Showing posts with label comic books. Show all posts
Showing posts with label comic books. Show all posts

Monday, February 13, 2017

Meet a Local Cartoonist: A Chat with J.C. Thomas

by Mike Rhode

J.C. Thomas is appearing at Big Planet Comics Washington on Saturday February 18 (2-4 pm) to sign his two books. From his press release: "J.C. Thomas is a writer, artist and public elementary school teacher from Northern Virginia. His first children’s book, Ninja Mouse: Haiku, earned acclaim from both Publishers’ Weekly and The Midwest Book Review, and won a Gold Benjamin Franklin Digital Award from the Independent Book Publishers Association. He will be signing copies of Ninja Mouse: Haiku and The Gates of Dawn, an original graphic novel by Philadelphia-based writer Benjamin Finkel. Ninja Mouse: Haiku is a collection of haiku poetry with themes of martial arts philosophy and nature and includes Japanese translations. In The Gates of Dawn, a young girl with special powers and a nomadic veteran flee across a barren stretch of Utah as they’re pursued by a dark terror. Finding themselves cornered and desperate, they’re forced to make a final stand."

What type of cartooning or comic work do you do?

For now, I mostly work on one-shot, short graphic novels as opposed to serialized comics work. It’s partly a preference, partly circumstantial, and partly a product of the collaborations I’ve built in the last year or so.

How do you do it? Traditional pen and ink, computer or a combination?

I create all of my work on a custom-built PC. I use a lot of 3D models as the basis for my artwork. My main software applications are DAZ Studio, Photoshop, Octane Render, and Manga Studio. I use a Wacom Intuos for touching up line work.

I’m hoping to venture into paper and ink for some projects in the future, but for now my workflow is pretty set.

When (within a decade is fine) and where were you born?

I was born in Northern Virginia in the early 1980s.

Why are you in Washington now? What neighborhood or area do you live in?

I’m in the Washington area now because I’ve stayed here. I’m in Sterling, VA, which is about thirty minutes west of Washington. I’ve been all over, but I keep coming back to home.

What is your training and/or education in cartooning?

My “training” in cartooning is all informal. As a kid, I gobbled up every how-to book I could, from How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way to Will Eisner’s Graphic Storytelling. Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics was also a big part of my comics “education.” I took art throughout high school but was always frustrated with the lack of respect comics art tended to be treated with.

Who are your influences?

I probably have too many subconscious influences to count, but there are some I’m more aware of. Visually, I’d have to say Alex Maleev, Jae Lee and Michael Lark are influences. I really dig their use of heavy blacks. Pacing wise, I’ve always loved the dynamic between Garth Ennis and three of his common artists: Leandro Fernandez, Steve Dillon, and John McCrea. I’d also cite Sam Esmail, the creator and director of Mr. Robot, as an influence, especially on The Gates of Dawn. The cinematography in that show had a big influence on the framing in The Gates of Dawn. Jeff Lemire is also an influence. He’s a master of knowing exactly what to draw and when to draw it, really maximizes the impact of every panel. Essex County, Lost Dogs, and The Underwater Wielder are some of my favorites of his work.

If you could, what in your career would you do-over or change?

I’d either choose to have studied something creative in undergrad, rather than International Relations, or to have studied education in undergrad. Being involved in education can really spark your creativity, and a lot of my ideas have their origins in something education-related. I wouldn’t have minded if some of those sparks were to have come earlier.

I think also I wish I had explored getting representation a bit more when I first finished Ninja Mouse. I contacted a couple of literary agents, and when I didn’t hear back within a couple of weeks, I went ahead and published it on my own. I say that with some lack of certainty, because self-publishing is great fun and very rewarding in pretty much every way except financially. But once Publisher’s Weekly released their review, agents were contacting me, but I didn’t have anything else to show them at the time. I could have probably let that play out differently and have ended up with an agent right off the bat. But the freedom that goes with being on your own is a definite perk.

What work are you best-known for?

Probably Ninja Mouse: Haiku. It received praise from Publisher’s Weekly and The Midwest Book Review, which was a pretty big deal for me at the time. It’s also the first work on I got onto Comixology, which was validating.

What work are you most proud of?

I’d have to say Ninja Mouse: Haiku again. A lot of love and work went into that project, and I was really happy with the final product.

What would you like to do or work on in the future?

Geez, what don’t I want to work on in the future? I’ve got a scifi anthology in the works that I’m anxious to finish. The second story in that project, Arcas, with writer Christopher Hutton, is almost finished and should be out in a couple weeks. I’ve also got a couple of screenplays that I plan on adapting into graphic novel format.

