Thursday, August 6, 2015

The LA Times takes down Ted Rall

Reprinted from the LA Times, under the Fair Use provision.

This is a bizarre story that's been playing out for the last couple weeks. Colleague Ted Rall was sacked by the LA Times, where he has contributed freelance cartoons and blog posts for several years. Not just sacked, but publicly shamed by a reporter and editor for "fabricating" an incident with an LA cop.... 14 years ago. 

Now, Ted gets fired a lot. He's a cartoon provocateur and a relentlessly savage satirist. He's also a passionate leftist radical. None of these traits are welcome in today's emasculated corporate media, especially as newspapers make their final, flailing laps in the tar pit. One of his favorite subjects was the LAPD, one of the nation's worst forces (remember Rodney King?). He made a series of deliciously nasty cartoons about the cops and quickly became Public Enemy #1 in the cop shop.

Fourteen years ago, Ted got hassled for jaywalking by an LA cop with an attitude. Ted wrote he was cuffed and humiliated on the street until onlookers started to yell at the cop for his behavior. The cop eventually released him, tossed Ted’s drivers license into the gutter and left without citing him. Rall filed a complaint with the LAPD and was blown off. He described all this in a blog post  for the LA Times last month in one of his frequent critiques of the LAPD.

An unnamed party at the LAPD then produced a fuzzy audio recording of the incident and passed it to the paper as proof that Ted was lying! WHY was the cop recording this rather (sorry) pedestrian incident? Unknown. This is long before body cameras and the current technology that has documented so many cop abuses. It's an awful recording, probably made with digital cassette, the typical device in 2001, and it’s a dubbed copy to boot. Of the 6:20 minutes total, all but about 20 seconds is inaudible static and noise. Parts of it have nothing audible except the cop bizarrely whistling to himself! The LAPD told the Times editors, laughably, that this tape proves Rall made it all up.  There was no confrontation, there was no crowd of onlookers and Ted was never cuffed. The exchange between Ted and the officer was polite and Ted never protested how he was being treated.

Incredibly, the editors bought it, fired Ted and editorial page editor Nicholas Goldberg penned a stunning dismissal letter to Rall that was published on the editorial page. "The Los Angeles Times is a trusted source of news because of the quality and integrity of the work its journalists do. This is a reminder of the need to remain vigilant about what we publish."

Rall is a Pulitzer finalist and has won a Robert F. Kennedy Award and is a former president of the Assoc. of American Editorial Cartoonists.... and the LA Times just labeled him a fabricator, the kiss of death in the newspaper biz. The paper is trying to destroy his career here!

Ted stood his ground. Yeah, he writes, the exchange was polite, because I never argue with a cop! This is not only totally believable, it’s incredibly smart. Sandra Bland was dragged from her car and slammed to the ground for the heinous crime of being “uppity.” Eric Garner was choked to death for talking back to cops. Hell, clamming up is standard operating procedure for anyone of my generation, which Ted is, even white guys. Talk back to a cop and it will go badly for you. We all learned that as teenagers, even in the small Ohio town where I was raised!

A closer examination of the two pieces of  "evidence" the cops supplied to the editors and it all quickly falls apart. It appears  a police phone log was forged (some of the dates are wrong).  As for the damning, fuzzy recording, Ted had it cleaned up and enhanced by a recording engineer, and there WERE onlookers yelling at the cop. The "source" insists there were none, as does the editor. There are parts of the tape where the only thing that can be heard is the cop strangely whistling a tune to himself. When the whistle was stripped away, voices from onlookers are heard. It sounds as if one woman tells the cop to take off the cuffs!  Enough is there to throw suspicion on the whole tape. The evidence now indicates that Ted's account was accurate and, more importantly, that the tape had been doctored, with parts muffled and the whistling added to cover up what really happened!  Isn't this a crime? Unbelievably, the LA Times fell for this horseshit and, even after questions arose, the Times has not changed its decision or apologized for trashing a cartoonist's reputation. What reporter or editor would fall for this clumsy attempt at retribution? Very bad ones. Why didn't they demand the original tape, rather than rely on a poor-quality dupe? Didn't it occur to them that it may have been doctored? Not exactly hard to do with modern technology.

Sorry, any hint of doctoring "evidence" and that invalidates it all. That's how it works, especially when it concerns an RFK winner and  Pulitzer finalist. But, of course, editors don't really think those cartoon awards are anywhere near as important as those same awards given to reporters and columnists. 

Ted had a six-year run at the Times. That's longer than a freelance cartoonist can expect these days. Freelancers get let go all the time. What makes this so unacceptable is that jaw-dropping editor's note, a public tar-and-feathering based on the flimsiest of evidence, which is now highly suspicious. I've never seen anything like it. When Jeff Stahler, the fulltime political cartoonist for the Columbus Dispatch was fingered for several instances of plagiarism, as great a journalistic crime as fabrication, he was allowed to quietly resign and the paper issued no explanation whatsoever. Stahler continues to draw a syndicated political cartoon and a syndicated humor panel. Ted gets pillared for, what, exactly?

