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The secret art of sketch cards

Spider-Man by Fred Hembeck

Spider-Man sketch card by Fred Hembeck

While the old trading card business in comics  has never been the same since the 1990s, there is a vibrant off-shoot that’s caught hold for both artists and fans. Sketch cards have almost completely overshadowed mass-produced trading cards as a way for fans to buy original, one-of-a-kind art from both established and up-and-coming artists.

Can’t afford to buy the original art from a page of your favorite comic book? Sketch cards sell at a fraction of the price and are just as unique. Can’t make it to a comic book convention or pay commission prices? Sketch cards are like instant mini-commissions. They also retain the collectibility of trading cards because companies typically commission artists to do a finite number around a specific theme for a limited-edition series. Artists are also free to make their own sketch cards and sell those. As someone who used to voraciously collect Marvel trading cards in their heyday, I view this as a cool alternative that highlights and supports the individual artist more.

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Don’t fear the silly

This is completely serious

This is completely serious

The ill-considered comments made last week by screenwriter David S. Goyer highlighted an embarrassment for an intrinsic part of older superhero characters and comic books in general: A lot of them are just downright “goofy.” However, there’s nothing wrong with that.

Goyer’s go-to ridicule of the silliness of Martian Manhunter’s name, concept and origin nicely encapsulated a school of thought that’s been running throughout comics for a long time. It most strongly peaked when all the wrong people misinterpreted the success of Watchmen and Batman: The Dark Knight Returns as due to an over-serious, grim-and-gritty take on superheroes that focused on distorted realism.

“What if superheroes really existed in our world?” is such a tired premise at this point, but it has proliferated to such a degree since the 1980s that it keeps getting recycled every year or so by someone, whether with an established property or new creation. I admit that, back in the day, I got caught up in that swirl of faux-maturity too. Comic books were still struggling to find respect and appreciation in broader pop culture, and this seemed like the easiest way to prove they could have artistic merit. If it wasn’t completely serious, it somehow wasn’t good.

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Beyond film: the language of comics

MovieComics

Comics can do way more than this…not that there’s anything wrong with this

Oyster War cartoonist Ben Towle posted an interesting consideration this week about how we discuss comics, and the tendency to rely on film terminology. From scripts to reviews to casual exchanges, we often rely on film language, referring to a panel composition as a “shot” or “camera angle,” for instance, despite the vast majority of comics never employing cameras (fumettis not withstanding). By Towle’s own admission, the post is a collection of disorderly thoughts, but it encourages an examination of how we think and talk about comics, and how we make them.

His “Let’s Stop Using Film Terminology to Talk About Comics” is likely to elicit responses like “I’ll use whatever terminology I want” and “What difference does it make?” That first reaction is of course true: We can all use whatever terminology we like. A blog post isn’t going to change that, and certainly the ubiquity of film won’t prevent its terminology being used in the context of comics from being understood. However, the answer to the second response might cause someone to reconsider that first. As Towle explains early on, how we talk about something affects how we think about it. It’s why politicians are so careful in the terms they use to describe opponents and allies. They’re hoping to establish terminology for a group of people, which in turn influences how we think about them as well. Is someone receiving welfare relief or government hand-outs? Was information obtained from prisoners or detainees, and were torture or extreme-interrogation techniques used? Obviously those are very politically charged examples, but to bring it closer to home, there’s a reason the term “graphic novel” was promoted over “comic book” to bookstores and other mainstream outlets. Words not only have meanings, but also connotations; they can imply judgment, status, and much more. They influence how we perceive the subject of discussion and how we’re likely to think of it in the future. So yes, it does make a difference.

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Dark Horse rides again

Avatar: The Last Airbender - The Rift Part One

Avatar: The Last Airbender – The Rift Pt. 1

With April sales numbers released from Diamond Comic Distributors, a subtle pattern has revealed itself: Dark Horse has reclaimed its position as fourth-largest publisher from IDW Publishing for three months straight. It’s a streak of growth in market and dollar share that hasn’t happened for Dark Horse since fall 2011.

It’s great news for an industry mainstay that seemed to be getting eclipsed by the younger IDW at its own game of mixing licensed properties with creator-owned titles. Whether it’s temporary or not, digging into the sales charts, it’s clear there’s more stability in Dark Horse’s catalog than there might first seem.

