Thursday, July 30, 2009

Comic-Book Hucksters: Not What They Used to Be

I recently watched The Men Without Fear: Creating Daredevil. It’s a fairly entertaining documentary that’s included in the two-disc edition of the Daredevil DVD from 2003. In it, Daredevil co-creator and original Marvel guru Stan Lee talks about his “hucksterism” back in the early 1960s, among other things; how he tried to make Marvel fans feel like they were on to something special, part of a new movement, in on the joke, or whatever you want to call it.

Later on in the film, current Marvel Editor-in-Chief Joe Quesada comments on Lee’s presence. All Lee needs to do, Quesada says, is to talk to you and put his hand on your shoulder, and it seems like you known him your whole life.

Now, I’ve never had the fortune of meeting Stan Lee, and I’m sure there’s probably a degree of mythologizing involved in statements like Quesada’s, which, after all, seems reminiscent of everything anyone who’s ever met Lee tends to say about him.

But, all that aside, I’m confident in saying one thing: Lee may have been a huckster, and quite a bold one at that, but in all the things I’ve ever seen or heard him say, or that I’ve seen written by him or about him, I don’t think he’s ever seemed obnoxious or annoying to me.

Passionate about promoting his work, of course. And not afraid of using superlatives to do it, sure. But amid all that, there’s always been that self-conscious, charming wink. A wink that said, “Hey, look, I know. But why not have some fun with this?” A wink that reminded you that this wasn’t some used-car salesman who just wanted your money and nothing else, but the guy who’d created many of these stories and characters.

Lee didn’t just want you to buy one of his comics. He wanted you to buy the next one, too. And not just because he needed to sell those comics to make a living, but because he was having the time of his life creating them, and he very much wanted to continue doing it. As the legend has it, Lee was disillusioned at the kind of stagnant, generic material he kept producing and quite ready to quit Marvel when publisher Martin Goodman asked him to come up with a superhero-team book in 1961. Which, of course, ended up being Fantastic Four, the trigger to the creative explosion that catapulted Marvel to the top over the subsequent five years.

Of course, I’m not even close to being in the generation that grew up on the work Lee is most famous for. But he’s still managed to leave that impression on me, to communicate to me that enthusiasm he obviously had for the work he’d been doing, in terms that I understood and that worked even in the second- or third-hand fashion (later Marvel comics, reprints, translations) in which most of it has found me.

So, that would be Stan Lee for you.

And then I read Tom Spurgeon’s San Diego Comic-Con report, in which Spurgeon makes an observation on Tyrese Gibson, musician, actor and the creator of an upcoming comic-book series published by Image Comics:

I don't want to be a hater, but watching Tyrese Gibson in action for a few minutes on I think Thursday made me uncomfortable, mostly because it felt like he was operating as the most effective male booth babe ever seen rather than as a proud creator with a comic of import and impact. I'm uncomfortable with a lot of the hard selling that goes on at the show, so maybe I'm just old, though.

When he says he doesn’t “want to be a hater,” Spurgeon refers to retailer Brian Hibbs’ recent run-in with Gibson, which, I think, was the sort of thing that people have come to call “a kerfuffle.” The Hibbs piece is lengthy, but it’s worth a read; it’s an intriguing case study on Twitter marketing, B-list celebrities and the comic books that they make—and, in this case, that they want to promote.

Now, marketing, even aggressive marketing, is good and well. It’s a necessity, and as much a part of publishing as anything. But there is a point where it becomes obnoxious and pushy and annoying, and I think Spurgeon hits the nail on the head when he says that Gibson doesn’t really come across as “a proud creator with a comic of import and impact.”

Don’t get me wrong: First up, I don’t know Gibson, I didn’t go to San Diego and I’m largely basing this on Brian Hibbs’ account. Second, I don’t mind people making a lot of noise about stuff they created. I don’t even mind other people jumping on the bandwagon and helping them to a degree that borders on activism. But personally, if I wanted to spread positive word of mouth on something, I think it’d have to be something that means something to me, or something I’m convinced is very good, at least, and the reasons for that would be what I’d be trying to communicate.

And that isn’t the impression I get from Gibson or his followers at all. The sense I get from Gibson’s fans is that they’re posting monosyllabic comments and calling Hibbs on the phone not because they’re actually convinced it’s going to be a particularly good or noteworthy comic, but because Celebrity Tyrese Gibson told them to. And the sense I get from Gibson is that he thinks his comic should be doing well not because it’s a particularly good or noteworthy comic, either, but because his name is on it and people should support it on the basis that his name is on it, and it’s going to be out there.

