Monday, April 05, 2004

Notable Links for 04/06

OK, first order of business: I've been contacted with a desperate cry for help from a fellow blogger. Since we all try to help each other out, I figured I would pass this along.

Mr. Dave Lartigue, owner and operator of the Legomancer site, is in quite a pickle regarding an old-skool "Batman" comic:

" FOR COMICS FANS: There's a 60s or 70s era Batman story
out there featuring a caped-and-cowled Dark Knight
strolling down the street in broad daylight, checking
out the pretty girls. The narration reveals that
'Batman digs this day.' Does anyone know what issue
this was in? Something tells me it's from an issue of
'Brave and the Bold' (it just radiates Bob Haney) but
I can't confirm if this is the case or which issue it
might be. I must know, for the sake of national
security! Any comics bloggers who read this, please
aid me in my quest! I've done some searching on
Google, but the internet is strangely silent on days
and the digging by Batman thereof."

Anyone who knows anything about this strange, strange Batman book should please drop Dave a note at legomancer at legomancer dot net. Hell, if you figure out what it is, CC me too, because I'll be damned if that isn't a pretty surreal description of a Batman story.

In other news, I just read "Superman/Batman" #1-6 this weekend, and boy, am I glad I didn't pay money for this. I haven't read a mainstream DCU title regularly for a long time, and I have to say I'm not impressed with what they've done to the place. Plus, Jeph Loeb really can't write, and I think I've figured out why. He comes from Hollywood, right? Writing those bad action movies and teen comedies? Well, in the movies, things like plot holes and character inconsistencies aren't that big of a deal. Sure, most astute moviegoers can't stand them, but in terms of the average moviegoer, you just need to keep them interested and propel the story along. If they story is good and the characters are halfway compelling, audiences will forgive anything.

The problem is, comics are a static medium. Little inconsistencies turn into huge gaping plotholes when you have the entire story in front of you, and you can flip back and forth at your liesure. I remember a few years ago I bought the "Long Halloween" trade - or was it an X-Mas gift? I can't really remember. I read it in about an hour, disliked it, and then I loaned it out and never bothered to get it back. You can see how impressed I was. Now, if it were a story on the big screen, chances are the little nagging problems would be overlooked entirely if the character work was solid and the plot held together. But in a book, you can totally tell that he just cribbed the first "Godfather" movie along with the best parts of "Year One." He's got the screenwriter's mentality - everything is delineated in terms of rhythm, but it's an artificially imposed rhythm. Instead of letting the story dictate it's own shape, he fits everything into a very simple mold. And the kids just eat it up - because he knows that what they really want is the "money shots," the big action poses and climactic fights - and that everything in between the "money shots" is superfluous. I haven't read "Hush," but I imagine I'm going to someday, and from what I've read of the story already I think I can predict exactly what the problems will be. The overall plot will be a loose, almost rickety framework around which to hang a bunch of cool "revelations" and fight scenes, strung together so that every chapter has just enough cool stuff to make you totally forget the stupid stuff.

Sadly, this is mainstream comics these days...

* The Crossgen Implosion continues in realtime. Bill Rosemann's departure apparently tripped the first domino, because now Marketing and Sales V.P. Chris Oarr has left the building as well. And "American Power" was cancelled as well, because apparently "new investors thought the book [to be] in poor taste." The Pulse has the story here.

On the one hand, I'm glad that "American Power" will nevr see the light of day. On the other hand... who knows? I said earlier it was a "Hail Mary" pass, and sure enough, most times "Hail Mary" passes don't work... but again, who knows? It might have surprised us. I think, based on what I know of the project and Chuck Dixon's reactionary politics, it was not likely to be anything more than offensive and juvenile in it's portrayal of complicated geopolitical situations - but its a free country, and if Crossgen wanted to publish the book, I kind of regret the fact that they didn't get to publish it. Because, if for no other reason, all the right-wingers are going to be screaming "PC Censorship!" every time the book is brought up from here to eternity. I think that people should publish whatever they want as part of the free and unrestrained commerce of ideas that makes this way of life so damn good. Part and parcel of that is the concept that stupid and irresponsible ideas should not be censored, but taken into the heart of public discourse. If I think you're wrong and you think you're right, that's room for discussion right there. Now that "American Power" isn't going to see the light of day, the discussion doesn't have anywhere to go - it falls back to the default name-calling - "bleeding-heart PC censors" vs. "Neanderthal reactionary troglodytes." Take your pick.

But, then again, most discussions never grow out of the name calling faze, so this is undoubtedly very optimistic. Extreme poses usually only cause extreme polarization.

