Tuesday, July 29, 2014

New Short Story Coming Soon

Almost seven full months into 2014 and I've amassed over 170,000 words thus far.  roughly 130,000 of those are newly written, while just under 40,000 of those are heavily revised words that bloomed into new stories and scripts that have been making there way into the ether.  As a result, I have a new story that will be available shortly.

Though, to be honest, this story isn't one that came from those 170K.  It's a story I actually sold two years back, but before it saw publication or I saw payment, the publisher fell afoul of economic woes that I do not envy.  And the project has sat on the back burner since.  But that acceptance proved to me that this bit of flash fiction was worthwhile, if I could just find the correct venue.

Which I did.

I landed in L.A. with my oldest son and his friend a bit over a week ago.  And we filled three days with sightseeing and picture-taking and exploring.  It was amazing.  But that first night, once we arrived at our hotel (post-Venice Beach), I opened my email to find that my story, "I Gotta Get Outta Here," had been accepted for the second issue of a new literary anthology from the UK, Firewords Quarterly.  This is very exciting.  It will be my second prose story to see print (third overall, as the first story I sold was for an online anthology), and the issue should be available - in print and digital formats - in roughly two weeks.  I'll drop a line here, when it becomes available for purchase.

-chris

Thursday, July 10, 2014

HOUSE OF CARDS - some thoughts

So, I’ve been catching up on some television shows recently, and it got me thinking about one of the series my wife and I watch together – House of Cards.  Both of us agreed that the recent second season was not as good as the first (in our opinion).  While there were some great moments, for the most part, it felt tired and lackluster.  Compared with my recent viewing – the second seasons of Treme and Justified (yes, I am eternally behind, and I still have two seasons of Lost to watch, as well; judge me as you will, it’s all good) – House of Cards isn’t even in the same ballpark as many of the other shows I watch.  And it seems to me that one of the main problems I have with the show is that it feels as if the writers took away the wrong lessons from some of the more revered television shows, just as the grim ‘n gritty comics spawned by Watchmen, Dark Knight, et al. also did.  They seem to have transferred the surface “flash” of these critically acclaimed series and forgotten to build a strong foundation from which to propel the drama.


The first thing they seemed to want, in the character of Francis Underwood, was to have a protagonist who was evil.  Kind of like Walter White on Breaking Bad.  Probably the best TV series I’ve watched (no surprise there, though David Simon’s The Wire is certainly in contention), Breaking Bad certainly isn’t a bad template from which to appropriate.  But, if they were using Walter White as a sort of jumping off point, the writers missed the boat. 

An aside – SPOILERS AHEAD:  I’m not saying the writers wanted to make Francis Underwood a direct clone of Walter White, nor do I even feel they wanted a passing similarity to him.  Walter is a man whose life turns upside down with the diagnosis of his cancer in the first episode, and we then watch as his ego and the fracturing of his psyche due to this terrible tragedy pushes him to change into the villain we see at the end of the series.  Conversely, Francis Underwood is a determined politician willing to go to any lengths in order for his dreams to be consummated – characteristics that, though taken to a far more extreme portrayal, are familiar to us and work within the context of the show, to a certain extent.

The biggest problem with Underwood’s characterization, for me, is that I do not find him sympathetic at all.  He is a power hungry politician who goes to ridiculous extremes to insinuate himself into the White House, where he works to push himself into the Oval Office.  You can’t just have an anti-hero as the primary character in your drama, you need to have something more for your audience, something that will allow them to relate to him or her and keep them engaged.  Otherwise, you’re just showing us the narcissistic underbelly of humanity, which can be fine in small doses but has trouble holding up under lengthier scrutiny.


Another lesson House of Cards seems to have taken from another popular show – Game of Thrones, for all three of you playing along at home – is the idea that killing off major characters within the series can add drama and tension to the overall narrative.  Well, that may be the case with the HBO adaptation of George R.R. Martin’s life’s work, but it doesn’t work so well with the Netflix original.  Certainly, the first murder by Francis was surprising (well, that’s not completely true, as it was telegraphed from a mile away; so, maybe unexpected, if one was attempting to parse out who would live and who would die after only the first episode), but the second one felt almost comical, to me.  Though I admit it was more of a surprise than that initial homicide, it still didn’t feel like it had any weight to it.  I think the main problem I had with it was that it felt all too easy (Star Wars shout-out), not just in terms of effecting the murder, but also in the manner with which Francis went through with it.  There was surprise, maybe a little shock, but I felt no connection to the experience, which is what the writer must do in order for great drama to work.  With Game of Thrones (I’ve only watched the first season, to date), I was invested in Sean Bean’s character of Ned Stark.  Even as his beheading was playing out on-screen, there was a part of me hoping, and believing, that maybe he would be reprieved.  I had a visceral response to that scene, and that character, a response and engagement that is wholly lacking now, with regard to Francis Underwood.



Ultimately, the biggest issue with House of Cards is the fact that the writers are not building up any tension within the overall narrative of Francis and Claire Underwood.  The strength of the actors, and their presence, propelled me through that initial season and kept me intrigued and engaged with the show.  But with the culmination of the second season, it is patently obvious that there is nobody who can stand up to Francis, and that fact saps the series of any tension for me.  Even Don Draper has a nemesis, in the form of Pete Campbell, who feels as if he could topple the house of cards (see what I did there) that Don has built up beneath himself.  The writers there have done a good job of building up the characters around Don, in order to give him worthwhile foils that can enhance the tension and propel the narrative to new and interesting places.  There are some issues I have with that show, as well, but I’ve never felt like leaving Mad Men behind as I plan on doing when the third season of House of Cards becomes available. 

-chris


Thursday, June 5, 2014

Star Trek Into Darkness - the Ultimate Problem

The thematic core of Star Trek Into Darkness is the friendship of Kirk and Spock.  Star Trek is an ensemble, but Kirk and Spock have been the focal point since very early in the original series – the wild, irreverent emotional spectrum of Kirk vying against the logic and calm demeanor of Spock and the way they grow to understand one another to become the closest of friends.  It’s a wonderful dynamic that evokes many heartfelt, and human, moments within the crazy – and sometimes not so crazy – ideas of its science fiction milieu.    

So, it seems to make sense to focus on this important relationship with the second “new” Star Trek film … if one does not consider the fact that these are different characters.

The primary emotional beat of the original Wrath of Khan (the original second Trek film to which this second new film calls back, often with too heavy a hand) is an intensely touching moment between Kirk and Spock, after Spock has sacrificed his life to save the Enterprise.  It works, incredibly well.  Why?  Because the weight of this friendship has been built up over the course of dozens of episodes from the original series.  Fans got to watch the relationship

between Kirk and Spock evolve and grow and became invested in it through all those hours of television.  There is a history for these two characters, as imagined by William Shatner (that’s for you, Brad) and Leonard Nimoy, which allows for just such a cathartic scene.  We, the viewers, have grown to love these characters just as they have grown to love one another, and to see that all rent asunder by Khan – who, it should be noted, also has a history with these characters from the original series – hits us in the gut.  It’s tragic. 


J.J. Abrams and co. thought it would be good to rehash this with Into Darkness.  They understood there were new fans to the franchise, but they also knew that many of the diehard fans who’ve been along for the Trek ride all these decades would also be in attendance when the movie opened.  I think they counted on that.  And I think they counted on those fans imbuing the same emotional intensity with the new Spock and Kirk as they had with the classic characters, though there is a part of me inclined to believe they didn’t think anything through at all, other than:  KHAN!!!!!!  That, ultimately, is where they failed. 


***SPOILERS FOR Into Darkness AHEAD***




As I stated above, these are new characters.  They have only been on one mission, as far as the audience is concerned.  We have not grown with these characters, as we did with the classic Kirk and Spock, and so, there is no emotional release when Kirk sacrifices himself to save the Enterprise, eliciting a raw emotional rage from Spock that lands flat.  Flat.  Flat.  Flat.   



***SPOILERS AHEAD FOR THE DC EVENT Forever Evil***



Again, I must compare this new iteration of Trek to the reboot of DC Comics – the new 52.  Like the new 52, this new Trek reshuffled everything, created a divergent timeline that kept all of the history of the Enterprise and its crew intact (which, if you believe Dan DiDio, is actually not a possibility within the new 52), and could have moved off in a brand new direction.  Each company responsible for these initiatives proclaimed how different the new status quo would be.  (And though I find the new 52 to be an abject failure, aesthetically speaking, I must commend DC Comics for continuing to try and publish books in myriad genres other than superheroes). 

And yet, they have crafted stories reliant upon the decades of backstory already built up, which is supposed to have nothing to do with these new versions of familiar characters. 

By way of example:  Forever Evil.  We are not quite three years into the new 52 initiative – certainly not enough time to build up the relationships necessary for many emotional beats that might have more weight given a fifty or seventy year history of a particular character, especially when stories are stretched across multiple issues rather than the single issue stories (or multiple stories within a single issue) prevalent in the golden and silver age of comics.  But, with the culmination of this series, the big bad turns out to be the Anti-Monitor. 

o_O  What??????

