Sunday, September 27, 2009

Small Press Expo

So Saturday I spent part of the day at the Small Press Expo in Bethesda, Maryland.

I had all the best of intentions getting over there really early. Metro had other ideas. Everyone was on the Orange Line heading into town for the National Book Festival. Then I went in the opposite direction I needed on the Red Line. That was just the way my day was going.

The North Bethesda Marriott & Convention Center was very easy to find from the Metro. I actually followed a crew with their set of boxes and anime messenger bags. I suspected I was in the right place. Registration line was nearly non-existent an hour after they opened, the pluses of going to a smaller con.

One thing I was determined to do when I arrived was to find the Fanfare/Ponent Mon table. For those outside the manga reading sphere, they're a smaller publisher that prints "quieter" and arty manga in gorgeous editions. They've published a lot of Jiro Taniguchi, including "Walking Man", "A Distant Neighborhood", "Summit of the Gods" and "Quest for the Missing Girl". They've also published Hideo Azuma's autobiographical "Disappearance Diary". Having found said table, I had to decide what I wanted, a rather tough and daunting decision. I went with "Walking Man" and the two volumes of "Distant Neighborhood". Alas I couldn't afford the entire selection, as tempting as it was.

After my first tour through the exhibitor hall, I also managed to lose my badge/lanyard. I'm still not sure if it fell off in the dealers' room and what exactly. Thankfully the registration people took pity on me. It wasn't like it was a horribly expensive con, but still was a mite embarrassing.

I only attended one panel while I was there, the "Comic Strips: Online and in Print" panel, which featured R. Stevens, Kate Beaton, Erika Moen and Julia Wertz. They talked about the challenges of creating webcomics and then publishing them in print formats, any adjustments they made and how the audiences are different. They also addressed technological issues with RGB/CMYK conversions. They addressed the more basic issues of merchandising and "why publish it in hard format at all?" Moen & Stevens provided the most useful information in the panel, both technical and just outright enthusiasm. Moen published hers as a book because she loved books, not necessarily because her audience demanded it. She had compiled a collection over a three year period, so while she left most of her line art intact, she had gone in and corrected the colors and Photoshop errors. When discussing pirating issues, Stevens admitted one way he got around it was merchandising pixel socks, certainly a unique item in the Exhibitor Hall. And they were cute socks, I have to say. Kate Beaton was utterly mobbed at her table.

By going around the con with other people, I stopped at tables I wouldn't ordinarily notice. The "Let's Be Friends Again" guys had some hysterically funny (and very politically incorrect at times) cartoons. I might not have looked at Dresden Codak if a friend wasn't such a fan. I'd heard about Owly for Free Comic Book Day, but nothing prepared me for the cute little baby hats or Owly sketches. Super Spy's Matt Kindt sat at Top Shelf's table doing commissions in water colors, putting the finishing touches on a gorgeous Marvelman/Miracleman commission.

On my last tour of the exhibitors hall, I acquired the noirish "You Have Killed Me" by Jaime Rich & Joelle Jones from the Oni table and the Finder trade "King of Cats" from Carla "Speed" McNeil. I'd last seen her in 2005 when my writers group helped sponsor a graphic novel event at the local Barnes & Noble. That crowd would have been perfectly comfortable at SPX.

That comfort level is something I'm not sure I could ever manage. I'll be flat out honest. I am a mainstream comic book girl. I like my superheroes and my four color goodness. Small Press Expo catered to a very different crowd and a very different mindset. That said I was surprised how friendly and outgoing everyone was. I didn't feel odd or unusual as a girl.

What I appreciated was their enthusiasm for their work and the sheer variety out there. I liked seeing all the different formats from Dresden Codak's massive posters to the little "Sundays" books. Being so used to things in floppies or trades, it was nice to see comics imagined in other ways. On the whole, I enjoyed the experience and perhaps next year I'll try to spend more time there.

I do think you need to go to SPX willing to open your mind and take a few chances. See what strikes your fancy, whether art style or format or colors. There was something for nearly everyone.

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Thursday, September 03, 2009

"Whatever happened to the old happy-go-lucky Sharon?"

"Whatever happened to the old happy-go-lucky Sharon?"

"Her last boyfriend was killed in the Philadelphia bombing."


"And she was never that happy-go-lucky. But she did used to smile more often."

-- Captain America #13

I have never been much for the main Marvel universe. For someone who loves big massive super hero groups, the Avengers always left me in the dark. So I was really surprised when I fell in love with Ed Brubaker's Captain America run. Maybe I shouldn't be. I've loved his work since Gotham Central and Catwoman. His moody noir/adventure thriller approach really sold me on the character. I loved Steve Epting's gorgeous artwork since his Crossgen days on the pirate book El Cazador.

But it was really the characters that won me over -- all of the characters -- from Steve, Sharon, Sam, Natasha, Nick and especially Bucky. Older Bucky anyway. I still have issues with the younger brat sidekick version, but the older Winter Soldier/Captain America is a fascinating character I hope we continue to see more of.

The reading has been slow going. I don't have the continuity reference points for the Marvel universe the way I do with DC, so throwing names and places and things at me makes me grab my laptop and do random Google searches. Brubaker explains things mostly, but I still feel like a stranger in a foreign land where no one has bothered to tell me what language I'm reading.

