Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Comics - Creator v. Character pt. 8

Here's the penultimate installment of my series on whether we should follow the creator or the character when buying and reading comics. This initially ran over at the In the Mouth of Dorkness blog, a blog worth checking out if you're into movies, gaming, comics, or anything else genre-based (read: geek chic). Check it out.
And, enjoy part 8 of Comics - Creator v. Character

Comics – Creator or Character Part VIII: Conclusion, part the 1st


In the late 80s, Marvel had a stable of superstar artists who were not only selling books, but also selling blue jeans with Spike Lee. It was a heady time for comic fans, feeling as if some “mainstream legitimacy” was finally transferring to our niche medium. (Yes, there was certainly the critical acclaim of Watchmen, Dark Knight, and Maus from 1986, but this was ON TELEVISION not just in the newspapers). Artists like Jim Lee, Todd McFarlane, Whilce Portacio, and Rob Liefeld received plum assignments, working on Spider-Man and the X-Men books, and even got the chance to write and draw their own books with the likes of Spider-Man and X-Force.

But, soon after they were given the keys to the kingdom, these artists, along with Marc Silvestri, Jim Valentino, and Erik Larsen, left Marvel to form their own comic company – one where they not only had the ability to draw and write the stories they wanted, but they would also own these new characters. It was a natural next step – one that Gil Kane took in 1968 with His Name is Savage and that Jack Kirby took in 1983 with Star Slayer through Pacific Comics. But, unlike these earlier attempts by mainstream comic artists to branch out into doing their own comics, the Image experiment was a success, and it ushered in a new age for comics publishing.


Malibu comics distributed the Image books for the first year they were in business, affording the creators to learn the ropes of publishing with a bit of a safety net. But, once able, Image became its own entity, which left Malibu comics with a large hole to fill in their publication schedule. Malibu chose to try something similar to what Image did, and created their Ultraverse imprint with top-name creators such as Steve Gerber, Gerard Jones, and Steve Englehart, all of whom were notable for being writers, going against the template laid out by Image where, other than Valentino, the founding fathers were known mainly for being artists (thus, the company’s title).

There were other notable companies and imprints that flourished in the wake of Image comics – Valiant from Jim Shooter and Bob Layton, Milestone at DC from Dwayne McDuffie, Denys Cowan, et al., and Comics Greatest World from Dark Horse. To differing degrees, all of these imprints relied upon the creators involved as marketing tools and sales barometers. Certainly, Valiant’s elevator pitch would be the revival of the Gold Key heroes of decades past, but the line really thrived under Jim Shooter’s guidance and seemed to go off the rails when he was forced out. The Milestone imprint had characters who were direct reflections of their creators – minority characters (far too often overlooked or only played as cliched, wrong-headed stereotypes) created by minority creators. Without the guiding forces behind these books’ creations, they floundered, if they continued at all once the creators left or the imprints were shut down.


One of the more successful imprints from the day – despite the fact that the imprint folded – was the Legend imprint from Dark Horse comics. This was a loosely-based conglomeration of hugely talented and revered comic creators. Members included Frank Miller, John Byrne, Mike Mignola, Art Adams, Walt Simonson, Geof Darrow, and Mike Allred. It was truly a “heavy hitters” list of talent.

This imprint involved no shared-universe, and, with possibly few exceptions, did not have characters from one book guest starring in other books. Legend was really an umbrella publishing venture that signfied the high-quality stories and art consumers could expect when seeing that image on the cover. Sin City, Next Men, Hellboy, Star Slammers, and others were published through Dark Horse under the Legend imprint.

A number of these books are still being published today, if not under the Legend imprint. What was unique about this imprint was that, at any time, the creators – who owned their work – could conceivably take their titles and publish them elsewhere. It truly was a place where creators held the power and could do whatever they wished, however they desired.

It was a culmination, artistically speaking, of the promise shown by Will Eisner’s the Spirit and the steps taken by legends such as Kane and Kirby, when they worked to branch out on their own.

Next: the Finale

Sunday, June 26, 2011

FYC Replay: Starchild with James Owen

Another one from the archives, continuing my Pulse column re-runs. This was another big treat for me, as I got the opportunity to interview James Owen, whose Starchild was one of my favorite comics during the black and white boom - and, to be honest, is still one of my all-time favorites. Although this spotlight was done with the promise of new volumes of Owen's seminal work being published, only the one new volume ever saw the light of day. Owen has since gone on to write the best-selling young adult "Dragon" series, which begins with the novel Here There Be Dragons. Five of the seven volumes have been published so far. I have yet to check them out, but will certainly do so someday. Hopefully, the success of these novels will pave the way for the end of the Starchild saga.

But I digress. Here, for your enjoyment, a focus on James Owen's Starchild.


For Your Consideration: Starchild Mythopolis II

By Chris Beckett

FRONT PAGE: James Owen is the best-selling author of the young adult fantasy novel, Here, There be Dragons. And now, after far too long an absence, Owen is returning to his roots with this latest edition from Desperado Publishing, Starchild Mythopolis II – a quarterly anthology that packs 96 pages full of comics and prose for only $6.99. Come in and discover one of the best indie titles of the nineties, reinvigorated for this new century.

The 411:

Starchild Mythopolis II: Book One

Stories and art by James A. Owen

96 pp. b/w


Desperado Publishing

What It Is (with apologies to Dave the Thune):

The late eighties and early nineties saw a revolution in comics with the black and white boom. Prompted by the unexpected success of a small comic created and self-published by two guys from New England (Peter Laird, founder of the Xeric foundation and Kevin Eastman, the owner, editor, and publisher of Heavy Metal), Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, a comic parodying much of what was popular in comics at the time, spawned a wide host of successors. Many tried to emulate what Eastman and Laird had accomplished, but many of these books inevitably failed.

