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Giving the Upscale Types the Graphic Novels That They Want

SHOPLIFTER
by Michael Cho
Pantheon, 96 pages

In a recent interview, Michael Cho claimed that his crisp illustrative style developed from reading adventure comic strips from the 1930s and the 1940s. While one sees something of Noel Sickles’s thick shadows fringing his subjects and Roy Crane’s tidy closeup panels in Cho’s work (superbly featured in Back Alleys and Urban Landscapes, a gritty collection of still life illustrations), there remains a fundamental quality missing in Shoplifter: namely, the resounding thump of a human heart.

michaelchoshoplifterThis graphic novel tells the story of Corrina Park, a young woman who works in an advertising agency. There is nothing interesting or unusual about her, unless you believe the occasional pilfering of a magazine from a convenience store to be jaw-dropping criminal mayhem. She complains about an unfulfilled creative life. She spends her evenings in a spacious apartment guzzling down wine and watching television. She listens to her boss quote Khalil Gibran while he steeples his fingers in the hackneyed manner of a corporate stooge smuggled from behind the arras at the last minute. While I was very fond of Corrina’s hissing cat (and what does it say that the only real character with any personality in this dull and pandering volume is an animal?), I could not find any open nook in my warm and expansive heart for this extraordinary listless protagonist. Corrina is no different from millions of young bourgie aspirants whinging throughout North America. If I wanted this kind of vanilla and unadventurous narrative, I’d spend two insufferable hours being barraged by other people’s First World problems at the Whole Foods overlooking the Gowanus Canal.

Cho certainly has the chops to transpose his observations onto the page. A hip bestubbled specimen named Ben offers a perfectly complacent and beery look when he says, “Yeah, you too, Corrina,” at a party. When Cho populates his frames with strangers, especially on subways and at the party, there is a feral yet controlled quality to his illustrations. I also appreciated the deliberately cramped framing at the convenience store, almost as if we are witnessing the action through an impossibly placed surveillance camera. But it’s maddening that his characters lack the dimension to match the artwork.

Michael Cho is a man who does not court danger in any way. Even Shoplifter‘s denouement plays out like a didactic game of Whac-A-Mole, with its shopworn trope of a shopkeeper with a heart of gold. Yet at least one middlebrow hack wheezing in Los Angeles has risibly suggested that Cho is “operating out of a tradition,” without remembering the degree to which 20th century artists were persecuted for their “unwholesome” tales. As astutely documented in David Hajdu’s The Ten-Cent Plague, comic book artists faced professional and criminal punishment, as well as charges of contributing to “juvenile delinquency,” simply because they had the effrontery to tell visual stories that were odd or weirdly imaginative. It’s bad enough that the contemporary fiction market has become saturated with mediocre narratives of privileged people blogging or vacationing in Europe, but do we have to flood the comics market with this gutless junk as well?

Now that comics have become widely accepted, with unscrupulous sharks in suits sauntering through San Diego’s relentless cacophony to snatch up any young pup who can make them a few easy bucks, I’m wondering why someone as talented as Michael Cho has willfully ignored the fiercer tradition that made comics fun in the first place.

overeasy1

Mimi Pond (The Bat Segundo Show #548)

Mimi Pond is most recently the author of Over Easy.

Author: Mimi Pond

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Subjects Discussed: Different forms of memoir (and related resistance by publishing), James Frey, autobiographical fiction vs. memoir in comics, realizing Over Easy from a manuscript, working from a textual framework, trash-talking line cooks, Charles Dickens, Daniel Clowes, comic book characters often cast into inevitable film adaptations, imagination, picture books, Mama’s Royal Cafe as a locational inspiration, memory vs. reference shots, the difficulty of filling up sketch books while waiting tables, the mysterious Nestor Marzipan, keeping in touch with former restaurant co-workers, keeping gossip alive, taking notes, when memories elude the nostalgia trap, what 1978 establishments can teach 21st century diners, drugs and the willful stupidity of kids, disco wars, how a rudderless culture was maintained by a manager who made waitresses feel special by listening, what people found charming about diners in 1978, Stewart O’Nan’s Last Night at the Lobster, Todd Haynes’s miniseries adaptation of Mildred Pierce, dramatizing working-class life, how dishwaters can form more legitimate claques than art school, the haziness of art school, the green chromatic feel throughout Over Easy, the one character with a jet black character in the book, the cameo appearance of Flipper‘s Ted Falconi, “Art is dead!” proclamations, maintaining aesthetic standards during a time of bad music and bad art, the oppressive nature of avocado green, young kids today who glorify the 1970s, Peter Frampton, the band America, the influence of Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home, people who overanalyze comics, the early seeds of storytelling, being nursed at the bosom of MAD Magazine, working with Shary Flenniken at the National Lampoon, learning the basics of a comic strip, circular text around objects, cartoonists and the daily grind, doing monthly strips for the Voice, social commentary in comics form, drowning babies, editorial arguments with Drawn and Quarterly, politically incorrect language excised from the finished product, ironic epithets from 1970s liberals, the importance of getting upset to understand a time, Norman Mailer’s “fug,” living in a high mesa in San Diego comparable to the unshaded area of a picnic table, public park metaphors for living circumstances, the New York Times‘s claim that Oakland is the new Brooklyn, being attracted to bad poets before knowing their poetry is bad, the lack of good coffee in the 1970s, diners that once used real linen napkins, the virtues of not being judged for sleeping with anyone in 1978, and slut shaming and Lulu.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: What specific points in 1978 did you really feel compelled to capture? I mean, how could you do 1978 right while also adhering to the exigencies of narrative, which requires a kind of linear path and all that? What was the organizational process like?

Pond: I was just remembering things the way they were then. Things that really stuck with me. And I worked on this over a fifteen-year period, from about 1998 until early this year. It wasn’t so much that I was like “I’m going to capture 1978!” It was “I’m going to remember it the way I’m going to remember it.” So it wasn’t anything that specifically deliberate. It was just the time and the place and what it felt like at the time. And I did take notes over the years from the time I left up until 1982, until about 1998, and I also went back to visit many times. And I talked to my former co-workers, who very generously shared their experiences with me, which I also incorporated into the story.

Correspondent: Were there any stories or anecdotes that were pure romantic forms of nostalgia? Or things you wish would have happened? Anything along those lines?

Pond: No. I don’t think of it as nostalgia. Because there were too many hard lessons learned.

Correspondent: It was too rough to be nostalgic. (laughs)

Pond: Yeah, it was too rough to be nostalgic and there were too many people who wound up down the rabbit hole of drug abuse for too many years to have the dewy glow of nostalgia around it. It was one of those situations where it was really following up to a point until it wasn’t fun anymore. And there’s going to be a Part Two. I’m working on that now.

Correspondent: I know that.

Pond: Part Two gets darker.

Correspondent: Well, what about Part One? Did the darkness threaten to overwhelm some of the romance of the diner? The kind of effervescent look of the place and the feel of the actual book?

Pond: No. I don’t think so. I mean, I’ve always been in love with the look of that place. The first time I walked into it, it just felt like home. So I could just draw that counter and those booths and all that stuff endlessly.

Correspondent: Well, what does a diner like the Imperial — I mean, what could it teach diners of today? What does a 21st century diner not have that the Imperial did have?

Pond: Well, there were no rules. In the ’60s, the hippies threw out all the rules. And in the ’70s, we looked up and we just said, “Oh, the rules are gone. So which ones do we put back? And which ones do we leave out? And how does this all work?” And it was kind of up to you to figure it out. There was no one saying, “Just say no.” So everyone was going, “Woohoo! Drugs! Yeah, drugs are fun!” Like no one said, “That cocaine thing? That’s not such a good idea.” “Jazz musicians used to snort cocaine in the ’30s. So it’s really cool, right?” And kids are always stupid. And this is what drug abuse is about. Like heroin, people are just stupid enough. “I’m not going to get hooked!”

Correspondent: What was the common ground of such a place? You mention early on how the disco wars were what united the punks and the hippies. And then at the end of the book, we see this poetry night in which everybody is allowed his particular moment. Does it really take a place to unite so many subcultures? So many groups? What was the cross-pollination at the time that you were trying to capture here?

Pond: Well, the uniting force in that particular place was Lazlo Meringue, the manager.

Correspondent: Who everybody told their problems to.

Pond: Yeah. Everyone told him their problems. And he was one of those people that just made you feel like you were the most important person in the room. And he validated your experiences by telling you that the fact that you had observed this and you think that about it is meaningful. Not just “Oh! You’re full of shit.” And the other thing was that, yes, this was important and we need to write this down. Because we’re going to make some kind of art about this later. And that was very important to me. And it made all the difference. I mean, I don’t think I ever could have worked in any other restaurant after that. I made a few futile stabs at putting in applications after I left that place, but luckily — I say luckily — no one ever hired me again. And then I had a career as a cartoonist and I never had to go back to that. But it never would have been the same. I mean, his motto was “The Customer is Always Wrong,” which did not really mean that you were entitled to give bad service. In fact, we all kind of prided ourselves on giving good service. It was more like he had your back. And if anyone gave you any crap, he would back you up.

Correspondent: And presumably the walls between the kitchen and the restaurant were thick enough to prevent any of the customers from hearing all of the profane screeches and all that.

Pond: I think, at the time, people were down for that too. Because that’s the kind of place it was. A cook would drop the end of his roach into an omelet and the customer would finally go, “Oh, I found this. Ha ha ha!”

Correspondent: “How charming!”

Pond: Yeah.

(Loops for this program provided by 40a, dj4real, minor2go, and platanos. )

The Bat Segundo Show #548: Mimi Pond (Download MP3)

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Lisa Hanawalt (The Bat Segundo Show #502)

Lisa Hanawalt is most recently the author of My Dirty Dumb Eyes. Please note the prefatory reading contains wild and rambunctious horse noises to simulate accompanying images in audio form.

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Author: Lisa Hanawalt

Subjects Discussed: Language that perplexes Planet of the Apes aficionados, revolting against natural euphony, being a native Californian, San Francisco Bay Area people who end up in Brooklyn, Alternative Press Expo, Buenaventura Press, how UCLA grooms its art students, immersing yourself in the comics scene, the disadvantages of hyphenates, drawing animal humanoid figures, being a “horse girl,” the best horse sounds, interspecies relationships, childhood notions of marriage, crawling around on all fours, having parents as scientists, taxonomic qualities in genotypes, the inspirational qualities of illustrated guides, the single comic strip as batty syllogism, unlimited space, The Vow, “based on a true story,” scribbling notes after seeing a movie, War Horse, imagining that you’re a horse, venturing into surrealistic realms to get into personal truths, Hanawalt not drawing herself, Julia Wertz, how voice translates generic labels, artists who lean too much on pop culture, the horrors of Slate Culture Gabfest, recap culture, the artistic response as a way to avoid pop culture trappings, Hanawalt’s toy fair report, why the tangible and the physical is more rewarding than the pop cultural, going into a war zone, Sarah Glidden, Israel, being shy around strangers, David Foster Wallace, the comics answer to the footnote, the animalized person as a form of armor, ribald sexuality, wedding registries, seeking permission to draw friends within pieces, varieties of “in vino veritas,” art professors who are obsessive about faces, teachers who are too nice, sculpting, dogs who bark once a day, taking a break from two-dimensional work, visual cues from movies and visual cues from comics, having friends who are comics, the toy company pecking order, why power structures are interesting, commenting upon politics, the advantages of presenting yourself as an idiot, the New York Times‘s veto of “butt turkey,” restrictions from family newspapers, balancing artistic integrity and paying the rent, being read comics by her dad, not leaving the house, living in Greenpoint, shifting from hating to loving New York, anxieties about public transportation, the hermetic seal of a car, the use of colors to enhance personal stories, the unsettling nature of sickly blues, the pristine look of Apple advertisements, white space, enhancing Ryan Gosling’s costume in Drive, deepening visual observations with the sartorial, the pleasant sounds of dogs lapping at water, Roger Corman’s Twitter presence, judging people from what they wear, paying attention to men’s clothing, best dressed cartoonists, how Jason Diamond dresses, Johnny Negron, how people get offended by everything, feeling like you’re on display for putting yourself out there, blocking people, the appeal of lines, silly statistics, the New York approval matrix, and infographics as the perfect joke structure.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: I wanted to ask you about the title. Because in light of the Planet of the Apes story you have in this, I kept thinking that your title was My Damn Dirty Eyes.

Hanawalt: (laughs)

Correspondent: It’s like you deliberately designed a title to make Planet of the Apes fans, to just throw them off. I’m not sure if that was conscious.

Hanawalt: I didn’t even think about that until now. You just blew my mind. I didn’t think about that.

Correspondent: Especially since there’s the Rise of the Planet of the Apes review. And I was thinking…

Hanawalt: And that’s something I say to my boyfriend. I call him, “You damn dirty ape!” Whenever he’s doing anything.

Correspondent: So you generally say “my dumb dirty” instead of “my dirty dumb”? How did that get swipped? Swapped?

Hanawalt: It’s Dirty Dumb, right?

Correspondent: Yes, it’s Dirty Dumb.

Hanawalt: I actually tried it both ways and I just liked the way “dirty dumb” sounded. I thought “dumb dirty” is the more natural way to say it. But I just like…it sounded like a musical. Dirty Dumb. Dirty Dumb. I don’t know.

Correspondent: You were revolting against natural euphony, basically.

Hanawalt: Yeah. I guess so. People keep switching them in reviews and stuff.

Correspondent: I was determined to get it right.

Hanawalt: Thank you. I appreciate it.

Correspondent: So you went to UCLA. And I’m a fellow Californian.

Hanawalt: Oh!

Correspondent: Although I was a northern Californian and you were a southern Californian.

Hanawalt: No, I”m from northern California originally.

Correspondent: You are!

Hanawalt: Yes.

Correspondent: Where were you at?

Hanawalt: Palo Alto.

Correspondent: Palo Alto! Oh my god, I was born in Santa Clara.

Hanawalt: Whoa.

Correspondent: So we’re Bay Areaites.

Hanawalt: Yup.

Correspondent: So how did we both end up in Brooklyn? You first. Actually, you only. (laughs)

Hanawalt: (laughs) Me only. Well, I met my boyfriend. So that was big.

Correspondent: Oh! Well, I met a girl too. Oh my god.

Hanawalt: It’s a good reason to move.

Correspondent: How did we not run into each other until now?

Hanawalt: I don’t know. But that was not the official reason I moved for a long time. Just in case it didn’t work out. I didn’t want to say that. So I said it was to become part of a more vibrant comics community in Brooklyn, for more people of my age making comics here.

Correspondent: How did we not run into each other at Alternative Press Expo?

Hanawalt: I’ve been there.

Correspondent: I’ve been there multiple times. I covered it. I would go and I would interview everybody. Every person with minicomics there.

Hanawalt: Really? I used to go every year.

Correspondent: I went every year too. And I miss it. It was great.

Hanawalt: I would table with Buenaventura when I was there. I think I went 2008, 2009.

Correspondent: Yeah. Just a little after I did.

Hanawalt: We just missed each other.

Correspondent: We just missed each other. Well, now we’re talking.

Hanawalt: (laughs)

Correspondent: So you went to UCLA.

Hanawalt: Yes.

Correspondent: And you wanted to become a part of a comics community? Is that how you ended up in Greenpoint?

Hanawalt: Eventually. When I was at UCLA, I thought I wanted to be like a studio artist. Like an actual gallery painter. And that’s what they were sort of grooming me to be. But I guess once I graduated and didn’t immediately become a famous painter with solo shows in Chelsea, I was like, “Oh, I guess I’ll keep making these comics that I make at Kinko’s and write with my friends. Then eventually I got more into the comics scene as I started going to conventions and I met my first publisher.

Correspondent: So it was really kind of an accidental existence going into…

Hanawalt: Yeah, it was.

Correspondent: I read one interview where you said you didn’t feel that you were a cartoonist.

Hanawalt: Oh really? Did I?

Correspondent: Yes. You said that in 2010.

Hanawalt: Oh, I guess I changed my mind about it.

Correspondent: You are officially a cartoonist.

Hanawalt: Yeah, I do. You know, I make comics. If people ask me if I’m an artist, an illustrator, or a cartoonist, I say that I’m all three. And depending on my mood, I’ll introduce myself as one of the three.

Correspondent: And you can’t just call yourself a hyphenate or something.

Hanawalt: No, it’s just too complicated. And at that point, people — their eyes start to wander and they lose interest in talking with me. So….(laughs)

Correspondent: So what was the first animal humanoid figure that you ever drew? I was curious about that. They’re throughout your work. And I’m wondering when you started putting, say, lizard heads on regular people or pop cultural figures. Things like that.

Hanawalt: I started drawing cats as people when I was like five or six. And I was drawing myself. What I wanted to be when I grew up was a black cat that was also a human who wore an orange Hawaiian shirt. Because I was really into Weird Al Yankovic at the time. So I would draw my self-portrait as a black kitty cat. And then later I started drawing horses as people. When I was like seven, eight.

Correspondent: I know you were a “horse girl.” What does that entail? Did you ride horses? Did you enact a life as a horse? Did you do a lot of horse sounds? “Neeeeeeeeeigh” and all that?

Hanawalt: Yeah. I was a cat girl until I took my first riding lesson at eight. And it set off a bomb in my brain. And I just was like “Horses! Horses! Horses! I want to marry a horse. I want to be a horse. I just want to…”

Correspondent: You want to marry a horse?

Hanawalt: Yes. I used to want to marry a horse. I asked my mom if I could and she was like, “Maybe that will be legal someday.” She had a very…

Correspondent: A lax view on bestiality.

Hanawalt: I guess.

Correspondent: Interspecies relations.

Hanawalt: I didn’t know at the time that marrying kind of meant that you were sexually partnered.

Correspondent: Oh, it was a more romantic image!

Hanawalt: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, I was only six or eight. And I just wanted to be linked with a horse forever.

Correspondent: It’s sort of that moment where you’re playing with Barbie and Ken in the Dreamhouse. Then all of a sudden you realize, “Oh! They’re actually going to have sex as well.”

Hanawalt: Yeah. You figure that part out later. But yeah, I made a lot of horse noises. I drew horses. I crawled around on all fours.

Correspondent: Do you make horse noises to this very day?

Hanawalt: I can make a snorting sound. [highly commendable snorting sound]

Correspondent: Oh! That’s pretty good.

(Loops for this program provided by HardstyleRythm, ShortBusMusic, and Reed1415.)

The Bat Segundo Show #502: Lisa Hanawalt (Download MP3)

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Chris Ware (The Bat Segundo Show)

Chris Ware is most recently the writer and illustrator of Building Stories.

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Condition of Mr. Segundo: Learning how to wash his hands.

Author: Chris Ware

Subjects Discussed: The significance (or lack thereof) of the date September 23, 2000, technological reliance and its intrusion upon existence in Building Stories, the amount of time that humans presently stare into screens, the virtues of shapes and forms on paper, coming from a family of journalists, Ware’s decision to self-publish, the materials used in Building Stories, Ware’s affinity for small rectangular panels, the buildings that inspired the building, Charles Burns, losing track of time and space while drawing, temporal drift, Ira Glass and accusations of cliche, the pleasant frustration of not knowing the names of the Building Stories characters, people not saying Chris Ware’s name in his dreams, when characters are too defined by their names, flowers that grow along Illinois railways, SoundCloud, whether comics can compete with technology to encourage imagination, comics as a visually reductive medium to create a new language, Brandford the Bee and his influence as a narrative spirit, a fondness for circles, understanding other people, looking at animals for a very long time, empathy, Ware’s insistence on visual clarity, typography, operating from a place of uncertainty, Acme #20 and a character aging one year for every page, working with and without deadlines, how the Oak Park Public School system determines how much Ware turns out, observing the human world, parents who aren’t allowed to see their children as often as they need to, being in a privileged position, failed or aborted forms, Ware’s experiments with television, Ware’s difficulties in working with other people, cartooning as a singular art, whether there is an ideal medium for explicating or portraying human behavior, non-objective painting, representing a multilayered consciousness in comics, the physicality of doing the work, the frequency of Ware characters with afflicted or amputated legs, the creative inspiration which emerges from breaking legs, human frailties, and whether the human soul can be contained through illustration.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: Is there any specific significance to the date September 23, 2000? I do know that a baseball player named Aurelio Rodriguez died that particular day.

Ware: Is that true? I didn’t know that. No, I picked it simply because it seemed like a date that didn’t particularly have any meaning to it. It’s just sort of a random day.

Correspondent: Well, let’s talk about the role of technology in Building Stories. I mean, we see that you have a concern for its effect on everyday life, ranging from the Facebook searches for lost boyfriends to this one page stark illustration with this unnamed woman with the leg. She’s standing naked before her husband and her husband is there with the iPad, also naked, not paying attention to her at all. Then of course you have this really terrifying last page augmented reality future, where they can’t even spell “fuck” right. So this would suggest, I think, a deep pessimism on your part for how technology is affecting life and so forth. And here you have a collection of fourteen various pamphlets ranging from something very small to almost a newspaper size. Is this really what we have to do now? In order for literature and comics to survive, do we now have to create massive physical palpable forms in order to get people off of this highly addictive technology that has encroached itself into culture all around us for the last five years?

