Wednesday, October 1, 2014

In Remembrance: H.R. Giger

It was my great honor to be requested by the late H.R. Giger's manager, Les Barany, to write the great man's epitaph for Hi Fructose magazine. It hits newsstands today, and also features a remembrance by Clive Barker.

The first art book I bought with my own money was Giger's Necronomicon II, and I was lucky enough to have met him several times over the years. The impact of his absence to the worlds of art and entertainment can't easily be measured, and writing a feature article about one of my heroes was daunting, but I was very happy with the results.

Here's a link to purchase the issue online:

Friday, May 9, 2014

What effect do movies have on the comics they adapt–and vice versa?

Poor Steve Gerber...
 If somebody had told teenage me that Marvel Comics would be entering a renaissance of quality entertainment production within my lifetime, I would have scoffed and I would have been justified.

The film and TV adaptations up to that point were unremarkable. The Spider-Man television show was pretty bad, and the bizarre version of Spidey on The Electric Company was befuddling. The rarely screened Dr. Strange is so for a very good reason, and while The Incredible Hulk television show was actually quite good for a season, it rapidly devolved to pure schlock. The mask-less Captain America made-for-TV movies make the 1990 straight-to-video film seem like a masterpiece and while I have a certain affection for both Howard the Duck and the so-bad-it's-almost-good Dolph Lundgren version of The Punisher, I am not so much a fanboy that I don't recognize them as, well, awful.

Almost ten years later, it seemed like they were getting the hang of things, and starting in 1998, the track record was much better. Blade was a lot of fun (as was Blade II). Bryan Singer's X-Men seemed to draw from the best of the Chris Claremont scripts and perfectly set up the characters for the Grant Morrison comic run that would follow. Sam Raimi's Spider-Man remains one of the best comic book adaptations to date.

But there were also incredibly misguided versions of Daredevil and Hulk, a piss-poor reboot of The Punisher, a superfluous spin-off for Elektra, a Man-Thing dud, fairly worthless Fantastic Four films, Ghost Rider and three part-threes that mangled the formula by way of Blade, X-Men, and Spider-Man, which is a shame considering how great the second films in each of those series were.

The First Marvel Studios release
And along came Iron Man.

The first Marvel Studios production was a perfect coup of brilliant casting and smart writing, and set the stage for an emerging Marvel Universe that could bring future intellectual properties together in a thoughtfully planned continuity. Instead of producing comic book movies, they produced great movies based on comic books and the effect on the medium that inspired them was astounding. The Iron Man comic book written by Matt Fraction and illustrated by Salvador Larocca shot straight to number one on newsstands and comic shop racks. Marvel Comics finally got to experience legitimate buzz as the zeitgeist embraced their product–primarily because it was a good one. As succesful as the Spider-Man movies had been, the carryover was more pronounced via licensed product than the comics themselves, which saw only a slight boost. It's been said that miscommunication between the Sony studio and Marvel Comics left a chasm that the marketing departments in the publishing wing couldn't fill. This wasn't much of an issue with the X-men titles because they had long been the most successful monthly books, and there were so damn many of them that overall sales remained high across multiple sku's. With Iron Man, it was Marvel calling the shots in-house and rather than alienate comic creators, the folks working on the monthly title were brought into the creative process with the entertainment company execs and a long term plan was hatched based around multiple flagpole titles in a series of platform releases.

The rest, as they say, is history. Avengers is one of the most successful films in history, and even a lackluster Hulk reboot didn't hurt the brand. Thor captured a huge female audience, and Captain America followed suit. The formula works, and it pays dividends back into the source. Avengers comic books and the many spin-offs have usurped the mutant throne, and the writing on the monthly titles that have been adapted as films have won awards for the writers and artists. The heightened profile of the story lines adapted have led to repackaged releases of those stories, and a sharp increase not only in the value of the comic books, but also the original comic art from the series that were adapted. Added desirability is reserved for original art pages that are panel-literal in their translation from comic book board to movie screen. 

Here are a few examples of those literal examples.

