MoCCA Panel Review: The Future of Comics

Categories:  Reviews

On Sunday at the MoCCA Fest, we had a handful of technical difficulties, not the least of which was the loss of the camera designated to capture the weekend’s panels. In my post-show wrapup, I put out the call for video and audio of the panels that might otherwise disappear into the ether. Ed Carey, thankfully, was kind enough to return the request. The author captured the audio that you’ll find below. He also volunteered to write a (rather lengthy) synopsis of the Future of Comics panel moderated by Publishers Weekly’s Calvin Reid. You’ll find that below, as well. -BH

“If you had asked me 15 years ago would we see the kind of mainstream attention comics has gotten, the kind of attention from higher education . . . I believe Joe Sacco just won a book prize for Footnotes in Gaza, The LA Times Book Awards are including graphic novels . . . in many ways the future is right now,” said Calvin Reid, moderator and editor of Publishers Weekly‘s Comics Week.

Reid jumped right into the digital revolution, with Webcomics now available on the iPhone and the new iPad, for which Marvel launched a new app the same weekend as the festival. He turned to David Steinberger, president of comiXology, “an all-purpose Web 2.0 comics platform that offers news, analysis, columns, trade news [and much more]” and has launched its own comics app with a library of more than 1,300 comics from over 30 publishers.

“We sell services to retailers and if that’s not a weird combination, I don’t know what is,” said Steinberger. “The future of this is a wider distribution digitally than ever before, linked back to a more locally-connected comic’s model, with more and more people discovering comics. What we’ve seen in the last decade with the advent of the trades and comics in bookstores, graphic novels, the changed perception of comics, and the stigma falling away a little bit in the U.S. has to do with greater distribution.”

He said that the distribution of comics on the Web would not only expand the love of comics, but lead back to “the cultural place [of] the comics book store,” assuming retailers can offer an accessible and pleasing environment, citing the examples of Bergen Street Comics in Brooklyn and Isotope Comics in San Francisco.

On the production side, Top Shelf now offers Webcomics on its site five days a week, albeit on an irregular schedule. Top Shelf 2.0 is a way to showcase up-an-coming talent with short comic stories, while primarily publishing full-length graphic novels.

“Some of our top selling graphic novelists (Alex Robinson, Nate Powell, Jeff Lemire) have done digital comics for the site,” said Leigh Walton, Top Shelf’s marketing coordinator and Webcomics guru. “Jeff Lemire did two short stories about his Essex County universe that he originally sold as mini comics, then we put it up, and it was also published in the back of his graphic novel collection of Essex County stories. Our focus is not so much on form as it is on content. Content is the important thing. If it’s a good story, people are gonna want to read it however they can, however it’s most convenient to them. We also have some projects to promote this summer for the iPad and iPhone.”

Liz Baillie began self-publishing her series My Brain Hurts as mini comics in 2002, up until about last year. Though the cost and effort of producing mini comics for a small audience eventually led her to Webcomics, the attention she received led to two print collections from Microcosm Publishing.

“When you’re doing mini comics, you have a limited number of copies out there,” explained Baillie. “However many you print up, that’s how many people are going to read it. When I started doing this new series, Freewheel, last fall, I looked into doing it on the Web, because then I could have unlimited people viewing it and it seemed awesome . . . By putting my story on the Web, I realized there were more people reading and willing to give me money to print my book. I was able to raise all the money on there and do the first printing of Volume 1, which is debuting at MoCCA.”

Charles Kochman, executive editor of Abrams ComicArts line, said that the comics audience is split between readers and collectors, with some overlap; readers who just want the content and fans of artists like Jack Kirby or Jaime Hernandez, who want a book “beautifully produced with good production values that a company like Abrams can bring.”

After working six years for “the premier art book publisher,” the great thing is that, “we can take that aesthetic and apply it to great comic book artists and not make the distinction between.”

