The webcomics blog about webcomics

Ups And Downs And Ups Again

Those who follow me on the tweetmachine know that I’m in San Diego, and it’s weird. I can walk into a restaurant in the Gaslamp and just sit at a table! Streets have people on the sidewalks, but not throngs! People are walking their dogs on patches of green adjacent to Harbor Drive, instead of there being enormous installations of Nerd Shit! It is, in a word, Paradise.

  • But we all know that Paradise is flawed, that hideous maldesigns cause it to be lost. In this case, I’m here a week too early:

    SAN DIEGO: I’m appearing at the incredible San Diego Maritime Museum (YES THE ONE WITH ALL THE BOATS) next Thursday, 8/16! Come hear me talk about boat comics ON AN ACTUAL BOAT. Free signing in the gift shop 6-7pm, then a lecture inside the museum! AAAAA. https://www.facebook.com/events/1927332380657504/ …

    Lucy Bellwood is bringing her 100 Demon Dialogues tour to this town next Thursday, and it’s on a boat and I won’t be here, what the crap.

    If you haven’t had the pleasure of a Lucy Bellwood talk, you owe it to yourself to attend; if you haven’t been around Lucy Bellwood on a boat, I recommend you get from 100+ SPF sunblock, or possibly one of those airport firefighter suits because she is going to be incandescing with excitement, y’all. Fun starts at 6:00pm, runs until 9:00pm, and will take place at 1492 N Harbor Drive¹. Signing first in the gift shop (until 7:00pm), then a talk about Bellwood’s nautical adventures from 7:15pm on a boat (museum admission required).

  • It’s an up-and-down time for Lucas Landherr these days. His good, good dog (they’re all good dogs) died, which sucks; his daughters have never known a time without Westley², so I imagine it’s been a sad time around the Landherr homestead.

    Then scant days later, he got recognized by the professional society of Chemical Engineers for what he’s done to make ChemE education more effective; specifically, he’s the recipient of their 2018 Award for Innovation in Chemical Engineering Education:

    Prof Landherr has had the opportunity to work with student and professional artists to write a comic on teaching pedagogy for Chemical Engineering Education. This initiative is an opportunity to further work with the medium for broader instructional purposes.

    In addition, Prof Landherr’s work with Crash Course, in collaboration with PBS Digital Studios, has helped influence how engineering topics can be taught through another unique visual media. Prof Landherr has been working as the engineering consultant of the “Crash Course: Engineering” series that covers fields and topics throughout all of the main branches of engineering.

    For those keeping track at home, the American Institute Of Chemical Engineers also named him to their 35 Under 35 list last year, he was recognized for teaching in 2016 by the American Society For Engineering Education, and he’s taken a number of named awards at Northeastern for education innovation and teaching.

    And I bet he’d trade any of them for another snuffle from Westley. Well done, Dr Landherr, best wishes to your family in this time of loss.


Spam of the day:

Please activate your new Gumtree account

Not be be confused with Gumroad, Gumtree is apparently the UK version of Craigslist; I’ve known for some time there’s at least one Gary Tyrrell in the UK who thinks my email address is his, and Gumtree really wants him to confirm the account he signed up for. Either that, or Russian spammers have just supplied his email address (that is to say, mine) along with an “account name” that’s a combo platter of Cyrillic letters and a URL that there’s no way in hell I’m clicking, in an attempt to hijack a legit merchant to send their links past some (but not all) spam filters. Either way, please figure out that your email is not mine, UK Gary Tyrrell

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¹ Pro tip, about three blocks south, at Broadway on the water? Great taco stand.

² Westley Landherr is also known as German, faithful labcoat-wearing hound of Dante Shepherd.

When Last We Spoke …

Today we resume with Fleen Senior French Correspondent Pierre Lebeaupin and his discussion of Japan Expo Paris 2018 from last week. Thank for your patience.

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Today’s recommendation is for Rainette¹.

I first learned of Rainette when I went to the 2016 edition of Japan Expo Paris, appropriately enough, but it is only through its recent Kickstarter campaign that I was able to catch up on it. And rather than waiting for it to come in the mail, it turned out creator Biscuit would be receiving copies just prior to Japan Expo Paris.

So getting my copy early, saving on shipping (I got a tote bag in compensation), and meeting the creator, on a trip I would have been making anyway … I have known worse deals.

Rainette is green, and as the saying goes, it is indeed not easy being green [A/V]; but that is also a metaphor for difference and acceptance (and maybe more … we’ll see), and there is a lot of difference to go around here, as Rainette has two moms, only one of which is a witch. She has recently had to start living in a witch village and that itself will be the source of a lot of issues … and encounters.

One aspect I like is how creator Biscuit plays with classical manga elements; for instance, the webcomic starts with the heroine being late … for the first day of the summer holidays. In a related fashion, she plays with expectations and does not feel the need to put everything explicitly, all the while being very easy to follow, allowing the story to unfold in multiple ways.

But what I was most struck with is how the story is meant to fill the book: even though it is published page by page on the web, you would never guess that by reading the book. Indeed, not only is there no punchline, but there is no temporary hijinks that fit in an update, no intermediate chapters or resolution, no somewhat self-contained part: for the past three years, Biscuit has been building up the story of which only the first chapter has reached some conclusion today² (and even then, the web is not yet caught up on the book). This takes a great deal of courage as the web typically does not reward these kinds of long-term payoffs.

I told her as much when I came back to her booth for additional chatter, and we had a very interesting discussion about the changes and opportunities happening in online publishing of comics. This creator and her work are definitely ones to keep your eye on.

This con report is dedicated to the memory of the unnamed art retailer who was killed while being waylaid on the highway, during his return trip back from Japan Expo Paris.

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Thanks to FSFCPL for his report, and for the recommendation of Rainette. There are some English language webcomics that treat the pages as non-discrete story units (for example, the when book-length works are serialized), but those are usually less webcomics and more promotional efforts for books. As such, it’s a pretty unique read.