This “reveal” has no impact unless one has read Crisis on Infinite Earths from 1985, and even then, that story is no longer canon within DC continuity because of the new 52 reboot.  Star Trek does this same thing with Into Darkness, declaiming about these new characters who can surprise us, while relying heavily upon the continuity set up by the classic characters.  Infusing an emotional tether onto new characters because they have a tenuous connection to well-known classics … that doesn’t work. 


The other piece of this equation pertaining to the relationship of the new Spock and Kirk can be viewed through the lens of the Star Wars prequels.  In those films, particularly the second and third ones, viewers are told that Anakin and Obi-Wan are good friends and as close as brothers.  Yet, we never actually see them interact in a way that might suggest this (remember:  show, don’t tell).  There was that opening film, then we got an older Ani and Obi-Wan but were given none of the experiences that formed this supposed friendship.  It didn’t work. 

Compare this with the real Star Wars films.  (yeah, I went there)  In that first film, Han and Luke must blast out of Mos Eisley, make their way through the Death Star without being caught, save Princess Leia from the detention block, make their way back to the Falcon (after escaping from the trash compactor and evading Storm Troopers), launch their way off the Death Star, and are then forced to battle with the Death Star at the rebel base on the fourth moon of Yavin, wherein Han appears to leave with his reward but returns to shoot out of the glare of a star and take out Vader’s Tie Fighter, allowing Luke to blast the Death Star and win the battle of Yavin IV.  Star Wars is two hours of action, and through all of those obstacles the bond between Luke and Han strengthens, even as we move to Hoth in Empire.  It was a neat trick that George Lucas and his fellow creators pulled off, making us believe in the strong friendship of Han, Luke, and Leia, with merely two hours to do it. 

Abrams and co. failed in that respect, and the entirety of Into Darkness fell apart for me.   

-chris



Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Star Trek Into Darkness - what didn't work

I really wanted to love Star Trek Into Darkness.  And there were many things I enjoyed in this film, as noted in the first part of this short series.  But, overall, it completely fell flat for me. 

1.      First:  where the hell were Bones, Uhura, Scotty, and Chekov?  Yeah, they were in the film, but their roles were so diminished that it felt as if they were totally absent and, for the most part, superfluous with regard to the overall narrative.

Into Darkness and the 2009 reboot, Star Trek, had similar run times, but that first one felt like all the characters had their parts to play – integral parts to play – and we also got to know them as characters, with many older fans filling in what we knew of the original crew to accentuate them just a bit.  Certainly, that was essential to that first film, but it’s important to note that it was something the filmmakers achieved, admirably so.  But with this second one, they focused on the friendship of Spock and Kirk, which is the thematic core of Into Darkness, while leaving the rest of the crew to flounder about while the writers attempted to shoehorn them in somewhere.  As a result, the rest of the crew felt tacked on, unnecessary, and though Kirk and Spock are the centerpoint of the franchise, focusing in on them, at the expense of the other characters, missed the point of what makes this fictional universe special.
2.      Khan’s introduction:
For anyone who didn’t see the ads for Into Darkness, thankfully we got an overblown, ominous musical cue when Benedict Cumberbatch’s character was introduced.  Nothing like hitting the audience over the head with an orchestral hammer.  This was irritating.  And it seemed a missed opportunity.  We learned that Cumberbatch was given an identity that incorporated him into Starfleet, and wouldn’t it have been great to believe him to be one of the “good guys” and then have him turn?  Maybe.  Maybe not.  And probably not a fair argument, but the heavy-handedness of his introduction was the first, big indication that I was in for a ride I probably would not enjoy.

3.      Kirk is demoted for, what, two minutes:
This quote-unquote plot point … this one really irked me.  If you’re going to shake things up, so to speak, in a fairly significant manner, then just go for it.  Don’t pussyfoot around and ostensibly change it, only to have it revert back to the status quo minutes later.  You’re cheating your audience, and you offer them nothing within the overall narrative when you do this.  Revealing character comes through how they handle adversity, through action and consequence.  With this quick scene from Into Darkness, there was no real consequence for Kirk, not if it wasn’t a lasting consequence.  One might argue this demotion is the reason Kirk took responsibility later in the film (which yields no result, since Admiral Marcus doesn’t care to offer mercy to Kirk’s crew), but it did not ring true because of the limited time span of the demotion.  It wasn’t earned, and even if many in the audience were unable to articulate that point, there were many who realized, in an intuitive sense, that something was wrong.

4.      Khan was hyper-intelligent …
and he put his crewmembers into photon torpedoes to hide them, and eventually save them.  Chew on that one for a bit.
5.      Carol Marcus:
Did she have a purpose in this film?  Other than showing off her futuristic underwear?

So, what point did that scene (the underwear scene) serve?  None.  We already knew Kirk was a cad, a womanizer.  Ummmmmm.   Nope.  I got no other reason for it.  Moving on.

Marcus was able to get onto a major starship merely by lying to the captain that she had orders to be there?  (It’s possible I missed something here; so correct me, if that’s the case).  This was a major naval vessel (or at least a major starship within a large corporate-type entity).  There have to be protocols for accepting new crewmembers.  And, yes, Kirk isn’t one to stand on protocol, but it completely undermined his character.  If he was deemed responsible enough, even with his inability to follow regulations to the letter, for the captaincy of the Enterprise, Kirk must have shown some semblance of this responsibility before.

This just irritated me.  It circumvented any kind of rules already set up in this fictional universe.  Like Highlander III, where Wesley Snipes’s character fought on holy ground, just because he was super-evil, you can’t break the rules of your fictional reality without breaking the narrative.  It’s like a first grader’s superhero story, where whatever needs to happen just happens, because it has to happen.  Rules are set up to keep writers honest, but also to infuse their narratives with obstacles that require thought and ingenuity, rather than the laziness evinced in this scene, and many others.


6.      The Two Spocks:
Continuing on from setting up rules, only to break them.  When new-Spock contacted classic-Spock, he (new-Spock) asked about Khan.  Classic-Spock began his response with the disclaimer, which I’ve paraphrased:  “I said I would never share information from our timeline…”  This is supposed to make it suspenseful, I guess.  But then, immediately, he followed the disclaimer with a big BUT, and then went on to share information about Khan.  Just.  That.  Easy.

This wasn’t suspense, or drama.  This was, again, just ignoring the rules because it was too difficult to figure out how to inventively get around this obstacle.  Poor writing.

7.      Don’t allow accidents to get your characters out of a jam:
This happened at least twice, that I remember.  First, we had Bones and Carol Marcus go down to a planetoid to disarm one of the torpedoes.  When Bones inadvertently armed it, Marcus had thirty seconds to stop it from detonating.  She opened an access port, began acting as if she knew what she was doing, and, ultimately, just ripped the thing – whatever it was – out of the access port … amazingly shutting it down just in time.  There was no ingenuity, no expertise exhibited by Marcus, just stupid, dumb luck.  *sigh*

And then we had Scotty on Admiral Marcus’s ship.  Lucky for us.  (wipes brow)  Now, I’m sure there are some who would argue this is a result of actions and decisions made by characters beforehand.  But the path for Scotty to get here was so intricate and relied on so many little “chance” occurrences, along with the fact that so much else, up to this point, happened that I found wrong-headed, that it felt too neatly tied up.  Sure, this is something we expect from our fiction, but it also needs to feel natural.  This did not. 


Call this sour grapes, or whatever platitude you want to insert here, but my reason for getting this down is to examine why Into Darkness didn’t work for me, from a writer’s point of view.  What lessons can I take from the movie?  And are these the correct lesson?  [Feel free to interject and offer counterpoints to my own above.  I’m not closed against being persuaded I’m wrong] 

That said, I have one more piece in this short series to share, which will tackle the biggest problem I found in this film.  That will be next. 

-chris 

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Star Trek Into Darkness - what I liked

STAR TREK - the 2009 movie that rebooted the Star Trek universe, from J.J. Abrams & co. – was one of my favorite movies of the past few years.  I saw it in the theater and had chills as soon as I heard that first ping, before anything other than a star field was onscreen.  Loved it.  The story took parallel timelines and made it work.  The audience was given slightly altered, but still recognizable, characters.  And the goodwill that came from this reinvention afforded these creators the opportunity to go off in whatever direction they wanted. 


But, as with the “New 52” relaunch from DC comics, it appears Abrams, et al. merely want to rehash what has come before, rather than attempt something bold or inventive, as evidenced by Star Trek Into Darkness

I wanted to love this movie.  I think Benedict Cumberbatch is a great actor.  I love science fiction (and am a fan of the original Trek) and have been left wanting more with much of the recent sci-fi filmic fare (see:  Prometheus).  Even with the backlash online, I was ready to be a contrarian (by way of example:  despite its flaws, and there are many, I love Return of the Jedi). 

But no … didn’t happen. 

