No super-heroes need apply

29. September 2005

I’ve recently discovered a rather interesting Web forum, called The ENGINE. It’s something put up by noted comic-book writer Warren Ellis, who has dabbled in the “mainstream” comics fields but seems to much prefer the “independent” field.

One of the rules for The ENGINE is, no talk about “super-hero comics.” I’m cool with that, since my interest in that genre evaporated years ago. But one forum member asked Ellis “how do you define a super-hero comic anyway?” The reply he got was, “if you don’t know what a super-hero comic is, you’re too clueless to be posting here” or words to that effect.

Which got me to thinking, how does one define a super-hero comic?

It’s not necessarily cut-and-dried. One might say, “a comic in which the central character has super-human powers.” Okay, but what about Batman? He has extraordinary physicality, but not really at a “super-human” level. Yet most would classify him with “super-heroes.” Same with Green Arrow, The Phantom, The Question and The Badger. Or to get really obscure, there’s Steve Ditko’s “Mister A.”

Then there are comics which feature a super-powered character but have strong characteristics of other genres. Daredevil has super-human powers but his stories read more like crime dramas. Nexus is about a super-powered assassin-of-mass-murderers who lives several hundred years in the future, and the stories contain a blend of classic super-hero tropes and classic space-opera (a sub-genre of science fiction) tropes.

My own twice-aborted series, GAMBIT, also has a super-powered character as part of an ensemble cast of characters in a space-opera setting.

It may be that “a super-hero comic” is not something one can define precisely, but “I know one when I see it.”

Here are what I think are the salient characteristics of the beast:

1. Features (a) costumed adventurer(s) who is(are) primarily recognizeable by the costume(s).

2. Is owned by a corporate entity, and may be written and drawn by any number of work-for-hire creators.

3. Characters do not age or change significantly over time.

4. Stories involve combat with villains who are often the mirror-image of super-heroes.

5. Protagonist is motivated by either a desire for revenge, or an altruistic passion for “justice,” or some combination of these. Desire for personal gain beyond survival is usually foresworn, or in the rare cases when it isn’t, the protagonist usually fails in this regard. Protagonist often (but not always) pursues his goals at great cost to personal wealth and relationships.

One can think of exceptions to any one of these characteristics, but if a comic has all of these, it is most definitely, IMO, a “super-hero comic.”

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Comics notions

29. September 2005

Whoops! Been four days since my last posting. And it’s 1:30am, gotta get up at 6. Okay, so here’s something I posted to the Comicon.com forum — but first, a quick bit of background:

Diamond Comics Distribution — which holds a near-monopoly on the comic-book “direct sales” market (or “Direct Market” — if you dont’ know what that is, go look it up on Wikipedia, I don’t have time to explain it now), has recently announced that if a book they list does not generate at least $600 worth (wholesale price) of orders, they’ll cancel the offering. Which means fans and retailers who ordered those books won’t be able to buy them, because publishers most likely won’t even print them if they can’t get a guaranteed order.

Creators and fans of what some call “artcomix” — comic-books which are about just about anything except super-heroes, usually published by small, “independent” publishers (not DC, Marvel, or Image), are wailing and gnashing their teeth over this. A great many artcomix sell right at or slightly below this level, and they won’t be able to find their audiences.

So, here’s what I said about it:

Diamond’s announcement has affirmed what I’ve been thinking for a while — that the traditional 32-page comic-book is doomed, for several reasons, and this is just another one of them.

The Direct Market itself may not be doomed, but to survive it’s going to have to change almost beyond recognition, and in ways that will prove disquieting to traditional fans, creators or retailers. To some extent this is happening already — it seems like at least half of the surviving comics boutiques give about half their space over to role-playing games, models, character statues, toys, posters, and general fantasy paraphrenalia. I think there will be more changes coming in the next decade.

Many creators of “artcomix” have for the past several years operated on a business model of putting out 32-page pamphlets (or sometimes, mini-comix) as loss-leaders to build an audience, then re-publishing the work in trade-paperbacks. The next step from here has already been taken by the Foglios, and more recently by Finder creator Carla Speed MacNeil: skip the pamphlets, but instead serialize the work on the Web to do the audience-building.

