Friday, September 16, 2011

Small Press Expo 2011

Small Press Expo weekend started with a Roger Langridge signing at the Big Planet Comics in Vienna, Virginia that Friday. For all his zany writing, Langridge is a quiet soft spoken man with a lovely accent. I was able to thank him profusely for the enjoyment I received from Thor: The Mighty Avenger. I also bought a trade of his Muppet Show series from Boom and picked up the Snarked #0 freebie. He added a little Kermit the Frog sketch when he signed the Muppet trade. I also bought a copy of Bendis and Oeming's "Takio" on the recommendation of several friends.

On Saturday, I took the Metro up to Bethesda for the Small Press Expo. I was only going for the one day. Metro had a ton of track maintenance planned for the weekend, which made the commute tricky. So I arrived an hour or so after the show opened, confronted by two long lines. One was for registration and the other I later learned was for a Craig Thompson signing. But the registration line moved swiftly and soon I was joining the throngs in the exhibitors' room. The floor was crowded on Saturday. There were times it was hard to move around, much less stop to look at tables. Some of the aisles seemed narrower than usual. I bought very little this year. I'm still not sure if it's unfamiliarity in the indie comics world or simple buyer's apathy on my part.

I found Fanfare/Ponent Mon's table and bought "Zoo in Winter" by Jiro Taniguchi. Fanfare produces gorgeous editions. The paper they use really makes the black and white illustrations pop. This is the their first hardcover Taniguchi and well worth the money. The story is about an artist becoming an apprentice to a mangaka and the long hours involved. The constant rolling deadlines where you finish one project only to have to start another was very very familiar to me. I was surprised and disappointed to hear that Taniguchi's "Walking Man" had gone out of print. I was glad I had bought a copy at SPX a few years back.

I only managed to get to the "Secret History of Women in Comics" panel with Diane Noomin, Alexa Dickman, Robyn Chapman, and Jessica Abel. Heidi MacDonald moderated the panel. Ed Sizemore recapped the panel in his con report and Maggie Siegel-Berele posted a quirky sketch. What struck me were a few things. None of the cartoonists on the panel cited any particular role models. There was no women they looked to saying "Yes, you can be a cartoonist". That requires a certain amount of confidence and determination to say "I'll do it anyway". Both Abel and Chapman teach cartooning and they're seeing the next generation coming down the pike. While the manga influence has crested a bit, it sounds like their students' interests are even more varied now.

As a Golden Age fan, I enjoyed Alexa Dickman's contributions. She isn't a cartoonist. She's a fan that realized how little information was available on female comics creators and started the Women in Comics wiki project. She also runs the LadiesMakingComics tumblr with regular profiles and market alerts on female comics creators. In the "Ten-Cent Plague", David Hadju lists 800 comics creators that are no longer working in the business after the Wertham scares. Over a hundred of those names are women. A good chunk of them worked for places like Fiction House. Others hid behind other names. Tarpe Mills, the creator of Miss Fury, is actually named June, for instance.

There was also a good deal of friction in the panel. The women seemed to struggle with whether they wanted to be identified as just cartoonists or forever tagged as "female cartoonists". Heidi MacDonald even opened the panel expressing her distate for the need for "women in comics" panels. Jessica Abel commented on the disconnect she saw between the welcoming cons and community she encountered versus the male-dominated anthologies. It's the old question of whether doing projects like "Girl Comics" and "Womanthology" helps or hurts in the long run. I wasn't left with a clearcut answer either.

After the panel, I delved back into the exhibitor hall. The aspect I love about SPX is seeing the breadth of comics, the different formats and shapes. So maybe it's not surprising that the two other things I picked up play on papercraft in some fashion.

H. Lela Graham is a bookbinder and ceramicist by training. Because she hasn’t had access to a ceramics studio, she’s been spending more time on the bookbinding. I spotted her bound books on my first tour around the room and finally stopped to chat/browse later. She had all different sizes from the tiny ones to the larger ones. It was fascinating how a different leather/skin gave the book a different feel. There was one I picked up that was a calfskin that was *so* soft, whereas a darker prettier colored leather had a tougher hide. She’d fashioned some of her small ones as necklaces, so I bought one. This picture shows the necklace opened up.

