“industry shady, it need to be taken over”

December 5th, 2011 Posted by david brothers

I hate writing about writing, because it is the most stereotypical and annoying thing a writer can do, but I’ve become what I’ve forsaken and the irony’s wild.

I haven’t written about comics on here in a month. I wrote about comics on ComicsAlliance a total of eight times in November, roughly twice per week. I did this Judge Dredd thing with Douglas Wolk that was actually a whole lot of fun, since I rarely collaborate and Wolk is one of the sharpest dudes around. (This week’s dance partner is Alyssa Rosenberg of ThinkProgress, who completely outshines me.)

I haven’t done it at all this month. I burned out. I needed a break. I’ll be back in a while. Maybe a week, maybe less, I dunno. Hopefully this post doesn’t come off too self-pitying or whatever, but it’s been bugging me and if I don’t write about it it’ll keep bugging me so… reap the whirlwind, I guess.

I quit because comics journalism, or criticism, or whatever you want to call writing about comics, is essentially free advertising. Which is fine, I don’t mean that in a pejorative way. When I write about something, be it Brandon Graham’s King City or Jeff Parker and Gabriel Hardman’s Hulk, it’s because I want you to buy and read it. Well, first and foremost it’s because I wanted to talk about it, but the buying & reading goes right along with that. I want to talk to people about these books. It’s not hand-selling, but it is recommending, yeah?

And I quit because every time I saw a review of Grant Morrison and Rags Morales working on Action Comics, I wanted to scream. The thought of Marvel caking off Fantastic Four 600 and dedicating it to Jack Kirby and Stan Lee makes my skin crawl. I can’t pretend like a comic set in the Congo featuring child soldiers and a warlord named Massacre is something adults should take seriously. Batman is already a dumb idea, but it has seventy years of inertia behind it. (“Massacre?” Negro please.) Or a million other things. “Check out this cool Tony Daniel preview!” “Matt Fraction is breaking new ground in the Defenders! What if Hulk… had a Hulk!” Pshaw.

I felt complicit in something I hated, and I decided not to write about it any more, barring my obligations at CA, and I eventually sent Laura a sad sack email begging off those, too.

(I didn’t quit reading comics, mind. I bought Thickness #2, a porn comic, and it’s grrrrrrrreat. I finished Twin Spica 10 over lunch today and it had a twist that I saw coming that still knocked me off my feet with its finality. I bought comics online and in stores. I just quit blogging about them for a while.)

A lot happened in that month, personal and otherwise. I had a hilariously awkward conversation with a PR person after I wouldn’t play the game. I spent a lot of time thinking about this post about Black Panther and War Machine. I wondered if I’d screwed up somehow, but I read it and reread it and reread the reaction to it and… I’m appalled that people came at me like I was calling Marvel a bunch of racist scumbags. I don’t even imply it, not even close. But you know, mention that two black characters share a thing, and speak of that thing negatively, and suddenly you’re… I don’t even know, bizarro David Duke or something. (I can’t think of a famous black racist right now. Sorry.) That got me to thinking about how insular and toxic comics culture is, how Team Comics has people thinking that we’re all in this together and leaping to defend corporations that don’t care about them, how comic shops actively hamper digital comics, how people claim to ignore Rich Johnston but hang on his every word…
November was a month that seemed hellbent to make me hate everything, including comics. I thought about every encounter with pushy PR people, every time I got someone in trouble because of something I wrote that some PR person didn’t like, the gross quid pro quo of maintaining access, passive-aggressive emails from Bluewater’s president because I told him I wasn’t interested in his ugly, stupid comics, and years of beating my head against the wall. Everything I don’t like about comics, I ended up processing alone or with a group of close friends, all of whom have been remarkably okay with me being such a Debbie Downer about some dumb old comic books.

I realized that I didn’t need any of that. I don’t depend on comics. I have a job. Life is short. Why should I do anything I don’t want to do, within reason? So I’ve been trying to figure out how I can keep writing about comics and entirely avoid, shun, or ignore the business side of things. I’ve gotten books early or for free, which is nice, but not necessary. (It also makes me feel really guilty. Friends make friends pay retail, yeah?) I can talk about comics I love at any point. I’m on a ’60s manga kick right now, so I’ve been buying used copies of Shotaro Ishinomori’s Cyborg 009. I can (and will) write about that at any time! (It’s wild racist, if you like/hate when I point that stuff out, but totally awesome, too.)

November was “How can I continue doing this thing I like doing when I’ve managed to surround myself with almost every aspect of it that I hate?” Sales figures, that thing where you read bad comics because you want to get your two-minute hate on or self-harm or whatever, paying attention to reviewers you don’t actually like in the name of… well I guess that’s masochism, too.

