Leading Questions: Legends and Leaders

This article was originally published at Comics Bulletin on September 22, 2016.

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Every week in a new installment of “Leading Questions”, the young, lantern jawed Publisher of Comics Bulletin Mark Stack will ask Co-Managing Editor Chase Magnett a question he must answer. However, Mark doesn’t plan on taking it easy on Chase. He’ll be setting him up with questions that are anything but fair and balanced to see how this once overconfident comics critic can make a cogent case for what another one obviously wants to hear.

So without any further ado…

DC Comics are rooted in pulp origins and Marvel Comics spring out of sci-fi. How does that reflect in their “universes”?

I like that this question isn’t framed as a Marvel versus DC quandary. We’ve already had some fun with that in the past. It’s really not a useful thing to ponder though. While the publishers have different strengths and vary in quality in any given year, trying to declare one the winner of superhero comics is the height of silliness. It’s a lot more useful to examine how they contrast and what the means; that’s something this question gets right to the heart of.

While we look at these two as the modern titans of American comics publishing and classic rivals, there’s about a two decade span of time between their origins. You can point to Timely Comics and the creation of characters like Captain America and Namor, the Sub-Mariner dating back to the Golden Age. These foundations were built simultaneously with National Comics and Detective Comics rise to power (along with their merger in 1946) and the creation of Superman, Batman, and almost every other Justice League stalwart. It was only DC Comics that would continue as a powerhouse of superhero comics through the 1960s though. As Timely became Atlas and then Marvel in 1961, it moved between genres like romance and monster comics. The rivalry between these two as we think of it today did not really begin until after the publication of Fantastic Four #1 and birth of the “Marvel Universe” in November 1961, almost a quarter century after the debut of Superman in Action Comics #1.

This enormous time gap led to a variety of different influences, both in fiction and reality, influencing how these comics were structured and who was creating them. DC Comics earliest characters were born out of the pulp tradition, which was still very active when they began publishing. Pulps were focused on fantastic heroes set in a reality that loosely resembled our own. Doc Savage was a perfect man constantly going on adventures; The Shadow sought vengeance from the shadows; Ka-Zar swung through the jungles and battled dinosaurs. They were outstanding individuals who cultivated a unique mythos around their personalities and powers (natural or otherwise).

You can see that influence on early DC characters in more way than one. The most obvious comparison comes in finding the direct influences of comics creators. Superman co-creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster have spoke openly about a variety of pulp inspirations for the Man of Steel, including Doc Savage. No matter what that schmuck Bob Kane may have said, it’s impossible to deny that Batman traces his roots to The Shadow.

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What’s far more interesting though is the structure of these characters and how they connect to their pulp origins. Take a look at how Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, The Flash, and just about every other well known DC character was initially presented in the Golden Age. They were not only the heroes of their stories, but were unique to their stories. Superman did not emerge as the greatest hero in a world of heroes, he was the only man with his abilities. In Action Comicsand then Superman, his stories formed a mythos around him. He collected a rogues gallery and supporting cast. His mythology grew and grew, all in support of this singular protagonist.

That is how each of these characters were developed, as the story to be told with no concern to how they would or could connect. They certainly did, starting with the birth of the Justice Society in All-Star Comics #3 at the end of 1940, but that was an oddity. Each hero was given their own city, their own cast, and essentially their own world that would be shaped to support a mythos centered on them. Just like Doc Savage and The Shadow, they were meant to be figures of legendary stature, unrivaled in their defining characteristics.

The earliest characters that founded the Marvel Comics brand were based in the genre and ideas of science fiction though. This stems from a few core reasons. When the architects of this publisher, Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, and Stan Lee, began to create they possessed a much more uniform approach. This is thanks to having relatively few creators all working together. While Kirby and Ditko had vastly different styles, Lee still brought a unifying element with his dialogue crafted after stories were drawn. Kirby especially had a major fascination with modern science and innovation, a voracious reader who picked up words and ideas whenever possible.

It also came at a time in history when science fiction was hot. The pulps were largely a thing of the past, with their best representatives existing in the form of DC Comics. However, sci-fi novels had risen in esteem and created a growing fandom. This is linked to the Cold War and America’s fascination with scientists as both warriors and heroes in the period. Concepts of space travel and nuclear power were the future of warfare and civilization, and with each passing year the impossible became possible.

screen-shot-2016-09-21-at-8-27-31-pmWhat you find with these early Marvel characters is that they tend to be a contribution to a larger world. When Tony Stark builds his first suit or Reed Richards takes his family into space or Hank Pym experiments with some new particles, they are already part of plots and experiments building the future. They are not unique or iconic in the same way that DC Comics characters are.

You can imagine the world and narrative around any of those scientists continuing after they die, and in a manner that isn’t continually meant to honor them. If Tony Stark were to disappear tomorrow, it’s not difficult to imagine James Rhodes continuing as War Machine (give or take a resurrection) without anyone needing to pick up the mantle or Iron Man. Stark and his inventions contribute to and expand the world, but he is not the only person capable of doing so. The important part of Iron Man stories is not Iron Man, but how the comics allow for new ideas and relationships to be continually explored and pushed in new directions.

To craft a metaphor, both the DC and Marvel universes are trees, but what makes them strong is different. DC Comics’ strength is found in its trunk. Looking at its longest-lasting characters like Superman or Wonder Woman, it’s the core idea of there being a Superman or Wonder Woman that not only gives these characters their power, but their entire family or allies and enemies. Remove Superman from the picture and you must rush to fill his place (sometimes with as many as four imitators). What gives his allies their power is how they relate to the core ideaology of the original. Even in a franchise like Green Lantern or Flash, the power of the concept is concentrated on a mantle. When Jay retires or Barry sacrifices himself, the title is passed on because The Flash must continue to exist.

On the other hand, Marvel’s tree finds its strength in its branches. While you can pinpoint an origin for a character like The Hulk, Bruce Banner as a scientist has grown himself and those around him in countless new directions. The Hulk is not fixed in a core ideal. That original concept meant to explore a Jekyll and Hyde-like relationship has been expanded to include life as a Vegas fixer, gladiatorial champion, and super-strong super scientist. None of these roads are any more quintessential than any other. In addition to Banner’s own changes, he has brought to rise the stories of She-Hulk, a fourth-wall breaking attorney, and dozens of other Hulk-types. The key to his stories and those of so many other classic Marvel characters is the continual need for invention and experimentation.

It’s easy to talk about this essence versus experimentation difference when looking at some of the most popular characters at either publisher. Superman and Batman are unchangeable tentpoles who have created expanded universes swirling around and in relation to their identities. Mr. Fantastic and Ant-Man are often best recognized in stories and characters to which they share only a tangential relationship. However, I think the best example of each publisher’s strength can be found in heroes who typically lack ongoing series or mainstream recognition. If I was going to summarize the pulp and sci-fi cores of these two and why they are strengths, I’d have to discuss Starman and The Vision.

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The original Starman was created by Gardner Fox and Jack Burnley in 1941, but never managed to become very popular and faded largely into obscurity over the next five decades. It wasn’t until 1994 when James Robinson and Tony Harris introduced Jack Knight, Ted’s son, that the name took on any significance in the world of superhero comics. Over the course of 81 issues and various mini-series and one-shots they not only told Jack’s story, but created a mythos around the Starman mantle.

Pulling from a variety of heroes who had used the name and inventing others, they wove the concept of Starman into a single cohesive narrative. It became a story about exploration and discovery. Whether it was plunging into the hidden history of Opal City or flying into space, the various Starmen always were seeking the horizon. These men almost always were tied to The Opal, a city defined by its hero as much as it defined its hero. Local police and other supporting cast members like The Shade and The Mist circled around their story. They were typically united by a few key powers, flying and utilizing a power source to control external elements.

