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Comics Panels announced for LA Times Festival of Books

The Los Angeles Times Festival of Books has announced the program schedule for the event’s weekend of April 21 and 22. Most of the panels and presentations related to comics and graphic novels are front-loaded on Saturday, with some competing against each other in the early afternoon. While the scheduling congestion is unfortunate, it’s indicative of the growing star power of comics at the Festival to get such premium placement.

Highlights include a moderated conversation with Robert Kirkman, writer and co-creator of The Walking Dead comic book series, and an appearance by Jeff Kinney of Diary of a Wimpy Kid fame on the Children’s Stage. DC Entertainment will also hold a panel with co-publishers Dan Didio and Jim Lee to talk up their controversial prequel comics to the acclaimed Watchmen graphic novel, followed by a screening of the movie adaptation. Almost simultaneously there is a discussion panel called Drawing Outside the Lines, featuring acclaimed graphic novel writers and artists Joseph Lambert (I Will Bite You!), Carla Speed McNeil (Finder), and Jim Woodring (Weathercraft), a trio of unique creators who write and draw their own work on their own terms. That panel is moderated by the LA Times’ Deborah Vankin who also wrote the graphic novel Poseurs. The last event for Saturday is a panel on Mythic Stories that features writers Ed Brubaker (Criminal), Adam Mansbach (Go the F**k to Sleep, Nature of the Beast) and Douglas McGowan (Nature of the Beast), with moderator Leslie S. Klinger (The Annotated Sandman). A fourth writer is TBD. The weekend ends with two screenings of the feature-length documentary, With Great Power: The Stan Lee Story.

While admission to the Festival is free, the limited seating of indoor panels requires the necessity of tickets, which go on sale April 15 at 9:00 am. A limited number of tickets will also be for sale during the Festival at booth #463. Panel passes, which reserve 8 tickets per pass, can be purchased now for $30. Tickets for the 32nd Annual LA Times Book Prizes Ceremony, happening the Friday night before the Festival, are also now on sale for $10.

Saturday

10:30 am – Robert Kirkman in Conversation with Geoff Boucher (Panel 1121)
Ronald Tutor Campus Center

12:55 pm – Jeff Kinney, Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Cabin Fever
Target Children’s Stage

1:00 pm – DC Entertainment Presents: Watchmen — It’s Not the End, It’s the Beginning.
A Conversation with Jim Lee and Dan Didio, moderated by Geoff Boucher
2:00 pm – Watchmen Screening
School for Cinematic Arts

1:30 pm – Graphic Novel: Drawing outside the Lines (Panel 1113)
Joseph Lambert
Carla Speed McNeil
Jim Woodring
Moderator: Deborah Vankin
Taper Hall (THH 101)

3:30 pm – Graphic Novel: Mythic Stories (Panel 1044)
Ed Brubaker
Adam Mansbach
Douglas McGowan
TBD
Moderator: Leslie S. Klinger
Salvatori Computer Science Center (SAL 101)

Sunday

11:00 am & 3:00 pm – “With Great Power: The Stan Lee Story” screening, presented by EPIX
Located in the Ray Stark Theater
School for Cinematic Arts

“The Truth Is People Are Leaving Anyway”

So says DC Comics Co-Publisher Dan DiDio in last night’s Hero Complex blog. But could DC’s massive relaunch gamble this September actually halt the exodus?

According to the article, Justice League #1, the flagship title and debut issue of the massive line-wide relaunch of the publisher’s entire superhero universe, has received pre-orders asking for over 200,000 copies. Six other issues from the 52 titles shipping in September have pre-orders over 100,000 copies. That is fantastic news. Monthly comic books haven’t seen those kinds of numbers in years. There are also pending digital sales when the publisher starts releasing online and mobile versions of those same print comics simultaneously in September.

The full quote:

“The truth is people are leaving anyway, they’re just doing it quietly, and we have been papering it over with increased prices,” DiDio said. “We didn’t want to wake up one day and find we had a bunch of $20 books that 10,000 people are buying.”

Typically people from the major superhero publishers keep things pretty rosy in public interviews and online conversations. You know things must be dire when the talk gets this frank.

Another crucial observation made by DiDio:

“The walk-in, casual fans have gotten away from us,” DiDio observed. “We are down to just the die-hard buyers.”