This of course bypasses both Diamond and retailers, until it comes time to distribute and sell the t-pbs. This may work to both Diamond’s and the retailers’ advantage, as the feedback offered by Web exposure may discourage creations which can’t grow an audience from ever going to press. But books can also be sold in the book-trade market and on Amazon as well as the Direct Sales market, which means that the DM will be facing greater outside competitive forces.

I have no idea how all this will shake out eventually, but my “crystal ball” tells me there will be considerable blood-letting in the next few years however in the long run quality material will find its audience and reward its creators.

[end quoted material]

For those of you paying attention, I have just dropped a fairly huge hint concerning Big Head Press’ future plans. A more detailed announcement is immanent — stay tuned.

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Ted Mussolini

25. September 2005

For the past few years I’d been enjoying, mostly, the anti-war editorial cartoons of Ted Rall. It was fun seeing him dress George II up as a South American generalissimo, with the Klingon dental work, and spoof the entire Bushevik administration with their lies and their obtuseness.

But then while perusing a comics-related website I ran across a link an article by Rall headlined, “Charities Are For Suckers.”

Incredibly, Rall argues that people should not contribute money for Katrina victim relief, because “that generosity feeds into the mindset of the sinister ideologues who argue that government shouldn’t help people.”

I have long heard people on the left claim that government must tax us to help diaster victims, the unemployed, the handicapped, the needy, anyone who for whatever reason, whether temporarily or permanently, lacks the wherewithal to support themselves, because, it is alleged, people will not voluntarily donate sufficient wealth to meet the needs of the unfortunate.

At least, this argument implies that the primary moral imperative is for charitible giving, and government’s coercive power is needed only because most people are not sufficiently moral to give what is needed (which is, of course, the mirror of the conservative argument that we need vice laws because people are not sufficiently moral in other aspects.)

But Rall goes a step further, arguing that government is and must be the primary engine of social charity, and if voluntary giving somehow gets in the way of that, it should be suppressed.

Next, I’ll expect to hear Pat Robertson argue that we need more teenaged sex lest government decide it doesn’t need to spend so much battling pornography.

Those who are familiar with history will recognize this notion, of course. It is one of the core principles of fascism, that all “positive” social impulses must be exercised through the state, or through the state’s designated and approved institutions. People should not decide for themselves, how much of their wealth, how much of the products of their lives, ought to be given to the needy. For this is really a political decision which must be determined by the proper political authorties.

So I went and tore Rall a new one on the Yahoo forum site linked to his brain-dead rant. And then realized there is yet another angle to this strange phenomenon of leftist charity-bashing, which I wanted to bring up here.

Libertarians have been using the whole sorry example of the Katrina disaster and aftermath to point out the folly of trusting government to take care of you. And I think this talk is getting picked up by socialists, and it really has them worried. If people generally wake up to the idea that government can only be counted on to take care of itself, the jig will be up for the socialists.

The other day on The Daily Show I listened to one of their fake-reporters opine that the Republicans are “taking the philosophy of limited goverment to the next level — incompetent government.” Que laughter and applause.

The line seems to be, “Government isn’t inherently evil and stupid. It’s just those dang Republicans screwing things up with their cronyism, when they’re not deliberately trying to make government look bad.”

There are probably still quite a few Americans still naive, or stupid, enough to buy that line. I guess we’ll just have to suffer through yet another four years of The Boot On Your Neck Party (left faction this time), before everyone with at least two brain cells to rub together finally figures it out.

Or, it might not take that long. With Rall leading the charge with his incredibly foolish stand against charitable giving (he even admits in his article that he’s going out on a limb, although he postures as if this were some sort of bravery on his part rather than panicked bumbling), even the most ideologically-blinkered fan of Leviathan should feel that thought-provoking 2×4 upside the head.

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Riding the Internet for Free

22. September 2005

Steve Trinward, one of the Smith2004-discuss mailing list regulars and an editor for Rational Review News Digest, complained recently about the difficulty RRND and other libertarian sites have in getting financial support from those who receive their regular e-mailings.

RRND is a compilation service, collecting links to newsites around the world of stories and commentary of interest to libertarians, at least according to the judgement of its editors. RRND offers its services for free, funding itself with a combination of small grants from libertarian foundations, a bit of banner advertising, and appeals for donations (RRND chief honcho Tom Knapp prefers the term “contributions”) from recipients of its e-mailings and visitors to its website.

