Bone by Jeff Smith

For my blog I decided to do it on my favorite comic from my childhood, Bone by Jeff Smith. The story is about the three Bone cousins (Fone Bone, Phoney Bone, and Smiley Bone) who get chased out of their town and end up in a mysterious valley, where they end up as a target of rat creatures that are constantly after them. They befriend a girl named Thorn, and her grandmother, and at the same time they unravel the mysteries about themselves and the relation they have with the valley as well as the mysteries involving Thorn and her past.

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I found the artwork beautiful, as it was clean, imaginative and colourful. (I read the later colour volumes, even though the originals were in black and white). The imagination put into the creation of the rat creatures, and all the other mystical creatures were awe-inspiring. It took you away from our world and into the world of the Bones. The story though was even better, it lures you in, and even though I said I read it as a child I still go back a read it every now and then. It’s a humorous fantasy adventure story for all ages, and there is a reason that Jeff Smith won many awards for it. There are mysteries that keep you guessing until they are finally revealed to you. Each of the different characters have their own perks, and it makes you love them all, even the antagonists (the two stupid rat creatures, that you learn to love). After researching, I came to find out that Jeff Smith, created the characters when he was a child at the age of five! His love for comics is what inspired him to make comics a job as well as a hobby. I highly recommend this comic if you’re looking for a comic to read and just enjoy yourself, as it still to this day one of my favorites.

-Kristyn Pattemore

Sources:

Smith, Jeff. “Boneville”. 2013. <http://www.boneville.com/category/comics/>

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Manga Styles’ influence in Western Culture

 

I was a little surprised that there wasn’t more discussion on the influence of manga in the comic book scene.  Manga and anime styles have infiltrated many different types of books that some may not have imagined touching.  One of the most well known ones is Teen Titans, with the kids’ show and comic book series, Teen Titans Go! The series incorporates many manga styles, especially the “chibi”, which exaggerates an extreme emotion when characters’ design suddenly transforms into the chibi state for a comedic effect.  Teen Titans Go! served to introduce an audience into the canon Teen Titans series, taking the manga hype that is present in many children’s shows over the past decade (Avatar the Last Air Bender, Martin Mystery, etc.) However, the influence of manga has also appeared in many published works that are used to educate kids.

For example, manga has been used to get readers, especially of a younger audience, into reading a wide arrangement of books, proving that publishers are aware of how popular the manga industry is in North America. Such works include the “Manga Shakespeare” comics, which uses the manga style to format Shakespeare into a more current and popular medium.  At the University of Calgary’s campus bookstore, one can also find a range of study books on science and math subjects, called “The Manga Guide to [Insert Science/Math Topic Here]”.  A wide arrangement of art books have appeared over the years to teach newcomers the manga style perspective, catering to both younger and older readers.  Clearly, the comic book industry is trying to keep on top of what is current, and have always done this even before western styled comics, especially superhero comics, were used a lot in the past to advertise brands or make public service announcements (PSAs), and used pop culture references whenever possible.  Example being how the 90’s star Vanilla Ice got his own biographical comic in Rock and Roll #33, and Avril Lavigne a fantasy manga story, “Avril Lavigne’s Make Five Wishes”.  The manga style is used more these days than the western style to grab at young readers, but this demonstrates that comics are still current, even if they are the underdog of literature.

For many manga comics’ readers, the western comics that utilize the manga style only to grab a reader audience, feels as forced as it obviously is. A prime example is the comics that are based on cartoon shows employing the manga style.  These comics are more like summaries of the show, and not a retelling or even a recreation of the plot, because they use still frames from the show, pop them into panels and add some word balloons.  This is seen in the Avatar the Last Airbender comics that are usually categorized in the children’s manga, and can be found listed as manga in online stores, but was created by a Western company using the manga style, and for the reasons previously stated, isn’t really an actual comic, but fodder for the cash cow.  As a manga fan, it’s a little strange seeing how the style has been employed over the years, successfully creating popular series and shows.  As much as it’s great the style is being used around the world and explored, and comics have been used in the past to snag a ride with popular culture icons, what will become of manga readership in the face of these changes and fodder transformations, is something only time will show.

