Category: Comics

Image Goes DRM-Free

Yesterday Image Comics announced that it's going to start selling digital comics from its own site, independent of third-party distributors, in standard formats and DRM-free.

There are a lot of reasons for Image to pursue a DRM-free option. Chief is that DRM doesn't fucking work and anyone who wants to get the latest issue of The Walking Dead illegally can get it whether Comixology's version has DRM or not. Second is that this rampant piracy of The Walking Dead has somehow failed to prevent it from being a sprawling multimedia bestseller.

But I think what really precipitated this decision isn't The Walking Dead at all -- it's Saga.

More specifically, Saga #12 and its asinine, albeit temporary, ban from the iOS version of Comixology.

I wrote about the story back in April. Gist is this: Saga #12 was an arguably-slightly-dirtier comic in an inarguably-already-pretty-dirty series; Comixology decided not to sell it in the iOS version of their app out of a reasonable but, it turns out, false presumption that it would run afoul of Apple's vague, capricious, and arbitrary content guidelines.

In a nutshell, it was an object lesson in the one thing DRM actually is good for: locking publishers into a single distributor who may not always have their best interests at heart.

You know, for those who needed an object lesson because they were too busy scratching their balls to notice how this exact thing caused a problem for the music industry and then later for the book industry.

But hey, it may have taken Image awhile, but this still puts them way the fuck ahead of all the other major publishers, and they absolutely deserve praise and encouragement for doing the right thing. And they deserve your business for it.

Only problem is, it's still early days and the Digital Comics section is looking a little sparse. I'll plan on coming back with links when my favorite Image books are available -- those'd be the aforementioned Walking Dead and Saga, plus Chew and Prophet, off the top of my head.

This is good news, and I hope and expect it will be just the first step in the comics industry realizing what the music industry already has and the book industry is starting to: that standards-compliant, DRM-free formats aren't just better for consumers, they're better for publishers, too.

Ditko Package

Got this in the mail on Saturday:

Steve Ditko Package

It's what I bought in the Ditko Kickstarter back in April -- The Ditko Public Service Package #2, plus various other goodies, some Ditko and some non-Ditko, from publisher Robin Snyder's collection.

I've barely scratched the surface of this delightful haul, and I think it's far too early for me to do a writeup that would do it any kind of justice. Suffice it to say it's just what I'd hoped for -- brilliant and raw and undiluted and baffling and infuriating and contradictory and didactic and oblique and funny and heartbreaking and ingenious and so very, very pretty to look at, in turns and sometimes all at once.

So yeah, I'm pretty happy with it.

Bring on the next Ditko Kickstarter.

But I'll need some time to finish reading all my stuff from this one.

Cartooning

I've posted these bits from Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics before:

Chart of Realistic to Iconic Cartooning

McCloud as Iconic and Realistic

McCloud mentions, in one of his essays in the Zot! collection, that when he was working on Zot! he studied Peanuts and tried to figure out how Schulz managed to convey such a huge range of expression and emotion with such simple drawings -- and that this line of inquiry ultimately led to that chapter in Understanding Comics.

And you know who's got this whole "simple cartooning" thing down?

Sergio Aragonés.

The other week my wife and I took our 2-year-old nephew to the comic store. He made a beeline for a display case full of Batman statues. He looked at all of them, excitedly chanting "Batman! Batman!" But there was one he focused on more than any of the others:

Sergio Aragonés's Batman

He was excited. He was tapping on the glass. He was enthralled.

He's a smart kid.

And I got to thinking, what is it about Aragonés's art that has that kind of appeal? That speaks to a two-year-old, even through two whole shelves' worth of Batman figures?

Just look at it -- the pose, the arms, the fingers, the teeth, the eyes, the nose, the cape, the skinny little legs.

It's expressive. It's funny. It's exciting. And it's exaggerated as hell.

A collection of body parts in a bunch of simple shapes, most of them big and round.

It speaks to us on a fundamental level. A level so simple a two-year-old can see it.

Aragonés is a master. He may be the greatest living cartoonist. I wouldn't argue with someone who suggested he's the greatest of all time.

