Sunday, November 25, 2007

One Banner #4- The Ratings System

According to Websters, a conglomerate is a corporation consisting of a number of subsidiary companies or divisions in a variety of unrelated industries, usually as a result of merger or acquisition. The fact that the Christian Comics Conglomerate really wasn’t this didn’t deter its use of the name. It was not a corporation and had no intention of acquiring properties. In fact, it had no money. But “diversified”, yeah, it had lots of that.

In fact, it was this diversification that probably made a few stiff shirts pretty darn nervous. They didn’t want their Bible adaptations and Barney Bear-esque, sugar-sweet kid stuff tainted with the other riff-raff (like Megazeen, which again had no intention of being a part of this). We’ve already established that quality would not be a factor. And so, many discussions went into the idea of a ratings system by which all comics that SUBMIT for Conglomerate APPROVAL would be judged.

This was coming just as the Comics Code Authority was dying (CCA is now a completely irrelevant issue). So yeah, leave it to Christians to drag themselves back four decades to the sixties. Oh, but don’t worry- when Christians get a bee in our collective bonnet, we go all out and create a series of uber-restrictive rules that ensure that no risks can be taken.

Case in point.

There were two aspects of the Ratings System being proposed. One dealt with age appropriateness. Some would argue that all Christian comics should be for all ages, and be nice and safe and kid-friendly, and thereby a ratings system should not be necessary. A little closer to planet Earth, some proposed a system similar to what they have for movies. Some mild violence might earn it a “PG” type rating, move adult situations (such as characters dealing with issues like drugs or sex or death) might bump it to PG-16, and foul language could push it to MA (a rarity but it happens). Because, you know, we don’t want to offend anyone.

But of course, with Christians, life’s never that simple. For example, what if there’s a demon in the book? Even if it’s not technically violent it could scare a kid or offend a parent. Can’t have that. And violence is one thing, but blood is another, and decapitations are way out. And so, any of these aspects of controversy that wight be in the book would clearly appear on the Conglomerate Seal Of Approval/Warning Label.

The second aspect of the rating system was far more disturbing.

It was the firm belief of one of the participants (it was not the Mastermind but someone else who had been pushing for this, so he decided to attach himself to this like pork projects on a government budget) that theological and denominational issues needed to be listed in the warning label as well. After all, what tragedy could unfold if an Episcopalian picked up a Pentecostal comic book? Or a pre-trib tripper bought a pre-trip trib end-times comic? Or a comic that leaned toward free will were to be purchased by a pre-destination loyalist? The chaos that could ensue. It’s unthinkable madness.

And so, where mainstream comics have enjoyed a rapidly shrinking CCA label or none at all, Conglomerate Christian Comics ratings would be incredibly oppressive. Let’s say a comic in which a teenager deals with temptation, such as in Mark Melton’s Angeldreams, would be forced carry a warning of PG16, Blood & Gore, Demons, Drug Use, Sexual Content, Free Will Protestant.

Soccer moms would now be terrified to purchase it, and comic fans that would purchase it would likely be wondering what all the warning fuss is about. The only bright side was that, if so much description is required, there would be no need to work on that pesky cover art, since there would be no room for it.

To rip through the rest of this inane story, I remember that there was the beginning of a contract for submission drawn up and posted to the board. Then the Mastermind abruptly announced he was moving to Canada and would be unable to participate any further, and we never heard from him again. I’m not kidding about this.

Ah, the insane world of Christian comic books.

For my next magical trick, I will attempt to define & conquer the main “unity” issues, starting with “The Elephant in the Room.”

Saturday, November 24, 2007

One Banner #3- Submission and Approval

Continuing my history lesson of the rightly-doomed-from-the-start Christian Comics Conglomerate, circa 2003.

The Conglomerate Mastermind (I thought about abbreviating this but I really really like typing it every time) nominated himself to head the approval board for any comic that would apply to the Conglomerate. As a reminder, the Mastermind (to our knowledge) had no credentials, no comic book background, no theological background and no business background that any of us were aware of. So if you thought the marketing plan was fun, this should really crack you up.

