Dig Comics

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.

Web-Series Makes Use of Comic Book Talent

The new web-series Shelf Life debuted recently on YouTube. Conceived and produced by voice-actors Yuri Lowenthal (Ben 10) and Tara Platt (Naruto) of Monkey Kingdom Productions, the comedy delivers quick snippets of life as an action figure stuck on a kid’s shelf.

Lowenthal is a life-long comics fan, and through his career (he was also the voice of Superman in the Legion of Super-Heroes cartoon and Iceman in Wolverine and the X-Men), he’s befriended and now collaborated with people from comics. Comics writer Paul Jenkins (Hellblazer, Spectaculer Spider-Man) has also written for several video games, and considering how many video games both Lowenthal and Platt have voiced, it was probably only a matter of time before their paths crossed. Jenkins co-wrote the episodes of Shelf Life with Lowenthal and also directed each episode. Additionally comics artist Chris Moreno (Toy Story: The Mysterious Stranger, World War Hulk: Front Line), who collaborated with Jenkins’ Sidekick comic book series, provided artwork for the posters in the background.

Here’s the latest episode so far (and my favorite):

Comic Books Have Heart: Hero Initiative Raises Money for Creators in Need

You might not think it, but the comics community has a big heart. One great example is The Hero Initiative, a Los Angeles-based charity that raises money for creators who are in dire straits (not the band but the financial situation). Here’s a video I put together of a special event held at Meltdown Comics this past Saturday night.

For you savvy comics folks, that’s writer Mark Waid of Kingdom Come fame yelling out “you’ve made a powerless enemy”. He and producer Tom DeSanto were probably the most generous bidders. Mike Malve of Epic Digital Media was the winner of the Alex Ross cover in the video above. The entire night raised about $15,000 for The Hero Initiative.

Cross-Appeal Comics (or How to Get KISS fans to read Archie Comics)

The first installment in a story teaming up Archie and his Riverdale pals with the legendary band KISS was released yesterday from Archie Comics. To celebrate the event, KISS co-founders Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley were joined by Archie’s writer Alex Segura and artist Dan Parent for a signing last night at Golden Apple Comics in LA.

Jaded comics readers were quick to deride the idea of an Archie/KISS team-up when it was first announced over the summer, but it’s actually not only picking up on several traditions but it’s just plain smart marketing. KISS has a long history with comics, going back to their 1977 special published by Marvel Comics and printed with their own blood mixed with red ink. KISS also has extremely loyal and enthusiastic fans, and a number of those fans are passing their love for the band down to their kids, and they will gladly check out whatever the band produces. The crossover is also reminiscent of the bizarre meeting of Archie and Marvel’s gun-toting vigilante, the Punisher.

I checked out the signing at Golden Apple last night. The first one hundred to show up at 10 am were given wristbands to stand in line for the signing. And the fans definitely turned out. The store had the line weaving around the store and out the front door. The other rule was that they would only be signing the comic (so no signing records, etc.). With 100 people and only an hour to sign, some pressure was on, but Simmons and Stanley treated their fans great. They also reminded them of who actually made the comic, frequently directing attention to Segura and Parent. Simmons in particular is a definite comics fan with extensive knowledge of who worked on what going back to the ’50s and ’60s. And unlike some celebrity-related comics, he was very hands-on in the approval process. Having a rock ‘n’ roll star direct focus to the art form is nothing but good news in my book. How many other comic book signings does the LA Weekly cover? Sure, the only reason they were there was because Gene Simmons was in town. But it still resulted in the LA Weekly photographer enthusiastically getting shots of Segura and Parent in front of big Archie Comics banners, and the LA Weekly reporter taking pains to get it right of which one did “the words” and which one did the art.

Is it the biggest victory ever in getting the act of reading comics back in the consciousness of America? No, but how many other comics are reaching out to glam and heavy metal fans who otherwise maybe wouldn’t buy a comic? A great reminder that almost every demographic not reading comics now is worth pursuing.

Missed It: Dig Comics video review

Here’s a video review of the documentary Dig Comics that I somehow missed when it was originally released. I helped produce the doc short, which won Best Documentary at Comic-Con International: San Diego’s Independent Film Festival, and has also been an official selection at the Cannes and Vancouver international film festivals (among about a dozen other film fests). We shot some more footage a few weekends back and are ramping up for some epic comic evangelism action.

The video was produced by InMag.com, Video Symphony, and Action on Film.

To watch the full 20-minute doc plus a new 10-minute pilot, check out DigComics.com.

(Oh and Miguel Cima’s name is pronounced “see-ma” but otherwise a good review. I hope reviewer Jennifer Marks checked out one of any number of fine comic book stores in Los Angeles, such as Meltdown Comics, Golden Apple, Secret Headquarters, House of Secrets, The Comic Bug, and more!)

