Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Hey, 'Grand Theft Auto IV' is out

And I did a story on it:

Don’t make any plans to contact Issac Nixon, 19, on Tuesday.

The Shippensburg University freshman plans on spending most of the day camped in front of his PlayStation 3, playing “Grand Theft Auto IV.”

The video game, which debuts in stores Tuesday, is the latest sequel in a series that, since its inception, has sold more than 70 million copies worldwide. Pundits even expect a number of people to call in sick tomorrow so as to immerse themselves in the game as soon as possible.

That success has come with a big price tag — namely the storm of controversy and criticism that has surrounded the content of the games since the release of “GTA III” in 2001.

Though the story lines vary, the basic concept behind the series is similar: You play as an ambitious criminal who moves his way up the chain of command from lowly thug to big boss.

The game has won accolades for its emphasis on exploration and open-ended game play, but often success in the games mean engaging in a number of unsavory activities, including murder, assault, gambling and even prostitution.

In 2005, when hackers discovered an abandoned sex game buried in the code of “San Andreas,” an immediate firestorm ensued. Politicians, including Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, called for legislative action.

With Clinton gunning for the White House this year, many expect the new game to draw sharp reproach as well.

“Most video-game critics are lying in wait for this one to hit the stores,” said Dennis McCauley, who runs the Web site “It’s the poster child for game violence. It’s raised the bar for political involvement with video games.”

Jeremy Dunham, games editorial manager at, has played “GTA IV” and says it’s “no more violent than a movie with similar themes.”

“People should consume these things in the same way they do movies and music,” he said. “There’s really no difference.”

Marolyn Morford, a State College psychologist who has dealt with video game addiction and testified in 2006 before the state House about the effects of video-game violence, would strongly disagree with that statement.

The difference, Morford says, lies in the interaction.

“As electronic games become more immersible and more realistic in visual presentation, it can be more difficult for people who are vulnerable to this to be capable of distinguishing reality from the fantasy,” she said.

While Morford is quick to state that playing violent video games won’t ipso facto lead people to commit violent acts, she does argue that for children and adults who have difficulty with impulsivity and self-regulation, the game can encourage them to become more aggressive, making you snap at the police officer when you’re pulled over for speeding, for example.

“I do not believe that video games create sociopaths,” she said, “but they can encourage growth in that direction.”

And don’t kid yourself, Morford adds, in thinking that children won’t be able to get their hands on the game.

“As soon is something is out and available for kids in college, the 10-11 year olds are going to want it and they’re going to get it. They’re going to have access to it,” she said.

For their part, fans of the game seem well aware of the controversy but ultimately feel the game’s high level of craftsmanship and artistry mitigate some of the criticisms.

“While I believe much discretion should be used by those who purchase and play the game, especially parents of young children, I think informed consumers should act accordingly in order to enjoy their purchase,” said Rob Bender, 21, a Shippensburg student.

“I do believe it is a very controversial game series, but I look at it like a movie,” Nixon said. “Movies do the same thing, except video games put the player in control of everything.”

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2008

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Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Graphic Lit: An interview with Mark Tatulli

As you may know, a number of newspapers are using Doonesbury's ongoing hiatus to sample new strips on their comics pages. The Patriot-News is no different, and last Friday we began giving four up and coming strips a two-week run in our paper, starting off with Mark Tatulli's Lio (the other four are Get Fuzzy, Cul de Sac and Candorville). To coincide with the feature, I interviewed Tatulli for my column, the unexpurgated version of which you can read below:

Mark Tatulli already had one successful strip in newspapers (Heart of the City) when, after losing his day job, he decided to start a second one.

This time around, though, he decided to go for something a little edgier, a little more macabre and — just to make things tougher — devoid of dialogue.

The net result was Lio, a delightful strip about a little boy who is surrounded and constantly bemused by the monstrous and otherwise supernatural elements that encompass his universe.

I recently talked with Tatulli about the strip:

Q: Give me a little bit of your background. Have you always wanted to be a cartoonist? How did you get your start?

A: I always did want to be a cartoonist. Actually I always wanted to be Walt Disney. Disney was frowned upon by kids when it came to a certain age. When you got to about nine or ten it was “Oh, that’s for babies.” So ended up going to Disney movies by myself. But that’s what I wanted to do. I wanted to do Disney-type animation. That segued into film making. Always in the background though I was doing comic strips for my school paper. I always toyed around with the idea of doing a comic strip but I had no idea what it meant.

I first got syndicated in '93. I actually had a comic strip in a local newspaper for awhile. Then I got syndicated in a newspaper out of Arizona in about '93 or '94. I did that for awhile and I got syndicated with Universal Press in '97 and I launched my other strip, Heart of the City, in '98.

Q: So Heart of the City was your first strip?

A: It was my first strip with a major syndicate.

Q: So what led to the creation of Lio?

A: I always worked a full-time job while I was doing Heart of the City because Heart never got to the level where I could support a family on it. It’s good money, but it’s not enough.

So I was working in the TV industry as a creative director at a production company. The business slowed down and I got laid off with a bunch of other people in 2005. I had some savings so I had some time before I had to start finding other work and I thought, "Well, this might be a good chance to start another strip." So I sat down and created Lio.

