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Four Decades of Fridays… part four

Part one is here. Part two is here. Part three is here. Now our last decade-long leap, to the time when comics actually became my job.

*

It had been a tumultuous few years, for me and for comics. But by 1997 things had settled down some. I had gotten most of my personal stuff in order and was making a fair living freelancing as a writer and illustrator for various publications, as well as picking up a few hours a week at a local printshop.

None of it involved comics, except just peripherally here and there. I kind of liked it that way, to be honest. That way comics remained something recreational, something I could still enjoy just as a fan. I’d noticed that, as soon as I started actually selling fiction, I’d started reading with a professional’s eye, almost like I was measuring what I read as competition. Which is not to say I actually ranked myself in the same company as the guys I was reading; I am occasionally arrogant, but not delusional. No, it was just… I guess you’d call it a kind of awareness of what was going on backstage, so to speak. It made it a little harder to get into a book if I had one eye on the technical side of things.

And I didn’t ever want to start reading comics that way. I still, even at thirty-six, treasured comics and superheroes and responded to them primarily as a fan. I’d have hated comics to become just another business proposition, so I largely avoided trying to get that kind of work. I was happy to be writing and drawing for various young-adult and scholastic markets and keep comics a hobby.

Nevertheless, it was harder to find the good stuff than it had been. After the glories of the eighties it seemed like everyone had self-destructed. First was gone, Eclipse was gone, Comico was gone… and in its place we got Image, which seemed to be all style and no substance.

Never had I felt like such a crotchety old man as when I looked at what the Image founders were doing in the early 90’s. Spawn, Youngblood, and Shadowhawk seemed so determinedly anti-everything that I regarded as “good comics” that I honestly wondered if it was MY problem, because they seemed to be the agreed-upon Hot New Thing at the time. The big companies were flailing around trying to find something that had the same air of smug, stupid adolescence that the early Image books did. Everywhere you looked in the superhero genre landscape there were over-rendered steroid cases starring in pin-up books.

Marvel, especially, seemed trapped in some sort of spiral of desperation. Their great coup of 1996 had been persuading Jim Lee and Rob Liefeld to come back and do “Heroes Reborn”, which turned into such a trainwreck that Liefeld hadn’t even finished his. I glanced at the Jim Lee Fantastic Four and couldn’t figure out what all the shouting was about; the rendering was just… off. Lee’s hyper-cross-hatched detailing tended to slow everything down, it was a series of static engravings instead of comics.

Jim Lee's FF engravings were so clearly not my thing that I wondered if I really was getting too old for superheroes.

It was beautifully, painstakingly drawn, sure; but there was no movement. It’s the only way I can think of to explain my basic distaste for that style in general, and seeing it on the Fantastic Four in particular. For someone who’d experienced the Kirby and Buscema versions, it was an approach that seemed utterly mismatched to the strip. It didn’t look bad so much as just wrong to my eyes. And as for the Liefeld Cap… well, today, of course, it’s the blogosphere’s favorite pinata. We all laugh about it now. Even then, Marvel realized it was a blunder and ended up doing damage control six months into the run.

An idea so bad they had to bring in pinch-hitters halfway through.

But as it was coming out I was just sort of horrified and baffled. This was the great coup? Waid and Garney were replaced by THIS? What the hell?

And the Spider-books, long a reliable source of amusement –not necessarily setting the world on fire, but, you know, baseline-good at least — had gone wholly off the rails as far as I could tell. The character was almost unrecognizable by the mid-90’s, what with clones and the new Vulture and the female Doc Ock and everything else.

Marvel was just a MESS... almost unrecognizable to coots like me,.

Which is not to say that everything Marvel was putting out was awful. There were a few bright spots. Untold Tales of Spider-Man was a fun book, the kind of fun book that I’d begun to wonder if Marvel even remembered how to do any more. Honestly, reading it I almost felt as though Busiek and Oliffe were doing something subversive by producing something so unpretentious and cheerful, it was so clearly off the reservation.

One of the few bright spots for me at Marvel in 1997.

And there were some interesting licensed projects. I quite liked what they were doing with the Star Trek books after snagging the rights back from DC, particularly Early Voyages. I guess it didn’t do too well for them, since it only lasted a year and a half or so before getting canceled in mid-story, but I really enjoyed it.

Fun series, but didn't last, sadly.

