Local Comics Store Spotlight: Vault of Midnight

This article was originally published on March 30, 2017 at ComicBook.Com.

The foundation of ComicBook.Com is comics. While we love to cover all aspects of pop and geek culture, our roots lie in the comics community and the plethora of characters and stories that have sprung from it. If you speak with anyone in the comics community about what has made the medium successful in North America, you’ll quickly discover one answer that stands far above the rest: local comics stores. They are the bedrock of comics in the United States and Canada, supporting fans, communities, and conventions with open doors and a dedicated staff.

This year on ComicBook.Com we are highlighting this important aspect of comics and culture by taking a look at one local comic store each week. These are stores that embody what it means to support culture and community. We hope you can visit some of them throughout 2017.

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There may be no worse time in modern history to open a comics store than in 1996. The market was collapsing from a massive speculator bubble and scores of specialty shops were shutting their doors forever on a monthly basis. Marvel had broken from Diamond to distribute their own comics making for an even more fickle and pricey system. Things were bad for stores that had been around for years as they struggled to keep doors open and retain what customers they still had. That moment felt like a doomsday clock was counting down for the American comics industry, so of course this is when Vault of Midnight first opened their doors.

Co-owner Nick Yribar says, “This was the absolute worst time to open a comic shop.” But more than 20 years later Vault of Midnight is still open and now has 3 locations throughout Michigan in Ann Arbor, Grand Rapids, and Detroit. Opening at a time of calamity helped teach the store some important lessons about success and what it takes to make a comic store work. Yribar acknowledges that this timing might have been a blessing in disguise. “All of those factors helped inform what kind of shop we were and would be.”

One of the most important things that Vault of Midnight had to do when it first open was steer away from the strategies that had caused so many other shops to shutter. They focused more on independent comics than those from the “Big Two”. Big shipments and variant covers offered big rewards, but also a lot of risks. Emphasizing smaller comics that the staff could hand sell allowed them to make sure every customer was being sold a story the store believed in. It also meant they weren’t left with enormous boxes of holographic covers worth less than cover price.

The initial handselling was done by a staff consisting of only two people: Curtis Sullivan and Steve Fodale, the original co-founders. If the store was open, then at least one of them was inside. It was their love of comics that drove the entire enterprise forward. Together, along with new additions like Yribar, they would grow Vault of Midnight into the most impressive comics shop in Michigan.

Click ahead to learn how the lessons of adversity have been developed into a philosophy of success that promotes both comics and community.

Yribar describes the goal of Vault of Midnight: “to present comic books to as many human beings as possible as awesome, accessible, important works of art and entertainment.” It’s something that has been with the shop since it opened its first location in 1996, but that has grown along with the store as it opened new locations and hired new staff. With each new addition, the store’s leaders have been forced to consider what this mission means both to themselves and their communities.

The staff recognize the important role an arts-focused store can play in any community. It is a location that attracts a diverse array of customers seeking somewhere they can be themselves. Yribar says, “we want everyone who walks in our door to feel like they belong there.” That is a goal they’ve accomplished by providing a wide array of opportunities for diehard fans and new customers alike. Vault of Midnight regularly sponsors events, including “game nights, creator signings, fundraisers for charity, speed dating events, movie presentations, special sales, and appreciation events for subscribers.” When combined it offers a well-populated, well-curated social calendar for any self-identified geeks, nerds, or fans in the Michigan area.

An awareness of that community has led to the selection of each new Vault of Midnight location; they are always centrally located in a downtown area. These stores become a hub of culture and community by putting themselves at the hubs of the cities they occupy. That’s not the only concern though, they’re also curated to welcome anyone who might enter. Pictures of any of the three locations show stores that are well organized, clean, and staffed with smiling faces. They offer newcomers just as much of a warm reception as those already steeped in geek culture to discover comics.

Yribar says that this has paid off as they’ve seen their customer base grow significantly over the past decade. With the Image Comics boom and the advancement of other exciting new titles like Lumberjanes, Vault of Midnight has discovered many new readers. “We have stuff we can, with excitement, recommend to literally anyone from any walk of life” says Yribar. He also notes that this wasn’t always the case in comics. There was a time when the vast majority of offerings were for a very narrow audience. What Vault of Midnight’s staff learned from that time was how to offer a safe space for everyone, so that as comics expanded, they could as well.

Vault of Midnight has experienced two major phases of the comics industry: the shrinking of the late 1990s and the growth of the current era. The lessons of the former period have informed the latter. By learning to survive based on the quality of their storefront and passion for their stock, the staff at Vault of Midnight understood the importance of believing in your work. Now that comics have begun to grow again, they’re capable of taking those lessons and bringing in a whole new generation of readers. The mission hasn’t changed, but the opportunities have exploded. Yribar says the plan is simple: “To keep acting as ambassadors for the medium we love.”

Click ahead to see full details and photos of Vault of Midnight.

Store Info

Name: Vault of Midnight

Address: 219 South Main Street

Ann Arbor, MI 48103

Phone: (734) 998-1413

Website: Vault of Midnight

Twitter: @VaultOfMidnight

Facebook: Vault of Midnight

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10 Comics to Look Out for in April

This article was originally published at ComicBook.Com on March 25, 2017.

1 - April Comics - Aliens Dead Orbit

April is almost upon us and you know what that means: A new month of comics!

That’s right, it’s time to get in last second pre-orders and get ready for four more Wednesdays of exciting juxtaposed images. 2017 has already been a great year for new comics and April is no exception to that rule. We’re getting a wide array of new series, one-shots, special editions, and exciting new chapters that ought to thrill every variety of comics fan.

We’ve assembled 10 of the new releases we are most excited for here at ComicBook.Com. They run the gamut from superhero comics to manga to artist’s editions. It’s an exciting allotment of comics and they’ll begin to hit shelves in just over a week. Time to get hype!

Aliens: Dead Orbit #1

Created by James Stokoe

Published by Dark Horse Comics

Dark Horse Comics has done an excellent job of curating the Aliens franchise in comics, but this is likely to be the best story told with Xenomorphs in this medium yet for one reason: James Stokoe. The artist is a dynamo of invention, kineticism, and style who sets a high bar for all of his peers working as cartoonists today. If you have any doubts, just check out his work on Godzilla: The Half-Century War. Stokoe has proven he can take a franchise and tell a definitive new tale that works without any context. With any luck, he’ll do it again with these H.R. Giger creations.

