31 December 2006

Stagger Lee, Best of 2006?

Stagger Lee
By Derek McCulloch and Shepherd Hendrix (Image, 2006; $17.99)

The first time I read Stagger Lee, months ago when it first came out, I was blown away by its ambition, a sprawling blend of [loosely] historical fiction and docu-drama centering on, but not confined to, the "legend" who spawned a multitude of songs, Stagger Lee, aka Stacker Lee, Stagolee, Stack-A-Lee, Stack O'Lee... While I'd never heard of any of these songs, the name brought immediate recognition from my mother, along with a puzzled, "someone wrote a book about that song?"

Indeed they did, and upon a second reading, it is without question one of the best graphic novels published this year; possibly, arguably, the best.

As writer Derek McCulloch lays it out, the underlying truth of the story, and the sole point upon which every version of the song agrees, is that Stagger Lee shot Billy Lyons. From there the details vary, sometimes drastically depending on the teller, and McCulloch incorporates that variety into his own version of the tale as colorful, informative interludes to his main storyline, the defense of Stagger Lee, aka Lee Shelton, and the toll it takes on those involved.


Injecting several key fictional characters into the tale, McCulloch crafts a compelling take on the truth behind the legend -- equal parts courtroom drama, love story, and social commentary -- that deftly weaves together the corrupt political dealings of late-19th century St. Louis and the personal interactions of a handful of its negro citizens whose lives are touched by Lee Shelton's crime in various ways. Among those affected are Shelton himself, whom McCulloch wryly posits was likely to have heard at least one of the earliest interpretations of his crime first-hand.

In many ways, Shelton is a spectactor to his own story as Justin Troupe -- legal assistant to the morphine-addicted defense attorney, Nathan Dryden -- takes center stage in a sub-plot that pulls several of the underlying historical threads together into a story that would be noteworthy on its own, separated from the "musical" interludes. It is the ambitious, and mostly successful, weaving of the two, however, that lifts Stagger Lee above the crowd of a bumper crop of great graphic novels that came out this year.

Shepherd Hendrix' artwork is subtle and understated, perfectly complementing the densely layered storyline while bringing his own energy and flair to the proceedings. Effortlessly shifting styles as the tone of the story shifts (many of the "musical" interludes have a humorous slant to them, with Stagger Lee offering comical asides to his various crimes and punishments), his characters and layouts are very clean, working the one-color (brownish-black, faux sepia?) and coarse paper format to optimal effect. Stagger Lee and Billy Lyons are smartly defined by the patterns of their suits, and he's particularly good with facial expressions, an essential skill for a dramatic story with minimal "action".

There's no self-indulgent two-page spreads here; instead Hendrix packs every page with as much detail and story as possible, making this as fulfilling a read as you'll find in comics.


Determining a "best of the year" pick is always tricky because it's never an apples to apples comparison, and there's invariably something that came out early in the year, or at the very end, that slips under the radar. Also, 2006 was a particularly good year for original graphic novels, with American Born Chinese, Deogratias, La Perdida, Iron West and The Left Bank Gang among my absolute favorites, but for its outstanding combination of ambition, execution and re-readability, Stagger Lee gets the nod for my Best Original Graphic Novel of 2006.

Charlie Foxtrot Entertainment

A number of new comics publishers have targeted specific niches over the years, seeking to better serve and/or exploit untapped audiences in an effort to carve out a viable niche for themselves. Whether its minorities, women, GLBT, pre-teens, etc., it's a topic I've covered specifically or peripherally several times in the past, so this latest effort caught my eye as taking a unique angle and, perhaps, having the most potential next to those targeting Christian readers.

MILITARY VETS FORM ENTERTAINMENT PRODUCTION COMPANY

Military veterans Ernesto Haibi, Tom Waltz, Gerry Kissell, Robert Scott McCall, Steven Fish and Michael Abrams, along with Richard Pille, who served as a civilian contractor for the U.S. military in Vietnam, announce their formation of Charlie Foxtrot Entertainment, Inc., an entertainment company whose primary focus is on making motion pictures, comic books and other entertainment about soldiers and the military.

Gerry Kissell of Charlie Foxtrot Entertainment states, "All of us at Charlie Foxtrot feel that in a time when war is at the center of mass consciousness of this great nation, somehow Hollywood, and others in the entertainment industry, manage to produce less than 1% of their over all productions about the military. There has been a gaping hole in entertainment, whether it is in film, television or in publication, regarding our soldiers serving in harm's way. We see it as our job to fill that void, and to expand the coverage, making certain audiences and readers have the chance to experience what and who our soldiers really are, and to let our military know that they are not forgotten and are appreciated, and to insure that they are not dehumanized and relegated to being just some anecdote on the evening news. They are not just cannon and news fodder. Our men and women in uniform are amazing people, doing amazing things, and its time everyone knows it. We have made our creed simple and to the point, 'By soldiers, about soldiers and for soldiers'."

First project on their list is the epic war comic series, CITY of FIRE, due out in early 2007.
As a nine-year veteran of the Army and National Guard (who, thankfully, never stepped foot in a combat zone but has had several friends who did), and a self-defined progressive liberal, I get where Kissell is coming from here, and if he's able to deliver a professional-looking product to the bookshelves and movie screens of America, he's got a better chance for success than your average startup publisher. He's got a potentially larger audience than just soldiers, too.

As I noted over at Johanna's post about Charlie Foxtrot, where Kissell stopped by to offer a bit more insight into the company's plans, almost every soldier has their own political beliefs -- and they can range from the far left to the far right -- but when it comes down to executing the mission given to them, politics go out the window. They have to; their lives depend on it.

Of all the enlisted soldiers I met while I was in the service, very few of them signed up out of a sense of patriotism or a desire to go to war. (Those who did, usually went into the Marines!) Most were simply looking to improve their lives, either taking advantage of the GI Bill and Army College Fund, or planning on a career. Some were from military families, continuing a tradition; some were from impoverished inner-cities and rural areas where options for jobs and higher education were limited; some, like me, had wandered aimlessly for a few years after high school and simply needed some direction.

I remember during Clinton's first term as President, which coincided with my active duty enlistment, opinions were extremely polarized, not over the aftermath of Desert Shield/Desert Storm -- generally believed over by the time Clinton took office, but for which soldiers still received the National Defense Service Medal for honorable service through November 30, 1995 -- but over the military's controversial "don't ask, don't tell" policy. There were heated debates, with unadulterated homophobia on full display (not to mention racism, sexism, etc.), but those debates rarely crossed the line into personal attacks because most soldiers ultimately buy into the "we're all green" philosophy.

There was a Corporal in my unit, an avowed KKK member who fit every stereotype imaginable, but who otherwise was a rather nice guy with whom I and other non-white soldiers regularly drank beer and played Madden football or Mortal Kombat. We weren't friends, per se, but as fellow soldiers, we shared a bond that was actually deeper than your average friendship. While we served together, we accepted each other's differences as part of the job and, for the most part, had each others' backs.

If CFE explores that dichotomy without choosing sides, and is able to do so with a professional-level product -- something Marvel's Combat Zone failed to do on both counts -- they have a good chance at achieving some level of success on the publishing side. The City of Fire mini-series is the only project they have listed at their web site so far, though, and the fact that their URL is charliefoxtrotfilms.com suggests comic books might be their lead-in to bigger things. Nevertheless, I'll be interested in seeing what they publish (or produce) and how they go about promoting it.