I always had in the back of my mind that I wanted to do a pantomime strip, a strip with no words. I pitched the concept to my syndicate in May of 2005 and then they said "Yeah, we like it," and I sent them some more stuff and we signed a contract in September. We launched the strip in January of 2006. By the time it launched in May of 2006 I had over 100 clients. It was a really good launch. I’m up to about 330 clients now and it’ll be two years in May.

Q: Why do a pantomime strip?

A: There were two thought processes in it. Number one I always liked strips when I was kid that had no words because they were pretty much the only ones I could understand. Like Ferdinand and Henry. I think that I wanted to bring something back for kids in the newspaper. Kids don’t read the newspaper anymore. It’s all old people. I thought “Let me do something where you don’t even have to get the joke. If they like the illustrations, they’ll like the strip." I know I liked that when I was a kid. I loved to look at certain strips. There’s nothing like it in the newspaper right now.

The other thing is it translates. It crosses the barriers of language. Knowing that the business is very tough right now; it’s very hard for any new comic strip to get a foothold. I wanted to make this as accessible as possible to foreign markets. A lot of comic strips today are drawn with the American culture in mind. They don’t translate so well when they go overseas. If you notice Garfield, it doesn’t make reference to the holidays or anything like that. It’s really fairly generic so it will translate well overseas. Knowing the market is slow, I wanted to maximize the potential for sales.

Q: What are some of your influences for the strip? I sense a bit of Charles Addams and Edward Gorey in there.

A: Charles Addams, Edward Gorey, Gahan Wilson. All of the dark stuff. I remember when I was a kid I loved the dark illustrations. My father would buy National Lampoon and hide it, but I would always find it. I always felt so guilty for reading these comics that were drawn in a kid style but were clearly meant for adults. I kind of liked that feel of it.

Today’s kids are exposed to so much on television. You may say Lio’s dark. Well, yeah, Lio’s dark when you compare it to Beetle Bailey and Hagar the Horrible, but you put it out in the real world and it’s pretty soft. Kids are more sophisticated, they see a lot more. I don’t think there’s anything in Lio that’s disturbing. There are ongoing themes in the strip and that is love and tolerance. Even though it’s in a dark world, it’s not in the way we usually see it. But they are there.

Q: It is a pretty macabre strip. Do you have any rules as far as known when to say when? Are there any limitations or guidelines you set for yourself?

A: There are always limitations. As a cartoonist you become a built-in editor. You know instinctively what you can and cannot get away with. My job I think with this strip is to go right up to the edge of that and stand right on the edge of the building if I can. You can always push it a little bit further.

When I started Lio I had three editors looking for that stuff. And we still got in trouble. Because people are always looking for something to complain about. I guess you know better than anyone else. The most innocuous thing that you put in the paper, that’s what they’ll complain about. I get more complaints about Heart of the City now than I do with Lio because I think people are like “Well we know that’s a dark strip so what are we going to do, write a letter every day?”

But when Heart of the City crosses the line all hell breaks loose. I always get this letter: “I’ve always been a fan of your strip. Up till today.” You did something today that steps over the line. I always write back "It’s interesting. You’ve always been a fan of my strip yet you right to me only when you get pissed off."

You’re going to get complaints no matter what you do. Lio goes a little farther than most. You know certain things you can’t do just by having done them. I know that I can’t do anything with puppies or babies. That’s just a big no-no.

Q: One of the things that I think is unique and charming about the strip is that Lio is never upset by anything he encounters.

A: Kids don’t know to be afraid of things until adults tell them to. When I was a kid I had this fear of cops. Why do I fear cops so much? Because your parents are always telling you “Oh my god, put your seat belt on. You see that cop over there? He’s going to come over and give you a ticket. He’s going to put you in jail.” I think fear is a learned thing. It’s taught by our parents and other guardians. It was a lot worse in the '70s. We’re much more educated now as parents.

Kids generally feel sorry for things. Even inanimate objects. They feel sorry for them. There’s a little popped balloon laying in the street. I know as I kid I felt sorry for that balloon because I knew at one time it was jumping around in the sky on some kid’s string and now it was popped, forgotten and laying in the gutter. It’s kind of sad. That’s kind of like the feeling I was reaching for from my own memories of childhood and putting them into Lio. He’s completely at home with all the weirdness.

Q: We’ve been talking about the negative reaction but the strip’s in 330 papers. Do you get a sense that kids are following or responding to the strip?

A: Yes. I get hand-drawn cartoons from kids. Five, six, seven years old. It’s something I didn’t expect. I thought these kids are really going to have to work hard on this because it’s not really a strip in the sense that you get a set up and a punchline. The strip is almost like a puzzle when you think about it. It’s a series of images and you have to put together what happens and that’s how you get the joke.

I thought “Kids are just going to like the drawings and this is really for adults.” But you know what? I found the older you are the less likely you will have the patience to try to figure it out just from the letters I’ve gotten. And kids get it right away. I don’t know what it is about the thought process.

