Thursday, January 31, 2008

Brief Plug

Just wanted to mention that I've been interviewed for a podcast about role-playing games, and specifically the (relatively) recently-released 'Glimpse of the Abyss', by Atlas Games. So anyone who wants to hear me rambling on about Hong Kong action movies and RPGs, that's your one-stop shop!

How To Save Marvel Comics, Step Two

So, in last week's column, I discussed the first step in transforming Marvel from its current status as "niche publisher of specialty products" back into "major publisher with a highly visible, well-distributed product all across America". (And again, I'll remind everyone that the same plan applies to DC as well, but I'm using "Marvel" because calling the series, "How To Save Comics" is even more rampantly egotistical than its current title.)

Judging by reader response, the first step--retooling the product line to be more "all-ages friendly"--is a little controversial...in the sense that I didn't even know that many people even read my blog, much less felt strongly enough to comment on it. I gotta say, I'm a little nervous; having started with a "Step One" that's basically, "Ignore the fanboys and try to get new readers," I feel like I better back that up with some good ideas to do exactly that, or people will dismiss me as a crazy person. (These people may not actually be wrong.) Because obviously yes, having retooled your product line to appeal to kids and casual readers, you can't just expect these people to walk through the door looking for your product.

Except that in a very real sense, that's exactly what Marvel does. Look at where their advertising goes, and where their products are distributed to, and you're quickly going to find that unless you happen to be standing in a comics store, you don't know what Marvel is publishing and you don't know how to get it. With the occasional exception of crossovers that fall on a slow news day, Marvel markets its comics only to existing comics buyers. It buys ads in comics-related publications like 'Wizard' or 'Comics Buyers Guide', it does interviews on comics-themed websites like Newsarama, and in general, it jockeys for market share more than anything else. Even if you do hear about a comics event you want to read about (like, say, the death of Captain America, or Spider-Man unmasking), you have to go to a comics store if you want to read it; outside of the occasional spinner rack at a bookstore, and a few half-hearted attempts to colonize the magazine racks at Wal-Marts and Targets, comics are very hard to find outside of specialty stores.

This is not something that can be reversed overnight. It took twenty years to ghettoize the industry, and it's going to take a while to climb back out. Marvel just does not have the resources to distribute its product on a massive scale to newsstands and drugstores like it did in the 60s and 70s (and into the 80s), and it doesn't have the resources to conduct a major publicity blitz. Like it or not, if Marvel wants people to read comics, it needs to get them into the comics stores. The company can't massively distribute or massively promote, it needs to pick its shots.

Luckily, it has a secret weapon that is the centerpiece of Step Two. Diamond Distributors, the exclusive distributor of Marvel Comics, has had for quite some time now a "Comic Store Locator". Either by dialing 1-888-COMIC-BOOK, or by visiting comicshoplocator.com, anyone can just enter their zip code and get the 3-5 closest comics stores to them listed, complete with phone number. (And address, if they use the website.) Diamond provides this service free of charge, and Marvel should really start taking advantage of it in a big way (while hoping Diamond doesn't read Step Three of this series, he says ominously.)

This means that all existing advertising should stress, somewhere in the ad, that 1-888-COMIC-BOOK is a free call that tells you where the nearest local comics store is. Marvel can cut back drastically on in-store promotional material; all they need to do to make sure existing comics fans know about their product can be done with interviews in comics publications (which are free advertising.) They need to be pushing their stuff outside the comics world, and they need to be doing so in such a way that tells people how to get their stuff.

And the best part about this is, just about anything can be advertising if you put that "1-888-COMIC-BOOK" on it. Licenced a line of Marvel sleepwear for kids? Tell them that one of the conditions of the deal is that "1-888-COMIC-BOOK" has to be on the packaging somewhere (along with the words, "Mom and Dad--it's a FREE CALL!") Putting out a new line of action figures? 1-888-COMIC-BOOK. Making a deal with a major studio for a movie or TV series? 1-888-COMIC-BOOK, either at the beginning or at the end. Putting out a trade paperback that's going to be in bookstores as well as comics stores? 1-888-COMIC-BOOK. Making a deal with a cereal company to let them use Spider-Man to promote their cereal for a month? 1-888-COMIC-BOOK. Making an appearance on 'The Colbert Report' to tell them the exciting news about Captain America coming back and your upcoming 'Secret Invasion' storyline? 1-888-COMIC-BOOK, for God's sake, Joe. It's not enough to tell them what's out there, tell them where to find it and do it quick.

Naturally, a lot of people reading this will think about their local comics store, and wince at the thought of new customers coming in and meeting Cranky Fred, the owner who puts up cheesecake posters all over the store, files DC back-issues by which Earth they occurred on, and shouts "This is not a library!" every time someone starts to flip through a comic. This is why Marvel would spend a little of its dough on a Retail Support Team, a group of people whose job it would be to travel the country and show local store owners how to be more new-customer friendly. (It's an ugly job, but somebody's gotta do it.)

Another important point is to make sure your existing distribution networks are hitting their audience effectively. Bookstores currently shelve all comics under "Graphic Novels". Talk to the major chains (Borders, Barnes and Noble) about shelving kid's comics in the Children's section...where children will look for them. The 'Essentials' series are tailor-made for kids; they're cheap, they're thick, and they look like big coloring books. Get them put where kids can see them, buy them, and see on the back page of every book (yes, I am going to harp on it. The whole point is that you need to harp on it...) 1-888-COMIC-BOOK.

