*On the Books: A Graphic Tale of Working Woes at NYC’s Strand Bookstore — Recommended

Now that I’m living in Madison, Wisconsin, with its progressive history and more recent union-busting legislation (and the subsequent protests, which included a failed election to recall Governor Scott Walker, legislators fleeing the state to avoid a vote, and thousands of people occupying the State Capitol), I’m more aware of labor disputes and the complicated history of worker/management relations. So I was fascinated to discover this graphic novel retelling, as the back cover has it, “the 2012 labor struggle at NYC’s legendary Strand Bookstore” from Microcosm Publishing.

At the time of this telling, the Strand had 152 unionized workers and about 30 non-union managers. Contract renewal negotiations began in September 2011, until the union rejected the business’s “final offer” in April 2012. Although reportedly doing well, the store’s justification was increased competition and a poor economy. That led to a May Day strike.

Author Greg Farrell worked at the store during this time, but he doesn’t just rely on his own impressions. The opinions of co-workers — drawn to disguise them, whether as a dolphin, dog, masked wrestler, or taco — are frequently presented between chapters, providing a fuller portrait of the diversity of approaches.

There’s a brief history of unionization early on, focused on this particular organization, but the union isn’t presented as an unvarnished good guy. There’s a section on many things they’d done wrong. I found the discussion of the problems of a two-tier system particularly informative, where older employees get to keep more benefits but new hires are brought in with a worse deal.

The assistance of outside supporters is also shown as a mixed bag, without enough coordination at times. This is my favorite kind of visual reporting, where the author clearly has a point of view, but he’s trying to cover all sides as well. There’s also an interesting short section on the collectibles business and how it’s changed over the years as physical objects became less interesting and online retail grew. I also liked that Farrell takes several pages to explore his concerns about putting out these comics and how they might affect his job and his relationships with his co-workers.

Artistically, the presentation is basic and straightforward. Most pages are a six-panel grid, and most panels have an image with narration text running in the top third. That makes it easy to read and understandable to those who may not be as familiar with the comic format. However, instead of relying primarily on the text, Farrell does creative things with the images, often exaggerating metaphors to put across his ideas more memorably. For instance, as he illustrates his time working at the store, a series of figures shows rattier-looking clothes and more aches and pains (shown by tiny stars and body language). This is some subtly talented cartooning.

It’s a very timely story, given how many young people are currently underemployed in our economy, and these struggles are the kind every intelligent person should be aware of. I was reminded of how important good bookstores are, and that the quality of the store is based on the knowledge of the people that work there.

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Alex as Well

Out in early 2015 is this fascinating young adult novel dealing with the issues of being transgender and intersex.

Alex appears to be a boy, but she’s determined that she should really be a girl. When she decides to go public, attending a different school while dressing as female, her family falls apart, revealing a secret that’s been kept from her her whole life.

The book is told mostly in internal monologue, giving the reader a good impression of the 14-year-old Alex’s worries and feelings. The two Alexes speak to each other in their head, expressing the different pressures and reactions of the main character.

One caveat is that it’s not entirely clear at first that this is set in Australia. While teen culture is much the same all over, there are some specifics that may be confusing, particularly about the foster care system.

There are also some strange elements relating to the mother, who in interspersed chapters goes to a parenting website to gain support for her (often poorly chosen) actions. I found those sections darkly funny, although it requires some knowledgeable reading to gather that it’s not being presented as admirable. It’s a good portrait of how the same elements can be interpreted in radically different fashion from different perspectives.

With the topic of gender dysphoria now seen more often in the news and elsewhere, it’s about time there’s a novel that explores the nature of identity as it relates to a teen just wanting to find her own place in the world. (The publisher provided an advance digital review copy.)

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Sherlock Bones Book 7

The series comes to an abrupt end in this final volume of Sherlock Bones.

