Tag Archives: Comic Books

Stepping Away from Comics, Directly

This past week, a friend posted a video of a friendly local comic shop/bookstore. Used books are stuffed into every conceivable bit of shelf space, surrounding long boxes of comic book back issues, with memorabilia and figurines placed in strategic –and sometimes haphazard– locations. It’s almost archetypical for what you’d imagine a used bookstore/comic shop to be.

A week earlier, I stepped into that same comic shop for, if not the very last time, my last time regularly.

The reason I went there regularly — and in fact had been a “regular” for a good chunk of the past 30 years — was because I had a pullbox. For those who don’t know that term, I essentially had subscriptions to a variety of comics and I’d go into this shop every month or so and pick them up where they’d been kindly setting them aside.

That’s over.

It’s sad, but in a sense, it’s been a long time coming. For years I’ve stared at the $3.99 price tag on most single issues of comics these days and told myself that this was untenable. If a story was good, it would appear in much more affordable trade paperback form. Indeed, most comic runs these days seem to be in six-issue arcs so as to make trade paperbacks a more effortless part of the ecosystem. I’ve enjoyed Saga in this form for years now. Nevertheless, it’s the end of an era on the personal level, though not the first step in that direction.

My first step away from comics was around college, an ancient time technically not before Internet, but for the most part pre-Internet browser. In going to college, I abandoned my subscriptions to the omnipresent superhero offerings and have since come to understand how that has left gaping holes in my general comics-related pop culture knowledge. I’m certain there are no end of characters and storylines familiar to many that are completely new from my experience.

How far-reaching is this? Let me put it to you this way: Harley Quinn is a new character for me.

Lest you feel bad for me in any way, let me assure you I’ve found this to be a benefit as I watch the myriad superhero films and TV series. I have more than a little knowledge of who most of the central characters are (e.g. Green Arrow, The Flash), but pretty much no knowledge of the past 25+ years of established Marvel or DC canon (which they seem to blow up with regularity anyway). In this fashion, I’m able to enjoy countless adaptations of characters and storylines without any worry about their fidelity to the comic version.

But I’m not unaware of how the comics industry, which has given rise to the current juggernaut trend in entertainment, is failing — and may fail to even continue to be the “content farm system” it essentially is for the more lucrative divisions of its parent companies. And what does that mean for the future of superhero films and TV shows? What does this mean for comics publishing in general.

Augie De Blieck Jr. over at Pipeline Comics has a sober look at how the comics industry, which on the whole uses a business model called “the direct market” is, for lack of a better term, imploding. While it’s not necessarily a death knell for comics overall, not seeing a meaningful move en masse to a new business model is dispiriting. I suppose everything could go digital and maybe that’s the big move, but while I’ve gotten digital comics, especially when that’s the place to support indie efforts, I find a surge of luddite sensibilities at the thought of abandoning print comics altogether.

Part of the overall morose feeling is that I know I won’t pursue comic writing any time soon. There was a time when I was sure I’d be diving into comic writing and creating. I’d still love to see a version of The Broken Continent in comic form, that could continue the story more economically than our web series could. But that doesn’t seem likely given indie comics’ own challenges at being profitable.

But for now, I’m a reader of comics only… and only an occasional one at that.

Depressing Plot Twist: Comic Book Edition

The other week, I saw an article from a local news station in Michigan about an established comic book artist who was now homeless.

The article mentioned that the comic artist was one-armed — and I knew it must be William Messner-Loebs.

This was depressing.

Although the article talked about him as a comic book artist (and the link above has a video where you see how skilled he is), I first came to know him as a comic book writer. Indeed, I first learned his name when he was the writer on the Jonny Quest comic in the late 80s. I’m overdue for re-reading it, but I am comfortable in saying it’s easily within my top ten favorite comic series of all time. Yes, I have read [insert your favorite mainstream comic here]. That may or may not make the list. Barring some awful discovery of how times have changed in the past 30 years that doesn’t jive with the comic panels created so long ago, Jonny Quest will always be on that list. Most of the Carl Barks stories are, too.

So, you can imagine I was thrilled to learn that he won the Bill Finger Award last year, which focuses on a lifetime of work as a comic book writer. And that occasion served to remind me all of the tremendous work he’s done since Jonny Quest.

So that’s why reading the article and seeing the video was depressing.

