Sunday, January 24, 2010

Our Comics Decade: 2008

It was 2008 when I left Wizard and started at DC Comics. And alongside stuff in my job life, there were all these fragments of changes in my personal life that year that piled up and kinda splintered my memory a bit of what all went down and what all I read. So in that spirit of change, instead of an essay on a single book, here are a few paragraphs about books I read that year that created some impact on me and have remained impactful on me two years (whoopty poop, I know) later.

WATCHMEN - In 2008, as con season loomed, my BFF David Paggi was packing something like 10 themed sketchbooks, all of which were intense ass-kickers (Calvin and Hobbes, Star Wars, Lockjaw, etc.). I decided I wanted to do a theme book, too, and (I think my girlfriend recommended this) I went with a Watchmen book cause it was one of my favorite stories and probably my favorite comic. I also recognized that other than the occasional special commission, there wouldn't be much new art featuring the characters, so collecting it myself from any artist willing to draw it was my only chance to see something new.
I re-read my copy of the trade paperback collection in preparation, fell back in love with it, and decided I'd found the perfect theme for me. It's just a reminder: Re-read your favorite books every few years! It feels good.

PLANETES - I guess I just thought manga was mostly boys with hilariously large swords and overly gelled spiky hair fighting each other. Or books with cute animals exploding into stars and candy. Or books about upskirt shots of high school girls or snot bubbles or tentacled monsters assaulting cities. Or books about guys drawn like girls who make out with girls and turn into pandas when they get water dumped on them.
I'd just like to say I'M SORRY, MANGA. I had you UTTERLY pegged wrong.
Other than tasting Akira back when it was released in phone book editions from Dark Horse, I'd never seriously tried the format until Sean passed me his copies of Planetes, a straight sci-fi series about space-garbage collectors and the drama they deal with while working in a stressful new environment. It was human and beautifully drawn and galactic-ly NOT what I thought manga was. After that, the solar paneling opened on the space shuttle of my interest and a whole universe of new, gravity-free books flooded my cabin. Without Planetes I'd have never been interested in smart adult fiction comics like Solanin or 20th Century Boys or Monster. Or smart adult horror/thrillers like Dragonhead or Drifting Classroom or Uzumaki. Or a dozen other fun, completely accessible titles (Gon, Museum of Terror, Disappearance Diary, The Push Man...the list goes on) my ignorance wouldn't have previously allowed me to try. I'm proud of the manga I read now. It feels good.

THE MONKEY & THE CROCODILE - I read this absolutely powerful short story from Robert Goodin for the first time in 2008 and, as goofy as it sounds, it put a lot of stuff in perspective for me that year. It's online here and will take you just you maybe 2 minutes to read and I beg that you do. But don't gulp it down so quickly you miss the lush cross-hatching and inking tones. I like to read it every few months now. It feels good.

CAT GETTING OUT OF A BAG - I think this Jeffrey Brown book about a kitty being cute came out in 2007, but I gave my first copy to my BFF Ryan and his then-new girlfriend Elizabeth because the night I met her they were looking at it together on my comic shelf. I had to buy my new copy at New York Comic-Con in 2008 (from Jeffrey directly, so he sketched a kitty in it!) and then, in 2009, Ryan and Elizabeth were married. :) It feels good.

So, comics comics comics. 2008 was all about feeling good and dealing with new, terrifying adventures. And sometimes it was about a monkey and a crocodile.

I don't know now if I can put my finger on it today, but I was feeling a little burnt out on comics by the time 2008 rolled around. Well, maybe not comics really. There were still comics I liked, still comics I recognized were well done and still the occasional comics that really knocked me on my ass. But I was really fucking tired of having to look at every comic I read through the prism of how it related to my job – a job that for various reasons was becoming more and more of a bear to work through with or without comics being involved. By the end of my tenure at Wizard, every superhero comic I read was just a reminder of where our coverage was going. Every indie book an opportunity to try and weasel more page space in the magazine for the black & white contingent. Every web comic a note that told me I hadn't reached my mandatory blogging minimum for the website that day. I know Ben's complained about this before, but sometimes doing the thing you love for a living can work to stress you the fuck out.

Luckily for me, right when all seemed at its worst, Dark Horse sent me fat ass Casper The Friendly Ghost trade.

I'm sure most of the people who read our blog are died in the wool superhero people, and the rest of you are some strange cross section of blogging types and industry commenters. And if I had to wager a guess how many of you gave two fucks about Casper the Friendly Ghost, it'd be a very, very small number of our already paltry readership. But seriously, gang...Casper is totally fucking boss.

