Last Thursday in this space, Glenn Hauman wrote about comic shop owners who can’t seem to adapt to the ever-changing retailing reality. On the flip side of the coin are the many industrious and innovative retailers who have indeed figured it out. These are the folks who have learned how to survive through the industry’s ups and downs, as well as through the nation’s economic upturns and downtowns. In the year 2017 (and I’m pretty sure it will be the same way in the year 2018) storefront retailing is a difficult game for anyone to play. And so, in this week’s column, let’s take a look at one Geek Culture entrepreneur who leaned how to play the retailing game with skill, pertinacity and grace.
Ash Gray has been running Comics for Collectors in Ithaca NY since 1981, and next month he’s expanding his store.
In the 70s, Gray started by selling comics by mail with ads in Alan Light’s Comics Buyers Guide. He eventually met a fellow mail order retailer, Bill Turner, who also lived in Ithaca, NY. Together they launched the Ithaca Comic Book Club. That led to next starting Ithacon, now the nation’s second’s oldest comic book convention. They pooled their resources to then open Comics For Collectors in 1981. This comic shop, in the shadow of both Cornell University and Ithaca College, was nestled on second floor of a downtown building.
The store’s business grew over the years, and soon they switched locations, expanding to a ground level location. During the boom years, Comics For Collectors become a regional franchise, spreading to locations in nearby Corning and Elmira. As the industry contracted in the early and mid-nineties, they hunkered down, closing those stores and focusing on the main location.
“We were in the middle of an economic downturn,” recalled Gray. But they had been there before and knew how to operate during these conditions. “I look back when we opened in the early 80s. Economists said it was a downturn when we started.”
Eventually, Turner would lose interest in retail, but Gray pushed on. “The current location gives us 750 square feet of retail space. But we’ve maxxed out on space. We have a lot of graphic novels and book type products,” said Gray. “We’ve tried to be creative in displaying in the last 10 years.”
And that’s what the expansion will provide for Comics For Collectors. Gray is able to add another 700 square feet in the adjacent storefront that is part of the same building. “This location become available when the bookstore decided to retire,’ said Gray. “It’s worked well for a number of local merchants. The bagel store has expanded. There’s a new waffle restaurant that did the same thing, opening a portal to their new space.”
Comics for Collectors will do quite a few things with their new space. “We’re looking to expand the selection and “viewability” of the product lines. What makes people pick up a book is the cover art. They pick it up, take a look and then decide to buy it.” So it’s important for Gray to display comic and book covers.
“It’s never good,” Gray noted, “when a lot of things get smushed onto the racks.”
The expansion will also allow the store to showcase more Young Adult graphic novels. Locally, both kids and parents locally have responded well to the lines of new graphic novels and comics inspired by creators like Raina Telgemeir. Ithaca’s a town of readers, and often families want to own the books they’ve read in the libraries, or want to get the books before the local libraries acquire them.
Comics For Collector’s additional space will also showcase board games like Settlers of Catan by Mayfair and Munchkin by Steve Jackson Games.
When it comes to these board games, Gray says, “I’m interested in education. These games can be intimidating.” So the expanded store will have an expert onsite Saturdays to help consumers sample and learn about the various games.
A strong comic shop is more than just a retail space to help locals acquire products. It’s about community, providing services and employing locals. Over the years, Comics For Collectors has employed many people, several of whom have gone onto careers in Geek Culture companies and publishers.
And along the way, Ash Gray has had to bob and weave, to change and to adapt to an industry that can be confusing and is always evolving. But he’s managed to do it for years. With this expansion, it looks like he will again.
• • • • •
Comics for Collectors Grand Opening is scheduled for Saturday, December 2nd, and will feature specials, activities and professional guests, including Steve Ellis and Laura Van Winkle. For more information, check them out on Facebook or Instagram.
When it comes to music, we all get it right away. We understand what duets are, and how the combination of two favorite performers can result in something new and special. In 2006, the album Duets teamed Tony Bennett with a myriad of music’s A-listers. It was an instant hit. Part of the fun was the surprising range of match-ups. While a song featuring Bennett collaborating with Barbara Streisand was expected, duets with musicians like k.d.lang or the Dixie Chicks were wonderful surprises.
Sometimes a collaboration exceeds the original. For example, I’d argue that the version of Gloria by John Lee Hooker and Van Morrison is much more fun than the original version Morrison recorded with his old band, Them. Likewise, Elvis Costello and Burt Bacharach, two geniuses from different generations, collaborated in the late 90s and produced wonderful songs enthralling fans of both artists.
