We sail tonight for Singapore,
We’re all as mad as hatters here.

Courtesy Tom Waits and his singular album Rain Dogs, which I always find myself fishing out this time of year, prodded by the featureless gray sky and insistent drizzle of the season. Yes, there is a rainy season in Southern California. That’s how you can tell it’s not summer.
Not that this was a terrible year, by any stretch, but it was a frustrating one. Top of the list of the reasons for it would be the inability to get Strangeways out of the gates this year. And really, I can talk about how the publisher got jerked around by Lamppost printing or Quebecor being impacted at the end of the year, but those are just facts. My gut tells me that I should have gotten the job done myself. Of course my gut tells me dumb things like “that second chili burger ain’t gonna hurt” when I know that’s simply not the case. All the same, if you’d asked me in spring, I’d have said that it was a no-brainer that the book would be on the stands. And that bites, really.
But it was frustrating for a couple other reasons. One of those would be the damning conservatism on the part of the Big Two in comics. Don’t get me wrong, books they put out probably tote up to about half of the comics work that I read this year. And they’ve put out some good books, even some good superhero books, which is something of a surprise, given that I’m not real fond of most superhero books these days. But for every nod I tossed their way, there was at least one grimace at their behavior as well. I could name them all, but you know what I’m going to say. And ultimately, all the dumb things I got mad at were things that were meant to serve one purpose: to retain their control of a shrinking readership.
I’ve seen very little on the part of either Marvel or DC to actually do anything resembling market expansion. There was that story about Marvel trying to get back into 7-11 stores, but I don’t recall hearing any sort of follow-ons as to whether or not it was succeeding, and if it had done anything to expand their numbers or get more eyeballs rolling towards traditional comic pamphlets. DC is in the same boat. Sure, they get press coverage for the “risky” moves taken by INFINITE CRISIS and the follow-on series(es) to come (and I’ve already talked about why they aren’t risky moves at all, at least with regards to the audience as it stands).
Both of them are too wedded to the form that they’ve perfected and that retailers are primed to sell. That being the 32 page pamphlet at the three dollar price point (four dollars for IDW’s books, though they’re no more expensive to produce than the typical Marvel/DC book, and probably a lot less when it comes to paying the talent). Not only that, but this story chunklet (and let’s admit it, it’s rare that you get a satisfying chunk of story in 22 pages plus cover and ads of a standard western-format comic) is only available in a few stores. Sure, if you’re in a major metropolitan region, you’ve got a good chance of having more than one comic store within your stomping grounds, but not everyone is.
I live in San Diego, the sixth-largest city in the US. You know how far I have to drive to get my comics? Twenty-five minutes to get to a good store. Twenty to get to a crummy mall store that doesn’t stock outside the big two. I go because this is the only way to get my fix. God help anyone who lives in a truly suburban/rural region and is a comics fan and wants to browse the books before they buy. Yeah, there’s DCBS, but with them you’re depending on Previews being on the money and giving you enough of a taste to get excited about the books to put your money down.
People say that comics wither on the vine because of the exaggerated presence of superhero comics. I say that’s a strawman. There’s plenty of genre diversity in comics, though I’ll admit that you have to go digging for it, and get out of the top 200 books. Sure, I’d be happy if there was more, but there’s enough to sustain a wider audience. It’s not the content that people are objecting to. It’s the form that causes a problem (both in actual form and the outlets selling that form.) Twenty-two pages of comics will very rarely come off as a satisfactory chunk, much more so to “civilians” than to people who are used to getting their stories in serial chapters. That makes comics seem expensive to most readers. Add to that the fact that you can only get comics dependably in a (comparatively) few outlets (as opposed to say, music stores or DVD stores, etc.), and you’ve got a bunch of strikes against wider adoption of the form.
But hey, it’s what folks are used to, right? Ain’t inertia grand?
And of course, you’re going to turn around and say “well, what have you done about it, smart guy?” And I’d have to admit, “not a darn thing.” Realistically, the audience for the single issues of Strangeways begins and ends with the Direct Market. When there’s a collection to offer, giving an entire story (and then some), you can be sure I’ll be beating the bushes of Western Bookstores and book clubs and horror bookstores and book clubs, ISBN in hand and drawing attention to myself. But for the monthly pamphlet, the market is much, much smaller. And far more temporary. Trades aren’t the whole answer, but I bet you can get a lot more interest and sense of apparent value from a trade collection that you have to go the store once to buy, as opposed to six serial trips to the comic store that might be aroud the corner (or half an hour away).
You know what I want to see in 2006? Original graphic works offered for a reasonable softcover price (and yes, there’s publishers who do this already). I’d really love it if they stopped publishing, for instance, Superman in singles and went to a spined magazine format that gave solid value and gave you long stories that you could read in longer than half an hour. I’d love it if there were more crime books that were something other than wallowing in the depravity of the week. I’d love to see cover design and trade dress that didn’t make comics look like comics (and yes, this is being done, but not by publishers with the clout to make the practice expand.)
Of course, I’d be down with comics being published with every intention of them being permanent works and not just another placeholder or 1/6th of a future trade collection. Sure, there’s lots of works that have bloomed out of the manure pile we often refer to as pop culture (guys like Dickens and Chandler come to mind). The editors had so many pages to push out, and sometimes geniune diamonds rained from the sky to ornament the banquet of mud that most of them put out on a regular basis, but still, it’d be nice to have an eye to the future illuminating the work of the present.
I’d like to come to the end of 2006 and not feel so damn maudlin about the industry, and certainly my work within it. Sometimes it feels like all I’ve done is grumble, and that’s likely true when talking about 2005. Hell, it feels like the only writing I’ve actually done this year is online, which often amounts to bellyaching. And that’s not the way I want to be looking down the sights at 2007. Need to get more actual writing done, though sometimes that’s hard to justify when you’re looking at projects that only work as 12-issue limited series and you’re having trouble getting that 4-issue cowboys and werewolves story close enough to the edge to give it a swift kick and send it flying.
Why is it that I have time to bellyache (and it comes so naturally), and I’ve had precious little time to actually celebrate the good stuff that I’ve read this year? Perhaps I’m just a grumpy old man after all. My white hairs would back me up on that one.
Ah well. May 2006 be a little less rocky than 2005. Or at least let it present some kind of sense of achievement and closure, and maybe just maybe, a little triumph, to us all.

Happy new year from Sedona, Arizona.

Last flare.jpg

Originally uploaded by maxwellm.

I’ve been *gasp* enjoying the holidays instead of blogging. Well, as enjoying them as much as I can when on the same day my son split his chin open running on the hardwood floors and then both of my parents being felled by the stomach flu. That wasn’t a relaxing day. But we got a nice sunset out of it.

If you want to see some more of what I’ve been snapping shots of out here, take a look right here. Hope to be a little more chatty around the start of the new year, but I’ve still got to wrangle with the convention schedule and figure out when Strangeways will actually start shipping.

The future is…

Running headlong into the future, BODY BAGS makes the leap to iPod comics with its first episode “Father’s Day.” I’m not really a fan of the material, but I was interested in checking out the execution. And like most video comics, it’s no longer comics. Instead, it’s minimal animation and camera effects with sound and voices carrying the dialogue.
Which, of course, means it’s no longer a comic book. The presentation, and not the reader, sets the pace/timing of things, which is one of comics’ greatest strengths in my mind. Comics manage time the way novels can manipulate the abstract and intangible. But when you hand that over to the producer of the video, you lose a lot of what makes comics unique.
And it’s really damn small. I mean really small. I didn’t even watch on my iPod, but on iTunes on my laptop, and even resizing the window up a bit, you lost a lot of whatever sparkle the artwork has. This is the real sticking point. iPods aren’t the best sort of viewing device for this sort of thing, though they are ubiquitous (well, at least among the net-enabled–not so sure about how many people outside that group have ‘em.)
The PSP seems like a more viable platform for this sort of thing, particularly when you build the comic around the presentation instead of shoehorning a comic page or set of panels into a 3×2″ screen. Granted, neither of them is a perfect solution, by any stretch. What we really need is some kind of larger tablet computer/reader or electronic paper (as shown by Siemens recently–too lazy to dig up the link) that can present comics in the format/size they’re accustomed to being shown at. Yes, those are years away (though there are tablet computers in play now, but they’re too expensive to get wide adoption as of yet.)
The material doesn’t impress me at all, but steps taken by guys like the BODY BAGS crew and the NYC2123 folks are necessary. They’re far from perfect, but we’re not going to jump into an e-comics format without taking a whole series of learning steps first. I’m interested to see how this is embraced, and how many folks check out the first chapter for free, and if they continue on following the story when they have to (gulp!) pay for it.

Merry Christmas


Originally uploaded by maxwellm.

From Sedona, Arizona. That was the view at about 7:45 am from the big window in my folks’ home, taken with my shiny new camera, that’s only about as big as a deck of cards. Good for sneaking shots in places where you ought not to be taking pictures.

Merry Christmas to all you folks who may be taking a quick break from the family gatherings and turkey and peppermint candycanes. Regular programming will resume shortly.

Let’s be real

On the divide

Originally uploaded by maxwellm.

My schedule didn’t allow for me to post a special double-sized 100th anniversary post on the Solstice, and it’s unlikely I’ll be able to get a real post up before Christmas, since I’ll be on the road tomorrow, and really should be packing and wrapping presents right now. I’m a bad blogger, but then I’d rather be remembered for my comics writing than for my writing about comics, dig?
I’d like to wish a merry Christmas to everyone out there. Don’t see a big deal in it. Christmas has been a secularized holiday for a long time, and wasn’t anything more than a shot at pulling pagans into the fold by putting The Big Day right next to the old Saturnalia celebrations. I don’t have time to list them all here, but maybe if I time this right. Deep breath.
Merry Christmas to Graeme, Heidi, Jeff, Ed, Marc, Joseph, Steve, Luis and Estudio Haus, Layman, Mr. Beaucoup, Dave Longbox, Josh, Guy, I Love Comics, Hannibal (who’ll probably punch me for doing so), Mikester, Dorian, John Grotesqueanatomy, Dan Slott and Grant Morrison who are the only writers who understand why I still read superhero comics, All the lovely folks who’ve reviewed and said nice things about Strangeways, Fábio and Gabriel, Uncle Lar, James and the Isotope crew, Joe Keatinge, Johanna, Shawn, everyone else I’ve forgotten, and you, the anonymous reader who never leaves a comment, but your IP address is mine all mine…
Maybe next year I’ll be able to do individual cards, but that ain’t happening this year.
May the new year find you all well and successful in your fields of choice, whether that’s being outraged by what’s going on in comics or making up stuff to outrage those people. And who knows, maybe I’ll even have a book out by this time next year.
Take care, all.

Number 99

Happy freakin’ Solstice. The flu being passed around has made sure of that. Between that and getting ready to head out of town (not to mention shopping for presents), blogging (or writing time at all) has been zero. There’s been a number of things that I’ve wanted to talk about, but they’ve all been relegated to low being on the totem pole.
Though I’ll stop a moment and speak up on the latest AMAZING FANTASY, which seems to have Marvel actually introducing…new characters… I know. It was shocking to me, too. Not re-engineered old characters, but actual by gum new characters. Some seem pretty squarely aimed at the manga crowd (and the art style helps), but I guarantee that nobody’s going to put down cover price for eight pages of story. I wonder, if perhaps they introduced original digest-size material, or perhaps a larger format anthology style, with lesser known artists and writers, maybe they could tap that audience. But the presenatation is going to scare away the manga fans.
The standout for me was Blackjack, which is Dan Slott and Pete Woods turned loose on the Marvel Universe, throwing espionage comedy into the pot along with vampires, de-evolution rays, Ultimate Nullifier knockoffs and the Death of Utopia. I’d pay for a regular book like this, but I can’t help but think I’m among the only ones.
All of these stories (but for the above-mentioned Blackjack) are pure setup, some handled more deftly than others. Some simply aren’t going to work as continuing characters. I mean, who really wants to read any more of “The Heartbreak Kid” than we get in this one 8-pager, where the titular character (who apparently eats sadness, really) runs into Peter Parker post death of Uncle Ben? Superhero comics are bad enough, ruled by miserabilists who seem go have forgotten wonder. This is the last thing I need, even if it’s ably illustrated by Jeff Parker (and inked by Sal Buscema to boot).
I know, most of what they’re doing in this issue isn’t actually superhero comics. Not a lot of spandex (other than Jack and Ace), mostly stories about lonely and misunderstood loner characters. There’s always a market for that, I suppose. But please, for the love of all that’s holy, adopt a format that breaks out of the monthly pamphlet mold. Characters like Positron and Mastermind Excello (driven by similar motivating factors) have some real potential, if you push it and look for a market outside the one that you’re so desperately trying to hold onto, Marvel honchos.
But you san send more Blackjack my way. That’d be keen.
Stay tuned for post #100 tomorrow! DOUBLE SIZED ANNIVERSARY POSTING!

Uh… Just, “uh…”

Park Cooper and Barb Lien Cooper: The Park & Barb Show
–Black and white comics. Only the clean, pure lines of manga can still do this. It’s getting increasingly hard for anything that isn’t manga to go into print without color.
From the latest issue of the Park and Barb show.
I’m grumpy and not gonna let this one ride. Manga is not, repeat, is not, the only comic art form that is pure and clean. Nor is it the only form that looks good in black and white. Any good artist can make their black and white work shine. Period. Cameron Stewart comes to mind, but maybe that’s because I have those SEAGUY pages not far out of my eye line.
I will say that there are plenty of artists whose work doesn’t stand up in black and white, but that’s because they’re drawing for the book to be colored.
But to intimate an inherent superiority in a particular expression of comic art does more to reflect writerly biases than it does to speak commandingly on the form. My two cents, y’know.
And why is it that when people talk glowingly about manga and how it’s openly embraced by a new generation of kids that are ignoring western comics, that they always always seem to skip over the fact that this is the culmination of a thirty year process of Japanese pop culture importation? Audiences have been primed to respond to this by way of everything from BATTLE OF THE PLANETS and ULTRAMAN in the 70s to the POKÉMON and POWER RANGERS explosion of the last ten. Putting JUSTICE LEAGUE on for a half hour in an adult timeslot does nothing when compared to large blocs of imported cartoon programming.
Sorry, but this really yanks my chain. Probably because I’m one of those retrograde idiots putting out black and white work these days. Manga succeeds as much on the back of its form and presentation, as well as its content as well as its “familiar yet alien” status as well as being the new thing. There’s plenty of excellent craftmanship in manga that uses linework that’s clean (Junji Ito’s work comes to mind), but there’s plenty that’s rough hewn and just as beatiful (LONE WOLF AND CUB, anyone?).
There’s a few other bones I’ve got to pick with the article, but this one was just glaringly daring me to point it out. There’s also some good points, but I’m afraid they get obscured.
Well, there’s this one:
– How can you say comics are in trouble when creators at imprints such as Ronin (to name just ONE company that’s like this) are PAYING, up front, to get their comics into print?
Oh, that’s easy. That model isn’t sustainable unless the market that they’re selling to responds and snaps up those comics. I realize this, of course, because I’m smack in the middle of it (or at least on the outskirts). The above model is a gamble. On a good day. On a bad day, it’s an invitation to disaster. Moneywise anyways. There’s all the satisfaction of finishing a comic, sure, but that’s not going to get the kids baloney sandwiches and pay for the hot water.
Passion and enthusiasm are one thing, and they’re admirable, but they’re not all that you need to keep a thing going in DM-oriented comics today. Besides, pay-to-play didn’t last forever on the Sunset Strip (remember hair metal, kids?) and it’s not going to be ano option in comics should there be a downtick or three in the market. Image seems to be solid, but there’s plenty of other publishers working that seam who aren’t as steady.
As for his assertion that comics are going to change from where they’ve been in the last five years. Sure, they are. But the majors are going to change as little as possible and still keep their audiences. They’re doing nothing to expand readership. They’ve been circling the wagons since 2003, and before that. Other folks have a real opportunity to succeed, but not on that particular chunk of DM turf. It’s too well-secured, too well-protected.
And please, don’t take this for malice on my part. I’ve met Park and Barb. They’re smart, witty and passionate folks, who I don’t always agree with. But if the world were like that, it’d be deadly dull.


Turns out one of the Eisner judges for 2006 is the owner of the comic shop I go to regularly. Robert (as in Robert Scott of Comickaze) is a sharp guy, and we don’t always agree on stuff, but he certainly deserves congratulations for the accolade, and the solemn duty that he goes forth to perform.
Okay, that last part was laying it on a tad thick…
Heck, turns out that I know two Eisner judges, though it seems like I only chat with Chris (Allen of Comic Book Galaxy) during SDCC itself.
Congrats to Chris and the rest of the judges as well. Go take a peek at their bios at the link above.

What I used to do for a living


Originally uploaded by maxwellm.

You may not know it, but I was a professional digital modeller/animator for a time. No, really. In lieu of real content, enjoy some of the stuff that helped land me a job in scenic Hollywood.

It was simultaneously great and not all that it was cracked up to be.