Archive for the ‘Essay’ Category

A Tale of Two “Spoilers”

December 31, 2015


WARNING: This essay contains no spoilers, but only because I don’t care.

Was 2015 the year of the spoiler? Aversion to any public discussion of plot details has been bubbling up since DVRs became commonplace and even more so once streaming services began releasing entire seasons of debut shows all at once. As a result of the two, or simply as a byproduct of the lessons learned from the Golden Age of Television, television dramas, and even comedies, became more serialized, meaning learning a plot detail could reveal secrets of multiple episodes or a whole season instead of just this week’s caper/case/folly.

But spoiler warnings became industrialized this year, with the release of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, highly competently directed and cowritten by a flesh-coated vessel of the Walt Disney Corporation. Reviews, even those from serious outlets, carried seemingly obligatory promises that they didn’t contain spoilers, and think pieces made sure to warn readers that they did. My Facebook and Twitter feeds filled with people bemoaning the possibility that some evil people somewhere might spoil The Force Awakens, followed by threats that they would either leave social media for a few days until they had seen the movie (mostly not actually carried out) or unfriend anyone who revealed plot details (carried out in at least some cases). Some claimed that even saying whether a person liked the movie or not constituted a spoiler. In what I hope was good humor, comics stores posted signs threatening to ban for life those who spilled plot details. They probably don’t do that if you shoplift or punch or grope someone, at least not the first time. (It is worth pointing out that the story of the person beaten up for shouting a spoiler in a movie theater was not real.) The whole thing was spoken of as though to reveal anything about the movie was an unforgivable crime, an act of violence against the poor nerds who had already suffered so much. Spoiler warnings somehow became trigger warnings.


The whole thing was so fervent and so universal as to feel unnatural, as if it were all part of the marketing campaign, the publicity teams at LucasArts and Disney expertly playing fans. As a friend pointed out, there is plenty of precedent, going back at least to Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, in which the marketing materials warned that no one would be let in late and implored viewers not to reveal the movie’s twists to anyone. In the era of social media, marketers have perfected making fans believe that such a thing is their idea, not something they’re being told. I never actually saw any Force Awakens spoilers, and while I didn’t go out of my way to find them, nor did I make any effort to avoid them. Other people I know did see some and dutifully unfriended the offenders, but none seemed as desolated by whatever details they had learned as they’d feared, just annoyed.

To be clear, I’d be annoyed too. If I know I’m seeing a movie, I prefer to go in knowing as little as possible to let the experience unfold before me with a minimum of prior expectation. I don’t tend to see trailers for movies I know I’m going to unless they show before another movie I’m at, and I save the reviews of my favorite critics to read after I watch. Surprises are fun, and I went to at least one movie this year knowing literally nothing about it other than that people I respect had raved.

So I understand all that. However, I cannot relate to the recent mania over spoilers, the apocalyptic manner in which the faithful spoke in panicked, hushed tones of their fears of The Force Awakens being “spoiled”—and how I hate that word, reducing the experience of a movie to its plot points, with the implication that foreknowledge of them ruins everything. If knowing a few plot details in advance ruins one’s enjoyment of a movie, then that enjoyment was taking place on a narrow register of what movies offer. Fandom, at its worst, is a fetishism of details over aesthetic, and it’s distressing to those who actually care about movies and other forms of storytelling.

A movie is so much more than its plot. At risk of being sent to editor jail, I’m not sure that I place plot in the top five of things I care about in a film story, not when there are voice, tone, theme, performances, dialogue, cinematography, rhythm, and so many other aesthetic elements to consider. All of these are dismissed when fans fixate on spoilers. I like a good plot, and some of my favorite movies have some of my favorite plots, but the majority of the movies I treasure, I do not primarily do so for the plot, for if plot were truly primary, there would be much less incentive to once again revisit something I had watched so many times before.

A plot, at its most basic level, is simply a device to make a story take place over a period of time, since we are not capable of experiencing the above list of aesthetic elements in a single instant. At the commercial art level, the plot exists to move the characters into place so that audiences are teased to return for the next installment. It is in the interest of a studio like Disney to make its Star Wars movies primarily about what happens next, as that is ultimately controllable, and it’s easier to keep fans in a state of anticipation by constantly emphasizing the next movie over the current one. More so than the films themselves, this is the innovation and the art of the Marvel movies.

Ironically when I saw the movie (disclaimer: for free) it didn’t contain a single surprise or unpredictable moment, with nearly everything that takes place obvious almost from the first act. That it so closely follows the beats of the original Star Wars is a factor, but everything is telegraphed anyway, and I doubt those who have never seen a Star Wars film before would have much difficulty guessing where the story is going. The more I think about it, the more clearly intentional that decision must have been, with the movie serving as a soothing pat on the head to those fans burned by the 1990s–2000s Star Wars trilogy. Those few elements that are genuinely new appeared only in vague “mystery box” form, all part of the tease for the new episode. The marketing machine has already geared up to insist that next time big, unpredictable things will happen, and maybe it’s true, maybe it isn’t.