Eastman and Laird had proven that a black and white comic from unknown creators with a story to tell could be a success, but like so many “movements” before and since, too many aspiring artists and writers assimilated only the surface elements (Rockin’ Rollin’ Miner Ants anyone?), failing to realize what allowed this book to connect with so many fans. Luckily, there were a small number of creators able to capitalize on the success of the Turtles and use this newfound acceptance of small press black and white comics to stamp their own indelible mark upon the medium. One of those creators was James A. Owen, and the comic was Starchild.

Owen had a vision for his series, which was a major difference between his work and many of the also-rans. The remarkable Higgins family had a long and winding history, one that was to encompass one hundred issues of Owen’s book. It was a formidable task, and one that Owen earnestly undertook – creating, writing, drawing, lettering, and publishing the book himself. Owen incorporated many disparate threads within his narrative, bringing in the mythological Faerie Queen Titania, creating characters based upon well-known authors within the comic medium – Neil Gaiman and Alan Moore – as well as parodying characters from many of the more literate comics being published during this period such as Frank Miller’s Marv, Dave Sim’s Cerebus, and Gaiman’s own embodiment of Death. It was a smorgasbord of stories that helped illuminate the complex ancestry of the remarkable Higgins family, and ultimately that was the main premise of the book, that stories have the power to change reality.

Owen’s storytelling is exciting and fanciful, befitting a contemporary fantasy such as Starchild, and like any good fantasy, he imbues his tale with a distinct setting that allows for the wonder and magic pervading this series. Much of the first act of the tale takes place within a tiny village where life is simple and a well-told tale can get you an ale at Harrigan’s Green. A village in touch with the natural world, from which much of the magic emanates, the status quo changed drastically when Anders Higgins’s grandfather surrounded the forest with a stone wall finished with a gate and a lock of iron. Wishing to capture the maidens that lived within, Ezekiel Higgins set events in motion that would have repercussions farther down his genealogical line. When the final page of first story arc, “Awakenings,” was turned a new world was born, and yet, for all intents and purposes, it had always been thus. This transformation of reality was achieved through the telling of a story on a very special night. It was magical.

With the second chapter of the Higgins family, Owen moved his tale into the world-city of Brigadoon, a claustrophobic place where free will was suppressed and stories were outlawed. But, as with any repressed society, there are always those willing to put their lives on the line in order to work toward a better day – little pockets of resistance working to recruit more people to the cause so that at some point a revolution might free them from their shackles. A toymaker, an occult group of wild-haired storytellers, and the children of the city, it is these and so many hidden others that have started the fires of revolution within the city of Brigadoon, and things are beginning to turn. But what does Anders Higgins have to do with all of this, and what will the world look like?

Owen’s storytelling is very distinctive, eschewing the arbitrary boundaries that pervade the industry, he utilizes traditional comic book pages but also incorporates a stylistic deviation that is reminiscent of children’s picture books. Creating finely detailed single images surrounded by large blocks of prose, Owen weaves these pages seamlessly into Starchild, allowing the story to flow smoothly between these illustrative pages and the more common comic pages. This technique imbues his comics with a rhythm that is difficult to achieve through the traditional manner of creating comics, affording him the opportunity to inject more information about this magical world into the story while pushing the narrative ahead more quickly. It is a masterful use of the comic page that adds even more to this fairy tale land he has created.

Owen’s illustrative technique complements his story perfectly. His rendering style reminds me of classic illustrators such as Aubrey Beardsley and Maxfield Parrish, as well as comic artists P. Craig Russell and Barry Windsor-Smith. The fine lines with which he delineates his characters and settings permeates this story with a sense of a time long ago. It is a wonderful melding of art and story.

For the most part, James Owen has been absent from the comic medium for close to a decade, and fans have been waiting anxiously for the continuation of his landmark series Starchild. But if you think Owen has been idle these past ten years you would be incorrect. Not only has he written a number of critically-acclaimed Mythworld novels in Europe as well as designing and publishing the award-winning magazines International Studio and Argosy, but he is also the author of the popular young adult novel Here, There Be Dragons, which sold over 100,000 copies in hardcover and is now available in paperback along with its sequel The Search for the Red Dragon. And finally, he has returned to his first love, comics.

Starchild Mythopolis II from Desperado Publishing is a different sort of beast from the original series. Instead of focusing only on the tale of the Higgins family, Owen has created a quarterly anthology that not only includes the continuation of the original Mythopolis storyline, which Owen was publishing through Image comics in 1997, but it also brings together much more of Owen’s creative oeuvre. In this first issue, Owen also gives readers an unseen Fool’s Hollow vignette, an extension of the four-issue series from the mid-90s, Starchild: Crossroads, which delves into the history of some of the tangential Starchild characters. The first chapter of a six-part pictopia entitled “Obscuro” is a prequel of sorts to Owen’s popular Mythworld novels, while he also offers up the first part of a novella from his Imaginarium Geographica series of young adult novels, and interspersed among all of his fiction and comics, Owen includes a number of essays that not only explain what he has been doing for the past number of years and how the winding creative road has brought him back to comics and to Starchild, but he also delves into the impact Dave Sim – the creator of Cerebus, a 300-issue black and white comic about the life of a talking aardvark that incorporated politics, religion, and anything else of interest to Sim – had on Owen in his creative life. It is an entertaining cornucopia of James Owen goodness – ninety-six pages for only $6.99. Do yourself a favor and get this book right now, then start filling in any holes that might be in your James Owen collection, because it’s all worth the price of admission.