Most significantly, it became a story about legacy focused on fathers, sons, and brothers. Starman was a title that united all of the men who bore it, even if only for a few days, and it was that title that was ultimately important. Starman was the hero of Opal City. Starman was the hero of the series. Starman was the legacy that pulled so many disparate elements together. This one title became a legend that none of the story could exist without. While the series crossed over with characters like Captain Marvel and Batman, they were always extraneous to the plot. Starman was a DC property without significance until the name itself was given importance.

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The Vision on the other hand was born from a strange combination of elements, drawing oddities together rather than affirming a central identity. For those unfamiliar with the character’s comics origin, he was created by Ultron 5 who was the latest iteration of Hank Pym’s experiment with artificial intelligence gone homicidally wrong. While Pym is best known for the discovery of Pym Particles, allowing objects to grow or shrink, his creation utilized new discoveries to allow The Vision control of his density. Furthermore, Ultron 5 used the brain pattern Simon Williams, a deceased man super-powered by the machination of the Masters of Evil, to provide him with a personality. It’s a confluence of inventions, discoveries, characters, and stories creating something entirely new.

Since his creation The Vision has led to a wide array of bizarre stories. He has had impossible children with fellow Avenger Scarlet Witch, lost his “soul” to Simon Williams, seen his android family grown in a variety of forms, and been recast as a teenager. There is no pure or essential form of The Vision. His origin and existence lends itself to stories about the nature of humanity and self-determination. Yet the mad science that concocted him has allowed for his story to be reshaped year after year. He is a malleable character formed by bizarre combinations and adding to plenty of new ones.

Looking at characters like Vision and Starman, specifically series like The Vision and Starman, it seems obvious to me that they come from very different places. Comparing them leads to a complex array of differences that originate with the very publishers to which they belong. But it’s not a versus comparison, it’s a discussion of difference. Because looking at The Vision and Starman, while you might have a preference, there’s no way you’d want to live in a world with only one. They embrace the strengths of these publishers origins and what their characters tend to do best based on those roots. They are incredible comics because of where they originate.

In case the title of this week’s column didn’t snap into place, it’s a dumb reference to my alma mater’s sports conference: The Big Ten. It refers to differences between all of the schools involved, between those with established reputations defined by their history and those making constant changes in their athletic and academic programs. It’s a terrible naming scheme for a notable conference, but it does seem oddly fitting for this comparison.

DC Comics is a publisher defined by legendary characters. They are shaped by archetypal superheroes and incredible legacies. Marvel is a publisher defined by experimentation and alteration. Their characters regularly alter themselves, one another, and the world around them. These two legendary worlds of superheroes are separated by much more than two decades; they’re differentiated by tradition, style, and influence. It’s those differences that have allowed both of their universes to last and what allows them to remain relevant even when set side-by-side today.

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Why Xenomorphs are The Greatest Villains in Comics

This article was originally published at ComicBook.Com on September 21, 2016.

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This week Dark Horse Comics launches Aliens: Life and Death in which characters from previous series will be pursued by hordes of the chitinous, black Xenomorphs.

It accompanies Aliens: Defiance, another mini-series centered on this famous science-fiction monster. Comics readers won’t be surprised to find multiple series featuring this antagonist though. They’ve been a mainstay of comics for decades now in series of their own and crossovers with various publishers like DC Comics, 2000 A.D., and Wildstorm.

What makes these aliens so popular? Why have they appeared alongside so many other comics properties? I’m here to make the case that it’s because they’re the greatest villain in all of comics, and here’s why…

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Where They Come From

The Xenomorph made its debut in film in the 1979 Ridley Scott film Alien. It was a smash hit that redefined the science fiction and horror genres on the big screen in America. All three stages of the creature’s incredible design by H. R. Giger were equal parts evocative and terrifying. The success of the original film and its enduring popularity led to the greatly acclaimed Aliens from director James Cameron. Xenomorphs have continued to appear in films ever since, including the crossover AVP: Alien Vs. Predator.

Having those two alien races face off didn’t originate in the movies though. It began with comic book artist Chris Warner who thought of the idea in 1989. This is only one example of how Xenomorphs have worked their way into comics, both benefiting the medium and benefitting from it. They have been a mainstay of comics since they first appeared, regularly featuring in a variety of ongoing series, mini-series, and anthologies.

What is most notable about the Xenomorph is how adaptable it has been through a variety of other stories. In addition to comics set in the universe created by Scott in Alien, the Xenomorph has faced off against characters like Batman, Judge Dredd, Terminators, WildC.A.T.S., and Green Lantern. They have been the source of unique stories, incredible destruction, and unending terror for three decades of comics.

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What Makes Them Unique

Discovering what makes the Xenomorph unique requires no more than looking at its surface. Giger created a monster that has been a fascination for artists ever since. It is based in Freudian psychology with strong phallic imagery that raises more fears than simply being killed and eaten. The alien’s final form is monstrous with long talons and tail, sharp teeth and multiple mouths. Every element is designed to kill, including its very blood with melts through steel. Even as an embryo the alien is terrifying though. It embeds itself in a host, transforming them into a time bomb, one that will be viciously destroyed from the inside while creating a new monster that will stalk others.

The unique aspects of the Xenomorph goes far beyond Giger’s design for the beast though. Its beauty as an antagonist lies in its simplicity. They are uncomplicated in their motives. Xenomorphs have a simple lifecycle that begins with implanting an embryo in a living creature that will then emerge from its host to grow and relentlessly stalk and kill those who are not transformed into hosts. They are based in the most basic drive of nature: to survive and replicate. This motive can be twisted by the desires of others and grander plans, but it is relentless in nature. They will never stop seeking prey or hosts, and are incredibly difficult to stop.

There have been many imitators to the Xenomorph. Many comics and movie creatures have been designed as killing machines. Others have been crafted to be unstoppable or to represent primal forces or fears. None have combined all of these elements with the same perfection as the Xenomorph. It is the ultimate killing machine and an evocation of our deepest nightmares, functioning in a single form.

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Why They’re The Best

It’s that unique design that makes the Xenomorph the best antagonist in comics. No matter what character or world you may set a story in, they are a powerful threat. On a purely physical level they can confront almost any hero or protagonist. Given how easily the walking dead have overrun Earth, the Xenomorph surely spells an extinction level event. Even Judge Dredd, the toughest cop in Mega City One, or Batman, the Dark Knight himself, can be challenged by a single one of these monsters. Only a character like Superman could hope to take them on en masse, and that’s only assuming no red sunlight or Kryptonite is involved. These aliens will destroy everything in their path, transforming any recognizable or vaguely sympathetic person into a protagonist. Even someone like Lex Luthor will want an Earth to bow to his intellect when all is said and done.

However, it’s the deeper, darker horrors the Xenomorph represents that make them the truly best villain in all of comics. They are a nihilistic onslaught without reason, emotion, or sympathy. Each Xenomorph exists only to kill and procreate. Their utterly black shells reflect a dark universe that can kill anyone at any moment. When you look outside at night and wonder whether there’s justice or a greater design, it’s the spirit of the alien that answers no. You cannot even look it in its eyes, it only offers a mouth ready to consume more and more.

In Giger’s design and the many stories created so far are a variety of other themes to explore as well. Fears of pregnancy, sexual assault, and unlimited capitalism are all baked into the Xenomorph as well. Creators can use these creatures to delve into almost any fear or conflict they want their heroes to encounter. They can reflect the worst aspects of individuals, humanity, and the universe itself. Xenomorphs are the consummate monster.

The Final Word

From their very first appearance on film, it was clear the Xenomorph was a truly potent villain. While it has continued to haunt movie screens intermittently, it has truly thrived in comics. In the pages of various comics for more than three decades, these aliens have not only continued their own stories, but populated those of a variety of other characters. They slaughtered most of Stormwatch at Wildstorm and made Dredd face one of his darkest days. In every incarnation they are terrifying, and help us learn about our own greatest fears through the stories of our heroes and their victims.

