The sequential art of R. M. Rhodes
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SPX 2013

In the hours after the show ended, I told Sam Marx (one of the organizers) that SPX is my favorite holiday, better than Christmas. I was not being hyperbolic – SPX is, far and away, the most anticipated event on my calendar. Everything in my life gets organized around it.

Backing up and thinking about the show, I’ve been mentally unpacking the sentiment, trying to get at what it all means to me and why.

I’m a Defense contractor in my day job, which means that everything I do at work is wrapped around the Fiscal Year, which starts in October, not the Calendar Year that starts in January. My birthday is in mid-October and SPX is in mid-September. I’m not sure exactly when I started viewing SPX as the start of my year, but it’s not without precedent.

For myself (and many others), SPX is the culmination of an entire year’s worth of planning and creative endeavor. The fact that it’s in Fall makes it feel like a post-modern harvest festival, where all of the creators show up after a year of hard work and bring the fruits of their labors to market. It’s a time of celebration and community where everyone reconnects with friends they met in years past.

SPX also feels special because it’s my hometown show – I went to high school down the street from the venue. My work with the SPX Good Eats Map is part of my personal relationship with the show – I want to be a good ambassador to the people who are visiting the place that I grew up.

So that’s what SPX means to me in general. This year, 2013, was a crazy year for me personally.

It started out on a really high note, charged up from the post-SPX buzz. I took Frank Santoro’s composition course in January and really pushed myself out of my comfort zone. I waited a long time to actually post the results in public because I was really embarrassed by the artwork, but I finally got around to cleaning everything up and posting a rather lengthy manifesto of sorts in late July that wrapped up my newfound sense of purpose and goals in advance of turning forty.

The same day I posted that on Tumblr, my father died. In fact, going by the timestamp on the post, he was already dead – I just didn’t know it yet. In a lot of ways, the theme of this year has been death – Iain Banks (the only fandom community I really feel a part of), Kim Thompson,Josh Burdette, Elmore Leonard and, of course, the shooting at the Navy Yard the day after SPX by – get this – a Defense contractor.

Needless to say, looking at SPX through the filter of a year-end celebration that also marks the start of the new creative year has really been very cathartic for me. So now that I’ve been a major bummer by bringing death into the conversation, allow me to switch from abstracts to specifics.

I had six new books on my table this year, the product of a very busy year of making comics. Most of them were not a twinkle in my eye when I left SPX last year – they just sort of happened, which I’m taking as a good sign. Making comics has ceased to be a long, drawn out, complicated affair and has turned into something far more spontaneous. It remains to be seen if this trend continues.

When I was talking to Rafer Roberts before the show, he noted that the hall seemed to be about the size of a football field, which meant that my table was on the fifty yard line. After last year’s position near the front doors, it was a bit of a letdown to be in the center rear of the hall, but we can’t all win the SPX lottery every year.

The people on either side of me were fantastic – D. Austin Bedell, Chris Sweet and Zach Taylor on the one side and Warren Craghead and Simon Moreton on the other. One of my favorite parts of working at SPX is getting to know my neighbors and making new friends.

I also got a chance to catch up in person with people I talk with on Twitter all the time like Kat Feete (and her husband Dan and their adorable daughter Ella), Marguerite Dabaie, Tony Breed, Ken Eppstein and Sam Wolk. I would have enjoyed a longer conversation with Box Brown but he was a very busy man the whole weekend. Tony introduced me to Matt Hoddy from the Space Pyrates crew who flew all the way from Brisbane for the show. There should really be an off-season version of SPX where the creators can just show up and hang out in a room together and not worry about selling anything.

We went to the mixer on Friday night but didn’t stay long because it got really crowded really quickly. And for the same reason, we skipped the Ignatz Awards after party and opted to hang out in the room drinking wine with John Bintz and Meredith Burke instead. We got a noise complaint for our troubles, which I’m totally blaming on Meredith’s laugh.

For some reason, the hotel room was really dry this year and I woke up in the middle of the night on both Friday and Saturday feeling parched and desiccated. I don’t remember this from previous years and it may just have been the incipient con crud making an early appearance.

Sales were decent. Early on, I got a lot of “that looks interesting,” followed by “I’ll be back after I’ve had a chance to look around some more.” I’d say that maybe a quarter of that traffic came back. Not surprisingly, Emo Galactus and its thematic sequel Who Watches the Watcher? were my best-sellers by far. Both have quick, easy hooks that appealed to impulse buyers, a class of comics that I feel are the biggest sellers in a marketplace of that size.

One of the benefits of having Square is being able to identify when the sales occurred. Our busiest periods were just after noon and between 2 and 3pm on both days. Very interestingly, I only had 45 total transactions the whole show, but it felt like I talked to a lot more people over the course of the two days.

I probably would have taken more pictures but I was trying to save the battery on my phone, which was the only method of authenticating credit cards. Given that about half of my sales (by dollar amount) were via credit card, I’d say that was a good choice.

For the second year, Sarah P had her own half-table adjacent to mine so that we could share resources like Square, bags, water and food and cover for each other as necessary. I had some very interesting conversations about Starseed with some of the male cartoonists around me, mostly about the predominantly female audience and how far outside the superhero comics mainstream a gay porn space opera really is and how close it is to the center of female-centric mainstream (if such a thing could be said to exist).

My favorite customer interaction of the weekend was a little old lady with a walker who motioned towards the Starseed fliers. I handed one to her husband, who looked at it and refused to give it to her until she beat him up some. It was almost like our own personal slapstick revue.

Our banner from last year (“gay porn space opera – you either perked up or you didn’t”) worked remarkably well for bringing in the target demographic. A lot of people laughed and got a flier for their sense of humor. The girls who perked up were really happy to see the comic and it was fun to watch Sarah squee with them about their shared interests. I joked that we needed to encourage people to wear AO3 buttons so that we can spot them in the crowd and refine our marketing technique.

