Chad Nevett calls his Random Thoughts. Brad Curran calls his Randomer Thoughts. (Or Randomest? I can’t keep up.) Over at The Beat, Heidi calls hers Kibbles ‘n’ Bits. I should think of a clever name for my version. But it’s basically the collection of things that have been piling up that didn’t rate a full column of their own, but that I thought were worth mentioning nevertheless.
Business News: By now most every comics blogger on the planet has weighed in on the ramifications of Disney buying Marvel, or the DC restructuring, or the Kirby heirs lawsuit. I don’t have anything new to say about that stuff except that I agree with all those people who are saying “too early, we’ll have to wait and see.”
I do have a couple of comments that are more general, though.
The first is in answer to a question I’ve seen come up several times, which is: why do we even care about the business side of things at all? Aren’t we supposed to be talking about the characters and the stories here? The place is called Comics Should Be Good, not Contracts Should Be Good.
That’s a fair question. Here’s a partial answer.
The first reason you as a reader should care about the business side of things is because for any area of popular culture, the business side affects how the creative work is executed. Whether it’s something as basic as a title being canceled because of low sales, or something more subtle, like price changes affecting page count, or a newly-purchased character joining an ongoing team book, or even creators venting about business practices in the work itself, the financial considerations will affect the story that sees print. Period.
Comics are a commercial art form. The need to insure that commercial art makes money for the publisher always affects the process of how it is created. Always. Ignoring that basic fact is something that you really can’t do if you’re going to write intelligently about comics. Or television, or movies, or any mass entertainment medium.
However, there’s also the question of why we all worry about it so much.
I can’t speak for any of my brethren toiling away in the online comics press outlets, but I know why it’s a topic I keep circling back to, one way and another.
For me, the reason I am often compelled to look at the way Marvel and DC do business is because I worry about the audience.
It keeps getting smaller. And over and over I see the biggest comics companies making decisions that seem designed to shrink the audience even further. Instead of a business plan that might actually bring more people into the pool, increasing overall readership, the whole strategy seems to be predicated on getting every single hardcore comics fan in North America to read every comic published instead of just some of them.
So this desperation to please the hardcore comics fan is what’s driving the industry. I don’t think there’s even any argument about that any more. It’s just a question of whether that’s good or bad.
As a general rule, I think it’s bad, certainly as far as Marvel and DC are concerned. It keeps their comic books locked in this weird no-man’s-land between being a mass medium and a hobbyist’s collectible. It’s why we keep printing comics in a format that makes no sense either from a business standpoint or a consumer’s. Because, really, the only reason to keep comics as a periodical 32-page stapled booklet, that’s ridiculously overpriced compared to any other form of popular entertainment out there, is because fans insist on getting them that way.
That’s just one example. There are lots of others where appeasing fan preferences trumped using simple business sense.
And yet… despite Marvel and DC’s constant wooing, that fan base never gets any bigger. Instead, it shrinks, year after year. We have to adjust our comics budget in tough times, or we decide we’re tired of lugging longboxes around, or we just plain get bored and move on. That happens about a thousand times more often than a new person sampling a standard monthly comic book from DC or Marvel and deciding to keep up with it.
Hell, you don’t have to take my word for it. Ask yourselves. How many titles have you dropped in the last ten years? Against that, how many have you added? I love comics, I’ve been buying the things on a weekly basis since 1975 or thereabouts with only one brief hiatus from 1983 to 1985… and I don’t get nearly as many as I used to.
Marvel and DC have bet everything on us. Hardcore fans, the Wednesday faithful. Their whole business strategy is pinned on catering to our whims. And I’m pretty sure that’s a dumb idea and it isn’t working, and it bothers me. I want Marvel and DC to succeed. I enjoy superhero comics. I’d like them to do well.
Apart from all that, I’m firmly convinced that comics stories produced for a mass audience are overall of a higher quality than those produced for a specialty audience. The level of craft in play tends to be better. So when comics give up on trying for a mass audience, the level of craft goes down. When DC and Marvel decide they should abandon any hope of a mass audience and concentrate on pleasing us, the net effect is that we get worse comics.
