Lynd Ward Graphic Novel Prize Winners Announced

So the Eisner nominations came out today. Ho-hum. But the REAL NEWS is that the Lynd War Graphic Novel Prize winners were announced today! I’m shilling a bit here since I was on the jury/selection committee for the Lynd Ward Prize, the most prestigious comic book trophy outside of the industry. (The Lynd Ward Prize is sponsored by the Center for the Book, Penn State University, and the Library of Congress.)

The overall winner this year is Unflattening by Nick Sousanis. Honor books are Displacement by Lucy Knisley and Russian Olive to Red King by Kathryn Immonen and Stuart Immonen. (I’ve admirably written about the first two before on this very site.)

From the official press statement release:

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” “‘Unflattening,’” the jury noted, “is an innovative, multi-layered graphic novel about comics, art and visual thinking. The book’s ‘integrated landscape’ of image and text takes the reader on an Odyssean journey through multiple dimensions, inviting us to view the world from alternate visual vantage points. These perspectives are inspired by a broad range of ideas from astronomy, mathematics, optics, philosophy, ecology, art, literature, cultural studies and comics. The graphic styles and layouts in this work are engaging and impressive and succeed in making the headiest of ideas accessible. In short, ‘Unflattening’ takes sequential art to the next level. It takes graphic narrative into the realm of theory, and it puts theory into practice with this artful presentation of how imaginative thinking can enrich our understanding of the world.”

. . .

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The jury also awarded two honor books: “Displacement,” by Lucy Knisley, published by Fantagraphics, and “Russian Olive to Red King,” by Kathryn Immonen and Stuart Immonen, published by AdHouse Books. About “Displacement,” the jury said, “Lucy Knisley’s ‘Displacement’ is a perfect memoir comic. Her vibrant watercolor illustration humanizes the reality of caring for loved ones as they age with candor and grace. The narrative of her grandfather’s journal from World War II woven in with harrowing cruise experiences is a crucial touchstone, reminding us that her grandparents are so much more than what they can express to the outside world in the present.”

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About “Russian Olive to Red King,” the jury said, “Kathryn and Stuart Immonen’s ‘Russian Olive to Red King’ is that rare work of fine art that succeeds at cross-purposes; it is both successfully avant-garde and profoundly relatable. Stuart’s light, clean and deliberate artistic choices are the ideal counterpoint to Kathryn’s searing and devastating story of loss and grief, all of which leads to the novel’s formally upsetting and innovative coda.” ”

It was truly an honor to serve on this amazing jury. I look forward to working with Penn State and the Library of Congress again in the future.

On a side note, Knisley’s Displacement is Eisner nominated for “Best Reality Based Work” and Sousanis’ Unflattening is Eisner nominated for “Best Academic/Scholarly Work.”

😉

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Mechanical Reproduction Beyond the Age of Mechanical Reproduction

How would Walter Benjamin react to entertainment media today? Sheesh. I think it’s safe to say that if you haven’t had an Infinite Crisis of Conscience in regard to the endless cycle of reproduction, reboots, relaunches, remakes, and copies, then you probably aren’t as deeply involved with comic books and comic book media as I am. (Or maybe you’re less jaded.) Corporate Capitalism owns everything we love. Corporate Capitalism sells us our hopes and dreams via the stories we love. And Corporate Capitalism has fleshed these story-worlds into complex narratives, expanded universes, official canons, etc… Should we beware? Are these things already damaged goods? Or are they still enjoyable and fresh, but soon to be soiled just around the bend, come the hundredth issue of the tie-in comic or 16th spin-off movie of the year? Over-saturation is a definite thing, folks. And you know what is even worse? When something you love becomes something you used to love, which then gets over-saturated even more. Disney, Warner Bros, Michael Bay, mega-budget cinematic universes, and network TV shows are all responsible and at the core of what makes rinse-and-repeat entertainment culture so awful. Let’s not even get into big studio rip-offs and remake films.

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Over at MindlessOnes.com, the astute Joel (aka “The Doubtful Guest”) and MaybeMazin have been writing a series of articles about this very subject, specifically about their relationship to Brandon Graham’s Prophet, one of their favorite ongoing comics (and one of mine too). Despite their positivity regarding Prophet, the Mindless Ones folks are very uncomfortable with how they feel about it because it hits a bit too close the idea of ongoing serial-narratives that have been endlessly rebooted into soulless cash grabs by big conglomerates, in their eyes possibly appealing too much to the lowest common neoliberal denominator. (Prophet itself is a continuation of an old Rob Liefeld vehicle.) While introspectively examining and reviewing Prophet, Joel’s piece takes on a stream-of-consciousness kind of vibe—quite normal for MindlessOnes—addressing these frustrations by using The Force Awakens and the banal repetition of superhero comics as primary case studies. The article states:

“All of this ‘To Be Continued’ / ‘See Previous Issue’ / ‘Gotta Catch Them All’ etc is not something that comes from artists – it’s something that comes from the market and from (oh boy) capitalism and it’s all just a trick to get us all to buy more stuff. In the same way smoking is frowned upon now – I hope that within my lifetime people start to realise how harmful stories that never end are: and how this ever delayed satisfaction is a spiritual carcinogenic.

I couldn’t have worded it better. Stories that never end are harmful because they are intrinsically linked to soulless capitalism, rampant consumerism, bastardization, and selling, buying, selling… But before continuing, I should state that I’m not 100% on board with this idea. I think there are long-form (corporate owned) serial stories that do work. Star Wars, in fact, works because Force Awakens, Clone Wars, and Rebels are not reboots. They are parts of a continual story that spans generations. This is the same reason Dragon Ball works or Adventure Time (or even pro wrestling, to a certain extent) works. Characters age, grow, live, then pass the torch onto new characters. In many ways, The Simpsons is more grossly capitalistic than Star Wars—I kid, I kid, but maybe not really? The MindlessOnes article fails to acknowledge (deliberately so), in both Star Wars and Grant Morrison comics (which the article targets specifically), exactly how these things deliberately and smartly play upon cycles of mythology. Maybe it isn’t pure Joseph Campbell and, sure, arcs get repeated and redone, but they get new faces playing the roles. And if done right, then the cycle is refreshing instead of stale and corporatized. Prophet succeeds by continuing its story in a way that barely recognizes the source material, which is a very very good thing. The Force Awakens recognizes its source material, staying so true to the original trilogy that it nearly copies it—but, paradoxically, this is a good thing too!

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That being said, I truly understand what Joel is saying, even if it is a bit dogmatic and defeatist. I simply just haven’t reached my threshold yet like he has. Or maybe I’m too stubborn. I desperately want future Star Wars to take bold risks and morph itself and evolve into something new and unrecognizable. For if it does not, then what is the point? So much of serial-media has failed me and left me feeling bummed out. For example, I’ve never liked a superhero movie or TV show in my entire adult life—not one! And I’ve disliked them for all the same reasons addressed above. Plus, I don’t think of superhero comics as storyboards, nor do I think that there has ever been a superhero movie that has been better than its source material. I challenge you on that! Yet, I am highly passionate about Star Wars and superhero comics, especially those written by Grant Morrison. I love ’em! Just find it odd that those two things are targeted specifically in the MindlessOnes article, when I feel like those two things are two of the final bastions of hope in the sea of corporate-run media horse-shit. If those start to get overly-grimy as well, then all hope is truly lost—at least in the corporate realm. But I guess that’s Joel’s point. Maybe those were the last two bastions of hope for him too. And now, in his opinion, they have fallen as well, leaving nothing but gloom and doom. Even though I still have faith, I admit, I do fear for the future of the medium I love so much. It’s hard to picture the same old shit being done for twenty-five more years and beyond. I would hate that. And for many, it’s already happened as far back as the 60s, 70s, or 80s!

I would encourage all comic book fans to speak with the almighty dollar. If capitalism is to blame (and it certainly is), then let’s stop buying in. Of course, America isn’t reading my website or MindlessOnes. America is watching Entertainment Tonight and FoxNews and choosing between the inane dichotomy of Clinton versus Trump, two sides of the same damn coin. We’ve got a long way to go.

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My personal anxiety, both as a writer and in direct regard to all of this, is also linked to criticism, which I have a hard time with. There’s analysis and theorizing, and then there’s criticism. The latter is empty, biased, hollow, and unnerving and can very easily hurt people—even more than capitalism sometimes! We live in a society where we are conditioned and brainwashed to question ourselves constantly—are we favoriting the right things, watching the cool shows, reading the right books? We want to fit in, yet we want to stand apart, and we don’t want to be hypocritical. I get it. You get it. Life’s a struggle. When are we allowed to just fall in love with something—no matter where or when or how it comes—with no strings attached? Hard to do these days. Humans have become walking talking profiles, complete with lists of favorite movies, tv, books, and food. We’ve become the sum of our parts. This dark, scary world we live in provides an environment where serial-storytelling itself gets easily bastardized. Serial-storytelling isn’t, at its heart, a bad thing, but we do need to change the way we interact with stories, and we need to lessen our solicitation of bad storytelling from bad corporations.

