No Need For Sonic! – A happy commission story.

A followup to my Ken Penders article discussing a really good, positive commission story.

I had the good fortune to get a commission from Rik Mack, who has been in the Sonic fandom for a long while and is currently an inker for the IDW Sonic series (check out the Tails’ 30th Anniversary Special, on sale now, and I get nothing for plugging it!) You may recognize him from his restoration of Sonic Universe #95, which went unpublished due to Archie making a series of absolutely crazy decisions and losing the license. Sort of a Fallout Van Buren situation, but without Fallout New Vegas to make up for it on IDW’s part. (Seriously, I get why it’s not happening, but that is a bummer.)

I’ll be honest: I’m writing this article as a part two to my Ken Penders commission article, because this was a great experience with a professional and a great final piece. The chance to break down the piece’s individual components are a lot of fun, and I doubt I’ll ever have the chance to do something like this in the bonus features of a Fantagraphics collection. Here’s the commission: No Need For Sonic!

No Need for Sonic! – Rik Mack, 2022

I’ve always liked Ultimate Spider-Man’s love triangles, and Sonic’s were no different. The idea of all four characters coming to confess their affections to Sonic at once was intriguing to me, so I wrote a script (which we altered throughout the course of the commission) for a half-page splash of a comic that didn’t exist. It’s a glimpse into what I might have done a few issues after #144, where the figurative romantic board had been shuffled, with a story I called No Need for Sonic! in honor of Tenchi Muyo!. A few issues gave time for some hot tempers to cool off, for the characters to become comfortably single, and investigate the chemistry that seemed to be present with these characters… and having some fun with the love triangles for once.

It took me halfway through the process to realize exactly what I was doing: rejecting the ethos of this cover.

Rouge isn’t even in this comic! God I hate this.

I’m not going to go on for too long about how bad this story is, but it’s meanspirited, nasty, and just gross to read. Even Jon Gray’s art stops about halfway through, being replaced by Al Bigley and taking away the only good thing in that entire issue in the process. Even the inking is bad, with Al Milgrom looking like a drunken baboon. Go to this link to see the good version of that story’s art.

The cover itself is frustrating too. Watching women tear each other down over a dude is completely uninteresting, and unappealing to girls in particular. But the cover was actually made more competitive than its preview. Not only that, Sonic loves that they’re fighting over him. It’s both stupid and boring.

Here’s what is interesting: watching them compete for a dude’s affections while he tries to figure out what to do, or remains oblivious to the whole thing. There’s actually an entire genre of anime for that. And, as it so happens, a company that became famous for silly shenanigans involving love triangles.

I wonder why that never bled in to the Sonic comics.

To fit what I had in mind, there were four basic tenets in putting this piece together.

1: The picture should be tonally appropriate for a kid, and not something to feel uncomfortable hanging up around them if you bought it from a convention.

2: The picture should not be cheesecake in disguise.

Steven Butler – 2019. And somebody in this process made it weird. [Original here]

3: The characters should not be trying to tear each other down when showing their affection.

4: This should be fun and funny!

Personally, I think he succeeded on all counts. The absolute closest we got to breaking any of these was Bunnie being on the hood of the racecar bed, which was something of a joke about girls on cars: but it was mostly a blocking issue. We still spent a lot of time fine-tuning her position to keep it from seeming risque.

Originally this was meant to just be a character piece with enough background items to give it a sense of place. But as it so happens, the two of us are Don Rosa and Jon Gray fans – the chance to do a reference heavy trophy room got the better of us, and we bounced off each other through conversation and his drafts to add more and more stuff. I’m going to walk through the room for where each of these pieces came from, starting with the stuff that’s not from Archie.

Chili dogs: The favorite food of the American version of Sonic the Hedgehog. The poster was all him.

Sonic SatAM Backpack: The backpack on the floor is based off of Sonic’s in that cartoon, which was shown most heavily in the pilot episode “Heads or Tails.” You can also see it in the theme song.

The Adventures of Sonic the Hedgehog guitar: The pink guitar, which we found in a GIF from an episode we couldn’t identify. If anyone can identify it, I’ll gladly update the article and credit whoever can tell me where it’s from.

Astal poster: Technically Astal has been used in Archie comics as a background character, but he is actually the protagonist of a really, really good game! He’s also one of long-time Sonic cover artist Patrick Spaziante’s favorite characters, and he drew a tribute piece for the character’s 27th anniversary. Whether it’s a gag, a Mobian war hero, or just a game that Sonic’s a fan of, this was a tribute to Spaziante’s work. This is the poster in question, and the most obvious Astal cameo he put in to the series.

Sonic Underground Medallion: The center piece is the medallion from Sonic Underground. Where did it come from? Why does he have it? Nobody knows. Sonic’s mom is in some other part of the house, after all. But it balanced things just right visually, so up it went.

SOAP Shoes: The iconic shoes from Sonic Adventure 2. And Sonic Frontiers. Who saw that coming?

The Flash comics: Taking directly from the live action Sonic the Hedgehog, a stack of Flash comics. This is also a reference to the Pseudo-Sonic cover:

Why, exactly, does Robotnik have an 8-Ball cane?

Which itself is a reference to The Flash #123’s The Flash of Two Worlds, which both beautifully expanded and absolutely ruined DC’s continuity forever.

Sonic crackers: Knuckles’ Chaotix, a Sega 32X game that you may have heard of but almost certainly have never played with very good reason, was originally presented with a prototype called Sonic Crackers. Is a 32X reference ever necessary? No. Do I feel good about it being here? Yes!

Sega Saturn: This is my favorite reference of them all, like an onion, but filled with microhips and a terrible launch event at E3. I needed something for Sonic to do besides look nervous, and there had to be a reason that things didn’t break out in to a mess once the four arrived. I technically took from Sonic #94 and #134’s Sega Saturn, but took artistic liberties with the model for reasons I’ll explain below.

This is actually a Japanese Sega Saturn model bundled with Christmas Nights, a variation of the famous Nights into Dreams. I picked this game and model because it’s more visually interesting than the North American black version, has a way better controller, and because Christmas NiGHTs allowed me to make quite a few references.

