Wednesday, 15 February 2012

Happy (Belated) Valentine’s Day!

I was supposed to post this yesterday, but was waylaid by a gout attack. What I was going to say was…

In order to celebrate this romantic of days(?) I’m going to be blowing my own trumpet. No that’s not a euphuism for the fact that I’ll be spending it alone with a book on Contortion Made Easy, but rather, talking about a few books I’ve been working on, that I’m rather proud of.

Some of you may know that my day job is working at Ilex Press and coming up with interesting ideas for books. Well, recently we’ve (That’s me and Art Director extraordinaire, Julie Weir) just put together a fantastic line of stationery and gift books under the banner of Ilex Gift.
First out the gate is Lovelorn: 16 Classic Romance Comic Magnets, the perfect gift this Valentine’s Day (or for your anniversary, or any romantic moment, really). The title is a bit of a Ronseal approach (“It tells you exactly what it does on the tin”). Basically, you get 16 kooky, kitsch fridge magnets featuring the most outlandish covers I could find from the Fifties, plus a small book outlining a brief history of romance comics and a background story to each of the magnets (see spreads below). It’s guaranteed to spark a conversation next time guests come over and stare at your fridge (What do you mean your guests don’t do that?).
To accompany this is the Little Book of Vintage Romance (below and due out in April) which has snippets of the very best romance comics, including covers, complete strips, panels, and actual, real-life Agony Aunt letters. It’s part of a bigger series called The Little Book of Vintage… which includes Sauciness, Sci-Fi, Combat, Horror, and Crime. I’ll Blog some more about these nearer the launch.
Then there’s the Lovelorn: 30 Postcards (below). Again pretty obvious what they are, but it comes in a package that’s so lovely that you’ll want to buy two—one to keep and one to tear apart and send a postcard everyday for a month to your loved one! Julie has devised a fantastic cover that incorporates shiny red foil blocking for the hearts, a die-cut, embossing AND the whole cover folds out to reveal a comic strip on the inside cover! It looks absolutely gorgeous (just like the couple on the cover)!
This cover really reminds me of Mad Men! Art by Ken Bald.
Finally, there’s the Lovelorn Journal (also below), which is so tactile I can’t stop stroking it! It also has all the whistles and bells with an embossed and foil blocked cover, a pocket for keeping love letters in, plus a complete comic on the end papers. Not only that, but every spread has a quirky quote from classic Fifities romance comics, like “Kissing you is extremely pleasurable, we shall have to do it often" and "Shocked... Shaken by an awful realisation! A Dukedom, an entire world at my feet... Yet I hungered for the strong arms of a lowly slave!" The whole journal is perfect for jotting down those “Dear Diary…” moments. 
The great thing about all of these has been ploughing through all the amazing 1950s comics, which, until recently, history had forgotten. Wonderful titles such as Heart Throbs, All True Romances, My Romantic Adventures, Brides in Love and G.I. SweetheartsAnd in terms of art, there are so many excellent draftsmen included, many of whom are still not recognised by the majority as being as important to the medium as Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko. Artists like the incomparable Matt Baker (who drew the cover of the journal), Ken Bald, Lee Elias (one of my favourites) and Harry Lucey (who went on to draw Archie comics for years). 
There have been a couple of excellent books out on the history of Romance comics in recent years including Michael Barson's Agonizing Love: The Golden Era of Romance Comics and Love on the Racks: A History of American Romance Comics by Michelle Nolan and recently Eddie Campbell has been championing them (unfortunately, there doesn't seem to be a way of tracking all his romance comic postings in one place so you'll just have to flounder around on his blog!). Actually, as an aside, it’s quite funny how my and Eddie’s interests often seem to converge, as I was working on a book reprinting Will Eisner’s PS Magazines at the same time as Abrams ComicArts and Eddie were putting a book together on the same subject. We stepped aside like the gallant fools we are, rather than releasing a competitive title!

So that’s four romantic gifts you could’ve bought yesterday and, let’s face it, they make a far more original gift than the endless bloody chocolates, champagne, red roses and lingerie that swamps the shops this time of year! Or you could give them on the leap year date of 29th Feb when traditionally women can propose to the men (this was supposedly "initiated by Saint Patrick or Brigid of Kildare in 5th century Ireland." There's also an apochryphal 1288 law, "Queen Margaret of Scotland required that fines be levied if a marriage proposal was refused by the man; compensation ranged from a kiss to £1 to a silk gown, in order to soften the blow.") 

I’ll be doing a talk about romance comics as part of the Catalyst Club on Friday 24 February at The Latest 7 Bar, Manchester Street, Brighton. Get tickets here (only 17 left!).

Monday, 13 February 2012

Ever-Decreasing Circles

There’s been a lot of online debate recently about how both Marvel and DC Comics have dealt with freelancers, contracts and moral obligations. With Marvel it has been about paying dues—both credit and financial—for Gary Friedrich (creator of Ghost Rider) and Jack Kirby (creator of practically everything else). While DC’s issues have been about whether they should be publishing Watchmen prequels.

Regarding the latter, Alan Moore has commented on how dismayed he was that the publishers were rehashing something that he and Dave Gibbons created over 25 years ago. But what he’s forgetting is that is exactly what Marvel and DC have been doing for the past 60 years, let alone the last quarter of a century. And is it any wonder that they keep returning to their standard Intellectual Properties?

