Funnybook Babylon

June 24, 2015

Because I Was Kind of A Jerk to Mark Waid on Twitter

Filed under: Blurbs — Chris Eckert @ 11:41 pm

Earlier tonight I responded to the announced creative team for Marvel’s All-New, All-Different Avengers book with the following tweet:

Was this snarky? Probably. Was it justifiable? Yes and no. To clarify, here are three things that are frustrating about the all-too-neccesary efforts Marvel and DC (and really, all of American media) are making to produce entertainments that depict something other than white dudes. (more…)

May 12, 2015

RIP, Lawrence Business That Did a Commercial That Had Batman Torturing Osama bin Laden!

Filed under: Blurbs — Chris Eckert @ 9:42 pm

I don’t know about anyone else, but as a former resident of Lawrence, Kansas my social media was BLOWING UP today with news of the demise of Payless Furniture, a fixture of the edge of the town where the Target and the movie theater were. I don’t know anyone who ever actually purchased furniture from them, or even set foot in their store, but they were known for having big signs and flashing lights on their storefront, and taking out local ads during the sort of things I watched in college (professional wrestling, BET ComicView, the then-new Adult Swim programming block) that were dumb and obnoxious in a way that probably would have gone viral had YouTube existed.


April 23, 2015

Oh, So THAT’S Why the Current Punisher Series Reads That Way

Filed under: Blurbs — Chris Eckert @ 11:25 am

I picked up a couple of trades from the library of the current Punisher series by Nathan Edmondson and Mitch Gerads a couple of months back. I thought the art was nice, but felt the storytelling made me uneasy. I’m not upset about the alternative take on the Punisher himself: long-running iconic IP has to be flexible, and if Edmondson/Gerads’ take on Punisher is that he’s a sardonic, handsome man who has a regular diner he posts up at and befriends the other regulars, so be it. But beyond the character himself, the stories make out Punisher to be a role model not only to random street vigilantes, but explicitly to active members of the military and the police. There’s even a cop who is taken off the force for trumped up charges and decides that maybe her best recourse for TRUE JUSTICE is to go Punisher and start indiscriminately mowing down all of the “urban” “savage” “thugs”, which is to say a bunch of youthful minorities. Similarly, the Punisher saves some military folks from a Mexican drug cartel, and they are so inspired by his example they take his war over to Afghanistan, in scenes that also involve indiscriminately mowing down a bunch of people who aren’t white.

As highlighted by some heated exchanges yesterday on Twitter, part of this second story is an allusion to real-life figures like “American Sniper” Chris Kyle, whose group really did wear Punisher skulls while fighting overseas. Early on in that discussion, someone off-handedly commented somewhere that both Edmondson and Gerads are “avowed conservatives” and while that is certainly an easy inference to make from the book itself, any sort of personal avowal was news to me, so I started Googling.

One of the hits for “Nathan Edmondson” “conservative” is an interview from 2009 that doesn’t have anything to do with his own beliefs, but happened to mention off-handedly how “[Edmondson] recently “retired” from [his] position (as Director of International Programs at the Leadership Institute) to write full time.”

That name rang a bell, and sure enough, The Leadership Institute “provides training in campaigns, fundraising, grassroots organizing, youth politics, and communications. The Institute teaches conservatives of all ages how to succeed in politics, government, and the media.” According to Wikipedia, its alumni includes luminaries such as Grover Norquist, Ralph Reed, Jeff Gannon, Mitch McConnell, and Mike Pence. As to Edmondon’s involvement with the Institute, there isn’t much out there besides a number of references to his position, including one in a 2008 newsletter from the World Congress of Families, a group that not only actively opposes gay marriage in the United States, but straight up repped for Russia’s “homosexual propaganda” laws last year.

While I have no idea what Ales Kot was referring to, and have no way of seeing into the heart of Edmondson or anyone else involved with this book, he certainly does seem to be a conservative! Which explains a great deal about this current run on the Punisher.

February 28, 2014

Avenging the Week: A Comeback?

Filed under: Avenging the Week,Blurbs — Jamaal Thomas @ 4:18 pm

[Originally posted on Between the Stations, where you can find more Jamaal-y goodness about pop culture. I typically post these linkblog posts on that site (check out weeks 0, 1 and 2), but decided to reblog this one here because of the comics-related commentary.]

Another sleep deprived week with Jamie the Bean… This was supposed to go up on Saturday, but you know, life and all.

This week: links, a new playlist and a rambling rant. On a personal note, I’m still planning to run in the Run for the Wild 5k run held by the Wildlife Conservation Society. All donations are welcome and will help the WCS protect African elephants from the high demand for illegal ivory. If you can’t donate, please consider running in the race (if you’re in the New York area) or a race like it in your neck of the woods. Click here to support and here to participate. Now back to your regularly scheduled programming…

Songs of the Week 

Light and Truth from 1283210117 on 8tracks Radio.

Rambling Rant of the Week



The Fantastic Four is an amazing idea from Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, a blend of adventure, monster and superhero comic that has endless story possibilities. It’s also a valuable piece of intellectual property owned by Marvel Worldwide, one of the strategic brand priorities of Disney Consumer Products, one of the five business segments of the Walt Disney Company. The Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation, a subsidiary of 21st Century Fox ( a multinational formed from the ashes of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation) purchased the film rights to the Fantastic Four from Marvel before it was purchased by the Walt Disney Company. The Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation released two movies based on the Fantastic Four property. Although the movies grossed over $600 million worldwide, Fox wanted to replicate the success of the Walt Disney Company, which had generated over $5.6 billion in revenue from the movies set in the “Marvel Cinematic Universe”, so they decided to reboot the franchise with a new director and a new cast (on an unrelated note, they also decided to extend the X-Men franchise of films (over $2.3 billion) with Days of Future Past and Apocalypse). The new Fantastic Four movie will be directed by Josh Trank, the guy behind Chronicle, the almost good movie about teenagers with superpowers. As you almost certainly know, the cast was announced this week and will feature Michael B. Jordan as Johnny Storm, the Human Torch. Jordan’s a young African American actor most well known for his confident, layered performances in the Wire, Friday Night Lights and Fruitvale Station. This announcement created a mild controversy on the internet, since the Human Torch has always been depicted as a blond haired, blue eyed white guy.

Does changing the race of a character like the Human Torch really matter? Of course, if only because making him non-white means that writers were obligated to tie him to a specific culture and background. Most of Marvel/DC’s characters/properties are white by default, but only in the most generic way imaginable – the vast majority are featureless WASPs from a culture that only exists in advertising campaigns. One of the problems with treating white people as some kind of default ethnic/racial group is that we forget that ‘white’ is a broad category that contains a diverse array of cultures and subcultures. We should expect writers to dig below generic racial designations to explore the rich diversity within a group for all white and black characters. Although there are a handful of white characters who are assigned a specific ethnic background, they typically tend to be little more than a collection of crude ethnic stereotypes or their background serves as a piece of trivia.

