Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Bill Blackbeard is Dead

Last month, long time comic historian Bill Blackbeard died. I'm amazed and appalled that it took this long for his death to register. This may not mean much to most comic readers, but it means a lot to me. While most comic collectors concern themselves with old pamphlet-sized comics, Bill Blackbeard was more interested in that other realm of forgotten comics - the Newspaper comic strip. In addition to the introductory essays, Blackbeard was also responsible for The Smithsonian Collection of Newspaper Comics. Chances are that I've snuck a peek or two of this massive tome at the library, but I can't be sure, since the cover kept changing all the time. That's probably an indication to multiple reprints than anything else, which should be a worthwhile endevor, but plays havoc with consistency.

I didn't know much about the man, save that he made multiple introductions to collected Golden Age comic strips, such as Krazy Kat and Popeye. They were lengthy intimidating reads, and I always skipped those to get to the meat of the book - the actual comics themselves. Now that the man's gone, I may have to devote some time to reading these dense essays. It didn't help matters much that the nearby panels were immensely distracting. It'll probably be easier on me if I look at the pictures first, figure out how many pages there are, then go back and read it from start to finish. (It'll probably take more than one sitting)

I also didn't know that he was almost solely responsible for the majority of the Newspaper comic collections that I've grown fond of. He was almost alone in his single-minded preservance of keeping every newspaper comic at a time when people were throwing them away after reading them. If you've ever read a comic that originated in the 1920's, Bill Blackbeard probably kept it. It's that devotion that I greatly admire. I foolishly thought I was making a serious effort to keep comic collections alive with my meager collection, when Bill Blackbeard was doing that very thing before I was born. The only thing I can do is show bits and pieces of my comics that I deem relevant.

He may well be remembered as the man who saved comic strips. Indeed, with IDW reprinting series such as Dick Tracy, Terry & the Pirates, Rip Kirby and other long-running serials that would make more sense in a collected format, we can appreciate these works today more than we would back then. Comics such as Gasoline Alley can only really be appreciated not daily or even weekly, but in monthly installments. Nowadays, comic authors wanting to draw a serial no longer have to restrict themselves to the strip format, which would wreck havoc with their schedule, constantly creating mini-cliffhangers on every third panel, and that's not even taking the Sunday comics in account, which may, or may not be essential to the overall plot. Can you imagine trying to create a story where every third page is missing? The public would never stand for it. And yet, despite these limitations, it somehow managed to stand the test of time. With these reprints, we can finally see for ourselves what all the fuss was about.

He was also a valuable resource of the ages, since he helpfully gave references to the more obscure Krazy Kat jokes, in a section called the De-baffler Korner. With his sudden absence, we're left with one less "I was there" researcher who could give actual information on some of the cultural themes that had long died out.

For more on the man, Tom Surgeon has a more in-depth summary of the man's interesting history. Other contributions can be found here. The Library of American Comics has their own obituary here.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

BC's Easter Tradition

In the last decade that Johnny Hart was working on his legacy strip, he shook things up by paying tribute to his religion by implanting themes of it in the Sunday strip. Some of these were considered controversial, but to me, they were a welcome change of pace (if sometimes baffling), compared to his usual output. Since not every one of his punny comics could be considered a home run, he was allowed to put whatever he wanted on the page. These were more of a mind-bender than trying to figure out a lousy joke. However, until Johnny Hart started blantantly supporting Christianity, he celebrated Easter in a completely different way:

Every Easter, the Fat Broad would don a different Easter bonnet, much to BC's chagrin. Like Lucy & the football, this was Johnny's way of finding an annual way to make BC miserable. These samples were taken from BC Color me Sunday, which had colourized comics, as well as black & white ones. Amusingly enough, my copy has some of the latter coloured in crayon.

However, this tradition didn't seem to stick as well as Schulz's formula. It wasn't until I saw that book that I noticed that it was thematically similar to two other Easter comics. In those, the Fat Broad had given up on finding excuses to beat BC up, and just went around parading in her various hats, each one as garish as the last.

As far as I know, this was the last time she ever wore a hat. It seems somewhat fitting.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

The Thin Brown Line

Sorry about the lack of updates lately. Things have been a little crazy around here, the least of which was having the Passover seder at a new location. We normally had it every year at Bubby's apartment, but since she's moved out, we've been taking this opportunity to find as much useless junk lying around the house so we can sell them at her place next Saturday. As a result, there's been tons of packing and digging around old stashes, finding ancient knick-knacks. Some of these were items I hadn't seen in years. Others brought back old memories I had long since forgotten. Its the latter that I'm going to miss the most.

