Monday, August 20, 2007

Weekly Defended

Quote of the Month:
You can’t put out a weekly book three times a month.
So spoken by DC Comics editor Dan Didio, in his extensive defense of Countdown, DC's current weekly series, at Newsarama.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Genre Conventions: Marvel

Rather than putting all their eggs in one basket (see the competition's Final Crisis), Marvel announced a whole bunch of potential free-standing sales juggernauts at the recent major conventions. Warren Ellis and Simone Bianchi doing Astonishing X-Men: Second Stage certainly fits that bill. Although it likely won't be up there with the Whedon/Cassaday run commercially, I wouldn't underestimate Ellis' appeal. The British author is currently seeing something of a second spring, with a slew of critically acclaimed projects like Fell, Nextwave and Thunderbolts under his belt, most of which are also selling respectably, and a well-received novel out. Coupled with up-and-coming newcomer Bianchi, who knows, maybe it's just the right mix to get people excited. Creatively, Ellis tends to be hit and miss with existing work-for-hire concepts; we could end up with another Thunderbolts, or we could end up with another Iron Man.

In other news, Marvel are revamping their Spider-Man line. Both Sensational Spider-Man and Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man will be canceled later this year, while Amazing Spider-Man will start coming out three times a month to pick up the slack. The new writers for the book are Bob Gale, Dan Slott, Marc Guggenheim and Zeb Wells - quite the appealing mix of fresh voices, which is just what the franchise needs right now. Slott and Wells have proven more than capable of understanding and handling the character in the past, in limited capacities, and Gale and Guggenheim seem like good choices as well. The four writers are plotting the series together, similarly to how TV shows tend to be created, before splitting the stories into separate arcs that dovetail each other.

The crew's mantra is "back to basics" - after years of having a Peter Parker married to a super model, living in an ivory tower and wearing fancy high-tech suits that enable him to scratch his back without putting his hands there, it seems we're heading back to the more lighthearted, down to earth stories that made the character popular. While that's all good and well, though, massively ramping up the book's output rate clearly doesn't come without risks, and none of the writers can be considered much of a sales draw in their own right. Marvel seem to be aware of that problem, though. If the book's creative and literal change of pace alone don't generate enough interest among fans and retailers, the addition of high-profile artists Steve McNiven, Chris Bachalo, Phil Jimenez and Salvador Larroca probably won't hurt. It's an interesting experiment, all told, and Marvel are probably viewing it as a trial run for other franchises.

Marvel's third major announcement was writer Mark Millar and artist Bryan Hitch's next project after the recent completion of Ultimates 2. As it turns out, it's Fantastic Four, after all, despite Hitch's denial of the possibility a few months back. The creative team's plan is, over the course of twelve monthly issues, to introduce a new supporting cast and largely focus on the creation of new concepts and ideas, in the spirit of the book's acclaimed Stan Lee/Jack Kirby and John Byrne runs. It's a laudable goal, certainly, and, who knows, maybe they're the right creators to finally reimbue the series with the sense of wonder, adventure and invention that's largely been missing in its more recent incarnations, apart from the occasional blip. And, yes, they really do want to do it monthly this time, and it seems they've already got four issues completed. Then again, I recall similar displays of confidence when Ultimates 2 was coming up, and we know how that turned out.

Those were the three major announcements made by Marvel, but even some of the less prominent ones have a commercial potential that DC would kill for. Take Avengers/Invaders, for example, a new twelve-issue maxiseries by co-writers Alex Ross and Jim Krueger and artist Stephen Sadowski: Ross and Krueger's last project, the recently completed Justice, was one of DC's best and most consistent sellers over the past year. Jeph Loeb, meanwhile, another high-profile creator who made the switch from DC to Marvel not too long ago, has apparently been tasked with restoring Marvel's Ultimate line to full steam; he's not only the writer of Ultimates 3 (with artist Joe Madureira) and Ultimates 4 (drawn by Ed McGuinness), but he's also writing "Ultimatum," a six-part crossover running through the waning Ultimate X-Men and Ultimate Fantastic Four titles, and drawn by David Finch. (Personally, I'm intrigued to hear that Paul Cornell, the writer of the praised Wisdom miniseries, is taking over New Excalibur. It's hardly going to be a big seller, but I'm certainly looking forward to it.)

On balance, it's obvious that neither of the two North American comics publishers is bidding farewell to the trends of recent years. The crucial difference between Marvel and DC, I think, is that Marvel are finding the right balance between the sprawling events and titles which are free-standing and attractive.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Genre Conventions: DC Comics

Now that the major comics conventions in North America (San Diego and Chicago) are both over, let's have a look at the various announcements that were made.

At DC Comics, the future holds... well, more of the same, really. Which in itself isn't a bad thing, unless you realize that 2007 so far hasn't been going desperately well for them. So, more of the same? Well, not ideal. In Salvation Run, an upcoming seven-issue limited series by Bill Willingham and Sean Chen, mysterious forces are conspiring to ship the DC Universe's villains off to some nasty prison planet for good, instead of going through the hassle of putting them on trial and such. In fairness, the concept seems workable enough and it's a solid creative team. On the other hand, of course, Salvation Run is another Countdown spin-off title, and it's apparently connected to everything else DC are putting out. So that's two big strikes against it which might make it a bit of a hard sell, given the less than impressive sales Countdown itself has been generating so far.

Speaking of hard sells: In another announced title, Countdown: Arena, a weekly four-part series by a bunch of creators you may not have heard of, a shipload of characters are apparently going to fight it out in - you guessed it - an arena for a place among the Countdown bad guy's army. It's another retreat of Contest of Champions or DC vs. Marvel, in other words. Except that in this case, they're not having their popular characters duke it out with each other, but a bunch of alternate reality versions of them. They're even planning to host polls for the fans to decide the outcome of some of the fights. Where Salvation Run sounds intriguing, Arena sounds dull as sourdough - and it doesn't even have a toy line to support, like Secret Wars twenty years back.

The publisher's big announcement was Final Crisis, of course, a long-rumored project now revealed to be a seven-issue limited series by writer Grant Morrison and artist J.G. Jones. Final Crisis is by and large expected to provide some sort of closure or bookend to DC's current approach to their superhero line as one big, sprawling crossover where everything is connected with everything. As much confidence as the creative team inspires (fuck it, it's by Morrison; I'm going to buy the thing), the DC Universe clearly isn't working, neither commercially nor creatively, and I'm skeptical whether they know what they're doing with this. It may well be that the line is heading for a radical makeover that will set things right, but I've yet to see any evidence that the people in charge at DC have an inkling of how to fix things. Either way, Final Crisis won't be completed until November 2008, mind you, so even if they're going somewhere worthwhile, it's still more than a year away.

On a somewhat smaller scale, DC also announced “The Resurrection of Ra’s al Ghul,” an upcoming eight-part crossover storyline spinning out of Morrison's Batman. It's going to involve issues of Detective Comics, Robin and Nightwing, and the other writers involved besides Morrison are Paul Dini, Peter Milligan and Fabian Nicieza. Now, each of those creators is, in his own way, at least a competent craftsman with an interesting voice. But, to be frank, it seems to be such an oddball mix of sensibilities that I've got a hard time seeing it working. Nicieza's probably right at home with this sort of thing, having worked on countless crossover storylines at Marvel. Milligan, though? He tends to be fabulous when left to his own devices, but his mainstream work seems to be struggling at the best of times, and I don't recall him taking part in a crossover before. And Dini's work on Countdown, where he also has to collaborate with other writers, largely seems to have failed to capture people's imagination so far. To be honest, I expect this to end up being less than the sum of its parts, rather than more. I've liked Morrison's Batman so far, but instead of pondering whether to get the rest of the crossover, I'm tempted to quit Batman instead. No doubt the story's going to bring a brief sales boost to the secondary titles, naturally.

There also were a number of announcements regarding DC's Vertigo and WildStorm imprints, which are currently having enormous trouble getting any legs on the ground in terms of direct market periodicals. What they're offering in the not-too-distant future doesn't inspire great confidence, however. Vertigo just launched a new ongoing title with The Un-Men (a Swamp Thing spin-off), and more are on the way. In addition to the previously announced original series Northlanders and The Vinyl Underground, upcoming titles include Matt Wagner's Madame Xanadu - apparently the first visible result of editor Bob Schreck's presence at Vertigo - and The Unknown Soldier, both of which are retreats of existing DC concepts. While some of those series look promising, so did the previous wave of Vertigo books, and those aren't faring desperately well commercially. Another Y: The Last Man or Fables hasn't been found in the last five years, let alone another Preacher, or another Sandman. It's not quality or promise that's missing from Vertigo, I think, but focus and a promotional budget.

If Vertigo's chances at another breakout hit are slim, WildStorm's are worse. The imprint's recent history is littered with embarrassing commercial, editorial and logistical failures, so it's a little odd that what they're offering for the immediate future is, essentially, more of the same, as well. Didn't like our recent wave of horror film adaptations? Well, here are more of them. Annoyed that the latest revamp of our superhero line turned into an utter disaster? Hey, how about we try again, only with less popular creators. At this point, the entire WildStorm Universe line seems to be written by Christos N. Gage - certainly a competent writer with promise, but, let's face it, hardly the kind of name or visionary force to single-handedly save a struggling line from its impending commercial collapse.

The decision to follow the recent "WorldStorm" cock-up with yet another line-wide revamp event (one chapter is titled, get this, Tranquility: Armageddon) seems utterly wrong-headed. And with the announcement that Gail Simone is off Gen13 after issue #12 and Brian Azzarello implying that he's wrapping up his stint on Deathblow, that leaves us with Gage, as far as the original creative teams of the "WorldStorm" books are concerned. Kind of disappointing for a creator line-up that included names like Azzarello, Simone, Grant Morrison, Jim Lee, Garth Ennis, Mike Carey, Whilce Portacio and Chris Sprouse when it was launched ten months ago. In fairness, there's the upcoming video game adaptation World of WarCraft. Perhaps that'll work out for them.

Overall, the impression that there's a certain cluelessness on DC's part on how to halt the downward trend that set in about a year ago and reclaim some lost ground in the periodical direct market persists. There may be something accessible and appealing coming up after Final Crisis, but who knows? So far, there's no evidence. And while Vertigo at least have collection sales to fall back on, WildStorm's future looks bleak, as well, if more crossovers and horror titles are the best they can come up with.

Mike Wieringo, 1963-2007