My Thoughts On James Sturm’s New Sexist and Racist Comic
by Jason Shiga | December 5, 2014, 1:19 pm
I know this is old news already but I thought I’d weigh in James Strum’s newest comic that everyone’s been talking about.
To give a little back story, James Sturm posted this comic about an old mentor advising a younger cartoonist on how to deal with jealousy. Who is this person he’s jealous of? A young woman cartoonist who’s fucking killing it. She’s got a D+Q publishing deal, a profile in the Times, book signings with lines out the door. At the end, we find out she’s also successfully launched a $350,000 kickstarter campaign at which point the mentor cuts the meeting short and ends up calling his own mentor. Pretty funny stuff, right?
Colleen Frakes didn’t think so. She tweeted “…I have a lot of respect for James, but all I see here are two white dudes complaining about a woman in comics.” (there was actually a lot of talk amongst cartoonists about this comic but this tweet was the one that summed up the controversy most succinctly and launched the most discussion).
I’m not sure I follow her complaint about the guys being white. As an Asian guy and speaking for all Asian guys in the world, who freakin’ cares if there’s no minorities in this comic? It’s a thinly veiled parody about a CCS teacher talking with a student. Of course there aren’t any Asian people in it because they’ve got the good sense to go to Cal Arts. Also the joke isn’t dependent upon the races of the characters. I don’t even think it’s about gender specifically.
I don’t have a lot of direct experience with sexism in the industry but of course you see little things here and there. I remember buying a comic from a woman a APE and some loudmouth at the table next to her started grumbling, “Man, if I were a girl, I’d be selling hella comics.” The dude had not been doing well at the convention and when I looked at his table it was easy to see why. Let’s just say it probably had less to do with being an oppressed white dude and more to do with his comics being crappy. I walked away feeling sorry for this woman who had to sit next to him for 2 more days.
Another time, when I was just getting my start in minicomics, I met this guy who was convinced that the reason Gabrielle Bell was successful and he wasn’t was because he was male. He told me he was going to do a little experiment. His would release his next minicomic under a girl’s name and then sit back and watch the sales roll in. A few months later, I saw him and he reported his results back to me. His new minicomic was indeed published under a woman’s name. It was an “autobio” comic about some woman who loved masturbating, taking her shirt off and giving detailed accounts of her various lesbian threesomes. “I was right all along!” he said ” The industry is unfairly biased against men. I usually only sell 11 or 12 minicomics but under a woman’s name I sold 17!!!”
Anyway, I don’t have any personal experience with sexism, but as an Asian guy I can tell you it’s not one individual thing but the persistent, continuous nature of racial crap that can wear you down. If I saw Jeremy Lin flavored ice cream by itself, who the hell cares. But after a lifetime of wondering things like why did that publisher jokingly call me inscrutable? Why did that guy on Greyhound ask me what country I’m from? Why are those 5 dudes on the bus bench yelling “ching chong!!” Please don’t kill me. Why did that homeless guy call me a cheap Chinese bastard. Why did that Asian girl I was interested in tell me she prefers white dudes? That’s jacked up. My Dad got T-boned by some guy in Alameda and everyone thinks he’s the one at fault. And oooh, how come there’s no Asian people on HBO except that one Asian character on Girls who’s stealing Leena Dunham’s job? What, Ben and Jerry’s made a Jeremy Lin flavored ice cream with fortune cookies sprinkled in it!? Fuck them!!!!
The idea that every successful woman cartoonist unfairly traded on their sex appeal is really widespread and pernicious. So who knows what sort of shit Colleen Frakes had to put up with in life to bring her to the point where her first thought after reading that comic is “ugh, guys complaining about the success of women cartoonists.” I’m guessing she hasn’t found the comics community to be very supportive of women, which is a real bummer. And even though I disagree, I’m not going to say Colleen Frakes’ interpretation of the strip is wrong. As far as I’m concerned, she’s the world’s leading authority on how that comic made her feel.
All that being said, let me offer my own, more correct, interpretation of the comic. Which is that I don’t see sexism really being the point of it or the young woman being the target of the satire. And maybe this is an even more controversial thing to say, but man in my mind if something’s funny and it makes you laugh, ALL is forgiven. Laughter I feel is the body’s uncontrollable response to hearing a not commonly acknowledged truth. James Sturm has created a dark and brutally honest satire, the target of which was pretty clearly the older veteran in the strip. Here’s a professor who’s devoted his life to pep talks and hand holding insecure little weenies, suddenly realizing that he’s wasted his life and wondering what the hell he was thinking when he founded CCS.
That fictional girl’s kickstarter probably earned more than that older veteran did in 10 years of teaching or whatever he does. And in the last panel we’re left with the image of this sad sack who’s world has come crashing down, looking at the ruins of his life, a wasteland of shattered dreams, disappointment and bitterness. Or as I like to call it, hilarity. It’s funny because I think we can all relate. This field is freakin’ brutal. I’ve lost count the number of times I’m the sad sack who’d realized that my work is irrelevant, no one cares, and I look in the mirror and all I see is F Murray Abraham’s face from Amadeus. James Sturm’s comic is funny because it’s true. And the recasting of the Mozart character as a woman makes it funnier and truer.0 Comments
With Your Help, Demon Can Update 7 Days a Week!!
by Jason Shiga | November 18, 2014, 3:22 pm
Greetings everyone! Hope you’re enjoying this month’s Demon. Just wanted to take a sec and let you know about a milestone goal I just threw up on my patreon page. In the past, I’ve always felt reluctant about contributing to these types of campaigns myself. I come pretty close to being the idealized homo economicus and collective action type pleas like these never seemed to garner any traction in my Spock-like mind. I remember I once found my wife listening to a PBS pledge drive. She told me she felt bad about not donating so the least she could do was listen to an hour of mind numbing pledge breaks. All I could say was, “highly illogical” before turning off the radio. These days, however, I love donating to people’s Patreon and Kickstarter campaigns. It’s almost like a form of voting, except instead of politicians, I’m voting units of pop culture or art into existence. Unlike most of the things I spend money on, pop culture and art are a huge and important part of my life. I spend so much of my day immersed in one narrative structure or another, it just feels really good to support the fabric of my own reality when I can. Which I guess brings me to the topic of this post…
I’ve worked out the numbers pretty thoroughly at this point and if I can get my patreon campaign up to $1,700 I should be able to turn down future contract work, focus full time on Demon and begin updating 7 days a week.
This could potentially be a win for everyone. For me, it means doing what I love full time. And I can tell you being able to work full time on Demon would be a dream come true for me. For you, turning Demon into my full time job means updates 7 days a week. No longer do you have to curse the weekends, waiting with bated anticipation for Monday to arrive.
According to my stats, I’ve got about 1000 regular daily readers and I’m getting more every week. This is great, but the flip side of all these readers is higher bandwidth charges for me. I’ve never put ads on this comic and never will. Unfortunately, that means it actually costs me money to bring Demon to every one of my readers. Demon is free and always will be. But not for me.
Fortunately, catastrophic financial ruin can be flipped into a dream career and a thriving webcomic on a dime. Literally. If my regular readers were to donate just 50 cents, that should be more than enough to get us to our $1700 goal. That’s 2 quarters peoples! Maybe you paid $8 to see Big Hero 6 last weekend and you think Demon has brought you 1/16th as much entertainment. Maybe you’re already donating at the $5 level and you think the value of the booklets is considerably more, so you up your pledge to $5.50 or $6. I know a lot of my readers are students or teenagers and can’t afford $1, so maybe instead you’d like to support the comics you like by tweeting or telling your facebook friends about Demon. Maybe you’re just a self interested homo economicus like me and want to be able to read Demon 7 days a week. Then may I suggest you multiply the amount of joy reading Demon 7 days a week would bring you by the probability that your $1 would bring us to our goal. Then compare this value to the marginal gain your $1 would have brought you spent on a differing form of entertainment.
