Maybe it’s just me, but having produced the Sez Dez column hither and yon for decades now, I felt its latest incarnation for Future Publishing needed a 21st century facelift, so with Sez Dez in small letters (‘cos we’re all continuity fanboys) it’s been reborn as The Skinny.

For those of you in parts of the world unable to locate Comic Heroes magazine (but you really should try!), here’s the content of the first few…

Sez Dez on Downloads

Produced for Future Publishing’s COMIC HEROES #1, March 2010;

Future's Comic heroes 1: The Skinny
Future Publishing's Comic Heroes #1 with The Skinny appearing on page 13. Scary!

It’s not the most super-heroic way to grab your attention for an opening paragraph, but isn’t it amazing that in a post-punk possibly pre-apocalyptic society here in the dear old UK milkmen still leave full bottles by your front door and nobody nicks them? I mean, come on… the prisons are overcrowded, inflation’s running rampant, dole figures are bulging but nobody would dream of breaking that unspoken rule, smashing one of the last bastions of our quaint old society… pinching the milk.

Well, it would be stealing. Theft. The unbearable guilt, the absolute shame of it, such would haunt us to our graves. But downloads? Ah, that’s a different matter. We’ve all been merrily bootlegging somebody else’s copyright material ever since Charles Ginsburg invented the audio tape recorder. And as technology moved on, it’s been happening ever since. Videos, CDs, and now courtesy of the world wide web, just about anything! Even comicbooks.

But that’s a weird one, that. Comicbooks are carefully crafted for print. It’s not just about the individual frames (or panels, if you’re a non-Blighty reader). Artists have been known to throw hissy-fits if a full page ad breaks up a spread. Because of the initial impact. Think about it. It’s a relatively subliminal thing but when you physically turn a page your eye first takes in the next two page spread long before you focus on those itty-bitty speech balloons. It’s the nature of the beast. Chances are you became comics-literate soon after starting primary school, you somehow accepted that absurd concept of speech balloons, narrative panels, thought balloons and sound effects existing in the same visual world as the characters you were reading about. Surreal stuff.

There’s never been a Comics 101 to my knowledge which actually told the reader that dotted outlines mean whispering or jagged outlines shouting or best of all those cloudy bubbly outlines meaning thinking. You just quickly learn to know it. In fact there was a BBC Radio 4 Book Programme a few years back where the four panellists were given a copy of Watchmen to review and two of them admitted they actually couldn’t read it, they weren’t comics literate. They just didn’t get it! And that was with nice and uniform squared off pictures on a nine-frame grid. Hardly taxing. Imagine how they’d have coped with Jim Steranko’s psychedelia on S.H.I.E.L.D. or Frank Bellamy’s jagged and dripping borders on Eagle’s Heros the Spartan? So much for Radio 4 (the shame, the shame).

But we’re talking downloads here. And you could argue that you can print out a download. Sure. And collate and staple together all 32 pages, then rush to your nearest PC World for another bunch of madly-expensive colour cartridges. Not terribly cost-effective that, even with today’s prices for comicbooks. Because we are talking about today’s crop here. Forget archive material going all the way back to the first Batman, Superman and Spider-Man comics (‘cos they’re all up there too!).

It would be blatantly encouraging such piracy were I to namecheck the sites, but they’re up there offering this week’s comicbooks online – all of ‘em! It’s amazing considering how many are being pumped out each week. Even more amazing, the corporate owners of Spidey publishing Marvel and Supes producing DC – the heavyweight Disney and Warner Bros corporations – seem incapable of stopping them. No sooner do they scare one off but two more replace it.

So we’re not talking licensing here, heaven forbid, but an army of people scanning all this stuff in — unless the publishers are still naively sending out promotional e-copies thinking they’ll only be used for review purposes. There is the point that downloads can undermine the viability of the real thing, plus creatives are losing out on their royalties, and the counter-argument that freebies increase a title’s and creator’s profile. But we know all about that through constant battles over film and music.

Besides, we’re collectors. We wouldn’t dream of taking advantage of online comics, would we? The printed form isn’t really a 20th century phenomenon, replaced by technology to be read only on screen, is it? We like the feel of our comicbooks, the smell of them, the sheer thrill of turning that page. They’re a tactile experience that we read, bag and treasure.

Anyway, reading online makes your eyes hurt, doesn’t it? And we’d never steal bottles of milk either!

Sez Dez on British Super-Heroes

produced for Future Publishing’s COMIC HEROES #2, June 2010

For my second column for this new title, I had a sudden realisation, why are features about a visual art always presented as columns of grey type? How dull’s that? So, to avoid boring lists – as this would have included a LOT of them, I twisted Future Publishing’s arm into letting me have a two page spread for the following. They tidied my version up a lot, but here’s what I presented them with…
The Skinny 2 p1

The Skinny 2 p2

Sez Dez on Freelancers

produced for Future Publishing’s COMIC HEROES #3, Autumn 2010

The Skinny Comic Heroes 3Freelance: Sir Walter Scott is credited with creating the term, as free-lance, meaning a medieval mercenary warrior, somebody whose lance is not in any lord’s service.

These days it hasn’t changed much at all. Sure, the lance may have morphed into a keyboard and the lord into an editor, but it’s still not dedicated. A freelance writer, or artist, colourist or letterer, can work for anybody who’ll have them.

But there is one major difference. A medieval freelance would continually wander the countryside in search of work, these days they don’t get out much. In fact, were it not for Tescos and comic conventions they probably wouldn’t get out at all!

A lot of comics readers envy writers and artists. They see them at conventions being lionized and eulogised, whether on stage or as the focal point of queues, signing and sketching for their public. These are the true comic heroes, the creators.

But that’s only one or two weekends of the year. With the exception of a larger-than-life Hagrid lookalike who rarely strays, they’re pretty much unrecognisable to the general public when they do the shopping. Because it’s not a proper job really, is it? They work from home, so they’re always the first call if one of their children falls over at school. Because don’t fool yourself into believing that it’s such a luxurious lifestyle that their income alone is sufficient to maintain the entire family. No way. The other half invariably works too, except they go out to earn a crust.

The Skinny 3 pull quoteThe freelancer doesn’t. He (or increasingly frequently she) stays in. Working at home, living at home, seven days a week… freelance. No paid holidays, no paid sickness leave, no Christmas parties, no office gossip. In fact no real perks except being able to wear your jammies all day.

I’ve always had the highest respect for people who can maintain the life of a freelancer. The self-discipline needed is truly awesome. Take John Wagner, for instance: for the best part of 33 years, week in week out this guy has been producing a new Judge Dredd strip for 2000 AD plus more than a few spin-offs. Like most folk, he’ll have had weeks when he felt under the weather, or had personal problems, but he’s still maintained an incredibly high standard. On time, all the time. And if you’ve met six foot something John, you’ll know he’s not the type of person that editors would cajole to keep on time. It’s down to a strict self discipline.

An American comics scribe once summed up what it’s like being a freelance writer by saying “You can never deliver top quality scripts every time. Sometimes I write average stuff, sometimes below average, but every once in a while a script turns out fantastic.” Let’s hope his editor never saw that. But what are they to do if a regular writer (or artist or colorist) turns in a sub-standard piece of work? These people are continually on the eleventh hour of deadlines. There’s no point them even thinking of getting a few issues ahead, cashflow won’t allow for early payment so even if they have the time and inclination, they won’t see any financial reward for months.

It’s easy to criticise somebody’s work, to say, “I could do better”. But could you do better month in month out, on time and on budget for years? Initial Conan the Barbarian artist Barry Windsor Smith suddenly quit drawing the title because he said he wasn’t being paid enough for the amount of work he put in. True, he wasn’t.

In under two years he’d gone from being Jack Kirby-influenced to his pre-Raphaelite stage, highly meticulous in detail and mannered in style. Beautiful and groundbreaking for the comics medium, but impossible to maintain. In fact, impossible to ink too! When the inker was handed the finely pencilled Conan pages and said there was no way he could get it done on time, the editor suggested he simply replaced some of the fantastic backgrounds with either simple horizons and sunsets or just rubbed them out and left the characters as vignettes. Poor Barry. Is there any wonder he quit?

So when Windsor Smith was replaced by Big John Buscema, with Conan #25, the fans felt let down. Buscema had more raw power in his figure work than Smith, but where was all the fantastic detail? But Buscema continued producing Conan on a regular basis for more than a decade.

To allow for the likes of such visionaries as Neal Adams, Jim Steranko, Bernie Wrightson or Barry Windsor Smith, you need a legion of solid reliable artists like Curt Swan, Jim Aparo, Norm Breyfogle, John Romita and the like to maintain the schedule, decade after decade. Without them, there wouldn’t be any backbone titles to revolutionise. And worse, when these visionaries have awed and amazed the fans with their blowaway four parters, the guys who’ve been keeping the title going until then and have to carry on after the award-winning interruptions seem somehow diminished.

But these are the freelancers I truly respect most. The often unsung comic heroes who month-in month-out produce rock solid work, on time and on budget.

Another reason they’re always in work: They make the editor’s life easier. So if you’re looking for a career in comics, never underestimate that!

Author: Dez Skinn

The nostalic website of Guinness World Record holder Dez Skinn's life in publishing – producing books, comics and film magazines