probably say it is and five would say it isn't. But why not celebrate that kind of publishing move if you're a big comics company?
Better Late Than Never, I Suppose: My Very Own Personal Wildstorm
I meant to run the following back at the time of Wildstorm's closure and never did. I think it may have been that I couldn't quite find the focus I wanted. It could be that someone flashed something nearby that was bright and pretty and I got distracted. It was that kind of year.
I thought the piece might find a forgiving, even indulgent audience now. I like a lot of different kinds of comics, and that includes some of the ones that were published by Wildstorm. -- Tom Spurgeon
Mid-September's announced closure of Wildstorm as its own publishing entity brought with it the understandable desire to eulogize the line. DC might tell you this was too soon, that there's plenty of life in Wildstorm yet, that they still have plans for the comics published there. I'm sure they do. I expect they'll continue to publish some of the better-selling work boiled down into a perennial list of trades, and I suspect they'll eventually find some way to fold the company-owned superhero characters into the direct fabric of their shared universe where they will find a second life.
The announcement still seemed more like an ending than it did a transition between chapters in an ongoing saga. For one thing, it's improbable that a company that let a lot of this material flicker in and out of print when they actually had an imprint to serve is always going to keep this material around and accessible to new readers now that the imprint is gone. Another argument that can be made is that we've simply left an era where a Wildstorm is possible, that the readership for certain kinds of comics is too small these days to support an array of superhero universes: we lack the ability to forge subsets out of subsets. More important than both of those things, I think you can make the argument that Wildstorm's essential contribution to comics as a creative community -- an expansion of Jim Lee's view of what makes a superhero comics imprint that gained the support of a generation of mainstream comics makers, allowing them to pursue projects of a personal nature as long as they stayed within reasonable proximity to some sort of recognizable mainstream genre values -- ended years before the closure announcement. Poets might even see Wildstorm's demise as the last domino in a long chain of events that began with Wildstorm's participation in the Deathmate fiasco, a long-seeping wound that one can argue shaped the direction of mainstream comics for years going forward, including those involving the imprint.
Here then are my choices for books that I found interesting during their long run, works that will remain part of my comics library for as long as I have one. This is not an "important books" list. Wildstorm was a commercially vibrant company both in its days as a stand-alone and in the first several years it was a DC imprint. A lot of their comics were important in the various ways you can define such books as important that don't necessarily reflect on the quality of the content. The mere thought of reading any issue of Gen 13 makes me break out into a bright rash. Heck, given a memory wiper I might have a go at ridding myself of all memories of the mega-dopey character Grunge even before correcting the haunting recollection of my bad behavior at wedding receptions. Still, if I'm going to be fair, it's clear that Gen 13's mix of sexual engagement (it was on their minds), sexual naivete (lots of suddenly finding one's self naked near friends of the opposite sex) and emotional drama (some characters were couples, others were left single for readers that preferred a more direct, imaginary connection) was a killer cocktail for a lot of readers when kneaded into the general superhero dough of its day. There was a time in the 1990s I visited comics stores and that was one of the few titles they talked about as really moving. Danger Girl was equally important in that same general way. You can also argue that one of the most important comic book titles of the last 25 years is Jim Lee's Divine Right, which had it been wildly successful some suggest might have stopped the DC sale and everything that followed from happening at all.
I don't want to talk about those kinds of comics, though. I'd rather talk about the ones I find intriguing, that I'll continue to read long past the day I forget every single member of DV8. (Come to think of it... nope, there was a guy named "Threshold.") What follows is the comics that I liked and continue to like, both top of the line efforts and ones off the beaten path. Hopefully, you'll find something in here to reconsider, or a characterization of something left off to which you might object. My condolences to all creators that found Wildstorm a fruitful avenue for creative expression, and for anyone that depended on the company for a job.
1. Wildcats #8-28, Joe Casey and Sean Phillips, 2000-2001.
I know that a lot of people prefer Wildcats Version 3.0. That was a very clever superhero title with a tighter thematic focus. Still, I liked writer Joe Casey's earlier run here more than I did that one. Casey always writes well about avocation and career, and this run gave him a superhero cast that had just run the course of the series original concept and were casting about for something new to do, or at least a new way of doing old things. I don't know about you, but that's what the end of the '90s were like for me, too. Sean Phillips is always a lot of fun and I think a lot of these character designs flatter his strengths as an illustrator.
2. The Authority #1-12, Warren Ellis and Brian Hitch, 1999-2000.
The two things that stand out about The Authority some ten years later are one thing I think for which this comic gets appropriate credit and one thing I've never seen afforded its legacy.
The first is the "widescreen storytelling" pacing and page layouts which was basically a pulverization of the denser, more intimately cinematic way of telling a story stretching all the way back to Don Macgregor in favor of gigantic pictures and moments that require an artist that can make such imagery memorable and a writer that can suggest way more in each moment than he's allowed to put on the page.
The second is a bit more ordinary: The Authority is maybe the best comic book ever when it comes to the wonderful piece of minor-league show business that is the superhero comeback. Ellis and Hitch piled it on in the opening pages of each adventure, forcing their cast members to Play Ricky Morton like no set of characters ever has, drawing sympathy and despair from the crowd. Then the creators flipped a switch and their well-designed cast roared back to life and took everything down in a thrilling, and I'd strongly suggest comforting, way.
If you don't think its achievements are noticeable, there are scores of comics that came afterward that attempted to do the same kind of thing The Authority did, and all of them not written by Grant Morrison (and half of them that are) came across as manipulative and ordinary. This includes the iterations of The Authority that came after this initial one. A great bonus to this fundamental run of comics is that if you like the characters and story just as much as the spectacle and skill displayed, there are two runs of Stormwatch comics (#37-50 in the first volume and the entire second volume) that work just fine as informative yet stand-alone prequels. In fact, if you take the Stormwatch book with that first 12 issues of The Authority, you almost have the last 20 years of everything that happened to superhero comics sitting there in a small pile. Accept no substitutes.
3. Sleeper and Sleeper Season Two, Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips, 2003-2004 and 2004-2005.
A lot of people have written about the conceptual strength of these two comic series, and how well it's executed. I don't think anyone familiar with its central concept -- a 'tweener hero infiltrating a super-villain's plans cut off from absolutely everyone and everything when they lost that lifeline -- and with half an appraiser's eye for what makes a good deal is surprised when it shows up on TV/film development lists. Sleeper does have the muscular charm that results when veteran creators like Brubaker and Phillips are left to their own devices after several years on other projects building their craft chops. It's a meat and potatoes read.
What stands out to me when I re-read an issue of either Sleeper series now is how appealing and logical Brubaker and Phillips' portrayal of these broken people and their world seems, how comfortable the entire series reads as an adjunct to the absurdly complex worlds of espionage that these shared universes normally fuse to the more simplistic dialectic represented by superheroes and super-villains. Brubaker finds connections between the criminal's childish explanation for why they have to be the way they are with superhero tropes such as the origin story; both groups are creating a fiction that flatters their role. A lot of comics creators talk about muddying the moral waters, but their works tend to be about as complex as a Road Runner cartoon. Brubaker and Phillips are patient, thorough, and dedicated: they chase the unanswered questions into the dark corners and crawl in after them with a fork. One reason why the book's reputation may be slightly diminished now is that the end result wasn't a very happy or cathartic read.
Also, I loved Sleeper as a serial comic book. I think that kind of reading experience flatters the episodic nature of what Brubaker puts to page and I think the individual chunks of story are extremely satisfying. I imagine that with shops ordering what I felt was ahead of demand on the second Sleeper series, the bulk of the individual comic books should be easy to score in discount bins and at back-issue sales.
4. Planetary #1-28, Warren Ellis and John Cassaday, 1999-2009.
I haven't finished reading this one yet. It's not my fault. I kept finding random issues of the comic books in strange places (quarter bins, a garage sale, in a box a friend of my Mom's from church brought her to give to me), and I thought never paying full price or even intending to purchase the issue would be a thematically appropriate way to take in the whole saga, a kind of sideways examination of 20th Century pulp that is laudatory and critical in exactly the opposite ways you'd guess it might be.
It's harder for me to speak to the overarching story, but as individual takes on certain concepts I am thoroughly entertained. The combination of John Cassaday's art and Laura Martin's coloring -- I'm actually more a Martin person than Cassaday one, although I like the general graceful, diverse attractiveness of the latter's figures -- proves pretty enough that I imagine the DC Absolute versions would be fun to have. I prefer my way of picking them up, however.
5. Top Ten #1-12, Alan Moore and Gene Ha and Zander Cannon, 1999-2001.
I also can't make a case for this one as anything more than an adventure comic from a lively, restless, intelligence. But it's a series I ended up enjoying quite a bit. It's by far my favorite of the ABC books, and I don't think that's a preference that a lot of people share with me. Promethea is beautiful but leaves me cold. Tom Strong and the Tomorrow Stories material failed to engage me, and I'm not all the way certain why. Tom Strong in particular always seemed half-baked to me, a bunch of ideas on paper that never quite cohered into a memorable series. I realize I'm in the minority on that one.
Top Ten, on the other hand, I found consistently junky and bristling with weird energy and frequently outright funny -- a lot like one's own first three weeks in any new job. All those background jokes of characters from a comic book library's worth of fiction would in other hands be hokey make for an odd but memorable reading experience. It's like Will Elder doing an early '60s Marvel book, providing two ways of looking at a work that are in happy competition for your attention.
Most of what I've read about the series and the fine graphic novel follow-up The 49ers focuses on the metaphor of Top Ten's multi-dimensional urban landscape as a stand-in for contemporary city living, the way personal identity has an almost permeable relationship with community acceptance. There are two ideas in that first series I found much more intriguing. The first is the notion that a police force is more about the orientation, intention and ideals of its constituent members and the way people afford them power than it is about the raw power of the cops themselves. The second is the way Top Ten portrays power as a monstrous circumstance because of its size and scope: a classic use of superhero motifs to amplify a real-world circumstance. Sometimes it's the simplest metaphorical tools that are the most effective, and I thought there were old-fashioned values galore in that first batch of books.
6. Smax #1-5, Alan Moore and Zander Cannon, 2003-2004.
I thought this was one of the better superhero spin-offs of the decade, and maybe the best ever. In part this was because it took a lighthearted approach to how its narrative fits into the major title's narrative, using a different setting to take a second, funhouse mirror look at the original series' themes. Zander Cannon draws great-looking fantasy material, too, dirty when it needs to be, noble when that's required, comfortable in its own absurdities. That last bit helps immensely. I also thought the monster in Smax genuinely creepy and even sort of scary. It served as a powerful callback to how violence is portrayed in the core Top Ten series, but also more than stands alone.
A friend of mine disliked strongly an incest-related plotline (probably not what you think). While it's hard to defend such a storyline in an abstract fashion in a review such as this one, I thought of it as a different way of getting back at the theme of urban living and learning to get along. Moore introduces an element into that mix to which many of us would have an initially strong reaction -- as opposed to using a teen TV series kind of civics lesson issue upon which everyone who's not a monster would agree. That's what imaginative, veteran creators should do. Mostly, though, I just found Smax funny and pleasurable. I read it every time it crosses my lap.
7. Leave It To Chance #1-11, James Robinson And Paul Smith, 1996-1998.
I think this is the oldest comic book series on the list, harkening back to the split Homage/Cliffhanger lines that Wildstorm offered readers, two lines I believe were later combined into a single brand within the larger brand right before -- maybe just after? -- the purchase by DC. And no, that sentence doesn't make any sense to me, either.
Frankly, I think a lot of people over-praise Robinson and Smith's work on this title, by which I mean they heap praise on it by engaging the idea of the book rather than the book itself. This may be because the 1990s were such a dire time for mainstream-style comics, particularly those that might appeal to children and people not deeply indoctrinated into the weird energy -- one-third manga, one-third Kirby, one third muscle magazine -- Image's superhero titles made the dominant storytelling form for a time. This may be because of everything that came since, actual book for actual kids, and for the feeling that mainstream comics is frequently left out of this conversation as it's currently constituted. If I knew, I'd tell you.
Leave It To Chance is a solid book, though, fun for its general craft quirkiness -- some of Smith's designs look like puppets brought to life by a magical spell -- and for the hints of darkness that might have been ramped up a bit had the series continued. It sort of reminds me of a Disney fairytale first-stab prequel of Veronica Mars, although there's little sign it would have become that intriguing, let alone as well-acted. Still, there's something genuinely upsetting about a child being constantly put into danger no matter how much gumption she shows that I can't imagine the creators came to it by accident. There's also rich metaphorical ore to mine in a world of adults not just strange and different and beyond one's ken because of one's limited experience but literally soaked with otherworldly elements, some of them dire and fell.
