Friday, August 31, 2007

It’s a Wonderful Life

Just in time for the centenary of cartoonist Milton Caniff's birth comes his biography, Meanwhile…, by comics historian R.C. Harvey.

As much as I admire Caniff, who created Terry and the Pirates and Steve Canyon, and put the Dragon Lady into the American lexicon, I must admit I was curious as to whether the subject—even one as seminal as Caniff—could sustain a reader's interest in a work of this length; especially since Caniff was by all accounts a modest person who led a charmed life without any real personal demons or secrets, and who was an all-around good guy with few enemies. (After all, conflict is the stuff of drama!)

Well, I should have had more faith. Harvey has artfully woven a compelling and entertaining narrative that is part biography and part literary criticism. All of the stories and anecdotes serve to advance the book's central themes related to the man's personality and career. He also deconstructs many of Caniff's strips and storytelling devices to showcase the cartoonist's artistry.

Caniff was the quintessential all-American: a self-made, over-achieving Horatio Alger who achieved success through grit and hard work. In high school and throughout his college career at Ohio State University, he was an Eagle Scout; a high school and college cheerleader; editor of the yearbook, school newspaper, and humor magazine; a member of men's glee; and of numerous honor societies, including the Sigma Chi fraternity which played an important role in his life. He also was an aspiring actor and performer, and did local theater in college. And he accomplished all this while working nearly full time professionally as a staff artist at a regional newspaper through his entire college career.

This work ethic was ingrained in him at an early age and he astonishingly maintained it throughout his life (yet still he always barely stayed on deadline). As a working artist myself, I must say his dedication to the grind was sobering but inspirational.

(One amusing anecdote in the book has a newspaper editor saying goodbye to Caniff at the end of the day where the cartoonist worked the night shift due to his college schedule; the editor later that evening spotted Caniff on stage performing in a local play, then saw him again the next morning at his drawing board when he came in to work. As this story shows, from the very start, Caniff learned to work at all hours of the day (and night) to meet his deadlines.)

As the book affirms, Caniff indeed led a charmed life. As his career began taking off, he and his lifelong partner and wife, Bunny, both theater buffs, lived for several years in upstate New York, in what is best described as a theater colony. Neighbors and friends included noted journalists, playwright Maxwell Anderson, actors Burgess Meredith and John Houseman, and for a summer, writer John Steinbeck. (Meredith once brought actor Charles Laughton around to show how Caniff had used his likeness for one of his villains, Anthony Sandhurst, in the strip. Laughton was delighted.)

In those heady years, the Caniffs attended private play readings at their neighbors' homes that included Meredith, Ingrid Bergman, and Rex Harrison, and they were regulars in the New York society scene. Caniff's studio often served as a salon of sorts for theater and cartoonist friends, with cocktail parties and poker games often going on at all hours. And through it all, Caniff worked.

Throughout his life, Caniff made the most of every opportunity that came his way. Just as importantly, these opportunities were the direct result of Caniff's hard work, ambition, personal charm, and networking abilities.

Harvey does a terrific job portraying the era and environment in which Caniff worked; in many respects, Caniff's life also encompasses the history of American cartooning and U.S. history. The book is a compelling read, and I'll be saddened when I'm done. It's great to read a story about a nice guy who, for once, finished first.

(Pictured above are the Caniffs at the 1982 San Diego Comic-Con. Photo: Alan Light)

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Alex Toth Documentary

In an earlier post, I reviewed the excellent biography of Milton Caniff and wondered whether any artist as devoid of personal demons or dark secrets as Caniff could be an engaging subject (the answer was yes).

On the other side of the coin is the legendary Alex Toth, an "artist's artist" who worked in comics and the animation industry (where he worked on seminal programs like Space Ghost and Jonny Quest), and whose prodigious talent earned the admiration of his peers and continues to influence cartoonists today. Greatly admired and respected (and even beloved), many people sought his friendship despite his reputation as a cantankerous and combative individual. His complex personality and tortured genius makes him the perfect subject for a biography.

Buried in a recent 2-disc DVD release of Space Boy and Dino Boy: The Complete Series is an excellent 80-minute documentary on the cartoonist entitled "Simplicity: The Art and Life of Alex Toth." Previewed at the Comic-Con International: San Diego in July 2007, the documentary has everything one would want for a project focusing on an important figure in comics history: it's polished, professionally done, and has high production values. (As more than one person has noted, it easily would work well as an episode of PBS' American Masters series.) More importantly, it is a wonderful and well-deserved tribute to Toth's legacy and commitment to his art.

