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DC Vs Marvel in the Age of Tweets

There is a facebook page entitled “Has DC Done Something Stupid Today?” The caption on the page reads “Are you tired of having to comb through dozens of articles trying to figure out if DC has done something cringe worthy today? Would you like to be the first person to know how long it’s been since DC alienated fans?” Call me crazy, but I suspect there might be a bit of bias there.

DC and Marvel have always represented opposite sides of the comic playground, even though the same creators often bounced from one company to the other. Beginning with Marvel’s creative heyday in the 60s, fans usually choose one side or the other, either proclaiming themselves a Marvel Zombie or a DC Fanboy. Of course, in the days before the internet, most of this allegiance was based simply on the characters and the perceived quality of the stories. It was no less passionate. Even then, you picked your side and stuck to it.

As it did with so many things, the internet brought change to comics fandom.

In 2012, Sean Howe published a book entitled “Marvel Comics: The Untold Story”. It is an interesting read and I recommend it…unless you are a Marvel fan. It details the various eras of Marvel and all the behind the scenes politics and maneuvering that went on before all those comics ever saw print. Even during the Stan Lee era there were inter company feuds and resentment over who-got-what-credit. The crucial difference was comic readers had no idea what was going on behind the scenes. We read the books, enjoyed the stories on their own merits and largely assumed those stories either sprang to life via magic, or that they were fashioned by happy, larger than life artists for no reason other than to create legends and make us happy.

Yes, I know. Was it possible people were ever really that naïve?

Contrast that with today’s post social media world. Today, when a writer or artist gets bent out of shape over any perceived slight, more often than not, they immediately tweet about it. The internet reports these stories and often the drama behind the comics is more compelling than the drama within them.

Interestingly, the drama actually serves to help delineate some of the differences between DC and Marvel that currently exist. Both are corporate entities, entirely driven by profit, but their views on just how to make that profit differ. Even before Marvel was bought by Disney, they had been following its model. Marvel, like Disney, views its properties as its primary business, rather than the stories about them. In other words, Marvel makes its money because it owns Spider-Man, not because it makes Spider-Man comics. In their view, the real money is to be made by licensing Spider-Man’s image out to companies who make lunch boxes, T-Shirts, bottle openers, action figures and doo-dads of every imaginable type. The comics themselves? Well, they need to be kept going, so that Spider-Man remains an active property, but whether they are great comics is largely irrelevant as long as they remain out there to keep Spider-Man in the public eye so the property can continue to be exploited.

This is not to say that Marvel Comics are never good. Sometimes they are quite good. But that is usually more of a happy accident rather than any careful stewardship on Marvel’s part. Marvel wants the books published, so they hire people to edit, write and draw them. Sometimes those people who are writing and drawing them do a great job, sometimes they don’t. It really doesn’t matter a whole lot to Marvel because what Marvel does really well is marketing and so they will sell the books with only nominal regard for the content.

On the other hand, DC focuses on the books themselves. Sure, they market their books, just not as effectively as Marvel, so they remain convinced the best way to sell more books is to make them better. There are people who would view this as adorably naïve. Because of this, DC is much less willing to give free reign to its creators. They have a larger plan for their universe and want creators to do their best work, but at the same time stick to DC’s editorial direction. One thing that hasn’t changed over the years: creative types usually prefer to be left alone. So is there any surprise DC’s stricter involvement is chafing some of its creators?

Understand, I’m not completely defending DC. Any company is made up of a variety of people and it is rare that egos and agendas do not start to at least partially drive the management machinery. All I’m really saying is this is not new, nor isolated to DC. Of course all this puts comic fans in something of a dilemma. We vote with our dollars and have to decide which is more important to us. While we love the characters and want to see them continue, we also love the creative teams who make them come alive and know that without them, our favorite stories would never have happened. It would be nice if it was as simple as choosing between corporate product and artistic merit, but the best comics have always been driven by a little of both.

All of which makes me want to go pull out some old Jack Kirby comics. He created or co-created hundreds of characters under work-for-hire contracts and never got anywhere near what most people feel he deserved for them. Does this make his work any less wonderful to read? I’ll leave that to you to decide.

How to Lose a Potential Comic Reader in Just One Issue

 

Lately my son has been reading through a hefty Omnibus of the John Byrne run of Fantastic Four issues. He remarked how different they felt from modern comics. At first he couldn’t quite put his finger on what was different, but eventually it came to him: a lot of space was devoted to filling the reader in on background details that were relevant to the story. Comics today seldom do this.

