Monday, January 14, 2019

Remembering Batton Lash

I was extremely saddened to hear about the passing of cartoonist Batton Lash on January 12. Although I've posted my thoughts about him on Facebook and Twitter, I thought I'd post something for posterity here as well....

Being a fellow self-publisher, he and his wife (and business partner) Jackie Estrada were among the first people in the industry to make me feel welcome as a professional and like I belonged. As all the comments made by people in the industry show in response to his passing, Batton was well-respected and liked throughout the field at many levels, by fellow pros both in mainstream and alternative comics, as well as retailers, fans, and many others. Of course, some of this was just smart business sense and promotion, but it also was part and parcel of Batton's gregarious, positive personality. Like many creative fields, cartooning is a tough way to make a living and requires a lot of hard work and hustle (and I mean that in a positive way), and Batton's determination and resilience as a cartoonist, and his ability to straddle a variety of styles and comics, made him a throwback to "old school" cartoonists. Batton often liked to tell the anecdote about how he took a cartooning class with comics legend Will Eisner, who pretty much advised him not to quite his day job. They joked about it in later years, but Batton's subsequent success was as much the result of talent as sheer determination, which is essential to this business.

I often made it a point to stop by to say hi to Batton and Jackie at the San Diego Comic-Con—where he was a fixture with a booth at a prime location on the main floor—and had the pleasure of being at smaller shows and book signings with him, where we often talked shop and business. Given the number of people he knew, our relationship was more professional than personal, but he was always warm and open with whoever he spoke with and being fellow self-publishers certainly made it a special bond. Batton and Jackie were great supporters and role models, and happy to share information and advice. (I don't have concrete evidence, but I also think Batton and Jackie both had some hand in the recognition I received at the 2018 San Diego Comic-Con as a special guest.)

Batton's illness was fairly public knowledge and I made it a special point to visit him at his booth the past few years. He was always his usual upbeat and cheerful self—though I wasn't completely aware of his progress, his passing was nevertheless a bit of a surprise.

I was privileged to have our two characters—Rob Hanes and Wolff & Byrd—play together in a pinup for his series, which appeared in issue 7 of Wolff & Byrd, reproduced below. It remains one of my personal favorite such pinups I've done and I'm glad to share it in Batton's memory.

Friday, January 4, 2019

REVIEW: We Told You So: Comics as Art

This is a review of the Kindle edition.

In 2016, Fantagraphics Books celebrated its 40th anniversary and, to mark the occasion, published We Told You So: Comics as Art by two comics journalists and former Fantagraphics employees, Tom Spurgeon and Michael Dean. An oral history clocking in at 500 pages (the print edition), it’s an in-depth and compelling insider’s look at the company’s history consisting of direct-quote reminiscences from present and former employees, cartoonists, industry pros and more. For most, the book may seem a bit esoteric, self-indulgent and “inside baseball,” as readers are given insight into Fantagraphics  behind the scenes during the company’s founding and history, operations, personalities, and its most illustrious, notorious and even insignificant moments. But it's a fascinating read for someone like me with an interest in publishing, and who grew up with Fantagraphics and particularly the Comics Journal, its storied, once-flagship magazine of “news and criticism." I witnessed the company's growth and many of its battles firsthand as reported in its pages and other comics news reports of the day, and knew many of the players by name and reputation, so reading this oral history brought many of those memories back to vivid life.

Fantagraphics was founded in 1976 by Gary Groth and Mike Catron to publish their comics adzine/fanzine, the Nostalgia Journal, which was soon renamed the Comics Journal (TCJ). Kim Thompson joined the company about a year later; following Catron’s departure soon after, it was Groth and Thompson who would become the guiding pillars of the company. (Thompson passed away fairly suddenly in 2013.)

The first magazine-format version
of the Comics Journal (#37)
While I wasn’t quite at the ground floor of its founding as a reader, I grew up with the company aesthetically, discovering TCJ with issue 38 (cover dated 1977), shortly after it had changed its name to the Comics Journal and become a monthly magazine. Starting with that issue, I own nearly the full run of the magazine, which today are scattered around my various boxes of stored comics and periodicals.