I also plotted secret projects with a couple of people and got a chance to kibitz with Frank Santoro. In fact, just riffing with Frank about some of my more outré notions about comics was one of the highlights of the show.

A few people mentioned my Heavy Metal Tumblr and at least one guy told me that reading it was always the highlight of his day, which was high praise indeed. I was seriously considering stopping when I got to 1986 in my reread because the magazine format switches from saddle stapled to perfect bound, but if one of my readers is that dedicated and enthusiastic, I guess I have no choice but to keep going.

In all honesty, it only takes a soupçon of perspective to notice that I’m not really going through hell at the moment. My father’s death aside, 2013 was actually a pretty good year – we traveled to Brussels, I took a lot of art classes and I generated a lot of positive momentum.

So that’s where I’m at coming out of SPX this year. I’ve been using the show to recharge my creative batteries for the past few years and this year was no different. There’s something about the friction of having books with completely different styles aimed at completely different audiences sitting right next to each other that generates a certain kind of creative tension and energy that just doesn’t manifest at more mainstream shows like Baltimore Comic Con.

SPX makes me want to spend my downtime being creative and making awesome things because I’m driven to make even better things through peer pressure alone(I’m allowed to call them peers even though they’re two decades younger than me, right?). I don’t want to be the only one on the floor next year without something new and amazing on my table.

As far as I’m concerned, it’s officially a new year and it’s time to start planting seeds so that I have something to bring to next year’s harvest.

Posted 10 months, 2 weeks ago at 5:14 am.

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SPX 2012

As we were eating dinner on Sunday night after the show, my wife pointed out that the last post on this site is last year’s SPX wrapup. Whoops.

Badass

In the week leading up to the show, I did the math and figured out this was my tenth visit to SPX, five years as a vendor (four as press, one as a volunteer). It was also my best show to date. Part of that was the general atmosphere of the show. Almost everyone I talked to had great sales.

This year, SPX brought in an ATM specifically because the hotel ATM is always tapped out by midday on Saturday. The $10,000 in the back-up ATM was gone by 4pm on Saturday afternoon and had to be refilled. They even drew a crude map telling people where the local ATMs are and posted it on Twitter – producing something cleaner is on my to-do list for the coming year. As far as I’m concerned, that blows the whole “same $200 being passed around the room” noise away.

Emo Galactus sold out. It got a favorable review from the Wait, What guys and an unexpected bump on The Beat on Friday morning, which most of my friends said something to me about it throughout the weekend. This was Meredith’s first book and I told her that she shouldn’t expect this kind of success with her next book.

The Emo Galactus team

Sales were brisk on Saturday and it was gone by 2:30 Sunday afternoon. My other new books got flipped through, but not bought at the same rate. One was of local interest and the other was a straight up art comic – which has a distinct, other audience. And my metafiction graphic novel series is daunting – but the sample comic has sold out two years running, so people are intrigued but wary about jumping in at the deep end. At $20 a book, I don’t blame them – that’s why I have a $2 sampler.

The tone of the show, however, is not especially deep and introspective unless you bring that reputation (and audience) with you to the show – the whole leather patches on elbows crowd is downstairs, away from the marketplace. As always, good presentation and quick high concept are proven best practices for standing out in the crowd. Flipping through the books we bought, one of the main things that seems to move books is a whimsical concept. We bought a book called Food Porn because the cover was amusing. Is it good? Who cares, it was three dollars. There is another book called Teen Boat – all the angst of being a teen and all the fun of being a boat. It’s been around for years and sells very well.

Table

Emo Galactus sold for three dollars. And it is whimsical, with a pop culture reference that people can easily lean on – or at least be willing to take a chance on. The fact that it was born from a dream about Galactus going to SPX probably didn’t hurt. It’s very much a project that is specific to that show – Galactus is even standing behind the convention center on the cover. And if readers like it and want to learn more, there’s an ad for my deep metafictional graphic novel series on the inside back cover, with a link to the whole thing as a webcomic. Always be promoting.

The other main comic that debuted this year was Starseed, the gay porn space opera that Sarah P and I have been serializing on the web. We scheduled the launch of the webcomic in May so we could sell the first book at or about the time that the first book ends initial serialization. The main selling point – beyond the laser-focused tag line of “gay porn space opera – you either perked up or you didn’t” – is that the comic is black and white on the web and color in print. And the color is amazing.

Starseed

The title is aimed at a very specific pair of demographic groups – the obvious (gay men) and the orthogonal (straight women who enjoy gay porn). The latter is a huge, untapped market that is almost completely opposite to the straight male-heavy demographic of superhero comics. Starseed will never, ever sell well in a mainstream store. But at a show like SPX, where there is a much greater chance of a straight woman who likes gay porn randomly walking by, we did very well. The plurality of openly gay men moving through the crowd also helped a lot.

We have a few other conventions that we’re thinking about – YaoiCon is a gimme, as is Geek Girl Con – but it is extremely unlikely that we would ever seriously consider New York or San Diego. Those are simply not our markets. We just happen to produce an artform that everyone assumes would do well at those events simply because Starseed happens to be comics and they are comic cons.

This was Sarah’s first con and we did everything we could to set her up for success. I sold my books on my table and she sold her book in the adjacent space. We got a banner and made sure that she was dressed to impress – no purple dress, though. She did well for her first con behind the table and we spent most of the show trying to figure out what was working and what wasn’t. There is always room for improvement – the trick is figuring out how to do that most efficiently and effectively.

Purple suit collection

The best part of getting ready for SPX is figuring out which purple suits I should wear and what ties and shirts should go with them. I have options, which makes it fun. The suit I bought in Baltimore has become my regular convention suit and I wore it on Saturday. It’s got browntones in it, which isn’t usually paired with purple, but my wife reminds me every year that I specifically bought a tie to go with it. The Sunday suit was bought on H Street. It comes with two pairs of pants, one plain and the other in plaid to match the jacket and one side of the vest (the other half is plain).

