Thursday, August 1, 2013

SDCC 2013 - Robert Williams & the Wheel 'O Fangs

Sculpture by Robert Williams.
Photo by Lord Cheez
One of the most stunning pieces of work on the SDCC exhibit floor was this huge wheel of teeth/fangs by Robert Williams displayed at the Gentle Giant booth. They had it situated so that you would be directly confronting it by walking toward it through one of the entrance doors and on the main aisle.

Meyer, Reynolds, Williams, Vitello & Stout
 At Williams' spotlight panel, the right people were there to discuss a whole overview of his career: Fellow cartoonist William Stout; Gwynned Vitello (president of Juxtapoz & Thrasher); Eric Reynolds (Fantagraphics, who will soon be publishing the collected Zap Comics) & Karl Meyer (president of Gentle Giant Studios). While everyone got a few remarks in at the beginning, it soon became clear that everyone wanted to know what was up with that sculpture on the floor. The panel became a conversation between Meyer and Williams about his goals and the process of creating the sculpture.

Williams said "My goal was to do something no one has seen before. Action & color to attract attention and get a reaction. The wheel is about that momentary feeling of not wanting to stand in front of it."

Sculpture by Robert Williams
Williams continued on, talking about the painstaking process of creating it. He plotted it out with a computer tech from his drawings. From this they generated a scale model. Williams worked on the model, revising. They scanned the model and generated a full size version out of foam. Williams revised this one, adjusting and adding pieces. The foam model was cut into pieces, cast and reassembled. Williams perfected the sculpture and began painting. Williams talked about the importance of underpainting, and how he built up transparent layers of color to give in depth and immediacy.

Here's a good interview by Kenny Scharf about Williams' sculptures on Juxtapoz.

SDCC 2013 - A Couple of Neil Gaiman Stories

Neil Gaiman
Neil Gaiman on meeting Will Eisner early in his career at the Will Eisner Tribute panel (joined by a stellar group: Paul Levitz, Denis Kitchen, Scott McCloud & Jeff Smith): "When I was getting into writing comics, I learned from Comics & Sequential Art. I gave Will a copy of Signal to Noise in an elevator. He was always supportive of young artists & writers... You would excitedly tell him about a brilliant new idea you came up with, and he would nod & listen, and then say "yes, when we tried that back in 1947, it didn't work because..."

Neil Gaiman & Denis Kitchen
At the Annual Kirby Tribute panel (another stellar group: Attorney Paul Levine, Mark Evanier & Tony Isabella), Neil talked about his first experiences with US comics as a child: "I was 7 when Marvel started reprinting anthologies... a few years later my Dad gave me a big box of Marvel Comics... Years later, I asked "Dad, where did that big box of Marvel Comics come from?" He said, "I'll tell you," and then a few days later he died. I never knew."

Neil Gaiman & Tony Isabella
Gaiman said he was particularly intrigued by the ads in the comics, "how do Father Sea Monkeys smoke their pipes underwater? How did the Americans get the technology for x-rays spectacles and make them so inexpensive that children could buy them for a dollar? If I could only get dollars in the UK, I could find out"!

Eisner panel - Levitz, Gaiman, Kitchen, McCloud, Smith
Kirby panel - Levine, Evanier, Gaiman, Isabella

SDCC 2013 - Archie Abroad

US Pop Culture Abroad -
Cesare Asaro, Kirstie Shephard,
Harold Buchholz & Adam B. Finer
I admit that I have not kept up with Archie Comics. I know people that collect & write about Archie with real passion. I was a fan when I was young. I read the books, watched The Archies and the Josie & the Pussycats spin-off on TV. My mom even took me to some obscure skating rink/performance space in Hart, MI to see an afternoon concert of “The Archies” on tour when Sugar Sugar was a big hit. Looking back on it, I can only imagine what kind of tour this must have been, driving by bus from tiny town to tiny town playing fairgrounds, parks and small venues all over the country. Small children screaming at the top of their lungs as soon as the do, do... doo, do, do... of Sugar Sugar started. Those performers must have had nightmares for months afterward. I digress...

