ROBIN HOOD: OUTLAW OF THE 21ST CENTURY – An Interview with Matt Dursin

In the Spring of 2011, I went to my first comics convention in years, the Boston Comic Con, and, while at the Convention (ok, not there, exactly; rather, it was the pub down the street), I struck up conversation with Matt Dursin, the co-host of the LEAGUE OF ORDINARY GENTLEMEN podcast, and, through virtue of staying in contact through the years, I was lucky enough to be a guest on the LEAGUE podcast to promote the release of the first WHIZ!BAM!POW! books and COMICSTORYWORLD.

Now I get to turn the interviewer-interviewee tables on him, as Matt debuts his first comics series, ROBIN HOOD: OUTLAW OF THE 21st CENTURY, a reinvention of the ROBIN HOOD legend for the 21st century that blends heists and high adventure amid a ripped-from-the-headlines backdrop. In the interest of full disclosure, I did a bit of transmedia consultation on the ROBIN HOOD comic last year.

Without further verbiage, here’s my interview with Matt, in which we chat about ROBIN HOOD, the state of independent comics, pitches, and Kickstarter.


Tell me the story of your new vision of ROBIN HOOD.

ROBIN HOOD: OUTLAW OF THE 21ST CENTURY is a modern take on the Robin Hood legend, where Robin and his merry men steal medicine and give it to those in need, such as people who can’t afford them or people who don’t have health insurance. That’s the quick synopsis, but the plan is for the story to go in different directions as Robin sinks deeper into a world of crime. Not every story will focus on him robbing a pharmacy.The first issue was written by me, with art by Mark Vuycankiat, lettered by L. Jamal Walton and colored by Tamra Bonvillain, who is coloring the SLEEPY HOLLOW comic right now. Also, the cover is by Jason Baroody and Mark McKenna, who have worked all over the industry.

How did your version of ROBIN HOOD come about?

I had the idea years ago, and originally it was going to be a movie screenplay. I pecked away at it for years, but never had any clue how it would end. Then in 2009, I took an online Comics Experience writing class, and the first night we were put on the spot to pitch the instructor (former Marvel & IDW editor Andy Schmidt) an idea for a 5-page comic story. After much deliberation, I pitched the modern-day Robin Hood story that I had rattling in my head for years. And years later, the five page story I wrote for the class became the first five pages of the very first issue.

One of the difficulties in working with a story where an issue is so front and center, in this case, the exorbitant cost of health care and the sad state of medical affairs in this country, is that the story is overshadowed by the message, but ROBIN HOOD manages to deliver a great story with great characters (elements like delivering meds in pizza boxes) AND deliver a clear message about the inaccessibility of health care, the chasm of income equality, and treatment of veterans. How did you walk that razor’s edge?

I tried very carefully not to be too preachy, especially with the dialogue. One strategy I attempted, which is hard for me, is to take a “less-is-more” approach with it. There’s no need to over-state your point, because hopefully, if you do your job right, your characters will bring your ideas to the forefront. Plus in a comic book script, you have to leave room for the artwork, so if a whole panel is a giant word balloon with a character rambling on and on, it kind of ruins it.

Also, I think infusing some humor helped me not hammer the reader over the head with the message. You don’t want to put too much in, but the Robin Hood of some of the folklore is often portrayed as an imp, so it does work.

You’ve said in other interviews that one of the inspirations behind the series was the BBC’s stellar reinvention of Sherlock Holmes in SHERLOCK. What is it about characters like Sherlock Holmes and Robin Hood (and Superman, and Batman, etc.) that make for seemingly endless interpretations of character across time periods?

I think certain characters are timeless and can work in any era. BBC’s SHERLOCK helped me see that it can be done and done well. Originally, before Robin Hood, I was trying to write a story about a modern-day Billy the Kid, but that character was not coming to life as I’d hoped, and I think part of the reason is because Billy didn’t have that mission, that raison d’etre, so to speak, like Robin Hood. The “robbing from the rich to give to the poor” paradigm is something a lot of people can understand and get behind.

Your love of comics is apparent in every page of ROBIN HOOD and in all of our chats. What was it about comics that hooked you? First to start a podcast, THE LEAGUE OF ORDINARY GENTLEMEN,  dedicated to them and then to create your own?

I’ve been a comic book fan since I was about nine years-old. I honestly think it was probably watching Spider-Man cartoons and reruns of the Adam West Batman that made me start reading them, because I wanted to devour as much of that stuff as I could. And then I started reading Marvel’s G.I.JOE and TRANSFORMERS books because I liked the toys, and all that eventually bled into reading all kinds of super-hero books. The best thing is they were .65 or .75 cents back then, so even for a kid, it was easy to just read as much as you wanted. But I think mostly what drew me in was the colorful characters and the basic, solid stories. “Spidey saves the city from The Hobgoblin.” What more does a nine year-old kid need? And honestly, I don’t think my sensibilities have changed that much.

You and I both became comics fans at around the same age. Do you think that a kid, nine or ten years old, would have as easy a time getting in to comics today as we did back in the days of yore? What’s stopping them? 

It’s hard to say, really. On the one hand, if a kid has access to the internet or a tablet, there are a lot of cheap or free comics out there, and Marvel even has that Unlimited membership deal for $9.99, which they would have to get from their parents, I guess. And there are a lot of animated shows and the movies to help raise awareness. But at the same time, there’s a lot of competition for kid’s attention these days, and for a nine year-old to be a regular reader of something like AMAZING SPIDER-MAN every month would cost him a lot more than it did when we were kids. So, it’s probably easy to get into comics these days, but harder to stay into them.

You talked about being put on the spot to pitch in your online Comics Experience writing class. What did you learn about pitching an editor from that class, and, to you, goes in to a great pitch? 

The class required a beginning, middle and end for a five-page comic story, so that was hard, but I think, in general, that really means a clear vision for your story. Editors can differ in what they are looking for, but I think they can all agree that they want a clear, comprehensible, and probably marketable, idea.

While digital distribution channels have opened up near-infinite means of getting your work in front of eyes, what are the challenges of independently producing a comic these days?

??????????????????There are challenges I couldn’t have even imagined, and part of the challenge was my own ignorance about some of the technology. As the writer, I knew just enough to find an artist, a letterer and a colorist, but I didn’t know much about the actual production. As far as digital distribution, I drove myself crazy because Amazon needs the files in one format, while Comixology needed them saved a completely different way, and the printer needed an even different way. Plus, I had two different versions to send to my Kickstarter donors who chose a digital book as a reward, depending on which format they wanted. I have so many versions of the first issue saved on my computer that it’s insane.

Beyond just the technical stuff, the fact that there are so many avenues makes it harder to separate yourself from the pack, because anyone with the drive and the know-how can produce their own comic these days, just like anyone can make their own movie or record their own album. The hard part is making people want to buy yours when there are so many options for their entertainment dollar.

With the first batch I printed, I even tried a sort of Radiohead technique, where I printed no cover price and asked people to pay what they wanted. Granted a few people just took the book and ran off, but most people understood what I was trying to do and paid for it, some even paid more than regular comic book price.

As a writer, what lessons did you learn from putting together that first issue?

I learned that the writer is an important, but also pretty small, part of the process. Despite the fact that it was my concept and my script, comics is a visual medium, so the art, the lettering and the coloring (even for a black-and-white comic) are obviously essential. But they are all part of the whole. All the elements have to come together to make the issue a reality.

You ran a successful Kickstarter campaign last year. Can you talk a bit about the experience of that? Obviously since it was successful, I don’t know if you’d do anything differently, but is there anything you would have done differently?

It was a really great experience for me, because you get to see what kind of friends you have and you get to see that there are good people out there. It’s a great feeling to get donations from strangers or people you haven’t seen or talked to in years. It’s also a little scary because I was about $1000 away from my goal with about a day left, and I thought I had exhausted every avenue, but a lot of people came through in that last day, and that was really cool.

If I could do it over again, I would change the reward structure a little bit because I ended up having to send out a couple hundred reward packages and that ended up being more work than actually making the comic. Obviously, I was grateful to have made my goal, but that was a crazy few days of sending out a lot of comics.

Why did you want to include transmedia elements with ROBIN HOOD?