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REVIEW: Hellboy: The Black Sun Makes the Familiar Feel Fresh

This article was originally published at ComicBook.Com on September 21, 2016.

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The ending of Hellboy’s story is a known quantity, but Mike Mignola isn’t done telling Hellboy stories.

Using the gap between Hellboy’s discovery during World War II and his first appearance in “Seed of Destruction”, Mignola and co-writer Chris Roberson are detailing how Hellboy came to be the man comics readers know and love. This period provides them with a lot of freedom, able to explore new settings and ideas that were left out of the original Hellboy stories. In “The Black Sun” the story is moved to Antarctica in 1954, in a tale that riffs on its own mythos without ever reading as predictable.

If there’s an obvious influence in “The Black Sun” it doesn’t come from Hellboy lore though, but that of American horror films. Antarctica is famously the setting of John Carpenter’s The Thing and it’s a comparison this comic does not duck away from. Scientists huddled together in a remote setting, racial tension, a mysterious, twisted beast: all of that is here and more. Mignola and Roberson admire the elements that make The Thing great without allowing their homage to devolve into parody or ripoff though. This remains a Hellboy story with the monsters and motivations rooted in Hellboy’s universe. The shared components remain as nods that fans of both properties will appreciate, without requiring a knowledge of either to engage the story.

Roberson’s inclusion in plotting Hellboy stories shows a knack for what makes the character work. His hardheaded approach to problems where his right fist is a hammer and anything out of the ordinary a nail maintains both its humor and charm. What really sings about “The Black Sun” though is its final panel, in a twist that feels like classic Hellboy without being obvious even as you turn the page. There’s nothing new or innovative to the narrative, but it still reads as being an enjoyable addition to this extensive narrative. Elements from previousHellboy and the B.P.R.D. mini-series are included, while their many elements are remixed to keep readers guessing while turning pages.

What makes the first issue of “The Black Sun” really pop is the introduction of new Dark Horse artist Stephen Green. Green’s style fits into the carefully curated Mignola-verse, with recognizable characters and monsters. However, his use of inks mark him as someone with visual sensibilities to watch out for. Hellboy’s facial expressions are subtle, but always clear. Green pushes the character’s jaw or cheek bones just enough to mark him as questioning or charmed. When in close up small details like teeth or sideburns are imperfect in a deeply humanizing way. It’s clear how long the big, red guy has had since a shave and that he never had braces.

The smallness of those details shouldn’t undermine what Green can do with a set piece. One particularly claustrophobic sequence towards the end of the issue is framed exceedingly well, and when the settings sprawl he provides a very clear sense of space. Colorist Dave Stewart helps to highlight the enormity of these moments as well. He utilizes bright reds and whites against dulls greys and browns to contrast the key objects in any splash panel.

This new installment of Hellboy and the B.P.R.D. is every bit as enjoyable as those that preceded it and for the same reasons. It’s like catching up with an old friend. You know a lot of what to expect, but a few new elements and changes make you glad you’re catching a beer. It’s a great way to spend a half hour, especially when you consider someone like Green’s career in comics may just be beginning. This may not be can’t miss comics, but you certainly shouldn’t consider dismissing it.

Grade: B

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In Defense of Brian Michael Bendis

This article was originally published at ComicBook.Com on September 17, 2016.

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Brian Michael Bendis is indisputably one of the biggest names in comics today. In the past 15 years he has redefined the Avengers and X-Men franchises, created more than a dozen highly popular characters, won five Eisner Awards, and written more Marvel events than you can throw cash at.

His currently writes more than five comics each month, with some featuring characters he co-created like Jessica Jones and Miles Morales. His influence and impact on comics, specifically Marvel Comics, is undeniable.

That profile has created a perception among some comics readers that Bendis essentially runs Marvel with some sort of special sway over any decisions being made. While he is respected and listened to among his peers, he is neither an editor nor an owner of the publisher. His role has remained that of a comics writer, and this is where his impact can be most clearly seen and felt. Unfortunately, perception is treated like reality and Bendis’ perception has led to him being seen as a figurehead for many of Marvel’s actions, especially its follies.

When Marvel makes a misstep or controversial decision, it is often Bendis’ name that is at the front of the conversation on Twitter and other message boards. In the past year he has been raked over the coals by comics fans for issues ranging from the state of the direct market, creative assignments on specific books, and character choices. While the last of these three items does involve his input, the former two are ultimately far outside of his control.

It’s not that Bendis is somehow above being criticized. Critics ought to feel free to respond to what Bendis says on social media or places into a story. However, there is a distinction between criticizing a creator for their output and for actions they have no hand in. Criticizing Bendis’ work and his person are two different actions, and it seems they have begun to overlap in many uncomfortable ways.

It is worthwhile to consider the real impact Bendis has made at Marvel Comics; it must be significant given both the longevity and profile of his career. But what actual actions can be assigned to the man? What is he really responsible for? In spite of some perceptions, the reality reveals a lot of positives both on the page and behind the scenes.

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Bendis’ most substantial contributions to the Marvel shared universe isn’t any selection of stories, but the characters he has added to it. Alias, one of his very first series for the publisher, added Jessica Jones (co-created by Michael Gaydos) and fused her with decades of continuity. Alias is notable in that it featured a solo female protagonist at time when the publisher had very few to offer. Furthermore it presented her as a fully formed character, defined outside of a tight costume and idealized forms. Her relationship with Luke Cage and sexual autonomy were also unique in 2001 (and a rarity still today).

Jessica Jones has only grown in popularity since her introduction and became the first Marvel Studios heroine to receive her own series or film. However, Bendis’ most substantial creation is probably that of Miles Morales a.k.a. Spider-Man (co-created by Sara Pichelli). Morales first appeared as a replacement for the recently deceased Spider-Man of Marvel’s Ultimate line. First introduced as a replacement for Marvel’s “Ultimate” Spider-Man, Morales broke down a variety of barriers and garnered a great deal of mainstream attention for being of African American and Puerto Rican heritage. Although the character riled up critics on conservative networks like Fox News, Morales quickly gained a dedicated fanbase among Marvel readers who embraced the character. Following the events of Secret Wars, Morales has left the Ultimate line and joined the mainstream Marvel universe in the title Spider-Man, further boosting his profile.

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More recently Marvel Comics announced Riri Williams, another new character created by Bendis and Stefano Caselli who would be assuming the role of Iron Man in the Marvel universe. Riri’s introduction is notable again for adding a diverse new character to a spot traditionally filled by a white man in Marvel Comics. This announcement also upset some who pointed to Marvel’s complete historical lack of black women in writing roles. It is a valid concern and one the publisher is making initial steps to confront with the hiring of Roxane Gay and Yona Harvey to write the upcoming series World of Wakanda. Bendis’ direct contribution to the entire situation is focused on the creation of Riri though, a positive stride in diversifying superhero comics on the page.

While Bendis does not have the power to hire writers or assign characters at Marvel Comics, he does possess influence over his own books and the ability to suggest creators for consideration. His career is a testament to long-term collaborations and loyalty towards artists. After the conclusion of Alias, he has waited until co-creator Gaydos’ schedule was open before considering writing another Jessica Jones ongoing series himself. His work on Ultimate Spider-Man saw a record breaking number of issues by the same creative team as he and artist Mark Bagley crossed the 100 issue landmark together. Currently, Bendis and Pichelli continue to work on Mile Morales together in Spider-Man, five years after introducing the character together.