Simply put, there’s no point in the proceedings at which it seems like Gibson’s efforts were actually about his comic or anything that’s going to be in it. It’s all about Gibson, and about Gibson wanting Gibson’s comic to do well, and about how many Gibson fans Gibson can mobilize to tell people that they want Gibson’s comic to do well, too, because: Well, it’s Gibson’s comic, and Gibson rocks, so Gibson’s comic will rock, too, and you better believe it.

As I said, I wasn’t at San Diego, and I don’t know much about Gibson or his comic. But if Gibson’s recent campaign, to the extent it impacted and was covered by Hibbs and Heidi MacDonald, was meant to get me interested in the comic, then it’s failed quite spectacularly. I can’t even remember the title without looking it up (which I won’t), let alone what it was going to be about. And if I had to guess without taking a look, I’d say it’s probably one of those celebrity-driven comics that are written and drawn by people other than the celebrity. But please feel free to correct me if I’m wrong on that.

However, what I do get a very good idea of, instead of the comic, is how Gibson presents himself to the people he thinks ought to be helping him sell his comic. And even presuming there had been any interest in his comic to begin with, that would likely have killed it.

Now, to say that Tyrese Gibson is no Stan Lee when it comes to promoting comics wouldn’t be much of an insight, certainly; nor much of an indictment of Gibson, for that matter, because the same could probably be said about everybody else trying to promote comics right now, including, sometimes, Stan Lee.

But if there’s a moral in comparing the two gentlemen’s approaches, I think it may be that Lee, back in the day, was more the kind of person who was promoting himself so he could sell more of his comics. Gibson, on the other hand, seems to be more the kind of person who’s promoting a comic so he can sell more of himself.

I’m not sure there’s anything particularly “right” or “wrong” with either approach*, but I think it might be saying something about the current relationship between the U.S. comics industry and Hollywood.

* Something other than me finding the latter approach to be annoying and obnoxious, I mean. But then, I’m generally more interested in comics than in celebrities, so maybe I’m not the target audience.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

The eMusic for Comics

Longbox Digital, the new application by founder Rantz Hoseley that’s widely expected to really open up the digital distribution channel for comics in a commercially viable way, has been largely referred to as the “iTunes for comics.”

Now, if I interpret this article from Comic Book Resources correctly, it seems that’s not accurate at all.

If all goes well—and it certainly seems like these people know what they’re doing—then Longbox won’t be the iTunes for comics at all. Rather, it will be the eMusic for comics.

More precisely, it will be the eMusic for comics, prior to eMusic’s recent Sony expansion.

So far, according to CBR, the publishers that have signed on for Longbox are Boom! Studios, NBM Publishing, Dabel Brothers Publishing, Archaia Comics and the Image Comics partners Shadowline Comics and Top Cow Productions.

There’s no Marvel or DC Comics, so the majors are still leaning back to see what’s going to happen. And, more to the point, there’s no IDW Publishing, Dark Horse Comics or Image Comics proper yet, and no Oni Press, Top Shelf, and so on.

So, evidently, not all “independent” publishers are convinced yet, either.

None of which has to be a bad thing, of course.

Again: This sounds good, and I’d very much like for something like this to succeed, because it would open all kinds of possibilities to comics and the people who make them.

And, of course, Longbox Digital says right away that it won’t try to tie you to some proprietary software or hardware restrictions that would grant them de facto dictatorship over the kinds of formats or devices it supports, like Apple and Amazon are still trying to do. That’s always a very big plus.

So, all told, I’m really, really down with this, guys.

Don’t screw it up.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

What, Now?