Even if you can’t do any of these, I really do appreciate you reading Demon and reading this far into the post. Maybe you’re like my wife and show your support by slogging through a mind numbing essay about why I want your money. Although it would serve me right, I’m hoping your husband doesn’t close your browser on me.0 Comments
Movie Review: John Wick
by Jason Shiga | October 30, 2014, 1:33 pm
I’ve always wondered about movies that have the character’s name as the title. Not only is the entire movie going to be about them, but there’s the implication that this character is going to be really awesome and interesting. I feel it’s a lot of pressure to put on Forrest Gump or Harry Potter or Mr. GI Joe.
Well, I’m happy to report that John Wick lives up to it’s name. The titular John is played by Keanu Reeves. And while I know a lot of Keanu haters say he can’t act, I think that’s missing the point. I like to think of Keanu Reeve’s face as a sledgehammer. Probably not great for tapping in finishing nails into a birdhouse but when it comes to punching holes in sheetrock, please hand me that face of his. I remember hearing once that the Warchoskis wanted him as lead for the Matrix because they’d just read Understanding comics and felt his blank facial features and general lack of expression would make him super easy for people to identify with. And it worked!
Who is John Wick? Aparently he’s some dude who drives around in donuts at an abandoned airstrip for a living. The story begins when John’s dead wife sends him a cute puppy in the mail. How? Maybe there’s some puppy delivery app she accessed from her hospital bed. I don’t know. It’s not that important to the story. What is important is some Russian mobsters break into his house, kill the puppy and steal his car. There’s a lot of build up as the entire crime underworld starts losing their shit. Lots of people yelling at this mobster, “What did you do!!??” “Do you know who John Wick is?” “He once killed 10 guys with a paper clip!”. These scenes are intercut with Keanu assembling his machine guns, strapping on his Kevlar vest, sharpening his bowie knife. It’s a really old trope by now, but when done well one of my favorites.
What follows is one of the most insanely violent massacres ever filmed as John Wick proceeds to find and execute the mobsters who killed his dog and everyone standing in his way. This includes walking into a church and shooting a priest in the knees, jabbing a knife in some dude’s chin, wrapping a pillowcase around a woman’s face before punching it 20 times, doing donuts in his car around a dude while shooting at him from 360 degrees out of the driver’s seat window, and bending one guy’s arm backwards with one hand while shooting multiple guys in the face with the other, then shooting the first guy in the face. By the way, did I mention a friend of mine didn’t want to see this movie because they heard there’s a scene where a puppy gets killed?
The amazing action and stuntwork is of course the main reason to see this movie. It was a real throwback to the Hong Kong style of martial arts and gun play mixed in with the needless violence and high body count of an 80’s action movie. Apparently the movie was directed by Keanu Reeve’s stuntman on the matrix and it shows. We actually get to see John Wick firing a gun and someone’s head exploding without an edit in between. Best of all, contrary to the modern style of action movie, we get to see the whole actor’s body and what they’re doing in long continuous takes.
Just before the climax, Keanu Reeves gives a monologue to the mob boss about how much he loved his puppy. But because of the combination of the ridiculousness of this set up and also Keanu Reeve’s inability to emote, the crowd I was watching this with found it pretty funny. This is a weird comparison, but the movie reminded me a lot of Pee Wee’s Big Adventure in that the plot it really just a humorously simple skeleton to hang the amazing set pieces. It’s like this director read “Save The Cat” and took it very literally.
The movie ends happily when John Wick breaks into a pound and gets a new puppy. Although I felt if he’d just done that from the get go, hundreds of murders could have been prevented. Hopefully he’s got all the killing out of his system. If not, I hope he goes to a used car lot and a bar next.
I remember talking with Dylan Williams once about film noir. His theory was that those movies were essentially made for veterans suffering from PTSD. Furthermore, Rambo, Commando, and the slew of 80’s hyperviolent action movies were made for Vietnam vets. I’m not sure I buy it, but I guess I can see how watching Arnold chasing Predator around the jungle might be cathartic. If that theory is true, I wonder if John Wick marks one of the first in a new crop of movies made for Iraq War veterans. If so, I’m looking forward to more although I’m not sure what they could do for a sequel. Maybe his mobsters kill his hamster or goldfish?0 Comments
Demon Patreon Campaign Reaches $1000/month
by Jason Shiga | October 16, 2014, 12:38 pm
At 9:59pm last night, some reader named Rika Takahashi bought a complete subscription to Demon via patreon, tipping my campaign over the $1000/month mark. Upon hearing the news, I pulled a chord releasing 1000 balloons from the ceiling as a brass band played “Do doo do do doo do do dooooo”. Not really, but I’ll tell you, it was a pretty big deal.
For those who don’t know how Patreon works, it’s basically like Kickstarter. One important difference is that the people who give money are rebranded as “patrons” rather than investors. For those who have ever thrown up a Paypal donate button on your website, I’m sure you’ve been touched by the heartwarming generosity of the donations you received. But the month after, that button just becomes another design element like the logo of Jimmy in the upper left hand corner that everyone ignores. The evil genius of Patreon is that they figured out a way to harness people’s generosity but then like some crazy jiujitsu master, redirect their inherent laziness against them. When you sign up to give someone $1/month on patreon, you’re basically letting them surreptitiously take that amount of money from your account every month until the day you take 30 seconds to cancel it. This sounds straightforward to the point of being tautological. But this banking practice is so powerful, it’s actually illegal is most other countries. Thankfully for me, the banking lobby here in the States is pretty powerful.
I realize describing patreon in this way may cause me to drop below $1000 again, which would break my heart. I know it’s an arbitrary number, but the $1000 mark is significant for a couple reasons. First, it amounts to the opportunity cost of not going with a larger publisher for this project. Second, someone could theoretically live on $1000. They’d have to be childless, live in a hovel in Detroit with 4 other dudes eating beans and rice 3 times a day. But man, if you were to describe that life to my 20 year old self, I’d tell you that sounds pretty nice. I know a lot of my readers here are cartoonists so maybe you can relate to that feeling of knowing so clearly in your bones that you were meant to do this one thing. But then there you are screwing in widgets all day, waiting for that whistle to blow so you can bike home and draw again. When I started out making comics, I didn’t want to be rich or famous. I just wanted to make more comics. I still do.
I started posting Demon online with a basic price discrimination model: give away the comic online for free, sell booklets and PDFs subscriptions via patreon and back issues and original art via paypal. I figured teenagers will probably read Demon online for free, 27 year olds who can afford to spend $1 might prefer to read Demon as a PDF and old fogeys like me who need to read Demon off of paper will get the booklets. As I’m typing this up, I realize it’s hardly original. It’s a minor tweak on the dominant business model which is to give away the comic online for free and sell ads, merchandise and collections. No judgements, but for most people the amount of promotion and merchandising takes up so much time I got to wonder if they’re just better off screwing in widgets again.
I know I’ve had some low moments myself but I think now that I’ve reached the $1000 mark, I can officially declare the Demon webcomic a financial “success”. Of course all this begs the question of how much of this model can be replicated by other cartoonists. Having recently come off of APE and SPX, my dream would be to contribute to a model that could be turned into some sort of pill form that I could just toss at the kids like candy. There’s some things that can’t be replicated by a cartoonist just starting out of course. I have a 15 year career, a popular children’s book, something of a fanbase that would follow me from my interactive books and graphic novels to an online comic. Then again, that really didn’t amount to very much in the end.
