Dig Comics

Year in Review: BOOM! takes some hits but doesn’t go out

This has been a year of challenging transition for the Los Angeles-based comic book and graphic novel publisher BOOM! Studios. As I mentioned last year around this time, popular comics writer Mark Waid had stepped away from his role as Chief Creative Officer of BOOM! (although he continues to write Irredeemable and Incorruptible, two very strong sellers) and acclaimed writer/cartoonist Roger Langridge had wrapped up his final work on the much-loved The Muppet Show: The Comic Book. Unfortunately that turned out to be just the beginning, but the publisher has shown persistence in keeping their foothold in the industry by releasing new properties with sufficient success to cover for the properties that were lost over the year.

Irredeemable Vol. 1 (one of BOOM!'s strongest selling graphic novels)

Last December, I thought the BOOM Kids! imprint still had a lot of life left in it. But the risk with licensed properties is the owner of the licensed properties may eventually choose to not renew contracts to keep new comics coming. That’s just what the Walt Disney Company did, which resulted in the all-ages line today being entirely altered from what it was a year ago. Over this year, what had been a growing line of Disney-related comics that, in addition to the Muppets, included classic characters like Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck, beloved Disney Afternoon characters like Darkwing Duck and the cast of DuckTales, and recent stars from Pixar movies like The Incredibles and Cars, trickled away as Disney shifted their comics publishing to Marvel Comics, which they had acquired in December 2009. (Concurrently, Marvel has been releasing magazine-style reprints of a number of these stories, and early next year plans to publish its first all-new Disney story since the acquisition [although that may be a story originally published in Italy that’s simply never been published in English before].) The Pixar comics mostly ceased at the beginning of the year and the classic Disney material by July. The remaining Disney Afternoon material was allowed to wrap up throughout the Fall, with Darkwing Duck, one of the best-selling titles of the Disney material, concluding last month.

Meanwhile, in the publisher’s main line of comics, three other licensed comics that helped bring in sci-fi and horror readers concluded. Their 28 Days Later comic ran its course, ending with issue #24 (there are plans to revisit the world, although the third movie of the franchise 28 Months Later may be stuck in development). Farscape, based on the Sci-Fi Network show of the same name, wrapped up a few months later, with no apparent plans to continue. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, a faithful comics adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s short story of the same name, which served as the basis for the movie Blade Runner, also came to a close after a strong start in 2009. All three titles ended with estimated sales of 3,000-4,000 copies per issue among North American comic book stores, although they have had or are likely to have better cumulative sales over time in their collected forms as graphic novels.

Clive Barker's Hellraiser #1 (one of BOOM!'s strongest debuts this year)

As if all that wasn’t enough, a highly publicized launch of three super-hero comics somewhat sizzled out this year. The legendary Stan Lee, co-creator of many Marvel Comics characters from the 1960s, helped conceive of a trio of new titles written and illustrated by some acclaimed modern creators, but even the possibility of a new Marvel Universe couldn’t sustain the mini-line past a year. While all three titles, Soldier Zero, The Traveler and Starborn, did well initially at comic shops, sales drifted over the last 12 months. The last issues were released over the last month or so, with the material being used for a set of decent selling graphic novels.

When big names like Disney and Stan Lee don’t work out for whatever reason, it’s time to double down. And that’s just what BOOM! Studios has done this year, replacing outgoing properties with new material both familiar and brand new. They have released well-received comic books based on the new Planet of the Apes movie, a new Hellraiser comic, and an anticipated Steed and Mrs. Peel from the ’60s Avengers spy TV series by popular comics writer Grant Morrison. You’ll note in that Planet of the Apes link that they created a mini-site that includes web-comics and other material to help reach out to potential readers. That’s a new strategy they’ve been practicing well for several of their launches this year. Similar digital initiatives were done for the launches of Michael Moorcock’s Elric: The Balance Lost. They tested this idea by releasing a free PDF sample of Hellraiser through Wired.com. This savvy awareness of the online world is also being used to help out promising original comics that haven’t quite captured the best sales, as in the case of Dracula: The Company of Monsters, a horror/thriller of a modern corporation trying to control the legendary vampire. The 12 issues released so far are being serialized as a web-comic for free, and new content will eventually be added, with graphic novel collections in print to follow. It should be interesting to see if a traditional print comics publisher can succeed with a formula that works well for many original web-comics. (Avatar Press seemed to do well enough going this route with FreakAngels, running from 2008 to this past August, although it’s something they’ve yet to repeat, which might mean it wasn’t successful enough to try again.) In addition to the successful launches and web-initiatives, BOOM! Studios continues to keep their digital comics library robust. You can read most of their comics through comiXology (or through their mobile apps for iOS and Android devices).