8. Automatic Kafka, Joe Casey and Ashley Wood, 2002.
A deeply weird comic that wanted to be a deeply weird comic, which is way, way, way harder than it sounds. It has that feel of when you spot an actor best known for acting in kids' film or on a children's television show playing a part that's hard and dirty and soaked right through its undershirt, just spread across page after page of strange-looking Ashley Wood art. Like Big Numbers, there's a mythology to AK that works to the benefit of the story told. In the final issue the lead is erased from existence so that others won't even touch it. This plot point is as rational reason as any that a collected edition doesn't exist; it makes sense that you'd have to snap open a mylar bag and dig into its story that way. It's all but an actual tombstone for mainstream comics' fertile early '00 experimentation stage, and should keep its aura for years to come.
9. League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen Vol. 1, Alan Moore and Kevin O'Neill, 1999.
Someday they're going to do a movie that isn't quite complete without the director's commentary. I feel that way about the first League of Extraordinary Gentlemen series, that this was a series that worked best read along with annotations and notes telling you what everything meant. That sounds like a criticism, but it's not: I think it's a uniquely odd way to read a comic book. It helps immensely that Kevin O'Neill's art is spectacular, and, in its grotesque fragility, heartbreaking by its support of the theme of mortality and weakness soaked right into the London streets of the story. The work's cause is aided even more by the huge crack-up that Mina Harker ends up being, the fictional embodiment of every woman that's ever furiously performed a series of tasks in the same room a guy has stood around feeling stupid and useless. She's like a Hong Kong action film upgrade of the previous Queen Of The Sour People, Adele Blanc-Sec, and I love every single scene she stamps through. What a fun comic book.
I don't remember going through this photo-report at all, which is full of cartoonists I've never met and those I've met that are dressing differently now. I want to link to it here so I can find it later.
Since I originally hadn't planned on having Five For Friday today and I don't feel like renumbering the next 50 of them, you'll have to make do with a FFF special. Thanks to those that participated. I look forward to getting back to your more comics-related response lists in 2011. -- Tom Spurgeon
Five Underrated Holiday Movie Marathons By Tom Spurgeon
1. State Of Play
By which I mean the original BBC series, not the horribly truncated and made-much-dumber Hollywood film release. A long, fervent and super-loopy love letter to the self- and actual drama experienced by journalists, with personable-as-hell actors in all the big roles. Turn your brain off and enjoy.
2. The Kingdom I-II
This is the Lars Von Trier TV show, the basis for one of the worst North American adaptations of anything ever. Don't let Stephen King stop you from enjoying the original, though. I've never met Santa Claus, but I wouldn't be surprised if he looked and acted like Stig Helmer. Ragged, super-funny and if you turn yourself over to it, a touch disturbing. Mostly just funny, though. Rewards repeated viewing.
3. Red Cliff I-II
No matter what the above trailer suggests, definitely watch the four-hour, two-part version over the smooshed-together US film release. John Woo's return to major film-making isn't without its oddities -- some of the acting never quite comes to life -- but they don't make films like this any more and this one will make you wish they could.
4. Slings And Arrows
It should be the most annoying television show of all time, but more often than not this Canadian comedy about three seasons at a Shakespeare-focused repertory company manages to be genuinely funny and sweet, true enough to its character types and setting that anyone who's ever come close to putting on a show will find something to which or to whom they can relate. I'd call it a thinking man's Glee, but I've never seen Glee outside of the omnipresent commercials. Anyway, my mom liked this, and a few of my cynical, twenty-something friends that saw it also liked it. Tricky and excellent lead performance by the frequently mis-utilized Paul Gross and an all-time shameless, chewing the scenery, recurring guest-star turn by Don McKellar. Seriously, Val Kilmer in Tombstone rolls his eyes at McKellar here. Like all the best comedies, this one lets the women be funny in equal measure to the men.
5. The Life And Adventures Of Nicholas Nickleby
Back in the very early 1980s when it first appeared, John Simon dismissed this eight-hour stage version of the Dickens novel as middlebrow entertainment. I like it for exactly that reason -- it's a very pleasurable, energetic and not in any way intellectually rigorous romp through a big-ass story -- a comedy, don't you know -- unpacked in a way you can see the effort of it being told. Everyone looks like they're having fun, even the guy playing Smike. This televised version is the reason your theater-loving friend cringes slightly instead of smiling when Roger Rees shows up in a guest spot on an American science fiction show.
Five Best Lines From It's A Wonderful Life By Danny Ceballos
1. "Youth is wasted on the wrong people."
2. "Here's your hat, what's your hurry?"
3. "What are you but a warped, frustrated young man?"
4. "Merry Christmas, you wonderful old Building and Loan!"
5. "Say brainless, don't you know where coconuts come from?"
Five Holiday Comics Smackdowns By Matt Silvie
* Spurge vs Santa
* Lockjaw vs Rudolph
* Doofus vs Mrs. Santa's dirty underwear aka "stinkiesâ„¢"
* Henry Hotchkiss vs Jack Skellington
* Man-Thing vs baby Jesus
Five Christmas Movies That Make Me Cry By Michael May
1. The Small One
2. Miracle on 34th Street
3. White Christmas
4. Home Alone
5. Love Actually
Five Favorite Songs Played At Christmas-time That Don't Actually Mention Any Holidays By Michael Grabowski
1. "Linus And Lucy," Vince Guaraldi Trio
Though it shows up in some form in pretty much every Peanuts animated show, its premiere in and its presence on the soundtrack record and CD forever link it to the holiday. Every kid who has taken piano lessons since the late 60s has wanted to or tried to play this song, I bet. I know I did.
2. "Winter Wonderland," Ray Charles and/or Harry Connick, Jr. When Harry Met Sally features Charles' typically bluesy/slightly schlocky approach in the scene where the just-friends buy a Christmas tree. The soundtrack CD instead features Connick playing it solo New Orleans-style with no vocals. Connick wins by a mile, but Charles' gets a nod for injecting the whole "dream by the fire" scenario with a little heat.
3. "Sleigh Ride," Johnny Mathis
I love the fun romance in this tune. Like "Winter Wonderland" it completely ignores the miserable conditions of actual snow outside in any kind of urban or suburban area and you can tell the lyrics were probably written by people who live in Southern California where snow is a soft white powder created for a movie set. Do people in Fargo like singing along?
4. "Baby, It's Cold Outside," Dean Martin (original version)
OK, even in its own time this song is kind of smarmy, and in the current climate it's downright creepy but I like this other side of the "Let it Snow" theme. Call it a guilty pleasure, for real. Either way it's freezing cold out there in that winter wonderland and that sleigh ride home won't be much fun so who wouldn't want to stay inside and flirt some more?
5. "Sweet Little Baby Boy," James Brown
Doesn't get any airplay on the holiday stations and it's the syrupy side of James Brown that most people aren't familiar with, but he delivers it with passion, and it's all about the reason for the season, so I like it.
Five Favorite Films That Also Happen To Be About Women That You Should Watch While Trapped At Your Family's Home For The Holidays By Tom Devlin
1. Gypsy (this ran on a local uhf station in the 70s constantly and as an early teen I watched it again and again. I was obsessed with its super clean stripper story.)
2. The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds... (I must have seen this as a movie of the week. I loved the overly long title and I really loved Joanne Woodward's wrecked mom. I think the girls in this movie reminded me of the older girls in my neighborhood.)
3. Woman Under the Influence (Of course. Gena Rowlands. So good in every Cassavetes film. This is the saddest performance ever committed to film.)
4. Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (Maggie Smith is amazing in this. Pamela Franklin is nerd gorgeous. Women making bad decisions.)
5. Career Girls (not anyone's favorite Mike Leigh but this one sticks with me in ways that others like Secrets and Lies or Vera Drake don't. I love Katrin Cartlidge's neediness in both this and Naked. I obviously need to do a KC film festival. I love every single Mike Leigh woman.)
Five Movies That Take Place During The Holidays But Are Not Considered Holiday Movies By Andrew Mansell
1. Lion in Winter
2. The Thin Man
5. Eyes Wide Shut
1. 1971 AFC playoff game -- Miami vs Kansas City - the standard bearer for all holiday-related sporting events
2. 1977 AFC playoff game -- Oakland vs Baltimore Colts -- ghost to the post
3. Any Blue Gray Football Classic -- remember when this was only game to watch Xmas afternoon as you either unwrapped presents or waited for Xmas dinner?
4. NBA Christmas games -- They have apparently been playing NBA games on Xmas since the league started but it wasn't until the mid 1980s it became a big deal. Insert your favorite Bird/Magic/Jordan game here.
5. 1982 NWA World Title Match -- Ric Flair vs Kerry Von Erich -- one of the most famous wrestling angles of the modern era unfolds as Michael Hayes slams the steel cage door on Von Erich, igniting the famous Von Erichs vs. Fabulous Freebirds feud.
1. Adeste Fideles (traditional hymn)
2. Mary, Did You Know? (contemporary religious)
3. Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer (pop song)
4. Christmas Wrapping (best rock/rap/soul/hip-hop)
5. All I Got For Christmas Was Drunk (sad/funny)
I'm not certain I believe a single idea that gets animated here, but it's certainly fun to read Tucker Stone talk about really bad comics and why we love them. Plus looking at all the awful panels if you don't read those kinds of comics as much as you used to is like the little freak outs you had when you were 26 years old and watching a bit of TV again whenever you ran into a show that had a solid, six-year run that you never, ever saw because you were in college.
* Cadavres Exquis, by Pénélope Bagieu (Gallimard Bayou)
* Cou tordu, by Caroline Sury (L'Association)
* Drôles de femmes, by Catherine Meurisse & Julie Birmant (Dargaud)
* Frances 2, by Johanna Hellgren (Cambourakis)
* Intérieur, by Gabrielle Giandelli (Actes Sud BD)
* Les enfants de l'envie, by Gabrielle Piquet (Casterman)
* L'espion de Staline, by Isabel Kreitz (Casterman)
* L'homme de mes rêves, by Nadja (Cornélius)
* Peindre sur le rivage, by Anneli Furmack (Actes Sud -- L'An 2)
* Rose d'Elisabethville, by Séraphine & Tilde Barboni (Dupuis)
* Trop n'est pas assez, by Ulli Lust (Çà et là)
This is an award directed towards female creators from an association bearing the same name as the prize.
The retailer and industry advocate Brian Hibbs has a longish post up at Comic Book Resources that if you're interested in the overall business landscape of comics and/or Direct Market retail specifically, you pretty much want to read right now. It's about as self-critical as the retail community ever gets, although if you're keeping score -- you probably shouldn't be keeping score -- you'll note that there's not a whole lot of shouldering the blame when it comes to Direct Market retail's participation in various unsound business practices, as in zero. Brian makes a call to fix things, but he makes it long distance.
However, that's a different conversation, one held by crabby old men like me in cold, dark places where the flickering light of our flat screen monitors illuminates, however briefly, a Dynamo Joe poster. The primary takeaway from this piece for everyone else should be two-fold. One is that the first quarter of 2011 holds the possibility of being brutal in terms of store closures and general wounding to the Direct Market economic landscape that could result in even more closures down the line or, perhaps more likely, a general inability to help right the ship by starving the system of course-correction capital. The secondary takeaway is that a lot of these problems involve system-wide bad behavior of several years standing, a dozen lousy habits coming home to roost. Whether you believe that the key to solving these problems is bold decisive action, a long-term adjustment of goals and behaviors, or hacking away at the market until the ugly parts are less noticeable, I think the near-intractability of some of these problems needs to be acknowledged. If you don't see these problems as drastic and systemic, the forty percent of the stuff you don't fix will get in the way of the sixty percent you do.
I like all the markets. I want all the markets to be as strong as possible, and I want lots of them. I know that the basic response here is that people like Brian are just running counter to history, that he and his peers are avoiding the inevitable. The money is over here now, and to think the money is going to come back over there keeps us from taking greatest advantage of the money being over here. Man, screw that. For one thing, the entire Direct Market and the wholesale rise of comics as a more viable art form that took place alongside it is a thumb in the eye to historical inevitability. Comics should have died in 1957. More importantly, I don't think correcting the self-fulfilling part of any prophecy is ever a bad thing. If the prophecy itself is any good, it will survive our unwillingness to meekly capitulate to its conventional wisdom. And hey: if the Direct Market is in worse shape than we thought, if it has to go out because of natural shifts in the way we make and consume things, I want them to go out viking funeral style, not sad burial in the backyard style. Count me among those that would rather build a boat than fetch a garbage bag any day of the week, including Wednesdays.
* Marvel announced initial plans for the CrossGen titles previously acquired by Disney: two four-issue mini-series with the Ruse and Sigil titles. Ruse was one of the better-remembered titles the long-defunct company did; Sigil was one of the highest profile titles from the company. I'm not sure that a couple of mini-series are all that big a deal. Then again, I'm not sure what the hell else Marvel could be expected to do with these properties.
* this article has benign intentions, but it really just reminded me what a poor match the Fawcett characters are for just about anything the DC has been excited about publishing since, well, ever. Although I guess you could argue that the overwhelming skeevy feeling that emanated from their "bad girl Mary Marvel" spin on the character in and around their Final Crisis maxi-series shows that there's still a bit of juice in the character.