SPX Red Carpet from Griller Video on Vimeo.

My wife and I have been joking for years that we should run a red carpet event before the Ignatz Awards. This year, we got serious about it and called in friends to do interviews and film the whole thing. On Saturday night, after a full day on the floor, we ran a red carpet event before the Ignatz Awards. My wife Shannon Stewart and her friend Stacy Hayash interviewed people while our friend Matt McGarrity did the filming.

My job was to work the crowd, bringing volunteers who wanted to be interviewed. I have to say that getting indie comics creators to go promote their work in public was like pulling teeth. Far too many plead shyness. I gravitated towards people wearing fezes and top hats, on the theory that style wants to be noticed (I know I do when I wear a purple suit).

We got some good, entertaining guests on the red carpet, including (but not limited to): Box Brown, Meredith Burke, John Bintz, Jen Vaughn, Matt Dembecki, Andrew Cohen, Anne Thalheimer, Godzilla and a man wielding a lightsaber and wearing a George Bush mask. At one point Godzilla tackled George Bush. It was a lot of fun. Our primary instruction going into the event was: “If we’re not having fun, we’re doing it wrong.”

One of the weird things that I’ve noticed about SPX over the past few years is how much more dapper the crowd has become. The running joke for a long time was that the standard cartoonist uniform is a flannel shirt, pop culture t-shirt and Converse All-Stars. I flatter myself that showing up in a purple suit for five years running upped the game, but this year I noticed some great hats and an awful lot of suit jackets. The purple suit is about attracting attention and staying memorable. In theory, it should work with an awesome hat.

Even portions customer side of the crowd were dressed well. A State Department delegation rolled through at one point in suits and ties. Godzilla aside, there was no cosplay, which is really weird for anyone who has vended or attended a “real” comic con.

Rockville Pike

My brother used to live across the street from the convention center, so I’m very familiar with North Bethesda. Technically, Bethesda doesn’t extend north of the Beltway, so the Marriott is located in the no-man’s land between the Beltway and Rockville. Bethesda has a nicer cachet, but the whole area is far more Rockville Pike than Bethesda. Bethesda is pedestrian friendly. Rockville Pike is a road that stretches from the Potomac in Georgetown to the wilderness north of Frederick but is most notorious for the strip malls along this stretch and not pedestrian friendly at all. At least, not yet.

The good news is that Montgomery County is a largely affluent suburb of a relatively affluent major city. One of the most generous things you can say about Washington DC is that it’s a transient city – only 35% of the people who grew up here still live here. Between military personnel being constantly rotated in and out and the two-year election cycles and all of the contract recompetes, there is a lot of turnover in population, so these kinds of shows are always new to someone. DC also has a strong art tradition – there is a periodic free art show called Artomatic that draws thousands of people.

The bad news is that North Bethesda is a suburb – if you go four blocks in any direction you’re surrounded by single family homes as far as they eye can see. Beautiful place to grow up, but about the only tourist-friendly places you’re likely to find out there are F. Scott Fitzgerald’s grave and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (directly across the street from the hotel). The public transportation infrastructure is really good in Montgomery County, but a large number of people drive everywhere and there’s a lot of stuff you just have to know about. We ate dinner on Friday night at an Iranian kabob place ten minutes up the street that my family has been going to since I was a kid. (Take the metro one stop to Twinbrook and walk three blocks. Try the lamb.)

Having said that, SPX held it’s own against the H Street Festival this past weekend – a major event in the District proper aimed at the crypto-hipster population that frequents the themed bars in the so-called Atlas District. That event got somewhere over 60,000 people and at least a portion of those might have also been inclined to show up for something like SPX.

Speaking of which, I hit the Ignatz afterparty at about midnight on Saturday night and talked to a few people, but I really wasn’t up for trying to hang out in the scrum. To a certain extent, a combination of age and locality gives me a different perspective on the afterhours activity. It’s not a case of “there’s nothing else to do” because there are plenty of things to do. But given my choice of activities, sleep works best for me – I gotta work in the morning. And the day after that.

Working stiff

I had some very good conversations. A pair of experimental fiction students were interviewing people about experimental comics so I gave them an earful about how not being able to draw pushed me to seek out different ways to illustrate my comics. I think I even paraphrased a Brian Eno/Alan Moore exchange because I thought it was relevant; I’m not sure that they knew who either of those people were, to be honest.

One of my favorite parts of internet interaction is meeting peers that you’ve been talking to on Twitter for weeks or months. I love it when someone is as cool in person as they seem to be online. It’s been happening to me for over a decade and it never gets old. It would be nice to have more time to talk that didn’t incur a sleep deprivation penalty, but there are always tradeoffs.

One of my primary goals this year was to connect the three diverse pieces of information about myself; I am immediately identifiable as the man in the purple suit and have been for five years, but nobody knows my name and nobody knows what kind of comics I make. This year, Emo Galactus propped up the content end of the triangle and I made sure to mention my name in conversation to prominent journalists – I actually got a few “oh yeah, I recognize the name” responses.

This kind of thing takes time to build. As much as I’ve been learning how to make comics over the past five years, I’ve also been learning how to brand myself, how to sell comics, how to work a table and how to talk about comics like I know what I’m talking about online with other people who share my interests. These are all distinct skillsets and I’ve only been exercising them for five years, if that. Going by the “it takes ten years of constant effort to get good at something” yardstick, I’m about halfway there. Operating under the assumption that I’m going to be making comics for the next 35 or 40 years (at least), a slow build is worth the time invested. No reason to go around being dumb in public when I can be dumb where nobody’s watching.

And, of course, I bought comics.

SPX haul

Overall, the show did what it does every year: fill me with an urge to make comics. The wave of creative energy that builds around the show does a lot to charge the batteries and reinforce the determination to get things done, to impress the people next year with something even better. I had five separate conversations that boiled down to “yeah, let’s do something together” with other artists – always a good sign.

