Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Fair Game

I'll be heading for the Frankfurt Book Fair later today. As usual, lots of time and space will be devoted to comics: This year, creators David Lloyd and Paschalis Ferry are going to be there, as are Dirk Schwieger of the fascinating Moresukine and, of course, storytelling textbook guru Scott McCloud, among many others. DC Comics apparently have a booth, and it seems Dark Horse Comics will have some presence as well, although I haven't been able to find them at the Book Fair's website.

From Thursday through Sunday, I'll be based in Hall 3.0 at booth J834-836, at any rate. It's the joint presence of German indie publishers Cross Cult, Eidalon and Zwerchfell and German comics magazine Comicgate, among others. So if you happen to be there, come over and say hi.

Your Move, Seaguy

At the recent New Yorker Festival in New York City, writer Grant Morrison and some other people went on a stage and had a public discussion on superheroes. Comic Book Resources and Galleycat have reports and pictures, while The New Yorker promises to provide video footage of some of the festival's events soon - so, with a bit of luck, it may pay off to watch their website in the next few days.

In comparison with your average Grant Morrison panel or interview, this one doesn't seem as juicy, if only because it lacks one of those statements which don't just turn accepted wisdom on its head, but actually make you wonder why it's been upside down all along. Still, there are few nice quotes, such as Morrison's response to an audience member's suggestion that comics "as a genre" may be in trouble.
Morrison said that comics have always been a bit despised. “But,” he continued, “comics are currently a licensing farm for Hollywood, and as long as that keeps happening, comics will be okay.

“Comics are the wellspring of imagination; comics can tell stories cheaply that other mediums cannot express. Today it costs 100 million dollars to do special effects on film in Fantastic Four that Jack Kirby could create 40 years ago with a pencil.”
That said, one of Morrison's most interesting statements at the panel actually comes when he's asked about his current projects: In addition to his ongoing runs on All Star Superman and Batman and the upcoming Final Crisis for DC Comics' mainstream line, Morrison reveals that he's writing a second Seaguy limited series. Now, personally, I'm tickled pink, because I liked Seaguy tremendously and think it's the probably most underrated thing Morrison's done to date. But this raises a couple of questions.

When the initial three-issue miniseries came out via DC Comics' Vertigo sublabel, we recall, it sold rather poorly (well, by the standards of 2004, anyway; today it'd be a modest hit for them) and was met with mixed reviews. Although the final issue announced a follow-up series (the first of three planned sequels, Morrison has said), titled Seaguy: Slaves of Mickey Eye, the publisher apparently wasn't very enthusiastic about the project, according to artist Cameron Stewart, and recently, nobody really had it on the map anymore. I guess the fact that it's finally concrete enough to mention it either means that sales of the Seaguy collection have served to restore Vertigo's faith in the property or that Morrison has produced enough blockbusters for DC in the last few years to earn himself another go. (Then again, perhaps Vertigo are just desperate for big-name talent, given that their average periodical sales are currently threatening to drop below 10,000.)

What's almost as interesting, though, it what doesn't make Morrison's list of things he's working on: Wildcats and The Authority, notionally the flagship titles of that other DC imprint, WildStorm. Both supposedly bimonthly series were launched with much fanfare and decent numbers last fall, but after one issue of Wildcats and two of The Authority were released, both titles vanished in publishing limbo. Jim Lee, Wildcats penciler and WildStorm's editor-in-chief, and Gene Ha, artist on The Authority, recently seemed to suggest that the two titles' massive delays mainly rest on Morrison's shoulders. Still, Lee was optimistic about Morrison's commitment to Wildcats.
[A]ccording to Lee, Morrison reiterated his enthusiasm for [Wildcats], and he still wants to do it. Currently, plans call for the collaboration to run for a minimum of six issues, but maybe as many as 12. Ideally, Lee wants to stockpile the issues, and not solicit it until there are multiple issues in the drawer drawer, but when it came down to which project to work on, [Lee] had to chose between that and [All Star Batman], and [All Star Batman] had more scripts in.
Regarding Morrison's work on The Authority, Gene Ha sounded rather more skeptical, however.
[...] I don't think The Authority #3 by Grant Morrison and Gene Ha is ever coming out. Grant is busy redesigning the DC Universe and I've moved onto new projects. Most importantly, it seems that editor Scott Dunbier has been forced out of WildStorm. There is no #3 script, there may never be a #3 script.
Emphasis mine. Now, let's summarize what we know, if we take the comments by Lee, Ha and Morrison at face value for a moment:

o Grant Morrison is still interested in doing between six and twelve issues of Wildcats, all told, but hasn't written enough scripts yet to make it worthwhile for Jim Lee to continue drawing the book.

o Gene Ha isn't working on The Authority due to a lack of scripts, doubts he ever will be again, and has moved on to other projects.

o Grant Morrison isn't working on Wildcats, and he isn't working on The Authority, but he's not too busy with his DC Universe work to be writing a second Seaguy series.

o Editor Scott Dunbier's alleged firing (see here, here and here for more on that) is the "most important" factor in the apparent abortion of The Authority.

Initially, the reason behind the books' delays seemed to be an unfortunate combination of both Jim Lee and Grant Morrison being overwhelmed by other work which had to take precedence over their WildStorm commitments - in Lee's case, All Star Batman and a time-intensive trading card game featuring DC's mainstream characters; in Morrison's case, his involvement in the weekly 52 series. And, really, it's not a great surprise that DC want their talent to make work on their mainstream properties a priority.

Now, things seem to have changed, however. Plainly, what the collective comments by Lee, Ha and Morrison imply is that it's no longer conflicting schedules keeping Morrison's Wildcats and The Authority from publication (or, perhaps, creation), but office politics.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Fowl Play

It suddenly occurs to me that, with Howard the Duck #1, Omega: The Unknown #1 and Foolkiller #1, Marvel are bringing back this month not one, not two, but three properties created - or co-created, in the case of Omega - by writer Steve Gerber in the seventies. If you want to stretch things, you can add the Legion of Monsters collection as well, which includes a Man-Thing story. That character isn't one of Gerber's creations, but it's certainly one that's come to be associated with Gerber above everyone else.

And, incidentally, none of those books are written by Gerber himself. Considering that Gerber is still working and is suffering from massive, terminal health troubles (see his weblog and recent interviews at Newsarama and Wizard Universe), that somehow seems wrong.

(To be fair, I should point out that in the Wizard Universe piece, Gerber states he and Marvel have come to an understanding about Omega and "a couple" of other characters and that he himself considers the matter closed.)

Dream Team

Marvel editor Tom Brevoort provides a neat little four-pager by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko. The story first appeared in issue #26 of Marvel's Tales to Astonish series, cover-dated December 1961. It's a simple idea, but so perfectly told and paced, both in the words and in the artwork, that you could call it the comics equivalent of a good three-minute pop song.

Given Lee and Ditko's later, more famous collaborations, it's sometimes easy to forget that it wasn't just their creative vision which distinguished them in the sixties, but also their skill as storytellers. The story's final caption aside, which obviously seems very much of its time now, "Dream World!," amazingly, still gives the majority of the publisher's current output a run for its money in terms of simplicity and effectiveness. Click over and have a look - it may just be the best comic you're going to read this week.

Monday, October 1, 2007

Service Charge

At Newsarama, Vaneta Rogers talks to Keith Champagne, the writer of DC Comics' upcoming miniseries Countdown: Arena. Obviously, the book is a spin-off of the publisher's weekly Countdown title. Its premise: Alternate versions of DC's major characters beat each other up inside an arena over positions in the Countdown villain's army. There's even a website on which DC let their fans vote on the outcomes of four of the fights - one for every issue.

Asked about the criticisms which have been directed at Countdown: Arena since it was first announced a few months back, Champagne is puzzled. "I was surprised at the mixed reaction to a project that’s been designed to be so fan friendly," he tells Rogers. And Champagne isn't alone in his confusion, it seems. Back in August, trying to convince people of the book's merits, DC Comics executive editor Dan Didio described Countdown: Arena as "fan-fiction at its finest."

Again, as with Didio's recent admission that "about 75% of the concepts that are being created [for DC's mainstream superhero line] are editorially driven," it's not really a great surprise to anyone who's been following DC's output that this sort of editorial policy exists. The surprising part, once more, is the fact that they wear it as a badge of honor.

Comments by Countdown editor Michael Carlin, again made at Newsarama, highlight a related problem.
NRAMA: Mike - hate to keep kicking this dead horse, but wouldn't this have been a great place for an Editor's Note? After all, you've got a main character referring to something which hasn't even been seen yet... so it's not as if even the regular readers know what's going on, let alone the readers who only pick up Countdown... I mean - what's the philosophy behind not pointing readers to another story they might enjoy and possibly buy?

MC: The answer remains the same: There would simply be too many footnotes in a series like this... There are already several narrators forcing several caption styles and I would still like for some of the art to show through the copy. Also the internet does much of this job for us, and we’ve just run several DC Nation pages to help you out.
Let's summarize: (1) The reason why there are no editorial notes in Countdown helping readers to sort out what's actually happening in the book is because there would have to be too many of them. (2) The term "fan-fiction" is a seal of quality at DC.

If you've been wondering why sales of the publisher's DC Universe line has been drastically losing steam over the last year, you can probably stop now.

Figure Skating Update

There've been a few reactions to my essay on the merits of direct market sales reports adding insightful information and analysis to the discussion:

o At the recent comics retailer summit held by Diamond Comic Distributors in Baltimore, Heidi MacDonald asked retailers about the influence online sales reports have on their ordering patterns.
Among the folks we talked to, the answer was a clear no. “I make my decisions based on what sells in my store, not what’s on a chart,” said one, summarizing the general consensus.
While I'm not especially surprised by MacDonald's findings, she's to be commended for actually doing the legwork and, you know, just asking the people who sell the books about their everyday business reality, instead of speculating on it like the rest of us have been doing.

In fairness, MacDonald's article doesn't specify with how many retailers she spoke, and it does point out that retailers who place more stock in online sales reports than in their own customers' buying patterns may exist. Overall, though, I have to say I'm fairly relieved to get at least a little bit of confirmation that I'm not living on Bizarro World. And it's good to know that I'm probably not actively grabbing food out of Brian Wood's children's mouths by reporting on DC sales every month. I'm serious.

o Speaking of Brian Wood, I should mention that he's clarified his comments in a number of places and stated right out that he's been misinterpreted and that, no, he doesn't think the publication and discussion of sales numbers per se are evil or harmful.

Admittedly, Brian, I have a hard time reconciling that with your comments here or here, but I'm willing to take your word on it, and I apologize if I've misrepresented your views.

o At his weblog, Dick Hyacinth uses MacDonald's piece and my ruminations as a starting point for a whole slew of insightful observations and analysis on online sales reports in general and Vertigo sales in particular - Hyacinth expresses skepticism on the existence of the mythical "bad retailers" who place their orders according to online sales reports, further investigates the issue of reorders and ponders Vertigo's future options in the direct market. Go over and read it, if you haven't already.

o In response to the most recent DC sales column, commenter Heinz Hochkoepper points out that the average number of Vertigo periodicals seems to have been increasing over the last few years. Looking into the matter, it turns out that he's quite correct. According to the Diamond Charts, the average monthly number of Vertigo periodicals was 9.5 in 2003 (not counting January and February, for which we only have preorder charts), 10.8 in 2004, 12 in 2005, 12.1 in 2006 and 12.9 in 2007 to date. That's a noticeable increase, and while I'm not sure what it means, it's certainly an interesting observation.

o In the same comments thread, retailer Randy Lander shares information on the performance of certain Vertigo books at his store.
This is anecdotal, but we sell two to three times the number of DMZ trades as we did of Transmetropolitan and Invisibles. Of course, we’re a growing store, so part of that is that we’re bigger and have a bigger customer base now as opposed to then, but it’s not unreasonable to assume that a similar pattern is happening at other stores.

Certainly we sell more DMZ trades in the first week than we did of Transmetropolitan. And I’m pretty sure our sales momentum is faster, too. We sell a DMZ trade almost every week (sometimes more than one), we sold Transmetropolitan maybe once a month.

Not sure how relevant this is, but just wanted to provide a direct response that for us, at least, DMZ (and Fables, and American Virgin) trades sell better than comparable Vertigo titles a few years ago.
As Lander says, it's anecdotal, and there are other factors at play besides plain popularity of the properties.

That said, I have to admit I'm surprised that DMZ collection sales today are so much stronger - at Lander's store, at any rate - than those of Transmetropolitan or The Invisibles were a few years back. It's certainly something to consider, and I'm curious how things are looking at other stores.

(By the way, if you're a retailer - or a creator or publisher or distributor, for that matter - I highly appreciate any feedback on the column you may have. Looking at the statistics is good and well, but it always helps to have input from the people in the trenches. So feel free to drop me a line at any time if I got something wrong or right or if I'm missing anything.)