See My SPX Panel: How Comics Get Reviewed

SPX 2014 panel: How Comics Get Reviewed

I hosted a panel at the Small Press Expo in September called “Pro Tips: How Comics Get Reviewed”. Brigid Alverson, Michael Cavna, Dan Kois, Heidi MacDonald, Douglas Wolk, and I talked about how to get coverage for comics and what editors and critics are looking for. Now, the SPX team have posted the panel video here, in case you’d like to see it:

*Displacement: A Travelogue — Recommended

Displacement is a followup to Lucy Knisley’s previous travelogue, An Age of License, but this time, instead of portraying a young woman starting her life, she tackles the end. She describes the difference like this: “That trip was about independence, sex, youth, and adventure. This trip is about patience, care, mortality, respect, sympathy, and love.”

Knisley accompanies her grandparents on a cruise for the elderly, and Displacement is her journal about taking care of them while they travel. In her introduction, she describes her feeling “loneliness … at hiding my own terror and heartbreak at my grandparents’ decline in health”. It’s something that will or is challenging many of us, and while the details can be scary, it’s reassuring to see others going through a similar struggle.

It’s a topic that more of us will have to deal with in coming years — one that Roz Chast addressed in the deservedly well-regarded Can’t We Talk about Something More Pleasant? — how to deal with aging loved ones. It’s not a topic previously tackled much in comics, and I’m glad, as the medium has expanded over the past few decades, to see it covered.

Knisley is in her late 20s, while her grandparents Phyllis and Allen are in their early 90s. They have issues with hearing and mobility, so she has mixed emotions about the trip — joy at the chance to spend more time with them, fear and frustration at what the details of taking care of them might involve. They’re both struggling with memory issues as well (the scariest aspect of getting older). Although Knisley has plenty of her own uncertainties, she feels driven to be the organized one in the face of her grands’ confusion at travel.

Like many adults, she doesn’t see them often enough to keep up with the details of their health. Instead, visiting every few years means they seem to have declined rapidly, since she’s comparing them with memories. At one point, she draws a looming monster labeled “the horror of age, infirmity, and death in a young person’s mind”, a perfect summation.

Knisley is extraordinarily talented at journal comics, with clean-line, attractive figures and a good eye for summing up moments in scattered illustrations. Her graphic novels avoid the paneled grid of standard comics for a more open page that I find welcoming and insightful, particularly when it comes to the variety of feelings involved.

Knisley’s grandfather previously wrote a memoir of his time in World War II as a pilot, and she interweaves excerpts of that document, with her own illustrations, as a counterpoint to their current journey. The incidents are familiar to anyone who’s heard soldiers’ stories, but she selects them well to balance the modern-day events. Although she’s there to help her confused grands, the situation itself is confusing to anyone, with a giant cruise ship effectively being a floating city holding 4,700 people.

The overall message, that caretaking for others is an incredibly difficult, exhausting task, should not be surprising, but Knisley’s well-selected details brings it home in sympathetic pain, fatigue, and loneliness. It’s horrific but important.

Displacement: A Travelogue can be preordered from your local comic shop with Diamond code DEC14 1508. It’s due out in February. There’s a preview at the publisher’s website. (The publisher provided an advance review copy.)

*Ooku: The Inner Chambers Book 10 — Recommended

Ooku: The Inner Chambers Book 10 feels like a final volume. The cover, a group shot with a white background, differs from the stark single-figure-against-black theme of the previous books in the series, and there’s an incredibly valuable extra included that wraps together many of the previous events. It’s a family tree showing all the shoguns and their key retainers that makes me want to reread the series, now that I better understand the relationships. I wish we’d seen this much earlier, to use as a reference, but I’m sure it was thought to reveal too much about upcoming twists.

I think Ooku: The Inner Chambers is still ongoing in Japan, so maybe I’m jumping to conclusions, but this book catches up with what’s been released there so far. Regardless, it’s wonderful that Viz has been so loyal to this series. It’s always been a difficult sale to English readers, since it’s an alternate-history fantasy steeped in Japanese knowledge. Americans in particular don’t have a good understanding of what it’s like to be part of a country with so many centuries of history behind it. (We only have two, and not even 50 leaders.) I’m sure the series reads differently to those who already had some idea of the various rulers being rewritten as secret women. For me, I know nothing about what will happen, keeping the leadership maneuvers fresh and surprising.