Book 7 starts by wrapping up the plastic surgery case from Book 6 with help from friend and journalist-in-training Miki. I wish we’d seen more of her work, but she’s treated like an information source, a way to explain Takeru getting certain bits of data without having to pound the pavement himself.

As usual, the detective team with dog doesn’t do much deduction — instead, they hypothetize and then find proof for their assumptions. The driving impulse is to confront the murderer with enough evidence that he confesses (a strategy I’m told is typical of Japanese crime investigation). That’s the standard wrap up to these stories, with Takeru and the criminal playing verbal ping-pong with bits of evidence and contradiction until the bad guy gives up.

There are two more cases in this final volume, making it jam-packed with crime. The first focuses on former classmate Nanami, who’s become a policewoman. She’s working the traffic beat with an older mentor when she’s framed for causing an accident. The few chapters are also an indictment of texting while driving.

The last case, an abbreviated one, involves a murdered actor, but the real drama comes when Takeru’s partner becomes suspicious of why he’s bringing a dog everywhere. He says, “I notice that every time you make any astute observation, it’s after that dog barks or makes some other sound.” Amusingly, the partner goes on to assume that Takeru isn’t smart enough to make the successes he’s achieved, so the dog must be of genius level. Sherdog will magically become just another puppy if he’s discovered, so Takeru has to tackle this one on his own.

The final, rushed chapter explains what’s going on with Sherdog and throws in plenty of fanservice on top. (Particularly Takeru’s well-built sister, who rushes in strangely wearing a shirt that says “Interrupting Boobs” all over it.) There’s a substantial setup for a historical mystery, dealing with Sherdog’s origin, but it will never be resolved, as there’s a brief author’s note at the end mentioning that “Sherlock Bones had to get put on hiatus” and hoping that there’s opportunity for a sequel some day. I don’t know what the circumstances there were, but I’m guessing low sales or better opportunity elsewhere for one of the creators. At least everything wraps up reasonably well.

Fantagraphics Makes a Virtue of Selling Direct

Fantagraphics has announced a new “micro imprint”, Fantagraphics Underground Press, charmingly to be known as FU Press.

It will publish books they describe as “appealing to a smaller, more rarefied readership”, but reading between the lines, it’s a designation for works that won’t be offered to every comic shop through Diamond or other distributors. Instead, they’ll “print limited editions (between 100 and 500 copies), market them on our website, help arrange signings and convention appearances, and sell them at comic festivals and to a select few comics shops across North America.” So, convention exclusives, then, or direct through their web shop.

The projects do sound interesting. They’re described as “everything from a traditional digital-offset paperback to a hand-sewn jacketed softcover to an epic accordion book; as projects demand, we can utilize silkscreen or letterpress, or any combination, and create truly artisanal books… by relatively unknown cartoonists that [are] innovative, quirky, idiosyncratic, oddball, experimental, or downright crazy.” If there’s a focus on craft works, books that have to be seen to demonstrate the quality or uniqueness of their presentation, that’s another reason to limit them to selling by hand.

The Emperor's New Clothes by Jonah Kinigstein

They’re also looking at “work by established cartoonists that’s simply off-kilter or too obscure to sustain a mass market release, or archival work by significant cartoonists who have been overlooked and that might otherwise be short-shrifted due to the commercial demands of the traditional marketplace.” The first two FU books will debut at tomorrow’s Small Press Expo. No word on pricing.

Jonah Kinigstein’s The Emperor’s New Clothes: The Tower of Babel in the “Art” World is an 80-page oversized landscape-format softcover collecting Kinigstein’s political cartoons inveighing against the trends of abstract and modern art through the 20th century. Meticulously rendered in pen and ink in the tradition of George Townshend and James Gilray, the elaborate compositions skewer artists, curators, and critics.

Jason Karns’ Fukitor is an attack of a different kind: reprinted from the artist’s self-published zine, the book is a 144-page compilation of full-color comics that reside uneasily between a straight and satirical response to the violence, xenophobia, and sexual and racial stereotypes found in pop culture.

