Wednesday, November 29, 2017

American Dreams, 2017: You're Busted, Creep!

John Hancock: Fortunately, there are not enough men of property in America to dictate policy.

John Dickinson: Perhaps not. But don't forget that most men with nothing would rather protect the possibility of becoming rich than face the reality of being poor. And that is why they will follow us ...

Dickinson and Congress (sung): To the right, ever to the right; Never to the left, forever to the right...

These words and lyrics from "Cool, Cool, Considerate Men," the big production number from 1776, the 1969 Broadway musical by Sherman Edwards and Peter Stone (famously cut from the 1972 movie version at the behest of President Richard M. Nixon), convey a profound truth about America.

Since colonial times, working-class Americans have been suckered into voting against their own personal and class interests, and for the interests of the wealthy, out of the sincere belief that they too, one day, will become rich.

Hence, of the last six presidents, four from the right or far right, and two from the center.

"You're busted, creep!"
Detail from Wendy Whitebread,
Undercover Slut
#2 (Eros Comix, 1992).
™ and © Anton Drek, all rights reserved.

A similar psychology prevails more generally in masculinity. Most men have just enough power and influence (and confidence) to make occasional passes at women, and to be shot down. Only a few have the power and influence to hit on every woman (or child, or social, economic, employment subordinate) that comes their way, coerce as many of them as they can by various hihg-pressure means into sexual favors, and retaliate against the rest with the help of lawyers, non-disclosure agreements, hush money, and various enablers (often, extensive networks that include other women).

Hence Bill Clinton, Bill Cosby, Jerry Sandusky, Harvey Weinstein, Louis C.K., Charlie Rose, Donald J. Trump, John Conyers, Judge Roy Moore, and a growing list of other posterboys for the MeToo Movement.

And the rest of us men, and society in general, shamefully, have been rooting for these guys all along.

Why? Because some day, every American male dreams of becoming rich and famous (and infinitely powerful). And when we do, we'll expect our endless supply of interns, starlets, young news producers, graduate students, adulating fans, groupies, Playboy Bunnies (or whatever demeaning terms we choose to name and conceive of sexual prey), etc. Such is the privilege of a successful career, according to the inviolable American dream.  (If you are a twelve year old boy; and boys will be boys).

Me too.

If 2017 has taught us anything, it is how obscene, tawdry, tasteless, self-centered, dehumanizing,  unsustainable, and destructive such delusions are. Both in the political and gender-relations spheres.

Whether or not the American Dream is actualizable (for a chosen few), fame and fortune, if it comes, should be channeled to higher pursuits than untrammeled promiscuity. And in any case our definition of sexual predation should not be the red line between assault or molestation vs. consensus, either. It should be the serial exploitation of the vulnerable that the privileged are expected to police themselves and one another against.

If you still believe a successful career entitles one to an endless supply of quarry to serially prey upon, and that coercion short of brute force is fair game, you haven't been paying attention in 2017. That kind of thinking should have passed away with Hugh Hefner earlier this year. Grow up.

And if you still think you're going to get rich, you're fired.

More on the abuses of Academic Privilege | Related: When Ethics Falls Prey to Collegiality

Saturday, November 25, 2017

Me Three: The Tip of the Predator Iceberg So Far

What the Me Too movement has revealed is not simply that men have been hitting on women, children, and every manner of subordinate and worse; it's that these people (Bill Cosby, Jerry Sandusky, Bill O'Reilly, Harvey Weinstein, TED Talks participants, Roy Moore, Charlie Rose, and many, many others) have networks of enablers and retaliators (not to mention lawyers, colleagues, and institutional administrations) to silence victims, and critics.

I know this personally because in 2014, I made elliptical allusions to certain well-known open secrets in the graduate program I had recently completed, and the retaliation was vicious and comprehensive. (Not only did several of my professors inform me that they would never compose a letter of recommendation that would be anything other than a poison pill in a tenure-track job search; but one cultural creative I once regarded highly stabbed me in the back as a freelance act of solidarity with the academic class, and exploited his influential position in the community to encourage other artists to turn on me for completely spurious reasons). And I was only a third-party ax-grinder shooting off my mouth; I can only imagine what it must be like for actual victims in such situations.

This is why I don't do political or editorial cartoons: I just don't have the requisite subtle touch!

Be that as it may, the standard should not be the line between consensual or non-consensual behavior; it should not be whether the grope was invited or not; it should not be whether the prey was underage at the time according to state law. It should be whether the predator was in a position of authority,  influence, and power over the prey, such that they had the means (economic, social, psychological, legal, collegial, referential, institutional, and otherwise) to retaliate against the accuser, and thus to enforce silence.

If a perpetrator is, say, a tenured professor at a research institution who is reputed to have bagged nearly every one of his female graduate students since the 1970s (for example), and has the power to withhold letters of recommendation (among other tools in the ol' toolbox), or is a renowned neurosurgeon who never saw a young nurse he couldn't keep his hands off of (an even more far-fetched hypothetical), it doesn't matter if every cheating affair their wives never suspected was completely consensual.

If someone takes advantage of their power over someone else to try to obtain love, and the wherewithal to take revenge on their object of affection when they are rejected or not, they are criminal. Because in such cases informed consent is a logical impossibility.

And it is time for the enablers and retaliators (male and female) who form codependent support networks for these predators to fess up.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Whither Drawing?