First up: Thor.
THOR (2009)
by J. Michael Straczynski & Olivier Coipel
Issue #10, Page 9: Splash Page
Balder Confronts Thor in the Throne Room
Graphite and ink on board
Signed by Olivier Coipel
17" x 11"

The Olivier Coipel page on the left shows Balder entering the Asguardian Throne Room, with Thor seated as the ruler of the Norse gods. The right image shows the movie version of Thor (as portrayed by Chris Hemsworth) entering the same room, but with Odin (Anthony Hopkins) atop the great steps. This shows how the art direction of the comic has been adapted for a new medium, and while elements of J. Michael Straczynski's story arc were preserved in the two Thor films thus far, they haven't quite caught up to where the comic book is now. Dr. Doom was an important character in JMS' run on the title following his prior scripting duties on Fantastic Four, but FF and all supporting characters are currently licensed to 20th Century Fox, who also currently control the X-Men franchise. With character rights tied up at several other studios, Marvel has to accommodate the best they can. Notice I didn't say "improvise," as it seems everything has been painstakingly thought out.

by Matt Fraction & Salvador Larroca
Issue #18, Page 22: Splash
First Appearance of The Iron Patriot
Graphite and ink on board
Signed by Salvador Larroca
11" x 17"
In this Iron Man panel comparison, you've got the first printed appearance of The Iron Patriot below a screen grab from Iron Man 3. In the comic series, Spider-Man villain Norman Osbourne dons the Iron patriot suit in a plot that crossed from Brian Michael Bendis back over to Matt Fraction. Since the Spider-Man universe is currently licensed to Sony, an alternate backstory had to be written for the Iron Patriot of the 3rd Iron Man film. Since Bendis is the architect of the Marvel continuity, he was central to the conversations at Marvel Studios and an excellent replacement story entered the script for the film. The armor design is identical, and both the comic and the film are top notch.

by Ed Brubaker, Steve Epting & Jackson "Butch" Guice
Issue #33, page 23: Origin of Bucky as New Cap
(Featuring Tony Stark & Black Widow)
Graphite and ink on board
Signed by Steve Epting
11" x 17"
 Very recently, Captain America: The Winter Soldier hit theaters, and so far it is perhaps my favorite of the Marvel films. Much more so than the first film (Captain America: The First Avenger) the sequel captured the intrigue that epitomizes Ed Brubaker's take on the character. America's Cold War secrets come home to roost in spectacular fashion, and The Winter Soldier is brought in to the Marvel movie universe. As anyone who reads this column should be aware (spoiler alert) Bucky Barnes is the Winter Soldier and following the death of Steve Rogers assumes the identity of Captain America. In the panel comparison, I found it interesting that the origin given in the film for The Winter Soldier borrows visually from that same character's origin as Captain America in the comics. The Death of Captain America series by Ed Brubaker and Steve Epting is as intelligent as it is heartbreaking, and it seems that Brubaker is well versed in the literature of alternative historians like Peter Levenda and Joseph P. Farrell, as his Hydra organization seems heavily based on the Odessa file post-war Nazi conspiracy and the ratlines that pop-up on History Channel programming from time to time.

NEW X MEN (2001)
by Grant Morrison, Frank Quitely & Tim Townsend
Issue #114, Page 23: E is for Extinction
Sentinel Reveal Splash Page
Graphite and ink on board
Signed by Grant Morrison
11" x 17"
While X-Men: Days of Future Past is not yet released, the key art depicting Sentinels is everywhere already. This side-by-side comparison shows how much has been kept the same and how much has been changed from the Frank Quitely version of Sentinels from the Grant Morrison run on New X-Men. The panel on the right is the last page of their first issue together, and is the first appearance of a sentinel in that continuity.  The new movie is based primarily on the two issue story of the same name penned by Chris Claremont and drawn by John Byrne and Terry Austin as published in Uncanny X-Men #141 & 142 back in 1981. This has been a perennial favorite among comic fans since it was brand new, and has both set and disrupted multiple marvel universe continuities over the years. But just as the first Bryan Singer foray into mutant movies set the stage for the work  of Grant Morrison, this latest film seems to borrow a bit from the latter's X for Extinction storyline as well.

POWERS (2010)
by Brian Michael Bendis & Michael Avon Oeming
Issue #3, Page 32-33: Double Page Splash
Detective Walker Car Crash
Graphite and ink on board
11" x 17" (x 2)
The best part of all of this is that each of the original art pages referenced in this article are still available for sale, and have the added provenance of being reprinted in omnibus format, as well as in the Pop Sequentialism Exhibition catalog (also still available–signed, even!). Each page represents pivotal moments not just in print but immortalized in film. I've kept the pricing consistent with each artist's current page rates, which allows new collectors and investors to get into the hobby affordably–and with important pieces. Another page to keep in mind is this great Powers splash page (right), which has been revived as a live-action television series after a false start a few years ago. On March 19, 2014, it was announced that Powers would become the first original television series on the PlayStation Network, to stream exclusively on PlayStation consoles. The Brian Michael Bendis and Michael Avon Oeming series could very well be the next Walking Dead.