So what's really going on here?

One must assume city hall was putting big time pressure on the Times to muzzle Ted. In the current sad state of media, especially local media in any given city, corporate newspapers are now toothless watchdogs. Think about all the recent cases of police abuse. Have a single one of them been uncovered by a newspaper? No, they’ve all surfaced because someone recorded it on a cellphone or got ahold of security video and posted it online!  Or a witness posted an account on facebook. Then, when it becomes viral, the newspaper jumps in, and only then, pathetically galloping in the wake of the viral stampede. Newspaper editors are scared to take on the cops. They’re scared of the backlash from readers (or, to be more accurate, from the horde of feces-throwing commenters on the papers’ website). They’re scared of getting in a war with city powers. They’re scared of losing advertisers. Newspapers once monitored the Man. Now they are the Man, servile mouthpieces for corporate powers. Control the press, control the peasants. It's the oldest play in the book. The problem newspapers have, however, is that the peasants aren't reading anymore. Local TV news operations are even more pathetic. Anything beyond the weather is more than their skill set can handle.

There’s an all-too-cozy relationship between the corporate press and the authorities and it's been this way since Reagan took office. That's not a coincidence, since it was Reagan who gutted media ownership rules that limited how many tv-radio-newspaper outlets a corporation could own. By the end of his term, virtually every family-run media had been greedily gobbled up by a giant conglomerate. The era of powerful, muck-raking papers is, sadly, dead and gone. I caught the tail end of it at the beginning of my career. By the end of the Eighties, the daily press was muzzled by the corner office types who had replaced the old press baron families, and by the compliant stooges they hired as editors. For an all-to-brief time, the muckraking spirit lived on in the weekly press, until that genre, too, hit the rocks. Now? We have nothing. I consider the loss of the watchdog press the greatest threat our democracy has faced since the Civil War. 

Rall is a polarizing figure, and I imagine there were editors at the LA Times that hated his stuff. Corporate editors don't want their sleepy days interrupted by angry phone calls from readers and officials about some fucking cartoon, especially a freelance cartoon. There's a reason all the political cartoonists have been laid off. At most, editors want a mild cartoon chuckle of the day to spice up their boring editorial page, nothing more. There were also probably budget pressures. Tribune Inc., the Times parent, is in bankruptcy and has been on a downsizing frenzy. You can imagine the budget discussions in the newsroom. Why are we paying this guy for freelance cartoons when there are reporting jobs that are left unfilled? Political cartoonists, sadly, are an antiquated luxury from a better time.

Ted's made few friends and lots of enemies for his take-no-prisoners bravado. His rather petty takedown of the revered Art Spiegelman in a cover story for the Village Voice continues to generate hard feelings from comix folk, 16 years later. He's had a long-running feud with cartoonist Danny Hellman that wound up in court.

I like Ted. He's loud, sure, and a BIG personality, and that rubs some the wrong way, but when I was diagnosed with cancer back in 2002, he was one of the first to contact me and offer to help keep my strip going as I struggled through chemo. And I respect him as an absolutely fearless political cartoonist. He's paid a price for that. The LA Times incident is, unfortunately, just the latest bill.

Ted has always been an alternative cartoonist who nonetheless stubbornly tried to work in the mainstream. The money was better, and the audience was bigger. It’s never been a good fit. As a result, as mentioned before, he gets fired a lot: for criticizing 9-11 widows, war hero Pat Tillman, on and on.  He pisses off the Right with his unapologetic Marxist leanings, he pisses off the Left with his relentless bashing of Obama. The Daily Kos famously banished him for the latter, using the tired liberal stance that any criticism of Obama must be racist. He never tempers his opinion. I don’t think Ted is capable of tempering! The rest of our ilk stuck to weekly papers, and, even working exclusively for those rags, we’ve all been sacked on ocassion  when cartoons crossed some kind of random line. I always marveled that Ted was someone able to make a go of it the daily press. Obviously that has come to an end. 

And here's the topper, one that pushes this from a sorry case of a gullible editor into a full-blown conspiracy. The publisher of the LA Times, Austin Beutner, ran for mayor in 2012 and is rumored to be making another attempt in 2016. That's right. The paper that is all about "integrity" is run by a guy who wants to be mayor! This is a HUGE ethical violation in the newspaper world, especially since the guy was publisher, then mayoral candidate, then publisher AGAIN. Maybe that's   ok at shithole infotainment media like FoxNews, but at a major newspaper? I'm not aware of any other case like this.

How's that going to work, exactly? How'd you like to be a reporter covering your boss' campaign? What happens if he wins the job? Will he step down, or order the paper to print glowing editorials and columns about what a great job the new mayor is doing? It is completely plausible that Ted was given the boot on orders from Beutner, who wants to smooth things over with the LAPD to enhance his political ambitions.

