Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Virgin Comics Closes Down: Still No One Gets It

The last two days poor Dirk Deppey's blood pressure must be going though the roof over at the comics journal. With the closing of Virgin Comics' New York offices, we've watched yet another comics company implode and all for many of the same reasons. Dirk has one of his best rants in ages of why it didn't work:
Lots of books that I think are badly executed nonetheless find readers (see: Marvel’s Civil War). The question is, can they find the market where such readers might be available? I argued yesterday that because Virgin’s outreach seems to have been restricted to the Wednesday Crowd, the answer was effectively “No.”
and the truth, as they used to say in the 90's, was out there. I don't recall seeing a single Virgin TPB at any of the stores that I go into. They were playing to a calcified audience, one that is simply too locked into prior patterns to want or to be able to support the new.

And that is their perogative. I'm all about comics audiences voting with their money, as for years they supported bad series and poor editorial choices because they had to have a complete run of Black Goliath and Night Nurse.

The problem is that the business model really is broken to get new work in front of new eyes. Not, and lets be clear here, old work in front of new eyes, or new work in front of old eyes. The powers that be have every intention, we know by now, of sitting on thier butts and staying with what isn't working until they're forced out on the street.

And yet the new business model is working. Jeff Smith didn't get to where he is by doing Spider man before doing Bone. The manga audience has come in droves for what American publishers were sure they wouldn't buy. Diary of a Wimpy Kid has only moved a few copies since being picked up off of the web.

There you go, three different business models to follow, and the powers that be in marvel and DC aren't doing any of them. Scholastic has an entirely different distribution model, manga digests are filling the shelves in Borders and B & N, and the web is filled with tiny little pockets of coolness that can prove the effectiveness of micropayments.

The answer here, with all of Virgin's money, is to simply not go the Marvel/DC route. Don't try to compete with that universe. The audience won't accept it, period. Cross Gen and Virgin simply bare this out. There was solid talent here, putting in time and money to create books that were halfway between something alternative and Marvel/DC. And that space is clearly NOT a good place to be.

When i was in Paris a month ago, in a Virgin Megastore on the most famous boulevard in the fabled city of lights, I went to the top floor and found a huge area of graphic novels. And in the middle of the day were all sorts of professional adults, on lunch hour, lounging, browsing and reading graphic novels. The vast majority would have separated well into the similar catagories that we stuff movies into at the video store: Adventure, romance, comedy, adult, a little fantastic history or sci fi, but then again, thats the whole point. There was a huge range of graphic novel for everyone, just as even the tiniest video store is filled with something for everyone. My average comic shop can't say that, almost none of them can.

And I can recall seeing pretty much none of Virgin Comic's work in the Paris Megastore. Why? Can't guess, but if I was Richard Branson, I'd have made sure that some of it was there. Unless comics mean a lot more to us than Richard Branson.

Friday, August 22, 2008

New Artwork for August

Not a whole lot to say, some new artwork to look at. Inspired by the paperback book covers of the 1950s. Click for a larger version!

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

In Review Of: the Starman Omnibus

I've already called Starman The Great American Comic Book of the '90's, but haven't gone into much detail as to why I think that it deserves its title. The release of the Starman Omnibus #1 is a great reason to revisit the series and do a little dissection of the Robinson and Harris' creation. We also get to take a look at the Omnibus format as well.

In a prior post on the Kirby 4th World Omnibus, I commented on the paper and its quality, perhaps calling it a bit too light. While commenting on paper may put me in the "oh come on" catagory, it does have a lot to do with how it takes the color, and I think that I actually like this weight. I bears the very saturated colors of the Starman series as well as the older color style of the Jimmy Olsens.

And make no mistake, the colors of Starman look very much like the 1990s, which is not a knock on the series, but a compliment. The series has its own individual look, with distinctive Harris and Von Grawbadger artwork through the entire volume, with only two "Times Past" exceptions.

What is shocking is the quality in the early issues of how bad the reproduction is, particularly the black plate. There are entire pages that muddy up and word balloons that are either dropping out completely or have letters closing up. Its shocking really. So here is the conundrum: if the initial scans of the pages, because this is as far back as 1995 we're talk8ing about here, as really that shitty, do you not take the time to reletter the balloons for what is a true archival project, or do you leave it "as is" so that the archiving keeps the production errors as well as the charm of the growing young artist? I hate to say it, but the Sandman editions get it right. If there is a coloring error, or a balloon that you can't read, fix it for the premium editions. Get it right for posterity.

