Sunday, March 27, 2011

Historical Document#2

            My first sustained efforts at writing came during my tenure in an improv and sketch comedy troupe known by the appropriately goofy name of Dangerous Poultry.

A typical poster for one of our shows at the Riv.

It began when I met a talented young guy named Gary Pearson in June Kreller’s TheatreSports Toronto improv class way back in 1984. We liked the cut of each other’s jibs, (which isn’t at all suggestive) and we formed a two-man team to perform in the weekly TheatreSports shows at Harbourfront. The show was, and still is, a form of competitive improvised comedy, which pits one team of improvisors against another in mock challenges and faux battle to gain points from a group of “judges”, or by audience applause.

At that time, the TheatreSports show was broken up into three matches, a ten minute and a twenty minute match in the first half and a forty minute match after the intermission. The length of your match reflected the experience and skill level of your team. Beginners did simple games in the ten minute match, intermediate players performed somewhat more sophisticated stuff in the twenty minute match, and the big comedy guns came out for the forty minute closing match.

Those Crazy Chickens. From left to right:
Gary Pearson, Warren Wilson, Sam Agro
Gary and I had a tangible rapport and we worked extremely well together. After a few weeks of trying him on for size we enlisted a third member, a very talented, and very Mormon, improv classmate named Warren Wilson. We nicknamed him “Whitebread”, based on both his unrepentant love of Wonder Bread, and his washed-out complexion, which bordered on albinism. With our trio complete, we put down our heads and went to work. We did extremely well in our ten minute opening matches and moved up fast. Within only a few months we were performing in the second half of the show, and rocking the house.

People, let me tell you, we were crazy for the improv. Each week we would attend our improv class, practice one night on our own, and perform in the Toronto show. Many weeks, we also performed in another TheatreSports show based in nearby Hamilton, where their membership was too lean to fill a show with their own players.

We often parodied popular movie
and theatrical posters on our handbills.
(This one drawn by Gary.)

It was less than a year before we started writing and performing sketch comedy in addition to our improv schedule. We performed regularly at a dingy little boho club on Queen Street know as The Rivoli, and shared the bill with the likes of The Illustrated Men, Dan Redican of The Frantics, The Kids in the Hall, The Vacant Lot, and some other local sketch troupes. We featured a host of very talented special guests, like Jerry Schaefer, Jane Luk, Lisa Merchant and the sweetly subversive Mr. David R. Healy. We also had a rotating cast of regular members in addition to our original trio, including Bill Dunphy, Marium Carvell, Moira Dunphy and Norm Hiscock.

A rather terrific publicity shot, snapped by photographer Janet Muise.
Left to right: Gary Pearson, Warren Wilson, Marium Carvell, Sam Agro

The troupe was exceptionally productive for the next three or four years, and built a respectable audience of fans. In addition to our regular shows at the Rivoli, we performed in several Sunday showcases at Second City Toronto’s Old Firehall, and launched a couple of successful forays to the Edmonton Fringe Festival where we performed to sold out audiences and (mostly) positive reviews. We did some damn funny sketches and improv along the way.

But, finally, things began to fray at the edges, and eventually unravel. A case of familiarity breeding contempt I suppose, or the clashing of egos, or, perhaps, conflicting ideologies. Or maybe over time we had just developed differing goals.

By 1990 we had disbanded the group.

Running order for a show at the Edmonton Fringe.

In spite of the conflicts, anger and ire we experienced at the end, I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything. It was a great ride.

However, the most important thing I took away from my time with Poultry was the act of disciplined writing. I probably wrote about forty sketches and blackouts during the time we were together, and while most of them certainly sucked ass, there were six or seven pretty good ones in there. We would start working on a new show right after we finished the last one, and I was writing two or three new sketches for every show. Shows which we performed, on average, about every six weeks.

This regular writing schedule, while not deeply demanding, instilled in me the fundamental ability to write on a schedule and to utilize my spare time effectively. I learned to write whenever I had a few free moments, and maximize my efficiency. It also trained me to be critical of my own work. I certainly knew the rest of the troupe was going to be critical, so I tried my best to work out the bugs prior to presenting them with the work. (With limited success, probably, but I certainly tried.)

Left to Right: Sam Agro, Bill Dunphy,
Gary Pearson, Warren W. "Whitebread" Wilson
Note Gary's suspenders, a certain indicator
that wackiness is about to ensue!

Personal computers were just coming into vogue at that time, and for the first couple years of the group’s life I didn’t have one. I did have a fairly useless electronic typewriter, which I believe could hold about 80 words in memory before you had to print it out and write the next 80 words. As you can imagine, making revisions on this beast was desperately difficult. I did most of my preparatory writing longhand, and when I got it to a decent place, I’d transfer it into my typewriter 80 words at a time.

