Wk30: Live Forever – Sequels, Reunions, Franchises and the never ending story.

Superman returns...again...and again

Disturbing numbers coming out of Hollywood. There will be a record for sequels this year – a whopping 28. It’s a figure that has rising steadily in the past few years. More disturbingly, things like Harry Potter 7b (essentially an 8), Fast Five, X-Men First Class (essentially another 5), etc makes the average sequel number 3.7.

How did we get here? Franchises seem to live forever these days. And maybe it has to do with digital technology making everything available. It’s never been easier to catch up one something.

Take reunions. With a band like Pulp in the CD era, people would have put away their CD copies of Different Class, occasionally bringing it out for nostalgia. In the era of iPods, many lapsed Pulp fans can carry around Pulp songs in their pockets every single day.

Every band in history is on equal footing. Every album ever made might as well be a new release. They are all equally easy to find. No wonder there is so much money in reunion shows. I’m not sure if bands can even break up anymore. Looks at artists like Pavement or the Pixies. Despite disappearing, their popularity never waned. They reunited to equal, if not bigger, audiences than ever.

Stock issues are disappearing. The idea that a record can fall out of print is outdated. In the 90s and the 00s, it was kinda hard to get Pixies albums in Australia (compared to say Britney).

There are a bunch of golden albums that used to never go out of print, and would be discovered by every generation. Be it Tapestry for thoughtful young women, or the first Violent Femmes album for nerdy young boys. And even the smallest CD store would stock them. Now there is no such thing. Every album is a golden album ripe for rediscovery.

I used to carry CDs in my school bag. I’d fill it with anything I might want to listen to. But no school bag can fit as much as an iPod. And soon those iPods will be streaming from an infinite harddrive in a cloudy sky.

The same used to apply to old movies. From hoping something would be re-run on TV to searching for a DVD at a shop. There was always limits. But no more. There is an infinite database of films online.

Which is why sequels work better than ever. I have friends who have just caught up on all seven Harry Potter films in just the weeks leading up to the 8th. It is the reason films like Fast Five can exist. Because Fast One to Four are so easy to get.

It goes on. Look at reboots. The first Scream movie never fell into an oldies film. Freddie Krueger never died. Even Wall Street was given a sequel 23 years later. Why invent a new brand to discuss the financial crisis? Just use the one that everyone still talks about.

Then there’s good old “nerdstalgia”. Transformers used to be so 80s. Now it’s the biggest franchise there is today. This year, both the Muppets and the Smurfs are back on the big screen. Nothing ever dies.

TV Shows of course fall into the same category. Although huge gaps exist, so many TV shows live online. Most are at unreasonable prices, but hey, that’s how you give birth to a piracy market.

You can always catch up to the story. Season 4 of Breaking Bad is out and you’ve not seen the first 3? It’s really not a problem anymore. Hell, you could have been waiting to be born when the first Harry Potter film came out and you’re probably the target audience for the new one.

Slightly ironic that the very first physical format – print – is the last to drag itself into the digital world. But you can see it going the same way as it’s louder and brighter cousins. Books will never go out of print. They will be instantly accessible to anyone who wants them. The stories will never get old.

This new world brings with it some new concerns. Making something that’s timeless pays off. Flash in the pan also never dies, but who’s going to be looking for it? You don’t need to go back at watch some shit network sitcom because they still make those. But the Sopranos will remain timeless.

What happens to plot twists. I don’t know how it would feel to try and watch Lost now. I think it’s widely known that the ending was a let down. With a show so structured towards an ending, does it lose something?

Then there is the big fight over copyright issues, and when things fall into the public domain. When the UK write copyright rules that allowed people to own their music for 50 years, no one thought Paul McCartney would be one year away from losing the rights to Love Me Do. Or, indeed that ANYTHING 50 years old would have any value.

Public Domain is a funny thing. And I think, on the whole, if something falls into Public Domain, it is terrible for that thing. Because the old arguments about it being free and easy to access are gone. We have solved the access issue. And it just means anyone can make money off someone’s work. No one is going to give it to you for free.

(One of my favourite movies ever – Charade – is one of the more interesting copyright cases around. Many cheap DVDs are no better than people filming shaky cameras in a theatre. But it’s legal to sell that. Proper prints with decent quality are hard to find because they are hard for anyone to sell any.)

The UK are seeking an extension to be in line with the US – 100 years (or so). There needs to be a worldwide consensus because we are dealing with the worldwide web. There is an argument that those rules need to be more lax (in regards to thing like sampling). But really – do they not imagine another Muppets movie in 50 years time? Maybe 100 is not enough.

Are we ever going to forget anything again?

Reboots have become part of our popular culture now. I think the idea was perfected in the comic book world. Bit reboots are getting sooner and sooner. Including the upcoming Avengers film, there will be three Hulks in ten years. Each one a reboot to some degree.

I find it interesting that people can just decide that OK, we are now starting again. Forget the past. This is a new Star Trek. This is a new Spiderman. Is anything sacred?

Franchises are worth more and more. Bands reform to take advantage of it. What happens when HBO realises that another generation has discovered the Sopranos? Will they remake that too?

It’s all up for grabs. Nothing ever dies. The idea that they could recast Star Trek means that they can recast anything. Imagine Star Wars movies picking up after Return Of the Jedi. Why not? We are getting new Spidermen, Supermen and Hulks. The next Batman movie is not even out and they have already announced a reboot to follow. Anything to keep the brand alive.

Try to imagine a situation where they would cancel the Simpsons. They could replace the voices. Get in a whole team of new young writers and producers. Reinvent the show for a new current audience. Use technology to make it cheaper to make. Really, maybe that show will outlive me. And all of us.