And last but not least, you want to have at least one publication that is mass marketed, that gives you a "brand footprint" in all the outlets that carry publications. Much in the same way that seeing 'Shonen Jump' in a supermarket gets kids hooked on manga, you want to have something that kids can find just about anywhere they go, and which will suffice to get them hooked on the stuff. Like, say, a magazine. (This might sound familiar to regular readers, as I've described the idea in a previous column.) The magazine, which I'd call 'Marvel Treasury', would be about 120 pages an issue (since you can't reduce the price, you can at least give them a big hunk of story. 120 pages for ten bucks feels like a better deal than 24 pages for 2 bucks.) It'd contain four or five short, self-contained stories in every issue, continuity-lite material featuring Marvel's more famous characters (say, a Spider-Man story every issue, a Hulk story every issue, a Fantastic Four story every issue, an Avengers story every issue, and a random fifth story every issue.) It would also feature articles advertising upcoming comics, recapping important stories to bring readers up to speed on the history of the Marvel Universe (in the way that 'Marvel Saga', 'Marvel Age', or the 'Handbook to the Marvel Universe' used to do), activities pages, letter columns, fan art, and other such community-building material (nothing quite makes you feel like a part of the Marvel Universe like getting a letter published)...and, of course, at the end of every issue, there'd be a nice big double-page spread of a Marvel hero showing you, the reader, how to find the comics store nearest you by dialing (I have it on cut-and-paste by now) 1-888-COMIC-BOOK.

In other words, step two is all about getting the readers to come to you. Next week, I'll cover Step Three: Going to where the readers are.

What will the fans think of this step? There will probably be some who get a little cranky when all these new people come into the comics stores, just because there are some of us who, well...aren't so great with the social skills. But improving public awareness of comics might make some fans feel a little less ostracized, and that can't be a bad thing.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Storytelling Engines: Savage Dragon

(or "Working Without A Net")

We've done a lot of discussing of storytelling engines in this column over the last year or so, but it's rarely that we've discussed a series that doesn't actually have a storytelling engine. This is because in practical terms, it's impossible not to have a storytelling engine at all; "storytelling engine" is my way of describing the protagonists, antagonists, supporting cast, background, setting, and central concept of a series, and a series with none of those things wouldn't be much of a series at all. ("All-new! All-different! Thirty-two all-blank pages!") But it's true that some series have more of a "storytelling engine" than others, and some have very little at all.

There are two reasons why this might be, both stemming from the point of a storytelling engine. The list of things mentioned above are there to help the writer generate stories in an open-ended series; if a writer is stuck for an idea, he/she can look to things already established to explore their possibilities further. (So, for example, a Spider-Man writer stuck for an idea can bring back Doctor Octopus, or a Superman writer stuck for an idea can do a "Red Kryptonite" story.) One reason to have a minimal storytelling engine, as I discussed earlier when talking about Howard the Duck, is that the story might not be open-ended. If you just plan to tell as many stories as are in your head and then stop, then you can feel free to make changes as and when necessary.

The other reason, as exemplified in 'The Savage Dragon' (yes, that is the subject of this week's column, I hadn't forgotten), is that sometimes the writer doesn't want help in generating stories. Erik Larsen, the writer, penciller and inker of 'Savage Dragon' since its inception, wasted very little time in setting up the Dragon's storytelling engine. He's found, naked in a burning field, with no memory of his past and very little concern for what it might be. He joins the police force in Chicago (seemingly by whim on Larsen's part), and starts fighting bad guys. Beyond that, the "storytelling engine" is entirely based on Larsen's imagination. If he thinks an idea is interesting, he puts it in. When he grows bored with it, he removes it. The setting changes based on his imagination, characters drift in and out when they feel like it, the Dragon's own background isn't significantly explored for the first 12 years of the character's existence (and barely even factors into the fifty issues covered by 'The Savage Dragon Archives Volumes One and Two'), villains show up, fight, and get killed when Larsen runs out of stories to tell with them...it's pretty evident that Larsen is not someone who's worried that he'll run out of ideas any time soon.

Does it work? Frequently, yes. Not every idea that Larsen throws into the book is a good one (there's an embarrassing tendency towards pastiche at times, with "Mighty Man", "Doctor Nirvana", "Octopus", "the Arachnid", "J. Richard Richards", and other thinly-veiled Marvel and DC characters), but with so many ideas getting tossed into the mix, there's always something unexpected coming down the pike. Having such a fluid status quo frees Larsen to go wherever his imagination takes him, and so far, for the most part, he hasn't had trouble getting an issue out the door. More power to him if he can pull it off.

The only question is, how long can he continue to do so? I'm not predicting dire consequences or a sudden attack of writer's block, here; I'm merely pointing out that one of the big advantages of a storytelling engine is that it endures beyond the span of the engine's creator. Erik Larsen will no doubt be able to continue writing 'Savage Dragon' for a long time to come, but it may not endure past the point where he's finished with it. Whereas a storytelling engine can be handed off to another writer, and (so long as they don't break it) it will continue to generate stories for a new writer, even a new generation of writers. Imaginations come and go, but a good engine is built to last.

Friday, January 25, 2008

How To Save Marvel Comics, Step One

I've been rambling on, off and on, for a while now, about my views on what's wrong with the comics industry, and how to fix it, and how things aren't as good as they were when I was a kid, and how my hip aches, and how those punk teenagers keep messing up my lawn, and...sorry. Channeling my inner "grumpy old man" there for a moment. But the fact of the matter is, comics are in trouble. Marvel and DC drive the industry, their dollars allow specialty comics stores to exist, which are the only outlet for independent comics, and should Marvel or DC die, then so will the industry (As We Know It, natch.)

