Another one joins the train

27. October 2005

Jackie Estrada, comics-convention empressaria and wife of cartoonist Batton Lash, announced recently that her husband’s on-going comic-book series Supernatural Law is making the leap from the printed page to the World Wide Web, making Batton the third established artist (that I know of) to make this move.

(The other two are Carla Speed McNeil (Finder) and Phil Foglio (Girl Genius). I’ll talk a bit more about them in a future posting.)

Batton and Jackie share two qualities which makes them dear to our hearts — a love of the comics medium and a pro-liberty political sensibility strongly influenced by Ayn Rand. Jackie was one of the prime movers of the San Diego Comic-Con, which has grown into the world’s biggest and bestest comic-book convention. Batton is a commercial artist from New York now working in San Diego who spends a significant chunk of studio time drawing his qwirky comic-book. They are both wonderful, warm, charming people.

(And it just tickles me pink that they both said they enjoyed The Probability Broach: The Graphic Novel.)

Supernatural Law (Exhibit “A” Press) concerns the adventures of a New York law firm, Wolff & Byrd, which specializes in providing legal services for “things that go bump in the night” — everyone and thing from vampires and warewolves to zombies, witches, ghosts, goblins, demons, and, in one story, a mobster whose brutish personality caused him to metamorphosize into a literal gorilla.

Some SL stories are short-form, others comprise story arcs filling almost 200 pages. They are by turns funny, sad, droll, wistful, and downright silly. And occasionally, a source of some world-class puns. By and large I would not call them “great comics literature” (in the sense that I think Finder is — even though the “Son of a Witch” story arc has a poignancy which brings it close) but they are always an enjoyable read. If you find a copy, buy it, you won’t be disappointed. You can also find most of the trade-paperback collections on Amazon.com.

Batton does not write explicitly political stories, but there is definitely a libertarian undercurrent to them. Authority figures are consistently portrayed as ordinary human beings with human foibles; an ethic of personal responsibility for one’s actions is nearly always advanced; and — here’s what I really like — the protagonists, attorneys Alanna Wolff and Jeff Byrd, are no altruists. While they usually pick deserving clients and thereby serve justice, they are in business to make money, they collect their fees, and make no apologies for it.

This is quite a departure from the usual “money is the root of evil” ethic infusing nearly all other comics stories. There is no shame in doing well by doing good, so long as you are doing good, and I find this attitude in Batton’s stories refreshing.

There is one other difference to Supernatural Law, compared with the other series that are moving to the Web — Estrada and Lash say they will continue to serialize their stories in printed pamphlets, as they have been doing for years, and then collect them into trade paperbacks. Unlike Finder, Girl Genius, and Big Head Press’s offerings to come, Web-publishing for Exhibit “A” Press is not a replacement for the hoary old 32-page pamphlet format, but an addition.

I suppose this must make sense for Estrada and Lash. They have built an established following which, they figure, want to keep buying 3-dollar funny-books. More power to ‘em, but I’m predicting that within a year or two they’ll reconsider, or perhaps move their printed serializations to an on-demand-printing outfit such as Lulu.

As it is I like to buy the trade-paperbacks, which are reasonably priced and danged difficult to put down.

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Incremental progress

27. October 2005

Well, things are moving, by fits and starts, in getting BigHeadPress.Com v.2 put together. We now have, pretty much, a whole new graphic design for the main page, which will set the theme for the other pages. But of course, nobody except ourselves will get to see it before the unveiling.

Frank has been getting himself right with CSS, and one weird side effect is that it makes him write like Stan Lee (check out his latest blog entry to see what I mean). Well, if he’s gonna be next-wave comics empressario, Stan the Man is not a bad role-model. I think.

Meanwhile, I’ve been cranking out pages for the Bastiat project, and hanging out at The ENGINE, a way cool forum for comics people who are into everything except super-long-john characters. It has more than 3200 members now, even though most of the forums can only be posted on by bona-fide comics creators (I managed to get my pass after agreeing to a leather-domination session with forum owner Warren Ellis — kinky bastard.)

I’ve also been hammering out agreements for a couple of new projects with a fairly-big-name comics writer, who I can’t name yet because we don’t have contracts signed, dammit. But we will soon, and know ye that when our new web-comics site launches, Roswell, Texas will be joined by at least one and most likely two other stories written by afore-not-named writer and two hot new artists.