With so much information out there, the problem is not finding entertainment. It’s finding something you like. Filters will be the next big thing.

What do my friends recommend. What lists tell me what the greatest movies are. What the hell should I watch next?

It is the next big question in our cultural lives.

http://www.npr.org/2011/07/01/137502459/hollywoods-got-a-bad-case-of-sequelitis-this-year

Wk27: DC Comics and Doing Digital Right

DC Comics embraces technology, eh?

Looking back, as an industry, the music industry made awful decisions when the digital revolution came along and have been catching up ever since. It happened, and there’s only one reason to dwell on it – to learn from those mistakes.

Looking at the film and TV industry, one wonders if they are learning those lessons. Legal digital alternatives simply don’t exist in many parts of the world, leading to illegal files online, feeding the piracy market. The pricing is ridiculous, the release date lags, etc, etc.

So what is the right way to transition into the digital space?

It seems DC Comics is trying to work it out for the comic industry. They have made big plans to enter the digital space in a big and bold fashion. And they’ve learnt from other’s mistakes. Is it enough?

September 2011 will be a big day in the history of DC Comics. The company is basically starting again. Every comic they put out is being cancelled. 52 new titles are launching with new #1 issues. Batman, Supeman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, The Flash, Aquaman and more – all start again.

But it’s not just the titles. DC Comics have slowly been looking at every part of their business, and will revamp that as well.

It is the real life version of a theoretical thinking game someone taught me about business. If you were to create your business today, what would you do?

Many industries – music not excluded by any means – rely on old systems and old technology. I’ve dealt with CD inventory programs that runs on VGA graphics – and that was last year! VGA graphics went out in 1995! Some record companies use Word 2003 – an 8 year old program.

And yes, they work fine. But if you were starting from scratch, those programs don’t exist anymore. How would you build it? How would you deal with retail? How would you write your artist contracts? Heck – what day of the week do you release and why?

What would you do without the burden of history?

Well, DC Comics are doing this:

(I’m going to look at what DC does, how it compares to what Music does, and then consider what film might do)

Digital Day And Date

Comics have been flirting with digital for a couple of years now. Some bigger titles are available on Apps for the iPad. A small selection of older stories. A few free comics to entice readers.

The reason for this is obvious. A big business was slowly changing. Popular titles are essentially low-risk to experiment with. Digitising takes time and so priorities must be made. There’s no sales history so tentative steps must seem wise.

But fuck that. Come September, all DC titles go digital on the day of release. No delays. No exceptions.

I applaud DC for this. I imagine they had to restructure all their production deadlines to make sure everyone gets finished artwork in on time to digitise.

With Music, it is still a challenge to get deadlines right. It has not been uncommon for me to ask for albums 8 weeks before release date. Part of this is because a more complicated digital market for Music exists (for one, you can pre-order music).

Also, we are still waiting for a handful of musicians to “go digital”. It’s been 10 years and a slow road to get everyone on board. Many artists and their managers gave digital a wait and see approach. And while a lot of it is on iTunes, labels are now hesitant with Spotify. If you label hasn’t pulled out completely, artists can opt out if you have a friendly contract.

It is a vast contrast. Music’s hesitant toe dipping compared to DC Comic’s one-in/all-in. I think the DC way is more exciting, especially for the consumer. How many times have you been shitted off by not finding a band on iTunes, or Spotify or some other service (so you then go and pirate it).

And now film is in the same boat as music. Sure, their businesses are far bigger. But why isn’t every film ever on iTunes? And why, crucially, aren’t they there the same day it hits cinemas?

No Promos

This is a big one, and an awesome one. DC Comics are not sending out issues in advance. Sure, you want retailers to know the comics well enough to order them. You want people to review them so people will buy them. But the other side is the bigger price – promotional copies lead to piracy.

Will the world fall apart without promos? No. But DC will have to build better relationships with retailers so they will order their books. They need to be more transparent about their plans. They will need to drown the internet with promo art, interviews and publicity to build hype. But most importantly, they will have to build a business around people hearing word of mouth after release date and buying books that are weeks old.

Again, think of Music.

For everyone album on a major, there’s hundreds if not thousands of copies doing the rounds before release date. Music is serviced to journalists, retailers, radio stations, promoters and more. And that’s why every album hits the web before release date.

This is where the big hole of piracy starts. And it’s a big hole to fill, but Music can get there. Why do people need copies so far in advance? I think 80% of people get promos just because they are there. Sure, Rolling Stone needs it to review for the issue around release date. But bookers (for example) can wait if a show isn’t coming up for a while, no?

It’s a big change, but we are going to need it. And go back to a time when records CLIMBED the chart. And magazines told you what people thought was hot, not just an exclusive bunch of journos. And radio play songs that you can buy.

Film has a bigger challenge. Cinema is kind of the promo CD for the movie business. Cameras snuck into cinemas make pirated DVDs. And they make their way online too. People go out of their way to NOT see movies at the cinemas. Give ‘em a digital bone.

Working with retail

Another hurdle for the industry is the power of physical retail. They have, traditionally, taken digital technology as the enemy of what they do (as more stores close, it’s hard to argue). With a majority of money still coming from physical goods, they hold a lot of power. If JB Hi-Fi takes offense at your online strategy, they can simply not stock your record.

DC Comic’s are encouraging retailers to work with digital. Comics retail is a bit more sober than Music – I think they know they will lose a part of their audience to digital comics. But DC are offering polybagged comics WITH download codes at higher prices to entice readers.