Bringing back casual fans is the key. It’s a massive key to resuscitating sales. I’m still not completely convinced that what is getting published in September is a big enough break from the publishing and editorial strategy they’ve worked under in the past to bring in a casual readership, but 200,000+ copies is a sign I could be wrong (and I’d love to be wrong on this). Of course, it could be comic stores overestimating interest in their orders. It could only last a month or two. But for now, things are looking very promising.

If only they acted sooner. Over the weekend, a 4-store chain of comic book shops in Arizona abruptly shut down. Stores have been quietly dropping away for a while now, but this was a well-known and well-liked chain praised as a smart retailer. These weren’t the grimy comic store dungeons people avoid like the plague. But the profit margin of running a comic book store is so small that one car through your main store’s front window followed by an economic downturn and lost customers, and five years later you’re done. Atomic Comics was a big account for Diamond Comics, the industry’s primary distributor.

Would DC’s relaunch have saved them? Will it turn sales around across the entire industry? That’s a big job for one publisher, even the industry’s #2 publisher. After all, their material doesn’t cater to everyone. But if other publishers can find a way to join in the hype and fill in the gaps, we could be on to something. Hey, I’m trying to be positive here. It could happen.

DC Comics and the Elusive Female Demographic

Batgirl #1

September's Batgirl #1 by writer Gail Simone - representing DC's 1% of female creators in September

A controversy has been broiling in comics. When DC Comics announced their aggressive relaunch strategy, details were initially sparse but statements of looking for and expecting new readers were promising. Because comics needs new readers. But when the creative teams were announced, there was a decided lack of female creators and a curious dependence on creators that the publisher had relied on in the past with minimal influx of new readers.

Mainstream comics (which essentially refers to superhero comics from DC Comics and Marvel Comics) have been publishing comics primarily intended for the same insular group of readers for decades now, and finally that audience has dwindled away to a level where the publishers think maybe it’s time to somewhat kind of try to reach beyond that same audience. Multiple pundits and industry watchers have been calling for a more dramatic shift in publishing strategy for years. Comics’ most visible genre needs to be accessible and appealing to new audiences. You wouldn’t think this would require much convincing. New audiences = more money. But when large companies are given the options of safe, reliable income that is slowly shrinking vs. much more money with risks, they’ll always pick the safe option because corporate America is primarily driven by fear.

This isn’t to say that the faithful superhero comics fans can’t have their comics. Those comics should not be eliminated. They’re fun, they’re a great example of American myth building, and they have addictive pay-offs to loyalty. I still read them. Those comics should exist because there’s a built-in (albeit shrinking) audience ready to buy with a distribution network (comic book stores) structured for that specific audience. That network and that audience needs to be preserved.

But they should only be one aspect of a major publisher’s output, and they really shouldn’t be the dominant aspect when you see the ongoing sales trends. The primary concern, which should drive the dominant publishing strategy, should be new and/or casual readers, with the outcome that a percentage of those readers will transition into the addictive readers group. (They should also be distributed through other networks like bookstores and digital means, but that’s another topic.)

So, how do you get this new promised land of readers? Well, let’s look at the untapped demographics. We’ve got the white males 18-40 figured out. That primarily constitutes the addictive readers group. So good job, everyone. Check that one off the list. Let’s just check it again. Because seriously, we’ve been very thorough at targeting that demographic.

What’s an even larger demographic? How about over half of the world’s population? Yes, that demographic is out there! And it remains largely untapped in mainstream comics. That demographic is women! It’s not that there aren’t already female creators and readers of superhero comics. It’s not that there haven’t been superhero comics that reach out to women. There definitely are, but they are the exception to the rule, and they prove that there is a huge untapped sales potential.

So how do you create comics that bring in this amazingly large demographic ready to spend lots of money? The most common theory is that readers are attracted to characters that are relatable to them. People are drawn to characters that they can see themselves becoming or wish they could become. How do you have characters, either new or preexisting, that are relatable to women? The easiest way is to have another woman craft the stories (write and/or draw).