One particular ugly statue on a shelf had an interesting history behind it. My mother was traveling in France with a friend of hers, when a passing salesman popped up in front of her, and offered this African-looking statue for sale at a bargain price. Even though she declined, the salesman persisted, resorting to the foreign concept of haggling. The more my mother resisted, the further the salesman pushed his wares, until she finally accepted. While her friend was impressed with the outcome, she asked, "What are you going to do with that thing now?"

At first, my mother gave the statue to her friend, since she was there when it happened. But when they got back, her friend gave it back to Mom, since it was "hers". Since then, every time she and her friend met throughout the years, they would inevitably give the other the statue as a parting "gift", each one too polite to pass it up. This continued even when they were living in different provinces. It was the ultimate re-gifter. This practice only stopped when postage became too expensive to justify mailing it. My mother initially wanted to sell it, but after mentioning the story, decided it was worth another go, since her friend was going to be in the vicinity in a month or so.

Even so, I still had to suffer the mental heartbreak of giving away broken-down, worn-off pieces of trash that only had meaning to me, particularly a Transformers lunchbox where Ravage had long since worn off. After I recuperated, I was able to help organize the stuff into boxes and suitcases to be ferried over later. If this were a fair and just world, we would be able to neatly stack everything of inconsequence into neat little piles like on this Wednesday's Xkcd.

Of course, because real life constantly interferes, the actual result looked something more like this:

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Tokyopop’s Bubble Bursts

It’s just been recently announced that after being in the business since 1997, Tokyopop will no longer be publishing Manga after May 31st. Although the writing was on the wall since they hadn’t had a breakout hit since Fruit Basket was finished, and they severely cut back on their Manga releases, I somehow always thought that Tokyopop would somehow survive. Wasn’t it one of the revolutionary founders that allowed Manga to be printed unflipped in an accessible $9.99 per volume (cheap!) each? It was only after their success with their aggressive strategy that other Manga companies followed suit, abandoning the comic market in favour of the bookstore market, and they’ve never looked back since. Tokyopop’s Germany office may still be open, but that may be small consolance since Kodansha pulled all their Manga licenses two years ago. Whether they're still feasible for English Manga there is still up to debate.

Although Tokyopop was one of the major movers and shakers of Manga history and one of the Big Two next to Viz, their reputation took a serious nosedive when their Manga output began to outpace demand. Their catalogue grew from one page of titles to two pagers full of dense text without any description. Another added bonus of the sparse catalogue was that there was room to show how long a series was, so people could know how long to expect they could stay with a title. Is it any wonder why readers became confused about what to pick up next? There were something like 40 new volumes being released a month, and even the most devoted fans had to do some serious cut-backing in order to afford the stuff they really wanted. As a result, the less popular Mangas that weren’t being sold as much as the bestsellers became neglected until their next volume releases were several months apart. It also didn’t help that they kept redesigning their website to become more user-unfriendly with each iteration.

There had been rumblings starting from when they commenced mass layoffs of most of their staff and Stuart Levy’s continuous interest in movies rather than Manga publishing. It’s certainly ironic, since one of his selling points was Manga were equivalent to reading movies in comic form. Of the properties that Stuart Levy was hoping to be made into movies, none have ever moved past the publicity hook that they might be made someday. It’s even more disappointing since one of CMX’s previous editors found a new home there, and there was brief hope that some of the former Manga company’s titles might be picked up. What’s going to happen to Asako Suzuki now?