Keep in mind, I’m not saying my 15 year career and dozen or so award winning graphic novels and interactive comics accounted for nothing. I’m just saying it accounted for exactly 8% as much as one review in io9. I guess this is good news and bad news for new cartoonists. The good news is I feel there really is no seniority in comics. It’s the work you make, not how well you can socialize or promote your name. Your name could be Jaime Hernandez, people will read or not read your comics based on its merits and whether they connect with it. The bad news is you really need an io9 review.
And I do, suckas! And with it comes $1000!!!! Thank you Rika Takahashi wherever you are. But most of all I want to thank YOOOUUUUUU, my readers who have been supporting me financially and emotionally. Signing up to be a patron, sending me the nicest emails, letting their facebook friends know about the project and leaving insightful hilarious comments. Thanks for everything!!!0 Comments
SPX 2014 Report
by Jason Shiga | September 23, 2014, 4:21 pm
For many cartoonists I know, SPX is the biggest convention of the year. Bigger than MocCA, Comic-Con, APE, TCAF, etc. I’d always been a little skeptical but now I believe. I’d been skeptical because it’s in the middle of freakin’ nowhere. When I think of vibrant comics communities, the suburbs of Bethesda aren’t really the first place that leaps to mind. However, from the moment the doors opened until they closed it was a non stop horde of masses, asking me questions, flipping through Demon, buying books and offering to trade. At the end of it all, I can honestly say, that this year’s SPX was one of the greatest convention experiences I’ve had.
I should disclose here and now that I’m an Oakland boy to the bone, so part of me is always going to root for APE over SPX just because it’s my home town convention. In fact I didn’t even want to apply for a table this year. The process seemed jacked up and set up against me from the get go. Namely, half the spots are reserved for legacy cartoonists who have tabled previous years while the other half are chosen by lottery. That means if Don Rosa wanted to table at SPX, it would all come down to the luck of the draw. That’s madness!!! I can see why someone would do it this way, you want to grandfather in your base and divvy up the remainder in the an unbiased way. But man, I don’t know. I think quality should count for something even if it’s just 10% of the tables. As luck would have it though, some friends of mine had accidentally bought too much table space and offered to sublet it to me. I’m just glad my friends didn’t hold their own lottery.
It had been 12 years since I had last tabled at SPX and it’s roughly doubled in size since then. In those years, the organizers have streamlined the show down to a well oiled machine, trimming out all the tables that aren’t comics, distributing signage in the shape of balloons, creating special badges and stickers for Ignatz winners, keeping the ATMs well stocked and most impressively providing a row of chocolate fondue fountains at the afterparty.
The Ignatz awards were a blast as well. I haven’t won a comics award since Fleep in 2004 so it was nice to feel somewhat relevant, which can be difficult to feel when the majority of the convention tablers and attendees are a good generation younger than me. Although I’ve heard some people criticize the Ignatz award for being East Coast biased I guess that didn’t apply to Demon. I do have to admit, the optics of it looked funny especially when the two hosts of the Ignatzes were James Sturm and a former CCS student, the presenter of the award category was also a CCS teacher who was giving the award to a CCS student who proceeded to thank her teachers at CCS. As an Oaklander attending the awards, it’s hard not to feel like an outsider to the culture. And while I guess that criticism of a bias in the Ignatzes has some merit in general, my rebuttal to that would be to look at the individual winners. Can you honestly say Chuck Forsman or Joseph Lambert or Sophie Goldstein don’t deserve to have an Ignatz award?
All in all, I’d say SPX was a great comics convention that has stayed true to its indy roots. As someone who got my start in indy comics it’s been pretty fun to see how my peers have developed over the years and what surprises the new generation has in store. Hopefully it won’t be another 12 years before I return.0 Comments
Demon… Ignatz Winner!!!
by Jason Shiga | September 16, 2014, 11:37 am
Just got back from SPX today. I’ve got a convention report for you coming soon, but I just wanted to drop in and let everyone know that Demon won the Ignatz award for Best Outstanding Series.
It was an amazing honor and I just wanted to thank everyone here, and at the convention who helped to make that happen. Also wanted to quickly thank the organizers, the judges and also my fellow nominees, Ellen Lindner, Keiler Roberts, Sacha Mardou and Kat Verhoeven some of whom I met at SPX and were all incredibly gracious and amazingly nice people. I didn’t get to say this in my acceptance speech because I spent 80% of it plugging my patreon campaign, but I wanted to add that as trite as it sounds, being nominated is the real prize.
I talked about it previously but the Ignatz award is like no other comics award. 5 judges every single one of them a fellow comics creator, combed through literally thousands of comics to select the 5 nominees. From those 5, the final Ignatz winner can come down to random crap like who has the most friends at the convention, who’s been doing it the longest, whose name everyone recognizes, who’s book most people read, etc. I know it can suck to come so far and get so close and leave brickless but an Ignatz nomination is something to be really freakin’ proud of and to me anyways is worth more than most of the other awards put together. Thanks again, fellow nominees and for the other 80% of you reading this that aren’t, I’d encourage you all to take the time to check out their work!0 Comments
Demon: More Shameless Cliffhangers to Come
by Jason Shiga | September 8, 2014, 11:43 am
I guess there’s no point in being coy any more. If you’ve read this far in Demon, then you’ve got a pretty good idea what it’s about. When people have asked me, I’ve been telling them it’s science fiction or just launch into a recap of the first 40 pages until their eyes glaze over. Well, as your reward for making it through chapter 5, I will reveal to you the horrible truth… Demon is my stab at a superhero comic!
I’ve talked before about how much I love genre. To summarize, I basically see genre as cuisine. Unless you’re some pretentious cook inventing some new fangled molecular creation out of whole cloth, you probably want to start off learning how to make aloo gobi or something. There’s literally billions of man-hours spread out over millions of people that have been put into the R+D of this dish, gradually over hundreds of years making little variants or flourishes, getting the proportion of spices and ingredients just right to make a yummy meal out of potatoes and cauliflower the two cheapest blandest foods on the planet. And it’s sitting there right in the public domain for you to take and use freely. A gift from humanity to you. How arrogant do you have to be to squeeze out a tube of flaxseed oil into a pile of organic figs and open a restaurant. I’m talking to you Austin English!*
As much as I love genre, I know people don’t always share my opinion. To be honest, I’ve been a little cagey about Demon because I want people to take it seriously. And it worked! As The Comics Journal review for Demon said, “Shiga is perhaps is less a mathematician than he is a phenomenologist. By phenomenology I mean simply a method of description that involves observing the object apart from its environment and our everyday understanding of the object. This forces the observer to abandon societal shortcuts in understanding an object or person…” I’m still not sure what that means, but I think that’s positive. The point is, there’s a superhero comic up for 2 Ignatz awards this weekend, suckers. Not since I tricked Asian Week into printing a comic with Jimmy drinking his own urine have I been so proud of an accomplishment.
As a disclaimer, I should confess I’m actually not a big superhero person by any means. I didn’t grow up reading them and it always frustrates me slightly when I see my favorite cartoonists like Jaime Hernandez, Scott McCloud, Chris Ware or Dan Clowes waste their time with doing some superhero comic. I just want to yell, “Get over it already!!! You know how you can subvert the superhero genre? By not making a superhero story you fools!” It is something I see as a generational issue; if you’re of a certain age, superheroes are such a part of you, you just need to get it out of your system before you can move on. So I’m pretty sensitive to it as a reader and it’s something I’m not trying to do myself. Getting back to the food analogy, I’m not trying to deconstruct a hamburger or make a commentary on hamburgers in the form of a hamburger. I just want to make a hamburger that doesn’t have mayonnaise in it! What is this mayonnaise I speak of?
