On my recent trip to the UK, I had the amazing good fortune to be invited onto the set of Mitch Jenkins and Alan Moore’s His Heavy Heart while filming in Northampton. His Heavy Heart is the final installment of the short series of films that together make up the proposed feature film called The Show. You can read my personal account of the experience, with images from Lex Projects, here at Bleeding Cool:
Comics people have been incredibly busy as autumn sets in, and that means I’ve been busy keeping up with them and reporting on the shows that have been going on along the East Coast this September. Last year, I managed to attend most of them, so it seemed like a challenge to myself to take them on again in rapid succession.
That was tougher than I expected, but yielded some amazing experiences and plenty of big comics news. Then there was the personal reward of getting to see many of my friends in action and become exposed to all kinds of new comics and up and coming creators whose personal vision for comics really inspired me in what I do–spreading the word and trying to look ahead to see where the industry is headed.
So, within a three week period, I found myself covering Baltimore Comic Con, Small Press Expo, and Brooklyn Book Fair for Bleeding Cool as Senior New York Correspondent.
BALTIMORE COMIC CON:
To start off with, there was Baltimore Comic Con, which is always a show that focuses on the art of comics making with a massive artists alley and plenty of significant panels to attend. I helped out reporting for Bleeding Cool on some of the big DC news of the hour: controversies over JH Williams III leaving Batwoman due to editorial changes he wasn’t comfortable with.
This put Dan Didio in the spotlight, and he made a speech in a DC panel that explained some of his perspective on the matter. You can find it here.
There were also teasers in the DC panel from Jimmy Palmiotti and Amanda Conner about their upcoming Harley Quinn book. You can find that here.
I had the pleasure of reporting live on the Harvey Awards this year (big ups to Dean Haspiel for helping me get into the awards as a guest), and was delighted that Fiona Staples finally won a personal award for her work on Saga.
Plenty was going on in the Archie Comics/Red Circle panel, including announcements and teasers for Dean Haspiel and Mark Waid’s new series The Fox. You can find that and more here.
Brian Wood reflected on his life and career in indie comics and self-publishing versus working in the mainstream in this CBLDF panel.
Stellar writer Joe Hill busted out some anecdotes from his life, and also commented on the future of Locke & Key as it draws to a close, including upcoming projects with Gabriel Rodriguez in this spotlight panel.
IDW had one of the most intriguing panels of the con with a huge team of creators, many of them talking about working digitally with Monkeybrain and then moving into collected print editions with IDW. Highly recommended reading here if you’re a creator or follow creator-owned work.
But a big highlight of the con was working with award winning photographer Seth Kushner to do interviews with AMC’s Comic Book Men and with the legendary Joe Hill, complete with Seth’s photo portraits which turned even Joe Hill’s head.
Baltimore Comic Con turned out to be even more epic than I had expected, but hanging out with Hang Dai studiomates Dean Haspiel, Seth Kushner, and Christa Cassano gave me an oasis from all the running around chasing stories. Thanks guys!
THE SMALL PRESS EXPO:
The following weekend, it was onward to premier indie comics and small press show Small Press Expo in Bethesda, Maryland, where I was happy to be working with fellow Bleeding Cool reporter David Dissanayake to show the scope and impact of the Expo more fully at Bleeding Cool than had ever been done before in our “Glorious SPX” pieces.
I previewed some excellent SPX debuts in “Seven SPX Debuts That Are Like Crack” ahead of time here.
I worked with David to cover the Ignatz Awards here.
A panel with Dash Shaw and Frank Santoro on their new works Old School and Pompeii was a real window onto the creative process, from building up design to breaking comics down to their basics in quest of artistic voice.
Gary Panter reflected on works past and present, including literary adaptations he’s pursuing here.
Michael Kupperman and Sam Henderson painted a quixotic view of comedy in comics and kept us thoroughly entertained in their panel.
R. Sikoryak and a host of talented creators performed comics live in a carousel event during SPX too.
And I came away from Small Press Expo having met literally dozens of great creators and publishers and with a crate load of books to sort through. I’ve finally started my SPX reviews and you can find my first installment, looking at books from Uncivilized Books, Picture Box, and Nobrow, here.
THE BROOKLYN BOOK FESTIVAL:
I was a little broken down by the time I emerged from the subway into the dazzling weather of the Brooklyn Book Festival, but just like last year’s show, it was a glorious early autumn day to celebrate comics and hear from some top-notch professionals.
I made it to Ben Katchor’s panel with Miriam Katin, Ulli Lust, and Lisa Hanawalt to hear about their take on the autobiographical voice in comics and covered it here.
I also heard from Jeff Smith, Paul Pope, and Faith Erin Hicks on their ventures into sci-fi comics and the changing face of creator-owned projects in the comics industry here.