But the thing I’m looking forward to the most is the next Ninja Mouse project. The first book was a collection of haiku poetry about martial arts and nature, illustrated sequentially with a very loose story. The next project will be a more traditional graphic novel. I’m planning on three volumes for that one.

Other than a horde of my own projects that are in various stages of production, I’d love to do some mainstream work at some point. Batman, the Punisher, and Shang-Chi, of Master of Kung Fu Fame, are probably my favorite characters from the Big Two, and I’d jump at the chance to do work on any of them.

What do you do when you're in a rut or have writer's block?

When I’m in a rut or have writer’s block, I normally try to work on a different project. I ran into more than the average amount of ruts with Arcas, and each time I’d try to get some work done on something I’d put on the backburner. On one hand, that’s a positive of balancing a lot of different projects at once. On the other, obvious, hand, it can be distracting or can hinder my productivity to have a lot of projects going on at the same time. I also turn to music to get me out of a rut.

What do you think will be the future of your field?

That’s a good question…I don’t know, on the one hand, some trends in the industry make me think the future is looking a bit bleak. The sheer number of universe-redefining, multi-title events from Marvel and DC in the last decade or so has really turned me off from mainstream comics. I don’t really see that changing anytime soon. Don’t get me wrong, there’s been some outliers here and there that I really enjoyed. Jeff LeMire’s Moon Knight comes to mind. But in general, the big two have left me with the feeling that nothing I read matters, because they’re just going to undo and redo it again in a year. I think those types of trends will continue to alienate all but the most hardcore of fans.

On the other hand, I feel like this is a rich time for the art form in general and there are a lot of trends that make me very hopeful about the field. It seems to me there’s been an explosion of talented indie-creators and small press labels in the last five years or so. And we’re lucky to be in an area where there are retailers willing to take risks on small press titles and unknown creators. I’m also very hopeful about the genre diversity we’re seeing now. It used to be that you really had to scrounge around if you wanted to read something without capes and masks, but that’s not the case anymore. I think part of that is due to digital platforms like Comixology. I think digital comics will continue to grow, but I don’t think they’ll ever replace physical comics. I hope that someone… publishers, online retailers, I don’t know who…but I hope that someone can find a way for brick and mortar retailers to get a piece of the digital pie. I think there’s a lot of potential in apps like Madefire as well, which basically adds simple motions, background music and sound effects. It hasn’t taken off yet, probably because there are additional costs to making them and the return isn’t much more than a typical digital comic. But I think the potential is exciting.

I’m also thrilled to see the increasing acceptance that graphic novels and comics are being met with in schools and libraries. Comics have a place in literacy instruction, and more and more educators are beginning to embrace them.

What local cons do you attend? The Small Press Expo, Intervention, or others? Any comments about attending them?

I’ll be attending the NovaCon this year, which will be my first. I’m planning on attending the Small Press Expo as well. I had a chance to do a signing at last year’s FBCD at Comic Logic in Ashburn, VA, and it was absolutely packed. Like, line-around-the-building packed. I imagine something like that, but on a much larger scale.

What's your favorite thing about DC?


Least favorite?

The soul-killing traffic.

What monument or museum do like to take visitors to?

I have to admit that I don’t really take advantage of the museums and monuments like I should. But I really like the Freer and Sackler galleries. I also had the chance to explore Hillwood Estate recently, and that’s definitely on my short list of favorites.

How about a favorite local restaurant?

I can’t say I know a lot of restaurants in DC proper, but I love Clarity in Vienna. Mokomandy in Sterling is also one of my go-to recommendations.

Do you have a website or blog?

Sure do! It’s I’d love for your readers to stop by.

Monday, May 16, 2016

Recalling Darwyn Cooke's 2010 appearance at the Smithsonian

by Mike Rhode

Darwyn Cooke has been one of my favorite comic book artists for about a decade and a half. He passed away over the weekend.

I had forgotten that I had written about a talk he gave at the Smithsonian American Art Museum.
It doesn't seem to be online at their site anymore, so I'll reproduce it here. Also, you can hear my recording of the talk here, newly online since sadly we won't be able to hear any new thoughts from him.

(I didn't write that lede by the way)

by Mike Rhode Washington City Paper blog Feb. 3, 2010
Sure, the crowd was thin due to the snow. But the air was thick with nuggets: Darwyn Cooke spoke for almost two hours to a rapt crowd of about 40 people at the Smithsonian's American Art Museum Saturday, concentrating on his recent adaptation of Richard Stark's novel Parker: The Hunter and offering a glimpse into the mind of a successful, critically adored cartoonist. Just don't, he said, call him a creator. Cooke would rather be known, simply, as someone who entertains, and that's exactly what he did at Saturday's event. Read some of his more memorable quotes:

"I was pretty sure the Smithsonian called the wrong number when they approached me about this program, but I jumped at the chance to come down to talk about Don Westlake [aka Richard Stark] and Parker—two of my favorite subjects."