Frank and I are both excited to be working with we-can’t-name-this-guy-yet, because he was an important part of the 80′s independent comics boom, and wrote two of our favorite graphic adventure stories from those days. (So now you know it’s not Dave Sim, but that’s all the hint I’ll be dropping until the next Big Announcement.)

Stay Tuned.

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Bastiat

22. October 2005

Geez, nearly a whole week gone by and I haven’t posted. Dang.

Well, I have been busy. Ex-wife is in town to visit our son for his 15th birthday. She’s a well-behaved house-guest but her presence still interrupts my schedule and focus.

I’ve also been busy trying to complete my current “educomic” project so I can get on with the Roswell, Texas project I announced a week ago.

That project concerns a little-known French classical-liberal economist named Frédéric Bastiat, who lived from 1801 to 1850. He was advocating free trade and laissez-faire in France, at about the same time Cobden and Bright were advocating the same in England. The fact that C&B were more successful in their efforts had more to do with Britain’s leaping ahead of France, in terms of material prosperity, than the fact that Britain managed to destroy the imperial fleets of France and Spain in 1805.

Bastiat spent decades developing his philosophy but only wrote extensively about it in the last few years of his life, which was cut short by tubercolosis. He was elected to the French National Assembly in 1848 and 1849, but his greatest work was in his essays and articles which were later collected into books, and in two other works which were originally written as books: Economic Harmonies, and The Law.

I’m happy to be able to do this project, which was commissioned by a Los Angeles libertarian who thinks Bastiat needs more recognition. But it’s been a difficult project for me, as I’ve had a hard time finding the visual references I’d like to have, and drawing a bunch of 19th Century Frenchmen just isn’t that thrilling for me.

But on the bright side, my client sees the value of distributing this work on the Web, and in a few weeks we should be posting pages. When we have the site up and running I’ll announce it here.

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The Comic-book market

16. October 2005

I want to stress here that what I’m about to say is entirely my own opinion and not necessarily the opinion of Big Head Press — although some of it might be.

Lately I’ve been reading a series of essays by comics writer and self-described “mad Brit” Warren Ellis, which were published on the ComicBook Resources website, mostly during 1999-2000. They are archived here, under the title “Come In Alone.”

Although sometimes the topics vary, a continuing theme of these essays is a lamentation that the comic-book industry’s dominance by the “super-hero” genre is having a crippling effect on the medium, and is dooming the industry to a slow death.

Ellis admits that to some extent he has been “part of the problem.” He had spent most of the 1990s working for DC and Marvel, cranking out corporate-owned Captain Underpants yarns, and was quite good at it. But as he explained in his CIA essays, it was all part of a longer-term plan at subversion. He wanted to develop a fan-following which he would carry with him over into his own creator-owned, action-adventure stories which were not about superheroes.

It seems to have worked, to some extent. Ellis co-created a sci-fi series called TRANSMETROPOLITAN, published by Vertigo, a division of DC comics dedicated to “creator-owned” comics and graphic novels. Also the miniseries Ministry of Space, published by Image Comics, and a number of horror series for Avatar. He’s also continuing to write horror-tinged sci-fi for DC’s Wildstorm imprint, but I dont’ know whether those are creator- or corporate-owned. His latest new project is Fell, published by Image, which is a horror/murder mystery story.

Ellis is, by and large, sticking to the principles deliniated in his CIA series, and particularly in one essay titled “The Old Bastard’s Manifesto”: The optimal form of “comics” is the graphic novel, whether serialized or all in one package — a story with a beginning, middle, and end; smart comics creators retain the copyrights to their work; and the superhero genre is a dead end.

With his CIA series, Ellis attempted to start a movement of comics creators, and discerning fans, away from superhero work and towards other genres. By and large, that movement has had very little success. Writers and artists still flock to the Big Two publishers with their corporate-owned spandex-fantasy characters, mainly for the quick money — the going rate for scripts in this field is $50-75 per page, and artists get $225-275 per page (pencils and inks). Those independent publishers that do pay in advance (rather than only as royalties after a work is sold) mostly can’t even pony up half that much.

And comics buyers in the direct market are sticking with the “tried and true as well.” Despite the fact that there are now close to three dozen “independent” publishers of quality comics, the Big Two account for 85 percent of the comics and trade-paperbacks sold through that market.

I don’t know how the numbers stack up for trade paperbacks sold through Barnes & Noble or Amazon.com. I do know that TokyoPop, which until very recently has been exclusivley a purveyor of Japanes comics translated into English, is dominating the book-trade market for graphic stories. TokyoPop is also sells an unknown number of books through video stores, in conjunction with English-translated Japanime tapes and DVDs.

