Month: January 2012

Something for Music Fans: Ten on the Tenth

If you love music, sharing it and discovering it, you should head over to Ten on the Tenth. Every 10th of the month, I’ll throw out a theme and then you have 24 hours to post 10 songs you feel fit within that theme. Any musical genre, any variety. Check it out, it starts tomorrow! There’s also a Facebook page.

A bunch of things inspired this, but a few things in particular seemed to jump start it. The classic rock/album rock Los Angeles radio station 100.3 The Sound does a set of ten songs from a particular year every 10:00 AM and PM, which they call 10@10. It’s always fun to see what they pick. Then my friend Paul Bushman was a guest DJ for the free form KXLU 88.9 FM because he was such a generous donator to the Loyola Marymount-based station. He brought in a set of songs built around his own theme. Then another friend, Bill Faure, sent me a mix CD of songs covered by Carly Simon. All of the songs were covers of songs written by men in her life. Then yet another friend Glenn Blakeslee set up A Day of Sunsets, where people from all over the world come together once a month to share photos of their local sunset. All of these things seemed to eventually coalesce in my head to create Ten on the Tenth, a fun interactive game for music lovers to come together once a month. I’m very curious to see the turnout and the creative songs picked for our first theme.

British Cartoonist Legend Ronald Searle Dies at 91

St. Trinian's: The Entire Appalling Business

“Did I do all that?” asked Ronald Searle in an interview with Channel 4 News last year, reflecting on his immense body of work. “I must’ve been a maniac.”

Searle, who created the popular St. Trinian’s, died in his sleep during the night of last Friday, December 30. He was 91 years old.

The St. Trinian’s cartoons, first growing to prominence in the late 1940s, satirized British boarding schools by depicting subversive and naughty, at times criminally so, school girls. They inspired a series of movies in the ’50s and ’60s, and a recent relaunch. But perhaps more significantly, they catapulted Searle onto a national and even international stage, as he went on to illustrate books, such as the popular Molesworth series by Geoffrey Willans; magazines like Life, The New Yorker and Punch; travel and poetry books; advertisements; and more. His immense output influenced hundreds of future artists, including Matt Groening (The Simpsons), Pat Oliphant (Pulitzer Prize winning political cartoonist) and Richard Thompson (Cul de Sac).

In the Jungle - Prisoners Cutting Into the Mountain near Konyu, Thai-Burma Railway, June 1943 (Imperial War Museum)

More amazing than all of that is Searle’s World War II experience, which established him as a fearless artist and chronicler. He enlisted in the Royal Engineers, where he was stationed in Singapore until it was overtaken by the Japanese in late 1941. Searle became a prisoner of war, where he was eventually shipped to Burma as forced labor on the Death Railway. Over 60,000 Allied POWs worked on the project, with 16,000 dying in the process (6,000 of them British soldiers), in addition to some 200,000 Asian laborers with about 90,000 dying. The jungle was a breading ground for cholera, and the harsh conditions and poor treatment left those that didn’t die malnourished, sick and near-death. Over the four years as a POW, Searle’s weight dropped to 85 pounds or less, he contracted malaria (25 times!), dengue fever, beriberi and suffered from a tropical ulcer that ate his ankle to the bone and some skin condition that covered his body in a festering crust. He was also subjected to beatings and even a guard’s pick axe in his back. Through it all, he kept drawing to capture the horrors he witnessed. Some 300 illustrations were created and hidden away under the mattresses of dead cholera victims and other places that guards wouldn’t touch. Discovery would’ve resulted in decapitation.

Following his liberation at the end of World War II, some of this work was published but it was apparently “too soon” for readers at the time. However, To the Kwai – and Back: War Drawings 1939-1945, published in 1986 by Souvenir Press, fared better. Most of the illustrations are also displayed in the Imperial War Museum in London.