But the unexpected always stands out in your memory, and bumping into the amazing Argentinian artist Liniers and capturing an interview with him on his own rabid fandom turned out to be a winning experience, and one which his fans enjoyed. That’s located here on Bleeding Cool.
Reviews, Interviews, Magazine work and More:
But there’s been a lot of other stuff going on, too, in my journalistic writing, aside from the shows I’ve been covering, actually, and though it’s hard to keep up with all of it myself, here are a few things that are my personal favorites over the past couple of months:
-Diving into the hit series Luther Strode from Image and considering Justin Jordan’s career, found here.
-Taking on Saga as a reader, finally, and writing about why it’s going to eventually be recognized as a classic. This has been, I believe, my most read article so far as a comics journalist, and was shared around on other sites, winding up at 5th place on Lying in the Gutters. I was proud of that. It’s here.
-Arguing for the stellar work being done on the Vertigo series The Wake, by Scott Snyder and Sean Murphy, and why it’s tops in the new Vertigo line-up. Snyder loved it. You can find it here.
-Thinking about Nathan Fox’s psychedelic, artfully designed covers on the Vertigo series Collider, now Federal Bureau of Physics. You can find it here.
-Interviewing Tom Muller, designer on the Image series Zero, and on the logo for Trillium, about the role of designers changing the face of comics, here.
-I’ve also been doing a column “Live From The Comic Shop” for Bleeding Cool for over two months now, taking 4-6 new titles that week and reviewing them in real-time from my local shop, Conquest Comics. I review whatever has interested me that week from a wide range of publishers, including Image, Vertigo, Marvel, Dark Horse, and others. Keep an eye out if weekly books are on your radar.
-Aside from work on the Bleeding Cool website, I’ve been working on magazine articles for Bleeding Cool Magazine and Jon Cooke’s Comic Book Creator. Look out for my articles in the next issues of both–it’s an exciting development for me.
A BIRTHDAY SURPRISE FROM ALAN MOORE:
But, to wrap things up, and for me the tour de force of my recent comics-related experiences, was reviewing Mitch Jenkins and Alan Moore’s Jimmy’s End films after their successful Kickstarter, for Bleeding Cool alongside Rich Johnston, found here.
Alan Moore recently signed copies of his latest graphic novel Fashion Beast in London for Avatar Press, and I was told, to my deep gratitude, that they’d be getting a copy signed for me. When I received it in the post on October 5th, on the eve of my birthday, I was expecting to see the great man’s signature, but when I opened the book, I found a personalized message that blew me away, about my review of the films.
No words for how that felt, really, to see a “thank you” from such an illustrious writer and a personal hero of mine. It pretty much makes all the hard work worth it.
I’ve written so much as a reporter about San Diego Comic Con that it’s somewhat difficult to sit down and write more about it, but with all the articles up online, it’s time to compile them here so people can find them and even see what they might have missed in the rush of reportage. It was my first attendance of San Diego Con and my first visit was also my first professional coverage of the con. That was intense. Also, I had very recently moved to Bleeding Cool as my home site, and since it’s a big news site, I was aware that it might be a little overwhelming being part of such a big team and staying on target to make sure I helped them out as best I could. The con was a total immersion experience, so much larger and more sense-overwhelming than the other cons I’ve reported on, but also quite an amazing testament to the rise of pop culture in the past 20 years. We are in a major upsurge of pop culture, and comics culture right now, and though that can get chaotic, it’s something to celebrate. But my experience working for Bleeding Cool was stellar.
The members of the team were each impressive in their knowledge and commitment to comics and pop culture, many of them educators with a strong desire to promote comics in main stream culture. Hanging out with them was a privilege and seeing the work they produced was dazzling. We fought the crowds, strategized, and brought back the stories for readers whether we ate or not, slept or not. It was an amazing thing. Thanks to all the great folks I met out there at our morning meetings and after-hours drinks- you made my San Diego so worthwhile. I’d like to particularly thank Rich Johnston, who was not only excellent at keeping us all on track, but full of encouragement and positive energy, and spent his free hours devoted to us, the writers, and enthused about all the great aspects of San Diego, even at its most crazy and bizarre.
I also spent San Diego sending the occasional article back home to New York for Dan Greenfield at Parallel Worlds for the New York Post, and that was a great experience of whittling down what might be of greatest interest to New Yorkers and picking out the highlights of the show from my personal vantage. That was an honor, too, and with Parallel Worlds gaining strength as a home for indie comics and mainstream news, I want to congratulate the site for its hard work building a place for itself in comics news.
Below, you’ll find, firstly, all my articles for Bleeding Cool from San Diego, and following that my articles for Parallel Worlds. San Diego isn’t for everyone, and it can be a madhouse, but its also an eye-opener about what part comics play in modern culture, so I would encourage people to go, at least once, and see what all the stories are about. It’s an experience you just can’t have on this level anywhere else.
