Saturday, May 29, 2010

Rejected Garfields

As I’m sure you’ve figured out by now, I’m a big fan of the Square Root of Minus Garfield [Sqrt(-G) for short] and become one of their most generous contributors. The only other ones to deliver multiple comics are Colin Foster, Henning Makholm, Michael Stangeland, NotTooStupid, and Quaternion.

Before Sqrt(-G), I was a big fan of the Garfield Randomizer, of which more history can be found here.

The Garfield Randomizer is a webpage that accesses the comprehensive online Garfield archives, fetching one panel at a time from different individual Garfield strips and presenting them mashed-up and reordered into surreal, dada creations. An instant online hit, screen-captures of the recontextualized comics began appearing on messageboards and blogs everywhere. Of course, it didn’t take long for syndicate lawyers to pounce.

Which is unfortunate, both for fans and for the syndicate’s ailing, unfunny property. The unanimous sentiment online was that for the first time in years, Garfield was funny again. As I mentioned in my recent revision to the Comic Strip Doctor column on Garfield, what makes the randomized strips hilarious is that they break down the rhythms and cadences that readers have come to predict. First panel set-ups become final panel non sequiturs, or a strip may have three punchlines with no setup. Each panel’s utility is boosted by its becoming a modular component.

One thing I noticed, frantically creating new strips for hours on end in a vicious giggling fit, was that there are a lot of really strange concepts buried in the Garfield archives. The comic seems like it should be funny. How could a comic that incorporated wildly bizarre juxtapositions not be funny?

Somehow, Garfield manages. And the secret, it turns out, is through overkill:

Since the Garfield Randomizer went briefly offline, there was an unfortunate crackdown on any sites with Randomized Garfields. The lone exception being the Garfield Generator, for some reason. There was a 4chan board of Randomized Garfields in the morning, and when I returned in the afternoon, the forum was gone. I've always regretted not saving more images from there when I had the chance.

So what is it about the Fat Cat that's so easy to parody, compared to other Newspaper comic strips? The answer may lie in the format itself. As Kleefeld put it:

...The structure of Garfield is generally two talking heads whose dialogue is largely not dependent of the illustrations. Thus, you can drop in any two characters standing next to each other and the gag still works. The strip's format, in some senses, isn't that far removed from the old EC comics in which the text simply explained what was happening in the pictures.

In the second place, the premise of Garfield is that Garfield doesn't actually talk out loud. So, although Garfield is responding and reacting to Jon's comments, Jon's dialogue is set up so that it's also not dependent on anything else. In effect, Jon is speaking a perpetual monologue and Garfield acts as a Greek chorus. For the purposes of these mashups, that means that the dialogue can easily be dropped in to comics with dramatic scene changes, since Jon's comments are, by design, NOT a response to Garfield's.

A lot of the other comic strips which also use the "two character banter" approach that's not reliant on actual character development or visual humor -- Blondie, Hi and Lois, Hagar the Horrible, etc. -- but Garfield's unique structure allows for a greater latitude for interpretation. You can see in the above examples that I was repeatedly able to assign dialogue to characters in other strips in a way that would not have been possible if the original required a back-and-forth set-up.

So it's actually easier to think up a Garfield comic than you think - all you need to do is find some combination adhering to the formula, and you're halfway home! Every time I send in a collection of my strips, I wind up thinking up more ideas for the next batch.

One of the ideas I got, which I expect increased traffic immensely was the Manga Garfield. The finished version is actually slightly different from how I originally wanted to end it. I'd planned to have the last panel of Garfield as the Ghost Cat from Ranma 1/2 yelling "FEED ME!!!" with "Jon's" hair standing up on end with his Golgo 13 expression. But I couldn't figure out how to airbrush Akane & her father out of the picture. Ironically enough, my lack of photoshop skills probably made for a better comic.

However, as massive as the amount of comics I’ve sent, it’s actually a fraction of the other Garfields I’ve done. I’ve compiled & collected literally hundreds of Randomized Garfields that could guarantee me as a member for life. I haven’t submitted those, because it would be unfair to the others who want to give their comic a try, and it’s more of a Math-based site than anything else. I feel slightly bad that I haven’t given anything equalling a mathematical formula. (Could you imagine Fermat’s Last Theorem as a Garfield comic?) Apart from sending one or two, just to get a feel for the site, the only “Randomized” Garfields I’ve sent are those where just one panel was changed.

Other than the Randomized Garfields, there were several Garfield I worked hard on, then decided not to send them in. Here, you’ll get the chance to see these strips, and my reasons why they were rejected.

G for Garfield

Why wasn’t it submitted?

After gathering together various strips with the characters wearing masks, it occured to me that despite the similarity in theme, it didn’t follow up to a particularly strong finish. Sometimes just finding similar elements isn’t enough to make a comic funny, and that’s where this failed.


For Better or for Garfield

Why wasn’t it submitted?

This was based on an inspiration of one of Kleefeld’s mash-ups where he switched the dialogue of other comic strip characters around. As he put it:

Mash-Up Day is now a time-honored tradition here on Kleefeld on Comics when I can't think of anything comic-related to talk about. I take different comics and switch the text between them to see what I can come up with. (Believe it or not, it's actually sometimes easier for me to do that than come up with my own whatever to talk about.)

However, in doing these, he set a cardinal rule - he only switched the dialogue for a strip that appeared on the same day. Despite it working quite well, given Lynn’s shaky relationship with her ex-husband Rod, I felt it would be unfair to let the rule slide. Not to mention it was a strip that was rerun from 1979, further negating Kleefeld's rule.


