Friday's Press Clippings and Pompous Punditry

Well, I guess this column's finally hit the big time.

A couple of weeks ago I got an e-mail from Brian, forwarding a request from a Chicago Tribune reporter to talk to me about my student Tiffany and her reaction to Tamora Pierce's White Tiger, for a piece he was doing about Latino heroes. ("Pretty neat, huh?" Brian added in his cover note. It really plays hell with Cronin's image as Dread Overlord Of Us All when he insists on talking like Opie.)

At any rate, I have to admit I thought it was pretty neat too. And Julie just about levitated with joy. "The Chicago Tribune!" she sang. "That's, like, a REAL paper!"

So I answered the reporter, a nice fellow named Web Behrens, and we did a little e-mail interview. He cautioned me that he probably wouldn't be using that much of what I told him, space considerations being what they were... and he was right. The article can be found here, and I found it interesting reading... I'd have been interested even if I wasn't quoted, since the new Blue Beetle writer had some fascinating things to say, as well as the Nickelodeon folks. I might have to check their stuff out now.

But I hate wasting things I write, and so I decided to run his whole interview with me here, uncut, as this week's column entry. This is probably my one shot at being any kind of Resident Expert Pundit and you can damn well bet I'm going to milk it. Anyhow, here it is.


Specifically I'm writing about Latino heroes in any media. We're pegging the article to the new Nick show, "El Tigre," and also talking at least a bit about "Blue Beetle" (have you read that?) and "White Tiger." (In a sidebar, we'll probably include a short list of Latino heroes over the years, starting with Zorro, of course, and including other examples, from El Santo to Dark Angel.) But the focus is on some newer characters, all/most of which seem to be aimed partly at young adults.

Not following the new Beetle, no, though I hear good things. I don't know that comics people really think in ETHNIC terms; we tend to be more interested in the fictional history of the whole milieu. The selling point of the new Blue Beetle or the new White Tiger for fans is more that they're legacy books, they are relaunches of series that had a following.

As far as ethnicity is concerned, that is more of a factor for NEW series that aren't sequels to anything. It was a short-lived series, but for my money the most INTERESTING DC Latino character was "El Diablo," a wonderful book from Gerard Jones and the late Mike Parobeck. Came out in the late 80's, early 90's, I think; somewhere in there.

Very low-key, no super powers or raygun fights. It was a sort of updated Zorro. City Councilman Rafael Sandoval adopts the masked identity of El Diablo to fight corruption in his south Texas hometown. Sadly, DC had no idea how to get it into the hands of the actual Latino youth demographic that probably would have loved it.

(Note: In looking up the picture I found that it ran from 1989 through 1990. Sixteen issues. I really recommend this book, if you see it at a convention or on eBay. Probably could pick it up pretty cheap and it's good stuff.)

I'm curious to get your opinion about kids reading comics these days. Are more kids finding the medium again, after years of decline? If so, are they reading manga way more than conventional heroes?

Oh, yeah. That question essentially answers itself. Manga is HOW they found the medium again. Superhero comics, the standard 32-page stapled booklets my generation grew up on, are now a specialty item... in fact, I'd almost go so far as to say they've become relegated to the same collectors-only ghetto that pulp-magazine reprints survive on.

The same way lurid Gold Medal paperback-originals replaced the pulp magazine as a mass medium...

...manga paperbacks and Archie digests have replaced standard newsstand comics as a kid's medium.

If you want kids to buy comics, you have to make them cheaper and put them where kids go. Kids don't go to comic-book shops. They go with their parents to grocery stores or to Barnes & Noble. And $7.99 for two hundred pages is a hell of a lot better deal for them than $2.99 for 32 pages. A kid has an allowance that only lets him get ONE book, well, he's going to go for bulk.

Which is not to say kids don't like superheroes. My students love Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four, the Teen Titans, the X-Men... but they know them through TV and movies and DVD.

It's now possible to be a huge fan of the DC and Marvel characters without ever reading a DC or Marvel book.

Do they care what kind of comics they're reading? Do you think they consider much what any given hero's gender or ethnicity might be?

Somewhat. Really what the kids in my classes like reading about, in my experience, is other kids. They love Teen Titans, Harry Potter, shoujo manga... the ethnicity is not nearly the consideration for them that age is. Especially they seem to like reading about SLIGHTLY older young people. The palpitating teen-romance stuff in the Spider-Man movies is what really grabs them about the character. The special-effects and stunts -- the SUPERHEROICS -- are very much secondary. Like people do with any fictional entertainment, they look for points of identification. And young people are much more conscious of being powerless kids in an adult world, then they are of skin color or national ethnicity.

The incident I always think of when this comes up was when I brought a collection of Luke Cage stories to class -- for kids who finish their work early, I like to have comics for them to look at -- and two of my students were absolutely mesmerized by it it, they read it together. One boy was black and one boy was Latino. But what grabbed them about Luke wasn't his ethnicity. It was his POVERTY.

We were in a relatively low-income area. The story they stayed AFTER CLASS to finish reading was the one where Luke Cage is cheated of his $500 fee by Dr. Doom and so Luke goes to the Fantastic Four and borrows a plane and flies to Doom's home country of Latveria to beat it out of him. To this day I remember little Ruffi saying, "Hell yeah, five hundred bucks is a lot of money! He BETTER go after that guy!"

Are any attempts by DC or Marvel to diversify making an impact on readership, do you think? Could they improve their efforts, or perhaps the marketing of their efforts?

Depends what you mean. For marketing to collectors, genre fans, nerds like me? They are doing great. They OWN that market.

It can be frustrating to old fogeys of my generation who would prefer superhero comics to be a MASS medium, who remember superhero comics as being a gateway to READING when we were kids... but as long as they only sell DC and Marvel comics in specialty shops they're going to remain the province of older fellows like the Comic Shop Guy on the Simpsons. Doesn't matter what they put in the comics themselves.

Lately Marvel and DC seem to be getting the message. Marvel's started a digest line. DC is trying a new imprint called "Minx" that seems poised to go head-to-head with the Tokyopop and Viz manga paperbacks. But the key is, will they be smart enough to put them in bookstores where people other than hardcore superhero fans might see them? Superhero publishers are terrible at doing follow-through on stuff like that. Marvel's new White Tiger would make a great paperback book collection -- if it was in a BOOKSTORE'S YOUNG-ADULT SECTION where TAMORA PIERCE fans could find it. She had to tell her fans on her OWN web page where they could go to get the comic book, Marvel had no clue how to get the word out to that demographic. This is something that comics publishers have tripped over ever since they moved off drugstore spinner racks and into specialty stores. You can't be an option for casual readers and impulse buyers if you're invisible to them.

Also, I have some more basic questions about you. I know you write for Comics Should Be Good and that you teach cartooning to kids in Seattle (or the Seattle area), is that right? How old are you? Where do you teach? What subjects? What's the age range of your students?

I'm forty-five, and I've been teaching this class for fourteen years. It started as a project chasing a grant from the Seattle Arts Commission, working in tandem with Bailey-Gatzert Elementary School, trying to do outreach to low-income kids. Didn't get the grant but I did have two job offers when it was done. I took the offer from the Seattle Parks Department, and the program became part of the art classes offered by the Alki Beach community center's art studio, where I'm on staff. Then the local middle schools' After-School Activity Program came down to the studio hoping to raid us for talent, get some art classes going for their kids, and I'm a lot more portable than, say, pottery or sculpture. So now I'm a sort of traveling art teacher in West Seattle middle schools, 6th, 7th, and 8th graders. And I still teach younger kids at the studio. The rest of the time I work as a freelance illustrator, writer, and production artist for various print and web outlets. It all adds up to a living.

Has the student in your class, the one who's a fan of Tamora Pierce, continued to read White Tiger? If so, has her appreciation for the comic spread to other students? What age range would you say White Tiger is aimed at?

Tiffany has indeed kept up, she really likes it. But it's definitely on the strength of Tamora Pierce and the story itself. The ethnic angle's not really that compelling for her. A couple of the other girls have expressed a mild interest when they heard the Pierce name, but as far as I know it's not getting passed around. White Tiger strikes me as really ACCESSIBLE compared to the rest of what Marvel's mainstream line is doing... or even what the original White Tiger run was, for that matter. I brought in an old Deadly Hands of Kung Fu so Tiffany could see the source material and she found it very hard going.

But this new version is much more appealing to younger people, new readers, and especially girls. I think the age range for the book would be... I don't know, I can't give you numbers. I'm forty-five and Tiffany's twelve and we both enjoy it. Let's say it's for the same audience that likes Indiana Jones, or the Tobey Maguire Spider-Man movies. It's that kind of swashbuckling adventure, but in a Latino urban setting.

The sad thing is that I have to pick it up FOR Tiffany -- if she wanted to get it herself she'd have no way to buy it. Her parents would not make a special trip into downtown just for Tiffany to buy a comic book, and they'd never let her ride the bus alone clear into downtown Seattle to a comics shop that carries it. There's nothing in her neighborhood. The only reason Tiffany saw the book in the first place is because she saw it advertised on Tamora Pierce's web page and asked me about it, so I brought it to class for her. Now when I buy comics I get two copies of the Tiger, one for me and one for her. She's promised me a full review when the series concludes next month, we made it a book report project.

There you go. It's all probably way more answer than you wanted or needed, but teachers tend to be a bit wordy, I guess.


And that was the interview. Thanks again to Mr. Behrens and the Tribune, for treating me like a celebrated comics pundit; it was immensely flattering.

See you next week.

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