One of the things that SPX does in general is fill me with optimism about the future of the comics medium. I keep hearing that this or that is the death knell for comics. The people moaning about the state of things are not attending SPX. The American superhero comic publishing industry may be having trouble, but any medium with this many dedicated people who are doing this for more love than money (although the money was good this year) is quite healthy, thank you very much. More than anything else, this year’s SPX was a reaffirmation of our creative confidence; it is okay for us to be doing the things we are doing. Not that we need permission.

On the way home, I then harshed my buzz by rear-ending an elected official in Columbia Heights. But that’s another story….

Posted 1 year, 8 months ago at 4:47 pm.

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SPX 2011 Wrapup and Decompression

Small Press Expo has become my favorite show to work. For many reasons, I like to think of it as my flagship convention, the place where I try to make the biggest impact. The purple suit helps. Having a collection of purple suits, which allows me wear a different one each day, helps more.

I live in Alexandria, which means that SPX is a local show – I went to high school up the road from the convention center. As locals, we also tried to be hosts. I made a Google map of places to eat. My wife bought pastries at the hidden Entemann’s outlet store (that we discovered when we were putting together the map) and took them around the vendor room on Sunday morning before the doors opened.

Friday afternoon, I picked up Dan Barlow at the airport because it was stupid of him to spend an hour and a half on the Metro up to Bethesda; I live ten minutes from the airport and was planning to go up to SPX for Friday night socializing anyway. We drove around Rockville and visited F. Scott Fitzgerald’s grave, practically the only tourist attraction that Rockville can lay claim to.

The show itself was amazing. We ran into a lot of old friends and saw a lot of new faces. I recognized two bartenders and a slew of friends and neighbors from the DC metro area were in attendance. I talked to Darryl Ayo on Saturday, a conversation that probably would have been better if we’d been in a quiet bar sipping whisky. As it was, we were both working and I’m always conscious of crowding the table. (I hate it when that happens to me, even when I want to talk to the person.) I also got interviewed by Rusty and Joe from Full Sanction, who were doing video interviews with any creator that felt like sitting down with them, which was fun. I can’t wait to see the result and I really want that experiment to stick around next year.

Every time I talk to Carla Speed McNeil, she hands me valuable, hard-earned advice and I do my best to pay attention to it. One time she told me to make sure I have something new on the table every year for that one fan who will buy anything new. Check – this was the debut for books 4 and 5 in the Oceanus Procellarum series and long-time readers bought copies of both books.

The next time she gave me advice, she told me to make something “book shaped” that people can walk away with for not very much at all. Accordingly, I made a little sampler comic for the Oceanus Procellarum series. I gave the pitch – “The hidden truth is that when a character encounters the truth in the story, he remembers that he’s in a story.” – then pointed out that I understood that buying a full book was a big ask for a first time reader. But! I had a $2 sampler. “If you like the sampler, you’ll like the series. If you don’t, you’re out two bucks.” I sold out of my sampler. And someone bought a copy of the main book after reading the sampler. Thanks Carla!

Another thing I did was hand out free propaganda – the one page strip about Practical Ideas for the Passionate Comics Reader on one side and an ad for Oceanus Procellarum on the back. Someone read the ad and bought the main book in the series, which pretty much means that the free propaganda that I shoved in everyone’s face all weekend long paid for itself.

Unfortunately, I ran out of propaganda about midway through Sunday. Between that and selling out of the sampler, there was a notable drop in sales on Sunday afternoon – a generally slow time anyway. Of course, that’s when I went shopping for bargains. Sometimes that strategy works and sometimes it doesn’t. I was not in time to get all three of Jen Vaughn‘s menstruation comics for my wife because one had sold out.

I came home Saturday night with aching feet and discovered that the shelf porn I’d sent in to Robot 6 had been posted, which was a great morale booster from an odd direction.

All in all, this was a great weekend. I really felt like I hit my stride, sales-wise. After four years of so-so activity, it was good to see the hard work paying off. It also made me feel like I’d figured something out, which gave me a nice endorphin rush. Going back to work today was a struggle.

Posted 2 years, 10 months ago at 5:37 pm.

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Quarterly Report, Q1 2011

It’s now a few days after the end of the first quarter of 2011 and it’s time for a quarterly report.

I started the year weak as a kitten after a surgical procedure to correct a heart arrhythmia over Christmas. Ninety plus days later and I’m off the follow-up meds and feeling strong and productive.

Four of the five books in the Oceanus Procellarum series are at the printer (I sold out of the first printing of Book 1). If you are interested in reading the series but don’t feel like paying $20 apiece for physical books, the first two books (Weapons of Devotion and Class of 63) are available online – the third (Taste of Flesh) is being serialized right now at the rate of four pages a day. Books four (Kampyle of Eudoxus) and five (Morose) will go live in January of 2012 and 2013, respectively.

Copies of all books will be available at SPX. Look for the man in the purple suit.

The comics that I’ve made this year are being published in a webcomic series called Irregular Variables. After producing 200+ of the 500+ pages in my aforementioned graphic novel series last year, I decided to give myself a break. This year, I will only make self-contained comics of less than 16 pages in length. To date, the Irregular Variables I have published are:

Tressage – An out-and-out art comic that started with a conversation I had with a bartender about standardized symbol sets. I’ve learned a lot more about the topic since I made the comic, but that’s okay because the comic itself really veered into conceptual territory pretty much from the second page.

Why I Remixed Star Wars – A number of years ago, I completely remixed Star Wars for what I felt were perfectly valid, artistic reasons. Read the comic if you’re curious – that’s why I made it.

Art Cars of H Street – I took a scrapbooking class in February. I’ve been fascinated by scrapbooking for a long time. Because I cannot draw, I’ve spent a long time trying to find new and different ways to illustrate the stories I write. I stumbled upon scrapbooking almost by accident and figured out that it has all of the elements of traditional comics. In fact Karon Flage once called scrapbooking, “Comic book making for midwestern housewives,” which is about as accurate as it gets. This particular comic was made using pictures I took with my iPhone during the H Street festival in 2010.