But the direct-sales market seems locked into the superhero genre — and a core of about 100,000 fans who patronize about 1,800 stores (and fewer of those every year). Many stores are trying hard to attract new customers, upgrading their furnishings, providing more spacious layouts, training their employees better, and including role-playing games and accessories to attract more young people and their dollars.

A few of them also try to emphasize independent, non-superhero work. But it’s an uphill struggle, as comic-book stores are a “destination place,” not something people usually walk into on impulse. And when people occasionally do, they usually see a wall of superhero junk, and a half-dozen overweight, under-hygenic 40-somethings picking up dozens of three-dollar pamphlets that will likely be stashed unread in some collection, never to leave their mylar bags.

I think this whole system is doomed, frankly, despite efforts by Ellis and some other creators to save it. The Big Two won’t risk alienating their market, and don’t seem to know how to expand into other genres; current comics readers, for the most part, aren’t interested in much else; Diamond Comics Distributors, which owns 90 percent of the “direct sales” distribution market, is getting increasingly unfriendly towards independent publishers; the 32-page comics pamphlet format is becoming increasingly uneconomical; and potential new readers are not being attracted to comics boutiques.

I will insist, however, that the impending doom of the direct-sales market does not spell doom for the comics medium. The medium is going through a transformation, which is going to be painful for many involved. I think the future will see the demise of open-ended monthly series, in favor of graphic storeis with beginnings and endings; serialization will take two forms, one in the form of “Web comics” and the other in the form of comics anthologies (such as Shonen Jump) sold in magazine form on newsstands.

The trade-paperback format will continue to grow by fits and starts, and it’s anyone’s guess who the big players will be in 10 years. And those tpbs and magazine-anthologies will be sold in brick-and-mortar bookstores, through online mega-retailers like Amazon.com, to some extent through video stores and other retail outlets with which comics can find some affinity, and directly from publishers on the Web.

And there will be a wider array of genres: superhero books will still be around, but they’ll share space with horror, sci-fi, romance, western, contemporary drama, historical drama, childrens’, and even some non-fiction.

Just like “real” books.

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Announcing Roswell, Texas

15. October 2005

Imagine a world in which Texas never joined the United States, NAZI Germany conquered England but was held in check by a nuclear-armed Irish Republican Army, the Catholic Church has moved its headquarters to Brownsville, Texas, and Mexico is ruled by a neo-Aztec emperor in partnership with French colonial bureaucrats-in-exile.

In this Texas-that-might-have-been, residents are required to have permits not to carry firearms. The Federated States of Texas includes most of what we know as New Mexico and Colorado, as well as Louisiana, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Kansas, parts of Wyoming, Nebraska, and Missouri. Not to mention Alaska, Cuba, Venezuela, most of Central America, and the Phillippines. Its currency is based on petroleum, and its limited government is financed entirely by a monopoly on garbage collection.

And in 1947, Texican President Charles A. Lindbergh was faced with a most amazing, and potentially world-changing, situation — reports of a flying saucer crash in far west Texas, near the town of Roswell.

Big Head Press announces plans to publish the first all-new novel-length story in nearly five years by award-winning sci-fi author L. Neil Smith, to be titled Roswell, Texas. Co-written by Wall Street Journal and National Review cartoonist “Baloo” (in his other identity as Rex F. May), and illustrated by Scott Bieser, the story concerns what happens when a special team of Texas Rangers races an array of spies, troops, and operatives of neighboring nations to the UFO crash site, and discover a truth even stranger than any of them could have imagined.

“As a graphic novel, Roswell, Texas will mark another first for Big Head Press: it will be the first BHP project serialized on the World Wide Web, with a printed version possibly to follow as market conditions permit,” said publisher Frank W. Bieser.

“Current plans call for the first chapter to be uploaded to a new, completely revamped BigHeadPress.com site around February 1, 2006,” said Scott Bieser, who in addition to being the story’s illustrator is also Director for Big Head Press. Access to the site will be free, at least for a limited time, and will be supported financially by banner advertising and merchandising, he explained.

Roswell, Texas will be illustrated in full color, and when completed “in late 2007 or so” will consist of 576 computer-monitor-formatted “pages,” he added.

Big Head Press, founded in 2003, is a publisher of graphic novels, including A Drug War Carol and The Probability Broach: The Graphic Novel.