The Prophet article ends with, “It’s more about supporting original ideas and learning to be happy when a thing is just a thing. We don’t need expanded universes. We need less. … Maybe if we’re lucky – some people will appear who are as good at making films as the Prophet team are at making comics.” I understand his pain. I love expanded universes (I think?) for I am a librarian-at-heart and huge nerd to boot. But, yes, let’s calm down and chill out. We really do need less. Less of everything. This is about restraint. But corporations don’t show restraint and therein lies the problem. I would love it if DC published way fewer books a month. Quality would increase across the board, right? Or would the “good” books just get the axe first? Argh. And I would love if the comic book movie bubble burst today—it’s a nasty cycle, perpetuated by creators, producers, and Hollywood scum that I am either disinterested in or find unsavory. (To each his own. I’m not trying to tell you what’s good or bad from the pedestal of an elitist. Just my personal taste as a comic book scholar and film scholar—I’m tough to please!)

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Despite this freeform rant and everything spewed-out above in such haphazard fashion, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t thrilled when I saw the trailer for Rogue One. And I’d be lying if DC’s “Rebirth” announcements don’t have me over-the-moon with excitement. Like, I said, for better or worse, I guess I haven’t reached my threshold yet. But even Joel gave a glimmer of hope. Maybe we’ll “get lucky.”

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BatmanPresents.com’s Catwoman Artwork Giveaway

The Real Batman Chronology Project and disCONTINUITY have been kind enough to help sponsor a special contest/giveaway being held by BatmanPresents.com. Head over to BatmanPresents.com to enter to win an awesome 6″ by 6″ hand-painted and individually numbered original Michelle Pfeiffer Catwoman (from the Tim Burton film) painting. Thanks to the artist Elvira for sponsoring and creating the art for this giveaway. You can check out her other pieces on her Instagram page: @evdb_art.

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When BatmanPresents.com posted pictures of Elvira’s paintings on its social media accounts, there were a lot of people interested in buying them. I asked her if she would be kind enough to sponsor us and she agreed. I am a big fan of her work. Make sure you show her some love on Instagram @evdb_art.

All the paintings shown on her Instagram page are available for purchase and they are relatively inexpensive, starting around $50. She has many different Batman paintings, including Poison Ivy, Harley Quinn, Batman, and The Joker, to name a few. Definitely check them all out and contact her for more info. Catwoman is the first one she painted in the Batman line. It is also my favorite. I actually bought it and it’s hanging in my study as I write this! Don’t worry though, there are more available for purchase, each hand painted and original. Some feature the right side of her face and others feature the left. Collect one, or both, or a series! Be sure to “like” and share the paintings so that other people can enjoy the artwork. I think this is the most exciting giveaway BatmanPresents has had so far because of how unique and original the prize is!

catwoman giveaway

One of several ways to enter to win is by answering a question at http://batmanpresents.com/blog/catwoman-artwork-giveaway. Who is your favorite Catwoman? Julie Newman, Lee Merriweather, Eartha Kitt, Michelle Pfeiffer, Halle Berry, Anne Hathaway, Camren Bicondova, and more have all played Catwoman on the screen.

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The giveaway runs from March 15, 2016 to March 31, 2016 11:59pm.
The contest is open worldwide—if I can ship it to you, enter! Must be 13+ to enter. Ships from the USA—shipped by moi. The winner will be selected on April 1, 2016, April Fool’s Day, by the rafflecopter random selector. Easy ways to enter, many chances to win. You can enter by answering the above Catwoman question at BatmanPresents.com, tweeting a message to BatmanPresents, or leaving a comment on BatmanPresents.com. You can tweet daily for additional entries.

The fine print: By entering the contest you agree to provide your email address and if you win your mailing address. We ask that you post a picture after you receive your prize on either the BatmanPresents Facebook page or BatmanPresents Instagram, to let everyone know you received it.

At the end of the giveaway we will tally up the results to see who the favorite Catwoman was.

Thanks everyone and good luck!

—Sefferino Ramos
BatmanPresents.com

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Best Print Comics of 2015, Part 2: Top Fifteen

And without further adieu, Collin Colsher’s TOP FIFTEEN PRINT COMICS OF 2015. Hope you agree! (Click here for the HONORABLE MENTIONS.)

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15. SuperMutant Magic Academy by Jillian Tamaki (DRAWN & QUARTERLY)
Jillian Tamaki was a part of arguably the best comic of 2014, This One Summer. So it should come as no surprise that she’s back again in 2015. SuperMutant Magic Academy is hilarious and beautifully illustrated, telling the tale of a weird alternate version of a mashed-up Hogwarts-meets-Charles Xavier School. Tamaki is an excellent writer. If you aren’t paying attention as you read—because it’s easy to smile and laugh and get carried away in the non-sequitur humor strips of each page—you’ll miss the most amazing world being built and you’ll miss one of the tightest narrative continuities of the year. This is like the Adventure Time of comics (…well, besides the preexisting Adventure Time comics already out there)! Tamaki’s character development is second to none. Her motley bunch of teens are filled with life. She has essentially created an even more charming version of Gotham Academy (with way more heart), which is hard to do since Gotham Academy is one of DC’s best of 2015 for sure. And Marvel could do wonders putting this type of writing on a teen X-Men book of some sort. SuperMutant Magic Academy is a very moving, inspiring graphic novel that shouldn’t be missed!

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14. Trashed by Derf Backderf (HARRY N ABRAMS PUBLISHING)
Derf Backderf is something of a cross between R Crumb, Harvey Pekar, and Peter Bagge—in other words, a true great in the comic book field when it comes to both gorgeous art and superb writing. Trashed is a rare insider look into the fascinating world of sanitation workers. It also doubles as a warning/social activist/environmentalist message, history text, and twenty-something coming-of-age gross-out story. You won’t be able to put this book down once you pick it up and you’ll never look at trash the same way again.

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13. Displacement: A Travelogue by Lucy Knisley (FANTAGRAPHICS)
Typically, graphic memoirs, autobiographies, and travelogues aren’t my cup of tea. However, the delightfully charming Displacement offers those things and so much more, and presented in a way that moved me to a place I didn’t think possible while engaged in the genre. Lucy Knisley combines a very personal chronicle of a trip on a cruise accompanied by elderly grandparents with imaginative renderings of her grandfather’s WWII journal to create one of the best of 2015. Her enchanting art—rendering all scenes with vivid color, detail, and allure—moves the story along at a flowing pace, all the while offering us insight into an interesting mind. Knisley truthfully (and boldly) explores what is like to interact with older family members, which gives us a chance to see into her soul, in a way. The complexity of growing old is profoundly examined, and even a cynic like me found myself questioning my own beliefs. A very powerful work—one that will make you really reflect—by an extremely talented author. To speak more about Knisley’s art: It is charming and lively, light-hearted yet somber all at once. There is a certain wild passion and love in this book, but with the calm steady hand of a much more seasoned creator. Knisley is very self-aware not just in the narrative delivery, but in how she constructs panels and conveys information visually as well. Like my other choices made for my Top Fifteen, this is a powerful book in both story and illustration. A+ material here. So much self-reflection, heart, and honesty.

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12. Sacred Heart by Liz Suburbia (FANTAGRAPHICS BOOKS)
A debut graphic novel this powerful demands attention. And thankfully, Liz Suburbia is getting what’s due. With a very striking story that often leaves you dumbfounded, Suburbia does double duty with narrative and art, stylishly delivering a queer-punk coming of age tale but with a much, much darker and extreme edge. Her illustration is unique and gorgeous to boot—maybe the best overall art of the year.

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11. The Sandman: Overture by Neil Gaiman/JH Williams III/Dave Stewart (DC/VERTIGO)
Simply stunning. Gaiman is still the master storyteller and The Sandman is his gift and legacy to comics. Not only do the old issues of Sandman still hold up, this new title—a prequel no less—is a bold and exciting addition to the mythos. Combined with Williams’ innovate and psychedelic layouts and lush, dramatic illustration, Overture is the perfect intro (and conclusion) to the long epic of Morpheus. This narrative ouroboros left me with a big fat smile on my face, which only returns when I think of the tale right now. We’ll miss you Sandman, although, I guess, when dealing with the King of Stories, there are always more dreams to invent. I certainly wouldn’t mind more like this.