And inevitably, fans who love the new movie do not do so primarily for the plot. Even its loudest defenders feel compelled to make excuses for its many repetitions, coincidences, and illogical turns. Instead, they are taken with its new characters, its action sequences, the nostalgic rush of its skillful callbacks (with attendant groans at its clunkier ones), and the unprecedented sight of a Star Wars movie composed entirely of good performances. Those who have seen it a second time mostly report enjoying it more on that subsequent viewing, despite knowing the entire plot in advance. While those who stumbled upon unwelcome plot details before their first viewing likely had their initial enjoyment diminished by a percentage point or two, I’m willing to bet that they got over it once they were sucked in, and for all of the time they spend with the movie in the future it will simply be a nonfactor.

Nor are the pleasures of the original Star Wars movies in their plots, but rather their themes, worlds, humor, busted-racecar aesthetic, and sometimes characters. This is not a condemnation of their plots, which are serviceable, but simply an acknowledgement that, like any other good movies, the Star Wars films are more than their plots. While The Empire Strikes Back contains a plot detail that has resulted in the most notorious spoiler of all time (with the possible exception of Citizen Kane’s “Rosebud,” although the entire point of that film’s MacGuffin was that it actually revealed nothing), it continues to be frequently rewatched after the cat’s been out of the bag for decades. I’m reminded of how I knew the twist in The Usual Suspects before I saw it and had a good time anyway, and how I didn’t know the twist of The Sixth Sense and had a bad time anyway.


In the course of my original social media rant about the all-consuming fear of spoilers, I invited people to spoil The Hateful Eight for me, as Quentin Tarantino’s films often have clever plotting, but hinge far more on visual moments and extended dialogue exchanges, things that can’t really be spoiled by someone letting a detail slip on Twitter. No one took me up, but it was quickly pointed out to me that The Hateful Eight contains a mystery with multiple suspects, and I wondered if I’d set a trap for myself. Yes, obviously I would prefer not to be told before seeing the movie which character would ultimately be unmasked. I felt generally confident that whether or not I enjoyed the movie wouldn’t turn on that alone, but maybe it would be central to the film after all.

As it turned out, Tarantino is Tarantino. A lot happens in the course of the movie’s three hours, and the mystery, such as it is, doesn’t feel very important. It takes up a relatively small portion of the film’s runtime and there’s only a single major clue, which is underlined in voiceover and which eliminates almost all the suspects in one fell swoop. The mystery was by far the least interesting part of the story, and it appears that Tarantino thought so too. After we learn the truth, there’s a flashback to events before everyone arrived at the inn and, even though we know exactly what’s going to happen and to whom, it’s riveting. Kind of like The Force Awakens, but to vastly different impact, as there’s unlikely to be a sequel, much of what’s most compelling in The Hateful Eight are the questions we never learn the answers to.

The Hateful Eight is a flawed movie that I had some issues with, but I enjoyed it more than Tarantino’s recent efforts, and it is considerably better than The Force Awakens. I am certain I’ll see it again to savor its dialogue, gorgeous cinematography, and hilarious and frightening performances, and will likely groan again at its excesses and confused politics, but I doubt I’ll spend any of those viewings searching for clues I missed the first time around, because they aren’t the point. I’m sure I’ll also end up seeing The Force Awakens again someday, as life is long and I’ve been lured to Star Wars movies by cute girls before, and if I’m feeling soft in the moment I may get lulled into its carefully calibrated simulation of playfulness and, like I did before, have a decent but not great time. I’m sure there will be some pleasure in the plot being already known rather than merely obvious.

We’ll have to wait until 2017 to see if the next Star Wars whips up this level of frenzy over spoilers. The fact that they ultimately didn’t matter much in the case of The Force Awakens will hopefully be taken into consideration, but Star Wars is a corporate product and the plot of the next movie will be highly speculated upon by fans and treated by Disney as supremely important, and the marketing team has an incentive to restoke those fires that played so much to their benefit this time around.


APE -1: Two new Bay Area Stores

October 2, 2011

I am once again in the Bay Area (readers who know where I live: please do not rob my house, thanks), this time half-and-half for comics and vacation. The ostensible reason for the trip is to finally attend the Alternative Press Expo, which I have been told for years that I need to do, though I’ve also spent a few days relaxing and spending time with family.

My initial plan said that APE would be enough comics-related activity for the week and that it might be nice when on vacation to spend some time away from the thing that I do for a living, but as is so often the case with the addict, I can’t really stay away. In addition to perusing the comics at the usual bookstore haunts—Moe’s, Pegasus, etc.—I unintentionally stumbled into Fantastic Comics, a new store in the old location of Comic Relief in downtown Berkeley. I didn’t realize a new store had taken over the space after Comic Relief closed, so curiosity pulled me in.

Fantastic Comics’ atmosphere is at once similar to and distinct from Comic Relief’s, with the same attention to cleanliness and brightness that made the previous store inviting, but with a clearly different stocking philosophy. Whereas Comic Relief’s focus was on functioning more like a bookstore than a Wednesday store, to the point that its comprehensive selection could be overwhelming, Fantastic Comics is organized more sparsely. The floor is spacious, making moving around easy and comfortable, and a few well-placed islands draw attention to a points of interest, such as new release books and selected small-press titles.