An electronic typewriter. The text could be read, and
corrected, using the tiny, tiny window just above the keyboard.

While I now use the computer for writing in general, I still write out my initial premises, and the first blast of notes on the idea, in long hand. I always feel a tad more connected to an idea if I play around with it using pencil and paper for a while before going all electronic on its ass.

Speaking of ideas, another thing working with Dangerous Poultry taught me was to doggedly write down a premise whenever I got one. This is a key skill, because ideas are ephemeral things, and they can easily waft away into the ether between conception and recording. Even with this habit firmly in place, I still lose tons of ideas every year. By quirks of timing and fate, they dissipate before they can be captured, drifting off into the empty void where lost left socks and misplaced cuff links reside.

Thus was forged this writer’s discipline and diligence.

Thanks, Dangerous Poultry.

Grainy xerox of a promotional shot for our show: DON'T TELL OUR MOMS
Left to right, clockwise: BIll Dunphy, Warren Wilson, Gary Pearson, Sam Agro.
Photo by Shannon Thompson.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011


And so it begins.

I just received my first rejection after my new foray into the short fiction marketplace. I mentioned the tale in question in my previous blog entry, Taking The Plunge. The rejection, from Heroic Fantasy Quarterly, was a form letter, of course, but one bearing a subtle hint of encouragement.

Here’s the bad news:

Dear Sam:

Thank you for submitting THE WEED to Heroic Fantasy Quarterly. The story caught our attention but after consideration we’ve decided it’s not a piece we can use.

Please consider Heroic Fantasy Quarterly again. We wish you luck placing your story elsewhere.


David Farney
Co-proprietor/Editor, Heroic Fantasy Quarterly

            Hey, it could be worse, right? The story caught their attention and the letter suggests I submit to them again. Of course, the kind words could all be part of a pungent load of PR propaganda, but even if that’s true, it’s still the sweetest rejection letter I’ve ever received. I am already formulating a new tale to submit to Mr. Farney and associates.

            Hey, they asked for it, didn't they?

            As stated in Taking The Plunge, I am already seeking out another market for the story. I really believe in this tale, and I solemnly vowed I would send it to every viable market I could find. That’s a promise I intend to keep.

            Meanwhile, I have three other strapping young stories that are just about ready to go out into the world and fend for themselves. Chronic unemployment has left me with a great deal of time to write, and I have been taking full advantage of the opportunity. A recent spate of horror stories have exploded from my turgid keyboard, each one a highly viable fiction-spermatozoa ready to swim out and impregnate some sexy, willing magazine somewhere out there.

            Whew! Who knew literature could be so hot?

Friday, March 11, 2011

The Crucible

*NOTE: For those of you who are interested in writing, but not necessarily interested in comic books, thanks for sticking with me for the last few posts. (I know you're out there, I can hear you texting.) The comics stuff is finished for now on Fighting Words, but will continue for a few more entries on my companion blog, Moving Pictures, where I will post interviews with some interesting web-comic creators. Which you can find here:

For the rest of you, we now return to our regularly scheduled whining about the trials and tribulations of the writing life.

I have long been a proponent of the idea that battling against creative limitations fosters artistic growth.

Some of the funniest short cartoons ever realized by the Warner Brothers animation wing during the 30’s and 40’s occurred under the heavy limitations imposed by humor-challenged producers and overzealous censors. Walt Disney was a renowned control freak, and imposed extreme expectations and limitations on his artists. 

In both examples the work came out great.

So, from time to time, I challenge myself with difficult creative restrictions. By doing this, I hope to hone specific skills or attempt a forward leap in my abilities. This is often very useful when you find yourself stranded on a developmental plateau. A good, tough, hardass exercise can sometimes ignite a big jump in skill, or at least a sideways step in perception.

I’m about to leap into just such an exercise.

A recent conversation with a new cyber-acquaintance of mine led me to consider the idea of writing something long, but intended to be consumed in serial form. Bite-sized literary hors d’oeuvres that can be doled out on a daily or weekly schedule. These tasty little chunks would have to function as complete units unto themselves, and work as part of a larger whole. Now let’s say those chunks were between 800 and 1000 words each. Not much to work with there, but I am intrigued…

I accept the challenge!

I’m going to write a novella-sized story of about 16,000 to 20,000 words in installments of 800 to 1000 words per episode.

Damn, I think I just had a flash of “writer’s remorse”.

