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Return of the Knave
Drink It Black
Saturday, 30 June 2007
Buster

Comics, as the Overstreet Guide will tell you, owe their existence to commerce . As an insert in a cereal packet or a vehicle for advertising, comics were an ideal way of promoting good will and a pleasant association with a product or company.

The industry takes an interest in self-promotion but hasn't always had its way. Tie yourself to the shoestrings of the manufacturer and you could find yourself doing a soft shoe shuffle on storylines.

Not that I think that being able to afford twelve cent comics as a kid was any kind of drawback. My curiosity toward controversy and a/cute political awareness wasn't dampened by a steady diet of Sweeper Sam the Mild Matman. Not in the least.
I'd like to kid myself that we fledgling fanboys fueled the profits of funnybook publishers but those seamonkeys and x-ray specs must have helped.

In any case, pushy sponsors and nervous editors didn't prevent the scattergun scatology of Viz, like a saucy English seaside postcard on acid, or the weighty worldliness of Crisis. The market decided that a comic character with "unfeasibly large testicles" was a better read than the actions of secret service types in countries round the world. Neither has built their house out of Pez candy, that's for sure.  

Hostess Fruit Pies used the mainstream characters themselves in ads and, really, that's the tenor of ads in comics: as nourishing as a Mighty Crusaders story. You won't find fresh leafy vegetables being promoted in the ad pages (although there was one for milk).  

During Shooter's reign of terror a whole line of toys were also licensed for ongoing series and fanboys somehow managed to absorb this and develop a fondness for the likes of Micronauts and Rom, Spaceknight. Comic fans don't care if Steve Skeates can write ad copy or Lee Marrs can illustrate it. The probable consensus is that most artists could draw the can of beans or motor scooter but it would depend on the skillset of the writer: a strong narrative storyteller may suit some jobs while a penchant for snappy phrases may benefit others. A title like "the Power to Purge" is pregnant with possibility and is possibly even wasted in a crummy comic book story.

II

So much for comics as a medium for advertising. What has advertising done in turn for comics? Precious little on the face of it. A new movie based on a comic book character or theme is bound to have a promotional effect for the original.  Makers of industrial fasteners, I'm sure, would envy the focus that comic companies get for their product. Yet despite the serial nature of matinee cinema, they didn't take the opportunity to promote Silver Streak Comics on the silver screen, and creator Lev Gleason was preeminent in the field at the time.   It's as if Hollywood would rather make a bad Doctor Strange film than promote the superior source material.

All Star Comics pre-date television but that doesn't mean that the medium has ever promoted the stars. They don't even have commercials for Adventures of Superman when you're watching Lois and Clark or Smallville and that's the same character produced by the same parent company.                                                                  Would Prize Mystery have benefited from being beamed into living rooms? Indubitably but it was not to be. The cross-promotion that went on in the stories themselves may have made up for it.

You can find old issues (or atom age rarities if you prefer)in the classifieds and the odd alarmist tabloid piece on violence in comic books and that's about it, unless the companies pull some stunt like killing Superman. It did seem for a while there that formerly inviolable superheroes were dropping like flies. Dying and coming back from the dead is one thing but breaking Batman's back and chopping off Aquaman's hand was quite another. Newspapers select which characters they'll run in daily strips, which series they'll run in the Saturday supplement. It's a safe bet that Johnny Hart could do more with two properties in syndication than Arnold Drake could producing a lifetime of valuable commodities for the majors.                               And the papers won't run ads for Youngblood any time soonSealed.

It could be argued that the percentages aren't there to promote an individual issue the way you would a motion picture or an episode of Friends but that shouldn't stop advertisers from putting an ongoing series up in lights. But if there were ever billboards of Buster Crabbe, it wasn't for his comic series.

Which only leaves magazines, which will run advertisements for comic books if they are comics or SF based (you won't see an ad for Gay Comics in Life ) and comic books themselves, which have been known to run ads for competitors' books. 

 


Posted by berko_wills at 3:13 AM NZT
Updated: Thursday, 16 August 2007 12:39 AM NZT
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Thursday, 21 June 2007
Because you're a man of letters

We know, looking at the initial list of performers et al in the last entry, that fanzines are a recent invention. So how did fans used to communicate? Was there even such a thing as a fan? Before the collector market gathered momentum and magazines sprang up to cater for the kind of reader who kept each issue and collected other related titles, there was the letters page, now largely defunct.

I would question whether this was the ideal vehicle for the fan. It promoted camraderie, brought creator and reader into close commune,...
but the letter writer was restricted in how far he or she could deviate from commenting specifically on last issue's storyline. This is fine if you're a Viking Prince fan and his series is running in Brave and the Bold but what if you're a fan of Quicksilver and it's not the nineteen forties? Too late.