Comic art collaborations are different. When enjoying traditional comic art, it’s harder for most folks to understand what the penciler and the inker each bring to the party. But both types of artists have a role to play and opportunities to seize. Sometimes fans will like a certain artist paired with a certain inker. Other times, the combination might not gel, resulting in an unsatisfying experience for readers. Some inkers support a penciller’s vision, other times they might dominate it.
Wallace (Wally) Wood was one the great very artists, but he often played the role of inker. I reached out to Walter Simonson (an incredible artist in his own right) to find out just what it was like to have Wally Wood ink your artwork. Walter kindly shared his thoughts with me:
“Back in 1976, Denny O’Neil asked me if I would be willing to draw layouts for an ongoing DC comic, Hercules Unbound. Wallace Wood had been doing the finished inks over layouts. I jumped at the chance. I knew Woody personally just a little from the time I spent hanging out at Continuity Associates, Neal Adams and Dick Giordano’s studio in New York. But I knew Woody’s work extensively, from his EC stories to his work on the early MAD magazines, to Witzend, and his later work on Daredevil and other mainstream comic books. I was thrilled.
“As the layout artist, I expected that the finished work would look like Woody’s stuff. And by and large, it did. But it was such a learning experience. For layouts, I wasn’t spotting blacks in my drawings, and it was a revelation to see what Woody did with them. Beautiful to observe. My real regret was that Woody left the book after he had done only two issues over my layouts. But he told me before departing that he really liked what I had given him to work with. It was the structure he needed to create his finished work without difficulty. I was thrilled. Thanks, Woody. Nobody called it a bucket list back then, but that’s exactly what it was, a big check mark off the bucket list!”
The best collaborators actually collaborate. And that’s what happened when Jack Kirby worked with Wally Wood to produce the newspaper comic strip Sky Masters. Last week we talked about the new reprint edition from Amigo Comics. This week we’ll take another bite out of the apple. I’ve persuaded my friend, J. David Spurlock, an expert on Wallace Wood and a guy with a lot of great stories, to contribute a few more thoughts about this unique collaboration.
So join me for J. David Spurlock’s Sky Masters: The Jack Kirby-Wally Wood Masterpiece —the greatest teaming of America’s two most iconic mid-century comic book talents!
McCarthy-era political witch-hunts fed even vice-presidential hopeful Estes Kefauver’s investigations into juvenile delinquency. The fallout came very close to killing the American comic book industry in the second half of the 1950s. Comic books were demonized and workers in the industry humiliated. Most publishers went out of business. The few that stumbled on, slashed titles to the quick and experimented with new/alternative genres. As Carmine Infantino told me, even the industry’s top company, National/DC, were not only laying-off talent but also cutting pay rates for those who stayed. Joe Orlando confirmed he was so humiliated he started telling non-industry people that he “illustrated children’s books” in lieu of confessing he was a comic book artist. Stan Lee likewise confirmed that in that period, he skirted telling people he worked making comic books. Every artist aspired to doing a newspaper strip. Newspaper strip work — as opposed to the then-shamed comic books— was not only respectable, it was celebrated and could generate great income based on circulation.
In 1958, inspired by Sputnik and the emerging US and Russian space programs, Harry Elmlark of the George Matthew Adams Service newspaper syndicate asked National/DC Comics writer-editor Jack Schiff to help him put together a team for a space program-related strip. Schiff was too committed at National/DC to take on writing a daily strip and reached out to Dave Wood about writing. Dave Wood and acclaimed 1940s Captain America co-creator Jack Kirby had been working under Schiff as editor on the Kirby-created DC-published comic book, Challengers of the Unknown. Dave Wood and Kirby had previously worked on another proposed space strip which had not been picked up. Both Kirby and Dave Wood confirmed they were interested in creating the proposed new strip.
Kirby, Schiff and Dave Wood assumed Kirby’s associate, Marvin Stein, would be inking Kirby’s pencil work but, Stein had had enough of the cockamamie comics business and left for better, steadier work in advertising, as so many did during the mid-to-late ’50s comics implosion. With Stein out, Jack knew he needed a top quality, polished inker to help his work compete with such illustrative adventure strip artists like Alex Raymond, Hal Foster and Milton Caniff. Jack realized the absolutely best man for the job was Wallace Wood (no relation to Dave) who had quickly risen to be America’s foremost sci-fi comic book artist a few years earlier via his groundbreaking work at EC Comics on such titles as Weird Science and Weird Fantasy.
