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Saturday’s Scattershot Sequels

by  in Comic News Comment
Saturday’s Scattershot Sequels

This is another one of those weeks when I wanted to talk about things that didn’t seem like whole columns in and of themselves, but nevertheless deserved some kind of a mention or remark, especially as they are sort-of-sequels or add-ons to columns I’ve already done. So here they all are.

More Black-and-White: The last couple of weeks have had some new Essentials arrive in the mail, which always feels like Christmas to me.

The latest two were Essential Tales of the Zombie and Essential Marvel Horror. The second one is code for “Satanic Marvel heroes,” specifically Daimon Hellstrom, the Son of Satan and Satana, the Devil’s Daughter. I guess there’s some sort of commentary to be made about how it was okay to sell a book called “Son of Satan” to kids for a quarter back in the 1970’s but they don’t want to put it on a book now, even though that book sells primarily to adult males, but I’m not sure what that commentary would be. “Sure sucks that retailers have to be so nervous today,” maybe? At any rate, the stories are every bit as much fun as I thought they’d be. I’m such a slut for 70’s Marvel. These collections always have me at hello.

But here’s the really cool thing — and whatever editor thought of this should get a raise. These books reprint not just the stories but also the surrounding editorial matter — and for the Marvel black-and-white magazines that means articles, movie reviews and short prose fiction from guys like Don McGregor, Gerry Conway, and David A. Kraft, not to mention some new kid in the Marvel office named Chris Claremont. This is a terrific, terrific idea and I really wish this would be the norm for more reprint collections.

Essential Tales of the Zombie, especially, gives you the authentic feel of the old Marvel black-and-white books; all ten issues appear to be reproduced almost completely intact, even including the house ads.

The arrival of these books really was like Christmas for me because I missed them the first time around. Son of Satan was getting canceled right around the time I discovered it — I only caught the last couple of issues, including #8 with its amazing art by Russ Heath (those two were just enough for me to fall in love with it.) Satana, well, I could sneak a fair amount of stuff by my mother when I was 12… but she absolutely would have classified the Marvel Preview starring Satana as pornography.

(With hindsight, I have to admit that cover’s pretty lurid for a twelve-year-old’s reading matter, and these magazines were certainly not targeted at kids — but that was part of what I loved about them.)

Tales of the Zombie I skipped the first time around because I was more about the heroes than the horror back then, but in the intervening decades I got interested when I discovered it was a Steve Gerber gig. Ebay searches for them tended to show them as being upwards of ten bucks an issue, though, so I gave up. Which is why I was thrilled to finally get to read them in this new collection.

The stories of Simon Garth certainly have a lot of prototypical Gerber riffs, particularly the way ordinary people are portrayed as being, often, more emotionally dead than the zombie hero. The book ran ten issues and the whole run’s presented in this one Essential. A great, great deal, considering you also get all the articles and backup strips, including several starring the one and only Brother Voodoo. Marvel had the most amazingly clumsy-yet-good-hearted ideas about getting black people into starring superhero roles back then. (Back in 1978, I used to think that T’Challa, Storm, Luke Cage, Blade, the Falcon, Black Goliath and Brother Voodoo should form a team called Black Power. Sweet Christmas, how much fun would THAT have been?)

*

More thoughts on comics consumption: Okay, watching TV this week, it occurred to me that there is no better evidence that geek culture now rules the world than the new NBC show Heroes.

This is being hailed all over the television press as being a wildly innovative and experimental new drama (of course, it helps that it’s a hit, but I admit to being shocked that it draws more viewers than Studio 60.) Anyway, I’m reading all these gushy profiles thinking, geez, where the hell have you all been, media people? This is exactly the kind of “decompressed” storytelling we’ve been getting in superhero comics for the last half-decade or so, except it’s on network TV and there’s no costumes. So okay, here’s the test case for the mainstream. How long will people put up with it before they start demanding explanations, resolutions, some kind of an ending? A season? Two seasons? More? Less? Does it ever have to end at all? Lost is embarking on its 3rd season having explained almost nothing and people seem to be hanging in there. The X-Files made it four or five years before fans started getting pissed off with its endless evasions. So who knows? One thing seems obvious, though: Heroes is clearly a show being written for the DVD box set, the same way most mainstream comics are “written for the trade.”

The big difference, though, is that you can sample Heroes for free. So now I am wondering if there’s a way for comics to capitalize on the same kind of idea. The big argument I always get from people who insist we have to stay on the 22-page installment plan for our superhero fix is that they want the freedom to sample a story without committing to $15 or $20 for a whole book. In other words, in many cases the monthly book’s become a loss leader for the trade. (The catch is that if people don’t buy the monthly you never GET a trade edition.)

Now here’s TV doing the same thing, but they aren’t depending on the audience to subsidize the installments. Networks and advertisers do that. I’m wondering if there’s some way to get that idea to work for comics, shift that financial burden away from the audience. Books you KNOW are getting a trade edition — JLA, say, or Eternals, or some other star-power kind of project — why not publish the monthly with more ads at a lower price, or something? Or even, if sampling is the issue here, why not publish the first chapter online and gauge the response before committing to publish the book?