Here's what the 2016-2017 Handbook of the National Association of Schools of Art and Design has to say about a Bachelor of Fine Arts Degree in drawing (p. 103-104):
a. Understanding of basic design principles, concepts, media, and formats. The ability to place organization of design elements and the effective use of drawing media at the service of producing a specific aesthetic intent and a conceptual position. The development of solutions to aesthetic and design problems should continue throughout the degree program.
b. Understanding of the possibilities and limitations of the drawing medium.
c. Knowledge and skills in the use of basic tools and techniques sufficient to work from concept to finished product. This includes mastery of the traditional technical and conceptual approaches to drawing.
d. Functional knowledge of the history of drawing.
e. Extensive exploration of the many possibilities for innovative imagery and the manipulation of techniques available to the draftsman.
f. The completion of a final project related to the exhibition of original work.
Note that there is no mention of human anatomy, figure drawing, or manual perspective drawing (although computer-aided perspective is an advised competency).

From "Teaching Cartooning" in Streetwise (Two Morrows, 2000).

Here's what the handbook says about computers in general (p. 101):
Digital Media. The Bachelor of Fine Arts is appropriate as the undergraduate degree in which digital technology serves as the primary tool, medium, or environment for visual work. Titles of majors for these degrees include, but are not limited to: digital media, media arts, media design, multimedia, computer arts, digital arts, digital design, interactive design, Web design, and computer animation.
No mention of mastery of traditional fundamental drawing principals, and digital technology is the "primary tool."

This is why I am a self-taught figurative artist, and why I advise students to make the most of their college tuition pursuing a well-rounded "book-learning" liberal arts curriculum (English, languages, history, philosophy, sociology, etc.), and skip the BFA.

Art school in the broadest sense only makes sense for a profession that requires actual accreditation, such as architecture or interior design.

See also: The Withering Away of Drawing

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

'S Prose, Not Superheroes: Recently Read Real Books

I'm going through my second childhood--only this time, I'm reading prose fiction instead of wasting my time with dumbed-down ol' comic books!

Here's a snooty selection of what I've read over the past year or so, in no apparent order:

Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling--I read all seven books and watched all eight DVDs in eight weeks in the summer of 2015. I'm a late adopter--having worked at Border's in the early 2000s and probably handled (conservatively) some 10,000 individual copies of the various HP editions through the end of 2005 as a part-time bookseller. I never read a single sentence at the time, being exclusively interested in non-fiction (which lead to me returning to college for a decade-long stint). But I've read pp. 317-421 of The Prisoner of Azkaban (the Shrieking Shack sequence) a total of eight times--it's the most brilliantly orchestrated piece of storytelling I am aware of in any media.

The Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins--starts out very strong, but she's too committed to her three-act structure to see that it's going off the rails (and becoming mind-numbingly repetitious) by the middle of Catching Fire. Should have followed her instincts into the political satire of 1984 and Brave New World, and fattened up each book as she went, like Rowling. Hope she will do a grown-up dystopian exploration of this world someday.

Manhattan Transfer by John Dos Passos--a somewhat coldly modernist experiment, would have been better if he had followed the actress who is the de facto main character more thoroughly. Just the coolest title of all time, and no wonder Tim Hauser named his vocalese quartet after this book--even though the actual Manhattan Transfer was a completely unglamorous railroad stop in the middle of New Jersey swampland (as the book briefly depicts)--not the long-lost romantic transit hub a la Pennsylvania Station Hauser must have imagined.

Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret by Judy Bloom--mid-century secular suburban assimilationist propaganda hearkening back a lost Golden Age when we all watched three networks and ate Campbell's Soup. Margaret's obsession with "developing" is a literary theme I completely missed as a boy Marvel Comics reader.

An Abbreviated Life by Ariel Leve--a literary memoir (full book review forthcoming, so I don't want to spoil it), but also about a girl's life, and its aftereffects in adulthood. Moving and brilliantly constructed.

City of Ashes and City of Fallen Angels by Cassandra Clare--the faux-glamorous pseudonym should tell you all you need to know. I read books one and four in the Mortal Instruments series after seeing a young reader buying a stack of them at B&N. The Shadowhunters series (pleonasm, anyone?) tries to conjure the feeling of the later Harry Potter books--kind of a junior Order of the Phoenix--with steamier teens. Too many build-ups to clever ideas that go nowhere, like the Institute and the restaurant where you can order werewolf cuisine--Rowling would dramatize these ideas memorably, not just have them pedantically explained to Clary by unlikely character she meets. The fourth book shows some improvement, at least insofar as generating more compelling cliff-hangers.

The Barsoom Trilogy by Edgar Rice Burroughs--I read the first three John Carter books on my Nook (they are in the public domain on Project Gutenberg), and really was astonished. This guy is one hell of a writer, albeit politically and socially regressive. A nineteenth century American sensibility that could have only been formed between the Civil War and WWI. Reading The Cave Girl now, a much choppier work (but it seems to be getting better as it goes along) that I suspect was an earlier manuscript rejected before the success of Tarzan of the Ape and A Princess of Mars allowed ERB to unload it on a pulp magazine. All his main themes are present, albeit in primitive form--particularly the effeminizing effects of civilization, which apparently can always be reversed by a quick trip to the jungle.

End of Days by Susan Ee--unfair to start with the third book of a trilogy, I know. Aside from the complete trivialization of the incredibly compelling Watcher Angels material from the books of Enoch, I agree with the critics that it seems rushed and first-drafty, particularly in the second half. I couldn't tell if characters were in cars, flying, or water-skiing, but at least it was kinetic. Like Clare, suffers from rather wan humor.