To begin with, let’s consider what each episode has to do. Each one should be a functioning scene-let, with a beginning middle and end. Each should start with a recap, and end with something intriguing, a cliff-hanger of sorts, that will entice the reader to tune in for the next episode. Now, on a basic level, that’s something that’s been done on radio and TV for years. Those commercial interruptions represent a natural structure of ‘acts’ breaking up the simple structure of 'beginning, middle and end'. And comics do it too, 20 pages of story, and a cliffhanger to bring you back for the next issue. Or so it used to be, anyway.

So, I know this is do-able, but the real challenge is the word count. 800 words is not much to get going with. Even though the average comic book probably has only about 1000 words, it also has all those pictures. And, as we all know, every one of those pictures is worth 1000 words each. That makes a big difference, my friends, a very big difference.

So, for a real serious use of the short form, let’s look at the comic book’s dowdier cousin, the newspaper strip. A classic adventure strip had between 1 and 4 panels, and probably averaged only about 40-80 words per episode, plus a slightly longer Sunday installment. That is pretty damn tight, even considering all those mouthy pictures adding in their large word equivalencies. I have words and only words to achieve my goals.

But, the comics will act as my textbook.

After reading some strips and breaking down the basics of the super-short technique, I will move forward to my own story. I’m going to write something pulpy in nature, (because that's my wheelhouse) and it'll be in the speculative fiction genre. I’m going to give myself a loose deadline of six months.

Fear for me, brother writers, as I enter the crucible.

Is it hot in here, or is it just me?

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Michael Netzer: Leading the Way

A striking panel from Netzer's
1994 Huntress mini-series.

This entry we interview Mike Netzer, standard bearer for creator's rights and the campaign to rescue comics from oblivion. 

Let’s start with the basics, Mike. Where and when were you born, and where did you grow up?

Born in Detroit, Michigan, 1955. Moved to Lebanon in the Middle East at age of about 1 year and raised there until age 11. After that, back to Detroit until I moved to NY and started drawing comics at age 19.

How did you get interested in art and comics?

I don't really know where that began. Like most children I started drawing early, but at about age 3 my mother brought me a few comics and they seemed to grab all my attention, especially an early Batman. Something about that Bob Kane square-jawed man in a bat costume had a strong allure for me and I started drawing every image of the character in the comics I had. By the time I was in first grade, the drawing skills were developing notably for that age. I'm honestly not sure I would have stuck with drawing were it not for the comics.

When did your drawing begin to take the form of continuity storytelling? Was that right at the beginning with the Bob Kane Batman?

No, it happened much later, around the first year in college when I began thinking about having storytelling samples for the eventuality of trying to get work as a comics artist. Drawing from Bob Kane's Batman drove me to discover drawing, but I didn't have enough comics at that age for a lasting inspiration. So, I'd also draw from photos in magazines and books, mostly a set of Encyclopedia Britannica. I especially liked copying photos of fine art, paintings and statues and such. When I came back to America at age 11, that attention shifted to the enormous amount of comics now at my disposal. But it was mostly working with singular images until a time drew near that I anticipated I'd make an effort to draw comics. I produced a couple of short story samples in college and that was basically the only sequential storytelling work I'd attempted before starting to work in the medium a year later.

Did you have any formal art training?

I was very immersed in the art curriculum in high school, which was quite professionally intensive due to a couple of excellent teachers there. My two years in college were more like a rigorous program at an art institute. Wayne State University in Detroit was located near a major arts and crafts academy and competed with them. Instead of following an academic path at WSU, I'd decided I wasn't interested in a degree but rather in the actual art studies. So I filled my curriculum with advanced art studies across the range of design, painting, life drawing, art history and English literature. A couple of years within such a framework allowed me to finish masters courses in these subjects, with pretty good grades, but no degree. I thought I'd get more from the experience this way and in looking back I can't say I regret it at all. It helped me where I really needed it for the professional work that followed.

Give us an overview of your time working in American mainstream comics.

I think like most things in life, the stronger the good we experience in anything we do, then the bad will also be stronger. I've had a few cycles of working in mainstream comics and they've all been very intensely charged. Maybe the most charged of anything else I've done. There is a natural thrill for me in drawing comics and particularly superheroes. It's been such an intensive discipline that it pretty much consumes me while I'm doing it. And that apparently comes with a price. Notably, sort of neglecting most everything else in life. Not necessarily being oblivious to it but rather absorbing and dealing with everything else as if it's on a back burner, so to speak,

But there's also the added value of the outreach to and from the readers that adds an element of trying to keep me connected to the rest of the world somehow. My nature is sometimes quite extreme in that I thirst for a totality in most everything I'm engaged in. While working in comics, that's translated to a somewhat colorful journey in and out of the medium, several times already. 35 years later, it doesn't look like that intensity is letting up at all. Rather growing actually.

Can you also tell us, briefly, which companies you worked for, and which characters you worked on? I believe you had an association with Neal Adams and Continuity, perhaps you could touch on that.

