Friday, March 27, 2009

Comic Canucks - Derek of Bras d'Or

They say they grow them big in Texas, but no one grew them bigger than Angus MacAskill, the true life giant of Cape Breton who served as the inspiration for Triumph Comics' Derek of Bras d'Or. The legendary feats and gentle demeanor of MacAskill served as a perfect template for writer Glen Guest and illustrator A.L. Alexander's comic book hero.

And this is one case where the comics seem incapable of exaggerating their character's feats of strength!

Triumph Adventure Comics #4,
pub. Hillborough Studios, Nov. 1941.

First, a little background…

The Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online assures me that Angus MacAskill was born in 1825 on Harris in the Hebrides, Scotland (though the Angus MacAskill Museum page at's page on the MacAskill museum insists he was born "at the north end of the island of Berneray, in the Sound of Harris"). Angus was the fourth child of Norman McAskill and Christina Campbell, whose brood would eventually number either ten or thirteen, depending on the source. Somewhere's about 1831 the whole family immigrated to Cape Breton and settled on a farm on the south side of St Ann's Harbour. The district was dubbed "Englishtown" because the current inhabitants "had not the Gaelic".

As a baby, Angus was so small he was not expected to survive but he would more than confound that prediction. Though a normal-sized child, Angus soon sprouted. By 14 he was large enough to have earned the nickname Gille Mor (Gaelic for Big Boy) and by his twenties was so tall his father lifted the roof of the family home and raised the ceilings of the kitchen and living room. Kind of a seventeenth century Extreme Makeover: Home Edition without the helpful sponsors.

MacAskill and Major Tom Thumb,
in a publicity photo contrasting
two human marvels.

By the age of 22 Angus had reached a full-grown height of 7 ft 9 inches, weighed between 425 to over 500 lbs., depending on your source and time period cited, and the palm of his hand was about a foot long. MacAskill’s gentle nature was such a contrast to expectations of one so large, that he “…endeared him to all who had the pleasure of his acquaintance", according to his obituary in The Acadian Recorder obituary of Aug. 16, 1863, by way of Wikipedia.

As with any tales passed on partly through word of mouth, the specifics vary, but the basics stay pretty consistent. One thing all accounts agree on is that Angus was unique in that that he was perfectly proportioned despite his size, with none of the usual growth abnormalities associated with such stature., a website devoted to amazing examples of the human race, explains:

In 1981 the Guinness Book of World Records recognized MacAskill as the largest true giant to have ever lived, the strongest man who ever lived and the man with the largest chest measurements of any non-obese man.

The distinction of his status as a ‘true’ giant hinges on the fact the Angus was purported to be free of any growth abnormalities. His stature was proportional in every way and his immense size and strength was due only to his natural genetic gifts.

MacAskill worked on his family's farm and as a fisherman to make his way. In a time when strength was respected above most else, the Gille Mor earned the respect of all and came to be known far and wide as the Cape Breton Giant or simply, Giant MacAskill. Though MacAskill’s immediate family were of normal dimensions, this article by Abagael MacAskill, one of MacAskill’s descendants reveals there was a precedent for Angus’ massive size.

During my travels I learned that Angus is not the only giant in the family line. His grandfather was called Neil Mor (Big Neil) and matched Angus in size. Written records are sketchy back that far so this is not "officially" documented- just passed down through the generations.

Still more fascinating is the history prior to this. The MacAskills were not a clan, but rather a sept of the McLeod clan. It is written that the McLeods considered the MacAskills the most favored servants because the whole tribe was known for their unusual size and strength back to their Viking roots!

…Almost two centuries have past since the birth of Angus and there have been no more giants. I can confirm from the family reunions that the present MacAskills are all of average stature.
MacAskill’s feats grew in renown long before crop failures and an economic downtown in 1847 and 1848 forced him to tour as a curiosity to earn money. Such demonstrations stemmed mainly from doing his chores as only he could accomplish them. This living, breathing “tall tale” could tip a half-ton boat to empty bilge water (a task that normally took six men) and set a 40-foot mast into a schooner “as easily as a farmer set a fence post in a hole”.

He could could jog down the street with 300 lb barrels of pork under each arm or hold 50kg kegs by two fingers. People also claimed to have seen MacAskill lift a full-grown horse over a four-foot fence and once silenced taunting sailors by carrying a ship’s anchor (weighing in excess of 2700 pounds) down a wharf.