The documentary includes extensive interviews with friends and admirers, including Mark Chiarello, John Hancock, Irwin Hasen, Joe Kubert, Bruce Timm, Paul Pope, and others, as well as his four children. The documentary also touches an emotional nerve, particularly since Toth found some measure of peace, contentment and redemption in his final days.

Since I wrote a tribute to Toth at the time of his passing, I won't bother repeating myself here to talk about the man. But anyone with a serious interest in comics would do well to watch the documentary—the DVD already is a bargain, and frankly the documentary itself is worth the price of the DVD. (I purchased the DVD solely for the documentary!)

All I'll say is that I regret that I did not try to pursue knowing the artist more aggressively myself. As noted in my tribute to him, I occasionally sent him comps of my own comics, and always received postcards back. Given my personality, I likely would have been too intimidated to seek him out cold and unsolicited as many did (including some of those interviewed in the documentary), but I certainly would have corresponded with him more frequently if I had known--as the documentary makes clear--that he loved exchanging letters. Regardless, those notes I have from Toth are prized possessions.

It's a bit of a crime (and a puzzle) why this documentary has not received more attention, but I hope this review helps spread the word a bit.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Reviews of RHA 10

I was planning to temporarily turn the subject of this blog back to my favorite subject (me of course) for awhile and talk about what I'm currently up to, but those plans got pre-empted by my discovery of a nice review of Rob Hanes Adventures 10, which just appeared in the latest issue of the Comics Buyer's Guide (1634, p. 57).

Reviewer Tony Isabella generously describes my work as "classically inspired, distinctive, and just a terrific example of how solid storytelling can trump comic books published by bigger outfits. Part of me is amazed that the "bigs" haven't recruited him: more of me is pleased that he's free to tell his stories his way."

It's a full page review, with generous samples of my cover and sample art included.

While trying to find the review online, I also discovered that Isabella ran an earlier review of issue 9 back in March, which I missed.

I'm periodically reviewed in the CBG, but it's obviously still a thrill for the work to get some attention.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

All You Need is Love (and Cheap Trick)

Last weekend, I had the privilege to attend a concert at Los Angeles' famed Hollywood Bowl celebrating the 40th anniversary of the Beatles' seminal album, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. The show was headlined by Cheap Trick, who were joined by several special guests, including Amee Mann, Joan Osborn, Ian Ball, and Rob Laufer. Cheap Trick is one of my favorite rock bands from the '80s, and everyone was in fine form. In the second half of the show, the Sgt. Pepper album was performed straight through in its entirety, with orchestral support provided by the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra.

"All You Need is Love" was performed for the encore and I must say it nearly brought me to tears: Thinking of all the crap going on in the world today and watching this '60s anthem to peace being performed live made me think about how simple it would be to solve so many problems if people embodied and personified the song's simple but heartfelt message. How sad for the world that so little has changed since the Summer of Love.

Thursday, August 9, 2007

The Boys of Summer (part 2)

The other testosterone-heavy show of the summer is ESPN's original mini-series, The Bronx is Burning. Based on the book of the same name, the story chronicles the Yankees' summer 1977 run for its first World Series championship in decades, while its home city, New York, also grappled with the Son of Sam killings, a major blackout and riots, a near-bankruptcy, and a mayoral race.

The centerpiece, of course, is the larger-than-life egos and personalities of the organization, particularly demanding Yankee owner George Steinbrenner and manager Billy Martin. Also figuring large in the series is Reggie Jackson, who came to the Yankees that season, and catcher Thurmon Munson, who was the team's first captain since Lou Gehrig. Also playing prominent supporting roles in the show are Mickey Rivers, Lou Pinella, and Bucky Dent.

(I should note that, along with other prominent Yanks like Willie Randolph (my favorite) and Christopher Chambliss, this was the Yankee team I grew up with.)

Effectively evoking the era and integrating the show with 1970s-era footage, the series is fun and expansive, and successfully portrays the backstage politics of a high-stakes entertainment and sports franchise. As one reviewer effectively describes it, the show is "an all-male soap opera that would put 'Desperate Housewives' to shame. These men, at the height of their power, are the ultimate drama queens, larger than life, and maybe even bigger than New York."