Garfieldz the Cat

Why wasn’t it submitted?

This was originally going to be a revamp of the legendary Crumb comic character, with dialogue from the most “risique” Garfield comic. However, this proved to be incredibly difficult, and the above image shows why.

Like any of Crumb’s works, his drug-fuelled characters have a tendency to ramble on and on. It makes for amusing reading, but is hell trying to reuse. Not to mention Fritz is constantly talking to other animals and is rarely by himself.

However, I was able to use this idea for another underground comic. I won’t say which one, but you should find out in about 3 months or so. (Taste the suspense!)



This wasn’t mine, but I found this image in a SomethingAwful forum, talking about FBOFW, of all things.

The contributor, Polyunsaturated Cats posted this picture with Garfield & Jon in their obvious Seme & Uke (Top & Bottom) roles. This brought up disturbing questions about bestiality & the like. Of course, this happened a month before Liz started dating Jon.

Once it has been seen, it cannot be unseen...

Why wasn’t it submitted?

Actually, this WAS submitted, but the moderator declined to run it, for fairly obvious reasons. He said that I was the second ever rejected comic. (He hesitated to use the word “strip”...) This led me to wonder what the first rejected comic was.


Why wasn’t it submitted?

I was working hard at this, when it occurred to me that I was working too hard at the set-up for what was a very obvious finishing line. And it was getting long enough already. Not included are the speeches about how Garfield would never conquer the world. He came very close, but that was as close as he ever got. While he was lazing around, Manga swept in and stole his popularity, and also emptied his Swiss bank accounts when he wasn't looking. (Just fit all that in between when Garfield sees Cerebus’ “true form” & the last two panels)

Also, like Fritz, Cerebus isn’t a particularly easy character to use. Unlike Garfield, you have to be VERY selective about which panels to use. He’s not by himself that much. In the end, it lost momentum due to sheer workload.

As much fun as it would've been to see the moderator try to type the wall of Biblical text, I also felt that another comic did this theme much better.


Fletcher Hanks Garfield

This is the biggie. Not quite as brutal as The Rise of Arsenal, but it’s pretty close.

Why wasn’t it submitted?

This was one of the lost What’s Michael? strips, and I thought the tone was on par with Fletcher Hanks. I was working hard at finding the appropriate stock phrases reminiscent of Hanks’ comics, when it occured to me that this was no longer a Garfield comic. It was a Manga about a tabby cat, but apart from that, there were no Garfieldisms about it. But the idea was still good enough that I felt compelled to complete it.

I'm just sorry I wasn't able to change the text from "a flash of light... and the room becomes empty" to "a flash of dust... and the balcony becomes empty". I feared that changing the original might be tampering with the source too much.

Also, for those of you wondering about what was in the large blank spot where the teaser is, that space was originally left blank. At least this answers the question of who was that mysterious man who questioned the wisdom of cats dancing to hide their mistakes in the "first" What's Michael? comic.

Well, that's the last of my rejected comics, at least until the next batch of comics I decide aren't good enough for Sqrt(-G).

My true motivation for doing any Garfield mish-mash is not just to point out the similarities I’ve found, but also to indulge the imaginations of others. If one of my strips has done something to increase the brain cell activity of a reader, then I’ve done my job.

This is something I feel has been missing from Animated shows since the 80's. If there was one common element that Garfield & Friends, Muppet Babies, The Real Ghost Busters, Disney's Gummi Bears, and Tiny Toon Adventures had, it was the use of imagination. Nowadays, the closest we've got for that is Yu-Gi-Oh!, which is basically CalvinBall with cards. Think about it...

Friday, May 28, 2010

CMX Take 2

I decided to post my latest thoughts on the CMX line in a new post since the last one was getting long enough already. Since the announcement, I've been doing a lot of looking around, both online & offline, trying to find which CMX titles were worth reading. I've already ordered the rest of Cipher, Moon Child & Astral Project. No easy feat, since DC's gone to the trouble to erase all proof of their existence upon proclamation of dissolution.

The moderator of MangaBlog even coined my point of irony: It would be ironic if their sales went up now that DC has shut them down.

While looking up various titles, I found a 2008 link that worried that the CMX line might go the way of the Dodo since the Minx line was just canceled. It's particularly noticeable for its title, "Please Save My CMX!", and the list of various favorite Manga titles. One particular quote stuck out for me:

"The one thing I learned at the CMX panel at San Diego Comic Con is that CMX titles are largely at the whim of their buyer. She solicits the manga she enjoys. I think that explains a lot of their catalog of older shojo/josei title. It’s all the work of one woman’s taste. I think she is the core audience."

The fact that the majority of the CMX line was at the mercy of one lone woman is rather astonishing, I think. It's just too bad her tastes weren't posted on a gossip mill - other women might've wanted to compare & give their feedback on which titles they liked & disliked. As Christopher Butcher said, there was a lot of wasted potential.

Part of the problem with the CMX line was similar to what plagued the Raijin line - it was never quite clear as to what audience - if any - they were aimed at. There were titles aimed at the younger age set, the teenage set, and the adult set. But they were all painted with the same CMX brush. Giving an age-apropriate rating wasn't enough - it would be more useful if they were categorized in such a way that made sense. Even Viz & TokyoPop's titles are easy enough to figure out by looking at the covers alone. But CMX's titles didn't have that luxury - the buying public had to do their homework themselves, and who wants to go to that trouble?

