Saturday, August 17, 2019

Books Without Borders: Recent Reviews

Updated February 13, 2020.

Since 2014, 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 (all have been for the P-G, unless otherwise noted):

February 16, 2020 (forthcoming):
Patrick Michael Lynch, The Know-It-All Society: Truth and Arrogance in Political Culture (Liveright / W.W. Norton & Company, $26.95).

Monday, August 5, 2019

King Kong Cover for Amazing Heroes!

Originally posted July 13, 2017; updated with an addendum below, August 5, 2019.

Perhaps the best piece of art I created for the entire King Kong adaptation I drew for Fantagraphics' Monster Comics imprint in the early 1990s never appeared as part of the series. Instead, it was the cover for Amazing Heroes, the little sister publication to their more upscale publication, The Comics Journal. Here is a look at the original colored blueline.

For more on the art of my Kong adaptation, visit my King Kong blog!

As I've said before, King Kong was perhaps the most poorly marketed comic book in history. After years of effort to get the Kong license, Fantagraphics' strategy was to serialize the work in six bi-monthly issues (as if readers could be kept in suspense for over a year when they already knew the film's ending), with guest cover artists. I was drafted as a semi-name to write and draw the adaptation from the novelization (securing the RKO movie rights was prohibitive), and I like to think I did a creditable job. With no advertising, the household-name status of the property was supposed to sell itself. Naturally, sales were disappointing. But Fantagraphics was of the mindset that commercial success in comics = lowering your artistic standards, not making a creative effort at marketing.

To be fair, this was also an era in which the entire industry was still thinking in terms of serialized comic books and was not instantly repackaging them as graphic novels, which came later. If there was ever a series that should never have been a series in the first place but have gone straight to a graphic novel it was King Kong. In my view, Fantagraphics frittered away a golden opportunity to market this project as the definitive King Kong comic book adaptation and at the same time pioneer the field of original graphic novels.

Years later, when the Peter Jackson remake came out, Dark Horse Comics, which had secured the license for a new adaptation, maliciously maneuvered to keep my adaptation off the market (by that logic, sales of the old film on DVD should have been halted so as not to interfere with sales of the new version) . Unfortunately, the co-copyright I own in this work (which I share with the Merian C. Cooper estate) gave me insufficient leverage to enable this work to be collected as a graphic novel, as many people thought it deserved.

Addendum (August 5, 2019):

Recently, I digitally remastered the original Kong colored greyline for an 11" x 17" entitled "Anne and the Ape."

About a year ago, following Pulpfest 2018 and FarmerCon 100, I explored the status of King Kong permissions in comics and was directed to illustrator Joe De Vito, who represents the Cooper Estate and Kong property in these matters. In an email, I introduced myself and suggested,
Just as different film versions of Kong coexist in the cinematic space, there have been various graphic versions of Kong; as I see it, these interpretations do not compete with one another so much as testify to the enduring strength and popularity of the character and mythos originated by Merian C. Cooper.
[...] a recent inventory of my storage locker reminded me that I still possess all of the original art to the Kong series (including alternate pages and rough sketches), which is black and white, as well as the color cover I did for Fantagraphics' Amazing Heroes. This summer, I scanned and retouched all of the story pages (Zip-A-Tone does not age well!), a labor of love.
I produced a very small number of bound photocopies of the work as "proof of concept" for a graphic novel collection, and as an historical document of sorts, to show to fans and fellow artists for comment. The feedback has been very positive, and I am more convinced than ever that a graphic novel edition of this work would be not only viable but well-received.

I have since learned that you, as DeVito Artworks, have put an enormous amount of effort creatively and legally into the Kong property, and are working closely with the Cooper family to ensure the character's ongoing integrity.

It is not my wish to infringe on the King Kong publishing trademark, held by you and the Cooper family, (or to step on any Kong-size toes!), but to seek ways that will build upon the partnership I entered into with the Merian C. Cooper estate in the creation of the 1990-1992 adaptation.
Joe's very cordial reply came back,
[I]t goes without saying that we are kindred spirits in regard to a love of both art and King Kong. [...] I am not sure if there is any possible synergy at this point with your Kong comics and the Kong properties of both the Coopers and myself.[...] The long/short is I believe that there are potential conflicts of ©, existing contractual, and other interests that will cross wires with what you suggest. [...] In the mean time, all business aside, as one artist to another I want to say that I highly respect your Kong work. It is most excellent and over the years has been admired by Kong fans everywhere!
For the time being, my adaptation of King Kong remains in limbo, although I have all original art and retain a small supply of the single issues (scour your local comic shop's 50-cent bin!). I remain hopeful that one day soon a mass-market collected version can be enjoyed by Kong fans everywhere.

