Thursday, February 23, 2012

A Fan's Hope

Award-winning documentary filmmaker Morgan Spurlock is releasing a movie about the San Diego Comic-Con. I have mixed feelings about it. Take a look a the trailer and we'll talk on the other side.

This film looks like it might be a bit more insightful and ambitious than the superficial "laugh at the freaks and geeks" treatment Comic-Con usually gets. Insiders like Joss Whedon and Stan Lee are listed as producers. I'm encouraged that it appears to highlight people doing interesting creative work, such as the comic book artist and costume designer, rather than focusing entirely on the costumed social misfits.

The thing is, those costumed social misfits are there. Film crews don't have to look hard to find them. And bless their hearts, they have every right to be there, have a good time with people who love the same things they do, and let their freak flags fly. Where else? That's Comic-Con, too. At the same time, I can only groan when the camera settles on a fat guy in a Green Lantern leotard. This does not put our best foot forward.

I know these people. I love these people. Deep down, I am these people. Sometimes I just yearn for a little self-awareness (or, in the case of Green Lantern, a full-length mirror he could glance at before heading out the door)--signs of an inkling they realize "Watchmen" is not a mature foundation for a life philosophy and there's something faintly ridiculous about spending years and a fortune perfecting a homemade suit of Iron Man armor. Some have it, some don't. I think a very few are deeply damaged folks who prefer heroic fantasies to reality. But not many. The huge majority are just having harmless fun.

Writer Mark Evanier says that Comic-Con is four or five different conventions all happening at the same time and place, and it's up to you to find the convention that suits you. I think that's right. There are entire areas of the floor I don't even enter: video games, role-playing games, Hall H where they preview movies and interview stars. They're great and have their place, they're just not my con.

At my con, I ogle original comic book and comic strip art, dig through boxes of old back issues, talk to friends in the business, meet creators like Jerry Robinson, Al Jaffee and Todd Klein, and meet very nice people who like my books. I discover good comics by creators I've never heard of. Sometimes I'm invited to sit on a panel or go to an awards banquet. I spend two or three days immersed in a unique form of art and literature I love. It's dizzying and exhilarating, and it's got nothing to do with squads of Stormtroopers except when they block the aisle I'm trying to walk through.

I'm not saying my con's better than anyone else's. Not at all. Just that it never makes the news.

I think there's an element of "keeping it in the family" at play. We might roll our eyes at the guy who's a little too enthusiastic about scoring his Collector's Edition Gold-Bikini Princess Leia Action Figure, but close ranks when civilians do it. The inevitable newscaster chuckle and head shake is just condescending and rude. "Well, I guess it takes all kinds, Chuck! Back to you in the studio." I hate that.

It'll be interesting to see what Spurlock does. I hope he scratches below the photogenic top millimeter to find smart, talented people doing and appreciating exciting, creative work. That'd be a worthwhile documentary.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Oh, the View is Tremendous.

Friend O' The Blog Jim O'Kane has pointed out that we're in the midst of a long string of anniversaries that will give people too young to remember the Space Age a chance to vicariously relive it at the same pace 50 years later.

We've already marked the 50th anniversaries of Sputnik (October 1957), Yuri Gagarin's first human flight in space (April 1961), and Alan Shepard's first American flight in space (May 1961). Monday marks five decades since John Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth, and many newspapers have printed nice articles about Glenn and fellow Mercury astronaut Scott Carpenter returning to their launch pad to be honored and reminisce.

I was born in 1960, so was too young to remember these specific milestones. But soon, maybe around anniversaries of the Gemini era (1965-66), we'll get to events I have memory sparks of reading about in magazines, seeing on television, writing school reports about, and even drawing pictures of. If you pay attention, you'll get a feel for how incredibly fast the frontier was being pushed, how enormous the risks must have been. Fifty years ago, the U.S. shot Glenn around the planet; seven years later, it landed Armstrong and Aldrin on the Moon. July 20, 2019 should be fun!