And what a ride it’s been, transforming over the years from fanzine and news magazine provocateurs, alternative comics publisher, pornographers (more on that below), to respected book publisher. Today, Fantagraphics is home to some of the world’s leading alternative comics artists like the Hernandez Brothers (Love and Rockets), Daniel Clowes (Ghost World and Eightball), Chris Ware (Acme Comics Library), and stewards of the complete works of iconic cartoonists like Jules Feiffer, Robert Crumb and Charles Schulz (that’s quite a lineup!).

The book covers many of the highs (and lows) of the company’s history. While TCJ began as a traditional fanzine of mainstream (i.e., superhero) comics, it soon became the enfant terrible of the comics industry as Groth and Thompson began the rather quixotic quest of holding comics to a higher artistic standard, while also providing more in-depth coverage of the personalities and business practices of the industry. (The lengthy interviews were particularly a distinct feature of the magazine). Along the way, Groth, Thompson and the magazine made many enemies (a phrase I don’t use lightly), earning reputations as elitists (and worse), which they seemed to revel in and embrace, often initiating attacks that some considered personal and vicious. The feuds (and related litigation) the company engaged in back in its prime are legendary and well documented in the book. In the days before the internet and social media, it was like watching flame wars and trolling occur in slow motion over months or even years, as people battled through letters and editorials each issue.*

[In full disclosure, I should add that I even got into the act—TCJ published a critical essay and a review by me in issues 101 (August 1985) and 108 (May 1986); I also had a couple of pieces of art published in Amazing Hereos, its sister magazine that contained more traditional coverage of mainstream comics.)*

Love and Rockets #1
1982 brought a major sea change when its founders decided to put their money where their mouth was, by publishing their first (creator-owned) comic book series, one that reflected their own tastes and values. This was the groundbreaking Love and Rockets by the Hernandez Brothers (Jaime and Gilbert), re-packaging and re-releasing the first issue the brothers had already self-published and sent to Fantagraphics for review. (I own this first issue and its initial full run as well!) While Love and Rockets didn’t start the independent comics movement per se (Cerebus the Aardvark and Elfquest had launched in the late ‘70s), it became the flagship for both Fantagraphics and the “alternative” comics movement—a term the book amusingly makes clear was a somewhat contrived marketing ploy lifted from the music industry by a Fantagraphics publicist, which the publishers weren't really comfortable with. But the term stuck and proved to be an apt description.

From there, the company began expanding its comics line with artists like the above-mentioned Clowes and Ware, as well as, Peter Bagge (Hate), and many others; and expanding into other diverse comics including translated work, collections, etc. Many of these cartoonists were not money-makers, but Fantagraphics published work they felt deserved exposure.

However, as the internet became a primary source of news and online discussion for comics, much like the mainstream magazine market, TCJ sales declined, making their comics and book publishing even more important to the company’s bottom line. While the company always lived on the edge financially, two particular episodes brought the company to the brink of collapse, only to be saved by some out-of-the box thinking. The first was the collapse in the late 1980s of a speculator boom in the comics industry that caused the market to tank, particularly small independent publishers like Fantagraphics. Fantagraphics’ solution was to launch a line of “erotic” (i.e., pornographic) comics in 1990, under the imprint Eros Comics, that helped the company weather the storm for the coming years.

With the enthusiastic support of Charles Schulz widow
and estate, Fantagraphics published the full run of
Peanuts in 25 volumes (plus a 26th bonus) from 2004–16
The second incident came in 2004, when Fantagraphics' book distributor went bankrupt, leaving the company suddenly $70,000 in the hole. The company desperately reached out to readers (and their catalog mailing list), explaining the situation and asking people to make a purchase from Fantagraphics’ deep inventory to boost their bottom line. Readers and the industry came through, infusing the company with $100,000 inside of a month.

The book also covers the company’s physical moves over the years, from the east coast and New England, to Southern California, to its present home in Seattle—a seemingly perfect fit as it arrived there along with the burgeoning alt-rock movement that was emerging; and the parade of often eccentric and low-paid interns and employees who crossed the company’s doorstep. The book is full of insider reminiscences that also covers the personalities and chemistry of Groth, Thompson and the people who worked for them for little pay.