Spam of the day:

This Device Can Save Your Money And Keep You Safe

This spam is hawking a handheld car battery jumper that claims to supply 12,000 volts and 400 amps. The 400 amps is plausible, that’s about what you’d need to jumpstart a car, but the average car battery is 12 volts, not 12,000. That’s 400*12,000 = 4.8 megawatts, or about what you’d generate off a wind turbine with 77m blades on a 158m tall assembly.

Now I really hated the power generation and rotating machines part of my electrical engineering education, but I’m pretty sure this is a load of meretricious, artisanal, hand-crafted bullshit.

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¹ Editor’s note: that link goes to a site in English, in case you’re more comfortable in that language. The original French is here, at an address that is almost identical.

² Editor’s note: this piece was originally intended to run on 1 August, but then Things Happened.

And We’re Back

Doing better, thanks for asking. I’m going to do some catch-up to clear some items that are timely, and we’ll return to Fleen Senior French Correspondent Pierre Lebeaupin and the second part of his look at Japan Expo Paris.

  • Item! Jon Rosenberg is many things — a webcomics pioneer, cranky dude, connoisseur of office supplies, father of three, and owner of my soul. He’s been running webcomics endeavours since 1997 and for much of that time, it’s been a one-person deal.

    Today, Goats Amalgamated Industries doubles in size, as a new employee (or, more likely, a new boss) joins up. Amy Rosenberg is — apart from the questionable judgment necessary to marry Jon — a skilled designer and artist in her own right, and has been doing yeowoman’s work these past dozen years, working a corporate¹ job to keep the insurance that one must have when one has kids — particularly one with medical challenges. But Alec is a whole lot better now, and Amy’s metaphorically flipped corporate America the double bird, quitting her job and joining Jon in running the comics stuff, including clearing an extensive backlog of Kickstarter and Patreon rewards.

    It’s a risk. It’s an act of supreme optimism. It’s a move in service of art and humor and light-heartedness at a time when we desperately need all three. It’s possible to support Rosenberg, Rosenberg, Rosenberg, Rosenberg, and Rosenberg, LLC, through Patreon, assuming Patreon is working today.

  • Item! Zach Weinersmith, in accordance with prophecy (and his threats/promises of the past couple of weeks) launches a new comic today, along with co-writer Greg Weiner (his brother, and an actual political science professor) and artist Dennis Culver. It’s an explainer of how American government works, and it’s called Laws and Sausages.

    L&S launches today, with four multi-page episodes (on Separation Of Powers in two parts, Impeachment, and How To Communicate With Your Elected Officials), and it’s already got a sub-reddit².

  • Item! Chris Hallbeck has been running something very unusual at Maximumble for the past two weeks or so — an ongoing storyline (never happens) about people with actual recognizable character faces (really never happens). And now it’s spun off to its own site, and we’ll get the continuing adventures of Pebble And Wren a novice monster kicked out of the cave by their parents, and the little girl they’re supposed to haunt (her dad thinks having an under-bed monster is traditional). It’s hell of cute.
  • Item! Steven Conley launched a Kickstarter for a hardcover collection of The Middle Age. That was last week, just as things were interrupting life, so sorry that you’re late finding out, but on the bright side, Conley’s made goal in the meantime, so it’s less hope the campaign funds and more pre-order at this point. Bonus!

    The collection will include the first three chapters, two of which are available in print form already, the third in digital collection. What, you want print? That’s what the Kickstart’s for — three chapters, 100-odd pages, full color, shipping in October.

  • Item! Another new book, but this one you’ll have to wait for. Next year, Evan Dahm will have Island Book coming from :01 Books, and some time after that, a new book from Iron Circus. It’s about Christ’s decent into Hell, based on Gospels both apocryphal and canonical, deconstructed to get to meat of the matter. The Harrowing Of Hell is being worked on now, and features the cartooniest stigmata you’ve ever seen. Follow Dahm on Twitter to keep appraised.

Spam of the day:

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You’re trying to fool me into thinking that my domain is expiring, and if I don’t give you money it will result in … you no longer notifying me you want me to give you money? Oh, screw you, scammers.

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¹ Read: soul-destroying.

² Wait, don’t Zach and Greg have a brother that’s recently the CTO at Reddit?

August 1, 2009 — August 1, 2018

The scars of your racing career weren’t visible, but they were there all the same. You faced your fears and became as fine a companion as anybody could want and your ears were so soft. You were brave these last few weeks and I’m sorry that you could only be ours for a little more than four years.

Good dog.

I Don’t Know How He Does It

They're counting down to 2019, if you want to get tickets.

Fleen Senior French Correspondent Pierre Lebeaupin, that is. There’s … stuff … going on here, and my mind is anywhere but webcomics at the moment. But FSFCPL sent an unlooked-for post — the first of two! — and so we all get to read along.

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It took me some time to understand that Souillon¹ was on to something.

What struck me when I started paying attention to his signings, in order to consider going, is that he overwhelmingly favors anime cons, and generally shuns “traditional” French comics festivals. This is not merely because of his new independent status: the pattern was the same when his erstwhile publisher, Ankama, was housing him for signings (these days he either booths independently or is hosted by a bookshop).

He has his reasons, of course, of which I’d rather not speak instead of him; but I considered him an isolated case and so did not pay much attention to anime cons in general.

But last year I came to two realizations:

  • Festival goers for traditional French comics festivals are really centered around netting these signed copies from their favorite creators; there is not that much demand for discovery or curiosity there. It would be presumptuous of me to try and explain this phenomenon; I will just note that, since French comics are traditionally very well distributed, it seems the main role left for festivals to fulfill was to allow the public to actually meet the creators, which are presumed as being already known.
  • It’s important for online creators to be discovered, obviously. And being rediscovered — that is, being noticed by passersby as being the creator of art these passersby first saw online — can be an important part of that. Case in point: last year I went on a lark to a comics festival of LGBTQ+ creators, and once there I noticed Shyle Zalewski was there, which I had not expected (well, not that they aren’t LGBTQ+, but I had not followed them enough to notice any announcement that they’d be there).

