Thursday, December 31, 2009

Y2K and Back Again: An End-of-the-Decade Popular-Musical Mixtape Extravaganza

What it says, basically: a musical journey to 2000 and back.

This should fit on a generously cut regular 90-minute tape (it's 46:10 each), and the whole shebang probably works best with a cross-fade of 3 or 4 seconds. Now, without further ado:

SIDE A:

01 "My Car Is Haunted"
Royal Bangs, Let It Beep, 2009

In the age of lasers
We lost our shit.

02 "DLZ"
TV on the Radio, Dear Science, 2008

Congratulations on the mess you made of things.

03 "Fake for Real"
Kettcar, Sylt, 2008

Weil es manchmal egal ist,
ob man jetzt wirklich,
wirklich mutig ist,
oder nur tut als ob.

04 "Riecht wie Teen Spirit"
Erdmöbel, No. 1 Hits, 2007 (after Nirvana)

Bewaffnet euch, bringt Freunde mit
Verliern macht Spaß und Heuchelei
Ihr langweilt euch so selbstgewiss
Oh nein, ich mein, das war gemein

05 "You Dress Up for Armageddon"
The Hives, The Black and White Album, 2007

You dress up for Armageddon,
I dress up for summer.

06 "Breathe"
Alexi Murdoch, Time Without Consequence, 2006

Don't forget to breathe.

07 "Ageless Beauty"
Stars, Set Yourself on Fire, 2005

Oceans won't freeze,
so loosen your heart.

08 "Staring at the Sun"
TV on the Radio, Desperate Youth, Blood Thirsty Babes, 2004

I am the conscience clear
In pain or ecstasy
And we were all weaned my dear
Upon the same fatigue

09 "Take Care"
Yo La Tengo, Summer Sun, 2003

And all words aside:
Take care, please, take care.

10 "No One Knows"
Queens of the Stone Age, Songs for the Deaf, 2002

We get some rules to follow,
that and this, these and those.
No one knows.

11 "Discretion Grove"
Stephen Malkmus, Stephen Malkmus, 2001

A Celt alcoholic,
feeling past blue,
I'm tryin to get up
from sending all my selves to you.

12 "Letter from an Occupant"
The New Pornographers, Mass Romantic, 2000

The song, the song, the song that's shaking me.

SIDE B:

01 "Melt"
Monster Magnet, God Says No, 2000

I was thinkin' how the world should have cried
on the day Jack Kirby died.

02 "A King at Night"
Bonnie 'Prince' Billy, Ease Down the Road, 2001

And where is my queen?
She's as gone as can be.
She was a fine-lookin' lady,
and she liked to go down on me,
and I liked to go down on her, too.

03 "Hurt"
Johnny Cash, American IV: The Man Comes Around, 2002
(after Trent Reznor)

I will let you down,
I will make you hurt.

04 "On the Way to the Club"
Blur, Think Tank, 2003

On my way to the club
I fell down a hole
All the people there
Said: you come alone

05 "King Eternal"
TV on the Radio, Desperate Youth, Blood Thirsty Babes, 2004

Cover your balls
Cuz we swing kung fu

06 "Monster Hospital"
Metric, Live It Out, 2005

Bam shika bam shika boom boom boom
Sha wang sha wang boom
Sha wang sha wang boom
Bam shika bam shika boom boom boom
Sha wang sha wang boom

07 "Goin' On"
The Flaming Lips, At War with the Mystics, 2006

Listen you'll hear it,
we're getting near it.

08 "Beanbag Chair"
Yo La Tengo, I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass, 2006

I'll leave that up to you;
That's up to you.

09 "Worst Trip"
Dr. Dog, We All Belong, 2007

Is this the worst trip
you have ever been on?

10 "These Few Presidents"
Why?, Alopecia, 2008

Even though I haven't seen you in years,
yours is a funeral I'd fly to from anywhere.

11 "Made in the Dark"
Hot Chip, Made in the Dark, 2008

Since we fell apart
I've been nothing but blue,
longing for a nighttime
to bring back my hue.

12 "Help I'm Alive"
Metric, Fantasies, 2009

If my life is mine,
what shouldn't I do?

With that, I'm signing off for 2009.

As always, thanks for your time, and have a happy new year.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

The Wash: 12/30/09

o If I had a better grasp on the language, could juggle more than two references at a time and were more fearless, I'd want to write like Savage Critic Abhay Khosla—luckily, I don't need to, since he already exists.

I also quite enjoy Tim Callahan's procedural pieces on selecting his best comics of the decade. It's always a treat to read people who can tell a good comic from their elbow.

o Speaking of reviews, Steven Grant rips apart (figuratively, I hope) a pop-up adaptation of Eisner's "Spirit" at The Comics Journal.

Personally, I would agree why adapting a comic as a pop-up thing—particularly something by Eisner, which is pretty much quintessential comics—seems like an exercise in tedium.

On the other hand, I was recently given a copy of the German edition of Sam Ita's Moby-Dick: A Pop-Up Book, and I liked it enough to recommend it as a Christmas present (in German).

Ita's effort also uses comics elements, but I regarded it as something to stare at and play with more than as a straight narrative. Depends on the angle, I suppose.

o Awesome. (Via Sean T. Collins.)

o Ron Rosenbaum at Slate has suggestions for some much-needed linguistic end-of-decade tooth-cleaning.

o Note to Ivan Brandon: It's even worse, I'm afraid. I also like Independence Day, I once fell asleep with both of my socks on and—here's the kicker—my grocery store has me on tape buying tuna in cans. Just in case you should run out of ammunition on why I'm wrong about the sales thing, I mean. Heaven forfend.

o Still up: My rambling skeleton of an essay on one of the pop-culture trends of 2009.

Up now: A review of the first five-parter in John Layman and Rob Guillory's Chew.

Chew: Taster's Choice

Image Comics, Chew #1-5, 22 or 24 pages each, $ 2.99 each

Writer and letterer: John Layman
Artist, colorist and book designer: Rob Guillory
Fonts: Comicraft

Chew, a monthly comic-book series by writer John Layman and artist Rob Guillory, goes where it hurts: It sets out to capture the everyday horror that befalls us when we pause to think about what our food is made of, where it comes from, who prepared it.

The cook at your favorite restaurant cuts his finger and bleeds all over the carrots, but throws them into the soup, anyway. The guy at the grocery store doesn't like you and spits in your coffee every morning. If you complain about the cheese on your burger, you'll get a new one, of course, but not before the young gentleman behind the counter saw fit to tune it with a snotty green whopper of a booger.

It's grueling to think about—now imagine if you could actually taste it. Because that's what F.D.A. Special Agent Tony Chu does. Tony is a so-called "cibopath," which means that his taste buds tell him everything about whatever he's eating: If it's an apple, Tony knows when and where and by whom it was harvested and which pesticides were used. If it's a piece of bacon, Tony knows how the pig was killed, who did it and what the poor creature felt when it happened.

The only food that somehow blocks Tony's ability are beets. As you might imagine, Tony eats a lot of beets.

In his job, though, that's a luxury he doesn't always have. The first storyline, a five-parter titled "Taster's Choice," has Tony and his partner investigating the disappearance of a food inspector. In the course of the investigation, which takes Tony from greasy chicken speakeasies in Philadelphia to an Arctic research station, the hero is required to bite off and chew things—or something worse than things—that are more unsavory—a lot more unsavory—than beets.

"Chicken speakeasies"? Right. That's the other half of the premise: In Tony's world, poultry has been banned in the United States, in the wake of what the government claims was a bird-flu epidemic. As a consequence, selling, possessing or eating poultry is now a crime, and the Food and Drug Administration (F.D.A.), which enforces the new prohibition, is now the most powerful authority on the continent. Suffice it to say, there's a flourishing black market for poultry.

Simply put, the set-up sounds ludicrously absurd, and I expected good black comedy at best when I first heard about it.

Once you get down to the page, though, it turns out that Chew is much more than that, and that's just one of Mr. Layman and Mr. Guillory's major achievements with the series. Sure, it's funny in a very clever and dark way—the timing of the humor is perfect, in fact, and Chew is the only comic-book series I can remember that's had me laugh out loud twice or more over the course of each issue. It is a remarkably, hilariously funny book—its smart and twisted, yet heartfelt brand of humor broadly reminds me of the old Lucasfilm adventure games, like Maniac Mansion or Zak McKracken.