I had no idea, but according to the international marketing specialists on this panel, the 1950’s and Archie are the idealized perception of America in a lot of countries.  Kirstie Shepard (Curio & Co.), the moderator, told us that 1950’s America has positive cache around the world, and that their most successful international campaigns reference vintage ads. She said (wild understatement) that there is a big difference between perception and reality.

Other interesting commentary from these panelists, who included Cesare Asaro (Finding Frank & His Friend); Harold Buchholz (Sr VP Archie Comics) & Adam B. Finer (Universal Pictures, NY Film Academy): 
  • Happy Days is very popular in Italy because it reminds people of the liberation after WW2.
  • In some markets, Captain America is called “The First Avenger.”
  • The international market is quickly overtaking the US market.
  • Internationally, people don’t always get the punchline of a joke, but visual humor translates well in most regions.
  • We have so many sequels because companies are buying name recognition. Marketing an unknown property is very expensive.
  • Japan is the first post-apocalyptic country, and is obsessed with Robots! Robots! Robots!
Harold Buchholz (Sr. VP Archie Comics) explained that Archie is absolutely equated with US pop culture. People read Archie to try to figure out what it’s like to go to high school in the US.  Archie is the most popular foreign comic in India. The Best of Archie 1,000 page collection is the #1 best selling juvenile book in Canada. He explained that large compilations like this include stories selected from the entire run of Archie from the 1940's to the present. An Archie social media game is #1 in Nicaragua. This Halloween, they are publishing a book called Afterlife with Archie (trailer) by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa (Archie with zombies).

Monday, July 29, 2013

SDCC 2013 - Considering the Zombie Apocalypse

I've always been mildly curious about the zombie apocalypse. Aside from the absurdity of it, I am really curious why current pop culture seems relentlessly obsessed with zombies and post-apocalyptic settings. I've gone to panels at PCA/ACA and heard sincere academics talk about films like Zombieland in brain-melting theoretical terms and left feeling as unenlightened about this phenomenon as I was when I walked in. So, when I went to the Apocalyptic/Zombie: It's the End of the World as We Know It panel, I wasn't expecting much. I was very pleasantly surprised.

Sagers, Browne, Mogk, Cole, Stenson, Averill and Yancey
Moderator Aaron Sagers (MTV/CNN) herded a group of thoughtful,witty, snarky and outright funny authors of the genre through a wide ranging discussion that would frequently crack up the whole panel, and the audience. Every time anyone would say something serious about the mythology/theory of zombies, the entire panel would bust out laughing over the absurdity of the idea. The authors included S.F. Browne (I Saw Zombies Eating Santa Claus); Matt Mogk (Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Zombies); Nick Cole (Old Man & the Wasteland); Peter Stenson (Fiend); Alan Averill (The Beautiful Land) and Rick Yancey (The 5th Wave). Commentary was fast and furious. In my notes, I was unable to keep up with who was saying what. Still, there were some good thoughts:

Why are zombie/post-apocalypse projects so popular?
  • You can do anything. All the rules are gone. Nobody is going to say "don't steal that helicopter."
  • Working out anxiety about nuclear disaster
  • Zombie stories are not about monsters - they are about you. Siege stories.
  • Zombie movies are among the cheapest to make: one trashed out location, a bunch of friends and a make-up team and you've got a movie.
Modern zombie movies adapted from vampires and the voodoo zombies. Romero's Night of the Living Dead was inspired by the novel I am Legend.

Why do zombies crave brains or eat people in general?
  • It's not logical (laughs). A zombie's mouth can not open wide enough or bite hard enough to get through a human skull.
  • Appropriation of bodies/community.
  • Virus wants to replicate, drives them to continue.
Important survival skills?
  • Example of Katrina - New Orleans a beautiful city full of lovely people - but it became Thunderdome in 3 days.
  • Darwinian. Survival of fittest.
  • Need to stockpile things you can barter
  • Knowledge you accumulate most important. How-to's of fixing things, what you can eat, first aid, survival. 