RRND (along with affiliated sites and its parent site, The Rational Review) is a quality service which has great track record of consistency since it was launched, and yet it has barely scraped by financially, earning its editors less than minimum wage for the time they spend scanning web sites and compiling links, and other tasks supporting the site.

This quite naturally irks Steve Trinward, who notes that of the approximately 6,000 people who currently receive the e-mail version of the news digest, only about 500 have ever contributed cash to support their efforts.

Steve has compared this situation with the classic “free rider” problem of providing “public goods.” A “public good” is defined as a product or service that people can use without being required to pay for it, the typical example being city streets, which are impractical to meter useage of for the purpose of exacting tolls.

Libertarians typically argue in such cases that if a product or service is really needed or desirable, it will be provided in some fashion despite the fact that many will “ride for free”. Trinward argues that the case of RRND argues against this, that even libertarians won’t support a project that clearly supports their goals, if they are not forced to do so.

On an emotional level, I can relate to this. I have drawn several dozen editorial cartoons supporting libertarian ideas and positions on topics of the day, and have received mostly positive comments about them from all over the world, and frequently find them displayed on other web sites, and yet to date I’ve received an average of about $1.27 per cartoon in my electronic tip jar over the past four years. I can’t even buy a cup of coffee for that these days.

On an intellectual level, I know that I view a great deal of content on the Web, and if I were required to pay as much as a dollar per view, I would need to curtail my Web browsing considerably. I also know that RRND and sites like it do not pay the sites they link to, despite the fact that their compliation of links does generate a small amount of cash for them.

Such is the reality of the Internet. As I replied to Steve on the Smith2004 list:

All purveyors of Internet content, whether it’s original content or a
compilation service, face the problem that only between one and ten
percent (usually closer to one percent) of the people who will accept
the content for free, will chose to pay for it if a subscription is
required.

If this seems immoral, somehow, consider that people only have so much
time in the day and even to view free content they have to “spend” some
of their limited, non-renewable time doing so.

In the print media, daily newspapers and magazines charge subscriptions
but those subscriptions only barely cover the cost of distributing the
newspaper. The reporters, editors, photographers, artists, compositors
and printers are paid from money generated through advertising.
Newspapers and most magazines would not be able to function in anything
like their present form if they financed themselves primarily via
subscriptions. Neither would broadcast radio or television.

Similarly, many Internet content providers (e.g., World Net Daily)
charge no subscription but generate revenue via a combination of banner
advertising and merchandising (selling t-shirts etc with the company
logo or other appealing graphics). Salon has an interesting method, offering
a choice of subscribing or obtaining a “day pass” by
sitting through an animated advertisement before proceding to the
content. Some providers, such as LewRockwell.Com, depend almost entirely
on deep-pocketed donations; others, such as FMNN, rely on donations from
both deep pockets and appeals to content consumers. RRND relies mainly
on donations from content consumers, with some supplements from
advertising and merchandising, and subscriptions for “premium” content.

The Internet is a young medium, one which was originally designed only
to facilitate communications among universities and military
establishments, and which rather suddenly morphed into a communications
tool available to nearly everyone. We are still working out ways of
making this work commercially, and are still in what should be
considered an experimental phase.

Banner advertising has had its ups and downs since the Web went commercial. It was over-sold in the beginning, and as lower-than-expected results became known, advertisers cut back on banner ads, or sought more intrusive alternatives (such as pop-up windows), or demanded payments based on documented click-throughs-to-sales. But in recent years banner advertising has been making a modest come-back, as rates charged have stabilized, advertisers have become more clever in ad design, and the Web “audience” has continued growing.

Content providers of all types, political/ideological or otherwise, are devising new business models and discarding or refining them based on experience. And the ease of communication afforded by the Web itself is speeding up the learning process. Unfortunately, a frequent consequence of being a pioneer as that you wind up with a bunch of arrows sticking out of your back.

Given time, suitable business models for providing quality content on the Web will be developed. I’m not sure, however, that the financial problems of people who make a profession of promoting unpopular causes will ever be solved. That is a problem that has existed long before the Internet came along.

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Remembering an old dream

21. September 2005

I recently received an e-mail from an old aquaintance, from my days living in Texas, who asked “Have you ever done political cartooning for a daily newspaper? Have you ever wanted to?”