Shape and Color – Another piece from my class. I ran out of material and started improvising with what I had at hand. The great thing about working on 12 x 12 pages is the amount of room there is to play with.

The Great Escape – Last year, I picked up some batik elephants at World Market for about $12. On a warm Sunday afternoon in February, I took them into my backyard and made a comic with them using my iPhone. I remixed the pictures on my iPad using the TiltShiftGen app and made them into a 16 page comic with the Strip Design app (also on the iPad). I’ve made plenty of photocomics before, but I’ve never made a completely silent comic.

I have made other comics, which are scheduled to be published as follows:

Theft of Excellence – This comic shows off my meager cartooning skills and my not-so-meager painting and collage skills. The lament that I heard from my peers was that the scans don’t show off the texture of the pages. Go live date: April 11th.

Leaving Nebraska – This comic was illustrated by Sarah Anderson, who did a piece in Kampyle of Eudoxus. Her work was good enough to make me want to do something else with her. I dusted off this character study I’d written and sent it to her to see what she would do with it. Go live date: April 18th.

Rue the Day – I found the first scrapbooking class interesting and informative enough to sign up for the follow-up, where I made this piece. It’s a visual poem as much as it is anything else. Go live date: May 2nd.

Books of Novelty – I don’t really have much of a destination in mind when I start designing a pair of pages. Mostly, I’m paying attention to color, shape, composition and the materials that I have at hand. Meaning (and thus, storytelling) is usually a distant thought until the very end of the process, when I’m ready to decipher and distill something from what I have created. Go live date: May 9th.

Y-3 – Another experimental scrapbooking piece. Instead of actual journaling, it features asemic writing. Go live date: May 16th.

I’ve got a few other projects in the works, including a few anthology submissions. I’m taking the third, follow-up scrapbooking class as well, so I should have some more pieces to put up in the months to come.

Posted 3 years, 3 months ago at 3:09 pm.

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Hugo Pratt’s Corto Maltese

Hugo Pratt is one of those names that you can use to separate the knowledgeable from the unlearned when it comes to European comics. Those that know recognize the name immediately; not knowing him is like not knowing Kirby.

A bronze statue of Corto Maltese in front of the Angouleme Comics Museum

His most famous creation is Corto Maltese, a name that should be familiar to anyone who’s read The Dark Knight Returns – it’s used as the name of the small island nation where Superman is forced to intervene. Frank Miller is an avid Hugo Pratt devotee and provided the introduction for the English translation of Book 3 in the series that NBM published in the mid-80s. Pratt’s extreme use of solid blacks and whites in high contrast for effect had a direct impact on Frank Miller, especially in Sin City.

In fact, many feel that Pratt’s linework is of more interest than the character he created, which is understandable. It’s obvious that Pratt put an enormous effort into creating believable tableaux, drawing from his life experience as a world-traveler to add a layer of verisimilitude to his creations. However, his best work is not the buildings and costumes that he creates, but those occasions where he finds it necessary to step back and provide a more impressionistic view of things – usually during action sequences.

The confident use of rough blacks, shadow effects and precise linework in concert is really what makes Hugo Pratt such an interesting artist. It’s nearly impossible to flip through his books without wanting to stop and examine the linework. From there, it’s a short lack of impulse control away from figuring out where the story starts and finding out what’s going on in the story at hand.

NBM released eight books in translation, but the whole run has been out of print for decades. Mostly because of the quality of the art, the books are very difficult to find and are an occasion for rejoicing when they turn up.

When I was at HeroesCon in 2010, I ran across a vendor who had a pair of the NBM books on his shelf. These books are very rare and can fetch quite a bit of money on eBay from sellers who know exactly what they have on their hands. The fact that I paid as little for these books as I did makes me want to go back to that reseller. In fact, I had my eye on his collected Terry and the Pirates reprints as well…

To me, the appeal of the Corto Maltese stories has always been the rich history of the character and the way that creator Hugo Pratt integrated him into the events of the day. From his (chronologically) first appearances in the Russo-Japanese war, where he meets the war correspondent Jack London and his long-time adversary Rasputin, the Maltese stories show him wandering the globe for over twenty years, visiting most of the continents and just generally being “a gentleman of fortune.”

Each NBM book collects a series of four or five 20 page stories that were originally printed in the Pif gadget comics magazine – which is how Francophone comics were usually serialized. I picked up Books 2 & 3 (Banana Congo and Voodoo for the President) in Charlotte and I already owned Book 4 (A Midwinter Morning’s Dream). Read in order, the stories tie together in a loose but coherent fashion. One leads into another into another and the books are structured about right for the themes presented.

Banana Congo and Voodoo for the President are largely focused on Corto’s adventures in South America and the Caribbean, getting involved in political situations that he has no stake in, searching for treasure, encountering unusual characters and eventually running off to Venice to find part of a long-lost treasure map. The next book in the series is entirely set in Europe and the remains of World War I, although it does have a great interlude in Dublin.

One of the best stories in these books is about a group of soldiers from various armies who have banded together to liberate a cache of hidden gold in a small town that keeps changing hands with the vicissitudes of war. The story makes the point that only a neutral pirate like Corto Maltese could have possible organized all of these various parties together to make the plan work. It starts with an observation balloon going off-mission, but it turns into a fantastic caper.

There are several dream sequences throughout the stories, some of which are centered on Maltese and some of which aren’t. It takes a strong character to not be the center of his own stories, which Maltese frequently isn’t. In the Russo-Japanese war story, he doesn’t show up until almost two-thirds of the way through the narrative! (Mind you, that story was written well after the character was established, in an attempt to give some more backstory to an already colorful individual.)