Ware: No. I don’t think so. I mean, it is a little disturbing. The amount of time that we spend increasingly staring into these glowing pits in front of us. Just simply standing out on the street here, the number of people who are looking at the palms of their hands. There’s probably a higher percentage of people doing that than actually looking up. And I think the gesture for trying to remember something now has changed from looking above one’s head to slapping one’s pocket. But it’s really not that different from what adults do anyway, which is not necessarily looking at the world around them, but looking into their own past and thinking about their future and simply just kind of navigating in a world. Just trying to get through the world while worrying about the past and thinking about the future. I don’t think it’s necessary to try to make something — I don’t know what word I could use here. It’s elaborate, I guess. That’s what I tried do. But at the same time, why not? I mean, paper can do things that screens cannot. And I’ve tried to take advantage of that with the book. And we’re at a moment right now too where certain experiences and the way that we get knowledge about the world has been attached to certain shapes and forms. And those shapes and forms are disappearing. And it seemed to me just like a possibility for a slight sense of poetry in using those shapes and forms as a physical way of imparting a sense of life or everyday experience.

Correspondent: So shapes and forms in the form of paper. Old forms are the way to counter the conformist technological forms. That the housing of the form is probably going to get through to people more than the elaborate Tuftean graphs you’ve often had in your work. So you think this is going to be a solution? You think paper will persist? Do you actually have to change as an illustrator, as a cartoonist, as an artist in order to woo people’s attention?

Ware: Well, no. I grew up at a time where I read everything on paper. And I don’t have a sentimental attachment to it. I’ve never subscribed to a newspaper in my life. I’ve always read the newspaper either just simply on the Internet or picked it up here and there. Even though I come from a long line of newspaper editors and publishers. My mom was a reporter and an editor. My grandfather was an editor. My great great uncle was a publisher who actually won a Pulitzer Prize for an essay in, I think, 1911. So it’s in my blood. I feel that it’s no longer the most efficient way of disseminating important up-to-date information. Newsprint was for a long time. It was almost a fiber optic cable. But now it’s not. It’s great for art though. So I think art needs a certain kind of containment. And it needs a certain kind of containment to it because so much of the things that one writes about as a novelist or tries to get at sometimes as an artist are so ineffable and uncontainable that they almost need a certain form to stop them or something. Or freeze them.

Correspondent: So this leads me to ask, I mean, did you have to learn a lot about materials and publishing for Building Stories? Or did you have someone shepherding this for you? I mean, how did you decide upon the forms for Building Stories? In which you’re essentially collecting things from the Acme Novelty Library as well as a few new things as far as I know. How did you decide upon the forms? And what research did you do in making sure they would stick together or would be lasting to counter the end of newsprint era that we now have rolling?

Ware: Right. Well, everything in the book is made out of the exact same paper. Which is intentional. And they’re almost all coverless, with the exception of a couple. And that’s also intentional. I didn’t really have to research much. I’ve been self-publishing my own hardcovers now and comics for a while. And I’ve actually dealt directly with printing companies. So I’m more or less familiar with how those things are put together. But for this particular project, the production manager at Pantheon handled all of that for me and was able to make it work. But I just simply gave him very specific parameters for the size and paper that I wanted to use. And he accommodated me essentially. He was a very nice guy. Andy Hughes.

Correspondent: So why did you move to self-publishing? I was always curious about that.

Ware: I was sort of uninspired, I guess, at a certain point. And I felt more that if I published something myself, it would feel closer to art. The way it had early on. And I felt like I was taking the whole risk myself at that point.

Correspondent: You wanted to be a control freak.

Ware: Well, somewhat. Yeah. But at the same time, if there are any mistakes, they were entirely mine. I was solely the product of my hand. It just simply felt more like art. I was making something specifically, giving it to someone. I didn’t go through a publisher. It was less of a product and more of a thing.

Correspondent: So when you’re creating an elaborate — well, there’s tons of questions I have to ask you about layout and so forth. But let’s start — I was always curious about your small microscopic rectangular panels that are often in your work. I’m wondering if part of your attraction to this is because you’re interested in communicating the maximum amount of information with a minimum amount of detail. Is this the allure for you?

Ware: Yeah. Somewhat. Yeah. And the reason I use square panels is simply because the page is square. It’s reflective of the shape of the object itself in the same way that a leaf of a tree is somewhat reflective of the shape of a tree itself. But that’s not unusual. That’s the way all cartoonists work. I think it’s the way it’s been handed down to us.

Correspondent: So the building that is at the base of Building Stories, was this based off of any particular building?

Ware: It’s a synthesis of two buildings that I lived in in Chicago before my wife and I moved to Oak Park, Illinois. But the inhabitants are completely imaginary.

Correspondent: Are they based off of floor plans and layouts that you wandered through or lived in?

Ware: Yeah, it’s a combination of the exterior of the second building that we lived in and the floor plan of the first that I lived in. Which really means nothing to anyone except me.

Correspondent: How much did the building dictate the dimensionality of the characters? Like, for example, there’s this couple who’s unhappy. And of course, we see that pretty much all the walls are painted blue. And I’m wondering if the blue room or perhaps a yellow background may have influenced where you were going with the characters. And had you thought many of them out in advance?

Ware: You know, I thought them out. But I did not think of the colors as having any influence on the narrative. I guess, if anything else, it was just simply a way of color coding the various floors of the building itself. I find — Charles Burns and I were just talking about this recently — that, sometimes when we sit drawing, we realize that we completely lose where we are in space and time. When I’m sitting at a table, sometimes I’ll forget what room in the house I’m in. Or if I’m even in the house that I’m in. That I’ll even imagine for a second I’m in the apartment that I used to live in. And Charles was saying that he would recently find himself thinking that the sister’s room was right around the corner the way it had been when he was a child. And I’ve experienced it. Everyone has certainly. I mean, it starts off. Proust. And when you fall asleep, you tend to lose a sense of where you are when you wake up in the morning. Sometimes you don’t have any idea where you are. You have to recalibrate yourself.

Correspondent: That temporal drift, I think, informs many of the stories that are in here. Especially the thin stripped one where there are no words whatsoever. It’s all about motherhood and how we see the passage of time throughout that. And I’m wondering. Does this often inform how you organize a story along those lines? Do words often get in the way? Is time sometimes more of an allure than words or dialogue or even blank speech bubbles?

Ware: Well, in that case, there was an attempt to try and give it a sense of the general activities that one might go through during a day. And if I use words, then the segments would be too specific and seem too much like a slideshow of actual reality. Where I was trying to get more of a sense of a general repetition as well as getting a sense of time passing very rapidly. That the strip was inspired by a comment that my friend Ira Glass, the radio reporter and…I shouldn’t say “radio reporter,” but the producer and inventor and progenitor of This American Life.

Correspondent: Well, This American Life has journalistic standards. You can call him that.

Ware: I mean, he’s a great journalist. He’s broken many stories for which I think he doesn’t get adequate credit. But I was just telling him one day over lunch how quickly it was that children grow up and how fast time seems to pass. And he looked up at me and he just said, “Cliche.” And I thought, “I’m just trying to tell you a story here, you know?”

Correspondent: (laughs)

Ware: It is actually true. That it is kind of a cliche. So I tried to write this strip in such a way that maybe it wouldn’t be such a cliche and to try and give it a sense of how the time passes rapidly. How it almost seems like in one day your children grow up.

The Bat Segundo Show #496: Chris Ware (Download MP3)

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loveandrockets

Gilbert and Jaime Hernandez (The Bat Segundo Show)

Gilbert and Jaime Hernandez are the creators, writers, and artists for Love and Rockets, the long-running and much acclaimed series celebrating its 30th anniversary this year.

Play

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Revisiting a moment in 1969 which sealed his fate.

Authors: Gilbert Hernandez and Jaime Hernandez

Subjects Discussed: Mario Hernandez, the way that Gilbert and Jaime collaborate, the six characters speaking in the same panel with six balloons, egging each other on, growing up in a household in which Gilbert passed down comics to Jaime, The Twilight Zone, Les Miserables, Gilbert’s lack of interest in prose, magical realism, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, creating an entire character based off a certain detail, finding new angles on heavily defined characters, why Maggie’s hairstyles and weight constantly change, how the Love and Rockets run is organized, allowing space in case one of the brothers decides to go long, seeking extreme character qualities, furry culture, turning exploitation on its own head, goofing around, dealing with serious topics (in stories such as “Browntown” and “Farewell, My Palomar”), the problems in elevating superheroes, emotional areas, why Jaime returned to superheroes after a long absence, Gilbert’s frustrations with The Dark Knight Rises, balancing work on L&R in the early days while having jobs, how economic forces have affected Love and Rockets, knowing that L&R wasn’t going to be a hit comic, maintaining a realistic view to make a living, Gilbert’s tendency to work on three comics at the same time, why the Hernandez brothers find women more interesting than men, fondness for butts and curves, the responsibility to imbue all comic book characters with humanity, Jaime being terrified of women in high school, creating a universe run by women, creating stories that are mostly visual (such as “Whoa Nellie” and “Hypnotwist”), the influence of words, L&R as a comic shop with endless back issues, Jack Kirby, why superheroes still have the upper hand in comics, wrestling, following through on a story, the joys of action poses, the influence of Peanuts in the children’s stories, drawing kids with big heads, visually representing a child’s imagination, the difficulty of sizing up the anatomy of a kid standing next up to a grownup, anatomical weak spots, when visual memory works better for art than research, being lazy when drawing hands, scaling children, optical theory, forced perspectives in cinema, eyeballing perspective, vanishing point and backgrounds, Warren Beatty’s Dick Tracy, “An American in Palomar,” whether culture is exploited in telling a story, what the Hernandez brothers hear from academics and fans, when people co-opt L&R as the “pro-Latino comic,” Daniel Clowes, coming up with stories just by looking at a picture, the virtues of not reading all the comics in your collection, reader misinterpretations, valuing the reader’s takeaway, the inspiration that comes from willful blindness, shifting from panel to panel on autopilot, looking back at old material, positive mistakes, and keeping characters alive and material fresh after thirty years.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: Let’s talk about extreme qualities in character. I think of Jaime’s Doyle Blackburn. I mean, here’s a guy who has to be as raucous and as violent just to match the wrestling and the punk rock and Maggie and Hopey. And then, of course, there’s Isabel the witch lady, where you physically change her size. Now, Gilbert, you’re more inclined to see someone like the IRS collector who dresses in a gorilla suit in “Girl Crazy” or even the forest people in “Scarlet by Starlight,” and, of course, the representation of them in the sequel to that story. So to what degree do you feel that this transgressive behavior, this extremity, needs to be predicated in reality? How important is it to stray from real behavior? And how important is it to keep it real? How do the two of you deal with things that are almost hyperreal in service of a story?

Gilbert Hernandez: Well, for me — even if I want to do a story about scientists from the future in the forest and those animal people living with them — for that kind of story, you balance how much is going to be a part of us there and then what it’s going to be like in the future. It’s a bit of a balance. And so I was dealing with scientists and these forest creatures. So for that story, I just felt like there should be a human connection in it. Like some real sympathy for the forest people. The forest people didn’t know what hit them and the scientists could care less about them. But there’s that superficial attraction one scientists has for one girl. And then I’m toying with the whole fetish aspect of that furry thing. The fans of that sort of thing are called furries. They have this fetish for sexy furry animals. I’m getting into trouble here. And so naturally I drew the forest girls as sexy as possible. So that would trip up the reader and feel really weird about being attracted to her. But at the same time, there’s that on the surface. There’s that going on. But it’s important to have the human element within those stories, that being the most important thing.

Correspondent: But you also twist that exploitative quality on its head when you have, of course, the massacre later on in that story. It seems to me that you almost want to play with the idea of exploitation while simultaneously give into various transgressive behavior and so forth.

Gilbert: Well, I just through a bit of ugly reality in the end that, yes, even though the humans are hanging out with the forest people and they treat them relatively well and everybody’s getting along on that end, there’s that drop inside a lot of people that the moment they get the opportunity to exploit people, they’ll do it. That’s more of a criticism of people than animal creatures. (laughs) Cat people.

Correspondent: Well, Jaime, how does this transgressive work for you? I mentioned some examples at the head of that last question. How much do your characters have to be steeped in reality? And when do you feel the need to stray from it?

Jaime Hernandez: When I’m bored with reality.

Correspondent and Gilbert: (laughs)

Jaime: And seriously when I just want to have fun and goof. Like that story about Izzy growing big. I just wanted to throw a big curveball just for the hell of it and see how it would fly with the reader. And I don’t know why. But when I’m doing that, I’m really not worried about ruining the reality of it. Maybe because it’s just something I grew up with in comics. That the real life and fantasy go together. Like I said, it’s all just having fun and just goofing. But I do have the responsibility of keeping the reader there. I mean, making it real for the reader.

Correspondent: But on the other hand, I look at a story like “Browntown,” which deals with sexual abuse and some very heavy topics, and I say to myself, well, I have to ask both of you — and also in “Farewell, My Palomar” — do you think that comics really need to grapple with this extreme heft in order to really matter as a medium? Are there any areas emotionally that you have not tapped and you really see Love and Rockets going further as? It has to be grounded in reality in some way, don’t you think?

Jaime: Right. Okay, so with a story like “Browntown,” there was no room for goofing. Because this is serious stuff. And I wanted to tell a real story that, tragic or otherwise, it was just really serious. And I didn’t want to almost make fun of it. Because it’s a serious issue. When I go there, I get really serious and there’s no room for goofing. In the case of Izzy growing into a giant, no one was getting hurt. So it was fun. Everyone got to go home and live their normal lives after that. But in “Browntown,” this was serious stuff. And I’m not going to mess with it.

Correspondent: So there’s an inevitable emotional filter you will have to apply, depending on the story. Depending on how people are going to get hurt or not.

Jaime: Yes. I only goof when it’s safe.

Correspondent: Well, what about you, Gilbert? Do you feel the same way? That a certain emotional tone requires a certain narrative filter to a story? That you have to be explicitly serious or explicitly ridiculous or fun in order to actually pursue a story? How does this work for you?

Gilbert: Sure. It’s the same thing. Like he said, he’s dealing with an aspect, an unfortunate aspect, of childhood that’s real for some people. All of a sudden, our brain goes into that mode. This is going to be told this way. I’m going to leave all the goofy stuff out and all the distractions out of it. Because this is how the story’s told. Even though, uncomfortably, this is still an entertaining story. You know, he wants to tell it as a story as you’re reading the story. It’s not a lesson being clobbered over your head. This is a story about characters, but it reflects on a problem that happens to children. So I approach it the same way. I have done serious things like attempted suicides in goofy stories. And I didn’t think that was right. I thought, “That’s something I don’t want to do anymore.” Because that was when I was learning. I was learning to tell stories. And in one of the first stories I did, I decided to have a guy attempt suicide. But it was in a science fiction story. And I got that uncomfortable feeling. Well, yeah, the reader looks at it like “Oh, it was a very shocking scene.” And I thought, “Well, it should have been about something. Not just gorillas from outer space or whatever.” That’s the problem I have with mainstream comics. Because they’re always trying to elevate the superhero by having drug problems and suicide attempts and stuff. And I just think that’s not where I’m at. That’s not where I want to read that. I mean, I suppose there are good stories about that in a Batman comic. But it makes me uncomfortable to read it that way. I kind of just miss the seriousness of it. Because it’s a guy in a bat suit in it.

Correspondent: Yeah. Are there any other stories that the two of you regret doing? That you would have done differently? Along these lines that you were just learning and you didn’t really understand the gravity of what that story was trying to say. Any other examples?

Jaime: Nothing really earth shattering. But there’s parts of “The Death of Speedy [Ortiz]” that I look back at, that I could have just put a little more into it. When I did it, it felt right. Years later, down the road, I look back at it and I go, “Well, maybe I could have explored this more on this part.” And then there’s a part of me that goes, “No.” But it’s been done. It’s been over. If I want to correct it, do it in a different story.

Correspondent: Is there any specific emotional terrain that the two of you have not tapped and perhaps would like to tap or would like to try? Or that is just purely verboten?

Gilbert: You know? I don’t know what that would be. It’s not there yet. We usually discover as we’re formulating a story. As we’re working on a story that’s going to build. That’s when it comes. It’s hard to think of that ahead of time. For us. Or for me at least.

Jaime: Yeah. Same here. Let’s say I’m doing a Maggie story. It’s going a certain way. And then I start to think about some serious issue. And I say, “Well, what if I turned it into this?” And I go, “Well, it’s not…it wouldn’t fit.” I would have to think about it harder. I would have to write around it. I couldn’t put the thing just…blam. All of a sudden in a story. Maggie’s having fun eating lunch and then something tragic happens. And all of a sudden, it’s wait a minute. Wait a minute. No, no. I would have to write around the tragedy instead of just throwing it in any old time.

Correspondent: Well, both of you have resisted superheroes and referring to the comic book industry for a long time until recently. Penny Century finally gets her wish to be a superhero in the early portion of the New Stories. And I’m wondering why you resisted the whole superhero, comic book, self-referential notion for so long and why you would inevitably succumb to that impulse to portray it in Love and Rockets.

Jaime: I just didn’t want to do superheroes anymore. Seriously, I just wanted to tell more real life stuff. I thought stuff I had seen in my life was much more interesting to me. And a lot of it was not being seen in comics. And I kind of took advantage of that. And I kind of outgrew the superhero thing by the time Love and Rockets came. So by the time I did the Ti-Girl story, I just wanted to have fun with my own superhero comic.

Correspondent: The allure just kind of came back for some reason.

Jaime: Yeah. It was just for fun. I said, “Hey, I’m going to do a superhero comic. And I’m going to follow through to the end and see how it turns out.” Just for fun. Like that’s what I want to do right now. Gilbert always talks about this. That Love and Rockets has always been a comic book. He could explain this better. But it’s a comic book and whatever we want to put in there, we put in. Whatever interests us. So it’s like, “Whoa! You did a really serious true life adventure. Now you’re doing superheroes! What the hell is that about?” Nothing. Other than I just wanted to a superhero story the next time.

Gilbert: And we don’t try and elevate the superhero thing in Love and Rockets. Superheroes are a fun affectation. They’re just about fun and doing nutty stuff. And if you have some characterization in there and some pathos, there’s nothing wrong with that. That makes a story, you know? But we never think — like in the new Dark Knight Rises movie, we don’t think, “Well, to elevate this, we must eliminate Batman.” He’s in it for fifteen minutes in a three hour movie. You know, I came to see a Batman movie! Where’s his car? Where’s the Batcycle? “No, no, no, this is better than that!” Well, why do I want to see something better than that? I wouldn’t go see this stupid cop movie if Batman wasn’t in it. I’m serious. This is how I feel. The stuff doesn’t need the elevation. It goes back to the movie Greystroke, with Tarzan. It was a flop. Because it wasn’t about frickin’ Tarzan. “Oh, here’s the serious Tarzan movie. Let’s get rid of Tarzan and what he does.” And this is this dumb elevation that they do in mainstream comics, where they’re trying to elevate superheroes because they just can’t let go of Batman.

Correspondent: Superheroes are inherently silly.

Gilbert: Yeah. Or fun. Or adventure characters. That’s okay with me. I’m okay with Star Wars being about nothing but action adventure. Indiana Jones. The new Avengers movie was a success because it was a matinee film about the Hulk being funny and all this goofy stuff going on. It was a lot of fun. But then they try to elevate the stuff. And that’s what keeps me away from mainstream comics. Well, here’s the new Batman comic. But we elevate it to the drug war or serious crime stories. And I go, “Okay, but where’s Batman? Where is he doing stuff?” Batman does stuff. He doesn’t want to constantly mope. He’s in costume to do stuff! So, anyway, that aside, having superheroes and doing all that stuff — Jaime’s just doing superheroes to be fun and it’s part of our comic world. I like to think of Love and Rockets as a comic store with a lot of back issues. That’s what Love and Rockets is.

Correspondent: How much does this idea of elevation plague Love and Rockets today? I mean, in recent years, comics have become this supercommodified, maintream, pro-geek, “geek is the mainstream now” type of situation. How has this affected Love and Rockets? And how has Love and Rockets over the years been affected by economics? In terms of commercial forces. Has this really been as much of a consideration? Have there been certain storylines and characters that audiences have rejected or had to make adjustments for? Anything like this?

Jaime: We really don’t think about that that much. I mean, we just do our comic and hope it won’t be bumped off the shelf. Serious. It’s that simple. I mean, we just want to do comics that we think are good and have our share of the comic store. It may be naive of me, but I really don’t think about what’s going on around me when I am doing my comic. It’s just me and my comic, and I’m just happy that I’m able to do the next issue without starving.

Correspondent: Yeah. Well, how long during the Love and Rockets run were you doing this with other jobs and so forth? And what did you do to make sure that you got your pages in for the next Love and Rockets issue over the years? When you were doing simultaneous employment? Or has it pretty much been full-time most of the way?