I ended up being The Digital Comics Guy somehow. Or A Digital Comics Guy, I figure. I think Brigid Alverson is the only other person to have really written repeatedly and at length on the subject. I’ve made some mis-steps (regarding believing sales charts, even!), but I’ve spilled tens of thousands of words on the subject. Maybe a hundred thousand, even. (Terrifying thought.) I’ve got a google alert for digital comics news and I’m on a bunch of mailing lists.

I saw an announcement that made me really happy. “Dark Horse Delivers Day & Date Digital Comics Same Day As Print!” They’re one of my favorite companies, they publish at least three of my favorite ongoing series (Usagi Yojimbo, Hellboy, and BPRD), and I own a bunch of their stuff. I’ve actually given away a bunch of DH stuff, because I had friends who I thought might dig it. Share the wealth, spread the word. I was really happy about this announcement, shot off a couple of quick questions to DH, forwarded the news to Andy at CA so he could write it up (being on my “oh poor me i hate writing about comics right now but am still gonna read comics news” vacation) and felt good.

On Sunday, Rich Johston reported that Larry Doherty of Larry’s Comics was refusing to shelf Dark Horse Comics over the price point. Which, as far as I’m concerned, is a crybaby punk move. Digital comics aren’t physical comics. Digital books provide a different experience than print comics. This stupid “print vs digital” thing is a smokescreen, a garbage talking point. They aren’t direct competitors, and they certainly won’t be as long as the prices are so high.

But this guy Larry, this actual racist, this person who sent a friend of mine a picture of a woman with a bunch of hot dogs stuffed in her mouth after she rightly called him out on requesting DC do a XXX video fo Batwoman and Question “banging each other” because “chicks doing it is awesome,” this scumbag who two different people I know personally–and I live a few thousand miles from dude’s store–have been like “Oh yeah, Larry? I used to live around him, he’s a disgusting punk,” this guy, the last guy anyone should be listening to or hanging out with or associating with, period, is the one who’s banging the “WHAT ABOUT US POOR RETAILERS YOU OWE US” drum the hardest.

I read the news, rolled my eyes, had a few conversations about it, and moved on.

Today, I assume in response to Larry’s bleating on Twitter, Dark Horse caved. More specifically, they caved and said this:

Unfortunately, there has been a bit of miscommunication regarding our pricing strategy, and we would like to clear that up here. In our initial announcement, we did not come forward with any pricing information on our upcoming releases. However, some assumptions were made based on our current pricing model.

Earlier today, in response to some dumb DC news I shouldn’t have read anyway, I said “these could conceivably not be lies.” I instantly felt bad about being so cynical and skeptical, did a little more research, and proved to myself and a couple friends that the things DC said weren’t lies. Which is pretty screwed up, but that sort of shows you where I’m at with comics marketing. I’m conscious of the fact that it’s poisoned for me, and I’m working to correct it. But dang, man, almost every bit of news I read seems like more and more garbage. It’s not healthy.

But that thing up there, the quote? It’s, at best and at my most charitable, a falsehood. It’s a falsehood that offloads blame onto the press, onto the people who reported the news. Maybe there was some miscommunication, but there definitely wasn’t on my side. I was sorta surprised at how much I resented reading this, as if it were personal almost. But I take writing very seriously, even if I’m just doing research for someone else, so it is what it is and he said what he said.

And now I’m like… this is an industry where Mark Millar runs wild with comments about shooting people who don’t deserve it, wondering if black people can have Down’s Syndrome, telling people not to buy digital comics, and plotting “The Rape of Wonder Woman” for yuks. This is an industry where Alan Moore talking about comics he hasn’t read, and says he hasn’t read, and proceeds to talk about anyway, is front page news every single time. It’s an industry where people complain up and down the street about how inaccurate sales figures are, except when their own books sell out. Rushed events are blockbusters. Sub-par fill-in artists are something publishers pooh-pooh and downplay as necessary.

It’s where one of the best publishers in the industry publicly bows down to someone who has consistently been an embarrassment to what passes for the comics community.

And I’m having some serious trouble figuring out why I should even want to support this industry with my time and words. It’s not like I have a lack of stuff to talk about, things that don’t make my skin crawl. I’ll get past it, obviously–I want to talk about Cyborg 009 and Wonder Woman and everything else I’m reading and enjoying, and getting paid to write is really really nice this time of year, and a month is probably long enough to get over it, especially after this post–but right now, I’m seriously not feeling it at all. I hate it.

