Remix, Rinse, Repeat!

Posted by Dan Friday, July 08, 2005 1 comments

Don Simpson, the singular talent behind the non-pariel Megaton Man, and the outstanding, Bizarre Heroes comics, has his own blog here on Blogger. Recently, he wrote an essay reviling the paper tiger state of creators' rights, currently running rampant through the comic book industry, and calling the fans out for perpetuating a vicious buying cycle of pre-digested, regurgitated crap. It's a great essay by one of the most enduring independent creators in the industry, and it's definitely worth a read, if for no other reason than to see the bitter resolve that can fester from a lifetime spent railing against the large comics publishing houses.

If you are going to write for comics today, there are three publishers that make up the majority of the market. From a purely economic standard, everything else is small change. The big three: Marvel, D.C., and Image, have a bad set of business practices that have been beaten into creators since the beginning of the art form, called work for hire. A work made for hire is any work that becomes the property of the employer when it is specially ordered or commissioned from one or more of their employees. It's generally used to simplify copyright law concerning technical manuals, user guides, and things that are compiled by a group, like computer programs. The problem is that in the case of comic books, they really don't fall into the group created category. They are in fact cut whole cloth from the imaginations of two creators, a writer, and an artist.

Many of the original writers and artists who created the works we all know and love today were never told they were making work for hire product. They were, for the most part, depression era teenagers that were duped by the publishers into signing their creations away for pennies per page, sometimes not even receiving credit for what they had created. Many of the artists were never given back their original artwork, and nobody but the company ever made any money from licensing or reprints.

Today, creators have made some inroads against the work for hire mentality, largely due to the efforts of stalwart creators like Don Simpson. Some creators are now paid a reprint royalty, and all of the big three publishers have created umbrella imprints with provisions for creator owned properties. However, the damage was done a long time ago. Superman is wholly owned by AOL/Time Warner, and its subsidiary D.C. Comics, not Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster, the two men who created him. Spider-Man is owned by Marvel Comics Inc., not by his creators, Stan Lee and Steve Ditko.

Stan Lee recently won a court case against Marvel Comics that entitled him to an undisclosed slice of the multi-million dollar Spider-Man franchise pie. Good on ya' Stan, but too little to late Marvel. Still and all, Marvel's settlement with Stan was a good bit of P.R. spin for a company that used to print its work for hire contracts on the back of its payroll checks.

Today, any writer or artist who wants to play with icons like Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Spider-Man, Captain America, or the X-Men will find himself generating revenue for the corporation, while the pockets of the original creators remain empty. Work made for hire that allows corporations the ownership of what is clearly the intellectual property of these creators is underhanded at best, and downright criminal at its worst.

The side effect of having corporate control over the most popular and instantly recognizable comic book heroes is that it has bred a culture of re-interpretation, and recycling. If the creators of an intellectual property like The Fantastic Four actually live long enough, they will get to see their ideas periodically redesigned by different artists, and re-interpreted by different writers. For comic books, this actually works, to a point. Just like with an original work, sometimes creative teams succeed, and sometimes they don't.

This brings me back around to Don Simpson's essay, Counterfeit Comics. In it, he proposes the thesis that, "any [comic] title produced by anyone other than the strip's original creator is counterfeit. "He goes on further to state that, "Fans have actually been conditioned to be intrigued by the announcement of new creative line-ups, new storyline tangents, renumbered series, etc."My problem with this isn't necessarily the message. However, it's more than a little disingenuous to single out the comic book industry and comics fandom as a whole for this, especially when his initial analogy is the music industry, which is just as guilty as the comic book publishers of stepping all over creator's rights.

The most galling thing about this essay, though, is that Simpson holds up music fans as a savvier buying public. He continues, "...the music industry (who occasionally experiments with things like The New Monkees and Broadway shows of old rock albums, but by an (sic.) large respects the integrity of their product and the intelligence of consumers.)"

This is the industry that created the terms remix and music sampling. The same industry that constantly buries the names of its songwriters in tiny, often hard to read liner notes, and promotes name branding and packaging above talent. This industry regularly and quite successfully dupes its audience into believing that talentless drudges like Celine Dion, Britney Spears, Jessica Simpson, and Vanilla Ice are artists, worthy of their money and attention. This industry regularly allows the re-interpretation and recycling of music in the form of the cover song.

Even Simpson's initial analogy doesn't hold water. The Beatles had ten albums under their fab belts before they finally released one that didn't contain music written by someone other than John Lennon and Paul McCartney. Cover tunes are a regurgitated staple to music fans. Case in point, The Ataris. This band has been around since the early 90s, but they didn't actually gain any sort of popular acceptance until they covered Don Henley's ode to mid 80s melancholia, Boys of Summer. The music industry is rife with this type of regurgitation. Countless bands made it by recycling old standbys.

Songwriters are as abused by the work for hire system as comics writers and artists, and the music buying public is more than willing to shell out good money after bad for prefabricated, unoriginal crap. I'm not saying comics fans are much better. After all, we did make superstars out of Joe Staton, Carmine Infantino, and Rob Liefeld, not to mention the incomprehensible love affair with Chris Clairmont.