There is a great deal of irony here. First, the comics industry desperately needs new readers and seems clueless as to how to acquire them. And yet they continue to pump out stories that are so deeply buried in continuity that they are uninviting for a new reader. Certainly, comics today are more sophisticated in their storytelling. Fans point to this increase in complexity as a sign of how much comics have improved in the past few decades. And in many ways they are right. However, this same complexity means that someone new cannot pick up a comic with any hope of understanding what is going on.

Frequently someone will wander into my store having just seen an Iron Man or Thor movie and ask about the comics. I do my best to summarize what is going on, but the current plotlines are so convoluted they inevitably get confused and leave without purchasing anything. DC’s very successful relaunch of their line of comics in 2011 did wonders in allowing new readers an entry point into comics, but already many of those books are beginning to get some weighty continuity of their own. And Marvel’s success at the movies means most of the casual people off the streets are looking for a Thor or Iron Man or AvengImageers comic to read and Marvel is simply not “new-reader” friendly.

A second irony is this: thirty years ago you could pick up most comic titles off the stands and start reading without confusion. These books were numbered consecutively, so chances are you would be picking up Fantastic Four #240 or Thor #310 or some other high number. Once the numbering began for a book, the publishers kept it going, no matter how many times the readership might turn over. Conversely, these days a book is lucky to make it 50 issues before the publisher restarts the numbering for some arbitrary reason. Wolverine in particular keeps getting restarts even though the story in the “first” issue of the new series is likely continued directly from the “last” issue of the previous series. So what that means is thirty years ago you could pick up Captain America #287 as an introduction to the series and start reading with no problem, where today you might pick up Captain America #1 and be completely confused as to what is going on, unless you had happened to read the last twenty or thirty issues of the preceding series.

In their defense, I understand why the publishers do this. Every day someone comes into my store and asks for a good series to read. If I direct them to any title with a number past the single digits they inevitably put it back on the shelf and ask “Don’t you have anything that… you know….just started?” Which brings me to irony number three. Potential fans are obsessed with getting in on a series at the beginning, and yet at the same time they want an iconic “brand name” character. Unfortunately they are about fifty years too late to pick up the first issues of Hulk or Spider-Man, but they are not interested in giving something like Bloodshot a try because it is an unknown quantity (i.e. – no movie yet). So instead they fall for Marvel’s marketing gimmick and pick up the latest Number One, and wind up totally confused at the bogged down story that is already well underway. These potential comic fans aren’t coming back, folks. It’s easier to just go watch the latest movie. And still the publishers scratch their heads and wonder why sales continue to erode year after year.

Giving the people what they want is not always the best idea, especially when what they think they want is yet another Wolverine #1.

MP3s Killed the Album Star

So the music album is dead. What a shame.

This is certainly no epiphany. There have been matter-of-fact eulogies for the Album for several years now. In many ways popular music has simply come full circle. In the earliest years of recorded music, music was packaged a small doses, at most a few very short songs. The technology of the time placed a severe limit on the amount of music that could be placed in a single package. 78 RPM records could hold only a few minutes of music on each side. Eventually companies started grouping several 78RPM discs together in an elaborate package, which was where the term “album” originated.

However, the format really blossomed when Columbia Records introduced its long play disc that played at 33 and 1/3 RPM. This allowed for somewhere in the neighborhood of twenty minutes of music on each side. Suddenly artists could explore whole programs of music, grouping songs together in sequences designed to highlight connections or provide a flow that became an important part of the music.

The album was very important too my generation. Artists started writing music specifically for the format. Would The Who’s rock opera “Tommy” exist in the same way had the format not developed? Of course not. Neither would “Dark Side of the Moon” or “Kind of Blue”. Every month Rolling Stone magazine devoted a number of its pages to pretentious reviews, dissecting the albums as “Art” with a very capital “A”. When “Thriller” came out, everybody bought a copy. Okay, “everybody” is undoubtedly an exaggeration, but I didn’t know of anyone who didn’t own a copy. There was a definite communal experience associated with albums.

But the convenience of digital distribution changed the game in recent years. Now fans no longer had to haunt their local music store and wait for the latest release by their favorite band. If they heard a song they liked, they simply went online to download it. To me, this has fostered a much more casual relationship with music for the current generation. Call me crotchety and out of touch if you must.

Of course, it could be argued that the album is far from dead. There has been a resurgence of interest in vinyl, of all things. That format was obliterated by the compact disc several decades ago, but now has made an unlikely comeback. Don’t get me wrong, I love vinyl. But it is still consigned to a niche experience. Music fanatics buy vinyl, but the world at large simply fills their phone with MP3s. The relatively small sales potential of current album sales has taken away the incentive to create album length works. Changes are very good that we simply won’t see another “Dark Side of the Moon”.

