The Sponsor

one panel from the Sponsor

I’m not a cartoonist myself, but I can’t pretend James Sturm’s The Sponsor didn’t hit home for me. It’s childish, it’s stupid to feel envious of people who do better than you, you should always focus on your own achievements rather than measure them against other people, art is not a zero sum game, but damn if I don’t feel that sting of despair sometimes. Even in something as ephemeral as blogging, it does hurt now and then not to have a little bit of pretend internet fame like blogger X.

And then I read my own posts back and I realise why that is.

There’s been a bit of controversy about this comic though, as some people felt this wasn’t a gentle satire of creative insecurity, but rather an attack on a specific young, upandcoming cartoonist. Unfortunately this seems to have mostly been alluded to rather than actually discussed, with this debate mostly happening via various back channels, leaving those of us not plugged in clueless as to why this was problematic.

I posted this comic to MetaFilter partially to see if somebody could enlighten me and Narrative Priorities at the very least put her finger on why there was a bit of unfortunate undertone to the strip, something I noticed myself as well:

There is some not-so-great subtext to the particulars of how this specific comic was executed. The dismissive comment about “online crap.” The fact that these are two male cartoonists referencing another male cartoonist while they try to bear up under the weight of a woman cartoonist’s success — which is treated like some kind of tragedy that these men have to suffer through. The fact that this isn’t just about how this particular young male cartoonist is having a rough time and not getting the attention he’d like, or how there’s some larger trend in comics that’s bumming him out, but rather a single woman’s life and work and accomplishments trotted out as if they’re slaps across his face, when ACTUALLY her life and work have nothing to do with him.

But I think that the gender of the rival is incidental, if unfortunate, to the comic’s main point, which is more to mock this angst than it is to validate it, even if it’s done sympathetically. If Sturm had set out to mock or attack the more successful rival, he would’ve been meaner about it.

As to who would’ve been the cartoonist supposedly targeted by Sturm, Narrative Priorities reports says most people seem to think it’s Lucy Knisely, which I can sort of see as she is young, very successful for a cartoonist and deservedly so. It just seems such a roundabout way to go about attacking somebody.

And the discussion about it has annoyed me, because it has been so coy and been the same sort of whisper networks and back channels that have been so problematic in other contexts. These sort of things need to be done out in the open, both so that readers can make their minds up based on all information available and so Sturm can defend himself against the accusations, rather than have it hanging over his head as something “everybody knows”.

Actually, I’d rather have Captain America: Serpent Society

Amongst all the news of more, many more superhero blockbuster movies to be put out by Marvel, was one announcement that made very happy, until it didn’t:

11:16 a.m. — Feige points out the Russo brothers in the audience, and says, “they reinvented the franchise of Captain America, they shattered and changed everything going forward, and they will be back for Captain America 3.” The subtitle for the film (out May 6, 2016) will apparently be Serpent Society. (Some disappointed faces in the crowd, hoping for Civil War.)


After that Avengers 2 footage showing the hard feelings between Rogers and Stark, Feige says he’s been having second thoughts about that Serpent Society subtitle for Captain America 3. A new title card appears, giving the fans what they want: Civil War.

Maybe I’m alone in this, but I’d much rather see Captain America versus the Serpent Society, rather than a movie rethread of what was probably the dumbest story Marvel has ever published (perhaps second only to Alice is a skrull). It’s not just that Civil War made no sense and makes even less in the movies, for all the reasons John Seavey lays out here, but that it goes against the very core principles of the Marvel Universe: righteous rebellion against overbearing authority.

Let’s not forget that Steve Rogers himself was a premature anti-fascist when he socked Adolph Hitler on the jaw, a year before the US would enter World War II. Or that the foundational act of the Silver Age Marvel Universe is the Fantastic Four stealing their rocket from the army to launch into space, against the wishes of the military brass.