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As the Worm Turns

13. October 2005

Looking at the reaction of conservative pundits (from George Will to Calvin Thomas) to King George’s nomiation of lawyer Harriet Miers to the position of Supreme Court Justice, I’m seeing signs that perhaps finally, the rational wing of the Republican “base” is waking up to the reality behind the mirage they’ve been supporting for five years.

And perhaps also a few of the smarter Evangelical Christians as well, although not their leadership, as seen by Pat Robertson’s threat-laced endorsement of Miers. He warned Senate Republicans they’d better not vote against her confirmation “if they want to stay in office.”

The “neo-conservative” (actually, ex-Trotskyite) wing of course will support the confirmation, because all they care about is taking over the world, and Bush is their vehicle. If Miers turns out to be a closet pro-choicer on abortion it’s no skin off their noses.

But Will, Thomas and other “mainstream” and “paleo-” conservatives are unhappy with the nomination of Miers, who has no judicial record, and whose stated “strength” is her intense personal loyalty and friendship with Bush. This has led Thomas to scold his party’s leader for surrounding himself with “yes-men” and “loyalists” who will tell their boss whatever they think will please him, rather than what he needs to hear. It has also engendered a broader discussion among conservatives of “cronyism” in the Administration, talk that was once only heard from libertarians and some Democrats.

(Subsequently, the Busheviks have taken a different tack, emphasizing Miers’ membership in a “conservative” church, although I didn’t know the Episcopal Church of the Incarnation was particularly conservative, at least by Dallas standards. But then, the use of Miers’ religion as a positive qualification in the press opens her up to the criticism of religious bias during the nomination hearings.)

Will conservatives of the Goldwater and Reagan stripe finally realize that this “compassionate conservative” they’ve been defending, apologizing and voting for since 2000 really isn’t a “conservative” in any meaningful sense of the term? That Bush has no more real respect for the Constitution or the principles of limited government than does either of the Clintons?

I hope so, as even though Bush is now a “lame duck,” conservative Republicans in Congress can finally put the brakes on our accelerating slide into national bankruptcy and police-statism.

But maybe this is wishful thinking. Fear of Democrats’ return to power, if this Commander-in-Chief falters, seems to have paralysed conservatives’ brains. Apparently Frank Herbert was right when he wrote “fear is the mind-killer.”

Have conservatives become brain-dead, or have they just been entranced, and can they be awakened? The nomination hearings for Miers, of all things, could be the critical juncture at which conservatives either prove themselves fit to govern, or not.

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Busy Bieser

12. October 2005

It’s been way too long since my last post, but I’ve been busy with behind-the-scenes stuff that is leading up to a Big Announcement about doings wtih Big Head Press that will be released later this week — so watch this space.

This past weekend brought us our first snowfall since we moved to Wyoming. The locals tell me this is unseasonably early for a snow, although not completely unheard-of. Autumns around here are usually pretty dry, with most snows coming after New Year’s Day.

But my sons enjoyed it. After I made a quick dash to K-Mart to get them some gloves, they enjoyed a snowball fight, then built a snow-man that’s supposed to look like me:

The Bieser Boys' snowman

The leaves on the chin are supposed to be my beard.

Anyway, it was a mellow couple of days for us, except that we had to bring the dogs inside all day. Our cat “Ghosty” did not like this, but the layout of our quad-level house has allowed us to keep the dogs restricted to about one-third of the inside space whereas the cat gets the better 2/3rds.

Also, for some reason we lost our telephone-voice service, although not the DSL Internet connection. I’m still trying to figure that one out.

But now the snow is almost all melted away, the dogs will spend most of tomorrow outside, and we have our voice-phone back so the telemarketers can waste our time again.

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Please buy my stuff

7. October 2005

I have done some updating to my CafePress account. I now have a whole section full of articles containing my popular “Bostin in 1774, New Orleans in 2005″ cartoon (although I call the section “Any Questions?”). I have also added a few more items containing my classic “Sept. 11″ cartoon.

And as always, if you want to see a particular graphic of mine (that’s not copyrighted by a former employer) on a particular CafePress item, please let me know and I’ll be happy to add it for you.

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Rewriting History (just a bit)

5. October 2005

When I noticed that one of my favorite satellite-TV channels, The Science Channel, was running “Black Sky: Winning the X-Prize” I eagerly sat down to watch.

