The Comics Observer
PictureBox may be the only comic book publisher to win a Grammy Award, as Dan Nadel helped design the packaging for Wilco’s 2004 album A Ghost is Born. What might be more remarkable is that despite such a high-profile achievement, it isn’t likely to be how the small yet innovative comics house will be remembered when it closes at the end of year. Instead, at least in comics circles, PictureBox will be remembered for somehow capturing and releasing a mercurial yet eye-catching merger of music and imagery that manifested as graphic novels, art books and magazines.
For all intents and purposes, PictureBox is Nadel. He’s an accomplished editor, designer, publisher and curator of “visual culture,” as he describes it. “Each project comes from my own tastes and relationships, and are rooted in what I believe in,” he wrote on the PictureBox website. “Since it’s just me running this thing, you’re pretty much seeing me through those books and this site.” Looking through the PictureBox catalog proves that to be true. It’s like walking into the house of the kid down the street who had a collection of comics you never heard of but instantly wished you had. Where did he find these people, these mad geniuses? Maybe if I read everything, I’ll understand.
Thursday at this time, many Americans will be digging in to their bountiful Thanksgiving dinner or, depending upon the time zone, blissfully enjoying a tryptophan coma. Feasting isn’t the only tradition, however: There’s also the custom of giving thanks, hence the holiday’s name.
With the end of the year approaching, it seems like a good opportunity to reflect on the state of comics, and celebrate what’s working. Sure, this crazy industry can be frustrating at times, but it also gets a lot of things right. So in keeping with the numerical motif of our namesake, here are six things in comics for which I’m thankful.
1. Image Comics is killing it
There are a lot of fantastic comics today. It’s been said a number of times by myself and others but it’s so fun to repeat: We are living in a new renaissance period for comics. I don’t think there’s ever before been such a sustained output of quality books. You can’t reasonably give credit for that to one publisher, but if we’re just looking at the major players in the direct market, Image Comics is just killing it this year. I don’t think they’ve ever had such a stellar line-up of quality creators putting out books that look fantastic, have great hooks to them, and stand on their own as solid entertainment.
Marvel’s announcement last week that a Muslim teenager living in New Jersey will star in the new Ms. Marvel series is an exciting step forward in diversifying superhero comics. And even better is the involvement of writer G. Willow Wilson and editor Sana Amanat, both Muslims, which should bring an authentic voice to the title.
The move is already garnering a lot of media attention, and I expect it will pique the curiosity of a number of people who never really expected a mainstream comic book to tell a story so closely connected to their own. This isn’t the first comic book to do something like this, but it’s remarkably significant.
I’m looking forward to Ms. Marvel, and I really hope the comic finds an audience (I’m also thrilled to see artist Adrian Alphona back on an ongoing series). But there’s no doubting this title is an underdog. Marvel often struggles with keeping solo series starring women; just ask fans of She-Hulk, or Rogue, or Carol Danvers. Poor Storm can’t even get more than a miniseries every 10 years or so. DC may be able to boast Wonder Woman and a number of female-starring Batman spinoffs, but both publishers have had limited success sustaining books that star minority characters. From Black Panther to War Machine to Steel to the current Batwing, there have been valiant efforts that ultimately get canceled. And I’m hard-pressed to think of a significant Marvel or DC book starring a character whose religion was such a strong crux of the premise.
Orson Scott Card wrote the Hugo Award-winning novel Ender’s Game and its sequels, short stories and related material. He also wrote a number of other novels, essays and comic books that have earned him significant praise and success. And … he has an uncomfortable track record with his position on same-sex marriage.
Despite somewhat backpedaling by calling the issue “moot” and resigning his position on the board of the National Organization for Marriage, Card’s history was not so easily forgotten by Geeks Out and the 11,800 people who signed the organization’s petition pledging to skip the feature film adaptation of Ender’s Game. After all of the uproar and protesting, Ender’s Game had a strong opening last weekend and has been garnering reasonably positive reviews. While a sequel is being debated, Card announced Friday he will be writing and releasing more books in the Ender’s Game series.
At least on the surface, it doesn’t look like the boycott did much, if any, damage, despite some PR scrambling ahead of the film’s release.
All of that got me to thinking about boycotts, petitions, and fans’ reactions in general when we’re faced with distasteful information about a creator whose work we enjoy.