Oliver Platt as Steinbrenner, John Turturro as Martin, and Erik Jensen as Munson turn in particularly fine performances. Credit particularly must be given to Platt for his outstanding work: given Steinbrenner's status as a minor icon thanks to both his outsize personality and as a recurring character on Seinfeld, I wondered whether it would be possible to successfully capture the man. It's a tribute to Platt's performance that he not only gradually comes to successfully embody the character, but he effectively makes it his own, making you forget you are watching an actor. Platt's performance sneaks up on you, and it's clear he is having a whale of a time.

Perhaps because of this, Steinbrenner surprisingly comes off somewhat more sympathetic than either Martin or Jackson. Though difficult and demanding, he nevertheless was dealing with outsized personalities. Martin obviously had a huge chip on his shoulder and was somewhat immature; while Jackson was a bit of a conceited prima dona. Nevertheless, one must credit the real-life Jackson, Steinbrenner, and other Yankees from the era for appearing extensively in "behind the scenes" interviews that accompany each episode. Given the passage of time and the fact that the events portrayed in the show led to a new Yankee dynasty, perhaps it's all water under the bridge now.

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

The Boys of Summer (part 1)

Thought I'd take a break from all this comics stuff to talk about two new summer television shows. Though both are very different from one another they both are period pieces that are high on the testosterone.

The first is AMC's dramedy, Mad Men. The show is set at the end of the 1950s in a Madison Avenue ad agency (hence, the title of the show), during an era when WASPs were still the majority, and cigarette smoking, sexual harassment, and the two-martini lunch were socially (and legally) acceptable in the work place. The ad and junior execs at the agency portrayed on the show were the Masters of the Universe of their time. The show takes place at the height of the space age, when skinny ties and pomaded hair were in, and the show captures the era well.

The main protagonist is Don Draper, a steely senior ad exec at Sterling Cooper, a topnotch New York City ad agency. He's surrounded by a bevy of ambitious junior execs who they see him as their role model but, in the cutthroat business world, also are after his job. The show follows the professional and personal lives of the various characters on the show and the ad agency—ranging from Scott to the junior execs, to the office secretaries—within the context of the era. All of the secretaries, for example, are subject to the advances of the business executives (whether they are married or not is irrelevant).

Some of the funniest moments in the show come in showing the difference mores of the time. At one party, for example, a pregnant woman is seen smoking and drinking (interestingly, I saw a similar joke in Hairspray as well). In another, a little girl runs around placing "astronaut" with a plastic bag over her entire body without anyone batting an eyelash. And, of course, everyone smokes like a chimney. (Another funny running gag in a couple episodes has involved Republicans trying to recruit Scott for Richard Nixon's presidential campaign who's described as "smart, good looking, and a World War II vet." There also is the obviously gay art director whose nearly every uttered line is a double entendre, yet its clear he does his best to pass as straight.)

Yet the show also has a vague, off-putting Blue Velvet feel to it. This primarily is embodied by the character of Scott, who despite his success projects a sense of ennui and emptiness; his character seems self-aware and conscious of the vacuousness of his job and the era (which I suspect will lead to some reveal about his past at some point in the show).

Actor Jon Hamm, who portrays Scott, does a great job anchoring the show, projecting a real William Holden-like masculine presence that's not often seen among actors today. The other standout on the show is Vincent Kartheiser as the baby-faced Pete Campbell who both idolizes and resents Scott, while also lusting for his job. The most ambitious and alpha-male among the junior execs, his character initially came off as a typical frat-boy exec, yet some interesting facets to his character have emerged that suddenly have made him one of the show's more intriguing personalities.

The show has a quiet force to it, and all of the drama is in the personalities. It's a compelling show and I'm curious to see where it goes in upcoming episodes.

2007 San Diego Comic-Con Report: Where To From Here?

NOTE: This was originally posted at the WCG Comics website and was moved and archived to this blog in March 2020. Click here to go directly to the photo gallery.

Below is my report on the 2007 Comic-Con International San Diego, held Thursday, July 26, through Sunday, July 29. It’s important to note that the report below reflects just my little slice of the show—given the convention’s sprawl, ranging from comics, to films, to television, to gaming, it would be impossible to cover everything that occurred. For complete coverage, I suggest linking to one of the web sites I’ve posted at the end of this article. My four preliminary blog entries leading up to the event are also available as follows: Part I, Part II, Part III, and Part IV.