[tangent:  Sure, this piece will look like click-bait.  Fair enough.  But, for me, someone who writes and is always trying to learn and improve and make my own stories better, this is an exercise in trying to parse out what it is about this movie that did not work for me.  And, by putting it out here on the internet, it is possible someone with a different point of view will read it and offer some counterpoints that might allow me to re-evaluate Into Darkness.  Maybe that’s an overreach on my part, but it would nice if that happened.]


First:  what did I enjoy about this movie? 

A lot, actually.  The scenery and effects were wonderful.  The starships felt very much a part of this futuristic world.  They had weight and dimensionality and belonged in this milieu.  In short, they felt real.  And the settings also, with the possible exception of the area on Kronos where Khan is hiding, felt fleshed out in a way that allowed you to immerse yourself in this world and this story.  Similarly, the costuming of the crowd scenes on Earth was very well done.  The fashions were different enough to feel futuristic, while also being recognizable enough that, again, you weren’t taken out of the film because of the oddity of the clothing.  It’s a fine line that is navigated smartly by the costuming crew. 

Many of the scenes – the opening one with Spock in danger, the scene on the shuttle as Spock and Uhura argue (which almost fell into slapstick, but, to my mind, clung to that precipice without tumbling down), and others – were well conceived.  Despite what I knew was coming, I loved the scene as Kirk and Scottie ran through a listing Enterprise to get to the warp core.  Running along the walls, jumping across side corridors, working to stay upright – I thought that was well shot and an exciting and novel scene.  I also appreciated it when Kirk made the decision, as they are setting off for Kronos, to apprehend Khan rather than kill him, as Admiral Marcus had ordered.  It was a nice character moment that did not waste the argument between Kirk and Spock from moments before. 

There were some great scenes – scenes that looked wonderful and worked well narratively – in this movie.  But with too many that fell flat, within the parameters of the “rules” of this particular narrative, the whole of the film failed to cohere in a way that worked, to my mind. 

Next time:  what didn’t work, and why.

-chris




Thursday, May 8, 2014

[replay] Back Matter Movie Review #2: The Fountain

When I first started writing about comics, around 2006-07, I wrote for a now-defunct website called "Independent Propaganda."  The name of my column was BACK MATTER, and a fuller explanation can be found here.  One of the things the creator of the site wanted to do was not just spotlight independent comics, but to also spotlight indy/art (put quotes around those words) movies.  And, as the site was evolving - before it got sucked into the internet void - I tried to keep up with a couple of movie reviews.  Here's the one for The Fountain, which, at this point, is my favorite all-time film.  Enjoy.


THE FOUNTAIN a film by DARREN ARONOFSKY

THE FOUNTAIN is Darren Aronofsky’s most ambitious film to date, and for a number of different reasons it was also his most challenging.  Following the critical success of his first two features – PI in 1998, winner of the director’s award at the Sundance Film Festival, and REQUIEM FOR A DREAM in 2000, which garnered an Oscar nomination for Ellen Burstyn for Best Actress in a Leading Role – Aronofsky had a story idea that he said “came to him in a flash.”  This idea became THE FOUNTAIN, a story spanning across a thousand years from the past through the present to the future.  After the success of THE MATRIX in which the Wachowski Brothers had taken the science fiction genre to a new level, Aronofsky saw a chance with THE FOUNTAIN  to expand upon the visual spectacle the Wachowski’s had achieved.  Initially slated to star Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett, funding fell through when Pitt backed out due to creative conflicts with the director.  At this point Warner Bros. had already invested $20 million into the film, and with the stars gone it did not seem as if THE FOUNTAIN would get made.  But Aronofsky, now unshackled by the huge budget and multitude of fingers in the pie, went back to the well and broke the story down in order to develop it for a leaner independent budget.

With the re-written script in hand, Hugh Jackman and Rachel Weisz stepped into the shoes left by Pitt and Blanchett and production was renewed.  Scheduled to be released in the fall of 2005 – set to coincide with the publication of the graphic novel painted by Kent Williams, which adapted the original screenplay rather than the reworked film – the release date was pushed back a few times until finally being released this past Thanksgiving.  Eight years after its initial conception, the long hard road of THE FOUNTAIN was finally over and Aronofsky could breathe a sigh of relief.

I must admit to some trepidation when I finally walked into the empty theatre and sat down for THE FOUNTAIN.  I first read about Aronofsky’s new movie four years ago when I found the official fan website – www.aronofsky.net – which at the time still had Pitt and Blanchett attached to the film.  PI and REQUIEM FOR A DREAM are two of the small number of DVDs I own, and the promise of a new film from this cutting-edge director was exciting news.  But what if the anticipation overreached the actual film?  I worried I might have built it up too much in my head.  Could it live up to the hype?

Yes it could.

THE FOUNTAIN is a love story stretching over a thousand years.  Taking place in three distinct time periods – 1560s Spain, the present day, and the far future – the movie jumps back and forth between the multiple eras, allowing the film to unfold in a non-linear fashion similar to the films of Alejandro González Iñárritu, director of 21 GRAMS and BABEL.  By telling his story in this manner, Aronofsky forces his audience to pay close attention, asking them to make the connections between the three narratives and discover the spine holding it all together.  Jackman and Weisz are star-crossed lovers – a Spanish conquistador and Queen Isabel, a surgeon doing cancer research working to find a cure for his stricken wife, and a space traveler haunted by the ghost of his lover as he moves toward discovering the secrets of a dying star.  The tortuous journey these characters face – searching for the Tree of Life, the Fountain of Youth, an end to death – is tense and moving.  But within each strand there is something held back, some piece of the puzzle missing, and it is not until the three storylines come crashing together at the climax of the film that the bond threading through each of these six characters’ lives becomes evident. 

Diffused in a golden light, another thematic connection for the disparate narrative threads, THE FOUNTAIN is also an incredibly beautiful movie to watch.  The way Aronofsky jumps back and forth – past to present, future to past, present to future – in an almost haphazard manner is a wonder to experience.  Despite the vast differences between time periods, Aronofsky manages to make the transitions seamless, focusing his scenes sharply in order to keep those in the audience on the edges of their seats.  Aronofsky is dexterous, demonstrating a complete understanding of what makes film unique as an expressive medium and utilizing those distinctive strengths to tell an engrossing and poignant story.

THE FOUNTAIN is easily the best film I have seen in a number of years.  Many films play upon an audience’s emotional heartstrings, utilizing familiar musical themes to evoke feelings that directors worry may not come across in the film itself.  This is artificial, and it can be annoying.  With THE FOUNTAIN, Aronofsky managed to touch me emotionally in a way I can never remember experiencing before at a film.  This can not only be attributed to the brilliant story conceived by Aronofsky and Ari Handel, but also to Aronofsky’s artful direction.  He manages to get brilliant performances out of Rachel Weisz and Hugh Jackman that are terribly affecting and I wonder at how this film did so poorly at the box office.


It has been posited on the internet, and I tend to agree, that the poor showing financially and the spate of poor reviews the movie received has nothing to do with the quality of the film, but more to do with the complexity and far-reaching goals Aronofsky has for THE FOUNTAIN.  I am not one easily given over to praise, but I feel that this is truly a masterpiece of modern cinema and I hope that it will find its audience through its DVD release, which is currently scheduled for May 15.  In short, I must give my highest recommendation for THE FOUNTAIN, a brilliant film that asks a lot of its audience but returns the effort in spades if one gives it a chance.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

[replay] Back Matter Movie Review #1: Pan's Labyrinth

When I first started writing about comics, around 2006-07, I wrote for a now-defunct website called "Independent Propaganda."  The name of my column was BACK MATTER, and a fuller explanation can be found here.  One of the things the creator of the site wanted to do was not just spotlight independent comics, but to also spotlight indy/art (put quotes around those words) films.  And, as the site was evolving - before it got sucked into the internet void - I tried to keep up with a couple of movie reviews.  Here's the one for Pan's Labyrinth, which was my introduction to Gullermo del Toro.  Enjoy.


PAN’S LABYRINTH by Guillermo del Toro

Guillermo del Toro’s latest film – PAN’S LABYRINTH – has been nominated for six Academy Awards including best original screenplay.  Familiar with his name, though not his work (no, I have not yet seen HELLBOY), I was intrigued by the critical acclaim accorded del Toro’s latest effort.  Weaving fantasy and reality around a young girl’s struggles during the Spanish Civil War, the concept had me hooked.

Set in Spain, 1944, PAN’S LABYRINTH was filmed in and around Madrid and is presented in Spanish with English subtitles.  The young girl, Ofelia, is traveling with her mother into a forested outpost where her new stepfather, an imperious Captain in the Spanish army, is awaiting them.  Captain Vidal wants them close despite continued attacks from resistance fighters because Ofelia’s mother is pregnant with the Captain’s child, and a father should be present when his son is born.  The first meeting between the Captain and the girl is a very telling one as Ofelia proffers her left hand to Vidal and he grabs it, squeezing tightly, and tells her “that is the wrong hand.”