I read next to no Harvey Comics as a little kid, having stepped almost directly from "I Can Read" books to newsstand issues of Batman. And the few times I do remember crossing paths with the traditional Harvey characters like Casper, Ritchie Rich and Hot Stuff, I'm pretty sure I just assumed they were watered down kiddie stuff. But by the time I reached "adulthood" (arguable that), I'd grown one of the legion of people who regularly harp on there not being enough good comics for kids on the market, so having 480 pages of what were considered classic kids comics dropped in my lap for no reason was a welcome distraction.

Really though, what makes that Casper volume stick out for me is the fact that when I took it home to read, there was no job function motivating it. There was no way in hell Wizard was going to end up covering reprints of kids stuff from nearly 60 years in the past, even in the more bizarre corners of the web site that I was increasingly being put in charge of. No, I just knew that Jerry Beck, whose Cartoon Brew blog I'd become a regular reader of, had written the intro and that in general, I'd never given old Casper a chance. So I sneaked the volume out one weekend with my Dark Horse comps thinking I'd give it a ten-minute flip before getting back to the real comics.

And that weekend, I ended up reading the whole thing cover-to-cover without even considering picking up another comic.

And look, it's not like Casper revolutionized the way I saw the medium as a whole or anything. And it's not even that many of the comics were all that great, because some of the early ones were downright stupid. But I became so involved in the trade then because I was able to sit down with something that was generally well-crafted and watch its stories roll out one after another only for the joy of watching them come together. Issue after issue, I saw the animation artists who were moonlighting with the naive little ghost try to pull more and more new ways to tell jokes out of the almost immediately played out "He's a friendly ghost, but people always run away from him because he's a ghost" setup. And they succeeded!

Issue after issue (and by extension, year after year), the Casper creators found new ways to play with readers expectations, expand the cast, tell new stories and restick the landing on old jokes all with a slick, attractive line and a kind of off kilter charm that we almost never see in comics today – kiddie stuff or otherwise. And one of the ideas that came wrapped up in all of this which I was really enamored with was the idea that there was no real limit to what the artists could do. No one was over their shoulder saying, "You've got to explain that Casper isn't a dead little boy, because that will disturb children!" or "You can't have Spooky do anything that would be viewed as morally questionable because he's setting an example!" There's a scene in that book where Casper goes to an amusement part and while on a ride, a man recognizes him as a ghost, whips out a revolver and shoots the kid through the head (it goes through him of course). Can you fucking imagine DC trying to pull a joke like that off in Tiny Titans?!?!?

Those old school Casper comics reminded me that when you're telling stories for anyone, the best kinds of stories to tell are the ones you're entertained by, which I think we forget way too much these days and especially forget when talking about media for children. But more importantly, what it reminded me of was that the reason I got into this game was because I love comics, and if the job I'm doing isn't feeding that passion then it's not me that's screwing up or the comics that are – it's the job. Unsurprisingly, shortly after discovering that Casper trade, Wizard and I went our separate ways in terms of my full time employment (a true blessing, all things told)...and shortly after that, I took Ben up on his offer to write for this blog. And now every time I get a little burnt out on what I "have" to do for work, I shut out all the external pressures around covering comics as an industry and read some comics that no one told me too. You should try it sometime too!

Like most people, I’m pretty adept at being a big fish in a small pond, but toss me in the ocean and I gotta work a little harder. So it went when I was in high school and juggling all sorts of extracurriculars then went to college and was lucky to lead my intramural football team to a single win or get more than two lines in a play, and so I figured it would probably go again when I transitioned from working at Wizard to working at Marvel.

By the end of my three years at Wizard, along with my two illustrious co-bloggers and a few others, I was part of the group more or less calling the shots on what went in the magazine monthly and had a fairly big voice in the direction we were taking the ship. Making the leap to Marvel meant I was no longer one of the more vocal folks among a crew of 20 or 30, able to play video games in our Publisher’s office and able to turn my dreams of getting original art of the ultimate Suicide Squad into a reality with relative ease; now I was the low man on the totem pole in one of half a dozen departments that made up a huge, international, legitimate company and did not even know the names of everybody on my floor (I still don’t).

That was why when only a couple of months into my new job I received an e-mail requesting I attend a marketing brainstorming session on an upcoming event called Secret Invasion that would include the Publisher, Editor-in-Chief, heads of various departments and Brian Michael Bendis via speakerphone, I was determined to do something to make an impression.