For Bleeding Cool:
Smaller Publisher Panels
For Parallel Worlds at the New York Post:
Until next year, that’s all from San Diego!
When people ask if the Marvel superheroes movies really get people to read comics, and the resounding answer seems to be “no”, I am one of those people obliged to protest. As keen observers have occasionally noticed, the movies did manage to nab people who were at one time comic readers and get them back into the game, or in my case, back into reading, and writing, about superheroes. It worked particularly well on me because I was already writing about heroes in film as part of my academic explorations, and seeing IRON MAN when it came out in 2008 was a major turning point for me. Here I saw mythology running wild, new-born and full of energy, and I couldn’t help but want to write about what I saw in classic motifs popping up again with so much direct relevance to 21st century life.
As luck would have it, when I wrote this paper on IRON MAN, and presented it, this was also the actual moment when I met a bunch of comic scholars and became one myself, but it would take more than a year before I had the confidence to actually start writing about comics. I felt I had a lot of catching up to do, so I took on reading the complete works of Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman and that set me on my path. But the paper I wrote fell by the wayside, until the second IRON MAN film came out, and I was intrigued by its developments on the first film’s mythology. I felt I could see a pattern there- a similar development that occurs in long-running hero myths, of a movement from a “social hero” who helps people to a “culture hero” who could potentially change the world. So I stepped out of comics for a short time and returned to writing about hero films just to see where the idea would take me.
Then I got caught up in comics again, and though I had presented my second paper on IRON MAN, I still hadn’t published either. What’s wrong with me? I was just doing a million things at once, and tackling other comicsy writing. Then the New York Review of Science Fiction got wind of the abstract I had sent them once, for an article combining those two original papers into one, and wrote to me. It really was like finding a 20 dollar bill in your pocket you had forgotten about. I jumped on it, updated the article, and they were kind enough to feature the new article in their “Special Mythology and Movies Issue”, #297, out in June 2013. The NYRSF, a venerable Sci-Fi journal, is digital these days, and remarkably affordable, so I’ll plug this issue for a download of only 2.99 which you can find here. The films ARGO and JOHN CARTER also feature in this issue.
Here’s my abstract for the article, as originally submitted to the journal:
“Deweaponizing Stark: Powering the Culture Hero in Jon Favreau’s Iron Man 1 and 2”
This study investigates the manner in which Jon Favreau’s films Iron Man 1 and 2 encompass the development of the social hero and the culture hero. Criteria for the classification of social hero and culture hero are drawn from the theoretical framework of psychoanalysts Carl Jung and Erich Neumann. The arc of development present in Iron Man 1 and 2, and the presentation of the culture hero in the Irish Mythological Cycle, in the person of Lugh Lamfada, are compared to demonstrate consistency in the development of the western concept of culture hero and its modern relevance.
What you have here is, in updated form, essentially my earliest writings about superheroes, so I’ll remain sentimental about it. In that time, IRON MAN 3 has been released, a film I also enjoyed immensely and may some time write about, but I was thrilled to review it in real-time at The Beat as a comics journalist, too. You can find my review of IRON MAN 3 here, if you’re interested. My take on IRON MAN 3 is that we really get to meet “the Mechanic” Tony Stark, and that this has a particularly part to play in Iron Man mythology.
IRON MAN will always be one of my favorite heroes because I think he really does encapsulate so much about our anxieties and aspirations in an immediate way. I’m glad my writings on him finally found a home and hope you enjoy my mythological perambulations on the subject.
Studio YOLO poses a challenge each month to adapt a short script into comics form. This month the text is called “Forgiven” by Jess Ruliffson and this is my submission:
WonderCon this year was a unique experience for me for several reasons. Firstly, I’d never been to this con before, and though, truth be told, I would’ve enjoyed if it’d been held in San Francisco, since I’ve never been there either, the fact that it was held in Anaheim meant that I got to hang out with two of my best geek friends Michele Brittany (a pop culture scholar and photographer) and Nick Diak (another pop culture scholar with an encyclopedic knowledge of film and strange music) who are local to Anaheim. That gave me a little more confidence in tackling the new. It had also been several years since I’d made it out to the West Coast, but the occasion that inspired me to get on a plane was being invited by my comics scholar friend Chris Angel, one of the founders of the Denver Comic Con (which I’ll also be checking out this year) to participated in a Comics Studies Conference panel on publishing comics scholarship these days. With Chris and I in the panel was another prominent and groundbreaking scholar Rob Weiner, editor of a vast array of scholarly books on comics, music, and film, and really a pioneer in publishing on those subjects in the world of academia (his most recent book is Web-Spinning Heroics, on Spider-Man).