However, I do urge you to check out the video, because you’ll see Mr. Messner-Loebs retains not only a wry sense of humor, but a tremendous sense of grace about his current situation. And I agree with Mark Evanier, chair of the BIll Finger Award, what would be most awesome is that some people can give this very talented man some work: he’s ready and he’s good.

Were I pursuing comics publishing, I would totally be concocting some insidiously nice plot to do just that.

Fandom, Umbrage, and IP

I’ve been thinking of writing a longer post about fandom and perceived ownership — all the more so with the launch of Star Trek: Discovery.

Mark Evanier’s post, aptly titled “Creative Custody,” refutes the notion of fans “owning” comic book characters, but it can be applied to lots of other fan-beloved intellectual property (IP), such as IP that involves warrior races called Klingons.

Much of what Mark Evanier says could be said by someone who hasn’t been an avid comic books reader for about 60 years and a continuously working comic writer for about 40 years… but that authority helps.

The Kirby Centennial

Monday, August 28th (yesterday) marked Jack “King” Kirby’s 100th birthday.

He isn’t still around to celebrate it, but we certainly have a tremendous body of work with which to celebrate his storytelling.

I had made a comment on social media, but he seems to have cast a large enough shadow across pop culture that people may well be celebrating his centennial all week.

One of his assistants, Mark Evanier, who also wrote the biography Kirby: King of Comics, has a nice remembrance of the man and the impact he had.

Comic-con also has an impressive 60-page PDF of artwork and anecdotes about Kirby.

There’s also pieces you can read in Forbes, the Washington Post, CBR, and Techcrunch among others. Bleeding Cool has its picks for his top five creations.

( I personally have a soft spot for Kamandi).

Finally, Jeet Heer has a great article in the New Republic about Kirby and his impact, which dwarfs his outsize artwork.

 

This Summer Means Hollywood is Doomed…. Again

Every summer –for at least a decade or more– the Hollywood film industry has been doomed.

I would imagine they must get sick of all the doom, what with being doomed with the advent of television, the disintegration of the studio system, the rise of VCRs and video stores, online streaming, streaming services like Netflix making their own content — and possibly avocado toast.

Nevertheless, within the traditional ‘doom’ narrative, there may be trends, so I read a recent piece by David Sims in The Atlantic with interest about Hollywood’s “bad movie problem.” Just like last year, there seem to be a slew of high-profile blockbusters that underperformed domestically. This year, however, Sims hypothesizes that executives are running out of gas with their strategy of mining known IP for all its worth regardless of demand. He bases this not a generic “doom” observation, but that the studios are using tactics internationally, specifically the Chinese market, that are netting less overall profit. Oh, and the films are still doing bad domestically (ahem: bad movies).

Indeed, over in the Hollywood Reporter, Scott Roxborough and Patrick Brzeski detail the wave of political slings and arrows that may sour all the Chinese-American film synergy. Moreover, several of the media monoliths now owned by Chinese concerns are experience firsthand on their balance sheets what it means for North American box office revenues to slide. In fact, John Nolte over at The Daily Wire suggests that, yes, it really is a bad movie problem. The American viewing public has figured this out and both box office and home video revenues are slumping accordingly.

So is this the Final Doom?

I mean, Spielberg released the BFG, so maybe…

It strikes me that movies and related “more passive” visual entertainment are still a potent pop culture delivery device. They’ll be around for quite some time until companies figure out how to make virtual reality more economical and interwoven with our habits like turning on the TV in the evening or going to films on weekends. If or when that happens, expertise in films and such will likely pour into those interactive productions. The companies that exist today could definitely transform into interactive powerhouses through building up their own capabilities or through acquisitions.

Though, frankly, I love films and TV as-is and hope there’s always going to be a place for them (same with books as my bulging bookshelves can attest). And I hope some of the studios pick up on what Sims pointed out in his article: that some of the best grossing films so far this year have been non-franchise original works… that not coincidentally didn’t cost as much to produce.

Tune in for a similar article next summer!

Letting Go of the Canon

This is the 11th entry in a surprisingly long series of posts about Star Trek’s future and its fandom called Crisis of Infinite Star Treks. Yes, we have gone to 11.

Asher Elbein’s excellent piece in The Atlantic is worth reading just to consider the nature of pop culture –our modern mythology– and our ownership thereto.