Assassination Classroom Vol. 15

Created by Yusei Matsui

Published by Viz Media

Why volume 15 of a long running manga? Assassination Classroom isn’t ending quite yet, but this new installment will mark a major turning point for the series. This is the collection that reveals the origins of the series bizarre hero Koro Sensei and the villainous headmaster of the school. It’s a true game changer that marks the beginning of the end for one of today’s best manga series.

Black Cloud #1

Written by Ivan Brandon and Jason Latour

Drawn by Greg Hinkle

Colored by Matt Wilson

Published by Image Comics

Surprise! There’s an Image Comics #1 on this list! That’s because Image regularly releases some of the most innovative and exciting mainstream comics on the market today, and this one is being produced by a true all-star team. All 4 of the creators listed above ought to draw attention on their own. Combined they’re set to tell a story about the power of dreams and imagination, with a good dose of violence, that we should all be paying attention to.

Black Panther: The Crew #1

Written by Ta-Nehisi Coates and Yona Harvey

Drawn by Butch Guice

Published by Marvel Comics

Whatever your feelings on the most recent volume of Black Panther were, there’s no doubt that the creative team brought a clear vision to the character and reinvigorated his setting and supporting cast. Now writer Ta-Nehisi Coates is joined by co-writer Yona Harvey and artist Butch Guice to spread his ideas to a variety of other Marvel Comics stalwarts. Taking on Christopher Priest’s concept of “The Crew”, this team is set to redefine some of Marvel’s best and it should be a thrill to see just how they plan to do it.

Dept. H #13

Written and Drawn by Matt Kindt

Colored by Sharlene Kindt

Published by Dark Horse Comics

Dept. H #13 marks the start of the second half in this locked room mystery meets dystopian sci-fi story. The Kindts have established an incredible cast of characters and a thrilling scenario that already has each individual at their breaking point. What comes next is bound to be some of the best comics in 2017. If you have any doubts, just consider Mind MGMT, then realize it’s time to check out this series before it’s spoiled for you.

The Flintstones #12

Written by Mark Russell

Drawn by Steve Pugh

Published by DC Comics

It’s still hard to believe, but The Flintstones is one of the smartest, funniest, and most relevant comics being published today. That makes this final issue equal parts saddening and exciting. The series has been a real highlight on comics shelves with sharp humor and on point commentary, and there’s no doubt the creative team will go out in their final installment. Still, it’s sad that we’ll have to say goodbye to a much needed dose of political humor from good ol’ Bedrock.

Judge Dredd: Blessed Earth #1

Written by Ulises Farinas and Erick Freitas

Drawn by Dan McDaid

Published by IDW Publishing

The team behind IDW Publishing’s newest Judge Dredd comics have been doing a fantastic job together. They’ve transported Dredd to another “Mega-City” that keeps the core premise intact while making everything about it feel fresh. Most importantly, writer Ulises Farinas has managed to combine violence and strange surroundings with some very keen commentary on modern society. It’s the most Dredd comic made in America in quite some time and this one-shot ought to deliver more of what makes the character a true comics classic.

Martian Manhunter / Marvin the Martian Special #1

Written by Steve Orlando and Frank Barbiere

Drawn by Aaron Lopresti and Jerome K. Moore

Published by DC Comics

It was tempting to include all of the Looney Tunes and DC Comics crossovers on this list because they’re all the right blend of being just crazy enough to be brilliant. This is our pick though as it combines two underutilized characters that simply belong together. These Martians are both outsiders without a people of their own who have vastly contrasting views of humanity. Watching them play off of one another ought to be a real delight.

Royals #1

Written by Al Ewing

Drawn by Jonboy Meyers

Published by Marvel Comics

This one is for everyone who doubted the Inhumans franchise at Marvel Comics because if anyone can make something work it’s writer Al Ewing. He has spent the last several years taking pitches that fell flat on paper and turning them into some of the best superhero comics on the stands. Now Ewing is teamed with Jonboy Meyers to take on the classic set of Kirby creations with a seemingly blank check. If this can’t make the Inhumans popular, then absolutely nothing can.

Walt Simonson’s Thor: The Return of Beta Ray Bill: Artist’s Edition

Created by Walt Simonson

Published by IDW Publishing

Walt Simonson is one of the greatest living artists in comics and his run on Thor is one of the best superhero runs ever created. That’s not hyperbole; it’s truth. This new Artist’s Edition will provide insight into his creation of the fan-favorite character Beta Ray Bill and a look behind the scenes on that series. Looking at Simonson’s pencils on a grand scale with the best possible production values ought to thrill any fan of comics art. This is a must own for collectors of Thor and Simonson materials alike.

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Why You Need to Start Reading Dept. H ASAP

This article was originally published at ComicBook.Com on March 24, 2017.

Dept. H Kindt 2

The unfortunate side effect of living in a world with so much great entertainment is that it’s not difficult to let something truly spectacular pass beneath your radar. We’re already in the midst of a spectacular year for movies and each month of 2017 has delivered some spectacular new comics. So it’s easy to think that you’d be better off ignoring a series that is already 12 issues into its run and halfway over. However, you’d be wrong in thinking that.

Dept. H, the underwater mystery crafted by Matt and Sharlene Kindt, has reach the end of its second arc and is preparing to go on hiatus before it being the second half of its story. Just like Kindt’s previous Dark Horse title Mind MGMT, it’s a carefully crafted story where each chapter delivers new revelations in issues designed by Kindt from cover to cover. The instinct for many comics readers might be to trade wait or allow the series to finish before checking it out, but that’s a misgiving notion. This is why you need to dive into Dept. H as soon as possible.

Dept. H Kindt 6

Matt Kindt is a Modern Comics Genius

There’s ample hyperbole in the world of American comics, but this is one statement we can stand by today, tomorrow, and twenty years from now. The work that Matt Kindt is producing will stand the test of time as something that pushes boundaries and inspires a new generation of creators. Everyone is looking for the next Kirby or Wrightson, and that doesn’t start with the those imitating their works. Kindt is defining his own style or artwork and storytelling in a fashion that lives up to the legacy of comics most beloved creators.

It’s worth going back and reading his existing works like Mind MGMT and Revolver, but Kindt is an artist who has yet to reach his peak. Dept. H is a comic that shows just what this powerhouse is capable of both in small units and in constructing a grander story. The joy of discovering an artist as they work through a piece cannot be understated and that’s something we call all watch in the pages of this series.

