27 January 2010

Courtney Crumrin and the Knight Kingdom.

See the finished piece and the sketches throughout this post? Click to see them bigger. Chances are, if you follow comics websites, you probably have at least seen this excellent illo by now. They're all by a personable fellow by the name of Ted Naifeh, whose name should be familiar to you through his wonderful Courtney Crumrin series Oni Press releases, as well as his Burton-meets-Barrie Polly and the Pirates (from Oni as well), and stints drawing Nocturnals spinoffs for Dan Brereton, as well as the first place I saw his stuff, the goth-oriented Gloom Cookie. He is quite simply one of the best artists (and a damn good writer as well) in the field right now, in my opinion; his style is distinctive and idiosyncratic-- you won't mistake it for anyone else's-- with dynamic poses, adroit staging, and sharply realized expressiveness in his figures. As an inker he is a master of contrasts and blackspotting, in the same discussion with the likes of Mignola and Jaime Hernandez, to name a couple. Guess you can tell I am an admirer.

So when I see, on his website's blog, that he is putting these illustrations and sketches out there just in hopes, hat in hand, fer chrissakes-- that someone at DC might deign to give him some work...well, that just blows my head right off my shoulders. From where I sit, why in God's name wouldn't they want him to take a shot at a character, who, along with his extended family, has proved itself to be extremely amenable to widely (and wildly) different interpretations, from the stodgy old Sheldon Moldoff, bland Irv Novick, and dynamic Jim Aparo to the grotesqueries of Kelley Jones and angular Marshall Rogers, from the Kirby-worshipping nostalgia of a Bruce Timm or Darwyn Cooke to the 70's funk of a Neal Adams or Dick Giordano? They should have been calling his number a long time ago- can you imagine the recent Batman: RIP series with Naifeh's art, with the imagination he could bring to bear in interpreting Morrison's scripts, instead of the barely-competent and resolutely mired-in-DC-House-Style-circa-1987 Tony Daniel?

I don't know. Perhaps it's the DC editors' reluctance to look outside the superhero-creators' community; Naifeh may be regarded as an "Indie Guy", and not suitable for a Batman comic, any more than a Seth or Dan Clowes, unless they condescend to start up another Bizarro Comics-type anthology. If so, this, I think, is a mistake. Perhaps they think Naifeh's style would be a turnoff for the modern comic shop patron, who thinks George Perez or (shudder) Ed Benes is the absolute apex of everything comic book superhero art should be. As Ian Anderson once stated on the inside of one of his Jethro Tull albums, "People are geared towards the average rather than the exceptional". Perhaps Naifeh has only just now made his intentions clear, and the brain trust didn't know. By taking this tack, I hope Naifeh has made them aware!

So yeah, not to put too fine a point on it, but I sincerely hope to see a Batman series or story or something with Naifeh illustration work someday. I won't stand on one foot waiting, because it just makes too much sense. But a guy can hope, can't he?

And while I'm at it, even though the man himself has told me he has no interest in the character, I would absolutely love to see a Shade (you know, from Starman) series with James Robinson scripts and Naifeh art. Oh yes, I have a dream.

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16 October 2009

The Future of Comics: A Retailer's Perspective

I have been casting a wide net recently, in hopes of a greater understanding about the state of the comics industry and Direct Market. This week I snared two retailers, Tim Broman and Aaron David, who jointly run Collector’s Connection in Duluth, Minnesota. Tim and Aaron have been in the retailing end of the industry for 20 some years, and as such, I think they have some valuable insights into what is happening in the comics world.

Alexander Ness: Is the Direct Market for distribution of comics dead, and, was the former model better in any respects, that of the newsstand distribution? What distribution model will likely be the one of the future, if there is a future?

Tim Broman: The question behind these questions seems to be in regards to Marvel Comics being taken over by Disney. Direct Market dead? Not from where I sit. The only problem is “not enough players on the field.” Instead of more distributors, I think that the smart Disney people will use the newsstand style distribution to get more Marvel Comics into more spaces. "Marvel Comics - available anywhere with floors, doors, and oxygen."

Aaron Davis: As a whole, the only problem I see with the direct market distribution is the lack of competition/distributors. I know it costs me more money and I get poorer service since Capital City Distribution went under.

Is the Direct Market dead? No. If we did not order through the Direct Market and get the discount necessary to make a profit, we would not be in business. If the direct distribution ends, the only place to buy comics would be stores like Barnes & Noble. There would be fewer buyers and fewer comic specialty stores.

What was/is the most destructive trend in comics that contributed to their downturn as a product, if not artistically?