This is not accidental. It’s important to remember that these characters were originally designed as children’s entertainment in action-adventure stories and rooting the characters in a specific time, place or culture wasn’t a priority. They were archetypes, folk heroes for kids in post-war America. The details didn’t matter. Over the years, these characters have become valuable intellectual properties and brands designed to appeal to mass audiences, and preserving some ambiguity around a character’s background is useful, particularly when property owners want the character to appeal to a multi-generational international audience over an extended period of time. During the same period, writers and artists told hundreds of stories about these characters (many of which were considered ‘official’ parts of that character’s history), but at their core, they are still archetypes. Johnny Storm is the hot-headed younger brother who loves fast cars and faster women. A guy who doesn’t take things too seriously and is both brighter and braver than he knows. A guy who can look like anyone.

The bigger question is whether the casting decision should matter at all to audiences who want to see stories informed by a wide range of cultural experiences featuring people of different backgrounds on the silver screen. No. I’ll be excited when I see a superhero story about an original fully realized character from an underrepresented group developed by creators from diverse backgrounds. I’ll be even more excited if Mr. Jordan continues to get roles that are equal to his talent.

Images of the Week





via Nina Liss-Shultz at Mother Jones. Check out the Women’s Media Center’s bracing report on the status of women in the media here (pdf). This is something we should keep in mind every awards season. It’s hard to think of the handful of nominees as the best American film has to offer when the barriers to entry for women and people from diverse backgrounds are so high.

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-Javier Pulido, with color art by Muntsa Vicente and lettering/production by VC’s Clayton Cowles, She Hulk #1. Words by Charles Soule. This is one gorgeously composed comic. Everything about this page is amazing – from the layout that makes the reader feel like they are trapped in a maze to the use of the text in the word balloons as a way to simulate the feeling of being buried in legal jargon. I also can’t help but love Soule’s capsule history of Tony Stark’s business concerns.

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-Aaron Kuder, with color art by Wil Quintana and letters by DC lettering (really DC?), Action Comics #28. Words by Greg Pak. I love the way Kuder and Quintana depict emotion. Lana’s warm smile shows readers all they need to know about the relationship between the two characters.

Podcast of the Week

Jamelle Bouie (the Daily Beast) and Ta-Nehisi Coates (Atlantic Monthly) join NPR/Post-Bourgie‘s Gene Demby to discuss the Michael Dunn murder trial. Brilliant stuff. In a perfect world, the three would have a monthly (or even quarterly) podcast.

Trailer of the Week

The Hip-Hop Fellow, a documentary following 9th Wonder as he teaches a “Standards of Hip-Hop” course at Harvard University, explores the relationship between hip-hop and academia and the rise of hip-hop studies. via 2 Dope Boyz.


That’s all for now. See you next week! And let me know if you’re interested in seeing more of these on Funnybook Babylon!

January 30, 2014

Invisible Readers

Filed under: Blurbs — Jamaal Thomas @ 8:30 am

[originally posted on Between the Stations]

I enjoy the insights into the creative process and the business of comics gained from good interviews with comics creators and professionals. I’m not comfortable with the trend of parsing random interviews with comics professionals like policy briefs from the American Enterprise Institute. Even if the subject of the interview is giving well-considered responses, there’s always a risk that something will be expressed in a less-than-perfect manner. It’s the price that we pay for candid interviews, and I think it’s worthwhile. I don’t expect or want perfectly phrased and focus group approved responses. That said, there’s something about this portion of Image Publisher Eric Stephenson’s interview with the Comic Beat’s Heidi MacDonald that unsettled me.

“I think people kind of take for granted how much comics have changed over the last 15, even 13 years ago. Comics fandom didn’t look as it does now when I was growing up, or even when I first started working in comics some 20 years back.”

I appreciate that Stephenson meant well. He’s trying to explain to the interviewer (and readers) how Image Comics (and American comics publishers in general) can use diverse content to cultivate a broader, more diverse audience for their books, which will increase both the demand for and supply of creators with a wide range of backgrounds. I wish that he was a bit more interested in a formal and sustainable diversity and inclusion strategy (which could be a dynamic contributor to Image’s long-term success). It’s important to distinguish strategic diversity management from the kind of crude quotas that were common thirty years ago (and are still common in the NFL). There’s a meaningful difference between setting aside a percentage or number of jobs for non-white, female or transgendered creators and having a proactive approach to working with creators with different backgrounds, perspectives and ideas.

On Twitter, Cheryl Lynn Eaton helpfully suggested (I’d quote her twitter account, but her account is protected and I don’t want to repost w/o her permission) that the notion that diverse audiences are showing up at comic stores and conventions for the first time gives publishers the freedom to assume that workforce/creator diversity is a problem that will take care of itself. Stephenson argues that the “more diverse readership we have, the more diverse the people breaking into comics will be in the long run”, but it’s important to realize that diverse audiences are a necessary but insufficient step towards having a lineup of creators that reflect the world. The idea that a demographic shift can result in substantive change is a very attractive idea, but reality is stubborn. If the barriers of entry to an industry are too high, they create a disincentive for potential entrants (the reader from a ‘non-traditional background’ who wants to write and/or draw comics). Those would-be comics writers and artists pursue other fields. They never submit a pitch to Image Comics or have fewer opportunities to gain the storytelling chops and experience that would make their pitch more attractive to the publisher. There needs to be something that links the first idea (diverse readership) to the second (diverse people breaking into comics) and I’d argue that the ‘something’ should be a proactive development/recruitment strategy from the publisher’s side of the table.

That quote shouldn’t bother me. It was a casual interview with a journalist after a demanding product expo, not an official press release or report to investors. It’s entirely possible that Stephenson was simply thinking out loud. It’s possible that Image will come up with a strategy in the coming years, after all they do seem to be more interested in workforce diversity than their competitors. So why does that quote bother me?

When I first started reading comics in elementary school, everyone I knew – male, female, black, white, Latino – read comics. We didn’t all read the same comics, but everyone picked up something from the local newsstand.

The first comics store opened in my neighborhood on Flatlands Avenue in the early nineties, right around a high school and a junior high school that were racially and culturally diverse. It was during one of the speculator eras – multiple chrome covers, comics in special sealed bags and overpriced back issues. The store was always crowded, especially between 1:30 and 4:00. The high school crowd came early and the younger kids came late. The older kids were in and out. The junior high and elementary school kids hung around the store, arguing over trading cards and surreptitiously reading the comics on the shelves. There were fewer women, and many of them read different comics, but they were there. I still remember having to navigate through a sea of brown faces to pick up my copy of Rob Liefeld’s X-Force.

My dad took my brother and I to a bunch of comics conventions in midtown Manhattan when I was a kid. I awkwardly chatted with the pros of the day. All were generous with their time. I think I still have a composition book full of sketches in my mom’s apartment. My brother was awed by the art. I’ve always wondered if those experiences helped spark his passion for art and design. I loved the art, but it was the stories that got me. I spent (what felt like) hours digging through long boxes in an effort to find an issue (or many issues) that would complete a story I was reading, and frequently got sidetracked by some compelling new book. My dad would reminisce about the good old days with the creators that shared his memories for comics in the fifties and sixties and the creators that made the comics from that era. The three of us weren’t in the majority, but we weren’t alone.

I know that my experiences may not be typical. I know that anecdotes are no substitute for hard data. I know that from the perspective of the so-called Direct Market, the typical comics reader is a white male somewhere between the ages of 18 and 49. But I can’t completely disregard my lived experience, which tells me that I saw plenty of African Americans, Latinos, Chinese, Japanese and Korean people at stores and at conventions. Even though there were far more men than women, there were always a fair number of women there. I’m sure that there were a decent number of people from the LGBTQ community. The audience for comic books has become broader over the last five years, but when people blithely state that comics fandom was traditionally composed of white guys, it suggests that all the people who crowded the stores and conventions of my youth were invisible. I know it wasn’t intentional, but it’s still a little heartbreaking.

