Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Hot Damn, That Looks Good!

Comic-con Notes

Processing my first San Diego 

I’ve avoided this con for years, despite the entreaties of pals like Shannon Wheeler and Keith Knight and a few others, all of whom have attended every year for the bulk of their respective careers. My experiences with mainstream cons have not been good ones. Creators like me are ignored by the superdude crowd and usually shunted off by con organizers to some indy comix gulag in a corner of the venue, next to the aged Playboy Playmates signing copies of their pinups for sweaty middle-aged fanboys. Mainstream cons are crowded, noisy and corporate. The rep of San Diego is that it’s all of those things in abundance, and what was once a celebration of comics has now been hijacked by Hollywood as a showcase for tv and movie franchises. By the time I had the resources and rep to come to San Diego, this transformation had already taken place. I missed the window, I thought. But I got the invite to be a special guest, all expenses paid, and I was up for an Eisner Award, so I figured, hell, why not?

I’m glad I did. What a week!

With Sergio Aragonės

My favorite cosplayer. Genius!

With Chester Brown.

The Hollywood area in the center of the convention hall boasts massive displays of various tv and movie franchises, as well as the Big Three.

With Gilbert Hernandez.

First off, I was wrong about Comic-con. It is still very much about comics. Yes, there are giant displays for Star Wars and the Walking Dead in the “Hollywood section” of the vast convention hall, but there are comics everywhere. Artist Alley is the usual array of mainstream comics wannabees and old pros, but there is a large Small Press section full of SPX types and a large presence by publishers of fine comics, like Fantagraphics, Drawn & Quarterly and my very own Abrams Comicarts. The panel schedule is packed with sessions on comics. The big reveals in the massive Hall H get all the press– all the mainstream press, I might add– but it almost feels like this is a separate convention altogether, since it’s sealed off from the main venue. Everywhere I went, I encountered fellow creators like Chester Brown, Hope Larsen, Gilbert Hernandez and Nate Powell. We were very much welcome and had plenty of fans lined up to buy our books. It’s not the uplifting experience of an SPX or TCAF, but I was resigned to an soul-sucking experience like New York Comic-con with its crazy I-can’t-breathe crowds and explosions and blaring music and superdudes über alles. I was pleasantly surprised.

There was also a large back-issue dealer area. This, of course, was once the only reason for cons. It’s the only reason I went to them, from my very first con in an empty storefront on the near westside of Cleveland when I was 13. Speaking of that particular con, that’s where I picked up a copy of Amazing Fantasy #15 for $20! Ditko Spider-mans were my passion and that book is the Holy Grail. I could have grabbed a higher grade copy of Spider-man #1, but it was $35. I only had $40, and it took me months to save up that much, on the paltry wages my Old Man paid for mowing the lawn. So that would have blown my wad. I had a couple other books on my want list, so I opted for the cheaper AF #15 and still had the cash for a copy of Human Torch #13 (I wanted a Golden Age war comic and that was a great one with the Torch roasting Nazis alive) and New Gods #1, my favorite title, which was impossible to find as the dealers had cleaned out the loading docks at the distributors and copies never made it to the spinner racks. Never did score a Spidey #1, as the price shot up the next year to unaffordable highs, and kept going. That AF #15 was stolen from my room a few years later, along with nice copies of Golden Age Capt. America Comics #13 and X-men #94. A thief, likely one of my brother’s stoner friends, who sure knew what he was doing. So imagine my groan of dismay when I saw the price tag on THIS copy of AF #15 (above) in San Diego. It’s about in the same condition as mine was. Throw in the other two books, and that stoner motherfucker pinched about $30,000 from me. He probably traded them all for a couple bags of weed, too. 