Fifty years. Half a century! The further these accomplishments recede into the past, the more astonishing they seem. Capsules held together with duct tape and baling wire (or, per Spock, stone knives and bearskins) were guided by computers less powerful than a 21st Century child's toy. Sooner than we can imagine, all the men and women who made it happen will be gone. Glenn (age 90) and Carpenter (age 86) are the only survivors of the original Mercury Seven. Three of the twelve men who walked on the Moon have died (Irwin, Shepard and Conrad). They're all old men now--albeit old men who could still kick your butt. Don't cross Buzz Aldrin if you don't want your nose punched.

For someone just a few years younger than me, it's history. For anyone my age or older, it's memories. I truly feel that one of the great privileges of my life was being here to witness it.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Lessons from the Literary Life

Totally by accident, I had an extremely literary day on Saturday. (I also helped some friends move, which made the day extra busy but had nothing to do with books.)

At 1 p.m. I went to the Charles M. Schulz Museum and Research Center to see my pals Raina Telgemeier and Dave Roman give a talk and sign books. They'd already taught a comics-making workshop at the museum in the morning. I've gushed about the husband-and-wife cartooning team of Dave and Raina in this blog before so I won't embarrass myself again. They're both very good cartoonists whose work, and maybe moreso their approach to their work, I really like and respect.

Although they're based in New York now, Raina grew up in San Francisco, so speaking at the Schulz Museum an hour north of the Golden Gate was a meaningful homecoming for her. They're making a quick Bay Area tour to promote Raina's award-winning book Smile and Dave's recent book Astronaut Academy, and did a terrific joint presentation in the museum's intimate theater. They talked about their influences and careers, and even about how they met and married. Best of all, they took turns reading passages from their books by inviting kids on stage to voice the parts. It was nicely and sweetly done.

Raina and Dave, whose microphone cord prevented him from pointing out something very important.

Whenever I hear cartoonists talk about their creative process, I can't help but compare theirs to mine. Nobody gives you an instruction manual when you set out to write and draw these things. The more data points the better.

Some people make me feel very lazy. Jim Borgman works seven days a week drawing the comic strip "Zits" and producing Pulitzer-Prize-winning editorial cartoons. Kazu Kibuishi ("Amulet") spoke at the Schulz Museum a while back and mentioned doing up to thirty pages per day, which I at first took as a joke. He has assistants, but still: thirty pages?! And they're beautiful pages! I can't comprehend how that's physically possible. If I rose at dawn and skipped lunch and really jammed late into the night, I could maybe do four. Without color. So I felt much better when Raina said it took her five years to do Smile and a few more for her next book, the forthcoming Drama. Don't misunderstand, I'm not calling her lazy; I'm saying I can relate to her workflow. I was relieved to find I'm not a freakish outlier. Unless we both are.


Raina standing on a chair for a group photo with some fans. I haven't asked Raina, but I imagine seeing girls wearing t-shirts with her big "Smile" happy face (with braces on its teeth) is about the most gratifying thing ever.

While Dave and Raina signed books for a gaggle of fans that gathered after their talk, I also had the chance to meet Raina's dad Denis, who had gone on stage during her Smile reading to voice the role of "Raina's Dad." In addition to being a proud father he's a writer, and he and I talked about how "overnight successes" like his daughter (and, well, me) seldom are. Unfortunately, I only had a few minutes with Dave and Raina themselves because I had to leave soon after their presentation to go to . . . another booksigning.

I swear this never happens to me. But my friend Frederick Weisel, whose debut novel Teller I mentioned last month, had a booksigning across town at the same time as Raina and Dave's. His is a career I'm watching and learning from as well--not because I'm interested in writing mystery novels like his, but because of his do-it-yourself approach to publishing and promotion.

A star is born.

The bookstore itself had no interest in advertising an unknown author's appearance; it took him great perseverance just to get the gig. So in preparation for his booksigning he'd printed posters, bought ads in the local newspaper and sent postcards to everyone he knew in the area. The result was a constant stream of customers--not all of whom appeared to be close personal friends--that really seemed to impress the bookstore clerks. He's building a fan base, building a reputation. It's neat to see. I look forward to benefiting from his experience.

I didn't start this post with a unifying theme in mind but I guess one emerged as I wrote. It's all about figuring it out as you go, isn't it? Observing someone else doing the same sort of thing you want to, learning what works and what doesn't, what you might do similarly or differently. Examples. Models. Successes and horror stories. You wanna know what cartoonists and writers talk about when they meet? This stuff. Business and process. "How do you do it?" Nobody else can tell you. Once in a while I've been lucky to get good guidance and I try to pass it on.