At one point, Maltese loses his memory. In the very next story, his traveling companion decides that the best way to give Maltese his memory back is to feed him magic mushrooms obtained from a tribe in the central Amazon rain forest. Predictably, this leads to yet another dream sequence.

As a treasure-seeker, rogue and anti-hero, Corto Maltese is much more world-weary than Han Solo or Indiana Jones and should really be placed in their company as a default go-to character archetype for comics readers. The wikipedia page about the character points out that Maltese frequently shows up in various other European comics – not always by name, but usually recognizable by appearance alone.

The French publisher Casterman has re-released the entire Corto Maltese library in chronological order of occurrence (which is not the same as the publication order). These handsome, hardback books also contain a little essay at the front, talking about Pratt’s artistic influences and the time period of the story – or so I imagine; I haven’t actually gotten around to translating that bit of French yet. The Casterman books are also notable for being in color, which is unusual because the originals (and NBM translations) were printed in black and white.

The colors do not actively detract from the impact of the linework, but the black and white pages really show off Pratt’s compositional abilities at a macro level to much better effect. I will say, however, that the page just before Corto’s introduction in La Jeunesse (which I picked up in Brussels) is almost an abstract comic. The individual panels are really just snapshots of action, flashes of color that capture our attention.

When I originally started reading La Jeunesse, I was using the one-word-at-a-time method with a dictionary and only got about halfway through the story. After reading Books 2 & 3, though, I went back and realized that Pratt’s storytelling style was not all that complicated. With a little bit of squinting, I was able to get through the rest of the book using only my casual understanding of French. I should have known to do that from the fact that I was able to read the introductory page from La Jeunesse without any translation assistance at all.

Reading the book in French, however, did highlight the fact that the letters of the alphabet have evolved from pictographs and are, essentially, nothing more than standardized drawings. When those letters form patterns that are recognizable as words that I understand, I see them as text. When they form words that I do not immediately recognize, their evolutionary past is much more obvious and they become just another kind of organized pattern of marks on the page.

There are occasional rumors that one company or another is going to publish the Corto Maltese books in English, but nothing ever comes of them. For that reason, those readers who are serious about Hugo Pratt and his most famous character will probably have to deal with the language barrier and read the series in French. Considering the volume of additional material that comes with French, I’d say that it’s not a bad way to go.

However, if you happen to find a copy of any of the NBM albums when you’re poking around in dusty bookstores, pick it up immediately. If you pay less than $30 for it, you got a bargain. If you find a copy of The Ballad of the Salt Sea, let me know.

Posted 3 years, 8 months ago at 6:15 am.

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Oceanus Procellarum News


I just got the art for the cover of Book 5 of the Oceanus Procellarum series and I wanted to post it here to show it off. I also wanted to use it to point out that I am releasing Books 4 & 5 of the series concurrently, to pre-emptively answer the inevitable question “but you just put out Book 3 earlier this year, didn’t you?”

One of the things about comics as a format is that it designed to display a series of moments to the net effect of telling a story. These moments can be easily grouped at the frame level, the page level and the book level; there is as much significance and narrative power in the gutter break between books as there is between installments of a regular daily strip.

There is a scene at the very end of Book 4 that references the title of Book 5 in such a way that works better if the reader knows that Book 5 has, in fact, been published. One of the themes of the series is the idea of a character deliberately setting down a historical canonical record that does not mention everything. It’s a situation chock full of apocrypha – which happens to be a bit of a pet obsession. I’ve always wanted to write an apocryphal novel, so why not write a situation that generates the ability to include one in the story?

The best part about apocrypha is the very strict binary nature of the classification. If a work exists, it’s not properly apocryphal. This works fine for stuff that’s been physically destroyed, but it gets interesting around organizations that only recognize certain works – ie the Bible, when Church officials chose to pretend that certain books didn’t exist. It was information warfare at the most basic level and it required a serious amount of steely reserve and deep self-delusion (or a real knack for politics). But it also produced tangible examples of an apocryphal work that you can hold in your hand – a true paradox.

And that’s even before you get to Borges.

I accept that it’s probably self-indulgent to structure a series of graphic novels in such a way to enable myself to write an apocryphal novel that I can hand to you. But if you are reading Book 5 in a series about characters that remember that they’re characters when they encounter the truth in a story, this shouldn’t surprise you. After all, I’m writing a metafiction series. I figure that I might as well pack as many different kinds inside as I can.

Which reminds me – another bit of apocrypha I built into the series is the promise of Books 6, 7 & 8. Right now, they exist in an early draft and will need a lot of work before they’ll be ready for publication. I have no plans to address the first of them for at least a year – after all, Book 5 is out a year early. But I offer you the promise as a kind of apocrypha type two: the anticipated.

Posted 3 years, 8 months ago at 6:28 pm.

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Le Reflet

One of the BD I picked up in Belgium was Le Reflet (the Reflection) by Marc-Renier and Yvan Hasse. One of the things I was specifically looking for as I browsed the European comic markets was metafictional works. I picked it up because Le Reflet is one such work – obviously so.

My French is not very good. It got marginally better over the summer, when I took my first French class in 22 years. However, I took the class after I read Le Reflet – which involved a painful, word-by-word flip through the French/English dictionary. There were several passages that didn’t make a whole lot of sense to me at the time, but I’m fairly sure that I got the gist of the whole story, if not the specifics.

Having said that, the whole piece has sat heavy on my mind for the past several months and I decided to take the opportunity that has been granted (the wife is on a girl’s weekend in Brooklyn) to unravel my thoughts on the work.

The book itself is very short. It’s not as wide as a standard BD album and it’s a brisk 30 pages long. The art is a Herge-influenced ligne clair style with a color scheme that is slightly more pastel than you would expect for a story with such dark themes. This makes sense, as Marc-Renier got his start working for Tintin magazine at about the same time. The two best things about the art are the numerous callouts to classic European BD (the story is set in a BD shop) and the tails on the word balloons, which have a beautifully art deco flip to them. The book was published in 1983, but the clothing on the characters suggests an earlier era – 1950s or 60s, maybe.