And Marvel and DC...well, they'll no doubt point to how sales have increased over the last couple of years, and how happy they are, but let's not forget that they're increasing from an all-time low, that comics traditionally operate in a boom/bust cycle and the booms are getting smaller and the busts are getting bigger and we're in a boom now, that most Marvel comics are doing numbers that would have been below cancellation threshold twenty years ago, and that essentially Marvel and DC have lowered their standards to make themselves seem like they're doing a good job. 'Spider-Man 3', to pick a recent Marvel movie, grossed 336 million dollars. Let's assume that's ten bucks a ticket, with nobody seeing it at matinees. That's 33.6 million tickets sold. Now let's assume that everyone who saw the movie saw it three times, on average. That's eleven million Spider-Man fans. The current 'Amazing Spider-Man' comic? It sells about 100,000 copies an issue. This means that Marvel is reaching, at a conservative estimate, about one percent of its potential fan base. Any other industry had that kind of problem, the entire marketing, distribution, and editorial staff would be taken out back and shot.

So here I am, synthesizing all my thoughts on how to save Marvel into a series of easy columns so that people can read them all and say, "You're nuts." (The same advice applies to DC, by the by. 'Superman Returns' grossed $200 million.) So, step by step, this is how I'd do it.

Step #1 is both the easiest step, and the hardest. It's the easiest, because it requires no promotional budget, no distribution budget--it's purely internal. It's the hardest because it involves confronting the "elephant in the room", the big ugly truth that nobody in comics wants to admit. Not writers, not artists, not editors, not retailers, and definitely not fans. I expect to be utterly flamed for even saying it. I can't imagine Joe Quesada or Dan DiDio having the guts to say it, and that's not an attack on them--I consider them both very gutsy guys, but I can't picture them calling an all-staff meeting and saying this. It's the hardest thing in the world for everyone involved to accept, but no progress can be made until everyone from the top down at Marvel buys into it.

Marvel is a publisher of children's comic books, and every step they make to try to capture an adult audience is throwing money down a toilet.

Let me clarify: This is not the same thing as saying "Comics are a children's medium." I am aware of, and enjoy, lots of comics aimed at adults. There's no question that the medium is capable of telling adult, mature stories. But so is film. That doesn't mean Disney should start making R-rated movies. Disney wisely recognized a long time ago that their "brand identity"--the product that consumers associate with them--is "children's entertainment", and instead of fighting that brand identity, they went with it. When Disney wants to produce a movie for adults, they release it under the 'Touchstone' label because they recognize that "Disney" has certain connotations, and it's counter-productive to try to fight them. (That's also why they're so protective of the images of their cartoon characters. Negative portrayals of Mickey, Goofy, et al, reflect badly on Disney as a whole.)

Marvel has a brand identity of "children's entertainement". It releases DVDs of Marvel cartoons aimed at kids, it sells merchandising aimed at kids (not just toys, but sleepwear, children's clothing, backpacks, school supplies, a whole host of child-oriented merchandising), it uses its characters as mascots for children's products. Everywhere, the image of Marvel is "kid-friendly". Everywhere but in the comics. This is absolutely the worst possible way of doing things. Potential adult audiences (which exist in questionable numbers at best, anyway) won't pick up an mature-themed comic because the brand identity is "children's entertainment", and kids will be immediately turned off of Marvel's core product because it's not meant for them, even though it's aimed at and sold to them. It's the worst of both worlds in every possible sense.

So Marvel must become a kid-friendly company, and this must be from the top down. The "target audience" for any given mainstream "Marvel Universe" comic should be in the 8-13 range, with the Ultimate line skewing a little older (say, 13-18), and the Max line...well, first, the Max line getting renamed, because it currently sounds like a brand of condoms, but secondly repurposed as an 18-and-up line of comics. And, most importantly, the Max line should feature no Marvel icons. No Max Cap, Max Spidey, Max Hulk, et cetera et cetera. The whole point of shaking things up like this is to make sure your company's products match their image; a mature-readers Spider-Man title defeats the purpose.

What do I mean when I say "kid-friendly"? I don't mean "stupid", and I don't mean "cuddly." Go watch 'Doctor Who', or read 'Harry Potter'. They're "kid-friendly" series that contain plenty of death, mayhem, horror, evil, violence, and innuendo, and they do fine with kids. They also do fine with adults. 'Bone' would be perfectly acceptable at the "new Marvel", and that's an enduring classic. "For Kids" doesn't have to mean "kiddified."

In specific, "kid-friendly" must mean three things. One, no explicit on-panel sex or violence. To be honest, this is more for parents than for kids. Kids love that stuff. But they don't have jobs, they can't earn their own money, so they have to be able to convince mom and dad to be able to buy stuff for them. So that means a blood, gore, and sex rating that won't freak parents out. This doesn't mean you can't have all that stuff happening; you just have to be clever about showing it.

