Some Responses to the Latest Comics Journal
Hey, big old Robert Kirkman cover this time out.
Over at the Hooded Utilitarian Noah Berlatsky is doing a series of responses to the latest issue of the Comics Journal.
“Hey,” thinks I. “That’s a good idea.”
Especially since I’m a little worried about the ‘ol Journal. It doesn’t seem to be selling very well – the last circulation statement placed sales between three and four thousand copies – and there have been three major fomat changes in the past two years. Or was it four?
Which is really worrying ’cause I quite like the Comics Journal, and get all geekyexcited when it comes out.
This is because I am a huge nerd. And I like comics, all sorts of ‘em, and I like reading about comics, and I appreciate the pure scope of the medium that the Journal covers. (In this issue alone: Mutt and Jeff, Marvel Zombies, Grant Morrison’s Batman, Japanese Warhoal inspired art comics by Aya Tokono, Hustler cartoons, Otaku USA magazine, the Lio: comic strip, Shaun Tan’s The Arrival, League of Extrordinary Gentlemen the Black Dossier, Walking Dead… And plenty more.)
What’s more, the writing in the Journal is generally very good (although Tom Crippen’s Superman essay in this issue was disjointed and MASSIVELY in need of tightening) – But given it’s overall quality and scope, I’d like to see TCJ have more of a place in our evolving, web-based, critical discourse.
Plus writing this makes a nice bookend to Burgas’ Wizard piece. Synergistic!
So, onward, only covering the stuff I Beanworld an opinion on.
Page 12: Reader Jason Thompson sends in a letter warning about the extensive Wal-mart-ization and censorship of Japanese Manga as it’s sold in the US, and notes that Manga fandom is too diverse to make any kind of widespread protest –
Sidenote: Possibly too young, as well. Some of the biggest Manga fans I know are 12 year old black girls who ride on my schoolbus. –
And that the easy availability of downloadable scanlations keeps purists happy, staving off complaints from the people most likely to recognize and negatively react to censorship.
Being a novice Manga reader, I had no idea that ANY US Manga was censored. (Badly translated? Yes. But censorship was a shock.) And now I’m curious to learn more. Can any of you point me towards a discussion of what Manga has been censored for the US market, and how?
Page 22: Presents a memorial tribut to Chalton comics artist Wayne Howard, who died late last year. The piece was written by his friend Paul Kirchner, and contains lots of interesting biographical tidbits. Comics Should Be Good was (I think?) the first major news outlet to report on his passing – And when I was trying my best to write a eulogy, I failed to find ANY substantive background information, not even a picture. Therefore, this plethora of information on Howard’s life was especially interesting to me. (And, hey, it DID contain a picture! Wayne Howard was a handsome chap.)
He had “a closet full of the same outfit” was a bit of a gun nut, never used obscene language (“Son of a rat!”) and once shot a law-breaking biker in the chest. Great stuff. Wish I’d known it a couple months ago.
My favorite ancedote: Howard drew his senior thesis in comic book form, much to the befuddlement of his teacher. (This was, of course, long before Maus and the literatureization of comics.)
“How am I suppose to grade this! What criteria should I use?”
Wayne said “Suppose I get Salvadore Dali to say it was good. Would you accept it then?”
So Howard find Dali in the phone book, and calls him. Dali says “Sure. Just write down what you want me to say, come to my room, and I’ll sign it.”
And that’s how Wayne Howard met Salvadore Dali.
(The story where he talks to Nixon on the phone is pretty good, too.)
Page 25: In this essay, blogger Alan David Doane discusses the potential future of comic shops. And, like many Doane pieces, there are some points I agree with. And, like many Doane pieces, there are plenty of pointsI don’t. And the whole bundle is presented with Doane’s signature tone of humorless, annoyed stridency.
But, overall, the piece is still worthwhile reading for potential comic vendors. Many of ADD’s points SHOULD be simple common sense, but I’ve seen many a store who couldn’t figure ‘em out.
Yes, comic shops should be clean, well lit, organized, open on time, and should price their merchandise correctly.
Basically: Comic retailing should be a business, not a hobby. Damn straight.
