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Podcasting empire

I’ve been podcast for over seven years now and the landscape has changed dramatically in that time. When we started not many people really knew what podcasting was and the number of podcasts and people listening was a fraction of what is today.

Coming up on eight years on from when we first started in July 2007, my co-host and I have done all sorts with the podcast and it has led to all sorts of opportunities, personally and professionally. I’ve attended comic book conventions and spoken on panels about podcasting, their place in the new media landscape and taken part in discussions about whether or not it’s a form of journalism. I also co-ran the podcasting track at the Nine Worlds Geekfest convention last year and will be involved again this year.

Professionally I’ve used the editing and sound skills I learned from a hobby in two of my jobs. One was to introduce podcasting to a large global company who wanted to keep their employees up to date in a way that was mobile. So I trained a couple of other people on good technique, introduced them to the software and how it works, and off they went. I’ve also used the same skills for video editing and my voice has been used on several demonstration videos which I put together.

On a personal level, podcasting has allowed me to speak with some amazing creative people, writers and artist from several mediums, plus independent filmmakers. This was sometimes on the Book Club where we spoke to authors, and sometimes on Comic Book Outsiders.

We’ve now reached the point where after so many years we’ve settled into a rhythm and are still enjoying what we do. With that in mind I thought it might be worth giving a little bit of information about the podcasts I’m involved with, as part of our mini podcasting empire!

Comic Book Outsiders – Once a month I co-host this comics and geek related podcast with Scott. This was the original podcast we started in 2007 and we are still going. We talk about things in the news, comics books, TV, films and games, we discuss meaty topics, we have guests on to talk about their work and we highlight hidden gems that don’t get as much attention as they should.

Bags of Action – Once a month I co-host this podcast with Pete Rogers. If you love action movies then this is the podcast for you. We talk about the ridiculous stories and the wonderful chaos common to this type of movie. From gun fights that go on forever to fist fights that defy gravity and common sense. Every month we discuss and dissect an action movie and always have a good time recording it. Sometimes we go off the rails a bit and dig into some of the trivia, or we just wander off into other areas if the film is poor.

Crash Landing – Once a month Scott sits down with a special guest. Fortunately they have been rescued from a dying earth. Unfortunately the rocket ship they are on is going to crash land. They have to decide which popular media they want to save, books, films or comics, or a combination of all three. What could they not live without on their brave new world? As well as talking about why they love their choices we find out more about our special guests each month.

The website for the CBO network has more information on all of the podcasts, plus ways you can get involved and even support the podcasts. It’s all on iTunes as well so give one or more of the podcasts a try and let me know what you think.

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Going Digital

Digital comics have been around for a while, but it wasn’t until a couple of years that things started to really get organised. There were various options out there for quite a while, reading comics as PDF documents, reading them in weird web browser versions, all sorts of stuff. Then the rise of tablets started, they became more popular and the price came down a little as many alternatives came out to the leading brand. Then a couple of prominent digital platforms sprang up for comics. Comic companies, keen to explore all new avenues of revenue, developed their own apps for the sale of their comics.

Roughly three years ago a comic rorschach the end is nighcompany tried their first day and date experiment, releasing the digital comic on the same day as the printed copy. The retailers kicked off, announced the physical comic shop was going to die as a result, the industry was doomed and digital comics were to blame. It turned out they were wrong. Digital comics sales didn’t cannibalise physical comics sales, in fact, over time as we saw a proliferation of digital comics, the opposite has happened. Sales of physical comics increased. Digital comics are simply another sales channel, and people are buying more comics as a result, sometimes double dipping (buying digital and then physical trade paperback collections).

Small aside. Mark Millar, isn’t a believer in digital comics. He’s a strong supporter of comic retailers. He thinks digital comics are just for casual fans. I think he’s wrong. He seems to be ignoring the obvious, not everyone has easy access to a comic shop. Not everyone can get physical comics regularly in other countries, and when they can get them, they may be months behind. So they can’t take part in any part of the worldwide comics community without having stories spoilt for them, they can’t read the websites, listen to the podcasts, attend the shows. Digital comics allows fans, anywhere in the world with internet access, the ability to be an active part of the comics community.