However, having said all that, I will submit that re-interpretation is not always a bad thing. Henry Rollins and Bad Brains cover of The MC5's Kick Out The Jams, rocks way beyond the reach of the original. Concrete Blonde's moody, black within black version of Wave of Mutilation is far superior to the original Pixies tune (for me, that's blasphemy), and if you've never heard Shakira's cover of Back in Black or No Doubt's SKAed up version of Come on Eileen, you're really missing out.

My point here is that, to dismiss any re-interpretation or re-working as invalid because it wasn't done by the original creators is just ludicrous, especially with comics. This statement dismisses Alan Moore and Rick Veitch's Swamp Thing, Neil Gaiman's Sandman, Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' Watchmen, not to mention Moore and Gaiman's remake of Miracleman. It invalidates large portions of the careers of Frank Miller, Warren Ellis, Steven Grant, Kurt Busiek, George Perez, Jim Lee, Neil Adams, and Alex Ross.

The message is sound. Creators should strive for originality in everything they do, but they should also feel free to build on what other creators have left behind. I'll stop short of quoting Ecclesiastes here. Suffice it to say that there are very few original ideas left in this world. The act of creation is tantamount to beating dead men at their own game. It's terribly naive to think that one mass market is any more perceptive than another. The buying public is the buying public, no matter what, and big corporations will always go out of their way to leech away the buyers' money. The trick is cutting through the dross to get to the good stuff. Originality is in the eye of the beholder.

Director's Commentary - LWM Review

Posted by Dan Wednesday, July 06, 2005 0 comments

This essay was another SAVANT child. It's a bit dated now, but it suddenly has a strange new relevance. A week or so ago, Paul Sizer contacted me and asked if I would be a beta reader for his new graphic novel Moped Army. Of course I said yes, and though I can't tell you all about it yet, I will say that anyone who buys this is in for a treat.

Paul now has his own publishing imprint called Cafe Digital, and you can get the Little White Mouse collections from there. He will also be soliciting them through Diamond Distributing (Hmmmm... maybe I'd better get him together with Khepri.com ), so your local comics store might carry them too. If they're savvy that is.

Paul is one of the coolest guys on the planet, and his work is criminally overlooked by comics readers. Little White Mouse is suitable for all ages, and it's a fantastic read. Buy yourself an early Christmas present. Hell, buy your best friend one too. They'll thank you for it, trust me.

Riding the stars with the Little White Mouse

Posted by Dan Friday, July 01, 2005 0 comments

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Little White Mouse- Perfect Collection 1&2
By Paul Sizer
$14.95 Blue Line Pro Comics

Little White Mouse is the best comic book you're not reading. It's your fault Paul Sizer has to sling hash at the local McPerkins, (the midnight shift t... for shame you people.) And it's your fault I can't find this book on the rack at my local comic shop. Every month I have to pour over every page of until my eyes bleed, in the futile hope that I'll catch this little mag before it disappears into the miasma of reorder hell. It sucks trying to track this comic down on a monthly basis. It seems nobody but me (and possibly the gals over at Sequential Tart) reads the damned thing, and worse, it has a microscopic publisher better suited to churning out Bristol board pages and sketchpads than putting out a regular comic book.

Fortunately for all of us, somebody at thought it might be a good idea to let Paul Sizer work his magic on two of the best graphic collections to grace the comics reading public since Bendis' last spined edition of Powers. Not only that, but (gasp) they're keeping it in print. Now you have no excuse. Go out and buy this comic! Buy two and give one to your indigent friend who always borrows your mags, but never seems to have enough money to get his own. Read this comic. It will clear up your acne, babes will suddenly find you interesting, and people will start taking you seriously. Well, probably not, but you'll get a damned fine read out of the deal. And your indigent friend will definitely be interested enough to pick up the next collection for himself. Though he probably won't get one for you.

I discovered Paul Sizer and his creation Loo (the title character) at the 2001 Wizard Convention in Chicago. He was crammed into the artists' ghetto at the back of the Con with the other forgotten creators. You've seen them, the artists and writers published by small independent companies (and the even lower creatures who eke out their meager existence self publishing.) They're the ones who stare at you with haunted eyes as you breeze by them in your blissful shopping frenzy. If you look at them you'll see faces painted with equal parts quiet desperation and hope (It helps if you wear sunglasses and look down as you pass their tables.) Blue Line Pro had just collected his first Little White Mouse mini series into their inaugural Perfect Collection, and they'd obviously spent enough money on the man to set him up with a giant velveteen display screen. Nobody else had a divider that big, so it was enough to draw me in.

On approach, I was met by an oversized poster of a little Japanese girl. I could tell she was Japanese by her huge wide eyes and her spiky black hair haphazardly tucked through a backwards baseball cap. (Ah, the benefits of a classic Manga education.) Standing there, looking up at her, three things struck me about this girl. First, she was irreverently chewing bubble gum, (cheeky, but not necessarily off-putting) second, she had a prominent band-aid on her right forearm, and finally, she was cocked, locked, and loaded with a classic science fiction BFG. (That's Big Fucking Gun for those of you who still retain luddite tendencies.) Even though we hadn't yet been properly introduced, I just knew this girl was going to be trouble.