I’m actually very excited about that because I want younger readers. I want younger readers coming back to the paper. Not to say that Lio is going to pull them all back in because we know that’s just impossible. But it’s something else there. Maybe comics can become kitschy so kids will come back. I think that’s doable. I really do. More and more editors are starting to get wise, “Yeah, we need younger readers, let’s get rid of the dead wood.” I won’t qualify what the dead wood is, but you know what I’m talking about. You sound like a young guy. How old are you?

Q: I’ll be 38 this year.

A: Jeez, you’re 10 years younger than me almost. And that’s great to hear a young person coming into the newspaper business and I think there’s going to be a turnover now. I’m starting to see it happen. I’m excited about that. I think newspapers will never die, they’ll always be with us. But we’ve gotta get smart about how to get younger readers back.

Q: What is it about the macabre — that dark sense of humor — that appeals to you?

A: I don’t think there’s much like it in the comics. There may be dark humor. I don’t know if you’ve seen Pearls Before Swine. Is that in the Patriot-News?

Q: Yeah.

A: I’d say his is the next darkest strip.

Q: When I say dark humor I’m talking more about the genre, like the cartoonists we were talking about before.

A: What’s at the center of that is death and fear of death. Lio doesn’t fear death. He really doesn’t. I did strip where Lio is riding his tricycle down the road. The grim reaper gets a ride from Lio on his bike. And then he drops him off at the old age home. That’s the joke.

I got all kinds of negative responses from that, “How sick is this? Lio’s taking the Grim Reaper over to the old people’s house to kill old people.” But that’s not the thing. He comes no matter what. Death comes. Death is part of nature. Lio’s just giving him a ride. He’s totally at peace with it. Death would have gotten there somehow. That’s his job.

I don’t know why I find that appealing. It’s kind of like when I was in school and I’d draw a picture of the teacher. I found out the later the teacher saw the joke and I remember that feeling of real fear. But it was also excitement. I got caught doing something I thought was really funny. Same thing. I get that feeling every now and then when I step over the line. “Oh man, this is really going to piss people off. Isn’t this great?” it’s kind of bizarre. They talk about artists that draw for themselves. I really do with this strip. And there are a lot of people like me.

Q: I read online you do the strip using pen and ink. Why?

A: I use a brush for Heart of the City. And what you get a more of a dynamic line with that and it’s got a real flow and energy to it. And that’s good for Heart of the City.

When I started Lio I wanted it to have a complete separation from Heart of the City. Because I didn’t want to piss off my other fans. One thing that always bothered me was a cartoonist that was doing two strips and he was doing them in the same style except that they were just different characters. I think that’s kind of like weird. Which is which now? I don’t want to have any connection from one to the other. One style is good for it. And the real thin line I do for Lio, the spidery line detail is a way I love to draw and it’s a way I used to draw back in the '80s, but it wasn’t appropriate for Heart. Now I think there’s no visual connection between the two, there’s no writing connection between the two. It separates it for fans and for me too.

Q: Whatever happened to Lio’s mom?

A: Would you stay in that house? Seriously.

Q: I heard where there’s the possibility of a Lio movie?

A: Yes, we’re in the process of doing that now. But you know, Hollywood wheels turn real slow. The guy that’s going to be the executive producer of this is the guy that made the Child’s Play movies. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen them ...

Q: I know of them.

A: If you’ve ever watched them they’re really kind of cheeky movies. They’re not horror movies in the sense you might think. They’re very cheeky. That’s a good mix. The guy is great and we have a real good connection creatively.

Now we’re starting to look at writers. The writers’ strike really shut down the whole thing so we couldn’t even talk for months. We just started talking about it again and we’re working on the story. We’re talking to the guy that wrote the Lemony Snicket series. We’re talking to him about writing it. What we’re doing now is attaching people to the project. That’s Hollywood-speak.

Q: In the past the strip has followed the classic gag-a-day pantomime format. But I was reading some recent strips and it looks like you’re trying your hand at an extended storyline now.

A: Yes. It’s very tricky doing that, but it’s something I really want to do. It’s possible, I just don’t know how to do it. But I’m working on it. In fact I’ve told about three or four stories so far. They can’t last more than a week or two cause it’s just too hard, the stories become too complex and it’s too hard to maintain that without dialogue. They have to be very simplistic. Generally based on a theme. They’re gag a days but they’re based on a theme.

This particular one where Lio looks under his bed and sees the monsters under his bed are having a convention. So he goes under the bed and he’s in their midst in a monster mask and one of the little monsters thinks he’s his mom. And so he ends up with this little monster and so the story goes. I can’t tell you what happens next.

Q: Rats.

A: The whole thing for me is just to bring something to the comics pages. Something that people haven’t seen before. That’s real exciting to me. I get a great response.

The flip side to that is there’s a huge number of comics readers that don’t want any kind of change. They switch off. They don’t want to look at it. They don’t want to hear about it. Give me Beetle Bailey, give me Hagar, give me Blondie and I don’t even know what this news crap is. This is a complaint I get: “I don’t understand it at all, so I guess it’s bad.”

Q: I did, just for fun, a thing where I graded some of the comics on the page. It was pretty snarky, especially towards some of the older strips and I must have gotten 100 ...

