Highlights of 2008

Dec-17-08

The last few days have been fun, as Jason and I peered into our crystal balls to look at what 2009 might hold. However, it’s possible that those thoughts may have seemed a tad cynical to some; I’ll go so far as to say that some may have called them snarky. It may seem to some readers that Jason and I look on the comics industry with disdain, and nothing could be farther from the truth. Well, ok, many things could be farther from the truth, but we’re not totally jaded. Along those lines, I wanted to look at some of the highlights of the previous year.

This is not a best of list. I simply don’t read the breadth of comics that I would need to read to compile a list like that. No, this is a list of what happened in 2008 that gives me hope for the future. I’ll also touch on those things that make me think that 2009 may not be such a bad year for comics after all.

A new Scott Pilgrim book announced for 2009. Jason and I have touted Scott Pilgrim quite a few times, but there’s a reason that this gives me hope. It has long been established that the only financially successful model for comics to follow is to publish monthly pamphlets (or floppies or whatever you want to call the comics that we all know so well) and then to collect those previously published floppies into trade paperbacks some months after their initial printing. There have been some original graphic novels, but generally those are only created by big name creators, those who already have a built in following.

Scott Pilgrim refuses to follow this model. Like the titular hero of the book, this creation comes to us in small graphic novels, each completely original. The writer/artist, Bryan Lee O’Malley, is not a well known creator with a built in following. Yet he’s publishing Scott Pilgrim in a way which I feel shows that there are other options beyond what Marvel and DC believe comics can be published. He’s not the only one who’s exploring alternate ways of publishing comics, but he’s one of the most successful and he gives me hope for the medium.

Jeff Smith’s career. Jeff Smith is the writer and artist who created the absolutely charming and exciting Bone comic, which he self-published. That comic ended in 2004, at which time Smith began working on the equally amazing and endearing Shazam: Monster Society of Evil, a four issue limited series which made the best use of DC’s Captain Marvel that I’d read in decades. Once that miniseries was over, Smith went back to creator owned work, publishing RASL, a series about a dimension-jumping art thief. So why does his career fill me with such hope?

I believe that corporate comics have a place, and can be quite enjoyable, but I also believe that they can drain the creative fire from a creator. I’ve seen creators who I greatly admire go to work for DC and Marvel, only to find the originality, humanity and that special unique voice they had disappear within that culture (<cough> Winick <cough>). Jeff Smith proved that you can do those corporate comics and not lose your voice. He’s also shown that he can succeed in multiple genres, as RASL has proven to be just as intriguing as Bone, albeit not as dependent on adorable animals and stars. I’d love to see more creators take those lessons to heart.

Captain America. She-Hulk. X-Factor. Manhunter. I’m not a big fan of where the Marvel or DC Universes are going these days. I find that both companies seem to favor brainless, unending crossovers, where perhaps a few good ideas lay buried, instead of simply publishing good books. That being said, the titles I mention above are all excellent comics, and they prove that even when you’re writing a comic set in a universe that has taken a turn for the worse, you can still write an entertaining story. Sadly, two of these four comics have been cancelled, but I have no doubt that they will be replaced by other entertaining books that shall dance on the periphery of the major superhero universes, reminding us that some people truly can make lemonade from even the tartest of lemons. They give me hope that, even if I don’t like the direction of Marvel and DC, they will always publish some comics I enjoy without reservation.

Ed Brubaker and Grant Morrison: These men have written some of the most mainstream comics on the stands today, and can be considered some of the movers and shakers of their respective universes. Not all of their comics are ones that I love, but more often than not, they have written books that continue to push at the edges of the comic’s medium, taking old, overused cliches of the business and making them work. Along the way, they’ve managed to create some comics which truly show that superheroes can be fun to read, they can be interesting, and they can be used to explore some important themes. I look forward to seeing what these gentlemen create in 2009.

DC Starts its Final Crisis: I’m not a big fan of this Final Crisis. That said, I love the word Final, and while I’m probably being naive, I’m hoping that it truly is final. I’m hoping that, in 2009, we’ll see DC move away from these huge events, and just start telling stories again. Stories that begin in a hero’s book and end (yes, they must end to be a story; Marvel and DC both need to recognize that) in that same book. Stories that don’t require a massive knowledge of the DCU, and stories that, simply put, are good. That’s my hope for 2009, and I have it because DC tells me that this is the last of their crises. Fingers crossed.

James Robinson returns to comics. Of course, he may have left again, if rumors are true, but his return gave me hope. I believe that Robinson is at his best when he’s writing books where he doesn’t have to worry about massive editorial interference, or worrying about umpty-bazillion crossovers, but just the fact that he’s writing comics again means we could possibly see the brilliance he displayed in Starman and The Golden Age. One of my favorite comics writers ever has returned, and that makes me happy.

There’s some of the things that give me hope for 2009. Jason, anything to add?

Yes, in fact, I do have a few things to add. Some build off of what you’ve already stated and others reflect my own twisted favorites in the comic industry.

First off, I heartily agree with your Scott Pilgrim recognition. I also like how you couched your point in the position that a new book was “announced” in 2008. While O’Malley has been rather methodical in putting out a volume a year, 2008 went by without any Scott Pilgrim. #4 came out towards the end of 2007 and #5 comes out early next year. I’m just glad to know we don’t have to wait much longer!

Your praise of a few good series interests me. I’ve been saying for a year or more that I wanted to start reading the She-Hulk trades. I guess it’ll be easier to catch up now that the series has been cancelled! I gave up on X-Factor a few issues ago. With the tie-ins to both Messiah Complex and Secret Invasion, it felt like the book lost its entertaining focus. The stories turned more towards plot devices than character interaction. And the artwork became quite horrible, in my opinion. Sad, really. I liked the early run that built off the Madrox miniseries from a couple years back. I’m on the second of Brubaker’s Captain America trades and it’s…interesting so far. Not sure I like it yet as much as his Daredevil run. All in all, Brubaker has probably impressed me the most this past year…from the mentioned titles to Criminal to Immortal Iron Fist…and, in the theme of this post, I’m looking forward to his Incognito book with Sean Phillips in 2009.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Brubaker’s partner in crime on Iron Fist (and Uncanny X-Men), Matt Fraction. You know how much I’ve enjoyed his writing the past few years. While his Marvel work has lost some of the attitude and sparkle of his more independent stuff, I still think Matt is one of the top up-and-comers in comics today. The first arc of his Invincible Iron Man felt like something I wanted to write, which is probably the best praise I can offer in my own conceited world. Curious to see what he has up his sleeve for 2009.

Andy Diggle on Thunderbolts has me curious. Loved his run on Losers, and the Green Arrow: Year One book was a solid take on the character. I’m also looking forward to Dan Slott’s run on Mighty Avengers. Partially because he’s not Bendis and partially because Slott is a huge Avengers fan, but mostly because he writes fun books with the right mix of action, comedy and crucial moments. I first became a fan of his work with the Arkham Asylum: Living Hell miniseries he did at DC in 2003. The early issues of his Avengers: Initiative drew my interest for a while, but I ended up cutting it from my pull list when it got too mired in “big event” plotting. Another book I liked was Paul Cornell’s Captain Britain and MI:13 series. Unfortunately, I only got the first four issues and then couldn’t track down the rest. I guess I’m looking forward to the trades in 2009!

I’ll echo your approval of James Robinson’s return. I picked up the first hardcover collection of Starman this summer and loved it. His Golden Age is one of my all-time favorite stories too. It’s true that he seems to work best when not being saddled by continuity and editorial interference. That said, volume two of Starman comes out in a few short months! DC has also started releasing larger hardcover collections of Y: The Last Man and just announced the same treatment for Fables. I give two thumbs up to those decisions. I want to get my wife interested in both titles (I already got her hooked on Preacher and Blue Monday) and these hardcovers seem like the best way to do it. On that note, Chynna Clugston started a new Blue Monday miniseries in 2008 and I look forward to grabbing that trade next year.

A lot of the other stuff I’m interested in may show up in my stocking from Santa next week. My wish list includes things like: Chip Kidd’s Bat-Manga book, the Skyscrapers of the Midwest collection from Josh Cotter, the first trade of Warren Ellis’ Freakangels, Mesmo Delivery by Rafael Grampa, a few of the Golden Age ACG archives (Green Lama, Magicman, Nemesis) put out by Dark Horse, the Scud collection from Image, Omega the Unknown by Jonathan Lethem & Farel Dalrymple and Blake Bell’s book about Steve Ditko. Most, if not all, of these books were released in 2008. Kudos to the comic industry for that output!

See? Not everything I read has superheroes in it!