That’s the comics scholarship side of things, and enough motivation to go to a con, since I don’t need that much of a push, but as for WonderCon, I also ended up being the only Comics Beat reporter to make it out, and that gave me pause. It meant that I had a lot of strange freedom- I could cover anything I wanted to cover- but also a kind of overwhelming choice in what to pick out for coverage. In the end, I tried to push myself to attend some events that I might not normally pick out to attend, but also follow my instincts and inclinations, because if you can’t have fun at a comic con, that kind of defeats the purpose, in my estimation. When I arrived on a Thursday evening, I was pleasantly surprised to see that my hotel room overlooked the con, and I got to watch the banner being hung, and preparations underway. When I picked up my pass, I was impressed by the space itself, on all points really appropriate for a con of this size, and able to accommodate the numbers and needs of the fans.
Things kicked off for me on Friday, when I presented with Chris and Rob, the very first panel of the con. We expected limited numbers in the audience for this reason, but it was alarmingly packed despite the gigantic room. Rob talked about sticking to your dreams when it comes to publishing books, and not just hanging around assuming in despair that someone else is going to beat you to it. He provided some insights into the book publishing process and working as an editor with lots of contributors, and ended on a high note about the wide open field right now in scholarly book publication, particularly in comics scholarship.
Chris gave a truly illuminating walk through of her experiences using comics in the classroom, providing different models for use depending on the types of texts you’re teaching (she’s a medieval/renaissance professor) and the students themselves. She’s a classic example of how experimenting, introducing comics as a side-line to test the waters, can achieve great results for students, and lead you to bring comics more fully into the curriculum of literary study. My talk was on comics scholarship and social media, in particular, the scholarly online sites and semi-scholarly sites available right now, from Sequart Research and Literacy Organization (who I write for), to the Culture Gutter and Comics Forum, all great venues. I also gave a bit of a pep talk on using social media and tried to guilt everyone into setting up their own scholarly blogs (which, alas, even I do not update enough, but I believe in blogging strongly). We got great responses from the panel, and it was a very affirmative experience. Comics scholarship really is on the rise, folks, in very big ways.
Then it was time to get my mind together for some reporting. Not before I’d run around the con floor a little, grabbing freebies from the really affable Dark Horse Booth and scoping out the good back issue vendors for future reference (I ended up with a large set of The Dreaming for my collection/research later on and plenty of Walking Dead for my husband Russ Shannon, a massive fan of the comics and the show). Panel-wise, I liked the thematic approach of the “Icons”, (“What Makes an Icon?”) panel so checked it out. If nothing else, it consisted of some all-star names in comics from Mark Waid (moderator), to Ann Nocenti, J. M. DeMatteis, Dan Slott, and Doug Mahnke. It was an excellent way to start off the con proper, hearing about comics history and comics future from these experienced creators talking from the heart about their views on handling long-lived character. You can find my round up here, with plenty of quotes. Photos for most of these panels from WonderCon were taken by the fabulous Michele Brittany. I spent the rest of the afternoon running around the con floor getting a general sense of layout and planning my next moves. I made a last-minute decision to what turned out to be a brain-download of great advice in an Indie Marketing panel with Dark Horse (Jeremy Atkins), Archaia (Mel Caylo), comiXology (Chip Mosher), IDW (Dirk Wood), and Valiant (Hunter Gorin). Their blunt and honest approach to what has worked for them, or not, in social media yielded some of the most practical information I heard at WonderCon and it says a lot about these guys and their companies that they were so willing to share their lessons learned. You can read about that great panel here. That night I also wrote up some general impressions of how the con was working at this Anaheim location, including the building, staff, and comfort of fans, with some images. You can read that here, my claim that WonderCon had not “lost its Mojo” despite the move in location.
Saturday I took on a little more, trying to cover at least a few panels as well as keeping up with a scheduled interview with Matt Kindt about his work with Dark Horse, including the extremely alluring psychic spy series MIND MGMT. In the morning, I indulged my fannish curiosity and went to the VIKINGS panel, featuring the stars from the new History Channel show set in the early medieval period (if you know me, you’ll know this is right up my scholarly alley and I spent the first couple of episodes critiquing historical accuracy before being won over by the spirit of the show). I expected a few curious people like myself, not a rabid sea of enthusiasm. What a way to start the day after a late night. I attempted not to spill my coffee while eating a pastry and taking pictures and notes. To my delight, they showed a preview of on a massive screen of an upcoming episode and it looked gorgeous. The landscapes alone in the show are enough to warrant a cinematic experience. But enough gushing- check out my photos and write up here for The Beat.
I made what ended up being a good, but challenging decision to attend a Spotlight panel on Matt Kindt just before interviewing him. This 90 minute juggernaut, where Matt was interviewed by comics scholar Travis Langley, was so wide-ranging that it blew any questions I had drafted already out of the water and I then had about 20 minutes to come up with some news ones. On the plus side, I heard all about Matt’s life and work in detail, and it was a very moving story of artistic vision and tenacity, and it helped me understand his work far better than any other research could have. Please read my lengthy write-up with photos of that panel here, since it’s a real circumnavigation of comics creating right now, and lets you in on Matt’s psychology.