As much as we wish that everyone is the same, regardless of how they look and their genetic make-up, the world is an inconsistent place at times. People get treated differently. Groups of people get treated differently than other groups of people. Sometimes it’s really obvious, sometimes it’s very subtle, sometimes it’s imperceptible. But it all has an effect. Those experiences shape a person’s world view and it definitely shapes how they consume entertainment. I can be the most sensitive and empathic person on the planet, but I can never fully understand what living like a certain group of people day to day is like, just as other groups can’t understand what living like other groups is like. So again, the easiest way to create characters and stories that connect to a certain group you wish to attract is to employ people from that same group.

So now we come back to DC Comics and their New 52 publishing initiative. They reportedly went from having 12% of their creative teams comprising of women, down to just over 1%. For a publishing initiative intending to reach new audiences, that’s a very strange shift. You might say it’s contradictory. So people pointed this out. Some did so rather passionately because of their love for comics. People wrote online. And at this summer’s Comic-Con, people spoke up. Repeatedly. In response, DC Comics Co-Publisher Dan DiDio rather abrasively shot back with “Who should we have hired?” This, of course, just made it worse. Because when you have a Q&A portion of a panel, typically how it works is the audience provides the Q’s and the panelists provide the A’s. Making your audience uncomfortable, especially when that audience is the one you’re trying to convince to buy your products, is what you might call a bad PR move. In fact, it’s ridiculously irresponsible. And unsurprisingly, it just resulted in more attention on the issue and more heat on the publisher. Like here, here, here and here to name a few.

DC Comics finally relented when Co-Publishers DiDio and Jim Lee published “We Hear You” on their blog. Without acknowledging the embarrassing Comic-Con panels, the letter promised that female creators were in the pipeline for future projects. I suppose you could ask why female creators weren’t “good enough” to be part of the initial September launch, but at least they got the message. Finally.

And yet, I’m still seeing people online post how they don’t think people should be hired based on what they look like, they just want the best people for the job. What they don’t understand is that the uproar was never some affirmative action campaign. It was about making smart and reasonable choices to preserve and even grow comics, exactly what the New 52 was supposedly designed to be about. Because as explained above, the best people to write comics that will appeal to women will usually be women. This doesn’t eliminate male-targeted comics. And it doesn’t mean there won’t be crossover appeal because entertainment preferences aren’t strictly defined by gender alone. But it’s a no-brainer in courting a very powerful demographic that, make no mistake, comics needs.

New to Comics? New Comics for You! 7/8/09

Never read a graphic novel before? Haven’t read a comic book in years?

Here’s some brand new stuff coming out this week that I think is worth a look-see for someone with little to no history with comics. That means you should be able to pick any of these up cold without having read anything else. So take a look and see if something doesn’t grab your fancy. If so, follow the publisher links or Amazon.com links to buy yourself a copy. Or, head to your local friendly comic book shop.

Disclaimer: While it may seem like it, I do not live in the future. For the most part, I have not read these yet, so I can’t vouch for their quality. But, from what I’ve heard and seen, odds are good they just might appeal to you.

Pixu: The Mark of Evil – $17.95
By Gabriel Ba, Becky Cloonan, Vasilis Lolos & Fabio Moon
128 pages; published by Dark Horse Comics; available at Amazon.com

This gripping tale of urban horror follows the lives of five lonely tenants — strangers — whose lives become intertwined when they discover a dark mark scrawled on the walls of their building. The horror sprouts quite innocently from a small seed and finds life as something otherworldly, damaged, full of love, hate, fear, and power. As the walls come alive, everyone is slowly driven mad — defenseless against the evil in the building, stripped of free will, leaving only confusion, chaos, and eventual death.

Originally self-published as a two-volume book, this groundbreaking work receives a deluxe presentation in a hardcover edition with a sketchbook section.

* The 2008 Eisner Award-winning team for Best Anthology — Gabriel Bá (The Umbrella Academy), Becky Cloonan (American Virgin), Vasilis Lolos (The Last Call), and Fábio Moon (Sugarshock) — return with their latest collaboration, Pixu: The Mark of Evil.

“The story telling here is beautiful, creating a real sense of dread and supernatural menace. Smart, subtle and genuinely disturbing.” -Mike Mignola, creator of Hellboy

A very generous 17-page preview for you. I met Becky Cloonan last year during Comic-Con for my Barbie photo-blog. She’s already incredibly talented, so there’s really no need to be that cool. I wish someone would set her straight. Anyway, this a creepy thing filled with psychological horror.