And this series is worth keeping for posterity. Robinson tackles our assumptions about superheroes and turns them on their ear more than once. But he also tackles thornier issues that resonate at a higher emotional level than "what happened to Solomon Grundy". Issues like fathers and sons and brothers and love and family and faith and redemption and he doesn't derail the cool comics concepts like Merritt's soul stealing poster, or the succubus circus or the new Mist. Somehow, inside what Robinson mentions as not an always harmonious working relationship with Tony Harris, was the making of a classic story, comic or not. I prefer to think that the sparks the exist between creators may not make for the easiest relationship, but they can certainly take the collaboration to new levels by playing off one another.

Robinson ties everything up neatly by the end of the series, much is the same way that Neil Gaiman was able to over in Sandman, and it makes for a great read. Unlike the endless saga of open ended cliffhangers that Claremont did for a solid 10 years of X-men, everything here means something. And while I still insist that he stretches far too much for the connection of Will Payton and the King Gavyn Starman (and in a classic comics touch, he even writes a scene de facto admitting that it can't all be shoehorned into position, no matter the size of the shoehorn, as Will tells his sister Sadie, "Its all pretty fuzzy."), is that really the point of the series?

But I'm getting ahead of myself. That scene wouldn't happen for years later in the comic. Here, we're treated to the storytelling conceit of a writer taking 5 issues to show a single day from five differnt players in the Opal City crime wave. And it works. Not totally, completely, in a flawless way, but it works, ocassionally bumpy narrative and all when read together, and it makes for a powerful canvas to continue the rest of the story of the Mist's first crime wave on.

Bottom line: great project, a dream to have on the bookshelf. I'll be getting more of the Omnibuses as they ship in the Starman series. A great collection of a classic series.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Critics vs Creators: Bring it on!

Noah Berlatsky has an interesting blog post on the role of the critic that he titles Critics Vs Creators, responding to cartoonist Scott Kurtz, who has a bit of a manifesto going. I quote a bit below:
All of the progress I’ve made in my work, be it writing or art, was accomplished through getting it wrong the first time. My father always told me that the first brush stroke will never be perfect. There’s only so much you can learn from reading books on writing or art theory. You have to create and get your hands dirty and see what works. You have to take risks and you have to fail.
Noah responds in a point by point refutation that is, given that we are talking about blogging here, both well reasoned and well crafted. So why the hell am I chiming in on this you might ask. Good question. I'll try to answer that.

Noah responds right off to what he calls the "artist as tragic hero" which, I hate to say, is not something that I really see in Scott's post. I do see artist as "defensive creator" which I recognize as I've been there myself many times, but not tragic hero. It is a sad fact, and the underground classic book "Art & Fear" addresses this many times over, that most artists talk themselves out of ever even failing. You do need the arrogance to put that pen/pencil/brush to paper and get that first line wrong a million times so that it eventually becomes right. Most artists can't get themselves to that point.

I do think that most artists don't want some sort of criticism, because you're usually criticising decisions that they agonized over making, but that most artists NEED some crit, even if they pout, yell, and are generally assholes about getting it. The finished piece is the finished piece, and the best critique can't change that fact. But it can change the next piece, the next two pieces, the next ten.

Thematically as well, most artists are very good about being able to justify what they do and why they do it, but they generally are so far inside their own head that they don't see the sub-conscious themes, the inadvertant stuff that comes out during the creative process. The "public" is usually able to see that far better than the "too close to the work" artist. Artists typically do want an audience, but I'm not too sure that they all want to please that audience. In fact, there are as many reasons that people do art as art itself, so challenging the viewer and eliciting that negative is just as valid as doing something very pleasing and generating the positive. Art is about communication, as Noah points out, but who the hell knows what is being communicated? Personally, as much as I love comics, I can't take one more indy "Oh look, I love porn" autobio mini comic.

[The criticism leveled at the work also always has a measure of the reviewer as well, and that is something that you have to take into account. I know that there are certain movie critics that don't like science fiction, so I'll be damned if I going to listen to what they have to say about "Clone Wars". Know your sources if you're the audience. Wait, come to think of it, do I really need someone to tell me anything about "Clone Wars"?]

Certainly being a webcomic artist is daunting because you can pretty much get hit by anyone in the world with their opinion. And it may make your day or totally piss you off. For Scott to write "Ultimately, we can’t chart our course based on what our readership or critics thinks is working. We have to go with our gut." Is both true and not true. Yes, you can go with your gut and do the work that you want, but no one may want to ever read the thing. If you're trying to get readership, then hell yes, listen to your audience, because they will vote with their wallets and clicks and that, friends, is how you actually make money.