A: Was that on a blog?

Q: It was on my blog. It originally ran in the newspaper though.

A: I think I saw that.

Q: I did that story and most people were nice, but there were a few whose perspective was obviously they wanted the comics to be the same old,
same old and didn’t want to be challenged. they didn’t want anything different. Those people tended to be of a certain age and generation.

A: Absolutely. And here’s the thing. The irony of that is comics stay static because god forbid you should change anything. Yet these same people will not buy any of the book collections. You go on Amazon and you look at my sales rank versus Beetle Bailey and Hagar the Horrible. They don’t even get books anymore because nobody’s buying them. They just want them in the paper.

These are strips that are in 1,800 newspapers to my 300. They’re reaching more people. How come those people aren’t buying the books? And the licensing material? It’s completely up to editors to make that decision and you just have to be willing to take the flack. That’s what it comes down to. I think in the process you will save your paper.

Q: A lot of editors are terrified of negative press.

A: It’s terrible. I don’t know how you get past that.

Q: On a lighter note, you’re doing two comic strips. I have this image of you being chained to your table and never getting up to even look out the window.

A: That’s true. I do other things to try to stay interested the real world. I do like to cook, so I cook for my family. But that’s pretty much it. I draw and I sleep. And I do get drunk too. But only after I’m done drawing. You never drink and draw.
Q: That’s a good philosophy.

A: Yeah.


Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Graphic Lit: An interview with Francoise Mouly

Talk to Francoise Mouly these days and she sounds a bit harried, not to mention tired.

It’s not too surprising. In addition to her day job as art editor of The New Yorker magazine, Mouly — who, along with her husband, Pulitzer-Prize winning Art Spiegelman (“Maus”), created the seminal art-comics anthology “Raw” in the 1980s — is in the midst of self-publishing her own line of graphic novels.

The catch here is that this time it’s a line aimed exclusively at kids. More specifically, kids just learning how to read.

“It’s a bit much I must say,” said Mouly from her New York office. “It’s both exhilarating and absolutely exhausting.”

Here’s what else Mouly had to say about her new Toon Books line, which debuts Monday, and why she’s doing the whole thing by herself:

Q: Why start your own line? What was the impetus?

A: This was something I’d wanted to do ever since I felt the need for it when my son was about six years old. So this was about 10 years ago because he’s 16 now.

He was a very bright kid and grew up like his older sister surrounded by books and comics and we always read to him. He was told by his teacher in first grade that he needed to learn to read by the end of the year. And it took forever, not because he has any kind of learning deficit or dyslexia or anything like that. It took longer with him than it had taken with his older sister and it was a matter of reading and reading and reading. The phonetics he got but it was a matter of exposure until the little light bulb clicked.

At that point I had to find new stuff and the one thing that was unbelievable effective was comics because he loved them. There was something for him to look at, there was the visual narrative. It was immensely pleasurable for the two of us. I went through a great part of [French comics] and neither of us could get enough and, at the end, of course, Dash learned to read and is now an avid reader.

But I realized it’s a shame that there’s not more comics for kids in the us cause there used to be a lot. I spent all this time thirty years ago saying to people "Comics are not just for kids any more" and now I'm saying, "Well, comics are not just for adults!"

Q: Why take on all this by yourself? Why not go with one of the other big publishers?

A: Good question. (laughs)

I did go to every single publisher in town with this simple idea: comics for kids, although it’s focused. I just felt the best way to make my point was to actually make something that hasn’t actually been done, which was to make comics at the point where the child is learning to read, where the vocabulary would be looked at and controlled and the story would be appropriate for a six year old.

It’s a very hinge age, because you’re too big for picture books and you’re not fluent enough for Harry Potter. When you actually have kids you realize there aren’t that many books published for that moment because kids are not into books. They don’t know how to read. They’re a little too big to be read to so there’s a kind of giving up on this.

I wanted to do that specifically and I kept getting the same answer from every publisher that I went to: "Gee, that’s a wonderful idea. It’s beautifully executed" -- which was all very flattering -- "I wish we could do it but we can’t."

Why? "Because it doesn’t exist." There’s no slot for it, there’s no section for it in the bookstore. There’s no section in the library. The CEO of one of the major publishing companies explained to me, to create a new category in the book store, it’s not that it can’t be done but it takes hundreds of thousands if not millions of dollars to create a new kind of format. They weren’t willing in 2003-5 to invest that kind of money.

Q: That’s interesting considering how companies like Scholastic now have their own comic book line.

A: Actually Scholastic is a case in point. I went to see them in 2003 and offered Toon Books to them. The range of what I was offering at the time also included Bone because I had talked to Jeff [Smith] about doing Toon Books and wanted to show [Scholastic] a comic that’s perfect for the eight-nine year olds. And they had turned Bone down as not something that they wanted to do. Then they looked at my proposal and the response came back, “Oh that’s great, it’s beautiful. We’ll reconsider, we’ll take Bone because we know we can do something with that. But the rest, eh. Too much work." So a lot of what you’re seeing now is the direct result of the efforts we made.