Marvel's version may never have been as popular as the scarlet speedster (take your pick) but he's an intrinsic part of the Marvelverse: son of Magneto, stepson to the Whizzer and Miss America, brother of the Scarlet Witch, husband of Crystal. I'm sure he has his fans. Those fans at their earliest, could not wax too enthusiastically about one of the bad guys in X-Men, anymore than they could draw all the focus away from the other stand-ins who called themselves Avengers. The odd mini-series aside, he has been all but cast to the dark side of the moon, an Inhuman fate.

The kind of people who write in to comic book companies learned to stick to the point. Though that didn't mean they wouldn't slam the creators, note slips in continuity, praise and damn with equal gusto. It was fun to see what readers were thinking and you didn't have to join some club or sign on to some forum to access it. The promise of being immortalised in your favourite book or series has to be among the ultimate prizes in fandom. Or no-prizes even.

Companies varied in their perceived demographic and the letters pages reflected these differences. With some letters page editors,  you didn't need to be worldly wise to comment, just be able to tell Gary Friedrich from Mike Friedrich and recognize a Herb Trimpe Foolkiller from fifty paces.

As for letter hacks, they were the elite. I don't recall the exact terminology but I think you were a Fearless Face Fronter if you'd a letter published in both Sock It To Shellhead and Let's Rap With Cap. There were letter hacks notorious in their day as jgoldman10 is in the digital age. Actually TM Maple and Commander Quotey [and his lost marvel madmen - after the arguably more obscure Commander Cody and his lost planet airmen] were required to be more thoughtful and keep their comments relevant, however flippant their guise. Some letter hacks even went from writing letters to writing the book itself: Bill Mantlo and Roy Thomas began that way.

II

I'm nothing if not thorough so we will look sidereally at 'letters to the editor' in newspapers and magazines or, rather, we'll hyperlink to a couple of examples and you'll get the general drift.

Journalism can't help but touch on our customs and our built environment, whereas comics letters pages do so only on a whim and if there's a way of linking the critique/discussion to last issue's story or artwork. Or (as is the case in multi-story British comic books ) the brand at large. 


Posted by berko_wills at 12:08 AM NZT
Updated: Thursday, 21 June 2007 12:50 AM NZT
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Monday, 21 May 2007
Cooler

As sometimes happens, I had to mention something that I had no opportunity to canvas ere then; in this case, the fanzine. A magazine for fans, sure enough.

But, as well as fans, readers are satisfied by zines, which answer their need for a knowledgeable publication in their special interest. Comic fans can lose sight of the primacy of the printed page and begin worshipping their Judomaster action figure or shining their Captain Triumph plates but the fanzine reader is there for the text and pics; often as a supplement to their three-dimensional passion.

I don't know that this goes a long way to explaining the fanzine so let's take a left turn and consider brass buttons. A journal for those who make them, a magazine for those who have a wider interest in collecting buttons, a zine for all I know, that devotes a number of features to the subject and has a Brass Knob of the Month. But the fanzine fairly requires a human or anthropomorphic agency as its centrepiece. You can only in the most colloquial manner, be a fan of an inanimate object.

Fanzines can be devoted to authors, to players, to minstrels, and performers of all kinds. Real life characters like Hopalong Cassidy and the Human Fly serve as a bridge to fan clubs for characters who don't exist. So, having buttoned up, what say an Avengers fanzine?

Despite their status as 'Earth's mightiest heroes', the Avengers are going to have a particular following. It will be for the original comic series since mention of "the Avengers" in any other format raises the spectre of the cult television series of the same name. They probably have their own fanzine too  

Their creators are the stuff of fanzine legend but might I suggest you go to the Jack Kirby Collector if you're a fan of the King; it's proof positive that a magazine can cater to the fan and the collector in the same stroke. With decades of work encompassing so many aspects of the comics creation process, it's a mine that won't run dry any time soon.
Stan Lee is likewise prolific and there is enough to sate any fan of the Man with his Just Imagine series, where the conceit is DC characters if they had been created by Stan, and the faintly senile-sounding Striperella. You can even see him doing Hitchcock-like cameos in current Marvel films (and, no, I don't know if he can wiggle his ears like Willie Lumpkin!) or 'meeting' his creations in one-offs.

 

Dick Ayers is a suitable yardstick and let's never forget that it was Roy Thomas who brought us the Kree-Skrull War.

Just as tricky is to imagine a fanzine devoted to the original line-up. It only lasted one issue with the Hulk stomping off in typical fashion in issue two and Captain America barely being given a chance to thaw before joining in issue four. Speaking of Thor, he has his own book and his own fan following as does Tony Stark - who owns Avengers Mansion. Dr Henry Pym is a one-man character cottage industry while Simon Williams spreads his identity across Avengers. And the unflailing heroism wasn't always in evidence as Hawkeye the Marksman and a couple of former Brotherhood of Evil Mutants became Avengers, presaging those other reformed villains, Thunderbolts. 

