Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Website upgrades

Just thought I'd mention the minor tweaks and upgrades I've made to the WCG Comics website recently:
  • In keeping with the march of progress, I've added some animation to the website: on the front page, this takes the form of a slideshow of Rob Hanes Adventures cover art, which also can be found on the online store page.
  • A more dynamic slideshow consisting of page samples from the series can also be found on the About page of the website. (These java-based animations were built using Visual Slideshow.)
  • This blog is now a permanent link on the main navigation menu at the top of each page of the website. It previously was buried under "Community links," but given the increased importance of blogs in promotion, I decided to give it a more prominent spot at the website.
These changes are in addition to several changes I've made to the website over the past year, which has included widening the default width of the website's pages and slightly redesigning the banner images at the top of each page.

Blog Changes
I should add that I've also made a few tweaks to the blog as well, which has included changing the overall theme/design of the website (which also featured a larger width).

Another long overdue change is the addition of "Share" buttons that appear at the bottom of each post that allows users to more easily share this link with others, particularly on social network sites like Facebook (and, yes, you can find me there too).

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

REVIEWS: "Promises, Promises"

While there are some inherent problems with the production, the current Broadway revival of the 1960s show “Promises, Promises” by Burt Bacharach and Hal David (music and lyrics) and Neil Simon (book) is at its heart a fun and engaging show. It’s a perfect example of how talent and presence (and strong staging and direction) can overcome the weaknesses of a production.

The show has had its share of minor controversies: at the Tony nominations earlier this year, tongues started wagging when respected Broadway veteran Kristen Chenoweth was not nominated. Similarly, a minor tempest also emerged when a gay columnist in Newsweek attributed some of the negative reviews of the show to the difficulty of an openly-gay actor like Sean Hayes playing the lead in a "straight" romantic comedy (article is available here).

It’s easy to see why some people felt Chenoweth was miscast, playing a role that might have been more suitable for a a young ingenue making her name in the role; and, in truth, Hayes and Chenoweth don’t have a lot of chemistry on stage.

Another problem may lie in the original show itself. Many of the songs feel shoe-horned into the production—while many are snappy tunes (“I’ll Never Fall in Love Again” and “Promises, Promises” both have since become standards), many don’t feel as though they truly serve the characters or drive the story. (Indeed, two Bacharach standards were actually added to the new revival for Chenoweth to sing: “I Say a Little Prayer” and “A House is Not a Home,” adding to this feeling.)

Fortunately, the show overcomes these problems for the most part on the strength of the show’s talent, particularly the leads. Chenoweth’s dynamo voice is legendary, and Hayes more than holds his own, and connects with the audience early, carrying much of the production on good will and charisma. The show also moves quickly, allowing little let time for the show's energy or the audience's interest to flag. It's also clear why supporting player Katie Finneran received the show’s sole Tony—she's a scream and really does steal the show in her one scene. But it's not
at the expense of the show or other performers.

I saw this show as a Sunday matinee and was impressed by how much energy the performers put in at the very start (I learned afterwards that it was their only show of the day—no evening performance to keep a reserve for—which may have helped!).

“Promises, Promises” is adapted from one of my favorite films of all time, “The Apartment,” starring Jack Lemmon, Shirley MacLaine, and Fred MacMurray, written and directed by Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond and directed by Wilder. Though the show stays mostly true to the through-line of the film, the show still does divert a bit from the original story, even changing for some reason the lead’s name from “C.C.” (for Calvin Clifford, though everyone calls him “Bud”) to “Chuck.” In any case, the play certainly stands apart and does not diminish the film’s achievement as one of the best and most sophisticated comedies ever (it consistently ranks among the top ten romantic comedies of all time, and among the best comedies).

Aside from the great music, the popularity of “Mad Men” probably helped drive the revival of “Promises, Promises” (as it has the upcoming revival of “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying,” which is scheduled for a new 2011 revival with Daniel Radcliffe of Harry Potter fame). To that end, the production design captures the bright-colored tone and feel of the space age ‘60s era perfectly.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Our New York Adventure

Call us a glutton for punishment, but a couple of weeks before our trip to the San Diego Comic-Con, my family vacationed in New York City!

Though my wife (and children) are all native Californians, I actually was born in New York City and raised in one of its boroughs, Staten Island, until I was 16 years old. This is my third visit back since that momentous move. My wife and I aren’t into relaxing, resort-style vacations, and love to visit bustling cities. NYC, of course, is one of the most bustling of all, so it was a trip we were very excited about.