I was at Phoenix Comicon last month. Most of the artists were approachable. Eastman and Capullo were the only two who had real lines -- and they didn't just have lines, they had three-hour ones.

So my TMNT #50 went unsigned, because there's no damn way I'm waiting in line for 3 hours to meet Kevin Eastman.

I guess that brings up the question of what artist I would stand in line 3 hours to meet.

And I think, maybe, maybe Aragonés. If he ever came to Phoenix, and was just sitting in Artists' Alley signing things instead of spending the entire time doing panels. He'd be the one guy I can really think of who I'd be happy to wait that long to meet. Not Spiegelman, not Clowes, not Crumb, not Los Bros Hernandez -- I love those guys, but I wouldn't wait in line three hours to get their autographs But Aragonés? Yeah, maybe.

And I guess maybe Jaffee, too.

Bender's Back, Baby!

"Guess this is your lucky day, Pimparoo."

That would have been my one-sentence reaction to the returning Futurama, but then the third act happened. (I haven't watched Fry and Leela's Big Fling yet, just 2-D Blacktop.)

There are a lot of great Futurama episodes. The best have an emotional core to them -- Jurassic Bark, Luck of the Fry-rish, Godfellas. Other great episodes experiment with the format of the show -- any of the Anthology episodes, for example. (Well, I wouldn't describe the Holiday Spectacular as great, but all the rest.) Some are deftly-written time-travel stories, like Time Keeps On Slippin', Roswell that Ends Well, The Why of Fry, Bender's Big Score, and The Late Philip J Fry. Some are biting political satire, like any episode with Nixon in it. And some of them do clever things with the medium of animation -- like Reincarnation. And this one.

The Professor's hypercube was a nice touch. The Mobius strip played with the concept a little more. But the actual segment where they're caught in the Second Dimension is fucking ingenious. The writing -- the Professor explaining how everything works here -- is brilliant, and the design is even better.

This is an episode that did immensely fucking clever things with science fiction and with animation. I've never seen anything quite like it -- the closest thing I can think of is Homer3, which played on the same premise in the opposite direction.

The show's had its ups and downs. But as this just-started thirteen-episode run is the last we'll be seeing of it for awhile, it's great seeing it fire on all creative cylinders and do shit that I've never seen it or any other show do.

Also: the latest issue of the comic is legitimately great too. Zoidberg becomes unstuck in time and has to prevent a catastrophe from happening while still trying to piece together just what exactly is going on.

Gary Friedrich

There have been a lot of disheartening rulings, over the past few years, in cases where comic book creators or their heirs attempted to reclaim the rights to their work: the Siegels, the Shusters, the Kirbys. And Gary Friedrich.

Friedrich -- co-creator of Ghost Rider with Roy Thomas and Mike Ploog -- has fallen on hard times. Like far too many creators in comics, he's gotten old and poor and sick while the company he used to freelance for has made millions off his work. Like far too many creators in comics, he tells a story of the company promising far more than what it delivered.

Friedrich sued Marvel in an attempt to reclaim the rights to Ghost Rider. Marvel countersued -- Friedrich had been selling signed Ghost Rider prints without giving them a taste -- and, because Friedrich is not an artist, he was signing other people's Ghost Rider art.

Friedrich lost. And not only did he lose, but Marvel made an example of him. They sought not only $17,000 from a man who was too broke to pay his medical bills; they also demanded that he stop publicly referring to himself as the creator of Ghost Rider. I've seen lots of creators lose cases like this -- but never seen terms that seemed so punitive and downright mean-spirited.

Friedrich appealed. And today, a three-judge panel unanimously vacated last year's ruling.

Via Reuters:

On Tuesday, a unanimous three-judge panel of the appeals court deemed that Friedrich's 1978 agreement with Marvel was ambiguous.

"First, the critical sentence defining the 'Work' covered by the Agreement is ungrammatical and awkwardly phrased," Circuit Judge Denny Chin wrote in the 48-page opinion. "Second, the language is ambiguous as to whether it covered a work published six years earlier."