Despite being a lifelong comic book fan I know how intimidating comic shops can be to newcomers to the medium, and I’ve spoken about this many times so I won’t labour the point. Digital comics platforms allow an individual to browse as many comics as they want without any pressure to buy, or to be experts on everything straight away. Because there is a bit of that mentality in some comic shops and I hate to see it because it scares away new readers. With digital comics, people can find their own way, dig around, try a few comics and see what they like and don’t, and if they then want to, and feel comfortable enough, will visit their local comic shop. Hopefully. Because there are all sorts of treasures and artefacts in comic shops, like oversized hardback editions, limited edition special prints, rare comic covers by all sorts of artists, absolute editions, signed comics and a tonne of other stuff. Don’t even get me started on the joy of the monthly pull list. There’s also being an active part of your local comic community, attending local meet ups and events and conventions.

DC LogoIn 2011 DC comics rebooted their whole comic book line. Every single monthly comic book was reset and all 52 titles started over with a new number one. To attract new readers, to refresh everything, and to plant a flag in the sand. They also did something else very interesting and bold that no one had ever done before. Every single book was scheduled to be released on a day and date schedule. Again the retailers kicked off, cursed DC, promised not to stock their books, all sorts of stuff. There were discussions and compromises and now digital comics typically cost the same as physical comics for at least the first month, to encourage people to go into their local shop and buy the actual book. After a month or 6 weeks, the price of the digital version drops slightly, because by then, the physical comic is often off the shelves in the shop, so it’s no longer direct competition. A little while later Marvel followed suit and now many, if not all, of their titles are also available in a digital format on release day.

ComiXologyComiXology is now the largest digital comics retailer. They’re the iTunes of digital comics, selling comics from pretty much every large publisher and many smaller publishers. Recently they’ve even opened the doors a little, so really small indy publishers can submit their comics to appear on ComiXology. Other channels for digital comics are still available, but they’re the big dog.

So, that journey has been going on, and I’ve been watching it for the last few years very closely. Now I’m not a gadget guy. I don’t like cars, don’t want the latest phone, don’t care about brands or fashion, it’s just not my thing. I’m definitely not an e-book reader. I love physical books. I understand why ereaders are useful and why some people like ebooks, and again I see them as another channel, but they’re not for me. I had the same attitude to digital comics for a long time too. Then I ended up with a tablet. Essentially I did some work for hire and I received the tablet as payment.

So, I downloaded a few digital comics. There are things I don’t like about digital comics, and I still buy and prefer physical comics, but my initial dislike has now shifted. I sometimes double dip, buy the first couple of issues of a title and if I enjoy it, I will switch to physical trade paperback collections which I buy from my local comic shops. I sometimes buy digital only comics, those crafted for mobile devices. About a year ago I tried an experiment, to read a monthly comic book only in digital format and see what happened. Sadly, through no fault of my own, the experiment ended, as the title I was following ran into trouble and it disappeared after 2 issues.

bat19So now I’m trying the experiment again. Batwing, one of the new 52 monthly comic book titles from DC, recently went through a refresh, with a new pair of writers and a shift in the story. It’s a great jumping on point, I like the writers and artist, so now I’m on board.

I’m going to try and read it on a monthly basis, digitally, and see what the experience is like. Hopefully this title will be around for a while so I will have some time to explore a longer story, but purely from a digital standpoint. I can already see some pros and cons, but I’ll come back to this in a few months and do another post.

As ever, if you’re interested in getting into comics, want to read them but don’t know where to start, then get in touch and I’m always happy to point you to some titles to match your interests and favourite genres.

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Ok, but what is it about?

This has been bugging me for a while. That’s probably not the best way to start a post, but there it is. It’s not something new, and it’s something I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about, but it was recently brought to the front of my brain again by the big changes in comics, namely DC comics reboot/relaunch of their new 52.

Overall, I’m a big fan of what they’ve done. It was the right thing to do, rather than a piecemeal approach which they’ve tried in the past, and it has reinvigorated their sales and the interest in their characters. Some of the new comics didn’t succeed, which was bound to happen as they launched 52 ongoing titles, and those that didn’t connect with an audience have been cancelled and replaced with new titles. We’re currently onto the 3rd or 4th wave of titles being cancelled and replaced and there are some new titles very due, but I think only one of them appeals to me. There again, that is not a dig at them. Not all of the comics are meant for me. I’m not the target audience for every title and therefore won’t enjoy all of them. There is something about the latest wave that made me question some of the decisions made, but I’ll come back to that. I’m highlighting DC because they’re at the front of my mind at the moment but this is actually a more general question for all forms of creative writing.

