Sunday, October 31, 2010

HalCon Memories: A Monster Mike Original!

For those of you who think Monster Mike is just a pretty voice on Where Monsters Dwell...check this out! Mike put this original gem onto his sketch pad in about 20 minutes at the Pogue Fado in Halifax. No reference material, by the way - this stuff is just sitting inside his brain, waiting to be released at any moment.

I got a lot of cool stuff at HalCon, but this is the crown jewel!

- Ryan

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Chronic Review: Teen Titans # 88!

Teen Titans # 88
DC Comics

Script: JT Krul
Pencils: Nicola Scott
29 pages for $3.99

Teen Titans # 88 is a landmark issue in the history of the comics medium, and no, I'm not even close to kidding. Maybe some historian like Mark Evanier can correct me, but I'm pretty sure that this is the first time the medium has ever featured a group of incredibly sexy women with tiny boobs.

Let me repeat that, folks. This comic's B-cups runneth over with wonderful, delectable, proportional tiny boobs. I'm tearing up as I type this inspiring fact. They're so.....beautiful. {snfff} And it's not just Cassie, either. Neither Ravager nor Raven have back problems in their future. Consider me amazed and delighted.

I can think of maybe four artists that would cause me to pick up a book regardless of writer, and Nicola Scott is one of them. She is a rare treasure, and not simply because of her skill in rendering attractive, reasonable breasts. Everything looks good. She should be immediately inducted into the hall of fame for her Cassie alone. I laughed out loud when I saw this expression of Beast Boy's face.

The news gets even better - Krul turned in a really nice script as well. Listen, the Teen Titans is a soap opera book. There's nothing wrong with that when executed with some subtlety and craft, and nearly every note Krul played in this issue was pitch perfect.

Everybody with the exception of Connor has something interesting to do. Cassie's trying to sort out how she can be an objective leader when her emotions make her Connor-centric, Beast Boy got bit by something that just has to be virile and horrible for him down the road, Rose has daddy and mommy issues, Bart's trying to hold his future knowledge that slips from his brain like water through fingers, Raven's got Gar problems, and there's a new character introduced being subjected to all the classic "outsider" issues one associates with the plague of being a teenager.

Has this ground been trod before? Sure it has. Does it smack a little bit of "Days of Our Lives?" Of course it does. It's supposed to. There is a fine line between the iconic and the cliched, and Krul walked it quite deftly in this issue. Of course this is also the guy that had me raving his praises for Green Arrow # 31 and then cursing his lineage exactly one month later with Green Arrow # 32.

I really liked this issue, but can I trust Teen Titans to continue at this level? Maybe. Maybe not. This one really popped, though, and when you throw Damien into the mix - superhero fun is about to have a new headquarters. Nicola Scott might be worth the trouble even if Krul falters.

This franchise has hit a bit of a rough patch lately, but if you like these characters and the old classic soap opera schtick, I think the waters are safe again.

- Ryan

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Chronic Review: The Sixth Gun # 5!

The Sixth Gun # 5
Oni Press

Script: Cullen Bunn
Pencils: Brian Hurtt
24 pages for $3.99

I picked up The Sixth Gun because every time I turn around I see ads for it on CBR with little pull quotes from guys like Matt Fraction telling me this is the best thing since sliced bread. Sliced bread is of course phenomenal, because the alternative is just pulling chunks of bread off the loaf and jamming it into your butter stick. The slices provide a neat, uniform surface to smear your cholesterol onto, and make things like sandwiches possible.

So pretty good, but in the grand scheme of things, not earth's greatest invention, is it? Surely "make up sex" is better, although bread comes up more often. Usually. Honestly, the turn of phrase in the 21st century should probably be "the best thing since the remote control", since that single invention does more to make life bearable than any other. Except maybe toilet paper, which I personally think is tops.

You don't think about it, because it's always been there for you. There was a time when people were jamming pine cones in their bums and smearing their own waste around with pages from the Sears catalog. It makes one shiver, frankly. No, the phrase should really be "the best thing since toilet paper".

So, that begs the question: is The Sixth Gun actually the best thing since toilet paper?

Maybe not, but it's pretty darned good for a comic book. I don't recommend starting with issue # 5 like I did, it's just not a good jumping on point. That's not a knock, mind you, it isn't the fifth issues job to be a good jumping on point. What's really nice about trying to start up with Sixth Gun is that Oni press has Sixth Gun # 1 available online for free in its entirety.

I found that with just a moment or two of digging, and for a moment I was irritated that this information wasn't available inside the actual comic. But it occurred to me that offering a free online issue in the print comic might upset retailers, who may be trying to sell a print version of said comic for $3.99 in their establishment. Conflict of interest. Such are the politics of funnybooks in 2010.

At any rate, here's the basics:

This is Becky Montcrief. She currently wields the sixth and most powerful of a set of guns. She got the gun from her stepfather, and it not only shoots people but also gives Becky access to mystical information, often about the future.

She travels with the very dapper Drake Sinclair, who seems to be interested in the guns as a means of seeking fortune...

....and the not so dapper Billjohn O'Henry. Both of
these men carry one of the six guns as well.

Our heroes are pursued by General Hume, an undead confederate. He's looking to collect all six of the fabled guns to gain access to a mysterious treasure at a former prison known as "The Maw".

No telling what happens then, but it probably isn't any good for anybody.

Cullen Bunn has created a nice little hook with some really clever MacGuffins in the form of those guns. Becky's gun feeds her information as she goes, and it seems to hint that they've been around in one form or another for thousands of years.

Do the weapons themselves have an agenda? Tough to say. They seem to exert a kind of will of their own, and not everybody can use one of these weapons. I'm not privy to all the rules because I jumped in late, but when a guard tries to grab Sinclair's gun, he drops it in agony.

Bunn is creating a little pocket mythos with his own rulebook, which is always good fun in the hands of a craftsman, and this story is handled very well. The key is always in grounding the high concepts in people and their people issues.

