Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Extracurricular Activities

I recently fulfilled a childhood dream to appear in the syndicated funny pages, albeit in a one-off… The Feb. 14, 2016 comic-strip Funky Winkerbean featured a faux comic-book cover courtesy of yours truly! It’s actually a piece that was commissioned and completed awhile back, but now that it has finally made it to print, I can talk about it! My thanks to Funky Winkerbean’s writer-creator, Tom Batiuk, for the opportunity to be part of a fun project.

A couple of years ago, I had the pleasure to meet Tom Batiuk, the cartoonist-creator of the syndicated comic strip Funky Winkerbean, at the San Diego Comic-Con. Although the strip is not carried in any papers local to me, I was able to tell him that I grew up reading his work in New York. (For a great article on Tom and his work, click here.)

He had seen my work before and our conversation morphed into his asking about my interest to produce a piece of commissioned art for the series. As part of a storyline in which a mother was tracking down missing issues in her son’s comic-book collection of his favorite comic-book series, Batiuk invited established comic-book artists—including Bob Layton, Neil Vokes, Michael Gilbert, Terry Austin, Mike Golden and Norm Breyfogle—to produce faux covers for a character named Starbuck Jones. (In actuality, it is a character Batiuk created and drew in elementary school.) An interview about the project can be found here.

Batiuk was now extending the project and thought I’d be perfect for a kid adventure series he wanted to feature that he also created in his youth called Charlie & Chuck. For reference, Batiuk sent me samples of the original strips he created as a kid, logos, as well as the covers that already appeared. Otherwise, I was pretty free to come up with an appropriate cover. The art was produced in black and white, which Batiuk then colored in his studio.

It was an honor and thrill to be asked to participate, and doubly so when he said I captured exactly what he was aiming for. I wasn’t aware of the appearance of the strip until I received a nice package from Tom that included clippings of the strip (pictured at right) and a high quality print of the final piece.

Thursday, April 14, 2016


With Star Wars: The Force Awakens now available on BluRay/DVD, and Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice well into its theatrical run, I thought I’d weigh in on these two films that are tentpoles for two major franchises….

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

After successfully revitalizing and updating Star Trek, Abrams was persuaded (with some prodding) to tackle Star Wars. In some quarters—particularly among older fans—there was the feeling that the prequel trilogy that George Lucas produced (Episodes I-III) had somewhat tarnished the brand. With Disney now the owner of Lucafilm—and Lucas’s handpicked successor, Kathleen Kennedy, now running the studio—there was a lot riding on plans to continue the series. Abrams had the (seemingly) unenviable task of pleasing the old guard while introducing new characters that would hopefully in the same way capture the hearts and imaginations of a new generation of fans as the original iconic cast of characters.

Most reviewers and fans have agreed that Abrams achieved this goal and then some. Like many, the film for me brought back that same feeling I had after seeing the original Star Wars (now Episode IV: A New Hope) when I was 14 years old. To be frank, it’s not a feeling I’ve had for a long time.

While some have noted that the plot of the new Star Wars film echoes the beats of the original, it nevertheless is a successful melding of old and new, with the original characters (and actors) passing the baton to a new generation.

At the heart of this, for me, is actress Ridley Daisy, as Rey. The extent of her popularity among audiences (even among males who are often thought to be resistant to a female action lead) reportedly even surprised Disney. Daisy gives a remarkable performance — Rey’s facial expressions and reactions can break your heart and though lonely and wounded, she is a strong figure who has been universally embraced because of her strength, courage and resilience, not because of her gender. Starting with Rey, with this film Abrams has also brought greater diversity to the Star Wars cast and universe, which is essential to reflect the realities of our own world, as well an acknowledgment of a more diverse and international media market. However, by no means has the series’ new direction meant that the original characters are being cast aside—as the last shot of the film demonstrates, Luke Skywalker clearly will play a central role in the next installment.

In terms of production value, Abrams (along with screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan, who wrote Episodes V—considered the best in the current canon—and VI), wanted to bring back the gritty, analog quality to the films that Lucas displayed in the first trilogy but strangely eschewed when he worked on the prequels trilogy. His over-reliance on CGI and green screen on the later movies made them antiseptic, sleek and hard to relate to.

Abrams is a true fan who gave the franchise back its heart. The most important goal was to make audiences feel as invested in the new cast as the original. And it appears he has succeeded—so here’s to the coming SW: Rogue I and Episode VIII!

Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice

Like Abrams, filmmaker Zack Snyder faced a daunting challenge with Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice. Though a simple sequel was initially planned to 2013’s Man of Steel, not wanting to be left behind by Marvel Studios’ success with its series of universe-building franchises—anchored by the Avengers films but ably supported by a satellite of successful films featuring A- and B-list properties ranging from Captain America and Thor to Ant-Man and Guardians of the Galaxy—the film soon represented Warner Bros. (DC Comics’ owners) nascent steps down the path of building its own integrated movie universe.

Towards that end, DC decided to start off with a bang and strong statement by teaming the two eldest statesmen of comics properties, Batman and Superman, on film for the first time. And if that were not enough, they also introduced Wonder Woman and included brief cameos of Aquaman, the Flash, and Cyborg, as a preview to the upcoming Justice League film, which will also be preceded by some satellite films featuring, at least, Wonder Woman and Aquaman, as well as ancillary characters like the upcoming Suicide Squad.

It was a tall order and the film has a lot to squeeze in. As a result, as some critics have noted, the film is overwrought at times. The epic, climactic battle between Batman and Superman—which itself would have been the fitting end of any big-budget film—turns out to be only a bit of a prelude to an even bigger battle with a super being named Doomsday created by iconic Superman arch nemesis Lex Luthor.

Reviews have been mixed to savage, but to tell you the truth, I liked the film (and there has been a bit of a backlash to the backlash). To be fair, in many ways, this film is more faithful to the comics than many other superhero films—however, that also may be its weakness because it speaks more to the hardcore geek audience/comics fans than it does to mainstream audiences.(In contrast, Marvel has been incredibly effective in balancing the need to please existing comics fans while also producing appealing, mainstream “popcorn” films.)

Despite all the business in the film, and perhaps aided by the film’s 2 hour and 45 minute length, I never found any of the characters shortchanged (though I did feel it took awhile for Batman to appear onscreen).

Among the highlights: Affleck is great as Batman/Bruce Wayne; the connection that finally makes Batman see Superman’s humanity is a clever and effective moment that reaches deeply into the characters’ history; Gal Gadot makes a totally kick-ass Wonder Woman, making the shot of Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman itself worth the price of admission. (Like Star Wars' Rey, Wonder Woman has been a breakout female hero that has been universally embraced by geeks of all genders.) And the ending was a surprise, setting up, presumably, the upcoming Justice League film.

There have been some complaints about Jesse Eisenberg’s performance as Lex Luthor, some feeling that he didn’t even seem to be in the same film. Personally, I thought his performance was fine; if nothing else, his Lex Luthor certainly was a more serious villain than the ones portrayed by Gene Hackman and Kevin Spacey on film, where their obsession with real estate bordered on comic relief. In contrast, in BvS, Luthor is a man jealous of Superman’s godlike power and uses the same feelings of fear and awe he shares with Batman/Bruce Wayne shares to exploit the animosity between Superman and Batman. I'm glad that the film ends in a respect between the two characters, unlike the ongoing dislike between the characters in the current comics.

Perhaps my one negative response was this is a Batman that certainly kills a lot of people. This did seem a bit at odds with the character’s history, but I guess it is a reflection of the times we live in.

Uber-Batman fan Kevin Smith felt there wasn’t a lot of heart or humor in the film. Frankly, the lack of humor in the DC Universe films has always been an issue – while it’s probably unfair to compare the WB/DC films to the Marvel films when both acknowledge they have taken different approaches, Marvel nevertheless has found a way to have fun and be humorous while not sacrificing spectacle or the integrity of the characters; in contrast, DC’s films tend more humorless and take themselves a bit too seriously.

But I do believe there was heart in the film; it just takes some digging to get there.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Report on WonderCon 2016

Click here to go straight to the photo album.

Like others who have mentioned it in their own comments and blogs, I’m not a fan of the L.A. Convention Center. I’ve been to both comics and non-comics events there and find the facility sprawling and confusing—it’s not user-friendly, forcing guests at the larger shows to exit and re-enter buildings to get from one part of the convention center to another walking through outdoor sterile concrete walkways. And the comics shows I’ve attended there have for me been rather depressing, drab affairs. However, as a resident of West L.A., less than 10 miles from downtown, when I heard that WonderCon was coming to L.A., I decided to exhibit since it was in my own backyard. I felt this would be a real test of whether the problem was the convention center or the show’s organizers.