Whether you speak to creators who have passed through Marvel or currently work there, Bendis’ name is bound to appear before too long. Writer David F. Walker (Shaft, Power Man and Iron Fist) attributes his jump from journalism to comics to his friendship with Bendis. After years of watching his friend follow his dreams, Walker created a plan to pursue his own passions and talked it over with Bendis. Walker says that as he began to pursue his dreams, “He just became one of my greatest cheerleaders… When I’ve been down and out, and he’s propped me up. When I score a victory, he’s one of the first to congratulate me.”

Bendis is also known for keeping his eye on small press and independent comics creators. He was the first person at Marvel Comics to take note of COPRA creator Michel Fiffe selling his renowned revenge comics on Etsy. After Bendis reached out to him, Fiffe was hired to write All-New Ultimates and create a short story for the anthology one-shot Secret Love. Fiffe says, “…it all stems from his love and interest in the world of comics. That enthusiasm has definitely helped a lot of us get a leg up.”

Speaking to creators like Walker, Fiffe, and Ed Brubaker, there is an undeniable tone of warmth and gratitude towards the man. He is well-liked and the increased profile of these and other peers has done the comics industry itself a great deal of good. None of this is to suggest Bendis for canonization or to say that he is beyond criticism. However, it does go to show the changes and improvements that Bendis has generated from his prominent position within the comics industry.

Considering both what Bendis has created at Marvel Comics and only some of the careers he has helped, it is impossible to deny that he has been a force for good in comics. Whatever critics may say about his work, an expansive bibliography impossible to summarize in any case, his impact goes far beyond the stories he tells. Bendis has been a generator of ideas and characters at Marvel, all of whom have helped rebuild a brand. And he has been a supporter of new talent, boosting voices from outside of the mainstream to further reshape comics’ consistently biggest publisher. When you put speculation aside and assess what has actually been done, Brian Michael Bendis’ career is one dedicated to making comics better.

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Doom Patrol #1 is Far More Than Weird, It May Even Be Brilliant

This article was originally published at ComicBook.Com on September 18, 2016.

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Strange. Weird. Odd. You’re going to read or hear these words a lot when digging through reviews of Doom Patrol #1.

You wouldn’t be wrong to apply any of them either, but they fail to provide a subjective portrait of a comic that is most certainly all of these things. They establish that Doom Patrol is unlike other things, that it is unique, and that is true. But being different doesn’t inform whether something is intelligently crafted or ignorantly assembled, purposefully twisted or haphazardly random. The real question to ask regarding Doom Patrol #1 is: Is this comic exceptional?

Those sorts of descriptions focus primarily on the plotting of Doom Patrol, but the success or failure of each element of plotting relies on the debut’s most striking feature: its visual presentation. The very first page casts an unclear set of narration over a set of four images that may be moments already passed, yet to come, or mere possibilities. What could have easily fallen into the cliched trap of showing the end of the story instead becomes a dreamlike reverie on permanence and transience. Tamra Bonvillain colors these unique moments in darkening shades of violet pushing them down the road and away from the present, coated like a sunset.

When the story refocuses on Casey Brinke, apparently the newest protagonist of the Doom Patrol, it takes place at night, but the bright lights of ambulances and street lamps sharply refocus the story. It’s an artful transition that sets the tone and setting for this narrative perfectly. Artist Nick Derington makes Casey instantly likeable as her face and body language is filled with warmth and energy. She manages to be nervous and confident in a uniquely human way whether she’s gripping the wheel of an ambulance or plugging away at arcade games.

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Writer Gerard Way’s internal monologue and dialogue in relation to Casey fuse his love of comics writing with lyrical sensibilities. From the very start of her narration, beautifully lettered by Todd Klein on torn scraps from a notebook, it’s clear who she is. She speaks of her mother flying into the sun after telling her to “Be a bright light in a black hole” in a story that works on both a metaphorical and literal level. It’s never made clear in this issue how a moment like this should be read, but that’s perfectly okay. There is a clear sense of who Casey is and why her life matters, and that is enough to make everything else worth puzzling out.

While Casey and her partner Samson form the heart of this issue, Doom Patrol #1 is loaded with a lot more than his irresistible pair of protagonists. There’s a detour to the interior of a gyro loaded with pop culture references, puns, and a brilliant alteration in style. There’s references to Grant Morrison’s beloved run on Doom Patrol with lots of bricks that manage to function with or without that context. There’s Terry None who is loaded with shocking party tricks. You could call all of this strange, but it’s better than strange. It’s inventive and imaginative, pushing boundaries and exploring ideas. There’s a whole lot of setup in each of these elements, but they function within this issue as well, as something new worth seeing simply to expand horizons and expectations.

Only time (and additional issues) will tell whether Doom Patrol is a comic that will last and be remembered as exceptional. In this moment at least, it certainly seems to be. Doom Patrol #1 is a stunning comic on a purely visual level, with Derington, Bonvillain, and Klein all on their best form. They present a single issue story so pleasing to the eye that even if its promises and questions remain unfulfilled, it will remain notable nonetheless. And there is a great deal of promise in the story being told. Ideas are carefully layered and characters constructed to allow for the sort of sprawl that still makes Morrison’s Doom Patrol a high watermark of superhero comics. As of right now, the only thing to do is buy the ticket and take the ride.

Grade: B+

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Why Young Animal is the Most Important DC Launch of 2016

This article was originally published at ComicBook.Com on September 15, 2016.

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This week sees the official launch of DC Comics’ Young Animal imprint with the publication of Doom Patrol #1. The imprint was first announced in April of this year at Emerald City Comicon. Young Animal is designed to give a different spin to characters in the DC Universe, some pre-existing and some new. What was most surprising about the initial announcement was the introduction of Gerard Way, co-creator of The Umbrella Academy and My Chemical Romance vocalist, as the leading man behind the effort. It was an announcement with lots of promise and now it is almost here.

Young Animal is launching with a total of four series throughout fall of 2016 to start. Each series features new takes on lesser known characters (e.g. Shade and Cave Carson) or brand new ones. Doom Patrol #1 will be written by Way himself and drawn by Nick Derington. Way described his take on the Doom Patrol as a spiritual successor to Grant Morrison’s beloved run from the late 80s and early 90s. It’s this connection that is most revealing about the potential and direction found in Young Animal.

Morrison’s Doom Patrol was published alongside a pantheon of iconic characters that fit easily into the superhero mold at DC Comics. It was a mold that the Doom Patrol not only refused, but attempted to break. Confrontations with bizarre foes like the Brotherhood of Dada and Scissor Men along with the inclusion of new characters like the transgendered Danny the Street (who was a literal street) paved new roads in the genre. More significantly, Doom Patrol was not alone in its oddities and tangents at DC Comics during this time.

Around the same period DC Comics also published the likes of Animal Man (also by Morrison), Saga of the Swamp Thing, Hellblazer, and Sandman. These are all now considered to be Vertigo Comics titles, but they were only included into that imprint after it was founded by Karen Berger in 1993. In many ways it was a response to these very successful comics that didn’t quite fit into the mainstream DC Comics superhero umbrella. Rather than attempt to have these comics conform or crossover, the publisher allowed them to keep doing their own, very unique, thing.
That seems to be the idea with Young Animal. This becomes even more clear when examining the recent lineup of Rebirth comics published over the past few months. DC Comics has gone back to its roots with Rebirth, publishing a wide array of superhero comics focused on essentials with quick turnarounds, exciting stories, and great talent. Even the new Hellblazer series fits shockingly well into the bounds of a standard superhero story. None of this is a bad thing either. The Rebirth comics are consistently a lot of fun and include some really great talents. They aren’t experimenting with the form or genre though; that seems to be the goal with Young Animal instead.

This becomes even more clear when you review the concepts of the first four series:

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DOOM PATROL

Gerard Way, Nick Derington, and Tamra Bonvillain

Morrison’s Doom Patrol defined itself by having both the strangest heroes and villains, and this series is set to do the same. The tropes may feel familiar, but the way these characters interact with their world is anything but. It’s a superhero story taken to the furthest reaches of imagination to explore both the genre and how individuals who feel like they have no place in the world manage to fit in.