"The [Parker] books are very lean and brutal and I think that's part of what I loved about them…."

"I have to plan everything. I have to write biographies of all my characters, I have to research every scene and situation, and then I have to outline it in great detail in order for me to feel secure enough to go ahead with the work…" in contrast to Westlake's lack of plotting, backstory or details about Parker's life.

"The Hunter was written in 1962, which was actually the year I was born, which I thought was kind of neat."

"When I was a kid, I used to love series novels, like The Executioner, and all these sort of terrible B-movie type paperbacks…. but as I got older I realized that the quality of the writing in them was terrible and I moved on to more literate fare."

"[Westlake] was able to keep [Parker] completely reprehensible, and yet completely magnetic. He's certainly not a person you'd want to have to deal with in your life, but he's a very interesting, very magnetic type of character."

"Parker as a character represents something that we've seen evaporate from the American landscape over the last century and it's probably the last period of time when a character like this could have existed—that's basically a free-market anarchist. A man who makes his own rules, lives by his own rules, his own judgments and society still has room for him to operate within."

"The only thing I can compare [the plot] to is, you know when you get a phone bill for $500 for one month, and it's a mistake and you phone the phone company to get it straightened out? That's what he goes through. That's what this book is—it's a man who got screwed and is trying to communicate through a large faceless corporation that he's been screwed and he's owed something and the frustration that comes out of that. When you consider the time that the book was written, I think it's a very sly sort of indictment of the world we were all looking into."

"What can I do to reach outside the comic book audience… How can I get outside this [direct] market? How can I reach other readers with my work? The only real viable option at the time was the idea of original graphic novels. I very quickly set my sights there. … It's still a very risky creative venture. To put out an original graphic novel and hope it finds an audience is a very risky venture. We've seen some incredible books in the last few years, whether it's Persepolis, or Asterios Polyp or Diary of Wimpy Kid or American Born Chinese. These are all graphic novels that have nothing to do with superheroes…but they all have audiences that responded to the stories within the books. That really gave me the juice and the excitement to move forward…"

"DC had contacted me about doing Will Eisner's The Spirit. As much I was ready to move on, they found the one project that would keep me there. I hope this doesn't sound the wrong way, but half the reason I wanted to do this project was to make sure it didn't get screwed up by somebody else. It was purely a defensive position I was taking around the character… That was a hard year trying to live up to Will's work and deal with that character and everything it meant, so I was really thrilled when it was over…"

"At the time I started to correspond with Westlake, he was 72 years old, but his enthusiasm for this was unbelievable…"

"As for as he was concerned, if I screwed up [the adaptation], it didn't matter. Because the book's still there."

On having difficulties with character design and not receiving guidance from Westlake: "Finally I forced him into laying it out. '[Parker] is Jack Palance. It's Jack Palance from a movie called Panic in the Streets. That's what I saw in my head when I wrote it.' So from that point on I was able to fashion a character and an approach that Donald was really thrilled by."
Cooke planned on submitting the book to Westlake for Christmas, but Westlake went on vacation and died before Cooke sent it to him. "He never got to see any of it and it took about six weeks to get back to work. It really stopped me in my tracks and I realized that I'd been doing it for an audience of one person and that audience was gone. I didn't even know why I was doing the book for a little while after that."

At this point, Cooke read from the actual novel while showing the first chapter of his adaption on the screen.

"Those of you familiar with my earlier work should know I'm pretty plugged into the 'heroic ideal' and I love the notion of optimism and hope and I'd like to think that most of my work carries those messages right up front and this was a case I had to put all my instincts aside and sort of go more with Donald's."

"Nothing was better back then [in 1962] except the way things looked…"

"Anything I could do visually to immerse us in—to make us feel that we were back in that time period—was gonna help people get into the book. Everything in here was done with the tools available in 1962. There's no computer lettering, there's no digital tinting. It's drawn on the art board, the black ink is laid down, the lettering is laid down, and then I take a blue watercolor and lay it right onto the board. Nobody does this anymore…I even had the printers lay a pale yellow ink on top of every page before the artwork went down so that the book even had the appearance of being yellowed with age…"

"I'm hard at work on the second book now, about halfway through. It's called The Outfit and that's going to be out in October…I'm doing four [adaptations]."

