Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Bookscanning, and Other Windmills

In his “Tilting at Windmills” column at Comic Book Resources, prominent retailer Brian Hibbs presents his annual analysis of the Nielsen Bookscan chart for comics sold through the book market, now updated for 2008.

As usual, Hibbs’ analysis is dissected controversially—Heidi MacDonald responds (also mind the gigantic comments thread, where numerous observers and insiders chime in), then Tom Spurgeon, then Dirk Deppey, then MacDonald again.

I’ve got little to add to the sprawling general discussion, but Hibbs briefly addresses Vertigo sales in his original piece:

What we don’t see in the Top 750 BookScan numbers are things like “DMZ" or “Scalped," where the running memes have been that the lack of periodical numbers in the Direct Market are being “made up" somehow in other channels. This does not appear to be the case!

Hibbs essentially makes the point that I’m frequently criticized for making in my column on DC Comics sales, although I actually take pains not to make it.

The question of Vertigo’s paperback sales is a classic absence-of-proof case for most series. There is no proof in the available numbers that (a) Vertigo series sell better in the book market than in the direct market or that (b) most current Vertigo series sell well anywhere at all.

But just because the limited numbers we know don’t show it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s not there, of course, which makes Hibbs’ statement problematic.

Looking at Scalped, for instance, things are quite ambiguous, mainly because first-month paperback sales in the direct market don’t seem very healthy (all the sales figures below are estimates calculated by Milton Griepp of ICv2.com, as usual):

08/2007: Vol. 1 -- 3,502
02/2008: Vol. 2 -- 3,022 (-13.7%)
10/2008: Vol. 3 -- 3,524 (+16.6%)

Now, again, the standard disclaimer: These are just sales in the first calendar month of each of those books’ release, which in some cases just means one week of recorded sales. Because collections remain on sale for months and years after, however, these figures are obviously meaningless as an indicator of total sales.

What the figures do show, however, are the trends for each individual series, as well as how the various series compare with each other.

that said, while there’s a little bit of growth here over the three Scalped volumes released, the numbers are still in the same area as those of, say, The Exterminators, a series Vertigo cancelled due to low sales in July 2008.

Periodical first-month sales of Scalped don’t look much better:

12/2007: Scalped #12 --  7,048 (- 3.8%)
01/2008: Scalped #13 --  6,993 (- 0.8%)
02/2008: Scalped #14 --  6,903 (- 1.3%)
03/2008: Scalped #15 --  7,004 (+ 1.5%)
04/2008: Scalped #16 --  7,071 (+ 1.0%)
05/2008: Scalped #17 --  6,927 (- 2.0%)
06/2008: Scalped #18 --  7,020 (+ 1.3%)
07/2008: Scalped #19 --  7,221 (+ 2.9%)
08/2008: Scalped #20 --  7,034 (- 2.6%)
09/2008: Scalped #21 --  7,029 (- 0.1%)
10/2008: Scalped #22 --  6,964 (- 0.9%)
11/2008: Scalped #23 --  6,910 (- 0.8%)
12/2008: Scalped #24 --  6,777 (- 1.9%)
6 months: - 3.5%
1 year  : - 3.9%

Along with Young Liars, which sells in the same area, Scalped is currently the lowest-selling monthly Vertigo series. But clearly, there must be some reason why DC Comics chooses to keep it around, despite the fact that neither periodical sales in the direct market nor paperback sales in the direct market nor the Bookscan report suggest that it really sells anywhere.

Now, I indeed think that it’s very unlikely Scalped sells significantly better than those figures would suggest.

But at the same time, I also think it’s very possible that Scalped paperbacks sell better by just the small amount that’s needed to keep it afloat through those channels, in ways that we just can’t track—by, for instance, shifting 4,000 units in the book market through 2008 (which wouldn’t make the Bookscan Top 750) or by consistently selling 300 units in the direct market every month (which wouldn’t make the Diamond Top 300).

For all we know, Hibbs’ suggested conclusion that the decline in Scalped periodical sales isn’t made up for through other channels may be correct—it wouldn’t be the first time a publisher was holding on to a title for other reasons than just sales. But for all we know, it might just as well be incorrect.

In the case of DMZ, Hibbs stands on even shakier ground. In terms of the first-month numbers of DMZ paperbacks in the direct market, there is a very clear upward trend:

06/2006: Vol. 1  -- 5,387
02/2007: Vol. 2  -- 5,489 (+ 1.9%)
09/2007: Vol. 3  -- 6,098 (+11.1%)
03/2008: Vol. 4  -- 5,392 (-11.6%)
08/2008: Vol. 5  -- 6,143 (+13.9%)

For DMZ periodical sales, on the other hand, things look quite different:

01/2006: DMZ #3  -- 14,503
01/2007: DMZ #15 -- 13,340
01/2008: DMZ #27 -- 10,662 (-3.3%)
02/2008: DMZ #28 -- 10,463 (-1.9%)
03/2008: DMZ #29 -- 10,266 (-1.9%)
04/2008: DMZ #30 -- 10,038 (-2.2%)
05/2008: DMZ #31 --  9,911 (-1.3%)
06/2008: DMZ #32 --  9,760 (-1.5%)
07/2008: DMZ #33 --  9,684 (-0.8%)
08/2008: DMZ #34 --  9,561 (-1.3%)
09/2008: -- 
10/2008: DMZ #35 --  9,240 (-3.4%)
11/2008: DMZ #36 --  8,851 (-4.2%)
12/2008: DMZ #37 --  8,823 (-0.3%)
01/2009: DMZ #38 --  8,457 (-4.2%)
6 months: -12.7%
1 year  : -20.7%
2 years : -36.6%

These figures show a very noticeable decline, and it’s not inconceivable at all that, at some point in the not-too-distant future, the paperbacks will outsell the periodical in terms of first-month direct-market numbers.

Now, I don’t know whether one “makes up” for the other—my knowledge of Vertigo’s production and distribution costs is not profound enough to make any such claim.

Given the clear rise of first-month paperback sales along with the clear decline of first-month periodical sales, however, it’s plainly not as cut and dried as Hibbs suggests. Even if we ignore book-market sales altogether for a second and just focus on the direct market, the notion that the growing paperback sales are “making up” for lapsed periodical sales in the case of DMZ seems very possible, at least.