Civil War went against this, by arguing that the establishment is right, that superheroes cannot be trusted without supervision by a quasi fascist, paramilitary organisation.This is supposed to be realistic, like heroes using torture, but it’s a very adolescent sort of realism. Despite the attempts to dial down the worst effects of the Civil War, much of the MU still suffers from this sort of realism, of endless stories of heroes torturing and killing and forming shadowy groups to take the though decisions that can’t be left to lesser people and the even more endless talking about it. Marvel’s cinametic universe also suffers a lot from this, but this is more an artifact of the post-Bush political landscape it was constructed in, rather than a deliberate decision to piss on seventy years of Marvel history.

supervillains who just want to unionise, not take over the world

The Serpent Society on the other hand, for all that it’s used here as a dumb punchline, was actually a pretty good attempt at creating a realistic supervillain group, one without delusions of grandeur, not wanting to rule the world, just wanting a proper dental plan and decent legal coverage. that’s right, the supervillains team up to form a union, to defend themselves not against the heroes, but the harsh realities of Reagan’s economy.

It’s a typical Gruenwald sort of story, where you have a core of realism in an old school, bronze age capes vs capes superhero story. Gruenwald always worked within the confines of the monthly superhero comic grind, a fact that might have worked against the recognition of him as a writer, at his best when he was on Captain America. Having a bunch of second and third tier snake themed villains team up for union benefits is brilliant, makes complete sense in the context of the early eighties Marvel Universe, but isn’t the sort of easily recognisable, signposted “realism” you have to hit comics fans over the head with for them to get it.

But still, wouldn’t you’d rather see Captain America, the ultimate Roosevelt Democrat, taken on a bunch of unionised everyman supervillains banded together because of the economic regression than whatever the movies will make of Civil War, no matter how much shipping fuel a Tony/Steve catfight will give the fanfiction writers?

comics need more fan run conventions

Allow me to hijack the ongoing controversy in the online comix communities about the evils of cosplayers and how they don’t spent enough at comic conventions to make a tangentially related point:

I think Denise Dorman’s railing against the ‘instagram’ generation is hilarious but actually has a point–she’s just not using the best terminology to describe what is an actual phenomenon–before 5 years ago, no one (in their right mind) would go to a show thinking that they were an ‘attraction’ without buying themselves an exhibition space, a booth, an artist alley table, something. However, in the last few years the number of people who think that a badge (whether paid for or comped) entitles them to an audience within a convention space is on the rise dramatically. It’s been pegged as cosplayers, and honestly there are more cosplayers at shows than ever, and more professional cosplayers who are going to shows to make money and build an audience. Cosplayers attending shows as businesspeople, who aren’t contributing to the economy of the show.

As you know Bob, comics cons started as spinoffs of existing sf fandom, by people who were steeped in the mores and history of fandom and the original comics cons were very much like the sf cons, by fans for fans, with little to no distinction between fans and pros and without looking to make a profit. Where comics fandom went wrong was that conventions went commercial in the first place, which started at the very latest in the mid eighties. As the comics industry itself collapsed but cons like San Diego grew year on year, that commercialisation just grew more blatant. It’s the same thing you see with niche cable channels: they may start out with all kind of lofty aspirations and call themselves The Learning Channel, but if the money’s in crappy reality shows, that’s what they’ll end up doing. There’s no money in selling comics, so you get expensive nerd toys instead.

Cosplay meanwhile, for all its “professional” cosplayers, is still pretty much done for the love of the characters and the art itself. At worst it’s a symptom, not a cause of the difficulties comics have in being visible at comics cons. Chris Butcher is right when he says that:

The changing convention landscape is inherently shitty for people who make comic books. Art comix, indy comics, mainstream comics, whatever comics, the changing makeup of conventions is hostile to people who want to make and sell comics at comic conventions. And let me be clear, this is comic books and graphic novels, as opposed to ‘prints’ or crafts or whatever manner of tchotchkes makeup most exhibitor tables these days. Basically, comic book conventions are aggressively attracting an audience who don’t necessarily value books, or comic books.