Time marches on, I guess. But for someone like me, for whom music was a vital, important part of my existence, it is hard to reconcile the shift away from epic works that we were so convinced truly meant something.

In 1987 the Dead Kennedys, a band that really didn’t sell all that many records, released an album called “Give Me Convenience of Give Me Death”. Oddly, it looks like the music industry got both.

Strangely Funny

I often wish I was funnier.

I once expressed this to a friend of mine, who looked at me rather oddly and said “But you ARE a funny guy, Dave. Probably the funniest guy I know, now that I think about it.”

When I replied that people didn’t seem to laugh very much at what I said, he thought for a moment and then said “That’s because your humor isn’t really the kind that you laugh at.”

I’ll pause for a moment to let that sink in.Strangely Funny cover

When I would submit humorous stories to my critique group, they would invariably come back with opinions ranging from “brilliant” to “awful”. Beauty may be in the eye of the beholder, but humor is apparently buried deep in a bone in your elbow that only makes its presence known when you hit it on the edge of a table. To say the least, humor is a very individual thing. For example, I have never found slapstick to be funny. I don’t like the Three Stooges and I pretty much loathe America’s Funniest Home Videos. People falling down and getting injured isn’t even remotely near my funny zone. Conversely, I find Kurt Vonnegut to often be side-splittingly hilarious. Most of my friends simply find Vonnegut perplexing.

All of which brings me to Strangely Funny.

A couple of intrepid ladies in Florida decided to enter the treacherous waters of small press publishing and started their own company, Mystery and Horror, LLC.. I admire their courage. I admire their fearlessness in the face of some pretty imposing odds against small publishers. Even more importantly, I admire their good tastes for selecting one of my stories to appear in their premier release. The editor posted a short interview with me on her own blog. You can read it here:

http://saraheglenn.blogspot.com/2013/08/strangely-funny-authors-meet-david.html

My story is called “If You Can’t Trust a Rhyming Demon, Can You Trust a Demon Not to Rhyme?” Even though it is populated with stereotypes and juvenile situations, it’s humor still relies on mostly on wordplay. I think it fits into the overall theme of “strange humor” nicely (or at least the “strange” part). I’ve read most of the book at this point, and as you would expect of an anthology, the stories within cover a wide range of styles. I found some of them to be quite funny, others I didn’t quite get at all. That is completely okay, and even to be expected. The writers in this book took some risks and found humor in odd places and situations. But as with all things in life, the greater the risk taken, the greater the potential reward.

Print version available from Amazon:  http://www.amazon.com/Strangely-Funny-Sarah-E-Glenn/dp/098900760X/ref=cm_cr_pr_product_top

or if you prefer it directly loaded to your Kindle:  http://www.amazon.com/Strangely-Funny-ebook/dp/B00E2ZSJ34/ref=sr_1_1_title_1_kin?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1376656545&sr=1-1&keywords=strangely+funny

DC Villains Month

Traditionally the worst month for retail sales is February. People still have Christmas money (and gift cards) to spend in January and by March some people are starting to get their tax returns. But February is stuck right in the middle of a sales “No Man’s Land” and is the weakest month for most retailers.

Except us.

For us, September has always been the month when sales take a sharp dive. Two factors figure into this, albeit in a roundabout way. First, the kids are back in school and although kids are not a significant percentage of our customer base, their parents are. Second, the East Texas State Fair happens here every September and it is a significant money drain. Truthfully, very few of our customers even go to the Fair, but it still affects the economy in this town. Bottom line is, September is the month that we try and prepare for, but never quite seem to handle as well as we would like.

So, it is interesting that DC Comics has chosen September as the month they try to win back lapsed readers with company wide events. In 2011 they launched The New 52. There was an avalanche of grumbling about how DC was “pissing on decades of continuity”, but when the books were actually launched, most of those complainers were silenced. The launch was a resounding success and the best thing to happen to our store in many years. One year later they suspended regular publication of their core “New 52” books and offered “Zero” issues of each title as a way to introduce even more people to their characters and new line of books. It, too, was a terrific idea and helped keep their momentum going.

This year, they are again suspending publication of their regular universe books and instead hosting “Villain’s Month”. For the entire month of September, the DC universe villains will headline the books instead of the regular heroes (i.e. Joker will take over Batman). To make the deal even more interesting to collectors, DC planned 3D motion covers on each of these books. They are using some new technology that involved a very long lead time, so long, in fact, that they had to set the print runs for these books well in advance of the time when they would actually see any retailer orders. They printed what they thought were generous amounts, but then the comic shop orders came in with much larger numbers than they predicted.