    Maybe they should have a fanzine for the Wasp. I'd like to see that. This is where a mighty Avengers fanzine could come into its own; highlighting characters like Mantis and Moondragon (never mind D list characters like Dr Druid and D-Man) who are, at best, supporting characters in the pantheon.  

But the Avengers roster has included a large sector of Marvel Universe so that suggests you can have a Marvel fanzine and even a generic comics fanzine. Such is the case so, while no coat button fanzines are planned, it is still possible to have fanzines for "inanimate objects".

Posted by berko_wills at 3:54 PM NZT
Updated: Monday, 21 May 2007 4:08 PM NZT
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Friday, 2 March 2007
Refill

Magazine readers are always going to have more interest in American quilting than comic book readers. This is not to categorise them (us) as all of a kind, but a Revels reader may be predisposed to reading about Sarge Steel and Sarge readers may look across with approval at the lurid mags and still not change the fact that magazines and journals can take a serious tone on the most lighthearted of subjects with more natural aplomb than can comics, which often struggle to bring gravitas to serious matters.

 Newspaper readers, even subscribers who wake up to one each day on their front lawn, scoff down the news of the day - and once they're done, they happily recycle or leave on the seat. Newspapers do have a 'cast' of characters that either are of interest or who have an interest. Anna Nicole Smith seemed to have one of those totally tabloid lives. But we have heard the old lies and griped about the old wars; we're ready for a fresh supply with our cereal. Comics, on the other hand, engage our familiarity and position their players in the way they want. In the way we want. Papers, by mourning a succession of big notes, have an easier job than comics, which have to preserve the perpetual franchise. They do this, though, not by keeping the character and their surrounds the same, but by updating them in line with the times each generation of readers is going through. The uneven result is no doubt the subject of many a late night geek discussion.

Short story readers won't feel they've missed out if they haven't had Mac Raboy to illustrate the story in their heads. What distinguishes comic readers from all other readers in this respect, is that part of the joy of reading is the 'creative' process of imagining the scenes and characters depicted, based on words alone. I don't think there is a laziness on the part of comics readers as much as a love of the whole potential of sequential art storytelling.

Novel and novella readers enjoy those eloquent turns of phrase or vivid descriptions that are best worked in to longer works. It is this extraneous scene-setting that displays a different character to the comic book.

 The agenda for many non-fiction readers is not one of escape. It is linked to serious purpose, with any edification directed to professional or academic ends. Reference readers have an even more fleeting attention to their reading matter; where only the facts matter and not how they are related.

Lastly, poetry readers have an even greater attraction to the language itself and the way a narrative is conveyed.

Comics have at times attempted to cater to readers who don't normally bother with sequential art by emulating the feel and focus that other reading forms possess.

Posted by berko_wills at 11:36 AM EADT
Updated: Friday, 2 March 2007 11:38 AM EADT
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Monday, 5 February 2007
A good re(a)d

Readers are a careless lot though. The bin boys of my youth who let wheat dust gather on the first DD/Spidey crossover anticipated today's shortage and consequent high prices only by virture of their contributing to it. They will as likely crease the pages, swap with friends, read what's in the library, come across some good ones in the waiting room or servo, even in bus shelters or on trains. Even with series they like, they'll threaten its viability by waiting for the trade paperback (collected edition). But, sure there are readers who let the guy behind the counter know that it's worth stocking All Star Batman and Robin by buying it every month.

 It's a broad church containing readers of Elliot S! Maggin Joker stories, readers who are drawn to Ernie Chua's art, readers who happily continue to buy their favourites regardless of recommendations or hot books.
Some readers become collectors and seal the books they used to pore over in plastic bag and backing board. And there are readers who develop their interest in Frank Giacoia to the extent that they are more than readers, they're fans.


Posted by berko_wills at 2:21 AM EADT
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Wednesday, 31 January 2007
As read

To what do comics own their success?

Is it a creator like Sheldon Mayer that defines their status and all that would follow?

Are they triumphal when critics and academics look across and admire Sheldon Moldoff for being 'already postmodern'?

 Do comics need editors like Mort Weisinger to trumpet the merit of the character whose book they edit? Or chummy editors who draw the reader into their circle, and give some recognition to artists like Joltin' Joe Sinnott while they're about it?

 Has the industry risen to its feet when companies like Continuity and Image break away from the work-for-hire and take control of their own profits and creations? All of those things.
Then can this medium embrace the same notion that lovers of opera and chamber music adopt; that those with their feet on the seats in the front row of the picture house declaim - that their artform is nothing without its audience? The entertainment world must entertain; whatever other ideas it entertains.