That interaction I must say was incredibly unpleasant because it also came with "Oh, and by the way you should ask Jeff Smith for a cut." No thank you, he’s our friend. "If you really want to work for us," says the head of Scholastic, "You could help us do the comic book version of Shrek 2." (laughs)

Q: And of course you jumped at that.

A: You have Art Spiegelman and Francoise Mouly in your office and they’re begging to be in your employ so of course you find them the perfect thing. The comic book adaptation of the movie which is a sequel of an adaptation of a book by a cartoonist? Yes, of course, we’re going to jump on that.

Q: That’s gold.

A: It’s certainly not something that would have occurred to us frankly.

Q: What are your plans for Toon Books? You’re debuting six books this year, three in the spring, three in the fall. What are your long-term plans?

A: Well if I don’t collapse at the end of the day and can keep going at this pace -- it’s a bit much I must say. It’s both exhilarating and absolutely exhausting. There’s a reason why there are 100 people in every publishing company.

We have 3 books coming out around now. The actual pub date is April 7 and three that are coming in the fall. Then we’ll have three in the spring of '09 and three in the fall. So six books a year. Not more than we can handle.

Q: And they’ll all be aimed at the young reader?

A: It’s very focused, yes. It’s meant as a wedge. It’s in lieu of a multi-million dollar campaign. Just do three good books. The hope is this will be the core of a kids comic section, which there’s such a need for. One of the consequences of the burst of interest in comics is many comics publishers are now getting distributed widely into bookstores, but comics as you know and as I know is not just one thing, it’s a medium. It can be literature and trash. It can be stuff that’s great for kids and stuff that’s totally not appropriate for children.

That’s perfectly fine but there is a need in publishing -- not necessarily a comics code that says good must triumph over evil -- not for the content but for the appropriateness. You don’t want Fun Home or Maus or Persepolis.

You don’t want somebody telling you who it’s for or not for, but on the other hand you want to help librarians, for example, who’ve been at the forefront of this interest in comics. They see kids read and see kids' enthusiasm. The bookstore buyers are less aware of it because kids have no place where they can spend their pocket money on books. It’s not like your average kid walks into Borders or Barnes and Noble or even your average independent bookstore at the age of seven or eight to spend their pocket money on a book. They do in France. They do in plenty of other countries where there’s a lively publishing culture of kids comics.

So with Toon Books I do whatever I can to do books that have such a clear incarnation of what can be done and are so focused as a starter set. They have different artists and different approaches. They’re not level one, two, three. We have one horizontal format, those are the simpler books. There’s a range. the usual age has been 8-12 and until recently it was very boy-oriented. Now thanks to manga we’re finally getting girls to read comics.

Our books are not targeted exclusively to boys or girls although teachers love them because they finally have books that boys gravitate towards and are eager to read.

Q: I actually did a story on comics in education the other week and I was talking to librarians and teachers. I was impressed with how many of them were excited by the potential of the medium.

A: It’s extraordinary. I knew I wanted to do this for years. Part of the reason I ended up doing it myself is because when I was showing it to other publishers, they wanted to dismantle it if they wanted to do anything with it at all. Dismantle it to make it fit within their formats.

Q: They didn’t want a separate mini-line.

A: No, because I’m mixing categories that exist. There is such a thing as a "step into reading" set of books but those are trashy and cheap. If it is educational then it can’t be creative and if it’s creative then it can’t be educational. I don’t agree with all this but those are unspoken rules that people have. There’s a physical separation among publishers between the educational brand and the creative trades. The normal trajectory is that books get established in the trade — those are the ones that are suppose to be doing the creative work, and then they get sifted to the ones that survive.

We did a presentation at the midwinter ALA, and the response -- the librarians are so far ahead of the curve because they see kids coming into the library for two reasons. One is to use the Internet. the other is to read the comics.

Q: So do you feel like you’re getting a strong, encouraging response so far?

A: Very much so. It’s a completely mixed response. On the one hand we have the superintendent of the state of Maryland, they are actually going to use Toon Books in the K-2 classrooms. So that’s fantastic. That’s just great. Still, there's enormous reluctance, so fundamental that I ended up having to do this myself. I’m not only publishing the books myself but I'm distributing them with an nontraditional distributor which is Diamond Books.

Q: I didn’t know you were distributing through Diamond. That’s interesting.

A: Well, part of the reason is that after having gone to publishers, I went Simon and Schuster and Random House and on and on and on and how about I publish it myself and you distribute it, because I wanted access to the children’s book buyers. Even then they said no to for the same reason, which is "Ooh no, you’re not publishing in a category that exits." All my life I've knowingly been involved with stuff where to do something new was good and all of the sudden I’m in a field where “Oh, no, we don’t want to do this, it’s new.”

So what do they want to do? The basic answer, though they didn’t phrase it quite that way, is they want to do last year’s best seller. Whatever worked last year, that’s what they want to do now. They’re chasing things they didn’t predict.

Q: Well, just wait till next year when everyone will be coming out with their own version of Toon Books.

A: I don’t doubt it and that’s not the worst thing that could happen. Because all that means is that there will be more publishers doing kids comics. The only thing is it’s not easy to do good children’s books. It looks deceptively simple like "Oh, why don’t you put a cute little bunny rabbit and it will be great for kids." But there’s a lot of misconception.