So while I skipped them in 2017, I thought it important that I attend anime cons in 2018, because creators can benefit from exhibiting there way beyond simply catching the eyeballs of otaku using their manga-like style: attendees are much more likely to be simply travelling the aisles looking for something new, and while I described some French comics festivals as being big, anime cons are bigger (allowing more affordable table space for creators) and have higher attendance (allowing better changes for rediscovery, statistically speaking) by an order of magnitude, on average.

And Japan Expo Paris is probably the biggest (about 120,000 m² [meters squared, not a footnote], not counting the halls dedicated solely to line management) and most attended anime con in France². But by itself that does not mean much: earlier this year I went to Made In Asia in Brussels, and while that took up more than 50,000 m², I did not find any comics content to discover. And with these conventions, Japan Expo Paris included, you cannot really count on the programming or exhibitions to compensate.

Japan Expo Paris, however, was a bounty. Not only did I see SoSkuld, Pellichi, and other creators with a manga-like style³ that you would spontaneously associate with such a convention, but I also saw Jackpot, creator of Jo, whose style is definitely closer to traditional bandes dessinnées; and this was all the more valuable to meet her as she had to get away from social media (I missed Jo writer Soyouz, who was not present on Saturday). So the chance meeting aspect was definitely there.

Plus, since there was no line of people waiting for a signing, we were able to chat for a bit: for her as well attending Japan Expo Paris was a snap decision, without much of a commitment (Jo’s readers have no particular expectation of seeing the creators at Japan Expo Paris), to see how it would go, and she indeed appreciated the occasion to meet readers who’d just happen to be there and recognize her work.

I came back at the end of the day to check out her booth and ask how the day had gone, and it had obviously gone well, at least better than she planned for, as she had run out of some books (Saturday being usually the biggest day).

While other creators confirmed the impression, for it to happen to Jo shows these anime cons are now much more than places for selling manga, anime DVDs, and messenger bags to people who grew up with anime (though they are that, too): they are general pop culture conventions; and much like crowdfunding is providing comics creators an alternative for financing their creations, such conventions are providing them an alternative for meeting their readers. These conventions have in recent years been colonized by Youtubers for this very reason, and it is and will be interesting to see independent comics creators doing the same.

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Thanks again to FSFCPL. We’ll run the second part of his adventures at Japan Expo Paris once it clears Blog Customs.


Spam of the day:

Sorry to see you unsubscribe! Just so you’re aware, unsubscribing removes you from our global PR list for all clients. If you’ll allow us, we can customize your subscription settings to specific topics so that you receive news only that you care about.

See this? This is from a PR flack that’s sent stuff to me that I don’t care about for years. They finally — after uncounted messages being sent to the spam folder — included an unsubscribe option and then this happened.

Don’t do this. Unsubscribe means you don’t talk to me any further, and it pissed me off enough that I complained to MailChimp, to find out if this was a violation of their TOS (it is).

Fun fact: the PR flack in question was using fake MailChimp headers and badging and isn’t actually one of their customers! So this is going to serve as notice: if I get anything further from you, I’m naming and shaming. In the meantime, bugger off.

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¹ Since Maliki does not deign show up to conventions and other public events, for the purposes of this report we will treat the creator of Maliki’s webcomic as being Souillon.

² For instance, I anecdotally met a Peridot when I reached the train station next to my home to embark on my journey to Japan Expo Paris. Not unusual to meet con goers ahead of the con itself you say? Except we were at least (depending on train choices) two connections away from the train to get to the Parc des Expositions de Paris Nord Villepinte … so I think it’s fair to say Japan Expo Paris draws quite a crowd.

³ One of which will be the subject of the next post.

For Those Keeping Track At Home

Fleen’s coverage of SDCC 2018 is now finished. We put up 8645 words during the show, and another 7539 in the week since it wrapped up. If you want to read it all, you can click here, scroll back until you hit A Busier Preview Night Than One Would Have Expected, and start reading.

Virality And Memicality

[Editor’s note: As in the past, these panel recaps are based on notes typed during the session; all discussion is the nearest possible paraphrase, except for direct quotes which will be italicized.]

And so we reach the last panel of interest — and very nearly the last panel, period — at this year’s SDCC; a couple of people from comiXology (Matt Kolowski, who posed some questions, and Kiersten Wing, who didn’t get a chance to say much) talking to the author (Megan Kearney) and editor (Hope Nicholson, who should need no introduction) of a collection of webcomics that have gone all viral or memetic (follow that link and you can preview how the book came about).

They were joined by three of the folks whose work gets profiled: Nick Franco of Nuzlocke Comics, David Malki ! of Wondermark, and Shen T of Owlturd Comix. Franco was there less because of a specific comic and more because of an idea he had (a particularly difficult variant on playing Pokemon), Malki ! has had several comics blow up, but none so much as his run-in with a sea lion, and Shen’s work is widely meme-able.

The key takeaway — viral and meme are different things, and trying to achieve either is probably not a good use of your time because nobody knows when the lightning will strike. As Nicholson put it, the really viral items the ones very personal, as the internet says It me. Kearney drew the distinction: viral is when your grandma puts something in its entirety on Facebook, meme is when people begin to alter it to the point that the original may be lost in the sea of dialogue changes, inverted meanings, and crudely inserted anime character faces.

The other key takeaway, if you want to try to make things that will blow up in a viral or memetic fashion? Malki ! suggests starting in 2003 before there are many other people competing with your stuff. Except for when you find a bunch of recent stuff getting grabbed up, and who knows by whom? Shen commented on a recent strip where he sent his character into a K-Pop dungeon and that gets memed by every fandom. It was kind of scary when they get memed, and get ratioed pretty hard on Twitter. In the end, a lot of people make incredibly high-effort versions that weren’t in any way problematic, just high effort. In the end, I felt okay about it.

And, of course, if you do get something that resonates, people will not only adapt, but try to make money off of it; Malki ! noted that once you come up with a slogan, everybody assumes that it’s free to put on t-shirts, and recounted the story of the public broadcasting-themed catalog that comes to your grandparents selling a version of his Engineering t-shirt, but worse. I wrote to them and offered to license my design, I told them, it’ll look better. Their standard agreement was very poor terms, and two years I got $20 in royalties.