This was the story of Space Ship One, its visionary creative team leader Burt Rutan, visionary entrepreneur Paul Allen, and the engineers and pilots who developed the first privately-owned and -funded spacecraft. It was a great story, demonstrating human determination and creativity, along with some hair-raising drama. But something important got left out.

The Ansari X-Prize was a contest put together by a consortium of private foundations which offered $10 million to the first person or team which could launch a craft carrying three humans (or the equivalent payload) up to the edge of space, which is reckoned as being 100 kilometers (or about 62 miles, or 328,000 feet), return safely, then launch again within two weeks using at least 80 percent of the same craft.

About a half dozen start-up companies attempted to compete for this prize, but by 2003 Burt Rutan and Paul Allen’s company, Scaled Composites, were clearly the most likely to succeed. Rutan had a knack for “thinking outside the box” and put together a talented team which created the hybrid craft, White Knight/SpaceShip One, which launched into space X-15 style (using a fixed-wing aircraft to carry the spacecraft up to about 40,000 feet, then dropping the spacecraft which continued upward under its own rocket power).

SpaceShip One actually flew three times. The first flight, on June 21, 2004, had some problems — the ship didn’t follow the planned flight track and only barely made it above the 62-mile level, not a sufficient margin for measuring error. So even through this event went into the records as the first “commercial” flight into outer space, it would not qualify for the X-Prize because it would not be relaunched again in two weeks. The team spent a few months tweaking the bird, and the official X-Prize flights took place in late September and early October of 2004.

As I watched the Science Channel presentation, I eagerly looked for a glimpse of something I knew had happened at the end of the first flight — pilot Mike Mellville making a victory run past the cheering crowd of onlookers, standing atop SpaceShip One carrying a sign that read “SpaceShip One, Government Zero.”

But that bit wasn’t shown in this presentation.

The reason I know it happened, was because my friend and fellow libertarian hooligan, Ernie Hancock, was among that cheering crowd, and gave that sign to Rutan, who handed it to Mellville to display on his victory taxi back to the hangar. Ernie even sent a photo of Mellville carrying the sign:

SpaceShipOne

Rutan and Allen loved that sign. According to Ernie, Rutan invited him and his group into the hangar to share a victory dinner with the Scaled Composites team. A great time was had by all, and all that.

(Ernie had called me the day before going out to Mohave to watch the flight, asking me to join him and his friends. I begged off, and now I’ll spend the rest of my life regretting that.)

But none of this was related on the television program. Instead, we saw the pilot of the third flight holding up an American flag on the victory taxi-run, and the team getting a congratulatory phone call from Emperor Smirk.

And so a victory for private enterprise was converted into a victory for The United States.

Well, maybe this was part of the price that was paid for letting Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic have the high-tech pass through U.S. export controls so that commercial space-flights can become a reality within just a few years. I doubt I’ll have the $200,000 to spend on the first flights in 2008, but I can still hope that the costs will drop and I’ll be wealthy enough to live one of my childhood dreams before I shuffle off this mortal coil.

Thanks to Rutan, Allen, the Ansari Family and the other X-Prize donors, and of course Sir Richard. May the Great Bird of the Galaxy make her home on your planets.

And fuck the government.

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A note about River

4. October 2005

I seem to be the only one in my circle — which mostly consists of posters to the “Smith2004-Discuss” Yahoo e-mail list — who considers River Tam a desirable female.

Certainly all the women aboard Serenity are beautiful, in various ways. I wouldn’t kick any of them out of bed for eating crackers, as the saying goes. But most guys opining on the subject are put off by River’s trauma-induced insanity. Some don’t care for petite women.

I would agree that when River is writhing in mental anguish, she does not appeal. But in practically every case when the chips are down, a different River emerges — one who is confident, focused, and hyper-capable.

Besides, with her petite form, large eyes and high, round forehead, Summer Glau reminds me very much of an 18-year-old girl I fell in love with during my second year of college. Amy wasn’t exactly like River, but then she hadn’t been tortured and maimed by Alliance mengeles.

Yet she had River’s intelligence, her focus, her passion, and a very similar overall look, which caused me to fall head-over-heels in love, way back then. I had never felt that way about a woman before, and pretty much haven’t since, not exactly. Our romantic relationship only lasted a couple of months, and was sadly one-sided. We remained friends for a few years afterwards, then parted ways after I graduated from college.

It took me years to “get over” Amy, but I will never forget her. And now I have River Tam to remember as well.

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