In a number of continuities, Sonic was born on Christmas Island. Adding to that, this is the only game you can play on the Saturn with 3D Sonic in an actual game, not just a compilation. The game was also developed by Sonic Team, for full meta fun. Finally, the regular Nights into Dreams comic was published by Archie Comics, with covers by Patrick Spaziante himself.

I have never had the pleasure of playing Nights into Dreams in any format, but trying to find a high quality video of it gave me motion sickness so I’m glad they waited until the Dreamcast to do something 3D.

WARNING! This is the worst camera in any Sonic game ever made!

The other game on the floor is Radiant Silvergun, a suggestion of Rik’s to match Sonic’s personality.

For my own peace of mind, this Saturn is either modded to be region-free, or Sonic is using the implant from Sonic the Hedgehog #127 that lets him understand every language to play Japanese games. Is this a necessary justification for a commission that only exists in my own head? Absolutely not. Do I feel better with this in mind? Yes. Yes I do.

Sonic the Hedgehog #134 – Jon Gray

Surfboard: This one is interesting! Various power-ups in Sonic, as well as cutscenes, have shown Sonic on a surfboard. But having referenced three cartoons, the Sega Genesis, 32X, Saturn and Dreamcast, I thought it was only appropriate to give a shout-out to the Game Gear and Master System. Sonic has had many snowboards over the years, but the best one is from Sonic Triple Trouble. The 16-Bit remake coming out recently certainly helped influence my color decisions. By the way, it’s fantastic, completely finished, and you should play it. After you’re done with this article.

Clock: Alright, calling this a reference is a stretch since that wasn’t the intention, but if you squint right it is a variation Sonic Chaos and Sonic CD’s Time monitors. Mostly this was used to give some setting details, and is entirely Rik’s design. But hey, with Sonic CD given a small shout-out, that covers every major Sega console out there. And the 32X, I guess.

Now, on to the Archie specific stuff!

Sports equipment: This is an amalgamation of things Sonic has done in the past, from a one-page comic about baseball to the consistency of a baseketball hoop in shots of his room, it fits his character and shows a comfortable mess.

Sonic the Hedgehog #167

Kingdom of Acorn pennant: Rik figured that Sonic, as a sports fan, would have something representing the home team, as it were. The colors were taken from the ill-advised school arc.

Sonic the Hedgehog #114

Classical guitar: In one of my favorite stories, Heart Held Hostage, Sonic’s dad teaches him how to play the guitar. With the help of the exceptional references that artist Jay Axer did, along with my girlfriend who actually plays the guitar, we were able to have something that matched a real-life guitar beautifully. I love the lighting effects on it. His work in managing an aurora and the light of the television together is no small feat. The entire room is beautifully lit and I hope people take notice of that.

Sonic the Hedgehog #122

Medals: The Knighthood medal presented in #78 was a great design. Hanging that up was a no-brainer. But the Hero Medal from #51 was even better, and its addition necessitated a balancing piece in the form of the Sonic Underground medallion.

Sonic the Hedgehog #51
Sonic the Hedgehog #78

Racecar bed: Sonic’s racecar bed is the greatest thing in the world, and the article on it should be read by every man woman and child, including the babies. They’ll better, talk sooner, grow up stronger, and never, ever argue on the internet.

One Billionth Ring: I have a huge soft spot for Sonic #35’s Ring of Truth!, and it’s the most obvious trophy of the bunch.

Sonic the Hedgehog #35

Beyond that, all characters were given designs appropriate to that specific post-#144 time on the series, and with the idea that Rik would draw the characters within his version of the Archie style (no small feat, considering there are unwritten rules to make the characters look on-model pre-#160, and a great deal of freedom that isn’t present in the later issues or IDW.)

His character acting is phenomenal, and he made sure to both follow the script and elevate it beyond what I had in mind while working with me. I’m really proud of the part I played in putting this together, and incredibly happy to have had the chance to work with a talent like him. And hey, maybe if you bug him enough, he’ll start putting some prints out for sale. After all, when we talked at the beginning of this, I made sure we both understood that I was more than happy to see him sell this piece to as many people as he could.

I’m very proud, and selfishly gratified after my first commission experience, that I was able to serve as the genesis for this work.

I have recently relaunched my Patreon: supporting me will give me more time to write reviews, articles and interviews! You’ll also get the chance to vote on upcoming article topics, and see new articles in advance.

You can also check out Rik’s social media for more of his work.


My Stance on Pirating: It’s a Good Thing

The loss of media made available for purchase makes piracy critical – so long as we pay artists for material we can buy.

Book publishers are filing suit against for lending copies of books out to users. This has restarted the argument against piracy as a broad concept, and I am incredibly frustrated by the shortsightedness of the arguments against piracy. I’m not here to dissect this particular lawsuit, but to explain my thoughts on pirating, the ethos of which is pretty simple.

Piracy is good, a moral imperative for the preservation of art, and can be done responsibly. But, so the people who create the art you love can survive, you should also pay people for their work if you have the opportunity. And the way to explain this best is to start with the Wii-U.

Xenoblade Chronicles is an RPG released for the Wii, 3DS and Switch that is shockingly popular. I can’t buy two out of those three versions new anymore, but the Switch version is better anyway, right? There’s more content, it runs off the Xenoblade Chronicles 2 engine, and almost everything has been upgraded in terms of presentation and gameplay.

The Wii version has historical value in examining the career of writer and executive director Tetsuya Takahashi, of course. His changes in storytelling from Xenogears to Xenosaga to Xenoblade showcase completely different storytelling styles, and the way he chose to handle a game within the Wii’s limits allow for a greater understanding of the way art is produced. And yes, the Switch version does have presentation differences like not having the trees blow in the wind that alter the tone set in the original, along with other differences in character models and music. But there are even three more Xenoblade games for the Switch to look at, so what’s the big deal anyway? That’s close enough to everything as it is, all consolidated on one system. Except it isn’t, because there’s a fourth Xenoblade game that’s not on the Switch…

Continue reading “My Stance on Pirating: It’s a Good Thing”

Ken Penders: A commission story and a warning

A walkthrough on the nightmarish process of getting a commission from Sonic artist Ken Penders.

