Monday, December 28, 2009

Christmas comics: Sin City: Silent Night (Nov. 1995)

Writer and artist: Frank Miller
Cover colors: Lynn Varley
Editor: Bob Schreck

There's not much to say about the story in this issue, which can be summed as follows: Marv walks through a snow storm to a barred doorway that leads down to some kind of dungeon. He gives some cash to a woman dressed like a Nazi, who shows him a cell where a small and very scared young girl looks back at him. He turns on the woman and her armed thugs, shooting them dead right quick. He opens the door, tells the girl, Kimberly, that it's OK and she'll be home with her momma soon. He scoops her up and carries her out and back into the snowstorm.

This story is told completely in silent splash pages, with only one dialog balloon in the whole issue. That prompted a lot of howls at the time this was released since "reading" this black and white comic takes only a few minutes and it cost a then-whopping $2.95. But that belies that fact that it's 26 or so pages of Frank Miller Sin City art, which has always been worth the price of admission alone. I always thought this was Miller's attempt to do for snow what he did for rain in the first Sin City story. Was it a cash grab, as some have charged? Maybe, but again it's Frank Miller art and there are few comics at the time where the entire package was worth $3, let alone just the art.

Of course, this ain't the most happy, touchy-feely holiday story ever — but Marv's good deed does stand out as a worthy gift considering how tough and hard-boiled every day is in Miller's "town without pity."

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Christmas Comics: Star Trek: The Next Generation #2 (March 1988)

"Spirit in the Sky!"
Writer: Mike Carlin
Pencils: Pablo Marcos
Inks: Carlos Garzon and Arne Starr
Letters: Bob Pinaha
Colors: Carl Gafford
Editor: Robert Greenberger

I can't recall many other Star Trek stories that dealt with Christmas — there was a Picard Christmas dream sequence in Generations — probably because the series' humanistic point of view just doesn't mesh well with the rituals and religious underpinning of the holiday. (Of course, Patrick Stewart's one-man stage version of A Christmas Carol from the 1990s was extremely popular.)

This is still a really hard story to swallow and to judge because of the circumstances. This was the second issue of the first Star Trek: The Next Generation series DC published. It was released to coincide with the debut of the TV series itself in the fall of 1987. While DC's classic Star Trek comic and the movie series were quite popular, no one knew if TNG was going to be a hit or a massive flop. So DC hedged its bet with a six-issue miniseries. And given the time frame of comic book production back then, the first few issues of the comic had to be completely written, drawn and ready to go to press long before the first episodes of the TV show were finished or aired. So all the comic creators had to go on were things like the series bible, early scripts, photo reference and the overall guidance of the Paramount licensing office.

So it kind of makes sense to do a Christmas story in this second issue, as Christmas stories can get away with a lot and it would buy DC another issue to try to figure out the new series.

Christmas Comics: The Uncanny X-Men #230 (June 1988)

“’Twas the night …”
Writer: Chris Claremont
Pencils: Marc Silvestri
Inks: Josef Rubinstein
Colors: Glynis Oliver
Letters: Tom Orzechowski
Editor: Ann Nocenti
Editor in chief: Tom DeFalco

When they reprint classic merry mutant tales, they usually omit this one (more on the more popular X-Men holiday stories soon). Perhaps because this tale is tied into the Australian outback era of the The Uncanny X-Men, which is both admired and reviled, depending on who you listen too. This is easily the goofiest X-Men Christmas story, but it’s also not without its charms.

The story begins with the X-Men on a typical training session in the outback town they took over in the previous issue from The Reavers. But Longshot is absent, lured to a room filled with “haunted treasure” that wants to return to the owners The Reavers “liberated” it from. This is a weird idea, that these objects have some kind of sentience and, even more, an emotional attachment to their owners. This is ascribed to Longshot’s power of psychometry, which was an ability outlined in his original 1985 miniseries. Haunted by the pleas of these items, Longshot’s tales prompt the X-Men to try to return every item to its rightful owner.

The ridiculousness of the idea is commented upon extensively in the story — Claremont’s halfway successful technique for selling the idea to an audience most likely too "cool" to take the concept at face value — with Havok and Wolverine noticeably scoffing at the idea. But like most good Christmas stories, the season's good points melt away the skepticism and everyone joins in whole-heartedly. Even Wolverine gets in on the act, wearing a Santa hat and carrying a big bag of gifts over his shoulder — all of which is pretty out of character and most likely not "cool" with the average late 1980s X-Men reader, but it is Christmas.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Christmas Comics: Power Pack #20 (March 1986)

“Turning Point”
Writer: Louise Simonson
Artist: Bob McLeod
Letters: Joe Rosen
Colors: Glynis Oliver
Editor: Carl Potts
Editor in chief: Jim Shooter

Power Pack always was a book I really enjoyed and, for a time, was one of the best books Marvel published. This issue has a Christmas tie-in, but there’s a pretty convoluted plot to wade through, not to mention a fair bit of continuity that’s not well laid out for new readers.

This story began in Power Pack #18 — a Secret Wars II crossover! — when mom Maggie Power is badly injured by the rampaging Kurse while picking up poster board for her son Alex to use for a school science project. That lead to a crossover with Thor #363 (which was written and drawn by Louise Simonson’s husband, Walt) and a double-size Thanksgiving issue in #19 that guest starred Cloak and Dagger and, of course, Kitty Pryde and Wolverine.

There’s also a bunch of continuity from The New Mutants to deal with, as Illyana had somehow lost control over Limbo in another Secret Wars II-related storyline I don’t exactly recall at the moment. And that’s where this issue starts: with a bunch of Limbo demons running through New York looking for innocents to sacrifice so they can move the entire island of Manhattan to Limbo.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Cooke's Hunter is a stylish, hard-core crime tale

Things don't get much  tougher on the crime fiction front than The Hunter (IDW Publishing, $24.99, 2009), Darwyn Cooke’s adaptation of the classic Richard Stark novel introducing the iconic criminal character Parker. This is easily the most hard-boiled crime comic to come along since Frank Miller founded Sin City in the early 1990s.

Set in 1962, this is a tale of a truly unrepentant criminal who is out for revenge on the woman and men who double-crossed him and set him up for dead. And it’s that setting — 1962 Manhattan — that makes Cooke the ideal match for this project. His style, which evokes classic animation, captures the style of the era in a way few other artists could. It’s abstract at times, vividly concrete at others and always powerfully focused on its story.

Done in a lovely two-color format, the narrative does run out of steam just a bit by the end, partly because Parker never really becomes anything more than a one-dimensional vehicle for the kind of mayhem that must have really stood out in 1962 but is a bit more common now. That small quibble aside, it’s a very stylish and highly entertaining thriller that will surely wow hard-core fans and casual readers alike.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Stumptown makes tough tales fun again

Stumptown #1 (Oni Press, $3.99, Oct. 2009) is a pleasant surprise, mostly because it’s so great to see a writer with the talent of Greg Rucka take time out from writing superhero comics (although his Batwoman stories in Detective Comics are really, REALLY good) to do the kind of indie project that got him noticed in the first place.

Stumptown is an old-fashioned private eye story starring an unusual sort of private eye (for comics, anyway) in Dexedrine C. Parios, a smart-ass with a gambling problem who looks after her younger brother, Ansel, who has Down syndrome.

This is a smart book that’s tough but still fun. The art by Matthew Southworth and colors by Lee Loughridge are attractive, clear and a great match for the story.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Planetary ends better than it began

It took ten years, but Planetary #27 (Wildstorm, $3.99, Dec. 2009) is finally out and finishes up the popular series by Warren Ellis and John Cassaday.

Not having read or re-read any Planetary since #26 came out about a year ago, the specifics of the series’ plots were not fresh on my mind, but I still found it an interesting denouement.

Planetary is one of those series that I always had trouble really connecting to. I loved the second issue, with the dead giant Tokyo monsters all rotting away on an island, but found too many of the early issues weakened by being essentially riffs on various popular comics genres. Because of that, I preferred Ellis’ short but pitch-perfect run on The Authority, which began about the exact time as Planetary, and, of course, Transmetropolitan as the writer’s definitive works.

