Color's Not Free

I think we forget how important good coloring is, particularly in super hero comics. In every comic, though, I think we think it's incidental, perfunctory, and after the fact, perhaps because not every comic has it. I think we forget that color is a choice. The truth, though, is that good pencils and good inks can be sunk by bad coloring, and good color can salvage less than ideal pencils. Colors, good or bad, can have as much effect on meaning as any other aspect of the process (and, if inking is merely misunderstood, lettering is similarly marginal).

One of the reason that good superhero comics are so hard to find is that they're often the result of a collaboration between four or five different people. For a comic to pass muster, a team has to work together on every aspect of the book, color included. Matt Hollingsworth is one of the best colorists we've got, and this series of tweets about his work with Matt Fraction and David Aja on Hawkeye, posted earlier this week, are a good reminder of why he's so good, and why color matters.

Wednesday's New Things: Waiting for a Superman Trade Paperback

Saga Deluxe Edition Vol 1. written by Brian K. Vaughn, art by Fiona Staples. Iron Fist: The Living Weapon Vol. 1, by Kaare Andrews

Two different kinds of collected comics, two different reasons for thinking about picking them up. I've wanted to buy a Saga collection for my bookshelf since I fell behind on the comics almost a year ago and this deluxe volume seems like a good bet. It collects the first 18 issues, so through the time when I stopped reading, and I bet it's beautiful, the kind of format I want to own a series like Saga in. Of course, if I start buying in the format then I'm committed to buying in this format, and it'll probably be 18 months or more before I can move on-- which is a big check in the con column. Kaare Andrews's Iron Fist series looked great when I bought the first issue, but I decided to wait for the trade. I'll probably pick it up one of these days. 

Multiversity: Pax Americana, written by Grant Morrison, art by Frank Quitely

This project is fascinating for me. It's like that really fun Marvel Exiles book from when I was a teenager, but all grown up. This particular book is interesting to me, though, in part because it features the Charleston characters, many of whom Alan Moore cribbed for Watchmen, and some of whom have since entered the mainstream DC continuities. The cultural force of Watchmen has grown so great that one of the comments on the Newsarama preview actually asks if the inclusion of the Question (originally an objectivist character created by objectivist Steve Ditko) is an oblique reference to Rorschach, which I point out not so that we can laugh, but instead to suggest that the whole thing eats itself. How Morrison, himself a referencer extraordinaire, will choose to play with this irony, and him not choosing to play with it will be itself interesting, will likely make excellent reading. Also, anything that Quitely draws is a treat; its good to see him back at the drawing board. 

Intersect by Ray Fawkes

This one looks fun and beautiful, although perhaps a mite hard to follow.

Nancy Loves Sluggo: Complete Dailies 1949-1951 by Ernie Bushmiller

This is one of those things I'll have to pick up one day. I've heard nothing but good things about Nancy, the most recent of which came from Carol Tyler at ICAF. As I begin to look more seriously at comics strips (and in particular Peanuts, which debuted during the period that this collection covers) this will be one of the first places I'll go. 

Black Widow #12, written by Nathan Edmonson, art by Phil Noto, ft. Anderson Cooper (!?)

From ICAF w/ Love

I don’t know what I was expecting when I went to ICAF.

A friend came back from the big American Studies conference, ASA, a few days before I left. She liked it ok, but she thought it was cliquey, and deeply weird, a sort of surreal parade of academia into and out of various hotel ballrooms. 

I think I expected ICAF to be the same, more or less. What I got instead was a series of talks organized by a group of people who care deeply about comics, both about what they mean and what it means to make them. I sat up late on Wednesday night, finishing my presentation with the help of a pint of espresso ice cream from Jeni’s Splendid Creams, already fortified by a sampling of sausage from a Bavarian restaurant in the Columbus neighborhood known as German Village, sausage consumed to the tune of an oom pa pa band. I did not know then how the paper would go over, I did not know that the community would be deeply welcoming, that they would be interested in me and what I was working on. I chugged on anyway, working out of a notebook I had been scribbling in in the German restaurant, eyes watering from the dust in the carpet of the apartment I was staying in. 

The next morning, after little sleep, I wandered in to the Ohio Union just as the conference was starting.  I heard talks about the historic and formal relationships between comics and fine art, about comics exhibitions in the French context, about the anti-comics tendency of the critical boosters of Persepolis, about the history of comics in England, and the embodiment of Hellboy. Academic talks in the morning were followed by artist talks later in the day, and as the focus shifted on the first evening it became clear to me that ICAF was the thing I was always disappointed that comic con was not—a chance to talk about comics with people who care about comics, in a real and serious way, at a place where consumption is secondary to appreciation.