About Harry Towns by Bruce Jay Friedman--the entire second-half of a lifetime takes place in the span of about ten years in this cocaine-saturated, Playboy-era satire of Hollywood and New York. Why isn't this guy more widely read today?

Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern--not as good as the critics would have it, but well-written and compelling. Not much of a contest ever really materializes between the two magical protagonists, but that doesn't matter because it's such a thoroughly realized world. Would like to read more.

Time and Narrative (three volumes) by Paul Ricoeur--okay, not prose fiction, but a work of literary theory that, along with Harry Potter, forms the most important educational experience I've had since grad school. I wonder if Rowling has read it--not that she has to, she already seems to have internalized its lessons of Aristotelian muthos or "emplotment."

Originally published on July 30, 2016; update July 11, 2017.

I'm currently reading or have recently read John Dos Passos' U.S.A. trilogy; Starship Troopers by Heinlein; Asimov's Foundation series; Wm. S. Burroughs Nova Express, The Ticket That Exploded, and others; The S.P. Mystery by Harriet Pyne Grove; To Your Scattered Bodies Go by Farmer; Triplanetary (expanded) by E.E. "Doc" Smith; Alice's Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll; The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights by Steinbeck; Idylls of the King by Tennyson; and a bit of Le Morte Darthur by Malory. More on those later.

Monday, June 5, 2017

Books Without Borders: Recent Reviews

Recently I have composed a number of reviews for book editor Tony Norman at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Here is a running list of the links:

June 4, 2017
Unwanted Advances: Sexual Paranoia Comes to Campus by Laura Kipnis (academia, society)

April 23, 2017
Free Women, Free Men: Sex, Gender, Feminism by Camille Paglia (cultural criticism)

August 7, 2016
Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging by Sebastian Junger (non-fiction/sociology)

July 10, 2016
The Haters by Jesse Andrews (young adult fiction)

March 6, 2016
Spectacle of Skill: Selected Writings of Robert Hughes (art criticism, memoir)

September 20, 2015 
Building Art: The Life and Work of Frank Gehry by Paul Goldberger (architecture, biography)

December 27, 2014
Lowriders in Space, Book 1 by Cathy Camper and Raúl the Third (graphic novel)

December 14, 2014
Second Avenue Caper: When Goodfellas, Divas, and Dealers Plotted Against the Plague by Joyce Brabner and Mark Zingarelli (graphic novel)

September 7, 2014
Masterful Marks: Cartoonists Who Changed the World edited by Monte Beauchamp (graphic novel)

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Books Without Borders: Recent Reviews

Recently I have composed a number of reviews for book editor Tony Norman at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Here is a running list of the links:

Forthcoming, 2016
Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging by Sebastian Junger (non-fiction/sociology)
An Abbreviated Life by Ariel Leve (memoir/psychology)

July 10, 2016
The Haters by Jesse Andrews (young adult)

March 6, 2016
Spectacle of Skill: Selected Writings of Robert Hughes (art criticism/memoir)

September 20, 2015
Building Art: The Life and Work of Frank Gehry by Paul Goldberger (architecture)

December 27, 2014
Lowriders in Space, Book 1 by Cathy Camper and Raúl the Third (graphic novel)

December 14, 2014
Second Avenue Caper: When Goodfellas, Divas, and Dealers Plotted Against the Plague by Joyce Brabner and Mark Zingarelli (graphic novel)

September 7, 2014
Masterful Marks: Cartoonists Who Changed the World edited by Monte Beauchamp (graphic novel)

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Whirled Building: The Working Out of Megaton Man's Megaverse

This is an unpublished page from 1984. Megaton Man #1 had already been accepted for publication by Kitchen Sink Press in April of that year, but a series of hang-ups with printers and promotion would delay the release until December. Over the spring and summer, asked if I could turn the one-shot into an ongoing series, I struggled to envision a series for the satire, producing dozens of stream-of-consciousness pages, none of which added up to a coherent whole. Later that summer, on a nice sunny day, I went for a long walk around Midtown Detroit (from my off-campus apartment near Wayne State University around the General Motors and Fisher Building in the so-called New Center area, rumored to be Ground Zero in case of Soviet missile attack), and got the idea for the second issue, which I drew from scratch in about five weeks. Of the 64 aborted pages, several made it into subsequent issues as set pieces and dream sequences. Other pages, like the one here, penciled in a manic emulation of Neal Adams, was never inked, but many of the narrative ideas were later redrawn, and still resonate in the new Megaton Man material I have been dreaming up!

Fans familiar with the original series will recognize the landing scene from issue #9, when the Partyers from Mars finally land in Megatropolis Central Park, albeit in a more primitive form. Uncle Farley, the Golden Age Megaton Man appears, along with Stella Starlight, Megaton Man's estranged girlfriend, now emphatically pregnant. While Stella appeared in civilian clothes in the published comic, here she appears as The Earth Mother, a persona she will not take in the Megaton Man narrative until Bizarre Heroes, the series I self-published in 1994 through 1996. The Devengers also appear (they appear for the first time in Megaton Man #8), except that the Angel of Death (not penciled in yet) is referred to as the Corpse Lady. In fact, Bad Guy hadn't even appeared in the series yet (he would not appear until #3), and yet here he is already a long-time nemesis of Megaton Man, and turning into Good Guy! Captain Androgynous has never appeared in any of my comics.