Going along with that previous answer a bit, I feel that using different transmedia elements helps get as many eyeballs on your work as possible, because there is so much out there. I could print a comic and try to sell it at conventions, but literally hundreds of people are trying to do the same thing. So, if they see my book at a convention, and they say, “I’ve heard of this book because I saw something about it on Youtube,” or whatever, they may be more likely to buy it.

But beyond marketing, it opens up a lot of fun, creative avenues for someone like me. I get to step out from behind the keyboard, so to speak, and play with some of the other toys in my toybox.

What are the plans for the series? Will it be an ongoing, serialized story, or will it have some episodic, done-in-one tales, a la DC’s JONAH HEX or Warren Ellis’s FELL?

Panel from ROBIN HOOD: OUTLAW OF THE 21st CENTURY Issue Two.
Panel from ROBIN HOOD: OUTLAW OF THE 21st CENTURY Issue Two.

I would like for it to go as long as it can, or as long as I can. I think there are a lot of possibilities with a story like this, and I don’t see the health care system improving anytime soon, so I would like to keep writing them until the well runs dry. As far as the kinds of stories, I think there will definitely be some done-in-one tales thrown in, because I really enjoy what those can say about your characters. I’ve been inspired by BREAKING BAD a lot, like the episode where Walt chased a fly around his lab for the entire hour. I would definitely like to get to tell those kinds of stories at some point.

Elevator pitch: why should people buy ROBIN HOOD?

If you enjoy comics that feature some action with a side of social commentary, and enjoy stories set in the real world, with no powers or capes or cross-overs or anything like that, then this may be the one for you. And if you enjoy helping out independent creators, then give it a try. Think of yourself as a modern-day Robin Hood, helping the poor.


You can purchase the first issue of ROBIN HOOD: OUTLAW OF THE 21ST CENTURY, written by Matt, with art by Mark Vuycankiat, lettered by L. Jamal Walton, colored by Tamra Bonvillain, and featuring a cover by Jason Baroody and Mark McKenna, in digital and print editions, from:  DIRECT | INDYPLANET | AMAZON | COMIXOLOGY

Spinner Racks and The Keepers of Post-Industrial Folklore

Note: this article represents the uncut version of remarks I delivered at the Billy Ireland Cartoon Museum at The Ohio State University in November 2013. The talk was part of a panel that included Aaron Kashtan, Geoffrey Long, and Henry Jenkins.

***

When I interviewed him for my book, COMICS FOR FILM, GAMES AND ANIMATION, former Batman group editor and writer Denny O’Neil told me of the backlash he faced after readers decided the fate of Jason Todd in BATMAN #428. He said that in that backlash came a realization, that he was more than “just a writer-editor,” he was the “keeper of post-industrial folklore.”[1] The simple truth (and therefore the hardest to see) of neverending, serialized storytelling is that it represents a legacy passed on from one generation to another and perpetuated through the inspiration to create. I fear that mine may be the last generation to feel that inspiration.

Like most kids of the ‘80s, my first exposure to the superheroes of the Marvel and DC Univi was in other media: SUPERFRIENDS; SPIDER-MAN AND HIS AMAZING FRIENDS; Tim Burton’s BATMAN; re-runs of the 1960s BATMAN TV show. That same means of exposure has reached a fever pitch today, as movies based on comic book characters become the de-facto entry point for a new generation of comics fans and rake in astronomical gobs of money. However, in my book, I stressed that the material waiting for the new comics reader–for the uninitiated who has become a fan of a character through other media–must be absolutely irresistible and instill in the new reader a burning desire to dig deeper, to explore the world of the story, be it in a single medium or fragmented across media parts, by telling stories that reflect and distill current generational values. This was unspoken pact was understood, though in its twilight years, during my comic book-reading pubescence.

Today, we are in an age of the erroneous belief that legitimacy for one medium, comics, must first be found in the box office draw of another medium, film, and that irresistibility has to do with seams on costumes, brand consistency and nostalgic pangs of iconisism. In its rampant quest for legitimacy, specifically after the amalgamation of the two biggest mainstream comics publishers, Marvel and DC, by large corporate parent companies and subsequent neutering into R&D departments, the comics industry, and DC Comics in particular, has lost sight of the power of irresistibility, bastardized the emotional core and draw of exploration that made their product and characters so exciting to young readers, and in so doing, has hammered yet another nail into the coffin of the long-term survival of comics industry by forsaking their role as keepers of post-industrial folklore and failing to inspire the next generation of storytellers. DC’s own survey, conducted in 2011, right after the roll-out of their “New 52” reboot, revealed that less than two percent of respondents were under 18 years of age[2]. Kids are abandoning comics… but let’s not mince words: comics abandoned kids first.

However, I believe there’s a way to rectify that egregious misstep and set the industry on a path towards redemption and long-term survival.

Returning to my comic book pubescence, my first comic book was GREEN HORNET #3, written by Ron Fortier and published by NOW Comics. I pulled it from a spinner rack at Rite Aid in Millersburg, Ohio. My grandmother bought it for me. We had gone there to buy Peeps or Metamucil or something. When I picked up that comic book off the spinner rack, I had no idea who the characters were, though I vaguely remembered Bruce Lee on Channel 23’s reruns of the 1960s Batman show. The Green Hornet even had a heart attack at the end of the issue. I came in in the middle of a storyline. All I knew was that the story was cool and I wanted to learn more. What did I do? I learned as much as I could about the character – and this was before the ubiquity of the Internet. I learned that the character got his start in radio in 1936, a revelation which began a lifelong obsession with radio dramas and led to my unabashed love of The Shadow, particularly Denny O’Neil and Mike Kaluta’s 1973 series and the 1937 Orson Welles radio show, that has permeated every iota of my storytelling in the 24 years since. Today, that comic book is framed in my office, as much a memory of her as of my first experience with comics and the obsession that wrought.

The newsstands and the grocery store / Rite Aid spinner racks, the vehicles for my physical discovery of the medium – not necessarily the characters – and for most kids of my generation and the generations previous, are a relic of the past. Sure, you may see the odd one at a grocery store, but the contents of most are untouched, lost in the entertainment shuffle to the bright screen in one’s hand; at best, the spinner rack selection might pique the curiosity of shoppers bored to tears with the selection of beef tips and cream cheese.

Where are the Spinner Racks and newsstands now? According to a survey conducted by Common Sense Media,

“among families with children eight and under, there has been a five-fold increase in ownership of tablet devices, such as iPads, from 8% of all families in 2011 to 40% in 2013.”[3]

The study goes on to find that,

“the percentage of all children with access to some type of ‘smart’ device at home (e.g. Smartphone, tablet) has jumped from half (52%) to three quarters (75%) in just two years.”[4]

As their ubiquity increases, tablets and smartphones have the potential to be the new Spinner Racks. They have the potential to be as powerful a vehicle for discovery as corner newsstands were in the cities of the Golden Age and the Spinner Racks born in the suburban flight of the 1950s. But why haven’t we seen that push, that, pardon the Gladwellian term, that tipping point, with digital comics and comics delivered digitally? If my grandmother was tickled pink to buy me a comic along with her Metamucil and Peeps, what’s stopping a parent from letting their kid purchase a comic when they buy the latest app they never use?

I see four ways.

 

Price & Discoverability

 

The idea of charging the same amount for print as digital is asinine. An “issue”–a term I use very loosely now–of a digital comic should cost no more than a song on iTunes. At best, ten cents, adjusted for inflation is $1.99; let’s not forget that those 10-cent comics were almost always 64 pages.

With print comics, the page count and paper quality is often the deciding factor in determining a price point. With digital comics, paper quality is irrelevant and page count can be irrelevant. The main transactional currency with digital reading is the time it takes to consume the product, not the number of pages. Examples of this can be found with Medium’s “two minute read” demarcation on new posts and Madefire’s time-based consumption of their motion-comics / digital comics hybrids; Amazon’s Kindle tracks amount of time left in each book. Let me be clear: I neither condone nor decry this “innovation,” I simply state for the purposes of this pondering that “it exists.”

Purchasing a comic on a spinner rack in the days of yore was not a designed purchase. It wasn’t my intention when I went with my grandmother to purchase Peeps and Metamucil to come out with a comic book. I was drawn to the comic book through my own wanderings in a controlled environment on a trip to purchase something else. In short, the guiding beacon of a digital comics purchase has to be the same trigger as in the Rite Aid: there has to be some base appeal, be it covers, content, or the sheer cool factor.

