The webcomics blog about webcomics

A Talk With Gene Yang

It’s been a full three days since Gene Yang graciously allowed me some time in his schedule to talk to him; for the record, I almost begged off because I could see that I would be causing him to delay a much-needed meal, but he was insistent. As such, I kept things as brief as I could and remain grateful for his generosity; his reputation as one of the nicest people on the planet is well-deserved. Also, one of the smartest — he’s got a point of view of his work (particularly his recent work with DC) that he wants to convey, and he knows how to reinforce his point while remaining unfailingly polite. This came up fairly early on in our talk as I asked him for his thoughts …

On Superman vs New Super-Man
A disclaimer to start: I never read a Superman monthly until I heard that Yang would be taking over the flagship title¹, so I had little idea what had been going on with the character in The New 52 continuity.

I read Yang’s run faithfully, but I don’t think it was successful; it seemed to me that Yang wanted his story to go in an interesting direction (he’d been handed a Superman who was fairly depowered and on the verge of having his secret identity outed; Yang placed him in a community of mostly-forgotten gods from around the world, re-enacting their great mythic battles as MMA to sustain a portion of their worship), but was hamstrung by story dictates to tie into what was happening in other books.

Speaking purely for myself, the parts of Superman that seemed most Yangian to me were interesting and entertaining; the rest was confusing and haphazard. I asked Yang if he had felt constrained by editorial restrictions on Superman.

I love being part of Rebirth, he told me. Rebirth is the name of the current DC continuity, now that they’ve blown up The New 52; he had no desire to share any frustration he may have felt with the prior work, he only wants to focus on what’s next, what’s positive, where he thinks he can do good work². New Super-Man, he said, was very satisfying because my talks [with DC] started from building a character.

In case you hadn’t heard, this new character is a superhero built up by a faction of the Chinese government, taking as their subject a teenager who’s a bit of bully and only accidentally heroic (I’ve heard him compared to Spider-Man, in that a teen suddenly has his life changed by superpowers and his first instinct is to exploit it; my reading on the character is he’s more of a Flash Thompson).

The character distinctly isn’t American, or even Chinese-American (the book takes place in Shanghai), and comes from a completely different perspective. What do powered individuals mean to nominally-communist, authoritarian government of China? Yang let on that the antagonists of the series (they haven’t shown up yet in issue #1) will super-powered pro-democracy activists; it’s a far more complex story than just the three (somewhat simplistic) poles of Truth, Justice, and The American Way.

And it’s one that almost didn’t happen. Yang said no when he was first approached to do the book, and wasn’t sure if it would have been done without him. I asked about the possibility of cultural pitfalls if a non-Chinese writer had been assigned the gig (specifically, I wondered how many characters might become inadvertent Cousin Chin-Kees), and he was entirely positive. There are plenty of talented writers that could have done it well, he told me, but allowed that a non-Chinese writer might not have thought to explore the very different nature of Chinese society with the story. He was grateful that DC was giving him reign to explore all the contradictions in that society, the things that most fascinate and scare me. He’ll have some time to explore those ideas, as he’s signed for twelve issues, with a full story contained in the first six.

On other occurrences of the number six
Yang confirmed that there will be six books in the Secret Coders series from :01 Books and was really thrilled to be working with artist Mike Holmes (he can draw in any style, it’s amazing). He’s also working on a nonfiction graphic novel, Dragon Hoops, for :01 now; it’s about basketball team from the high school where he used to teach.

On the differences in scripting styles
Like Hope Larson, Yang is doing a lot of writing for other artists now, but he’s had experience with that in past (I’m recalling at least four or five :01 books where he was partnered with an artist) and like Larson he’s still working on writing for superheroics. His work on The Shadow Hero helped prepare him for the conventions and tropes of supers, but the writing for monthly floppies means that he still has to tighten up the story presentation, and it’s been a transition.

On the future
Yang’s done a lot of work a lot of places — DC, Dark Horse — and had a lot of fun doing it, but he gestured toward the stacks of books at the :01 booth and made a simple declaration that revealed both his career plan and the nature of comics he really loves to make in five words: First Second is my home.

______________
¹ Disclaimer to the disclaimer: I have, of course, read All-Star Superman multiple times because I’m not a monster. I consider it to be the definitive representation of the character.

² Which reminds me more than a little of Superman himself.

Being A Chronicle Of The End Times

Sunday is always a weird day at San Diego Comic Con; the crowd is trying to decide on last minute purchases, the vendors can see the end coming but then have to do tear-down (and here’s a little trade secret for you — the larger booths can’t start until the carpet’s taken up, and there’s a lot of carpet) and throw everything on pallets. The good news is that by the time you’re done, there’s not much of a line at any of the restaurants. The best news is that the day earlier Eben Burgoon of Eben07 and B-Squad¹ gifted me a bottle of the honey blonde ale that was brewed to tie in with the publication of B-Squad volume 2 which was opened approximately 12 seconds after the show ended and sustained the crew of several booths through teardown. It was pretty tasty!

But before you get to teardown (and I swear, some year somebody’s going to get caught in the giant layers of clingfilm used to hold everything together on the pallet; I swear it almost happened to me twice) there’s still a mostly-full day of the show. I managed to see the YA panel, which was held in a large room but attracted a surprisingly — disappointingly, actually — small crowd, considering the talent on the riser (from left): Sierra Hahn moderating; Hope Larson; Raina Telgemeier; Cecil Castellucci, James Dashner, and Brenden Fletcher.

Bios: Hahn is senior editor at BOOM! (a somewhat recent transplant from Dark Horse, and not responsible for the crappy contracts they offer; creators that I speak to about BOOM! generally have good things to say about the editorial side); Larson and Telgemeier should need no introduction if you read this page; Castellucci wrote for DC’s now-dead Minx line for YA girls, and more recently a Star Wars tie-in about Leia and Shade, The Changing Girl for Vertigo; Dashner doesn’t write comics (yet), but is the author of the wildly popular Maze Runner series (now a motion picture franchise) as well as other YA book series; Fletcher is the cowriter of Gotham Academy and the revived Batgirl.