Here's another tidbit. A large chunk of the LA Times now belongs to a large investment firm which is tied to the LA police union pension fund. So ownership and the guy running the paper have clear motives for muzzling Rall. This stinks in SO many ways. I call bullshit.

That, friends, is the sad state of the daily press in 2015. 

The LA police union is gloating over Rall's ouster and gleefully states "We hope other media will take note."  Yeah, I'll bet. Criticize the cops and lose your job. Take note, indeed.

So what now? The LA Times has clammed up. The “editor’s note” about Ted is still on its website. I suspect Ted will sue and eventually win some kind of settlement, because it sure appears the Times was in the wrong and got suckered but good. The Times is no doubt hiding behind its lawyers here and will keep the eventual settlement a secret from its readers. 

And this all goes down as another sad episode in the long. slow death of the American press.

UPDATE Aug. 13

Even thought the "evidence" has been proven to be doctored, the LA Times is standing by its decision. There is still an archive of Rall's cartoons and blog posts, but the page leads with this note: "Freelance editorial cartoonist Ted Rall no longer contributes to the LA Times."

The note libeling and shaming Rall is still on the Times' website. Comments are closed and the many comments blasting the Times over this have been removed. Editorial page editor Nicholas Goldberg's only comment has been "The Times is not commenting on this topic." Yeah, I'll bet. He left out "...under orders from our legal department." Would Goldberg accept that stance from a government official who was accused of a similar lapse in judgement? Of course not! Said official would be hammered on the Times editorial page.

What's depressing is the scant coverage this incident has received in journalism circles. There's been no mention at all on the main sites like Poynter and Romenesko. In LA, a local tv news operation covered the firing, but then, typically, not the subsequent revelations about evidence doctoring, even though that's a far bigger story. The local "alternative" paper, LA Weekly, hasn't covered it at all as far as I can tell. Weeklies were once the sole watchdogs of corporate daily press, an important role, but now they're all owned by corporations themselves and have been downsized to the point they just cover clubs and beerfests and whoever advertises in their pages. The Times is betting that no one gives a shit about staff drama at newspapers anymore. They're probably right. But the real reason is no one gives a shit about newspapers at all anymore. Bullshit like this has a lot to do with that. 

I suspect this will be unresolved for years or until the LA Times is sold (it's on the block and its bankrupt corporate parent would love to unload it).

UPDATE Aug. 19

The LA Times, under withering criticism from commenters, launched an investigation into whether its actions in the Rall firing were correct and... SURPRISE!!... concluded that the LA Times was right about everything!

Even though its "investigation" turned up several pieces of evidence that corroborated Rall's story, for example whether he had complained to the LAPD that the officer tossed his license into the gutter, the Times somehow spun that. Even though crowd noise can clearly be heard on the restored tape, the Times accusation that Rall made up the crowd stands. Maybe the editors just couldn't hear it over the sound of their lawyers weeping?

Oh. And the Times asked the LAPD to examine the tape and pretty please tell the paper whether it had been altered, and the LAPD.... SURPRISE!!... concluded it had not! The Times couldn't even be bothered to get the tape examined on its own, instead trusting a police department with a long, well-documented history of tampering with and fabricating evidence.

Wow. Really using those journalism muscles there, guys!

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Forty-five years ago I became a comix nut.

My first haul.

Forty-five years ago this week I became a comix nut.

I was 10 years old. I had never really been into comic books, nor had the thought ever entered my mind of becoming a comix creator. I drew for fun, obsessively, but that was it. Yeah, I read Mad magazine when I had the opportunity. What kid didn't? I read the newspaper comics page religiously, too. I liked some of the Saturday morning cartoons based on comic books, like the Superman-Batman Adventure Hour or Spider-man, but the books themselves? The squeaky spinner rack at Vann's Drugstore in my hometown never held much allure to me. I always bolted straight to the toy aisle when my mother said I could pick something out as a reward for tagging along on her errands. When I returned with a Matchbox or Hot Wheels car, she'd invariably say "Pick something out for your little brother." Well, I certainly wasn't going to get him anything as good as my prize, so I'd pluck a random comic book off the rack. This small stack of battered comic books was all we had in our house.

Until July 1970.

Every summer the Family Backderf vacationed at an old lodge in Ontario's "cottage district," a string of several dozen lakes about three hours north of Toronto. We always went to the Wig-a-mog Lodge, on the sunny shore of Lake Kashaga-wig-a-mog (above).  It was great. A week of swimming, canoeing, shuffleboard and fishing. My parents vacationed here before I was born and it was a part of my life as far back as I could remember. The water was so clean you could dip your hand in a take a drink!

Wig-a-mog, had a gift shop, above, in the lower level of one of the two main buildings. It was called the Tuck Shop. Not sure what that means. It was a cramped little store, with knotty pine walls. Sliding panel doors covered the front when the store was closed. It was divided into two small rooms. Each manned by one of the bored college kids who staffed the lodge. The room on the right, which takes up most of the photo here, consisted of a long counter, that shielded the more "valuable" wares from guests. The more expensive cheesy souvenirs, and toiletries and batteries, that kind of thing. 