Another element was that many of their releases were spread out. Looking at a spreadsheet on the AnimeOnDvd forums, it wasn't unusual for a Manga to be released 4 months in between. When other companies were releasing volumes every two or three months, 4 months is an infinity. I just checked the releases of the last two Swan volumes, and they were 10 months apart! (5/19/2009 and 3/9/2010) Hell, Eroica was producing new volumes yearly by now. (7/9/2008 and 7/21/2009 for vols. 13 & 14 respectively) They could've eluded the Goldfish Memory symptom by releasing an anthology book/magazine of various worthwhile comics to an unsuspecting public on - oh say, Free Comic Book Day. That is, if they'd even remembered the Manga line existed.

Thanks to doing some personal browsing myself (I can deduce by looking at the rhythm of the interior pages whether it's worth picking up) I was able to narrow my choices to several titles. There's still a few that I'm still on the fence about buying, but that might change once I find out more information.

Go West! by Yu Yagami (4 Vols)
Oyayubi-hime Infinity by Toru Fujieda (6 Vols)
Presents (3 Vols)
Steel Fist Riku by Jyutaroh Nishino (3 Vols)

What would be immensely helpful would be to read more short reviews of the most noteworthy CMX Mangas, including the underapprecated ones. I was only able to find out about Steel Fist Riku, thanks to this link. This post at the Newsarama Blog was particularly helpful, though I pointed out one series I found:

In addition to the short titles you’ve mentioned, I’d like to add Go West! by Yu Yagami to the list as well. It’s a Western in the same vein that Et Cetera was, only with less fantasy elements in it. A girl travels to the Wild Wild West, and confronts a horse that’s basically a stubborn (Seussian) Zak – it only races towards ONE particular direction – towards the West. Eventually, she manages to tame it enough for it to let her ride his saddle.
Of course, “tame” is too strong a word – more likely the horse is just letting her enjoy the ride while he continues his obsessive destination West. That’s the gist I got from the first chapter alone, and looks kinda fun.

It’s a quick read – only 4 volumes.
You can find more CMX titles here, which is more comprehensive than the Wiki, which for some reason doesn’t have entries for all the Manga titles. (There’s even a few missing)

There's another aspect of the CMX line that's only been touched on briefly - that it can take some time before a title starts to get really good. If the first few volumes don't hit that sweet spot, there's not that much incentive to try again. That was the problem I had with a certain Manga - there were quite a lot of characters introduced at once, and it was hard trying to keep track of who I should keep my eye on. As a result, I ended up wasting more energy trying to keep track of the cast rather than the story.

In the middle of the night, while dealing with a sudden bout of insomnia, I decided to read the 3rd volume of Swan. I only meant to read a few pages, sure that I would eventually grow bored, but I wound up reading the whole book. The first two volumes had previously put me to sleep, but it was this volume that I found had an intensity similar to The Glass Mask, that reminded me what I liked about Old-School Shojo. After that, I grew increasingly nervous & excited about the prospect of having to shell out more money to read the rest of what was available. I'd already ordered $150 worth of books, and now faced the prospect of ordering even more reading material.

Eventually, I was able to calm down enough once I'd figured out the final costs & deductions out of my paycheck. Still, this meant that I wouldn't be able to purchase my personal Wii for another three months or so. (Especially if I wanted to order other CMX Mangas)

The sad thing was, originally, I'd planned to purchase the rest of Swan, once I was sure that CMX had published the entirety of the series with no room for cancelation. I'd gotten vols. 1-3 for sale second-hand ages ago, and only thought to read the third volume recently. It's really a shame - the 3rd book was just languishing on my bathroom shelf for months just waiting to be read. At this rate, I might even have to reconsider my position of From Eroica with Love as well.

Just to rub salt in the wound, Mike Sterling had this to say:
This new CMX book sounds pretty good. Can’t wait for future installments!

AAUGH!! You just had to drive that stake in the wedge didn’t you? On the plus (minus?) side, I’m picking up PLENTY of CMX titles I would’ve otherwise ignored. Hopefully, there’ll be enough lifeblood of demand for more volumes if the outcry is loud enough.

That's what we should do - create enough noise that Fantagraphics might want to think about completing the series where CMX left off. Hell, they can even hire the same people who were just left off, if there's an opening, and they've got nowhere else to go.

In the meantime, I'm going to be doing some serious Manga binging for the next several weeks. The difference being that instead of purging, I'm going to be wallowing in bliss of what I've just read. (Unless what I've read wasn't that good, then I'm going to spend some time over the toilet, bemoaning my lost of time & money)

Friday, May 21, 2010

CMX commentary

EDIT - a commentor pointed out that I'd been misspelling Eroica with Love as Erotica with Love. It's an understandable mistake on my part, and has been corrected here. (The mistakes are still there on the forum entries though.) Still, you have to admit, it sounds more interesting that way...

The big news in the Manga world this week was that CMX, DC's Manga line was going to cease publishing on July 1st. I'd never really paid much attention to their line, since the Tenjho Tenge fiasco. It was one of those Manga companies that was just there, and since it'd remained stagnant for years, I'd just grown used to taking it for granted that I could buy any series I wanted once the runs were complete. One fault I dislike is when Manga companies license a series, and then decide to cancel it due to poor sales. But that didn't happen with CMX - they kept publishing Swan, From Eroica with Love, and multiple other obscure titles that didn't garner much attention.

