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March 2, 2008

Twenty-Five Stories To Remember: A Look Back At Comics News For 2007


With the events of 2007 now far enough in the rear view mirror to be reminisced over rather than the cause of a prolonged evening of sighing into our beers, it's time to look at 25 stories from last year you might want to take with you into 2008 and beyond. Plus I forgot that I didn't have an interview for this weekend. The following aren't in any particular order, and I reserve the right to move things around, delete or add if I come up with any better ideas.

1. The Danish Cartoons Controversy Hangover
Repercussions from a wave of political protests and violence that led to 50 deaths in early 2006 -- with protesters and media sources citing the 2005 publication of Muhammed caricatures in the Danish paper Jyllands-Posten as the cause -- continued to be felt. Four protest leaders in England were sentenced to jail amid some criticism that authorities were using the cartoon protests as an excuse to persecute various up and coming activists in the country's Muslim community. There was a flash of further violence in Nigeria. Danish authorities decided not to try various imams believed to have agitated against the cartoons in a way that directly led to the protests.

2. Retailers on Trial... Literally
In England, the former retailer and comics auctioneer Ronald Castree is tried and convicted for the murder of 11-year-old Lesley Molseed back in 1975. The case was made famous when authorities initially convicted the wrong man, whose life and the life of his devoted mother never quite recovered even after he was released. Meanwhile, in Pennsylvania, the Pittsburgh convention organizer and Somerset Country retailer Michael George was arrested and sent to Michigan to stand trial for various charges emanating from the 1990 killing of his then-wife, including one for the murder itself.


3. Two Satirical Magazine Covers, Two Very Different Trial Outcomes
In France, the publishers of Charlie-Hebdo were acquitted of charges facing them for publishing a caricature of Muhammed on the cover and interiors of a 2006 issue of their magazine. In Spain, two artists were fined for their satirical cartoon featuring a member of the country's royal family and his wife. The Hebdo trial may have provided a boost to the campaign of current French President Nicholas Sarkozy, for his public support of satirical magazines like Charlie Hebdo to savage targets such as himself.

4. Market Watch: Marvel Dominates; DC Struggles
Marvel's decision to follow-up its popular Civil War mini-series with a more action-driven World War Hulk mini-series and status-quo changing events in their Spider-Man and Captain America titles fairly pulverized DC Comics' strategy to do a slow ramp-up to another major multiverse-spanning event with a less well-received weekly series and a number of series revamps at WildStorm and DC proper, the bulk of which failed to get over with fans. The traditional mainstream publishing Big Two started to see 1980s-like numbers in terms of combined market share and influence, driving significant overall market increases. In what was probably the ultimate example of a year where almost everything went right for the company, Marvel's decision to kill Captain America in his own title generated the kind of media attention that actually sells comics, although some retailers say they wish they'd had a more explicit heads-up about the story point.

5. Harlan Ellison and Fantagraphics Resolve Their Legal Issues Via Mediation
Exactly what it says.

6. DC Signs Book Distribution Deal With Random House
As a prominent comics business analyst declares that book format comics sell more than traditional comic book format comics for the first time in industry history, DC signed a mega-deal with bookstore giant RH for distribution of its already vital trade program. In a related move with significant symbolic resonance, Stephanie Fierman, the first major hire by DC in overhauling its marketing and sales departments in anticipation of the new, more complex and multi-faced comics market, left her full-time position.


7. Francoise Mouly Announces TOON Books
RAW co-publisher Francoise Mouly unveiled her "comics in children's book format" line, which will begin publishing in 2008 with a series of educational programs and methods to vet the individual books already in place. That move and the book chart success enjoyed by stand-alone talents like Jeff Kinney draw attention to growing interest in more comics and comics-related projects squarely aimed at younger children.

8. Market Watch: Strips Wide Open
The failure of any one strip to dominate in terms of replacing the suddenly-dropped FoxTrot dailies indicated a more wide-open newspaper comics market than any that's existed to date. This indicates both a lack of juggernaut hits and a greater sophistication on the part of comics editors at daily publications. Two features that made significant gains this year according to anecdotal evidence are Mark Tatulli's Lio and Richard Thompson's brand-new Cul De Sac.


