So far my life in comics has seemed to be full of lots of lows punctuated by the odd high and many of you must be wondering why I persevered with it for so long.
I think I’m a pretty cool bloke for someone fast approaching 50. I have a wide range of friends who all put me years younger than my actual age and I think that in general I’m a pretty well adjusted guy. I’ve managed to spend many of my years as a dedicated comics lover and campaigner for the medium, yet I’ve never allowed comics to rule my life - I know how weird that statement must seem, but it is true; I could go home at night for the most of it and concentrate on something else. I have, to a certain extent, kept comics in the closet, but in truth that actually isn’t the case. I wear the badge with pride at times because I can walk out of a comics convention and just look like an ordinary Joe on the street. I’ll talk about comics to anyone who wants to listen. I have straddled both worlds and managed to survive. Whether I have all my sanity has yet to be decided.
What drives us to be obsessed with something? I have watched Star Trek fans attend conventions dressed as Klingons talking in some gibberish made up language and thought, ‘for fuck’s sake get a life you sad pathetic bastard’ but never really considered that some of my peers might be watching me and saying ‘Ere, old Phil’s into comics; he’s just like them Trekkie sad bastards!” Fantasy, science fiction, horror and comics have all attracted their fare share of weirdoes over the years and it’s because some people only have their fantasies. Fandom, whatever genre or medium it belongs to is about community and acceptance. Fans know you hate them, pity them and take the piss out of them, but living life as a bit of a misfit tends to give you a very thick skin. Either that or you’ve killed yourself already. Comicbooks are escapism and if you live a dull, meaningless life or a full, vibrant life, everyone needs their own form of escapism. Someone could be sitting naked in front of a webcam masturbating for the pleasure of thousands (there’s a terrible chance that someone might be a comics fan) and that can be their bit of escapism. It doesn’t matter as long as it doesn’t harm anyone.
Think back to that spoof news story about the comics store owner who was gunned down after initiating a small child into comics. If you are an individual with an interest that isn’t football, TV soaps, talent contests or the cult of celebrity then you are immediately not the target audience of today’s world. The further you go down the scale of weirdness the more you are pigeonholed into a category. Comics fans seem to always get placed next to rapists, murderers, kiddie fiddlers and people with urinary infections – but that might be because whenever a murderer or rapist appears it’s not long before someone in the press notices that the perpetrator has a Batman collection in his loft. But let’s be realistic about this, we just live in a society where isolation has become a necessity for many people, just because he looks like a comic fan/serial rapist doesn’t mean he’s not just a shy accountant with personal hygiene problems.
The more perfect your idea of yourself, or the higher your own self-esteem, the easier it is to sneer and deride the less fortunate than yourselves; yet it is all down to perception and the freaks – that’s the ones who look like freaks – who I’ve got to know over the years are more normal than you or me. It’s the quiet ones you need to watch! There might be a lot of sad people associated with the image of comicbooks in the US and UK, but in reality the freaks are everywhere and comics shouldn’t be pigeonholed because of an ingrained perception of them.
The irony is that us Brits and them Yanks were brought up on comics. Most of my generation grew up on standards like The Beano and The Dandy. The British have had a long love affair with Viz – the rag week like adults only comic that takes the greatest of pleasure out of lampooning the comics we all grew up with (and the irony of this hasn't escaped me) – and it is the biggest selling comic in the UK (selling more 6 times a year than most US comics manage in 12 months). If the image of comics can be overcome and believe me there isn’t the same problem abroad, then there must be reasons why comics is a continually contracting industry. Forget the fuck ups the publishers constantly make, the genre as an industry is not healthy or big in some countries, most prominently the UK and the USA.
Computer games are one of the reasons, the MTV generation is probably another. Comics are expensive (in our countries at least, because the people who are more likely to be able to afford to read comics are the ones who can’t afford the other entertainments in life and now find they can’t afford comics either!), the stories are difficult to understand or break into, but the medium demands the sophistication of 21st century storytelling and no one wants to move an inch to try and change it. They will only change if they have no other option; comics stories are for the fans now; there's barely an indication that the publishers want new readers.
It might be that they don’t have to. I’m seeing a change in attitudes – a change for the better and initiated by the newest generation of comics readers. It could be that comics might still end up being treated in the USA and UK the way they are in other countries.
My personal experiences of world comics (an expression that is an all-embracing term) were limited until I started to produce Borderline. My experience of the delights of European comics were limited to a few Tin Tins, an Asterix and a few unbelievably gratuitous sex comics Dez brought back with him from Spain. Who were these foreigners with their colourful comics that just didn’t have the same appeal as my spandex clad heroes? These foreigners were some of the biggest selling comics characters and creators in the history of entertainment. The money comics generate in these other countries would keep a large city in electricity for a decade. People will sit on buses and read comics openly and without fear of being ridiculed or sneered at. In fact, the comics they read actually generate interest from other passengers – genuine interest not amazement.
However, I wouldn’t be doing a proper job if I didn’t quantify this – not every country in the world treats comics like the second coming of Christ, there are countries that don’t have a particularly long history with the medium. The attitudes towards comics don’t really change from those where comics are recognised, it’s just that some countries, Germany, Greece, Australia, etc., mainly produce their contribution to comics using US material.
I’m a poor tour guide but let’s have a look at some of the countries I know about – beginning with a country that is beyond belief in terms of its comics consumption and the man behind the phenomena is one of the richest people on the planet and regarded in Brazil as bigger than Walt Disney.
The following article is from the third issue of Borderline:
MAURICIO de Sousa Productions is a Brazilian children’s comics enterprise which just happens to be the world’s fourth largest art studio. Despite the UK, USA and Japanese comics industries still suffering from struggling sales, not all countries with comics traditions are finding it tough going. In fact, one character is so popular in her native Brazil (and other Latin American countries) that sales of her comics eclipse US market leaders the X-Men.
Mônica, a pint-sized, buck-toothed, bright little girl, is the lead character of Mônica’s Gang, a collection of cartoon characters modelled after real children between the ages of 5 and 10. The eternal rivalry between boys and girls to lead the gang gives rise to lively, action-filled stories starring Mônica and co-star Jimmy Five.
Mauricio de Sousa - a Brazilian cartoonist, animator and filmmaker, the creator of these and some 200 other charismatic children’s characters – has been creating comics for nearly 40 years, building a comics empire that has earned him the title of “Walt Disney of Brazil”.
Mauricio de Sousa Productions’ strength began with newspaper strips and comic books, read by almost every Brazilian in the country at some time in their life. Today, in a nation of some 165 million, the 11 titles of Mônica’s comic books currently add up to a nationwide distribution of 50 million copies a year and are read by an estimated 24 million readers a month. This represents over 75% of the children’s market in Brazil. Just as significantly, a 1997 Gallup Institute survey found that 58% of the readers of these comics were over the age of 18.
In addition, MSP is strong in areas such as licensing, animated cartoons, theme parks, promotions, live shows and cultural projects, as well as a 10,000-page free website with over 90 million hits per month at www.monica4kids.com or www.monica.com.br.
In 1998 MSP signed a contract with Globo TV in Brazil for the production of a daily TV program and a full length animated Mônica’s Gang film. MSP now holds 70% of the children’s licensing market in Brazil, a sector that has grown by nearly 500% in the last seven years. As stated, the MSP studio is the fourth largest art studio in the world, employing some 200 full-time artists.
Mônica’s Gang comics are published as Sunday pages and strips in over 100 newspapers. They also appear on the award winning 6,000-page website which includes strips, comics stories and longer, serialised comics. The site is updated weekly and has had over 40 million hits since its inception.
The Mônica’s Gang characters have appeared in comics in magazines in Latin America, Europe and Asia, published variously by Editora Globo, Abril, Best, Nova Fronteira, LP& M, Hemmet Journal, Hjemmet Bladforlaget, Ehapa Verlag, Gutenberghus, Egmont Publishing, Editorial Cinco, Perfil, Planeta, Recreativas, Editora Sanrio, Psaropoulos and others. Worldwide interest in Mauricio’s work is steadily increasing. The fact that it has been translated into as many as 13 languages in 38 countries attests to the international appeal of the stories and the characters.
The MSP film library currently includes 15 videos (13 animated cartoons, 2 live-character stories) and Mônica’s Gang vignettes totalling 600 minutes of full animated cartoons.
In addition, Mônica’s Gang is present on some 3,500 licensed products manufactured by over 100 companies; in a growing series of animated films, videos and CD-ROMs; in theme parks designed mainly for children (the largest indoor parks in Latin America, now in Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro); in storybooks and activity books.
Brazil may still be suffering from the throes of recession, but MSP is flourishing. International vice president Yara Maura Silva told Borderline, “The economic crisis has affected all countries, and Brazil, which had managed to stabilise its economy for a few years, is being hit by it, as you are surely aware through the world news. Nevertheless, sales of Mônica’s Gang comics continue to be strong, with the 11 Mauricio de Sousa titles in the 11 top slots for sales, which currently average a total of 50 million copies a year.”
Not content with sewing up the market in Latin America, Mônica’s Gang has made its presence felt as a world player in toys. MSP remains a cross-marketing gold mine for de Sousa.
Okay, it’s Brazil, but the point is it then was still classed as a third world country, despite its burgeoning economy and yet over 5million people could afford to buy comics every week. They were, and still are, cheap; they are throwaway - ephemeral - and more than anything else they are accepted as part of the culture the way music, art and dance are.
Over the last decade I’ve built up strong ties with Brazil and do you know what the most frightening thing is – most young artists there want to draw the iconic superheroes like Superman, Batman and Spider-Man. It is their dream to work in America and earn the kind of money that Americans earn. The sad fact is most artists who work in economically unstable countries want to work for the USA because they perceive the US comics industry as being the pinnacle. Break into that and you’ve made it. However for iconic Brazilian artist Mike Deodato Junior his reason was to emulate his heroes, “I don’t know about the others, but, me, I’ve grown up reading American comics. I’ve learned to draw watching and copying the work of masters like Kirby, Buscema, Neal Adams and many others and I’ve always dreamt about drawing those superheroes one day. I’m just fulfilling my dream. But, yes, the money is good too. Page rates in Brazil I believe are ten times less than in the USA. Plus, I don’t think I’d get enough jobs to survive. I’d probably work in advertising again instead of comics to make the same amount of money in Brazil.”
Isn’t that sad? But it does make a lot of economic sense – during the 1970s there was an influx of Philippine artists recruited by Marvel and DC – the companies paid them less than US artists, but still a king’s ransom compared to what they could get in their home countries.
Of course the problem is that already people know that Marvel and DC pay good money and if you’re good and speedy they pay great money. But it is the same in many of these countries – only countries like Spain, France, Holland, Belgium and Japan do the artists who work there want to remain there, just about everyone else is looking at what they perceive to be a gravy train. It isn’t, not any more.
Next: Poland and me