In the late thirties and early forties, young painter Adrian Dingle and his artist friends likely picked up many such tales and local colour as they traveled around to paint. The adventures of folk heroes like Giant MacAskill were oft repeated in magazines, newspapers, books and through word of mouth. So at the dawn of 1941, when Dingle conscripted those same friends into forming Hillborough Studio and launched the proudly canuck Triumph Adventure Comics, it made perfect sense to use some of that folklore to create a uniquely Canadian features.

Dingle famously combined elements of Inuit legends with a dose of science fiction to create Nelvana, the most beloved Canadian comic book character that no one really knows much about. For their contribution to Triumph, writer Glen Guest and artist A.L. Alexander recast MacAskill’s adventures into a modern setting and Cape Breton Island’s handsome young Derek MacGregor of Bras d’Or was born.

Sketches of Angus MacAskill and his comic book
progeny, Derek MacGregor of Bras d'Or.

I’m not sure when Derek debuted in Triumph Adventure Comics, I haven’t seen issues 2 or 7 (the last of the Hillborough issues before selling the title, minus the Adventure part, to Bell Features). I can confirm he appears in issues three to five, with a promise of more tales to come. Truthfully, issue 3 sure reads like his first outing.

Other than some modern trappings, Guest and Alexander made little effort to differentiate their character from the real Giant MacAskill in Triumph Comics 3, quickly involving him in an incident taken from real life legend. According to a variety of sources, an American fishing vessel came to St. Anne’s to buy bait, and her Captain challenged the well-known MacAskill to a wrestling match. The Cape Breton giant refused and when the 300 hundred pound visitor verbally lambasted him, MacAskill lost his temper and tossed the brute over a woodpile ten feet high and twelve feet wide.

In the Derek of Bras d’Or yarn in Triumph 3, the unfortunate braggart is Rex O’Donnell, a champion wrestler from the big city. Guest and Alexander combined the infamous woodpile toss with another famous MacAskill tale; that of intimidating another tormentor by squeezing his hand until his fingers bed! As the city slicker runs off, never to be seen again, we know within the first three pages that Derek is one tough cookie!

In short order, Derek competes at the highland games, winning every event including the caber toss, hammer throw, hundred-yard dash and the broad jump. But a prize bull, likely enraged by the bagpipe music, breaks free, scattering the crowd and endangering a wee “Scotch Lassie” competing in the sword dance. Derek staggers the beast with one punch and saves the day.

Hillborough Studio was comprised of very accomplished artists with styles all their own and Alexander was no exception. His work on Derek resembles that of a woodcut, lending an element of verisimilitude to the folkloric storytelling. Despite his odd figure work at times, Alexander's work on Derek is full of detail and elegant etching, lending a real senses of place to its Atlantic Coast setting. It is quite similar in approach to American artist Harry G. Peter’s unique sense of design on Wonder Woman and Heroic Comic’s Man O’Metal feature, although it's unlikely he'd have seen Peter's work at so early a date. Their figures, animals, and action sequences are handled in comparable fashions.

An example of H. G. Peters' work on
Heroic Comics' Man O'Metal...

...And illustrator A. L. Alexander's similar
approach to Derek of Bras d'Or.

That style is well-displayed in Triumph Adventure Comics 4 as Derek joins his friend Captain Angus Trites and his son John on board the Silverqueen for a deep seas expedition to harpoon swordfish. In a rare case of an animal giving as good as it gets in a contest with Derek, the impaled swordfish returns the favour to Derek’s dory, leaving them clinging to the side as the pierced hull fills with water.

On the way back to the harbour, the Silverqueen spots a modern menace in the form of an enemy U-Boat near Lundy’s Head (presumably near Lundy, Nova Scotia, in Guysborough County). Captain Trites signals a patrolling Canadian Corvette while Derek proves he’s crack shot as well as a pugilist by shooting out the U-boat’s periscope with the Captain’s rifle. The corvette’s depth charges force the blinded U-boat to surface. Derek helps take the survivors prisoner and wishes he weren’t too young to join the war effort directly.

I'm unfair to single this one, unusually sensual, page of Derek art by A.L Alexander out, but it does share something else with H.G. Peters Wonder Woman work; the tendency to send mixed gender and sexual messages with awkwardly kinky posing and situations!

Of course, some messages aren't so mixed...

But I digress...