Dept. H Kindt 2

The Thrill of Monthly Comics

One thing we’ve noticed in our weekly spotlights of local comics stores is how many have noted audiences drifting away from monthly comics and towards collections. That’s fair in many instances, but Dept. H makes the case for picking up new installments of a story on a monthly basis. Kindt understands the joy of receiving a story in small chapters and designs his work to deliver with each new segment.

Dept. H is designed to work as a complete story, as collections of 6 issues, and single installments. Every new release offers something that feels complete within its own pages. They’re all designed well beyond those boundaries too with expansive covers and backmatter that will thrill fans of the story. Of course the beautiful hardcovers are worth snagging for library shelves as well, at a very affordable $19.99. That doesn’t diminish the joy of finding a new issue of Dept. H at your store each month though.

Dept. H Kindt 4

A Mystery Worth Unraveling

The conceit that Dept H. was sold on at its launch was a young woman traveling miles beneath the sea to solve the murder of her father. While the story has sprawled in many unexpected ways from that premise, the mystery remains intact. There are issues of biological warfare, technological advancement, and old family grudges in play as well, but the heart of this story is a locked room mystery. It’s a story so classic that it never really grows old and Kindt has found a brand new way to present it in these pages.

In the second arc of Dept. H he has found a brilliant way to layer this mystery by focusing each issue on a different character, moving the current narrative ahead while exploring possible motives. Readers come to empathize with all of the suspects while their theories are advanced. This is the brilliance of Dept. H as it becomes more than a simply whodunnit, choosing to question the whys and wherefores as well. Kindt is telling the best mystery story in comics today and it’s well worth checking out before any answers might be spoiled for you.

Dept. H Kindt 5

Underwater Watercolors

Nobody creates a comics page like Matt and Sharlene Kindt. Nobody. Pick up any issue of Dept. H and you’ll notice how well they define their characters, the details put into each design, and how the watercolors add to the oppressive underwater existence of the story. No matter how frightening or claustrophobic any issue of this series becomes, there’s still a spark of wonder to be found as you explore the pages themselves.

It’s what happens when you look at a Wrightson illustration of Frankenstein or a Kurtzman drawing of the Korean War: No matter how ugly the subject matter becomes, the mastery of story still inspires the imagination. That’s not to say this underwater world is without wonders. Strange squids offer brilliant colors and technology blossoms in unexpected ways. Dept. H is filled with discovery and every page brings something new for readers to explore.

Dept. H Kindt 3

A Proven Record of Quality

Dept. H is just reaching its halfway point. Many other comics have gotten this far with beautiful artwork and enthralling stories, only to lose their momentum. They might take too long to come out or forget what made them great. So why invest in Dept. H before it is all over? Because there’s absolutely no reason to doubt the creators behind it.

The most obvious reason lies within the pages of Mind MGMT, which was also written and drawn by Matt Kindt in 6-issue arcs. It featured all of the promise of Dept. H and delivered a finale that was every bit as good as its start. This goes for just about every other comics project Kindt has had control of too. Whether you’re discussing his creator-owned work like Revolver or his superhero series at Valiant Comics, when Kindt is in charge of a story, it both is delivered and delivers on a timely basis. There is no more consistent creator in American comics than Kindt, and his commitment and track record with the medium provide good reasons to check out Dept. H today.

Whether you’re looking for a great monthly read or to just discover a new story to while away the time with, you simply can’t do better than Dept. H.

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Why Ghost in the Shell is More Relevant Than Ever

This article was originally published at ComicBook.Com on March 23, 2017.

Masamune Shirow’s Ghost in the Shell is one of the most beloved pieces of modern fiction to originate from Japan. Both as a manga and anime film, the original story and many of its sequels have garnered critical acclaim and commercial success. This speaks to both Shirow’s powerful storytelling and the continued importance of the themes he explores.

Ghost in the Shell tells the story of police officers in a futuristic Japan, specifically The Major and Chief Daisuke Aramaki, as they target a mysterious puppet master hacking into technology and causing chaos. Through the lens of these three characters and an expansive supporting cast, Shirow rose questions of what it meant to be human and how technology would change society in future decades. These questions have not been answered since the manga was first published in 1989. Instead, they have only become more pressing.

Now with the live action adaptation of Ghost in the Shell ready to be released in the United States, it’s apparent that Shirow’s story is more relevant than ever. Here are a few of the key ways in which this manga, anime, and new film tackle important issues that confront all of us in one way or another.

Integration of Technology

One of the key factors of Ghost in the Shell is how technology would be integrated into everyday life. Characters can pull up loads of information, message one another, and communicate by phone while sprinting down a street. That all seems relatively normal today, but considering the ideas are from 1989, it is downright prescient. What is more interesting than the predictions of what technology might be capable of in the future, is how much we would come to rely upon it.

Technology isn’t just something all of the characters in Ghost in the Shell use; it’s quite literally a part of them. The Major is almost entirely machine and The Chief’s appearance is notable for his covered eyes. They don’t pull iPhones from their pockets, they are iPhones to a certain extent. As technology becomes smaller and we become more dependent on its constant use, the line between life with and without technology becomes increasingly blurred. Ghost in the Shell seriously examines the consequences of allowing our digital devices to become an integral part of our daily existence, a dependency. That is something we must consider for ourselves with each new step toward normalized integration of man and machine.

Definitions of Humanity

This combination of technology and humanity also raises questions of what defines the latter within the story of Ghost in the Shell. The Major is notable for being almost entirely machine. Her body is a construct that hosts a free floating brain. This forms the basis for a fascinating modern take on the Ship of Theseus, a classic philosophical question about when the replacement of too many elements makes something cease to be its original self. The Major only retains her physical brain and another character pushes that boundary even further.

We lack the technology to make ourselves digital beings, but there are still questions of what we consider to be a part of ourselves and what connects us as human beings. Prosthetics are becoming more advanced and significant to the functioning of many people in society. Furthermore the use of technological or biological enhancements have become part of people in many ways. This is a trend that is not slowing in any way either. As we continue to change ourselves more, we must continue to understand what makes us people and defines our humanity. That is a question Ghost in the Shell raises and helps to answer.

