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Sunday, Jul 26, 2009

When I was younger and just getting back to comics I had no real appreciation for Golden and Silver Age characters. I was a Batman fanatic and I had very little time, or money, for series like the JSA or Starman. I started reading the Justice League because my hero was part of the team but my forays into the DCU and its iconic history ended there. I erroneously believed that the JLA represented the full manifestation of the superhero genre (gimme a break, I was young!), and that old characters like Jay Garrick and Alan Scott were prototypes whose appeal had been replaced by cooler and more modern incarnations. It was through the help of more enlightened friends and gifted comic creators that I was able to learn the error of my ways and appreciate the legacies of the heroes that had come before and their continued relevance today.


One of the various books that accomplished my change in heart and perspective was James Robinson’s Starman, which at the insistence of my friend John I finally agreed to read. This series elegantly captures the beauty and the history of the superhero mythos in a way that is almost painful. Superheroes cannot thrive in a microcosm and this series brought new levels of enjoyment and awe as it broke open insular storylines and brought them into a larger more realized universe. While the series has many excellent examples of this feat, I think the best, and my favorite, is still Starman’s first team-up…


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Saturday, Jul 11, 2009

In early 1995, Craig Newmark, a newcomer to San Francisco began sending out a weekly newsletter of mostly techie events and opportunities (jobs, apartments, lectures, etc.) to friends of his. Now some 14 years later, because of Craig Newmark, many cities now have a one-stop spot where you can find an apartment, find a jogging partner, sell your old furniture, or even find someone to have a ‘casual encounter’ with. And all this you can do ad-free and free of charge.  For many of us, especially city dwellers and young people, Craigslist has become an everyday reality and an indispensible tool for carrying out our daily lives.


What, might you ask, does Craigslist have to do with comics and sequential art? Had you asked me this question last year, I honestly would have been hard pressed to come up with a connection. I Saw You, a collection of comics inspired by Missed Connections on Craigslist (as well as some from newspapers), now provides an answer to the previously posed question. 


I Saw You seems like a particularly interesting addition to the comics canon as it’s one of the first to utilize the internet as a subject rather than a medium. While web comics like xkcd, Achewood, and The Perry Bible Fellowship (all recommended)  have all eventually decided to offer hard copy paper collections, I Saw You went the old-fashioned ink and paper route from its onset despite its use of the internet as inspiration. This choice elicits some interesting questions: what might a traditional, paper-based comic offer that web comics can’t? What about the space of the comic book store as a place of community for the comics reader that is generally absent from the consumption of web comics? How has the internet changed one’s sense of community in general and how has it specifically shaped and affected the community of fans and creators of comic art? These questions will be examined in more depth in an upcoming Iconographies post focusing on I Saw You as a lens through which to understand the complex ways the internet has shaped comics and community.


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Sunday, Jun 21, 2009

It was a strange year, 1836. It was the year that would invent the twentieth century.


Naturalist Charles Darwin stepped off the HMS Beagle on the morning of October 2nd, seeing his native England for the first time in five years. Novelist Charles Dickens would begin publishing his first novel The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club serialized for weekly publication. And Sam Colt would finally perfect his invention of the revolver.


For Darwin it would be the beginning of a long career, one that would enshrine him as one of the greatest scientific minds of his age, and one that would bring him into conflict with the established power of the Church of England and its dogma. Ten weeks into publication of The Pickwick Papers Dickens would spark a cultural revolution. His character Sam Weller would be so highly regarded that it would be openly stolen and reproduced in bootleg copies of his work, Sam Weller Joke Books and various other merchandizing. Dickens would helm a new kind of literature that would set the tone for such later innovators as Walt Disney, Osamu Tezuka and R. Crumb. And Sam Colt would, with a single stroke, reconstitute the way our species conceives of justice, law, injury and animosity. We would not need a writer the quality of Tom Fontana to remind us that with the advent of the revolver “the wound is personal”.


Each of these revolutions could be seen to engage with the writings of the Reverend Thomas Robert Malthus, whose dystopian view of the world arose from his famous slogan: “The power of population is indefinitely greater than the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man”. Malthus would use this offer a savage critique of the welfare system of 19th century England. It is in this way that 1836 holds up a mirror to the global economic collapse of 2008. Economics as the crucible for three cultural revolutions; one of scientific and religious conflict, one of literary innovation, and one of civilian armament.


While the visionary work of manga writer Yasuhiro Nightow in his anime series Gungrave offers comment on the confluence of Colt’s legacy and Darwin’s (in Nightow’s series dead gangsters dressed as cowboys hunt down genetically engineered zombie supersoldiers), it is 1989’s Legion of Super-Heroes edited by Mark Waid and written by Keith Giffen and Tom & Mary Bierbaum that offers a perspective on the confluence of Darwin, Colt and Dickens.


Five years after the economic collapse of the United Planets, the idealistic Legion of Super-Heroes crawl from the wreckage, now jaded by the failure of their dream. Things were not supposed to be this bad. Now facing a galactic society on the brink crumbling into civilian militias, the Legion must confront the encroaching threat of an expansionist xenosociology. The story is told on the same 3x3 grid popularized by Dave Gibbons in Watchmen, but to a far more brutal effect.


This Wednesday’s Iconographies feature explores how 1989’s reboot of Legion of Super-Heroes offers comment on both 1836 and 2008.


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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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Sunday, Jun 7, 2009
"Out of time", Captain America summons to mind two classic icons of the American popular imagination.

Captain America stands as perhaps the most richly-textured superhero in American popular culture, in that he enjoys not one, but two origin stories.


Originally created in 1941 by writer Joe Simon and seminal artist Jack Kirby, “Cap” was patriotism writ large. As one of the three Invaders he infiltrated Nazi-occupied Europe and launched counter-insurgence operations. His first issue closed with him soundly planting a fist on the jaw of Adolf Hitler. But the end of the Second World War saw a drop in circulation and the inevitable discontinuation of Captain America from publication.


It was during the 1960’s that then Editor-In-Chief at Marvel sought to resurrect the original Captain America character. In Avengers issue #4, it was discovered that Cap had indeed survived the War, frozen in a block of ice. It was the Avengers who discovered Cap and thawed him out.


It was this decision by Stan Lee that would make Captain America a complex tapestry of meaning. The bright, gaudy Cap who knew only the certainty of enemies that could be confronted with a strong right hook would forever be changed. Boldly-clad Captain America would now become a character negotiating an equally garish future.


It is this sense of alienation, an innovation of Stan Lee’s, that connects Cap with two popular literary figures; Washington Irving’s Rip van Winkle, who slept away a generation, and Philip Nowlan’s Buck Rogers, a twentieth century astronaut catapulted forward five centuries. But which character provides a better analog for Cap?


In this coming Wednesday’s “Iconographies” feature, we explore the 2007 Death of Captain America, and the impact of this iconic character.


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