TB: Nothing -- although the comics industry has always had the bad habit of discovering the Golden Goose, and killing it through overdoing things. Examples of G.I. Joe (the Marvel ones), independent comics, variant covers, #1 issues, no matter...whatever is hot, gets done and redone until no one cares anymore. But every time the prices go up, we lose committed readers. Of course by the time most of them turn 16, we lose committed readers...it’s just that at 16, we start to lose them to cars, and girls. Currently, I hear several complaints about the costs ($3.99 per issue, on average), and the lack of quality that you get with these books. Marvel Comics puts out 16 pages of art -- and most of them are two panels per page -- and the rest is ads. All for $3.99 per issue. But hey...after 23 years in the business, I heard the same stuff when comics hit 75 cents...then a buck...then $1.50...and so on, so forth, and-you-get-where-this-is-going...

What was/is the most destructive trend creatively that contributed to the downturn of the comic market readership?

TB: Again, I say nothing. Comics have always been a “kids” medium. You read them as a child. It wasn’t until the movies made them hip that you would dare read comic books in the open. Otherwise other adults might think you retarded (and we all know that’s what the WWE is for).

AD: I have been reading comics regularly for more than 30 years, and owned a store for 25 years. There are very few comics I follow anymore. For me, the problem is the continuing storylines. The plots are complex, bizarre and hard to follow. It seems the creators are catering to the comic nerd, and not to the mass market that like to pick up a comic once in a while. Some of those casual readers will become regulars if they enjoy the issue they pick up, but if the casual reader has no idea what is going on, you will not gain a new regular reader. The creators seem to have lost the ‘fun’ part of comics, trying to be artsy, gritty, or trendy. Get back to basics, and you will gain new readers to replace the ones that are lost due to the natural life progression. Many readers stop collecting as they enter the high school and college years, but pick it back up once they settle down and have kids of their own.

For me, the comic heroes are fine, but the stories should be based more on reality. I can identify with a hero fighting a human with enhanced abilities attempting to rob a bank, but some of the comics feature the heroes fighting bizarre space aliens trying to blow up the Earth in a story that started 14 issues ago. I have a life, and I cannot follow the story-lines that take months and months to complete.

How does the internet contribute to the problems, how does it offer a solution to them?

TB: “If it don’t kill ya’, it probably makes ya stronger.” That’s how the Internet is. Admittedly, it is harder for a retailer to sell his back issues when you can buy the same thing on eBay for about 25-35% less (including the shipping, which no one does). I’ll bet that a lot of the “brick & mortars” that used to be open are still on Amazon, or eBay.

The internet does offer a solution via its multiple outlets for free advertising and promotion. Collector’s Connection has a FaceBook site. It also lists items and events via CraigsList. We just signed up for LinkedIn (a FaceBook site for Business People), and there is a Yahoo! Group called DULUTH DEALS that we list on. And, aside from your time and labor, it’s all free. So far...

AD: For my business, if I do not have a comic or back issue in stock, my customer will find it online. In the past, the customer would buy something else for his collection, and/or wait until I could find the item he wanted. Now, there is no patience. I cannot carry everything, and I cannot compete with the online community, either on price or selection.

As far as a solution, I can sell my excess inventory online.

I personally don't believe comics will die, and the market is just going through a transformation, do you agree with that? Or is the outlook much more bleak?

TB: From where I sit, the fundamental difference between Disney and Marvel is that Marvel has been actively working on Branding, and Product Placement since the 1990's (although they started in the 1960s, they stepped up a notch in the '90s). But the Disney people have been doing the same branding and placement since the 1930s, and are therefore a lot smarter about it.

If you doubt me, pick a large corporate chain (Walgreens, Target, Wal-Mart, Kmart, etc.). Wander through and keep a mental tally of how many Disney items you see, versus how many Marvel items. If my theory holds up, the number of Disney items will be larger. But, in about three to five years, the Marvel market penetration will be on par with the Disney stuff, thanks to the smarter Disney people.

Short term -- lotsa Marvel Comics available anywhere you find Magazines. Bad news for comic shops. Long term -- lotsa new Marvel geeks who will want your back issues. Good news for comic shops.

Also, long term, you will be able to turn your home into something that’ll make you think that Martha Stewart got bitten by a Radioactive Spider...Good news for comic geeks...bad news for comic geeks that want female companionship.

AD: There will always be a core group of collectors, but when comics are not trendy, the number of collectors will shrink, reducing the market, print runs, and number of stores catering to them. They will come back, but there is a lot of competition for the entertainment dollar, and the trend is toward flashy electronics. I don’t believe comics will achieve the level of popularity they enjoyed in the past.