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10. Houses of the Holy by Caitlin Skaalrud (UNCIVILIZED BOOKS)
Small publisher Uncivilized Books had a lovely little year and Houses of the Holy was one of its best. Caitlin Skaalrud has created a visceral and commanding work—part fairy tale adventure, part exploration of the human psyche at its lowest emotional valley, Houses of the Holy operates on several narrative levels. It is cryptically poetic and slightly freeform, but at the same time it is cohesively linear, containing a strong sense of continuity, which ultimately explains the path our protagonist has walked throughout the story. The mise-en-scène in Skaalrud’s novel is littered with illustrative detail. Almost every page contains its own self-contained portrait, shaping Houses of the Holy into a truly incredible tour-de-force full of wonder, occult images, and heart-breaking sadness. There is a Charles Burns nature to Skaalrud’s grotesque imagery, but her’s is more metaphysical and mystical—more esoteric. The black-and-white on newsprint paper help add to the nightmarish quality of Houses of the Holy, making much of it a cross between a Henry Fuseli painting and a witch’s spell-book. And Skaalrud’s main character (there is only really one) has a Burns-esque style to her design, but with a sort of manga twist, further strengthening the idea of the bizarre, fantastic journey. There is an undeniable power in this book.

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9. Jupiter’s Circle Vol. 2 by Mark Millar/Wilfredo Torres (IMAGE)
Would you believe another amazing prequel!? The daring follow-up to the already daring Jupiter’s Legacy—maybe actually less of a prequel and more of an extended flashback—was another Mark Millar success this past year. Again, no one dares attempt superhero stories quite like this—applying socialist commentary and real world scenarios to the superhero genre. There is political intrigue, historical fiction, racial tension, and much, much more in Jupiter’s Circle. This is how the abysmal Watchmen prequels should have been handled. With Torres picking up nicely where Frank Quitely left off with drawing duty, Millar weaves a tale in which we see heroes go out of their comfort zone to affect real change in society. You’ll never see Superman, Batman, or Captain America do what these characters do (even if you long for it every time you go into the comic shop on Wednesday). Picture the 1965 Watts Riots in LA, to use one of Millar’s examples. No author would ever put a mainstream hero on those streets of turmoil and have said hero fight against the real baddies. But Millar does it, having a Superman stand-in stand side-by-side with African Americans to oppose a corrupt, violent, and oppressive LAPD. (Millar has a more contemporary Superman stand-in take down Boko Haram in his other wonderful title of 2015, Huck.) There are strong sociopolitical and socioeconomic messages being delivered here and Millar never shies away from the lectern. And this is in SUPERHERO COMICS no less! Superhero writers should take notice—it wouldn’t be a bad idea for DC and Marvel to emulate some of the ideas occurring here (and in Huck as well). Jupiter’s Legacy is a refreshing series that shouldn’t be missed.

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8. Nanjing: The Burning City by Ethan Young (DARK HORSE)
War truly is hell. Nanjing: Burning City captures the true brutality and futility of war very dramatically yet realistically. With a slick combination of amazing art, wonderful lettering, and flair for storytelling, Ethan Young is perfect, detailing a terrible period in the history of humanity. The story of Nanjing during the 2nd Sino-Japanese War is a real-life holocaust, and Young captures the dour spirit of that tragedy by sculpting the ultimate tragedy via daring pull-no-punches sequential art. The complexity shown in Nanjing‘s narrative is unbelievably Shakespearean. You feel the loss and the pain of the soldiers and non-combatants in the beleaguered city of Nanjing, shortly before WWII. The moral dilemmas are evident and weigh heavily on multiple characters’ sleeves. And the layouts are gorgeous and impeccably thought-out. There are gut-wrenching moments of calm before the horrific storm, ghostly panels of silence that allow for reflection and contemplation. Nanjing is a definite book of the year candidate that should be on everyone’s Top Ten list. So striking—it floored me and left me feeling a sense of deep loss. It’s not often you interact with media and walk away feeling that affected. Young has done something heartbreakingly special here. His art is second-to-none. The stark contrasts and detail in every frame and panel create a living, breathing environment of terror. The layouts are exquisite. With subject matter such as this, the pencils and inks had to match it in order to give the story the justice it so rightly deserves. There is a classic style, yet with modern flair, with which Young deftly weaves the dire tale of Nanjing. Definitely some of the best (and most sophisticated) illustration of the year, hands down.

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7. The Multiversity by Grant Morrison et al (DC)
Grant Morrison and a team of the industry’s best artists continued telling DC’s best superhero story of the year. Picking up from what was without-a-doubt the best single-issue of 2014 (“Pax Americana”), The Multiversity drew to its epic conclusion. Only Morrison does superhero comics like this. Only Morrison does comics like this. Period. The meta-nature of this story is so over-the-top and out-of-this-world, it is almost hard to process let alone explain. It simply has to be experienced. When you (the reader) become one of the main characters in the story and that same story somehow also fits into the stringent continuity of a mainstream superhero multiverse—while also DETAILING A MAP OF THAT MULTIVERSE AND SETTING FORTH SPECIFIC RULES REGARDING THAT MULTIVERSE—then you’ve cultivated a once in a lifetime achievement. I truly believe that The Multiversity, along with Morrison’s Final Crisis, will go down as one of the all time most-important superhero comics in history. My only wish is that it also becomes one of the most influential as well. Unfortunately, few writers (if any) have been able to work in Morrison’s league and continue adding to what he has so generously brought into the sandbox.

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6. Zero by Ales Kot et al (IMAGE)
So many critics loved Material, and there was so much hype for Wolf (which failed to meet its lofty expectations), that they forgot about Zero! The amazing series wrapped up with its final seven issues in 2015, and damn were they good. Highly ambitious (even for a Kot book) and powerfully provocative, Zero‘s sci-fi-spy-thriller-meets-beat-poet-mysticism themes knocked it out of the park in 2015. With a revolving door of top artists—including my personal favorite, the ultra-talented Ian Bertram—Kot was able to relate a lot of weird moods and funnel many challenging ideas into a tight narrative about the nature of violence. Add all of this to the kickass concept of William S Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg as multiversial explorers while tripping on psychotropic drugs? Can’t go wrong here.

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5. Mind MGMT by Matt Kindt (DARK HORSE)
Another long-running series comes to a delightful end. And what glorious meta-conclusion for Matt Kindt’s intensely satisfying series. Kindt’s watercolors and pencils are to die for and he truly understands how to use the comic book medium to its fullest potential. The big two could do wonders with Kindt’s brain power. His complex narrative—mixed with noir, conspiracy, sci-fi spy-trade, superheroism, surrealism, feminism, and much, much more—is the stuff usually only seen in dreams (or nightmares). Mind MGMT builds tension, breaks it, and leaves you awestruck. This series will be sorely missed. Thankfully, I have the trades to devour over and over.

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4. Silver Surfer Vol. 7 by Dan Slott/Michael Allred/Laura Allred (MARVEL)
Marvel’s best book of the year, two years running. It’s a shame that so much attention went to the all-star collaborative Star Wars books, which were heralded as superb but were actually not that great. Ditto for the attention Ms. Marvel received (meh, whatever) and ditto for the attention Secret Wars received (although Secret Wars was pretty dope). But amidst the hype machine that is attached to Disney’s House of Ideas, everyone forgot to put Silver Surfer up on the pedestal too! The Moebius strip issue should be on every critic’s best single issue of the year shortlist. Not many superhero comics will make you cry (both tears of sadness and joy), but Silver Surfer is the one. Slott’s inspired writing channels the stuff of all the great cosmic/space yarn-weavers—Gaiman, Moore, Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Jim Starlin, Mike Baron, Rick Remender, and more. Norid Radd is basically the new Morpheus—hitting all those same beats with charm and humor and humanity. And the Surfer’s galaxy is one that I want to know more about and have fun exploring—much more so than anything seen in other recent Marvel comics. Guardians of the Galaxy? Not so much. Best ice cream in the universe? Yes, please. All this good mentioning and I haven’t even gotten to the pure joy that is the Allreds. They are simply the best. You want style in illustration that tops all the rest? This is it. Nuff said.