With our children now 5 and 8 years of age, this also was our first major family vacation. Given all the walking we did and the kind of East Coast humidity that our children have never been exposed to, I can say that the kids were real troopers. Their excitement at being in the Big Apple usually pre-empted any complaints about being tired, bored or hungry.

We were in NYC for six full days—still not enough to see everything, but we pretty much hit all the main highlights without feeling too rushed! This included the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, Times Square, the Empire State Building, Central Park (and Strawberry Fields), Rockefeller Plaza, the American Museum of Natural History, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the World Trade Center site, and the Guggenheim. In a sop to my interests, we also visited the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art and the Society of Illustrators Museum. Although, we decided to skip a Yankees game this time around (something my wife and I did in 2001, when she was 6 months pregnant), we did see one of the hot new Broadway shows: “Promises, Promises,” with Sean Hayes and Kristen Chenoweth.

We also spent a day in Staten Island, going to my old neighborhood where I visited with some childhood friends and neighbors. After that, we did more touristy things on the island—it turned out to be a real memorable part of the trip, not only because I saw my old neighborhood (including the house I grew up in), but also because we got to see and feel a part of the city that is completely different than being in Manhattan where we otherwise spent all of our time. My love of colonial history goes back to some of the remnants from this era that still existed on Staten Island during my childhood, such as the Conference House (where Ben Franklin and John Adams secretly met with the British in September 1776 in an attempt by the British to negotiate an end to the war) and Historic Richmondtown, places we visited during our trip. We literally drove across the whole island and got to stand on the north and south ends: on the south facing Perth Amboy, New Jersey and the other, facing Brooklyn and the Manhattan skyline in the distance across the harbor. (It’s a long story, but our visit necessitated renting a car in Manhattan. It was not only my first time driving in New York, but also my first time driving through Manhattan traffic. It turned out not to be so bad, but let’s just say that my California defensive driving experience served me well! We had the thrill of driving through the Holland Tunnel, on the New Jersey Turnpike, and across the Verazzano Narrows Bridge.)

I left New York in the 1970s—it was an era of national oil crisis and recession, and a time when the city had nearly gone bankrupt. While I have nothing but great memories of growing up in New York, I think it’s safe to say that there was a real feeling at the time that the U.S. had seen its best days.

New York has always had tremendous energy, but the city I visited seems as forward looking as ever, and indeed seems even friendlier and positively bubbly and ebullient. Immigrants remain the backbone of the city and were the friendly, smiling face at many of the tourist spots we visited. Everywhere we went there was tremendous construction and renovation underway—remarkable for a city as well developed as New York, and a tribute to its ability at continual reinvention. The American Museum of Natural History, for example, was completely covered in scaffolding undergoing renovation, as was the interior of Rockefeller Center and the exterior of St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Even my grade school elementary school in Staten Island was completely covered in scaffolding and undergoing renovation; and numerous subway improvements and construction often created minor detours for us on the subway lines we had to take. (The kids loved riding the subway, made all the more convenient by 7-day unlimited ride MTA passes.) I was also impressed by the overdue facelift that the Staten Island Ferry terminal had undergone in recent years, with extensive work still underway on its exterior. (And it still only costs a quarter going one way!)

Anyway, it was a memorable family vacation and hopefully the first of many to come....

Below are some photos from the trip. To see everything, go to the links provided below:

From 2001

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

2010 San Diego Comic-Con Report

Below is my San Diego Comic-Con post-report for 2010. The usual caveats apply: since I’m chained by necessity to an exhibitor’s table for the duration of the four-day show, my views represent a very narrow view of the convention. But to paraphrase a commentator from a few years ago, given the breadth of interests covered at Comic-Con, the show is whatever you want to make it—and it’s often different things to different people. So with that in mind, without any further ado, here’s my take on this year’s Comic-Con...

(Or click here to go straight to the photogallery.)

New Location, New Faces

I’m glad to report that sales were up significantly this year, driven by sales to people new to the series! The uptick is probably due to a couple of factors.

In a major change from previous years, I was at a different location. I lost my usual place at the back wall of the exhibitor’s hall when I inadvertently missed the deadline for the show, but due to a cancellation got assigned a new spot closer to the middle of the floor. My new table was at the end of a small press area aisle (catty corner from the Peanuts booth).

While the new location may have led to increased foot traffic, I also made a more conscious effort to get people to stop at my table and check out my work. I’ve never been a natural showman or salesman, but I quickly realized that with all the distractions and sensory overload at the show, people needed a chance to notice my work. That often simply meant being a little more outgoing in saying hi to people and inviting them to check out the book. I’m not comfortable with the hard sell, and can tell when someone simply isn’t interested, but this approach nevertheless did result in sales to people who otherwise would not have noticed my table.