Wallace Wood had nothing to do with negotiations with Schiff and/or the syndicate. His relationship was solely with Jack Kirby. As my research for the Eisner-Award recognized Wood biography, Wally’s World revealed, it was Kirby who phoned Wood’s studio and the call was answered by Wood’s wife/assistant/colorist Tatjana: “Who’s calling?” “Jack Kirby” the response came. “Wallace, Jack Kirby is on the phone.” Kirby invited Woody to work on the still untitled newspaper strip. They followed up with Jack coming to Wood’s studio where they started brainstorming including on what to name the strip. Jack liked the name Sky as the lead character’s fist name but wasn’t sure what to use for a surname. Wood had been playing with the name Cannon since childhood. Jack and Wally considered Sky Cannon and Wood drew that option up as a rough logo design, along with other ideas. Jack Kirby and Wallace (a.k.a. “Wally” or “Woody”) Wood ultimately settled on Sky Masters with Wally drawing the final logo art.
Wally Wood at the time was not working in comic books. He had grown to be so successful, he was doing far better paying humor, men’s, and sci-fi magazine illustrations, as well as paperback and hardcover book covers, and advertising. It was because Wood considered Kirby a “genius” (Woody was likely the first big name pro to use the word “genius” to describe Jack) and that, like everyone else, he dreamt of a hit newspaper strip, that Wood agreed to collaborate with Jack.
As soon as Kirby told Schiff that Wally Wood had agreed to ink and letter the strip, Schiff got excited and inquired whether Wood might be willing to return to comic books as well, to likewise work with Jack on Challengers of the Unknown. Out of respect to Jack, Wood agreed. Kirby and Wood hit it off and work started on the Sky Masters, Challengers, and an underwater strip idea, Surf Hunter.
Newspaper strip deadlines never stop. There is no break. It is important to gear-up and have plenty done prior to the launch, as that is the only buffer a strip artist will ever have. Work on Challengers started during the Sky Masters gear-up period. Because of the release date of Wallace Wood’s first issue of Challengers, there has long been confusion about the timeline — which came first, Wood’s joining Challengers or Sky Masters? Through my Wally’s World research, I was finally able to clear it all up via my interviews with a few of the first-person witnesses to these matters, Tatjana Wood, who took the initial call from Kirby and was in the studio when Jack came over for meetings and with my dear friend, Al Williamson who occasionally helped out inking some backgrounds. The Kirby-Wood collaborative period started with Sky Masters. Their work together is ultimate Americana. Imagine John Wayne doing a film with Elvis or Marilyn Monroe doing a film with James Dean. Kirby and Wood are like that except in their case, it actually did happen for a bright, fleeting moment.
A short digression re: the Kirby-Wood signatures that appear on the art. For many years, general readers didn’t know Dave Wood was involved with the strip. It was understood that the Kirby-Wood signature was for Kirby and Wallace Wood who put as much work into that strip as he did anything else that he signed in his career. After many years, it started getting out that the writer’s name was also Wood and he had a brother/helper named Dick Wood. Jack Kirby said, for a while he thought everyone in the business was named Wood. Some would say the Wood in the signature is for the writer, Dave Wood — and that is reasonable if not traditional. I would like to propose that this case might not be so traditional: When the artist Wallace Wood — one of the most accomplished comics artists of all time — who signed the signature signed them, that he was not signing for the writer who was nowhere near as notable of a talent as the artist was but, happened to have the same name. Woody signed his own name to his own work. It has nothing to do with who made the original agreement to produce a space strip or when, in the pre-launch process Woody came on board. It had to do with one of the top talents of all time putting blood, sweat and tears into his labor of love and being proud of his work. How many National/DC strips listed Dave Wood’s signature? But, even when DC did not publish credits, if the great comics master Wallace Wood signed, no one at DC dared white it out (see first-person account from Jim Shooter). Unless we find a contract saying that Dave Wood’s name was required to be credited and lettered into every strip, we have no way of knowing what the signature would have been had Wallace Wood not helped launch it and signed it with his own hand.