For more on the art of my Kong adaptation, visit my King Kong blog!
Read my YA prose experiment The Ms. Megaton Man Weekly Serial! New chapter every Friday!

Thursday, August 1, 2019

Don't Look Now: Identifying with Heroes Is More than Demographic (or Skin Deep)

Don’t wait for someone who looks like you to live your dream before you do.

The whole “looks like me” movement is quite baffling to me. Who are all these people who’ve been waiting for some media figure (or some fictional character) to look like them before they could fulfill their potential? Who are these kids who need a sports or movie star, or Disney princess, to be of their complexion, nationality, or religion before they have the gumption to charge ahead? And where were all those real and ideal people who looked like something who modeled for the last two or three generations of minority achievers, who apparently didn’t have anyone who looked like them to serve as role models, but found their way to success despite this lack?

I don’t ever recall feeling that I looked like anybody growing up. I never saw anyone who looked exactly like me: blond with fine, wispy hair—the kind adult women always complemented and said they wish they’d had. I never knew any left-hand drawing, split-dexterity introverts with my proclivity to draw and make up stories. The first cartoonists and comic book artists I met—who encouraged me—were all African-American: James Malone, Keith Pollard, Arvell Jones. And they had all grown up reading mostly Italian- and Jewish-American-created comic books. Not skinny, fair-haired WASPs like me at all. None of them.

Kids of my generation who grew up to be writers and artists, generally, had no idea what the authors or artists they emulated looked like—or if they did, could not have cared less. Who wanted to look like Charles Dickens, or Shakespeare, or Homer—who knew what Homer looked like, anyway? The Bible was one of the most influential works of literature in nineteenth-century America, and the “J” writer of the Old Testament is believed to be a woman. Who knew what she looked like?

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a portrait of Charlotte Brontë (let alone knew anyone who spelled their name with an umlaut); I don’t think I ever saw a picture of Jack Kirby before I’d read dozens of his comic books. There were probably scores of singers and musicians I listened to on the radio whom I never would have recognized if I’d seen them on the street. The Electric Light Orchestra was a flying saucer, not the self-effacing Jeff Lynne; Chicago was little more than a logo, even though everyone in Michigan saw them at Pine Knob every summer (they were white guys in blue jeans and long hair, by the way, just like everyone I went to high school with—so I suppose they did look like me, more or less; they were just shy about it until the album Hot Streets, which finally featured a photo of them). Other bands, like Kiss, hid behind makeup and costume.

Does not look like me.

More to the point, tons of people who didn’t look like me at all influenced and shaped me, growing up. I wasn’t British like the Beatles or Monty Python; I wasn’t a woman with a big nose and enormous talent like Barbra Streisand; I didn’t have dark hair like Major Don West (Mark Goddard) of Lost in Space (although we shared a first name). Dorothy Gale (Judy Garland) in The Wizard of Oz and Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) of Star Wars swept me along on their adventures, but they looked nothing like me (unless you consider all white people look alike); I wasn’t a grizzled middle-aged reporter like Carl Kolchak (Darren McGavin) or a bionic country boy like Colonel Steve Austin (Lee Majors, The Six Million Dollar Man. And I wasn’t an African-America with lifelike hair, like the G.I. Joe I bought (a special catalog order from Sears—I was a pretty weird white kid). I didn’t look like any of the heroes or protagonists from the TV shows, animated movies, or literature I read as a kid or teenager, and I don’t seek out characters or creators who look like me know (Maya Angelou, the author I’m reading at the moment, looks nothing like me—yet I identify with her on so many other levels; topic for another blog post).

How many kids did you know who were wise-cracking grey rabbits from Brooklyn (Bugs Bunny) or fat, bald, hyperactive clowns like Curly Howard (The Three Stooges)?