In the ’70s, he helped his wife Monica, who was going through intense chemotherapy treatment for an aggressive breast cancer, by drawing “romantic and perfect” cartoons of Monica as Mrs. Mole, a blissful cartoon character content at home. Each time his wife received a treatment, he would give her a new drawing of hope for what the future could hold. 47 were made in all. The two ended up having 50 long years together. She died this past July. Last October, following one of her final wishes, Searle published for the first time the illustrations he had made for her. Les Trés Riches Heures de Mrs. Mole was released in Europe in support of National Breast Cancer Awareness Month.

Following his death, his family released the following statement earlier this week: “Ronald William Fordham Searle, born 3 March 1920, passed away peacefully in his sleep, after a short illness, with his children, Kate and John, and his grandson, Daniel, beside him, on 30 December 2011 in Draguignan, France. He requested a private cremation with no fuss and no flowers.”

Nucleus just east of Los Angeles has a gallery exhibit on Ronald Searle scheduled to begin this Saturday, January 7, with an opening reception from 7 to 10 PM. The exhibit closes Sunday, January 29.

Year in Review: Digital Comics are Really Here

ComiXology leads digital revolution

While comic book stores were struggling (and in some cases closing) through much of 2011, the other major distribution outlet for comic books and graphic novels also faced a tough time. Book stores became a major outlet in the 2000s, primarily due to the manga explosion that brought a whole new audience back to sequential art in the United States. But with the dominance of and the rise of digital e-readers, book stores were forced to evolve. Unfortunately Borders, the second largest US book store chain and the first to usher in manga to American readers, failed to do so in time and went into bankruptcy this year and caused a ripple effect throughout the comics industry.

For some comics publishers, the effect was minimal, as previous payment issues with Borders caused some to shift their business away from them before the bankruptcy was announced. But others felt it more strongly, such as Los Angeles-based Tokyopop, the second largest manga publisher in the United States. In the beginning of the year, Borders stopped paying its vendors in an effort to avoid bankruptcy. This resulted in orders getting cut, and with Borders being Tokyopop’s largest customer account, income was severely damaged. Layoffs at Tokypop followed. Despite the late-entry hit manga Hetalia: Axis Powers, it couldn’t reverse the damage of a closing Borders, online piracy (and a digital strategy that amounted to too little too late), and the under-performing Priest feature film. By May, Tokyopop was holding a garage sale to empty out their LA offices. With their termination of US publishing, licenses were canceled, leaving a good number of manga series unfinished. It’s difficult to know how many casual readers of those series drifted away from reading manga and comics entirely after their favorite manga simply stopped coming out. In October, Tokyopop founder Stu Levy revealed that he is “continuing to explore any and all opportunities to relaunch the manga publishing operations” but it will require him having to renegotiate contracts with Japanese publishers. In the meantime, Tokyopop remains as a modest web-newsletter about Asian pop culture, in a partnership with GeekChicDaily.

Viz blazes own path, offers digital subscriptions to Shonen Jump Alpha

It was clear that another distribution outlet was needed, and fortunately one has been steadily growing over the last two years. Digital comics allow people to read print comics and manga on the web or mobile devices such as the iPad, iPhone, Android phones and tablets, Kindle and Nook. Companies have been popping up to provide publishers with the service of configuring their comics to the digital landscape and selling them on these devices. The digital distributor ComiXology has pulled ahead as the clear industry leader, with an exclusive partnership with DC Comics and partnerships with almost every other major comics publisher and many smaller ones too. Other prominent digital distributors are Graphicly, with their focus on community-building, and iVerse Media’s Comics+. Some publishers have chosen to build their own in-house digital distribution systems, such as Dark Horse Digital and Viz Manga. Some publishers are even shifting entirely to digital or publishing digitally first, mimicking the successful web-comics model of building an audience to support print releases.

Most significant in 2011 is the near industry-wide move by comics and manga publishers to ramp up their digital output. This was most notable in numerous announcements by publishers to release digital and print versions simultaneously (frequently called “day-and-date”). Prior to this, digital comics were released erratically, sometimes as far out as 6 months after the print version, seriously undermining the ability of digital to be taken as a serious method for consumers to become engaged in specific titles. The brand new Kindle Fire tablet/e-reader, which had huge sales for the holidays, has available an exclusive set of 100 DC Comics graphic novels, along with a free, pre-loaded Comics by ComiXology app.

