Quote of the Day: DC’s Target Market

At the end of his latest “Confessions of a Comic Book Guy” column for ICv2.com, Steve Bennett briefly mentions why he’s not reading many DC comics these days, a situation I share:

it’s because most of them absolutely stink of desperation; they want so badly to be “hard” and “edgy” but most often the results are sour, false, and cheap. DC Comics is in danger of becoming the literary equivalent of Axe Body Spray.

Ha! What a damning association.

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Should Letterer Awards Be Open to All Artists?

Steve Morris at Comics Vanguard has posted a call for the Eisners to change how they select and recognize letterers. He starts off by recognizing the dominance of the Best Lettering award by one very talented man:

Todd Klein's lettering print

An example of Todd Klein’s lettering skill

Aside from Stan Sakai’s win in 1996, letterer Todd Klein won the award every single year between 1993 and 2008. Every single year! And then he won in 2010 as well. Out of the 21 years that the Eisners have recognised lettering, he’s won 16 of them.

He then goes on to talk about the winners who also wrote and drew their own work:

Because the thing is, full-time letterers like Joe Caramagna, Chris Eliopoulos or Richard Starkings (who has NEVER won, despite being perhaps THE most important name in comic lettering of the last several decades) are working on a different level to the level that [Chris] Ware has to. Ware is preparing a whole comic at once, so he can draw a panel with the dialogue required already in mind — allocating the words a space. If he can’t fit the words into this space, he can always rewrite the dialogue to fit. He has complete creative control.

Letterers don’t have that luxury. They’re given a script they had no hand in, and art they can’t dictate, and told to put the two together in a way which tells the story. It’s an incredibly difficult, technical task to pull off, especially with the level of style that someone like Annie Parkhouse or Dustin Harbin can achieve.

He has a suggestion:

What I’m saying is absolutely that the Eisners should stipulate a clause into the nomination process for letterers which blocks writers and artists from being eligible. The phrase “best lettering over someone else’s work” would be appropriate, in this respect. [...] Because apparently it seems, letterers will be ignored otherwise.

But that proposed clause wouldn’t fix the real problem, that there’s one best-known guy in the field whom people kept voting for, whether because he does excellent work or his name is the most recognizable or some other reason.

If you do agree with Steve that including artists as letterers is a problem, should the category be restricted in this way? Should others? I can imagine the outcry if someone suggested that the only people eligible for Best Artist are those who did nothing else but draw the book. Would that mean that someone who colored their own work wouldn’t be eligible for either Best Artist or Best Coloring? Would we need a combined category to recognize them, the same way we have Best Writer/Artist?

It’s an interesting discussion, but to me, it feels like a way to make the category less competitive. What do you think?

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Spider-Man’s Costumes Through the Years

I don’t normally link to infographics, but I thought this one was well-done, full of actual information, and not obnoxious about the source promotion. I had no idea there had been so many variations on what I thought was just red and blue webbing. Here’s a rundown of Spider-Man’s costumes from the beginning through the upcoming movie. I learned things!

Spider-Man Infographic
Infographic Created by HalloweenCostumes.com

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The Marvel Encyclopedia (2014)

Review by KC Carlson

Last revised in 2009, DK’s The Marvel Encyclopedia: The Definitive Guide to the Characters of the Marvel Universe was long overdue for updating, as the Marvel Universe has made significant changes in the last five years. Because of the constant upheaval of the Marvel Universe, this volume is a major upgrade, with 32 additional pages of all-new material, including over 100 brand new entries. At least 75 previous entries have significant updates and/or upgraded artwork. Mike Deodato Jr. provides new cover artwork, printed on both the hard cover of the book and on the foil-enhanced dust jacket.

All of the material within is produced in conjunction with Marvel Comics and authorized by them. In fact, a number of current and previous Marvel employees are responsible for the actual writing of the entries, including Tom Brevoort, Tom DeFalco, and Peter Sanderson. Ralph Macchio provides a brand-new forward to go with the reprinted introduction by Stan Lee that’s been included in every edition.

All-in-all, there are more than 1,200 individual entries of characters and teams in this 432-page full-color hardcover. The length of the entries vary from a single paragraph up to eight full pages. There’s at least one illustration per entry, and frequently up to a dozen illos (or more) per page. The book is a visual treat with artwork ranging from the 1940s up to the present by hundreds of Marvel’s very best artists. Many of these illustrations are iconic shots of the characters by artists best known for drawing them.

This new edition includes dozens of new entries featuring new character additions to the Marvel Universe, as well as the Encyclopedia debut of some older characters making their first-time appearance. Just to name a few: Alpha, Annihilators, Ant-Man III (O’Grady), Bastards of Evil, Abigail Brand, The Cabal, Amadeus Cho, Agent Phil Coulson, Echo, Fantomex, Frenzy, Nick Fury Jr., Groot, Sasha Hammer, Maria Hill, Iron Patriot, Layla Miller, Miss Thing, Ms. Marvel (Khan), Nightmask, Pixie, Power Man (Averez), Quentin Quire, Red Hulk, Reptil, Valeria Richards, Rocket Raccoon, Secret Warriors, Shadow Council, Squirrel Girl, Howard Stark, Star Brand, Starlord, the Stepford Cuckoos, Hope Summers, SWORD, Trick Shot, the Twelve, and the Young Allies, among dozens and dozens more.