Whether I knew what somebody looked like or not, and even and especially if they never looked like me at all, this never prevented me from identifying with and being inspired by my heroes. That’s never been the way I’ve understood these things to work.

Human beings have never needed central characters who “looked like me” to be swept along in a compelling story—whether an epic saga or a real-life adventure of achievement. It’s great that so many storytellers who grew with archetypes to follow have in turn created archetypes that looked like them (I have a few characters I’ve created who are blond boys and men, and some who are even middle-aged, paunchy and bald—all of whom look like I did at various times in my life; I’ve also created dozens of characters who don’t look like me at all—because I’ve met a lot of people who look nothing like me in my life, and I want to represent them in my imaginary world and tell their stories too).

But looking like anything has never been a prerequisite for a compelling story, real-life or fictional, either for storytellers or for audiences.

If all the heroes in real life or fiction waited for someone or something to look like them before they gave themselves permission to go on an adventure, they might have waited a very long time. And if somebody that looked like them had gone before them and done what they wanted to do, they wouldn’t have been original, would they? They wouldn’t have been pioneers. They wouldn’t have been heroes.And they and their stories probably wouldn’t have moved us very much.

In short, I suppose it’s nice when heroes—real or fictional—look like us; but it shouldn’t be a prerequisite. Who wants to wait for somebody to do exactly what you dreamed all your life of doing anyway? If you’ve been waiting for someone in some role in life to look like you before you could give yourself permission to follow your dream—or the dream of Harry Potter or Alice in Wonderland or The Little Engine that Could—I feel profoundly sad; I’m sorry that someone told you you had to wait. Because you never did.

Knowing that a human being somewhere did something or could do something—and that you’re a human being too—has always been and should always be enough.

Thursday, April 18, 2019

Ms. Meg Must-Read: Critical Rave for Clarissa!

This is an unsolicited comment from my colleague who is proofing and Beta-reading my Ms. Megaton Man Maxi-Series manuscript (you can read the same chapters right now online): 
"Finished chapters 1-7 of Clarissa James' memoirs. Really enjoying it. From what I've read, I wouldn’t change a thing. There's the right balance of exposition and movement, and I find Clarissa's voice to be a perfect fit for the story. Keep it coming and I look forward to catching up on chapters 8-10!"

Monday, April 1, 2019

Comics Hate Group “Cancels” Ms. Megaton Man!

megatropolis, n.y.—Don Simpson’s controversial new Ms. MegatonMan Maxi-Series has the comic book hate group FRFB (Far-Right Fanboys) calling for a boycott, citing the work’s alleged “Social Justice Warrior agenda” that threatens their insecure, toxic-masculine “hobby.”

Saturday, March 30, 2019

For Mature Readers: The Narrative Voice of Ms. Megaton Man

Telling the Ms. Megaton Man Maxi-Series in the first-person voice of Clarissa James solved a number of problems for me as I grappled with attempting to turn what had been a comic book series into a prose narrative. (As of this writing, six chapters have been posted online.)

Sunday, March 24, 2019

Too Secure for Words: Academia's Plain-Language Problem

I recently heard a news story on WESA-FM, the National Public Radio affiliate in Pittsburgh, on a program at the University of Pittsburgh on coding. It seems that some zillions and zillions of jobs are going unfilled nationwide, and some eight thousand in the Pittsburgh area alone. The story said that mid-career professionals who were contemplating a career change was the perfect applicant they were looking for the program.

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Thirty Years of Ms. Megaton Man: 1989 to 2019!

Here is the first page of sketches I did of Clarissa James in 1989 - up to that point a minor Civilian (Megapowerless) character in the cast of my Megaton Man comics - as Ms. Megaton Man. It was in an old hardbound sketchbook I took around to shows to collect sketches of interpretations of my characters from fellow pros (I've posted some of the more memorable ones here and there).

Sunday, March 17, 2019

My Latest False Start, or, Why the Ms. Megaton Man Maxi-Series, Anyway?

As of this writing, I have composed eight chapters of what I call my "YA prose experiment," the Ms. Megaton Man Maxi-Series. Four chapters have dropped, to use the modern parlance, on my Ms. Megaton Man Blog, and one is scheduled to drop over the next four Fridays at 8:30 pm EDT. And there's plenty more where that came from.