Then there’s the whole OEL/American Manga copyright debacle, which I won’t even attempt to touch, since none of the titles looked interesting to me. (With the sole exception of Reality Check!, which was reprinted in Black & white, and strangely enough, added clothes to the cyber-catgirl hybrid) They may have had their intentions in the right spot, but their output needed more polish before being distributed. While everybody extolled the virtues of working without restraints, some titles could’ve benefited from more editorial input. Not just in making creative suggestions to inspire the creator’s imaginations further, but also tightening up the stories so they’d flow better. Anybody remember the whole Samurai Zombie fiasco?
Some positive noteworthy things Tokyopop was responsible for:
  • Advertising their Manga on TV.
  • Having the ultra-popular Clamp titles available.
  • Striking while the iron was hot with Anime hits such as Initial D, Samurai Champloo, Samurai Deeper Kyo and Voices of a Distant Star, not to mention Shonen and Shojo version of Cowboy Bebop.
  • Experimenting with old-school Mangas such as B'tX, Lupin III, Cyborg 009, Marmalade Boy, Kodocha - Sana’s Stage, and the omnibus collections of GTO - Shounan Gumi.
  • Bringing over Korean comics such as Blade of Heaven, King of Hell, Model, Ragnarok, Rebirth and Priest.
  • Hiring the fansubbers for the Initial D Anime to handle the translation for the Manga of same, to ensure high quality.
  • Branching out into Josei starting with Erica Sakurazawa Works, Happy Mania, Tramps Like Us and Suppli.
  • Their ventures into Yaoi/Shonen-ai output, such as FAKE, Saiyuki Reload and Eerie Queerie!
  • Saving titles from cancelation, such as Aria and Your and My Secret
  • Videogame adaptions such as Castlevania, Kingdom Hearts, Sakura Taisen and Suikoden III.
Negative ideas that Tokyopop will be remembered for:
  • Announcing the Metroid Manga adaption, and never getting around to releasing it.
  • Title revisions, such as Eerie Queerie! which was originally titled Ghost!, but changed because of copyright of a Dark Horse comic of the same name, even though the two were nothing alike.
  • Westernizing the names in Initial D after the 1st volume (most likely so Keisuke [K.T]. would fit the narrow speech bubbles better)
  • Passing the translation job to freelancers who continued to do sloppier and sloppier work complete with slang, which continued to turn off what few readers were still interested.
  • Cancelling a long-running title after months of stringing their customers along.
  • Constantly promoting Princess Ai, whether anybody was interested or not.
Whatever their virtues and faults, Tokyopop certainly had an impressive diversive output. Whether it was from All-Ages titles such as +Anima, Et Cetera, Hyper Police, Qwan, and Sgt. Frog. It was their output in Shojo titles like Mars, Miracle Girls, Peach Girl, Saint Tail, Paradise Kiss, Pet Shop of Horrors and Planet Ladder that made detractors feel that Manga was just for girls. Even their releases of Mature titles like Battle Royale, Remote, DragonHead, King of Thorn and Planetes didn’t change these people’s minds much. I suppose being regulated to Hetalia, Future Diary, Deadman Wonderland, Chibi Vampire and Gakuen Alice wasn’t enough to keep them afloat.

So far, it looks like Kodansha will be filling in the gap when Tokyopop let their licenses over their old properties lapse on titles such as Sailor Moon and Love Hina. However, given the lukewarm reception Kodansha’s given in making themselves known to the public, the jury’s still out on whether they’ll receive a warm welcome. They’re remained remarkably conservative in their advertising and press releases, which is a death spiel for any company wanting to survive. Whatever Tokyopop’s faults, they at least made noise doing whatever they deemed attention-worthy. Of the two titles that Kodansha’s released so far, both Akira and Ghost in the Shell were already translated by Dark Horse. Until we see evidence of an actual translation rewrite on future releases, we’ll hold our reservations in check.

In the end, their downfall could be attributed to letting their foundation Mangas lapse after constantly looking for greener pastures to graze upon. With so many titles being released over the years, special attention should be paid to those that stood out, and be reconsidered before they’re no longer available anymore. The one title that keeps coming to mind is the single volume I.C. In a Sunflower, a collection of short stories by Mitsukazu Mihara, creator of DOLL.

Mihara’s other Gothic works were a popular mainstay of Tokyopop’s Manga line, thanks to Simon Furman’s translation, who was a writer for Transformers. He gave the disassociated vibe of those protagonists such a realistic feel. Even though he wasn't the English Adaptor for this, I still think this book is her best work. Whenever I open the book to read a page of one of her stories, I always wind up reading the entire thing the whole way through. It’s that good.

One of the stories even has what could be called a Sopranos-type ending. I had to reread that one three times before I figured it out. All the clues were there – I just needed to pay attention. Finally all those lessons in English class for finding underlying meaning in the text became useful! (To anyone who has a copy and knows what I’m talking about, no I’m not going to tell you what it means - it’s better if you figure it out for yourselves)

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Stealing Rights

Recently, there’s been regenerated interest in doing research on why people download illegal copies of comics. I submitted my comments, but they haven’t shown up yet. For posterity’s sake, I’ll be reproducing them here, just slightly touched up and expanded in various places.

With the rise of bittorent file-sharing sites, fans have been able to spread decade-old comic stories that would otherwise cost hundreds of dollars for a casual reader wanting to check out a previous issue mentioned in a footnote.* (*See issue #243, page five, paragraph two!) This kind of mentality has led to people justifying their decisions, entering what I personally call The Privileged Age, where audiences see nothing wrong with reading new stuff for free. We’ve all been exposed to new media from the moment we’re born from generous strangers wanting to share their joy from a story. The difference is, there’s never been a time when so much material was available for simply snatching up without having to pay for it.

Normally, companies are eager to spread their product around for wider publicity. But not if customers keep taking free stuff without giving something back. There’s a reason fast food restaurants can afford to have free packets of ketchup readily available - they’d be useless if there weren’t any food to put on. Even if people take them home for personal use, they’d still have to purchase something else to eat. Ketchup cracker sandwiches can only sustain you so far.