More importantly, with digital distributor ComiXology, they are allowing stores to sell digital comics on their own website. The stores even make a decent margin (30%), if it’s a dedicated DC Comics store. That wont be hard as DC’s the only one doing it.

I was working at a record company in the early 00s, and we’d get calls from small retailers about digital. How do we get a kiosk in our stores? How do we sell mp3s? These small stores had the desire, and their size gave them flexibility. They also had the foresight to see they sold music in all forms, unlike the bigger chains.

But the technology for affordable kiosks or branded webstores did not exist in 2001. They do now for comics. Actually, they do now for Music. So all those small record stores went away, but comic retailers and DC Comics both share a stake in seeing digital comics succeed.

Price

For the first four weeks, to appease physical retail, digital and physical comics will have the same price. After that, they drop a dollar. Music does this, although with CD prices continuing to plummet, iTunes is starting to seem quite expensive again.

But for Movies, there is a large disparity. Pricing is more complex, but they have to set standard pricing across their digital offerings now. It is all over the shop, and too expensive.

DC has had time to look and reinvent it’s price structure. So once again, for music and movies, if we were to start again today, what is the price?

…and more

DC have also revamped their delivery process. They are offering physical only variants. Video trailers for instore play. A new returns policy. Editorially, they are bringing in new characters, modernising others. Better still, they are bringing more diversity to this fictional universe.

I’m in. I’ve always been more of a DC fan than Marvel. There is only one decent comic store left in Sydney, and it’s a pain to get to. But I can get comics for $2 on my iPad. That’s three for the price of a beer. Bring on some freebies to entice me on new titles. Maybe cheap collections of older books. And subscriptions so I don’t even have to think about it.

Will I miss my physical comics? I don’t buy that much anymore. But if DC do their job right and do nice editions with bonuses of great books, then I will buy my faves. If not, I bought them once already anyway. Who cares about the paper other than the trees.

Odd that DC comics is owned by Warner Brothers, who has a Music and Film and other publishing arms. All of them are going through the same birthing pains. Will they learn from DC?

Or perhaps this could all fail. Perhaps this is not a viable model, and tentative steps turn out to be the right one. We’ll see. But it’s certainly an exciting risk. And I applaud the breadth of DC’s vision and the size of their balls.

 

DC Comics New 52 Retailers Pitch – http://www.comicbookresources.com/?page=article&id=33078

30 for 30: Scott McCloud

30 for 30 – as I reach my fourth decade of being, I’m writing about some of the things that made the three that came before what they were. 30 – mostly trivial – things that have been a part of 30 – mostly trivial – years.

24. SCOTT MCCLOUD

Scott McCloud in Understanding Comics, discussing 'visual closure'

I have been a fan of Scott McCloud since high school. Writer? Artist? Technology guru? Genius? All of the above.

Of all these articles I’m writing for this 30 for 30 series, McCloud will be, by far, the most obscure.

But his influence on me is possibly the biggest of all my personal idols. Every day, I approach work, thinking and life in ways influenced, if not out right mimicking, Scott McCloud.

Let me tell you about him.

McCloud’s most groundbreaking work is Understanding Comics. Published in 1993, it was the first really serious study on the artform of comics. And it reflected the all possibilities of words and pictures combined, not just men in capes and tights.

This is the first wonderful thing I learnt.

Comics don’t equal superheroes. Don’t equal kids entertainment. That little flying in theseat pocket of a plane, with instructions to put on a life vest – that’s a comic.

Although he started in the world of comics, he went on to talk about digital distribution, micropayments and how to distribute comics online. The things he discusses can be applied to any discipline.

McCloud is, in short, the smartest person I’ve ever read discuss the sweet point of Art, Commerce and Computing.

Revelations abound for those who LOVE to take things apart.

Q) Ever wonder why people don’t use photographs to illustrate comics? Or maybe a better question is, why do people avoid doing that, or when they do, why does it seem so jarring?

A) A picture in a comic is not an instant. It can’t be. A picture in a comic suggests movement and time – especially when there is speech. Imagine a panel when two people are talking to each other.

If you think about it, the left side of the panel is not set at the same time as the right side – the two people aren’t talking at the same time.

Q) Why don’t people draw comics more realistically?

A) Because the more realistic you get, the less you relate to a character.

This is an AWESOME fact.

We see ourselves in everything.

Look at a power point.

Doesn’t it make you think of a face?

Look at a car.

Doesn’t it make you think of a face?

Draw a circle. Add two dots.

Doesn’t it look like a face?

Yet, compared to the Mona Lisa, it looks nothing like a face.

Which is the great point of all this. Mona Lisa looks like…Mona Lisa. A smiley face looks like…us.

Look at the greatest cartoon characters of all time. Homer. Mickey. You can put yourself in their shoes. Dick Tracy however, was larger than life.

The lesson; the more you abstract something, the more you relate to it.

And then there is a further abstraction – the word FACE.

Look at it.

FACE.

Something in your mind tells you to think of the concept of a face. Just like a circle with two dots does. Words and letters are the ultimate abstraction of an idea.

There is a lot more stuff like that in his books. Lots more.

McCloud’s is an art theorist and takes things apart. In understanding comics, he defines several styles of panel jumps, then graphs the number that occur in popular American comics and popular Japanese comics. Here, we see some scientific data on the difference between Manga and Superheroes.

Here are two things I love that McCloud has said about art.

1) Art can be split into 4 groups.

Classicist – those who admire form and beauty.

In music I would say artists like Cole Porter, James Taylor and Crowded House.