There weren't that many comics publishers back in the mid-70's. The bulk of my work was for DC Comics. But I always did a job here and there for Marvel as well. There was Western and Charlton that I did a lone job or two for and the rest was more in the advertising area, mainly for Continuity Studios, where I was based. Working with Neal Adams was the pivoting point around which everything revolved for those first few years. The studio environment and everything about it being the hub of the comics community, pretty much shaped not only the career development, but also the community spirit or common ideology of the world of comics creators at that time. It was a vibrant and near magical time where most everyone working in comics had to be in NY and pretty much knew and socialized with everyone else in the business. Being such a tight community also meant that we spent our leisure time together just as much as the work time we shared.

Enumerate the pros and cons of your tenure in mainstream comics. What was positive and what was negative about the experience?

10 or 15 years ago I would likely have answered that differently, such as focusing more on the actual comics I've worked on and the craft of drawing. But today, in retrospect, I'd say the most positive thing has been the push that I've inadvertently become known for outside of the mainstream comics, namely searching for and trying to advance an integration of the medium into the bigger picture of our world, history and aspirations as a civilization. This somewhat well known aspect of my career pretty much overshadows the actual comics work I've done. So much so that it reveals a sort of failing as a career artist. Which is likely the closest thing to a negative side to this picture. I'm pretty certain that my actual career as an artist would have been much more developed had I kept up the momentum of the first couple of years of drawing comics. But I've become seasoned enough through the years to understand the ups and downs of life a little better and to look at the negative aspects of it as a necessary component for enhancing or magnifying the good. In that sense, I'm mostly resolved to a space where I don't really believe there can ultimately be any real mistakes or shortcomings in our human experience. There's something about the nature of most people that drives us to strive for the better, even at the peak of the most difficult falls. When our lives are seen as an integral homogeny that cannot be ultimately compromised by an artificial desire for a more perfect existence, then it seems easier to perceive a sort of perfection in our every-day state, each step along the way.

What are your major issues with the comics industry as it is today?

Well, first and foremost, as Mike Dubisch said in response to Steven Niles' first article on supporting creator owned properties, comics have to get huge and right now. It was actually his passion on this that drew me into the present round of what's been dubbed as the creator revolution. It is quite unfathomable to look at the comics industry today and to believe that an entire cultural artifact has been committing virtual suicide for more than 30 years now. There is no other business or medium in the world, at least of this magnitude, that's been managed and driven as irresponsibly and negligibly as the comics industry. Most every business decision taken by industry leaders since the late 1970's has been more like a nail in the coffin of a slowly dying comics medium, trying to snuff out the life of a once thriving industry.

From the content of most mainstream titles catering to an ever shrinking base of readers, to the bizarre Direct Market infrastructure that guarantees comics sales will continue to decline... just about everything, and I mean everything, about the business of publishing comics looks more like a doomsday curse, rather than a sound business strategy backed by the most powerful media conglomerates in the world such as Warner’s and Disney. The overhaul that the industry needs right now touches on most every aspect of the comics culture. This is not to take away from some of the fabulous and incredibly prolific comics being produced across the entire gamut of mainstream and Indie publications. It's actually expected that in this dire time for the business, the creative adrenalin will flow stronger amongst the creators. But the comics are more than an art form. They're also a business that operates within larger economic wheels, and must be driven by the same love for the medium that the creators and fans have. This passion, drive and wisdom in managing a business are exactly the ingredients missing from the major publishers, and are keeping comics market down today. This is the part of the industry that needs the greatest overhaul.

There are a lot of excuses being given for the state of affairs ranging from the shift to web-culture all the way to a naïve acceptance of market forces and buyer choices actually being behind the decline. And they might be more acceptable if we didn't have this blatant variable of negligent irresponsibility on the part of leading publishers. All this indicates in the end is that the comics industry will become much healthier when a sincere effort is made by the corporate entities towards healing it. None of these excuses warrant the self-destructive behavior we're seeing today. Just the opposite, if the general business environment is having a difficult time, then that's all the reason for an extra concerted effort to make up for it with more sound and creative policies. 

What changes do you think should be made to improve the industry?

First of all we have to remember that we're not talking about Dan Didio or Alex Alonzo being behind the mess we're in. We're talking about Warner Bros. and The Disney Company who are two of the most powerful media conglomerates in the world. To accept the excuse that solutions for improving the state of comics publishing are beyond their control is simply naïve and ludicrous. It seems to me that a freshman economist could look at this picture and immediately devise a basic plan for improving things.