Obviously Star Wars is the property many know the company for, and when it was announced the license would move at the end of this year to Marvel, some worried how Dark Horse would carry on. However, most publishers realize that no license is forever, so Dark Horse has built a diverse library that seems to be lifting it up now. Despite such diversifying, Star Wars is still the big seller at comic shops, but it’s only the beginning. The back-to-back launch of The Star Wars, a comics adaptation of an early draft of George Lucas’ screenplay, and a back-to-basics Star Wars by Brian Wood provided two accessible titles; if you’d ever seen the original Star Wars trilogy, you’re all set. The last issue of The Star Wars comes out later this month, with a collection in both hardcover and softcover to follow in July.

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A tale of two Novas

OS-GOTG18coverMarvel announced on Monday that as part of its “Original Sin” event, the fate of the original Nova, Richard Rider, finally will be revealed in August’s Guardians of the Galaxy #18, by Brian Michael Bendis and Ed McGuinness. The character last appeared in 2010; since then, the mantle of Nova has been held by Sam Alexander, who’s yet to win over vocal fans of the original Human Rocket.

Green Lantern fans are probably having a ’90s flashback right about now. While Richard Rider wasn’t turned into a homicidal villain, he and Hal Jordan both were summarily shuffled off at the climax of a big event to make way for a younger replacement. Longtime readers initially hated Kyle Rayner, but DC Comics stuck to its guns, as over the following decade he remained the primary Green Lantern in the DC Universe. While a vocal minority never relented, the work of writer Ron Marz and others attracted a new following for the character, and converted some old fans too. Rayner remains a major character in the Green Lantern titles today, even after the return of Jordan in 2005.

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How’s your comics diet?

A little bit of this...little bit of that

A little bit of this…little bit of that

Remember when all there was to read was Marvel and DC Comics? OK, those days never really existed, but I would bet a significant majority of us at one time read comics exclusively, or almost exclusively, published by the so-called “Big Two.” Some of you may even do so now. If recent studies are any indication, that’s changing. A growing percentage of people have been buying more titles from Image Comics and other publishers.

How about you? How is your comics diet? Going by direct sales numbers, many of us still live off a primarily Marvel/DC superhero diet. But we all know there’s more out there. Maybe we read The Walking Dead or Saga too. Those are good reads, no doubt about it, and there’s more where those came from. Lots more. Just a casual look on this site or any comics site will reveal a growing number of books from other publishers are receiving more attention, more positive buzz from readers, more good reviews from critics, and more exciting announcements. So how to jump in?

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Eyeing the Eisners: a look at the 2014 nominees

The Oatmeal

The Oatmeal by Matthew Inman

One of my favorite times of the year is here: the announcement of the nominees for the Will Eisner Comic Industry Awards. I love poring over each category to look for surprises, seeing books I never heard of or never got a chance to read. I guess when you get right down to it, I love getting to celebrate awesome comics.

It seems that with each year, the Eisners get better at reflecting the comics art form and industry at that moment. The judges not only hit the fan favorites and critical darlings, but also unexpected choices and hidden gems that truly benefit from this kind of recognition. It’s where quality instead of sales rule, as it should be for an award recognizing the very best of the industry.

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Welcome to the age of the Marvel Cinematic Crossover

captainamerica-winter-soldier-15

Captain America: The Winter Soldier

What did you do last weekend? Nothing much, probably; no real reason to get excited. After all, it was just another awesome Marvel movie opening. Granted, “awesome” isn’t an objective description, and surely some people had a pretty miserable time. But judging from reviews, user ratings and my own anecdotal observations, odds are a significant majority of the approximately 11 million people who watched Captain America: The Winter Soldier enjoyed it.

The film has been thoroughly reviewed — you can read CBR’s take here — so I won’t get into a big assessment. (Suffice it to say, I liked it.) Instead ,what I want to talk about is the larger Marvel Cinematic Universe, and how it hasn’t just successfully adapted stories and characters, but the very experience of the Marvel Comics Universe.