Some things I’ve been up to on the comics front:

o In my ongoing efforts to put more me in “new media,” I’ve been tweeting comics news, commentary and oddities for Comicgate for the past couple weeks. You can follow us here. If you see a tweet that says “mof,” that’ll be me. It’s, like, my initials, and stuff.

o Speaking of Comicgate, I’ve started a new monthly column. It’s a new version of the Previews review column I wrote a few years ago, that ended up being more extensive than I could manage in the end. So the new one is kind of a punk-rock take on that. Or Britpop, if I’m lucky. It’s called “Mut zur Lücke.”

o I’ve started dusting off my reviews archives, beginning with the 2002 section—which is now complete over at Supercritical. So if you want to know what I thought of Kurt Busiek’s last big (BIG!) epic in Avengers (my first comics review ever!), Chris Claremont’s X-Treme X-Men or the introduction of Fantomex in Grant Morrison’s New X-Men, among several others, click over there and find out. All reviews have been edited for content and format. In fact, I am now considering putting everything I write on hold for at least seven years and then come back to it with a fresh perspective. Next up: 2003.

o While doing research for a comics-related project, I came across this bit of news in the July 2002 issue of Wizard: “Sources at WildStorm say a Crisis-type storyarc [sic], which will reshape and revamp the entire WildStorm Universe, is in the works and planned for a 2003 release.” So, you see, if it feels like this is the way it’s always been with the WildStorm Universe line, that’s because it has always been like this with the WildStorm Universe line!

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Clone Saga

Writer Jeph Loeb is interviewed by Kiel Phegley over at Comic Book Resources … and starts talking about artist Ian Churchill, a frequent collaborator of Loeb’s who’s often been described as a “Jim Lee clone” in terms of his style.

Evidently, Churchill will be drawing upcoming issues of Loeb’s Hulk. And, evidently, they’ll look rather different from what people are used to from Churchill.

“This is one of those very strange stories that can only happen in comics where when we first started talking about it, Ian said, 'I want to do this in my original style.' And I said, 'I don't know what you're talking about. I've been working with you for 15 years. You draw the way you draw,' which let's say for the sake of argument we'll call 'the Jim Lee style' – a lot of crosshatching and certainly the layouts more resemble what Jim does than anyone else. And what I find out for the first time in 15 over the course of this conversation is that Ian drew a very different way and went to San Diego and met an editor at Marvel who's no longer there who said, 'Don't draw like that. Draw like this' and gave him Jim [Lee]'s samples. And Ian went and drew like that and has drawn in a style that he never wanted to draw in for 15 years. He's absolutely built a fanbase and had a terrific career.”

And what does this new style look like?

“I saw Ian's original style, which was much closer to Ed [McGuinness] and in an odd way Darwyn Cooke, who if you think about it couldn't be more on the other end of the spectrum from Jim Lee. And so it's great fun. There's some John Byrne in there, and it's really cool.”

I’m actually curious now.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Super Milestone Issue

Last week’s mega-sized Captain America #600 is indeed a special milestone, for the series as well as for Marvel.

The comic has a two-page essay with illustrations by Captain America co-creator Joe Simon, titled “My Bulletin Board,” which comes not with one, but with two copyright notes saying that the material on these two pages belongs, in fact, to Joseph H. Simon.

Which means that—contrary to virtually everything else Marvel publishes—it can’t be reproduced by the company without the express consent of its author.

On that note, I wish you a good Independence Day.

Friday, July 3, 2009

It’s the Budget, Stupid

Talking about Marvel’s price increases in his latest interview session at Comic Book Resources, Marvel Comics Editor-in-Chief Joe Quesada says:

[W]hen the exclusivity wars started, the price of talent just rocketed up because everyone was just bidding on people.

Perhaps this is the proper context to what Dan DiDio, executive editor at DC Comics, told Newsarama last November:

[…] I looked at my budget for 2009, and I understood what the challenges are going to be.

There’s been a perception in the last couple of years that DC Comics’ talent pool seems rather conservative compared to Marvel’s. Perhaps Marvel’s publishing arm simply has more money to throw after high-ticket talent.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Conventional Wisdom

I love comics strips about the creator’s convention experiences. (The defining genre standard being, of course, Stuart Immonen’s 50 Reasons to Stop Sketching at Conventions. Unfortunately, it seems no longer available.)

This week, German cartoonist Sarah Burrini (Flytrap) is running a series of strips called “The Aftershock!” as part of her Web comic Life Ain’t No Pony Farm, sharing some of her Booth Encounters of the Third Kind at the recent Munich Comics Festival 2009.

It’s riveting stuff, and there’s a very well-translated English version in addition to the original German one. So if you’re reading this, you’ve got no excuse not to give it a look. (Unless you’re reading this without actually understanding a word of what it says, of course, in which case you shall consider yourself excused, for all the good it does you.)

(And, no, that’s not me with the hat; not my kind of brim, thank you very much.)