Major characters and teams get an additional two pages added to their entries, including the Avengers, Captain America, Daredevil, Fantastic Four, Iron Man, Spider-Man, Thor, Wolverine, and the X-Men. These characters get major updates: Black Panther, Bullseye, Captain Marvel, Cyclops, Emma Frost, Ghost Rider, Green Goblin, Jean Grey, Guardians of the Galaxy, Inhumans, Mandarin, Nova, Photon, Pepper Potts, Katherine (Kitty) Pryde, Hank Pym, Red Skull, Betty Ross, Silver Samurai, Sinister Six, Spectrum, Spider-Girl, Squadron Supreme, Thanos, The Thing, War Machine, White Tiger, as well as many, many more.

Recent major Marvel Universe events such as Dark Reign (with The Siege), Chaos War, Fear Itself, The Age of Ultron, and Infinity are also detailed in two-page spreads, along with older events first detailed in previous volumns, including Annihilation, Civil War, The Fifty-State Initiative, Secret Invasion, and World War Hulk. The pages from previous volumes devoted to Marvel by the Decades have been dropped, as this material now appears in DK’s companion volume Marvel Year by Year (previously known as Marvel Chronicle).

As always, The Marvel Encyclopedia is your best bet for having thousands and thousands of Marvel “facts” at your fingertips. Only Marvel’s own Marvel Handbook project (sadly, seemingly currently in limbo) is better for hardcore data gathering. I keep a copy of the current volume (and similar books) within an arm’s reach of my desk. Not a week goes by when I don’t have to look up something like the first appearance of Groot (Tales to Astonish #13, November 1960 — are you surprised?) or the Hood’s occupation (Criminal Mastermind — is there a degree for that?) or what color eyes the Silver Surfer has. (Silver. Duh.) Of course, you might want to look up something more important than I usually do. (The publisher provided a review copy.)

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Young Romance 2: The Best of Simon & Kirby Romance Comics

The first Young Romance volume must have done well, because here’s another collection of classic love stories by masters of the comic medium Joe Simon and Jack Kirby.

In contrast to that volume, which ranged more widely across years and titles, this one more closely approaches chronological coverage. The reprints here come from Young Romance #1-10 (with the exception of stories included in the first book) and Young Love #1-2, published from 1947-1949. A thorough introduction by comic historian Bill Schelly covers the history of the pair’s work with the genre, in case you missed the first book, as well as the cultural context of many of the stories included.

As before, I enjoyed reading these stories. While expected behavior of a “good girl” may be a lot different these days, the impulses to risk everything for love or disobey parents who just don’t understand are universal. The stories are dense — with intent, with events happening quickly, with full panels that establish setting and background and costume, because all that is so important to getting caught up in these stories of women who only want to find love.

For instance, Toni, the “pick-up” of the first story, chafes at the overprotection of the grandmother she lives with (and the grandmother looks like she’s 80, not today’s active, youthful women). Toni makes over an old dress of her mother’s, hits the sidewalks, and is soon being driven around by a well-off young man. Yet she doesn’t pay enough attention to his refusal to meet her guardian (a poor sign of character) until the night the roadhouse they’re visiting gets raided and he bails without her. One of the gambling gangsters saves her. It turns out his background is similar to hers, and they hit it off. Still, it’s not doing her reputation any favors, so he leaves her for her own good, until she accidentally runs into him later, reformed and working at his own gas station. Where this would be a six-issue spectacular (at least) in the current market — if romance comics were even published today — here, it’s all of 13 pages. With all the twists and turns, it’s a thrilling read, complete with happy ending.

Other stories feature a factory worker dreaming of meeting the boss; a girl struggling to escape her lower-class slum but held back by her father’s ignorance; a woman dating her husband’s best friend while he was serving in the military; a girl with overly high standards who never gets a second date; a small-town schoolteacher who struggles with snobbery when she’s tempted to date a local farmer; a gold digger the boys decide to teach a lesson; a war bride who finds herself in unusual circumstances when she quickly becomes a widow; and a man tempted to steal to give his wife the treats he thinks she deserves. And that’s only half the book! As you can see, there’s a huge diversity of topics and types, although underneath it all, there’s a distinct understanding of class distinctions and cultural pressures.

The stories can be quite wordy, as they’re trying to pack a lot of background and motivation into relatively short spaces. It’s a tribute to Jack Kirby’s skill that the images, even when crammed into half the panel space, are so striking and evocative. The text, meanwhile, is full of flavor, setting a deeply emotional, almost melodramatic mood. Some of the plots, like the one about the girl trying to go straight after getting out of prison or another with two dancing sisters where one wants to leave the stage and settle down but can’t disappoint her sibling, reminded me of movies from the era. I’m sure that other pop culture we don’t know about or don’t recall had some effect on these stories, as they were putting out a lot of them quickly. (The publisher provided a review copy.)