It is now well-documented that Marvel Studios President Kevin Feige is a big comics fan. The difference, however, is that he didn’t grow up with them, but schooled himself on Marvel’s stories while working under producer Lauren Shuler Donner on the first X-Men movie. That distinction might have given him the ability to view the characters and concepts without being hindered by nostalgia, and helped him to dissect how Marvel’s framework could be used for future movies. Hollywood is an even more collaborative business than comics, so it’s unlikely that credit rests solely with Feige. But he certainly was an advocate for leaning more faithfully into the source material.

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The 6 best things from Emerald City Comicon

Emerald City ComiconEmerald City Comicon may not come with the metric ton of announcements that Comic-Con International does, but in a way it’s all the better for it. Comics still feel as if they’re front and center just where I like them, and the announcements have more charm because they aren’t screaming to be heard over the din of film and television rollouts.

One year, I’ll get up to Seattle to experience the event firsthand, but in the meantime, I get to absorb all the news and photos like everyone else, as they’re posted online. ECCC even streamed all of its panels on flipon.tv. Anything that happened in Room 301 is free for anyone to watch. Everything else can be purchased with a full archive pass for $14.95. Or if, you don’t want to sit through hours of panel footage, there’s CBR’s coverage or, heck, try Google or something.

A number of announcements jumped out as particularly noteworthy, so let’s run through The 6 Best Things from ECCC. And from my count, Dark Horse won Emerald City. Your miles may vary though, so post your favorites in the comments.

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Is the world ready for … a comics truck?

Penguin Book Truck

Penguin Book Truck

The story of Chris Romberger’s comics vending machine reminded me of an idea I had kicking around my head a couple of weeks ago: Here in Los Angeles, there has been something of a food-truck revolution going on for the past several years. And then I saw that last summer, Penguin Books launched a book truck. As Book Riot pointed out, bookmobiles and other ways to bring books to the people are nothing new, so I thought, why not comics?

A comics truck would be a fun way to spread the love of comic books, graphic novels, manga and all things sequentially artistic. It would probably never really be a replacement for a comics store, due to space limitations, but it could be effective as an outreach tool to drive buyers back to shops — plus be a dynamic retail outlet that can carry specific titles for the readers it will reach.

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Rethinking covers: the variants and the gimmicks

Wonder Woman #31 variant cover by Mike Allred

Wonder Woman #31 variant cover by Mike Allred

Remember when comic books had only one cover each, and they didn’t glow in the dark or feature moving images? When the cover was just a good-looking illustration that made you curious about the story inside? And it was by the artist who actually drew that story?

Yeah, me neither.

Like it or not, we live in the age of specialized covers, whether in the form of variants or, for lack of a better (and less-derisive) term, gimmicks. I’ve mostly made peace with that, but the near-simultaneous announcements of Valiant bringing back chromium covers and DC doing a second round of lenticular covers recently stirred it all up again.

I know I’m being kind of silly about it. I mean, who cares? If people want them, they should have them. Obviously they help to increase sales, otherwise publishers wouldn’t go through the trouble. But is there more to it?

The thing is that variant covers have never been more prevalent. People used to make fun of publishers like Avatar Press, which would flood each release with boatloads of different covers for the same story. It turns out the company was ahead of its time. That’s not always a good thing, of course. Variant covers can cause confusion with new or more casual readers who may not remember the issue number they last bought but can recall what was on the cover.

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When it comes to comics, what is ‘real’?

Real? Donald Duck by Carl Barks

Real? Donald Duck by Carl Barks

Eric Stephenson means well. As publisher of Image Comics, and even before he held that position, he’s often called out for change in the comics industry. I love these calls to action, even if they’re not always graceful; change usually isn’t. Most of us agree that changing the comics industry for the better is in everyone’s best interest, but how to change it and how we define better is when things get messy. I’m usually in agreement with what Stephenson is saying, but his speech last week at the ComicsPRO annual meeting was jumbled and tripped over itself when it came to licensed comics.

Stephenson got hung up on a significant sector of comics publishing, and I think it muddied his larger message. In his speech, as I’m sure you’ve seen re-quoted multiple times by now, he claimed that licensed comics like IDW’s Transformers and GI Joe, and Dark Horse’s Star Wars “will never be the real thing.” In the lead-up, he also explained there are “only two kinds of comics that matter: good comics and bad comics.” Now, he never outright said licensed comics are in the “bad” category, but some certainly viewed that as the implication.

