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“This old version of To Kill a Mockingbird where Atticus kills a rabid dog isn’t *my* Atticus”
– Max Robinson, commenting on fan complaints about Man of Steel
I’ll try to keep this as non-spoilery for Man of Steel as possible, but if you haven’t seen it yet and don’t want to know anything about it, you may want to skip this.
There’s been a lot of discussion the past week about certain choices Superman makes in Man of Steel and whether those are things that character would/should do. Mark Waid describes being so upset by Superman’s actions that he stood up and yelled in the theater. In that review, the writer talks about “the essential part of Superman that got lost in Man of Steel.” And while I agree with what Waid describes as essential, not everyone does. In fact, some folks – like Robinson – question whether readers have the right to make those kinds of statements about someone else’s characters.
“… obviously, you look at your own early work and you’re sometimes dismayed. Was I that bad? Did I use that cliché, miss that nuance, mess up that character beat? But it’s also why you should know to leave well enough alone – because the you that’s doing the correcting isn’t the you who wrote the original work.”
– Mike Carey, on the temptation for creators to revise their early work
At Comics Oughta Be Fun, everyone’s favorite, little stuffed blogging bull has declared June to be Bear Attack Month. “Even tho’ they have never gotten their own series,” Bully writes, “bears attacking is one of the most common tropes of comic books both yesterday and today.” That’s why – all month long – he’s featuring comic book scenes of bears attacking everyone from superheroes to Springfield. I’ve included a couple of my favorites below, but there’s lots more (and more to come) at Bully’s site.
– retailer Brian Hibbs, describing a troubling relationship between Kickstarter success and retail success.
He sees two reasons for this. I’m sort of putting words into his mouth, but I think I’m close to his first point by saying that once the book comes out in stores, everyone’s tired of hearing about it. He notes that it’s not impossible to get a second wave of attention going, but it’s tough to do.
His second reason is that once Kickstarter serves the needs of a comic’s most passionate readers, the only people left to buy it are –by definition — the less-passionate ones. Again, that doesn’t spell instant doom, especially for someone who’s able to overcome Hibbs’ first observation and successfully launch a second round of publicity, but it’s still a stark warning. There’s more to long-term success than just having a great Kickstarter.
When Wiley wanted to publish a history of Superman in time for this month’s Man of Steel, they contacted the right guy to write it. Glen Weldon covers comics for NPR’s Monkey See blog and is also the resident comics expert on the Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast. He’s insightful and funny, the perfect person to guide someone through the confusing, 75-year history of the Man of Tomorrow, which is what he does in Superman: The Unauthorized Biography.
Superman’s history isn’t just confusing because of the legal battle between his creators and the publisher whose marketing and licensing made the character a household name, although there is that, too. There are also the countless (well, I would have said countless; Weldon proves me wrong by counting them) retcons and reboots and reinterpretations that have affected the Last Son of Krypton and his supporting cast for three quarters of a century. Weldon navigates all of that in his book and finds the through-line that defines Superman and what he really stands for.
This is something I’ve been thinking about myself lately, so I was eager to not only read Weldon’s book, but to talk to him about it and get some more insight. I learned a lot in the process, including the true meaning of Kryptonite, the importance of Electric Superman, and the real failure of Superman Returns.
In the recent New York Times profile of former Vertigo Executive Editor Karen Berger, Dave Itzkoff writes that DC Comics Co-Publisher Dan DiDio “said it would be ‘myopic’ to believe ‘that servicing a very small slice of our audience is the way to go ahead.'” It’s a weird way to structure the quote, but assuming Itzkoff is accurately capturing what DiDio meant, that’s a controversial stance for DC to take.
But he kind of has a point. Heidi MacDonald rightly notes that Vertigo books make up roughly one-third of DC’s list of essential graphic novels, but if we’re just going by sales, Vertigo’s slice of DC’s pie does look pretty small. According to Diamond Comic Distributors, just 6 percent of DC’s graphic novels in April’s Top 100 were Vertigo titles. The percentage was a lot higher in March (15 percent), but only 7 percent in February. The number of Vertigo titles in the Top 100 has been pretty consistent in the past three months: two or three. What made the difference in March was that DC had less Top 100 titles overall. Of course, that only covers a short amount of time and only includes direct market sales, but if we look at a list of what DC considered its top-selling graphic novels as of last autumn, only about 13 percent of those are from Vertigo. None of that is super-scientific, but it paints a pretty good picture of how much Vertigo contributes to DC in terms of sales.