I’m in an American Studies graduate program that, thankfully, takes my work seriously, but that also doesn’t have any comics studies scholars who can advise me. Often, I feel that I’m in the weeds. When I got up to give my talk, though, I saw a group that was genuinely interested in who I was and what I was doing—who also wanted to know why it was that Gilbert Hernandez slotted a representation of Van Gogh’s Starry Night into a short “Heartbreak Soup” story. Afterwards, we talked about it, or about other things, and both other graduate students and full time tenured faculty seemed interested in the project, and in what else I was working on. They shared their work with me, too; a masters thesis on Calvin and Hobbes, another on neoliberalism and comics, a dissertation on post-unification German comics. I knew that other comics studies folks existed; what I didn’t know was how friendly and generous they were going to be to a newbie like me. 

I shouldn't have been too surprised. It turns out that many us of feel a little in the weeds; Bart Beaty's keynote ("Here There Be Dragons") was about the terra incognita of comics studies, and the last event of the first day was about how to build institutions that will support the discipline. On the second day, we laid the foundation for the first of those new institutions, voting into existence the Comics Studies Society. As the CSS grows, it will come to serve as the institutional support for the community I joined last week. Perhaps most excitingly of all was the founding of the CSS’s graduate caucus, a group of graduate students and recently minted PhDs that exists to support each other as we attempt to navigate our entrances into academia. What I learned last week was that I don’t need anyone to advise me on the particulars at my institution, because there is a community, now more formal than it was even a week ago, that I can turn to when I need it. 

To focus on the academic alone, though, would to give ICAF short shrift. What makes it really wonderful is that the people who come to it come to appreciate the work of practitioners as much as they come to share their own work, and so we gathered not only to listen to each other, but also to listen Justin Green (“I think the surveillance state is crazier than Binky Brown’s penis rays), Carol Tyler, Phoebe Gloeckner, Finnish cartoonist Hanneriina Moisseinen, Dash Shaw and, finally, Jeff Smith, in talks moderated by figures with diverse interests and a wide reach, figures like Bill Kartalopolous, Tom Spurgeon, Jared Gardner and Corey Creekmur. Each of the artists was stunning in their own way; Green and Tyler’s love for each other was as evident as how hard they work, and very rarely for a big reward; Gloeckner gave the strangest, rawest, most emotionally affecting presentation of work I think I’ve ever seen; and Moisseinen shared with us a documentary she’s featured in, about learning from the last of the great Finnish rune singers, and then she sang for us. She closed her eyes and sang, hauntingly, hypnotically. Afterwards, grad students, professors, journalists, editors, and artists, as many as wanted, really, gathered for drinks. The last of us didn’t head home until 2 AM. 

Gone Conferencin'

See you next week. 

Talk Over Balloons: Rotten Roots

Six summers ago, when I was in between high school and college, I worked on a congressional campaign for a candidate who couldn't quite get over. It's too bad-- he would have been a good congressman. Just because he didn't get elected, though, doesn't mean the experience wasn't worthwhile--among other things, I met Paul Axel, then a University of Wisconsin student, now a comic book creator on the verge of completing a successful Kickstarter for his first series, Rotten Roots, which he wrote and features Renée Majkut on art. He and I spoke, for the first time in several years, about the comic; you can read the interview below. Rotten Roots is in its final days-- but there's still time to help Paul and Renée out. 

JK: Can you give a little bit of a synopsis of Rotten Roots, and a little bit of a history about how the project came together?

PA: Rotten Roots is, as I've described it, a neo-noir crime drama, mixed with historical fiction. It starts with the murder of Harold Wood, the wealthy and well-respected patriarch of one of the oldest families in Osprey City, a fictional place located on Cape Cod. As Detective Mark Robles investigates the case, he uncovers the family history of the Woods, and a 400-year-old legacy of schemes, betrayal, and murder.

When I finished a rough draft of the script for issue 1, I sent it on to my friend, Brian McKenzie, who does a lot of editing for superhero and comic-type stories - just to get his opinion on the work, and get a few pointers. Since he liked it so much, I decided to show it to the owner of my local comic book shop, Bob Howard at Comicazi. Bob's a co-writer on a self-published comic, and I figured that, if I ever turned Rotten Roots into something real, it couldn't hurt to have a shop owner in my corner. Bob also loved the script, and offered to help publish under his nascent independent press, Bad Kids Press. Through a little monthly event he holds at the shop called "Drink 'n' Draw," Bob got me in touch with Renee - and her art blew me away. You can see it for yourself. It's a style you don't see too often these days in comics. It sort of reminded me of the Miller/Janson work on The Dark Knight Returns. I signed her to a contract to produce five completed pages of the first issue, and she's been with the project ever since. She does the pencils and inks, her husband Tom does the formatting (and is perhaps the best pitchman we've ever had - the video on the Kickstarter is all his doing). I wrote, and I do the lettering. Add in Brian as editor, and that's pretty much the Rotten Roots team right there.