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3. BORB by Jason Little (UNCIVILIZED BOOKS)
Jason Little’s BORB is a poignant and incredibly sad story of a far-too-often marginalized people: the homeless in America. Gritty and highly detailed, BORB is at times hard to look at—so shocking and ugly that you can’t turn away. But unlike its brutal and unforgiving cousin Saint Cole by Ethan Van Sciver, BORB manages to be savagely violent without being insufferably cruel and soul-sucking. And unlike the offensively gory and misogynistic imagery of Josh Simmons’ awful Black River, BORB offers similar gore but with meaning, motivation, and a sense of respecting its victim’s backstory. The victim, in regard to BORB, is the novel’s main character—a destitute African-American homeless man living in a very realistic New York setting. Jason Little, through his protagonist and backdrop, expertly captures what it is like to be poor (and black) in an hard urban environment. However, the realism of the urban setting purposefully does not carry over into the narrative, which quickly swings into hyperbolic situations, detailing the man’s life in worst-case-scenario Itchy & Scratchy-esque vignettes. These vignettes give us pause to think: “Is this farce? Or is this a tragedy of reality?” Whether you are moved by this man’s tale or whether you are a rubbernecker, BORB grips you by the balls and doesn’t let you go until its story has been told, complete with big reveals at the end. Not to mention, the author’s own revelation that he was inspired to write BORB after seeing the plight of a homeless man in Brooklyn. Beyond Jason Little’s sharp, clean, pen-and-ink illustration, the author is also very aware of form in regard to the shape of BORB—it has a newspaper strip format that is very effective in conveying an old-timey feel. The illustration matches this feeling quite well. Little draws his characters in a 1920s/1930s Sunday funnies style, but the images, of course, are very modern, creating a powerful juxtaposition. Little’s lettering—an essential part of comics that is overlooked in most critiques—is very sharp and evocative, giving boldness to the limited choice of text used in the book. Little depicts the world of the homeless, from the perspective of the homeless, and it is through the stylistically simple word balloons and sometimes jumbled text that we are able to see through the eyes of the homeless and empathize with their plight.

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2. Dressing by Michael Deforge (KOYAMA PRESS)
Dressing’s complexity in narrative equals its complexity in art, which makes it hard to even describe. The short vignettes capture a dark existential (and often sexual) realm of subconscious, one rarely explored in comic art—and rarely in such bizarre form. This realm that Deforge seems to capture and display so well is one that is often hidden deep within our psyche, almost like acid trip memories or an examination of what it must be like to exist as an alien (from the alien’s perspective). Deforge is able to delicately muse about the spectrum of emotions related to the human condition via decidedly paradoxical non-human characters. This is incredibly hard to pull off, yet Deforge does it with relative (and jaw-dropping) ease. He is a chameleon, able to morph into whatever headspace he must in order to convey his message. Dressing’s art is gorgeous, a style often attempted in indie “comix” today, but here unmatched. Deforge’s visuals tell stories that often contradict the text in inexplicable yet pretty ways. The vibrant mostly-primary colors set an alarming tone and also serve, in some stories, to add to the narrative. Every panel contains so much arresting detail and each could easily be framed and sold as individual prints. These panels come together to form a brilliant tapestry of color, abstract shape, and design. Dressing—with its interstellar language, flirty fish, and erections that last forever—is a truly groundbreaking work, worthy of attention—and one of my overall favorites of 2015.

unflattening
1. Unflattening by Nick Sousanis (Harvard University Press)
A religious experience, a spiritual awakening. These terms can both describe what can happen while reading Unflattening, which is the first ever comic book published by Harvard. This is the story of why comics are important, not just as an art or literary form, but as a way of understanding the world in which we reside. Beyond the philosophical ramifications of this exploration into visual thinking, author Nick Sousanis has created a dense, multi-layered, and domineering successor to Scott McCloud’s seminal works, Understanding Comics and Reinventing Comics. Not only that, but Sousanis has also deftly and succinctly taken some of the most heady philosophical, psychological, and scientific concepts—from Arnheim to Bakhtin to Marcuse to Copernicus and a hundred more—and whittled them down into a tapestry that is both unbelievably complex yet easily understandable for the layman. How Sousanis has achieved such a herculean task still escapes my complete grasp, but his expert ability to compartmentalize these ideas and intermix them with his gorgeous art helps his case tremendously. (To actually speak as to how Sousanis pulled off this amazing feat, one should be informed that Sousanis developed Unflattening from his doctoral dissertation for Teachers College Columbia University. Sousanis’ concept was to create a “thesis-as-comic.” I wish everyone was skilled enough and had the desire, passion, and talent to turn their dissertations into comic books!) There have been several attempts to adapt Edwin Abbot Abbot’s Flatland (in literature, film, and TV), but I haven’t seen one in comics, nor one so thoughtful and precise. And from that relative starting point, Sousanis takes us on a journey through human history and the human mind. This highly innovative journey is unlike anything I’ve ever seen. Sousanis’ art is meticulously laid-out and beautifully illustrated. The research done for most dissertations usually takes years. Add the time it must have taken to draft, plan-out, and draw that dissertation into a comic book masterpiece—it must have taken quite some time. Because of this fact, something akin to Unflattening will likely never be replicated. Unflattening isn’t just informative, a science, philosophy, math, or psychology text, nor is it a re-hashing of “sequential art studies” with the addition of intensive academic research—Unflattening is also a guidebook for life. It is about how we think about the world, see the world, and live in the world. Sousanis wants us to “unflatten,” to live, to learn, and to grow as humans. Will I walk the same path after reading this book? Honestly, probably something similar. But I will tell you one thing, I’ll definitely take a left turn instead of a right next time I’m walking to work. And my eyes will be wide open, wider than they were before.

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Best Print Comics of 2015, Part 1: Honorable Mentions

It’s that time of the season again! And I’ve read more comics this past year than ever before. Not to mention, I have been honored by being invited to serve as a jury member for the Lynd Ward Graphic Novel Prize, an annual award sponsored by the Library of Congress, making it the most prestigious graphic novel award outside of the industry. Comics have been treating me well as of late, and here are the ones that affected me the most—aka my favorite print comic books of 2015. First, the HONORABLE MENTIONS.

ales kot material
Material by Ales Kot/Will Tempest/Clayton Cowles/Tom Muller (IMAGE)
That handsome baby-faced devil Ales Kot always has multiple titles on my Best Of lists, and for good reason. His boldly cool, highly-refined, and sophisticated insights into modern culture, politics, race, and society are peppered throughout all of his works. And Material is no exception. This feels like high art, but at the same time registers as unafraid blue-collar “activism via the weekly comic magazine”—a very personal, whip-smart, lefty-perspective social commentary that more mainstream comics need. However, truth be told, while I really like Material, when I first read this title, it was higher up on my list, but upon further readings, it slid back to the Honorable Mentions. Material is an undoubtedly an important work, but it feels like a sloppy first draft and can be pedantic, especially in regard to its pseudo-scholarly citations that ostensibly come from the pedestal of yuppie-hipster privilege. But that aside, I truly wish there were more Ales Kots out there. Looking forward to more material—(hopefully a bit more polished)—from Material in 2016.

Nemo River of Ghosts
Nemo: River of Ghosts by Alan Moore/Kevin O’Neill (TOP SHELF)
I hope that old jerk Alan Moore, no matter what he does with his angry life moving forward, continues to write League of Extraordinary Gentlemen comics. It’s simply what he does best these days. River of Ghosts was a superb addition to the ever-growing universe of the League. The mind-blowing sequence that mashes-up Billion Dollar Brain, The Creature From the Black Lagoon, Boys From Brazil, Dr. Goldfoot, AND Stepford Wives is some 110% serious next level brilliance. No matter what I think of the guy’s views on the comic book industry, there’s no denying that Alan Moore is the legendary genius of comic books. And I would be grossly negligent if I didn’t mention Kevin O’Neill’s top notch art, which is likely the best it’s ever been. Any opportunity to consume O’Neill’s illustrations shouldn’t be missed.

Nameless
Nameless by Grant Morrison/Chris Burnham/Nathan Fairbairn (IMAGE)
Morrison and Burnham teamed-up again to bring one of the strongest and strangest (and goriest) comics of the year. This is all of Morrison’s black magick, voodoo, and occult wizardry working overtime. Good stuff for hardcore fans and the uninitiated as well. If you want a good sci-fi story with Cthulhu elements, tarot, and some of the purest evil-imagery ever recorded in a comic book, this is the book for you. The art combo of Burnham and Fairbairn, as always, produces the best illustration and color you can get in sequential art today. Their tarot card design is sickening cool. Highly recommended.

huck
Huck by Mark Millar/Rafael Albuquerque/Dave McCaig (IMAGE)
I loathed Zach Snyder’s completely out-of-touch colorless Man of Steel. Millar not only loathed it, but felt so traumatized as to write a response in the form of the lovely and powerful Huck. This is the Superman as socialist hero comic book story that I love and understand. Part of me thinks that Millar might be putting out his best work now that the DC Cinematic Universe is getting started. But seriously though, he might want to take a look at his own stale movie brand too… we could see some positive responses on the other end as well.

saga
Saga by Brian K. Vaughan/Fiona Staples (IMAGE)
What more is there to say about Saga other than it is still great. The longevity of this title is something else. To stay relevant and consistent for so many years is a testament to the greatness that is the collaboration between Staples and Vaughan, who both know how to create thrilling page-turners. In a year where Vaughan also put out the acclaimed Paper Girls and Private Eye (both of which fell quite flat for me), Saga is definitely Vaughan’s darling baby, and it shows. On a side note, Private Eye, even if it’s story leaves something to be desired, does have some of the best illustration of the year by Marcos Martin. So, honorable mention for Marcos Martin.