The appeals court found that Marvel was not entitled to a judgment based on its argument that a statute of limitations has expired. The court also found that there is a genuine dispute of facts regarding the authorship of the character.

And The Hollywood Reporter quotes Chin further:

Spotlight 5 had been published six years earlier by a different corporate entity (Magazine Mgmt.) and had grown so popular that Marvel had already reprinted it once and had launched a separate Ghost Rider comic book series. Given that context, it is doubtful the parties intended to convey rights in the valuable Ghost Rider copyright without explicitly referencing it. It is more likely that the Agreement only covered ongoing or future work. Hence, there is a genuine dispute regarding the parties' intent for this form contract to cover Ghost Rider.

There are several points at issue. First, like in the Kirby case, the question of whether the work was created for-hire, in which case Marvel would be the legal author, or whether Friedrich and Ploog created that story independently and therefore co-authored it and sold it to Marvel. Thomas, unlike Friedrich and Ploog, was an employee of Marvel, and the extent of his role is disputed -- was the book authored by Marvel? Co-authored by Marvel?

And, like in the Siegel and Shuster cases, there is a question as to whether (if Friedrich was a legal co-author of the work) he gave up the right to reclaim the copyright. Chin's quote above is instructive: put frankly, it requires quite a stretch to believe that Friedrich would have knowingly given up his right to termination for such a small amount of money.

I believe that legal point is also at the root of the Siegel, and especially the Shuster, cases. That the Siegel and Shuster heirs would have deliberately given up their rights to reclaim Superman for the small amount of money DC offered them -- especially the Shusters, whose payout was reportedly only tens of thousands of dollars -- defies common sense.

All that said, while this gives Friedrich another chance, it doesn't give him any guarantees -- indeed, the appellate court has already noted several facts in Marvel's favor. Jeff Trexler runs down the facts, and compares the case to Siegel's 1974 case against DC.

I don't know what Friedrich's chances are -- I wish him the best but fear that recent trends aren't on his side -- but this case has repercussions beyond his case. Even if he loses again, this case raises more questions about Marvel's 1970's-era contracts -- and that could have some serious repercussions throughout the industry.

James Clapper and Other Disgraces

So I mentioned last night that asking the question, "Is Snowden a hero or a traitor?" completely misses the fucking point.

Here now to completely miss the fucking point are The New Yorker's John Cassidy ("hero") and Jeffrey Toobin ("traitor").

I guess we should applaud The New Yorker for showing its journalistic integrity by presenting both sides of the not-actually-the-fucking-story.

Look. I don't give a goddamn if Edward Snowden raped a bear in his meth lab while canceling Firefly. First of all, he'd still be less of an asshole than Dick Cheney, and second, if you think it's okay for the government to spy on your phone and Internet habits, you should probably come up with a better reason than "Well, I'm for it because that bear rapist is against it!"

Now, I happen to believe, based on the limited information we have at the moment, that Snowden did the right thing, and also that Snowden has gigantic balls. But I don't believe he's the most important person in this story. I don't think he's even in the top fifty.

Someone who is in the top fifty is James Clapper, perjuring fuck and Director of National Intelligence, who recently testified before Congress that the government is totally not collecting surveillance information on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans. Here, go watch John Oliver kill it on his first episode as fill-in host of The Daily Show (and be sure to stick around for the Moment of Zen where 2006 Joe Biden explains how this sort of thing is totally not okay when a Republican does it).

Fred Kaplan at Slate advocates firing Clapper, because, among other reasons, he has proven himself totally incapable of discussing this subject in an intellectually honest fashion or any other kind of honest fashion.

Among other reasons, here's Clapper's inept fucking explanation for why his lie was actually true:

Rambling on in his rationalization to Mitchell, he focused on Wyden’s use of the word “collect,” as in “Did the NSA collect any type of data ... on millions of Americans?” Clapper told Mitchell that he envisioned a vast library of books containing vast amounts of data on every American. “To me,” he said, “collection of U.S. persons’ data would mean taking the book off the shelf and opening it up and reading it.”