"I've never been comfortable with the terms 'artist' or 'creator.' I think they're bullshit terms that are thrown around to make the guys who do the work feel better about themselves. For example, Jack Kirby was a creator. Jack Kirby created entire universes. Ethan Van Sciver pencils a comic book—there's a big difference there. I've always been very uncomfortable when people referred to me as a creator…I've always preferred entertainer, or storyteller. Those I'm much prouder of, or more comfortable with those designations. I'm not that deep. I'm just not."

"I love stories about people who've found ways to live without having to suck up to The Man."

"Heroes aren't heroes anymore; they're just people with power. And I think that it's a shame."

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Friday, February 06, 2015

Scott McCloud in Conversation with Michael Cavna (February 6, 2015) UPDATED

The recording of the event, 1 1/2 hours long, is at this link:
This may be the only recording as I'm not sure if the store recorded it. Someone was videoing it, but they weren't from P&P.

Nice things were said about local cartoonist Richard Thompson, and less nice things about Bob "Batman" Kane. McCloud had some things to say that rang true to me and I'll try to excerpt them in a post early next week.

More photographs by me are online here.

Better photographs by Bruce Guthrie are online here.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

March 26: Comic Book Panel Discussion at Library of Congress

As always events are free and open to the public. The West Dining Room is on the 6th floor of the Madison Building near the yellow elevators. All inquiries should be directed to the John Kluge Center, 202-707-3302

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Wertham papers in Library of Congress add fuel to 60-year old battle

 If video killed the radio star, psychiatrist Fredric Wertham did the same for comic books. His papers in the Library of Congress have been recently opened, and Carol Tilley wrote article about his research methodology that's getting some big media attention.
Scholar Finds Flaws in Work by Archenemy of Comics

Friday, February 15, 2013

Cartoons to see in the L.o.C.

The Library of Congress has several cartoon and comics exhibits up now.  Here's a quick overview.

101_5203 District Comics at LOC

You can buy District Comics in their gift shop in the Jefferson Building. My story on the Army Medical Museum is around page 90, wink, wink.


Also in the Jefferson Building for another month is  "Down to Earth: Herblock and Photographers Observe the Environment" curated by Carol Johnson and Sara Duke. Carol's the photograph curator, Sara the Herblock one. I thought this was an excellent exhibit. The photographs and the cartoons really complemented each other, and the unlikely pairing made for a stronger exhibit than either alone would have.





There's a small brochure for the exhibit, although you have to get it at the Madison Building's Prints & Photographs department.

At the same location is "Herblock Looks at 1962: Fifty Years Ago in Editorial Cartoons," an exhibit curated by Sara Duke. This smaller exhibit focuses on President Kennedy.



Obviously Sara made curatorial choices to influence this in both exhibits, but it's still depressing how relevant 50-year-old cartoons are:


The third exhibit is a small one on comic books featuring Presidents that Megan Halsband did in the Serials Department (in the Madison Building) for President's Day. The majority of these comics are from Bluewater's current biographical series, but she did find an issue of Action Comics that I don't remember seeing.





The Prints & Photographs division showed off its new acquisitions this week. Sara Duke showed some original comic book and strip artwork:


A piece by Keith Knight, and two pages from Jim Rugg's anthology. They collected the entire book except for the centerfold. Not shown is...


Above are voting rights prints by Lalo Alcaraz, possibly selected by Helena Zinkham.

Martha Kennedy had some great acquistions this year, including works by James Flora, editorial cartoonist Signe Wilkinson, Garry "Doonesbury" Trudeau, and Charles Vess' entire book of Ballads and Sagas:

101_5171 Flora



101_5166 Vess

This artwork isn't on exhibit, but you can make an appointment to view it.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Shattered Asian American Comics Anthology photos

101_4620 Shattered - Michael Kang, Jamie Noguchi, Keith Chow, Jeff Yang

Shattered: The Asian American Comics Anthology - A Secret Identities Book - had a booksigning at Busboys and Poets, Washington, DC, with editors Jeff Yang and Keith Chow, filmmaker Michael Kang and cartoonist Jamie Noguchi. The talk went for about an hour and a half and culminated in a 'design a supervillain' crowdsourcing event. The Stain is the audience-designed character drawn by Noguchi. The talk was enjoyable. I read a few stories in the book while waiting and enjoyed the ones by Kang and Noguchi; Bernard Chang's was disappointing because it concludes online somewhere. More pictures are online here.