Obfuscation in The World

While Ghost in the Shell is a modern classic of science fiction, it’s also a wonderful political thriller. As the members of Public Security Section 9 begin to hunt the Puppet Master, they find themselves in the midst of a conspiracy much larger than they can hope to unwind on their own. It’s a story that weaves its way through government and corporate interests with plenty of individual motives at play as well. The scariest part about the conspiracy is how easy it is to recognize each of the motives and actors within our own systems.

The key to this story isn’t its complexity, but how the systems in place allow for tremendous actions to be taken without the public’s awareness. State actors protect their secrets by fiat and corporations bury their actions beneath loads of red tape. The world of Ghost in the Shell moves in a frightening direction and almost nobody is wise to it. In this way Shirow reminds readers of the importance of oversight and transparency in all systems, and of the growing dangers of secrecy in modern society.

The Politics of Race

This topic is different from the preceding issues because it is not as clearly baked into Shirow’s original manga. While it’s possible to discuss themes of race in that manga and the original anime, it is the recent live action adaptation that has brought this issue to the forefront of the story. And it is something that needs to be discussed.

The whitewashing of The Major’s role by casting Scarlett Johansson raises troubling issues of how stories are altered for audiences and what that says about the individuals producing entertainment. There seems to be a lack of faith in the ability of a person of Japanese descent to carry a film based around a Japanese character. It is a choice that calls into question both the decision-making of producers in Hollywood and potential prejudices within moviegoing audiences, and it’s something we need to confront. While this isn’t inherently a component of Ghost in the Shell, this choice and the controversy surrounding it has raised a significant issue. The opportunity to discuss it shouldn’t be ignored.

No matter which angle you view Ghost in the Shell from, or which version of the story you consume, it’s clear that this is a tale packed with meaning. Shirow’s work has only grown in worth and today it holds more value than ever before. As we move into the future and tackle increasingly complex issues of technology, humanity, secrecy, and race, Ghost in the Shell will only become more relevant.

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Local Comics Store Spotlight: Zeus Comics

This article was originally published at ComicBook.Com on March 22, 2017.

Zeus Comics 11

The foundation of ComicBook.Com is comics. While we love to cover all aspects of pop and geek culture, our roots lie in the comics community and the plethora of characters and stories that have sprung from it. If you speak with anyone in the comics community about what has made the medium successful in North America, you’ll quickly discover one answer that stands far above the rest: local comics stores. They are the bedrock of comics in the United States and Canada, supporting fans, communities, and conventions with open doors and a dedicated staff.

This year on ComicBook.Com we are highlighting this important aspect of comics and culture by taking a look at one local comic store each week. These are stores that embody what it means to support culture and community. We hope you can visit some of them throughout 2017.

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How do you change a stereotype? That’s a challenge most comics stores face, at least all of the ones that don’t actively perpetuate the misperception of comics shops as basement-like dwellings filled with knick knacks and boxes of comics exclusively for social outcasts. It’s not the truth of the medium or many of its purveyors, but it’s what is shared in the zeitgeist. This is the issue that Richard Neal, owner of Zeus Comics and Collectibles, was forced to confront when he first opened his shop in 2000.

Neal says that at the time many of the direct market stores had “morphed into places that fit the stereotype mocked on the Simpsons.” That’s not what he wanted from his own place of business though. The storefront that Neal imagined was something more like that of the Disney Store where anyone could pass by, become interested, and feel welcome to walk in and explore. “I envisioned making comic shops look and feel modern” says Neal.

This was the foundation that built a store which which would win an Eisner Award less than a decade later in 2006. While Neal is proud of the recognition brought by Eisner and notes it as a highlight of his time running Zeus, it’s not the only thing he is proud of. In the 10 years since they received the award the store has continued to evolve, as it tried new things in order to benefit comics fans both new and old.

At some point along the way Neal’s approach to running the store changed. He stopped using the phrase “my customer” and began to look at everyone who entered the shop as part of a shared community of friends in fandom. He subscribes to the maxim now printed on t-shirts from Image Comics that “Comics are for everyone” and carries ensures that this is apparent every day Zeus is open to the public. Neal says, “Every day at the comic shop is like throwing a party and I’m the host.”

 

Zeus Comics and Collectibles has attracted the eyes of its community and fans through more than its well-maintained storefront and welcoming staff; it also supports a variety of videos on YouTube. Neal says the store’s comedy series “The Variants” was a “real standout”. That series allowed the staff at Zeus to reach thousands of viewers on a regular basis, offering them both laughs and some insight into comics culture. What would have been impossible purely behind a counter was accomplished through innovation, some clever scripting, and hard work with a camera.

Even though “The Variants” has come to an end, the store continues to support a wide array of multi-media efforts. The popularity of their first show led to new opportunities with the local CW affiliate in Dallas: CW33. They currently support weekly recaps of the many CW shows about DC Comics characters, as well as Riverdale, and are preparing to launch a new show titled “How to Train Like a Superhero”. These shows help make the community surrounding Zeus more aware of the availability of comics and provides a regular dose of entertainment.

Community involvement doesn’t begin or end with a video camera for this store though. Neal is proud of several current programs the store supports, including LGBTQ mixers. The store is currently preparing a new program, a comic book workshop that will help teach young readers how to read and make comics. This workshop will debut when the North Texas Girl Scouts visit the store in a few months to earn their own “Comic Book Badge” for participating.

Looking at the variety of programs sponsored by the shop, it’s easy to see how Zeus has helped to grow interest in comics far beyond what most people might expect. They’ve gained an audience as wide as Dallas, Texas and encourage people from all backgrounds to come check out comics. Neal says this growth and diversity can all be brought back to a single principle. “I’m proud of our customer service compared to my competitors but when you really drill down it’s about being active.” For Neal a smile, good advice, and a well-maintained store is the start of a great comics shop experience, but it’s not everything. Finding new opportunities and continuing to do more is what makes it stick.

That forward-looking mentality and everything accomplished by the staff at Zeus Comics and Collectibles is because they have been active. It would have been easy for Neal to rest on his laurels after winning the most prestigious award in his field in 2006, but the past decade has been filled with innovation and experiments. Video, mixers, and workshops have made Zeus an indispensable part of their community and a beloved fixture in Dallas. The way you overcome stereotypes is by creating an even more attractive idea, and that’s something Zeus Comics and Collectibles does every day of the week.

Store Info

Name: Zeus Comics and Collectibles

Address: 1334 Inwood Road

Dallas, TX 75247

Phone: (214) 219-8697

Website: Zeus Comics and Collectibles

Twitter: Zeus Comics and Collectibles

Facebook: Zeus Comics and Collectibles

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What’s Next for the X-Men Franchise

This article was originally published at ComicBook.Com on March 21, 2017.