Given that CMX was initially the WildStorm of the comics world (another DC comics imprint about "mature" S-heroes that's never quite as popular as their Vertigo output) it started out as the bashing child of the Manga world, and many never quite looked back.

But a funny thing happened when the CMX line was finally canceled - many fans bemoaned the loss of a line of Old-School Shojo Mangas, rather than keep kicking a dying horse, they instead heaped piles of praise over the once-marginalized line. In fact, the only ones actually celebrating their upcoming demise were S-hero comics fans who seemed glad to see that Manga was falling in popularity. I'm reminded of a phrase I read somewhere: "S-hero fans live under the assumption that once people stop reading Manga and start reading 'real' comics, the industry will be saved. But what they don't realize is that when people stop being interested in Manga, the comics industry is over, because that's what the loss of the Manga audience Means."

(Right now, the current Manga audience is addicted to two or three of the top chart burners, but that's another topic for a future post)

This outburst of mourning & praise also garnered the most varied commentary I'd ever bothered with on other comic sites. For years, I was content to be a simple lurker, staying in the shadows and copying people's opinions while never making one of my own. That's changed since I created my blog, and had a site I could reference from & to.

One of the first was MangaBlog, where I posted the faults quite simply:
I always thought that CMX really shot themselves in the foot in the starting gate with the whole Tengo Tenge censorship. When Del Rey got under fire for the same issues revolving Negima, they immediately resolved the problem, putting them in a better light with the fans. CMX never really seemed to care about the Manga audience, save for some selective obscure 70’s Shojo Mangas. They just assumed they’d snap up any license they’d acquire.
Not to mention most of the titles they brought over were substantial titles that couldn’t really stand up to their competitors at Viz & TokyoPop, the REAL Big Two. Heck. they’d be lucky to be considered a contendor versus Go.Comi, Broccoli, Bandai, or any of the small-time Manga publishers.
At least they stuck with this longer than they did for the Minx line. My guess is that they only just noticed it around now, and decided it wasn’t on par with the rest of their regular S-hero line. (i.e. Dark & Depressing)
I’d better snap up the rest of Moon Child while I still have the chance. (Even if it feels like a sub-par Please Save my Earth rip-off)

Even as one of the later commentors assured me that it was worth reading, I was still reluctant. Jumping into a new series is no easy task, even if there's postive buzz surrounding it. There's always the danger of the books not living up to their praise. Especially since I'd tried one of the early CMX releases, Swan, and despite being a fan of Old-School Shojo, I simply couldn't bring myself to enjoy it that much. Part of it might've been that the story wasn't as engaging as I'd have liked. Another might've been that it was unnerving seeing Manga characters with soulful eyes suddenly become blank whenever they were upset.

But I pointed out a major factor to me on the Manga Curmudgeon:

One of the major things that bothered me about the early CMX books (apart from the Tenjo Tenge fiasco) was that most of them were extremely difficult to open. You had to literally break the spine apart just to read them. They got better in the later volumes with softer pages, but they never bothered to reprint the early volumes with an easier format. If I’m going to read a Comic Paperback, I don’t want to struggle against the pages just to read the interior.

Even now, I don’t have strong feelings of rereading the 1st volume of Swan, despite its similarities to The Glass Mask. Of course, it might be that the old-school Shojo sensibilities don’t engage me as much as I’d like them to.
On the ComicBookResources blog, I then changed on of my previous statements about the “Big Two”, but only slightly:

The same could be said for their brief foray into Euro comics with their Metabarons licence. The most memorable of those titles was TechnoPriests, which was even more insane than anything Grant Morrison, Alan Moore, and Shintaro Kago combined could've imagined together. The fact this didn't sell in the Direct Market means that people are more attuned to S-hero comics, and completely ignore anything that doesn't fit their worldview, which has become increasingly negative, which is odd considering the nature of S-hero comics.

Also, MegaTokyo being the lone surviving title is no great relief. It's changed companies how many times now? And the series has suffered from the story in the later years to the point that I've completely lost interest in it. That it continues to gather up offers is impressive, considering their audience must've moved on to other stuff by now. It's the Watchmen fallacy all over again - it shouldn't be picking up new readers, but it's not doing bad in sales either. Where are all these new customers for this series coming from? As far as I can see, it's most admirable trait is that the character designs are of superior quality, on par from Oh My Goddess!, but that's all.

I've often made comments that the "Big Two" were increasingly ignorant of the REAL Big Two, Viz & Tokyopop. That might change, since Tokyopop hasn't had a breakout hit on par with Fruits Basket for a long time. They may now be replaced by Yen Press whose books have been on the best-seller lists as often as Viz has.

The ironic thing is, if any of CMX's titles became snatched up by another publisher, they could see potentially better sales in their new home than they ever would at DC's, which could be another proverbal nail in their coffin. Of course, they'd have to be willing to take the risk in the first place...

On the Newsarama Blog, I posted a rebuttal to a rubuttal:

Jack F., Congratulations, you just placed your schadenfreude on THE WRONG PEOPLE. The ones responsible for the Tenjo Tenge fiasco were no longer running CMX by 2006. The ones affected by this were only guilty of bringing out off-beat, quality products that don’t get enough attention.”

That may have been true with the licensing of several titles that were deserving of wider recognization. But there was NO interaction between the publisher & the fans that let us know that. Not to mention that most of the titles they had were deemed subpar simply because they were from CMX. It got to be so that I could detect whether a random Manga volume on the shelf was a Viz, TokyoPop or CMX title just by looking at the cover alone. Most of the time, my guesses were right on.