One interesting trend which I think has been around since the 80’s has been to take superheroes into the real world, the Dark Knight and Kickass movies being 2 recent examples. Except, they took the stupidest part which is the costumes and the crime fighting and left out the best part which is the superpowers. I’d think in reality if any of us could be invisible, we’d just sneak into movie theaters and bank vaults. If we did fight crime, it probably wouldn’t even be on the local level. I’m reminded of that scene in Superman where he flies above earth to see where he’s most needed and then flies down to Metropolis and stops a bank robbery. I don’t know. How about assassinating Kim Jong Un and then smushing all the mosquitoes in Africa? As for the costumes, my theory is that Joe Shuster dropped out of art school after he took anatomy but before he took drapery and now because of that one historical accident we’ll all have to look at Ben Affleck wearing spandex.
Anyway, getting back to me, a simple superpower thoroughly explored along with shameless and ridiculous cliffhangers are the two big genre powerchords you’re going to see running through Demon. You’ve probably figured this out by now but I just thought I’d make it official here.
*PS: I like to make fun, but Austin English’s figs are pretty tasty.0 Comments
Why New Yorker Cartoons Make no Sense
by Jason Shiga | August 28, 2014, 6:34 pm
I know many of my readers enjoy watching 60 Minutes every Sunday evening. But for those of you who missed it last week, they did a light segment on the New Yorker cartoons and the process by which they are chosen. It was fun seeing cartoonists on TV. It was fun seeing them vying for a spot in the magazine. And it was fun seeing them get in. For a lot of cartoonists, the pages of the New Yorker represent the top of the top, the highest you can go in comics. To use a food analogy, they’d be like the Michelin stars of the comics world. Personally, it’s something I often fantasized about when I was starting out. The thought of me, an Oakland boy being represented in the magazine whose name is synonymous with culture and sophistication would be a dream come true. But after watching last weeks segment, I have to say, fuck them!
To recap the segment, The New Yorker chooses it’s cartoons in a really weird freakin’ way. Basically, they’re all submitted in person at the New Yorker office, so that the cartoonists can kowtow to this one dude. Who is this dude? Well that was what the segment was mostly about. He’s the cartoon editor for the New Yorker and suffice it to say, it all comes down to this one senile old man and his bizarre taste in comics. During the interview, he started recalling his favorite cartoon about a couple vacationing in Tuscany and being impressed with the quality of the wifi at the Hilton. Something we can all relate to!
The funniest part of the segment was when they showed one cartoon featuring a cat playing cat’s cradle with some yarn coming out of a mouse hole. The caption said, “Have you no shame?” A real knee slapper, right? Except nobody knew what the hell it meant. Not Morely Safer, not the editor, probably not the cartoonist either. As I learned, the a cartoonist will submit 700 comics over the course of a year and they’re lucky if 20 are chosen. Roz Chast said at one point, “The cartoons where I think I hit it out of the park never get picked.”
To me, this is pretty much the definition of a gatekeeper. I’m sure this editor is a nice dude. But here’s why this is a horrible process for choosing comics. First, you’re limiting yourself to people in the New York area. I know you want to see the person explain their cartoon to you in person, but not everyone reading the magazine will have that option. Furthermore, let’s just say it’s not the most representative sample of the New York population, so you’re limiting yourself even further. And thirdly, you have really bad taste in cartoons!
Now, I’ve talked before about the frictionless meritocracy of comics. It’s not perfect, but I do feel a good comic book will eventually find its audience. Unlike a lot of other industries, you don’t need connections or money or a degree. It doesn’t matter where you live or who you are. Really all you need is about $5 in raw materials and you’re good to go. By contrast, I’ve heard stories of actors, moving to LA and after months of unemployment trying out for a 10 second part in a sitcom as a Chinese waiter with a thick accent, only to have the part go to one of the 40 other people at the audition.
I don’t feel there’s any royal road to comics. If there was, you’d think Shia Labeouf would have a contract with Drawn and Quarterly by now. The fact is, Craig Thompson has a book called Blankets with his name on it because he drew every page of that book himself. I know webcomics have their problems too. But at least Tim Berners Lee isn’t individually telling us what comics we can and can’t print on the web.
CORRECTION: September 5, 2014
Demon, Nominated for 2 Ignatz Awards
by Jason Shiga | August 18, 2014, 1:04 pm
Exciting news today for fans of Demon. The Ignatz committee has just announced their nominations for 2014 and Demon has been nominated for 2 Ignatz awards!!! The categories are “Outstanding Series” and (most exciting for me), “Outstanding Online Comic”. I’ve mentioned before that when I was a judge myself, this category was the most inspirational and played a major role in me deciding to release Demon independently as a webcomic. To have it come 360 degrees for me and see Demon on the nomination list itself is an amazing and incredible honor.
Of course, the timing is great too. As my readers know, Demon has started to descend into the most depraved and tasteless section of the story. I love the idea of some librarian reading about this year’s Ignatz nominations on The Beat, clicking on the link and being treated to a naked Jimmy slurping up his own vomit while his testicles dangle over the reference desk of Denver Public Library. I can’t imagine a better introduction to Jimmy than a one month long sequence of him trying to escape from a box via increasingly desperate and disgusting methods slowly building to an insane, filthy climax. SPOILER literally.
The Ignatz has always been my favorite comics award. It captures for me what is great about the medium. Namely, anyone can make a comic. You don’t need to own the license to Batman. You don’t need business connections, marketing teams, agents or even a publisher. You can literally walk into an Office Max and for $5 buy the raw materials it takes to make an Ignatz Award winning comic. And it’s great to see so many of those types of comics on the list this year. Plus, on a purely selfish level, the Ignatz nominees are a great starting point. There’s so many comics being made today it’s hard for me to get a good handhold into what is good or where to start especially when it comes to the younger generation.
Another great aspect about the Ignatz aesthetic is it really leans towards the idiosyncratic. Unlike the Eisner judges who are populated by librarians, retialers and critics, the Ignatz judges are comprised solely of other cartoonists. This gives it a wonderfully weird slant. I do feel there is such a thing as a cartoonist’s cartoonist. Things that look hard can be easy. Things that look easy can be hard. For example the Mark Kalesniko book, Freeway is a graphic novel set in a traffic jam. I think most readers would consider that a pretty boring setting. Every cartoonist I know who’s seen that book pees in their pants just a little. Additionally because of the way the judging is done, I feel the personality of the judges can really show up in the nominations. If there’s one judge on the Ignatz committee who likes weird comics about melty faces morphing into open wounds, then you see a bunch of weird comics about melty faces morphing into open wounds on the list. Not really the best type of comics in my opinion but so much more interesting than seeing House of Sand in 9 different Eisner categories.
Anyway, I can’t in good conscience recommend anyone vote for me this year, at least not without checking out the other nominees as well. I haven’t read all of them myself, but the nominees in my categories I have read are amazing. And again, it’s the webcomic category that I find the most inspiring. Aside from Evan Dahm, I hadn’t even heard of any of them. It’s been great going through their work and hopefully you get a chance to as well.0 Comments
Role of Criticism in Comics
by Jason Shiga | August 8, 2014, 2:10 pm
People often ask me of all the books I’ve made, which one is my favorite. This is like asking who your favorite child is. For those who aren’t parents, the correct answer is, it’s the malformed, mentally diminished, cripple whom everybody picks on, or in my case Empire State. I won’t try to convince you of its greatness right now. It’s a weird little outlier; if this were Sesame Street, it would very clearly be in the quadrant labelled, “not like the others.” It’s also my most personal which makes it particularly hurtful when someone says the main character in Empire State is pathetic. It feels like they’re calling ME pathetic!