An Interview with James A. Owen:

Chris Beckett: Why comics? What was it that attracted you to this storytelling medium and has brought you back after a number of years away?

James A. Owen: I love 'em. Love. Them. The aspect of words and pictures together suffuses every part of my life. I loved comics as a child, then started planning for a career in them as a teen. But it's not just reading them - I love to make them. And because there are certain kinds of scenes that can only be done as comics, I'll never stop making them.

True, I was relatively inactive on the working side of comics for a few years, but I was doing things that (I hoped) would yield more financial stability at a time when the comics industry was having a lot of struggles. It's just great synchronicity that as things are going well with my novels, the comics market is also on an upswing. And it doesn't hurt that my forte is fantasy, which is having its own renaissance!

Beckett: One technique you utilize in Starchild is the use of full page images and large caption boxes, almost like a children’s book. What is it about this aesthetic that appeals to you, and why do you think it’s not seen in more comics?

Owen: I do it because 1) it's sometimes easiest to tell a part of a tale in prose, just as I said above, with some sequences of a story, it’s easier as comics. And 2) sometimes, I just want to draw a big pretty picture!

Charles Vess mixed it up like that a bit in his Ballads book. So perhaps it's something that appeals to those of us on the illustrative side of comics. (Other examples would be Gary Gianni, and Mike Kaluta, and, oh, Ladronn.) Dave McKean's done that in Cages.

Beckett: If I remember correctly, Starchild was initially scheduled to run 100 issues. What was the genesis of the story, and do you have it all mapped out, or are you working in a looser manner?

Owen: Roughly speaking, that's still the plan, storywise. The completion of Mythopolis will take me through about a third of the storyline. I'd like to be able to continue just serializing new material as I can, then collecting it. Up after Mythopolis is either Wormwood or Tatterhood. And yes, I have it all pretty mapped out.

Beckett: Recent years have seen you writing novels (Mythworld and Here There Be Dragons) and designing art and literary magazines (Argosy Quarterly, International Studio). What have you learned from these experiences that you are now able to apply to your comics work?

Owen: The Mythworld books and the Imaginarium Geographica books have made me a better writer. I'm better at pacing, and developing story arcs. The magazines made me a better designer, and helped refine my ideas about presentation.

Beckett: I really like the format of the new Starchild with comics, prose, and essays. Do you feel the audience is there for such a different book, and what can readers look forward to with regards to the short prose and essays in future editions?

Owen: Thanks! I think the audience is always there for good material. The novels are giving me exposure to a huge global audience, and so I think that as long as what I have to offer is done well, it'll find a solid readership. The fat quarterly format is one I've been looking at for a while. It's a synthesis of all the things I loved about comics and storytelling from the last couple of decades. I wanted to give readers as much substance as possible, with myself - the creator - being the unifying element. I mean, look at DC's Solo. I loved those. I loved the Paul Pope issue... And wanted a second one. I loved the Doc Allred issue... And wanted a second one. I loved the Aragones issue, and... You get the idea. Now, say (let's use Paul as an example) you took his issue of Solo, and added a chapter of THB; a few essays from his Adhouse art book; and a few illustrated text pieces. And then, when you have that wicked cool package - make it clear there will be more than one. That's what we're doing with Starchild.

Beckett: What other projects are you working on that you would like to tell readers about?

Owen: The second Imaginarium Geographica book, The Search for the Red Dragon, is coming out in hardcover in January; the next one, The Indigo King, is coming out in October. I'm working on a Starchild-related Fool’s Hollow ogn for Simon & Schuster; and we're working on maquettes and designs for the Here, There be Dragons movie. And more Starchild. Outside of that, Kurt Busiek and Jimmy Palmiotti and I keep taking about how much fun it would be to do a DC book with a big red 'S' on the spine, so we'll see.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Comics - Creator v. Character pt. 7

We're forging ahead with the replay of my series I did at the In the Mouth of Dorkness blog looking at whether one should be loyal to the creator or the character when buying comics. Here's part 7. Enjoy.

Comics – Creator or Character Part VII: It’s Black and White To Me


In the last installment, I discussed briefly the boom and bust of the comic industry in the 90s. It’s been far more deeply examined elsewhere, so we’ll just leave it at: some people thought they could make money off these comics that were selling millions of copies, somehow forgetting the foundation of economic theory – supply and demand. When these idiotic speculators left for some other new investment, the comics medium went into a tailspin as the bubble that had been expanding burst, leaving many retailers with no choice but to shutter their doors.


Despite the poor reputation of comics in the nineties, there were some great comics that came out during that time. Disappointingly, the collapse of the industry in this decade meant a lot of these books ended in the middle of storylines, and many have yet to be completed.

Of course, their publication might not have been possible without the boom that preceded the bust. Artists like James Owen and Colleen Doran and Don Lomax were finding an audience with their black and white books and were able to, if not make a living solely as a comic artist, at least continue publishing for quite some time. The comics Starchild, Wandering Star, A Distant Soil (the most recent and definitive edition), Thieves & Kings, Hepcats, and Bone all began in the early 90s.

All of these books hold a special place in my collection. I had been introduced to black and white comics through Don Lomax’s brilliant book, Vietnam Journal, and I’d certainly enjoyed much of Eclipse’s output, particularly Miracleman and Airboy, so independent comics weren’t alien to me. But with the critical acclaim many of these black and white books received, I jumped in head first and found most of these individual and very personal works rising to the top of my reading pile.