But beyond that, there's genuine depth to the characters and their world. Right from the first scene he's in, Tony himself, a calm, no-nonsense guy who's not looking for trouble but is ready to face it when it can't be avoided, stands revealed as an intriguing and authentic character that you want to know more about. As the story progresses and he's confronted with snot-nosed witnesses, a new partner, a boss who hates his guts, a brother who openly rebels against the prohibition and steals poultry or the woman of his life—a columnist who writes about food so vividly that her readers can actually taste it—new layers of Tony's personality keep emerging.

Tony's world is one of mystery and international conspiracies, and it's very carefully made; there are subtle things in the first few issues that you won't necessarily recognize as important, but which become relevant and pay off towards the end of the storyline—or in the next storyline, the first two parts of which are out as I'm writing this. Despite the long-term planning and the division into story arcs, though, each issue of Chew also works on its own terms, introduces and wraps up its own plots and themes.

And, refreshingly, Mr. Layman doesn't string us along or take short cuts: He figures out how to make the most of a particular twist or conflict, builds to it with a remarkable sense of pacing, fearlessly and confidently delivers a pay-off that makes the most of them and then moves on to the next one; there's no shortage of ideas here, and the author knows it.

The trick in selling a silly premise, meanwhile, is not to sell it too hard. Mr. Layman has recognized that: He dumps his characters in this unlikely world of cibopaths and chicken prohibition and lets them tacitly accept its absurdity in the way they react to it, which ultimately makes you wonder: Is poultry prohibition really any more absurd than alcohol prohibition? Consider the nonsensical, utterly cosmetic and useless safety regulations at airports or the media's reaction to the swine-flu epidemic. Nothing's as unlikely as it may seem.

What initially drew me to the book, besides my curiosity about the off-the-beaten-path set-up, was the art by newcomer Rob Guillory. First up, it's just plain beautiful and fun to look at, in a way that's reminiscent of the classic Walt Disney cartoons and animated films. But once you get to the page level, Mr. Guillory demonstrates that he can do more than draw pretty pictures. The page layouts, panel-to-panel storytelling and coloring, the characters' body language and facial expressions, the way the artist stages scenes and arranges details are the kind of stuff you expect from an accomplished master, not from an "up and coming" talent.

Mr. Guillory deals with nine- and twelve-panel grids as effectively as he does with double-page splashes, and he's as good at portraying two characters in conversation as with big, fast-paced, insane action sequences. Who else could get a double-page splash out of a guy eating a spoonful of soup and make it look not just interesting, but downright spectacular? This is some damn impressive work.

John Layman and Rob Guillory have caught lightning in a bottle here, on every level. Chew is the most delightful, innovative and well-made new comic book of 2009, and its unexpected commercial success couldn't have happened to a more deserving series.

Grade: A

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

It's Gonna Be 2010

If there's a trend in popular culture in 2009, it's a defiant kind of creative optimism that's equal parts uncompromising and practical.

In Grant Morrison's Final Crisis, humanity saves itself by creating—on paper—superheroes. In Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds, the director implicitly acknowledges the powerlessness of his fiction, but at the very same time demonstrates that its power is virtually limitless, that it can do whatever the hell its creator wants—even burn the assembled top Nazi brass to death in a French movie theater in 1945. And Metric's aptly titled Fantasies urges listeners, in the track "Gimme Sympathy," to settle for no less than "The Beatles or The Rolling Stones"—with the slickest, most polished new-wave sounds you've heard since 1989, no less.

One of the signature songs for 2008 is TV on the Radio's "DLZ": "Congratulations to the mess you've made of things," Kyp Manley's first line reads. Now, 2009, clearly, was the year when pop culture recognized its own futility and decided, fuck it, we haven't got a prayer anyway, so we might as well aim at the top.

A preposterous and contradictory attitude? Perhaps, but also vital—if you're not giving this your best shot, to hell with the odds, then why bother? Why should anyone spend their time, which is always running out, on your humble, modest, competently made piece of fiction, cinema, music, whatever?

The sentiment certainly isn't new—it's as old as culture itself.

What's new, though, is that, this time, it comes with the inbuilt realization that the odds at actually succeeding aren't terribly good—that the deck is stacked against it rather crushingly, in fact. Instead of delusions of grandeur, there's a refreshing sense of realism at work: Final Crisis reminds you you're reading a comic book about men in tights at its crucial moments; Inglourious Basterds rubs itself against reality so furiously for 150 minutes that it might as well be the sparks resulting from that causing the fire in the end; and Emily Haines' persona in Fantasies has no illusions that failure will be punished—the loftier the ambitions, the more severe the punishment.

You could watch Revolutionary Road and you could watch Away We Go this year, but neither film is complete without the acknowledgment that the director, Sam Mendes, went from one to the other in six months. They're two sides of the same coin, worst case and best case—your lofty ambitions might pay off, or they might kill you. And even the best-case scenario leaves the happy family at the end of Away We Go with a future that's utterly uncertain. But that's as good as it gets for us, so we might as well not worry about it too much. We live by striving, not by succeeding—at least as long as we still have to go at some point.

If nothing else, what these works have in common is their endorsement of unbridled creativity, and of thinking whatever the hell you want. With a blank, empty piece of paper, film, tape, canvas or whatever, the possibilities of what people can do are literally limitless, so there's no reason to be restricted by artificial boundaries like convention, tradition, logic, taste, and so on—these are man-made concepts that can be safely ignored, not laws of nature. Breaking with them comes with its share of great risks, but it's also the only chance we have to create something that will endure.

Or, to make a long story short: If you want to be pulled out of the swamp, you'll have to do it yourself, by your own hair.

Or, to paraphrase Emily Haines: Help, we're alive.

Monday, December 28, 2009

The Wash: 12/28/09

o Jeffrey Renaud talks to J. Michael Straczynski at Comic Book Resources. The interview addresses DC's continued failure to capitalize on Straczynski's name recognition.

Fresh off the Hollywood film Changeling and the commercial success of Marvel's Thor series, we recall, Straczynski's been writing the low-selling The Brave and the Bold for DC, without much of an impact so far, in terms of the sales figures. He's hoping to change that next year, evidently:

It was kind of crazy making when people would say, "Why is JMS doing Brave and the Bold instead of writing a book for one of the Big Three characters?," when I was, it was just classified. But it was a nice balance. In The Brave and The Bold, I've been able to do pretty much whatever I wanted, and it is right in the middle sales wise, so there's no pressure on it. The rest of the time, I get to write for Superman—though I've told DC that by the end of 2010, The Brave and The Bold will be somewhere in the top 20 or 30 books. They look at me like I'm nuts, but I have a plan. It'll be slow and gradual, but we'll get there. Marvel had the same reaction when I said I'd get Thor into the Top 10, so we'll see.

Well, Thor stars one of Marvel's A-list characters, and it also had the benefit of a big-name artist and a long absence prior to the relaunch.

If DC relaunches The Brave and the Bold with high-profile promotion and Straczynski as the head of a new, higher-profile creative team telling higher-profile stories—basically what they should have done from the get-go—then Straczynski's plan doesn't sound so outlandish.

Without any of that, though, I have some trouble seeing much potential for improvement in the book's numbers.

o Also at Comic Book Resources, there's the second part of Renaud's interview with Grant Morrison, this time focusing on Morrison's Batman-related work.

The piece suggests that the previously mentioned Frazer Irving and Frank Quitely arcs of Batman and Robin are still planned to happen, and that Morrison himself will stay on for more than 16 issues.

o From the "missed it" pile: DMZ and Northlanders writer Brian Wood talked about collection sales at his Standard Attrition message board a few weeks back:

Aug 4th: Northlanders Vol 2 is released, with direct market orders of: 4,287 copies.

Sep 30th: My royalty sheet is tallied up and the total sales for the book as of that date is: 9,073 copies.

Which would seem to be quite a bit more than the Diamond estimates.

However, Wood's statement is problematic for a couple of reasons.

First up, according to Diamond, Northlanders, Vol. 2 was not released August 4, but July 29—which is significant, because the publically available Diamond figures pertain to a given calendar month. Consequently, a book released in the first week of the month (like the week of August 4) has a lot more time to accumulate sales than a book released in the last week of the month (like the week of July 29).