To purchase comics direct from an app designed to sell comics is more akin to the comic shop experience. While this is an invaluable experience, it’s also one where the intent is to purchase comics, not to be invited to purchase through their appearance in everyday life. I’ve often said that the best and most exciting transmedia experiences come from technology already at use in our everyday lives–in other words, expecting someone who doesn’t play video games to go buy a console to get an integral part of your story from the film is counterproductive. The discovery of digital comics should be no different.

But here’s the rub: the Internet and the iPad and all other tablets are a beacon of a culture of push, less one of pull. How can we create that irresistible feeling of pull in a culture designed to push a seeming unending strain of content down the gullets of readers? The short version? I have no idea. As my friend Geoff Long said when we discussed this paper in its talk form back in November, “if you can solve that, you can solve the Internet.” Nobody knows; or, rather, everybody thinks they know. If you figure it out, go collect your billions.

 

Recapturing Fun Stories

 

I’ve often said that comics were 70 years ahead of their time when they were first created, and are now 30 years behind it. What made those Golden and Silver Age comics so good, so addictive? They were fun. They weren’t WATCHMEN or THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS – both of which, obviously, have their place, though I would venture that the “mainstream legitimacy” they brought to comics, while saving the industry and readying it for the 21st century was also a Trojan horse that has gone wildly unchecked.

The gateway drug for many of us were disposable reads that could be read and thrown aside for the next thing. They weren’t envisioned as collector’s items or to be handled with white gloves. Their value was directly tied to the content and stories and the value that we, as readers, implanted on those stories–not in the collectible value that publishers, through variant covers and whatever, told us, the readers, to find. Comic books were designed to be entertainments. They were designed to be read on subways on the way to work, in a bleary, pre-caffeinated haze. The great comics creators of decades past, the Kirbys, the Eisners, the Siegels, the Lees, the ones that birthed the medium and fueled its rise understood that they were making entertainment for kids, yes, but also entertainment for adults. There was an outlaw value to their simplicity and fun. They were, quite simply, cool.

The two traits that have always attracted me to Golden and Silver Age comics are their sense of fun and their sense of making it up as they went along. The stories were entertaining and fun, and clearly, the creators were having fun doing it (in some form or another, working conditions notwithstanding). There was always a flair of experimentation that has been sadly lost, replaced with an unflattering self-seriousness that does no one, least of all the readers, any good. Digital comics can recapture that sense of experimentation; creators are free of the constraints of print… so why act like digital comics is the digital delivery of a paper product when in fact, it represents an entirely new medium, one custom-built on a delivery platform that kids can’t get enough of?

 

New, Touch-based Continuities

 

Clay Shirky has a marvelous quote in his book COGNITIVE SURPLUS about a friend’s four-year old daughter:

“In the middle of the movie… she jumped off the couch and ran behind the screen. My friend thought she wanted to see if the people in the movie were really back there. But that wasn’t what she was up to. She started rooting in the cables behind the screen. Her dad asked, ‘What are you doing?’ And she stuck her head out from behind the screen and said, ‘Looking for the mouse.’”[5]

Shirky goes on to say that:

“Four-year-olds, old enough to start absorbing the culture they live in, but with little awareness of its antecedents… will just assume that media includes the possibilities of consuming, producing and sharing side-by-side, and that those possibilities are open to everyone.” [6]

How can we bring Shirky’s postulation into comics? Continuity.

I like to call continuity a series of story links agreed upon in a silent (or not-so silent) pact between creator and reader. Let’s take that link argument a step further, into the realm of possibility: I would love to be able to dig into a fight between Spider-Man and the Green Goblin that happened an issue before, just by touching that little editor’s note star. And who’s to say that I couldn’t participate in that battle if the version in the comic before became a small video game? Or maybe it didn’t even happen in a comic, but rather in an animated short? And then from there, dig deeper.I could see fragments of stories, a panel here, a panel there. I could see how the world fit together, I could move it around just like the pile of photos in my photos app. It’s Wikipedia comics reading and just as comics presents unlimited storytelling possibilities, so can a marriage of comics and touch technology present unlimited opportunities for exploration and the sharing of expertise and excitement. It would be the world’s coolest editor’s notes.

Through the creation of digital-native continuities that are based in currently available technology, comics publishers could create a comics experience for digital natives, not a skeumorphic replication of the pamphlet-reading experience. What if readers could literally touch continuity; manipulate it? What if they could move it with their fingers, open up whole new worlds inside a single comic and choose to share them in an environment conducive to fun? The possibilities are quite literally, endless, and could present a veritable storytelling goldmine for creators and publishers that would bring comics into the 21st century in a way only dreamt of by the mad scientists of the Golden Age.

This approach doesn’t negate the already pre-existing fan and comic-shop based continuities. It can exist side-by-side with the current way of doing things. DC can still make their comics for 45-year olds and do whatever they want. Marvel can keep on now, Now, NOW-ing the hell out of their line. I’m talking about a refocusing of efforts on digital continuities, not half-measures. They can still do their direct-to-digital adult comics, they can do their television continuations. All I ask is a little more thought for their legacy and their place in the history and future of not just comics storytelling, but storytelling as a whole; I ask for a recapturing of the experimental, outlaw spirit that has been lost in a creative culture that rewards storytelling homogeneity and brand consistency in spite of pervasive eclectic posturing.

 

Tools for Creation & Sharing

 

When one finds the urge to explore, the urge to create isn’t far behind. I’ve often said that the appeal of the great comics characters and the reasons for their longevity is that the characters are so elastic: you can do anything with them and it will still work.

Let’s not forget something important about comics, something made beautifully clear in this quote from the Telegraph:

“At book events around the country and talking with children, I’ve noticed that when they fall in love with comics, they’re inspired to pick up a pencil and make comics, in a way that they very seldom respond to books without pictures. Comics don’t make for passive kids; they’re all about doing and making. The format is wonderfully approachable: if you don’t know how to draw something, you write it; if you can’t write it, you draw.”[7]

Comics don’t make for passive kids; they’re all about doing and making. That’s true, isn’t it? I know it was with me. But I was inspired to do that by the fun stories told in the comics I was reading. I fear we’re not seeing that today.

Along with entertaining stories, digital comics producers should provide readers with a regulated platform for creating and sharing their own stories. Imagine if DC brought back Elseworlds as a fan-fiction arena. Note that I do say “regulated.” These characters are the intellectual property of a corporation, and I recognize that.

A combination of touch-based continuities and built-in creation tools wouldn’t just ensure a future for digital comics and comics in today’s digital culture, it would be absolutely revolutionary: stories brought to digital life that would inspire a new generation of storytellers to create by giving them the means to absorb, create, and share without fear or confusion.

 

• • •

The best way to understand and, more importantly, to get excited about, any medium is to create within it. If DC allowed kids, the market they seem to have abandoned, to integrate comics more into their lives in a way natural to them, with stories that excite and inspire–in other words, utilize the idea of transmedia storytelling, that the stories meet the audience in arenas that are already part of their lives–the industry would be in a much better place.

Why does DC insist on their current path? It’s because it’s safe. It’s safe for now. It’s far easier to think in the short term than it is to think in the long-term; it’s easier to think selfishly than selflessly. It’s easier to think that ownership of a character is only a legal document. It’s easier to keep making the same mistakes than admitting that somewhere down the line, you went down the wrong path and lost sight of your true role, keepers of post-industrial folklore.

Aside from all the technological jargon and tablet visioning I threw out, it’s worth remembering that all great folklore is passed through sharing. From the first stories shared around a campfire to the immersive tales told through video games, sharing and creating is what makes a folklore vibrant. Digital comics and transmedia storytelling offer a way to do that, and inspire that next generation by speaking to their values and the technological tools they have at their ubiquitous disposal.

But, I’ll admit. I’m too much of an idealist here. The only was major companies will learn is with the power of the wallet, and that’s not going away. As long as something makes gobs of money, the slippery slope into long-term obsolescence will grow steeper and more perilous. As much as it pains me to say this, I fear that the mythologies of DC Comics are beyond saving under the current regime and mindset. Maybe, hopefully, somewhere down the line, new keepers of the post-industrial folklore will emerge and bring DC back to its roots by understanding and utilizing all that the digital world has to offer beyond a new way to cram nostalgia down the throats of anyone who will hazard to read them.