And while I've loved it, it's not without its hiccups for me, the biggest coming during the "Death of Captain America" long arc from #25-42. The hiccups surprisingly involved the treatment of Steve Rogers' on-and-off again girlfriend and SHIELD watcher Sharon Carter aka Agent 13. I say surprisingly because Brubaker usually writes very good female characters, so this caught me off-guard. I make no bones about the fact I love Sharon. She's a kickass lady and shown as very competent at her job. She's not overawed by Steve or his iconic status.

Until Steve dies. Until Brubaker runs her through the proverbial emotional roller coaster. Until she acts like some confused "woe is me" damsel in distress. Now yes, she was kidnapped and threatened during the earlier twenty-five issues, but I never had the sense Agent 13 couldn't take care of herself. Dr. Faustus messed with her head big time and she's still shocked by Steve's death, so I can understand why she's not quite herself, but I still miss my "happy go lucky Sharon".

Part of it was how her name was used. Or when it was used at all. She wasn't Agent 13 or even Sharon, she was "Steve's girl" or "Rogers' Woman". Like the only way she mattered or counted was through her relationship with Steve. Those types of phrases got repeated often enough that it started to piss me off a little. Finally that seems to break when Natasha reminds sweet baby James in #36 that Sharon Carter has a name.

And then there's the stupid pregnancy/miscarriage storyline. Admitting my biases upfront, no, I don't have kids, nor have I ever been pregnant, nor any real desire to be. All the same I have some really emotional and irrational responses to pregnancy related issues. Go figure.

I'd almost hit a point where I was over it. They'd allowed Sharon a chance to heal somewhat in #49 and accept what happen and move on. With Steve's possible return, I wonder if they'll even deal with that issue or not. I'm not sure if I want them to. It could be a nice patented excuse for Steve & Sharon to break up yet again or who knows? It'd be unrealistic for him to come back and have everything be shiny and new with a perfect happy ending. It may work in Disney but not in Marvel – not often enough and not usually in Brubaker's writing.

Yesterday afternoon, at my usual post-dental Books-a-Million visit (hey, you have your traditions, I have mine!), I came across an issue of Marvel Spotlight: Captain America with a big juicy interview with Ed Brubaker. Ooh, something new to read. And there are lovely bits about Bucky and the difference between Steve & Bucky and how Natasha popped up in the story. The "Death of Captain America" was only supposed to go for six months, except the story kept expanding and expanding. Whoops.

But there was a question about the Sharon and pregnancy:

Spotlight: We pointed out last time you're pretty mean to Sharon Carter! On top of all you did to her in the first 25 issues, you gave her a miscarriage. Has she suffered enough yet?

Brubaker: (Laughter) The important thing for me wasn't the baby itself or that she and Steve were gonna have a baby together, it was that there was this little piece of Steve that broke her out of her mental conditioning. It was the instinct to try and save her pregnancy that allowed her to take back her mind. Basically it was like Steve saved her from beyond the grave, the child that they made together saved her. She was willing to die and let the baby die with her to prevent it from falling into the hands of the Red Skull. That was, I thought, a really heroic story for her, really hardcore obviously and I guess very mean to the character. But she's my favorite character in the book, practically. It's not fun to be mean to her, but putting a character you love into an awful situation is what gets you compelling fiction. But I knew from the moment she was looking at the pregnancy test that the baby was never getting born...

Brubaker also goes on to discuss how the babies have usually destroyed shows/movies. And that's probably true. I won't argue that point. But the question remains why go there in the first place, other than additional angst.

I hate pregnancies as plot points. I've watched way too many daytime soap operas where if there's some one night stand, there's always a pregnancy scare or complication. It's a cute plot twist, but that's nine months that you either have go through with the idea or have something tragic and horrible happened. If you go in knowing damn well that child won't survive, then why should I care? Because she's been put through nearly every emotional wringer you can throw at her? Isn't it bad enough that her mind has been tampered with? And for the only point of that child was to be what eventually breaks Sharon out of that mind control – that's frankly problematic.

Brubaker spent a decent number of issues setting up this new relationship for Sharon and Steve. Whether completely on her own (or through Faustus' promptings), she really cared about Steve. She believed in Steve, even defended him on occasion. Argued with him, sure, but still believed in him. Whether his feelings were as strong, that's what we'll find out when/if he returns. Still the idea that Sharon needs this extra piece of Steve to help free her mind and lash out at her captors for what they did bothers me. Love is a very powerful thing. Wouldn't it be great and heroic if Sharon showed just how much she really loved Steve? Not their unborn child or his memory, but for him? Is that really so hard to believe? You have Steve overwhelmed by his memories every other issue, why shouldn't Sharon be any different? Personally I would have loved to see Dr. Faustus' plans blow up in his face. But that would be too corny, right, that you can't fight the power of love?

(I do find it strangely ironic that both Steve and Bucky were responsible for each other's current love life. Steve came back together with Sharon in Pilsburg on Bucky's trail in #16. And Steve's death caused Natasha to play courier for Stark in #27, bringing her back into Bucky's life. It's a nice piece of symmetry.)

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Women make comics -- the actual t-shirt!

A couple of months ago, I blogged about the "Women make comics" t-shirt design hunt. I've been somewhat remiss in posting the successful follow-up.

Deb Aoki,'s tireless resident manga blogger has created the final design now available on CafePress in a dizzying array of shirts, stickers and mugs. The design celebrates superhero/manga/indies.

All proceeds go to support the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, Cartoon Art Museum and Friends of Lulu.

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