However, this shakeup may turn out to be a silver lining. Chances are people may be wanting to snatch up several titles before they’re no longer available, leading to the first INCREASE in sales in years. Not to mention that if they decide to let their licenses lapse, other companies could snap up certain titles deserving of a wider audience. One that comes to mind is Chikyu Misaki. Just look at how Yotsuba burned up the charts once it switched from ADV to Yen Press.

Of course, that would require a Manga company willing to take the risk of publishing Old-School Shojo Mangas such as Swan & From Eroica with Love. Maybe Fantagraphics could take them? They’re going to publish some Moto Hagio Manga later this fall, & Dirk Deppey expressed some dismay at their discontinuance.

Not long after I posted this did David Welsh mention that he also hoped that Fantagraphics would take up the slack on several unfinished Mangas, some which were only a few volumes away from completion. (Another very big annoyance among other Manga publisher, particularly TokyoPop & Dark Horse) Apparently, similar minds think alike.

What a coincidence! I just recommended that Fantagraphics pick up the remainder of
Eroica & Swan on another board for the exact same reasons you mentioned. I suspect it’s all about branding. Fantagraphics is more likely to have better ties to bookstores than CMX ever was. (I only saw one volume of Emma at Chapters) -EDIT - I also saw the first volume of From Eroica, which gave me a better understanding as to why it was so universally loved around various blogs, but decided the kind of humour wasn't really for me. Other than that, I don't really recall any other CMX titles that really gathered my attention on the shelves. If there were any, I think I was guilty of ignoring them.

Also, Yen Press could potentially make a killing if they ever got their hands on Chikyu Misaki. Just look at how Yotsuba did once they changed hands.

Another potential weakness of the CMX brand might've been their logo, which was remarkably similar to the Go! Comi's Logo - and Go! Comi just announced they were going out of business shortly before CMX announced their cessation. This led others to see this as a conspiracy to close shop while Viz laid off their workers. After all, if everyone else's doing it, who'll notice?

Apparently, more people than they thought.

Can you tell the difference?

Slightlybiasedmanga was the most vocal of all the complainers, and is the one I'm most thankful for, since she pointed out several titles that I would've been otherwise totally ignorant of. I actually took the time to go to several second-hand stores and comic discount bins to find some of the Mangas she recommended, while I ordered the missing volumes. My reasons for doing this was threefold:

1 - I didn't want to order any Manga volumes from a limited supply from a warehouse where there might've been others who were more interested in certain titles than I was.

2 - I didn't want to regret having paid full price for a title when a better offer was languishing on a lonely shelf in an unknown corner somewhere.

3 - I'm a cheap bastard. I just spent $50 on half-priced Mangas, & I'm still not halfway done. When you suddenly have to complete your runs, every cent counts.

It would be ironic if the cancelation of the CMX line actually INCREASED sales for the first time in years. My thoughts were that apart from the Tenjho Tenge controversy (which I never really cared about in the first place, but which set the tone for the line at a whole – if that was how they were going to treat their cash cow, how would more risique series fare?) – I felt they failed on other fronts as well.
One major issue was that most of the books they had when they were starting out were extremely stiff. Reading comic paperbacks should be easy, not a chore. I had to literally break the spine of some titles just to read them, and they were STILL too hard to open.
Also, every time I saw a subpar title on the comic shelf, my first thought was “It’s probably a CMX Manga”, and I wouldn’t be too far off the mark. Apart from a few worthy titles you’ve listed above, most of them were unfortunatly rather forgetable. If they’d made the effort to show WHY some stories were worth reading, they might’ve stood a chance. But they expected their audience to do all the work for them. Fanship is a two-way street. You need input and output to stay healthy, and the Otaku mentality might’ve been too foreign from the Fanboy mentality for them to comprehend.
The only title I’m reasonably interested in is Moon Child, and bought the first three volumes, but now, I’m wondering if I should take the plunge & purchase the rest of the series while I still can. Trouble is, I’m unsure if I’ll enjoy it as much as other people claim. There’s a page in the 2nd volume that’s EXACTLY like a page in Please Save my Earth that lets me have some conservatism. Of course, the 1st volume of Banana Fish “borrowed” the Warehouse from Akira & became something else entirely, so the rip-off analogy might not work here. Another problem is that what wows you might not be as equally impressive on me. I simply can’t get into Swan despite being a great fan of The Glass Mask.

Later, I submitted another follow-up post to my previous entry:
I just remembered another title you forgot to mention – Chikyu Misaki by Yuji Iwahara. If the name sounds familiar, he(she?)’s the same author of King of Thorn.