But, in spite of all this talk about cool technology and whatever, the future of storytelling is the same thing it has been since the dawn of time immemorial: great stories that inspire an emotional reaction in the audience and a desire to explore. I can only hope that a refresher course in this lesson isn’t swept under the rug.

 

SOURCES

[1] Tyler Weaver, Comics for Film, Games & Animation: Using Comics to Construct Your Transmedia Storyworld (Boston, Focal Press, 2012), p. 179.
[2] “New 52 Appealed to Avid Fans and Lapsed Readers.” ICv2, February 10, 2012. Available online at http://www.icv2.com/articles/news/22113.html
[3] Common Sense Media, Zero to Eight: Children’s Media Use in America 2013 (Common Sense Media, 2013), p.9
[4] Ibid.
[5] Clay Shirky, Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age (New York, The Penguin Press, 2010), p. 212.
[6] Ibid, p. 213
[7] Sarah McIntyre, “Comic Adventures for Kids of All Ages,” The Telegraph, September 01, 2013. Available online at http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/bath-childrens-literature/10273425/Comic-adventures-for-kids-of-all-ages.html

 

ComicStoryworld Interview – League of Ordinary Gentlemen

 

In April of 2011, I went to my first Boston Comic Con, right around the corner from my old apartment. It was a bit of a homecoming–a breakfast of eggs benedict and Guinness at Charlie’s, a lunch at Chili Duck.  My first evening at the Con, I went to McGreevy’s (another former haunt, the perfect beer stop midpoint between Berklee and my apartment) to attend the League of Ordinary Gentlemen podcast Comic Con Party. I ended up meeting Matt Dursin, one of the eponymous Gentlemen, and we decided that I should go on their podcast at some point.

That some point ended up being Memorial Day of 2013, and the conversation was well worth the wait. I had a blast catching up with Matt, meeting (or re-meeting) Clay and Josh and discussing my work, both in the non-fiction and fictional realms (as I say in the interview, my non-fiction work supports my fiction habit). In the space of an hour, we covered everything from Comics for Film, Games and Animation: Using Comics to Construct Your Transmedia Storyworld to Whiz!Bam!Pow! to the massive debacle that is DC’s New 52 to my attempts to sell my DVD of Frank Miller’s The Spirit at a garage sale. We also chatted about our love of old school comics and the dire straits (in spite of spawning billion-dollar franchises) in which the comics industry currently finds itself.

So if you’ve got a free hour, hop on over to the League’s website, and have a listen. And be sure to check out their other podcasts – the Gentlemen do some fantastic work.

League of Ordinary Gentlemen Podcast Episode 153 – An Interview with Tyler Weaver

Contrary Evidence – An Interview with Carol Tilley

In 1956’s SHOWCASE #4, Barry Allen – The Flash – raced into the hands of comics readers all over the country and ushered in the Silver Age of Comics. Drawn by Carmine Infantino and written by Robert Kanigher, The Flash was the first of the Golden Age revival characters produced by DC, the first rays of a new dawn in comics, an era that ushered in storytelling innovations that would keep the medium and industry vibrant for decades: shared storyworlds, the limitless creative potential of a multiverse, reinvention, evolution and an infectious sense of fun.

It’s often said that it’s the darkest just before the dawn, and, in spite of booming sales, the post-WWII years had been ever-darkening for comics; Janet Murray (HAMLET ON THE HOLODECK) says that “every new medium… from print to film to television, has increased the transporting power of narrative. And every new medium has aroused fear and hostility as a result.”  In 1954, that fear and hostility reached a boiling point when psychiatrist Frederic Wertham, long an advocate for underprivileged children, published SEDUCTION OF THE INNOCENT, and laid bare the evils of comics that his research had uncovered including Batman and Robin’s blatant homosexuality and Superman’s (an “un-American” and “Fascist” character in a “crime comic,” according to Wertham) undermining of the parental unit and ability to arouse “fantasies of sadistic joy in seeing other people punished over and over again.”

Wertham’s 1954 testimony to the Senate Committee on Juvenile Delinquency and the publication of Seduction of the Innocent was a crippling blow to the comics industry; FLASH artist Infantino remarked (in an interview with TEN CENT PLAGUE author David Hadju), “The work dried up, and you had nowhere to go. You couldn’t say you were a comics artist, and you had nothing to put in your portfolio. If you said you drew comic books, it was like saying you were a child molester.”

While Wertham’s conclusions and leaps in logic have been called into question  since the publication of SEDUCTION nearly six decades ago, it wasn’t until Carol Tilley, Assistant Professor at the Graduate School of Library and Information Science at the University of Illinois at Champagne-Urbana, immersed herself in Wertham’s papers (released only in 2010) that hard evidence of Wertham’s deceptions was discovered.  Tilley’s resultant article, SEDUCING THE INNOCENT: FREDERIC WERTHAM AND THE FALSIFICATIONS THAT HELPED CONDEMN COMICS, was published in the November 4, 2012 issue of INFORMATION AND CULTURE: A JOURNAL OF HISTORY.

In the following interview, Professor Tilley and I discuss her findings and look at the broader picture of censorship in American culture.


What was it about the time period, about the American psyche, particularly in the dawn of the Cold War, that made the time ripe for Wertham and his ilk to have the most impact? 

Broadly conceived, the anti-comics movement of the late 1940s and early 1950s was fueled by the same threat and suspicion that seemed to pervade much of American society and culture during these years. Communism was a big bogeyman, prompting public scrutiny, loyalty oaths, censorship campaigns, and more.  That said, it would be incorrect to link Wertham’s rhetoric against comics with anti-Communist initiatives, including either the McCarthy hearings or the work of the House Un-American Activities Committee.  Instead Wertham’s ideas about comics derived from a couple of very different traditions.

First, his arguments against comics were informed by his psychiatric training, which had a strong emphasis in mental hygiene and social psychiatry. These are complementary fields that endeavor to situate mental health and illness within broader social and cultural contexts. For Wertham, reading comics—especially those comics that depicted or encouraged violence—was an undesirable activity that contributed initially to mental ill-health and, ultimately, to social decay.

Second, his ideas about comics bear the influence of the Frankfurt School philosophers such as Theodor Adorno. For these theorists, products of mass and popular culture such as comics served to turn consumers / readers into slaves of capitalism. Wertham was not opposed to visual and literacy arts—his wife Florence Hesketh was an artist, the pair collected art works, and Wertham often quoted from classic literature in his writings. For him, though, comics were mass-produced dreck that exploited both the laborers who created the comics as well as the young people who read them.

What were some of the most blatant and brazen fabrications in SEDUCTION OF THE INNOCENT

For me some of the most compelling fabrications Wertham perpetrated in SEDUCTION have to do with a young patient named Carlisle, a fifteen-year old truant and petty thief. Carlisle seems to have been one of Wertham’s chief sources of information about comics, as there are numerous transcripted pages of their conversations on the topic. In the book, Wertham turns Carlisle into multiple characters: in one instance he has a conversation with him as two different boys and he appears in at least two other settings as boys of different ages. Beyond this strange multiplication of Carlisles, Wertham also made numerous small changes in wording for Carlisle’s statements, sometimes changing the order of his statements, other times substituting words, and on occasion omitting key portions of statements.

To some readers, these may not seem like especially important fabrications, as seldom are they integral to the force or intent of Wertham’s argument.  Some evidence was unadulterated, but some was. It would take me years of poring over his archival materials and conducting textual analysis to determine what portion of Seduction is problematic from an evidentiary perspective. Would my conclusions differ if I were to do that? Perhaps, but only in terms of being able to quantify the extent of goodness or badness in the evidence. These changes and discrepancies I have found trouble me enough as it is. We all make mistakes, but with the instances I’ve uncovered in Wertham’s evidence, there is a deliberateness and pervasiveness that suggests these were not unintentional mistakes, but rather deliberate changes. From a generous perspective, they suggest carelessness in research and writing. Perhaps they even indicate a bit of authorial embellishment to improve the story. Viewed less charitably, they suggest scientific dishonesty combined with social and cultural imperiousness. Either way—even if the changes were made with the best of intentions—the discrepancies are disrespectful to the young people whose words and experiences Wertham drew on to make his case against comics.

