27 February 2005

SideKick: Batman #637

Every month or so I'll review a single issue of a comic book title to see how relatable it is for new readership.

To quote Dennis O'Neil from The DC Guide to Writing Comics:

"One of the recurring and embarassingly valid criticisms of modern comic books, particularly the adventure & fantasy titles, is that they're extremely difficult to understand on the most basic level." (pg 24)

Do today's comics still suffer from this criticism? Let's find out shall we?

Last night was my buddy Edgar's birthday so me and the fellas celebrated his last year in twenty-somethingsville by bar-hopping through Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Yadda yadda yadda, as I lay in bed this morning, nursing a hangover of Tony Stark proportions, my girlfriend came to my rescue: a couple of ibuprofens, a bottle of gatorade and a brand new comic book. Color me spoiled.

Batman #637 (DC Comics)
Judd Winick (script) & Doug Mahnke (pencils)

Now Batman and the other icons get a handicap when it comes to The SideKick because nearly everyone has a basic knowledge of the hero's origins, and are familiar with his villians and supporting cast. So after I read the issue the first time, and the pounding in my head subsided, I reread it with the proverbial fine-toothed comb.

Batman #637 is part 3 of the 4-part "Under the Hood" storyline which centers on the reappearance of the Red Hood, a minor criminal in the Batman mythos, but whose background is directly connected to the origin of the Joker. This issue, however, seemingly has very little to do with the the Red Hood as his appearances (with no specific mention of his name) merely bookend the main story of Batman & Nightwing battling Amazo, an android endowed with the powers of the Justice League.

Now we don't know why Batman & Nightwing are in a warehouse facing this electronic behemoth but Winick & Mahnke catapult us into the action so fast we have no time to question it. The action is well-paced and choreographed thanks to Mahnke's subtle details and unpretenious storyboarding. From the opening scene we know Batman & Nightwing will defeat Amazo, so what makes this an entertaining read is finding out how.

With Nightwing handling the narration, Winick's script adds a pinch of depth to this action-adventure as he recounts his previous pairing with the caped crusader (as the original Robin), comparing their demeanor, their game faces, in the throes of battle.

I like what DC is doing here and in the latest issues of The Flash where the former sidekicks are dissecting the characters of their[our] heroes. It's sort of like that realization that comes with adulthood, understanding why grown-ups acted the way they did when we were young. Back then, we may have debated over Superman & Batman being the coolest, but deep down we always wanted to be Robin: the young adventurer with a father figure/partner to carry the burden of responsibility. Nowadays, with the primary audience for comics being adult males, DC is bringing characters like Flash, Speedy and Nightwing to the forefront as our representatives and using them as the unofficial arbiters of their universe.

Bookending the Batman & Nightwing story is the Black Mask, one of the more obscure Bat-villians, brokering with Mr. Freeze, and later the Red Hood, to help him in his criminal enterprises. New readers are not going to know who the Black Mask is but Winick handles that by mentioning his name early in the issue, juxtaposing him with a more recognized Bat-adversary in Mr. Freeze, and writing him some of the best one-liners in the issue.

Based on what occurs, it's hard to predict how the "Under the Hood" arc is going to end next month, and that's a sign of good single issue. The fact that I am curious enough to want to pick up Batman #638, though, that's the sign of great one.

Until next time...

Comment: Giving the People What They Want

Marvel EIC, Joe Quesada, and his main partner in crime, Brian Michael Bendis, caused a minor tempest in a teapot a couple of weeks ago during Newsarama's "Quesadarama" PR stunt that gave Quesada "control" of the site for the week. He posted an entertaining mix of informative and self-indulgent interviews with the likes of Kevin Smith, Allan Heinberg and, in a series of five installments, Bendis. During the third installment, the duo hypocritically riffed on the state of online journalism and the merits of Rich Johnston's rumor column, Lying in the Gutters, as well as the signal-to-noise ratio on various comics-related message boards.

"We know for a fact that the internet community is a small yet intense version of our readership. I know some people think it's only a few hundred people versus the 200k loyal readers. I think its more like 10 k on line versus the larger readership. Any of the high profile boards you go to, Newsarama, Millar's, Geoff's, [Quesada's], or mine, you rarely see a hit count pop over 10 k and that doesn't include nerds like us clicking on the same subject over and over."
While Bendis' New Avengers #1 was the best-selling comic book of 2004 with 240,000 copies in pre-orders, considering the marketing push Marvel put behind it, I'd mark that as an aberration, guessing at least 10-15% of those were duplicates, with one copy being read and the other going straight to bag and boarding and eventually posted on eBay. Figure another 10% of sales to places like Wizard that cater to foolish speculators with CGC-graded offerings of every self-proclaimed "HOT" comic, and my guess is "the larger readership" is closer to 150,000 tops. Considering only three comics published in January sold more than 100,000 copies in pre-orders - the 2nd issues of New Avengers and The Ultimates, dropping 36% and 22%, respectively, from the previous issue; and X-Men: Phoenix - Endsong #1 - that would seem to be an agreeable figure.

Interestingly, Wizard itself - the People Magazine of the comics world, both in popularity and editorial focus - claims "a current monthly circulation of 200,000" copies, though the most recent audited figures I could find show back in 1999 they were averaging 178,122 copies/month (down 21% from 1997) before disappearing completely from the Audit Bureau of Circulation's Top 100 in 2000 which bottomed out with USA TODAY BASEBALL WEEKLY's 134,628/month, suggesting either another precipitous drop in circulation - at least 24% - or that they withdrew their ABC membership to hide their declining numbers. That they are not currently listed as being members of either ABC, or its competitor BPA, suggests it might be a combination of the two.

Back to actual comic book sales, however - the vast majority of which take place through the Direct Market, unlike Wizard, which is also sold via mainstream outlets - looking at January's Top 25 comics, pre-orders averaged only 74,572/title, or just under half my presumed total audience of comic book buyers. Expanding to the Top 100, which ends with Breach #1 at 16,891 copies, and the average drops harshly to 40,592/title - less than 33% of my total estimate, and barely 20% of Bendis' guess and Wizard's claimed audience.

This compared to the heady days of of 1991 and X-Men #1's record [estimated] paid circulation of 7,500,000 copies!

Christopher J. Priest hit the nail on the head of the problem, setting the bar even lower for the total audience while lamenting the fate of his short-lived series The Crew:

"These days, in these tough times, comics are an increasingly hard sell. We're not writing to two and a half million largely silent eight year-olds, but to a highly vocal and highly volatile group of somewhere around fifty thousand. Now, we can stay up all night pointing fingers and figuring out who's to blame for that, but the fact is here we are, constantly trying to reinvent ourselves for essentially the same audience when a more informed marketing strategy might be to refresh the audience itself. So, these days, we launch most everything with our backs against the wall. In marketing, I was taught to never advertise something by saying what it isn't. But out-running perception, especially in this business, is more or less the order of the day. And entertaining a loyal but frustrated and shrinking fan base who wants exactly this but not that way and not by him is, increasingly, a shot in the dark."
--Christopher J. Priest, hey, kids, comics!
A look at January's Top 100 would seem to support Priest's take on things, dominated as it is not just by Marvel and DC titles, but specifically by titles directly related to the X-Men, Spider-Man, Superman and Batman - 40% to be exact, not counting their "appearances" in titles like New Avengers, JLA and Exiles. Mark Millar's loathsome final issue of Wanted is the highest ranking book not connected to any of those characters, or published by Marvel or DC, ranked at #29 (43,345).

With this in mind, one wonders if Bendis and Quesada's practical dismissal of the "small yet intense" vocal minority on the internet that questions their every move was fundamentally correct.

Using Newsarama as an example, according to its forum stats (as of 12:45pm, 2/26/05), its 11,617 members had posted 656,004 messages since October 29, 2002, an average of 56 posts per member.
  • 155,126 of those posts - 25% of the total - were made by the top 20 posters - .002% of the total members - including site proprietor, Matt Brady.
  • 24% of their total members have never made a single post!
  • 20% have only made ONE post!
Even Karl Rove wouldn't try to spin those numbers into any kind of a mandate, and taken along with the sales figures that would seem to contradict the feelings of most of the measurable Comics Blogiverse - a small, incestuous "community" of comic book fans, professionals, aspirants and sycophants, comprised of approx. 245 sites, 64% of which have been updated in the past week - I'm left feeling like a member of Dennis Kucinich's optimistic but ultimately doomed-from-the-beginning Presidential campaign.

"When I was on the outside looking in at Marvel, I use to look at the current EICs and wonder why they didn't take the opportunity to expand reader's tastes. Surely with the Marvel machinery behind them, they could force the issue, move the mainstream comic's industry towards a new place, different styles etc. Well, now that I'm in the seat I see not only how difficult it is, but how my predecessors did try in many cases and just had to put their hands up and say okay, it is what it is. We've had so many off-beat projects that we've done, that I had such high hopes for but in the end the fans and retailers basically told us with their dollars that it wasn't what they were putting on the top of their reading lists...

