HUMANOIDS AND RETAILERS AND DIGITAL COMICS, OH MY...
It's distressing, but not at all surprising: Humanoids hasn't printed its first comic in its new line in America, and they've already cancelled half the series based on low sales. In other words, American superhero comic shop retailers are not supporting Humanoids. Because, haven't you all heard? The publishers' clients are the retailers (the stewards of the Direct Market), not the readers. So you can't blame readers on this, right?
I'm pissed off. Not surprised, but still annoyed.
Thankfully, Humanoids is working on something else: they're going to release those series that the Direct Market won't support in a digital format first, then go back and release them in printed editions afterwards. And if this works, you know what we've learned? That the Direct Market doesn't matter worth a damn. That Direct Market retailers are not the final arbiters of what sells in the world of comics, and that there's hope for a great many books that the current system fails every month.
No pressure, Humanoids.
This is the experiment in digital comics that I want to support, in large part because the one series I was looking forward to, "Bouncer," is one of the two canceled series. But more because if it works, it proves a point that most retailers seem to be ignoring: that digital comics might not be gutting their business, but rather might enhance it. The "Iron Man Annual" is set up to see if day-and-date comic publishing could work digitally, but is instantly hobbled by providing a more expensive digital product, making it much less attractive. Humanoids has an honest shot at proving a point, if they do this right.
Yes, I am aware that a great many webcomics creators do this all the time today. Look at Phil Foglio and "Girl Genius," for one great example. Humanoids is different in this case because it offered up the books to the Direct Market, got turned away, and is now going the digital route to prove the Direct Market wrong.
The problem is, Humanoids is shooting themselves in the foot as they roll this plan out. They're failing to have the guts to go all the way, and so they're doomed to fail again. They're already letting us know that future collections of their material in North America will not be printed at standard album size. It will be at the standard comic book size, though with hardcovers and nice paper. Small comfort, that.
Here's the money quote from Humanoids' Editor in Chief, Bob Silva, that really put me over the edge:
"The challenge is that we kind of have to respect the demands of the retailers, and there's a lot of retailers that just don't know how to shelve those books. I completely understand. When you have 90% of your market in a standard size, you don't know what to do with the oversize books a lot of the time. The feedback we got from a lot of retailers was, we really love your product but there's no way that we can shelve this stuff. It just won't fit."
Those retailers deserve to have their businesses die. If you, as a business owner, can't figure out how to stock an item that's in a slightly different format than 90% of the rest of what you sell, you don't deserve to be in business. It's ludicrous. How many other businesses so cripple themselves?
Even worse, retailers love those books with bigger price tags. It means higher profits for them per sale. Those $3.99 books are more retailer friendly than those $2.99, after all. But they're telling Humanoids that the traditional European album format is death to sales?
Just let your businesses die. Really. You're not doing anyone any favors in the world of comics.
And Humanoids is just rolling over and playing dead, pandering to the very retailers that have already rejected half their solicited product. Yeah, smart idea. That'll work in the end.
The problem is, half the awe factor from the Franco-Belgian comics tradition is those oversized, often self-contained, albums. The larger pages allow more panels to be shown at a readable size. They're not shrunken down to the point of needing a magnifying glass to read. They don't have the fine ink lines break up from the reconfiguration. They're awesome spectacles of art that tell stories strongly. I've enjoyed what I've read from Marvel's Soleil line, but that format is painfully too small for several of the titles printed there so far. (See Ythaq for Example #1.)
There's a theory floating about that I've not talked about so much in Pipeline. It's something that I hesitate to endorse, yet the more I think about it, the more validity I think it has. Maybe day and date comics won't kill the Direct Market, but might actually expand it. Let the Direct Market service the die-hards in the exact same myopic way it does today, but let digital service a wider market, a small percentage of which can be converted to "The Wednesday Crowd."
We hear anecdotal evidence here and there of people who find comics digitally and then walk into a comics shop to buy something, whether it's for the first time in their life or as a returning customer after years gone by. We know there are plenty of core die-hard comic book fans who insist that comics are a printed thing and that digital will never replace that. (Seriously, they post on my message board, a place that's never had a flame war until I started to discuss digital comics seriously.) Every time an illegal piracy website shuts down, their defenders claim that those digital comics lead them to buy printed versions of the series they were reading on-line, or got them to sample others. Perhaps their claims are overstated or their mindset is a little rash, but we can't all together discount them. We do have documented examples in the music industry of people buying albums after trading bootlegs of concerts, after all.
Could it be that the Direct Market might be saved by digital comics?
Humanoids might tell the tale. There's still a number of things that could go horribly wrong here, aside from just the horrible decision to make the reprints at a small size. They might test the market with material that's just not good -- or, at least, not as palatable to North American tastes. The webcomics could prove to be wildly successful and the Direct Market still won't pre-order them. You just don't know. It'll be fun to find out, though. I hope Humanoids lasts long enough in this country to answer some of these questions for us.
CAPTAIN AMERICA: REBORN, AT LAST
I've enjoyed Ed Brubaker's run on the monthly "Captain America" series from the start, so I wasn't about to miss "Reborn," particularly with the art team of Bryan Hitch and Butch Guice. The only problem with it is that I knew going in what the end goal of the miniseries was: Steve Rogers returns. But, as I learned from years of watching and reading about "Babylon 5," it's not always about the twist at the end, but in how you get there. I don't think this series wowed me on that front, but it did entertain in several ways.
First, the art worked for me. I'm one of those who likes Hitch's panel borderless look these days. While it isn't universally popular, I think it takes advantage of the games a reader's mind plays with his/her eyes. We can fill in negative space when we want to, or we can use it to separate things. Hitch's art does both. The blank spaces work well as gutter space, but it also means that we have to draw the rest of the art in our mind. Negative space in a panel bleeds out to the gutters now, but our mind furnishes our eyes with he ability to see the invisible borders. It's a crazy effect when you try to rationalize it, but it works.
The other upside to Hitch's artwork here is the almost counter-intuitive use of Butch Guice as his inker. The two have similarities in their art styles. Both use photo reference, obviously. Hitch verges on the phototracing more than Guice, whose art, more often than not, adds an additional abstraction layer to the reference material to keep it looking more cartoony. When you combine the two, you see Guice's inks adding a certain scratchiness or chunkiness to Hitch's pencils that aren't there when someone like Paul Neary inks him with a smoother and more complementary line. Guice splatters ink across the page, in comparison.
Sadly, this all fails on the last few pages. I don't know what happened there. I'm guessing deadline pressures lead to some shortcuts, but the art drops in quality a couple of steps, and the photo reference shines through in a most awkward way. The pages that are the ones we've been waiting years to see wind up being the ones we most quickly want to forget. Sharon Carter looks absolutely nothing like Sharon Carter for a panel or two.
As for the story, it's interesting to see Brubaker writing a large set piece conclusion like he does here, complete with a crashed ship, the D.C. background, the Red Skull, and an army of MODOKs. While his run on "Captain America" has had its share of action scenes and set pieces, the climax of this series throws more into the mix than I can ever remember Brubaker going for at one time. While the end result, again, is a foregone conclusion, Brubaker gives the characters some strong moments to play with, and gives the superhero faithful some things to cheer for.
As for the story, characters lost in time hold about as much tension and drama for me as a dream sequence. Neither has any real impact on the character, and often serve as space-filling time-wasters. It's nice to see Hitch drawing World War II-era Cap again (See "The Ultimates" #1 for his best work in that regard), but there's still a hollow feeling to those scenes. I suppose it's a nice way to dump some expository material on the reader to help set the stage for future Cap tales, but it's still a bit anti-climactic to me.
"Captain America: Reborn" serves its purpose, and often does it in a pretty way. It's purely marketing that dictated this being a separate miniseries instead of the next few issues of the series. I hate that, but in the end it doesn't affect the story. I would just like to see Brubaker's run on "Captain America" to be a little more linear and self-contained. This is all pure comic geekery, I know, but it is disappointing in a small way.
The only thing I could have done without in the hardcover edition of the book is the embossed Captain America portrait, complete with gun shot blood splatter spewing out the back of his head and dripping off his chin. Really? Ick.
I'd probably give the whole thing three stars if this were a CBR Review. It's a solid effort with some strong moments, but nothing that makes me want to shout my love for it from the highest rooftop. The only disappointing thing about it is that the story now continues in something like three other books -- "Captain America," "Secret Avengers," and "Avengers."
For more discussion on digital comics from a retailer's point of view, check out Brian Hibbs' most recent "Tilting At Windmills" column here at CBR. His is a well-reasoned argument in favor of the Direct Market, even though I have enough disagreements with it to fill a column. Humanoids stole that thunder this week, though.