A quick word of praise for Hahn here as we begin; the panel could have easily turned into a slog where the moderator throws out a question and each panelist answers it; rinse; repeat. But midway through the first period of questioning, Castellucci asked a question of her fellow panelists and Hahn backed the heck off, letting the conversation take on its own life. After that, about three times she threw out new feeder questions and stood back to let them develop organically; it’s a very difficult thing to moderate with a light hand, I could see that Hahn had prepared a lot of questions and she very smartly adapted to the situation. It was the best moderating job I saw all week.

That initial question was about what it is in YA that unique attracts readers, which became a discussion of influences. Larson’s first experiences with comics were Tintin, Asterix, and other adventure stories, and Compass South is a love letter to the genre; Telgemeier has shifted away from autobio/realism with Ghosts, citing Miyazaki as her biggest influence. Castellucci noted the irony of telling the story of a YA character in Shade within the structure of mature-readers imprint, contrasting with her next project (a girl in 1932 riding the rails with hobos) and recalling the influence of reading My Cancer Year in high school. Grief is what she gets as something that’s uniquely expressible in comics, saying I write prose, but sometimes there are no words to say what I want, and then I turn to comics.

Dashner’s not written comics, but loves what pictures can add to storytelling, being particularly satisfied with some tie-ins to the movie version of Maze Runner. Fletcher said that he would be cribbing answers from others — Tintin, etc — but that Miyazaki (and in particular, Totoro) changed my life when I was falling down a hole of ’90s dudebro comics. Totoro hit my reset button and I thought that was who I am, that’s the storytelling I was to express when I grow up. He tied that ability to influence a younger reader into the idea that his run on Batgirl was mandated to be written for an audience of 21 – 28 year olds — sex, party times, woo — but at the first con after the first issue came out, a 10 year old girl dressed as Batgirl came up to get it signed and that was it: the creative team bucked their instructions and We aged it down. Gotham Academy was always in the space for my 10 year old niece, but we shifted Batgirl to be closer to that same space.

This was about the point that Castellucci shifted the conversation, asking what appealed to the others about YA. She found it compelling because the characters are raw and figuring out who they are, and that was what she always wanted to write. Larson noted it’s what comes most natural to her, and doesn’t understand why YA is looked down on; eople that look down on YA suck at writing it, she opined. Dashner jumped in to tell the story of a friend who was told by a Very Important Person In Publishing that her YA writing was really good, so she might now be good enough to write for adults.

Telgemeier held forth on the idea that YA as a category didn’t really exist when she was growing up, that you went from Baby Sitters Club straight to VC Andrews (or possibly Stephen King); her introduction to the idea of YA was discovering Lynda Barry at the age of 12. There followed a general discussion of what counts as YA and why, despite the fact that good YA has always had a significant older readership (and 60%+ of the market is women over the age of 30), the term all ages isn’t helpful. All ages is code for inoffensive, as Larson pointed out. But at the same time, comics publishers don’t always know what to do with it. Fletcher related how Gotham Academy was ignored in the direct market because it had two teen girls on the cover so they figured it was for kids. Librarians asked him where to shelve it — in the children’s section, or teen/YA?

Hahn fed that point by noting that libraries and bookstores will have to have a YA shelving concept so you don’t put Vertigo books next to those appropriate for kids. Fletcher lamented that Barnes & Noble has Gotham Academy next to Batman (alphabetically, wedged in by Gotham Central, which, yeesh, serious disconnect), but Lumberjanes is in YA, so where will the Lumberjanes/Gotham Academy crossover go?

Castellucci wonders if people who want their comic books not just for kids, dammit! are willfully ignoring the YA section and how that might prevent people from picking up a book they might like. Larson wryly observed that those readers won’t pick up a book with a non-powered teen girl on the cover anyway, so there’s no harm in putting it in a YA section. Dashner wasn’t sure — he said that his books, and others like the Harry Potter series, Twilight series, Divergent series, and plenty others wouldn’t sell nearly as well without adult readers. It’s also the case that several of those series were issued with serious, adult-style covers to provide the ability for grownups to read them in stealth mode.

There’s always a point in a panel like this where the discussion turns to the value of comics in getting kids to read and it followed the usual path, but there was an observation from Catellucci I hadn’t heard before. She works as a literacy volunteer in LA public schools and started a reading club. One girl brought in Larson’s graphic adaptation of A Wrinkle In Time and spent all year on it. She loved that book, and later when Castellucci showed a page from Mercury her hand shot up and she asked Is that Hope Larson? It haddn’t occurred to her the idea of having a favorite author who does different kinds of stories. She proselytized that book, shared it with all her friends, and then wanted to make comics herself. Kids that love comics make and share comics, which is the crux of Catellucci’s point. There’s an enthusiasm that even the most eager readers of prose don’t have.

(This was followed by Fletcher telling how his 10 year old niece fell in love with Gotham Academy, which he basically wrote for her. She shares them, she begged to go to a comics creation camp that was aimed at older kids, and on a visit she gave him a copy her first comic. That destroyed me. She’s doing fanart of my characters and I burst into tears.)

The other thing that usually comes up in YA discussions is deciding what’s appropriate for inclusion, and again there were a pair of unique points I hadn’t heard before. Castellucci pointed out you could aim a comic for a particular age (say, 10), and there are kids that age reading far above that level, and kids reading far below; reading ability really spreads out in age cohorts, but they may all be reading the same comic, so finding a way to keep language, sex, or violence “age appropriate” is almost impossible.

Telgemeier pointed out that comics are a challenge in that showing something has more impact than writing about it, even for the same audience; she’s so far been unable to get any character having a period into her books (all of which star teenage girls), but thinks it might be possible soon. Fletcher pointed out the advantage to comics is you can treat danger in different ways; Batgirl might be beating people up, but the Gotham Academy kids are more likely to run until they’re in a kind of environmental danger (collapsing floor, possibility of a fall, etc). In Batgirl there’s an acknowledgment that things like drinking or sex exist, but since it’s aged down now, you can cut away without showing. You’re not ignoring it, it’s not imposed, it’s just what feels right.