“We’re really just trying to make beautiful books,” Kochman began, “what Chip Kidd calls ‘books as fetish objects,’ where people can share them, and you can’t really reproduce that experience online, or on the iPad. Part of it’s looking at artists of the past and bringing them forward, part of it is working with the right agents and authors. Craig [Yoe] and I have been working together for years and when Craig found this material from Joe Shuster, this book Secret Identities, which is an amazing collection of his artwork . . . it’s like sort of filling in the missing pieces of our medium’s history. Whenever people talk about Joe Shuster, there’s always short paragraph about Superman . . . and Craig, through a lot of research and a lot of great detective work, collected all this material and filled in that missing chapter.”

Aside from producing collections of Kirby and Hernandez, they just recently published The Simpsons Futurama Crossover Crisis, featuring art by Alex Ross, Sergio Aragonés, Geof Darrow, Kyle Baker, Peter Kuper, and Bernie Wrightson, among others, and an original story by Eisner Award-winning artist Jason Shiga, Meanwhile.
The work of designer and author Craig Yoe, who edits his own imprint through IDW called Yoe Books!, is built around the credo that “the only good cartoonist is a dead cartoonist.”

“Someone came up to me yesterday and said, ‘you know, there are live cartoonists doing work now.’ And I said, ‘well, call me when you’re sick or on your deathbed, because I’m all about publishing dead cartoonists on dead trees,’” said Yoe.

Aside from editing books for the Yoe imprint, like the recently released George Herriman’s Krazy & Ignatz in Tiger Tea, he worked with Kochman at Abrams to release the aforementioned book of rare Joe Shuster art, Secret Identity: The Fetish Art of Superman’s Co-creator Joe Shuster. “I think Joe Shuster is an unknown genius. This is the guy who created superheroes; the whole concept of superheroes . . . none of us would be in this room today talking about comics on dead trees or on iPads if it wasn’t for Joe Shuster. He’s an incredible guy who’s never really gotten his due . . . I found this rare sex material he had done . . . I like sex as much as the next guy or gal, but for me, it was a hook to talk about Joe Shuster,” said Yoe.

The first book of the Yoe imprint, however, took a known entity like Steve Ditko  and collected stories from his lesser-known Charlton days, “personal favorites” of Yoe’s which he said, showed “wild innovation and panel layouts and really expanded the format.”

“I took the best of those stories and put it in a full leather binding with foil stamping and this large format on beautiful thick paper ,” Yoe explained. “That’s my objective, in a sense, not to create books, but create art objects, like coffee table books . . . I like the iPad and stuff, but I’m really into bringing on the dead trees, and when they cut down the last tree, I hope to print my book on it. I call dibs on the last tree.”

Yoe also showcases lesser known geniuses like Milt Gross. “He had about 15 different comic strips that were huge successes, and in terms of contributing to the language, coming up with terms like “banana oil” and “looney bin”; an innovator in Jewish/Yiddish humor; and also worked writing films with Charlie Chaplin . . . the first guy to use comics for personal stories, autobiographical comics . . . the list goes on and on about what an innovator he was, but today, totally forgotten,” said Yoe.

Reid asked about bringing retailers into the new digital age and turned to Steinberger. When comiXology began three years ago, Steinberger said, nobody was compiling information on all of the comics arriving in comic book stores, so they started tracking the comics arriving in local comic book stores.

“It’s overwhelming when there are 250 comics in front of you, so we started putting online what comics were coming out, you could make your pre-order plans, and then we’d tell you when it comes out on Wednesday, and we were asked by James Sime at Isotope if he could get that information for himself . . . it’s a non-returnable business for retailers, so if they don’t sell a book, they don’t get that money back and they can’t take the risk of expanding into other genres . . . what’s happening now, retailers are increasing their sales by about 20% just by letting their customers see what’s online, to see what’s coming out . . . and now they can take chances and order stuff that they would normally never put on the shelf,” said Steinberger.

ComiXology even had a presence at the ComicsPRO annual meeting over the last two years. ComicsPRO is the only trade organization for comic book retailers. One of the main points they heard was that “supposedly 50 percent of the U.S. doesn’t have access to a comic book store,” so there is potential for growth.

“I’ve been doing a blog now called ITCH for about five years and I like the reciprocal relationship between web and print . . . I couldn’t print these books without the Internet, because twenty or thirty years ago there was no audience for it . . . [and now] because of the Internet people can find out about Milt Gross and all of these other great artists,” said Yoe.

–Ed Carey