I’m thinking a lot about this now because I recently got an order for Demon from a comics critic who did not like Empire State. Upon seeing his order in my inbox, my immediate reaction was, “Ooooh. I hope he likes Demon!” By contrast, when my publisher, agent and editor tell me there’s something they don’t like about Demon, my immediate reaction is to say, “Screw you all, mother F’ers! I’m publishing this myself!!!” I guess when it comes down to it, I actually care a lot about what my readers think. Part of it is I feel that there’s so little monetary compensation, reader reactions are really all I have at the end of the day. I know this isn’t the healthiest attitude to have, especially when taken to the extreme. For example, I remember I got an email once from someone quibbling with the math in Fleep. I spent a few hours composing a hella long email shooting down every one of his points. The next day, he sent me another email pointing out rebuttals to every one of my points. This went on for several more days before I screamed, “YOU WIN!!!” into the air and then crumpled into a sobbing pile of flesh.
I like writing the occasional review myself (see last week’s review of The Shadow Hero). And I can only imagine what it’s like for someone who writes a lot of them. I think one of the interesting things about the artist/critic relationship is that in some sense we’re working at complete cross purposes. To a critic, a book is a thing to be evaluated on its own terms. But to the creator, a book can be so much more. It’s a form of self expression. It’s also a way to make money. It’s a recon mission to find out what techniques work and don’t work. It’s a stepping stone to the next book. It’s often 2 or 3 years worth of work, and it can represent the sacrificing of a career and a social life for those years. For Craig Thompson, it was over a decade of work! All so that some teenager on twitter can complain about how unrealistic it is that Zam SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER castrates himself to prove that he doesn’t want to rape his sister. Screw that! If that’s how Craig Thompson sees the world, I’ll accept it. END SPOILER.
These days, I try not to read reviews of my own comics if I can help it (Comics Journal reviews aside). I’ve been doing this long enough to know who I am and what I can do. And ultimately, I do think comics criticism could be better. There’s only so many variations of “This comic shows potential and I look forward to what this person does in the future” that I can take. How good you think their inking is, who you think their influences are, whether or not you thought it was well written, all these things can be summed up in one or two panels from their comic. A picture is literally worth a thousand words in this case. What I want to know most is how it made you feel, followed by a bit of analysis. Nothing fancy even. Just say that Black Hole was about the fear of herpes and call it a review.0 Comments
Comic Book Review: The Shadow Hero by Gene Yang and Sonny Liew
by Jason Shiga | July 29, 2014, 3:40 pm
Another Comic-Con has come and gone. It seems like everyone is yammering about the new Mad Max trailer or Ironman’s new suit. I guess that’s exciting and all. But for me the most exciting comics news this week is that Gene Yang has taken a stab at the genre and released his first superhero comic.
The Shadow Hero, written by Gene Yang and drawn by Sonny Liew, tells the story of a wimpy kid named Hank, growing up in Chinatown. When his Dad is killed by a local crime boss. Hank is contacted by his Dad’s spirit animal who proceeds to grant him any wish. Hank wishes to never be shot by a bullet. That’s his superpower! Personally, I would have added swords, fists, clubs, baseball bats and missiles to the list. But I guess he was thinking about the specific way his Dad was killed. Without giving too much away, Hank becomes a superhero called The Green Turtle who uses his power of not getting shot to take down the local tong to avenge his father and also so that business at his family shop can pick up again.
Pretty standard superhero fare so far… except for one thing. He’s Asian!!! Not only is he an Asian American superhero, Yang makes a plausible case that he may be the first Asian American superhero. What about Jubilee, or Psylocke? Well The Green Turtle predates them all! The Green Turtle was originally created by in the 40’s by Chu Hing, one of the first Asian American cartoonists. According to Gene, Chu Hing might have kept The Green Turtle’s face hidden because the publisher had forbidden him from drawing an Asian main character. You’d think the pink skin would be a give away that maybe he wasn’t Asian, but Gene has an explanation for that too. In The Shadow Hero, Hank’s skin changes color when it gets wet (a side effect of being exposed to a toxic waste spill earlier in the story). I guess we’ll never know for sure if the Green Turtle was Asian. Maybe the color of his nipples might be a clue but I couldn’t find any panels in the original comic where his nipples were exposed. It reminded of the first (and only) Asian American porn star, a man whose identity will never be known because he kept a paper bag over his head during all his movies. Maybe that’s who Gene Yang was thinking of too.
As much fun as it is seeing Gene write a story backwards, with this weird Green Turtle character as his end goal, for me the most impressive aspect of the comic was the way he used the standard tropes and power chords of the superhero genre to tell a nuanced story about the Asian American experience. It’s like painting the Mona Lisa with a mop and five buckets of paint. The real juicy center of the story was less about the physical action and more just watching Hank navigating his Mom and Dad’s expectations of him and balancing that with his own ambitions in life, while simultaneously trying to navigate an outside world of well meaning but casually racist detectives surrounding a 1940’s Chinatown overrun with its own complex institutions.
Also I’m not gonna beat around the bush any longer. On the most base level, it’s freakin’ great to see an Asian American superhero. As a kid, my heroes were never Asian. I was super into Encyclopedia Brown and when I was a little older it was all about MacGuyver. But here’s the jacked up thing. When I was a kid pretending to be James Bond or whomever, I’ll confess, I was also thinking, “Oooh wouldn’t it be the shit if I was white!? I could just walk into a club order a martini and women would be all over that.” You may ask, why wasn’t I into Bruce Lee? I’ll admit it was cool to see him take on 40 henchmen with a pair of nunchucks but really I’m a pacifist! I think there are ways to peacefully resolve our differences and if you are going to use action over negotiation at least use your intelligence and resourcefulness like MacGuyver. If I wanted to limit myself to having a hero the same race as me, my choices were Bruce Lee, Bruce Lee and Bruce Lee.
By contrast, I can’t even imagine what it’s like for Asian American kids growing up today. Kids today have everyone from Jerry Yang to Jeremy Lin to look up to and idolize. Some white friends of mine didn’t understand what the big deal was when “Harold and Kumar go to Whitecastle” hit the theaters. They couldn’t understand why I was jumping out of my seat and pumping my fists into the air at the end when John Cho made out with that girl. Maybe it’s because until that point, the only Hollywood movie in the history of cinema to feature an Asian American male protagonist was “Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo” you privileged motherfuckers! You don’t ever have to think about it. Your porn stars don’t even cover their heads with paper bags.
In conclusion, I’d highly recommend The Shadow Hero. It works on so many different levels. It’s a great children’s comic, but also a great story about Asian American identity and the immigrant experience and it works as a commentary on the superhero genre itself.0 Comments
Upcoming Depravity in Demon
by Jason Shiga | July 23, 2014, 6:48 am
For those of you following Demon, I hit an important milestone today. If you’ve made it this far, congratulations! I designed Demon to unfold at an incredibly slow pace. I can’t even imagine how frustrating it would be to read 125 pages of comics over half a year and still not even know what the story’s about. I realize that’s a lot to ask of reader. Well I’m about to ask a whole lot more. Today I launch chapter 5.
The good news, by the end of the chapter, you’ll pretty much know what Demon is about. The bad news, you might not make it through. If you are still here after chapter 5, god save your soul. You will see things in the chapter you will not be able to unsee. Read things that cannot be unread. The world will never look the same to you again.
I’ll get back to chapter 5 in a moment, but first a little back story about the Demon project itself… I had originally penciled out the first 5 chapters and submitted it with an outline for the remaining 16 as a graphic novel pitch to the publisher of my two previous books. But before it could even get to them, my agent intercepted it, got me on a three way call with my editor and begged me to reconsider submitting it to my publisher. Their main issue, the events of chapter 5.
And they were right. Without spoiling anything, I can say chapter 5 contains some of the most filthy and depraved acts ever depicted in a comic. Career destroying acts of unspeakable and obscene perversion and which should go without saying but I’ll say it anyways, is NSFW, unless you want to get fired or possibly arrested. Acts that render the book unpublishable for all intents and purposes. And even if I could convince some poor sap to publish it, good luck getting Demon into a library, a Barnes and Noble or even across the Canadian border without involving the CBLDF.