Jaime: Right. Well, there was a time when we were starting the comic that it wasn’t really going anywhere financially. So I had to get a job as a janitor on the side. But then when Love and Rockets kinda started taking off and I started going, “Hey! I can support myself with this!” — because I was young and all I needed was an apartment and maybe a car. And just taking care of myself. I had no responsibilities. So it was easy to live pretty cheap with Love and Rockets in the beginning. And I was able to quit that dumb janitor job.

Correspondent: Roughly around when were you able to quit the janitor job?

Jaime: Mid-’80s. Like about three years into Love and Rockets. And I realized, “Hey, I can afford my cheap apartment. Hey, maybe I can even buy a car!” And stuff like that. And as I got older, Love and Rockets started to sell more. And I started to get more responsibility. I got married. And I started to think like a grown-up. But luckily, Love and Rockets was helping me get there. We were both growing together. So, like I said, in the carefree days, when we didn’t have any money, I didn’t care. I was just young and carefree.

Correspondent: Has the influence of responsibility and money adjusted your freedom on Love and Rockets to a certain degree? Or have you both felt relatively free beside responsibility?

Jaime: No. Beside responsibility, I’ve always kept Love and Rockets in its own safe pocket.

Correspondent: Compartmentalized.

Jaime: Yeah. Yeah. No matter which way my life was changing, whether I needed to buy a house or whatever, or raise a child or something like that, I always was able to keep Love and Rockets separate from that. I would be a dad and a husband, and then I would go away to my room and then I was the comic artist. So Love and Rockets, as far as art-wise, has always been left alone. I’ve always made sure that Love and Rockets was able to flourish artistically. Because nothing else could interrupt it.

The Bat Segundo Show #490: Gilbert and Jaime Hernandez (Download MP3)

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chickenwithplums

Marjane Satrapi & Vincent Paronnaud (The Bat Segundo Show)

Marjane Satrapi & Vincent Paronnaud are most recently the writers and directors of Chicken with Plums.

Play

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Wondering if his creative skills can be adapted.

Guests: Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud

Subjects Discussed: Adapting graphic novels to film, Natural Born Killers, sitcoms, Hollywood’s insistence on remakes, splitting duties as co-directors, the importance of preparation, fights during production, the importance of death threats to the creative process, Satrapi’s panels as white backgrounds, creating a cinematic look, separating the graphic novel from the film, when words cram up a panel, spending two years to prepare a film, research, German expressionism, limits on cinematic exaggeration, why vulgarity and bad taste is important, Who’s the Boss?, being inspired by high and low references, the importance of humor, finding a common vision, fighting over small details, being gentle with other people 90% of the time, the miracle of clashing personalities agreeing on something, Chicken with Plums‘s reduced politics from the novel to the film, naming characters after nations, Jean-Jacques Annaud’s The Name of the Rose, books vs. films, Erich von Stroeheim, art vs. commerce, stress, the virtues of being left in peace to make your own film, how actors provide emotional resonance, directing and finding the right actors, the freedom to telephone an actor in Europe, the importance of creating a fantastical playground for actors, and Satrapi’s tendency to choose silhouettes for the visual style.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: I am extremely fascinated by the way that you adapted this movie, that you’ve adapted both of your works. In Persepolis, there’s this extended winemaking explanation for the secret parties. There’s also the increased attention to shopping with, of course, the Marjane in that saying, “One of my favorite pastimes” over and over. Which suggests something that was almost explicitly designed for the cinematic medium. Now in Chicken with Plums, you have a number of moments that take on greater life in the film adaptation. To just cite two, you have the various deaths that Nasser Ali imagines, which is only half a page in the book and which becomes this glorious montage, this wonderful set piece. And then you also have this satirical episode in California in the book take on this kind of 1950s sitcom, kind of like Natural Born Killers but a totally different style, in the movie. So my question is: do you see these movies as a way to improve upon what you laid down in the books? Or do you see them as separate entities that only film can actually create? And what do the two of you do to heighten certain moments and silent other ones?

Satrapi: No. I think a film has to have its own identity and entity. This is not that I think that the books, they are bad and that’s why we have to make the movie. And actually, you know, for myself, I never want to make a work of adaptation ever again. Because it’s very boring. You once have to think about the story in one way and then think about it in another way. But it was a reason for that. And that is that it was my idea to make Persepolis. I had a friend who wanted to become a producer, who proposed to make Persepolis, and somewhere, you know, deep down of myself, I always thought why not try something and learn something. In the worst case, we will make the worst film in the world. But at least I have learned something. And I proposed it to Vincent, who is a very good friend of mine. We used to laugh a lot for the joy of working for him. And he said “Yes!” And so we started doing it. So we made this Persepolis and obviously it got all the attention it got. And we thought that because we were Oscar nominee, now we are going to say we are going to make another film. And it will open the door to a room with billions of dollars. And they tell us, “Take all the dollars that you want and make your film.” But this is not true. Because we are living in a world of remakes. Everybody wants to make a remake of a film. We want to make the things that have already been done. Like before in Hollywood, somebody would go with a script, see a producer. Producer would say, “I would like to watch this film. And maybe, if I feel like seeing it, other people, they would like to see it.” And today you go, and I have already seen this film. It has made me lots of money. So I want to see it again. So it’s a big major difference. But in order to try something new, we had a reason, a specific reason, why we made Persepolis in animation. Because we wanted to be universal. And since that was a story, a specific story of a specific movement of the specific country, the fact of putting it in a real geography with some type of real human being, that’s what I’d been rejected from the other one. Like this geography, we don’t know. These people, they don’t know, they don’t look like us, but the abstraction of the drawing actually gave us the possibility to having a much more universal thing.

Here, we have with Chicken with Plums, of course, you have to make a work of adaptation. You have a story. You read the book. You put it apart. You take whatever you think is usable for the film, like the structure. Some dialogues. Etcetera etcetera. But then language of the cinema is very different from the language in a book, in the comic books. So you have to think cinema. And then for the highlights of the film, the question of rhythm is just as possible just by working a lot. The fact is that both of us, we like to laugh a lot. The vision that we have of the world and the complexity of the human being, the visual style are the things that we have in common, but that we work a lot. This is it.

Correspondent: So how do you two riff off each other? How do you two work together? I’m really curious to get Vincent’s thoughts on the adaptation and the creative process as well. Vincent, do you serve as a veto mechanism or anything? How do you contribute to this? I’m really curious.

Paronnaud (as translated by Satrapi): So it’s really very easy. I read the book. We see each other. And we talk about the way that we are going to make this work of adaptation. So it’s very important. Because, you know, these meetings that you have at the origins are going to affect whatever we will do later. On the set, in the way of filming, in the way of treating everything. And I work with Marjane because I love the story that she says. And my personal universe, the personal world of my own, is really the complete opposite of what she does. So it’s stimulating intellectually and artistically. Then I say all of that. Because then, you know, when we arrive on the set, we split the work. Because we have prepared it. So Marjane is with the actors. And I’m with the cinematographer. And sometimes we have lots of tension. And it doesn’t work. But most of the time, it does.

Correspondent: Oh really? So if you’re splitting it down between technical and acting, how did you two collaborate on the first film? How were the duties split for Persepolis?

Satrapi: Well, for Persepolis, it was the same. I would go and simulate the movement in front of them. We would choose the movement of the camera. The background. But all of that is so much related. Because like acting is when you are directing a film. You have to think about actors, but you have to think about the frame. So everything is connected. It’s not like you have one part of the project and the other part. So since there is connection, that’s what we were saying. You know, this work of preparation is very important. Because like that, we know what the other one is doing. But sometimes, you know, I don’t like the framing that he does. I give a direction of acting that he does not like. Most of the time, he goes, “Fine.” But sometimes it’s a fight. You know, we go out. We yell at each other.

Correspondent: How detailed do these fights get?

Satrapi: Like “Go fuck yourself.” Things like that. And in the night I pray that he will die.

Correspondent: Wow.

Satrapi: He says that they pray that I die too. But then we sleep. And then here’s the actors. And we have forgotten. And the result of that is that we are still friends.

Correspondent: So death threats are really the best way to get the creative process flowing, I presume.

Satrapi: Absolutely. Death is always the best for everything. We have to be aware of our death. Because that will come, even if we want it or not.

The Bat Segundo Show #477: Marjane Satrapi & Vincent Paronnaud (Download MP3)

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amazingspiderman

Review: The Amazing Spider-Man (2012)

The Amazing Spider-Man, a completely unnecessary reboot of a perfectly wonderful Sam Raimi movie that was released only ten years before, expects us to believe in remarkably unpersuasive and tepid lies.

It is a movie that expects us to believe that one can walk into a 100-story skyscraper situated in Columbus Circle run by an apparent multinational corporation, catch a look at one of the badges behind the desk, and assume one of the names. (Only an hour before the screening, my photo had been taken for a temporary badge so that I could participate in a twenty minute meeting in a building that had fewer stories than Oscorp, which I much preferred as a sprawling industrial complex in the Raimi movies.) It is a movie that expects us to believe that an impostor can enter a top secret facility standing thirty feet away from the door leading in and observe a scientist, who just happens to be there, tracing a pattern-sensitive code into the panel with his hand (no thumbprint or retinal scan or surveillance cameras?).

It is a movie that expects us to believe that a hero, unable to use his considerable strength just after being bitten by a spider, will be curiously inconsistent in how he destroys things. Peter Parker clicks on a mouse without incident, but the keys rip off the keyboard as he types. He destroys the bathroom sink, but his skateboard is remarkably preserved. It is a movie that expects us to believe that a kid possessing reflexes beyond the pale would not be recruited by a sports coach (Studio Executive to Producers: “We can’t do that because of the wrestling element in Raimi’s first movie. That bastard! Why did he bolt on us?” Producers: “Because he wanted more time to develop the script!?”) and would not be examined by scientists or specialists for his off-the-charts ability. The movie simply assumes that a preternatural ability to warp a goal post with a football (is that even physically possible with cowhide?) is par for the course among high school teens. (“We’re very excited about the creative possibilities that come from returning to Peter’s roots,” said Amy Pascal in a statement when Sony put the kibosh on Spider-Man 4. Apparently, “creative possibilities” involve a remarkably unprofessional failure to work out story logic.)

It is a movie that expects us to believe that an especially carnivorous rat (mutated, of course) running around a scientific facility would not be noticed by the many attentive professional minds employed by Oscorp. It is a movie that expects us to believe that the television cameras closely following an injured Spider-Man crawling up a building with some difficulty would not also roll as Spider-Man rips his mask off (in fact, Parker reveals his identity more times than one would think during this film; presumably, superheroes have become so commonplace in the Marvel universe that one need not bother with sub rosa). It is a movie that expects us to believe that a teenager can spend long hours fighting crime and collecting bruises and not be grounded or sternly disciplined by his guardian, who also does not follow Parker when he takes up a large and vertiginous stack of food up to his room (including frozen macaroni and cheese, which is not especially edible unless you nuke it). It is a movie that expects us to believe that a seasoned cop would not notice the numerous bruises upon his daughter’s date and would neither remark upon said contusions, much less the fact that this date has seemingly materialized out of nowhere into his daughter’s room and not shown up in a suit (as agreed upon in advance by the Stacy family).

I put forth the modest proposition that a movie containing this much paralogia should be rejected by a mass audience. It is one thing to accept a webslinger sailing through the Manhattan skyline on threads that couldn’t possibly be tensile enough to hold a 160 pound man. One must, after all, suspend some disbelief for a film of this type. But we are not dummies. And it is the job of the Hollywood professional to make us believe in the impossible for a few hours.

It is also the responsibility of the professional to give the protagonist an interesting antagonist: ideally, someone who shares similar qualities and who is just as dimensional as the hero. What have screenwriters James Vanderbilt, Alvin Sargeant, and Steve Kloves given us? The Lizard (aka Dr. Curt Connors), who was capable of telepathic communication with other reptiles and was nuanced enough to help Spidey a few times in the comics, is a dull and plodding villain barking ho-hum soliloquies into his video camera and booming loud and not especially inventive three-word threats to Peter Parker. In this cinematic manifestation, he is such an underwritten and bland character that director Marc Webb, who seems to have carved out the inventive eye he brought to the marvelous (500) Days of Summer for the money men, constantly has his camera fixated upon Connors’s missing arm even after we have a pretty good idea that the experiments at Oscorp will cause it to grow back. I became so distracted by this that I was able to figure out where Rhys Ifans’s pre-CGI arm was with little effort. But as we have already established, Webb and his army of hacks aren’t especially interested in believable magic tricks.

* * *

“Don’t break promises you can’t keep,” says an English teacher at Midtown Science High School to Peter Parker, as he stumbles late into a classroom near the end of a broken cinematic promise. “Yeah,” Parker replies, “but those are the best ones.”

Actually, the best promises were fulfilled by Sam Raimi. Even Spider-Man 3, which had its share of problems, was free enough for Raimi to stage that gloriously cheesy scene in the jazz club. There isn’t a single scene in Webb’s hacktacular reimagining that comes close. Raimi understood that Spider-Man was the most endearing of Marvel’s superheroes: the bullied geek finding integrity through his superpowers. While Andrew Garfield is a handsome enough lead man, he doesn’t look like the kind of guy who would be beaten by schoolkids in a previous life. He’s too jittery and bewildered and spastic in his delivery to tend to a friendly neighborhood. It doesn’t help that he has a vague Jersey dialect which flits in and out, out of character for a guy ostensibly from Queens. But then the New York in this movie is some bizarre hodgepodge of the seedy Abraham Beame days (people apparently drink beer on the Q line and it’s too dangerous for a fit older woman to walk twelve blocks to a subway station at night) and something vaguely approximating a period that could be now or could be the 1980s (how else to account for the Rubik’s Cube that Uncle Ben picks up in Peter Parker’s room or the curious lack of texting among teens even as they are using smartphones?). While I accept that a comic book movie is going to stylize a city however it wants (Raimi was audacious enough to include an elevated line running through Manhattan), should it not be rooted in true imagination rather than careless what-the-hell incoherence? (On this point, the movie seems curiously self-aware of its fallacies. Not only does The Amazing Spider-Man lack the guts to utter the famous line “With great power comes great responsibility,” but an Einstein poster appears in Parker’s bedroom with the immortal quote, “Imagination is more important than knowledge.” If ever there was a filmmaker who misunderstood Einstein, it’s director Marc Webb.)

That slipshod quality extends to Peter Parker, who inexplicably clings to an analog camera in an age when nearly every aspiring photographer his age is likely to be using digital. Hilariously, Parker’s camera has PROPERTY OF PETER PARKER in embossed tape on the back, which conveniently allows a villain to find him not long after he tries snapping a few secret photos. (By comparison, notice how our first introduction of Raimi’s Peter Parker as photographer involves Parker asking permission at a museum just before he snaps a spider for the “school paper,” only for a bully to push Parker and mess up his shot. In a matter of five seconds, Raimi and screenwriter David Koepp established that (1) Parker is polite and destined to work for a paper to expand his scientific and journalistic interests and (2) he is also doomed to face bullies who will mess his vocation up, whether as crime fighter or photographer.)

And how can you have a Spider-Man movie without J. Jonah Jameson? Then again, after J.K. Simmons, why would you dare to cast another actor in the part? Jameson’s disapproval of Spidey is passed off to Captain George Stacey (played by Denis Leary, who seems to have turned into a poor man’s David Caruso, just as he was once a poor man’s Bill Hicks). But here’s why Jameson is so important. Peter Parker was able to work at the Daily Bugle trying to impress Jameson with his photos, while simultaneously facing Jameson’s smear campaign against Spidey. In light of the fact that he has no father figure, Jameson almost serves as an intriguing surrogate. Webb’s film has Captain Stacey insisting that Spidey is a menace, ordering the cops on his side. But we don’t believe it — in large part because Captain Stacey also views Parker as a kid with “psychiatric problems.” Yet it’s clear that Spidey is working on the side of good. However, we can believe that a media mogul would want to manipulate public opinion for his own selfish ends. Sure enough, Webb and his writers lack the deft hand to see Captain Stacey’s resentment through to the end.

I haven’t even brought up the Gwen Stacy story — in large part because Stacy, who was such a central figure in the comic books (memo to Mr. Webb: not especially wise of you to feature a prominent NYC bridge in your Spider-Man movie because it spells out how risk-averse and how out of your league you really are), is little more than a head-bobbing, limb-shuffling, one-dimensional, big-eyed love interest for Parker. In Raimi’s version, Mary Jane lived a few houses down from Parker. There were hints that a troubled family lived inside. Raimi even had the courage to have Parker mutter his feelings for Mary Jane while walking behind her: an uncommonly sincere moment that made us relate to Parker’s wistfulness in human terms. What does Webb offer us? Gwen Stacy’s photo on Parker’s computer.

I suppose I’m dwelling upon the many human elements that went awry because the comic book story here is boring and unsatisfying. While this movie is not as bad as any comic book movie with “green” in the title, I did not feel a single second of awe or excitement during The Amazing Spider Man‘s 136 interminable minutes. Once again, there was no real justification for the 3D: not even the ridiculous Spidey POV shots that Webb desperately introduces as a personal stylistic flourish. There also needs to be a moratorium on Stan Lee cameos.

We have seen origin story after origin story, and, after two Hulks (2003 and 2008), Iron Man, Thor, and Captain America, it’s all becoming wearisome. At least with The Avengers, the spandex ass kicking began fairly early and there was decent acting and a few good lines and a rousing Alan Silvestri score and an endearing Hulk. But the comic book movie has become a drag. Nobody says “fuck” or fucks or drinks or does drugs or gets into serious trouble. Nobody really lives. Imagine how truly amazing these movies would be if somebody took a human chance.

mrwonderful

The Bat Segundo Show: Daniel Clowes

Daniel Clowes recently appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #394. He is most recently the author of Mr. Wonderful.

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Condition of Mr. Segundo: Uniting with the bald community.

Author: Daniel Clowes

Subjects Discussed: Moments of simultaneous consciousness, creative methods of beating imposed deadlines, being intrigued by thought balloons, Superman and narrative urgency, formal lettering, what motivates words in Daniel Clowes’s life, the type of lettering that causes one to read narration in a robotic voice, sound effects and newspapers, CHOFF CHOFF vs. SMOOTH SMOOTH, mass readership and not receiving significant mail, Eightball reader responses vs. New York Times reader responses, angry Southerners who object to the word “Jesus,” following Like a Velvet Glove Cast in Iron versus following Mr. Wonderful on a sequential basis, pre-Internet audiences, “Check out my blog!” as a recurrent audience response, the advantages of insulation, the general sense of distant feedback, Chris Ware homages in Ice Haven, the amount of detail compressed in any individual frame, not wanting to cheat the reader, the complex issue of bald spots in comics, the many permutation of Wilson’s look, depicting eating in visual mediums, Terry Zwigoff’s enthusiasm for eating, the difficulties of illustrating table settings, reference shots, drawing pay phones, drawing without reference shots, the consequences of fussing over an illustration too much,

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: As a fellow gentleman who also has the male pattern baldness, I feel compelled to ask you about bald spots. In Wilson, his physical form changes from set to set to set. He’s often chunkier. He’s often muscular. He’s receding in different places each time. And I noticed in Mr. Wonderful, when you expand to one of these large panels, we do in fact see this silver of a bald spot.

Clowes: He has a bald spot throughout, I think.

Correspondent: Yeah. But we don’t really see it so much in some of the smaller panels.

Clowes: No. It looks weird if you have this little dot of flesh in a small panel.

Correspondent: To wrestle with the idea of bald spots in comics, is it really just a matter of liking to draw these?

Clowes: I’m trying to support our community.

Correspondent: Oh yes. Exactly. You meet in the secret halls as well as I do.

Clowes: Yes. Yes.

Correspondent: They don’t know how much we are…

Clowes: Again, I’m trying to normalize our ilk for the rest of the world.

Correspondent: What about the six panel approach of Wilson? I mean, sometimes we see….

Clowes: There’s seven or eight.

Correspondent: Sometimes we see at the very bottom of the row, we see three there. But I’m curious if that formalism caused you to shift Wilson’s appearance. I was always curious about why. Was it just a matter of trying to have almost every type of reader reading this finding her version of Wilson in the actual…?

Clowes: That was — that was part of the intent. We all see ourselves very differently from day to day. And I was trying to capture all the various ways that Wilson sees himself and feels about himself. And each one of those looks gives something specific to each of the strips. And I wanted each of them to have their own identity. They exist in this, as you say, very severe structure where it’s six, seven, and eight panel gag strips. And so I wanted them to have that, but also to have this way where they’re drastically differentiated from each other.

Correspondent: Sure. I mentioned Marshall eating a French fry earlier. And I did tell you that I had a followup question. I had a rather elaborate one.

Clowes: Bring it on.

Correspondent: I have — and this might just be an expression of my obsessions — but I have been very interested in the notion of depicting eating in visual mediums. You see a film sometimes. And often they’ll go to a restaurant or a diner or a bar or a cafe and nobody will eat. Similarly, I have noticed in your work that there is a reticence — especially in the early work, although we’re increasingly seeing more of a development in terms of depicting characters eating. Although I should point out that in the film of Ghost World, there’s a great moment where Bob Balaban is eating that toast.