Anyway, despite all that, good riddance to bad rubbish.

* Meanwhile, Fanboy Rampage has some very interesting scuttlebutt from the Comic Book Resources forums. If this is true (and remember, it is just a rumor), Crossgen has two months to live.

* "For nearly 40 years, Joan Crosby Tibbetts has waged a one-woman campaign against the makers of Skippy peanut butter, claiming the name was stolen from her father's popular Depression-era comic strip. On Monday, Tibbetts' legal battle ended when the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear her suit against Skippy's manufacturer, a division of the multinational conglomerate Unilever. But Tibbetts, 71, said she'll continue her battle in the court of public opinion." Read more here, courtesy of The Seattle Post-Intelligencer.

* This week's Lying in the Gutters (courtesy of Comic Book Resources) had some interesting bits. In addition to poking the steaming corpse of "American Power," he also makes the suggestion that "Powers" and Kabuki" might be Marvel-bound - which would be simply disastrous for Image. But, there are two sides to every story. On the one hand, it really is a bad thing that the Number One writer in the industry (and if you don't believe me, how many of his books are in this month's top twenty?) can't get what most consider his best title out of - what - the top fifty? Top seventy five? Even with a relaunch? But on the other hand, that's the downside to working with Image. From what I understand, promotion is your responsibility in Image - you spend what you want to in order to promote your book. After Image Central gets their nut for printing and distribution, they have no further responsibility to you or your product.

So, if Bendis is unhappy with Image, Powers' baseline sales can't be the only issue. The fact is, it doesn't matter who you are, if you aren't working for the Big Two on a major superhero property, you might as well be pissing in the wind. Maybe "Powers" has reached the absolute topmost limit of its possible sales - as long as it has the Image "I" on the cover and not the big, red "Marvel" logo. I know, it may seem counterintuitive, but it's the sad truth of the way this industry works: people will buy anything with the Marvel logo on it. If you put out two identical books, one with the Image or DC logo on it, and another with Marvel on it, the Marvel one will outsell the first to an insanely irrational degree. The two things that have ever consistently counteracted this effect were the Superstar Artist Phenomenon and the 80's Nostalgia Phenomenon. Right now, we don't have any superstar artists anymore - they're all gone (McFarlane, Madurera [sic?]) or diminished (Liefeld, Larsen [no offense, but people take him for granted]). Now, somehow Mark Millar made "Wanted" a hit - but it still sells significantly less than any of his Marvel books ever have. I think perhaps the best proof of this problem comes from Erik Larsen's own words, over at Comicon's board's under the topic "PAD would be the worst choice possible for a second Hulk book:"

"People like to SAY that they want something new--but when push comes to shove--they'll take Ultimate Spider-Man over Powers five to one. It's pretty discouraging to work on a book that tries to give readers something new and exciting month after month only to find that most fans are much more interested in knowing if you're ever going to do something at Marvel."

This from the man who publishes "Powers." This industry has some serious priority problems, people.

But here's another quote from Rich Johnston, on the subject of Crossgen. This could be their epitaph, if anyone plants a tombstone:

"There is something to remember about CrossGen amidst all the allegations, recriminations, back biting and attacks, justified or otherwise. They tried. They tried to start a new kind of comics company, publishing a new kind of comic, and make a difference. Hell, they still might be able to. But they had odds stacked against them. The market turned towards old favourites rather than new ideas. And Marvel and DC management and staff took a personal dislike to the company, its ability to poach talent exclusively, and do away with editors. And they did everything they could to stop them." (Emphasis mine)

* "Carnegie Mellon University President Jared Cohon is establishing a commission to review the contents of an April Fools' Day edition of the student newspaper that sparked protests on campus. Cohon announced yesterday that the commission -- expected to be composed of one alumnus, three students and three members of the faculty and staff -- will make recommendations about possible disciplinary actions as a result of The Tartan's special edition." Read more here, courtesy of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

* "Every 10 years, something major happens in Matt Davies' life. In 1983, his family moved from London, England, to the United States. In 1993, Davies became a full-time staff editorial cartoonist for The Journal News in White Plains, N.Y. In 2003, he was chosen as president-elect of the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists (AAEC). But Davies, 37, won't have to wait another decade for more big milestones. Last month, he was named the first recipient of the $10,000 Herblock Prize for editorial cartooning. And Davies is reportedly a Pulitzer Prize finalist." To read more about Davies, who actually did win the Pulitzer this year, go here, courtesy of Editor & Publisher. E&P has more on this years' Pulitzer winners here.