Steps must be taken to dismantle the bizarre Direct Market distribution and return to spreading comics all over the country again the way they were before the DM took over. Comics stores will remain the main outlet for a comprehensive buyer demand. Making some comics available and visible everywhere consumers shop will increase the overall buying market and reflect itself in the LCS audience. This will open a door again for other distributors to compete and not a moment too soon. This is the first and foremost bottleneck problem that comics sales face.

DC and Marvel don't have to add more non-superhero comics to their line if they don't want to. Thank God there are enough such publications from smaller publishers and Indies to fill at least half of the expanding shelf space in a growing number of stores, when the buying market and comics sales begin to grow. We really don't have much of a problem with content, we only need to give smaller publishers a little room to breathe and an opportunity for their products to be seen by a public that begins to embrace the art form, as it's embraced in Europe and the Far East.

Comics creators, and I think this includes everyone, must put aside the genre-competitive attitude and realize that we are all in this boat together and need to present a unified front in order to have a voice and leverage for better working conditions and a greater share of intellectual property rights on everything we produce. This isn't only about creator owned projects. It applies to every comic book that's being published regardless of who created it. The reason for this is that current comic books are being used as a base and inspiration for outside ventures from film, television, games and toys to countless consumer products on the market. Every bit of work contributing to these profits, including a run on an established series, gives the creators who contributed to it a right to profit sharing from any outside venture their work influences. We have to pull our heads out of the sand and begin articulating our basic rights in a way that brings a little more fairness back to the creator/publisher relationship. This is a necessary ingredient not only for the creators but also for publishers and corporate owners. It's what's needed for a contemporary renaissance of the art form and it will ultimately benefit everyone all the way to the top. Trickle-up economics, if you will.

I think we can go on for a while and get into a lot more detail but these issues outlined above perhaps cover the most important issues needing to be addressed right now. I'm sure a lot more specific and creative ideas will burst from the comics community when we begin seeing a move in these directions.

Tell us about the petition.

Let me first give a little background on what drove me to write that petition. When I joined the recent discussions on the creator revolution, I noticed a strange thing happening there. It's perhaps best condensed in the difference between Eric Powell and Steven Niles' approaches. Eric slammed head on into the DC and Marvel dominance of the LCS, while Steven was saying “we can basically dodge them and advance creator owned projects through other venues”. I could understand if these two sides of a healthy debate were contending side by side on the issues, but the strange thing was that most Indie voices chiming in were on the dodging side only. The same was true for most industry news sites covering the debate, perhaps with the exception of Tom Spurgeon's Comics reporter. To me this seemed like another nail being driven into the coffin of the comics business. There is no way to ultimately dodge DC and Marvel's dominance of the comics market. It must be addressed forthrightly in order to have some hope for growth of the industry. And it seemed to me that this was a very divisive stance. Indie creators are so disgruntled with the big 2 that they've come to see them as beneath their contempt to even acknowledge their existence and the problem they pose. In that most industry news sites were also taking this strange position, it seemed to me that the only way around the issue, when a healthy debate is being suppressed in this way, is to take the case directly to the people. In this case, comics fandom.

With this in mind, I wrote the petition in order to be able to say things that most creators and journalists don't seem to be willing to say openly, even though they might really want to. The petition is perhaps the first direct statement made publicly at this level in order to help us place all our cards on the table and understand what we're really up against. The interesting thing about it is that most of the comments left there are basically calling for more fairness towards the Indie market by the major players dominating comics publishing. This is the result of a petition which has the name of DC and Marvel in its title. And though I hadn't anticipated it, I couldn’t have thought of a better way to bring the two sides together if I'd tried.

As the number of signatories on the petition grows, we need to look ahead towards the ramifications it might hold down the line. Public pressure has always been one of the most powerful tools for influencing corporate policy towards a little more consideration for the welfare of their socio-economic environment. The goal of the petition is to raise a public outcry over the situation. And, to eventually burst through its present cocoon and spread into the mainstream media. This is not such a farfetched idea at all. Movements like this are known to snowball and grow exponentially once they break a certain threshold.

The petition is very carefully worded in order not to make unverifiable accusations. I suggest everyone read it and take a look at the signatories and comments they're leaving behind in order to gauge the pulse of what comics creators, professionals and fandom are saying. In the end it is quite harmless, regardless of natural trepidations some have about signing petitions. The hope it has for setting needed wheels into motion is very tangible, so I ask everyone to pitch in and sign on if they're inclined.

You have also filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission. (As a Canadian, I’m not too familiar with the agency.) Do you feel this is a viable complaint, or is it more of a symbolic method of bringing attention to the problems of the comics industry?