Don’t get me wrong. I share Hibbs’ deep skepticism when it comes to certain creators’ unsubstantiated claims that the available numbers are completely off when it comes to Vertigo sales. I also agree that the direct market still seems to be the most significant channel for Vertigo; the Diamond and Bookscan charts strongly suggest that much, at least.

But the bottom line is: A book’s absence from any of these charts may be evidence that there aren’t a lot of sales through a given channel, but not proof. There’s just too much going on below the radar of both the Diamond and the Nielsen charts.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

The Weekly Chain Reaction: February 18, 2009

I think Gødland #26 came out this week, but it wasn’t in my box and I forgot to ask about it, which sucks.

Hopefully, I’ll be able to get a copy next week.

* * *

The Amazing Spider-Man #587, by Marc Guggenheim, John Romita, Jr., et al. If that’s suddenly an “inhibitor collar” Spider-Man’s been wearing around his neck all the time (nobody told me), then how did he manage to almost break those pretty massive-looking restraints earlier on? It’s one of a number of things that don’t seem very plausible here, just in terms of pure plot mechanics, but also beyond. The characters have to take the backseat to all the contrivances, and none of them come across as very authentic. In terms of pacing, the storyline is all over the place: The cliffhanger from last month’s issue is dropped, while the cops involved in the conspiracy storyline finally end their brief conversation in Peter Parker’s apartment after spending three issues on it. And who had the brilliant idea to spend a page on exposition right after the recap page? There are some brave stabs at making the reader care here, to be fair, but it’s too little, too late.

(Marvel Comics, 24 pages, $ 2.99)

Grade: D+

* * *

Ghost Rider #32, by Jason Aaron, Tan Eng Huat, José Villarrubia, et al. As far as big conclusions go, this is pretty flat, not least because Mr. Huat has evidently given up on the idea of drawing backgrounds altogether. As a result, colorist Mr. Villarrubia is left to fend for himself, and he loses. The chief insight I get from this story: More than one flame-headed dude on a page looks pretty stupid, and not in that good, fun way of “stupid” I’m reading this nonsense for. Oh, and some stuff that the story forgets to get me interested in happens in the plot.

(Marvel Comics, 22 pages, $ 2.99)

Grade: C-

* * *

Mysterius #2 (of 6), by Jeff Parker, Tom Fowler, Dave McCaig, et al. Unfortunately, this doesn’t do anything to change my impression of the series for the better. Mr. Parker provides a solidly executed mystery plot, but the characters remain a bit flat. I still have no idea who Delfi is or what the point is of having her in the story; there’s nothing there. And Mysterius himself is a collection of quirks that never add up to anything approaching a proper character. There are some neat lines in here and I’m mildly curious where the plot is going, but the strongest argument to be made in favor of Mysterius remains the artwork by Mr. Fowler and Mr. McCaig—who, unfortunately, are developing a tendency to give every character in the story a big, red nose, which is not only odd, but also rather takes away from the portrayal of Mysterius himself.

(DC Comics/WildStorm, 22 pages, $ 2.99)

Grade: C+

* * *

Uncanny X-Men #506, by Matt Fraction, Terry Dodson, et al. Emma Frost has a sticky black dream. Colossus rescues a group of illegal Russian immigrants about to be forced into prostitution. Cyclops tells a bunch of characters who don’t normally appear in this book to take it easy. Angel and Beast fight a bunch of disproportionate crustaceans in Japan. Sounds like a lot of things going on, but don’t be fooled: It’s just a random collection of generic storylines that don’t connect. It’s all very competent, but so is the phone book. Matt Fraction on autopilot is as much fun as watching paint dry—given his lively, inventive work on Invincible Iron Man, this is almost a little insulting.

(Marvel Comics, 22 pages, $ 2.99)

Grade: C

* * *

X-Factor #40, by Peter David, Valentine de Landro, et al. “The climax of this issue will quite simply blow you away,” Mr. David promises on the recap page. Well, it doesn’t; I don’t much care about it, as a matter of fact. What does blow me away, though, is the plainly fantastic character work the creators do in the 21 pages prior to it. Much of the issue consists of Madrox the Multiple Man holding a monologue, and it’s an entirely convincing, delightfully choreographed performance that allows me full empathy with the character—for which Mr. De Landro deserves a considerable share of the credit, certainly; his task here isn’t easy, but he pulls it off admirably. The whole thing would have worked even better if last issue hadn’t had such a phony ending, of course. Just imagine how much this would have resonated if Madrox and Terry had actually reacted to their tragedy like real people, as opposed to genre stereotypes. But enough with the complaints. If Mr. David turned in this kind of work every month, my guess is that he probably wouldn’t have to worry about plot-based “spoilers” so much.

(Marvel Comics, 22 pages, $ 2.99)

Grade: B+

* * *

X-Men: Legacy #221, by Mike Carey, Scot Eaton, et al. Let’s not sugar-coat it: I can’t even believe this is by the same guy who’s written sprightly things like My Faith in Frankie. Xavier, Gambit and Rogue spend the issue stumbling through re-enactments of some twenty-year-old storylines while delivering exposition on what it was that was happening in there when it was happening, you know, twenty years back. Is there any point to this? I swear to god, this is one of the dullest X-Men comics I’ve ever read, and I’ve read a few. In fact, I’m pretty sure that I would have found this pretty dull even back when I cared a lot more about X-Men lore than I do now.

(Marvel Comics, 22 pages, $ 2.99)

Grade: C-

* * *

I also review The Great Unknown #1 this week, the first part of a new five-issue series by reliably quirky cartoonist Duncan Rouleau.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

The Great Unknown #1 (of 5)

Image Comics, 22 pages, $ 3.50

Writer and artist: Duncan Rouleau
Letterer: Francis Takenaga

You never quite know what to expect from Duncan Rouleau. Ten years ago, the American writer/artist co-created M. Rex with Joe Kelly, an off-kilter sci-fi series of which only two issues saw the light of day. Among his most recent projects are a Metal Men series for DC Comics and a creator-owned graphic novel titled The Nightmarist, both of which Mr. Rouleau wrote and drew himself, and neither of which I’m familiar with. Based on the strength of The Great Unknown, though, I’m interested.