The great unsung Marvel success of the mid-90’s as far as I was concerned were the series of prose novels from Byron Preiss at iBooks. Those were almost always a good bet, particularly the ones from Diane Duane, Christopher Golden, and Greg Cox. They stand to this day as the longest-running and most successful series of superhero prose adaptations, I think. I was especially fond of Golden’s X-Men and Daredevil books but I enjoyed them all. In fact, at that point the regular X-Men comics had proliferated so, and had become so impenetrable to the casual reader — even the trade paperback collections were hopelessly fragmented and impossible to follow– that this was the only way I was able to check in with the X-characters without getting completely confused.

I couldn't follow what was going on in the monthly to save my life, so this was a way to kind of keep in touch. This is a terrific book. These were the books that actually made me a fan of Christopher Golden.

And this was also when Marvel’s Essential line got underway. It took them a while to get the packaging right — the early ones were remarkably ugly and the printing was often substandard — but I was happy just to see these books at all.

And THIS program was just getting underway, though they still had a little work to do on the design.

DC’s batting average was a little higher with me, but there as well I sensed a certain desperation, a tendency to lunge for the short-term, hype-driven sale. I had noticed this especially in the Superman books, where it seemed that the stories were built around one six-month gimmick after another.

On the other hand, turning Superman into a cross between an emergency road flare and a gay ski instructor was possibly the dumbest idea I'd ever seen.

I was less appalled by Electric Superman than most — after the “Death of Superman” hype storm, the response to most of these manufactured events generally was a snort and a jeer. This was going to be Superman for the next century? Yeah, pull the OTHER one. Maybe when the toys and coloring books change too, then I’ll believe it. Whatever. This too would pass.

(Athough I was vaguely annoyed about the design. If DC really wanted to re-do the look and the powers, okay, but I think Dennis Miller nailed it when he said Electric Supes looked like someone set a gay ski instructor on fire. Once I heard that, it was all I could think of.)

The Bat books fared a little better, After Knightfall, Knightquest, KnightsEnd, Contagion, and Legacy, editor Denny O’Neil admitted that a certain level of event-crossover fatigue had set in. He had set a mandate that for at least a year, they were going to concentrate on just doing solid one-offs and two-parters. I don’t know that this effort produced anything really memorable — you have to give this to the Event Hype Books, people remember them — but Chuck Dixon and Graham Nolan on Detective, Doug Moench and Kelley Jones on Batman, and Alan Grant and whoever on Shadow of the Bat were all doing good solid comics.

The Bat books were... doing okay, I guess.

Certainly it was a step up from all the Knightfall crossover craziness.

But there was a certain sense of loss there, too. It felt like everyone was pulling back somehow. Denny O’Neil on Azrael was always okay, and occasionally pretty good; but it was nowhere near the Denny O’Neil we’d been getting on The Question. And certainly, Grant Morrison on JLA was a delight, the most fun the book had been in years…

On the other hand, the League hadn't looked this good in YEARS.

…but it still felt like it was a step back from what Morrison had been doing on Animal Man and the Doom Patrol.

For the good DC stuff you had to go looking. You wouldn’t find it on the big-name books. Peter David was quietly turning Supergirl into a must-read title, the gem of the Super books.

Peter David's Supergirl was tremendous fun and shaping up into a really cool book.

And likewise, David was doing remarkable things on Aquaman as well.

David's Aquaman was cool too.

They were terribly uneven — but you always had the sense that Peter David was swinging for the fences on those books, they were never dull. Unlike his Hulk, which Onslaught and Heroes Reborn had very nearly crippled by 1996. (His legendary tenure on that title would draw to a close within a year or so.)

Sandman was gone, but Sandman Mystery Theatre was still plugging along.

This rather magnificent book was usually overshadowed by just-plain-Sandman.

And Starman was really starting to hit its stride, too.

Starman was really hitting its stride by this point.

Certainly the comics landscape, overall, was looking a little better than the truly stupid years of 1991 to 1993. But it was still a long way from the glories of 1986, with so many of the indie publishers gone. Really, Fantagraphics and Dark Horse were the only ones left from that wonderful decade. Yeah, Concrete was still kind of hanging in there…

You could always count on Concrete to be good.

And even though Ms. Tree was gone we still had Max Collins on Mike Danger. But Tekno-Comics was no Eclipse, or even a Renegade.

For those of us that were missing Ms. Tree, there was still Mike Danger.

Speaking of renegades, Dave Sim was still off in his corner doing his Cerebus thing. But even that felt a little like the bloom was off the rose. Whether it was Sim’s personal life bleeding into his work or what, it sure didn’t feel like he was having as much fun as he used to.

Cerebus wasn't as fun as it used to be, either; the bitterness of Sim's personal life was clearly slopping over into the book.