For some people, they appreciate a work more when they have control over how they perceive it. I’m not talking about rampant censorship of certain segments they don’t like - I’m talking about accessing the material in a manner that makes most sense. While most people like reading a collected edition of a comic arc, others prefer to read a collected version into 22 bite-sized pages at a time. To extend the analogy further, some people may stretch out their enjoyment of a TV season by only watching one episode a week at a time. The pause button works even better - they don’t have to worry about missing an important segment of a taped show while they rush off to the bathroom.

The ability to have control over your medium is very attractive. Just look at how many men hog the remote control. This could also apply to the popularity of hands-on devices such as Ipads and the Wii. The same principle applies to comics. When I read a dense text-filled comic on the computer screen, I find it easier to scroll down one panel at a time, so I’m not distracted by visual cues from surrounding panels or text below the page. Likewise, I can manipulate the page to zoom in on teeny-tiny font that would be almost impossible to read without a magnifying glass. Giving the audience allowance to have carte blanche over your creation can be seen as something of an immense risk, but may be necessary if we understand their need to have some semblance of control. There are times when I wish that the collected Invincible trades would dispense with the cover inserts (much like in The Walking Dead) because the story flows so much better that way.

When I read movie descriptions that sound interesting, I usually stop reading further out of fear that I might chance upon a potential spoiler. I only go back to these reviews months later after it’s been released on DVD where it’ll most likely be captioned. I wouldn’t be able to enjoy it otherwise. There are some shows that I’ve been unable to watch simply because the companies have been unwilling or unable to provide necessary subtitles. Even more annoying if the movie itself is captioned, but the extra features aren’t - I can only enjoy half of the product.

Usually, I avoid downloading American comics unless I have a passing familiarity with them, or I read an interesting review or preview on Scansdaily. I like to sample the merchandise before buying it wholesale. I already have too many books cluttering up the house already - I prefer to sample the best comics available, and not feel discouraged when I wind up buying something I didn’t enjoy. For the most part, I generally restrict my readings to whatever volumes are available at the library.

Another reason for downloading a comic is to see if it’s my kind of thing, and determine if it’s the kind of story I’d enjoy. After reading the first three volumes of 100 Bullets, I torrented the rest to see what would happen next. When I was finished, I had NO IDEA what just happened after the fourth book. That’s a sure clue that I wouldn’t enjoy it even if reread in paperback form. It may also take some time before a comic hits their sweet spot. I didn’t become interested in Fables until the 6th volume, and The Walking Dead until the 5th.

In a rare instance, I downloaded the last half of From Hell, so I could print out the annotations at the end. Having the notes on another piece of paper makes it so much easier than having to constantly flip back and forth between hundreds of heavy pages. Too bad there aren’t any scans of Carla Speed McNeil’s Finder series - that one would immensely help as well.

I’ll play catch-up with a series’ run if I’ve heard good things about it, and want to familiarize myself with the backstory. I don’t like reading spoilers of events that I have no idea of what everybody’s talking about. I couldn’t stand reading the essays in Charley’s War talking about events that weren’t available in the current collections, and was incredibly impatient in finding out what happened in a British comic that ran 20 years ago. I was only able to alleviate my frustrations after downloading the rest of the comic online. That way I could be able to afford waiting for Titan Books to release one volume a year. However, the downloadable scans for the first 60 pages or so are of such poor quality that they would immediately kill any interest in anyone wanting to see for themselves. If I could, I would have the entirety of the Battle of the Somme available online for immediate reading.

Another major reason for downloading comics is that they may go on for much longer than a general casual audience would be willing to stick with. The boxing Manga, Hajime no Ippo has been running consecutively since 1989, and is fast approaching its 1000th chapter. Even if the most dedicated Manga company translated one volume a month, it still would take years for them to catch up to the latest chapters. Such long-running serials are similar to television shows that keep going on perpetual motion without ever approaching an ending. These series may be well-regarded in the countries they originated in, but they’re hell for outsiders who haven’t been immersed with the culture while growing up. As much as America is familiar with the Simpsons, Japan only knows the nuclear cartoon family from the commercials.

Lately, I’ve become more interested in comics that aren't available in English, and not just Manga. There’s several scanlations of European albums scattered around if you know where to look. However, the rampant sloppy translations and focus on realistic-art stories is something of a turn-off. I’d appreciate their efforts more if they focused just as much attention to the goofier-looking comics as well.

I for one support Ken Akamatsu's decision to request publicizing out-of-print Mangas for wider distribution. The ironic thing is that while Manga has been reputed for keeping volumes in print, they’re terrible at archiving their pages in a long-lasting form such as microfilm. Finding quality scans of original pages was a major concern of Dark Horse comics, which was why releases were so sporadic and far between. If you make a photocopy of a comic page multiple times, you lose a lot of detail. Just check out the differences between Japanese Mangas and their Chinese translations.

