Friday, August 24, 2007

Journey Into Comics

JOURNEY INTO COMICS: THE UNIVERSITY PRESS OF MISSISSIPPI
by Michael San Giacomo
Note: This article was originally posted on www.newsarama.com, 8.18.2007


They don't have a lot of pictures or drawings in them, but some of the best books about comic books and creators are coming out of an unlikely place - Mississippi.

The University Press of Mississippi, which produces books for Mississippi's universities library and classroom use, has steadily released some excellent comic book books. Or, if you prefer, books about comic books. They have done so well reaching their target audience of educated comic fans that now about 88 percent of their sales are not at universities, but mainstream bookstores and comic shops.


They are not overly scholarly works that would only be of interest to academics. The writers, a wide host of authors, manage to walk the line between fandom and academia.

A series called Conversations packages published and unpublished interviews with key industry figures like Stan Lee, R. Crumb, Mort Walker, Milt Caniff and Carl Barks. Each gets his own book of about 200 pages.

It's interesting to compare interviews done within the past few years with those done 30 years ago and see how the person has changed. Stan's book is particularly telling, which says a lot considering the amount of media exposure Stan The Man has gotten over the years.
One of their most ambitious (and expensive) books is a $65, 672-page collection Rodolphe Topffer: The Complete Comic Strips which offers English translations of most of the Swiss artist’s work.

Never heard of him? Don't feel bad, he died in 1846. While his stories lampooning European life in the first half of the 19th century may sometimes puzzle modern readers, many of them are surprisingly timely. His work predates that punk-ass The Yellow Kid by 70 years. Take that R.F. Outcault.

Nothing will kill a book boom faster than price. While the hardcover versions are a bit pricey, the paperback versions of the titles generally sell for about $20. University Press keeps the price down with simple, frill-free covers and production values. Most have black and white or color illustrations. Readers buy the books for the words, not snazzy covers.

Among the more than 35 books released since the start of the series in 1990 are some pretty fascinating topics, like Black Superheroes, Milestone Comics and Their Fans, that explores the brilliant but short-lived company that was partnered with DC for a while.

The visionary who started the series of books was former editor Seetha Srinivasan, (pronounced just like it looks) who proposed concentrating on books about comics and cartoons back in 1990. “She realized that contemporary culture was a hot topic among young scholars and saw it as a way to tap into a whole new audience,” said current editor-in-chief Craig Gill.

She was onto something, Seetha is now the director of the entire University Press. The first comic-oriented book was Comic Books As History: The Narrative Art of Jack Jackson, Art Speigelman and Harvey Pekar by Joseph Witek. It was followed in 1991 by Coulton Waugh’s The Comics, which is used as a text book for college comic classes.

A few of the more intriguing titles are: Seal of Approval: The History of the Comics Code; Super Heroes: A Modern Mythology and Li’l Abner: A Study in American Satire. Gill said as a small company they have more modest expectations that a company like Random House. “We'll have a model 1,000 print run, and they usually sell out,” he said. “When we need to, we print more.”

Some of the surprises?

“I was surprised that Comics As Philosophy did so well,“ he said. “It has almost sold out of its hardcover editions and will be released in paperback. That’s an indicator of how seriously fans and academics take comics. Stan Lee’s book is also a huge hit. A lot of what was in there came as a surprise to me, real soap opera stuff.”

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