On a final note, I’d also like to expand on your note that Final Crisis was introduced in 2008. Unfortunately, it wasn’t finished in 2008. I’m going to go on the record right now and announce that I just don’t care for event comics. Sure, I buy them every freakin’ time they put them out, but I think that’s more a collector’s reflex than any sort of focused interest. I’m almost always disappointed by the results. And DC’s overall universe has taken a gigantic hit in stability, from my point of view, as a result of all this constant “OH NO!” foreshadowing and angsty, heavy-handed plotting. There is not a single title on DC’s current slate, aside form some Vertigo titles, that interests me in the least. Two years ago, I was reading almost everything they put out. If that’s not a glaring problem, I don’t know what is. Sadly, Marvel is starting to deliver the same results for me. The only titles I consistently read anymore are the peripheral books that don’t seem to be as rooted in the general nonsense going on. I’d like to see a moratorium on Events (with a capital “E”). At the least, corral them into a family of titles instead of the entire breadth of your output. The dreaded Spider-Man: Clone Saga was an odious piece of garbage, but it was segregated enough to keep its stench off the rest of the world. Same goes for most X-Men soap opera plots that I have less and less interest in as I get older. Is it too much to ask that we just get an excellent run of Justice League stories or Avengers stories or Batman stories or (god forbid) Wolverine stories without all the restless claptrap constantly revolving around them? And don’t tell me that the “market has changed” and the “customers’ expectations have evolved.” That’s complete and utter bull. These changes and evolutions are self-made. Writers write “for the trades” because they’re lazy or because the publishers are greedy. It has nothing to do with the readers. I’m pretty sure I never signed a petition asking for gloomy, redundant, violent comics without a glimmer of hope or excitement. I don’t remember picketing outside DC’s offices with a sign that said “More Rape Please!” I’m not saying Spider-Man shouldn’t be punching bad guys in the face. On the contrary, I think he should do more of it…with less of the “sky is falling” consequences, sideways glances, overwhelming politics and downward-spiral finality of it all. Lighten the f*** up.

I know that rant isn’t really a “highlight” of 2008. But perhaps 2009 could be the year we get back to good, fun comics? I’d like to be able to praise that accomplishment at this time next year.

John?

Jason, Jason, take your tablets.  Go to your happy place for a few minutes.  We’ll wait.

Of course, I can’t disagree with your rant at all.  Your points are all valid, I agree with them, and I would also love to see 2009 be a return to more fun comics.  Not every comic has to be Giffen/DeMatteis’ Justice League, but not every comic has to be a blood drenched gritty buzzkiller either.  Good grief.  Alan Moore (not one of Jason’s favorites, but I like his work) seems to be able to do serious stories that don’t seem to drown in pathos and unnecessary violence.  Perhaps it’s because, for every From Hell he’s written, he’s also produced a more lighthearted book, like Tomorrow Stories or Tom Strong

Still, I believe we may have gotten off point a tad.  I will echo your words about Dan Slott, a writer who does an excellent job of writing good stories, yet recognizing that they can be fun.  His Great Lakes Avengers limited series is still one of my favorites.  And for those, like you, who were turned off by Larry Stroman’s art on X-Factor, he has left the book, so you may want to give it another try.

We’ve both shared some of what we thought was important in 2008, as well as what gives us hope in 2009.  There’s good stuff out now to read, and more on the way, but the percentage of good reads compared to what’s being published isn’t nearly as high as it should be.

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Comic Cancellations and the Comics Industry

Dec-08-08

While Jason and I may have been slow in posting the past few weeks due to other commitments, the comics world has continued to move forward. One of the big recent announcements made by the Big Two was DC’s decision to cancel their mid-tier Bat-Books, including Robin, Nightwing and Birds of Prey. This may have come as a surprise to some readers, but it’s not an unusual move. None of those books had a buzz about them and sales had been mediocre for some time.


This tactic, of culling the weak from a herd of related books, is not unusual. Marvel, when it introduced its “Brand New Day” storyline into Amazing Spider-Man, used that as an opportunity to cancel all of its other monthly Spidey titles, although they then began publishing Amazing Spider-Man every week, so that may have been a wash. Throughout the past decade, Marvel has also taken the hatchet to its bloated X-Men family of titles on a few occasions, although such cancellations never seem to trim the line for long, with new books and relaunched versions of older books soon appearing.


In fact, that’s one of the questions that one must ask when confronted with news of this sort: does it matter, in any conceivable way? It’s possible we won’t see Birds of Prey again, but does anyone truly believe that there won’t be another Robin series popping up down the line? All it would require would be a hot artist or writer being brought on board and that title could easily be relaunched, with a new number one issue, and if we’re really lucky, variant covers (perhaps with special metals used on them)! Cancellations like these, while frustrating to those fans who follow those series on a monthly basis, are normally just speedbumps in the road for these established characters, who will either guest star regularly in their parent title, or will be back soon enough in their own title. Cancellations are only a concern when you’re a relatively new, untested property, like say, Blue Beetle.


Yes, DC has also announced the cancellation of their Blue Beetle title, and sadly, the titular hero has no other place to call his home. Cancelling a title such as Blue Beetle or the critically acclaimed Manhunter (or, on the Marvel side, the oft-cancelled Spider-Girl) often means that the characters who have lost their book will disappear, rarely, if ever, to be seen again. If the writer of that title is writing other titles for the company, they may be able to move some characters over into their non-cancelled titles, but that’s not always the case (and for a character like Spider-Girl, who’s in a different continuity, it’s not really even possible). Many people have attacked and lambasted DC over its decision to cancel Blue Beetle, as the character had just appeared on their new cartoon show The Brave and the Bold, and the cancellation was seen as a poor marketing move, which it might well have been, had DC ever marketed its comics towards the viewers of the show in question.


In any case, the comics blogosphere has been all abuzz the past few weeks as numerous armchair quarterbacks discuss these cancellations, and what sort of an effect they will have on the industry as a whole. Never one to miss out on an opportunity to inject my opinion into a topic that other’s have milked dry, I am going to jump into this fray, as is the lovely and talented Jason. I think we bring a unique perspective to this debate, in that we are not armchair quarterbacks of any sort; I, for one, sit in an office chair, with no armchairs in sight.


So, let me outline what we’ll be discussing, and then I’ll turn this over to Jason, who’s been hoping to rant for many days now. We’ve mentioned the different types of cancellations: mid-tier books that will likely be back soon; mid-tier books which are absorbed into the parent books in their line; and the third stringers who may disappear altogether with no other title to call home. The question is: are these sorts of cancellations wise business decisions? Do they help or hurt the comics industry as a whole? Are they a shortsighted decision or one that looks to the future? To begin the discussion, I turn this over to Jason, but I’ll be back with my own thoughts on the subject soon enough.


To begin, I would like to point out that my chair does have arms, but it is also on wheels…so I think that technically rules out any sort of “armchairing” on my part. You’re right to relate that I have been waiting to rant about this topic for a while now. I kept starting and stopping my own version of this post because I had just too many thoughts and opinions to blurt out. I didn’t want to tax anyone’s reading comprehension abilities as I vacillated wildly from topic to topic. I’m sure this response will meander into the realms of economic concerns, buying habits, related cultural industries, the counterintuition of the industry and a bunch of other things. However, first I’m going to try to address John’s questions straight on.


John asks if “these sorts of cancellations are wise business decisions” to which I respond: ANY sort of cancellation is usually a wise business decision. And, quite honestly, I wish the Big Two would do more pruning of their overgrown product lines. It’s all about curb appeal…and right now, neither Marvel or DC has much of that when it comes to attracting new readership. The mentality of the last decade or two, to be filed under “Lessons NOT Learned From the Mid-90s,” is this: if readers love Mr. Super in one book, they’re sure to love him in eight books! If they are willing to fork over $3 for one comic featuring Mega-Dude, imagine how much we can squeeze from them if we have Mega-Dude appear in a dozen titles this month! On its face, that sounds like a great supply-and-demand model, right? Unfortunately, comics are a different sort of beast. Maybe I read the monthly Mighty Mr. Super title because I like the writer or the artist, whereas Awesome Mr. Super, Mr. Super Adventures, and Mr. Super Hangs Around Outside Elementary Schools employ creators who don’t twirl my baton. Or, and this seems to be the one the big boys can’t seem to understand, maybe I only have $3 this month! Maybe, I buy a bunch of other books (including, ironically, some from the same publisher) and don’t want to make that commitment or be faced with that choice. Or let’s say I do make that commitment, but now I have to drop one of their other titles in order to read more about Mr. Super.