At the time, my then-girlfriend had become somewhat obsessed with lonelygirl15, the YouTube phenomenon that started as what seemed like a video blog from a home-schooled girl then morphed into a strange chronicle of the protagonist and her friends as they were uncovering secrets about and were on the run from a sinister cult. At first, nobody knew if lonelygirl was truth or fiction; once the game was given away and it was revealed that it was indeed a staged series using actors, I used to give Megan a hard time about the cheesiness of it all, but at the same time, I was more than a little impressed at how little the folks creating the show had done with very little and how they perpetrated a pretty cool hoax for quite a while.

I was also sure we could somehow use the same template for Secret Invasion, a story entirely based on deception and the idea of something alien infiltrating normal society.

During the brainstorming meeting, I was nervous as hell with every important person in my new company in attendance and throwing ideas back and forth, but I finally gathered up the courage to speak up when marketing strategies were being discussed and mention the idea I had: based loosely on the lonelygirl series, we’d set up a video blog series about a seemingly normal girl that folks would believe was a real person, but we’d seed throughout that something strange was going on with her brother and drop clues now and again with the ultimate payoff being that this was all taking place in the Marvel Universe and the brother in question was a Skrull infiltrator.

I wasn’t sure how my idea—admittedly roughly-shaped at best at that point—would be received, but Publisher Dan Buckley almost immediately said he thought it had potential, and Bendis liked it as well, so before I had fully digested pitching something in front of such an impressive group, my “creation” had legs.

As soon as I got out of the meeting, I got on my cell phone and called Megan, who made fun of me for using the lonelygirl template after all the shit I had talked about it, but also congratulated me and made one thing clear: she wanted to be the girl in the video. Of course I thought she would be perfect, but at the time I just told her I would do my best.

Over the next several weeks, myself and an expanding group that included marketing gurus Arune Singh and Jim McCann as well as my own boss, John Cerilli, and other folks like Mike Pasciullo and Tim Dillon met several times on the project Tim called—to my chagrin—“Lonely Ben.” We had to act fast as we’d need to get these videos out there ASAP in order to have enough time to build at least some following before the reveal. Cost was also a factor as we could only afford to pay so much to get these done with it being a last minute addition.

Fortunately I had the perfect cast and crew in mind, and I knew I could get them cheap.

In addition to being super cool and rad at making ceramic wings, Rickey’s girlfriend, Sam, also majored in film in college and I knew she could take a project like this and bring it to life in the fashion we were looking easy; besides that, Sam is one of the most creative people I know particularly when it comes to using sparse materials to make something awesome, so if anybody could create the sets and props we needed on a shoestring (and that’s being generous) budget, it was her.

As far as actors, I was fortunate enough to have a lovely and talented girlfriend ready to play our lead, and she enlisted her friends Guy and Ashleigh to serve as the character’s brother and best friend respectively.

I gave Jim—an actual published writer as opposed to a guy who kicks around on blogs and writes silent Werewolf comics—the outline of how I saw the project going and he created an actual script. Jim was also the one who named our intrepid lead Kinsey, after a relative, with Walden as a last name “because it sounds good” (I think). Another thing we tried to do was throw Easter eggs throughout the episodes as to revelations that would be made in the actual Secret Invasion series, like naming Kinsey’s brother Hank (since Hank Pym would be revealed as a Skrull) or using the actual Skrull alphabet Bendis had created on various documents.

Around this time, the idea was put forward that though the Kinsey video series would end as Secret Invasion began, it would be cool to have the character continue to appear throughout the event in comic book form. There was consideration given at some point to Kinsey potentially being the lead of Secret Invasion: Front Line, but Brian Reed had already outlined the series with other characters by then, so we scuttled it. Ultimately, it was decided that this could be the perfect opportunity to try something new with our Marvel Digital Comics Unlimited web comics, as we’d do three one-page updates a week and ultimately have enough material to put a trade out in the end; thus Secret Invasion: Home Invasion was born.

As Jim and I were working with Sam to get the scripts spiffed up for production of the video and approval by Bendis, me and Cerilli also met with editor John Barber, who was going to be heading up the comics end of Home Invasion. John being a smart and quite cutting edge dude, he immediately keyed in on what we were trying to do and set to work finding the right creative team to do the job, which ended up being writer Ivan Brandon and artist Nick Postic. While I never did get to meet Nick, Megan and I both ended up getting to chat with Ivan that year at the New York Comic Con, which was a neat experience that he admitted was a bit surreal as he had been writing a fictional version of a girl he was now being introduced to for quite some time by that point (I would be remiss if I didn’t point you in the direction of Ivan’s excellent Final Crisis Aftermath: Escape or tell you to pick up Nation X #2 for John Barber’s super-fun No-Girl story right now).