In Triumph Adventure Comics 5, Derek’s storyline keels more toward typical comic stories of the day, while still maintaining a sense of the small, coastal town in which Derek lives. Derek stumbles upon an attempt the rob local bank, largely it seems, through his natural East Coast suspicion of outsiders, or anyone “from away”. Derek tackles the crooks as they flee the scene. Snake Eyes, the gang’s luger-wielding leader, is happy to shoot Slick-Joe, his safe cracker, to get at Derek but the giant is too much for them. He holds two of the gang members while the others disappear into the night with their loot. Still suspicious, Derek sees the remaining thugs pull away from the wharf with money meant to sponsor a dope deal.

The final panel asks, “Will Derek intercept this gangster mob?”

Sadly, I have no idea.

Anybody wanna send me the covers and contents of Triumph 2 and 7 so we can all find out? Pretty please?

Learn more about Angus MacAskill at his Wikipedia entry here, and at

More info on the Angus Macaskill Museums can be found here for the one on the Isle of Sky and here and here for the one in Englishtown, Nova Scotia.

A pic of MacAskill's grave in Nova Scotia can be found on Flickr, here.

Beavers Up!

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Quick Update - Tory Little's New Site, Paradise Con and the return of Onomatopoeia!

I covered Canadian comic creator and animator Tory Little (Angora Napkin, Chiaroscuro) in a recent post. His long-promised new website and blog are up and running at last.

Go to for new updates and Troy's blog, CaffeineAndSleepDeprivation V2.0 for personal updates, comics and behind the scenes artwork. It's just been put up but Little promises more posts soon.

Sequential, the essential Canadian Comix News and Culture blog run by Max Douglas (Salgood Sam) and Bryan Munn, has announced the return of self-proclaimed Comic Book Activist Robin Fisher's Onomatopoeia Show after a three year break and her move from Vancouver to Montreal. Years ago on one of my first visits to Vancouver, Fisher was the first comic person I met when I found out a comic shop was blocks from my hotel. She was engaging, helpful and absolutely a perfect ambassador for comics. I became a fan of the show. Glad to hear it's back on the airwaves.

It's every Sunday (today!) from 3 to 4 pm on 1690 AM in Montreal. But the rest of us can hear it at The Onomatopoeia Show has us digitally surrounded with its home website located at, and a Twitter page is here. Fisher also has previous episodes up on Podcast Alley and a Facebook page for the show. Fisher isn't kidding when she says she's back.

This year's Paradise Comic Con has been cancelled due to difficulty arranging a suitable date and locale. Paradise goes out of way to make an artist and fan-friendly event despite the many financial, competitive and venue challanges they have faced over the years. I hope Peter Dixon and the rest of the guys are able to work it out for 2010. They were the first people to allow to become involved with a Con on a pro level and have always been true gentlemen to me.

Beavers Up!

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

The Pursuit of Dan Cooper RCAF: FBI explores link between DB Cooper and comic book hero

© Dan Cooper – Albert Weinberg, Le Lombard
(Dargaud-Lombard s.a.), 2009.

In 1971, a nondescript man calling himself Dan Cooper paid cash for a one-way ticket from Portland to Seattle aboard Northwest Orient Airlines. Shortly after take-off, Cooper informed a stewardess that he had a bomb with him and wanted her to sit by him. He opened his briefcase long enough for her to catch a glimpse of red sticks and wiring inside and made her write down his demands. He wanted four parachutes and $200, 000 cash in twenty dollar bills.

In Seattle, Cooper exchanged 36 passengers for his parachutes and money but kept the flight crew aboard to fly him to Mexico. But somewhere between Seattle and Reno the bold criminal leapt out of the plane with his parachute and his ransom money and disappeared into American legend. A comic book escape, for sure. but what if a comic book inspired Cooper's plan in the first place?

I used to joke that famous air pirate, D.B. Cooper, was probably Canadian comic book test pilot Dan Cooper. Maybe he'd been drummed out of the Royal Canadian Air Force for going AWOL one too many times to fight off spies and invading aliens. After a dishonorable discharge with no pension the once heroic Dan was forced to use his aeronautical skills to stage a daring robbery so he could have a proper retirement fund.

Who knew that years later my tenuous link between fact and fiction would get a confirmation from no less than the FBI?

FBI sketches of air pirate Dan Cooper (left, centre)
Artist rendition of air pilot Dan Cooper (right). Hmm.

Two years ago the FBI reopened the Dan Cooper case (internally referred to as the NORJACK case, for Northwest hijacking) and posted what few details they could on their website here (also referring back to an earlier posting on the case found here). It was a calculated appeal to the public for help with one of its most famous unsolved cases.