More on this later.

December 4, 2013

Full Circle, or Learning to Appreciate the Single Issue

Filed under: Blurbs — Jamaal Thomas @ 4:45 pm

A few weeks ago, I wrote a post about change in superhero comics, the Crisis on Infinite Earths and Giffen’s Legion of Superheroes. I originally planned to post at Funnybook Babylon, but after some image insertion issues, I posted at Between Stations, my personal blog about pop culture. Go check it out. I had a lot of fun writing it and hope you enjoy reading it. Anyway, writing that post reminded me that it took me years to collect and read DC’s 12 issue Crisis on Infinite Earths series. I bought the fourth issue sometime in 1986 and didn’t complete my collection until around 1989. I missed chunks of Secret Wars, Kraven’s Last Hunt and the Judas Contract.

Other than the books that I read at the homes of my older cousin (he had long boxes) or at my best friend’s house (his mom received piles of comps from DC), I rarely read complete arcs of any serialized superhero comic. Although I was always familiar with the broad thrust of the stories, I frequently had to piece the narrative together from fragments of a story obtained over an extended period of time. Although American superhero comics were sold in more locations and read by a wider audience in the 1980’s, in some ways it feels like they are far more accessible now than they were a quarter century ago. The densely plotted and serialized superhero books may vastly outnumber the self-contained, episodic ones, but it’s worth considering that most of the barriers to accessing stories and learning about past ones fell with robust trade programs, digital comics, the expansion of libraries that lend comic trade collections and the rise of the online comics reader community. In the eighties, the stories may have been easier to follow but they were also harder to find.

Access shapes one’s reading experience. When I first started reading comics, the most convenient place to find them was a newsstand or a 7-11. Every once in a while my dad took me to Forbidden Planet, the New York institution that felt like the comic book promised land, or to the annual comics conventions that were in midtown Manhattan, but my reading selection was mostly limited to the books that the newsstand/7-11 owner happened to stock in the store that week.

I missed a lot. I missed the beginning of Frank Miller and David Mazzuchelli’s Born Again, but caught the thrilling conclusion. I read about Galactus’ destruction of the Skrull homeworld in John Byrne’s Fantastic Four, but missed the subsequent Trial of Reed Richards until I found it in a dollar bin years later.

I knew that these stories were a part of a vast narrative that spanned decades, but I experienced them as tiny self-contained pieces of culture. I focused on the smaller stories told in individual issues and treated the larger arcs as an entertaining backdrop.

I’ve written about how gaps in storytelling can give readers the opportunity to imagine and engage with the story, but these spaces are also a reminder that plot details aren’t always so important. You don’t have to know everything about Karen Page (or heroin) to appreciate her redemptive arc in Born Again. Everything you need to know about her and her story is between the pages of any individual chapter of Born Again. More importantly, you don’t need to know plot details to appreciate the craft on display, from Mazzuchelli’s brilliant storytelling to Miller’s crisp dialogue.

There were very few comic book stores in my area of Brooklyn when I was in elementary school. The closest comics store to my house was Cris’ Collectibles, a comic book/baseball card/assorted stuff shop in Mill Basin, the neighborhood that bordered my own. It was a cramped, friendly store that featured almost all of the major titles published by Marvel, DC and Dark Horse. It was also about a mile away, which felt like an impossibly long distance for an eight year old. When a comic store opened on Flatlands Avenue (four blocks away!) in 1991 and ComicMania (later Bulletproof Comics) opened near the Junction the following year, it felt like a minor miracle. I was finally able to read the books the way they were supposed to be read. I finally had context, but it didn’t improve my reading experience at all. I thought that I had what I wanted, the “complete story”, but in retrospect, I think I valued them more as individual issues in a near vacuum than as a part of a vast narrative that spans decades. Once I became more of a follower of the Marvel/DC/Image/Valiant narratives than the individual issues and stories, it was easier to drop them when the story began to feel dull and repetitive. When I returned to superhero comics in the early aughts it wasn’t for the vast narrative of any publisher, it was for the creators. I still enjoyed the larger stories and intricate plots, but my attention was mostly focused on the craft behind individual issues. I used to buy every issue of a title that I was following or a writer’s ‘run’ of issues, regardless of whether it was a pointless crossover or if the artist was replaced with a less capable fill-in artist.

As a kid, I always thought that I was missing out on something and yearned for the kind of access that I now have to stories and information about superhero comics. It took me a long time to realize that everything I needed to appreciate superhero comics was between the covers of whatever issue I happened to have in my hands.

May 20, 2013

Off Topic: No More Butlers

Filed under: Blurbs — Jamaal Thomas @ 5:30 pm


I know that you shouldn’t judge a movie by its trailer, but God, I hate the trailer for The Butler. It wraps all of the problematic bits about Hollywood’s approach to race and history in a single horrifying package. The Butler is the new film from Lee Daniels (director of Shadowboxer, Precious and last year’s Paperboy), adapted from a Washington Post article by Wil Haygood about Eugene Allen, a man who served as a butler for eight American Presidents. You should read Haygood’s article, it’s a pretty fun human interest piece. I would love to watch a movie about Allen’s life, especially one that featured Forest Whitaker, David Oyewolo and even Oprah Winfrey (she’s always been pretty good when she puts her mind to it). After watching the trailer, I suspect that I will be disappointed. The trailer for the Butler is aggressively bland. it suggests that the film will be a ‘prestige’, award grubbing film that will remind me of all of the problems with the way major studio films approach race, history and family.

Forest Whitaker, patiently waiting for his nominations.

The most significant problem is that the narrative suggested by the trailer is incredibly dull. I’d be interested in the story of a man who overcomes a childhood in the Jim Crow South to become a butler to Presidents that focused on his journey and struggles. But there are too many moments in this trailer when someone is talking to (or for) Whitaker or he’s smiling beatifically. We don’t hear enough of his voice or perspective. The parade of amusingly miscast Presidents is fine, but I care less about his marginal impact on their views on race than about how he maintained a healthy relationship with his wife despite the demanding hours of his profession or how his experience as a sharecropper informed his parenting. I hope that we’ll see more of the latter, but the trailer doesn’t look too promising.

The trailer’s banal depiction of the relationship between father and son would have been tolerable if the son’s evolution from Freedom Rider to Black Panther and the generational conflict that results from that transformation wasn’t so disappointing. I have no doubt that real people have had the experience depicted in the film, but I’d be far more interested in a narrative that embraced the complexity and fascinating paradoxes of the movement and that didn’t characterize the distinctions between the two arms of the civil rights movement as a generation gap. There were plenty of older folk (including veterans of the civil rights movement) that sympathized with (or embraced) the radicals. Similarly, there were plenty of Panthers (and members of other ‘radical’ groups) that had no experience in the movement, and were simply radicalized by being a black person in mid-century. The trailer suggests that the Butler will embrace the traditional Hollywood approach to Civil Rights that embraces the standard consensus we all learn in middle school and ignores the diversity within the movement and the community. Instead of showing us something new, it’s a highlight reel of all the things that mainstream America remembers re: the African American community. It’s a wasted opportunity.