That first night the girl is awakened by a diminutive sprite who leads her into the heart of the stone labyrinth that ominously rests just within the tree line behind the large cabin where the Captain, his men, and his family are staying.  Descending the spiral stairs found in the center, Ofelia is greeted by Pan – a tall, ancient faun – who tells her she is actually a princess of the underworld who must complete three tasks before the next full moon in order to regain her immortality.  The girl is dubious, but in accepting the odd, strangely hypnotic creature before her she also accepts the tale he relaters to her.  Gaining purpose in this world fraught with violence and evil, Ofelia sets about doing what the faun asks, while her mother deals with what is becoming a complicated pregnancy, so much so that the Captain’s doctor is required to remain at the cabin in order to safeguard the birth of the child.  As resistance attacks escalate, and the audience learns of spies within the Captain’s home, the perils and tension felt by all the characters becomes palpable – each of their lives spiraling out of their own control, leading to a climax that is both tragic and uplifting.

Guillermo del Toro richly deserves his nomination for best original screenplay.  The characters are all very authentic and the story progresses along smoothly utilizing the situations and atmosphere to create moments of pervading anxiety rather than cheap Hollywood clichés meant only to startle.  Like any well-told story this one moves toward an inevitable conclusion that many will not see coming; one that would never have been approved by the Hollywood factory.  And yet, to end the movie any other way would make no sense and leave the audience wanting.  Del Toro sets everything up smartly, all the little pieces of the puzzle subtly set into place and only revealed as a part of the whole as the end draws near.  Actions and decisions have consequences within the story as major characters die – a result of the paths they follow – and viewers realize nobody is safe from the violence surrounding these people.  Del Toro even allows us to experience a tiny sliver of pity for the Captain, despite his vicious despotic manner.  A feat not easily achieved.

Del Toro’s direction is also on display here as he teases out beautiful performances from his actors.  The emotions they feel are very real, their reactions all too human.  The audience is able to relate to these characters, even given the major obstacle resulting from an English-speaking audience watching a film in Spanish.  However, the language barrier is a non-issue, even disregarding the subtitles, and one can follow the story easily even if no translation were offered.  Del Toro must also be commended for not allowing the actors to overdo their performances, something that happens too often with fantasy films.  The fear.  The horror.  It all feels genuine even within the fantastic scenes del Toro creates, which allows this film to resonate more strongly with the audience than the latest “explodo” blockbuster.


Entering the theatre, I was expecting the fantasy element of the film to be the main focus and was impressed, and surprised, at how little film time it actually received.  Del Toro did not become enamored of this “other” world but utilized it adroitly in order to tell his story.  Grounding the film in the real world makes the horrors the audience experiences more frightful and also enhances the “otherness” of this fantasy world existing on the fringes of these characters’ lives.  And the visuals del Toro uses are breathtaking, especially considering what must have been a modest budget, and add immensely to the atmosphere of anxiety and unease that permeates this film.  PAN’S LABYRINTH is a great movie and a testament to the fact that it is the story – not the effects – that can make a lasting film.  

Thursday, May 1, 2014

[replay] Back Matter Interview #8: Chris Staros

When I first started writing about comics, around 2006-07, I wrote for a now-defunct website called "Independent Propaganda."  The name of my column was BACK MATTER, and a fuller explanation can be found here.  This interview, which was the first one I did over the phone and, thus, was forced to transcribe it afterward (not. fun.), ran not only on the Independent Propaganda site, but it was also included in our print anthology, Warrior27.  I hope you enjoy:


Chris Staros is an extremely busy man.  Not only is he the publisher and editor of TopShelf Productions, but Staros is also the president of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, a non-profit organization founded in 1986 in order to protect the First Amendment rights of the comic community.  TopShelf is one of the leading publishers that has helped revitalize comics as a literary artform here in the United States.  Since its inception in 1997, TopShelf has published a variety of books including From Hell, Tricked, Blankets, and Owly from creators as diverse as Alan Moore, Scott Morse, Craig Thompson, Ed Brubaker, and Dean Haspiel, to name but a few.  Garnering critical acclaim from periodicals such as Time Magazine, Entertainment Weekly, Publishers Weekly, and The New York Times Book Review, TopShelf has earned a reputation as a publisher of smart, sophisticated graphic novels.  Despite working hard to finalize the production of Lost Girls, what he calls the “most important book TopShelf has ever published,” Staros was kind enough to take the time and answer some questions by phone for Independent Propaganda.  I want to thank him for his generosity and hope you enjoy what follows.

Could you tell me how the creation of TopShelf came about?

In the early nineties Brett Warnock, my business partner, and myself were both doing different things in the comic industry.  He was publishing his own mini-comics as he is a cartoonist himself even though most people don’t know that anymore, and he was also publishing an anthology called TopShelf Productions, which was published under a company named Primal Groove Press.  At the same time, I was doing a fanzine called The Staros Report, which was my take on the most intelligent and innovative comics out there that people should be reading.  I had found that you really couldn’t find the good stuff in most of the stores; it wasn’t really being carried.  Most stores carried Marvel and DC, and the literary stuff was being ignored.  So I started a fanzine to tell people how to mail order the stuff.  This was all pre-internet.  There wasn’t an email address to be found in my publication.
So Brett introduced himself to me when he read my fanzine because he really dug it and he sent me some of his comics so I could maybe talk them up in the zine, and we just hit it off right away.  We had the exact same taste in comics, the same opinions about everything, we loved the literary stuff but we weren’t judgmental.  We weren’t elitist snobs about comics; we dug everything.  If it was good it was good and that was it.  So we formed a friendship and got to know each other on the convention circuit, and in 1997 I pitched the idea to him that we join forces and actually form a corporation.  At that point he had changed the name of the company to TopShelf Productions because he liked the name of the anthology so much.  I jumped on board and we ended up forming TopShelf into an actual legitimate corporation and we started publishing together.  This September will mark nine years publishing.  Next year will be our tenth anniversary and we’ve published about 150, 160 books so far – graphic novels and comics – and we’ve had a good time.

You mainly publish graphic novels and collections and at the time you started out it tended to go against the conventional wisdom.  Did you feel at the time it was a gamble or just a natural progression of the medium at that point?

We felt in 1997 that was going to be the future of comics, the big future trend.  We just made a conscious decision to say we’re just going to do graphic novels.  We’re going to do things with a long shelf life.  We’re going to do things and design them in such a way that they would look just as good on a shelf at Barnes & Noble or Borders as they would in a comic book store and just try to do our small part to help introduce the rest of the world to literary graphic novels.  In that sense, we were one of the publishers that was sort of on the crest of that wave and we rode that wave.  While that trend of everything going to graphic novels surely wasn’t a result of TopShelf’s efforts, I do believe that we have some small part in that by introducing graphic novels like From Hell and Blankets to the book trade and helping prove to them that these are viable books that are as good as anything out there and deserve attention.

You said something interesting to me once at a convention, that every book TopShelf publishes loses money with its initial print run.

That is true.  I think every one of my books has lost money, except for one or two, right off the bat.  There are several reasons for that.  One is that the comic book market is still a small market in the world of publishing.  It’s a niche market with a small group of dedicated fans.  And when you publish literary graphic novels you’re limiting yourself to an even smaller market within that market.  So, in some cases the demand for the product is a little bit lower than you’d like it to be because you’re selling it to a small community.  In addition to that, because the resupply system for comics works so well – in other words, we have a great distributor in Diamond and they keep our books in stock and always can fill orders very quickly when they need them – that a retailer doesn’t necessarily need to take a big inventory position on a book.  When a book comes out they can buy one or two copies, put them in the store, and if they sell they’ll restock them, rather than buying twenty up front and seeing how they sell.  What that generally means is that you might get a thin layer of your books out and distributed in an initial solicitation.  But if you believe in a title like we do when we publish something, we tend to print pretty heavy on them.  We like to print between four and five thousand – and even up to ten thousand copies – of our books.  That means we are investing a lot of money in the titles that we publish up front so they can stay in print for a while.  And on books that we know are going to have a lot of demand we might edge up higher to that ten thousand mark.  Initial orders might be kind of low on a book, but we know traditionally that certain types of authors or certain types of projects have a lot of reorder activity and a lot of convention activity and can make their money back – break even – and even make money in the long term.  The interesting thing is that in this kind of a marketplace where the money is – well, that’s kind of a misnomer, I’m not sure there is any money – but where the money is made is on the back end with your back catalog.  So, if we have 150 graphic novels in print and we printed pretty deep on them to begin with, then every month we’re short on the new title that we just printed, or the three new titles we just printed that month, that back catalog with all those titles like Owly, From Hell, Blankets, the Jeffrey Brown line, the Kochalka line, and the Alan Moore stuff, that’s selling every month in reorders to all these stores that are restocking all these good books they’re selling.  That, in theory, will cover any shortfalls on your initial runs and help cover your operating costs and royalty expenses and all those other expenses and fill those holes in every month.  In a perfect world you’d make money on the front end and the back end with publishing, but comics is such a small marketplace right now that you tend to lose money up front on everything and then try and make it up over time and hopefully your back catalog will fill in the holes around that.

Other than that point, what are some of the bumps in the road you’ve needed to maneuver around in order to keep TopShelf going these nine years?

