Girl In The Clubhouse: Issue #3

Fri, October 21st, 2005 at 12:00am PDT

Comic Books
Johanna Stokes, Columnist

HOW TO GET GIRLS TO BUY YOUR COMICS

For some comic book collectors, when they're picking up a comic book, they don't care about the writing, they don't care about the art, they don't care about the story. All they need to know is that their favorite character is in a comic. (Now, for those of you getting your panties in a wad, realize I didn't say "all" or even "most," but rather some, and you all know who I'm talking about, don'tcha?) It's not unusual to see a fanboy walk up to the register, slap down the latest superhero comic and proceed to tell the retailer about how bad this new writer/artist/storyline is and then sigh, pull out his wallet and say, "Okay. Ring me up." Certainly there are girls that follow particular characters, but for the most part, if the industry expects women to invest hard earned money and fleeting bits of free time into a comic, they better have more to offer than a lineage. If you try to sell me Superman, when I ask why I should buy it, it'd be wise to have a better answer than "Um… well… because… it's Superman."

I doubt I'll ever understand comic collecting. Or comic collectors, for that matter. There is a loyalty in comics that you don't find in many other places. Did you go see "Pitch Black" and hate it with the heat of a thousand suns, but when "Chronicles of Riddick" came out felt like you had to go because Riddick was in it? If your favorite television show runs off the rails, do you hang on season after season waiting for some new writer to come along and reinvigorate the characters? Do you have any brand loyalty to the individual networks?

"Dude… It's 'According to Jim.'"

"I know, ya'll, but it's ABC… you have to watch."

If newspapers decided to do a crossover where the "Peanuts" gang and "Cathy" had to team up to help rescue "Garfield" from the "Wizard of Id" would you read it? (Okay, to be fair, we'd all probably read that cause it sounds pretty messed up.) But if Tom Clancy left Berkley Publishing Group to start a new series elsewhere and some upstart took over the Jack Ryan stories, would you follow the writer or the character he created?

How many titles are at any given retailer? And how much time will someone who isn't treating this as a social hour spend at a comic shop? (Now, don't get me wrong. I actually like to walk in and hear a couple guys discussing different characters and titles. And it is to my infinite amusement how these conversations will change when a female is dropped into the cage. Either all communication stops or the opposite happens. Voices get a little louder, points a little more emphatic. Like cocks around the hen house, they strut and preen and try to out croon each other, as if that stunning red head over in the corner will at some point approach one of them and say, "I have observed you from afar and your point about OEL Manga being the wave of the future has both intrigued and excited me. I chose you as a mate. Commence to fertilizing my eggs." But a newbie will shy away from these conversations and may even be encouraged by them to get in and get out as quickly as possible.)

So if the good-hearted retailer has chosen to bear the cross of bringing women to his comic shop, what will get them to choose your book over your competitors? A publisher will tell you that if they can get someone to pick up their comics, if they can actually get it into their hands, the battle is half won. As a publisher, there are very few things you have control over once a book leaves Diamond. Does your book get put by the register and touted as this week's "must read" or does it get put in the musty corner that reeks of B.O. and, for some inexplicable reason, bacon bits?

You can do all the press rolls and publicity you want, but I just walked in off the street. Try to talk to me about The Engine and I'm libel to think you're talking about some trendy underground night club. Wizard magazine? What? Is that what Harry Potter subscribes to? Ellis, Ennis, Morrison, Bendis and Waid might as well be members of The Polyphonic Spree for all I know. Maybe I know the name Stan Lee, but his is just a name out there in the ether, like Bill Gates. I know what he's associated with and I know why, but do I really understand what he means to the industry? Probably not. And it certainly wasn't his name that brought me into the store anymore than it was Gates' name that got me to buy a computer. So all you have is a small space on a crowded shelf and a New York minute to grab my attention.

Which brings us to comic book covers.

1) Well call me crazy and color me confused…

Four color process printing is what's used to print most comic books. It is the use of cyan, magenta, yellow and black because those four colors can be combined to create any other color of the rainbow. But if you looked at most superhero comics, you wouldn't guess the publishers knew that. Go stand in front of a wall of superhero comic books and step back about ten feet. Everything blends together in a sea of primary colors.

Have you ever walked down the aisle of a grocery store and wondered why your box of Cheerios was yellow? It sure as Hell isn't an accident. A crack marketing team spent millions of dollars to figure out which color not only stood out the most, but also had good feelings associated with it. (Did you know that the color blue is an appetite suppressant? Turns out there aren't a lot of naturally blue foods in the world so when we stumble across oh, I don't know, some blue meat… something inside our brain tells us not to eat it.) And perhaps there is a similar idea in comics. Publishers have seen the power of primary colors and have latched on with both hands. But you know what you get when everybody tries to be like Cheerios? An aisle full of yellow boxes. And when I see that, it's like seeing blue meat. I'm just not hungry anymore.

