Monday, September 15, 2008

That's the way (a-huh a-huh) I like it!

During a typical wait time for the wife, I checked out the local Barnes & Noble for new reading fare. I ended up with quite a list to give the wife to get through her inter-library loan and picked up a couple of other items. Only one of which was comic related. I was actually disappointed with B&N's comic selection. Plenty of manga, to be sure, but no SHOWCASE or ESSENTIAL volumes. There were a couple of other things that looked interesting but the one I eventually chose was ROBIN: YEAR ONE.

This is a compilation of the four issue limited series that came out EIGHT years ago! Ye gads! Where has the time gone? Anyway, like the title says, it is Robin's adventures during his first year as Batman's sidekick but immediately AFTER Robin's origin. It's written by Chuck Dixon and Scotty Beatty with artwork by Jadier Palido and Robert Campanella. I confess that I was not then, or even now, very familiar with the artists but knew the writers' names very well. I recalled enjoying this series quite a lot when it first came out and, by flipping through the pages, knew that I'd like to read it once again.

Now, THIS is what superhero comics SHOULD be today. It's exciting, thrilling, filled with great characters and evil villains, touches all the right notes of nostalgia and is a joy from cover to cover. Dixon and Beatty have a great handle on Robin's personality and it shines through in his scenes. The plucky, happy-go-lucky Robin has never made as much sense or seemed so real as he does here. Alfred is his dedicated self, playing the roles as confidant, friend and ally to the young lad and Gordon has one of his best roles in years. We see him uncomfortable with the idea of Batman taking a young boy as a partner and the fragile trust he gives Batman.

The art itself is wonderful and expressive, alternately showing Robin's joy at his superhero escapades and then the dark dangers that befall him. In some ways, the art is reminiscent of Tim Sale's work on other Bat-epics like THE LONG HALLOWEEN, but it remains uniquely its own. It harkens back to both the Silver and the Golden Age with some of the designs so much that one is never particularly sure when the story is taking place. Is it 1940's Gotham or today-15 years? It's hard to tell and, what's more, you don't care! A good story is a good story no matter where or WHEN it's set.

But, more than anything else, this story excels in it's portrayal of Batman. A supporting character, he commands every scene he is in both physically and emotionally. Here is the classic Batman. He is smart, capable, well trained and dedicated. The one thing he is NOT is fricking NUTS! I am so tired of today's writers portraying Batman as one step removed from Arkham himself. This Batman is the one who has set his life upon a path from which there can be no deviation. He is not insane and knows full well the risks that he faces himself and to which he exposes the boy. In short, this Batman is a hero. Perhaps he should be introduced to today's version so he can have a LONG talk with his wayward descendent.

This book is a wonderful example of how a superhero comic can be both modern and nostalgic. It incorporates the best of both worlds without denying either. It is concrete, absolute PROOF that you CAN produce a superhero comic that is exciting, fun AND dangerous without resorting to 'dark' and gore. It should be required reading for anyone who writes a Batman comic from now on.

Monday, September 8, 2008

"I would gladly pay you Tuesday for a comic today!"

Comic books are expensive.

We all know this but sometimes we tend to forget it or just get used to paying $2.50 or $2.95 for a colorful pamphlet. I was reminded of this when an overseas friend in Malaysia told me how much she has to pay for an American comic. It translates into $12.60 for a $2.50 comic. A trade paperback or GN can go for $120. No wonder comics don't sell as well overseas.

Luckily, we don't have to pay that much for the comics over here but, if we did, I think that a lot of people would think long and hard about shelling out that much money for the latest crossover garbage. Even still, a lot of people in this economy find themselves having to really examine their holding lists. A comic that you only marginally enjoy becomes far less important when you have to choose between it and a gallon of gas for your car. This is why comics sell so much less than they used to do.

It's a constant litany and one that everyone knows: comics cost too much and they don't last very long. Most comics can be read in a matter of minutes. I read several original GNs this weekend that took me less than a couple of hours and one of those was over 700 pages long! So we reach a concept known as "perceived value". Which basically means, "is the value I get from this comic worth the cost?" A lot of times today, it simply isn't.

But, of course, I'm spoiled. The first comics I bought were 15 cents each. I was shocked when they jumped to an astonishing 20 cents and incensed when they leaped up to 50 cents each! You should have heard the expletives when DC started doing $1 comics! Where they mad? Where did they think kids were going to get that kind of money? It's the end of comics as we know it! Lava was going to rain down from the sky at any minute!

So why were comics so cheap back then? The simple answer is that everything was cheaper. Cost of labor was a lot cheaper, the printing was cheaper, the paper used in the printing was cheaper, distribution costs were cheaper, etc. etc. etc. Old comics were printed pretty cheaply. That paper was barely a step above what your daily newspaper came out on! Comics weren't printed on fancy, slick paper because no one every believed for a minute that these stupid things were going to be worth anything! They were a dispensable, disposable form of entertainment that (like pulp and dime novels) weren't supposed to amount to anything. They were the bastard children of publishing and were just supposed to make money for their parents and not cause any trouble. The goal was to shove them out the door! No one sat there and thought, "I'm making art here! One day, they'll have exhibitions of these pages!" Most of the time they were too concerned with making their deadline or getting the pages in on time so that they could make their next mortgage payment.

Things really changed once the publishers woke up and realized that they had a captive market that would pretty much pay anything for their weekly comic fix. Comics left the newsstands and hit the direct market and suddenly comics were regularly more than a dollar... then more than two dollars. You'd think that the price would come down once the publishers eliminated most of their risk by catering to a dedicated buying public. Instead the costs continued to climb because now the comics had to be published on better paper with brighter colors and stronger covers.

As for me, I'd rather have the days when I could buy a week's worth of comics for $5 instead of needing a personal loan. Which is why I strongly believe that the future of comics rests in the small publishers who look for ways to bring their costs down. It's the comics themselves that are important, not how bright the blood on Wolverine's claws looks.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Is it a Wonder or a Marvel Dog?

The blogosphere went wacky over the Wonderdog controversy. What? You don't know what I mean? C'mon! Sure you do! It's been everywhere!

For those who were lucky enough to escape it until now, here's what it's all about. Not so long ago, the DC comic Teen Titans introduced their version of the old SUPERFRIENDS cartoon characters, Wendy and Marvin. This was met with virtually universal disinterest. Anyway, W & M soon found their 'Wonderdog' and, in issue #62 (still on the stands, folks! Get yours now!), Wonderdog kills and eats them.

Here's the infamous pic:

This brought a lotta bad words from lots o'bloggers. The gist of the complaints primarily being centered around the fact that the killer-dog scene appeared in what was considered an 'all-ages' book. Well, at least there was no warning label on the cover saying, "BEWARE! ONCE BELOVED CARTOON DOG KILLS OWNERS INSIDE!"

That doesn't really bother me all that much.

Because, after all, comics haven't been for kids since about the mid-80's. Once DC showed Robin and Starfire naked in bed in a Direct Market only issue of Teen Titans (Hey! There's that name again!), the cat was out of the bag. Some of you may remember the brouhaha that little panel created. DC's response was that it was ONE panel in a comic that could only be purchased through a comic store and wasn't out on the newstand, ready to pervert little minds. That was a stupid argument, of course, as any kid could walk into a comic store and buy that issue (or today's #62, still on the stands, folks!) with nary a curious eye from the shopkeeper.

But I wander.

The point is that many, many comics today aren't fit for kids to read. At least, not the kind of kids we used to be. Ah, those bright, halycon days of youth! When our fresh-faced, angelic minds weren't at risk from those nasty comic books. But for today's youth? Hell, they could probably make up worse stories on their own.

Now, of course I don't mean that the little ones should be seeing cadaver eating dogs in their comics. But, as has been stated in other places (Val D's excellent Occasional Superheroine for one), there's no middle ground between comics for little kids and adult comics. Once you tire of the Archie's and the pap that Marvel and DC try to pass off as kid's comics, you graduate right into the arena of such lovely family fare as Identity Crisis where Dr. Light rapes Elongated Man's wife in a flashback that occurs a few pages before she has a brain seizure and is burned to death.

So there's no transition period where young teens can read about superheroes who go around fighting crime and protecting innocents. So, I wonder, why is that? Is it because such comics don't sell in today's market? If that's true, why not? Have we really come to the level where the typical teenage reader WANTS to read about hungry Wonderdogs and crispy rape victims? Has the audience for comics become so de-sensitized to violence and inhumanity from the media and video games that they cannot believe that anything else could exist?

For me, I wanna know who the hell thought that the hungry Wonderdog was a good idea? I mean, c'mon! The people who would be the most put off by this are the fans of the original cartoon! If you put W & M in there to appeal to them, then why the hell do you kill them off like that? Is it just a giant F-U to those readers? Does DC picture readers sitting there and jumping out of their seat as they read that page with their fists pumping in the air yelling, "YEAH! Go, Wonderdog! Eat those jerks!"??? Is it meant to shock and stun the reader?? "OMG, if they could do that to Wendy & Marvin, than NO-ONE is safe!" What? What is the freaking logic here?? Someone please explain this to me!

I was never a big M & W fan. Even as a kid I thought that they were incredibly lame and cringed every time they came on the cartoon. But some people, I'm sure, must have liked them. And they, I am damned sure, are just waiting for the Wonder Twins to get theirs too!

It's 10 pm, do you know where your comics are?

Yesterday's post about the lack of serious news reporting in the comic field brought some very welcome comments. Sadly, it seems that pretty much all of us agree that it is a goal that will never be achieved. The simple act of being removed from retribution would appear to be the hardest factor to overcome.