The same could be said of the trailer’s depiction of Presidents from the second half of the twentieth century. These were the first Presidents of the television era, and it would be fun to see a look at the way that their behavior reinforces and/or confounds conventional wisdom. The trailer shows us glimpses of every President from Eisenhower (Robin Williams) to Nixon (John Cusack) (with a quick appearance by Reagan (Alan Rickman)) with an emphasis on Kennedy (James Marsden).

I wanted the trailer to show us a more nuanced Kennedy than we were accustomed to seeing in popular culture – a man struggling with his appetites, legacy and mixed feelings about civil rights and the Cold War. Maybe we’ll see that in the film, but the bits in the trailer don’t look very promising (that whole ‘you helped me understand black people’ bit was cringeworthy). The segments with the other Presidents felt like excerpts from SNL skits (the hilarious casting choices don’t help – seriously, Robin Williams as Dwight Eisenhower?).

This trailer reminds me of all of the films about black life and culture that never see the big screen. I want more stories about notable figures, entrepreneurs and leaders of color. There aren’t enough films about the African American community that are set after the 1960’s that aren’t about drugs or violence.

Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe the trailer fails to capture the nuance of the film. It’s just so bad that I can’t imagine setting aside the time (or spending the money) to give it a chance.

May 16, 2013

The Limits of Metaphor

Filed under: Blurbs — Tags: , — Jamaal Thomas @ 10:00 am

The recent success of movies based on superhero comics has inspired some smart conversation about how the political and social themes buried in the comics should evolve as the franchises are translated in different mediums. It’s a conversation that reminds me of the potential of these stories to explore meaningful issues in other media and the limits of superhero comics published by Marvel and DC.

Alyssa Rosenberg of Think Progress wrote an interesting post about the themes in superhero narratives, noting that:

“X-Men is an engine for exploring ideas about collective identity, about genetics as a source of identity, about the Holocaust, about the regulation of extraordinary abilities. The toys are extras, not the point. Ditto for Star Trek, where things like warp drives and beaming are a way of getting the characters rapidly into a lot of different situations that are about opening up everything from interracial relationships to the question of whether artificial intelligences have rights. If those ideas get lost in the rise of geek culture as a massively consumed corporate product, we’re losing a lot of what made those franchises so deeply engaging, and objects of such deep identification and debate in the first place.”

I’ll admit, when I first read this, I mistakenly assumed that she was referring to the comics, not the series of films. When it comes to the films, I think she’s mostly right. Bryan Singer and Matthew Vaughn were explicitly aiming for more than just the typical action franchise with the X-films, and came surprisingly close to sustaining a metaphor for the gay experience. Chris Nolan’s Batman movies were a meditation on the post 9/11 security state and Bryan Singer’s flawed but interesting Superman Returns explored notions of manhood and fatherhood.

In contrast, violence and melodramatic soap opera are so firmly embedded at the core of Marvel and DC superhero comics that it’s much harder to argue that the “toys” aren’t the point. The allusions to identity, community and minorities are effective when used as accents to help the reader fill in the gaps of the fictional world. In superhero books, a writer who borrows the language, imagery and/or motifs that the reader associates with real world is like an artist who uses photo reference to transform generic locations into places that feel real. Think of how Grant Morrison evoked the intergenerational tensions in the civil rights movement in the late 1960’s and the American rock scene in the 1970’s in his run on New X-Men to encourage the reader to imagine a fully realized mutant culture that had never really been fleshed out in the comic books.

The trouble is that whenever a writer of a Marvel or DC superhero comic transforms an allegory for a general idea into one for a specific movement or community, they remind the reader of the weaknesses in the narrative and run the risk of (inadvertently) offending the audience. The paralells to real world events and social movements are frequently amusing but have their limits. Darkseid is a great metaphor and symbol for oppression informed by the Second World War and the Holocaust, but if the writer gets too close to the reality of either event, everything turns horrifyingly perverse (and you’re reminded that there aren’t many stories told about the Hunger Dogs). It’s even tougher for the X-books, where any explorations of the “mutants as oppressed minority” idea are complicated by the absence of a coherent mutant culture.

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It’s fun to think of Professor X and Magneto as Marvel’s Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, until you think about all of the things both men stood for and accomplished. There’s something deeply silly about drawing an analogy between one of America’s great men and a founder of a paramilitary academy for young people or a terrorist and a complicated, brilliant political activist and leader. This was also the main reason why Rick Remender’s now infamous decision to have Havok (the mutant leader of an Avengers team and brother of Cyclops) declare that he wanted to be identified as Alex instead of a mutant was so problematic.



The scene is intended to evoke the conflict between assimilation and retaining cultural identity within the African American and gay community. Any emotional punch that this moment could have had disappears once one realizes that the character’s statement wasn’t unrealistic or controversial, but completely logical. Unlike every identifiable minority in the real world, the only thing that Marvel’s mutants have in common are the existence of powers and oppression. There is no shared history or traditions, no sense of community. The panel didn’t remind me of people rejecting their sexual or ethnic identity, because there wasnt really anything for Alex to reject. The reminder of a real world conflict (whether in the form of the age-old debates around assimilation in the black community or the closet/end of gay culture debate in the LGBTQ community) only reminded the reader of the narrative seams in the Marvel Universe.

This is not necessary. The powers that be at Marvel can always decide to embrace the implications of a world with mutants and give its writers the freedom to invent and explore a mutant culture. This will never happen. Marvel has maintained a commitment to ensuring that its fictional universe bore some resemblance to the world outside our door since the early 1960’s, and a fully realized mutant culture might undermine that. I also wonder if the use of shorthand that helps creators tell effective superhero stories is the opposite of what’s needed to explore serious ideas about identity, religion or ethics. Maybe we shouldn’t expect these stories to do something that they just weren’t designed to do.

At least we have the films, right? Well, maybe. Although filmmakers have used the film franchises based on Marvel and DC comics as a vehicle to occasionally explore meaningful issues, there’s a real risk that the success of the films will make studios more cautious about allowing them to create a world rich enough to sustain a meaningful allegory. I imagine that this will be a more significant issue if Marvel’s efforts to treat the talent who direct and perform in its films like the talent who write and draw its books is successful. If DC, Fox and Sony replicate this model, many of the elements that make these films more than bland consumer products may be lost.

April 21, 2013

A Long Drive: Betty & Veronica, Remixed

Filed under: Blurbs — Tags: , , — Jamaal Thomas @ 2:24 pm

This is my favorite comics-related thing of the week. Brandon Graham recently posted two great mini comics on his website (which you should follow) based on a Betty and Veronica short by Gladir and DeCarlo. One is by Graham, and the second is from the talented Emily Carroll. As you might imagine, the stories are gorgeous and visually inventive, but they also transform a plot-driven story into one that’s focused on character.

The original is a wonderful classic short set in the Archie universe – its a pretty conventional ‘seeing reflections of home everywhere’ story.


We follow Betty and Veronica as they seek adventure outside of the familiar climes of Riverdale and flirt with Don and Benny, two guys they meet at the mall. Once Betty and Veronica realize that Benny and Don are gender-flipped versions of themselves, they get weirded out and decide to leave.