I could give you a laundry list of this stuff, but we both know, that if it doesn't have capes it's a hard sell. And there in lies the mystery to me, because like you, I read the letters, the e-mails, the posts that are craving for material that's not superhero oriented. So much of it that it would lead us to believe that there is really an audience out there, but I think this more than anything attests to that very large silent majority in comics. I now call them the 'Red States' of comics, who are out there – the ones who don't write and don't post on web sites, who are truly driving our industry. And it's not just us, anyone doing non-super hero stuff, for the most part is finding themselves hitting a very small audience...

Look, this won't prevent us from continually doing this stuff, Runaways and The Pulse to some extent are offshoots of this, but we have to be careful taking our shots. Things at Marvel are very simple, if tomorrow the world changed and no one wanted superheroes and wanted romance books, you'd see us producing romance books. There is no conspiracy here, if the industry feels like Marvel is putting out too many superhero books, then it has to look inward at itself. Perhaps we need to accept that ultimately that's what 'today's' fan wants out of their comics, and what's really wrong with that?"
I want to believe the industry can do better and, more importantly, that its fans want better from it, but I just don't see it happening. Especially not when the industry continues to attempt "to reinvent [itself] for essentially the same audience," an audience that is steadily shrinking to the point of inbred irrelevance. Quesada makes a great analogy with his "'Red States' of comics" comment, but at the same I think he's unfairly passing the buck.

As a leader in the industry, Quesada and Marvel have the responsibility to not just give the fans what they want, but to also "take the opportunity to expand reader's tastes." That means, among other things, putting the same creative and marketing muscle behind their experimental titles - which, as much as I like it, The Runaways is not an example of - as they do into their gazillionth X-Men spinoff.

Uncle Ben said it best: "With great power comes great responsibility."

25 February 2005

Tomboy's Take: Add David Mack's "Kabuki" to Your Collection!

I read the ending first.

The blood and gore had flown, the knives and guns were put away, and the emotional rollercoaster seemed to be rolling to a halt. Kabuki was already sitting in a cell in Control Corps – a "hospital" for the recuperation, reprogramming, and reintegration of injured, insane, or rogue government operatives.

When David Mack first introduced Kabuki in Caliber Comics' Kabuki: Fear the Reaper in November 1994, I was still a diehard fan of my DC and Marvel superheroes — muscle-bound men and busty women in tight outfits and sticky situations that only superpowers and steely-eyed diligence could free them from. Both the outfits and the situations, I mean. I kept reading even though I was already familiar and growing bored with the simple formula: superhero fight villain, villain become superhero, superhero become villain, villain fight superhero, explosions, buildings fall, heroes win, end issue, either clean slate or bad tangle when someone files a contradictory storyline later into the comic book continuum.

When I first met Kabuki in 1996 — tucked away in Control Corps introduced in Caliber's Kabuki: Skin Deep - rehashed, predictable storylines; boring, misogynistic art; and flat characters were already pushing me away from the comic book format.

I was a huge fan of Alex Ross' painted comics, but I was unprepared for the watercolor, pastel, and ink format that Mack used in the Skin Deep series. I've seen few books illustrated so distinctly and innovatively. The cover alone popped up from the rack And not only was the art stunning, but the writing was good — even often poetic — as Mack turns text into word art to bring story background into that latest installment. He used poetic language that even most poets I know have forgotten — stuff like metaphor and symbolism that was beautiful but didn't go over the reader's head. It reminded me of James O'Barr's The Crow. And Kabuki's storyline was profound, driven by psychological depth and energy, while still carrying undertones of right vs. wrong. The characters' mentalities, especially Kabuki's, drove the story; she wasn't expected to act in a certain way just because she was the Good Guy. She had to redefine what she thought she knew were black-and-white boundaries, and that unraveling fueled the story. It brought me back to Alan Moore's V for Vendetta and The Watchmen. I was seeing some of the best aspects of some of the greatest comics I've ever read in a book that was taking a fresh and modern approach to these ideas. I was instantly enamored with Mack's complex characters, break-the-box layouts, superb artistic skill, intriguing dialogue, and entrenching storyline. After I'd read the second issue of Skin Deep, I bought the trades collecting the entire preceding storyline.

Kabuki is set in a futuristic, high-tech Japan whose characters are still heavily influenced by its WWII history. A secret government agency called the Noh enforces a healthy balance between the government and the Yakuza crime organization. The main body of the Kabuki books features sharp, black-and-white layouts and fast-paced, intelligent storytelling. Kabuki and her sister Noh operatives are introduced in Kabuki: Circle of Blood as masked, costumed news anchorwomen with a cult following for Noh Television, which is the Noh's cover. The operatives' public personas give them freer reign through the city and their masks conceal their identity as covert assassins. Kabuki herself is dressed in a costume bearing Japan's rising sun symbol; she is Japan's icon. She wears a kabuki mask detailed with a single tear running from her left eye. Beneath her mask, Kabuki's face is horribly scarred after a man who raped her when she was a child carved the kabuki symbol into her face, marking her with a name associated with forced prostitutes and servants that Japanese soldiers abused during World War II. As Circle of Blood progresses, we learn that the Noh has been corrupted from the inside out, and Kabuki must find the source.

In Kabuki: Masks of the Noh, Mack reveals Kabuki's personal history as she attempts to battle the growing corruption that's taken over the Noh. Mack draws parallels between Kabuki's fight with her former Noh allies and her fight to find peace with her mother's death, who died while giving birth to her. As we learn more about her past and the incidents surrounding her mother's death and her own rape, Kabuki's history and her battle with the Noh draw perilously closer together.

In Skin Deep, published by Image Comics, with Kabuki's mask removed, Mack presents a full-color, flowing format and tells a slower, more poetic story. Even as the Noh operatives penetrate Control Corp and make their way towards Kabuki, we're held in stasis as we become intimately aware of Kabuki's intricate workings while Control Corps tries to reprogram her.

Currently, Mack is in the midst of publising the latest installment of the series, Kabuki: The Alchemy, through Marvel Comics' Icon imprint. He uses an even freer layout and more daring art, now incorporating collage work and allowing the text to be even more of an artistic element as we see another phase of Kabuki's reprogramming and recuperation.

This is the only book I go into the shop to buy.

The Kabuki series will always have a place in my library. Her character isn't all about sex appeal, attitude, or super powers — she's a living legend, full of grace and authority. She maintains her integrity but is still gritty about it. I won't pretend there's no appeal in having an Asian female superhero I can respect. The story shows that there are no solid boundaries defining right and wrong. The good guys can be misled without intentionally becoming bad guys and still be the antagonist. The bad guys didn't always intend to be bad guys and still be a protagonist. Endings don't have to be clean or totally conclusive; you feel a sense of accomplishment after each individual issue, as if progress has been made in moving the story along. These are the traits that make Kabuki an intelligent comic book, and one that belongs in everybody's collection.

23 February 2005

The Uncanny O-Man: Profile: Jigsaw & Ben Jones

  • Age: Roughly ¥ð^3.
  • Height: 293 in dog inches.
  • Weight: Equivalent to the amount added to Milla Jovovich by six and a half cameras.
  • Place of birth: Well, I was awfully young, but I'm going to assume it was somewhere in the vicinity of my mother's womb.
  • Religion: No thanks, I already ate.

About a year ago, I found out my friend Ben Jones was moving to New York and was going to open an indie comic store / art gallery. I got excited. Real excited.

His store, jigsaw, is full of fantastic comics you will not find anywhere else and art you wouldn't be able to afford otherwise.

Browsing through his stock has an odd effect. Looking through these varied comics makes you think, "Hey, I wanna do this too!" I don't have any delusions that I could make money off of comics; it's the sheer joy and love of them that makes me want to take pen to paper. Probably the most mainstream publisher you'll find there is Fantagraphics (though some might argue Harris). A lot of his comics, however, are self-published and full of passion. I picked up a series of 2x3 comics published by Eleanor Davis. No, I haven't heard of her either. Yes, they are amazing.

Along with comics, Ben has a gallery of indie art. I'd call it Outsider Art, but there's a reason Outsider Art is called Outsider Art (meaning it sucks). There's no reason why Ben's shows should be on the Outside... Well, aside from the fact that he's not charging insider prices.

I asked Ben a few questions about his first year in New York and his upcoming show by Molly Crabapple opening this Saturday (February 26).

O-Man: What inspired you to move to New York and open an art and comic book store?
Ben Jones: They were really two different inspirations. The move to New York was an idea I had after drinking a bunch of whiskey. Opening Jigsaw was the brainchild of a large bottle of gin a few months later. If I'd been drinking beer and tequila, I would now be a bartender in Kansas City.

O-Man: Almost a year into it, what have been the high and low points?
Jones: High points. Hmm. Well, having Leslie Stein's band play in my office was pretty fun. Watching Duane Bruton cover my wall in contact paper. Having twenty people show up to Danielle Corsetto's show during the massive blizzard. Watching Max Fenton pelt the front of the shop with cream pies during the opening of Clowns in Love. Low points? Cleaning up the pies the next day. And the fact that I don't pay myself.

O-Man: Could you have predicted where you are today?
Jones: Sitting in front of my computer answering email? Yeah, that was a pretty easy prediction. Safe bet.

O-Man: What are the goals now?
Jones: To keep putting on shows that make me happy. To throw parties and bring people together. To attempt to bring small media some well-deserved attention. To get more groupies. And to invent a new kind of absinthe that doesn't taste like anise. Sort of like hallucinogenic vodka, only green.

