Monday, October 20, 2008

When is a vacation not a vacation?

When you spend most of it working, of course.

(That was me doing my best Riddler impression).

But seriously, I'm about to take off for a few days on a mission to sell comic books--and I don't mean "sell" in the "thank you, sir, that will be $5.98, are you sure I can't interest you in a copy of the latest issue of AG Super Erotic Anthology?" way, but sell in the "please, for the love of God, accept these as viable literature" way--although I will be doing a bit of the first one, and hopefully the second one will lead to the first one, but anyway...

One of our customers at the shop is an adjunct professor at the University of Illinois (my alma mater) and she teaches in the library sciences graduate school. This semester she has a class on children's literature, and she has devoted a day of that class to graphic novels. Since she's super-cool, she's asked me to come down and address the class for about the first half of it (that's about an hour and a half... yikes!). So for the first (but hopefully not last) time in my adult life I get to play the role of teacher and graphic novel sage. Tomorrow I'm going to sit down with the class's reading and take notes, then add that to my own background knowledge that I want to share on the topic. I will be addressing a roomful of prospective librarians, some of whom possibly have never read a comic until (unless?) they did the homework for this week. As libraries are one of the most important places for comics to establish a foothold in our culture, I take this to be a fairly serious and exciting task. And I will do anything I can to elevate the comics discourse in libraries above that of the idiotic head children's librarian in Lake County, Indiana, who after telling me that she "didn't really get comics" asked me if I'd "ever read the one with the animals" (she was referring to Maus!) and said that she thought it was silly (yeah, that Holocaust sure is hilarious).

So that's what I'm doing with the next few days of my life. It doesn't feel a ton like a vacation, but it's definitely something I want to do. If anyone has anything they feel I ought to mention in my talk, please post it in the comments section, and hopefully later in the week I'll have a report on how things went.

As bonus trivia for you comic-lovers, here's my professor/customer's reading list for Wednesday's class session:

  • Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale, Superman for All Seasons
  • Jason Lutes and Nick Bertozzi, Houdini the Handcuff King
  • Scott McCloud, Understanding Comics chapter 3: "Blood in the Gutters"
  • Sara Varon, Robot Dreams
I've read all of these books before, and I like them all (Robot Dreams was a hell of a surprise... some of you more comic-saavy folks may want to check that one out). I think that I may try to convince the prof to swith Superman for All Seasons out for All-Star Superman if she does the class again next year... it may be a little heavy conceptually, and it's a little longer, but I think it shows more of what the comics medium can do.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I need to go pack!

Friday, October 10, 2008

Y'know what movie I'd like to see?

"Nick and Nora's Infinite Crisis." It's basically the same as the closely-named movie currently in theaters, except that Nora (who, we will remember, has never had an orgasm) gets whisked away to Earth-2 when the worlds split (because on Earth-2 the female orgasm hasn't been invented yet).

... God, is there anybody who's going to get that joke? (and yes, let's please assume that there is a joke to get)

Alright, I'll throw in one that's a little more common denominator: apparently my downstairs neighbor doesn't come from Earth-2... if ya know what I'm sayin!!!

Yes, that means I can hear her having sex right now.

Well, I think I've done my job for the night. See ya!

Thursday, October 9, 2008

I love Action Comics

so I'm really going to miss it starting next month.

Hell, I'm gonna miss all my Superman books. My one monthly Superman fix right now is coming from Superman/Batman, which I think is currently, by far, the best it's ever been... call me crazy, I really loved that "Lil' League" story. All-Star Superman has finished its magnificent run, and I'm really sad to say that. Superman writer James Robinson is proving that he really doesn't know the first thing about writing the Man of Steel (lecturing the citizens of Metropolis? Dude, I don't care how good your Starman was... bad call)...

But back to Action. Action has been quite excellent for some time. I absolutely loved the "Superman and the Legion" story a few arcs back, and the "Braniac" story that finished up yesterday was off to a great start. As I've said before, Gary Frank's art is fantastic and it's a shame he hasn't really had many noteworthy mainstream projects before, and Geoff Johns is someone who knows what to do with Superman... at least mostly.

But now we've got to deal with New Krypton.

In case you haven't heard the news (or read the latest issue of Action) here's the deal: Superman is no longer the "last son of Krypton." We are indeed about to have a whole city-full of super-powered aliens descend on Earth, all in that pretty Alex Ross "coming down from above" art style.