Q: I think that’s evident if you look at a lot of the graphic novels coming out for kids now. The publishers doing Shakespeare adaptations or whatnot.

A: I think in the past four five years mainstream publishers have been on the bandwagon publishing comics but have been benefiting of what’s been nurtured, not by them -- Random House and HarperCollins and Farrar Straus Giroux -- but by Drawn and Quarterly and Fantagraphics and Dark Horse. We as an industry of creators of graphic novels have been taking care of ourselves. They are plundering our fields. It takes time to do good work. Especially in comics. Maus took 13 years. And by the time we showed Bone to Scholastic Jeff and his wife had been publishing themselves for 10 years. It’s not overnight. I don’t know how long Alison Bechdel spent --

Q: I talked to her about two weeks ago. I think she said about seven years.

A: Yeah, and Persepolis was four books in France. Black Hole was 10 years in the making. Jimmy Corrigan was six or seven years. Those publishers, as you said, are “Oh, I’ll just hire some writer and get some cartoonist to churn the stuff out.” So that’s the only danger because they will do the same thing with kids books.

Q: How many people are in your employ right now? I recognize Jonathan Bennett’s name.

A: Poor Jonathan. Jonathan is an unbelievably important contributor to what we’re doing. As you know he’s a cartoonist himself and a phenomenal designer. He’s not in my employ. He’s the art director of St. Martin’s Press. He’s also doing all of this on the side. It’s insane. He’s an extraordinary valuable because he was able to shape the look and feel. It’s essential they feel like legitimate books and both look new and traditional. I’m delighted. At some point Diamond was representing the books at a fair and some teachers came over and picked up our books and said “Oh, I didn’t know you did real books as well.”

There’s nobody in my employ. A lot of people have volunteered their time and energy. There’s a number of interns that have helped. Bill Kartalopoulos has been helpful. He’s doing a blog on our web site. I used to a year or two ago I had Toon groups that met once a month or so where we were working things out before I was even publishing myself. It’s great to do things yourself but then you also don’t get to sleep. I still have do the New Yorker, which is a weekly magazine.

One of the reasons I’ve been able to do this is I kept the setup from my Raw office. Even after I had kids, after I went to the New Yorker. That’s how I was able to do the Little Lits and now the Toon Books. I love my job at the New Yorker, I think it’s the best job bar none in all of New York City, but I also think that one of my strengths is doing my own thing. It’s actually good for the soul.

Q: What are the challenges in making a kids line as opposed to doing something like Raw?

A: Now that I have the books in my hand I realize I did exactly the same and the opposite. Exactly the same in that the core is the same in terms of finding a good story and as an editor working with the artist/cartoonist to make sure the story is as good as can be. That is the same as I’ve done all my life, with Raw or Little Lit or the New Yorker. I see my role as an editor as a set of both nurturing what’s good and paring down so that the artist intent is realized as well as possible.

It’s the opposite because in Raw it was important to be true to the author and not worry about the audience so that if we were working on a strip by Charles Burns or Gary Panter, it was a no-no to say "Oh, I wonder what the reader will think of it." That just wasn’t a consideration. The only consideration is Gary is setting out to do this and is this true to what Gary’s intentions are. The reader can take care of himself or herself. If the artistic expression has integrity the reader will find it.

But when you’re working for kids you have to do the opposite. Geoffry Hayes' intention is to tell the story but we worked on every stage of it and took it schools even in rough pencil forms and read it to kids. Because I can’t be in the mind of a six year old and certainly not one that is English speaking or learning to read. You forget once you know.

When we saw kids stumble on a word then we would work with the teachers and educators and try to find an easier word. Or in some cases we didn’t have one answer to how to make it more readable. Sometimes it was a matter of asking the artist to give a visual clue to the words. So we shaped the work for fluid reading by that reader. That’s very different to take the reader into consideration.

When a child falls in love with a book she’s going to want to read it over and over and over again, and she falls in love with a character and the reality of the person who did this is more incidental. Benny and Penny is a Benny and Penny book until there’s another Benny and Penny book as opposed to an adult reader where it’s a Gary Panter work and then you can do another Gary Panter.

Q: Right. Kids aren’t aware of the person behind the curtain.

A: They are aware in some sense that there is an individual there and it creates this beautiful dynamic where kids want to make comics after having read them. In that sense it’s an incredibly beneficial act because it validates their desire to tell stories. It’s what reading does, compared to video games or animation. I know of no child who watches Saturday morning TV animation and says “Oh, I want to do this!” Cause they don’t sense the hand of the individual. But because comics is handwriting, they are intuitively aware that it’s a story made by someone. They’re just not focused on it the way that you are when you’re a grown-up reader.

Q: I want to talk a little bit about the three books you’re debuting. I thought it interesting that two of the three books are by more traditional children’s book authors.