Wallace only stayed for about half of the strip’s tenure. It was a huge loss when Woody left the strip. But he understandably did not want to get dragged into a growing legal dispute between Jack Schiff and Jack Kirby which he had nothing to do with. Plus, the strip was not picked up by enough papers to make big money. To minimize the public knowing Wallace had left.. to minimize change… and as the writer’s name was also Wood, they kept the signature going after Woody left. Likewise, Kirby himself attempted to ink in Wood’s style. When Kirby hired Dick Ayers to take over inking, he requested Ayers to likewise mimic Wood’s style. I got that fact directly from my dear friend Dick, who went on to say, he would have loved to have done work more like Wood’s but, it took too much time and there wasn’t enough money in comics (or Sky Masters) to work that way — because, Wood did far more than just ink.
To add confusion, in a late interview, Jack oddly minimized Woody’s well known and obvious contributions and indicated what they had wanted the public to think of the signature after Woody left—that it was for the writer. It must be understood that in the period that Jack gave that interview, Jack was so fed up with the fact that most of his career, he had been credited in second place to Simon and Lee, who Jack felt did less of the creative work than Jack did. At that time, Jack was on a mission to balance the scales and set the record straight that he/Jack had been the primary creative force — and unfortunately, when Sky Masters unexpectedly came up, Woody got caught in the crossfire. Again, unless we find a contract saying that Dave Wood’s name was to be credited and lettered into every strip, we have no way of knowing what the signature would have been had Wallace Wood not helped launch the strip and signed it.
Sky Masters is the greatest teaming of America’s two most iconic mid-century comic book creators, Jack Kirby and Wally Wood. What makes it better, more important, than their other works (even Challengers) is that particularly on Sky, they worked as equals. It is not Wood inking Kirby, it is a different animal. Something new, something more unique than their other works… not Kirby, not Wood, but the totally unique hybrid that can only be called, Kirby-Wood! Jack once said, in Wally, on Sky Masters, “I was [only] looking for an inker but got a [true] collaborator.
Jack Kirby and Dave Wood never created a masterpiece.
Jack Kirby and Wally Wood created a masterpiece!
One of the titles I have so aptly bestowed upon Woody is “The Great Collaborator.” Whomever he worked with made history: Kirby-Wood, Eisner-Wood, Ditko-Wood, Kurtzman-Wood, etc.
If Kirby had not brought in Wallace Wood, Sky Masters would have been just one more in Kirby’s long history of minor, attempted and/or short-lived newspaper strips and we would not be discussing it now and no one would be investing years of work to put together a glorious edition of it. Instead, it is one of Jack’s greatest artistic accomplishments — something he proudly hung for decades by his drawing board — despite the later business problems. It may well be the first work he was so proud of he fought to get the originals back on, after publication. It is the ultimate Kirby-Wood masterpiece specifically because, thanks to Kirby recognizing, inviting, and wisely granting Wally Wood the creative freedom to be so much more than a technician who traces with ink; it is a true, equal, artistic collaborative creation.
Way back in September, it was announced that Marvel was bringing back Jean Grey for the first time in thirteen years. No, not time displaced Jean Grey. No, not the reanimated Jean Grey from Phoenix – Endsong; the real fictional character. I’ve been thinking about this ever since the announcement. I’ve wanted to say something here, but I just wasn’t sure. I’ve talked privately with people whom all more or less agree with me on this to a point, so I’m finally going to say it here in my column.
I hate that they’re bringing Jean Grey back. It’s genuinely a terrible idea.
I feel terrible talking about this because the writer, Matthew Rosenberg, is a great guy writing incredible comics at publishers like Marvel and Black Mask Studios. He deserves all the success in the world. Leinil Yu is a fantastic artist. This has nothing to do with the creative team on this book; it’s about the editorial direction. It’s just plain and simple a terrible idea.
Most glaringly this transparent stunt shows off how Marvel just doesn’t know what to do with the X franchise so they’re just repacking greatest hits collections. In write ups about the move, Marvel makes statements about how it’s interesting because how will the other X-Men react to her suddenly being back? The real question is why would anyone care when we’ve already seen this done before. More than once. More than twice. That’s not an interesting or unique angle.
This also reminds everyone just how needlessly convoluted the continuity is for the X franchise. In the ads for this book they state that this is the return of the adult Jean Grey. Yes, they have to specify which version of Jean Grey is actually coming back. That is a problem. There is no other way to look at this. If you want new readers coming in, this is not how to do it. If you want lapsed readers coming back in, this is a way to remind them why they stopped reading in the first place. I’m a low hanging fruit X-Men fanboy and I will absolutely not be participating in this event. That should be viewed as a bad sign that have no interest in even humoring this concept.