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SHADE, THE CHANGING GIRL

Cecil Castellucci, Marley Zarcone, and Kelly Fitzpatrick

Pulling from Steve Ditko’s original creation and the Vertigo series written by Peter Milligan, this new take on Shade follows a young woman from Meta who comes to Earth and assumes the life of a teenage girl. She has to live experiences she never counted on and become responsible for people she didn’t intend to hurt. It’s a perfect metaphor for adolescence with alienation baked into the protagonist’s very character.

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CAVE CARSON HAS A CYBERNETIC EYE

Jon Rivera, Gerard Way, Michael Avon Oeming, and Nick Filardi

Cave Carson is focused on a recently widowed middle aged man, the opposite of Marvel Studios’ handsome, aspirational heroes. Yet his experiences and unique modifications (that cybernetic eye) give him a life worth leading even in the midst of so much upheaval. Pulling from the weirdness of Golden Age adventure comics, this story is set to tackle the adventure of life in all of its many forms.

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MOTHER PANIC

Jody Houser and Tommy Lee Edwards

Mother Panic is the one truly new character in this initial lineup, although she can be seen as a spin on a classic one: Batman. She is a brutal vigilante by night and socialite by day operating in Gotham City. Removing the Caped Crusader’s origin allows this story to delve into what a super-rich superhero might look do, inquiring into questions of wealth and status along the way as well.

When you look at those series set to debut over the next few months starting this Wednesday, it’s difficult to not have Flashbacks of the origins of Vertigo Comics. There’s a talented array of creators pursuing discarded superhero concepts with an incredible sense of passion. The last time something like this happened at DC Comics it produced some of the best comics of the past century. Animal Man #5, “The Coyote Gospel”, still stands as a testament to the immense power of a single issue of superhero comics. Considering the similarities, it’s difficult to not have high expectations for Young Animal.

These four titles provide a diverse array of creators, styles, and stories, but they’re also the beginning of Young Animal. Based on their success, we could continue to see more C-list superheroes and new characters emerge and explore the genre in ways that are impossible to imagine now.

Young Animal also provides a home for titles that were previously squeezed into the main DC Comics publishing line. The Omega Men was one of the publisher’s worst selling comics as part of the DCYou initiative, but has hit the New York Times bestseller list as a collection. Its formalistic quirks and focus outside of standard genre fare would have made it a potential fit for Young Animal. In this line it would not have to compete with the likes of Batman and Green Lantern, but could instead be marketed towards a better suited audience with more similar titles. The same goes for an outstanding comic like Prez that never got to complete its planned 12-issue run.

2016 has seen a lot of changes at DC Comics. They’ve taken the lessons of the past five years and reworked their publishing model in a variety of exciting ways that already appear to be paying off. While the Rebirth line focuses on their core strengths, Young Animal has been devised to encourage growth and exploration. Old ideas are made new, while new ideas truly astound. Young Animal is set to redefine the superhero and reveal the most exciting talents of the next decade in comics.

The birth of Young Animal may be the most exciting thing to happen in comics in 2016, and it’s just the beginning.

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Count Vertigo: The Hero at the Heart of Suicide Squad

This article was originally published at Comics Bulletin on September 15, 2016.

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It is a beautiful day. You are standing on the cliffside of an island with the sun setting behind you. Waves crash against the rocks beneath, sending salt into the air, while the verdant grass and bushes blow in the breeze. Out in the ocean, rocks jut out providing a scenic vista against which to enjoy the end of the day. But ahead of you is the barrel of a gun. Less than an inch wide, it is utterly black inside and all you can see is this darkness.

It is a beautiful day, but the only thing you can see is the miniature black hole of a gun barrel. This is what it feels like to have depression.

You have to understand this scene in order to understand both Count Vertigo and Suicide Squad. This is the final page of the series’ 66-issue run and the climax of a character who arrived looking purely like cannon fodder.

Count Vertigo first appeared in the pages of World’s Finest Comics #251 in 1978, created by writer Gerry Conway, penciller Trevor Von Eeden, and inker Vince Colletta. He was designed to be a new Green Arrow villain. Only a couple of things about his original design are of note. Like many villains from the period, Vertigo relied on a singular gimmick. In this instance he was able to affect others’ perception and induce vertigo due to a mechanical fix for his own inner-ear defect. This defect was the result of inbreeding among royal families, where he gained his title to the fictional country of Vlatava. The most interesting element of Vertigo’s debut is his visual appearance, with the complex designs of his inner cape based on Steve Ditko’s most arcanic work. He would wallow in obscurity like hundreds of similar one-note villains for the next decade.

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Werner Vertigo’s debut in Suicide Squad was every bit as innocuous. He joined the team in Suicide Squad #24 as part of a recently expanded lineup. Others like Doctor Light and Shrike appeared for the first time as well; both of these characters would lose their lives within the next two years of publication. Vertigo appeared to be expendable, lacking in personality, popularity, or defensive powers. He does not even speak in this first appearance. It is only in Suicide Squad #25 that he finally acts, suggesting a coup against the team leaders only to have Duchess put him down with a single blow to the gut.

Despite the lack of interest here and in the subsequent crossover “The Janus Directive,” Vertigo would grow throughout the second half of Suicide Squad to become one of the series’ most important characters, in both theme and plot. The start of his story and one of the series longest running subplots can be found in a single page of Suicide Squad #31.

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This issue is one of the “Personal Files” installments of the series, taking a look at what characters did outside of missions, from the perspective of Belle Reve minister Father Craemer. Over the course of one page, Craemer consults with Vertigo (a Catholic) about his mental state. Vertigo states what will become the foundation of his character in a brief monologue. He merges the origin of his powers (genetic illness) with that of his driving motive: a manic-depressive disorder.

Vertigo speaks to the lack of control he feels over his own life, in spite of the immense power he possesses both as a metahuman and member of the aristocracy. He is torn between depression in which he is incapable of acting and tempted to kill himself and mania wherein he loses control of his actions and risks killing others. Vertigo is not self-pitying in his confession either. He exhibits a sense of humor and assuredness in his understanding. There are a list of solutions that have all failed him, which lead to his current predicament. Vertigo, while lucid, believes he might be better dead than alive. His grounding in Catholicism holds him from committing the act itself, but the Suicide Squad provides him with a tempting workaround to this solution.

In the end, Vertigo says it best himself, “I am tired of being tired, Father—I wish to be well or dead.”

Over the course of the next 34 issues, co-writers John Ostrander and Kim Yale, along with their artistic collaborators, redefine who Count Vertigo is and how readers perceive him. Everything he does in Suicide Squadfrom #31 forward can be defined in relation to his battle with depression, from battles against literal gods to private hallway confessions.

Perhaps the most difficult redefinition of Vertigo’s character comes in how he asserts power. The original trappings of the character provide the auspices of power—royal heritage, wealth, loosely defined superpowers—but don’t speak to the character himself. Ostrander and Yale focused on revealing who Vertigo was when removed from his most obvious signifiers. As a member of the Squad, Vertigo is already lacking the command of a nation or even control over his own life. Yet his actions in missions reveal someone prepared to do the impossible.

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When asked to go to Apokolips, Vertigo shrugs and tags along. Unlike cowering co-recruit Doctor Light, Vertigo is open to challenges and believes himself capable of incredible feats. While there he goes toe-to-toe with the New Gods of the hellish planet alongside his colleagues. Darkseid’s personal assassin places a dagger in Vertigo’s belly during a skirmish, leaving him to bleed out. During the final battle of the story, Vertigo drags himself behind Kanto and stabs him in the back asserting, “Mortals have slain gods before.” He then collapses to the ground and is left bedridden for months. The steel of his actions on Apokolips reveal a man capable both of inhuman feats and possessing awesome drive, at least in the right moments.