Ok, but what is it about? This is a question I’ve asked a thousand times before about films, TV shows, books and more recently comics. There’s often the tag line, or blurb on the back of a book, or listing and preview on a website, which gives you the highlights, it might even give you the story, but my next question is always, ok so what is it about?

I should preface the rest of this post by saying not everything has to have a deeper meaning and be a rich tapesty that is speaking to you on multiple levels. Sometimes it’s just about scaring people or blowing things up. Sometimes it’s just there to make people laugh or to entertain them. Sometimes you just want something light after a heavy or busy day at work, a screensaver for the mind is a phrase I recently heard that comes to mind. I should also point out that I’m a big fan of action movies. I loved The Expendables and I’m a huge fan of Stallone and Arnie movies. That being said, when I read something, I usually (not always) want there to be more than the tag line. I want it to have meaning, or purpose, or at least to be about something with engaging characters. The back of a book tells you something about what to expect. The inciting incident, the characters, the world, and it might offer you a few clues as to the what, but most often that comes in the reading, which for me is part of the enjoyment.

Also, the what can be different things to different people. Readers see beyond what the author intended and the printed word. They read between the lines or they see something that sits on a parallel to what was presented and it reflects something in their own life creating a special connection to the material. Maybe it reaches them on some emotional level and they feel something. There are many books that are just good rip-roaring adventures with clever characters outwitting the villains, but my favourites, the ones that stick with me, are those where the characters feel so real I wouldn’t be surprised to see them walk past me in the street.

This brings me back to DC’s newest wave of comics. Rob Liefeld is a well known figure in the comics industry, mostly for his art and for being one of the founders of Image comics, but also for being a very outspoken individual. I respect him for his accomplishments, but more recently I really like the way he asked DC difficult questions about some of their new titles. They asked him to take over and reinvigorate some of their flagging titles and he basically asked them – ok, so what is this character about? All of the characters he was asked to look at had been around for decades but the characters, their stories and their purpose were not clear.

Because of the age of many comic book characters their back stories are often complex and muddled, but with the best of them you can still pinpoint the why. Batman’s is a story about vengeance and justice. Righting wrongs and protecting the innocent. Stopping tragedies from occuring like the very incident that created him. Superman is about hope, inspiration, the human spirit and (to me at least) a message that we’re all the same regardless of our skin colour, religion, gender etc. Equally I can point at specific titles from the 52 and I know what they’re about once you strip away the costumes, the fighting and the gadgets. The latest incarnation of Batman and Robin is really a story about fathers and sons, about bettering yourself, about living up to expectations, about absent parents, and so on. Most of those points are from Damian’s point of view and there is also the other side, with Bruce trying to reform his son and prove to him that people are worth saving, rather than destroying, as his grandfather would have him believe. It’s a fascinating and quite unique dynamic, and that is what would make me come back rather than a new Batmobile or to see them fighting the Penguin or the Riddler.

Comics that feature teams, where several well known characters work together, are sometimes less complicated and more about entertainment and facing bigger enemies, but they can be about family, duty, honour, responsibility and so on. The problem, for me, comes when there are five or six or seven team books from the same publisher and they all start to look the same. Some DC comics team titles are very distinct. Suicide Squad is a disturbing and dark team book. They’re lifers, people who will never be released from prison, getting a chance to make some small amends. The stories are about redemption and very grey, where they go on missions the heroes wouldn’t be able to stomach. Justice League (or JLA) is the blockbuster movie of team comics. It includes the biggest heroes and they go after the biggest villains, and so on with a couple of the other team comics.

One team book was recently cancelled (Justice League International) and in the latest wave of replacements comics, another team comic is taking its place (The Ravagers). Even more recently another team book was announced (Team Seven). In both instances I asked the question and didn’t know the answer. Even from reading the blurb, looking at the characters and knowing quite a bit about their background (because I’m a DC fan of old) I kept asking, so what is it about? And I don’t think they really know. I’m happy to admit that I could be proven wrong and will say so in public. I’m also willing to admit I don’t know everything about the new books and all of this is from an outsiders perspective, but at the moment I just don’t see the appeal of these new titles. And by that I specifically mean, as a fan and potential reader, I’m trying to find a reason to pick up these new titles and am not motivated to because I dont know what they’re really about. I like some of the characters involved, but that’s not enough for me.