Before a lot of these digital announcements were made (and when most digital comics were only available through the iPad and iPhone), digital comics were showing significant growth as sales doubled for the first half of 2011. Prior to that, digital comics sales were estimated at $6 to $8 million for 2010. Print sales for the North American comic book industry were estimated at under $420 million for 2010. While still only a fraction of print, digital is still extremely young with immense potential to reach new and lapsed readers.

Improvisers’ New Years Resolution: To Make You Laugh

If we make you laugh in 2012, we’ll have done our job. So we can do this one of two ways. Either you can come to one of our shows and enjoy a fully-improvised hour of comedy based on your suggestions, or we can follow you home from work one night and do a show in your living room. Look, I’m not threatening you, but one way might leave you with a broken TV. Not due to any violence on our part, we’re just kind of clumsy.

So what will it be? You can think it over. No need to rush into a decision. After all, you’ve got three opportunities this month to save your coffee table.

Here are the details of our first shows of 2012, straight from the freshly-updated Upcoming Shows page:

M.i.’s Westside Comedy Comedy Theater, Friday, January 6th
also featuring The Waterbrains and Mission: IMPROVable
Featured Meathands: TBA
Westside Comedy Theater
1323-A Third Street Promenade (in alley between 3rd and 4th Street)
Santa Monica, CA 90401
8:00pm; Admission $10; Rated:
Show Rating: Late Night

Family-Friendly Comedy Night, Saturday, January 14th
with special guest Jump Start Comedy Improv!

Featured Meathands: TBA
Mary Pickford Studio
8885 Venice Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90034
(310) 559-8868
8:00pm; Admission $7 ($3 for kids 12 & under); Rated:
Show Rating: Network Television

Tag Team Comedy, Saturday, January 21st
with special guest!
Featured Meathands: TBA
Mary Pickford Studio
8885 Venice Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90034
(310) 287-3700
8:00pm; Admission $7; Rated:
Show Rating: Late Night

The above was cross-posted on the Magic Meathands blog. I’ve been a member of the Magic Meathands for nearly 3 years, performing well over 100 shows of improvised comedy. If you’re in the Los Angeles area, give yourself a treat and catch one of our shows.

Year in Review: Superhero Comics double down

The New 52 hits comics stands

Much of this year was a struggle for most of the comics industry, but it seemed particularly apparent in the primary publishers of American superhero comic books, Marvel Comics and DC Comics. Those two publishers also comprise about 75% of the comic book market, as tracked through North American comic book stores, so if they’re struggling, the entire industry struggles. For the first 3/4 of 2010, sales at comic book stores drifted away.

Some retailers began to complain that Marvel and DC weren’t providing any big high profile comics to bring readers in. Through much of the 2000s, both publishers had released big summer events that consumed much of their respective lines. These big crossover events, like DC’s Identity Crisis (2004) and Marvel’s Civil War (2006), garnered some headlines from mainstream media and definitely got fans talking. Most important, it got them buying. Soon, much of their publishing strategies were built around the next event, with comics devoted to teasers, prequels, accompanying mini-series, spin-offs, sequels and so forth. It got to the point where it would literally cost one or two hundred dollars to get every issue that was part of one single event, if one was that much of a compulsive completionist (and let’s face it, plenty of superhero fans are just that). Toward the end of the 2000s, readers started to complain of what became called “event fatigue”. The never-ending cycle of an earth-shattering, teeth-gnashing crisis leading right into the next bleak crisis was losing appeal. So DC and Marvel took a break from them, although they kept publishing smaller more contained mini-events. Unfortunately, with a few exceptions, they didn’t replace these sales magnets with compelling comics that would bring readers back (or, to dream the impossible dream, bring new readers in).