grayson king seeley janin
Grayson by Tom King/Tim Seeley/Mikel Janin/Jeremy Cox (DC)
Grayson—along with other post-New 52 titles like Batgirl, Prez, Midnighter, Omega Men, and Gotham Academy—has become a critical darling. (All of these titles deserve the praise they’ve gotten—except for Batgirl, which sucks.) For my money, Grayson tops them all. The John le Carre/Len Deighton-meets-sci-fi-weirdness of Grant Morrison’s final Batman run continues, albeit with a radical departure from the safety zone that is keeping fan-favorite Dick Grayson in his status quo as costumed superhero. Who would have thought that Borne Identity Grayson would work so damn well? And don’t get us all hot and bothered about Janin’s ability to adequately display the sexiest male character in all of comic-dom.

aama peeters
aama Vol. 3-4 by Frederik Peeters (SELF MADE HERO)
I anxiously waited for the third and fourth volumes of aama to be released in America this year, and when they dropped, my high expectations were absolutely met and then some. Like the previous two installments, Peeters continues his deft illustrative style and conjures up some dark, sci-fi shit in the vein of Jodoworsky or Frank Herbert. Killer comics right here that are not to be missed.

Lose #7 Deforge
Lose #7 by Michael Deforge (KOYAMA PRESS)
Michael Deforge has quickly risen to the rank of legitimate genius creator when it comes to comic art. And as he’s done in the past, Lose #7 brings us more Deforge greatness. Capturing different perspectives and navigating the confusion and complexity that goes along with human interaction in the 21st century, Deforge, in Lose #7, also brilliantly captures the un-affected un-influenced nature of what it is like to be a child experiencing the world for the first time—albeit bizarrely with a fully developed (and contradictory) adult mindset already set in place. This is undeniably one of the best comix of the year.

jaco the galactic patrolman toriyama
Jaco the Galactic Patrolman by Akira Toriyama (SHONEN JUMP)
The long-awaited US release of the Dragon Ball prequel, which Toriyama himself has claimed to be his best work ever. And I’ll be damned if it isn’t (or doesn’t come close). The legendary master, whose name should probably be listed alongside Hayao Miyazaki and Osamu Tezuka, brought the delightful Jaco into the world of Dragon Ball and I couldn’t have been happier about it. His characters-design and ability to balance humor and action are both still on-point. It feels as if he’d never stopped doing Dragon Ball manga at all.

surface ales kot
The Surface by Ales Kot / Langdon Foss / Jordie Bellaire (IMAGE)
Psychomagic, the universe as a hologram, Spider Jerusalem, anarchy, Philip K Dick, Stanislaw Lem, Grant Morrison’s Invisibles, polyamory (maybe), The Matrix. Take all of these things and put them in a blender. Add psychotropic drugs. Add the contents of all human experience and memory. Add one Ales Kot. You’ve got yourself The Surface. A kind of sort of follow-up to Change, Kot gives us something rarely seen—outside of Grant Morrison comics that is. But this comic is unique in how honest it is. Kot puts himself in the story, but with surprisingly less hubris than one would expect from such a metafictional writerly act. It’s hard to be a writer and to expose one’s self so boldly. And it’s even harder to acknowledge that difficulty within one’s own narrative (and at the ostensible expense of one’s narrative, to boot)! The young but talented and highly sophisticated Kot clearly is heavily influenced by the best (and coolest) things in reality/unreality, and it’s fun to watch him process/struggle against these heady concepts with the turn of every page. I can see Kot in a decade’s time—having fully found himself—prying open third eyes, giving us new spirituality, a new visionary dream—the key to accessing a new way of human existence/experience.

And now, Collin Colsher’s TOP FIFTEEN PRINT COMICS OF 2015…

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The Nomenclature of Comic Book Eras

Happy Thanksgiving, friends. Been a while since I posted, so I thought I would regurgitate a write-up that appears as a footnote on the home page of the Real Batman Chronology Project. What is the history of superhero comic book eras, specifically when it comes to nomenclature? Let me elucidate!

taschen

Taschen collects superhero comic books, separated into their respective ages/eras, notably splitting the Modern Age into the “Dark Age” and “Modern Age [Proper].”

For the intents and purposes of the Real Batman Chronology Project, I have referred to the classical comic book ages that were born from line-wide continuity reboots—the GOLDEN AGE (1938-1960), the SILVER AGE (1960-1986), the MODERN AGE (1986-2011), and NEW AGE (2011-the present).

Batman wasn’t around until the Golden Age of comic books, but before that there was the so-called PRE-MODERN AGE (or PLATINUM AGE, VICTORIAN AGE, or PULP AGE), which has its roots in the mid nineteenth century, ending in 1938. In a sense, this first ever “comic book reboot” began with the creation of Superman and Batman at DC at the end of the 1930s. Scholar Ken Quattro has also coined the term NASCENT AGE to describe the period between 1933-1938, which either replaces or overlaps the end of the Pre-Modern Age. According to Quattro, 1933 was the first year that the format of comic books began to resemble what they would look like in the Golden Age and beyond.

In 1938, Superman was born and the Golden Age (1938-1960, roughly) started off with a bang. Batman was created a year later, cementing the new era. Ken Quattro has labeled the end of the Golden Age as the GENRE AGE or CODE ERA, reflecting the late 1950s boom of EC’s horror line, horror’s influence on the medium as a whole, and the subsequent Comics Code Authority being created in response. The official end of the Golden Age is highly debatable since the beginnings of the Silver Age have a wide-range of possible starting points. We will now briefly examine that wide range.

The origin of the Silver Age starts as early as 1954, but is highly debatable, running for a nearly decade-long span where many different (and valid) arguments can be made supporting various starting points within that time frame. One can split the subsequent Silver Age into subsections: The early years of the Silver Age being the SILVER AGE PROPER (1960-1971, roughly) versus the later portion being the BRONZE AGE (1971-1986). Writers Gerard Jones and Will Jacobs have also goofily referred to the Bronze Age as the AWKWARD AGE—a sort of transitional era from Silver Age to Modern Age. Ken Quattro often refers to the Bronze Age as the NEO-SILVER AGE. Keith Callbeck lists the entire Silver Age (Bronze Age included) as “DC 1.0,” referring both to the fact that its in-story continuity took place primarily on the DCU’s Earth 1, but also to the fact that the Silver Age reboot started what was to become a more continuity-driven type of storytelling within the industry as a whole, hence a sort of “Continuity 1.0.”

Likewise, one can also split the Modern Age (1986-2011) into subsections: The early years of the Modern Age in the late 1980s being the IRON AGE, DARK AGE, or COPPER AGE where comics became more “adult-themed” and darker in general; the CHROMIUM AGE, GILDED AGE, or IMAGE AGE of the 1990s, named after Image Comics and the subsequent style that permeated all companies in that decade—which was then followed by the bubble bursting in 1996 and the steady decline of the industry for five years until…; the DYNAMIC AGE from 2001 to 2011 where DC and Marvel began branching out with more forward-looking, diverse storytelling by contracted big-name talents. Keith Callbeck, naturally following his own logic, lists the entire Modern Age as “DC 2.0,” referring to the fact that the original Crisis erased the old “Continuity 1.0” to replace it with a brand new “Continuity 2.0.” The New 52 Batman Wiki site refers to the period between the original Crisis and Zero Hour (1986-1994) as the SIGMA TIMELINE. A few other names attributed to the later Modern Age canon: the DOWNLOADABLE TORRENT AGE (as half-jokingly named by Mike Sterling); the FAN-FICTION AGE (as angrily named by Alan David Doane); the ZERO TIMELINE (a post Zero Hour name coined by The New 52 Batman Wiki site); the POLYBAG AGE (not attributed to anyone specifically); and the FINAL AGE (also not attributed to anyone specifically).

And the NEW AGE of comics (as I like to call it) began in 2011. DC, with its huge “New 52” hard-reboot in 2011, and Marvel, with its “NOW!” soft-reboot in 2012, both companies spawned a whole new era. Both DC and Marvel ushered in the New Age around this time with a re-purposed focus on nostalgia, even darker themes, decompressed continuity, and mega event crossovers. (Although, these themes changed rather quickly as both Marvel and DC started playing more fast-and-loose with continuity and publishing more light-hearted fare—specifically after DC dropped the “New 52” moniker in 2015 and after Marvel’s “All New, All Different” soft-relaunch in 2015.) Since the New Age really won’t be officially categorized until after it has ended, it currently has several different names, such as: The NEW GOLDEN AGE (as claimed by Douglas Wolk); the PRISMATIC AGE (as defined by Andrew Kunka, Grant Morrison, and the Mindless Ones blog); the BOUTIQUE AGE (as labeled by Ken Quattro); and the MEGA-CORPORATE AGE (as labeled by Charles Hatfield). And as before, Keith Callbeck calls the New Age “DC 3.0,” referring to the fact that Flashpoint erased the old “Continuity 2.0” to replace it with a brand new “Continuity 3.0.”

