Comic-Con and the Business of Pop Culture (McGraw-Hill, 2012) is a dazzling tour of the global pop-culture transmedia landscape and how comics are shaping the entertainment and communications industry of the 21st century, seen through the prism of the world's wildest trade show and consumer event - the San Diego Comic-Con.

Top 10 Coolest Digital Comics Projects of the Year

2012 was the year digital-direct comics went mainstream. Entirely bypassing the tried-and-true supply chain of print distribution, brick-and-mortar retailers and the collectors market, these stand-alone tablet apps, self-published originals, studio efforts, and digital exclusives sold through platforms like comiXology and iVerse disrupted old business models, probed the borders of traditional comics subject-matter and opened new possibilities for the medium.

In this slide show at FastCoCreate, some of the year’s most notable achievements–the comics that best exemplified the evolution of the art form and the transition of the industry.

[originally presented at FastCoCreate, December 12, 2012.]

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Marvel: The Untold Story

Over the weekend I devoured Sean Howe’s new, highly-acclaimed book Marvel Comics: The Untold Story (HarperCollins, 2012). It certainly lived up to its billing as a compelling, thorough and no-holds-barred history of the House of Ideas from the earliest days to the modern era, and it makes a fine complement to the essential Tumblr that Howe has compiled featuring unseen photos and graphics from the history of the company.

All of the book was enjoyable, but I was especially fascinated in the details from the 1970s era, when Marvel produced its most self-consciously trippy and strange work (Steve Gerber’s “Headmen” story arc in the Defenders, Steve Englehart and Frank Brunner’s Doctor Strange, and Jim Starlin’s Warlock just for starters). This was the period of my first exposure to comics and it may have warped me for life.

From the business perspective, many of the details surrounding Marvel’s mid-90s brush with bankruptcy were riveting. Howe is superb at simplifying and explaining the arcane behind-the-scenes maneuvering, but he is at his best describing the impact that the economic turmoil had on long-time staff and the company’s overall creative approach.

Howe deserves kudos for balancing an incredible level of geeky detail for hardcore fans and readability for the general audience. Fans of this particular blend of inside-baseball, history and narrative drama should also try to seek out an earlier volume called The Comic Book Heroes (Prima, 1996, 2nd edition) by Gerard Jones and Will Jacobs, which plowed much of this same ground while taking a wider view of the entire comics business during the same period.

Jones and Jacobs’ story ends in 1996, before the current movie boom led to the “Peak Geek” era of the last few years, but its coverage of the creative and business issues in the comics industry and its ability to ventriloquize the perspectives of key figures in the narrative to illuminate the hidden corners of issues like Jim Shooter’s editorial reign and the ongoing controversy over Jack Kirby’s role in creating the key pillars of the Marvel universe presage Howe’s approach in Marvel: The Untold Story.

Howe’s biggest contribution is to bring that story nearly up to the moment, at least on the Marvel side, with some amazing behind-the-scenes details about relations between Marvel and its shifting cast of owners since the mid-80s. Curiously, there is very little about Disney’s acquisition of Marvel Entertainment in 2009 – a fairly major event in the history of Marvel that took place within the time frame of the book, and figures to have major consequences on both the creative and business aspects of the company. I understand that the Mouse is famously close-lipped about its internal practices, but the role of Marvel within Disney has been the subject of intense speculation since the acquisition and this book would have been a great opportunity to clarify some of those issues for the future. Perhaps that will have to wait for Volume 2.

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Looking South for Inspiration: The Magical World of Exilia

A panel from Mexican artist C.S. Pego’s haunting masterpiece Exilia.

Latin America is in the midst of a storyteller uprising. When you combine a relatively youthful population with the world’s fastest rate of new Internet and mobile connectivity over the last decade and the world’s highest rate of entrepreneurship per capita, plus a culture rich in artistic and narrative heritage, you get a very exciting environment for new talent and fresh voices in all creative media, including comics.