Sinfest Volume 1 – $14.95
By Tatsuya Ishida
208 pages; published by Dark Horse Comics; available at Amazon.com

AT LAST! “The webcomic to end all webcomics” has landed at Dark Horse, and we’re starting the collections at the beginning! Sinfest is one of the most-read and longest-running webcomics out there, and explores religion, advertising, sex, and politics in a way fleen.com calls “both brutally funny and devastatingly on-target.” In an era when most syndicated newspaper strips are watered down and uninspired, creator Tatsuya Ishida draws on influences ranging fromCalvin and Hobbes and Peanuts to manga and pop culture to bring us a breath of fresh air. If your comic-strip craving hasn’t been satisfied since the nineties, deliverance is finally at hand.

* The first volume of Sinfest collects the first six hundred Sinfest strips, introducing the full cast of characters and the opening installments of Ninja Theatre, beat poetry, calligraphy lessons, and the irresistible Pooch & Percival strips.

* Web traffic on Sinfest.net averages 1.7 million unique visitors per month and 300,000 page hits per day.

* “After seven years and counting, Tatsuya Ishida shows every indication of maturing into a cartoonist on the level of Bill Watterson and Walt Kelly.” -The Comics Journal, “50 Excellent Comics from 2007″

* “The best webcomic out there.” -comicsworthreading.com

* ” . . . Sinfest offers many laughs; it may be brutally funny, but it is dead honest and refreshing.” -Publisher’s Weekly

Running since January 17, 2000, the Sinfest webcomic launched and has been running daily ever since. That’s a pretty impressive run. You can go sample the entire run right there at Sinfest.net, so who cares how I describe it? Go check it out!

The Nobody – $19.99
By Jeff Lemire
144 pages; published by DC Comics’ Vertigo; available at Amazon.com

“Lemire handles the stuff of a Willa Cather novel with equal poetry . . . He renders emotion and temperment in a cartoon face with breathtaking, masterful economy.” 
— Booklist on The Essex County Trilogy

The tiny, isolated fishing village of Large Mouth never saw much excitement — until the arrival of the stranger, that is. Wrapped from head to toe in bandages and wearing weird goggles, he quietly took up residence in the sleepy town’s motel. Driven by curiosity, the townfolk quickly learn the tragic story of his past, and of the terrible accident that left him horribly disfigured. Eventually, the town embraces the stranger as one of their own — but do his bandages hide more than just scars?

Inspired by H.G. Wells’ The Invisible Man, THE NOBODY explores themes of identity, fear and paranoia in a small community from up-and-coming alternative comics creator and Xeric Award-winner Jeff Lemire (The Essex County Trilogy) in a special two-color story that’ll have you guessing until the very end.

I’m really wanting this. I could post a preview, but I’ll do y0u one better because you deserve it. Here’s a teaser trailer of The Nobody:

North 40 #1 – $2.99
By Aaron Williams & Fiona Staples
32 pages; published by DC Comics’ WildStorm

Somewhere in Midwestern America was a place called Conover County. When the old book was opened, and the runes therein used in haste and ignorance, a place of farms, simple folk, and small-town dreams became a den of monsters and nightmare. NORTH 40 is the story of those who survived and came to confront an even greater evil on the horizon – one that wouldn’t just consume their flesh, but their souls as well. Heroes arise with power to bring against the dark: Wyatt, an unwilling protector of his former tormentors; Amanda, an apprentice to forgotten arts; and Sheriff Morgan, whose bonds with Conover County go back farther than even he can remember. See where it started, and watch where it’s all going in NORTH 40 #1. 

Created by Aaron Williams (PS238, The Nodwick Chronicles) and Fiona Staples (SECRET HISTORY OF THE AUTHORITY: HAWKSMOOR).

I like the visuals on the cover. Here’s a 3-page preview. Crazy horror monster attacks middle America.

Wednesday Comics #1 – $3.99
By everyone
16 pages; published by DC Comics

In July, DC Comics gives a fresh twist to a grand comics tradition with WEDNESDAY COMICS, a new, weekly 12-issue series by some of the greatest names in comics today! 

WEDNESDAY COMICS is unique in modern comics history: Reinventing the classic weekly newspaper comics section, it is a 16-page weekly that unfolds to a sprawling 28″ x 20″ tabloid-sized reading experience bursting with mind-blowing color, action and excitement, with each feature on its own 14″ x 20″ page.