But here’s the thing. I started out self publishing and there’s no reason I can’t return. Except there is. Even my printer, told me that because of the “demographic and age” of some of their employees, there were certain things they would refuse to print. My own freakin’ printer! For those not in the publishing world, imagine if Joe Montana was tackled at the 10 yeard line by every single one of his own teammates. Well fuck my teammates! I’m taking this ball to the end zone if I have to crawl out from under a 50 man dogpile of wide receivers (note: I do not know anything about football).
For those of you who don’t know me personally, I can tell you I’m probably the most stubborn human you’ll ever meet. I guess it would be easy enough to change some things about Demon. But why do that when instead all I have to do is leave my publisher and my editor, burning all my bridges in the process and sending my agent into spasms of pain and anguish by tossing up 5 years of work into the public commons in the hope that some percentage of the readers would be intrigued enough to buy a subscription to the booklets. Booklets which I made myself, by buying a 500lb risograph duplicator, driving it down from Sacramento in my wife’s Rav4, getting completely covered in ink and odd bruises every month, and then collating and stapling every single one of them by hand!
I like to joke, but I’m honestly loving every minute of my return to the self publishing world. The ability to dream up whatever crazy situation and narrative turn that I’m led to, actually seeing it up online and in booklets the next day, making said booklets and getting all this wonderful feedback from my online readers has been an amazing, humbling and rejuvenating experience in my career. In short, thanks for sticking with Demon and I hope you enjoy chapter 5 in all its self indulgent, filthy and depraved glory.0 Comments
Webcomics Review: The Stiff
by Jason Shiga | July 18, 2014, 1:18 pm
Instead of going on a rant about how we’re all doomed, I thought I’d take a break from reality and talk about one of my favorite comics being serialized right now. The Stiff by Jason Thompson (http://mockman.com/) tells the story of a highschool student named Alistair Toth. Not religious but super into purity, but then also really into watching disgusting horror movies. The kids today would describe him as straightedge, but I guess we all knew some version of this kid back in highschool. His world is thrown into a tizzy when he’s introduced to a beautiful transfer student Alice Hoffman and suddenly he’s fantasizing about saving her from a hoard of zombies.
The events that follow do a great job of slowly and hypnotically drawing you into the characters and the world. The Stiff is so differently paced from almost every comic out there, it almost feels like reading a novel in comic form. Thompson’s almost 175 pages into it and I feel like he’s still just setting up all the chess pieces. I literally have no idea where it’s going. It could turn into a zombie attacking a highschool story or a superhero story or a romance story. It’s still not even clear what the titular stiff refers to. A reference to Alastair’s stiff personality? His grandfather SPECULATION SPOILER returning from the dead in zombie form? Or the his upcoming ALTERNATE SPECULATION SPOILER erection?
My favorite aspect of the comic is its main character, Alastair. All the characterizations in the story are really strong, but Alistair is such a wonderfully delicious creation, he remains one of my favorite comics characters, right up there with Lisa Leavanworth and Charlie Brown. Intelligent and pompous but also so completely vulnerable in a way that so many adolescents can be. He has some realistically weird sexual hangups too, reminding me of the Zam character in Habibi who castrates himself to prove to himself that he’s not a rapist. I thought that was a little extreme (for me anyway. No judgements against my castrated friends). But I like that The Stiff seems to take a more realistic approach. I feel that most pop culture today is basically created by nerds. So nerds get lionized and nerd mentalities are normalized. But The Stiff really captures that weird dark side of being a nerd.
In retrospect, highschool seems like the single craziest mass psychology experiment in history. We all basically go in asexual and come out the other side adults more or less. But everyone develops at completely differing rates! I feel that for some late bloomers, there’s this sort of purity mentality that sets in. People take it as a point of pride that they’ve never said a swear word or drunk a sip of alcohol to the point where it becomes a major part of their identity; they get super invested in it. They’re constantly walking around in a white tuxedo like they’re frickin Tom Wolfe. They’ve gone so far, it would completely destroy who they are as a human to get a single mustard stain on it. Alec Longstreth told me there were even straightedgers at his school who would pick fights with kids who did drugs (although I think it would be easy to win such a fight if I had some cocaine dust I could blow in their face and then run away). Personally, I can still remember ordering my first drink and being completely disappointed by how not a big deal it was. All those beer commercials and celebrity rehab shows and AA meetings for this pina colada!?
Getting back to The Stiff, the art is lush and sumptuous, going against the grain of almost every webcomic out there. Every single blade of grass, every book on every shelf and every brick in every building is rendered with an almost obsessive attention to detail. It reminded me that there’s more than one way to combine manga and American comics; it doesn’t always have to look like Scott Pilgrim, kiddies! Thompson synthesizes into The Stiff some of the lesser used vocabulary from the manga tradition, like laying simplified but expressive character designs over incredibly detailed backgrounds, transitioning from close ups to other close ups, and most satisfying for me, a really long and ambitious novelistic approach to the narrative.0 Comments
Welcome io9 Readers
by Jason Shiga | July 11, 2014, 10:45 am
For my long time readers who do not yet know, last Thursday, Demon was reviewed on the pop culture blog io9. In the week that followed, the comic has gotten more views than in the previous 6 months combined. This flood led to a surge in orders from the store section of my site; someone actually ordered a complete subscription of Demon in one lump sum. It’s been really touching receiving the incredible amount of kind words, tweets, encouragement, reviews and just general good vibes from the internet. For the first time since its launch, I even got some comments on one of my comics pages. I was just about to remove that feature from the site too! It’s hard to describe how much exposure this one review has garnered for Demon but they say a picture is worth 1000 words, so here you go:
Lauren Davis, the reviewer at io9 actually sent me a courtesy email the day before warning me that my might server might melt, although I wasn’t exactly sure what to do with that information other than cross my fingers and hope the php I cobbled together would hold (it didn’t).
Even more than stats or readers even, I started this project and really started making comics so I could get books into people’s hands. So most exciting for me was the fact that my patronage level has almost doubled. I now have 70 patrons subscribing to over $420/mo worth of comics. Multiplied over the 3 year run of Demon, this comes to $15,000!!! I know talking about money is crass. I only mention this in case any io9 editors out there are wondering how much payola to ask for. Anything under $10,000 and you’re being cheated I say!
It’s funny how fortunes can turn on a dime in the webcomics world; one review in the right place is all it takes to completely turn things around. Just a month ago, I was lamenting my fate, regretting the decision to forgo a publishing deal and toss 3 years of work into the public commons. But now I’m feeling a bit more hopeful. And I have some even more exciting news to share with you… but it’s all still in the works right now so I will hold off on that for another post.
Until then, thanks to my longtime readers for sticking with me. And to my new readers, I say welcome!0 Comments
Comedy vs. Drama
by Jason Shiga | July 3, 2014, 2:28 pm
I was recently in a theater watching a trailer for Hercules. And I’ll admit it, I was not so secretly pumping my fists into the air when The Rock clubbed that giant boar on the head. The friends I was watching this with were rolling their eyes dubiously because it’s admittedly not realistic and it’s also stupid. But it’s their loss because the bio mass of teenagers in the theater were also pumping their fists into the air. As someone who had a difficult time connecting with people as an adolescent, I can see now why people want to join churches or cheer on a sports team. Put simply, it’s just very pleasurable. Not only did I mind meld with 1000 screaming morons in that theater, it occurred to me later there’s a chain of humans stretching back to ancient Greece all jumping up and down in their togas at the thought some really strong dude clubbing a boar. As some smart dude once said, every human is an island, but stories are like bridges that connect our minds to eachother’s. Well if that’s so, then this has got to be a really long bridge. Stories are really powerful in a way that say pottery is not. I feel I can appreciate some ancient roman vase but it just doesn’t get me on that gut level. Romeo and Juliet on the other hand is still packing the movie theaters and I can pretty easily picture myself in the mind of some dude at the Globe in 1500’s egging Leonardo DeCaprio to beat the shit out of John Leguizamo (although those actors might not have been alive back then in my opinion). By contrast, I’d probably jump into moving traffic in order to avoid watching 5 minutes of Laugh-In.