* Courtesy of ICV2: magazine sales are in the dumper for 2003.

* "'I wouldn't be offended if someone called me an otaku,' says Koichi Nakayasu, '. . . because I am.' 'Otaku' and proud -- and he's not alone. The number of hardcore manga and anime fan otaku probably number in the hundreds of thousands. If you include occasional consumers of otaku culture, maybe millions. Otaku culture has even spread abroad -- becoming one of Japan's most successful pop-culture exports." Read more here, courtesy of The Japan Times.

* Courtesy of ICV2, Australian retailer J. Carmody points out that Marvel might just be getting more than they bargained for in terms of their recent exclusivity deal with Source Interlink. Interesting stuff.

* "AS a nation that has spent centuries beating off the English, propped up the British Empire, and contributed to key developments in science and literature, Scotland has produced its share of colourful characters. Asked which figure best represents us, though, we chose a boy whose greatest claim to fame is sitting on a bucket.
Oor Wullie was given that dubious privilege yesterday when he was named as Scotland's most iconic figure by a poll of 1000 Scots. The comic character from Dundee, who has appeared in the Sunday Post since 1936, outshone our best sports stars, actors and historical figures." Read more here, courtesy of The Herald.

* Brandon Thomas navigates his way through the thorn-bush of race in comic here, courtesy of Silver Bullet Comics.

* Want to read an interesting peak into the process of turning an indie comic into a major motion picture? I thought so. Newsarama talks with "Two Over Ten" creator Myatt Murphy here.

* There's a new edition of Previews Review up here.

* "Archaia Studios Press is pleased to announce that "Artesia" ... is a 2003 Graphic Novel Book of the Year Award finalist for ForeWord Magazine’s annual prize. Gold, Silver and Bronze level award winners will be announced at this year’s BookExpo America in June. This is the first year Graphic Novels has been a category recognized by ForeWord’s annual award." Read the press release here, courtesy of Comic Book Resources.

* Just in case you missed it, Ringwood Ragefuck is having a contest to see who is the biggest "Loser" out there - and the winner gets a pile of "Loser" comic books (ie, the complete run of DC/Vertigo's "Losers" to date).

* Somehow I missed this: Mercury Studios has posted about comic page rhythm in comic books, and it's fascinating, informative stuff. Very much in line, I find, with some of my own thoughts on the matter. I would, incidentally, add another name to his list of masters of Rhythmical Storytelling: Walt Simonson. I've said it before and I'll say it again: there is no one working in comics now who could not benefit from a close reading of his work.

* Courtesy of the Journal board, we have confirmation that people actually did show up in front of the Chronicle offices on April 1st (to protest the lack of Zippy). Scroll down a bit for pictures.

* I can't seem to recall if this article has been up before. The Miami Herald examines the life and legacy of Charles Schulz here.

* "When I was a kid growing up in the 1970s, there was nothing I loved to read more than the latest issue of The Uncanny X-Men or Captain Canuck. Back then, comic books were different – and I don't mean just the price. The ones I collected had a pulpy feel to them, and the prevailing attitude toward comics reflected the cheap paper on which they were printed: they were viewed as disposable, appropriate for children only. To be caught flipping through a comic 30 years ago was to be caught doing something juvenile and disreputable. Not today. Comic books are now slick mini-magazines made with glossy paper and sold in specialty shops that cater exclusively to connoisseurs of the medium. The people who produce them, meanwhile, are considered serious artists and writers whose work is, if not on par with 'real' literature, then close to it." This is a bad thing? Read more here, courtesy of the CBC.

* On a lighter note, here's the story of Bizarro Mr. Mxyzptlk, courtesy of The Pulse. One question: shouldn't the Bizarro Mr. Mxyzptlk be Mr. Kltpzyxm?

* And courtesty of Mr. Neil Gaiman, we have this. Don't you think it needs to be updated to reflect the advent of blogging?

Travels With Larry Part II

"Demo" #1-5

Writing short stories is hard work. Take my word for it. I would much rather sit there any day of the week and bang away on a long piece of fiction any than hammer out a concise, well-crafted little gem of a short story. This is just one man's opinion, but based on my experience, any old fool can write a novel, but it takes a real mensch to write a short story.

You only get one pass, so everything has to be perfect. The style and the pacing have to work together brilliantly - you have to succeed in making your point without being too obvious and then leave. There are many novels in this world that are in actuality short stories that didn't know when to stop. But there aren't many writers who can count brevity among their gifts.

