Archive for February, 2009

on Scans_Daily

Catch-up time: Scans_Daily was, until today, a Livejournal community where fans posted and discussed scanned excerpts of comic books. I’m pretty sure it began (in 2003, according to Google’s cache of the userinfo) as a spinoff from some other community along the lines of Depp_Daily where fans posted and discussed photos of male hotties. In the time I followed it, S_D’s volume grew to the point of dozens of posts per day, and I had to “de-friend” it to keep all my other friends’ posts from getting choked out.

Today Livejournal suspended the community. It’s unlikely to return in that form. Brian Cronin has a piece up on CSBG@CBR, suggesting that writer Peter David may or may not have had something to do with it. Peter David posts an account of his involvement. Johanna D-C’s round-up includes a link to writer Gail Simone’s thoughtful response. [Edited to add: Brigid Alverson has another interesting response].

A lot of fans are responding to the news with accounts of how S_D persuaded them to buy comics they otherwise wouldn’t have. That’s the case for me — I followed the community from something like 2004-2007, and I certainly wouldn’t have shelled out $50 recently for the American Flagg! hardcover if not for a Scans_Daily post by Warren Ellis pointing out various formal innovations Chaykin used on a single page of the first issue (the “1996!!!!!!!!!!!!!” page). During that time I was also director of the Reed College Comic Book Reading Room, and a fair amount of our $4000 annual budget was influenced by the online chatter on S_D and the blogosphere.

When I started working for Top Shelf, I posted an excerpt of Alex Robinson’s Lower Regions (a Top Shelf book) to the community. Since it didn’t feature Green Lantern and Aquaman humping each other, it wasn’t a wildly popular post, but it caught some attention from RPG gamers and Alex Robinson fans, and Alex himself showed up the comment thread to interact with them a little bit.

A friend (in a private post) grumbled today about the dismissive attitude of certain commenters (“oh well, it was full of bitching and slash anyway”), declaring that reaction to be part of a broader discomfort that many male fans have with the feminine form of fandom. In response, she more or less said “a man in S_D feels like a woman in a comic shop.”

[Edited to add: I should clarify that the comments below use S_D as a jumping-off point for a broader discussion -- I admit I haven't visited the community in at least a year, and I can't defend or attack whatever it may have become recently, or the reasons for its removal.]

I remember being pretty shocked at the culture of S_D when I first discovered it years ago. It was a thriving community of fans interacting with superhero comics in an entirely different manner than I was used to. But it didn’t feel like “this is how they do it on the internet,” it felt like “this is how they do it when women are in charge.” I soon decided that superhero-comics-fandom (as represented by S_D) was a subset of fandom as a broader entity — that these folks were performing more or less the exact same practices (fanfiction, slash, icon design, roleplay, claiming) on Green Lantern that were being performed on Harry Potter and Stargate Atlantis and every other entertainment property in the world, to some degree.

And it felt weird. I recognized these characters and these images, but they were looking at them in ways that I had never imagined. It felt, now that I think about it, a lot like visiting a Sunday service at the black church across town (part of the annual swap that our churches held on MLK weekend, our token response to MLK’s observation that “at 11:00 on Sunday morning when we stand and sing and ‘Christ has no east or west,’ we stand at the most segregated hour in this nation”). We were reading the same book, but in a vastly different manner.

It’s remarkable to me how segregated superhero fandom is. There’s “masculine” fandom (largely on message boards?) and “feminine” fandom (largely on Livejournal), and seldom do the twain meet.

I’m not very interested in superheroes these days one way or the other, but I appreciate what fans see in them — both kinds of fans. It seems to me that other sorts of fandom have been able to integrate themselves more successfully — despite the fact that anime and manga are explicitly categorized as “for girls” and “for boys,” they seem to coexist peacefully at conventions and online, and there seems to be a great deal of overlap. Contrast that with your standard comic shop or convention.

I think there are valuable tools and insights to be had from both of these approaches to the material, and I do wish for a little more intercommunication.

Edited again to add: Lisa “Ragnell” Fortuner has some passionate but helpful thoughts up on Robot 6, summarized in a comment to her own post: “This is a matter of legal murkiness, not gender hostility. One you react to by decreasing your profile or just ceasing your activities, while the other you react to by increasing your profile and stubbornly continuing your activities. Surely, you can see the difference here and the disastrous potential.”

Wrestling with more pamphlet/distro questions

I can’t let it rest there. If the “alternative” giants abandoned the comic-book format years ago (and they did), who is producing something like this format today, who might be affected by the policy shift? Setting Chris Butcher’s “death of the direct market” aside for the moment, what sort of content is in danger?