Fans excuse more. Sorry, but we do. We buy books that are bad because we don’t want to break up a run. We buy books that are bad because we’re hoping it’ll get good again later. We buy books that are bad because they tie in to a crossover. Etc. DC and Marvel are betting big on that, too.
So when there’s a big business shakeup or a turnover in editorial personnel, I’m always watching it and wondering, Will this be it? Is this where someone realizes that making Marvel and DC Comics a key club for aficionados was a bad idea and fixes it? Or what if they just decide to give up on publishing comics period? How long before some accountant kills the whole thing? Hell, Disney couldn’t be bothered to keep publishing their own newsstand magazine and it probably outsold most of the books Marvel considers to be hits.
So I watch, and I wonder, and I worry. The last time the landscape looked this grim was back in 1978 or thereabouts, and then a hail-Mary throw from half-court gave us the direct market. That wasn’t a solution for the sinking ship so much as it was a stopgap, a life raft– one that’s developed a slow leak ever since the early 1990s. Today, once again, things are looking grim and no one seems to have any real idea what to do about it.
A lot of us are wondering what the new idea will be that bails us out of the mess we’re in now… or even if there is one. Occasionally, I wonder in print, here, and float a few ideas of my own.
That’s why I keep coming back to the business side of things. Others might have different reasons, but those are mine.
Nerd Pandering: Admittedly, speaking as one of the forty-something comics fans that Marvel and DC seem to want to cater to so completely, it’s a great time to BE a guy like me. I am continually astonished at how much of the current slate of paperback and hardcover collections are aimed directly at readers my age.
On the other hand, if publishers really want us old fogeys to take an interest in their new stuff based on our affection for the old, they ought to try and get it right.
Exhibit A: Marvel’s Shang-Chi one-shot.
Now, that cover had me at hello, it was such an awesome re-creation of the old Deadly Hands of Kung Fu cover ambiance.
If you’ve only seen the preview art you’re not really getting the full effect, because the Shang-Chi cover typography sold me more than the picture itself. It evoked such a wave of nostalgic love for the old Deadly Hands that it was off the rack and in my hands before I even consciously thought I have to get this.
However, it’s when you open the book and start reading it that it kind of goes off the rails. At least as far as the old-school appeal is concerned.
To begin with, the lead story by Jonathan Hickman isn’t really a Shang-Chi story. It’s a funny Deadpool story with some other guy in it that is apparently supposed to be Shang-Chi, but bears absolutely no resemblance to the character in any incarnation I’ve ever heard of. This wisecracking, bike-riding hipster with a taste for diner food isn’t really the Shang-Chi I bought the book to read about.
Even granting that I haven’t been keeping up with every last development in the Marvel Universe over the last few years (for all I know, this might be Shang-Chi’s Bold New Direction or something) it was a little jarring.
Still, I was a Bob Haney fan, I can say to myself Just go with it, if it means staying on the fun train… but, I dunno, this story just wasn’t all that much fun for me. I admit that a lot of my discontent came from opening it up expecting to see a more traditional martial-arts suspense story and instead getting a sort of surrealist slapstick buddy comedy with all the action scenes moved off-panel. Nevertheless, it did feel a little bit like I was the victim of a bait-and-switch, and the jagged, impressionistic art job from Kody Chamberlin — though it absolutely suited the material and was very well done — added to the feeling that I wasn’t really the guy this story was aimed at, despite the cover. This is for fans of Deadpool, not Shang-Chi. If you’re into Deadpool, you’ll love it; but if you bought this for the Master of Kung Fu, well, it’s probably not going to be your thing.
The next story, a more traditional entry by Mike Benson, I liked quite a bit better. Except that it wasn’t a story so much as a vignette. A guy with a grudge follows Shang-Chi and calls him out, they fight, Shang-Chi wins — oops, SPOILER, sorry — and Shang tells him good luck next time. The end.