Humor seems like one of the more ephemeral forms of entertainment. Like most people, I think Chris Rock is hilarious. But then you hear him talk about Bill Cosby like he was the second coming. And then you hear Bill Cosby talk about Lenny Bruce like he was the first second coming which is all well and good until you listen to Bill Cosby’s and Lenny Bruce’s routines. It’s almost as if the further back in time you go, the less funny people are, until anything that could possibly make me laugh is just a dim ember in a vast sea of nothingness. I can’t even imagine how unfunny ancient Greek people were. But of course that’s stupid. Humanity has always been funny. They just seem less funny to me because humor is so specific to an era and culture.
So you would expect old episodes of Hawaii Five-O or Dragnet to really stand the test of time. But they don’t! If I were to make a list of my 10 favorite TV dramas, well over half of them would have come out in the last 10 or 20 years. By contrast, the greatest sitcoms span the decades. In my opinion a large part of this is due to that fact that until recently, dramas were confined to this really short 1 hour format. Alternatively, my favorite TV shows today have extended the unit length to a season. As a TV lover, it’s hard to describe how exciting this trend has been for me. I basically feel like someone just invented the novel about 15 years ago.
The traditional view of comedy is that you want to get in and get out before you wear out your welcome. As some other smart dude said brevity is the soul of wit. It’s been taken to the extreme with Twitter, which I feel has become a really fun place to read short snarky jokes on the events of the day. But whenever someone tries to hash out a nuanced debate on American Foreign Policy, it seems like the wrong format to me. It’s like they never heard of Facebook. This trend continues in comics. For every Rex Morgan MD, there’s 100 Ziggys. I’m not even sure who reads Rex Morgan MD. I never met anyone who did. Furthermore, I feel once graphic novels were invented, not only were they better than Rex Morgan MD, they honestly blew Ziggy out of the water too.
But here’s the thing. I love comedy! My favorite cartoonist is Peter Bagge. My favorite movie is Groundhog Day. My favorite poet is Shel Silverstein. My favorite anything of any medium is generally humorous. But I also don’t really like the strip format. 3 postage stamp size panels a week stretched over several decades seems like such a completely ineffective way to tell a story. It’s almost impossible for anyone to get invested in the characters much less keep track of the story, which is why it’s so impressive when someone like Bill Waterson accomplishes this feat. For the other 99% of strip cartoonists, the point of their existence just seems to make some little trifle for people to laugh at before they head off to work at the sewage plant. Getting back to me and my own work, there’s an obvious solution, which is to make a combination humorous/dramatic graphic novel. If I were to list my favorite TV shows, even more than comedies or dramas, the list would be full of dramedies like Breaking Bad, Freaks and Geeks, or Northern Exposure. And of course going back to cinema, the movies Charlie Chaplin made were essentially dramedies and remain to this day a lot more watchable than other silent movies of the era (ie. all of them). I’m hoping the dramatic/comedic graphic novel takes off as a format too. I can even see it sticking around for a few hundred years.0 Comments
Some Thoughts on Patronage, Part 2
by Jason Shiga | June 26, 2014, 12:07 pm
I can’t say sports and rooting for a team is something I ever really understood. But today in the spirit of World Cup fever, I feel a need to paint an American flag on my face and defend our country. It’s been a couple months since I returned from Europe and I can say the cultural enrichment and mind opening lessons about how a society can be constructed have all but faded away. A land where people seem interested in supporting comics through public funding seem like a distant memory.
I talked a little about this magical land a few posts ago. Just thinking about the amount of generosity and hospitality I received really and truly humbled me and restored my faith in humanity. Seeing how Europe treats their artists gave me hope in the future and how the world could be set up. Most touching of all was seeing how they treat artists who aren’t even European. Europe literally funds more American cartoonists America does. I’ve been invited to 4 European festivals at this point despite never having paid a dime into their tax base. It’s no surprise really when you hear so many stories of American artists from great Jazz musicians to Robert Crumb getting a little taste of the continent and saying “Fuck America! I’m out of here.”
One of the most bizarre incidents in my travels was talking with a cartoonist who used to work for an ad agency in France. He told me he didn’t want to squander his artistic skill to sell crass consumer goods to children, so he quit. “And then what?” I asked. And then nothing! In fact, roughly 100% of the cartoonists I met were unemployed. The one guy I met who was employed worked at an unemployment agency. It’s an amazing system they’ve got and I can’t express how much I’m constantly amazed and dumbfounded by its scope, whether it’s watching the minister of French culture drop by my table or reading Lewis Trondheim lamenting in an editorial in Le Monde about what a pity it is that cartoonists aren’t paid to attend Angouleme. Meanwhile back in the US, there’s a raging debate about whether it’s a bad trend for consumers to voluntarily give money to beginning cartoonists to print their books.
As Scott McCloud pointed out in Understanding comics, the mechanics of comics is pretty similar when comparing Kirby and Tintin. The biggest difference between American and European comics as I see it is attitude. As a French couple condescendingly explained it to me, “French see comics as art but in America it is pop culture.” To which I rebut, “That is some bullshit!” It’s self serving and harmful to think art can completely bypass the popular phase and is in my opinion perpetuated by artists themselves for cover. For every Emily Dickinson I feel there’s a hundred Mark Twains or Beatleses in the world. Also to put it plainly, I think American comics are pretty good. Maybe it’s my own cultural bias but in a comics Battle Royale I see Charles Schultz, Kirby, Chris Ware, Herge and Tezuka as the last 5 on the island.
To compare career arcs, I see the average European cartoonist growing up on Tintin or Asterix. They try to draw their own and eventually get good at it. They go to the Sorbonne, learn fine arts. After graduating, they learn how to write grants. Then one day they look down and they’ve got 5 graphic novels about Bosnian refugee camps. But… Who wants to read that!? Even they don’t want to read that. Over drinks the European cartoonists I met wanted to talk about really pulpy stuff like Django Unchained and Pacific Rim. I couldn’t help but wonder if they had their way, that’s the kind of comics they’d want to make too.
By contrast, I see the average American cartoonist growing up reading superhero comics (or these days manga). They go to Cal Arts where they learn how to draw dragons for video games. They work in said video game industry and makes comics on the side. A few by dint of sheer determination, skill and talent manage to emerge from the crucible in one piece. But for most, this goes on for a decade or so before they give up and call it a life. I think a lot of American cartoonists really love what they’re doing and make comics they would want to read. It’s hard being an artist in this society. But I feel it really weeds out anyone who isn’t really passionate about it.
And I feel like total garbage for saying this but sometimes the best art comes when limitations force you to be resourceful. For example hip hop was essentially invented because some kids in the Bronx figured out a way to turn old busted up record players into musical instruments. But if the Bronx had been in France, the government probably would have just bought every kid a violin and called it a day. Sometimes I feel it’s so cushy, the French have to invent hardships and limitations for themselves, like writing an entire freakin’ novel without using the letter “e”.
Going a step even further, I wonder if struggle in general can lead to some great art. I’ve lived in Oakland my whole life and call it my home, but after returning from Europe I’m beginning to realize what a festering hell hole it is. The other month, my wife and baby watched someone get shot at a brothel three blocks from our house. She tried to put on a brave face for me and remain cheery but sometimes I just want to pack up and get out of Dodge. I want to go to a place where they just leave their bikes unlocked in front of the gas station. Switzerland is freaking paradise but their main cultural export, Heidi, is like watching molasses run out of a jar.