Zach, the protagonist of the series, is the archetypal underachiever: He lives in his parents’ garage, is regularly hauled out of trouble by his younger brother and is considered—by himself, mostly—to be “smarter than this.” Zach is an inventor with thousands of ideas filed away, but whenever he’s sure to have come up with the next big thing, someone at the home-shopping channel beats him to the punch. Just when his family is about to throw in the towel, any loser’s wettest dream becomes a reality for Zach: Somebody shows up and tells him that he’s “been robbed of his life,” and that It’s All Meant to Be Different for him.

It’s a great set-up that suggests Mr. Rouleau has thought things through. I’ve basically told you the plot of the first issue, but that’s not dramatic, because the “what”—and, again, it’s a perfectly good “what,” in this case—is less important than the “how.” Stylistically, Mr. Rouleau’s work demonstrates solid, dynamic craftsmanship with a tendency toward the quirky that he seems to be fully aware of, and which he seems fully capable of reigning in when required. Both the story and the artwork in The Great Unknown are quirky and at times disorienting, but none of that seems accidental, and it doesn’t come at the expense of clarity.

Zach, now, is a bit of a twit whose misery seems largely of his own making, at this stage in the story, so the potential for empathy appears rather narrow. And yet, it works, because the story doesn’t condemn Zach. We see his perspective, which is that he knows he’s kind of pathetic, but sincerely believes that, next time, he’s going to succeed with one of his inventions—right until he fails again. Additionally, there are glimpses suggesting that he really is no less than a genius, so I’m going to presume that the story is about to provide more insight on what led to Zach’s situation in an upcoming issue.

The comic isn’t perfect, certainly. It looks like Mr. Rouleau could have scrapped the first three pages, for instance, without losing anything. Instead, one or two more sincere character moments couldn’t have hurt. And having the prose checked by a copy editor would have been a good idea, too: Punctuation is our friend, because it helps the reader to tune into the pacing and rhythm of our writing, really. So if you’re a comics creator who hasn’t mastered that part of the job yet, do yourself and your audience a favor and have your work checked by someone who has.

Those quibbles aside, though, this is a solid start. The Great Unknown is an eccentric comic, but also a sturdy and well-conceived one, with a clearly defined protagonist and genuine urgency—and Mr. Rouleau’s writing and art have a great deal of energy and appeal. I’m curious where this is going.

Grade: B+

Thursday, February 19, 2009

J. Michael Hiatus

What’s up with J. Michael Straczynski’s comics projects again? At Marvel, The Twelve #9, which should have been out months ago, “has been cancelled and will be resolicited at a later date.” And at DC, The Brave and the Bold #23 is solicited for May after being AWOL for two months, but without Straczynski’s name in the credits. Hollywood stuff?

Watching the Watchpeople

Time for a shout-out to some of my favorite people on the Internet, I think.

o In case you didn’t know already, link-blogging—the proper way of doing it, I mean—is one hell of a lot of work.

I always vaguely suspected what Heidi MacDonald, Tom Spurgeon or Dirk Deppey (and the Robot 6 crew, but they’re a bunch of folks, so it’s not entirely as gruesome, I imagine), the people who keep us all up do date and well-informed, must be going through to do it, and, well, now I know.

A couple weeks back, in the comments section, Deppey gave a glimpse into his daily routine:

Basically, the need to have the blog online when the East Coast wakes up completely fucks with my sleep schedule, which periodically rotates around the clock. I’m in such a phase right now; waking up at 10PM or so and essentially jumping right at in after my first cup of coffee. Hopefully, I’ll be able to force myself back to my usual routine this weekend and resume earlier morning updates next week. Fingers crossed, anyway.

“I’m assuming you mean 10 AM?” a confused poster comments. But no, not quite.

Nope, I mean 10PM — I work nights in order to ensure that the blog is online and up-to-date when it gets posted in the early morning, and that entails working nights and sleeping days. Usually I try to sleep from 4-5AM to around 2PM or so, but sometimes circumstances fuck with me and it flips around a bit.

To which I say: Christ on a bike, I’d be dead within two weeks.

o It looks like The Savage Critics! is bent on annihilating the need to read any other website for comics reviews.

Now that site-owner Brian Hibbs has Douglas Wolk, Abhay Khosla, Joe McCulloch and Sean T. Collins in his crew (and they’re just the people who stand out to me in a generally illustrious bunch; let’s call them the Dirty Dozen of comics reviewing), he’s pretty close.

Add Paul O’Brien and Tom Spurgeon to the mix, and you’ve pretty much got the market cornered.

o Speaking of O’Brien, I’ve been meaning to link to the excellent House to Astonish podcast he’s doing with Al Kennedy for ages. If you haven’t checked it out yet, please go ahead and do so. It’s a fantastic show.

Monday, February 16, 2009

The Weekly Chain Reaction: February 11, 2009

In retrospect, I think I was a little hard on Incognito #1, so I give it another go with the second issue—also out this week (by which I mean last week, of course)—right here.

* * *

The Amazing Spider-Man #586, by Marc Guggenheim, Barry Kitson, et al. For my sins, the dullness of the “Character Assassination” storyline is prolonged by an “interlude,” the purpose of which is to dump unto the reader all the essential information required to care about last issue’s reveal of the secret identity of Menace. Of course, it doesn’t quite work this way. I’m supposed to care about the character by the time the big reveal happens, if it’s meant to carry any force. This material should have been dispersed over the 40 issues leading up to this storyline, not tacked onto the middle of it with a staple gun. The execution of the piece is painting-by-numbers, anyway. The story treads from plot point A to plot point Z in predictable fashion, while the characters’ emotional reactions cover the entire stretch between “phony” and “phoned-in.” Can we please get Mark Waid and Joe Kelly back? They did stuff.