I’d also like to remind everyone that Jean Grey was literally so boring and played up as a damsel in distress to the point where Chris Claremont came in with incredibly talented collaborators like Dave Cockrum and John Byrne and turned her into a space goddess. She remained so uninteresting they had to make her a villain and kill her off.
The first time she was brought back was for X-Factor in which, again, she was the least interesting team member. As characters like Angel and Iceman were fleshed out by Louise and Walter Simonson (in some of the best and lasting ways either of those characters have been portrayed), but even the Simonsons could not elevate Jean Grey to the kind of character Marvel seems to think she should be. Hell, they just started a solo, time displaced Jean Grey comic earlier this year and in the first issue they already started referencing Phoenix. That is how boring this character is, or at least how creatively bankrupt Marvel is regarding the character.
When Grant Morrison took on the X-Men in New X-Men Jean was actually portrayed with a level of depth she’s rarely been given before. She had a complicated emotional story arc that really elevated her and her death resonated. Despite all of that, Marvel has moved so far away from the incredible work Grant Morrison did with the X-Men, even though the collected editions are constantly in print and available, still solid sellers thirteen years later. These stories have been reprinted in more formats than most other Marvel comics. It’s baffling why Marvel would move so far away from a direction that was working in favor of an over a decades long emo mutant sadness porn.
We need stakes in our stories. Stakes are what keeps the reader engaged. Why should I read this story if ultimately nothing of consequence will happen? Of course there are some exceptions, but not when we’re dealing with the heavily action based superhero genre. The characters are what keeps people coming back to these stories. Can Peter Parker pay Aunt May’s rent and stop the Lizard this month? Will we find out more of Wolverine’s past? Stuff like that.
It’s safe to say that in most situations the highest stakes for a character is that they could die. When those stakes are completely removed, as they are in the superhero genre, it makes it difficult for readers to want to pick up and read them month to month. Why am I going to care about the issue where X character dies when I know they’ll be back anyway? There is no more shock value in that and the ways characters come back from different dimensions and magic and aliens makes it hard for anyone to get too invested anymore. It makes it hard for me to get invested.
Mainstream comics have a problem, and instead of dealing with it they are actually celebrating it. People are championing (adult) Jean Grey coming back after thirteen years as something that was a long time coming that we should celebrate. Finally, she’s back! It’s about time! When I hear that, it sounds like people celebrating that their friend or loved one that’s been sober for thirteen years is finally drinking again. This is not only not the time to be celebrating, it’s also very depressing and leaves you feeling hopeless.
Look, I love Marvel. Really. I adore the characters, the stories, the movies, and the TV shows; I even had a Jean Grey Phoenix action figure growing up. Some of the best characters and comics ever made or that will ever be made are from Marvel. The reason I’m writing this is because I care and so do a lot of other people. The comics industry needs Marvel to succeed. I want Marvel to succeed and, in particular, the X franchise to succeed. Back in April, I wrote this open letter to Marvel regarding the direction I saw ResurrXion going in. Unfortunately it doesn’t seem to be getting better, but just getting worse and the sales numbers are reflecting that.
Remember a couple of years ago when rumors started swirling that maybe the X-Men would be put in their own mini-universe separate from the rest of the Marvel Universe? Remember how some people were genuinely excited by that idea, and were kind of sad when Axel said that wouldn’t be the case? Instances like these are maybe worth taking more seriously, because I honestly can’t fathom that approach being worse than what’s happening now and you, the reader, probably can’t either.
I understand that this is a problem that didn’t happen overnight. It took a long time to get here and it will take a long time to get out. Either way, something has to change soon, because this is not sustainable.
In 1977, the Syracuse Post Standard blazed the headline “Comic Book Confab Listed” to announce the second Ithaca Comic Convention. Actually, I think it would be more appropriate to say they whispered the headline. It was scrunched in the middle of a crowded page. The article listed professional comic guests such as Walter Simonson and Al Milgrom. I’m not one-hundred percent sure if that’s how my family found out about that second Ithaca Comic Con way back then. It may have been from seeing a flyer on the bulletin board at Fay’s Drug Store. That used to be a legitimate marketing venue too. But the big takeaway is that back then, the concept of a comic-con certainly wasn’t understood.
“People meet to buy and sell old funny books?” The very notion sounded absurd.