As for Cassaday, I go back and forth on his art. At times, it’s beautiful and subtle and others too minimalistic and reliant on a good colorist (which Laura Martin most definitely is). At least Planetary finally — after many long production interruptions — has made it to a satisfactory end, something few series can claim.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Crumb draws too-literal Book of Genesis

I tried very hard to read The Book of Genesis, Illustrated by R. Crumb (Norton, $24.95, 2009), but after a few dozen pages resorted to simply skimming the text and lingering over the best of Crumb’s always amazing artwork.

But, frankly, scripture has never been anything I’ve enjoyed reading. And in this case, with what seems like pages of biblical figures “begating” a new generation, it’s a real disappointment for Crumb not to portray that one activity he draws so well!

The literal approach ends up feeling more like an exercise for Crumb — it’s not really clear from his introduction or the book itself what, if anything, he was trying to add to these tales — than anything that could hold the interest of anyone but a die-hard fan. Which, in an odd way, means the Book of Genesis has a lot in common with most superhero comics.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Asterios Polyp needs a better ending

I for the most part really enjoyed David Mazzuchelli’s graphic novel Asterios Polyp (Pantheon, $29.95, 2009). Mazzuchelli, of course, is best known as the artist who collaborated with Frank Miller on Batman: Year One and Daredevil: Reborn, among other 1980s efforts at Marvel and DC Comics, before moving on to his own series Rubber Blanket.

This thick novel tells the tale of a divorced, pompous architecture professor who runs away from his life when his apartment catches on fire. It’s a beautiful looking book, drawn in a simple style suited to what’s accepted for a literary graphic novel, making nice use of colored line work in particular to create a lovely effect.

As for the story, I found myself very much drawn into the first half of the book and then drifting away from it as the plot seemed to stall in favor of a more episodic approach. The eponymous protagonist goes from a complex mystery to a rather human but mundane character. The story never really delivers on its most interesting element — the idea that Polyp is followed by what is essentially the ghost of a twin brother who died in the womb. The tale failed to achieve the kind of breakthrough character development that it promises early on, heading to an unfortunately predictable though not completely unsatisfying resolution.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Bell's Invaders begins to clear path to Canuck hero knowledge

A book I acquired at San Diego Comic-Con in 2008, but had not read until now,  Invaders from the North: How Canada Conquered the Comic Book Universe (Dundurn, $40, 2006) is a book of obvious interest for someone like me who grew up a comics fan in the Great White North of yesteryear.

I’ve been interested in this topic since coming across John Bell’s article on the Canadian comic book heroes of the 1940s and 1950s in Alter Ego #36. For those who don’t know, Canada joined World War II in 1939 in support of Great Britain and the restrictions of the war economy quickly forbade the import of pulp fiction magazines, including comics, from the United States. A number of Canadian publishers struggled in this environment to find writers, artists, characters and even paper and ink to fill the void left on newsstands and in the process created a number of interesting and compelling characters. These publishers all faded away with the return of American comics to Canada in the post-war years, and many of these strips are all but forgotten.

Even a comics fan like myself who grew up in Canada in the late 1970s and early 1980s 0was completely unaware of the rich history of Canadian comic books, at least until I read Bell’s article. I asked my father, who grew up in Edmonton in the 1940s and '50s about these books, but he didn’t remember too much about them.

As such, I looked forward to reading more about it in Bell’s book, and I can’t say I wasn’t at least a little disappointed. I don’t know if Bell was pressed for space, but it feels like he was — there’s places in the book that feature a lot of listing of names, publishers, titles, etc., and not much of an idea of what these stories were like. It’s also hard to gauge how popular these comics and characters ever became in Canada, and what — if any — kind of fan base still exists today. I think a solid collection of the best of these tales would be a sure-fire success on curiosity value alone, assuming it’s possible to work out the complicated rights issues involved.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Back to our regular program — and Moebius!

Oh, my. It’s been a while since I posted on this blog, but I didn’t think it was THAT long.

Why so long away? Simply put, I’ve been busy with other things — work things that pay money, such as editing special advertising supplements for the local major newspaper. And some of this coincides with a dearth of comics material I was excited about enough to write about.

Anyway, I’m back and plan to do as much with this blog as I can in the near future. Don’t expect daily updates, but I’ve been plowing through some of the massive stacks of graphic novels and comics that have accumulated around me and want to talk about them and some of the overall trends of interest I’m seeing in the medium.

I’m also thinking about some regular features that I’d like to do, including an issue-by-issue re-read of the Stan Lee and Jack Kirby run on Fantastic Four and some critical looks at individual comic-book movies that I’m thinking of calling "The Essential Comic Book Movies." But, we’ll see …

To start off, let’s look at some of the latest books, both old and new, that I’ve cleared off my reading pile the past couple of week. I've got a few of these written up and will spread out the posting dates over the next little while to give everyone a reason to come back.

By far the most impressive comic I’ve read in ages is Epic’s 1980s reprint of Blueberry 2: Ballad for a Coffin (Epic, $14.95, 1989), by Jean-Michel Charlier and Jean “Moebius” Giraud. It’s a crime against art that these stories are not in print constantly for readers to take up. I’m not an expert on Westerns in comics (though Kirby and Simon’s Boys' Ranch is on my list of to-acquire books), but this is an astonishingly excellent series. Paced somewhat like a classic comic strip, though without the constant need to recap the story, these two volumes see the anti-hero Mike Blueberry assigned a secret mission to recover a half-million dollars in Confederate gold thought hidden over the Arizona border.

The story is detailed in the way a good novel is, standing in stark contrast to the slack movie-style plotting of most modern American comic books. Each page of these books, printed in the old Marvel graphic novel style, could be split in half much like the old Carl Barks duck stories were. And something actually happens in each half page — there’s plenty of script and story crammed into each segment, and it’s all well researched and full of believable character-defining script and art.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Mutants drift further from Utopia, but Batman and Spidey are doing quite well, thanks

It’s taken me a awhile to get to reading the giant stack of comics that piled up the past few months. Reading them has been sadly dull — I don’t know if it’s the comics or if it’s me, though I suspect if everything was a great read I wouldn’t have written what I just wrote. So let’s get to it.

Dark Avengers/Uncanny X-Men: Exodus #1 (Marvel, $3.99) is the conclusion to the Utopia crossover storyline, and it’s reasonably good. That’s to be expected when you have folks like Matt Fraction writing and Mike Deodato and Terry Dodson drawing. The Utopia storyline was pretty overtly political for X-Men, starting with an initiative called Proposition X that would require medical birth control for all mutants. That leads to the mutants, who’ve established San Francisco as their new home base, going on the riot path and H.A.M.M.E.R. director Norman Osborn bringing in his Dark Avengers to restore order and discredit the X-Men and install his own lackeys — the Dark X-Men — as the public face of mutant kind. It’s a heavy handed and painfully obvious attempt to tie the mutants into the gay rights issues that are at the forefront of society. And that would probably work, but there’s such a sense of change fatigue when it comes to the X-Men franchise that none of this really has a chance to stick. It was only a year ago that the X-Men came to San Francisco, and nothing about that switch really stood out as meaningful or interesting — and now we’re on the move again to the remnants of Asteroid X, now renamed Utopia. It would have been nice for the X-Men to have stuck around San Francisco long enough for that setting to made a difference. And it’s hard when your arcs all run four, five, six issues to establish a real sense of place the way comics used to back in the days when they were periodicals through and through. I think of the first Wolverine series from 1982, where that setting of Japan really came to life and was important to the story. Nowadays, even with a half dozen spinoff titles, the X-titles (and Marvel titles in general) have become kind of cookie cuttered in the Bendis mode — where characters’ dialog rarely has much to do with the story and the overall tone is self-conscious and self-referential to the point of inanity. All of this was fresh 10 years ago, but at least for me, this style has worn out its welcome.