28 December 2006

Review: American Born Chinese

American Born Chinese
By Gene Luen Yang (First Second, 2006; $16.95)

When I first heard about American Born Chinese back in July, I pegged it as the highlight of First Second's second wave of releases purely based on a few preview images and its solicitation copy. After doing so, I crossed my fingers that it would actually live up to my lofty expectations, as Deogratias had set the bar pretty high. It took me a while to finally pick up a copy, and before I did, it was named as a finalist for this year's National Book Award in Young People's Literature, which honestly made me cringe a little bit. Prestigious awards have a way of subtly changing my perception of a book (or movie, TV show, etc...), rarely for the better, and the hubbub around a graphic novel being nominated for the first time made me think it's acclaim might be agenda-driven, similar to the overly praised Pride of Baghdad.

My concerns were unfounded, though, as Gene Luen Yang's insightful and incisive look at racism and self-acceptance is fully deserving of the accolades it has received and is a legitimate candidate for best graphic novel of the year. Yang deftly weaves three seemingly unnconnected stories -- the fabled Monkey King who wants to be a god; Jin Wang, the only Chinese-American student at his school, and his attempts to fit in; and Chin-Kee, the jaw-dropping Asian stereotype (complete with his own laugh track), who shows up every summer to embarass his white American cousin, Danny -- into a powerful, modern parable that's accessible to all ages and cultures.


On the surface, it's an empowering spin on the classic tale of the ugly duckling, with an emphasis on self-acceptance over finding one's place in society. Underneath, though, it's a surprisingly subversive indictment of the concept of cultural assimilation, aka the "melting pot".

The Monkey King's efforts to become a god and Chin-Kee's appalling adventures in humiliation seem, at first, to fit awkwardly in the midst of Jin Wang's more straightforward coming of age tale, as Yang alternates between each one a few times, never tipping his hand as to how they intersect until the very end. His visual presentation holds the three stories together, with clean, crisp and colorful images, while his square layouts -- revealing its webcomic roots -- only take up 2/3rds of a page but never feel compressed. (Or decompressed, for that matter.)

When it does all come together, it has the same effect as when a magician successfully pulls off "the prestige"* to the sheer delight of the audience.

My copy of American Born Chinese sports a nice silver "National Book Award Finalist" sticker on its cover, a unique and distinctive honor in the comics field, one Yang should be incredibly proud of receiving, and the rest of the industry should be aspiring to. For First Second, it's nothing less than the crown jewel in a first year of publishing that has been remarkable by any measure.


* In his novel The Prestige, author Christopher Priest coined the term "the prestige" -- a reference to the final stage of a magic trick where the effect of the illusion is produced -- when he "noticed its closeness to the magicians' word 'prestidigitation' (sleight of hand) [and] realized it would make a perfect title for the book [he] was then planning."

27 December 2006

On the Shelves: 12/28/06

Reading is fundamental. Don't waste your time reading bad comics out of habit!

My weekly, semi-informed look at select comic books being released Thursday, 12/28/06 follows. The full shipping is list available at ComicList.

[NOTE: Not all of these titles will actually arrive in all stores. If your LCBS offers a pre-ordering service, be sure to take advantage of it. If not, find another one; or try Khepri.com or MidtownComics.com]

PICK OF THE WEEK



Captain Gravity and the Power of the Vril


AMERICAN MULE ENTERTAINMENT
Public Enemy #2, $2.99


It was nice to see Public Enemy promoting their comic book alter egos a while back; I just wish the comic book was actually good.

ARCHAIA STUDIOS PRESS
Artesia Vol 1 Ltd Ed HC, $24.95
Killer #2 (Of 10), $3.95
Okko Cycle Of Water #1 (Of 4), $3.95


Sweet! The First Book of Dooms was one of my favorite reads this year and this new hardcover edition could technically qualify it for my upcoming Best of 2006 list. *** The Killer #1 was an intriguing start, another example of Archaia's great eye for quality material, and I'm looking forward to reading more. Okko gets automatic buy status thanks to that very track record.

DC COMICS
Batman #661, $2.99
Batman And The Mad Monk #5 (Of 6), $3.50
Blue Beetle #10, $2.99
Blue Beetle Shellshocked TPB, $12.99
Uncle Sam And The Freedom Fighters #6 (Of 8), $2.99


It makes me sad to not have a regular dose of Batman on my pull list, so Ostrander, Mandrake and Wagner are ensuring he remains properly represented, with solid tales of Dark Knight goodness that don't make me embarassed for him. *** If you're not reading Blue Beetle, then you're missing out on one of the few good things to come from Infinite Crisis. It's the Spider-Man concept done right, without any of the ill-conceived grit that usually comes along when DC attempts to riff on the Marvel template. Glad to see they're supporting it with a relatively quick TPB collecting the first six issues. *** Uncle Sam... has so far lived up to the promise of its first issue, as Palmiotti and Gray work their spin on the Civil War concept in a more sensible, and timely, manner than Millar and company have.

DEVILS DUE PUBLISHING
Nightwolf The Price #3 (Of 5), $2.95


A solid, offbeat original mini-series from Devil's Due with ongoing potential that will hopefully get a TPB collection and reach a much wider audience.

MARVEL COMICS
All New Off Handbook Marvel Universe A To Z #12, $3.99
Dabel Brothers Free Sampler, AR
Daredevil #92, $2.99
Heroes For Hire #5, $2.99
Immortal Iron Fist #2, $2.99
Moon Knight Vol 1 Bottom Premiere HC, $19.99
Winter Soldier Winter Kills One Shot CW, $3.99


I generally resist the collector's mentality, but the Handbook roped me in for its full run purely because I had to have the whole set. I'm killing comics! *** I'm not familiar with the Dabel Brothers' work at all, but am curious, so this free sampler, while oddly timed, is a great idea. *** Ed Brubaker owns my soul, I think, as not only am I now following three characters I've never had any particular interest in because of his writing skills -- Captain America, Daredevil and Iron Fist -- I'm even looking forward to his Bucky/Winter Solider one-shot and expecting it to be good. Meanwhile, has anyone seen Jason Todd recently?

MOONSTONE
Night Driver GN, $12.95


The $.99 preview of this a while back piqued my interest a bit, but something about Christopher LaGasse's artwork didn't quite work for me. I'll give it a flip-through anyway to see if my opinion has changed any.

PENNY FARTHING PRESS
Captain Gravity And The Power O/T Vril, $19.95


Captain Gravity was one of last year's best under-the-radar comics that not enough people read, so I'm glad to see Penny Farthing publishing (re-offering?) a collection during the "down season" when retailers will hopefully give it some front-facing play while waiting for the next surge of their Marvel/DC bread-and-butter.

Review: Pride of Baghdad

Pride of Baghdad
By Brian K. Vaughan and Niko Henrichon (DC/Vertigo, 2006; $19.99)

If judged solely on its artwork, Pride of Baghdad would be deserving of serious consideration as the best graphic novel of the year, so beautifully striking is Niko Henrichon's presentation of a wartorn Baghdad, as seen through the eyes of a trio of lions who've escaped from a safe, if undignified, life in captivity, only to bear witness to the utter brutality of mankind. His animals are amazingly expressive, both in their faces and their body language, as he imbues each one with a distinct personality without humanizing their features in the least. Henrichon doesn't take any shortcuts here, either, offering up lush, detailed backgrounds that firmly establish a sense of place in each scene and effectively render Brian K. Vaughan's well-intentioned dialogue unnecessary and, at times, intrusive.

Working from a nugget of truth, Vaughan attempts an ambitious bit of alchemy, embellishing the lions' tale of survival as they journey through the ravaged outskirts and streets of Baghdad -- a world gone mad, over which they have no control. As in Ex Machina, which started out strong before hiccupping on overdoses of ham-fisted political subtext, Vaughan frequently overplays the metaphor. There's a particularly discordant flashback early on, as Safa -- the eldest of the two female lions -- recalls life in the wild via a gangrape scene that comes off as ill-conceived as anything in DC's gritified superhero stories of the past couple of years. There are several other similar, if less distracting, moments throughout the story where he belabors the obvious instead of trusting Henrichon to deliver his message through the images, enough so that what should have been an instant classic is knocked down a peg or two to worthy effort status.