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Nijigahara Holograph

Continuing Fantagraphics’ program of bringing notable manga to English in deluxe presentations — titles so far include important historical shojo The Heart of Thomas and Moto Hagio’s Drunken Dream as well as the cross-gender series Wandering Son — their newest release is Nijigahara Holograph.

Author Inio Asano isn’t new to U.S. readers; his previous works Solanin and What a Wonderful World! were released by Viz four years ago. Nijigahara Holograph has the same strong focus on character, but with much more emphasis on the creepy and violently destructive.

The 300-page, single-volume hardcover is larger than most manga and allows the reader to sink into the world in one setting. I admit, I’m having trouble describing what it’s about, because I’m not sure I comprehend everything the author is showing us, but I found it compelling and involving nonetheless. The reader must be willing to engage with the work, interpreting the gorgeously drawn, detailed images, and must be comfortable with uncertainty and implication. The recurring butterfly motif, for example, suggests that the flying creatures may be symbols of life or souls or indicators of transitions or significant moments of change.

Early on, a boy sits by his unconscious father’s hospital bedside, before discussing dreams with another patient:

It makes me wonder if what I’m seeing now isn’t really just a dream. Each day, the dreams become more and more real. And yet… in the end… you wake up, and you are yourself. Isn’t that the way it always is?

I found that passage important and useful to keep in mind for the rest of the book. There are two time periods covered. The first is a flashback to the characters in the same class as children, 11 years ago. One girl is bullied into a coma after she’s pushed down a well by the others. They’re afraid of the story she was telling about a monster in a bridge tunnel. The children are cruel, taunting a larger boy to jump out a window and threatening and even attacking each other.

A new student has just arrived after time in the hospital, after he’d previously tried to jump off the roof. The teacher has even been injured, with a bandage over one eye. She’s given up on trying to stop the bullying, although she despises herself for feeling that way.

These chapters alternate with scenes of the characters more “grown up”. They’re still as uncertain, though, and even more violent. The teacher is getting divorced. One of the students is studying art, although her paintings are undistinguished. Another seems to have become a psychopath — or maybe he always was — lying without effort to others. There’s child abuse and murder and rape, all told in a dreamy, remote fashion, all stemming from selfish bullying.

These events and images are suggestive as much as denotative. The complex, multi-layered storytelling rewards attention. I found the book worth reading, but I’d find it even more so if there was a book group I could discuss it with, to be sure what I interpreted and help me hook up more of the connections. I was left thinking about isolation and the need to belong and how much childhood traumas could shape the adults they became.

The publisher has posted preview pages. Sarah Horrocks has written two insightful analyses of the book, one on the nature of memory and the other on the use of violence. (The publisher provided a review copy.)

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DayBlack #1-2

DayBlack promo image

DayBlack by Keef Cross is a distinctively designed digital comic with a similarly unusual premise. A slave, picking cotton, is set upon by a vampire and turned. Now, Merce is a tattoo artist in small-town Georgia, a profession that allows him to drain blood while injecting ink. Also, the town is so polluted that the sky is always dark, perfect for his condition.

Cross’ comic isn’t paneled in the typical fashion; instead, he captions his strongly designed, often full-page, images, mostly with his character’s internal monologue. You can see sample pages that demonstrate the technique at this CBR review. He’s a tattoo artist, which likely influences the use of strong central images, as well as showing he knows what he’s writing about.

The first issue (released in January) is all about setting up the premise and spelling out some of the vampire rules for this character. Issue #2 (March) gives us the conflict: Merce is having disturbing dreams, flashbacks to his mother, and he’s developed a form of narcolepsy, falling asleep during his work. We also meet Mya, a fellow tattoist and co-worker.

The series is interesting for being so different, with influences far afield from the usual comic artist. I don’t know that I’m that interested in what’s going on with Merce, but I found the stories of the various tattoo customers intriguing, if frequently disturbing. The series is bi-monthly, with the next issue due in May. You can buy issues from the publisher’s website.

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The Amateur Astronomer’s Journal

The Amateur Astronomer's Journal cover

Neil Slorance has put together a short, single-issue story about a home computer worker taking the night off to go look at the stars. It’s charming in its tone and straightforward about the need to stay in touch with the wider world. She — although the figure is simplified and almost gender-neutral, so I might be assuming — uses her father’s telescope and ponders her place in the greater world, reminding us of the importance of perspective and family.

The style, as I mentioned above, is focused on the basics. The lead is cute, almost like a moving Fisher-Price figure (remember the farm or the schoolhouse, with the little wooden round-headed people?). It allows for a universality that’s welcoming. I sympathize with her frustration, about having more to do than she can manage, and I wonder if I should try something like her solution. Either way, reading this comic gave me a moment to pause and relax.

There are also some actual astronomy facts included, in case you’d like to know more about how star-watching works. You can buy the comic from Slorance’s website, where he’s also posted comic samples that demonstrate his style. (The artist provided a digital review copy.)

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