So there you have it. It’s all crappy. Everywhere you go. Japan, France, Switzerland and America especially so. But that’s my backhanded defense of our comics industry. Within our harsh and unforgiving market driven economy, we have a brutal tournament model of employment wreaking complete havoc and misery in the lives of dewy eyed artists just starting out in life. It’s a Pyrrhic victory, but at the end of the day, I think we’ve got a few good comics out of it.0 Comments
Thoughts on Fanfic in Comics
by Jason Shiga | June 17, 2014, 12:51 pm
I cannot deny it any longer. Like every mammal on earth, I am excited about the new Star Wars movie. But really what am I excited about? George Lucas has just packed up his personal artistic vision that he’s devoted his entire life to and handed it to the Disney corporation. Do I hate Jar Jar Binks that much? I guess I do, because I was doing a little jig along with the entire internet when I found out that Michael Eisner finally had his bloody talons wrapped around the saga. It’s ridiculous and it doesn’t make any sense but in the end what I’m excited about is seeing really expensive Star Wars fanfic.
I’ve been on the other side of this myself, recently. A few months ago, I got the opportunity to work on an X-men comic for Marvel. It was an amazing experience and really really fun. The senior editor sent me 2 sheets of Bristol with the Marvel logo branded in blue lines in the corner, a script by Brian Michael Bendis and next thing I know, I was looking down at a drawing of Wolverine that I made. I was behind the curtain so to speak. What’s behind the curtain? Nothing!!! Even while I was drawing it, I couldn’t really help but think that in a sense it was really just Wolverine fanfic. I’ve had friends who have drawn Hulk fanfic or Rogue pinups for fun. And honestly, when the ink touches the page, it doesn’t really feel all that different. You could even go a step further and say almost everything Marvel and DC make now is fanfic.
Of course, once your head gets in this mode, you start seeing fanfic around every corner like tootsie rolls. Game of Thrones is Lord of the Rings fanfic. Firefly is Star Wars fanfic. Family Guy is Simpsons fanfic. Sherlock, James Bond, and everything Alan Moore has ever made is fanfic.
It’s stupid to dismiss great art by calling it fanfic. And I think the first 2 seasons of Battlestar Gallactica rise to the level of art while at the same time being undeniably fanfic. To come up with a less pejorative term, I think almost every artist works within some sort of framework. Speaking from my own experience, artists just starting out especially like working in narrower frameworks: parodies, fanfic, mashups. I think it’s an important step in the development of an artist. Dr. Who characters re-imagined as zombies but drawn in the style of Calvin and Hobbes or whatever horseshit these kids on the internet like these days.
A slightly wider framework might be genre: Superhero stories, detective or sci-fi stories. I think the common view of genre is as a crass marketing tool. But it’s super useful to creators too. I LOVE the idea of genre and hope my career lasts long enough that I can do a story in every genre and sub-genre ever created. Where do these genres even come from? Who knows? It’s like asking who invented Indian food.
I envision the entire medium of comics as frameworks within frameworks that keep going up and up until you get the idea of narrative itself. Over the course of a cartoonist’s life, we try and claw our way out of one framework only to find ourselves contained within another one. It’s the answer to the most commonly asked question of cartoonists: where do you get your ideas? The answer is that we don’t. We usually just come up with variations on a theme within a framework. I don’t know that anyone ever escapes the infinitely nested frameworks but to me some of the most exciting work in comics today comes from the combination of two or more existing frameworks (ie. Scott Pilgrim mixing alternative relationship comics with fighting manga).
Of course, some cartoonists do escape the framework model so to speak by not even playing the game. When I was an Ignatz judge a good 20% of the books I read, abandoned the idea of traditional narrative altogether and just presented me with pages upon pages of melty faces, open wounds and various other stream of consciousness style scribbles. But who wants to read that nonsense!? Even if I did like your book, I wouldn’t know how to nominate it because it didn’t have a legible title. Why would you subject me to reading this!? Bastards!
Anywho, getting back to my point, these frameworks at their best, they can provide readers with the comforting and time tested conventions that make for a satisfying story as well as the expectations that in the hands of a master can be used to completely blow a readers mind when defied. Fanfic, genre, and other frameworks within comics are not just a great tool for creators. They’re the tool.0 Comments
Webcomics, a Young Person’s Game?
by Jason Shiga | June 5, 2014, 10:39 am
When I was younger, I remember meeting an older guy at a comics convention. He had a strip that looked like a poorly done and blatant ripoff of Peanuts. He was complaining that he’d been doing it every day for 15 years and no one wanted to pick it up. He felt he deserved a career due to all the hard work he put into this strip. I wanted to tell him that there’s no such thing as seniority in comics. People buy your comics because they like it and connect with it. The fact that you’ve been doing it for 15 years is a complete non sequitur. Instead of telling him these things, I just shook my head and walked away feeling sorry for the old man. But I was secretly heartened by that fact that the wisdom of the market had not rewarded this guy for his amateurish and poorly done comics. The art form, I felt, was about as pure a meritocracy as could be had.
15 years later, I am that sad old man. Although it would be nice, my 15 year body of work, my Ignatz and Eisner awards, and ultimately my name mean nothing to a new reader. If I’d gotten a degree from CCS, that piece of paper wouldn’t mean anything either. All that really matters, I feel, is what’s on the page. If it’s gripping and captivating, looks somewhat appealing then people will want to read it. Unlike other industries, I can’t just put in 30 years and ride it out. I have to prove myself on the page every single freakin’ day for the thin trickle of readers that come to my site (thank you by the way!)
I’ve been wondering lately if we have a youth problem in webcomics. I’m almost 40 and man, I’m really feeling my age! Having a baby is like living with a colony of parasites slowly sucking the time and energy from my life. Plus mastering tumblr and pintarest and understanding these kids today with their tweets and uplikes, feels like navigating some martian landscape. Even in terms of interests, I feel webcomics caters to the stuff young people are into like video games, dating and breakups, friendship and ninjas. But it ignores the stuff that occupy the lives of older people like the unending dreary monotony of parenthood, suicide fantasies, existential dread and slowly watching all your friends and family wither away and die.
The frictionless meritocracy that is comics make up an amazing employment model for the few at the top, but a hellish landscape for the majority just scraping by. Cruelest for those getting just a little taste of success, an Ignatz nomination here, a part in an anthology there. Unlike some Texas high school football player who have their dreams crushed at age 18, cartoonists are floated along by other cartoonists, coworkers and friends who aren’t Calista Brill. Then one day they wake up in their late 30’s broke, with no family or marketable skills while their graduating class are just entering their peak earning years. They’ve walked too far down the plank to turn back. There’s an angry mob of cutlass wielding pirates 3 feet back and man eating sharks on either side, so they continue walking towards their eventual doom in the black waters of the open ocean. Literally (in my opinion).
Of course I’m exaggerating for comic effect. Cartoonists have a broad but very deep skill set: concise writing, drawing fast, staging visual concepts in a clear manner. There’s actually lot’s of great employment opportunities for older cartoonists… like teaching comics. Kidding aside, I have noticed a lot of cartoonists going into animation these days, like John Pham, Derek Kirk Kim, Hellen Jo and other cartoonists who learned how to draw.
As for myself, I’m pretty much in this for life. Despite all the frustration and misery comics has caused, it’s also the source of everything joyous and good in my life. I met my wife through comics. Comics has brought me to the top of the Eiffel tower (metaphorically speaking: it was actually hella expensive to get on the elevator). My partner, my son and my closest friendships are all in my life because of comics. Although, if I want to peek even further into my own future, I should probably check in on that sad old man.0 Comments
Movie Review: Chef
by Jason Shiga | May 27, 2014, 9:13 am 0 Comments
Photography’s Influence on Comics
by Jason Shiga | May 12, 2014, 12:30 pm 0 Comments
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