A short while later, it was time for the Kickstarter panel, which at long last bows to reality and includes on the dias George friggin’ Rohac, along with Hope Nicholson of Bedside Press and Kel McDonald of Sorcery 101, along with Jamie Turner from Kickstarter (from left: Turner, McDonald, George, Nicholson). Interestingly, Turner introduced the panel by noting how many projects they’ve each run: 5 for himself, 9 for McDonald, 6 for Nicholson, and an estimated 50 for George.

The first third or so of the panel was taken up by a sort of Kickstarter 101 which in an ideal world shouldn’t have been necessary, but given the number of people in the audience who had indicated they planned on doing a Kickstart at some point, and who were frantically taking notes and photographing the projection screen, it was wanted by the majority of the viewers. Some numbers, then: comics represent about 4000 of Kickstarter’s 108,000 successful projects, with a funding rate of about 55% (versus 40% for the site as a whole). This means that George himself has run approximately 1.25% of all comics projects in Kickstarter history, yikes.

The most valuable part of the panel was the first thing Turner said: although he titled the panel Kickstarter Secrets Revealed in order to get it approved, there are no secrets. It’s all in the tutorial material that Kickstarter makes available: have an original project, communicate with your backers, have a good video, make sure you can explain what’s compelling, bring an audience with you. Prep before the project, complete with cushion for unexpected situations (McDonald calls it The Screwup Fund and budgets in US$2000; Rohac calls it The Unexpected Situations Fund and allots 12.5% on top of however much he thinks the project will require). Keep close track of expenses, expect postal rates to go up by the time you have to deliver rewards, and as Nicholson emphasized, If you don’t want to think about shipping [in the planning stage], don’t offer physical rewards.

Other rules of thumb:

  • From McDonald: expect to get 1/3 of your total take in the first three days; if that’s not going to get you to goal, re-evaluate what you’re doing and know that you still have time to correct course.
  • From Rohac: Don’t set the goal of the project to do your absolute Platonic ideal of a book; look at one that’s simpler and cheaper, and if you hit funding make the idea version a stretch goal.
  • From Nicholson: Don’t neglect to include both time and expense of shipping from the printer to you — people have been crippled in the past by unexpected multi-month, multiple-thousands-of-dollars delays and expenses.
  • From everybody: the glut of offers you get from companies that want to charge you to promote your Kickstarter will do absolutely nothing for you.

The audience didn’t appear to fully take in the lessons, though. They wanted to know about things like changing SEC rules that allow crowdfunding to be used for investment (Turner: moot point because KS is ideologically opposed to the idea; Rohac: if you think keeping track of shipping is a headache, imagine trying to keep track of who is owed what share of equity in your business), what the benefit of paid promotions/advertising is (Rohac: you will convert so few it’s not worth it; McDonald: you can promote to your audience, who are most likely to support you, for free; Nicholson: does sometimes do Facebook ad buys because Facebook is a donut-stealing mobster), exactly what format the video should be (all: whatever you want, just make one), how much prep to do before launch (all: as much as humanly possible, then some more), and the most effective promotions channels (all: Twitter, existing audience channels). You know, questions the answers to which are embedded in all the previous advice.

The questions weren’t about How do I determine if my audience is large enough to support a project? or What percentage of them will actually give me money?; instead they revealed the still too-common attitude that Kickstarter is a game that can be approached algorithmically, and if you have the cheat codes you will get All The Money. The answer remains what it always has been: hone your craft, grow your audience, make stuff, then crowdfund. You never could do it in reverse, and you won’t be able to in the future. The Magic Money Machine was always a myth.


Creators who gave me books or significantly discounted them at some point during the week because they all rock and are The Best:
Kate Beaton (King Baby), Raina Telgemeier (Ghosts), Jeff Smith (BONE Coda), Dave Kellett (Peanuts: A Tribute To Charles M Schulz).

Cosplay was a bit thinner on Sunday, but I did see a pretty impressive Rescue² but the most ambitious cosplay of the entire show was the woman who dressed as the entirety of Middle Earth.

_______________
¹ Tagline: Like Suicide Squad, but funnier.

² In recent Marvel continuity, Pepper Potts has her own Iron Man-style armor, and you can tell from the distinct design of the chest reactor it’s not just a gender-swapped Tony Stark. I have no idea how I know this.

A Talk With Hope Larson

Let’s get the obvious bit out of the way first — if Hope Larson very generously offers to make time for you between signings so you can talk, you jump on that.

She’s one of the all-time great creators we’ve got right now, but ironically she’s becoming known widely not for her stellar work on original graphic novels (which fairly burst with heart and honesty), not even for her graphic adaptation of one of the best-beloved science fiction novels of all time, but because she’s working on a BOOM! series¹ and about to launch the next phase of Batgirl. There’s a lot to unpack there, and she spent a lot of time finding the crux in each question and answering it as thoroughly as she could.

On writing for other people to draw
Larson’s been a writer/artist for the vast majority of her career, but she’s just wrapped up the first four issues of Goldie Vance with Brittney Williams and is working directly with Rafael Albuquerque. It’s a shift, but she doesn’t feel restricted by it because she’s got trust in her artists. I’ve never had an art conflict on any book is how she put it, which may be the first time in comics history that’s been said.

She’s found the challenge is less figuring out how to direct the visuals in her head to the page via the hand of another, and more figuring out how to break up the story into 20 to 24 page chunks. Looking at past work like Chiggers or Mercury, it’s easy to see her storytelling rhythms tend toward the slow buildup, centered on emotional states and inner feelings seeking their way out.

Having to reach a mini-climax in less than two dozen pages, where every single one has to move plot forward to be a satisfying, standalone read, and deal with the fact that readers may be coming in without having seen the earlier issues makes for a completely different style of work. But if you’ve read Goldie Vance, you see that it’s worked out really well.

On that Space Age that isn’t horribly, horribly racist
If you haven’t read Goldie Vance, it’s in an resort area of Florida in the Mercury/Gemini era, and it features a fully integrated society. All ethnicities are interacting with each other (although there’s some tension), Goldie herself is interracial, and her father’s the one in charge of the hotel (although it’s got an absentee owner who’s white). It’s maybe the vision that people have of what the Civil Rights era was like when they convince themselves that they totally would have marched with Martin Luther King, Jr, and absolutely would have subjected to the firehoses, dogs, mobs, and arbitrary jailings. It’s not our world, and it’s not a romantic obliviousness that led to this version of Past America being portrayed.