Ooku postulates a terribly vicious Redface Pox that kills only men. The result is a country where women take over, although they take male names, and the men are rare properties to be sheltered and protected. The ruling shogun has her own harem, kept in the Inner Chambers. The book tackles three main types of story: 1) the political machinations determining who will rule and what they will do; 2) the life of the men in the Ooku, with plots among them as they struggle for their own rankings; and 3) later in the series, the struggle to investigate and fight the illness.

That last plotline, which takes center stage in this book with important discoveries (another reason this volume has an air of finality), centers on Gennai, a talented investigator and creative thinker who travels the country disguised as a man so he can better find out more about how to treat this malady. His work contributes to the formation of a vaccination program, leading to the first real hope the country has had in fighting the pox.

I haven’t discussed the art, because anyone who knows the work of Fumi Yoshinaga knows how skilled she is. Her characters are beautifully delineated, with an elegance that comes through regardless of the many and varied emotions they demonstrate. Her storytelling, winding together all these various threads, from large-scale country-wide events to individual passions, is masterful.

Others have complained about the tone used for the translation, with the language given an aura of age with “thou”s and formal phrasing. I like it. It gives the reader a reminder of the historical nature of the events that fits with the formal costumes and imperial nature of the setting. It also suits the Shakespearean feel of some of the plots, as when family members love the same woman, leading to frustration from social rules, lovers kept apart, and eventually suicide.

Jealousy also drives a key event for Gennai, set upon and attacked a way that ruins the rest of his life. No one in these stories is ever truly happy. Restrictions and demands prevent most couples from staying together, and political plots lead to poisonings. Yet the country continues. Ooku: The Inner Chambers is an amazing series like nothing else out there, strongest in its insights into the universality of love and desire. I’m very glad to have read it.

Cleopatra in Space: Target Practice

Cleopatra in Space started as a webcomic, but when it was picked up for print publication, author Mike Maihack created a new story that explains the title heroine’s origin.

His design, as you can see from the characters on the cover, is cute and snappy, punctuated by Egyptian-themed futurism, and his work is full of action and movement, as though it was animated. Cleo is the historical going-to-be-queen of Egypt, but she chafes at her coming responsibilities and so welcomes being transported to the future.

A talking cat named Khensu helps her adjust to the academy where she’s sent to study. She’s prophesied to save the galaxy from a generic villain, but in the meantime, she’s a teen girl in school. She has trouble paying attention in all her classes except for the target practice one, because she loves action. She doesn’t want to sit and learn. She’s determined and spontaneous, with no fear of jumping into adventure.

There’s not a lot of substantial story in this volume. Instead, pages are filled with typical space-war background info dumps and good cartooning as we get to know the characters, including Cleo’s roommate and a techie fellow student. They’re fun to spend time with, and kids should love the light-hearted adventure.

A preview is available at the author’s website. A second book, The Thief and the Sword, will be out next spring. (The publisher provided a review copy.)

The Digital Distributor Monopoly May Be Over

DC Comics recently became available on the new iVerse ComicsPLUS app. This is an important marker of how ComiXology, now owned by Amazon, may no longer be the de facto monopoly digital distributor. It’s content that drives customers, and with one of the best-known American companies no longer exclusive, things may change even more in future.

ComicsPlus app

The new app also offers “graphic novel rental for one, two, or five days at prices lower than purchase, and the ability to import DRM-free prdoucts in ePub, PDF, CBR, and CBZ formats.” The rentals currently include publications from IDW, Archie, and Valiant.

Heidi reports that “Amazon recently started sending out renewal contracts to various publishers, and the terms are not as favorable as Comixology’s were — they are more like Amazon’s.” Which would explain why companies would be looking to change: cost and control.