While the company still retains its gonzo quality, it also seems to have grown up a bit, no doubt due to the mellowing with age of its principal owners. It’s found some stability and focus with its book publishing and has pretty much moved on from (or perhaps more accurately given up) trying to change the mainstream by focusing on just putting out comics and books that reflects the company’s values. Indeed, underscoring the challenges of comics publishers that do not publish "traditional" continuity-driven periodical comics or the like, Fantagraphics' bread and butter today comes from the more broader book market, not the narrower direct-sales comics market. Other such "boutique" comics publishers have followed in their footsteps.

Despite the nostalgia for classic comics from a more innocent time before they got wrapped up in stifling continuity and being fodder for licensing, franchise films and TV shows, we are today truly living in a "golden age" of comics, with a diversity of comics for all tastes, paralleling the fragmentation of audiences we’ve seen in television/streaming services/broadcast media. While Fantagraphics did not single handedly create the alternative comics market, it certainly played a big role in making that happen.

Postscript: During the 2018 San Diego Comic-Con, Fantagraphics announced that the print version of TCJ was returning in 2019, having ceased publishing as a magazine in 2011 and continuing as a website.


* In 1981, realizing that the mission of the TCJ had moved beyond the mainstream, it introduced Amazing Heroes, a more traditional (and less controversial) comics magazine that covered the industry in a more sanguine and positive manner as a compliment to the more hard-hitting TCJ. (The 1980s and ‘90 were a golden age of sorts for comics magazines and zines, which I collected as enthusiastically as the comics themselves, each with its own personality, such as the weekly tabloid-format Comic Buyer’s Guide (CBG), a dependable source of more traditional news, reviews and information that acted both as a fanzine and industry trade journal which served as a nice complement and counterpoint to TCJ. Between the CBG and TCJ, I felt both provided a fairly comprehensive view of what was going on in the industry. There were other great magazines as well during this period, such as Comics Interview, Comics Feature and more).

Sunday, December 30, 2018

Entertainment Roundup for 2018

As I do every year, here is a list of the films, books, television and streamed shows, plays, live performance, etc., I took in for the year just ending. My usual caveat is that while I strive to be exhaustive, I am sure there are some items that slip through the cracks. (I just noticed I'm missing a lot of comics here for example).

Among my favorite films this year were Mission: Impossible 6, which surprisingly seems to get stronger with each entry, Avengers: Infinity War, and Spider-Man: Into the Spider-verse. In terms of television/streaming, the highlights for me were binge-watching the complete seven seasons of Call the Midwife, the second seasons of GLOW and Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, and the third and final season of Love on Netflix. A delightful end-of-year discovery was the Derry Girls on Netflix. Other highlights included visiting the offices of DC Comics/Mad Magazine and seeing cartoonist Howard Chaykin speak live at the ArtCenter College of Design in Pasadena.

Anyway, without any further ado:

Marie Antoinette - Netflix (1/1/2018)
The Polka King - Netflix (1/13/2018)
The Post (1/15/2018)
A Serious Man (2/10/2018)
Something About Mary (2/10/2018)
War Machine - Netflix (2/11/2018) - N
Carol - Netflix (2/11/2018)*
Black Panther (2/18/2018)
Isle of Dogs (3/07/2018)
King of Comedy (03/08/2018)
Game Over, Man - Netflix (04/08/2018)
The Clapper - Netflix (5/12/18)
Solo: A Star Wars Story (05/27/2018)
The Conspirator - Netflix (05/30/2018)
Avengers: Infinity War (4/29/2018)
Dead Again (7/16/2018)
A Very English Scandal - Amazon (7/2018)
Yellow Submarine (7/23/2018)
Larry Crowne - Netflix (7/27/18)
Mission: Impossible 6: Fallout (7/29/2018)
Up in the Air - Netflix (8/3/2018)
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society - Netflix (8/12/2018)
Like Father - Netflix (8/16/2018)
Death of Stalin - Amazon (9/1/2018)
Hysteria - Amazon (9/14/2018)
Disobedience – Amazon Prime (11/2018)
I’m Sorry, Season 1, Episode 1 – Netflix (11/4/2018)
Monty Python’s Flying Circus, Season 1 (11/4/2018)
They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead - Netflix (11/4/2018)
The Madness of King George – Amazon Prime (11/2018)
Monty Python’s Life of Brian (11/22/2018)
Creed - Amazon (12/2/2018)
Mary Poppins Returns (12/25/2018)
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (12/24/2018)