With all that said and done, I have to admit that the L.A. Convention Center acquitted itself fairly well in hosting the 2016 WonderCon. It no doubt helps that the folks at Comic-Con International—which also puts on the San Diego Comic-Con—was running the show and, no doubt, the L.A. Convention Center wanted to impress the organizers. But as an exhibitor, I have to say I found the experience positive (well, nearly).

I set up my booth on Thursday, March 24, the date before the start of the show. And though I wasn’t very familiar with the convention center, by sheer luck, I parked in the perfect location at the convention center parking lot, as close as I could have hoped for to my booth. One of the few hiccups was the runaround I received trying to find out where the exhibitors’ registration was located—I ended up being sent from one hall to another before discovering it was where I initially started.

I otherwise found the convention center/organizer personnel fairly easy-going and helpful. I was initially concerned because the exhibitor materials stated that no dollies were allowed within the lobby areas of the convention center and exhibitors should expect to hand carry their boxes in. This turned out not to be the case at all and although I was parked three levels below the South Hall where the main exhibitors’ hall was located, I was able to take an elevator directly to the right level, which made my set up a breeze.

All in all, the atmosphere felt more relaxed and unfrenzied, compared to setting up for the San Diego Comic-Con.

The show itself had a very San Diego Comic-Con vibe—helped, no doubt, by the fact that the same people who put on that show run WonderCon, meaning that a lot of the signage and atmosphere were famiiar. The hall in Anaheim where WonderCon has been held in recent years has a weird floorplan that divides the floor in an odd way. In contrast, the L.A. Convention Center’s South Exhibition Hall, where the exhibitors were located, allowed for one big, open continuous floorplan, much like the San Diego show, though probably only about a third of the size.

Nevertheless, the shortcomings and sprawling layout of the L.A. Convention Center were on full display—registration and panels were held in a completely different building, the West Exhibition Hall, which required a bit of a trek. For the show, WonderCon introduced the use of new RFID badges (pictured at left) that required attendees to tap in and out of the convention hall. The system operated smoothly, so I am curious whether they will be using it for the San Diego show in July.

I have to admit that food selection is also important to me—as an exhibitor, I am at the convention hall all day and mealtime is one of the few times I get to take a break and decompress, so I like to enjoy my meal. The poor quality and selection of the food services at the San Diego Convention Center is fairly well known, requiring a bit of a trek to a neighboring hotel or walk into the Gaslamp District for reasonable alternatives. In contrast, the L.A. Convention Center’s food was a bit better quality; food trucks were also made available by the West Exhibition Hall.

Another big plus for me was that on the days I didn’t have to drive in to unload and pack up my car, I took the L.A. Metro Rail. It was only about a 30 minute ride for me and I got dropped me off across the street from the convention center, making it a very relaxing ride into the show each day, without having to deal with downtown traffic or overpriced parking.

As to my experience as an exhibitor? Since the prices were a little lower than at the San Diego Comic-Con, I opted to get a regular booth rather than a place in the small press. It turns out I had a relatively poor table assignment, at the very end of an aisle in the back of the hall where there was relatively low foot traffic compared to other parts of the show, surrounded by non-comics exhibitors. As such, sales turned out to be a bit disappointing—live and learn. Nevertheless, sales were slow but steady and I managed to get re-discovered by people who had not seen my work in years and to gain new readers.

Aside from that, the experience for attendees seemed positive. Cosplay was very much in evidence (it was funny to see the reactions of some people on the Metro Rail line who weren’t aware of the show). It's fun to see the many inventive costumes, especially when the cosplayer stays in character—my favorites, which you'll see on this blog, were Austin Powers, Archie, and Hamilton (from the Broadway show). The Jack Sparrow pictures above was really amazing—partly because no mater how close in you go in the photo, it really looks like Johnny Depp!

Many attendees told me they were attending a comic-book convention for the first time while others admitted they were attending either because they haven’t been able to get a ticket for the San Diego show in years or because they no longer liked that show’s scale. Nonetheless, everyone seemed to have a good time.

So in spite of the facility’s shortcomings, overall WonderCon seemed to be a success.

Click here to view the full photo album.