Lewis Trondheim is one of the few comics creators whose work appeals to me despite carrying large doses of whimsy. Can I be honest with you? I hate whimsy. I hate anything whimsical. But the autobiographical comics of Lewis Trondheim, these I love.
Trondheim’s autobio comics both feel very close to reality to me — I love other autobio creators like James Kochalka, Harvey Pekar and Jason Marcy — but all their work feels translated into comics in a way that Trondheim’s autobio comics do not. Trondheim seems to be living his actual life right there on the pages of the comics he creates. If that makes sense to you, then you’ll enjoy and appreciate Trondheim’s new collection from Fantagraphics, Approximate Continuum Comics.
Of a piece with Trondheim’s excellent NBM series Little Nothings, this new book features Trondheim reflecting on cartooning, life, friendship and the many squabbling sides of his own personality. Trondheim can go many dark places in his ponderings, but the darkness is always relieved by other facets of himself arguing, observing, and sometimes beating the crap out of each other. He can puff himself up all he wants, but within a few panels another side will emerge to deflate his ego and put things into better perspective.
Throughout all these goings-on, we see glimpses of Trondheim’s home life, his work and friendships with his fellow cartoonists (given equal time in the back pages to respond to what you’ve just read), and the search for a new home for his family. If you’re not familiar with Trondheim’s cartooning (and hoo-boy, you should be), he blends funny-animal body-types with breezily convincing cityscapes to create an eminently readable and visually gorgeous narrative. Trondheim is one of the easiest cartoonists to read, and one of the most satisfying to experience. Approximate Continuum Comics wanders far and wide among topics and settings, but the whole book also tells one long tale about a period in its creator’s life, and by the time you’re done with it you feel you’ve spent some very worthwhile time with a great storyteller. Because you have.
John Belskis is the owner of Excellent Adventures in Ballston Spa, New York and the organizer of the twice-annual Albany Comic Con (an advertiser on Trouble With Comics). The following is his response to DC’s recently announced plans to relaunch their universe of superhero comic books and provide same-day digital download capability for their titles.
If the words, “desperate times need desperate measures,” were ever really spoken, I can’t think of a worse time to put them to use. The comic book business has seen its share of both, through its 85 years or so of existence. Even the direct market has had a fair share of both in these last 25 years, like Marvel’s hiccup, and bankruptcy, and Diamond becoming the sole distribution life of DM stores. As a longtime retailer, it’s obvious that the times are a-changin’ again. And probably need to.
DC’s market share has been dreadful, so I understand the need for change. With this economy, this much change this quickly can be, and probably will be, a disaster. Never mind that with 52 new #1s, there will soon be 52 old #6s, or that this is as much a “jumping off” point as it may be a “jumping on” point. The major focus here is about money, and getting more of it.
Now let’s talk about recent history. DC bought into the theory that it was okay to basically disregard small stores by arranging their discount structure to not allow smaller retailers to compete with a fair discount ( loss of market share). That was all handled matter of factly, with either “buy the amount we say, or forget you.” Any small store that was left, ordering with a 35% discount, was put off even more when they made all of their comics $2.99. Again making it more difficult, if you were on the cusp, to maintain that 50% discount (losing more market share).
Now, we move to, “Let’s reboot every title, oh yeah, and by the way, readers can buy them directly from us, at the cover price, online.” So now the larger stores that have maintained their discount can get squeezed out, too. Now, you can call this sour grapes, if you want, and maybe it is. But, I have to say, having been called “‘DC’s retail partner” for over 25 years, I think the partnership has been dissolved. I have been out of DC’s plans for two years now, without a phone call, or a rep saying “Hey, you have been an account for over 20 years, how can we help?” Terms have always been dictated, and Diamond has capitulated.
As retailers we were always obliged to carry the product so our customers can see it, and choose. Those days are done. The day and date release will only enhance the customers that already read the comics for free online now. For everyone who wants to own a printed copy, the problem will be finding a shop that will carry 52 #6s. I don’t think many will, forcing more readers to pay the online price, to read the books they cannot find. I doubt that DC will allow readers to read the book beforehand, as shops have done forever. This trend will eventually get people reading and using the online system, even if they don’t want to, and the segment will grow.
Finally, it will be easier, less travel, and less hassle to just get your books online. Here is the wrinkle that I want everyone to think about. When the shops are gone, and it’s just the big boys left with the major market stores, and DC’s online comics: Do you think they will be worried about keeping the price affordable for you? After all, you’re whose pocket they wanted to get in, in the first place. How much will you be willing to fork over for your Batman fix? In essence, you will be DC’s new “Consumer partner.” Have fun with that. I’ll enjoy my front row seat, at the destruction of the direct market. Thank you very much.