Derry Girls - Netflix (12/27/2018)
Jim Gaffigan: Noble Ape (12/19/2018)
The Kominsky Method: Season 1, Episode 1 - Netflix (11/29/2018)
Romanoffs - Season 1, Episode 1 – Amazon Prime (11/2018)
Call the Midwife (Seasons 1-7) - Netflix (10/82018)
Jack Ryan - Netflix (9/8/2018)
Kim's Convenience (Seasons 1-2) - Netflix (8/19/2018)
Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee: New 2018: - Netflix (7/24/18)
GLOW: Season 2 – Netflix (7/17/18)
6/29/18 The King's Speech
6/24/18 Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story
Steve Martin and Martin Short: An Evening You Will Forget for the Rest of Your Life - Netflix (05/25/2018)
The Drifters - Amazon Prime (05/2018)
Family Tree - Amazon Prime (05/2018)
Mister Rogers & Me- Amazon Prime (04/2018)
American Playboy: The Hugh Hefner Story - Amazon Prime (04/2018)
One Night Stand 59: Flight of the Conchords (04/2018)
Love - Season 3 (03/30/2018)
My Next Guest Needs No Introduction With David Letterman: George Clooney - Netflix (3/1/18)
Jerry Seinfeld: I'm Telling You for the Last TimeThe Keepers - Netflix (2/26/18)
Eagle vs. Shark - Netflix (2/23/18)
The Toys that Made Us - Netflix (2/10/2018)
Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee - Netflix (1/2018)
Tenacious D - Amazon (HBO show) (1/2018)
Vicious - Amazon (1/2018)
Victoria: Season 2 (1/2018)
The L Word: Season 1 - Netflix (1/2018)
Jim Gaffigan - Cinco - Netflix (1/13/2018)

Exhibitions/Plays/Live Performance:
Body Works Exhibit (1/14/2018)
Space Shuttle Endeavor (1/14/2018)
C3 Conference, Long Beach (1/16/2018)
Long Beach Comics Convention (1/17/2018)
Visit to DC Comics/Mad Magazine (6/2/2018)
2018 Emmy’s Costume Exhibit at FIDM Museum (9/9/2018)
The Ralph Report - The Improv (9/15/2018)
Howard Chaykin at ArtCenter College of Design (9/17/2018)
She Loves Me (9/30/2018)

Tarzan by Edgar Rice Burroughs (6/2018)
Tarzan Returns by Edgar Rice Burroughs (6/2018)
We Told you So: Comics as Art by Michael Dean and Tom Spurgeon (12/2018)

Thursday, December 27, 2018

2018 Recap: A Look Back and Looking Ahead....

2018 was a banner year for WCG Comics—I was honored to be featured as a Special Guest at the San Diego Comic-Con in July, which included a scheduled Spotlight Panel on my work at the show! I was surprised and humbled by how well attended the panel was, which was great fun and, I hope, entertaining, thanks in large part to Barry Gregory, CEO of Ka-Blam Digital Printing, who at my invitation graciously joined me and moderated the panel. (Ka-Blam also has a webstore that sells print-on-demand and digital comics, IndyPlanet.)

And then, of course, to top it off, during the spotlight panel, I was shocked but honored to be presented with an Inkpot Award for Contributions to Comic Art! (Filmmaker Kevin Smith, actress Nichelle Nichols, and cartoonists Jason Lutes and Shannon Wheeler were also among this year’s recipients; many of my cartoonist idols, including Milton Caniff and Alex Toth, are among the illustrious list of past recipients, as are others like George Lucas and Steven Spielberg for their achievements in the broader popular arts.)