O-Man: Do you feel competition with local stores that cater to more mainstream interests?
Jones: Nah. The only art galleries really competing with me are in Brooklyn, and there aren't really any shops doing what I do. I've got customers who work at the bigger stores (and publishers) and come to me specifically because I have things they can't find anywhere else.

O-Man: What's been your experience with the indie comic scene in New York? Funny stories welcomed.
Jones: The indie comic creators in New York are some of the sweetest people I've met in comics. I've been all around this crazy world and met a ton of comic creators, and it's pretty amazing how little friction there seems to be here compared to other places. My most successful event was the book release party for Josh Neufeld's A FEW PERFECT HOURS back in September. We lost count, but we're pretty sure around 250 people showed up over the course of the night, no mean feat considering I can only fit about 40 inside at any one time. I wish I had some incredible scandalous behind-the-scenes story for you, but honestly, everyone who comes here is supportive of each other. Everyone just seems thrilled to be making comics. And no, you don't get to find out which indie comics creators I've kissed since opening the store. I wouldn't want to sully their reputations.

O-Man: You hosted a series of informal write-in for this year's National Novel Writing Month. Did you expect the event to be as successful as it was?
Jones: Frankly, no. I was already doing NaNo, and I had a bunch of friends who were signed up as well, so I decided to hold weekly write-ins on Saturday nights. I figured a couple people would show up and hang out on the couch and write and have a glass of wine and it'd make me feel like less of a social outcast during NaNoWriMo. As it turned out, I had eight to twelve people show up every week, forcing me to find extra chairs and make multiple pizza runs. As it turned out, EVERYBODY wanted something to do on Saturday night that didn't involve fighting the typical New York crowds. I just wish more of my regular attendees had actually reached their word count. Then I would have felt more successful.

O-Man: What can you tell me about the upcoming Molly Crabapple show?
Jones: It's shrouded in mystery for me as well. It all seems rather strange and dream-like. This attractive woman wandered in one day and asked if I would look at her portfolio. She showed me these astounding black and white illustrations. I looked at my calendar and gave her a few weeks for her show. Fast forward. Periodically she emails me with more information. She has gotten a sponsorship from Original Sin cider. She has hired a go-go dancer. She will probably give prizes to people dressed all fancy-like in black and white formal wear. I have no doubt that come Saturday, she will show up in full Victorian regalia and then explain to me how we can increase the size of the space exponentially if we just move the chair a few inches to the left. I think Molly may be some sort of magical burlesque robot.

O-Man: Past the Crabapple show, what's on the horizon?
Jones: Molly's show is up until the 13th of March. After that, rogue artist and rock god Nicholas Gazin hangs his show "Gut Feeling" (it's a DEVO thing). And when I say "hangs" I mean "installs", as it is entirely possible his entire show will be painted bottles or something. After that, the astounding Evan Cairo does a robot show, followed by a display of absolutely stunning lightboxes by Angelina Mortarotti. After that there's a couple indie comic creators, Dash Shaw in May and Dan James in June. The current information is usually up in the "events" section of jigsawnyc.com.

O-Man: What is the air-speed velocity of an unladen swallow?
Jones: What, African or European?

Review: Greg Rucka, Novelist

I first came across Greg Rucka's work in Gotham Central, during his Eisner Award-Winning "half a life" story arc (issues #6-10). In it, he puts his protagonist, Detective Renee Montoya, through the ringer in a well-paced, character-driven story of obsession and revenge. I'd only returned to comics less than six months prior at that point and was blown away by the difference in quality and style from the men-in-tights comics I'd grown up on and had initially sought out. Better yet, because Gotham Central takes place on the fringes of Batman's world, it was quality storytelling without the condescending pretension found in many non-superhero comics.


I'm big on supporting writers I like so I followed him over to Adventures of Superman when he took it over and was surprised to find myself enjoying the character for the first time, and it became the first and only Superman title I've ever bought regularly. I soon discovered that he was also an accomplished novelist and immediately tracked down his first novel, Keeper, to see whether his talents translated over to long-form fiction.

Keeper introduces Atticus Kodiak, an engaging character with an interesting supporting cast, and his chosen profession, bodyguard, is vividly depicted. Rucka is known for his meticulous research and he's apparently done his homework here as the overall scenario and the details he highlights all ring true. The story's backdrop, New York City at the height of the mid-90s anti-abortion protests and clinic bombings makes for a enthralling plot as Kodiak is charged with the protection of a pro-choice doctor. Rucka unself-consciously tackles the sticky politics of the situation, offering welcome shades of gray in what is often a black-and-white topic, while delivering a taut thriller that kept me on the edge of my seat through to the end. An excellent debut novel, I immediately went looking for the next one in the series, Finder.

Picking up three months after the events in Keeper, Finder combines another fast-paced plot with some welcome fleshing out of its main protagonist. Atticus Kodiak has issues and while, at 28 years old, I think he's implausibly young for what he does, this time that actually plays into the story as his relative inexperience - not to mention his immaturity in dealing with relationships - is highlighted when he comes up against the SAS, in what is basically an extremely over-the-top custody battle. Because he's so good at developing his characters, though, Rucka earns the reader's necessary suspension of disbelief. If there's one flaw in his writing, it shows up here in his depiction of a rather sterile New York City. The names and places are all correct but there's a certain something missing. Instead of the City being a living, breathing character, it feels more like a backdrop, like in movies filmed on the cheap in Vancouver. Overall, it's a solid effort that avoids the sophomore slump, and I anxiously moved on to the next book in the series, Smoker.

Rucka's primary strengths are his characterization and pacing and in Smoker, the third time's the charm as it all falls perfectly into place. Kodiak remains both aggravatingly introspective and immensely compelling, as does Rucka's social commentary and intricate plotting. With Kodiak protecting a tobacco industry whistleblower this time out, Rucka gets a little heavy-handed at times with the soapbox monologues but, again, because his characters are so well-defined and the plot actually makes sense this time, it works without ever feeling forced. His supporting cast is particularly strong here, with "John Doe" and Jeremiah Pugh stealing the show whenever they're in the spotlight. If Rucka ever scores a movie deal, this is the book I'd want to see on screen.

Rucka's prose is fluid and fine-edged, reminiscent of Lawrence Block's best work in his Matthew Scudder series of novels, minus the New York City grit that Block does so well. High praise as Block is not only one of my absolute favorite writers in any genre, he's also widely recognized as a master the crime fiction genre. From comics to novels, Greg Rucka has proven that he is a similarly talented, entertaining writer and I'm looking forward to reading more of his novels. And, of course, his comics, too!

Greg Rucka has worked at a variety of jobs, from theatrical fight choreographer to emergency medical technician. The author of A Gentleman's Game - based on the Eisner Award-winning graphic novel series, Queen & Country (Oni Press) - and six previous thrillers, he resides with his family in Portland, Oregon, where he is at work on his next Queen & Country novel, which Bantam will publish in 2005.

22 February 2005

Retro: The Sentry (TPB)

I was still out of comics back in 2000 when Marvel pulled off its Sentry hoax, pretending to have discovered a Silver Age creation of Stan Lee's that pre-dated even the Fantastic Four, and getting that bastion of reputable comics journalism, Wizard, to go along with the stunt. Purportedly their answer to Superman, but with the personal foibles that were Marvel's forte, even Lee played along, claiming to remember shelving the character because he was "so powerful, he could very well have destroyed the entire Marvel Universe and everything we were planning." They even created, and then killed, a fictional artist who's widow was credited with the discovery of the files containing the long-lost character.

Intrigued by the Sentry's appearance in Bendis' New Avengers lineup, I decided to check out the trade paperback and see who he was and if there was anything behind all the fuss. I don't know how fans reacted as the story unfolded in real time and the hoax was ultimately revealed but, judging it on its own merits years later, it ranks as yet another overblown "event" that's all flash, little substance.

The trade paperback collects The Sentry's five-issue mini-series, along with the five subsequent one-shots, Sentry: Fantastic Four, Sentry: X-Men, Sentry: Spider-Man, Sentry: Hulk and Sentry vs. The Void, in what has to be one of the most overwrought, anti-climactic, and ultimately pointless marketing stunts ever. To reinforce that fact, it includes a series of "interviews" between Lee and Marvel EIC, Joe Quesada, that plays along with the ruse; reprints of various Wizard articles that ran in support of it; and a note from Wizard Staff Writer, Chris Lawrence, vainly attempting to rationalize the whole thing: "The goal wasn't to mislead anyone or betray anyone, but to get fans to further suspend their disbelief, to lead them to better appreciate the intricacies of Paul Jenkins' plot, to help them have fun."

Gee, I remember when it was the quality of the work in question that got fans to "suspend their disbelief" and "have fun." Silly me!

The mini-series introduces Bob Reynolds, a potbellied, alcoholic schlub who wakes up one stormy night remembering he was once the greatest superhero the world had ever known, and the realization that his greatest enemy had returned. What follows is a mildly intriguing piece of Rashômon-style meta-fiction that tells the story of a superhero no one remembers and the reasons why. You see, as Reed Richards says at a moment of crisis to Dr. Strange, "The Sentry: If we ever remember him...in the name of all humanity, promise me you'll do whatever you can to make us forget."

Or, as Stan Lee put it, "he was so powerful, he could very well have destroyed the entire Marvel Universe and everything we were planning."

Wink, wink.

The whole thing is one big fanboy circle-jerk as writer Paul Jenkins has a good time with this ridiculous - though, at times, clever and entertaining - retcon of the entire Marvel Universe that makes Straczynski's recent "Sins Past" sullying of the sainted Gwen Stacy look timid in comparison. The mini-series and the final one-shot, Sentry vs. The Void tell the meat of the story, from Reynolds' efforts to figure out why no one remembers the Sentry - including the various heroes he fought alongside, many of whom even attended his wedding, not to mention Peter Parker whose photograph of the Sentry won him a Pulizter Prize! - to the final confrontation with his arch-nemesis, the Void. The other one-shots flesh out various characters' memories of the Sentry through some achingly navel-gazing exposition that mostly serves to reinforce just how great a hero the Sentry was.

One could argue that the story's conclusion, with the Sentry once again forgotten, is a dig at Superman himself, taking the stance that for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction, and as such, a being as powerful as Superman (or the Sentry) would necessitate an equally powerful evil that would ultimately doom the world and, as a result, Superman (or the Sentry) shouldn't exist. It's an interesting concept that Jenkins pulls off much more in the subtext than on the surface. On the surface, it's similar to most time travel stories where, if you look at them too closely, the "logic" holding them together falls apart.

In light of the Sentry's seemingly contradictory reappearance in the New Avengers, I figure Bendis has two choices in dealing with the character. Either he completely ignores Jenkins' "introduction" and starts from scratch with the character, or he dips into the convoluted, non-sensical explanation for why no one remembers him and risks losing the credibility he's re-established so far post-Disassembled. As someone who couldn't care less about strict adherence to continuity, I sincerely hope he goes with the former, because the latter might be enough to get me to drop New Avengers outright. It's that stupid.

The Sentry (Marvel Comics, 2001; $24.95) Written by Paul Jenkins, Art by Jae Lee and others.

21 February 2005

The Uncanny O-Man: Top 5 Comics You Wouldn't Want Your Mom To Find

5. The Punisher Meets Archie

4. Body Doubles

3. Anything that danzig has his name on

2. Cry For Dawn

1. The Official Catwoman Movie Adaptation

Indie Spotlight: February 2005

[From the ridiculous to the random to the superb, a quick roundup of notable indie comics (aka, not Marvel or DC proper, though Vertigo, Icon, Image, et al, do qualify) I picked up in the past month. Release dates may vary.]

Realizing a few weeks back that I didn't have a single Image title on my regular pull list, I decided to shine the spotlight squarely on them this month, taking a look at five of their newest books: Beyond Avalon, Freedom Force, Mora, and, via their Two Bits sampler, previews of The Imaginaries and Lullaby. A mixed bag overall, qualitatively speaking, but a refeshingly diverse mix of genres nevertheless.

First up, the well-conceived Two Bits sampler, a flip-book featuring 12-page, black-and-white previews of The Imaginaries and Lullaby. The former is a clever twist on the Land of Misfit Toys concept, asking the question PIXAR answered in Toy Story 2 so well, what happens to imaginary friends when children stop believing in them? Superhero G is the creation of a young boy who discards him in the midst of his parents' divorce, abandoning him to the "Imagined Nation" to fend for himself. Writer Ben Avery has fun with the idea and creator/artist Mike S. Miller (with Greg Titus) offers some interesting character designs, but the overall tone of the story feels a little too clever, and some of the panel layouts are jumbled making the word balloon sequences read out of logical order. As a sneak peek, though, it's effective enough to make me vaguely curious about the first issue, if not enough to add it to my pull list. On the flip side, Lullaby is a more effective stab at tweaking a concept, as the aforementioned Avery and Miller team-up on the writing chores with artist/creator Hector Sevilla for his intriguing twist on Alice in Wonderland. A young girl and her loving parents, on their way to a picnic, are accidentally run off the road and over the side of a mountain, inexplicably landing the girl, alone, in a fairytale kingdom populated by talking animals and ruled by a mad queen. By sheer force of will, she overcomes her obstacles - "When surrounded by insanity, even a child's mind can stand above the crowd." - and eventually takes her place as "the Hand of the Queen." But she wants nothing more than to return home and, newly empowered, sets out on a quest to do exactly that. The scripting here is a lot smoother than in The Imaginaries, and Sevilla's art is a lot cleaner and more detailed. I'll definitely seek out the first issue and there's a good chance it could become a regular read for me.

Beyond Conan, Mu and Ezra, there aren't a lot of good fantasy, sword-and-sorcery comics being published right now, so I was particularly curious about Beyond Avalon. Unfortunately, the first issue is a by-the-numbers affair, capably written by co-creator Joe Pruett, featuring a princess, an Excalibur-like sword, a missing father, and a quest. Co-creator Goran Sudzuka's clean, simple artwork and Len O'Grady's bright color palette gives it all a cold, flat feeling that lacks any edge, and it doesn't help that the protagonist looks like Barbie: Warrior Princess, either. It's not all bad, but it's not all good, either.

I've never been a big fan of Jack Kirby's art; neither back in the 70s when I first started reading comics, nor in more recent years as he's been raised to iconic status in deserved acknowledgement for his overall contributions to the art. A blasphemous admission, I know, but necessary in context to explain my initial reluctance to approach Freedom Force, a pitch-perfect homage to the Silver Age that looks, to my untrained eye, like artist Tom Scioli has actually channeled Kirby, aping his style to a tee. Based on a computer game I'm not familiar with, writer Eric Dieter delivers an entertaining origin story complete with galaxy-spanning, world-conquering aliens; iconic heroes like The Minuteman and El Diablo; and a cold war-themed villian in Nuclear Winter. His scripting is fast-paced and old school cornball - "El Diablo, modern-day Don Juan and super-hero extraordinaire..." - and it could only work with Scioli's Kirbyized artwork. Tom McCraw's colors, simple and crisp, also help recreate the Silver Age mood. Freedom Force is good old superhero fun the way it used to be and, as long as Dieter is able to maintain his tone and not drift into parody, this could be a refereshing antidote to the serious, quasi-realistic superheroes that dominate the industry today.

For all its many faults, the comics blogiverse has one good thing going for it: a diversity of voices praising, and bashing, a wide range of comics, many of which I may have never heard of or read otherwise. Mora, thanks to Funnybook Musings, is one of them. I am a huge fan of the so-called "labor of love," especially when it's quality work, and Paul Harmon has delivered one of the best first issues of a comic I've read in a long while. Narrated by a terribly scarred tortoise and hare, both nattily attired, Mora is the story of "the GREATEST WITCH," and it starts at the end. The very end, actually, with what appears to be Mora's death at the hands of a feral monster. The tortoise and hare then backtrack to the very beginning, weaving an engrossing tale of the parallel lives of Mora, a girl named Anandra, and "one boy lion cub as yet unnamed." Harmon's prose flows smoothly, like a wizened fireplace bard, and his black-and-white artwork is distinctive and varied, bringing each one of his people, animals and fantastic creatures to vivid life. A wondrous debut issue that has me excitedly looking forward to the next.

Image's final tally? One definite addition to my pull list (Mora), heartily recommended to all; one likely addition (Freedom Force); one maybe (Lullaby), one doubtful (The Imaginaries) and one definite no (Beyond Avalon). My opinion of Image overall has definitely gone up a notch or two.

19 February 2005

ménage à trois: 2/16/05

[One Marvel, one DC, both published the previous Wednesday, plus a random indie from whenever I feel like it, each reviewed quickie-style: 1 Minute=bad, 10 Minutes=good. Connections, if any at all, may be forced purely for the experience.]

It was all about the Distinguished Competition this week as Marvel's output was overshadowed by the terribly lame, terribly short-sighted conclusion to Mark Millar's "Enemy of the State" story arc in Wolverine. I'm officially boycotting anything he's involved with! Their one saving grace came thanks to Brian K. Vaughan and the first issue of Volume 2 of Runaways. On the flip side, a solid week from DC was marred by an eyesore of an issue in Robin #135, while on the indie side, Dark Horse represents with the intriguing debut of damn nation. All in all, it's a roller coaster ride for the week.

Ex Machina. Ultimate X-Men. Y: The Last Man (which I'm following slowly in the trades). I'm starting to think Brian K. Vaughan is a freak of nature because it seems unreasonable that he should be able to consistently turn out such quality work across such a diverse range of titles. I missed the first go-round of Runaways because I resisted the hype, wary about Marvel's attempts at anything close to an original idea. My loss, apparently, as Vaughan's concept of a group of kids who find out their parents are a team of super-villians actually works, largely thanks to his skillful scripting and characterization, and Adrian Alphona and Craig Yeung's clean, crisp artwork. Vaughan does a great job of reintroducing the team, recapping just enough of what's happened previously without any annoying, unrealistic exposition, that new readers can easily jump in without ever having read the first volume. He does such a good job, though, that you'll want to go back. No plot summary here, suffice to say Vaughan and company pull off such a feat that they manage to make the Wrecking Crew, Darkhawk and Richochet all look cool. Ricochet, attending an AA-style group for former teenaged superheroes, gets the best line in the book: "I wasn't a super-hero...I was superfluous." Vaughan's taking even more money out of my wallet: 9 Minutes

While Marvel giveth, DC taketh away, as Robin #135 edges the book closer to the guilliotine. I'm a fan of good writing first and a bit more forgiving on the art side of the equation as long as it doesn't distract from the story. I added Robin to my pull list back when Spoiler took over as the Girl Wonder in #126, and stuck with it through the uneven War Games and its gratuitous two-issue crossover with Batgirl, enjoying Willingham's spin on Tim Drake more than anything else, while excusing Damion Scott's art as an acquired taste that was slowly growing on me. Unfortunately, he pulls a 180 this issue, delivering a partially self-inked, muddled mess of crowded layouts and convoluted visual story-telling that completely ruins the annoyingly decompressed story that's essentially one long fight scene with a few interludes that pick up on some threads introduced last issue without moving any of them forward. Perhaps the announcement of Scott McDaniel taking over the art chores with #139 caused him to phone this one, because it is truly one of the ugliest comics I've ever seen that I didn't draw myself. And I, dear reader, am no artist: 3 Minutes

I am rarely influenced by covers, knowing better than to judge a book by one, but I stood around Midtown Comics this Wednesday for an extra 45 minutes, waiting for them to unpack every single box to make sure I got a copy of damn nation #1, purely on the basis of its creepy cover. Of course, it was in the last box, so the pressure for it to not suck was intense! No pun intended, as damn nation is a vampire book that posits a world where a plague has swept across the United States, forcing the living to flee as it seals its borders to keep the enemy in. None of this comes clear in the first issue, though, as writer Andrew Cosby takes an oblique approach to introducing the story, starting five years in the past and showing what happened without actually spelling it out, then jumping forward to the present, and still not explicitly defining the situation. Tellingly, Cosby's background is in TV and film, and his approach here takes its cue from those forms, assuming the reader has been "teased" already and allowing his story to unfold cinematically, building tension every step of the way. Surprisingly effective is J. Alexander's muddy artwork, which I hated during his fill-in stint on Gotham Central recently. Here, his layouts capture the dark, claustrophobic atmosphere of the story perfectly, and his use of color, while at times a bit too dark, adds to the foreboding feel of Cosby's story. The only negative is that it's apparently only a three issue mini-series, so I can't see Cosby having enough room to tell a complete story. Nevertheless, I'm onboard to see if he pulls it off: 9 Minutes

18 February 2005

Interview: Field on Free Comic Book Day

Who doesn't like free comic books? On Saturday, May 7th, 2005, participating comic book shops across North America and around the world will be giving away comic books from more than 25 different publishers absolutely free to anyone who comes into their stores, as part of the 4th Annual Free Comic Book Day, celebrating "an original American art form."

"The selection of titles is a testament to the diversity in the industry," says Diamond Comic Distributors Marketing Communications Manager and Free Comic Book Day Committee spokesperson, Barry Lyga. "More than anything else, Free Comic Book Day exists to show that there is a comic book for every age, reading level, and taste. This year's variety of available free titles once again makes that point."

While FCBD is undoubtedly a great concept, some have complained about its limited focus on the direct market, questioning its real impact on introducing new blood into the ever-diminishing gene pool of comic book readers. Others have complained about shops who simply focus on the titles offered by the publishers they usually order from anyway, failing to expose their customers to the greater range of independent titles that, theoretically, stand to benefit the most from the event.

I checked in with Joe Field, owner/operator of Flying Colors Comics & Other Cool Stuff in Concord, CA and the founder of Free Comic Book Day, to get his take on the matter.

Comic Book Commentary: What was the genesis of Free Comic Book Day? Its origin story, if you will.
Joe Field: When the comics market lost a lot of sales and energy in the mid-'90s, I was frustrated that the entire market had almost lost its primary reason for existence. That is, comics are primarily a medium of entertainment. Some publishers and retailers catered to the fools who speculated that comics were a get rich quick scheme. Here at Flying Colors, we always kept our focus on connecting readers to comic book titles that would keep them coming back for more entertainment. I made a promise to myself that when I saw the intrinsics of the comics market turning around, I'd do what I could to make sure the next rise in the market came from an increase in readers, rather than an increase in speculation. I'm always looking at other businesses to adapt ideas for my store, so when I saw another successful Baskin-Robbins Free Scoop Night going on next door to Flying Colors, I thought, "why not Free Comics Night?" I then wrote my next monthly column for Krause Publications' Comics & Games Retailer magazine and proposed the idea to the industry. That led to the first Free Comic Book Day in May '02, the day after the first Spider-Man movie opened.

CBC: What is FCBD's mission, and who is behind it?
Field: The FCBD mission is to give everyone a chance to check out all the great comics available at their local comic book store. FCBD is designed to be an introduction for people who've never been in a comic book store before, while also being a way to call back and reinvigorate former comic book readers. It's also a nice "thank you" to our long-time readers and customers. When I initially proposed FCBD, I also proposed that Diamond facilitate the event since that company deals with every legitimate retailer of current direct market comics.

CBC: Is it a Diamond event then, or is there a committee of industry professionals directing it?
Field: Both! Diamond facilitates the event and there is a committee of industry pros guiding it. Those include Diamond management personnel, publisher reps from DC, Marvel, Dark Horse, Image, Top Shelf and Alternative, as well as a few industry journalists, along with retailers Amada Fishe from Muse in Montana, Gib Bickel from Laughin Ogre in Ohio, Gary Dills Jr from Phoenix Comics in Virginia and myself. But the Ace of Spades in our deck is Barry Lyga, Diamond's point man for FCBD.

CBC: Is the primary goal to promote comic books, or comic book shops? To reach new readers, or expand existing pull lists?
Field: The primary goal is to get people---new readers, former comic fans and our existing base of readers--- to visit their local comic book shop. Once there, I trust they'll be dazzled by all the good stuff going on in the wonderful world of comics. FCBD works on a variety of levels.

CBC: How do local comic books shops get involved, how many participate, and at what level?
Field: The minimum "buy-in" for retailers is $50 worth of the Gold-level publishers' FCBD comics. Retailers buy the free comics through Diamond Comic Distributors. There are 10 Gold-level publishers this year, along with 17 Silver-level publishers. We have about 2000 participating stores in something like 20 countries.

CBC: What is their expected return?
Field: I think the expected return is that for buying into FCBD, retailers are a part of the comic book industry's only concerted outreach promotion. Individual retailers can customize their FCBD with an in-store party, with artist signings, with sales---or just go with the free comics. My hope is that all retailers use FCBD as a springboard to promote their stores to their communities.

CBC: I've heard complaints from some comic book readers that their LCBS doesn't participate in FCBD, or only goes for the "minimum buy-in" on Gold-level books. Does this defeat the purpose of the event? What can be (or is being) done to encourage LCBS' to more fully participate?
Field: Sadly, some comic book dealers don't see the benefits of reaching out to potential new customers. I would encourage current readers and customers to ask their retailers to participate---maybe even volunteer to help make the event special. Some retailers are simply under-staffed and don't want to deal with the potential crowds, so volunteering might be a way to get your local retailer to participate. I know Diamond works to get full participation and there is more cooperation with FCBD than there is with any other promotion done in the comic book industry. Stores that don't participate run the risk of losing customers to stores that do participate. It's just that simple.

CBC: How do publishers get involved, how many participate, and at what level?
Field: There are 10 Gold-level sponsors that offer full-color, full-sized 32-page comics, at their cost, to sell to retailers for the giveaway. There are 17 other Silver-level publishers that create special FCBD edition comics and sell them at-cost to retailers.

CBC: How does Diamond benefit from the event?
Field: A healthier comics market means a healthier Diamond. FCBD also gives Diamond a strong promotional hook to use with vendors and retailers.

CBC: What kind of marketing is done to support the event?
Field: The Gold-level publishers and Diamond all work the PR angle vigorously to get stories placed in various media. There's a small fee built into the price retailers pay for the comics that funds a marketing and promotion budget for FCBD.

CBC: Beyond press releases and timing the event to coincide with the opening of major comic book-related movies, what sort of marketing is FCBD doing to reach the non-comic-book-buying audience?
Field: Free Comic Book Day 2005 is not situated near a movie opening, for the first time in its 4-year history. Besides the PR push from publishers and Diamond, and ad swaps from publishers and Diamond to publications outside the comics market, the marketing of the event is really directed by individual retailers.

CBC: Has it garnered any attention in the mainstream media?
Field: There have been stories over the last three years in most major media. A quick Google search shows close to 50,000 hits for FCBD. Take a look at FreeComicBookDay.com for more links to media coverage.

CBC: How does the new reader, the average Joe (or Jane), hear out about FCBD?
Field: Well, for instance, we do cable TV ads to promote the event. we ask our "regulars" to bring in new people who aren't current comic readers. We send out press releases of our own to get coverage for our local event. There are many ways to reach new readers with FCBD.

CBC: Are there any plans/intentions to expand the event beyond the direct market, ie: Barnes & Noble, EB Games, Toys R Us, places that sell trade paperbacks and comic book-related merchandise?
Field: Absolutely no plans or intentions to move FCBD into B&N, EB, TRU or any mass market, big box stores. All those companies already have their own multi-million advertising and promotional budgets. That would be like inviting Galactus in for a quick snack! FCBD's goal is to get people into stores dedicated to comic books and graphic novels, to get them in touch with retailers who know what it is they're selling because they love and understand the comics themselves. FCBD is a way for the whole direct market to join forces, taking all of our individual efforts and weaving them into a larger whole. So far, so good, in my estimation.

CBC: Is the direct market still the most effective approach to selling comic books?
Field: It's by far the most effective way to sell periodical comics. And it's the only market I'm interested in promoting since it's the only comic book market I'm in!

CBC: Has it become a detriment to the vitality of the industry, though?
Field: The fact is our industry could use a whole lot more stores. There's room for many more stores all across the direct market. There are so many places that are currently under-served by a lack of comics shops. By the way, the comic book market is more vital than it's been in years, both on a creative level and sales.

CBC: What has FCBD accomplished in its short history, relative to its goals? Has it been considered a success?
Field: I think it's up to each individual retailer to deem FCBD a success. In the first three years, FCBD has generated more than 1.5 million store visitors for comic shops. That's pretty stellar, don't ya think?

CBC: Are there any aspects in which you see room for improvement?
Field: I won't be satisfied until everyone--kids, adults, seniors--finds the comic books and graphic novels that will keep them coming back to their local comic shops for more.

Joe Field is the owner/operator of Flying Colors Comics & Other Cool Stuff in Concord, CA, and the founder of Free Comic Book Day. He is also a columnist and industry analyst for Krause Publications' Comics & Games Retailer magazine. He is currently Interim President of the Comics Professional Retail Organization (ComicsPRO), a retailer trade group. Field was the recipient of the 1995 Will Eisner "Spirit of Comics" International Retailer of the Year Award. The award recognizes retailers for support of a wide variety of comics' material, for ethical business standards and for innovation in the field of comics' specialty retailing. He lives with his wife Libby and three daughters in Concord, California.

17 February 2005

Interview: Dabb on Atomika

Andrew Dabb is a busy man. Between writing Megacity909 and Mu for Studio Ice/Devil's Due, and Ghostbusters for 88mph Studios, you'd think his plate was full enough. But starting this March, he teams up with artist Sal Abbinanti for Atomika, "a groundbreaking story of men, supermen and the forces that shape our reality," set in an alternate future where Russia won the space race, the arms race, and eventually, the inevitable war with the USA, and where technology is God.

I caught up with him online...

Comic Book Commentary: Atomika - the 30-second pitch?
Andrew Dabb: Atomika is an alternate history story. In this timeline, the Soviet Union has basically conquered the world and to show just how powerful they are, they created a living symbol of their might: a man-made god, Atomika. Problem is, how do you control a god? Especially one who might not agree with you all the time, and is petulant and arrogant and, well, a little too human.

CBC: You're working with Sal Abbinanti on this, who created the concept and is doing the artwork. When it was originally announced, he was the writer, too. How and when did you come onboard?
Dabb: Sal and I actually talked about this idea about five years ago, but it never really came together. When things finally clicked he did plan to write it himself, but I don't think he was happy with the way the story was coming out. He had a great broad outline, but between drawing and coordinating the book, he didn't have the time to get the writing to the level where he wanted it. So he asked me to come in and help out, basically do the detail work to tie his ideas into a solid story.

CBC: Did you change anything when you got involved, or is it his original story as fleshed out by you?
Dabb: I've had a hand in working out the plot of the series as well as the text you'll see on the page, so I feel the story is a collaborative effort. It's not a case where I'm just doing dialogue or something like that. That said, the main ideas are Sal's, my touches are in there as well, but his concept was so good I didn't want to mess with it just to say that the story was all mine. I'm not bringing that much ego to the project.

CBC: A writer without an ego? You'll never make it in this business! LOL!
Dabb: Well, not without an ego. But I'm more than happy to listen to an artist's ideas. That's what collaboration is.

CBC: Abbinanti said something I found interesting in an interview awhile back: "You can kind of see the same true here in the US today - technology has replaced religion completely." Do you agree with that? Is that kind of concept going to fly in the red states?
Dabb: I don't think technology has replaced religion completely. But it does play a key role in our lives and, to be honest, a lot of us wouldn't survive without it. To that end, it has more control over us than we might think. Not in a Blade Runner, sci-fi way, but in a very real, very low-key way. If you've ever had your hard drive crash or power go out when you're in the middle of writing something without saving, you know what I mean.

CBC: Or when you're surfing the internet instead of getting your work done! Very true.
Dabb: Sure, we've ceded control of parts of our lives to technology. That gives it power. It might not exercise that power with any sort of will, but that doesn't mean it can't at times seem almost malicious.

CBC: What influences do you draw from for a story like this? What kind of research did you have to do?
Dabb: I have degrees in history and anthropology, with a focus on ancient cultures, so to me the main source of inspiration has been mythology; Greek and Norse myths, primarily. Stories that dealt with deities but didn't romanticize them. Stories where the most powerful guy in the room (Hercules, for example) was also the most screwed up. That's sort of the sensibility I'm trying to bring to this book: what if you were given total power and made the idol of billions, how would it affect you? Chances are you wouldn't end up that well-adjusted. You wouldn't be Superman.

CBC: Is Atomika the anti-Superman then? The epitome of "Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely?"
Dabb: He's not the anti-Superman, per se, because that brings up a lot of subtext we don't really deal with (or want to), but he has, to some extent, been corrupted by his power. The story spans almost sixty years, and you could say that early on he's a bit of a petulant teenager who matures over time. Into what, I'm not going to say. But it should be an interesting ride.

CBC: It's a 12-issue maxi-series, correct? Published by? Speakeasy? Mercury?
Dabb: It's a 12 issue maxi-series. Mercury Comics is putting it together, but it will come out through Speakeasy.

CBC: Monthly or bi-monthly? And have you finished writing it?
Dabb: Monthly, though there will likely be a one month gap after issue #6, during which time the first trade will come out. Three issues are written and two are fully drawn. I expect to have #4 done in a couple of weeks, so we're pretty well on schedule.

CBC: You also write Ghostbusters, MegaCity909 and MU (or is it Mu?). Is the sci-fi/fantasy angle a coincidence?
Dabb: Well, you know, one thing leads to another in this business. Some people look at GB or Megacity, which are sci-fi, and get it in their heads that you're a "sci-fi guy," and look at you for books like that. Others see Mu and think I'm a "fantasy guy." But, really, I don't see myself as one or the other. I'm just trying to tell good stories, no matter what the subject or genre.

CBC: These are all work-for-hire gigs, correct? Are you itching to work on your own projects? Anything in the pipeline?
Dabb: Atomika, Megacity909, Mu and Ghostbusters are work for hire, yes. I do have some creator-owned things coming out, specifically the 5-issue mini-series Vaistron from Slave Labor Graphics later this year, and a few other things as well. I try and mix it up.

CBC: Any interest in tackling the men-in-tights for the Big Two?
Dabb: It depends on the situation. I have done a book for DC, Happydale: Devils in the Desert which came out through Vertigo in 1999, so I know what the experience is like. And I've pitched around to various editors at both companies over the years, so if a project came about I think I could do well or have success with, I'd probably take it. But I have no burning desire to write for either of them really. I'm very happy doing what I'm doing now working for smaller companies. I'm not writing these books as a tryout, hoping someone hands me Wolverine.

CBC: What's been your favorite project so far? If you never wrote another comic, which would you want singled out as being the one you were remembered for?
Dabb: Honestly, the project that still has the biggest place in my heart was never even in print. It's a web-comic series I did called Slices that ran on Opi8.com from 2001-2002. A series of 52 three-page shorts (one a week for a year) drawn by various artists. I put it together and could pretty much do whatever I wanted in it. Not every story was a classic, but they were all important to me in one way or another. I love the books I'm doing now and am very proud of them, but Slices was all me. For better or worse.

CBC: Is it still online?
Dabb: It's still on Opi8.com, yes, and I'm re-running the shorts on my site as well, two or three a week.

CBC: What's the most exciting development or trend you see in the comics industry right now?
Dabb: Probably the internationalization of the product. You have Asian and European talent and books thriving here in the US, and you have US books and talent doing well in Europe (and Asia, to a lesser extent). That cross-pollination can only be good for the industry, both from a creative and commercial standpoint.

CBC: Good point. Thanks for your time and good luck with Atomika and your other projects.

Andrew Dabb's past credits include HAPPYDALE: DEVILS IN THE DESERT from DC/Vertigo and GHOSTBUSTERS: LEGION from 88mph Studios. He is currently scripting MEGACITY909 and MU for Devil's Due/Studio Ice, ATOMIKA for Speakeasy, and VAISTRON for Slave Labor Graphics.

14 February 2005

Review: Fade From Grace #1-4

If there's ever been a comic book that was the perfect gift for a comic book geek to give his non-comic book-reading girlfriend, Fade From Grace would be it. Elegantly written, and beautifully illustrated, it's a four-color "chick flick" that any self-respecting fan of quality comic books would love.

Fade works on two levels, first as a traditional origin story following our hero, John, as he develops super powers - the ability to control his density - while saving his girlfriend Grace from her burning apartment. The first three issues follow John as he learns to control his powers and, at the behest of Grace, becomes the superhero Fade. The twist here, what lifts the series above the glut of men-in-tights comics, is its perspective and tone, as we witness John's story through Grace's admiring eyes. It's a trick politicians have used for years, one Howard and Judy Dean resisted a bit too long, humanizing a larger-than-life character in a way simply giving him a personality defect or two doesn't achieve.

"At the time, I didn't worry about the future. How do you worry about something you can't comprehend? I mean, it isn't like there's a training manual for wives of super-heroes. And the risks were real. On nights like this,...when I try to tend his wounds -- I wonder if all he is sacrificing is worth it."
At the risk of turning off potential readers that are insecure in their masculinity, Fade From Grace is, at its core, a love story. Writer Gabriel Benson ably delivers the heroics, but the story hinges on the unabashed love between John and Grace and, more importantly, on the credibility of Grace's character, which Benson pulls off perfectly. He takes a minimalist approach, not through decompression but concision, almost poetic in his ability to nail a moment in a few words. Teamed with artist (and Fade creator) Jeff Amano, whose stylized almost iconic artwork gives the book a vibrant, distinctive feel, Fade From Grace is one of the most pure, exquisitely realized comics being published right now.

Fade's publisher, Beckett, got a lot of buzz for releasing The Ballad of Sleeping Beauty #1 as its contribution to last year's Free Comic Book Day, and followed it up a month later with Fade From Grace #1 for $0.99. That, along with its regular cover price of $1.99, should be enough to land it a regular spot on Diamond's Top 200 list, but sadly, #3 barely cracked the Top 300 back in November. In a month where two issues each of Loeb's fanboy wankfest Superman/Batman and Bendis' awful Avengers Disassembled dominated the Top 10, that's a crime.

It was the risky cover to the just released fourth issue, featuring only Fade's logo with no title or price, that finally got me to check it out, and led me to buying all four issues on the spot. The story concludes next issue and, for those not willing or able to track down these first four issues, if and when a trade paperback is announced, you need to order two of them. One for yourself, and one for someone you love.

If you've ever wished for a really good comic book to add to your pull list, Fade From Grace is what you've been wishing for.

Fade From Grace #1-4 (Beckett Comics, $1.99/ea [#1: $0.99]); Created and Art by Jeff Amano, Written by Gabriel Benson.

13 February 2005

The SideKick: The Darkness #18

Every month or so I'll review a single issue of a comic book title to see how relatable it is for new readership.

To quote Dennis O'Neil from The DC Guide to Writing Comics:
"One of the recurring and embarassingly valid criticisms of modern comic books, particularly the adventure & fantasy titles, is that they're extremely difficult to understand on the most basic level." (pg 24)

Do today's comics still suffer from this criticism? Let's find out shall we?

Welcome back to the SideKick!

Before I begin in my review of The Darkness #18 I must complain about covers that read, "Part _ of _."

I understand the benefits of having it there (well, not really) but how do publishers expect to attract new readership when they have a sign on their book that says, "Come back in a few months"?

Do fans of The Darkness need to know that the "Hell House" storyline is in part 2 of 4? Won't they just pick up the book because its the latest issue?


The Darkness #18 (Top Cow)
David Lapham (writer) & Brian Denham (pencils)

I've never read an issue of The Darkness before this one but I'm fairly familiar with the concept: Dude has power to access a demonic alter-dimension, does good with the power albeit with an ultra-violent kick. While the concept never really grabbed me (despite being created by ultra-violent writer extraordinare Garth Ennis - Punisher, Preacher) I picked up this particular issue because of who's writing the story arc.

Over ten years ago, David Lapham was an up & coming penciler with Valiant Comics (oooh, remember them?). His work on the highly collectible Harbinger series put him on a short list of "hot" artists but, when Valiant went under, he left the superhero mainstream altogether and launched his own book, writing & drawing the award-winning pulp fiction comic, Stray Bullets.

The Darkness (and DC's Detective Comics) marks Lapham's return to the superhero/fantasy genre. In "Hell House," a four issue story arc, Jackie Estacado (the dude with the Darkness) is in Atlantic City and well, I'm really not sure what's going on here. The issue opens with a shot of a serpentine casino and on the next page Jackie and a woman are being held by a bunch of mafiaoso types in a hotel room with an eviscerated women on a bed. Jackie pulls an uzi out of the darkness and shoots their way out only to later be commissioned by the same guy who was holding them to murder a few "bad guys." If you're scratching your head, you're a perplexed as I was.

In a single issue of Stray Bullets you're sucked in, like a bystander overhearing a conversation at a restaurant, and that's due in part to Lapham's use of dialogue. There are no thought ballons or captions in his series and with that, the reader feels more like a listener.

Lapham uses dialogue well in The Darkness but you get the sense that the characters don't know each other, and if the reader doesn't know the characters either...it's just too foreign. This story desperately needs captions or thought ballons so that readers can anchor themselves to a character.

On the visual side, Brian Denham's pencils are rushed and uneven. On some panels there's promise, while others are art school amateurish. My most nagging complaint though are the colors. The way hair falls, and how tears and blood look on faces - it's something out of Madame Tussauds's.

I don't see myself picking up the next issue of The Darkness but if you're fan of this series, post a comment and share what you enjoy about it. Inquiring minds want to know.

That's all for now. Until next time!

12 February 2005

ménage à trois: 2/9/05

[One Marvel, one DC, both published the previous Wednesday, plus a random indie from whenever I feel like it, each reviewed quickie-style: 1 Minute=bad, 10 Minutes=good. Connections, if any at all, may be forced purely for the experience.]

It was a strong week for indies big and small, overshadowing the Big Two's output as everything from Grant Morrison's entertaining oddball, Vinamarama, to the intriguing Captain Gravity and the Power of the Vril, to the satsifying conclusions of Lurkers and Ezra made into my stack. The announcement of Ed Brubaker's signing an exclusive with Marvel finally tempted me into checking out his efforts on the relaunched Captain America, and going back a couple of weeks for the most recent issue of Sleeper. It also made the latest Greg Rucka-penned issue of Gotham Central that much more special.

Twenty-eight issues in and Gotham Central is still going strong, one of the consistently best-written comics being published today. Greg Rucka kicks off a new story arc in issue #28, with Stefano Gaudiano stepping out of Michael Lark's shadow - he inked many of Lark's earlier issues - and proving to be a worthy successor, nailing the murky, atmospheric style that's as much a part of the series as Rucka and Brubaker's great scripts have been. Rucka's favorite cop, Renee Montoya, returns to her old neighborhood to investigate a secret basement lab a couple of kids stumble upon that turns out to belong to one of the Flash's Rogues, and results in a police officer being horribly burned as he tries to save them. Montoya's still on shaky ground here, having to fight for the assignment because of her personal connections to it and her recent history, and Rucka balances the requisite police procedural aspects with some personal tension as Montoya's father, who disowned her a while back when she was outed as a lesbian, is in the crowd. Gotham Central is as reliable as a comic book gets: 9 Minutes

Oh Captain! My Captain! Marvel's red-white-and-blue, shield-throwing relic ranks up there with Superman on my list of men in tights I have little interest in. The Pollyana-ish aspects of both have always been a turnoff to me. And yet, since Greg Rucka has managed to keep me hooked for nearly a year on Adventures of Superman, I figured Brubaker deserved a shot at doing the same with the Captain, especially considering Michael Lark had joined him on the title (also having signed a Marvel exclusive deal recently) to provide some flashback artwork. Unlike Superman, who everybody knows something about, Captain America is more of a mystery to me, so the combination of the flashbacks to his World War II history and the fact that he is still brooding over the events of Avengers Disassembled, means Brubaker is able to fill in the blanks while having an emotional foundation to work from and move the story forward. Issue #3 is a nice mix of exposition and action, as Cap and S.H.I.E.L.D. race to London trying to track down the Cosmic Cube which was stolen from an assassinated Red Skull in the first issue. There's a great, almost wordless, five-page fight scene that reminds you that Captain America is one of Marvel's badasses and artist Steve Epting makes it look convincing. And because Brubaker is no slouch, it doesn't feel like decompression. He ends on a cliff-hanger involving someone named Jack Monroe that would have been a bit more effective if I'd had any idea who he was. (A quick Google search later revealed his identity, but I won't spoil it here.) Nevertheless, Brubaker has my attention and Captain America has landed on my pull list: 8 Minutes

From work-for-hire to creator-owned properties, the sign of a true talent is that there's little difference in the quality of the work they do in either arena. I hate excuses I've seen for some writers that claim they're much better with their own characters. If you're going to phone it in because you don't own it, don't bother! Comic books are too expensive for that kind of [lack of] work ethic. Thankfully, Brubaker isn't one of those writers as his work on Gotham Central and Captain America is as good as, if not better than, what he does in his own Wildstorm series, Sleeper. I missed out on the acclaimed Season One, but was intrigued by the buzz and jumped onboard when Season Two started. Six issues later, I was ready to jump off the bandwagon, though, as the story had bogged down a bit. Something was missing for me, but I couldn't figure out what it was until issue #8 made it clear: the supporting cast wasn't developed enough to really care about what was going on. All the intrigue, all the action, after a while it started feeling like it was spinning its wheels because Brubaker hadn't developed anyone but his main character. This issue, Miss Misery takes center stage, though, and delivers a knockout performance that injects some much-needed energy into the series. One thing Rucka and Brubaker have in common is they write strong, complex female characters; not a shrinking violet in the bunch. I like strong, complex women: 9 Minutes

11 February 2005

Interview: O'Reilly on Arcana Studio, Part II

In Part I of this two-part interview, Arcana Studio's Publisher, Sean Patrick O'Reilly talked about Arcana's successful first year, what really happened with Ant and Image, how Ezra became their most popular title, and what it takes to succeed in the comic book business. Today in Part II, we take a peek into Arcana's future, talking more about marketing, the pros and cons of Free Comic Book Day, and get an exclusive announcement about, and sneak peek at, their newest title, The Assassin.

Comic Book Commentary: Looking to the future, you have six new titles listed as coming soon on your web site, plus I neglected to cover Starkweather. Give us a quick overview on these.
Sean Patrick O'Reilly: Definitely...

Starkweather. Alexander Starkweather is a witch plagued by self-doubt and tormented by prophetic dreams. In his dreams, Dany Golden is being crucified, and when she dies, reality as we know it...unravels. Armed with power he can barely control, an inferiority complex, and a belligerent talking iguana, this former line cook is the only person who can save her, and the only witch willing to stand against his own kind. Hounded by unstoppable clay constructs, a secret Order of the church, and the very Coven he once called home, Alex must overcome impossible odds, and his own fears, to preserve the balance of magic and to keep a promise made when he was five years old. This is his destiny. This is his curse...he is Starkweather.

Dead Men Tell No Tales. In the golden age of piracy, Captain Kidd, Blackbeard, and Black Bart Roberts, the three most reviled pirates in history, contend for the most sacred prize the world has ever known - the lost Relics of Christ! Ben Templesmith will be gracing the cover, with Dwight MacPherson, Fernando Acosta, Mike Fiorentino, Tony DeVito, Michael DeVito and Jon Conkling completing the sequentials. Tenatively scheduled for release in July.

Dragon's Lair. Follow Dirk the Daring and Princess Daphne as they return from an astonishing adventure in the Free Realms only to be attacked by the great dragon, Singe, and his evil minions. Arcana has reassembled the MVCreations team that brought to you the first three issues, and we are forging ahead with the never before seen conclusion of issues 4-6. Tentatively scheduled for release in July.

ZOO. The fate of an entire universe rests with a sleeping child named Joli, a comatose nine year old who's fallen backwards into a vast continent of unconsciousness known as ZOO — a feudal land where animals rule and humans are nothing more than the mythical inhabitants of bedtime stories. Joli's unconscious mind has woven together recent memories from her waking life (trips to the local zoo with her mother, and lazy Saturday afternoons watching kung-fu flicks with her father) and created a living, breathing dreamscape; a universe that operates with almost no knowledge of the little girl that sits imprisoned at its center; a place that would cease to exist if Joli ever woke. In the Darwinian land of ZOO, where survival goes to the fittest, heroes are the only force shielding the weak from extinction...and heroes are a rare breed. Jorge Vega, Darrin Stephens and Benny Fuentes will see this trade on shelves in Winter 2006. Special guest artist for the cover will be huge!

Hero House. Where can super-powered college students go to learn the skills they'll need to be the heroes of tomorrow? The super-powered fraternity, Epsilon Epsilon Psi—Hero House. But what if one of their new recruits was an unwitting spy, sent by forces who may not want a group of superheroes, even inexperienced ones, operating on campus? Written by Twisted Toyfare Theater writer Justin Aclin, this series will feature a mystery artist who is one of DC's biggest names! Tentatively scheduled for release in September.

Khan. People from the Americas tend to believe that the ranking of conquerors begins with Alexander the Great, continues through the Caesars and ends with Napoleon. But Genghis Khan was a conqueror of a more gigantic stature than the high profile actors of the European stage. Coping with the harsh reality of life among the nomadic peoples of the steppe, Temujin loses his birthright upon the death of his father. A bloody struggle ensues as Temujin vows to seize his power by his own hand. Literally three years in the making... Khan will stand on shelves in 2005.

Fuzzy Bunnies From Hell. The first time he was unleashed he almost destroyed the world but, due to the betrayal of his conjurer, he was stopped and returned to sender. Now, Hell doesn't want him, so he is back! And Hell hath no furry like a demon rabbit scorned. Ethan Van Scriver, Todd Nauck, Steven Kurth, Bill Maus, Thomas Thurman, Benjamin Hunzeker and Stephen Toth's work will all be found in this trade coming out in June.

Finally, this is an exclusive...our next title released in June will be The Assassin. We've just acquired this wonderful book that was originally published in Spain. We haven't even announced this on our website yet. We have become the official publisher for The Assassin and this book will be guaranteed to please those who have loved Ant and Ezra.

CBC: That's a pretty aggressive slate of titles for your second year. Are you concerned at all about doing too much? Do CrossGen or Dreamwave ever pop in your head when you're making your plans? Or any of the other lower-profile indies who've come and gone over the years?
O'Reilly: We've kept that in the forefront the entire time. In one year we've seen High Water, Dreamwave, MVC and CrossGen stop publishing. I'm well aware of the risks associated with expanding and have been very careful to make sure that we don't over-leverage. Our 2004 titles are all either done, or wrapping up and now it's time for the next wave of Arcana books. I think that people will be very pleased at what we have to offer.

CBC: Which of these are monthlies and which are trades?
O'Reilly: Our goal is to have everything we've done to be released as a trade. We love the format, the price, and really believe it is the key for having more people read our work. As well, ALL Arcana books are going to be monthlies from now on. I really don't envision us releasing a bi-monthly book for quite some time...if ever.

CBC: Why Dragon's Lair? Is there really a sustainable demand for this kind of book?
O'Reilly: It's a wonderful project that never saw the finish line. I'm picking this up on Arcana's back and we're taking it right to the end. Val [Staples] has done a wonderful job and from what I've already seen, he's doubled his efforts and the second half will be even better. I PROMISE you there will be some big surprises in store for Dragon's Lair.

CBC: Tell us more about The Assassin.
O'Reilly: The Assassin is a 52-page book and will retail at $4.95. It is created by Vicente Cifuentes. I know it's really going to blow a lot of people away with the art and story! (This is the first time anyone has seen the cover.)

CBC: Let's go back to marketing again. It's what I do 9-5 in business-to-business publishing, and for me, it's one of the most frustrating things about the comic industry. Let's talk about Free Comic Book Day (FCBD). The focus seems to be more on promoting comic book stores than comic books themselves. Agree or disagree? And is it a good or bad thing?
O'Reilly: I first of all have to thank Joe Field for FCBD as he is one of the founders of this great event. We were part of it last year and I have been told by numerous people, and even found links by chance on the web, that we produced one of the best books for FCBD. We are very proud of this and we believe that FCBD can be an organic entity. That is, it can help retailers, companies, characters and fans all in one day. I'm really hoping to see this continue and for it to continue to grow.

CBC: Do you think FCBD will ever expand beyond the direct market? Should it?
O'Reilly: I think FCBD has already expanded beyond the direct market. The biggest allies with regards to getting it more in the public eye has been the committee's decision to pair it up with major movie releases. As well, publishers (such as Arcana) are also working with high-profile companies. On May 7th [this year's FCBD], we'll be at the Virgin Megastore and Bif Naked will be providing a free concert and Jones Soda will also be sponsoring us. It's a great day and we'll bring quite bit of attention to ourselves, as well as to the industry.

CBC: What is one of the worst marketing practices you've seen in the comics industry?
O'Reilly: I'm not a big fan when people either say they are "the best," or going to be "the best." Basically, the [CrossGen publisher, Mark] 'Alessi statement' that still resonates in people's heads.

CBC: What's your stance on variant covers? Are they a necessary evil for independent publishers?
O'Reilly: I think they can be a fun incentive if you take them at face value. If you start looking into them too deep I really think it can be a slippery slope.

CBC: What's Arcana's plan to expand its readership, both in and beyond the direct market?
O'Reilly: We have a major decision coming up with regards to who is going to be our book distributor. When we lock that into place...I really feel it's going to change.

CBC: To wrap this up, what would you consider to be Arcana's most significant contribution to the industry so far? And, in that context, what are your goals for the coming year?
O'Reilly: Our best contribution, I hope, has been our attitude. We're coming in here fresh and very optimistic. We are young, energetic, hard-working and we really want to help get our books into people's hands any way we can. Our goals for 2005 are to continue to work with retailers, our online community and, most importantly, to develop our craft of making comic books that exceed expectations.

CBC: Sean, thanks for your time and best of luck to Arcana in 2005!
O'Reilly: Si vales, gaudeo!

[Check out Arcana Studio online at www.arcanastudio.com]