SDCC 2013 - CAC Defines Superheroes

CAC co-founders
Peter Coogan & Randy Duncan
Got pulled in too many directions, and didn't make it to as many of the Comic Arts Conference panels as I would have liked this year. The two I saw were really excellent!

The first, Geek Therapy: How Superheroes Empower All of Us, explored the many different ways people are using the good qualities of superheroes to inspire and empower people to heal mentally and physically.  I was pretty surprised to see the conference schedule show up on Psychology Today (posted by panel moderator Travis Langley) but SDCC has become such a media behemoth you can never predict where it's going to appear anymore. Panelists included Patrick O'Connor (Chicago School of Professional Psychology; Comicspedia) and Josue Cardona (Geek Therapy Podcast), Laura Vecchiolla and Elizabeth Smith (also from Chicago SoPP), and Frank Gaskill and Dave Verhaagen (Southeast Psych).

Many beautiful stories, and a welcome emphasis on the positive traits people can connect with enhance their lives. I loved the question, "What is right with people?" (as opposed the usual "What is wrong?") and the effort to build on the positive traits a troubled or ill person might already have. Positive superhero traits were listed as resiliency, strength, courage and overall happiness (the traditional Superman is used as an example).

What is a Superhero? Peter, Robin,
Stanford, Dana, John & Randy
The second panel, What is a Superhero?: Professional & Scholarly Views featured contributors to the new book, What is a Superhero? (Oxford University Press) edited by Peter Coogan (Institute for Comic Studies) and Robin Rosenberg (Huntington Post) with Randy Duncan (the Power of Comics) moderating.

Pete Coogan (Superhero: The Secret Origin of a Genre) defined the elements that make up a superhero: selfless, pro-social mission; superpowers or other extraordinary abilities or skills; codename & costume often signifying powers and/or origin; often has secret identity; can be distinguished from characters from related genres by generic conventions.

John Jennings (University at Buffalo) talked about the power of memory, and asked the audience to think about the circumstances surrounding the first time they experienced comics; In the newspaper? On a drugstore spinner rack? With family or friends? Which character? etc... I enjoyed this exercise because I clearly remember my father teaching me figure drawing using Captain American and Wonder Woman as models. They were exaggerated, yes, but I was probably all of 5-6 years old, and they held my attention. Comics have always been part of my life.

Stanford Carpenter (Institute for Comic Studies) talked about the responsibilities of power, and how superheroes often face sacrifice and/or self-denial. He used the example of Professor X, a powerful psychic with dreams of mutant/human co-existence. His mutant power is so strong, he could just change everyone's minds, yet he struggles allow everyone free will and often gets in trouble for psychically influencing the minds of his students and colleagues. In this way he is always struggling with elements of his larger goals and his own essential nature.

Dana Anderson (Maine Maritime Academy) provided a graphic designer's analysis of superheroes. He talked about how we subconsciously equate "good" with symmetry & balance, for example the stereotypical superhero stance, feet planted apart and hands on hips, or the commonly symmetrical costumes they wear. He pointed out that heroes costumes are often primary colors on a color wheel, and villains are often dressed in secondary colors. He also did a study of logos and chest emblems.

Robin Rosenberg laid out the four types of villain/hero relationships, and how these bring out the best in the hero:
  1. Straightforward Criminal (bank robbers, etc). Motivated by material gain & power. Straightforward action on the hero's part.
  2. Vengeful Villain. Conflict is personal. Wants to eliminate or be superior to the hero. Only happy when orchestrating a crushing defeat when the hero is at the height of their powers. Battle of wits or brawn, intensity builds.
  3. Heroic Villain. Altruistic, believes they are fighting for a good cause. Here the hero has to deal with their own conscience and ethics.
  4. Sadistic Super Villain. Gets kicks out of wrecking havoc, death, torture, inflict pain on innocents. Hero often has to "fight dirty" by getting into the villain's twisted mind-set to fight them. Hard moral choices.
A lively discussion followed as a series of slides were shown and the audience debated if a character was or was not technically a superhero.