Comics are truly entering the mainstream: They’ve become an annoying Facebook app.
Bitstrips allows its 20 million users to create comic strips of themselves as status updates, with a friend or as a greeting car; they can then be shared via the Facebook app or the new mobile app. And no, “20 million” is not a typo. Potentially some 20 million people are interacting with the language of comics in a way most never do – trying to create and clearly tell a story. Sure, that story is usually the equivalent of an inane status update, and “creating” is used very liberally here, as users choose from a finite number of backgrounds and settings that they customize.
Despite looking like a cross between Bratz dolls and Wii avatars (ie, bright and garish, squarely aimed at pre-teens), Bitstrips sprung forth from a comic artist. According to Know Your Memes, the mysterious Ba (surname unknown) was tired of re-drawing characters for a comics project, so he created a system where he could re-use customized characters and settings instead of drawing them from scratch every time. He teamed up with four other guys — graphic designers and comic fans — and launched Bitstrips at the 2008 South By Southwest in Austin. Bitstrips for Schools launched soon after as an educational tool, but things didn’t start to take off until 2011, when they caught the attention of Cartoon Network.
One of the under-analyzed indicators of comics’ recently improved health is the seemingly exponential growth of convention attendance. Rarely does a Comics A.M. goes by where some convention, even a smaller, regional one, isn’t reporting how attendance is up from the previous year and they’re expecting even more the next; often it’s in the thousands, headed into tens of thousands.
That seems to be in direct contrast to conventional wisdom: Digital comics sales are increasing, most comics creators are a tweet away, and travel in this still-sluggish economy is still cost-prohibitive for a lot of fans. Yet, just as print sales in the direct market have been steady, and even improving, attendances at comics conventions is up virtually across the board.
The leader of this pack is easily New York Comic Con. In just seven short years, it has positioned itself as the comics convention of the year, providing stiff competition for the long-held leader Comic-Con International. In fact, New York Comic Con hit San Diego-sized attendance numbers this year.
In May, I wrote about some troubling signs of creator disputes at Valiant Entertainment, which had obtained the properties of the old Valiant free and clear, despite some buy-back clauses that weren’t honored by former owner Acclaim Entertainment. Artist Kevin Maguire spoke out about his concerns over the digital re-release of his Trinity Angels and other Acclaim-era titles like Quantum & Woody by Christopher Priest and M.D. Bright. Later that month, Maguire met with Valiant CEO Dinesh Shamdasani, and while details were slim, he posted on his Facebook page that, after getting his questions answered regarding Trinity Angels, he was “now cool with them.”
Some questions still remained, however. Shamdasani said in interviews he was in talks with Priest and Bright about new work, but the two remained curiously silent, making no public comments about the relaunched Quantum & Woody by James Asmus and Tom Fowler. Had they signed off on it? Were they or any of the Acclaim creators getting anything for the digital re-release of their work?
I’m happy to say that after the news coming out of New York Comic Con about Priest and Bright returning to their version of Quantum & Woody, any lingering concerns seem to have been settled to everyone’s satisfaction. In their relatively short existence, Valiant Entertainment has demonstrated it’s willing to set things right even when it may not have any legal obligation to do so. Comics blogs often call out industry wrongdoings, and rightly so, but you don’t often see a lot praise when it’s done right. In May, I asked for Valiant Entertainment to do right by its creators and the Valiant legacy, and today, I’m thanking the company for doing so.
The official announcement on Tuesday of a new horror series by Robert Kirkman looks promising, but can it repeat the success of The Walking Dead? The co-creator of one of most successful comic books of the past decade has become one of the high-profile figures in the industry, so the new project (with artist Paul Azaceta) calls out for a closer look.
When his zombie comic debuted in 2003, Kirkman was primarily known for superhero comics, like the more traditional Invincible, which had launched only months earlier, or the parody Battle Pope. A black-and-white horror comic that had none of the Spider-Man-style lightheartedness of those early Invincible issues or the dark humor of Battle Pope was unexpected from the writer. Even his lesser-known work, like Tech Jacket, Brit, Superpatriot or (how’s this for obscure?) the Masters of the Universe: Icons of Evil one-shots and Space Ace, all typically fell somewhere within that spectrum, never getting too dark and sometimes heading into outright comedies. Of course, any writer worth his salt can do more than one genre or tone. The Walking Dead definitively stepped out of his known territory, immediately proving itself to be startlingly tense, dark and dead serious. And like 30 Days of Night the year before, it demonstrated once again that comics could do horror.