What seems to be missing in the (American) comics convention landscape is what you still have in science fiction: a thriving fan run, non-commercial con scene. There’s Dragoncon, but there’s also Worldcon. And whereas science fiction writers may drown in the media orientated atmosphere of the former, they can thrive in the latter. The fan conventions help build and retain an audience that might otherwise not exist.

But perhaps the dismal state of mainstream comics cons is due to the dismal state of the (supposedly mainstream) superhero comic. Superheroes are more popular than ever, but the actual comics seem to be bought only by an aging and shrinking fanbase. New fans meanwhile are drawn in by movies, tv shows and cartoons, anything but comics and hence are at best interested in comics as a tertiary activity. In such a climate it’s no wonder people like Dorman find themselves struggling. They’re cut off from their audience and the new people don’t know who they are nor why they should spent $50 or more on a sketch. That’s not going to change by banning cosplayers. That can only change if you get more comics cons not run for profit, not aiming to maximalise its audience at the expense of a focus on comics, have more people, pro and fan both, go there for the love of comics, not as a business.

LonCon: Captain Marvel

Ms Marvel's first costume

I’ve always had a fondness for Ms Marvel/Carol Danvers, one of those also ran characters you encounter as a kid and feel kindly towards. She was of course a distaff spinoff of Marvel’s first Captain Marvel character, from the same time as Spider-Woman and She-Hulk, created to defend a trademark. Her first series was so-so, though Chris Claremont did his best to make something from it, in its later issues linking it indirectly to his X-Men and Iron Fist series, to little avail. She also had a brief stint in the Avengers, leading to the infamous mindrape in issue 200, later resolved by Claremont in Avengers Annual 10. After that she’s taken to the X-Men as a supporting character, Claremont always loyal to his characters…

Ms Marvel's first costume

Her costume during most of her run was godawful, as you can see from the first picture, a bad knockoff of Mar-vell’s one with added skin. Why the exposed stomach and legs? God knows. Over time they at least closed up the stomach gap, but it remained a dull costume. When Dave Cockrum came aboard for a few issues late in her run, the first thing he did was change it for a much better one, though as you can see there was still the focus on t&a, but at least Cockrum was a good enough artist to use a mirror rather than have her be one of those broken spine girls to show off both. I always liked this costume, even if, yes, it was designed to tittilate. It’s such a seventies Cockrum design what with the mid riff shawl and all that. Cockrum would be back to design Carol’s next costume, Binary in Uncanny X-Men #164

Captain Marvel cosplay at Loncon3

That’s how things stood for Ms Marvel for a while, until she got brought back in the late nineties as part of Busiek’s Avengers and took the name Warbird, then inevitably went back to her old codename and costume. Busiek also gave her alcoholism, which I hated at the time, yet again crippling what could’ve been the strongest person on the team; Ms Marvel just couldn’t get a break. That is until she got a new, longer lasting series as sort of a Marvel counterpart to Wonder Woman or Power Girl in the early noughties, Bendis nostalgia driven New Avengers series finally accomplishing something worthwhile. Not long ago she got yet another relaunch as the new Captain Marvel, severely pissing off Monica Rambeau once again. With that came a new, more respectable costume that I never liked until I saw it on a Ms Marvel cosplayer at LonCon. For once there’s a superhero costume that actually looks better in real life than in the comics. Suddenly the various elements came together in a way they didn’t on the page and looked good. A good cosplayer can of course make any costume work, no matter how ridiculous, but many female costumes do look a bit …uncomfortable? This didn’t.

Credit where credit is due

I really like J. Caleb Mozzocco’s handy little guide to the characters in Guardians of the Galaxy and their creators:

And, if a lot of people make a lot of money and there are a lot of accolades being thrown about, then a lot of credit is going to go to a lot of people, from whoever cut those winning trailers to the designers and animators who got Rocket’s fur to look just so to Gunn himself. If comic book people get any credit, chances are it’s going to be as a collective (i.e. “Marvel”) or under a “Special Thanks” near the end of the end-credit scrawl (IMDb has comics writers Dan Abnett and Andy Lannning receiving writing credit; if that’s on the screen near the “written by” credit, then that’s awesome).