Jesus Christ. Between this asshole and Petraeus, I'm beginning to worry that our entire intelligence apparatus is made up of people who can't even come up with a convincing lie if they're given months of warning and an entire team of speechwriters.

Hey Clapper -- this is my comic book collection.

Image: My comic book collection.

I haven't read most of those books in years. Does that mean they're no longer part of my collection? Or does reading them once count? Does that mean the comics I bought last week and haven't gotten around to reading aren't part of my collection yet? Is this some kind of quantum physics shit where my collection is altered by the act of observing it?

What about garbage collection? Does it only count as collecting my garbage if the sanitation workers break open the bags and root through 'em? Because I've never seen them do that, and yet the city keeps charging me a garbage collection fee anyway.

You get the point. He's claiming his lie is not actually a lie because he was using a definition of a word that he just completely made up. Like how I had sex with Natalie Portman. It's not a lie because when I say "had sex" I actually mean "sat on the couch" and by "with Natalie Portman" I mean "and played Nintendo".

Man, I have had so much sex with Natalie Portman.

I don't know if I'm even as bothered by his lying -- hell, that's his job, I'd expect nothing less -- as the sheer fucking laziness of his lying. It's downright goddamned insulting. It lacks even the sublime, recursive absurdity of "That depends on what your definition of is is." It's just worthless. And so is Clapper.

I don't really think throwing him out on his ass is going to change things. Throwing the Republicans out of the White House sure as hell didn't.

But what the hell, they still deserved to be thrown out, and so does he.

Firing Clapper certainly wouldn't guarantee we'd have an honest national discussion about the nature of our government's various spying programs.

But not firing Clapper will guarantee that we won't.

Welcome Back to Astro City

One morning when I was fourteen years old, my uncle asked me, over Sunday breakfast, if I'd heard of Astro City.

"It's great," he told me. "There's this kid who comes to the big city because he wants to get a job as somebody's sidekick."

"Sounds like something out of The Tick," I said.

"Kind of," he responded, "except that it's played totally straight."

So I picked it up, and Uncle Jon was right -- it was wonderful.

I don't remember if #4 or #5 was my first issue, but in short order I'd bought all the back issues too, including the trade of the original miniseries. I haven't missed an issue in the 16 years since. And most of them have been downright sublime -- while, at worst, some were merely all right.

Astro City has disappeared a few times over the years, usually owing to writer Kurt Busiek's chronic health problems. Yesterday, after a nearly three-year hiatus, it relaunched with a new #1. And it was delightful.

Straight away we're introduced to a new character (though one, Kurt teases, who we've seen before) called the Broken Man. He looks like Bowie in Labyrinth or Dream in Sandman, and he breaks the fourth wall and addresses the reader directly as he narrates the rest of the issue.

And what an issue it is. It's new-reader friendly and makes for a great jumping-on point -- but it still manages to pack plenty of nods in for the old fans. Brian Kinney, the kid who came to Astro City in 1996 to become a sidekick? He's in there. And some other familiar faces are too.

It feels like going home. It feels like checking in on old friends you haven't seen in years. And there's only one other comic book that makes me feel like that: Love and Rockets. I think it takes a pretty specific set of variables -- a strong, singular vision by the same creators over a sustained period of time, who are willing to let you feel that passage of time as their characters grow and age, and who are confident enough in their world-building that they can take a break from the same old characters, explore the world, and check back in on the old cast a few years later.

Reading Astro City is like coming home. There's a purity to it, and a joy, and an earnestness. In a time when the superhero genre and superhero fandom are dominated by cynicism, Busiek, Anderson, and Ross aren't afraid to show a world that's bright and full of wonder. And to tell a story that has a complete beginning, middle, and end all in one issue, even if it is Part One of something.

It's not entirely free of irony -- the Broken Man makes a crack about the previous story arc a couple of pages in that made me laugh -- but it's cheerful. It's a book that remembers that superheroes can be both fun and awe-inspiring.

Or not. Because, as much as anything else, it's also a book about ordinary people going about their ordinary lives in an extraordinary world. Regular folks, going to work, living their lives, raising their families.