9. Jay Kennedy Dies at age 50
King Features Syndicate comics chief and noted underground comix historian Jay Kennedy died in a swimming accident while on vacation in South America. Among those cartoonists enjoying a huge career boost while working with Kennedy at KFS were Patrick McDonnell, Jerry Scott and Jim Borgman. Longtime Kennedy protege and alt-comics cartoonist/anthology editor Brendan Burford took over at the major comics syndicate.

10. Market Watch: French Market Suffers From Over-Publishing?
More considered analysis backed up the general suspicions held by many French-language industry watchers that the crush of titles available in that market may have led to strong sales on major domestic albums and helped drive a category-wide success story in manga, but also might have kept many books from finding any audience at all by limiting their exposure on massively competitive, high-turnover comics racks -- one of many related factors exposing that industry to the potential of a significant sales correction.


11. Marvel Starts New Phase of Synergistic Movies Strategy
Although the publishing division remains somewhat insulated from such moves, the wider entertainment company that is Marvel symbolically ends the primacy of one successful strategy involving movies and begins the rise of another. Spider-Man 3 raked in a ton of box-office dough and drove licensing revenue to company coffers through the end of the year. The Jon Favreau-helmed Iron Man, the first movie that Marvel is financing itself in hopes of an even bigger slice of the overall revenue pie, finishes production and starts to build pre-release buzz.

12. Market Watch: Editorial Cartoonists Strike Back
A new breed of editorial cartoonists began to urge their brethren to stop talking about an industry in decline and start playing up the positive aspects of the profession and its effect on certain newspaper's bottom line. One positive move: Clay Bennett moved from the seemingly more high-profile Christian Science Monitor to the Chattanooga Times and will be used in a variety of ways by that publication, including regional issues coverage. In a related story, the popularity of editorial cartoon animations with web site hit counters and the Pulitzer committee makes some wonder if animation will become a prerequisite for any and all future staff jobs.

13. Worldwide Persecution of Cartoonists Continues
Several stories on the international front indicate a lack of tolerance concerning the work of cartoonists in several countries. Indian cartoonist Irfan Khan was sentenced pending appeal for a cartoon about the never-denied involvement of a former judge's son with potentially conflicting business interests. Pakastani cartoonist Muhammad Zahoor kept armed gunmen unhappy with his work from entering his home. Young artist Arifur Rahman was held in Bangladesh for a cartoon featuring wordplay using the name Muhammed.

14. Staff Levels Not Slabbed: Turnover at Wizard Entertainment
Following several months of perceived decline and turmoil on the conventions end of the fan magazine's super-profitable business, Wizard experienced what was rumored to be a massive turnover in the creative departments of its magazine and on-line divisions and at least one abortive on-line magazine re-launch.

15. The Great Digital End-Around: Archival Collections of Comics and Comics-Related Publications Gain Momentum
Playboy joined the ranks of comics-saturated publications taking advantage of a legal decision regarding the "archival" presentation of old magazine content (meaning scanned to represent each page rather than put into a new format) to republish material without having to secure rights for digital publication from individual contributors. This could have a significant impact on the future digital publication of comics resources, including complete runs of magazines like Wizard or The Comics Journal.


16. Market Watch: Manga Publishers Explore Variations On Traditional Publishing Strategies
With the category still going strong in bookstores but with several popular titles getting deep into their serial publication runs, manga publishers began to explore different publishing strategies. The most prominent of these was probably the Naruto Nation effort, where publication of the worldwide-popular book was accelerated in Fall 2007 in order to get the book to a more popular re-launch point and to sell a lot of books along the way. Omnibus editions like Azumanga Daioh Omnibus and Tekkonkinkreet: Black and White began to pop up with greater regularity, while at least one title that did not quite catch on with North American audiences the first time -- Slam Dunk -- began to take steps towards a potentially high-profile second publishing turn.

17. Two 2006 Controversies Resolve In Early 2007
What some felt was an admirable idea turned what nearly everyone agreed was train wreck in the form of an "empowerment fund" to help ameliorate the costs for female industry members that want to pursue legal action for sexual harassment and/or discrimination ended with a press release, driving the Friends of Lulu organization that initially sponsored it into a period of introspection. Meanwhile, in Marshall, Missouri, a library board spurred on by demands they no longer shelf award-winning graphic novels Blankets (Craig Thompson) and Fun Home (Alison Bechdel) put together what many felt was a halfway decent policy for processing these kinds of complaints about content.