No whining allowed.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Graphic Novel Master Class: Ariel Schrag

While just getting into the mode for working on the first story The Carnival: The Human Hourglass, I received a flyer for SF's Intersection for the Arts doing a number of graphic novel/comic related pieces in the month of May. While busy, I signed up for Ariel Schrag's Graphic Novel Master Class because, while my work is nothing like hers, I wanted to see other approaches apart from my own experience inside the "mainstream" comics world.

It was an interesting evening, and I did get some new ideas out of it. It must have been tough to go into the class for Schrag, not knowing exactly what level of students she would have, their backgrounds, their ambitions, their skill level. Certainly the intro discussions of materials were the most interesting, but I'm sure that someone ran out the art store the very next day to find these new fangled "rapidiographs", so you do have to cover all your bases.

Schrag's four graphic novels run directly in the alternative comics spectrum, falling as neatly into that catagory from just about every angle: autobiographical, a looseness in art that could be either brilliant or sloppy depending on your attitude, and less concerned with so many of the technical points in terms of lettering and straight borders.

What I found most interesting was almost a dislike for "craft", along the same lines as beat poet Ginsberg railing about editors and needing to get it all down straight from his brain. Why take away the reality from what you're doing? There may be a point to that, but I found myself disagreeing with it to a point. What we've ended up with, in many cases, is the alternacomic confessional, one that wallows in "what porn do I like, how bad am I to my girlfriend, what dreams have I had, how many times a day do I masturbate". Very little great literature has been created solely in the autobiographical sense.

And yet the artist that avoids learning the craft of fiction never is going to move beyond those particular themes. "But they're real!" is the usual defense, and, true, they are. But that doesn't make them good.

Certainly, the best of the artists that Schrag uses as her examples are counter to the high speed DIY ethos that many in the class would subscribe to: Speigelman, Ware, Pekar, Sacco all have a great deal more craft that a Joe Matt. Spiegelman famously spend up to a month a panel on Maus, editing and editing til what was left was a masterpiece in pictoral literature.

All in all, it was an evening well spent, apart from the photocopier breaking down and not reproducing the jam comics that we knocked out as a class that night.

Saturday, August 02, 2008

A Bizarre Business Plan Pt. II

Pop Quiz: What do you need to get to the true value of art?

Give up?

Two people. Two people who want the same piece and you get to see what both of them are willing to spend.

I keep harping about original art since it happens to be a love of mine, so you'll have to bear with me on this one.

One thing that has driven me mad, besides being priced out of an art market that I felt a part of, hell, that I helped drive, is a single strategy of many of the art dealers. I've noticed it now for a number of years and just have to point it out: many of them took pieces of art, primarily covers and splashes, and years ago put extremely high price tags on them. OK, fair enough, try to see what the going rate is for the art.

And they didn't sell.

And they brought back the same pieces, and have been bringing back the same pieces, year after year, and raising the prices again and again. Case in point: when an old Master of Kung Fu cover was really worth about $2K, they were asking for $4K. Now, a good bronze age cover is probably worth that $4K if its a good Kane or Cockrum or Romita piece but a B or C level character, but they're asking $7K now.

Perhaps I'm missing the ppoint here, but isn't the business plan to turn your inventory? What good is it to continually hold on to the pieces, not sell them because you're well beyond what any single one of your customers is willing to spend? Does it help with other business? Why not get the cash to invest in other pieces? I'm seeing the same pieces from some dealers going on 8 or 9 years now.

And you don't have two people who want those pieces at those prices. You don't even have one person at those prices.

Albert Moy has always been on the high end of the art dealers, but give him credit. When he moved a single page for $7K, it was a Steranko splash, not simply a cover hacked out by the Romita Raiders with some slapdash inks on it. The fact that he has had original Byrne/Austin pages from the X-men at his booth speaks well about his connections and the quality of the art that he carries. I may not have been able to buy much from him over the years, but I've found a few things that I couldn't live without. He has turned up with some pretty rare stuff on occasion, like the majority of the Clayface issues of Detective by Rogers and Giordano. Where they've been hiding all these years, no one knows except for Albert.

But I digress. Given that the New York Times is running articles on the value of comic art, I feel vindicated by my love of the work, since now many other people are clearly catching on to what I always knew. And I also feel sad, knowing that my days of being able to find some of the work that I would love to get are long since past. The older pieces that I would love to have are either going to simply trade hands among the private collectors, or will come up for dollar amounts that I will certainly never expect to be able to pay.

And some of the damn pieces are still just sitting there, in the same dealer's portfolios, year after year, as opposed to going to a good home. Don't these people need cash to live or buy new art to sell? Like I said, a bizarre business plan.