After catching up with Johanna Draper Carlson and Ed Sizemore (and sampling Johanna's tiramisu), we took one last swing through the dealers' room where I acquired "In the Parlor Room" by Jeremy Sorese. Ed had showed off a copy and I was drawn by the covers and the artwork. I loved the cutout inset inside. The art is very over the top and stylized in places. The table was tucked in one of the back corners, so I must have missed it in my early crawls. I was disappointed to discover later I'd also missed more origami comics from Ken Wong.

SPX has already announced they're expanding next year with 50% more space. I do hope it allows them the opportunity to space the exhibitors better and allow some new people a chance to shine. Hopefully next year I'll be in more of a mindset to take some chances too.

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Saturday, August 20, 2011

Baltimore 2011: Legion of Super Heroes Panel

The Legion of Super-Heroes panel consisted of Mike Grell, Keith Giffen, Mark Waid, Barry Kitson and Chris Roberson. Paul Levitz was originally scheduled but had to cancel. Jack C. Harris, an editor on early Legion stories, joined on the panel. Bob Greenberger moderated the panel. Grell was running late, so he appeared in the middle of the first question.

Greenberger first asked the panelists how they were introduced to the Legion and what they saw as the appeal of the group:

As the newest member of the Legion family, Chris Roberson started off by citing DC Blue Ribbon Digest in 1979 as his introduction. He particularly loved they included these lists of Legion characters that he memorized. He went so far as to join the Amateur Press Associations (APAs) and taught himself Interlac, much to the amusement of the other panelists.

Barry Kitson grew up with the Curt Swan era Legion. He recalls tracing Swan figures so he could make his own Legion paper figures. He also reminded us that British comics distribution was haphazard back then, so sometimes you'd get a later story long before you found the rest.

Mark Waid grew up in the Deep South where there was no Marvel distribution to speak of, so he collected all the DC he could find. His first LSH story was "Death of Ferro Lad" which he said was mind blowing at the time because all the other comics he'd read were happy and fun.

Jack C. Harris had been around since the Legion first started in Adventure Comics. He looked ageless. He described Legion as an "accidental series" that grew out of a bunch of appearances here and there until it finally took over its own series.

While Keith Giffen and Mike Grell knew the series, it was more of a regular pay check. What appealed to Keith Giffen was world-building; he saw "limitless potential" in drawing the worlds and background of the Legion. What he didn't like doing was real-world reference work, so being able to make up while he went along appealed to him. He recalled Levitz using Westminster Abbey in as Great Darkness Saga and hating having to do the homework. He preferred letting his imagination go free to show how the different worlds looks and existed. He or Grell commented that it was sometimes hard for artists to maintain that otherworldliness when they're on a tight deadline and the tendency is fall on old science fiction tropes like Adam Strange or Flash Gordon.

Depending on how you looked at it, Mike Grell had the good or bad fortune of coming in the door at DC while Dave Cockrum was on the way out. Grell was warned immediately that he was about to start receiving a *lot* of hate mail. He hadn't done anything so he couldn't understand why. He was replacing Cockrum, the Legion's most successful and popular artist to date. His first Legion story would also feature the death of a Legionnaire. The Legion fans are nothing if not loud and loyal. At that time, Legion was the ideal entry book for young readers – Harris commented on it as well as how with the Justice League, you already knew those characters from their own series, but with the Legion half the fun was discovering them for yourself.

On that front, Chris Roberson was asked how two fanatical fandoms like Star Trek and Legion were going to manage together. Roberson admitted he was part of the narrow VENN diagram that liked both. But he gave a perfect description that could apply to either franchise, showcasing their similarities rather than their differences. The Legion/Star Trek crossover book for IDW is set just after the Great Darkness Saga.

Waid talked about his own experiences as a former fan turned Legion editor and writer. He'd spent a month creating IGC's Legion Index, cataloguing all the Legion appearances to date. He was also the editor of the Who's Who in the Legion of Super-Heroes. He mentioned the struggle with creating civilian names for so many minor characters. Levitz would come back and say "no, that won't work/doesn't make sense". His logic was that each world had a particular naming convention. If Imra Ardeen was from Titan, then all others from Titans should follow a similar pattern of vowels and syllables. Ironically Waid said he'd used that convention now and it worked quite well.