The space does still feel a bit like a work in progress, with a large portion of the floor closed off by tables and not visibly being used , but the part of the floor that is in use is done well. The various sections of the store are divided by format, so there’s a wall of bookshelf comics, a wall of recent stapled comics, and a wall of manga, with the islands filling in more specific niches. It’s a very simple principle, but one that makes browsing simple. The shelves had a good mix of large and small titles, with plenty of the new DC titles sitting alongside indie books.

Fantastic’s website promises “a friendly, knowledgable staff,” and while I didn’t test the “knowledgable” part, not looking for anything in particular, I can confirm the “friendly” part, as I had been walking around no more than a minute before I was asked cheerfully if I needed any help finding anything. And I wish the sign at the front counter letting customers know that staff can order books for them were a more common sight in other stores.

The most pleasant surprise of the entire visit was the in-store signing that was going on, taking advantage of the influx of artists for APE. At tables near the new-release stapled comics, with what I presume to be their convention banners behind them, were the great Richard Starkings of ComiCraft and Shane and Chris Houghton, creators of one of my favorite new comics, Reed Gunther. I’m not sure how planned-out the signing was (the store’s website doesn’t seem to mention it), but it had a jolly, informal feel, with Starkings and Chris Houghton sketching and all three happily chatting with fans and each other.

Overall, that genial informality feels like Fantastic Comics’ strength. The store seems focused more on a casual readership than the hardcore impulse that powered Comic Relief and felt like it’s probably a great Wednesday store, leading me to pick up this week’s Rachel Rising #2, one of my Wednesday comics that I otherwise would have waited until I returned home to pick up.

I seem to end up in the Bay Area every two years or so, so I look forward to seeing how the store’s grown next time around. The website also has a podcast, so I’m curious to try that out. The website generally could use a little work to keep it up to date and make it easier to navigate, but those are minor complaints when the store itself is so nice.

Doing a little research, I discovered another store that had recently opened in the area, Escapist Comics on Claremont Ave. in Oakland, not far from where I’m staying. Escapist’s website is very slick, with lots of information about the inventory and lots of events. It also reveals that the store in a way makes up the other half of the departed Comic Relief. Where Fantastic Comics has the old store’s location, Escapist Comics is made up in part of its inventory. Unable to resist a theme, I hopped the BART to see what had become of that half of Comic Relief.

One of the first things visible when coming up to the store is a spinner rack of dollar comics out on the sidewalk, which is both welcoming in the way that outdoor merchandise can be and a great mechanism to make passersby curious. Once inside there’s an instant familiarity, since so much of what Comic Relief was was its impressive stock and the near-obsessive subsectioning with which it was presented, both of which have made the move intact. It’s that detail that lends Escapist the same “comic bookstore” vibe that was Comic Relief’s calling card, though the vastly different physical space makes the actual feel more mom-and-pop.

Escapist’s storefront is actually very small, and the floor plan juts back into the building in a narrow corridor with a few nooks shooting off from it. If poorly lit the space would be claustrophobic, but the staff, who also largely come from Comic Relief (as do the store cats) know to keep everything bright, so the effect is instead of coziness. I was left to my own devices to browse, but my chat with the two guys at the register on my way out made it clear that, had I had any questions, they’d have been happily answered.

The placement of the stapled comics, including this week’s new ones, in the very back of the store underlines the focus on bookshelf comics, orienting the store more toward lengthy browsing sessions than Wednesday pop-ins. It’s the kind of place with a Kyle Baker section and a section of just comics reference books larger than many bookstores’ entire comics sections, the kind of store I’d go to if I needed a place that would almost certainly have some hard-to-find title I’d been looking for for some time. That makes it, like Comic Relief, more than accommodating to casual browsers but of true value to the hardcore. As it is, I left with a copy of Michael DeForge’s Lose #3.

Both stores carry out the general vision of Comic Relief by being the kind of place that non–comics readers can feel comfortable in and through a bright, friendly atmosphere that enjoys having customers in and doesn’t treat visitors as potential shoplifters (in neither store was I required to leave my bag at the desk). At the same time, it’s fascinating how the division of that mission statement into the physical locale of the old store and its people and merchandise results in two complimentary approaches. I think I’d be quite likely to visit both stores again on future trips to the area.

Classic Brendan: I took pictures in both stores, but didn’t bring the cable that connects my camera to my computer, so I’ll have to update with photos when I get home. UPDATED 10/4: Photos!

Forget it, Jake. It’s Comics.

August 15, 2011

It’s been a depressing time to care about comics. Between Warner Brothers and DC Entertainment fighting long and ugly to deny the heirs of Superman co-creator and writer Jerry Siegel money they are legally entitled to, Disney and Marvel Entertainment (boy, not as many companies with “Comics” in their name as there used to be) fighting long and dishonest to deny the heirs of Marvel universe co-creator Jack Kirby the money and credit they are morally (and perhaps legally) entitled to, Marvel’s hypocrisy in the wake of Gene Colan’s death, and surely even more things I’m forgetting, I can’t remember a time it’s been this hard to feel enthusiasm for this field that I’ve loved since I was 11 and which I later chose as my profession.