Extrapolating that kind of effect can be difficult, but I’ll try to explain it in small numbers. DC launches Blue Beetle to some critical success. It begins to build an audience. DC faithful like it enough to add it to their regular buy lists. However, then DC decides to launch an event comic that is destined to “change the DC Universe FOREVER.” Well, being a DC fan, you feel like you need to see this. You stretch your budget a bit to include this overpriced piece of garbage, but that’s pushing it. You like Blue Beetle and don’t want to give up on it yet…I mean, they’re going to introduce this new character, build a world around him and let him enjoy some adventures on his own before trying to force decades of unrelated continuity into the title, right? AHAHAHAHA. Don’t hold your breath. But, for argument’s sake, let’s just assume that everything is going swimmingly over in Beetle-burg. Now, DC decides that Batman is going to die. Oh no! Not one of the major comic icons of my lifetime! I need to follow that story desperately! Um…bye-bye Blue Beetle or big event comic or DC in general just for forcing me to choose. In fact, maybe I’ll just give up completely on comics. Granted, that may be pushing this example to the extreme, but it’s possible. The goodwill that was going to be built by Blue Beetle or Secret Six or Birds of Prey or The All-New Atom or Shadowpact or anything else, is now dribbled away by DC trying to do too much at once.


That’s an example of what can cause a new book to be cancelled, but what about a mid-tier book? Well, it’s a similar track. Companies forget that there is a limited audience out there and that that audience has a limited budget too. You can’t have the mentality that “everyone in the world wants to read every book I make” and hope to have great success in this business. I haven’t gone back and crunched years of data on the topic, but I can make a few educated guesses about those second-level titles. Let’s say The Supergroup sells 100,000 copies a month. The company decides this is a good time to take advantage of increased readership and introduce The Fabulous Supergroup as a companion title. For the sake of simplicity, readership on the first issue of Fabulous is also 100,000. Wow! Another hit on their hands! Of course, over the release of a few issues, the numbers adjust themselves to account for readers making a decision between the two titles or deciding the creators aren’t their favorites or the stories aren’t interesting or whatever. After issue #4 hits the stands, Fabulous is now attracting only 70,000 readers and the original title is down to about 90,000. In order to regain some flagging interest, the company decides to launch a solo title for their most popular character, Mega-Dude. Mega-Dude’s premiere issue flies off the racks at a pace of 120,000. Awesome! But now it’s decision time again. Do readers feel that Mega-Dude is better on his own (meaning an uptick in the solo series, but less interest in the team book)? The original series drops to 75,000…Fabulous now sits at 50,000 (and is on the bubble for cancellation now) and the solo series settles in around 80,000. Do they feel that three titles with Mega-Dude are way too many and decide to drop one or two of them? Do they get completely fed up with Mega-Dude’s overexposure and drop all the titles? Do they decide to stick with all three but now have to drop the Mr. Super title because of a limited budget? Or does a rival company take advantage of the diluted market and launch some new fan favorite title that attracts 150,000 purchases and shoots to number one on the sales chart?


Someone is going to lose.


And that’s just the economic semantics of the deal. Having the same character appear in a bunch of different books every month is a horrible way to keep characterization and tell fluid stories. Why can’t there be just one X-Men comic? You have great stories to tell? Perfect! Tell them in one book. Maybe increase the page count or put it out bi-weekly or something. Is there really any need to dilute the characters and their gravitas just to kill a few more trees and put more stress on your readers’ wallets? At the very least, combine the titles…if two books cost $6, you should be able to double the page count and produce a single title for $5. If every publisher would follow this model, readers could get more bang for their buck and the market would turn to one more similar to Japan’s booming market…with thicker monthly books that contain multiple stories. Less titles to fret over, but more stories in each book.


I’ll skip John’s second question and go right to the “shortsighted decision” inquiry. Yes, I believe all of these cancellations are shortsighted. It has nothing to do with the titles themselves, but with the overall mentality of the comic industry. Everything they do is shortsighted. Switching creative lineups. Launching assorted miniseries. Killing off established characters. You name it, it’s a blindfolded dartboard mission. Even the things they think they have planned out ahead of time end up being retrofitted at the last second. Look at all the stories about DC’s big event books for the past two years…Dan DiDio has lorded over the titles, making adjustments, removing key plot points, changing characters and generally mucking about in the creators’ realm all in the name of “executive editing.” And how has that worked out for them so far? I’ll tell you: confusing, self-referencing, continuity-laden stories featuring third and fourth-tier characters that the average literate person doesn’t recognize and could care less about. You’d think they’d learn after one debacle, but instead they keep trying to adjust for each event, making them go further and further off track until the Final Final Final Crisis will be a one-shot featuring Bwana Beast playing a game of battleship against the head of Toyman. And someone is bound to say, “Wasn’t that one dude on the Super Friends cartoon?”


Now for John’s last question: “Do cancellations help or hurt the industry as a whole?” Well, personally, I think there’s some good and some bad. There have been titles that have bled readers without outside influence, proving they probably didn’t deserve the attention they were granted. There have been titles launched that had great buzz before they hit the stands and then just fell flat, whether from overblown expectations or suck-o creative output. And then there are books that really could have been something, but were given no promotion, overpopulated with ill-conceived crossovers, or hastily tossed on the chopping block to save the 14th useless and watered-down Cool-Man title. As a whole, I wish the industry would think a little before they launch the titles, take better care of them once they’ve launched and look across their entire line before they start cutting off noses to spite their faces, so to speak.


I have a lot more to say on the topic, but I’ll give it back to John to digest my rant and reply appropriately.

Well, before I delve into what you wrote too extensively, I have to completely agree with you that these choices are short-sighted, and that all the choices the Big Two make fall into that category. Sadly, I feel that’s a problem with much of the world today; we tend to live in a very short-sighted society, which can’t look more than a few weeks or months into the future. The comics industry is obviously not as strong as it could be, as it has been in the past, and indeed, as strong as it is in other countries. While there are numerous reasons for this, I believe that, to change this and to really turn the industry around, the leaders of this industry are going to have to look to the future and make some difficult choices. They need to completely change the way they do business, because the current business model? Not working out so well.

I agree with much of what Jason says, although I feel that you don’t hit a wall of diminishing returns in a financial realm only, when you publish multiple titles featuring the same character; you hit that same wall in a creative realm as well. Put simply, Batman may be one of the most interesting characters in creative fiction, but he’s not interesting enough to feature predominantly in six books a month. If you insist on publishing six books a month featuring this character, you are going to start running out of ideas, and you’re going to either recycle old ideas (changing little) or you’re going to get some really bad stories.

Understand that I am quite cognizant that bad stories can happen in the books of characters that only have one title. My point would be that, in the case of a character like Batman or Superman or Spider-Man, you should easily be able to get the top creators in the business to chronicle their adventures. If you restrict their adventures to one main title, you can have the top creators in the business telling their stories, and you don’t have to worry about trying to find others to pad the pages of the many ancillary titles that feature them. You would have creators who would be building on many years worth of stories, yes, but those years would only be filled with twelve or twenty four issues worth of stories, not sixty or seventy two issues, as we have now.

I also see how budgets are limited, and multiple series featuring a favorite character can really hurt a buyer’s wallet. I’m sure that, if this was suggested to the Powers That Be that run DC and Marvel (and I’m sure it has) they would counter that, if they drop two Superman titles a month, the consumer who was purchasing them wouldn’t then start picking up Manhunter and Blue Beetle; they’d simply save the money, or use it on another form of entertainment. Unfortunately, the Powers That Be could be right, and consumers might react that way. Still, I believe that it’s a chance that must be taken. I believe that, if given more choices, not only might current readers try something different, but that new readers might be brought into comics, since there would now be a better chance that the Big Two were publishing something that might interest them. This wouldn’t be a quick process, as there are decades of preconceptions built into our culture, but going back to making far sighted decisions, those preconceptions will never be broken down if steps aren’t taken to do so.

Okay, intermission is over. The rant may continue.

Right. I’ve gotten my breath back and I’m ready to sound off again! I like the point you raised at the end. I think there’s a general fear within the industry that they’re competing against video games and movies and all the other related disposable entertainment. However, you can’t ever succeed if all you do is operate on a fear-based model. Don’t take chances! Don’t do something that may alter the sales patterns of the last four years! Don’t make any changes to characters or continuity that can’t be explained and changed back at a moment’s notice! Don’t try to attract new readers in a new way! Don’t put any effort into cross-promotion outside your sheltered little industry!