Writers - Dean Mullaney & Bruce Canwell Publisher - IDW Publishing $49.99 USD
I get a little uneasy calling anyone a genius, but since many folks I respect got there to slap that sobriquet on Alexander Toth way before me, I can live with it. There are really only a handful of true eccentrics and iconoclasts in the history of the comics medium. In recent years, publishers have gotten around to collecting most of the great comic strips from Herrimann, Schulz, Caniff, King and great comic book work from big names like Kirby, Eisner, Tezuka. Even more recently, reprint projects have begun focusing on early and lesser-known Steve Ditko work than his years at Marvel Comics, and now we get another game changer, this first of a lush, three-volume biography/retrospective on Toth.
As a comics legend, Toth falls somewhere between Ditko and Wallace Wood. Like Ditko, Toth became reclusive in later years without ever retiring. Like Wood, Toth made some rash decisions that would have negative consequences on his career. This volume covers Toth as a promising young artist learning under mentors like Frank Robbins, finding work fairly quickly and becoming quite a competent, even inventive stylist early on. Even the late ’40s material represented here, while often providing rather mundane, formulaic scripts for Toth, still made me a little frustrated not to be able to read every story through to completion, just to see how he put it all together. Fortunately, there are many complete stories in this volume, such as an early career highlight, 1950’s “Battle Flag of the Foreign Legion,” a brave and successful experiment in unusual p.o.v. and silhouette that works magnificently and was almost certainly an influence on B. Krigstein’s better-known “Master Race” art.
The ’50s started well enough for Toth, with regular work at National (DC), where he handled Westerns, Science Fiction, Romance and Superheroes with grace and increasing mastery of light, shade and depth, but a fabled conflict with editor Julius Schwartz caused an angry, humiliated Toth to leave DC for a time. In the short run, it was a win for Toth, who did some terrific work at Standard, often inked by his favorite embellisher, Mike Peppe, but in retrospect Toth hasn’t been as influential on succeeding generations of comic artists because much of his work has been hard to find. Every now and then, one sees echoes of Toth in an artist like Mike Mignola, Steve Rude or Michael Lark, but there has never been a wave of minimalism and chiaroscuro in comics. Maybe that’s a good thing, I dunno; you appreciate those folks more when you find them.
Mullaney and Canwell make excellent choices in presentation, sometimes presenting the work as it was printed, sometimes offering original pages to contrast Toth’s pencils with the finished product. As mentioned, even the pap is generally quite entertaining because of Toth’s efforts, his relentless pursuit of fresh perspectives and real-life faces and body language, but there are also some real gems, such as “The Crushed Gardenia,” one of the few Toth stories I was already familiar with from a crime anthology. It’s as stunning a portrait of a psychopath today as it must have been in 1953. “Grip of Life” and “Murder Mansion” are as good as most of the horror stories of the EC Comics heyday, and the complete “Jon Fury,” a crime serial Toth produced while stationed in post-war Japan, proves that Toth had some nascent writing talent he unfortunately didn’t pursue further. The lone Zorro story here is dynamite, and in the preferred black-and-white with the graytones Toth added in the late ’80s for collection.
As this volume closes, Toth has made some inroads into animation, with work on the cult series Clutch Cargo as well as the unproduced Space Angel, on a third failing marriage with a few kids from it, working hard to be a breadwinner while seething with every compromise he had to make. It’s an unalloyed but balanced account, leavened with comments from his children, who found him hard to live with while still feeling his love. Genius or no, Toth walked a rocky path for his art, experiencing great pains in the pursuit of the purest, most impactful arrangements of lines. The work presented is of an artist who could be called a genius, if genius means having a strong vision and the will to push oneself to realize it, while the biography presents the contrast, a man of flaws like any other, trying to be happy and fulfilled and trying to bringing the same to others, while often failing at both.
Christopher Allen: So, as everyone knows by now, DC Comics is relaunching every single one of their ongoing series on August 31st, as well as a bunch of new ones. Kevin Melrose at CBR and Kiel Phegley at Newsarama have done good work tracking the news we have so far. Basically, on that date, there will be 52 #1 issues, meaning relaunches of most current series as well as several more. Note, some are taking this to mean 52 new ongoing series, but DC doesn’t actually say this, so knowing their publishing practices, there will likely be several one-shots or miniseries addressing the aftermath or previously unseen, unnecessary crap related to this reboot. The other big news, though less sexy, is that on this date, DC will start offering their books digitally on the same day they hit the stands, a move rival Marvel Comics has yet to make.