To the left, just off camera in this pic, was another room, which you could enter. The counter in this second room, manned by another staffer, stretched along the back wall. In front of the counter was a candy bar rack. An ice cream freezer was in the corner, and a pop machine. There were all kinds of cheap souvenirs displayed on shelves: pennants, t-shirts, and fake Indian crafts, like miniature totem poles and birchbark canoes. Guests were free to browse and handle the goods in here.

And on a wall rack, behind the counter and safe from sticky kid hands, were comic books. An entire wall of colorful covers. It's hard to see in this bad photo, You can just make them out to the left of the girl at the counter, peaking over the shelves that divided the two rooms. Spot the green and blue buckets there? The top few rows of the comic book rack are visible beyond, on the back wall. It's full size is hidden behind the panels, but I recall it being about eight feet high and at least that wide. The staffer, always a young girl, had to stand on a stepstool to reach the top rows. 

Historically, the big attraction for me was the array of strange and wonderful Canadian candy bars, a completely different variety than the boring Hershey and Mars offerings at home. My little brother and I were each given $5 at the start of the week, big money then. My old man only gave me 50 cents to mow our large lawn, so $5 was like a whole summer's pay!  My brother always blew his wad on Day One on a stupid totem pole or something, but I liked to stretch mine out, supplemented with allowance and lawn-mowing money I'd been saving, so I could buy a couple candy bars each day, making sure to enjoy them luxuriously in front of my now-penniless sibling, who eyed me with seething jealous hatred. 

In 1970, I was 10 years old and poised to enter the 5th grade. The organized kid stuff at Wig-a-mog was beginning to lose its appeal. Capture the flag again? Screw that. So I spent the days by myself, daydreaming and wandering the grounds. Halfway through the week, I was bored stiff. I wandered into the Tuck Shop that afternoon when it opened after lunch and carefully selected my candy bar for the day. As the girl rang it up on the ancient cash register with a loud ka-CHING, my eye wandered up to the wall display. Back home at my local drugstore, the comix were stuffed haphazardly into a spinner rack, but here in the Tuck Shop, spread across an entire wall, it was a mesmerizing visual lure.  I pointed to a copy of Fantastic Four #102 and said "I'll take that, too." An impulse buy that changed my life.

I walked out to a little point, above, jutting into the lake, free from people, and parked under the shade of a spruce tree. Probably that very tree on the left! The twerps in the canoe weren't there. Waves gently lapped at the shore and my nostrils filled with the aroma of water and pine needles. I read the FF as I munched the candy. As I walked back to our cabin, I read it again. Then a third time on the porch. That was it. I was hooked. 

FF #102 was Jack Kirby's swan song at Marvel. Fed up with Stan Lee's ceaseless gloryhogging, he was off to DC to start on his incredible Fourth World project.  In fact, Stan Lee addresses Kirby's loss in the Stan's Soapbox in this very issue, promising the "bushy tailed and bewildered" Bullpen will "turn ourselves on, knock ourselves out and do ourselves in to prove once again we're the boldest and the best!" Groan. Typical hokey doggerel from gasbag Stan. I didn't know any of the backstory back then, but I knew what I liked, and I liked this book. A lot. 

The cover, a John Romita rush job since Kirby quit before he had time to draw the cover, is actually pretty lame. Not sure why this book caught my attention. Maybe my curiosity was peaked by the FF Saturday morning cartoon of a couple years previous. But the story inside grabbed me and didn't let go. This was my introduction to Kirby and I'd never read anything like it. I was fascinated by the power and flow of his artwork. 

As Kirby books go, it's a pretty pedestrian one. That last year at Marvel, Jack was mailing it in– well, by his standards anyways– while furiously (and secretly) developing the New Gods for rival DC. But I didn't know that at the time and even mailing-it-in Kirby is amazing! I pored over this sequence, especially how he drew with those squiggly muscle shadows. I couldn't stop looking at this art. I wonder, if I had randomly selected a book by another artist, if I would have been so mesmerized? My life and career could have been dramatically different!

I rushed back to the Tuck Shop before it closed, and bought five more books. The next day, I purchased every Marvel book they had in stock, then all the DC ones. By week's end, I had cleared the rack, even the lame titles like Mighty Marvel Western, everything except the girlie romance books, the Archie stuff and the Harvey and Gold Key shit, which I knew was awful. The haul is a who's who of comics greats. Stan was still writing the dialogue for most of the Marvel books, with Roy Thomas handling the lesser titles. DC was entering the peak of its marvelous Infantino era, when Carmine oversaw a fascinating array of titles and concepts.  Outside of Kirby's brilliance, Gene Colan's artwork was like freeform jazz, so fluid and organic. Gil Kane's loosey-goosey figures were mesmerizing. I marveled at Nick Cardy's precision, Neal Adam's delicate linework and Wally Wood's masterful heavy inks. 