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23 September 2009

Comic Empire Building

Asked by a non-comics reading friend what I thought about Disney acquiring Marvel Comics, I was accosted as being perhaps coy in my response. But I wasn’t. I said, ‘Marvel has a great stable of characters, of course Disney would like to acquire them.’ I wasn’t hiding my thoughts behind words. I am correct in them. But, ... there is, in fact, more to consider. Disney is acquiring a great stable of characters, true, but Marvel is now in the hands of marketing genius. Is that a good thing for Marvel? If money is a good thing, yes. Probably a very good thing. But I do not think money is going to improve the works of Marvel, instead, I believe the intellectual properties of Marvel will be treated with the same “care” as other Disney properties... which is, whatever it takes to make money from them. That isn’t in itself a bad thing. As before, when I spoke of the effect upon the industry of the Direct Market, I say bless them, if that is what they desire.

Becoming a fixture in American or world consumer culture, as toys, or cartoons, or movies, or toothbrushes or children’s books... is meaningless outside of monetary reward. So I need to ask, how many Disney movies or books or product in general are anything but regurgitative vomit? They also bowdlerize what they adapt. In their stories they also make into nice what was historically mean. They also create happy falsism in their false morality tales taken from classics and rewritten for modern audiences. I expect Marvel to be inhaled by Disney, and poured back to the readers and consumers from a Disney perspective. Don’t read this as angry, I still have all the great Marvel stories I’ve enjoyed in the past, still like all the creative people I liked before who have worked at Marvel. I just think this is another step, even a big one, towards the consumption of comics as a creative medium, and transforming the medium into a monetized ghetto in order to test market ideas.

Alex Ness is a writer, a poet, and reader. You can find links to all his work: here

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12 September 2009

See the Stars they're shining bright...

There are a couple old adages out there that seem to come to mind to me right now, "Everything old is new again" and "You can't go home again." I could wax philosophical about both of those for some time, but that's neither here nor there at this juncture. Instead, I wanted to capitalize on the general sentiment of both, as well as one key word in both; again. There's a couple more, "History never repeats itself, it just rhymes" or "you can't stand in the same river twice".

Take those things into consideration, roll them over in your brain, and follow me.

A few months ago, I walked into a comic shop on my lunch hour. [Golden Age Collectibles to be precise] I wasn't sure why I was there, other than the fact that I was probably going to get a crêpe for lunch, it was on the way, and the sidewalk -- or lack thereof -- on Granville Street happened to be getting dust all over my suit and I wanted to get out of the way for awhile while the construction workers butchered the landscape in preparation for the arrival of international hegemony and competition. You swallow?

Anyway, for the most part, I buy my comics in book form through a book store. Have for a few years, perish the thought of walking into a comics store and buying comics. Yet, while I was there, I grabbed the first two issues of Batman & Robin, the first issue of Greg Rucka and JH Williams III's Detective Comics and the first issue of Wednesday Comics. I don't know what possessed me to do it, but gosh darn it, it felt good. It felt even better unfolding that issue of Wednesday Comics and reading it, trying not to spill any spinach, feta or egg, when I got back to my office. It was a tactile experience that I could only describe as revelatory.

Unfortunately, I must say aside from pretty art in the Wonder Woman strip and the sense that Neil Gaiman was having more fun writing his piece than I was reading it, most of that issue escapes me at the moment. That might say something about its transitory nature, but again, not the point.

That experience of walking into the comic store and actually buying comics reawakened some dark, distant part of me and it set me on a path that I had forgotten. A sense of wonder, if you like. Another one came picking up the latest issue of DMZ today after committing to actually contributing to this new group blog idea of Alan's. Its first lines are "Hey dude... You tired of sitting alone in this fucking thing all the time? You ready to get back into the game?"

Apparently, the answer is "Yes". I can't promise any miracles. I can't promise anything that's going to encourage your hearts or enlighten your minds. I can't even promise that you're going to like half of anything that I write -- although you'll undoubtedly like the posts by the other members of this motley crew that Alan's put together. I can't promise any type of content that I'm going to be writing about, I don't know yet what it's going to be and I don't want anyone to be disappointed by grandiose statements and empty promises.

What I can promise is a unique perspective on the landscape. A landscape that is slightly the same, but slightly different, from when the Galaxy first pulled me into its orbit. The Spider has been eaten by the Mouse and the Frog is dancing on the Bullet's head. The "ultimate" reinvention of Marvel's superheroes has itself ultimately been reinvented, perhaps watered down to a certain extent with Ultimate Avengers. I haven't driven this landscape for a while, so I may need a map, but most of all, it's good to be back at it again and I hope to have some of you along for the ride.

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