Manga Shakespeare Comics:

http://www.mangashakespeare.com/

Cracked.com’s 6 Most Baffling PSAs:

http://www.cracked.com/article_19983_the-6-most-baffling-psas-starring-famous-superheroes.html

– J.Neary

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Is It Art? You choose.

I was thinking about the class discussions on the art vs. not-art, and low vs. high dichotomies, and I truly think that it is a waste of time to try to categorize everything.  

That being said, I think that if we are to attempt to create a definition of art, we have to take into consideration cultural and historical contexts. What was not art yesterday might be considered art today. What is not considered art here might be considered art there. Is it possible that these irrelevant distinctions are an attempt to legitimize certain things over others? Or to create a hierarchy where everyone knows their place?

Anyways, I think that one of the best theories for this topic is symbolic interactionism. This is because symbolic interactionism prioritizes context, and the mutability of meaning for individuals, or as Herbert Blumer states,  “The nature of an object…consists of the meaning that it has for the person for whom it is an object, this meaning sets the way in which he sees the object, the way in which he is prepared to act toward it, and the way in which he is ready to talk about it.” This contrasts many definitions that are based on structural functionalist perspectives that endeavor to provide definitions that are derived from the functions of any given mechanism. By avoiding definitions based exclusively on function, we can move past dichotomist arguments and instead see that all discourses in regards to comics are valid and meaningful.

 

Taking this framework into consideration, it may seem as though the function of comics in society is not quite clear, and that the seemingly apparent high/low dichotomy can be called into question. The way in which something comes to be understood as art is all contingent on interpretation and meaning. As a result there is no way in limiting the use of the word art to materials that produce specific effects or facilitate particular actions as the very meaning of the word is in constant flux.

 

References:

 

Applelrouth, Scott, Laura Edles. Destinies: Sociological Theory in the Contemporary Era.    Thousand Oaks: SAGE, 2011. Print.

 

 

 

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Superman Vs. Batman

This battle has been talked about, drawn, written and argued almost since these two were in a comic together.The outcome, in every case, falls on whether or not Batman could bust out some kryptonite before Superman got his hands on him. I’ve had many arguments with people about who would win and now I’m going to explain it.

Batman is an extraordinary human being with many weaknesses. He is arguably the fastest, strongest and most tactically skilled person on the planet with every type of combat training he could get his hands on. He has the capital to create basically any gizmo he wants to aid him in his fight against crime. He is still just a man, despite all this. A single bullet or miscalculated maneuver in a fight could mean he is dead, simple as that. The precautions he takes are honorable but when he gets tired and he goes home at the end of the day, he’s just as vulnerable as you or I.

Superman is an alien superpower with one weakness (magic and Doomsday aside.) He IS the fastest and strongest person on the planet (though The Flash did beat him by a nose-length in their last race) and his speed allows his to think faster than any human could. Given the amount of power he possesses, money and worldly objects, even ones that help to fight crime, are beneath him. Other then a costume that won’t tear too easily, he doesn’t need help like that. His biggest concern in a battle is making sure no one else gets hurt because his own well-being is the least of his concerns, at least until the green rocks start showing up.

So, these two formidable opponents fight. If both these two are in the same room, thirty feet apart and someone says FIGHT! the battle would last anywhere from a half a second to two thirds of one. That’s how fast Superman would run over to him and flick him in the forehead. This is what I don’t understand, is how in any comic Batman would have had the time to pull his kryptonite out, which is how he had beaten Superman in their last match-up. Superman has trusted Batman with a kryptonite ring, telling him that if ever he were to become evil in some way that that would stop him. It all comes down to speed though. Unless Batman walked around with the ring on his finger, as Lex Luthor did for a while, then there is no way for him to pull the ring out in time from whatever lead compartment he has on his tool belt before Superman was on top of him.

At the end of the day, there simply is no competition between the two. Yes, Batman could trick Superman into a room or stalling him long enough to get a piece of kryptonite out but the only way he could do this was if he wanted to hurt Superman and Superman didn’t know about it. Any other argument past Batman being deceitful and tricking him is invalid.

And let’s face it. Superman doesn’t have a sidekick in tight yellow, green and red saving his ass every second issue.