Me and my boyhood comix dealer, Terry Stroud

I dug through some bins, but didn’t find much. It’s all horrifically overpriced. Who pays price guide for books anymore? And dealers remain… well… dealers. Being in that business just has to suck all the joy out of comics, which is sad, since most entered the field because they were fans. There were a couple friendly ones, most who were all business and a few who had axel grease dripping from every pore. The exception… and one of the nicer surprises of the week… was Terry Stroud. I started buying off Terry and his American Comic Book Co. when I was a teenager in the Seventies! He was one of the guys who took out small ads in the back of Marvel and DC comics. Send him $1 and he’d send you a large catalog. I ordered tons of books off him then, and again in the Nineties as I rebuilt a collection of favorite titles, when I discovered he was still at it and advertising in the The Buyer’s Guide. He was old school. No website, no email. Just a PO box. Send in a money order and a list of alternate picks in case the first selections were already sold. But his books offerings were great, always undergraded and reasonably priced. Then one day in the late Nineties, I sent in a large order and the letter came back as undeliverable. I tried again and the same thing happened. He had obviously closed up shop. I stuck exclusively to eBay after that. He was my last connection to the comics of my youth.  So to stumble across him here, with piles of boxes haphazardly stacked in a cramped booth, just like his catalogs, I almost burst into tears! He’s retired and just cleaning out his warehouse now, exclusively at California shows. I bought a few treasures off him, but I didn’t see a lot of traffic at his booth, sandwiched as it was between large dealers with large wall displays of slabbed investment copies. However, the only other customer at the time was none other than underground great Denis Kitchen, who snapped this photo of me and Terry! So obviously the customers were discerning ones. 

The view from my hotel room! Yeah, that's the stuff.

The con itself treated me like royalty. All expenses paid, as I mentioned, a posh $700-a-night hotel room and they even assigned me my own private Man Friday, who followed me around and made sure I made it to all my panels and signing sessions. 
I didn’t table, so I was free to wander around and check out the whole thing. I was stunned how many fans recognized me. The badges are large, but are covered mostly with a Walking Dead ad. My name is unreadable from farther than a foot, so people knew me from my mug, which has certainly become distinctive in my advancing decrepitude, a cross between Joey Ramone and Herman Munster.
  People came up to me throughout the week just to tell me how much they like my stuff. I even had a few who followed me from The City days, when my strip ran in the San Diego and LA weeklies. That’s always nice, since you never really had a sense anyone was reading back in the days before social media. And to run into comics legends like Matt Groening or Chester Brown and have them say “Oh wow, nice to finally meet you.” when I was expecting blank stares, that was the best surprise of all.


The highlight of the con was, of course, the Eisner Awards.  The host was John Barrowman, of Dr. Who and Torchwood fame. His schtick was that of a gay Borcht Belt comic, with one lame dick joke after another. And he babbled on mostly about Superdude Comics, even though, for the second straight year, Superdude Comics were hardly represented in the nominations. Talk about not knowing your audience! Marvel didn’t even buy a table for the ceremony.  Took their ball and stomped home.

Barrowman’s opening monologue was mercifully short and my category was the first one up. I was nominated, for Best Lettering, but didn’t expect to win. That’s always the best attitude to have, I’ve found, at awards ceremonies. Lessens the disappointment and enhances the elation. Best Lettering isn’t exactly a showcase category, but it’s a pretty cool one, and unique to comics. No other art form, after all, draws sound effects. Besides, I’ve been nominated in bigger categories and never won. I thought I have a chance with this one, especially since, dammit, the lettering in Trashed DOES rule. But when my name was called, I could only shake my head and laugh as my editor patted me furiously on the back and a roar went up from colleague pals.

I have to say, walking up on that stage to finally have one of those little statues handed to me, after 35 years as a comics pro, a grizzled warhorse of 56 years, is on my short list of career highlights. My acceptance speech, told with hand-lettered cue cards, frankly, brought the house down. I prepared this a couple weeks ago after a flash of inspiration. The ceremony is a long and tedious affair and there’s lots of butthurt and grumbling. I decided to embrace the love of comics–  which is what it’s all about, right?–  to counter all that. It was the correct move, judging from the reaction. The rest of the evening, both colleagues and fans alike were congratulating me more for that speech than for the Eisner! “Dude, you set the bar for all  future “Best Lettering” acceptance speeches!” Matt Groening told me.

Me, Lynda Barry and Matt Groening. I wore my lucky Ramones shirt!

Speaking of Matt, he and Lynda Barry, the pair that virtually created the alt-weekly comics genre where I first found some success, were both inducted into the Hall of Fame together, which is fitting, since they are lifelong friends and emerged as comics forces hand in hand. After the ceremony all the winners clustered together for a group photo and I was able to tell thank both, at the same time, for showing me the way. They looked somewhat embarrassed, especially Lynda, but I was happy to have that opportunity. 