(Marvel Comics, 22 pages, $ 2.99)

Grade: C-

* * *

Batman #686, by Neil Gaiman, Andy Kubert et al. The first chapter of the two-part “Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader?” gives us The Death of Batman—not as a coda to Grant Morrison’s storyline, but as a “myth” in its own right. The approach here is to have key supporting characters tell their stories of how they killed Batman. They’re “fake” stories, of course, but the truth is in the subtext: It seems the characters Mr. Gaiman picks to relate their tales are all people who could have somehow prevented Batman from dying but didn’t, each in their own way. As you can tell, it’s a bit meta. The creators have a lot of fun with the concept—there are quite a few nice moments in the script, while Andy Kubert easily turns in the best work of his career. On the downside, this is another one of those stories that are banking heavily on nostalgia and on the character’s status as an “icon.” As a result, everything seems a bit stiff and reserved, and you’re losing a lot of the fun that comes from watching a rich guy dressed in a funny suit trying to fight crime. The comic is smart and good-looking and well-told, certainly; but to be honest, it doesn’t really give me the sense that there’s a great Batman story Neil Gaiman desperately needed to tell—more tension or a few more character moments would not have been amiss.

(DC Comics, 32 pages, $ 3.99)

Grade: B-

* * *

Captain Britain and MI13 #10, by Paul Cornell, Leonard Kirk, et al. Like Warren Ellis famously did with Excalibur, Gen13 and StormWatch back in the 1990s, Paul Cornell sends Captain Britain and company to the pub. Now imagine this scene: While his teammates are having a good time, Blade the Vampire Hunter is “standing in the corner, arms folded, sunglasses on, not saying a word.” Some local guys walk up to him and tell him that they “don’t appreciate the #@$%&$ pose.” If you handed this as a prompt to ten random pop-comics writers, chances are you’d end up with ten bar-fight scenes—maybe nine, if you’re lucky. But not here. In Mr. Cornell’s hands, Blade stares at them for a moment, then removes his glasses and goes, “You’re right. I guess I’ve been around super heroes [sic] too long.” Which, besides being an immeasurably cool moment and a neat bit of meta-commentary, is Why I Like Paul Cornell in a Nutshell: He doesn’t just put his characters through the motions, but refines them to a point where what they say and do is surprising and insightful. Or, put in a different way, he’s an actual writer. In other news: Dracula! Doctor Doom! On the Moon! This is great stuff.

(Marvel Comics, 22 pages, $ 2.99)

Grade: B+

* * *

The Phantom: Ghost Who Walks #0, by Mike Bullock, Silvestre Szilagyi, et al. The book’s cover shows a grainy image of the Phantom’s skull ring—a giveaway of the quality that lurks inside, as it turns out. The story as such tells the Phantom’s origin, in bog-standard flashback mode and with all the verve of a random 1940s superhero comic. I guess it “does the job,” in a purely functional way, because it tells you what the origin is, but I can’t imagine anyone coming away from this with anything but a deep sense of dread. The ordeal takes 10 pages of completely nondescript artwork accompanied by the kind of faux-archaic first-person narration that drives people off cliffs, steeped in shoddy grammar and punctuation. Seriously: This is terribly amateurish stuff. At least get a bloody proofreader before you start the presses, for heaven’s sake.

(Moonstone, 10 pages, extra material, $ 1.99)

Grade: D-

* * *

Thor #600, by J. Michael Straczynski, Stan Lee, Chris Giarrusso, Olivier Coipel, Marko Djurdjevic, David Aja, Jack Kirby, et al. A.k.a. the 13th issue of J. Michael Straczynski’s Thor, pretending that the original numbering was never interrupted during the character’s 45-year publication history. Mr. Straczynski essentially turns in a big fight scene, pleasantly but not always convincingly realized by Frenchman Olivier Coipel. (German upstart Marko Djurdjevic, who’s trying out yet another new style, is helping out, in a division of labor that makes sense and is justified by the story.) There’s at least one very cool moment, as well as a payoff that earns back all the fisticuffs and takes the plot in an interesting, reasonably original direction. And the book is value for money, too—five bucks will buy you 42 pages by the regular creative team, plus 18 pages worth of new backup stories (solid but inessential, as expected; though artist David Aja draws some fun stuff in his 11-pager), plus 25 pages of older material that provides context on the lead story and hasn’t been reprinted ad nauseam already (… plus a six-page gallery displaying each and every one of the 600 covers—great fun to stare at for a few hours, obviously). It’s like the mother of all anniversary specials, really. Perhaps this is Marvel’s way of apologizing for the price increase with issue #601; either way, it’s a nice gesture, but it doesn’t change my mind about dropping out. I like the book, but it’s too fluffy to justify spending $ 3.99 for 22 pages. I’m switching to paperbacks on this one.

(Marvel Comics, 85 pages, $ 4.99)

Grade: B

* * *

Speaking of paperbacks, I’ve been planning to review the first volumes each of Northlanders and Kane for a while, so look for those pieces sometime over the next week or so.

Until then, reviews of last week’s The Mighty #1 and Soul Kiss #1 are still up and ready to be perused.

Incognito #2

Marvel Comics/Icon, 23 pages, $ 3.50

Writer: Ed Brubaker
Artist: Sean Phillips
Colorist: Val Staples

I may have been a little harsh in my review of Incognito #1; not in terms of where I found fault with the story, but rather because I didn’t give it enough credit for the things it does well. I don’t want to give the impression that I don’t like the book—quite the opposite, in fact.

It’s true that Incognito is among the best comics serials in the market in terms of the pure craft that goes into panel-to-panel, page-to-page storytelling. It’s also true that there’s a set-up that’s intellectually intriguing. I love the Harvey Pekar thing that Mr. Brubaker points out on the editorial page, for instance: Zack, the protagonist of Incognito, is a former super-villain who has joined the witness-protection program and is now working as a file clerk—just like Harvey Pekar, the creator of prominent independent comic American Splendor. I’m not sure this says anything profound about the relationship between commercial and indie comics (though maybe it does about their creators, who knows), but it’s certainly a great little nugget.

I’m increasingly curious where the plot is going, as well, now that a few more complications are thrown into the mix. With Zack getting a co-conspirator and the big bad villain showing up on screen for the first time, among other things, the story is finally gaining traction, and things don’t look half as trite anymore as they did last month. And, of course, I love how visceral Incognito is: the grit, the bleakness, the violence, the sex, the power rush—it does a hell of a job with all that.

I can absolutely appreciate the book on those terms, and I do.