If another company decides to rescue any titles from CMX, that’s the child-friendliest one I can think of capable of gathering a wider audience. Just look at Yotsuba burning up the charts once it got swithced over to Yen Press. Strange that the same author who produced such a heartwarming tale also produced an Action/Horror Movie type Manga in King of Thorn.
Anyways, I took the chance to look up several CMX titles you recommended, starting with the finished series, such as Oyayubihime Infinity, Cipher & Astral Project.
So far, the first chapter of Oyayubihime looked interesting, though I wasn’t sure if I wanted to plop $30 for the first three books alone. I only managed to find the last volume of Astral Project in a shrinkwrapped cover, though the cover looked interesting. But Cipher looked to be the most intruiging of the lot.
I have a cardinal rule when purchasing Manga or any kind of comic. “Do I want to read this more than once?” After I read the first 50 or so pages, I instantly snatched it up. It didn’t hurt that it was in the discount pile with several Mangas (half of which were CMX titles) along with the 4th volume of Moon Child. (They also had another Manga by Reiko Shimizu, but for some reason, I couldn’t find it on either her or the CMX wikipedia) - EDIT - I went back to the store the next day, and couldn't find the title. This leads me to suspect that I might've accidently compared it with another volume of Moon Child.
Having had the chance to read it at a more leisurly pace at home, I was reminded of two more pitfalls against CMX.
1. – They had a tendency to be TOO faithful to the Otaku audience by not translating some titles to make them more interesting. TokyoPop may have caught some heat by translating some titles to make them sound more ‘Americanized’, but at least you understood what it was about. Oyayubihime Infinity may SOUND interesting, but what does it MEAN?? Until you take the time to read it, (and it could take awhile) the Japanese meaning can be totally lost on you.
2. – While reading the first page of Cipher, I was annoyed by how the text was portrayed vertically. It took me a good minute to figure out it was a retelling of the biblical quote of Cain being his Brother’s Keeper, and if any smote him, they would be returned sevenfold. If I wasn’t familiar with Sandman, it could’ve taken me much longer. And the vertical text kept switching around both ways in the book! It would be read from right to left, then left to right. Make up your mind!
BTW, Viz REALLY needs to rerelease PSME as an ombibus collection. Seven fat volumes worth of Reincarnated Psychic Aliens.
I hope I can find the rest of Cipher before it becomes unavailable!

So why was there so much outpouring of grief over a Manga publishing line that was widly inconsistent and varied at most? Every month, only a sporadic number of Mangas were released, and it could take up to three to four months to see a continuation of a previous book. If you're only following one or two titles at a time, waiting for the next instalment can be torture. But they filled these months with other Mangas which could've passed under the radar while they were waiting for the next volume. Even if only 3 Manga volumes were released one month a year, that still adds up to an impressive amount. And they survived for SIX years.
Another reason was that, unlike other failed Manga publishers such as ADV, Go! Comi, Broccoli, and the recently revamped Kodansha line, CMX actually delivered multiple quality Mangas to read. ADV was more of an Anime company than a Manga one, and tended to stall any series they released. We were lucky if a multi-volume series was actually completed by them. In comparison, CMX had more than one series that didn't rely on an Anime tie-in. That lack of Anime might have hurt its chances at success too. (The only exception being GALS!)
Of all the blog comments, this one from Kuriousity is probably closest to my personal feelings:
CMX is one of the companies that I always remember being there. Even though I’ve been reading and collecting manga for over ten years, it feels odd recalling a time when CMX wasn’t around. They never had a huge presence but I always knew they were there.
(...) I indulged in a number of their earlier series, (...) but CMX quickly become synonymous with unpleasant production values in my mind. The paper quality was nice but the stiffness of the books was horrible and the cover designs suffered from too much consistency, the art lost in a blank canvas of white space and awkward layouts. (...) While I was happy CMX was changing to a more eye-catching and pleasing format, their presence in the shops quickly began to dwindle and no titles I caught wind of via the internet sounded interesting enough to seek out via the process of special order.
If I'd had heard better things about some series other than Moon Child once they'd completed their run, I probably wouldn't be as hesitant to purchase them in the first place. On the other hand, if I hadn't known that CMX would be closing their doors so soon, I wouldn't be compelled to purchase these Mangas in the first place.

I normally despise cliches, but one in particular rings true here: We truly don't know what we're missing until it's gone.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

For FOOB or for FBOFW

Like many newspaper comic readers, I grew up reading the Canadian family comic, For Better or for Worse. It practically mirrored my own nuclear family. The only thing we didn’t have was a sheepdog. (We did, however get a schnauzer, but that wasn’t until later)

It was very influential on my life. I started out calling my parents Mummy and Papa, but after reading the collection It Must be Nice to be Little, I started calling them Mom & Dad. As an ardent fan, I wasn’t able to get the first collection I’ve got the One More Washload Blues until much later. However, bits and pieces of Lynn Johnston’s early strips showed up in smaller book collections with titles such as Grampas are for Jumping On.

Many of her daily strips were collected in her books, but I was irked that so few of her Sundays were in her books. This was one of the things that spurned me to keep the Gazette Sunday comics. Sadly, she only started getting serious about showing the Sundays in tandem with her dailies at around 2000, when her strip became a chore to read. (I can’t even bother reading the later books without doing some serious skipping)

I have fond memories of her legendary strip up to Farley’s death. After that, it seemed like the soul of the comic had been ripped away. In part, it might be because after her mentor Charles Schultz retired and died, she lost all further inspiration in her creation. (Schultz also said that killing the dog off would be a mistake - a criticism he seemed to recognize)

Myself, I feel that the strip started to go downhill when she got too attached to her “serious” stories. This started with the hospitalization of Grandma Marian, which I felt dragged on for too long. To me, that was the point where it gradually changed from FBOFW to FOOB.

In her book The Lives Behind the Lines, she showcased multiple plotlines behind the characters that she’d kept behind the scenes, in part because she didn’t have a chance to showcase them without having to rely on obvious exposition.

When she announced that she was going to semi-retire her strip, and fill in the blanks of some of the stories she wanted to expand on, I was mildly enthusiastic. I thought it would be reminiscent of when Elly recalled Elizabeth’s birth from looking at the family photos and explaining them to her children. Sadly, we got none of that. It was a crushing disappointment when we got filler to the filler of the early strips back when the comic was just finding its legs. Not to mention she tried (but failed) to copy her artwork to her old-school style, which was much looser than the stiff style she’d grown accustomed to later in life.

