Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Vertigo and WildStorm Month-to-Month Sales: The Long View

DC’s Vertigo and WildStorm imprints have been through tumultuous times. While WildStorm closed its doors in 2010, Vertigo just saw another round of cancellations and new title launches. Time to take a closer look at the long-term performance of both publishing labels.

Vertigo was established in 1993 as an outlet for darker, more mature, partly creator-owned stories at DC Comics, as created by British writers like Neil Gaiman or Grant Morrison. The imprint has since published such signature titles as Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman, Grant Morrison’s Animal Man and The Invisibles, Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon’s Preacher, Warren Ellis and Darick Robertson’s Transmetropolitan, Brian K. Vaughan and Pia Guerra’s Y: The Last Man and Bill Willingham’s Fables, among many others—all of which were first serialized as 20-page comic books before being collected in bookshelf editions.

Through the 2000s, though, Vertigo’s business model has been increasingly put to the test.

Monday, June 4, 2012

The ‘New 52’ and DC Comics Month-to-Month Sales: The Long View

In September 2011, DC Comics relaunched its line of superhero comic books. Eight months later, the numbers have settled down. Time to take a look at the big picture.

When the first issues of DC’s much-publicized “New 52” relaunch debuted last year, retailers greeted them enthusiastically. “To quote one comic store owner,” a gushing Forbes piece said in September, “‘The New 52 is the biggest game changer in comic books we’ve seen in 30 years.’”

Eight months on, the sheen is off.

As of April 2012 (the respective “DC Month-to-Month Sales” column should show up at The Beat any day now), sales have settled into familiar patterns, and six of the lowest-selling “New 52” titles were cancelled at issues #8. A Nielsen survey among initial “New 52” customers finds that 93% of participants were male, 95% were current or “lapsed” comics readers and 98% were aged 18 or older. And a recent article at The Wall Street Journal suggests a “failure of the big publishers to take advantage of the public's obvious fascination with men in capes.” It doesn’t even mention the “New 52.”

From “game-changer” to “failure” in eight months?

Let’s look at some long-term month-to-month graphs, based on the first-month comic-book sales estimates provided by ICv2.com, which, in turn, are based on the chart and index information provided by comics distributor Diamond.* (Please click on the graphs to enlarge them.)

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Before Watchmen: Minutemen #1

Exclusive Advance Review

Writers: Darwyn Cooke, Len Wein
Artists: Darwyn Cooke, John Higgins

Within the withering spotlight as no other comic book has ever been before, DC Comics’ Before Watchmen will premiere in comics stores next week. And now that the wraps are off, the mystery has been exposed and Mr. Cooke and his fellow DC Comics creators have taken the much-debated leap, it can be safely stated that suppression of this comic book would have been a crime. For, in spite of some disconcerting lapses and strange ambiguities in the creation of the material, Before Watchmen is far and away the most surprising and visually exciting comic book to be seen in many a moon. As a matter of fact, it comes close to being the most sensational comic book ever made in America.

Count on Mr. Cooke; he doesn't do things by halves. Being a mercurial fellow, with a frightening artistic flair, he moved right into the comics, grabbed the medium by the ears and began to toss it around with the dexterity of a seasoned veteran. Fact is, he handled it with more verve and inspired ingenuity than any of the elder craftsmen have exhibited in years. With the able assistance of John Higgins, whose services should not be overlooked, he found in the pencil the perfect instrument to encompass his dramatic energies and absorb his prolific ideas. Upon the page he discovered an area large enough for his expansive whims to have free play. And the consequence is that he has made a comic book of tremendous and overpowering scope, not in physical extent so much as in its rapid and graphic rotation of thoughts. Mr. Cooke has put upon the page a comic book that really moves.

As for the story which he tells—and which has provoked such an uncommon fuss—this corner frankly holds considerable reservation. Naturally we wouldn't know how closely—if at all—it parallels the plans of an eminent author, as has been somewhat cryptically alleged. But that is beside the point in a rigidly critical appraisal. The blamable circumstance is that it fails to provide a clear picture of the characters and motives behind the men about whom the whole thing revolves.

But check that off to the absorption of Mr. Cooke in more visible details. Like the novelist, Thomas Wolfe, his abundance of imagery is so great that it sometimes gets in the way of his logic. And the less critical will probably be content with undefined Minutemen, anyhow. After all, nobody understood them. Why should Mr. Cooke? Isn't it enough that he presents theatrical characters with consummate theatricality?

We would, indeed, like to say as many nice things as possible about everything else in this comic book—about the excellent storytelling of Mr. Cooke, about the sure and penetrating performances of literally every member of the creative team and about the stunning manner in which the backup story by Len Wein has been used. Space, unfortunately, is short. All we can say, in conclusion, is that you shouldn't miss this comic book. It is cynical, ironic, sometimes oppressive and as realistic as a slap. But it has more vitality than fifteen other comic books we could name.

And, although it may not give a thoroughly clear answer, at least it brings to mind one deeply moral thought: For what shall it profit a man if he shall gain the whole world and lose his own soul? See Before Watchmen for further details.
Grade: A+
(With profuse apologies to the late Bosley Crowther.)

Monday, February 20, 2012

Fatale #1

Image Comics, 24 pages plus extra material, $3.50

Writer: Ed Brubaker
Artist: Sean Phillips
Colorist: Dave Stewart

“The past haunts, things you kept inside come out to make things worse, and it all ends in tears,” Ed Brubaker told me about what he called “the heart of noir” in the context of a 2007 interview. “I think that's why I love it, because within that structure, you can tell almost any story.”

And boy, does the past haunt in Fatale. Just take a look at the very first panel of the very first issue.

Someone—a guy by the cheerful name of Dominic Raines—is being put in the ground. Who was Dominic Raines? Why is Dominic Raines dead? We don’t know, but something in that picture tells you the narrator won’t like the answers, even before you read that first line of narration: “So here’s how my entire life went off the tracks in one day.” When it rains, it pours in Fatale, and the protagonist starts losing well before the story gets properly underway.

His name is Nicolas Lash, and—perhaps somewhat unsurprisingly, given that first panel—he won’t make it through the 10-page prologue in one piece. In the course of the prologue we learn, among other things, that his father has “been in an institution for over a decade,” that Nicolas is the executor of Raines’ estate, and that there’s a manuscript of an unpublished novel evidently written by Raines in 1957, years before his writing career started officially. And then Things Get Worse for Nicolas Lash, just before the story skips to its proper first chapter, set in 1956.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last 10 years, you’re probably aware of Brubaker and Phillips’ previous collaborations, Sleeper, Criminal and Incognito. They’ve worked together on other comics before and since, but those are the ones that put them on the map as the go-to writer/artist team for well-crafted noir stories.

And once you’ve done your share of superhero noir (Sleeper, Incognito) and plain-vanilla crime noir (Criminal), I guess the horror noir of Fatale is a perfectly logical next step. As Brubaker says, within the particular structure of noir narratives, “you can tell almost any story.”

Indeed, much of Fatale reads like a textbook illustration of how to do a noir story with the trappings of the horror genre. Basically, Brubaker and Phillips’ approach here is to put a face on those things that come back from the past to haunt the characters. In Fatale, they don’t manifest as crimes or superhuman powers, but in the types of visuals, characters and creatures known from horror stories.

To those genre tropes, the creators apply the logic of noir: The further back the story reaches, the more horrific the manifestations become. In the present-day prologue, the horror consists of a couple of creepy-looking identical guys with black hats, coats and glasses. In the 1956 section, it’s a graphic murder scene right out of a Poe story. And in a flashback to events that occurred in World War II, it’s a Nazi cult led by a creature from the Lovecraft playbook.

Once again, as with most of their previous work, it would be an understatement to say that Brubaker and Phillips “know what they are doing” here. On a craft level, Fatale is as good as anything you’re likely to find in North American genre comics right now. The creators’ page-to-page storytelling is top-notch, and their firm conceptual grasp of the material is evident in every aspect of the work.

As with some of Criminal and Incognito, though, the characters and events in this debut issue aren’t as immediately fascinating as in the creators’ most effective work. The cast consists of well-rendered archetypes rather than genuinely three-dimensional people, and nothing particularly surprising or insightful is happening yet.

Intellectually and esthetically, Fatale #1 is exciting. It lays the tonal and structural groundwork for the story in a solid and appealing fashion. Ultimately, though, when all ends once again in tears, the payoff will hinge on whether readers are left with a sense that there’s anything worth crying about.

Grade: B-

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Liars, Damn Liars and Watchmen Fans

Why the Outrage About DC Comics’ Before Watchmen Books Is Hypocritical and Nauseating

DC Comics just announced its plans to publish seven miniseries based on, and serving as prequels to, Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ popular and critically acclaimed Watchmen comic, first published in 1986 and 1987.

Although these new titles had been rumored for months, the announcement still resulted in a so-called “shitstorm” on the Internet, among fans questioning the moral integrity of not just DC Comics, but also the creators participating in the prequel books, not least because of Alan Moore’s own, well-documented opposition to any and all such plans.

The Beat has a good summary of the planned projects, the pertinent commentary and, if you scroll down to the comments section, the resulting controversy among comics readers.

There are valid moral objections to these prequels, certainly. Moore and Gibbons are the creators of Watchmen and its characters, but thanks to the wording of the contract they signed 25 years ago, the property has been in the possession and under control of DC Comics.

And DC, as you might expect from one of the “Big Two” comics publishers, is seeking to exploit Watchmen for money, rather than to do the charitable and morally preferable thing and grant Moore and Gibbons control over their creation. So that’s not particularly nice or ethical of DC Comics.

But those types of objections don't begin with Watchmen. What's supposed to make these sequels any more outrageous than the continued publication of Superman or Captain America, whose creators haven’t fared any better, when it comes to controlling their creations?

I haven't heard a compelling case that they are. If you compare what Watchmen has done for Moore and Gibbons with what Superman has done for Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster and their estates, I think it's pretty hard to think of Watchmen as a particularly outrageous case in the long line of properties that have been exploited by Marvel and DC with zero regard for their creators since the first Superman story was published in Action Comics #1 in the year 1938.

If anything, Moore seems to be one of the few creators who've done pretty well regardless of any ill treatment, all things considered. He certainly is if you look at many of the “lesser known” writers and artists whose creations have contributed to the wealth of those companies, and who nobody gives a rat’s ass about, in terms of recognition or money. Alan Moore? He's been treated like a fucking prince in comparison.

I don't recall seeing any shitstorms for Gary Friedrich when he lost his legal fight with Marvel over the ownership of Ghost Rider a few weeks ago, at any rate. But Ghost Rider isn’t Watchmen, of course.

Except, you know, it kind of is, in all the ways that would count towards some faintly consistent idea of morality.

So, what makes Watchmen so special?

There’s a lot of talk about ethics and morals and such, but it's hard to avoid the impression that people are outraged because of the perceived quality and creative significance of Watchmen more than because of any genuine concern for creators’ rights or perceived moral wrongs.

In other words, a lot of this seems to be about a bunch of wannabe critics whose tender esthetic sensibilities are being molested by DC’s presumptuousness to publish a series of sequels to the great literary masterpiece of singular importance that is Watchmen.

And this makes the outrage on Moore’s behalf (Gibbons is fine with the sequels, by the way) a lot more nauseating to me than the hardly surprising fact that a company like DC Comics chooses to exploit yet another superhero property.

Monday, January 9, 2012

CD Holiday Interview #1 -- Rock Scorch on Mainstream Comics 2011


Crack-shot critic Rock Scorch came to the attention of comics readers the old-fashioned way: by putting shit on the Internet.

The competitive-yodeler-by-training and comic-shop employee may be the only comics critic as known for a series of rap videos in which he once starred as he is for shit on the Internet. I've read other bloggers linking to Scorch the way old-timey Scottish Highlanders would fasten their funky plaid kilts to their hairy round man-buttocks before cleaving with mighty claymores the skulls of trespassing Englishmen on battlefields so drenched with blood that the wool of the sheep grazing there today still requires no dyeing thanks to being by nature as red as the anus of the 600-pound alpha-male patriarch of a troop of Gray-footed Chacma baboons after it (the anus) was rubbed—for hours on end—against the gnarly bark of a conveniently located Coconut palm tree. Scorch is out there engaging with the art form—all of it—as it arrives on comics shelves every Wednesday like Tom Hanks and Vin Diesel once did on the shores of Normandy.

It’s been a fascinating year for mainstream comics, in much the same sense as it is fascinating to watch the elder females of the Gray-footed Chacma baboon tribes sling their sometimes sun-dried feces at one another, and I thought Scorch might provide a perspective that, though so utterly and completely divorced from my own, might be valuable for those who broadly accept as questionable the premise that the slinging of feces—sun-dried or otherwise—is to be considered a worthwhile pastime. He did not disappoint.