Archie Flagship to Relaunch With Mark Waid as Writer

The New York Times has the scoop: Archie Comics is relaunching their flagship Archie title with a new #1 issue next year. (The most recent issue was #262.) They’re aiming for a “new look and an edgier tone”.

The effort is timed to celebrate the 75th anniversary of Archie, who was introduced in 1941, and coincides with plans for a television series on Fox and an apparel line from the fashion designer Marc Ecko.

Archie art by Fiona Staples

Good luck with the TV show — I think the problem with branding Archie is that the CW has already shown that you can do the “normal guy tempted by a nice girl and a rich girl” triangle perfectly well without having to license a character with baggage and fees. However, Greg Berlanti (the show runner behind comic book adaptations Arrow and The Flash) is working on Riverdale for Fox.

Company head Jon Goldwater said, in light of the revamp, “I found Archie to be dusty, irrelevant and watered-down. It has taken me a while to really wrap my hands around where we are as a brand.” He wants to keep Archie relevant while still “lighthearted and family-friendly”.

However, reportedly, sales are up. “Since 2008, bookstore sales have increased 736 percent, and direct-market sales, which include those in specialty stores like comic book shops, rose 226 percent, according to the publisher.” I’d like to have more detail about that — they may be referring to non-periodical formats, since the comic book numbers don’t match that statement. And so few of the core Riverdale comic book titles are left — just Archie monthly and Betty and Veronica less frequently. They publish more reprint books now, which would do better in the bookstores.

Creators of the new version of the series will be Mark Waid and Fiona Staples (her art above). Waid plans to have the kids act like kids, instead of goody-goody brands (my words, not his), which should be refreshing.

Update: Fiona Staples has stated on Twitter that she’s only penciling the first three issues.

You Have to Tell People Honestly What They’re Buying

I was pondering whether these links were too old to talk about now, when retailer Mike Sterling posted a related item and made everything current again. (Thanks, Mike!)

But first, some context. When you think about buying a comic, you probably assume that a reader is the customer. But in the comic store direct market, most all those pretty pieces of paper are sold non-returnably, so the actual customer of the publisher is the retailer/store owner. If something doesn’t sell, or if something can’t be sold, in most cases, they’re stuck with it. And if the retailer doesn’t commit to preordering a particular title from a publisher, it often won’t matter if customers would have purchased it.

(That’s why it’s difficult these days to find places to browse new and lesser-known titles — retailers don’t have a lot of incentives to take chances, for fear of them being stuck with something their customers don’t want to buy. And with publishers more often selling directly through websites or conventions, this isn’t the kiss of death it once was — although a lot of publishers haven’t really geared up their direct-to-end-customer marketing. But that’s all a different topic.)

One of the big tensions of this traditional comic market is thus the amount of information retailers are given by publishers so they can place accurate (for their store, their market, and their audience) preorders. Sometimes publishers just don’t know what’s going into a comic in two months. When we’re talking about the big commercial (which means superhero) publishers, though, they’re more tightly editorially controlled these days, so they can predict what the storylines will be.

The problem is that so many readers are looking at exactly the same ordering material as the retailers are. Retailers like it when their customers preorder, since that reduces their uncertainty. But to have them do that, they give them the Previews catalog (or an equivalent). There isn’t a retailer-only information channel, so retailers are often left unaware of why a publisher thinks a particular comic will be a big seller if that turns on a plot event (like a death) that the publisher doesn’t want to reveal early. The publisher can’t tell their actual customer because there’s no way to keep the information from going wide to the public.

That’s been an issue so long as the direct market has been around. But that’s not what I want to talk about here. (Long digression, huh?) What I want to point out is three examples of material where the publisher can and should have given retailers information that would definitely affect their ordering patterns, but chose not to.

First, let’s talk about a legal liability. Image Comics put out Humans #1 by Keenan Keller and Tom Neely last month. It’s meant to be a grindhouse-style biker-gang story with sex and violence, only starring apes instead of people. However, they went further than expected with, as Chicago retailer Tim Davis reports, “one of the ape-like female humans holding the erect penis of an ape-like partner, performing fellatio on it”.