Boo Hoo Deja Vu is a reminder of of the appeal and the limits of Archie Comics stories. There’s something beautiful about the simple purity of the Archie characters – Betty’s a virtuous working class blonde and Veronica’s a popular wealthy brunette. The two compete for the affections of a redhead with freckles. There have been minor changes and embellishments over the years, but the basic idea remains unchanged. At their best, Archie comics deliver the pleasure of soap opera without the distractions of continuity. It’s tremendously entertaining, especially if you read them in the way that they are intended to be read – as confections. You could pay a little more attention and notice that the dialogue is a bit flat and inauthentic, or that there’s not much interaction between the girls, or that the story comes to an abrupt end just as it starts to get interesting, but why would you?

Brandon Graham and Emily Carroll transform a story about deja vu into one about escape from the familiar, from the roles that we create for ourselves (and which are created for us) in high school.

Graham pushes the narrative to the background and narrows the focus to Betty and Veronica. The boys are reduced to mere reflections in a story about friendship between two teenage women.

Background noise

There’s something wonderful about the fact that the boys are completely besides the point in Graham’s version of the tale. It’s all about two girls who’ve decided to put the masks aside and enjoy each other’s company on an impromptu road trip.


Graham gently pushes back against the reactionary strains in the original – the lesson that every place reminds you of home is replaced with the notion that the world is filled with strange adventure. He evokes the moment when one first steps outside of the cramped hierarchy of high school and realizes that the world is delightfully strange and unfamiliar.

Carroll goes in the opposite direction and embraces the darker implications of the narrative.

Carroll horror

There’s something vaguely predatory about how Betty and Veronica’s male dopplegangers approach them in this version of the tale, about how they’re in silhouette for the majority of the story and their facial features are never fully identified. Even Don and Benny’s word balloons are sinister. I love how Carroll completely changes the tone without changing a single line of dialogue in the story.

Scary Words

I found myself breathing a sigh of relief when the subtext finally became the text and the boys merged into an amorphous blob.

I’m not incredibly familiar with Carroll’s work, but this was pretty fantastic. I’m going to have to follow her work more closely in the future.

I’d love an anthology where creators reimagine random Archie tales. I’d really love to see Archie give the creators working on their books the space to occasionally shift the tone of the stories or do more unorthodox, character-driven work.

April 2, 2013


Filed under: Blurbs — Tags: — Jamaal Thomas @ 6:11 pm

Top Cow Productions recently completed its first international Talent Hunt competition, and today CBR News announces its winners with an exclusive look at their art and story pitches.

Top Cow eventually selected writers Eugene Ward, Hannibal Tabu and Kenneth Porter, and artists -Rom- and Martin Gimenez as the winners of the 2012 Talent Hunt.

Comic Book Resources (CBR) News Team. Top Cow Publishing’s Talent Hunt is a way to find “amateur writers and artists who’ve never been published by one of the big publishing houses and giving them a chance to be published and showcase their work to a larger audience”.

Pretty awesome, right?

As indicated above, the three writers are Eugene Ward, Kenneth Porter and Hannibal Tabu. If you follow the big sites, you’re familiar with the third guy. He’s a journalist and writer who writes a weekly column (“The Buy Pile“) for CBR and does some con coverage on their behalf. In the Buy Pile, Tabu reviews and rates a selection of comics released in a given week. It’s not always my cup of tea, but it’s respectable service journalism for fans overwhelmed by the flood of material available at their local comics shop every week.

So, what’s the problem?

As David Brothers helpfully pointed out on twitter, CBR failed to note that Mr. Tabu is also a writer that reviews comics and occasionally covers conventions for CBR in their announcement of the Talent Hunt winners (which was accompanied by an exclusive interview with Top Cow President/COO Matt Hawkins.

What they did was add a hyperlink to Mr. Tabu’s name that would lead an interested reader to his author page.

Was that enough? Did CBR discharge it’s duty to notify readers of the various conflicts of interest? Did it seriously consider the implications of Mr. Tabu entering and winning this competition?

On first blush, I thought disclosure was sufficient. CBR was clearly not trying to conceal their link with Mr. Tabu (by adding a link to his work), and assumed that interested readers would click through and realize that one of the competition winners was a CBR writer.

But then I wondered: what about the people who didn’t read this press release/interview and only read the Buy Pile or Mr. Tabu’s coverage of Wondercon? Why didn’t CBR follow the example of most other modern news outlets and give a standard disclosure of Mr. Tabu’s potential conflicts of interest within the text of the article? There’s something about a major website giving favorable coverage to a publisher that just hired one of its long time writers who reviews books from that publisher on a regular basis that’s a little unsettling.

I don’t know if Mr. Tabu’s selection would have any impact on which books he selects for review or how he reviews them (or how he covers publishers at conventions), but I think CBR should’ve done more to equip readers with the information to decide for themselves.

I don’t think there’s anything wrong with Mr. Tabu writing for both Top Cow and CBR. Plenty of comics creators and other professionals in the industry cross (and straddle) the line between creator and critic with some regularity. The perspective of an ‘insider’ is valuable. At the same time, we should be clear about the limits of that viewpoint. Even though I think it’s fair to assume that Mr. Tabu is a professional and will try his best to avoid bias or impropriety, I’m not sure if he would feel free to be critical of a book penned by Marc Silvestri (ceo of Top Cow). Maybe he wouldn’t review it at all, which would create a different kind of problem. Or maybe he’ll be entirely fair. I think the decisions should ultimately be left to the individual reader, which is why transparency is important.

We don’t (and shouldn’t) expect objectivity from our critics, but I think it’s reasonable to expect fairness, transparency and a lack of bias. I hope Mr. Tabu discloses his potential conflict to regular readers of his column and that CBR does better in the future.

This is part of a bigger problem with comics journalism – it’s completely captured by the industry that it covers, so it never really developed some of the basic norms around conflicts of interest and transparency that you’ll find in other sectors of journalism. It’s easy to find out about how to advertise with Newsarama, Comic Book Resources, Comics Alliance, the Comics Beat, Bleeding Cool, the Comics Journal or iFanboy, but it’s awfully hard for the average reader to find their policies on ethics and potential conflicts of interest.

But that’s a story for another day.

March 29, 2013

Life Hasn’t Been Very Kind To Me Lately

I’ve spent most of the last six months thinking about trauma. In my day job, we’re investing a lot of time and effort to identify the ways in which the traumatic experiences of our clients (individuals from vulnerable populations with some involvement in the justice system) affect their lives and develop interventions that can help them process those experiences and clear obstacles to a successful, independent life in the community. I’ve also thought about this in a more personal context, as the cycle of life and death has hit pretty close to home lately.

During the same period, I’ve been listening to a lot of music. Fiona Apple’s The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than The Driver of the Screw, and Whipping Cords Will Serve you More Than Words Ever Will is still in the rotation, as is Amy Winehouse’s Frank, the new Cody ChesnuTT (Landing On A Hundred) and the newest Bruno Mars album (Unorthodox Jukebox). But there are three albums that have had a dedicated place in the rotation over the last couple of months – Kendrick Lamar’s Good Kid, m.A.A.d city, Killer Mike and El-P’s R.A.P. Music and strangely enough, the Django Unchained soundtrack. One day, I heard good kid from Lamar’s album, Willie Burke Sherwood from R.A.P. Music and Freedom from the Django Unchained soundtrack in succession and something clicked.

good kid is a soundtrack for trauma that evokes the experience of being a young black man in the inner city. A narrative about the intangible rents extracted by two forces struggling to establish a monopoly on the use of force in the community. But I’m getting ahead of myself. The first thing that always strikes me about this song is how Kendrick uses his cadence to convey emotion. Kendrick finds different ways to build momentum throughout the album, from using a progressively more complex flow to shifting from soft to more percussive words or simply increasing the pace of his delivery. On good kid, he layers his vocals on the last third of each verse so that you feel the pressure build until you almost feel the foot on your neck.