(I love Alex Ross, but you have to admit his cover poses are pretty generic).

Anyway... I am really not a fan of this "New Krypton" business. To tell you the truth, I think it's a terrible idea.

The reason? To me, Superman ought to be the only Kryptonian still alive and kicking in the DC universe. This is one of the defining aspects of his character... that no matter how much he loves his adopted home and how much he tries to fit in, he will always be alone. It's bad enough we have to deal with his cousin Kara (whose book DC is tying into "New Krypton" to increase sales... pretty sneaky, sis) ... and then there was that "third Kryptonian" story in Superman about a year ago that was totally pushing it (she was a gardener hanging out on Earth?! WHAT?!). If you have to give Superman someone from his home planet to pal around with, make it Krypto (just please don't give him caption boxes). Superman having a Kryptonian dog is cool. Superman having a city of Kryptonians to go chill with... definitely not.

The obvious response to this criticism, I think, is to say "what DC is doing here is testing Superman in a way never before done; they're going to define his character even better by putting him next to a ton of Kryptonians and showing him and us that maybe his being the 'last son of Krypton' is better for him than he thought."

Well, maybe. My response to that is that we can and have done those kinds of stories without resorting to thousands of Kryptonians floating around. What about all those Daxamite stories, for instance? I know there've been a couple Superman tales that deal with the super-powered sister species of Superman's people coming to Earth and not fitting in at all (which, come on, we know that's where New Krypton is going)... content-wise I can't imagine this new story will be that different from those older ones, and I definitely don't think it's worth the price of completely removing the idea that Superman is his planet's remaining survivor. That's just too important and too unique to the mythos of one of fiction's great characters. But don't take my word for it...

"Think about it, Rao. Wouldn't bringing life onto a planet that is inherently unstable add to the beauty of the life? If at any moment it could explode.... Truly, it would only be perfectly beautiful, a perfect piece of art, if one single life-form escaped. To remember, to mourn, to despair."

Neil Gaiman wrote that, and Despair of the Endless spoke it, in the graphic novel Sandman: Endless Nights. It is, to be honest, probably my favorite part of that whole book because in two panels Neil Gaiman shows us the true origin of Superman... he is Despair's little project to the universe, a being who should embody the suffering of an entire race because he is alone forever.

So apparently I have some good company in thinking Superman should be the last of his kind. And that's not to say that I want Superman to be some emotionally unstable wreck or something... actually it's saying the opposite. Because, see, in that quote above... Despair is wrong. Her intent is that this being she imagines (who just happens to be our Kal-El) will manifest despair more than any other being in the universe... but the total reverse is true. Superman doesn't cry, Superman doesn't feel bad to the point of depression... Superman goes out there and beats all the odds (I mean, my god, the second-nastiest of the Endless has it in for him!!) and gives himself completely to bettering his new home of Earth. Being the last survivor of his race isn't a cause for sorrow... for Superman, it's a motivator to do good, perhaps the most important one he has... because he doesn't want to see what happened to Krypton happen to Earth or any other world again. And I just don't see why DC is trying to take that away.

See, regardless of how "more alone" Superman feels after not jiving with these newly-restored Kryptonians... he's still not the last one any more. That particular motivator is gone... and with it, we have a Superman that I find is significantly less unique, and a good deal less interesting.

... I'll always have All-Star, huh?

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Where to go after Watchmen?

This is perhaps the most important question facing comic retailers now (besides, you know, "will there be an economy tomorrow?"). Anyone in the business can tell you that since the release of Dark Knight sales on this classic Alan Moore graphic novel have gone fucking crazy. This article says it all: Watchmen sold nine times more copies in the month after Dark Knight debuted than they did in all of 2007. Holy shit, that's amazing (further amazingness: someone who comments on that article does the math to figure that roughly 3% of the people who saw Dark Knight went out and bought a copy. All things considered, that's pretty phenomenal).

I personally have sold probably about 10 copies of the book to friends since that trailer came out (and PS: thanks, guys, for making me your comic hook up!). The best example of this I can think of is at my buddy Kevin's wedding, two weeks after the launch of Dark Knight, where no less than three people told me within the span of an hour that, based on the trailer, they wanted to pick up the book from me (great wedding, Kevin & Amanda... love you guys!).