Look, how simple could this be? Instead of putting the onus on the retailer to sell your product, why don’t you do something that could help out everyone? Pundits like to draw conclusions about comic books from comic-based movies. The new Batman flick did gangbusters, that must mean the comics are selling millions too, right? Um…no. The person who watches a movie isn’t necessarily the same person who has spent a decade following the adventures of his favorite hero. Sadly, while most comic book readers will flock to comic-based movies, most comic-based movie watchers don’t flock to comic shops. They go home and watch TV or go see another movie or go out in the sunshine and engage in sports or social events. It’s not a two-way street by any means of the imagination. Readers need to be cultivated and, in a way, bred into existence. I can’t think of one person I know these days who just decided one morning to be a comic book reader. And the industry does little to help. I always believed there was potential to cross-promote a movie into a visit to the comic shop. That is, until I actually owned a comic book store. When someone wanders in looking for a recommendation, sometimes you’re at a loss. Sure, if they just saw From Hell or V For Vendetta, you can recommend the source material verbatim. However, X-Men: The Last Stand came out while I had my store. Someone who knows nothing about the X-Men, aside from what they’ve seen in the theater, comes in looking for an X-Men comic book. How do you explain to them that there are about a dozen titles to choose from? Or that you could recommend another dozen or so collections and trades, all with different characters, plots and creative teams? Which do you think they’d like? Which ones do you personally think are fabulous, but could lose the person you’re showing it to? And if you make one bad recommendation, you risk losing that customer forever (not that there’s a guarantee that they would come back anyway).

Maybe I was just a bad salesman…I’ve heard from both sides of that argument already. I know that not all superhero movies can pull a revered plotline straight from the pages and slap it up on screen. Concessions need to be made in terms of pacing and costumes and special-effects abilities and even for the translation to viewers who aren’t familiar with comics in general. But imagine how much easier things would be at the retail level if there were only one Batman title on the shelves. Someone walks in, says they just saw the film and now they want a Batman comic and BOOM, instant sale. You don’t need to spend an hour explaining the story or the crossover or the extraneous characters popping in and out of every other panel. Just, here’s the monthly Batman title. I would also like to believe, and maybe I’m just an eternal optimist, that one title would mean better stories. You have a built-in filter. Let the top creators pitch their stories and pick the ones you think are tops. Don’t just settle for whatever because you have 150 pages to fill in a month and you think consumers are mindless sheep. KISS…Keep It Simple Stupid!

I’m old enough to remember the DC Implosion of 1978. Twenty titles were cancelled and a handful of other planned books were nixed due to low sales attributed to a couple winter blizzards (which points to an obvious flaw in your business plan). Granted, none of the titles were anything to write home about…with the exception, in my little world, of Mister Miracle and Secret Society of Super-Villains. However, DC was also on the verge of eliminating their flagship title and namesake of the company, Detective Comics. Only a last minute merger with the better-selling Batman Family kept Detective in print. It goes to show that a bloated line can be dangerous for even your most historic titles. Maybe Detective should’ve been sent packing? Nostalgia can only sell so many books, the rest need to be sold on story and characters…unless you count that brief span in the 90s and early 00s where sales were artist-based, which always baffled me.

Of course, once you start talking about cancelling titles, the fanboys start to freak out about cuts across the board and people losing jobs and companies going out of business. I recently read a post on the new version of Blog@Newsarama (which is horribly amateurish and, at times, just plain awful, compared to what they had before), in which the author tries to make a connection between a film studio cutting back on its staff and the time of the successful comic-based movie coming to pass. This point is crowbarred in right after he points out that The Dark Knight just made a billion dollars and that comic-based movies are more successful than ever. If comic-based movies are so successful, why then, in any sense of the definition of logical, would film companies stop making them? Just because they lay off part of their office staff in order to reduce overhead, doesn’t mean they’re suddenly going to wipe their upcoming slate and devote all their resources to making documentaries about churches and playing chess. They’re not going to suddenly stop producing the one film genre that is bringing in demonstrable cash. And, even if they did, there’s absolutely no correlation between a reduction in comic-based movies and the sudden and complete collapse of the comic book industry. Popular comics have been produced since the 1930s or earlier, and the first successful comic book movie was…Superman back in the late 70s. With a glowing track record like that, I’m pretty sure the industry will survive.

I’d also like to point out that comics more or less thrived during the Great Depression and, even though the popularity of superhero comics waned in the post-World War II world, other genres…crime, horror and romance…rose to outpace their flagging sales. Granted, comics back then were MUCH less expensive and usually appealed to a broader swath of the population, but the need for entertainment and an escape from reality are never stronger than in poor economic times. I don’t see this as a doom-and-gloom scenario. Rather, I see today’s market as a chance to correct problems, exploit opportunities and generally right a ship that has been lazily listing for the past decade, like a rowboat with only one oar…circling and circling until the rower can’t do it anymore and the boat just drifts off into the horizon. Build up a new readership! Limit your best characters to two titles AT MOST! Create some new, compelling characters that can stand the test of time (Marvel’s last wildly successful characters, Wolverine & Punisher, were both created 30 years ago)! Come up with stories that create a foundation for new worlds instead of just referring to things that happened 25 years ago in a book nobody remembers! Go forward! Stop looking back!

Whew. That’s enough for me right now. I’m going to slap my tag team partner’s hand and just slump down in the corner until I’m needed again.

Way to go Champ. You got ’em on the ropes. Now just take a swig of this water and take a minute to catch your breath.

It has become the sport du jour in the comics blogosphere to explain to all who will listen what the best way is to fix the current economic slump which has affected the comics field since the mid 90s. I don’t think either one of us claims to be experts, but honestly, it doesn’t take a genius to know that the current business model being used by Marvel and DC simply will not be effective in the long run. They may be able to squeeze out a few more dollars from loyal customers over the next decade, but after that? Unless they change the way they do business, I simply can’t imagine there will be much of a comics industry after that point in time.

The sad thing about this is that there are a LOT of truly good books being produced right now. Regrettably, not many of them are being produced by Marvel and DC for their flagship titles, but the well written and compelling stories, with strong artwork that serves the story well, are out there. Comics can be great, and we see evidence of that right now, but we need to communicate this information to the general public. It’s become quite common to have a newspaper, magazine or mainstream internet site do a story about how comics aren’t just for kids anymore, but that’s not true promotion, or at the very least, it shouldn’t be the beginning, middle and end of promotion. Events such as Free Comic Book Day is a grand idea, except that it begins and ends in the comic shop, a place that most people who aren’t comics fans already don’t visit. We need the comic shops to go out amongst the population and sell their wares, luring the unwary back to their place of business after distributing free samples of their wares.

I’ve come to the point where I simply don’t read the amount of mainstream superheroes that I used to, which I find rather depressing. I love superheroes. I understand that they can be considered gaudily dressed symbols of a stunted adolescence, or brightly colored avatars of a power fantasy, but I don’t care. They’re neat, and when done well, they can be as deep and meaningful as any other type of story. When done well, they can also just be a heck of a lot of fun, and there’s no shame in that either. Unfortunately, so many of them aren’t done well anymore, and while I still read scads of comics (and keep up with developments occurring in both DC and Marvel), more and more what I’m reading comes from DC’s Vertigo line, from Dark Horse, from IDW, from Oni or Fantagraphics or from various and sundry other independent publishers. I enjoy their books, and I enjoy the opportunity to explore their worlds, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t really miss reading the adventures of my favorite superheroes, particularly the Avengers, Fantastic Four, JLA and Titans, all of which I’ve found all but unreadable lately.

Perhaps the best way to end this thought would be through the following story. I have been trying to trade my single issue comics in for trade paperbacks for years now, as I find the trades easier to read and easier to loan to people. I also regularly go through my trades and single issues, purging those where I have duplicates of the story in another format, or those where I realize that the story isn’t very good, or doesn’t appeal to me. I never sell my old trades or single issues, but instead I try to give them to people, and many of my friends who don’t regularly read comics, but know of them, are the recipients of many of these. Nine times out of ten, the trades that they love, and the ones that they remark on, are the older ones, from the 70s and 80s. Usually I’m told that these stories were easier to follow, that they made more sense, and that they weren’t as violent or profane, which some of them find offputting (particularly those with children). If my friends and their families are indicative of the general, non-comics reading public, might we not want to consider the ramifications of their opinion?

Well, we’ve wandered all over the field on this one. Are we ready to draw some conclusions and move on?

Wait a second, you’re giving away comics? Why wasn’t I told about this? What’s going on?!?!

I kid. John actually gave me an entire longbox full of comics once. He’s quite the generous sort and always eager to spread the comic gospel to the uninitiated. I guess my past ownership of a store and our continued blathering about comics on this here internet page qualify as missionary work too. We’re like Mormons, but without all that nonsense about finding gold plates buried in the woods (and the polygamy too). I’ve been to Utah. It’s nothing special. Go Team Comics!

I have no conclusions to draw about what we’ve said. I feel like, at times, we’ve argued both ends against the middle…with the middle being rational thought and the ends being “everything is fine” and “everything is falling apart.” The industry needs to change somehow. Everyone knows it. This “circle the wagons” mentality just further insulates an already shrinking fan base while doing nothing to attract new readership. The ones inside the fortified castle are either dying off or trying desperately to break out by pounding their heads on the walls. The ones outside our little fantasyland have no idea what’s going on and just go about their business with a faint recollection that Superman is Clark Kent…or something.