Two, the pace must pick up. Kids don't mind sex, violence, and all that stuff, but they do have a short attention span and don't like material that bores them easily. The trend towards "decompression" in comics has produced comics in which very little happens in a single issue. That's fine if you're writing a long-form graphic novel for adults, but if you're publishing a kid's comic (which you are, Brian Michael Bendis, even if you've forgotten), you need to be putting a lot of information in each issue to satisfy children's need to see things happen. That also means cutting back on the "character moments" (I'm looking at you now, Brad Meltzer.) Sure, to you, these are your childhood icons finally getting a chance to explore their emotions and relationships, but to a kid, that's a bunch of guys sitting around a table and talking for six pages when they could be hitting things. Stuff needs to happen. Period.

Three, and three is where Marvel's been dropping the ball the most lately, your characters must be basically sympathetic and heroic. This doesn't mean "bland" or "flawless"; Spider-Man has been troubled and flawed since before issue #1, and everyone's loved him for it. But he's also always done the right thing, too. Fundamentally, these stories need to be about good guys fighting bad guys, not good guys fighting other good guys or bad guys fighting worse guys. The last four major Marvel crossovers have been about heroes fighting other heroes (Avengers: Disassembled, House of M, Civil War, World War Hulk.) Less moral ambiguity, less emotionally damaged anti-heroes, more actual good guys. Wolverine and the Punisher should be the rare exceptions, not the rule.

So, this is the speech you deliver to your creative personnel. Editors are expected to enforce it, writers and artists are expected to adhere to it. Those that don't want to (and there will be some who won't or can't tell stories like this; Warren Ellis, for example, is probably not interested) will be gently encouraged to work for the Max line of comics. (OK, they'll be "gently encouraged" to work on the Max line in the same way that Native Americans were "gently encouraged" to live on reservations. Nobody said this was gonna be nice.) To be honest, that's probably a good thing. Warren Ellis is right, in a lot of ways, when he says that Marvel writers are just servicing old trademarks. In an attempt to feel better about their job, they've been telling themselves that no, they're Serious Creators creating Serious Art, and Marvel has let them (in no small part because editors like to believe they're Serious Editors editing Serious Creators.) But it's killing the company, a little bit at a time. It's time for Marvel to, as cynical as it sounds, start remembering that they're in the entertainment business and not serious artists.

What will the fans think of this step? A few will no doubt be unhappy. Marvel has done an inadvertently excellent job of driving away people looking for kid-friendly comics, and the remaining fans are happy to be a tiny audience getting the exact comics they like. But even among hardened fans, there's a market for fast-paced kid-friendly disposable entertainment, and if 'One More Day' has taught us anything, it's that fans will suck it up and keep buying through just about anything. The fanbase will stick around, which is good, because right now it's all Marvel has.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Storytelling Engines: Adam Strange

(or "Perils Of The Shared Universe!")

I've talked before in this series of columns on how linking different fictional characters in a shared universe is a boon to a writer looking for stories; since a "storytelling engine" is, after all, an open-ended status quo designed to generate story ideas for writers, the macroscopic storytelling engine of the fictional universe contains, by definition, all of the smaller storytelling engines for each character and can use all of them. (Which is a fancy way of saying, "If the Batman writer is stuck for a Batman story this month, he can use an old Flash villain to keep the audience entertained.") But is it really an unalloyed positive to set your stories in a shared universe? Does it give you all sorts of extra options for telling stories, with no drawbacks. Oh, you wish. Because as much as anything, stories are all about complications. A story that has no complications is resolved easily, and a story that's resolved easily is...well, short. Very short. Writing is the art of making the protagonist's life difficult.

Like Adam Strange, for example, the archaeologist who discovered that the planet Rann in the solar system of Alpha Centauri has been trying to communicate with Earth for years now, by beaming "zeta-beams" at us. When Adam stands in one of these zeta-beams, he's saturated with weird radiation that pulls him instantly through space to Rann. Which turns out to be lucky for the planet Rann, because they're just clawing their way back to civilization after a planetary war, and they're constantly having to deal with weird alien menaces. So Adam Strange pops in every time he can find a convenient zeta-beam to hitch a ride on, fights menaces, romances gorgeous alien babe Alanna, but when the zeta-beam effect wears off, he pops back into existence on Earth. (Like every other instance of teleportation in science-fiction, the fact that planets and solar systems and galaxies all move is conveniently ignored.) It's a good storytelling engine, particularly because Rann is such a well-conceived world; it's a mix of different city-states, some in uneasy alliances, some in open warfare, and almost all with at least a little "forgotten technology" from before the war. There's always something for Adam Strange to do on Rann.

Then, since the Silver Age had officially gotten under way, and Adam Strange was just one of many popular DC characters like the Flash, the Atom, Hawkman, and Green Lantern, editor Julius Schwartz decided that it made perfect sense to assume that Adam Strange lived on the same Earth as all the super-heroes, and that Rann was just one of the many alien worlds of the DC Universe, like Thanagar and Oa. (Not that they necessarily made this a conscious "decision", or even necessarily consciously thought of a "DC Universe". Julius Schwartz was kind of making up a lot of the rules as he went along, a freedom that many editors since have devoutly wished for.)

This, of course, led to every kid who read DC comics asking themselves the same question. "Why doesn't Adam Strange get a ride to Rann from Hawkman or Green Lantern?" After all, both of those super-heroes had space travel; Superman could fly through space at insane speeds and carry passengers (because he's Superman. Don't think too hard about it.) Adam Strange's relationship with Alanna is a bit of a false status quo, in that they both wish that there was some way they could be together more often, but it works in the early stories because you don't need to pay a lot of attention to it. Alpha Centauri is four light-years away, Adam Strange's current solution of zeta-beam hopping is the best he's going to get, and that's just all there is to it. But once you have Adam Strange meet Green Lantern, the writer has to desperately come up with some sort of plot contrivance to keep Adam Strange's storytelling engine working. In a shared universe, sometimes one storytelling engine can break another.