One particular European comic I’d really like to see either back in print or online is Vittorio Giardino’s A Jew in Communist Prague. It’s a coming-of-age story of growing up in a repressive dictatorship in the 1950s. The protagonist Jonas Finkel is casually enjoying life when his father is suddenly arrested for reasons that’re never explained by the authorities. As a consequence, Jonas is expelled from school because of being associated with a criminal, and his mother is tied up with the justice system trying to wrangle answers from the politicians and police. Later, Jonas has to find a job to support his family.

The artist is generally known for Little Ego, an erotic parody of Little Nemo strips. People who’re more familiar with that title may be shocked with the brutality that’s portrayed here. It’s amazing that it isn’t autobiographical, since its so... honest in its portrayal of antisemitism. The closest it comes to a porn scene is near the end of the first book when Jonas is doing his job as a deliveryboy and finds himself attracted to an extremely chubby housewife. His amateur attempts at seducing the woman is cut short when her husband comes home early, and she changes her mood from “Oh no, we shouldn’t...” to “he was going to rape me!” This later bit gets Jonas fired.

Sadly, the preview is only available for the third book, and those few pages are too small to appreciate the powerful effect. For a better appreciation of his ligne claire art, here’s a montage from another French blog:

If there is a fault with his masterpiece, its that the third book is very reminiscent of one of the subversive Kafka stories Jonas and his friends are interested in. It doesn’t so much as end as it just abruptly stops. It wasn’t until I started looking up information about the author that I was surprised to find rumours of a fourth volume that had never been translated. However, further inspection of any more details remains sketchy, which leads me to believe this elusive 4th volume is nothing more than an omnibus collection or sketchbook.

I didn’t mean to talk so much about this title so much, but with my Bubby moving, it means that I no longer have access to the library near her apartment that has multiple copies of this book. Sure, I could read it if I went out of my way to go there, but it’s not quite the same.

In summary, the main reason people download loads of stuff is that they’re looking for something that the current marketplace isn’t already offering them. Even with all the choices available to us, the audience is saying: “It’s not what we’re looking for.” Ironically enough, this same mentality prevents companies from investing into risque properties that could be considered unmerchandisable. Fortunately, that’s what webcomics are for. If it weren’t for their branching out into fields that would never be considered otherwise, we would’ve been stuck in stagnation long ago.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Spring Cleaning

Lately, we've been involved in a crazy amount of spring cleaning this year. Normally, we save our big clean-ups for the end of the year when we invite our family over to celebrate New Year's, but this is a little different. We've been preoccupied with cleaning out my grandmother's apartment after years of hemming and hawing over letting her stay there.

So far, we've accumulated dozens of items that've been saved up in the course of her life. Some items that were lost when she and Zaidie were in communist Russia. (My mother's been translating his autobiography, titled Under Stalin's Yoke that has yet to find a publisher) Other items that'd been accumulated such as leftover threads of coloured wool from their garment business had to be gradually (and covertly) chucked away from her storage locker. Then there were fancy silverware, crystal glasses, and figurines that looked like expensive heirlooms, but weren't. It all added up to more stuff than we could afford to keep.

One notable offspring of her retired thread industry was the impressive weaving portraits that adorned her apartment. For years, I thought they were wonderful masterpieces that required a steady hand, an eye for detail and incredible memory in creating these imaginative pictures. How could a single mind be able to pinpoint exactly which piece of coloured thread to pinpoint into a single frame on a consistent basis? It would be equivalent to designing an elaborate moving sprite by focusing on one pixel at a time.

It wasn't until I saw an actual sample of a naked outline that I found out the truth. The masterpieces I so admired were actually nothing more than elaborate colour-it-yourself paintings in 3-D. They were originally blank canvases with colour-coded holes deliberately spaced to create the required picture. All that was required was to input the correct piece of coloured thread through these holes to get the desired picture. Knowing this truth took away some of the magic, but the awe I got from seeing these portraits is still there. They were among some of the artifacts that I most wanted to keep.

I figured that keeping these pictures around wouldn't be too much of a problem, since there should be plenty of room on the walls. After all, one of Murphy's Laws is any horizontal surface is soon piled up. However my mother didn't want to be one of those pack rats who keep everything they've accumulated in life. We already had enough stuff taking up space in our house. Better to find the stuff we don't need anymore, and sell the rest. Part of what makes this more difficult than it should be isn't the amount of stuff, but determining which stuff is worth keeping, and which should be left in the apartment to make it look attractive to potential buyers.