Henrichon's work here is absolutely revelatory, though, and deserving of every single bit of praise its earned. I'm looking forward to checking out Barnum!: In Secret Service to the USA now, which totally eluded my radar when it was published a few years back.

26 December 2006

Review: Lucifer's Garden of Verses: The Devil on Fever Street

Lucifer's Garden of Verses: The Devil on Fever Street
By Lance Tooks (NBM/ComicsLit, 2004; $8.95)

The beauty of graphic novels is that, in the right publisher's hands, they don't suffer from the temporal existence of their periodical counterparts, most of which often come and go, completely unnoticed, in the whirlwind of a particular months' issue of Previews. Lance Tooks' Lucifer's Garden of Verses: Devil of Fever Street, first published in 2004, has been on my want-to-read list for more than a year now, first suggested to me by the invaluable Rich Watson, but I never got around to giving it more than a quick flip-through here and there, whenever I had a little extra money to throw towards something different.

On first glance -- several glances, in fact -- it never grabbed me enough to make it home, as Tooks' visual style didn't work for me, but having read the likes of Ho Che Anderson's King and J.P. Stassen's Deogratias in the past year, I was better able to appreciate his impressive storytelling skills. Fortunately, it's still in print and readily available, and as a result, I've belatedly discovered a great read and a comics creator worth following.

The basic premise is an oft-used one, as the Devil, Lucifer, wakes from a one-hundred-year sleep on the eve of Armageddon and questions his role in God's overall plans, "tormented by the memory of having been his brightest angel." Black Lily Baptiste, a former prostitute who is now one of God's most faithful, becomes his target, first for an "old school temptation" as a warmup to the apocalypse, then as a chance for redemption as he seeks to abdicate his throne as the prince of darkness and help "bring [God's] light to the world." Tooks makes the story his own, deftly balancing some intriguing theological philosophizing -- "man does not need me to lead him astray..." -- with two sharply defined lead characters (and a varied and entertaining group of supporting characters) who give his tragic, if inevitable, ending a thought-provoking, emotional gutpunch.


Tooks' deceptively unrefined visual style won't appeal to everyone, especially fans of "traditional" sequential art, but as is often the case with singular visions, the overall package works very well together, the whole much greater than the sum of its uneven parts. His varied layouts and shifting styles may seem erratic at first -- almost amateurish, even -- but by the end, you realize that it's actually an example of an artist defining his own signature style, knowingly breaking the rules, and doing so in ways that strengthen his story.

Fans of literary "What if..." stories and late-night, coffee shop philosphizing will enjoy The Devil on Fever Street, and I'm now looking forward to checking out the next three volumes in the Lucifer's Garden of Verses series.

24 December 2006

Happy Holidays from CBC

Best wishes to all for a happy holiday season and a blessed new year. Be sure to take a minute from your own festivities to wish the same for our soldiers abroad...


Thanks to Dave Carter of Yet Another Comics Blog for the downbeat but appropriate cover idea, the February 1992 issue of Sgt. Rock, by Joe Kubert, which I believe would have been on the shelves in December of 1991, the end of my first year in the Army.

Tuesday begins my intended vacation reviewathon. See you then!

23 December 2006

Quesada on DC Becoming Marvel

From NEW JOE FRIDAYS WEEK 27:

"There's a reason Batman is the greatest DC hero, he's the closest to the Marvel formula, but the rest of the DC universe I feel suffers from the same flaws as Superman. In his time, Superman spoke of the immigrant experience which was very important in America at the time, but he's also a paternal figure where as Spider-Man is us. At his core, Superman is also actually a dishonest character in his make up. He has to create a persona in order to be accepted by the people around him, the same for Batman. That's also an intrinsic difference between the Marvel and DC characters. Spider-Man is the facade, he's the mask, Peter Parker is the real deal and if we could actually be superheroes, that's exactly how it would happen and by virtue of that, makes Spider-Man truer.

By the way, if you disagree with this, that's cool, but then you would have to argue as to why DC, since the inception of the Marvel Universe, has been trying to Marvelize their characters."

From GOODBYE TO COMICS #7: "WE NEED A RAPE":

"My theoretical comic company, which, for the theoretical purposes of my theoretical memoir, I'll call Gilgongo! Comix, was tired of being 'pushed around' in the sales wars and in the court of fanboy opinion (such as it was). So with all the red-nosed gumption and determination of Ralphie from 'A Christmas Story' Gilgongo! Comix decided to go badass...

So our books changed. There was rape, and murder, torture, death, and mutiliation. Superheroes did amoral or outright evil things and the line between good and bad was blurred. And you know what? Our sales improved. And this is a fact. But it all started with Vicki Victim, and she has to be given credit."

From Batman Begins:

Jim Gordon: And what about escalation?
Batman: Escalation?
Jim Gordon: We get semi-automatic weapons, they get automatics. We get kevlar body armor, they get armor-piercing rounds. And you're wearing a mask and jumping off rooftops. Take this guy... armed robbery, double homicide... has a taste for theatrics, like you... he leaves a calling card.


Nuff said?

Crystal Ball: March 2007 Solicitations, Part II

Support GOOD Comics! Pre-order something new EVERY month.

Part I featured a look at Marvel, DC, Image and Dark Horse's offerings for March 2007, and now Part II casts the spotlight on the most interesting books being solicited by "independent" publishers. Links to full solicitations from almost every publisher can be found at MillarWorld.

[NOTE: Not all of these titles will actually arrive in all stores. If your local comic book shop (LCBS) offers a pre-ordering service, download a convenient order form from Diamond and be sure to take advantage of it. If not, find another one; or try Khepri.com or MidtownComics.com]

PICK OF THE MONTH: INDEPENDENT PUBLISHERS



Savage Tales #1


ARCHIE COMICS

BETTY & VERONICA DOUBLE DIGEST #150,
Written and art by Dan Parent and various.
Digest format, $3.69, in stores on March 14.


The end of an era as this is the final issue before the complete visual revamp of the kids from Riverdale. A surprising move, I think, considering the weight Archie puts on their characters' familiarity, which is central to their appeal in outlets like Wal-Mart, where parents can comfortably pick up copies for their kids without worrying about depictions of excessive violence or rape. Unless, of course, they've been overstating their sales in those outlets. A potential collector's item! ;-)

BOOM STUDIOS!

LEFT ON MISSION #1
Written by Chip Mosher, art by Francisco Francavilla.
32 pages, $3.99


Boom!'s latest movie pitch series attempts to leverage the recent successes of the James Bond revamp, Casino Royale, and the Bourne Identity movies. Francavilla's work on the Black Coat was impressive, but the $3.99 cover price is a bit steep, encouraging some to wait for the trade. Has Boom! released a TPB yet, though?

DEVIL'S DUE

G.I. JOE: AMERICA'S ELITE #21
Written by Mark Powers, art by Mike Bear, cover by Clement Sauve.
32 pages, $3.50


A new creative team takes on a 4-part story arc featuring the Baroness. Joe Casey did a great job establishing a foundation over the first 18 issues, and I suspect the franchise will be just fine as it continues under Devil's Due solid creative direction.

DYNAMITE ENTERTAINMENT

SAVAGE TALES #1
By various, covers by covers by Arthur Suydam, Mel Rubi and Richard Isanove.
48 pages, $4.99 (Foil Cover edition, price TBA)


Dynamite takes a stab at a bi-monthly anthology series, "featuring the savage and brutal worlds of Red Sonja and The Hunter, Cthulhu and the Old Ones, Gleaming Atlantis, and much, much more!" Sounds like it could be fun, and the price is right.