I’ve included it in the Crisis of Infinite Star Treks series because reading it helped distill two issues:

If a ‘Star Trek Canon’ Exists, Legal Ownership Belongs to CBS/Paramount
Not only that, they can change it, ignore it, or otherwise do with the ‘canon’ what they will. They own it in a very real and legally binding way.

This is what I love about Elbein’s article: it elegantly points out the fiction that  fealty to the creators’ canon is really fealty to the ideas holding favor within a given IP’s fan community. In fact, as the concept goes, the canon awkwardly resides with the fans no matter how many authors are successively granted the creative keys to the kingdom by the corporate owners.

No corporation is beholden to this vague and inconsistent concept.

This cold, hard fact is well known by fans — and perhaps because their lack of power is so evident upon inspection, it can touch a nerve. Fans may well cry foul and further inveigh such deviations from their interpretation of canon will bring financial ruin. This prediction depends on the assumption that the fan base is the profit base. But what many fans fear more than anything is that the corporate owners may change ‘canon’ and build their profit base away from the parts of the IP the fans . It might be bigger and might leave some of the fans behind.

This is the fear touched on within my second article from last December. And to be clear, I think fans have cause to point out violations to canon. They might be pointing to elements of the narrative that created fans in the first place. It’s also not a wise idea to ignore long-term fans in pursuit of immediate profits as that can erode one’s profit base. But as I also point out in that article, Paramount is hell-bent to extract more profit from its Star Trek IP. It seems to be developing a formula for doing so and if we long-time fans aren’t on board for their take on space opera, than we can go watch re-runs for all they care: as far as their bean counters are concerned, they’re growing the fan base.

Again, I think this could be short-sighted because there should be ways to meet the fans’ wants economically. Not only that, fans are no longer content to simply be passive consumers of IP — at least the fans which brands like Star Trek should want, which brings us to…

There has to be a way for fans to participate in Pop Culture Storytelling
Sorry, corporate guys and gals. You’ve already let go of some mythical absolute that your IP exists solely as a profit center where you can control its every iteration in the public sphere. You enjoy the benefits of memes, remixing, and re-interpretation of your ideas to spread the IP and increase its value. In fact, you can and will reap those benefits. You can and certainly will make sure people other than you can’t reap the financial benefits of the IP improperly, but when it comes to restricting eyeballs and remixes and musings, much of that toothpaste is out of the tube by your own design.

That’s what sticks in the craw of many fans when it comes to the Axanar lawsuit. To go full Warner/Chappell Music after letting fan productions exist and flourish is something fans rightly cry foul over. These are our folktales. These are the myths of our time — and the tools of our time allow us to discuss and re-tell these folktales in a multitude of ways. Our society says you can make a living from this manner of knowledge work and corporations clearly make a tidy sum doing so. Is it really so surprising that the most ardent fans are inspired to create themselves?

A counterargument –a very compelling and quite legal one– goes back to point number one: these stories aren’t in the public domain. Use Star Trek and similar fan-fueled IP to create your own space opera. Heck, Indiana Jones exists in part because Spielberg and Lucas wanted to do a Bond film and started brainstorming about what kind of derring-do would get them globetrotting. But I do think that the urge to honor the object of your fannish affection and the urge to create something anew inspired by fannish affection are different impulses — and perhaps the object of another blog post. Suffice to say now, I imagine the most popular tales 10,000 years ago were passed around campfires far more readily than entirely new tales were concocted. A tale enthralls us, and we retell it, gradually with more flourishes. That a corporate entity owns tales and the rights to retell said tales is a relatively recent invention.

The storytelling urge is deeply human and very powerful. It will not be legislated or sued out of existence. The aforementioned tools are Promethean in their disruptive potential. I’m not saying it’s an easy path, but the corporate titans need to make peace with the fact that we mere mortals have fire. Better to work with us about how and where we’ll use it or too many people will get burned.

At the same time, I agree with Asher Elbein: canon is personal. For those keepers of fandom flames, I feel your pain. Just ask me about my ups and downs watching the new Doctor Who. But in the end, it’s not my restaurant. I can be the best regular diner at that restaurant. I might even influence them as to what they include and don’t include on the menu. Maybe I even re-create some of their dishes at home. But even though I can ‘vote with my feet,’ I don’t own the restaurant.