Perhaps both at once. The complaint was lodged through the FTC web site. Anyone can lodge any complaint they like through it. The body of the complaint is basically the petition. I understand this is not a legal document and doesn’t rely on a specific abuse of the laws of fair trade. But I do understand the FTC made this option available on their site just for this type of situation. So the common people could have access to state a grievance. Considering the situation that DC and Marvel dominate a market they don't seem to have a vested interest in, because their profits come from outside of comics, and because their negligence of it is injurious to the entire industry, then I believe there is a basis in the complaint for further investigation. The FTC is, after all, about insuring fairness in competitive business practices.

On the other hand, lodging the complaint gave the petition a little well needed push that brought the industry's attention to it. I think in that sense it served both purposes well so far. But I expect we'll soon find out what the response from the FTC is and can move ahead with the complaint as needed when the time comes.

You suggest that Marvel and DC, and the big entertainment entities behind them, need to give smaller companies breathing room. Isn't that anathema to current corporate thinking? While I understand the ways in which this would make the industry healthier overall, I don't see many big corporations doing anything other than crushing, smothering and destroying all competition.

This is sadly the picture and I understand that it seems like quite the formidable type of power to hope for any change in the thinking there. But things weren't always that way in big business. Back in the 50's and 60's, as an example, business policy was more oriented towards nurturing an overall market for everyone with a little more collective goodwill applied to general policies. This was the general spirit promoted in the high-school economics classes of the early 70's that I studied. By the late 70's things started changing and I remember what big news the Time-Warner’s merger was back then because it signaled a beginning of a deluge of such corporate acquisitions that began shifting the emphasis from collective responsibility to an "everyone-for-themselves-at-everyone's-expense" type of attitude.

But I believe that when understanding the root as being a prevailing attitude that overcame the general goodwill within which business was being conducted, and not something necessarily etched in a stone heart of human psyche, then it's easier to see that trying to change things back towards collective responsibility is basically inherent in influencing the human nature of policy makers. Which is not so far out of reach as it seems when looking at the strength of corporate giants. People remain people and we are all ultimately products of our environment. If we can change the environment at the lowest popular level, then we have a much better chance of changing the attitude of policy makers all the way at the top.

That's why this campaign starts with a petition that's very carefully worded to elicit a response to this basic issue of the attitude in which the comics business is being conducted...which is also the prevailing business attitude all around. Things being as they are, the greatest hope for change can only come when the buying public rejects the notion that things can continue this way and says so loudly and clearly. It seems to me that in our time today, more than ever, people are generally beginning to see the self-destructive nature of corporate business policy and the hopeless path that it's leading everyone on. While the lucky and strong few at the top of the pyramid will remain content with things as they are, their number continues to decrease while the segment of struggling populace increases.

This tells me that it's as fertile a time as any to call on the perception and goodwill of the common people in order to raise a clear and unmistakable voice in rejecting the path we're all heading in. The road is long and hard but all indications so far show that we are moving in the right direction with the petition and campaign. There was very little hope a couple of decades ago that it would get the general support its gotten today. But this is really only a beginning of a much wider and far-reaching movement that aims to spread like a mushroom cloud covering everything around it. And it has much more to do with human nature than with a technical view of business strategy or a mechanical approach to social government. It is all about raising the voice of the people into its rightful place as primary influence over the world that we want for ourselves and for our children. It overcomes all types of oppression exercised on society under the umbrella of democracy and free economy.

It is the biggest hope we have for changing the seemingly hopeless tides taking the world down a path of near slavery of mind, body and soul, that the powerful few are leading us into.

Your suggestion to give creators a bigger piece of the pie from sales and licensing also seems to go against the grain of typical corporate operating procedure. What's to stop companies from outsourcing the work to countries where the work it be done more cheaply and without giving up any of the marketing profits?

Well, paradoxically, I'm counting on this greedy nature of corporate policy and looking to leverage it to our advantage. When the general attitude of the buying market begins to react adversely to such short-term policies that produce inferior products, then corporate strategy will begin exploring the options that the people are suggesting. It becomes a growing movement that overcomes the forced perception of economic feasibility they're trying to shove down our throats.

Let's look, as an example, at the environmental issues that were first being voiced in the late 1960's. Back then, this movement was considered rather hopeless and had to contend with environmental abuse by formidable industry giants that the general economic welfare depended upon. The movement grew in time during the 1970s by working diligently in informing the public through sympathetic media and communications outlets. By the 1980's, we began hearing about global warming and everyone was scurrying to either prove or disprove its veracity. It became a public issue that began to take hold in business decisions all the way at the top of the pyramid. And while we still have a public controversy over it, the hold that this issue has taken in the business world is quite phenomenal when considering the extra burden it puts on the economy. So the question is what benefit does the business world gain from supporting energy efficient platforms? The answer is simple, public perception has changed to the point that a large enough segment of the buying market understands the need to support them. This has basically twisted the arm of a once belligerent business world and we can see the largest conglomerates standing behind what they once fought against tooth and nail.