The weekend of shooting came and to their credit, Sam, Megan, Guy and Ashleigh got the whole thing done in two days, zipping back and forth between our apartment and Sam and Rickey’s (fortunately only a few minutes away), both of which were transformed into the types of places you could absolutely buy a teenage girl living in thanks to no small effort on Sam’s part as far as set creation. They seriously worked non-stop for nearly 48 hours straight (with eight or so hours slipped in for sleep) while I mostly just took people to and from the train station and picked up lunch using the funds generously contributed by Mr. Pasciullo.

The results were stunning and made even more impressive by the fact that a couple weeks later they had to re-shoot almost the entire thing (for reasons I can’t and don’t really need to get into) and it came out even better the second time around. I remain to this day immensely proud of the work Megan, Sam, Guy and Ashleigh did and am incredibly grateful they were willing to burn two weekends bringing my stupid alien version of lonelygirl to life.

So the videos began going up according to plan on MySpace and picked up a surprising amount of regular viewers who thought they were just watching a high school girl planning for her prom; as people would comment with dress suggestions or try to cheer Kinsey up when the guy she liked didn’t ask her, I felt both a giggly tingle that we were actually pulling this off and a small smidgen of guilt that we were somehow lying to these poor people.

As we came closer to the big reveal, we brought a couple of comic sites in on the act, and they were extremely helpful in directing fans over to the Kinsey series which suddenly jumped in views (the nice people at MySpace also helped by making Kinsey a featured friend). I was expecting a bit of a negative backlash as you always do from the Internet when we let everybody in on the trick, but most of the feedback we received was refreshingly positive, praising our attempts to do something different, which made all the hard work more than worth it. When we at last aired the final video, which ended on the cliffhanger of Hank revealing his Skrull form (I can’t heap enough superlatives on what Sam was able to do with a paper mask and shaky camera effect) then followed up with an ad for Secret Invasion as well as Home Invasion, the only folks really upset were those who had thought Kinsey was real.

It was pretty cool attending the aforementioned New York Comic Con the week that Secret Invasion #1 shipped and seeing that final video air before several Marvel panels to thunderous applause; it was cooler when some fans and even creators like Dan Slott recognized Megan and yelled out “Kinsey!” on the floor.

Over the next eight months, my job mostly done, I presided merely over loading the new pages Ivan and Nick produced for Home Invasion and updating the story on the homepage. I can’t deny how neat it was to see this character I had no small role in creating (and who looked like my girlfriend) interacting with Nick Fury and the Young Avengers as Ivan’s meticulous and suspenseful story unspooled with the help of Nick’s downright spooky art.

Kinsey Walden has not been seen since the end of Secret Invasion, but she is out there in the Marvel Universe and I do have a Secret Invasion: Home Invasion trade paperback sitting on my shelf that credits me with special thanks right up front and tells the tale of my little viral marketing idea and the life it took on. No matter what I do or don’t accomplish in comics, I will always have that book, and I’m so thankful to everybody who made it possible.

I’m glad I spoke up at that meeting.


Rudolph said...

It’s an inspirational post. It helps people to get motivated to start using their own viral marketing ideas by creating it. For any type of business to get success people has to use some techniques that are making use of viral marketing ideas and so many which are available. Building a huge membership site with lot of great information, products and videos are one of the great viral marketing ideas. The main thing is that people must make it so that people wants to tell others about it.

Anonymous said...

I feel like you guys deserve a better comment, 'cause that was a pretty great post. B

But this is all I got: The short story with the alligator and the monkey was freakin' excellent, and had some of the same kinda effect on me that Rickey described.

Sam said...

Rickey made me read the monkey and alligator story and didn't really warn me about how sad it was, and then it broke my heart. Now every so often, he'll ask if I've read it, which of course I have, so it brings up all the sadness all over again.

Sad animal things make me super sad.

Rickey said...

Thanks, Anonymous! It's such a simple, moving story. And each time I read it, I relate in a different way. Robert Goodin has a new-ish comic from Top Shelf you should check out.

Sorry, Sam. I just read it every so often and want you to see it! Blah, I need to show you more kittens or puppies wrestling in pudding or whatever.

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