Thursday, May 24, 2012

New Comics! And a Look at X-O Manowar #1

A couple quick notes:

First, an apology to all the folks who commented on the last few posts I put up. I had the settings emailing the wrong address for moderation, so I was unaware they were waiting for me to OK. I've updated the settings, so that shouldn't happen again.

Second, for someone who's kicked the superhero habit, I sure have a big pile of books on my desk. Take a look:

Some of these are comp copies, some are more indie-style comics that I've bought. I have bought a few superhero comics to sample, as well. The real difference is that it took about three months for the stack to get this big, when it used to take two or three weeks' worth.

X-O Manowar #1
Anyway, there's some interesting stuff in here. Let's start with X-O Manowar from the revived Valiant Entertainment. This is the first release from a publisher with ambitions toward making a dent in the superhero audience dominated by Marvel and DC. It's a polished comic book, but it also is aggravating in that it's a great example of everything I think superhero comics are doing wrong these days.

This is an extra-size issue, with 29 pages of story in it. The story, by Robert Venditti of The Surrogates fame, is done well but it's awfully decompressed. It's an origin story, of course, that is essentially the same as it was in the original X-O series, though with a lot more details added in.

For those who didn't read the original Valiant series, this series follows a barbarian from 402 AD named Aric who is abducted by these spider-like aliens and held in suspended animation for centuries before escaping to present-day Earth with possession of the aliens' greatest weapon, a living suit of armor.

The biggest problem is not enough happens in this issue. We get lots of backstory on Aric and the problems he has in the fifth century, but we get barely a glimpse of the alien suit and we never get to see Aric wear it, use it or any hint that the action will move to the present day. In short, we get almost no idea what the series is going to be about or even what its style will be once we get out of the origin. Plus, I'm not certain what the story gains from all the extra info about Aric's past. He's essentially supposed to be Conan in Iron Man's armor, and a historically accurate portrayal of the fifth century seems unnecessary.

The art by Cary Nord and Stefano Gaudiano is clear and well-drafted, with good coloring from Moose Baumann. But it also doesn't stand out as particularly stylish or energetic, and that is perhaps a function of the pacing of the story itself.  

In contrast, the original X-O Manowar #1 (Feb. 1992) begins with Aric's escape from the spider aliens, and shows his arrival on Earth, his first encounters with modern people and technology, and he gets to use the suit a lot to kick some alien ass. That issue also was drawn by the outstanding Barry Windsor-Smith, so it has some real flair to the art and drama to the storytelling that a lot of the contemporary Valiant titles lacked.  Even looking at X-O Manowar #0 (Aug. 1993), it manages to tell in a single issue the story that this new series only gets started on, with a lot more action. It boasts some early Joe Quesada art, and also is a particularly nice-looking book. The hardcover edition that came out a few years back is a great way to check these stories out. It also includes an early issue of the series penciled by Steve Ditko.

I doubt I'll be back for another installment of this book — it's just easier to wait and pick up the trade if I hear this turns out well. I am interested in Harbinger #1, as that was my favorite of the original Valiant titles and I'm curious to see if it's any good. I do hope Valiant does well — it would be good to have another solid publisher in the business, especially if they are successful enough to eventually branch out with some new characters, titles and series.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

'Avengers' Shows Superheroes No Longer Need Comics

Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) soars through the New York skyline in Avengers.

Since I’m writing about the visual effects on Avengers for an upcoming issue of Animation Magazine, I got to see the movie last week at the Disney lot and found the movie to be very, very entertaining. Avengers is a huge movie, with nearly every cent of its reported $220 million budget up there on the big screen, and the deft handling of the story will earn it a huge audience and huge box office to go with it. 

Not only does Avengers successfully adapt the comic book series to the big screen, it actually improves on it. There’s no way that even the the best issue of Avengers ever published can really compete with the movie for the time and money of a modern audience. This poses a problem for those who make, publish, sell and read comics because it removes one of the few great selling points of the medium: That comics can tell stories on a scale and scope that movies cannot. And that is no longer true.

It’s also hard to argue with the math. According to data presented at the 2011 Graphic Novel Conference, the entire comic book industry posted combined sales of single issues and graphic novels in 2010 of $635 million. (This was the last year for which I could find info for — and that revenue was down from 2009. If anyone has more current info, send me the link.) By contrast, Avengers is now expected to cross the $500 million mark by the end of its first weekend playing here in the United States (it opened last week in a number of international markets to huge impact), and seems destined to easily become a billion-dollar grosser just at the box office. That doesn’t include ancillary revenues such as merchandise and licensing, and the long life the movie will have in home video formats from now until the copyright expires under current law in 2107. 

Basically, this one movie will likely generate more than double what the entire comics industry did in 2010. Add in what The Dark Knight Rises is likely to make, as well as The Amazing Spider-Man, and these three movies will lap the comics biz many times over in a single year. 

In the 1980s and 1990s, fans often said that good comic book movies would put the world on notice that the comics they were based on were good enough to check out, and the new readers — and respect — would just roll on in. With the former now reality, the latter looks less and less likely. 
Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and Captain America (Chris Evans) fight on in Avengers

After Avengers, what’s left for superhero comics to do? Will anyone who likes this big, bold and fun superhero flick be at all impressed by the latest $4 an issue yak-fest from Brian Michael Bendis? Or want to dig through endless crossovers and convoluted back story? I doubt it. 

Just as I also doubt that Marvel or Disney will in any way alter the way they go about publishing comics these days. It seems that, as long as publishing keeps making money and keeps viable Marvel’s many copyrights and trademarks in the marketplace, they’ll keep publishing comics. 

I’m more concerned about the state of the former, though. I don’t see the market for print comics increasing in any significant way any time soon. The distribution is way too spotty, the cost of a comic too high, and the content of the superhero comics put out by Marvel and DC too narrowly focused on the niche that is the direct market. 
Captain America (Chris Evans) and Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) confer on the SHIELD Helicarrier in Avengers.

Digital distribution is the obvious future for pretty much any medium that has not already embraced it. I myself don’t care to read comics on my phone or computer, though I would like to try it on an iPad some day. And while publishers have done a much better job getting comics out there for sale digitally, I think the content is going to remain a big stumbling block for all the reasons I cited above. Just porting over the niche-oriented direct market content won’t attract a mainstream audience. The content must be tailored to the format and the medium, and it appears most comics companies are barely even acknowledging this question, let alone dealing with it.

The comics must be better, much better, than they are now, and tailored to the audience that a movie like Avengers appeals to in order to have the first chance of expanding readership.