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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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:
site stats

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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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


Some Thoughts on Patronage, Part 1
by Jason Shiga | May 6, 2014, 11:18 am 0 Comments


Some Links for May
by Jason Shiga | May 2, 2014, 8:39 am 0 Comments


Big Thanks To All My Patrons
by Jason Shiga | April 28, 2014, 8:41 am 0 Comments


Switzerland Fumetto Comics Festival Report
by Jason Shiga | April 15, 2014, 4:19 am 0 Comments


Demon Subscriptions Now Available Via Patreon
by Jason Shiga | April 1, 2014, 1:30 am 0 Comments


My Bucket List
by Jason Shiga | March 28, 2014, 3:41 pm 0 Comments


On the Challanges of Raising a Baby While Being a Cartoonist
by Jason Shiga | March 25, 2014, 4:11 pm 0 Comments


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