Tolkein was able to sell you his sprawling epic I think mainly because it was happening to Hobbits you could relate to. In the Sixth Gun, even undead confederate Generals have problems with girls who are probably too cozy with their Pinkerton bodyguards. True to the classic "Hero's Journey" formula, Becky is in above her head and becomes an unwilling participant in her future growth with the help of some mentors.

In issue five, the sixth gun drags our protagonists straight to the maw, where they discover that there is a vault which requires all of the guns be present to open it. The legend of course is that there is "treasure" beneath, but all Becky can sense is an ancient, palpable evil. And this is what I'm talking about - mixed in with the Lovecraftian element of this antediluvian boogeyman is a very human element. What do you lock up? Stuff that's valuable. So naturally there must be treasure down there. But as Becky posits - if you're one of these guns, what do you suppose treasure means, exactly?

The Sixth Gun is a cut above. I like the concept, and I enjoyed all of Bunn's characters and their dialogue. These mystery/mythos stories work when you can sense a depth to the material, and the conductor can sell you on the idea that they know where the train is headed and have the skill to get you there. Sixth gun has such depth and such a conductor.

I'm not in love with the $3.99 price point, but I give some leeway to independent titles, who often need the extra juice just to survive. This is something I'll be grabbing in TPB form. I think I could safely recommend Sixth Gun to just about anybody, but if you've been pining for that old "Riders of the Worm and Such" type weird western, you need to run out and grab this yesterday.

- Ryan

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Chronic Reviews: A Pocket Full of Posies!

I'm currently riding the worst of my cold right now, and I don't have the patience or the faculties to write a proper full-scale review on anything. This will not stop me from writing small smattering of plague-infected nonsense about a variety of stuff I picked up today. Enjoy.

Daredevil # 511
Marvel Comics
Andy Diggle/Roberto De La Torre

We've seen enough now to say definitively what we always suspected - Shadowland and its various sundry parts are rubbish. Absolute rubbish.

This is a shining example of paint-by-numbers Eventitis. I see no redeeming qualities. The drama-killing "Devil made me do it" motive. Yuck. The complete lack of menace from the Hand, easily dispatched by any 1980s detective. Unimpressive. I realize that "death" just doesn't matter any more, but Bullseye came back before you could cook a Hot Pocket. I could stomach some of this when I had some Checchetto artwork to look at, but that's gone now, too.

I haven't completely lost faith in Andy Diggle. When you sign on with the Big Firm, sometimes they make you do horrible corporate-type things. With any luck, they'll actually let the character lie fallow for a good long while to let the taste of this wash out of our mouths.

This is what Marvel was so excited about that they incentivized retailers to make triple orders? Wow. Worst call since DeFalco spouted that bit about how Sleepwalker was Sandman "done right." Yikes. Next!

Batman & Robin # 15
DC Comics

Grant Morrison/Frazier Irving

Across town, DC has its own event sized storyline with a city losing its marbles. So this much like Shadowland, except good.

Yes, this is part of the "Return of Bruce Wayne" bit, but you'll notice that it requires no banner on the cover. This isn't an event because DC said so, it's an event because Grant Morrison is complete badass.

Professor Pyg, Black Glove, and The Joker are actually villainous and potent, unlike the paper mache garbage floating around Shadowland. They've set up machinations that actually create drama. Everybody's crazy. Damian gets captured, Dick gets shot in the head, and the entire city of Gotham is drug crazed and rioting.

Some of it is Morrisonian and dense. You have to read it carefully and have the past in mind to understand the present. Morrison even has fun with this when he has Robin say to the Joker:

"What are you talking about? Why can't you just make sense?"

That's in there for you, too. And it's fun. The whole thing is fun, and the big reveal at the end has an emotional payoff to it, and books like this are why comics are still worth reading.

Deadpool # 28
Marvel Comics
Daniel Way/Carlo Barberi

This just in: Danny Way has completely mastered the Deadpool cocktail. It's pretty much equal parts goofy/vulnerable/dangerous/unstable. If it seems like that's a cliched and easy thing to get right, well, there's where you're wrong. It's easy to make him an idiot cypher that you can't relate to in any meaningful way.

Danny Way makes you hurt for him every issue, even as he blunders into max collateral damage and punishes everyone around him. He's really like the jerkwad nerd at school who desperately wants to fit in, but he just doesn't have the social skills to even recognize how poor he is at social conventions. In the moment, you want to punch the stupid bastard, but in those quiet moments you just say a prayer that you aren't him, because he must be incredibly lonely and in continuous emotional pain.

The whole opening sequence where 'Pool engages a group of clone Secret Avengers belongs in the Hall of Fame. Way also takes the completely insipid Dr. Bong concept and makes him instantly legit by providing cutting shorthand analysis of the characters in the book, and lowering the BONG at the end.

Is Deadpool an over saturated parody of himself at this point? Maybe everywhere else. Danny Way's Deadpool is good shit.

Morning Glories # 3
Image Comics
Nick Spencer/Joe Eisma

The plot thickens, the conspiracy expands. We now have evidence that the Glories agenda (whatever that actually entails) extends back to the 1490s and Torquemada, and includes a subject that looks eerily similar to present day Zoe.

What most impressed me about this issue is the balancing act that Spencer is playing with the Academy threat. They're exceptionally dangerous. They have a lot of strings to pull, and Jade doesn't look like she'll survive the next issue. They have a long history and a lot of resources.

But they are not infallible. After all this time, they still haven't perfected the selection process, and can't really tell the difference between subjects they're actually interested in (we still have no solid clue about what these special cases can do or what the end game for them is) and subjects who simply share a birthday with the "real" Glories. And as powerful as the Academy is, sometimes a little bald girl can kick a lot their asses and write a message on the wall with the blood of some guards.