The agent assigned to the case, Larry Carr, was inspired by the amount of speculation the robbery continues to create on chat rooms, websites and internet forums. Though the FBI had interviewed hundreds of people and found what evidence they could, most of the FBI case fits into a small file box according to this LA Times article on the announcement.

Previous agents failed to turn up many additional leads over the years (they were able to extract a DNA sample from the hijacker's tie, which he removed before leaping out of the plane), so Carr got creative and opened the case up to Joe Citizen, offering up evidence that until then had remained under wraps in the FBI files. Since the FBI couldn't commit resources to a long-cold case Carr began to think outside the (evidence) box. If he could harness these interested people and create an army of investigators, more clues could be found.

So far, it seems to be working.

Tom Kaye, a paleontologist, has been working with a team of scientists and Cooper searcher Brian Ingram, who found $5,800 of the ransom money along a Columbia River sandbar when he eight years old. The team is conducting various experiments, like examining pollen found on Cooper's tie to see if it is found only in certain parts of the country. They are also trying to pinpoint exactly where Ingram found the money and, using satellite maps, determine if it was buried there by Cooper or floated to the location over time. As Kaye put it on the FBI's latest update:

“The FBI threw out the challenge,” he said, “and we've taken the bait.”
But what of our potential link to our comic book Canadian? The FBI update knows a good hook when it sees one.

© Dan Cooper – Albert Weinberg, Le Lombard
(Dargaud-Lombard s.a.), 2009.

Here's how the Bureau website explains the connection, accentuating the fun aspect to encourage press write-ups and intrigue. It's a tease to get people interested and helping. it turns out, Dan Cooper is very much alive-on the pages of a French comic book series that was popular when the hijacking occurred. In the fictional series, Royal Canadian Air Force test pilot Dan Cooper takes part in adventures in outer space and real events of that era. In one episode, published near the date of the hijacking, the cover illustration shows him parachuting.

Seattle Special Agent Larry Carr, who took over the Cooper case two years ago, believes it’s possible the hijacker took his name from the comic book (the enduring “D.B.” was actually the result of a media mistake). That’s important because the books were never translated into English, which means the hijacker likely spent time overseas. This fits with Carr’s theory that Cooper had been in the Air Force. Carr discovered the comic book connection on D.B. Cooper Internet forums, where fascination with the case is undiminished.
So, the potential for a legitimate connection is there.

This post was inspired by the delightful, improbable story that appeared here in yesterday's National Post under the headline "Did a Canadian comic book inspire the FBI's greatest mystery?". Technically, the answer to writer Randy Boswell's question is no, since Dan Cooper is, in fact a French comic book series created by Belgian artist Albert Weinberg. But the character of Dan Cooper is, indeed, a strapping Canadian.

© Dan Cooper – Albert Weinberg,
Le Lombard

(Dargaud-Lombard s.a.), 2009.

After studying law, Weinberg entered comics and spent his early comic book career as an assistant for Victor Hubinon before flying solo on Hubinon's Joe la Tornade, then drawing Luc Condor for Héroïc Albums. In the 1950's he worked for Tintin magazine, for whom he created the heroic Dan Cooper of the Royal Canadian Air Force. Cooper starred in a lengthy run serialized in the weekly Tintin in 1954 according to the awesome site,

The series always dabbled with sci-fi but Weinberg also made an effort to link his tales with the news of the day, even stationing his hero at the real RCAF Station in Marville, France while serving in 1(F) Wing, Canada's first NATO fighter wing. The character proved enduring enough to remain in print for decades. Long enough to potentially inspire one of the world's most famous hijackers, it seems.

If you read French you can enjoy an entire Dan Cooper adventure here, thanks to this 1(F) Wing home page in memory of former RACAF Ren L'Ecuyer.
© Dan Cooper – Albert Weinberg,
Le Lombard (Dargaud-Lombard s.a.), 2009

Although I think the real Dan Cooper would have learned about parachutes from any number of sources, being inspired to take the name of a comic character is quite plausible. It certainly fits the cheekiness of the hijackers style. Heck, Elvis Presley's performance outfits (with the capes etc.) were inspired by Captain Marvel Jr.! And the link is government approved, so you now have your newest bit of party trivia ready to go.

As for me? I wonder why an FBI agent would give such credence to a theory that, really, is a bit of a reach. Then I realized the answer was staring me right in the face. I am convinced that Dan Cooper the comic character is alive today and searching for the man who muddied his name... as FBI Special Agent Larry Carr!

Don't believe me? Check out the proof and decide for yourself!

FBI Special Agent Larry Carr, assigned to the
Norjack (Dan Cooper) case two years ago...