However: Doane argues that comic shops NEED to concentrate on selling Manga and artcomix (his term. Good lord, not mine) to survive. To support his point, Doane refers to a past article in the Comics Journal (sans summary) and… pretty much jack-squat for additional proof.
For a decent amount of the population “comic books” means “Superman and the X-men”. For many (the majority of?) consumers, “comic books” mean “Superman and the X-men.” There is a demand for single issue floppies featuring Superman and the X-men, that are assured to be in stock (given pull lists) and don’t look like they’ve gone through the washer a few dozen times. Since comic shops have ceded the vast majority of their Manga customer base to bookstores, and are have to duke it out with Borders for customer’s graphic novel dollar that leaves Mainstream big four comics as their bread and butter, their least contested market. Superhero material IS the backbone that hold comic shops up.
Noah Berlatsky goes even further than Doane in his response. He argues that comic shops are doomed, because they CAN’T make the switch to selling non-superhero comics, and that the superhero market is increasingly insular. This, presumably, means that all the current superhero fans will drift away or Beanworld, and no-one will replace them.
And, sure, idle speculation is fun and all. But. Again. No proof. Superhero comics are selling more copies than they were ten years ago, correct? That doesn’t absolutely mean that there are is an influx of new readers – But a couple swipes with Occam’s razor should reveal that as the simplest explanation.
Bottom line: Without actual data from real world retailers the All Comic Shops are Dead! Dead! Dead! theory is little more than hyperbole. Possibly even agenda driven hyperbole by artcomix (I barf) fans. Granted, Doane does spend like half a page bitching about the unreliability of Diamond sales data, but I caught a major case of the Don’t-give-two-shits-about-Diamond-sales-either-way-itis and kinda skimmed that part.
I’m fully aware I’m not making an air-tight case here: Honestly, with little training in either sociology of buisiness I wouldn’t even know how to begin judging the increase or decrease in size of the direct market audience. But it’s pretty damn clear that Doane doesn’t either – Or if he does have some concrete evidence to support his comic shops must avoid superhero-centricity point, he certainly doesn’t deign to share it with us – and all he offers is logical rigamarole and our ‘ol pal, idle speculation.
Which, again, is fine. But I’d like to see idle speculation labeled as such, and not passed off as informed opinion.
Page 32: As much as I like the Journal I do have one major bone of contention. It always makes me want to go out and spend ‘mdamn money. This exerpt from Most Outrageous: the Trials and Tribulations of Dwayne Tinsley and Chester the Molester by Bob Levin was absolutely fascinating – Honestly, I’d never thought much about porn cartooning in general, or Hustler cartoonists in particular, but now I’m probably gonna have to buy this book.
Page 38: Leads off a short, positive critical examination of Kirkman’s Marvel Zombies, written by Michael Dean. Dean says Kirkman’s stroke of genius was letting the zombies talk” and that “The notion of zombies who can reflect and articulate on their distressing condition brings a whole new level of pathos and absurdity, and posits that the Marvel zombies are deeply troubling because “they ARE people we know.”
The Hooded Utilitarian disagrees, with the “genius” assessment, arguing that talking zombies are essentially canabalistic supervillains, and have vestigial, if any, zombie-osity remaining.
I’m mostly with the hooded one. Individualistic zombies miss the point of being zombies – And superheroes that eat people are pretty shitty superheroes. Beanworld worse, Marvel Zombies didn’t really find anything to replace this absence at it’s thematic core. Leaving not a heck of a lot of… anything, really.
But it was kind of a cute joke, and there is some value in that. Maybe not three mini-series and 16 bajillion variant covers worth of value.
Page 40: The meat of the issue is the Robert Kirkman interview that begins here. And, like most TCJ feature interviews, this sumbitch is looooonnnnng.
Which is a … good thing? I (um) guess.
‘Cause these in-depth, career-spanning, articles certainly do provide an invaluable historical resource for fans and scholars of the medium.
Counterpoint: They can be a bit of a slog to read through, ‘specially if there’s no interviewer/interviewee chemistry. (Trondheim interview, I’m lookin’ at you.)
And, since I’ve never been a huge Robert Kirkman fan, (I did like Ant-Man quite a bit) – I came at this piece with a bit of trepidation.
That turned out to be completely unwarranted. I ended up learning a lot about comics and how they work, and Kirkman conducted himself really well, provin both witty and humble..