I also read the Utopia tie-in issues Dark X-Men: The Confession #1 (Marvel, $3.99), X-Men: Legacy #227 (Marvel, $2.99), both of which suffer from much the same symptom. Confession is basically an entire issue of Cyclops and Emma Frost having it out over the status of their relationship and their respective guilt and responsibilities in the whole thing. And character is important — it’s part of what made Marvel great — but this exemplifies the self indulgence that I think is plaguing the X-books in particular. Another example is The Uncanny X-Men #515 (Marvel, $2.99), the first issue of the new “Nation X” storyline that heralds the return of Magneto, usually a big event with lots of drama even when it’s not done well. But here, it’s sudden and just seemingly random. Even the things that should work don’t — a minor character dies in a rather nice scene, but again it’s a character who hasn’t been around long enough or done anything interesting enough for the reader to care about his passing with the same passion some of the X-Men display.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Kirby Heirs' Claim a Tougher Row to Hoe

As if the news from comic book land couldn’t get any more sensational, the heirs of Jack Kirby have notified Marvel and the movie studios making Marvel movies of their intent to reclaim Kirby’s rights to the likes of Fantastic Four, Hulk and X-Men.

Like the news of the similar, successful attempt by the heirs of Superman co-creator Jerry Siegel against DC Comics, this news raises questions among fans about the future of these iconic comic book characters. Adding to the interest is the involvement of attorney Marc Toberoff, who is representing the Siegels in a court proceding that will determine how much DC owes them for the use of Superman since 1999.
Toberoff has had a lot of success with this sort of case, both in the courtroom and in making headlines. In this case, sending out 45 notices of intent to terminate the transfer of copyright to Marvel, Sony, Fox, Universal and more, just weeks after Disney agreed to buy Marvel and its catalog — a large portion of which Kirby had a hand in creating — for $4 billion.

But there are some pretty major differences between Kirby’s case and the Superman case. Namely, that Siegel and his partner Joe Shuster had clearly created the character of Superman prior to working for DC Comics and selling all rights to that company, while Kirby was had been working for Marvel as a freelance artist for several years before he and Stan Lee collaborated to create the characters that become the backbone of the Marvel Universe.

When the copyright laws in the United States were revised in 1976 to include provisions for original rights owners to cancel the transfer of rights, it also made clear that the same right does not exist for material created as work made for hire. That law clearly defined work made for hire and what kind of relationship qualified as WFH.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Mutant Mysteries: Giant-Size X-Men #1 and X-Men #1 cover changes

One of the fun parts of a hobby like collecting comics is the right to obsess over things no one in their right mind would give a second thought. For me, one of those has been the small variations that have cropped up whenever the cover image to X-Men #1 and Giant-Size X-Men #1 were reprinted.

For me, the bigger mystery was always Giant-Size X-Men #1. For years, the reproductions of the cover that I saw in various reprints all looked like this (click for a close-up, hi-res look):

The real cover looks like this:

There’s only one difference between the two: the cover date. For whatever reason, all the images that I had seen over the years had a cover date of May. That’s how the cover appeared reprinted on the inside back covers of X-Men Special Edition #1 and Classic X-Men #1 (which sports an awful re-coloring of the classic cover). It’s also how it appeared in Marvel Masterworks (the volume featuring Giant-Size X-Men #1 was first published in 1989) and the 1991 Marvel Milestone reprint that even included all the original advertisements of the original comic, and in the reprint in the first hardcover collection of Ultimate X-Men, which came out in 2002 or so.

But Marvel obviously also had access to the correct image, which appeared in 1988’s The Official Marvel Index to the X-Men #4, and in the 1994 update of that series. It also showed up correctly in the 1996 first printing of Essential X-Men Vol. 1.

So, where did this version with the May cover date come from, and how did it become the primary — but not only — version Marvel used? The original artwork — which can be seen here — includes none of the trade dress and offers no answer. My only credible thought is that a version was prepared for a house ad that might have appeared just before the issue came out. But I’ve not been able to find such an ad anywhere online, so it’s all just supposition on my part.

The May date is probably correct. X-Men #93, the last reprint issue of the series, had a cover date of April 1975 and X-Men #94 had an August 1975 date. The gap between Giant-Size X-Men #1 and X-Men #94 make sense, given the now well-known story about how the story intended for Giant-Size X-Men #2 was broken up into two issues and run as #94 and #95 when editor and writer Len Wein left Marvel. The May cover date also places the release of this issue in January or February of 1975 (I always go by my memories of the May Marvels coming out in the direct market in January, usually a few weeks ahead of issues showing up on newsstands). But looking at the actual indicia for Giant-Size X-Men #1 shows the only cover date to be 1975, and the frequency of the book as quarterly. Giant-Size X-Men #2 similarly only has a 1975 cover date, but the frequency had been bumped up to annual.

Anyways, the mystery of where the May cover date came from and how it became so commonly used by Marvel over the years is likely to remain a mystery.

The changes on X-Men #1 are in a lot of ways not as obvious, but definitely more significant. Here’s the real thing:

And here’s the version that appeared in the original Marvel Masterworks, Marvel Milestones, etc.:

Some of it’s just minor stuff — changes in coloring, etc. But there’s also changes to the artwork, and someone at some point added a circle around the “In the Sensational Fantastic Four Style!” blurb, even though the lettering looks exactly the same. Also, the blurb about Magneto changes from reverse type (white on red) to black on red.

I recall reading somewhere – I can’t find the piece or remember where I read it — that the version with the grass background and power effect for Marvel Girl was part of the original artwork that Jack Kirby and whoever inked this cover turned in. Taking a closer look, it’s clear that more was changed between that version and the one printed than those elements just being dropped out.

A close look reveals that Marvel Girl, Angel and Beast were moved up and spaced out a bit, perhaps to make each more distinct on the cover. There’s also a few motion lines dropped over near Angel. It’s kind of horrifying now to think that this classic cover might have been cut up with an X-acto knife and the characters all re-pasted into their new positions in Marvel’s production department.

But it’s not that the original was changed that’s so much of a minor mystery as, again, how the non-published version was reprinted so often. Someone at Marvel, however, has noticed the difference, as it has been corrected in the revised editions of the Marvel Masterworks series to match the published version of the original comic.

Maybe someday, convincing answers will come forth and allow me to settle this errant thought. But if not, it's also fun to roll this completely inconsequential bit of trivia around in my brain every now and then.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Marvel, DC changes will have long-term repercussions, but for now, just relax

The worst part about being away from this blog so long is the mental hurdle that has to be overcome in order to get back to it. Just for the record: I’m not dead. A combination of work, a spirited 40th birthday party for my aging fanboy self and a lengthy sojourn to France and Italy have kept my comics reading to a minimum. There are a number of posts that I’ve thought about in the past couple months that I’m going to try to get to in quick succession, just to get things rolling here again. But, first things first …

Yes, that was the ground shifting beneath the comic book industry in a historic week that saw Disney buy Marvel for a whopping $4 billion and the restructuring of DC Comics as DC Entertainment that includes the departure of longtime exec Paul Levitz.

Of the two, the DC news is more important for comic book readers because Levitz was by all accounts the stabilizing force at DC that kept both the company and to a large extent the industry on an even keel during the darkest days. Lots of folks who’ve worked with Levitz over the years have published their thoughts on his contributions and lauded him for keeping DC steady, while others have criticized his stewardship of DC as being excessively timid.

What everyone agrees on is that Paul Levitz is a class act, and I can throw my two cents behind that wholeheartedly. A few years back, at one of the New York Comic-Cons, I attended one of the media dinners DC occasionally throws at such shows to let various press folks mingle with execs like Levitz and some of the talent. I was seated at a table between Levitz and Keith Giffen, and got to listen to them talk about the old days of working on the likes of Legion of Super-Heroes and Ambush Bug. It was very entertaining and I found Paul to be very amiable and easy to chat with. He’s also a very canny executive, which made the few opportunities I’ve had to interview him on the record a little frustrating as he was not the easiest person to get a quote out of, or sometimes even a clear answer to the question.

It’s clear that Levitz has a real love for comics and that despite nominally being an executive in a Time-Warner company, he was really one of us — a guy who grew up on comics and loved them unconditionally the way they were. Others attest with detail to some of the things Levitz did to ensure DC continued to publish comics the way fans wanted them and found a way for DC to function relatively free from interference within the massive Time-Warner hierarchy.

And that’s the real reason why his departure from the executive suite is such a big deal. That Warner Bros. would one day take a greater interest in DC was a given. Thankfully, it’s come at a time when comics are seen as popular and when a library such as DC’s is seen as extremely valuable and not worth messing with too much.

So that leads to the arrival of Diane Nelson as president of the newly named DC Entertainment. The press releases and statements that heralded the announcement of her new position were full of typical corporate Hollywood jargon that made a lot about extending brands and maximizing synergy and other meaningless terms. What’s interesting to me is Nelson’s background is exclusively marketing and brand management. She’s got lots of experience selling movies to audiences around the world, and it’s no small thing to have shepherded the Harry Potter franchise — which WB has done an outstanding job with — through the filmmaking process. She’s obviously been put in this position to help the company make more money off the DC library rather than micromanage the ins and outs of comic book continuity. What she’s not is someone with creative experience. She’s not a producer, not a writer and not a development exec, so I think it would be very surprising if she did much meddling in the creative side of the comic books. The press releases make a point of saying the comics aren’t going anywhere and seems to indicate that some interesting plans are in place for DC’s 75th anniversary next year.

With Levitz no longer publisher, though, that leaves a pretty big job open at DC, and whoever ends up sitting in that seat could have a huge impact on the content of the comic books. I expect someone from outside comics will come in to the job, much the way DC brought in Dan Didio — a former TV executive — to be editor in chief of the superhero comics a few years back.

Whoever takes the job will instantly become the most criticized person in comics. There’s a few things that it would be nice to see such a person tackle — mostly shaking things up in the books and in the DC offices, which often exude a sense of being unpleasantly corporate and lacking in morale.

The choice of new publisher also will reveal more about Warner Bros.’ intentions and goals for DC’s comic book publishing efforts. Will the increased expectations the studio is placing on the division lead it away from the current publishing model of periodical comics and the relatively small direct market for a more conventional magazine or book publishing arrangement? Will we finally see DC superheroes in digital comic form? Or will the small size of the publishing market be too little for Warner to even want to bother with? (I think the latter is highly unlikely — based on Marvel’s stock reports, DC surely makes a decent profit on its publishing and Warner Bros. is smart enough to know how foolish it would be throw that away.)

All of which is a very different situation from the Marvel-Disney deal. I expect it will take years before the impact of this deal is noticeable in Marvel’s comic book line, but when it is felt I expect it will be major. But for now, I don’t see much to worry about. Disney paid a premium to buy Marvel because it likes what Marvel is doing and how much money it’s making. You don’t buy a company that is working as well as Marvel is to start micromanaging it or tinkering with it for the sake of tinkering with it.

But over time, Marvel will change just by being part of Disney. It’ll happen as Marvel interacts with Disney, and especially as executives come and go. When Ike Perlmutter or David Maisel or Joe Quesada leave their respective positions, it will be Disney that decides who’s going to replace them. Barring any sudden departures, I think it’ll be years before enough changes are made that readers of the comic books will notice a significant difference.

Will we look back at this moment five years from now and call it “the week comics went corporate?” In some ways, these kinds of shifts have been inevitable for some time given the way superheroes and comic book imagery have infiltrated the culture the past decade. But there’s always that old nagging issue that won’t go away — if the world loves comics so much, why don’t they sell better? And there’s fear with that — fear that the traditional comic book periodical and the industry that’s been built around could finally give up the ghost and go away for good, replaced by slick bookstore graphic novels, video games, DVDs, TV shows, whatever digital comics become, and, of course, movies. There’s hope here that greater investment from the likes of Warner Bros. and Disney could be great for comics, that their muscle could open up the lines of distribution and make comics more available, especially to kids. But it’s also just as plausible that the overall decline of print prompts those corporations to make a real bottom-line decision and ditch publishing altogether. I think as long as comics sales make money, Disney and Warner will see the value in keeping them around. But given what’s changed in the past 10 years, who knows where we’ll be 10 years from now?

It’ll be interesting to watch, however it turns out.

Friday, July 17, 2009

DC's Wednesday Comics a big, bold throwback to fun

My Siegel and Shuster posts last week turned into an interesting debate in the comments. After several days of deadlines, I finally was able to finish off my points and hopefully we can move on to more interesting stuff.

Like Wednesday Comics, DC Comics' new weekly newspaper-style package of big, bold and very cool comics.

I have to say this is one of the coolest ideas I’ve seen in a while, though it’s not completely new as I recall some kind of similar Dark Horse publication (I think it was a promo thing given away in shops) back in the 1990s. But I digress …

This is a package that really plays to the strengths of comics. The big, broad canvas of a broadsheet gives everything a classic, larger than life quality. The art here has room to breathe, to be big and bold and give the reader a chance to really take it in. It’s impossible to not admire the art in this format.

Of course, when you have 15 strips, some will work better than others. So far, I find the new Kamandi by Dave Gibbons and Ryan Sook to be my favorite for the way it evokes strips like Prince Valiant in the writing, art and even the lettering. Paul Pope’s Strange Adventures is, as you’d expect from Pope, lush, beautiful and amazing to look at. The Flash strip, which is perfectly paired with an Iris West c0-feature, is also cool. And Kyle Baker’s send up of 300 — “We flap!” Brilliant! — in Hawkman is a riot.

The ones I don’t think work as well come down don’t work primarily because of the art style — Wonder Woman, Teen Titans and Superman. Each relies heavily on color and uses the kind of computer techniques old newspaper strips didn’t have access to. That’s only a problem because of the one serious technical misstep in this project, which is not printing it on better quality paper.

I totally get the idea behind printing it that way and replicating the feel as well as the look of the old newspaper strip. But deviating too much from the type of art that technically worked so well on newsprint — clearly inked art with simple flat coloring — ends up muddying the images and requiring a hard look to figure out what’s going on in some of those tiny little panels.

Not upgrading the paper has been, I think, a major mistake for most of America’s now troubled newspapers. To go off on a tangent here, newspapers have for decades now been trimming the width of their pages so they can save paper without sacrificing any of the column inches on a page that they sell to advertisers. That makes sense from a business standpoint, but we’ve ended up with newspapers that are long and narrow strips that eroded the widescreen visual impact broadsheets once had. Throw in the kind of formulaic designs conservative corporations prefer (rail down the left, five stories to a cover, and modular, modular, modular) and there’s almost nothing visually appealing left about newspapers.

This applies especially to newspapers’ comics sections, with strips running increasingly small and bland — mostly because editors don’t want to (or have) much time to spend on perennials like the comics page. I worked at many newspapers, and I don’t think the comics were read in advance by any editor in most instances — the strips were sent straight to the composing room and shot almost always without even a copy editor looking at them. This, more than anything, I think, accounts for the decline of the American newspaper comic strip.

I think now — too late, surely — that newspapers should have ditched the pulpy paper for something where the ink doesn’t rub off on your fingers, switch to a tabloid-style format, put color on EVERY page instead of just a handful, and charge more for it. Then you start specializing, turning your sports section into its own publication 3-4 days a week, same with your entertainment and business sections — make them vibrant, good looking publications of their own and compete with magazines and the net by at least producing an object that looks like it belongs in at least the latter half of the 21st century.

All of which is my way of saying that Wednesday Comics is really great and the only complaint I have is the paper quality — something I hope they can correct in the eventual collection.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Anti-Siegel Superman "fans'" arguments are inaccurate and lame

After my last post, I expected to get some comments. But I didn’t expect them to be quite as lame as this one I got from someone named “Media Monkey Ninja.”:
I agree, the heirs are going to be the "REAL" death of The Mam of Steel. I'm not a huge Superman fan (I'm more of a Batman kinda guy), but The Boyscout is an American icon. If there is no Superman, what character is going to uphold Truth, Justice, and the American way. I'd hate to see this happen to any copyrighted character that is this loved by millions. I say if you work for a company and you create copyrighted material while working at that company. The copyrighted material should be owned by the company. If someone whats to have complete copyright ownership, they should create the character solely by themselves while working solely for themselves. That way no company can lay claim to your copyrighted material.
And this is exactly what I was arguing against — fans whose instincts are completely counter-intuitive to the facts of the case (assuming they know the facts, which this poster does not).

So let’s start from the top and try to explain this to anyone who may be interested in actually understanding what’s going on and have some interest in actually learning something. It’s distressing to get such comments, because I generally think comics fans are smart people. And I’m not saying this because “Mr. Ninja” disagrees with me — but if there’s a good moral and legal case for Warner Bros. to not share proceeds from Superman with the Siegels under the current law, I have yet to hear it. And, “DC may stop publishing the Superman comics I so love” does not qualify because no one with any real knowledge of this case or authority at Warner Bros. or DC has even suggested that would happen.

But let’s get into the details of why this kind of this panicky, selfish, pro-corporate position put forth by “Mr. Ninja” is complete bullshit.

First, let’s review copyright law. The United States Constitution states in Article I, Section 8, Clause 8:
The Congress shall have Power [. . .] To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.
What’s key is the “limited Times” element, which has constantly been extended from the original 14-year term with a single 14-year renewal to the current law which establishes copyright for corporate works made for hire at 95 years and individual copyrights at 70 years after the life of the author.

All works eventually fall into the public domain. This is important to society and to education — the works of Shakespeare are public domain more than 400 years after his death. The benefit to society of his work being freely accessible outweighs the interest of whatever distant descendant (and he has none) may have in milking it for all its worth. Most works in the public domain are not well-known, and being free increases the likelihood that they will be used, republished and generally benefit our society.

At the time of the creation of Superman in the mid-1930s, the law stipulated a term of 28 years for copyright that could be renewed for an additional 28 years. Copyright was bestowed automatically upon the creators, which applies directly to Siegel and Shuster. As teens, they created the character of Superman and his world, and spent years trying to get it published before Detective Comics Inc. bought the material to appear in Action Comics #1. By paying Siegel and Shuster the grad total of $10 a page — $130 total for 13 pages of art and story — DC acquired all rights to the material therein. That was a transfer of copyright, from Siegel and Shuster, to Detective Comics Inc., which is distinct from a work made for hire, in which a company hires people to create material for it. Most Golden Age and Silver Age comics qualify as work made for hire. Stan Lee was employed as editor of Timely/Atlas/Marvel when he came up with the typed plot for Fantastic Four #1 and hired Jack Kirby on a freelance basis to draw it. That’s a quintessential example of work for hire.

The original deal between Siegel and Shuster was iron-clad and held up more than once in court — in DC’s favor. The pair tried to reclaim the copyright to the character in the 1940s and were rebuffed by the courts. They tried in the mid-1960s to argue that they had the first right of renewal of copyright, only to have the courts rule that that right had been sold along with all the others in the original transaction. Under that deal, the Superman material in Action Comics #1 would have entered the public domain in 1994 — more than 15 years ago, for the math impaired among you. Each subsequent issue of Action Comics and Superman would have lost its copyright over time and we’d now have all the Superman material from Action #1 through 1953 in the public domain.

But that deal — which I think is quite reasonable and should remain the standard term for copyright — was no good for the corporations that held copyrights to the likes of not just Superman, but Popeye, Mickey Mouse, Tarzan, Sherlock Holmes and countless others. So, enter the copyright act of 1976, which was the most significant revision to the copyright law in the nation’s history. It not only extended copyright terms, but in a rare show of justice adjusted the law to compensate folks who had sold copyrights that, due to the extension, were now more valuable than they were when originally sold. So to make up for the fact that companies like Disney and DC Comics now had decades more to exploit characters they had acquired, a complicated clause was put in that allowed for the original copyright owners to possibly benefit from the longer terms by terminating the transfer of copyright.

So now comes a common complaint from the anti-Siegelites: If they signed over the rights, they signed over the rights and have to live with that mistake no matter what. But this ignores not only what I stated above about the change in the copyright law, but also the entire area of contract law. No matter what kind of contract you sign, it’s subject to copyright law, i.e., you can’t make a contract that contradicts the law. So the revisions to the copyright law that allow that allowed DC to keep the Superman contract beyond the original term, also allow the Siegels to terminate the original transfer. Still, some seem to think that’s unfair — to DC. But anyone who’s ever signed a contract, be it a lease or rental agreement or deal to buy a house or whatever, will come across a clause that states, essentially, that should any clause in a contract be found illegal that the legal elements will still apply. That should indicate to the vast majority of people that contracts are subject to law. You can’t, for example, contract someone to commit an illegal act and then sue them for breach of contract. The contact, despite the fact that both sides agree to it, is not a legal contract.

So what does “Mr. Ninja” mean when he calls Superman an American icon, and says that he hates to see this happen to any copyrighted character beloved by millions? His position, whether he means it or not, is that the corporate right to copyright is absolute and should never be questioned. Which not only runs counter to the Constitution and copyright law, but also the very truth and justice he says the Superman character stands for. Justice, in essence, is another word for fairness — and who can say it’s fair for DC Comics to have exploited the character of Superman for immense profit for more than 70 years, 15 years beyond the original copyright terms, and then not have to honor a part of the law that says the Siegels as the heirs of the original creator deserve to share in those profits?

What’s missing, of course, is the American way, which apparently is to bow to corporate interests at every opportunity and to support DC’s decades-long piss poor treatment of the Siegels, which included all kinds of demeaning treatment, blacklisting and persistent efforts to deny any legal claim they have to the millions — if not billions — of dollars DC has earned from the character in the past seven decades.

The other point “Mr. Ninja” brings up is that if you want control of your copyright, you shouldn’t create it for a company. Ignoring the factual error — Siegel and Shuster created Superman long before they took it to DC and never created it “for” the company or at its behest — the technology of publishing and the business realities of distribution at the time made it near impossible for a pair of newcomers like Siegel and Shuster to publish their idea without going to a comic book publisher or comic strip syndicate. No comic book publisher of the era let any creator keep the rights. And only the most powerful or business-savvy of the comic-strip artists — like Milton Caniff in comic strips or Will Eisner, who kept the rights to The Spirit comic book inserted in newspapers at least in part because he was a good business man and wasn’t the first to demand and get it — were able to retain their copyrights. Siegel and Shuster, proposing an outlandish idea that was completely untested, had no such leverage.

Which brings us to another point, which is that you can’t determine the value of the copyright to an intellectual property before it hits the marketplace. Publishers have always liked to play the odds and use the failure of the bulk of their ideas to justify stealing the ones that do work. But that’s hardly fair and it’s even arguably bad business. Would the Harry Potter books have become the sensation they are now if the publisher had treated J.K. Rowling — now one of the richest women in the United Kingdom, if not the world — even half as badly as DC treated Siegel and Shuster? They certainly would not be as creatively rewarding for the millions of fans who believed in them to preorder and line up to buy each book in the series the moment it was released. But that's not how corporations and the small minds that run them think.

At its core, what trolls like “Mr. Ninja” seem to be most afraid of is change. That the victory the Siegels have already won will somehow change or even end the parade of Superman material from DC Comics and Warner Bros. they have come to love in an almost fetishistic sort of way. Which is the most embarrassing part — because Superman remains a vital and extremely viable commercial property. That DC and Warner Bros. would balk so thoroughly at having to share their profits with the heirs of the creators after more than seven decades of exclusive and extremely profitable exploitation is the height of corporate greed. It’s also eminently excusable, justifiable and even admirable in most circles of American society and, apparently, even among fans for whom the worship of the character through the purchase of stuff is more important than the truth and justice they believe the object of their affection represents

Friday, July 10, 2009

Fans' anti-Siegel position in Superman case is frustrating

I’ve had more than my share of frustrating moments this week — Why, yes! I have been dealing with the health care industry. How did you guess? — nothing upset me quite as much as getting a message from the DC Comics Movies Group on Facebook that included the following bit of blood-boiling idiocy:
In saddening news, if the heirs of Siegel and Shuster have their way Superman will die in 2013 and DC will cease publication of all related Superman comics. Talk about punch to the collective American nutsuck, right?
I instantly sent a message back to the moderator, Allynd Dudnikov, explaining his claim was factually challenged in the extreme and that I was leaving the group immediately because of it.

What he’s talking about is the most-recent development in the ongoing legal proceeding between the heirs of Superman co-creator Jerry Siegel and DC Comics, which produced a minor victory for the publisher and its parent company the other day. But I continue to be amazed at the number of people who profess to be fans of Superman in particular and comic book superheroes in general who propagate this idiotic notion that Warner Bros. and DC Comics are somehow the injured party in this dispute and that the Siegels are opportunistic and greedy people out to deprive the fans of the character they’ve come to know and love.

I’ve written about this before and there are plenty of great sites on the web that recount the facts and provide the original documents (which are fascinating reading and highly recommended.)

I'm not an attorney, but what I undstand from following all is this is that the court decided so far is that his heirs have successfully terminated effective in spring 1999 the transfer of Jerry Siegel’s half of the copyright to the Superman story published in Action Comics #1. That means DC owes the Siegels a share to be determined at trial of the money the character earned in the time since the copyright transfer was reclaimed. Similarly, the estate of Joe Shuster has an opportunity to reclaim the other half of the Action #1 copyright in 2013. Should Shuster’s estate succeed, then DC will lose the complete copyright to that original story and will have to license the rights to it back from the creators to use the elements it introduced or to reprint that story.

This most recent ruling states that when the trial to determine the amount of money owed to the Siegels, it will include only the profits earned by DC Comics, and not of Warner Bros. as a whole. The Siegels had argued that the companies are one and the same — a claim the judge rejected. That means the Siegels’ share will come out of a smaller pie, but it’s still coming.

But it doesn’t mean the end of Superman as he exists today — or will exist tomorrow. While Action #1 introduces some of the most significant elements in the Superman mythos — the orphan sent to Earth from outer space, the alter ego of newspaper reporter Clark Kent, the love interest in Lois Lane, the basic costume and powers such as strength, invulnerability and leaping tall buildings — everything that came after Action #1 is solidly work-for-hire owned lock, stock and barrel by DC Comics for a full 95 years.

And I can’t see it making sense for DC or Warner Bros. to stop putting Superman content out there because they have to pay a percentage of the character’s profits to the Siegels. A percentage of the profits is better than no profits. And neither Warner Bros. nor DC is going to go out of business because the courts say they have to pony up to the Siegels. As Harlan Ellison, a wise and smart man — as well as a terrific writer — said about one time the studio asked him to work without pay: “What is Warner Brothers, out with an eye patch and a tin cup, begging for money?”

As I’ve said before, what’s really shameful in all of this is that this conflict was, in my opinion, unnecessary. Warner Bros. got off to a good start in the mid-1970s by restoring Siegel and Shuster’s credit and establishing an annual stipend. Had they gone a bit further and given them a sum that would have been small for so large a conglomerate but lavish for Siegel and Shuster’s final years. Even just making a big deal of the pair — sending them to festivals, comics shows, putting them on TV every now and again — I think would have done a lot more to put this dispute to rest than taking a hard position that may make good legal and business sense but is morally and ethically bankrupt.

Publishers’ shabby treatment of the folks who create and give life to the comic books we love is truly the great shame of the industry. And it’s not just folks from the past, like Siegel and Shuster, Jack Kirby or Alan Moore who are the sole victims. Ask Hero by Night creator DJ Coffman how work for hire worked out for him at Platinum Studios. And as it becomes harder and harder to make money solely by publishing comics, many of the gains made in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s by folks like Dave Sim, Peter Laird and Kevin Eastman, the Image boys and Neil Gaiman have been pushed back by publishers who need those licensing and movie option dollars to stay in business. A quick look at the indicias and copyright notices on publishers that once used their creator-friendly deals as a selling point with fans will reveal a lot of shared copyrights — and I’ll give you one guess which party has the majority share. I expect this to get worse as more and more people create content — comics and not — with no sense of the lessons learned by the likes of Siegel and Shuster and have to learn this unnecessary lesson all over again.

I have had creators tell me revised contract terms have prompted them to stop working with publishers they had long worked with and take their work to houses like Image, which along with Fantagraphics and one or two other independent publishers, are perhaps the last bastions of creator ownership in comics.

What amazes me is that so many people buy the line that Warner Bros. and DC are entitled to make as much as they can off of Superman without any kind of legal or moral obligation to the Siegels of the world. It’s some strange kind of American corporatist thinking that gives all the power and rewards to the corporate executives who exploit a work and cuts out completely the creative people elements that give a character and a story life in the first place. (Again, I’ve been dealing with the health-care industry in a relatively very minor way this past week. It’s clear and logical to me that if someone is in the position of benefiting themselves, the company they work for or their investors by denying care, then making such a decision even in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary is inevitable. And there are such people making that very decision at every level of the American health care system. No wonder the industry has become a black hole for money and morals.)

Given the United States is a country that, particularly of late, has sadly been more pro-business than pro-people, I’m not surprised to see the attorneys and execs for Warner Bros. acting this way. But I wish the fans of Superman, who represents an ideal of fairness above all else, were better represented in the online chatter than by this kind of remark, which exudes above all else a selfishness and short-sightedness that the Man of Steel, were he real, would hardly approve of.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Wrath of Khan and X-Men Forever Make Me Unexplainably Happy

For the first time in a while, there were a couple of new comics out this week that I had to read as soon as soon as I got home. They're both comics I had at one time really hoped would one day exist and now that they're here on the same day, serve as bookends for a lot of my 1980s fan experiences.

Up first is Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan #1 (of 3) (IDW, $3.99), adapting at long last the best of the Trek movies into comic book format. It's hardly the sort of thing you can explain as an adult, but it really used to bother me that this film hadn't been turned into a comic that I could collect and hold on to way back in 1982. For those who don't know, the first Star Trek comics were published by Gold Key starting in 1967 and running 61 issues through 1978. With the coming in 1979 of Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Paramount did what George Lucas had done with Star Wars and Universal with the original Battlestar Galactica and went to Marvel for an adaptation and original series. Unlike with those other properties, Marvel's Trek was a troubled mess and after a year was demoted from monthly to bimonthly publication and finally canceled in late 1981 after a mere 18 issues.

It took the success of the movie Khan to convince DC to give it a go starting in 1983, starting their stories in the post-Khan era and producing the first of several successful lines of Trek comics. I always liked the DC Trek comics best and have a complete collection of them bagged, boarded and long-boxed. DC adapted Star Trek III, IV, V and VI quite well, but it was always frustrating to have that one gap in there. And I know I wasn't the only one frustrated by this, as the question came up more than once in the excellent letters columns editor Bob Greenberger used to prepare for the Trek comics. It was always held out as a possibility, but always a very unlikely one. And it became even less likely as the Trek franchise moved its focus to The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, Voyager and Enterprise.

Reading the book at long last is satisfying. It's a different animal, being produced so long after the fact, when the writer and artist can check every scene and line with the DVD. But it still has its own flavor and a few tics to make it lovable. I even like the use of the Bob Peak poster art on the cover of the first issue, though getting Howard Chaykin to paint a cover to match the ones he did for DC's version of Trek III and IV would truly be amazing. Maybe for the eventual trade paperback.

On the other end of things is X-Men Forever #1 (Marvel, $3.99), an ongoing biweekly series in which writer Chris Claremont and artist Tom Grummett go back to 1991 and basically pretend Claremont never left the series. Like Wrath of Khan, there's no way to truly travel back to that point, but this does pick up the threads from that point and go forward with them in a way that satisfies the inner geek in me that always wanted to see what Chris would have done had he not left.

Somewhere on my hard drive, I have saved an interview Claremont did back around 1994 in which he described his plans for the series. They were fascinating, but apparently not going to be picked up in this series — which is just as well.

Part of me really hopes this revives the feeling of reading Claremont's best work from the 1980s, and part of me hopes this series goes off on completely different tangents and creates a really cool alternate version of the X-Men that takes on a life all its own.

The big complaint (as always) is about Claremont's style of writing. Yes, he goes overboard on the copy by today's standards, but I also find a lot to appreciate in it reflecting a time when comics were a serialized medium of periodicals. When each issue had to stand in some way on its own and there was no "writing for the trade." It always kind of made sense to me to try to pack each issue with ideas and as many bits of characterization would fit, if only to see what would stick. You always could — and Claremont often did — just ignore the stuff that didn't work or hang on to it until he could work it in. I always thought the density of the X-Men was part of its appeal at the time — there was always something going on in the heads of each character, and Claremont put more thought and took more risks with that kind of stuff than most writers of that time did.

Coming as these events did — Khan in 1982, when I was still in junior high school, and the end of Claremont's X-Men run in 1991, when I was graduating college — it's impossible for my judgment on either to be anything less than nostalgic. But even looking beyond the nostalgia, some of the things that originally attracted me to these projects remains in these new comics, and I'm glad to see that sometimes these things remain the same no matter how many years pass.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Thoughts on E3, The 10-Cent Plague and Batman & Robin #1

I got to spend at day at E3 this week for Animation Magazine and walked away pretty impressed by the video game industry, which has changed a lot since the last big E3 I went to in 2006. Aside from toning down the noise, bright lights and over-the-top booth babe pandering, the games themselves were noticably brighter, less violent and more fun. I think a lot of this has to do with the success of casual games, the Nintendo Wii and the runaway success of things like Rock Band. (How cool-looking is that Beatles game? Yowza!)

Yeah, there were still plenty of violent games as well, but even those were sharper looking and more stylish than the somewhat ugly and overbearingly geeky fare of just three years ago.

Relating to comics, there were some very cool game on display, with Batman: Arkham Asylum looking like the best Batman game ever. There were batarangs to throw, an RPG element, "detective mode," tons of comics-related cameos including Commissioner Gordon, Oracle, Zzasz and a few others, and some really great action sequences. It was especially cool to watch Batman glide down from the rafters to rescue a prison guard held hostage in one sequence.

Next to this, the DC Universe Online MMORPG looked a little dull. I'll admit I didn't give it a spin and that the pleasures of that kind of game come from playing with others. But despite the long development, it just didn't pop enough visually to stand out from some truly cool-looking stuff.

Amond the cool-looking, I'll count Marvel Alliance 2 from Activision. The trailer for this was running on huge screens at the Activision booth in between trailers for DJ Hero (which looks amazing, cool and super sexy) and Guitar Hero: Van Halen. It looks to take a cue from Civil War, with rival teams of Avengers lead by Captain America and Iron Man squaring off, with a third team of more villainous characters entering the fray. The HD visuals were truly stunning — you could see the cloth and chain mail in Cap's costume, for example. And the lineup of characters itself was promising, including everyone from Luke Cage and Cable to 1980s faves Firestar and Cloak & Dagger. Here's a look at the trailer:

It's also clear that video games have a cultural cachet with both youths and adults that the comics industry hasn't had since the 1960s and likely never will again. But comics do have one thing that video games, for all their immersiveness and entertainment value, still can't quite match, and that's in telling stories. Which is not to say that there aren't good stories being told in games, but the interactivity of the experience scratches a different itch (I think) than the kind of straight storytelling you find in comics, novels, TV shows and movies.

All of which leads into my second topic, which is David Hajdu's book The Ten-Cent Plague (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $26), which came out last year and I finally got around to reading just now. For those who don't know, this is a thoroughly researched account of the anti-comics crusade of the late 1940s and early 1950s. It makes for fascinating and entertaining reading for anyone who ever wanted to know more about this topic. What came through most vividly for me was the vehemence of the attacks on comics, and the accounts of the comic book bonfires are especially chilling. Hajdu does a great job digging into the reaction of the folks on the receiving end of this — the writers and artists who were vilified and deprived of not just their livlihoods but their outlets for creative expression. It also has interesting bits from the kids of the time, who, being kids, didn't have the tools to really protest their parents' and teachers' attacks on the comic books they loved to read.

The book is subtitled "The Great Comic-Book Scare and How It Changed America," and that's the one area I thought the book fell short — in putting these events into the context of censorship and ratings systems both before and after the Comics Code. It's interesting to read at the end how the publishers installed Charles Murphy to head up the CMAA expecting him to be a figurehead of sorts. But Murphy turned out to be a hard-core believer in the code and enforced it far more vigorously than anyone expected. It would have been interesting to read more about how the anti-comics crusade compared to earlier American censorship efforts, talk about how the Code evolved and changed the comic book industry, and how these events influenced later attempts to either rate or regulate everything from movies to song lyrics, TV shows and most recently video games.

I got a bunch of great previews this week that I hope to read this weekend and write about next week, but I did get around to reading the much-anticipated Batman & Robin #1 (DC, $2.99) by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely. I'm on record as very much having liked Grant Morrison's first Batman arcs back in 2006 (I think). But I found later arcs to be more arcane and difficult to really get into and follow. (Batman R.I.P. and Final Crisis, I'm looking at you). This was much better and has some real promise, but I'm afraid I don't see much reason to get really excited — yet. I think the problem is that Morrison isn't the best fit with Batman. Morrison's ability to get weird in interesting ways is a much better fit for the misfits of Doom Patrol (still my favorite long-running Morrison series), New X-Men, or the experimentation with new ideas like We3. None of which will stop this from being a huge commercial hit for DC, but I'll be quite interested to see how far Morrison can go with Batman and how many folks will stick around for the ride once the novelty wears off.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

New Comic-Con pictorial history is an absolute must have!

Attending Comic-Con is a unique experience — there’s nothing else like it on earth and the experience is different for each person, each year they attend. And as the show has grown exponentially, it’s become almost impossible to experience more than a fraction of it. Admittedly, it can at times be as frustrating an event to attend as it much more often is exhilarating and exciting.

So I was thrilled to find a review copy of what is sure to be one of the hottest items at this year’s convention: A big pictorial history book of the show, titled “Comic-Con: 40 Years of Artists, Writers, Fans and Friends.”

I guarantee: This will be the hottest item at this year's show.

What’s in it? Well, there’s a good overall history of the show, from its earliest days through to today’s pop culture phenomenon, but even better the book is absolutely packed with photographs, artwork, profiles, vintage articles and lists of the show’s many guests and awards. All this is wrapped up in a fantastic cover by Comic-Con mainstay, Mad-man Sergio Aragones.

Among the amazing tidbits and sights I learned from devouring every page of this book are:
  • In 1975, Alan Light (founder of what became the Comics Buyers Guide) and his Dyna Pubs produced an LP record featuring programs from the Comic-Con. I instantly hit Google to search for more info on this, as I would love to listen to this, and came up empty. Anyone know anything about this? Has it ever/could it be re-issued? I love that this simply exists somewhere.
  • Vintage photographs of Chuck Norris shaking hands with Stan Lee at the 1975 show and Alan Moore with Jack Kirby at Moore’s only U.S. con appearance ever in 1985. Also pics of folks like Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, Harvey Kurtzman, Harlan Ellison ... and it just goes on and on. This book is a treasure trove of photos of comics creators and Con attendees past and present.
  • Images of program covers, promotional fliers and ads, badges, limited-edition prints, all the official Con T-shirts, and even the covers of the updates and magazines.
  • Profiles of Con mainstays, illustrated of course, such as Forrest J Ackerman, Will Eisner, Jack Kirby, Ray Bradbury (who also writes the intro), Will Eisner, Dave Stevens, Mark Evanier, Neil Gaiman, Frank Miller and Jim Lee.
I have to say I’m thrilled to see all this history out there, because it’s not been something terribly easy to come by in years past. I recall editing the first Comic-Con special for Variety five years ago and finding little published material out there on the Con’s past. I was therefore thrilled when Evanier, one of the few folks who has been to every San Diego Con, agreed to write a piece for the special. (You can read that piece here.)

Flipping through this book evoked for me much the same thrill I get from attending the show. There’s something amazing to look at with each turn of the page. This book instantly made the two-month wait for this year’s convention seem unbearably long.

The book, which was written by Comic-Con mainstays Gary Sassaman and Jackie Estrada (with lots of help), is designed and published by Chronicle Books — so I’m sure that it will be made available through normal book publishing outlets at some point.

But I’m also convinced this will be one of the hottest items at this year’s Comic-Con. The current issue of Comic-Con magazine offers a preview of the book and says the first print run will be limited and a special preordering system will be set up for folks to pay their $40 in advance and pick up at the show. Details will be forthcoming at

Don't miss out. This one is worth it.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Reading a Big Stack of Comics, Part 2

Let’s get right to it, shall we?