I returned to Ohio with a stack of 18 comix, shown at the top of this post, immediately hopped on my bike, rode to the drugstore, strode straight to the spinner rack and grabbed another armload of books. And that was that. I was lost to comix forever. The toys and obsessions of my youth were immediately forgotten. I spent countless hours drawing comix. Here's one of my efforts from later that summer, totally copping Kirby and inspired by that FF #102. Just like that, my life's calling was clear.

1970 was the ideal year to become a comics fan. All the modern masters were still at their peak, or damn close to it, and a new generation of brilliant creators was just entering the field. Both Marvel and DC were offering an exciting array of experimental titles. That would all turn to shit by 1975, of course, when both companies morphed into dull corporate entities, but there was plenty to read until then. And the Silver Age classics were still dirt cheap. Heck, you could find piles of them at flea markets and garage sales! There was so much to read and study I couldn't keep up with it.

Lake Kashaga-wig-a-mog was always magic to me, for that reason. The Family Backderf only went there one more summer. My mother disliked the new owner of Wig-a-mog, so we began vacationing in New Hampshire instead. As the years wore on and I tired of mainstream comics, I'd think back wistfully to the Tuck Shop and that sense of wonder I felt discovering comic books for the first time. Would I ever have that feeling again?

In turns out, yes. In 2006, 36 years later, when I returned, this time with my own family. 

I was recovering from cancer treatment, and it was slow going. The cancer was in remission and the outlook for a full recovery and cure was excellent, but I didn't feel that great. I was fatigued all the time and mentally drained. My career had also stalled, as weekly papers began their sad decline. It was the toughest period of my life. Career wise, I decided I needed to try something new. I'd been tinkering with long form comix before I got sick. Got a couple Eisner nominations! But it had been, at that point, four years without a new project. I needed a vacation, someplace by water, to re-charge and rejuvenate. I thought, hey, why not Lake Kashaga-wig-a-mog? An online search revealed that Wig-a-mog Lodge was still there, but was now mostly timeshare condos. Ugh. But right across the lake was a classic old-time lodge, Halimar, one I remembered from back in the day. I booked a week there.

Every morning after breakfast, I dragged an adirondack chair to a shady spot on the water's edge, above. Directly across the lake was old Wigamog Lodge. The Tuck Shop was gone, replaced with a gym, but the wooded point where I read that copy of Fantastic Four was still there, unchanged. With a sketchbook on my lap, I burrowed my feet into the wet sand and spent the days thinking and writing, staring across the lake at that point as I did so.

It was here that Otto "The Baron" Pizcock came to me in flash, almost fully formed. Here's how he first looked, above,  in my sketchbook. I grew ever more excited as the book took shape, and worked until sunset every day. My wife grumbled that she was a "comix widow." By week's end, I had conjured up the other characters in Punk Rock & Trailer Parks, and written fully half the book that would propel me into my new career as a graphic novelist.

Once again Lake Kashaga-wig-a-mog worked its magic.

That first comic book haul:

Silver Surfer #18 was another of the final Kirby books, this one with the classic "fuck you" last page directed at Lee. It's a book with one of the  most interesting backstories in comics history. I'll get to that ,in detail, in another post.

Amazing Spider-man #88 was a typical example of Marvel's flagship title. Lee and John Romita, his favorite artist, whose work I always found a little antiseptic.

Marvel Tales #28 was one of the fat 25-center reprint books, this one with a couple Ditko Spideys (why were these so much better than the regular title?) and a Ditko Dr. Strange. Whoa. Crazy stuff.

Batman #224. This wasn't anything like the Adam West tv show! That cover was my first glimpse at Neal Adams.

Brave and the Bold #91. Beautiful Nick Cardy cover and inside art.

Astonishing Tales #1. I loved how Wally Wood drew Dr. Doom. Didn't realize it was a greatly diminished Wood. And another Kirby story? When you add in Thor and the Inhumans story in half of Amazing Adventures, Kirby drew FOUR BOOKS in his final month at Marvel! While also working hard on the Fourth World project. No wonder Stan was despondent when Kirby resigned.

Amazing Adventures #2. The Inhumans story is drawn and written by Kirby. To my knowledge, his short run on this title is the only time he received a writing credit during his Marvel Age run, a major beef, along with Lee's shameless glory hogging, that led to Kirby's defection to DC. Note, however, that Funky Flashman still puts his name first. Hard to believe Jack was fed up, huh?

Capt. Marvel #21. My intro to Gil Kane art. Lee always grumbled that his art "looked gay." 

Daredevil #67. I noticed right away there seemed to be as many Gene Colan books as Kirby ones.  Marvel had artists with widely divergent styles. I picked up on that right away.

Flash #199. Chairman Mao lobs a missile at the US! Man, this Cold War stuff was downright hysterical in tone. Hey, let's scare the shit out of 10 year olds! Nothing like propaganda.

House of Secrets #87. DC's horror mags were great fun.

