The best comics channels on YouTube

Go onto YouTube and you’ll find channels for everything, but comics have been served very, very poorly as a medium there with many channels being unwatchable rubbish with the presenter/s showing little or no knowledge of what they’re talking about, or being of the opinion comics are purely superhero comics from America, or are endlessly bleating on about speculator value or are just plain shite.

Recently though things are improving. Over the last year or two, there have been channels providing some great material or some channels have improved vastly. Now there are thousands of channels out there, with about a dozen or so being ones I check on at least once a month.  Here’s what I think are the top three out there that you should be watching if you’re a fan of the medium.

Starting from number three…

3/ Strange Brain Parts

This channel is a solid channel dealing with mainly non-superheroic comics, but it does cover a wide selection of genres. These are archiving comics which for various reasons have fallen through the cracks in history, and never show up in the usual history of comics you tend to see or read. A good example of this is American Flagg! which should be more acclaimed than it is.

 

2/ Comic Tropes

This channel was initially nothing to write home about. It was talking about mainstream comics in a way which wasn’t especially interesting, but then it started getting better and better so although it talks about superheroes, there’s a joy behind it rather than using comics as a way to get to talking about film or TV adaptations. Plus anyone introducing classic comics to an audience probably unaware of what’s being spoken about is a plus.

As an example here’s the film on the works of Bernie Krigstein.

 

1/ Cartoonist Kayfabe

If there’s a reason why many channels have made the step up then it can be put down purely at the feet of this channel run by creators Jim Rugg and Ed Piskor. Both men aren’t just creators but they have a love of the medium which may sound off to point out but you’d be amazed how many creators don’t especially love the medium, just a genre.

Piskor and Rugg’s tastes vary from proper grown-up work from the likes of Dan Clowes, through to 80’s black and white indies and early Image Comics, so we get a varied mix of what they love which comes over in their videos. Also their work in logging the history of comics via their history of Wizard magazine sounds initially a futile task but seeing it all play out with hindsight you can see just how it manipulated the market for the worst.

Then there’s the lengthy interviews with creators which aren’t just dribbling nonsense, but detailed and informed. Basically if you have any love for comics as entertainment, and as an art form then this is an essential channel. As an example here’s a couple of examples. First up is their interview with Todd McFarlane which should be essential viewing for anyone trying to break into the industry.

Next is their two and a half hour review of Frank Miller’s Dark Knight, which for someone like me who’s read it literally hundreds of times was still informative as it showed me things I’d missed in previous readings.

I’d recommend suscribing to all three channels to keep up to date with their output which is weekly at least with Cartoonist Kayfabe putting out almost daily videos.

The curse of the modern comic book speculator

Back in the 1990’s the entire comic book industry in the US and UK imploded on a truly massive scale thanks mainly to the speculator boom of the time. In short, the industry in the late 80’s saw the start of the boom times with superstar artists and writers like Todd McFarlane and Rob Liefeld coming to the fore selling comics by the millions.

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Things were fine for a while. Comics sold by the box-load as speculators would by double, triple even dozens of copies of a comic if they thought they’d get a return on it. Publishers brought out multiple variant covers, along with gimmicks like glow in the dark or die-cut covers.

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I was working in a comic shop in Bristol at the time and can testify seeing customers come to the till with multiple copies of a ‘hot’ comic, purely because Wizard or the likes had said it was going to be worth a fortune! Of course, this was all built on sand and by 1993 the cracks were showing. By 96 everything had collapsed around everyone with speculators being stung as those 50 copies of Secret Defenders #1 they had bought. Shops were stuck with boxes of unsold stock. The industry as a whole nearly collapsed with the weight of the idiocy of it all.

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Of course things got better and fast-forward to today and even though there’s many saying the industry is doomed (and Covid-19 will affect the industry like nothing else) it will survive because the medium will survive.  But the speculator never went away. In fact the speculator drives a large part of the industry today, especially with variant covers being a trick to drive up sales used by every publisher.

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The problem is they’re driving up prices, sometimes artificially, to the point where comics are seen mainly as an investment and not an art form. Look through comic channels on YouTube and it’s crawling with people seeing comics as a way to make money, which is basically just the 90s speculator market rebranded for the 21st century.  It’s whether that part of the industry burns out what will be an exceptionally fragile industry post Covid19 that’s the question.

And I don’t mind the usual day-to-day dealers making what they can, I’m one myself on a part-time basis, but the issue if overblowing the market which leads to the medium dumbing down (more big events! more relaunches!) even further than it is.  If Covid19 give us anything, it is a chance to reset things so that speculators don’t drive up prices to the point where the betterment of the medium comes waaay down the list to the latest ‘hot’ issue.  Separate the medium from the business and encourage people to read, even create comics rather than just see them as a way to get rich quick.

Sadly I doubt that will happen so we won’t find a good balance, but we’ll see how things turn out as it will be a very different industry after all this is over.

 

A short history of ballast comics

Comic distribution is now in the hands of Diamond Comic Distribution for a large chunk of comics, though other methods are available thanks to publishers like Self Made Hero. You want a comic or trade or graphic novel it’s pretty easy to get what you want these days, and unlike when I was young, a bloody chore. In the UK prior to the mid-80’s, you’d need to rely mainly on comics shipped via sea- freight meant for the UK market, so this is why older Marvel and DC comics have Shillings or Pence costs on the cover rather than Cents.

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British price variants made up around 5% of the total print run, which back in the day of 100k print runs, meant a decent amount of copies made their way to the UK market. There’s a good article here explaining the differences, and it’ll also explain why Cents copies of older comics are worth vastly more than their Pence variants. These copies were distributed to newsagents, so your local corner shop would have the same issues as larger shops like W.H. Smiths or John Menzies.

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There’s an entire blog to be written about the issues that system had, but this is about what still think an urban legend today, which is ballast comics.

Ships have to have ballast, and pre WW2 some of the cheapest, most disposable forms of ballasts were comics, so the first American comics brought to the UK came over in the bellies of ships. The ones not thrown overboard of course, the rest would drip into the UK, but of course by later in the war tens of thousands of American comics were coming into the UK thanks to American troops but these books were still used as ballast. In fact the late artist Jim Baikie first saw comic books in pages which would wash up on the shores near where he lived.

In the post-war years, comics would still come over this way, even when Marvel, then DC, were being distributed across the UK but again, these were Cents copies that entered the UK market.

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You’d also have comics coming over which weren’t officially distributed in the UK, which were of course, nuggets of gold as official distribution of American comics meant you’d be able to get Avengers one month, but not the next and in those days that meant relying upon dealers or fans going to America buying a load though by the start of the 80’s the likes of Titan had sprung up in the UK shipping in American newsstand comics.

So to explain what actually happened with this unofficial supply of comics. Ships would load on ballast with comics being one of the cheapest options as back in the day you’d have print runs of hundreds of thousands, so when newsstands returned unsold copies in the US, they’d be used by ships because they were so disposable. These copies would get to the UK and if not flushed into the Atlantic, they’d be kept on or dumped portside and this is where for us it gets interesting.

If you lived in a big port city (which I did having grown up in Glasgow) you’d find piles of comics, sometimes slightly water damaged, in markets or newsstands. I remember one stall in the old Barras market, plus one in St. Enoch’s Square where I’d go down and pick up imports such as Amazing Spider-Man #129.

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Sure, there’d be a bit of warping but you’d get comics now that’d you’d have to wait years for the UK reprint, plus there’d often be loads (one stall used to literally have 50-60 of each issue they had) of them so I do remember having multiple copies of what became key issues. ASM #129, for example, I had enough copies to keep me financially ok for a long time into the 90s whenever I needed an extra influx of money. My only wish is I’d kept some of those today! However people would go along dockyards buying pallets of comics to keep themselves going, and this wasn’t just Glasgow but in other port cities like Bristol and London. The further away from one of these cities, the less likely it seems you were in coming across such copies.

When I got older in the 1980s and started working in comic shops, these ballast copies starting drying up as seafreight became less used to get comics to the UK. Every now and then you’d hear of someone coming across a box or two. When I was working in Bristol and the waterfront there was being redeveloped the dream was to find a stash of Golden Age, and every now and then you would find small piles of them. A shop in London in the early 1990’s did manage to get lucky with a load which was brought into them, but once the UK’s big port cities saw their docks redeveloped into expensive flats the chances of finding these batches of comics died.

At the same time, American comics were now being airfreighted into the UK via Titan and Neptune distributors, while seafreight comics were still something shops could order, customers didn’t want to wait three to four months for the latest issues to arrive, so they were meant mainly for newsagents until that stopped in the 90s. Again, more on this another time.

These days everyone and their dog knows comics are worth money, so I never expect any collection or stash like this to turn up ever, ever again so anyone younger than 45 isn’t really going to know what it’s like to find a pile of comics on a table and find a literal goldmine. I miss picking up those slightly warped gems that’d fill holes in collections while at the same time stashing a few aside for a rainy day but the industry moved on, and now we get comics within 24 hours of our American cousins, something we could only dream of back in the olden days.

Comics to read in the time of Coronavirus

The entire world is locked down, and the comics industry is taking a massive hit. So, of course, are thousands of others, but here’s one which can provide you with something to do while the majority of the planet is in lockdown. Here’s some recommendations to help you pass the weeks ahead.

First up the obvious ones.

Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons.

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In short the best superhero comic you will read. Forget the film, the TV series or attempts to integrate it into the DC Universe. This is a book I come back to about once a year and find something new in it, some 35 years after first reading it.

The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller, Klaus Jansen, and Lynn Varley.

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The second best superhero comic you’ll read. Sadly some of the impact has been lost due to the book being mined by film, TV and comics without anything new to say about Batman or comics itself. Only dive into the continuation series if you really are desperate for something to read, though a quick word about the Dark Knight Strikes Again.

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Its clearly a reaction to the grim and gritty style of comics which came out of DKR and Watchmen, but the book changes tone halfway through when Miller took out his rage from witnessing 9/11 happen on his doorstep out on paper. It is more of a document of the time than a good read, so for that take heed before dipping in.

Maus by Art Speigelman

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Part autobiography, biography and historical document mixed with slice of life. Maus is a remarkable, if often hard to read book but it is a comic which should be read. It is one of the best comics ever made.

Judge Dredd: The Cursed Earth by Pat Mills, John Wagner, and various artists.

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You can dip into any of the first 20-25 of the Judge Dredd Case Files (which collects all of Dredd’s stories in order of publication) and find a classic, but this is the story which made Dredd what he is today. This is the one which turned Dredd into the top feature in 2000AD and it’s a cracking story that ties right into the Judge Cal storyline. Wagner and co. were on absolute fire at this time.

Crisis on Infinite Earths by Marv Wolfman and George Perez

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This is the comic that turned DC’s superhero line around and is still the Big Event comic that set the benchmark for the dozens of subsequent events since. This is big, sweeping superheroics and is just huge fun.

Daredevil by Frank Miller

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There’s various editions of Frank Miller’s revolutionary run on Daredevil, but however you get it, these comics redefined superhero comics at a time where they were at a low for experimentation. Miller’s work here casts a shadow today with many a less talented creator trying to ape what Miller did.

Miller did a second run, Born Again, in the mid 80’s with David Mazzucchelli.

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This is my favourite superhero story ever. It’s a genius bit of storytelling from a set of creators at their peak.

Love and Rockets by the Hernandez Brothers

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To say Love and Rockets is influential is underestimating things. Created by Jaimie and Gilbert (with occasional work from Mario) there’s two main strips; Gilbert’s tales of working-class Hispanics and Jaimie’s tales of west coast American punks growing up.  Both strips run more or less in real-time so we’ve seen characters age with new characters coming in. I’d recommend starting at the beginning then spending all the free time you have (which is a hell of a lot right now) working up til today.

Swamp Thing by Alan Moore, Stephen Bissette, John Totleben and others.

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One of those massively influential comics that stands the test of time. Moore brought a talent and style to mainstream comics that’d previously only been hinted at with the likes of Steve Gerber. This is probably Moore’s most easily accessible work and it is gloriously drawn by his co-creators.

Justice League International by Keith Giffen, J.M DeMatteis, and Kevin Maguire.

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Superhero comics have drawn from many other genre but this was really the first time it’d drawn directly from sit-coms and the result was a self-aware, funny superhero comic which still had big fights and superheroic conflict but in a way that didn’t distract from the tone.

A Contract With God by Will Eisner

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Arguably one of the first ‘graphic novels’, but that aside this is one of Eisner’s greatest works as he tells a handful of stories from pre-WW2 New York which may, or may not be semi-autobiographical in places.

So there’s a dozen to keep you going for now. If you do want to buy them please go check out your local comic shop first before Amazon as they need your money more at this time.

The end of the comics industry?

Diamond Comic Distributors closed a few weeks ago effectively meaning no comic shop will get any new American comic until Covid-19 is passed, which right now could be months, if not longer. This has caused a number of shops to say now they’re getting out the business while they can, while many others will struggle on but make no mistake, shops are going to close across the US and UK at an alarming rate in the weeks ahead.

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I’ve seen a number of Tweets from people saying the industry won’t die and the medium will carry on, which is sort of true but the fact is the American industry has never taken a hit like this, ever. Yes, the whole ‘the industry is collapsing’ has been a thing for 70 years since the Wertham witch hunts of the 1950s but this is something which will change it forever.

In my lifetime there’s been a number of crashes, mainly small ones but the two largest are the 90s crash caused by the speculator boom which took out hundreds of shops, and also forced a number of people out of the industry full time, myself included. Then there was the 2008 crash off the back of the financial crash which ended up being short-lived thanks to the current bubble created by things like the Marvel films and ‘geek’ culture being so dominant.

Detective+Comics+#1000painfully glib.

And now we’ve got a generation who’ve known nothing but good times with the comics they want from the Big Two plus the wider dominance in media who may well fly the flag after this crisis is over, but the truth is the American and British industries are going to be drastically changed. People are losing their jobs, and potentially homes because of this so I find some of the debate from some painfully glib. Of course the medium will carry on, and the industry will continue in some shape or form but DC and Marvel will be even less adventurous than they are now.  And yes, I fully expect a Marvel/DC crossover to have a massive cash injection into the industry at some point.

But even Image will be affected. Less cash flow means less support for new books, so again, they’ll be taking fewer risks so they’ll be a more cautious publishing side, while independent retailers could be rare as many only survive on the weekly new comics to get people in. There will be a good side as some of the shysters and conmen who’ve grown out of the ‘geek’ boom will go, so no more conventions calling themselves ‘comic cons’ that have nothing to do with comics.

Whatever comes out the other side will be a horrible period of readjustment which will lead to whatever the new normal is, but we can’t be glib or complacent or the industry won’t get back to anything like what it is now.

Alex Ross is a tediously dull artist

I find Alex Ross tediously dull as an artist. Great to look at, the quality of work is outstanding, everything looks as it should but it’s all so, so dull. There, I said it.

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I like Kingdom Come and Marvels. Both are great works of superhero comics.

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Marvels especially as it gave Marvel a critical and commercial hit at a time when the majority of their output was rubbish as well as cementing Ross as a superstar artist.

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But I’ve always found something wrong with Ross’s art. Nothing technical as every stroke, every line, is right and correct with everything being in the right place. Which is great but there’s too much perfection there. He’s essentially milked the life out of it. I don’t get a sense or power or energy as say with Jack Kirby’s work, or John Byrne or George Perez’s sense of storytelling, or Todd McFarlane’s visual flair.

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”But he draws superheroes realistically’ you might say which is great if you want pin-ups, but I find his work emotionless, with all the honesty of an Athena poster. Everythings too posed, too perfect and made flawless to a tedious degree which makes his work just too glossy to be enjoyed plus superheroes aren’t meant to be realistic. They’re power fantasies, so drawing them like normal people negates some of that power and removes the cartoonish aspect from superhero comics plus his style has remained the same since he came onto the scene.

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I’ll make it clear, he’s not a bad artist. Christ almighty, there’s enough of them working in superhero comics or the variant cover game, he’s just dull. There’s no fun there because he’s screened out the bit and bobs which make artists great, out. There are no errors that end up being wonderful idiosyncrasies of greats like Kirby, Ditko, or McFarlane but he helped bring in an era of copycats who are equally technically great but tediously dull who worked out they can make more money drawing covers than comics.

But hey, he’s made his money and continues to but for someone with clear and obvious talent I wish he was able to put some life into his work.

 

How the Teen Titans saved DC Comics

DC Comics today is a massive juggernaut and has been now for decades. Since the 1980s it has been pushing the mainstream comics industry through works like Watchmen, Dark Knight, Sandman, Preacher and loads of other titles which have been critical, and sales, hits. But back in the 70’s, DC were struggling and if it were not for Marv Wolfman and George Perez’s New Teen Titans then DC might not be here today.

After the DC Implosion, DC found themselves struggling again Marvel critically and saleswise. Attempts to revamp characters like Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman were long gone as the titles settled into a rut with creators who in some cases had been drawing for DC for decades who could match the popularity of hot new talents of the time like John Byrne.

Then in 1980, DC let Marv Wolfman and George Perez revamp the Teen Titans in their image.

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The Teen Titans had previously been at best, an average selling DC title (which back in the 1960’s meant it was selling over 50k copies an issue) to a title regularly in the top 5 or ten at least.

What Wolfman and Perez did was to transpose Marvel’s style at the time to DC, which had been tried previously with the likes of titles like Superman, Wonder Woman or JLA, but to limited or temporary success. This time around the creative team stuck on a title for a long, long time which meant sales were consistent and indeed, high at a time when Jim Shooter had shaped Marvel into a sales machine dominant like no other time in its history. The title was so successful it spawned a second title printed not on the newsprint familiar to us all for generations, but the new baxter stock,so better paper so DC could target the then pretty new direct market.

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This issue told stories a year in advance of the newstand edition which didn’t always make the most sense, and once the newsprint version caught up to the baxter version, it became a reprint title for all the stories which had been printed for the direct market. Confusion aside, it still maintained sales well through and past Crisis on Infinite Earths, and into the post-Crisis era of DC where DC were releasing critical and commercial hits on a regular basis because The New Teen Titans gave DC the foundations to do everything afterwards. Eventually the title was canceled, revamped, canceled, revamped and is now just the Teen Titans.

New Teen Titans led to DC looking for new talent which led them to look to the UK thanks to 2000AD and Warrior, that led them to get Dave Gibbons and Brian Bolland over first with Gibbons on Green Lantern and Bolland on Camelot 3000, one of DC first efforts for the direct market. Then they got Alan Moore for Swamp Thing and the rest is history as they say.

Perhaps next time you’re reading or watching one of those horrendous YouTube history of comics videos that goes from Action Comics #1 to the MCU in five minutes, remember the stuff that actually built the industry and gave it what it has today.

You can save the comic book industry!

The coronavirus has essentially made clear the American comic book industry stands now on a precipice as the main distributor of new comics, Diamond, has suspended deliveries til whenever this all gets safe again which at best, is going to be July. If we’re lucky! Diamond are laying off staff, while nobody knows what’s going to happen as this week is the last week any new comics will definitely be published and shipped to shops. Thing is many of those shops won’t be able to sell them as they don’t offer an online buying or delivery service, so you can pretty much say those shops will not survive this.

I’ve seen several major crashes in the comics industry. By far the worst was in the 1990’s where shops crashed like ninepins as the speculator boom faded away, then the crash in the late 2000s ended up being a blip. This however is worse.

So what can you as a fan do? Some shops like Gosh and Page 45 need to be singled out because the world is a worse place without them, and because they provide a wide selection of comics outwith the spandex stuff but in this time, if you can, support your local shop. There might not be new comics to buy but this might be the time to see if they can dig out back issues for you, or pick up a trade or two. Anything to keep money flowing otherwise that shop you rely on for your weekly fix is gone and it ain’t coming back because the post-coronavirus world is going to look different to what it was only a week or two ago.

Good luck to all shops out there. It will be hard, some of you will go but as long as the community sticks together then that number will be smaller than it could be as long as people support them by buying what they can, when they can. I’m going to help by throwing out some recommendations in another blog of stuff to buy, but please use your local shop where you can.

The Comics Journal review of Doomsday Clock

The aftershocks of Doomsday Clock grind on with the 3 Jokers (oh fuck off Geoff Johns) and the critical fallout for something that creatively had the value of a roll of toilet paper. Just when you think it’s all going away, along comes The Comics Journal and R.C. Harvey’s review of the series.

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It’s a good review in that it doesn’t tear the book apart. Seeing Harvey despair of the writing as the series drones on is worth a read but it’s a curiously positive review, and I present it here purely to provide some shade to my own opinion of it as a steaming heap of shite.

Comics in the 1980’s

I’ve been scouring the internet for video or film footage for a while now, and every now and them, in amongst the ‘geek’ videos telling you how great <insert shite Marvel/DC comic here> while desperately hoping for that big TV deal you’ll get a gem. This is one of those gems.

This is a compilation of stock footage from the 1980’s, though some may well be 1970’s with the Neal Adams footage, and it’s a joyful flood of nostalgia as these days of comics are gone now to be replaced by a more corporate version. Enjoy this look into the past…