The early 90s is certainly where my shift in collecting occurred. Sure, I was still reading a lot of books from the “big two,” particularly the Superman family of books and the Flash from DC, but I found my stack shifting more toward the back of the Previews catalog. The stories I found from these independent and self-publishers just resonated more with me. I appreciated that, because anything could happen, there was real tension. I liked that I could buy a single book and get a single story and not have to worry about whether my favorite character would be crossing over into some other title or, worse, having an event slide over into the middle of his own book.

In May, 1995, I dropped the Superman titles with issue 100 of the run begun by John Byrne. And in April, 1997, I dropped the Flashmy character – and started, almost exclusively, buying independent comics.

I wanted a story to read. I wanted that story to matter. I didn’t want an “event” or a cover that exclaimed “nothing would ever be the same!” Because I knew that it would all end up being the same, because these publishing companies can’t allow too much change, otherwise these characters would not be recognizable to the outside world and that could hurt merchandising sales.

Just take a look at Grant Morrison’s brilliant run on New X-Men and how quickly Marvel – which hired Morrison to write the damn book and knew what they were getting from him – reverted to type and disregarded everything Morrison had set up in his run. This was, to my mind, a brilliant run that reinvigorated the X-Men franchise in a way it had needed for a long time. And yet, the issue that followed Morrison’s final one, everything was back to square one.

But I digress.

We’ve all continued buying a series through inertia – wanting to keep the run complete, worried about holes in our collections – and picked up that next issue of Wonder Woman or Captain America, even though the story was forgettable and the art lackluster. It’s like going from having Todd McFarlane drawing Spider-Man (for all his faults, there was an energy and an excitement in those pages) to having Alex Saviuk drawing the book. Or having Tom DeFalco write anything. How can we tacitly support this dreck? And yet, we do, through our outmoded buying habits.

It’s our fanatical loyalty to these characters (buying that Don Heck Flash issue when we really want a Carmine Infantino one) that has proven to DC and Marvel it is the characters that matter and not the creators. We are the ones who have propagated the editorially-driven pablum that often professes to be high-quality storytelling (if you bother to believe the hype machines at the respective marketing departments).

And that’s sad.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

FYC Replay: Satisfactory Comics with Isaac Cates & Mike Wenthe

Another column from my stint at the Pulse, this one looking at Satisfactory Comics from Mike Wenthe and Isaac Cates. These are fun comics. And their blog is really interesting too. Definitely worth checking out.


For Your Consideration: Satisfactory Comics #6 & 7, and A Treatise upon the Jam
By Chris Beckett

FRONT PAGE: One of the unique features of the comics medium is the fact that anyone with an idea and a bit of talent can easily create their own comics for sale at conventions, in shop, or online. Two such guys are Mike Wenthe and Isaac Cates, creators of Satisfactory Comics, some of the most literate and fun comics one could hope to find. Come in and find out about some of the coolest comics being made that nobody knows about, but should.

The 411:

Satisfactory Comics #6

28pp. b/w, $4.00 (cheaper in person)

Satisfactory Comics #7

28pp. b/w, $3.00 (cheaper in person)

A Treatise upon the Jam

24pp. b/w

All stories written & drawn by

Isaac Cates and Mike Wenthe

Satisfactory Comics

What It Is (with apologies to Dave the Thune):

Most fans – whether of prose, cinema, comics, etc. – often feel that, given the right circumstances, they could do as good, or better, a job than whatever piece of entertainment they may be digesting at the time. But with most endeavors of this sort, there is often a large prohibitive hurdle standing in the way (the time it would take to write a 100,000 word novel or the cost of an electric guitar and lessons) that precludes these attempts. With comics, those hurdles are almost non-existent. If one has some artistic talent, a bit of imagination, some paper, a pen and ink, and access to a photocopier, which can be found at one’s local Staples or Office Depot, one can create a comic and distribute copies to people of a like-minded persuasion.

Unlike vanity publishing in prose, the self-publishing movement in comics has not suffered any similar stigma, but is, in fact, embraced by fans and creators alike. Many of these self-publishers wear their autonomy as a badge of honor, believing that rejecting the assembly line process common throughout comics’ history imbues their creations with an inherent artistic legitimacy. This is far too broad a statement to be true. As with any form of entertainment, one will find it necessary to wade through a lot of poorly done books in order to find the hidden gems. But that’s half the fun.

When I attended my first MoCCA Art Festival in New York last June, a few of the gems with which I returned home came from the minds, and pens, of Isaac Cates and Mike Wenthe. Their creations, Satisfactory Comics and A Treatise upon the Jam are some of the most literate and thought-provoking comics I have read in a while. Isaac and Mike work collaboratively on all of their comics, and when they talk about collaboration, they truly mean it as a commingling of two creative minds. This fact is made most obvious when one reads their Treatise, which delves into their thought processes regarding comics and how best to create them. They also peel back the layers of the creative process, noting the rewards and pitfalls that can result collaboration.

As a fan, and aspiring creator, I found their Treatise to be a thoroughly engaging intellectual dialogue in comics form. One can sense these two friends have put a lot of thought into how they approach storytelling for the medium. The points made within this tiny pamphlet form a persuasive argument for collaboration within comics, in stark contrast to those who argue for the unadulterated expression of a single cartoonist such as Frank Miller, Jack Kirby, or David Mazzucchelli. But I expect most people understand that these three artists, along with a handful of others, are decided exceptions to the rule, and besides, Cates and Wenthe aren’t so much arguing against this as arguing for a method that has gone out of favor in the minds of many due to the dehumanizing effect of the assembly line method.