So here we are a few months later, and my friends have finished the book, to positive reviews (it is rare, I've found, to meet someone who doesn't like Watchmen.) And now several of them are saying this: "I would really like to get into more comics. What do you recommend?"

Of course this is awesome to hear, but it is also a dangerous precipice. I feel like Watchmen, for the past two months, has been acting as comic-land's ambassador to the normal world, touching the hearts and brains of people who either had no opinion about the medium due to lack of exposure, or who simply thought that comics were ZIP! BANG! POW! just like Adam West's Batman. And now, it is so, so important that we don't shuffle these potential converts off on the latest issue of, say, Trinity or Wolverine Origins (not that there is anything inherently wrong with these books... but we must aim higher).

No, this takes a lot of thought. To answer the question of where to go next, I took a look at our store's graphic novel rack (aiming to stock the essentials and partially succeeding!) and I thought, "what would someone who enjoys the emotional and intellectual depth of Watchmen really be impressed by?" Because the thing is, and I almost hate to say it, comics hardly get better than Watchmen. It has its peers, but I'm not really sure that anything in the medium tops it. But you can't use that mindset to tell people who read it "sorry, there's no other comics worth reading," because it's not good sense from a business or an artistic standpoint (and it's totally false!). Instead, you have to try to find something that will be just as engaging and interesting as Watchmen to a non-comics reader. So it is that I came up with three answers, all famous runs of comics now collected in trade paperbacks:

Alan Moore's Swamp Thing. This has the immediate benefit of being by Watchmen's author. I think people who've read that big yellow smiley-faced book will come at this series with a positive bias, which may have already gotten them over the biggest hump that prevents people from reading it (which, in my experience, is that it's ostensibly a whole comic series about a swamp monster... for some reason, some find this unappealing). It's full of that character depth that Watchmen packs in, and I feel like it kind of does to the tropes of horror what Watchmen does to those of superheroes... it makes them serious, gives them weight and gravitas. Few are the people I find who end up disliking Swamp Thing once they've checked it out, but, as I said, for me it's sometimes been a challenge to convince people to read it at all.

Neil Gaiman's Sandman. This one is kind of obvious... it's probably the most welcome comic in literary discussion (except perhaps Maus), but it's obviousness shouldn't hurt its contention here, in my opinion. Sandman was the first of the "serious" graphic novels I ever read (followed by Swamp Thing, and then a whole world of wonderful populated by Alan Moore, Grant Morrison, Art Spiegelman, Mike Carey and more), and it's hard to deny that it's a wonderful read. The scope of the story may be a little daunting for a recently Watchmenized reader to want to commit to (10 books, some quite lenghty), but I think it's a series that someone sympathetic to the medium will not want to stop reading once they start. Sandman also has the excellent ability to be a gateway to even more comics, most notably Lucifer, which I believe only me and a few friends consider worthy of being in the same pantheon, but whatever.

Brian K Vaughn's Y the Last Man. Until Dark Knight, I would have considered this to be the best way to sway people over to reading comics. I saw it work myself at a Thanksgiving party I had a few years ago... the first few volumes of this swept around my living room on the recommendation of a friend, and I'm pretty sure no fewer than five or six people started reading the excellent story of Yorick Brown that night... a few were compelled to keep going after the party! I think there's something about the way this book is set up that is just so gripping... the plot just grabs you and doesn't want to let go. Brian K Vaughn is a master of pacing, something that has served him well in netting a sweet TV writing gig or two... and I'd go so far as to say that pretty much anything of his (except maybe his super-early Marvel and DC work) is incredibly new-reader friendly, but Y: The Last Man has got to be the king of that. It also has the benefit of having no elements of traditional superheroics or fantasy (well, maybe just a little fantasy), in case these new readers are still a little wary of capes in their literature.

There are tons of great comics series out there... I myself had quite a few "honorable mentions" that in the end I just didn't feel would make as strong a choice as the ones above, but some of those are Runaways, Walking Dead, Ultimate Spider-Man, and Animal Man. Does anyone else have input they want to share here?

Bear in mind, the ultimate goal (for me) is readership retention. And it's not just motivated by business (of course that helps)... no, my main driving force is really artistically based. I truly believe that there is a humongous world of fantastic literature out there that people have ignored for decades because of the stigma of "picture-books"... and thanks to Dark Knight and Watchmen and maybe series like I named above, we are at a point where we can change that.

How's that for good news?