The references to a foot on the neck evokes Orwell’s 1984 (“If you want a vision of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face – forever”) and serve as a visceral reminder of the physical brutality behind the metaphors. The phrase also helps puts the listener in the position of a victim of neighborhood violence and terror, someone who might think that the line between corrupt police and organized crime is gossamer thin.

Radicals have argued that the only difference between police and gangs are badges for decades, but good kid focuses on the psychic impact of this toxic dynamic on noncombatants. It’s the feeling of being stuck between two minority groups that make you feel like a stranger in your own neighborhood. When I was a young man, it felt like they were in an abusive, yet oddly symbiotic relationship. Even though they sincerely hated the other, it seemed as if both were invested in a vision of the poor/working class community as war zone/occupied territory, a narrative that crowded out competing views of the neighborhood.

If you drove by my grandparents’ neighborhood of Bed Stuy in the late 80’s, you’d assume that it was the kind of wartorn dystopia that Charles Murray warned us about, a ‘truth’ that lost its power if you entered the brownstones or saw the trains fill and empty during rush hour. I imagine that in areas where mature gangs were deeply entrenched in the community, it would be incredibly difficult not to accept the gang/cop vision of the neighborhood. The corner boys were pervasive, but they weren’t part of mainstream culture like the Bloods, Crips or Folk.

That made it a little easier, but the ever present threat and reality of violence was hard to avoid. I was lucky. I had the right friends, knew when to appear tough and when to seem invisible, managed to avoid the wrong conflicts with the wrong people. It wasn’t a traumatic experience, but it was an emotionally draining one. I don’t think I realized how exhausted I was until I moved away to college. I had become so used to being guarded all of the time, to the pressure and stress related to maneuvering through neighborhoods, that its absence felt almost alien. There’s this moment in the song where Kendrick says that he got ate alive the other day, and while he might be talking about getting jumped, I know that Ive felt that way at the end of a day without anyone laying a hand on me. I guess that’s why the third verse (which explicitly references drugs) feels inevitable. The ever present threat and reality of violence has a traumatic impact on the body, the mind and the spirit. It fills you with despair and animosity. It’s only natural to search for an anesthetic, something to numb the pain, ease the pressure. A little drink, a little smoke, a handful of pills. The only problem is that the cure is worse than the disease, an illusory balm that “release[s] the worst out of [your] best”.

Killer Mike comes at this from a different angle in Willie Burke Sherwood, his autobiographical song from the classic R.A.P. Music.

In the brilliant first verse, Mike breathlessly recounts the string of violent tragedies that led him to adapt to the realities of violence in his neighborhood by creating a persona that would be respected in the streets. An identity equally informed by the Lord of the Flies and the music of Tupac Shakur, narratives on the anger that fuels endless cycle of violence/trauma. While Kendrick hints at escape through narcotics, Mike copes by becoming harder, by becoming “like an iron man“. Mike went on to become a working class guy before going into music, but it’s easy to imagine how his decision to become hard could’ve had tragic consequences. Prisons and graveyards are filled with men who decided to become hard in that narrow way that garners respect in the street. Although Mike’s choices were different than mine, there’s something about the “and I bought my first tape by Tupac and I got hard” line that reminds me of how effective Tupac was at articulating the righteous anger that I felt through most of my teenage years. I distinctly remember what struggling to control my anger felt like. How hard it was to not overreact to every perceived slight. It starts as a defense mechanism, but ends up as a crutch, especially once I realized that I was carrying those feelings around with me where ever I went. As Ta-Nehisi Coates once wrote, “even if you are not out in The Street, it’s very hard for none of The Street to live in you“.

So what’s the answer? Kendrick suggests a number of them in Good Kid, most notably in Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst, Black Boy Fly and the skit at the end of Real. But the one that speaks to me the most right now is Freedom, by Anthony Hamilton and Elayna Boynton. The yearning for escape that is implicit in good kid is brought to the surface in the gospel tinged duet from the Django Unchained soundtrack.

Freedom was one of the many perfectly placed (if on the nose) sonic accompaniments to the film, but it’s power grows on repeated listening. When I first heard it, I thought that it helped situate Django within the legacy of American folk heroes and the African American community’s long struggle towards freedom while reminding us that his struggle was an intensely personal one. It’s a song about desperate hope in the face of impossible odds, a brief intrusion of reality into Quentin Tarantino’s heightened fantasy.

It’s a painful song, but there’s something about it that fills me with optimism. It’s the slight tremor in Boynton’s voice when she sings that the sun’s gonna shine on her nicely. Hamilton’s declaration that there’s got to be a winning in his bones. The echoes of spirituals and freedom songs that remind me that in some small way, my struggles for inner and outer peace mirror those of earlier generations. The block presented its own challenges to my parents and grandfather as young people. My father spent his youth trying to embrace his neighborhood without being confined by it while my mother gingerly navigated the invisible land mines of her neighborhood as a young woman. In contrast, my maternal grandfather was determined to abandon it for the suburbs. That reminder of a greater struggle helps fuel the hopes and dreams that may give us the power to process our pain.

Next: I dunno, I’ll think of something. It will probably be comics-related. In the meantime, check out FBB on tumblr and twitter. I also tumbl at Infected Worldmind.

March 25, 2013

Private Eye: An Extraordinary Ordinary Comic

Filed under: Blurbs — Tags: , , — Jamaal Thomas @ 12:41 pm

If you’re reading this post, you’re almost certainly aware that Brian K. Vaughan teamed up with Marcos Martin to announce a mysterious independent comic project last Monday. People were excited. The excitement only grew when Vaughan announced that the book would be available for download, DRM free at the Panel Syndicate website on the following day, and that fans could pay what they want. In a FAQ for the project and in an interview with the NY Times’ George Gustines, Vaughan noted that the continuation of the series was dependent on financial support from readers and that the proceeds would initially go towards paying Martin and Muntsa Vicente (the colorist) for their work, with any additional profits shared by Martin and Vaughan.

This raises two obvious questions.
(1) Is this important?
(2) Is this book any good?

I think the answer to the first question is a qualified yes, at least for high-profile creators. As to the second question, it’s a slickly produced, briskly paced book with a clever script from Brian K. Vaughan and gorgeous artwork from Marcos Martin and Muntsa Vicente.

Issue01 04 eng

There’s been a lot of excitement around this project, which can be attributed to the popularity of the creators involved, Vaughan’s marketing savvy and the appeal of the “pay what you want” model. The Private Eye also serves as a timely reminder that there are viable alternatives to the lease model of digital comics distribution. In the last few weeks, readers were disappointed by the limits of Marvel’s Netflix-like Digital Comics Unlimited IOS/android app (subscribers can only download 10 comics for offline viewing) and the open-ended leases offered by Comixology and JManga. Vaughan, Martin and Vicente reminded us that there is a simple, consumer friendly alternative. Just sell the comic to people who want to buy it. No shell games or cleverly worded contracts. No deceptive ‘crowdfunding’ campaign on Kickstarter. Just click the link, contribute what you want and download your book.