Iron Man Annual #1. Great reprints from 1967. More Colan, drawing Iron Man. And then, Kirby steps in as a guest artist and HOLY SHIT! More Kirby art I couldn't stop staring at, above. I still can't stop staring at it. This is when it clicked for me.I want to draw stuff like this! Yeah, sure, kid. You want to draw like Kirby. Good luck with that! But eventually it led me to my own path.

Justice League #82. Hmmm. The DC books were noticeably less interesting than the Marvel ones.

Marvel Super-heroes #28. These reprint books hinted at a wondrous treasure trove of back issues waiting out there for me to discover. Really wasn't that big a trove, since the Marvel Age only began six years earlier. Of course, when you're only 10, six years is almost a lifetime.

Mighty Marvel Western #10. Ugh. What can I say? I was desperate.

Superman #229. THIS was the world's best-selling title? Yawn. 

World's Finest #195. Another lame book. I couldn't figure out why Batman in his own title was cool and totally square in this one.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

The Eisner Awards send a message!

The Eisner Awards have been passed out at Comicon, and the result... is epic. A foundational shift!

Marvel and DC and superhero corporate product in general were virtually shut out of the Eisners! Has this ever happened before? Awards instead went to an impressive array of brilliant work outside of the tiresome, long-underwear sock-em-ups. 

The only Eisners for the superhero publishers? IDW won "Best Archival Collection" for the Steranko Artist's Edition. Rightly so. Those things are gorgeous. Wouldn't mind owning that one myself. And Darwyn Cooke won "Best Cover Artist" for his month of variant covers on the DC line. That category was a given. Where else but mainstream comics do you have such a thing as a cover artist.... or variant covers? The rest of us just draw our own covers! That's not a dig at Cooke, whose art is brilliant. But c'mon.... variant covers? Jesus, still flogging that dead horse, DC? Vertigo's Sandman picked up a prize for best artist, but that's not a superhero book. Disney-Marvel didn't win squat!

Every other Eisner went to indy creators, or books outside the superhero genre. 

This, friends, is a total repudiation of the the hyper-marketed, corporate product that Marvel and DC are foisting off on their shrinking readership, and a long-overdue smackdown of the mainstream schlock that has dominated comix in this country, not in sales, at least not in recent years, but dominated the conversation and the definition of what comix "is."  This is a sweeping victory for comix! And that it comes at Comicon, the epicenter of blaring, mass-market, Hollywood tie-ins, particularly those of Warner Bros. and Disney, is extra sweet. 

Hey, I grew up with superhero comics. From age 10 to 18, I cleared the rack every week. Kirby and Ditko and Adams and Steranko were my inspiration. I loved superhero comics. I was consumed by them. I still have several thousand of my favorite books, neatly tucked on a shelf a few feet from where I'm typing. From time to time, when I'm in need of inspiration, I read some of them. But by the time I got to college, I was done. The Bronze Age was groaning to a disappointing end and the superhero genre was devouring itself with a tiresome cycle of repetition and duplication and declining quality. When I started making my own comix, right around that time, I became a creator and stopped being a reader. But I was one once, so these aren't just the ravings of a snooty indy dork. OK, OK, maybe they are, but a snooty dork who has devoted  his life to comix, and has spent much of that life trying to convince the American public that this is a legitimate artform, as worthy as the printed word or film or any other storytelling art form, and one that is SO much more than a musclebound idiot prancing around rooftops in a ridiculous leotard.

Are there good superhero comics? Sure. Not many, frankly. It's been a steep, bumpy road down from Kirby and Lee. That genre was completely spent with Watchmen in 1986. That should have been the wrap up, the great post-modern epic that turned the genre inside out. Instead, the Big Two have been stuck in three decades of pathetic Watchmen imitations, with superheroes growing darker and darker, ever more cynical and ultra-violent, and, of course, rampantly misogynist. Look, if you're a total superhero devotee– well, you're probably not reading my blog– but, in any case, more power to you. Really. The more people reading comix, ANY comix, the better, as far as I'm concerned, even if, I freely admit, and I was once one of you, I don't get it.  My beef is the delusion that superhero comics keep the industry afloat. They keep the comic book shops afloat, but those shops were built to cater to that fanbase. Judging by how many are closing, that business model ain't working anymore. People who seldom set foot in the shops are reading comix in big numbers. The kind of comix that just cleaned up at the Eisners.

Now, when I periodically bring this up in social media discussions, someone always responds defensively, "But if you don't read superhero comics, how do you know they suck?" Well, I've never seen an episode of The Khardasians or Duck Dynasty either, but I can GUARANTEE those shows are total shit! Besides, I don't read many indy comics either. I love comix, but I'm not a fan anymore. That's a sacrifice I had to make to become a creator. I know, I know, it's weird, but it works for me, and so far it's worked pretty well.  I do, however, periodically flip through books, both indy and mainstream, and I hear the buzz. I know what's out there and what's good and what's not. 