Clowes: There’s lots of eating in that film.

Correspondent: Yeah, there’s lots of eating.

Clowes: Zwigoff enjoys eating.

Correspondent: Yes.

Clowes: Often, if he can’t think of anything else, he would just tell an actor, “Just put a bagel in your mouth and do the line that way.”

Correspondent: But in Ghost World the comic, we don’t actually see Enid and Rebecca eating. We see Josh eating.

Clowes: They’re too busy talking, I think.

Correspondent: They aren’t too busy talking. People talk and eat. They talk and eat in Ghost World the movie.

Clowes: It looks weird though. It makes someone look sort of vulgar if they’re talking and eating. And so you have to be careful with things like that. There are very subtle little things in comics. You have just this one panel to express something. And it confuses the audience if you’re not…you know.

Correspondent: Well, have you tried to get more eating? For example, the hospital in Mr. Wonderful, where incidentally Marshall feels more comfortable there than in the diner. Suddenly, Clowes feels more comfortable depicting picking at food and actual eating. I was reading this, championing the characters eating.

Clowes: Well, I think he’s relaxed. Before, he’s sort of taking a little bite and he’s not even thinking about eating. If you show someone eating, they seem at ease. And so I wanted to show that he’s given up. He’s totally relaxed. And he’s free to just eat his French fries.

Correspondent: Well, have you agonized over depicting eating moments over the years at all?

Clowes: It’s all intuitive. You don’t think about the details of it. You’re thinking about how to get across the performance of the character and how best to do that. Drawing table settings is really difficult. It’s one of the more difficult things you can do. Because you have to draw plates and perspectives and you have to kind of keep everything in the right place. You know, people don’t consciously notice if a glass moves from one side of the table to the other. But they unconsciously know that something’s off. And so it’s not at all easy. So I try not to write around that. I try to do my work and get it in there.

Correspondent: So being a script supervisor for your own work, it would seem, is part of the perfectionist in you.

Clowes: Table settings are famously the script supervisor’s nightmare.

Correspondent: Is there anything more difficult for you for the comics than table settings? In terms of getting things consistent?

Clowes: Oh yeah. I mean, there are many things that I have written around. I can’t imagine drawing a detailed battle scene. I mean, if I had to do it, I would. But it’s not my idea of fun, you know? It would be a chore. Or to draw people riding horses is the one I’ve tried a few times. And my horses look very weird. I’d have to spend three weeks just working on the horses and get some way to do that down before I could do a Western I think.

Correspondent: In the Ghost World special edition, there is a reference photo that you provide indicating that this is the model for the Ghost World hardcover photo. This leads me to ask, since we were talking about panel size before, how much reference you actually need. In the case of horses, I’m wondering if part of the difficulty has been getting enough horses to model for you or to be photographed.

Clowes: There’s certainly plenty of reference nowadays on the Internet. And as it’s gotten more and more available, I’ve tried to use less and less of it. Because I find that I can look back at my work and say, “Oh, I just looked at a photograph of a pay phone.” There’s something much stronger about trying to remember what a pay phone looks like. And that way you capture both the essence of a pay phone and you also capture what your vision of a pay phone is. And so I try and only use reference if it’s something where I just can’t get a clear picture in my head. I mean, that reference of my wife for the back cover of Ghost World, that was for doing a very specific kind of detailed painting. I wanted it to look like an old pinup painting. And so I wanted it to have that kind of phony posed look. And so I would use a photo for something like that. But I would almost never, for a person, use a photo.

Correspondent: At what point, do you just simply draw a gesture without reference? Some people say that you can tell when a cartoonist is coming into a room. You immediately know who he is. Because that’s exactly like the drawings. Is there a similar predicament in just wanting to be off the reference altogether and just using your imagination to get something a little unreal? What do you do in a situation like that?

Clowes: I try to always go in that direction. I’m much more interested in making things up. It doesn’t always work out. And then you have to go back and fix it. But very often it’s much truer than if you’re fussing over it too much and trying to get things perfect.

Correspondent: But when you’re talking about capturing the essence of a pay phone, if you fuss over it too much, is it going to have an impact on capturing the essence?

Clowes: No. I mean, if you fuss over it too much, it pulls it out of the rest of the world, which is not fussed over. I try to draw as naturally as I can. Which took me forever. You know, my early work, I look at it and it makes my hand ache from thinking how agitated I was trying to get everything a certain way and not getting there. It was just constantly frustrating. And I was always throwing pages out the window and starting over and whiting out entire faces and pasting things on. And it was never pleasurable. And in the last five or six years, I’ve gotten to the point where I can feel good about without absolute agony. Or at least I know how to fix it at this point. I know that everything is fixable.

The Bat Segundo Show #394: Daniel Clowes (Download MP3)

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impendingmarriage

The Bat Segundo Show: Adrian Tomine

Adrian Tomine appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #382. He is most recently the author of Scenes from an Impending Marriage.

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Condition of Mr. Segundo: Attempting to reconcile the impending with illustrations depicting events from years ago.

Author: Adrian Tomine

Subjects Discussed: Doing time in Sacramento, veiling a personal experience with a sex change, which of Tomine’s characters is least like him, the liberation that comes in fabrication, scratched out names and Victorian literature, the original small audiences for Scenes and 32 Stories, the father’s fund, taking criticisms to heart, the drawbacks of working in the same realist vein, Tomine’s wife as the “first audience,” the artist’s fragile ego, the influence of printed literature and storytelling upon art, humbling versions of inspiration, Tomine’s degrees of aspiration and ambition, living a life in service to the drawing, facing the world, the “strenuous” exigencies of cartoonists, drawing panels without decor, Tomine’s perfectionist qualities, the freedom in pursuing work that isn’t going to be reviewed, feeling highly scrutinized, the pleasure in publishing harsh letters, the look of the ranger, using the fewest lines to get the maximum amount of detail, settling upon the three panel approach, maintaining a private style in secret scrapbooks, varying levels of creative insulation from the public, the very low frequency of sound words, the tongue licking in “Alter Ego,” seeing external details that other characters cannot, the grotesque reality of Chris Ware’s furry cats, the number of people who read books in Tomine’s New Yorker illustrations, the Venn diagram between 1990s subcultures and digital culture, disappearing subcultures, cartoonists who detest hippie and hipster culture, gesture and look, Alison Bechdel’s elaborate photographic process, and the pursuit of “realism” in an “unreal” medium.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: I wanted to get into the ineluctable autobiographical angle through a different mechanism. Interviewers, critics — they’ve all said, “Oh, well, Tomine is totally autobiographical.” But here, you are tempting fate again with the subtitle of the book: “prenuptial memoir.”

Tomine: Right.

Correspondent: You mentioned in the introduction to 32 Stories that you “learned the useful trick of taking a personal experience and veiling it with a sex change or two.”

Tomine: Right.

Correspondent: So we have to talk about this. But I’m going to ask you: Which of your characters is least like you? How much of Scenes [From an Impending Marriage] emerged out of your reality? Or is there some liberation, so to speak, in the fabrication?

Tomine: Oh completely. I mean, everybody has been focusing on the autobiographical nature of this book and I think some of the promotional materials are talking about how it’s such a personal work or something. But I think in truth, in some ways — well, I wouldn’t say the least personal, but it’s certainly no more personal than the other books. And I think that definitely in the fictional stories, I feel a lot of the freedom that you refer to. And the flip side to that is there’s an inhibition that comes along with drawing yourself as the main character. And I think this book, this current one, is all definitely drawn from real experience, but very carefully edited and selected.

Correspondent: Yeah. Starting with the first story, where we see scratched out words of names and places and the like. Which, to my mind, didn’t necessarily mean privacy, but possibly meant an ode to the Victorian literature, where you have the first letter and the line long after that.

Tomine: Yeah. And also I think that this was the first time I just embraced the idea that this would be intended for as wide of an audience as possible. So it set up the ending, where I have the one swear word of the book scratched out too. So it doesn’t quite jump out as much as it would otherwise.

Correspondent: So wait a minute. I understood that this started out as something to be disseminated to wedding guests.

Tomine: Yes, that’s right.

Correspondent: Okay. So was it always intended for public consumption?

Tomine: No.

Correspondent: No.

Tomine: No. The original version that was slimmer. There were fewer pages. It was basically just Xeroxed and assembled. And it was meant to just be given out at the wedding. So the only audience was really going to be our close friends and family.

Correspondent: Well, this is interesting. Because 32 Stories came back in a third life, I suppose, by having that box of minicomics. And it seemed to me from the introduction that it also came about under a certain amount of duress. I’m wondering if people have to push you or kick you into getting things published these days. How does this come about?

Tomine: Well, I think that if someone really wanted to read between the lines and investigate. The dedication of this book explains a lot about why it’s now in stores. Because it’s dedicated to Nora, who’s my one-year-old daughter.

Correspondent: Aha! The father’s fund.

Tomine: Yeah, exactly. We know a lot of people are confused. They say that in the book you say your wife’s name is Sarah. Who’s this Nora that this book is dedicated to?

Correspondent: Your mistress, I thought.

Tomine: (laughs) Right. My Irish mistress.

Correspondent: (laughs) Yes.

Tomine: Yeah, my wife was actually joking about that and saying, “Nobody ever has an Irish mistress.” I mean, there were a lot of reasons that went into the decision to actually publish it. But if I’m honest, one of them would definitely be just a bit of that new father panic of “I’ve got a life that I’m responsible for other than mine now.” So that was part of the thought process. At the same time, there was also the element of just how off the beaten path this book was for me. And that was appealing. Because when I finished my previous book, and digested a lot of the reviews and the response, that it was really clear to me that whatever it is that I publish next had to be pretty different. I think people had their fill of that specific tone and that meticulous realistic style of drawing. I don’t think it was — well, I take — the criticisms of that I took to heart. Not that it was poorly done, but that I’d been putting out a lot of that in that same vein for a number of years. So I didn’t really have a plan of what I was going to do next. But then it was kind of a relief to me when I realized that I basically had a complete book just sitting in my sketchbook. And it was as dramatic of a change as I was looking for.

Correspondent: Well, we’ve brought up a number of things just in the first few minutes.

Tomine: Right. I derailed you.

Correspondent: No, no. It’s great. I love this. Working on art for money. Working on art for audience response. And then simultaneously mining from your own personal life to generate narratives that often take an immense amount of time. In the case of Shortcomings, four years. So this leads me to wonder whether there’s possibly a double-edged sword here, if you are revolving your creative process around what the audience is telling you. Clearly, you still read reviews.

Tomine: Yeah.

Correspondent: Clearly, there is an interest to stay in this business. Obviously. But on the other hand, the fact that this book, this latest volume, came from a safe place. Where you were almost buffered by the possibility of critics dissecting every little aspect of your work. I mean, how does this work? How do you gravitate between the two? Or is it all one unified theory here? So to speak.

Tomine: No. I think you touched on a lot of the things that were in my mind really. Because this wedding book was definitely the most breezy and loose and — a word that’s never applied to my work, but — fun. And I think it was because of what you’re talking about. The idea that it basically wasn’t meant to be published. And that no one but a handful of people that I knew and loved would be seeing it. And really, even though I knew the people at the wedding would be seeing it, the only real audience I had in mind when I was creating it was my wife, Sarah. A lot of it was just a question of not “Is this going to be a great strip?” or “Is this going to be beautifully drawn?” or anything like that. But just “Is this going to make her chuckle at the end of the day?”

Correspondent: So really she’s your first audience.

Tomine: For this, especially.

Correspondent: Do you see that being — she’s going to be your future audience? Her and Nora perhaps?

Tomine: Yeah.

Correspondent: I mean, how do you insulate yourself from the constant probing?

Tomine: Well, I mean, whether I like it or not, she’s going to be my first audience. Just as the nature of working at home, and her curiosity. When she scrolls through my studio each day, she does take a look at what I’m working on. But at least so far, it’s been a real asset to me. Because she’s more well-read than I am. She used to work in publishing. And she has editing experience. She also, along with that, knows the fine art of dealing with the fragile ego of the writer or the artist. And she also just has a really good sense of humor. And I think that she’s, if anything, encouraged me over the years to try and tap into that a little bit more in my work.

(Image: Sarah Brennan)

The Bat Segundo Show #382: Adrian Tomine (Download MP3)

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harveypekar

Harvey Pekar (1939-2010)

Harvey Pekar, the comic book writer best known for the long-running American Splendor, died this morning in his Cleveland home. He was 70 years old.

Pekar was devoted, more than many of today’s lifeless literary practitioners, to depicting the truth behind everyday moments. And it is especially painful to know that Pekar’s passing comes a little more than a month after David Markson’s. Like Markson, Pekar knew that life didn’t offer any tidy resolutions and that art, even at its best, served as an intermediary. “Ordinary life is pretty complex stuff,” he would write most famously. It was one of the key lines that made it into the 2003 American Splendor film adaptation. But the film, as great as it was, couldn’t compete with the work on the page.

Pekar was not the type to pull punches or avoid the harsh truth. He wrote fearlessly about his testicular cancer scare, his failings with women, his anger, and his inadequacies. But his work was never solely about a lifelong exploration of the self. He wanted those who read his work to understand the world. For Pekar, that universe was Cleveland. And Pekar demonstrated that it was hardly just some flyover state to be overlooked by the bicoastal snobs. He described the hopeless art of trying to pick the right checkout line when standing behind an old Jewish lady. He wrote about Emil, the Ukranian laborer who lived next door to him in the mid-1960s, moved into a rough Cleveland neighborhood, and saw his idealism dissolve into racism. Of his jury duty experience, he would point to the hypocrisies of “rich people like Nixon and Agnew” staying out of prison while poor people were thrown into the slammer for less serious crimes. These anonymous lives presented stories that were just as important, but more recklessly forgotten.

Pekar’s later volumes became more ambitious than these Cleveland chronicles. There were graphic histories featuring Students for a Democratic Society and the Beats. With Michael Malice and Macedonia much like Emil, Pekar investigated the hypocrisies behind idealistic commitment. But regular people remained very much a priority with an adaptation of Studs Turkel’s Working.

Righteous indignation was an essential part of Pekar’s work. (Indeed, one story from 1986, “Hysteria,” depicts Pekar getting so worked up that he lost his voice.) But he did have a good deal to be angry about. Here was a very sharp autodidact toiling as a file clerk, who was often needlessly ridiculed. The most infamous scorn came from David Letterman, who booked Pekar on his show so that he could lob potshots at the weirdo he never bothered to read or appreciate. These regular appearances ended when Pekar got sick and tired of being the butt of the joke, shortly after he rightly condemned Letterman for his ties to General Electric. He would write about this experience in 1988’s “My Struggle with Corporate Corruption and Network Philistinism.”

But even Pekar’s most vocal mainstream supporters didn’t seem to ken him. I know this, because Pekar contacted me by telephone to talk about it. With Dean Haspiel’s help, he sought me out shortly after I had written a blog post in his defense. The Los Angeles Times‘s David Ulin claimed that Pekar was writing too much in his later years. But Ulin had failed to note 2005’s The Quitter, which I declared “an inarguably raw and mature portrait of a younger Pekar developing some of his anger while being tormented on the Cleveland streets.” And he had failed to cite anything specific in his criticisms.

“This David Ulin guy doesn’t know what he’s talking about,” barked Harvey over the earpiece. “Look, man, I’m trying to stay alive.”

He was. He took any gig he could and he did his best to offer something worthwhile. And should a man be condemned for his work ethic? Not when he’s constantly contriving new ways of staying fresh. Pekar employed eclectic artists to keep his stories new. There was Rebecca Huntington’s photorealist approach in the 1988 story, “I Don’t Wanna Seem Judg-Mental, But…,” the dependable boxiness of longtime collaborator Gary Dumm, Val Mayerik’s free-form frameless approach in 1985’s “A Marriage Album,” and, of course, those early innovations with R. Crumb. He was often quite generous in soliciting other artists to collaborate with. And the artists were very often supportive in return. In later years, he would refer to Dean Haspiel as “my agent.” Haspiel helped Pekar to book gigs as the post-retirement medical costs accumulated.

I was lucky enough to talk with Pekar very early into The Bat Segundo Show. I was new at this interviewing business at the time, but I did ask the man why he continued to use the “STRAIGHT OUT OF CLEVELAND!” line for so long during the American Splendor run. And he told me that he had always intended this declaration as an alternative to superheroes. And indeed, why bask in nothing more than spandex-soaked chronicles when the real world has never had to retcon its glaring realities? A comics world without a new Harvey Pekar volume every year will be a much sadder place. For Pekar wasn’t just some gloomy guy. He was a committed cultural chronicler.

RELATED: The Bat Segundo Show #40: My 2006 radio interviews with Harvey Pekar and Dean Haspiel.

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Super Friends: An Origin Point

It is difficult to explain the now extinct Saturday morning cartoon experience to anybody under twenty-five, but it shared certain qualities with a Sunday morning religious service, where one dressed in ratty pajamas and multihued Underoos in lieu of serge suit and neck-restricting tie. A soaky bowl of cornflakes replaced the stale sacramental pomp and circumstance of wafers, offering an altogether different eucharist metaphor with slightly more nutritional value. Leaden and predictable hymns, in which one was badgered into belting out a tinny tune identified by number, were uprooted by Hoyt Curtin’s jazzy cues for Hanna-Barbera. And the ethical lessons arising from a pastor’s ponderous sermon found an uncanny surrogate with the didactic messages tacked onto the end of an animated adventure. Both slipped through the mind like a sieve.

But since nostalgia is a dangerous narcotic, the cartoons have retained an entirely irrational hold upon my imagination. Years later, a piece of dialogue or a backdrop hastily painted by an underpaid artist has often rustled through my mind without prompting, latching atop a more tangible life experience and sometimes threatening to supercede it.

With the recent release of Super Friends‘s first season onto DVD, I set out to understand this allure and found an oddly methadonic satisfaction. If I did not entirely put away childish things during this revistation, I certainly began to understand the draw.

In the early 1970s, Hanna-Barbera wrested away the animation rights to DC Comics’s characters, restyling the Justice League of America as “Super Friends.” It was the beginning of a gallant fourteen year run under numerous incarnations. Challenge of the Super Friends was the best of the bunch, pitting eleven superheroes (which included the newly invented Apache Chief and Samurai, both awkward nods to multiculturalism) against thirteen of their worst enemies (led by Lex Luthor) who never offered an explanation as to why they spent so much of their time shuffling around the swampy Hall of Doom. But in other versions, such as The World’s Greatest Super Friends, one had to endure Zan and Jayna – a somewhat vexing pair of siblings clad in cheesy purple uniforms, accompanied by a blue monkey named Gleek. (Presumably, fashionistas did not exist on the planet Exxor. Or maybe everybody there just liked bluish tones.) This teen duo, who had a surprisingly crisp command of American teen vernacular (or so the writers wished to believe), could, respectively, turn into water form and animal form shortly after announcing “Wonder Twin powers, activate!” Due to this verb’s alarming mechanical quality, there was considerable schoolyard speculation over whether the Wonder Twins were elaborate androids rather than extraterrestrial beings. But at the time, all of us wanted to believe in this cartoon – in part because there were then only three networks and a wild mix of UHF stations to choose from.

But the flagstones for this escapist enterprise were set down with the first season’s one-hour format, which featured a mere five superheroes (Superman, Batman, Robin, Aquaman, and a curiously underemployed Wonder Woman), while cadging archetypes and vocal talent from Scooby-Doo. The quintet that everyone tuned in to see was accompanied by three “junior superheroes,” who proved to be infinitely more annoying than the Wonder Twins: Marvin White, a redheaded Shaggy clone voiced by a young (and now legendary) “Franklin Welker,” who proved to be even stupider than his inspiration (“Wow, I’d like to be big and strong,” says Marvin in an episode called “The Shaman ‘U’,” which is then followed by a Peter Griffin-style titter); Wendy Harris, who merged Velma’s eccentricities with Daphne’s patient encouragement; and Wonder Dog, a spaced-out Scooby replica fond of scarfing down hot dogs. This trio, possessing neither pluck nor superpowers, proved so unremarkable (and unlikable) that they did not last past the first season. (Comic book writer Geoff Johns would later viciously mutilate these irksome tagalongs in a 2006 issue of Teen Titans.)

Considering these conversational conditions and Colonel Wilcox’s constant interruptions on the TroubAlert, the Super Friends’s patience is to be commended. In early episodes, Batman made futile efforts to get Marvin thinking about photosynthesis and atmospheric conditions. But by “The Shaman ‘U’,” this friendlier (and more dulcet-voiced) Dark Knight leveled with Marvin when the boy wished to accompany him, simply explaining, “We’re not taking you with us.” I can understand Batman’s reticence. Robin was a competent teenage sidekick (voiced by longtime American Top 40 host Casey Kasem) only a few years older than Marvin, but, in the hands of Hanna-Barbera, he was never a noxious pipsqueak.