We held our interview shortly after, and it turned out to be so lengthy (thanks to his open attitude and kindness) that it turned into what I could only call a “Mega-interview” at the Beat once I’d finally written it up. In my scramble to think of new questions, I actually kicked off by asking him why we need stories (how impudent was that!) and his answers were amazing. Check out that interview when you get a chance.
I’m sure I would have liked to collapse at my hotel at that point, and though I was able to take all my con loot back to the room pretty easily, Michele and I marched ourselves to another Spotlight panel, this time on Ann Nocenti, who’s verve the previous day had so impressed me. I wanted to hear about her long Marvel history and her current work for DC.
She and Jim Lee (bonus!) showed us sketches for upcoming works and she revealed a lot about her varied life in film and comics, always conversational and entertaining in style. My interest was piqued in her new series Katana, which I’ve since checked out and really like. Highly recommend this samurai/yakusa tale of revenge with a heroine at the helm. It was a mellow, engaging way to end my reporting for the day, and left a big impression on me concerning women in comics. You can read about the panel here, and it’s quite a fun recap.
I was getting a little broken down by Sunday, and expected a little quieter time at the con compared to the well-attended and high-energy days on Friday and Saturday, so I wandered along, again with the spilling coffee, for a little panel with Nerdist Industries. I should’ve realized by then that any time I expected a low key panel it would be massive and full of screaming. And it was. Joss Whedon’s panel on his new Shakespeare movie was just letting out of a totally full stadium-sized venue and I muddled through crowds and found a convenient seat with several thousand others (but thankfully near the front) to hear what Chris Hardwick and Nerdist had to say.
I’d heard Hardwick speak before about the future of Youtube and had been very impressed. Whether you’re a fan or not, the man is deeply intelligent if you pose complex questions about media and has plenty to say. This turned out to be one of the highlights of the con for me. As Nerdist rolled out previews of future channels and plans, the repartee was so funny I could hardly breathe. Again, not how I expected to spend my morning, but it was a great surprise. Michele was a newbie to Nerdist and loved it too, taking some fabulous photos. You can see the write up and her photos here. There was also a pretty inspiring message at work throughout the talk and Q and A about fan empowerment and creation- here here!
I had two other “assignments” for the day, attending a Spotlight panel on Jimmy Palmiotti and Amanda Conner, and also interviewing DC Comics’ Dustin Nguyen about his new series Li’l Gotham. My other informal assignment was to buy a lot of comics, which I did. Jimmy Palmiotti and Amanda Conner presented an informal panel in their trademark conversational style that made fans feel like part of the conversation, fielding questions throughout, from Amanda’s driven workload on Silk Spectre to Jimmy’s upcoming work Captain Brooklyn. It was the sort of panel that mid-sized cons really specialize in, bringing in fans to get a sense of the personalities of inspiring creators, and giving them insights into future projects. You can read all about that panel here.
Interviewing Dustin Nguyen at the DC booth was initially a bit of a challenge due to the huge traffic the booth was getting, and security at first tried to turn me away until I insisted several times that I had an appointment. When DC realized what was going on, they were horrified and apologetic, and made every effort to get the interview underway. It ended up being a fantastic experience. If you’re familiar with Dustin’s work, you know that he brings many fine art traits to his painterly style, and on top of that he’s passionate about the Batman mythology. He’s created a visual sense in Li’l Gotham that wows readers from the start, and presents an all-ages comic in a very inspiring way. Talking to Dustin was like talking to a fellow fan, and I couldn’t have asked for a more humble, enthusiastic artist to talk to about their work on such a major project. Find my interview with Dustin here, and check out Li’l Gotham- you won’t regret it.
In the last few hours of the con, I actually felt rather energized from all these positive experiences and wondered what else I should do with my time. I decided to check out several of the mid-sized publisher booths and chat, from Dark Horse, to Valiant, Archaia, and Top Cow. At each booth, the people I talked to were simply lovely and had a lot to say about what works they were most excited about. I picked up lots of great books to try to lug home on the plane, and it was another really positive note for me at the con. When the con wrapped up, I felt like it could have kept on going another few hours at least, or another day, even, a sign that a con is going strong, rather than fizzling out.