Franco possibly topped that: My website stopped working, and I was looking at redesigns, and there’s a link to my Twitter and to Facebook. But I don’t have a Facebook page, and I find it’s operating for years, somebody pretending to be me selling t-shirts. Shen noted that he deals with a fake Facebook, fake Instagram, and they they can do their own thing. He then told Malki !, I totally see that engineering thing around, don’t know if it’s yours or not.
Malki !: If it looked good it was mine.
Shen: It was in Papyrus.

Asked their favorite memes, Nicholson replied Anything with dogs, Franco likes KC Green’s This Is Fine, and Malki ! tried to figure out what the oldest meme would be. Kearney suggested R Crumb’s Kilroy Was Here, and Malki ! got analytical: That’s a good one. In order for something to be a meme, it had to be reproduced so many times, so the content had to be minimal. It says something about needs of human to put a mark on anyplace they’ve been. I’m gonna use the exact same thing every other human has done. The interesting thing about SDCC, this sort of event, you” see every possible pop culture and pop culture mash-up on t-shirts, and which stick around. There’s one book that’s nothing but Calvin & Hobbes walking on a log, but it’s Han & Chewie, like 50 of those. To see that it’s got cultural currency after 20 years is very powerful.

Nicholson recounted We had to research and ignore the huge world of viral/memetic photos, most popular is the stock photo of the guy looking over his shoulder. Kolowski wanted to know where that particular photo came from, and during Q&A, I was able to fill him in that there had recently been a report — the stock photo is one of a lengthy series by a Spanish photographer of that same woman giving that face at a dog, at a salad, at nearly everything. There’s even one or two of her doing something and the guy giving her that face in return.

After that, it was the usual Q&A questions: Do you like this job (Kearney: I love this job; Malki !: I love all the parts that are fun and none of the parts that make it a job; Shen: I’m like that pterodactyl from The Flintstones: It’s a living), what’s your favorite anime (Malki !: I like that you assume we would have one; that being said, in high school somebody showed me Record of Lodoss War), what’s your advice for making comics on the internet (Kearney: Draw comics, put them on the internet; Franco: I shouldn’t give advice, but that’s good; Malki !: Start in 2003; Shen: Have a regular schedule so people come back).

And it’s the very prosaic nature of those questions that underscores a key point for me — that what goes viral, or what gets memed is not the result of a mysterious process; it’s the same as everything else on the internet, and nobody (including the person who comes up with the viral/memed thing; maybe especially that person) could tell you why one thing caught fire and another didn’t¹. It’s all just stuff on the internet, but some of catches our brains. To update Warhol, in the future, everybody will be viral or memed for fifteen minutes.

Now just make sure you don’t confuse reading it and making it, and we’ll be good. Lookin’ at you, Signals catalog!

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¹ Speaking from personal experience, some weeks back I had a tweet blow up to a notable degree, and I couldn’t tell you why. It’s not out of character with anything else I’d post, and it wasn’t my goal to write something that would catch the attention of so many people. The fact that SwiftOnSecurity retweeted it probably didn’t hurt, but that alone doesn’t explain it. It just made a bunch of people say OMG yes, I guess.

Serial: Not Just A Great Podcast

[Editor’s note: As in the past, these panel recaps are based on notes typed during the session; all discussion is the nearest possible paraphrase, except for direct quotes which will be italicized.]

That is, there are special challenges in doing book series, and Dr Rose Brock of Sam Houston State University in Texas wanted to tease out those challenges with the help of Jenni and Matt Holm, Raina Telgemeier, and Traci Todd, head of children’s publication at Workman; the latter had invaluable insights to offer on the production end of things.

It’s a huge topic, and discussion ranged from What made you want to collaborate? (directed at the Holm siblings; Jenni’s answer: I didn’t have to pay him. Matt’s answer: The [prose] book she was working on featured an older brother who communicated with a younger sister via comics he drew, and I created those cartoons; it wasn’t published until years after the Babymouse series debuted.) to the challenges of starting new series (Jenni again: We were up against a lot of hurdles in 2000, 2001, going to publishers, children’s imprints, trying to convince them to do a comic when they didn’t have an art pipeline, they didn’t know if girls would read them, they didn’t know if bookstores and libraries would buy them.)

Sticking with Team Holm, there was discussion of collaboration (Matt: Jenni does the story in storyboard form, I’ll revise and do thumbnails and send them to Jenni, and she’ll lay them out, figure out how the comic will look. She was a video editor before an author, so it’s like that — I’m shooting raw footage, she’s editing.) and the amount of time it takes to finish a project (Matt: For a traditional graphic novel about 100 pages long, it’s about a year from start to finish, from Jenni starts writing to I turn in the last of the art. We’re almost always working on other projects at the same time. There’s a lot of back and forth. One of the things you learn on a series is you have a lot of organization, we’ve got due dates in 2020, 2021.), a topic which others had perspectives on.

Raina wishes she had a collaborator to trade off with: I write a script in thumbnail, it’s all there but really rough. It can take from a month to two years to get through that stage, especially with autobio — I look through old photos, ask friends and family if they remember specific aspects of what we went through. And then we edit my life. They’ll tell me “Well, we don’t really like the character’s motivation here and I’m like “Well….”.

For those wondering, Raina estimates Smile is about 95% true and Sisters is about 90% true, mostly because dates got changed and cousins excised to keep the story flowing. Her next book, bee tee dubs, [I]s also a memoir, it’ll be a sort of prequel to Smile, which I haven’t really announced before. Then I draw for however long and send it off to my colorist. Scholastic would like it to be a very regular process, but it can take two years, it can take five years.

Keep those production timelines in mind, because Matt noted that the first Babymouse took two years before anybody not named Holm or their editor saw it, so the work was very much in a vacuum. The later volumes, there was some expectation about how things would go, but the first was a tabula rasa. By contrast, Raina started in minicomics and webcomics, where the feedback is fairly immediate; once she started working on Smile, it would be years of working without that feedback process.