Alan David Doane: It might be a good idea if top-flight talent were set loose on the titles and allowed to create great superhero comics. If Geoff Johns is writing Justice League, no such luck. Made of fail. Once again, as with Brightest Day, as with Marvel’s recent whatever-it-was-called relaunch that restarted Avengers and other titles, you can’t really have a new direction if you have the same talent on the books that have necessitated the new direction in the first fucking place!
CA: As far as the creative teams announced so far, I’m only interested in Superman, written by Grant Morrison and an as-yet-unnamed artist, with the two caveats that Morrison already wrote a great, self-contained Superman series already, and that DC may very well saddle him with another Kubert or someone worse. At least we know he won’t have Phillip Tan, as he will be doing his part to keep James Robinson’s Hawkman from soaring, pun intended. I would rather Morrison tackle Green Lantern (which Johns will naturally be keeping), or Hawkman, but from a career perspective, I understand him picking one of the biggest characters available. Johns will also be polluting Aquaman’s waters with Ivan Reis, another DC clock-puncher given to gore, clenched jaws and clenched buttcheeks. Johns and Jim Lee will be handling Justice League, at least for the first story arc, as Lee’s track record and multiple corporate duties will probably force him to hand off the book after that. Not very excited by the image I’ve seen so far; it’s easily the worst Superman Lee has drawn; the little collars on the costumes of Supes, GL and Aquaman are needless decoration to what were pretty elegant costumes. I don’t mind getting rid of Superman’s red trunks, though; makes sense. Lee’s Wonder Woman redesign looks better when he does it, I’ll admit. Not terribly excited about the Cyborg redesign, which looks more like, I dunno—Stryfe? It was a nice design that’s been turned into more of a ‘90s Image artists idea of kewl, but if you lose some of the fins it’s okay. Apparently Lee is a big fan of Cyborg, which explains his complete lack of involvement in anything to do with the character the past 15 years. But Jim Lee doesn’t age, so there wasn’t any hurry.
I thought this comment was funny: “He’s a character I really see as the modern-day, 21st-century superhero,” Johns said. “He represents all of us in a lot of ways. If we have a cellphone and we’re texting on it, we are a cyborg — that’s what a cyborg is, using technology as an extension of ourselves.” In other words, folks, Da Vinci? Shakespeare? Anderson Cooper? Anyone who has ever conveyed any information through a medium that did not originate within their own bodies is a cyborg. I mean, we already knew that about Anderson Cooper, but still. Johns is the architect of the DCU as it stands…
ADD: I just threw up in my mouth a little bit.
CA: …and being in the catbird seat with JLA, he’s going to unfortunately suck other writers into whatever the next big invasion/uprising/resurrection event he’s got planned. Let’s be honest: if the DC Universe truly started from scratch in 2011 and you had the likes of J.T. Krul, Tony Bedard, Fabian Nicieza and Judd Winnick writing your big superhero books, the company would go bust in six months. I think it’s great but typical comics fandom silliness that many folks are upset about Gail Simone not writing the new Birds of Prey (or Marc Guggenheim not writing JSA). Gail is a solid writer and a good employee, always online and enthusiastic about what she and her peers are doing. She doesn’t complain that her books never get much promotion or that her characters don’t play pivotal roles in the rest of the DCU. But Birds of Prey (and Secret Six) found their sales level under her, and it wasn’t high and it wasn’t going to improve. Try someone else and give her two new books.
ADD: As to Johns’s cyborg analogy, by that definition I think a monkey sticking a stick in an anthill to get a tasty treat is a cyborg, right? Johns’s ability to wear his high-70s IQ on his sleeve never fails to amaze me. To me this entire reboot looks like a catastrophe waiting to happen, a truly apocalyptic, end-of-everything-as-we-know-it disaster. Not that everything as we know it isn’t well and truly due for a punch in the face, but a lot of retailers are going to have trouble making their rent and paying for food if this goes bad, and there’s a greater than 50/50 chance that it will. I think dumping 50+ new #1 issues in one month could very well be the end for them. Apparently no one explained that one man’s jumping-on point is 50 fans’ jumping OFF point! But maybe I am biased, I haven’t bought a new issue of a DC title since Greg Rucka stopped writing Batwoman and I think Geoff Johns is the worst thing to happen to DC creatively in its entire history, so of course the lead book is his JLA, which I predict will be as lousy as the LAST time the title re-launched. How you can have a book called “JLA” and have it written by the late, great Dwayne McDuffie, one of the architects of the incredible animated JLA series, and STILL screw it up, only DC could pull that one off. But as trainwrecks go, this one should be entertaining to watch. I just wish it wasn’t coming at the expense of the livelihood of many thousands of retailers, and and at the expense of the goodwill and patience of readers — “fans” if you prefer — who have supported the company through their last half-decade or so of unreadability. The digital thing will be a disaster too. Apparently they don’t know that EVERY COMIC PUBLISHED is available FREE within 24 hours of release on the internet, and that the only people left buying paper copies are the very same ones who don’t want digital or don’t know how to get them that way. Never mind that the freely-available digital versions come without digital rights management and all the hassles that that entails.