I’ve often referred to the treatment of Siegel and artist Joe Shuster over their creation of Superman as comics’ original sin, and it fits the bill, in that it’s not just a terrible injustice, but one that has loomed over the field ever since and still, over 70 years later, occasionally rears its head to bring us all back to that time. This has been on my mind since the release of Action Comics #900, when I noticed a caption thanking me for my “support” of the series. While I’ve no doubt that this copy was thoughtlessly inserted by an editor or assistant editor to mark the anniversary, not a call for me to support DC and Warner Bros., Superman’s current owners, in their fight against his creators, it nonetheless got me thinking, coming as it did during the increasing acrimony in that fight, about what I was supporting, and that’s what matters. Because I can’t do it anymore.

Back when I wrote about that, I said that I didn’t think I could read Superman comics anymore, but I wasn’t sure if I was really the type to call a boycott. Fortunately, someone with greater moral conviction than myself has done just that on a related matter. Following the recent summary judgement for Marvel against the Kirby estate, Steve Bissette put out a call to boycott all Marvel products derived from the massive portion of its holdings derived from creations or co-creations of Jack Kirby.

Why now? DC has been denying the Siegels and Shusters their due for years, and Marvel has systematically diminished Jack Kirby’s role in the creation of its empire while refusing his family any royalties for nearly as long. What is different today? Nothing, really, but we’ve had a wake up call. These legal cases have been fought at the same time, with the latest decisions in each (allowing Warner to use stolen documents in its case against the Siegels’ lawyer, the summary judgement against the Kirby Estate) so close together, during the same summer that three movies based on Kirby characters have been so successful. We should have been angry all along, and many were, but this summer has been a perfect storm, so it should come as no surprise, really.

I’ve been deeply heartened to see Bissette receive a good deal of attention, at least within the comics world, for his call to arms. In an environment where fans denounce the creators of their favorite characters as greedy leeches for asking for a fraction of their due, and when even major comics websites ridicule Alan Moore for his legitimate distrust of DC (most recently when he rejected the publisher’s offer to return him his rights to Watchmen so long as he agreed to make those rights worthless by ceding his authority over whether sequels should be made to DC), I admit I was far from confident that Bissette would receive any better treatment. The boycott is far from being a movement, but it has picked up more momentum than this sort of thing usually does.

At the same time, I’ve been saddened by the intelligent, thoughtful, moral people I know who don’t seem particularly troubled. The people, not much older than me, who tell me that creative fields always work this way, that the talent always gets screwed, that this is the way of the world and not worth missing an issue of Iron Man over. They think it’s a damn shame, but what can anyone do about it? Essentially: “Forget it, Brendan. It’s comics.”

I’m 27. I feel it when I talk to people. I’m on that precipice, around 30, when half the people who don’t feel like I do insist that I’ll grow up and become jaded and get that this is just how it is, while the other half wonder why I haven’t already, how I can still be so naive as to think it can be any other way. Hopefully I’ll continue to disappoint them.

I’ve been thankful the last few weeks for the knowledgeable people who have helped me understand what the actual cases are about. I got that in the case of the Siegels and Shusters the law changed in the 1970s and this was why they could try to reclaim Superman now, but I didn’t really know what the nature of the change was. Here’s my understanding now: When the Copyright Act of 1909 was passed the term of copyright was 28 years, renewable for another 28 years. The reason it wasn’t simply a single term of 56 years was to allow, in the case of copyright transference, for the original owner to renegotiate the deal when it was time to renew. This was a protection for the original owner if the creation they sold turned out to be worth much more than either party realized. However, buyers of copyrights began to include an automatic right of copyright renewal without renegotiation into contracts, defeating the purpose of the renewal. The Copyright Act of 1976 sought to correct this by making explicit the right to renegotiate or take back the copyright during the renewal period. That is what the Siegels filed for and won in court a few years ago. Warner Brothers and DC have spent the years since attempting to get around the fact that they no longer have any legal right to the Siegels’ half of the copyright to the original Superman stories and will soon lose the Shusters’ half as well. Their behavior has been disgraceful.

The Siegels won their initial case because Superman was not created as a work for hire. The original story was completed by Siegel and Shuster and then offered to several publishers. Eventually DC bought it for $10 a page and the copyright was transferred to the publisher. I get upset when people arguing DC’s side take the position that, “Well, some people are bad businessmen. That’s how it goes.” I confess that I don’t know much about Siegel and Shuster’s business acumen, but I don’t think that it matters very much, since that doesn’t come into play when all the power in a deal rests on one side. When the people sitting on one side of a desk have bills to pay and children to feed and the people sitting on the other side have access to the printing press, the deals tend to come out one-sided.