Most of it has been financial in nature, just dealing with the cash flow aspects of the company, getting in some tight pinches.  I know everybody probably remembers in 2002 we had our first book trade distributor go under right at the height of the From Hell movie and stiff us for a lot of money and kind of put us out of business in a sense.  We put out that internet plea and so many orders came in that we were back in business that same day.  We’ve had some distributor failures, just some general cash flow problems with sales that is always something that slows us down from time to time.  And recently with the book trade getting so popular and a lot of mainstream publishers jumping into the game like Pantheon and First Second we’re also having a competitive issue right now being able to keep our cartoonists in the house so to speak because some of them are starting to take lucrative advances with other big companies to publish graphic novels.  I can’t blame them for chasing the dollar but it is a bump in the road for us to try and keep everything rolling.

I knew Craig Thompson’s new work would be coming through Pantheon but I was surprised to see a new edition of Goodbye, Chunky Rice from them as well.  Does that mean Pantheon will have his entire catalog or will you still be publishing some of his work?

Craig and Brett and I reached an agreement that Goodbye, Chunky Rice would move to Pantheon, his new book Habibi would move to Pantheon, but that Blankets and Carnet de Voyage would stay with TopShelf.  Also, a new book by Craig called Kissypoo Garden will come out next summer from TopShelf.  So he’s going to have two publishers working for him full throttle to keep his catalog alive.  We’re happy with that.  I can’t blame Craig at all for chasing the dollar on that one.  Pantheon offered him a very substantial advance to sign with them on his new book and while we were disappointed to have Habibi go to another publisher I can understand it.  As a super gigantic Elvis Presley fan I like to think TopShelf has been like a mini Sun Records, breaking new talent and helping them get started and then at some point they have to make the decision like Elvis.  Maybe we’re too small to support them or a big label comes in and offers too much money and RCA picks them up.  That’s sort of what happened in Craig’s case and while we were disappointed to see him go we’re really happy to continue to be the publishers of Blankets and Carnet and the new Kissypoo Garden that’s coming out soon.

Regarding submissions or projects that you’re going to publish, what are some of the factors that go into your decision making process on which to publish and which to pass on?

The publishing decisions at TopShelf are always made by myself and Brett together.  Everything we publish is basically the inner section of Brett’s and my tastes in comics, the stuff that we really like.  If you look at the TopShelf line, most of the things we publish are unique, cartoony, and they have a lot of heart.  Those are the kind of things we look for.  In general, we do not do books unless Brett and I both agree on them.  We both have given each other an inarguable veto over the other so that if there’s a project one of us doesn’t want to do we can just veto it and we move on.  The only rule is that the guy who pulls the veto makes the phone call.  Basically, Brett and I have always had the philosophy of looking for things that are artistic, that have a lot of heart and originality to them, and that have a lot of warmth.  In other words, especially early on with TopShelf, we never really worried about the commerce of things.  We just always believed that if we produced things that we felt were artistic and incredible, eventually people would find us and find the book and trust in the brand and that the commerce would follow.  As the company grew and Brett and I both ended up quitting our day jobs because the company got so busy – not because it was really making so much money, but because it got so busy – we needed to work it full time.  And then the company started selling a lot of books, so now there is no day job that could cover our nut if the books didn’t sell.  So, we live or die by the sale of books and what we generally have to do is mix up our schedule with established talent, people like Alan Moore and Craig Thompson, whose books we know will sell well in reorder and provide a steady cash flow to run the operation, with other catalog guys like Jeffrey Brown and James Kochalka who we know are also very good sellers.  With that, we mix in, over the course of the year, the five or six or ten projects from new talent we’re trying to break.  So we might not release five books in a row by new people.  We might mix it up with some others to try and sort of balance the cash flow throughout the year between books we know are going to sell well and books we are not so sure about but we hope will do well.

For aspiring creators out there.  When you look over submissions, what cardinal sin do you most often see from aspiring writers and/or aspiring artists?

In general, the biggest misconception that an amateur cartoonist has is that you can sit at home, draw something, and put it in the mail and somebody’s going to discover you and sign you and you’re good to go on your first project.  Generally, getting published in comics, or getting anywhere in the arts is really, honestly, about a ten year process that you’ve really got to work at for a while.  So we get a lot of blind submissions to our P.O. Box every year.  As small a company as TopShelf is, because of our critical reputation and the kind of things that we do, we get about a thousand submissions a year.  And from those blind submissions, people we don’t necessarily know but are sending us work, we may pick up one of those.  Most of the projects that we actually publish tend to be from people that are at home doing their work and creating comics, but are also producing mini-comics, visiting conventions, setting up at conventions, hanging out after conventions, getting to know people.  So, not only over a year or two do I see their mini-comics get better and better, but I also get to know them, and know if I like them, and know if I could work with them.  I get to see how they market their own products.  Can they sell a hundred copies of their minis or self-published things at shows?  Are they good marketers?  Because in a company that’s as small as TopShelf –Brett, and I, and our full time guy Rob – that’s six arms and six legs.  If the guy or girl that’s producing these comics can’t sell them, and is very bad behind a table and can’t market their book, then we’re still six arms and six legs.  But if they are really good salespeople and they like to work shows a lot, then we’ve got eight arms and eight legs for their books.  And that’s a big strategic advantage when it comes to marketing them.  For example, guys like Jeffrey brown, who does Unlikely and Andy Runton, who does Owly, those guys are road warriors.  They work really hard and they’ve got great personalities and people really like them and identify their personalities with their work.  As a result, they’ve created large fan bases for themselves and allowed us to do a lot of press on top of that to really get their catalogs moving.  So, I guess in the small press the misconception for young cartoonists is that it’s just about putting something in the mail and getting signed when really it’s a lot more of a grass roots effort to help yourself help a publisher get your works out there and get known.

The announcement that TopShelf would be publishing Lost Girls came a few years back.  The social climate seems to be moving more toward it being better for publication of a book like this.  Was this a factor at all in the delay or was it other factors?

We signed Lost Girls in April of 2000.  At that time they [Alan Moore and Melinda Gebbie] were about 2/3 of the way through this project that they had been working on for ten years at that point.  It took about four or five more years for Melinda to meticulously render all of those pages that Alan had conceptualized, and honestly about a year to two years to actually design it because it’s a mammoth project.  It’s a brilliant project and it needed to be treated right.  And seeing as how the project had already been in development for fourteen or fifteen years it didn’t seem necessary to try and rush it.  So it’s coming out this summer.  It’s going to be beautiful.  It’s going to be controversial.  But it will never be challenged as a work of art, because it’s sheer genius.

You are marketing Lost Girls not only as an important piece of literature, but also as a fine art object.  Will there eventually be a softcover edition or will it remain in hardcover like Dave McKean’s Cages?

Right now there’s no plan for a softcover edition.  It’s important to us that the book not be confused as a regular old book that’s got naked people in it.  This is a work of art and as such needs to be packaged as a work of art.  And that’s why it’s sort of packaged like the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and Watchmen absolute editions, except we actually went the extra mile using nicer paper, clothbound covers, and gold embossing.  It’s a much slicker package than even those two, even though I loved both of those packages.  We didn’t scrimp on any corners on this one, that way when you pull the volumes out and you see how much love and care went into these and you see the beautiful cream heavy stock paper that the images are printed on and it has a sort of tinge of yesteryear, which the book is set pre-World War I, you’ll understand that it is an object of art and won’t confuse it as anything else.  So that’s why we’re sticking with the hardcover format.

I know Alan Moore has very definite thoughts with regards to his stories and what can be accomplished in the medium.  Does he have a similarly opinionated view in the presentation and format of his work and how much input did he have in the final presentation of Lost Girls?

Alan is the reason I actually got in the business in the first place.  I was a musician my whole life and discovered V for Vendetta when I was thirty years old and it just blew me away.  I couldn’t believe comics could be so powerful.  I thought I would get involved a little bit.  One thing led to another and here I am publishing Alan, ten, fifteen years later.  Obviously Alan, being who he is – the greatest comics writer I think this industry has ever known –of course has final approval over all of his projects as he well should.  But he and Melinda both gave us a lot of leeway to help package it in a way that would be pleasing to them.  So we ran a lot of ideas by them in the beginning and got their guidance on which way they wanted to go.  But in their heads this whole time, for this last fifteen years, they always envisioned it as three separate books, oversized hardcovers and a slipcase.  That’s the way they’ve envisioned the project from the very beginning and that’s the way the book was crafted as a story.  It is told in three giant sections that have different feels to them even though the story moves through all of them.

From Hell, Blankets, the announcement that Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill are bringing the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen under the TopShelf banner have been some noteworthy high points.  What might be some of the lesser publicized ones for you in TopShelf’s history?

