Friday, April 22, 2016

I just had a lengthy debate online with a comics fan who disputes my assertion that we're currently in a Golden Age of great comics. His argument was that superdude comics suck now, and "indie" books are just as bad, or the stuff of "hipsters."

I suspect the real problem here is the fan and I are talking in two entirely different languages. To most mainstream fans, "indie" means whatever they see in their Diamond-run shop that is not Marvel, DC or Image. That means a few Fantagraphics or Top Shelf titles, but mostly an entire wall of wannabee publishers of superdude knockoffs. And yeah, for the most part, that's dreary stuff. There are some books that are pretty cool, but most of it is derivative dreck. That's always been a flaw with mainstream floppies. As Jim Starlin infamously portrayed the biz 45 years ago: a mountain of manure sprinkled with diamonds.

The problem is a mainstream comics shop is the last place a fan should be looking for a  

Monday, April 18, 2016

25 Years of Tom Tomorrow

Just received my copy of Tom Tomorrow's massive two-tome 25 Years of Tomorrow. This is the project funded by an epically successful Kickstarter that raided $300,000 in like 48 hours. This is admittedly a crappy review, because I haven't read the book completely, mainly because it will take months to get through several thousand cartoons!

It's an impressive piece of work. Two massive volumes containing almost everything the irascible Tom Tomorrow did, including early work before the launch of This Modern World. What's just as impressive as the work documented here is Tom's kajones in reprinting EVERYthing. I'm in the process of posting my old City strips on and collecting my True Stories from that strip in a series of comics with the same name, and let me tell you, there are cartoons that will NEVER see the light of day again!

This isn't an impartial review, since Tom and I go way back.

Tom was one of the first weekly cartoonists I met. Well, if you can term phone calls a "meeting." We both began our strips in 1990. My debut paper was my hometown 
Cleveland Edition, which had also picked up This Modern World around the same time. It was a great paper, one of my favorites out of the 140 or so that ran my strip over its 24-year history. It was only 40-50 pages a week, but ran seven or eight cartoons, two of which were local ones. This was the norm then. Weeklies, scrambling for content and for readers, filled their papers with cartoons. They were cheap content, since these rags only paid $20-25 a strip (and would eventually pay far less) and the readers indeed loved them. It was the comics, as much as anything, that put those rags on the map and made them such an integral part of the Gen X era. It was a great time, for the weeklies and for weekly cartoons. It's a rush to be in on something that's just taking off, as the weeklies were in 1990. The future looked bright, especially for weekly comics.

So one day Tom calls me at my studio, just to say hi. This is long before the Electric Intertube and email. Back then weekly papers sent out comp subscriptions, so he must have seen my strip in The Edition. I used to get 20 papers a week this way (I tipped my mailman generously at Christmas). Funny thing... at the end of the Nineties when papers stopped giving away comp subscriptions, that was the canary in the coal mine. Their ad revenue was drying up and they needed to pinch pennies! It was all over at that point.  Anyways, we had a nice chat and we became cartoon pals. There weren't a lot of us doing this weekly thing, so we all paled around with each other when we could.

What this handsome collection showcases is a guy who had his vision, right from the start. I flipped through both volumes, but was immediately drawn to the early years.  It's impressive to see how quickly that vision coalesced. The infamously wordy cartoon began as a single-panel one, but it's still recognizable as Tom Tomorrow. I just didn't have that vision when I did a comic strip. I did for awhile, in the first five or so years of The City in the early Nineties, but I lost it, then regained it for a couple more after 9-11, when it morphed into a political strip, then lost it again. I wouldn't really find my vision until I started making books 20 years later. Tom had his vision, maybe he was born with it, and it was a great one. I always envied him in that.

This is not a book that can be read in one sitting. A Tom Tomorrow cartoon is dense and 1,000 of them in a row is a "hard slog," to quote Donald Rumsfeld, one of Tom's favorite targets. I'll be reading this book for a good, long while. I greatly enjoyed seeing again the  strips that were hand made, not done in Photoshop, which is roughly the first decade of the strip. Tom has always been criticized by people who mistakenly think he doesn't draw, just uses found images over and over. He does use found images, true, but trust me, the guy draws his ass off. The original that I possess is a puzzle of inked images, Zip-a-tone and pasted pieces of type. It's an incredibly complex construction. Just eyeballing it, I can tell you he spent more time meticulously piecing together these cartoons than most of the "real" cartoonists did drawing theirs with pen and ink.

What I like about these handmade cartoons is it takes me back to a time when weekly papers were put together with whatever materials were at hand. Daily papers were corporate monoliths, with money flowing in. They had top-of-the-line technology: expensive drum scanners and typesetters, pagination systems that allowed a designer to build a page on a computer screen (yeah, this was cutting edge at the time), and they had large staffs of artists and photogs at their disposal. Weeklies were made with laserjet printers, a waxer and a xerox machine, and the passion and ingenuity to make something worth reading on a shoestring.