While this prototype offers some unintentional laughs courtesy of tacky animation (Wonder Woman is inexplicably illustrated with thunder thighs, an animation involving Aquaman summoning three whales shows up multiple times, and Superman’s X-ray vision resembles a cheap flashlight running on dying batteries), there’s an interesting eco-friendly theme to these stories. In “Too Hot to Handle,” an alien attempts to change the Earth’s atmosphere after his home planet has become polluted. “The Weather Maker” features a scientist attempting to manipulate the Gulf Stream so that it will warm up his frigid nation. “Dr. Pelagion’s War” features a scene that is now unthinkable, where business magnates puff on expensive cigars in an executive boardroom. One cries out, “There’s no harm in a little smoke,” and offers a flourish to the smokestacks fulminating just outside his window.

But the standout here is the accidentally prescient “Professor Goodfellow’s G.E.E.C.,” whereby a giant Google-like computer named G.E.E.C. controls everything on the planet. Like Google, it can find you a cab. Like YouTube, it can educate you with a video. At the time that Super Friends was produced, “geek” didn’t yet take on its present tech-savvy connotation. And when Marvin offers to “write a letter to the G.E.E.C.,” one can just as easily imagine him firing off an email.

Narrator Ted Knight (who would find greater success as the bumbling Ted Baxter on The Mary Tyler Moore Show) doesn’t quite have the gravitas of his booming successor, William Woodson. And the primitive transitions between scenes can’t compare to the three stars shooting towards the viewer in later years. But Robin’s exclamations were more epigrammatic during the first year. (He lets loose “Holy misnomers!” and “Perambulating plexiglass!”) Danny Dark, later known as “the voice of NBC,” is suitably slick, perhaps too slick, as Superman. Dark’s confident voiceover, taken with Superman’s frequent collaboration with Aquaman to resolve some amphibian crisis, makes one feel as if poor Aquaman, who merely has the ability to communicate telepathically with his “ocean friends,” is unfairly upstaged by Superman’s considerable talents.

These were imperfect entertainments, divested of grit and violence, that would be severely dwarfed by the Cartoon Network’s Justice League during the 21st century. But someone had to work out the kinks and get kids excited. Super Friends‘s enduring appeal can be measured by the limitless YouTube remixes, the unceasing flow of cultural reference (a recent episode of Family Guy opened with a parody of the opening credits), and the fact that superheroes, even those contained in watered-down narratives, still capture the imagination.

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The Bat Segundo Show: Laurie Sandell

Laurie Sandell recently appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #306.

Laurie Sandell is the author of The Impostor’s Daughter.

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Condition of Mr. Segundo: Wondering if the coalminer was an impostor.

Author: Laurie Sandell

Subjects Discussed: Chicken recipes, the quest for truth within memoir, how narrative shapes and stretches truth, subjective vs. objective accounts, the essay written anonymously for Esquire, memory vs. concrete evidence, emails from Ashley Judd, how hard evidence enhances a visual diagram, lawyers sifting through evidence, the use of clothing against background, working with a colorist, becoming one’s parents, the use of motion lines, adopting comic book semiotics, drawing from an intuitive part of the brain, Art Spiegelman’s Maus, feeling liberated in comic form vs. restrictions in textual form, maintaining privacy vs. spilling all details to the public, diagramming environment, knowing the lay of the land, static panels, consulting graphic novels, Scott McCloud, arrows pointing to figures, strange stays in five-star hotels, sketching out the book before drawing, taking the story arc from the text version of The Impostor’s Daughter, structure and spontaneity, maintaining momentum vs. contending with painful memories, emotional change and artistic change, whether or not writing is the proper way to exorcise demons, the story of Sandell’s father as a former sense of identity, the ethical dilemmas of narrative seduction, and fearlessness.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

lauriesandellCorrespondent: I should point out I’m not trying to insist that stretching [the truth] is necessarily a bad thing. I’m merely pointing out that memory, as we all know, is a fallacious instrument.

Sandell: Yes, it is.

Correspondent: It’s been said that memory is the greatest liar of them all. It’s been said — by, I believe Lincoln — that you have to have a great memory to be a great liar.

Sandell: Right.

Correspondent: So given this conundrum, I’m wondering to what degree you relied on your own memory and to what degree you relied on reference shots. You have, for example, illustrations that crop up within the course of the book. This leads me to wonder about other specific details. But maybe we can start on memory vs. concrete evidence.

Sandell: Well, you know, it was a mix of memory and concrete evidence. On the one hand, I had a lot of concrete evidence because I had interviewed my father over a period of two years and I tape recorded our conversations with his knowledge. This was leading up to the Esquire piece when I had a 300-page transcript. So most of the things that my father said in the book came directly from those transcripts. So he’s telling stories from his past. Those came directly from my father’s mouth.

Correspondent: Yeah.

Sandell: As far as — I’m trying to think. I don’t know. What else?

Correspondent: Well, I could actually cite specific examples.

Sandell: Okay, sure.

Correspondent: For example, the difference between the narration and what is actually spoken in the text bubbles.

Sandell: Right.

Correspondent: Here’s one example. When you’re working at the office, you have a text box point to the screen: “Have you considered inpatient treatment.” We don’t actually see the email on the screen.

Sandell: Okay.

Correspondent: We actually see your particular perspective.

Sandell: Right.

Correspondent: And so I want to ask you about why that particular emphasis — I mean, that’s inherently subjective. We’re counting on your subjective viewpoint as to what is on the screen. As opposed to later on, when we actually see what’s on your screen, when you’re on your laptop in your motel room.

Sandell: I need to be honest. The reason you didn’t see that screen was probably because it didn’t fit in that box.

Correspondent: Okay.

Sandell: And so I had to deal with little callouts so you could actually see what was on the screen. But the interesting thing about the process of putting together all this evidence — a lot of it really was evidence — is that there were so many emails. For example, that email was an email, I believe, from Ashley Judd.

Correspondent: Yeah.

Sandell: And I have those emails from Ashley Judd. I have the emails from my father. You know, I worked with a private investigator for two years. So I have all of his information and the lawsuits he compiled and all the various evidence and things written by my father. You know, I think — did you ever read Autobiography of a Face by Lucy Grealy?

Correspondent: No, I never read that.

Sandell: It’s a beautiful memoir. Ann Patchett later went on to write Truth & Beauty: A Friendship.

Correspondent: That’s right.

Sandell: And one of the things that Ann Patchett said in her afterword — after Lucy died, Ann Patchett wrote an afterword to the book — and she described how, at a reading, someone said to Lucy Grealy, “How did you remember all those details about your past?” And she said, “I didn’t remember it. I wrote it.” And people were a little bit up in arms about that. But she was pointing out the fact that this was a piece of art, it’s a piece of subjective memory, and the most important thing is to show the emotional truth of the situation. And I would say that in my case, because I have so much evidence, and evidence that Little Brown asked to say and anytime I’ve done television, they’ve actually asked to see the evidence, I feel pretty comfortable that there’s not going to be any big explosive James Frey situation.

Correspondent: Well, to what degree were they asking for the evidence? Because we’re talking about transcripts. We’re talking about investigative reporting. This is all text right now. And here you are. You have a visual document here.

Sandell: Yes.

Correspondent: You have to construct something from the text here. So it’s a wonder that evidence even means anything if it’s a visual result.

Sandell: I think it does. I mean, the visual result is obviously my memory. It’s the way I remember the situation.

(Image: Brantastic)

BSS #306: Laurie Sandell (Download MP3)

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The Publishing Industry: An Economic Thought Experiment

Case Study 1: During Presidents Day Weekend, the software company Valve tried out an experiment. Valve, the company behind the successful Half-Life franchise, temporarily halved the price for Left 4 Dead, a cooperative first-person shooter title, from $49.99 to $24.99, over the course of a few days through its centralized Steam client. The results exceeded Valve’s wildest expectations. Sales rose 3,000 percent, and the revenue generated over the weekend dwarfed the game’s sales during its launch. By temporarily offering the game at a price point that was affordable to everybody, and making the game instantly downloadable, not only was Valve able to breathe life into a four month-old game, but they were able to get more people attracted to the product. Valve’s DRM policy is fairly straightforward. If you purchased a game, you can download the game on another computer, should you login as that user. (This was, incidentally, how I was able to redownload Half-Life 2 last year after a move, when I had accidentally deleted my Steam files and couldn’t find the original disc that I had purchased. One overnight download and I was back in action, happily fragging alien creatures.)

There are a number of important points here.

1. Unlike the Kindle or the eReader, there isn’t an expensive entry point here. You don’t have to pay $400 to get started on Steam. You can download the client for free on the hardware you already have and just pay for the games. The cost is minimal and affordable.

2. Unlike the Kindle, the DRM rights aren’t limited to the device or a singular computer (unlike last year’s Spore DRM controversy). If your hard drive goes kaput, then you can download the game again on another computer. Simply identify yourself through your Steam ID, and you can download the game on as many PCs as you want.

3. By offering a variable price point that considered what the general (and probably out-of-work) consumer wanted, Valve was able to generate more interest in the title than they anticipated.

Case Study 2: For seven years, the comic book industry has offered Free Comic Book Day. The idea is this. The general consumer goes into a store, gets a few free comic books, and is reminded why comics are great in the first place. The consumer divagates through a store and purchases more titles. And the whole thing gets considerable media attention.

The smart retailers, like Mike Sterling, spiff up their stores and offer additional in-store sales: 10% off graphic novels, four for the price of three on manga. (And in Sterling’s case, the graphic novel sales alone paid for the cost of the FCBD floppies.) You get the community involved by making celebratory cakes. You get to find out what titles get people excited. You get to form relationships with potential new customers. You move product. (For Heroes Aren’t Hard to Find owner Shelton Drum, FCBD is one of the top three sales days of the year.) You get to demonstrate to people why they need to keep going to a comic book store. And, like the Valve experiment, there’s no expensive entry point. Plus, the consumers will walk away from the store with something.

Case Study 3: Board game manufacturers are now considering something that worked very well during the Great Depression. If you offer an American family a reasonably priced form of entertainment that will last for a long time, they may very well set aside $20 to buy the product during lean times. (According to a Hasbro spokesman, board games and puzzle sales rose 2% in 2008.)

Case Study 4: Soft Skull had a surprisingly profitable year in 2008 because the efforts here were focused on (1) knowing the audience and (2) working hard to connect the audience as intimately and personally as possible. (In other words, if you treat your audience like some dopey general demographic, why on earth would they bother to buy your product?)

* * *

So what do we take away from all this? How did these successes emerge during a recession? In each case, the individual’s daily realities were respected. There probably isn’t a lot of money to go around in the household, but there was just enough cash for a micropayment. The individual wasn’t asked to invest money she didn’t have in some fancy-schmancy technological doodad before purchasing an affordable form of entertainment. The individual received an affordable long-term option that would keep her entertained or occupied for many hours. The individual did not have to deal with invasive DRM that suggested she was a criminal. The individual was listened to and treated with respect by the retailer. And the retailer never assumed that it would make a sale. But the retailer likewise had opportunities to listen to what the audience wanted and to find out what it may be doing wrong.

So if there is a modicum of money to be made in a limping economy, why aren’t today’s publishers and book retailers accounting for these realities?

Most people who are now out of work cannot afford a $30 hardcover, let alone a $400 Kindle. And yet corporate arrogance keeps these units at prices unreasonable to someone unemployed who needs a little entertainment during an economic downturn. And what is the result? Anger boils to the surface. Long-term relationships with potential customers suffer because the corporate overlords remain inflexible on price point.

So if you’re a publisher or a bookseller, consider this. If you know that people can afford a $10 hardcover (as opposed to a $30 hardcover), why in the hell aren’t you learning from these examples? Why aren’t you offering a Valve-like time window where people can walk into a bookstore and purchase a few $10 hardcovers over a weekend? And why aren’t you promoting the hell out of this? Why isn’t there a Free Book Day in which you get to introduce people to the joys of books and you get to know your customers? Why aren’t you forming intimate and personal connections with readers so that they’ll continue to buy your products? And why aren’t you considering that they really don’t have a hell of a lot of cash to throw around right now?

Are you willing to take a hit on the first spate of units, much as Valve did, if there’s the possibility that you may just hit a thundering mother lode after the initial curve? Or do you want to continue to turn off readers?

Can you truly afford to refer to the territory between the coasts as “flyover states” when there are good people there who want to enjoy books right now? If you’re an author or a publicist, can you afford to thumb your nose up at any media opportunity that isn’t the New York Times Book Review? Or are you not really all that interested in establishing relationships? If you’re a newspaper or a magazine, why aren’t you citing the blogs or providing helpful URLs to the blogs that break the stories or make the connections? Why aren’t you hiring bloggers to write the articles? Don’t you realize that online audiences might come your way if they know that a particular voice is attached? And here’s a bold concept to consider. If you took the top 10,000 bloggers on Technorati and paid each of them $40,000 a year — a livable wage that would permit them all to carry out their work, which could also include serious investigations — that’s a cost of $400 million. For $400 million a year, someone could get the top 10,000 bloggers reporting for newspapers and seamlessly integrate their content into the great whole. And the newspapers could offer copy editing and journalistic resources so that their voices might improve. (Of course, you’d have to accept their unadulterated voices. For these voices, differing from the mainstream, are what caused these bloggers to rise up in the first place.)

If today’s publishers, booksellers, and media outlets hope to answer these questions and produce results similar to the above four case studies, then bolder ideas and experiments need to be attempted and shared with transparency in mind. It is not economically feasible to sit back and wait for the magic results of the stimulus package to trickle around. The current Dow Jones declivity has demonstrated the follies of lame ducks. The previous ways of doing things may very well be at an end: possibly with some permanence. But we won’t know this for sure until those in positions of power attempt a little innovation and modify the current formulas that aren’t working. Change, it seems, was something we hoped somebody else would do. But it’s now become quite apparent that today’s real innovators are those with the courage to take hold of their own destinies.

[UPDATE: Since this post, like many of these lengthy ones, originated from thoughts and musings I expressed on Twitter, here are a few related thoughts from others on the subject. @jimmydare observes that Orbit is experimenting with the $1 ebook. @AnnKingman pointed out that Record Store Day was a huge success for her local record store. (More details on what goes on at Record Store Day here.) @thebookmaven suggests that a Free Book Day might be one way that independent bookstores can compete with ebooks, and also suggests a $5 Book of Your Choice Day.]

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Interview with Dean Haspiel

For his most recent project, Jonathan Ames collaborated with friend and artist Dean Haspiel for The Alcoholic, a graphic novel in which a character named “Jonathan A.,” who bears more than a few physical and character similarities to Jonathan Ames, is depicted in various alcoholic, sexual, and relationship states. To clear up some of the many staggering questions which emerged during my reading of the graphic novel, I emailed Mr. Haspiel five unusual questions. Mr. Haspiel graciously consented to answer these queries. The results are posted here for the benefit of future scholars.

amesalc1Word on the street is that Mr. Ames wrote the bulk of his script at your place. To what degree did you indoctrinate Mr. Ames with comics? Did he come up with any of the paneling and art ideas (such as the frequent head splitting)? (I think of the mice snorting coke at the bar, which is something of a nod to Spiegelman.) Or, like your work with Harvey Pekar, did he defer most of this to you? Was Mr. Ames’s continued proximity to your drawing table of benefit to you in brainstorming ideas? Were there situations in which you would quickly sketch out an idea and Mr. Ames would run with it?

Jonathan has written screenplays and is familiar with writing for a visual medium and he wrote the entire script for The Alcoholic far away from my art table. The script he delivered had clear descriptions of what he wanted me to draw while allowing me the collaborative leeway to visually design and interpret portions of the story to befit my comic book sensibilities. To use your example, I designed the head splitting shots [a classic comix trope] while Jonathan wrote the snorting cocaine rats. Ultimately, The Alcoholic was a great collaboration between two like-minded auteurs who also happen to be great friends.

Jonathan A. shares striking physical similarities to Jonathan Ames. And this is also very evident in the artwork, where the parties and events you depict are 80-90% similar to their real-life counterparts. To what degree did you rely upon reference? And visually speaking, did you and Mr. Ames establish any specific ground rules on how this graphic novel blurred from the truth?

Cartooning is all about shortcuts and, like Dick Tracy’s Rogues Gallery where every villain looks like their name, it’s a cartoonists job to exaggerate features and with Jonathan, whom we based the protagonist’s likeness on, I was fortunate to have his aquiline nose and his receding hairline to define the characters “face.” And, since The Alcoholic spans the protagonists childhood to adulthood, I relied heavily on that nose. As for the rest of the supporting cast [except for Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky], I drew characters based on my studio mates and friends and/or actors that Jonathan suggested. Some of the sex scenes were fun to draw because I got my girlfriend to pose with me for the “sake of making art.”

There is one tragic moment on page 46, in which Jonathan A. falls asleep naked in a trash can. Did you persuade Mr. Ames to pose in any way for this? Or was it necessary to recruit another figure to recreate these sordid conditions? What lengths were you and Mr. Ames willing to go in the interests of verisimilitude?

I didn’t have the guts to ask Jonathan if this event actually happened to him and if he would pose for me. So, I asked my studio mate, Tim Hamilton, to pose for me and it was the best time he had in a garbage can in years. In general, I don’t use much photographic reference for the figures in my comix — I make most of it up. However, Jonathan furnished me with a bunch of photographs from his past to present and that helped me make iconic the lead character.

There are many instances in which the positioning of figures demonstrates developments over time. On Page 20, we see two panels: Jonathan A.’s girlfriend replaced by Jonathan A. himself, and young Jonathan replaced by the old woman. On Page 75, we see Jonathan A. in November 2000 and February 2001 waiting for San Francisco to call back. But not only has Jonathan A. sunken, but his drawer is slightly open, with socks and underwear sticking out. In changing the illustrative details ever so slightly, the panels are both static and slightly dynamic. Are slight changes along these lines what comics and graphic novels need to matter? To what extent was this a case of you wanting to shake things up so that you wouldn’t get bored drawing the same panels over and over?

Sometimes I draw action adventure [as seen in my Billy Dogma webcomix] and sometimes I draw semi-autobio situations [as seen in my Street Code webcomic and in my collaborations with Harvey Pekar]. Luckily, working with Jonathan, he made sure I would draw action to compliment the mundane. Because real-life yields less adventure than we’d probably like to admit, characters are often talking to each other in a room, on the street, and/or on the phone when they’re not escaping from horny geriatric dwarves or experiencing a diarrhea explosion in their pants on the streets of France. It’s the artists challenge to help contextualize action, no matter how mundane, and make it look damned interesting on the comic book page or the reader is left with a series of talking heads reacting to one another and that can get boring to look at.

On Page 120, there is a panel of Jonathan A. swimming that rather disturbingly resembles David Duchovny in Playing God. Mr. Duchovny, of course, is now known for his portrayal of a fucked up writer who drinks and sleeps with women on the Showtime television series, Californication. Rather interestingly, there are billboards now depicting Mr. Duchovny standing on the bottom of a swimming pool. And Mr. Ames has indeed worked with Showtime. I am now becoming slightly concerned that there is perhaps a conspiracy that currently involves Mr. Ames, Showtime, and Mr. Duchovny, and that you have perhaps unwittingly been ensnared within the plot. Are you aware of such a cabal? Did Mr. Ames brief you in any way about any connection? Did Showtime or Mr. Duchovny control your mind at any point?

Seriously?

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Review: The Spirit

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The critics were not happy during the screening. The critic to my left fell asleep in his chair for an hour. The critic to my right — a jovial man who really wanted to like it — gradually realized that this was a film impossible to come to terms with.

Gone were Eisner’s primary colors, replaced by muddy and amateurish black-and-white visuals with digitally added snow that never seemed to stick. The Spirit was so bad that it made Warren Beatty’s Dick Tracy look like a masterpiece.

Everyone was excited at the beginning, knowing that this was Will Eisner’s classic character finally brought to the screen and that it was Frank Miller who was going to steer it forward. But one of the fascinating aspects of this screening was observing the precise point in which each audience member would give up, knowing that Miller was cheapening a legend. Knowing that the film was wasting its cast and crew. Knowing that Miller was producing something even more odious than The Dark Knight Strikes Again or that crappy Robocop comic. (And let’s be honest. Has Miller truly contributed anything important to comics in the last ten years?) Knowing that it was Mr. Rodriquez who was the great force behind Sin City, and not Miller. (And to think that Rodriquez abandoned the DGA for this hack.) Knowing that just about everybody wanted to lock Miller into a room and punch him repeatedly in the face for about eight hours for producing this travesty. Knowing that something we all had hoped would be good was such a steaming turd.

I counted eight walkouts. There may have been more. But I can’t be sure. I was too busy slumping in my seat, stunned by the film’s relentless determination to sodomize Will Eisner’s corpse, assaulted by the film’s muddled script, which couldn’t even clear up the origin story until two-thirds of the way into the picture, its needless misogyny (women are either whores, nurturers, or kept in the background as laconic sidekicks), its inability to strike a single human note, and its failure to evince one note of fun.

Yes, Frank Miller should be punched in the face for this. It’s the only way to be sure.