Not to mention when Lynn formally announced her “retirement”, she kept putting it off for one reason or another. It seemed like she was simply unable to conceive of a life outside of not doing a daily strip, even as she admitted she no longer enjoyed doing it. When the cartoonist keeps doing the strip without enjoying it, and the audience also keeps reading said strip without enjoying it, there’s something seriously wrong there.

At the end, I felt very much like the reader of this parody of a long-running Manga, which likewise went on for too long. (Yakitate! Japan should’ve stopped at the 14th volume)

Part of what made the strip fail for the last 10 years of it’s shelf life (11 years too long) were multiple factors. In wanting to tell more serious stories, she increased the number of panels in the dailies, leading to more scrunched-up panels, as opposed to her looser artwork. Having worked non-stop since her conception, she was probably feeling more burnt out than ever. This can be evidenced by her self-plagiarism of her early Sunday comics (originally featuring Elizabeth, but now showing April). A very large part could be that when her children moved away from her, she lost the source of her inspiration, and had to mine her past to get any further ideas, and there’s only so much you can get when you start talking to yourself.

Most of all, I feel it suffered because it was no longer following a family drama, but became more of a wish fulfillment fantasy. This can be seen in Michael’s wanting to become a writer, but opted instead to write about a romance during the war rather than Farley’s death - an event that touched him strongly. Stone Season is about Sheilagh Shaugnessey’s marriage to an abusive soldier, while trying to keep her independence and giving birth to a baby. In short, it was the kind of novel that would be more suited for Elly to have written herself. But since Lynn was so filled with the vision of her son being a successful writer, all realms of plausibility as well as character identification were chucked out the window. There were two sticking points - when Michael ran back into a burning house to retrieve his novel from the fire, he was placing his work before his family. The second was that his first draft (which was in severe need of multiple rewrites) was snapped up for a $25,000 grant. Obviously, Lynn had forgotten about the struggle a starving artist has to make to get their works noticed.

It was also verrrrrrrry convenient that a childhood friend, Deanna Sobinski came back after languishing in obscurity, and his then-girlfriend, Rhetta just told him that she was breaking up with him.

The biggest icebreaker, of course was the Mary Sue, who's been called everything from Blandthony, to Granthony, to the Pornstache; Anthony. More has been said about Anthony here, so I won’t bother, save that Anthony was an obvious avatar for Lynn Johnston herself. It became increasingly clear that Anthony’s marriage to Theresse was more a marriage of convenience than love, with Anthony still pining for Liz, his TRUE love. It closely mirrored Lynn's feelings during her first marriage which ended badly, and no longer followed any routes her children could've taken, but the choices they should've taken, which of course all ended up as the right choices, leading to a Happy Ever After ending for all of them.

What's particularly telling is that once Liz & Mike got together with their "true wuv", their chemistry with their partners completely fell off the face of the earth. This was especially true for Mike, since Deanna was a safer bet than the more rombust Rhetta. More can be read here, which showcases how Liz got the convenience of having a baby without ever having to go through the trials of ever having to lose her virginity or get pregnant. Surely that's every woman's wish? To have somebody else's baby without the joy that comes before and after the event???

Some of the most devoted fans started doing barbed criticism of the latest FBOFW strips, or as they called it, FOOB, based on a “slang” word April said once, showing just how out of touch Lynn Johnston was with her audience.

It was tremendous fun seeing these possible interpretations of these lousy strips. How HowTheDuck manages to overanalyze every new strip without breaking his mind is an ordeal I’ll never understand. I would’ve quit after the first five new strips alone. But my admiration started to fade when they pointed those same barbs towards the early reprinted strips. When you start seeing the hidden motives behind every single sentence a once-well regarded writer ever did, it becomes less of a guilty pleasure, and more of a reason to keep kicking a dead horse before the body’s even cold. Pointing out that Lynn expected her children to sit still when the strips were reflecting parent's exasperation in trying to control their children is missing the point entirely. Obviously, these people have never had children. Recently, these posters have even gone so far as to insinuate that Elly's treatment towards her children are grounds for Child Endangerment. They've obviously forgotten the 'Calvin' where Calvin was ranting about the bad role models in newspaper comics, while his Dad retorted; "Yes, we all know how funny good role models are."

It’s just a shame that FBOFW only started to get parodied when it started to get lousy. Where was all that devotion when the strip was actually GOOD?? I only recall MAD Magazine having maybe two (yes, TWO) satires where a FBOFW character showed up as a background character. I don’t recall which one Elly showed up in, but I do know Farley was seen drinking, then falling in the pool in “Smellgross Place”. And MAD had a tendency to copy cartoon characters in the margins of their articles very often. (Calvin alone showed up as a rowdy kid in the background often, as well as “Robin” in Batsman & Rubin)

This in turn led to an observation about Liz’s travel to Mtigwaki, and how she felt truly happy with her current life, with her teaching job, and being with Paul. That was until an e-mail from April spurned Liz to return home to be with Anthony again. The problem was, there was more chemistry between Liz, and her other potential suitors than there was with Anthony. With everyone else, there was a definite spark, a great show of emotion between two people. Even the arguments with Paul, (a regular Irving) was a great display of fireworks. But you’d be hard pressed to find any of that with Elizabeth & Anthony. Mixing nitroglycerin with sulfur-based gasoline, and injecting it with electricity wouldn’t have produced anything from those two corpses, no matter how much Lynn Johnston tried to convince us.