Where Incognito still falls short for me, though, is in the empathy department. I don’t mean to say the story should make me feel for its characters—it doesn’t need to do that, and I don’t think it wants to be that kind of story. But if I’m supposed to care about what’s happening to any of them, it certainly should be able to make me feel with them and see things through their eyes. And that’s not happening here. There’s nothing in the story that moves or surprises me, that resonates with me or gives me insight into what makes any of these characters tick. The narrative very much stays on the surface; it doesn’t allow the reader to peek inside Zack or the rest of the cast. As a result, I can’t say I care a great deal about what’s going on with any of them.

Incognito serves the brain, and it serves the guts, and it serves them better than almost every other serial genre comic in publication right now. In terms of empathy and genuine emotion, however, it’s a total dead zone, and that’s a shame.

Grade: B-

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Soul Kiss #1 (of 5)

Image Comics, 22 pages, $ 3.50

Writer: Steven T. Seagle
Artist: Marco Cinello

Soul Kiss has a number of things working against it.

One is the 22-page-miniseries format. I don’t know if Mr. Seagle always planned for the story to be published this way, but it seems like a horrible mismatch. There is some interesting material in here that Soul Kiss just races through at an unholy speed, evidently for no other reason than to hit an appropriate point in the plot on page 22 of issue number one in five.

The lead character is Lili, a young production assistant who wants to go to college in Arizona, is assaulted by a rapist in the middle of the desert when her car breaks down, and ends up making a literal deal with the devil to save herself. If this sounds like well-trodden territory, that’s because it is—which doesn’t mean this kind of story can’t be told one more time with a good hook, of course.

But Mr. Seagle passes up every opportunity to get the audience on the same page with Lili—quite possibly because the structure of a five-issue limited series just doesn’t allow for that, but that’s no excuse. Soul Kiss doesn’t have proper scenes, it just has sketches of them. That’s not enough.

The second thing that’s dragging Soul Kiss down is the awful, awful prose. “What godforsaken stretch of asshole Arizona highway is this? I didn’t know then and I don’t know now,” et cetera, and so forth. Are these lines particularly original or interesting? No. Do they convey a great deal of character? Not really. Do they have some other function that justifies their existence? Well, they establish that the highway we see is in Arizona. Why not just leave it at “Arizona,” then, if nothing inspired comes to mind?

Later on, the first-person monologue tells us that Lili has a taste in her mouth, “a taste like … death.” And the story takes an entire page to establish this, so it’s a big deal. Now, without any sarcasm at all, I have a really hard time imagining what “death” tastes like. Would it be asking too much from somebody who’s a writer by profession to work a little harder on this sort of thing and maybe refine it to a point where the reader can actually imagine what the “taste of death” means to Lili? Or is this just some sloppy thing that sounded cool at the time but doesn’t actually mean anything?

It gets worse, though. “Am I dreaming, Damon?” Lili addresses her boyfriend. “If you are, it’s my dream come true, babe,” he replies, and I’m cringing. Maybe that’s just me, but I would feel kind of embarrassed to turn this dialogue in as anything but a placeholder for the real thing, in a really rough first draft.

There’s also the issue of the story’s chronology, which is all over the place for no discernible reason. I’m counting at least five points where we’re jumping to another time and place, and I can justify maybe one or two of them—in some cases, I’m not even sure if the story jumps, or when the given scene is meant to be taking place. This doesn’t wreck the flow of things in a major way, granted, but it does make it unnecessarily confusing.

On the positive side, Soul Kiss gives artist Marco Cinello a chance to show off with multiple styles—some scenes are rendered in an animation-type style, others look like they’ve been drawn with crayons, others again like more traditional comics pages. Mr. Cinello gets a lot of mileage out of the coloring, as well; depending on the setting, he’s rendering pages in blue and red tones to great effect. I’m not wild about his occasional use of odd, pixelated photographs, but he appears to be a talented storyteller.

Overall, Soul Kiss doesn’t quite work, I’m afraid. It has a sturdy enough premise and interesting art, certainly. On the other hand, it’s been shoehorned into a format that does it no favors at all, and Mr. Seagle’s writing largely seems uninspired and careless. This should have gone back to the drawing board, not out in the world.

Grade: D

The Mighty #1

DC Comics, 22 pages, $ 2.99

Writers: Peter J. Tomasi, Keith Champagne
Artist: Peter Snejbjerg
Colorist: John Kalisz
Letterer: Rob Leigh
Cover artist: Dave Johnson

The debut issue of The Mighty is all set-up, yet still somehow manages to play coy about what precisely the set-up is. “Is it a generic superhero thing or do we actually have an interesting take on the genre?”—the story by co-writers Peter J. Tomasi and Keith Champagne insists that this is some kind of legitimate mystery for the first issue of a new series.

Stop me if you haven’t heard this one before: Alpha One—a Superman analogue, because there aren’t enough of them yet—is the world’s first and only superhero, and he’s flying around doing the kind of thing Superman does. He’s also part of a vaguely shady organization called Section Omega, whose main job seems to be to clean up after him.

To be fair, there are hints in the story that things might not be as they seem. If I had to guess where this is going, I’d say Alpha One—who doesn’t speak in the few instances he appears on screen—is mentally disabled or crazy or some kind of fanatic, and frequently causes all kinds of collateral damage, but still manages to do more good than harm at the end of the day. And Section Omega, an organization funding itself by selling Alpha One merchandise, is busy sweeping his screw-ups under the rug.

Which would be an intriguing and original take on the superhero genre, with a fairly profound moral question at its center. But, as I say, it’s just a guess that I’m coming up with because I would actually like to read that sort of book; it’s based on a few clues that are far from conclusive. The Mighty might just as well be something else entirely. It might just as well be the boring bog-standard thing that it seems to be. After all, if you’ve got an interesting concept in there, why be so coy about it? Why not introduce it on page one and demonstrate to the audience why it’s cool? Why put it on the backburner in favor of some generic mystery plot?

That would be one major problem. Another is that The Mighty #1 makes me lose the will to live by the time I finish reading page four. Seriously: Alpha One stops an out-of-control passenger train by stepping in front of it. If there were some prize for the most trite, obvious, hackneyed, uninspired, asleep-at-the-wheel kind of lazy-ass way of demonstrating your new Superman knock-off’s amazing Superman powers that are exactly like Superman’s powers, The Mighty would be the first front-runner for 2009.

The book’s main failure, though, is that it doesn’t have a three-dimensional character between its covers. Instead, it has Alpha One, a generic Superman analogue who’s doing the type of thing Superman does. There’s Captain Shaw, the head of Section Omega, a one-man exposition-delivery machine without the faintest hint of a personality. And there’s Gabriel, Shaw’s right-hand man, who has a past with Alpha-One that the script doesn’t share. Gabriel actually gets to do stuff, like talking to his girlfriend about his job, but he still remains a terribly flat and generic sidekick type with not one redeeming feature.

Speaking of redeeming features, I guess there is the artwork by Peter Snejbjerg, which presents the material in a robust, visually exciting fashion. Given that comics are a medium for stories, though, that’s not much of a saving grace. As a story, The Mighty seems depressingly soulless. Why did anybody think this is a comic that needed to be published? I’d love to know, because the first issue doesn’t answer the question.

Grade: D+

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

The Weekly Chain Reaction: February 4, 2009

Still up: My review of Final Crisis #7.

Do you need another review of Final Crisis #7? Of course you do, because this one is unlike all the other ones you’ve read. It doesn’t have the word “but” in it.

* * *

Adventure Comics #0, by Otto Binder, Geoff Johns, Al Plastino, Francis Manapul, et al. I used to be under the impression that publishers released low-priced loss-leader comics as a means of attracting new readers, but evidently that’s some crass misconception on my part. Consider Adventure Comics #0. The book starts off with the reprint of a 12-pager from 1958, by writer Otto Binder and artist Al Plastino, in which the Legion of Super-Heroes debut. The Legion are taking Superboy to the future to compete in various “super-feats.” This involves Superboy catching an invisible eagle, which he accomplishes by picking up an iceberg and carrying it through the sky until “frost formed on the eagle, making it visible … just as frost covers a transparent window pane!” It’s a neat, inoffensive piece with some sweet ideas—by the standards of the 1950s. The remaining six pages, written by Geoff Johns and illustrated by Francis Manapul, are diametrically opposed to that. They’re taken up by a Lex Luthor vignette in which the necks of two security guards are broken on camera; and which means nothing to me because it doesn’t give me any context for what is happening and why I should care. At regular price, this package would have been bizarre. As a primer created for people who aren’t already invested in the characters, it’s a disaster.

(DC Comics, 18 pages, $ 1.00)

Grade: D-

* * *

The Amazing Spider-Man #585, by Marc Guggenheim, John Romita, Jr., et al. One of the story’s two big shockers is the identity of last year’s big new mystery villain, Menace. Because it’s a character who’s been barely present in the series, however, the impact is nil. There has been a successful and admirable effort on Mr. Romita’s part to provide some subtle foreshadowing in his rendition of the Menace’s alter ego, but it can’t salvage the story. Mr. Guggenheim advances his various plot threads at a snail’s pace and in a manner for which “serviceable” is the kindest term that comes to mind. A Spider-Man who’s been through the meat-grinder and still feels obliged to save the day is a classic trope that offers all kinds of dramatic potential. Unfortunately, the chief impression I take away from this is that the guy who’s composing the script is as close to passing out as the guy who stars in it.

(Marvel Comics, 23 pages, $ 2.99)

Grade: C-

* * *

Invincible Iron Man #10, by Matt Fraction, Salvador Larroca, et al. Arguably, the plot hinges a bit too much on a coincidence at one point (what if Pepper hadn’t thrown a hissy fit at a convenient moment?) and the two final pages could have been laid out more elegantly; but that’s peanuts. As it turns out, Invincible Iron Man doesn’t suffer from the superimposed “Dark Reign” storyline at all. Mr. Fraction simply uses the new status quo to heat up the existing conflicts and themes. The result is a fast-paced action thriller that doesn’t attempt to string its audience along, but gets right to the point. These characters don’t deliver lines of dialogue, they actually talk to each other. And—at last!—they have sex, too. The year is still young, but right now, Matt Fraction is the better Ed Brubaker of 2009.

(Marvel Comics, 22 pages, $ 2.99)

Grade: B+

* * *

Youngblood #7, by Joe Casey, Derec Donovan, et al. When Mr. Casey is on form, he writes delightful things like Wildcats, which approach the superhero genre from refreshing new perspectives and are bursting at the seams with creativity. His work on Youngblood hasn’t quite been on that level, unfortunately. There’s a good premise here: Reality shows are popular for a reason, and I have a lot of time for the notion of distilling their appeal and repackaging it as fiction. But Youngblood to date has been operating precisely like you’d expect a generic superhero book to operate, with window-dressing. The creators are all competent enough, and there is the occasional goofy idea that elicits a chuckle; overall, though, the book is mostly concerned with plot. And that’s your problem right there: Reality shows aren’t about plot. They’re about characters who say and do things that are vaguely embarrassing but also uncomfortably close to home; and who seem—quite paradoxically—fake as well as ultimately authentic in their affected faux-authenticity. If Youngblood could capture that—and it seems like it should—it would be quite unique. Right now, though: not so much.

(Image Comics, 20 pages, $ 2.99)

Grade: C

* * *

I was interested in the debut issues of Marvel’s Agents of Atlas and Secret Warriors last week, not least because of the involvement of writers Jeff Parker and Jonathan Hickman. The $ 3.99 price point seemed a little steep for trying out something I’m likely to buy the paperback editions of anyway, however, and so I ended up buying The Mighty #1 and Soul Kiss #1 instead; reviews should be up in a few days.

In the meantime: Jersey Gods #1.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Jersey Gods #1

Image Comics, 22 pages, $ 3.50

Writer: Glen Brunswick
Artist: Dan McDaid
Colorist: Rachelle Rosenberg
Letterer: Rus Wooton
Cover artist: Mike Allred

My only prior exposure to Mr. Brunswick’s work is The Gray Area, a 2004 miniseries about a corrupt policeman’s experiences in the afterlife which was, well, rubbish (reviews: issue #2, issue #3). But Jersey Gods has a nice Mike Allred cover and Kurt Busiek said it was good—“a lot of fun,” are his actual words—so here I am.

So, is it good? Well, it’s not bad, and it’s certainly much better than The Gray Area. The female lead of Jersey Gods is Zoe, a young New Jersey woman who likes to dress well and drives a green convertible—with the top down, on Christmas Eve, while it’s snowing. Zoe has also developed the habit of being dumped by her dates on holidays, which, I’m willing to presume for now, is not just some arbitrarily odd thing. On balance, she’s a fairly interesting character with a consistent voice and a clear dilemma: She desperately needs a date for her family’s Christmas get-together. (“Mom’s gonna ask if I’m a lesbian. Again.”)

That, presumably, is where barbaric-looking Minog and heroic-looking Barock and Helius come in. They’re members of two rival clans of Kirby-styled gods from outer space who show up at a New Jersey shopping mall and start beating each other up; at which point, of course, they cross paths with Zoe. So what we’re heading for, evidently, is a set-up that’s broadly similar to Grant Morrison and Philip Bond’s Vimanarama (reviews: issue #1, issue #2), only more plot-driven and without the Bollywood trappings: a romantic comedy starring a New Jersey minx and gods from outer space, one of whom will—presumably—end up accompanying her to her family, from which complications will ensue.

Mr. Brunswick’s writing is a little on the dodgy side at times. The interaction between Zoe and her latest boyfriend shifts in a way that doesn’t quite work, and the eight pages devoted to setting up the outer-space people are largely generic and boring; the story might have been better served by focusing on Zoe and giving me the relevant backstory on the Kirby guys later, once I actually have a reason to care.

British cartoonist Dan McDaid, whose work I’m not familiar with, illustrates the book in a style that’s reminiscent of Jack Kirby’s, not surprisingly, but that also makes me think of Darwyn Cooke in its sturdy and yet expressive and stylish approach to storytelling. (Incidentally, Mr. Cooke provides the cover artwork for the second issue.) It’s thoroughly dynamic work, occasionally very rough in a very controlled way, suggesting movement and energy. With Rachelle Rosenberg, Mr. McDaid has an able colorist at his side. In some of the superhero fight sequences, the palette gets a little messy, but the first six pages of the story plainly look fantastic.

I agree with Mr. Busiek—Jersey Gods is great fun, after all. There are some kinks, but I’m curious where the story is taking these characters. It’s an appealing bunch, with a solid set-up that’s refreshingly off the beaten path and creates a lot of potential. To be frank, though, Mr. McDaid and Ms. Rosenberg could have turned in 22 pages of Zoe cruising through New Jersey in her green convertible on a snowy Christmas Eve, and I would have been perfectly happy with that, too.

Grade: B

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Final Crisis #7 (of 7)

DC Comics, 37 pages, $ 3.99

Writer: Grant Morrison 
Penciler: Doug Mahnke
Inkers: Tom Nguyen, Drew Geraci, Christian Alamy, Norm Rapmund, Rodney Ramos, Doug Mahnke, Walden Wong 
Colorists: Alex Sinclair, Tony Aviña, Pete Pantazis 
Letterer: Travis Lanham
Cover artist: J. G. Jones

You could say that the final issue of Final Crisis has its heart in the right place, and it would be partially true. Grant Morrison wants things to end well—for Superman, for the DC Universe at large and for us poor mortal bipeds on the supernarrative plane, too, while we’re at it. Which, presumably, is why this big conclusion is kicked off by a Barack Obama proxy segueing from his full-time business at the White House to his “other job.” (He’s his Earth’s version of Superman.) And of course, everything does end well once the dust settles. The story, titled “New Heaven, New Earth,” is a little bit like Baron Münchhausen, who pulls himself—and horse—out of the swamp by his own hair, in a folk tale first told when fiction and lying were still synonymous.

On the face of it, that seems to have changed nowadays. Given that the term “wish-fulfillment fantasy” is mainly used in a pejorative sense and tends to be dropped with sideways glances that make their recipients feel lucky that they’re indeed glances and not elbows, it seems to be a semantic change rather than a substantial one, however. Final Crisis is “wish-fulfillment,” in a quite literal sense. Wish-fulfillment is precisely what happens at the big conclusion of the whole thing: Superman literally gets to save the universe—nay, the Multiverse—by wishing for a happy ending. He has a machine for it. It’s not called the Münchhausen Machine, though; it’s called something less confusing.

There is a plot. The Flashes race through Darkseid’s dying body, everybody escapes from Earth before it falls “into the abyss,” Superman shatters Darkseid’s lingering essence with a song. Then time stops, then the Monitor-turned-vampire Mandrakk from Superman Beyond shows up, then Captain Marvel and the Supermen of the Multiverse show up, then Monitor Nix Uotan shows up, then everybody shows up, then Mandrakk is defeated (emphasis mine, there is no emphasis on anything in the comic). Then Superman wishes for a happy end and there’s a happy end. The Question and Frankenstein’s Monster and Lex Luthor and Hawkman and the Atoms and Aquaman and Wonder Woman and Supergirl and Captain Carrot are also somehow in it.

It’s a mess that makes no sense. Are the 4D goggles missing?

The story’s momentum grinds to a halt long before the plot requires it to. Darkseid’s defeat is an impenetrable stew of Radion-poisoning, Omega-Sanction Finder-Beams, cosmic Black-Racer judgment on skis and Superman giving a thundering performance of whatever song you like best right now. When the universes crash (which universes?), or fall into the abyss (what abyss?), or do whatever (whatever?), I can’t keep track of who ends up in the Boom Tubes, gets shrunk, escapes through which inter-universal tunnels to which Earths. And quite why, how, when or where any of this happens and what anybody wants remains a mystery. And 3D? Hardly. Darkseid and Mandrakk remain paper-thin characters with no desires other than to wreak destruction and death. Which is not interesting.