Future projects include portfolios of drawings by Richard Sala and Guy Colwell and a reprint of seminal underground/alternative cartoonist George Metzger’s Beyond Time and Again.

I remember, way back in the day, comic shop owners getting livid over publishers selling direct to customers at shows, with Fantagraphics often coming in for the lion’s share of the criticism. Now, with such diversity of product and a better understanding of different audiences and different venues, that attitude seems so quaint.

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Different Digital Strategies for Valiant, Action Lab

The acquisition of ComiXology by Amazon has caused a number of publishers to rethink their digital strategy. For some reason, a near monopoly of the digital comic distribution market seemed ok when the company was independent, but once a huge competitor snapped them up, publishers started checking out alternatives.

Valiant logo

Valiant, for instance, has taken on a strategy of selling through as many venues as they can, announcing last month that their digital issues would now be available on iVerse’s ComicsPlus app (which also has an edition to make the comics available to library patrons), DriveThruComics.com (which sells DRM-free PDFs), and Madefire, as well as ComiXology. Each makes new Valiant comics available day-and-date as well as carrying back issues.

Action Lab, on the other hand, stuck with ComiXology but went for sale pricing and digital-first releases. They’re planning to release their entire catalog of issues digitally and DRM-free the same time they’re offered in Previews. For the first two weeks, issues will be priced at only 99 cents, then go to $1.99. So if you’re interested in ordering an Action Lab series from a comic shop, you can buy the same comic digitally to be sure you want the print version.

Of course, the question then becomes whether the customer even needs the print version, or whether they’ll be happy sticking with the cheaper digital copy. At least customers will know that the comic is done, since it’s already for sale. I’m surprised I haven’t heard more people talking about this, since it’s something of a revolutionary strategy.

Boom! Sleepy Hollow Comic Preview

In advance of their Sleepy Hollow comic miniseries, due in October, Boom! Studios has put together some five-page comic short stories featuring the characters. The first is about Ichabod Crane and his time in battle, and the second focuses on Abbie’s sister Jenny Mills, the one that spent time in an asylum.

Boom! Sleepy Hollow comic

Boom! says “The shorts will eventually be collected into a printed version but are only available digitally for now.” These are written by Mike Johnson and illustrated by Matias Bergara, and they’re the first two of five planned. Follow the Boom! Tumblr to see the rest. The coming miniseries will be by Marguerite Bennett and Jorge Coelho.

SPX 2014 Badge Art by All-Star Creators

This year, instead of having a set of badges done by one creator, the SPX 2014 organizers have had various all-star creators each do one. Visit their Tumblr post to see the full set, with Attendees by Lynda Barry; Exhibitors by Charles Burns; Ignatz Nominees by Derf; Ignatz Winners by Ben Katchor; Staff by Jen Sorenson; VIPs by Tom Tomorrow; and Press by Shannon Wheeler. That last badge, as shown here, has something of a landmine on the back.

SPX 2014 Press badge by Shannon Wheeler

Click to enlarge, or if you can’t read it it says, “I do a blog no one reads and a podcast no one listens to. Can I have a free comic that takes years to make and is expensive to print?” Ouch! That certainly makes me think twice about taking a review copy from anyone at the show!

Chainmail Bikini a Planned Comic Anthology About Women Gamers

I hope this comes together as intended, because it sounds like a great project. Hazel Newlevant is organizing Chainmail Bikini, a planned comic anthology that “seeks to celebrate the experience of women as players, makers, and critics of gaming…. From videogames to tabletop role play to collectible card games, Chainmail Bikini will show that while women are not always the target market for gaming, they are a vital and thoroughly engaged part of it, and are eager to express their personal take on the medium.”

Chainmail Bikini

Submissions are open through October 15; to submit, follow the guidelines. Contributors so far include MK Reed, Molly Ostertag, Carey Pietsch, and many more.

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