Spot the references.

The plot is fairly straightforward: Marc owns a shop that specializes in classic BD, which he declares to be genius (“Genial,” above). He’s found an artist to illustrate a BD that he wrote – something of his own that he can place next to the canon on the shelf. The comic shop is named “Au Miroir Malefique” which translates into “In the Evil Mirror.” The reason for the name is an ominous mirror (that you can see below) that came with the shop when he first rented it. He took it as an omen. No, really. Accordingly, the BD is called Le Reflet (the Reflection) – an obvious nod to the name of the shop, which is appropriate because it’s about the history of the shop.

Close up of the detail on the balloons and the mirror.

All of that gets established in the first dozen pages. In the next two pages, the book arrives. Unsurprisingly for those that have been paying attention, it is the book that the reader is currently reading. The title is the same, the cover is the same. In a broad hint about this eventuality, Marc is seen on page two holding an inked page for his yet-to-be published BD that is the same as the previous page.

Mise en abyme

Ann Miller’s Reading Bande Dessinee calls this Mise en abyme, where “art is transposed ‘to the level of the characters.’” Her book gives a more obvious example from Mathieu’s L’Origine, whose main character begins receiving pages of BD art in the mail – each one depicting a scene that has already occurred. Mathieu takes the conceit to an existential conclusion (to great effect), but it was published in 1991, seven years after Le Reflet was published.

It’s details like these that made me pick up Le Reflet in the first place. They don’t happen enough in Anglo-Saxon comics, but they seem to appear in the BD created in the land of French language theorists with startling regularity. What I found most interesting about this particular narrative artifact was what the creators did with it.

The final two-thirds of the book start with Marc receiving his books from the printer and then goes rapidly downhill as he finds himself completely unable to sell any copies of his books. The situation spirals out of control – he yells at customers and friends and grows despondent as boxes of books are returned and begin to accumulate.

Eventually, he shuts up the shop and hides with his BD. Unshaven and distraught, he talks to himself (literally – a clean-cut reflection that appears in the evil mirror and is his sole voice of encouragement) and eventually dies. His publisher friend finds his dead body and is astonished to flip to the back of Le Reflet to find a page that looks exactly like that scene; even moreso because it was not there the first time he read the book.

Breaking and entering.

There’s a bit of a Twilight Zone ending to the story, but it’s a necessary twist. Without it, the whole construct begs to be given the third degree. To wit: did Marc knowingly write a story about his own downfall and death but pretended to be surprised when it came true? The implication comes with the conceit – the album published in the story is intended to be read as the actual album and vice versa. What happens in one will happen in the other. Fate happens to everyone eventually.

But if the content of the story changed after the fact, then Marc is not a self-destructive creator, merely a run-of-the-mill self-delusional one. And that’s a much easier position to understand; who hasn’t gone to those histrionic extremes in this day and age of self-publication? In fact, there’s every reason to believe that the original story Marc published was all about how wonderful he was and how successful this book was going to make him.

There’s more than a basic parable about believing your own hype here – I still haven’t unpacked the symbolism of the mirror. Obviously, calling the shop “In the Evil Mirror” is a broad hint at the nature of the mirror itself. But it also points at the nature of the relationship between the shop (and the universe it sits within) and the mirror; the shop is in the mirror, and is the evil reflection of some other, idealized world.

I doubt very much that Marc really thought too much about these implications. After all, “In the Evil Mirror” is a pretty awesome name for a local comic shop; it’s almost on par with “Forbidden Planet” without having to contend with all of the pop cultural baggage.

But one hopes that he thought about this stuff when he named his book Le Reflet; placed in the context, the BD becomes the reflection that is in the evil mirror. I don’t think he parsed the relational themes as presented. If he had, he might have figured out that the outcome he was experiencing was a result of being on the wrong side of the mirror.

Which is the reflection?

The book ends with both reflections of Marc on the inside of the mirror, looking out at the mess that was created. In the end, it’s where Marc was probably meant to be.

One ironic footnote to the album. I found my copy in the bargain section of a used-BD store in Belgium. The price tag shows 2.50 euros and it’s obviously seen better days. Exactly where you’d expect to find a book that presents itself as a sales failure. I honestly wonder what happened to les Editions du Miroir (no kidding!) – as far as I can tell, they only put out a handful of books; two of which were written by Yvan Hasse. His entire bibliography.

Posted 3 years, 8 months ago at 8:46 am.

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Emo Galactus

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Posted 3 years, 10 months ago at 10:00 am.

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Wrap Up

The biggest thing that came out of our trip to Brussels, Paris and Angouleme at the end of January was the decision to learn to read French. It was a practical decision, based in large part on the fact that a great number of books that I wanted to read have yet to be translated into English. It is a commitment, yes, but a commitment that is fairly easy to adhere to because the only person hurt by my lack of rigor is myself.

In almost every way, this additional language becomes the gateway to another world – a different way of looking at comic book culture, a different comic book market and a wider variety of titles and genres to choose from. And, to be honest, if I am to regard myself as a serious comic book reader – which I do – learning to read French so that I can read some of the best work that the medium has to offer is a logical decision.

In addition, I regard the more mature Francophone comic book market and culture as something that the American comic book market and culture could (and should) aspire to. The reading base of the former is broader, encompassing a vast demographic that cuts across gender, age and economic lines. In our culture, comic book readers are a narrow demographic by default. There has been a belated understanding that other people might like comics as well, but there have really only been partial attempts to court those readers with material aimed at them.

Part of me is convinced that translating and importing select titles from the French market would be enable the American comics market to jump-start a marketing campaign to attract readers outside the default demographics. After all, these are books of proven quality and known sales figures. Many of them have extensive back catalogs. Startup costs for importing these books are different than paying authors and artists to create books from scratch.