Vertigo is also shown to be capable of leadership later in the series. During one mission he is assigned to a three-man team also containing Deadshot and Steel Wolf. He is the most stable of the three by far and is the sole factor that ensures neither of the others kill one another or themselves.

The most obvious assertion of Vertigo’s powers comes in how his metahuman abilities are portrayed in Suicide Squad. In Suicide Squad #47, while under immense physical and mental duress, it is Vertigo alone who prevents World War III. He is capable of leaving personal conflict behind and flying into the sky to divert fighter jets from the Dome of the Rock. Just like his battle on Apokolips, what occurs here leaves him exhausted, collapsing into the arms of an ally. Later in Suicide Squad #61 when the team confronts the Justice League for a second time, it is Vertigo who is capable of keeping Superman out of the fight. He leaves the superhero paralyzed on the ground, incapable of flying or using his heat vision for fear of striking the wrong person.

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All of these moments are important because Vertigo’s story in Suicide Squad is not one of gaining strength, but losing control. It’s these story beats that inform us of his inner resolve and competency, while in a lucid state. Yet each step forward in the story sees some part of Werner Vertigo stripped away as he is pushed closer to the brink he spoke of with Craemer in Suicide Squad #31.

This dismantling really begins in the second half of the series. Following his near-death on Apokolips, Vertigo reappears one year later after the Squad has been disbanded and reformed as a private organization. Here he becomes the central focus of “The Phoenix Gambit.” After being released from prison, Vlatavan nationals have taken advantage of his mental imbalance to use him as a figurehead in their own civil war. While Vertigo appears like an avenging angel on the battlefield, he is being manipulated by drugs to follow the whims of others.

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He is not rescued from the military so much as he is passed along to a new manipulator. Poison Ivy places Vertigo under the power of her own drugs first in an attempt to seize control of Vlatava, and then settles for using Vertigo as a sugar daddy and boy toy. When he finally breaks free, it is only thanks to the interference of Amanda Waller. Knowing what has been done to him, he is driven to madness, almost killing Waller and Ivy both before flying off to save the world. When coming free of the drugs in his system, Vertigo chooses to go cold turkey driving him into a horrific state. His willpower and resolve allow him to resume control of his own mind, but only at an incredible cost.

Vertigo loses the respect of his nation, the wealth of his family, and his own autonomy in Suicide Squad. When he is finally freed from Ivy’s control, Dr. Simon LaGrieve informs him her drugs have had a unique effect on his system. The biological component of Vertigo’s manic-depressive state has been removed. In spite of this he still is not in control of his own emotions, with depression continuing as if out of habit. Even when given a potential boon, Vertigo is driven further into a state of despair.

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After receiving this news, he makes a fateful pact with Deadshot in Suicide Squad #51. Incapable of relying on himself and without any hope of being free of his internal demons, Vertigo asks the shootist whether he would be willing to kill him upon request. Deadshot agrees without hesitation and tells Vertigo to be sure of his request, because he will not hesitate to pull the trigger. For the first time in his life, Vertigo has an option to end his own life painlessly by his own decision without the consequences of hell facing him.

This requested “boon” is a mounting source of tension that lasts until the final few pages of the series. After a denouement is provided to the rest of the team upon the completion of their final mission, the focus shifts to Deadshot and Count Vertigo standing upon the cliffside of a fictional island nation. Deadshot stands prepared to pull the trigger at Vertigo’s behest. His only addition is impatience, asking, “Are we going to do this or what?” Deadshot at this point serves as a counterbalance to Vertigo, someone who has come to terms with his own broken status and embraced a soulless, uncaring state of life. Vertigo speaks aloud, more to himself than Deadshot, recounting the torment of his own mind and whether he wishes to continue living with such uncertainty and pain.

The final page of the series sees Vertigo facing down Deadshot, with the sun setting in the background. Over five panels they stare at one another with a gun pointed at Vertigo’s head, until finally Vertigo provides his response.

“No.”

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And with that Suicide Squad ends with a final flourish of “Fin.” Vertigo has made his choice and decided to live. Without land or titles, without certainty or maybe even hope, Vertigo has chosen to continue living and discard the escape he created for himself. This moment is the perfect conclusion to Suicide Squad and the greatest victory in the series’ 66-issue run.

Suicide Squad was a series that brought its characters into confrontation with New Gods and global politics. They battled the USSR and superpowered terrorists. The greatest battles of the series were always personal, though. They were the internal confrontations that occurred among this group of broken and discarded individuals. Amanda Waller battled against her own flaws, while offering people thought to be useless a chance to do something.

Mental illness. Social injustice. Self-loathing. These are the real villains of Suicide Squad. They are often beaten, but never entirely resolved. At the end of the series, those who survive are not winners by virtue of absolute victory, but continuation. Each step forward is a win and with those steps some of what they confront fades, usually.

Vertigo’s final decision is the decisive victory of the Suicide Squad. Facing a future with no guarantee of hope or happiness, Werner Vertigo still chooses to live. Even when facing the immense darkness in a small space of black, a gun barrel that promises release, Vertigo says no.


For a little boy learning to battle his own depression, discovering Suicide Squad and this story in quarter bins was life changing. At the time of his adolescence, Deadshot was the obviously cool character. He was the one who stopped caring and did what he wanted because death didn’t matter. But that’s not enough to live on, whether or not you make it to the final issue.

For a little boy it didn’t matter how capable he saw himself as being or how others perceived him. The inability to affect his own mental state was overwhelming. He had grown up Catholic, but still wanted some form of refuge he couldn’t seem to find. No matter how beautiful the world around him was, all he could see was a little black hole.

For this little boy a man in a cape swooped down and helped him make the right decision. Count Vertigo was the hero he needed. So he said “no” and kept living.

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Leading Questions: Kickstarter Comics’ Heart

This article was originally published at Comics Bulletin on September 15, 2016.

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Every week in a new installment of “Leading Questions”, the young, lantern jawed Publisher of Comics Bulletin Mark Stack will ask Co-Managing Editor Chase Magnett a question he must answer. However, Mark doesn’t plan on taking it easy on Chase. He’ll be setting him up with questions that are anything but fair and balanced to see how this once overconfident comics critic can make a cogent case for what another one obviously wants to hear.

So without any further ado…

Why won’t you donate to and share my Kickstarter campaign?

It probably has something to do with not wanting any Aquaman comics in my life, much Aquaman fan fiction off of a Kickstarter.

For real though, if you decide to run a Kickstarter down the road, you’ll likely find me on the backer list before the clock strikes zero. That has a lot to do with our friendship and my interest in you as a creator, and very little with the intent of Kickstarter or my feelings towards Kickstarted comics.

As much as I hope you find success in whatever comics paths you pursue, there’s a very real possibility that pursuing a Kickstarter will lead to you asking this question to a lot of people. You’ll probably even have to ask me, for real that time. While I’m here to buy Mark Stack comics, I’m doing plenty in and outside of comics and could probably use a kick in the ass just to put some dollars. You’re going to have to spend a lot of time begging friends to get your Kickstarter close to success, much less approach a broader audience unfamiliar with your work to date.

That reality of Kickstarter for promising, unfunded talent like yourself says a lot about what this crowdfunding tool has actually become in comics. Kickstarter is designed to be a means for individuals of all stripes to find funding for their creative projects. Ranging from engineering feats to musical pursuits, individuals choose to support projects they determine are worthwhile with the promise of some return on their investment.

Notably, Kickstarter is not meant to be a pre-order system. Backers are taking a risk with their dollars based on the merits of the creators and their specific projects. Like any funding institution, they may fail to see the exact product or outcome they expected. This is what makes the word “merit” so very important. You choose to back projects that you really want to see in the world, and which may find other means of funding impossible or problematic.