I think that since that the pace of social evolution is increasing exponentially in time, that we really don't need a few decades to achieve a similar thing in the comic book industry for the near future. We've been supporting creator owned projects since the mid-70's though it seems like a more recent development. The undercurrents of the industry are full of a public outcry for a more attentive approach to a higher quality comics narrative. We only need to encourage these voices so they rise to the surface of public debate. We need to work diligently in order to turn this subject of the soul of the comics medium into the most talked about issue on the front lines of the industry. We have an amazing array of tools that the environmental movement didn't have at its disposal decades ago and we need to use these tools to the advantage of the future of the medium.

There is a great imbalance in this area seen at major comics news sites today. They are more obsessed with the fluffy fun of populist iconography than with fulfilling their historical role as the watchdogs of the industry. Perhaps the only major players lending ear to the issues are Tom Spurgeon and Rik Offenberger. Other major reporters such as Heidi MacDonald and Rich Johnston appear to be ignoring it altogether for the sake of a superficial "lets-weed-out-the-negativity-and-just-have fun" type of reporting. When faced with such a blatant imbalance in comics journalism, we find ourselves with no choice but to ignore the major players altogether and take the case directly to the people in the forums and blogs where the core of fandom traditionally gathers.

But just as it was for the environmental movement in its early stages, major news sites eventually took the gauntlet and ran with it when it became a strong enough public concern, due to the grass-roots promotional efforts of the movement. I think we can expect to begin seeing a shift to more coverage of these sensitive issues by major comics news sites within the next year ahead, because I can see much more talk about it in the public arena of comics fandom today.

This is really what grass-roots is all about. We're only at the beginning.

Thanks, Mike, for your time, energy and love of the medium.

Find out more about Mike by reading this revealing interview by Rik Offenberger at Comics Bulletin:

And by checking out Mike's own web site:

Things have been a bit comic-centric on the blogs of late, so this will be the last entry on comics shared by both blogs. FIGHTING WORDS will be moving on to other topics. 

However, I'm going to continue talking about comics for a few more entries on my companion blog, MOVING PICTURES, for those who might be interested in some interviews with a few terrific web-comic creators and some personal thoughts on the writing of Scott McCloud.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

The Comics Part 3: The Digital Dystopia

            One of the big hopes for the comics medium is the internet. There are some who feel the future of the form lies in digital downloads, and it seems as though the future of all media may be headed in that direction.

            Personally, I’m not convinced the computer is an effective delivery system for comics. The screen is the wrong shape, flipping back and forth between pages is klunky and navigating archives can be challenging. Personally, I have trouble immersing myself in the experience the way I can with a physical comic. But, I am an old guy and can’t speak for the younger and more tech-savvy brain. New hardware like the iPad and Kindle may help improve the interface if they catch on, but that’s a big maybe.
Can digital readers help comics?

And hey, even if comics was a good fit with the medium, I have to wonder if digital comics would be any better than print comics at competing with its major rivals, TV, movies, video games and social media.

I’m not convinced they would.

            The first thing one finds upon trolling for comics online, is that there’s just a shit-load of stuff there. The reason for this is obvious, the medium is cheap, fast, and allows for a very personal vision. Just like the blog or the podcast, almost anyone with an idea can throw a comic up online. It’s a truly egalitarian platform.

The trouble is, the overwhelming majority of this stuff sucks.


It really sucks.

I recently took a relaxed little stroll in the cyber-world in search of web comics. Of the first thirty or so online strips I checked out, most were either very badly drawn or created using some sort of dead-eyed, mannequin-like 3D computerized figures. The writing was no prize either, and many contained frequent errors in spelling and grammar. Several appeared to be the creation of people for whom English was a second language. A few strips had serviceable drawings and a few contained intelligible writing, but almost none had both. Additionally, many of the strips were egregiously derivative, sometimes to the point of being legally actionable.

This little stroll, during which I found only one title of relatively high quality, took me about three hours. Three hours to find one decent strip. It really doesn’t seem like the best use of my time.

At the risk of sounding somewhat elitist, the arts may not be an endeavor where egalitarianism fosters the richest creative environment. (I won’t get into the debate as to whether comics is art right here, but for the record, I believe it is.)

I also believe that some of the greatest art is created under the most strenuous restrictions.
The cartoonists at Warner Brothers
created some of their funniest work
under the stringent scrutiny of decidedly
unfunny production executives.