Over the years, they've come up with a lot of different reasons why Adam and Alanna remain "star-crossed lovers", and even decided for a time to give the two of them the happy ending they deserve by letting Adam get to Rann for keeps. This being comics, of course, it didn't last. (The current solution is simple; Adam and Alanna both prefer things the way they are. The constant travel by zeta-beams is just the modern space-couple's version of "me time.") But the fact of the matter is, they wouldn't have to worry about it if Adam Strange's continuity was just kept separate from the other comics DC publishes.

You can see this in a lot of comics if you start looking for it, from Spider-Man ("Why doesn't Spider-Man get one of the twenty-seven mutant healers running around in 'X-Men' to heal Aunt May?") to the Avengers ("Professor X's telepathy can't detect Skrulls. Really.") to Batman ("Only Batman can stop Deacon Blackfire's army of homeless people, because, um...the Justice League are all in space that week. Yeah.") A sufficiently large shared universe contains the solutions to any problem a writer can come up with...and for a writer, that's the biggest problem of all.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Showcase Update '08

As with Marvel, I did a list last year around this time of
the top fifteen DC titles I'd like to see released in the 'Showcase Presents' format. And as with Marvel, it's time to update that list in light of another year of releases.

So before we present the new Fine Fifteen, how did DC do in 2007? The short answer, they killed. They absolutely demolished my list, presenting me with nine of the fifteen that I most wanted to see, including my top four, plus giving collections to several of the honorable mentions. They gave us 'Batman and the Outsiders', the 'World's Finest', 'Sergeant Rock', 'Supergirl', 'The Atom', 'The Flash', 'The Metal Men', 'Adam Strange', and 'House of Secrets' has already been solicited. Really, the only way the year could have gone better is if they hadn't pulled the rug out from under us on the 'Suicide Squad' collection.

I don't really expect 2008 to have as many new series as 2007, because they're going to be putting out more volume twos and threes of existing series (which I have no complaints with; I'm very much looking forward to more 'Legion of Super-Heroes', for example.) But this is the goal to shoot for, in my eyes:


15. Kamandi. To be honest, this one is really only on here because so many of my top fifteen got knocked out from last year that there's room for "stuff I've kind of heard of that sounds vaguely interesting". I know very little about it, other than that it's about The Last Boy On Earth and animal-people. But hey, it's got to be worth a read...

14. The Demon. He's a staple character of DC's magical line-up, and it'd probably be nice to have a big thick book of his adventures just to get people up to speed on who he is and why he's always rhyming. (Plus, if the volumes go far enough, they'll hit Garth Ennis' run on the series, and that has to be good.)

13. New Gods. To be honest, I've never been that big of a fan of Kirby's DC work; I think he did his best work for Marvel, in collaboration with Stan Lee. But the Fourth World mythos are so integral to DC that they really do deserve a "reader's edition" for us poor chumps, to go along with the expensive omnibii they're released.

12. The Blackhawks. You'd have to be careful to avoid their goofy "super-hero" phase, but let's face it; DC did them some good war comics back in the day, and this would probably go very well on my shelf with 'The Haunted Tank', 'The Unknown Soldier', 'The War That Time Forgot', and 'Sergeant Rock'. (True story: I re-read 'World War Z', and when I got to the Battle of Yonkers, the big collapse against a tide of zombie forces, I found myself thinking, "This never would have happened if Sergeant Rock was there.")

11. Sugar and Spike. So far, they've done a ton of super-hero and war comics, with a smidgen of horror. But there were comedy comics around back then, too!

10. Plastic Man. Really, he's about the only major DC character left who doesn't have a 'Showcase Presents' volume. ("Major" being here defined as "If you went up to a random man or woman on the street, and asked them to name as many comic book characters as they could, Plastic Man would probably get named more than half the time.")

9. Warlord. I salivate just thinking of black-and-white Mike Grell sword-and-sorcery artwork.

8. The Question. I'm pretty sure they did release a collection of this sometime this year, but it wasn't a cheap, hefty chunk of over 500 black-and-white pages, so as far as I'm concerned, it didn't count.

7. Swamp Thing. Obviously, they've already collected Alan Moore's groundbreaking run, and part of Rick Veitch's work on the series, but that's really just the tip of the iceberg. You probably wouldn't even get to Moore's first issue in Volume One, and it'd be very nice to see exactly what led into 'The Anatomy Lesson' without having to track down back issues.

6. Doom Patrol. Probably not recognizable to the man on the street, but to DC fans, this is another really obvious hole in the line-up that needs filling.

5. Firestorm. Having read a few scattered issues, I'm really surprised at how well Gerry Conway's "Marvel-style" writing works for DC, how strong a storytelling engine this was, and I'd just like to see a lot more of it.

4. Blue Beetle. Not sure exactly which comics they'd use for this, whether they'd be able to use Steve Ditko's work, or whether they'd skip straight to his 80s series, but either one presents some fun options. There's a lot of strong nostalgia appeal for Ted Kord right now, and they'd be foolish not to take advantage of it.

3. Hawk and Dove. I cannot be the only person who adored this series. "First rule: Don't mess with Hawk." "Batgirl...doesn't exist anymore." And probably my favorite bit, "I can think of fifteen ways to stop you from firing that gun right now. Six are painful."