One of the things that has become a runaway hit for us recently has been the Owly series of graphic novels.  It’s funny, when TopShelf started, the comics industry was worried about legitimizing itself with adults, to let people know that comics was a sophisticated medium on par with film and literature and it wasn’t just superheroes.  A lot of us publishers spent a lot of time helping to recreate comics’ image as something that could stand on its own with any medium.  And as a collective industry, DC comics included and all the other publishers included, we’ve collectively changed the public’s opinion of what comics are.  The term graphic novel now is something people are not unfamiliar with.  It’s still not quite the thing to do like baseball, but we’ve definitely come a long way in this last decade or so.  But there was a point a few years ago when the industry as a whole realized hey you know what, that’s all well and good that we’ve gotten people to realize that comics are intellectual but along the way we may have forgotten about the kids, like doing really good work for kids to get people into comics when they’re young so it becomes the thing to do like baseball.  Nobody picks up baseball at twenty-five, they pick it up at six and they go from there.  So comics really needs to be in that same mode.  A lot of publishers publish comics for kids, but we decided that we would participate in doing that new wave of doing literary comics while also trying to find some key books for kids.  And Andy Runton with Owly, which we’ve been publishing for a couple of years, has become one of those phenomena where a book just becomes hugely popular with kids and is becoming more popular all the time.  And it’s popular with adults as well because if you have the kid inside of you still, which I do, you can’t help but love Owly because it’s so charming and so soulful.  And with books like Aaron Renier’s Spiral Bound and Jef Czekaj’s Grampa and Julie and James Kochalka’s Pinky and Stinky and Monkey vs. Robot, we’ve started to develop a line of books that are respected as quality kids’ reads.  That’s one of the big ones.  Seeing the lines of Jeffrey Brown and James Kochalka, examples of two cartoonists who have a lot of integrity and quality about their work, becoming brands in and of themselves has been satisfying.  Being a part of developing Craig Thompson as a superstar in comics, we’re very proud of that.  And of course, our association with Alan Moore, as you mentioned, is huge for us not only as big fans of his work but to be the publishers of From Hell, Lost Girls, and League, and Voice of the Fire and Mirror of Love and Snakes and Ladders and The Birth Caul and his spoken word cds, is an honor.  I can’t tell you what an honor it is to be responsible for those types of books.

And finally, what does the future hold for you and for TopShelf?

That’s really hard to tell.  I never know where we’re going to be when I look ahead.  I just stare into a giant abyss and fear keeps me motivated to work fifteen hour days to make sure we’re moving forward.  And generally, it’s only in retrospect as I turn around and look behind me that I see that we’ve covered a lot of ground.  Ideally, things like Owly would take off into a national franchise, our science fiction books like The Surrogates would turn into films, Lost Girls would be a successful book that even though it’s controversial would be accepted as literature and not challenged in ways that would be destructive to TopShelf or to our retailers.  And these things I would view as being successful.  The truth is that just surviving and just being here is in some way the only kind of success that we can hope for.  The fact that we’ve survived a decade in comics is just a testament to just being able to survive.  Hopefully, there will be some easier times ahead where money isn’t so tight all the time, but I don’t know, it’s hard to imagine that being the case.  But in the event that if we can still be here in another decade doing a twenty year follow-up that would be all the success we would need.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

[replay] Back Matter Interview #7: Rob Venditti

When I first started writing about comics, around 2006-07, I wrote for a now-defunct website called "Independent Propaganda."  The name of my column was BACK MATTER, and a fuller explanation can be found here.


Rob Venditti is “the third man” at Top Shelf and his first comic series THE SURROGATES, created with artist Brett Weldele, was recently collected by Top Shelf into one volume.  Despite his very busy schedule, Mr. Venditti was kind enough to take the time and answer some questions for Independent Propaganda.  I want to thank him for his generosity and hope you all enjoy what follows.


INDEPENDENT PROPAGANDA: What is it that prompted you to want to write for comics and has this been an aspiration of yours for some time now, or is it more recent?

ROBERT VENDITTI:  I started out wanting to write prose fiction, so that’s where most of my background and schooling is.  It wasn’t until I read my first comic book in 2000 (a back issue of KURT BUSIEK’S ASTRO CITY) that I decided to change gears and write for comics.  This was around the time that the America’s Best Comics line was starting up at Wildstorm, as well as the short-lived Gorilla Comics imprint at Image, so there were a lot of quality books for a newbie like me to get his feet wet with.  It didn’t take long for me to realize that comics were capable of much more in the way of storytelling than I’d previously thought, and I instantly fell in love with the medium and its possibilities.   

IP: What do you feel is the most important factor from your personal history (education, family) that has allowed you to become a published writer?

RV:  Both family and education have played critical roles in their own way.  First, it was my family that instilled in me the joy of reading, and they’ve always encouraged me to write, as long as it was fun and it was what I wanted to do.  Education was very important as well, though.  I majored in English and Creative Writing, and by doing so I was able to surround myself with like-minded people, which inspired me to produce and share my work with others.  Also, the deadline nature of college courses—being given an assignment and a time at which it must be turned in—taught me how to balance writing with other interests so that I finished what needed to get done.

IP: Many creators, especially when starting out, hold down a day job while creating their comics.  What jobs, if any, did you have and did they provide anything for you with regards to your writing?

RV:  I still have a day job!  For the past five years I’ve worked for small press publisher Top Shelf Productions.  I started out packing boxes for orders that came in through their website, but over the years my duties have expanded to include editorial, promotions, marketing . . . whatever needs doing.  It’s been the best possible scenario for me, because as I was writing THE SURROGATES I was learning—from the inside—how the comics and graphic novel industry works.  Whereas my family and education background helped me develop the creative aspects of being a writer, working for Top Shelf has helped me understand the more business-oriented side of things.  To reach any measure of success, I believe it’s important to have a firm grasp on both.   

IP: When they are first trying to break into comics, many writers have difficulty finding artists able to realize their story samples.  What can they do to overcome this?

RV:  If you’re looking to get published, first see if the publisher will be willing to set you up with an artist.  They have the contacts and the backing to get an artist interested, and this will also give them the opportunity to pick who they want for the project.  I was lucky in that Top Shelf knew Brett Weldele and was able to bring him onboard.  Without their help, I would’ve had to scour the Artist’s Alley at conventions looking for someone willing to work on a 5-issue miniseries with a first-time writer, which can be a tough find. 

IP: What do you think is the biggest pitfall aspiring writers fall into when looking for their first job?

RV:  They start out too grandiose.  If you’ve never been published before, then the odds that a publisher is going to want to sign on for your epic, decades-spanning ongoing series are slim.  Even worse, when you’re just starting out your skills most likely aren’t developed to the point that you can tackle that kind of story, so even if your idea is a winner your execution may destroy it.  Start with something more manageable—a miniseries, a fill-in issue, even an eight-page short story—and let your skills grow with the length and breadth of your ideas.  

IP: What do you feel aspiring writers can do in order to better their chances of becoming published?

RV:  Get involved.  So many people think that if they create it, people will come.  I’ve found that the opposite it true—people aren’t going to notice that you created something unless you bring it to them, be they publishers, fans, or what have you.  I started working in the mail room at Top Shelf precisely because I knew I wanted to write comics, and, while packing boxes wasn’t a dream job, I hoped it would get my foot in the door.  Turns out I was right.  If I’d been the sort to say, “I’m not going to pack boxes.  I’m an artist!” then my art would probably still be sitting in a filing cabinet at home.

IP: What creators, possibly more obscure ones and not necessarily within comics, would you recommend aspiring writers read and study? 

RV:  I believe it’s important for writers to read everything they can get their hands on, if for no other reason than the fact that oftentimes reading is where inspiration comes from.  This was certainly the case with THE SURROGATES, the idea for which came to me after I read a book for one of my grad school classes.  I do think it can be dangerous, though, to read or study particular authors or genres that are similar to your story because you may fall into the trap of imitating rather than creating.  Read different things.  Expand your influences.  You may be surprised at how those experiences will enrich your writing.    

IP: For you, what is the advantage of publishing through Top Shelf rather than Marvel and DC?

RV:  The biggest advantage was the freedom to tell the story on its own terms.  Each issue of the miniseries contained twenty-four pages of comics, as well as four pages of backup features like news articles and brochures.  The backup features really helped flesh out the world and lend an element of believability that the story would’ve lacked had they not been included.  We even ran a series of mock advertisements on the back covers for Virtual Self, the fictional company that manufactures surrogates.  Had the book been published by Marvel or DC, each issue would’ve contained twenty-two pages of comics (twenty-four at best), and everything else would’ve been sold to real advertisers.  Top Shelf was 100% supportive, and for that I can’t thank them enough.

IP: Do you feel the recent push toward graphic novels - both collections and original works - and bookstore distribution has been good for the industry?  Why, or why not?

RV:  I believe it’s been very good for the industry, simply because more books are getting into more readers’ hands.  An increase in distribution can’t be a bad thing.  I also think the inroads that comics have made into bookstores and other mainstream venues have given the medium a long-deserved dose of respectability—comics is recognized more and more as an art form that can communicate complex ideas to a diverse audience, which, of course, is something that creators have known for quite some time.

IP: What are some things you would like to see change with the current distribution system?