Selling the Series

This year it really hit home how much of a niche series Rob Hanes Adventures is. I’ve always known this, of course; fans of my work tend to be people who love the classic high adventure genre tradition, or simply appreciate the clean, straightforward art and storytelling styles. (For these reasons, I count a lot of pros as fans of my work.) Trying to tap into this target audience always has been a challenge, and several conversations during the show brought this home for me.

The first was a fan who told me how he discovered the series: his retailer knew he was a fan of Milton Caniff’s Steve Canyon comic strip and suggested he try out my series. In fact, his retailer told him that if he didn’t like it, he’d refund his money. Needless to say, he became a fan. When he found me, he purchased all the back issues he was missing from my catalog (he also bought a poster!)

Another eye-opening conversation was with a retailer who carries my series and does well with it. He pointed out that Rob Hanes Adventures is not something a typical kid with limited funds who reads Spider-Man or X-Men will pick up; but he also noted that many of the readers who tend to gravitate to my work—and who are fans of classic adventure strips—tend to be have more disposable income and would have no hesitation in picking up any books I might publish.

I had several conversations of this kind during the show. It underscored how simple it would be for a retailer who knows his customers’ tastes to sell the series. While I recognize that retailers have a lot of products to push, I plan to share this information with retailers to encourage them to take a little effort to promote the series to the right customers. This not only helps me, but more importantly, their own bottom line!

The Big Show

People have begun describing the Comic-Con International in San Diego as “Cannes for geeks” (including the New York Times of all places). It’s an apt description. After all, it’s on the seashore, there are tons of movies being pitched, and comely young ladies in revealing costumes stroll the event having their pictures taken.

“Teeming” is another good way to describe the mega-event. For the first time ever, this year’s Comic-Con International (CCI) completely sold out of both advance 4-day admission tickets, as well as single-day admission passes for each day (there also is a three-hour preview night on Wednesday for 4-day ticket holders). I’ve yet to see an official attendance tally, but the figure I’ve heard is 140,000.

Traditionally, the Thursday and Friday of Comic-Con have always been expected to be “slow” days in the run-up to the weekend; while Sunday, as the last day of the convention, was the wind-down. As a result of the sell-out this year, however, EVERY day felt like a Saturday, with the floor jam-packed wall-to-wall with crowds.

In fact, much of Saturday actually seemed LIGHTER than the other days—the result, I suspect, of the crowds being sucked to the premium events that are scheduled on that day. Stars like J.J. Abrams, Nicholas Cage, Rosario Dawson, Robert Downey, Jr., Jon Favreau, Edward Norton, Clive Owen, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Liv Tyler, were all on hand to push projects. As a result, sales were depressingly low early Saturday—though it picked up considerably by the end of the day. Only after Comic-Con did I learn that most exhibitors at the show experienced the same thing.

For those looking to discover new talents and great new comics—both independent and mainstream—CCI is still a great place to go, with everyone under one roof and for the most part conveniently grouped together. But a large portion of the crowd clearly are not regular (or even casual) comic-book readers. All the heat generated for the show by the media are due to the films, sci-fi, TV shows, and videogames. As such, I’ve long learned that it’s simply not realistic to expect my little indie comic-book to appeal to everyone at the show. At the same time, trying to tap in to the right audience at a show as immense and sprawling as CCI also makes it a bit of a crapshoot! Given the many people who discover and fall in love with my work purely by accident, it’s clear that there’s a swath of people at the show who likely would enjoy my book but simply don’t ever see it.

Family and Friends

I’ve attended nearly every Comic-Con since about 1986, missing it only in 2000 for my honeymoon. As a result, the show is much more than a trade event for me since many friends and family attend the show as well.

This year, my wife intimated that she had a surprise for me. I knew it involved some costumes for the children, and when the family arrived on the first day, my 5-year-old daughter was dressed as Batgirl and her toddler brother in a doggie costume. (His current obsession are dogs.)

Even more surprising (perhaps disturbing is a better word) was how quickly my daughter took to posing for the cameras! Whenever someone asked me or my wife for permission to take a photo, she immediately struck an appropriate super-hero pose. My wife admitted she taught her to put her hands on her hips, but the rest of it was otherwise all my daughter’s doing—as I told friends, “Where did that come from?!” She was quite the hit, and even drew the attention of actress Rosario Dawson on the convention floor. (See the photogallery or scroll down for a photo of Dawson.)