This slate of Eisner winners is how it should be moving forward. Disney and Warner Bros. can have their billion-dollar movie franchises, their tv shows and video game spinoffs, but they shouldn't get awards for their comic book tie-ins (and who are we kidding here, that's all the comic book line is to these corporate giants), any more than the superhero films themselves should win Oscars or awards at Cannes or Sundance. Those are reserved for daring, innovative work of high quality (the occasional Oscar fuck up aside). So it should be with the Eisners.

I hope this year's result doesn't conjure up one of those moronic organized backlash campaigns, like the Sad Puppies debacle that has all but ruined the Hugo Awards. If the Eisner folks aren't making plans to head that off, they damn well should be. 

I'd also love to see the award ceremony moved from Comicon,  which has little to do with comix anymore. But that probably isn't happening. Here's a wrap-up from CNET, which barely mentions comix at all, except in relation to the movie franchises, and offers nary a word about the Eisners.

But for now, let's celebrate. It's a victory for the art form! Congrats to all the winners!

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Store updated

Been meaning to do this for awhile, but I've updated the store. Some of purchase links were no longer active. God knows when this happened. This whole capitalism thing still perplexes me.

Anyways, there are now working purchase links for the both the Joey and Johnny shirts. Look for a couple new shirts soon. Also, the Lester Bangs shirt is apparently no longer available. I'll try to fix that, but for now, it's gone.

Also, again unbeknownst to me the SLG online store no longer has copies of Punk Rock & Trailer Parks, as they methodically back out of the comix biz.  Dan Vado is now running a music club in his former warehouse. Sounds like a great place. The only place to get copies from here on is from me at shows, or from.... insert sinister music.... Amazon. Yeah, Amazon will continue to be re-stocked. I usually encourage folks to shop anywhere but Amazon, but in this case there's no other option, so have at it.

If you're fine with eBooks, Comixology offers an excellent version of  PR&TP. It's done very well there and I actually get a quarterly royalty payment from these guys, so I encourage people to opt for that.

Sometime this summer I'll be putting up a selection of original art, so look for that.

Monday, July 6, 2015

Done at last!

I'm happy to report that Trashed is delivered and in the can. All 240 pages of it. Took a bit longer to put the finishing touches on it, as it always does, and MAN am I sick of looking at these pages, but it's completed at last. Here's the wraparound cover (above). I especially like how designer Pam Notorantonio tucked the barcode right into the truck's hopper. 

I'm recently returned from Book Expo New York and the American Library Association convention in Frisco, where I passed out crappy proof copies like candy. 

And the first review is in! Damn book isn't even printed yet, and Kirkus Reviews gave it a "starred review"! That's not one star, like a movie critic would give to a lousy film, that's starred as in "we like this book!" 

"Indie comics stalwart Backderf returns to the scabrous humor and pointed commentary of his earlier work. A one-time garbageman himself, Backderf has a clear affinity for these hardworking stiffs and their travails. An entertaining ode to the odiferous realities of getting by."

Heidi MacDonald at Comicsbeat also declares Trashed to be "hilarious and disgusting." 

And these are based on the positively dreadful, mistake-and-typo-ridden proof copy. Abrams was in such a rush to get it out by these two events, they just used my first draft. I hadn't even spellchecked anything, which is painfully obvious, as I have apparently lost the ability to correctly spell any word longer than two syllables. I'll be building a bonfire out of any copies remaining once the real book comes out. That'll be the end of September (I hope).

Here's the cover of the French edition, also due in September. 

So now I can kick back and enjoy the rest of the summer with some well-deserved time off, before the Fall book tours both here and in Europe. No plans, other than firing up The Baron of Prospect Ave. webcomic again. Look for new pages shortly. I'll also be pondering my next book. I have a few ideas, but nothing I'm willing to share at this point.

I've also re-jiggered the webstore here, to better highlight the Comixology e-edition of Punk Rock & Trailer Parks and the punk star t-shirts from Birdcage Books. You'll note there's now a Johnny shirt to go along with the popular Joey shirt. Coming soon, Dee Dee.... and Klaus Nomi!

FYI Punk Rock & Trailer Parks is no longer available from the SLG Comics online store. The book will continue to be re-stocked at Amazon however. I usually discourage people from buying Amazon, but there's no other option here, so have at it. From a purely selfish standpoint, the Comixology download is even better, because I get a quarterly royalty from them! 

Monday, June 22, 2015

Earl Norem, the King of Adventure Sleaze!

The great Earl Norem passed away last weekend, at 92. Norem was the top illustrator of the adventure sleaze mags of the Fifties and Sixties. The newsstands were full of these rags, which paired junk fiction of the lowest brow with provocative large illustrations of busty, scantily clad babes engaged in various acts of over-the-top violence.

The publisher of most this marvelous trash was none other than Martin Goodman, who was also the founder and publisher of Marvel Comics. Comic books were low-profit enterprises back then. The big money was in porn, and this was the foundation of Goodman's vast publishing empire His son, Chip, held on to the porn mags long after the family foolishly sold Marvel, finally selling the last ones in 1993, just before the internet wiped out the titty mags.