NASCAR COMICS

NASCAR HEROES #1
by Jeremy Diamond & Matt Cassan
24pgs, FC, SRP: $3.95


According to the solicits, "The first ever officially licensed NASCAR Comics series in the Nextel Cup era has already been featured on NBC's Today Show! 75 million NASCAR fans will be reading -- will you?" After enjoying Cars way more than I expected to, I can see the potential in a comic book tied in to Nascar, I think it would have a better chance of success through a direct partnership deal like Miles the Monster pulled off than in the direct market. Considering an attempt at Nascar comics failed miserably back in the 90s, it's not the least bit encouraging that Nascar Comics doesn't seem to have a web site or any Google presence at all beyond its Previews listing.

ONI PRESS INC.

WASTELAND BOOK 1: CITIES IN DUST TP
by Johnston, Mitten, & Templesmith
MATURE THEMES; SC, 160pgs, B&W SRP: $11.95


The first issue of this was intriguing but didn't grab me enough to make my pull list, but Greg Burgas likes it and he generally has pretty good taste, so I'm going to check the TPB out. I've wanted to read something else by Antony Johnston since his adaptation of Alan Moore's [weird-ass] Hypothetical Lizard mini-series a while back, and it'll either be this or Julius.


POCKET BOOKS


BLOKHEDZ VOLUME 1 TP
by Mark & Mike Davis
SC, 6x9, 112pgs, FC; SRP: $12.95


I first heard about these guys earlier this year when I was one of the judges for the inaugural Glyphs Awards, where they were nominated for the Rising Star Award for Best Self-Publisher. They didn't win, so it's particularly great to see Simon & Schuster recognized both their talent and the potential, signing them to their Pocket Books imprint.

TWOMORROWS PUBLISHING

MODERN MASTERS VOLUME 5: JOSE LUIS GARCIA-LOPEZ
SC, 8x11, 120pgs, PC; SRP: $14.95


This is listed as a new release instead of being "offered again", but either way, Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez is hands-down one of my favorite artists from my earlier years reading comics -- Atari Force was a particularly underappreciated delight -- and this retropective is a must-own. Check out some sample pages via Google Reader, and I dare anyone to name a single one of these so-called "Young Guns" from the past decade who even comes close to his skill.

22 December 2006

Two Cents: Lightning Round

We're heading down to Virginia for the holidays and I'm planning to post a bunch of TPB reviews throughout next week -- in between catching up on sleep and movies -- including Stagger Lee; American Born Chinese; Opening Lines, Pinky Probes, and L-Bombs, and a few others. Oh, and I haven't forgotten about the holiday giveaway I mentioned a few weeks back; I just haven't had the time to pick and pull the comics in question. Stay tuned and have a great holiday!

TWO CENTS

*** Archie's Redesign: Not feeling it at all, but then, I'm not the target audience. Considering the emphasis Archie puts on the familiarity of its characters being a selling point in mass-market outlets like Wal-Mart, though, I'm rather surprised by the decision.

*** Minx: Kudos to DC for continuing to diversify their output with another new imprint, and more importantly, for dedicating significant marketing resources to give it a fighting chance. Could there be more women contributors in the initial launch? Sure, but there could be a million legitimate reasons there aren't that have nothing to do with sexism or stupidity, and considering Karen Berger's editorial track record, I'm willing to take a rain check on the reflexive, self-righteous anger. I also have no problem with the name. Minx doesn't evoke "slut" in my mind; more like precocious self-confidence.

*** Too Many Ads in Comics: Marvel notices money sitting on the table right in front of them and grabs it? Well, duh! Actually, this merits a post of its own, but if you want an idea of where I'll be going with this, check out Marvel's media kit. I will say that the idea that they should subsidize retailers' increased shipping costs because of the additional weight is pretty silly, as is thinking they should lower cover prices because of the additional revenue coming from the ads.

*** Parker's Peter: Such a non-issue, really, but it's rather sad that in some areas of the country it could cause retailers a problem. As for the story itself, while a definite Dark Knight knockoff, it's not necessarily a bad one. I was intrigued enough to check out the second issue.

*** Civil War's Multiple Delays: Who cares? And why was anyone surprised? Sure, retailers got the shaft on this one, but at the same time... eggs, basket, old saying? If your business can be so dramatically affected by one publisher, no matter how big, you need to rethink your business plan.

20 December 2006

Indie Bookstores Bailing Out; Bad Sign for Comics?

[UPDATED: 9:55 pm]

PW Daily has a sobering article about several independent bookstores shutting their doors thanks to increased expenses and competition, and I can't help but think about how it parallels the current state of the comic book industry, both on the publishing and retailing side, and how it could potentially affect graphic novel sales, one of the few growth categories in publishing right now.

In New York City, after 34 years serving Manhattan's Upper West Side, the independent mystery bookstore Murder Ink will close on December 31. Owner Jay Pearsall also announced that the attached bookstore, Ivy's Books and Curiosities, will also close.

"We've been able to weather many storms, like having a Barnes & Noble 10 blocks away, but I'd have to say our rent is the number one cause for us going out of business," Pearsall told PW Daily. The current rent had been increasing by 5% each year, and has risen to $18,000/month. "At $18,000, there's nothing left," Pearsall explained.

Over the years, Murder Ink had changed with the times. "The Internet drove us out of the used and rare market about seven years ago," said Pearsall, who bought the store in 1989. "In many ways there's no such thing as a rare book anymore." There are no plans to keep the bookstore going as an online entity. "We used to do a big catalogue and online business, but we don't do much business that way anymore," said Pearsall. "It was pretty soulless sitting in front of a computer and running to the post office. I like to talk to people about books."

Trying to find another location for the store is not an option. "Now is not the time to open a new bookstore," Pearsall said. "I'm just going to take a little time off and try to write a book about things that happened here at the store and about how things have changed in the book and publishing world over the last 20 years."
Two of the other three stores covered in the article are also specialty outlets -- African-American and Mystery/Fantasy/Science Fiction -- which makes me wonder whether or not brick-and-mortar stores simply aren't a viable option for the specialty market anymore, especially as more and more people are comfortable with shopping online nowadays, and/or are satisfied with the limited selections available at chain bookstores.

I also wonder what this all might mean for graphic novels in general, whose exponential growth over the past couple of years has seen Marvel (and to a lesser but growing degree, DC) cranking out hardcover and trade paperback collections of almost everything they publish, while mainstream publishers have begun to sip -- or in some cases, guzzle -- the Kool-Aid, launching imprints to capitalize on the trend. (Or is it a fad?) All of the major distributors recognize the growth potential in graphic novels, and at least one has built an entire initiative around selling more of them.

What happens when there are fewer outlets to sell these books, though? When what gets widely distributed is primarily dictated by a handful of mega-chains (where I group Amazon.com for this particular discussion)? Does it mirror what's happened in the direct market, where one distributor holds a virtual monopoly and two publishers control 70-80% of the market?

On a related note, while I believe there are plenty of good superhero stories to tell that can't, or won't, be published by the so-called Big Two -- check out Kurt Addams' proposal for one intriguing possibility -- I've always felt the route to breaking into comics these days, as either a creator or publisher, is to use the B-to-B model, focusing on an underserved genre and/or niche, and working it as hard as possible. Cross-Gen and Speakeasy, among many others, have proven that the broader approach doesn't work, no matter how well-financed or well-intentioned, and most people tend to forget that DC and Marvel became DC and Marvel over a period of a couple of decades, with both publishers falling on lean times now and again.

Meanwhile, boutique publishers like AdHouse, Viper and several others have successfully carved small but sustainable chunks out of the [direct] market, allowing them to continue to publish quality material, building a solid backlist that will keep them in the black as long as their reach doesn't exceed their grasp.

In the context of the main point of this post (which I'm less and less clear on right this second), it makes me wonder if the niche approach to comics isn't the only answer, or at least not in print. I clearly need to pick up a copy of Reinventing Comics and get hip to the whole webcomics thing the kids are all about these days!

*****

For most of my 14-year career in and around periodical publishing, I've worked on the Business-to-Business (B-to-B) side of the fence -- in circulation, marketing, and now sales -- and the approach there has always been similar to a specialty store: niche publications for a niche audience. I've worked on magazines targeted towards co-op & condo board members, stage lighting designers, independent financial planners, CPAs, etc., and those are some the least surprising niches out there. (Sanitation World and National Hog Farmer are two of my favorites.)

Over the past few years, there's been an oft-noted shift as marketing budgets have steadily shrunk and print advertising has taken the biggest hit, staying flat, at best, or decreasing dramatically. I have several clients and prospects who have removed print advertising from their plans completely next year because only the big brand marketers are able to justify the cost of such difficult-to-measure efforts. Everyone else is shifting their budgets towards more cost-effective, lead-generation vehicles and integrated online advertising.

"Return on investment" (ROI) is king these days so online marketing has become all the rage -- too often mistaken as a magic bullet -- thanks to the immediacy and relative measurability of its results. Another comic book example can be seen in the concurrent decline of Wizard magazine and rise of Newsarama. The internet has dramatically changed reading habits, and most people now go online to get the kind of information niche consumer magazines like Wizard, and the vast majority of B-to-B publications, used to build its relevance around.

Even brand marketers are forced to make tough decisions, though, as not every product line has an equal budget or priority in the overall plan. You can see this in comics, specifically at Marvel and DC, where the likes of Civil War and Infinite Crisis get the most marketing attention, while anything not directly connected to them gets launched with minimal support, left to fend for itself in a hyper-competitive market and effectively doomed to failure.

While very short-term oriented, not to mention self-prophetic, the bang for the buck is a lot higher for a marketing campaign that pushes, say, Infinite Crisis from 100k to 150k copies vs. one that gets Son of Vulcan from 16k to 25k, as IC, in theory, will lift more boats overall. Not for long, of course -- check the figures for DC nine months after OYL gave them a theoretically clean slate and across-the-board sales boost -- at which point the cycle repeats itself ad infinitum until the bottom falls out completely and the game starts all over again.

One company I'm particularly curious about in this context is Virgin Comics, both to see how committed they are to comics themselves, and whether they can successfully leverage their brand's cache to broaden their reach beyond the direct market. I'm thinking it will be a combination of the inevitable movies based on their titles, complemented by high-profile trade paperback releases, but that's not particularly innovative and won't bring about any significant paradigm shift.

Any thoughts out there in the blogiverse? Is this thing on?

19 December 2006

On the Shelves: 12/20/06

Reading is fundamental. Don't waste your time reading bad comics out of habit!

My weekly, semi-informed look at select comic books being released Wednesday, 12/20/06 follows. The full shipping is list available at ComicList.

[NOTE: Not all of these titles will actually arrive in all stores. If your LCBS offers a pre-ordering service, be sure to take advantage of it. If not, find another one; or try Khepri.com or MidtownComics.com]

PICK OF THE WEEK



Walk In #1


APE ENTERTAINMENT
Black Coat Call To Arms TPB, $12.95


I met Ben Lichius back in 2005 at Wizard World Philadelphia, where he'd gotten himself a booth on the main floor (as opposed to a table in artist's alley) to pitch his Black Coat concept to potential readers and publishers. He had a nice promo piece that outlined the potential appeal and versatility of the character and concept, and it was clear that he was committed to getting it published. After barely dodging the collapse of Speakeasy -- the first issue was due to be released about a week after word leaked they were shutting down -- he wound up with Ape Entertainment who published the four-issue mini-series to some acclaim and decent sales. In a just world, this TPB collection will find new readers and the adventures of the Black Coat will continue for years to come, in print and, perhaps, on screen.

ARCHAIA STUDIOS PRESS
Artesia Besieged #1 (Of 6) (AA), $3.95


One of the most wonderful series being published right now, I am a huge fan of Artesia and her creator, Mark Smylie, and demand that you pick up a copy of this re-offered issue, which kicks off the Fourth Book of Dooms and will make you want to pick up the previous three volumes and the role-playing game adaptation. Check out my review for the lowdown.

BOOM! STUDIOS
Warhammer 40K #1, $2.99


ADVANCE REVIEW: I'm not terribly familiar with the Warhammer universe, but this first issue of the comic adaptation is a solid read that has some potential, but not quite enough meat on the bone to guarantee I come back for seconds. No idea how its core audience will react to it, but I suspect Boom! might have been better off releasing a bigger first issue, though, to rope in potential readers like me. A quick stroll through the Warhammer internet didn't turn up a noticeable mention of the comic book on the Games Workshop or Black Library sites, nor did a quick scan of the latter's forums' active topics -- which includes a ton of fan fiction posts -- which isn't a good sign.

DARK HORSE COMICS
Conan #35, $2.99


Old reliable.

DC COMICS
Fables Vol 8 Wolves TPB, $17.99


I've read the first four trades of Fables so far, and partway through the third one, I was officially hooked, as it got better and better with each chapter. I've had to hold off on buying Volume 5 as I don't want to catch up too quickly, but it kills me to skip over solicitation info for current issues as I don't want to spoil anything.

DEVILS DUE PUBLISHING
GI Joe Special Missions Antarctica, $4.95
Forgotten Realms Crystal Shard Seeley Cvr A #3 (Of 3), $4.95


Devil's Due is doing right by both of these licenses. In fact, they're doing better work for Hasbro than Marvel and DC do for most of its own licenses!

GUARDIAN LINE
Code #1, $2.99
Genesis Five #1, $2.99
Joe & Max #1, $2.99


I'm definitely not the target audience for a line of Christian-themed comics, but it's a smart one to aim for, and I have to admit that I'm curious from an observer of the business standpoint. The initial line-up looks to be of professional-level quality, so it's a step ahead of most new publishers. (Check out the Washington Post's coverage of the new line.)

MARVEL COMICS
Criminal #3, $2.99
Thunderbolts #109, $2.99


Repeat after me: Ed Brubaker is The Man. *** Fabian Nicieza's pretty good, too, and I believe this is his swan song on Thunderbolts before Warren Ellis takes over and I drop it.

VIRGIN COMICS LLC
Walk-In #1, $2.99


This is the first Virgin release that sounds like it has a truly original concept, and a rather whacked out one to boot: "This is a story about outsourcing. See, there's a planet out there called Terra and they outsource their prisoners to us here on Earth. We're their penal colony. But the prisoners don't know it. Nor do they know their crimes. Ian Dormhouse is one of those prisoners. He doesn't know it. Until he meets Astrid the stripper in a past-its-prime burlesque club in Moscow. Oh -- and there's the octopus on her shoulder. And there's the gangster who's dreams Ian saw that he wasn't supposed to. (Because now he's posing as a dreamreader in the club to get close to the girl). And there's the German rock band that plays mind-altering music -- literally. Weird?" Indeed!

VIZ MEDIA LLC
Pokemon Best Of Pokemon Adventures Yellow, $7.99


After getting through Ultimate Alliance on my Gameboy Advance SP in under 3 hours, I've moved on the Pokemon Mystery Dungeon, so this is perfect timing as I've wanted to check out a Pokemon comic for a while and never remember to look for it.

18 December 2006

Crystal Ball: March 2007 Solicitations, Part I

Support GOOD Comics! Pre-order something new EVERY month.

My monthly look at select comic books being solicited for release by the major direct market publishers in March 2007. Independent publishers will follow in a separate post. Links to full solicitations from almost every publisher can be found at MillarWorld.

[NOTE: Not all of these titles will actually arrive in all stores. If your local comic book shop (LCBS) offers a pre-ordering service, download a convenient order form from Diamond and be sure to take advantage of it. If not, find another one; or try Khepri.com or MidtownComics.com]

PICK OF THE MONTH: BIG FOUR



Dynamo 5 #1


DC Comics

DETECTIVE COMICS #829 & 830
Written by Stuart Moore, Art by Andy Clarke, Covers by Simone Bianchi
Issue #829 on sale March 7; issue #830 on sale March 21 o 32 pg, FC, $2.99 US


Overall, I really liked Stuart Moore's work on Firestorm, and while Paul Dini's run on Detective has been solid, I think this title works best when multiple creators take a stab at the Dark Knight and company.

BATMAN AND THE MAD MONK TP
Written by Matt Wagner, Art and cover by Wagner
Advance-solicited; on sale April 18 o 144 pg, FC, $14.99 US

BATMAN AND THE MONSTER MEN TP
On sale March 7 o 144 pg, FC, $14.99 US o Relist


Some of the best Batman stories DC's published in a long while, I hope Wagner has many more in him.

THE BLUE BEETLE #13
Written by John Rogers, Art and cover by Rafael Albuquerque
On sale March 28 o 32 pg, FC, $2.99 US


One of the best things to come out of Infinite Crisis, I'm looking forward to Rogers' solo take on the character and his intriguing backdrop.

Dark Horse

FEAR AGENT VOLUME 2—MY WAR
RICK REMENDER (W) and JEROME OPENA (A)
On sale May 30, FC, 136 pages, $14.95, TPB, 7 " x 10 "


Collects issues #5-10 of one the best titles Image had going...now residing at Dark Horse. I switched to trade-waiting on this one after the first arc and the artist/publisher switcheroo was announced, and am looking forward to checking in on the latest adventures of Heath Huston.

STAR WARS: LEGACY #10
JOHN OSTRANDER (W), COLIN WILSON (A), BRAD ANDERSON (C), and DAVE ROSS (Cover)
On sale March 14, FC, 32 pages, $2.99, Ongoing


I never thought I'd get into any of the Star Wars comics, much less on a monthly basis, but Legacy has been too good to wait for the trade. Colin Wilson steps in art, an rather extreme change from Jan Duursema, so it will be interesting to see if/how Ostrander changes the tone to keep things flowing smoothly.

Image Comics

DYNAMO 5 #1
story JAY FAERBER, art MAHMUD ASRAR, cover MAHMUD ASRAR & RON RILEY
32 PAGES, FC, MARCH 7, $3.50


There are some people who think superheroes are best left to Marvel and DC, but I wholeheartedly believe that there is still a ton of untapped potential in the genre and this sounds like it could be interesting: "Captain Dynamo, the greatest super-hero in the world, was not the most faithful husband. Now he's dead and his family is trying to piece together their lives. As his enemies descend on his unprotected city, Captain Dynamo's widow rounds up his five illegitimate children, each of whom have inherited one of their father's super-powers." I've never read Noble Causes -- which is up to issue #25, so Faerber has a track record for keeping an indie title going -- but I've heard good things about it, and Dodge's Bullets was a solid read, so I'll be checking this one out.

CASANOVA, VOL. 1: LUXURIA TP
story MATT FRACTION, art & cover GABRIEL BA
144 PAGES, 2C, MARCH, $12.99


If you've not already jumped on the Casanova bandwagon, here's your chance to take a wild ride in one fell swoop. Collects the first 7 issues of Fraction and Ba's incredibly addictive series.

THE CROSS BRONX, VOL. 1 TP
story by MICHAEL AVON OEMING & IVAN BRANDON, art & cover by MICHAEL AVON OEMING
136 PAGES, FC, MARCH 7, $16.99


The first issue piqued my interest a bit, but then I went on hiatus and missed the next two and decided to wait for the trade. Kind of pricey for a four-issue mini-series, and disappointingly timed for release after next year's NY Comic-Con, though, which would have been an ideal time and place to release it. Maybe Brandon and Oeming will have some copies available?

Marvel Comics

SPIDER-MAN: BACK IN BLACK HANDBOOK
Written by MIKE FICHERA, RONALD BYRD, AL SJOERDSMA, STUART VANDAL, ANTHONY FLAMINI, MICHAEL HOSKIN, JEFF CHRISTIANSEN, SEAN MCQUAID & MADISON CARTER; Cover by AARON LOPRESTI
48 PGS./NO ADS/Rated T+ ...$3.99


With the recent returns of Bucky and Jason Todd, it's clearly true that no one stays dead in comics. There are still a couple of characters whose deaths need not be retconned, and this questionable issue's solicitation info refers to one of them: "Are the rumors of Uncle Ben's return from the grave true?" I really hope not...

DAREDEVIL #95
Written by ED BRUBAKER, Penciled by MICHAEL LARK, Cover by MARKO DJURDJEVIC
32 PGS./Rated T+ ...$2.99


One of a small handful of core Marvel titles not solicited blindly as "CLASSIFIED INFORMATION!" bodes well for Ed Brubaker's ability to keep DD as separated from the Civil War nonsense as possible.

HEROES FOR HIRE #8
Written by ZEB WELLS, Art by AL RIO & TOM PALMER, Cover by WILLIAM TUCCI
32 PGS./Rated T+ ...$2.99


I'm not familiar with Zeb Wells' work, so I haven't decided whether or not to drop this when Palmiotti and Gray move on, but this issue's cover is so ill-conceived that it's almost funny. Almost...

HULK AND POWER PACK #1 (of 4)
Written by MARC SUMERAK & PAUL TOBIN, Art by DAVID WILLIAMS & CHRIS GIARUSSO, Cover by DAVID WILLIAMS
32 PGS./All Ages ...$2.99


Marvel and Marc Sumerak keep churning out adventures of my favorite kiddie team, though this time without Gurihiru providing the visuals, which is a little disappointing. Nevertheless, it's the Hulk and Power Pack, so it should be a fun romp, untainted by Civil War.

IMMORTAL IRON FIST #4
Written by ED BRUBAKER & MATT FRACTION, Pencils and Cover by DAVID AJA
32 PGS./Rated T+ ...$2.99


Upon reading the first issue, Ed Brubaker officially became The Man, and Matt Fraction is the man next to The Man. It's Iron Fist, but it's better than it has any right to be. David Aja does nice visual work, too. My only fear is Brubaker's workload will begin to take a toll on him and either the quality of his work or the level of his output will begin to suffer. Of course, he could just be pulling a Giffen (see Blue Beetle), setting Fraction up before stepping away and letting him roll with things. Based on the first five issues of Casanova, that wouldn't be a bad turn of events.

INCREDIBLE HULK #104
Written by GREG PAK, Penciled by CARLO PAGULAYAN, Cover by LADRĂ–NN
32 PGS./Rated A ...$2.99


Hopefully Pak can maintain the fun factor of Planet Hulk as it nears ever-closer to returning the green goliath to the center of the Marvel Universe via World War Hulk. Fingers crossed, not terribly hopeful...

MOON KNIGHT #9
Written by CHARLIE HUSTON, Penciled by MICO SUAYAN, Cover by DAVID FINCH
32 PGS./Parental Advisory …$2.99, FOC - 3/1, On-Sale - 3/21/2007, USE THIS CODE TO ORDER: NOV062306


So, as expected, David Finch couldn't even last a full year on Moon Knight, bowing out midway through the second arc. Lame. I'm glad, though, because his hyper-steroidal style was testing my affinity for the character and Huston's appealing take on him. New artist Mico Suayan looks like a nice discovery, though.

On The Web: According to JoBlo...


A few days ago while surfing the web I stopped by JoBlo and found this on the site. Apparently JoBlo is not only a good site for movie news, but a haven for the Moore haters of the world. Everyday his caption changes, but "Alan Moore's work is overrated" will forever live on CBC.

17 December 2006

Time's Person of the Year: Me!


Well, okay, all of us, actually, and I couldn't agree more.

The "Great Man" theory of history is usually attributed to the Scottish philosopher Thomas Carlyle, who wrote that "the history of the world is but the biography of great men." He believed that it is the few, the powerful and the famous who shape our collective destiny as a species. That theory took a serious beating this year.

...look at 2006 through a different lens and you'll see another story, one that isn't about conflict or great men. It's a story about community and collaboration on a scale never seen before. It's about the cosmic compendium of knowledge Wikipedia and the million-channel people's network YouTube and the online metropolis MySpace. It's about the many wresting power from the few and helping one another for nothing and how that will not only change the world, but also change the way the world changes.
While Time obviously wasn't thinking about the comics blogiverse, the truth of the matter is that even in our little world the balance of power has shifted a bit, as the myriad blogs and alternative sources of news and information springing forth over the past few years has helped to expand the scope of comics discussion. The exponential growth in new and varied voices has carved out brand new niches where creators, publishers and even genres that didn't have a shot at getting any attention from the likes of Wizard, Newsarama or the average comics retailer can now have some realistic hope of attracting an audience for themselves.

For me, these 5 web sites and blogs particularly stood out in 2006 for adding something important and useful to the bigger picture:

Blog@Newsarama: Newsarama has come a long way from when I first hit the comics internerd back in 2003 to find, effectively, an online version of Wizard magazine, with an almost identical myopic viewpoint of the comics industry that left me cold more often than not. 2006 saw Matt Brady and company make some laudable attempts to expand their coverage, and the addition of the blog formerly known as The Great Curve under their umbrella was as smart a move as any made by the major players on the comics scene. It's a several-times-a-day stop in my online travels, and one which has kept the main site on my radar when it might otherwise have fallen off.

Glyphs: The Language of the Black Comics Community: Even before I took over as senior comics editor for Buzzscope back in the late summer of 2005, Rich Watson was #1 on my list of bloggers to bring into the fold. His Glyphs blog had quickly become essential reading and I wanted a larger audience to see it, so I asked him to do a monthly column for us and he agreed. Fast forward to today and his blog has moved over to the recently relaunched and redesigned PopCultureShock and, in my opinion, represents a cornerstone for the site as it repositions itself as the online destination for pop culture fans who have a mature, adult life beyond their geek passions.

Occasional Superheroine: I first came across Valerie D'Orazio's now infamous blog earlier this year and found her to be an engaging comics blogger who happened to be female. At the time, I was looking for potential contributors for PopCultureShock and put her on my watch list for future reference. The summer came and went and PopCultureShock, blogs, and comics in general fell victim to my lack of free time, so when I started to get back into the loop a month or so ago, I was startled to discover her entire blog had been deleted and replaced by her harrowing "Goodbye To Comics" series of posts that served as "a 'theoretical' memoir of what *might* have happened in the life of a woman in the field and fandom of comics. You know, just like how OJ's 'How I Might Have Done It' is theoretical." Having personally witnessed what one young woman who dared to come forth with her story about harrassment in the industry was put through -- the ringer doesn't even come close -- I was inspired by Valerie's determination to tell her very thinly veiled account of her own experiences in the industry and heartened by the relatively positive response she received from across the comics blogiverse.

First Second Books: Doodles and Dailies: Some publishers get it, and some really get it, and in only their first year of publishing, First Second really seems to get it. From an excellent and eclectic lineup of graphic novels that have garnered both critical acclaim and mainstream attention, to a regularly updated online presence that perfectly communicates Mark Siegel and company's mission to publish graphic novels that "build bridges". (A new feature called "Who Reads First Second Books?" could (and should) double as a marketing campaign.) If you haven't picked up a First Second title yet, I dare you to poke around their web site for 10 minutes and not find something that tickles your fancy. If more publishers in the industry mimicked First Second's approach to comics, we'd all be a lot better off because of it.

ComicSpace: More potential than anything else right now, the fact that in slightly less than two weeks this laser-targeted version of MySpace has managed to bring together more than 6,300 comics creators, pundits and fans under one roof is impressive, especially considering the site has very little functionality at this point. Owner/creator Josh Roberts' remarkable side project is poised to be the industry's killer app if he can quickly integrate some of his proposed options (like hosting comics and offering RSS feeds) and creators and publishers can figure out how to properly leverage their usage. It will be interesting to watch how things play out over the next few months.

CBC Quickees: Manifest Destiny, Girls and Squirrels

Cowboys & Aliens
By Fred Van Lente, Andrew Foley, Dennis Calero, Luciano Lima, Magic Eye Studios, et al (Platinum Studios, 2006; $4.99)

What if an alien invasion of North America in 1873 interrupted the European settlers' westward expansion of the United States, forcing them to band together with the native Americans they had ruthlessly displaced for nearly two centuries, and fight for their mutual survival? It's the kind of high concept Hollywood loves, so the only surprise in the comic book version of the story being published by Platinum Studios is that, well, they're actually publishing the comic book version at all! (Check out Kurt Addams' post about Platinum Studios from earlier this year for more on that.)

Seriously, though, Fred Van Lente and Andrew Foley (writers of the excellent Action Philosophers! and Parting Ways, respectively) do a great job of working every potential angle the concept offers into an entertaining variation on Independence Day: How the West Was Won. Whether it's the obvious parallels of the alien invaders and European colonists; the innovative resourcefulness of the Americans, native and self-proclaimed; or the high-energy action scenes that will look great onscreen -- Cowboys & Aliens delivers the fast-paced, action-adventure goods with a likeable cast of characters and a rousing finale that nicely sets up a sequel or ongoing series. Luciano Lima and Magic Eye Studios (with the underrated Dennis Calero ably handling a short prologue) do a solid job of visualizing the story, at times nailing the movie-on-paper feel the script demands, while offering distinctive character designs for the stock humans and aliens alike. At 100+ pages, it's an excellent value for only $4.99, or you can get a free copy from Midtown Comics with any purchase.



100 Girls: The First Girl, Volume 2
By Adam Gallardo & Todd Demong (Arcana Studio, 2006; $9.95)

In a perfect world, 100 Girls -- one of my personal Top 10 for 2005 and Buzzscope's Best Independent Series of 2005 -- would be on its 20th issue or so, out-selling the overrated likes of Girls and Invicible, and making its creators, Adam Gallardo and Todd Demong rich from licensing and merchandising deals. (A 100 Girls video game would be huge!) Instead, this second volume, collecting the final three issues of the story's first arc plus some great extras, hit stores with little fanfare a while back, and even I was caught off-guard by its publication.

Nevertheless, everything I've said about this series in the past stands, specifically...

Sylvia Mark is a teenage prodigy who's just a little bit different from her peers; among other things, she has 99 sisters, all of whom can kick your ass!

Writer Adam Gallardo has established an intriguing setup that creatively combines familiar sci-fi and government conspiracy tropes with Marvel's patented mutant template, stitching it all together with actual character development and believable dialogue. The overall tone is not one of a black-and-white, good vs. evil world, but a multi-faceted place where many of the "bad guys" are just regular people doing their jobs without any bad intentions. Artist Todd Demong's graffiti-like artwork gives 100 Girls a unique visual appeal, slightly cartoony but firmly grounded in reality. His teenagers look like teenagers; his "bad guys" look like regular people doing their jobs; and his layouts are energetic and fluid, no doubt influenced by the fact that he does storyboards for a living. There are many gems buried in the back of Previews, and 100 Girls stands head and shoulders above the majority of them.
One of the biggest difficulties most indies face in the marketplace is an inability to maintain a steady presence on the shelves and in the minds of retailers and readers alike. Gallardo offers some interesting background on 100 Girls in the extras, including how Dark Horse (where the beginning of the story was first published, online), Image, AiT/PlanetLar and Oni Press all passed on publishing it. Of them, I think Dark Horse made the biggest mistake because the resources they have available to promote a title like this would have helped it reach the much larger audience it deserved, and I suspect a decent page rate and regular paychecks would have enabled Gallardo and Demong to make the series a priority instead of only a labor of love, and I'd have more than 7 issues and two TPBs to recommend to people.

Hopefully their snatching of Rex Mundi and Fear Agent from Image will open the door to reconsidering 100 Girls, and Gallardo and Demong can work out a deal that gets Sylvia Mark back on the shelves ASAP. My fingers are crossed...

[Check out my interview with Gallardo at PopCultureShock for more on 100 Girls.]

Raised by Squirrels
By Bram Meehan and Monica Banko Meehan, 2006; $4.95)

Mark Fossen's review of Raised by Squirrels piqued my interest, so I ordered a copy to see for myself and was pleased, both by its potential and by Fossen's ability to nail its good and bad underdeveloped qualities while still making it sound appealing. Sort of a Mission: Impossible with "superpowered covert field agents", the Meehans have come up with an intriguing premise for which their reach perhaps exceeds their grasp...for now. The plot and script are solid, suggesting there's a lot more going on under the surface without distracting from the main focus of the slim 50-page story, and the artwork does a competent job of telling that story. There's a low-budget, indie film lack of polish to the overall package that I find appealing -- similar to the way Memento hinted at even better things to come from the Nolan brothers -- and I'd recommend it to anyone who enjoyed Ed Brubaker's work in Point Blank or Sleeper.

I'll be keeping an eye on their web site -- where individual "issues" are posted, including the seven represented in this volume -- to see how their story develops and, hopefully, to bear witness to the blossoming of its underlying potential. There's three new issues available that offer glimpses at a couple of the main characters' backgrounds and motivations and feature guest artists with similar qualities to whichever Meehan (Monica, I believe) did the artwork in the first seven issues.

14 December 2006

Shadowline Slimline Offer Less for More

With the publication of Fell, Warren Ellis started a mini-trend with what Image has now branded as their Slimline format: 24 pages @ $1.99. Fell has been very good, and a solid success story from a sales perspective, while Casanova has been a critical darling with respectable sales for an Image Central title without a well-known creator attached.

Shadowline, Image co-founder Jim Valentino's personal imprint, has recently latched on to the format with their mini-series Sam Noir: Samurai Detective, but has taken a rather odd approach with it by...well, let Shadowline editor Kris Simon explain it:

Sam Noir is done in that format, as well as an upcoming March title called After the Cape. However, the $1.99 price tag won't be implemented. Why, you ask? Because our creators won't bring in numbers like Fell does, and we like them to actually make some money off their book! Plus, if a fan really wants to read a book, I don't think a dollar will prevent them from doing so. We price them at $2.99, whereas the rest of our books are $3.50.
I'm not sure which part of this is more wrongheaded, the less for more approach, or the wishful thinking of "if a fan really wants to read a book..."

In an industry littered with failed attempts from the Big Two and self-publishers alike, the "if a fan..." approach is absolutely mind-boggling coming from someone not working off of venture capital, a trust fund or a long-term business plan. It's not like Shadowline has a track record for launching successful titles, or standing by struggling ones, with several flaming out well before their time -- ie: Blacklight, The Intimidators, Emissary -- and by Brown's own admission, they're not expecting their creators to move enough copies to make a $1.99 cover price viable.

Further down the thread, she adds this little tidbit: "...all of our black and white titles are/will be 24 pages, for $2.99. Color books that are 32 pages are $3.50."

Why taint the fledgling Slimline format like this? Assuming "fans" even know about any of Shadowline's upcoming titles, how many are going to be willing to pay full price for 2/3rds the content and no color, when they generally don't even buy their full-length, more expensive color titles?

Shadowhawk, the nominal flagship of Valentino's imprint, shipped 2,365 copies of its 15th issue, a pathetic number by almost any measure, and well within the range of other titles they've canceled much, much sooner. Are these the fans who are going to support full-price black-and-white titles with fewer pages than everything else on the shelves?

Why put the burden upon "fans" to support an ill-conceived business model, one which more often than not has resulted in failure? Why not put the burden on the publisher, to either stand behind the work they see fit to publish (like they've done with Shadowhawk), or simply not publish work they can't afford to sustain?

Is there any other industry where one of its top companies is run so ridiculously? Where most of its companies, period, are run so ridiculously?

13 December 2006

Rocketo Love from Junot Diaz

Today's N.Y. Daily News, in their monthly Viva New York pullout section, included a feature called "Authors Pick Their Favorite Reads of 2006", wherein Junot Diaz (of the critically acclaimed collection of short stories, Drown), gave Rocketo a shout-out:


"A comic book of extraordinary power, with a Cuban hero, written by a Cuban writer. I've read nothing like it before and can't imagine anything like it ever being written again."
High praise indeed! And with Diaz being one of three featured authors in the article, his selection, the only comic book picked, really stands out. (Drown was an excellent read, highly recommended, and I've been looking forward to his long-awaited debut novel ever since.)

I tried and just couldn't get into the first issue of Frank Espinosa's quirky tale -- back when it was being published by the now-defunct Speakeasy -- partly because of the landscape format, which didn't feel right in floppy form. The collected trade published by Image felt a lot sturdier in my hands when I flipped through it, though, and Diaz' recommendation is enough for me to go back and give it another chance.

*** In loosely related news, Derek McCulloch and Shepherd Hendrix, creators of the fabulous Stagger Lee (also published by Image), will be on CBC Radio tomorrow (Thursday 12/14) night, talking about their ambitious graphic novel, which is on my personal short list for Best of 2006. The show is called The Arts Tonight and it airs at 10 p.m. on CBC Radio 1. If you're not in Canada or for whatever reason can't get CBC Radio 1, you can catch the show online, picking which time zone you want to listen to, for a total of five and a half chances to catch it.

*** In even more loosely related news, Dynamite Entertainment has announced that their forthcoming mini-series BATTLESTAR GALACTICA: ZAREK is going to be featured in the December 11th issue of TV Guide. Unfortunately, the first issue of the mini-series won't be out yet when the article is published, but it's a nice piece of PR for the comic nevertheless, and they apparently were able to get a promo for the Comic Shop Locator Service (1-888-COMIC BOOK) in there, which is a nice touch.

BORP! -- Bumperboy Update

It's been a while between Bumperboy updates here at CBC, but Debbie Huey just posted a sneak peek at the upcoming Bumperboy.net redesign and it looks pretty sweet.


Huey is not only a talented creator, but a savvy marketer and merchandiser, and Bumperboy.net is the perfect example of a comics web site done right. Hopefully the relaunch will integrate her own LiveJournal, while offering new updates from Gordy.

For the uninitiated, check out my review of Bumperboy Loses His Marbles, the first collected volume of Bubtopia's favorite marble-playing, sock-wearing-Bear friend-having, Borperer Supreme!

Then, hit Bumperboy's Shop to get yourself a copy, along with the equally delightful sequel, Bumperboy and the Loud, Loud Mountain and the mini-comic, First Day of School. While you're there, pick up some cool T-shirts, buttons, stickers and magnets, too.

Finally, go make friends with Bumperboy at MySpace and ComicSpace.

Borp!