101_4625 Jeff Yang, Jamie Noguchi, Keith Chow

101_4631 Jamie Noguchi, Jeff Yang

Julian Lytle who does the Ants webcomic shared my table, and multitasked by working on his strip:
101_4624 Julian Lytle

Wednesday, September 05, 2012

1958 photo of comic books for sale


Interior of ships service at Naval Hospital. [Scene. Comic books. Store.] Pensacola, Florida. 07/21/1958.
Courtesy of US Navy BUMED Office of Medical History 09-5044-023

I ran across this photograph at work today. The comic books visible are all Dell - Donald Duck, Porky Pig, Tarzan and Tweety & Sylvester. Note the spinner rack says Buy Approved Comics and has a picture of the Comic Code Authority seal. Also note there's a girl reading the comics, but she moved when the picture was taken so we can't tell what she's looking at.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

OT: Comic books in Naval Hospital Beaufort's gift shop, circa 1954

This picture came across my desk at work today - A man in a wheelchair with his leg in a cast examines the magazine and comic book selection at Naval Hospital Beaufort's gift shop, circa 1954. Photograph courtesy of Regena Kowitz, Public Affairs Officer/Customer Relations Officer, Naval Hospital Beaufort, South Carolina. US Navy BUMED Office of Medical History 12-0064-07.
The comics that I can recognize are Betty and Veronica, The Spirit, Tip Top (featuring Peanuts), Red Ryder, Rin Tin Tin, Tarzan, Donald Duck, Love ?, Love Romances? Mighty ? - a lot of Dell books there.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Guest reporter post : Fox 5 News DC Just ran a promo for an upcoming story on comic books

Ray Bottorff Jr reports:

WTTC Fox 5 of Washington DC, ran a promo during the NFC Divisional Playoffs Saturday evening January 14 on an upcoming special report that appears to be a Wertham-style attack on comic books.

Scheduled to air on Wednesday January 18th, on their 11:00 pm newscast, the promo presents to the audience the suggestion that comics are full of sex and violence, using the quote "Playboy meets comics."

With what sensationalized call to arms, the ad purported to show in the news story how parents can "KO" these comics for their kids.

Certainly a 30-second plug for a late night news story will not cover everything that will be mentioned during the story when it airs. But the promo certainly gave the impression that it will malign the industry and deliver the usual stereotypes on how comics are only for kids (never mind that the comics shown are not for kids), and that smut is being peddled by comic book stores to children (which they are not).

What kind of vigilance should comic book fans do to this modern day Wertham-style attack? Swamp Fox 5 with phone calls? Protest at the Fox 5 studios? Something else?

Here's the post-broadcast update.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Comic books uh-oh

Beyond Comics puts out a weekly newsletter, listing the new comics and the like coming  out that week.

This list caught my eye as an egregious sign that speculation is back in the comic book market:

Variant Covers

...almost 25 variant covers in one week?  Not good.

Monday, March 14, 2011

The Commercialization of Comics: A Broad Historical Overview (1999) part 2

Click here for part 1.


Comic Books


            The comic book itself was originally a form of merchandising comic strips.  Early magazine-style comic books, such as Proctor & Gamble's premium Funnies on Parade in 1933 and Famous Funnies in 1934, reprinted comic strips. Gulf Comics Weekly, a tabloid-sized oil company premium had begun publishing original comics in 1933 and the rest of the industry eventually followed (Beerbohm and Olson, 1999: 229).  There are thousands of free promotional comic books.  Giveaway comics are usually created to educate about or promote a company or cause.  Examples include Marvel and the American Cancer Society's Spider-Man, Storm and Powerman (1996); Disney and Exxon's Mickey and Goofy Explore the Universe of Energy (1985) and Field Enterprises and the Union Fork and Hoe Company's Miss Peach Tells You How to Grow Flowers, Vegetables and Weeds (1969).


            Comic book licensing has occurred at least since the creation of the first superhero, Superman. All of the major companies like DC, Marvel, Fawcett, Archie, Malibu and many minor ones like Cartoon Books, the publisher of Bone, have merchandising and licensing.  Some companies, like Dell were the merchandising, as they produced comics mostly based on characters and stories licensed from other media.  A modern counterpart exists in Dark Horse Comics which publishes an extensive Star Wars line among other licensed properties.  Gladstone Publishing, which, like Dell, relied totally on producing comics based on licensing, shut down in 1998.  Gladstone's owner, Bruce Hamilton, described the occasional difficulty of using licensed characters, "[Disney] keep[s] coming up with licenses that have tougher and tougher and more unreasonable demands in their boiler-plate language to the point where I have decided I am just not willing to negotiate any new licenses with them" (Spurgeon, 1998: 8).  Hamilton's experience with Disney may reflect both the current financial value and also the changing legal definitions of intellectual property, but it is the reader of comics that has lost the pleasure of these classics11.  Games such as Dungeons and Dragons and toys like the Micronauts have also become successful comic book series. 