2. Suicide Squad. This got a bit of a bump this year because I came so close to actually holding it in my hands...it is emblematic of all of the "delayed" titles, like 'Secret Society of Super-Villains' and 'Captain Carrot and the Zoo Crew'. DC said they'd be out in the second half of 2008; let's hope they don't just expect us fans to have short memories, eh?

1. MAD Magazine. Bit of a long-shot, as I'm not actually 100% sure they have the rights (Warner Brothers owns MAD, Warner Brothers owns DC, not sure if the syllogism completes, though); however, MAD Magazine is more than just a piece of DC history, it's a piece of American history. Reading MAD as a kid was a rite of passage, an education in the sometimes cynical, sometimes strange world of adults. It taught you politics, it taught you culture, and it taught you (perhaps most importantly) not to believe everything you were told. MAD Magazine has become a perfect time capsule of our nation's history for the past half-century, and it deserves to be collected in its entirety. And it deserves to be collected...for $15.99 (Cheap!)

Monday, January 14, 2008

Storytelling Engines: World's Finest

(or "Oh, Look--Batman's Got Super-Powers Again!")

These days, it's rather unromantically known as 'Superman/Batman', but 'World's Finest' has been around for a long while in one form or another; for some reason, the pairing off of Batman and Superman to fight crime together is one of the most archetypal pairings in comic book history, right up there with Green Arrow and Green Lantern, the Hulk fighting the Thing, and Wonder Man and the Beast. (Yes, it is. Yes it is! Look, just shush, you! They make an awesome team!)

When making a storytelling engine for a series that takes two well-known and popular heroes and combines them, it should come as no surprise that the resulting storytelling engine is simply a mix of the two series' engines. But it's illuminating to note exactly what elements come up as predominant in a Batman/Superman mix. Obviously, the characters remain exactly the same. Batman is always going to be Batman, and Superman is always going to be Superman (with the caveat that this is a pre-Frank Miller Batman, and as such has not yet developed the intense disdain for all other super-heroes that characterizes his interaction with the DC universe of the last two decades.) They both have a fairly similar outlook on fighting crime (again, this was back in the day when the death of Batman's parents was a reason for him to fight crime, not a constant obsession that moved him to violent rage), and hence, a similar motivation and purpose.

The primary difference shows up in the setting, and the supporting cast. While Batman does of course get Robin, the most common supporting character in 'World's Finest' is Lois Lane, intrepid reporter for the Daily Planet. Commissioner Gordon barely gets a mention every few issues or so, and then only when Superman is asking him to turn on the Bat-Signal, but Lois is in practically every story. Why? Because Lois fulfills so many valuable plot functions in a single character. Her role as a reporter can help get the main characters involved in stories, her insatiable curiousity adds plot complications, and she's also valuable as that old stand-by for adventure stories, the potential victim for the hero to rescue.

The villains, too, seem to be mostly borrowed from Superman's setting, although this is to an extent misleading; these stories were published in the mid-to-late 1950s, before editor Julius Schwartz refined the focus on Batman's setting, when Batman would frequently time-travel and fight aliens just as often as Superman would. (For that matter, this was also a period when Superman would frequently fight normal thugs and gangsters, albeit ones armed with hefty chunks of Kryptonite.) Certainly, though, by a modern fan's standards, these stories seem to involve Batman fighting Superman's villains, rather than the other way around.

Why might this be? Primarily, it's because Batman's villains pose less of a challenge to Superman than vice versa; unless he's got Kryptonite to even the odds, the Riddler isn't exactly going to terrify the Man of Steel. But Batman has the reverse problem, or so it would seem; if someone can go toe to toe with Superman, then how can Batman help?

The answer is that Superman rarely defeats his enemies through simple brute force, simply because he's got so much of it that any fight is over quickly. Instead, Superman's villains tend to be seemingly invincible, but have an Achilles' heel that he can discover through deduction, and that's an area where Batman can fit in very organically. In most of the 'World's Finest' stories, you'll spot a moment where Batman is busy thinking while Superman averts disasters caused by the villain, and comes up with a hidden weakness that Superman can then exploit. (In one of the stories, Batman is bedridden with a broken leg, and still manages to solve the case by analyzing clues that Superman and Robin return to him.)

This isn't to say that Batman fits flawlessly into these settings; in several stories, they decide to give him temporary super-powers so that he and Superman can fight super-powered foes (and each other; you can tell it's the Mort Weisinger era of Superman by the way that certain story ideas are returned to every couple of years. Weisinger, a long-time Superman editor, believed strongly that certain stories sold very well, and that on average, the entire readership of comics turned over completely every two years; hence, every two years, he felt free to repeat a good idea for a story to get the sales boost. So every two years, Batman got super-powers, and he and Superman either switched identities or fought each other.) But he does fit surprisingly well into a world of aliens, time-travel, mad scientists, and futuristic technology. In fact, Batman is a much more flexible character than he seems; his world of crime noir, pseudo-realistic technology and villains, and gritty street drama might suit him well, but he's the kind of archetypal character that you can place into unusual situations and still understand how he'll react.

In other words, Batman is always Batman, even when he is in ancient Egypt. It's something worth remembering, not just for when Batman is teaming up with Superman to fight giant energy sponges, but when he's in his own series.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Kind of Proud of This Analogy

Brian Cronin recently posted an article, here, in which he discusses what he sees as the upside of 'One More Day'...namely, that creators might not feel so hidebound by continuity, so bound to the decisions their predecessors made. It's an interesting argument that's sparked a lot of good discussion (and perhaps a little bad discussion), but it's an argument I disagree with, and I posted why in the comments section. Because I'm absurdly fond of the analogy I used, I'm going to post it here as well. (And this way, you don't have to go through over 120 comments to find it.)