But seriously, thirty pages?! That had to be a joke.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Your Avengers Primer

There's a movie coming out May 4 called "The Avengers," which is the culmination of a very clever bit of world-building that's run through all of Marvel's recent films, including "The Incredible Hulk," "Iron Man" 1 and 2, "Thor," and "Captain America." Those movies took place in the same fictional universe, with the common thread of Samuel L. Jackson's character Nick Fury, head of the super-spy organization SHIELD, woven through them. All those characters, plot points, hints and portents will come together when those heroes unite in "The Avengers."

My wife Karen enjoys superhero movies as much as I do, but she didn't spend her youth obsessively scrutinizing pulpy four-colored phantasmagorias like I did (I almost wrote "waste her youth" but caught myself--mine wasn't wasted at all). Consequently, one of the first questions she asks as we leave the theater is, "Was it like the comic?"

Sometimes it is, sometimes it isn't. The Hulk and Captain America movies were about half-faithful to the comics, Thor about one-hundredth. Iron Man set my gold standard for fidelity. The filmmakers updated Tony Stark's heart-stopping (heh!) misadventure from 1963's Southeast Asia to 2008's Middle East, made some superficial changes I liked (in the comics, the chest beacon that protects Robert Downey Jr.'s heart and powers his armor was little more than a seldom-used headlight), and otherwise played it pretty straight. Best of all, Mr. Downey showed more personality and charisma in five minutes on screen than Tony Stark had in 45 years in print.

But if there's any comic book movie whose authenticity I'm qualified to judge, it's "The Avengers." I knew them when. Specifically, I knew them in early 1972 at the age of 12, when I bought issue #100 while making a Greyhound bus trip to Klamath Falls, Oregon, and got off at the next stop to buy issue #99 so I could find out what had happened the previous issue. I'd unwittingly stumbled into an amazing introduction to the team: a special anniversary issue featuring every hero who'd ever been an Avenger (at that time numbering about 14) invading Mt. Olympus to fight the ancient Greek gods to save their amnesiac member Hercules. The Hercules. How cool is that?

It was my first exposure to Marvel's unique mash-up of ancient mythology, which I already knew and loved, and angsty superheroics, and it hooked me good. Furthermore, issues #99 and #100 were drawn by the extraordinary artist Barry Windsor Smith, who soon after this storyline pretty much abandoned superhero comics for sword-and-sorcery fantasy. I began buying new Avengers as they came out while collecting the back issues I'd missed, until I eventually had a complete collection of the entire series.

A lovely two-page spread by Barry Windsor Smith from Avengers #100.

So you see, when it comes to the Avengers movie, I feel a bit like a Beatles fan who discovered the lads at the Cavern Club in 1961 and turns up his nose at those 60,000 screaming girls at Shea Stadium. Where were they when the Avengers fought the Man-Ape, the Space Phantom, or Valkyrie and her Lady Liberators? Where were they when the X-Men were a hundred times cooler, and the only Avengers anyone knew were John Steed and Emma Peel (about which the comic-book Avengers occasionally joked)? Oh, I paid some dues, pal. I paid.

Terrific Avengers, just not my Avengers.

Avengers Assemble!
The upcoming Avengers movie takes one inspiration from the comic-book origin: the team was inadvertently united by Thor's evil brother Loki. In Avengers #1 (1963), Loki tricks the Hulk into destroying a train trestle to lure Thor into battle. Thor hears the the radio call for help, as Loki planned, but so do Iron Man, Ant Man and his fiancee the Wasp, who also respond. They fight the Hulk for a bit until they discover and defeat their true enemy, Loki. Ant Man suggests they form a team, and the Wasp proposes the name "Avengers" because it's "colorful and dramatic." Not because they actually intend to, you know, avenge anything.

As that thrilling climax suggests, those early stories by writer Stan Lee and artist Jack Kirby have a naive charm that just wouldn't fly today. In the first issue, the Hulk hides from his pursuers by masquerading as a circus clown and juggling elephants, a truly impenetrable disguise. The Avengers capture Loki by dropping him through a convenient trap door into an even-more-convenient lead-lined nuclear-waste disposal tank. Hey, it was the Cold War; those things were everywhere.