So to answer retailers’ concerns, instead of innovating, they returned to the same trick: big line-wide crossover events. Unfortunately it didn’t work this time. Marvel’s Fear Itself and DC’s Flashpoint were largely met with lukewarm sales and reviews this summer. Meanwhile, Hollywood was showing that it could actually do halfway decent superhero stories, certainly more accessible, entertaining and populist than their current comics counterparts. All summer long, big screen audiences were hit by Thor, X-Men: First Class and Captain America: The First Avenger, with no compelling reason to carry any interest in the characters to comic book stores. Even DC Comics’ valiant promotion of rolling back or holding cover prices at $2.99, instead of the increasingly common and excessive $3.99, didn’t do much to turn losses around.

So it finally became clear something truly big had to be done. Waving arms around yelling “hey look!” in the traditional fashion didn’t get anyone to really notice or care, so it was time to bring back the old stand-by of adding in a hearty table flip. Just after their Flashpoint crossover had started, DC Comics announced that their entire superhero universe would be (sorta) reborn. Every series would be cancelled and an entirely new line-up of 52 comics would start over the next month. In many ways, it’s the mother of all events, and similar to a move DC Comics made in 1985 with Crisis on Infinite Earths, where their entire universe was reset for the first time. The difference this time is that there would be a clean break. Starting August 31, every DC Universe comic book was set back to issue #1, with updated costumes and streamlined origin to create a younger, hipper world of superheroes. The New 52 got a lot of press. DC’s chief executives and architects went on an aggressive tour of comic book stores to win over support of the massive gamble. They offered retailers great incentives and the ability to return unsold comics. They did interviews for radio, TV, newspapers, websites. They made TV commercials that airing on cable networks, played before movie trailers and streamed online. Yes, they did something almost unprecedented: they did real marketing to people outside of the current comics reading habit. Letting people know that something they might like exists is a foreign concept to most comic book publishers, but somehow it worked. Sales have been great. In many cases, sales of relaunched books doubled the first month of the launch. DC Comics’ market share jumped to make them the #1 comics publisher of North America for the last quarter of 2011, after at least a decade of being #2 to Marvel. Some other publishers have even reported improved sales for their own unrelated comics as a possible side effect of the New 52.

Miles Morales stars in Ultimate Comics Spider-Man #1

So the industry is saved, right? Well… not quite. Reviews have been mixed, the consensus seems to be that some books are good, some are OK, some are bad. There are concerns over excessive violence and objective depictions of females, just as there were before the relaunch. After five months, retailers are already seeing sales settling back down to how their stores were selling DC books before the New 52 launch. Unfortunately that has historically been the pattern with events. Initial enthusiasm reflects in temporary sales bumps. But without  sustaining quality that speaks to larger audiences, it’s always temporary until the next big event needs to be concocted.

While Marvel hasn’t done something quite as aggressive relaunching their entire line, they have been making changes, amid a series of layoffs and cutbacks. Probably their highest profile move was their new Spider-Man, the multi-racial Miles Morales, in their Ultimate Comics imprint, also first announced in USA Today. They’ve also announced plans to release in 2012 a new line of original graphic novels updating the origins of their most popular characters. Previously swearing that original graphic novels just didn’t make financial sense to them, the move is presumed to be a response to DC’s successful Superman: Earth Oneoriginal graphic novel, released in 2010.

Both Marvel and DC also stepped up their schedules in releasing digital comics. DC announced they would release their comics on the web and mobile devices the same day their print comics are released in comic book stores the same day their New 52 began, August 31. Marvel has been slowly rolling out a similar strategy instead of a line-wide shift all at once. They announced to Gizmodo in November that by March 2012, all of their titles would be on a simultaneous digital/print release schedule (excluding licensed comics and their mature MAX imprint). Marvel was the first of the two to experiment with this kind of release. Comic shop owners have been nervous about digital stealing away customers, and their vocal protests is believed to be the reason for the staggered pricing schedule that has become standard for day-and-date digital releases. For digital comics released the same time as their print counterpart, their price will match the print version’s cover price (typically between $2.99 and $3.99). After a month, the price drops to $1.99. Both Marvel and DC tend to have sales that drop some prices to $0.99, and some issues are available for free.

Did DC’s New 52 just stall the inevitable? How will Marvel respond to regain their lost market share? How will retailers who rely on superhero comics deal with digital comics? 2012 will be an interesting year.