Call for Essays About Any Aspect of Popular Culture, Present or Past

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Tuesday, Jun 16, 2009
You can almost hear the click of the marker pen's cap as it snaps back into place. McCloud's comics are the best kind of comics; immersive and immediate. But more than the quality of his comics, McCloud makes a profound statement about the comics industry and the direct market.

Scott McCloud’s Reinventing Comics comes 7 years after 1993’s groundbreaking Understanding Comics. In the 2000 successor, McCloud offers readers a new agenda; rather than look inward at the mechanics of comics, Reinventing Comics would look outward. How are comics received by its audience, and more broadly by society? Why, perhaps more than other media, does comics struggle with institutional recognition? What would it take for comics to be accepted legitimately as literature, and legitimately as an artform? But more than simply speaking about comics’ 2000 present, McCloud goes on to speak about the future. At the start of the 21st century, McCloud begins to think about the roles of digital production and digital delivery. Two ‘revolutions’ that he believes will shape comics in the coming century.


Removed by nothing more than a decade, McCloud’s cries for great institutional acceptance, for comics’ greater recognition as art and literature already seem to have been answered. Over the past decade, comics has come to assume a more fitting place in the national consciousness of popular culture. The Smithsonian Institute’s Book of Comic-Book Stories has been hailed by long-time comics evangelist and legendary comics creator Will Eisner as “a necessary introduction to the maturity of the medium”.


While comics has come to find a broader validation in the popular culture over the course of the past decade, one ‘revolution’ identified by McCloud remains dangerously antiquated. In “Negativeland”, the second chapter of Reinventing Comics, McCloud turns his focus on direct marketing and distribution.


Writes McCloud, That combination of narrow purpose and the primacy of technical skills leads to the breakdown of the creative process into its assembly-line parts. Most American corporate comics feature separate “writers”, “pencilers”, “inkers”, “colorists” and “letterers”. Thus a young artist with a compelling unified vision for comics will encounter the same response again and again. “That’s not what we’re looking for”… The readers are just as abandoned by the corporate system as the creators, despite the importance supposedly given to their hard-earned dollars.


But rather than demonize the direct marketing system, McCloud ends the chapter hopeful that it can change to better reflect the needs of both creators and consumers. But the final closing sequence is a stern warning. If direct marketing cannot change, it could easily be replaced by digital delivery.


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Monday, Jun 15, 2009
After a day spent convincing family and friends that his newly supercharged powers may make him near-omnipotent, but no less human, Green Lantern Kyle Rayner (now returned to Earth as "Ion") offers readers a surprise and perhaps even terrifying denouement.

Following the cataclysmic events of the previous issue, Kyle Rayner returns to Earth not as the universe’s sole remaining Green Lantern, but as the supercharged Ion. His new powers make him near omnipotent, giving control over all matter and energy conversions. He can speed up chemical reactions, just as easily as he can suspend gravity, or cause a mind to not pick up a rock to throw. What’s more, using the Ion, Kyle can duplicate his presence multiple locations. Within the first few pages of the comicbook, Kyle has feed starving masses in Africa, restructured soil there to allow for crops to grow, prevented a drive-by in Oakland, slowed a careening truck in Mexico, DF and foiled a bank heist in London. His power is at once incredible, and fearsome.


Instead of focusing on the exhilaration of Kyle’s newfound powers, writer Judd Winick chooses to present “Day One” as a character study of Kyle himself. Readers easily dismiss the early fears of supporting characters, particularly the fears of Jen, Kyle’s girlfriend and daughter of Golden Age Green Lantern, Alan Scott. Surely it is simply a case of other characters being unable to comprehend the full scope of Kyle’s powers. Surely the Kyle Rayner readers have come to know over the past 100 issues remains unchanged?


As the pages turn, readers find increasing validation for Jen’s fears. If Kyle could easily, and perhaps innocently, “suggest” to his roommate’s subconscious the desire to buy coffee, what else is Kyle doing to manipulate human minds? Is Ion suddenly becoming a beloved superhero a natural response, or is Kyle himself nudging public opinion? As these question’s around Kyle’s influence and values mount, his dark side is glimpsed at when he brokers a peace on the distant planet Tendax by simply preventing any act of violence. To what lengths would Kyle go to ensure peace? And at what cost to personal freedom would such an enduring peace come? Is this the beginning of Kyle’s transformation into a tyrant with universe-wide reach?


In the closing stages of the book, wholly unaware of the events on Tendax, Jen stages an intervention. Can Kyle prove his humanity to her by foregoing his power for just one night. Ultimately Jen concedes the point of his simple vanity in giving himself a haircut is the most human of things to do. The book ends on a melancholy note as Kyle and Jen enjoy a movie together, with Ion nowhere in sight. It is not until the final page that Kyle himself confirms Jen’s and readers’ worst fears. He has not only lied about using his power, but is now completely addicted.


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Sunday, Jun 14, 2009
"The Iconographies" is a series of weekly blog posts and features focusing on iconic moments, creators, characters or publications in the ongoing 'biography' of graphic literature. This edition looks at the rise in popularity of the comics convention, and the pop-cultural changes conventions have brought to comics.

