Comic book biographies: Illuminating or illiterate?
The Vancouver, Washington publisher Bluewater Productions produces a line of unauthorized biographies, in comic book form.
Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, international pop star Lady Gaga and "Twilight" actor Taylor Lautner aren't typical comic book protagonists, but they've all starred in recent releases from . Since 2008, the Vancouver, Washington-based publisher has carved out a niche producing unauthorized biographical comic books of public figures.
"We saw how during the election that Sarah Palin and Hillary Clinton were being treated really unfair in the public eye, and so what we wanted to do is really showcase them," says Bluewater Productions president Darren G. Davis of what initially inspired his company to produce the bio comics, adding that they fit well with the theme of "female empowerment" established by his superhero characters "10th Muse" and "Isis."
"So we did those, and they just took off like gangbusters," Davis said in a telephone interview.
Bluewater's output previously consisted of licensed properties and original characters. Following the success of the Palin and Clinton comic books, announced during the 2008 presidential election and released in early 2009, Bluewater initiated its "Female Force" line, profiling female political figures and celebrities, including Michelle Obama, Barbara Walters and Ellen DeGeneres.
This inspired "Political Power," a series dedicated to politicians regardless of gender; and "Fame," the company's newest imprint, spotlighting figures of current pop culture fixtures like Lady Gaga and Taylor Swift.
That puts Bluewater at three biography comics a month, though Davis points out it's still less than half of what they publish.
Though sales are modest — Bluewater didn't have a comic in the top 300 for April 2010 based on sales estimates — the company has regularly received an impressive amount of mainstream media attention for their celebrity biographies. MTV and MSNBC covered the Lady Gaga comic. And that's kind of the goal.
Mass audience appeal
Davis has a background in entertainment marketing, working for E! Entertainment Television for five years, and he is specifically targeting people who wouldn't normally wander into a comic book store, but might be persuaded to stick around once they do.
"What the biography comics really do is bring new readership in to people who have never been to a comic book store," Davis said. "We do a lot of signings where we have 50, 60-year-old women coming into the stores, buying these 'Female Force' comic books, and then turning around and buying 'Spider-Man' for their kids."
"Some offerings do serve to get people in the door that would not have been there otherwise," Exum told Newsarama. "Or catch the eye of someone who is in the store with a comics fan."
Questions of quality
Even if Davis is approaching this venture with truly noble intentions, his company has seen a great deal of criticism from both mainstream and comic book industry press. Charges range from the unauthorized nature of the comics leading to poorly researched material, alleged non-payment of freelancers, Bluewater capitalizing on the success of others rather than their own original ideas, and general concerns about the quality of the comic books themselves.
Earlier this month, Rush Limbaugh questioned the accuracy of his Bluewater biography on air. Jezebel, a female-targeted blog owned by Gawker Media, reviewed preview images of Bluewater's Lady Gaga comic this month under the headline "Good Idea, Gruesome Execution." That same week, comic book commentary site ComicsAlliance poked fun at Bluewater's Limbaugh biography, calling their research process "taking a quick look through Wikipedia and then expanding it out to 28 pages."
Johanna Draper Carlson, author of comic book review blog Comics Worth Reading, has been one of Bluewater's harshest critics, accusing them of "milking politics" with their biography comics. She's especially skeptical that these comics could lead to new fans of the medium.
"I'm afraid that anyone drawn in because, say, they're a fan of Lady Gaga would be so turned off by what they got that it wouldn't be a net benefit for comics," Carlson writes via e-mail. "It could confirm the outdated stereotype of comics being sub-literate and for the uneducated."
Davis is certainly aware of this type of criticism.
"I don't have a thick skin," Davis says. "People say that we're whores, and bottom-feeders, and that we're just out trying to make money off of these celebrities."
Davis contends, however, that his company reaches out to every subject of a biographical comic, even if the books aren't produced with the subject's participation. He said Bluewater donates a percentage of the comic book's proceeds to a non-profit of the celebrity's choice, or runs ads within the comic for the selected charitable organization. Noted animal lover DeGeneres, for instance, recommended Bluewater donate a percentage of the profits to the Humane Society of the United States.
Davis said the upcoming biography of Charlaine Harris, the author of "The Southern Vampire Mysteries," the book series that inspired HBO's "True Blood," is "technically our first authorized one," since Bluewater is working one-on-one with the writer.
Davis is also quick to defend the research behind the books.
"People think we just take Wikipedia and kind of go with it, but that's not the case," he said, explaining that the writer of the Oprah Winfrey bio comic interviewed the talk show host's father as part of the process.
"We do so much research, fact-checking," Davis said.
Though the criticism clearly bugs Davis, he's still optimistic that Bluewater is reaching their goal of getting new people interested in comic books. And Bluewater comics are popping up in some pretty surprising places, suggesting there's some serious mainstream appeal.
"We're sold in Jo-Ann Fabrics," he said. "That's success to me."