I don’t know how the economics of these things work(ed). Would new comic books from Kevin Huizenga, Sammy Harkham, John Porcellino, or Anders Nilsen (or their un-famous equivalents) make the cutoff? If not, are these guys making enough money from single-issue sales that it would be a significant financial blow? How often do these things really come out any more? Selling a $5 comic book to 1000 loyal fans once a year doesn’t pay the bills, especially after distribution and retail take their cut. I don’t think we’re cutting off a revenue stream that subsidizes the gradual creation of a masterpiece. If you’re not selling enough copies to make it into Previews, you have a day job already.

breathers

What about minicomics? The deluxe little self-published booklet, whether standalone or serial is a beloved icon of the alt-comics scene, even today. Recent favorites of mine include Jonathan Case’s Sea Freak, Andy Hartzell’s Monday, Chuck McBuck’s Snake Oil, Justin Madson’s Breathers, Sean Ford’s Only Skin, and Alec Longstreth’s Phase 7. But has Diamond ever really carried this stuff?

There are plenty of people generating blog buzz and underground acclaim via tabling at shows like MoCCA, SPX, Stumptown, and APE, just as they always have. And certain retailers will go outside of Diamond to pick up some of those minis, just as they always have. Right? And artists then parlay that underground buzz into a project at an established publisher. It’s just that that first pro-published project is now a small graphic novel, rather than a comic book. And the internet has essentially provided an endless SPX, so that buzz-building and feedback-receiving can happen year-round — and with readers who can’t make the trek out to small press shows.

johnny-hiro-2.jpgFred Chao’s justly acclaimed Johnny Hiro is moving to a book collection. If you’re like me, you responded to all of its Eisner buzz last year with “Great! Now it can be collected in book form, reviewed in major outlets, placed in libraries, and sold to the general public.” It kind of seemed quaint that it was ever a comic book at all. For better or for worse, that’s the new industry assumption that I see. The cursus honorum of comics. Everything is aimed at producing a Blankets or Fun Home or Bottomless Belly Button or Asterios Polyp. The Great American Graphic Novel.

It’s problematic, of course. Some stories don’t need to be graphic novels, and some cartoonists don’t need to be graphic novelists. And even for those who will someday, is the infrastructure in place to allow them the time to gestate?

Yes and no. Comics will not continue to be created in the same way they once were. We’ll see fewer and fewer projects take the serial-comic-to-big-book format a la Maus, Black Hole, Box Office Poison, Local, Bone, From Hell, or Jimmy Corrigan. But the books will still come out, one way or another. Some of them will surely be underbaked, deprived of the reader feedback that serialization provides (but on the other hand, look at how many webcomics and newspaper strips have decayed into self-parodies, stunted by the shackles of constant reader feedback). Others will die stillborn, unable to find a publisher willing to risk a 400-page book on an unproven creator. Some will be published, only to find customers balking at dropping $15-20 on somebody’s debut. But, y’know, I think we’ll figure it out.

Done with pamphlets for the moment. Open question: what about book-format books that sell in small quantities? Is Picturebox really fucked?

Also, where do comic shops fit in?

One thought on the death of the alternative comic book

tomine

Lots of talk lately about Diamond raising its order minimums. Tom Spurgeon has a characteristically meditative but surprisingly assertive piece while Chris Butcher spells out the reasoning behind his even more alarmed response.

I don’t feel that I have enough years under my belt to take a stand on this, but I have to record my reaction to this part of Tom’s post:

If it’s not the end of the alternative comic book, it’s certainly a vicious blow to those comics as we’ve come to know them. This is worrisome because an entire generation of excellent cartoonists came to prominence through alternative comic books — Joe Sacco, Dan Clowes, Peter Bagge, Julie Doucet, Jim Woodring, Chester Brown, Seth, Joe Matt, Adrian Tomine. Alternative comic books were not just a vehicle for those talents but played a huge role in shaping how those cartoonists developed by giving them platform that offered legitimacy without permanency, unfettered control with periodic feedback. Although there are more opportunities now and have been other opportunities all along, one can argue that none of those formats has been as useful to this expression of comics.

I don’t doubt it. But when I read through that list of names, the only ones I feel the slightest connection to are Woodring, Brown, and Tomine — and Tomine is the only one that I encountered in comic book form. (Are the Hernandez brothers left off for some reason? They would add one more, but the point remains.) For better or for worse, the “alternative” generation, and especially the alternative comic book, has been almost completely irrelevant to my comics life. And I’m hardly a comics illiterate.

It’s possible that what we’re doing here is not so much killing a living thing as burying a dead one — acknowledging that it’s not going to come back. The Eightball/Optic Nerve/Palookaville format had its pros and cons, but its moment does seem to have passed. Dissecting it for useful lessons would be a good idea; agitating for its return strikes me as pointless. There aren’t any full-page newspaper strips anymore, either.


Leigh Walton talks comics and maybe other arts. (RSS)
He also works for the very excellent publisher Top Shelf Productions (which does not necessarily endorse the views and opinions, etc, herein).

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Header by me. Contains an interpolation of the final panel from All-Star Superman #1 by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely. Speaking of which.

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