I talked to Mr. Sizer for a bit, asking him the usual ignorant fanboy convention questions; "Who are you?", "What is this Mouse thing?", "What's so special about you that you rate this massive display screen when Carla Speed McNeil is over there making due with a lousy cork board?" He answered me politely, with an air of humility that I'd rarely seen in an artist who was obviously so talented. He gave me a brief outline of Little White Mouse and when I asked to see a copy, he wearily explained that his publisher had dropped the ball and hadn't yet brought the books in from the vans, so he really didn't have anything other than the promo art to show me. I was just about to move on when he did the weirdest thing. He stood up, shook my hand, and thanked me for stopping by his booth.

When I snapped out of the shock trauma of receiving genuine human contact within a feeding frenzy of corporate shilling and pushy consumers, it was the next day, and I was once again standing in front of the Blue Line Pro booth. I shelled out my fifteen bucks for the graphic novel to one of the BLP guys, and was about to grab one off the table, when Mr. Sizer twisted himself free from a group of chatty fans and personally delivered my book. I thanked him and moved on, not wanting to suck up any more of his time than I already had. The day after the con, I opened up Little White Mouse for the first time. Not only had Paul Sizer handed me a head sketch of Loo with the words "thanks Dan" scrawled under his signature, but he'd also given me one of the best graphic stories I'd ever read.

Sizer works magic with his prodigious array of penciling and inking skills, taking full advantage of the book's black and white format. From cover to closing, Little White Mouse looks like something laid out by a graphic design major with a penchant for breaking the bell curve. He uses broken panel borders to convey heightened emotion, smaller panels to speed up action, larger panels and splashes to slow down and freeze time. The Fever Dream section of the second collection particularly stands out as he uses a comical Manga format (a la Ben Dunn) cut with his own drawing style to highlight the difference between dream and reality. He takes a minimalist approach to backgrounds which serves to focus your attention on the characters and the story they are telling. Sizer's art style is unique, blending Geof Darrow's exacting line work with Masamune Shirow's sense of layout and design. The result is a melding of Japanese and American graphic sensibilities that is a delight to the eyes

The artwork is amazing, but what makes Little White Mouse great is its narrative. Like the first line of any good story, the art is the "hook" that draws you in, but it's the story's job to keep you there, and this tale will keep you turning pages well past your bedtime. Sizer takes one of the most overused tropes in science fiction, Robinson Crusoe in space", filters it through the eyes of an impossibly brilliant teenage girl, and succeeds in telling a tale that is unique in its vision and well stocked with vibrant, interesting characters.

The primary narrative is told by Loo Th'eng, affectionately nicknamed Little White Mouse by her grandfather (hence the title.) She and her sister escape from a transport ship shortly before it explodes, only to crash land on a mysteriously deserted mining asteroid. The station is still operating under the control of the central computer system which doesn't seem to realize that its human crew is dead. Loo's sister is killed on impact, leaving her stranded and alone. Her basic needs of food and shelter are provided, and Loo soon realizes that there may be hope of resurrecting her sister into a robot body from scraps of her personality that were imprinted onto the main hard drive of her shuttle's wrecked computer. It's a Herculean task that becomes an obsession for Loo that often overrides her driving need to escape her situation.

Loo's already been aboard the asteroid for a month as we pick up the story. Her only companions are two robots programmed to serve the station's long dead human crew, the ghost of one of the station's engineers, and her ever present journal. The journal serves as a convenient flashback device wherein we are introduced to Loo's family, and the circumstances which led up to her current situation. It quickly becomes apparent that the journal is Loo's main touchstone to sanity in the face of her overwhelming isolation. The story continues as Loo fills up her days by matching wits with the station's main computer which sees her as a disruptive threat as she goes about scrounging desperately needed parts from the station to rebuild her sister.

Sizer does a masterful job of thrusting us into the role of voyeur as he makes us privy to all the inner workings of his characters. At its core, Little White Mouse is a story about desperation and loneliness, and how we as human beings deal with those two personal demons. It is a tale filled with ingenuity, personal courage, and most of all hope. It's pretty much the entire human equation wrapped up in just over 200 pages of science fiction trappings. It's pure magic. Just read it, you'll love it.

The Little White Mouse Perfect Collections 1 and 2 are both currently available directly from Blue Line Pro Press, and every three months or so Previews solicits them again, so your local comic shop should be able to get them for you. It's well worth the hunt. The story is the showpiece, but these two books are also packed full of extra goodies. They have production sketches, fan art by other pros savvy enough to follow Sizer's work (including Geof Darrow), and promo artwork, all in glorious black and white.
Find these graphic gems and buy them. Paul Sizer is a genius and his work is criminally overlooked. Trust me, you won't be disappointed.

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Dan
Im an essayist, critic, online blogger, short story writer and to borrow a descriptor from Peter David, "Writer of stuff." I love all things pop culture related: Music, Movies, Comics, Books, Politics... if you can label it I probably have an opinion about it, and I love to argue. All informed opinions are welcome here.
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