* the ComixTalk yearly roundtable is worth reading if only to open up in new tabs every comic mentioned and then to save all of those links into a folder for your later, more considered perusal. If anyone out there has some thoughts concerning approaches to covering that field more effectively, I'm all ears.
* Seth Kushner reviewsScenes From An Impending Marriage; perhaps more importantly for some of you hoping to garner a look at this work, there's a page reprinted in the context of that piece.
* not comics: I have little to no interest in seeing the Thor movie, but if someone wants to add up how many times I have to see it to make up for business lost to racist dipshits, I'll do my best. I have a call in to Heimdall's publicist.
* it's a well-established truth that Vietnam happened because the powerful DC superhero icons were too busy goofing around.
* not comics: I watched that Kick-Ass movie the other day, and thought the belle of the ball was Mark Strong. That's kind of a shit part, but he was funny and engaging. Also, I was fascinated by the peculiarity and specificity of the fantasy comics store in the movie.
* I'm glad that people are discovering Jack Kirby's Losers material. There's some really crisp cartooning in those comics, basically Kirby's The Big Red One. Speaking of older material that deserves to be rediscovered, Blake Bell has announced he'll be editing some Bill Everett books for Fantagraphics. A strand or two of Everett's creative DNA can be found in every single superhero movie of the last 30 years.
* the hobby business news and analysis site ICv2.com makes a good point here -- when you're screening content as closely as Apple seems to, claiming you have no time to discover the provenance of the material doesn't really sound like you're telling the truth.
* nice photo set of the recent Fantagraphics 4th Anniversary Party here, and through the links available through that link.
* who redesigned Marvel's Ghost character? That's a pretty good redesign.
* finally, Robot 6notes that five comics-centric creators made Whitney Matheson's Top 100 list over at her prominent pop culture blog Pop Candy. Given that two of them enjoyed major cross-media efforts this year, I wonder if in terms of pop culture crackle comics had kind of a down year?
East Bay Express: Legendary Store Comic Relief Faces Imminent Closure
Remember, the post title is "Source Writes This" instead of "This" for a reason. I can almost guarantee you there's going to be a lot of angry responses to this article and objections to nearly every other sentence. You can read one early response here.
Reactions To President Jacob Zuma Lawsuit Against Zapiro Rape Cartoon
It's hard from a vantage point completely removed from South African media to make any sweeping Ozymandias-style claims regarding the rush of articles about President Jacob Zuma suing over the 2008 Zapiro rape cartoon. One imagines there's a tidal wave of context to process, some of which isn't immediately apparent from the articles themselves. That doesn't mean that reading the articles on an individual basis lacks value, and I urge anyone interested in the issue to scan as many article as possible.
A few that I've read this morning: The South African Editors Forum has urged the president to withdraw his lawsuit, and its spokesperson points out that for something that apparently humiliated the political leader two years is a long time to wait before filing suit. Jennifer Thorpe at Mail & Guardiannotes this suit will cost taxpayer money and that it largely proves Zapiro's point. An editorial in Business Day and a piece in NewsTime suggest there are positive aspects to the lawsuit considering the tribunal-style reforms that may be put into place. The Daily Maverick also suggests that this lawsuit may have an effect on media legislation, and that this is what Zuma intended. Another piece in Business Day has Zuma's response to being asked about the timing: no comment. A bunch of articles discuss the fact that this is Zuma's 11th such lawsuit. Here's the best piece I've read so far encapsulating the cartoonist's reaction.
Cartoonists Rights Network International Urges Malaysia To Lift Sedition Charges Made Against Zunar
Freemalaysiatoday.com has a full write-up on Cartoonists Rights Network International (CRNI) asking that Malaysia drop recent sedition charges against the cartoonist Zunar, noting that this action is both wrong on the face of it and a step against general pledges made through diplomatic channels to US officials. I'm not certain how much weight censure from the CRNI carries, if any at all, but an eloquent presentation of the core issues involved and making sure this story doesn't fade from view are important things to how this topic moves forward.
Go, Read: Chip Mosher Of Boom! Studios On Digital Comics Issues
Let me add my voice to those recommending this interview with Boom! Studios Marketing Director Chip Mosher about that company's digital efforts. It's fun for its expectations-challenging rhetoric, from Mosher's declaration based on their download numbers that there's an audience in markets outside of North America for superhero comics in English to his argument that casting digital comics in the role of industry savior may not be the smartest thing to do to his point that replicating a serial comics market with delays between chunks of material may not be the wisest strategy in the long term.
The Drawn! contributor always posts one of the more tasteful lists of great comics, and this year is no exception. The joy is in reading what Martz has to say about each choice -- the vast majority of which are straight-up comics -- so I'll list his choices here: Birchfield Close, Jon McNaught; Indoor Voice, Jillian Tamaki; Market Day, James Sturm; The Book of Grickle, Graham Annable; Custom Lettering of the '60s and '70s, Rian Hughes; Wilson, Daniel Clowes; Spork, Kyo Maclear, illustrated by Isabelle Arsenault; Linchpin: Are You Indispensable?, Seth Godin; Diary Comics #1, Dustin Harbin; Bent, Dave Cooper; Gahan Wilson: 50 Years of Playboy Cartoons, Gahan Wilson; Weathercraft, Jim Woodring.
* the Center For Cartoon Studies Annual Appeal is out! The Center For Cartoons Studies Annual Appeal is out! Oh, I'm just kidding. The bigger point is please consider pledging support to this most excellent educational institution. I believe they've been around long enough now to have earned the institutional-level trust that precedes taking seriously an organization's request for aid. In other words, I don't think your money would be wasted by them not knowing what to do with it.
* Robert Kirkman is writing and drawing a Spawn story. Speaking of Kirkman, Jason Woods notes that very few people have followed the model the writer outlined in his mini-manifesto a while ago, while a selection of alt-creators have followed a more traditional path of moving from well-received independent work to better-paying mainstream work.
* here's a list of underrated mainstream and near-mainstream serial titles for you to consider.
* the writer and editor Kristy Valenti speaks at length about writing introductions for comics works.
* Sean T. Collins seems to be showing off at this point, at least in turns of spinning dross into gold, as he follows a fine post on a comics writer saying a naughty with a lengthy disquisition on the state of superhero comics filtered through a forthcoming Steel comic book.
* finally, looking at something like this trailer for Iron Man #500 makes me wonder why a core strategy of the mainstream comics companies isn't to always have at least one title with the character's name in it (ideally just the character's name) and then treat that comic seriously as a core comic book, a comic book that could be someone's only comic book they read. I mean, I bet they think they do this, but I wonder if they really do this.
As expected, the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly earlier today passed a Youth Ordinance Bill designed to foster the regulation of manga and anime over extreme depictions of sex. Although the bill was sent back through the process after failing to pass earlier this year, there are still massive concerns about the relative vagueness of the bill's defining qualities, both in the types of material and depictions that would qualify as extreme and the promises made that the law will be judiciously applied and take into consideration artistic merit. That the publishers might self-regulate rather than having material kept from children is one possibility; that the publishers will push back against the ordinance by making Tokyo a kind of dead zone for certain kinds of business such as festival attendance is another. Seeing what's going to happen as opposed to endlessly projecting future probabilities might be something of a relief were everything about the bill not extremely depressing and, to my mind, deeply unnecessary.
This Isn’t A Library: New And 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. But if I were anywhere near a comic shop, I would indulge.
JUL100050 MOTEL ART IMPROVEMENT SERVICE HC $19.99
This is Jason Little's latest effort in his Bee comics series, although how long a series it's going to be when all is said and done, I don't know. I remember enjoying very much the big chunks of this I read on-line.
OCT100367 JOHN BYRNE NEXT MEN #1 $3.99
I was never a reader of the Next Men stuff, although I bet there are plenty of potential customers out there that were. It does make me feel old, though, like hearing about a pop star getting back together with his old band -- not the band you listened to, but the band he did after that.
JUL101046 MAD WOMAN O/T SACRED HEART HC (MR) $29.95
This is Moebius and Alejandro Jodorowsky, which means that you should look at it just on principle. Moebius alone would suffice -- he's one of three or four serious candidates for Greatest Living Cartoonist. This is the pair doing work outside of their well-known, long-ago partnership efforts in trippy science fiction, which to me drives my want-to-see levels even higher.
OCT100586 BLACK PANTHER MAN WITHOUT FEAR #513 $2.99
The blending of Marvel's iconic character with Daredevil's tag-line and issues numbering indicates a version of the "revive one character by having him take over another title" strategy that they performed a few years back by shoving Hercules into a Hulk title. This also allows them to give the original title character a bit of breather, like with a pro wrestler that takes some injury time off. I'm not sure that putting Black Panther into a Daredevil title works all that well on the face of it, and that they weren't better off with the recent Black Panther strategy of making him an international heavyweight, but my opinion of that character was formed by comics from more than 30 years ago and I'm not sure my opinion should count.
OCT100996 BIG QUESTIONS #15 (MR) $7.95
If you had to buy just one comic this week, you should buy the conclusion to Anders Nilsen's lyrical alt-comics series.
AUG101067 DISEASE OF LANGUAGE GN $18.99
This is a re-issue of the Eddie Campbell adaptation of two Alan Moore pieces. Eddie Campbell is always excellent and Alan Moore is occasionally astonishing, so you should look at this unless you already own a copy.
SEP101164 DETROIT METAL CITY GN VOL 07 (MR) $12.99 OCT101209 YOTSUBA & ! GN VOL 09 $10.99 SEP101204 NOT LOVE BUT DELICIOUS FOODS GN VOL 01 $10.99
Good week for offbeat but still-mainstream manga series of interest, including a new one that sounds like it's worth a look. But just the first two would be worth a trip to the comics store all by themselves.
OCT100669 STRANGE TALES 2 #3 (OF 3) $4.99
I have no idea what's going on in this comic, and just realized I don't think I own a single copy from this series or its predecessor. This is inconceivable from the perspective of the me that bought comics 15 years ago. If I were near a comics shop, I would at least look at it if not buy one outright.
JUN100747 SECRET HISTORY BOOK 13 (MR) $5.95
Another issue of Archaia's English-language transition of the nutty and super-handsome romp through Dan Brown-style historical conspiracies is good news; this is one of the few adventure series I follow in serial form. It's a guilty pleasure for those of us that don't feel the need to explain to anyone why there are no guilty pleasures.
JUN101001 STEVE DITKO ARCHIVES HC VOL 02 UNEXPLORED WORLDS $39.99
More Steve Ditko reprints, curated by Blake Bell.
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 didn't list your comic here, that's because I'm busying readying toys for all the children of the world.
Go, Read: A Top Female Comics Creators List For 2010 From CBR/Jezebel
While it may not be worth signing up for an account to comment on the article given the Gawker Empire's recent troubles in that area, it's worth a peek at this top female comics creators list at Jezebel (a re-publication of a CBR list) to engage with its content on your own. It's not the list I'd make -- off the top of my head, Vanessa Davis and Cathy Malkasian and Megan Kelso and Carol Tyler and Joyce Farmer dropped monster books this year -- but it's nice that there are enough female creators working that you can have 100 overlapping lists and even some in total disagreement. I'm also thankful for the attention in the general direction of Linda Medley: she's a prolific creator that for whatever reason always seems to be working down the street and a block over from the neighborhood where the rest of comics functions.
Their list is Nicola Scott, Jen Van Meter, Katie Cook, Sarah Glidden, Lucy Knisley, Raina Telgemeier, Colleen Coover (work pictured), Fiona Staples, Linda Medley, Hope Larson; you should read their descriptions, not mine.
One of the more intriguing launches in recent memory has to be Cartoon Movement, a platform for comics journalism of the editorial cartoon and experience-driven long-form narrative comic book variety, with Matt Bors of War Is Boring and a much-publicized 2010 trip to Afghanistan (the subject of a launch feature) acting as editor. This is a site of serious intent backed by an actual budget rather than something put together on a shoestring budget by folks hoping for some sort of bump of interest that will land them near a pile of money. As befits any modern launch, you can find different avenues for following what they do through that site link.
A hearing on evidence and testimony in the Michael George matter brought with it testimony from Michael Renaud, a key witness in terms of putting Michael George in his Michigan comics store the day his then-wife was killed in 1990. Renaud was apparently hammered pretty hard on two counts -- whether or not a meeting with police he described in reporter Amber Hunt's book took place despite it not appearing in prosecution records, and whether or not he was an unreliable witness generally, given to invention and smoking pot. The second trial of the formerly prominent Pennsylvania retailer and convention organizer is due to start February 8.
Florida School Board Shooting Showcases V For Vendetta Symbol
Straight-forward and at best tangentially-related: there's not really much to say about something like this that isn't weird, off-putting or both. You gotta give it up to the guy who took the blame for something he barely understood let alone caused and asked that the others be let go.