It's a genius balance. If the Big Bad is a straw figure, there's no drama. If the conspiracy is too powerful, it's just depressing. This is perfect. And that's not even getting to the character work, continues to be top notch. If you weren't in love with Ike or Casey before, you should be now.

The bottom line is that this might be the best comic currently being published. I'll give Gail Simone the benefit of the doubt because she's been producing legendary material on Secret Six every month for over two years. This might be the best, though.

X-Factor # 210
Marvel Comics
Peter David/Valentine De Landro

The book has sauntered away from the "pedal to the metal" approach that started with # 39, and that's fine. You know what this comic is about? It's about a guy and his ex-girlfriend sorting through his coming out. They do so with humor and humanity, and it feels like life, and it feels like something that really wouldn't happen anywhere else.

It's about Guido continuing to try and press for an unlikely relationship with Monet in the most adorable and annoying way possible, while Monet remembers the book's noir roots. She also fixes somebody that maybe ought to have stayed broken. Nothing is ever black and white in the b/w noir world of X-Factor.

I think that once again a segment of the population will complain that half the team was untouched in this issue and that "nothing happened", which is complete poppycock. David introduced a potential threat down the road in an enjoyable way, and Rahne and Rictor spar over his feelings for Shatterstar, we find out there might be something up with her baby. Plenty of stuff happened in this issue, and as usual it happened with wit, humor, and grace. I wish that more nothing like this happened in more comic books.

- Ryan

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Market Spotlight: Q & A!

I got this from the Killyrcomics podcast regarding my last market analysis nonsense:

"As you've stated in the past, the secondary tpb market is a reader's market, and, in my opinion, that is mostly all that is left in the single issues world, as well. With the advent of almost everything available in collected editions and now digital, do the current issues of comic books have any value 6 months from now?"

Well, Brave & The Bold # 33 sure does. That came out roughly six months ago, I still maintain it's the best single issue I've read all year, and I just watched somebody pay about $10 for it in VF condition on eBay.

That's a reader's market situation, and granted, it's a rare exception and nowhere near the rule. But it does happen. Usually when you see a modern book pop quickly, it's one of two things:

A) An event tie-in book that was under-ordered
B) An indy book with a small print that catches fire

I don't have much interest in A. The second print is going to kill most of the action, the trade is going to murder some more, and a year later when nobody can remember the event or feel so much as a ripple from it, that tie-in book is stone dead. Is anybody paying up for She-Hulk # 8 these days? No, didn't think so. So that doesn't impress me.

B is very real provided the series in question has legs. There are always going to be more people who want a copy of Y The Last Man # 1 than copies available. It's a classic that is never going out of style. No matter how many trades get printed, and there are a metric ton of them out there, some people are going to prefer to have that original artifact, because it is a portable piece of important comics history.

I think it's correct to avoid chasing gimmicks. I'm not in love with chase variant covers or any of that rot. I think it's correct to recognize that most (not all) material these days gets collected, that the comics audience receives those trades favorably, and that collected availability has affected the floppy market significantly. All of that is true and good and pure.

But I'll add a couple points to consider on that front:

1) There is a collectible element already baked into the trade market
2) The idea of comics as collectibles is not dying, but is in fact is flourishing

I can demonstrate 1 fairly easily. Here's your first edition of "Birds of Prey":

And here's your second edition:

Same contents, same ISBN, same book. The only difference is that the top book is a first edition, and most importantly a first edition with a different cover to easily separate itself. I can make money with either book, but I get a noticeable premium for the first edition. And as the book market matures, that premium gets bigger.

Admittedly, the trade market is reader-centric. Most purchase because they prefer a permanent bound book, and only pay up because the item they want is out of print and not readily available. But even inside of that, there is a distinct, quantifiable element of collectibility.

2 is also easy to see in practice. While the real estate market tanks and stocks have been plunging, comic books, particularly Silver Age comic books, are in full boom. We're seeing a steady climb on all material from that era, and staggering multiples on key high-grade books. If you look at what Green Lantern # 76 has done in the past 12 months, it will melt your brain.

Yes, the comics audience still remembers the mid 90s implosion, and we're wisely skeptical about speculation and chasing instant gains based upon hype. Yet in the aftermath, the secondary market has seen more money go into it, not less. It's just getting funnelled disproportiantely into ultra-high grade key books. (and leaving lots of bargains on lesser grade material for those who just want a copy to own or read)

Yeah, there's definitely a shift away from hype and glitz and "get rich quick" thinking, and that's a good thing. But I think there's a pervading myth among folks that modern comics shouldn't be or can't be collectible, and I think that's just dead wrong. Things being what they are, we're reading some of the rarest issues ever printed. It's possible that most in the comics game don't primarily perceive the books as valuable artifacts...but what's there is really powerful.

I don't think I'm comfortable predicting huge gains for DCs "Magog" just because it had embarassingly microscopic print runs. He's just not important enough. But if somebody were to take that character and energize some interest, I wouldn't be surprised if those took off, either.

I think what you have to ask yourself is - "Thirty years from now, will people still care about characters like Spider-Man, Hulk, Superman, or Batman?" If you answer that question "yes", the floppies coming out for those icons are not only a legitimate part of that tradition, but potentially special because of their comparative scarcity. The traditional chain of collectibility continues with the floppies, and I think that it continues meaningfully until there are no more floppies. At that point the remaining collectors are really going to scramble for those last ones, because there won't be many by necessity.

If I'm right, I should honestly just shut up about it and reap the benefits myself. If I'm wrong, I should probably just shut up about it, period. Why do go on about this stuff? Forget everything I just said, please.

- Ryan

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Market Spotlight: Modern Scarcity

So I'm standing in line at The Source in Falcon Heights. I'm behind a kid, we'll call him Joey, and he's a tween. Joey brings up a little pile of a half dozen books, and his body is constituted primarily of grin as he does so. It's good to see any new blood in a comic store - heartwarming, frankly.

The comics get typed into the cash register and Joey asks with reckless enthusiasm; "Do you think these will be worth something some day?"

I'm watching the cashier very closely, waiting for him to crush young Joey with a completely inappropriate level of glee. This how a lot of comic shop guys like to deal with any mention that comics might have any monetary value. It's a very strange attitude for an entity devoted to the selling of comics to take, but this is the world we live in these days.

He doesn't try to curb-stomp Joey, though. He takes a measured breath, smiles and says:

"Well, probably not. When you see big prices on comics, most of those are old Silver or Golden age books. Kids back in those days weren't putting comics in bags and boards, and they're very rare. So when they do come up for sale, people will fight for them. These books are overprinted, and everybody has them in nice condition."

Joey's grin disappears. Comic Shop Guy notices this and tries to backtrack a little to salvage a tiny smile:

"Maybe in about 25 years...maybe 3o or 40 years, if you hold onto them they might be worth something. But in the meantime you can enjoy reading them, which is what they're best at any way."

This is enough to bring back Joey's bliss. It isn't burning quite as brightly as when he was convinced he was sitting on a million dollars, but he's very happy.

I did not interject anything but my own wry grin to this process, because it wasn't my place. Part of me wanted to grab a copy of Morning Glories # 1 off the rack about two feet from where Joey was standing and hand it to him with a wink. I myself had five copies in my mitts at $3.50 per that I was about to sell for $20 each in less than two hours. Part of me wanted to do that.

Because the thing of it is, while Comic Shop Guy has very rational and traditional reasons for believing as he does...he's just plain wrong on most of it. Old comics are not rare, new comics are anything but overprinted, and there is most definitely a market for modern comics. Potentially a huge one.

The first myth that needs to be dispelled is that old comics are rare. In fact, quite the opposite is true. There is an absolute assload of old comics, and the further you go back, the bigger the print runs tend to get.

Does this mean that you should trade in your Action Comics # 1 for a copy of Morning Glories? Probably not. It's a bit more complicated than that.

The real true maxim about old comics is that they are rare in exceptional condition. That's where Comic Shop Guy got it right, and that's where the market has been and continues to refine itself toward. In the Golden and Silver Age, there was no understanding of comics as collectibles. There was no Overstreet Guide until 1970, no direct market for real wide scale back-issue peddling until the 1980s.

Comics were rolled up, beat up, written upon, and thrown away as the disposable entertainment they were. And for a case like Action Comics # 1, where there are only about 100 known copies existent, that comic is legitimately hyper-scarce.

But consider the concept of a "rare" Spider-Man comic for a moment. He was created in 1963 and made quite a splash. I don't have any good data about sales numbers for those earliest Amazing books. Matter of fact, I don't have any good data period, but lucky for all of us folks like John Jackson Miller compiled the existing data for us.

You don't see it any more, but back in the day the US Postal service used to make comics and magazines publish circulation numbers to justify their reduced 2nd class postal rate. So once a year we got to see how many of these things were actually floating around. Those numbers start showing up in the 1960s. And these days, Diamond reports the top 300 books and trades monthly, and then John Mayo will tell you what it all means.

What you'll notice when you study the trends on Amazing Spider-Man is that past circulation numbers are far larger than present ones. A good month in 2010 for Amazing Spider-Man is 70,000 copies sold. Amazing Spider-Man has spent most of its publishing life in the 300,000 copy range. And just before the bubble burst in the mid-90s ASM was close to 600,000 a month.

Now, we have to think a little more deeply about this before we make any drastic conclusions about actual relative scarcity. Marvel could have made mistakes and misreported data, perhaps exaggerating sales for pride. I find that unlikely. My guess is that when they came up with the data to send to the federal government, they gave it their best shot.

You also have to factor in the concept of returnability. You don't see this any more, but in the past newstands and retailers had the ability to return unsold product. Just because outlets ordered that much product doesn't mean that many copies actually found homes. Once those books did find homes, older comics were routinely treated like a Chris Brown girlfriend. Many of them were thrown away when little Joey ran off to college - doh!

So when we look at those old circulation numbers on Amazing Spider-Man, we can't just read them at face value. The 1967 circulation numbers suggest that there are 361,663 copies of Amazing Spider-Man # 50 available, and there are not. And of those still around, most are in VG shape. As of this blog entry, CGC has only graded 2 NM/MT 9.8 copies of that issue.

But I want you to look at the modern numbers again. The latest numbers on Amazing Spider-Man are sitting at about 70,000. That's 20% of the print run on Amazing #50! So some copies got returned, some thrown out, sure. But 80%? Maybe, but I doubt it. Granted, there are surely more NM copies of today's Amazing Spider-Man. But there are probably far more copies of issue # 50 existing.

It gets even more interesting when you consider a book like Marvel Adventures Spider-Man. That comic opened in 2005 with 14,333 copies reported by Diamond. That was by far the highest total ever for the series, which ended with issue # 61 (pictured at the top of this post) selling 4,201 units.

Think about that for about 12 seconds. Marvel Adventures Spider-Man # 61 has only 4,201 copies printed, or about 1% of the total reported numbers for Amazing # 50. Now, of all of those copies of # 50, how many are surviving in NM (9.2) or better? If it's more than 1%, there are more NM copies of Amazing Spider-Man # 50 than total copies of Marvel Adventures Spider-Man # 61.

Again, we have to stop and ponder other factors for a moment. I'm not suggesting that MA Spider-Man has more value than Silver Age Spidey books. The differences are legion. Silver Age Spider-Man books represent a key link to an important characters origins. They were created by legends like Stan Lee Steve Ditko, and John Romita. Both fans and professionals look to those stories as fundamental and important. There is a history in the secondary market of perceiving those books as precious. They are old, continue to get more brittle, and continue to leave the market and enter permanent collections.

Marvel Adventures Spider-Man has none of those attributes. We will not be looking at that series in 40 years saying "this is where the legends started being legendary." I'm not suggesting that the modern age trumps the Silver Age in value. It doesn't. What I'm suggesting is that today's books, in terms of pure production numbers, are the rarest comics ever published - and it ain't close. That's got to mean something.

Still think everybody has those modern books in nice condition? Lone Star Comics has the largest, most comprehensive back issue library I know of. As I type this, they have 424/441 issues of Amazing Spider-Man Vol 1 in stock. (96%) Marvel Adventures Spider-Man? 34/61 issues in stock. (56%) They aren't available. Anywhere. These are your overprinted modern comics?

I'm not even talking about modern classics like Walking Dead # 1, (7,266 copies printed) although I probably should be. Even the legends are at all-time lows in circulation. Straczynski's Superman is doing something in the order of 50,000 copies - before that shakeup, the title was selling under 30,000 units. The rarest Superman comics ever made are hitting stands now. The scarcest Batman comics every printed are hitting stands now. I believe the rarest regular Spider-Man comic ever printed is Marvel Adventures Spider-Man # 61.

And if I were you, I'd go out and get one. Listen, it's true the market could go away entirely. How much are your Beanie Babies going to fetch you today? But there's a longer, more stable track record for comics. The iconic comic properties are living on as cinematic superstars, they remain ingrained in the culture, and the scarcest comics in the history of these icons are being published right now.

- Ryan

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Chronic Review: Warlord of Mars # 1!

Warlord of Mars # 1
Dynamite Comics

Script: Arvid Nelson
Pencils: Stephen Sadowski
22 pages + 2 bonus for $1.00

I have read some Conan prose from Edgar Rice Burroughs, but never any John Carter stories. From a distance it looked like an exceptionally vanilla buff dude punching and shooting people on Mars instead of earth, and I have less than no interest in that.

For a dollar, I'm not going to not buy this comic, so vanilla nonsense or not it made it home with me. And Arvid Nelson has a pretty good reputation, what with his very critically acclaimed and very unpurchased Rex Mundi series.

The good news is that there is more of a hook to John Carter than I had realized. He's a Confederate soldier, which is interesting to me. Making him a protagonist focal point in today's hyper politically correct environment is a ballsy thing, actually. It's sort of like writing a book about heroic Nazis - there's bound to be a little backlash.

Mr. Carter and his friend get into a fracas with a pack of Union jerkwads defending the honor of the state of Virginia, which makes sense. If you're going to shoot some people, best make it over something important I always say.

Across the solar system there is other social upheaval on Mars. You've got your standard green Martians, and they've developed a culture where demonstrating fear or weakness is a criminal offense. They have a white ape problem there. The problems being that the white apes capture green children and then eat them with relish. Not the stuff you put on hot dogs, they don't have that. I mean that when they eat kids, they really, really, really enjoy it. I identify.

The upheaval part comes in the form of Tars Tarkas, who is entirely too soft to be a green Martian. When he recognizes strength in an opponent he mentions these things out loud and accounts for it rather than the preferred Martian method of beating his chest and showing bravado. He also believes that a young child who shows fear when she's about to be eaten should not be thrown off of cliffs. Rube.

All of this is vaguely interesting. I'm curious to see how much of a hero they can make out of a civil war rebel soldier. I interested in seeing how much depth there is in Martian culture.

I'm not sure if I'm willing to pay $3 or $4 to find out, though, and at the end of issue # 1 the reader has literally no clue how John Carter gets involved with mars at all. We get a bit of confusing business at the end regarding a grave with a spring lock that only opens from the inside. But as to how a Dixie soldier achieves space travel or why? Nothing. Curious decision. Maybe Dynamite is under the impression that anybody picking up the comic has already absorbed the novels? I don't know.

I did enjoy this issue, especially at this price point. Unfortunately for Dynamite, I think the introductory issue made me far more likely to check out a John Carter novel for free at my public library than to get involved with the comic series. Unless they're selling all the issues for a dollar, in which case wild horse couldn't keep me away from it.

- Ryan

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Has The Worm Turned?

I will now cop to the fact that I do a lot of "chicken little" doom forecasting. It's goddamn depressing to listen to me. I recognize that.

Honesty is my only excuse. While overall sales numbers are not alarmingly bad, there is legitimate cause for concern if you parse the data closely.

Major titles from even the Big 2 launch at numbers that would have caused instant cancellation just a couple of years ago. Nothing cleared even 100,000 Diamond orders in August. Nothing. DC couldn't even finish their Great 10 mini-series the sales were so horrifying. Marvel can't even keep people interested in the staples any more- Amazing Spider-Man is down huge from initial "Brand New Day" numbers and continues to atrophy. Wolverine can't even keep an audience without an annual reboot. It's frightening.

And if it's frightening for Marvel and DC, it's basically "why bother?" for everybody else. If you have any interest in the market side of things at all, you need to get plugged into what John Mayo is doing with Bob Bretall and Chris Marshall on the Mayo Report of the Comic Book Page podcast. They cover the Diamond data for comics and trades each month.

They'll teach you that for August, only 7 comic books outside of the Big 2 cleared even 20,000 in sales. You're looking at Walking Dead, The Boys, and five licensed titles. Books are profitable at that level, but just barely. If you're Robert Kirkman, you're carving out a nice living for yourself as one person. If you're a corporate entity, 20,000 comics is less than pocket change. And that's the best of the best in the indy world. Most books are either struggling to break even or flat out losing money.

And now I'm being depressing again, which wasn't the point. But we need to recognize the problem before it gets addressed, solved. And if you listen to the show you know my diagnosis:

1) Comics Are Too Goddamned Expensive
Comics used to sell in great numbers and were traditionally recession-resistant because they were comparatively cheap. There is a barrier for consumers when you are asking them to drop $4 on a piece of a greater story that may or may not be good and may or may not entertain you for 10 minutes. Economically it is far easier to decide to avoid new product and cut an existing pull because the investment is just too crazy.

2) Comic Racks Are WAY Too Glutted With Crap Product
Between the 33 X-Titles, the 7 Wolverine Books, the 19 Bat-Books, the 9 Green Lantern spin-offs and the 423 Deadpool appearances, it is impossible for anyone to figure out how to leverage interest in characters. It's impossible for even lifers to figure out what is actually on the stands and whether or not the content should matter to them.

Newcomer? Forget about it. A civilian coming into their local comic shop after watching Iron Man 2 is going to walk straight back out. There is no "Iron Man" book. There are two ongoings, a packet of minis, a couple Avengers books, and 600 metric tons of back story in trades, essentials, and masterworks. Not one of those items has one thing to do with any of the others, by the way. Matt Fraction's version of Iron Man has not a sliver of a passing resemblance to that guy running around in those Bendis Avengers books. Couldn't be the same guy, really. The Fraction guy wouldn't have time or probably the interest in doing what he's doing everywhere else. The racks are positively choked with 1,000 firecrackers shooting at your face, not one of which seems to make sense any more.

3) Non-comics readers have no clue that anybody even publishes comics any more.
The newsstand market is gone. The Direct Market is about 1/3 the size it was fifteen years ago. Comics publishers license their properties into movies that show to hundreds of millions of people, and never so much as hint that the comics are still going or that people may want to check them out. There appears to be less than no effort to build a larger base from the outside. The publishing strategy for as long as I can remember is to gouge as much from the existing base as possible.

Earlier this year, Diamond reported that 1/3 comics solicited in their catalogue was a variant of some kind. That's not an industry looking for new people. That's a pack of hucksters who took a glance at the Lucas Sodomy Handbook and decided to see if the suckers would pay for the same thing twice. We don't need double-dippers...we need new blood.

Those are the key issues as I understand them. There are more issues, and the issues I've raised have been oversimplified. But that's why we're dying. Somebody might suggest that I've skipped the digital dragon, but I haven't. Fix # 3 and digital won't hurt. Digital comics isn't actually a problem for comics. The problem is that the direct market is so far gone on life support that even something potentially helpful like digital distribution might bump the IV and send us into cardiac arrest. We need to get healthy enough to survive an IV bump.

And until this weekend, I've seen no indication that anybody in the biz recognizes any of this. Then came the Diamond Retailer Breakfast at this year's New York Comic Con. I don't know what they put on the bagels at that thing, but we need more of it.

DC unveils a plan to take all regular sized titles down to $2.99 beginning in January 2011, and Marvel followed with a similar plan directly after. After reading the fine print, I'm declaring DC the champion on that score.

The DC price reduction does come with a loss in bulk. They're planning on reducing page counts from 22 to 20. They're also getting rid of the back-up features that were plaguing a lot of their titles. I'm sure that a handful of folks will lament this. As an example, I became interested in Action Comics strictly for the Jimmy Olsen pages written by Nick Spencer.

On the whole, though, most people were spending an extra buck for pages they did not want spinning tales about characters they did not care about. It was exploitative. Probably well meaning exploitation, but exploitative nonetheless. That's gone.

Do I wish that we had kept the reduction while remaining at 22 pages. Sure do. But I'm remaining positive on this for the now. I believe that it's still quite possible to deliver good value in those 20 pages, and it might force writers, the good ones at least, to consider ditching the mass decompression we've suffered lately.

With fewer pages to work with, scripts should be less likely to spend three pages on a cup of coffee and facial expressions. Maybe we don't need those six splash pages after all, gents. Maybe we need to get to the business of telling the story. I think 20 pages for $3 can be a good thing.

As for Marvel, I'm not buying the "we were going to to do it any way" line. This was a contingency plan in place should DC ever do what it just did. The Queen Whore had no intention of independently reducing prices, no matter what the spin doctors say. Still, better to follow DCs lead (and when was the last time that phrase has been applicable?) than to languish in Gouge Town.

When you read Marvel's fine print, by the way, it isn't as juicy. Marvel is talking about reducing rates on new books, not all books. Better than nothing? You bet. But I wouldn't expect to see a $3 Secret Avengers or Ultimate X on the racks any time soon. And that's a shame, because that would be enough to get me on board. No word on Marvel cutting out back-up features, either. So good news from Marvel, but not as good as DCs news regarding price.

I was pleasantly astounded by quotes from Marvel's David Gabriel at the Diamond Breakfast, however. He stated an awareness that they have a plethora of product that tends to underperform, and that the Previews catalog for January should show a significant line reduction.

Wow. And it isn't just Gabriel talking about it, either. Dan Buckley also confirmed that Marvel will be contracting the line and added "...we kind of get the sense that you guys don't know which ones are the ones you should pay attention to, so we're going to be pulling back on that in the months ahead as well." OK, sort of condescending and snide, but still music to my ears.

I remember a few months back Brian Hibbs came out of the annual Comics Pro meeting re-energized and hopeful for the future. I wondered what he was seeing that I wasn't. Maybe this?

And listen, there's a big difference between talking about making real changes and actually implementing them. But it's so uplifting to even hear comics publishers acknowledge these problems. We haven't avoided the iceberg yet, but at least we've got confirmation that the captain knows the iceberg exists. And on the flip side, we haven't hit the iceberg yet, either.

I'd like to think we'll look back on this year's NYCC as the Weekend the Worm Turned. We've got real results on the $3.99 bane. Can you ever remember comics moving to a lower price point across a line? I think it's unprecedented, and shows a real commitment to long term prosperity instead of grabbing a few nickels this month.

I can't tell you how excited I am to here Marvel representatives talking about reducing glut. It's going to help continuity, it's going to help cohesiveness, it's going to reduce white noise and help civilians enter the market. It's going to make comics more profitable.

For the first time in a long time, I think there's room for cautious optimism regarding the future of comics. Huzzah!

- Ryan

Friday, October 8, 2010

Chronic Review: Batman Hidden Treasures # 1!

Batman: Hidden Treasures # 1
DC Comics

Scripts: Ron Marz/Len Wein
Pencils: Bernie Wrightson
46 (sort of) pages for $4.99

The opening page of text tells us that this story has been gathering dust and building its own urban legend at DC for 13 years. Mark Chiarello tells us about other unpublished stories whispered about in the hallowed halls of comicdom - including an adaption of Dante's inferno by Jim Steranko, and a secret Superman tale by Bolland and Dave Gibbons.

Both of those sound intriguing. This urban legend is a buried Batman tale by Bernie Wrightson told completely in splash pages! Um, not nearly as interesting. A comic book told in splash pages is well, a comic book in 2010.

So why the hell did I buy it, then, you might ask? I did so because Bernie Wrightson is my favorite artist. So you can guess how I feel about the art in this book. Yes, absolutely wonderful.

The story inside the comic is also an urban legend of sorts, a tale told around hobo campfires about Batman and Solomon Grundy. I've decided not to say much more than that about the plot than that. It's not a "Sixth Sense" shocker or anything, but there's some worthwhile turns you might not see coming if I don't spoil it for you here.

Wrightson is a kind of genius with monsters, mood, and evoking emotion with eyes. Grundy is fearsome and also sadly human. There's a little mystery, a little detective work, some combat, and some surprises. There are some text-heavy panels, especially toward the beginning. You need them for exposition, and it works fine. Toward the end the art does most of the heavy lifting, and that works quite well when you have a real storyteller like Wrightson. If you hadn't guessed yet I really enjoy his work.

I'm really not sure why it took this long for the story to hit stands. There's nothing controversial in it, like the Warren Ellis Hellblazer story that DC killed because it involved a school shooting right after the Columbine incident. It's a perfect standalone issue that could have been plugged in anywhere, a particularly nice fit around Halloween, I would think.

That's the front half of the book. The back half of the book is a reprint of Swamp Thing # 7 from 1973, also pencilled by Wrightson. This is where it gets a little dodgy for me.

Maybe if it had been another previously unpublished Batman story it would feel more viable. And on the one hand, I haven't read that issue of Swamp Thing, so for me it was all new content and basically two issues for $5, which I'm sad to say in 2010 isn't too bad.

But on the other hand, we're talking about content where the creator dollars were off the books 13 and 37 years ago. They just sold me some tangentially connected old stuff they had lying around the office for $5. And that feels like assault, honestly.

The Swamp Thing reprint isn't a bad story. It's actually sort of fun to look back on 1970s material. You can see an entirely different brand of storytelling, where pages will often contain 8-10 panels. You can get away with this when you have a good artist, who doesn't need 30 open acres to convey action or add details. There are no stick figures in this comic. I would wager that if the same Batman/Swamp Thing team-up were told today, it would at least be a two-parter.

These things weren't necessary in 1973. Plus, you get super strong dialogue like this little bit from Matt Cable. The comics code era was so goddamn weird. Slap a colander on somebody's head and torture them with electrocution? Sure, why not. But mind your language, you fucks! Nobody sucks on peaches in the postmodern era, unfortunately. Me? I could eat a peach for hours.

My bottom line on this one is that both stories have some positive elements, and I thought the opening act was actually very strong. Unless you like Bernie Wrightson as much as I do, though, I don't think you're really getting $5 out of this one.

- Ryan

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Chronic Guest Review: Lady Mechanika # 0!

Lady Mechanika # 0
Aspen Comics

Script: Joe Benitez
Pencils: Joe Benitez
19 pages for $2.50

Let's get the facts out of the way first, I do not have an English degree, so reading this will be a little rough. Lady Mechanika #0 is 19 pages, of which 2 are splash pages, 4 are back matter and 1 is recipes. Yes recipes. All for $2.50. Also if you are into that sort of thing there are 4 cover variants. And I'm all about hot sasquatch on mechanika action.

The book takes place in 1878, presumably in the US, but it could also be England. I'm guessing the US because of the lack of "pip pips" and "cheerios". Lady Mechanika is out hunting the Demon of Satan's Alley, because in one news article the creature was described as having machine parts. Also looking for the creature are agents from Blackpool Armaments, perhaps looking for a new weapon.

We jump right into the hunt for the creature, which LM quickly finds. She is surprised to learn that the creature can speak, and even more surprised to learn that the creature knows her. This is when we find out she knows nothing of her past, not even her real name. Just as the creature is about to reveal some of this information Blackpool goons show up with Lord Blackpool himself.

Without giving too much away, Blackpool is set up as the antagonist, someone gets their jaw kicked off, and some people believe Mechanika is the work of the devil.

What worked for me? I loved the art and the story as a whole. I liked that once she found out the creature could talk she stopped trying to kill it. Sure this was part of the story, but the creature went from looking like a scary SOB to a rather pathetic half-starved creature you felt sorry for. I also like how Mechanika is rare and most people have a shoot on sight attitude, as if it was the devils tool.

What didn't work for me? The fast set up. I know you only have a few pages to introduce all the characters but once I would love a preview book that didn't leave a bread crumb trail for every plot thread.

Favorite quote: "Doctor Littleton! See to the young lady there, poor child seems to be having a bout of hysterics."

It just seemed like a fitting quote for the timeframe.

Will I pick up #1 in December? Yeah, I think I will. The setting reminds me of Ruse, which was a great book, and I love steampunk. Plus did I mention I'm all about hot sasquatch on mechanika action?

- Friend of the Show Nick

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Chronic Review: X-Force # 1!

Uncanny X-Force # 1
Marvel Comics

Script: Rick Remender
Pencils: Jerome Opena
24 pages for $3.99

Most of you will be anticipating me sodomizing this book with wrath. I'll get to that by the end, I assure you.

First we need to cover what we're actually talking about. Uncanny X-Force is the rebooted X-Force you may remember from a month ago. It ran an entire 28 issues before it apparently became obsolete. Near as I can tell, the prior premise was about desperate times seeking desperate measures. With 198 mutants or so left, Scott was now willing to let Wolverine and a pack of other psychotics run wild. That team was disbanded. Officially.

Wolverine has decided to run his clandestine team even more clandestinely. Now nobody sanctions the squad, which consists of Wolverine, Archangel, Psylocke, Fantomex, and Deadpool.

So what's the mission now? Apocalypse, that's what. Deadpool tracks some clues to a lair with giant attacking statues. Statues that appear to be Apocalyptic type horsemen. The team scrambles to deal with said statue, and the big reveal at the end is that the new incarnation of Apocalypse is actually a small boy who looks like tiny Hitler with blue lips. Most auspicious!

To be fair, there are things I like in this book. For instance:

He's vaguely interesting, and his power set is vaguely interesting. I suspect this is what we'd expect from a Grant Morrison creation. At least this character doesn't stink of product placement, like Wolverine and Deadpool. When I see those characters now, it's like watching a Pepsi ad. Fine, pay the bills I guess, but don't expect me to be impressed.

Fantomex doesn't engage in the usual testosterone-based flexing a book like X-Force demands, which is nice. He solves a boss battle in this story by making the statue believe it had fallen for Betsy. As an avatar of war, it didn't know how to process that and blew itself up. I'm not sure if that makes complete sense, but at least it demonstrates a little creativity.

These two are now involved in all sorts of ways. It looks like Archangel is now a kind of alter ego inside of Warren's mind that he's not entirely in control of. It's sort of a Hulk type situation - he needs to access the power to be effective, but at the cost of control. As a psychic, Betsy is able to help him manage the beast within.

It makes for a pretty co-dependent relationship and a fairly interesting one. If things go south on a personal level, Warren can always play the needy "but who's going to keep me from killing everyone?" card, and that could be fun.

Recap Pages
In the back of the book are six pages recapping the history of the prior volume of X-Force and some relevant events from the whole "Second Coming" nonsense. If you were a new reader coming in cold turkey, I think those pages would be helpful, and once the decision has been made to reboot, including that was a smart idea.

What I can't figure out is why we need a new # 1 for this. Look at your sales data, gents. That new # 1 is going to provide an artificial bump for exactly 1 issue. Then it's going to settle in exactly where it was. So you sold a could of extra copies on one comic. Huzzah!

Congratulations on your extra five dollars while you flush your entire publishing industry. You can't keep the thing afloat for more than two years without hitting the re-set button? Embarrassing. It's patently obvious that the reboot is commercial and gimmicky. There's no reason why this book needs to cost $4, and there's no reason why it shouldn't be X-Force # 29.

There was a day when you could look to a rack, find a product you like, and grow with it. That's gone. Half of what you're collecting right now will be gone next year, in every sense of the word. That title won't be on the rack, and any events/information contained in that book will be retconned out of existence.

Marvel really isn't in the narrative business any more. They simply throw fire crackers at your face and watch your head snap to the pops. X-Force - pop! Uncanny X-Force - POP! Wha - now with 15% more Deadpool? POP! None of it means anything.

Why does this team exist, and why these particular members? Betsy and Warren now make sense to me, since she's the beauty quelling his beast. Fine. Does it even make sense that Wolverine would have his little strike team and Scott wouldn't know about it? Not to me, it doesn't. Scott's not that stupid, and Wolverine frankly doesn't have time.

There's no reason or explanation given for Fantomex. Remender wanted him, so just roll with it, I guess. No explanation for Deadpool, either, and there really ought to be. He's not a team guy. Matter of fact, over in Danny Way's Deadpool, Wade just got done with his epiphany that he's NOT a team player, and he specifically did so by burning his bridges with the X-folks. So his presence in this comic spits directly in the face of everything that just happened with the character less than a year ago. Isn't it wonderful that we have this shared universe? Ridiculous.

Incidentally, there seems to be no indication that Mr. Logan's soul is in hell at all. He's fine. Thank God that Jason Aaron is over there in the Wolverine book telling us the Wolverine in Hell story that's going to CHANGE EVERYTHING! It doesn't change squat. There's not so much as a blip of it in this comic. It's absurd. Marvel editorial should look at this book and just cringe with shame.

The thing of it is, I might be able to forgive all of that if the book was entertaining or groundbreaking or special in its own right. But it's not.

Here's your big opener, folks. You want to know why we need a splashy new # 1 and a big fat "Uncanny" on the cover?

The comic begins with Deadpool diving off of a stone waterfall structure, talking to himself. And here's your joke: "Why did the nickel jump off the building and the dime didn't? The dime had more cents." Exciting new young gun Rick Remender kick-starts this incredible new franchise with a joke peeled off a Bazooka gum wrapper.

It's not funny on any planet, and way beneath Wade. I suppose a devil's advocate would point out that Remender is attempting to play up Wade's child-like aspects. I say poppycock. That's just a weak line. Later we get this gem: "How do you kill a circus? Go for the juggler." It's beyond lame.

This is not a special book. This is a rote actioner with dull, washed out colors to show how "dark" it is in tone. It's a supposed "new" start with six pages in the back explaining to you how to get in on the "ground floor." If we're really a # 1, we don't need those pages. It's typical superhero fare still trading on ground covered in X-Factor and such back in the late 1980s.

And if that's your game, then have at it. Go ahead and drop your $4 on a team that doesn't make sense delivering clever lines that a 3rd grader would find lame. Read your Diet Deadpool commercial and just ignore the fact that the Wolverine you're reading couldn't possibly be the same guy in the Wolverine a few books down on the same rack. Good luck with that. I need more.

- Ryan