This past year, I also released issue 19 of Rob Hanes Adventures, featuring a story entitled, “Enemy of the State." In the story, in keeping with the often topical nature of the series, Justice International is nationalized by the Federal government as the new investigative arm of a new White House administration, in a story that reflects the country’s current turbulent political climate.

Expect issue 20 of the series to be released in 2019, continuing the above storyline with “Citizen Humbert." The landmark issue is expected to debut at next year's San Diego Comic-Con, scheduled July 18–21, 2019—and with that said, I'm pleased to confirm that I'll indeed have a booth at the show at my usual location. This year's Comic-Con promises to be memorable since it marks the event's 50th anniversary! More details to come as we get closer to the event.

Scroll down to see some photo highlights!

Social Media

This past year, I made it a goal to be more active and engaged on social media—it has been great fun interacting directly with friends, fans, fellow pros and others! If you're on any of the platforms below, feel free to follow (and I'll likely follow back!)

Twitter: @randywcgcomics
Facebook/personal page:
Facebook/company page:
Instagram: (though not quite so active here yet)

Thursday, December 6, 2018

Consider the Gift of Comics for the Holidays!

As the holidays approach, consider sharing a Rob Hanes Adventures comic-book series collection as a holiday gift for a friend or loved one! Visit our online store for options!

Volumes 0, 1 and 2 are each separately available at a special holiday price of $10.99 (regularly $14.99), collecting the series through issue 8 of the series (volume 0 collects an earlier run of the series). You can also purchase the entire run of the series for as low as $49.99, encompassing two trade paperbacks and 19 full issues!

2018 truly was a banner year for WCG Comics—I was honored to be featured as a Special Guest at the San Diego Comic-Con in July and, to top it off, was surprised with an Inkpot Award for Contributions to Comic Art during my panel!

In addition, at the show, issue 19 of the series was released, featuring a story entitled, “Enemy of the State." In keeping with the often topical nature of the series, Justice International is nationalized by the Federal government as the new investigative arm of a new White House administration, in a story that reflects the country’s current turbulent political climate.

Milestone issue 20 of Rob Hanes Adventures continues the storyline with “Citizen Humbert” that will feature a shock ending, which is targeted for release at the 2019 San Diego Comic-Con. As this suggests, I'm pleased to announce that I'll have a booth at the 2019 show, which promises to be memorable since it marks Comic-Con’s 50th anniversary! More details to come, of course, as we get closer to the event.

Once again, enjoy the happiest of holidays and warmest wishes for a memorable and exciting 2019!

Wednesday, November 7, 2018


Note: this review contains a minor spoiler alert and is based on the Kindle digital edition of the graphic album.

On Twitter last year, someone from France who was new to my work asked if I had ever heard of the French comic-book series, Ric Hochet, created by artist Tibet (a pseudonym for French cartoonist Gilbert Gascard) and writer André-Paul Duchâtexau, as my work reminded him of that series, which focused on the adventures of an investigative reporter for a French newspaper.

I was able to say I was vaguely aware of it, but the query led me to look up editions translated into English. Though the series was created in 1955—with 78 graphic albums published to date—no English editions were available except for one: Ric Hochet, Volume 1: R.I.P., Ric!, an English language edition released just a few months prior in June 2017 (the original French edition appeared in 2015). However, the album seems to be part of a re-booted new series by another cartoonist, Zidrou, following in the footsteps of the original creators. (A postscript at the back of the edition notes, “The story and all the joy we felt in creating it are dedicated to Tibet.”)

While of course it’s hard to tell if the story is representative of the series or a sort of post-modern take on the original since I have not seen earlier stories, it was a great read—a sophisticated adventure/mystery that felt very classic, tying in with the series’ past continuity and building on its supporting cast of characters, including villains.