I especially like his idea of making a donation to The Hero Initiative equal to the cost of the movie ticket, to help that charity help out comics creators screwed over by the comics companies. Of course it would be better if the comics industry as a whole, and especially the Big Two, should treat their employees better and let the people who actually created the characters that are now making millions in movies for them have a little bit of the slice as well. Still, it was nice that Marvel arranged for a private screening of the movie for Bill Mantlo.

Remember Bill Mantlo? Marvel’s most prolific writer in the eighties, about the only one who could make something as uninspiring a toy as ROM into an actually readable, perhaps even good comic. When Shooter was ousted, Mantlo got less and less work, dropped out of comics to try and become a lawyer, then had a car accident that left him paralysed and penniless. Thanks to the Guardians movie, no less a newspaper than the New York Times wrote about Mantlo:

Like millions of moviegoers over the weekend, Bill Mantlo watched “Guardians of the Galaxy,” the Marvel Studios space adventure that sold more than $172 million in tickets worldwide in its first four days of release.

The film’s success is particularly meaningful to Mr. Mantlo, 62, a comic-book writer who helped create one of the movie’s main characters: the foul-tempered, gun-wielding anthropomorphic Rocket Raccoon.

Mr. Mantlo did not see “Guardians of the Galaxy” in a theater, but in his bed at the nursing home where he is being cared for after a 1992 accident in which he was hit by a car and left with brain damage.

Michael Mantlo, his brother, said Bill owed his health partly to Medicaid and partly to the grass-roots efforts of comics fans, who not only made donations on his behalf but also brought attention to his involvement in creating a character whose value to Marvel had suddenly mushroomed.

As Michael explained in a telephone interview, the focus on his brother has encouraged the studio to reconsider its obligations to him. “The more often Bill’s name gets mentioned, and the more often he is given public credit for something that he did, the easier it is for me to go to Marvel and say, ‘You might want to consider raising your offer.’ ”

It was only the negative publicity around the first Superman movie that finally got Siegel and Shuster a small part of the millions DC/Warner had made of their characters, it’s good to see Michael Mantlo taking advantage of that for his brother here. Bill Mantlo deserves it.

Comic shop Lambiek has to move

Lambiek is probably the world’s oldest continuing comics store, founded in 1968 in the Kerkstraat in the centre of Amsterdam and still located there fortysix years later. However, after the summer this will change as Dutch newspapers report Lambiek has to leave the Kerkstraat due to high rents. Worse, according to Micheal Minneboo Lambiek might close altogether.

That would be an incredible blow to Dutch comics; Lambiek has ben a driving force in alternative and art comics here, as a shop and gallery and since 1994 also through its comiclopedia, still the best source for information about more obscure cartoonists. For Amsterdam, the loss or move of Lambiek out of the centre would mean another loss of a prominent independent shop.

But Boris Kousemaker, the son of founder Kees Kousemaker, is still optimistic about Lambiek’s chances: the advantage of a long history is having a large group of customers and friends willing and able to think and work along for a solution.

Haarlem comics con 03: Amanda Majoor

Amanda Majoor (left) sketching, with moral support

If you’re very lucky at a con you can discover a major new talent you never would’ve come across otherwise, somebody like Amanda Majoor. A graduate from the Zwolle artschool, she did her thesis on the intersections between comics and music (see below). Unfortunately it hasn’t been published yet, but from what I could see of it leafing through it, it should be interesting. Amanda’s main comics project, which she ultimately would like to publish as a graphic novel, follows on from this interest in music and comics and would be about the socalled “Swingjugend” in forties Hamburg.

Swing und Comics. This needs to be properly published.