And that's why Astro City struck a chord. And why it continues to resonate, two decades in. The title aside, it's not really about the city -- though the city is certainly important -- and it's not about superheroes -- though they're pretty important too. It's about people.

And in the new Astro City #1, Kurt Busiek delivers a solid story, with faces new and old, new mysteries, and the prospect of plenty of adventure to come.

As for Brent Anderson, he's really hitting his stride again too. I was a little disappointed with some of his recent work as he began experimenting with digital inking, but in this issue he's back to his crisp old self. His Samaritan, in particular, is a joy to see again, and he handles the rest of the sizable cast with aplomb. Whether he's doing an action scene or just swooping in on an ordinary family, he keeps the action brisk and dynamic. And I'm particularly fond of the new, Kirby-inspired alien character who shows up near the end of the issue.

Ross's cover (I got the "main" one, I guess?) is great as always, but this time it's more remarkable for its composition than for its detail, as 2/3 of it is the dark shape of two doors opening out on the world. It fits the story nicely -- both reflecting the mysterious door as a focal point, and drawing attention to the reader looking in on this world from outside, another key element of the story.


So, by all means, go out and buy the new Astro City #1.

And in the meantime, the original, 1995-vintage Astro City #1 is free on Comixology.

If you want a few more recommendations, my favorites are the first three trades, Life in the Big City, Family Album, and Confession. You can read them in any order (chronology is important for the later ones, namely The Dark Age and Shining Stars, though those appear to be out-of-print at the moment anyway).

And while I urge you to support your local comic shop or independent bookseller, well, if you'd rather do the Amazon thing here are some links that I'll get a kickback on:

  1. Life in the Big City (original miniseries -- 6 self-contained issues)
  2. Family Album (ongoing series #1-#3, #10-#13 -- some self-contained issues and short story arcs)
  3. Confession (ongoing series #4-#9, a single story arc, plus a short story from #1/2)
  4. Tarnished Angel (#14-#20, another arc)
  5. Local Heroes (#21-#22, the eponymous 5-issue miniseries, the Supersonic one-shot, Since the Fire 9/11 tribute -- mostly self-contained single-issue stories; I think there's one two-parter in there)

...and from there it looks like kind of a mess, with The Dark Age and Shining Stars apparently out of print for the time being. I'm guessing that'll change soon; maybe I'll update this post when they're easily available again. Meantime, it looks like the individual issues are pretty easy to get ahold of.

Anyhow, all this to say...I love me some Astro City, and the new #1 did not disappoint. I'm glad it's back.

Babysitting

Not much time to write this evening as my wife and I are taking care of our two-year-old nephew. So far we've made it through a Ninja Turtles (2012), a Yo Gabba Gabba (with Weird Al!) and a Batman: The Brave and the Bold.

That's after a trip to the comic shop -- I still haven't finished the comics I bought two weeks ago, but I had to grab the new Astro City.

Nephew made a beeline for the display case with the Batman figures in it. His favorite was the Aragonés one. He's got good taste.

Kirby on Work-for-Hire

One of the most common facts Kirby critics cite -- well, the ones who actually have a basic understanding of the facts of the case, anyway -- is that he sided with Marvel when Joe Simon attempted to recapture the rights to Captain America in 1966.

I'm reading Marvel Comics: The Untold Story, by Sean Howe. It's an excellent book, and recommended.

And I just came across the exact wording of Kirby's statement on the subject. It appears on page 77 of Howe's book, and he cites a post on 20th Century Danny Boy, which has a scan of the statement.

It reads, in part:

I felt that whatever I did for Timely belonged to Timely as was the practice in those days. When I left Timely, all of my work was left with them.

Kirby certainly seems to be suggesting that the work he and Simon did for Timely in the 1940's was work-for-hire and not spec work. As such, that does seem to undercut any later claims he or his family might make that he believed he and Simon created Captain America independently and had a right to terminate the transfer of copyright.

Critics of the Kirby Estate's legal maneuverings over the past few years cite that this shows that Jack knew his work in the 1960's was work-for-hire, too.