No matter how you write that era, it’s going to be problematic, Larson told me. You either have to turn a blind eye, or you have to have a world where it wasn’t like it was here. It’s a fantasy. It was also a deliberate choice, since the focus of Goldie isn’t struggle, inequality, history, it’s a girl’s adventure like you’d get from a much hipper Nancy Drew.

I asked if the approach was to treat the comic like a TV show or movie that used completely race-neutral casting, and she agreed; If it ever became a TV show, I hope it would be cast that way.² So look at it as if our national feelings of self-congratulation at the time — we’re living in Camelot! — were actually justified. If it’s unreal, but unreal in a way that lets girls who haven’t seen themselves as the protagonists of comics before get to (cf: Ben Hatke’s Little Robot), then that’s worth a bit of unreality … and what are comics for if not the fantasy?

On getting the look just right
Larson gives Williams all the credit for the hazy, sun-dappled look of Goldie Vance’s environments and the vivacious, lively look of the very diverse characters. I can be sparse with my descriptions for Brittney, because she’s going to give me amazing environments. The best thing I can do is give her room.

With Four Points (the graphic novel series title for the just released Compass South and next year’s Knife’s Edge, both illustrated by Rebecca Mock) and Batgirl, she’s writing about real places at real points in time, she can be much more specific in her scripting and supply photo reference; knowing the people, clothing, and buildings will look the way they do in her head likely (and I’m speculating here, because I’m just now realizing that I didn’t ask this and I’m kicking myself) frees her to think more about the page and the scene it conveys. This bit here is basically just an excuse to transition into discussing her thoughts …

On scripting fight scenes
I asked Larson if it was viscerally satisfying to be able to write BATGIRL roundhouse-kicks THUG #2 in the face and he goes FLYING BACK THROUGH THE WINDOW. I love it! It’s the single thing I’m most excited about! She shared that while she thought working on Batgirl would be weird, it’s just been fun, with the chief advantage being you don’t have to build up a character because she’s already there.

When I noted the essential ephemerality of super heroes — that in a few years somebody might come along and cancel out everything she’s ever written because it ruined their childhood and now they can make Batgirl the way she was always supposed to be — she was nonplussed. If you go to the wikis, every story arc is there; it’s all there forever, even if it’s contradicted, and for some people, it will be the first Batgirl they ever read.³

On the biggest challenges of writing superheroes
I asked if DC’s famously heavy editorial hand (You must get this story point in here to reference this line-wide crossover event, no matter how much of a misfit it is in your own story) was constricting. She said that Batgirl has been a process of discovery, and she’s grateful for the guidance her editors have provided in helping her figure out Cape Logic. I was worried about getting the details right, you know, Barbara’s running down an alley, and then in the next panel she’s Batgirl, and where was she keeping the boots? And my editors said, “It’s okay, don’t worry about it.”

Freed from the illogic of costume-stashing, she’s thrown herself into getting correct the things that can be done right or wrong. The second book in the arc is going to be MMA-themed, so I’ve learned a lot about the history of MMA, how it works, read a lot of articles and watched a lot fights. I don’t get MMA, but if Larson’s let that inform the fight scenes in Batgirl, I think we’re going to see a lot more plausibility there.

On the future
Goldie Vance is creator-owned with Williams, but she won’t be on it forever. Down the line, new people may be found to write or draw it, which would put her on the other side of the work-for-hire arrangement. She’s got pitches (that she can’t talk about, naturally) in process now, and multiple books due (both solo and with artists) between now and 2020; that guarantee of work is reassuring, and there’s enough room in her schedule to pick up or launch new work in the meantime.

If she could pick any existing characters to write, they would be Wonder Woman and the Gotham villain ladies — Poison Ivy, Catwoman — that go back and forth from sorta-baddie to sorta-hero. If she could work with any artist for the first time, she’s spoiled for choice. Every young artist coming up right now is amazing.

She considers Goldie and Batgirl to have raised her profile and name recognition in the industry considerably; I was surprised by that since I spend a significant amount of time waiting for her next release, but that’s the nature of comics — different audiences, different sizes.

She hopes to use that profile to work with people who wouldn’t otherwise get the art or writing gigs. While Goldie Vance was cast race-neutral, the comics industry as a whole hasn’t done a good job of diversifying the pool of creators who are hired and developed; Larson firmly believes that more viewpoints can only make for more and better stories and is doing her best to nudge the parts of the industry that she interacts with in that direction.

Which, when I spend even half a second to think on it, is entirely obvious. Her work has always been marked by empathy and the conscious effort to find the humanity in every character. In her work, Hope Larson reveals a love for this messy, contradictory world all the messy, contradictory people in it. She wants to tell the stories she can tell, and hear the stories that they can tell. The sooner we put that aspiration at the center of Comics-With-A-Capital-C, the better.

_______________
¹ Creator-owned, so allow me to cynically hope that she’s getting less screwed than those BOOM! contracts for licensed titles; please note that I am expressing an opinion here and not conveying anything Larson said.

² Similarly, Gina Davis has proposed a simple first step to try to drag gender equality into the film and TV industry: every time a crowd scene is written, it should specify that half of the people present are women. Without that instruction, women are underrepresented in the crowds, which means they’re underrepresented in the consciousness of everybody watching that scene. It’s true in any visual medium — check out background scenes in comics and ask yourself how many white dudes there are there as opposed to every other type of person.

³ That sense of preservation in the face of retcons struck me as similar to Alan Moore’s response when asked if a particular film adaptation ruined the comic it was based on: he pointed to the bookshelf and noted the comic was still there.

Conan’s Party Is Much Politer

The music forms more of a background statement than an omnipresent cavalcade of reggaeton airhorns, so that’s all right. Let’s talk about Saturday, a day that began and ended with Furiosa.