...Comic book test pilot Dan Cooper,
forever linked to a popular criminal

Special Agent Carr, Dan Cooper. Separated at birth?

I wonder.

*The speed of the internet never ceases to amaze me. Less than a day after mentioning this to Comic book Resources' Brian Cronin, a link to this article appeared in his terrific Comic Book Urban Legends Revealed column. Brian does a great job of exploring those dark corners of the industry where innuendo, assumption and tall tales diverge from or converge with the truth.

For a new blog like this, a tip of the hat from Brian means a lot. Thanks so much!

Beavers Up!

Monday, March 16, 2009

Comics: March To Legitimacy

One of the many reasons I have found Facebook so distracting lately (I joined two months ago) are members like Karen Green, whose Facebook notes on comics and Comic Adventures In Academia column over at are always worth a read. Her perspective as a scholar, librarian and comic fan always shed new light on her topics.

Her latest CAIA post provides an overview of the Graphic Novels and Academic Acceptance panel she moderated at the New York Comic-Con. The discussion entered into two streams, teaching comics as form worth serious study and teaching the creation of comics.

The debate is a challenging one with each person's background, personal strengths and preferences guiding what aspect they teach. The same debate continues to rage in the Film School world with the academics teaching criticism, history and how to read film while practitioners teach how to make it. I have always believed a combination of these approaches is necessary for a complete education in any art form.

For a complete write-up on that fascinating panel discussion check out Paul DeBenedetto's blog Wednesday's Child (cleverly named, I'm guessing, for the fact that new comics in North America are always delivered on a Wednesday).

The panel also discussed the continuing challenge of getting comics accepted as viable subject worthy of study. Some panelists have encountered strong resistance to adding courses on comics whereas others have avoided ghettoizing them, preferring instead to add comics here and there to their "regular" course reading lists. I'm not surprised this approach considerably lowers academic resistance.

It's a slow crawl to acceptance as an art form.

Karen recently pointed her Facebook community to the New York Times installation of a Graphic Books Bestseller List.

Apparently there is some debate as to whether the Times introduced this to keep their bestseller list "pure" of such a childish things as comics. The same cries rose up in 2007 when the Times introduced their Children's Bestseller List, arguably as a way of keeping those damned Harry Potter books off the bestseller lists to make room for real literature. An example of this point of view is this outraged column by the Huffington Post's Michael Glintz, who made some valid points in between some indignant posturing.

Imagine if the people behind the Nielsen Top 10 TV show listings decided that reality shows were "taking away" valuable attention from dramas and sitcoms. Let reality shows get their own list and the official Top 10 only include "genuine" TV shows, like CSI and House and Grey's Anatomy.

Imagine if Variety decided animated movies were just for kids and didn't belong on the box office Top Ten list, when more adult films like Knocked Up and Ocean's 13

Imagine if Billboard decided to banish country music to Nashville and reserve its list of Top Ten album for "real" music like pop, rock and hip hop.

Of course, that would be absurd. Any list of top TV shows that didn't include American Idol would be a joke. Any ranking of hit movies that ignored Shrek The Third or Ratatouille would be foolish. And any ranking of top CDs that pretended Garth Brooks and Carrie Underwood didn't exist would be bizarre. needed the space.
And yet that's exactly the status of The New York Times Bestseller list.

This isn't just about bragging rights for J.K. Rowling. This is about accuracy and fairness...and about the next Harry Potter. One major reason the books became a phenomenon in the first place was because they broke onto the New York Times
bestseller list. At many bookstores, any title that does so automatically gets placed in a prominent position and receives a hefty discount. Adults who read about the success of the books didn't have to skulk into the children's section to buy a copy. They found it right there in the front of the store next to new releases by Stephen King and John Grisham.
Vitriol aside, Glintz's argument on the Kid Lit front has validity. If literature aimed at a younger audience outsells an adult lit book, it should be above it on a best-seller list. And yes, the Harry Potter books are read by hundreds of thousands of adults as well, otherwise there's no way it would have sold so robustly. Much of the debate came form a concern over "ghettoizing" children's literature. But according to the Times article that announced the list, booksellers praised the additional list that allowed more room for more books to gain the attention a NY Times bestseller notice offers. That is hard to argue with.

Adults who read youth fare with crossover appeal (often fantasy works like Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials books or the Twilight series currently taking the world by storm) will continue to seek out those books no matter what list they are or are not on. In the continually splintering world that is today's media, having a separate list for various genres is a valuable resource and marketing tool.