Spearheaded by DCU Editorial Art Director Mark Chiarello, whose past editing credits include BATMAN BLACK and WHITE, DC: THE NEW FRONTIER and SOLO, each page of WEDNESDAY COMICS spotlights the continuing adventures of DC heroes, including: 

• BATMAN, WEDNESDAY COMICS’ weekly cover feature, by the Eisner Award-winning 100 BULLETS team of writer Brian Azzarello and artist Eduardo Risso 
• ADAM STRANGE, by writer/artist Paul Pope (BATMAN: YEAR 100) 
• METAMORPHO, written by New York Times best-selling writer Neil Gaiman with Art by Eisner Award-winner Michael Allred (Madman) 
• THE DEMON AND CATWOMAN, written by Walter Simonson (Thor, MANHUNTER) with Art by famed DC cover artist Brian Stelfreeze 
• DEADMAN, written by Dave Bullock and Vinton Heuck, Art by Dave Bullock 
• KAMANDI, written by Dave Gibbons (WATCHMEN, GREEN LANTERN CORPS) with Art by Ryan Sook (Buffy The Vampire Slayer, ARKHAM ASYLUM: LIVING HELL) 
• SUPERMAN, written by John Arcudi (The Mask) with Art by Lee Bermejo (JOKER) 
• WONDER WOMAN, written and illustrated by Ben Caldwell (Dare Detectives) 
• GREEN LANTERN, written by Kurt Busiek (TRINITY, ASTRO CITY) with Art by Joe Quiñones (TEEN TITANS GO!) 
• TEEN TITANS, written by Eddie Berganza with Art by Sean Galloway 
• SUPERGIRL, written by Jimmy Palmiotti (JONAH HEX) with Art by Amanda Conner (POWER GIRL) 
• HAWKMAN, written and illustrated by Kyle Baker (PLASTIC MAN, Special Forces) 
• SGT. ROCK, written by Adam Kubert (SUPERMAN: LAST SON), ilustrated by legendary comics artist Joe Kubert 
• THE FLASH, written by Karl Kerschl (TEEN TITANS YEAR ONE, THE FLASH: THE FASTEST MAN ALIVE) and Brenden Fletcher, illustrated by Karl Kerschl
• METAL MEN, written by Dan DiDio with Art by Ian Churchill (SUPERGIRL) 

WEDNESDAY COMICS will arrive in stores folded twice to 7″ x 10″, with the first issue set to reach stores on July 8.

Another exciting release from DC Comics. In the early 1900’s, one comic strip would take up an entire page, instead of the compartmentalized square inches of today. Strips like Winsor McKay’s Little Nemo had an entire newspaper sheet to stretch out and experiment, still even larger than modern comic books. That expanded canvass returns here in a bit of an experimental format, which is always risky with habit-entrenched comic readers. Some huge talent has been brought in to work on these stories, all guaranteed to be completely accessible superhero adventures. Seriously, this is more like it. The only stumbling block is the price but hopefully you and others will be taken by the novelty of experiencing comics like this for the first time in decades. Heck, USA Today is excited by it, and if they like it…!

Everybody Is Stupid Except For Me and Other Astute Observations – $16.99
By Peter Bagge
112 pages; published by Fantagraphics Books; available at Amazon.com

Fans of Peter Bagge’s generation-defining, satirical fiction may not realize this, but the cartoonist doubles as an opinionated cuss, and has been contributing provocative (but still hilarious) comic-strip opinion pieces to Reason magazine for the last several years… finally collected in this volume.

Although a libertarian by inclination (hence the Reason gig), Bagge (who lives in the fuzzy-headed, liberal capital of the Northwest, Seattle) is hardly dogmatic, and many of the pieces undermine traditional party lines in favor of a rather personal, rational and informed take on hot-button issues that will force partisan Democrats and Republicans alike to rethink them. And of course, Bagge’s well-researched comic strip “essays” crackle with the same energy and wit that propelled him into the collective Gen X consciousness with his comic book series Hate.