Although Thor, Iron Man, the Hulk and Loki are in the Avengers movie, Ant Man and the Wasp have yet to appear in any of the Marvel films.

The Avengers comic hit a game-changing home run with issue #4 (1964), which reintroduced Captain America to modern comics. The character was created by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby in 1941 for Timely Comics, which later became Marvel. Cap fought through World War II before his book was cancelled during the medium's post-war crash in the 1950s. Now, a decade later, Lee and Kirby brought him back with the explanation that he'd been frozen in an Arctic glacier since the end of the war (ignoring the stories published into the Fifties, an oversight other writers cleaned up later) and defrosted by the Avengers. This brilliant device established Captain America as a man out of time haunted by the death of his young partner Bucky, a characterization that defined him for decades. I'll be looking for that in the movie.

The core team of Thor, Iron Man, Ant Man (who gained the power to grow and became Giant Man), the Wasp and Captain America enjoyed a solid year of derring-do through issue #15 (the Hulk got tired of committee meetings and lit out early in issue #2). Then in #16, Lee did something that made for neat storytelling but must have been a risky business decision: the big-name characters with their own books--Thor, Iron Man, Giant Man--quit the team, leaving Captain America to recruit and train three relatively low-powered unknowns.

They were the mutant Scarlet Witch, whose sketchy "hex power" caused bad things to happen to her enemies (it was later defined as an ability to alter probability, so that if a bad guy had a 1% chance of misfiring his gun or tripping over a shoelace, she could make it 99%); her brother, the super-fast mutant Quicksilver; and the world's best archer, Hawkeye.

Hawkeye's in the new movie, having already appeared briefly in "Thor." The other two haven't been seen yet.

Captain America, the Scarlet Witch, Quicksilver and Hawkeye meet their temporarily-adoring public.

All three of the new Avengers exemplified one of Lee's favorite tropes: a misunderstood outsider lured or tricked into crime, only to be redeemed by their inherently noble nature. The Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver had fought the X-Men as members of Magneto's Brotherhood of Evil Mutants. Hawkeye was a hot-headed ex-carnie manipulated by the Soviet femme fatale Black Widow (a-ha!) into fighting Iron Man. The next several issues focused on Captain America molding these untrusted outcasts into a team, and are regarded by many as a high point of the entire series. The Black Widow similarly reformed, and contributed her martial arts expertise to the Avengers years later.

Two notes: The Black Widow is in the movie (and was already in Iron Man 2, played by Scarlett Johannson) but doesn't seem to be a Soviet/Russian spy anymore. Also, it's hard to imagine that a guy who shoots arrows ever took on Iron Man and lived. But that's part of the appeal of Hawkeye, who often tops readers' "favorite character" polls: he's got no superpower except the cocky gumption to stand toe-to-toe with gods and monsters, and he usually survives (he died once, but got better). I'll be looking for that roguish arrogance in the movie, too, as well as any hints that he and the Black Widow might have some history.

Hawkeye and Black Widow in the movie (above) and a recent animated incarnation.

Writer Roy Thomas succeeded Stan Lee in the mid-Sixties, and worked with artists like Don Heck and the great John Buscema to bring more modern characterizations and plots to the Avengers as members came and went. One of Thomas's most significant creations was the Vision, a red-skinned android who longed to understand human emotions and eventually found love with the Scarlet Witch (until he went crazy and got disassembled and rebuilt but lost his emotions and then they had twins who turned out to be imaginary and then she went crazy and ripped him in half and oh it's all just so depressing . . .). From the late Sixties through the Seventies, the Vision tapped the same wellspring of alienation and repressed passion that Mr. Spock did in "Star Trek," making him the coolest comic book character around, at least to alienated and repressed adolescents.

Avengers #57 (1968), which introduced the Vision (left), and my homage to that cover in Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorow?

