Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Drawing for Comics & Storyboards classes at SUNY Purchase

If you live in the NYC, Westchester County, NY or Lower Fairfield County, CT area and are interested in learning how to draw comics, I'll be teaching courses on that subject at State University of New York (SUNY) Purchase College campus this spring.

"Drawing for Comics & Storyboards" is a Personal Enrichment class where students will sharpen their drawing and visual storytelling skills. The classes will be aimed primarily at comics and storyboard artists but will be of interest to artists and writers who work in any visual storytelling media - comics, film, TV, web and video games.

There are Tues. evening classes for adults and Sat. morning classes for high school students. Eight sessions for each group.

Registration begins Dec. 1, 2010. Go to WWW.PURCHASE.EDU/CE for more information.Hope to see you there!

Monday, August 2, 2010

Marvelous Tales: Remembering Mark Gruenwald and Our Trip to Skywalker Ranch

During the 1980s through mid 1990s, Mark Gruenwald was, in many ways, the heart and soul of Marvel Comics' editorial/creative department. He possessed and infections enthusiasm for comics and all things Marvel.

Mark moved from Wisconsin to New York City in the mid '70s and landed a low-level job on Marvel's editorial staff in 1978. His creativity and hard work were recognized and Mark was promoted to full editor in 1982. He spearheaded the work on the Official Handbook to the Marvel Universe, wrote Captain America for a decade and helped train new editors by holding weekly "Assistant Editor Classes."

Full of energy, ideas, and practical jokes, Mark was the instigator and ringleader for Marvel's office parties and pranks. He also promoted a wide range of contests that challenged the physical skills and pop culture knowledge of Marvel staffers. In theory the participants in Mark's events were trying to win prizes. In reality, many just got caught up in Mark's enthusiasm and wanted to be a part of whatever fun he was whipping up.

Mark wanted Marvel's fans to have as much fun as he did so he devised the 'Marvel Olympics" and other convention events where fans participated in outrageous contests with Marvel personnel.

No one on Marvel's editorial staff was immune from becoming the target of Mark's pranks or the focus of good-natured ribbing during Marvel's convention shenanigans with the fans.

Mark became an Executive Editor in 1987 and one of five Editors-in-Chief when, in 1994, Marvel temporarily split its publishing into multiple divisions.

Recently, I rediscovered a video of a presentation Mark participated in when a group of Marvel staffers visited George Lucas' Skywalker Ranch.

I'm posting Mark's part of the presentation here so his friends and coworkers can relive the joy and enthusiasm he brought to Marvel - and to allow those who didn't have the pleasure of working with Mark get a glimpse of what they missed.

Marvel's trip to the Skywalker Ranch took place on Mon. April 27, 1992. After attending the WonderCon comic book convention in Oakland, CA, our crew of editorial staffers drove north across the Golden Gate Bridge and into the remote hills of Marin County.

The troupe included Publisher Stan Lee. Editor-in-Chief Tom DeFalco, Executive Editors Mark Gruenwald and Carl Potts along with Editors Fabian Nicieza, Mariano Nicieza, Bobbie Chase and Hildy Mesnik

Our tour of Skywalker Ranch and Industrial Light & Magic had been arranged with the help of Gary Winnick. At the time, Gary worked at LucasArts, helping produce a number of hit CD-ROM games. Gary, Steve Purcell and others from LucasArts showed the Marvel crew around the film and game production facilities contained in beautiful buildings on the secluded Skywalker Ranch property and nearby Industrial Light & Magic lot.

L to R: Mark Gruenwald, Bobbie Chase, Fabian Nicieza, Marianlo Nicieza, Hildy Mesnik, Carl Potts, Tom DeFalco, Stan Lee, Steve Purcell, (unidentified woman) Kneeling: (unidentified man), Gary Winnick.

Among the highlights were the model building shop at Industrial Light & Magic, the Foley sound effects studio housed in what appeared to be a vineyard building and the giant Victorian-style library lined in redwood shelves with lighting filtered through a huge domed stained glass ceiling. It was a blast seeing many props and mementos from the famous films George Lucas had been involved with - including the idol that Indiana Jones lifted from the tomb at the beginning of Raiders of the Lost Ark.

After an amazing lunch at the Ranch's high-end cafeteria and a bit more touring, the Marvel crew prepared to give a presentation as part of LucasArts/ILM's lecture series for its employees. Five of us gave short (approx. 10 minute) presentations on various aspects of comics--
- Fabian first gave a quick overview of Marvel's publishing and licensing output.

- Stan then enthralled the audience with a few tales of Marvel's early days and the development of working "Marvel style" (where the artist draws from a loose plot and the final script is prepared after the pages are drawn.)

- Fabian bounded back to the stage to give an overview of Marvel's creative and production chain.

- Tom discussed how readers process the words and pictures as they read comics.

- I (with butterflies in my stomach) commented on visual storytelling techniques in comics and compared them to the techniques used in film.

-Mark then wrapped up the presentations with a discussion of what makes the Marvel Universe special and a description of his activities as Marvel's "continuity cop." Mark's humor and his enthusiasm for the Marvel Universe made his segment a highlight of Marvel's presentation. His attempt to explain how "unstable molecules" work was hilarious.

Mark's presentation about being Marvel's "Continuity Cop"

The formal presentation was followed by a long Q&A session that covered everything from how to become a comics editor to Stan's relationship with Jack Kirby to how Marvel kept long-running characters from becoming dated.

Early in the morning on Mon. Aug. 12, 1996, only four years and four months after the trip to Skywalker Ranch, Mark suffered a massive heart attack and passed away. He left a wife he loved and a young daughter he adored.

Mark is still missed by those who knew him personally as well as by those who only knew him through his work.

For those of us who knew Mark, watching the video is bittersweet - simultaneously prompting laughter and tears. Mark would have appreciated the former but probably not the latter.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Alien Legion Update: Movie, Comic Collections and New Comics

Alien Legion is a long-running comic book series I launched at Marvel Comics' Epic imprint during the 1980's. For those unfamiliar with it, the basic concept is "the Foreign Legion in space" or "Platoon meets Aliens."
“Footsloggers and soldiers of fortune, priests, poets, killers and cads—they fight for a future Galactic Union, for cash, for a cause, for the thrill of adventure. Culled from the forgotten and unwanted of three galaxies, they are the most elite, and expendable, of fighting forces. The Legion is sent into the Union’s most desperate internal and external conflicts. Legionnaires live rough and they die hard, tough as tungsten and loyal to the dirty end.”

Although there have been collections of some the original Epic Comics publications over the years, new Alien Legion comics have not been produced for well over a decade. Last year, I teamed up with Dark Horse Comics to produce a comprehensive series of Alien Legion collections and a new series about the adventures of Sarigar, Montroc, Grimrod, Tamara and the other characters who have - so far - survived numerous cosmic scrapes. (Readers of the series know that any character can be killed or maimed - this is a very active military outfit after all!)

So far, Dark Horse has published two Alien Legion Omnibus collections. The editor of the collections, and the new series, is Chris Warner. Chris got his start as a comic book artist in the pages of Alien Legion and it's great to be working with him again.

The Omnibus editions are, for the first time, collecting all of the Epic Comics Alien Legion tales in chronological order. So, the "A Gray Day to Die" graphic novel, two series volumes, various limited series, one shots and short stories are being presented in the order they occurred within the Alien legion universe - all in the fine Dark Horse Omnibus packaging.

During the big San Diego Comic Con last week, Chris Warner, Randy Emberlin and I had a signing for the Omnibus collections at the Dark Horse booth. Also on display was a preview of the new Alien Legion series. Curious fans discovered that Chuck Dixon and I cooked up the plot, Chuck wrote the script and long-time Alien Legion artist Larry Stroman is doing the penciling for the new series. I'm supplying the inks. The coloring is by Thomas Mason.

Here are two pages of the new series to whet your appetite:
A Harkilon civil war
Sarigar & Montroc
A number of people at the convention asked me about the Alien Legion movie project so here's a re-cap and update. About four years ago, after award-winning writer/director Boaz Yakin brought Alien Legion to the attention of Jerry Bruckheimer Productions, Disney optioned my Alien Legion screenplay. Earlier this year, Bruckheimer/Disney exercised that option (meaning they bought the script outright). It is currently undergoing a re-write process. It's too soon to tell if/when it'll end up in front of the cameras. The fine job Bruckheimer Productions did combining live action and CGI characters in the "Pirates of the Caribbean" films gives me a lot of confidence that they can do the property justice on the big screen. I'll try to keep you posted as things progress.
Meanwhile, sometime in the not-too-distant future, I hope you'll sign up for a stint in the Legion when the new comic book series from Dark Horse debuts. With your support, maybe we can enjoy another long run of original tales about the toughest military unit in three galaxies. Don't worry, the Legion is an all volunteer force and, unlike most legionnaires, you'll have a non-combat role and can enjoy the action from a safe vantage point. (I'd still pack my armor if I were you.)

That's it on the Alien Legion front for now!

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Marvelous Tales: Fishing from Marvel Comics' 10th floor

For most of the 1980s, Marvel’s editorial/creative department had a great corporate culture. With some exceptions, the diverse staff consisted of talented, well-trained and enthusiastic people who enjoyed what they did for a living and had fun together. Many Marvel staffers and freelancers socialized together outside of the office. One result of this culture was a line of highly-successful comicbooks and a portfolio of valuable intellectual properties.

At many companies, the tone of the corporate culture is set by the top officers. So, some of the credit for the tone at Marvel during the early/mid ‘80s has to go to then Editor-in Chief Jim Shooter and several of the policies he put into place early in his stint as Marvel’s editorial leader.

For reasons I’m not sure anyone really understands, Shooter’s attitude changed dramatically during the mid/late ‘80s and he felt the need to become more dictatorial. As a result, many Marvel staffers and freelance creators left the company, either voluntarily or as a result of direct action by Shooter.

As tensions mounted between Shooter and the editorial/creative staff, a dark thundercloud settled in over the Marvel offices.

This was not a great corporate culture to operate within and certainly no place to have much fun or produce quality work.

The cloud of tension in the Marvel offices dissipated when Shooter was dismissed by the company brass and Tom DeFalco became the Editor-in-Chief.

To help re-establish an atmosphere of fun at Marvel, I came up with what I thought was the ideal practical joke — something that was unusual, funny (I hoped) and harmless. It involved one of my favorite non-comics related activities – fishing.

Covered for miles around in pavement, masonry, steel and glass, the area around Marvel’s midtown Manhattan location was not known for its angling opportunities. The only fish around were the tiny residents of a pair of small aquariums in my office.

As usual, I arrived at the Marvel offices carrying my art portfolio. Inside was secreted a spinning reel spooled with thin, nearly-invisible monofilament line and a fishing rod that broke down into four small easy to pack sections.

I mentioned the practical joke idea to fellow editor Ralph Macchio and he was all for it. His office window looked out on E 27th St. There was a furniture store on the first floor of our building that had large awnings over its display windows. The size and angle of those awnings made it hard for street-level pedestrians to see the building’s 10th floor windows. Ralph and I, however, could clearly see most of the sidewalk.

My office at Marvel around the time of these events. The windows opened - a rare thing for NYC office buildings. Ralph’s office, where the high-rise angling took place, was two doors down the hall and was very similar. Note the two small aquariums side-by-side on the bookshelf. A wall-mounded drawing table is in the up position to the left. The keyboard to the right used the “IBM Selectric OS.”

After I put the rod and reel together, Ralph and I looked around his office for possible “lures” with which to entice the pedestrians below to “bite.” We decided the first item to tie onto the monofilament line was a 6” tall action figure of the DC Comics power-hungry and despotic character, Darkseid. The figure had glowing red eyes.

Perhaps Ralph felt Darkseid was a good stand-in for Marvel’s previous EIC.

Pedestrians strolling along E. 27th St. were surprised to see little Darkseid magically hoping along next to them. Some made a move to grab the figure only to have the DC bad guy elude their grasp, fly up into the air and seemingly disappear.

In reality, the editor holding the fishing rod (Ralph and I took turns) would yank Darkseid up and set him on top of the awning, out of sight of the perplexed and generally entertained pedestrians. Everyone on both ends of the fishing line had fun.

Darkseid was eventually replaced by a mummified Snickers bar that had been sitting on Ralph’s window sill for years. However, an animated candy bar did not attract as much attention as an elusive diminutive super villain.

Finally, Ralph tied on an oversized fake $100 bill. It was a leaf from a giant message pad. Even though the bill was obviously fake, some passers-by tried to grab it as it floated up and down over the sidewalk under Ralph’s window. One lucky person actually grabbed the thing and kept the fake bill. No problem. That message pad mint was thick.

Some of those we tempted with action figures, candy bars or oversized currency were Marvel staffers on their way in or out of the building. Word of what we were up to started getting around the office.

Marvel’s office manager at the time was a certain Ms. Ehrenreich. To those who didn’t appreciate her sometimes authoritative manner, she was known as “Ehren-3rd-reich.” Ehrenreich thought what Ralph and I were up to was deplorable. She ran to publisher Mike Hobson to complain. I didn’t know Hobson very well then. I just knew was he was my boss’ boss.

Hobson came to Ralph’s office to see what was up. At that point, I happened to be the one holding the pole out the window while Ralph was taking a phone call at his desk. Hobson tried hard to sound gruff. “Boys, what the hell are you up to?” he growled while slowly stroking his moustache.

Chastised, I quickly reeled in the line and disassembled the pole while Hobson marched off to DeFalco’s office to discuss the matter with my direct superior. I wasn’t sure if Ralph and I were in trouble. Ralph took great pleasure it the fact that he was not the one who had been caught red handed.

Much to my relief, I found out later from DeFalco that Hobson started howling with laughter when he told DeFalco about the fishing shenanigans.

The team of DeFalco and Hobson helped restore the positive corporate culture Marvel needed to thrive on – and thrive it did for many years to follow.

As stated earlier, corporate culture is often set by top management. Marvel’s president at the time was Jim Galton. At one point during DeFalco’s time as EIC, Galton walked down unannounced from his top floor office to ask DeFalco a question. When he peeked into the office and saw DeFalco leaning back, lost in thought, Galton left without disturbing his EIC.

Later, when Galton returned, DeFalco was busy dealing with piles of bureaucratic paperwork. Galton had no hesitation about breaking into DeFalco’s work to make his inquiry.

Galton explained that DeFalco’s main responsibility was to think and plan. Marvel’s president would much rather interrupt DeFalco’s tedious paperwork than disturb the EIC as he contemplated the editorial department’s strategy and issues.

That sort of enlightened attitude from the company’s president helped establish a healthy, and highly-profitable, corporate culture.

For many years now, the powers-that-be at Marvel have kept Ralph in a windowless office. I wonder why.

Friday, February 19, 2010

A Win/Win Approach to Deliver Free Digital Content?

Last night I attended the launch party for Guvera, a new music download service that is operating with a "revolutionary" new model. (Guvera is currently operating in Australia. The wider launch of their service will be on March 1st.)

The piracy of music and other electronic content has been a huge problem for a long time. Artists, labels and publishers have lost a lot of money due to digital piracy.

Speaking at the Guvea launch party, Alice Cooper stated that new artists often wonder if they should even bother recording since they know their music will get stolen. Due to piracy, new and low-profile acts may not even make up their recording production costs - so they end up losing money by recording and releasing their music.

The artists, labels and publishers have spent a lot of time and money trying to battle piracy but a huge consumer pool has gotten used to the idea that any content delivered electronically should be free.

When music was delivered in a tangible form of a CD, LP or tape, it was much easier for the general public to appreciate the need to pay for content. With the rise in electronic content delivery, the lack of a tangible component to the content seems to have affected the attitudes of many consumers.

Instead of fighting the consumers' desire for free content, Guvera's model allows consumers to download music for free in a way that pays the artists and the labels.

They do this by teaming with a wide range of advertising partners. Instead of "Disruptive Advertising," Guvera is using what it calls "Engagement Advertising" that is targeted to each user.

When you do a music search on Guvera, you get to select which of the many sponsoring advertisers you want to pay for each piece of music. For example, you might get to choose between an athletic shoe brand, a snack brand or a car company. You visit that advertiser's channel to download the free content and, while doing so, are exposed to their brand's messaging and additional content that may appeal to you. This way you see only the branding and marketing content that you choose.

Guvera has lined up deals with an impressive array of major labels and advertisers.

If the Guvera model works, it will expand to deliver other forms of electronic entertainment content including film, TV and games. Perhaps books and comics will follow as well.

For Guvera's model to work over the long haul, the advertisers will need to feel that their payments to the artists and labels generate enough of a return. That may be easy to do on relatively low-cost music tracks.

However, if Guvera begins downloading feature films for free, the supporting advertisers will have to pay significantly higher fees to the studios than they do for a music track download. Therefore, the return they are expecting for their advertising will be much larger as well. It remains to be seen if consumers will spend enough money on the supporting advertisers' products and/or services to make free movie downloads economically viable.

Assuming the Guvera model takes off, Apple, Amazon and others who use a pay-for-content model will need to respond. I wonder if Guvera's business plan anticipates the various counter moves the competition will make and has mapped out how Guvera will respond to those moves.

It'll be interesting to watch what happens. If the Guvera model works, it'll be a win/win situation for all involved.

Thanks to Mason Gordon and Jennifer Constantine for inviting me to this event.