Is mine a modern perspective? It’s difficult for researchers and writers to separate themselves wholly from the time in which they live (that’s true for Wertham too), but even some of Wertham’s contemporaries who had no knowledge of the falsifications I have uncovered took issue with his approach. For instance, Bertram Beck, a social worker who led the Special Juvenile Delinquency Project for the United States Children’s Bureau, wrote to Wertham a month after SEDUCTION’s release, saying,

Your treatment of contrary evidence and, in fact, anyone who disagrees seems to me to be as unscientific as you demonstrate the defenders of the comic book have been. These lapses, inaccuracies, and misinterpretations seem more unfortunate to me since they will alienate some of the professional support which you should have [April 16, 1954, Box 123, Folder 7, Wertham papers].

 

While best known as the man who nearly killed comics, Wertham was also an advocate for underprivileged children, with Seduction of the Innocent being a rallying cry of overprotectiveness. With the fabrications you uncovered in your research, and your access to his personal papers, did you come across anything that spoke to a view on the part of Wertham that “the ends justify the means?”  Did Wertham truly believe that he was acting in the best interest of those whose stories he over-simplified (at best) or manipulated (at worst) to fit his thesis?  

Wertham was genuinely motivated to help people who he believed were vulnerable, whether those folks were young comics readers or children attending segregated schools or patients in psychiatric wards. Yet in his work on children and comics, he seemed early on to have gotten blinded by his dislike of and anger toward comics publishers and others who profited from the industry. As I wrote in my paper, Wertham “gave readers a clear indication that rhetoric must trump evidence: commenting about a colleague, Wertham wrote [SEDUCTION, p. 351], “Neutrality—especially when hidden under the cloak of scientific objectivity—that is the devil’s ally” [Tilley, SEDUCING THE INNOCENT: FREDERIC WERTHAM AND THE FALSIFICATIONS THAT HELPED CONDEMN COMICS, INFORMATION & CULTURE: A JOURNAL OF HISTORY 47 (4, November 2012)].

 

Your research also turned up letters from kids who wrote to the Senate Subcommittee trying to save their comics. Talk about your research into how kids have related to comics over time. Is the seeming marginalization of comics (marginalized in that they are no longer the big-selling item they were during WWII or Wertham’s time?) tied to their popularity with kids? Have video games taken over the spot once held by comics? 

Comics were more popular among kids and teens during the 1940s and 1950s than video games are among today’s young people. Regardless of whether it was a marketer or a researcher conducting the survey, studies of comics readership during these decades found that more than 95% of all elementary school-aged children read comic books and comic strips regularly. There was really no difference in readership based on gender or race or intellect or socioeconomic levels. Of course, it wasn’t simply younger kids who read and purchased comics. More than 80% of teens read comics regularly and many adults did as well. The combined readership pushed sales of comics to more than one billion new issues annually in the US alone by the early 1950s and made comics in newspapers the most popular section.

And yes, young people did write both to Wertham and to the US Senate to help these adults understand the role that comics played in their lives. Many of these young writers wanted people to know that reading comics didn’t make them delinquent, that they didn’t read comics to learn to commit crimes. Instead, comics were amusement and entertainment and inspiration. One of the young people who wrote to the Senate, Phil Proctor—who went on to co-found the Firesign Theater—stated in his letter, “We don’t buy these mags because we have a thirst for blood, we buy them for the stories, the snap endings, the artwork, and because they deal with the unknown.” I think many young people might say the same today about video games.

 

Numerous parallels between the comics inquisition of the 1950s and the current attacks on video games are apparent, such as the pervasiveness and immersiveness of the medium, the derision of an entire medium as violent and blinders to the benefits of the medium. What warning signs should people look out for in the current debate over video game violence?

I don’t feel equipped to talk deeply about comparisons like this one. Some commentators have drawn connections between the anti-comics movement and the current fears about video game violence.

I will say that we are a nation prone to moral panics centered on media and technologies. We all should be critical readers and consumers of research and rhetoric, acknowledge our biases and presuppositions, and ask questions.

The need for critical assessment is especially acute any time children are subjects in or beneficiaries of social science research. We have too much cultural and social baggage when it comes to kids, which results in us demonizing them or protecting them.

 

Both comics and video games have numerous benefits that are glossed over in debates over their effect on children. What are some of those benefits, and how can we better frame the debate to shine a light on those benefits?  

Comics and video games are both examples of different forms of media. They’re not simply textual or visual or filmic; instead they innovate on these media to create wholly new categories of communicative experiences. Both comics and video games can help those who engage with them develop stronger understandings of narrative and increased ability to empathize. Reading the textual components of comics can encourage enhanced reading fluency.

Can we use comics and video games for intentional learning situations? Of course, we can, but we must remember that they are entertaining and part of the social experience of childhood and adolescence.  Kids should have opportunities to explore these story worlds without being burdened by adults’ instructional or developmental goals. Sometimes kids (and adults) just need to play.

Because comics and video games are new types of media, scholars and policymakers must find new strategies for studying them and new vocabularies for discussing them. We’re making strides here with groups such as the Learning Games Network and various academic journals that publish research on gaming or comics. I don’t know that we need to think of the process of helping comics and video games become normalized as a debate that needs to be reframed. Rather it seems we simply must continue demonstrating that comics and video games are part of our contemporary social and cultural fabric.

Like all media and art, comics and video games can be used for good as well as for evil; they have power. When Wertham was fighting against comics sixty years ago, some comics were indeed lurid, misogynistic, violent dreck. The same can be said about some video games today. And about some films and music and books. We can’t demonize whole types of media and art because we dislike how some people employ them.

Comics and video games can be used to tell important stories—serious, funny, sad, true, and imagined. When the stories trouble us for whatever reasons, let those moments be springboards for conversation with one another rather than for condemnation of the media through which those stories come to us.


Many thanks to Professor Tilley for talking with me. You can follow her on Twitter at @AnUncivilPhD and @ComicsCrusader.

Red Dead Undead and Elseworlds

Elseworlds, that great imprint from DC that took the key elements of great characters and transformed them into something new in titles like  SUPERMAN: RED SON, SUPERMAN: SPEEDING BULLETS, BATMAN: GOTHAM BY GASLIGHT, RED RAIN, and DARK JOKER: THE WILD, has been on my mind a lot lately. But it’s not out of fond remembrance. It’s out of missed opportunity, especially as Elseworlds is considered “dead” in the New52.

In my interview with Henry Jenkins for COMICS, the sad, slow death of Elseworlds popped up:

That’s one of the things that concerns me a little bit, as DC and Marvel are being absorbed into the major media companies is some push-back on the experimentation side of this. Dan Didio, when he spoke to my transmedia class in the fall made it clear that, with DC renumbering and rebooting, that Elseworlds was dead as far as he was concerned. That just seems to me a fatal mistake.

I’d like the rest of the industry to pay attention to Elseworlds as a model of what I call “Multiplicity.” A lot of transmedia has been based on the concept of “continuity,” which comes from comics too, of course. But they’re all about “can we get all the pieces to line up perfectly?” In an industrial context, where these are being built by different divisions of companies, perfect alignment is never going to happen. So, instead of going in that direction, imagine playing with what comics have done and saying “we can explore these characters through multiple lenses” and get interesting things to emerge.

In Chapter 30 of COMICS FOR FILM, GAMES AND ANIMATION, I conducted a thought experiment to integrate comics and other serialized media into the world of RED DEAD REDEMPTION. First, I proposed a dime novel about legendary (and lover of his own myth) gunslinger Landon Ricketts, to be read by Jack in the game. Secondly, a comic book done in the Timely/Golden Age style of 1939 featuring Jack Marston as an outlaw after avenging his father’s death in the game. And finally, a modern-era graphic novel that will retell the events of the game through the eyes of antagonist Dutch Van De Linde, revealing that he has been watching Marston throughout the events of the game.

While these theoretical expansions would deepen the world of RED DEAD in the comics medium, Rockstar made practical use of the “alternate history/Elseworlds” capability of comics with their third DLC expansion game, RED DEAD REDEMPTION: UNDEAD NIGHTMARE, exploring the characters and world through “multiple lenses,” as Jenkins said. Taking place after Marston’s return to his family but before his death, UNDEAD NIGHTMARE revisits the world of Great Plains, New Austin and Mexico as a zombie plague has taken over the west. Is UNDEAD NIGHTMARE  part of the continuity? Is it a nightmare in John Martson’s head? Does it matter? It’s fun!

