I doubt it surprised anyone in the world when they heard that comics publisher Bluewater Productions announced a Charlie Sheen comic book the other day.
Over the course of the last few years, cheaply and quickly produced bio comics latching on to a celebrity figure central to water cooler conversations and late night TV monologue gags has been the company’s bread and butter.
The first of these was a wretched-looking 2008 Hilary Clinton bio comic, which lifted its cover design from IDW's Presidential Material Barack Obama and John McCain bio comics. It was followed by a “Female Force” line including other female political personalities and famous people, a bunch of Twilight-related material, bios of various male political figures and a “Fame” line presenting bios of the likes of Lady Gaga and Justin Bieber.
I don’t recall seeing any of these, save perhaps the Clinton one, in “the wild” at any of the comic shops I’ve been to in that time—it’s possible none of those shops ordered rack copies, but it’s also possible I just didn’t notice them.
The covers tend to be more eye-repelling than catching, usually featuring either a bizarrely off-model image of the subject or subjectsor a slightly futzed with photo image, as if someone from the Greg Land school of comics art did the cover.From what little I’ve seen form the insides of the books, the insides are usually a bit worse.
Oddly, no one in comics seems to pay a whole lot of attention to Bluewater’s product, and when they are mentioned by comics bloggers or news sites or online critics at all, it tends to be in the context of some allegedly shady business practices, or groans, ughs and jokes about their choice of subject matter.
I can only recall reading two formal reviews of Bluewater comics. One was Chris Sims’ review of Female Force: Stephenie Meyer, and the other was Chris Sims’ review of Fame: Lady Gaga. He didn’t have anything very nice to say about either, and it’s worth noting that Sims used to often write about terrible comic books as ongoing features on his original blog, and was paid to write about terrible films in a column for Heavy.com entitled “The Worst of NetFlix.”
Perhaps others have written about these comics, but I can’t say that I’ve read any reviews of any of them, save those two pieces.
I have read a lot of press coverage of Bluewater books though, generally from the mainstream media and generally from the perspective of a bemused editor writing a headline like “Betty White to become a comic book superhero.”
The stories tend to be a paragraph or two of maybe three long, and basically just say that Famous Person A is going to have a comic book made about them, it will be a biography and maybe also that it will be from the publisher who did comics featuring Famous Person B and Famous Person C.
Bluewater’s publishing strategy therefore seems to be 1) think of a famous person whose popularity is cresting and/or has a built-in audience, 2) tell everyone you’re going to make a comic book about it, 3) see it mentioned in a lot of press, 4) publish some shitty comic meeting the basic requirements of the promise (i.e. it has to be a comic book, it has to be mostly about the person on the cover) and then 5), move on.
I have to hand it to Bluewater (or shake my head sadly at the media, or both): It still works.
In the course of preparing my thrice-weekly link-blogging for Blog@Newsarama, I have a bunch of Google News feeds set up under topics like “comics,” “superhero,” “graphic novel,” “cartoonist” and so on, which is the only reason I know how many people in the media really pick up on Bluewater’s product announcements.
For example, Albert Ching posted that Blog@ story on Bluewater’s Sheen comic (Boy, that’s a terrible likeness of Sheen on the cover, isn’t it?) yesterday. Today in my Google News alerts I found links to Fishbowl LA’s “Charlie Sheen Gets a Comic Book”, the Winnipeg Free Press’s “Charlie Sheen to be profiled in new comic book ‘Infamous: Charlie Sheen’” and MTV Geek “Charlie Sheen Comic Book On Its Way”.
I’m sure I’ll be seeing many, many more over the course of the next few weeks. In fact, let me click on over to Google News…punch in “Charlie Sheen” + “Bluewater”…and…Okay, there’s a link to “Charlie Sheen’s Winning Spree Gets Exteneded With New Comic Book” posted 24 minutes ago, atop links to CNN, the Washington Post and the option to see all 39 news article. Below that, and next to an image of what looks like Sheen drinking an old-fashioned Coke bottle full of blood from USA Today, is another WaPo article, “Charlie Sheen rants lead to ‘tiger blood’ drinks and a comic book biography,” sitting atop a link to a YouTube video of Charline Sheen waving a machete, a Hollywood Reporter article entitled “Charlie Sheen’s Growing List of Merchandising, Marketing Deals" and the option to see all 198 news articles.
That’s an awful lot of news articles mentioning Bluewater’s comic within two days of its announcement. And Bluewater’s actually a little late to the Sheen + comics meme. Michael Kupperman drew Sheen into the first Peanuts strip on February 25, Fernando Ruiz plopped Sheen down in Riverdale on March 3, Ty Templeton pit Sheen against Galactus on March 5, Ben Christian and Cory Smith pit him against Deadpool on March 7 and then Kate Beaton went ahead and drew Sheen into Fargo yesterday for International Women’s Day. Give it another week or so, and there should be enough material for a Sheen anthology comic from a who’s who of cartoonists.
I kind of admire Bluewater’s ability to corner this particular market, the celebrity-sploitation market, especially considering how incredibly easy it should be to do the exact same thing they do, only much better, and without too much effort. (For example, every single artist listed above can draw circles around the poor folks who do those Bluewater things, even if they worked super-fast and half-assed it. A black-and-white, all sketch, all splash-page 22-page biography of Lady Gaga would no doubt be a thousand times more interesting and funny-looking than Bluewater's; even if Beaton didn’t know anything about the subject).
A few months ago I thought about throwing together a couple of mini-comic “parodies” of Bluewater’s bio-comics: That is, choosing celebrities they haven’t already gotten to, and then throwing together bios of them in my art "style" which, while probably not objectively "good" and, in fact, maybe not even Bluewater level quality, at least looks like it’s supposed to look that way on purpose. My style is naïve, amateur and unpolished, mostly because I actually am naïve, amateur and unpolished, but I try to embrace that as a “style” rather than a general lack of chops, because over the years I’ve come to realize that just making the comics is better than not making them at all.
Also, as far as writing goes, it doesn’t seem that hard to throw in some jokes to try to make a bio of someone with a short, uneventful life whose main accomplishment deserving a biography comic is that they are famous at least mildly diverting to read. My understanding of these things is that they tend to be more Famous Person A Sure Is Famous, rather than offering a life-changing insight, personal point-of-view or unique take on the person.
Despite thinking about it for a long time (including thinking it might be even funnier to choose extremely unpopular subjects, although that would sort of ruin the Bluewater-esque celebrity-sploitation aspect I was most interested in), I eventually opted not to try doing a Meghan McCain or Christine O’Donnell or Bristol Palin or LeBron James or Conan O’Brien or John Boehner or Christopher Nolan or Miranda Cosgrove biography comic.
The main reason was that even if I found the idea of a homemade, Bluewater-esque mini comic amusing, there was no guarantee anyone else would, and besides, it would probably stop being quite so amusing during the time it would take me to make it, and it takes me a loooong time to make comics. The one (1) I have published so far (copies still available!) took about eight years, although I was doing that the old-fashioned, computer-free way (and working a full-time, grown-up person’s job at the time), and the second one I managed to get done in under a month, but despite finishing it over the summer, I’m still fucking around with getting it to the printer and thus published.
So even doing it as fast as possible, it would take me a month or two to actually write and draw one, and God knows how many weeks of procrastination to scan it, save it to a disc and mail it to a printer.
And timeliness would have been of the essence; like, a Bristol Palin comic that came out after Dancing With The Stars would have been too late, you know?
(At least timeliness is of the essence for Bluewater celebrity-sploitation; Antarctic Press keeps cranking out Sarah Palin comics, despite the fact that she hasn’t been relevant to national politics in four years, relevant to Alaska politics in a few years, and is now merely a Fox News paid pundit, speaker and political book author. In Antarctic’s favor, however, they at lest come up with completely insane premises for their books, instead of straight bios).