Last week we wrote about how Fox Studios was creating a new model for their superhero franchise, the X-Men. (Sorry, not sorry, Fantastic Four) In the past year Fox has done some pretty impressive work both reinventing one of the oldest sets of superheroes on the big screen and carving out their own niche to compete against Marvel Studios. It’s a great start, but it’s still just that: a start. So what comes next for Fox and the X-Men?

This week we examine that question and make some predictions about the next few years may hold for X-Men, both in film and on television. This isn’t a gambler’s guide to X-Men movies. We’re not betting on any specific characters or conflicts. Instead, we’re taking a look at what has succeeded recently and how Fox Studios might capitalize on these trends to continue that success. These are predictions based on optimism as much as they’re based on accuracy. However, there’s no reason to believe any of them are unlikely given how things are going. If Fox Studios is paying attention, and all of us X-Men fans are lucky, then this is what the future of the franchise will hold.

More Experimentation

The conversation surrounding superhero films, especially Fox’s supehero films, at this moment is all about the R-rating. Fox broke that taboo last year with Deadpool and did it again with Logan, only to be rewarded in both instances. It’s clear that an R-rating won’t kill a superhero movie, but that’s not the main lesson to be learned either. What the studio should be recognizing is that both of these films were unlike anything that had come before and found an audience both by being well made and entirely unique.

This is a lesson that applies to Legion as well. It’s a mature show that has succeeded due to its unique visual sensibility and a storyline that’s unlike any other superhero-related show on television. The connective thread between all of these successes is that they are experimenting with what the superhero is, both in style and genre. Whether it’s the inclusion of madcap comedy, classic Westerns, or psychedelics, they experiment. So it only makes sense that Fox would continue to do so. This could be in the form of a Dazzler focused musical or a Nightcrawler focused pulp adventure or a dozen other ideas. The key is that Fox will continue to surprise us and avoid formulas.

More Solo Films

If you’re not a long time X-Men fan, one thing you’ll discover is the wide array of favorite characters that different readers possess. Wolverine is obviously the biggest one in Hollywood, but in the comics it seems like there’s a significant fanbase for at least two dozen mutants. We already mentioned Nightcrawler and Dazzler, but there’s also classics like Storm and Shadowcat and cult favorites like Fantomex. Heck, even Cyclops has some very, very devoted fans. The X-Men make a great team, but most of them also manage to function very well as individual characters.

Looking at the past year, it’s clear that pulling out these individual strengths has made for a very strong franchise. Both Logan and Deadpool play their leads off of some other notable mutants, but are focused primarily on a single character and the sort of story that allows them to work best. This is a great strategy for the studio too because it allows them to build the shared universe while growing individual franchises. Small elements like Xavier’s Academy may be dropped in without ever slowing down a Deadpool movie. This focus on unique characters offers more opportunities for expansion and less restrictions when trying to introduce favorite individual X-Men.

More Political Stories

The X-Men have always traded in political narratives when at their most successful. While Chris Claremont and his collaborators built the franchise into a powerhouse at Marvel Comics, they played heavily with themes of discrimination and racism in the United States. Politics is as much a part of the X-Men’s DNA as the genes that make them mutants. The success of both Logan and Legion have shown there’s an audience for more political stories, as well. And if you doubt that, well, just consider this spoiler from Logan

*SPOILERS BEGIN*

At the end of Logan, a bunch of immigrant children gather around a rich, Southern soldier who dehumanized them as a group and brutally murder him. And this scene is clearly established as one of the biggest victories of the entire film. Logan is undoubtedly a political film and its politics are pretty clear.

*SPOILERS END*

This isn’t to say the films should go in any particular direction, but that they would be smart to avoid the generally apolitical messaging of Marvel Studios. The X-Men have always been steeped in controversy and the struggles of their day. Embracing these narratives and exploring them is a smart move and one that will allow Fox to tell superhero stories other studios can’t or won’t tackle.

Another Reset

And here we arrive at the most unpredictable prediction of the lot: What happens to the team films? As much as we love individual X-Men with their own eccentricities and leanings, the X-Men are still a team. It seemed like X-Men: First Class had created a perfect new launching point for the franchise, but it had already been ruined by the third installment of X-Men: Apocalypse in what seems to be history repeating itself. So what can Fox do with the team now?

One word: Relaunch. It’s clear that X-Men movie fans don’t crave continuity. The past few team films barely hang together and none of the solo outings work without awarding a whole lot of no prizes. So the best answer is to start over once more rather than attempt to fix something as broken as Bryan Singer’s last film. Pick the X-Men you want, the time period you want, and the story you want, then make the best team movie possible. If the past year and these previous predictions show us anything, it’s that fans want a great superhero movie above all else.

The core of all of our predictions, including this relaunch (soft or hard) is that Fox Studios has learned this lesson and will be focusing on telling great X-Men stories going ahead, not worried about how the franchise fits together.

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Advance Review of Afar

This article was originally published at ComicBook.Com on March 21, 2017.

Afar - Cover

Written by Leila Del Duca

Art by Kit Seaton

Edited by Taneka Stotts

Published by Image Comics

While many comics fans, myself included, are not fans of the term “graphic novel”, the format does lead to some valuable comparisons. When a comic is published as a graphic novel or OGN, it does not depend on readers returning to learn more. It is capable of delivering a complete story, fleshing out a world, and carrying readers from start to finish without a break. Debate the terminology all you want, but the upcoming Image debut of Afar shows the value of this specific format. It is a beautifully presented story that constructs a sprawling world, a canvas tailor-made for storytelling, and delivers on the promise of self-contained narrative.

Afar is Leila Del Duca’s writing debut at Image Comics as her work on Shutter draws to a closer. She teams with artist Kit Seaton (Otto the Odd and the Dragon King) to construct the story of two siblings forced to fend for themselves as they encounter drastically different obstacles. Inotu, the younger brother, gets into trouble while their parents are away and forces them to flee across an inhospitable desert. In the meanwhile, Boetema, the older and more responsible sister, is struggling with her ability to visit distant planets and other forms of life in her dreams.