The Elseworlds imprint in comics and DLCs in games do something that few other media tap into: it makes the character or game a medium in and of itself. More than multiplicity, it demonstrates elasticity, the evolutionary ability of the character, the stretching ability of that character to become more. I talked about this ability in Jenkins’ interview with me:

But, in most cases – such as Superman, Batman, and Spider-Man – this is where the elasticity of a character – the evolutionary ability of that character – comes into play. Each creative team can build upon, pay homage to, deviate, stretch, and bring their own vision to the character…

Batman represents the most versatile character of the 20th century: he can be a vampire, a Victorian-era crime-fighter hunting Jack the Ripper, a dark gargoyle fighting the evil wizardry of a Rasputin-esque Joker. In the case of Red Dead, the landscape and vistas and gameplay and characters become tools in the creation of new stories on a canvas, stories not necessarily tied to any form of strict continuity.

This idea, this concept of DLCs combined with Elseworlds presents storytellers in any medium – can you imagine a film that integrated this style of content into the home viewing experience? – an opportunity to create more than a story, more than a storyworld. It lets them recast the original story as a new canvas on which to build different experiences and mine the original’s storytelling potential for all its deep-rooted worth, thus creating an experience that can be revisited time and again.

ComicStoryworld Uncut: Henry Jenkins

Welcome to the third uncut interview from COMICS FOR FILM, GAMES AND ANIMATIONIn this installment, I chatted with Henry Jenkins about the death of Elseworlds, what it is that makes comics so irresistible to fans, and the future of the comics medium.

Henry is the Provost’s Professor of Communication, Journalism, and Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California, and the author of CONVERGENCE CULTURE: WHERE OLD AND NEW MEDIA COLLIDE, TEXTUAL POACHERS: TELEVISION FANS & PARTICIPATORY CULTURE, THE WOW CLIMAX: TRACING THE EMOTIONAL IMPACT OF POPULAR CULTURE, and FANS, BLOGGERS AND GAMERS: MEDIA CONSUMERS IN A DIGITAL AGE. He is the co-author of the recently-released SPREADABLE MEDIA: CREATING VALUE AND MEANING IN A NETWORKED CULTURE

This interview was conducted in January, 2012. Excerpts from this interview originally appeared in Chapter 26 of Comics for Film, Games and Animation. Henry was also kind enough to interview me at his website, CONFESSIONS OF AN ACA/FAN. (PART ONE | PART TWO).


We’ve all been bitten by the comics bug at one point or another. How did it get you? 

I started reading comics – like most people my age — in the 1960s, and I think it was informed by the BATMAN TV show, which, I suppose as a modern comic fan, I’m supposed to repudiate, but it actually got me excited about the medium and the superhero genre in particular. And then, somewhere, mid-high school, like a lot of people, put it aside and didn’t pay any attention until grad school, early-assistant professor-hood, where I kept seeing really interesting things develop and that was the time period of WATCHMEN and DARK KNIGHT [RETURNS] and MAUS and so forth, and people kept saying “you gotta see this!” The excitement was infectious, and I got back into comics and over the last 20 years or so, have gotten deeper and deeper into comics until it’s taking over my house!

What is it about them [comics] now that’s keeping you coming back for more? 

Comics is the most compelling of contemporary media because it’s trying so much new stuff just to survive. It’s always on the cusp of collapsing on itself. It’s also the quickest “response medium” in terms of any development in the culture. We could see in comics’  response to 9/11 prototypes for the way the rest of the media were going to respond. But the comics were on the scene — literally in the case of 9/11; they weren’t very far from the World Trade Center, DC and Marvel in particular. They also had quicker turnarounds and there was an interesting moment where the lines between “independent” or “alternative” comics and mainstream comics just completely collapsed. We’ve seen such interesting work coming out there since then. But it’s just part of a larger process of just being the “testing grounds” for ideas about genre, world-building, backstory, seriality that are very much driving the entertainment industry right now. So I see it as my “early warning system” for everything else that I look at.

In terms of my own work, I have one project that’s sort of a little on the back burner right now, it’s on genre theory that’s interested in the superhero in particular and what it means for a genre to dominate a medium as much as a superhero has tended to dominate American comics. How do we think about diversity within genres and combinations within genres and experimentation within genres to account for how rich the superhero has been as a genre that storytellers have mined since the 1930s?

What fascinates me about experimentation in comics is that it really comes from a survival necessity within the medium. You don’t see that “survival instinct” in other media. 

It’s odd, because on one hand, having a readership of roughly 100,000 — 200,000 — readers means the risk is relatively low. Cost of production is low compared to other media so you can take risk. On the other hand [comics are] constantly on the edge of desperation. You have a motivation to take risk when… when you’re going to go down in flames anyway, you might as well take something big with you.

That’s one of the things that concerns me a little bit, as DC and Marvel are being absorbed into the major media companies is some push-back on the experimentation side of this. Dan Didio, when he spoke to my transmedia class in the fall made it clear that, with DC renumbering and rebooting, that Elseworlds was dead as far as he was concerned. That just seems to me a fatal mistake.

I’d like the rest of the industry to pay attention to Elseworlds as a model of what I call “Multiplicity.” A lot of transmedia has been based on the concept of “continuity,” which comes from comics too, of course. But they’re all about “can we get all the pieces to line up perfectly?” In an industrial context, where these are being built by different divisions of companies, perfect alignment is never going to happen. So, instead of going in that direction, imagine playing with what comics have done and saying “we can explore these characters through multiple lenses” and get interesting things to emerge.

An example I use is the reboot of the STAR TREK series, where they spent the better first part of the movie just trying to explain something really basic: this is the same characters, just different cast, things might take a different direction. Comics solve that by putting “All-Star” or “Ultimate” in front of the title and saying “this is a different direction.” You can deal with the fact that there’s a main continuity in comics and another version that’s going to explore those stories from a new angle — go with it. Comics can go further and say “this is Superman landing in Russia and fighting for truth, justice, and the Soviet Way” in a way that no mainstream movie has done — so far.

Let’s talk a little bit about comics fandom. What really drives these fans to so passionately follow these comics? 

What I say about almost all fandoms is that they’re born from a mixture of frustration and fascination. Comics fandom is as much that way as any other, which unless you’re fascinated with something, you don’t engage with it over as long a period a time as comics fans deal with it. At the same time, if it fully satisfies you, you’re not going to engage with it as critically or creatively as comic fans deal with it, right?

If you go on the boards with comics fans, they rip everything, right? If you’re a comics artist, you’ve got to have an incredibly thick skin because they’re gonna be the most precise critical readers you can get — and it’s born from love. I think people who understand fandom just as “passion” or “fascination” but don’t understand the frustration don’t get the complexity of that dynamic. It’s because they really care that they’re being incredibly critical. And if they really care and they’re critical, they want to get information as soon as they possibly can, and they like to have input while the decisions are still being made. I think this is a push across all of the media industries right now; fans are spoiling, in part, to head off at the pass, bad decisions where they start to effect the quality of the experience. They have access to more rich sources of information. They have more capacity — collectively — to access, process and respond to information than ever before. And they want to be under the hood helping to make the decisions that effect the franchises they care about.

That’s where “spoiling” starts to come into this. Spoiling in comics in particular used to be not about just antiquating what’s going to happen before it happens, but critically responding to it before it’s printed in ink.

What role then does “the power of anonymity” have in this community? Does it make them more critical in some ways? 

In some cases, yes. I think that’s a classic frame. I’m not sure it matters. You see these guys sitting around in the comic shop or sitting in the Con, they’re every bit as bitchy about this stuff as when you can’t see who they are (laughs). Many of these guys are in the business of building a reputation in terms of their mastery and their critical skills – their access to information and decision makers. The idea that it’s based on anonymousness goes against the idea that it’s about building a reputation. I think a lot of these guys are — I think there are cases where anonymous stuff matters; but I think you could make everything “on the record,” and you wouldn’t fundamentally change the tone.

How much sway do you think that holds with the big companies or independent creators?