It was also a time of having to set reasonable expectations; Scholastic launched their Graphix imprint with BONE by Jeff Smith, a nine-volume epic that was done, all it needed was coloring. Some in Scholastic’s hierarchy took that to mean that any graphic novel series could be produced on a six-month cycle and Raina had to point out that no, adapting the Baby Sitters Club books would take considerably longer, and her original works longer still. It seems obvious to us, but this was a new area for the publisher at the time; as it was, she wound up doing four books on a yearly basis, which is insanely fast.

Speaking of new areas, Raina pretty much invented (as noted by Mark Siegel a couple days ago) the area of middle grade memoir (and I’ll go further and say graphic novel memoir in general), so that led to new questions: How do you determine what you’re willing to tell about your life? As Raina noted, There’s always going to be a limit of this thing will make this other person really uncomfortable. With Smile, my editors looked at the webcomic and said There are too many characters here and for a story about having no friends you have too many friends. She tried to stick as close as possible to the emotional core, and if I have to swap out who actually betrayed me, well, everybody betrays everybody in middle school.

Since editors were brought up, Brock asked Traci Todd about being an editor, and she talked it up with enthusiasm: Being an editor was not a job I realized I could have until I was an editor, so if you feel you can’t be an author or illustrator, it’s quite gratifying. Editors acquire stories they are quite passionate about; they are just as invested as the team creating the book and when you see those pieces start to fall in place, you’re all on the same page, you just know the readers are going to connect with the imagery and the text. Even better, asked her favorite series to work on, she said I haven’t had it yet. I loved the things I worked on [which to date is licensed work] but I’m still waiting for my favorite. That’s the answer of somebody profoundly committed to making the next comic the best that’s ever been.

Quick questions followed, starting with Advice to yourself as a baby creator?¹
Jenni: Don’t do four books the first year.
Matt: Yeah. Desperately try to get regular schedule, don’t stay up too late working, it’s always better to stop and come back. Self-care is huge, thank goodness I had a dog and I had to chop firewood to keep the house heated.
Jenni: It took us years to realize that every book is not a sprint, it’s a marathon, and then the series is a megamarathon.
Matt: Say No more often.
Raina: Be a curious person and have interests and make friends with your fellow creators. If you’re a person who is interested in science or the outdoors or politics or society, you won’t burn out all your inspiration after six books. Don’t lock yourself in your room all the time.
Traci: Be brave. As an author I had a book I’d worked on over a decade I was too afraid to share but then I did and now it’s going to be published. Related: be open to feedback and be gracious about the feedback you receive. Anybody giving you feedback wants the best for you and wants your work to be incredible.
Matt: Talking to humans is feedback. Talking on Twitter or Facebook is torture.

What are some of your favorite books that people haven’t discovered?
Jenni: Be Prepared by Vera Brosgol. [all agree]
Matt: The problem is when do we have a chance to read?
RT: Sci-Fu by Yehudi Mercado. A kid DJ in Brooklyn is abducted by aliens and has to defeat them in DJ battle. Gale Galligan used to be my assistant and has taken on the Baby Sitters Club series. She’s very manga influenced, it can be so shoujo, so good.
Traci: There’s a new series I’ve heard of, about a little girl that can see a T-Rex nobody else can see, like Calvin & Hobbes. [Editor’s note: I’ve not been able to identify this series; if you recognize it, please let us know in the comments.]
Raina: The Witch Boy by Molly Ostertag and its sequel, The Hidden Witch.
Jenni: Hey, Kiddo by Jarrett Krosoczka.

Questions from the floor followed. Asked what jobs they wanted when they were kids, the panelists replied:

Jenni: Ballerina, but I got fired from the ballet when I was about four years old.
Matt: I wanted to do this, but this didn’t exist when I was a kid. I wanted to make those books of comics, the collections of daily strips that I didn’t know until I was 10 or 11 that comic strips were out every day.
Raina: I wanted to be trapeze artist, then a farmer. I knew I would wear overalls and a hat; I grew up in the city and I think the thought of having space outdoors was the most exciting thing ever. Then at nine years old I decided to be a comic strip artist. I’ve had zero career aspirations since except to be a cartoonist.
Traci: I wanted to be a writer and thought the only way was to be a journalist, so went to journalism school and hated it.

When you’re writing books and you want to put in people you know, do you have to ask permission?
Matt: Change all the names. When we did Sunny Side Up, it’s fictionalized, it didn’t happen on that timeline, we eliminated two brothers from the family.
Jenni: We changed it a lot. Babymouse, I mean I am Babymouse, he’s Wilson Weasel. Felicia the mean girl is based on a real person but we’ll never say her real name. Make her a cat and she’ll never catch on.
Raina: I wish I had talked to you guys before I started this. I use real names and I make people look like they are and my dad likes to argue with me about that’s not how that happened, that’s not the order it was in. I have both the good side and the bad side about writing about my life, mostly good.
Matt: Don’t put real people’s names in, dedicate it to them.

Are you making more Sunny books?
Jenni: Matt will start drawing the third next week, it’ll be out Fall 2019: Sunny Rolls The Dice.

How do you keep yourselves organized?
Jenni: I scribble out chapters as I go along and keep it on the wall. I use a MacGyvered storyboard; I use Scrivener in my novels, but it’s overkill in graphic novels.
Matt: For Sunny, it’s set in the summer of 1976, so I had to do a ton of visual research — cars, the airport, the clothes, it’s all a giant folder of stuff for me and for our colorist. In terms of series, as we do twenty Babymouse books, I have to go back and make sure I’m doing characters right. I’m constantly going back to my old stuff. I have PDFs of every book when I’m on the road.
Raina: The minute I’m drawing, I lose details. I have blueprints of things like a classroom from all angles, where each kid sits, I’ve been looking at that for six months. I write outlines before thumbnailing, but it gets updated pretty constantly.
Jenni: It’s fun to remember when you see something from the ’70s, like seeing Sunny in the front seat with no seatbelt.
Matt: Photo reference was shocking. I didn’t remember how many people wore plaid pants, everybody all wearing jeans, no girls in dresses …
Traci: I think that’s one of the things an editor has to watch for; I’m constantly making sure kids are wearing bike helmets, seat belts. Memoir’s one thing, but in fiction we want to make sure we aren’t setting a bad example. We have a duty and obligation to readers of the book.