"...let’s look at chess. Chess is a game with pretty rigidly defined rules. King moves like so, rook moves like so, et cetera et cetera. Brian could look at chess and say, “That game seems a little too rigid for me. I wish there was a way to change the rules.”

And there is. There are any number of variants, collectively known as “fairy chess.” These variants are limited only by the imagination of the two participants in the game. (Or three, four, five…some fairy chess variants allow for multiple players.) You can decide, “For this game, rooks and bishops will be replaced with extra queens.” “For this game, the board will be considered to be a cylinder–you can move from the left-most square to the right-most square directly.” You can change the rules, make them whatever you want them to be, whatever you can get everyone to agree on. This, I think, is the spirit of what Brian is advocating.

But what Marvel is doing is the equivalent of changing the rules mid-game, unilaterally, solely because they don’t like the way the game is going for them. “I made a move I didn’t like twenty moves ago, and it turns out that it’s going to make me lose, so, um…magic. I get my queen back.” That’s not fairy chess, that’s just cheating. I maintain that there is a difference."

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Testing a Theory

Just mentioning "One More Day" will bring about a deluge of comments from people who are angry over the story, and looking for a place to vent said anger.

Watch this space...

Storytelling Engines: Iron Man

(or "Feet of Clay")

Someone commented, after reading last week's entry on Daredevil, that Iron Man is another super-hero that took a long time to get right. (Yes, I do read all your comments. I love getting reader feedback, even if it is sometimes, "You didn't read Marv Wolfman's Daredevil run, did you?") With all due respect, I have to disagree. Iron Man is one storytelling engine that started out great, then lost its direction...and to some extent, has never regained it.

When Iron Man started out, he was very much in the mold of Marvel's super-heroes. They tended to take a "typical" super-hero concept of the Silver Age, then give him or her a flaw; something that humanized the character, made them a little bit more identifiable to the average reader, and perhaps made them more an object of reader sympathy and less a pure wish-fulfillment fantasy. Everyone who read Superman wanted to be Superman, but when you read the classic Iron Man stories, you were never quite sure that it was worth it to be Iron Man. Sure, Tony Stark got to wear cool futuristic armor (that he was constantly updating, streamlining, and redesigning) and be fantastically rich...but on the other hand, that same armor was the only thing that stood between him and instantaneous death. The armor literally kept his heart beating every second. Iron Man was as much a prison for Tony Stark as a super-heroic identity.

This was a good thing. It added tension to every story; when Iron Man was running out of power, it wasn't just, "Will he defeat Villain X before his juice runs dry?", it was "Will he defeat Villain X before his heart explodes?" It gave him a plausible reason to continue being Iron Man, even when the identity became more trouble than it was worth. It also gave him a plausible reason to conceal his Iron Man identity; he doesn't want people finding out that he's one 'low battery' warning away from dying. It was just the kind of complication that made Marvel's heroes dynamic and intriguing in a way that DC's heroes of the same era weren't. Combine it with jet-setting action, anti-Communist propaganda (this was an era when a weapons manufacturer could be a hero), a solid rogue's gallery (OK, so the Unicorn and the Melter weren't great, but the Mandarin was a solid A-lister, and the Living Laser, the Crimson Dynamo, and the Titanium Man all made good B-list opponents), and a fun supporting cast (Pepper Potts and Happy Hogan had a great 'Moonlighting' dynamic going), and you have a good storytelling engine.

Then Iron Man had heart surgery. And suddenly, nobody was quite sure what to do with him. He suddenly became just another super-hero. He was a rich genius with super-powerful armor, a multi-national corporation, and any woman he wanted. Which is great, if you happen to be Tony Stark, but not so great if you happen to be trying to find interesting things to happen to Tony Stark. Suddenly, his comic became "defeat villain of the week", and nothing more.

Which is where the other problems began. Tony became an alcoholic (interesting idea, but once you've done the "Demon in a Bottle" storyline, there's only so many times you can show him aaaaalmost drinking before it gets dull.) Tony became a paraplegic (a very interesting idea, but they backed off on it...which was kind of tacky, really. Tony Stark comes up with a cure for spinal injuries, uses it on himself, and it's never mentioned again?) Tony got brainwashed into working for Kang, killed, replaced by his own teenage self from an alternate universe, who sustained a heart injury that required him to wear the Iron Man armor permanently or die (thank you and good-night.)

Ultimately, the biggest "handicap" for Iron Man, after curing his heart injury, is his own personality; in order to make him into a distinctive and interesting character, storylines like 'Armor Wars', 'Extremis', 'Illuminati', 'Civil War', and 'World War Hulk' make him out to be a control-freak, a borderline madman with an almost-megalomaniacal belief that he's smarter than everyone else, has a more cohesive vision for the future of the human race, and needs to put it into practice regardless of the human cost. Basically, in order to make him interesting, they've made him a borderline super-villain...and all because they needed to find something to do with the character after curing his heart injury.