What is remarkable is how consistent my ideas have proven to be over the years. This piece of art would have been buried in storage when I was drawing Bizarre Heroes ten years later, and essentially forgotten, and yet the Earth Mother persona still resided in my imagination, her basic costume design (a kind of maillot unitard with gloves and boots) remaining intact, although the logo I would later give her looked more like the symbol for ecology. Colonel Turtle looks like an actual in this first draft; later he would be decidedly a middle-aged guy in a cumbersome costume.

There have been numerous other instances over the years of making notes, sketches, and misfired pages, and either misplacing them or simply never referring to them again, and yet when I finally get to putting an idea in a comic book story, I somehow manage to realize the original idea in most of its main its essentials, Later, when I unearth the original conception, I am surprised at how consistent my imagination is. I have also found this to be true for particular characterizations of such characters as Rex Rigid and Pamela Jointly. When I've written them into new storylines, I think I'm having them behaving in new, selfish, or malevolent ways, but then I go back and reread earlier comics, and realize that that has always been a part of their conception. It is reassuring to know that when I imagine something and establish it as "real" in my mind, it seldom gets lost just because I can no longer locate the original note or sketch.

As for this page, the new graphic novel I am working on, Megaton Man: Return to Megatropolis, still draws upon themes established in my mind practically when I came up with the name Megaton Man. Nuclear terror, psychotic machismo, extended non-traditional family arrangements, and in fact Simon Phloog, the son of Megaton Man and the Earth Mother, are all intrinsic elements in the ongoing storyline. Rest assured that as I have been elaborating new storylines (and endeavoring to retroactively World-Build), I have reread all the old comics so as to preserve established character history, which is how I've realized how consistent my notions are. (Or maybe I just don't have as many new, original ideas as I thought I had!) Previews of this new material can be seen in abundance almost as it is coming off the ol' drawing  board on the Megaton Man blog, with further publication details to be announced soon!

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Chain Culture: The Loss of Borders and the End of a World

When the Borders brothers sold their budding bookstore chain, the company was well known for its impeccable customer service, top-notch inventory system and large-format approach that uprooted the way the books were sold.

But the Borders shopping experience eroded over the years as the chain grew in size, management became unwieldy, the Internet encroached on sales and electronic books emerged as an alternative for avid book readers.[1]
A number of reasons have been given as to why Borders, a used bookstore founded in Ann Arbor in 1971 that became a retail chain in 1992, ended in bankruptcy in 2011. Among the most prevalent are: the rise of the ebook, competition with Amazon, overexpansion of retail locations, overinvestment in music sales, and various mismanagement decisions. quipped, “It died by a thousand—OK, maybe just four or five—self-inflicted paper cuts.”[2]

But Nathan Bomey is right when he places the erosion of the Borders shopping experience at the head of the list.

A shopping experience may be a more difficult thing to quantify than the ubiquitous assertion of mismanagement, but it is very real. In the case of Borders, the erosion of the shopping experience was deadly.

I grew up in suburban Detroit in the 1970s, about 40 minutes from Ann Arbor. Two youth counselors at my church had been students at the University of Michigan, and were well acquainted with the first Borders Store on State Street, and took us there on an expedition. This was not its very first location, but it was already a fully mature destination of wonder. Large, with brick walls and multiple levels, it seemed to have every coffee table art book under the sun, scholarly titles, mystical new age books, books on world cinema, and cultural journals. I never had any money in those days, but in the early 80s, when me and my friends haunted the art film houses ensconced all over campus, Borders was a place to explore before or between screenings. (Undoubtedly, the mystique of Borders influenced the naming of 1980s science fiction comic book saga Border Worlds.)

When store #9 appeared in the South Hills of Pittsburgh in the early 90s, I did have money, and I spent a lot of it there. I can’t remember if I saw the store logo driving past, or heard about it from a friend, but as soon as I learned that a Borders store had opened, I realized that the world had become a better place. It was not as great as the Ann Arbor location, but it was still a destination and a treasure house. I spent many a rainy Saturday night there, sipping coffee and coming home with Neil Forsyth’s The Old Enemy: Satan and the Combat Myth, or Joseph Campbell, or many a coffee table book that I still have in my library.

When store #174 open in the North Hills, it was not as great as store #9, it was still good. From 2000 to 2005, I worked there part time on and off. It was there that I was inspired to go back to school, finally earning my PhD in art history in 2013. This was during the heyday of Harry Potter and Chicken Soup, and one of my own freelance illustration jobs, for Al Franken’s Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right appeared. It was only slightly absurd that the book for which I had drawn The Adventures of Supply Side Jesus was one of the innumerable items I rang up as a cashier, or helped people to locate as a bookseller. (No, I never mentioned that, by the way, I was the cartoonist!)

But I was not that unusual in having an example of my work on sale at Borders. A number of the staff were highly creative, particularly in music but also in theater. The manager recorded a smooth country album produced by another employee that played on the store sound system for several weeks, and other employees often had publications and creative offerings of one sort or another featured in the store.

Life without Culture: Undoubtedly, the mystique of Borders influenced the naming of 1980s science fiction comic book saga Border Worlds. An unpublished panel.
But during my time at Borders, the shopping or customer experience did erode noticeably, along with the employee experience, at the end of my time there quite precipitously. At the beginning, each store had its own CRC or Community Relations Coordinator, a person responsible for scheduling events such as folk singers in the café, local author signings, or weekly or monthly meetings of the poetry group; it had a rack of free brochures and local independent newsweeklies; a plethora of scholarly titles; and still a wide selection of off-beat magazines. Most importantly, it had knowledgeable employees who cared about culture in its manifold forms.