As a result, we've been moving items back and forth from Bubby's apartment and our house. At the same time, we're trying to cut back on keeping too much useless junk lying around. The major problem is that a lot of the available junk is highly personal, even though it's long past its sell-by-date or usefulness. I have emotional memories associated with just seeing these familiar objects again after a long absence. Being forced with the reality that I won't be seeing these items again is almost physically painful, even though I understand the necessity in doing so. Parting with these prized items is equivalent to cutting off a major organ in the appendix zone. Sure, we don't really need it, but it's nice to know its there.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Medieval Red Ketchup

Stan Lee may be trying to revive his failing reputation for creating new ideas with turning Schwarzenegger into an action figure, but he’s got plenty of competition to deal with. Considering that Schwarzenegger was already a caricature before entering politics doesn’t help much. However, of all those He-men clones, I’m willing to bet that none are as equally crazy as Red Ketchup.

I’ve mentioned him briefly before, but figured it was worth another look. One thing to understand about Red Ketchup is that he was created in the 80's during a time when action movies were focusing on Rambo-style protagonists. Keep that in mind when reading the end of this short story summary.

In this opening, we see how Red Ketchup’s skill in determining drug quality is so advanced that he can tell exactly what the drug samples are made up of just by snorting them up his nose.

That’s right. Inhaling strychnine does nothing more than give him a mad rush. Elsewhere, his boss is talking with two men who’re specifically requesting Red Ketchup’s services. (To simplify things later, I’ll be referring to these guys as Man 1 and Man 2) His boss is reluctant to give him up, since Red Ketchup has a tendency to be overzealous in any job, and he’s hoping Red’ll get an overdose in the narcotics lab. It’s only when he gets a direct order from the President that he opens up. He leads the two men to the testing site when they find their man lying on the floor.

What happened to him?
I have no idea what it was, but he took a single whiff, went rigid...
And fell dead!

The chief isn’t too concerned, since he’s happy to see ketchup out of commission. But that only lasts until Red Ketchup wakes up screaming and starts acting like a ditzy Anime girl looking for her glasses.

We also see why Red Ketchup wears sunglasses all the time. It’s not a fashion statement, nor just to appear more imposing (his red eyes alone would be unnerving enough), but because of his albino upbringing, he's very sensitive to bright lights. After his boss informs Red Ketchup that he’ll be going with these men for his next mission, he gleefully affirms, while bringing a few pills just in case he’ll need them later.

Red Ketchup’s brought to the a building where an old man only referred to as "Grand Master" asks to see his eyes. Red Ketchup obliges, at which point, the Grand Master falls to his knees, much to his confusion. The Grand Master explains that Red Ketchup’s a dead ringer for a knight who played an impressive role during the Crusades.

While the Grand Master goes on to explain the history of this crusader, Red Ketchup takes a few more pills to pass the time.

This crusader, Wenceslas the Red made an impressive assault scheme to bring himself over to the defending castle site. He describes how he mowed his way past dozens of soldiers and launched himself over enemy walls using their own catapults.

Once Wenceslas the Red was part of their battle formation, their sieges became legendary for being unbeatable. He was only stopped when a mirror in the Muslim camp was deliberately aimed to shine bright light into his eyes. After a blood-curling scream, the enemy was able to inflict a mortal wound on Wenceslas the Red. As he lay dying, he made a prophesy that in a year, disaster would strike the Pope, the King and the Minister. There’s a lot of text that I’m struggling to understand, but the basic gist is that there’s a secret organization named The Saint Order of Templars, a kind of Freemasons-like brotherhood. The Grand Master is head of this centuries-old tradition and now wants to employ Ketchup’s likeness for a ritual wearing Wenceslas the Red’s artifacts.

Once suited in his garb, the Grand Master informs Red Ketchup that according to the ceremony, he would be contained in this room for nine hours before he could be released. However, this turns out to be a bad choice, since almost immediately, Red Ketchup starts getting antsy from a pounding headache.

"Damn! Why didn't I bring my pills?" This, after he's already consumed more medicine in a day than most people take in a year. By the time the Grand Master has asked for his presence, Ketchup’s decided to take matters into his own hands by formulating his own means of escape.

Upon his first sign of freedom, he immediately high-tails it for the nearest drugstore to relieve his pains. After feeling better, he happens upon a TV announcement of Arabic diplomats entering the country, and gets the idea in his head that he’d better go there.

The conference is interrupted by a man in medieval armour yelling “Death to Infidels!” at the top of his lungs. Considering that Red Ketchup lops off a policeman’s hand off in the process, he’s completely lost himself into his role. Nevermind that his antics are completely inappropriate for the current century. Upon hearing that a knight bearing Wenceslas the Red’s likeness has been found at the airport and airport security has been alerted, the secret society is a little upset. Of the two men who requested Red Ketchup, Man 1 tells Man 2 to come with him in garb similar to Red’s.