Jacob Zuma Finally Sues Zapiro And Sunday Times Over Rape Cartoon
South Africa President Jacob Zuma has sued prominent cartoonist Jonathan "Zapiro" Shapiro and the Sunday Times for $700,000 claiming defamation from a cartoon depicting him as about to sexually assault justice. The cartoon originally appeared in 2008. Variations on that cartoon -- changing the subject of the potential assault or the identity of the people holding that person down -- have appeared since. A lawsuit or some sort of legal action has been threatened or fumed about by/from the Zuma camp ever since. The money sought breaks down into two categories: one is for humiliation, the other is for the damage to his reputation.
Zapiro has told the Sunday Times' daily iteration that he won't back down, which is consistent with every statement he's made since the cartoon originally appeared. The AP article points out that the cartoon was brought in front of the country's Human Rights Commission in 2008 by one of the people depicted as holding down the justice system for Zuma; the commission concluded there was not violation of the man's "constitutional right to dignity" and that the cartoon was not hate speech.
Tokyo’s Youth Ordinance Bill Makes Its Committee Vote; Full Assembly To Vote On Measure Wednesday
Anime News Networknotes that the revised version of Tokyo's Youth Healthy Development Ordinance Bill passed its committee vote on Monday and will go to the full assembly for a vote on Wednesday. There are reasonable and obvious worries that the bill's broad language could potentially drive a subset of manga and anime from Tokyo stands, or make such works subject to delays from publication to sale in that market, or waste publisher resources in either trying to fight the standards or find a way around them. A pageant of such reactions -- a group of publishers seeking to boycott a Tokyo anime fair, a publisher pledging general support to creators whose work might run afoul of the bill, rumors of publishers considering restrictive editorial terms in the belief that the bill will be passed -- can be found through that original link.
JK Parkin wrote up the details so I don't have to. For those of you wondering what this is about, Comic-Con International has tried a couple of times now to puts its badges on sale, but the intense interest in those badges -- a combination of growing, natural demand and a sort of low-level panic, a panic that may indeed be justified, that you have to get on these tickets immediately or risk having them sell out underneath you -- has overwhelmed the systems that CCI has thus far employed to facilitate the badge sales. The latest they're trotting out is a two-step process, and they're wanting to try it out with a thousand test subjects -- information through the link.
This is an intriguing story in a sense, although it's pretty straight-forward and there's an eventual outcome where tons of people attend a sold-out convention so it's hard to gauge the appropriate level of drama with which it should be greeted. I would imagine the problem isn't just the physical failure of the ticket-selling tries but the frustration it engenders among the show's biggest fans and the primary group of people the convention wishes to serve (I hate to break this to comics insiders and Hollywood types, but the show needs to serve its paid attendees first). Plus I have to imagine it's just annoying to have your stuff not work. Let's hope for an efficient, equitable outcome.
In a somber, sober and unbelievably straight-forward and rational post, Jelle Hugaerts talks about closing down his Helsinki store Pitkämies. This was one of those stores that seems to exist in a dream space for a lot of adult comics readers: a place to buy the best comics internationally (Hugaerts mentions his first offerings were American comics), invested in its regional arts comics community, well-designed, a hub for events, an active and engaged owner. Unfortunately, as Hugaerts puts forward in almost heartbreaking terms, this is a model that's nearly inconceivable to sustain. Such efforts are never super-profitable, and when something goes south like music sales did a while back, it's impossible to do anything with the other parts of the business to push things back into the black. Hugaerts mentions that the store will live on in memory and, hopefully, in the occasional publishing initiative or effort engineered by its owner and operator. I can only thank Hugaerts and wish him the best, and I'm sure there are hundreds if not thousands of people that feel their life was improved by having this kind of store in their lives, no matter how briefly.
No one thinks that there's going to be enough iPads given as Christmas presents or purchased with holiday money that January DM numbers might feel the impact, do they? I don't think so, either, not really, but I just on-line chatted with the third comics fan I know that's received one as a pre-Christmas/office bonus gift. All three have talked about moving some comics buying to the device immediately -- not the possibility, not the likelihood, but the matter-of-fact reality that they are going to buy fewer comics in the store now. And this is without widespread, equivalent delivery programs in place. I found that quite interesting, even from my perspective of fundamentally letting the various markets sort themselves out -- if only after maximizing the utility of each one. If something does happen, I'm going to remember that I first heard about the possibility from Buzz Dixon.
* I'm not surprised that a Kenyan newspaper writer is citing a western strip for its humor and insight, but I'm slightly surprised that strip is Andy Capp. That is also probably the most Flo-centric reading I've ever read of the Reg Smythe-created comedic saga of the wife-beating, philandering, alcoholic layabout whose name is the title.
* not comics: looking over this short, casual list of potentially imminent Marvel films made me wonder if Marvel really has a strategy after the Avengers movie to match the one they have going into the Avengers movie. I mean, Moon Knight? Really? Of properties not even on that verbal short list I'd put Power Pack, Cloak & Dagger and Strikeforce Morituri all ahead of Moon Knight.
* I think I would read this if there were a third Wolverine child named Steve Burgess, who was an associate professor of art history at Suwanee College or worked in human resources for a mid-sized regional hospital.
* hey, here's Kim Thompson talking to CBR about how that recent book they did of David B. is a precursor to a bunch of books from European creators aiming some comics at a younger set. Did I know about this? That's good news.
* the artist Lars Vilks, who in the wake of the Danish Cartoons Controversy made a cartoon caricature of Muhammad's head on the body of a dog, was named as motivation by principals in bombings in Stockholm December 11. The country's presence in Afghanistan was cited as another reason for the terrorist act, that killed one, injured two and unsettled millions.
Maurice “Siné” Sinet Wins 40,000 Euro Judgment Against Charlie Hebdo
According to an article at the French-language industry clearinghouse ActuaBD.com, Maurice Sinet, a cartoonist and social satirist who since the early 1950s and especially the 1960s has dragged French society over the coals for various beatings and recriminations as Siné, has won an 40,000 euro judgment against the publication Charlie Hebdo for wrongful termination. Sinet had been let go by the magazine in 2008 after Editor Philippe Val demanded an apology for articles about Jean Sarkozy criticized in the French media as anti-Semitic. Sinet responded with an underrated classic in the long history of take this job and shove it rhetoric, declaring that he would rather cut off his own balls than to make such an apology. The firing, a massive amount of public bitchery and wild internet commentary, and Siné setting up house elsewhere all followed that declaration. As the article notes, there has been a flurry of lawsuits between the principals involved in this decision, and one such lawsuit directed by Sinet at the magazine in what sounds like a closely-related complaint has yet to move into the decision phase.
The amount of money involved in the judgment is approximately $53,000 USD.
* the referring committee of the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly will vote today on the youth ordinance once thought dead but now believe a very real threat to the unfettered publication of manga and creation of anime for Tokyo audiences. The full assembly will vote on Wednesday. In the meantime, a group of publishers have boycotted that city's anime fair.
I have no idea if a Sunday in December announced a few days in advance seems weird to anyone else for an announcement-heavy regarding Kodansha USA's 2011 series titles, but from the dearth of what looks like on the ground reportage from the event would seem to indicate I'm not alone. Apparently, Kodansha made a bunch of series announcements for 2011 yesterday, for a combination of works previously published by Del Rey, work previously published by other companies not Del Rey, and series brand-new to America, all to begin in May 2011 and the vast majority if not entirety to drop into the market between May and August.
The series that will resume with Kodansha that were published to this point by Del Rey: Air Gear (Oh! Great), Arisa (Natsumi Ando), Fairy Tail (Hiro Mashima), I am Here! (Emma Toyama), Negima! (Ken Akamatsu), Negima?! Neo (Ken Akamatsu and Takuya Fujima), Sayonara, Zetsubou-Sensei (Koji Kumeta), Shugo Chara (Peach-Pit), and The Wallflower (Tomoko Hayakawa). There will also be a omnibus release of Negima! in July.
The series that will resume with Kodansha that were published by other companies: Rave Master (Hiro Mashima, Tokyopop), in an omnibus edition; Until the Full Moon (Sanami Matoh, Broccoli); Gon (Masahi Tanaka, CMX Manga)
The series that were announced as brand new to English-translation: Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney, Monster Hunter Orage, Deltora Quest, The Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex, Mardock Scramble, Animal Land, Bloody Monday, and Cage of Eden. I'm a little confused here because I thought, for instance, there were a couple of Phoenix Wright books at some point or another, but it's not a field I follow closely enough to say for sure. I'm also a little confused generally as to whether or not Kodansha will reprint volumes in series that came out from another publisher if there's a need to in the course of publishing the new books, although I would have to assume so.
* Tom Brevoort and Axel Alonso speak a little bit about the Architects promotion that Marvel recently did, bringing attention to some of their core writing talent and -- I think, anyway -- drawing a distinction between themselves and their competition. I guess there are fans out there flipping out about this, but I imagine that kind of churning up some fan interest is part of the idea well.
* not comics: newspaper industry magazine of record E&Phas torn down their pay wall, which I suppose it's good news although I have to admit it's been three or four years since they've had anything up behind their wall I wanted to access. Speaking of articles from Editor & Publisher, I think this kind of thing will become more common in the months and years ahead.
* Marvel announced the latest of its space-opera titles with a little bit more oomph than I remember coming with the other series in this corner of their publishing empire. I imagine one reason is because there's a certain kind of fan for whom these are perfect comics series. In fact, the shame of the shape of the current marketplace is that Marvel can do all this patient, hard work re-establishing a whole bunch of its characters, giving creators leeway and room for years underneath the radar, but then when it comes time for the payoff there really isn't any -- there's just not a wider audience for serial superhero space comics to be had.
On Friday CR Readers were asked to "Name Four Important News Stories (In Positions #1-4) From 2010 And One (In Position #5) You Expect To Be Noteworthy In 2011." This is how they responded.
1. Zunar Continues To Cross Malaysian Government
2. The Danish Muhammad Cartoons Turn Five
3. DC Undergoes Nearly Year-Long Orgy Of Hiring And Promotion, Mostly From Within
4. Publishers Begin Slow Move Into Digital Comics
5. Michael George Trial II
1. Rising Cover Prices
2. CCI Staying In San Diego
3. DC Reorganization
4. Big Publishers Admit Reality And Follow Smaller Publishers And Independent Cartoonists Into Digital Comics
5. Green Lantern's Box Office
1. Kirby Estate Lawsuit Continues
2. "Little Orphan Annie" Taken Out Back, Shot
3. Archie Comics Moves Agressively Into The Late 20th Century
4. Superheroes Gain Popularity & Inscrease Audience In Every Medium Except Comics
5. Implosion Of Print, Brick & Mortar Book Stores After 50 Million Kids Get iPads For Christmas
Michael J. Grabowski
1. Cartoonists Use Internet To Turn Readers Into Patrons
2. Archival Comic Strip Collection Boom Not Yet A Bust
3. Comic-Con International To Extend San Diego Residency
4. Portable Reading Devices Increase Market For Digital Comics
5. Marvel To Publish Digital-Only Spider-Man Comic
Thank you so much for reading and/or participating in Five For Friday this year. I imagine the feature will return in January.
The director, animator and cartoonist Terry Gilliam is apparently touring in support of a Facebook game that utilizes some of the imagery that he used to create the animated bumpers for the Monty Python TV shows and films. I hope that means we may one day soon get a new edition of his book Animations Of Mortality, or, hopefully, an expanded edition of that tome able to bring together all of the filmmaker's scattered cartooning output -- including the work done for the CD-ROM version of Animations -- into one place.
Okay, there's really not much here in the way of news, and it's a sign the end of the year is coming when you're reduced to asking people to publish things for you, but they say Christmas is the season of hope and I remain hopeful.
Longtime retailer, columnist on industry issues and more recent Diamond Comics employee Steve Bates died on December 3 from complications due to cancer. Bates passed away while sleeping. He was 48 years old.
A lifelong comics reader, Bates managed a two-store chain Bookery Fantasy, headquartered in Fairborn, Ohio outside of Dayton. Bates stayed at Bookery Fantasy for 18 years, finally moving to Diamond and their marketing department in 2005 as a writer in the marketing department, a move he discusses here. A year before making the move, Bates went from frequent talkback contributor at the hobby business and analysis site ICv2.com to that site's first full-time, outside contributor. His column was called "I Think I Can Manage" and fit in with ICv2.com's focus on direct market industry issues. Among his outlets at Diamond were writing for Diamond Daily, Diamond Dialogue, Diamond Dateline and various Diamond outreach web sites. Bates was later promoted to Retailer Marketing Associate, and held that position until his death.
Bates was a frequent attendee of regional conventions while at Bookery Fantasy, and later served as a presence at various Diamond-attended shows. According to one message-board remembrance, while in Ohio Bates wrote a comic book called The Covenant with local artists Marvin Bean and Justin Wasson.