Animist – real gutteral, expressive, uncensored

In music I would say punk rock, but also people like Neil Young.

Formalist – exploration of the form and launguage of the art

I would say the Beatles and the Beach Boys, their exploration of sound and song structure. Later, people like Sonic Youth, Beck and people who played around with form.

Iconoclast – where the message and the personal experience is king. Very much the look-at-me kind of art.

I would lop in Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen and expecially Joni Mitchell in here.

(Of course, not every fits neatly into a square).

You find this in comics. Films. Books. Everything.

More of this in the video below.

2) What the fuck is art anyway.

Get me drunk and ask me to define art, and I will give you the Scott McCloud definition of art.

Firstly though – there is a lot of pop psychology on what art is. Some say as long as you call it Art, then it is. Others look at Jackson Pollack or Norman Rockwell and decide it’s not Art.

McCloud puts his definition back at the reasons of creation rather than the result.

I’ll try and sum up this complicated notion as best I can.

We all act, and those actions have reasons – most boil down eventually to our survival instincts.

Maybe I’m trying to impress someone. There are lots of ways I can do it. I can buy them a present. I can make a speech in their honor. And at the end of the day I could be trying to impress them to get money, get a promotion, or simply sex (or companionship). Boil it down to food and reproduction – our most basic instincts.

But what if I decided to paint a picture to impress this person? Well, all those other reasons to impress still exists. But there’s a new reason – I like to paint. I like the form and I like that way of expression. In that new space, that spurs creation, is Art.

McCloud in the late 90s onwards became the poster-boy(/man) for the Digital Revolution. One that never quite came, but he was an investor in micropayment companies (that are once again getting traction), defined the possibilities of an infinite canvas and most importantly, removed expression from form.

In short, he’s a very forward thinker.

When the rest of the comic industry panics about the death of print, McCloud stuck his neck out there and said – hey, it’s about the stories, not the paper.

Just as with music. A song is not about the CD it comes on (although, that stuff can be fun). The CD was always about the promise of some great music.

In his 2000 book Reinventing Comics, when iTunes was but an idea, McCloud clearly laid out the steps that we have followed. The elimination of the supply chain. Direct-to-fan relationships.

But he also pointed out some of the reason bigger companies are needed. Production budgets is the big one. In music, the record companies have access to expensive studios and film clip budgets that a MySpace hobbyist cannot touch. There are others in the book.

McCloud was an early Mac adopter (like another person I will write about in a couple of weeks) and discusses technology a lot. I learnt ideas like Moore’s Law from him.

But McCloud has great things to say about technology and it’s predictable future.

Computers will get more powerful.

Computers will get smaller.

Resolution (monitors, speakers) will get better.

You can tell Apple knows all these sorts of rules. McCloud also spends a lot of time discussing the web and using it as a form of expression.

But if there’s one piece of thought I use every day that McCloud gave me, it’s this:

Look for patterns.

There is so much more. I always devour the latest McCloud book. Even more amazing is none of these books are written in words. They are written as comics. There’s no fight scenes, or curvey babes. It’s a science/art book written as a comic, using icons, text, graphics to tell te story in a more powerful way.

But McCloud’s next book is a return to fiction. He’s keeping it close to his chest, but it’s set in New York.

Which I am excited about. Because as much as I’ve learnt from him, he is also the writer of possibly my favourite comic ever – Zot!. I wrote about Zot! previously.

If you are a comics fan, especially with an alternative bent, you must read this.

So, that’s a brief intro to the world of Scott McCloud. An amazing writer and illustrator. And an amazing futurist and thinker. He continues to be ahead of his time, and I think his influence is only growing.

At any given time in my head, it’s swirling with ideas – for songs, stories sometimes. But sometimes about technology, web and interaction. And sometimes about business, how we work and where the world is leading.

Art. Technology. Commerce.

And the place where the three of them meet.

And sitting there is Scott McCloud.

Below is a talk McCloud did for TED, which touches quite nicely on some of his big ideas.

And his website is here – http://scottmccloud.com/


30 for 30: Calvin & Hobbes

30 for 30 – as I reach my fourth decade of being, I’m writing about some of the things that made the three that came before what they were. 30 – mostly trivial – things that have been a part of 30 – mostly trivial – years.

21. CALVIN & HOBBES

Calvin & Hobbes

I love the comic strip Calvin & Hobbes, and the work/life of it’s creator, Bill Watterson.

The very first track on the very first album I ever released was a song called Calvin & Hobbes.

I’m a person who thinks about things from a million angles before doing anything. So choosing a song to come first on the first album I ever released was something I spent a long time thinking about. I am keenly aware of all the great opening tracks on all the great debut records.

And I’m happy to tie my flag to Bill Watterson’s greatest creations. I find the strip hugely inspiring, and a comment on the magic of life and the power of imagination.

Calvin & Hobbes started in 1985, and ended in 1995. Reading them 20 years after their context, it seems solid but unremarkable. But Watterson was a pioneer – subtly in print and more so outside of it.

Watterson, like JD Salinger, is one of the world’s more famous recluses. He also wanted to make comic strips for the sake of comic strips – not as a lead in to cartoons or films. He was fiercely independent and controlling. It led to a long hard battle throughout the years of Calvin & Hobbes.

It’s much like the music industry today. Comics Syndicates are what runs the business of comic strips. Watterson and his new Calvin & Hobbes strip became a success, and the Syndicate wanted to do more – sell C&H merch was one. Watterson said no.

I remember in the 90s, the worse thing you could ever do was sell your song to a TV ad. Nowadays, it’s a sign of credibility. I’m not sure how I feel about that to be honest. But it’s the end of the 80s, and Watterson’s company could not understand why this guy was “leaving money on the table”.