Oh, man.

This was my dream through most of my college years (the first go-around, anyway, 1976-79). For three years I was one of several editorial cartoonists for The Daily Texan, the student newspaper at the University of Texas at Austin. This was the time in which I developed my political-cartooning style (as opposed to my comic-book style, which is different), while I was also learning free-market and libertarian philosophy (not from my classes, but from libertarians I met outside classes).

During this time I met Berke Breathed (who later went on to create “Bloom County” and the Sundays-only strip “Opus”), who was a pretty darn good cartoonist, and his presence in the Texan’s stable of cartoonists challenged me to improve my craft.

I got to be pretty good at this stuff, enough that Berke stopped doing political cartoons and started focusing on a humorous comic strip (“The Academia Waltz”) which was a good move for him, I think, because his temperament lent itself more to the gentle humor of the funny pages than the biting satire of the editorial page.

But I became rather full of myself, and imagined that just by having a portfolio of great work, I could easily land a job on some metro daily newspaper, whose editors would be so awed by my work that they’d accept my libertarian commentary along with the great artwork.

Yeah, right. Uh-huh.

My friend Gene Berkman recommended that I apply for work at what was then called The Santa Ana Register, located in Orange County, California. At the beginning of my final semester I traveled with Gene and another friend to the Libertarian Party National Convention in Los Angeles that year (1979), and took a break from the festivities to visit Register editorial page editor Ken Grubbs.

Ken said he liked my work but had just recently hired another artist, (Scott Stantis) and didn’t have an opening for me. I should have taken this as an omen that my future was not assured, but I figured, aw, that’s just one newspaper.

But towards the end of my last semester I sent out about 30 query letters with samples of my work, targeting papers that had indicated they _did_ have openings, or that otherwise didn’t seem to have a cartoonist on staff at the time, and came up empty handed.

So I visited with some employed cartoonists, such as Ben Sargent at the Austin American-Statesman, and Bob Taylor at the late, lamented Dallas Times-Herald. And what they told me opened my eyes to the ugly fact that my stubborn insistence on promoting my own libertarian political line, rather than the mainstream left-of-centrism then dominant among newspaper editorial staffs on papers big enough to hire cartoonists, was a nigh-overwhelming handicap.

It didn’t matter how talented and skilled I was, or how bright I was, the fact of the matter is that editorial staff cartoonists are expected to hew closely to their newspaper’s political line. And it turned out the Register had been my best chance, but I’d already missed that boat.

I found myself a perplexingly unemployed college graduate. I’d been brought up to think that if I did well in school, I’d go to college, and if I did well in college, I’d get a job. Sort of more or less automatically.

Libertarian theory should have disabused me of that idea, but a whole lot of “good citizen” socialist drivel had been shoveled into my brain before I discovered libertarian theory, and it would take some hard knocks from the Universe before I could be free of it.

So I went back to see my college dean, who was sympathetic, and found me a job as a reporter for The Alvin Sun, a small-town daily in Brazoria County. Whose owners were at the time planning a campaign to un-elect their local congressman, who was vexing them. And that congressman turned out to be Dr. Ron Paul.

So I underwent yet another learning experience. But that’s a story for another day.

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CSS is from hell

19. September 2005

I’ve just spent two-and-a-half very frustrating hours adjusting the fonts in this thing, after someone complained the text was too small for him to read. The main problem is the template is based on CSS stylesheets, which are difficult as hell to puzzle through; and the secondary problem is that text displays larger in MicroSuck Internet Exploder than it does in better browsers such as Firefox.

So I found that in getting the fonts more readable in Firefox I broke the complicated display setting matrix for MIE. After another hour of tweaking I think I’ve got things more or less optimized for both browsers. MIE has a weird bug that jogs text five pixels to the left after a quotation block. I’ve got that sort of fixed although not completely.

My recommendation is to use Firefox, and if the text is too small, use your browser to bump up the text display size (go to menu View:Text Size…).

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Why you should never trust a comic-book publisher (unless his name is Frank Bieser)

17. September 2005

Some comics fans searching back-issue lists for their favorite Marvel Comics mutant, the cajun-talking, card-throwing Gambit, may stumble across copies of a somewhat older GAMBIT, which was written and drawn by yours truly, back in 1986 and 1987.