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FIghting Censorship: The CBLDF and the CLLDF

The issue of censorship has been brought up numerous times in the blogs. However, I would like to draw attention to two organizations dedicated to fighting attempts at censorship. These two organizations are the Comic Book Legal Defence Fund (CBLDF) and the Comic Legends Legal Defence Fund (CLLDF). These two organizations are non profit organizations dedicated to assisting individuals being convicted with obscenity charges for possessing comics deemed too obscene for the community.

The CBLDF is centered in New York city, and is focused on protecting individuals in the United States. The organization was originally founded when Michael Correa, the manager of Friendly Frank’s comic shop, was arrested for disseminating pornographic material deemed obscene in 1987. Because some of the works in question were properties of publisher Dennis Kitchen, specifically Omaha the Cat Dancer, and because he felt partially responsible for Correa’s predicament, he helped raise donations from various other publishers and individuals concerned with freedom of speech in order to help fund Correa’s legal defence. Correa’s conviction was eventually overturned and he was acquitted in 1989. The leftover funds raised were used to officially incorporate the CBLDF as a non profit organization in 1990.

Since then, the organization continues to help those in the United States who become victims of censorship attempts relating to comics. The organization has received support from many members of the comics community, such as Neil Gaiman, Frank Miller and Jaime Hernandez.

The CLLDF was created as the Canadian equivalent in 1988 in order to help fund the legal defense for the owners of comic book store Comic Legends, a store in Calgary, who were being charged for distribution of obscenity. Though the organization was unsuccessful in overturning the sentence, a subsequent appeal resulted in a lessening of fines. The organization subsequently became dormant in the following years until it was resurrected in 2011 for the purpose of assisting, in conjunction with the CBLDF, in the legal defence of American Ryan Matheson, who was charged with possessing child pornography after his computer was seized by Canada Customs. The material in question consisted of Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha doujinshi and other comics, with no photographic content being possessed. Criminal charges would later be dropped in 2012 as part of a plea deal. Since then, the group continues to function as an official non profit organization.

Anyone interested in helping in the fight against censorship, or if you don’t like having your comics searched at the border, you can make donations to either organization mentioned (specifically the CLLDF if you’re a Canadian citizen). Interesting to note, the CLLDF will be at the Calgary comics expo over the weekend hosting creator signings.

References:
Gabilliet, Jean-Paul, Bart Beaty, and Nick Nguyen. Of Comics and Men: A Cultural History of American Comic Books. Jackson: University of Mississippi, 2010. Print.
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Returning From the Grave: You’re Doing it Right

17 years after the Death in the Family story arc, writer Judd Winick brings the dead Robin, back to life. With help from Super-boy Prime altering time or “setting things right,” and the Lazarus Pit, the former Boy Wonder returns with a vengeance. But why bring back a character that the people voted dead?tumblr_mlp7c7HBe01s9yujfo1_400 It’s one thing to continue the cliché of superheroes rising from the grave (“no, he didn’t die. He was just stuck in a time vortex. No big deal.”), but it’s a whole different matter overthrowing a decision made by your readership. The critical reception of Jason’s returning piece, Under the Red Hood, was the equivalent of a groan. The story itself was solid, but why not let the dead stay dead? But this is not the same Jason Todd that the people condemned to death all those years ago. In his place is a murdered man, fed up with being the cute little sidekick. The following is why Jason, now the Red Hood, is an essential member of the Batman ethos and why it was a good idea to bring him back.

In 2003’s, Batman: Hush, Jason’s return is hinted at as Hush tears away his bandages to reveal an older version of the lost Robin. This, of course, is merely a persona taken on by Clayface and used to get into Batman’s head.

