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 Avengers 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.
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.
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.
Although it doesn’t exactly fit my own definition of “news”, the latest buzz among comic fans is the story that Frank Miller is about to meet up with Zack Snyder to discuss plans for the next Superman film (which, not incidentally, will also feature Batman).
Personally, I am not a fan of Zack Snyder’s work. I find it strikes me a lot like Paul Verhoeven’s did, which is to say that there are individual elements about it that I like (in Snyder’s case it is his undeniable visual flair), but the work as a whole either leaves me cold or repulses me entirely. I did marvel at how well he transferred large chunks of Watchmen to the screen virtually unchanged from the comic, but in the end the movie was just too violent and made too many bad choices to work for me. In his defense, I feel Watchmen should never have been made in the first place, as what made the work great in the first place was intrinsically tied to the comic medium. I saw no more need for a Watchmen movie than I did a Citizen Kane comic book. But while I could cut him some slack for Watchmen, I cannot forgive Sucker Punch. That movie just made me feel dirty for watching it.
Frank Miller is a little more complicated for me. I used to be a fan of his work. There was a time when I adored his work as ranked Dark Knight Returns as the top comic series of its era. However, the last Miller book I enjoyed was 300 and after that his work seemed to rapidly devolve into self-parody. At least, I really hoped it was self-parody, because it became so drenched in machismo and testosterone that it would have been a scarier thought that Miller might have meant it as serious work.
The Dark Knight Strikes Again was just awful in every respect. Even Lynn Varley’s colors were so garish and headache inducing that I wondered if they hadn’t set out to deliberately make the worst possible book. Miller followed DK2 with All Star Batman and Robin, which I did actually enjoy, although probably not for the right reasons. After reading an offhand remark from Warren Ellis that the book was better appreciated as comedy, I started to see the book as a biting parody of “gritty” super hero books. Unfortunately I had no real idea if Miller actually intended it that way.
What further muddied his work for me was the fact that all these elements that now made his books seem ridiculously over-the-top were actually present in his earlier books, albeit in more subtle doses. So while Dark Knight Returns definitely still has merits, its weaker elements seem much more overt in light of DK2.
All of which brings me back to the “news” that opened this post. The little blurb about Miller doesn’t mean that he will be involved in the writing or making of the next Superman film. Should it actually come to pass that he IS involved, who can say if his influence will be positive or negative? Both Snyder and Miller seem to have many similar traits in their work, but unfortunately in this case I don’t think we are talking about two great tastes that taste great together.
I’m worried that in this case it is more like two difficult to swallow pills that might actually combine to kill the patient. Only time will tell, of course.
The other day a friend of mine posted on Facebook that he was “pretty much sick of everything” and followed it with a simple “goodbye.” At this point, I don’t know what that means. Perhaps he’s done with Facebook, perhaps he’s decided to join the Foreign Legion. Whatever his situation, it got me to thinking about not only Facebook and social media in general.
I’m not a fan of Facebook. I realize it can be a useful tool in connecting people who might not otherwise be able to connect. Unfortunately human beings have this uncanny ability to take something useful and rely on it to the point where it does more harm than good. An automobile is essential if you need to drive to Grandma’s house in another town, but when you use it to drive across the street to the store your leg muscles atrophy.
Likewise, I think Facebook and other social media are causing our social skills as a whole to atrophy. I see people every day with their thumbs glued to their phone as they text and check Facebook, all the while ignoring the world around them.
The insidious thing about social media is that it offers us the illusion of contact without the risks that come with genuine interaction. We can shut out what offends us without ever having to explain why. Case in point: I have several friends on Facebook that do not share my political views. They frequently share inflammatory posts that tempt me to unfollow them. But I don’t. While I may vehemently disagree with their stance, I still prefer posts with some actual content to the even more frequent “I’m going to have beans and rice for dinner!”
Inane conversation is certainly not a new invention. People with very little to say have been talking about the weather for centuries. But when that conversation is face to face you still develop and utilize skills that go beyond just the words you use. You observe the body language of the person you are talking to and compliment it with your own body language. They contribute to the conversation with their facial expressions in addition to their own responses. These are skills that we have refined over centuries of human development and now they are being replaced by the easy one-click option of the “like” button.
I’m not suggesting we abandon social media entirely. But I think each of us should consider how we interact with the world. If the entirety of our human interaction is conducted via a screen, then it might be time to turn off Facebook and see what the real world has to offer.
So I’m back to blogging.
I used to blog a few years ago. Not frequently, mind you, but as often as I could. Like many fledgling writers, I felt it was somehow part of my job description. Back then I was mostly writing short fiction. I hit a run where I was getting more acceptances than rejections and so I thought I was on my way.
Then something happened that changed the direction of my writing. I was contacted by a Hollywood filmmaker who wanted to interview me about the day I spent as a hostage at The Good Guys electronics store where I once worked. He intended to turn the whole thing into a movie and was traveling around getting everyone’s store. We had dinner and I told him mine, but as we talked, I was struck with a thought: if he was going to turn the whole ordeal into a film, then I’d better get busy and put my experiences into a book of my own. I thought it would be a quick and easy write and an equally quick and easy sell. At that time the markets for short fiction were drying up and so I decided I no longer wanted to beat my fingers numb writing short fiction. I was going to be a writer of books.
However, the story I wanted to tell turned out to be far from easy to write. It was a grueling experience, which led to the equally grueling experience of finding an agent. Eventually I found someone enthusiastic about my work and we set about shopping the manuscript to publishers. At the end of 2011 we signed with a small publisher and I thought I had found my break into the world of publishing.
Instead I found myself in a bad situation with an unsympathetic publisher with an agenda of their own. After a number of broken promises my agent decided it was best if we ask for release from out contract. By this point it was looking like the promised movie was not going to get out of pre production, and so the publisher seemed happy to grant us that release.
Now, there’s an adage among writers so prevalent it serves as a universal mantra. “Anyone who can be dissuaded from writing should be.” I kept up the writing, but I focused on longer works. By golly, I was going to be a novelist. But my brain doesn’t mix short with long very well, and so the blogging fell by the wayside.
Now I’m starting over in more ways than one. A small publisher accepted a short piece I wrote, which is my first in awhile. Now it’s time to get back to blogging as well. I’ll have to see if I remember how.
A couple of hours ago I watched a truly amazing site: Large, fluffy snowflakes drifted lazily from the clouds, forming sheets of hazy white that somehow never touched the ground. I’m not talking tiny little droplets of almost sleet here people. I’m talking thick, fluffy little cotton swabs of snow. They ambled slowly towards the ground, and I say towards because they never actually touched the ground. They just approached the earth and then quietly winked into another dimension.
Now, it wasn’t because the ground wasw arm and the snow was evaporating as it touched down. It was cold, as cold as you could really expect Texas to be. But this snow, acknowledging the very fact that blankets of snow and East Texas do not mix, simply refused to land.
The temperature was somewhere around freezing, but as I watched this a customer wanders into the store dressed in shorts and a short sleeved, white t-shirt.
“You’re not exactly dressed for the weather,” I tell him.
“Aw, this is Texas,” he replies. “It won’t be like this for long.”
And I had to admit, he was absolutely right. Even the snow knew that.