I wrote a wrap-up of my impressions of the con, comparing it to my opening article, and included with it is Michele’s excellent photo gallery of the cosplay and scenes from the con. I ended up staying another day to go to Disneyland, but that’s a whole other story of observing the strange phenomena behind pop culture. WonderCon itself was a kind of perception-changing experience for me, in all honesty, my first con alone as a reporter, though I was never really alone thanks to Michele and my other friends. It gave me insights into how cons work, what fans are looking for, and the place of con culture in society right now. Along with that, I had my first con-interview experiences and they were so remarkably illuminating and fun that it has set a high standard for future experiences. I’d like to say thanks to everyone who helped me out at the con and made it such an encouraging experience; you know who you are. Viva WonderCon. I think it’s a very important contribution to pop culture with plenty to offer fans, scholars, and creators alike.
Photo Credits: The photos in this article were taken by pop culture photographer Michele Brittany. You can learn more about her work here.
Studio YOLO was founded after 8 artists and their mentor completed the Atlantic Center for the Arts Residency in October of 2012, and worked together for 3 weeks on individual and communal comics projects. One of their projects with mentor Dean Haspiel, Eisner-nominated and Emmy Award winning artist, was A LETTER LASTS LONGER where Dean provided the text and each artist had to complete their comics interpretation of the story. YOLO took this idea and ran with it, posing a challenge a month after the residency, and the challenge is open to all and sundry who wish to participate. Each month, text is posted on their website with the rest of the month to submit a comic based upon it. In March, “Aporia” by artist Christa Cassano, was posted and in April, the results were published.
I had a great idea for the comic, but am newly returned to drawing, trying to take classes on and off this year. Still, they kept insisting I shouldn’t chicken out, so I was able to make their extended deadline. The result is below. I hope to keep up with YOLO’s challenge regardless of my drawing skill level in future because it was a difficult but majorly empowering experience for me to “just do it”.
You can find a massive interview with all 8 members of Studio YOLO about their residency experience here and a review of the new Atlantic Center for the Arts Anthology BREAKERS, to which they contributed, here.
Studio YOLO are:
The Southwest Texas Pop Culture/American Culture Association hosts a conference in Albuquerque, New Mexico every year, and three years ago, it’s where I presented my first foray into comics scholarship. I was pretty terrified to do so, having only returned to reading comics less than a year before, but I was talking about (still) one of my favorite comics, Alan Moore and JH Williams III’s PROMETHEA, which I consider a game-changer in the presentation not only of female heroes in comics, but in the comics presentation of esoteric concepts. My first paper went much better than expected, despite the fact that my panel was at 8AM, and the altitude was making me feel high. It led to my first publication in a comics studies journal (the Journal of Graphic Novels and Comics), but in retrospect, I think it was more significant because I met one of the greats of current comics scholarship, Rob Weiner.
He’s the area chair for Graphic Novels and Comics at the SWTX PCA, and aside from his varied pop culture scholarship and media involvement, he’s produced quite a few excellent books and collections of essays on comics scholarship and comics in libraries that have paved the way for younger scholars to feel grounded in this new field (most recently WEB SPINNING HEROICS, a collection of essays on Spider-Man) . Not only is he an invaluable resource, but he represents the inclusive attitude so vital in comics scholarship right now, seeing the potential in new ideas and giving comics primacy in study, rather than letting theory (so prevalent in “the academy”) dominate. He’ll be embarrassed by all my praise, but let’s be clear: I wouldn’t even be writing about comics without Rob, and writing about comics has changed my life, so I’m very grateful.
I’ve been back every year to the SWTX PCA, and followed them to the national conference occasionally (all lovely people there too). I’ve been very impressed by the way a substantial number of panels on comics scholarship have been run every year, and every year several of the panels have speakers claim to be “brand new” to talking about comics in a scholarly way. This year talks ranged from cultural understanding in TINTIN (bucking the trend in criticism of colonial ideas), to discussions of autobio comics I’d never even encountered (always good), as well as plenty of talks on X-Men, WATCHMEN, and more mainstream titles. The talks were all earnest, carefully researched and presented, and gave a little preview of where comics scholarship is headed, which is into increasing acceptance in academia as a “serious” subject.
When critiquing the current state of affairs with other scholars, we all agreed that we hope in the future scholars, regardless of their subject area backgrounds (from English Lit, to Film, Law, and Sociology) will really spread their wings and resist the ossification that adhering too strictly to theory-dominance creates. To explain that a little more, what we meant is that there’s a lot of pressure in all things academic to spend a lot of energy establishing theoretical framework, which becomes a form of peer pressure that can take away from an enthusiastic discussion of the subject being studied. It feels like putting the cart before the horse, and often takes the spotlight off the great art form that we love. There’s a place for theory, and it needs to be there for a detailed critique of what comics have accomplished as a “serious” art form, but it’s a fine line between using theory and theory using scholars. So much for our soap-box.