The title of this file was "Jason Todd Asshole" I laughed

The title of this file was “Jason Todd Asshole” I laughed

Later, it is revealed that Jason was, in fact, working with Hush and the associated villains as a consultant. But this illustrates one of Jason’s most important effects on the Batman universe. Batman sees Jason as his greatest failure and from the moment he dies, nothing is the same. Jason coming back and confronting him is a breathing reminder of that failure. When Batman fights the Red Hood, he is fighting a son. Written to be a “really, really horrible good guy” (Winink), Jason is not just a twisted version Batman; he is a version of Batman that Batman himself created. Jason has lost what it takes to be a hero. However, Jason has never been so popular with the audience. Not restrained by some moral code, like Batman, the Red Hood does anything and everything it takes to get the job done. To him, the end justifies the means, and the means does not exclude killing. The Red Hood and many antiheroes like him are popular with audiences because of this edge. They straddle the line between good and evil, making them far more complex than their heroic counterparts, and not as wholly unlikeable as the true villains. The volatility is exciting in ways that Superman’s selfless ventures are not. Jason holds the opinion of, “what is the point of always bringing the Joker to Arkham, if he’s only going to escape in a week?” which is a sentiment that many of Batman’s readers have. tumblr_mhk3wxgaPK1qelz78o1_500The antihero is the character of the people: angry at the lies of the day and not afraid to do something about it. But Jason is not only a worthy adversary for Batman; he is also one of his greatest allies. For a while, Jason was simply known as the “evil ex-Robin,” a title that suited him for many years. But when the New52 happened, writers were given the opportunity to leave that identity behind. While the Red Hood will always have his dark origins, his character grows and interacts with the world around him. The Red Hood, for lack of a better term, teams-up with fellow supes Arsenal (formerly, Speedy, the Green Arrow’s sidekick) and Starfire in the issues of Red Hood and the Outlaws. But to me, the biggest change is that Jason now wears a variation of the Bat crest on his chest, showing acceptance of the ever-present Bat-family in his life.tumblr_miydxd745E1qj0navo1_500 Bringing back Jason in the form that he is now shows DC’s commitment to leaving behind the one-dimensional heroes of the past, and is a reminder that the characters who are successful are the ones who are allowed to change.

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Story VS Art

What is it that draws us to comics? Is it the pages upon pages of beautiful (or perhaps not so beautiful) artwork? Is it the stories ranging from the twisted tales of gods, to tragic heroes, to simple everyday problems? Is it the combination?

This is an idea I have struggled with for a while. Do the stories in comics hold up on their own, without the visual aids? Is the art their to make up for mediocre story telling? I think in a lot of cases, especially those of mass produced major studio comics, i think the answer to the latter may be yes. But there are always exceptions, and therein lies the problem.

Could Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series story be told in novel form? Probably. Would it be as exciting? Doubtful. Even though the art found throughout Sandman is profoundly mediocre, it still adds to the wonder of the fantastic story telling. Similarly, the webcomic XKCD is generally incredibly basically drawn, using stick figures, allowing the stories and jokes to be the main focus. Similarly, I probably wouldn’t read XKCD in a text only format, it needs some form of image to maintain its charm, and its comedic value.

Other comics, however, are different. Nate Powell’s Swallow Me Whole is a beautifully illustrated comic, with a story that has confused the hell out of me, even after several readings, despite the fact that it deals with depression, something I am all too familiar with.

There are also comics that achieve a near perfect balance. I would read a novel version of Craig Thompson’s Blankets without a moment of hesitation, but it just so happens that he is an incredible cartoonist, and the combination of his words and images creates what is, to me, the epitome of the art form.

But what does this mean? Am I silly for enjoying Batman because he is cool, despite the fact that Batman art ranges from pretty good to decidedly poor? Does it hurt comics as an art form that people do continue to pay money for products that are lacking in one (or sometimes both) area(s)? I think in a way, perhaps, but in others, perhaps not.

If you enjoy reading an OK story, with OK pictures, that is also OK. If you are looking for beautiful images, with some semblance of plot thrown in as an afterthought, that is OK too. It just needs to be understood, that as a consumer, you vote with your dollars. Buy into the things you want to see, because that is the best way to get artist and publisher attention, and will have more effect than any rambling on the internet ever could.

– James Macrae

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Daniel Pussey: Alienation in the Comics Industry Part II – Dan Pussey’s Development: Yearning for both Artistic Merit and Wealth

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When I first heard that Rob Liefeld was a multi-millionaire I could not believe it. How could anyone produce such tripe and actually get paid doing it? I was disgusted by the success of such individuals, who cannot even draw hands or feet, but still manage to earn an astonishing amount of wealth. My initial reaction to these individuals was that they could not possibly enjoy creating material that seems so immature and redundant. Additionally, these individuals must know that they are producing material that is cheap. However, Young Dan Pussey provided some insight into to the career trajectories of modern actors in the industry like Rob Liefeld, who may produce material that seems equally mundane—at least to myself. Perhaps these ‘artists’ that consistently put out what I consider to be garbage actually enjoy themselves. Perhaps they remain in the industry for so long, because even after making millions of dollars they still enjoy producing what I might consider crap, and therefore they continue to create. Moreover, perhaps these individuals want to be recognized and appreciated as artists. After reading some of the excerpts from Dan Pussey, I felt sorry for individuals like Rob Liefeld. Dan Pussey yearns to be reputed as an artist, but he is working in a faction of the industry that seems to supress creativity; Pussey also wants to make a lot of money. It is probably the latter that is more significant to him. Rejection in the high art sphere of the industry forces Pussey back into the mainstream faction of the comics industry, which consistently spews out mediocrity and is obsessed with efficiency and profit.