But quickly the CRCs were replaced by regional staffers overseeing multiple stores, and finally event planners in the corporate headquarters. The quirky folk singers were routed out, and events were stripped down to a few big-label music releases. Author signings followed suit, with local authors eliminated for fewer, bigger national names. Groups that were once given coupons for free cups of coffee and announced over the store sound system were quietly eliminated. The number of sofas and chairs strewn about the store for customers were eliminated, as well as (maliciously) the stools for employees manning the service desk. The brochure rack disappeared.

None of these clunky, handmade aspects of Borders were profit centers in and of themselves, and many of them were inefficient and bothersome to employees. I personally found the local iteration of the Socrates Café, a meeting of overly loud bullshitters named after the book, extremely fatuous. But they all contributed to the atmosphere of Borders as a unique, even sometimes bizarre experience, and their loss contributed to the erosion of the shopping experience and, guess what, the bottom line.

A word about those knowledgeable employees: a typical Borders bookseller was college educated, perhaps changed majors too many times to complete a degree, maybe had even dropped out of grad school, or was by temperament or otherwise unsuited either to academia or the corporate business world. For these sensitive souls, work at a chain bookstore at slightly above minimum wage might not have amounted to a career, but it allowed them to utilize their minds and earn an employee discount, and to be among some of the rich cultural resources that they loved.

Such a labor pool certainly existed in Ann Arbor in the 1970s, and nearly every major city and college town into which the Borders chain initially expanded had a ready supply of such employees. In more than one way, the growth of the chain eventually outstripped this labor pool, and by the early 2000s (myself notwithstanding), such knowledgeable, geeky, cultured, and book-loving employees were in increasing short supply. (College, it seemed, had become too expensive for humanities majors, or at least for humanities majors to drop out before completing their degrees and getting a real job to pay back their student loans.) New employees could have been working in any kind of retail or fast food business, and manifestly could not have cared less about books or culture. Indeed, many of the older, knowledgeable employees of the type that built the Borders brand were consciously being routed out by management as the 2000s wore on, along with the free weekly newspapers, the quirky folk singers, and the pompous poetry groups.

While ringing up a Schaum’s Algebra workbook in 2002, I had a serendipitous (serendipity being one of my church youth counselors’ favorite words) moment, and realized I should go back to college. I started part-time in January 2003 at the Community College of Allegheny County, and was full-time by the fall. I earned 60 gen ed transfer credits and started at Pitt in 2005. During this time I phased out my part-time employment at Borders, which finally concluded with the end of the 2005 Christmas season (a notoriously bullying manager that had been transferred to our store was summarily fired after the holidays). By this time, the chain had already cultivated a corporate feel virtually indistinguishable from Barnes & Noble.

It is important to note that even as store stock contracted and the notorious Categories scheme was implemented (turning the de facto control of entire genres over to the highest-bidding publishers), it was still useful to work part-time at Borders even and especially as I returned to school full-time. Familiar with the ordering system, I could make SPOs (special purchase orders) of virtually any title in print and quite a few out of print (particularly those I needed for school), usually at the highest employee discount rate, and virtually risk-free, making it more convenient than Amazon. At some point, however, working at Borders became not worth it, and ordering through Amazon became the preferred mode of acquiring necessary books during grad school.

I still occasionally shopped there, but my own shopping experience was noticeably less enjoyable than in the past. Selection was curtailed, bland bestsellers dominated, games and gifts replaced scholarly titles, and it became easier to order books for school online. It was no longer a destination or a treasure house, but a cold, unfeeling, alienating experience.

The shopping experience had eroded over the years. Was nobody watching?

I still miss Borders every rainy Saturday night, like one sometimes yearns for a bygone lover.

Friday, July 24, 2015

The Bizarre Heroes Fiasco: How Megaton Man #11 Still Almost Happened!

The History of Megaton Man, Part III: The Image Tent and Bizarre Heroes | Part I | Part II

Our Story Thus Far: For a three-year period, from December 1984 to October 1987, I had created 17 consecutive bimonthly comic book issues for my first publisher, Kitchen Sink Press. These included the color Megaton Man #1-10, a color superhero parody, and black-and-white Border Worlds #1-7, a dark, brooding science fiction saga for mature readers. Each issue averaged more than 33 pages per, for a total of 510 pages of story, art, and lettering (with some coloring), an accomplishment unmatched by any other creator for the imprint.

During the second three-year period, from 1988 through 1990, I created only half that amount of material, or about 250 pages, in eight comic book issues. These included Return of Megaton Man #1-3, Megaton Man Meets the Uncategorizable X+Thems #1, Yarn Man #1, and Pteranoman #1, all of which furthered the Megaton Man narrative; Bizarre Heroes #1, a dramatic superhero tale about Megaclones being cooked up in a secret research lab; and Border Worlds: Marooned #1, an adults-only eighth issue of my unfinished space station epic.

All tolled, my 750 pages for Kitchen Sink Press in six years would remain an unmatched achievement by any other creator in the publisher’s history, including Will Eisner, who created about as much new material over a 30-year association with the publisher, but not exclusively (works such as The Building, for example, were first published in England some time before appearing in a Kitchen Sink Press edition in North America).