Tomorrow I’m  headed to Guadalajara, Mexico to give a talk on “Comics as Transmedia Platform” at an event called CongresoRED. This will be my second trip to Mexico this year to speak on creative industry issues. Just last week I spoke on Latin American innovation and entrepreneurship here in Seattle. Of all the rising areas of the Young World, Latin America seems best positioned to take advantage of the new business models in media and publishing to reach new audiences in the north, and Mexico is at the leading edge of that movement.

This summer at San Diego Comic-Con, I met artist Cecilia “C.S.” Pego, who was in Artists Alley (at the far end of the exhibit hall) selling her beautiful self-published graphic novel Exilia. Exilia is a haunting fantasy full of mysterious atmosphere. Pego’s art is gorgeously strange, reflecting a sophisticated fine art sensibility. Each page is a mini-masterpiece of line and color. Read more

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Does Comics Need an Auteur Theory?

Comics historian Arlen Schumer has offered a number of provocative takes on the theory, design and business of comics over the years, but few as controversial as the monograph he penned for the Kirby Museum called “The Auteur Theory of Comics.” Today at Jason Sacks’ site, Comics Bulletin, Sacks and my pal Batton Lash (Exhibit A Press) critique Schumer’s theory. I was invited to participate, thought the better of it, then decided to chime in after all.

Schumer suggests that the comic book artist occupies a role analogous to the director of a film in terms of making the creative choices that shape the reader’s experience. Film directors, Schumer notes, enjoy critical recognition for their creative role, while comic book artists are frequently seen as subordinate to the sensibility of the writer. Significantly, many jurisdictions in Europe and Asia (but not the US) award the director of a film co-ownership of the work’s copyright – a legal status that would greatly benefit comic book creators like Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, who not only do not benefit financially from their many and manifest contributions to Marvel’s multi-billion dollar character franchises, but also, Schumer argues, are generally overlooked by a public that credits writer/editor Stan Lee as the main creative talent behind Marvel’s Silver Age.

Read more

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Plain Ink Uses Comics to Promote Literacy and Empowerment in India

Selene Biffi has always has a passion for reading. As a child, books allowed her to take flight to magical worlds and opened the door to new possibilities. Now Biffi is harnessing her passion to open the door for others through a unique non-profit called Plain Ink, an Italian-based organization dedicated to improving literacy, cultural understanding, and empowerment through comics.

Plain Ink’s mission is to “ignite imaginations to create a new narrative for the world – one in which we have a chance to thrive, wherever we are.” The organization seeks to harness the transformative potential of storytelling in books, multimedia and imagery to spark change, help people gain new skills, increase literacy levels, and engage communities to find their own solutions.

Read more at FastCoExist.

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New Global Voices: Obrigado Futebol

Note: This is the first in a series of interviews with  comic creators whose work I find interesting, unusual or exemplary of larger trends in the evolution of global graphic storytelling.

Over the summer I received a mysterious note on the Comic-Con and the Business of Pop Culture Facebook wall, expressing interest in my global perspective and suggesting I check out a new Brazilian webcomic called Obrigado Futebol. The strip was billed as an exploration of the social meaning of futebol (soccer), Brazil’s national obsession, and its inspiring effect on three kids who eventually become superstar players. The writer goes by the name “Wai of the Wave,” with art by Giulio Mariotti.

I clicked over to the site with few expectations. The first strip, “The Story of Little Ant,” had been posted in June, 2012. It tells the story of a kid from the favelas (slums) of Rio, from the tragic and heartbreaking circumstances of his birth and upbringing to his efforts to find escape through mastery of the soccer ball. The painterly almost folk art style, highly unusual for a comic, is detailed, compelling and extremely effective. The storytelling is confident, mature and sophisticated. It is emotional without being melodramatic. Sports comics as a genre in North America are typically nothing special, but Obrigado Futebol’s approach to the potentially corny “futebol as salvation” theme deftly skirts platitudes and stereotypes.

The complete “Story of Little Ant” is currently available in English, with plans for Japanese, French, Portuguese, Spanish, Italian and Chinese versions announced on the site. Because it’s on the web, it’s instantly available to a global audience. Several other chapters in the story are announced but not yet posted (as of September, 2012).