Word of mouth about the series soon spread, with sales of each issue improving during an industry-wide slump. It became a cult hit, and by the time the first collected edition was released, back issues were beginning to spike on the resale market. Each subsequent year, sales seemed to grow exponentially, until it became the perennial hit that it is today. Needless to say, this led to a television deal with AMC and the pop culture phenomenon that it’s become, which has helped accelerate a zombie craze.
Tim Beyers of The Motley Fool recently speculated that comiXology could be positioning itself to go public. Or as he put it, “comiXology could be the next IPO multibagger.” He even asked CEO David Steinberger, who responded, “I would love to be significant enough to feel like we could do that. That would mean that it’s working, that the market is getting bigger.” Which is basically corporate for “Oh, God, I hope so!”
It may still be a few years off, but comiXology is definitely on the right track. The digital-comics platform just surpassed 200 million downloads, a milestone that was crossed exponentially faster than the 100 million mark. And no, it’s not all from free downloads. The company has been profitable since 2011, when Steinberger claims it made $19 million. That turned into $57 million in 2012. ComiXology’s expansion into the French market and the 10th anniversary of The Walking Dead, which coincides with the fourth-season premiere of the hit television series, are expected speed the company past 300 million downloads. This year’s launch of comiXology Submit is also likely helping push the needle further. Could comiXology hit $100 million in sales next year? If it stays on the current track, it seems entirely possible. ComiXology launched in July 2007 and turned a profit in about four years, an impressive feat, especially considering the state of the economy during that period.
DC Comics hasn’t had a particularly good run of things lately. To be frank, the publisher has done blown it a number of times over the past few years. But don’t worry, DC fans — I’m sure it’ll soon be Marvel’s turn, as the two rivals seem to trade off every five years or so.
I’ve been calling out DC for the past couple of weeks, but that doesn’t mean everything it does strikes me as wrong. It’s important to declare shenanigans, but it’s also important to recognize when a publisher does something that’s good for comics.
So here are six things DC is doing right:
1. Digital comics: Legends of the Dark Knight and Adventures of Superman are digital-first anthology series that feature some excellent creators (from Jeff Parker and Chris Samnee to J.M. DeMatteis and Jeff Lemire) producing completely accessible and entertaining stories that stand on their own; no college course on the New 52 or Crisis on Infinite Earths required. Yes, these stories are out of continuity — so for a percentage of readers, they don’t count. That’s a mistake, because there’s nothing wrong with a straight-up superhero tale that exists on its own terms. These two anthologies are the gems of DC’s digital-first line-up, but Batman ’66 and Batman: Li’l Gotham also offer fantastical takes on the iconic Caped Crusader that are bright and fun. For those exhausted by the angsty versions of serious stories, you owe it to yourself to check these out.
Apparently, it takes three respected organizations to reiterate what fans had been saying for a week in order for DC Comics to admit: Maybe the fans have a point.
As we reported Friday, the publisher apologized to anyone offended by the talent search tryout page that asked artists to depict Harley Quinn naked in a bathtub, seemingly about to commit suicide. While the apology is welcome news, the entire rundown of the event reveals an unfortunate approach to handling controversy. Let’s take a look at the timeline of the Harley Quinn suicide debacle:
• Thursday, Sept. 5: DC launches the contest with a script excerpt of four panels that culminate in an apparent suicide scene. Fans on Tumblr, Twitter and elsewhere begin to react.
• Saturday, Sept. 7: Co-Publisher Jim Lee posts a series of tweets explaining context and attempting to clarify the intent of the story.
• Tuesday, Sept. 10: Co-writer Jimmy Palmiotti posts an apology on his Facebook page, and clarifies the controversial panel is part of a surreal dream sequence. “I hope all the people thinking the worst of us can now understand that insulting or making fun of any kind was never our intention,” he writes. “I also hope that they can all stop blaming DC Comics for this since it was my screw up.”