I think there’s a very real dialogue that takes place. Some of them are choosing to insert themselves in the middle of that dialogue and some are not. Some of them are making very strong web presences, seeking out that fan feedback, and others are trying to block it out and not interfere with their creative process. It’s where all creative industries are at right now. You suddenly have greater access to the response of  your readers than before — what do you do with that?

It’s always been there. We have stories of Dickens rewriting his serial novels as they’re unfolding based on the response of his readers. That kind of response has always been there. But the amount of it now — and all the industries struggle with “is this fan representative of something other than himself?” Or, even if its a niche of fans, how much does that represent the dominant fan market?

Comics are odd in that way because if you’ve got a hundred thousand readers, the fan forums attract a thousand of them. That’s a pretty different phenomenon than six million viewers of a television show and a thousand of them respond. You’ve got a much larger percentage of the whole participating in online conversation because the readership is so hard-core. The industry — when it gets that — sort of struggles between the response of “you’re not gonna tell me what to do, I’m the creator and I control this” and their position that they’re trying to hold onto a market that’s very precarious. They want to hear what the audience is thinking at every step along the way and if they can head off a decision that’s going to be a costly one, they probably want to do it at this point.

What is it that’s so irresistible about continuity to people? Comics is one of the few media that can really really do it well, and their fan base is so protective of that continuity.

Continuity is a place where fans can demonstrate their mastery. The continuity rewards people who read over time, who read across multiple books. As a publisher, you want to build up that loyalty, you want to make it as eclectic in what it reads as possible; get them reading all 52 books a month. That’s your ideal consumer. Odds they’re not. You’ve got to design continuity in a way that people can pick and choose and it becomes a very complex thing to manage. On the producer side, that’s the biggest hook for consumer loyalty. On the audience side where the payoff comes from being the guy who’s read this book for forty years and knows every issue by number and can tell you when you make a mistake. That mentality rewards the collector —  of the expertise — of fans in a way that few other media do.

What role do you think digital comics are going to have as “the march of time” continues?

Hard to tell. It looks like they’re going to be a sizable chunk of how people consume the mainstream titles. We’re watching the collapse of Borders, of bookstore sales. Barnes and Noble is invested heavily in the Nook, and battles with the publishers are leading to slammed doors on the Barnes and Noble side. Unless you only want to be in the specialty shops, which is a dwindling trade, you’re going to have to go to digital. They’re going to have to rely on Amazon more than they’ve done before. Amazon themselves are seeing that sales of Kindle books have gone up while sales of print books are going down. The entire publishing industry is struggling with it.

I don’t think they’ll have a choice but to reach a point where comics are available “in real time,” via digital media but the price point has to be lowered to reflect the digital publishing.

 

 

Gargoyle By Moonlight – An Interview with Tim Bach

I’m a junkie for comics that are all about having a good time, a recapturing of the wonder and escapism of eras past, especially when its filtered through a unique lens. So when Tim got in touch with me about his book, GARGOYLE BY MOONLIGHT, a “smash-mouth urban fantasy,” I was immediately intrigued with the world he and his collaborators had concocted. It didn’t hurt that we had a shared passion for Hammer Horror and Universal monster movies.

In this interview, Tim and I discuss GARGOYLE BY MOONLIGHT and the inspirations behind it, as well as the hurdles and perils facing the independent comics creator.


 

Tell me the story of Gargoyle By Moonlight. What’s it all about? 

GARGOYLE BY MOONLIGHT is smash-mouth urban fantasy. Think Hellboy on Yancy Street–a loveable brute who spends his nights punching out monsters while dealing with the consequences of a supernatural curse.Our protagonist, Gary Doyle, is coming to grips with a prophecy that says the curse of one man will be a blessing for mankind. But he doesn’t want to hear that. Doyle wants his old life back. And in the course of a night, he has just a few hours to figure out his destiny. Is he a hero or the monster the world sees him as? When faced with true horror–a demon tearing through the city, obliterating everything–Doyle comes to realize just how important he is to his city, to the world. This story is about him coming to terms with the situation he’s in–that destiny doesn’t always bring you what you want. 

Luckily for Doyle, sometimes destiny also gives you a hand. Doyle is assisted on his journey by two strong women: Chloe and Drina. Chloe is no one’s damsel in need of saving, and Drina is more than she appears to be. One of the things that was fun with these two ladies was writing against type, playing with story tropes. At first glance, Chloe might be dismissed as the “babe scientist,” while Drina may appear to be a caricature. But as the story unfolds, readers see that both women are smart and capable–capable of saving a brutish gargoyle even!

At it’s core, GARGOYLE BY MOONLIGHT is a story about finding your place in the world. It’s about Doyle’s struggle to accept what he is, what he can do. Can he take up the mantle of the curse the way a hero takes up his cape? Can he accept the responsibility of doing something only he can?

But the gargoyle is not a brooding, moody guy. This comic is a big adventure story. It has a “throwbacky,” fun feel that makes classic comics comics, you know? There’s all the slam-bang action you want, but there’s also rich, real characters on the page trying to figure life out.

What were some of your inspirations for GARGOYLE?

I’ve always been a big fan of monsters and adventure stories. I love monsters, especially the old Hammer and Universal movies: Frankenstein’s monster, the Wolf-Man, the Creature From the Black Lagoon. But I also love heroes. So as a writer, there’s always this tension between the darkness and the light in my work. And gargoyles are a perfect symbol of that.

Traditionally, gargoyles were posted to keep away evil, to hold the darkness at bay. But they’re also creepy and grotesque. So in GARGOYLE BY MOONLIGHT the protagonist is this monstrous thing, but we shouldn’t fear him. There’s a lot of great tension in that idea. But in the balance between light and dark, good and evil, I wanted to keep things heroic. I like a dark horror tale or a gritty noir as much as the next guy, but also, there’s fun, you know?

I’m a fan of reluctant heroes, characters who rise above their circumstance–even their better judgment–to do the right thing.

But more on influences: I think I unconsciously channeled Marvel’s great monster comics from the seventies. In the late 90s and early 00s, I wasn’t reading a lot of the then-current comic books. The so-called decompressed stories just weren’t working for me, and I didn’t find many of the characters particularly heroic or the storylines that compelling.

I found myself pouring through the back-issue bins, reading a lot of Silver and Bronze Age comics; Marvel and DC; IRON MAN, CAPTAIN AMERICA, ATOM AND HAWKMAN. And of course, those monster comics: TOMB OF DRACULA, WEREWOLF BY NIGHT. A lot of those Silver Age comics can be hokey, but there’s an incredible sense of adventure in them, of possibility. And, despite the golly gee-whiz type of stuff, there’s a lot of high concept stuff to the stories.

Now, I didn’t write GARGOYLE BY MOONLIGHT until recently, but when I did, I knew I wanted to strike a tone that was heroic, that had that sense of grand adventure. In recent years, I think a lot of the fun has come back to comics, which is great to see. It never left, but I think we’re seeing it more.

While I’m not putting us in the same league as Mark Waid and company, I think fans of his recent DAREDEVUL run or his ROCKETEER: CARGO OF DOOM mini with Chris Samnee are going to love GARGOYLE BY MOONLIGHT and its street-level Hellboy-type lead working his way to hero status.

 

What challenges do you see facing independent comics creators? 

One of the biggest obstacles is that comics are created by a team. Yes, there are a lot of great works done by creators that do it all on their own, for example, Matt Kindt. His stuff is brilliant. But for most of us, making comics means finding talented people and working with them toward a common goal. It’s hard to do that.

As a writer, I have to find a talented penciler who shares my vision, or who can at least work with me to bring mine forward. Then there’s an inker, a colorist, a letterer. Everyone is crucial to the success of the final product. When it comes together, it’s magic. But many times…  Well, all these people have day jobs. Usually. And your book might not be their number one priority. So you have to find a balance. You have to work well with people. Even in the best of circumstances, it can be difficult to put together a team of talented people, hold them together for months, and carry things through to putting out a book.

I’ve been blessed to work with great collaborators, but I’ve also had some things fizzle out or get delayed again and again. You’ve got to keep plugging away, eyes fixed on the goal. This is indie comics, there’s no big payout waiting for the team when you’re done. If you want to make comics, you gotta love comics. You have to want to make them. Holding your book in your hand is likely to be the only reward you’re ever going to get. If that’s enough, go make comics.