I love that line — a duty and obligation to readers of the book. Readers, all of these people not only want to tell the best story they can, they want you to be the best you can be. That’s why comics (especially middle grade/YA, where so much of the best work is being done) is so great.

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¹ That is, a creator in the baby stage of their career, not somebody who makes baby humans.

In Case Of Stairs, Here’s Some Fire

[Editor’s note: As in the past, these panel recaps are based on notes typed during the session; all discussion is the nearest possible paraphrase, except for direct quotes which will be italicized.]

I’m going to do something I don’t believe I’ve ever done. I’m going to ask you to go elsewhere (two elsewheres, actually) to figure out what Scott McCloud said in his spotlight presentation on the occasion of 25 years of Understanding Comics. The first thing to do is to track down a copy of the Comic-Con 2018 Souvenir Book, because on pages 140-145, you’ll find the text of the presentation that McCloud did for the opening 10 minutes or so of his session. The essay didn’t offer enough room for pictures, though (I counted 18, if all the cover photos of foreign editions of UC are separate items), so he added a bunch more for his reading of the same material — about 200 in all. Guy knows how to keep things rolling along.

The second thing you need to do (or maybe the first, since the first may be really difficult) is to click on the image up top. Jason Alderman had been unaware of the McCloud session until about 10 minutes before I was going to walk up there; he decided on the fly he needed to go when I mentioned that McCloud would likely talk about his next book, which will be on visual communications (a topic near and dear to Alderman’s heart, and mine). He had his pens, but no suitable sketchbook for his famed sketchnoting. I offered the use of my notebook, which resulted in both the sketchnote above (which you should immediately embiggen) and the fact that I now have an Alderman original sketchnote (muwaa ha ha ha).

Let’s be clear — Alderman and I sat in the same session, in adjoining seats. We both set out to capture the same content in real time. He produced an image, I took down 1205 words, many correctly spelled. What we learned from this is that the old ratio is wrong — a picture is work approximately 1.2 thousand words (and probably 1000 words longer that by the time I finish). Go study that picture; examine it closely, and then you can come back here for some context.

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Very well then: in the fall of 1991, during a rare tornado watch in Providence, Rhode Island, McCloud left the basement where he and his wife, Ivy, were huddling for safety when he heard the phone ring. The call was good — Kevin Eastman (of Ninja Turtles fame and lately fortune) was calling to say that his new publishing company, Tundra, was going to publish Understanding Comics.

To date, the book has outlived the publisher by approximately 24.8 years, and has become one of the most required pieces of reading on college campuses, with multiple disciplines using it to teach their stuff. It’s been translated into more than 20 languages. It has killed at least two publishers¹, and has a history intertwined with McCloud’s older daughter², as they were conceived, gestated, and birthed in parallel.

The book is a testament to McCloud’s obsession with how things work (more about that in a few moments), in that he couldn’t just make comics, he had to take them apart to see all that made them unique (particularly, during the Q&A, the fact that comics is the only artistic medium where past, present, and future exist together within human perception; music, movies, TV, plays, all the visual and performing arts depict now, a series of nows, but comics have those panels across time).

A professor who played doubles tennis with Will Eisner arranged an introduction, a job in production at DC happened to be near Books Kinokuniya in Manhattan a half decade before manga really made an impact in its first translations, and 15 years before it exploded into whole bookstore sections. Zot ran at the late Eclipse³ and started getting really good about the time he wanted to be spending time on UC4, meaning some of the most humanistic stories of that otherwise grimdark decade were done under duress.

Oh, yeah, and the first graphical web browser came out a few months after UC, which doesn’t mention computers once.

A slow start picked up momentum as the reorders came in, and kept coming; convention appearances became teaching gigs and seminars, symposia and workshops for corporations and academia. And still, it feels like unfinished business: for every project completed, ten more are rolling around in McCloud’s head, but so many readers (both those that read it back then, and those that have never known a world without it) are taking UC’s ideas out for a spin and creating their own takes on his theories.

Qs were chosen by Winter, with As from all three as appropriate; the first dealt with McCloud’s next book, which was the topic of the closing presentation, so we’ll hold discussion until then. Except to say that McCloud noted, The form of the book is a comic, but it doesn’t have “comics” in the name so it’s a big step for me.

A seemingly prosaic question got the best laugh of the hour: when was UC first used in a university setting? McCloud recalls that it was at Michigan State, but isn’t entirely sure of the timing. He once found himself humblebragging about the situation to Neil Gaiman: I remember talking to him, all these colleges are using my book, it’s a big deal and he said “I know, it’s like when all the women that line up at a reading to get their breasts signed” and I’m, “Yeah”. I’ve always found McCloud to be very modest about his accomplishments and the importance of his place in history, and I firmly believe that comes from the core of who he is; this little bit of perspective-setting surely didn’t hurt, though.

Asked about what he thought about the presentations of comics on mobile devices, and the tension between whole-page approaches and panel-to-panel scrolling, Ivy gave him a strict limit with a stern Five minutes. You know that last panel in UC with Sky in Ivy’s arms? She’s talking about how you just finished reading a couple hundred pages of his theories, but she has to listen to it all the time? Yeah, the presentation of comics on mobile interfaces falls into that category, leading McCloud to start with Thank you for the question, Pandora’s Box.

It’s a dilemma, in the literal sense — on the one hand people hate scrolling, but a lot of that comes from technical limitations that have been addressed. Panel-to-panel is more intuitive, making things like a little movie, but see above and how comics aren’t movies, movies are always now and you lose an essential part of comics in this way. But I don’t want to be the guy that insists on purity. Maybe it’s not technically comics by my definition, but are people reading it, are they enjoying it? Somebody invented a form that mutates my model, but it’s enduring.