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6 Writers: Stan Sakai

July 12th, 2010 Posted by david brothers

Stan Sakai’s Usagi Yojimbo is probably the most consistently good comic currently being published.

If I were on the outside looking in, I wouldn’t expect myself to like Usagi Yojimbo. There’s not a lot of space for casually brutal violence, curse words, and femmes fatale in funny talking animal comics, y’know? But, no– it turns out that this book is right up my alley. Sakai isn’t trying to tell some continuity-tangled epic or reinvent an old genre. He just wants to tell chambara tales, and he created a character and a world that’s flexible enough to support anything he wants to do. I don’t think I’ve ever read a volume of Usagi Yojimbo that I disliked.

The first Sakai book I read, or at least read knowing it was Stan Sakai, was Usagi Yojimbo 8: Shades of Death. I picked it up on a whim maybe six or seven years ago off a vague inkling that I liked when Usagi Yojimbo showed up on the old Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoon. It turns out that blind luck got me the volume where the Ninja Turtles guest star for a story arc. The story is the kind that shouldn’t work–full of magic, time travel, and a crossover between two franchises, but it absolutely comes together in the end.

Shades of Death is actually a pretty good cross-section of what Sakai is capable of. Other than the TMNT story, he does a brief story about Usagi as a child, one where Usagi gets trapped in the intrigue of a small village (“Shi”), and a funny short about Usagi and some tokage lizards. There’s a mix of mysticism, samurai action, horror, and just plain old comedy, and none of it seems out of place.

The Ninja Turtles story was good, but “Shi” is fantastic. In it, Usagi randomly wanders into a village after tossing a stick at a crossroads and letting the gods decide his fate (remember Yojimbo?). He ends up in the middle of a magistrate’s plot to steal a bunch of gold from a village. Usagi is forced to defend the village from four assassin’s collectively known as “Death,” or “Shi.”

When the time comes to kill the assassins, Usagi and Sakai do not shy away from the violence. It’s shown without ever dipping into exploitation, but it remains exciting. Usagi dispatches the villains one-by-one, and Sakai’s clean linework and layouts keep the action interesting. After the battle, when confronted with a man from the village who wants to prove his worth, Usagi effectively puts him down with simple words. Sakai draws Usagi with an off-kilter stance and overly-shadowed face, ramping up the menace, and it’s as effective on the page as it is in the story. You get the feeling that Usagi’s blood is still running hot and that bothering him right then would definitely be a mistake.

On the other end of the spectrum, and directly after “Shi,” is “The Lizard’s Tale.” This short story wouldn’t be out of place in a Looney Tunes short or goofy Saturday morning cartoon. Usagi wakes up to find himself surrounded by tokage lizards, who then proceed to imprint upon him and follow him around, defying his best efforts to get rid of them. This is a largely dialogue-less piece, unless you count the sounds of the lizards, but you don’t really need words to make this work. It uses Tom & Jerry storytelling to get the job done.

Sakai’s never had a problem with telling stories in Usagi Yojimbo. There are a couple of bits that he picked up from movies, such as Usagi’s leap out of a window to dodge an arrow or using a still camera for an entire story to great effect, but by and large, Usagi Yojimbo is just made up of solid cartooning. The stories draw their inspiration from a variety of films. The most notable references/homages are from Akira Kurosawa’s chambara pictures, as I can think of a couple of Yojimbo riffs off the top of my head, but Sakai’s done a pretty deft (but goofy) Godzilla strip, too.

Usagi is one of those books I binge on a few times a year. I’ll hit Amazon and pick up several volumes, tear through them in a few short days, and then wait. Usagi Yojimbo is Grab Bag Comics, the sort of series where you know you’ll get something you’ll enjoy, but have no idea which genre you’re going to get it in. Sakai’s interested in telling simple stories, tales you can drop in on whenever you like and get something good. Usagi Yojimbo is dependably good, and I’m having trouble thinking of a series that’s matched its run. That’s something to be respected in the modern comics industry, I think.

Of course, after writing this, I noticed that the volume I spent this entire essay praising is currently out of print. You can find it used for pretty cheap, or you can preorder the new edition for 01/2011. Honestly, though, if you want a taste of Usagi, you should start with last year’s Usagi Yojimbo: Yokai. It’s a short original graphic novel about the time Usagi wandered into a demon-infested forest. It’s maybe a little more serious than the average Usagi tale, but it’s nicely spooky and seeing full-color Sakai is pretty great. After that, jump around in the series. The reading order isn’t essential the way it is in a continuity-focused comic, and Sakai is great at getting you caught up without loading up on infodumps.

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