The first one I met walking into the Kate Beaton Spotlight panel — an excellent costuming job, really great fabrication all around. The second one sat talking to a friend in the bar where I ate dinner, and I wasn’t sure if it was the same Furiosa as this morning. I noticed that Furiosa #2 had an even greater reason to draw inspiration from the character than Furiosa #1; namely, she has no lower left arm, with only empty space between the three struts that connected the elbow cup to the hand. I didn’t ask for a photo in the bar, but I complimented her on the quality of her costuming and left it at that. It wasn’t the only time today that a cosplayer incorporated a physical challenge into the costume, and I’ve been thinking a lot about that today, but we’ll come back to cosplay later.

As has been noted, last night Kate Beaton won her first Eisner Award — it’s honestly a bit shocking it took this long — in the category of Best Humour Publication¹ … a first for a woman working alone. She spoke with Hilary Chute, professor of English at Northeastern University, and if the nature of a Spotlight panel means that a fair amount of information will have been conveyed in prior years, remember that for somebody, today was the first time they saw Beaton and learned her story.

Namely, second of four daughters (but one played hockey so Dad figured that was okay) in rural Nova Scotia, where if you were interested in something you dove in hard and honed your skill, both because there was little else to do, but also because you were likely the only one in your class of 23 kids to be interested in history and drawing and being the funny one in class. The downside is that once you reached the wider world outside of rural Nova Scotia, you might well find that the best drawer and teller of jokes back home might not be as good as all the others you’d meet.

The path of that sounds cool took Beaton to Mount Allison University and a course of study in history and anthropology, with a desire to make comics for the school paper profoundly mixed with a sense of shyness that kept her from making regular submissions until her third year². Her humour column actually provided the impetus to start writing comics for publication — they were already in the margins of her class notes, a useful review device if nothing else — which led to a feeling of power. When you’re on a campus of 2000 or so students, the one thing they all read in the paper is the comics page and hearing them laugh in the dining hall can be downright intoxicating.

Timing and luck played into Beaton’s ascent, graduating just about the time that Facebook launched and photo albums (which might contain comics) became one of the earliest features. Working in a museum in Vancouver with Emily Horne, who encouraged her to put up a website. Making the acquaintance of Ryan Pequin, who encouraged her to get a LiveJournal. Breaking just about the time that TopatoCo launched, and hearing that she could send in shirt designs and never have to handle the logistics of merchandise sales (That sounds just like printing money!). Having a dedicated audience that’s ready to follow you as you do comics about a variety of topics, one that’s more interested in the creator than genre or form.

There was also a sense of deliberation and planning to her plan to be a cartoonist; two years in the oil sands of Alberta cleared her college debt and socked away ten grand to fund the new career, which worked despite the intensely solitary and random work patterns. A strip of a smoking cursing Wonder Woman is in the bag, but the reward for finishing a comic is another empty page that needs filling. Meanwhile, there’s literature and history that needs to be read an contextualized: anything that happens never exists on its own; there’s changes in attitude and scholarship, conversations that take place an shift over time and need to be understood in order to get to the nugget, the core idea about whatever that’s caught your fancy. Now there’s a structure where a joke can be constructed and edited down to the key idea, and then, you just draw a bunch of farts.

Okay, not really, but there is a unique idiom, both visual and textual, in Beaton’s work, that sticks out and sometimes sticks around to mutate into a part of the internet’s common DNA. It can be as simple as being stuck for ideas and drawing renderings of, say, a Nancy Drew cover from the ’40s and then wondering What happens in the book based just on the cover?

Looking forward, Beaton is now working on a full-length graphic novel of her time in the oil sands; like a lot of Atlantic Canadians working in isolated places with only primary industries, the oil sands had a compelling attraction — here was a place with jobs, with the potential for money, at a remove from the elite, educated, liberal, artistic world. Stories and profiles of the oil sands don’t represent it well, especially treating the working class nature of the work and environs in a superficial and judgmental way; her book will look at issues of politics, gender roles, economy, environmental concerns, politics, and especially class; there are stories of what it’s like to live and work in such a place, stories that need telling, stories that different from Beaton’s usual work but which have to get out.

That book is going to be a hell of a thing, especially given that Beaton’s artwork (scribbly; bad) is strong on gesture and expression; maybe somebody else could educate the reader more, but Beaton’s going to be able to show us from the inside what it’s like to be there. Her unique style doesn’t do everything you can do in comics, but doesn’t need to; her strengths make for comics that feel honest and unmediated, in a way that unmistakeably hers and hers alone. She may count the likes of Searle and Yeoman as artistic influences, she make go back to Leacock to remind herself what’s funny, but in the end somebody’s got to draw the googly eyes in a way that conveys the joke, and there’s nobody that can do that they way she does.

There’s lots more, of course, but there’s only so much time to talk and then they’re shooing you from the room, but because Kate Beaton is Kate Beaton, she wrangles all the cosplayers to take a photo with her in the hallway purely because it’s a fun thing to do. She is, as I may have remarked in the past, The Best.


Speaking of cosplay, the day started with Dr Sidney “New Jersey” Zweibel of the famed Hong Kong Cavaliers, progressed pretty quickly to a captive Mad Max (the young woman’s Segway was for mobility purposes, but the sense of her zooming at you in a terrifying, out of control fashion gave a real theatrical effect), and then careened wildly to King Of The Beach Joker³. Funniest costume was either Master Chef or Dr Krieger and his holographic girlfriend (they can legally marry in New York!); the most badass characters were women that can shoot down TIE fighters, kill you for messing up her forest, or just eat your planet, so watch it.

_______________
¹ In honour of Ms Beaton, we will endeavour to use Canadian spelling in this post.

² Beaton did make one submission in her first year, by stuffing it unsigned into the submissions box and running.

³ Complete with Cesar Romero-style moustache under the pancake makeup.

A Talk With Jim Zub

Of all the people that I’ve met in [web]comics, the one that I get the most things to think about from would be Jim Zub. We met at the Image booth on Thursday and he ushered me into a small room set up for interviews — I vaguely felt like I was going to be advised of my rights and asked about my whereabouts the prior night — and go to talking. There’s never a bad time to get some Zub wisdom dropped on you, but a couple of days after one of his essays on creator-owned economics — this on the Long Tail effect — is probably the best because he’s brimming with ideas. Go read that first and then come back here; he mentions the two big next things he’s got coming up.