What has been your greatest hurdle? 

The biggest hurdle I face is getting the word out about GARGOYLE BY MOONLIGHT and my other comics. Getting exposure, getting people to notice your comic is very hard. You’re competing with everything: movies, TV, games, other comics. And just in comics, there are so many choices. That’s great for the industry, for readers, but having so many comics out there makes it hard to get people to focus on your book.

We have a great book. GARGOYLE BY MOONLIGHT is a cool, fun concept. It has a great story, and an excellent art team. But how do you convince people of that? You go to Cons, you network, you advertise. But it’s still hard to break through. Even if I could afford a full-page ad in Previews, I don’t think that it would matter. People are bombarded by all kinds of ads and noise–it’s very hard to break through.

As a creator, you find yourself having to reach out in an almost 1-on-1 way. It’s like old-fashioned retail: hand selling your product–even if you’re doing it over the Internet.

I spend hours each day contacting people, reaching out. The Internet makes this easier than ever–but it takes time. A lot of time I should be writing or sending feedback to my collaborators gets spent hustling to get the word out.

Hopefully, though, somebody takes notice. They like your book, they tweet about it, post to Facebook, whatever. You break through and you make a sale.

And that sale isn’t about money. It means someone read your book. And that’s an awesome feeling. Hearing from a reader is the best reward. It keeps you moving through the tough times.

Let me just say to anyone reading this: If you like something, a comic, a movie, an app, whatever, tell people. Tweet about it–not just once but several times. Share links. Write product reviews. Tell the world. All these things are of great service to independent creators no matter what industry they’re in. We depend on you to spread the world about the cool stuff you love.

A filmmaker wants to try their hand at comics – what’s the one piece of advice you’d give them? 

Become familiar with the visual vocabulary of comics and the economical way of storytelling. Comics can look easy: it’s words and pictures, right? But it’s not film. In comics, you’re limited in many ways. It’s a much tighter format, both in action and dialogue.

Action-wise, you get one action per panel. In panel 1, you can’t have a guy open his jacket, pull out a gun, put a character in his sight, and fire. That example, that’s four panels. Do you want to take up most of a page with that sequence? Is it that important? Or can you focus on what’s important, perhaps the guy looking down the barrel of the gun at his target? When you write comics, you’re not really writing a scene, you’re writing slices of a scene. You need to be very particular about what you show the characters doing.

When it comes to dialogue, awesome monologues that might work in film as dialogue or narration won’t work in comics. You can’t fill up pages with word balloons–you’ll cover the art! So you need to learn to pair it down. Say what’s important in as few words as possible.

The other big difference is that your story pacing has to be different, at least in monthly or multi-part comics. Your screenplay probably breaks into three acts, but that doesn’t translate to three issues or even six. It’s not about dividing your story up in chunks, but about reframing how you tell that same story.

What I mean is, each issue of a comic has to contain a full story in and of itself while still being part of a larger story. It’s serialized fiction. You need to introduce characters, move them through a dilemma, and leave it so that readers are (1) satisfied with this issue but (2) want to come back for more. Issue 1 can’t just be the inciting incident (to pull out some screenplay jargon). A first issue has to introduce the world, make us care about the characters, tease what’s coming, and grab hold of our imaginations. That’s a tall order in 22 pages. But it can be done. If you learn how the medium works.

Where do you see the mainstream comics industry going? 

In a sense, Marvel and DC have never been stronger. They have corporate backing, vertical integration of everything from movies and TV to toys, toothbrushes, and theme parks. They dominate the comics industry. The super hero genre dominates the industry. But at the same time, they’ve never been more vulnerable–and that goes for all content providers, in any field. Anyone can become a publisher–a creator of content–today. There is and there continues to be upheaval in all forms of media.

In comics, specifically, I think the roles are pretty well cast. Marvel and DC will continue to market their hundreds of characters, they’ll keep attracting the best talent, and they’ll continue to do big business and tell fun stories with super heroes. Image, IDW, Dark Horse, and others, they’re going to continue to expand the market with different types of stories, taking chances, trying new things, banking on the next big thing. Whether the bigs or the smaller companies, good stories will find an audience. But with competition from games, apps, movies, and whatever, it’s just harder to find those good stories.

What is the main thing you want readers of GARGOYLE to take from the story? 

First and foremost, I hope they’re entertained, that for a short time they get transported to a world where supernatural heroes smash monsters. But I hope they take away from it that there are situations in their own lives that they can master. Life isn’t going to take you where you want to go. Don’t go along for the ride; drive the car.

I know that sounds like something out of a motivational speech, or maybe it’s more of that Silver Age golly gee-whiz stuff, but I really think people can be heroes. Wherever you are, whatever your situation, just try to do the right thing. That’s what heroes do. It’s easy to go with the flow, to pretend you didn’t see something or to say it’s not your job. But do the right thing. Maybe life’s as simple as that, or maybe it should be.


Gargoyle By Moonlight, a 36-page one-shot, is available in hard copy at IndyPlanet for $4.99 and digitally via DriveThruComics, GraphiclyiTunes, Amazon, and more for $1.99.

New ComicStoryworld Interview @ The School Library Journal

comicstoryworldcoverThe best part about having written a book (the writing of the book, with all its ups and downs and twists and turns is, and forever will be, my favorite part) is that I get to chat with some really cool people. This new interview with me was conducted by Peter Gutierrez, who found out about Comics for Film, Games, and Animation: Using Comics to Construct Your Transmedia Storyworld through the magic combo of Twitter and Tumblr. Peter is a former middle school educator who now writes the excellent Connect the Pop blog for The School Library Journal (among other things) and presented me with some fantastic questions that made me consider a different view of ComicStoryworld than I had initially envisioned it, covering topics like the usage of comics in education and the comparisons between the uproar surrounding video games today and the witch hunts of Frederic Wertham and his brow-beating, chest thumping, anti-comic campaign that decimated the medium in the middle ’50s.

The interview appeared in two parts on February 6 and 7. Here is an excerpt from Part One, Teaching Transmedia with Comics: A Conversation with Tyler Weaver: 

On Teaching Transmedia In Schools: 

As far as teaching the “transmedia stuff,” there are tremendous benefits to be had. It can foster a better understanding of how stories are told today. It can teach kids to think critically about how they consume entertainment. Not only that, but by teaching transmedia storytelling, the teacher exposes students to the combinatorial nature of transmedia, showing how deeper meaning can be mined through the combination of media and divergent paths. Video games follow this combinatorial and divergent path methodology. Look at Bioshock. There’s the main story of Jack, of Andrew Ryan, and of the various characters that populate the world of Rapture, but if you pick up tape players/recorders, you can hear the history of Rapture via different inhabitants and points of view and find deeper meaning in your adventures. It’s a medium within a medium representing divergent paths from the main narrative. The Internet is built of divergent paths: do you read an entire article on Wikipedia or do you click on links as you go, going deeper into the main story? Everybody does it differently.

Continue reading Teaching Transmedia with Comics: A Conversation with Tyler Weaver at School Library Journal

In Part Two, Transmedia in School and Libraries: Thoughts and Strategies from Tyler WeaverPeter and I discussed the incorporation of transmedia studies into a library setting and allowing kids to create games as part of a school project. We also looked at the dismissal of video games as “too violent:”

On Creating Games in Schools:

As far as students developing their own games in school projects, I completely understand and agree with saying to a kid, “Okay, maybe you shouldn’t make something so violent.” My issue is that when that statement is used as an excuse it labels an entire storytelling medium, one with tremendous educational and social benefits, as the medium of violence and ne’er-do-wells. How could the question be used to focus on the particular story the student wants to tell? What if we went one step further and asked this hypothetical kid, “Okay, instead of using a rocket launcher to blast zombies to bits, what else can we pull out of it? What’s another way to tell this story with a medium you love?” It’s the idea that profanity is the last refuge of the moronic. How can you tell a story in a game and have it be school-appropriate, while simultaneously making the student think about the implications of what they enjoy playing? Make it a creative challenge.

Continue reading Transmedia in School and Libraries: Thoughts and Strategies from Tyler Weaver at School Library Journal. 

Many thanks to Peter for letting me wax philosophic on a multitude of topics, and for his extremely kind words about ComicStoryworld!