Some publishers (I’m not naming names here) would have just alerted the press that these books were going to be in short supply, let the market go crazy and then use the aftermath frenzy to pump sales of all their other books. DC, however, saw that there was going to be a shortage and so they immediately scheduled a regular cover edition of all these books. They are even going to get final allocation numbers to us BEFORE we have to order these regular cover editions so we can plan accordingly.

All of this boils down to one basic principle, which I’m sure I’ll elaborate on in future posts: DC genuinely treats the comic shops as partners in publishing. My store has often been accused of being a “DC store” as we tend to push their books over many of the other publishers (not Valiant, though. Valiant also rocks!). And why wouldn’t we? I cannot begin to tell you how differently DC and Marvel treat retailers. DC is supportive and responsive where Marvel is generally secretive and belligerent. However, my point of this post is not to trash Marvel so much as point out the help that DC has given its direct market accounts.

I still see a lot of suspicion and general hostility every time DC makes an announcement of some future event or company wide plan. Let’s face it, there is a large chunk of the comic fan base that will never be happy with anything they do (and you know who you are). I think DC realizes they will never be able to make everyone happy, but they are genuinely trying to do the right things to insure that the comic market remains healthy in the long term.

So if we are guilty of being a “DC Store”, so be it, because their goals and our are the same.

Meeting Our Idols

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I’ve been a fan of Bernie Wrightson’s work for several decades now. In the 70’s Wrightson shared a studio with Barry Windsor-Smith, Jeff Jones and Mike Kaluta. Being the ingenious artist types that they were, they named it “The Studio” and collectively and separately produced some of the finest comic art ever seen. There are not many creators who reduce me to a slobbering fanboy, but these four artists do just that.

Wrightson is perhaps best known as the co-creator of “Swamp Thing” for DC Comics in the 70’s. Certainly Swamp Thing is typical of his defining genre of work- horror. His work is macabre and dynamic, full of zombies and monsters. It is a genre that I’m not normally a big fan of, but there is something about his art that transcends it. One thing is for certain, you won’t mistake his work for that of anyone else, or vice versa. While he has influenced a large number of artists, nobody else’s work looks quite like his.

It is natural for passionate fans to want to meet the creators of their favorite works. Comic conventions across the world give us fans a chance to meet our favorite artist and writers, which I think helps solidify the bond that we feel with our hobby. I had attended a number of those conventions and met a number of artists, but the one single creator I was fervently awaiting was Bernie Wrightson.

On two separate occasions he was scheduled to appear at conventions in nearby Dallas. Each time I loaded up some 80 lbs of books for him to sign. Both times I was disappointed, as he was forced for one reason or another to cancel. By this point meeting Bernie Wrightson was more than just a casual desire. It was a quest!

Then one summer, Michael Kaluta was at a comic show in Dallas. I made the trip there, waited around all of the first day, only to have him show up as I was leaving. So I journeyed back the next day. The extra trip was worth it. Kaluta was friendly, and very happy to share anecdotes. He drew me a little “Shadow head” inside the Shadow book I took for him to sign. I bought another sketch from him and left feeling like I had met one of the true nice guys in comics. My vigor was renewed. I would fulfill my destiny! I would meet Bernie Wrightson!

Finally Bernie was scheduled to appear at the Fantasy Fair in Dallas (OK, so I had never met the man. After lugging around 90lbs of books in vain hopes to meet him, I was on a first name basis with him whether he liked it or not). The Fantasy Fair went bankrupt days before the show (another story entirely) but Bernie was still scheduled to appear at a makeshift show that was thrown together to replace it. So once again I made my way to the show, 100 lbs of books in tow. I waited at his empty table for hours before he arrived, quivering in anticipation of all the stories that I just knew he would tell. After meeting Kaluta, I was certain he would recognize me as his greatest fan and share some personal insights into his work.

Finally he arrived, portfolio in tow. He complimented the shirt I was wearing (A Comic Book Legal Defense Fund shirt- every comic fan should have at least two) and asked me to help move his table a few feet down. I hoped that no one noticed the pool of fanboy drool collecting at my feet. He seemed personable and friendly. Once he sat down a change seemed to come over him. He was still friendly enough, and extremely polite. He was, however, all business. Perhaps it was years of signing “Swamp Thing” comics at countless conventions, or maybe it was just that the hordes of fans worshipping his every pen stroke made him a bit uncomfortable. Either way, no matter what kind of question I posed to him, I got the same response. He would smile his most polite convention smile and say “Hey, Thanks for coming out!” It was obvious that he was on comic show autopilot.