I think the concern over whether a graphic books list "ghettoizes" comics is overstated. Comics is different medium than literature, sharing only the presentation in "book form". It requires a different set of linguistic and visual code-breaking to read and offers many techniques that writing alone does not. It deserves and requires its own list (or set of lists, as the Times has broken up theirs into three categories: softcover, hardcover and manga).

My main concern is how is the list calculated, since graphic novels sell the majority of their stock outside the mainstream bookseller market. To a layman like myself it appears the Times may have this covered, combing figures from a number of sources to get what may be a considered a fairly accurate reflection of sales:

Rankings reflect sales of graphic novels, for the week ending February 28, at many thousands of venues where a wide range of books are sold nationwide. These include hundreds of independent book retailers (statistically weighted to represent all such outlets); national, regional and local chains; online and multimedia entertainment retailers; university, gift, supermarket, discount department stores and newsstands. In addition, these rankings also include unit sales reported by retailers nationwide that specialize in graphic novels and comic books.
The subject of categorizing the lists properly is touched upon by another librarian, Robin Brenner, in this round table chat found on her Good Comics For Kids blog at Yes, the lists will likely be dominated by Marvel and DC for the foreseeable future, possibly creating a public perception that comics are still super-hero books aimed at children. But that's merely a factor of the publishing and marketing reach of the big two. I believe we will see the subject matter and type of graphic novels bringing in the big numbers slowly grow to include more challenging work. What can I say? I'm in a Pollyanna mood today. :)

On Facebook, Green summed up the process of gaining acceptance thusly:

Based on a comment made by Bill Savage during our NYCC panel, I recently looked into the process by which the novel became a subject for academic study. According to one article, massive popular sales led to reviews in literary journals; the reviews led to acquisitions by academic libraries and the novel's introduction to an academic community; critical scholarship followed. This was in the 18th century.

Sound familiar?
Very familiar, Karen. So we move forward, step by step.

In my view, the first huge step, and by step I mean breakthrough, that propelled comics onto the literati radar came from the tremendous commercial and critical success of Art Spiegelman's Maus. Spiegelman had street cred among cartoonists for his underground comicx work, the art world due his publication Raw, and the literary through work with prestigious magazines like the New Yorker. His unique position straddling so many worlds enabled him to gain a toehold for his unique, cartoon memoir.

The Pulitzer Prize Committe was impressed but ended up giving Spiegelman a special award, finding his work hard to classify. I can almost see their confused faces. "Gee, it looked like comics, but the effect on me was like having read powerful literature What do we do now?" Maus raised the level of whether comcis were true to a true debate in the critical world. In the Maus write up for the "Witness& Legacy - Contemporary Art about the Holocaust" website, Stephen Feinstein describes art critic Adam Gopnik's attempts to wrestle with this question in the pages of the New Republic (
"Comics and Catastrophe," New Republic, 22 June l987):

Is Maus art? The art critic Adam Gopnik has tried to answer this interesting question:
If you ask educated people to tell you everything they know about the history and psychology of cartooning, they will robably offer something like this: cartoons (taking caricature, political cartooning, and comic strips all together as a single form) are a relic of the infancy of art, one of the earliest forms of visual communication (and therefore, by implication, especially well-suited to children); they are naturally funny and popular; and their gift is above all for the diminutive.
Gopnik goes on to suggest the truth is actually the opposite and that cartoons represent "a relatively novel offspring of an extremely sophisticated visual culture."
I personally suspect the success of Michael Chabon's Pulitzer Prize winning The Amazing Adventures of Kavelier and Clay, and the author's subsequent defences of everything comic and pulpy in magazines and online articles was the next huge catalyst that shook up many people's perception of the comic art form as being an actual ART form.

Even the Times early review of the book by Ken Kalfus, can't help but apologize for the comic book roots of the tale with grudging acknowledgments suggesting Chabon elevates the form.

Despite the creative straitjackets within which the cartoonists worked, Chabon plausibly identifies in the successful comic book many of the qualities of genuine artistry: craftsmanship, provocative themes and the artist's personal investment... ...In ''The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay,'' Chabon may romanticize the comic book, but it's unillustrated prose that he makes love to... ...Novels conventionally draw a good deal of their power from surprising plot turns. ''The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay'' fulfills its quota of surprises, but most of its unexpectedness resides, comic-book-style, in its challenging situations, lushly written, in which you know beforehand that the heroes will prevail. It would make a nice comic book series -- the cousins square-jawed and ham-fisted -- but the depth of Chabon's thought, his sharp language, his inventiveness and his ambition make this a novel of towering achievement.
Amt Befner accomplished a more insightful summary of the pros and cons of Kavelier and Clay's comic book and pulp inspirations in her review, despite at one point succumbing to the tendency to add "Bat! Bif! Bam!" sound effects to her article, as almost every journalist with little experience of comic books has done for the last forty years, thanks to the Batman television series of the sixties.