I’m always a little curious about how people came to comics—what got you started? What are you reading now?

I think my dad gave me my first comics before I was ten. There was a little used-book store in Sheboygan, WI (where my grandparents lived). He would buy them there for me - lots of Batman and the Outsiders (the original '83-'86 run). I stopped reading for a while, picked it up in high school, dropped it for a couple years in college, picked it up near the end of college, and I haven't stopped since. On my pull list currently is Captain AmericaBatman,Batman: EternalFuture's EndNovaThe Fade OutFablesLegenderry, and a few random issues here and there if the story intrigues me, like the new Batgirl run.

Branching off of that, how did you decide you wanted to make a comic? Is Rotten Roots your first attempt?

I always joke that Rotten Roots came about in the midst of a bout of extended unemployment. I figured, I had always read comics (even if it was on-and-off at times), and I love the medium. After I read Scott Snyder's "Court of Owls" arc in Batman, I decided to try my hand at writing a comic - I won't deny that Snyder's over-arching themes influenced my own story. But I feel like I've gone in a different, more realistic direction; I would have been disappointed in myself if I had turned out too similar to Snyder's work.

Rotten Roots is my first attempt at writing a comic (apart from that mini-comic that I wrote and drew in third grade and sold for a quarter a copy), and my first serious attempt at creative writing. I've written for academia and for op-eds, but I've never told a story like this before. It's a lot of fun, which I think is the most important part!

Can you talk a little bit about your influences for the project? Specifically, what do you mean when you say it’s a neo-noir?

"Noir" and "neo-noir" are a couple of terms that a lot of people feel have been thrown around so much that they've lost all meaning. I'd like to think that I do adopt a lot of the characteristics of the noir style - the use of flashbacks to disrupt the main narrative, in particular. Every issue jumps back and forth between the present and a historical period in American history. Consequently, there's a lot of "voiceover" narration from dead people - also a hallmark of the noir style. The fact that Rotten Roots, at its core, is a detective story, a type of story that's key to the very idea of noir.

As far as influences go, apart from noir, I'm inspired by the works of James Michener (multi-generational historical fiction), and the writing styles of Scott Snyder and Ed Brubaker. There's probably a bit of Law and Order in there as well, I won't lie.

I know that you’ve finished the scripting for the series—are you and Renee working together to revise it, or is your part more or less finished? How was the process been different or similar than what you expected?

My part is more or less finished, though sometimes I will go back to a script to make a small change if a new historical fact I've learned warrants it (for example, I got a clarification on colonial-era tar-and-feathering from a graduate school colleague of mine). I'll share with Renee my thoughts on how characters or places should look - I really wanted to use Clancy Brown as an inspiration for one of my characters in Issue 2 (you hear that, Mr. Brown? If you're reading this, drop me a line!). I'm sitting on more stories, but I probably won't start really settling down to write them until this project is completed. For now, I'm occupying myself with the Kickstarter campaign, and then more of the business end of Rotten Roots.

The process - getting from script to Kickstarter - took much longer than I anticipated, and that's a good thing. If I originally went at the schedule I wanted, it would have been a much more half-assed product, and I don't think the Kickstarter would have been as successful as it was. So, it's a good thing that people - especially Bob - told me to slow down and wait.

How have you found the process of using Kickstarter? Do you think you’ll use it again?
Kickstarter is ridiculously easy. It shouldn't be this easy, but it is. I'm probably feeling that way because of my awesome team and how well we've done, but if you take the time to put together a well-crafted pitch, explain everything clearly, include some pretty pictures, and just spread word as much as you can, you can reach your goal. I've got to say, you have to really do your research before you present your project - above everything else, have a budget written out, shop around for prices, but be able to tell everyone how much you're spending on what.

If Volume 1 of Rotten Roots sells well, and people like it, I probably will Kickstart the second half. This volume is only half the story, and I'm hoping people want to see how it ends, because I really want to show everyone how it ends!

Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Other than "visit the Kickstarter," yes. If you want to write a comic, sit down and write a comic. Of course, have an idea first, but write the comic. People will help you fine-tune your story, and maybe help you find an artist, but none of that happens unless you actually write the comic. It has never been easier to write and publish a comic, so do it. We're living in a golden age - take advantage!