Norem began painting for Goodman's magazine line when he returned from WWII. He was prolific and fast. Working in acrylic paint, he provided hundreds of covers and double-page illustrations for softcore sleaze mags like Stag, Men's Life and Men.

Before internet porn, teenagers had to go to great lengths to score masturbatory material. If a boy couldn't steal girlie mags from his old man, he had to make do with whatever newsdealers would sell him. Goodman recognized this lucrative untapped market, and thus was the adventure sleaze magazine created.


The big selling point of these rags were the illustrations of bodacious babes, as uncovered as Goodman could get away with. Imagine how many thousands of teenage horndogs drooled over the "Man Hungry Nymph Who Stole Red China's Secret Super-MIG"! Goodman no doubt paid Norem more for the paintings than he did for the stories themselves!

My introduction to Norem came much later, in the Seventies, when he became the go-to cover artist for Marvel's magazine line, which featured titles like Monsters Unleashed, Dracula Lives and The Savage Sword of Conan. Goodman was long gone, as were the adventure sleaze mags. Marvel put out a dozen magazines a month to try to grab some of competitor Warren's audience. Marvel's publisher was now Stan Lee, and he recognized that Warren's covers often sold the magazine, which frankly, were full of less than stellar material. Warren shelled out top dollar for the covers of Creepy, Eerie and Vampirella by A-list talent like Frazetta, Jeff Jones and Richard Corben. Marvel couldn't (or more likely, wouldn't) pay for that kind of muscle, but here was old friend Earl Norem, waiting in the wings.

I didn't much care for his Marvel mag covers, to be honest. But they led me back to the work of his sleaze mag heyday and that stuff simply blew me away. I found piles of them at Kay's Books in downtown Cleveland, priced for a few cents each.

Norem's death reminded me that he also painted the cover for The Silver Surfer graphic novel in 1978. Or, rather, he re-drew (or, I guess, re-painted) the original Jack Kirby cover. Above left is the Kirby original, later inked and colored by parties unknown. To the right, is Norem's reinterpretation. It's a pity he is associated with this book, the backstory of which is one of the saddest tales in Marvel history.

This was one of the first original GNs. It came out the same year as Eisner's Contract With God, commonly considered the first original graphic novel. It's not, but it was Eisner who coined the term "graphic novel," for better or worse, and jumpstarted the current GN Golden Age we all now enjoy.

The Silver Surfer
GN is a tepid re-hash of Kirby's original Surfer-Galactus story that was such a cult hit a decade earlier, and which Stan desperately clung to as proof that he could actually write (he couldn't), even though, of course, he DIDN'T write the original FF Trilogy. Kirby did. Lee just filled in the word balloons with hokey dialogue, based on Kirby's detailed margin notes.

The Silver Surfer was the first book Stan "wrote" since 1971 when he was promoted to Marvel publisher. It came on the heels of his infamous Origin of Marvel Comics, where Lee first made the outrageous claim that he was the sole creator of all the great Marvel characters, a brazen lie that infuriated Kirby.

The Silver Surfer GN is a soapy weeper, minus the FF, and with an added romantic interest (!) and a cosmic sex scene (!!) with Stan, as usual, striving mightily to be deep, and failing spectacularly. It's Lee at his absolute worst and his dialogue is even worse than usual. It's better than the Surfer comic book series, thanks to Jack. Not a high bar, since those Surfer book are the dreariest of the Silver Age, a turgid mess of a series, with Stan fucking up a cult hit with tiresome allegories as obvious as a hammer blow to the head. The actual politics behind those allegories are totally mainstream and craven. It's Stan, the middle-aged cool dad trying to "rap with kids." When the book was mercifully canceled by Martin Goodman, Stan bawled endlessly about how brilliant it was, and that it failed commercially because, although college kids loved it, the stupid 11-year-old readers just didn't "get it." He repeats this fantasy to this day. No Stan. Your Silver Surfer wasn't too deep. It just sucked.

This GN is the final "collaboration" between Lee and Kirby. It's not a great book, although the art is Jack's best of his late period. Lee & Kirby bickered throughout, with Lee audaciously demanding changes to the art. Kirby's second Marvel contract ended with this, and, fed up with Lee's lies and shameless gloryhogging, and tired of being denied the compensation he so deserved, he would never work again for the company he essentially created. The Marvel Age ended right here, with the publication of the Surfer GN. So, too, did my interest in mainstream comics.

Norem's cover here is a dud. The combo of a Norem painting over a Kirby layout doesn't work at all! Guess Lee, typically, felt the cover needed more of a "book" feel than Kirby could provide, so his hokey doggeral could be "properly" showcased. Wrong call again, Stan!

I remember buying this at the chain bookstore in the mall. You never saw comix in regular bookstores then, so it really stood out. I also remember thinking, man, this cover sucks.

I prefer to remember Norem at his best.