Second, the 4,287-unit figure Wood cites comes neither from ICv2.com, whose estimate is 4,117, nor from John Mayo, whose estimate is 4,114. Since Wood gives no source for this number, that means it's either a typo or an actual figure from DC Comics. If it's the latter, we wouldn't know what to compare it with, since the accounting period relevant to the number Wood got from DC doesn't have to be identical with the accounting period of the Diamond charts.

With all that in mind, let's add up the Diamond figures for July, August and September to get the total direct-market orders for Northlanders, Vol. 2 in the period that's relevant for Wood's tallied-up royalty statement. In terms of ICv2.com's estimates, the book sold 4,117 units in July, 575 units in August and 464 units in September.

That makes an estimated total of 5,156 units in the North American direct market from July through September for Northlanders, Vol. 2, versus Wood's cited overall sales of 9,073.

Which, in turn, suggests that there were sales in the neighborhood of 4,000 copies in the book market during that period, compared to sales in the neighborhood of 5,000 copies in the direct market.

This supports what Wood says further on in the thread:

I know what the bookstore market order numbers were, but I said I wouldn't put them online. I will say they are indeed significant, and suggest a possible new trend for all my books. With each new release, the gap between the two [markets] gets smaller and smaller, often to within a few hundred copies.

Although, the [direct market] is still king when it comes to reorders over time.

It's nigh-impossible to draw any precise conclusions from this, due to the problematic dates and figures in Wood's statements and the limited compatibility with any of the publically available systematic figures, of course.

But the question of bookstore trends—for Wood's books, as well as for the rest of the market—will be one to keep in mind until the 2009 Bookscan sales for comics will inevitably leak in a few months.

o Now up: A review of Brett Lewis and John Paul Leon's highly acclaimed The Winter Men.

The Winter Men

DC Comics/WildStorm, issues #1-5 and Winter Special, 2005 through 2009, between 22 and 40 pages each, $ 2.99 or $ 3.99 each

Writers: Brett Lewis, John Paul Leon
Artist: John Paul Leon
Colorists: Dave Stewart, Melissa Edwards
Letterers: John Workman, Jared K. Fletcher

Hey, this is pretty neat for a comic book.

I'm teasing, of course. But when you're faced with one of those very low-selling and yet universally praised superhero comics that are a bit like Watchmen and, in their best moments, get to be almost as good as, say, The Sopranos, then "pretty neat for a comic book" seems somehow appropriate, doesn't it?

Of course, I've just committed a mortal sin right there. What do I mean, "like Watchmen"? How can I say that? Just because the title sounds kind of similar and there's a complex plot that involves a group of semi-retired Cold War superheroes, some of whom join forces—form uneasy alliances—to investigate a crime, with all sorts of political intrigue, betrayal and violence and sex and cheating, and the crooked ethics that result from crooked idealism and frustrated but somehow still semi-idealistic supermen doesn't mean The Winter Men is a Watchmen rip-off!

Nyet! It's set in Russia, and stuff. And, anyway: It's completely different! Right?!

Indeed, in their approach to the material, Brett Lewis and John Paul Leon owe more to Howard Chaykin and Walter Simonson than to Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons. The page layouts and panel-to-panel storytelling are flashier and less rigidly constructed than in Watchmen, the dialogue is rougher and more sensual, and the social commentary blunter.

Structurally, the book is far more chaotic, which is partially intentional, partially due to the material's rocky road to publication and completion (the final, Winter Special issue is an awfully rushed piece of storytelling) and partially just the result of the creators' reach exceeding their grasp—the plot is convoluted rather than complex much of the time and easily remains the book's least memorable aspect.

So, rather than to rip it off, it seems safe to say that The Winter Men actually counterpoints Watchmen. The first hint is the introduction of its hero, Kris Kalenov, who first appears passed out in the snow, drunk and with his face bloodied—as if Rorschach somehow reintegrated right after being zapped by Doctor Manhattan in the snow of Antarctica (or, alternatively, right after losing a bar fight).

Kalenov doesn't wear a mask, but his woolly hat and Rorschach-like gloves—neither of which he takes off, even when he's otherwise buck-naked—give him a similar, similarly distinctive appearance. Kalenov is equally driven to do what he thinks he has to, but his moral compass isn't nearly as straight as Rorschach's, and he doesn't nearly have Rorschach's zeal—whereas Rorschach is an obsessive, obsessive-compulsive fanatic when it comes to following his deeply conservative moral rudder, Kalenov is a hedonist well willing to forgive himself his frequent lapses, as long as things might broadly turn out okay in the end.

In other words, whereas Rorschach embodies the binary moral certainty of Reagan's America, Kalenov stands for a morally confused post-Communist Russia whose national identity is caught between the remnants of the old regime and an unbridled hyper-capitalism, between the unbroken desire to restore the nation to its former, imperial glory and an underlying corruption that seems to be omnipresent, and that keeps eating away at everything and everyone.

This conflict is evident in Kalenov's character, but also in the world Mr. Lewis and Mr. Leon create around him—a world where people try to turn their "bizness" into proper business.

That character and that world are the reasons why the series peaks at issue #4, titled "Interlude: Citizen Soldiers," which is also the one that made me think of The Sopranos. The story follows Kalenov and a friend for a day of their investigation. They start out at McDonald's, where they eat "Big Maks," play chess and talk trash for two hours, at a table with a badge saying, "None of us alone is greater than all of us together."

The rest of the day involves driving around, roughing up suspects, raising protection money, shooting vending machines ("Death to Coka Cola!"), beating up each other, beating up random residents before getting drunk with them, returning to McDonald's for dinner and to steal the Communist table, and, ultimately, doing what they set out to so for the day, which provides the powerful punchline to the interlude story.

And, all the while, Kalenov and his old friend keep talking and talking, of course. The dialogue—made to read as broken English, which is odd when you think about it, but which ultimately works surprisingly well—being another one of the book's great strengths.

So far, so good, then.

There's one big question that remains, though: Does it pay off as a counterpoint to Watchmen in the end?

Yes, it does. The irony being that, unlike Rorschach, Kalenov more or less survives the story, ultimately for no other reason than for all the things that make him not Rorschach.

When Rorschach takes off his mask at the end of Watchmen, he's about to become a smear in the snow for his unwillingness to compromise. When Kalenov takes off his mask—or hat, as it were—it's a sign that, either by compromising or by getting out of the way of those who won't, he's survived the winter and is ready to face the spring.

In other words: The ideologically permeable hedonist who demands his debts be paid in "Big Maks" trumps the uncompromising idealists and full-bore fanatics.

So that's your antithesis to Watchmen, then, your literary unity of plot, character and approach.

It's a soundly executed point observed from an intriguing angle, certainly, and considering the fact that it took four years and multiple format changes to make it, The Winter Men ends up being much better than it has any right to be, which is not even meant in a backhanded way.

If there's any major objection to be had, it's that the book set out to be another counterpoint to a 20-year-old superhero comic in the first place, which seems equal parts ambitious and humble.

So: pretty neat for a comic book. What else do you got?

Grade: A-

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The Wash: 12/23/09

o If you ever wondered what Eric Shanower or David Mazzucchelli look like, here's your chance, courtesy of Publishers Weekly.

Turns out they might just be the Best-Dressed Men in Comics, actually. There should be an Eisner for that.

o Comic-book journalism at its best.

Jonah Weiland is the owner and editor-in-chief of the leading North American comics news Web site, in case you were wondering. He's not officially the head of Marvel's PR department yet.

o The DC solicitations for March 2010 are out, and there's a book titled Nemesis.

o The Marvel solicitations for March 2010 are out, as well, and there's a book titled Nemesis in them, as well.

So March 2010 will be an exciting month for people interested in comic books titled Nemesis. (Nice touch: The DC one is actually called Nemesis: The Imposters. At least they're upfront about it.)

Also: Prelude to Deadpool Corps #1-5, a weekly miniseries with art by—better sit down—Rob Liefeld, Whilce Portacio, Philip Bond, Paco Medina and Kyle Baker. Gah. Talk about cognitive dissonance.

Other titles of note: Iron Man 1.5, a three-part miniseries by Joe Casey and Barry Kitson, set in-between the two Iron Man films; and The Mystic Hands of Dr. Strange, a one-shot with work by Kieron Gillen, Peter Milligan and Frazer Irving, among others.

And The Twelve: Spearhead, interestingly, a one-shot drawn and written by Chris Weston, hopefully an indication that the Twelve maxiseries, drawn by Weston and written by J. Michael Straczynski and in limbo since 2008, will be finished next year.

o With Joe the Barbarian #1 around the corner (a stunningly beautiful book that'll only be $ 1.00, I should add), writer Grant Morrison talks to Jeffrey Renaud at Comic Book Resources:

I've kind of figured out after all these years, how to make Batman and Superman just as personal as anything else. It would be hard to do that stuff without having some personal stake in it. […]

When I do a Vertigo project, I often read people say, "It's good to see Grant doing something personal again"—and I always appreciate it when readers are keen to see me do my own thing, but all the stories I do are personally expressive of where my head's at when I'm doing them; it's just that the creator-owned stuff can be more ambitious, more concentrated maybe.

That's my entry to Morrison's DC Universe work in a nutshell. I couldn't tell you what Final Crisis means in the grander scheme of DC's continuity or whatever, but I can totally appreciate it as a very personal Grant Morrison story—because, at the end of the day, that's what it is, clearly.

o Paul O'Brien's Marvel sales column for November is up. Every month, without fail, there is this one guy who posts this large treatise in the comments that invariably starts with "Well, I told you so," which is plainly fantastic and will hopefully continue throughout 2010.

The indie and DC columns have also been posted, meanwhile.

o I posted a review of Greg Rucka, Matthew Southworth and Lee Loughridge's Stumptown #1 on Monday. I've read a couple of reviews of the book that say Stumptown "doesn't reinvent the wheel," or some such nonsense—let me humbly submit that if that's all you have to say, you've probably been asleep at the same.

o Freshly posted: a review of Viking #1, an Image Comics debut by Ivan Brandon and Nic Klein from earlier this year, and another contender for my upcoming "Year in Rearview" list.

And with that, I'm signing off for this week.

Have a good Christmas.

Viking #1

Image Comics, 21 pages, $ 2.99

Writer: Ivan Brandon
Artist and colorist: Nic Klein
Letterers/designers: Kristyn Ferretti, Nic Klein, Tom Muller

One of the big challenges in storytelling is to find the right balance between the familiar and the new—veer too much to the familiar, and the audience will be bored; veer too much to the new, and the audience won't find anything to be invested in.

Particularly (though not exclusively) in historical fiction, this balancing act comes down to confronting people with characters whose actions are significantly different from what the audience knows and expects, but remain recognizable as genuine, plausibly motivated human behavior when measured against their context.

Take the beginning of the first episode of Deadwood, for instance: Sheriff Seth Bullock, whom we are meant to accept as the "hero" of the show, is introduced as someone who regards the proper execution of a prisoner as something worth risking his life for when a lynch mob comes a-knocking. Bullock and his deputy hold the mob in check with shotguns while hastily yet orderly enforcing the death sentence by hanging the perpetrator themselves.

What's more, the prisoner's last words are a sincere and heartfelt expression of gratitude to the two lawmen for sticking out their own necks on his behalf, if you forgive the pun.

It's a brilliant bit of storytelling that tells the audience right away: Pay attention, we're not in Kansas anymore.

The brilliant part: Bullock, whose actions are treated like those of your average western hero by the show, obviously has very different ideas on the concept of "justice" than most other sheriffs in most other westerns do; and yet Bullock's idea of justice suddenly makes a helluva lot more sense than your typical sanitized good-guy sheriff's idea does.

Or: Bullock's ethics are very different from those we previously knew from this type of character, yet somehow much more plausible in context than the previously accepted convention.

Why go into all this? Because finding this balance between the new and the familiar is a major part of what Viking, a new historical-fiction series about—you guessed it—Vikings, does right: Throughout the story, writer Ivan Brandon demonstrates that he's given a lot of thought to the ways his characters think and behave, and why they think and behave the way they do.

The scenes that result from this aren't entirely as poignant as the one from Deadwood, but nonetheless authentic and compelling. Almost all of the characters have their share of rough edges that deviate quite a bit from the hero formula that a lot of American fiction tends to follow; and at least some of the situations staged in those scenes are refreshingly off the beaten path. Likewise, Mr. Brandon has an ear for dialogue that's not just crisp and well-paced, but also reads like something that might conceivably have been said by Vikings—in terms of what is said, but also in terms of how it's said.

German artist Nic Klein varies his style throughout the story, rendering some panels in more detail than others, while others yet look painted rather than penciled. Mr. Klein also experiments a lot with colors, often opting for a surreal, expressive palette. While all this gives Viking a distinctive look, the stylistic shifts don't always serve the overall story—quite often, the style changes back and forth multiple times on a given page for no discernible reason.

Sometimes, the panel-to-panel storytelling could be clearer. I'm still not entirely sure who ultimately does the killing in the two fight scenes early on in the book, for instance. It's moot to the plot in both cases, fortunately, but it's still not something I should be left scratching my head about.

On the plus side, Mr. Klein's work displays a fair range and a solid grasp of natural facial expressions and body language. The characters in Viking communicate in ways that don't involve the dialogue, which is always a plus.

Viking is still a little rough around the edges, and there's room for improvement in the execution, certainly. Still, it's a unique comic. It reads and looks unlike anything else out there—also thanks, in part, to the wider page format, great paper stock and striking logo and cover design by Tom Muller—and the creators get a couple of intense, captivating moments under their belts.

Grade: B-

Monday, December 21, 2009

Stumptown #1

Oni Press, 35 pages, $ 3.99

Writer: Greg Rucka
Artist: Matthew Southworth
Colorist: Lee Loughridge

"Stumptown" is a nickname for Portland, Oregon. It goes back to the mid-19th century, when trees needed to be cut to make room for the expanding town, but there was no time to remove the stumps.

Portland is where Stumptown writer Greg Rucka lives and where the story is set. In an editorial, Seattle-based artist Matthew Southworth says he goes to Portland for research purposes, in order to make the settings as authentic as possible. In crime fiction, real- and authentic-looking places are crucial in terms of grounding the characters and the action, and Mr. Southworth's care pays off.

Indeed, the bridge where the first and final scene of Stumptown #1 are set, the house in which protagonist Dex lives or crime lord Hector Marenco's mansion are some of the most richly realized settings I've seen in a comic this year, thanks to Mr. Southworth's artwork, but also thanks to Lee Loughridge's atmospheric, subdued colors. The dawns (at the bridge, at the house) and the sunset (at the mansion) portrayed in Stumptown are as beautifully rendered and well-lit ones as you're likely to find on paper.

Used as a verb, now, "to stump" can mean "to nonplus, embarrass, or render completely at a loss."

Private investigator Dex Parios, the protagonist of Stumptown, is a strong female lead in the tradition of Mr. Rucka's Carrie Stetko (the U.S. Marshal from Whiteout) or Tara Chace (the British spy from Queen & Country).

Dex is clearly nonplused by the case she is presented with, although she takes it in with the kind of routine you'd expect—being stumped is her job, after all. In this case, it involves finding an 18-year-old girl—or, as the title of the storyline has it, solving "The Case of the Girl Who Took Her Shampoo But Left Her Mini." It's not clear whether Dex allows herself to be embarrassed by much, however; all throughout the story, she is jerked around by all kinds of people. She doesn't put up a fight, although we're left with the impression that this is because she doesn't want to, rather than because she can't.

We don't know what Dex thinks, precisely, but it seems unlikely that she's completely at a loss as to what's going on. She's paying attention to detail—as a good detective would—and probably knows more than the reader by the end of page 35—or she's known more all along, for all we know.

As a character, it's fair to say that Dex herself leaves us nonplused. She talks a lot, but her gestures and facial expressions say more than her words. She has a lot of vices and behaves irresponsibly, although her behavior towards her little brother—who has Down syndrome, evidently, and who lives with her—shows that she's not an irresponsible person. Also, the people who hire Dex—including the crime lord she encounters—clearly respect her somewhat for some reason, even though she doesn't seem to respect herself.

And while it's said that Dex is broke, the house she shares with her brother is a fairly big, well-equipped one. In a good story, apparent contradictions create friction and conflict, from which results genuine characterization and depth. There are a lot of contradictions when it comes to Dex, and none of them seem random or meaningless.

Now, used as a noun, a "stump" can mean "the part of a limb of the body remaining after the rest has been cut off."

Has something been cut off from Dex's life? It looks that way. As Scott McCloud says in Understanding Comics, the real communication—the real storytelling—in comics happens in the spaces between the panels, which we don't see, and which what's inside the panels therefore has to steer us towards imagining. For Dex, it's much of the same: It's the pieces that aren't there that are the most crucial ones, in her personal life as well as in her job. What are her stumps?

So it's not so much the plot that's important here, but the way Dex responds to any given situation. Why does she act the way she acts? What's missing in her life? What's preventing her from getting a grip and fighting back?

Stumptown is of one piece: a keenly observed, well-made work of literary merit. That, along with its mellow hues and subtlety, which are diametrically opposed to the screaming black-and-white contrasts of Whiteout or the tightly wound sense of duty in Queen & Country, make it a major expansion of Mr. Rucka's repertoire, as well as a major North American comics release of 2009.

Grade: A

Friday, December 18, 2009

The Wash: 12/18/09

o In his "Tilting at Windmills" column, retailer Brian Hibbs responds to DC's recent announcement of original book-length Batman and Superman comics by high-profile creators Geoff Johns and J. Michael Straczynski. In particular, Hibbs rejects the suggestion "that in another decade comics won't be sold as periodicals any more":

I hear this in 2009. I heard this in 1999. I heard this in 1989. I'm told, by people who are even more lifers than myself that this was being said in 1979, and I presume it was also said in '69 and '59, and, heck, maybe even '49 as well. I remember, pretty vividly, that when comics went from 75 cents to $1 that people were saying periodical comics were dead. I heard that again when they went from $1.50 to $2. And again when they went from $2.50 to $3. And, of course, we're hearing that as they move to $4. And yet the periodical continues to chug along.

Well, and that's precisely what's going to continue.

Of course periodicals won't go away. Of course the direct-sales market—barring a sudden Diamond implosion—will be around for years to come. As a system, it's perfect to reach the people that are already in it, and there are still a good number of them. Publishers would be stupid to abandon the comic-book system overnight.

So prices will continue to go up, and a lot of comic-book readers will continue to buy single issues anyway, no matter the price, because that's how they roll.

The thing is, whatever growth the future has in store for comics probably won't be happening to traditional comic books. That ship has well and truly sailed, and it's only going to get more wind in its sails in the next few years.

The thing about 1999 or 1989 was, there were no real alternatives to comic books.

The thing about 2009 is, there are a lot of alternatives now. Virtually every North American comics publisher has a comprehensive paperback and hardcover program. The move to digital formats has begun and won't stop—not to mention the illegal digital copies that are already out there and will continue to be made, downloaded and read in those formats. In 2019, those alternatives will have expanded dramatically.

Sorry, Brian Hibbs, but the notion that the periodical print-comics market will shrink by the end of the next decade is not a controversial statement anymore. If you want a statement that's controversial, I expect the direct market to be a very different place by 2015. It won't go away. There'll still be money in it. But it's not the future, and its time will keep running out—as it's been since the very moment the direct market was invented by Phil Seuling.

The direct-sales market was never more than a crutch, and the healing process is all but complete. From my perspective—which is that of an outsider, certainly—it's high time that comics retailers tried and start to walk, if they don't want to be left behind.

There's more discussion at The Beat, with commentary by numbers guru John Jackson Miller.

The key question seems to be: Is the periodical comics direct market an open system, or is it a closed system?

From where I'm standing, it seems to be the latter.

It may be true, as Miller says, that fewer comics are bringing in more money now, but eventually, without a significant influx of new people, that won't save the system.

Where are those hordes of comic-book craving people supposed to be coming from, all of a sudden?

o Speaking of the viability of print comic books, here's Kieron Gillen, writer and co-creator of Phonogram: The Singles Club, one of the most innovative and unique comics works of 2009:

Unless there’s a sudden pools windfall, [a third Phonogram miniseries] won’t be happening. [Artist and co-creator] Jamie [McKelvie] can’t try to live for a year on no money again. Hell, I wouldn’t want him to. The Direct Market Has Spoken. […]

Yeah, we’ve plans and thoughts and schemes and all that… but they’re tentative and far from certain.

And here's Comics Reporter Tom Spurgeon, commenting on the cancellation of yet another well-reviewed Marvel series:

I hate to backseat drive companies because I’ve barely made like sixteen dimes from working in comic books, but at some point it seems that if well-regarded series after well-regarded series is broken on the rocks of a market that won’t respond to them, you should start to look at changing the game board to be more receptive to such series as opposed to picking up a game piece you think might work better.

Now, I hate to backseat-drive companies, too, because I've barely made like seven dimes from working in comic books, either, but it seems to me that Spurgeon has a point.

And I'm somehow very skeptical, at this juncture, that a thusly modified game board would still necessarily involve printed 22-page books shipped to comics retailers and sold to customers for $ 3.00 and more.

o On a totally unrelated note, why is Dark Horse publishing something titled Conan: The Frazetta Cover Series when it's going to be filled with (a) comics stories that (b) aren't even drawn by Frazetta? Huh.

o Staying with bare-chested adventure types, Brian Cronin's latest "Comic Book Legends Revealed" tells the fascinating tale of how Walter Simonson and Steven Grant teamed up to transform a Sal Buscema-drawn issue of Tarzan into an issue of Battlestar Galactica. Imagine that type of thing happening today.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The Wash: 12/16/09

o Heidi MacDonald interviews Marvel editor Jeanine Schaefer on the publisher's upcoming anthology miniseries Girl Comics.

Schaefer's take on the project:

It’s actually comics by women—and I mean, top to bottom: written, penciled, inked, colored, lettered. The logo is by a woman, all the interior design, production, proof-reading and editing is all by women.

[…] We’re making great comics by great women, period—when given the opportunity to create a story about whatever they wanted, the pitches I got back from everyone have been hugely diverse in tone and characters.

If you read the comment thread, you'll find that this is a very controversial topic. Certainly, I don't seem to recall that the other recent Marvel anthology that this is modeled after was named Boy Comics, so I can see where some of the concerns are coming from—particularly when Schaefer says things like, "once we started talking about celebrating the women of Marvel (both the characters and the creators)."

That sort of comment seems very strange to me, and I think it casts a rather unfortunate light on the state of gender relations at the Marvel offices. It produces in my mind the image of apes, scratching their armpits and jingling their hairy testicles in the good old Marvel Bullpen, their lips pursed in bemusement as they ponder the conundrum of How to Properly Celebrate the Ladies.

Maybe Marvel Apes, and not Strange Tales, is the proper pendant to Girl Comics?

What a horrible digression. I'm so sorry.

Anyway, when major publishers feel the need to market comics created by women as novelty items, that's a pretty sure sign that something's off-balance—although, looking at it from this angle, Girl Comics is a symptom more than anything.

On the other hand, it's debatable whether the market that Marvel and DC specialize in is really one that has the potential to be as attractive to women as it is to men. Don't get me wrong: I'm not ready to subscribe to the conventional wisdom that superhero comics necessarily have to be a men's genre; but regardless of any theoretical possibilities or impossibilities, and regardless of what anyone wishes the state of things to be, the de facto state of things right now is that it is a men's genre—a genre of comics largely created by men and for men.

Bearing this in mind, marketing a project like this one as, basically, "Hey, kids: women!" may not be a terribly enlightened or flattering way of going about things, certainly. But it's hard to argue with Marvel that it probably makes sense commercially.

o Marvel editor-in-chief Joe Quesada discusses DC's recent announcement of straight-to-paperback Batman and Superman comics with Comic Book Resources' Kiel Phegley:

I don't know if they've announced page counts on these OGNs ["original graphic novels" –ed.] or not, but let's say for the sake of argument that the page counts is the equivalent of five comic books. If they were to take Geoff Johns' five issues of Batman and sell them monthly, they would probably end up making a lot more money than putting it out as a hardcover. Personally, we've never seen that model work for us financially.

Quesada goes on:

[F]rom the financial standpoint of a commercial artist, if I'm looking for a way to maximize my time versus how much money I make versus how much exposure I get—an OGN doesn't make sense. […] I could do a year's worth of work and put it out as one graphic novel, and I'll be on the stands in perpetuity (if it's good) but promoted for really only one month. […] And that'll boost my career for that month. The book will come out and sell to fewer people because I've had to put something like a $40 price point on it. […] And let's not forget, what if the OGN isn't all that good?

It's a point of view you hear fairly often among creators, but then again, DC probably knows that, too.

As I see it, what DC Comics is doing with these original book-length works—probably thanks to the recent management changes, but who knows—is an experiment. It's an experiment that's overdue, more precisely, even though nobody can be sure it'll make any kind of money—even though, in fact, it's emphatically unlikely that this will be equally viable commercially as the old periodical approach.

The reason why this experiment is overdue is that the direct-sales market, and with it the number of people who frequent comic-book specialty stores, is shrinking, and will continue to shrink.

Now, in the long term, I don't know that straight-to-paperback comics are necessarily the answer for the North American comics market—they probably won't be for Marvel and DC.

What I'm fairly sure of, though, is that they're one of the answers.

So, ultimately, in terms of testing the waters and finally confronting not just the audience, but also the retailers with the fact that the way it's being done now is not the way it'll be done ten years from now, I think this is a move that makes a lot of sense on DC's part—even if it won't pay off for them immediately, commercially.

o Confirmed: Matt Fraction is the new writer of Thor, starting with issue #610, out sometime in the first half of 2010.

What Fraction tells Hero Complex and Comic Book Resources sounds good, so I'm hoping that we're in for something like Invincible Iron Man, rather than something like Uncanny X-Men.

o Over at Newsarama, David Pepose quizzes Kurt Busiek, Marvels and Thunderbolts co-creator and former Avengers, Iron Man and Power Man & Iron Fist writer, on creating characters for Marvel.

o Newsarama's multi-part look at the rise of the Avengers franchise from a reasonably successful title to North America's most successful comic-book franchise since 2004 is worth a look, mainly for Vaneta Rogers' interviews with writer Brian Michael Bendis and editor Tom Brevoort.

I found Brevoort's appraisal of Bendis' approach to be particularly interesting:

[Bendis] came in and wrote Avengers unlike Avengers had ever been written. Everybody who had written Avengers up to that point, to one degree or another, looked back and went, well what did Stan do and what did Roy Thomas do and what did Steve Englehart do? What's the formula? How do you write an issue of Avengers? Whereas Brian just went in and said, I'm going to let these characters kind of bounce off one another and use my own innate sense of pacing and structure and just pace it differently.

That's true, I have to admit. I don't hold Bendis' Avengers-related work in any kind of esteem—I think it's pandering, shoddily made work that caters to the lowest common denominator and falls apart when regarded with any degree of scrutiny, personally—but I have to concede it's very different in its approach from previous runs.

Brevoort also shares his thoughts on what, precisely, distinguishes Bendis' approach from the approaches of his predecessors:

Brian very, very often will have a character say one thing while he's thinking something else. Or thinking the opposite. And that's all down to the artist to interpret that masquerade, that Luke Cage is really thinking black when he's saying white. And that's a very common sort of motif in screenwriting.

People don't necessarily say exactly what they're thinking and aren't quite that direct. And for the longest time, if you had word balloons or you had thought bubbles or you had over-narration in comics, that was absolutely definitive, to the point where there are plenty of fans still online who will say, "Yeah, but he said this.["]

Compare this with what Steve Gerber—and things always seem to come back to Steve Gerber—told Gary Groth of The Comics Journal, circa 1978:

In Man-Thing #1, I think, we showed [Howard the Duck] grabbing up a gun firing at some demons, quacking something like, "You better watch it, you guys! I happen to be a crack shot! (ha ha)."

Later, much later, we had Howard using a gun again, firing wildly, and several readers wrote in to ask, why is Howard having so much trouble handling this gun when we know from Man-Thing #1 that he is [a] crack shot!

Because you couldn't hear how the Duck spoke the line in Man-Thing #1, because there wasn't enough on his face to indicate the vocal intonation—the statement was interpreted literally by an embarrassing number of readers. You can't do an obvious bluff in a comic book without it being taken literally.

And here we are, 30 years later. The more things change, the more the American comic-book market stays the same.

o Now up: a review of Joss Whedon and Fábio Moon's Sugarshock.

Sugarshock

Dark Horse Comics, 24 pages plus extra material, $ 3.50

Writer: Joss Whedon
Artist: Fábio Moon
Colorist: Dave Stewart
Letterer: Nate Piekos

(Reprints the three-part "Sugarshock" serial first published in Dark Horse Presents in 2007.)

Sugarshock has two of the best and most visionary craftsmen of their generation, at peak level, turning in the literary equivalent of the three-minute punk-rock song of the year: loud, quick, heartfelt, funny and true. It's the comics version of the Ramones, only with better lyrics. Or the Ramones version of Spaceballs, only funnier. Or the Star Wars version of Spinal Tap, only this one finally goes up all the way to twelve. Or something very much like that. Take your pick.

There's a rudimentary plot about a rock band—three girls and a robot—in a space-opera kind of story that shoots them off to some kind of galactic contest, but, really, the point of this story, originally told in three eight-page strips published on the Internet, is for Joss Whedon and Brazilian master storyteller Fábio Moon to have fun.

Which they mostly do by way of the dialogue or, more precisely, by gearing everything towards a good punch line.

Which, in turn, is harder to do than you might think, because it demands great timing not just from the writer, but also from the artist. The artwork Mr. Moon delivers here is nothing short of spectacular. It convinces me for good that there is nothing in the universe that Mr. Moon could not draw and make it look cool and expressive. A single image from Sugarshock communicates more information and more sensations to the reader than the entirety of the average North American comic book.

Mr. Whedon's writing, meanwhile, emphasizes the writer's knack for playing with the unexpected. You never quite see where the conversations, the plot, the characterization in Sugarshock are going, and yet if you look back at where they went, it's hard to argue the fact that it's the most natural—or dramatically effective—place they could have ended up.

There is some adorable nonsense—sound words like "LOUD MUSIC," "WEIRD GARBLE OF ALIEN CHEERS!" or "EXPLODE!" come to mind—and Sugarshock has its share of non sequiturs and its share of situation comedy. In its best moments, though, there's a subversive attitude to the work that challenges our reception of established mainstream storytelling devices like flashbacks (behold: the secret origin of … a temporary hankering for potato chips!), reaction shots (watch those squirrels!) or the use of supposedly elevating music (Samuel Barber's "Adagio for Strings," always and only) at crucial junctures in emphatically meaningful big-budget films.

Moments like these betray the apparent lightness of touch—you simply don't know to try this sort of punch line unless you're an astute observer, and you don't know how to succeed with it unless you're an experienced practitioner of the trade: The truth of the matter is, continuously surprising your audience with moments that are unexpected but still ring true is the hardest thing there is in fiction.

By mastering this art and making it all look easy, Mr. Whedon and Mr. Moon turn in one of the most insightful and elegantly well-made North American comics of any year—pop, in its purest and most accomplished form.

Grade: A

Monday, December 14, 2009

The Wash: 12/14/09

o Why is Marvel canceling all those "special variants" all of a sudden? According to the most recent Diamond update (temporary link), previously solicited variant editions of Hulk #20, Incredible Hulk #607, Ultimate Comics: Avengers #6, Ultimate Comics: Spider-Man #7 and X-Men Forever #18, as well as second-print variants of Black Widow: Deadly Origin #1 and Vengeance of the Moon Knight #3 have all been cancelled.

Are we seeing a paradigm shift at Marvel regarding variant-cover editions and/or reprints? Is the variant bubble about to burst? Or is it just a glitch?

o Marvel will be offering its own version of DC's "After Watchmen" promotion, releasing cheap $ 1.00 reprints of popular debut issues. They called it "Marvel's Greatest Comics."

The books mentioned are Matt Fraction and Salvador Larroca's Invincible Iron Man #1 (which will be free, to kick things off), Ed Brubaker and Steve Epting's Captain America #1, Eric Shanower and Skottie Young's Wonderful Wizard of Oz #1, J. Michael Straczynski and Olivier Coipel's Thor #1 and, finally, one of the various adult-oriented Punisher comics published under the Max imprint—it may be one by Garth Ennis, or the recent relaunch by Jason Aaron and Steve Dillon.

Comparing this with DC's offerings, the thing that jumps out is that all of the material is from the last five years. Whereas DC went back as far as to the 1980s, Marvel seems more confident in the recent output than in, say, the first issue of Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli's "Born Again" arc that ran in Daredevil in 1987. (Although, who knows what's still to come.)

Also, Marvel doesn't really have as much to offer beyond superheroes as DC does, of course, so it's both surprising and encouraging to see that two of their more well-reviewed non-superhero books are among the bunch.

Overall, it strikes me as a solid collection of good, critically acclaimed titles—if you do this sort of thing, you might as well do it with these comics.

o ICv2.com talks to Dark Horse publisher Mike Richardson. The interview doesn't have any great revelations, but, as always, it's still interesting to see executives of the major companies talk about their views on the market.

On comic books versus book-length comics, Richardson says:

Obviously there’s less interest in the pamphlets than in the past and more interest in having a book that people can put on their shelves with the other books that they enjoy, so you see a growth of the graphic novel business. […] There are a lot of economic factors that play against the traditional pamphlet. […] And so at some point you wonder what the perceived value is.

On the topic of digital distribution, it appears there's a slow paradigm shift at Dark Horse. A few years ago, the "experience" of reading a comic always seemed to be something they were confident would continue to be important in a digital distribution model.

Now, though, Richardson isn't so sure anymore, evidently:

In the past we’ve always felt that people like to have the paper, like to hold the books. Certainly you and I feel that way, but I’m not so sure that the youngest audience feels that way. They’ve grown up in an age where they read on their computers and visit the Internet regularly and are not as attached to paper products, so that plays a factor in our business particularly.

o On a somewhat related note, I'm curious who ICv2.com is talking to at DC this year, with Paul Levitz taking his hat.

o The promised review of Jeff Lemire's Sweet Tooth #1 is online, for your reading pleasure.

Sweet Tooth #1

DC Comics/Vertigo, 22 pages, $ 1.00

Writer and artist: Jeff Lemire
Colorist: Jose Villarrubia
Letterer: Pat Brosseau

There's a recent article at Slate called "Shirt-Buttoning Styles of the Weird and 'Special'." Author June Thomas writes:

The buttoned-up look is often shorthand for retarded. (I mean this in the clinical sense.) Think Forrest Gump, Billy Bob Thornton's Karl Childers in Sling Blade, or Sean Penn in I Am Sam. Slow but sincere, they wish to be perceived as serious, fully integrated citizens—and that top button is the key to what the Project Runway set might call their "image management." It says: You may not realize it, but I'm clean and respectable.

I'm not sure if Gus, the young protagonist of Sweet Tooth, is retarded, clinically speaking. But what's plain is that he, too, is "weird and 'special'" and wears a shirt that's buttoned all the way up. Life-long seclusion is likely to have taken its toll on Gus' development, certainly, but I would guess that it's his father who is responsible for the buttoning-up, in this case.

The two of them may be living alone in the deep woods; the shirt sleeves may be all frayed and Gus himself may not care enough to keep his shirt properly tucked into his equally ragged pants; and the boy may be one of the hybrids, the special children born after "the accident"; but maybe that top button is dad's way of demonstrating to himself that, even though the apocalypse came and went, he and his son are still "clean and respectable" Christians.

Another aspect of "special" characters in Hollywood films and TV shows that's communicated by their buttoned-up shirts is their perceived naïvety—their innocence. Ms. Thomas ignores this aspect in her article, but Canadian writer/artist Jeff Lemire, the creator of Sweet Tooth, is counting on it.

Just look at the cover. It shows Gus holding a chocolate bar before a red background with a few barren branches. There's the checkered, buttoned-up shirt. There are the antlers and deer ears. It's unclear whether the stuff at the corner of Gus' mouth is chocolate or blood. Anchored by the haunting, petrified look in the boy's eyes, what the image says, in no uncertain terms, is "deer in headlights."

It's as apt a description as any of the situation Gus and his father are in at the beginning of the story. The old man is terminally ill—all signs point to radiation poisoning—and there are bounty hunters that lay out candy bars to catch, or shoot, hybrid children. The pair have a log and supplies, but it's obvious that Gus' prospects of survival are getting slimmer with every day he stays in the forest. Dad's only response to this is to wait, pray and read the Bible, in hopes for a better afterlife. Even as he grows sicker and weaker, he keeps imploring his son to stay hidden.

Once Gus disobeys his father by picking up one of the forbidden chocolate bars and taking a bite, the story's vision of a dystopian, post-apocalyptic Garden of Eden comes full tilt. Ultimately, Sweet Tooth is a coming-of-age story that confronts a creature of absolute innocence (a boy who is half man, half deer) with the embodiment of primal fear (hunters, out to get him).

In his editorial, Mr. Lemire, who is best known for his book-length works Essex County and The Nobody, talks about his "quiet, delicate storytelling approach." Indeed, the pacing and panel-to-panel storytelling in Sweet Tooth are very deliberate. For the first two thirds of the book, individual scenes unfold somberly. The page layouts are generous and straightforward, giving the reader a good sense of the world Gus lives in, as it is perceived and felt by Gus.

But the story's greatest strength also shines a light on its greatest flaw. While each scene in the first 13 pages progresses deliberately and without haste, the approach is sabotaged by the fact that there are too many scenes, and they're too short. None of them are longer than two pages, which means that, despite the slow pace within the scenes, the story keeps racing by.

The longest scene is the one which starts on page 15 and continues through the rest of the 22-page debut issue. Given that this is where things begin to get frantic, the overall structure seems out of whack as a result. Shouldn't it be the other way around, with long, spacious scenes establishing the character and his status quo, before a brief, breathless shock leads to the cliffhanger?

Part of the problem may be that there's simply not enough room here to accomplish this type of story. This begs the question why Sweet Tooth wasn't granted more space to begin with. After all, the previous two Vertigo titles promoted with low-priced debut issues got 32 story pages each to kick things off. Sweet Tooth #1 gets 22. As a result, all of it just rushes by when much of it is clearly not meant to. It's a major problem that Mr. Lemire will have to address in future issues.

That said, there's still much to like. Gus is a compelling character, and the story sets him up for a potentially intriguing journey. The pacing issues notwithstanding, Mr. Lemire demonstrates his skill as a storyteller in the way he carefully stages scenes and in the attention he brings to his characters and their world—right down to the buttons of their shirts, in fact, which is not something you find every day.

Grade: B-

Friday, December 11, 2009

The Wash: 12/11/09

o Marc Guggenheim will replace Greg Rucka as the writer of Action Comics next year, evidently before the "War of the Supermen" crossover gets underway.

Initial reaction: Good. Now hopefully DC will stop draining the living life out of Rucka and let him tell stories that don't require conferences with the rest of the committee. Because, honestly, he's rather better at those.

(Disclaimer: I actually liked 52. Rucka's first issue of Action Comics, though, convinced me once again that I'm much too young for half the crap DC keeps churning out.)

More reflected reaction: Good. Now hopefully Rucka will devote more time to stuff like Stumptown, Detective Comics and, who knows, maybe some more Tara Chace and Carrie Stetko.

o ICv2.com talked to Marvel publisher Dan Buckley, who, for better or ill, has still got those priorities straight.

The most important business to us, and I say this every year in this interview, is our hobby retail business. It’s where our fans reside, it’s where our most loyal retailers reside. And whatever we do in the digital space is being developed and designed in a way that helps us build more print business and hopefully drives people to stores.

So, if you believe this, the working order at Marvel is to use digital distribution as a means to generate more print distribution, by which they mean "comics specialty stores" first and foremost.

I think it's lip service, personally.

The North American comics market is in an odd place right now—the same odd place it's been in for years, by the way—where it can't live on comic books alone anymore, but can't afford to piss off the comic-book retailers, either. The result are statements like the above, which try to suggest, kicking and screaming, that focusing on comic-book stores is somehow still a viable long-term strategy when it's obvious that it's going to be a considerably less significant segment of the market very soon.

Is the direct-sales market the most important one to Marvel and DC in terms of sales and making money? Yes.

Is the direct-sales market the most important one to Marvel and DC in terms of making sure that they will still be in business as publishing houses in 2015? Not by a long shot, I expect.

In part two, Buckley addresses the prevailing trend in North American comic books of the last five years, which has been to produce the kind of sweeping, never-ending, line-wide, crossover storylines that made comics radioactive for everybody but hardcore comic-book fans in the 1980s and 1990s:

We’re trying to kind of cleanse the palate a little bit. I’m not saying that we’ll never do a line-wide crossover again. I just think the consumers, the retailers, our creators, our editors all need to breathe a little bit and tell some stories that they want to tell amongst themselves or by themselves. Hopefully that’s something that will excite the creative community. We still have to market it and package it in a way that people can understand it and get excited about it. I’m very excited about that approach, with lending the creators a little bit more time to chew amongst themselves. 

Note the key concern here: Buckley hopes that a renewed focus on individual titles will "excite the creative community." He wants to give creators the chance "to breathe a little bit and tell some stories that they want to tell amongst themselves or by themselves."

So, basically, like they did between 1998 and 2004, first at Marvel Knights and then when Bill Jemas and Joe Quesada began to produce quality content at Marvel proper again. I take it that "the creative community" hasn't been terribly excited of late with the environment at Marvel.

But at least they recognize the problem. Better late than never—by which I mean DC, of course.

Oh, and if I'm not seriously misinterpreting this, Buckley lets slip that Matt Fraction is the new Thor writer:

I’ve read what Fraction wants to do with Thor and it’s really cool stuff by itself.

Well, if it's the Matt Fraction who's writing Invincible Iron Man, that's good. If it's the Matt Fraction who's writing Uncanny X-Men, though, I don't think there's going to be a pressing demand for more Matt Fraction comics before long.

Where's Casanova?

o Speaking of the Jemas/Quesada days, I stumbled over this Newsarama piece from February 2008 a couple of days back. It's a piece written by former Vertigo and Marvel editor Stuart Moore, remembering writer Steve Gerber, who'd just died.

Moore's anecdotes about discovering Gerber's work and about getting to work with Gerber on the Howard the Duck miniseries released under Marvel's Max label in 2002 are well worth a look, but there's something else that caught my eye:

That first year or so at the Quesada/Jemas Marvel, we could do anything. Peter Milligan and Mike Allred could reimagine X-Force as a post-post-postmodern media satire; Luke Cage and Jessica Jones could perform acts that would get them tossed right out of the Avengers—even the underground team. Garth Ennis could create an adversary for Nick Fury called Fuckface. (Try looking him up in the Official Handbook.)

Ah, the good old days, when Marvel made comics like Truth: Red, White & Black, The Megalomaniacal Spider-Man and Fantastic Four: Unstable Molecules, and Brian Michael Bendis had more fun creating comics than cashing a paycheck. Alas.

o Graeme McMillan continues his look at Chris Claremont's initial run on The Uncanny X-Men, this time issues #149 through #172—the second Dave Cockrum era, basically, with Paul Smith coming in towards the end.

McMillan makes a good point about the style clash between the "Cockrum Mark II" period and Smith's arrival. Personally, I much preferred Smith at the time, and I recall that the "emptiness" of Cockrum's work, as McMillan calls it, frequently put me off. I'll have to go back and revisit this stuff sometime to see how they hold up for me.

I didn't get to read those comics until more than ten years after their initial publication, and when I read them, it was in a horribly shrunken format and in a terrible German translation. (The history of German X-Men reprints is a fascinating narrative of its own, involving five major publishers, long periods of complete absence and, to this day, I think, the perpetual threat of cancellation.)

These stories about mind-swaps and the Brood and so on have never been my favorite X-Men comics by a long shot, but even so, they were among the first that I got hold of, and, even in the butchered form they appeared in my country, they contributed their share in making me follow the franchise for more than ten years after.

I suppose that says something about how well the creators managed to endear me to the characters and their world, even while I wasn't terribly fond of the stories they happened to be telling at that juncture.

o I reviewed Invincible Iron Man #20 and S.W.O.R.D. #1 this week, and there's going to be a new review of Jeff Lemire's Sweet Tooth #1 before Monday.

(If the reviews I'll be posting over the next few weeks are almost uniformly positive, by the way, that won't just be due to my getting all merry and stuff. I'm actually gearing up and rummaging through the stacks of books for the "New Comic Books I Liked in 2009" list that should be coming up a few days before or after New Year's Eve, so those are mostly—though not exclusively—books that I think are actually pretty good.)

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

The Wash: 12/09/09

I haven't done any link-blogging in a while, have I?

I rather like what Heidi, Sean T. Collins or Tom Spurgeon are doing at their blogs, and it seems a better, less restricted way of getting some initial thoughts out there than, say, Twitter.

Don't get me wrong: I like Twitter, but I'm frequently undermining the 140-character thing, anyway, by stretching sentences over multiple "tweets," so let's try something else.

It worked back in 2004, after all. (Don't bother clicking the link—nothing there anymore.)

o The next artist drawing Batman and Robin after Cameron Stewart is someone named Andy Clarke.

Maybe he's perfectly good, I don't know—but, as Kevin Melrose points out, this probably means that we won't see arcs drawn by Frazer Irving or Frank Quitely, as initially announced.

Which is disappointing.

o In addition to Batman and Robin, Grant Morrison also will be doing more Batman in something called The Return of Bruce Wayne in 2010. The artists mentioned include Chris Sprouse and Frazer Irving, with Andy Kubert doing concept designs. It's a six-issue mini, between 30 and 40 pages each.

Not surprising, I suppose, but it's nice to have it confirmed.

o In May 2010, DC's War of the Supermen will be out. In April 2010, Marvel's "War of the Iron Men" will be out.

You couldn't make this crap up if you tried.

(And, while we're at it, guess which of the two ties in with a high-profile, potentially critically acclaimed Hollywood film starring Robert Downey Jr.)

o Speaking of which, the news on the free War of the Supermen #0 reminds me of Superman: The 10-Cent Adventure #1. It was 10 cents, came out almost exactly six years ago, sold a shipload of copies and did absolutely nothing to increase sales on the Superman books beyond some small short-term spikes.

But, who knows, maybe it'll work this time.

o The money quote in the J. Michael Straczynski interview at Ain't It Cool News: "I've said it before, and it's true: most of my morality I learned from Superman."

I don't know what to say about that. Superman as a role model for morality? Seriously?

The other thing Straczynski says that screams wrong to me:

If there's anything that is signified by trade-waiting, it's that we need to write better stories. If a reader can wait until it's all done to buy it, then we're not doing our jobs right. We should be writing stories that the reader can't wait to buy as soon as the next installment hits the stands, and then at the end, wants to gather together for ease of re-reading. If a reader can wait it out, then we as creators need to re-evaluate our work. Seriously.

That's about as far removed from my idea of good fiction as it gets. Seriously!

o Oh, and dear DC: Please do yourself a favor and just call the new books Superman and Batman. Nobody among the audience you should be addressing with them knows what an "Earth One" is. I don't know what an "Earth One" is.

o From the "read later" file: Back in November, longtime Marvel writer Chris Claremont spoke frankly to Comic Book Resources' George A. Tramountanas about his present arrangement with Marvel. On his current series X-Men Forever, Claremont says:

There's an ongoing discussion with myself and (editor) Mark Paniccia on how the book should be treated. He is fundamentally committed to a minimalist and focused approach to the series […]. From his perspective, we have eight core characters. […] That's the editorial mandate and, at present, there's really no room for discussion or alternative, it seems. This isn't an ideal situation for either party, but Mark has his responsibilities to the company […], whereas I have mine to my own vision […].

It's not the first time Claremont addresses his relationship with Marvel openly. Back in October, according to Caleb Goellner's report of a Claremont panel in Baltimore, an audience member asked Claremont why he keeps coming back to the X-Men.

"I'm under contract," Claremont replies. "I have to produce work, they [Marvel] have to give me work."

Indeed, since 2000, Claremont had a brief, quickly aborted initial return to Uncanny X-Men and X-Men, a longer run on the newly created X-Treme X-Men, another return to Uncanny X-Men, as well as stints writing Excalibur, New Excalibur, Exiles and New Exiles, plus numerous miniseries and one-shots, before launching X-Men Forever.

Few of those set the sales charts on fire, and it seems Marvel have been unusually patient through the last decade in trying to find the right project for Claremont. That's not to say they shouldn't be—after all, the company owes much of the persisting success of its X-Men line to Claremont.

But the above statement implies that Claremont has a special contract with the publisher that basically requires Marvel to find work for the writer. I dimly recall reading something similar about former Marvel editor-in-chief Tom DeFalco, who's also kept producing a steady stream of low-profile work for Marvel ever since he was replaced by Bob Harras in 1996.

Which, if true, raises the question what, if any, Marvel's criteria are for these kinds of contracts.

o On another note entirely, where's blogger and critic Dick Hyacinth? And what happened to the (German-language) Checklist Comicast?

It's been ages.