NYCC 2016, Day 4

The final day of New York Comic-Con 2016 dawned with much rain and wind. I am somewhat relieved it waited to the final day for this. Luckily, I had an umbrella, so made it over to the Javits in order to catch my first panel, which was about how books are turned into audiobooks. It had 3 actors who narrate audiobooks as well as two authors of said audiobooks. (They hadn’t met each other before, which says a bit about the way the business is conducted.)

On the author side, we had John Scalzi, famed for his many science fiction novels, and R. A. Salvatore, best known for the Forgotten Realms series. On the narration end we had Fred Berman, who has narrated The Walking Dead audiobooks among other things; Allyson Johnson, an actor and singer best known for narrating the Honor Harrington series; and Victor Bevine, an actor who has also written his own works (one of which he did the audiobooks for), who has done Salvatore’s books and also Dan Simmons’ Hyperion books.

There was a lot of great discussion at the panel. Both Scalzi and Salvatore say they now think of how the audiobook will sound when they write, which was not in their heads at all at the start of their careers. Scalzi added that overusing the word ‘said’ – which in prose is fine, as a reader won’t really notice it – becomes more of a problem when the narration hammers in the repetition. All three narrators agreed they noticed when an author repeated words. Scalzi has a forthcoming short story that is in interview format, with Q and A, and will have to ask the audio team for multiple actors to carry that off.

The authors don’t really get much say in who narrates their books, though it sometimes happens. That said, they trust their publisher to get someone solid, as of course the publisher does not want to ruin the audiobook. Bevine said that he once won a fan competition to narrate an audiobook. It then got into the technical process of how they prepare to read the book – Johnson used to make notes on filecards and annotate the books so that as she read them she wouldn’t have to worry about things like where to pause for a breath; it would all be marked out. (These days she uses a spreadsheet for some things.)

They also discussed name pronunciation. All three work in a genre where there can be weird alien or fantasy creature names, and sometimes that means asking the author how a name is pronounced. R.A. Salvatore has fun with this – his most famous character is named Drizzt, and he says that he doesn’t like to confirm how it’s pronounced because he enjoys watching people argue about it. Scalzi, who is close friends with one of his narrators, William Dufris, once wrote a character named (and I approximate here) Btbtbtbtbtbt, and then said it should be pronounced like the finger between the lips insane pose from old cartoons. Once Salvatore was surprised to find one of his short stories narrated by Ice-T, who did not appreciate the difficult names i n the least. Still, as authors, they don’t have to pronounce their own names!

There are many ways to narrate, and this was gone into as well. Some narrators strive for clarity and some for effect; neither are wrong, but you should know which one would be most effective for your book. Some narrators use their own voice throughout the book, some try to use different voices for different speaking characters. Fantasy and SF gives the narrators an ability to stretch out – Bevine asked Salvatore if he could voice his dwarfs as drunken Irishmen, which delighted the author. Johnson says that she comes from a musical background, so pays close attention to the rhythms of the book, comparing it to a symphony.

They talked about the difference between one narrator and a book with a full cast; it’s more than just “you don’t get to read all the parts”. The narrators agreed that you need a strong leader for those books to pull the cast together, but that doesn’t always happen, so frequently the actors are seen comparing notes to ensure that it is as smooth as possible. Fred Berman also discusses the difference in style between his night job as a theatre actor (he’s in The Lion King on Broadway at the moment) and his day job doing narration. In theater you have to hit the back of the house, whereas narration is up close to the mic. (I loved that they all praised Bing Crosby for being the first recording artist to use the mic as a tool.) And they also listen to their own narration as they do it via headphones at times, both to see how it comes across and to fix mistakes in post-production so that it’s not jagged.

There are more female fantasy and SF authors than there were in the past, which all agreed was a great new development – Salvatore also said there were more diverse fans as well, thinking back to his signings in the 1980s which were all teenage white boys. Johnson had never read science fiction till she began to narrate – she has a low alto, so thinks they like that she can do “male” voices as well, though sometimes this can backfire – Honor Harrington is a soprano, something that book mentions a lot, so using a different register there can be tough. It was asked how they remember the voice of a character – the authors find it quite easy to slip back into an old character’s speech style, though Johnson said she keeps an index of all speaking characters for series she does, in case they show up six books later.

It was asked if they ever rejected doing any books? Bevine said he had once rejected a couple for being too sexually explicit, but for the most part the answer was no – if they don’t like a work, they can use a pseudonym. And they still put their heart into it, as even if they don’t like the book, they know there are fans who will. You focus on something that you like in the book. And of course they talked about the current boom in audiobooks – it used to be they were all in one section in the bookstore, competing for space, and would go out of print quickly. With the advent of new technology, that’s not happening. Best of all, audiobooks don’t cannibalize the market for regular books – the two mesh well with each other, and a good audiobook can sell as well as a hardcover.