The second reason was that I was completely uninterested in all of those names I threw out up there, in terms of actually wanting to read everything written about them in a short span of time, let alone spending a long time thinking about, writing about and drawing them.
There were also my limits as an artist. If I drew, say, Miranda Cosgrove (Um, do you guys have daughters or nieces? If not, she’s from a popular Nickelodeon show), she would basically look like my Caleb character in a wig. I’m not so good with people who aren’t skinny or huge, so I don’t even know if I could draw curvy people like Meghan McCain or Bristol Palin. And so on.
It would be fun to do bio mini-comics of celebrities I was interested in, but most of the musicians and actors I’m genuinely interested in and excited about wouldn’t fit the bill of a trending celebrity. For example, there are few things I’d rather do in my free time than write a comics biography of the cast of Beverly Hills, 90210, but that won’t be as of-the-moment as Bluewater’s cast of Glee book; likewise, bios of Morrissey and Sleater Kinney or even The Yeah Yeah Yeahs just wouldn’t be the same as ones of Bieber and Lady Gaga.
Anyway, those were my excuses. There are faster, better, more-interested-in-celebrity-culture than I artists who should get on some of this shit, in part to beat Bluewater to the punch (just to be a dick, basically) and in part to help raise the level of quality of comics’ celebrity-sploitation efforts.
Finding subjects seems easy. Every time I go to check my Yahoo email account, for example, there’s this little box in the upper right-hand corner that says “Trending Now” and then lists ten subjects that are trending now. Just pick one at random—do you have a ten-sided dice from your time playing Dungeons & Dragons? If so, roll that. If not, I can lend you mine—and do whichever number comes up.
Right now, it looks like this is what’s trending:
1.) Lindsay Lohan’s necklace (That sounds too boring; maybe do Lindsay Lohan instead? The necklace could maybe narrate. How on earth did they not do a Lohan book yet, anyway?).
2.) Mary Stuart Masterson (Why? I woulda expected Jennifer Beals…have you guys been watching Chicago Code?)
3.) Notorious B.I.G.
4.) Ashlee Simpson
5.)Dave Matthews Band
6.) Selena Gomez (Ha ha, I have no idea who this is!)
7.) Suze Orman
8.) Illinois death penalty
9.) Billionaire Carl Ichan (Don’t know who he is either…although I take it he’s a billionaire. Maybe I’ll hear about him on NPR later…)
10.) Jared Loughner
See, it’s easy! And this changes, like, daily, so you can either pick ‘em at random, or put some thought into who or what is going to remain popular for the time it takes to get a comic book created, published and marketed.
DC and Marvel have known for years that a good way to sell a lot of comics is to come up with big, sprawling, epic storylines that involve as many of their characters as possible. You know, crossover event stories. More recently, smaller publishers whose lines are less conducive to Crisis or Civil War type stories have started attempting such stories, like IDW's Zombies Vs. Robots/Star Trek/G.I. Joe/Transformers/Ghostbusters event Infestation and Zenescope's even more bizarre-looking Dream Eater Saga.
Bluewater could keep on doing what it's been doing—like I said, it seems to still be working for them—but they could also step it up a notch, and come up with a story featuring all of their bio comics stars.
What comics reader could resist a story in which Hilary Clinton, Oprah Winfrey, Condoleeza Rice, Caroline Kennedy, Ellen DeGeneres, Michelle Obama, J.K. Rowling, Princess Diana, Sarah Palin, Stephenie Meyer, Rush Limbaugh, Taylor Swift, David Beckham, the Cast of Glee, the three stars of the Twilight movies, Lady Gaga, Bo Obama, Mark Zuckerburg and Ryan Reynolds must all join forces to defeat a threat too big for any one of them to handle on t heir own?
As long as it was, you know, competently written and illustrated, which might be too tall an order for Bluewater.
Fun to imagine, anyway...