Adventures in Publishing

I’ve dusted off this old blog and will try to post something useful here once in a while, probably about projects that I am working on.  If you’re interested in other kinds of content, you can also enjoy my angry retweets on Twitter, reblogs of useful art tips on Tumblr, and a very infrequently updated Facebook page.

Anyway. I’ve posted before, here and there, about how I am a project-oriented artist. So much so that I keep an Access database of things I want to get done, from comics and illustrations to animations and card games. I usually have more than one thing going on at a time, for the sake of variety.

As 2016 came to a close, I realized that it had been around 25 years since I started drawing comics in earnest. Most of them were self-published at copy shops and distributed around wherever I was living at the time, and while I still have decent scans and file copies, most of them fell out of print. Sometimes I would make them available for download online as PDFs.

I thought that it might be nice to mark that 25th anniversary with a collection – something I could publish through a print on demand service, make available to actual bookstores and libraries as well as comic shops. So, I looked around at my options and decided to try Amazon’s print on demand service, CreateSpace.

Then I realized: why not bring back other stuff into print? I have also written plays, novels, tons of film reviews, and webcomics. I decided to try publishing one of my plays, An Otherworld, first. I already had the interior pages saved as a decent PDF, so all I had to do was design a cover. The entire effort took less than a day, and within a week I had copies in my hand. The quality was good, so I did another book of plays and then decided to try a collection of comics, to see how well the artwork would print.

That collection of a webcomic I did last year, The Insult, turned out very well, I think. So, I am currently dividing my time between getting that book into stores and assembling the pages for the next one, the aforementioned retrospective which will be called “Young, Dumb, and Full of Comics.” After that, probably one of the novels, and after that, a collection of film reviews and essays.

If you wind up checking any of them out, I hope you enjoy them. Watch this space for updates on their progress.

How to Make a Mini-Comic (Extreme Edition)

So, as you know if you are a regular reader, I managed to scrape together a mini-comic in time for last weekend’s Harbour Con-Fusion. I thought that some of you might like to know how the publishing end of it works, so here is what I did to make the “5 Seconds Summer Fun Special”:

1. Created the pages in Manga Studio. You can do this however you like, of course. You can create your pages digitally from start to finish, or you can draw them on paper the old-fashioned way and then scan them, or you can draw them and make your master pages on a photocopier, which is what I used to do. These days I prefer to do all-digital, because printing and photocopying and re-copying can result in lost gray tones. Plus, it’s the 21st century. :)

2. Laid out the master pages in Adobe InDesign, which is a publishing program. To create a booklet like a mini-comic, you need to arrange the pages so that they will be in the correct order once they are printed and stapled together. So if you have a 4-page comic on a single folded sheet of paper, the master pages will look like this:

Front – Page 4 (L) / Page 1 (R)
Back – Page 2 (L) / Page 3 (R)

The mini-comic I made was 12 pages, which means 3 sheets of paper with the pages figured out as above. An easy way to do this is to create an “ashcan”; take some sheets of paper, fold them the way your comic would be folded, and then write your page numbers on the sheets in sequence. When you’re done, unfold your ashcan and you will see how you will need to arrange your master pages so that you can duplex them (make double-sided copies) correctly.

3. Once the master pages were set up in InDesign, I printed them on my little laser printer. And here is where things got crafty. Because the style of the comic was meant to resemble an old Archie comic, I decided to print it directly onto newsprint. I found some newsprint pads at the art supply store; they were 9 by 12 inches, so I used my guillotine cutter to trim them to 8.5 by 12 inches, so the pages would be narrow enough to go through the printer.

4. Once the pages were printed, I collated them (combined one copy of each page in the correct order) and used my binding stapler to staple them in the center of the sheets.

5. With the comics stapled, I folded the pages in half. It looks like a comic now, but I’m not quite done; because not only did I want the comic to look like an Archie comic, I wanted it to be the same size as an Archie digest. So, back to the guillotine trimmer with the folded copies. I trimmed each to about 4 7/8″ wide by 6 1/2″ tall.

All done! I made about 50 copies altogether. If I ever do another printing, I don’t know if I will do it on newsprint again, but it was nice to make a unique object this time around. There are copies left, so if you want one, email me or leave a comment for details. I’ll be distributing some copies to Maritime comic shops and a few other places in the next few weeks as well, and eventually there will be a PDF available for download here.