Initially, our protagonist is employed with Infinity comics, which is a start-up company that seems to provide similar content to the mainstream comics industry. Dan Pussey has a great deal of respect for his employer and mentor Doctor Infinity, who is an older fellow committed to creating his own line of Super-Champion comics, which seems like the same thing as conventional Superhero comics. Dan Pussey and co. are not paid until they finish producing their sections. This is analogous to standard practices of DC and Marvel, and contract work. Furthermore, artists from the golden age were more efficient, and they were able to produce more pages in a shorter period of time; the doctor seems to be value speed and efficiency as the trademarks of an exceptional talent. It should also be noted that the Doctor did not even bother to look at Pussey’s work before hiring him. As discussed in part one, Doctor Infinity is purely interested in capitalising off of anybody who will work for him, because anything associated with his brand will most likely succeed due his legacy in the industry, especially cheap newcomers. Newcomers may have malleable styles and a lack of credentials, which allows them to be easily exploited both creatively and economically.

After a few years at Infinity, Pussey develops an ego from all of the hype associated with his work for the Start-up company Infinity Comics. A friend then suggests that Pussey has developed a reputation in the industry that may support a solo career—free from external influences and other actors who dilute his earnings—which would allow him to earn more income from his work. The realisation that he could potentially make more money encourages him to take a creative writing classes at Acme night school, where he falls in love with his creative writing teacher. His teacher admires comix and brings in examples of alternative productions that happen to be quite expensive. After seeing that these ‘hi-brow,’ artsy pieces sell at a much higher price than his conventional superhero comics, Pussey decides to pursue a career with the underground publishers.

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Despite moving to the alternative faction of the industry, Pussey’s style does not shift. His superhero comics are completely rejected by all of the ‘artsy’ labels such as “Hi-Brow,” which appears to be a rip off of Fantagraphics. When Pussey’s English teacher suggests writing about everyday life, he draws a blank, and cannot possible create anything other than superheroes. Consequently, Pussey crawls back to Doctor Infinity in order to remain in the same position we found him at the beginning.

Young Dan Pussey was doomed to fail in his pursuit of the high-art from the beginning. This is mainly a result of his intent, which was to capitalise off of higher prices. Pussey entered a faction of the industry that has consciously tried to make comics an art form, whereas he was merely interested in making more money. Our protagonist was clueless about the way comix operate.  Daniel Clowes’ series offers a satirical perspective into the lives of contributors who may be inherent outsiders to the high-art form faction, or comix.

I began to feel sorry for contributors like Dan Pussey. Perhaps they really enjoy re-using old plots and creating fragmented story lines that make little, to no sense at all. The polarisation of high-art versus low-art in the comics industry must be an extremely alienating feeling. On one side, we have the same trite that has served its purpose since World War II, which depicts power. I imagine that many creators working in the superhero realm used to admire the very same style when they were young. And, on the other side we have a rejection of the superhero genre, which may be exclusive to those who are interested in producing more superhero comics. This side is consciously trying to act as art and is challenging the stigma associated with comics.

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References:

Heer, J., and K. Worcester. A comics studies reader. Univ Pr of Mississippi, 2009. Print.