This was where several people seemed to come out of the woodwork and offer their opinions. The Mastermind listened to everyone, I will give him credit for that. He was not as ornery or defensive as many are on the board (including me). He was smart enough to want to be the dumbest guy in the room (mission accomplished) and took in loads of input before making decisions. The discussion went on for a few weeks, each day getting more ludicrous than the last.

This was just one of the decisions: Quality was not going to be a factor in the approval process.

That's correct. If someone was submitting an 8-page photocopied b&w ashcan comic that he’d drawn and lettered with his feet, or someone else was submitting a glossy 48-page full-color graphic novel with amazing art and a well-thought-out story, they would both be privy to the same approval process. This was to ensure that untalented artists were not discriminated against. Because, you know, that would be unfair, and sad, and we don't want to leave anyone out.

Borrowing from Groucho Marx, pardon me while I have a strange interlude.

(It’s a good thing our police force selects fit, intelligent candidates. It’s a good thing that the airlines select thin attendants. It’s a good thing that many years of medical training are required to be a doctor, and exam is required to become a CPA, a good speaking voice is a must if you’re a radio DJ. If you want to work for Marvel or DC you have to display certain elements of consistency, competency and quality to your skill. But by golly, how many times have we all heard ferociously bad singing from a church choir, bumped into inept church board members, complained how bad most Christian music is, snored through a monotone sermon and had to grin and fake it to encourage horrible, cheesy, badly drawn Christian cartooning?!? “Having a heart for it” isn’t enough- if God has told you to jump into this pool, then in my opinion you’re obligated not just to do it but to get GOOD at it. Quality in presentation should always be an overriding factor in whatever we do, if we want to glorify God with it.)

The Conglomerate, to clarify, was not setting out to be a publisher or an editor. The purpose was to create some name brand product recognition and to allow for an avenue of marketing not otherwise available to small-press indy Christian comics. However, in yoking the talented with the untalented the "brand" would become its own worst enemy.

Let's say Blue Bunny Ice Cream (my favorite brand) put its name on Brussell Sprout flavored ice cream. Very quickly, Blue Bunny would become know for putting out crap. Now, that doesn't seem right, does it? After all, there was some well-meaning flaor technician at Blue Bunny whose heart was in it. Wasn't her fault that the public didn't like her idea. Well, yeah it is. She misread the public. She didn't do her homework. She didn't take the time to get to know her trade. And in the end she brings the brand down, despite the fact that the rest of Blue Bunny's line is oh-so-yummy.

Same thing here.

So what, exactly, was being approved you may ask?

Next installment: The Ratings System.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

One Banner #2- The Conglomerate

In a prior incarnation of the forum, someone, I don’t remember who, I don’t think we ever heard from him again whomever it was, came up with the idea of a Christian Comics Conglomerate. This was his solution to the “undeniable need” for one banner under which all Christian comics would operate.

I recall this being a particularly annoying discussion, for so many reasons. For one, the person who started the discussion and who seemed to spearhead the operation, I had no idea who he was. To my knowledge he had never made a comic book, wasn’t an artist or a businessman or anyone responsible for anything. He went under a pseudonym and nobody seemed to question the anonymity or lack of credentials.

Despite this, the Conglomerate still seemed to get more interest and support than any other idea before its time, which would have frightened me quite a bit if I’d ever had any fleeting inkling of considering the slightest possibility of submitting any of my work or Megazeen to this insane concept. The Conglomerate was so completely preposterous that I don’t even recall participating in the discussion, although I watched from a distance with great interest, much like a visitor to a zoo watching the chimpanzees throwing their own feces. You don’t want to see it, but you can’t stop watching.

The concept of the Conglomerate went something like this (and to put this in perspective, look back about 3 years ago): taking the comic-making quality Community Comics, the e-commerce mechanisms and regular online updates of Megazeen (at the time we were updating weekly) and the talent pool and online fellowship and presence of, along with some other island grass-roots efforts, and utilizing them all under one banner where each could strengthen the other. I was flattered that he’d think of Megazeen as being a key part of the puzzle, but I never offered or suggested it.