The first of those will be the return of his creator-owned Wayward, for a fourth arc, one that’s going to shake things up as he’s split his cast between two locales (two countries, with radically different cultures) and will be pursuing two parallel plots as a result. The back-of-issue essays on Japanese folklore/mythology/culture will now be supplemented with similar on Irish folklore/mythology/culture, and the issues will alternate — even numbers in Ireland, odd in Japan. While this means Arc 4 will feature three issues of Ireland and only two of Japan (which was a big part of the hook driving interest in the series), it’ll reverse for Arc 5 which is totally a thing. It’s good to know that you’ve got at least ten more issues to play with, instead of wondering if each arc has to wrap things up due to sales realities (a situation that affected both Skullkickers in its early days and Samurai Jack throughout its run).

The bigger news might be that September will also see the launch of his next creator-owned book, Glitterbomb, about Hollywood fame culture and failure (or maybe almost-success, which might be worse that failure¹), with a strong Chtonic horror element. He’s partnering up with Djabril Morissette on art, and can’t say enough good about him.

He’s an astonishingly accomplished artist for being only 21 years old, and has been cranking out pages of the most elaborate character, horror, and environmental designs at a rate of one a day, plus covers. Morissette is going to explode as a result of this series — I’ve rarely seen compositions so smart and assured², and full of beautiful little details. I’m still haunted by what could have been a time-saving splash page of a pair of characters leaning over a balcony railing, beers in hand, looking over a cityscape at night … a tableau where Morissette rendered every drape and wrinkle of clothing lovingly, and took the two rear center beltloops on one characters jeans and crossed them as a fashionable flourish. It was gorgeous and impressive as hell.

It’s also done. Due to some schedule needs at Image, Morisette has finished drawing the entire first four-issue arc (the first issue is double sized) and there can be no delays. It’s a story with a beginning, middle, and end, and has an overarching structure that will permit as many 4- or 5-issue arc as they care to do (and sales will support). Horror is a new world for Zub, and he’s feeling the need to stretch not only in new story directions, but in new ways of pacing.

The first issue being double sized makes telling plot a bit easier (also that you get five issues of story in four issues), but this is a man fully invested in the 20 to 24 pages that must stand alone compressed storytelling form that is floppy comics; the trade collection needs to be cohesive, but the floppies must stand alone. I asked about the possibility of a graphic novel and he expressed how he’s unsure of how to tell a story not structured in 20 to 24 page chunks³ but may be open to the challenge³.

Naturally, he continues his work-for-hire run on Thunderbolts (12 issues announced and plotting past, just in case) and Dungeons and Dragons (they love his work and pretty much let him do what he wants). He’s a guy that came up reading Marvel and DC, and will always have a chunk of his time blocked out for the characters and companies that 10 year old Zub loved so much (current dream jobs: Doctor Strange, or getting to do a Harley Quinn series four-five years ago when she was being neglected and hadn’t blown up into the Wolverine of DC; he told them she would be a breakout hit, just based on the sheer omnipresence of Harley cosplay at every con, but did they listen?).

And then he was off to his next meeting, his next pitch, his next bit of data gathering for his next essay. He’s like one of those sharks that must be in motion at all times, one that leaves really great comics in his wake.

______________
¹ I told him it sounded like a description of the overall narrative of The Venture Brothers, which is about the masculine form of failure that is not living up to expectation or ability (at least, when looked at as a whole; in the closer perspective it’s about wacky super-science and speedsuits).

² Stylistically, he’s nothing like her, but the same combo of skill and confidence at a young age reminds me of Rosemary Valero-O’Connell, about whom I may have said one or two things in the past.

³ I thought about pointing out that I first became aware of him when he sent me a copy of webcomic/graphic novel, The Makeshift Miracle. Then again, that guy was Jim Zubkavich and I was talking to Jim Zub. I’ll also note that I brought up the differences between longform story and 20 to 24 page story chunks in my interviews with Hope Larson and Gene Yang, each of whom had their own take on it. Still working on those pieces.

The Party Is Loud Enough, I May As Well Be At It

It is now, I suppose, early Saturday morning; I’ve just been to Space Time with Marian Call, David Malki !, Seth Boyer, Joseph Scrimshaw, and people who’ve driven rovers on another damn planet. It was great. But it appears that, courtesy of The Magicians, I’m not going to be getting to sleep anytime soon, so I may as well do a recap of (mostly) today (and a bit of yesterday)¹.

  • There was an announcement that Molly Ostertag of Strong Female Protagonist will be doing an original graphic novel with Scholastic in 2018. Ostertag’s work is great, so this is welcome news.
  • Kate Beaton, Lisa Hanawalt, and Emily Carroll (with Abraham Riesman moderating, from left) spoke about working in the short form, but the panel itself was kind of indicative of the topic — question asked, answer (frequently very funny — ask Hanawalt about how toucans eat, or Beaton about grackle fecal sacs, or Carroll about how she uses Twitter), but not much a through line that makes for an interesting read. I could tell you Hey, remember that thing Kate said? That was great but that’s not an entertaining thing for either of us. Some things, you just have to be there.
  • I spent a good deal of time trying to get into interview slots with Hope Larson and Gene Yang but the very patient and friendly ladies running publicity and press relations for DC were unable to accommodate me². And honestly, when you hear that your last shot at a possible cancellation is gone when Evan Narcisse (writing this weekend for io9) shows up for his appointment, you can’t be mad; that guy can write, and he’s only gotten better since I first met him at the SPLAT! symposium all those years ago. In fact you should go read whatever it is he’s written from his interview with Yang.

    It worked out, though, since Larson happened to see me in the press holding area and invited me to meet up with her after a signing. While she was answering a question that involved her current work in comparison to Yang’s, he happened to walk by and after they caught up, he apologized for not being able to take another interview at DC and invited me to meet up with him after a signing. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again — the best people in the world are in comics. I’m bashing those interviews into shape and will run them as soon as I can.