On my comic shop rampage a few weeks ago, I grabbed some books that really stood out. I want to preface this by saying I haven't read all the books I'm going to mention and I have no idea if they're good, bad or boring. What I do know is that sitting up on those shelves, these books shined like a big ol' bag of diamonds.

In the world of yellow, red, blue and black, Jhonen Vasquez, creator of the "Invader Zim" cartoon, has a smart use of softer, more watered down colors for most of his "Squee" and "JtHM" covers.

And on the other end, "Desolation Jones" #3 shows a way to use some of those primary colors in a stylish way that still differentiates itself from the books around it. Which holds in line with the good advice my mother would give me whenever I begged for the same pair of jeans that all the other girls at school were wearing: It's fine to be like everybody else. Just do it in your own special way.

2) Can't see the trees for the forest…

Product design plays a huge role in today's market place and yet, in this art driven medium, publishers and their cover artists seem more concerned with staying with the herd than leading the pack. Pick a dozen superhero covers where the good guy's hitting the bad guy and then mix and match those covers or have Wonder Woman trade poses with Superman. Have you lost anything? Does the story suffer? Does it change your perspective of the character? Probably not, which makes me wonder what good the cover's doing at all?

Compare your typical superhero comic cover to Templesmith's covers on Ellis' "Fell." The stark white of the top half juxtaposed against the moody shadows of the bottom half bring a powerful simplicity to the cover. Clues to that particular issue are scattered across the front, but they are used more to accentuate the primary image rather than to compete with it.

When I asked Dave Johnson, the cover artist of "100 Bullets," (one of the best looking books on the stands,) what made a good cover, this is what he said:

"Simple, bold, good design. Too many artists try so hard to throw a ton of detail and story elements into the mix that they end up with a muddy soup. Covers should be like billboards, in that it should only take you 5 to 10 seconds to get a feel for the book. Most of these comics are positioned on a rack of other multi-colored comics. The bolder the image, the better chance it will be seen as a customer walks by the shelf. Some of my favorite covers (mine and other artists) have very little 'art,' but have a ton of design in them."

Top Cow's "Wanted" does a nice job with this in the sense that when you see one of those covers you recognize it. That's brand recognition. That's a good thing. Go look it up.

3) The layered look…

A good cover will grab your attention. A great cover will keep it. It will make you stop and ask, "Hey… what's going on here?" We've all had that experience. You see a great cover, you pick it up and look it over, put it back on the shelf and just as you turn your head, there in your periphery you catch something about that image you didn't quite see when you were looking at it head on. Check out Johnson's "100 Bullets" #62. There's a guy face down with a knife in his back. There's a face outlined in red swirls. The image is stark and dramatic. It reaches out and grabs you. And just before you're about to move on, you realize the guy's not just face down, he's face down in a swimming pool and the red swirls around the face are his blood. Which then begs the question, how are these two people connected?

I love Middleton's art on the front of Marvel's "NYX" books. The watercolor style on issues #3 and #7 distinguish themselves on the rack. While other covers, like the one on #6, present you with a mystery - one person is looking into a mirror, but another is looking out. Now I'm no doctor,r but I can say with some degree of certainty… that ain't right. So any cover that can make me curious about what's behind it is a very good cover, indeed.

4) What's the story, Morning Glory?

A good cover can do more than act as pin-up art. It can tell you things about the story and the character. I've heard a few people talking about Marvel directing their cover artist to use images that could very easily translate to merchandise - a beach towel, a coffee mug, your box of Ho Hos, what have you. If this is true, I suppose the reasoning is financial. Pay an artist once and use the work a thousand times. And I've also heard that editors like non-specific art because of time issues. If the book's about Spiderman, any ol' shot of Spidey swinging from building to building will do. No need for it to have anything specific to do with the story. That way, you don't have to wait for the writer to approve a script before you get someone to draw the cover. But if the cover is to a comic as a preview is to a movie, do you really want me feeling like this art could go with a story from two years ago or a story that hasn't been written, yet? Isn't that just saying this story is nothing special?

I love Andy Kuhn's cover to Keith Giffen's up-coming one-shot "10." A giant smoking gun points down from the upper left hand corner. The smoke from the barrel frames the torso of a man as he looks back at us with feral eyes. As you follow his arm down, you find his hand covered in blood, also holding a gun. Oversized bullet shells are at his feet. There are nine of them. Well, that ol' boy's either gettin' pissed off or pissed on, ain't he?