At the same time, the industry isn’t going anywhere. I don’t want to say comics are bulletproof when it comes to the economy, because we all know how the industry is so very capable of shooting itself in the foot on a regular basis, but being on the low end of the entertainment radar can sometimes be a boon. Ignorance is bliss, right?

We could make a list of things the industry should at least TRY to do, but no one would listen anyway. And we’ll just keep reading whatever they put out, in one format or another. Who’s worse…the executives and editors or the readers themselves? During the recent presidential campaign, Barack Obama often used a quote by Albert Einstein to explain the need for change and I think it’s appropriate here too: “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.”

Maybe it’s all our fault.


Does DC Stand for “DiDio is a Crackhead”?

Nov-18-08

Jason and I, when we discussed reviewing comics, mentioned that it was important to us that we critique the work, not the people who created the work. I may not enjoy a comic that Rob Liefeld pencilled, but I don’t know him as a man, so who am I to attack him personally? However, if one looks at the title for this entry, it may seem that I’m here to lob personal attacks on Dan DiDio, who is the Senior Vice President and Executive Editor of the DC Universe. I don’t want to make personal attacks against DiDio, who may be a nice guy, but the decisions he often makes certainly lead me to wonder if he does not, in fact, use drugs. I certainly can’t come up with another reason for many of the things he has done.

DiDio has earned the wrath of DC Universe fans for some time now, and many people point to him as the reason that DC comics are no longer considered (by some) to be of the high quality we enjoyed in the past. I normally resist looking at easy solutions or placing the blame for anything all on the shoulder’s of one person, but it must be said that, as the Executive Editor and overseer of DC’s entire output, he must acknowledge some of the blame for the perceived dip in the DC line.

Jason and I spend more time talking about Marvel than DC, and part of that is because Jason is more of a Marvel fan. I started out as a Marvel fan, but fell into DC Comics in the late 80s-early 90s and discovered that they published some amazing stories. By the late 90s, I was reading many more DC books than I was Marvel books. Sadly, my love affair with DC began to end shortly after DiDio joined the company in 2002 (as DC Universe Vice President-Editorial). It was less than two years after DiDio became a staff member at DC that Identity Crisis was published, which I have long viewed as the point where the DC Universe became darker than I enjoyed. Rape, murder and unheroic activities seemed to invade the stories of these beloved icons with increasing regularity, and while an occasional story that hits a dark point is fine, when they seem to be the norm across the entire line of comics, I begin to back off. I have been backing off more and more over the ensuing years, even dropping titles I once loved like JSA and JLA. The frustration that I feel towards the current direction of the DCU is another reason that we don’t discuss DC that much.

DiDio has continued to steer the DC line into darker and choppier waters, all the while often uttering comments which draw down much fan ire. I personally had a friend who was ready to drive to New York and stuff DiDio in a refrigerator when he said that he didn’t see the point to Nightwing and wanted to kill him off. He has supposedly been responsible for the deaths of numerous DC Universe characters, and whether their deaths were his decision or not, he certainly had to sign off on them.

However, news today tops all of these stories, as it seems that DiDio has been fighting with two of his hottest writers. Apparently, DiDio and James Robinson, acclaimed writer of Starman and The Golden Age who just recently returned to comics to write some Superman stories, had an argument with DiDio, and quit the books, and apparently the entire DCU. Even more spectacular, DiDio apparently argued with Grant Morrison about the ending to Final Crisis, demanding rewrites, leading Morrison to say he’ll not work with DC again in the future either.

Obviously, there is likely more to both of these stories than we know, and will probably ever know, but the question before us now is how DiDio could let this happen? Is it good business to allow these writers to slip away from DC? I have some points to make, and can even offer some arguments in DiDio’s favor, but I’m curious to hear what Jason has to say first.

One could make the argument that the current path that DC Comics is traveling down was not mapped out by Dan DiDio, but it’s one that he feels helpless to diverge from. Of course, one would be totally stupid to think that. The stuff with character deaths is questionable, since we all know that superheroes come and go with no sense of boundaries when it comes to life and death. Horrible things happen to these characters in an attempt to show that they are strong and can overcome all obstacles. A quick perusal of the Women in Refrigerators page shows you all you need to know about how people are treated in superhero comics.

Not being as avid a DC fan as some, I could also begin a convincing debate about the need to inject a spark into the universe. The stories of the past few decades, for the most part, have been boring and forgettable. The characters are flat and have no true sense of themselves, no depth, no meaning. I guess that’s why I feel that Identity Crisis wasn’t a completely off-base idea. That’s not to say the actual plot and follow-through were done with any sort of class or purpose. Providing a rallying point for the hero community was important. Making that rallying point the rape and subsequent murder of a hero’s wife was disturbing, to say the least.

You know how certain parts of the world are always a bit behind the times? It takes longer for popular culture to hit the shores or technology doesn’t advance as quickly in some corners? Well, in my eyes, DC is like the Eastern Europe to Marvel’s USA and Japan. Everything is either a cheap knock-off, produced to score some immediate rewards, or it’s the real thing…only about a dozen years after the “real thing” has lost its impact.

What I mean to say is, DC seems to be stuck in the gritty back alleys of the late 80s and early 90s. Everything is done for shock value. Everything is dark and unrepentant. Everything is selfish. It’s all built on vigilante justice and an eye-for-an-eye mentality.

DiDio isn’t responsible for that first woman stuffed in a refrigerator, but he is guilty of perpetuating that ideal. “Hey, that was a stunner, huh? Let’s do it again and again and again until our readers become first completely desensitized by the violence and then just flat out tired of it!” Anger for the sake of anger is boring. Seething just to hear yourself seethe is sad. And unproductive.

Dan DiDio didn’t break the pattern, therefore, it continues unabated. Fresh ideas are offered, only to dwindle off before realizing their full potential (see, for example, 52, Countdown, World War III, One Year Later, Infinite Crisis, Trinity and Final Crisis…to name a few). The biggest misstep had to be the whole One Year Later debacle. I owned my comic book store during that slash-and-burn period. We were told that all these crazy things were going to develop. We’ll all be shocked by stuff! A new Aquaman! A new Blue Beetle! A new Freedom Fighters! A new Atom! Oooh! You know what I remember from that period? Ollie Queen became Mayor of Star City. That’s it. And even that was uneventful.

Sure, there were Previews listings with parts of covers obscured and mixing and matching of some teams, but in the end nothing changed. In fact, they never even really explained the OYL thing…it just ceased to be (like Bart Allen). And that wasn’t all. The timing of the event was so ridiculous. I don’t recall if it was supposed to coincide with 52 or happen afterwards or whatever, but reading 52 just confused things further. And don’t get me started on all the dangling plotlines that 52 offered up and then never resolved (just how the hell did Hawkgirl get back down to normal size? When did Firestorm and Cyborg get disconnected from each other? And where is Alan Scott’s other eye?). I was actually enjoying a lot of DC titles right before all of this happened. In fact, I had soured on Marvel’s youth movement and was gravitating almost solely towards DC. Nowadays, aside from Vertigo, I read one DC title (Secret Six) and it’s currently on Death Row with little chance of reprieve. The DC universe means nothing to me anymore.

But enough about me. Let’s talk about all the near-public fallouts between DC management and their creators. We all know that Alan Moore has already stated that he won’t work with DC again. Not too long ago, Chuck Dixon was unceremoniously dropped from his writing duties. And now both Robinson and Morrison have had disruptive conversations with Mr. DiDio. You’re right in concluding that we can’t make complete judgments on these events without more information, but we can certainly speculate!

Is there a “Big Picture” that DiDio has in mind? I know he can’t reveal it without spoiling the plots of many titles and the development of many characters, but the general flailing about that seems to be dominating DC’s stable does not instill confidence. Morrison seems to have had a large hand in recreating and directing things for the past two or three years now. His influence is felt in nearly every title. But were all of his ideas home runs? Not by a longshot. And we can discuss that further later on in the week.

Same goes for Robinson. Here’s a favorite creator who put together a great run of comics, playing in a nearly forgotten corner of DC’s world with near autonomy. That autonomy helped him guide his characters and create a coherent vision. But that same autonomy may have colored his view of how things are done in the larger sandbox of licensed characters whose histories are written out on the sides of lunchboxes and within the confines of Saturday morning cartoons.

Who’s at fault? I certainly don’t know for sure. I’m not friends with Mr. Morrison. I’ve never shared a conversation with Mr. Robinson. I can attest to neither their characters nor their temperaments. To the same extent, I do not know Mr. DiDio. However, past practice would demonstrate that the decisions made by the editorial department have not always inspired, let alone made sense.

Wow. That suddenly sounded very academic of me. I apologize. Now I feel like I need to let loose with a stream of obscenities and snarky, back-handed insults. Blah.

Did anything I just say make any sense to anyone?

I think what you said made a lot of sense, and you’re absolutely right when you say that the dust-ups with Morrison and Robinson may have been a case of finicky creative types and not DiDio’s fault. Of course, if he’s had problems with three creators (counting Dixon) in the recent past (all three of whom have successfully worked with other editors on long term projects) it does begin to look a little worse for DiDio.

Perhaps DiDio felt that losing these creators was worth it. Chuck Dixon has always been a solid writer, but never a fan favorite, so perhaps DiDio thought Dixon wouldn’t be missed. I believe that Morrison had said he was going to leave comics, either for good or for a nice long rest, after Final Crisis, so perhaps DiDio figured he had nothing to lose by going toe to toe with him. And Robinson did leave comics for years after he wrapped Starman; perhaps DiDio thought that Robinson would leave again. But even if DiDio believed all of the arguments I’ve laid out here, it still seems poor business sense to drive off top talent in this way. Dixon may not have made Wizard’s Top Ten Writer Lists (and he very well may have at some point), but he always was on time, and his books sold in the middle tier of titles at the very least. Morrison may have decided not to leave comics, or to only take a short break, and Robinson may have been back for the long haul. And even if none of those statements are true, breaks with creative talent like these seem to be a bad idea, since you also are sending a message to all of your other talent; a message that you’re not open to new or different ideas, and that you don’t play well with others.

In the end, my concern is that DC seems to be spiraling into a black hole of continuity. Most of their titles have become so bogged down in continuity that a reader has to be a long time fan to be able to understand them. It seems like they’re now writing only to the same, hardcore audience that has been buying their titles for the past twenty years. Perhaps this isn’t a bad strategy. After all, that hardcore audience is the vast majority of the people buying their product. But I can’t help but think that no one new will be drawn into the DC Universe by the stories currently gracing the pages of their comics line. I can’t help thinking that DiDio seems to be forcing his creative vision onto the pages of the DCU, and that his vision is somewhat lacking, and very short term.

Short term? We wish! This “overhaul” has dragged on for nearly four years now, slogging through special series after special series, with entire worlds reborn and left undeveloped. When will it all end (or at least start making sense)?

Cutting ties (or having them cut) with Morrison and Robinson definitely sends a message to the other creators and it’s not a very pretty one. DiDio is basically saying “my way or the highway.” and if he won’t kowtow to even the fans’ favorite writers, then what does that mean for the day-to-day, in the trenches people?

It’s not like Morrison needs DC. I’m sure he’ll be more than happy to sit at home in his immaculate suits with his feet up on his pagan ritual dais and collect his royalty checks. There are very few writers these days who are able to not only write a good superhero yarn, but are also able to look ahead, deconstruct the genre and offer insights into how new technology, new social mores and new political developments will affect stories. Morrison has that kind of acid-tripped outlook. Even if you don’t understand all of his work, you can’t deny that it’s filled with obscure notions, intelligent details and far-reaching revelations. To disconnect that free-flowing font of creativity from DC is foolish at best, and flat out depressing at worst.

Robinson is someone who has proven he can make miracles out of tidbits. His characters are strong. His stories are rooted in pragmatic solutions. And his dialogue has a natural tone that’s pretty rare in today’s stammering, overwrought world of superheroes (I’m looking at you, Bendis). Again, removing someone from the process who is able to put the pieces together calmly and effectively is the same as trying to perform brain surgery blindfolded with live chickens tied to your hands. Why would you even try? And who are you trying to fool?

You’re right to think that DC is cutting off its nose to spite its aging fanboy base’s face. The biggest reason for my ambivalence towards DC is the density of its continuity. They offer nothing for someone who just wants to be entertained. Reading a DC title is the same experience as subscribing to the Wall Street Journal if you don’t care about government policy or investment profiles. It’s a taxing and humiliating process that either makes you feel incompetent or annoyed. Not much incentive to keep doing it, huh?

Booting the very people who offer new ideas to experiment with or a new direction to explore is isolationist, and we all know how well isolated countries thrive. That is to say, not at all. DC, in its current state, is a dying breed…an exhausted, lumbering elephant just looking for a place to collapse and be picked apart by vultures and poachers.

Jeez, that was a bit over the top, huh?

Look, I sincerely hope that DiDio does have a vision. The only problem is that he doesn’t seem to be willing to share it with anyone. And there’s no way in the world, with numerous titles and ever-changing characters under his supervision, that he can effectively control it all by himself. If no one else buys into what he’s doing, then he’s a lame duck. I hope I’m wrong, but it doesn’t look good. The rumors have swirled before and, in this industry, rumors have a strange way of coming true.


Top 5 Presidential Candidates in the DC Universe

Oct-23-08

Some of you may have heard, but here in America, there’s an election for president coming up in a few weeks. It’s ok if you weren’t aware of it; the news media hasn’t really been covering it much. Anyone could have easily missed it.

Jason and I thought we’d take a look at those characters in the DC and Marvel universes who might make good candidates for president. These are the characters that are, first of all, eligible: they have to be American citizens, and also have to be near the age requirement (since most companies are very ambiguous about the ages of their characters, I’m going to choose those who at least seem like they might be old enough. No Teen Titans need apply). DC Comics is first, and we’ll hit the Marvel characters closer to the election.

Who would I nominate?

1. Jay Garrick: Without a doubt the Golden Age Flash would be my top choice for President. He has a college education, he was a popular sports star before he got his powers, and as a member of the Justice Society of America, he’d be immensely popular. Plus, unlike a lot of heroes, I don’t believe he’s got any negative public events in his past. He’s never been arrested, possessed by evil, or had his name smeared. He’s a good guy, with a sensible head on his shoulders. He’s an older man, but he’s sure not any older than John McCain.

2. Perry White: It looks like he was badly wounded in Final Crisis, but for the moment we’re going to ignore that. Again, we have a figure that many in the public know. He’s a well respected journalist and has led the Daily Planet for years. He also is without scandal, and is again, a man with a cool head and the ability to survive a crisis. Plus, he’s someone who knows how to sniff out the truth, and won’t be snowed by advisors.

3. Barbara Gordon and Dinah Lance: These are two who I think would make the perfect ticket, although I’ll be the first to admit that it would be a hard sell. Gordon is highly educated, but not in anything relating to the political sciences. Plus, it would be two women on the ticket, and one of them physically handicapped. However, if they’d be willing to come clean about who they are, I think they might have a chance. Gordon is possibly one of the smartest characters in comics, and she tempers are intelligence with compassion and common sense, which can be all too rare. I think Lance (otherwise known as Black Canary) would make a perfect VP; someone who can bring a little more fire to the ticket, and who’s willing to get things done. Together these two would make a very strong team, as they have for years.

4. Michael Holt (Mr. Terrific): Although he’s never held an office, he has the education, with PHD’s in both political science and law. He’s a brilliant man, and not to run this into the ground again, but he’s also a compassionate and loving man. Plus, he began life with little, and grew up with a brother who was mentally challenged, so he understands the needs and frustrations of the poor and those with disabilities. And again, I don’t know of any real scandals in his past.

5. John Stewart: My last choice has military experience, as a member of the US Marines, as well as having experience in the largest military in the Universe, the Green Lantern Corps. Stewart has the qualities that exemplify all of my choices, and he’s seen more of the universe than any of them. He’s not someone who would be cowed by a terrorist or a raving leader of a rival nation. His nerves of steel would make him a Commander-in-Chief who could not be intimidated.

I’d vote for any of them.

Really? You’d vote for Perry White? Great Caesar’s Ghost! That guy has to be about 112 years old. Scary. Could you imagine Jimmy Olsen being a heartbeat from the most powerful seat in the free world? It sends a cold chill up my spine.

It’s not often you get to overtly fuse politics with superheroes (or their supporting cast). Sure, many creators over the years have subtly infused their own leanings into certain characters. But overall, the heroes are more concerned with traveling to distant dimensions or battling imminent threats to all of civilization. They don’t have time for petty squabbles over land use rights or foreclosure crises.

When discussing this topic with John, I let him know that I always imagined DC as sort of the old school version of the GOP in comparison to Marvel’s more liberal-leaning characters and settings. And I think you can find a lot of parallels in the way the two universe are set up and how the heroes operate. DC has had government involvement in their world for decades, but when Marvel introduces the seemingly “fascist” Superhero Registration Act, the fans erupt in protest. I know that’s a simplification of the situation, but it sets up my point. DC heroes are icons in costume before they’re people. Marvel’s characters are built on their alter egos and resonant with the “common folk” more easily.

I have the same criteria for selecting these candidates as John: legal age and citizenship. Beyond that, I’m not really concerned with scouring their backgrounds for weird instances of alien possession or mind control or minor penal infractions. Hell, after all the crap that takes place there on a daily basis, I would think that the regular citizens in these universes would just be relieved to have a President who wasn’t blue and four-armed. I mean, seriously, the DC peeps elected Lex Luthor. My picks couldn’t possibly be worse than that decision!

I played around with the idea of trying to select all non-hero types from DC, but the pickings were pretty slim. People with some government or police/detective work were easy to find, but their personalities or pasts seemed to disqualify them. Names like Harry Stein, Sarge Steel and Slam Bradley came to mind. Hal Jordan seemed like a perfect GOP analogue, except for that pesky “went nuts and killed countless innocent people” thing. I was also interested in nominating Jonny Double, but only because his creator, Len Wein, described him as “a down-beat Don Quixote in a society that frowns on windmills. A once white knight in rusty armor searching for that last dragon to slay. The poor man’s Peter Pan.” Awesome.

Instead, I chose these five contenders, in descending order:

5. Lucas “Snapper” Carr: Stop laughing, I’m serious! No single non-hero knows the hero community better than Snapper. He’s been involved with the covert operations of Checkmate, held his own as a member of the inter-dimensional Blasters, and even had his hands replaced by Vril Dox. How cool is that? Snapper also relished the time he spent mentoring Hourman and Young Justice. He’s a born…uh…leader? Plus, he has a gimmick. The media LOVES gimmicks. I can already hear the slogans…”Picking the President is a SNAP!”

4. Noah Kuttler (Calculator): Look, if John is going to nominate Oracle, then I can throw in Calculator. This is supposed to be the evil GOP side of things, right? Seriously though, if Lex Luthor can win an election, anyone can. Calculator has way too many criminal contacts to NOT be able to put the fix in. He’s smart, but more in the “clever” or “conniving” sense. He’s an accomplished strategist and has the resources to dig up dirt for an overwhelming smear campaign against whoever opposed him.

3. Doctor Will Magnus: It’s funny that I gravitated towards smart, science-y types when I was thinking of presidential candidates. I guess, after the last eight years or so, that I’m not-so-subliminally hoping for some intelligence in the Oval Office…perhaps even an honest-to-gosh “rocket scientist.” Say hello to Will Magnus, creator of the Metal Men. Sure, he’s technically bipolar, aided and abetted a criminal gang and even killed a dude once. But really, who hasn’t had indiscretions in their recent, unstable past? Besides, it’d be comforting to have a president who favors the classic Ward Cleaver look of tweed suits and pipe smoking.

2. Michael Holt (Mr. Terrific): I agree with John on this one. Fourteen Ph.D’s…Olympic Gold Medal-winning decathlete…self-made millionaire. He’s a very smart man (third-smartest on DC’s Earth), an expert problem-solver and seems to always want to fight the good fight. He has government experience with his involvement in Checkmate and has leadership skills from his chairmanship of the JSA. He has felt tragic loss and demonstrated strong compassion. The only stumbling block for him might be his religion: he’s an avowed Atheist.

1. Alan Scott: All the others are plausible (especially Mr. Terrific), but this is my number one choice. Alan Scott has the ideal story to showcase his campaign. From his humble beginnings as a locomotive engineer, to his stint as head of the Gotham Broadcasting Company, to his heady days as a member of the heroic JSA, Alan Scott has lived the American Dream. Yes, he was brought before the House Un-American Activities Committee…and he more or less abandoned his first wife and two children…and his second wife vainly tried to sell her soul. But hey, he was on the right side of the Checkmate thing AND he now rocks an eye patch. That’s an instant winner! I could easily see a Scott administration. I’m thinking he’d probably pick someone like Jay Garrick as his running mate, a solid colleague who’s always had his back. I’m picturing King Faraday as Secretary of Defense. Maybe Michael Holt as Secretary of State. And wouldn’t it be fun to have his old sidekick Doiby Dickles doddering around as his Chief of Staff? Great Scott!


Comics Reviews: Who, What, Where, How and Why

Oct-22-08

Since Jason and I began talking about comics, lo those many months ago, we haven’t really done any comics reviews. There are a couple of reasons for it, and he and I have discussed the issue at length. One of the reasons we’ve been shying away from doing actual comics reviews is that they are difficult to do properly. It’s very easy to pick a comic and discuss it, but so often what happens is that someone says, “Yeah, man, that was awesome!” or “Yo, dude, that sucked!” and there’s not much more to the conversation. You’re getting people who are simply skimming the surface of the comic, and picking out the most obvious successes or flaws in the work, but they’re not giving a reader anything of substance. I’m not really sure how much substance we have around here, but if we’re going to take the time to examine a comic in detail, I’d like to think that we’ll be able to explore that work in depth, for good or ill.

Another reason we’ve been reluctant to dive into reviewing comics is that neither one of us considers ourselves experts. We’ve been reading comics for years, and we’re both bright fellows, but I do not, by any means, have formal training in criticism. I am also not much of an art critic. I can normally delve into the other aspects of a comic (plot, pacing, characterization and the like) with at least a modicum of intelligent discourse, but when it comes to art, I fall more into the “I like it” or “I don’t like it”. I certainly have artists whom I prefer and a few whom I avoid, and I can articulate a few reasons why that is, but I’m not an expert. I know a lot about the field of comics (and some other fields), but I’m never sure if I’m exactly qualified to comment on the work of others in a public forum.

Finally, Jason and I have been concerned about insulting creators. Whether or not I like the art of Ron Lim has nothing to do with whether or not I like the man himself; how could I say whether or not I like him, since I don’t know him. When commenting on a creative endeavor like a comic, sometimes the work and the creator behind the work both become subjects of derision during the discussion. Jason and I have both made some negative (some may say snarky) comments about the work of certain creators in passing on the blog, but we try to focus on the work and not the person. Hopefully our readers will keep us honest in the future, as we begin to start doing some actual comics reviews.

The reason that I’ve written this overly long introduction to the idea of bringing reviews to this site on occasion is because I was one of the many people watching the recent blogosphere discussion that resulted when Noah Berlatsky at “The Hooded Utilitarian” blog reviewed 100 Bullets. Berlatsky was not a fan of the issues of 100 Bullets that he read, which is, of course, his right. What started the brou-ha-ha is that, during the course of his review, he complained about the art of Eduardo Risso, using one particular cover as an example; a cover that Risso did not draw (Dave Johnson did).

Whoops! This mistake quickly attracted the attention of others. Heidi MacDonald of “The Beat” was probably the first to notice and comment on the error. She rightly points out that he used a different artist’s work to complain about one artist, but then she spends most of the post defending Eduardo Risso, which seems to detract from her main focus; Berlatsky made a mistake. From there, things snowballed, with others joining in to condemn Berlatsky, comics writer Mark Waid getting involved, and generally unpleasant comments being thrown back and forth.

Why do I find this interesting? Well, this hits on some of the concerns that Jason and I had about doing reviews in the first place. Berlatsky made an error that I hope we wouldn’t make, but it’s not something that can be ruled out (although certainly this has made me more determined to check my facts before I post something in the future). Second, Berlatsky got negative comments from the blogosphere (although he did have his defenders), and many of those comments seemed to stem from his dislike of 100 Bullets. His review of the series was snarky, and that seems to have been what ultimately ran him into trouble; by confusing the artwork, he left an opening where fans of the series could defend it. Could his review have been less snarky? Sure, but let’s be honest, snarky reviews are more fun to read and to write. Heck, our entire website is built on snark (ok, maybe not built on, but certainly snark is one of our basic four food groups).

The Berlatsky situation made me think it was important to preface any actual reviews with a few comments and answering the most crucial questions available to us: Who, What, When, Where, How and Why.

Who: Jason and I. We’ll be doing the reviews, and that’s important, because different people perceive things in different ways. Reviews are subjective; I can give you every reason why you should love a certain piece of work, and in the end, it may just not appeal to you. I loaned Jeff Smith’s wonderful series Bone to a friend of mine, thinking she would love it. She was completely underwhelmed by it, and couldn’t finish the series. It simply didn’t appeal to her. Sometimes, this sort of thing will happen, so it’s important to make it clear that, no matter how eloquently you praise or attack a series, some people will have the opposite view. Don’t let it shake you up too much. Let us know if you agree or disagree with what we’re saying.

What: Sometimes we’ll be choosing things that are associated with a current media adaptation, since people are more likely to be searching such works out. Sometimes it may be things we particularly like or dislike, in the hopes of drawing readers to them, or warning people away. In the end, we hope to be choosing works that will be of interest to our readers.

When: As with everything else here, there will be no set schedule. I can’t see us doing reviews more than once every few weeks however. In the end, we are not a review site. There are plenty of those, and I’m not sure the blogosphere really needs one more, although I’d like to think that our dual viewpoint allows us to bring something different to the table.

Where: We’ll be picking works from all over the comics universe. Yes, superheroes will have more than their fair share of space, but this will be a good place for us to draw focus to other works, some of them out of the mainstream and some of them dancing at the edges of mainstream.