Some people say that art is created through suffering. This is a straight up lie, and usually said by people who don’t want to pay artists a living wage. However, I can say that in at least one instance, the creation of a piece of art managed to cause me significant suffering. With his commissions and prints now sort-of-open, I’m going to give you a heavy warning about how a commission from Sonic the Hedgehog writer/artist Ken Penders was one of the worst experiences of 2020.

Penders was an artist and creator whose work I really loved growing up. Sonic the Hedgehog was a comic I read with my dad as a kid. He died a few years ago, so the idea of reconnecting with that felt positive and healing.

In 2020 found out Penders not only offered commissions, he had a discounted rate going due to COVID-19 and convention season. I was excited. I’d never met him in person, but I had purchased things from him before through eBay. I own one of his prints, and even got an autograph on a trade paperback from his eBay account. I expected this to be pretty easy from someone who had been in the business for so long, and had been entrenched in this comic in one way or another since at least the early 1990s. I figured that over time, Penders could only have become a better artist and found a better workflow. I would eventually understand my mistake, but far too late.


To understand where I’m coming from as a client, here’s how I approached the commission.

After contacting an artist and determining their prices, my job as a client is to agree to those prices within my budget, then make it clear to the artist what I’m looking for. Ambiguity does them no good, so the more clear and detailed I can be, the easier it is for the artist to know what I want.

An artist’s job is ultimately a service, albeit a creative one, and it is in both of our interests to make sure that I’m happy with the finished product. If I like it, I’m happy. And if I’m happy, I’m likely to recommend them to people for commissions so they can make more money, instead of writing a blog post about them warning people to stay away because of abusive behavior.

I based this largely off of my experience in convention sketches by Don Rosa, who, to paraphrase, has said that the person he’s drawing for should get exactly what they want. He refuses to just ‘draw whatever he liked.’ He’s very clear that the person he draws it for will own it forever, but since he’ll never see it again, he has no emotional attachment to it and just wants the person in front of him to be happy.

As such, I wrote out a description of the scene I had in mind. A half-page splash with Sonic the Hedgehog, Knuckles the Echidna and Bunnie Rabbot fighting Metal Sonic, who had supercharged himself with a Chaos Emerald in his body. It was a “What If?”, pure fun on my part.

I made sure to indicate the looks that I wanted (specifically the costume/designs for Bunnie and Sonic), wrote out the poses I was looking for, and explained the rough ‘story’ to make sure the tone of it was very clear. It was meant to be very dynamic, action-heavy, like a clash of titans.

I even paid extra for backgrounds and full inks. No time frame was given for the commission, nor were the steps involved in his process defined. This was a mistake.

The Beginning

This is all from my perspective, to be clear. I’m sure he has a different story with me as a difficult client. But what I can say is that he does not take the approach that Don Rosa does – because Penders had a very different idea for the piece than I did, and didn’t seem to be interested in what I wanted at all.

First, he penciled a rough version of the commission (loose, but finished enough that an inker could have worked with it), emailed it to me, and asked what I thought. I was not happy. The layout had completely changed from what I asked for, as were all the characters. It did have Metal Sonic versus the three characters, but that was about it.

Particularly galling was Bunnie, who was changed from a powerful, action heavy pose where she was about to slam her metal fist on to Metal Sonic from the sky to… a flying Superman pose, and not moving in his direction at all. Knuckles’ pose was changed from a dive bomb to something strange that, for the life of me, I can’t identify. Everything was static, lacking the sense of movement that I had worked so hard to convey in my instructions.

At no point was I consulted about these changes, nor was I shown thumbnails before the pencils started. If he had told me that he had ideas or that what I wrote couldn’t work, I would have worked with him to come up with something else. He’s the only one who knows what he can and cannot convey effectively.

I asked why this came out the way it had, and Penders’ response was that he’d unilaterally changed things because he thought it was better that way.

I disagreed, and requested that as much as could be changed be changed back to what I’d originally asked for. My hope was that some version of the scene I had written would come to life, and that the finished work would be more dynamic. The layout was different than what I’d asked for, but it was pretty solid and had the potential to work. Knuckles and Bunnie would require a full redraw to get even close to what I had in mind, but Sonic and Metal Sonic’s issues were easier to fix to get something I could be happy with.

But every issue I had with the piece was an uphill battle to fix, with protests on his part that things I’d wanted had never happened in the comic – including things that happened in comics that he wrote. When I pointed out that this was a commission piece for fun, like a story that never existed, it didn’t seem to help whatever was occurring on his end. Arguments continued about giving Sonic a Power Ring, putting a Chaos Emerald in Metal Sonic’s head, giving Metal Sonic a mouth, and other details that didn’t seem like they would be a big deal. And each time we talked, he drew more and more, regardless of whether we’d agreed on a point or not.

While Sonic and Knuckles were changed a fair bit, and Metal Sonic’s more complex design had his pose changed to better show his elevated power, Bunnie was hardly changed at all. What changes were made didn’t bring back the idea of her rearing for a punch with her metal arm. I had no idea how much of a problem this would be later on, privately and publicly.

It got weird

Communication was slow. Painfully so. There were weeks between emails, and they often arrived past midnight. Penders did, however, post the work-in-progress on social media, bragging that he worked hard for his clients and that this was why his pieces took so long. Privately, he argued that my requests were too drastic. Requests such as, “This character’s face and pose are not what I asked for at all. I would like to use what I originally asked for” or “Please talk to me about how what I’m talking about can be helpful to you as an artist.”

Instead of those two options, he would just draw something different than what I’d asked for, or refuse to make the changes at all. All the while he would deride my thoughts, saying I’d told him something different than what was written in the email. He even started inking before I’d agreed to the final pencils, making this an even more difficult process.

I started to realize that this was somehow making 2020, the worst collective year of everyone’s lives, even worse. I still don’t know how that’s possible.

It didn’t help that his emails started becoming stranger, with sentences and thoughts that didn’t seem to be fully fleshed out or were outright confusing to read. There were numerous typos and misplaced words, and they became uncomfortable to read in their incoherence. He accused me of lying, and seemed almost paranoid. I started asking my girlfriend, a professional editor, to read them with me to understand what he was trying to say, and to see if I communicating clearly with him. She agreed that something was strange, but that it didn’t seem to be on my end.