DC are trying lots of new things, they’re experimenting, they’re taking risks and throwing characters together that don’t normally interact to see what happens. All of these things are great and to be commended, but for something to have any kind of longevity, I don’t think that’s enough, especially when there are lots of other team comics out there. And that’s not even taking into account titles published by other companies and then all of the other titles in different genres. Rob Liefield asked DC similar questions about the titles he was asked to work on (Hawkman, Grifter, Deathstroke) and he is now trying to give a definitive answer in each case. Whether or not he succeeds, and whether or not the stories are good, is irrelevant. Someone is asking the right questions and is trying to give a clear answer and provide a reason to make you interested and pick up the comic.

I’ve ended up focusing more on comics than I anticipated, but that’s only because I have more info about it than other areas but it’s all still relevant. All of this made me look more closely at my own work and think about the dreaded synopsis. I actually think it’s the worst part of writing a novel. After spending months (or possibly years) of working on something, of immersing yourself in a world and breathing life into the characters, it feels like a hideous betrayal of all that invested time and effort to then condense it down into a sentence, soundbyte or a couple of paragraphs. But you have to do it. You have to scrape away the top layer, and dig below the surface and then keep digging until you can answer the question. I’ve yet to see a publisher or agent’s submission guidelines that want a one line hook, so it doesn’t quite need to be Ocean’s Eleven meets The Godfather, or whatever, but you do have to pare it down. And that doesn’t mean just a list of the main plot points because that list should bring you back to the original question.

Am I closer to writing the synopsis to my novel? Well, a little bit, but I am now thinking about the project in these terms and once the first draft is finished (and I’ve revised it a lot thereafter) I’m going to sit back and see if the actual novel that I ended up with is the same as the one I started out planning to write.

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Where is Wonder Woman at 70?

Next month marks the 70th anniversary of the first appearance of Wonder Woman. She is one of DC comics Trinity, that is their best of the best, biggest, toughest and, in theory at least, most popular flagship characters. Like all comic book characters with such a long history, Diana has gone through many iterations over the decades and has been in the hands of dozens of writers, artists and editors. As well as comic books there have been animated versions, thousands of tonnes of merchandise, and of course the famous 1970s TV show starring Lynda Carter. There have been several attempts to develop a live action movie, but none have taken off. The most recent was going to be written and directed by Joss Whedon (who is currently directing The Avengers for Marvel) but sadly Whedon and those in charge couldn’t agree on the direction for the project so it was shelved. Earlier this year there was an attempt to develop a new Wonder Woman live action TV series. It was so badly received, and quite frankly utterly awful, that it was cancelled and mercifully never went beyond the pilot. One of the many reasons it was so poor is that those who developed the show didn’t understand the character. You don’t have to be a slave to the details but if you miss the heart of the character it will always die an early death.

Over the years I’ve known several women who wear Wonder Woman clothing because of what it symbolises to them and they only knew about the character from the TV show. They’ve never picked up a Wonder Woman comic book and have no real interest in doing so. The Wonder Woman symbol is not quite as well known as Superman’s shield, which has become synonymous with hope and the tenets he upholds, but her symbol is a cultural icon. If you ask people what Batman stands for they will be able to tell you something about his endless war on crime and his thirst for vengeance. If you ask them about Superman they might cite the phrase ‘truth, justice and the American Way’. Ask the same person what Wonder Woman stands for and you’re likely to get one of several responses. Either it will be a blank stare, or you might get something about girl power, or more accurately something about a message of equal rights and equal opportunities for women.