That’s notable because it makes Kickstarter a big ask. When you back a project there’s no guarantee it will even be delivered. Many creators lack experience with printing, shipping, and other logistics that will create barriers between completing and delivering the project. That’s not even to mention getting the entire project created, including less-considered elements like cover and credit design.

This sort of system is especially useful in American comics where the means of production and finding an audience are very limited. We’ve heard plenty about the problems of the Direct Market in the past few weeks (including a great piece from our other Co-managing Editor Christian Hoffer at ComicBook.Com). We’ll leave it at this: it’s a less than ideal system that limits how readers obtain comics and which comics are supported. Looking at the numbers there aren’t too many publishers or readers in the comics base defined by the Direct Market. There’s a big shift in those numbers when you switch to looking at the mass market (e.g. Scholastic) or webcomics. However, the former has high barriers to entry and the latter has no means of supporting comics that wish to be shared outside of the web.

And so we arrive at Kickstarter. Direct Market won’t support your style or story? Scholastic won’t take your calls? Don’t want to hand out your hard work for free? If there’s enough promise to what you’re doing, then you may still be able to produce it through this great crowdfunding tool. It’s an excellent solution that makes sense for a lot of creators.

It’s also not really filling this gap in comics as well I’ve proposed so far.

One of the problems that comics creators face is a relatively small readership. The internet may help overcome some of those barriers, but the readership base is still an important part of selling any comic. Whether we’re talking about the one billionth take on a shared superhero universe or a new cooking comic, there’s a limited number of people keeping an eye on the comics section of Kickstarter. There’s limited resources including time, dollars, and attention to support any project. That is what makes it problematic when many of the industry’s biggest names use KickStarter as a means to fund their own project.

Few publishers have taken the plunge. Archie Comics attempted to utilize KickStarter only to back out after one week of massive backlash and limited success. Avatar on the other hand has continued to utilize the format for projects by beloved comics writers like Alan Moore and Kieron Gillen. They haven’t faced the same level of criticism and have been largely successful in using Kickstarter to fund these projects so far.

The “Most Funded” comics Kickstarters of all-time are a who’s who of webcomics featuring Order of the Stick, The Dresden Codak, Penny Arcade, and CTRL+ALT+DEL (if that’s your thing). While the creator-owned nature of these projects makes Kickstarter a viable medium for physical publication, it is disappointing that these strips with millions of readers opted to crowdfunding as their best possible solution.

That goes for much smaller comics publishers as well, respected groups like Fantagraphics and Locust Moon Press who have both scraped by (while publishing Eisner Award winning material) due to Kickstarter campaigns. Their use of Kickstarter really gets to the heart of the problem. Comics isn’t big enough currently to support many of its own best ideas, so any alternative means for production doesn’t open new doors, it merely acts as a stopgap measure.

The idealistic dream of Kickstarter as I proposed at the start of this answer is to allow individuals to circumvent the complexities of standard models and provide their great ideas directly to the public who can fund them in turn. Most of what we see with the actuality of comics Kickstarter are established webcomics, publishers, and creators using crowdfunding to circumvent a very limited number of resources available in traditional comics publishing.

These groups are capable of utilizing Kickstarter as a pre-order model not dissimilar from the Direct Market. A project is only available for sale based on pre-order, relying on customers ordering it in great enough quantity that it can be published at a later date for consumption. The biggest difference is that the traditional distribution and sales role of Diamond and small storefronts are also assumed by the creators of a project. It is even more work for creators, but does allow them to produce projects that otherwise might have floundered for years. However, it also pushes the vast majority of attention away from new and different creators who don’t have the benefit of access to the Direct Market or other outlets in the first place.

This leaves a lot of new creators, many with great promise, struggling to make just a few hundred or thousand dollars to fund the printing of a few comics. Getting shipping estimates wrong can leave these creators worse off than they were to start, leaving this a system that’s little better than typical means of small press production.

Individuals cast about for friends, fellow creators, and journalists to put it at least $1, but more commonly amounts upward of $15 to get a pamphlet printed. The end results is a short print run that may have a decent dollar amount to its name, but very few readers. Most who wind up with the product are comfortable speaking of the creators on a first name basis. It gets the job done, but it’s hardly leaving anyone better off.

Obviously, there are exceptions to this. Iron Spike has found massive success on Kickstarter with her Smut Peddler anthologies and a variety of other offerings that all cater to a massively underserved comics audience. Given the right person and project, there are still opportunities for break out projects.

But like anything in our ongoing conversation about economics and comics, there are no easy solutions and many of the best-looking ones turn out to be far less than lustrous. Kickstarter has worked for some and may work for others. It’s far from a cure-all though and primarily serves to better support those who already possess some cachet in comics.

So why am I not bandwagoning on your Kickstarter? It’s not because I dislike you or your work. It’s because there are already a lot of great ideas in comics with nobody to read or buy them. Haranguing $10 out of my pocket isn’t a longterm solution to any of that and neither is Kickstarter.

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Comics & Politics: Hearing What’s On and Off The Page

This article was originally published on September 7, 2016 in Indoctrination #3.

Comics can be a strange place to occupy.

While the profile of characters and stories from the medium has grown considerably over the past couple decades, it remains a very small space. Compared to other entertainment industries in America, like music, film, or even fine arts, comics bring in almost no money and have a very niche audience. Some successful people within the medium move out for better paid and recognized work elsewhere, while others never even try to enter at all. This has all made sure that comics remains small.

That size isn’t an inherently good or bad thing, but it is a root cause of what I mean when I call comics a strange place. Once you make your way into comics, whether it’s as a creator, a journalist, or a fan, it quickly becomes clear how interconnected everything is. The game Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon for Hollywood could be played as Three Degrees of Mike Allred in American comics.

This has the effect of making the conversations within the industry occur at a much faster rate. News and ideas spread fast and it’s easy for everyone to comment. The rapidity of information sharing is balanced by a lack of central systems. There are no dedicated news sources, educational outlets, or regulatory systems in comics. It’s small enough that everyone can be in the loop, but too small for traditional systems of monitoring to care.

In essence, comics has been left in its own corner and to its own devices. There are no authorities on how to discuss the subject matter, no professors to define terms and educate new entrants, and no unions to establish standards of conduct. Despite having been around for more than a century, the medium is still discovering its standards.

This is an exciting opportunity. It’s a chance to help shape the basic terminology and understanding of a challenging medium without almost limitless potential. However, without those aforementioned systems in place, it’s very easy for that opportunity to go awry. Advancing comics comes from advancing our understanding of comics and that starts with discourse. Discourse starts from a very basic thesis, one that applies far beyond comics:

All language is political.

Everything we say, do, create, and put out into this world holds meaning, both intentional and unintentional. From the haughtiest original graphic novel to the most derivative superhero comic, they come loaded with ideas, beliefs, and philosophy. That same sentiment applies to criticism, journalism, podcasting, and any other form of reaction. When we put something out into the world, it means something.

That meaning isn’t enough by itself. Taken in a vacuum, each statement holds no value. Understanding comes from engagement. A tree falling in an empty woods makes a sound, but it doesn’t make a difference.  A comic may technically be speech on its own, but it doesn’t have an impact until it is read. It’s the acts of reading, response, and review that gives any speech meaning. This is where we discover the value of art. It’s also typically where institutions like schools and critical apparatuses would help teach people how to engage. In comics we don’t have those in any meaningful way, so we have to invent it for ourselves.

The danger of this is that while we all may be speaking, no one may actually be heard. Discourse requires response, and at the heart of response is change. Reading something without considering it or being open to being changed by it is not discourse, it’s only consumption. If our speech and creation is to have any impact, it must not fall on deaf ears. More importantly, if we are to be impacted then we must be sure to listen.