And that brings us to where we are now. While building timelines on the Real Batman Chronology Project, these subdivisions and alternate names have been pretty much routinely ignored in favor of a hard focus on the typical Golden Age, Silver Age (Bronze Age included within), Modern Age, and New Age—for obvious reasons. Despite that, it’s always nice to know a little bit (or a lot) about how comic book eras evolve and have been named and renamed over the decades.

Related: http://comicsalliance.com/thought-bubble-4-age-comics-silver-age-golden-age-prismatic-age/

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Easter Egg Hunt: Annotating the “Grayson #12” Splashes

DC’s best current title Grayson just delivered one hell of a splash page in its latest issue (#12). The dynamite team of Tom King, Tim Seeley, Mikel Janin, and Jeromy Cox plays with the continuity sandbox in a delightful way as Dick Grayson (in disguise) with an amnesiac Bruce Wayne. Surrounding Dick are several unattributed word balloons containing dialogue from previous interactions between Bruce and Dick. And wouldn’t ya know it, these random word balloons all contain dialogue that actually existed in previous comics, this canonizing a ton of stuff from the past. Here is the splash:
grayson bubbles

Here is an example of one of the more obvious ones (from the famous “Robin Dies at Dawn” story from Batman #156):
dies at dawn

The last one, “What did he say to you in the dark?” is from Scott Snyder’s Batman Vol. 2 #17 (the conclusion to “The Death of the Family”).

“Earn the night” is from Seeley and King’s own Grayson: Futures End #1—a cryptic line that Batman says to the Boy Wonder when the latter questions why his costume is so much brighter than Batman’s.

“Care for some lemonade?” is a reference to Frank Miller’s crap-tastic All-Star Batman and Robin the Boy Wonder #9, where the Dynamic Duo paints a room yellow to negate Hal Jordan’s ring power!

“I’m not escaping!” comes straight out of the classic Grant/Breyfogle Batman: Shadow of the Bat #3 (1992), when Batman is in Arkham Asylum!

“I’m tired of talking!” is, of course, from the legendary 1971 O’Neil/Adams “Daughter of the Demon!” issue (Batman #232) that gave us the debut of Ra’s Al Ghul.

“Let’s blow this shindig” is from Dixon/Beatty’s Robin: Year One (2001).

Those are the ones I discovered pretty quickly. Props to NextReact for finding a bunch more.

Can anyone else figure out where all the rest come from?

While I’m primarily interested in the Bruce/Batman quotes, Seeley and King have definitely given us quite a task with even more Easter Egg quotes from yesteryear…
more eggz baby

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UPDATE!

I’ve discovered all of them (both the Bruce and the Babs splashes), except for the following:

“Robin, you go after the man on the roof—I’ll take the gondola!”

“You can tell his widow…his orphans…just exactly how great I am!”

“Ready for a rough climb, Robin?”

“Get set for some action, Robin!”

“You’re right. I guess the life of Bruce Wayne does depend quite a bit on the existence of Batman!” (Someone told me Batman #4, but I can’t find it in there.)

“Careful, Dick. This giant Lincoln head penny is one of our prize trophies! Let’s not smash it on our first day back home!” (Someone told me World’s Finest Comics #30, but can’t find it in there either.)

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The History of Batman: Fictional Canon (Part Two)

This past Saturday, I had the distinction, pleasure, and honor of speaking before a wonderful full-house all-ages crowd at the Schlow Library at Penn State University in State College, PA as a part of BookFestPA, a special comic-con even held in conjunction with the Central Pennsylvania Festival of the Arts. In case you missed my TED Talk-style presentation, I thought I’d share the transcript here on disContinuity. This is Part Two (of Two) of my lecture, entitled “The History of Batman: Fictional Canon.” The first part addressed what my project is all about and attempted to make sense of the confusing concept of fictional canon. In this finale, I’ll put all of that into context by showing my own personal process of continuity-building when it comes to reading Batman/DC Comics. Here goes.

history of batman slide one #2

First and foremost, DC’s major reboots are incredibly important to understand continuity. Reboots influence reader experience, in relation to canon, more than anything else. Superman debuted in 1938 and Batman in 1939, essentially starting DC Comics’ shared narrative universe—and the Golden Age of comics. In the 1950s, DC wanted a fresh start with a new type of modern hero. Thus, the Silver Age was born. However, unlike a total line-wide reboot, DC staggered this reboot title-to-title, which gives the Silver Age reboot a debatable starting point. The Silver Age start-date technically can be plotted anywhere from the mid Fifties to the mid Sixties, depending on how you look at it. I won’t get into those nitty-gritty details, but I’ve written about the Silver Age re-launch extensively on my website if you are interested in learning more. Essentially, DC rebooted approximately twenty-five years after it started. This uniquely created two main Earths—the characters that started in the late 30s and early 40s, now much older and semi-retired, continued on Earth-2 while the rebooted rookie versions got the main focus on DC’s primary line featured on Earth-1.

Almost as if on cue, roughly twenty-five years later, in 1986, the seminal Crisis on Infinite Earths crossover was published, which collapsed the existing multiverse and rebooted it all into one new unified Earth where all characters had a new shared history, which was slowly meted-out bit-by-bit over the course of the following decade. This is the dawn of the Modern Age of superhero comics.

(After this, DC had two minor soft-reboots, 1994’s Zero Hour and 2006’s Infinite Crisis, that are both worth mentioning but not really that important for our discussion.)

Twenty-five years after the original 1986 Crisis (in 2011), Flashpoint rebooted DC yet again into our current continuity that we see today.

golden age batman debut

Batman’s Golden Age origin (1940).

Batman silver age

Batman’s Silver Age origin (1980).

batman modern age

Batman’s Modern Age origin (1986).

new age origin batman

Batman’s New Age (current continuity) origin (2012).

(Just this past year, Grant Morrison put out a series called The Multiversity, in which he took DC’s NON-FICTIONAL publication history that I just told to you and turned it into FICTIONAL CANON. We are talking never before achieved or attempted levels of meta-meta-meta-narrative going on. But THAT is a topic for another discussion!)

multiversity grant morrison spread

Now, (believe it or not) that was probably THE MOST BRIEF history of DC Comics that one possibly could have given. By catering to this complex history it might seem as though DC is acting exclusionary and doing itself a disservice by making things so convoluted and sprawling. While knowledge of this history is essential if you want to track canon or continuity, it doesn’t need to be understood or even known to simply enjoy the comics. They stand on their own—you can pick up a collected trade paperback and read a totally inclusive story that begins, has rising action, a climax, and denouement. But the beauty, especially for me, is that if you already like comics, then knowing about this history will only serve to augment your enjoyment.

My process factors in many things beyond reboots. That’s just the tip of the iceberg. Let’s look at few examples, just to show you how it works, and why it’s fun.

Be very aware that with most examples that show my process, there can often be various interpretations to open-texted material. Again, this is the idea that fandom dictates canon.

flashback

FLASHBACKS are pretty straightforward, but not always. This is a random example of a flashback from Batman Eternal #11 that shows a seamless flashback to Cluemaster’s origin as his daughter Stephanie Brown does research at the library. Sometimes they give specific time references, sometimes they don’t. (It’s better not to give specific time references because dwelling in specificity only exposes an author to greater risk of error/contradiction.)

reference

REFERENCES are anything mentioned in a comic that is to a past event that is unique (and hasn’t been shown before or is not in another issue prior). This happens a lot, especially in the Golden and Silver Age. Batman #69, Part 2, as our random sample, refers to an event that never happened. It must be inserted into history at a point that makes sense.

reference to previous era

REFERENCES/FLASHBACKS FROM ONE ERA TO A PREVIOUS ERA (also known as retconning using BROAD STROKES) occurs quite often. Here’s a little thought exercise to help us better understand before looking at a specific random example: Let’s take all of the adventures from 1964 through 1985 that Batman goes through… After reboot in 1986, that stuff all gets totally erased, but casually referenced or flashed-back to by various authors that want to draw upon Batman’s rich history. However, those references and flashbacks cannot happen EXACTLY as they did since they fit into a new updated, modern continuity. Thus, they become retroactive reference material, a mere skeletal framework of what once was that resembles the past, but has been altered to fit the present. And, ironically, we (the reader) do most of this retconning in our own minds with the stimulus being the authorial nod within the current narrative. My example here is Zook shown in Superman/Batman #31 and a subsequent two-panel flashback to a Silver Age story (or approximation of a Silver Age story) within. This canonizes the 60s comedy character Zook, which previously hadn’t been canon in the grim’n’gritty Modern Age—of course, the JLA’s adventures with Zook aren’t folded in as they are, they have to be altered versions that better fit the era.