Today’s comic conventions and “cons” are part of the nation’s everyday lexicon. Any gathering gets a little extra oomph by adding “-con” as a suffix. Every Comic Con held anywhere in the country gets a modicum of respect and “Comic-Con International” (commonly referred to as San Diego Comic-Con, or simply SDCC) is right in the center of pop-culture radar.
At the Confab
It was at that Confab in Ithaca that I first met Walter Simonson. I was already a big fan. His Manhunter in Detective Comics, written by Archie Goodwin, had made every fan sit up and take notice. At the time of the convention, he was illustrating a black and white Hulk magazine story that told lost tales of the character’s early days in the Marvel Universe. It was called a continuity implant back then, but I simply realized it was a fresh, outstanding story. I was elated to meet the guy drawing it at this Ithaca Comic Con.
You know how sometimes we meet our cultural heroes and they are really jerks? We spend all this time worshiping a celebrity’s accomplishments, only to have it all come crashing down when they reveal an unappealing side to their personality in a personal meeting? We all have probably experienced that type debilitating letdown.
Well, meeting Walter Simonson was the polar opposite of that. He was kind and patient with me and to everyone there. He was a big talent wrapped in a smile wrapped in supportive enthusiasm.
It’s no one wonder he’s still often referred to as ‘the nicest guy in comics.”
”You will hear similar stories from many comics professionals,” said J.C. Vaughn of Gemstone and The Overstreet Comic Book Price Guide. “Walter Simonson was the first comic professional to talk to me one on one as if I were an actual person. Never mind that he’s Walter Freakin’ Simonson, one of the greatest comic artists to walk the planet; he’s also Walter Simonson, a genuinely good guy (we could use more of both). To hire him (twice!) to do covers for the Guide has been a joy, real wish-fulfillment stuff.”
More recently, I met with Walter and his wife Louise at his home to discuss his latest project, Ragnarok. It’s a fantastic IDW series that reimagines the Norse legends, including Thor, in a completely different setting than the Marvel version. He used the phrase “Norwegian Zombie” to describe it.
And reinforcing his humble nature, he’s quick to point out two of his collaborators on this project: Laura Martin and John Workman.
During this visit, Walter showed me pages of issue #10. This is a moving issue that explores the distortion of a brand. Basically, Thor finds the symbol of his hammer is being used for something rotten. Where are the trademark and licensing lawyers when you need them?
As with so many Walt Simonson stories, it’s full of power, action, and majesty. But my favorite moment was at the story’s finale when a woman is kneeling and we, as the readers, have a view of the soles of her feet. It’s a usual image for a comic, for whatever reason, but rendered with care and love. “I had to ask Weezie to pose for that,” laughed Walter. He meant that he needed to ask his wife Louise to serve as an artist’s model in order to render the character’s feet correctly.
Let’s talk about Louise Simonson for a moment. She’s quite an impressive creator. Like Walter, she’s humble and soft-spoken. That’s especially impressive as she has every right to be boastful and proud. Her accomplishments are many, but I am always struck by her kind and gentle manner. I’d tend to think that she’s a huge part of the Walt Simonson mystique. Any man married to a woman like Louise Simonson would clearly want to do his best each and every day.
Plus: she made a mean breakfast when I visited. We really must devote another column to this fascinating person at some point down the road.
Walter also revealed a bit of his own personal background and how it influences his latest series. He spoke to me about his family history in North Dakota, and the wheat farms of the 1800s. There seemed to be a sense of adventure about it all and a respect for the “giants of the earth.” His parents even kept an extensive library that contained a few mythology books from the 1890s. The lessons of this all stayed with him well into his years learning design at the Rhode Island School of Design.
He summed up so much of his background and learning in his mantra for storytelling, “Play by the rules, but still surprise.”
This week at the San Diego Comic-Con, publisher IDW has a clever marketing promotion centered on Walt Simonson. Lucky fans will be having dinner with Walter, receive two of the enormous and lovingly crafted IDW Simonson books, get them autographed, and receive a sketch or two. Not surprisingly, the unique event quickly sold out.
I asked IDW’s Director of Special Projects, Scott Dunbier, to speak a little about Walter. He offered a clever and genuine response:
“What can I say about Walter Simonson that hasn’t been said before? Blah blah blah legendary creator blah blah blah brilliant run on Thor blah blah blah nicest guy in comics. Sure, all those things are true. But best of all, I get to work with him and talk to him on a regular basis. I’ve got a great job!”