The juxtaposition of these two very different journey lies at the heart of Afar. It is both the story of young people learning how to survive a tough life and about dreams that span the galaxy in a very literal fashion. There’s nothing mundane about either aspect though. Even when Boetema and Inotu are holed up at home, the world they occupy is as fascinating as discovering Tatooine for the first time in Star Wars. What is grubby to these protagonists is still stuffed with detail and possibility for readers.

 

Afar - Writing

It is here that Keaton and Del Duca’s combined experience as designers is put on full display. They aim to capture the imagination at every possible turn. Each town or new world is made to stand out from what has come before. They don’t seek to overwhelm either. Instead, they are carefully crafted to invite the eye and allow readers to piece details together and imagine what life must be like in each new setting. It is an invitation to explore more than anything else, and that invitation still feels fresh after an initial reading.

That readers can take the time to soak in the world(s) of Afar is a key strength of its single volume publication. The key setting might remind readers of certain locales and periods from reality, but it is entirely its own thing. Rather than engage in extensive exposition, Afar offers details about this place at a natural pace all related to the story of its two lead characters. Readers could extrapolate from what they observe on the page, both in the foreground and background, to make guesses about what the economy or politics of this place might be like, but nothing is spelled out. While that might leave some looking for more once the story ends, no more is needed. Offering additional details on the city-state rules of these children’s home would be like delving into the local politics of Mos Eisley; it’s fine back matter for some, but would damage the heart of the story.

Seaton does a stunning job of capturing detail within each scene too. As the children migrate between locales, it’s possible to both see them as part of a connected map and uniquely distinguished places. Her colorwork makes the arid landscape and brutal heat stand out as a similar factor, but the shapes and designs of buildings clarify elements of wealth and history. Much of Afar is defined by grids of 5 or more panels, but when it allows a splash or spread to appear, Seaton seizes the opportunity to pull the eye into a world they won’t want to turn the page on.

Afar - Puppy

 

Individual characters are just as well defined, and nowhere is this more clear than in the quick exposition done for alien worlds. Most of Boetema’s dreams last only 1 or 2 pages, with a single notable exception, and so there’s only the quickest glimpse of each alien race, and the flora and fauna that surround them. Yet within each of these snapshots there is a thoughtfulness. They exist like the best openers of 2000 A.D. “Future Shocks” creating a complete world that is irresistible. There is something familiar and alien to each environment, a combination well defined by the “lizard dog” that appears in glimpses throughout Afar. That creature is something composed of a variety of animals, with touches of pangolin and snake. Yet its nature is that of the charming mutt with a big heart and keen intuition. This soul is never more present than with this one oddball alien invention, but it runs throughout the entire story.

This is the aesthetic that captures Afar at its absolute best. It is a story of exploration, discovery, and imagination. The plotting of that story stumbles in some places, but never to a distracting degree. Del Duca introduces elements, like a young romance and grammar troubles for Inotu, that never deliver a satisfactory sense of catharsis. Boetema’s story is clearly the guiding plot and it is the stronger half of the narrative by far. Yet none of Afar ever takes too much time or risks boring a reader. It strides along confidently exploring its own world and about a dozen others, actively encouraging readers to set aside a couple of hours to finish the comic in a single sitting.

Afar is a compelling argument for the adoption of the European publication style in America. Rather than risk readers quibbling about minor details in carefully sectioned 20-page installments, it delivers a complete vision. And that vision is stunning. Each page is crafted in a manner that makes it worthy of consideration, and every alien world drawn by Seaton begs for its own tale. While there could be sequels made to Afar, it exists entirely on its own and deserves recognition for being a complete piece of art. While it might cost more than a new #1, it is worth the risk. This is a comic worth immersing yourself in from start to finish.

Grade: B+

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5 Reasons The Immortal Iron Fist is The Best

This article was originally published at ComicBook.Com on March 21, 2017.

Iron Fist - Cover

There’s more buzz surrounding the character Iron Fist today than ever before. While Iron Fist has been a longtime cult favorite among comics readers, his appearances in other media have been limited (to say the least) until the debut of the new Netflix series. Opinions on the show’s first season have been mixed, but there are a lot of viewers and onlookers wondering what made this Marvel Comics character the one chosen to have his own adaptation. If you’re one of those wondering or just looking for a great comics recommendation, then look no further.

There are quite a few good starting points when it comes to understanding Iron Fist, but none of them are better than The Immortal Iron Fist written by Ed Brubaker and Matt Fraction and drawn by a wide array of great artists. This series began in 2006 cemented Iron Fist as a fixture in modern Marvel Comics and he has regularly been featured in either his own series or a prominent team like the Avengers, ever since. It has also been collected in a single volume perfect for weekend reading. If you’re looking for a great Iron Fist story, here’s why The Immortal Iron Fist is the one you need to read.

Iron Fist - Fraction and Brubaker

An Iron Fist for New and Longtime Fans

One of the most difficult challenges in recommending any Marvel comic is finding one that can satisfy both newcomers and readers familiar with the publisher’s extensive lore. Iron Fist was created by Roy Thomas and Gil Kane in 1974, leaving him with more than 40 years of history to explore and be accounted for. It’s no easy feat for a new comic to encompass all of that and offer a story that is accessible, but it’s something that The Immortal Iron Fist accomplishes with the same grace Danny Rand delivers punches and kicks.

The story is based almost entirely in a new conflict involving Hydra, but it involves all of the most important aspects of Iron Fist’s history. The city of K’un L’un, Danny Rand’s origin, and his most important allies are all there and play important roles. Fraction and Brubaker designed their series to be a fast-paced adventure that would also guide readers through what makes Iron Fist a great, underrated character at Marvel. So no matter how little or how much experience you have with reading Marvel comics, this one will work for you.

Iron Fist - David Aja Action

David Aja Action

Fraction and artist David Aja are best known for their collaboration on the beloved series Hakweye, but it was in The Immortal Iron Fist that they initially gathered a devoted fanbase. Aja’s action in Hawkeye has been deservedly praised, but what he delivers with one of Marvel’s best martial artists is every bit as good. The manner in which every strike from a hand, foot, or knee is delivered carries a kinetic effect. Aja highlights the most brutal action with precisely utilized inset panels.

Aja’s accomplishments on The Immortal Iron Fist stand out as being unique within his career too. There’s heavier linework and more emphasis on splash pages and wide panels, accompanied by the dense structures that define Hawkeye. The manner in which Aja establishes Iron Fist’s underdog role with him facing off against dozens of foes throughout the series is accomplished to stunning effect.