Then Waid switched to editing the main book with the Zero Hour Legion and returned for the three-boot with Barry Kitson. Both iterations provided different challenges. With the Zero Hour, Waid described it as a big house of cards. All the things that made the Legion's history work no longer applied or existed in their continuity. It didn't matter how much they changed things around, the foundation was basically on shifting sand. They tried their best to make it work.

With the three-boot, Waid had a different problem. They came to him and said "we don't know how to sell this book". No one perceived Legion as that reader friendly book Grell described anymore. You needed thirty years of backstory/continuity to get half of the stories. So they wanted him to start fresh. Kitson looked at all the different costumes/character designs for the LSH and redesigned them accordingly, taking the best bits here and there.

Grell discussed working with Murray Boltinoff. Grell mentioned how he had no sense of humor. To his great credit, Boltinoff would treat every job very professionally and looked at each issue individually as if they were the first one. That sometimes meant that continuity went out the window and Boltinoff was quite happy. The Legion faithful were not so happy about this though. Interestingly, Boltinoff is credited with freshening up LSH with bringing in Cockrum, but Harris implied heavily otherwise.

Different artist/writer teams worked in different ways. Grell recalled how Jim Shooter would submit these massive scripts from 60-80 pages with the most miniscule detail mapped out, while others were more creative/lenient. Giffen talked about getting the several page scripts from Paul Levitz and reading them on the commute back. Then he'd tear them up and do them from memory, distilling them down to their best bits. He told Levitz this only a few years ago. Levitz would also include any number of references (i.e. previous appearances of characters) Giffen would ignore. He favors consistency, not hard-line continuity. Make sure a character looks or acts the same, but he hated the "Well, he can't appear here, because he's over there having lunch" type scenarios. He apparently angered the Superman office so much that he wasn't allowed to use him in LSH anymore as Superboy or Superman. He left with a bang, so to speak, by blowing up the moon before Biernbaums took over. Everyone said how angsty and moving it was, but really it was just Giffen having a hissy fit.

On the costume front, Grell and Giffen talked about the unique challenges inherent with the LSH. Giffen redesigned/simplified Colossal Boy's costume because he couldn't figure out how Cockrum's costume. Grell actually owns the sketchbook of Cockrum's LSH costume designs that he still uses for referencing. His particular bugaboo was Shrinking Violet's green costume. For a recent commission of Shrinking Violet, he studied the sketchbook to figure out the black detailing on her cleavage. He realized finally after so many years that it was a SV. Giffen talked about the massive LSH poster he'd created, showing every character that had appeared in the series. The average JLA issue might have a crowd shot of only eight main characters, but the Legion could have thirty and Levitz loved those big "oh bleep" moments.

The "oh bleep" moment for Giffen was at a pivotal moment in the Great Darkness Saga where Levitz put a panel description where "all the inhabitants of Daxam rise off the planet together." Now understand he never called Levitz usually. But this time Giffen called and asked "Are you shitting me?" Levitz calmly reminded him of an art technique using dots (stippling?) to show all the people.

The question and answer session ran for the last ten minutes of the panel or so. Waid received the "save DC" plea from one fan, but he said it was very very unlikely. Polar Boy would probably be quite handy, let's just say.

Asked about their least favorite Legionnaire, the older writers had their obvious picks. Keith Giffen proudly announced it was Karate Kid and he killed him three times. Mike Grell hated Tyroc. He'd tried to include African Americans in earlier stories only to be told "there are no black people in the future". They'd all gone off to an island and existed in separate dimension. Grell had even colored a character black only to have to change it, "because they'd get letters". Even when it was changed he was told that it still looked like a brother with pink skin. So when he drew Tyroc he gave him Elvis' Vegas costume, pixie boots, and styled him after Fred "The Hammer" Williamson, a football player and actor. Williamson hadn't minded, until he saw the actual art. Mark Waid never particularly liked Wildfire. Kitson and Roberson didn't name particular dislikes.

Overall, the panel was quite delightful. Grell and Giffen, in particular, were hoots and a half. Greenberger kept the panel moving at a brisk pace with his list of questions. I left wanting to revisit some of the earlier eras and notice all the details I missed or didn't appreciate the first time around.

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