Cates and Wenthe specifically tackle that idea, stating unequivocally that they are not advocating the “bullpen” program that allowed large companies such as Marvel and DC to churn out an endless supply of periodicals for the marketplace, but they are talking about actual collaboration in which two or more creators come together and build off one another’s strengths while adding their own editorial voices and unhindered imaginations to the process in order to create a comic better than either one could have created singly. It is a different outlook upon the process that encourages these two friends to work together in all aspects of the creation rather than being isolated to one discipline – inking, lettering, writing, etc. – and then discover a common ground that mightn’t have been evident before, but which comes into sharp focus upon completion of the work at hand.

A Treatise upon the Jam is an important comic from Cates and Wenthe because it predicates all that they do within their other comics. Having laid bare the process through which they work, the short stories that are found within Satisfactory Comics now become even more impressive. Each thirty-two page pamphlet is a small anthology with a number of short stories to be found within. And like any good anthology there is a wide variety of stories to be found in each issue, both with regard to style and genre. In issue 6 of Satisfactory Comics, one can find a short fantasy, a graphic adaptation of Chapter 41 of the Book of Job, and an autobiographical essay adapted to comics that delves into the addictive quality of turn-based strategic conquest video games and the lessons learned from the experience. Issue 7 holds an array of short stories – most of which are two pages long – all created from sentences submitted by friends and readers, each of which was written and drawn through a variety of collaborative processes with various creative challenges – among them having to draw one story backward from the last panel to the first and one in which each panel was captioned by the guy who drew the previous one. It is an interesting experiment in creating comics, and one that these two cartoonists pull off with a large measure of success.

There’s something for everyone in Satisfactory Comics, whether you like fun comics such as “The Graveyard of Forking Paths,” which, depending upon the choices the reader makes, can lead one to a number of different narratives on a two-page spread reminiscent of a Parker Brothers game board, or a serious intellectual argument such as the autobiographical “Killing Time, or How I Beat Civilization,” it is all here for one’s enjoyment. These are smartly written comics drawn in a clean, simple style that allows the tales to breathe.

Text pages round out each issue and add a lot to these books, in one instance explaining the formal constraints and varied collaborative processes used in issue 7, which only adds to the enjoyment of these comics. If you’re looking for something different, and like to be challenged by your reading choices, then these books are for you. Check out the Satisfactory Comics site, or hope to run into these guys at MoCCA or SPX where you can get a “personal interaction” discount on the books (predicated on the lack of shipping or PayPal charges) and in the process discover something new.

An Interview with Isaac Cates and Mike Wenthe:

Chris Beckett: Why comics? What was it that attracted you to this storytelling medium and prompted you to go the self-publishing route?

Satisfactory Comics: Mike had wanted to be a cartoonist from the age of seven, so he has been attracted to the medium ever since he first fell in love with a great comic strip (Walt Kelly’s Pogo) and wanted to do that. Though he kept drawing cartoons, he hadn’t written any comics stories in years by the time we became friends in graduate school. Meanwhile, although Isaac before graduate school had read a lot of comics, his cartooning had pretty much been at the level of the in-class doodle until he started reading comics seriously again in 2001.

Eventually we discovered that we had both been comics fans earlier in life, and learned about contemporary minicomics from Scott McCloud’s Reinventing Comics and from a casual acquaintance with Jesse Reklaw, who was still living in New Haven when Isaac met him, and who gave us a lot of inspiration. We both tried our hands separately at making minis in the fall of 2001, and a couple of months later we teamed up to make the first issue of Satisfactory Comics. At first, Satisfactory Comics was just a diversion, an experiment in doodling up a story for our friends. It probably wasn’t until we were finishing the second issue that we felt pretty sure we’d be making more of them.

And really, self-publishing was the only option for us, given our amateurish work riddled with in-jokes. We had already self-published an illustrated pamphlet describing members of our English department in verse; from there it was only a question of buying a booklet stapler and drawing some comics, and we were “in business.”

Beckett: Judging by A Treatise on the Jam, you two put a great deal of thought into your comics. How do you avoid over-thinking a story and keep the creative process spontaneous?

SatCom: Well, sometimes we may in fact be guilty of over-thinking a story. More often, though, we can’t help being somewhat spontaneous because most of our comics have been finished in a pell-mell rush to meet a deadline before a show or to make the most of the limited time available to us when working together That said, there are so many different stages to the creation of a comic that just because we put a lot of thinking into one aspect doesn’t mean that others won’t have more spontaneity to them. It’s also true that revising comics in the draft stage has spared the world some really bad spontaneous puns.

When we’re working in the same room, you’d probably be surprised to see how often one of us will hold work up for the other guy to inspect, correct, or make suggestions about. You’d probably also be surprised at how often we act out the dialogue the other guy is trying to draw. Some of that helps to keep us spontaneous, too.

Beckett: Collaborating on the artwork is fairly common within comics, while collaborating on a script is somewhat less prevalent, and yet both of you work in tandem on almost all aspects of your comics. With regards to the scripting specifically, why work in this manner instead of writing your stories individually?

SatCom: We remain convinced that we make better comics when every stage of the work has input from both members of the team. Sometimes that’s just an editorial nudge here or there for a page (or a story) that’s mostly already written; at our best, we’ve bounced dialogue for a page back and forth across the table until one of us said the thing that just sounded right for the character to be saying. We almost always talk out a story’s plot together, trying to figure out what direction we’re heading in, if not exactly what events will lead us in that direction.