RV:  I don’t know if this has to do with distribution per se, but I’d like to see comics shops and bookstores carrying a wider variety of titles, a selection more representative of what’s being published these days.  I understand the need to stock deep on Marvel, DC, and manga, but books like LOUIS RIEL, WIMBLEDON GREEN, and OWLY shouldn’t be left out of the mix.  

IP: THE SURROGATES was your first comic series and I thought it was very well done.  What was the genesis for this story and did it change much from your initial proposal?

RV:  I read a book called THE CYBERGYPSIES by Indra Sinha for one of my grad school classes.  Written in the late-90s, it’s a true story about people addicted to the Internet and cyberspace.  Something about the characters—people who were willing to jeopardize everything, even their careers and families, to maintain their online personas—stuck with me.  I began thinking about what it would be like if, instead of being confined to cyberspace, people could send their virtual selves out into the real world.  Then they could work, date, get the groceries, and do everything else without ever having to drop the façade.  What would that world be like?  I combined this central idea with a detective element—I’ve always been a fan of cop dramas like Law & Order and NYPD Blue—and everything went forward from there. 
I’d already written the first issue and plotted the entire series before showing anything to Chris Staros at Top Shelf—I tend to think things through before discussing my ideas with anyone—so the story didn’t really change much from the initial proposal.

IP: What did you find to be the biggest challenge in writing THE SURROGATES?

RV:  Learning to adapt my style to fit the unique characteristics of the comics medium.  Writing panel descriptions, using page breaks effectively, conforming to a serialized structure . . . these are things that don’t usually apply in prose writing, so adjusting to all of them took some time.  I did my best to read up on the process, but anyone who’s gone looking can tell you that there aren’t many books about writing comics out there.  At some point I had to just dive in.  That was a little scary.

IP: Did you have any writing experience before this project or was this ultimately your first published work?

RV:  Except for one short story I published in a literary magazine, the only writing experience I had was from the creative writing classes I’d taken in college.  Just because the experience wasn’t professional, however, that doesn’t mean it wasn’t beneficial.  Those six years of collegiate English courses helped me get a firm grasp on the basics—story structure, character development, and so on.     

IP: Did Brett Weldele have much input into the series or did he come in after it was written?

RV:  The entire script for the series was finished before Brett joined the project, but that’s not to suggest that he didn’t have any input.  He may not have worked on the plot or dialogue, but the visuals were all his.  It’s his distinctive style that makes THE SURROGATES look the way it does on the page, and that amounts to a whole lot of input.    

IP: With any new writer there are bound to be growing pains, ones that can be eased by a good editor.  Were there any parts of THE SURROGATES that needed to be rewritten as a result of this inexperience, and if so what was the reasoning behind these changes?

RV:  Working with Chris Staros was a rewarding experience for me.  Because I was on the staff at Top Shelf I saw Chris all the time, so we’d discuss THE SURROGATES at the office or while traveling to conventions.  He was a great sounding board, letting me bounce ideas off him and responding with detailed questions to make sure I’d covered all of the bases.  So, in that sense, I guess most of the editing and rewriting was done verbally.  When it came time to put everything down on paper, the story stayed pretty much as it was. 

IP: And finally, do you have any more projects on the horizon, and can you talk about them at all?

RV:  I’ve just finished the first draft of a new five-issue, sci-fi miniseries, this one more of a near-future serial killer story.  I’m not ready to go into too much detail about it, but I hope to have a final draft finished by the end of the year.  Once it’s finished, I’ll hunt for a publisher, find an artist, and start the whole process all over again!



Thursday, April 17, 2014

[replay] Back Matter Interview #6 - Neil Kleid

When I first started writing about comics, around 2006-07, I wrote for a now-defunct website called "Independent Propaganda."  The name of my column was BACK MATTER, and a fuller explanation can be found here.


Neil Kleid was awarded a Xeric grant in 2003 for his self-published comic Ninety Candles.  His recent graphic novel, Brownsville, was published by NBM in hardcover earlier this year and recently hit shelves in an affordable softcover edition.  With artist Jake Allen, Kleid told a complex tale of what it must have been like to be involved with the Jewish mafia in 1920s New York.  Full of conflicted characters trying to get by the best they know how and the pull of family – by blood or not – this is an important work pushing the boundaries of what can be done on the comic page through into this twenty-first century. 

Neil was kind enough to take the time and answer some questions for Independent Propaganda via email.  What he had to say follows, and it’s interesting to note that he’s not that far removed from the fanboy still residing in all of us, despite now sitting across the table from us.  I hope you all enjoy.

Can you tell us briefly how you broke into comics?


Hard work, persistence, hard work, knowing the right people, hard work, a modicum of talent, hard work and oh, hard work.

I'm one of those weird cats who broke in the long way - working up from the ground floor.  I wasn't "discovered" or had a breakthrough project that ended up getting editors to lay jobs at my feet... I got in by creating my own opportunities.

Back in '01 I set up a forum discussion between Mike Carlin, Joe Quesada and Axel Alonso covering the topic of comics and adapting comics to other media here in NYC.  This helped me on two fronts: a) it got my name and face in front of these editors, allowing me the opportunity to talk to them about pitching projects and b) one of the places I went to hand out flyers for the forum was a BIZARRO COMICS signing involving tons of indy/alt creators like Dean Haspiel, Jessica Abel, Kyle Baker and more.  Talking with these cartoonists - and eventually becoming friendly with them- made me realize that there were other ways to get into comics than through the mainstream publishers.

Over the next few years I slowly worked my way up the ladder...making minicomics, working on short anthology stories.  Eventually my hard work paid off - I won the Xeric Grant in '03 for NINETY CANDLES and parlayed that into work for some alternative and graphic novel publishers - BROWNSVILLE for NBM and URSA MINORS!  for Slave Labor Graphics.  Nowadays I just keep moving forward - this year I wrote a short X-MEN UNLIMITED story and am currently developing projects for two companies while getting involved with book publishers.
 
What do you feel is the most important factor from your personal history (education, family) that has allowed you to be successful in the comic industry?


Work ethic?  Treating everyone the way I want to be treated?  I don’t know... traits ingrained into me by my family, sure, but man... it's all just common sense.

I definitely think being taught to rely on myself rather than others was a huge thing to learn early on.  Make my own way.

 
Many creators, especially when starting out, hold down a day job while creating their comics.  What jobs, if any, did you have and did they provide anything for you with regards to your writing?


While I've been writing comics, I've had a variety of graphic design jobs, jockeyed a counter at Bloomingdales and been at my current art director position for almost four years now.  Each job gives you a sense of perspective as to where you are and where you’re going.  My writing tends to be influenced more about the subjects I'm interested in writing about.  If it's an autobio story then it’ll be about whatever slice of my life I'm writing about...and if it's a specific job then so be it.

 
When they are first trying to break into comics, many writers have difficulty finding artists able to realize their story samples.  What can they do to overcome this?


Keep looking.  There are thousands of places to find an artist - the web, a comic store, local cartoonist jams, and conventions.  If you're determined enough and realize that you might not get the perfect fit for each story, then you'll find an artist.  I'm lucky - I've found artists on the web or through friends that I've clicked with but it takes time... and as a writer, you need to be patient - whether it’s working with an editor or finding/working with an artist, it's all about realizing that you’re creating collaborations... and that takes time, nurturing and patience.

 
What is the most important thing for aspiring writers to remember when pitching a series to a publisher?

Editors have fifty people pitching them a day if not more.  Don't waste their time - short, sweet, to the point.
And wear pants.


On the flip side, what cardinal sin should these same writers stay away from when preparing their proposals?

The pants thing?
Same thing - really know your pitch and get the whole thing across - beginning, middle and end - as efficiently as you can.

What creators, possibly more obscure ones and not necessarily within comics, would you recommend aspiring writers read and study?   


Comics wise, there's nothing wrong with exploring the ways guys like Eisner, Wally Wood and Jack Kirby laid a page out but I wouldn't necessarily "study" them.  Same thing with writing - sure, I dig the way Alan Moore writes a comic or graphic novel and the like and I'm definitely influenced by certain writers and artists... but I believe storytellers need to discover their own way of telling their stories.

Look - immersing yourself in a genre or a period that your book takes place in is key.  If you're writing about a train heist in the Old West, go read a bunch of books about trains or robbery.  Rent THE GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY.  Read authors who placed their stories in that time, that place and that life.  Study your story - but study AROUND your story.  The genre.  The time.  The place.  The slang.

The story itself should be crafted in your voice - not Alan Moore's.

That being said, I'm pretty influenced by everyone from Eisner to Warren Ellis to Mickey Spillane to Evan Dorkin to John Landis to Scorsese to James Ellroy.

Marvel and DC seem to be pushing sales through a series of crossover "events" and relaunches meant to feed off that hive mentality of needing the next new thing.  Admittedly, they have to answer to shareholders, but what could they be doing differently in order to promote sales?


Um... hiring me?