It’s a nice enough little piece and I loved the art by Tomm Coker; it was experimental and different-looking, but not enough that I had any trouble figuring out what was going on. I really liked the cinematic approach, it was clearly an attempt to merge the traditional Gulacy look with a more photorealistic style. Shang-Chi, as played by Jet Li in a John Woo film.
However, the story was marred by an editorial decision that just doesn’t make sense to me. An eleven-page visceral action set-piece that’s basically all mood and movement — but in a misguided effort to be authentic or something, all the dialogue is typeset in Chinese and then the English translation is footnoted.
Sorry, but from an editorial and storytelling perspective, that’s just dumb. The effect is to constantly stop your eye as you look from the panel to the footnoted translation and back again. Whatever the reasoning was behind doing it this way (Enhancing the ‘authentic’ Hong Kong mood? An obsession with accuracy? Showing off a new capability in Photoshop? Who knows?) the effect is distancing and distracting. So, again, a story that I was all set to like a lot fell a little flat.
The final entry was a piece by Charlie Huston that kind of had the opposite problem. Rather than trying to be New and Different, it is an absolute and unashamed pastiche riffing on the early days of Shang-Chi. In fact it’s a direct sequel to the second Master of Kung Fu comic ever published.
That one ended with Midnight dead at the end. Now, suddenly, he’s back, and with super powers, even.
Plus, he’s got amnesia. Huston doesn’t really bother with explaining any of this other than a throwaway caption referencing “Kree science” being responsible. Now, again, in fairness it’s entirely possible that I missed something somewhere in some other book, but, you know, I bought THIS one and that’s where I’d like to see some of these things spelled out a little better. (And bear in mind that I’m probably one of the four or five people that bought this that actually remembered the original Midnight story. A newer reader would have been even more lost than I was.)
It seemed like, again, kind of an odd storytelling choice, to reference something that far back and go for a character resurrection tale predicated on the assumption that the reader is steeped in Marvel continuity and can easily follow along. Especially since the story itself is pretty light fare. It’s basically another 9-page fight-scene vignette, Shang-Chi trying to subdue the guy and jog his memory before any innocent bystanders are hurt. The art from Enrique Romero is serviceable but not particularly inspired.
We end with a text piece from Robin Furth that gives the background on Shang-Chi as well as one could expect when you’re forbidden by licensing issues from mentioning Fu Manchu, Sir Denis Nayland-Smith, or anything created by Sax Rohmer. At least it’s got some nice Paul Gulacy illustrations, another bone thrown to us old-school geezers.
So, on the whole, I have to give Marvel credit for trying… but despite wanting to like this book a whole lot, most of it left me wondering why they bothered. It’s presented as something to woo the guys my age, but the Deadpool story that headlines it comes off like it’s deliberately designed to annoy people like me. And all the other pieces can be filed under “heart in the right place, but fumbled execution.” If Marvel wanted to do an updated Shang-Chi comic that preserved what was cool about the character for us old folks and at the same time introduced him to new readers in a way that leaves them wanting more, well… this wasn’t that book. Sorry.
Truly, I am, because this is a great idea for a package and I’d love to see Marvel try more stuff in this format. 48 pages, three stories and a text piece, for $3.99, is a good deal. It’s the first time in forever that I took more than five minutes to read a comic, and I’ve been saying for years that an easy way to cut costs without looking cheap is to print in black and white.
The trouble was, what I thought I was buying never really showed up. For a book ostensibly starring Shang-Chi, Master of Kung Fu, it didn’t feel like he was in it all that much. Shang-Chi was traditionally a strip about a peaceful guy that was thrown into an amoral world of betrayal, espionage and violence; he was constantly having to prove his ethics to people that had none. That was what made the character interesting. But only one of the three stories in this comic even flirted with that idea, for about a panel and a half.