On the other hand, one or the other of us has occasionally written a story solo. Issue #7 has collaborative methods of all stripes, scripted in all manner of ways, including one in which the story was told entirely in the drawings by one guy before the other guy applied a script to it. (Which of us “wrote” that one? Ask Jack and Stan, I guess.) A lot of the stuff we’re doing now has us “alternating” the scripting from one page to the next (or one strip to the next), with only the barest of outlines for the story’s direction.

There’s really no solid answer any more to the question of how we break up the responsibilities of scripting; we use different processes in almost every story. But it has always been a really richly collaborative process for us. In our best stuff, I think, we have a hard time remembering who came up with what. (But Isaac wrote all of this response apart from this parenthetical!—Mild-mannered Mike)

Beckett: You both also seem to enjoy the challenge of creating a story within predetermined constraints – whether it be comics sestinas (highly structured poems) or working from last panel to the first as with “Nightlights” in issue #7. Why work this way so often, and do you find these challenges more satisfying than creating stories sans constraints?

SatCom: Constraints give us a purchase on a story even before the story is fully there. The piece we’re working on right now, for example, is heavily constrained, and it has turned out that most of the plot of the story has emerged from our need to fulfill one requirement or another. Many of our ideas emerge as solutions to problems.

And we like the way that constraints have compelled us on occasion to stretch outside our comfort zones. It’s also nice to involve other people in our work.

There’s also something that we say in the Treatise Upon the Jam about the fact that all artistic media are actually constraining: there’s no such thing as perfect freedom in the mediated world of art, and we think that working with constraints is a healthy way to remind yourself of that.

Beckett: Where did the title Satisfactory Comics come from?


Mike says: “If I recall correctly, we were sitting at the dinner table in my old apartment, talking out our plans for how we’d build the first issue around panels contributed by our friends. We wanted to choose a rubric that our friends would be willing to draw for, so Isaac, I think it was, suggested ‘something that would make you happy: that would make for a satisfying comic.’ I believe it was I who took up the hint and said we could call the book Satisfactory Comics. So as usual, it came from a conversation in which we were reflective about our process and revising each other’s suggestions.”

Isaac says, “My memory isn’t exactly like a steel trap, but I have to admit that I remember that conversation a little differently. I think we had come up with the rubric that involved having our friends draw panels that we’d include in the comic, and were sort of fishing for a title. I seem to remember some brainstorming along the lines of ‘Adequate Comics’ and ‘Tolerable Comics’—things we could actually lay claim to. ‘Satisfactory’ had a nice ring to it, especially in light of the fact that we both grade a lot of papers. At least in my mind, I have always resisted any connection between ‘Satisfactory’ and ‘satisfaction,’ since we have never actually promised to satisfy anyone [with our comics].”

Beckett: If readers are unable to get to a convention you are attending, how might they be able to preview or purchase your mini comics?

SatCom: This is an easy one. We’ve got a website / blog now, at We try to update it at least twice weekly. There are sidebar links to each of our back issues for sale, and we also post about a variety of other things.

Beckett: What other projects are you working on that you would like to tell readers about?

SatCom: Some of the recent posts on our website have been devoted to a story we’re going to submit to the next volume of the Elfworld anthology. The story (which is formally constrained in an elaborate way) involves an apprentice magician trying to get a map of an invisible place from a blind mapmaker. We’re having a lot of fun telling it.

Once we get done with that, we’ll be setting up the next round of the Mapjam project, which you can read more about on the website. It’s a project in which we’re exploring a big chunk of shared territory, taking turns with a group of other cartoonists including Damien Jay, Tom Kaczynski, Matt Wiegle, and Tom Motley. That’s a fun project, too, and full of surprises.

And we’re also building a story, at a glacial pace, about a sort of medieval scholar-explorer who twice visits a distant city, his visits separated by a ten-year interval. It may take us ten years to finish it at the rate we’re going, so that one is a good candidate for being over-thought!

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Comics - Creator v. Character pt. 6

Here's part 6 of the series I did over at the In the Mouth of Dorkness blog. Should we follow characters or creators when making comic buying decisions?

Comics – Creator or Character Part VI: Boom & Bust


The decade of the 90s is looked back upon with a lot of derision. And much of that is deserved. Wizard magazine hit the stands in 1991 and promptly latched on to the speculator market that was running rampant at this time. Providing a price guide while spotlighting “hot” artists and writers as well as back issues that were rising quickly in price, they fed into the frenzy surrounding the comics medium by those who wished to turn a profit by selling their books on the secondary market.

This energized base that viewed comics not as an entertainment medium but as an investment opportunity led to unprecedented sales in the marketplace – X-Men #1 by Chris Claremont and Jim Lee sold over 8 million copies while Todd McFarlane’s Spider-Man #1 sold 2.5 million copies. These, and other similar books, were interesting in that the sales were, on the one hand, driven by the high-profile creators on the book (a definite rebuke of Marvel’s and DC’s belief that the artists and writers were interchangeable), and it signaled, to readers at least, that possibly a sea-change was coming within the “big two.” Maybe Marvel and DC would finally start giving the respect due these creative people.

Of course, they didn’t.

The second thing driving the sales of these books, though, was the rise of the variant cover. Comics is a storytelling medium, one that melds art and words in a way that no other medium is able to do. And yet, these large publishing companies decided to market foil-embossed, die-cut images from big-name artists – often artists unable to manage a monthly deadline. X-Men #1 had five different covers – the images of the first four creating the gatefold cover of the fifth cover – and Spider-Man #1 had multiple covers as well – gold and silver inked ones - but they sold. And to this day, they continue to be produced, though on a thankfully smaller scale than in the 90s.