Unlike Siegel and Shuster, Jack Kirby co-created the majority of the Marvel characters that still dominate its publishing line without a contract, just a page rate and a series of verbal promises. He had no doubt seen what had happened to people like Siegel and Shuster, and he asked repeatedly for better credit and better compensation. The recent Kirby Estate lawsuit attempted to follow the Siegel strategy of filing for termination of copyright because there actually is a case to be made that he did not initially do the work in what we would recognize as a formal work-for-hire situation. None of the extra money or credit he was promised ever materialized, and when the Marvel lawyers realized in the 1970s that the characters weren’t protected by contract, they made signing retroactive work-for-hire contracts a condition of getting paid for work that had already been done. In Kirby’s case, the longstanding fight to reclaim his original artwork became a factor as well. He believed he was owed his artwork and he had a family to feed, and so he signed. It’s far from an open-and-shut case, and the verdict in Marvel’s favor probably didn’t surprise anyone, but Tom Spurgeon has put it best when he’s lamented the fact that it had to come to a lawsuit at all. Kirby and his family should have been properly compensated in the first place. Even if Marvel ultimately doesn’t have a legal obligation to do it, it is the right thing.

I get it. Capitalism is about profit, not the right thing. But companies are run by people, people in this case whom I hope care about comics and understand the debt that they owe to Jack Kirby, without whom they would not be in the position that they are. The company compensates Stan Lee with an honorific title and a sizable stipend (he’s surely due more, but it’s enough to provide the kind of comfort that makes fighting for more less appealing than simply enjoying being Stan Lee). True, he had to fight for that in court, but with that precedent in place, it would cause the company no pain to extend the same to the Kirby Estate.

And that’s why we’re where we are today. Because if DC made right by the Siegels and Shusters and Marvel made right by the Kirby Estate, they wouldn’t be quite as profitable as they possibly could, but it would be by such a relatively small degree for, let’s not forget, subsidiaries of the first and second largest media companies in the world, that their continued refusal to make good adds considerable insult to injury.

But that isn’t their instinct. Just as the artists with no power weren’t necessarily bad businessmen, the publishers with all the power weren’t necessarily good businessmen. When he bought the rights to Superman, Harry Donenfeld had no more idea than Jerry Siegel or Joe Shuster that the character would go on to earn billions. He just had the instinct that many businessmen have of own everything, keep everything. Disney/Marvel isn’t denying Kirby credit and compensation because it would ruin their quarterly reports, Warner Bros./DC isn’t holding up justice for the Siegels because it would go out business. In both cases it’s that the corporate instinct to own everything, keep everything dies hard. They have to have another reason to change.

Which is the other reason we’re here. These companies will never do the right thing on their own. It will only happen if they suffer the right combination of bad press and the threat of a loss of profit large enough to make them blink. And that’s hard to accomplish, especially with a fandom that can’t imagine not buying the next issue of The Avengers or Superman, has never not bought the next issue, but it’s not impossible. It doesn’t have to be enormous. A movie doesn’t have to fail. It just needs to be the difference between a #1 weekend opening and a #2 weekend opening. What do we have to lose?

I don’t kid myself that there’s any bravery in not buying a comic book or not going to a movie. But something doesn’t have to be brave to matter. It just requires clear vision and a goal. If we want publishers to stop denying talent what they are owed, we need to make it clear that they have more to lose by doing the wrong thing than by doing the right thing. At any other time, I would be ecstatic that my favorite superhero writer, Grant Morrison, will be relaunching Superman, the character that he has spoken of having a vision for for years, and which he wrote in the greatest superhero comic of the last decade, All Star Superman. But with the current treatment of the Siegels and Shusters and after the bad taste left in my mouth by Action Comics #900 thanking me for my support, I would feel terrible if I bought that. I was looking forward to catching Captain America: The First Avenger and next year’s Avengers in the theater, but now I will be skipping both. I wouldn’t be able to look at myself if I went.

(I’m disappointed in Grant Morrison. He’s clearly an ethical writer and an ethical person, but I think he’s badly off the mark in his reaction to the current situation. I don’t know (who outside of DC can?) if part of the impetus behind the DC relaunch really is to diminish the Siegels and Shusters’ share of Superman by claiming the new iteration is a new, derivative character, but this is still an even more dubious time than usual to take over the property. When asked about the legal case over Superman, Morrison punted, getting into his theory that the character is older than most of us, and will probably outlive all of us, and so is bigger than a dispute between its creators and owners. I take Morrison at his word that he believes the character transcends and is not simply compromising himself for the chance to take his dream writing job. But his answer is wrongheaded enough and surprisingly callous enough that it’s another reason for me to have nothing to do with his take on the character. It will be the first series written by Morrison I’m skipping in over a decade.)

Will it make a difference? Probably not. I hope so. But I’m with Caleb Mozzocco. That’s not the only reason we do this. We hope others will join, and we hope it’s enough, but we have to live with ourselves, and we have to do what we believe is right. I’m in this for real now—I am done with Marvel superhero comics and movies, and despite DC’s much better track record with giving credit and compensation generally, their unconscionable treatment of the Siegels and Shusters means I am done with Superman as well. And despite my earlier hesitancy to do so, I am now joining the hopefully growing chorus to ask others to do the same. I don’t know if it will make a difference, but I can tell you that not buying a comic book, not going to a movie is such a small sacrifice, so why not do it? More than any attempt to change the behavior of media companies, I am doing it because I wouldn’t like what it said about me if I didn’t do it. I hope that if you consider these issues you’ll come to the same conclusion.