First Peanuts graphic novel

BOOM! Studios also re-branded their kids line as kaboom! Studios, headlined by the first Peanuts graphic novel (based on the new animated special Happiness is a Warm Blanket, Charlie Brown) and a new Peanuts ongoing series. (While selling very well, new Peanuts material not from the hand of the late Charles M. Schulz hasn’t been universally accepted, as it was his wishes that no new comics be created after he died. However, he was specifically referring to the comic strip, and there is evidence of others working on Peanuts in comic books released in the 1960s. Regardless, since the Schulz Estate does not have majority ownership of Peanuts and the brand management firm Iconix does (80%/20% split), new comic books is what we get. However the comic strips appearing in newspapers today still consist entirely of rerun strips by Schulz.) kaboom! also brought Roger Langridge back to BOOM! with a new original comic called Snarked. While it lacks Muppets, it’s missing none of the humor and charm. There are also two new WordGirl graphic novels based on the PBS animated series.

It hasn’t all worked out (their Decision 2012 comics straw poll experiment fizzled out despite being a fun idea, and their promising BOOM! Town literary comics imprint with Denis Kitchen has yet to really kick in), but it’s worked out well enough for them to solidly maintain their position as the seventh largest North American comics publisher, bubbling just under 2% of the market. Considering the big changes they’ve been through and the economic tumult surrounding them, that’s no mean feat.

Comics Publishers Come Out in Support of Dangerous Online Piracy Bill

Happy Holidays, everyone. Now stop using the internet. That appears to be the message from a number of comics publishers, however unintentional.

On Thursday, December 22, the United States House of Representatives Judiciary Committee, chaired by Congressman Lamar Smith (R-TX), released a list of supporters of H.R. 3261, the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA). This bill is an attempt by lawmakers to address intellectual property security concerns on the internet. However, it has been flagged by various organizations and individuals for going too far, giving broad power without due process, limiting free speech and discouraging technical innovation. Graphic Policy has a great summary of the bill’s weaknesses and how it relates to the comic book industry. Some are claiming it could cripple social sites like YouTube, Facebook, and Tumblr, along with thousands of harmless fan-sites and any other sites sharing their IP addresses.

Among the corporations and organizations listed as supporters of SOPA are the following comic book and graphic novel publishers:

Also included is the Association of American Publishers, which counts DC Comics, Disney Publishing and more among their members.

As we come out of the holidays, many of these organizations might have to start responding to a vocal outpouring of concern among customers and partners, and in some cases, threats of organized boycotts.

There has been considerable push back already, and from public pressure some organizations have dropped their support of SOPA. The Graphic Artists Guild has retracted their support, stating “We are concerned that the bill may have unintended consequences that may do more harm than good.” They also added that they “have not spent a dime on any lobbyist in Congress for this bill”. The largest domain name registrar GoDaddy faced massive threats of boycotts, and has also reversed their position. Time will tell if more will shift their support.

(via Graphic Policy)

Calendar Uses Comics to Tell Story Every Day of the Year

Far Flung 2012 Calendar - frontComic books and graphic novels typically tell stories using panels, or little boxes, lined up one after the other in a sequence depicting different moments in time. Similarly, most calendars use boxes to visually represent the sequence of days in each month. Along comes cartoonist Chris Brandt, who noticed this similarity and ingeniously merged the two into what may be the first calendar comic book.