Bonus alternate trailer of the original Dig Comics for the NewFilmmakers LA screening:

Best Comics of 2011 – A List of Lists for the Listophiles

Whether published as comic books, graphic novels, manga, web comics, digital comics, or some other form of sequential art, comics published this year continues a fantastic renaissance in the art form that brings more creativity and innovation. Barely able to contain their excitement, several outlets have already released their lists for the year’s best. And since we’re now knee deep in the holiday shopping season, let’s see what has won the attention of critics and reviewers in 2011.

I’ll add to the list as more are released. Check out the artists own webpages and check out the publisher links for more info on each book. Select quotes are taken from the site/publication, visit each for more.

First, here are some Black Friday shopping guides that are still worth consulting and will no doubt influence those site’s final Best Of lists:

Also of note is the Washington Post’s Comic Riffs blog sending out an open call for nominations for this year’s Best Webcomics. Let me know if I’ve missed a Best Of list worth reading. OK, on with the lists!

Amazon.ca – Best Books of 2011: Comics & Graphic Novels (published November 28, 2011) [mostly the same as Amazon.com’s list below except for 4 items]

Zahra's Paradise by Amir & Khalil

Publishers Weekly – Best Books 2011: Comics (published November 7, 2011)

“An Iranian blogger goes missing and his family enters a hellish twilight zone of obfuscation in a story that captures the uncertainty of living under religious dogma.”

Host of NPR’s On the Media, Gladstone uses a cartoon persona to take the reader on a thoughtful and entertaining excursion through the history of the media from ancient Rome to the rise of digital technology.

“In this epic work of science fiction, Rachel Grosvenor, an outcast in a world ruled by a complex network of clans, looks to find a place for herself by attempting to join a very exclusive clan.”

Habibi by Craig Thompson

Amazon.com – Best Books of 2011: Comics & Graphic Novels (published November 8, 2011)

Habibi, Craig Thompson’s intricate and moving fairy tale about familial and romantic love, one’s relationship to their environment, the shared roots of Christianity and Islam, and the effects of industrial modernization, tops our list of the best Comics & Graphic Novels of 2011.”

The New York Times – Holiday Gift Guide: 100 Notable Books of 2011 (published November 21, 2011)

“In this capacious, metaphysically inclined graphic novel, a flock of finches act out Nilsen’s unsettling comic vision about the food chain, fate and death.”

Stan Lee: Real vs. Fake

After the last two days, I think we need something to lighten things up before we head off to the Thanksgiving weekend.

If someone thinks about comic books long enough to consider that people actually make them, that person is probably aware of Stan Lee. The head editor and face of Marvel Comics in the 1960s, Stan “The Man” Lee helped plot and script nearly the entirety of Marvel’s then growing line of groundbreaking superhero comic books. He also either helped write or oversaw the western, romance, suspense, humor, war and other comics back when Marvel wasn’t primarily limited to one genre. He was also an innovator in fan interaction for the comics world of the time, taking on a carnival barker persona that remains to this day. While he hasn’t been involved in Marvel’s day-to-day operations for a long time, he’s still thought of as the guy who created the Marvel Universe, even if that title almost completely ignores the contributions of the brilliant artists working at Marvel at the time (most significantly Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko). Despite the controversies and legal issues of who really created Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four and all the others, and to what extent, Stan Lee remains a beloved public figure of Marvel and a legendary force of goodwill and visibility for comics in general.

These days, he remains as active as ever with his POW! Entertainment, where he’s provided concepts for a mini-line of superhero comics published by BOOM! Studios, superhero characters for the NHL, manga, and countless other projects, along with a first look deal with Disney and other production partnerships. (But not Stripperella. Nobody had anything to do with Stripperella.) And on the side, he makes cameos in Marvel Studios’ films:

To expand his Twitter and Facebook presence, Stan Lee is getting ready to launch TheRealStanLee.com, which is going to be a community-focused site. Here’s the promotional video that was released yesterday:

And thus we get to the real point of me posting all of this. Included in the above video is a clip of Stan Lee meeting The Fake Stan Lee. Played by cartoonist/improviser Kevin McShane, the Fake Stan Lee hits the right balance of playful tribute and pointed satire. For a few years now, McShane has been posting funny videos of himself as Stan Lee attending comic book conventions and interacting with attendants unabashedly being Stan Lee. And if you don’t know what that means, you got a glimpse at the above video. Now check out the below two videos. The first includes the two Stans meeting at the 2010 San Diego Comic-Con.

And they had another showdown in last year’s Comic-Con:

For more Fake Stan Lee videos, check out his YouTube channel.