18. Swallows To Capistrano Dept.: Campus Cartoons Draw Ire
As seems to be the case for almost every year over the last two decades, racy or otherwise provocative cartoons from students in student publication led to protests, apologies and resignations. Two of the more prominent included a University of Kentucky cartoon with potentially racist overtones slammed on by everyone this side of Ashley Judd, and a cartoon at a university in Connecticut that tried to mine humor out of a Hispanic teenager being urinated on.


19. What's Worse: Dying of Cancer or Living with Anthony? Two Comics Touch Nerves With Storylines
Showing the impact that newspaper strips continue to enjoy, Long storylines by which Anthony and Elizabeth in For Better or For Worse moved into what looks like a precursor-to-marriage type relationship and Lisa Moore in Funky Winkerbean died of a recurrence of breast cancer struck nerves with their respective readerships. In the former's case, the revulsion that some fans felt for Elizabeth falling for Anthony, her boyfriend at 13 years old, brought to light a critique of Lynn Johnston's long-running strip that accused its creator of preferring Elizabeth seek marriage with a hometown boy and stay close to her parents rather than achieve a fulfilling career and personal life outside of her hometown, a distressing outcome for many young women of Elizabeth's approximate age. For Funky Winkerbean fans, the Lisa Moore cancer storyline drew equal amounts of praise for its heartbreaking portrayal of someone slipping away from life and criticism revolving around questions of whether or not the newspaper page should be a place to escape. The case of plotline resolution in For Better or For Worse may have gained some intensity for Lynn Johnston's lingering indecisiveness over if and how to retire the feature.

20. Like A Phoenix Rising From The Ashes Cradling a Cell Phone By Which It's Talking To Its Lawyers, Stan Lee Media Returns
Stan Lee's ill-fated Internet-driven media company returned from collapsed business limbo to sue its namesake in the belief the mainstream comic book icon assigned his rights to various Marvel character to the company back when it was formed, and to sue Marvel for what it believes Marvel should give them for those rights. That's roughly it, anyway. In related news, an effort to get presidential candidate Hillary Clinton to testify in a case revolving around Peter Paul's accusations that he was promised certain things by the Clintons during an year 2000 fundraising episode with its own potentially criminal aspects, lost during the appeals process.


21. The Guilford Incident
A Connecticut teacher resigned after controversy related to parents' objections to their daughter being given a copy of Dan Clowes' Eightball #22 as the basis for an English class make-up assignment. Clowes much-lauded comic contained maybe a half-dozen arguably adult-themed scenes, although both the original comic book and a hardcover book edition had been sold without a hint of objection from anyone.

22. Gordon Lee Trial Delayed, Delayed and Delayed Again
After a judge's illness caused yet another delay in the long awaited trial of Georgia retailer Gordon Lee, prosecutorial statements scant hours into the first day led to an immediate mistrial. The move both pushed the Lee trial back yet again, and gave credence to the view that the prosecutors may be more interested in drawing out the process than bringing it to a just resolution.

23. Publishers Expand Digital Options
Both Marvel and DC launched major on-line initiatives with DC's Zuda program and Marvel's Marvel Digital Comics Unlimited resource. The companies also both start to go after groups that post their books on-line without permission, leading to a small but vocal backlash. Slave Labor was among other, smaller companies making news this year for their own content-driven programs.


24. Legacies: Prominent Industry Passings Skew Young
In addition to the typical yearly departure of older industry legends and mainstays such as Bob Oksner, Phil Frank, Arnold Drake, Roger Armstrong, Brant Parker, Paul Norris and Johnny Hart, a number of 2007's deaths struck a lot of comics-industry watchers as coming well before their time. This included Drew Hayes, Daniel Robert Epstein, James Redington, Said Shiraga Rahimi, retail employee Sean Scott, Mike Wieringo and even relatively youthful and longtime industry veterans like Jay Kennedy, Richard Horne and Doug Marlette.

25. Center For Cartoon Studies Graduates First Class
In the feel good story of the year, Patrick McDonnell was the ceremonial speaker for the first class to graduate from the Center For Cartoon Studies, the unlikely educational institution effort focused on comics-making spearheaded by cartoonist James Sturm.
posted 4:45 am PST | Permalink

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