Man 2 is considerably confused as to why he’s in this getup at the airport. Man 1 tells him to go out there with sword in hand. Man 2 wondering what all this is in aid of is immediately found by the security team upon which he’s shot upon sight, thus ending the menance.

But where is Red Ketchup? Turns out he was in the one place that no one would suspect a mass murderer with a religious signatia to be hiding:

Amazingly, this isn’t even the most controversial thing Red Ketchup’s done. I’ll be exploring his personal genocide against a certain species in a future post.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Mathematical Equivalence of Comics

With the recent analysis of the musical outline of a Tintin page, I thought it was long overdue that I reproduce a topic I chose for a powerpoint presentation a year ago. The people I showed it to weren’t quite as versed in comics as I was, so my observations went a little over their head. Hopefully, I’ll have more success here.

The basic purpose of comics is to show an idea / story in an easy-to digest manner. The difference lies in how that information is processed. Using an example, here’s the basic concept of 99 Ways to Tell a Story by Matt Madden; where a man goes to a fridge and forgets what he opened it for.

This simplistic formula is expanded to include other examples in other mediums, genres and parodies. It can be condensed into one panel...

Or expanded into 30 panels. Either way, the same information is evident, but the outcome is completely different.

Scott McCloud noted that there wasn’t a dependable model for how time is perceived in comics since depending on the story told in between panels, any amount of time could happen in the space of a gutter.

However, I’ve noticed that depending on the format they’re told in, a certain amount of information is revealed depending on the comic. I’ll start from a base that general audiences are likely to be most familiar with - the newspaper comic strip.

Newspaper Comics

With slight variation, most comic strips have this basic outline:

Setup / Recap - Framing the current dilemma or refreshing the reader’s memory of what happened yesterday or a week ago.
Interlude - A leading stage into where the characters go next.
Beat - The pause that usually leads to the...
Finale / Joke - No explaination needed here.

This isn’t strictly adhered to, since sometimes you’ll have the interlude and beat panels switched around. If a cartoonist is particularly prolific, they’ll have a recap combined with a later panel. In recent years, the number of panels of newspaper comics have reduced to the point where just the interlude or beat is used instead, usually resulting in a silent penultimate panel.

The second-most common feature of the comics page is the single-panel comic. Scott McCloud may feel that these don’t quite count as comics, but I’ll include this for another reason that’ll be explored later. Jim Unger of Herman said “Cartooning is basically an art of reductionism.” That’s reducing things down to their most basic elements. Its condensing the entirety of the Pacific Ocean into a teaspoon. Granted, that’s one big teaspoon.

Here, we can see from this single-panel comic the distillation of business people’s tin ear for their own products.

After a week of these daily comics, we come to the big finale at the end, the Sunday comic.

Sunday Comics

Despite having more panels than a daily, the layout of a Sunday comics page is ironically enough, just as restrictive. As Bill Watterson pointed out in his 10th anniversary book, the layout of a Sunday page is dependant on where those panels fit. If they don’t match the specifications that newspapers require them to fit, then they can’t be used, since they can’t put & paste comic panels wherever necessary.

In most cases, the panels that’re most likely to be discarded are the first two “throwaway” panels, usually consisting of the title page and a mini-joke that could count as half of a daily comic. They might not be deemed necessary, but I always enjoyed them. When they weren’t available, I would be wracking my brain over what could possibly prelude or describe the main comic. When I actually got a chance to see them, they were always the last thing I could've thought of, since I wasn't in the cartoonist's mindset. Here’s an example - what single panel could explicitly summarize this Broom Hilda comic?

Take some time to think over it...

The answer of course is this:

These throwaway panels and single-panel comics are also a close cousin to a similar feature found elsewhere in the newspaper - political comics.

Political Comics

In this, the job is even more difficult, since not only do cartoonists have to quickly summarize recent events, but they also have to do so in a timely manner and produce something that’ll resonate with the public.

Sometimes these cartoons might be able to stand the test of time, and sometimes they'll be a spur-of-the-moment thing that'll only make sense to people aware of current events. Not everybody can be a Bill Mauldin, and caricaturists can be some of the most reviled people on the planet for "telling it as it is". If you're going to branch out into this field, you better be prepared to take your lumps whenever you're going to get them.

BD (European Comics)

Here’s half of a typical Asterix page. As you can see, BDs are arranged similarly to a Sunday comic page without the throwaway panels. If you look closely in the lower right hand corner, you'll notice that there’s a numbered letter.

Every page has a designation of 1a, 1b, 2a, 2b, etc. The average French page is actually made up of two "plates" that’re combined together. This is how they’re able to cram in more detail by paying more attention to a specific row of panels rather than the page as a whole.