The question and answer period had a few people thank them for making books available to those with difficulty reading – either because of losing their sight or for dyslexia, etc. Someone asked the narrators what scenes they found difficult to do, and they said that while big battle scenes were fun to read, they could be hard to narrate. The authors all agreed that a lot of the fun of narration is seeing how the book is interpreted by someone else, and urged authors not to try to micromanage the audiobook narrator. Someone asked how long the recording process takes, and it seems to average about twice the length of a book – in other words, if your book takes 10 hours to read, the recording process will be about 20 hours. This also includes going back to fix any errors in post-production. They also take it in sections, of course, no one reads the whole book though.

It was a terrific panel all around. I didn’t have anything else for a bit, so decided, as I often do, to go to the panel before the one I wanted to see. This was a great decision, as it was the panel devoted to the 10th anniversary of First Second Books, the alternative comics publisher who have put out 160 books in that span. Present were Mark Siegel, the founder and president; Scott Westerfeld, author of The Uglies and Leviathan, who is doing a new graphic novel with First Second; Pénélope Bagieu, who has written Exquisite Corpse and is doing a new book about the life of Mama Cass before she joined the Mamas and the Papas; Box Brown, who did a book on the life of Andre the Giant, and whose new book is on Tetris; and Sara Varon, author of Robot Dreams and other masterpieces.

They discussed what’s different about the market since First Second began; it’s very different. Back in 2006 booksellers were reluctant to stock graphic novels by First Second, and it was only after their books won multiple awards that they began to soften up. These were the days when newspapers would have the standard “Hey, comics aren’t for kids anymore!” article, which made everyone ill. They did have a big group in their corner, however; librarians, who were big champions of their works. In fact, the last bastion of “why are you reading that garbage” is parents, who still tend not to regard comics as real books. That said, they’ve already lost the battle, they just aren’t aware of it yet.

Westerfeld mentioned the manga explosion leading to a whole new readership, as mainstream comics weren’t all that welcoming. The explosion has died off a bit now, but there are still those readers out there to be won with good quality graphic novels. First Second gives their artists creative freedom to do what they’d like, without worrying about things like “Are the heroine’s boobs big enough?” as with Marvel or DC. Everyone agreed that comics need more badass women – real badass, not a male fantasy of a badass woman. Bagieu admitted she didn’t read comics growing up in France, as Tintin and the like were all very male-oriented. She wouldn’t even have considered writing a book in the comic medium till First Second.

There was discussion on how to make people realize comics can also be literature. A good comparison was made – what if all movies were James Bond movies? You’d get people saying “Oh, I just don’t like movies”. And comics offer a way to tell stories that other mediums can’t match – in Westerberg’s story he’s currently working on, a young woman is the narrator, but we also have her sister, who doesn’t speak – except, as the comic reader can see, she talks in thought bubbles with the doll she carries around. This isn’t something you could carry off in a prose book without awkward shoehorning, but in comics it’s easy to convey.

Comics and graphic novels in North America are compartmentalized a lot more than they are in Europe – Bagieu had to learn about this, as in France they have no issues with comics being for everyone. Whereas here we have librarians getting into huge arguments about whether a book belongs in the adult or children’s section of the library – vehemently. Indeed, until cost became an issue, illustrations accompanied books all the time, simply as part of the work. Can we bring that back? A fun panel, and all agreed that they greatly look forward to seeing what First Second does in 2017.

My final panel of the con was one I had been excited about all weekend. Denis Kitchen of Kitchen Sink Press was here to discuss the next volume in their Essential Harvey Kurtzman collection, which was dedicated to Trump Magazine (not related to the Donald, I promise), which Hugh Hefner financed as he loved Mad Magazine and wanted a similar one for the Playboy brand – with an unlimited budget, which was a big reason why Kurtzman agreed, as he’d been begging Gaines to let him print in color, and hadn’t gotten anywhere. On the panel, besides Denis and John Lind, the other editor of the book, were legendary cartoonists Arnold Roth and Al Jaffee. I knew of Jaffee from Mad Magazine, of course, where I grew up with his fold-ins, Snappy Answers to Stupid Questions, and somewhat terrifying grinning self-portrait pasted on all his books. As for Roth, his varied career includes work for TV Guide, Sports Illustrated, Playboy, a long time contributor to the British Punch magazine, and editorial cartoonist at The Progressive. Though no spring chickens (Roth is 87, Jaffee 95), both were highly entertaining and talkative throughout.

They began with a brief discussion of Kitchen Sink Press, and how it managed to survive the shuttering of many other underground comics publishers. It’s done Eisner reprints, a reprint of L’il Abner, and many Hurtzman titles. The first Essential Kurtzman was The Jungle Book, A collection for adult readers that features four long-form satirical works. Trump will be the second such collection. Trump only lasted two issues, with a third in production when it was cancelled. Roth suggested that, rather than Hefner’s joking answer that it was because Kurtzman overspent his unlimited budget, that it was simply because a LOT of magazines died in the 1950s, with the advent of television. Even Colliers folded at that time.

Kurtzman began with a title called Hey Look!, which was included as filler pages in Timely Comics, for which Stan Lee was the editor. Nobody was doing what Harvey was, and whenever he would drop off a comic everyone would rush to see it. Jaffee admitted it was the same when they were all in school together – he and Will Elder were at the High School of Music and Art, learning painting as cartooning was absolutely forbidden. They did it anyway. Then one day someone told them to “look to their laurels” as this new freshman just posted a cartoon on the bulletin board that was amazing. If was, of course, Kurtzman, who had drawn a parody of the Freshman Boat Race which blew them both away. Kurtzman later met both of them and said one day he wants to hire them to work for him. Kurtzman was 15 at the time.

When Kurtzman left Mad Magazine to start Trump, he asked Jaffee to join him. But Jaffee was working on Patsy Walker at Timely Comics, and didn’t really have the financial stability to quit and go work on a newbie humor project. Since his titles weren’t filled with violence, the new Comics Code, which cause Mad to become a magazine rather than a comic, didn’t affect him either the way they had Kurtzman. And Playboy was still a new title at the time. Arnold Roth discusses a party he went to with various highbrow men belittling the magazine, while also showing off how much they must have read it closely in order to belittle it so well. Roth answered them by saying that Playboy was the first magazine to take a stand against nuclear proliferation – no one had a good response to that.

As for Trump itself, Roth learned about it through of all people, Paul Desmond, the alto sax player with the Dave Brubeck Quartet! They were friends, and the musicians apparently read Mad while on the road. Kurtzman, of course, was also a good talent spotter. Since Trump had a budget, adn also worked in color, it was attracting artists who might not otherwise have signed on. Jaffee, after a joking argument with Stan Lee that led him to realize that he genuinely wanted to move on, also ended up with Kurtzman, saying that “Harvey was a mensch”, and was much better at establishing good relationships than actual business sense.

Jaffee was asked about the color paintings he had in Trump, which went into far more depth and detail than his other works. He admits he learned that type of art in school. A parody of one of life magazine’s ‘gatefold’ pictures was shown, which Trump magazine gamely parodied, complete with folding out the pages to see the entire piece. Jaffee later with Mad thought about the opposite, a fold-in, where you folded the page in order to see the true picture. He handed it in as a joke, and says “Don’t publish it, because kids will ruin the magazine when they buy it!” Bill Gaines, who always had terrific business sense, said “Absolutely publish it – they’ll buy a second one to replace it.” The second one he did had Rockefeller and Goldwater debating, asking who the winner would be – of course, when folded in, Richard Nixon was the answer. Jaffee is still doing those fold-ins for the magazine, even to this day!

Trump Magazine had very minimalist covers for its two issues – Hefner wanted it to look “sophisticated”. That said, the third issue, had it ever come out, featured a parody of a Saturday Evening Post Rockwell cover, showing grandparents looking on fondly in their garden as a young boy feeds a frog to a Venus Flytrap. In fact, by the third issue they were going to be parodying magazines more – this was something you could really do well with color pages, and a Sports Life magazine parody had a chilling yet amusing picture of a “bullet POV” which showed the photographer’s terrified face in the reflection of the bullet.

Roth and Jaffee both delivered work to Kurtzman differently. Roth liked to turn in finished product, and hated rough sketches. Kurrtzman usually accepted these, and when he did ask for corrections, Roth would usually abandon it and deliver a completely new piece. Jaffee, on the other hand, was constantly getting many, many corrections and suggestions, which would be far more irritating if they didn’t always, always make everything better and funnier – Kurtzman’s eye for detail was simply stunning. He worried about perspective, how things would fall naturally, etc. He also has a box of nipples in the attic, which I think is so amusing out of context I won’t bother to give it any.

The panel ended with a reveal of what the next Essential Kurtzman would be – a collection of Hey Look, the comics that first made Kurtzman a big name, at least among other cartoonists. And with that I had finished with what I wanted to see, and made my way back outside, where the rain had just ended, to head home. Despite a few hiccups, mostly (as always) bathroom related, it was a great con. Every year I find something new to enthuse over, as those who see how long I’ve been going on can tell. Trust me, it’s not just a giant ‘come see the stars’ media event – there’s gold to be found.

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  1. Such dedication! Thank you for making the time to type all of this down, and all the efforts you have put in the conference.

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