bruce selina marry

gay batman and robin

GOLDEN AGE RETCONS FROM THE 1970s/1980s cause a lot of alteration. In the 1970s Bruce and Selina are retconned to have been married with a baby, so a bunch of stories from the 50s and early 60s don’t fit! Batman #117 is an example of a story that no longer makes sense if Bruce is happily married to Selina. He probably would be sharing a bed with his wife, not Dick. Come to think of it, why IS Bruce sharing a bed with his young ward? Batman #117 is a very curious example for this very reason… which was unfortunately and unjustly used as awful ammunition by Fredric Wertham during his witch hunt against comics back in the 50s.

time-sliding superman batman JFK

TIME-SLIDING occurs in both the Silver Age and Modern Age. Retcons in the late 1970s and early to mid 1980s, as gleaned from hints in the narrative of several titles, caused the start dates for DC characters, including Batman, to be “slid-up.” Likewise, DC did the same thing starting in 1994 with a story arc called Zero Hour, and slid things up annually until around 2002.

no man's land lex luthor

time sliding new 52 dc

COMPRESSION / THE LENGTH OF EACH TIMELINE occurs quite often as well. Reboots and retcons cause significant time-compression. Time-sliding, for instance, causes massive compression. Say a story arc (like “No Man’s Land” or “Knightfall”) occurs over a specific nearly yearlong IN-STORY period. When things are made more contemporary, large chunks of story time cannot accommodate the shorter more-updated timeline. Thus, we have to imagine a condensed history. Instead of a full year, “No Man’s Land” only lasted a few months. Or Batman recovers much faster after Bane breaks his back in “Knightfall” etc…

Another significant aspect of compression can be seen in the most recent DC reboot, 2011’s Flashpoint reboot, in which the entire line was re-launched. Editors were weary of the reaction that fans would have to a completely rebooted Batman with no past to speak of, so while Batman still had to fit on the six-year-long timeline, his entire history, including multiple Robins, still existed! This led to crazy speculation on the internet as to how this could be possible. My site maps this insanity out pretty damn well. But basically, as of right now, Batman’s entire history has been squeezed into a seven year timeline. Robins go from side-kicking for years to just having been “interns” for a year or less in order to make things work. The key events and stories are still there, but they are skeleton versions of what they once were. And some of them are merely a casual reference, dropped in conversation between two B-list characters.

ayatollah vs superman

TOPICAL/SEASONAL REFERENCES sometimes wind up having to be ignored as well. Many books in the mid to late 80s were prominently about the Cold War and featured Reagan, Gorbachev, the Ayatollah, and Soviet army stuff galore. Of course, two decades after that, DC is telling its readers that Batman hasn’t been around since the 80s, but instead only debuted in the 90s, which means how the hell could those Soviet stories make sense? Christmas stories are rough too. It’ll often seem as though there are multiple Christmases in a single year when writers and editors don’t communicate with one another.

batcave

EASTER EGGS are a fun type of example. The Batcave trophy room is filled with them. Basically, the Batcave trophies have long existed as a means for artists to have fun and draw in whatever they please. But when this happens, let’s say for instance someone draws a gigantic mushroom in there, this means that Batman went on some unspecified mission and netted a giant mushroom as a prize. This becomes a part of his history that we can only imagine in our own minds!

character stephanie brown robin

CHARACTER CHANGES happen—sometimes personalities, races, or ages change (or don’t change when they should in the case of the latter). Wally West going from White to Black is a big recent change. Likewise, in current continuity, Stephanie Brown no longer was a Robin (even though she was the fourth official and first female Robin once upon a time). Robin’s age in different eras is screwy too. In the Modern Age, the third Robin (Tim Drake) was seemingly in high school for WAY TOO LONG. Likewise, Dick Grayson was the same way in the Golden Age. Stuff like this—i.e. the idea of keeping characters perpetually fresh—can lead to some pretty shoddy continuity.

KILLING JOKE

THE KILLING JOKE is fun to talk about because it’s such a seminal title—so important and yet so polarizing. It has always been hailed as a classic, and only in recent years has it come under scrutiny as being possibly misogynistic and poorly constructed. Even Alan Moore himself has disavowed it (although he’s disavowed all of his work from that era, so take that with a grain of salt). Supposedly, Moore was told this story would be out-of-continuity, which likely affected his plot. Recently, artist Jesse Hamm did his take on an alternate version (pictured above to the right) of the infamous gratuitous scene where Barbara Gordon is thrown into a fridge and paralyzed by the Joker. Hamm added the comment “There, I fixed it.”

killing joke bolland

You also have the great Brian Bolland redoing the Bat-symbol for the 2008 Absolute Edition of The Killing Joke just because he liked the way it looked better without the yellow oval. But that messes with continuity! Batman’s different costumes are specifically linked to different periods of his crime-fighting career. The original (from 1988) is shown above as compared to the altered (from 2008).

lego batman

EVERYTHING TECHNICALLY EXISTS IN SOME (ALTERNATE) CONTINUITY, which calls into question the the difference between non-canon and out-of-continuity. There are multiple Earths—(the Big Two used to call stories happening on these planets “Elseworlds,” “What Ifs,” “hypertime stories,” or “imaginary tales”—which means that the idea that everything that gets published can take place on its own timeline is NOT that far-fetched. This hearkens back to my colleague from California (mentioned in Part One of this piece) who is an advocate of timeline placement for all sorts of Batman ephemera from the 60s, 70s, and 80s.

wikias

Overall, continuity is a thing that is getting much more attention from the mainstream eye, ironically not so much in comics, but more in film (thanks to the rise of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the upcoming DC Cinematic Universe, DC’s TV Universe, a new Terminator film, continuation of Star Wars, and more. Sites like wookiepedia, and various other wiki-style sties now exist to collect and categorize heaps of story/character information in encyclopedic, easily-searchable fashion.

And every day, one can stumble upon a plethora of other complicated things involved with canon that I haven’t mentioned. Since 2000, Lucasfilm (and now Disney) has had a single authority in charge of continuity for Star Wars canon. There are now different level-designations of canon within the Star Wars universe—G-canon, T-canon, C-canon, S-canon, N-canon and D-canon. Star Trek itself has multiple canons, which have now become intertwined with reboot films. The Dragon Ball franchise is similar.

Even more mind-boggling terms seem to make the concept of fictional canon even more complex—words like headcanon, fanon, canon immigration, deuterocanon, canon fodder, canon welding, recursive canon, call-backs, and many more are always popping-up on websites and forums these days.

As you can see, there’s always more to say when it comes to matters of canonicity and continuity. It’s a topic I enjoy discussing and it’s one that will hopefully be talked about even more in the near future. I’m always glad to be at the forefront of that discussion and am eternally grateful to have had such a positive response from fans/readers both on the internet and at the Schlow Library this past weekend at Penn State University.

🙂

collin colsher's the real batman chronlogy project

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The History of Batman: Fictional Canon (Part One)

This past Saturday, I had the distinction, pleasure, and honor of speaking before a wonderful full-house all-ages crowd at the Schlow Library at Penn State University in State College, PA as a part of BookFestPA, a special comic-con even held in conjunction with the Central Pennsylvania Festival of the Arts. In case you missed my TED Talk-style presentation, I thought I’d share the transcript here on disContinuity. This is Part One (of Two) of my lecture, entitled “The History of Batman: Fictional Canon.”

history of batman slide one

My name is Collin Colsher and I’m a writer, artist, and the creator of The Real Batman Chronology Project. I’m going to talk about the history of Batman specifically in three ways: First, by talking about what my project is about; second, by addressing the confusing concept of fictional canon; and third, by showing examples of my process when it comes to figuring out continuity.

batman chronology project slide

The Real Batman Chronology Project, which started six years ago, tracks the narrative continuity of DC Comics via the lens of Batman, plotting each of his appearances into detailed timelines. I recently explained this to a friend of mine who doesn’t read comics and her initial response was “That’s cool, but I really don’t understand. Doesn’t one just read the comics in the order they are published? Why does there need to be a project dedicated TO that? And if it really is so difficult, surely there must be lots of projects similar to yours online, right?”

history of DC

These are great questions and I’ll try to answer them. Why IS my site necessary? Superhero universes exist in comics as a vast collection of interconnected serialized fictions. Every Wednesday, dozens of titles come out continuing the story from the previous week’s batch of titles. And all of these titles–week to week, month to month, and so on—tell an ongoing über-story in which the events and characters of said titles all exist in the same shared world, directly influencing each other. (To show how many ongoing titles are released, on the first Wednesday of July 2015 alone, Dark Horse put out 10 comics, DC put out 24, IDW put out 10, Image put out 13, Marvel put out 21, and there were upwards of 30 indie books as well.) DC and Marvel don’t tell you in what order to read them or how to organize them. Now, to be clear, the Big Two do publish trade paperbacks and their issues are all numbered and can be read in some sort of an order. But when it comes to stitching every title together to make the über-story that tells the whole tale, THAT is not a task that either company really gets bogged down in. How can all these titles possibly exist and function cohesively? The comics combine to form a puzzle and it’s how the pieces fit together that really interests me.