Wisely, the upcoming movie has decided to scale back on the "Iron Man as power-hungry futurist" angle and reinstate the heart injury. However, it remains to be seen how Marvel will handle casual fans who see the film, pick up a copy of the comic, and find out that the hero they're interested in has killed an ambassador, wounded another, threatened a third, and ripped a civilian jetliner in half, killing hundreds. Marvel has managed to keep Iron Man "interesting" over the years, but it might have had a serious cost in terms of the image of the character.

Friday, January 04, 2008

So Long, 2007!

And again, the Thursday post goes out on Friday. When you work six-day weeks, and you get a day off in the middle of the week two weeks in a row, it becomes hellishly difficult to figure out what day it is; I've had to forcibly remind myself twice now that Wednesday isn't Monday, that Monday isn't Friday, and that Thursday isn't Wednesday. I never thought I'd be grateful for getting back to the weekly grind, but dang, this is confusing.

Part of me wants to talk about the year that just passed, but I find myself stymied by the fact that everything I feel like talking about is either a) too dull to mention, or b) too personal to talk about, for one reason or another. So I'll instead just take a moment to thank everyone who reads this blog, and give you the New Year's wishes that I've been giving everyone in person:

May 2008 keep all the best of the old year, while discarding all the worst.

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Storytelling Engines: Daredevil

(or "One More Chance To Get It Right")

Daredevil really does start with a great central concept. It's important to remember that, as we discuss the first 100 issues or so of the adventures of the Man Without Fear, because I'm about to make the central point that Daredevil was really a pretty bad storytelling engine (and, not incidentally, a not-very-good comic) for the first 167 issues of its existence, and so it's important to remember that all storytelling engines start, first and foremost, with their central concept. Daredevil has a great central concept. All the other things that happened to it weren't his fault.

Everyone knows the hook of DD's origin; in all other respects, it's your pretty standard "avenging hero" plot (lawyer by day, super-hero by night, started out avenging the death of his father at the hands of a crooked boxing promoter)...but it's got that hook. Daredevil gained super-powers from radiation, just like many a hero, but he didn't just get amazing abilities beyond mortal ken. Daredevil wound up blind for life.

That's an amazing hook. Matt Murdock perceives the world differently from any other super-hero, and his abilities that give him power also take it away. It immediately makes him distinctive and memorable in a way that a lot of other heroes aren't. He's also got a good secret identity (lawyer, a convenient way to get him involved in stories and a convenient way to complicate them), a fun supporting cast in Foggy Nelson and Karen Page, and (after issue #7) an iconic costume. It's a good start to a storytelling engine.

Then it all starts going off the rails. Daredevil's powers, abilities, and origin are defined, but Matt Murdock as a character never really seems to gel for Stan Lee's entire tenure on the series. He comes off as "Spider-Man lite", just another wisecracking hero, and never really develops a personality beyond the dictates of the plot. And his Rogue's Gallery...it says a lot that in the first Daredevil Annual, when his arch-enemies gather to combine their forces against him, the assemblage winds up being Stilt-Man, Leapfrog, Gladiator, the Matador, and Electro. That's right, he had to borrow one of Spider-Man's B-list villains just to fill out the team. (Presumably the Owl and the Purple Man were busy that night, and the Masked Marauder was already dead by then. The Masked Marauder's only super-power, by the way, was a "blindness ray." Really picked the wrong super-hero to oppose, there...)

There are further signs that the series was flailing for a direction. "Mike Murdock" sums them all up, really...one wonders exactly how Stan Lee decided, when handed the Matt/Foggy/Karen office set-up, that what he really needed was for Daredevil to be a super-hero who also pretended to be his own non-existent twin brother. After that, Gerry Conway's plan to move him to San Francisco, write Foggy and Karen out of the series, and have him start dating the Black Widow seems downright sensible.

So many of the "defining elements" of the series don't even show up until Frank Miller's run, starting in #169; Hell's Kitchen, the Kingpin, the focus on organized crime, Bullseye and Elektra,
the street-level sensibility of the character...the Daredevil of the Essentials is scarcely even recognizable to modern fans. You can't really picture, for example, the "modern" Daredevil taking a cruise and winding up in the Savage Land, teaming up with Ka-Zar to stop the Plunderer from using a "metal-dissolving" ore to conquer the world with plastic guns.

With all that said, then, what made it possible for this...unfinished...storytelling engine to make it to issue #169? For starters, it really is a very good central concept, and a very good iconic look. Comics fans are willing to put up with a lot of bad stories about characters they really like, and Daredevil is no exception. For another thing, it was in the right place at the right time. Marvel was riding several bona fide hits throughout much of the 1960s, and Stan Lee was never averse to milking that to sell his "lesser" books. Spider-Man, the FF, and the Avengers all ride through town every so often, just to keep people's interest up.

And last but not least, Daredevil had some very talented creators working on it. Never underestimate the ability of good creators to disguise bad storytelling engines. Stan Lee might have written Daredevil as "Spider-Man lite", but his knack for Spidey-style wisecracks and snappy patter made even a watered-down Spider-Man fun to read. The series had a number of strong artists in its early days, from John Romita to the late, great Wally Wood, before finally settling on "Gentleman" Gene Colan, whose pencils were what can only be described as legendary. (It's almost worth picking up the Essentials just to see his art in black-and-white; if ever there was an artist who didn't need color to make his work look good, it's Gene Colan.) These fine writers and artists kept Daredevil alive long enough for someone to sift through the various discarded concepts and gimmicks that littered his early issues and figure out exactly what made the character tick. (And, given his propensity to assume other identities at the drop of a hat, what made him go cuckoo every half-hour.)