It’s not the most original idea in the world (note that the best book of 2010 is available for download in pdf and cbz formats on My Digital Comics), but illustrates that the traditional gatekeepers are far less necessary than they were in a pre-digital age, particularly for high-profile creators. There’s something tremendously appealing about the notion that Vaughan and Martin are making these issues available to readers right after they are finished (as Vaughan suggests in the backmatter of the first issue). It’s as close as a reader of mainstream American comics can get to the creative process – two incredibly talented creators making and sending their art to us without any intermediaries. There are still a number of unknowns. In his NY Times interview, Vaughan mentioned that a sizable number of consumers paid about 2.99 for the first issue, but I’d be interested in knowing more about the financial side of this project. What was the average price paid by consumers? How much did they earn for that first issue? I think transparency around the economics of the Private Eye project wouldn’t only be fascinating to observers, but to other creators. I’d also be curious to know more about the financial threshold for completing the ten-issue series and how subsequent issues will be announced/marketed. I’m almost certain that I will never know the answers to these questions, but that’s okay for now. After reading the first issue, I know that I want more of this.

The premise is appealingly simple – a noir set in a near future world obsessed with privacy. A private detective like figure is hired to help a person ensure that the skeletons in their closet stay where they belong. Complications ensue. There’s an interesting twist in the first issue that I won’t spoil. I think it goes without saying that Marcos Martin’s art is brilliant in this issue. His figures, his storytelling…

Untitled 2

I just finished reading this wonderful post by Jesse Hamm about Alex Toth’s brilliance as a designer and there’s something about his description of Toth’s commitment to simplicity and clarity that remind me of Martin. The first thing I noticed about this book was how easy it was to read. I just glided through the thirty pages and was at Vaughan’s backmatter in what felt like a matter of moments. At first, I thought that I was skimming or distracted, but when I revisited the issue, I realized that it was just because Martin made everything so simple. Every panel (and every image in the panel) has a defined purpose. Everything’s clear. You absorb the information without even thinking about it. It’s pretty amazing.

Issue01 17 eng
Martin and Vicente create a world that feels plausible by blending futuristic elements (hovering cars and holographic projectors) with familiar anachronisms like Walkmen and telephone booths. I know that there’s a specific reason in the plot for this weird mix of analog and digital, but it also helps sustain the absurd futuristic noir atmosphere. On some level, it even grounds the story in a recognizable reality (as do the familiar brands that Martin places in the background). Our present is filled with echoes of the past, so it’s only natural that our future will look a little bit like today.

Untitled 3

The pages are all slightly oversized, which might be annoying on a computer, but is perfect on a tablet. Gently swiping across each page to get to the right quarter of the image almost creates an illusion of motion, one that’s far more appealing than all the motion comics initiatives (which tend to distract me from the story). The weird size of the pages also gives the story a sense of scope that’s pretty entertaining, particularly during an early chase scene. It also gives Martin the space to play with panel placement and perspective in an incredibly entertaining way.

Issue01 01 eng

I wasn’t very familiar with Vicente’s work (a quick check of his website indicates that she’s a talented illustrator who’s done work on Captain America and a recent I Heart Marvel anthology), but was blown away by her coloring in this issue. I particularly loved her use of color to reflect the emotional state and actions of the characters, as well as to establish atmosphere. Vicente’s color choices help underline the impact of the violent sequence at the end of the first issue (I love how the muted aquamarine room shifts to red and then a brighter aquamarine at the end of the issue). I read this issue on a first generation iPad, and the colors were rich and impressive. I know that this might come out in trade at some point in the uncertain future, but I can’t imagine reading this in any format.

Vaughn’s writing is less awe-inspiring, but effective. He’s just mastered the art of writing an individual issue of a comic book. He sets up the premise, introduces the main characters, lays the groundwork for the conflict, and all with a minimum of exposition or unnecessary dialogue. It’s a showcase for Martin and Vicente, and Vaughan gives the two space to work. His dialogue is typically strong, clever and fast-paced without being too artificial or self-indulgent. He embraces the satirical elements of the story while establishing a believable set of stakes.

Private Eye is potentially revolutionary because it should be ordinary. An original story that’s told well by three extremely talented craftspeople. No gimmicks. No distractions. No complicated debates about lease terms and economic models. It’s worth thinking about why this is so unusual in the digital marketplace for mainstream American comics.

Next Up: Music. In the meantime, you can follow Funnybook Babylon on tumblr and twitter.

Note: A previous version of this post incorrectly identified Muntsa Vicente as a male (in the third to last paragraph). Thanks to Carey for pointing that out. I apologize for the error.

January 2, 2013

Jamaal’s Day of Reckoning With Judge Dredd

Filed under: Blurbs — Tags: , , , — Jamaal Thomas @ 12:00 pm

Welcome to 2013. Hope everyone’s had a safe, fun and relaxing holiday.

I was recently invited by Douglas Wolk to discuss Tour of Duty: Backlash, the impressive first part of a lengthy Judge Dredd storyline in 2000 A.D. by John Wagner with art by Carlos Ezquerra, Nick Dyer, Pat Goodard, Colin MacNeil, Kevin Walker and Carl Critchlow (with a fantastic fill in by Al Ewing). If you’re not familiar with Wolk, you should be – he’s a talented pop culture critic who reviews comics for the likes of the New York Times. He’s also the proprietor of Dredd Reckoning, a very cool blog reviewing all Dredd books.

Backlash and its sequel, Mega City Justice, focus on the consequences of Judge Dredd’s decision to advocate for the elimination of Mega City One’s ban on mutant emigration. In the world of Dredd, mutants are treated as outcasts forced to live in the radioactive Cursed Earth on the outskirts of the city.


I think we had a pretty nice discussion. I probably should’ve spent more time discussing Al Ewing’s brilliant parody of our favorite mutants and the corruption of the judge council, but c’est la vie. As a longtime reader of superhero comics from Marvel and DC, I was impressed by how Wagner and his collaborators dealt with an aging Dredd. I’m eager to read more latter day Dredd (I’m even considering a 2000 A.D. subscription).


Tour of Duty: Backlash is incredibly good. Highly recommended. You can pick it up directly from 2000 A.D., Amazon or at your local retailer.

Go check out our conversation here.

October 15, 2012

NYCC Has A Cold: A Look At NYCC 2012 From Afar

Filed under: Blurbs,Events — Tags: — Jamaal Thomas @ 9:52 am

New York Comic Con.