There may be another big night at San Diego Comic-Con for Simonson. The Eisner Award Committee has nominated him for the Hall of Fame. To be fair, there are many other deserving creators on that impressive list. I have no idea how the judging actually works, but I certainly wish him luck.
This week Walter and Weezie will be at the epicenter of pop culture at the San Diego Comic-Con. And I’m sure they’ll continue to inspire many more people.
I have wonderful Yuletide memories. Like every young boy, I quickly learned that the true meaning of the Holiday Season was… getting more stuff. And being the greedy little monster I was, (and, I guess, I remain) I also learned that I could extend that wonderful feeling of “Christmas Acquisition” through books. More than a toy, or apparel or certainly candy, the enjoyment of a book would linger well past the twelve days of Christmas.
As a comics fan back in the day, actual books about comics were few and far between. One that did make it onto the traditional bookstore shelves was Jules Feiffer’s The Great Comic Book Heroes. Soon after Superman: From the 30’s to the 70’s was a one of those “big wow” books about comics that was gifted to me. It was so massively thick that I couldn’t imagine anyone would be able to read the whole thing in one lifetime!
That holiday-hardcover comic tradition carried on each year with Stan Lee’s Origins of Marvel Comics, The Son of Origins, Bring On the Bad Guys, The Superhero Women and that Silver Surfer graphic novel that reunited Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. (It was kind of a dud for me.)
When I was a parent, my kids would always get me similar treasures – most often DC Archive Editions and Marvel Masterworks. I’ve been one fortunate bookworm.
So with all that in mind, here are a few suggestions for holiday books:
There’s something about Norse mythology and the Yuletide season that just naturally go together. On the other hand, any day is a good day to enjoy the incredible work of comics legend Walter Simonson. IDW just published Ragnarok: Last God Standing as a collection of the first few issues of the ongoing comic, featuring Thor, the last of the Asgardians. It’s a fresh thriller by a comics master, and keep an eye out for my upcoming column spotlighting Walter’s Ragnarok series.
IDW has also teamed up with Eaglemoss to produce an ongoing reprint series of all the Star Trek comics. And the nice thing about this effort is that each volume mixes and matches Star Trek comics from all the different publishers over the years: Marvel, DC, Malibu, IDW, Gold Key and even the strips from the British weekly comics. What a great way to experience it all. While I love the Gold Key strips, I can’t read more than a few at a time. With this series, fans get a smorgasbord rather than just one heaping main course. Check out Star Trek: The Graphic Novel Collection.
It seems like it’s a golden age for Classic Comic Strips reprints. While some brilliant artists like Thomas Yeates, Mike Manley and Terry Beatty are doing great things with comic strips printed in the actual newspapers, there are now s great many options for reprint books. In fact, in the Diamond’s most recent Previews Magazine (the one with the cool Kamandi by Bruce Timm Cover) “From The Archives” was the monthly theme, celebrating comic strip reprints.
Hermes Press is the run by a passionate guy named Dan Herman. When it comes publishing and reprinting old comics with the respect they deserve, he’s the real deal. A few books of particular note:
Alex Raymond was a phenomenal artist and a groundbreaking entrepreneur for what would evolve into Geek Culture. But at that time, the world thought of him as an advertising artist who made a living doing those silly comic strips. And today, when comic fans look at his work, I’ve heard comments like “That looks like Dave Stevens’ art.” Hermes’s gorgeous coffee table book Alex Raymond: An Artistic Journey: Adventure, Intrigue and Romance offers readers a ringside seat to experience Raymond’s work again or for the first time.
And while it’s not a collection of reprinted comic strips, The Phantom: The Complete Avon Books Vol. 1 looks to be fun. This ongoing series reprints the old 60s prose Phantom paperback stories. The first one is an origin story by series creator, Lee Falk and it’s wrapped in a gorgeous painted George Wilson cover.
Max Alan Collins is a favorite here on ComicMix for so many reasons, and he’s contributed essays to two fantastic Hermes books. His thoughts aren’t the only reasons, or even the main reason to check these out, but like a good bottle of wine, he makes the main dish that much better. So I’d also recommend:
Zorro: The Complete Dell Pre-CodeComics which gathers together wonderful Zorro adventures from Dell’s Four Color
The collection of Mike Hammer strips from the mid-fifties in Mickey Spillane: From the Files of Mike Hammer.