I’m still kind of flummoxed by Dan DiDio’s comments last weekend at Baltimore Comic-Con explaining why Batwoman can’t marry her girlfriend Maggie Sawyer. “Heroes shouldn’t have happy personal lives,” he said at the start of the DC Nation panel, according to several sources. “They are committed to being that person and committed to defending others at the sacrifice of their own personal interests. It’s wonderful that they try to establish personal lives, but it’s equally important that they set them aside. That is our mandate, that is our edict and that is our stand with our characters.”
I don’t disagree with the idea that main characters ought to struggle. A sunny walk through the park doesn’t make for much of a gripping adventure yarn. That is pretty basic writing strategy for drama: Put your characters through hell and watch them climb out. Serialized superhero stories, and in fact most Western narratives, are structured around that up and down of going from seeming defeat to triumph. It’s particularly appropriate for Batman and his family of books: The Dark Knight is built around tragedy, and his obsession over fixing that tragedy is what drives him. Bruce Wayne continually sacrifices his personal life in his constant pursuit to make sure what happened to him won’t happen to anyone else. It’s that drive that’s turned him into something of a social misfit — he can play the part of Mr. Debonair but getting emotionally close to him is almost impossible.
So on that level, I don’t disagree with DiDio.
A bit of a firestorm erupted in the comments section of Frank Santoro’s most recent Riff Raff column at The Comics Journal. Closing with six pictures from the most recent issue of the self-published series Fukitor #9 by Jason Karns, Santoro praised the book for its use of colors on two different types of paper within the same issue, calling it “one of the most interesting print jobs out there.” Indeed, the art is visceral and eye-catching, judging by the photos of Santoro holding the comic.
The sticky part is that three of the images are from a “Special Forces Attack Squad” story that contains what could be considered as racially insensitive. Santoro also described Karns’ work as being “almost ‘too real’ to be part of the contemporary comics conversation.” He also said, “Just about everything compared to his work seems ‘pretentious.’ Karns is not trying to do a throwback style or appropriate ‘bad comics’ in order to make some sort of art comic. This is the real deal. This shit is SERIOUS!”
I’m not sure what most of that description even means. In what way is his work “too real”? Karns certainly isn’t doing journalism comics a la Joe Sacco. Santoro later admitted he could’ve done a better job of presenting Karns’ work, and the ensuing comments to his column appear to have caused him to reassess his appreciation, at least as it pertains to the subject matter. Right off the bat, the first commenter asked whether Fukitor is racist. Karns himself quickly showed up with a strange response that’s boils down to, “They’re just cartoons.” It reads as though he’s claiming the comic book form is somehow incapable of depicting racist imagery, which is pretty easily disputed by any cursory survey of World War II-era comics. Karns goes on to dig a rather big hole for himself.
The Will Eisner Comic Industry Awards celebrated its 25th anniversary this year at Comic-Con International in San Diego. For a quarter century, the most prestigious award in comics has been recognizing the best — or, depending upon your perspective, getting it wrong for two and a half decades. However you feel about the results, the Eisners are established as our most respected and classy way for the industry to recognize excellence and put its best foot forward to the larger world.
It didn’t seem like there was a lot of acknowledgement of the anniversary, so I thought I’d take the opportunity to dive into the archives, sift through way too many numbers and names, and present 25 fun facts, figures and random whatnots.
So here now are 25 fun facts about the Eisner Awards:
There’s been a lot of talk about the appropriateness of violence and sexual violence in comics. It’s a good discussion to have, particularly for creators who take their art seriously.
I saw a quote from the Syrian cartoonist Ali Ferzat in The Guardian that seemed apt, although the context of what he was talking about was different: “If there is no mission or message to my work I might as well be a [house] painter and decorator.”
At some point, creators have to decide what their work is about in a larger sense – what’s their mission statement, if you will. In defining that, everything they produce serves that goal on some level. It’s probably not apparent to anyone other than the creator, and some probably do it on a subconscious level, but it gives their work a unified essence that makes it undeniably them.
Or maybe that’s just me, and I’m projecting that onto everyone else.
Even so, creators have to live with their work; it represents them. And everyone is going to have different comfort levels regarding what they want to represent them and their ideas, just as those that experience the work will have different levels of comfort. For some, it’s run-of the-mill to use sexual violence as shorthand to establish a one-dimensional villain; it’s a go-to device