By the second or third time that we were doing revisions, I offered references to use for inspiration in case my writing was unclear on some of the poses. I even had some of them ready to send.

He declined even the idea of it, seemed offended that I had asked, and continued to draw things that were unrecognizable compared to what I’d asked for. I started to think that I was incapable of communicating effectively, because nothing ever seemed to click. I started getting nervous that a childhood comics hero of mine was being so unpleasant, and that this thing I wanted to do as something healing was becoming an ordeal. I attempted to deal with his ego through flattering compliment sandwiches, as firm, clear instructions seemed to do little. All the while he kept sniping at me, and I kept trying to deal with it.

Once we got to something like the fifth set of revisions, which included reminding him of visual elements that were integral to the characters , he refused to change things outside of some minor fixes. I could have quit working on the commission right there, and simply left him with the deposit I had already paid. But felt like I was in too deep, so I kept going, thinking about how much I loved these comics. More importantly, I just kept thinking about my dad.

Public Mockery

I want to take a quick detour into social media in the article, which means backing up in the timeline. I hadn’t wanted my commission shared there at all, but it was shared throughout the process. Pencils, inks, lettering, the works. To be honest, it never occurred to me that he would show it off without permission. It felt like a violation of privacy, something I had done this for very personal reasons and it was just out there for the world. If he’d asked, I would have almost certainly been okay with it. But this piece being shared without asking me, a piece I had commissioned done in part because of my deceased dad, was incredibly frustrating.

And while Penders praised his own work ethic and desire to make the commissioner happy in public, privately I was fighting to get a service I’d paid for – a drawing of something I wanted.

Ultimately, his sharing things on social media bit him, and by extension, me. It became clear why Bunnie’s pose didn’t change to what I’d asked for – this piece he was so ‘proud’ of had her pose swiped from another Steve Butler in one of her most iconic scenes. I didn’t figure this out myself. No, this was posted on twitter, tumblr, and at least three forums, which I found late in the process. The original drawing was even more of a swipe, but due to its poor posing, I’d asked him to change it even before I found out. The original organic arm, identical to Steve Butler’s posing, was still visible in the pencils.

Sonic the Hedgehog #133 – Steven Butler

It was considered a sign that he’d fallen so hard from his time on Sonic that he could no longer come up with ideas himself on how to draw a character. The piece, Penders, and by association the anonymous commissioner (myself), were considered jokes. While my name wasn’t attached to it, I was talked about like I’d been duped and that I was some kind of sucker. The irony of it being discussed as one of his better drawings in years was particularly sad, since many of the things that worked well in the drawing were because I had pushed for them.

I also found out that he’d been accused of swiping in the past, most famously by a drawing of Shadow the Hedgehog at a convention for a young fan. He admitted so himself. The indignity of having to suffer that in silence was infuriating, but confronting him would do me no good – I still wanted the commission.

With that in mind, I asked for minor alterations within the scope of what he was willing to do, including changes that kept Bunnie from looking like a pure swipe. It wasn’t everything I’d hoped for, but it was the guy whose work I’d loved as a kid drawing something I worked on. I was unhappy with the process, but some of the pencils looked interesting, and I knew some of the characters would only really shine once they’d been fully inked.

While I received works in progress by email, some of them were exclusively posted to social media. Promises of deadlines that he failed to meet were common. I felt defeated and tired from this whole endeavor. It’s one thing to miss a deadline by a couple of days, it’s another thing entirely to have it happen over and over with 5-10 days between emails, and seeing updates on twitter rather than my email. I knew that expressing my frustration to him wouldn’t help. If I had, there was a possibility Penders would have done a rush job rather than have a client who didn’t pay, or that the work would suffer or take even longer due to his frustration.

How in the name of God could there possibly be more? (or) Apathy

To my surprise, he did actually finish it. It took three months, but he did it. Despite the sloppy inking at the edges, I was happy with the lower resolution picture he sent as proof-of-life and agreed to send the second half of the fee. I even paid extra for a title design for my “What If?”

But it didn’t end there. He offered to send it USPS. I explained the mail service in my area was terrible, often very careless with packages, and that UPS would be better. He argued. I dug my heels in and paid the shipping fee.

When it got here, my heart plummeted. The package was improperly prepared, leaving a bend in the corner. And to pour salt in the wound, Penders hadn’t even bothered to erase his pencil lines from the rejected drawings of the characters.

I told him I was pretty frustrated by that. He said most people preferred it that way, that it was my fault for not getting USPS with its general insurance, and without prompting explained that I did not own anything in this commission except the physical sheet he’d sent me – something that was not made clear when I originally commissioned him, and is the kind of disclaimer I would have expected at the beginning. It was strange. Cold. Dismissive. And just lacked a basic form of human expression.

He also explained that this piece, which I fought for for months because I missed my dad, was going to be sold as a full-color print at conventions. After all, he said, it was some of his best work.

He didn’t even offer to send me a copy of the print.

In a lot of ways, that’s what frustrates me the most. He didn’t like what I wanted or had asked for throughout any of this. He said so himself. His behavior was erratic, the piece did not turn out the way I’d asked for, he was painfully slow, and I fought to get a recognizable interpretation of my idea on paper. All I’d wanted was something I could have shown my dad if he were still around.

What have we learned today?

Maybe I needed to be firmer about my concerns from the beginning. Maybe there was a fundamental disagreement of how the characters were meant to be portrayed. Maybe he just wasn’t used to getting detailed instructions in a commission. A lot of things could have been the problem, but I won’t be trying it again to see if there’s another way to work together. Because I really and truly think the problem is he’s just a bad person to work with, even before his disgusting views on autistic people that came out in the last year, a personal hot button for me.

I had actually planned to commission him again if things worked well. Mostly splash panels the way I had asked for on this, considering how much fun it was to think of Sonic stories I might have enjoyed as a kid. 

But just in case I was unclear at any point in this article: stay as far away from him as possible. It’s not worth it, no matter how much you loved whatever he wrote or drew back then.

I’ve had the pleasure of working with Rik Mack, an inker on IDW’s Sonic, on a character-heavy commission. I tried to apply the lessons I’d learned in working with Penders, did my best to listen to him as an artist, and learned a lot in working with him. It’s a beautiful piece. I’d recommend him to anyone as a sequential artist or for a commission.

Rik Mack

But Penders? The experience left an ugly, gnawing feeling in my stomach. I twitched a little when I think about commissions in general, or tried to talk to another artist. It tainted my childhood memories with something bitter, and it took time to separate that out. Ultimately I reconciled it by thinking of Ken Penders as two different people.

The first Ken Penders is the one who made me and my dad happy when I was a kid, a peripheral figure in the memories I had of me, my dad and my brother. The second was a person who was cruel, cold, slow, thoughtless, gaslighting, self-aggrandizing and incapable of talking to other people.

And when I think of the piece like it was done by the first guy, I can look at it again. I can think of how my dad would be happy seeing how much the memory of him meant to me. But it took me six months to get there.

The first guy is gone, and the second is what’s left. This is how he treats people privately, and the casual cruelty thrown towards autistic people is just a taste of how he speaks publicly (I’m not going in to detail on that, his social media is filled with disgusting behavior.)

I wrote this article as a warning, because I don’t want people to end up in the situation I was in. Don’t spend a cent or a second of your time on him. Your self-respect is worth more than any comic on the face of this earth.

Terry and the Pirates, Irresponsible Publishing, and Racism

The new Terry and the Pirates collection had an opportunity to address racism in historical comics. Instead, the reader was blamed for not understanding.

I cannot tell you how mad I am about the new “Terry and the Pirates Master Collection.” The comic itself is collected beautifully, and I’d love to talk about it in more detail, but a series of poor decisions that were either thoughtless, racist, or both means that I’m discussing those instead of the paper quality or the colors on the Sunday strips.

Let me be clear from the jump: this was an irresponsible, racist reprint effort. Editorial completely failed to consider the effects of real people, and by writing on the subject of ‘how to correctly read Terry’ kept digging themselves in to a hole throughout the process in ways that were solvable without altering the content of the reprints.

I knew this could be a problem after my interview last year with editor Bruce Canwell, well before I got the books. You can check out the interview here, but here’s a quick refresher on how that went.

I thought we could start by acknowledging that the Chinese caricatures, stereotypes and slurs present in Terry and the Pirates were racist, then go on to talk about the responsibility publishers have in reprinting racist material for a modern audience. I wanted to facilitate a conversation about why he thought reprinting Terry was worthwhile, discuss content warnings, and why the series remained unaltered for historical purposes. This seemed like a good way to talk about the reality of a world that recognizes the humanity of people other than white men, and how that must be considered in publishing.

This went off the rails almost immediately when Canwell would not say that the material in Terry was racist, followed by a weird defense of Milton Caniff as a person rather than a discussion of the material. Throughout the interview, he used language that echoed one for one how Comicsgate people present their talking points. Canwell assured me that an extensive essay that he had written was presented in the book itself, and that it would address many of my questions in more detail.

I figured that once I got the book, I’d read the essay (which is in the back of Volume 13, which can only be ordered directly from the publisher as part of a bundle or subscription, marked as an ‘Addendum’ rather than front and center), review the book here, and inform potential readers of how the racist material in Terry and the Pirates was discussed by the publisher so that they could make a more informed decision regarding whether they’d want to buy it for themselves. Instead, I read the essay, swore for awhile, shared it with some other people to make sure that I wasn’t misunderstanding it, swore some more, and decided to write this instead.

Now let me be very clear on this point. I’m not here to argue that Terry and the Pirates is a bad comic. It’s a very good comic, and often exceptional. But it is unquestionably a racist one. Accordingly, I want to talk about how the presentation of the comic failed to do justice to the people reading it today, and specifically how the publisher screwed this up in both forms of addressing this issue.

Why I used the word Comicsgate

I used the word “Comicsgate” a few times in the original interview and this article, even though Canwell never actually used the word himself, and I think it’s worth explaining why. Have you ever heard the expression “If it walks like a duck, quacks like a duck, and looks like a duck, it’s probably a duck?”

This is a helpful expression in discussing Comicsgate. It’s not a group in the sense that it hands out membership cards, an umbrella term encompassing a few core beliefs. These beliefs are bad for comics and bad for people as a whole, whether you’re associated with the group or not. 

Here’s a critical piece in what I’m about to discuss. Since Comicsgate isn’t a monolith, it’s impossible to win an argument because you’re arguing against an amorphous group of people who pass the buck the second it looks like they’re losing. Because of this, I decided to focus on the broad ideas presented in the text, not the details – my issue is the ideological points, not the specific word choices. No matter how bad it is to hear “Caniff ignored blacks” and “so-called ‘Jim Crow’ laws” or a very long tangent about why it was okay to call Chinese people slurs when other ethnic groups were called slurs of their own at the time.

Here are a few of those beliefs, and why I took issue with the way Canwell spoke in the interview and the essay.

Comics shouldn’t be political – Superman was an anti-war, pro-federal government benefit program, worker’s safety character from the beginning, Stan Lee was pro-Civil Rights and specifically indicated this in his comics. Even without the historical basis of his editorials, writing is politics. What is good, what is evil, who needs to be stopped and why. What an injustice actually is.

Much of my discussion with Canwell regarding Connie and the way Chinese people are depicted in the comic has a common theme – Milton Caniff wasn’t interested in social change. This does, of course, ignore his efforts to more authentically depict China and Chinese people. And Caniff’s veiled commentary (which would have been more open if editorial had allowed it) opposing the Japanese invasion of China in the Second Sino-Japanese War. And his patriotic acts involving creating special Terry and the Pirates strips for the US Military, and when legal complications arose, a completely separate strip, Male Call.

You just don’t get it – This point is remarkably frustrating because it is designed to make you feel crazy. That’s what much of Canwell’s essay feels like. Since it occurs at the very end of the last volume of the collection (more on that later), it doesn’t address how the reader as just (theoretically) taken in a huge amount of racist material, and it isn’t framed in terms of discussing the people who are affected by these issues today. The essay suggests that readers who were upset – not hurt, not harmed, not pushed away, offended or angry, but upset – were simply ill-informed. 

A great deal of the essay is based on statistics without context, or comparisons that outright make no sense. For example, Canwell mentions the census that listed very few Chinese people in the US at the time the comic was written; he had also mentioned this in our interview. It fails to address the idea of paper sons, the Chinese Exclusion Act(s), passing, people who dodged the census so they weren’t deported or to simply to avoid becoming a target of white people by way of mass murder. Presented without the context, the census population at the time is meaningless. However, it’s difficult to argue against what people consider hard data (“Numbers don’t lie” is one of the biggest lies ever told) despite the evidence that contextualizes that data.

And sometimes “you just don’t get it” becomes a tangent where, if you choose to argue against it, you end up so far away from the main point you’re trying to discredit that you’re just spinning your wheels. I have no idea why Canwell compared Caniff’s China to Star Trek, even after he explained it. When I tried writing about it, I realized I’d fallen into the same trap and deleted the section – which is all you can really do in a situation like this.

Comics should just tell stories – As the second half of “comics shouldn’t be political,” they say that “comics should just tell stories,” arguing that a story should just be some good old-fashioned fun. 

This argument is probably the most tiresome, because it’s not true and shifts the goalposts incessantly. Pogo specifically went after McCarthy as part of its story, and when Walt Kelly was told that he’d better not have the character show his face in the strip again, he put a bag on the character’s head and just kept the story going. Captain America punched Hitler in the face on the first cover of his comic. One of most beloved Iron Man stories, David Micheline and Bob Layton’s Demon in a Bottle is about alcoholism ruining someone’s life, a point that Kurt Busiek and George Perez during their time on the Avengers. Even Jim Lee, poster child for poster art in the 1990s, was part of making the X-Men a loudly and vehemently anti-racist comic. And by his very existence, Miles Morales is a defiant, purposeful statement, even within the context of the greater narrative of Ultimate Spider-Man – and one of the greatest examples of creating a story that meant something real to people by moving on from old habits. Stan Lee said it himself, “Anyone can wear the mask.”

In Comicsgate arguments, while the story being about Good vs. Evil is generally considered fair game, listing the specifics of Evil and bringing attention to the real world and its problems is not.

This often crosses over into trolling behavior, which usually comes out as  “People just can’t take a joke anymore” or “people are just too sensitive nowadays.” You usually hear this after someone says something that would get them punched out in a bar.

I’m getting a little off topic here. Canwell was a very kind, generous, thoughtful person over the course of the interview. His answers were earnest, and I wouldn’t accuse him of trolling for a second. However, his writing did cross into Comicsgate talking points. I don’t care whether or not he’d consider himself part of that group (to my knowledge he’s not on an form of social media.) I am addressing the beliefs that he is expressing in this essay. They’re symptomatic of an exclusionary, thoughtless system that hurts real people, and one which we should not tolerate. And if this is new information to you, to him, whomever, or it feels like a personal attack when that’s not who you think you are – then I suggest you ask yourself why you feel like that, and think about how to be the kind of person that you think you are.

Terry and the Pirates is racist. It’s still a good comic, but it’s not like there’s a blip or a single slur, or that it’s just a little uncomfortable to read. No one would be able to say in good faith “They only call the Black guy a [slur], [other slur], or [way more offensive slur] sometimes, and they mostly phased it out later. And by then his fried chicken and watermelon habit was so tightly associated with his character that it was impossible to change.” But that’s exactly what Canwell tries to do — just discussing a Chinese character rather than a Black one.

Content warnings

Content warnings are not specifically a thing meant to help people manage PTSD, sexual assault trauma, or panic attacks. They’re meant to help facilitate informed decisions on the part of the reader. For example, I don’t watch TV shows or movies where animal cruelty is shown on screen. I’m capable of watching fictional material with gore in it, but not a lot and not every day, so a warning that it’s going to take place in whatever I’m watching lets me brace myself or choose not to engage in it at all. There are other, personal issues that I appreciate similar warnings for. Sometimes it’s a friend, sometimes it’s the ratings box, sometimes it’s word of mouth – but I am actually able to engage with more media by understanding and preparing myself mentally to deal with something that, in the real world, is difficult for me.

Warning people about racism, misogyny, homophobia, bisexual erasure, transphobia, suicide and self-harm, child abuse, spousal abuse, alcoholism, drug addition, eating disorders, gore, and a whole host of other material serves the same purpose – it allows people to make informed decisions so they can mitigate the harm that they could experience by wittingly or unwittingly subjecting themselves to those images or texts.

I’m using the word harm rather than offense on purpose. Because yes, material in Terry and the Pirates is offensive to me, but I’m not hurt by it – I’ll never have a racial slur thrown my way. But it is harmful to real, living people who are affected by racism in their day-to-day life. This is bad for comics in three ways. First, it turns people off from comics. Just like when women face nothing but balloon-boob characters wearing thong-kinis to fights, there is a sense of “if this is what it’s like, why should I even be here?” This is bad for publishers in an obvious, practical, financial way. And third, on the most base level, it’s bad because it disregards the humanity of the people who read it.

Historical context is important, sure, but that’s quite literally academic. This is about someone who just wants to read a comic they heard was incredible, just like they might hear about Calvin and Hobbes.

When I started working on this article, I didn’t actually realize there was a content warning on this book. It’s buried as 1/8th of the page in the legal/copyright section, and is printed directly next to two blank pages that were used for fill-in space. It reads as follows:

Publisher’s note: These comic strips were created in an earlier time and include offensive language and racial stereotypes. We present these archival comics with the understanding that they reflect a bygone era, and refer readers to the addendum “Terry in Context: Viewing the 20th Century Through 21st Century Eyes” in Volume 13 of this series.

Terry and the Pirates Master Collection Volume 1

The writing here is weak and unclear. Racist towards who? What stereotypes? Nothing in this paragraph conveys why someone would need to consider whether or not they want to read it, or prepare themselves for what’s in the book.

I’m not the person you want writing the content warning about racist material; for Terry and the pirates I’d ask that job be given to a Chinese person living in the U.S., the comic’s country of origin. But I can tell you what is not in this: a clear acknowledgment of the existence of racial slurs, visual caricatures, racist stereotypes, and the fact that it was harmful at the time Terry was originally being written and harmful today. And, most critically, there is no acknowledgment of it being wrong, because Milton Caniff was wrong to include racist material.

I don’t know why anyone would be interested in arguing against a guy who died the year I was born, because Caniff has nothing new to add to the conversation and doesn’t need defending as a person, because he is dead. But Canwell worked hard to defend Caniff as a person in our interview and his essay, which is so far removed from the point as to be completely irrelevant. What actually needs to be discussed is how to handle what is in front of the reader, on the page, in this exact moment today.

A question

Earlier, I discussed the idea of transposing material from Terry and the Pirates to Black people, and how indefensible that would be. I certainly don’t see anyone complaining that Ebony White wasn’t true to the original Will Eisner comics when Darwyn Cooke relaunched The Spirit. But that’s not where people seem to go when it comes to the same racist material in Terry. And the question, boiled down to its simplest form, is… why?

Why is racism against Asian people not considered as obvious and worthy of the same intensity in discussing it?

It’s possible you read that and thought “That is a shockingly white question.” This is a good point and I agree completely. It is being asked by a 33 year old white dude who was never subjected to anything like this in my life. It’s why I don’t have an answer. I have misinformed conjecture, I have guesses, but I don’t have the personal experience or academic knowledge to answer it. My ill-informed thoughts about racism aren’t going to provide the kind of clarity people are looking for.

What I do know is that when we talk about great American crimes, Japanese internment camps are rarely discussed. Bruce Canwell’s essay goes into great detail about the relationship between China and Japan in the lead-up to World War II – yet stops literally one thought shy of even mentioning those internment camps. This is shameful, because there is no one on this earth who deserves to have their humanity ignored, mocked, or stripped away, and admitting this is a moral necessity. Every way that Canwell handled this topic bothers me.

And it bothers me that I didn’t think of this earlier. It bothers me that I can’t more accurately articulate the problem, because even the question is off-base somehow. And it bothers me that this hasn’t been part of the conversation since the beginning, and without the same intensity.

If only a comics historian, informed by social sciences and the ability to perform academic research, had decided to center that question and provide an answer in the works he’d published. That might have provided some much needed insight. Even better, solicit the opinion of a Chinese American scholar on the topic. Center the voice of someone affected instead of the musings of yet another old white guy.

What do I actually want?

After serious consideration, I have some thoughts as to what could make both the Master Collection and other publications better moving forward. 

1 – A straightforward content warning inside the book, online solicits, and back of the cover (the comics are usually sealed in cellophane, so a warning that’s only visible after purchasing the book isn’t helpful) It should be clear and visible for people for the sake of transparency. And it should not be written by a white person. This type of content warning should be in every book, not just the Library of American Comics’ publications, as a blanket policy. I may love Floyd Gottfredson’s Mickey Mouse, but the story An Education for Thursday should not be handwaved as ‘uncomfortable reading’, which is the language Terry has excused with by the publisher.

2 – A foreword in each volume that discusses why keeping something as originally presented, despite its racist nature, is important for the sake of historical preservation. For me personally, knowing that the material is racist, but without malicious and hateful racism, is something that would help me feel comfortable reading Milton Caniff’s work.

3 – For the essay at the back of Volume 13 to be at the beginning of the first book, and for it to be focused on how to be a responsible reader when looking at material with a bunch of slurs, caricatures and racist attitudes in a fictional work. Additionally, I want it to discuss the historical effects the comic had on the American perception of Chinese people, with the context of Americans’ perceptions of Chinese people at that time. Not as a defense, but to provide insight and information that a casual reader or someone not versed in this type of history wouldn’t have.

What’s next?

I was, and still am, angry about every step of this process. I don’t think anyone got what they were looking for out of it. Near as I can tell, Bruce Canwell wants more people to read something he loves, and to enjoy themselves in the process. Not only that, the essay he wrote seems to be intended to help make that happen. 

I want more people to read Terry and the Pirates, but also to know that there are things in it that make it difficult or potentially untenable to read. The idea of comics being a more open and inclusive place is critical to me. Absolutely none of that was accomplished in either our interview or his essay.

I did my level best to open things towards that inclusivity, without the intent to remove the comic from circulation or deride its historical or artistic value. I gave a benefit of the doubt which does not appear warranted, and made me look like I was platforming racism – and that Bruce Canwell, and by extension Clover Press and the Library of American Comics, endorse racist material. I’ve given my thoughts on how they can be better. They’re the ones with the resources, contacts, experience, and to that can take any suggestion I have, talk to the experts, talk to the people who are affected by this, and listen to them. They are the ones who can make it clear what they stand for and what they believe.

Consider that, because there’s a point that I don’t want anyone to miss: this is an opportunity to be leaders in how readers are treated by comic book publishers. They could be an example, particularly due to the sensitive nature that is part and parcel of reprinting older and historically significant material, of how to respect their readers. They could be a standard-bearer for modeling behaviors and the moral fortitude that improve the discourse of comics, a company that brings in new readers, rather than one that pushes people away by brushing them aside.

I can’t think of a reason in the world why you would do anything less.

Interviewing Bruce Canwell: Terry and the Pirates The Master Collection, Race, and Responsibility

An interview with editor Bruce Canwell about Terry and the Pirates: The Master Collection, and race in comics.

Content Warning – This article discusses and depicts racist content in regards to Chinese people and Chinese-Americans, Black Americans, racial slurs, stereotypes and caricatures in comics. There are mentions of police shootings and lynchings. This also discusses the merits of preserving art with racist content.

Special thanks to Professor Jonathan Gray of the School of Visual Arts NYC. Without his professional and academic background within comics, the questions I hoped to ask would not have been possible. Please check out his site at for more information on him and his work.

This interview is going to be different than the others I’ve posted. I didn’t want it to be. Discussing the new, oversized Terry and the Pirates: The Master Collection with its spectacular new coloring was meant to be a standard interview. The Library of American Comics co-founder and editor Bruce Canwell did fit my preferred subject – bringing in an expert to talk about their craft in detail. And he was pleasant, thoughtful, and took time to answer my questions fully and thoroughly. As I happen to really enjoy Terry and the Pirates, this was great. Everything was going fine, right up until I asked how he felt about the responsibilities of publishing an older comic with racist content. At that point, it all went very very wrong.

Continue reading “Interviewing Bruce Canwell: Terry and the Pirates The Master Collection, Race, and Responsibility”

How To Collect – New Teen Titans

Wherein I talk about how to collect The New Teen Titans, and steer you away from the bad stuff! Part of the How To Collect series.

Welcome to “How to Collect,” a series of articles about how to collect a comic book series in trade paperback, with all the irritating research done for you, to make sure you have the best, most thorough collection of great comics possible. To start us off, let’s talk about the 1980s The New Teen Titans.

The New Teen Titans Issue #1
The New Teen Titans #1

Created by Marv Wolfman and George Perez, The New Teen Titans had Wolfman on plot and writing duties, and Perez on plot and pencils for the first third of its run (and other incredible talents to follow). George Perez is the man, and that’s enough for anybody to read the series.

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Garfield, Sarcasm, and Autism


People give Garfield a lot of shit.

I don’t understand it, personally. The comic has been running for forty years. Forty years! Forty years ago, the Atari 2600 hadn’t been released. Forty years ago, the idea of a new Star Wars movie was a novelty, not an expectation. Forty years ago, my parents hadn’t met yet. There’s got to be something to a comic strip that’s gone on for forty years. I mean, we kept Nancy around for 36 years practically as a benchwarmer for someone who could fill Ernie Bushmiller’s shoes, and after that wait Olivia Jaimes’ Nancy is arguably the best thing in the newspaper today.

For me, the importance of this forty year old comic strip is that it allowed a young autistic kid to understand what sarcasm was.

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Getting the Chair

A writer discusses setting up a home office that folds up.

I got something really cool today.

Yes, it’s comics related, I guess, but it’s also an important piece of how I work as a person.

Writing is a very strange, very weird act. Take a look at what Stephen King did with his writing room sometime and you’ll see what I mean. But for me, I need someplace relatively free of distractions. When you have a limited living space, this means getting… creative.

See, I tell Kay this frequently enough, but my very best college assignments were done in the bathroom. It’s quiet. Peaceful. No distractions, just me, a laptop, and occasionally a TV tray so I wasn’t hunched over. Laptops are not meant for laps, people, especially after six hours. It’s also where I did a lot of reading as a kid, despite the grumbling of other people.

So when I felt like I needed a space to write separate from a computer with the entire internet and Metal Gear Solid V on it, I found a floor chair. A floor chair is exactly what it sounds like: a chair without legs, so it goes on the floor. It’s currently folded up against the wall between my bed and Shelf 9 of 22, and will stay there very likely until I move. That spot is smaller than any bathroom stall you’ll find outside of an airport, but far more comfortable.

Here’s why the floor chair, my little six-changer, is amazing.

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AwesomeCon & SpringCon 2019 – Little Con-goer, Big City

The AwesomeCon and SpringCon experience – going to conventions as a family, going alone, and comparing big and smell cons.

Writing about AwesomeCon 2019 took me a not insignificant amount of time. Partly because this was the first ‘big’ convention I’d gone to, and trying to keep track of everything was overwhelming, but partly because I didn’t know how to properly articulate how it felt. It was only when I went to my local convention, SpringCon, that I was able to find the words. While AwesomeCon gets close to the six-digit mark in attendance, SpringCon is just a few thousand people throughout its two day run. Where there are panelists and events at AwesomeCon ranging from She-Ra screenings to a fudge stand, SpringCon is entirely focused on comics. And while my brother went with me to SpringCon, he had little to no interest in comics and spent most of his time browsing manga and playtesting a card game.

It’s not that I have anything against an event like AwesomeCon. I actually enjoyed myself quite a bit. The problem is that I live in Minnesota, and SpringCon is the biggest comic convention we’ve got. But in order to talk about my thoughts on either of them, I’m going to have to talk about both of them.

Continue reading “AwesomeCon & SpringCon 2019 – Little Con-goer, Big City”

How To Collect – Carol Danvers’ Captain Marvel

How to read the fifty years of Captain Marvel, aka Carol Danvers, comics. With Gerry Conway’s Ms. Marvel to Kelly Sue DeConnick’s historic relaunch and more.

I hear there’s a movie that some people were excited about, and that it’s based on this comic book. A lot of comic books, actually. So let’s talk about Captain Marvel, AKA Carol Danvers, with “How to Collect,” a column where I research and report the best way to collect a comic, saving you the hassle and leaving you with the good parts.

Carol Danvers is an unusual character. Originally created in 1968 as a supporting character for Captain Marvel (of Marvel Comics), she later became Ms. Marvel, and is most well known as Captain Marvel after her 2012 relaunch. She’s taken numerous codenames (Ms. Marvel, Binary, Warbird, and Captain Marvel are the big ones), and was written with the intent of being a legitimately feminist superhero. Considering how large the real-life Carol Corps has grown, I’d say she’s succeeded.

Her story is expansive, and over her 50 years of existence, she never went into comics limbo the way some characters do. So when Kay wanted a collection of Carol Danvers solo titles on her shelves, finding the character’s stories and where they were collected was a real challenge. She wrote a glowing review of the first Ms. Marvel Masterworks already, and she’d read most of Captain Marvel’s titles. But she’d never read them in sequence, and only owned a smattering of skinny trades and the two Masterworks volumes of her original series. I remember her at one point reading Volume 1 of the 2012 series, followed by Volume 2 of the 2014 series, which actually collects issues from Volume 8 of the various Captain Marvel solo titles published over the years, and she was more confused than anyone I’ve ever seen.

Once I’d written that sentence, I had to check to make sure I hadn’t just had a stroke.

Regardless, my girlfriend asked me for help, and I had recently bought the Brian Reed series anyway. I was confident that I had enough knowledge to make this a fairly easy process. What I didn’t account for was Marvel’s stubborn inability to make anything an easy process, even with a movie coming out.

Continue reading “How To Collect – Carol Danvers’ Captain Marvel”