My own presentation this year was particularly exciting for me, creating the first ever academic discussion of Emmy-Award winning artist Dean Haspiel’s BILLY DOGMA comics. BILLY, featuring a bruiser hero with poetic prose and his fists of fury girlfriend Jane Legit, has been running for 15 years in various formats, and has increasingly challenged the way that relationships are presented in hero comics. My talk focused on the way that relationships can be handled seriously as part of the psychology of hero stories, rather than simply presenting miserable, failed relationships (typical in superhero comics focusing on a secret identity) or as a “happy ending” (like many folk tales involving heroes). There’s a strong middle ground where relationships can act as part of the heroic development of well-rounded individuals struggling with their own internal demons, but it doesn’t often find its way into hero comics. Long live BILLY!
I had plenty of great slides to use to illustrate my points, and this led to discussions with other scholars later about the increasing importance of using slides so the audience really experiences the comics being talked about. As surprising as it may sound, using visual slides in academic talks is a relatively recent thing. When I presented my first American academic paper on film studies back in 2007, there was no way to use Power Point in my conference room and using the DVD player to try to show clips of a film was a complete disaster. Things are slowly catching up- thankfully since comics scholarship needs these resources.
The feedback I hear every year at the SWTX PCA is that it’s a place to reconnect with like-minded people, who often become close friends over time (and I have made several there), and the “new” scholars in the panels I chaired also spoke about how the people they met made a big difference in inspiring them to continue in comics scholarship. It’s not the easiest road in the world, often facing scrutiny or stubborn lack of desire to understand from academic circles, but that’s changing, and the only way it’s going to really change is to keep on doing what we love.
One of the highlights of the conference, by the way, was a packed screening of the 1926 film THE BAT, a silent film whose talkie sequel was a big influence on the genesis of Batman as a character and a comic. Taking into account the various trends in pop culture that impact comics is very important, and keeping comics scholarship too narrow a field is a big way to miss out on gems like this.
I spent the last day and a half in New Mexico exploring some familiar haunts in Albuquerque and Santa Fe, basking in the intense sunshine (through my dark sunglasses- intense!) ,and taking in some museums where I got the appreciate the tumultuous history and amazing Native cultures of the Southwest. Talking with Pueblo culture craftsmen, eating some of my favorite Southwest foods and just reminding myself what a big world it is always adds to my experience of the conference when I go. It was another great year at the SWTX PCA and, yeah, I hope I’m there for many years to come. I hope next year there will be even more comics panels, even more unique and original ideas I haven’t heard before, and an increasing flow of newbies who pave the way for future appreciation of comics.
The Smurfs were a big part of my childhood. I started collecting the figures whenever I could at a young age, and I remember coveting one of the small blue rubber figures more than bigger presents at Christmas or on birthdays. My brother had a Papa Smurf figure I was always stealing and squirreling away when he wasn’t paying attention. I grew up in Germany when I was very young, where Smurfmania was pretty well entrenched, but it wasn’t until I returned to the USA that I got the watch the cartoons rather than simply read and reread some kids books starring them (our TV in Germany only had one English channel and the only program I remember being able to watch, with great enthusiasm, was The Muppet Show). In fact, the first time I visited my grandparents’ house on our move back to the USA, we each found lying on our carefully laid out beds a plush Smurf doll and I was ecstatic. I still have mine, and my brother’s Papa Smurf doll which I stole, yet again.
Watching the cartoons was a clock-work highlight of my week. It meant Saturday to me, and it was something my siblings and I all agreed on. There would be no talking during the show, none at all, and if you spilled your cereal, you better clean it up quietly. I’m assuming this is all a typical story of kids in my generation. I couldn’t tell you exactly why I liked the Smurfs, but a lot of the medieval and folktale elements of the show seeped into my consciousness and probably nudged me further toward medieval studies later on in life. Even then I realized the nonsensical nature of the mythology- how they could live without more supplies in their village, not to mention how they reproduced, was a bit of a joke, but it was a joke viewers were in on.
So, all these years later, when Papercutz sent some PDFs of their English-language translated Smurf comics, the originals drawn by Peyo himself, my way, it was like being handed a strange time-capsule. I had already scooped up a couple of their paperback all-ages graphic novels out of sentimentality, and truth be told, a few years ago, I discovered I could add to my Smurf collection with vintage figures in shops. My favorite, of course, was the magician figure. I hopped right on board with a review, which turned out to be as much a celebration of Peyo’s remarkable imagination and beautiful artwork (there’s something about his rounded lines and crisp use of colors that just never ages) as an assessment of the plot of The BABY SMURF.
But this particular volume was rewarding because it assessed many of my childhood questions. Where DO baby Smurfs come from, and how do they fit into the Smurf universe? I found the comic to be so much more modern and edgy than I expected that it really turned my reading experience from a nostalgic interlude to an astonished salute to a great master of visual storytelling.
So check out my review for The Beat here, as well as a discussion of the preview contained in the upcoming GN of another work by Peyo that I didn’t know about previously, titled in English BENNY BREAKIRON. The fact that Peyo addresses superheroes in this character was another surprise that blew up in my face, much like those neatly tied red-bow packages you have to watch out for in the Smurf village. Enjoy!