Iron Fist - History

Tales of Past Iron Fists

One of the defining characteristics of The Immortal Iron Fist is how the series didn’t just play off the history of Danny Rand, but invented history for the role of the Iron Fist. It has long been known that there were previous Iron Fists, but Fraction and Brubaker made sure to explore what that meant and why the mantle itself was important. In doing so they made the Iron Fist feel like a more significant part of the Marvel universe and created an opportunity to engage in a variety of short stories.

Throughout the series, and in some one-shots, there are flashbacks to previous Iron Fists who lived throughout the past millennia. The series catalogs their greatest adventures, how some lived, and how some died. This exposes the versatility of the Iron Fist concept, capable of being a soldier, guardian, and leader depending on the demands of the day. Perhaps the most significant addition is that of Orson Randall, a mysterious surviving Iron Fist who Danny encounters and uses the power of Shou-Lao the Undying in very unexpected ways.

Iron Fist - Mike Allred

A Wide Array of Featured Artists

David Aja drew the largest portion of The Immortal Iron Fist, but he was far from the only artist involved with the series. Travel Foreman, Kano, Howard Chaykin, Mike Allred, and Nick Dragotta are only some of the all-stars who helped to deliver the action and wild settings that make the series a favorite for many Marvel fans. Their involvement makes perfect sense too. As the series jumped between different characters and timeframes, different artists would come in to depict these changes in the story.

Allred’s art is a perfect fit for the annual story of “Orson Randall and the Green Mist of Death”. It’s a classic pulp riff that plays like a mix of Indiana Jones and Doc Savage. Allred relishes both the fun of this story, but still makes the threat appear haunting. That sort of pairing between artist and material is exhibited throughout the entire series, and it’s a delight to see so many artists appear and show off what makes them unique in the world of comics.

Iron Fist - Complete

A Complete Story

We started this list with one of the biggest challenges in recommending comics and that’s who we’ll end it too. Finding a story that actually contains a beginning, middle, and end can be difficult given the ongoing nature of many superhero comics, but The Immortal Iron Fist pulls it off. When you reach the end of the series (or at least #16 when Brubaker and Fraction leave) all of the major loose ends are resolved and a satisfying conclusion is discovered.

There’s a couple of great cliffhangers for future stories to discover, but it’s possible to set down this series and feel like you’ve read a complete creation. Of course the characters will go on to do more, but they grow and change in a dynamic fashion within this one series and the ending they arrive at feels like it could be enough. So if you’re looking to read up on Iron Fist, then start with The Immortal Iron Fist. It’s the best buy you’ll find featuring a superhero with a dragon tattoo.

 

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5 Wars Worthy of Thor

This article was originally published at ComicBook.Com on March 17, 2017.

Thor Shi'ar War

This week saw the war between Asgard and the Shi’ar enter a battle truly worthy of gods. It is a plot that came as a surprise to many readers, but Jason Aaron and Russell Dauterman have been building towards for quite some time. Throughout Aaron’s run, and especially in his time collaborating with Dauterman, he has utilized the epic scope and nature of Thor’s people to the benefit of each new story. This war against the Shi’ar exposes the potential for Asgard to come into conflict with any of the most powerful forces across the Marvel Universe. Whether they’re magical, alien, or something else altogether, Asgardians can put up a fight against any opponent.

That’s what makes this new clash so interesting, and it got us thinking about what other entities at Marvel might make for great story fodder to explore in the future stories of Thor. It seems like Aaron’s run is beginning to draw close to its conclusion, but there are many stories left to tell and whatever creators come next will need to find new antagonists for this epic scale. These are five entities within the Marvel Universe that we think would make for great challengers in future wars with Asgard.

Thor - Olympians

The Olympians

Suggested Reading: Journey Into Mystery Annual (vol. 1) #1

This one might seem obvious and that’s because it is, but just because something is a classic doesn’t mean it’s not worth resurrecting. Hercules, Zeus, and the entire Olympian pantheon were introduced to Marvel Comics in the pages of a Thor story by legendary creators Jack Kirby and Stan Lee. It only makes sense that they maintain their hallowed halls within the pages of this magazine and continue a decades old rivalry.

When it comes to mythological popularity, few sets of gods can compete on the same level as the Greek and Norse legends. Zeus and Odin along with all of their siblings and offspring also make for a surprisingly well paired set. Given their unique status on Earth and their incredible power, a war between these two great forces both makes perfect sense and offers plenty of fodder for fireworks. Really, the only question here is why haven’t these groups squared off more often?

Thor - Galactus and Heralds

The Heralds and Galactus

Suggested Reading: Annhiliation: Silver Surfer

In the formulation of the world as understood by the Norse gods, Midgard (a.k.a. Earth) and Asgard rest as equal locations on the world tree Yggdrasil. Following this logic it makes sense that Asgard is a place of at least equal importance of the entire planet Earth, if not more power given its divine nature. And that leads us to the big question: Why doesn’t Galactus bother trying to eat Asgard more often?

A showdown between a starving Devourer of Planets and the entirety of the Norse gods striving to protect their home would be a showdown worthy of a mini-series or extended storyline. Earthlings have become used to Galactus showing up on their doorstep, but Asgardians have rarely been concerned with an even greater entity eating their homes out from under them. This is a story ready to be told and one that could be punched up with the reintroduction of a few Heralds.

Thor - The Brood

The Brood

Suggested Reading: Uncanny X-Men (vol. 1) #161-167

While most of the suggestions on this list rely on their power and scale to justify a war with Asgard, The Brood are based purely on a blend of cunning and efficiency. While the Shi’ar rely on their gods to fight a battle with Asgard, The Brood would be capable of managing the fight entirely on their own. Created to resemble the Xenomorphs of the Aliens franchise, this race of extraterrestrials are capable of absorbing their victims strengths and making more powerful individuals hosts to future offspring.

These are the traits that made their first showdown against the X-Men so terrifying and what makes them worthy adversaries for almost any target. The Brood rise to whatever challenge they are faced with and bring a chilling horror element to any story in which they are inserted. In the realm of Asgard, The Brood would make the gods question who could be trusted and offer chilling new takes on formerly friendly faces. It’s a blend of legendary and horrific storytelling just waiting to be told.