The president of the Conglomerate (the aforementioned Mastermind nominated himself) would head up marketing efforts. These marketing efforts would include online sales for sure, and comic shops and bookstores. But the big brainchild here was that somehow we’d get into the end caps of supermarket checkout lines right next to the National Enquirer and Soap Digest. Hey it was working for Disney Magazine right?

This provides a further clue to how way off-base this idea was. First of all, putting any traditional true mainstream comic books in supermarket end caps is akin to selling feminine hygiene products as impulse buys at Home Depot. It’s like pushing Star Wars figures at Victoria’s Secret. It’s like selling power drills at the pet shop. Get the idea? Know your audience. Your audience is comic book readers, kids, teens, young adult males, aging overweight slobbering adult males, not soccer moms buying their week’s groceries.

Again keep in mind, the Conglomerate Mastermind had no business experience. But he was going to conquer Winn-Dixie and Stop n Shop.

The Conglomerate would carry its own logo and any book that would submit to the Conglomerate would get a Conglomerate seal of approval. Sounds good, much like the old CCA, and providing some product recognition.

But two words should jump out as big ole red flags. Submit. Approval. If you’re not seeing the problem with this, hang on it’s a fun ride.

Monday, November 19, 2007

One Banner

I have been in the Christian comics scene since 1995, and I’ve seen it blossom since 2001 with the advent of the internet and the introduction of Megazeen. I’ll make two points here, then go right into my sermon.
1- Message boards have been both the best and worst thing that has happened to Christian comics.
2- Megazeen has played a huge role in the growth of independent Christian comics, whether the critics want to admit that or not.

However, I’m really not arguing either of those points at the moment. The thing ticking me off today is the argument that comes up at least once a year on the message boards (such as Yahoo or It’s usually raised by someone dipping his big toe into the pool for the first time and thinks he’s an Olympic swimmer with all the answers.

The argument is presented in different ways but ultimately comes out the same: that the only way for Christian comics to succeed is for all of us to unite under one banner (company).

From an outsider’s viewpoint, it seems logical enough. One banner creates brand recognition i.e. Image/Marvel/DC. People working together creates defined jobs, synergy and specialization. Combined funds can produce and turn over product more efficiently and allow for growth. As a manager of a multi-million dollar company, I find it difficult to argue any of these points and won’t bother.

The problem comes in with the fact that this is a creative industry. Artists are a notoriously insecure lot. We like our playground and don’t like other people who want to play in our playground or criticize our playground. In other words, we don’t work well with others. Artists are also a notoriously frugal lot- we don’t have cash (thus the phrase “starving artist”). So, combining funds doesn’t much matter when you’ve got a roomful of starving artists who can’t ante up.

Now, add the word Christian to it. This should eliminate the insecurity issue, since insecurity is pride, and pride is a sin, and Christians don’t sin right? And the money thing, well, if we’re Christians we should be well-rewarded and God should meet our needs and we should know how to sacrifice. When you’re all done laughing I’ll continue.

The problem is that the Christian thing seems to amplify the other issues rather than cancel them out. Not only is the artist insecure, he’s also wickedly adherent to a theology and philosophy regarding his art. So, to attack my art is to attack me AND the way God made me. As far as money goes, Christians are stingy. We are. If every Christian tithed, world hunger could be eliminated in one year. That’s a fact. But we don’t.

Just for kicks, let’s put four guys in a room and see what happens.

One guy has a comical approach that addresses Christian weakness. Another guy swears by doing Bible story adaptations and ONLY Bible adaptations. Another will only do kid-friendly evangelical work suitable for a children’s Sunday school class. Another tells a clever, dark story with subtle spiritual themes. And these four guys are supposed to pool their resources and help each other under one banner.

What happens is that Bible Guy finds Dark Guy and Funny Guy too irreverent, and tolerates kid-friendly guy who really isn’t very talented. Dark Guy and Funny Guy get together and work on something together but produce something too risqué for Kid-friendly Guy to handle. Bible Guy gets bent out of shape because what the other Guys are working on ain’t Bible, and if it ain’t Bible then how can it possibly glorify God? Kid-Friendly Guy is feverishly working on his own on a sugary-sweet badly drawn story, but that shouldn’t matter because it’s a Godly story and he’s excited about it, but since the truly talented Dark and Funny Guys aren’t patting him on the back he’s getting quickly discouraged.