His argument is that comics should rely on original ideas to produce original content, a point he underscored by pointing to the perennial bestseller The Walking Dead and the fast-growing Saga, both coincidentally published by Image. I agree original comics are where the magic can happen, and where the creators can most benefit. But that doesn’t mean everything else is by default a waste of time.

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First Second creates a modern-day Bullpen Bulletins

First Second

First Second

Something has been going on at the First Second website. For about a year and a half to two years, the publisher’s marketing and publicity coordinator Gina Gagliano has been bringing personality to its blog with informative, funny and engaging posts that make me want to Make Mine First Second. Yes, there’s decidedly a lack of alliterations, but there’s an effortless style to the blog that harkens back to the classic days of Marvel’s Bullpen Bulletins, as written by Stan Lee.

Gina was introduced to us in 2007, when First Second was just establishing itself. It was using Typepad for its blogging, and editor Mark Siegel was the primary writer. Gina’s posts generally stuck to limericks to promote new releases. Cute, and a unique way to talk about First Second’s books, but maybe too brief and structured so they didn’t really create a personal connection or invite conversation. But then somewhere around summer 2012, she began to become the dominant voice on the blog. As she took over, her posts became meatier, and she started to cover a richer variety of topics that have really brought the site to life in a unique way.

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Crowdfunding update: Patreon on the rise, Indiegogo struggles

January's top crowd-funded comics campaign

January’s top crowd-funded comics campaign

After growing to 2 percent the size of the direct market in the last quarter of 2013, the crowdfunding sector of comics stumbled in January, even while the younger Patreon expanded.

Following up on my number-crunching and analysis from last month, I’ve continued tracking the progress of a market within comics that’s only beginning to mature. While there are more than two dozen crowdfunding platforms, Kickstarter and Indiegogo have been the established leaders from the get-go, especially in terms of comics-related campaigns. There is a smattering of comics projects on sites like GoFundMe, but by comparison those could be considered the long tail of this market. A crowdfunding hit has yet to occur on a platform other than Kickstarter or Indiegogo.

That could change with Patreon, however. As our ROBOT 6 contributor Chris Arrant noted last week, Zach Weinersmith of Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal was already bringing in $7,500 a month after launching his campaign on Dec. 10. At the time of this writing, that amount is now $7,822.86 each month of comics he produces (minus Patreon’s fees). That;s coming from 2,839 patrons, or supporters. Meredith Gran’s campaign for Octopus Pie, which launched at the beginning of this month, already has more than $750 per month from 235 patrons. Last month, I would’ve included Patreon in the previously mentioned long tail with GoFundMe; however, those two high-profile campaigns are drawing attention to Patreon, so I wanted to see if I could better measure its footprint, and see how it stands up against Kickstarter and Indiegogo. Surprisingly, it turns out that Patreon could eclipse Indiegogo as the No. 2 comics crowdfunding platform.

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The perfect comic book store

On top of everything else, a giant lizard might crush your store

On top of everything else, a giant lizard might crush your store

For years I’ve imagined running my own comic book store. I’ve dreamed of it, even planned; sometimes I scope out locations while driving around town. I’m sure lots of fans have similar fantasies, but unlike everyone else, I would run the best comic shop ever. Not only would it be the best, it would be the most unique shopping experience. It would be perfect.

Of course, reality would be significantly different, and probably far less impressive. I mean, I’m fairly confident  I could make a better store than the guy from The Simpsons. But how would I really make it stand out? When I sit down and think about it, I don’t understand how anyone would think it’s a good idea to open up a store.

Here in Los Angeles, like in a lot of major cities, we’re pretty spoiled. There’s no shortage of truly exceptional stores, whether you’re in the Valley, in Hollywood or on the Westside. And if you want that old, crummy comic dungeon of yore, there are a few of those as well. The Westside might not be quite as saturated, but L.A. is generally well-covered, which means there might not be room for a new store. Invariably, I would be stepping on someone’s territory. A store here would either create bad blood with the nearest specialty shops and their patrons, or it would really have to go in a different direction and appeal to a neglected or untapped demographic. That’s certainly possible. On the other hand, L.A .rent is notoriously high.

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