CA: Well, I disagree with you on the day-and-date digital initiative. First, digital is becoming the way people read. They had to do it and they can’t give up just because there is piracy out there. You can find pirated movies, too, but that’s not stopping Netflix from streaming.
ADD: Agreed. My point, really, is that DC and everyone else should be looking at how pirated comics works in order to create a working model that will make them money. If they charge a good fraction of the retail price of a printed copy and include Digital Rights Management, you’re not going to bring the many thousands of people reading pirated comics for free every week into your big tent.
CA: As far as day-and-date digital affecting comics retailers, well, you can only keep back progress so long. DC and every other publisher are there to sell comics (well, service trademarks on intellectual properties that can then be exploited more profitably in other media, but that’s another discussion). Publishers already agree in many cases to sell collections in comics shops weeks or even a month before they hit online retailers like Amazon. As readers become more comfortable with digital comics, the ubiquity of TPB/HC collections will decrease, as will these longstanding agreements. DC is not there to help keep the charming, struggling LCS in business. They just give you the products. If the products are now available online, well, that sucks for you, but it just means the LCS has to do an even better job of offering additional value to the consumer. When I go to the shop, it’s partly because it’s the fastest legal way to get monthly issues, yes, but it’s also for the experience, the cool feeling in the shop and the opportunity to shoot the shit with the guy behind the counter about what we’re reading, what’s happening. But you know, for many people, they may find that it’s just as enjoyable to download their comics on Wednesday and then go talk to geeks where they buy burritos or coffee. As others have written, many of your superhero comics fans are quite comfortable with technology. Just as DC makes most of their sales from an aging, existing, dwindling fanbase, they have to give that fanbase an easy way to get the product. I do totally agree with the comment about jumping off. What if you’re a potential new reader who enters his LCS for the first time in October? Nothing but #2s all around. Very weird and short-sighted not to stagger things out over several months. Guess what? OMAC can wait his turn. It will hurt these second-and-third-tier books worse, but then DC usually takes a kind of Mama Seaturtle approach: a lot of those babies won’t make it to the water.
Ultimately, Alan, you said that the plan should have instead been to let top-flight talent loose to create great superhero comics. I’m not a guy who remembers a lot of quotes, but one that always stuck with me is Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” A lot of fandom is made up of those little minds, and publishers like DC have the tough task of trying to grow beyond those fans to reach new readers, while at the same satisfying those who are concerned that every story fit with every other story, even if that can’t help but hurt the quality of some of those stories by the restrictions it puts on the writers. The positive aspects of starting everything with some semblance of a clean slate are going to be immediately undone by the fact that some stories would have been better without a clean slate; that the talent leading the charge as announced so far is with one exception mediocre; and that the show is being run by Bob Harras and two Chief Creative Officers unproven as officers and not known for being creative, at least if you take creative to mean having a sense of wonder, novelty and the spark of life.
I don’t know exactly why I’m fired up. In very real terms, this affects me almost not at all, because I don’t read that many DC books to begin with and I have plenty of other things to read, and watch, and eat, and lick with my time. It would be nice if there were really cool DC comics for my kids to read, but my kids aren’t even really into comics. They liked the Timm/Dini cartoons and they like the recent superhero movies, and Bone, but most comic books I give them go unread. A forward-thinking company would be treating each book as its own special thing and exploring different formats and abandoning house art styles and intertitle continuity and crossovers and bullshit grubbing miniseries and specials. You want talent from a wide, and in many cases, younger, pool, rather than hiring that guy who meets his deadlines, toes the company line and regularly sells 15,000 copies. You want an atmosphere where almost anything can happen, where readers might be shocked and even irritated by what you’re doing with “their” heroes but it’s so entertaining you can’t stop reading it. Instead, it’s a culture where people are having meetings in conference rooms about whether the new Black Canary should have fishnets again, and which hero can be kill first so we can bring them back as a zombie.