As Steve Bissette suggests in the post that started this all, go to your comic book store and let them know what you are not buying and why, and buy something else instead. If they’ve ordered something for you and will lose money if you don’t buy it, go ahead—maybe you need a last goodbye issue—but after that choose something else and tell your retailer that you are buying it instead of a Marvel Kirby comic or a Superman comic, and that’s what you plan to do until things change. I’ve been picking up Kirby Genesis to get my superhero fix and am trying new creator-owned series like Terry Moore’s Rachel Rising instead of the comics that make me feel gross.

Will missing the next issue of X-Men really hurt that much?

Day Off at Periscope Studio

July 12, 2009


“MAYBE WE’LL HAVE a whole line of people from Dark Horse come in who don’t know what to do with themselves when they’re away from comics for a day,” joked Jeff Parker as I was leaving Portland’s Periscope Studio on July 3rd, my day off from work for the Independence Day holiday.

Periscope, formerly Mercury, has become an important institution in Portland’s comics scene, rivaling some local publishers in notoriety and far exceeding several in sheer size. Not a studio in the sense of accepting contracts and assigning a couple of members to work together to complete it, Periscope is instead a collection of over 20 comics writers and artists who share and contribute to the rent on an office space in downtown Portland. Projects range from high-profile work for DC and Marvel to members’ own comics and webcomics.

Members include names familiar to mainstream comics fans like Steve Lieber, Paul Tobin, Matthew Clark, Terry Dodson, and the aforementioned Jeff Parker; as well as artists of the independent and webcomics worlds, like Jonathan Case, Terri Nelson, Ron Chan, Dylan Meconis, and Erika Moen. There are several tiers of affiliation, beginning with interns, then artists who work there as assistants, and full members. Some, like Moen, are classified as “floaters,” who, though full members, do not have a designated work space and work at whatever desk is available.* Since I don’t work downtown, I’ve never been able to make it over during business hours, but I had a standing invitation from Moen to check it out, so called her up, and she offered to give me a tour.


Comics, Journalism, and Ethics

June 22, 2009

So, Valerie D’Orazio recently asked the question:

“Do you think the comic book industry, and its principal players, should be subject to the sort of public scrutiny and (at times) gossip that others in the entertainment field are subject to?”

Today, I read my esteemed coworker, Rachel Edidin’s, response. I think she’s right on about a lot of it, but I also think there’s an element many are missing.

D’Orazio’s question is a good one, except for two things: it’s really several questions, and it takes too much for granted. Let me try to separate out some of the issues:

  • Look at film and music. Name me some actors. Easy, right? How about directors? Yeah, you can do that. Cinematographers? That’s fewer hands, but still some. Key Grips? Naw, I’m just kidding. Studio execs? Yeah, me neither. No one really knows who makes the decisions at those places, just like most corporations. In comics, the people that run the major companies are public figures on the same level as writers and artists—actually, more visible than many of them. We need to distinguish between the people who set policy and the people who carry it out.
  • Second, when I say “public figures,” what do I mean? We know the names of the people who make our comics, but they aren’t really public figures, not like Brad Pitt is. Brad Pitt has decided that it’s worth it to him for his personal life to be public, in exchange for being a celebrity. Hell, it probably helps his celebrity. Let’s not kid ourselves, people like that are complicit in the way they are portrayed in the media. No one really believes that all those young women in the film and music industries all started forgetting both to wear underwear and cross their legs all at the same time, do we? Comics professionals aren’t really comparable.
  • Third, does the fact that something deserves scrutiny mean it deserves gossip? Of course not. As Rachel points out, accountability is important, but being accountable for treatment of talent has little to do with discussion of one’s personal life. That’s why the business moves of the corporations that own film studios appear in a different section of the newspaper than celebrity gossip.

That third point is the main one for me. That, and the fact that we should stop pretending we’re not talking about one specific person, because we are. We’re talking about Rich Johnston, recently of Comic Book Resources’ “Lying in the Gutters” and currently of his own “Bleeding Cool.” It’s a little early to see how “Bleeding Cool” will develop, but “Lying in the Gutters” was an important column for several reasons. I can’t agree with D’Orazio that it is “the quintessential . . . comic book column, period,” because I’d put something with more serious formal and critical chops there, but, but, when it was running I read it every week on Monday, because it was entertaining, and because it was one of a kind. And that’s the problem.

Because “Lying in the Gutters” was the only column doing what it was doing, the things it was doing have come to be lumped together. It was the place to go for gossip, much of it completely wrong, but it was also the place to go for comics journalism, by which I mean the only place. In the tradition of Wizard magazine, the major comics news sites are generally content to rewrite press releases and throw high-selling talent softball questions. Rich Johnston actually does the work, doing research and making calls, with a network that has its ear to the ground, and he doesn’t hesitate to pursue a story, and when he’s on to something he’s alone in breaking important news. He’s shone a light on publishers acting in bad faith, scams perpetrated on publishers and fans alike, and a wide variety of stories that have allowed comics readers a window into the same kind of production issues and corporate accountability that consumers in any other industry would expect.