In other words, Final Crisis #7 is the perfectly imperfect escalation of everything that’s been happening in the series. A meaty chunk of narrative and philosophical chaos ground to tiny little bits and then magically glued back together by a metafictional contraption the author sneakily slipped to his hero in the previous issue. I want to see that flashback where Grant Morrison whispers something in Superman’s ear and then gives him a friendly nudge down the stairs leading back into the story. Maybe they even high-fived each other. And all of this would have worked, too, if Mr. Morrison had not forgotten his secret ingredient this time around. “I sense a faint … heartbeat,” poor Superman declares. “I think it’s Element X. Fire of the Gods. It can take … any shape … become the last … last part of the jigsaw …”

You could say that the final issue of Final Crisis has its heart in the right place, and it would be partially true. It would be partially wrong because, while Mr. Morrison’s heart is very much in this story, it is not actually beating. It’s in cardiac arrest, and while that’s appropriate for the plot, it does not save the comic. It deprives it of its hum, its warmth, its rhythm, its weight, its force. Why does Superman care? Why did Batman die? Why does anybody care or die or do anything in this story? What exactly was meant to be at stake here? Where’s the music? It’s all lost in the noise. This is all on the abstract, the conceptual, the intellectual plane, and it’s not even sound. The Multiverse is saved at a price; its salvation comes at the expense of the human moments that made the whole thing worthwhile. It seems they ended up on the cutting-room floor, and what’s left is somebody’s theoretical approach to fixing some world I don’t care about, mechanically executed.

And yet, and yet. There is that part where the story pulls itself—and the bloody horse—out of the swamp by its own hair, and just for that alone, Final Crisis—all of it—is one of my favorite things people have ventured to print on paper. Because the heart of the story did not survive the Boom-Tube transition from Earth-Zero, I don’t believe in it by the time I turn the last page. Still, it makes me wonder: Wouldn’t it be the greatest thing on any Earth if somebody told a story that pulls itself and the horse it rode in on right out again of the swamp by its own hair and we could believe it? Just for the fraction of a second? Wouldn’t it be grand if more people at least tried to tell that story?

Boy, what a mess. Clearly my favorite comic of the year.

Grade: C-

Monday, February 2, 2009

The Weekly Chain Reaction: January 28

Speaking of reviews, a lively discussion on the dos and don’ts of review copies went off at Heidi MacDonald’s place on Friday; and here’s a follow-up post by Johanna Draper Carlson. There’s a lot of skylarking and sideswiping going on, as usual in these things, but Heidi raises some good questions.

And besides, whenever comics reviewers, critics and journalists get together to discuss procedural and ethical issues, that’s something to be applauded, because in a lot of cases, it suggests that they’ve been thinking about them.

* * *

Amazing Spider-Man Extra! #2, by Dan Slott, Zeb Wells, Chris Bachalo, Paolo Rivera, et al. The first of the book’s two stories is a well-executed, pretty-looking painting-by-numbers piece by Dan Slott and Chris Bachalo. In the second, much more interesting one, Spider-Man and Wolverine go to the pub. Zeb Wells doesn’t really seem to have a very good grasp on the characters—his Wolverine is too chatty, his Spider-Man too uptight; I mean, Spider-Man doesn’t lie? Come on, he lies all the time—but if you can get over that, it’s a fun little story. Wolverine downs a bottle of whiskey, gets his head blown off with a shotgun … you know, the sort of stuff that happens to him in bars. Adding Spider-Man to that is a tremendously good idea. In fact, there should be a series called Wolverine Goes to the Pub, with alternating guest-stars. There’s some very good art by Paolo Rivera, too.

(Marvel Comics, 40 pages, $ 3.99)

Grade: C

* * *

Captain America #46, by Ed Brubaker, Steve Epting, et al. The current storyline is most feeble in the thrills department—it seems a bit filler, really. The characters are sleepwalking their way through the plot, and the key moments that are meant to drive things fail to connect. Seeing Captain America and Namor socialize (or what passes for it in their circles) and lay waste to a bunch of goons together is enough to pacify me for the moment, but I hope this picks up and returns to more inspired territory soon.

(Marvel Comics, 22 pages, $ 2.99)

Grade: C+

* * *

Daredevil #115, by Ed Brubaker, Michael Lark, et al. In which the “Lady Bullseye” storyline reaches its pulse-pounding conclusion. There’s a big fight, and the villain wins—because she’s Lady Bullseye, and she hits the bloody bullseye. That part works, at least. Daredevil’s role in the climax is disappointing, however, and the story just basically snaps back into the status quo, without any discernible change for the protagonist—he’s still moping, and he still doesn’t own up to anything, just like four issues ago. It hasn’t really been a banner year for Ed Brubaker comics so far.

(Marvel Comics, 22 pages, $ 2.99)

Grade: C+

* * *

Fantastic Four #563, by Mark Millar, Bryan Hitch, et al. If I knew anything about Ben Grimm’s fiancée besides her name, which I don’t remember right now, then Sue Richards’ attempt to make her realize what being engaged to the Thing actually means might have been a great, intriguing little scene on several levels. But Mr. Millar evades all the interesting stuff and brushes past the moment so fast that it makes you wonder why he bothered to come up with it in the first place. The rest of the comic doesn’t even have that potential. It’s an incongruent mess of pointless splash pages and boring posturing, none of which is built up sufficiently to carry any weight whatsoever. It seems we’re back to default Mark Millar, where everything’s exploding all the time. Disappointing; I quite liked last issue.

(Marvel Comics, 25 pages, $ 2.99)

Grade: D

* * *

The Umbrella Academy: Dallas #3 (of 6), by Gerard Way, Gabriel Bá, et al. The great thing about superhero comics is that they give you a limitless supply of weird, unexpected shit that can happen. The great thing about The Umbrella Academy, as opposed to 99% of the other superhero comics, is that it’s aware of this potential. There’s nothing revolutionary here—just the kind of stuff that a smart writer can produce when they’re not constantly asleep at the wheel: unexpected, interesting things that keep the story off the beaten path, like when god shows up and it’s James Garner on horseback. I realize that everybody probably can’t do this as well as Gerard Way and Gabriel Bá, but you know, you could at least try, this being your job and all.

(Dark Horse Comics, 22 pages, $ 2.99)

Grade: B+

* * *

Still perusable: my full-length review of Jeff Parker and Tom Fowler’s Mysterius #1. Coming soon-ish: my full-length review of Final Crisis #7. Coming not-so-soon-ish: my whopper-length review of Final Crisis, period.