When I stepped into the Ramada Inn conference room in 1991 for the scrappy comics convention being held in the small Northeast Texas town where I grew up, I was 12-years-old and had never heard of a ‘comic-con’.  Popular culture was usually slow making it to our semi-rural township.  You had to drive forty-five minutes to the next city to see newly released films, and there was only one bookstore, though it soon closed.  After that, I was left to pillage the local library. Reading every racist 1930’s Hardy Boys book in their collection, I eventually moved on to Nancy Drew and the Bobbsey Twins.  Like most boys my age, I liked the idea of children showing traditional authority to be inept, and serving out humiliating justice.  In a sense, I was conditioned to become part of the early 90’s comics’ reader demographic. 


In 1990, during the week that the first Todd McFarlane Spiderman came out, a local accountant opened a comic book store on the town square.  My mother, a long-time sci-fi enthusiast, took me to the grand opening, where she bought me a copy of that recommended issue.  Those Spiderman #1 covers with the variant grey and gold webbing that hung beneath the words “1st All-New Collectors Item Issue” told me as a young tween that not only was I holding a cutting-edge work, but also that I was making a wise investment.  In ten years, I thought, it would probably be worth enough to pay for my college.


Pretty soon, the town was on fire with comic books. So much so that sometimes town kids would use them as currency for craps games. It was an activity some churches frowned on. But our thought was that 1st editions were as good as currency. When we heard that a local comic convention was to be held, our excitement mostly stemmed from our idea that we might unearth an issue we thought was rare and put one over on an adult, ‘Hardy Boys’ style. 


Walking through the Spartan surrounds, browsing the nearly-bare tables, it became embarrassingly obvious to us that we had no idea what we were doing.  I pulled together ten bucks and purchased an autographed copy of Sergio Aragones’ Groo #7, which can today be procured on eBay for no more than $14.99.  The convention was basically a specialty flea market for comics readers and collectors who were for the most part as much in the dark as I was about the growing collector bubble of the time.   


Fan conventions were nothing new by the time I attended the one in my town. Where there is a desire for escapism built into a cultural artifact, the most alienated of fans have good reason to want to have their own gatherings and discuss the finer points of their favorite pastimes. 


Science fiction fans have long had conventions, well before the first comics convention was held in 1964. The setting was a small Manhattan room full of metal folding chairs, a cooler of sodas, and fans sitting around talking about comics. Tom Gill, well-known for his twenty year run as illustrator on The Lone Ranger, did a talk on how to draw comics, and the fundamentals of the convention were born:  fans and industry people creating a shared space to discuss mutual interests. The austerity of this first comics convention was not that different from my experience. But by 1991, social interaction had in the main shifted from a gathering of fans to vendors selling their collectables.


The New York Comic Art conventions started small, but grew from those 300 attendees in 1964 to over 76,000 at New York Comic-con 2009.  Meanwhile, several other major cities started their own comic-cons, notably San Diego, which grew to include over 120,000 by 2008. As the industry went through booms and busts, fans continued to find value in meeting and having any sort of interaction with creators.  As writer and artist legacies were solidified, the sheer volume of people in attendance at larger conventions altered the kinds of exchanges possible between fans and creators. The spectacle of the panel and brief signings are all that remain. 
   
What became of the hope that collecting comics would some day pay for future college debts? 


Like any inflated economic bubble, filled with speculation and hot air, the collectibles market was fueled by its own hype. Exaggerated by the appearance of creative ‘superstars’, the convention scene only garnered more attention.  The same month I bought McFarlane’s Spiderman #1, so did 2.5 million other people. While I remember enjoying the $1.75 in reading it, we would have to burn a lot of them to make it collectable. 


The earliest conventions seemed more about meeting up with like-minded individuals and possibly filling in gaps in one’s collection.  Early on, these collection gaps were hard to fill, because comics were distributed in the same way as magazines and newspapers.  Stores signed up with a distributor and basically took what was sent to them and returned what did not sell for a full refund.  Before direct market distribution, a candy store may or may not get the next issue in the series you were following.  Specialty stores however, could pre-order whatever you wanted. What’s more they were stuck with the back-issues; filling in a collection was easier.


The advent of the internet drove down exchange value even more. Buyers now had access to privately-owned collections up for sale.  One Saturday morning, I visited a garage sale in Washington, D.C.  After going through the boxes of comics, all protected with sleeves and boards, I was informed that issues would not be sold individually. I would need to purchase the entire collection if I was interested.  The collector admitted that he really did not want to sell them.  He bought these books because he liked the stories, and even though he thought their value would increase he now wanted his son to read them and learn the mythologies he himself had spent so many years with. But with his new family, his priorities had changed.