The one economic point that many of these investors failed to take into account is the law of “supply and demand.” We’ve all seen the stories of Action Comics #1 selling for $1.5 million. And people believed if they bought these “hot” comics, they could cash in too.

Of course, the fact that there were 8 million copies of X-Men #1 meant there was the potential for 8 million copies to be put on the auction block. If there are that many copies of a single comic available (and even if only 1% of those copies were put up for auction, there would still be 80,000 copies available, more than most individual comics sell today), then there is no incentive for a buyer to bid a high price, because if he doesn’t get that one, there are still 7,999,999 other copies for him to try and buy.

There is also the disposable nature of comic books. Despite the upgrade in paper and printing over the past couple decades, they are still relatively fragile. If you crease a book, or tear it accidentally, or smudge the cover, or the pages go yellow from age, or they crinkle because of too much humidity, then the book you own is no longer in pristine, mint condition. That means you won’t be getting “primo bank” for your comic when you try to flip it.

It’s only recently – in a relative sense, with regard to the seventy-plus year history of North American comics – that the collectability of comics has become a factor. During its infancy, people did not regard comic books as valuable commodities. They bought them to read and to share with friends and family, and if they ended up in the bottom of a closet after being dog-eared and sullied with luncheon condiments, then so be it. That was the nature of the beast, and nobody really cared because the value had already been obtained through the reading of the comic and the joy and excitement that brought to the reader(s).

This is why high-grade copies of Action Comics #1 or Amazing Fantasy #15 go for such exorbitant prices, because people were not looking toward future investment with these comics and many of them were trashed or damaged to a point where they weren’t worth such a high price. But now, with mylar bags and acid-free backing boards, everyone who’s a collector is working hard to keep their collections in prime condition, in the hopes that one day they might be able to sell them for a mint. It’s too bad because I wonder if these people who are so focused on the collecting aren’t missing out on the enjoyment that comes from sitting down to read a cool comic.

This collector mentality, when it is at the expense of the reading experience of comics, really gets to me. I remember witnessing it first hand at my local comic shop. While browsing the new comics one Wednesday, a father and his young son came into the shop. The boy was very excited and was pulling down a lot of comics to check out. But his father made him put most of those back, instructing his son to only buy first issues because they’d be worth something someday. I couldn’t believe it. Here was an opportunity for this man to get his son into reading, and he squandered it for a useless chance to make money down the road. Money that would never be coming his way.

It was this stupidity and short-sightedness that led to the almost total collapse of the comic marketplace in the mid-90s, as hundreds of comic shops shuttered their businesses when these speculators finally realized there was no money to be gained from what they were doing.

Not even the foil and the holograms could stop the bubble from bursting.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

FYC Replay: Icecreamlandia with Even Englezos & Josh Moutray

More from the vault, as I replay another of my columns spotlighting small press comics from the Pulse. This one looks at a creative team who produce meticulously illustrated mini-comics that are often laced with witticisms and non sequiturs. They are interesting and enjoyable and well worth checking out.


For Your Consideration: Mini-comics from Icecreamlandia (Eve Englezos & Josh Moutray)

By Chris Beckett

FRONT PAGE: Everyone thinks they know the definition of what makes a comic. But for the most part, any definition is terribly limiting. Self-publishers and mini-comics creators are challenging the status quo with artistic creations that may look like traditional comics on the surface, or not, but once one peeks behind the cover, they discover something brand new. Two such creators are Eve Englezos and Josh Moutray. Step inside and find out what they are doing to broaden the horizon of comics.

The 411:

Mini I: you’re living in the past

Mini II: no time like the present

Mini III: about yr future


4” x 5”, 12 pp. b/w, $1.00 each

Their Condolences

5.5” x 7”, 10pp. b/w, die-cut cover, $3.00

Written & Drawn by

Eve Englezos & Josh Moutray

What It Is (with apologies to Dave the Thune):

One of the problems with comics – in this context I refer to comics as it is perceived by the general populace as well as a vast majority of fans – is that everyone “knows” what comics are and what comics can do. That is, there are many preconceived notions regarding mainstream comics that incite the most rabid fans – an audience that seems to be steadily dwindling – to pick up almost any book published by the “Big Two” while also prejudicing a large audience against even considering reading a comic, any comic. Whether it be format (22 pages, color, glossy paper, with ads) or genre (mainly superheroes) or style (the episodic continuation of the status quo with no true resolutions forthcoming, not unlike television soap operas) these parameters that many consider to be inherent to the medium are far too limiting.

Luckily, there are many creators who wish to expand the medium and are constantly pushing to discover the wide breadth of possibilities within comics. Some of these artists can be found within the mainstream, but they tend to be the exception that proves the rule. The large majority of creators searching for new ways to make comics can be found doing mini-comics and self-publishing. Whether experimenting with genre, style, or presentation, the diversity of comics available at smaller shows such as MoCCA, SPX, and APE is astounding and any fan looking for more from his or her comic experience should make plans to attend one of these great shows.

Two of the creators challenging the expectations of what can be found between the covers of a comic, or mini-comic, are Eve Englezos and Josh Moutray. Having studied printmaking at the Kansas City Art Institute, they both come at comics from a different angle than most. Infusing the art of comics with sensibilities falling outside the often limited influences of many who aspire to create comics, Englezos and Moutray bring a different perspective to comics that is fresh as well as challenging.