The only difference is that unlike Sunday comics, BDs don't always have to worry about ending on a joke. However, despite the apparent freedom, there's still limits. The average European album only contains 48-62 pages of material, which can make the pricy hardcovers a hard sell.

Nowadays, this isn’t a tried-and-true rigid formula, but for a long time, it was the considered accepted model. The restrictions of BDs is very similar to the rigid 3-row, 6-panel layout of American comics.

American Comics

When American comics were first printed, they were collected versions of early newspaper Comic Strips. Later, when experimenting with other genres, the most popular stories were crime, horror, war and even romance comics. Many of these were written by pulp writers who were paid by the word. As a result, these comics had more text than usual, often repeating what the images were already showing.

That's the opening page for Watchmen. It's a classic image - a zoom out shot that's imposed with the narrative of Rorschach's journal. When viewed from a distance, it's easy to make out even without the captions. But every other page in the book looks like this:

Here, each panel is vying for competition, wanting to be important in some way. Of the relevant frames, only the lower tier could be considered a continuous flow, and even then, it's hard to make out upon first sight. As a result, no specific image stands out, and the result is a jumbled mess. And this is considered one of the classics of the medium.

This is why even the most faithful film adaptions of American comics take a lot of liberties in removing entire chunks of exposition between characters. There’s a scene in Brian Michael Bendis’ Fortune & Glory where he’s talking to a friend in the Hollywood biz about adapting one of his noir comics into a movie. Upon transcribing his first draft, his friend tells him that his script’s a little long.

Later when trying to cheer up Bendis' apparent lack of natural film instinct, he tells Bendis to relax and watch a typical movie - any movie - and pay attention to how little actual dialogue happens on the screen. Narrative prose can be astounding if done well, but not everybody has a lyrical formula that can be easily duplicated on a consistent basis. An alternative storytelling style wouldn't be conceived of until much later. It would take the popularity of another overseas comics market to show the viability of using images that were appealing to the eye.

Manga (Japanese Comics)

A little warning - the following panels are flipped to read from left to right, unless noted otherwise. Here’s some commentary from A Drifting Life:

Even back in the 50's when Manga was being influenced by movies, Tatsumi realized the importance of keeping the reader’s attention. He also had to learn how not to waste countless panels of suspenseful scenes of nothing happening. No point in introducing a gun in the first scene if you’re not going to use it as a hammer later. If American comics suffer from verbal diarrhea, then Japanese comics suffer from visual diarrhea. The difference is that American comics spend plenty of time on a page, and figure that the best way to make their audience appreciate their attention to detail is to sprinkle it with tons of narrative. But all that does it clutter up the page with needless exposition. By contrast, Japanese comics spend just as much time on an image, but give their panels very little dialogue.

From the example shown, you can see how much faster the action flows with minimal commentary. Also, even at reduced size and scanned quality, you can still tell what’s going on. The whole point of creating multiple images that’ll be glanced at only briefly is to give the reader the sensation of being immersed in the action on the page. It makes them want to know what happens next. This is how in Japan, the average reading speed of Manga is 3.75 seconds per page. Even in a typical 192 page book, that’s still 12 minutes of enjoyment right there.

More has been said by Telophase about the layout of the typical Manga page, so I won’t attempt to repeat what’s already been said. However, her livejournal is currently missing the images she used to illustrate her argument, so for posterity’s sake, I’ll be reproducing them here. (These images have been left unflipped)

Even if we don't zoom in on the relevant text, we can still gleam the emotional context from the scene alone. Removing the text from the balloons doesn't even slow down the meaningful looks. We're still dealing with a bratty kid causing emotional turmoil on an innocent girl.

Likewise, the arrow going throughout the blank balloons shows that the thin line between where a panel begins and ends is very sketchy.

Most serial Mangas usually introduce one concept at a time in a magazine issue. That way they have time to draw inspiration from their ideas or give time to explain them. Otherwise it would take them longer than it usually would take than if it were published elsewhere. This is why it's more satisfactory to read American Shonen Jump chapters when collected in batches of four chapters at once, since they're usually broken down in easy-to-digest collections that demand immediate reading.

So, to summarize, here’s a handy-dandy conversion chart:

Newspaper comic = Basic unit
Sunday comic = Newspaper comic +
Sunday comic Extra = Political comic / 1-2 panel joke
European comic page = 2 Sunday comics
American comic page = 1.5 European comic page
Manga page = 1 American comic panel

This isn’t an exact science, and there’s bound to be exceptions, but I think it’s pretty close.


99 Ways to Tell a Story: Exercises in Style by Matt Madden
Men of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters and the Birth of the Comic Book by Gerard Jones
Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud