Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Saying Goodbye to Star Wars Comics from Dark Horse

On January 1st, 2015, the license to release comics based on Star Wars is leaving Dark Horse Comics after 20 years and returning to Marvel. With Disney's acquisition of both Marvel and Star Wars in the last couple of years, this was in no way a surprising move. For many, it even brings the license home, as Marvel produced the first Star Wars comics after the initial movie's release in 1977. But for myself, and I expect many others, this is more of a sad reality. Not that I expect Marvel to make bad Star Wars comics! Instead, it's simply the fact that Dark Horse IS the home of Star Wars for many of us of a certain age. I am absolutely of that age and I need to write about this, so here we are.

So first off. Dark Horse has a HUGE bundle of their library of Star Wars comics that you can't get digitally for only $300 until January 1st. As of my writing this, you have 48 hours to get all of their wonderful comics produced over the last 20 years. I know that's not a lot of time, and it's very possible that many of these comics will never see reprints, but I've wanted to sit on writing this and now I'd rather at least try to point people to the comics before they're potentially gone forever.

My first comic very well
might have been this one.
Like a lot of the Star Wars Expanded Universe, there's good and bad. It's normal. I just want to talk a little bit about what I remember and the comics that I've loved through the years here, pretty much all of which are part of that big sale. So from here on out, I'm just going to ramble about the different comic series I loved and why and try not to be too wordy. Hah.

As I said, Dark Horse is Star Wars comics to me. They produce a ton of other great stuff, but if I have a Star Wars comic, it has the Dark Horse logo on it. That's just how it is. I've only done a few interviews about making comics, and usually the question of what you're first comic was comes up. Until recently, I shrugged off the question with an "I honestly don't remember, but probably some X-Men book." But having thought on it, I realize it was a Dark Horse Star Wars comic. Specifically, one of the early Tales of the Jedi books in the mid 90s. I can't tell you which one for sure, but I loved those books. Long before Bioware made Knights of the Old Republic, the Tales of the Jedi comics tackled a setting 4,000 years before the movies and was like nothing Star Wars had ever been. It was Star Wars through and through but it felt entirely unique at the same time. I was in completely. Sadly, those books don't quite hold up like they used to, but I still love them greatly.

This cover was all I needed as a kid.
While the actual Tales of the Jedi comics don't hold up too well outside of my nostalgia, 1996 brought Shadows of the Empire. There was a video game, a novel, and the comic and I had them all, but the comic stuck with me the most. My copy is practically falling apart I've read it so much. This is the Star Wars comic that LOOKED like Star Wars to me. Not just because it was set between Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi and starred the cast of the movies, but because of Kilian Plunkett's art. Looking back at the interiors, I can see exactly where my own art style began to grow out of. I wanted to draw like that because I wanted to draw Star Wars.

The next big Star wars comic that hit me was from 1997 and it was Crimson Empire. I haven't read it in years so I couldn't tell you how it held up, but I loved it and it's sequel comics for pretty much all the reasons everyone else did. It was all about the Emperor's Royal Guards doing crazy stuff and I loved Paul Gulacy's art. Just loved it. Look at that cover. That's a hell of a cover and screams at you to buy that book. Plus, it was a Star Wars story that focused on something different than the standard story one comes to expect.

The long-running Knights of the Old Republic comic was one of the best, and absolutely helped pull me back into both comics and Star Wars comics after a few years away. It had the connection to the recently released video game of the same name, but rather than act like slave to being a prequel, told it's own great story with really fun characters that had minor connections to the game you could enjoy if you knew them...but didn't harm the story one bit if you didn't.

Star Wars Legacy, a book set 100 years after the movies and with an absolutely fascinating political structure for the galaxy and also the writer John Ostrander and primary artist Jan Duursema who have since once again defined what Star Wars should look like in comics. There's an Empire and Jedi and Sith and yet it's all fresh and different. I love traditional Star Wars stories, but it's even better to see creators do something interesting and fun with the foundation of it all rather than just tell the same story over and over and over. Legacy absolutely did that well.

The second Star Wars Legacy series from Gabriel Hardman and Corinna Bechko was very much it's own thing rather than a direct sequel to the previous series of the same name, and was another great take on Star Wars that sadly recently ended due to the license shifting. It took the world Legacy had built and stuck to the outskirts of it to do it's own thing. The art, the writing, the storytelling...all of that was so much fun. It will especially be missed.

And then there was the recent series simply called Star Wars launched by Brian Wood and Carlos D'Anda. It was a great book on all fronts, but I specifically have to highlight it because of a character that appeared in the final issues. Her name was Seren, she had blue(ish) hair, was a spy, and the friend of a Princess. Now, this is in every single way a massive coincidence with how much the name and look of the character was close to our Seren from Of Stars and Swords. Seeing a similar character with the same name in Star Wars made me extremely happy. I loved it and I'm smart enough to know when coincidence is what it is (no one's stealing from us because no one knows us!).

There's so much more, but I have to shut up eventually...

So yes...I love Star Wars. I have loved Star Wars comics for pretty much as long as I've loved the movies. The various comics they produced through the years gave me exactly what I wanted from Star Wars but the movies could never show. Star Wars has always been an ideal setting for creators to play in, and many of the absolute highlights of the EU for me were from Dark Horse's comics. There was a wide subject matter and wildly different styles of art and storytelling in all of them. It wasn't all just trying to be another story mimicking the original movies. The comics felt unique and added to the larger universe.

Without Dark Horse's Star Wars comics, I may not be making comics today. At the very least, I don't think my sensibilities would be the same. It was always a dream to maybe one day get far enough with this comics thing to get to do a Star Wars comic for Dark Horse (In addition, the recent appearance of Star Wars Seren made me REALLY want to write her because I'm weird that way). Maybe one day I'll still be able to work on a Star Wars book, and that would still be absolutely wonderful and still be very much a dream come true...but it won't be quite the same. I would never turn down such a possibility just because of a logo, but at the same time, it would be on my mind at least for a moment.

So to everyone that has worked on a Star Wars comic for Dark Horse in any capacity, from editing to writing to drawing to just running the damn thing out the door so it gets out on time: THANK YOU. You all helped to build a characters and a world I loved. I've discovered great creators over the years through your comics. You're a huge part of why I make comics.

I'm going to miss the great work you all did, but one last time: Thank you so much for twenty years of great Star Wars comics.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Let's Talk About the First Of Stars and Swords Story

Last week, the comic that Caroline and I work on, Of Stars and Swords, ended its first story arc. It's been a long time coming and we're both very proud of it all, but we're not done! Not only is there more Of Stars and Swords to come, but I wanted to talk about the story and all of that.

So first off: There will be spoilers for Of Stars and Swords beyond this point. I want to talk about tone and choices and there's just no avoiding it. Consider yourself warned!

Second. Last year, I made a post about Seren and this is likely to touch on some of the same things. If you'd like to read that, here's a link.

Now. Let's get into this.

From the very beginning, Of Stars and Swords has been about one thing: revenge. It's a fairly typical story, really. Seren's family is killed and she grows up consumed by the desire for vengeance, gets her chance, and takes it. Generally, that's the end of the story. The hero succeeds and avenges the deaths of their loved ones, we get a nice scene of them finally able to move on, and that's that. It's not even necessarily a bad story concept, but it isn't where we were ever going.

Because Of Stars and Swords is also about the nature of revenge. In our very first issue, Seren's uncle, the man directly responsible for killing her family, dies. He loses his head right in front of her and she doesn't get to do it. And that's not good enough for her. So she sets her sights on the man that ordered it. And eventually, she gets that, too. She even gets to do the deed herself. But there's no dramatic speech or climactic fight. She just kills him.

And nothing changes.

In fact, Seren's single-minded focus arguably makes things worse. Now, her insistence that everything is her fault is probably a bit overblown, but if she'd taken a moment to look at the larger picture and stopped distracting everyone around her by running off to kill a man, maybe these weird evil creatures could have been stopped. There was definitely time and more than a few chances. There were even clues to them being around doing things for a while, but they were missed or ignored by Seren. Since the comic is (mostly) told through her point of view, it's easy for the reader to miss most of them, too.

And, really, that's the point of it all. Seren didn't see because she didn't want to.

Basically, I've found myself disliking revenge stories more and more as time goes on. There are quite a few good ones, but the vast majority of action movies and not a small number of comics are tales of revenge that end in a glorious moment of the evil character's death at the hero's hands. We cheer and consider it satisfying. But that bothers me. What good does it really do? And what would that kind of single minded focus really do to the hero? Not to say that's an unexplored area, either, but it is an area that's far more interesting to me.

That's the real story we wanted to tell. Seren and her series of bad decisions that lead to worse things. She kills people without a second thought and by the end three people sacrifice themselves to protect her. And two of those deaths she is pretty directly responsible for. As I've said before, she's not even all that likable. And that's okay. She's not really a bad person, but she does do quite a lot of bad things. She tries her best, but is misguided quite a lot. I like to think that she fails in ways that are understandable.

So where do we go from here? We already know, of course, and that's not something I want to talk about yet. But I will say this much: Seren started out at a very low point already. She was alone and very angry. Through the course of our first story, she was forced to work with other people, and even tried for a bit, but fell into old habits quickly. And at the end of it all, Seren has somehow managed to end up in an even worse place than where she started, which is definitely something she couldn't have believed previously. She hasn't exactly coped with similar situations well in the past, so we'll have to see how she handles this new one.

But hey, maybe she'll learn something. Anything's possible, right?

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Comics and Criticism

This is a long time coming, but recent events have finally forced me to sit down and write it. This is likely going to jump around because I'm somewhat angry, but it should be readable enough.

Comics has a criticism problem.

Well, comics has a couple of criticism problems. I talk a lot about reviews needing to be better (i.e. actually address the art intelligently and not just recap the story), and while that is still very much an issue, that's not the one I want to talk about here. Because comics has an entirely different, possibly more sinister criticism problem.

A not small number of comic creators simply have no idea how to handle, process, or react to criticism. At all.

So what made me finally decide to write something about this? Recently, artist Randy Queen took issue with the Escher Girls Tumblr and how they treated his work on the comic Darkchylde. This isn't specifically about that, so if you'd like a good summary of the events (which included his apology), check out this post on Robot 6. But the short short version is that he sent DMCA takedown notices to Tumblr which then removed the critical posts (not just the images) and then followed up this by threatening to sue. This isn't really what I want to talk about, but it helps frame things.

So let's start this simply: It is never, ever, ever okay to threaten to sue someone over this kind of criticism. It doesn't matter how bad a place you're in or how angry it makes you. It doesn't matter if you apologize after. This is ridiculous and childish. And yes, this is the kind of overreaction that doesn't happen often, but there are people out there cheering this kind of attitude on so it has to be specifically called out. If you do this or if you think this kind of action is okay, then you need to walk away from art forever because you cannot handle it.

But this kind of thing isn't the norm. There are, however, constant things said in response to criticism that do need to be talked about.

First, style is never, ever, ever a valid defense against criticism. "It's just my style" is, quite simply, the cry of a bad artist. Style is not some stalwart defense against critique. Style is just how your work looks. "I just draw that way" doesn't alter the validity of any criticism. It's a deflection. Style doesn't mean that you get a pass on proportions being bad, perspective being off, or just generally drawing in a way that doesn't communicate well. Which is not to say one cannot draw in a stylized way and realism is the One True Path. There's a reason "draw from life" is a constant piece of advice given to all artists, regardless of style.
This is also not to say that everyone must like a certain style or dislike another. Tastes are different. That's fine and normal. But the point of criticism is for the critic to express how they feel about a work and, if done well, WHY. Because of this, "That's just how I draw" is not a valid response to a criticism that says, for example, "The human body cannot bend that way."

Now for a (hopefully) quick tangent. Comics is FULL of that last bit and this entire discussion is largely sparked by that. It is a simple fact that women in comics have been drawn in ridiculous poses wearing moronic outfits for years, all of which primarily exist for male readers to enjoy looking at. "Male heroes are drawn crazy too!" is not a valid response, either. Male heroes are drawn as a male power fantasy. Female heroes are drawn as a male sexual fantasy. Those are NOT equivalent. In the past, I've struggled with this myself. Now, though, I'm tired of it. The good news is that the majority of comics is moving away from this, but a very loud group of both fans and creators continue to pretend it isn't there and they are both WRONG and LOSING THAT FIGHT.

One last comment on this before the next point: It is okay to like drawings of sexy women. You are not a bad person for that. At the same time, liking something doesn't make it less problematic. Liking something doesn't make it GOOD. Similarly, that things are normal and have always been a certain way does not mean they should continue to be or that it's okay. And to tie it all back to this section, SEXY WOMEN IS NOT A STYLE.


Second. Putting a lot of time into something does not make it good. Working hard on something does not make it good. Neither of those reasons are valid defenses against criticism. People work long and hard on many things that end up terrible. Not everything succeeds. Things fail. We don't set out to make something and fail, but it happens. It's a normal part of creating. In fact, it's pretty much required. You will fail. You will screw up. You will make bad things. You will make things that people hate.

They might even tell you how much they hated it. Telling them how hard you worked on it and how many hours you stayed up not sleeping to do so won't change that. And it shouldn't. Because that's not the comic. YOU are not being critiqued. The comic is. So stay away from this mindset.

Third. Seniority does not make you immune to criticism. Where the previous two points are more commonly associated with newer comic creators (and also two of the biggest pieces of advice to new creators about things to never say), this one certainly isn't. It does tie into a point that's already been made. Specifically, the creator is not the work. How long a person has worked in comics, how much work they've produced over the years, and how many people they've influenced is irrelevant to the work being critiqued. This is for the same reason that saying you worked on something for a long time doesn't matter: it says NOTHING about the actual comic.

There's a theme here, that I think it's time to touch on. Mainly that most of the common defenses against criticism involve completely changing the subject. We immediately look to, instead, find fault with the critic. It's one thing for fans to do this. It's an entirely different thing to see creators do it. Why is that?
Well, try to look at it this way. You, a comic creator, are sitting behind a table at a convention and someone you've never met brings you a their portfolio of work. For every critique you give them, they use responses like the ones mentioned above. "This is just how I draw" or "I worked on this forever" or "I've been doing this for years!" or any number of others that we've all heard or even said are not acceptable. In fact, creators tend to MOCK people that use these excuses in such a scenario.

And to bring things back around, it's not as if what the people at Escher Girls do is any different than what many creators do at conventions when critiquing portfolios. Draw-overs, detailed explanations of where perspective isn't working, showing why the form doesn't work in certain panels, etc. There is no difference here.

Criticism is a vital part of making any art. Analyzing and internalizing work is important, as is understanding why things work or don't work. And if you want to be a creator of anything, criticism is a part of life. To think that all criticism is wrong is childish. To think that critics only do what they do because they're jealous or want to take people down a notch is also childish.

Being paid to make comics doesn't change any of this. Doing it for years doesn't change it. Being popular doesn't change it. Because none of those stop people from making mistakes. In fact, many of them cause the opposite.

Finally, and maybe more important of all, someone critiquing a work is not deserving of scorn because you don't agree with them.