He did a lot more to get on the nerves of his paymasters – all boiling down to him not making more money, and by default his syndicate not making more money.

He even pushed the boundaries of the strip itself. Playing outside the normal box sizes, it made it impossible for newspapers to cut and crop a C&H strip to fill their needs. Newspapers happily got together and sued Watterson.

Throughout all this, Watterson fought his corner, yet never gave an interview. After all the court cases and battles were over (which he won, as there is still no C&H merch and artistic freedom is more common in strips), he quietly put his characters to rest, barely doing anything ever again.

So the parallels are abound. Artistic integrity vs. Commercial Imperative.

Comic strips were still the product of a troubled marriage with newspapers. They were the “funny pages” and of little value. But Watterson didn’t see it that way. Far more than Charles Schulz and his generation. And maybe that’s why. The Beatles excelled because they grew up with (disposable) rock ‘n’ roll. 70s cinema excelled because those filmmakers grew up with the (disposable) movies of the 50s and 60s. Watterson was the second generation of comic strip creator. The idea that he wasn’t 100% an artist probably never occurred to him.

Which could be why he fought so hard against the power imbalance levelled against comic strip creators. Again, mirroring the Hollywood Studio system, or early record companies – the young artists usually got screwed. And could barely fight for themselves.

So along comes Watterson. Who just wants to make comic strips. Who wants to grow and experiment with his art form. Who didn’t want to see his creations watered down to images on a mug or a calendar.

(Of course, with many making a stand, Watterson was rich enough to make a stand. C&H is still one of the most successful strips ever)

On the page, the strip was remarkable. If you don’t know it, it’s the story of two friends and one central conceit. Six year old Calvin and his fluffy toy tiger Hobbes. Except when no one else is around, Hobbes comes to life.

Or does he?

Or is the live Hobbes just how Calvin, a boy with a huge imagination, sees him? It could be, as Calvin’s world is full of fancy. Dinosaurs, spaceships, clones and all manner of madness fill the strips. It’s how Calvin fills his mind to get through a mundane childhood that powers the strip. And the wonderful way that Watterson draws it all.

So all that stuff about Watterson’s court fights and legal wrangling are better told elsewhere (I suggest the Tenth Anniversary collection, with a great introduction and as close to a best-of collection there is). Even the story of his reclusiveness – and the odd interview he did earlier this year – can be found elsewhere.

What’s important about C&H for me was another story of holding the line about the things you believe in. And when it comes to art and being creative, thinking about your personal rights and wrongs about it.

Sure, there are artists in the world who just do their thing and then let people do whatever they want with it. Then there are those who are fiercely protective. And I’m always drawn to the protective types. When I read articles about sampling laws, I always support the sampled artist side over the sampler. Why? I just think that the person who created it should have final say.

Watterson got the final say in more ways than one. He has yet to follow up his greatest creation with anything. Fifteen years later and I’ve stopped waiting.

From the stories, I learnt a very different lesson. Which is to give in completely to imagination. It’s best summed up by the very last Calvin & Hobbes strip.

Final Calvin & Hobbes strip. Click to embiggen.

Some say there is nothing scarier than a blank page. I’m worried about the blank pages running out.

This stuff touches ever so slightly on my belief system – which is another reason I love it so much. That you make your own truths. I can’t fault anyone for believing in God, for example, because I got my moral code from Superman, and he’s not real either. But I learnt right and wrong and that’s more important than what got me there.

The names ‘Calvin’ and ‘Hobbes’ come from two philosophers anyway. It’s a big subtext in the story. When as a kid, you believe in things, and how sad it is when your grow out of them. I read Calvin & Hobbes to remind myself to not grow out of them, if I can.

There’s lots in the strip to get into if you want to. Growing up. Authority. Morality. The things we learn. An amazing series of strips that dealt with a burglary. It’s this extra facet that makes this strip so beloved and so acclaimed. There’s plenty of critical analysis elsewhere if you want to discover more.

For me, looking at this six year old kid and his imaginary tiger, I think of one thing;

You make your own happiness.

I have an iGoogle C&H comic strip set up. Every morning I am greeted by an old strip.

I have a couple of collections. The ones to get are the landscape ones. The books in portrait have cut the squares around to fit the page – an unforgivable sin. It’s like watching the pan-and-scan of Pulp Fiction. You miss out of half the action.

I have read a lot of the strips, and have for ten years. I’m not sure if I’ve read every one though.

In 2005, they put out a Complete Collection. Two gorgeous hardcover books (in landscape!) in a hard slipcase for stupid money. I had my money already to buy one at Dymocks in Sydney when the shop clerk brought it out and asked me how I was going to get it home. It doesn’t fit in a bag. It’s going to be tough to carry on a train. I didn’t have a car or anything. I put my money away and said I’d come back after I worked it out. I never did.

(Why can’t they do them in lovely volumes like the Peanuts Collection?)

I wrote about Calvin & Hobbes in my first zine. I still try to hunt down the odd collection when I can. I made myself a Calvin & Hobbes badge with a friend’s badge machine. I just love it.

Every so often I see someone in a Calvin & Hobbes t-shirt. It has to be a fake. None have every been officially produced. I am kind of jealous. Who is making these C&H bootleg t-shirts? But am I buying into the thing Watterson rallied against?

So, I still love this strip. It’s mixed in the soup that swirls in my head when I think of terms like “artistic integrity” and “creative control”. And it’s endlessly inspiring.

