Monday, December 27, 2010

Bookstore as comics' savior? Not so much

My visit to Barnes & Noble today ended up serving to be a cautionary tale to the comics people who may still think that the direct market is a pile of crap that can be discarded because we have bookstores that will sift out the endless volumes of spandex-clad super emo warfare and only serve up wonderful graphic novels that have been reviewed by the New York Times and NPR. Hey, I think I noticed it because I was one of those people. Maybe it was just hope that outside of NYC, Chicago, LA and a handful of other cities that people could still find good comics. You know, the ones you hear about but can't find unless you go to a convention and personally take part in the industry or purchase them online with shipping costing as much as (or more than) the book itself. And just so you know, I live within 30-40 miles of 3 decent size cities with various size B&N locations.

Out of an entire half aisle of comics you already have half that are manga. Very little "literary fare" is found here from what I see. That's going to sound like a diss but I do have manga I like. Not a ton, but enough to know that like the North American comics publishers I guess it gets lost in the shuffle. It does seem like the crap to good stuff ratio is even worse than the rest of the Graphic Novel section but that's probably just because there's so much more of it (and popular titles often take up rows of space for multiple volumes while literary, artsy manga tend to be single volumes).

You wouldn't find anything from the more literary manga pubs like Ponent Mon and from Vertical I only noticed "Peepo Choo" and "7 Billion Needles" though I might have missed a few since I'm not at all familiar with their output (since I never see them in stores) Not much else here for anyone who's not already a manga fan who knows what to buy. No sign of any of the D&Q reprints of Tatsumi's work either. Some good stuff could be found here- I grabbed "Not Simple" and "Solanin" which are both from Viz as I noticed when I went to write this. It also occured to me while writing this that comic shop manga sections always seem heavier on Tokypop (because that's most of what I've bought in the past) and lighter on Viz where bookstores seem to be the opposite.

So, then the other half of the half-aisle of GNs and manga is "North American comics" for lack of a better term- and it's a really bad term because that's also where the European stuff gets put (but I'm not huge on those semantic arguments so whatever). Minus of course a shelf at the top of gaming resources and books in the Dungeons and Dragons vein. I'd say that except for two shelves the North American comics section is pretty much all DC and Marvel. And not even their better books. Sadly, most of the DC and Marvel seems to be the usual trades stocked at a comics specialty retailer. You know, whatever new company-wide event after which "nothing will ever be the same" that gets done just about every year. You know, the book where the third-rate loser villain from the 70s get "reinvented" by some hack writer as a psychopathic killer and rapes and murder a third rate superheroine. In other words, "The Killing Joke" volume 549.

So, our of those final two shelves we get one that's mostly GI Joe and Transformers books from whatever horrible fake indy/wannabe DC/Marvel publisher puts those out now days. Boom, IDW, Crossgen, Now- I can't tell them apart half the time. They pop up every ten years with the same publishing plan and fade into the back issue bins unless they get lucky and get a movie made that doesn't completely suck. Oh yeah, that reminds me: throw in some Hellboy too. Yay, Dark Horse. But basically this is the "indy" section most comic shops obligingly stock for the 1-10% of their customer base that doesn't quit looking at their copy of the "Previews" catalog after the name "Zatanna" or whatever ends the DC section and begins the "crap 99% of comic shop owners don't care about" section. I assume Marvel still is too good to be in with the rest? God, I fucking hate the comics industry...

So, anyway. Now we have one shelf, maybe another half for the odd-sized giant books, of an odd assortment of books most comics fans would recognize as "indy" comics in this bookstore. It's a catch all. You have R. Crumb's newest, "The Book of Genesis," and a fluke remainder copy of something earlier. You have several copies of Julie Wertz, a book or two from a New Yorker cartoonist trying their hand at the"graphic novel thing." However, I didn't see ONE D&Q book. ZERO from either Hernandez Brother. No Seth. No Chris Ware except for a paperback copy of the fat Jimmy Corrigan. No Acme Novelty Library volumes. No James Sturm. No Dungeon. No David B. No Eddie Campbell. No Craig Thompson. No Gary Panter. No Jason.

However, the comic strip reprint section, outside of Zits and a handful of other strip collections, is now mostly from indy comics publishers. Obviously, the Peanuts reprints really changed the dynamic there. It's awesome to see Seth's design on the John Stanley albums (that's what they look like to me) on a bookshelf. There's Tove Jansson books too. Hooraay for good comics!

I guess the success of the reprint books just made it even clearer to me: It makes me wonder if this push away from floppies and into hardcovers aimed at bookstores from companies like Fantagraphics and D&Q is really working any better than the old way? Not that they had a choice. But I'm just sayin'...

Now, I'm sure maybe they've ordered copies of L&R or Acme that have sold out. I'm sure they've had books from all the missing authors I mentioned and what we're seeing is a lot of stuff that's been hanging around because it's mostly crap that won't sell. Maybe they sell a ton of whatever indy comics GN is new and hot. But then wouldn't they have put them in one of their 3 or more aisles of clearance stuff? Speaking of which, why do you almost never see comics there? I do see comics at Bargain Books, a chain selling remaindered stuff at deep discounts, but that's mostly stuff that obviously got very much over ordered based on hype or some glaring order form error where 2 copies where made into 200 or something.