Ignition City #1-2 (Avatar Press, $3.99 each) was exactly the kind of thing I think to myself that I want to read. So I should really have liked this, but instead I found it annoyingly unsurprising. Maybe I should take a break from reading just about everything Warren Ellis writes, because Ignition City felt too much like Ellis-by-numbers: Tough, smart, hot chick protagonist? Check. Lots of swearing, drinking and talking about swearing and drinking? Check. Making a fetish of air travel, space travel and or British exceptionalism? Check. I still liked it, though I wish artist Gianluca Pagliarani didn’t try so hard to get me to look at Mary Raven’s ass.

Soul Kiss #1-2 (Image Comics, $3.50 each) puts a fun twist on the deal-with-the-devil idea as a struggling young production assistant gains the power to kill with a kiss. Man of Action Steven T. Seagle delivers a peppy script, well matched by some bold and vibrant from the artist, Marco Cinello. This feels like the indie comics of decades past and I’m on board for the rest of this one.

Seaguy: Slaves of Mickey Eye #1 (Vertigo, $3.99) is something I bought mostly because anything Grant Morrison does is almost always worth a look. But this is a reminder that not everything he does pans out. My first clue should have been that I remembered the art from reading the first Seaguy series but nothing about the story. This sequel made an equally lax impression on me as Seaguy mopes his way through a story that’s strange but as lifeless and pointless as the first series was (now that I remember it).

Elephantmen #15-18 (Active Images/Image Comics, $2.99 each) has turned into a real favorite, largely because each issue actually adds to the story. The pace isn’t exactly a rip-roaring roller coaster, but unlike too many other series when something happens in Elephantmen it happens for a reason. It also looks fantastic, with great artwork, lovely coloring and effective (though occasionally over-busy) designs and top-notch lettering. It also is one of the few comics that actually feels like a periodical publication, its pages filled with bonus features, articles about British comics and even backup features. I particularly liked issue #18, which featured some lovely artwork from comics newcomer Marian Churchland.

Astro Boy: The Movie #1 (IDW, $3.99) debuts a four-part prequel to the upcoming CG-animated movie. The comic has an appealing, simple style, courtesy of writer Scott Tipton and artist Diego Jourdan, that is ideal for a kids audience (which is what I assume they’re going for). Fans of Osamu Tezuka or the old anime Astro Boy cartoons are probably going to find this a little shallow, but this is pretty good for a kids-movie tie-in.

From the Ashes #1 (IDW, $3.99) is a strange and fun “speculative memoir” by misanthropic cartoonist Bob Fingerman in which he and his wife, Michele, appear to be the sole survivors of a mysterious apocalyptic event. It’s surprisingly funny to watch them take relief in the idea of not having to go to work or that all the annoying people they hate aren’t around — until, of course, the cannibals show up. The almost blasé reactions are a nice counterpoint to the hysteria of, say, Cloverfield.

Buck Rogers #0 (Dynamite, 25 cents) is a short preview of a new series resurrecting the classic sci-fi hero for the 21st century. Most of my knowledge of Buck Rogers comes from the 1970s TV show, which was decidedly cheesy, so this is a pleasant surprise. Scott Beatty sets things up with an action packed script and the art by Carlos Rafael has a terrific modern look.

American McGee’s Grimm #1 (IDW, $3.99) is a reasonably fun little lark in which the title character — who apparently stars in his own video game series — spoofs superhero comics by helping the supervillains actually win, for once. While superhero comics are a pretty easy target, this has a few clever moments and some interesting looking artwork, courtesy of writer Dwight MacPherson and artist Grant Bond.

Stephen Colbert’s Tek Jansen #4 (Oni Press, $3.99) continues the series spun off the Comedy Central faux news hosts’ fan fiction joke. The joke was funny when the first issue came out, some two years ago, but it’s wearing a little thin in this fourth issue.

Blue Monday: Thieves Like Us #1 (Oni Press, $3.99) brings back Chynna Clugston’s ode to ’80s high school highjinks and hasn’t lost a step. There is something odd about seeing these characters coming back after a pretty lengthy absence having aged not at all, but it’s made up for by Clugston’s overall sharp sense of humor and an art style that’s increasingly influenced by the work of Jaime Hernandez. Now, my sole complaint is that this series isn’t in color …

Spawn #188 (Image Comics, $2.95) is Part Four of the Endgame story that brings creator Todd McFarlane back into the creative process. Having read this book for the past few years, I find this title to be quite underrated. McFarlane co-writes the story with Brian Holguin and it’s got a good hook, a sufficiently creepy undertone and makes loads more sense than any of the issues McFarlane did back in the early 1990s. Artwork also is quite goood, with pencils from the always-interesting Whilce Portacio and “digital inks” from McFarlane himself. It may not necessarily look much like classic McFarlane, but at least a little of his iconic style sneaks through to nice effect.

Shrapnel: Aristeia Rising #2-3 (Radical Comics, $2.99 each) is military sci-fi in the mode of Heinlein’s Starship Troopers. While the machismo, even from the lead female character, is a little much for me, fans of this kind of thing will likely find this to be a superior comic. Created by Mark Long and Nick Sagan and scripted by M. Zachary Sherman, the details of the story get a bit lost in the dark but lovely painted artwork of Bagus Hutomo. I appreciate the look of the art, but some clarity in the images would help the storytelling.

Hotwire #1-2 (Radical Comics, $2.99) is another Warren Ellis comic starring a tough-as-nails hottie chick — this time she’s a exorcist detective in a world where ghosts are real. Scripted and painted by Steve Pugh, this is an imaginative world featuring a story that’s attractively told and could develop into something really interesting.

The Unwritten #1 (Vertigo, $1) is the discount-priced debut of the new series from writer Mike Carey and artist Peter Gross. This ongoing series kicks off with a guy named Tommy Taylor, whose father wrote a series of Harry Potter-style books starring his son — and suddenly disappeared. Tommy himself is the object of adoration at conventions, signings, etc. — until it’s revealed he may not be who he says (or thinks) he is. Written with Carey’s usual care and in a nice literary style, this book also looks terrific thanks to Gross’ excellent art and truly fine coloring from Chris Chuckry. This feels like the kind of hit Vertigo specializes in and should make fans of Fables, Sandman and Y: The Last Man happy.

BONUS BLAST FROM THE PAST #1: It doesn’t really matter that DC’s Heroes Against Hunger #1 (1986) is not a good comic, because it was a benefit book for African famine. It’s amazing to look back and see how many benefits of this type there were, from Band-Aid and Live-Aid to USA for Africa, Northern Lights and Marvel’s X-Men comic Heroes for Hope. This is very much like Heroes for Hope, in that it features a ton of great talent all contributing a few pages at a time. The story, such as it is, features Superman and Batman working on various hunger problems and needing the help of Lex Luthor. It’s got a cool cover by Neal Adams and art by just about every top artist of the era — Jack Kirby, Carmine Infantino, George Perez, John Byrne, Barry Windsor-Smith, Walt Simonson, Dave Gibbons, Denys Cowan and Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez. It’s also got most of the DC writing stable of the era, but it’s lacking the star power evident in Heroes for Hope, which had pages by Alan Moore and Stephen King. Again, little of that matters, as this wasn’t really meant to work as a great piece of art as much as a good excuse for comics fans and DC to contribute to a good cause.

BONUS BLAST FROM THE PAST #2: Pacific Comics is no longer around, but Alien Worlds #2 (May 1983) proves it put out some good stuff. This particular issue offers fans of sci-fi art some terrific eye candy. Up first is a tale called “Aurora,” written and drawn by the late Dave Stevens in 1977. It’s a great reminder that he was a fantastic illustrator, and this sci-fi tale portrays a beautiful heroine in a lush, beautifully detailed and believable alien world. Each panel looks like it was labored over with love, and the result is really enchanting. Up next is a harder-edged story from Ken Steacy that again is beautifully illustrated with inky shadows and slick tech. Last is “A Mind of Her Own,” written and drawn by Bruce Jones and another tale where each panel encourages the reader’s eye to linger. Terrific, and well worth seeking out.