It’s a magical world, ol’ buddy… let’s go exploring.

30 for 30: Comics

30 for 30 – as I reach my fourth decade of being, I’m writing about some of the things that made the three that came before what they were. 30 – mostly trivial – things that have been a part of 30 – mostly trivial – years.

2. COMICS

The fold out cover to X-Men #1 - the highest selling comic book of all time

I went through two intense period of buying comics. One was from ages 10 til 17. The second was around age 25, just before I left Australia, up til now.

Fun fact: a week after I quit collecting comics the first time I started going out wth my first girlfriend.

That first period was mainly about superheroes. (Did you know that ‘superhero’ is actually a trademark co-owned by Marvel and DC? Such a joke – no wonder those two companies are still running the comic book industry.)

The second period has been more mixed. Some alternative stuff, lots of older stuff, still the occasional superhero thing. But the big defining theme of my second tenure in comics is the trade paperback.

I have no idea what my first comic was. It would have been borrowed off a friend at school. But comics taught me, at barely 10 years old, that I wanted to OWN something rather than borrow it. If I read a comic I liked, I went out and bought it. It’s something I’ve carried over into music, books, DVDs and more.

This was around 1991, so I was there to buy X-Men #1. At over 8 million copies, it is still the highest selling comic book of all time. Along with all the X-Men and Spiderman books, I had pretty much all the big guns – Daredevil, Fanstastic Four, Batman, Superman, the Flash, etc.

My teachers hated comics. And I was an argumentative little shit, and would ask why. Comics get a bad wrap, but even that highly commercial, glossy, 90s era of comics brought some real goods. Acclaimed books like Marvels, Kingdom Come etc are rightly considered in great BOOK lists.

(I was, of course, too young to have been there for the 80s revolution that has truly broken through to the mainstream. Watchmen. V for Vendetta. The Batman from the current movies is very much Frank Miller’s dark take on Batman)

I gave up around 17. It was a slow petering out rather than a big decision. I was buying up all sorts of music. I was seeing movies more. Hanging out after school with friends in the city. Meeting girls. All age gigs. And of course, end of high school studies.

And the comics got really shit anyway. Overblown, crass and saturated with holographic covers, trading cards, all sorts of stupid shit. It was all big events where you had to buy 30 comics a month just to keep up with the story…or maybe I just grew out of it.

The comic book industry as whole crashed in the mid 90s anyway. I was part of the reason. I had enough, and I left it to rot.

I went on and fell in love with Bob Dylan

I learnt a lot from those 90’s superhero comics. A hell of a lot. And I will go to my grave defending comics.

First and foremost, I learnt how to read. I make absolutely zero bones about this. English is my second language and I was reading English for maybe five years up until comics, and still spoke broken-ish English with a strong accent.

So every day, several times a day, I would read comics. And why it was different from reading books was because my English was not good enough to read Friedrich Nietzsche, but every issue of the 1991 mini series the Infinity Gauntlet started with a Nietzsche quote.

So I’m ten years old and I’m reading amazing stuff like “Battle not with monsters, lest ye become a monster, and if you gaze into the abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.”

And lets face it, I was not really going to come across this stuff in school.

“And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?”

That was used in the Incredible Hulk #425. Bet you didn’t know that shit at age 12. I did!

It wasn’t just random literary quotes. Words like ‘intergalatic’, ‘radioactive’ etc. Not only were they hard – they fired my imagination. I learnt words like ‘hybrid’ from comics.

Just run your eye through your average list of characters to find so much more. Morlocks. Nova. Doomsday. Even Daredevil. I didn’t know what a daredevil was when I was ten. I looked it up.

The point I’m trying to make is I was buried in thoughts, words and ideas.

There was great sophistication in the writing too. Great science fiction ideas. The Hulk meeting an evil future version of himself. The wonderful Marvels series, which we are told classic stories from the point of view of an average person on the street. My mind exploded every week from all the cliffhangers, plot twists and mysteries.

As I got older, I cared less about the big graphics and more about the stories. It led me into my next phase of comics. More ‘adult’, thoughtful, character driven books like Starman, Bone, Sandman Mystery Theatre, Zot!, Astro City and more. I’d also read books ABOUT comics like Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics. It’s this era that I really, really loved comics. This stuff is so great, I can’t even describe them to you.

A lot of that stuff was independently published. Or if it was published by Marvel or DC, it was on an imprint. (The most famous work of this era, of this style, is probably Neil Gaiman’s Sandman)

I learnt a million things from these comics. I mean – Oscar Wilde was a recurring character in Starman! It’s the same neat trick that stuff like Doctor Who pulls off – it’s entertaining and educational. What a great head-fake.

I would buy comics from everywhere. A lot of those places depress me now.

Comic Kingdom on Liverpool Street. God that place just depresses the hell out of me. It still looks like the 80s, and I’m pretty sure the staff is still the same people. They just never got the memo that the 90s and 00s happened. They were too busy reading old issues of the Phantom.

Comic Kingdom’s main competitor is Kings Comics on Pitt Street. The staff are young and hip. There are plenty of girls on both sides of the counter. They have lots of movie merchandise, toys, posters and stuff. The store looks great too.

The thing that depresses me about Kings Comics is the same thing that depresses me about indie record shops. Every time I’m in there and I want something and they don’t have it, it just destroys them. And it’s so much more expensive than Amazon.

Not that Amazon is any good. They never have anything in stock. They don’t sell single issues. There is a massive gap in the internet for a comic book online shop – deals with the distributors directly, digital comics, single issues, rarities and old collectables, etc.