Thomas climaxed his Avengers run with a storyline considered a landmark not just for that book but for comics in general, the Skrull-Kree War, which lasted nearly a year through 1971--an unprecedented length at a time when a really long story might span three issues. The war involved two ancient interstellar empires, the Skrulls and the Kree, with Earth caught in the middle and different groups of Avengers fighting on several fronts. Many of the Skrull-Kree issues were beautifully drawn by Neal Adams and inked by Tom Palmer; one of them, the double-sized #93 in which the miniaturized Ant Man takes a dangerous "Fantastic Voyage" inside the android Vision to repair him, is an absolutely stunning piece of work. (One measure of its quality is that its value in most collectors' price guides is several times that of issues immediately before and after it.)

Thomas ended his opus with the most audacious deus ex machina ever, in which an ordinary Earth teen, Avengers hanger-on Rick Jones, saves the universe by tapping into the latent mental powers that lay dormant inside every human to freeze all the combatants in their tracks. That's why aliens are always so interested in primitive Earthlings, you see: our godlike potential both fascinates and frightens them (another recurring theme in "Star Trek" as well).

I mention the Skrull-Kree War mainly because I've read speculation--nothing substantial enough to merit a spoiler alert--that the upcoming Avengers movie could reference it. In any event, Thomas capped the war with the Mt. Olympus story that completely seduced me, then soon turned the book over to writer Steve Englehart, who did some excellent, trippy, character-driven stories that brought great new heroes and villains into the fold.

After that . . . well, in my opinion the 1980s and 1990s got pretty bleak. Part of my ambivalence may be because I'd gone to college, gotten married, gotten busy, cultivated other interests. I realized I was buying current issues of the Avengers, which were full of characters I'd never heard of and didn't care about, and boxing them up without even reading them.

It's possible I simply outgrew comic books, but I think it's more that the plots, themes, characterizations, styles and tones favored by later creators just didn't appeal to me. Everything became grim and gritty and cynical. I don't do "cynical." Stories became more "adult," but only in the most juvenile, crass, sniggering sense of the term, which is to say less adult than the thoughtful whimsies Lee and Kirby spun. I got the sense that many (not all!) of the people making comic books then didn't have much respect for their medium or their readers.

I prefer to say that I didn't leave comic books, comic books left me. Ultimately, Marvel's decision to reboot their entire universe and halt the Avengers' continuity at issue #402 (1996) gave me the perfect excuse to stop collecting or caring. Marvel immediately restarted the series--in fact, they have several different lines of Avengers going now--but I haven't missed it a bit. No one I know or love lives there anymore.

Is It Like the Comic?
To save Karen the trouble of asking (not that she's going to read past the first paragraph of this post):

YES: Thor, Iron Man, the Hulk, and Captain America (I'll give them a pass on Cap not being in issue #1) form the Avengers to fight Thor's brother Loki. The characterizations of all of them feel right to me--not exactly as they are in the comics, but as close as you could get with human actors playing the roles. Their costumes are different but that's what happens when you translate paper and ink to real people and materials on screen, and I mostly approve.

Captain America is a particular bellwether: his uniform has the potential to look absolutely ridiculous in real life, and the sincerity and earnestness of the actor playing him (Chris Evans) has a lot to do with whether it works. I'm reminded of how Christopher Reeve sold the Superman suit: when Superman told Lois he'd come to fight for "truth, justice and the American way" and believed it, you believed in him. Same with Captain America. I'll be looking for Cap to be portrayed as a take-charge battlefield strategist. That's his thing: he's weaker than Thor, Iron Man and the Hulk but they respect him enough to follow his lead.

In the comics, billionaire Tony Stark provides the Avengers' airplanes, spaceships, submarines, laboratories, supercomputers, etc., and even loans them a Manhattan mansion to meet and live in. (One of the neat conceits of Marvel comics is that they happen in actual places rather than Metropolis and Gotham City. Avengers Mansion is on New York's Fifth Avenue across from Central Park, where the Frick Museum is in our universe.) It looks like he plays a similar role in the movie.