Maybe I'm frustrated knowing that I can't sell copies of my own comics while the people getting paid to find sales at "big" companies might not be doing much better. But really I'm just frustrated that I can't ever flip through good comics in person and decide to purchase them on my own. I have to investigate and special order like it's an obscene fetish only available through mail order or if I fly to a big city and attend a special meeting of my fellow freaks. I might as well be a furry.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Status Update (or: Selling Comics at Reptile Shows)

Reconnected with my Red Flag Publishing partner-in-crimes against humility, James T. Hitchcock aka Biff Humble aka OB1 Shinobi. He's R.F.P.'s Editor in C.H.I.E.F. (Correctly Hustling Information, Education and Funnies). Jim also owns an exotic pet store and spends his weekends schlupping newts, hamsters and other critters and the accessories to keep them alive across the midwest. He wanted some copies of the new issue of Red Flags because I kept telling him to put up a display to test how the reptile show audience might respond to an indy horror comic. Heck, I wanted to test how ANY comic might fare outside of a comic book-only venue, where there've been stuck since news stand distribution, head shops and indy record stores died. It just so happens that we self-published our particular comic with all its limitations. It's an imperfect study which maybe will say more about the quality of our book or our salesmanship than the venue and audience.

I never understood why comics couldn't be made that appeal to other audiences outside the direct market and then marketed to them in other venues besides direct market comic books stores in strip malls behind windows covered with Magic the Gathering ads (and 10-20 bohemian shops one the coasts and a couple major Midwest cities that sell 90% of indy comics). But anyone who tries it is basically in for a one man battle against the indifference and ignorance of the world toward comics. But now more than ever it seems both possible (due to manga, webcomics, the recent GN boom and even popular superhero movies) and necessary (due to not only the Great Recession but also to the fragmenting of the market with DM shops doubling down on the Big 2 and "indy" comics now becoming slight departures from the Big 2 such as IDW and Boom Studios as opposed to Fantagraphics and Drawn & Quarterly).

I don't know that I know yet much of anything but I did make some initial observations after attending half of one reptile show. We only sold and gave away a handful of books with a hastily made sign letting the people shopping for iguanas know about our self-published horror anthologies.

First, I couldn't help but notice the similarities and differences between a comic convention audience and reptile show attendees. Both are obviously different elements within a wide variety of "nerd culture" that would include video games, sci fi, horror movies, etc. I also didn't realize how much of the audience at a reptile show is a repeat crowd. I guess I forgot these things tend to be monthly affairs, more like a flea market than a convention. I wonder if the repeat nature of the business and the familiarity that ensues will help sales. Jim seems to have a large customer base and made a lot of contacts here. I guess we might get the same thing if I can ever afford to hit some comic conventions.

Here's some art as a thanks for listening to my musing...

Monday, November 01, 2010

All thumbs

I never seem to scan any of my art and when I do I'm not even sure I pick the right stuff. But here's what I'm working on lately...

This is some rough art for a new comic I'm working on. I've been doing pencils on some layout paper from where I work. It's a small print shop which still does some paste-up (actually, to my embarrassment/horror they still do a lot of it)! They have these awesome 11x17 pages with blue line boxes for every inch and pica. I draw on the back and can just see hints of the blue lines through the paper so I can better eyeball my straight lines and try to eliminate using a straight edge. One of the pages has the main lines already inked.

On this project my goal is to just let my art be ugly and gritty- it fits the ugly nature of the story which really tries to get at the core of the decay of morality in our society (and I don't mean that in the conservative God and gays sense but in the liberals- look how the rich are fucking us all- sense). Our model is Poe's "The Masque of the Red Death." One of my problems as an artist is that I try to polish the turd and draw too "clean." I get tight and attempt to draw too much like Charles Burns or Dan Clowes instead of Paul Pope or Eddie Campbell- guys who embrace their stray marks and construction lines. I need to try to draw like Gilbert Hernandez instead of Jaime Hernandez.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Buy this book while you can!

The second drop from Red Flag Publishing is now being hustled in pamphlet style. Available now for a limited time exclusively at the top secret and very exclusive comics buying club known as IndyPlanet

Red Flags vol. 2 brings with it three complete and shocking tales told in an anthology of traditional comic book genres- funny animal, crime and zombies. Sure to send waves of pleasure down your spine as you witness it's forbidden contents! History, propaganda and censorship, identity and reality, religion and ignorance, perversion and faith- NOTHING is off limits! Contents may be shocking and disturbing unless you are "hip to what's up on the scene."

New takes on horror comics: RED FLAGS. Consider this your last warning!

$3.99 • 32 pages • Heavy stock • 100% satisfaction assured • No refunds 
WARNING: Possession of this book may be a crime in some states,
municipalities or foreign countries (consult your legal counsel)

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Beyond Thunderdome

A friend asked me for some art for his pool league team which is called "Beyond Thunderdome" and wanted a picture of Mad Max in a bar fight doing great injury. Not sure how well it will show on a one color t-shirt but I obliged....