To be fair, the minis from Englezos and Moutray are definitely not what most people have come to expect from their comics. The five small books I picked up at last year’s MoCCA Art Festival all contain single-page illustrations with dialogues – or monologues, as the case may be. Readers seeking a narrative within the covers of these mini-comics will be sorely disappointed because, as Englezos and Moutray put it, though there is the implication of a narrative, in order for one to discover that narrative, it is necessary to do a lot of the work within one’s own imagination.

This is not to say there is nothing that connects all the images. Within each book, there is a thematic element that ties each of the pages together, providing a subtext that can thread the dialogues together, but much of the detail must be provided by the reader. Therein lies the challenge, and for those who enjoy some “mental lifting” with their entertainment, therein might lie the satisfaction one often seeks within these paper and ink pamphlets.

The themes found within these books comprise the past, present, and future as well as devilish plots and the condolences shared by relatives and acquaintances for the deceased Abram. Some of the books are held together more tenuously by their themes than others, but all of them are entertaining and will make readers think if they are smart enough to pore over the books rather than just consuming them as fast as possible. The dialogue is smartly written, in some instances only a few lines while others have an entire short story hidden between their many lines. And the artwork is fantastic. Using fine line ink drawings and moodily rendered pencil sketches, Englezos and Moutray showcase artistic ability that is hard to match.

Reminiscent of the delicate linework of P. Craig Russell, Barry Windsor-Smith, and classic illustrators such as Arthur Rackham, these two are able to create fine pieces of black and white art on each page that would be fit for framing if only they were not so small. These artful pieces coupled with the witty dialogue make for incredibly entertaining reading. Add in the challenge of discovering the narrative through-line that connects each piece within a given comic and the works from Eve Englezos and Josh Moutray make for fully satisfying reads that are well worth opening again and again.

So, is this comics or not? I contend that it is, and the audacity and skill with which Englezos and Moutray tackle their unique brand of comics is to be applauded. With something as ingrained as the idea of “what a comic is,” it is a daunting task to throw convention out the window and pursue one’s artistic muse when common sense might argue otherwise. And when that is done in such a small community as the comics community, the achievement by these two artists is even more auspicious.

An Interview with Eve Englezos and Josh Moutray:

Chris Beckett: What is it about comics that attracted you to the art form and makes you want to create your own mini comics?

Eve & Josh: Mini-comics are an amazing narrative medium in which we get to utilize visual art, prose, theater, and film elements, as well as all the inherently magical tactile properties of books. Plus we have total control over everything, from the content to the physical craft of the object, which is both inspiring and intimidating. Also, quite obviously, our books are a way to share our shrewd cultural fictions with the world at large, rather than just wasting them on one another.

Beckett: Your mini comics eschew a traditional narrative for fine line drawings coupled with interesting non sequiturs. What are you hoping to achieve with your mini comics, and is there some hidden thematic connection underlying these pages?

Eve & Josh: In our early work the connection underlying the pages was merely that these people existed together, and placing them in succession created a social narrative of that particular group of people. The comic panels bounced from person-to-person and subject-to-subject, much like listening to conversations as you walk through a crowded airport or flipping through channels on the TV. In our last few books we've constructed subtle, loose themes to connect the pages. Providing this structure seems to give readers more of a foothold to work with while reading the panels and makes a subtext for the characters' monologues. This manipulates the human desire for narrative by implying that there is one. Our readers then create or recognize an identity for each of the characters and infer how they may or may not relate to one another.

Beckett: The imagery is very precise with delicate line work reminiscent of classic artists such as Hal Foster or contemporary ones like Adrian Tomine or James Owen. What instruction, if any, have you had, and who are some of the artists that have influenced you?

Eve & Josh: We're both printmaking graduates from the Kansas City Art Institute, so we definitely have some formal training under our belts. We admire the work of several comics and zine artists--from the old school of Gene Deitch and Chester Gould all the way to the Picturebox crowd and quite a few of our mini-comics colleagues--but we don't have a consciously direct comic art influence on our collaborative body of work. We try to make our drawings generically specific, meaning that they tread a line of realistic cartooning that essentially cancels out its own "style.” We’d like the reader's concentration to be focused on the characters themselves and what they're revealing through semiotics and not just how interestingly they are drawn.

Beckett: If readers are unable to get to a convention you are attending, how might they be able to preview or purchase your mini comics?

Eve & Josh: Our website ( [1]) has all our mini-comics which are still in print available to purchase along with a few sample pages to view for each one. The website will be undergoing a major facelift soon, but our work will always be available there. We also post random panels, sketches, previews of future projects, thoughts, and other ephemera on our blog ( [2]) for fanatical completists interested in that sort of thing.

Beckett: What other projects are you working on that you would like to tell readers about?

Eve & Josh: All our time the past two months has been spent creating new work for our solo gallery show You’ll Never Get Away With This, which just opened at the Green Door Gallery here in Kansas City, MO. The show is our attempt to weave a nebulous chamber mystery in the grand traditions of Agatha Christie and Jessica Fletcher. We illustrated events leading up to a gory murder in the lobby of a theme hotel and presented a cast of witnesses, suspects, and acquaintances of the victim. Though it isn’t necessary for the viewer to solve the mystery, we hope the conventions of detective fiction lend a new twist to our exploration of implied narrative and social satire. For the next month or two we'll be compiling some type of book, zine, or mini-comic from the pieces in the show. In 2008, we'll basically be feeling our way to new books through trial and error. We generally create three to five new complete works (not all mini-comics) per year depending on the scope of the projects, so keep an eye on our website and blog as our path is revealed to us.