Fun with Sexualized Punishment in Comics

I have seen a number of articles online lately about the depiction of assorted kinks in comics, especially Golden Age comics. Part of the academic interest lately is I suppose part of the larger mainstreaming of kink culture and its siblings, queer and LGBT theory. That’s all fine with me. I am a little dismayed, however, by a couple of trends:

1) a tendency for writers, when discussing the Golden Age and Silver Age comics, to make a meal out of stuff like Wonder Woman’s lasso (used for bondage, of course) or Superman spanking a (usually female) super-villain. Yes, obviously there is a sexual undercurrent to such depictions, but they are also products of their time. We don’t need to assume that the Silver Age writer or artist had some dark agenda by depicting a spanking; they could have just been depicting a punishment that would have made sense to a 12-year-old kid in the 1950s. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, guys.

2) these days of course, spanking is not a normal punishment outside of the kinky community (and even there it is not necessarily a punishment). I cringe at the ham-fisted attempts on television and in comics to depict a character – usually a villain – that seems to have, for lack of a better word, a “superkink”. The latest example is in the solicitation for Keith Giffen’s Superman #9, in which Big Blue battles “Masochist”, a female supervillain who apparently becomes stronger the more she is struck, like a berserker or Sebastian Shaw from the X-Men. She wears a t-shirt that says – sigh – “Hurt Me.”

As someone pointed out on Twitter this morning, Masochist sounds like a riff on the villain mentioned in Watchmen who got dropped down an elevator shaft because he kept pestering the “heroes” to hurt him. I don’t even want to contemplate what ridiculous psychological hogwash Giffen has prepared as a backstory. These two-dimensional depictions are a sign of trying too hard at best and titillation at worst. There have been some interesting takes on it, by the likes of Alan Moore and Rick Veitch, but more often than not it seems to be a way for unimaginative writers to exploit something they don’t understand.

Being kinky and getting off on receiving or administering pain (or restraint, or whatever) is not unlike being gay; it is a biological and neurological luck of the draw. It is nothing to be scared of or wonder at; it is simply the normal state of affairs for a significant percentage of the population. Perhaps someday we’ll see a truly realistic depiction of such things, in a story where it makes sense to do so.

Ten Thoughts on Before Watchmen

So, DC Comics announced today what we have known for a little while: a set of prequel miniseries to Watchmen. The internet has reacted in a range between guarded optimism and anger. My feelings as a fan (and I suppose, scholar) of the book are mixed. So here are the thoughts I have been jotting down today.