  • Cosplay got off to a slow start on Thursday, but still produced such gems as a woman re-enacting all of Finding Dory by herself, an exuberant Kamala Khan, Sexy Darth Plague Doctor, and a pre-tragic Simon Petrikov. Friday’s deepest cut was probably Izabel and The Brand from Saga, but my favorite was probably the pair of ladies who asked themselves What if 1950s Jackie Kennedy had played every villain on Batman?. Cleverest was probably Finn Squared, with best verisimilitude going to Miss Tina Belcher (she did the groan) or the Marceline/Marshall Lee combo. Add in Matt the Radar Technician and Lurch, and you’ve got a full slate of quality costumage.

    Not shown: the Slutty BB-8, Lingerie Leia, and the many Baby-8s that I saw; the former were kind of gross, and the latter adorable, but I’m not asking parents if I can take a picture of their infant dressed as a droid because I am not a huge creeper.

  • And as I scan Heidi Mac’s twitterfeed, I see that Kate Beaton took the Eisner for Humor (Step Aside, Pops) and Matthew Inman the Bob Clampett Humanitarian Award for his work in promoting and fundraising for a goddamned Tesla museum. I take these as signs that all is right in the universe, and even if the DJ hasn’t had enough yet two floors down, I’m heading for bed. More tomorrow.

Creators who autographed my copy of Romeo and/or Juliet since I last mentioned it:

Kate Beaton, who in a massive irony, was signing just the other side of a curtain from the living embodiment of Strong Female Characters, the Suicide Girls.

_______________
¹ At Space Time tonight, both Raina Telgemeier and Pat Race had things to say about my plentiful use of both parentheses and footnotes, so these are for them.

² Not that I am complaining! Briana, Alison, and especially Charlotte were wonderful and great at their jobs. I hope that they got enough time to eat a granola bar at some point in the day because they were running flat out.

Here’s A Goblin For You

There was a very important panel yesterday; it wasn’t in the largest room at SDCC, but it had a healthy turnout. It didn’t announce any enormous, exciting, forthcoming product, but it looked back at an interesting subject with heartfelt reflection. It was also, chances are, the only panel in SDCC history to acknowledge the force of nature that is Gina Gagliano and all that she does (cue applause, which warmed me inside).

I am speaking, naturally, of the the :01 Books tenth anniversary retrospective, moderated by Graeme McMillan, with (from left) Karen Green, Ben Hatke, Mark Siegel, Eva Volin, and Mary Elizabeth Yturralde on the panel. Quick bios: McMillan writes on comics and pop culture; Green is a librarian with Columbia University and founder of their graphic novel collection; Hatke is the creator of Zita the Spacegirl, Little Robot, and other comic stories; Siegel is the founding editor of :01; Volin is a children’s librarian with the Alameda Free Library; Yturralde is with Mysterious Galaxy bookstore in San Diego, and coordinates book-centered panels both at SDCC and NYCC. It was, as you say, a murderer’s row of smartness.

The most enlightening part of the panel was Siegel’s recap of how :01 came to be — he was a designer at another publishing house, trying to sneak one graphic novel a year through, wondering how there could be an arrangement like in France — where he grew up — where comics were treated as books, and there are literary imprints dedicated to producing and growing them. He found himself taking meetings with various publishing executives, who were willing to take some of his ideas (These kids like this manga thing, let’s just do some of them! Or superheroes, let’s do that!), but none willing to look at a creator-centric approach until he met with the president of MacMillan (no relation); two weeks later, he was the head of an imprint provisionally titled Mark Siegel Books (more on the name later).

He had (remember, this was 2005) a number of points that buttressed his pitch: manga was everywhere, some comics had gotten some critical acclaim, Scholastic was starting their move into original graphic novels, and most importantly, Flight had just launched. That last proved to be crucial, as it provided a source of creator talent that is mined to this day. He laid out a plan that he expected to take a decade, to get comics into the literature end of things, to get them treated as worthy of study and their creators as respected voices. He saw that path as leading to literary awards and wondered how long it would take.

Then he met Gene Yang, publishing on the web, stapling minis of a partially-complete story called American Born Chinese and eighteen months later they were in tuxedos in Times Square as the first work of graphic literature nominated for the National Book Awards. The legitimacy conveyed by the NBA nomination (and also the Printz Award, which really brought the book to the attention of librarians) was also critical because it put the book on the radar of purchasers; when 60,000 school librarians order multiple copies of your book, and then have to re-order every couple of years to replace the worn copies, it gives you the breathing room to tell the accountants We don’t have to make money on every book; we can take our time to develop and support our authors.

Siegel and Hatke agreed on that point; the first Zita collection started as a webcomic, and eight years later Hatke’s eighth book for :01 is about to drop, and Siegel describes it as a work that is more confident, more skilled. That only comes from finding creators who aren’t at their peak, who aren’t coasting, who still have growth and development and finding a way to nurture them.

And that means taking risks; when Siegel accepted the pitch for Boxers & Saints, he got pushback from the executives: Americans have never heard of the Boxer Rebellion, it’s 500 pages long, two books, box set, color, we’re going to take a bath. Can he do it in one book, black and white, then give us another immigrant experience story? As we now know, Boxers & Saints was a bestseller, netted Yang his second National Book Award nomination, and I like to think the executives give Siegel a little more respect for his instincts. It’s part and parcel of his dual missions to grow (and train) the audience, but also to grow the authors. It’s a publishing company (contra every comics publisher, but especially BOOM!, see the other day’s posting) that doesn’t take media rights, that doesn’t own the words, that doesn’t own the pictures, that writes contracts that you’d see in book publishing houses but which are very unusual for comics companies.

And keep in mind the time in which Siegel was trying to build all of this: Green’s library had exactly three graphic novels¹ in 2005 when she petitioned for a budget to build up a collection; she argued that comics had hit critical acceptance, that Columbia’s film school was complementary with comics, and that Columbia and comics were both unique creations of the city of New York², that the two deserved each other. She was granted a full US$4000 and (very fortunately) :01 came along soon after.

Even so, she had it somewhat easier as an academic librarian than Volin has in the public library system; something she’s got in the collections (honestly, everything) will offend somebody, but with a remit to serve the entire community, it’s subject to fewer challenges than, say, a school library. But there :01’s been valuable as well — while not everything they do is appropriate for every age (or at least some think so; This One Summer keeps getting challenged by censorious asshats), there’s a lot that can be placed in front of teens without problems, that’s damn good reading, that will draw in the reluctant readers. That’s why Columbia’s collection is now 10,000 titles in 15 languages.