            Of the major comic book companies, DC Comics has been among the most successful in selling their characters.  DC has been licensed so successfully that its characters are household words, rivaled only by Disney and a few other major properties such as Tarzan. 

Figure 5 Batman's world-wide popularity during the television show is demonstrated by this US Army Intelligence copy of a bootleg image on a Vietnamese nasal decongestant. Courtesy of the National Museum of Health and Medicine, Washington, D,C. (Vietnam War Collection).

The 1966 Batman television show (Figure 5) demonstrated how successful marketing could be in the increasingly prosperous and consumer-oriented America.  About the same time, Marvel Comics began merchandising its characters after the successes of Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four and the Hulk. Steve Ditko, the co-creator of Spider-Man, reportedly left the company when he did not receive a share of the licensing (Beerbohm, 1999).  Like most companies, Marvel pursued licensing and had a wide variety of products and tie-ins with its characters including television shows, Slurpee cups, Pez dispensers, toys, and other products.  In the 1990s, Marvel, after becoming a publicly-held company traded on the New York Stock Market, began aggressively seeking commercialization of its characters, and expanded its domain by purchasing sticker and trading cards companies.  Its core business of comic books also grew because of "speculators" buying multiple copies of comics for long-term investments.  When all three of these collectibles became less popular, Marvel was left in poor financial condition ("Comic Book Publisher", 1998).  After declaring bankruptcy in 1996 and being taken over by its licensing partner, ToyBiz, in 1998, the reorganized company reported,  "This [year's first quarter] increase [in sales over 1998's first quarter] was largely attributable to the inclusion of approximately $15.3 million in sales from the Licensing division and approximately $10.4 million in sales from the Publishing division, which were acquired as part of the Company's acquisition of Marvel Entertainment Group in October, 1998" (Marvel Enterprises, 1999).  In other words, the licensing, on a strict accounting level, was more profitable than publishing the comic books, but both parts of the business, which is still based on comic characters, had multi-million dollar sales.


            At times, the characters themselves become merchandise.  The survival of comic strips far beyond the life of their creator is too well known to discuss here, although a quote from the Ripley's... Believe It or Not! website is instructive: "Almost 50 years after [Ripley's] death, the Ripley's Believe It or Not! cartoon is still wildly popular; printed daily in 147 papers worldwide, in 38 countries and in 10 different languages" (Ripley's, 1999).  A similar, although less frequent, occurrence happens with comic books when a successful company purchases the creations of an unsuccessful rival.  DC Comics has been especially active in purchasing characters, including Blackhawk from Quality and Captain Marvel from Fawcett, both of which were "seamlessly" integrated into what is currently known as the DC Universe.  For a short time in the 1990s, DC licensed and published Archie Comics' superheroes from the 1960s under their Impact! imprint.  This trend towards the commodification of characters in comic books can also work in favor of some creators who, since the 1980s, have been able to own their characters12.  Many characters have now been published by multiple companies who essentially licensed the character from the creator.  Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, perhaps the ultimate self-published merchandising success story13, has recently been published by Archie and Image companies.


            Even unlikely sources lead to licensing empires.  EC's 1950's horror comics were licensed extensively 45 years after their creation due to the success of the television series, Tales from the Crypt in 1989.  These are the same comics that were originally considered so gruesome that they were indicted in the anti-comics movement (Diehl, 1996).  EC's Mad Magazine, putatively an anti-establishment, anti-commercialization comic, at least based on its editorial stance, resisted the trend for years, but eventually succumbed.  As William Gaines said, "A lot of people have one way of looking at [merchandising Mad]: like 'Peanuts' is merchandised to its eyeballs...I don't object to that, except that a magazine like Mad, which makes fun of people who do that -- it doesn't seem proper for us to do it ourselves" (Reidelbach, 1991: 174).  Mad's long-term drop in circulation eventually led them to licensing.  With Gaines' death and Mad's complete incorporation into the Time-Warner conglomerate, the process has accelerated with Alfred E. Neuman and Spy vs. Spy action figures now available in comic book stores.



Figure 6 Kitchen Sink's candy bar illustrated by Crumb's Devil Girl proved surprisingly popular and was followed by more underground candy.

Possibly the most unlikely source, underground comix creator Robert Crumb has been heavily merchandised in recent years (Richter, 1995).  Crumb, as a counter-culture icon, had seen his "Keep on Truckin" image appropriated without any compensation nearly three decades ago. In the 1990s, and especially with the release of the movie Crumb, Kitchen Sink Press extensively used his oeuvre in ways not entirely expected, such as the Devil Girl candybar (Figure 6). Kitchen Sink, on the other hand, barely survived over-extending itself on merchandise for the second Crow movie in 1996 and in 1999 found itself taken over by the candy side of its business (Riley, 1997).