  1. Watchmen is a sacred cow in a meat grinder of an industry. But even a sacred cow can be revisited with respect. Bobby London did it with E.C. Segar’s Popeye. Darwyn Cooke has done it in practically every project he is known for, from the Richard Stark’s Parker adaptations to The New Frontier to Will Eisner’s The Spirit (which Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons also once adapted, by the way). Moore reimagined Len Wein’s Swamp Thing, Lee and Kirby for 1963, a host of public domain pulp heroes for The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, and comics archetypes for his Wildstorm comics. Moore has profited handsomely from the history of comics, thank you very much.
  2. Re: people calling it a slap in the face to Alan Moore, Watchmen did not come like a lightning bolt from the sky; it was a pearl from the depths of Alan Moore’s brain, formed in a soup of that brilliant man’s knowledge of politics, pop culture, comics history, and so on. He plants some of the influences in the script itself, like the Outer Limits episode “The Architects of Fear”; others are better known to hardcore comics fans, like Steve Ditko’s Mr. A or the novel “Superfolks” by Robert Mayer. It’s not a matter of being derivative; everything we create in the 21st century is derivative (and sometimes an outright copy) of something else. What makes a Watchmen prequel unappealing to me is that no matter how good the attached talent is, it seems like it can only be really good fan fiction at best. Which is fine, I just don’t want to pay that much money and spend that much time reading fan fiction.
  3. Watchmen is a book whose antihero says “no compromise”, created in an industry that is completely compromised. That’s why we like it, for the same reason we like all superhero comics; the fantasy of having the power and wisdom to say no, and damn the consequences. Unfortunately, on one level due to the necessities of trademark renewal, the Watchmen characters are just properties to DC. Len Wein might have liked a shot at revitalizing Swamp Thing, but he didn’t get it. Maybe Kirby would have liked another crack at Sandman. The Watchmen characters are properties just like the Charlton characters they are based on, and just as many of those properties got their own titles after Crisis on Infinite Earths, I wouldn’t be surprised if Before Watchmen is a stepping stone for individual ongoing titles for Rorschach, Nite Owl, Ozymandias etc. after the next earth-shattering, universe-bending, trademark-ownership-buttressing “event”. So it goes.
  4. I have always tried to be the kind of comics fan who keeps things in perspective, who doesn’t develop an unhealthy attachment to a particular character or company or creator. I love comics and I want them to prosper and become as diverse and normalized as an entertainment option in our culture as they are in Japan, France, and other areas of the world. I am not convinced that prequels to Watchmen are going to contribute to that goal so much as contribute to DC’s bottom line and pay some talented creators who could be doing something else. If DC is going to do this kind of looking back, I wish they would do another series of Wednesday Comics.
  5. One of the reasons people are butthurt on Moore’s behalf is the issue of creator ownership, which was a hot topic in the 80s when Watchmen was created. Moore got a deal for himself and Gibbons that must have sounded good at the time: that the ownership of the characters would revert to them once the book was out of print. They wound up being victims of their own success, if you call getting royalties from one of the best selling comics of all time being a victim. Still, Moore felt ripped off, and made sure that he had a better deal when he created his Wildstorm books (which, ironically, got sold to DC). Even creator ownership doesn’t last forever; as hard as Disney and other companies are trying to claw back the time required, works do eventually fall into the public domain. One of my favourite comics of the 80s was Michael T. Gilbert’s Mr. Monster, in which he reimagined a minor Canadian superhero to very comic effect. The problem with owning a bunch of properties is that you have to maintain them. Dust them off, show them to buyers, see if you can get a return on your investment.
  6. When I wrote my MA thesis on comics, I used Watchmen as a case study, breaking it down into a narrative blueprint based on Noam Chomsky’s system for analyzing language which creates formulas out of sentences. But a comic is not just a formula, or a tribute to what is past; its value lies in what it means to the reader. One of my all-time favourite books is the underappreciated 80s DC title Thriller, whose plot bears some resemblance to Watchmen. Thriller missed with most comics fans in the 80s, despite its many virtues, and so it is largely forgotten. Watchmen not only hit with comics fans, it went well beyond to reach the consciousness of the general public and lead the charge for the acceptance of graphic novels in libraries and bookstores and book clubs. Any follow-up (and there already have been follow-ups) is bound to pale in comparison, especially now, when the book is still beloved by many and the recent string of decent comic book movies has brought a whole new generation of readers. Watchmen is the gateway drug of comics for many.
  7. I don’t envy the task of those who want to create a sequel, or prequel, or whatever. George Lucas couldn’t do it with Star Wars. Frank Miller couldn’t do it with The Dark Knight Returns. To do it with Watchmen will be like making a prequel to Citizen Kane: when the original already shows the best distillation of those characters imaginable, why show anything else? And so that is the challenge. Until Neil Gaiman came along, the best distillation we had of The Sandman was Simon and Kirby. Many have tried to match Kirby’s energy with The New Gods but even he could not while he was alive. This is a business where the two companies that publish the most material are obsessed with reintroducing the same characters over and over again; many of which were of marginal interest in the first place (Deadman with his own book in The New 52? Mister Terriffic? Come on.) Their low success rate in this regard is cause for pessimism.
  8. Superhero publishers used to generate new heroes and villains at an astounding rate, with a handful resonating well enough to last for decades and the others consigned to history, resurrected only perhaps by Grant Morrison. It’s why I don’t read that many superhero comics, this feeling that I have seen it all before. Every so often there is a wonderful exception, like Brian K. Vaughn’s Runaways; but for the most part superheroes and villains are interchangeable. A Green Arrow story could just as easily be an Iron Man story. The costumes are different containers for the same dull material. But not Watchmen; those characters are essential to that story, and because of their provenance (forced reimaginations of less powerful Charlton characters), they serve as avatars for comics history itself.
  9. Another potential barrier that the new creative teams will face is the art style. Dave Gibbons’ style and Higgins’ colours combined to create a linework that looks more at home in a French comics anthology alongside Moebius than a US publisher. Comics are drawn and coloured differently now, with a lot more digital tooling (Gibbons himself is a proponent of Manga Studio). The creative lineup, especially Cooke, Wein, and Hughes seem pretty well suited to their assignments. I wish them luck.
  10. What is ultimately disappointing to me is that for all the lip service DC pays to respecting the creator, and however much the new creative teams want to do right by Moore and Gibbons despite fan skepticism, this project takes away from the reader what was given to them in the very last line of the book: “I leave it entirely in your hands.”

[Update! Alan Moore was interviewed here about Before Watchmen and addressed some of the points raised above. Well worth reading.]