And yet, there were still people who wanted Liz and Anthony to be a couple, simply because “it felt right”. I was mortified to discover that my Mother was one of these people. I’d always considered her to be smarter than that. If this kind of thing had happened on a TV show or movie, I’m sure she’d be mortified, pointing out all the potential flaws between the two. But because this was a comic strip, she didn't have as much leeway since it wasn't a medium she was faithfully devoted to. Also, it had been hinting at a possible romance between the two for so long that a pairing seemed inevitable. To her, it seemed romantic, but to me (and others) it seemed painfully obvious, if not contrived.

One of the intriguing arguments that was brought up was the possibility that Brian - not Lawrence - could’ve been ousted as being gay. The signs from his mother were there - he was more interested in studies than girls. But then Lawrence came out in front of his best friend, and it was a silent shocker there, eventually leading up to a small family drama (both inside and outside the newspapers) leading to a satisfactory conclusion. Sadly, after creating this great stink with one of her characters, she never adequately did a reasonable follow-up with Lawrence, only having him appear sporadically in subsequent episodes as a florist. Even his reunion with his “father” fell flat, in part that Lynn got her continuity wrong. It was Pete, not Pablo, who Connie fell in love with in the early days who left her with her son Lawrence. Of course, it’d been 20 years since she’d written those early strips, but Lynn could’ve taken about 5 minutes to do the research. Having the first letter in the name doesn’t count.

It was only recently that the archives of missing FBOFW strips started to be posted on the FBOFW site. I was surprised to see how much had been left out of the collections. There weren't that many dailies missing, but there were hundreds of Sundays that hadn't been seen for years. The comic where Connie finds out about Mrs. Baird’s house is completely different from the collected version where she was much calmer.

However, the archive's not entirely perfect. Choosing the Strips not Collected link is no help. Some of them HAVE been collected in various books, not counting Lynn’s FIRST Sunday collections, More than a Month of Sundays and Our Sunday Best. Searching by month would be your best bet, though there are still a few holes in her collection. I’m still missing the February 10th strip from 1985 as well as the daily comic on September 29 1985. However, the strip flows so well between the 28th & 30th strips that it’s hard to imagine anything in between. Lynn said that her last book was going to be A Simple Wedding, featuring the wedding between Liz and (ugh) Anthony. Seriously, the wedding between Cathy & Irving was more fun to read. Hopefully, if an omnibus collection of the uncollected FBOFW ever comes up in the future, it WON’T include the latest strips that she included to “improve” her work.

In the end, Lynn Johnston simply set the bar of quality on her strip so high that even she couldn’t jump over it. It reminds me (fittingly) of a Peanuts strip with Snoopy at his typewriter. He was writing the story of a man who never got anything he wanted. “He wanted riches, he got rags. He wanted fame, he got obscurity. He wanted cheers, he got boos. He wanted answers, he got only questions” and so on, until the last panel when Snoopy looked up and admitted, “I’ve got a hard time ending this story”. That was Lynn’s major problem there - she had no idea how - or when - she should’ve ended her strip.

This was further compounded by her putting off her retirement until "she was ready", but she took so long that even her husband of Thirty years, Rod, finally left her for another woman. In essence, the woman was more married to her work than her husband, and explains her mentality for letting Michael run back into a burning building to save his novel. Given the amount of Bad Blood between her and her family (her children have expressed no desire to have children of their own), it's surprising that there hasn't been a tell-all expose on what it was like living with a famous cartoonist. My guess is that they're waiting until she's dead when they can publish a bibliography, since she wouldn't be around to express dissent. There was similar controversy when a biography on Charles Schultz was released last year showing that he wasn't the warm & caring man he portrayed himself to be. It brought up comparisons with another American Legend who produced works of art perfectly portraying American Life, but was a horrible family man. That man's name was Norman Rockwell.

Lynn eventually got enough chutzpah to dare others to try to produce work that would knock her legacy strip off the comics page. The problem with this challenge was twofold. One - anybody who’d want to do their own tribute to FBOFW wouldn’t do it with the severe limits of the newspaper strip - they’d happily do it as a webcomic. Two - any new strip would be immediately typecast and ousted if it didn’t already follow a strict formula. Unless it featured a nuclear family, a wacky kid or animal, and stayed within an urban setting, it has virtually no chance of ever being licensed.

I always thought that if Lynn found her current surroundings to be too limiting, she could’ve simply moved on to another medium with more freedom of space to do the kind of drawings & stories more to her liking. After all, she said that half the humour in Herman (another Canadian strip) was from the drawings, and that was lost when the drawing was shrunk to half it’s size. Why she didn’t consider this might be that she’d been doing her job for so long that branching out into any new fields would be completely foreign territority.

For the uninitiated, I recommend stopping at around Graduation; Time for a Change, which was just around the time the strip started to decline, but no so much that you didn't want to see more. It's the perfect jumping-off point.

EDIT - just wanted to add the link to the site that talked about my essay, since it’s the longest commentary I’ve ever recieved outside my blog.

RE-EDIT - for anyone interested in the relevant Peanuts strip I was talking about, see this link here.

RE-RE-EDIT - Found another website that talks about Anthony's failures that I found buried in my notes, but couldn't find it at the time, so it had to go up unfinished. I finally managed to attach the relevant link in the paragraph that mentions the infamous e-mail message above, but figured it'd be safer to add the link down here, since it'd likely go by unnoticed.