The Far Flung 2012 Calendar uses each month to tell a chapter in a year-long adventure of four cartoon animals. The top image serves as the splash page, and then each day of the month is one panel or moment in that chapter, just like a long comic strip. It’s a fun, funny adventure of a sheep escaping from a farm with the help of a rabbit, turtle and ring-tailed lemur. The quartet steal a car and head off for freedom and cute shenanigans!

Originally made as a 2000 calendar with a very limited print run (only 300 copies were made), Chris Brandt updated it for 2012 with an equally limited print run at the insistence of friends. But this time he’s made the calendar available as a free downloadable PDF that anyone can print out and hang on their wall to enjoy for the whole year.

More pictures are below, or check out the mini-gallery I made. For more on Chris Brandt, who is also serving as a producer with me on Dig Comics, check out his website Bainst.com.

Far Flung 2012 Calendar - January

Far Flung 2012 Calendar - May close-up

Alternative Comics Publisher Brings Literary Graphic Novels to Digital E-Readers

Louis Riel: A Comic-Strip Biography by Chester Brown

Alternative comic book and graphic novel publishers have been slow to bring their material to digital platforms like the iPad, Kindle and Nook e-readers but one of the most acclaimed and influential has made an initial step. Drawn & Quarterly announced yesterday that Louis Riel: A Comic-Strip Biography and Paying For It: A Comic-Strip Memoir About Being A John, two of the most critically praised graphic novels by cartoonist Chester Brown, are now available on the Kobo Vox e-reader. Kobo apps are also available on the iPad and iPhone (although for the life of me I couldn’t figure out how to do a search on either version of the app, and had to go to their website just to set up a new account) as well as the Android.

Louis Riel is a meticulously researched yet somewhat fictionalized biographical account of the life of the Canadian folk hero and leader of the Métis people. TIME Magazine named it one of the best comics of 2003. It won prestigious Harvey Awards for Best Writer and Best Graphic Album, and was also nominated by the Ignatz and Eisner Awards both for Outstanding Graphic Novel. In October, Louis Riel was selected for Canada Reads, an annual competition put on by the CBC to select that country’s essential read.

Paying For It is Brown’s newest release, and like the sub-title says, it tells of his experiences hiring prostitutes. The controversial release was covered here previously and has continued to inspire debate and discussion, as well as consideration as one of the year’s best releases.

Drawn & Quarterly and Kobo are Canadian companies that have both agreed to a non-exclusive contract, with the implication being that the publisher is free to distribute their digital books on other e-readers. In a rare bit of generosity, Drawn & Quarterly also revealed that proceeds from e-book sales on Kobo would be split 50/50 with Drawn & Quarterly and Chester Brown, per the Writers’ Union of Canada. The majority of comics publishers have not revealed what, if any, cut creators get from digital sales. Drawn & Quarterly plans to add more creators to Kobo and to also expand to other devices next year. So maybe we can look forward to being about to buy Kate Beaton’s Hark! A Vagrant, The Death-Ray by Chris Ware, Big Questionsby Anders Nilsen, Wilson by Daniel Clowes, Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea by Guy Delisle, A Drifting Life by Yoshihiro Tatsumi, and so much more.

(via Publishers Weekly)

Comics Lose Two Original Innovators

Two of the true innovators and original pioneers of the comic book industry died recently.

Jerry Robinson died Wednesday, December 7, at the age of 89. Robinson will forever be most linked with the 1940 creation of Batman’s nemesis and possibly the first super-villain, The Joker. During this time, he also co-created Robin the Boy Wonder to be Batman’s sidekick, which established what soon became an iconic narrative device for superhero comics, and of course the inevitable wave of sidekick imitators. As if forever changing the superhero genre wasn’t enough, he also created another iconic element of Batman, Bruce Wayne’s butler Alfred. Following his genre-defining work in superhero comics in the 1930s and ’40s, Robinson went on to fight for creator rights (notably in support of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, co-creators of Superman), write The Comics: An Illustrated History of Comic Strip Art (one of the earliest publications to detail the history of the art form [Dark Horse Comics published a revised and expanded edition earlier this year]), as well as establish CartoonArts International, a syndicate that helped create distribution networks for political cartoonists around the world. He is the only person to have served as President of both the National Cartoonists Society (NCS) and the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists (AAEC), and also served as guest curator for several art galleries hosting shows featuring comics art.