For more info and more original comic book art, go to:

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

What Do Artists Do All Day - Frank Quitely

The BBC Four recently profiled Frank Quitely as part of the their What Do Artists Do All Day? series. Fans who enjoy Quitely's art on Jupiter's Legacy and All Star Superman are in for a real treat as he runs down his creative process in a programme that runs nearly half an hour and focuses heavily on those two books, WE3 and a Walking Dead cover. Critical fans nonplussed by the artist's frequently late delivery may be in for a change of heart as Frank is revealed to be a very thoughtful plotter who spends far more time on the page design than on the actual drawing. More often than not it's what doesn't end up on a Frank Quitely page that makes the difference.

Integration of digital and analog sketching is becoming far more common now in the printed medium, but the degree to which individual artists incorporate the two is fascinating. Quitely starts with dozens of thumbnail sketches in notebooks before moving to digital page layout and digital blue-line sketching. When no higher degree of digital detail is possible, he prints out his blue-line and details in pencil on paper. This is comparable to the penciler/inker relationship of days gone by, which means that Frank is generally spending twice as much time on his illustrating process as his peers.

But before Quitely presses pencil to paper, he frequently reads and re-rereads a script before making notes about how to illustrate it. This elongated think time is probably the single thing that most sets him apart from the competition. Quitely really digests the story and make sure he's completely understanding the plot, actions and subtleties of character to the point that he can see it all clearly. This dedication to the writing on the part of the artist is what makes him one of the highest demand pencilers in the business.

It's also nice to learn that Katsuhiro Otomo has had such a big impact on Frank's work. While less obvious than the influence of Moebius upon Geoff Darrow, it is never-the-less surprising that I didn't pick up on it until now.

All Star Superman #9, page 3

Batman and Robin #3, page 20

Batman and Robin #3, page 1

New X-Men #114, page 23

Frank Quitely is the artist most represented in the published Pop Sequententialism catalog, with one page from All Star Superman, two pages from Batman and Robin, and a New X-Men splash–all printed as they appear pre-production. It's no secret that he's one of my favorite artists, and it's good to know that while video game and storyboard assignments frequently beckon with better pay, Quitely genuinely prefers doing comics which allow him a far greater creative freedom.

Besides, pensive pacing doesn't lend itself to the rapid-demand turnaround of continuity design.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

The Coming Comic Book Strike

Earlier this week, Multiversity Comics' David Harper wrote an excellent column about Comics and the Diminishing Role of Artists in a Visual Medium. It's been making the rounds on social media as many artists have been sharing it in a rare example of solidarity. I immediately wrote to David to praise him, and put forth a little theory of my own about exactly when this power shift (form artist to writer) took place. I've been criticizing it vocally for years, and it's in-house continuity.

Publishers like Marvel and DC have been relying on company-wide story lines which are heavily dependent on continuity. That places the greatest responsibility in the hands of the story architects. People like Brian Michael Bendis and Geoff Johns have been given the reigns of not just one or two characters but entire universes. This blocks the use of any character involved in even a limited capacity, which disallows their use for the type of incredible reboots that marked the Vertigo boom of the late 80s and early 90s. Imagine a comic book world without Neil Gaiman, Grant Morrison, or Peter Milligan if Marv Wolfman had the power back then at DC that Bendis now has at Marvel. What if he chose to veto new writers from using throwaway characters like Sandman, Animal Man, Doom Patrol and Shade the Changing Man because he might have had plans to include them in company-wide crossover. Marv isn't the type of guy who would have blocked new creators, but his Crisis on Infinite Earths did force a curmudgeonly Alan Moore to begrudgingly include Martian Manhunter and Batman into a Swamp Thing story to fit the company-wide continuity. 

The power of the few crossover architects prevents new writers from breaking into the business. It also either alienates casual fans or requires them to bulk up on their monthly purchases (even though they may only be interested in one or two titles) because the massive-multi-book tie-ins place favorite characters in other books in which important events may (but usually don't) take place. This eventually leads to fan drop-off.