…I strongly believe you should start out with a great influence, learn from them, mimic them if you have to, its all healthy for the creative learning process. But at some point, once you start getting paid for your work and considered a professional in a certain field, you have to realize that it’s sort of lazy to mimic another artist’s style for your own profit. It’s insulting to the artist you consider a hero or inspiration, and also insulting to yourself as a creative individual in a sense. We ALL have done this, myself guilty, but you have to know where to draw the line for yourself. If clients wanted, say a … Travis [Charest], or Joe Mad, or Adam Hughes, those guys are still alive, they can hire them.
– Dustin Nguyen, on the development of artistic style.
Every artist I’ve ever talked to about influences — and this includes writers, too — has shared this same story of mimicking someone else’s style until developing his or her own. As Nguyen says, the trick is knowing when to get out and be your own thing.
… to look at any successful geek as Manifest Destiny rather than a crew lucky enough to have found an escape hatch seems … unhealthy. It just all seems so unhealthy. Worse, it seems like sales. And — who do people think PAYS those guys? Who do they think runs those guys’s careers? Have you ever seen a movie executive? Have you ever been around AGENTS? (I don’t recommend it). Do people think that the creative personnel are really running the game and calling shots? That’s not true of nearly every creative enterprise I know, certainly not pre-internet at least. If you’re not a person who can say No in their life, then I don’t care who’s lined up to kiss your ass. Heck, it’s certainly not true now — this generation of nerds is churning out Star Wars movies and Marvel bullshit for corporations that keep nerds like pets.
– Abhay Khosla, poking holes in the popular notion that nerds and misfits will inherit the earth.
As he’s wont to do, Khosla pokes a lot more holes than just the part I’ve quoted there, but I pulled that section out because it directly mentions comics. The Big Dream for comics creators used to be working for either Marvel or DC, but that’s changed. It’s still a dream for many and I’m not putting down anyone who’s working for those companies or would like to, but it’s no longer the dominant goal that it once was. More and more creators are jumping ship at the corporations to pursue their own projects with their own characters, at least partly for the reason Khosla mentions: they want to be able to run the game.
According to a survey commissioned by U.K. communications regulator Ofcom, the classic Pareto principle is in full effect for people who use pirated versions of copyrighted material. The top 20 percent of copyright infringers account for 88 percent of all infringements (with the top 10 percent being responsible for a whopping 79 percent).
What’s surprising, however, is that the top 20 spent £168 (about $253) on content during the six-month monitoring period. That’s not just more than the amount spent by the lower 80 percent (£105, or about $158), it’s significantly more than the £54 ($81) spent by the average person who never pirates anything. In other words, the worst pirates get the vast majority of their stuff for free, but they take in so much media that they end up spending 321 percent more than people who never pirate.
It was jarring to me. I respected and loved the work of all of them. I also liked them all on a personal but individual basis. But when I saw what the comic book industry was doing to them, I think I liked it a little less. Those men all deserved better.
– Mark Evanier, commenting on the observation by Howard Chaykin that Gil Kane, Joe Kubert, Carmine Infantino and other DC artists “regarded each other with distaste, frequently bordering on genuine loathing.”
It’s stuff like this that brings home to me how screwed up the comics industry was for so many years. I understand on an intellectual level that things were bad, but hearing how it inspired jealousy and soured relationships puts it into an emotional context that I hadn’t felt before.
I’m not saying we have a utopia today, but creators do have more options if they want more than what they’re getting from work-for-hire. Creator-owned comics are not only more welcomed than ever by readers, but they’re also proving popular with people outside of comics, which can turn into real money. Again, I’m not saying we’ve reached the Promised Land yet, but I think it’s fair to say we’ve at least left Egypt.
I’m reading Glen Weldon‘s Superman: The Unauthorized Biography, and I’m still in the chapters on the Golden Age. What’s struck me was just how quickly Superman became a national phenomenon. Within a year of his first appearance in an anthology book (that he wouldn’t be on the cover of for another five issues after the first), there was a syndicated newspaper strip about him. According to Weldon, Time magazine called the character “the No. 1 juvenile vogue in the U.S.” Within two years, there was a radio show. Within three, Max Fleischer’s studio was making animated short films. And then there were all the dolls, games, puzzles, and coloring books. That was a stunning amount of success in a very short amount of time.