There are a lot of bad short stories. It's easy to fall in a rut, to consciously or unconsciously approach writing a short story like solving a math problem. You have such and such a setting, such and such a conflict, such and such a resolution, and bam, you're done. How many times have you read the fiction in "The New Yorker" and been totally underwhelmed, underimpressed - basically convinced that whomever wrote that story took a class that told them How to Write Short Fiction and took every word the pencil-neck professor said to heart? Because a short story is short, it by necessity has to be really fucking interesting. While it's not recommended, you're allowed to start your book slowly. If you're short story starts slowly, chances are it ends slowly to, because, hey, guess what, there's not much room.

There are a few people I would single out as being masters of the short form. Based on my limited experience, I'd say that Stephen King, for all the guff he gets from some, is maybe the most brilliant short story writer alive today. You can learn more about the craft of writing from reading his short stories and novellas than just about anything else I can mention. Harlan Ellison writes pretty well, but I got pretty sick of him because of his exhausting hard-on for the Great High Concept. I know everyone likes David Foster Wallace, but most of his short stories just seem like school exercises to me. F. Scott Fitzgerald is quite possibly the greatest short story writer who ever lived, and if you don't believe me, than you can go screw.

So, this is basically a roundabout way of me getting to the topic at hand in the most bass-awkwards way possible. I enjoyed the first five issues of "Demo." I found them to be interesting and well done. They were not perfect, however, and I think both Brian Wood and Becky Cloonan have a long way to go before they will have begun to tap the deep recesses of their talent, of which "Demo" appears to be a mere tip of the proverbial iceberg.

As I said, writing short stories is tough business. I think it took a lot of guts for Wood to conceptualize "Demo" the way he did: 12 issues, 12 unconnected stories. A new character with a new superpower every issue. But they're not really superpowers, and that's the hook - they're merely strange abilities that serve to fuck up the lives of whomever possesses them. With great power comes... a big-ass headache, apparently.

I think the stories get better as the series advances. The first three stories seemed to rely on the same kind of stock short story pacing you see everywhere:
Establishing scene - boom.
Expository dialogue - boom.
Complication - boom.
Resolution - boom.
It's hard not to write like this. Writing has to have conflict of some kind, and conflict demands resolution - so, it’s hard to keep from letting the demands of the form break you down into cliche. Sometimes it happens - other times, more rarely than most would care to admit, inspiration strikes.

I think that the third issue is really when things started clicking for me. Although it resorts to that hoariest of cliches - the trick ending - I was honestly surprised when it snuck up on me. It's almost cheating, the way he did it: you're wondering for the entire issue just what the superpower is that we're dealing with. Of course, if he doesn't mention it right away it's going to be a Big Revelation. But the fact that he pulled it off in such a way that I didn't see it coming is to be commended. It's the first rule of magic, kids: distraction. I was so busy paying attention to the dialogue that when the action arrived I was shocked to see it.

I think that the fifth issue is probably the strongest, simply because it feels loosest. For whatever reason, it seems more honest, less attached to the contrivances of short-story structure. The climax was perfectly reached, subtle and effecting, and not merely another MacGuffin about the super-powers. Here we see Wood finally getting his head around the challenge. He's still got seven issues to go - amazing.

Admittedly, Wood does fall into some of the modern comic writer‘s worst traps. This allergy to captions just has to stop, because we've gotten to the point where "sparse" narration is shorthand for "deep" - but that's just lazy shorthand. "Sparse" is just a tool, and it doesn't cover up a lack of ideas. This is especially cloying in the second issue. I realize that the wide-open panels are meant to symbolize unease and escalate the dramatic tension, but there reaches a point where minimalism breaks down into sloth. I am not quite sure if they cross that line here or not.

Cloonan's art suffers a bit from the wide-open direction Wood gives her. I can't help feeling, as talented as she is, she could benefit from some strict nine-panel grids, from forcing her to tell the story through tight sequence instead of loose collage.

If I had picked up the first issue of the series, I would have wanted to pick up the next one. As it is, having read the first five in one sitting, I am very anxious to read the next. The nature of this experiment is such that you really can see the gears grinding away in their heads, trying to figure out how to build that better mousetrap - how to write a convincing short story.

I realize that a great part of the book's appeal has to do with the format - twelve single-issue graphic novels - but it would be stupid not to acknowledge the realities of the situation. This will be reprinted in a trade paperback, bonus material or no, and it will be a very important book when all is said and done. Whether or not the remaining seven issues improve on the promise of these first five is immaterial at this point - they could suck and it would still be worth reading just to see why they sucked. Anyone who wants to study the intricacies of the short story format could do a lot worse than to read "Demo."

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