NO: The movie introduces Hawkeye and the Black Widow as founding Avengers way too early. More importantly, it shows the team being organized by a skulking Nick Fury, with Hawkeye and the Black Widow as SHIELD operatives. I'm not saying that can't be a good story; it's just not how it happened. (Digression: in the comics, Captain America and Nick Fury were old friends from World War II. In the "Captain America" movie, remember that international team of crack commandos who helped Cap liberate the POW camp and attack the train? In the comics, Fury led that team. When Marvel revived Cap in 1964, that worked. Fury would've been just 20 years older. Today? Sadly impossible.) I'd appreciate some wise-guy attitude from Hawkeye and any personality at all from the Black Widow (not much in evidence yet).

When I first heard that Marvel planned to make an Avengers movie, I couldn't imagine how it could work. Now, having been primed by the films already released, gotten comfortable in the reality they've built, I'm still dubious but much more optimistic. Maybe an Asgardian god, a World War II super-soldier, a gamma-radiated monster and a rocket-powered knight can stand side by side on the same screen without looking laughably absurd. I'd love to love this movie and would hate to be disappointed. I mean, gee, if this movie stinks, the value of my 402-plus "Avengers" comics--not to mention my 40 years of memories of them--could take a hefty hit.

I'd also squeal like a 12-year-old if Captain America shouts out "Avengers Assemble," surely the least inspiring battle cry ever ("Assemble?" Really?) but one that I think could still send a shiver down my spine.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Rx: Graphic Meds

Thanks to a new publicity push (i.e., e-mailing some people such as the wonderful Johanna at "Comics Worth Reading" and Alan at "The Daily Cartoonist"), I'm getting notes from folks seeking information about the Comics & Medicine Conference I'm helping organize for Toronto next July 22-24.

This event follows conferences in London in 2010 and Chicago in 2011 that were both terrific, exciting, thought-provoking, intelligent spelunkings of that odd seam where comics meet healthcare (Epileptic, Stitches, Psychiatric Tales, Our Cancer Year, Tangles, Mom's Cancer...). Patients, caregivers and medical professionals tell their stories and use comics to communicate experiences and information in ways no other medium can. It's a growing niche in the field of Medical Humanities. Participating in these conferences has been an absolute highlight of my comics career and we hope/expect to recapture the magic in Toronto.

A couple of FAQs:

1. How can I propose a paper/talk/workshop/topic? Check out the "Call for Papers" at our Graphic Medicine blog, which is in general a good place to keep up with the latest. It'll give you a good idea what we're looking for, which boils down to a page explaining who you are and what you want to talk about. Deadline is Feb. 28.

One suggestion: although our conference theme of "Navigating the Margins" focuses on underrepresented or outsider perspectives, don't feel like you need to bend over backwards to make your idea match the theme. We're open-minded and would never reject a good proposal just because it didn't exactly fit that box. Part of the fun of organizing this thing is gathering different presentations into panels that become greater than the sum of their parts. (As I recall, we had one panel slot last year that consisted of "Stuff that Doesn't Fit Anywhere Else." We ultimately came up with a fancier name for it, but that's what it really was. And it was good.)

Important point: these are academic conferences, not comic conventions. Most of the participants are professors, students, physicians, nurses, etc., along with as many creators as we can convince to come. In Chicago, our headliners were David Small, Phoebe Gloeckner, Scott McCloud, and our lucky charm Paul Gravett (who kicked off both London and Chicago with a terrific context-setting talk that we're hoping he'll bring to Toronto). In addition to Paul, we're planning to have Joyce Brabner (Our Cancer Year) and Joyce Farmer (Special Exits) in Toronto.

2. How can I register? You can't, yet. We'll set that up soon, but right now we're still determining funding and expenses. Once that's nailed down, we'll know how much registration has to be to cover the costs (and we're only aiming to cover the costs; no one makes a dime). Our goal is to keep it affordable for starving artists. Watch that Graphic Medicine blog for updates, and I'll be sure to announce it here as well.

Another difference between an academic conference and comics convention: everybody registers and pays, even panelists and presenters (the only exceptions are invited keynote speakers). I'm going to register and pay. These conferences are intimate--80 to 100 people in London and Chicago--and presenters comprise a big proportion of those attending. This is standard practice in the worlds of academic and business conferences but sometimes comes as a surprise to those more used to comics conventions, which hand out free passes like Mardi Gras beads. I only mention it to head off that unhappy conversation later.

More information about past events and graphic medicine in general is available at