Glenn Walker chided me (and rightly so) for not mentioning Rich Johnston's "Lying in the Gutters" column which appears regularly on COMIC BOOK RESOURCES. I read Mr. Johnston's column the second it appears on my viewscope and always find it to be both informative and entertaining. However, I would argue the point that Johnston's column is more akin to the old Rona Barrett type of reporting in that a great deal of his items could be classified as 'gossip'. Still, Johnston hits with those rumors far more often than he misses and both he and CBR are to be commended for reporting what news items that are often very unwelcomed by comic companies. I know of several cases where items that Johnston reported ended up causing his sources some grief but, so far as I am aware, they were not sorry for providing the information in the first place.

Kudos again to CBR for posting an article today about the Wowio implosion which can be found here. The article neatly summarizes Wowio's rise and collapse and brings in information from several sources. It is a nice piece of reporting despite the fact that it says virtually nothing new that would not have been read in any of the other comics news sites or blogs. And throwing stones at Wowio and Platinum at this late date is about as dangerous as saying something bad about Charles Manson. Still, good to have it all in one place.

So there are efforts to bring strong journalism practices to the comic industry. I fear that it can only go so far, however, while the workers keep quiet for fear of losing assignments now or in the future. Strange, sounds like just the type of thing unions are made to fight, doesn't it? I wonder what Neal Adams is up to these days?

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Where's the beef?

If you watched television at all in the mid 1980's, you heard the phrase, "Where's the beef?" That was the catchphrase for Wendy's TV commercials which starred Clara Peller as a little old lady who couldn't find beef in the other fast food burgers. It was meant as a dig against those other places who advertised big, beefy burgers but delivered flat, tasteless patties. It went on to become a phenomenon and you could hear "Where's the beef?" pretty much everywhere. Heck, even Walter Mondale used it in his 1984 campaign against Gary Hart. I'm sure that Donna Rice could have told Mondale 'where the beef' was.

Anyway, it's become known as a way of questioning a statement that, for the most part, is just full of hot air. Statements could be from politicians, government agencies, entertainers, newscasters and, especially, those numb nuts on cable TV who want everyone to think they way they do.

My question this morning, to comics reporting, is "where's the beef?"

Where is the 'tell it like it is', 'balls to the wall', consumer reports type of comics reporting? Where's the investigative journalism, laying bare the backroom deals and dirty secrets of the comics industry past and present? Why, when I log into comic news sites, am I flooded with nothing but press releases and advertising all gussied up to look like news? Here's a newsflash: advertisements are not NEWS, they are ads! No matter how you dress up the pig, in the end, it's still just a pig in a dress.

Look at the two biggest and most well known comics news website: NEWSARAMA and COMIC BOOK RESOURCES. This morning, NEWSARAMA's big headlines are about Barak Obama's appearance in an upcoming SAVAGE DRAGON comic; Cartoon Network announcing the date CLONE WARS will premiere on TV; and an announcement about novelist Brad Meltzer's campaign to restore the original house of Superman co-creator Jerry Siegel. That's pretty much just three press releases right there. I'm surprised that they actually put by-lines on these.

And what does CBR have this morning? The crack team at CBR offer; the same news about Siegel's house; updates on comic to film projects; and a fluff piece on Meltzer's new book which has comic book connections. Wow, CBR, way to bring me info I can't get in any of a HUNDRED OTHER BLOGS OR NEWS SITES!

Print is no better with the only two regular comic magazines still being published being WIZARD and COMIC BUYER'S GUIDE. I'm not even going to consider COMIC FOUNDRY as that is about as hard hitting in the news department as the latest issue of MAXIM. CBG has seen its core purpose vanish over the years as most people buy their old comics online at either store sites or through that big virtual yard sale, eBay. Still, CBG does have it's uses in the columns they include as well as some usually interesting articles about older comics. Most of those articles are about as hard hitting as the Stay-Puft Marshmellow Man in the Sahara desert but at least they remember that there were comics before 1980. As for WIZARD... well, I'd best describe them as a word that rhymes with "bore" and leave it at that. In fact, I blame WIZARD for the trend of empty comics news. Their initial success led others to just go with flashy press releases and previews of 'hot comics.

So I'm asking you, dear reader, "Where's the beef?" Where is a source for good, hard-hitting comics news? A place that doesn't cater or kow tow to the big companies and is used as a ventriloquist's dummy to sprout the latest company rhetoric about how STUPENDOUS the next SUPER SECRET CRISIS is going to be. One that says that the Emperor has no clothes and points how out how stupid the Emperor was to think we wouldn't notice that in the first place! A place that isn't dependent upon advertising revenue from the big companies and isn't afraid to ask the tough questions in the interviews. And don't say COMICS JOURNAL because, as better as their reporting often is, their bias against mainstream comics and shilling for their own publications cancels that out.

What this industry needs is a good gadfly. It's too bad that Harlan Ellison isn't available.