Academic traditions encourage vigorous discourse and disagreement, creative destruction taken outside of its economic context and applied to art. Comics must create these traditions on its own. The alternative is to have a space filled with speech, but absent of discourse. It’s the key to advancing the medium on all levels. Different people look for different things: artistic expansion, social justice, fairness in business. All of these topics mean different things to different people, and will continue to do so.

There’s no reason why all of these things must remain stagnant though. Depending on who you speak to, you’ll hear very different opinions on how far the medium has come in regards to each of these topics. Likely the only thing you won’t hear is that all of these things are the same as they were 10 or 20 or 100 years ago.

It’s this continual cycle of creation and reaction and creation that is itself reaction through which any artistic medium evolves. Each thing builds on what came before, like panels in a comic book creating meaning through their connection. Whether it’s an opposing response or a refinement of a movement, we are building that story together. Every panel relies on its understanding of the previous moment. If an artist ignores what is to the left, then what he creates on the right will be confusing.

The future of comics will be determined by the people in it today, and that provides a lot of power to relatively few people. They are creating and saying things of import everyday, telling stories and providing responses to them. What is uncertain is how well these things will be said and what impact they might have in the future. That is entirely reliant on the quality of communication.

Comics has the ability to create its own narrative today, to say something of value. What is being said relies on what is being heard though and that’s the more significant choice.

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The Best Thor Runs To Date

This article was originally published at ComicBook.Com on September 9, 2016.

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This week sees the release of the first collection of Jason Aaron and Russel Dauterman’s The Mighty Thor. The widely acclaimed series is the continuation of their previous work together on Thor and Aaron’s collaboration with Esad Ribic and others on Thor: God of Thunder. Together these works form a mighty epic tracing Thor’s fall from grace and the rise of Jane Foster as a new God of Thunder. It’s an impressive collection of stories and one that still seems far from over. However it turns out though, it’s bound to go down in the pantheon of Marvel Comics as one of the finest runs on the character ever.

While Aaron and his collaborators forge ahead with their own tales, we’re taking a look at them and all of the Thor stories that have come before to see how they rank against one another. When discussing the absolute best of what this character has to offer, the newest series faces some stiff competition. We’ve compiled a list of the six greatest Thor runs of all time ranked from first to sixth. There were some tough choices involved, because all of these stories deserve to be called “legendary”.

Take a look at our top picks, along with recommended starting points, and consider checking out some of these tales between new issues of The Mighty Thor.

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Walt Simonson

Recommended Starting Point: Thor #337-340

There’s no debating the top slot on this list. From Thor #337 to Thor #382, Walt Simonson brought unseen levels of artistic imagination and power to the The Mighty Avenger. The most difficult part of discussing Simonson’s run is picking a favorite moment. From the very start of his time on the series, Simonson began to add to the mythos with the creation of fan-favorite Beta Ray Bill accompanied by the early overtures of The Surtur Saga. From Bill’s iconic face to the incredible lettering over the universal pounding of “DOOM”, this run declared itself as something special from the very start.

Simonson would go on to tell a list of tales so impressive that it’s hard for just about any superhero comic to compete. From the beloved wackiness of Frog Thor to operatic effects of “Skurge’s Last Stand”, this run on Thor is filled with gems from start to finish. Simonson helped to bring about a greater respect at Marvel for artists as all-around storytellers too, writing all of it in addition to drawing most issues. He dreamed up ideas that only his pencils could properly communicate in a run that isn’t just the best of Thor, but one of the best ever published by Marvel Comics.

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Jack Kirby & Stan Lee

Recommended Starting Point: Thor #168-170

That Simonson’s run tops that of this classic Marvel duo speaks volumes to its quality. That doesn’t mean Kirby and Lee’s work on Thor is anything to scoff at; it’s probably their most underrated collaboration together. With an expansive set of issues almost as impressive as their run on Fantastic Four, Kirby and Lee defined the cosmic scope and stories that could be told with Thor. They grew the pantheon of Norse gods to include the like of Sif and The Warriors Three, while also including new creations like Mangog and Kirby’s take on God in Galactus.

Kirby may be best known for his cosmic machinery and psychedelic imagery at DC Comics in his Fourth World Saga, but you can see the origins for much of that work here. Thor flies through space encountering distant races and impossible mechanisms. Photography is used to experiment with in backgrounds to surprising effect. The scale of scope of Kirby and Lee’s work together on Thor is massive, but even more impressive is Kirby’s growth as an artist on almost every page.

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Jason Aaron

Recommended Starting Point: Thor: God of Thunder #18

Aaron’s story is far from done, but his place in the canon of Thor is secure. His epic has ranged across three volumes of the series. It has told the lives of three different Thors, charted the original God of Thunder’s fall, and the rise of a new hero thus far. If you want a perfect example of why Aaron ranks so high, look no further than Thor: God of Thunder #18. It is packed with pathos and mirth, small moments of friendship and legendary figures. This one issue perfectly distills everything Thor can be.

The multiple volumes of this series has seen Aaron paired with some of today’s best artists as well. Esad Ribic brought a Heavy Metal style to the series that fit the old Norse style of “God of Thunder” exceedingly well. Now Russell Dauterman is using cleaner line work to create a refined and highly detailed tale of the Nine Realms, beautifully colored by Matt Wilson. Together this team is telling one of the grandest tales in superhero comics today.

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Chris Samnee & Roger Langridge

Recommended Starting Point: Thor: The Mighty Avenger #1-2

This run of Thor comics is the definition of short and sweet. While Thor: The Mighty Avenger may have only lasted for 8 issues total, it has only become more highly regarded in the years since its cancellation. The story focuses on Thor’s earliest adventures on Earth introducing him to allies like Jane Foster and foes like Mr. Hyde. It’s an innocent take on the character in a fish-out-of-water type story where Thor is focused on being the best version of himself.

They are also significant for providing Chris Samnee with something of a coming out party at Marvel Comics. His work here preceded widely acclaimed runs on both Daredevil and Black Widow. Samnee’s talents are just as well displayed here with plenty of exciting action and some truly endearing moments. While there are only 8 issues of Thor: The Mighty Avenger, each one excellent. These are treasures to be cherished, even if we may want to wonder what more could have been.

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Jurgens

Recommended Starting Point: Thor (vol. 2) #6-7

Dan Jurgens wrote almost 80 issues of Thor, covering an expanse between two events that would forever change how Marvel Comics was perceived. Starting with “Heroes Reborn” and ending with “Avengers Disassembled”, Jurgens maintained Thor as a rock solid narrative during the most tumultuous time of the 1990s and leading to the climactic events of “Ragnarok”.

Jurgens wasn’t just maintaining Thor though, he was ambitious in adding new elements to this already massive mythos. He transformed the God of Thunder into the All-Father himself, and included lots of crossovers with other Marvel greats like Spider-Man, Namor, and Hercules. Jurgens’ time on the title is an excellent example of how to weave a character’s story into shared continuity uniting the legends of Asgard with those of Marvel Comics.

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Straczynski & Coipel

Recommended Starting Point: Thor (vol. 3) #3

After “Avengers Disassembled” and “Ragnarok” Thor took his longest hiatus to date from Marvel Comics, even if you count his current status as being out of commission. When it finally came time for The Mighty Avenger to return, Marvel provided him with an all-star crew. Writer J. Michael Straczynski merged much of canon into a comprehensive look forward, while also changing the setting of Asgard to a small town in Oklahoma.

This is the run that also made a lot of current readers into lifelong fans of Oliver Coipel’s art. Coipel delivered fresh designs for all of Thor’s most familiar cast members and a new armored look for the Avenger himself. The story went many unexpected places, but it all looked great. It’s also the run that would set the stage for Jason Aaron’s current take on the character, and that’s nothing to scoff at.

What are your favorite Thor comics to date? Where do you think Aaron’s current run will land in these rankings? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.

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