In December of 2012, I dove in and started doing reviews for the Beat. Though I was just starting to find my way when it came to reviewing comics, I was helped along by the willingness of creators to provide interviews with insights into their creative process. My first two review-interviews dealt with one of my favorite comics subjects: the uncanny and weird. I grew up reading Edgar Allen Poe, and always loved it when the stalwart Nathaniel Hawthorne delved into the mystical. In my religious school upbringing, I noticed my teachers were always a little uncomfortable when things got truly weird in these great short stories, but I couldn’t have been happier. Pushing the limits of the imagination in creative works is one of the most noble aspects of any artistic endeavor, in my opinion.
Dan Goldman, longtime indie creator, has worked on his comic RED LIGHT PROPERTIES for seven years but is now more than pleased that it’s been picked up by Monkeybrain Comics for digital publication. I reviewed his first five issues of the entirely self-created comic and asked him a few questions about the uncanny and bizarre elements of his stories about a flawed but intriguing character, Jude Tobin, who “cleanses” real estate properties in Miami of the lingering effects of violence and pain. One choice quote from Goldman includes:
I’ve been researching the occult/paranormal since I was a boy. My grandfather died right after my fifth birthday and I used to see him around the house for years. After he passed, my mother shared with me something she’d read about Peter Seller’s death experiences during a heart attack and it just sunk down into my consciousness, emerging again around the time I got a library card. I think it was the same summer GHOSTBUSTERS came out. I was a weird little nerdling then; I used to ride my bike to the library during the summer (they had cold A/C) and I stayed mostly in the back aisle of the library, poring over musty old spirit photography books.
One of the things I found truly compelling was the way in which Goldman clearly connects personally with his subject matter. Each issue is also totally unique in its vibe and storytelling. Visually, Goldman is a fantastic artist, blending digital technology, photographs, and traditional artwork to create a twenty-first century ripping yarn. Check out my full review and extensive interview with Goldman here.
For my second review with The Beat, I found myself engaged with the work of a comics legend, Stephen Bissette. Not only is Bissette a committed scholar and author of works on comics, but he pays his experience drawing comics forward by teaching at The Center for Cartoon Studies in Vermont. His lifelong passion has been horror, from comics to films, and his recent works continue to conjure awe in his readers. I reviewed his Vermont Monster Guide as well as his truly old-school ‘Zine Monster Pie, and got the bask in the glow of some of his thoughts on the horror medium. Of course I was in awe, it’s Stephen Bissette! As a big fan of his work on SWAMP THING and a general weird tales junkie, this was one of those moments where you realize that you love what you do writing about comics. When I asked Stephen what he enjoyed most about the encyclopedia of the weird that is the Monster Guide (and it’ll make you want to leave the lights on no matter whether you’re anywhere near Vermont or not), he said:
It was just a pleasure to draw, period. It was great working with the art director and team at UPNE, but nothing was as much fun as just drawing the creatures. It was a path to getting my own drawing chops back up to speed after a lengthy period in which I really didn’t do much drawing, save for my work in the classroom at the Center for Cartoon Studies.
Bissette is nothing if not a masterful visual storyteller and an incredibly dedicated artist and author. He preserves the ambience of monster ‘Zine culture beautifully in Monster Pie with collaborator Denis St. John. It’s a compendium of the unpredictable and mood-laden, a full art gallery exhibition in a few folded pages. Bissette credited some of his return to ‘Zines to his experiences working at the Center for Cartoon Studies:
Zine culture was part and parcel of my experience growing up; some of my first published artwork appeared in 1970s genre movie fanzines like CRYPT OF TERROR, JAPANESE FANTASY FILM JOURNAL, and Ted Rypel’s OUTER LIMITS fanzine, and I contributed a fair amount to comics zines of the late 1970s and early 1980s, too. Zine culture was also central to Denis’s generation, via other kinds of comics and media zines; CCS’s first Fellow who became a fellow instructor, Robyn Chapman, rekindled my own enthusiasm for zines of all kinds with her sheer passion for zines. Robyn’s love for zines was absolute and genuine, and fueled the whole CCS zine culture in many ways. CCS is a zine and comic factory in its own right, its incredible what comes out of the basement production lab on a monthly basis.
I couldn’t have asked for two better guides into reviewing than Dan Goldman and Stephen Bissette. Their willingness to share their ideas and experiences made all the difference in opening my eyes to all that lies behind the production of such great weird tales. Check out my full review of The Vermont Monster Guide and Monster Pie here at the Beat, complete with Bissette’s discussion of their genesis and influences. A big thanks to both Dan Goldman and Stephen Bissette for their thought-provoking and truly creepy books, and also for taking the time to talk to their readers.