Company-wide crossovers were the beginning of the end of artist power. The double shipping that David Harper mentions in his article was the nail in the coffin.

Of course, many artists were their own worst enemies. The Multiversity blog mentioned the notoriously late Frank Quitely and John Cassaday, who really are the last two superstar artists in the comic book biz. Before fans cry Adam Hughes, it's important to remember that he is much better known for his covers than interior work, and therefore less likely to be in a position to hold up the publishing schedule. The business requires consistent ship dates, and artists who can't deliver on time will become marginalized. Remember that it took the better part of five years for three issues of Neal Adams' Ms. Mystic to see the light of day, and he had a whole stable of artists at his Continuity Graphics. In the end, this is an editorial problem. Editors are on the front lines with artists and know how many pages these guys can do in a month. If the artists got a head-start of half-a-year before street date on the first issue, Astonishing X-Men and All Star Superman probably still would've been late. OK. Bad example. Nothing can get those two to deliver on time, the knowing of which should instill a healthier respect for the great artists of the 70s like John Byrne, George Perez and Gene Colan who routinely worked on multiple titles that were 32 pages or more each month. And these were no mere journeymen. They produced top notch work on a regular basis. If they'd had the luxury of time that today's artists have, I can't even imagine how beautiful the finished art would've been–as long as Vince Colletta didn't ink it.

Harper referenced the work of Charlie Adlard and Ryan Ottley (ironically on titles both written by Robert Kirkman) as examples of consistent and long running series that have relied on just one artist. These guys have the luxury of working on one title because they are co-creators and are getting royalties based on that. Most "house" and freelance artists (not co-creators or superstars) aren't getting any royalties regardless of how many issues of a particular issue sell. The numbers may be up from where they were last year, but compared to the early Image launch numbers, most books are at 10% of where they were in the pre-videogame, early 90s. The long runs of Salvador Larocca on Iron Man and Mark Bagley's record-breaking, uninterrupted run on Ultimate Spiderman are flukes that have a lot to do with their relationships with the superstar writers they teamed with. Bendis clearly had Bagley's back. I don't know if it was out of superstition or camaraderie, but I don't think Bagley was making a lot of money, and therefore wasn't a liability to the company. I confess total ignorance on this matter of pay, and mean no disrespect one way or the other. Even if Bagley was getting $500 per page, considering the sales on that title, he was grossly underpaid–and such rates would put him in the top 1% of comic artist salaries.

A good friend of mine whose covers were recycled by Marvel for bound collections of the series they worked on didn't even get paid for the reuse of their art on these additional editions, each of which had high circulation. The art was also recycled for in-house ads for which no payment was made. I think they got $600 per cover. When DC launched a new indie line they offered this same artist even less for covers, even though the approach started on DC's end. This was at the same time that our mutual friend Dave Johnson was getting a couple thousand dollars for his covers to 100 Bullets and then selling the original art for between seven and ten thousand dollars each. But digital artists have no original art to sell, which is how comic artists in the past had been able to subsidize their shitty income. It's disgraceful, but it's nothing new. I haven't seen many Dave Johnson covers since 100 Bullets came to an end, and it wouldn't surprise me to find out that current cover rates preclude that possibility now.

Bob Layton, who should be getting some serious Iron Man movie money right now, probably isn't. He's completely left comics for Hollywood, choosing project development over slave wages. Who could blame him? The aforementioned Gene Colan died in poverty and it was the Hero Initiative that paid the medical bills that kept him alive for his last couple of years, not residuals from Marvel for the many titles he created or contributed to. Marv Wolfman and George Perez are a couple of the very few creators from the 70s who've managed to do really well for properties that they created, and probably only because timing was on their side. New Teen Titans was the first Baxter edition book and the circulation numbers in the 80s were huge. DC cut them a reasonable deal and when the animated series took off years later, they were sitting pretty. Marv makes his living writing animated series instead of comic books these days, which means he gets Screen Writers Guild money instead of the non-union, funny-book shaft. George still gets his royalty checks but the only new income he's generating comes from working on comics from the big two. I don't know how much he gets paid but I really hope it's more than the flat rate.