Bates was a literacy volunteer, a member of Fairborn's downtown business association when at Bookery Fantasy, and studied Tae Kwon Do in his spare time. He is survived by three brothers, two nieces, a nephew, a mother-in-law, a father-in-law, a wife of twenty years, a mother, a two daughters.
* James Vance offers up a lengthy, well-illustrated post about working on a comic about the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival, known in my circle of friends as the music show that gave us that album we bought for Jim Hendrix but ended up listening to the Otis Redding flip-side 10,000 times.
* Sean Collins wrings a fine blog post about creator/fan interaction out of writer Dan Slott telling some over-passionate, entitled comics fan to go fuck himself. Seriously, that's what Slott wrote. Collins also writes at length about editor Tom Brevoort wondering out loud where the next superstar mainstream comics artist will come from. I think there's a structural issue at work there, in that I'm not sure potential superstar artists in the making get the same kind of career-building assignments right now, and this is a matter of publishing strategy.
* I suppose it's worth noting that AV Club, the pop-culture focused newspaper bundled in with The Onionran a review from a writer for a book that the writer couldn't have seen, and according to an e-mail from Keith Phipps and a comment made underneath that article, that writer has since been zapped to the cornfield, never to be published again. I'm sorry the publication had to experience that, and to my mind zero tolerance for that kind of thing is the best policy. That said, please trust me when I suggest that the less finger-wagging and hand-wringing becomes involved, the better. I also hope the writer learns from it and is able to move forward. I've certainly done my share of dumb things over the years for the sake of a review assignment.
* every comics reader that's spent time immersed in mainstream comic books has that one character that's the line between their involvement and everything that's come after, a big, black, inky curtain between yours and not yours that soaks right through the paper. Mine is Venom.
* finally, Marvel unveils a group of $2.99 titles. As I've written a few times now, I'm all for $2.99 books as sort of a general rule in the present moment because I think there exists a tipping point for many readers where the group of serial comics they enjoy become too expensive for them to continue that relationship with those kinds of comics, despite the fact they may still enjoy them just as much as they used to. I'm less interested in using the announcement to wave the disingenuous-detection wand over what Marvel said about such comics and when and why, although I'm sure unfortunate things were said and strange accusations were made on all sides at some point along the way. It's also worth pointing out that limited series seem to play a big role for Marvel in terms of talent development.
Brenda Starr, a comics feature with over 70 years as a Sunday offering and 65 years as a daily, will end its run on January 2 when the current team of Mary Schmich and June Brigman will publish their final strip. This is the second major Tribune Media Service legacy strip to close its doors in the last 12 months, as Little Orphan Annie ended her string of tomorrows early last summer. Dale Messick's strip was remarkable in that it was a solid performer but never a humongous hit -- it peaked out at about 250 papers in North America and abroad, but that was in the mid-1950s. It had less than 50 remaining clients.
Messick's strip was well known for its launch after the newspaper page had retrenched itself as a boys club despite the early success of female cartoonists like Nell Brinkley. Famously, the New York Daily News newspaper titan Joseph Medill Patterson had serious doubts about running features from female cartoonists just as a general rule, but accepted Brenda Starr for syndication. Messick's strip was also admirable in that its lead was as strong-willed and competent and forcefully proactive in journalism as her creator was in comics. Although the strip paid attention to fashion and had significant romance elements, there was never any doubt as to who was in charge of Brenda Starr, or around whom her strip rotated. That would be Brenda Starr. Messick retired in 1995, and passed away in 2005.
To give you some idea of the strip's endurance, writer Schmich has been with the feature for a quarter century -- a half-Schulz -- and artist June Brigman, who came on the strip following Messick and I believe maybe one other person, has been drawing the strip for 15 years -- the standard contracted life of a modern strip. Additional kudos to those creators for their long run in the difficult role of caretakers.
The Tribune piece notes that Hermes Press will start releasing collections of the strip in June 2011.
A single wire story (so far) notes the postponement of an additional hearing in the Tintin Au Congo trial. This was to be the hearing following the one in late November when the case was made by the legal team brought to bear by Congolese citizen Bienvenu Mbutu Mondondo and a supportive civil rights group against the work's presence in kids sections at libraries, and the legal team representing Casterman failed to get the case dismissed. The hearing will take place next week, and a decision is expected six to eight weeks after that hearing. As most comics fans know, Tintin Au Congo is filled with all sorts of imagery that are extremely hard to bear; whether or not this can be processed by its intended audience as an outcome of the time in which it was created seems to be one of the principles that will be brought to bear. There are also obvious, potentially drastic implications to either direction the court may choose to go.
The Never-Ending, Four-Color Festival: Cons, Shows & Major Events
By Tom Spurgeon
* on Office Christmas Party Thursday we look ahead to a pretty quiet convention weekend -- which makes sense at this point in the year. There are conventions in Portugal and France. The big one to my mind is a Reed show in Singapore where a small but significant group of American comics creators are heading as guests. I expect people coming back and raving about a) the food, b) how freakishly well-organized it is. An Asian Lucca -- by which I mean a show in that part of the world that's specifically friendly to American mainstream comics creators -- would be a welcome thing, to my mind.
* Fantagraphics' store show on Saturday night seems like it would be worth stopping by, at least on your way to that party where the host and hostess are wearing sweaters and obviously not speaking to one another.
* you could spend this relative downtime registering for WonderCon, the early April show from the Comic-Con folks. I had a good time at that show last year, even though -- perhaps because -- none of my usual convention pals were around. Also, it was free for me, which mitigated against various travel nightmares. I guess what I'm getting at is that if I were in the area I'd have no problem heading over for at least one long day of buying comics and hearing cartoonists talk. I quite enjoyed the panels I attended, and whatever Seth's doing is bound to be worth seeing.
* I don't think I'll be on the West Coast that week but it turns out I may be in the Midwest at the same time as March's C2E2 Year 2, and if I am, I'll be there.
* in fact, seeing this is the last Four-Color Festival column of the year, you might spend some time over the next few weeks as I will plotting out your 2011. It seems to me that there staggering number of shows that on some level or another, some for people in close proximity and for those that are far away, appeal to a certain kind of comics fan. In an ideal world where I had a magic credit card and an inexhaustible supply of energy, I could make the case for attending around a dozen shows in North America and half that number overseas (I will probably attend three or four total). That's an amazing number of shows, and a sign that conventions have a collective energy they maybe never had before. I hope you enjoyed this recurring focus on them, and it's likely the column will return in 2011.
I hope that you enjoyed this column pulling together each week's convention-related news. The column will return in 2011.
This is, without a doubt, the most difficult message I've had to type in my 18 years in business. As many of you know, times are tough and it is going to take the economy a long time to recover. Unfortunately, while Comic Sales have only declined slightly, Gaming Sales have plummeted. Several game companies have gone out of business, most have significantly reduced their releases. Given this situation, sales are no longer at a level that I can keep the store open.
This is the first time I can remember a comics retailer specifically citing the state of the gaming industry as a reason for closure. Many comics shops not in a coastal metropolis have for years offered gaming materials in addition to their comics. This has been met by scorn from some hardcore comics fans, but it always sort of made sense to me; I know that when I've lived in the Midwest a road trip to the comics shop with a few of my friends almost always meant stopping at the nearby gaming establishment. Yet as was the case in the 1990s with several comics accounts sharing a roof with a sports card business, the collapse of one kind of business can lead to closure overall.
Comic World is looking to liquidate its furnishing and stock, and will have at least one 25 percent sale between now and the 23rd. If you're a customer or in the region, I can't imagine a better way to say goodbye to the almost two-decade old store than helping ease the transition with your purchases. We wish all those involved with the operation of the store the best of luck. Local media has noted the closure.
Go, Read: Don MacPherson On Rich Koslowski’s Sisyphean Struggle
Don MacPherson follows up on Rich Koslowski's legal victory over a business that clearly used his art without permission or recompense. Instead of capitulating to the legal judgment, the user of the art in question merely ignored it and dug in. It's a distressing article about the contempt and abuse that certain people rain down on the creative efforts of others while ostensibly thinking enough of those efforts to make use of them in the first place, and should be read in full just so you can be an additional witness as to what happened.
* the Bulgarian cartoonist Christo Komarnitski has won the 2010 Human Rights Ward given out by the South and East Europe Media Organisation (SEEMO). Looking at the list of past winners, it seems as if Komarnitski is the first cartoonist to receive the award, which has been given out since 2002. The cartoonist's dozen years as a political cartoonist for Sega in Bulgaria and abroad through the Cagle Cartoons Syndicate were cited, as well as a long list of international cartooning awards and citations.
* according to reports from Australian news sources like this one, a weekend-magazine style piece on cartoonist Vince O'Farrell and his battle with bipolar disorder was commended in its category at the Walkley Awards. The Walkleys are that country's most important journalism awards program. Jodie Duffy wrote the piece with O'Farrell. You can see O'Farrell's work here.
* here's one of those fascinating subjects that only seem to crop up in comics: the similarities between two soft character re-boots.
* not comics: Peter David and Carol Tyler note the 30th anniversary of the murder of John Lennon. I was at a rare post-final performance Christmas party that night, a school night, for a stage show in which I'd played an extra's role (it involved tights). A version of this piece. I remember caroling and mistletoe and someone leaving their Michelin Man-style coat too close to the fire. We didn't hear the news until we got home, as the football game ended. If you get a chance to hear it somewhere around the Internet, the audio of Howard Cosell so politely deferring to the opinion of his boothmates and deciding to break the story on MNF is pretty awesome.
* the writer Jason Aaron talks about the price point from the perspective of the comics creator, I think in candid fashion, delineating all of the conflicts involved.
* that Richard Sala ever worked for Hallmark is news to me. Nice card, too.
* Joseph Lambert provides a look into the design work he's done on this year's annual appeal from the Center For Cartoon Studies. It looks very nice. Lambert is like a half-step away from never answering our e-mail ever again.
* it's been hard not to link to every single one of Frank Santoro's recent assault of imagery, but I may like this one best of all.
* they're doing bracketed creator vs. creator contests over at Newsarama. It'd be nice if there were non-superhero creators included, but then again, maybe not.
* finally, some Christmas and shopping-related links. Tony Millionaire has a strip with ornament designs in it, if you don't have super-high standards about the physical construction of your ornaments. Rob Ullman is offering Christmas cards. Emily Carroll will sell you a print. I've had these Sailor Twain prints bookmarked for, well, not for very long at all. I just can't remember where I got the link. Ditto this page where an Edward Gorey auction is discussed. Finally, Darwyn Cooke is selling some pages to benefit The Hero Initiative.
This Isn’t A Library: New And 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. But if I were anywhere near a comic shop, I would find something with a beat and that you can dance to.
OCT100015 BPRD HELL ON EARTH NEW WORLD #5 (OF 5) $3.50
Every week it seems there's something out from the Mike Mignola-verse, but there are never so many comics that it feels like too many. I think if I were in my early 20s and was going to a comic book shop -- and I probably wouldn't because there are so few alt-comics -- this might be my core purchase week-in, week-out.
AUG100064 FLASH GORDON COMIC BOOK ARCHIVES HC VOL 02 $49.99
I'd like to look at how they're handling these. The comics can be gorgeous -- I'm 98 percent certain this is in part the 1960s King series that featured Al Williamson art -- but presentation really matters here. I'd need to look at it. Comics shops are great like that, at least the ones where the more expensive books aren't sealed in plastic.
APR100042 USAGI YOJIMBO TP VOL 08 SHADES OF DEATH NEW PTG (RES) $15.99 APR100043 USAGI YOJIMBO TP VOL 09 DAISHO NEW PTG (RES) $15.99 APR100044 USAGI YOJIMBO TP VOL 10 BRINK OF LIFE & DEATH NEW PTG (RES) $15.99
I greatly enjoy Stan Sakai's work. I don't know why three books are coming back into print at the same time, but I figure the more of this work that's in print the better things are for Mr. Sakai.
SEP100317 SWEET TOOTH TP VOL 02 IN CAPTIVITY (MR) $12.99 OCT100329 NORTHLANDERS #35 (MR) $2.99
Two Vertigo efforts. The first is an effort from a well-regarded cartoonist that's already lasted in serial form past the initial over/under, so good for Team Sweet Tooth. The second is one of the comics imaginary 20-year-old-in-2010 me would be buying in serial fashion, were I going to a comic book store. Straight-ahead, genre-soaked viking comics. There should always be such comics.
JUN100383 POLLY & HER PALS COMPLETE SUNDAY COMICS VOL 01 1925-1927 $75.00
This thing is humongous and stunning-looking, and the work is either A-level material or a very, very high B depending on which strip enthusiast is within arm's length when you ask the question out loud.
MAY100457 ORC STAIN TP VOL 01 (MR) $17.99
I did not know this collection was about to come out and I've been stowing these away in serial form, but this is one of those new, super-funky comics for boys that people talk about, page after page of ragged comics mayhem that looks nothing like comics that came out ten or twenty years ago.