In a way, I am glad comics culture has somewhat moved away from traditional collecting.  Going to the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art festival last weekend made me think about how old school conventions might have been.  I ran around finding some of my favorite artists, who I had met at other conventions like Bethesda, Maryland’s Small Press Expo.  Last year, I went to New York Comic-con alone and felt pretty lost in the masses until I navigated my way to an artist and editor friend.  Though I enjoyed going, it at times felt more like a mall than a community of fans.  After a panel, one writer for Vertigo said something to me about fans wanting to make a connection with him, but the limits of the convention form and scale prevented him from making a connection.  Is a signing really all readers want? Is anything more possible at the scale of today’s conventions?  As I gear up for San Diego Comic-con this year, I don’t expect to get to know all 120,000 convention goers, but I do hope to find another signed copy of Groo.


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Friday, Jun 12, 2009
In the Wildstorm universe there will be no Silver Age of superheroes. "Mystery archaeologist" for Planetary, Elijah Snow confronts three remarkably familiar objects, with no ability to explain or even recognize them.

The Wildstorm Universe is just the obvious shiny surface of an Earth with superheroes, Warren Ellis writes in the original 1997 proposal for Planetary. What if, underneath all that, there was an entire classic old superhero world? What if there were huge Jack Kirby temples underground built by old gods or new, and ghostly cowboys riding the highways of the West for justice, and superspies in natty suits and 360-degree-vision shades fighting cold wars in the dark, and strange laughing killers kept in old Lovecraftian asylums… what if you had a hundred years of superhero history just slowly leaking out into this young and modern superhero world of the Wildstorm Universe? What if you could take everything old and make it new again?


In a surprise reversal of over-hyped emotions on the cusp of the new millennium, Ellis would offer Planetary as a meditation on the promise of tomorrow by delving into the history that prepared the world for things just about to come. Planetary was about the future of the Wildstorm Universe, but only in that it was an exploration of a past that shaped that future. Over the course of 26 issues, Ellis and artist John Cassaday would treat readers to a heady mixture of hard sci-fi, superhero archaeology and strange, but also familiar analogs of pop-culture. Ellis would draw a continuous narrative thread through a century of superheroes, laying down his own vision of Golden and Silver Age for the Wildstorm universe. Doc Savage, Tarzan, the Shadow, Ellis offers a near-exhaustive list of pop-culture icons. “It’s a strange world,” the series blurb reads, “Let’s keep it that way”.


In perhaps the most heart-rending of twists, Ellis offers the Fantastic Four as a template for group of villainous scientists who secretly dominate the globe. Simply known as The Four, these scientist-explorers have withheld technology that could have supercharged human advancement. Although the “mystery archaeologists” of Planetary have already skirmished with The Four in issue #6, it is here in “Magic & Loss” that readers discover exactly how The Four have made themselves a true adversary to human growth.


In the issue’s framing device, protagonist Elijah Snow crouches over three artifacts in an abandoned Four laboratory. Unable to explain them, but awash in a deep sense of loss, Snow finds his resolve to dethrone The Four strengthened. The artifacts themselves, a blue lantern, a red birthing blanket and a pair of magical wristbands are emblematic of the DC superheroes Green Lantern, Superman and Wonder Woman. The current Planetary issue tells the stories of how these artifacts’ owners were assassinated by The Four.


Encountering these very familiar objects through the eyes of character wholly unable to recognize them, explains the sense of loss felt by the Wildstorm universe. These three characters, Green Lantern, Superman and Wonder Woman would have been the vanguard of a Silver Age of superheroes. Because of The Four, the Wildstorm universe would never know a world where superheroism is legacy passed from one generation to the next.


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Friday, Jun 12, 2009
Arnold Roth and Al Jaffee

Arnold Roth and Al Jaffee


One of the highlights of my visit to the MoCCA convention was attending the ‘AH, HUMBUG!’ panel that featured cartoonists and comedic geniuses Arnold Roth and Al Jaffee in conversation with Fantagraphics editor Gary Groth.  Roth is well-known for his broadly published illustrations and cartoons, and his comic strip Poor Arnold’s Almanac.  Jaffee is renowned for his foundational work on MAD magazine and his signature MAD ‘fold-ins’, illustrations that fold together to reveal another picture that gives a second meaning to the caption. 


The subject of the panel was a satirical humor magazine called Humbug that ran for eleven issues from 1957 to 1958.  Together with comics giants Will Elder, Harvey Kurtzman, and Jack Davis, Roth and Jaffee pooled their money to put together a creator owned and run magazine.  Roth said that they were such a talented group of people that when Kurtzman suggested they do an issue that parodied New Yorker cartoons by drawing in its style and making the cartoons not funny, they all came back and said, “I can’t think of anything that’s not funny”.


Part of the discussion focused on why the magazine folded, since it is widely agreed that it represents some of these respected cartoonists’ best work.  Roth pointed out that Kurtzman always wanted to do things different, so he made Humbug a smaller dimension than other magazines to stand out.  It would have stood out more if it were taller than other magazines, because its small dimensions meant it was lost behind the other books.  Jaffee made a note that their distributors were a little shady.  They were using the same people to print and distribute and he always felt like the sales figures they were giving them were off.  They always came back just below breaking even.  He implored the audience to take control of the publishing process of their work as much as possible. 


The complete run of Humbug was recently reprinted as a two volume set by Fantagraphics.


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