The dividing line had been what I wanted to call Megaton Man #11, but which, after the publisher’s initial acceptance, was by decree renumbered #1, becoming the first issue of the Return of Megaton Man three-issue mini-series. The communication I received from the publisher around Thanksgiving 1987, just in time for my 26th birthday, was filled with brutal bullying, verbal abuse, gross distortions, and uncharitable exaggerations: I was called a prima donna, a hack, and a spoiled egomaniac; I was told that I had killed or abandoned Megaton Man and Border Worlds simply because I had tired of them; and that I had betrayed my fans and publisher, all because I was incensed that the publisher had reneged on his agreement to maintain the consecutive numbering of Megaton Man with issue #11, and had the temerity to point out how a new #1 was a cheap gimmick that belied publishing impotence (see Part II).

Instead, I had been remonstrated by the publisher,

No one the fuck will care about the numbering in the long run if the strip itself has substance. That is the real goal. The short-term pragmatic decisions in the realm of packaging and marketing are traditionally (and best) left to the publisher. Your input is welcome, and you damn well know I’ve been responsive to your input. Your demands are another thing altogether; they are intrusive and likely to backfire.

I was further taunted,

And if you don’t think any publisher can handle your genius, you can always become another Dave Sim, create your “own” self-publishing empire and peddle whatever you want however you want and eliminate the evil middleman. Believe me, it ain’t easy. Settle down and learn to trust my judgment more. Second-guessing everything is your prerogative, but you’re scattering your energy in what I see as a self-destructive path. You’re diluting your output and hurting both of us. Get back to the drawing board and produce that pace-setting comic that stands toe to toe with the best. And then, believe me, we’ll both profit. [1]

As I had tried to explain, maintaining the consecutive numbering of Megaton Man was important to my sense of extending a cohesive, organic narrative, one that, much as my erstwhile editor had suggested, viewed the characters over the long-haul as more than mere parody vehicles. Conversely, the repetitious #1 ploy, which by1988 had metastasized into a virtual declaration by the publisher that they were not really interested in publishing anything but Don Simpson #1s ever again (see Part II), fractured my sense of Megaton Man as a coherent, ongoing narrative, and severely retarded the organic growth of the characters and the relationships that I wanted to explore. The need I felt to creatively justify the gratuitous #1s also slowed down my imaginative process as I tried my best to make each stand-alone issue more than just a marketing gimmick.

In retrospect, I regard the Megaton Man #11 moment as one in which I might have been induced to create Megaton Man once again on a regular frequency. Instead, the strict #1 regiment enforced upon me a piecemeal, Ground Hog Day routine in perpetuity, ironically guaranteeing a scattering of my creative energies and dilution of what had been an unmatched, consistent output. On the one hand, I was free to draw any comic book I wanted each and every time out (dramatic superhero, science fiction, comedy, underground, etc.), but on the other, any feeling of momentum of an ongoing “strip” was perpetually being erased with the next #1. Worse, the marketing gimmick boomeranged; not only could I no longer recall how many Megaton Man issues I had created, but neither could my fans.

The last straw came at a convention in Ohio in late 1989, where I met an ardent Megaton Man fan who monitored the industry closely and ordered comics every month from their local shop. This particular fan had no idea that Yarn Man #1 had already come and gone, and completely missed it. Had the miniseries and one-shots been consecutively numbered (Megaton Man #14, #15, #16), overlooking a back-issue would have been impossible. Moreover, sales for the one-shots were falling, and I was subsidizing my creator-owned work by freelancing “work-for-hire” assignments from third parties (mostly DC Comics and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles), which involved illustrating scripts for comics that I did not own, but which rewarded my labor in multiples over what I had ever earned from royalties on my creator-owned work. Kitchen Sink no longer treated a new Don Simpson #1 as any kind of special event, and for the most part dumped my work onto the market with little fanfare. [2] By 1990, I can vividly recall, I felt that I would have rather thrown the original artwork for my next creator-owned comic book into the river than have it appear with a Kitchen Sink logo on the cover.

Our parting of the ways was formalized in 1991, and I bought out the “first right of refusal” clause in my contracts in exchange for the original artwork for Megaton Man #1, the original comic book that had taken me 13 months to complete while washing dishes at a restaurant in Detroit. I was now free and clear to market any sequels to Megaton Man, Border Worlds, or Bizarre Heroes to another publisher, or self-publish.

My first order of business was to devise a piece of work I could sell at convention appearances. I had always been fascinated by the letterhead of the Joe Simon and Jack Kirby studio from the 1940s, which showed a variety of their creations for different publishers including Captain America for Timely and the “kid gangs” for National, all arrayed in a “class portrait.” I decided I would design a limited-edition print of all my characters from Megaton Man and Border Worlds, as well as characters I had created as far back as junior high school, along with the explicitly erotic characters I had created under the pseudonym Anton Drek for Fantagraphics, Wendy Whitebread, Undercover Slut and Forbidden Frankenstein, into a similar class portrait.

All my scattered, diluted energies in one place for the first time: the 1991 limited edition print.

The Simon-Kirby letterhead showed the Red Skull chatting amiably with an elegant gentleman in a Sherlock Holmes deerstalker cap, and other characters created for diverse competitors in the comics publishing industry interacting freely, if only for promotional purposes. No doubt, this image had inspired the famous wrap-around cover to the publication in which I had seen it reprinted as a ten-year old in the early 70s, Steranko’s History of Comics, Volume I. This piece including superhero and adventure characters from nearly every publisher, composed in a spellbinding mosaic.