In the hands of a poor writer Wonder Woman becomes a blunt instrument with which they bludgeon readers over the head about issues in society. Topical issues should and can be part of a comic book story, where appropriate, but it should never be the entire story. It’s a comic book, not a political lecture on human rights violations. Equally those who make her into a cold hearted and brutal warrior, to make a point about her being able to stand toe-to-toe with male superheroes, to show that she is just as capable as them at beating up the bad guys, is doing the character an enormous disservice. She is an elite warrior but also a symbol for peace and love. She is a powerhouse who possesses great physical strength, but she’s also capable of great compassion and kindness. She is a leader and a battlefield general that was trained to fight, almost from birth, but she is also a warm and caring woman. Ignore any part of that and you end up with something hideous, hollow and probably callous.

Wonder Woman might be the most popular female superhero in comics, but despite that, there is an imbalance. DC comics recently relaunched all of their ongoing monthly mainstream comics, which are predominantly superhero titles. There is an ongoing monthly Wonder Woman title, but just the one. Taken from DC comics own ‘The New 52’ web page, there are 4 Superman related titles and 11 Batman related titles, but only one Wonder Woman ongoing monthly. To maintain full disclosure and to be fair to DC comics, I should point out that Wonder Woman is a member of the Justice League and will therefore feature in that comic, but so are Batman and Superman. Justice League is a team comic book and even though she will have some time in the spotlight, it will be shared with the other well known characters. Given all of that, I feel that there is a serious imbalance by only having one Wonder Woman title.

If you look on DC comics website they have a list of 30 essential graphic novels. These are best-selling titles that are great places for newcomers to get a flavour for DC comics and also appropriate for older fans looking to expand their knowledge. Five of them are solo Batman titles, two are solo Superman, and four or five others feature both characters in a team up or Justice League scenario. Four of the team books feature Wonder Woman, but there again there are no solo books. I realise this is a slightly different point, as the list only contains best-sellers, but it does indicate an imbalance in public opinion as well. I believe some writers have captured Wonder Woman’s essence incredibly well and there are some great stories, but they just aren’t selling as well as other titles.

The new ongoing Wonder Woman title is being written by Brian Azzarello and he has described it as a horror comic. That is to say, this is not a slasher comic with vampires or people being chased by a maniac in a hockey mask. To clarify, Azzarello has said in interviews it will be horrific only in terms of what the Greek gods get up to as they interact with the modern world. The gods are capricious beings that play with people, plot and scheme to their own ends, and to them people are objects to play with and do with as they wish. Peering across the street, I would guess that it is similar to what the Norse gods get up to in the Marvel universe where Loki is a dangerous and sneaky adversary who causes all sorts of problems. He was the main threat in the first Thor movie and is also the lead villain in The Avengers movie due out in 2012. This indicates those storylines can be interesting and broad enough that they appeal to a mainstream audience, so there is a thirst for this type of story if it is done well.

In her own comic book Wonder Woman will be caught up in the middle of the games the Gods are playing and will have to deal with the fall out from their plots. She will be facing powerful beings that have the power and capacity to cause her serious harm, which will put her in genuine peril.

So the Azzarello written comic book covers the mythological side of Wonder Woman, effectively dovetailing nicely into her origin and it involves her dealings with the gods. But for one of DC comics Trinity characters I think there should at least be a second ongoing monthly comic book which focuses on other more human and earthly aspects. For example a second title could look at how she is perceived by the general public. This aspect is being touched on in several DC titles including Action Comics (Superman as an alien outsider and an unknown quantity), Aquaman (a bit of a joke and misunderstood superhero), JLA (Batman as a myth) and so on. How does the average person on the street see Wonder Woman? What does she mean to them? There is also the fact that she is a powerful superhero in the twenty first century, a role model and an icon, in an era where fame and celebrities dominate the media. Also she doesn’t wear a mask, which makes it a bit more difficult to have a secret identity. I guess I’m more interested in the character and her role in today’s society than exploring her origin, which is being covered elsewhere.

I’ve often looked at comic book characters and thought about which ones I would like to write and which I think could write. There are some that I would actively avoid, not because I dislike them, it’s more about not understanding or being able to relate to them. I like reading about Superman but at the moment I don’t have a single Superman story floating around in my head. Some characters are easy choices because I understand them, or I’m very similar to them on some level. But every now and then a character sneaks up on me and I find myself drawn to them. I never thought Wonder Woman would fit into that category but there she is. And now the ideas are rattling around my head.

I sincerely hope DC comics does all it can to promote and improve Wonder Woman’s profile because I think she is a very interesting and special character that deserves more attention.

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