I wonder how the iPad and such devices are going to affect comics. I like physical artifacts – but I love the promise of a good story and with great artwork a lot more. It will b like music I guess – some digital, some physical.

Funny how people talk of in-demand entertainment, I think of comics. This is what I had for years. I would buy a stack of them. But once I had them I could read them any time, at my own pace, and re-read them at my leisure. I didn’t wait for a TV show or make sure I’m home at the perfect time. Or wait for a repeat. I’ve been doing in-demand for 20 years.

I still probably have 10K+ comics at my parents house. They are mostly protected in bags, and they are in nice boxes. Although they haven’t been taken care off and I lug them everywhere I moved when in Sydney.

These days I buy Trade Paperbacks. If you don’t know the term, it’s basically a bunch of comics grouped altogether in a book. Most bigger bookstores carry them now.

I don’t know how I got back into it – but I blame the internet. It was just so easy to come across news. And slowly, I peeked back to see what my old friends in tights were up to. I never went back to X-men, but I’m amazed to see that X-Men #1 is now up to 236. But my tastes have changed, and I walk right past the kiddie stuff. Although, I don’t look down on it one bit. I wonder who all these new superheroes are…

So I’ve re-bought a few of those comics I loved as trade paperbacks (or even some fancy hardcover versions). I will probably get rid of a lot of them when I get home. There are lots of valuable ones in there. It might take some time to sort it all out.

I read all the comic book news because some of the websites are really good (Comic Book Resources and Newsarama in particular). I think the music industry could learn a hell of a lot from how the comic book business works. A lot of what I read and see on those sites informs a lot of the ideas I bring to my own work.

The best example of that is this Saturday. Free Comic Book Day was a daring initiative to bring both new and lapsed readers into comic shops, with exclusive products on the day, and creators doing instore events and working behind the counter. It is basically the model for Record Store Day. So if you’re around on Saturday, go visit your local comic shop. Cool things will be going on and pick up a free comic while you’re there. There will be something for everyone.

Finally, for me now, I still buy comics. I get the eventual trade paperbacks, collecting six months or so worth of stories. So I dip in and out – I don’t hang out at my comic shop several times a week anymore. I am going to back and reading old stuff, and trying to keep on top of all the great new work that is being created every month, if not every day.

Zot! – and boundless optimism in a horrible world

My favourite comic book in the world is Zot! (the exclamation is part of the title). I came across this image in an article and decided to write about it…

Zot and Jenny - everything summed up in one panel

It was originally printed in the late 80s, but I discovered it in the 90s, after I had become obsessed by comic books. I started as most young boys did on super-hero stuff, and slowly graduated to the indie world, black and whites and more mature stuff.

At he heart of Zot! is our man Zot, the mash-up of so many 40s and 50s sci-fi, square-jawed future heroes, and Jenny, our everyday high school girl. Zot is a superhero, and comes from a world of flying cars, robots, talking monkeys and everything that was exciting and optimistic about early sci-fi. Jenny’s life is coloured by real world issues of sex, homosexuality, violence and teenage malaise.

(If it sounds a bit like Doctor Who, well, that’s what drew me to Doctor Who in the first place)

The 80s was a time when comics were growing up. More people are discovering the era that spawned Watchmen and Dark Knight Returns, and Zot! is also a key text. Whereas the former two upped the violence and grittiness (sometimes ironically described as ‘realness’), Zot! presented the optimistic take on life’s hard issues.

Zot has a crazy uncle (a bit like Back to the Future‘s Professor) who creates a portal to ‘our’ world. Here he meets Jenny, and throw her eyes we see Zot’s world – this awesome, lost future we once dreamed of – and we see our world through Zot’s eyes.

What happened to us? Why did we lose that dream?

It’s central to the story. Jenny’s world seems unexciting, and full of problems. Broken families, hateful people – who doesn’t want to escape as a teenager? Zot’s world is a potent metaphor for escapist fiction itself. I think creator Scott McCloud had this in mind. We can live our dreams in these stories. And kids being allowed to read about superheroes is important.

The comics were released in two acts, and it’s the second, 16 issue run that is the groundbreaking stuff – and fully collected in a beautiful paperback edition. At one point, Zot is stuck in ‘our’ world, and what you basically have is a high school teen drama where one guy is a 50s superhero guy with jetboots.

There wasn’t many issues, and every one of them is great. But there are a few that really broke the mold.

One issue deals with homosexuality and a character’s (Terry’s) coming out. We are in her mind for an issue, and at one point, reduced to tears, another character asks the question we all want to ask – “What have they done to you?”. It won many awards.

Another deals with teen sex, and it’s pretty much Zot and Jenny talking about sex for one whole issue. In a super-hero comic! No super villians. No plot twists. Just two worlds colliding in words, on paper. It also won many awards.

The panel above, the inspiration for this rant, ended up on the cover of the collected edition. Rightly so, because it’s come to sum up the whole series. These two worlds, and these two people, meeting in a kiss.

It’s not the panel above, but my favourite moment in the whole series comes in the very last issue. Jenny’s had enough and has packed all her bags to run away into Zot’s world forever. And Zot refuses to leave her world. The stand off, what they say, and what eventually happens – it’s a perfect ending.

When I wonder if liking sci fi and fiction in general is a waste of time, I think of this scene.

When I wonder if anything about life is exciting at all, I think of this scene.

But of course, what really inspires me about Zot!, to this day, is the optimism. We are going to be alright, right? People are inherently good. Inventions are awesome. Life is hard but we survive. It was something great to learn as a kid, and something I still revisit.