(Short historical recap as I understand it. Swingjugend were young German jazz/swing fans, which was of course verboten in the Third Reich; Hamburg was always one of the most leftwing cities in Germany and not very known to be Nazi loving. Enough scope for a graphic novel, I think.)

panel from the Swingjugend project

Currently Amanda’s busy doing research and tryouts for this project, but she also does other work on the side, like a comic and interview for the FML website. She blogs at Swing und Bratwurst and has an art portfolio at Flickr.

part of a page drawn by charcoal

Her artwork has an understated elegance I like a lot, as I do the “retro” forties styling. It’s also interesting to see her muted use of colour and greyscales. It fits the slightly melancholic mood of her artwork. Of course I asked her for a sketch as well and below is what I got.

sketch by Amanda Majoor

Haarlem comics con 02: Mattt Baaij

Mattt Baaij sketching at Haarlem Stripdagen 2014

Mattt Baaij is another up and coming Dutch cartoonist who had a stand at the Haarlem Stripdagen. He’s been doing comics for some time now, his main character Bunbun (not this one) celebrated his tenth birthday on May 19th. That’s him in the sketch at the bottom of this post having painful things done to his todger. All my fault I’m afraid; I asked for Mattt to draw something sleazy and vulgair and that’s what he came up with.

Bunbun was originally a webcomic, but has also been collected into two books so far, both available from the Syndikaat website. I got the first collection, which looks rather nice, eighty pages in full colour, roughly US floppy sized. The Bunbun strips are pure gag comics, mostly done in a half page six panel format, with occasionally a full page strip. Mattt’s artstyle is functional and sparse, Bunbun especially pared down to the minimum necessary needed to show he’s a rabbit: two long ears and coloured white and that’s it.

Bunbun the suicide bomber

What I especially like about the Bunbun strips is the way Mattt has several series of gags that keep coming back. One series for example has the rabbit as a suicide bomber, completed with belt of dynamite attempting to get on a bus to blow it up and getting thwarted every time. Another has him as a knight failing to rescue his girlfriend from a castle guarded by a dragon. On their own these gags barely raise a smile, but the repetition makes them hilarious. If you like this sort of humour of course.

Bunbun goes meta

It is a very Dutch sort of humour, high on sex and violence as funny in itself, somewhat corny too at times. None of this is really meant to be shocking, it’s just that there’s a long tradition of this sort of jokes in Dutch comics, something that could seem a bit crass or even naff to foreigners. Fortunately Mattt also has a sense of whimsy to leaven things a bit. It’s not all dick jokes.

Mattt Baaij sketching at Haarlem Stripdagen 2014

(Not that there’s anything wrong with that.)

Haarlem comics con 01: Marloes de Vries

Marloes de Vries sketching

This weekend the bi-annual Haarlem comic con was held again, all around the inner city of Haarlem and beautiful if at times a bit windy it was too, making it very nice to walk around the various stalls to spot new cartoonists and get some sketches.

a recent strip by Marloes de Vries

Case in point. Marloes de Vries, a graphical designer/art director turned illustrator, who as she told me has done a lot of work for children’s books. She said she had wanted to be a cartoonist for a long time but had only in the last few years taken it up again.

Sketch of me by Marloes de Vries

One of the reasons she started doing cartoons again was because she had “left her hometown in the countryside and moved to the big city on the other side of the country” and it wasn’t always easy adjusting, hence she started keeping a visual diary. Early last year she started publishing these cartoons as journal doodles on her tumblr, which she collected into her first, self published book this year. Of course I picked it up and not only got it signed, but this boss sketch as well.

another strip by Marloes de Vries

I like her artwork a lot; it’s cute without being cutesy, deceptively simple and it reminds me of somebody else but for the life of me I can’t think of who. Nevermind. What’s also a plus is that just browsing through the cartoons made me laugh several times.

You can buy Journal Doodles — The Works at Marloes’ own shop, which also has several prints on sale.