The only viable future in the comics business for artists is in creating and self-publishing, unless they all wise up and unionize. The problem with organizing a union, is that it would require cooperation from the writers and most of them are already signed to lucrative (sometimes lifetime) contracts. I doubt very much they'll rock the boat. Since most artists live below the poverty line, they're already living hand-to-mouth and it's difficult to ask someone to risk losing that for a greater good. This isn't the 1940s or 50s and union busting is business as usual now.

Of course, on the flip side, when you're standing on the bottom rung, the fall won't kill you. It's the rush of new legs that trample you on their way up to the bottom rung that does the damage. As long as new artists are willing to be mistreated it will never get better. There is virtually no solidarity among artists who often refuse to talk rates out of pride or embarrassment or both.

Writers have more power because they can be working on far more projects at the same time and capitalize on a success almost immediately, whereas an artist has to labor over work that a writer may have finished a year ago or more. It's much more likely that a writer will have multiple titles on the stands at the same time, which raises their stock among fans and accountants. In instances where writers really are writing more than one series at a time (rather than benefiting from the prolonged publishing schedule), the quality of the writing is often diluted over all titles. Few writers have been able to do their best work on multiple titles at the same time, because their attention is shifted. I can see how this would make crossovers very attractive to the industrious writer, though, as they can remain focused on the big picture while drifting focus across multiple characters and reassigning the writing chores for characters they don't have a head for. Some writers have had greater success than others in this endeavor, but with pay as it is, you can't blame them for picking up as many titles as possible. Fans are very forgiving, and opportunity is rare.

At least the powers-that-be are recognizing that new ideas and creativity have a currency that can't be reduced to formula if success is the goal. That has lifted writers from the canyon, but that doesn't mean that artists have to dive into the canyon in their place. If they stand their ground, they'll eventually rise, too. An industry-wide strike would cripple DC and Marvel. There is no way they're going to turn to their entertainment divisions to bail them out, ether, because those employees make real money. Perhaps the solution isn't for comic artists to start their own union, but to join an existing one. That would be a much more feasible scenario and the benefits (literal and figurative) would be incredible. Under current Writer's Guild definitions, most comic book artists as 50% contributors to the story would qualify for membership. And getting those definitions altered and more inclusive is a fight worth launching, as long as there exists a clear and certain path for new writers and artists to enter the business.

The irony of course, is that after a strike ended, the press and excitement wouldn't just reclaim the drop-off in casual readership, it would probably expand it exponentially because the reputation of the unions behind the workers would send a message that the quality is now somehow higher.

Now you know what to do, comic creators. Go forth in rage and return in prosperity.


*I want to be clear that I am in no way criticizing Brian Michael Bendis or Geoff Johns who have worked incredibly hard and written thousands of pages of the best work in the medium to get to their current positions of power. More power to them. It's the system and the power structure with which I take issue.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Clive Barker NEEDS Your Help

Clive Barker is without doubt an Imaginer. His work as a writer has been universally praised across multiple genres, be it dark, adult fantasy or children's literature. His work as a filmaker in the horror arena has garnered millions of fans worldwide. Yet, while the hardcore Fifth Dominion fanbase has been aware of his painting talent for years, much of the rest of the world are less acquainted with the thousands of original works he has produced via pen or paint or camera for fine art galleries, private collectors and museums.

Today is the last day of the Clive Barker kickstarter.

Century Guild director Tom Negovan has assembled an amazing creative team to archive and edit the massive collection of the artist's works to produce a broadly encompassing volume. It will be limited edition, immaculately packaged and required a tremendous amount of hours and labor. The gifts you'll get for pledging are extraordinary, and as of this writing there are plenty of incentives still available. I would be remiss if I didn't state that Barker's health invites speculation about how much more work he'll be able to produce in this lifetime. I don't claim to have more information than anyone else, but I highly recommend that you appreciate the man while he is still with us, and contributing to this kickstarter campaign offers just such an opportunity.

Clive Barker has been an incredibly important contributor to the comics medium, and that alone would warrant coverage in this column, but it is with no minor pride that I report to have been party to one of the first American exhibitions of his work over fifteen years ago at La Luz de Jesus Gallery.  I've met him on several occasions and found him to be kind, articulate and encouraging not only to his friends and fans but also to his detractors.

Below is a video explaining the perks of support. You can get cool swag for as little as $14.

I didn't realize until today that this column has become a quarterly concern, rather than a bi-weekly blog. I'll be rectifying that for sure, and hope you stay tuned.