A: Let me say one of the things that I did when we did Raw and Little Lit is we didn’t feel we had the means to do a whole line and that’s why we did them as anthologies rather than publish 15 books a year we’ll just do one issue that has 15 artists. The same thing at the New Yorker, I don’t want to have a house style. What I love is a range of artists. With Toon Books, it always the intention that we weren’t going to create just one kind of comics for kids. We wanted as many approaches as possible because the medium allows that.

Q: How did you go about picking people? Did they come to you or did you seek them out?

A: Both. We live and breathe the stuff. We’re friends with most of the greatest artists around. Just thinking of people that have the dual interest. People whose work we’ve been aware of and also as we do more coming up I’m certainly hoping there’s plenty of artists working today who would be wonderful.

Q: What do you think it is about comics that can encourage a young reader?

A: What I’ve found has been confirmed by every educator I’ve talked to is that most kids love comics, partly because there is something in it for them. There’s a narrative flow, there’s something to look at. They are visually literate long before they’re literate with words. You don’t need to teach your child how to find Waldo. That’s an intuitive way of learning while learning to read is a much narrower, linear experience.

You learn a lot because you learn a beginning, middle and end. You learn left to right. You learn sequencing. You learn repetition and characters. All of those things are part of learning to read. It’s not just the phonetics. It’s the whole inner structure of narrative.

It’s clear to me no one’s going to learn to read unless they experience the pleasure of reading. So it has to be pleasurable and that’s difficult for American culture, because it’s so anti-pleasure. A lot of teachers intuitively know that. When they’re effective it’s partly because they share in the pleasure of this. I’ve gone to many schools to read Toon Books with first and second graders and it’s astonishing to find out that kids love reading. They really do. Story hour is their favorite thing.

Q: Tell me a little bit about the marketing ramp-up. How are you getting the word out about Toon Books?

A: I’m not exactly sure (laughs). I was told when I started to publish myself "Oh my god, you’ll never be able to do this because the traditional way is to have national marketing campaigns and tens of thousands of dollars spent on promotions and articles and so on" and things that we obviously can’t possibly consider or afford.

The books look great. They’re really beautiful objects. I think that if anybody could get to see and hold the books they’d be irresistible. I'm hoping we get enough books out so that people will be able to see them and kids will find them. My goal in life -- it’s not rational -- I want a book where the kid out with mom or dad sees it and screams “Mom I want this.”

Q: Will they be available in comic book stores as well?

A: Yeah. Diamond books and diamond comics are the same business. As you know the direct market’s direct core is not kids books.

Q: That’s one of the reasons I asked. It is a certain type of stereotypical audience that tends to frequent comic book stores.

A: I think there are very necessary educational push needs to be made there as well. I think they would be well advised to create a comics for kids section. Not that many parents walk in with young kids, but if they did they should be directed away from — when I was in Forbidden Planet with my 10 year old, he was so embarrassed to be there with me he put his hands over my eyes because he didn’t want me to see the tied-up women with big tits.

Q: I think there will be plenty comic stores that will order the books. There are a few in my area that have a section for kids.

A: It’s unfortunately as you know, not the norm. I hope it will grow again. There’s a tendency on the part of the comics fan to both want to proselytize and not want to share. Maybe that’s true for every secret society. They feel more intensely involved. It’s something that only they know about. But there is no future without the kids. None. It’s not you and I but our kids who will matter. If comics want to survive and not just be ghettoized in museums, then there have to be comics for kids.

Q: These are going to be in hardcover. Are you going to do softcover editions?

A: Not right away. Partly because I can’t do everything at once. I have to focus my efforts. I’d love it if they end up in Costco, but I can’t start there. We are talking with Scholastic fairs and there may be some possibility there.

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Friday, April 04, 2008

VG Review: Culdcept Saga


Bandai Namco, for the Xbox 360, rated T for Teen (mild fantasy violence, mild language, partial nudity, suggestive themes) $39.99.

The notion of blending the video and board game genres is nothing terribly new. The Internet is filled with virtual variations of "Scrabble," "Risk" and other much-beloved fare.

It's when developers attempt to mix the two formats in new and interesting ways that I sit up and take notice, as I did with 2003's "Culdcept," an odd blend of "Monopoly" and the trading-card game "Magic: The Gathering."

Now we finally have a sequel, "Culdcept Saga," which offers much of the same compelling play as its predecessor.

As in the first game, "Saga" has players marching around on a multicolored board and planting creature cards down on various squares in the same way you'd plop a hotel down on Park Place.

The catch here is that if your opponent lands on your occupied square, they can battle your creature using the cards in their own hand. If they win, your creature dies and the square becomes their property (and they don't have to pay a fine or rent).

As you might guess with a game of this nature, there are lots of rules to memorize. Certain creatures have special abilities, for example, and item cards can enhance a creature's strength or defense.

Learning all the various rules and minutiae could be overwhelming for those who just want to dig into a fun board game. And it can be quite frustrating to enter a battle thinking you have the upper hand only to learn you didn't because of some minor rule.

Though mainly a strategy game, "Culdcept Saga" relies on a blend of luck and skill to succeed, and many times it can seem as though the former is simply not in your camp. What's more, the length of some of the matches might annoy those looking for something speedier.

What makes this sequel noteworthy is the addition of online multiplayer, where players can set up quick matches, greatly enhancing the value of the game.