OCT101049 THE LODGER GN (MR) $19.95
Karl Stevens latest is a blend of realistic-art comics and paintings aimed at a young artist's life -- his own.
AUG100023 MAGNUS ARCHIVES TP VOL 01 $19.99
I like the price point here, but I'm not all that familiar with the Russ Manning comics beyond the fact that they're practically the definition of 1960s mainstream comics handsomeness.
JUL100987 WHO WILL COMFORT TOFFLE A TALE OF MOOMIN VALLEY HC $16.95
This is lovely-looking -- make your teeth hurt and make you want to make something that's sort of like it pretty. It's not comics, really, but a children's picture book from D+Q's Tove Jansson efforts, I think their second.
SEP101194 SLAM DUNK GN VOL 13 $9.99
I greatly enjoy Slam Dunk, and am a fan of sports manga generally. It's perfect at this size: just enough movement forward in the various plots and skill development so as not to drive you crazy.
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 didn't list your comic here, that's because I'm enormously tired, too tired to even make a decent stab at a joke.
* the trial of Tahawwur Rana begins in February. Rana was the man arrested along with David Coleman Headley and charged with supporting Headley in efforts that included plans to blow up the newspaper building where the Danish Cartoons were initially processed. Headley pleaded guilty and has basically been unfurling his version of the truth in the direction of various sets of authority figures ever since.
* any conversations or meetings focusing on the relationship between Denmark and Turkey will engender discussion about the back and forth between the countries over the Danish Cartoons.
* I always feel bad about linking to things at Huffington Post because despite the fact it's completely illogical I always feel like I'm watching people being bullied into performing at the piano after being served -- or at least promised -- a meal. One of the writers posting things over there wonders out loud why the New York Times feels comfortable posting things from WikiLeaks and didn't feel comfortable posting the Danish cartoons. I don't even know if that make a ton of sense -- are those things really comparable beyond being things that can be published in a newspaper -- but it's certainly a novel approach. I think the major papers should have published the cartoons when what they looked like became a key news story, and I'm not sure a comparison to a right-now issue really strengthens what I see as a fairly obvious issue.
ICv2.com has the best summary of the news. In as much of a straight-forward announcement as this kind of stories , Diamond will close its LA warehouse and move those operations to its massive Memphis-area facility in Olive Branch, Mississippi.
The timing coincides with Diamond's adoption of a day-early delivery schedule for participating stores. While select personnel will be transferred to Mississippi in order to facilitate the increased business, it appears as if a number of Los Angeles workers will be looking for employment in the New Year. Also lost will be the method through which apparently some Los Angeles accounts used the proximity of the facility to pick up their books themselves -- I'm not certain if the day-early delivery program can help fulfill anything those accounts might feel they're losing or not. It seems as if Diamond will employ UPS as the structural backbone on certain kinds of deliveries, and will work with International accounts on an case-to-case basis.
I could be wrong, but I believe at one point Diamond had around 20 smaller distribution locations -- perhaps even slightly more than that. If you look at the last four decades of comics distribution, one major through-line to that industry's story is overwhelmingly one of consolidation of facilities. The desire to significantly streamline or flat-out reduce costs is on the minds of most businesses in this economy, including comics-related ones.
The comics business news and analysis site ICv2.com offers 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 November 2010.
The number aren't strong, to say the least, but there are caveats. One of the standard figures used to measure DM sales is to compare a month's sales to the same month in a previous year. November 2009 had very strong sales because of the debut of the successful Blackest Night series, including a purchasing option that included a collectible ring that was very popular. It's also worth noting that a bump in trade sales -- which may be due to Walking Dead seeing TV show-related interest -- is not only a factor that mitigates against the overall sales declines it's something you can argue was necessary in and of itself to help staunch recent losses category-wide.
I'm still sort of personally worried by the decline in sales near the top of the chart. It's great that comics on the tail end of the top 300 are selling more than they used to, it really is. Still, it seems to me that the present periodicals market is designed in great part to deliver bigger hits at the top end, and that a top 25 comic book has dropped to around the 45,000 comic book level indicates something troubling even if some -- and we have to say "some," because the number are down overall -- of the sales slack is taken up by the comics in the #240 to #270 positions. Further, I suspect there's no easy way out of this except the kind of slow-build strategies the major players have all but abandoned in favor of market-share games and individual title manipulation, strategies to which they'll now pay less attention with the new focus on managing properties and the rise of multiple, alternative sales venues. I wish I had more to offer you than Obi-Wan Kenobi style proclamations, but it's difficult to divine what the workings of one comics shop actually mean, let alone the same from a few thousand. Still, something feels wrong, and not necessarily in the cheap, flip "hey, everything's screwed" way.
* the writer Neil Kleid talks at length about his contributions to a forthcoming "80-page giant" DC comic: a 10-page Perry White story done with Dean Haspiel. This is the kind of writing you almost never see anymore on-line because of the prevalence of twitter and the saturation of PR-driven interviews, so I hope you'll enjoy it as much as I did.
* a bunch of you wrote in to tell me that there indeed has been toilet paper with sequential narratives to read as they roll out. That's... well, that's sort of weird. But good to know. I need something to talk about at these holiday parties.
* this scene from X-Men: The Hidden Years fairly creeps me out for some reason. That whole comic series -- John Byrne's re-imagining of what happened to Marvel's superhero mutants between the cancellation of their first series and the resumption of the series in 1975 -- is fairly unsettling, and I'm not 100 percent certain why. I suspect it may have something to do with it lacking the small-r romance of the most successful iterations.
* I just wanted to say in the spirit of the holiday season how grateful I am that Gary Tyrrell blogs about webcomics over at Fleen. If he were to leave that particular gig, I would be even more lost than I usually am when it comes to webcomics. Here's a typical day worth of links to which I wouldn't dream of having access to otherwise.
* a new classics line at Casterman kicks off with a re-release of the Mattotti/Kramsky Fires and Murmur books under one cover. Those books' English-language versions don't get discussed a whole lot, but I saw a lot of cartoonists looking at them in the mid-1990s.
* probably the big publishing news of the moment was communicated through a press release Monday that IDW is expanding its forthcoming Alex Toth books to three books: the previously announced Genius, Isolated to be followed by Genius, Illustrated and Genius, Animated. The three will then be open to slip-casing. Every delayed work should have this outcome.
* one of the great things about there being so many fantastic comics being published right now is that you can look forward to something like Wilfred Santiago's book on Roberto Clemente for what seems like the longest time and be perfectly happy waiting until it comes out. That also has to be the first Fantagraphics product with a pull-quote from an ESPN commentator on the front cover.
* so apparently artist Frazer Irving's next project will be the Xombi revival. That strikes me as an odd place for Irving to end up given how luminous his Batman And Robin work ended up being, but there could be all sorts of things about the move I'm not getting, up to and including that's the project Irving wants to do. That announcement certainly doesn't disappoint me personally, I'm happy to follow that guy wherever he goes.
* Jared Gardner is ending Guttergeek for a new TCJ sister blog with various well-regarded panelists that will start in early 2011.
* I'm told via e-mail that Mortimer The Slug has passed its first birthday. Congratulations to Team Mortimer.
* finally, I can't imagine a better year-ender for this column (well, I might do one next week, but probably not) than to drive your eyes and attention to the 26th issue of Mineshaft, a precious object in a world of ephemeral experiences. It will be out in January, and we'll all be better for it. That cover looks great.
Go, Read: Teddy Jamieson On Artist John Hicklenton And The Way He Chose To End His Life
Teddy Jaimeson has penned an article for Glasgow's The Herald on the passing of John Hicklenton in March. Hicklenton was one of the more out-there visual stylists in Britain's comics scene and was a longtime sufferer of MS. I'm not sure how many folks were aware that Hicklenton planned his own passing and sought help from a Swiss organization in doing so -- it certainly wasn't in CR's obituary.
Go, Look: Blogger Largehearted Boy’s Best Comics Of 2010 List
I haven't seen a whole lot of bloggers making their cases for the best of 2010, not quite yet. In an average year I probably would have already sworn off posting individual lists as a way to guard against a nervous breakdown, but in the list-light right now I'm happy to point out this fine, short list by Largehearted Boy:
Go, Read: Will Eisner And The Provenance Of His Use Of The Descriptive Term “Graphic Novel”
Dr. Andy Kunka talks about Will Eisner and Jack Katz discussing in a lengthy letters-exchange the term "graphic novel" in a lengthy post followed by some interesting comments at his site. It's a fascinating issue because there are levels of myth surrounding Eisner and the graphic novel: that he created the form, that he created from thin air the term, that he popularized a term that really didn't have much currency before he used it to describe his anthology of short stories A Contract With God. I think the first two are clearly nuke-able in almost casual fashion when they come up in conversation or at a comics convention panel, while the third is more something that's fun to discuss than I think something actually historically important.
My usual crack is that Eisner invented the graphic novel like Christopher Columbus discovered America -- that is to say not at all but the credit he's sometimes given holds within it all sorts of springboards to fascinating conversation about the broad sprawl of how things get innovated in the arts -- although admittedly that's more be trying to be funny than pushing forward some sort of piercing historical insight. Another crack I've heard that made me laugh is someone once saying on a SDCC panel, "Actually, I think the term 'graphic novel' was invented by Ted in Marketing."
* a writer Jim Mroczkowski talks about "hands-off" characters, a concept in which I used to believe but now feels completely irrelevant to the way I think about those kinds of comics. It's sort of that while I feel something like Steve Gerber's Howard The Duck has the weight of lousy company practices of the past -- and limited options as a result -- to it, I'm not sure that's true of any modern character. I'm not sure how much honor there is in supporting any one depiction of a character designed to have multiple masters no matter how hard that one depiction might hit. That way seems to lie the Broadway revival with the star that's 40 years too old for the part.
* I love the pages of the vintage, late-'60s fanzine reprinted here.
* I think the case can be made that the Claremont/Cockrum/Byrne run was more cognizant of social issues than is indicated in this post about X-Men stories that the author feels do handle that kind of thing well, but I'm not sure how far such arguments should go and that was never my main interest in those stories, anyway. Like I sort of remember a bunch of stuff around the edges of that first Proteus story, but not anything so interesting I'd care to go back and pore over it.
* not comics: is it weird that I find the images of Brainiac with the gun and Brainiac with his head covered by brush in this postextremely disturbing?
Early Henry Mayo Bateman Caricature Withdrawn From Auction For Fear It May Fun Afoul Of Racism Law
An alarming caricature apparently created by a teenaged Henry Mayo Bateman festooned with stereotypically bigoted anti-Semitic signifying visuals was withdrawn from auction by Christie's last week after a complaint by a Jewish antiques dealer. The 1903 cartoon would have been done when the legendary cartoonist and illustrator (1887-1970) was just starting to sell material for publication, and would have come almost a decade before he developed the signature style that made him a celebrated artist.
After receiving the complaint the auction house contacted the appropriate department at Scotland Yard to see if the illustration might fun afoul of the U.K.'s Racial And Religious Hatred Act Of 2006, designed to make an offense inciting hatred against someone based upon their religion. Upon learning the material would have to be submitted to authorities for this designation to be made, Christie's withdrew the piece after discussing the matter with their vendor. The antique dealer that made the objection has chosen to remain nameless.
Your 2011 Grand Prix de la Critique Winner From The ACBD: Astérios Polyp
Selected every year by the Association des Critiques et des journalistes de Bande Dessinée, the Grand Prix de la Critique may be the biggest award in the yearly ramp-up to January's Festival International de la Bande Dessinée d'Angoulëme. This year's goes to Astérios Polyp. I can't imagine a similar North American award playing the same role -- well, I can't imagine the result without shrieking. David Mazzucchelli's well-regarded return to comics is published in French by Casterman. It was released over there in June of this year.
Not Comics: Massive Dissection Of 1980 Altman/Feiffer/Nilsson Popeye Movie
I still don't know why there hasn't been an attempt to mount this as a stage musical; that Wimpy song is better than any song in any of the recent slate of movies-to-musicals, any decent stage actor is likely to have a stronger voice than Williams and putting it on stage would remove many of Altman's excesses
DC Promotion, Departure Announcements Stuff Friday With New Names To Spell
Catching up with a trio of releases at DC's announcement-driven Source blog:
* Amit Desai has been added to the Burbank team in the position of Senior Vice President -- Franchise Management, DC Entertainment. From what I can tell, despite sounding like the position held by the bad guy new husband to Rene Russo in a 1997 Tim Allen movie, this is actually a key management position designed to facilitate plans for various characters/groups of same across the Warner empire, which is basically the point of all the recent restructuring.
* a trio of in-house promotions/reorganizations in manufacturing sees Alison Gill Named Senior Vice President, Manufacturing & Operations, DC Comics; Nick Napolitano named Vice President, Manufacturing Administration, DC Comics; and Jeff Boison named Vice President, Publishing Operations, DC Comics. The latter two will report to Gill. Gill and Napolitano are decade-plus employees, while Boison is a more recent hire. Anything I could say about these hires would depend on knowledge I don't have at my fingertips, but it does continue the recent spate of rewarding people already employed by the company. I would also say this is the kind of announcement to which critics may return if things go badly for DC, emphasizing the number of changes that have been at the vice president level or higher in a kind of "too many suits" critique. I'm not saying that's true, but I'm saying it's likely.