I’m just thinking out loud — or rather in print — but still, it seems like there ought to be some way to make it work. More and more, I’m finding that the price of a comic is a real sticking point for me. Three dollars is a hell of a lot to ask for a lousy 22 pages, particularly when twice that amount of money gets me a paperback prose novel, and three times that gets me a movie on DVD, or a manga digest. You follow more than three or four books monthly, even with a pull-list discount, and it really starts to add up. We are reaching the point where following a book in trade is starting to be the economical solution as well as the more artistically satisfying one.

So if monthlies are going to just be loss-leaders anyway, why not figure out a way to get the price down? More ads? Cheaper paper? I don’t know. This is just idle speculation. I do know that there is a quiet revolution going on in the way audiences consume all their pop culture entertainments, whether it’s comics or DVD or music downloads: more and more it’s all about getting it on demand, experiences to be enjoyed in short or long bursts completely at the whim of the audience. And the people who can get ahead of that curve and stay there will prosper.

Comics and pulps, especially mainstream superhero comics, pioneered this kind of storytelling for action-adventure– serialized regular installments that form a longer overall arc. It’d be a pity if we couldn’t figure out how to exploit it now that the rest of the world’s caught up to us. I don’t think three dollars for 22 pages monthly is the best way to do it, but on the other hand I’m not sure what the best way is, either. I am pretty sure, though, that the guy that does figure it out will have hit on a license to print money.

*

More from the Licensing Bureau: Licensed books appear to be having a bit of a renaissance lately, what with the Conan and Red Sonja revivals and IDW’s various TV tie-ins. The amazing thing to me is that they all are really pretty good. Of course the marquee books at IDW are G.I. Joe, Transformers — or maybe CSI — but the ones I am most fond of are their various 24 books.

I’m really excited about the new mini-series featuring Jack Bauer’s first clash with Victor Drazen. That’s the best kind of approach to take with a licensed book — after all, it’s really just a kind of fan fiction, raised (one hopes) to professional quality. So tell the stories the fans want to see, that the main property won’t ever get to. (Peter David has made this an art form with his Star Trek novels.)

However, the book that instantly shot to the absolute top of my list was the new Lone Ranger book from Dynamite.

Oh my God I am swooningly in love with this book. Our other Greg has been talking about it, and I have little to add except that to point out that it’s really hard to adapt a property like this and keep it fresh. Think about it — this is a story that anyone who would be interested in buying the book probably already knows. We know that John Reid rode out with his brother and four other Texas Rangers into an ambush. We know John was the only one to survive, found by a local Indian named Tonto who nursed him back to health. We know that Reid decided to remain ‘dead,’ digging an extra, false grave for himself next to the other Ranger graves, and, after making a mask from his dead brother’s bullet-riddled vest, rode out with Tonto to avenge himself against the outlaws. We know that after Reid settled accounts with the outlaws, he decided to retain the identity of the Lone Ranger and he and Tonto continued the fight to bring justice to the West. We KNOW this. I suspect I even know who the big villain is, being the decrepit old geezer I am and thus more up on Ranger lore than my colleagues probably are: Black Bart dropped a big ol’ hint in #2.

So there’s really no surprises coming in the first story arc’s main plot for us Ranger fans. Writer Brett Matthews has the nearly impossible job of taking a story we all know and putting enough of a new spin on it that it all seems new again. And I’m telling you he’s doing it. This is just a great, great job. The art from Sergio Carriello, a guy who was born to draw a book like this, raises the game an extra notch. Last time I felt this delighted about seeing a story I pretty much knew by heart, and had it seem this new, was watching Batman Begins. This is that same vibe, it’s like seeing The Lone Ranger: The Motion Picture. Only, you know, done right. (Yes, I’m still bitter about that movie version with Klinton what’s-his-name.)

All this is my longwinded way of chiming in with Mr. Burgas. You should buy this book. You will enjoy it. Unless you just plain hate westerns, in which case, well, you must hate America.

Wish List redux: I kidded around a while ago about how a column mention seems to get books back in print, and the streak seems to be continuing. I did a column about the old try-out, one-off character books not too long ago, and in addition to Satana and Daimon Hellstrom sharing their own Essential — both of whom got their first regular solo shots in the tryout books — I was surprised and delighted to see this little one-off show up at the shop a couple of weeks ago:

The Legion of Monsters! Sadly, it was a concept that you loved more for the idea than the execution. The story from Bill Mantlo was just so-so, and the art by Frank Robbins was good but wildly inappropriate to the story. Two daytime guys doing a totally night-time kind of strip. Still the idea of Marvel’s more horrific characters forming a sort of graveyard, Defenders-style non-team is a really cool one. Somebody at Marvel should try it again, especially since they just reprinted this and reclaimed the title trademark and so on. Think how much fun a book like that would be with a team like, oh… Warren Ellis and Eddie Campbell. Or Rick Veitch and Paul Pope. Or … shucks, there’s lots of folks that could do right by it. Pick your own dream team. But somebody should do it.

Nevertheless, this was a fun book to see again, and I didn’t mind shelling out the $3.99 for the reprint edition since you also got a nice little Dracula Lives! reprint as well as Spider-Man meeting … wait for it…

…Brother Voodoo!

Damn it, now that’s got me thinking about the Black Power Avengers thing again…

See you next week, jive turkeys.

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