Eightball #1, #3, and #6 (Daniel Clowes)

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Daniel Pussey: Alienation in the Comics Industry Part I – Doctor Infinity and Background to an Exploitative Industry

                Comics have an immensely exploitative history regarding the treatment of individuals that produce stories that become commoditised. This relationship was especially prominent in the early days of the superhero genre, in which some creators were not even credited with a byline. Moreover, without any control over their creations, creators were vulnerable to poverty following long careers in the industry. Young Dan Pussey by Daniel Clowes, which can be found in Eightball, offers the reader a satirical perspective on the comic book industry by drawing parallels from the harsh reality of comics. The first post of the two explores Doctor Infinity, who is respected by Pussey and his peers because he was involved in the comics industry during the golden age (the 30s and 40s), which was a time when many artists would pencil, ink, colour, and letter their own comics. However, despite the talented creators Infinity once worked with, the present staff do not necessarily understand the economic dependency such individuals had on the doctor. Moreover, the mainstream comics industry evolved in a way that valued a Fordist mode of production, which forced specialisation and encouraged the dilution of profits for contributors. Furthermore, Infinity Comics Group’s staff do not understand the extent of alienation that former employees of the Doctor experienced.

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In Eightball #1 one, the Doctor recruits Dan Pussey and several other contributors to a new line of comics, which is called Infinity comics. This may in some ways draw parallels to the creation of labels such as Atlas comics, but this outfit was founded not by artists, but by an editor. It seems as if Infinity is taking an approach that may be associated with the “Marvel Method,” because the Doctor has already created a core of characters that his staff will have to work with. Furthermore, the Doctor is a well-respected actor in the comics industry and uses that to his advantage. His staff are naïve and he is able to persuade that their work is valuable because it will be studied like Shakespeare in the future. It seems obvious that the Doctor is not actually concerned with the cultural impact his style of comics will have in years to come; he is simply motivated by profit. This trend is consistently revealed by his emphasis on speeding up the production of his comics.

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An additional similarity to the early days of Marvel, is that the Doctor allows his contributors to be included with bylines. But, his reason for doing so seems to be in order to capitalise off of contemporary trends of the industry. Doctor Infinity understands that the modern industry has adopted the focus on autership that has been prevalent in the alternative comic book industry. The Doctor understands that he can increase the buzz around his products by having his contributors featured in comics journals.

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The Doctor may be comparable to the enthusiastic minds behind the earliest creations of Marvel. As discussed in Gabilliet’s text, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby enjoyed the idea of creating comics that a common person would enjoy. This could be achieved by incorporating everyday problems that ordinary people face. The Doctor is equally as excited about the potential superhero comics have, but he longs to produce stories that fuel imagination. These actors are all passionate about the superhero genre because they can voice perspectives that resonate in a meaningful way with common people.

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Despite the overtly noble cause the Doctor is trying to fulfill, during an awards ceremony in Eightball #6, Doctor Infinity delivers a speech that reveals some troubling information about his previous work in the industry. As he compliments his former colleagues and subordinate workers, he experiences flashbacks in which he remembers various forms of exploitation that he imposed on these individuals:

Here D.I. denies a request for royalties from a creator:doc 5

 

This example may provide the struggle that creators like Kane had from the 1940s, all the way until the 70s. The creator of Batman was requesting compensation for the extensive success of his character. He was eventually successful in receiving some remuneration, but it only came after years of legal battles. Personally, I feel as though such a wealthy industry—that has consistently produced cheap superhero trite—can afford to acknowledge the creative abilities of individuals, who provided the original depictions that these companies capitalised off of for decades. The interest of actors like Doctor Infinity is to cut costs in the production phase. The satirical approach by Clowes is effective in exaggerating the alienating process of profitable comic book companies, because not only does the Doctor refuse additional remuneration, but he also suggests that he would like to replace the artist on the entire series.

What is most ironic about Infinity comics is that new labels like Atlas, Darkhorse, and Image were a response to the growth in the alternative sphere of the comics industry, which enabled creators to start their own labels so that they could actually own their creations. This was a move to recognise ‘intellectual property rights.’ Moreover, the rise of alternative comix demonstrated to moderately successful individuals that they could too own their work. What Doctor Infinity is trying to do is to edit a completely new label, in which he has complete control; he is using underpaid employees to simply create work that is associated with his name. The Doctor has already established the series’ and merely needs bodies to come in to consolidate his thoughts. Since the Doctor has had an extraordinarily successful career in the industry and has developed a reputation as a legend, pretty much anything associated with his name would sell. Furthermore, he could hire any hack to create these texts because of his legacy in the industry. He uses a Fordist mode of comics production that employs cheap labour, distributes material that is most likely analogous to the big two (or this alternative universes equivalent), exploits the trend of autership, and capitalises off of his name.