This is a lot of what happens on message boards. Imagine if these jokers actually tried to form a company together? And that’s before any money is involved.

There is a second ironic part to this. Stay tuned.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Musings at 39- Not So Smart After All

When I was a young kid I shared a room with my brother who was five years younger than I. For the most part it wasn't a cool scene- he knew how to exploit my last nerve and I knew how to beat him up. More on that some other time, I'm still gathering my thoughts on that one.

Anyways, I had "my drawer." Every kid has a drawer or a box or a hidden compartment that only he is supposed to go through. It allows a kid to have some semblance of control, some element of privacy in a world where nearly every choice is made for them. It's not even important what you PUT in the drawer, only that it is YOURS. If I recall, I kept my Mad Magazines and limited comic book collection here, my limited cash, the guns for my Star Wars figures- you know, the important stuff.

Well, my brother liked to go in the drawer, because he knew how to press my buttons. Kid couldn't even read yet and he wanted to look at my comics. Unacceptable, right? Of course, redundant question. So to fix this, I tore the bell off the top of a toy schoolhouse, and tied a string between it and the drawer handle, precariously teetering on the edge of the dresser so that, should a bandit want to search my treasure drawer, he would surely be caught red-handed.

This is a good example of how we always assume we're just a little smarter that the next guy. What in the world made me think that my brother, at age 5, could not make the connection between drawer and string and bell? And here's the ironic part- if I'd never told my brother that the drawer was off-limits, ya think he ever would've given it a second glance?

As I have grown older, I have been gradually making the switch from thinking I'm the smartest guy in the room, which was almost always wrong, to wanting to be the dumbest guy in the room. The advantage in this second way of thinking is that you can't learn from anyone if you think the first way. If you're the smartest guy you can't hear- if you're the dumbest guy you'll listen to get smarter.

Wow. Trippy.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Musings at 39: Memorable Quotes

Just passed the halfway mark to 40 this past week.

There are certain events in our lives that may seem insignificant to those around us, and even ourselves at the time, but they stick with us and somehow transform our lives. It's in those seeming inoccuous moments that our eyes open just a little more, and we make a decision that radically changes the direction of our lives.

Think about that for a moment. From the outside, that means that YOU might say something today, in your regular rambling diatribe, while shaking someone's hand, while speaking to your children or a friend, that will have an amazing impact on them and they will never forget it. You've already forgotten it. But THEY will replay that tape in their head, over and over again, and it could change their very view of the world, for better or worse.

I will always remember a church guy who took me aside after one of my earliest preaching gigs at a church in Dover. I had preached on integrity and told a story about my friend Anthony as an example, who was an honor-filled genuine friend (not perfect but real) who got saved a few years before a brain tumor got the best of him. Anyways, the church guy was rambling on about a storytelling clinic he'd been to, and tying in a story to a message, and yadda yadda yadda, and then got to the part where he just HAD to share, "And that's why your message didn't work for me."

I didn't preach for a year after that. It took me that long to pull myself back up.

On the other side of the equation, I will always remember my dad's words as he drove me to pick up my very first date at age 12 (believe it or not). He said to me, "I won't always be there there to tell you what to do or not do. But I will tell you this. Your mother and I waited until we were married, and we have never regretted it."

I abstained until I got married, based almost solely on those words.

We must make haste to be kind and impart true wisdom. We must hesitate and measure both motives and expected results when criticizing. Our words can crush or heal, halt progress or alter history. Right now I am doing a lot of soul-searching on my own, particularly about the unfortunate impact I may have had on people's lives, and the positive potential I still have. I am 39, and I don't want to waste a remaining moment or do any more damage. I only wish that this had dawned on me a couple decades earlier. But here it is, now, for the faithful reader of ye olde guy's blog, learn from me and may these words impact you.