            In recent years, due to the direct market, comic book publishers, readers, and store owners  have concentrated more on the collectibility aspect of comics and companies have been formed to take advantage of that niche. Graphitti Designs, whose motto is "Quality Licensed Products Since 1982," exists solely to merchandise existing characters from other companies.  In 1994 they were producing "screen-printed shirts, limited edition books and prints, sculpted statues and busts, cloisonne and sculpted pins, compact discs, and embroidered caps"; among these were a $195 Vault-Keeper Statue (from Tales from the Crypt), three Batman T-shirts, 2 Superman T-shirts, a Rocketeer Club pin, a Vampirella T-shirt and three Akira books priced at  $49.95 each (Chapman, 1994).  Graphitti Designs advertises itself as vital to a comics retailer: "Many comics consumers do want more than just the comics. Ancillary products have the ability to also attract a clientele beyond the traditional comics reader. People will walk into a comics store displaying cool media-related shirts or other peripheral products even though they don't read comics" (Chapman, 1995).   This positive view is affirmed by Big Planet Comics store owner, Joel Pollack, who said, "I think overall [merchandising] is a good thing.  It's a great way to publicize the characters."  Big Planet Comics, in Bethesda, Maryland has been in business for 13 years, weathering several downturns in the comic book market so Pollack's opinion is indicative of business realities (Pollack, 1999). 


Adaptations in other media


            It is possible to draw a difference between adaptations in other media and the plain licensing of a character for a toy or food.  Superman is a prime example having been adapted into a comic strip (thus recapitulating his original creation); a novel -- Superman by George Lowther (1940); a radio show (1940-1951); an animated movie short series by the Fleisher Brothers (1941-1943); movie serials14 (1948 and 1950);  a live action television series (1953-1957); a Broadway play -- It's a Bird... It's a Plane... It's Superman (1966); an animated television series (1966-1969); a hit movie and sequels (1979-1987); a second animated television series (1988-1989); another live action television series -- Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman (1993-1996); and most recently, a third animated television series (1996-1999).  Any of these adaptations could be successful and enjoyed by an audience that did not read Superman comic books.  Adaptation of Superman to other media became a necessity by the 1990s when the comic book's sales figures were regularly below 100,000 copies sold.  Adaptations can frequently inject new life into a property as seen by the introduction of Perry White, Jimmy Olsen and Inspector Henderson and the invention of kryptonite in the Superman radio show (Tollin, 1997: 1-2), Superman and Lois Lane's marriage in Lois & Clark, and the arrival of a new successor to Bruce Wayne as Batman in Batman Beyond.


            Successful comic strips are turned into comic books .  Literally dozens of strips, such as Flash Gordon, Popeye, Dick Tracy and the Phantom have had original stories published in comic books.  Batman, Superman, the Hulk, Spider-Man, and Marvel's version of Conan are among those that have been made into strips, some multiple times.


            Theater adaptations began almost immediately after the creation of the comic strip.   They continue to the present day.  Winchester's studies of plays show that many were produced from 1894-1930 including multiple, different road shows of the Brownies, the Yellow Kid, the Katzenjammer Kids, Happy Hooligan, Buster Brown, Mutt and Jeff, and Bringing Up Father.  This was followed by a lull when most adaptations were done as radio shows or films.  The three decades from the 1950s to the 1980s saw major adaptations such as You're A Good Man, Charlie Brown and Annie.   In recent years, smaller shows adapting unconventional work such as Crumb's have predominated (Winchester, 1993).  

Figure 7 Kudzu: A Southern Musical is one of the latest in a long line of plays adapted from the comics.

Doug Marlette's Kudzu was produced in Ford's Theatre in 1998, while being advertised in his comic strip (Figure 7).  Neil Gaiman's work is frequently adapted and a version of Signal To Noise has been staged in Chicago as a fund-raiser for the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund (Spurgeon, 1999).


            Adapting comics into prose has been popular whether in Little Golden Books (children's books with simple prose and large illustrations), Big Little Books (alternating text and drawings), or adult novelizations.  Hundreds of prose works featuring dozens of characters have been created.  Most novelizations are made from movie adaptations of comics, but Marvel Comics currently has a successful original novel series (O'Hearn, 1998).