Nevertheless, the form that accentuates the all-times nature of comics is essential; McCloud noted that Korean webcomics are all scrollers now (and they’ve brought the interface here, cf: Webtoons), and if that’s what they’re reading on phones, if you don’t take advantage, that’s a storytelling challenge (or possibly failure). He clearly had another 3-4 hours of rant in him, but stopped to get in one last question about his inspiration for The Sculptor:

[gesturing to Ivy] She’s my inspiration.

It’s a long-gelling story, one that a 25 year old McCloud started and a much older McCloud finished from a different place of technical, storytelling, and theoretical development. He likes that fact that the book got both a lot of love and a lot of hate, that nobody is indifferent. I achieved at least one of my goals which was to create narrative momentum — a lot of people told me they read a 500 page graphic novel in one sitting and that’s nuts.

And that left enough time for his second presentation, a preview of his next book on visual communications, on his absolute loathing of a plaque next to an elevator in a La Quinta motel in Tennessee and what he learned. It was called In Case Of Fire. This is the plaque, and he shared some of the interpretations of what this meant to people:

  • In case of a Goliath attack, hide in a companion cube and get upvoted to safety
  • Use chopsticks to remove cooked children from hot oven
  • In case of 2 fires, ride the elevator heading to the larger fire

He mentioned the difficulty he had getting information from public websites that are supposed to talk about areas affected by Southern California wildfires, all down to poor formatting, and contrasted with the experiences of Sky (who is functionally blind) and how accessibility is either granted or denied by the choices made. There are no neutral visual decisions, he half-shouted: scale, rotation, hue, saturation, wording, contrast, font, placement, all of them matter. His realization is that it doesn’t matter if you’re blind, or have neurological or language issues, we all have cognitive limits and all of us are served or not by visual design.

He brought up Google results for what the words are meant to convey: In case of fire use stairs, and filtering out the gags, went to work. How does this read for somebody that scans images left to right? An awful lot of people are wandering towards the fire or have simply turned their backs to it, but even those that don’t could be just as easily read as In case of stairs, here’s some fire or Have a pleasant stroll in the vicinity of fire or Skip merrily down some stairs away from fire. Even word choice affects interpretation: use is a bad word in this context.

Anyway, he said, that’ll be like 20 pages of the book.

Lots of things are going to be like 20 pages of the book; we’ve talked about the literal years of research he’s done, about how 90% of what he’s digging into will probably never be shared, but which will give him to context to decide how to prune down and present the key ideas of the 10% that does make it in. He’s evangelical about the topic, noting that Culture has recognized the importance of each and every word, but denies the importance of each and every picture, not to mention how satisfying great visual communications design is — think about the wordless, nested, entirely clear (yet complex) instructions on an airplane emergency evacuation card.

Look for In Case Of Fire: The Elements Of Visual Communication (a title which he hopes invokes Strunk & White, but which will be nowhere near as slim5) in the next couple. Come to think of it, he never did say couple what.

Asked in the closing seconds if he got angry at fonts like Papyrus6 or Comic Sans7, McCloud replied, Comic Sans doesn’t make me angry, fonts don’t make me angry. I look, I say “Wrong”, I change the font. He contrasted the very haphazard nature of Roman characters to the very deliberate and nature of written Korean, concluding Fonts don’t make angry, but they very rarely satisfy me. And he made a recommendation, so you’ll have something to read while waiting for the next couple: I’m Comic Sans, Dammit, (which appears to actually be titled I’m Comic Sans, Asshole, but there were kids present), which ran in McSweeney’s. Kids, maybe hold off on reading it until you’re older.

And with that, the presentation ended with applause, and then he took another hour in the hallway, talking to everybody that had something they wanted to share with him. As a bonus, there was a guy dressed as Sean Connery in Zardoz adjusting his loincloth about 3 meters away, but I don’t think Scott ever noticed; whether it’s researching a book or answering an earnest fan’s question, he is a master of the monofocus.

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¹ In a page full of small images captioned This is not a _____, the logo for Tundra is labeled This is not a publisher. By the time most purchasers of the first edition of 6000 copies read UC, that statement was true. When Denis Kitchen published the second edition through Kitchen Sink Press and had McCloud substitute the KSP logo for Tundra’s, the same thing quickly became true.

DC had their crack at it, with their “bullet” logo substituted in when they were the publisher; one might wonder if the curse shifted from the publisher as a whole to merely their cinematic universe offerings. It’s with HarperCollins now, and they wisely decided to let the DC logo stand.

² Sky, who wasn’t present with Ivy and younger daughter Winter, but had many stories about her shared. She didn’t exist when McCloud drew Ivy holding her on the last page of UC, but preceded the book into this world by approximately two weeks, meaning that last panel isn’t a lie.

³ McCloud’s really got a thing for defunct publishers

4 The “Earth stories”, still looked back upon by readers as the highlight of the series.

5 He’s mentioned a length of about 250 pages, but he also used that number the first time he told me he was working on The Sculptor, which came in at 496. Given all the research he’s doing, I will not be one bit surprised to see him go significantly long.

6 About which, let’s be real, there’s nothing wrong except rampant overuse.

7 About which everything is wrong.

The New Mainstream

There may be nobody in comics and graphic novels more able to predict where it’s headed than Mark Siegel of :01 Books, if only because of the talent that he has fostered: entire imprints are being established around :01 alumni like Gina Gagliano and Collen AF Venable. It was :01 that brought comics into the world of literary awards, it’s :01 that is the sole publisher that cuts across all age ranges (picture books, kids, middle grade, teen/YA, adult) and all topics; the only limitation is that it’s going to be a comic.

So how did we (the expansive we of the entire world o’ comics, not the royal we embodying Siegel alone) get here? I’ve got my own theories, and one of them is that a good deal of :01’s success is predicated on the fact that Siegel takes time for people; he’s never been too busy to talk to me, and if he’s not absolutely delighted to see me, he’s done a damn good job acting like it. During our quick chat before the start of his (rather under-attended) talk at SDCC, we ranged from the tragedy of Last Man getting cut for lack of sales¹ to the dangers of projecting the laptop before verifying what’s visible on the screen². Although the focus was on :01’s place in the evolution of the graphic novel, he did take about a minute to talk about his own creative work — including a quick animated clip promoing the 5 Worlds series that he co-writes; think Miyazaki crossed with Jansson and you won’t be far from the mark.