Their harebrained schemes lead to fame and fortune, often in a matter of days. Their loves are requited. They hobnob with the likes of Orson Welles, Salvador Dali and Joseph Cornell (whom Joe is said to resemble, in that both are "striking out for the sublime in a vessel constructed of the commonplace, the neglected, the despised"). Stan Lee knows their name. Greedy bosses prove to be good men with the boys' best interests in their hidden hearts of gold, and their enemies are foiled in the nick of time. This leads to some rather implausible last-minute saves, including one especially improbable sequence in which a well-timed phone call to Eleanor fucking Roosevelt (someone happens to have her number) saves the day...

...Luckily, the reader loves Sammy and Joe, too. They are lovable. (In fact, reading this book makes one wonder why so many authors are so ready to saddle their creations with ennui, thwarted ambitions and disillusionment.) Their last-minute saves and superhuman luck and pluck, moreover, are central to the theme of the book, which is the beauty and necessity of escape in all its forms...
I believe that Kavelier and Clay's popularity, critical success and Chabon's highly public love for comics as a medium put an acceptable, articulate literary face to a much-maligned form. In the aforementioned NYCC Graphic Novels and Academic Acceptance panel, blogger Paul Debenedetto describes Northwestern University professor Bill Savage's approach to teaching comics this way:

Bill's approach to teaching comics is twofold. First, what has done while teaching comics is to never put a class together that was "just comics", because it turned into a niche course students took to have fun, which wouldn't have any real academic merit and, as Savage said, "would get me fired"; thus, he picks his battles carefully...

...Second, he tries to integrate comics into courses he teaches based on subject matter (
100 Bullets in a course on crime fiction, The Golem's Mighty Swing in a course on baseball) in order to make some change toward teaching comics. And he says it has worked. A lot of his peers have begun to teach books like Maus, which besides being a useful text for a class on WWII and the Holocaust, helped bring comics toward respectability by taking on such incredibly serious subject matter in an art form that was considered unrespectable. Now he has students that write Masters Theses on comics. Academic respectability is on a certain level a matter of "just doing it".
I believe Chabon's work helped legitimize comics in much the same way, sneaking a celebration of the form and history into a poetic, well-written literary work. The point may be arguable but since the release of the Chabon book, the Times itself has come a long way.

Take for example, this 2002 Nick Hornby article, "Draw What You Know", in which the popular author reviewed comics for the Times. In it ,Hornby struggled with the perception of comics as an acceptable, legitimate art form and spends a good portion of his review explaining himself.

Jump ahead two years and we find the Times publishing a lengthy 2004 article from Charles McGrath. "Not Funnies" is essentially, a defense of the form; a line in the snobby sand. It takes a great deal of time explaining why the comics form is one to respected by the literati and takes great pains to cover artists whose work reflects a more personal, artistic or journalistic perspective. McGrath came loaded for bear, basing the article on his group interview with respected creators Seth, Chester Brown, Adrian Tomine, Joe Sacco and Art Speigelman, who hosted the coffee clatch at his Soho apartment (pictured below in photo by Jeff Riedel of the Times).

Since then, the New York Times has provided respectful comic coverage for several years most notably from writer George Gene Gustines.

All in all, I have to throw my hat in with Karen on this new Times Bestseller list. Like me, she is excited at the prospects:

...whatever the cause the effect will be significant. They've now given an official imprimatur to graphic narrative. Which is AWESOME.
Debenedetto followed up his New York Comic-Con coverage with a terrific interview with Karen Green. you can find here, at his Wednesday's Child blog.

Beavers Up!

Thursday, March 12, 2009

How To Advertise Noir Comics and Washington Comic Shops

I have a special affinity for Washington DC since spending the better part of three years flying between the American capital and Toronto to romance my future wife. So when I received a LinkedIn note from DC (both the capital and the comic book company) artist Shawn Martinbrough directing me to the myspace promo for his book, How to Draw Noir Comics: The Art and Technique of Visual Storytelling, I checked it out.

