Sunday, March 8, 2009

When the column moved to the Pulse

In keeping with the look back at what we have done (Dan & I) in our endeavor toward becoming published, I continue to peer through the prism of memory at my column spotlighting small press, web, and indy comics. With the last SPX Swag post, I found my column without a home as Independent Propaganda went on an indefinite hiatus - and has since ceased updating, though Wesley Green who started the site has continued to try and spotlight independent comics through a new iteration of the site focused on news and announcements.

I started casting about and came across a bulletin at the Pulse seeking writers for the site. I emailed Jen Contino and after going back and forth a few times settled on a weekly column focused on the small press and web comics I had been featuring at IndyProp, which would also include the Q&A with creators I had incorporated into the SPX Swag series. With that, I got a few columns "in the can" and it was ready to go in the middle of June, 2007. What follows is the introductory piece I wrote. Some information is outdated, but I hope you enjoy and stop back for more updates and reminiscences sooner rather than later.

Originally published on 06/13/07
FOR YOUR CONSIDERATION: An Independent Spotlight

So. Who am I and why should you care? Well, I’ve been reading comics for over twenty years now. It started with G.I. Joe #23, “The Capture of Cobra Commander,” and has grown into a collection that encompasses multiple long boxes and a number of tall bookshelves. I love comics, can’t get enough, but I worry about the medium. I want new artists and writers to come into the fold and share the amazing stories they have rather than choosing a different avenue. I want to see comics continue to grow and someday finally to get the wider respect it deserves. For these reasons, and with much thanks to the PULSE for this opportunity, I am bringing this new column to you.

But what about qualifications? I had an article published in issue 6 of Pacesetter: The George Perez Magazine, which examined Perez’s approach to female characters during his 60-issue tenure as writer and artist on Wonder Woman. A short piece is available for viewing on Scott Morse’s website here. It offers a quick summary of our local discussion group’s examination of Morse’s graphic novel The Barefoot Serpent along with a short Q&A I conducted with Morse’s generous participation. And, for the past year I have written reviews and conducted interviews for the website Independent Propaganda, which focuses on small press, self-published, and independent comics and movies.

Comics are amazing. Through the confluence of words and pictures, they stimulate both hemispheres of the brain, something unique unto itself. Anything is possible on the comic page, there are no special effects budget constraints, no impossible stunts, no expensive costumes or set designs. The only limitations are the imaginations of the creators. One of the earliest forms of communication we learn, comics is also one of the easiest tools for crossing barriers of literacy and language. And yet, for all of this, comics is a purely niche medium within the far wider world of publishing.

In order to avoid stagnation and the implosion of comics as a viable outlet for artistic expression, there is a great need for a wide variety of stories to be available to consumers. Unlike other artforms, comics is dominated by one single genre – superheroes. Now, superhero comics can be great: J. Michael Straczynski and John Romita Jr. on Spider-Man, Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely doing Superman, and Alan Moore writing just about anything are but a few examples. But the superhero story is limited for a number of different reasons, of which the fact that the status quo must hold seems the most difficult to overcome. Does this mean that I don’t enjoy superhero comics? Not at all. But those I do read are fewer and farther between as it becomes increasingly more difficult for me to get excited about them like I once did.

This is a problem for the medium because many fans will and do tire of superheroes. As readers’ tastes evolve, they need something to fill this void. And when they enter their local comic shop looking for that something, what do they usually find? They find more superheroes, which results in many of them looking to other mediums for their entertainment. Whether they gravitate to prose – where works of various lengths in a variety of genres are available – or to movies, television, videogames, or something else completely, they are all searching for something different, something not offered in the overwhelming majority of superhero comics.

But is this adherence to superheroes necessarily the fault of the comic shop owner? Maybe, but their job is to run a business and keep the bills paid. It would behoove them to order more diverse books, but therein lies a risk many do not with to take. Ultimately, they order what sells. And in the vast majority of comic shops what sells, with some notable exceptions, are superheroes. Of course, fans could order from the Previews catalog, but anyone who has tried to wade through the tome that is Previews in order to find something new to sample understands where the phrase “needle in a haystack” comes from.

That does not mean it’s impossible to find these books. For decades, writers and artists have been pushing against the self-imposed boundaries of the comic medium. From EC’s horror and war comics to Gil Kane’s Blackmark, to Warren Ellis and Ben Templesmith’s Fell, explorations of various genres and storytelling styles have been attempted, if often overshadowed by the brightly clad spandex set. Do all of these experiments work? No. Some are best left forgotten. But there are many that are successful, at least critically if not financially. They are the product of an artist or artists reaching for something more permanent, something grander than what is expected. These men and women defy expectation because they believe in their craft and understand so much more can be achieved within this medium. Creators like Joe Sacco, Colleen Doran, Harvey Pekar, Linda Medley, Greg Rucka, Paul Pope, and others are working to push these boundaries today. Books like Fun Home, Casanova, Lost Girls, Rubber Blanket, and Acme Novelty Library go against the grain. They challenge the school of thought that says comics have no literary merit, and through the diligence and talent of these and other creators these critics are proven wrong.

Hidden in this wilderness of comics is a great wealth of diversity – biography, fantasy, romance, horror, science fiction, historical fiction – and this is what is needed to keep this medium vibrant and moving forward. There need to be options for comic readers, something that will keep them as fans because the medium really does have so much to offer. My aim with this column is to turn you on to the really great “alternative” comics that are being created. They may be from publishers you recognize like Dark Horse and Image, from smaller publishers such as Avatar and Oni, from artists who publish their own work, or they may be comics found on the web. These are all fair game to me, as long as they fall outside the purview of what the general public commonly considers as comics. I will be spotlighting those books I feel are worthwhile of your attention; there’s enough negativity swirling around all of us that I don’t feel a need to add to it, and why should I bother wasting your time with a review of a book I didn’t like when I could help you discover something new and exciting in the world of comics?

So, I hope I haven’t turned too many people off with this long-winded “hello.” I’ll be anxious to hear from people once the reviews/recommendations start next week. And if anybody out there has suggestions of books that might be at home within this column please drop me a line here with the pertinent information. I know there are a huge number of books out there of which I am probably unaware and maybe we can help each other out.

And if I can get hold of the books you recommend, and I like them, I’ll let you know about it right here. Thanks.

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