Similar things happen in the book trade; Yturralde noted; she can give a kid a copy of Zita and when they like that, move them onto Hope Larson’s adaptation of A Wrinkle In Time, and when they like that, move them onto L’Engle’s original. Gatekeeping and editorial choice is now a matter of not buying six copies of everything because there’s only so much — it’s one or two copies across a broad range and having to look at reviews and analysis in order to decide what gets shelf space It’s why Volin’s library has filled six bays of comics in the children’s section alone and is running out of room (the only exception, she said, is Raina Telgemeier, where you order twelve copies and then budget to replace the ones that don’t get returned because they’re loved so much).

The panel ended with a pair of lovely stories — where the name came from, and Hatke’s best experience. The name was never going to be Mark Siegel Books — the imprint had to be bigger than one person — but he called a lot of creators that first year without having an actual name for the business. He was spitballing a bunch of names trying to convey the sense of it’s just after midnight, it’s a new day and wrote on a piece of paper

00:01

A copy editor he was sitting with folded the paper over to show:

:01

and remarked it looked a little like a smiley face. The words popped into his head and he said First Second.

Hatke’s story involved the shipping of the oversize art originals for Julia’s Home For Wayward Creatures, his first picture book, which were too large for his scanner. He’d never done this before so he took them to UPS, they offered him the standard US$100 insurance and off they went. Then he realized that they were the only originals, that they represented months of work, and tried desperately to get the package back and stressing for a day and a half before they arrived safe and intact.

Fast forward to the day he’s to ship the pages for Nobody Likes A Goblin, and he realizes that the cost of shipping is about the same as the cost of a Bolt Bus ticket to New York. He gathered up pages and ten year old daughter, strode into the Flatiron Building and up to the :01 offices where they laid them all out side-by-side on a conference table and read the book out loud for the first time. It really was a lovely image. It’s the sort of image that :01 has worked for ten years now to make happen as often as possible.


More later today on my talk with Jim Zub, announcements from the con, and cosplay photos.

_______________
¹ Maus, Persepolis, Palestine.

² In the historical collection at Columbia, there’s a four-panel comic made by students to mock professors they hated. It’s from 1766.

Something For Those Not In San Diego

You might want to check out the #NotAtSDCC hashtag on Twitter and Tumblr (sorry, I don’t know how Tumblr works so I can’t find the search term; you’re on your own) on account of C Spike Trotman and Taneka Stotts (whose Elements anthology is still funding and well into bonus page rate territory on Kickstarter) decided to have a no-SDCC online sale from now until midnight Sunday (I’m guessing Central Daylight Time). Everybody who wants in on the fun is welcome to use the hashtag to make their announcements.

It Is Technically Still Today

There’s a party two floors below my hotel room, but not one that’s overly distracting; it’ll be a slightly late night unless I break out the industrial-grade earplugs, and it’ll of course be an early morning. If I can no longer sustain the vicious grind of San Diego Comic Con at full speed for most of a week, it’s probably all for the good … the appeal of a full night’s sleep, three decent meals, and not drinking heavily all night has become much more prominent as I’ve made my way through my forties.

The story of Wednesday at SDCC is always one of transformation, as the pallets and nascent outlines of booth designs become, gradually, little temples to commerce. The forklifts appear less frequently, the emergency messages from the mysterious overhead voices¹ faded away, the enormous dumpsters cleared out of the aisles and the next thing you know the neon signs are lit and your realize your camera can’t handle how much light they’re throwing out. A few messes with settings later, you end up with a clearer idea of who got the best out of the in-booth electrical upsell.

It felt like a class reunion with a large number attached to it; on the one hand, there’s people you haven’t seen for an extended time, but simultaneously you can’t help but notice how many are missing. The general retreat one webcomics from SDCC was one of two recurring conversations I had, and generally the less depressing one.

The other recurring conversation regarded the generally crappy terms offered by BOOM! Studios, with more than one creator (none of whom wished to be named) mentioning attempts to get moral rights waived, to allow unlimited editing of art or text without approval or consultation with the original creator, and unconscionable grabs for media rights² in exchange for the the simple act of printing.

I am becoming deeply conflicted by my continued purchase of a number of BOOM! titles, in that I can no longer plausibly believe that my purchases benefit the original creators; I’m hoping that some of the bigger names that BOOM! has managed to attract have had their lawyers eviscerate the boilerplate, and that BOOM! may eventually get the idea. I really don’t want to have to see the equivalent of the Siegel & Schuster or Kirby lawsuits to get BOOM! to stop being exploitative.

That was a bit of a downer, so let’s wrap up by looking forward a bit — tomorrow’s the :01 Books tenth anniversary panel, and with any luck/minimal organization, I’ll get an interview in tomorrow with the redoubtable Jim Zub. Also, for the duration of SDCC I have decided to not run the day’s best spam down here at the bottom. Instead, I’ll provide updates of:


Creators who autographed my copy of Romeo and/or Juliet today:

Ryan North³
Brandon Bird
Lar deSouza
Los Angeles resident Dave Kellett
David Malki !
Rich Stevens
Jim Zub

________________
¹ There was an actual emergency message this morning; the initial alarm was annoying somewhat, but not especially alarming. When the voice announcement was made that All Was Well, We Are Looking Into It, there was a steady warbling in the background, with the sort of whoop whoop noises normally associated with Red Alert on the Enterprise (original model). I don’t think anybody was panicking before the announcement, but several of us thought it was a better idea after hearing the whoops.

² As in, You’re coming to us with a complete story and in exchange for a crappy page rate we get all the movie/TV rights to it, for free, forever. BOOM!, you do not pay enough by at least a two orders of magnitude to make that sort of deal even vaguely fair. If you include secondhand reports, it gets even worse.

³ Who, in case you missed it last week, will see his first Shakespearean chooseable-path book, To Be Or Not To Be, go to a second printing this fall courtesy of Romeo and/or Juliet publishers Riverhead Books.

Still Alive, Jetlag Notwithstanding

San Diego really is very pretty. Photos & postings from the setup later today.