For the most part it seems there is no guiding editorial hand at work in web comics. Even a premium site like Transmission X, (, where some truly talented individuals are posting quality comics, could use a more rigorous guiding hand. The stuff posted here is roughly the comics equivalent of literary fiction. By that I mean that most are not genre pieces. However, the Transmission X site is essentially letting the creators follow their heads. As talented as they are, (and almost everything there is worth reading), much of it suffers from a tendency to meander. A strong editorial voice might keep the digressions to a minimum and insist on a better overview of the big picture before embarking on the journey.
A keen editorial eye might help
improve online comics.

What I’m getting at is that it’s very hard to find a good online comic you truly enjoy. While a comic shop rack certainly has a lot of questionable product, and material geared to certain genre tastes, it is finite. Over a few weeks of Wednesdays you can give everything a peek and sniff out the stuff you like. In the online world the sheer number of strips available is practically endless, and much of it is so deeply crappy that it’s easy to get discouraged.

Just because a thirteen year old who loves Manga can post his badly drawn, incomprehensible pages online, doesn’t mean he should. Just because a forty-something dude in the thick of his mid-life crisis can post the comic he invented at age 16, doesn’t mean it’s a good idea. Just because no one would buy your screenplay doesn’t mean that a cobbled together comic version is going to take Hollywood by storm.

It’s not really their fault. These people simply don’t have the skills or patience required to create something of quality. Unfortunately, they do add to the coiling, strangling underbrush that obscures the good stuff awaiting you on the net. You have to machete your way through miles of this creative kudzu to find anything of value. It is tedious, depressing, and exhausting.

Honestly, I’m not here to discourage anyone who seriously wants to make a try at it. However, I do believe they should properly prepare themselves.

Teenager, you have energy and potential, but you need to develop your skills. Bad drawing is not a “style”. Learn to draw. Learn to write. Consult with teachers and professionals. Keep your work between you and your mentors until you develop a viable skill set. I’m not saying you have to be flawless, but you should at least be competent before presenting your work to the public.

Mid-life crisis man, 25 years of selling insurance has done little to improve your fiction writing skills. You are essentially the teenager, only you took a few decades before deciding to follow your heart. While I applaud this, you still lack the required proficiencies. Take drawing courses, join writers groups. Get good before you start clogging up the cyber world.

Screenplay guy, assuming that all those agents who wouldn’t represent your script are morons is probably incorrect. While it’s marginally possible you are an unappreciated genius, it’s much more likely you wrote a weak screenplay. Rather than getting all stuck on it, why not write another, and another. Practice makes perfect. Comics are not a shortcut to the movie studios.

Okay, that’s enough of that rant.

So now let’s assume you’ve waded through the ocean of crap on the web and found a few great strips. Can these be considered the hope of the medium?

Well, maybe, but it has to satisfy a few other requirements before we can rejoice at the renaissance. Here are the key elements I think it needs to fulfill:

1)    It has to be of high and consistent quality.
2)    It has to be produced on a regular schedule.
3)    It has to find an audience.
4)    It has to be successfully monetized.

For the sake of argument, let’s assume it’s consistently good and it appears regularly. That leaves items 3 and 4.

As I’ve already mentioned, it’s awfully difficult to cut through the mass of crap online and get noticed, but a few have done it, and good sites like Transmission X are gathering multiple titles of high quality together in one place. So, let’s say that you’ve fought hard, done good work, zealously promoted your product and managed to find a loyal audience of regulars.

(If you have done this, I’d love to interview you, so drop me a line.)

Part of the problem with web culture is the idea that everything should be free. Some even think it’s their right to get everything online for free. While this may have some merit, it also makes it very difficult to successfully monetize anything. You must either charge a fee per use, beg for donations, include advertising, or all of the above.

Since comics are probably the last medium of choice for most people, I’m not clear on how we are supposed to compete. Does the average web-citizen spend his money on comics or porn? I really don’t like the odds on that gamble.

And then, even if some money starts to come in, when does it reach a level commensurate with the amount of work and effort the creators put into the work. It could take a very long time, during which some very talented people have to take other work and sweat paying the rent and the grocery bill every month.

It just doesn’t seem right.

To sum up, these are my major caveats for the future of comics online:

1)  The medium is a weak fit for digital delivery.
2)  Creators must compete against an unprecedented glut of bad material.
3)  The medium lacks positive editorial influence.
4)    It is difficult to monetize.
5)    It still has to compete with other, more popular media.

Sadly, I don’t feel it shapes up too optimistically.

However, I truly hope I’m wrong about that. My very best wishes to all those who are trying.

In the next few entries I will discuss some of the theories of comics good-guy Scott McCloud and how he recommends we strengthen the medium, and interview illustrator Michael Netzer about comics, the recent Creators Revolution, and his complaint against Marvel and DC with the Federal Trade Commission.