References:

Heer, J., and K. Worcester. A comics studies reader. Univ Pr of Mississippi, 2009. Print.

Eightball #1, #3, and #6 (Daniel Clowes)

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Sartre and The Sandman

Jean-Paul Sartre was not only a philosopher, but also a prominent literary writer of the 20th century. Although he is well recognized for his plays, novels and short stories, today I’m going to focus on understanding his views regarding existentialism. At the most basic, existentialism states that an individual will always have both a freedom and a responsibility for his or her own actions. This autonomy is both a blessing and a curse of existence, and is expressed by Sartre when he says that we are “condemned to be free”. This places a great deal of weight on the actions of the individual, and in doing so,  highlights one of Sartre’s main ideas which is that “existence precedes essence”. Sartre did not like the idea of fate or the thought that actions are predetermined or out of an individual’s personal control. He says that “man is what he makes of himself” and felt that our present reality is in our control to shape. Not only then do our actions impact our own lives, but when you decide to do something, you are acting on behalf of mankind as a whole. Anyways, that’s just a small taste of some of the major points Sartre talks about when discussing existentialism.

Recently when going through the Sandman comic, I found myself making many connections between this philosophy and the characters in the story. For those unfamiliar (hopefully very few of you by now!), The Sandman is a comic series written by Neil Gaiman which gained popularity on DC’s more adult oriented publishing subsidiary Vertigo. The comic revolves around the character Dream, who along with his siblings Death, Desire, Despair, Destiny and Delirium and one long lost sibling (who will not be named for spoiler reasons), is one of the Endless. The Endless exist beyond life, and after death. They share the world with gods from Egyptian, to Greek and even Norse mythology, but even these gods can cease to exist. The comic starts with Dream being captured accidentally by men who are trying to entrap his sister Death. From there, the story weaves tales through many different ages where Dream has had an impact. This spans across real people like Shakespeare and Emperor Norton to juxtapose magic and the surreal against the backdrop of our current reality.

At first glance, The Sandman may seem to be in contradiction with many views expressed by Sartre’s existentialism. First, Dream is one of the Endless, whose existence is well, unending. This challenges the notion that existence precedes essence, and many characters will question Dream’s actions because they seem him as not needing to take responsibility. What is interesting though is how much effort Dream does put into his actions. Before making any major decision, he carefully weighs over all the possibilities and consequences. He thinks not only about himself, but how his actions will change the lives of others. The amount of deliberation Dream puts into his actions is enhanced by the fact that he is of the Endless. Existentialism touts the importance of responsibility for ourselves and for others, which is all fine and good when you are looking out for number one. Dream however, focuses more on the responsibility he has to keep a balance within his realm of the dreaming and by doing so, sets a strong, positive example for those around him.

Another relation to existentialism comes in how the comics treat religion. Sartre outright rejected God and the supernatural so when first reading the comics, Dream’s existence alone may seem to be out of place in this philosophy. However, despite Sartre’s personal, atheistic beliefs, he was still aware of the religious world he lived in. Dream, like Sartre in this case, lives in a world surrounded by the otherworldly. Although Dream has the ability to interact with these angles, demons, gods and fairies, he does not let their dogma change his own actions. Like Sartre, he tries to position himself as objectively as possible in between these different views, and make the best decisions for not only himself, but for the world as a whole. This is exemplified in sequence where Dream happens to become the owner of Hell, but decides to pass the keys onto someone else. During this, he hears the sides of different spirits and deities, and spends a grievous night debating what he should do with the valuable property. I won’t spoil the ending for you, but I will say that he does choose to make the right decision, or well, at least the decision that would fit well into line with existentialist philosophy.

Overall, it seems that Dream is condemned to be free. His bold and thoughtful actions define his character more than anything else, and Gaiman creates a world riddled with complexities so the reader can try and get a glimpse at the lack of clarity when it comes to “right” or “wrong” decisions. The story plays with the idea of fate, and by the end of the series you are left wondering if Dream, or anyone for that matter, can create their own destiny. Of course, an existentialist reading of this would argue that fate and destiny are close to irrelevant, however that is only one interpretation. If you haven’t read through the full Sandman series already, I would highly recommend it and most volumes can be found in major bookstores or even on the iBook store.

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