* finally, Publicity Manager Alex Segura penned his own goodbye from that position as of Friday end-of-business. He hints that there will be an announcement Monday morning as to his new job, also in comics.
The current DC restructuring kicked off in September 2009.
The judges for next year's Eisner Awards have been named: Ned Cato Jr. (CCI Board Of Directors, geekroundtable.com), Karen Green (Columbia University's Graphic Novels Librarian, MoCCA trustee, comiXology.com columnist), Andrew Helfer (DC Comics editorial alumnus, writer), Rich Johnson (DC Comics, Yen Press, Brick Road Media, Beat columnist) and Chris Powell (Lone Star Comics, ComicsPro, CBLDF). They will meet in late March to determine the nominees for the awards program, culminating in the July 22 ceremony held in conjunction with Comic-Con International.
* over at Comics Comics, Frank Santoro and a cast of dozens discuss why there are fewer and fewer good discussions of actual work, and why said discussions fail to capture what's exciting about comics right now.
* Marvel's plans to put a forthcoming issue of Fantastic Four into bags seems really weird to me, although these sales shenanigans are more of a danger because they become widespread, not an individual basis. They won't be overprinting this one, either, which is a move you pull in order to increase initial demand. That sort of seems like building a sail on the hood of a car that's stopped working -- there should be a way for good and notable comics to gain readers not through stunts -- but it's not like my bitching and moaning about it heals that system any more quickly.
* maybe I'm not totally getting the point of this short essay on Marvel's Daredevil character, but didn't Ann Nocenti send him out into the wider world for an extended period of time? Leaving now hardly seems like the super clean break being claimed for it, or at least it seems like one with its own precedent.
* not comics: this is horrible, but if you go to see that Spider-Man musical, doesn't a part of you maybe want to see something unfortunate happen? I mean, you wouldn't wish an injury on anyone, but the thing you'll tell your second spouse in 20 years is that you were on hand for one of Broadway's legendary disasters, right? Maybe they should work in a guy stuck on wires at some point during the show's final third just to give the people what they want.
The List Of Cartoonists Featured In The 1998 Young Cartoonists Issue Of TCJ
I've had a note on my desktop to pull and check out the June 1998 issue of The Comics Journal for its list of cartoonists hyped as "Young Cartoonists" in a special issue devoted to same. I'm not exactly sure what I had in mind when I made this note, but looking over things today I thought I'd put up a list of those featured.
I have very few memories of doing the issue -- in fact, I would have guessed that we did it in 1996, not 1998. I remember thinking that such an issue was called for because it seemed to be taking longer for a lot of these cartoonists to establish themselves as opposed to the half-dozen or so major talents from the generation just prior. For a lot of those listed, it was their first mention in the Journal, and for the majority it was a first mention outside of a "Hit List." Additionally, I thought the issues would be a good conversation-starter -- people doing real magazines seemed to do very well with "generational" issues -- and that because of this the issue would move pretty well once on the stands. I have no idea if that ended up being true or not, and my track record on predicting which issues of TCJ would sell was pretty lousy (the quickest sell-out when I was there was the Tom Toles issue, against which I would have bet $3500).
I also remember the Young Cartoonists issue being kind of a pain in the butt, especially when more of the contributors got word of the list, wanted to put their own choices on it, and would send impossibly long jeremiads on reasons why. These were okay for the most part, but some included demented, doggedly-presented arguments like why a cartoonist could still be a young cartoonist in 1998 having once contributed to Arcade (I wish I were kidding; I've blacked out on who kept arguing this probably to protect me from randomly punching them at a con one day). In fact, I bet that one reason why the Top 100 issue of the Journal was relatively tightly editorially controlled was because of the lingering headache that was this issue.
Looking at the list this morning, I think it's a decent one in terms of capturing significant talents from that generation of cartoonists and even better in capturing a group of people that would remain working in the field. There were only five people on here where it didn't spring immediately to mind what they're doing right now, and one of them -- a cartoonist that if I recall correctly Matt Silvie was really excited about named Lee Thacker -- I'll admit I didn't know what they were doing at the time the issue came out or any time in-between. Anyway, I've highlighted one of each cartoonist's current on-line locations where I could. One person, you'll see, stumped me.
These are in alphabetical order after the primary feature listings, with art scattered throughout.
On Friday, CR readers were asked to "Name Five And Only Five Comics Publications From 2010 You Liked." This is how they responded.
1. Weathercraft, Jim Woodring (Fantagraphics)
2. Polly And Her Pals, Cliff Sterret (IDW)
3. H Day, Renee French (PictureBox, Inc.)
4. Achewood Volume Three: A Home For Scared People, Chris Onstad (Dark Horse)
5. Cul De Sac Golden Treasury: A Keepsake Garland Of Classics, Richard Thompson (Andrews McMeel)
1. Comic Art Propaganda: A Graphic History, Fredrik Strömberg (St. Martin's Griffin)
2. The Extraordinary Adventures of Adele Blanc-Sec Volume One: Pterror Over Paris and The Eiffel Tower Demon, Jacques Tardi (Fantagraphics Books)
3. The Killer Volume 2, Matz and Luc Jacamon (Archaia Studios Press)
4. Miss Don't Touch Me Volume 2, Hubert & Kerascoet (Comics Lit)
5. Torpedo Volume 2, Enrique Sanchez Abuli and Jordi Bernet (IDW Publiahing)
Tom De Haven
* Captain Easy Volume 1, Roy Crane, Fantagraphics
* Mary Perkins On StageVolume 7, Leonard Starr, Classic Comics Press
* The Search for Smilin' Ed, Kim Deitch, Fantagraphics
* The Playwright, Eddie Campbell & Daren White, Top Shelf
* X'ed Out, Charles Burns, Pantheon
1. Acme Novelty Library #20, Chris Ware (Drawn and Quarterly)
2. King City, Brandon Graham (Image)
3. Mr. Cellar's Attic, Noel Freibert (Extreme Troglodyte Press)
4. Wally Gropius, Tim Hensley (Fantagraphics)
5. The Love Bunglers, Jaime Hernandez (Fantagraphics)
1. Warlord of Io, James Turner (SLG)
2. Beasts of Burden: Animal Rites, Evan Dorkin and Jill Thompson (Dark Horse)
3. Zeus: King of the Gods, George O'Connor (First Second)
4. Almost Silent, Jason (Fantagraphics)
5. Solomon's Thieves Book One, Jordan Mechner, LeUyen Pham, and Alex Puvilland (First Second)
1. Bakuman, Tsugumi Ohba & Takeshi Obata (Viz)
2. The Adventures of Unemployed Man, Gan Golan, Erich Origen, et. al. (Little, Brown & Co)
3. The Broadcast, Eric Hobbs & Noel Tuazon (NBM)
4. Dong Xoai, Vietnam 1965, Joe Kubert (DC)
5. Crogan's March, Chris Schweizer (Oni)
1) Picture This, Lynda Barry (Drawn and Quarterly)
2) Papercutter #13, various (Tugboat Press)
3) Pizza Time, Jon Vermilyea (Koyama Press)
4) Love and Rockets New Stories #3, Los Bros Hernandez (Fantagraphics Books)
5) Strange Tales II, various (Marvel Entertainment)
1. King City, Brandon Graham (Image)
2. Walt & Skeezix: Book Four 1927-28, Frank King (Drawn & Quarterly)
3. Pluto Vol 7, Naoki Urasawa (Viz)
4. Dungeon Quest Book One, Joe Daly (Fantagraphics)
5. Grotesque #4, Sergio Ponchione (Fantagraphics)
1. Acme Novelty Library: Lint, Chris Ware (Drawn & Quarterly)
2. Parker: The Outfit, Darwyn Cooke (IDW)
3. Scott Pilgrim Vol. 6, Bryan Lee O'Malley (Oni Press)
4. The Amazing Screw-On Head and Other Curious Objects, Mike Mignola (Dark Horse)
5. Palookaville #20, Seth (Drawn & Quarterly)
1. The Complete Torpedo, Sanchez Abuli, Jordi Bernet and Alex Toth (IDW)
2. It Was the War of the Trenches, Jacques Tardi (Fantagraphics)
3. The Life and Times of Scrooge McDuck Vol. 2, Don Rosa (Boom!)
4. Orc Stain, James Stokoe (Image)
5. Richard Stark's Parker: The Outfit, Darwyn Cooke (IDW)
1. Body World, Dash Shaw (Pantheon)
2. Love and Rockets: New Stories #3, Los Bros Hernandez (Fantagraphics)
3. X'ed Out, Charles Burns (Pantheon)
4. Eden, Pablo Holmberg (Drawn and Quarterly)
5. Captain Easy, Volume One: 1933-1935, Roy Crane (Fantagraphics)
1. The Search For Smilin' Ed, Kim Deitch (Fantagraphics)
2. Love & Rockets New Stories #3, Gilbert & Jaime Hernandez (Fantagraphics)
3. Strange Tales II #2, Gilbert Hernandez, Jaime Hernandez, Farel Dalrymple, David Heatley, Jon Vermilyea, Paul Maybury, Sheldon Vella, Tony Millionaire, Jeffrey Brown & Paul Hornschemeier (Marvel)
4. Ditko #5-Five Act, Steve Ditko (Robin Snyder and Steve Ditko)
5. Glamourpuss #12, Dave Sim (Aardvark-Vanaheim)
* Rob Hanes Adventures Special Edition #1, Randy Reynaldo (WCG)
* The Webcomics Section, various (Webcomics Network)
* The Marvelous Land of Oz, Shanower & Young (Marvel Comics)
* Hot Mexican Love Comics, various (Hot Mexican Love Comics)
* Vampire, PA, Vaughn & Fraim Brothers (Moonstone)