Having said all that, to paraphrase William Goldman’s book, Adventures in the Screen Trade, “Nobody knows anything.” Over the past few years the Friday of Comic-Con has become my best sales day because Saturday, traditionally the busiest of the convention, had become the day when the big Hollywood productions drew attendees away from the exhibitor’s hall and into the meeting rooms. That assumption went out the window this year—with every day now sold out, and the big names as likely to appear now on Thursday or Friday as Saturday, every day is now up for grabs. As a result, Sunday turned out to be my best day, followed by Thursday. Indeed, on Sunday the floor was a madhouse, as though everyone had finally felt they accomplished everything they needed to do at Comic-Con and were ready to buy comics.

Although I had some new material for the show—such as the new all-color Rob Hanes Adventures Special Edition—most of it was repackaged older material. As always, longtime fans and friends visited the booth to see what new material was available, and though many bought the new books, some said they looked forward to a new issue. I’ll definitely make amends next year when I plan to have a new issue of Rob Hanes Adventures in release.

But what clearly drove sales for first-time readers to the series was the affordably-priced 4-packs. Of course, people still need to be attracted to the art or the concept—but certainly the sampler packs encouraged people to give the series a try. (As often happens, several returned later in the convention to pick up the remainder of the issues after they had read and liked what they had initially purchased).

What also boosted the bottom line is that I also sold a couple of pieces of original art—including the cover art to Rob Hanes Adventures #10.

Anyway, my thanks to the fans and friends—both longtime and new, some of whom from overseas—who stopped at the table to chat and make a purchase! Thanks for your support!

Going Digital

A major undercurrent of the show (at least on the comics side) was the seeming continued drift towards digital comics. The introduction of the iPad has clearly added to the seeming inevitability of the trend. In fact, in the months and weeks leading up to the show, most of the major companies and many small ones had unveiled proprietary digital comics apps.

The technology clearly is still in its infancy, with comics publishers—much like the rest of the publishing world—having no clear or consistent model for delivering, formatting, and monetizing digital work.

Like many publishers, I was approached by several people seeking content for their digital comics startup. I was even invited to a presentation/pitch meeting for a company recently acquired by digital publisher Wowio. (They clearly spent a lot of money to be noticed—the presentation included free lunch, and took place on a yacht that was moored at a slip right behind the convention center!)

Across the board, all the proposed agreements from the startups were non-exclusive, with the creators retaining ownership, including print, and licensing rights. This may seem like a no-brainer in this day and age, but it’s significant for an industry that was built on the backs of work-for-hire creators who signed over the ownership of characters like Superman and Captain America that went on to become licensing bonanzas and pop culture icons, and who subsequently profited very little, if at all, from their creations. Back then, early comics publishers were desperate for content as well.

In any case, the question for today’s creator isn’t just what deal is best but rather what’s the right horse to choose. While one could theoretically choose multiple companies to work with, there is a a risk of both diluting the property, as well as having to expend a lot of time and energy prepping the comics for different formats.

Some of my work is already available digitally via webcomics and some digital comics sites. But until now, I’ve considered digital comics simply as a promotional tool for driving people towards the print versions, not as a separate revenue stream. While few people believe print comics are going away anytime soon, companies are obviously looking for ways to make digital comics profitable, no doubt in anticipation of the fact that digital comics will likely continue to gain marketshare and gradually eat into print sales. Even after attending the Wowio presentation, I must admit it’s still kind of a mystery to me how the new model enables publishers to make money in the digital world. On the other hand, although the paid subscription model is not yet completely DOA, for the most part this road has not been successful.

No 800 Pound Gorilla

As I mentioned in my preliminary Comic-Con post, notwithstanding a stabbing incident at the show, many observers seem to agree that this year’s convention was relatively subdued and mellow.

Goth Girl Holly Golightly and Stormtrooper
Yes, there was the usual frenzy for fan-favorite television shows and films (my wife and children were thrilled to get into the Myth Busters panel), and there were many high-profile projects that attracted attention—such as the forthcoming Green Lantern, Scott Pilgrim, and Thor films—but none seemed to completely dominate the convention or create the kind of palpable excitement (or polarization) like the Twilight phenomenon of last year. (The organizers contributed to the calmer atmosphere by prudently deciding to postpone their decision about whether they would be moving Comic-Con in 2013. While their claim that the demands of the show no doubt played a part in this decision, they must have also recognized that to have done so beforehand would have completely overshadowed the show.)