There were jokes — one involving an ass on a copy machine — in which not a single person laughed. And again this was a friendly and rowdy crowd. But they all sunk into their chairs, feeling very angry that their time had been greatly wasted.

Oh, Stana Katic, how you tried as Morgenstern! You are as wonderful as Mageina Tovah, who played Ursula in the Spider-Man movies. I can now watch you in just about anything. And I feel so sorry for you for having your talent wasted. How much did you fight to keep the remainder of your quirks in? Bill Pope, I have admired your cinematography for quite a while. But this film was beneath your great talent and you should have known better. Samuel L. Jackson, signing on for a role just because you’re a geek simply isn’t worth it anymore.

Miller directs his cast as if they are statuary and handles his crew as if they are expected to generate magic simply by standing around. He is an ugly and crude man who does not know the human condition, and he is more interested in Eva Mendes’s ass than any innate personality she can use to sex up her role. He has tossed around crude pop culture references — including buildings and trucks named after Eisner’s collaborators — in an effort to win over the fanboys. But the fanboys will not bite. What Miller doesn’t understand is that geeks are too refined to swallow codswallop. What Miller doesn’t understand is that hell hath no greater fury than a fanboy spurned.

If there is any justice, the fanboys will lynch Miller at a future Comic-Con. If there is any justice, this film will fail at the box office and the money men will reconsider handing Miller the Buck Rogers reboot.

But there is rarely justice in Hollywood. The fact that this film was allowed to be made is testament to that.

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The Bat Segundo Show: Alison Bechdel II

Alison Bechdel recently appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #250.

Ms. Bechdel is most recently the author of The Essential Dykes to Watch Out For. To listen to our previous interview with Ms. Bechdel, check out The Bat Segundo Show #63.

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Overly concerned with modifiers attached to artists.

Author: Alison Bechdel

Subjects Discussed: The relationship between visual developments and storyline developments, how personal developments worked their way into Dykes to Watch Out For, Tips o’ the Nib, narrative authenticity, research through asking people, being afraid of the telephone, the comics world as a simulacrum of the real world, being overly stimulated by the real world, developing specific background details, the risks of diverting attention between graphic novels and comic strips, dwelling upon a community vs. dwelling upon the self, therapy, Woody Allen, being ahead of the technological curve, Proust and the first telephone call in a novel, laziness vs. being seduced by technology, scanned lettering, managing all the characters in the strip, having characters refer to each other by first name, the advantages and disadvantages of deadlines, adapting media messages for the comics medium, Mad Magazine and Mort Drucker, fear of empty space, when text and images are not enough for comics, political semiotics and behavior, strips with little to no dialogue, artistic influences, fitting multiple people into a frame, portraying the butts of various characters, contending with censorious requests from newspaper clients, the limitations of four rows, Madwimmin Books and big box stores, why the bookstore is the perfect social nexus, the outcry upon introducing Stuart, the ideological balance between Mo and Stuart, gender jokes as cheap shots, contending with those who didn’t understand Bechdel’s storytelling style, the role of politics in Dykes, the moral responsibilities of a cartoonist, and Proposition 8 and the future of cartooning.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: I think we should really clarify this for the record. I mean, the stripes on Mo’s shirt become more pronounced over the course of time. And they increasingly grew thicker during the course of the early ’90’s. And then sometime around 1995, they solidified into that absolute thickness that we have enjoyed for the last decade or so. I know there have been many Harry Potter jokes that you’ve thrown around. But you were there, of course, before Harry Potter.

Bechdel: That’s right.

Correspondent: But I have to ask you about the stripes. Had it occurred to you at any time to have Mo not wear a striped shirt? Or did you feel that this was such an indelible part of her disposition?

Bechdel: I think there might be one scene where she’s not wearing a striped article of clothing. But I can’t remember what it is or what its significance is. Indeed, the stripes did grow thicker. Very good observation!

Correspondent: Yeah! They did! They did! It was really great to read this all in one burst, because there are so many different character developments, which I plan to ask you about. But maybe I could probably phrase this better by pointing out Sparrow, for example. How the front curls that she had were chopped off to fit in with the adjusting times. And I’m wondering when you decide to change the look of a character. What circumstances dictate that? And some characters, of course, like Mo, stay the same over the course of time.

Bechdel: Wait, can I just make an observation? Thinking about those thickening black stripes, I think that’s of a piece with the increasing darkness of the strip and indeed the era in which it was passing through.

Correspondent: Yeah, yeah, that’s true.

Bechdel: Maybe now if I were continuing to write it, Mo’s stripes would continue to get thinner and thinner.

Correspondent: Thinner, thinner, thinner.

Bechdel: No, I mean literal — I mean like figurative darkness.

Correspondent: Figurative darkness!

Bechdel: Yeah! Yeah!

Correspondent: So there’s some allegory here, I see. So it’s

Bechdel: Yeah, I’m totally bullshitting. I’m totally making this up.

Correspondent: Ah! No, no, this is good. This is good.

Bechdel: But…

Correspondent: But we can give the listeners something to latch onto here. Great allegorical decisions upon your part. I mean, how much of this is intuitive? And how much of this is really a conscious effort? Well, you know, Mo’s stripes look better. They just look better.

Bechdel: No, it was purely a visual decision. I don’t know. I just used a different pen or something. And it looked better thicker.

Correspondent: Okay, what about Sparrow’s hair?

Bechdel: Sparrow’s hair. Well, what made me decide to do that? I don’t know, but interestingly it prefigured her crossing over from being a lesbian into being a…

Correspondent: Yeah.

Bechdel: …a bisexual. I forget what she called herself. A bisexual lesbian.

Correspondent: I think she did.

Bechdel: But she didn’t want to completely let hold of her lesbian title. But she got this slightly more feminine-looking haircut.

Correspondent: Yeah, she did. She did. I mean, did you plan her to essentially shack up with Stuart?

Bechdel: No, not at that point. I didn’t.

Correspondent: How much does a visual decision like this predate the actual plotting? Or perhaps anticipate it in some way? It’s a very interesting observation.

Bechdel: It is interesting. What’s even more interesting is that the way that these storylines and developments prefigure my own life. Or are a reaction of things going on in my own life. Which I don’t like to admit, typically. But as I looked back over the book, I could see all these absurd parallels with my own life. It seemed almost indiscreet to have included them.

BSS #250: Alison Bechdel (Download MP3)

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segundo248

The Bat Segundo Show: David Rees

Just in time for Election Day! David Rees appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #248. Rees is most recently the author of Get Your War On: The Definitive Account of the War on Terror: 2001-2008.

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Struggling to cast his vote.

Author: David Rees

Subjects Discussed: [List forthcoming]

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: I wanted to also ask about the use of white space, and often the lack of white space, with some of the panels that have this extraordinarily long rant that one of the characters is conducting versus using the clip art and shifting it to the right hard edge of the panel or the left hard edge of the panel, or what not. What is your criteria in terms of white space and filling up the panel? Is it contingent upon the words you have to deliver for any particular strip?

Rees: You probably don’t know this, but the U.S. government allots all political cartoonists a given amount of white space in a year, and a lot of budgetary issues. If you don’t use your white space in a year, you don’t get it back the following year. There’s no rollover white space.

Correspondent: Yeah, yeah, it’s the appropriations and the earmarks I’ve heard.

Rees: So you have to really challenge yourself every year to use just enough white space, so that they’ll give you more white space next year. You have to submit this form. A white space form. Form JKL-202. And you submit this form. And they will give you more white space. And so as a political cartoonist — I mean, if you’re registered with the government, which I am, which all political cartoonists are supposed to be, if you find yourself at the end of the year that you haven’t used enough white space, then you go on a big rant. So there isn’t much white space around. You know what I mean?

Correspondent: Sure. Sure.

Rees: Because you don’t want to go over your limit immediately. Because you’ll be penalized.

Correspondent: But with all the “fucks” within the rant, that can be very problematic. I know you’ve gotten into trouble based off of that. Because of the specific requirements of this act.

Rees: Right. You’re referring to the Left Wing Political Cartoonists Profanity Allotment Act of 2003?

Correspondent: Yeah, yeah, I am. The number of “fucks” are quite frenetic. Exactly.

Rees: Well, I trade on the gray market. I trade — you know, cap and trade with carbon emissions? They set up the same thing for cartoonists, where you get a given amount of profanity. Fuck, goddam, asshole, shit, cocksucker, bitch, all that stuff. And then if you want to use more, you buy a set on the International Profanity Market. You buy a certain amount from other cartoonists.

Correspondent: They come in 200 units, I think.

Rees: Right. Well, it’s 200 syllables. You don’t actually buy the profanity by the word. You buy it by the syllable. So “motherfucker” is four syllables. You can use those four syllables to deploy one “motherfucker” or four “asses.” So I usually just buy them from cartoonists like Bil Keane, who does The Family Circus. He never uses his allotment. In a year, he never says “fuck” in The Family Circus more than ten times. So I will buy him out usually at the beginning of the year, so that I have enough to get me through a season.

BSS #248: David Rees (Download MP3)

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segundo247

The Bat Segundo Show: David Heatley

David Heatley appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #247. Heatley is most recently the author of My Brain is Hanging Upside Down.

Condition of Mr. Segundo: On the waiting list for a brain transplant.

Author: David Heatley

Subjects Discussed: Surreal dream comics, the Ramones, memory and associations, Francois Truffaut looking at an old school photo and remembering all the names of his fellow students over an entire day, the deficits of memory, training your brain with a journal, apologetic footnotes to family members, the ten year rule, protecting careers and trying to be considerate with memoir, pink bars covering penises, flinching from the pornographic narrative, “Family History” as a hip-hop montage, why four Ns are good for the UNNNNH, using an all-red palette for extreme emotions, David Rees, the muted color scheme of “Sex History,” the 48 panel setup, Dave Berg’s “The Lighter Side,” shifting from squiggly panel lines to precise lines, the feelings that a ruler conjures, being traumatized into preferring memoir, imagination at the expense of reality, documenting a life without a sense of style, shifting dreams into narrative, being the dutiful client to the therapist, the influence of therapy upon Heatley’s comics, larger intentions, cliche in personal comics, Heatley depicting himself sobbing, Heatley’s ideal reader, Aline Kominsky-Crumb and Julie Doucet as influences, Doucet’s dream comics and castration, digesting a narrative involving dog fucking, retouching through computers, revealing biographical truth, Heatley’s angry father, depicting personal use of racist language, shared common experience with the reader, and being too concerned with being unique.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: I wanted to also talk with you about your “Family History” strip. I mean, it’s probably the closest thing in this collection to a hip-hop montage. You have, of course, the many births with the common images. A mother — one of your ancestors — giving birth with the “UNNNNH!” And you have a marriage with the “I do.” The swathed baby who is being held up by the white hands. And the like. I wanted to ask why repetitive images, or a hip-hop montage, seemed the best way to approach your own particular past.

Heatley: It’s funny. I never would have — that phrase “hip-hop montage” is strange to me. But it also rings true. So, yeah, thanks for that. You know, the repetitive thing is about — once I had my own baby, it was a realization that every single person that’s been born in my family history was this baby at one point. And every mother of that baby grunted in the hospital, and pushed it out. So it’s sort of honoring all these faceless women who have been lost. And it’s also — I think that strip is about, if you take any one of those babies, you can make a book this long about them. And so I’m just one of the babies in that book. And here’s my entire story. And I do it with my daughter at the end. Instead of doing one panel for her life, I wind up doing four pages, focusing on that day. So you could do that for any of those babies too. You could focus in on what was happening that day when they were born.

Correspondent: How did you settle upon the four Ns for the “UNNNNH?”

Heatley: (laughs)

Correspondent: I’m really curious. I mean, did you try out three? Did you try out five?

Heatley: I did, yeah.

Correspondent: Did that just look right? Four Ns really cut that particular verisimilitude?

Heatley: (laughs) Yeah, it did. You know, it’s like poetry. It felt right.

Correspondent: (laughs)

Heatley: That’s a great question though. Four Ns. I didn’t even know they were consistent.

Correspondent: Because it’s four Ns in almost every….I mean, we could dig it out right here. It’s four Ns almost every single time.

BSS #247: David Heatley (Download MP3)

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knight

Passive-Aggressive Newspaper Drones in Training at Montclair

I learned through The Beat (via Eric) that an installment of Keith Knight’s The K Chronicle has caused an uproar at the Montclair State University newspaper. Despite Knight basing his strip on a real-life incident and not even printing the full word in question, the editors of the student newspaper issued a campus-wide apology, with Montclarion editor-in-chief Bobby Melok stating, “It is never The Montclarion’s intention to offend its readership, and we sincerely apologize to all who were upset with this comic.”

I don’t know what’s more disheartening here: a newspaper of any sort lacking the courage to “offend” by depicting the truth or Melok’s current spinelessness-in-training, a passive-aggressive quality that will serve Melok well should he somehow nab one of the few jobs left at a Sam Zell-owned newspaper. To apologize for an artistic depiction of the word “nigger” (which, incidentally, never appeared in Knight’s strip in its entirety) is to draw greater attention to racial division, to give that word more significance than it deserves, and to suggest that anything probing into the cancer of racism is somehow racist. If anything, Melok should apologize for lacking the guts or the brains to determine what he deems appropriate. Melok went on to write, “We assumed because it was part of the syndicate, it was appropriate.” And I assume that because Melok assumes, Melok is incapable of the most elementary editorial judgment.

wanted1

Mark Millar: The Pursuit of Popularity

Michael Czobit is a writer based in Mississauga, Ontario. He’s not fond of lengthy writer biographies. So the editor has provided two additional sentences to this introduction to provide Mr. Czobit with some necessary heft.

When the credits rolled, many people watching last summer’s film adaptation of Wanted didn’t really know Mark Millar. The audience may have known that he created, with artist J.G. Jones, the comic book series that the film was based upon. And “based upon” is important. Despite Wanted‘s (potentially offensive) violence, the movie was scrubbed of some of the comic’s more controversial details. But unlike Alan Moore, Millar didn’t demand that his name be removed from the film. No, Millar was content to leave his name in Wanted’s credits. If he hadn’t, the 38-year-old Scot might risk missing out on mainstream attention.

Film audiences shouldn’t be disappointed by the comic’s missing details. Published in 2003, Wanted is unapologetically crass. Wesley Gibson narrates his life story, from office boredom to joining a fraternity of supervillains in a post-superhero world. (The comic’s supervillains and superheroes were replaced with superassassins. The comic’s opening homosexual sex scene was also dropped from the film, along with a lot of needless killing. And Gibson no longer resembled Eminem.) According to Millar, the director of the movie, Timur Bekmambetov, kept “70% of the book” and saved the film from becoming a straight crime story. Millar said producers had legal concerns about the story’s supervillains because of their similarities to Marvel and DC characters; a strange concern, considering the comic book had no legal trouble.

In the comic, Gibson is an unlikable narrator, who lacks the subtlety of another unlikeable narrator Millar wrote — Nazi Major Bauman in “Prisoner Number Zero,” which is one Millar’s best Wolverine stories. In Wanted, Gibson says, “I didn’t realize how much I hated the human race until I had the fuckers swanning around between my crosshairs.” This narration isn’t particularly antagonizing to the reader, but Gibson’s jokes about Down syndrome and babies born with spina bifida may be. Perhaps lazily, Millar titled the second issue, “Fuck You,” a charming name when considering some of the stale comic book in-jokes: in one scene, Mr Rictus, the super-supervillain (what do you call the villain in a story about supervillains?), kills the parents but spares their child, saying, “Leave him. With any luck, he’ll spend the next eighteen years training himself to avenge these idiots and give me someone interesting to fight when I’m an old man.”

For Millar, Wanted was a break from the mainstream comic work he had written for Marvel and DC Comics. So perhaps it’s especially ironic that Wanted ended up as the title that brought Millar to the mainstream. Gone were the normal editorial guidelines of superhero comics, though Millar had pushed against those for several years before this comic series. With the freedom, Millar created a story that lacked the moral complexity contained within his best mainstream work. Wanted is constructed in the summer blockbuster mold, but it’s more violent and profane, and it sold very well. Like in any entertainment industry, these strong sales meant that the comic was a success.

Less successful was Millar’s single issue of Youngblood: Bloodsport. Until June, the series seemed destined never to be concluded — if Millar’s fans could be so lucky. The artist of the series, the notorious Rob Liefeld, announced a fall continuation for Bloodsport. The first issue featured superheroes discussing blowjobs they’d received; Seahawk: “I’m just sick of all the decadence, Battlestone. Sick of the drugs, sick of the champagne, sick of Scott and Logan here dressing up as their girlfriends and giving us head.” Millar pushed his superheroes-in-the-real-world theme to its extreme and it failed in that first issue. Whether Millar is able to make the remaining issues compelling enough for his fans to forgive the novelty of Liefeld’s poorly illustrated art is the series’s remaining question.

If you were to only read Wanted and (somehow come across) Bloodsport, you’d think Millar’s work was a complete waste of time. But those two series display why Millar deserves attention: he risks the scorn of fans and commentators in attempting to entertain the majority of his readership. It is this reason that Millar attracts the best superhero artists in comics (aside from Liefeld). This year, Millar has comics being published with major artists including Bryan Hitch, Tony Harris, John Romita Jr. and Steve McNiven.

Millar broke into mainstream comics by embracing a populist philosophy. In comics, that means writing almost exclusively about superheroes. Other than his stay on Swamp Thing in the early 1990s, Millar stuck to this formula. What made Millar so different from other superhero comic writers was his courting of controversy. He unapologetically wrote stories with violent and political themes. His run on the series The Authority in 2000 ended when the publisher, DC Comics, censored the final issues. Millar jumped to Marvel and started Ultimate X-Men and later, The Ultimates. Writing the latter, Millar came closest to writing a superhero book on the level of Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns and Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’s The Watchmen. The Ultimates was Millar’s first collaboration with artist Bryan Hitch as they re-imagined Marvel’s Avengers team in a modern setting, free from decades of continuity. Millar and Hitch created two critically-acclaimed 13-issue volumes of the series, published from 2002 to 2007.

The Ultimates embraced a decompressed narrative – what Millar called novelistic – where characters didn’t appear in every issue, and the plot developed at a pace that strengthened suspension of disbelief; Millar and Hitch created a superhero story that reads as how it would really happen. The decompressed narrative was hardly the revolution Millar claimed it was in commentary of the first volume of the series, but a style characteristic that made The Ultimates distinct from the typical mainstream superhero book. Millar set the series in today’s pop culture world, dropping references to Shannon Elizabeth, Jennifer Tilly, President Bush, Samuel L. Jackson, Johnny Depp, and Robert Downey Jr. (Downey was used in a joke about drug use.) Millar also addressed U.S. politics as the country fought its “War on Terror” and its war in Iraq. Thor resists working for the U.S.-backed Ultimates team because of the country’s military operations and oil obsession. When Thor complains to Nick Fury about the U.S. negotiating with the terrorists, Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch, Fury says, “Ain’t the first time the security services done deals with terrorists, big man.” Millar risked alienating readers who did not agree with his politics, though it’s unlikely he cared. The aforementioned Frank Miller and Alan Moore commented on politics in their most famous superhero stories.

In his commentary to the second volume, which began running in December 2004, Millar wrote, “Hollywood is just touching on this stuff now, three years later, and that makes me very proud of comics—how immediate we can be. It’s like being newspaper cartoonists. We don’t have a legal department watching over us.”

One problem with Millar’s political commentary is its bluntness and how it may be perceived as unnecessary preaching. In Superman: Red Son (2003), Millar writes about Superman landing and growing up in Kiev during the Cold War. By the end of the series, Superman, who has become the dictator of the world, realizes the underlying effect of his actions. He says, “We weren’t born here and we’ve no right to interfere.” Millar’s political analysis can be simplistic, but he shouldn’t need to defend writing about politics. But one does wonder what Red Son‘s dumbed down material says about Millar’s readership. The reason Millar sometimes may offer blunt political commentary is the worry that people will miss the point. Regarding his new comic War Heroes, Millar said in an interview last month, “It’s amazing how many people seem to think this is a neo-con comic. Same thing happened on [Marvel’s] Ultimates, when it was clearly anti-war through and through. I feel like [director Paul] Verhoeven must have felt after Starship Troopers, in the sense that many people are missing the political satire.”

So why is Millar one of the most popular writers in comics? In an interview in the summer, Millar said, “It’s the worst kind of snobbery to want to be into stuff that most people aren’t. It’s a defect in character. Whereas being into something that everybody’s into, what could be nicer?” Millar — despite or because of his politics — has succeeded in creating comics that will appeal to the largest readership. His 2006 Marvel mini-series with artist Steve McNiven, Civil War, sold as if it was the speculator boom of the 1990s. Millar is not an experimental writer with theme or storytelling; the ones he uses, he twists only slightly. And he is not yet the legend Marvel claims he is in its monthly solicitations. Millar infuriates some with his writing and disappoints others when he deviates from established characterizations. Millar is not comics’ best writer, but he is one of the comic world’s best personalities; his ambition may lead to another Dark Knight Returns.