I don’t known, man.  I think their sales are doing just fine.  If you're asking what I think Marvel/DC could be doing as far as TRYING NEW THINGS then I think there's always mining stories from good, solid creators who don't have one foot in Hollywood and are focused on their comics.  Creators excited about the medium, toiling in the salt mines putting out critically acclaimed books like ELK'S RUN and FINDER and RUNNERS and NYC MECH.  Or even guys with a fanbase like Tom (TRUE STORY, SWEAR TO GOD) Beland... Marvel had him write some SPIDERMAN stories and his fanbase followed.  That always helps a little, right?

Beyond that, capitalizing more on their movie releases.  How come Toys R Us doesn't have a rack of X-MEN comics next to its X-MEN: THE LAST STAND section?  When I go to Loew's Lincoln Square to check out SUPERMAN RETURNS why isn't there something in there - anything - that drives me to the comic book store after to check out Kal-El's continuing adventures?  The whole world is flocking to see comic book movies... why not figure out a solid way to get them to flock into shops afterwards?


This apparent need to utilize gimmicks in order to artificially inflate sales in the short-term almost begs the question, what is missing from mainstream comics today that has caused this sales drop-off?  In your opinion, what do you feel is lacking in today's mainstream comics?


I'm not sure what you mean by gimmicks.  Like foil stamping covers or crossovers with other titles/events?  Because a) I don’t see much of the former these days (except your occasional variant cover) and b) events and crossovers are actually smart for a company like DC - it gets the fans to buy all the titles (and they will) and it draws attention to books that might not be performing so well because they will.  Events done right, like CIVIL WAR, garner "real world" attention and drive sales.  Sure, it might suck because it takes attention from a guy like me but that’s not Marvel's business now, is it?

What do I feel is missing in today's mainstream comics?  Surprise.

Remember back in the day when no one knew who the Hobgoblin was?  Marvel fans went for 50 or so issues without knowing who the guy was and there was widespread (and remember that this was pre-message boards) discussion throughout the industry as to his identity.  You can't do that these days... in fact, when Marvel revealed Spider-Man's identity to the world last month I was actually surprised.  It was something I did not see coming and was genuinely happy that they got me.  The thing is, will it last?  Mainstream fans are jaded what with the ease that "events" like this get fixed down the road.  Superman's dead.  Superman's alive.  Batman's broken.  Batman's whole.  Green Lantern's a bad guy.  Green Lantern's the Spectre.  Green Lantern's a good guy.

Who cares?  In a few months, Marvel will figure out a way to make Spidey's ID a secret again, right?

So what's missing from mainstream storytelling?  Surprise... and the balls to stick to its guns.

Do you feel the recent push toward graphic novels – both collections and original works – and bookstore distribution has been good for the industry?  Why, or why not?

Good.  These days Graphic Novel=Novel and not Graphic Novel=Comic.  My non-comic book reading friends are more apt to buy something in Barnes and Nobles than Midtown Comics if it catches their eye, and if it comes in a nice dust jacket so much the better.

It's all about spreading the word, right?  Don't get me wrong - I love the retailer community and will bend over backwards for good shops like Comic Relief, Green Brain, Isotope, Rocketship, Hanley's, Atomic and Midtown until the day the Earth cools (and beyond), but I can only reach so many readers through the specialty shops.  I can't tell you how many folks have emailed me after finding a copy of BROWNSVILLE at their local library or Borders.  And these are people who would NEVER step foot into a comic shop if their lives depended on it.  Walk into a B&N and stand in the Manga aisle for a bit and eventually five or six kids will come along, park their asses on the floor and read.  Bookstores don't always equal sales but to me they equal the POSSIBILITY of sales via wider distribution.

So yeah.  I dig the bookstores.

From your position as an independent creator, what are some things you would like to see change with the current distribution system?


Find a way to get rid of Diamond's "You Have to Make This Much" rule and figure out a way to break the monopoly.

I have a cartoon book coming out from a niche Judaic publisher in 07-08 and they use a specific distributor for bookstores, etc.  I don't know if I'm going to be able to get a lot of retailers who are Diamond-minded to take on a new niche distributor BEYOND Cold Cut, Last Gasp, etc.  Hopefully my guy will be able to partner somehow with Diamond but who knows?

Part of the writing process is the developmental stage – either hard research as with Brownsville or the development of characters, locales, plotlines, etc. as with a wholly original story.  On average what percentage is given over to the developmental process?


Depends on the project.  I try to do as much research as I can when it comes to stories based on historical facts, for sure, but if I'm also writing about something contemporary based in a world or locale I know little about, the research/development process could equal or eclipse my historical developmental process.

I would say I devote almost as much time studying my story as I do creating it.  I spent roughly 9-10 months researching BROWNSVILLE and only about 6 months writing it.

Along those same lines, during this development process do you ever feel like you are not getting enough actual writing done and how do you reconcile yourself to that?  


Well, I tend to have more than one project going on at any given time, so odds are that while I'm reading books/articles and watching films to research one project I'm usually writing a script or plot for one I've already done the grunt work on.

I'm a big believer in having concurrent projects so that if Project X tires me or if I need to walk away from it for a bit, I can jump ship and tinker with Project Y.

How did your book Brownsville end up with NBM?


Believe it or not, because of Larry Young.

Larry had just sent me a copy of 'True Facts,' his guide to Making Comics and one story that struck me was of a creative team that walked into a con with pre-sealed, pre-designated envelopes with the words 'Top Secret' on them
I walked into SPX 2003 with seven pre-sealed, pre-designated manila envelopes containing a pocket folder with two pitches, my business card, samples of past work and what I refer to as 'The Brownsville Sampler' - information about the book, the pitch, sample pages and contact information.  The only things on the front of the envelope were the name of the publisher and a small label that read 'Limited Distribution.’  On Friday, I walked up to each of the targeted publishers, handed them the packet, explained who I was and told them which table they could find me at.  I thanked them for listening and walked away.
Later that day, a friend informed me that Terry Nantier, NBM's publisher, had been leafing through the sampler.  One week after SPX, I followed up with him and he said he wanted to talk terms.  One month later, Jake and I had signed contracts.


     What do you believe was the most important thing in helping you secure this agreement with NBM, arguably one of the more critically acclaimed comic publishers?


Good sample art and a unique story to tell.

What was the biggest challenge in the writing process for Brownsville and how did it compare to other things you have written?


BROWNSVILLE was arguably the largest project I'd attempted to date, weighing in at 196 pages of script.  Until then I'd mostly focused on shorter pieces - anthology stories, 22 page issues and the like.  So actually sitting down and getting through it was an accomplishment in itself... every day I parked my ass for an hour or two and did not answer my phone while disseminating my research, analyzing my story and getting it all down on the page.  It took discipline - something the six year old boy living in my head had a lot of trouble with.  But Discipline + Talent = Comics, right?



I know the Brownsville softcover is coming out soon, what other projects do you have on the horizon that people should be on the lookout for?  


This is true - the BROWNSVILLE softcover hits shops in August along with the second issue of URSA MINORS!, the four issue comedic-popculture-pisstake series I'm co-creating with Paul Cote and artist Fernando (TALES OF THE TMNT) Pinto for the fine people at Slave Labor Graphics.  It's the touching tale of three men - Tom, Rich and Harry AKA Bears One, Two and Three - and their robotic bear suits.  There's action, comedy, ninjas and comic books and it's packed with more "homages" than a page of Liefeld artwork.

The first issue hit comic shops in June and Issue #2 takes our boys to the Far East where I get to make jokes about Nintendo, Voltron, Godzilla and pit our heroes against a clan of ninja delicatessen owners!  Also, issue #2 features a back up story that fans of Slave Labor comics cannot pass up... "My Grandmother, the Goth!”  It hits finer stores this August and can still be pre-ordered in bulk using the Diamond Item Number (JUN062818) so you can buy a copy for all the cool and attractive folk in your family.

Next year Jake and I will have a short story in POSTCARDS, an anthology by ELK'S RUN editor Jason Rodriguez, and in the meantime we're working on our next book, DEAD RONIN (samurais in early 1900's San Francisco).  Scott(SCANDALOUS, NORTHWEST PASSAGE) Chantler and I will begin work on THE BIG KAHN for NBM Publishing this Fall as I continue drawing MIGDAL DAVID, my next cartoon book about developmental disability in an Orthodox Jewish community, to be released in '07 from niche Judaic publisher, Seraphic Press.  Sample pages can be seen at:
 

Other than that?  I'm developing projects with two major publishing houses and in talks with a few people.  You'll see more and more from me in the coming years.

And finally, what topic that wasn't covered would you like to speak to?


Besides "everyone buy my stuff"?

What was with all the talking car porn in the eighties?  Seems like everywhere you turned, you stubbed yer toe on some TV show that had a car or truck or boat or scooter or whatever that could talk.
The most obvious was KNIGHT RIDER starring Germany's top porn star, David Hasselhoff.  I don't remember much about it, but I do recall they refueled in a big black tractor trailer.  Oh, wait... maybe that was SPYHUNTER?  That was a great video game.  With the smokescreens?  And the oil slicks?  And no fucking talking cars.
Man, I'm gonna go play SPYHUNTER right NOW.