This years Eisner recipients are another triumph for good comics. The big winners were Fantagraphics, Drawn & Quarterly and Image. The Big Corporate Two were almost completely shut out, except for Marvel’s Silver Surfer, which  is deserving, especially for the quirky artwork of Mike Allred, a veteran of indy comics whose work I have always admired. Other than that, they won only for bullshit categories like Best Variant Cover, where they have no competition, because no one else bothers with that bullshit. Women creators, too, picked up an impressive hardware haul. Drawn & Quarterly, the publishing house big winner, is run by a woman. The comics world is changing. This isn’t the crest of the wave. This IS the fucking wave! Disney and Warner Bros. Inc. would be wise to take note…. and especially Diamond and the mainstream comics retailers that service their wares at the virtual exclusion of everything else. If you stick with the same old, same old Superdude schlock, if you dismiss the new comics that are winning Eisners by the boatload and hearts & minds of the new generation of readers, enjoy that swan dive into the tarpit.  Disney and Warner Bros. won’t care much, of course, because it’s all about tv and movies and toy lines for them. For comics lovers, however, it’s a thrilling Golden Age of groundbreaking comics of all genres, outside of the petrified world of corporate superdudes.
After the high of the Eisners, I still had the busy weekend days of the con. I had a few more panels and signings, and spent the rest of time walking the floor, doing a little shopping and talking to colleagues. I’ve read a lot of laments on social media from other of my ilk about how out-of-place they felt, but that wasn’t my experience at all. I avoided the Hollywood area and hung out with old friends Shannon Wheeler and Keith Knight at their booths, shooting the shit and talking comics. I chatted with Gilbert Hernandez, Chester Brown and Sergio Aragonés, just to name a few. Everywhere I walked, people were calling out my name and congratulating me on my Eisner. I had an absolute blast! I understand fixating on the Hollywood and corporate aspect of 
Comic-con, and certainly the media does,  but you can diminish those things with just a little effort.

Hanging out at Shannon Wheeler's booth.

The view from the microphone at one of my five panels.

The panels went well, for the most part. They were well attended and fun. I was especially “on” at the Historical Comics panel with Kate Beaton and Chester Brown. That’s a formidable pair, but thank God I brought my A game, judging from Twitter. Whew. Glad my pithy remarks went over well, because I’m easily the stupidest of the three. None of the panels had visuals, which was a puzzler. It’s a visual medium, so who wants to see four people sitting at a table TALKING about it. Why not show it? I had a slideshow for my Spotlight panel and the tech was surprised I wanted to hook up. 

The Inkpot is a handsome little devil.

Speaking of the Spotlight, I did it “in conversation” with Tom Spurgeon of The Comics Reporter and (more recently) the grand poobah of the new Cartoon Crossroads Columbus fest, which is going to be huge. We did a similar event at the debut CXC and I enjoyed it so much I asked him to reprise it and was thrilled he agreed. He’s whipsmart, knowledgeable and always prepared and I just plain enjoy talking comics with him. I wondered, however, why we were wrapping it up 10 minutes early. Then the Comic-con folks swept in and awarded me an Inkpot Award! Spurgeon was clued in, of course, but I was caught completely unawares. I didn’t think the week could get any better, and then it did! It’s a handsome statue, too, just like the ones previously given to Jack Kirby, Will Eisner and Dan Clowes, just to name a few.

Then came 5 pm Sunday and it was over. Few things are sadder than breakdown at a great con. A bulk of the attendees hopped in their cars, or headed to the airport and raced home with their hauls, leaving the area around the convention center in a state of rather eerie calm. I took my 21-year-old son, who I brought along as my plus-one, and who had the time of his life, to dinner in the hotel restaurant. We looked out over the bay and talked about our experiences of the week and comics in general. That, too, was a highlight. 

I have the greatest job in the world!