I went to the show all three days and purchased some original art from him. I left happy with my acquisitions (a zombie sketch and three small paintings), but vaguely disappointed. I had built up expectations of meeting Bernie Wrightson that simply could not be met. Over the next couple of years, as I enjoyed his art (hanging proudly in my library) I slowly came to realize that I had gotten a lot more from him than I had realized. His art and the various comics he had illustrated, were important parts of my life. If I had not made a special connection to Bernie Wrightson the person, that didn’t matter, because Bernie Wrightson the artist had produced a tremendous amount of work for me to enjoy.

A couple of years later I met Bernie at another show. Now a card carrying member of his fan club, I had a lot less books to take for him to sign. I did, however, have a recently acquired hardcover of “Freakshow” that I proudly handed him to sign. I asked him if he would sign it “To David: Thanks for coming out!” He looked at me oddly for a moment, and then graciously complied. I left happy with my memento (and perhaps a little smug at my own inside joke). While I might not have made the fan connection to him that I envisioned, I still learned something about not only him, but myself as well. I saw him as a person and not this giant that had to live up to my expectations. He produced truly great work and was gracious to his fans (me), but beyond that, his life was his own. Like any artist, he shares his work with us and we are richer for it.

Of course, now Bernie Wrightson thinks I’m gay.

Faux-Nerds

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The comic book store used to be a sacred refuge of the nerd. It was one of the few places where we could feel accepted and even understood. If you wanted to gloat about finding that rare Space: 1999 British Annual or discovering some obscure small press comic, the comic shop was a place where people understood. The people there shared the same passions, experienced the same general clumsiness and truly understood what it meant to be a nerd.

A few years ago that started to change.

A new threat has started to infiltrate all of the usual safe havens for obsessive pop culture geeks. You see them at comic book stores, proudly proclaiming they are the biggest Doctor Who fan you will ever meet and can even name all THREE Doctors! You see them at the comic conventions, wearing costumes that are expertly made, but often laughably inaccurate to the true nerd. You find them just about everywhere the true nerd used to feel safe. They are the faux-nerd.

It isn’t all The Big Bang Theory’s fault, but certainly that show shoulders a lot of the blame for this infestation. It took a group of cliché nerds, added some hot girls to the mix to showcase their social awkwardness and through snappy writing and a laugh track made these stereotypes endearing. The public at large loved them, but I don’t think true nerds are quite as taken with the show because “endearing” was never what we wanted out to be.

Now, you might at this point think, “But Dave! What’s wrong with more people discovering nerd culture? Is it not a good thing that there are finally more people that love Doctor Who and Star Trek and Comic Books and everything else that used to be stigmatized as “nerdy”? And what about the hot girls? There’re hot girls that now like nerd stuff! That’s got to be good, right?”

Certainly, it could be a good thing, if it signaled a true cultural shift, but chances are it is more fad than genuine cultural change. After all, the mid-sixties Batman TV show was a cultural phenomenon that had everyone doing the Bat-tusi and buying Bat-memorabilia, but within a few years most of them lost interest and by the next decade comic books were on the verge of extinction.

So for now we’ve got all these tourists visiting out comic shops trying to pretend they are one of us, that they know the difference between The Legion of Super-Heroes and The Justice League. The lines at the comic conventions are suddenly horrendously long, clogged by people who wouldn’t have been caught dead near a comic convention just a few years ago. And if you think this new found “Geek Chic” means you have a chance at a hot girlfriend just like Leonard on The Big Bang Theory, chances are you’re going to find yourself sorely disappointed. Still think the influx of faux-nerds is such a good thing?

So what do we do about it? I’m not completely sure, although I’ve pondered several ideas. The “Occupy Wall Street” movement didn’t exactly change the world, but perhaps true nerds could adopt their strategy and occupy all those Hot Topic stores until they take down their super-hero t-shirts and Doctor Who displays. I’m not advocating violence here, of course, but maybe a little “Nerd Indignation” would be just the thing to send these faux-nerds running back to their Starbucks and Gap stores. And then, after the dust has settled and the trendy nerds have all gone away, perhaps of the few new arrivals might stay behind, choosing instead to remain with their new found brethren in the deeper waters of pop culture immersion. Those are the people we should accept into our temples of nerd culture as we were accepted before them. Our ranks might grow only slightly, but it would be a true growth, rather than a false spike. For it would only be at that point that a select few might make the difficult transition from faux-nerd to true nerd and we could say to them “Welcome! Live long and prosper. And pass the Cheetos!”