Thor - Celestials

The Celestials

Suggested Reading: The Eternals (vol. 1)

All of the other picks on this list could be argued as equals (or something less) to the threat of an invading force of Asgardians. The Celestials, created by Jack Kirby, would be the exception. In a shared universe filled with different sorts of gods, they are about as close as it comes to having gods that reign over the entire universe. This group of entities loom as amoral beings embodying concepts like judgement and capable of destroying planets with a solitary hand gesture.

That’s also what makes them great antagonists for the Asgardians, as their immense power establishes them to be foes worthy of overcoming. Whatever the reason might be that would draw these grand creations into conflict with Asgard, it would require a mighty struggle to resist them all. Given the immense artistic talents working on Thor over the past few years, it would also be very exciting to see these Kirby creations tackled by some of the best pencils and brushes working at Marvel Comics today.

Thor - The Negative Zone

The Negative Zone

Suggested Reading: Annihilation

While the Celestials are merely a dozen entities with incredible power, the inhabitants of the Negative Zone represent a seemingly infinite wave of antagonists possessing just as much destructive force. In the Annihilation event Annihilus united all of these creatures into a single invasion force and almost destroyed everything in Marvel’s existence. While the gods of Asgard stayed out of that fight, it would certainly make for a great challenge of their own.

Annihilus, Blastar, and their various hordes have always been classic Fantastic Four villains, but are adaptable and would face off well against the likes of Thor, Beta Ray Bill, and other hammer-wielding heroes. They represent overwhelming odds and endless battle that would give the God of Thunder a chance to revel and readers plenty of eye candy to read in a war truly worthy of the gods.

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Fox’s New Superhero Franchise Model

This article was originally published at ComicBook.Com on March 17, 2017.

In any conversation about the superhero genre in film today one truth must be observed: Marvel Studios is king. Whether you’re looking at recognition, box office, or critical acclaim, no collection of superhero films has been as successful as those created by Marvel Studios over the past decades. What that means for everyone else, is that Marvel has established the model to beat. That’s why so much of the conversation today swirls around what studio or concept might actually manage to compete with this entertainment juggernaut. Now it appears that another studio using some of Marvel’s own properties might be have discovered an answer; we’re talking about Fox and the X-Men.

In some ways Fox beat Marvel to the discovery of the shared universe. The first X-Men movie cast a wide net and allowed for the chance to explore stories beyond those of the core team. That isn’t how the studio decided to go though, and it wasn’t until the ill-fated X-Men Origins: Wolverine that the first non-X-Men movie premiered. Marvel Studios perfected the shared universe and after the almost equally ill-fated X-Men: Apocalypse it doesn’t appear that Fox is any closer to refining the shared continuity model. However, they seem to have discovered something different and possibly even better.

Deadpool

Deadpool is patient zero in this new model. It’s the superhero movie that defied all of the common knowledge about the medium and succeeded far beyond even its most optimistic boosters hopes. There are lots of things that set it apart. The most obvious different element was the R-rating, but there was plenty more to consider. It was primarily a comedy with lots of violence all based on a character that mainstream audiences had little to no understanding of. It was a big gamble that paid off.

Looking at those surface elements of a rating or comedy or ultra violence undercuts what truly sets Deadpool apart though. What made this movie different was its embrace of the successful character at its heart. Deadpool has been a hit in comics since he was created by Rob Liefeld and Fabian Nicieza. The elements of screwball comedy and extra bloody violence stem from his success in comics. Everything about the film reflects what makes the character work.

The film also managed to create its own sense of continuity in that it was ready to share the X-Men universe, but paid no attention to any elements that didn’t benefit it. Deadpool acknowledges the existence of mutants, Colossus, and Xavier’s school, but is still impossible to place within the continuity of the other films. That’s because the other films don’t matter within the context of Deadpool. Audiences understood what was being taken from what had come before and the rest didn’t matter. All of these elements are key to the successes Fox would have in the next year and what might compose their new superhero model.

Logan

Logan shares some superficial aspects with Deadpool. It also has an R-rating and lots of very intense violence, but it’s an incredibly different movie. Whereas Deadpool celebrates violence, Logan abhors it with each new action sequence feeling like a stain upon the soul. Guided by director James Mangold the film explores the effect of violence and a variety of political topics. While it might also feature cursing and bloodshed, it’s difficult to think of a superhero film more different from Deadpool than this one.

What Logan does share with Deadpool is a dedication to what makes the character work. Mangold’s film is about the hard work of fighting for the future and the toll that fight takes on the individuals brave enough to continue it. It is a film about responsibility and progress, and one that ultimately does not rely on a connection to other X-Men films in any meaningful manner. The lesson to learn from Logan is not that R-ratings or violence sells; it’s that staying true to a vision and a character will attract audiences. The overlap between Wolverine and Deadpool is purely coincidental in this regard.

Legion

These elements are not quarantined to the big screen either. The most recent mutant outing on television in FX’s Legion has been a massive success amongst critics, and it’s for many of the same reasons. Legion can’t display the same level of violence or drop the same number of curse words as an R-rated film. However, it is every bit as dedicated to its character’s core strengths and a unique vision as Logan or Deadpool.

Fargo showrunner Noah Hawley has deployed his incredible visual sensibilities to tell the story of a young mutant plagued by his own powers, struggles he never chose, and mental illness to compose a visually compelling narrative. While Legion may not be as popular as the previously mentioned anti-heroes, his story in X-Men: Legacy offered a springboard from which the show has exploded. It is a story connected to the ideas of the X-Men that audiences will understand, but still unhinged from the continuity allowing it to be entirely its own thing.

Meet the New Boss

In just under a year Fox Studios has experienced three of the most significant successes within the superhero genre after kicking off the trend with X-Men when many of us were still in school. It’s not mistake or coincidence either. After years of focusing on the core X-Men team and an ongoing history, the studio has finally shifted their focus in a way that proposes a brand new model for superhero franchises.

That model can be summarized in three core elements:

  1. Focus on character. Understand what makes an idea work and execute on that understanding.
  2. Ignore continuity. Tell the story you need to tell and only use what you need from the franchise, ignoring the rest.
  3. Believe in the vision. Don’t let ratings or stylization hold you back. If you make something great, it will find an audience.

Following these tenets, Fox can compete with a juggernaut like Marvel Studios because they are capable of doing things that Marvel simply cannot. By telling great individual stories, each new installment stands out as something worthy of recognition. The greatest strength of the X-Men franchise today is that it’s an alternative in the world of superhero stories, not a substitute. We can only hope Fox maintains that strength in the years to come.

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