Overall you could sense a malaise hanging over the comics landscape, a feeling of nervousness, especially with the superhero publishers. Companies and creators alike were retrenching, playing it safe, going for the sure thing. Nobody was quite over the scare of the speculator boom-and-bust.

As for me, well, I backed into the job I was born to do that year… and at the same time collided with the elephant in the room that nobody in American comics wanted to acknowledge.

See, that Christmas, I was looking for a gift for Sam, who was the five-year-old son of my old college roomie. Sam liked to draw, and I thought, well, I’ll get him a book on how to draw and some pens and a sketch pad. Except there weren’t any books on how to draw cartoons, not for littler kids. It was all high-school age and up, at least it was then. Younger kids just got stupid books like 101 FUN THINGS WITH STICKS AND FELT, or whatever.

So I thought, well, hell, I work at a printshop, I’m a writer, I’ll just write something. I put together a little twenty-page manual on cartooning for Sam and bound it and it was a big hit. I liked it well enough when it was done to hold on to an extra copy. I had the idea I’d shop it around a little, try and find a publisher.

Simultaneously, the printshop I occasionally worked at was doing this thing called the Adopt-A-School Program, where the shop would partner up with a local school and provide various kinds of support. Ours was a place called Gatzert Elementary, which was a really tough inner-city school, these kids had NOTHING. I thought, well, I’ve got some time, I can volunteer there.

So later that week I was having lunch with my friend Monika Lidman, who is an amazing artist here in Seattle, she and her husband John have gallery shows and stuff all the time. Monika asked what’s new and I told her, yadda yadda, volunteering at Gatzert, yadda yadda, wrote a kid’s book on drawing, yadda yadda.

Monika looked at me like I was an idiot and said, “You know, you could combine those. Teach a cartooning class at Gatzert. I bet the Seattle Arts Commission would give you a huge grant to do it, too.”

So that’s how it started, chasing a grant. I pitched the idea to Gatzert and they lunged at it. Within three days of suggesting it I had six teachers lined up who wanted in on this. Thirty kids each, a hundred and fifty total. One day a week I lived at Gatzert, running laps around the place, hopping from one classroom to the next. It was insane.

I’d thought I could just talk them through what was in my manuscript and that would be it, but I found out that it was woefully inadequate. So I was literally inventing my curriculum as I went, and I got the idea of doing a class ‘zine as a final project, and it grew from there.

I never did get the grant, but at the end of the thirteen weeks I’d committed to, I had a nice little curriculum all worked out and two job offers, one from the Seattle Parks Department and one from the YMCA to come and do this class for them. I eventually ended up accepting both of them.

And that’s how I got the gig teaching comics to middle-school kids. It’s also where I discovered what “kids today” were actually into.

Roughly seventy percent of all my cartooning students in the last decade cite this series, Inu-yasha, as their favorite.

One of the ways I discovered my inadequacy at teaching comics to a younger audience was my total lack of manga expertise. If I’d thought I was the crotchety old fart before when I saw superhero fans going nuts over the Image founders, that was nothing compared to how ignorant and out-of-date I felt trying to get caught up with what my students were into.

The elephant in the room.

Jim Lee and over-rendered steroid heroes was a style thing. Manga was almost a different comics language. The pacing, the construction, everything about the manga idiom was different from what I was used to — but the kids knew it the way I knew Jack Kirby and Neal Adams. To this day I’m still not terribly “fluent” in manga — though I’ve learned enough to get through my classes without getting laughed out of the room.

Certainly I’ve learned enough to know that while we were all inside the Marvel/DC/superhero bubble obsessing over “the future of comics”, the future of comics had leapfrogged right over us — from Japan into Barnes & Noble. Just to give you an idea, here’s a random sample of student work from the last ten years. I literally just grabbed this out of the box I keep “class stuff” in.

It's pretty obvious what these kids are into, and it ain't Jim Lee.

Not seeing a lot of Marvel or DC influence there.

Sometimes it makes me a little sad. I remember the gateway out of my miserable family life that comics provided me in my youth, and I occasionally wish my students could have that same experience. Then I remember that they are– it’s just manga flavored.

God knows comics have changed a lot over the last forty years, and so have I. But on the other hand, they’re still around, they’re still fun, kids still love them, and heaven help me, so do I. Thinking of that usually cheers me right up again.

See you next week.

17 Comments

Just like with female readers, American comics’ failure to readily and repeatedly produce quality books for kids left them looking for entertainment elsewhere, and manga fit the bill.