How: Oh, with snark. I’m not sure we have another way we can write, and again, it’s more fun for both us and you. However, like I said earlier, we’ll try to comment on the work and not the creator.

Why: We’ll be reviewing things because we hope to provide readers with information on whether or not a comic is worth their time and money.

In the end, we rely on all of you to let us know what you think. More reviews? Less reviews? Specific things you’d like to see reviewed? Agree with our comments? Disagree? As always, let us know.

Let me chime in first by saying that I agree wholeheartedly with everything that John has put forward so far in this post. I would like to confess that one of the major reasons we don’t do more reviews, beyond the fact that there is already an overwhelming abundance of comic review sites (for both good and bad), is that neither John nor I read many monthly comics anymore. I know that probably instantly places us in some sort of lower tier in the eyes of many fans out there, but the simple truth is that…and I don’t want to get off on some sort of scolding of the industry here…most books that interest us, whether for plot or characters, seem to be written solely for the trade consumption.

The comics medium has changed drastically in the last 10 years or so (to a greater degree in the last 3 or 4 years actually) and the pacing, both in the exposition and the action, has brought everything to the point where I usually only buy things once a month now instead of every Wednesday. And the number of titles I’m interested in (at least on the superhero side of things, which seems to be our bread-and-butter here) has dwindled from a few dozen to…just a few. Amazon gets more of my business these days than any neighborhood store, because of increased availability, lack of urgency and simplicity of shopping.

And don’t even get me started on how much the online community has ruined, or nearly removed, the anticipation and suspense of the monthly comic cycle. But that is neither here nor there for this discussion, so let’s get back on topic, shall we?

The recent revelation by JG Jones concerning his output on the Final Crisis miniseries at DC is another example of how online criticism can really go beyond the pale. Brian Wood pointed me to a CBR thread that facilitated the figurative drawing-and-quartering of Mr. Jones in the eyes of the fanboys. There’s no need for that kind of vitriol in any realm. I’d be tempted to go off on a political rant here about how our country is increasingly divided and angry, but that would bore everyone. Suffice it to say that personally attacking someone for drawing (or, in this case, NOT drawing) pictures on paper is both uncalled for and downright idiotic. If you aren’t happy with the finished product, don’t buy it.

NOTE: Hell, if I were you I’d be more concerned with the confusing, meandering, languidly-developing, inside-speaking, continuity-muddled plot of the series more than how it’s graphically represented. No amount of Picasso or DaVinci can polish that mess.

It’s completely inappropriate to praise someone for their work as long as it arrives to your liking and then immediately lash out at them once that work stops arriving. JG’s style didn’t change. His dedication to his craft isn’t lacking. He merely doesn’t have the time…and has, at the least, realized that and confessed as such. I’ve met JG Jones. I’ve talked to him. He’s not some horrible creature hiding in the dark and plotting ways to screw up your Wednesday buying habits. He’s an amazing artist who deserves some appreciation for the work he has produced. Admire it or don’t, but never cast stones at him for admitting a weakness or a mistake.

Now John Byrne? That’s another story altogether. ZING!

Since Jason mentioned it, I’ll confess that I don’t read ANY monthly comics pamphlets at this time, and haven’t for about two or three years. I buy five to seven trade paperbacks a month, some of them current, and that more than keeps me spending enough money on comics (I still support my local comics shop when I buy them; yes, I could get them cheaper elsewhere, but I always prefer to support locally owned small businesses, and Ralph – my local comic store proprietor – is a heckuva guy!). I also spend a lot of time online, and thanks to the fact that no surprises are allowed in comics anymore and must instead be announced in various internet sites months before publication, I can follow the plots of any series I wish (and often large chunks of issues are posted to read; I do NOT pirate comics and don’t recommend pirating anything online. Yes, it may make me seem old and fuddly-duddly, but I can live with that). I’d like to think I’m quite caught up with the goings-on in the superhero universes, and then I read most of these comics a few months in the trades after the pamphlet reading public.

As for the JG Jones news, I can’t say I’m surprised. I absolutely love his artwork; I think he may be one of the best pencillers out there. However, he’s not someone who works quickly, so why oh why would DC have hired him to do this miniseries in the first place? I have something of a gripe against so many comics being released late; I think it hurts the industry when it happens, and it can certainly hurt a lot of comics. Often, it’s the pencillers who get the bad rap for working slowly, although that’s not always the case (Kevin Smith, my peepers are squarely trained at you!), but really, what is management thinking? I’m not saying not to hire JG Jones; that would be crazy! The guy is good! But don’t hire him to do the pivotal miniseries on which your entire superhero line rests. There are plenty of excellent pencillers to do that series. Let him do an ancillary miniseries, if he wants to be part of Final Crisis; a miniseries that isn’t central to the plot or can stand on its own.

What surprised me even more was who DC chose to replace him: Doug Mahnke. Doug Mahnke may have one of the strongest individual drawing styles I’ve ever seen but that style is very much removed from Jones’ more realistic style. I love Mahnke when he’s doing things a little off target from the mainstream: Major Bummer and the Frankenstein issues of Seven Soldiers are brilliant. However, I’ve never enjoyed the issues he did of JLA. I simply don’t think he works on the big team titles and I think his artwork on the last issue of Final Crisis will seem grossly out of place. However, to quote Peter David, “But I digress…”

So, yes, attacking someone like JG Jones is silly. The man’s doing his job to the best of his ability and he’s not trying to ruin anyone’s life. That’s the sort of thing we won’t be engaging in. But, how did I know you’d have a John Byrne comment before we finished? Of course, Byrne is an example of how some creators put themselves out there in a public forum, and at times almost beg people to dislike them. I still try to tread carefully in those cases, but I’m sure that we’ll run into those situations, particularly in the case of an outspoken creator like Byrne (although he seems to have been somewhat quiet lately).

Yes, I will never attack John Byrne unless he asks me to…or I feel that his online musings are just begging to be mocked. And even then, it’s more like this:

Granted, that image works just as well for nearly every naysaying fool posting on the web. That’s most likely the problem with the majority of poorly executed comic reviews: they’re set forth by nameless, faceless people who are only seeking the hive-minded approval of other nameless, faceless people. The anonymity and temporary status afforded by message boards and blogs allows people to say stupid things with nearly zero accountability or retribution. Spit out whatever mean-spirited thing you’d like and I guarantee someone will read it and laugh, or worse, try to one-up your horrendous attitude and insults.

We shall tread carefully. We are under no illusion that anyone out there should agree with us. Heck, we often don’t agree with each other. But at least we aim to provide lucid grounding for that disagreement, with examples that back up those opinions and a willingness to concede the smaller differences. There shall be no name-calling or references to each other’s mothers and farm animals. We will never threaten to hunt each other down or punch each other in our respective faces because of words exchanged on an imaginary playground in a digital land. Besides, we still meet for dinner at least once a month and that would just make things awkward.

That was digression #1…

I think it’s also important to point out that our focus is unabashedly on the superhero genre. Sure, we read other things and those things influence the way we view and read comics in general. But, and I’m not sure John illuminated this point enough, we will always write with an eye towards the whole hero/villain scene. If you don’t like that, or wish to bemoan the societal downfall of the genre, do it elsewhere. Sure, superhero comics can be immature and stunted and obtuse and mired in the various cliques and coteries of the industry (and I’m sure we’ll call for their heads once or twice), but they helped form our childhoods. I, for one, will never fully turn my back on the colorful exploits of these powerful characters.

And digression #2…

Of course, by the time this post is disseminated to the general public, I’m sure that someone else will say something stupidly critical that we can call out as the “wrong way” of doing things. If you think the plotlines in certain comics are predictable, take a look at some of the “fan” reactions when you have a spare week and some self-loathing to spare.

I shan’t continue to belabor these points, but instead I shall take this opportunity to disagree with Jason, at least a little.  I agree that, yes, superheroes are our main focus, and no, I don’t feel like I need to apologize for them.  There’s certainly a ton of absolute rubbish in the genre, but there’s some great stuff too, and it doesn’t take too much searching to find it.  That being said, I do plan on branching out a little, if in reviews only, to touch on some of the non-superpowered comics out there.  Now, Jason left the door open for that, at least somewhat, by saying we’d focus on the hero/villain thing, and if that’s our focus, it allows us to still do all sorts of non-superhero comics.  While I’ll always love superheroes, there’s some other amazing stuff out there that I’d like to discuss with our readers, from the almost mainstream Usagi Yojimbo or Queen and Country, to perhaps the slightly more obscure Action Philosophers, Scott Pilgrim or Barry Ween

But otherwise, I’m in total agreement with Jason.  I’m not sure when the first reviews will show up here (perhaps next week), but at least the groundwork is laid.