Sharaz-De: Tales from the Arabian Nights
By Sergio Toppi
In his foreword to Sharaz-De, Walt Simonson describes picking up Sergio Toppi comics in their original Italian during the ‘70s. Though Simonson doesn’t read Italian, he was attracted to the art, and it’s easy to see why. Every page invites the reader to stop and study. Toppi is a master at cross-hatching. He gives people, animals, and settings layers and layers of detail through thousands of short lines, all directing the eye to exactly the place he wants it to go. He pulls me in not just panel after panel, but figure after figure. Fortunately, Sharaz-De has large pages with lots of room, and as adept as Toppi is at filling those pages with ink, he’s equally skilled at using negative space to balance out compositions and give the eye a break.
I empathize with Simonson’s being so pulled into this stuff even though he didn’t understand the text. I’ve often been tempted to pick up European comics that I couldn’t read simply because they were beautiful. I’ve always resisted though, because I’m too interested in story to be able to enjoy comics purely for their visuals. That’s why I get excited when publishers like Archaia translate these books for English readers.
I read Toppi’s Sharaz-De back-to-back with another graphic novel, A Flight of Angels by Rebecca Guay and Friends. There’s a line in Guay’s book that was written by Holly Black: “Tricksters tell the truth in a way that makes it lies.” That stuck with me, because I think the opposite is true of great storytellers, who tell lies in a way that makes them truth. That’s an appropriate description of what’s going on in Sharaz-De. It’s not only what Toppi is doing, but his main character as well.
When comics entrepreneur Marc Arsenault announced almost a year ago that he had bought defunct Alternative Comics in order to relaunch the publisher, a lot of fans (me included) were thrilled. Under founder Jeff Mason, Alternative introduced readers to creators like Graham Annable, Brandon Graham, James Kochalka, Ed Brubaker, Scott Campbell (of Great Movie Showdowns fame), Dean Haspiel and Josh Neufeld. So with Alternative and comiXology announcing today that the publisher’s catalog is becoming available digitally on the app, I was eager to talk to Arsenault about their plans.
Michael May: For those who don’t know you, what’s your background in comics?
Marc Arsenault: Wow. Where to begin? I’ve been a pretty behind-the-scenes guy for most of my time in comics, but this year I’ve hit the quarter century mark for working in them.
I figured out that I wanted to make comics somewhere around eighth grade when I discovered RAW, Warrior and Heavy Metal. When I found out about the comics program at the School of Visual Arts (SVA) my path was clear. I didn’t even apply to any other schools. I got to study with Harvey Kurtzman, Will Eisner, Joe Orlando, David Sandlin, Jerry Moriarity, Marshall Arisman and the very influential Jack Potter.
That experience was very relevant to Alternative Comics’ past and present because it was there that I met Sam Henderson and Tom Hart. I shared a studio space with Tom, and he and Sam had started an off-campus comics anthology called Tuna Casserole. By the fifth issue I became co-editor and we founded the first incarnation of my company Wow Cool. I ended up becoming an illustrator instead of a cartoonist, and did that freelance on and off up until about a decade ago.
I know I still get hammered via e-mail when I suggest something like, say, that there aren’t any superhero comics in any one of my year’s top ten, with a line of thinking that things should somehow be balanced between that particular form of expression and others. I kind of thought most fans were past this …
It wasn’t too many years ago that this definitely was an issue, at least for me. I thought of the stages in my comics life in terms of how much each involved superheroes. My childhood years were all about Harvey, Walt Disney and Looney Tunes until I discovered Marvel and DC and put away “childish things.” That lasted well into my 20s, until companies like Dark Horse and Vertigo opened the gate to other genres.
“Copyright is fundamental to creative industries, those who believe it’s not relevant are mistaken”
I find that interesting on a few levels. And by “interesting” I mean “bullshit.”
Konrath is an author who escaped the midlist wilderness of traditional publishing to do extremely well for himself (to the tune of about $3,000 a day) by self-publishing on Amazon. As you may expect, he’s become an advocate for self-publishing and a strong critic of the traditional model and those who defend it. His quote above is in response to a tweet by the U.K’.s Publishers Association from the London Book Fair.
Yale Stewart, creator of the popular “Justice-League-as-kids” fan webcomic JL8, has created some wallpaper that he’s selling to benefit victims of Monday’s bombing at the Boston Marathon. There are three versions: the one above, a reversed image with the Flash running toward the left, and a left-running one sized especially for Facebook covers. A $1 donation (or more, if you like) gets you all three in a zipped file. Stewart will divide all proceeds equally between Boston Children’s Hospital and Red Cross of Boston.