Excerpt from Ric Hochet, Volume I: R.I.P., Ric! (2017)

Minor spoiler alert ahead: In fact, in retrospect, the only somewhat interesting choice of first story in this re-boot is the fact that the lead character, Ric Hochet, doesn’t actually appear much—the story, instead, focuses on the inner journey of a villain called “The Chameleon” from a past adventure (“The Chameleon’s Shadow”) who, using plastic surgery and his gift for impersonation, assumes Ric’s identity and life as part of an elaborate scheme of revenge and to destroy the reporter’s life and reputation. (I call this a “minor” spoiler alert since the conceit is revealed pretty much in the opening pages.) So the majority of the story is, in fact, told from the Chameleon’s point of view which, of course, cleverly reveals (and upends) aspects of Ric’s personality and history. We learn, for example, that Ric is a “boy scout,” so the Chameleon uses his charms to gain personal benefits and advantages Ric never did, at one point seducing the daughter of an old friend.

Again, without being completely familiar with the series, it’s difficult to know whether this approach is some clever meta-commentary about the author’s own attempt to capture the tone and feel of the original series. But aside from this conceit, the story seems respectful of the source material and told in a straightforward, unironic fashion. Regardless of whether or not this is reading too much into the story, “R.I.P., Ric!” is a fun and compelling read. I hope to see more of the original series or new stories available in the future.

Note: Since originally writing this review last year, I have since learned that two more new English-translated adventures from the series have dropped at Amazon.

Below: Additional samples of the series past and present.

New release, April 2018

Sunday, October 7, 2018

An Evening with Howard Chaykin

I’ve blogged here before about one of my favorite cartoonists, Howard Chaykin. On September 19, I had the opportunity to see him speak at a class on comics that was open to the public at the Art Center College of Design, a lovely campus nestled in an upscale residential area in Pasadena, CA, next to the Rose Bowl. Chaykin spoke at length about his career and the craft of creating comics.

Known for speaking his mind, Chaykin did not disappoint—but he was also charming, blunt and straightforward about the realities of working professionally in the creative arts/entertainment/comics field, which no doubt was of interest to the students in attendance. (About half the audience were students, the rest fans (and friends) of Chaykin like myself.)

Chaykin is a unique presence in comics because, as he points out, he falls in a gray area of the market that is not mainstream superhero comics per se but not truly alternative either—a trait I feel my work shares as well. He also often likes to claim that he’s never considered himself as naturally talented or technically gifted as many of his peers—as such, to compensate, and the fact that he has to compete against people much younger than himself (during the talk, he often humorously pointed to the students in the audience when making this point), he said he works his ass off and also periodically reinvents himself every few years so as to avoid being typecast or stale.

As a result, Chaykin has enjoyed a diverse, steady career and living—47 years, including a 15-year detour into television, which he said provided him with the financial safety net to work in comics. He mentioned that he was happy with where he was at this stage in his career because he gets to work on his own projects that have meaning for him.

While the event focused initially on some of his more iconic work, such as American Flagg!, Chaykin made clear that he was equally proud of his current work; the presentation did eventually turn into an overview of his career from Star Wars (work he doesn’t feel highly about, noting that it was released just a little before the royalty system at Marvel Comics was established, which he estimates could have netted $3–4 million) to Flagg, Time Squared (which he referred to as his favorite, most personal work), Black Kiss, to his more current work, including Divided States of Hysteria and Hey, Kids! Comics!

When Chaykin also touched on the subject of comics craft and storytelling, he was very thoughtful and insightful. He talked about his love of graphic design and patterns (which is indeed one of his great distinctive strengths), noting at one point how small panels often served as an exclamation point to stop the reader in their tracks. He also spoke about some of the innovations he introduced to the “language” of comics, which he believes he hasn’t always been given full credit for, which I believe is an accurate assessment. While I don’t entirely agree with his assertion that most comics readers are unaware of his work, Chaykin in many ways is indeed a classic “artist’s artists” who has influenced many of the cartoonists who have followed.

His talk was followed by an extensive Q&A. Afterwards, I had him kindly sign a Flagg trade paperback collection I had brought along for that purpose. I reminded him that I had recently done a Rob Hanes Adventures cover that was inspired by the first issue of Flagg (which he saw on Facebook) and we had been introduced years ago by a mutual friend—he was kind to say he did remember me. When I said I was sure everyone knew the inspiration for my cover, he responded with a sardonic chuckle, "Were you listening to my talk?", referring to the lack of awareness most mainstream comics fans have for his work.

Below are additional photos from the event.