If nothing else, the addition of choices to the market should increase buy-in from those readers who like comic books as a medium, but are less than enchanted by the current selection available. After all, the French market is vast – much larger than the contemporary American market. Their back catalog contains books that have been in print since the 1920s and are still being read heavily today by almost everyone. The American books from the 1920s – Little Nemo and Krazy Kat, among others – are being read by connoisseurs and not the standard comics reader.

The lesson I took from the Manga explosion and Harry Potter is that there are a lot of readers out there. The received wisdom that people simply don’t read anymore is false; Harry Potter had millions of people willing to pick up 800 page novels. Manga had people tripping over teenagers in Border’s – teenagers who were unwilling to go into comic book stores because those stores simply didn’t have what they were looking for. Readers want to read, but faced with the vast amount of choice available in today’s entertainment market, readers can afford to be selective. If there is nothing available that they want to read, they will not buy just to buy something.

All things being equal, though, I really don’t have a lot of hope for the maturation of the contemporary American comic book market. Chances are very good that it will continue to plod along as it always has, slaves to dedicated genres and narrow demographics, hoping to squeeze more dollars out of an increasingly depleted monetary pool. And the popular culture in this country will continue to regard comic books as something that is primarily for children – mostly because the big publishers probably will not change their marketing tactics in an attempt to counter this assumption.

Change only happens when it is necessary. The bigger an institution, the less impetus there is for change. If there is a revolution in the way that the comic book medium is perceived in this culture, it will not originate from the largest companies currently publishing comic books. Their business model was cast in the mid-sixties and has not changed significantly. From time to time, they branch out into different genres, but with the notable exception of DC’s Vertigo imprint, these experiments have not borne a lot of fruit.

If there is genuine desire for a more mature comic book market in our culture, it will have to be driven by people whose current marketing plan has not already been decided for them. It will be most likely be aimed at demographics that are not the standard 18-35 year old male readers. And it will probably not be driven by French publishers – they already have a very healthy market, thank you very much; an English market may be vast and relatively untapped, but it is not necessary.

As a result of this frank examination of the state of our comic book culture and market, I feel safe in concluding that if I want to read the kinds of comics that are interesting to me, it’s in my best interest to learn to read French. Or start my own imprint, importing translated comics to this market. On the whole, I think I’m going to have to stick with the option that doesn’t require a boatload of money that I just don’t have.

Posted 4 years, 2 months ago at 2:19 pm.

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Cent Pour Cent

One of the places we wanted to visit while we were in Angouleme was the BD Museum. We’ve been to Geppi’s Entertainment Museum in Baltimore and the BD Museum in Brussels. This would give us a chance to compare and contrast the three and get a sense for what the French considered museum-worthy.

One of the things we noticed from the map of the town was that the BD Museum was on the bus route of a special bus that took festival goers on a set route around town. When we got on the bus, we discovered why this was necessary. The main portion of the comic festival is in the town square, which is on top of a massive piece of high ground, way up high. The BD Museum, which is next to a river, is on the flat, low ground. The bus provided a way to go from up to down (and vice versa). Did I mention that the town was very hilly?

By the time we got to the BD Museum, our feet were starting to ache from the combined effects of six consecutive days spent wandering Brussels, Paris and now Angouleme. We really wanted a place to sit down. Thank god for the BD Musuem.

You have to cross the bridge to get to the museum. Halfway across the bridge is a bronze statue of Corto Maltese, looking up into the clouds. The museum itself is housed in what looks like an old paper factory. The inside of the museum, however, is space-age as all get out.

I understand that the main exhibit room just received a major makeover in the past few years. I don’t know what it looked like before, but now it looks like someone stole Kubrick’s interior sets from 2001 and molded them into the space. Scattered throughout are massive benches that people can use to sit down. In the center of the seating area are dozens of comics that people can sit and read for as long as they want. The museum is actually designed to be interactive and treats the museum-goer like a library guest.

The exhibits themselves were very interesting and informative, with laminated cards in English. The timeline of comics were broken down logically and Anglo-Saxon comics were placed in their proper socio-historical context, vis-à-vis the French comics of the time. The collection on display was very extensive and I got to play “I have that book.”

The special exhibition (created specifically for the festival) was a show called Cent Pour Cent, where 100 cartoonists reinterpreted 100 classic comic pages. Of course, there is a massive book that reprints all 200 pages, side by side for comparison purposes. The show itself was great. Some of the pages were a bit abstract, but the pages that were good worked very well.

Of course, the best way to judge a museum is by its gift shop. Geppi’s Entertainment Museum, for example, has the worst gift shop I have ever been in. This is especially distressing, considering the business that the owner is affiliated with. By comparison, the gift shop in the Brussels BD Museum was fantastic. But the gift shop in the Angouleme BD Museum was like walking into a store like Waldenbooks – beautifully arranged tables overflowing with books. My wife pointed out that it was the local comic shop for the people in the surrounding towns; a small price to pay for living in the middle of nowhere, I guess.

One of the great things about the gift shop was the fact that it stocked art supplies in the front of the store. This meant that the intention was not just to sell comics, but the means of making comics as well. I don’t know if the students visiting the museum got the message that they were intended (indeed, encouraged) to eventually take up the pencil if they wanted, but it was there.

There were other exhibits in the surrounding buildings, but we were so beat at that point that we took the bus back to the top of the town, found a bar and split a bottle of wine. If we had been staying in town, we might have gone back to our rooms for a quick nap before trying to see Enki Bilal, but our train was coming to whisk us back to Paris instead.

As in Brussels, seeing such a well thought-out museum dedicated to the ninth art was very satisfying. Again, it provided some context for the mass entertainment that I’d been wandering around in all day and gave me some material to look out for in the future. I would recommend this place for a visit on its own, but it’s worth visiting during the festival to get the full effect, the context and the spirit of goodwill that’s generated.

Next week is the last installment of the 12 part journey through French comics country: the series wrap-up.

Posted 4 years, 3 months ago at 6:13 am.

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