Absent such a lightning rod, the calmer atmosphere probably reflects in part the ability of the organizers to make adjustments each year to improve the logistics. (Indeed, some activities were moved off-site to nearby hotels to relieve some of the pressure in the convention center.) My wife told me how friendly and helpful the staff were in managing the crowd for the Myth Busters panel; I was similarly impressed by how quickly the lines moved for the exhibitors and professional badges. Even the weather cooperated: during the convention, the weather was remarkably cool, never breaking 70 degrees. (In fact, the convention hall was pretty chilly the entire show.)

The attendees, too, deserve much of the credit for such a laid back atmosphere, many of whom have now likely participated in multiple Comic-Cons and are old hands at this and set the tone for the newbies. Yes, the show was sold out again, so I’m assuming that means there were the same number of people at the convention as last year. But many of them probably are well familiar with the the ins and outs of the show.

Out and About

Thor's Throne at Marvel Comics' Booth
Being an exhibitor, I walked the floor only intermittently (usually with the kids), made only a few purchases, and attended just one panel. (For the record, it was the animated Brave and the Bold panel, which I attended with my wife and children since we enjoy the show as a family. A touching moment came when actor Diedrich Bader, the voice of Batman on the show, choked up as he acknowledged now that the show was coming to a close that it had become his favorite role, although he first approached it simply as another paid gig. It also was a treat to see Bader and actor John DiMaggio, the voice of a very bombastic Aquaman on the show, improv in character about the end of the show. My wife reported seeing Bader on the floor and being able to tell him how much the kids loved his Batman.)

I made just a few purchases, including the new Love and Rockets, as well as the new Captain Easy Sundays collection, both purchased at the Fantagraphics booth.

I always enjoy seeing what kind of displays the larger companies have, and to looking through original art and visiting Artist’s Alley.

For the most part, most of the usual exhibitors were there, so the floor was very familiar to me, which is somewhat comforting—except for the notable absence of Comics Relief and the significant smaller space occupied by Bud Plant Comics Distribution. Bud Plant and Comics Relief used to occupy full aisles that ran contiguous with each other, creating nice, inviting landmarks on the floor, but I can only assume that Plant’s sales last year or the higher booth costs caused them to downsize. I felt some real sadness at that.

Like many exhibitors, the only time I had a chance to really walk the floor and take in some of the sights was in the hours before the convention hall opened to the masses. Although most booths aren’t open for business, it’s a pleasant time to be in the convention hall before the crowds. (Indeed, it’s probably one of the few times exhibitors have time to relax a bit.) It often gives one a chance to scope out what might be worth buying later so that you can shoot over there when you have a few moments and quickly purchase what you need. Thor's throne at the Marvel booth (pictured above), taken from the film set, appeared to be a memorable hit among fans.

So wrong on so many levels, but I do love this picture
Friends and Family

Even though I’m primarily “working” at the convention, many family and friends also join me at the show to take in the spectacle, helping out at the booth at times. My wife always enjoys the show and, with the children, looks forward to planning their costumes for the convention.

Although my little girl (now 8 years old) has always enjoyed getting into character and the attention she receives, my 5-year-old boy is a bit more reticent. But this year he got into the spirit of things, dressing as Batman and a hobbit (he always hated the hobbit outfit though with his curly locks he was a natural—until he finally watched Lord of the Rings this year!) Photos of the kids even showed up on CNN's coverage of the show (see second photo at the link).

At the risk of missing someone, the industry pros and acquaintances who stopped by at the booth or who I stopped by to see included Tim Burgard, Kurt Busiek, Dave Olbrich, Jaime Hernandez, Mario Hernandez, Rich Johnston, Steve Leaf, Tom Mason, Mat Nastos, Andrew Pepoy, John Roshell, and Stan Sakai.

Also stopping by was Robert Haines, from the Joe Shuster Canadian Comic Book Creator Awards, who was accompanied by his wife, Jenn Stewart, a nominee for this year’s Will Eisner Spirit of Comics Retailer Award for the Dragon comic-book store in Ontario, Canada. Haines said he had heard of my book and laughed when I joked that I appreciated his not being litigious—I also told them they had a natural way to promote the book in their store!

Anyway, thanks to my wife and the kids for their help and support, as well as Bob and my brother Rodney for being of great assistance (and moral support) as well!

Well, with the 2010 Comic-Con now over, I guess it’s back to the drawing board as I look ahead to 2011!

Go to the photogallery

Other links about the 2010 Comic-Con: