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Pipeline #292

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Pipeline #292

PIPELINE ANNOUNCEMENT

Friday’s Pipeline2 will be the last one for a while. The Pipeline2 column is going on hiatus.

The reasons for this are numerous. Real Life is intruding into my writing time. My batteries need to recharge. I have other writing things to tend to. You name it. It’s a little of everything. There is no big scandal to unearth here.

Tuesday’s Pipeline Commentary and Review column will continue marching forward. I’ll now have a full week to concentrate on writing it each week, so I’m hoping to expand it just a tad and cover more material in the year 2003, including more commentary on the news of the day.

I’m not leaving Fridays completely to Mark Millar, though. I plan on doing at least one Friday column a month. That’s where I’ll stick the Pipeline Previews. The second Friday after a new issue of PREVIEWS comes out, you can expect a new Pipeline Previews column to take a look at the releases from the publishers two months down the line.

If inspiration strikes me, I’ll write it down and deliver it as a PCR Extra for Friday publication in the future. I imagine you might see a couple of those in the near future. It’s going to be tough to break this twice a week habit. I’ve had it for 185 weeks now.

So, you haven’t seen the end of the Friday columns. You’re just seeing a slowdown and a possible mutation. Thanks for sticking with me.

FIREBREATHER

[Firebreather]

New from Image’s nascent superhero line is Phil Hester and Andy Kuhn’s FIREBREATHER. It reminds me a lot of what independent comics looked like to me when I first started collecting at the age of 13. Marvel and DC produced the slick books, with adult characters in normal worlds populated with superheroes. The writing was paint-by-numbers. The art was realistic and staid. The lettering was solid and uniform. The books were in color.

The independent books were in black and white. They featured a wide variety of characters and genres. The art was less refined, often more cartoonish and amateurish. The lettering was wild, often looking like the last thing anyone on the book ever wanted to do. (Computers weren’t around yet to make every book look like Astro City, as they all did when Comicraft initially made the font available.) And in the rare case of a color book, the coloring looked different, too. It was dirtier, often the victim of a lesser paper stock or the chosen look of a more painted style. There was an excitement about the book that translated to the page, even if the story didn’t capture my imagination the way the “mainstream” books did.

FIREBREATHER, to me, is a modern day independent book in that style. At the heart of it, this isn’t a book much different from Spider-Man or any of a countless number of other Marvel and DC projects. It’s about a teenager with strange powers who is awkward at school, teased by others, and saved by the fair-haired girl next door. He’s misunderstood and alone, otherwise.

But when you look at the pages, the art and general tone reminds you more of Eastman and Laird than John Byrne or John Buscema. It’s a little more wild and stylistic. It looks like a book intended for black and white that just happened to be produced in color. (And this color is the equal of any of the Big Two’s books, although a limited palette might turn off some.) Kuhn’s artwork flies across the page. The storytelling is well done, breaking out of the grid only occasionally into oddly shaped panels and configurations. FIREBREATHER doesn’t use slick computer lettering. It’s the hand lettering of an artist, perfectly legible but with a randomness of form and awkwardness that adds character.

Is the book any good? Yes, it is. The book goes back to the classic cliché about the outcast teenager, but brings it more out into the open. Duncan can’t hide his powers; he looks like a teenaged dragon. Kids pre-judge him based on that alone. Hester also injects a higher view of the high school situation into the book. A senior student is assigned to be Duncan’s peer counselor. Between that and Duncan’s own repeated experience in new high schools, we see a more removed perspective of the way cliques and social circles form in high school, not to mention how they can affect a student.

High school is hell, but we all knew that already.

The biggest problem with the book, though, is a storytelling one. A lot of pages are wasted in this premiere issue. There are at least three substantial sequences of the book that don’t really happen. One is a simulation. One is a dream. One is a kid’s fantasy. That many false starts is enough to jerk the reader out of the comic. If nothing is real, nothing feels real, and everything in the story is an anticlimax. It doesn’t happen; why believe the danger? Yes, it does hint at some backstory (such as Duncan’s parents), but it would have come off better if it had been told in a way other than “false jeopardy,” as Brian Hibbs calls it.

That said, there’s a lot to be enjoyed about this book. Duncan comes off very likeable. Hester’s script is punctuated with great moments of humor, and sharp dialogue. Kuhn’s art is agreeable, and Bill Crabtree’s colors work for me.

Like VENTURE, the first issue is a bit of a shaky start, but I think it still tells us more about the character than VENTURE. For that alone, it’s easier to recommend.

DAREDEVIL IS A MONTH AWAY

The last trailer for the Daredevil movie is out now. Hopes have not been too high for this movie since casting was announced. Judging strictly by the trailers, only the Kingpin isn’t too embarrassing. Even then, Michael Clarke Duncan shouts a bit too much to the camera. Elektra looks like she’s wielding toys from the shelves of Toys R Us. Ben Affleck looks great as Matt Murdock, but appears to be attaching himself to toy versions of New York City far too often. Affleck shouldn’t be allowed to do whispering monologues, even for the trailer, and it appears that they’ve inserted every pun one-liner into the movie that they could think of. Oh, boy.

On the bright side, a young Matt Murdock saves Stan Lee’s life. With Lee’s luck, that’ll get cut from the movie and be an extra on the DVD later.

I’ll definitely go see the movie in a month, but I wonder if it won’t be to gape at the train wreck.

I like the looks of the X-Men trailer, but I’m still unsure about what kind of movie to expect from THE INCREDIBLE HULK. We’ll have to wait for the Superbowl trailer to decide that.

MARVEL PRICE INCREASES

Marvel announced 75 cent price increases on 13 of its titles last week, and fandom went nuts. It’s what we do best, after all. Is it really that big a deal, though? Haven’t we gone through this before? Hasn’t every nickel, dime, or quarter increase in price resulted in the same harrowing screams from the throng, accompanied by dire predictions of the end of the industry? Haven’t we cried wolf enough by now?

Granted, this is the most major across-the-board price increase in the 13 years I’ve been collecting comics. I first started reading comics right after Marvel and DC went from a 75-cent standard price to $1. That’s a 33% increase. Moving from $2.25 to $2.95 is 31%. Not that big a difference. Make it a $3.00 price tag, and you’re level pegging with the increase at the end of the 1980s. (There’s your spin of the month: This isn’t a price hike. It’s just more retro greatness.)

We have to come to grips with the fact that comics aren’t selling in large numbers anymore. Paper prices have increased dramatically in the past decade, and circulation has dropped drastically. Those are two large factors in the cost of comics. (The third, obviously, is the cost of talent. With exclusive contracts all the rage, it’s got to be slightly higher today than ten years ago. I just don’t see it as the big reason for the price increases. Plenty of creators create $3 comics for little to no pay. It can be done.)

If it costs more to make a product for less people, the price is going to continue to skyrocket. There are only two things the comics industry can do to fight this. The comics industry can’t affect the price of paper. That’s out of reach. It can, however, find a way to increase the readership so dramatically that economics of scale kick in to keep the prices low.

The other way around it is to change the packaging. Maybe it’s the 32-page format that’s the killer. The argument is old, but it is sound: Who wants to pay $3 for ten minutes of entertainment?

There is a catch 22. How many readers will skip the monthly $3 cost and just wait out the six months for a $15 trade paperback in which they’ll get a complete story for an equal or lower price? If that happens, of course, it could create an unfeasible economic solution for the monthly format, and that would kill the trade from ever happening. Companies may need to start adapting longer-term solutions and investing their money in a way that will provide a payout further down the road. Original graphic novels might be one such solution.

CrossGen’s Compendia size might be another. It’s cheaper to produce because the pages are smaller. It’s such a simple thing, but it works. CrossGen’s price in the format is so low, however, because it’s all reprinted material. You’ll need to factor in a couple extra bucks to pay the talent on new comics.

(The same thing holds for all the TokyoPop or Viz books. They’re printed smaller, with more pages, and only the costs of letterers and translators/writers to pay out.)

Maybe I’m minimizing this because I only buy one or two of the titles getting hiked, combined with having a full time job that means an extra buck-and-a-half won’t affect me at all. I can still remember scrimping on lunch to save my lunch money for comics, and every quarter counted. What I read from month to month depended on what money I had. Often, that meant favoring the lower-priced titles just because I could buy more of them. If today’s less free-spending readers are doing the same, to any degree, it will mean a loss of sales from Marvel to DC. (They can’t really go to an independent book. Those have all been priced at $2.95 for years.) Or, perhaps Marvel is hoping to drive sales towards its higher-selling titles this way. I don’t see that happening, though. Odds are that Marvel readers would already be reading those cheaper titles if they were so interested.

It’s the way of the world, though. Prices go up. They rarely, if ever come back down. Comics are the same way, and have been since their inception. The problem today seems to be more a question of content than price, though. The entertainment value for the price isn’t as high as it needs to be. That’s where trade paperbacks are picking up the slack.

OTHER BITS OF NEWS

* If you want to see a great way to preview a series, check out Warren Ellis’ annotated preview to RELOAD over at The Pulse. This is the way more series should be hyped, with actual substance and not just a promo image and a slick paragraph of teases.

There is one disappointment to the whole thing, however. It’s that Paul Gulacy’s gorgeous pencils are going to be inked over. The pages look perfect the way they are. (You’d want to take out the little x’es and fill in those areas first, obviously.) The pencil can add textures and dimension that no amount of clever inking can. In the end, the ink will be used to make reproduction easier, but it will do so at a cost of the artistry. I’m afraid that any ink will just flatten out the pages and lose the details of the art. Digital inking doesn’t work any better, and coloring straight from the pencils usually lends a painterly or abstract look to the book, depending on the colorist.

* Good luck to Jeff Mariotte in his new position at IDW. Jeff was supportive of this column back in its earliest days, and once passed along a black and white preview copy of a little book he was starting up called DESPERADOES, with spectacular art by a relatively new guy named John Cassaday. I think I still have that preview in a folder somewhere. Wildstorm’s loss is definitely IDW’s gain. I wouldn’t be surprised to see a western being published by IDW before the end of the year now, either. 😉

Pipeline2 concludes on Friday with reviews of Sam Kieth’s WOLVERINE/HULK and Matt Fraction’s REX MANTOOTH.

VariousAndSundry.com has been updated with windows at MacWorld, The Surreal Life on The WB, and word of a new documentary about Press Your Luck. Plus, the problems with movie release schedules, bad FIREFLY news, and more.

You can e-mail me your comments on this column, or post them for all the world to see and respond to over on the Pipeline Message Board.

More than 400 columns are archived here at CBR and you can get to them from the Pipeline Archive page. They’re sorted chronologically. The first 100 columns or so are still available at the Original Pipeline page, a horrifically coded piece of HTML that’s eventually going away.

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