In my opinion, Tom is the dominant political cartoonist of his era. Sadly, it was also the era when the genre died. They call his strip a post-modern political cartoon. Post apocalyptic is more accurate. Corporate media conglomerates first emasculated political cartoonists, then downsized them. Tom will be one of the last ones standing. He already is! He would have never been hired at a daily newspaper, and he certainly wouldn't have lasted long working for some square in a corner office. Self-syndication gave him the freedom he needed.

Twenty-five years and still going strong.

Kate Beaton vs. Tit Windows.

Comix superstar Kate Beaton has taken on dumbass superdude comics and their proclivity to depict women as preposterous boob-inflated pole dancers in 5-inch fuck-me heels. In a series of hilarious tweets she riffs on Marvel's Cloak and Dagger characters (pictured above), particularly the underage heroine Dagger, who sports some rather impractical "tit windows" in her costume. You can read the tweets HERE.

I myself took on this very topic, way back in 1997 when superdude comics were at their dumbest.

The issue now, of course, is that, unlike 1997 when the mainstream comics industry had crashed and damn near went under completely, women are coming into the field in HUGE numbers, as both readers and creators. Women and girls are the fastest growing comics readership in 2015.  In 1997, that readership was all male. But walk into a typical mainstream comics shop today and it's nothing but tits and high heels as far as the eye can see. One hokey cheesecake cover after another. A wall of tits! It's like the back room of newsstands when I was a kid, where all the porn mags were on display and pervy businessmen would slink in and out to drool over the stroke mags during lunch hour.

Personally, I say..... FABULOUS! The mainstream companies don't want those women readers? Fine. I'll take them! That's why comics like mine... and Kate's... are enjoying great popularity. And the mainstream publishers can continue to pander to their shrinking readership of superdude fanboys who get off on tit windows. Of course, those fanboys who were 20 in 1997 are now middle-aged, and since Dagger here is an underage teen who's the same age as their daughters, that's kinda gross.

Kate is apparently getting a lot of shit from said fanboys, who are a humorless bunch when someone dare points out the stupider aspects of their reading material. I caught some crap for the above strip, too, although 1997 was before the Electric Intertube really took off. Note the clunky Compuserve (anyone remember Compuserve??) email address that's all numbers! So the grousing was limited to nasty letters and face-to-face grumbling. There was a comics shop I frequented then where I bought my Fantagraphics and Drawn & Quarterly stuff, having long lost interest in superdude books. I got chewed out there by the owner and a couple of his customers over this strip. It was good-natured, but nothing is good-natured on the Electric Intertube. I liked this strip when I did it.... and still like it!... but I guess the typical alt-weekly reader of that era wasn't a comic book reader, because the reaction, frankly, was mostly indifferent. Comic books in the Nineties, before the blockbuster movies, were very much a dirty little lowbrow thing.

Not that the mainstream publishers care about attracting female readers. Oh sure, they wouldn't mind, and I think they're trying. It's just that they haven't a clue how to do so. And, as long as the movies and tv shows are making billions, they don't really give two shits about the comic books. Marvel and DC, it's long been rumored, operate at a loss! 

Friday, April 15, 2016

Back at Ohio State

Visited Ohio State yesterday to scan a bunch of City strips for upcoming reprint projects. The bulk of my originals are in the Derf Collection at the Billy Ireland Cartoon Museum. From 2000 on, I have complete digital files here at the Derfcity Studios HQ, but for the first decade of the strip, my files are mostly small xerox copies, because that's how I sent out the strips to client papers before the Electric Intertube became our lord & master. And those files are incomplete, to say the least, so a-scanning I went.

In honor of this task, I posted the photo at left, of yours truly just starting out. This is me in 1981, in my dorm "studio" in a noisy quad in Siebert Hall, working on an early political cartoon for The Lantern, the student newspaper where I was first published. Thirt =-five years ago. Is that right? Gad, that IS right. Can't quite make out the cartoon, alas. I usually wrote elsewhere, since my room was a gathering place for the entire floor (we had an Atari!), most often at a quiet booth at Bernie's Bagels on the High St. strip. Then I'd draw in my room, usually late at night when everyone else was snoring. It was a great room, and that year was the best of my life at that point, but the following year I got a single, mainly so I could draw in peace. I had just wormed my way into The Lantern in the photo above (after three tries.... and three rejections!) but by the next year, I was cranking out 5 or 6 cartoons a week!

The photo at right, 
in the Billy yesterday, re-creating the 1981 photo, was the idea of Caitlin McGurk, the museum's social media expert. 

Monday, April 4, 2016