Favorite topics include the erosion of our civil liberties (whether the post-9/11 Bush administration’s gradual erosion of the Bill of Rights, the insanity of the war on drugs, or nanny-state meddling), ongoing boondoggles of the American public (for professional sports stadiums or ineffective public transportation systems), the Iraq war (Bagge is vociferously against it), so-called art and so-called entertainment, the homeless, the mall-ification of America, politicians both in general and in particular (including the 2008 presidential race and a revelatory one-on-one with Republican not-so-hopeful Ron Paul that soured Bagge on the candidate forever), the conservative/religious war on sex and drugs, and whether citizens should be allowed to own bazookas. Each piece features the voluble Bagge himself front and center as the puzzled, indignant, or deeply conflicted everyman-on-the-street trying to make sense of this 21st Century.

And of course, every panel is delineated in Bagge’s glorious, laugh-out-loud stretchy 4-color cartoon style, making even his disquisitions on some very serious topics go down as smoothly as Buddy Bradley’s latest escapade.

“Like all good political cartoonists, Bagge can be cruel. But he’s also willing to skewer himself when he deserves it… as libertarian polemicists go, he’s a lot more fun than, say, Ayn Rand.” – The Washington Post

I don’t always agree with his position, but his exploration is always great. And hearing other opinions and positions (especially well-informed like his), is almost always worthwhile. I remember the Ron Paul incident, which even got a little bit of mainstream(-ish) press right in the middle of the Presidential debates. Here’s a 12-page preview.

New Warriors: Classic, Volume 1 – $24.99
By Fabian Nicieza & Mark Bagley
208 pages; published by Marvel Comics; available at Amazon.com

His parents dead, Dwayne Taylor — a.k.a. Night Thrasher — set out to create a new family for himself and ended up with the premier super-team of the 1990s! Marvel Boy and Firestar! Namorita and Nova! Speedball! All they want to do is change the world! Decide for yourself how well they managed it in their trials by fire against Terrax and the Juggernaut! Also featuring anti-heroes Star-Thief and Psionex! Guest-starring Thor and the Inhumans! Collecting NEW WARRIORS #1-6 and THOR #411-412.

Look, this is my website, and I’ll recommend whatever I want! OK, look I’m not immune to nostalgia. This is the first superhero comic I was seriously devoted to and it really opened up my love for comics. This isn’t the series at its peak, but here is where it all started. At 14 years old, I was thrilled by these stories, mostly because it was like a Saturday morning cartoon with the most personal and realistic characterization I had encountered up to that point. These were kids my age or a bit older with “real” problems like divorcing or abusive parents, awkward crushes, and a still-developing sense of self. And then they used their cool powers to go on fun adventures, so it wasn’t entirely consumed by teen angst. I was hooked. For years. Heck, I still am.

Asterios Polyp – $29.95
By David Mazzucchelli
344 pages; published by Pantheon Books; available at Amazon.com

The triumphant return of one of comics’ greatest talents, with an engrossing story of one man’s search for love, meaning, sanity, and perfect architectural proportions. An epic story long awaited, and well worth the wait. 

Meet Asterios Polyp: middle-aged, meagerly successful architect and teacher, aesthete and womanizer, whose life is wholly upended when his New York City apartment goes up in flames. In a tenacious daze, he leaves the city and relocates to a small town in the American heartland. But what is this “escape” really about? 

As the story unfolds, moving between the present and the past, we begin to understand this confounding yet fascinating character, and how he’s gotten to where he is. And isn’t. And we meet Hana: a sweet, smart, first-generation Japanese American artist with whom he had made a blissful life. But now she’s gone. Did Asterios do something to drive her away? What has happened to her? Is she even alive? All the questions will be answered, eventually.

In the meantime, we are enthralled by Mazzucchelli’s extraordinarily imagined world of brilliantly conceived eccentrics, sharply observed social mores, and deftly depicted asides on everything from design theory to the nature of human perception.

Asterios Polyp
is David Mazzucchelli’s masterpiece: a great American graphic novel.

This is another huge release. Maybe the biggest one here (after New Warriors Classic of course). David Mazzucchelli is a great talent whose releases are criminally few and far between. Superhero fans know him from his collaboration with Frank Miller, Batman: Year One, but that doesn’t matter next to this.

This is a great week for comics. Almost something for everyone: horror, humor, heroes. Plenty to choose from! As it should be. Enjoy!

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