Joe Simon died last Thursday, December 14, at the age of 98 of an undisclosed illness. In late 1940 with his partner Jack Kirby, Simon created Captain America, one of the first and certainly the most influential superhero meant to stir up patriotism as the United States considered involvement in World War II. The first issue of Captain America Comics, released in December 1940 (cover-dated March 1941), brazenly featured Captain America slugging Adolf Hitler in the jaw right on the cover. While Hitler now seems like a comic book villain, he was then a real-world political leader. With nearly one million copies sold, it was considered an instant hit and got the attention of Nazi sympathizers and anti-war activists who wrote angry and even threatening letters. Flag-draped superheroes soon came out of the woodwork but few could compete. Simon served as head editor of the Marvel Comics precursor, Timely Comics, during this time, but soon moved on with Kirby to create a brand new genre for the comics art form: romance. Now frequently satirized, romance comics were a massive hit and brought in a whole new demographic. The two were also pioneers in establishing the horror and true crime genres in comics, which were also huge sellers. Simon went on to consult for Harvey Comics in the 1960s, helping to develop then new characters Casper the Friendly Ghost and Richie Rich. Simon also wrote two autobiographies, The Comic Book Makers and this year’s Joe Simon: My Life in Comics.

Indicative of how small the industry is and was back then, the two shared studio space in New York City for a time.

Do Graphic Novels Belong in the Classroom?

Teachers have really been embracing comics and graphic novels as a powerful and effective tool in the classroom over the last 5-10 years but there is still a debate that goes on in those circles as to whether comics are just a lazy way out of “real” reading.

Award-winning cartoonist Jeff Smith, who created the mega-popular and wonderful Bone series, was a guest last week for a discussion on whether graphic novels belong in the classroom. Also speaking in defense of comics was Larry Swartz, co-author of Learning to Read with Graphic Power and educator at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education. Rounding out the panel was children’s book author Mahtab Narsimhan (The Tiffin). The discussion was hosted and moderated by Cheryl Jackson for the TVO Parents Book Club Meeting. TVO is an Ontario-based non-profit TV station and organization dedicated to education. (Kinda like PBS here in the States, I guess.)

Here’s the entire discussion:

One point that I wish was addressed was the comment that there are only a few words in comics. Yes, in comparison to prose, it’s not pages of blocks of text. But try breezing through Chris Claremont’s notoriously wordy Uncanny X-Men. But more seriously I love how Jeff Smith touched on the challenges and imagination needed to read comics, with the mind having to imagine how the story progresses from one panel to the next. It isn’t necessarily easier than reading prose, it’s just different. Mahtab Narsimhan’s example of Asterix is designed to be read fast and easy. Not so with something like The Sandman or Asterios Polyp or From Hell or any other number of examples. Narsimhan has completely missed out on the levels of communication and interpretive skills at play with comics, such as symbolism and non-verbal communications. These elements are relayed visually without accompanying text hammering each and every point with redundancy, and expressing it in a way personal and unique to the artist and their style, all while simultaneously playing off the accompanying text’s own information. Fortunately the trend is that educators are understanding this more and more.

(via The Beat)

Comics Surge Somewhat – But Will It Be Too Late, Will It Be Enough?

Mobs of people & comic books, reunited at last?

Fueled almost entirely by enthusiasm and public interest in DC Comics‘ bold New 52 initiative, the comic book industry is seeing what appears to be a mild turnaround from a 3-year sinking sales trend at local comic book stores. While pulling sales through comic shops into the black for the first time since 2008 is good news, it’s a modest victory that is already showing signs of diminishing returns in the long term. And what’s worse, it may be too little too late for people trying to make a living making comics.