But does it?

Because from where I'm sitting, it seems to indicate exactly the opposite.

Kirby says, "I felt that whatever I did for Timely belonged to Timely as was the practice in those days." Why the past tense? If Kirby believed that the work he was doing in the 1960's was work-for-hire, that it was owned by Marvel, and that he had no stake in it -- why would he refer to that arrangement as what "was the practice in those days", decades earlier? Why wouldn't he use the present tense? Why wouldn't he indicate that this was still the practice at the time he was writing that statement, if he believed that to be the case?

Kirby's words in this document clearly imply that he believes the work-for-hire arrangement is a thing of the past, and not a standard agreement at the time he wrote the statement in 1966.

Quantum and Woody

I haven't talked about the questions surrounding the upcoming, non-Priest-and-Bright Quantum and Woody comic because there's so much we don't know and I didn't want to jump the gun.

Today, for the first time, we got word from Mark Bright that the situation with Valiant is "amicable":

As far as I know Priest hasn’t spoken to anyone about anything concerning Quantum and Woody other than myself and that happened only within the last month or so… Our position with Valiant isn’t adversarial. The people at Valiant have been more than willing to talk about what is happening at the company and with Quantum and Woody and with Priest and me. What happens from here is yet to be seen, but everything thus far has been amicable.

Pretty vague, but it gives me hope.


Let me back up. (Ooh, out-of-sequence storytelling. Just like...Quantum and Woody!)

Quantum and Woody was a comic book in the mid-1990's, created by writer Christopher Priest and artist Mark Bright. It was a superhero buddy-cop comedy. It was funny as hell and became a cult hit; it remains one of my all-time favorite comic books.

Quantum and Woody was published by Acclaim, a video game company that was briefly in the comics business, having bought out a publisher called Valiant.

Priest and Bright's contract contained a reversion clause -- if the book went out of print, they had the opportunity to buy the rights.

But Acclaim went bankrupt. Its assets were auctioned off. Somebody bought the rights to its superhero line, and eventually a couple of Valiant fans bought the company name and those rights.

Now, I've done a bit of reading on bankruptcy law. And yes, it is possible for somebody to buy up copyrights without buying into the contracts associated with them. This is, legally, a breach of contract -- but the company liable for the breach is the bankrupt company, not the buyer.

Which, I'm not gonna lie, seems pretty goddamn stupid from where I'm sitting. What the fuck good is it to make a bankrupt company liable for anything? It's not like they're ever going to pay any damages.

Anyhow, the new Valiant doesn't appear to have done anything legally wrong. Indeed, they appear to be treating the old Valiant/Acclaim creators better than they're legally obligated to -- the article I linked above suggests that they are paying royalties for the back issues they've put up on Comixology, and while it doesn't cite a source, I think that would go a long way to explaining why things are "amicable" with Priest and Bright -- and Kevin Maguire, who had some harsh words for Valiant back in March but who has since smoothed things over with them.


So what happened, anyway?

Kevin Maguire claimed, back in a series of posts on Bleeding Cool in March, that Priest and Bright attempted to trigger their reversion rights before Acclaim's bankruptcy but that Acclaim stonewalled them on a technicality.

Rich Johnston, on the other hand, has uncovered a 2005 interview where Priest says he and Bright never acted on reversion because they were busy with other projects.

Now, it could be that Priest was being diplomatic and keeping things close to the vest -- that would be consistent with his silence on the matter these last few months.

Or it could be that Maguire is mistaken and Priest and Bright didn't attempt reversion.

The answers aren't clear, and probably never will be.

But it's good to hear that things are amicable, and it sounds like Valiant is in touch with Priest and Bright and is making an effort to do the right thing. That's great news.

What would be better would be to read some actual new material by Priest and Bright -- Quantum and Woody or anything else. Fingers crossed.


Meanwhile: IGN is running Quantum and Woody Weekly, by James Asmus and Ty Templeton, to promote the upcoming series. And I have to admit, the first one made me smile.

It's not Priest and Bright. But it's not bad.