1. Make Me a Woman, Vanessa Davis (Drawn & Quarterly)
2. A Drunken Dream and Other Stories, Moto Hagio (Fantagraphics)
3. Three #1, Eric Orner, Joey Alison Sayers, Robert Kirby (Rob Kirby Comics)
4. Batwoman in Detective Comics, Greg Rucka, J.H. Williams III, Jock (DC Comics)
5. Bikeman #2, John Chad (self-published)
1. The Muppet Show Comic Book, Roger Langridge (Boom!)
2. Legion of Super-Heroes, Paul Levitz, Yildray Cinar, et al. (DC)
3. Beasts of Burden, Evan Dorkin and Jill Thompson (Dark Horse)
4. 2000 AD, various (Rebellion)
5. Afrodisiac, Jim Rugg and Brian Maruca (AdHouse)
1. Special Exits, Joyce Farmer, Fantagraphics
2. Weathercraft, Jim Woodring, Fantagraphics
3. The Outfit, Darwyn Cooke (Richard Stark), IDW
4. How To Understand Israel In 60 Days Or Less, Sarah Glidden, Vertigo
5. Beasts Of Burden, Evan Dorkin/Jill Thompson, Dark Horse
1. Thor: The Mighty Avenger #1, Roger Langridge & Chris Samnee (Marvel)
2. Strange Tales II #2, Jody LeHeup, ed (Marvel)
3. Mome Vol. 19, Eric Reynolds, ed (Fantagraphics)
4. Love and Rockets New Stories #3, The Hernandez Brothers (Fantagraphics)
5. Grotesque #4, Sergio Ponchione (Fantagraphics)
1- Xâ€™ed Out, Charles Burns (Pantheon)
2- King of the Flies Volume One: Hallorave, Mezzo and Pirus (Fantagraphics)
3- The Complete Rocketeer, Dave Stevens (IDW)
4- Clint, Mark Millar, editor (Titan)
5- X-9: Secret Agent Corrigan, Vol. 1, Archie Goodwin & Al Williamson (IDW)
1. Revolver, Matt Kindt (Vertigo)
2. Werewolves of Montpellier, Jason (Fantagraphics)
3. Dungeon Quest Book One, Joe Daly (Fantagraphics)
4. Weathercraft, Jim Woodring (Fantagraphics)
5. Wilson, Dan Clowes (Drawn & Quartely)
1. Moving Pictures, Kathryn & Stuart Immonen (Top Shelf)
2. Koko Be Good, Jen Wang (First: Second)
3. Hellblazer #267-current (the issues with Shade the Changing Man), Peter Milligan, Giuseppe Camuncoli, and Stefano Landini (Vertigo)
4. Two Generals, Scott Chantler (McClelland & Stewart)
5. Paper Cutter #s 12-14, various (Tugboat)
1. Six Novels in Woodcuts, Lynd Ward (Library of America)
2. King Aroo Vol. 1, Jack Kent (IDW)
3. Big Ben Bolt, John Cullen Murphy (Classic Comics Press)
4. Temperance, Cathy Malkasian (Fantagraphics)
5. Art in Time: Unknown Comic Book Adventures 1940-1980, Dan Nadel (Abrams ComicArts)
1. The Outfit, Darwyn Cooke (IDW)
2. Wilson, Daniel Clowes (Drawn and Quarterly)
3. H Day, Renee French (PictureBox)
4. Secret Avengers #5, Ed Brubaker, Michael Lark, et al (Marvel Comics)
5. Black Blizzard, Yoshihiro Tatsumi (Drawn and Quarterly)
1. If 'n Oof (PictureBox)
2. Powr Mastrs Vol. 3 (PictureBox)
3. Love and Rockets New Stories #3 (Fantagraphics)
4. Prison Pit Vol. 2 (Fantagraphics)
5. Orc Stain (Image)
1. Yotsuba&! Vol. 8, Kiyohiko Azuma (Yen Press)
2. Buck Rogers Vol. 4, Phil Nowlan & Dick Calkins (Hermes Press)
3. Motel Art Improvement Service, Jason Little (Dark Horse)
4. Blazing Combat (pbk ed), Archie Godwin, ed; various (Fantagraphics)
5. My Cage Year One, Ed Power & Melissa DeJesus (CreateSpace)
1. Picture This, Lynda Barry (D&Q)
2. Ditko #5-Act Five, Steve Ditko (Robin Snyder & Steve Ditko)
3. MONSTER, anthology (Fort Thunder)
4. Lose #2, Michael Deforge (Koyama Press)
5. Don't Drink From The Sea, Lilli Carre (self published)
* Body World, Dash Shaw (Pantheon)
* X'ed Out, Charles Burns (Pantheon)
* Parker Book Two: The Outfit, Darwyn Cooke (IDW)
* Weathercraft, Jim Woodring, (Fantagraphics)
* Captain Easy: The Complete Sundays Volume One, (Fantagraphics)
* The ACME Novelty Library #20, Chris Ware (Drawn & Quarterly)
* High Soft Lisp, Gilbert Hernandez (Fantagraphics)
* Death Trap, Lane Milburn (self-published)
* Lose #2, Michael DeForge (Koyama)
* If 'n Oof, Brian Chippendale (Picturebox)
* A Drunken Dream and Other Stories, Moto Hagio (Fantagraphics)
* Secret Avengers, Ed Brubaker and Mike Deodato (Marvel)
* AX, Various (Top Shelf)
* All My Darling Daughters, Fumi Yoshinaga (Viz)
* Twin Spica, Kou Yaginuma (Vertical)
This is of course distressing news by any measure, made even more so given that the recent rash of employment changes indicates the bottom was not reached earlier in 2010 as some had asserted. I'll leave you to read Greenberg's long and lacerating article rather than comment further in a way that replicates what he's saying. I'm guessing there are more living Heisman Trophy winners than paid staffed cartoonists right now, and about five times as many astronauts.
Charges Sought Against Pair In St. Louis-Area Retailer Murder
The latest from the St. Louis area in the case of longtime retailer and recent statutory rape suspect Kenneth McClure, slain Tuesday in a regional park, has the police bringing in two suspects early Wednesday morning but then releasing them when prosecutors asked for more evidence before indictment. The suspects were a woman that worked in McClure's store and a male with whom she has a relationship; the female suspect is apparently related to the alleged victim in the statutory rape case. The pair lived in the area where McClure's car was driven after the slaying. This step has led to a lively discussion in the comments thread, where one can unearth the amount of bail it took for McClure to secure temporary freedom after his arrest and hear various theories. One commenter picks up on something in yesterday's story I failed to mention here: that current shop owner Everett McClure III was himself questioned at length this week.
McClure's plight came to the attention of mainstream media and the comics community when he used a gun to create a stand-off with police when they came to arrest him on statutory rape charges. McClure operated his store in St. Louis for approximately two decades.
Mark Chiarello Promoted By DC To Vice President—Art Direction & Design
It's made official here, and the best article including necessary context is here. Chiarello most recently held the position of editorial art director, and his new position was created for him. Chiarello will report to co-publishers Dan DiDio and Jim Lee.
DC is in the 15th month of changes following a change in direction first announced in September 2009 aimed to better maximize the company's impact across other various Warner divisions. Recent moves have focused on promoting from within. Chiarello has been at the company since 1993, and has worked with a variety of publishers before and during.
Here's a Best Of 2010 list featuring graphic novels from the site Flashlight Worthy. It represents selections provided from a canvassing of the sites' favorite comics bloggers, which I'll included here in parentheses. Their choices are:
* A Drunken Dream and Other Stories, Moto Hagio (Katherine Dacey)
* All My Darling Daughters, Fumi Yoshinaga (David Welsh)
* Bunny Drop Vol. 1, Yumi Unita (Lorena Nava Ruggero)
* Hereville: How Mirka Got Her Sword, Barry Deutsch (Brigid Alverson)
* It Was the War of the Trenches, Jacques Tardi (Jog)
* Make Me a Woman, Vanessa Davis (Greg McElhatton)
* MOME Summer 2010, Edited By Eric Reynolds (Tucker Stone)
* The Unsinkable Walker Bean, Aaron Renier (Matthew Brady)
* Unwritten Volume One: Tommy Taylor and the Bogus Identity, Mike Carey And Peter Gross (Nymeth)
* not comics: I always enjoy reading Mark Evanier on fast-food and regional choices regarding same, so I'm looking forward to devouring this post about Steak And Shake and Las Vegas. There was a 24-hour Steak And Shake that my friends and I used to hit on our way to Indianapolis to catch early morning flights -- kind of a less gastronomically-distressing White Castle-type experience, with a business trip rather than a Rush concert as its cause. The gentleman running the late shift insisted on bringing your food out to you in the parking lot, I think just to alleviate some of his boredom by having something to do.
* congratulations to Kevin Church and TJ Kirsch on finishing their webcomic She Died In Terrebonne, and for being smart enough to get word out there that they've finished the comic for those of us that have been following it in irregular fashion.
Cushlamochree! Fantagraphics Nabs Collected Barnaby; Dan Clowes To Design Long-Anticipated Project
CR has learned that that Fantagraphics wishes to make public that it's reached an agreement to publish a major, all-but-complete collection of Crockett Johnson's Barnaby. One of the best comic strips of the 20th Century and one of the most beloved older strips for a generation of devoted adult comics fans, Barnaby had become in the last decade and a half the great unsigned strip collection. The deal was negotiated by Eric Reynolds on Fantagraphics' behalf. The first volume will come out in April 2012 to coincide with the release of Philip Nel's much-anticipated biography of Johnson (The Purple Crayon And A Hole To Dig: The Lives Of Crockett Johnson And Ruth Krauss from the University Press Of Mississippi). Nel will serve as series consultant and write an essay that will be paired with introductions from comics luminaries. Reynolds will be the series editor. Dan Clowes will supply the art direction.
Barnaby began publication in April 1942 in the leftist newspaper PM. It was later syndicated in 64 newspapers. The strip revolved around a five-year-old named Barnaby Baxter and his fairy godfather Jackeen J. O'Malley. The basic twist was that O'Malley far from the typical fairy protector as one might imagine. O'Malley smoked a cigar, he wore an overcoat, and his magic-making seemed restricted to occasional flashes and relationships with several other oddly-depicted members of the fantastic world just beyond our ken. He was more Peter Falk than Fred Astaire, although his affection for and interest in the boy always seemed heartfelt and sincere. Barnaby became a darling of those members of the cultural intelligentsia inclined to read the funnies, and was the recipient of perhaps the most unguarded words of praise in Dorothy Parker's long career: "I think, and I'm trying to talk calmly, that Barnaby and his friends and oppressors are the most important additions to American Arts and Letters in Lord knows how many years."
For all that praise, Barnaby was only a moderately successful strip. There were two collections (1943's Barnaby and 1944's Barnaby and Mr. O'Malley), a stage-play adaptation, and a radio show. A Sunday-page Barnaby not related to the daily ran briefly in the early 1950s. Johnson created the daily by himself until 1946; Jack Morley then created it, first with co-writer Ted Ferro and then without him. Johnson was during the Morley/Ferro and Morely solo period a story consultant and returned to the feature to write and draw its last episode. The strip ended in February 1952, in one of the most highly-praised conclusion to a comics effort in the medium's history. Eric Reynolds says that the Fantagraphics collection will include the Morley/Ferro and Morley solo strips, due to their relative high quality and Johnson's involvement. The books will not include the 1960s' re-do or scattered pages done here and there for various collections, choosing instead to focus on the material that serves as the basis for the strip's reputation.
Like many critical favorites, Barnaby has enjoyed a long afterlife, arguably matching or even eclipsing its initial impact. A Mr. O'Malley television serial starring Bert Lahr and Ron Howard (making it as deftly cast as any comics adaptation ever) ran on 1959's GE True Theater. As mentioned in the previous paragraph, the strip was revived with modern references -- altering references to a war-related blackout, for example -- for a brief run in the early 1960s. Barnaby was one of the strips that received a boost from its appearance in 1977's massively influential Smithsonian Collection Of Newspaper Comics. A paperback book program from Del Rey flashed to life in the 1980s, books that are in some ways more difficult to find than the 1940s hardcovers. Barnaby's reputation was of course absolutely enhanced by Johnson's much-loved work in kids' books, including the Harold series kicked off by 1955's Harold And The Purple Crown. Johnson died in the mid-1970s. In 1999, The Comics Journal put Barnaby at #68 on its Top 100 Comics of the 20th Century list. Philip Nel has has an impressive Crockett Johnson site up since 1998, and Johnson's stand-alone Barkis book was one of the earliest vintage cartoon works I can recall seeing posted on a comics site.
An archival-type collection of the Barnaby strips has been discussed in comics chat rooms and in editorial offices for over a decade, talk that's intensified as the great strips of the 20th Century have all but sorted themselves among a half-dozen publishers interested in publishing such works. Johnson's status as a bookstore icon for his Harold work may have delayed a collection of the Barnaby work, as a large body of work from a major bookstore icon arguably brings a different level of consideration than a more obscure work. In 2006, discussion of a Barnaby movie brought speculation that a reprint of the strip might come such a film's debut. No matter its provenance, it's welcome to have a Barnaby collection now. Also of interest is Dan Clowes' involvement as designer, as this marks his second major strip project after the forthcoming Nancy series. What a happy announcement.
The Never-Ending, Four-Color Festival: Cons, Shows & Major Events
By Tom Spurgeon
* the Brooklyn Comics And Graphics Festival is this Saturday, as strong a one-day show in the planning stages as I've seen. If it goes of well, I'd recommend backtracking through how they did it as a model for regional shows of its kind. There's no reason every city of significant size can't celebrate its local cartooning and comics scene through an artists-first show.
* also of great interest, especially for its target audience, is Kids Comics LA.
* WonderCon tickets went on sale yesterday. The San Francisco-based and comics-focused mini-major announced its first (and primary) battery of special guests for the early April event: Jason Aaron, Sergio Aragonés, Berkeley Breathed, Mark Evanier, Adam Hughes, Robert Kirkman, Hope Larson, Paul Levitz, Jeremy Love, Francis Manapul, Carla Speed McNeil, Terry Moore, Ryan Ottley, Joe Quesada, Frank Quitely, Amy Reeder, Seth, Bill Sienkiewicz, Kevin Smith, Len Wein, F. Paul Wilson and Marv Wolfman.
* C2E2 sent a press release out a week ago Friday announcing that writer Brian Michael Bendis will be a Guest Of Honor at their second show, March 18 to March 20 in the new year. They also announced a list of Featured Guests: Franco Aureliani, Art Baltazar, Katie Cook, Geof Darrow, and Tim Seeley.
* finally, I bookmarked this as the announcement was made and then forgot to post it so in comics Internet time it's 1000 years old now: Wizard's convention arm has acquired the long-time, well-liked regional show Mid-Ohio-Con. Johanna Draper Carlson had the most immediate analysis, here. It will be held October 22-23, which I note only because Mid-Ohio used to be the last show of the season even just five years ago. I think.
Three things occur to me right away. First, the Eddie Berganza part of the story strikes me as a particularly nice thing in that I believe Berganza started in a menial position at DC years and years ago and has since worked his way inexorably upward, Roger Goodell-style (only without Goodell's super well-connected family), to finally achieving a position of much influence and reward within the DC Comics comics publishing arm. Good for him, and kudos to everyone for whom yesterday's announcement signified a personal career highlight. Second, the fact that the announcements included simple reiterations of currently-known assignments (the Vertigo and MAD heads) in addition to the new ones really emphasizes that it's Harras putting his stamp on the company as opposed to this being a slew of staffing changes generated solely from the corporation's needs. I think that stuff matters in certain ways. Third, this is more hiring from within, which is a policy direction I don't think anyone expected to change with these positions, but I think it puts some pressure on everyone involved for the kind of results down the line that justify a kind of doubling-down on current personnel.