Marvel U

When I started my project in 2009, I began compiling a master list of Batman appearances. From there, I started reading everything in chronological publishing order starting from 1939. (I’m still in the process today.)

bill finger

But why Batman? Why is he so important? Well, he’s not just an awesome character. He’s quite popular, in case you didn’t know—he shows up in almost every DC title at some point. Batman is THE primary lens through which DC Comics has been able to tell a consistent narrative for the past 75 years. Technically, in the DC Universe, everything kind of revolves around the Holy Trinity of Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman, but we’ll stick with Batman for this discussion. We can easily use Batman appearances to determine passage of time, character age, where events occur, where things need to be rearranged, how things come together, or how things fail to come together. Of course, a ton of variables have to be considered and the process gets complicated. THIS is the reason why there are so few attempts at what I’ve done—and the few attempts that exist are either incomplete or quickly abandoned. I’m sort of a masochist for continuing my project with such diligence!

many batman comics

For those unfamiliar with superhero comics, this is all probably pretty vague. But I think that a better grasp of fictional canon can help elucidate.

cannon

canon

When we think of the word “canon” we often think of the classic definition: A body of historical works in music/visual art/film/literature considered to be masterpieces worthy of study. The problem with this form of canon lies in the question: “Who determines what is considered worthy?” Typically, canons have been determined solely by a White male majority of scholars and critics. Only in more recent years has the canon begrudgingly begun to accept other works of non-White/non-colonial/non-male authorship i.e. what we could call diverse works. But in any case, the very idea of this type of canon is outdated and old-fashioned, even in most legit circles of academia. But ANYWAY we aren’t here to talk about that, we are here to talk about the more modern and interesting iteration of canon: fictional canon.

what counts? watchmen

year one stories

Fictional canon exists in serialized media and refers to any source material that is in-continuity as opposed to what is out-of-continuity, or, in other words, what officially “counts” toward story/character development versus what does “not count.” At first glance, every superhero story seemingly falls either into the category of canon OR non-canon. HOWEVER, that is a gross oversimplification. The authors and owners of said conceptual material usually determine what is canon, but most canons exist only because they have been accepted as “official” by a fan base. Since the entire concept of canon is rooted in fandom and fan interaction with the stories, ultimately there’s no way of determining what is officially canon or non-canon. Canon is also often said to be the opposite of fan-fiction, but again this is an oversimplification for the very same reason. Ironically, both are rooted in fandom. Therefore, canons are all malleable constructs that can never be 100% finite.

That being said, my project monitors canon. And I just told you that there IS NO OFFICIAL CANON! This may seem like a complete invalidation of my project, but this contradiction is actually the very reason I do what I do!

To me, the most interesting thing about canon is that it always gets defined as this very scientifically precise concept, something chained to authorship, ownership, and continuity. But because of the nature of superhero comics, so much of what goes into making sense of multiple overlapping stories by multiple creators is done solely in the mind of the reader. So, canon, usually defined so rigidly, really isn’t a rigid concept at all! Therefore, in serialized fictional media, I’ve come to personally define canon as: The collaborative perceptive processing of an ongoing work by both authors and readers, through which the story MAKES THE MOST NARRATIVE SENSE. You’ll see what I mean as we continue.

tv tropes

A great quote from the awesome TV Tropes website that might make it clearer how canon is determined by fans: “Canons for completed works with a single author or finite group of authors are descriptive, whereas fans’ attempts to define canon for ongoing works are prescriptive. If a fact is ‘canon,’ you are ‘not allowed’ to contradict it.” So, basically the word descriptive refers to rules based upon information given by the author(s). Conversely, the word prescriptive refers to rules that reflect reader value judgments/opinions. (This is obviously a rigid definition, but it helps us understand the relationship between canon and fandom.)

Now, before moving forward, a quick interlude about where the very idea of fictional canon came from.

sherlock holmes

The idea of fictional canon was invented by Ronald Knox in 1911 in reference to Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes. There were a ton of Sherlock knock-offs, so Knox used canon to deem which books fit into the official Holmes-verse and which were mere imitations.

sherlock and batman

(Sherlock Holmes is actually a complicated example to talk about in regard to canon since the character is now in the public domain and has been re-created in various media formats and even since been included into the same world as Batman and Superman. Public domain is another great topic of discussion. Warner Bros and Disney are great at lobbying Congress and putting out material simply to extend copyright—the very reason 75-year-old characters like Batman and Superman haven’t gone into public domain even though they should have by now.)

But putting public domain aside, here lies the big mega-difference between Sherlock Holmes, written by one author with one source of narrative, versus superhero comics, written by a ton of authors and spreading throughout multiple sources of narrative. Tracking a single source’s continuity is much easier than tracking something that has multiple streams. Also, the chance of error increases as you add more streams of information. Take something that has a TON of material—say, TV shows like King of the Hill, Law & Order, Seinfeld, or Full House. Each of these shows has a lot of episodes to sit through to complete the whole picture, but each contains only one SINGLE PRIMARY source of information. It may take a while, but the episodes are in order and all you have to do is watch them to get the chronological tale in full. Superhero comic universes, on the other hand, have multiple sources of narrative information to sort through.

streams of information

Superhero comics get even crazier in regard to multiple sources of narrative information when we think of the synergistic trans-media experience that permeates most storytelling today. It’s not just different narratives from comic books. What about board games, toys, TV shows, video games, phone apps, novelizations, etc…? Where, when, and how do they fit in? A collaborator of mine from California likes to stir the pot, so to speak. He’s an avid collector of Batman ephemera, especially rare stuff from the 60s and 70s. And he often will poke and prod and say why can’t THIS be canon? Or this? (Belt ‘Em For Safety, a great example, is a 1981 booklet made by DC for The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and is worth $1500 now.)

does this count?

viewfinder look n find batman

tiny titans

Superhero comics are also uniquely complicated because each superhero company places their titles within the spectrum of a shared world—or universe, multiverse, etc… While all of Sherlock Holmes’ adventures occur on a singular timeline in which he, Watson, and Moriarty all existed, the same can be said of Spider-Man, Iron Man, and Captain America, who all exist in the Marvel Universe. Or the characters of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Or Luke, Leia, and Han Solo in the Star Wars Universe. Likewise, Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman all exist in the DC Universe. There is so much going on and so much room for contradiction when working within the confines of a cluttered fictional world, especially one in which there are hundreds of toys in the sandbox, so to speak. Therein lies another part of the problem. To put it bluntly, there are a lot of characters to keep tabs on!

tv tropes tiny titans

To reiterate the idea of canon being malleable, there’s another great quote from TV Tropes that I’d like to share. “Writers can tweak continuity quite a lot without actually breaking it by using [various methods]. In fan communities ‘canon’ can sometimes boil down to ‘the bits we like.’ Fans will attempt to find any excuse to ‘de-canonize’ facts that they personally find inconvenient.” Basically, while complete works with one author have a less debatable canon, they still don’t have 100% concrete canon. To sum up, the percentage of certainty decreases when you add authors, time, sheer weight of published material, complexity of shared worlds, characters, information sources, and the hot-blooded opinions of fanboys/fangirls. But once you understand how canon works, you can figure out what canon is. That’s the business I’m in—wading through all of this information I’ve just explained to you and analyzing all of this knowledge to create the BEST POSSIBLE CANON. And how do I actually put it all into practice? I’ll show you—in PART TWO of this piece!

penn state batman

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The Real Batman Chronology Project @ BookFestPA 2015

bookfest pa
Hey, friends. I will be a featured guest speaker at this year’s BookFestPA, an annual arts event held at Penn State University every summer in conjunction with the Central Pennsylvania Festival of the Arts. This year’s BookFest is comic book themed and, as a former alumnus of Penn State, I’ve been invited to give a little talk about my websites and the history of Batman! My lecture will be more specifically about fictional canon in regard to superhero comics as viewed through the lens of the character Batman. If any fans of the Real Batman Chronology Project or Discontinuity want to come meet me in person, hear what I have to say, or check out the festival, try to come on out, especially if you live in the area.

July 11, 2015, Schlow Library, Penn State University, State College, PA. See you there!

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