Millar has conquered one mainstream, and could conquer the larger one. His new series with John Romita Jr., Kick-Ass, is already being filmed and there are plans for a Wanted sequel. But it should be observed that both of those creator-owned series lack the politics of Millar’s best company-owned work. Both are violent superhero stories, and because they remain apolitical, the mainstream may still not know who Mark Millar really is. If the upcoming War Heroes film adaptation retains the writer’s political satire, what we may finally learn is whether Millar’s mix of superheroes, violence and politics was the right formula to break into the mainstream.

Review: Best Erotic Comics 2008

It is doubtful that Best Erotic Comics 2008 (Last Gasp, $19.95), edited by Greta Christina, will receive any kind of mainstream reviewing attention. The volume has, much like Tim Pilcher and Gene Kannenberg, Jr.’s Erotic Comics (released earlier this year), even eluded the seemingly more permissive pastures of alt-weeklies. But it does warrant some attention, if only because erotica, fantasy, comics, and horror remain some of the only areas in American culture where certain forms of human behavior can be portrayed without needless censorship.

Like many anthologies, this volume relies on a few notable names to draw attention. Work from Daniel Clowes, Phoebe Gloeckner, and Gilbert Hernandez is included. In the case of Clowes and Hernandez, these are reprints from material that anyone remotely stepped in comics is likely to know about: excerpts from David Boring and “Kisses for Pipo,” respectively. Gloeckner’s one-page contribution, entailing a medical illustration of a blowjob, is, like most of her work, especially striking. But some of the more juvenile inclusions, such as Ralf Konig‘s “Roy & Al: Sniffing Around,” bog down the collection. Konig’s work, which chronicles two dogs watching two gay lovers copulate, is artistically crude and predictable, too taken with hysterical text balloons (“OH, YOU LOVE ME?! SO C’MON, GIMME A KISS, MY TREASURE!!”) and an uninteresting situation that made me long for Catherine Breillat’s wit.

Toshio Saeki‘s excerpt from “Inkenka” captures some of the taboo-breaking, quasi-hentai images that Saeki is known for: a doctor performing cunnilingus on a legless girl bandaged to a bed, and a man hacksawing a clitoris (with a distressed observer seen looking through the window at the top of the illustration). But these images don’t go nearly as far as Saeki’s other work and the inclusion here feels more like perfunctory padding.

One of the more surreal inclusions is Dave Davenport‘s “Gigantic,” which features King Kong trying to get it on with Godzilla. Davenport knows how to get much out of his shading, and his paneling is interesting, but he doesn’t explore the intriguing possibility of how the human population, seeing their city destroyed by this kaiju copulation, are likely to be influenced or even titillated by this big beast action.

This failure in storytelling also plagues Ellen Fornery‘s somewhat interesting “After Hours,” which involves a group of women bonding while they snap pictures of themselves in various poses. Forney knows how to set up a story. She’s even willing to draw unshaven armpits and comment on body image. But there’s a diffidence on her part to dwell upon what the greater emotional truth entails. We get a pat gotcha ending that anyone will see coming a mile away. (This is admittedly an early 1994 work from the Seattle-based cartoonist.)

Susannah Breslin’s “My, My American Bukkake,” which I’ve seen in a few other collections, offers a comic documentary for the uninitiated. Katie Carmen’s “Thrift Town at 3 A.M.” is also a standout, largely due to the penciling and colors. The art captures a lonely rendezvous between strangers at the famed Mission District store quite well. The faces are tired. The sex is lustful and desperate. And the world will go on tomorrow without any awareness of the present. Dale Lazarov and Steve MacIsaac‘s “Talk Show Queers” falls into similar territory, but ends on a moment of sweetness readily combats the bombast and oppression of sensationalistic television.

I would have liked to see more “erotic comics” along these lines in this collection. Sandez Rey’s story expends considerable illustrative effort for a pedestrian fantasy. Likewise, while Justin Hall’s “Birthday Fuck” has a playful anecdotal quality, it’s nothing more than a stock rentboy situation.

Perhaps the audience for this collection wants nothing more than generic erotic comics. And that’s fine. But if alternative comics have found artistic credibility in the past few decades (which in turn caused other alternative comics artists to push the boundaries further), I’d think to think that erotic comics were capable of similar potential. Some artistic truths are too important to be kept inside the closet.

The Bat Segundo Show: Peter David

Peter David appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #225. He is most recently the author of Tigerheart and the Incredible Hulk novelization.

Condition of the Show: Investigating claimed nemeses of Goliath.

Author: Peter David

Subjects Discussed: On being prolific, producing work quickly, writing stories set in expansive universe, reacting to a universal construct, working with mythos, the Fallen Angel universe, the Star Trek: New Frontier books, Joseph Campbell and Star Wars, Willow, fundamental tropes in storytelling, whether or not all stories are derivative, retinkering the Peter Pan formula for Tigerheart, the advantages of pastiche, James Barrie, Don Quixote, the Great Ormond Street Childrens Hospital’s litigious actions towards Peter Pan adaptations, emulating Barrie’s voice, the unproducable nature of Barrie’s Peter Pan play, the advantages of dream narratives, the conversational nature of the comic book script medium, cameo appearances and throwaway side characters in Tigerheart, verisimilitude, managing numerous characters in a universe, story elements that originate from the protagonist, speculative double entendres to George Bush, adjusting comic storylines as sales figures come in, spicing things up in Fallen Angel, keeping a comic book marketable and other commercial demands, David’s twelve-year run on the Hulk, boosting sales, the role of the comic book editor, David’s exclusive Marvel contract, Tennessee Williams, unique stories and salable stories, and coordinating storylines on other comic books.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: I’m wondering though if there has ever been an instance in your comic career, in which an editor has come to you and said, “Hey, Peter, the sales for this particular title are flagging. What can we do to raise things up?” Has this ever an influence?

David: Sure. Of course it’s an influence. I mean, look, when it comes to — particularly my work-for-hire material — my job at the end of the day is to do two things. As far as the publisher is concerned. This is purely my job as far as the publisher is concerned, okay? Number one: Turn in a publishable script. And number two: Do everything that is within my power to write a book that will sell. Okay? Because I could turn in absolutely kickass scripts that aren’t going to sell for crap. But I feel to a certain degree that part of my job is to try and do everything I can to keep the book marketable. I’ve been doing that my entire comic book career. When I was writing Hulk, during my initial twelve-year run, I regularly had access to sales figures ahead of time. Three, four months ahead of time. Because that’s how far ahead we were soliciting. And they were incredibly instructional. Because what would happen is, I would be aware of a sales drop months ahead of time. Months ahead of time. So that I would have the Hulk in a particular incarnation going through a particular series of events. If I saw sales starting to flag, I’d say to myself, “Okay. That incarnation of the Hulk seems to be running its course. Time to come up with something else.”

So if you want to have an idea of when sales were starting to drop during my twelve-year run, at any particular time, look to a point where the Hulk undergoes some kind of transformation, backdate yourself about six months and that’s when I was looking at the sales figures, going, “Okay. We have a drop.” The problem nowadays is that we don’t know sales figures until after the book is already on the stands. So instead of having a three to four month early warning system, so that I can course correct ahead of time, we are always behind the curve by three to four months. Because we don’t know the sales numbers until at least two months after the book has come out. I mean, you know, we see the sales numbers on ICv2 or whatever it is. That’s when I see the sales numbers. We see those sales numbers come out two to three months after the book is on the stands, plus we’re soliciting three months down the line. So you can find yourself in free-fall before you’re aware of the fact that you’ve got any kind of attrition problem. Because every book’s always going to have attrition. Every book. Every book. There’s no stopping it. There’s always going to be. You’re going to get a build. And then it’s going to level off. And then it’s going to start to drop. Always. No matter what the book is. Always. The thing I was able to do on Hulk is, when I saw it start to drop, I would say, “Okay. Time to do something different.” And I could come up with a new angle on The Hulk that would boost sales. Because we’d have people going, “Oh, they’re doing something new and different with The Hulk? Let’s see.” As it is, I can’t course correct. And it’s incredibly frustrating.

Correspondent: But I’m also wondering if some of the stuff that you do with, say, Fallen Angel — I mean, you had a post on your blog recently in which a gentleman couldn’t purchase it from his neighborhood comic store. Because he was the only person purchasing the issue.

David: Buying it, yeah.

Correspondent: So for something like this, is Fallen Angel more of an unfettered territory to write in?

David: It’s unfettered territory. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t want to see sales be brought up.

Download BSS #225: Peter David (MP3)

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The Bat Segundo Show: Mort Walker

Mort Walker appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #216. Mort Walker is the creator of Beetle Bailey. A volume of the first two years of Beetle Bailey is now out.

Condition of the Show: Observing fifty years of development.

Author: Mort Walker

Subjects Discussed: Walker’s drawing pace, the Beetle Bailey production cycle, filtering through the gags, rejected strips sent to Sweden, Beetle’s early days as a slacker in college, the military as the common experience, Walker’s relationship with the syndicate, the curly hair look of Buzz and Lois, portrait-like illustrations of women, early attention to background, the shrinking space of newspaper comics, Berkeley Breathed and Bill Watterson’s fights for space, appealing to the greatest number of readers, the development of Sarge’s girth and teeth, Plato as the only other character carryover, covering the eyes of characters, Dik Browne, Beetle’s early square form and perpendicular limbs, Walker as Lt. Fuzz, Lt. Jack Flap, African-American characters in comic strips, being confronted by editors by Ebony, Colin Powell’s approval of Flap, code numbers associated with the comic strip, writing a military-based comic strip without reference to Iraq, General Halftrack’s skirt-chasing and later sensitivity training, the circumstances that will cause Walker to change his strip, why Walker hasn’t included women soldiers, aborted cliffhangers, and characters staying the same in the Beetle Bailey universe.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: Here we have a military strip. But there’s no reference to Iraq. And I wanted to ask you about this kind of balance.

Walker: I try to avoid anything controversial. Because if you do something pro-Bush, fifty percent of your readers are going to get mad, fifty percent of your readers might like it. But I’m after the whole broad spectrum. So I’m really avoid those things.

Correspondent: But to talk about the broader audience, I mean, Bush’s approval rating isn’t exactly the best in the world. It’s under 30%. So you have 70% of the audience if you were to play around with this kind of thing.

Walker: Yeah. Well, anyway, I try not to get too topical or controversial. That’s why I’ve avoided the war pretty much. I don’t mention Iraq very much. Very seldom.

Correspondent: Even though this war has lasted longer than World War II? I mean, doesn’t it seem…?

Walker: But there’s so many people that are angry about it that I’ve got to be really careful about how I treat it. Mostly, I just ignore it. People say, “Well, when is Beetle going to go to Iraq?” I said, “Jesus Christ. I hope never!” You know, I don’t want to send him there because it’s very difficult to deal with. I’m just keeping him in basic training. It’s the common experience that all soldiers have. If I take him out somewhere and specify into some particular kind of work, I’ll lose a lot of my readers there. They won’t be interested or they won’t understand it. But everybody understands basic training. That’s where I keep him.

Correspondent: I mean, you had this similar situation with Jack Flap. That’s why I present this as well. I mean, that didn’t hurt you. In fact, that got Beetle Bailey more attention, you know?

Walker: Yeah, but it was a common experience. Anyway, that hasn’t hurt me.

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The Bat Segundo Show: David Hajdu

David Hajdu appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #207. Hajdu is most recently the author of The Ten-Cent Plague.

Condition of the Show: Dabbling into hidden threats.

Author: David Hajdu

Subjects Discussed: Hajdu’s approach to journalism, primary sources vs. secondary sources, categories of people to talk with when preparing a book, tracking down people who disappeared, grassroots methods of finding people, changing names, the untold story of women in comics, Irvin Kersener’s early career as an agitprop documentary filmmaker*, corroborating facts against shifting memory, telling history without a fully documented record, Billy Strayhorn’s career before Duke Ellington, remembering details based on a nugget, the ever-shifting complexities of William Gaines, whether EC Comics could have survived if it shifted to magazine format, Will Eisner on not being taken seriously, what caused the great comics scare, literate comics, the fear of kids turning on parents because of a medium, Frederic Wertham’s Seduction of the Innocents and the media’s willingness to give credence to Wertham’s anti-scientific tract, why America needs a lowbrow cultural blaming point for social ills, cultural class bias, pornography and other populist mediums as subliterary forms, comics decency legislation vs. the Hays Production Code, postwar censorship, comics being placed in a position not to challenge authority, Charles Biro’s Crime Does Not Pay vs. yellow journalism, and Bob Wood bludgeoning a woman to death.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: I’m wondering if certain artists may have changed their names because the comic book industry was considered a great calumny for many of these various artists and writers. Did you face a problem along those lines in tracking people down?

Hajdu: I did. I had trouble with people who changed their names, but not for that reason. Because most people used their real names. Most people, but not all. Some use pseudonyms. Still do in comics. But most people intended to use their real names. But women married. And women who married in that time took on their husbands’ names. And I was surprised to find when I was doing my research how many women there were in comics. I mean, dozens and dozens of women who did terrific, beautiful, important work. Marcia Snider is one. I was never able to find her. I’d been told that she’d married. And nobody I could find knew what her married name was. In the case of the great many women artists, I only had their maiden names. And I couldn’t find them. I tried social security records, but they weren’t of that much value. And I did hit a wall with women artists. And I’m sure to this day, much of their story remains untold because they’ve been impossible to find.

Correspondent: Well, what steps did you take to atone for this? Because if you’re slicing off a portion of comic book history — a very important part of comic book history that involved women — I mean, how did you make up for this?

Hajdu: Well, I sought to do justice to the story that I can tell. I don’t know what I don’t know. I did make a point to ask about those women to the people who I could find. And that’s the only recourse.

* — Despite Hajdu’s representations in this interview, Kershner remains quite alive!

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Hulk Smash. Critic Write.

Guardian: “Idea is. Dr Bruce Banner – on run. Keep anger under control. Banner hope not turn into Hulk. Banner live …. in Brazilian slum. Work in factory. Total babe there fancy Banner. Banner quite fancy babe. But Banner not make move. Babe in film to keep guys interested. Until Banner’s girlfriend Liv Tyler come into action later. Tyler not mind Hulk thing. Hulk remind her of dad. Steven Tyler. Possibly. Much location work. Overhead shots. Of slums. City of God vibe intended. But this rubbish. Like everything else.”

Dave Sim: The Stalin of Comics

In case you haven’t heard the news, the once great Dave Sim has demanded that anyone who corresponds with him must pledge that Sim isn’t a misogynist. The whole business has erupted into a sad and terrible train wreck in which Sim has nearly alienated his friend Chester Brown and spurned long-time fans. And it’s all because Sim doesn’t appear to be acquainted with Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights:

Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.

Calling Sim a misogynist is not libelous. It is the truth. A misogynist is someone who hates women. And the man who wrote, “It wouldn’t be that big of a stretch to categorize my writing as Hate Literature against women,” in Issue #186 of Cerberus, speaking in his own voice, is most certainly a misogynist. For years and years, Sim has been spewing out this bile. And rather than take his lumps and be the man he thinks he is, he instead wants to set terms and alienate everyone in the process. These are not the actions of a civilized person.

For years, I’ve tried to overlook Sim’s hateful ramblings for the great wonders contained within the early books of Cerberus. But if Sim is going to set terms for us, I’m going to set a few terms for him. Until Sim can confess that he is the working definition of a misogynist, I will never buy another comic written or illustrated by Dave Sim or acknowledge Dave Sim in any way ever again. The great talent Dave Sim has been replaced by an atavistic creature who now calls himself “Dave Sim,” who believes himself to be some small-time Stalin and perpetuates this sad despotism as long as his delusional hubris will let him. He has now fully disappeared from my cultural radar. And it’s too damn bad. Because when he was still sane, he was an innovator.

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Free Comic Book Day

I walked into my local comic shop and saw few unfamiliar faces looking over a few freebies. I walked out with a thick stack of comic books, headed home, and consumed them in the best way: in one mad tear, one mad comic book binge.

It was Free Comic Book Day, the comics industry’s to Halloween. But candy’s handed out in May. Comic publishers supply plentiful issues that are then handed out in comic shops around the world. It isn’t the pounds of sugar that will make your head spin, but the smell of fresh ink.

Four or five hours passed before I put down my last free comic book. A thought balloon hung over my head. What a complete waste of time. The seventh annual FCBD was a bad haul with the effort cut to accommodate the price. I must be insolent to complain about getting forty-one free comic books, but when a company gives you a sample, the idea is to make you a paying customer. But most publishers forewent storytelling and went straight for the sales pitch. These were comic brochures.

The majority of the Free 41 were either excerpts or pages of preview art. And the problem with the multiple previews could be seen in Viz’s Shonen Jump sampler. It had three stories — all close to incomprehensible.

(On the topic of the free manga offered, Jump was one of only three that fit the category. The others were a full-length graphic novel from Antarctic Press and a preview of the manga adaptation of James Patterson’s Maximum Ride novel series. Reading it left-to-right or the traditional manga way did not make the preview any less dumbfounding.)

Perhaps I could forgive the majority of comic book publishers had they offered new material instead of reprints. Gemstone Publishing brilliantly reprinted a 48-year-old story featuring Gyro Gearloose, successfully ensnaring today’s youth with colorful caption boxes: “How does Gyro happen to be in this awesome place? It is necessary to flash back to a recent day in Duckburg!”

DC Comics and Maerkle Press were the only publishers to offer a regular issue of a series for free. Unfortunately, issues were of the how-dumb-do-you-think-kids-are quality of Tiny Titans #1 and Love and Capes #7, the latter being a series flapping wildly in the world of superhero cliché.

DC’s other offering was a reprint of Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely’s All Star Superman #1 — an entertaining book, but one originally published three years ago and since reprinted numerous times. Dark Horse offered new Hellboy stories from Mike Mignola — one of the few FCBD comics worth the trip.

Marvel, during a major movie weekend, made some questionable choices. It published a brand new story by the strong creative team of Mike Carey and Greg Land. But it was an X-Men story, not Iron Man or even the Hulk. Those two characters, who appear in movies this summer, were relegated to a new Marvel Adventures book.

The Free 41 could have been worse. There was variety, from kids’ books to comic book journalism to books where the protagonist doesn’t wear a mask. Indie publishers provided the bulk of the books but only one publisher, Oni Press, offered a full-length story that was outside the superhero genre. Unsurprisingly, superheroes, rather than regular Joes, had the highest representation.

If I were to offer a sappy speech about FCBD, the first thing I would say is that the event is supposed to be about more than just the free comics. It’s supposed to be a celebration of the medium, its power to tell a story, its rich history. But how can I believe that when most books bothered only to make a pitch to buy the next one, the real one?

If FCBD was about seriously good comics, the titles offered would have been worth reading. But where was the free issue of DMZ? Of Fables? Of Thunderbolts? Of The Fantastic Four? Of Ex Machina? Of The Killer? Of Uncanny X-Men? Of 100 Bullets? Of anything happening now? Of the book that will transform someone into a Marvel Zombie? Of the book that will make someone an addict of any comic book genre?

A free book along those lines wasn’t in my thick stack. And I doubt that many people who were in a comic shop for the first time will visit again and leave with an altogether different stack that contains a receipt. Reading an FCBD comic is like talking to the friend who tells you that he has an amazing story, but he doesn’t have the time to tell it to you right now. There were people in the stores, and FCBD deserves credit for this. But all these people ever got was a tease.

The smart shop owners built events into the day — artist signings, contests, etc. Some owners, however, can’t afford to do that. The villain of FCBD becomes the low quality comics that are not truly indicative of today’s comics — whether mainstream or indie. And if comic publishers want new readers, than they need to give the newbies the same comics that the old readers will pay for. The best sales pitch is a cliffhanger, not another six-page preview.

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NYCC: An Impromptu Interview with Jeffrey Brown

On Friday afternoon, I began walking the floors of New York ComicCon, collecting strange snippets that will be glued together for a future installment of Segundo. I counted thirty-seven Jedi Knights (some of them portly, making me wonder why Jedi discipline doesn’t seem to involve physical fitness), two Stormtroopers (both in good shape), and two Princess Leias (both in remarkably gaunt shape and dressed to show this). If one must choose a side in the Star Wars/Star Trek dichotomy, I’m more of a Trek man myself, even though I recognize that the franchise is dead and hasn’t produced anything of quality since Deep Space Nine. Nevertheless, if costumes are anything to go by, there is a distinct sign that Trek is on the wane with the true believers.

I’m not quite sure what Roman centurions and Jedi knights have in common, aside from the fact Asimov’s Foundation series serves as the missing link between the two. But I must confess that, of all the costumes I espied, I was the most impressed with the Centurions (pictured above).

Speaking of Star Wars, I learned about the economics of lightsabers. A good lightsaber will cost you around $100. More if you want it customized. Joseph Semling, purchasing manager of Brian’s Toys, told me that he has anywhere from 20 to 100 lightsabers of any particular type in his warehouse. And if you’re wondering what a lightsaber dealer is likely to net, a lightsaber goes wholesale for about $75 and is then sold from anywhere from $25 to $50 more at retail. And if you’re wondering how Semling makes his money, he informed me that he raises the price of his lightsabers when the supply goes down. Like anything, the lightsaber is subject to a supply and demand curve. But even if the supply remains relatively stagnant, I suspect if Semling moved six lightsabers a day, discounting overhead, he could probably pay for his New York hotel room.