As you might expect, he talked about the milestones that :01 has been through — starting just as manga was peaking, and as the comics-buying demographic went from 85% male (mostly aging) to 65% female, American Born Chinese getting a National Book Award nomination and the Printz honor (the first comic work for both) in the first year of operation, ramping up from ~20 books a year to ~50 — but also looked at the industry as a whole:

Raina Telgemeier and Scholastic Graphix released Smile and literally started a revolution; middle grade memoir is now the single most successful category in comics. Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home runs on Broadway. Nimona is found in the Library of Congress, was also nominated for the National Book Award, will be a feature film, and Noelle Stevenson is now showrunning the She-Ra reboot. This One Summer became the first book to take both the Printz and the Caldecott honors and was the most banned book of 2016³. The March trilogy took every honor under the sun, and the concluding volume won the National Book Award. Spinning is the latest runaway cross-audience hit (hello Eisner award, 2018).

It’s not coincidental that most of those who created the works cited above? Women. There is in any given :01 season a roughly 50-50 split in creators along gender lines, not because :01 is looking specifically for women, but because they’re creating the most interesting work these days, from high-brow to pulpy, young to old, ambitious to goofy, for comics and non-comics readers — by great new voices, and a worldwide talent pool as Siegel put it. The American graphic novel is now doing what Japan did in the 70s, what France did in the 80s and 90s: it’s about any topic, designed for any age, being treated as any other book would be.

The way we got here — where graphic novels form what Siegel calls The New Mainstream — was entirely dependent upon the building blocks of the past. It works like this:

(2006: The New Mainstream)
(2000: The Manga Invasion =====)
(1986: The Graphic Novel ==========)
(1970s: Indy Comics =================)
(1960s: Underground Comics ===============)
(1960: The Silver Age ========================)
(1938: The Golden Age ===========================)

It was much nicer in Siegel’s slide deck, but you get the idea; we can’t get to where we are without having had each of the previous eras. The kids that read Golden Age comics grew up to create the Silver Age. The reaction to mainstream comics and the Comics Code Authority was the genesis of Underground and the Indies, where if you wanted to make a comic you could just make it yourself. The Graphic Novel served those that had read all of the previous stages and wanted something more. The Manga era, coupled with the example of Graphic Novels brought us to the current stage, where librarians and booksellers are as important as individual readers, for a catalog that’s author-driven, not dependent on a single genre or visual style.

At the same time there’s an element not in the diagram, but which Siegel made sure to discuss: webcomics is what indies and zines used to be — a proving ground and place to develop your talent, and spans all the time frames from the birth of the Graphic Novel to today. Take a look at the milestones section above, and realize that pretty much all of those creators came up through webcomics.

But even with this historical confluence, there’s things you have to do to make it all work, and Siegel admitted there is a secret recipe:

  1. Brilliant, talented, skilled creators (he used both words, drawing a distinction I think is often lost between talent and skill)
  2. Belief in editorial care (editing is not meddling, it’s a support to good storytelling; Siegel described how :01 uses a “story trust”, where people workshop stories, with a shot of Skype call of himself, Gene Yang, and Sam Bosma, working with Vera Brosgol on Be Prepared)
  3. Bridging fields, ages, genres, nations (the creators of The Dam Keeper came from Pixar and said We only want to be in the house of Gene Yang; Scott Westerfeld, an established YA writer, got paired up with Alex Puvilland to The Spill Zone; Nidhi Chanani did illustration work before Pashmina; webcomics creators like Gigi DG, Ngozi Ukazu, and Evan Dahm are getting approached to either reprint with :01 or do new originals works)
  4. Pushing up, broadening, exploring the medium (the Science Comics will be branching to a history line and a maker line, featuring topics like knitting (!), baking, and car repair)
  5. Librarians

This is too large for a parenthetical. Librarians are champions of graphic novels, and they’ve been instrumental in giving them legitimacy. They’ve spent money, they’ve gone from a single shelf to graphic novel sections in each age-specific area in their libraries. I’ve seen the changes since the SPLAT! symposium back in 2008 (cough, largely organized by Gina Gagliano, cough), where libraries had a programming track, maybe the first time that had happened at a comics event, and where the conversations were centered on How can I justify this in my budget? These days it’s about justification, it’s about figuring out how many copies to order to satisfy the waitlist and how long they’ll last before falling apart from use.

That’s it! Simple! Just spend a bunch of time in publishing, a bunch of time in comics, a bunch of time editing, a bunch of time building up your skills and credibility, then figure out all the budgets and promotion and logistics, whether this book is going to have a print run of under 10,000 or over 100,000 … okay, not simple, but not magic either. It’s all about respect for the medium, respect for the creators, respect for the readers.

And librarians. They rock.

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¹ Right at the time of an amazing cliffhanger, too; Siegel says he was convinced that committing to six volumes would have built an audience, but alas, it wasn’t to happen. Then again, they say that Robert Kirkman’s a fan, so maybe some day we’ll get it back.

² A fair amount of my teaching is driven by presentation from my laptop, and I’ve come damn close to having confidential emails shared to my students. There was a very oblique reference to something that Siegel’s been working on nearly as long as :01’s been a company that showed for about two seconds and you’ll not hear the story from me until it’s well and truly announced, but take the lesson, kids: double check everything before screen sharing.

³ Which, Siegel notes, is great for sales because it keeps the books on the radar of buyers. For that matter, those foil stickers on the covers that say PRINTZ or CALDECOTT on them? They mean that about 80,000 librarians will order that book every two years forever. As Siegel noted later, graphic novels can have a slow burn. Unlike monthly comics having to establish high sales immediately or get cancelled (or movies depending largely on opening weekend), graphic novels can ride out a long tail.