This is the first year that I’ve missed the Con since we started Funnybook Babylon about five years ago. I’ve always found a way to enjoy NYCC, despite the overwhelming crowds and inane panels, but the tension between my preferences for a comic/pop culture convention and the reality of NYCC became impossible to manage. Every year, it felt like the Con (not the people who run the Con, but the Con as was determined to heighten and highlight the contradictions. The booths for major publishers and toy manufacturers and video game companies kept getting larger and the booths for smaller publishers shrank or disappeared. The show started to attract real celebrities and real media coverage. The crowds got bigger. Artist’s Alley went from a highlight of the show to something of an afterthought. Attending the Con began to feel like experiencing a gauntlet. I valued the Con as an opportunity to connect with other people about comics and discover new things. It was a chance to talk to friends, creators and other readers about comics and pop culture. I loved the experience of wandering around the Con and finding something unexpected, whether from a creator’s table at Artist’s Alley, an obscure publisher’s booth on the main floor, or a dollar box. It’s a lot harder to do that when you’re navigating a giant crowd. NYCC is a fantastic promotional and sales opportunity for the pop culture industry and a great place for consumers to buy things and get excited about buying things in the future. I just want something more like the kind of enthusiast-driven OpenSpace conference recently suggested by David Wolkin . Or something like a Morrison Con without the cult of personality.

Enough blathering. What were the highlights of NYCC? What things should we be excited about buying in the future? While I may have missed the Con this year, I have read many, many accounts, press releases, recaps and samizdat mimeographs about the convention. So, without further delay, the ten most interesting announcements/developments from the 2012 New York Comic Con!


September 19, 2012

I Know I Contradicted Myself. Look, I Don’t Need That Now.

Filed under: Blurbs — Tags: — Jamaal Thomas @ 12:00 pm

“They try to find some hidden darkness or something like that,” he sighs, “or ‘this proves, this proves!’ – naw, it just proves I said something that day, you know, which either I still agree with or don’t. Why do I have to defend all of this? I think people just want to be mad and want to fight all the time, so I’m gonna join in now!”

Grant Morrison

Oh, Grant.

Sometimes it feels like Grant Morrison’s spent the last year and a half on a bad will publicity tour designed to disappoint people like me. I’m one of those readers who were persuaded to return to the superhero genre by Morrison and Quitely’s (seemingly) audacious take on the X-Men. There was a moment when I thought that Morrison fulfilled the potential of the genre for an adult audience – a writer who specialized in witty layered narratives and who understood the importance of visual storytelling. Morrison managed to appeal to those who hungered for meaning from the culture they consumed while spinning an entertaining yarn.

That appeal was complemented by the public persona that Morrison constructed over the years: a new-age counter culture icon. He talked about Buddhism and aliens and psychedelic drugs. He espoused anti-corporate philosophies. He evinced radicalism. We were tempted to think of him as some kind of post-modern pop culture Gnostic visionary. A philosopher. A chaos magician. In the last year and change, Grant made a series of comments in interviews and his Supergods book that seemed to come from a different place. A guy who used to embrace the paradoxes of the human condition in books like the Invisibles and Seaguy sounded like he was more interested in the mythology around pop culture icons than the struggles of the men who created them. It felt like he was turning a blind eye to what Tom Spurgeon’s described as the original sin of the American comics industry to embrace the stories.

David Brothers has tackled Morrison’s hypocrisy over at 4th Letter, but I’d like to approach this from a slightly different angle. I think Morrison’s heel turn has been incredibly helpful for comics readers and fans.

A few words on the substance of his comments:

Morrison has become the master of the disingenuous bad faith argument. All of his critics are clownish strawmen. Matt Seneca’s transformed from an impassioned critic into some kind of performance artist who ate Supergods out of incoherent mania. I may not agree with all of Matt’s points, but he deserves engagement, not condescension. Morrison’s critics werent holding him personally responsible for the Siefel/Shuster suit, they were just holding him to account for the things he actually said or wrote. But I guess it’s easier to pretend otherwise.

But that’s not my favorite part. The best bit is when he doubles down on his position on the relationship between creators and the ‘Big Two’ publishers and drops a subliminal Alan Moore dis that would make Jay-Z proud. We’re supposed to ignore the fact that Moore wasn’t some yokel who signed his ideas away for magic beans, but a guy who thought that DC violated the terms of its contract with him and acted in bad faith after benefiting from a windfall (long story short: the rights to Watchmen were supposed to revert to the creators after the book went out of print. Neither party anticipated the explosive growth of the trade market). I find it hard to believe that Morrison doesn’t know that contracts are always subject to interpretation and frequently fail to address unforeseeable advances in technology or changes to the marketplace.

At the same time, I don’t want to completely dismiss Morrison’s comments. As I’ve written earlier, I suspect that Morrison was trying to suggest that “modern creators should go into contract negotiations with their eyes wide open, and appreciate the risks of opting for short-term gains (immediate compensation) over long-term uncertainty (the property which may be more valuable than [the creator] thought)”. On the other hand, if that’s what he wanted to say, then wouldn’t he have just said it? It’s impossible to believe that the misrepresentations weren’t deliberate, that the whole point was to get us to forget why so many Golden and Silver and Bronze Age creators signed such terrible contracts.

So, I’ve reached the conclusion that he is mostly full of crap. At the same time, I think the Morrison heel turn can be a teachable moment for comics fans (and I’m including myself in this). We need to reevaluate our relationship with creators.

One of the best things about the comics industry is that the line between creator and audience is a lot fuzzier than it is in other American cultural industries. American comics is still a pretty cozy industry. It’s pretty easy to engage with creators at cons, comic stores and online. If you have the talent, the barriers to entry to becoming a creator are pretty low. So it’s easy to forget that the main reason that the public personae of constructed by most creators (and almost all other entertainment figures) are essentially fictions. They’re created to evoke specific responses from the audience and to generate revenue. I know that sounds cynical, but it’s a perfectly natural phenomenon, especially for creators who work on books published by Marvel or DC. Most of the interviews we read are arranged to promote a particular project or the creator’s personal brand. There’s an inescapably commercial element to most of our interactions with creators at store signings and conventions – even if you’re not going to buy a specific product, you’re being cultivated as a potential audience for a future product. This shouldn’t be mistaken for an ethical judgment of any kind, it’s just reality. Creators are in the business of selling the cultural products they create to an audience who will appreciate them.

So it stands to reason that a rational creator would present the public with a version of themselves that’s most conducive to selling those products. It makes sense for Grant Morrison or Alan Moore to emphasize the more radical, countercultural side of their personalities when selling products to an audience that would be most receptive to those ideas. Neither man would gain from reminding the audience that they are also hard-nosed businessmen. But we forget. We confuse an advertising campaign with reality. We never should have assumed that Grant Morrison was anything more than “a freelance commercial writer who sells stories to pay the bills“.

I’m not sure if the version of Morrison that inspired a thriving online community of freethinkers and radicals represents all or any of the real Grant Morrison, and I don’t think it matters.

These interviews should inspire us to rethink the notion of fandom. We shouldn’t stop loving the books or respecting the people who create them. We can still value online and in-person interactions with creators, and pore over their interviews and profiles. We just shouldn’t be surprised or disappointed when they change their public persona. We should resist that sense of false sense of familiarity or intimacy with people who are essentially strangers.

Sometimes creators modify their public persona because they want to emphasize a different part of their personality, or because their views on a subject have evolved. Or maybe it’s just part of a public relations campaign of some kind. We shouldn’t stop pointing out hypocrisies or falsehoods, especially since most journalists covering the culture beat are hopelessly compromised (either because they are enthusiasts or because of the commercial interests of their employers who rely on the industry they cover for advertising revenue). But we shouldn’t kid ourselves.

We never knew Grant Morrison. If we’re disappointed in him, that’s our problem. It says a lot more about us than it does about him.

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