My feeling is that it should be easy to do a new take on the original Shang-Chi idea — fighting for one’s morals in a world of ugliness and betrayal — and shine up the character for a new readership, and that’s what I bought the book expecting to see. That’s the trap when you trade on people’s nostalgia. You risk just annoying them if your new version doesn’t satisfy the expectations you evoke with all your callbacks to the old stuff.
I do applaud Marvel’s making the effort, and would happily support more books in a format like this. I just wish I’d liked the actual stories in this book better than I did.
Nerd Pandering, part 2 (TV edition): It’s fall premiere time for the networks, and against my better judgement I decided to check in on a couple of shows I’d previously given up on.
Quite a few people had suggested to me that Dollhouse had, after its stumbling beginning, turned into a really cool show and I should give it another chance.
I tried. I really did. Julie and I watched the season premiere through the second commercial and were just not impressed. Later I pulled the episode up on Hulu and watched it from start to finish, just in case we had passed judgement too soon.
Despite an amazing level of craft on display from everyone involved… it still leaves me cold. I think my problem with Dollhouse is twofold. First, it’s a villain-protagonist kind of show: the Dollhouse is an organization staffed with people who are doing bad things for selfish ends. The one person who’s not, Eliza Dushku’s Echo, is empty of personality. The fun of a TV series is spending time with characters week after week. Here all the characters are vaguely unpleasant, except for the lead character who’s a mannequin that gets imprinted with a new persona every week. There’s nothing to latch on to.
If the through-line of the series is Echo getting her personhood or individuality or whatever back — and that seemed to be where the season premiere was leading us — then that brings us to the second problem, what our friend John Seavey calls a ‘false status quo’ and TV executives call ‘Gilligan syndrome.’ Specifically, if Echo solves her basic problem, that is to say retrieves her original personality and escapes the Dollhouse, well, the series is over. So subconsciously we all know that she never can really escape the Dollhouse, and that tends to suck all the suspense out of everything. The question the viewer ends up asking is, “So how exactly will they hit the reset button this time?”
Or forget all that and just go with what my wife said: “I like Joss Whedon but this is still icky.” I’m afraid I have to agree.
We also checked in with Heroes.
Earlier I was speaking of how business considerations can affect the creative side of storytelling, and Heroes is practically a textbook case of that. The original concept of the show was a rotating cast of different characters from year to year, all of whom would cope with their newly-discovered superpowers in a different way. Each season would be a separate arc with a different group of heroes. Some might recur but the idea was that each year would be new.
Well, NBC hated that idea. People want to see these same guys, they’ve formed a bond with those characters, they said. And actors have agents who negotiate multi-year deals, etc., etc. The upshot is that instead of the interesting semi-anthology idea the show started with, we have the same group of people going through the same motions, four years later. Claire still wants to be normal, Peter still is ambivalent, Matt still wants to work it out with his wife, Noah is still a good guy who does terrible things and Sylar is still EEE-vil. After four years it’s really tired. And Hiro is apparently dying… yeah, right, the most popular character in the series is going to die. Pull the other one. Yawn.
Zero for two so far. I thought about checking in with Smallville — which apparently takes place in Metropolis now — but, you know, every time I try to watch that show I end up getting massively irritated at both a fanboy level and an artistic one. Judging from this still I found of Clark’s new look I think skipping it was the right call.
Yeah, yeah, I know, I’m pre-judging, but I just don’t think Dark, Edgy Matrix-style Superman is Julie’s and my thing.
And we missed Flash Forward completely. Forgot it was on. So, we’re bad nerds, I guess. (Our friend Kurt thought it was good, though.)
Mostly we’re happy just to wait for Leverage and Burn Notice to come back in January and watch DVDs in the meantime. Although we have enough Browncoat in us to enjoy Nathan Fillion in Castle, that was one we were glad to see come back.
I’m almost as big a mystery geek as I am a superhero geek, so it’s nice to see a traditional whodunit-style mystery show doing a Thin Man riff in the sea of forensic profiler, serial-killer-hunting cop shows out there. Plus we enjoy all the cameos and in-jokes. It’s fluff but it’s smart, fun fluff. And it’s on Monday nights right after I get home from teaching my evening studio class, so it’s the perfect thing to unwind with. Recommended, if you want something fun and not particularly demanding.