Regardless, I was there to work for the most part, so full credit must go to my sainted wife for being responsible for the children during most of the show; it was quite a burden considering that I had to arrive at the convention center early in the morning and work each day until the show closed at 7 p.m. After closing down the booth and dinner, I usually didn’t get back to the hotel until 10 p.m. The only plus side was that since we were on vacation and the kids were quite stimulated, we allowed them to stay up later than usual, so I got to see them and play with them a bit before bedtime. (Having a young family has precluded me in recent years from attending any after-show parties or events.)

One of our most enjoyable nights was the opportunity we had to spend with the family of one of my oldest friends who works at a prominent comic-book company; our families and some friends got together on Thursday night for an after-show swim and pizza party at the Marriott swimming pool

My participation at the show also is made a lot easier to a great extent due to the help of my brother and a buddy. Both help me with setup and teardown at the start and close of the show, and they man the booth when I need to take off either to conduct business or to take a break to walk the floor myself. They’ve become quite effective at selling my books on their own, so I know I’m leaving the booth in good hands when I’m away!

This year I also had the opportunity to catch up with some fellow professionals who I’ve become acquainted with primarily because they were among the earliesst fans of the series. These included Kurt Busiek, Karl Kesel, and Andrew Pepoy, and we had fun talking about the state of the industry as well as our mutual interests in the work of classic cartoonists like Milton Caniff, Roy Crane, Frank Robbins, and Noel Sickles. R.C. Harvey’s recent massive biography on Caniff, Meanwhile..., also was a topic of conversation.

The Panels and Walking the Convention Floor

When one is working at a booth—especially when you are the sole creator—you can imagine it’s difficult to find time to simply enjoy the show. That has become even more difficult given the growth of Comic-Con and the size of the crowds. It’s simply impossible anymore to methodically explore the show and take everything in: to a large extent, the crowds dictate the flow of foot traffic and define the areas to avoid.

Like many exhibitors, I tend to walk the floor in the morning before the show opens to check out product and decide what to buy; having a specific goal when walking the floor makes it a much more productive and less daunting process.

In addition, because of the need for me to physically be at my booth as much as possible, I need to be very selective of what panels I attend. This year, I attended a tribute panel for Milton Caniff, where they showed a restored episode of the Steve Canyon television show (brought to you by the U.S. Air Force and Chesterfield cigarettes!). The show obviously was of its time, and is more of a historical curiosity for Caniff fans than having any real entertainment value.

Of greater interest was the tribute panel for the late Alex Toth, whose death last year rated coverage even in the mainstream. The panel featured a preview of what appears to be an outstanding 80-minute documentary on the artist, which is included as an extra on a new Space Ghost DVD compilation. As one of the panelists noted, the documentary’s quality was easily at a level for PBS and its “American Masters” series. I didn’t find it available at Comic-Con but plan to purchase it shortly.

The documentary also got me to thinking about the recent telephone-book-size Caniff biography, Meanwhile..., by R.C. Harvey. By all accounts, Caniff's life was quintessentially all-American, both in his upbringing and his personality. He had a flair for publicity, was hard working, gregarious, had few if any vices (and even fewer enemies), stayed married to his high school sweetheart his whole life, and was widely acknowledged by his peers as the dean of cartoonists within the industry. In contrast, Toth was known as being irascible and volatile, and his own worst enemy. I look forward to the Caniff biography (which I pre-ordered months before it was released), but I wondered how interesting it could be given Caniff’s affable life and personality; in contrast, Toth’s conflict-filled life would seem to naturally lend itself to a rather fascinating biography.

Post Mortem

While hiccups in a show as large as CCI are to be expected, one must marvel at the ability of the CCI staff to pull off a show as large and complex as this one. It’s clear they make changes based on feedback and experience; this year they made the hallways by the large panel rooms one way to help ensure that the meeting rooms emptied and filled up in a more orderly fashion.

Nevertheless, now that they’ve completely sold out out the show, one must wonder where they’ll go from here. On the plus side, at least we know that this is as crowded as this show ever will get (at least at this site!)

See you July 24-27, 2008!

For additional coverage, visit:

Monday, August 6, 2007

Comic-Con Photos Posted

I've just posted my final report and photogallery for the Comic-Con International in San Diego. Feel free to go straight to the photogallery, though both are clearly linked with each other.