            Radio, as a popular medium, arose concurrently with comic books and the two shared a cast of characters.  Comics characters with radio shows included Batman, Buster Brown, Dick Tracy, the Green Lama, Hop Harrigan, Little Orphan Annie, Mandrake the Magician, Red Ryder, Skippy, Superman, Terry and the Pirates, and certainly others (Tumbusch, 1989).  Most adaptations were between the 1930s and early 1950s, but from 1995 to 1996 National Public Radio aired Ben Katchor's Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer.  Most radio shows were not perceived as having long-term value and some were permanently lost, but The Adventures of Superman is currently being reissued by the Smithsonian (Tollin, 1997).  Radio shows generated a vast amount of "secondary" merchandise - premiums or giveaways based on a character's adapted version, and not the original comics creation15.  As Smith (1982: 40-41) noted:


Ovaltine gave away more premiums on its radio shows, Orphan Annie and Captain Midnight, than any other radio sponsor.  Entire warehouses of paraphernalia -- shake-up mugs that made 'a picnic out of every meal,' identification tags 'like real soldiers and aviators wear,' buttons, photos, games, masks, pins, rings, badges, bandannas, booklets, bracelets, coins, cutouts and maps - were shipped out to listeners..."


            Literally hundreds of movies -- thousands if one includes animated shorts -- have been made from the comics.  The seven live-action Happy Hooligan shorts done in 1900 by director J. Stuart Blackton are probably the first.  Most adaptations were made into series of shorts or serials;  Blondie starred in twenty-eight B-movies from 1938 to 1950.  Television usurped this role in the 1950s when Dick Tracy, Flash Gordon, Joe Palooka and Dennis the Menace began appearing.  Movies like the 1966 Batman starring the television cast were still made, but usually with larger budgets than television could afford.  Superman (1979) and Superman II (1981), which were essentially filmed at the same time, became the model for licensing.    Both movies together had 200 licensees, including Warner Publishing,  producing 1,200 products.  Superman made $140 million dollars in film rentals for Warner Bros. which distributed the movie.  Superman II  had already sold $100 million worth of overseas tickets before the movie opened in the United States.  The initial movie also galvanized support for creators' rights, becoming the lever which shamed the company into giving Joe Siegel and Jerry Shuster, the Superman creators who had signed away their rights to Superman for less than $200, a lifetime pension of initially $20,000, a "gift" of $10,000, and lifetime medical coverage.  The two also received a credit line on future uses of Superman (Harmetz, 1981; Sherwood, 1975).

12.  Due to both a creators' rights movement that began in the 1970s and an increase in the number of publishers, some characters are owned by their creators.  Creators who design new characters that are firmly a part of the companies' "universe" are usually compensated for them now.  Marv Wolfman's current lawsuit against Marvel Comics reveals past practices (Dean, 1999).

13.  Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird self-financed the publication of their black & white first issue in May 1984.  They issued a press release that was picked up by UPI and they quickly sold out their first issue.  Eventually the Turtles had "more than five hundred licensees in some thirty countries producing more than nine hundred Turtle products," including an animated television series, three movies, and toys (Wiater, 1991: xv-xix).  To their credit, they put some of their licensing money back into comics through Tundra, the Words & Pictures Museum and Xeric grants.

14.  Tollin (1997: 2) notes that the serials "were adapted from the Superman radio program broadcast on the Mutual Network" and not the comic book. 

Click here for part 3.

Thursday, April 08, 2010

Weldon on comics and literacy (in the big picture)

It Pays To Enrich Your Nerd Power: What Kids Learn From Comics

by Glen Weldon

National Public Radio's Monkey See blog April 7 2010

- even more nerdy? His title is a play on Reader's Digest old feature, It Pays To Enrich Your Word Power.

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Finally, I address iPad comics

I wasn't all that concerned about them actually, but my editor asked for an article - Shannon Gallant, John Gallagher, Matt Wuerker and Ann Telnaes ventured opinions for me - In D.C. and Industrywide, Will the iPad Save Comics and Kill Print? by Mike Rhode on Apr. 6, 2010.

Said editor, Jon Fischer, drastically cleaned up this article too and made it much more readable.

Sunday, January 31, 2010

A collector's account in the Post

There's quite a bit of overlap between book and comic book collectors these days...

Dispatch from the hoard
People who collect things and those who don't can be friends

Washington Post Sunday, January 31, 2010

The accompanying photo of generic comic books is actually Steve Geppi's collection at the Geppi Entertainment Museum in Baltimore

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Weldon on floppies vs. trades

Weldon, Glen. 2010.
How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Wait For The Trade Collection.
National Public Radio's Monkey See blog (January 20).

Like Glen, I'm of two minds about this. I usually buy the individual issues to make sure the series survives and then buy the collection if I think I want to read it again.