Lightning Round! Or, just some brief thoughts about cool stuff that’s arrived in the last couple of weeks, or that I heard about, that you might want to look for.
The Middleman original graphic novel, The Doomsday Armageddon Apocalypse, arrived from Viper yesterday and both Julie and I devoured it within an hour of it getting here.
Since we were and are huge fans of the show– we own the DVD set and relentlessly press it on everyone we know– we adored it. The things that Greg Burgas thought were weaknesses (like inadvertently ‘hearing’ the actors saying the lines as we read) came off as strengths to us. Put it this way — if you didn’t see the show, there’s recaps and annotations and such, you’d probably still enjoy it. But if you did see the show you will want this book and it will be your favorite thing you buy this year. The thing is, it’s sold out everywhere so if you want it you have to order direct from Viper. Do it quick before they sell out too.
Enemies and Allies by Kevin Anderson was just okay.
It’s yet another version of the first meeting of Superman and Batman. (Someone out there should tally up all the different versions of that meeting that have been done over the years. Pre-Crisis comics, Post-Crisis comics, on radio, at least a couple of times in animation… and now here it is in prose.) In an effort to shake it up a bit, Anderson set the book in the 1950s with a lot of Cold War overtones. It was an interesting idea as far as it went, but overall I thought his Last Days of Krypton was better.
Done The Impossible is a fun documentary look at the Browncoat phenomenon that sprung up around the television series Firefly and its big-screen sequel, Serenity. I gotta say, for an amateur, fan-produced direct-to-DVD project, it’s a classy piece of work.
I don’t know that there’s a lot of new information here for those folks who are already fans, and for those who are not fans, it may come off as a little puzzling in places. Still, it’s a nice overview of the fan movement and how it grew over the course of the years between Firefly originally airing and Serenity appearing in theaters.
But the amazing thing to me was how much participation the fans who made this were able to get from producer Joss Whedon and the stars of the show. Almost everyone involved sits for an interview, Adam Baldwin hosts and narrates it, and Jewel Staite even provides audio for the trivia quiz included as an extra.
I don’t think Trek fans or X-Philes could have pulled that off, not for a strictly fan-produced documentary. It’s a testament to the affection everyone had for the show, both professional and not. Anyway, if you’re into the show you’ll love this. If not, you probably should skip it.
I continue to pick away at acquiring the Lone Ranger novels from the 1930s and 40s. The latest additions to the library are The Lone Ranger Rides North and The Lone Ranger Traps The Smugglers.
Smugglers was the better book — one of the few times the Ranger was given a really worthy adversary, as he tries to get the goods on the clever and ruthless Sam Slake and his gang. Rides North was the more interesting find, though, as it marked both the introduction of the Ranger’s nephew Dan, and, through that introduction, the first real recounting of the Lone Ranger’s origin in the novel series. Sadly, if you have any familiarity with the Lone Ranger at all, that will ruin the big surprise ending for you — Oh my God Dan Reid Sr. was the Lone Ranger’s BROTHER!! — but it’s a fun read anyway, and it must have blown the minds of the kids in the 1940s who didn’t know the origin story.
There were eight of those pulps in all and Pulpville has reprinted them in four volumes, each retailing at fifteen dollars.
That’s more or less what every other small-press outfit charges for their pulp trade-paperback reprints, but considering the originals are among the most highly sought-after Ranger collectibles on the planet — you generally see them at auction for upwards of $700 — that’s really cool to have them available in facsimile like this. Complete with the original illustrations. If you’re wondering what to get the hardcore Lone Ranger or pulp magazine fan in your family, well, here you go. You can get them on Amazon but you might do better going straight to the Pulpville site, here. They have a lot of other cool stuff on the main page, as well.
And I guess those are all the bits and pieces I have this time around. Or Random Thoughts or Kibble or whatever you want to call them.
See you next week.