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Words of wisdom

"I was thinking, one of the things that can drag you down as an artist is thinking it should get easy eventually. You think I'd know this but I always suprize (sic) myself at how it is always hard work."

– Brandon Graham

Words of wisdom

"I think it is about obsession. I really embrace my obsessions. I think it's important. The thing that won't go out of your mind, that's what you should make art about. It doesn't even have to make sense."

– Paul Pope (in a discussion with Dash Shaw & moderated by Robin McConnell)

Thursday, June 10, 2010

A new look

If you're visiting you may see some weirdness as I tired of the old look and am trying out some new ideas.

Something from my sketchbook I might not have ever posted...

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Award winner

The Community Papers of Michigan just honored one of my designs at their annual awards banquet. Receiving top honors in its class was this October 8, 2009 front page to the Battle Creek Shopper News...
Photo by Doug Allen of artist Joe Taken

Monday, June 07, 2010

CD design

Lately I've been doing some work for Hydro-Phonic Records. The sludge and doom metal label just started up but have already put out some amazing looking vinyl works of art. Just one example...

Most of the albums so far have been re-issues. So on my end it's mostly been grunt work and consulting as bands already have art they want to use and well-established logos, but hopefully soon I'll get a chance to do more drawing and design work as the label moves into more first releases, merch and live shows. With such beautiful records and more coming quickly I've no doubt that more people will start paying attention to what Hydro-Phonic Records is doing and I'll get increased chances to create cool images and help some bands get noticed.

Here's something I worked up sort of on spec to warm up and show off what I could do...

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

R.I.P. Frank Frazetta

It's almost too hard to pick just one image to sum up the power of Frank Frazetta, and yet they all do. Particularly what I liked about Frazetta's work was once I really started looking at it, beyond just the cool bad ass imagery that caught my eye as a youth, was how well he used color, composition and mood. Most fantasy artists never progress beyond the desire just to paint cool things. Frazetta really used warm and cool colors to create a dynamic composition, depth and a focal point that your eye keeps landing on every time you looks at the painting. Just look at that image and tell me your eye can keep from stopping on the man riding the flying creature. The subdued and cool greens and pale ochre-ish yellows on the man and the lizard are surrounded by an intense abstract lava flow of bright red, itself surrounded by a pitch black border that contains the image. Like any good artist, the more you look at a Frazetta image the more you can keep looking...

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Gig poster

Hydro-Phonic Records is putting on a FREE show May 14 at Mulligan's Pub in Grand Rapids, MI. Line-up includes Black Pyramid, Let the Night Roar, Balboa (MI), Bullpig and Mountain Goat. I did the poster art for it...

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Albino Warrior

Wanting to do a drawing with a '70s fantasy vibe, I called this piece Albino Warrior when I scanned it in, thinking I'd keep his skin white. I ended up going with a purple and yellow color scheme since I've been trying to keep a restricted palette and went with keeping his pants and the glow of the sword white. Somehow the pants ended up looking very Disco so it ended up looking pretty '70s even if not n the way I'd originally imagined.


Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Digital painting

 I just got done doing an illustration job. It's for a book cover...

This was digitally painted (on top of a watercolor painting) and I wasn't entirely happy with the end result. In the early stages I was really psyched about how it was turning out and thought I'd end up with something solid to add to my portfolio. What began as a mostly watercolor painting with some digital effects turned into an almost all digital piece as the client made more and more requests for changes. Because the digital effects made the painting look quite realistic in places and it seemed the customer liked that, it seemed every requested change was to slowly remove the more painterly areas.

Pretty soon, I ended up with something a lot more "airbrushy" than I had wanted in the beginning, though it also opened my eyes to what I could do with the techniques I had developed in working on the piece. But it also made me like the piece less as the closer it came to "realism" the more obvious the flaws in my initial drawing were. It was also then I realized I liked digital painting but I couldn't get the effects I see in other illustrators' work. What I had hoped would end up as a solid portfolio piece now became something wanting to be more and demanding I do more work in the style before producing satisfactory results.

It helped that I've been listening to the great and inspiring  Big Illustration Party Time podcast which lead me to Chris Oatley's podcast and site. At his site Chris Oatley has a set of Photoshop brush tool pre-sets. I'd downloaded a million brushes in the past but never found someone offering their list of presents so I downloaded them and found a great selection of varying brushes that produce a wide range of effects. I've also done some due diligence and started to do a better job of figuring out the brush settings in the hope that I will finally be able to buy at least a small, used Wacom tablet with the profits made from this past job.

Because I had some new toys to play with, I figured I'd hunt up an old sketch I'd been wanting to use as a basis for a painting and try out all the new brushes. I'm trying to use limited colors and keep a painterly feel. I'm not quite finished with it but thought it looked good enough at this early stage to share.

Monday, January 11, 2010


I haven't posted anything for a while so I figured I'd try to post some things I'd missed. This is a sign done for a local daycare. Part of my idea in doing this was to create some iconic mascot type characters which the company now uses on shirts and other items.