The preview for the book is quite clever. The video does not actually feature much artwork, but rather serves as moody, short film bringing viewers (and potential readers) into the worldview Martinbrough takes to his work. In essence, he's suggesting that we have to understand how to look at the world in order to draw the world.

**Since writing this, Shawn sent me the following note:

"Here's an inside fact, I didn't spend a dime on that commercial. My partner and I grabbed a digital camera and over the course of a weekend, we ran around NYC, shot and edited it all together!"

That's encouraging. With video so easy to edit now and sites like Youtube and MySpace designed to upload video, you can do it too. Just try to take a step back and make sure your ideas and message are clear and don't muddy the work.

Martinbrough is talented artist in several disciplines, having extensive experience in the corporate world and winning several awards for his short films. You can see them on his slick company website at Sadly, my poor old computer could not run his films without skipping (I have trouble with sites full of Flash bells and whistles) but what I did see of them showed a high level of quality.

There's no mistaking Martinborough has the artistic chops, storytelling ability and excellent taste. He cut his teeth on advertising campaigns and Vibe magazine, as well as Milestone Comic's Static, Blood Syndicate and Shadow Cabinet before moving on to the Challengers of the Unknown, The Creeper, Detective Comics, Batman: Evolution, Angel Town, Morlocks and World War Hulk: Frontline.

I hold up Martinbrough's efforts to gain more sales for his book as an example of multi-levelled thinking we can all learn from. He's got interviews, he's got film, he's got great art and insight. And most importantly, he's not selling his book just to comic fans.

Martinbrough wants everyone to know about his work and so he focuses beyond the shrinking comic book direct market. His experience hustling in the corporate and film words has given him much insight into the marketing side of comics and publishing. It also probably gave him enough to spend on some of this marketing.... These efforts are pretty dang smooth on all levels. Promotion like this is an area where most independents fall flat. Check out what he's done and see for yourself.

This interview appeared in the Washington Post around the time Martinborough debuted his book at the New York Comic Con last year. It includes a video clip featuring Martinborough demonstrating his technique that he and his company presumably made to accompany their press kit.

Thanks for the heads up Shawn!

This was meant to be a quickie post but a little research turned up some interesting Shawn Martinbrough Canadian Content! I'll have that posted soon.

While I'm talking Washington, I'd like to give a shout out to the Comic Shops I got to know while I was living there part-time...

Few Comic Shops can match the Graphic novel selection, organization, friendliness and customer service of Big Planet Comics in Georgetown. They also have two stores in Maryland (including the original Big Planet, which opened in 1986) and one in Virginia so some of their excellent stock must come from the buying power four stores brings. On every visit I found the staff to be helpful and courteous and enjoyed the Big Planet Orbit newsletter, which they publish every month.

I can also give big props to both of the Fantom Comics locations. Their Tenleytown location is kind of hidden away beside a Best Buy and The Container Store (which, I must admit, I am kind of obsessed with). It's tiny but well-organized and the staff is extremely helpful with finding stuff and ordering anything they don't have. They're also quick with the recommendations for other things you may enjoy based on your preferences. It's bright and simply laid out without being overstuffed. Customer service is top-notch as well.

Thor gives Fantom comics a big Hammers up!

I purchased a Green Llama collection there which had a number of pages printed upside down. Since I couldn't get back to that particular location they suggested I try to their Union Station store. That store is quite small and focuses on graphic novels only but as they are located in a major Metro and train terminal on Capital Hill they are there for a great many commuters eager for a comics fix, looking for a cool gift, or just curious to try something new. I suspect they'll be seeing a few Secret Service agents stopping by to pick up a few things for their new president.

I cannot, in good conscience recommend Big Monkey Comics on 14th Street NW. Truthfully, I'm kind of ashamed I even bothered to link to it here. After walking many blocks to check them out I was dismayed to discover an unfriendly, disorganized store filled with Gamers playing against the displays who made no effort to allow me access to product, perhaps feeling it was "their space" or lost in their matches. In the half hour or so I spent there looking bewildered, eager to find something worth purchasing, not a single person appraoched me or even spoke to me.

The only verifiable employee I saw spent the whole time trying to find a way to wrap up a purchase for a customer (a large Hawkman model which was too big to fit back in its original box). After so much time spent without help or acknowledgement I replaced the items I had selected to buy and left. How could I possibly reward such indifference when I could drop the same money at Fantom or Big Planet and be welcomed and respected? I think the fact that their website still advertises a podcast whose last episode was in 2007 says a lot. just so i don't end on a complete downer, I have to say Big Monkey's logo is far and away one of the the coolest of the lot.

Beavers up!