Davis is right, that’s the kind of content that can get retailers arrested, in certain areas of the country, which puts them at risk for losing their store. And it’s the kind of content that should be indicated with more than a small “MR” (mature readers) note, since, again from Davis, “at least a quarter of my books have some sort of (MR) Mature Rating attached to them.” We’ve established that comics can be for adults, and no one’s suggesting that the book shouldn’t be published, but the creators should be honest and transparent about what they’re including in the book, since it went beyond the usual understanding of the MR term covers.

My second example isn’t as dangerous, but it’s a clear indication of bad marketing. DC Comics has been publishing stand-alone Wonder Woman stories by a variety of creators digitally and then collecting them in print as Sensation Comics. Many of these stories might appeal to the non-traditional superhero comic reader. However, with issue #3, DC put fun stories that look like this:

Wonder Woman and Catwoman by Amy Mebberson from Sensation Comics

Under a crappy, stereotypical, violent cover by Joe Prado and Ivan Reis that looks like this:

Sensation Comics #3 cover by Joe Prado and Ivan Reis

As Hibbs points out in his piece, titled “Why I Hate The Comics Industry, Part 8756412“:

SENSATION COMICS #3 is a pretty great comic — it’s the kind of comic you could give to a 10-year-old girl, or her 45-year-old hipster mother equally. It is kind of exactly the kind of WW comic that a whole swath of people really really want right now, because empowering but also really really cute. I can absolutely sell this comic to a LOT of folks.

Except for the barrier they put in my way…

This is the kind of cover pretty much designed to repel the people who would be interested in the insides of the comic, and the people for whom the cover is attractive would be APPALLED by the content on the inside.

This comic will get cancelled pretty soon — which is a damn shame because this is the kind of content that today’s new audience really wants — and someone somewhere will probably point to it as an example of why sweet, cartoony, empowering material doesn’t work. But they’re wrong, this is a failure of positioning and marketing.

Hibbs is right. You have to be consistent in your packaging. The cover should reflect the contents to find the right audience. Companies don’t think that’s important, though, since they’re relying so much on preorders. There is a potential new customer out there, though, who can be attracted by the right cover.

Justice League #36 LEGO variant cover

And in this title’s case, maybe also quit splitting two-chapter stories across two different issues, which just smacks of trying to force readers to come back.

My last example is the Sterling one I mentioned earlier, and it also features bad cover strategy from DC. Sterling has been seeing customer interest in the LEGO variant covers that ran on a bunch of books last month. As he says,

These customers saw Lego Superhero covers, wanted Lego Superhero comics, and were almost universally disappointed not to find any Lego content at all beneath said covers.

… this feels like a huge missed opportunity, particularly since many of the people attracted to these covers weren’t necessarily typical consumers of what DC and Marvel usually offer….

I’m hoping there will be some kind of comic book tie-in to the forthcoming Lego Batman movie, but I also hope DC and Lego don’t wait that long to capitalize on that desire from the funnybook-interested public, at least at my shop, for capes ‘n’ tights ‘n’ plastic brick adventures.

I’d like to read one of those, having enjoyed the cartoons.

Disney and Turner Classic Movies Team Up

There are a couple of things in this new Disney/Turner deal that I like the sound of.

Great Movie Ride presented by TCM

Disney is revamping its Great Movie Ride at Hollywood Studios in Walt Disney World with the help of Turner Classic Movies, which will get “Presented by” credits at the attraction.

TCM will periodically (four-five times a year) air a programming block called “Treasures From the Disney Vault” that will feature “vintage movies, cartoons, documentaries, and episodes of TV series like Disneyland and Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color”. Exciting! The first block airs the evening of December 21, with some classic Mickey Mouse and Chip and Dale cartoons; the pilot of Wonderful World of Color, featuring a preview of the upcoming Disneyland park; The Reluctant Dragon, a 1941 movie about how Disney Studios created their cartoons; and more.

The ride changes are due to debut in the first quarter of 2015. The introductory film and the ride finale clips will be updated (and good thing, since they’re long overdue), as well as adding footage of Robert Osborne, the voice and best-known host of TCM.




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