Neither the Steranko cover, nor its inspiration, the Simon-Kirby letterhead, offered “real” interaction between these fictional characters in a narrative sense. While it was apparently permissible, either for self-promotion or historical interest, to group Spider-Man and Superman, or Captain America and the Guardian, in the same drawing, these events were not “really” happening (it would be years before cross-company team-ups made this possible). Further, I had been equal parts appalled and enthralled by Philip José Farmer’s “family tree” concept, in which pulp character like Doc Savage, Tarzan, and the Shadow turned out to be related (what has come to be known as the “Wold-Newton Universe”).

The Simon-Kirby studio letterhead of the 1940s, featuring their creations for various publishers oddly mis-colored.
As I created the artwork for my own print, I pondered the paradox of Jetstream, a Megaclone from Bizarre Heroes #1, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the Frankenstein monster, and Jenny Woodlore from Border Worlds in the same contiguous space as Domina from Megaton Man Meets the Uncategorizable X+Thems #1. These various narratives were rigidly partitioned in my imagination, not only by time (the future setting of Border Worlds versus the contemporary setting of everything else), but also by humor and “straight” superheroics. But these partitions were self-imposed, not legal or contractural, as were the boundaries separating the characters in the Steranko or Simon-Kirby drawings that inspired my print.

Not only was I free from the constraints of the tyrannical mindset of my old publisher, for whom publishing Gay Comics and Steve Canyon made perfect branding sense (but for whom my eclectic experiments were a dilution and scattering of energies); I was also free to transgress the artificial boundaries I had imposed upon myself. Not only could I draw all of my various characters interacting in a “class portrait” for a poster-print; I could actually tell stories with these characters if I felt like it.

The spell-binding wrap-around cover to The Steranko History of Comics Volume I (Supergraphics, 1971), which I first saw in 1973 at the age of 11. What if you could tell stories with all these characters, mashed up in a single universe?

I was most eager to continue the narrative of the Bizarre Heroes one-shot I created in my latter days at Kitchen Sink Press. This featured John Bradford, a younger, hipper version of Kolchak: The Night Stalker, and The Meddler, a character whose originated as a Halloween costume I made in ninth grade, and the aforementioned mystery of a secret lab manufacturing Megaclones. These Megaclones were super-powered beings based on normal people that were grown in cylinders to become perfect specimens of humanity. Upon maturity, they would replace their counterparts in the real world, assuming their civilian identities until called upon by a fanatic eugenicist (maliciously made to resemble Will Eisner) to take over society. At the end of the issue, four Megaclones had escaped, posing a threat to this evil scheme, and The Meddler had caught wind of these developments.
A dramatic superhero comic: Bizarre Heroes #1 (Kitchen Sink Press, 1990).

In my post-Kitchen Sink period, I now planned to continue this storyline, particularly wanting to introduce a group of characters around The Meddler I had created in junior high school that I had called The Crime Busters, and had intended for comics but had never utilized. These included Clown, Master of Disguise; B-50, the Hybrid Man; Negative Man (now sometimes Negative Woman); The Slick (a new name for a hitherto unnamed character); and more. This was clearly juvenilia recalled from my days as an enthusiastic reader of comics and Doc Savage paperbacks, but of such stuff enthusiastic comics could be made.

But the print I created suggested further possibilities. What if The Phantom Jungle Girl, ostensibly a humorous character when she hung around with Cowboy Gorilla or The Brilliant Brain, was The Meddler’s lover? What if Clarissa James, the Detroiter who became Ms. Megaton Man, were to flirt with John Bradford, columnist for The Detroit Day? What if Megaton Man could meet Forbidden Frankenstein?

I decided that a new, ongoing series would establish all of my contemporary characters in a single, organic universe, including those from the Megaton Man comics as well as my Anton Drek comics (with plans to eventually bring some of the Border Worlds cast time-travelling back to late-twentieth-century Detroit). Bizarre Heroes #1, the Kitchen Sink one-shot, would retroactively become the “pilot episode,” and the its Megaclone storyline as the over-arching framework for the series. Once I had established all of my creations in one Megaverse, I could explore various characters and genres to my heart’s content, guaranteeing that I would never run out of fresh inspiration or ideas. Creatively, I would have a field day, and rather than diluting or scattering my energies, I would be able to concentrate all my creativity in a single, ongoing series that would be numbered #1, #2, #3, and so on indefinitely.

My cash cow, Megaton Man, was only there to launch the series, but the joke was on me:  the Megaton Man narrative would soon take over the whole darn book. Don Simpson's Bizarre Heroes #1 (Fiasco Comics, Inc., 1994).

The problem was finding a new publisher, which I was loathe to do, or finding the funding to publish Don Simpson’s Bizarre Heroes myself. This problem was soon solved by the Image tent.

At the time, several prominent Marvel creators had defected from the company (rebellion was in the wind), to form their own imprint, at first in association with Malibu Comics. The first public event was held at the 1992 Chicago Comicon, to be housed in a large tent erected in the parking lot outside the convention hotel. Arrangements for this were coordinated by Gary Colabuono’s Moondog’s Comics, a Chicago chain, and my his staff, who consisted of Larry Marder, Chris Ecker, and Bevin Brown, who would run security.