Scott McCloud went on to write Understanding Comics, another revered text in some circles, and it’s his last work of fiction of note. He is currently working on another, and I can’t wait. I’ve loved all his work, but that’s a story for another time.

Scott McCloud’s website – http://scottmccloud.com

Free Comic Book Day – May 2

Free Comic Book Day - May 2nd 2009

Free Comic Book Day - May 2nd 2009

Free Comic Book day started in 2002, and as far as we’re concerned, was the first time indie retail of any sort banded together to make a difference in the Walmart age. Record Store Day and similar events owe it all to Free Comic Book Day.

In 2002, the comic book industry was in dire trouble. Having barely survived the deluxe edition boom of the late 90s, retail and creators suffered. The idea for Free Comic Book Day came from Joe Field of Flying Colors Comics in Colorado. It was accepted with open arms by an industry in crsis and willing to take a risk. All the major, and soon minor, publishers created free comics for the annual event.

So far, over 12 million comic books have been given away with Free Comic Book Day.

This year, Free Comic Book Day is on May 2nd (tomorrow). The fun extends internationally. It’s a bit hard to find on the site, but the ex-US store locator is at http://www.freecomicbookday.com/fcbd_global.asp

The comics also come in all varieties. From standard superhero fare (there’s a Wolverine title, Green Lantern etc), TV and movie tie-ins (Star Wars, Cars, Simpsons), classic kids comics (Archie) to acclaimed alternative titles (Love And Rockets). Full list is here – http://www.freecomicbookday.com/comics.asp

So if you’re walking by a comic book store tomorrow, why not drop by and grab a free comic.

http://www.freecomicbookday.com/

Love, Power And Responsibility

An Open Letter To Joe Quesada

I wanted to write about your editorial decision to separate Peter Parker and Mary Jane Watson in the Spiderman comics.

You have made many claims that a single Spiderman is a better Spiderman. It gets more into the core of the character. The struggler. The melodrama. The soap opera. By making Peter single again, it will tap into the golden spirit of Spiderman.

Fuck the golden era of Spiderman.

If you were to retell those golden stories now, it would be a dated pile of shit. Terribly ham fisted plots, one dimensional characters and cheap pulp novel dialogue. We really, really, need to say goodbye to the Stan Lee era of comics. The era when comics were made for an unsophisticated child audience. Because that is no longer your audience.

You can’t expect to turn back time and get Paul McCartney to wear a Beatles wig and write you a new Can’t Buy Me Love. You can’t expect Dylan to write another Times They Are A-Changin’. And you can’t change the modern Peter Parker into the nerdy, struggling teenager, being terrorised up by Flash Thompson (or some updated version).

There is a unique quality of comic book serials that is, as far as I’m aware, unwritten about. That is it’s strange use of time over a long period. Batman is 70 next year, yet still has a decent set of abs. It’s something that cannot happen in TV shows, as people age. And I can’t think of anything other than comics where you have characters that survive continuously for 50 year plus without “aging”.

But not aging doesn’t mean not changing. Superman was a villain when he started. Over the years, talented writers and artists refined him into the classic image of him. They introduced kryptonite years later. Perry White. The bird/plane line. Then the up, up and away line. The whole Smallville thing. Then Supergirl came a long.

Superman is such a great example, actually. Because in so many ways, the public view of him is frozen in that first, Richard Donner directed Superman movie. The phone booth. The glasses. Lois and Jimmy. But so much has happened to the character since. On an adventure level – the dude DIED. On a personal level, he shares his secret with Lois. Characters have to grow.

And Spiderman is no exception. If, as you claim, that the core of what sets Peter Parker apart from Batman and Superman is the secret identity side, that Peter is dealing with the true struggles of life behind the mask, then I don’t see why that has to change when he’s married.

A good writer, and there are many, can turn the Batman/Robin relationship into a powerful drama. A man with HUGE parental issues trying to be the guardian of an angry, reckless kid? There is a wealth of stories here.

I’ve never been married, but I can imagine dealing with life is not necessarily easier. And think of all the great modern fiction about married couples, as they struggle to make their marriage work. Set that to the backdrop of “great power comes with great responsibility”. Drama. Struggle. Soap Opera.

In the end, I don’t think you have a bad premise. You have a bad approach to writing. There are no bad stories, just stories badly told. And having no good stories for a married Spiderman is not going to help you find them for a single Spiderman. You can’t use a 64 track recording studio with a one track mind. And stop looking to the Stan Lee era to solve your problem.

Why do I care so much?

Because I love, more than Peter Parker (the name of my first ever band too), I love Mary Jane. I love that relationship. I grew up with it. I fell in love with it. As a teenager, reading the comics, it was (as I’m sure was the writers intention) how I felt about girls, right there in four colour. And I followed it all, rooted for Parker all the way. And when they got together, it meant a lot to me. It made me, lets face it, think about Love.

(And yeah, OF COURSE it’s fictional. Yes. It’s just a character. So was Dumbledore. And it was pretty sad when he died, wasn’t it? So shut it.)

So seeing you piss on that, Mr Quesada, all those good times I spent disappearing into that world, is sickening to me. It’s like finding out that those love songs I love were written and performed with indifference.

And think of all the writers who poured their own hearts, and their own stories, into Peter and Mary’s. But you’re the Editor In Chief of Marvel Comics and I’m not. But I’ve lived through many of you, and someone will come along and correct this. I lived with John Howard for 11 years. I can wait this one out.

And even if it never happens, you wont be able to rewrite the history in my mind. When I think of Peter Parker, I will think that he loves Mary Jane Watson, and she loves him right back. Always.

Danny
London