There is very little reward or incentive for freelance creators to develop new characters for the Big Two. Sure, you might get a credit line these days and a few residual royalties, but nothing like the a major chunk of profit share that Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird garnered when they—very astutely—kept hold of their rights to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

When you add the aggressive tactics that these publishers’ lawyers—and I’m singling the lawyers out, as most people I know who work at DC and Marvel are really lovely people—employ when going after freelancers who stand up for some recognition and a bit of cash, is it any wonder they are starting to seriously look like the evil, psychopathic corporations many believe them to be.

While the rest of the Internet gets in a tizzy about these specific cases it’s important to step back and look at the future of the biggest comic book publishers in America.

These battles are all about securing their Intellectual Property Rights (we’ll gloss over the argument that it took someone outside of the companies to create these characters). There’s no way any company that big is going to roll over and sign away their cash cows over a guilt trip, and I wouldn’t expect them to. However, while this aggressive tactic of tracking down and protecting their IPs works in the short term (preventing piracy and money haemorrhaging to every single freelancer demanding a bigger slice of the pie for every character ever created for their respective universes) in the long term it is far more damaging.

Based on the actions of the Big Two in recent months what freelancer in their right mind would create an original character for them? Why give away a great character to a large corporation who will exploit it ad infinitum when you see little, or no, returns from the endless licensing (the most important department in both companies). Surely, if your concept or character is that good you’d take it to Dark Horse, Top Shelf, Avatar, Dynamite, SelfMade Hero, or any of the countless publishers out there that offer infinitely better deals, in terms of copyright ownership. Christ, you could even publish it yourself using Kickstarter. “Ahh!” say the Big Two “But we can get you a bigger audience for your work with our vast marketing and PR power.” But the truth is writers like Garth Ennis, Alan Moore, and Warren Ellis have virtually abandoned the Big Two in favour of creative freedom and ownership, and they’ve still managed to pull their readers along with them. The Boys sold better at Dynamite than it ever did at WildStorm. And Robert Kirkman's The Walking Dead has proved to be a massive success without having to sign away his rights or get into bed with some huge corporation (legal battles with Tony Moore notwithstanding).

So this all creates a serious problem for DC and Marvel. If no one is willing to create new characters and stories for them, they are reduced to rehashing the properties they do own (by fair means or foul). When Alan Moore attacks them for regurgitating his work—like an emaciated cash cow trying eek out some final nourishment from something that was already pretty indigestible—that’s all they’ve got! They don’t have a choice any more! They are drawing the wagon train into smaller and smaller circles, but the Indians have all buggered off and are reading more diverse, non-sexist, intellectually challenging, non-spandex-wearing work.

I’m seriously worried that Marvel and DC will eventually suffocate themselves on a lack of creative oxygen that is vital for them to grow and develop. Short-termisim works for politicians and bankers out to make a fast buck, but it leaves no legacy behind, just a hollow shell.

Unfortunately, it really does look like Alan Moore knows the score: Comics Will Eat Itself.

Friday, 3 February 2012

Dotter of Her Father's Eyes Launch Party

Last night saw the celebration of James Joyce’s 130th birthday and the 90th anniversary of possibly his best-known book, Ulysses. By a wondrous stroke of serendipity (or incredibly astute marketing by Jonathan Cape—you decide!) it was also the launch of Mary and Bryan Talbot’s new graphic novel, The Dotter of Her Father’s Eyes. I say serendipitous, because the book examines Mary’s relationship with her father, noted Joycean scholar, James S. Atherton, juxtaposed with Joyce’s own testy relationship with his daughter, Lucia. You can read my review of the book here.
Above: The always charming Talbots.
(Please excuse the terrible photography throughout!)
The launch was held at the excellent comic shop/gallery, Orbital, in London’s West End. It was attended by both authors, and hosted by “The Man at the Crossroads” the ever-ubiquitos Paul Gravett—who gave an informative speech— followed by Bryan’s first publisher (and owner of Britain's first head shop, Alchemy), the ever-lovely Lee Harris (who later recounted his incredible life acting with Orson Wells to me!). I hadn’t seen Lee for years, so it was wonderful catching up with him. You can watch the talks below (filmed over the shoulders of Bryan and Mary).
Rich Johnston, from Bleeding Cool was there and he filmed the same talk from the opposite angle, so if you want to watch the same thing again, with me appearing in it this time, lurking behind Mary and Bryan—click here.
Other familiar faces included Joel Meadows (Tripwire)—who’s got an exhibition of his comic book personality portraits coming up—and Vanessa and Chris (formerly of the London Cartoon Centre and Knockabout) who I hadn’t seen in about a decade!
Above: Bryan's original artwork is displayed alongside the printed version, so you can see how much work was done on computer. The exhibition runs throughout February.
The book launch also saw the private view of a month-long exhibition of Bryan’s original art from the book and the pages are well worth seeing “in the flesh”.

Then in all got a bit blurry in the pub afterwards with Steve Marchant, Paul Peart and Mark Stafford (who’s currently working on the much-anticipated second part of his and Bryan’s Cherubs series).
All in all another excellent example of how thriving the British comics industry is right now!