To make a long story very short, Larry Marder, creator of Tales of the Beanworld, had been my friend for a long time, and in fact when I unexpectedly met him at Chicago distributor’s warehouse party in 1985, I was carrying around Tales of the Beanworld #1 which I had bought at a store signing I did months before but had forgotten about. Larry was working closely with Image upstarts Jim Valentino and Rob Liefeld on the Image Tent, and one day called me up to tell me that they wanted me to draw a parody book of their shared universe. Larry wisely understood that I would have likely blown a cold call, but I was prepared when Jim and Rob phoned me, and Splitting Image was born. When the actual Chicago Comicon with Image Tent occurred, I spent half my time inside the hotel in Artists’ Alley, and half outside in the parking lot, soaking up the ambiance of the rebellion. Erik Larsen proposed a team-up between his character, The Savage Dragon, and Megaton Man.

From a narrative standpoint, the two Image Megaton Man team-ups I would go on to do did little to advance the Megaton Man narrative; indeed, they only further affirmed the view instilled in me by erstwhile publisher Denis Kitchen that Megaton Man was merely a cash cow, worthy of only hit-and-run one-shots, and useful only for funding other projects. On the other hand, the Image team-ups exposed the character to an audience far larger than Megaton Man had ever enjoyed at Kitchen Sink Press, and the six-figure windfall that fell into my lap as a result of Splitting Image #1 and #2, The Savage Dragon vs. The Savage Megaton Man #1, and later Alan Moore, Rick Veitch, and Steve Bissette’s 1963 and Jim Valentino’s normalman/Megaton Man Special, gave me the nest egg I needed to launch Don Simpson’s Bizarre Heroes under my own imprint, Fiasco Comics.

In many respects, while creatively exhilarating, the format I settled upon for Bizarre Heroes proved too improvisational, freewheeling, and undisciplined to maintain reader attention. Characters were introduced but did not appear again for several issues; storylines and subplots proliferated uncontrollably; there were lots of fan favorites among the cast, but no stars to anchor the series.

John Bradford, a character I had created in junior high school, witnesses a Megaclone riot in Bizarre Heroes #12.

On the other hand, Megaton Man and his supporting cast, who had been on hand to launch Don Simpson’s Bizarre Heroes #1, would not go away quietly. Even though the Man of Molecules was relatively the new kid on the block, having been created only in 1982, whereas John Bradford first appeared in a short story I wrote in seventh grade in 1974, I realized that I had formed long attachments to these characters through experience of sixteen Kitchen Sink comic book issues (ten issues of Megaton Man, the three-issue Return of Megaton Man mini-series, and three Megaton Man one-shots). Within a few issues of DSBH, Megaton Man had a new sidekick, X-Ray Boy; Stella Starlight, the mother of Megaton Man’s son Simon, had evolved from The See-Thru Girl into The Earth Mother and for all intents and purposes assumed leadership of the Crime Busters; and Yarn Man, Cowboy Gorilla, and Gower Goose were raising hell in a VW van, oblivious to the Megaclone threat.

Covers such as this vividly illustrated the Megaton Man narrative beginning to predominate over the Megaclone storyline. Bizarre Heroes #9 (Fiasco Comics, Inc., February 1995).
By issue #10, it was becoming obvious to me that the Megaton Man narrative was beginning to supplant the Megaclone storyline. As I began work on the eleventh issue, I prepared two versions of the cover, one with the Bizarre Heroes logo, the other with the Megaton Man logo. I sent photocopies to Jeff Smith, creator of Bone, at Cartoon Books in Columbus, Ohio, from my Fiasco Comics, Inc. office space in Pittsburgh. I remember the phone call; Jeff urged me to go with Megaton Man #11.

The search was really for Megaton Man, and an alternate design had the Megaton Man logo predominating, almost making this issue Megaton Man #11.

I really wanted to, but I knew I had at least several more issues in which the Megaclone storyline would predominate. However, within a year, Bizarre Heroes #15, essentially a solo issue featuring The Slick, would be the last for the time being to concentrate on characters from junior high school. Bizarre Heroes #16 would be doubly-titled Megaton Man vs. Forbidden Frankenstein #1, and Bizarre Heroes #17 would be co-titled Megaton Man #0. The latter was more of an illustrated text than a comic book story, presenting an overview of the imaginative world I was then calling the Fiascoverse, but now am inclined to call the Megaverse. The final page showed the hotrod from Border Worlds, gesturing toward the time-travel interlude I had planned but still hadn’t gotten to.

After a seventeen issue run (mirroring the seventeen non-Border Worlds issues at Kitchen Sink Press), my Image nest egg was exhausted and the comic book industry began to fall apart. In 1996, more than a dozen comic book distributors collapsed into two, then finally one; hundreds of independent comic book shops closed up, and I decided to fold my tent. After a dozen years in the print comic book industry, I had proven my point: I could publish and promote my own work as badly as had Kitchen Sink Press! [3]

Next: The Megaton Man Weekly Serial and a few more Megaton Man comics at Image...

Go Back and Read Megaton Man: The Kitchen Sink Years Part I | Part II
More at The Bizarre Heroes Blog!

Read “How Megaton Man Has Evolved in Thirty Years and Why I’m Still Creating Him”

[1] Denis Kitchen, letter to Don Simpson, November 25, 1987.
[2] Paradoxically, during the same period of 1988-1990, Xenozoic Tales by Mark Schultz dropped in frequency from three to two to one per year, yet remained unproblematically sequentially-numbered, and continued so even when it dropped to one every two years through the mid-1990s. See Xenozoic Tales at ComicBook Database.
[3] Worse still, I had abandoned a third comic book series, just because I felt like it!