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Derf at Comicon

Here it is, the complete schedule of the six panels I'm doing at Comicon next week. All but one will have signings afterwards, most at the Abrams Comicarts booth. Pray for me.
Thursday, July 21 • 10:00am - 11:00am
Room 29AB
What makes a book a graphic novel? The unique combination of text and art, word balloons, text boxes, and more makes comics a unique format. Authors Derf Backderf (Trashed), Peter Kuper (Ruins), Hope Larson (Compass South), Sydney Padua (The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage), and Maximilian Uriarte (The White Donkey) discuss the medium and their own recent work. Moderated by Evan Narcisse (io9).
Signing to follow at 11:30 at the Abrams Comicarts booth, #1216 (down at the Gaming Exhibition end)
Friday, July 22 • 11:00am - 12:00pm
Room 28DE
From life as a trashman to life as a Michael Jackson impersonator, there's no topic graphic novels can't cover. But how do creators shape their ideas into narratives that thrill and chill? Five of the best talk about their craft with PR's senior news editor Calvin Reid and an all-star lineup.
Signing to follow at 12:30 pm at the Abrams Comicarts booth, #1216 (down at the Gaming Exhibition end)
Saturday July 23, 2016 2:00pm - 3:00pm
Room 4
Angoulême Prize-winner Derf Backderf appears in conversation with Tom Spurgeon (The Comics Reporter) about Derf's long career in comics, from failed political cartoonist to alt-weekly staple, to graphic novels about punk rockers, Jeffrey Dahmer, and garbagemen.
Signing to follow at 3:30 in the autograph area
Sunday, July 24 • 11:00am - 12:00pm
Room 24ABC
You love comics, but are you fan enough to make comics? The comiXologist podcast crew Tia Vasiliou and Matt Kolowski they discuss the triumphs, sorrows, tricks, and craft of illustrating comics with an amazing lineup of talented artists and cartoonists, including Derf Backderf (cartoonist, Trashed, My Friend Dahmer), Megan Levens (Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Season 10), Denis Kitchen (cartoonist/publisher/agent, The Best of Comix Book), Cara McGee (Over the Garden Wall), and Shannon Wheeler (The New Yorker, Too Much Coffee Man). What's the hardest thing to draw? What inspires their work? Who are the artists they admire most? How can artists also write in comics?
Sunday, July 24 • 1:00pm - 2:00pm
Room 28DE
Derf Backderf (My Friend Dahmer), Kate Beaton (Hark! A Vagrant), and Chester Brown (Louis Riel) have produced a body of work that, between them, is wholly unique and visionary. Their efforts have brought to life the Middle Ages, key moments of Canadian history, and the adolescence of a complex and notorious killer. Calvin Reid (senior news editor at Publishers Weekly) leads a discussion on researching and writing comics inspired by history.
Signing to follow at the Abrams Comicarts booth, , #1216 (down at the Gaming Exhibition end)

Monday, July 4, 2016

RIP Elie Wiesel

I don't often post examples from my short, failed career as a political cartoonist, but the death this week of the great Elie Wiesel reminded me of probably the best political cartoon I drew.

In 1985, Ronald Reagan was asked by German president Helmet Kohl to lay a wreath for German war dead at Bitburg Cemetery. Turns out 50 of Hitler's SS Stormtroopers were also buried there, with distinctive black tombstones, and it became a total debacle for the Great Communicator, one which dominated headlines for weeks leading up to the visit. For the first time in his Presidency, Ronnie couldn't spin the issue. But he stubbornly went ahead with it. In an incredibly unlucky coincidence, it so happened that Wiesel was to receive the Congressional Gold Medal at the White House smack in the middle of this controversy. White House toadies tried to muzzle Wiesel, a man who had survived Auschwitz and Buchenwald. Wiesel would not be intimidated and instead scolded a contrite Reagan in front of the nation. “That place, Mr. President, is not your place. Your place is with the victims of the SS.”

With the controversy roiling, Ronnie tried to give a speech about the deficit and how Reaganomics would solve everything. It landed like a turd on a hot sidewalk. Thus this cartoon.

The paper I worked for in Florida was a real rightwing rag. This was a problem, as you can imagine, considering my emerging socialist views. I made it work by sticking to safe topics: bureaucratic f-ups, the Soviets, terrorism, etc. Bashing the beloved Reagan was off limits. But when I showed the editor the sketch for this one, he burst out laughing and gave the ok. One of the far-right editorial writers (who looked like Nosferatu and frequently dropped the N-word in meetings) stopped speaking to me after it ran.

I was so impressed by the simple courage of the small, quiet Wiesel that day, I ran out and bought copies of his novels "The Gates of the Forest" and "Twilight"  and discovered his work.

This is typical of my style at the time. Very sketchy (with flexible point pens!), nothing particularly daring, stylistically, but I was still learning to draw at this point, at age 25. There's no way I could have pulled off a drawing like this even a year earlier.

Six months later, a new editor rode in and fired me for, as he put it, "general tastelessness." That was it for my mainstream political cartoon career. Once sacked, I figured, screw it, I might as well just make the cartoons I want to make.