DC and Marvel are giving it the old college try with the Johnny DC and Marvel Adventures books, but I can’t help but wonder if it’s not too little too late and that a whole reading generation may have passed over American comics in favor of manga (and Harry Potter, of course…)

Heck, I find myself reading mostly manga these days just because I have gotten tired of the crossovers and general direction a lot of the Marvel and DC books.

The pacing, the construction, everything about the manga idiom was different from what I was used to

I JUST started reading Manga, like two months ago.

And I’m having less trouble than I thought with it. Maybe it’s incorporated enough into American comics now that I’ve absorbed many of the tropes without really noticing it?

Tom Fitzpatrick

December 8, 2007 at 9:52 pm

I remember Heroes Reborn, and I felt embarassed for Marvel. You kind of had to feel sorry for them after their struggle with near bankruptcy. Nowadays they’d pretty much bounced back.

Manga – sigh – I’ve been reading manga on and off ever since Eclipse Comics first brought out Area 88, Legend of Kamui, and Mai – the Psychic Girl. Then Marvel brought out the first colourized manga – Akira, and First Comics – Lone Wolf and Cub.

Seems like since the 90’s, Dark Horse, Viz Comics, CPM manga and Tokyopop, have pretty much covered the manga market.

Tom Fitzpatrick said:
“Seems like since the 90’s, Dark Horse, Viz Comics, CPM manga and Tokyopop, have pretty much covered the manga market.”

CPM was big for a little while, and one of the first to infiltrate into the bookstore chains, but the company ran into financial issues a couple years ago and distribution problems with Diamond, and have pretty much become a non-factor. TP, Viz, and Dark Horse are still power houses in US manga, as are Del Rey and Digital Manga, and Yen Press and Seven Seas are both growing quite nicely. And those aren’t even counting the smaller publishers like Infinity or the really large numbers of publishers and labels that specialize in just Yaoi manga…

MarkAndrew said:
“I JUST started reading Manga, like two months ago.

And I’m having less trouble than I thought with it. Maybe it’s incorporated enough into American comics now that I’ve absorbed many of the tropes without really noticing it?”

I hear people make comments about the differences between manga and American comics, and I honestly don’t see a HUGE difference between the two. Their both sequential art forms and after 20 years of reading exclusively western comics I transitioned between them pretty easily. The only differences I can think of are minor cultural ones like how interpersonal relationships play out, or how their schools are set up in Japan. But they aren’t so different that a reader can’t easily understand or relate to them.

There are also visual tropes like nosebleeds, sweat drops, and the like, but I also think those are very easy to pickup and understand from their context.

Then again, I think you’re right in guessing that the proliferation of these elements in our own culture has helped. Look at how many American cartoons now adopted the anime ‘art style.’ I also see a lot of western comic artists adopting the ‘manga style.’ Just the fact that Manga as a word has even made it into some dictionaries should tell us that it has become more than just a ‘trend’ in my opinion.

There are also visual tropes like nosebleeds, sweat drops, and the like, but I also think those are very easy to pickup and understand from their context.

Oh, absolutely. But in my defense I do want to point out that I first saw these demonstrated to me in the work of my ten-year-old Gatzert students, and I had to struggle a little at first to figure out what the hell they were trying to do and where they were getting it from. I knew it wasn’t from the comics *I* was showing them. Once I understood that these things were standard idioms in their OWN source material and influences — which is to say, manga — it made quite a bit more sense to me.

And it has been quite a bit more assimilated, these days. But ten years ago Jim Lee was still something of a current template for superhero comics and the culture clash was a bit more obvious.

I love the cover of that Essential Spider-Man book.

“Over 20 issues of continuity!”

“Over 20 issues of continuity!”

Oh, but don’t you just HATE “continuity”?!?

I mean, that’s just like saying you missed the last 20 years of whatever you’re collecting (ie. Batman, Superman, X-men, F4, etc.) and you must collect ‘em all to get caught up!!!

I gave up alot of books just to avoid the “continuity”, and went for the unorthodox writers (like Ellis, Ennis, Morrison, F.Miller, Gaiman, A.Moore) and the hell with continuity!!!

;-)

Greg Hatcher said:
“Oh, absolutely. But in my defense I do want to point out that I first saw these demonstrated to me in the work of my ten-year-old Gatzert students, and I had to struggle a little at first to figure out what the hell they were trying to do and where they were getting it from. I knew it wasn’t from the comics *I* was showing them. Once I understood that these things were standard idioms in their OWN source material and influences — which is to say, manga — it made quite a bit more sense to me.