The most halting example of this occurred late last week when a published comics artist posted a message to his personal Facebook page that many interpreted as a suicide note. Over the weekend, the comics community rallied to support him and arrange for help. This artist has provided artwork for the industry’s major publishers, Marvel Comics, DC Comics, Dark Horse Comics, and Image Comics, as both work-for-hire and producing creator-owned comics. But even with his resume, his calls for work were not being returned, his savings were on the verge of drying up, and desperation had sunk in. For most, creating comics is a lonely profession and few have the business acumen to market their creative talents. After working in the industry since the early ’90s, he seemed to think his career, the outlet for his great talent and passion, was over. Fortunately, he is now safe and getting some much needed support. But how many other stories like his are out there? And how many else are seeing their careers retract not because of lack of talent but because of a slowly vanishing market?

Writer Brian Wood is a critically acclaimed writer who has created memorable comics such as Demo, DMZ, Northlanders and more. On his Tumblr page, he recently spoke frankly about his career and the fluctuating state of the industry in the face of digital vs. print.

I’ve had series cancelled recently.  I’ve had pitches rejected for financial reasons.  I’ve seen my editors laid off. I’ve taken page rate cuts (a LOT of us have).  My income from royalties have dropped.  Most comic shops don’t carry my books.  I have very good reasons to suspect my career in comics may be drastically reduced in the near future. Things just plain suck, but I’ve taken these hits, figuring that everyone else is having hard times too.

This isn’t limited to writers and artists, the two creative roles typically seen as the headlining positions in comics production. Comics would simply not be comics without inkers, colorists, and letterers to make the finishing touches of merging the writer’s script with the artist’s pencils. And yet, they too are seeing less and less opportunities. Gerry Alanguilan wrote and illustrated the graphic novel Elmer, but he first made a name for himself in the industry as an inker for superhero and adventure comics published by DC, Marvel and Image. He too is seeing job opportunities vanishing. He wrote the following on his blog:

It’s a hard hard business. There has been a seismic shift in the comics industry that occured over the last 10 years. On one hand one can point a finger at the dire state of world economy, but at the same time, one can definitely point a finger at developments in technology that has affected the art and craft of creating comics.

Although many in the chain of comic book creation are affected, it is comic book inkers and hand letterers that I think are being hit hardest. With the development of new ways of producing comics, companies are starting to use inkers and hand letterers less and less.

He also links to inker Joe Weems and artist Sean Gordon Murphy echoing these concerns with their own observations as professionals in the industry.

It’s not just members of the creative team. As Wood mentioned above, editors and other staff members have found themselves unemployed. Marvel Comics, which until DC’s surge in September has been the number one comics publisher in North America for at least the last decade or two, has recently been placed under strict new budget requirements that resulted in layoffs of editors, executives and other staff among other cut backs. New comic book series in the pipeline have been taken off the schedule and low-selling comics have been cancelled. The publisher allegedly intends to double-down on their big-ticket properties (Avengers, Spider-Man, X-Men) and simply publish more of the popular stuff instead of taking risks with new, unproven or inconsistent properties. Of course this means less available jobs.

Marvel is hardly the only publisher going through these kinds of changes. DC Comics made radical staff cuts and changes last year before storming the charts with the New 52. While multiple publishers have reported stronger sales since the New 52 launched in September, it was too late for some employees. Dark Horse was forced to lay off staff earlier this year due to struggling sales. Likewise, a number of comic book stores just haven’t seen enough improvements, such as Evermore Nevermore in Mesa, Arizona, which is closing after only 2 years due to the recession and not enough interest from the light downtown foot traffic.

The larger financial picture makes an immense challenge seem impossible. But until the industry makes a concerted joint effort in capturing new audiences with varied tastes, the bigger and bigger publishing stunts working within the same infrastructure will only go so far.