Obrigado Futebol is as serious, ambitious and accomplished a work of graphic fiction as you’d find published anywhere in the world, telling a story that could only come from Brazil. The art is an intriguing synthesis of global and local styles. The story represents a voice and perspective that readers in North America and elsewhere might not ever hear, but it’s finding an audience through self-publication and digital distribution.

In short, it represents everything about the optimistic “Expanding Multiverse” scenario from Comic-Con and the Business of Pop Culture, in combination with the spirit of Millennial entrepreneurship in the emerging world that I wrote about in my previous book, Young World Rising. Seeing it gave me the idea to pursue similar stories from new global voices in comics – those taking advantage of the the spread of digital technology and the new self-publishing business models that it makes possible to reach a worldwide audience with innovative graphic fiction.

I reached out to “Wai” for more information about his project. Here are his responses to my questions. Read more

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Digital Comics in Foreign Markets

Today iVerse Media announced an exclusive deal with Marvel Entertainment to distribute foreign-language digital comics and graphic novels. This is potentially a big deal at the corporate top-end of the industry, where Marvel’s superhero franchises command massive attention and dollars. It’s also an interesting alliance given how highly Disney, Marvel’s corporate owner, has traditionally valued overseas markets. I’m sure we will learn more about what iVerse, the second-place digital distributor, brings to the table in coming months. According to the press release,”foreign language content will launch in late 2012 with staggered releases worldwide.”

At a larger level, this announcement and others like it underscore how big a game-changer digital is on the global level… but not entirely for the reasons we think. Read more

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Five Lessons Marketing Execs Can Learn from Comics: The Video

Last week I had a great conversation with Ty Pyburn at The Pulse Marketing regarding my recent FastCompany piece, “From Nerd Niche to Brand Superpower: 5 Lessons Marketing Execs can Learn from Comics.” Here’s the video:

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Can iVerse’s new Kickstarter-killer for Comics Draw a Crowd?

Following this year’s Comic-Con, I rated iVerse Media’s announcement of its Comics Accelerator crowdfunding platform the most potentially exciting digital comics move of the summer. Now according to Todd Allen’s piece at Publishers Weekly, the company is moving forward with more serious trial and deployment.

This should be good news for creators, publishers and ultimately fans. Comics Accelerator’s Kickstarter-killer is a $5,000 cap on the 10% fee the platform takes out of each project. Kickstarter has no cap on fees, which means that a lot of money that funders contribute to high-raising projects goes to Kickstarter rather than the creators.

Comics Accelerator also includes features uniquely helpful to comics publishing rather than general creative projects, such as automated fulfillment and the ability to manage multiple titles. This formalizes the potential of crowdfunding as a way to pre-sell otherwise viable commercial projects, reducing risk and exposure for publishers, in addition to launching pie-in-the-sky creative ventures from individuals. Kickstarter has been straddling both of those roles and seeing its infrastructure and mission strain at the edges as a result. One hopes that, as a fast-follower, iVerse will add some accountability and controls into the crowdfunding model, avoiding the various landmines that Kickstarter’s success has exposed.

iVerse’s biggest challenge is to generate critical mass quickly. Features and a lower fee structure are great, but the point of crowdfunding is to get funded, and that takes a lot of people.

Given that Kickstarter has become synonymous with crowdfunding and been the source of a bunch of high profile mega-successes, that will be a tough nut to crack. Kickstarter is starting to spawn an ecosystem of add-on products and services that add convenience for users without requiring the company itself to make additional investments. Just this Monday, a site called “Things We Start” launched, offering mapping and data visualization to find and track Kickstarters across a variety of parameters. More buzz = more users = more momentum behind their platform = more funders = more projects funded = more users = more third party participation = more buzz and so on.

iVerse understands better than anyone that certain kinds of markets tend to coalesce around a single leader, and how hard it can be to compete once the die is cast. In the crowdfunding space, they are already playing catchup to a world-class sprinter. To succeed, Comics Accelerator needs a couple of big wins fast to start a momentum shift.


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Five Marketing/Branding Lessons from Comics

What can marketing and branding professionals learn from the success of comics and comic-related properties in the wider media world? Check out “From Nerd Niche To Branding Superpower: 5 Lessons Every Marketing Exec Can Learn From Comics,” my latest at FastCompany.

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