Unfortunately, “Lying in the Gutters” combined this work with many, many stories that bring serious question to Johnston’s ethics, such as the notion that revealing upcoming plot points in comics series constituted news; that Johnston’s own comics projects should be plugged not at the end of the column or in his byline, but as stories within the column itself; his frequent backpeddling on the implications of his reports (including his recent claim on The V that his recurring “Swipe File” feature is not meant to imply that one image included is “swiped” from the other); and his use of the “traffic light” ranking system in “Lying in the Gutters.” A disclaimer told readers that stories running with a red light were probably not true, which begs the question: why did they run anyway? This is part of a pattern of avoiding accountability for the accuracy of the stories “Lying in the Gutters” ran.

This is not to single out “Lying in the Gutters”—except that, well, actually it is, but not through any fault of Johnston’s. He’s alone out there, meaning that the things he gets right are important, but the things he does wrong are just as important. When the premiere comics gossip column is also the only real comics journalism, it becomes difficult to separate the two and the otherwise off-base question

“Do you think the comic book industry, and its principal players, should be subject to the sort of public scrutiny and (at times) gossip that others in the entertainment field are subject to?”

becomes sadly relevant. If we want to have a serious comics press, it needs to be staffed by people who practice journalism, not hype. There is a place for hype, and because of the First Amendment, there will always be a place for gossip, but the place of those things is separate from the place of journalism, and once there is actually a steady base of real journalism in place, then Johnston’s decision of which side he falls on, or whether or not he picks a side, won’t hold nearly the relevance it does now. And then we can get around to discussing

“Do you think the comic book industry, and its principal players, should be subject to the sort of public scrutiny and (at times) gossip that others in the entertainment field are subject to?”

without it being a total sideshow, like it is now.

Wright Opinion: Strong enough for a man, made for a woman.

April 6, 2009
I CONFESS that I remain regretfully behind in posting to this blog.

However, I have managed to contribute an article to the online women’s comics magazine Sequential Tart’s “Redirected Male” column, about Jon B. Cooke’s dialectic of “Humanism vs. Materialism” in comics journalism, and how it played out in Tim Leong and Laura Hudson’s sadly defunct Comic Foundry, as well as in Cooke’s own magazine, Comic Book Artist:

One of the things I’ll miss the most about the recently departed Comic Foundry is one I don’t remember hearing much about: the magazine’s covers. Comic Foundry was, as far as I’m aware, unique among comics magazines in featuring an actual person rather than a fictional character on every cover. Comics professionals graced the covers of three of the five issues, and the other two featured, respectively, a pair of young comics fans representing Comic Foundry‘s desired audience, and a TV personality who talks comics on the air.

Continued at Sequential Tart.

Does Biography Work in Comics?

October 23, 2008



Presidential Material: John McCain
By Andy Helfer and Stephen Thompson
Presidential Material: Barack Obama
By Jeff Mariotte and Tom Morgan
IDW — saddle-stitched, $3.99 each

(Disclaimer: I gave money to Sen. Obama in both the primary and general periods of the current election. Read that into the following as you will.)

POLITICAL CARTOONS HAVE ALWAYS BEEN a part of American elections, perfect for distilling an idea—often an attack—into a handful of icons capable of getting a point across at a glance.

However, the comics form has rarely, if ever, been used for a more in-depth look at political candidates’ histories and positions on issues. For that matter, while autobiography is common, there are relatively few comics biographies—political or otherwise—in print. There may be good reasons for this, and IDW’s new Presidential Material comics, while stronger than I’d anticipated, reveal several of the factors that make serious biographical work so rare in comics.


School’s Out––For the Fall!?

August 31, 2008

ON TUESDAY, most of Oregon will go Back to School. By contrast, Monday will be my first in 10 weeks in which I’m not dragging books to Portland State University for my summer class, “Contemporary Comics Theory.”

Last Monday, I got back my final paper, a survey of different techniques in the restoration and recoloring of older comics for new, archival editions. I looked at the different approaches publishers take and attempted to figure out the ideologies behind them and, to a lesser extent, the effect they have on the reading experience. I couldn’t get too deep in the limited space I had (regular readers of this site (hah!) know that I do like to go on), but I’d like to think there are some good insights and that the paper represents a good start to a wider study of these issue.

As I did with the midterm a few days ago, I’ve decided to inflict the final on the Internet, though this time with lots of pictures! If you know much about coloring comics, then you probably know more than me, but if I’ve done my job at all, I’m presenting a few things to think about.

(Note: just to add another layer of complication, I should mention that these images are, of course, scanned from the books and, in most cases, I’ve altered them to more accurately match the pages I scanned them from. This means adjusting the brightness and contrast, deepening the blacks and lightening the whites here and there. In just a few cases, I’ve removed art from adjacent panels that came too close to the panel borders; I cropped the image of Galactus that was too big for my scanner and came from a book whose spine was never going to let it lie flat; and in the case of the panels from Understanding Comics, I combined panels from two tiers into one. Therefore, even in the seemingly simple stage of including the images to talk about them, you’re not seeing exactly what I’m talking about, as I’ve added the quality of my home scanner and my own judgement into the mix. My head hurts.)