Back in 1985, actually, I conceived a superhero/space-opera concerning a scientist who is accidentally imbued with mind-over-matter powers (sort of like Gary Mitchell was in the second Star Trek pilot), and his friends who were a bunch of merry anarchists flying around the galaxy in this really enormous starship (sort of like Tom Paine Maru, but I didn’t read that book until 25 years later, I swear to Eris), battling an evil galactic empire (sort of like in Star Wars), which I called “The Autarky.”

During the first “black & white” boom I sought out and in 1985 found a publisher for the story, and two issues were published before that publisher went out of business. I never got the artwork back for the second issue (the printer held it because he didn’t get paid for the print job either).

I was induced by this publisher (some nimrod whose name escapes me now) to go and file a trademark on the name GAMBIT, which seemed silly at the time but had important implications later.

The following year I hooked up with Malibu Graphics, and after several months working on other projects I persuaded them to publish GAMBIT again under its “Eternity” imprint in 1987, and they agreed to alter the usual contract so that I could keep the trademark (usually Malibu filed and kept trademarks, creators filed and kept copyrights).

GAMBIT didn’t sell well enough for Malibu to keep publishing it after the first issue, but I did wind up with several dozen copies which I used to show editors and art directors my work.

In February 1988 I went to a comic-book convention in New Orleans, which was also attended by Tom DeFalco, then editor-in-chief at Marvel. We spoke briefly and I gave him copies of both the Eternity GAMBIT and the earlier versions.

Later that year I moved to southern California, and shortly afterward I got the job at game developer Interplay Productions, and I mostly forgot about GAMBIT. But in the spring of 1990 a friend of mine, it might have been Charles Weidman, told me that there was now a character named “Gambit” in the X-Men.

I went to our regular comic-book shop and searched the back-issues, and found in The Uncanny X-Men #266, that they did indeed introduce a mutant character named Gambit, under very suspicious circumstances: 1) The setting was in New Orleans, where I had met wtih DeFalco; 2) Ororo was the X-MEN member who met Gambit, and she had been altered to more closely resemble the female lead in my story (Gem Bel-Sonnec); 3) The “Gambit” character bore a fairly strong resemblance to my male lead character, Sean Jaxton — you don’t see this in the cover shot, but in several interior scenes Jaxton wears a calf-length coat very much like Marvel’s Gambit character.

First I called David Olbrich, publisher at Malibu, about the situation. He was very discouraging, telling me that Marvel’s lawyers were real bull-dogs, and as my book had not been published in three years, I would not get any satisfaction from them. So I found a lawyer anyway, and at first he seemed very optimistic about at least getting a settlement, but as weeks passed he seemed to lose interest. And when my first-born male child came along in October that year, I got way too busy to pursue the matter and let it drop.

A couple of years after that I learned that Malibu was being bought out by Marvel. I have always wondered whether Olbrich’s pessimistic remarks to me were perhaps tinged by consideration for early negotiations for that deal, but I haven’t had any contact with him since that time. Or with DeFalco, or with Chris Claremont, who is credited with writing that X-MEN issue.

I’d just say fuck ‘em all and forget about it, except that I do hope to bring that story back someday, and when I do I’ll have to come up with a new name!

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Moving

16. September 2005

Okay, all the old posts have been moved to the new site. This is where I’ll be posting from now on. I’ll leave the old account open for a while with a note at the top informing people that this Big Head Press site is where the action is, going forward.

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Reposting the cartoon

16. September 2005

Since I haven’t been able to bring my old posts to the new site yet, and The Libertarian Enterprise is temporarily down due to somebody forgetting to pay the web-hosting bill, I thought I should re-post my “Boston in 1774, New Orleans in 2005″ cartoon.

Boston in 1774, New Orleans in 2005 (400x400)

This is the 400×400 pixel version. If you want to grab the 600×600 pixel version, click here.

Either version is free for anyone to copy and use on their blogs and websites. I do request that if you use one of these, you include a link back to either this site or my online art gallery at http://www.scottbieser.com .

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Technical &@$%! difficulties

15. September 2005

Still trying to import the old Blogspot posts into this new system. No workee so far. And I’ve pretty much blown a work day screwing with this, which means another day before I can get a milestone check. Sometimes I miss being a salaryman.

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