And it has been quite a bit more assimilated, these days. But ten years ago Jim Lee was still something of a current template for superhero comics and the culture clash was a bit more obvious. ”

Oh sorry, Greg, I wasn’t being critical of you so much as responding to Mark’s points. I can see that being confusing if you’re unfamiliar with Manga and you’re trying to figure out why a character has a large sweat drop next to their head. LOL. I know what you mean about Jim Lee too. In the 90’s, that Lee/Liefeld style was EVERYWHERE. I knew artists who mimicked their style because they couldn’t get a job with Marvel or Image otherwise. For better or for worse, it looks like that style played itself out after a few years and never caught on outside of a small minority of artists.

FunkyGreenJerusalem

December 9, 2007 at 3:48 pm

You’re going to have your work cut out for you to make next week’s column as good as these past four have been!

This series of columns has been absolutely fantastic.

that anonymous was me!

Seriously, I’ve loved reading this these last four weeks.

And now I’ve had a chance to read the rest of the comments…

Surely the biggest difference between traditional superhero comics and manga is the pacing- which is the thing that western comics have incorporated the most in the last decade or so, so it makes sense that a superhero reader making the switch now would notice less of a difference than say, I did fifteen years ago?

Things like sweatdrops and chibi-isms, they’re a bit odd to western eyes, but decodable. It’s training yourself to turn the page that much faster, so that a 300 page book lasts half an hour, when you’ve been used to taking twenty minutes on 22 pages… that’s what causes culture shock. With the proliferation of “decompressed” storytelling, there’s not such a big gap anymore.

Tom Fitzpatrick

December 9, 2007 at 6:55 pm

Well, he could do the next decades of fridays – pt. 5. ;-)

My 2 cents:

Here’s my take on why kids (and adults) are finding Manga, in general, to be much more relevant/interesting in their lives – and keep in mind my ideas about how Manga gets made was never very good to begin with, and is at least about 10 years old by now:

1. Because Manga is in black and white, and the home market is pretty big, it’s cheaper to make, and there’s a lot more room in the market to produce a greater volume of material. So you get a lot more viable experimentation for different story types.

2. This has resulted in (relative to American comics) shorter series length (Ranma 1/2 ends after, what? 8-9 years – Batman is going strong at about 70?), a greater variety of stories (no one genre dominates the market, like “superheroes” do here), and therefore creates some stories that can maintain a high level of quality (internal consistency) and more likely to be relevant/intersting to SOMEONE in the audience.

3. Too many people in the American comics business seem to have too insular an idea about what makes a “good” comic. They look at Batman, and they see a character that lasts freaking forever and whose stories can be retold over and over again. And it’s true, the core of Batman, and the many good stories that have been written about him by many talented people prove the longevity of the character (we tend to forget a lot of the bad ones). So people try to create more “icons” – characters that will last forever and therefore have to be centered around a perpetual concept. Manga artists and fans can fall into the same trap – they figure that “Manga” has its own idiosyncratic style/language that MUST be maintained in order to be “good” – by and large these works tend to be crap, or succeed DESPITE the misuse of language. [I can’t help myself – the “adult” stories that sell a lot of American books really aren’t that accesible to new/young readers – a lot of these are actually little more than comic-masturbatory exercises than anything else).

4. We generally get a pretty filtered view of the Manga world here – we tend to see only the successful properties, and by then, there is so much of the series completed that we can get the “TPB” right away – getting a whole story rather than the piecemeal stuff (which is, by the way, pretty much the standard delivery system for both American comics AND Manga – the monthly serial).

Now, not all American comics are bad, or don’t appeal to kids. And you don’t HAVE to use the Manga “style” in order to attract them to comics.

It isn’t the art – both forms can have crap art with no pacing and no energy. Neither is inherently better on the art side. It’s the other stuff – the story, dialogue, and characters – that matters. Look at Bone by Jeff Smith, and look how popular THAT is. It isn’t “Manga” or “American” – its just “GOOD COMICS” that appeals to kids AND adults. (it’s also “DONE”)

Andrew Collins said: “Just like with female readers, American comics’ failure to readily and repeatedly produce quality books for kids…”

Well, I just want to say, as a female comic book reader, during the 90s there was a series put out by Marvel called Generation X that I read and I know I wasn’t the only female reading it, judging by what I recall of the Letters pages and nowadays reminiscing about it on messageboards.

Although I’m sure there were female readers reading things like Catwoman and Wonder Woman, too, lol…

[…] story of how I personally backed into this vocation is here, but my practical advice is this: Non-profit youth organizations or schools fund things that are A) […]

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