Friday, January 2, 2009

The Crow’s Nest: March 2009

The big news in the major publishers’ solicitations for March, as you may have heard, is not the latest big crossover or blockbuster event title, but the fact that Marvel are taking the next step in raising their cover prices. Following the price increase of Hulk in February, New Avengers and Thor, the other two of their three current top-selling ongoing titles, are also moving to the new $ 3.99 price point. Given that the new Dark Avengers, another potential bestseller, will also carry a cover price of $ 3.99, this suggests that Marvel are using their most popular titles to test the waters – or, rather, prepare their audience – for more sweeping increases.

Considering that we’re in the middle of a major economic crisis, of course, this is would seem like a curious move right now, but it isn’t really that surprising. For one thing, a substantial part of Marvel’s line – miniseries and one-shots, mostly – has already been transitioned over to the new price point during the past year. For another, it seems pretty clear by now that a price increase across the board is inevitable, no matter what. Bearing this in mind, the decision to do it now makes sense. Nobody knows what’s going to happen to the economy in 2009, so choosing a slow transition rather than delaying the increase until the point where it’s going to affect the entire line all at once, which is what the other publishers seem to be doing, is probably the more prudent approach.

Overall, my expectation is that the $ 3.99 cover price and the current state of the economy are going to speed up some of the ongoing developments in comics. For the past eight years, the North American comics industry has been in a state of transition. A transition from 22-page periodicals to paperback and hardcover books, certainly, in the mid-term; but, in the longer-term, also from print media to digital media. With both periodicals and bookshelf editions becoming less and less attractive due to all kinds of immitigable costs involved in their production and distribution, my guess is that this transition will occur a lot faster now.

Apart from the price increase at Marvel, March mostly keeps moving the Big Two’s ongoing publishing events along. Ultimatum continues to revamp Marvel’s Ultimate line, which is down to one ongoing series now that Ultimate X-Men and Ultimate Fantastic Four have been cancelled, while the “Dark Reign” event spawns three minor limited series. And DC Comics continue to revamp their Batman line by launching the three-part Batman: Battle for the Cowl and various spin-off miniseries and one-shots; and the Superman line of titles also enters a new phase in its latest makeover: Apparently, Superman will be absent from both Superman and Action Comics for the year, and will appear in Superman: World of New Krypton instead, a new twelve-part series by TV author Andrew Kreisberg and artist Pete Woods. Well, taking the protagonist out of the book worked has wonders for sales of Captain America, so why not give it a shot?

Still, it’s difficult to shake a sense of the snake eating its own tail. The most notable thing about Ultimatum so far is the indifference with which it’s being met, if the complete radio silence online is any indication, and the names of the people driving DC’s supposed tent-pole books also provoke little more than a shrug. Tony Daniel? Andrew Kreisberg? These guys may be perfectly good writers, who knows. But they’re completely blank slates as far as commercial or critical recognition are concerned. DC might as well put “John Doe” in the credits of their books.

Another curious thing at DC is the apparent absence of any follow-up to Final Crisis. Whereas Marvel used Secret Invasion as a launch pad for “Dark Reign,” which is really just an umbrella for a smorgasbord of new and revamped titles, DC’s superhero books all pretty much continue to mind their own business. Wasn’t Final Crisis meant to be the big turning point for the DC Universe line? With all of their major books and properties ignoring it and just continuing to dutifully plod through their ongoing storylines, it doesn’t seem that way. There’s a case to be made that Marvel are overdoing it with “Dark Reign,” certainly, but the lack of any sense that what comes after Final Crisis constitutes a fresh, new beginning – something the DC Universe line could use badly, at this stage – seems puzzling. If Final Crisis is going to make any difference, there’s no sign of it yet. According to the solicitations, it’s just the same people on the same books, continuing to do what they’ve been doing anyway.

In other news, The Brave and the Bold #23 is conspicuously absent from DC’s March previews. This, we recall, was expected to be the start of superstar writer J. Michael Straczynski’s run on the title. There are all kinds of possibilities for the absence, among them delayed scripts, a last-minute decision to maximize the project’s potential impact by relaunching the series and just plain everyday chaos at DC; or all of the above, really. Another notable absence in March is that of an ongoing book written by Chris Claremont at Marvel. This marks the end of an era that began almost exactly ten years ago in March, with Claremont’s return to the publisher as the writer of Fantastic Four in 1999. After the cancellation of New Exiles in February, Claremont will be producing some one-shots and miniseries for Marvel, it seems, but so far no new ongoing series have been announced.

At DC, there’s also the debut of Strange Adventures, yet another “superheroes in space” miniseries by Jim Starlin. This seems a questionable move at best, given that sales of its predecessor Rann/Thanagar: Holy War are tanking rather spectacularly. Marvel, meanwhile, vow to finally ship Ultimate Wolverine Vs. Hulk #3, closely succeeded by the three remaining issues. When the miniseries was launched in 2006, we recall, writer Damon Lindelof handed in two scripts and then went back to his day job writing the TV show Lost. In a more exciting development, I see that Action Philosophers writer Fred van Lente is doing an issue of Amazing Spider-Man. And War of Kings #1 and X-Force/Cable: Messiah War Prologue, finally, Marvel get two new lower-tier crossovers off the ground.

Marvel’s department for collected editions has some curious choices again in March. I can see why we get big hardcover collections of Millar and Hitch’s The Ultimates, Brubaker’s Daredevil or even The Immortal Iron Fist, certainly – there is a commercial and/or critical justification for those. But do we really need a Hawkeye hardcover? The stuff that’s in there is generic at best, surely. Even if the current hype surrounding Hawkeye and Mockingbird’s apparent resurrections translates into sales here, what makes Marvel think that people won’t be running screaming to the hills after being exposed to this stuff? Or are is there a significant number of Hawkeye fans who have been clamoring for a hardbound edition of his 1983 miniseries?

Even more amazingly, there’s a 200-page book simply titled Wolverine, “written by Marvel,” which gives readers the opportunity to “for the first time ever, experience the storied saga of everybody’s favorite feral X-Man IN HIS OWN WORDS – fully illustrated with archival images from more than 30 years worth of comic-book appearances!” At $ 14.99, who could say no to a 200-page clip show written by committee?

At Marvel’s unnamed imprint for prose adaptations, Stephen King’s The Stand gets its second miniseries. Also in March, the first results of Marvel’s farming out Wolverine and the X-Men to manga publisher Del Rey are showing up in stores. The only news at Vertigo is an “Absolute Edition” of V for Vendetta, meanwhile, which is probably going to make them more money than any new property could, at this stage. And at WildStorm, there’s a miniseries based on the videogame Resident Evil, as well as new Ex Machina and Top 10 specials.


Anonymous said...

The hardcover trend in comics is ridiculous in principle, but that 1983 HAWKEYE series is actually pretty good. That and the 1983 FALCON series are wonderful examples of what super-hero comics might have become without the boom/bust of the 90s. What those books do, while remaining within the confines of mass-market adventure storytelling, is fairly impressive.


Marc-Oliver Frisch said...

I read a German translation ages ago, actually - wasn't it the one where he goes up against Crossfire and starts using a hearing aid because his eardrums are blown in the fight?

That's all I remember, anyway. Come to think of it, a supposedly young, athletic superhero with a hearing aid does get you bonus points for originality, I guess.