My highest recommendation will probably go to Vanguard Press’ The Sensuous Frazetta by J. David Spurlock. I purchased this book at San Diego Comic-Con in July, and haven’t been able to officially move it from my reading pile to my shelf of favorites in the bookcase. Each time I pick it up I see something new and enjoy it more.
Also on my short list is another Wally Wood book from Vanguard. The latest is called Wally Wood Jungle Adventures and it features the “lost hero” Animan. I’m not sure how much of an Animan fan I am, but you can never go wrong with Wally Wood.
Have a great Yuletide Season and be kind to your friends and foes alike!
This time around the honor of writing the last ComicMix column of 2014 falls to me, and I am grateful for the opportunity to taunt the gods and goddesses of irony once more before the Cherub of the New Year arrives, gets a good look around, and shits his diaper.
Many, if not all of my friends seem to be happy that this year is coming to an end. String theory tells us that such optimism is silly, but since I’m starting 2015 with a left arm different from the one I had last January – and the anesthesia almost killed me – well, sayonara old bastard and take your scythe with you. (more…)
This is a great time for the business side of American comics. Sales are higher than they’ve been for decades, at least in terms of dollars.
(It’s true that in the 1940s many titles sold millions of copies apiece. Those were different times.)
According to the article cited in the link, only titles featuring Batman and Spider-Man consistently sell more than 100,000 an issue. It’s true that Spider-Man and Batman star in a lot of titles, and comics cost a lot more than they did in the 1940s. Still, superheroes are not the monolithic force in the market that they used to be, and single-issues print copies are no longer the biggest part of the market. Graphic novels account for almost half the sales. Digital is estimated to be at least ten percent.
(I know that these categories overlap. My point stands.)
In any case, I think this is good for the medium. I think more kinds of books, available at more kinds of stores, will attract more kinds of readers. More readers mean more money, and more money means more books. Yay!
By their announcements these past few weeks, Marvel demonstrated that it notices changes in the market and will at least pay lip service to them.
The more high profile story of the two is this one, which Joe Quesada announced on The Colbert Report. Captain America will no longer be Steve Rogers, but instead will be his pal, Sam Wilson, who until this point has been The Falcon. Also, up until this point, he’s been African-American, which I assume he will remain while he is Captain America.
This is not the first time a comic book character has changed his or her race. My first experience was when Lois Lane literally went from white to black. We’ve also had John Henry Irons as one of the possible Supermen, come back from the dead.
For that matter, we’ve had a black Captain America before. I love this book. I wish Marvel’s lawyers had been able to work out the deal for the sequel before we lost Bob Morales.
Does this bring in non-white readers? I have no idea. I don’t even know how they could find out, unless comic book stores now have NSA technology that lets them secretly photograph every sale. However, I think one of America’s great shames is the way we handle race relations, and therefore, this is a rich subject for fiction.
Speaking of difficult relationships, Marvel’s other big announcement is that Thor will soon be a woman. One of my favorite story lines of all time was from back in the 1980s, when Walter Simonson made Thor a frog. To me, this epitomizes what’s great about comics, because in any other medium, this would be ridiculous (and, if filmed, really expensive), but in Walter’s hands, it made perfect sense. Therefore, I hesitate to denounce this new development, although that is my first impulse.
I’m not really up on my mythology, but Thor is, after all, a god. The Norse gods, like the Greek gods, and probably like a whole bunch of other gods, are personifications of primal human emotions and experiences. The only reason Thor has gender is that the Norse decided that thunder and lightning were masculine.
Like the Greeks, the Norse often had male and female deities representing different aspects of the same thing. Ares and Athena, for example, were both aspects of War to the Greeks. Baldur and Freya represented beauty to the Norse in different ways.
In other words, there is no real reason for Thor to be female. And if he’s going to now be she, I would find the storyline more appealing if the character was represented as a woman with a build that is a reasonable counterpart to the masculine representation. The only artwork I’ve seen shows a woman with gigantic breasts (or, at least, a gigantic breastplate) that would be impossible with the muscle mass I assume she has.
Maybe gods get free implants when they transition. Maybe she’s using the space in her armor for snacks.
Marvel has said they want this new female Thor to appeal to women readers. I don’t know why they think women want thunder goddesses with implants. Marvel says women readers will like the strong female protagonist Thor now represents.
This woman reader would prefer a version of female strength that isn’t derivative of a male character. I’d prefer something new and different, something that reflects the kinds of modern experiences that women have. Marvel already does this well with Captain Marvel and Ms. Marvel.