I’m doing OK, but there are people who think I’m the Zombie guy. But I’m not quitting anytime soon, so hopefully my pirate book will take off and I’ll become the Pirate Guy..
and this piece increased my respect for the guy by leaps and bounds. And
I’m a firm believer that all guys who read comics are sissies that wish they could watch soap operas, but instead they have a medium called “comics” that wraps soap operas into fight book.
Hey! Screw you, Robert Kirkman!
Some stuff I learned/found interesting:
- Before he found his way to Image, Kirkman self-published under the Funk-O-Tron imprint. His first comic was called Battle Pope
- It takes way more than a 10,000 dollar business loan to see your self publishing company through to the point where it makes money.
- Printing costs were 2,000 dollars for a single issue of Battle Pope, or 7,000 dollars for a trade. The most Kirkman ever made, in profit, for a single issue was 700 dollars.
- There was almost a Sky-Ape/Battle Pope crossover.
- Advice for aspiring comic writers “Nobody is going to read your fan fiction so nobody is going to read your scripts. I don’t like reading scripts. I don’t read MY scripts.”
- Robert Kirkman brokered the deal that re-united Rob Liefeld and Image comics
- Before Walking Dead, Kirkman and Tony Moore pitched a zombies in space book to Image, called Dead Planet.
- Kirkman likes to end panel descriptions with “make it look good” or “make it look cool.” (Artist Ryan Ottley says that this actually helps, and can make him completely re-think his approach.)
- On writing Invincible “I take great pride in making stuff up as I go along. There’s not much basis in my life and my experience. There has to be some level of realism but, at the same time, it’s fun to put people in fairly unrealistic situations and have cool things happen to them.”
- Writing comics and screen-writing are different things, and knowing how to do one well does not translate into being able to do the other.
- What to do when pitching for Marvel: “They would ask me questions like “Who’s your favorite character at Marvel? What character do you really want to do?” and I said, “I want to do all of them,” because if I had said “I really want to write Namor,” they would’ve said “Oh! I’m sorry! The correct answer was Iron Man!… That’s what led me to writing Jubilee.”
- What NOT to do when writing for Marvel “I thought “Well, that’s crazy! Just because he’s a gay character doesn’t mean I shouldn’t be able to kill him.” …. There wasn’t enough thought put into it. I never took into consideration the gay community’s reaction.”
I might be a little sarcastic but I really do think these long-ass interviews are important. While most internet creator interviews, on CBR and elsewhere, are glorified press releases, the Journal presents us with in-depth examination of the craft, costs, sacrafices and benefits of creating comics.
Kirkman isn’t selling a project here: He’s discussing what it means to be an artist working for major American comics companies in 2008. And it’s a heck of a lot more interesting, crass, and candid, then the “must be on my best behavior to sell chapter 17 of my mega-crossover Newsarama style interviews.
Moving on: I’m skipping over Simon Abrams explanation/critical examination of the Walking Dead, mostly ’cause I agree with him on every point and have nothing interesting to bitch about contribute to the intellectual discourse. I tell you this so you’ll know the Kirkman interview is only 56 pages, not 64. (56 copiously illustrated pages that are only slightly bigger than the average comic book. But still. 56 pages.)
Page 104: Hey, Shaun Tan interview! His The Arrival, a wordless, gorgeous imigrant story was one of my absolute favorite comics of last year. And since I’d never heard of the guy before December of ’07, I was quite curious to learn more about him.
And mostly what I learned paraphrases to ‘I’ve done a butt-load of work that isn’t available in America! Ha!’ But he does discuss the major themes of his work (A sense of belonging) the reaction of his Immigrant parents to The Arrival (“Is it finished yet?”) and what he wants his work to mean to readers (“I guess it’s up to them!”)
Another neat interview, although I wish it were longer.
Comin’ down the homestretch: There are interviews and short essays for the next 90 pages, but all of that feels less important in the age of the internet – Although the piece on Japanese art comics (NOT artcomix, GFD) was really interesting – But it’s the well researched historical articles and definitive interviews that make the Comics Journal a useful, maybe even irreplaceable resource, even after twenty-plus years. Here’s hoping for twenty more.