II

Accepting the premise that comics are nothing without readers, who are they? Readers can be Japanese business people standing on the bullet train reading their manga, or the troops stationed at the fighting.

A readership in 1937 is different to one in 2007 so how is the size of the readership tempered by the sensibility of the readership?

Really, the reader has been implicit and complicit in every post on this primer. Nuff said. 


Posted by berko_wills at 12:07 AM EADT
Updated: Wednesday, 31 January 2007 2:05 PM EADT
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Thursday, 4 January 2007
Directly

There are a couple of questions hanging heavy over this idea of independence. More than just being possible that a safe, familiar story will be trotted out with characters that are easy to draw, at the smaller publishers; some co's stay derivative in the vain hope that fanboys will choose their version over the ones already on offer. Another aspect of independence in the world of comic book publishing, is the ability to find a market outside the traditional news stand. Pacific Comics sold to the direct market and were succesful for a time because of the established artists working on the books. But that is not true independence, unless the other requirements are met.

 To further put the lie to the notion that you can 'judge a book by its cover' and recognize an independent comic by appearance alone; consider the case of Plop!. Talk about walking like a duck! The most spasticated duck you've ever seen in your life. But still not an independent comic.                                                                     Further, Marvel Comics once put out a tasteless and short-lived book called Mort the Dead Teenager. They may have been riffing on the popularity of independent weirdness but it remains resolutely a comic put out by a mainstream publishing company.

Another interpretation of 'independent' is the publication of comic books outside the stranglehold of the North American and European market. When they can barely make a sale, who is mean enough to deny these comics the status solely on the basis that they may carry advertising or have investors waiting to see some return for their money.


Posted by berko_wills at 1:36 PM EADT
Updated: Thursday, 4 January 2007 2:01 PM EADT
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Wednesday, 13 December 2006
Independent of everyone

Independent comics, of which self-published comics are a subset, can be as individual and idiosyncratic as independent books that avoid the major publishing house, independent magazines that carry no advertising, and independent newspapers that provide a contrary approach to stories.

You can guess that Dog Boy on Cat Head Comics is an independent publication. But it need not necessarily be those sheets that veer from the subject matter of the majors, that earn the right to be called independent. Not all independent comics are alternative comics or underground comics but they are both classed as independent by their very nature.

 A creator or small creative team with an idea for a matricide take it to a mainstream company. It doesn't fit with their focus at the time, so the next step is contacting an independent concern to see if they're interested. They might be, that's just the thing - there's no requirement that the treatment is ironic or irreverent, satiric or sadistic. It could be written up as a straight 'killing mummy' story or series. As long as there are no shareholders or multimedia parent companies involved, the imprint it comes out on would be classed as independent.


Posted by berko_wills at 2:01 PM EADT
Updated: Wednesday, 13 December 2006 2:06 PM EADT
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Thursday, 30 November 2006
By yourself

Just generally, self-publishing is predominately devoted to the fanzine, with a smudgey wink to memoir & biography and the poetry that no one will publish, no matter how good it is.

 For a writer there are greater freedoms; whether to indulge in scatalogical excess or promote an unpopular position or be otherwise indulgent.

In reality, self-publishing across the media can range from terrible to terrific and isn't guaranteed to be narrow in its application. For every artist who wants a forum for drawing bushy eyebrows, there's the cartoonist who needs to take at least part of their work out on its own. And, of course, for the lucky reader who wants to intellectualise there's the possibility of a publication that doesn't chase the bottom line.


Posted by berko_wills at 11:19 PM EADT
Updated: Thursday, 30 November 2006 11:56 PM EADT
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Saturday, 18 November 2006
In company

Comics are published all over the world but how widely the input and output of a given region reaches depends on the distribution network but this is determined also by language and cultural specificities.

 The concerns of publication can be run by committee or can seem to come down to one individual. From what we've seen, publishing comics is not for the faint-hearted. It is fortunate for the reader, then, that he/she gets to see the work of fine draughtsmen of the field, as comics scripters may once have called them.

The world of comic book publishing is dominated by Marvel and DC, a perpetual campaign waged over a dwindling readership (or so we're told), but many another publisher has come and gone; if it wasn't for the Overstreet Price Guide, we might not remember such curiosities as All Negro Comics and Red Warrior.

 Niche marketing dictates some publishing ventures to this day. I think cartoonists like Peter Bagge need the underground to work and political statements are always going to be potentially problematic for the publisher who carries the piece.


Posted by berko_wills at 5:40 PM EADT
Updated: Thursday, 23 November 2006 4:06 PM EADT
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