A Report on Comic-Con… and Covert CIA Actions

Last week’s Comic-Con at San Diego’s Convention Center was overloaded with activities. If you were a Hollywood celeb–obsessed fan you may have spent much, if not most, of your time stuck in lines. But if you were a lover of well-designed graphic narratives, you needn’t have wasted one idle moment during the five full days. Talking with tons of talented comics artists? Check! Engaging in after-hours activities? Double check! Learning of an innovative new motion comic about a clandestine CIA coup d’etat plot, complete with documentary video clips and once-secret government files? Whoa!

Illustration: Scott Gandell

First, let’s take a general look at this year’s SDCC. If you’ve been following my weekly column then you knew in advance of the comics artist JT Waldman’s talk about his work on Harvey Pekar’s latest book, and of the cartoonist Stan Mack’s panel discussions about progressive politics in comics, and of the designer/illustrator Arlen Schumer’s presentation on his fight for artist-creator credit. Schumer also commandeered the Jack Kirby Museum booth, where he expounded on the graphic design of comic-book art and just about any other subject.

The Kirby Museum booth. All photos: Michael Dooley

JT Waldman, Arlen Schumer, and Stan Mack

Artists’ Alley

As Schumer stood at the booth and surveyed his surroundings, he was inspired to reflect on Kirby’s legacy: “When Jack moved to California in 1969, he represented the first major comic-book creator to leave the New York nexus of comic books, anticipating the deluge of major comic creators who now reside on the Left Coast. A year later, he lent his professional imprimatur as ‘The King’ to the fledgling San Diego Comic Convention, and helped establish it with appearances, chalk talks, and panels ever year until he passed away in 1994. This gargantuan ‘Comic-Con International’ exhibition hall is truly the House That Jack Built, yet a fraction of the hundred thousand attendees know his name and/or his art. The two small booths that are dedicated to keeping Kirby’s name and work alive—the Museum and TwoMorrows Publications—are like outposts in this vast wilderness of, as Tom Wolfe once put it, ‘cultural amnesia’.”

It’s easy enough to track down Schumer and most other creators for one-on-one conversations. They’re everywhere, from booths and autograph tables to the Small Press area. You can even grab them roaming the floors. And then there’s Artists Alley: even though it’s primarily populated by cartoonists who draw practically interchangeable images of slick superheroes, it’s well worth the effort to seek out unconventional, experimental new talents. I’ll be reporting on some of those artists in upcoming columns.

Figure drawing at Trickster

You can also find out about relatively secret, off-site art-oriented venues just by doing some Comic-Con socializing. For instance, Scott Gandell, in his L.A. Society of Illustrators area, can direct you to Trickster, a free, unofficial SDCC annex organized by the likes of Mike Mignola, Bill Sienkiewicz, and Matt Wagner that’s become an annual affair. Art demos, symposia, and gallery exhibits are happening throughout the day and into the wee hours. David Mack can often be found among the cluster of pros and amateurs taking advantage of late-night, live-model figure drawing sessions.

Comikaze party

Now, a brief side note about satisfying your comics-event craving for the rest of the year: Stan Lee’s Comikaze expo (promoted at SDCC with an all-night dance party) takes place in September at L.A.’s Convention Center. In addition, there’s Orange County’s 3D-Con next week, for stereoscopic publication fans. There’s a December Bent-Con in Burbank, for the LGBT community. And then there’s the one that caused the biggest Con buzz, the first San Diego Comic Fest, meant to satisfy the yearning for the original, intimate, human scale SDCC of the early 1970s.

But back to the present, and those comics-themed panels. There are far too many to mention at once so, again, please stay tuned for follow-up stories. For now, I’d like to cover just one presentation I attended, titled “Reinventing the Graphic Novel for the iPad.” Basically, it was a pitch for CIA: Operation Ajax, a digital, interactive graphic novel that, as Cognito Comics’ founder and creative director, Daniel Burwen, described it in relation to its competitors, “doesn’t suck.”

Even better, Operation Ajax demonstrates a sophisticated and shrewd use of technological resources that previously has been ignored or underutilized. And, perhaps best of all, it deals with an important, true-to-life story that deserves to be told. Ajax brings to light the 1953 coup in which the CIA and British government plotted to stage a revolution against the Prime Minister of Iran. Actual declassified documents, character profiles, and historical photos and newsreels from the era are smoothly integrated into the narrative. And these elements, along with a cinematic-style soundtrack, serves to enrich the storytelling rather than distract from it.

The rollout began with an iPad app, and it’s expanding this week to the iPhone market. As a different approach to digital graphic novels—one that also touches on political history and current events—Ajax has the potential to appeal to audiences far beyond comics fans. It’s already earning praise from the Huffington Post and Amy Goodman of Democracy Now, as well as the New York Times.

Burwen got his start in the video game industry, working for Activision. A portion of our conversation follows.

Tell me how Operation Ajax compares to some of your competitors’ offerings.

Comixology is simply presenting scanned images with animated crop bars to accommodate for a smaller screen. There is little to no harnessing of the tools of digital to take the format further—though, to be fair, they have made a very successful business out of redistributing flat digital content through their store.

Motion comics are typically done by video houses that are given comics assets and then turn these assets into film experiences, using screen language instead of page language. Most results feels like a low-budget animation instead of an extension of the core experience of reading a physical book.

Ajax was built first as a print-format comic. As such, it obeys the rules of page language, etc., at its foundation. In building the digital product from this foundation, we were able to maintain a reading experience, and the tools of motion and sound were used with minimal application to make the core comics experience deeper. The result is the cinematic experience you see in the app.

How did you decide to choose such a controversial subject for your initial launch?

After the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2002, I was left asking a lot of questions. Stephen Kinzer’s books Overthrow and All the Shah’s Men really opened my eyes when I discovered them five years later. I didn’t feel like my work in games like Tony Hawk and James Bond was contributing to telling stories of meaningful impact on our social consciousness. And after discovering Kinzer’s work, I knew I wanted to use my unique background to bring these types of stories to the same audiences that were playing my games.

How have you applied your game design background to this project?

As someone who works at the intersection of art and tech, I had a familiarity with the tools and workflows of complicated software projects that require animation, sound, and interactivity. Most people in the print and comics space don’t have this familiarity, and as such, I think, are not looking for opportunities the iPad offers beyond simply displaying scanned images.

I was able to bring a sensitive eye to how we would apply the tools of digital, and do it in a way that still ran smoothly on a modestly powered mobile device.

What are your release plans for other versions, digital and print?

We just got the iPhone version approved by Apple and will be going live with that this coming week. The iPad version has been live since November, and we will be giving it an update a few weeks after the iPhone version. The entire book has been prepped for print and we are exploring different options to publish it as a physical book. We are also in the works on an animated feature, a game, and an educational resource with Boomgen Studios.

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Print‘s August issue is devoted to trash. It includes a special section guest designed by Sulki & Min; a visual essay by Jillian Tamaki; a look into the garbage cans and recycling bins of 18 designers; and stories by Rick Poynor, Steven Heller, Debbie Millman, Fritz Swanson, Michèle Champagne, and more. Through July 23, it’s 40 percent off at MyDesignShop.com.
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