And then you have something like the cover for Mike Bullock's "Lions, Tigers and Bears" #4. A little boy with tears in his eyes hovers over a fallen white tiger. If you've ever lost a pet, you know that look. The image evokes an emotion and even if you're unfamiliar with the book, you're already building a relationship with the characters.

I recently read Grant Morrison's "We3." The cover to the trade has the three unlikely heroes - the dog, the cat and the rabbit - suited up in their high tech military gear and quite frankly, that would be enough cause I'm a sucker for a bunny in a battle suit. But for each of the individual comics, the covers were the freehand written notices for a missing family dog, the lovingly lettered flyers for a single woman's lost cat and a child's handwritten note asking for help in finding a brother and sister's long-gone rabbit. And when you get right down to it, all that story is about is trying to find your way home. Those covers bring a richness to the story and a depth to the characters. And isn't that a good cover's job?

5) Mommy… why don't I look like Power Girl?

Okay. So you had to know this was coming. What is up with the scantily clad booby girls who seem like they would be too busy trying to keep their "costume" (yeah, that's right… I put it in quotes,) on to fight crime? Or commit crime. Whatever. The publisher's argument is that sex sells. But sells to whom? This is an industry run by men for men. I get it. And from ages 14-45, men are saying this is what I want and the companies are giving it to them. They can't afford not to.

The fanboy's argument is that this is a fantasy. Real men don't look like Superman and real women don't look like Witchblade. These are idealized versions of the species and who's it really hurting?

And I'm arguing that it's hurting women. A study run by an associate professor of educational and counseling psychology at UM-Columbia found that women who looked at advertising which featured picture perfect, airbrushed female models "showed signs of depression and were more dissatisfied with their bodies after only one to three minutes of viewing the pictures."

I doubt any similar studies have been done on women and comics, but I do know that when I look at these long legged, tapered hipped, big breasted, high-cheek boned, flowing haired women I can't help but think to myself, I don't look like that and I don't know anyone who does. And when I read a book like "Midnight Nation," the single thing I'm most grateful for, besides it being a compelling story, is that the artist knows how to draw a woman without her looking like something out of Ripley's Believe It Or Not.

But of course, she's not the lead.

So I guess what I'm asking is if there's a place for me in all of that? Can I have a female superhero who looks like a real person and is more concerned with doing what's right than finding a pair of open-toed sling-backs she won't break her neck in while running?

Now before everyone jumps in trying to defend Power Girl's honor, let me say that I like what they eventually did with her, where she came to the attitude of "Yes, I have big boobs. You're going to need to get on with your life." They had some fun with it and were able to laugh at themselves which I appreciate. But when it's all said and done, I want something more.

And let me be clear here. Living in Los Angeles, I hear plenty of conversations about how the film industry is broken. These people who couldn't cut it on the creative side somehow ended up on the business side and they get to sit there and tell these brilliant story tellers idiotic things like their pulse-pounding action packed space odysseys need more ferrets in them cause ferrets are hot with the tweens right now and the brilliant creative types have to oblige because if they don't somebody else will and they've got the mortgage on their mansion to think of. So Hollywood keeps churning out this horrible, mind-numbing stuff that you've seen a hundred times and can't understand why they keep doing it or why there are so many frickin' ferrets on that damn space ship. But it's like that because it works. Somehow, someway, in that whole horrible mess, something works.

And we can say we want a change, but our dollars say different. That's why indie films are indie and blockbuster films are blockbusters. Because we make them that way.

And the same is true for comics, covers and all. Jim Lee's cover to "Infinite Crisis" with Batman, Wonder Woman and Superman in power poses will sell better than if it was Wonder Woman alone in a quite moment that revealed to us a piece of her soul.

And that's just the way it is.

I remember one time I was in the comic shop with my fella. I was following him from rack to rack, thinking about our upcoming sushi dinner, wondering why we were here when we could be there. And then I saw my very first Dave McKean cover. After staring at it, (slack-jawed, I might add,) for several minutes, I presented it to my honey.

"This… this is amazing!" I said. He glanced up, nodded and replied, "Yeah."

"But… but it's a comic book!" I said almost indignantly.

He smiled without looking up and said, "Yeah… they can do that if they want."

So even though I understand that publisher's are probably getting their cover artists to do what's best for their comics, and even though I understand that if everybody was doing work like McKean or Johnson we'd have the same problem, just at the other end of the spectrum, when I walk into a shop and see a cover that's bold and fresh and different, it's nice to be reminded that they still can still do that… if they want.

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