Remembering History Through CMYK-Tinted Lenses

Pastiche of mechanical colors from Daredevil: Golden Age.

In Brian Michael Bendis and Alex Maleev’s 2005 storyline, Daredevil: Golden Age, flashbacks to the exploits of a previous King of Hell’s Kitchen take on the appearance of old color comics, complete with yellowed pages, large dots of color, and colors that leak outside of the line art. Bendis and colorist Dave Stewart use the imagery associated with the mechanical coloring techniques of older comics to show that scenes take place in an earlier era without having to indicate the flashback through text. Ironically, most modern reprints of such material released contemporaneously with Golden Age don’t look like the flashbacks in the story. The technology that produced those comics has been replaced by digital coloring and separation processes, and those processes are applied to new reprints. These upgrades raise questions about how modern technology and economics affect the authenticity of reprints and different approaches to the problem reveal different values at work. The tension is primarily between how much reprinting an old comic is about re-creating the original object and how much it is about using new technology to clarify the original and even attempt to reclaim original intent. This paper will contrast several reprint methods and attempt to identify the values and commercial factors behind them.


Let’s Get Academic

August 28, 2008

This week I finished a summer course at Portland State University, “Contemporary Comics Theory” (devoting a lot of my energy to this is one of several reasons that reviews haven’t been forthcoming lately). It was a great experience, turning me onto a lot of readings I wouldn’t have found otherwise and the only opportunity I’ve ever had to be part of a conversation in which 15 people discuss something like Heartbreak Soup.

Because it was a college course, there was a fair amount of writing involved and, the class being over, I don’t have much I’m going to do with the papers I wrote for it, so I thought it couldn’t hurt to present them here.

First, the mid-term, for which I chose to respond to Earle J. Coleman’s 1985 article from the Journal of Popular Culture, entitled “The Funnies, the Movies, and Aesthetics.” Obviously, a 20-plus-year-old article is a somewhat dated topic for discussion, but I found it to still have some interesting ideas and descriptions of issues that continue today, plus some of the problems that I found in it relate to ways that people still write about comics. So, hopefully this is actually of interest:

More Than Just Paper Movies

There are two main components to Earle J. Coleman’s argument in “The Funnies, the Movies, and Aesthetics.” The first is that modern comics, though invented alongside film at the turn of the last century, lags behind film in terms of the development of an aesthetic basis for criticism. In his opening and closing paragraphs, he calls for more attention to be placed on the aesthetic qualities of comics and for critics to “de-emphasize psychology, sociology and history” (100) in doing so. The second, which makes up the bulk of the article, is his attempt to begin to define what those aesthetic qualities might be by looking at many of the qualities that make up film criticism and trying each one on comics, some fitting more comfortably than others.

With the first section, Coleman asserts that comics have fallen behind in the application of art theory largely because the form itself is not appreciated as having artistic merit. He points out that publications like the New York Times eschew comics so as not to lose their image of seriousness. As to the source of comics’ disrepute, Coleman puts forth three hypotheses: comics are not valued by the artistic elite because they “appeal to the masses” (89) and are therefore suspect; they are disposable, arriving in their most popular form as part of a quickly obsolete newspaper; the name “comics” itself suggests a lack of seriousness and therefore, in the artistic imagination, a lack of value.


Wikipedia and Comics Nerds: A Match Made on Halloween

November 1, 2007

Stayed in a with a friend on Halloween, watched the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Then, because she’s a DVD junkie, we watched all the trailers for the TCM sequels, just about the only thing that made the Edition “Special.” Curious about the purportedly true events that inspired the film (it’s actually just one of a dozen films featuring a takeoff of serial killer Ed Gein), we checked out Wikipedia, where we naturally came across information on both the original and remake series.

One of the things that I find most amusing about Wikipedia is what the writers of pop culture entries reveal about their personalities, essentially that (as you might imagine of people who voluntarily input a great deal of information about films and comics for free) they’re anal-retentive nerds who spend way too much of their time thinking about things like continuity. To wit:

“After The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, in which the bulk of the Sawyer family apparently meet their demise, several other members of Leatherface’s family are introduced in the next two films; though due to some continuity discrepancies, it remains vague as to whether or not Leatherface: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre III and Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation, and the family members that appear in them, are canon to the first two films of the series.”

That’s right, discussion of how well the third and fourth trashy installments of a slasher series fit into series continuity and whether or not certain aspects are “canon.” Sounds a lot like many comics fans. No sooner had I had that thought than I came across the section on The Texas Chainsaw Massacre in other media, specifically the video games and also… the comic books.

Turns out The Texas Chainsaw Massacre has been published by four different publishers, Northstar, Topps, Avatar and, currently, DC/Wildstorm (which makes sense, as Time Warner owns both DC and New Line Cinema, the studio that produces the films). Northstar’s contribution, Leatherface, is a loose adaptation of Leatherface: Texas Chainsaw Massacre III. Avatar and Wildstorm’s series are in the continuity of the TCM remake series from a few years ago, and just from the Wikipedia synopses show how trying to create an ongoing continuity sucks the life out an original story.