"Culdcept Saga's" complexity and learning curve will no doubt put off some. Those willing to immerse themselves in its intricacies, however, will find a compelling, downright addictive game.

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2008


Wednesday, April 02, 2008

VG Review: Super Smash Bros. Brawl

Nintendo, for Wii, rated T for Teen (cartoon violence, crude humor), $49.99.

It helps to think of “Super Smash Bros. Brawl” as fan fiction for the video game set; a way for players to test out the old “who’d win in a fight” game, but with their favorite Nintendo characters.

The latest edition in the popular “Smash Bros.” franchise, “Brawl” gives fans plenty of opportunities to indulge in unabashed Nintendo love. It’s a pure mash note/ingenious marketing ploy, delivered with love and lots of fists to the face.

The basic structure involves four players duking it out on a precipicelike stage, every man (or princess or giant penguin or whatever) for himself. Various weapons will pop out of the landscape, enabling players to gain an extra boost via a laser rifle, overly large mallet, paper fan or (yes) flower. Get your opponents to sail off the edge enough times and victory is yours.

This is no complex fighting game that requires memorization of elaborate button combos, however. Although strategy and learning how to time your dodges will aid you, you can cruise your way through initially with simple button-mashing. But playing against a more experienced player is another story entirely.

Just about every Nintendo character who’s ever graced a console shows up here, from the well-known (Mario, Samus) to the obscure (“Kid Icarus’¤” Pit). Even a few from other companies such as “Metal Gear’s” Solid Snake and Sega’s Sonic the Hedgehog put in an appearance.

As you might guess, the game is specifically engineered to be played with friends, though the solo features are far from anemic. In addition to the more traditional tournament modes, there’s a “subspace emissary” section that combines some platforming abilities with an oddball story line.

The big addition this time around is the ability to play online. The online matches, however, don’t support any sort of chat ability, so those who enjoy trash talking might be disappointed.

The game also features lots of unlockable content, including hidden characters, stickers that up your stats and trophies you can collect.

In the end, your enjoyment of the game will depend on two criteria: If you are a) a lover of all things Nintendo and b) have friends willing to play. If those are the case, then go ahead and bask in all that “Brawl” has to offer.
Copyright The Patriot-News, 2007

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Graphic Lit: Marvel's "Secret Invasion"

It might only be April, but the big summer blockbuster roll-outs are already getting started, at least as far as the comic book industry is concerned.

Wednesday will see the release of the first issue of “Secret Invasion,” Marvel Comics’ new eight-issue limited series that, as with the ginormous crossover events of years past (“Civil War,” “World War Hulk”), promises to shake things up in the Marvel Universe considerably.

“If you made a movie of this, it would cost $600 million to make. It’s hundred of heroes and villains,” said “Invasion” author Brian Michael Bendis. “The stakes are so much higher than you’ve seen in other places.”

As the title suggests, the plot this time revolves around an alien attack. The Skrulls, a nefarious race capable of changing their shape to look like anyone, have infiltrated Earth disguised as a variety of well-known and trusted heroes.

Not only do these Skrulls seem capable of mimicking various heroes’ abilities, they are apparently undetectable as well, even by super-powered means.

“The series itself is literally about not being able to trust those around you. You look across the dining room table and is that person really your husband?” Bendis said. “This is the original players in the Marvel Universe dealing with the fact that they can’t trust their powers or their senses.”

Just as previous crossover events like “Civil War” touched upon current political and social issues, so too can readers expect “Secret Invasion” to touch upon post-9/11 fears and anxieties.

“Obviously we live in a world where you get on an airplane and you can’t help but look around and make sure everyone looks all right — and you don’t even know what that means,” Bendis said. “That’s the world we live in, and that’s definitely something that’s easy to write about, to delve into that paranoia and suspicion.”

Good manners (and a promise to Marvel’s public relations staff) prevents me from revealing any of the big surprises unveiled in the first issue, but longtime Marvel fans can expect a solid amount of surprises, action and explosions, all lovingly rendered by “New Avengers” artist Leinil Yu.

Still, there’s a danger that the series could wind up being one big “shock” revelation after another, a danger that Bendis seems well aware of.

“The biggest mistake we could make would be that every time you picked up a comic book this summer it would be ‘Ha ha, he was a Skrull the whole time,’¤” he said. “That joke would be old by April 15.

“It comes down to telling as good and honest a story as you can tell. It wasn’t crafted to gouge the audience. It was crafted to excite people,” he said. “If it’s good, there won’t be any fatigue. If it sucks, that’s where the fatigue comes in.”

To a large extent, “Secret Invasion” is dependent upon a strong familiarity with the Marvel cast of characters. It’s hard to care about who may or may not be a Skrull if you haven’t already made a serious time investment with Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four and the rest of the crew.

And while Bendis and Lu obviously don’t want to alienate new readers, they don’t do much to acclimate them, either.

All that being said, based on its first issue “Secret Invasion” promises to be a fun, slam-bang adventure comic that the Marvel faithful will delight in.

And if they don’t, they can always blame it on the Skrulls.

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2008