But the most intriguing conversation I had was with Jeffrey Brown, whose work I was apparently more interested in than I realized and whom I may have profoundly confused with my line of questioning. I’ll let the following partial transcript speak for itself. But Brown, I suspect, has more going on in his personal chronicles than most people realize. And I’m hoping that one day, I’ll be able to sit down with him and give him the full-length treatment he deserves.

Brown: I don’t really write about my personal sex anymore.

Correspondent: I know. But I’m saying that people are still interested in the past.

Brown: Yeah.

Correspondent: So this might be a conundrum. Many people are expecting more of that in the present and the future.

Brown: Well, um, I just keep dangling it in front of them. Well, that sounds bad.

Correspondent: (laughs)

Brown: What I mean to say is that maybe I can just make it seem like I might write more. But I’ll really just write whatever I want.

Correspondent: Okay, I propose something for you. What if you were to fictionalize the personal and therefore it’s not personal sex. But it’s fictional sex. I mean, you did that with the robots. But to have a story that doesn’t involve you as the chief protagonist.

Brown: I have lots of ideas and I’ve got a couple more autobiographical things that I want to cover. Including writing about religion. Growing up with my dad being a minister. And I want to write a book about pregnancy. And the book I’m working on right now is about becoming a cartoonist. And then once those are out of the way, I have some ideas about fiction-like stories that I want to get into. Although the first one, at least, there’s no sex. Well, there could be. I don’t know. I haven’t written it yet.

Correspondent: Well, it’s not all sex. I’m just trying to point out the first-person vs. third person vs. fictive vs. real and all that.

Brown: Well, if you don’t know me, I guess it’s all fiction writing.

Correspondent: I don’t actually. I don’t know you.

Brown: Well, you kinda do.

Correspondent: Well, not entirely. Because this is entirely true. That’s the question.

Brown: But to people listening to this, they don’t know.

Correspondent: Well, now they know. Now that we’re talking about it. We’re clarifying.

Brown: But to them. To them, this could be fiction.

Correspondent: Oh, you may not even be Jeffrey Brown.

Brown: That’s true.

Correspondent: Okay, so let’s talk about this reality vs. what you put in your books.

Brown: Well, it’s something. And I haven’t entirely figured out why. I mean, there’s something about when you know it’s true. There’s something about that honesty, that authenticity, that kind of heightens the impact of things sometimes. Which is why I’ve avoided doing more fictionalized autobiography. And sometimes I’ve thought about moving in that direction. And then it just doesn’t feel right for what I’ve done so far. But on the other hand, books — like some of the Bighead stuff — there are some very personal autobiographical elements sort of in there. So in a way, I kinda do it occasionally. In various half-assed ways.

Correspondent: I’m wondering what boundaries you’re placing on yourself as you’re getting older. As you have a family. And all that.

Brown: I definitely. Well, not writing about personal sex anymore. There’s boundaries there that I’m much more aware of. You can see that in the new book, Little Things, where everything’s approached from a slightly different direction. Where I’m much more careful about what I’m revealing and how I’m revealing it.

Correspondent: But this issue of authenticity that you were talking about earlier, I mean, this causes a bit of a problem if you have boundaries like this.

Brown: Unless you just ignore it. Fuck it. I’m going to do — oh wait, can I say that?

Correspondent: No, you can say whatever you want.

Brown: This is going on the Internet? Oh, Internet. Then I just leave those questions up to people analyzing the work. Then I just ignore the problems.

Correspondent: Now wait a sec. Wait a sec. That was a very great way of evading the question.

Brown: I know. I tried earlier.

Correspondent: Yeah, I know. Well, I’m going to have to put it — just try to get an answer on this notion of how you retain truth despite having these boundaries.

Brown: (laughs) I mean, certainly there’s a theory that some people have. That fictionalizing — that by lying, you can get at a more real truth. So in that sense, whatever boundaries I have, I’m walking some sort of line between those boundaries forcing me to reveal some kind of more pure truth in that sense. But then we can go into how reliable is my memory. I think people who know me would generally say that I’m pretty honest. But it’s also possible that it could all be a big act. And I’m a really good actor. Totally. But —

Correspondent: The issue I have is here you are putting some kind of identity. It doesn’t really matter how true it is.

Brown: Right.

Correspondent: Nevertheless, it is true in some sense. And then there are these boundaries on top of that. So as a result, you’re painting yourself into these interesting limitations. Possibly to be more creative.

Brown: And I think the other thing to is that I tend to think of all the autobiographical works as a bigger picture when you put them together. So one book, for example, might have a lot of boundaries in some way that limit what you’re seeing from that book. It’s a very limited view of me as a person or as a character. Or however you want to put it. But when you read the other books, they all kind of inform each other. And so it’s like a tapestry of information that combines. It’s almost like it gets around those boundaries. Maybe.

Correspondent: Well, I also ask this because, in Little Things, you’re very clear about when things happen in that. You actually date the stories. If I’m thinking of the right collection. This happened during this particular time. I drew this during this particular time. And so as a result, it seems to me that there is an effort on your part to be truthful here.

Brown: No, I was just ripping off John Porcellino with that. No, I actually was ripping off John Porcellino. Well, I do that. And if you look in Unlikely, where there’s the drawings from photographs. Or AEIOU, where there’s the receipt from the dinner. And that stuff’s kind of just an additional way of telling people that, despite those boundaries, I’m trying to be as honest as possible and as forthright. Obviously, there’s probably some weird subconscious thing going on. There’s things that I’m not saying. Or things that I’m in denial about maybe. But what I’m trying to do is be honest.

[UPDATE: Our NYCC podcast, featuring this interview and others, including chats with Kyle Baker and Scott McCloud, should go up soon. But alas, I'm now on deadline. But I'm hoping to get the podcast up once I beat these deadlines.]

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NYCC: The New York Comics Legend Award

Eric Rosenfield reports:

The first annual New York Comics Legend Award was held at the Virgin Megastore in Times Square where a number of die-hards ponied up $350 each to see the award given to Stan Lee, co-creator of Spider Man, The Hulk, The Fantastic Four, The X-Men, etc. etc. He’s something close to the PT Barnum of comics, fond of such catchphrases as “True Believer” and “Excelsior!” I had come with this guy. At first, we milled around and ate the excellent canapés. We were upset because the luminaries—including Stan Lee, Marvel editor-in-chief Joe Quesada, his DC counterpart Paul Levitz, and long-time comics writer Peter David—were all sequestered away in their own area, separate from the people who had paid so much money to be there. Then the show began. Peter David got up and told a number of amusing stories about Stan, including the way that Stan saved his family. (Basically, when Peter was getting a divorce, both he and his wife wanted custody of the children. Peter got a character reference from Stan, which had apparently astonished the court-appointed psychiatrist and made the judge awestruck. His wife said that, during the whole time she was with the psychiatrist, all he wanted to to was talk about was how Peter knew Stan Lee.) Next up was Sharad Devarajan, the CEO of Virgin Comics, who didn’t actually know Stan and seemed to be there only because we were all in the Virgin Megastore. At least he seemed to understand his irrelevance and got off quickly. Then Joe Quesada came up to the dais and talked about how Stan always liked to rip into him. Joe: “Every once in a while I’ll get a call from Stan and he’ll say, [doing Stan Lee impression] ‘This is Stan Lee. I’ve just read the last few months of Marvel Comics. [Dramatic beat] What’s wrong with you?'”

Then there was Stan himself. He apologized for not having a speech prepared. He hadn’t known he was supposed to give one. He made fun of Joe Quesada a little and then talked for a bit about comics and his new book, Election Daze, where he wrote captions, speech bubbles and thought balloons on photographs of political figures. Finally he threw his hands up and said “Excelsior!” The crowd erupted in applause.

Afterward, the comics luminaries did come out and mingle with the crowd. I managed to corner Joe Quesada for an interview, though, being the professional that I am, I didn’t bring an audio recorder. I asked him about whether he thought that the big crossover events that Marvel has been doing (Civil War last year and Secret Invasion this year) might be intimidating to new readers who maybe don’t want to buy all these different books in order to keep up with the storyline. He acknowledged that this had been a problem in the past (I mentioned some cross-overs from the nineties, Captain Universe and The Evolutionary War, which were particularly hard to follow without buying an enormous number of comics), but he said that the way they had built these series was by making them contained within the few issues of their own comic. You only had to read the other comics if you wanted to delve deeper into the story. You could get a complete comics experience just in the seven issues of Civil War, for example. This method has been successful: “I think Civil War has gotten more new readers into comics,” he said, “then anything else in the past ten years.” I asked him if having two Marvel Universes, the original and the “Ultimates” might confuse new readers or dilute the characters, and he said that both the original and Ultimate comics were selling very, very well, and he’s heard of a lot of people getting into comics through the Ultimates. “A lot of people told me that a long time ago the first comics they ever bought were GI Joe, back when they did these TV/comics crossovers. Nowadays people tell me that Ultimate Spider-Man was the first comic they ever bought.”

There’s a scene at the end of the first issue of Secret Invasion in which duplicates of many Marvel characters dressed as they appeared in the seventies show up. I asked Quesada if there was any worry about cognitive dissonance with all the characters in seventies’ clothing. Because in the Marvel Universe continuity, none of them are old enough to have been around in the seventies. The extreme example of this is Luke Cage—Power Man—walking around with a giant afro and a tiara on his head. He said, “Yeah, Power Man had that tiara and it was six years ago [in Marvel continuity], he was just having a real fashion problem then. You know, that’s the least of the problems with the Marvel Universe. Every story practically contradicts other stories because we’re coming out with so many of them all the time. That’s what a lot of people don’t understand. You can’t get caught up in these things.” And then he leaned in conspiratorially, “I’ll tell you something about comics. We just make this shit up. Every day we go in there and just make this shit up.”

I found Quesada’s attitude refreshing when compared against sticklers in the comics world — the type so ably parodied by Comic Book Guy on The Simpsons — who get upset when any little thing seems out of place. Some might not understand why these issues of details and crossovers and parallel universes are so important and why Marvel’s attitude toward them is so interesting. You see, since the eighties, Marvel’s big rival, DC Comics, has been fanatical about updating their characters for new generations, constantly rewriting the histories of Superman, Batman, Wonder-Woman and so on to make them more “relevant.” Like Marvel’s current situation with the Ultimates and the main universe, DC once had two universes, one which took place in the contemporary DC Universe and one which was about the characters from the “Golden Age” of the thirties and forties, a universe where Superman grew old and married Lois Lane and Batman had a child with Catwoman. DC eventually decided that these two universes were too confusing and basically destroyed them both in Crisis on Infinite Earths, creating a new, “Post-Crises” DC, resulting in mixed reactions from the fans. My conversation with Quesada tells you a lot about Marvel Comics’s attitude and why it’s been more successful than DC for decades now; at DC, everyone seems very concerned about making everything just right, where as at Marvel they just seem to be having a good time.

Finally I managed to squeeze into the crowd and get a moment with Stan the Man himself. “Stan!” I said, “I’m Eric Rosenfield!” He looked at me for a moment before quipping, “THE Eric Rosenfield?” “Yes,” I said. Knowing I was only going to have a few more seconds with him before he was whisked away, I shot out the one burning question I had of the old Jewish comics maven, “I wanted to see you on Saturday [at the New York ComicCon] but I can’t because it’s on Passover! Why are you speaking on Passover?” I didn’t mention that it was particularly galling for the ComicCon to be taking place on Passover when New York is the epicenter of Jewish comic creators. “I don’t know what to tell you,” said Stan sweetly. “I may not be getting into Heaven, but at least we got to meet here.”

As Ed and I shuffled out, we were given a gift bag full of Virgin Comics. [ED: I politely declined the bag.] It didn’t matter that these comics are awful. It didn’t matter that we had to muscle out through the crowds in the Virgin Megastore into the crowds in Times Square. I was skipping with joy. After all, I’d just met Stan Lee.

Edward Champion reports:

Thursday night’s event had the feel of a corporate retreat initiated on a casual Friday. Crammed throngs transformed the basement into a semi-sweltering exposition. Caterers, dressed in red Spider-Man shirts and wearing false smiles, were casually ignored. Guests extended their anonymous tendrils onto trays and gulped down the food without thanks. Black plastic spiders were placed delicately in martini glasses. I observed one apparent reporter who wore a prominent button for Stan Lee’s book, Political Daze, and I had to wonder if the reporter was there to cover the event or serve as a Marvel advertisement. As Peter David observed during his remarks, “Ten people came up to me with business cards, wanting to give me more.” Did many misconstrue this brush with the greats as a networking session?

Nevertheless, I couldn’t help but remain somewhat impressed by the madness of it all. Stan Lee had an entourage that, as Eric remarked later, resembled a Latin American potentate. Here was a man whose greatest creation was, as Joe Quesada observed, Stan Lee himself. During the ten minutes he sauntered through the crowd, flashing a politician’s smile. He’d place an arm around a fanboy’s shoulder for a quick camera snap, only to spin around and toss out a quip to another. He never spent more than thirty seconds with any one person. The crowd, of course, ate this up with the same zeal in which they scarfed down the canapés.

“Truth, above all, is his major contribution,” said Peter David. But I wondered what kind of truth was on display here. Being relatively clueless, I had no idea that people had shelled out $350 for this event until Eric pointed this out to me. Lee proudly boasted to the crowd that he was a tightwad. And I had to wonder whether some magical Marvel accountant had figured out a way to pull off this awards ceremony to ensure that Marvel made a sizable profit.

As Eric talked with Joe Quesada, I couldn’t help but observe a short man protectively clutching a plastic bag containing original Marvel artwork. Another comics fan began talking with this man, asking him how much he had paid for it. “Too much,” said the man. When the fan begin to open the top folds of the bag, the man shrieked and waved the fan’s arm away. He told the fan that the artwork was very personal to him because he knew many people. But if he knew many people, why then was he spending much of the party alone?

The comics industry is built on hardcore fans like the man with the plastic bag. And these fans were willing to pay considerable money to spend only a few seconds with the men they considered masters, hoping to feel important by proximity. But what made me feel truly sad was the way they had been casually sequestered away from their heroes, while their heroes saw no ethical conundrum in profiting at their expense.

[UPDATE: Comic Foundry senior editor Laura Hudson reports that because she has written critically about Virgin that she would be banned from future Virgin events. Meanwhile, Lance Fensterman reports that there were many unhappy fans because Stan Lee wasn't signing anything.]

Interview with Charles Burns

Four new podcasts were released today at The Bat Segundo Show. And since we’re on the subject of Segundo, what follows is a short excerpt from my conversation with Philadelphia-based artist Charles Burns, who I chatted with during a recent visit through New York.

blackhole2.jpgYou might know Burns’s work from his advertisements or his illustrations for The Believer. But he’s best known as the writer and illustrator of the graphic novel, Black Hole, a compilation of his twelve-volume comic book. Burns worked on this over the course of ten years. And one of its remarkable qualities is the way that it remains remarkably consistent in its tone, despite the fact that Burns saw his two daughters grow up as he patiently put his work together. Black Hole depicts the story of a sexually transmitted disease that afflicts various teenagers in the Pacific Northwest. The work is very much a Rorschach test for the reader. One might infer a parable about AIDS or, if you wanted to get really reductive, innocence lost. Or it can be simply enjoyed as a dark tale of American adolescence gone awry.

Since Burns has conducted many interviews for his magnum opus, the challenge was to come up with a few conversational angles that he hadn’t encountered. But the interview frequently drifted into abstract personal memories when I asked him about a specific facet of Black Hole, demonstrating perhaps that artistic ambiguities aren’t always so easily pinpointed.

Correspondent: You’ve probably seen Vanessa Raney’s really lengthy critical essay of Black Hole, where she analyzes your panels quite in-depth. And I actually wanted to ask you about a comparison she made. She pointed out that Keith, Chris, and Eliza actually represent the same relationship structure in Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit. And I wanted to ask you about this. Was Sartre ever on the mind in concocting this narrative? How did the relationship structure begin?

Burns: Boy, that’s a good question. I don’t know that I’ve read the essay that you’re referring to. But there have been some questions asked along those lines before. It really wasn’t an influence or that wasn’t in my mind when I was creating the story. I guess I was trying to create these characters. Two very different types of women. The main character is just coming to terms with the differences between them and his attraction to them. His initial attraction to Chris, a girl that he admires from his biology class, is this very kind of clean-cut — what he thinks is kind of clean-cut. The kind of woman that he’s putting on a pedestal. She’s perfect. But he doesn’t really know anything about her at all in reality, other than just that she seems amazing.

And then he meets a very different kind of woman, who’s very much earthy. Much more sexual. And he finds himself attracted to her, much to his dismay. So the story’s really his coming to terms with his reaction, I guess, to these different women.

Correspondent: But no Jean-Paul Sartre.

Burns: No.

Correspondent: Any literary…

Burns: I would love to be able to say that there’s a good comparison there. But, no, that wasn’t the case.

blackhole1.jpgCorrespondent: Okay. I also wanted to ask you about some of the anatomical close-ups throughout Black Hole. They remind me very much — in addition to the pustules and the various biological impediments that many of the characters have — it reminds me very much of the sort of World War II venereal disease films.

Burns: (laughs)

Correspondent: I was wondering. What kind of visual references did you use for these particular decisions? Or was it just more of an intuitive choice?

Burns: It was probably more of an intuitive choice. I mean, there’s those things that I grew up that are out there. I think there’s references in the movie to sitting in the biology health class and looking at — learning about sexuality that way. There’s was always this kind of very strange antiseptic situation. I remember one time in biology class, there was — I guess, what do you call it? — a TA. A student teacher. And there was some film on — I don’t know, reproduction. And she showed the first half of it. And then she abruptly turned the film off. And, of course, everybody in the class said, “Oh, keep running it! We want to see it again! We want to see the rest of it.” And she would say, “No, no, no, no.” And finally she turned it back on. And there was this very graphic portion of the movie, where we were seeing an IUD inserted into a vaginal — (laughs)

Correspondent: Yeah.

Burns: And everybody just immediately got very, very quiet and very, very uncomfortable. Because here’s this — suddenly after seeing these very typical movies about “Your Growing Body,” suddenly we were seeing these very graphic representations. It was an odd moment.

Correspondent: Is it something about that period between, say, 1945 and 1975? Was that very much on the mind — in terms of getting this particular look? Or this particular emphasis on close-ups and warts and the like?

Burns: I don’t know. I guess that’s more of a personal thing. I guess that’s just how my brain works or thinks. Those were the kinds of images that were coming up. Again, it has to do with all the things that you’re subjected to and that you come across from that time period. But nothing as thought out as that, no.

Correspondent: So really it’s more of a personal intuitive experience that you’re drawing upon here? I know…

Burns: That would be a better description.

Correspondent: Yeah, because this leads me into another question. I know that the yearbook photos, or rather the photos on the inside cover, were taken from your own yearbooks.

Burns: Yeah.

Correspondent: And this leads me to ask you about how much of what is in Black Hole is taken from your personal experience, and where do you imagine certain details. I mean, certainly, the disease which plagues all these various people is imagined in some sense. But I’m wondering, in terms of the more personal observations, were these taken more from anecdotes? Were these imagined? On what level did you feel the need to draw upon real life and your own instinct for reimagining behavioral scenarios?

Burns: I mean, my situation growing up was a much more benign situation than what I’m depicting. I mean, there were internal struggles that I was going through, that I think everybody goes through during adolescence, that seemed extremely dramatic and extremely heartrending, difficult times. And I guess I was trying to depict that. What those feelings were. The kind of internal struggle that I was going through.

There are certainly situations in the story that are drawn directly from my life. I never met a half-naked girl with a tail.

Correspondent: (laughs)

Burns: I would have loved to.

blackhole3.JPGCorrespondent: Wouldn’t we all really?

Burns: That never happened. My existence was much more sedate and pedestrian, I suppose. But again, these sorts of things were brewing in my mind. My sense of not fitting in. My sense of this kind of internal horror that I was feeling in a lot of situations. Whether they were anywhere near…

Correspondent: Well, in terms of personal experience vs. what you observed, I mean, it seems to me that personal experience is more the motivating impetus for what you put into Black Hole more than anything else. If what I’m understanding you to say is correct. Were you more of an observer or were you one of those types of people?

Burns: I was one of those types of people in varying degrees. Someone was asking me the other day, “Were you a punk?” I was there in all those concerts participating, but I never shaved my head or carved a swastika on my forehead. But yeah, I was there. I guess that’s what I wanted to do too — in the book, talk or just have a realistic look at the times I was growing in. There’s moments in there, even though they’re very sedate, that are very horrific to me. To be sitting in a room for four hours listening to Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon get played over and over, and sitting around with a bunch of guys for hours and hours, is horrific to me.

[The full interview will appear in a future installment of The Bat Segundo Show.]