Amazon's Jet City Comics under the microscope

Amazon Publishing has entered the world of comic books with Jet City Comics, which aims to publish titles digitally and in print, and distribute them through Kindle, the online storefront and comic shops. Now the comics industry can fret over unfair competition and business practices just like the book industry. Still, it's a sign of the strength of the comics market that Amazon felt confident enough to launch the imprint.

As the world's largest online retailer, Amazon deserves scrutiny. Is this new venture good for comics? Will the comics be any good? Let's take a look at what we know so far and what's to come.

Jet City Comics is a great name, and according to the imprint's minisite, it's borrowed from one of Seattle's nicknames. Amazon is headquartered in Seattle, and the city skyline is even incorporated into the imprint's logo. It's such a great name, in fact, that the Jet City Comic Show has been using it since 2010. It seems like a potential for brand confusion, but I guess the mammoth Amazon doesn't have to worry about competing with a local one-day convention. Best of all, however, the two entities seem friendly with each other: Jet City Comics was announced as a major sponsor for the show, which takes place Nov. 2 in Tacoma. The show endorsed Jet City Comics Senior Editor Alex Carr as a "huge comic book fan" and Amazon gifted a Kindle Fire HD as a raffle prize for pre-purchased tickets to the event. That kind of community support says a lot about the people running Jet City Comics and the leeway they've been given. A company the size of Amazon could've easily ignored the show, purchased the name or bullied them right out of the picture. That wins some big first-impression points from me.

The website states that Jet City Comics is "the home for uncommon graphic novels and comics," but Tuesday's press release, reveals that Jet City's mission is more narrow than that. According to Amazon Publishing Vice President Jeff Belle, “Our focus will be on adapting great books for this medium". There's also a mention of "new ideas" in the same sentence but it seems to be within the context of adapting pre-existing books or playing within the realities first created in books. While it's fun to see books come to life as comics (I loved The Hedge Knight comic), this was somewhat of a disappointment. The level of imagination and creativity coming from comics today is just mind-boggling; there's a healthy stream of insane ideas, rich world-building, fantastic characters and engrossing narratives -- all of them original and formed whole cloth from the minds of comic creators. Comics are more than up to the task of providing original material. I'm sure the reasoning for this choice is that Jet City wants to have recognizable brands to get people's attention, to pull from pre-established readers and audiences. That's understandable. But not a single original comic in the initial line-up? Does Belle's statement that the focus will be on adapting books mean that's all Jet City will do? I sincerely hope not.

Still, what we'll be getting in the coming months is nothing to sneeze at. Symposium is a six-issue miniseries of new stories set within the Foreworld reality depicted in The Mongoliad, itself first released in serialized form as an app and then modified to its current book form (and published by Amazon's imprint 47North). It's also worth noting that the Foreworld Saga is also participating in Amazon's Kindle Worlds program for authorized fan fiction. The first issue is by novelist Christian Cameron and illustrator Dmitry Bondarenko. Cameron is the author of the Tyrant series, a historical fiction narrative set in the 300s BC. He's also a historian, so on paper he seems like a good match for exploring the alternate-history series. Bondarenko is a frequent collaborator with Cameron, and they appear to take to comics pretty well enough in this three-page preview, although the lettering seems unusually blocky. I haven't downloaded it yet to see if that's an intentional choice that works. Still, it seems like a decent comic but I'm surprised this was the launch title when there are bigger properties, bigger names and more well-known comic creators coming in October.

It doesn't get much bigger right now than George R.R. Martin, so that's a good get. I'm most excited about Ben Avery and Mike Miller's adaptations of the "Dunk and Egg" short stories, The Hedge Knight and The Sworn Sword. The first was originally published in 2003, and then hopped around publishers until falling out of print when a partnership between the Dabel Brothers and Marvel disintegrated. A third short story by Martin, Meathouse Man, will be adapted to comics for the first time by multimedia artist Raya Golden. This is said to be one of Martin's most gruesome stories, written during a time of emotional pain for the author. It's probably Jet City's most promising release.

And finally the other announced title is a six-issue adaptation of Hugh Howey's Wool. Ol' pros Justin Gray and Jimmy Palmiotti are helming this. They have artist Jimmy Broxton, who's handled Paul Cornell's Knight and Squire miniseries for DC Comics, a couple of fill-ins for Vertigo (The Unwritten and Saucer Country), a story in Dark Horse Presents, Madefire's The Engine motion comics, and others. This will probably be the most familiar to regular mainstream comics readers, aesthetically speaking. Similar to The Mongoliad, Wool has roots in Amazon's other programs: Howey self-published the post-apocalyptic series of novellas through Amazon's Kindle Direct Publishing. It turned into a hit, and now Ridley Scott is developing a film adaptation.

While not a flawless entrance onto the scene, Jet City seems promising so far. Perhaps most refreshing is that everyone involved comes across as sincere comic fans. While George R.R. Martin, Hugh Howey and Neal Stephenson aren't hammering out comic scripts panel by panel, they have a love for the medium, along with Jet City's senior editor and creators. This is perhaps most apparent in a blog post by Carr at Amazon's blog Omnivoracious.com, which is rife with comic references and phrases that just can't be faked. Carr also shares a list of favorite comics provided by Howey and Stephenson that include unexpected mentions of The Infinity Gauntlet and Mister Miracle.

It'll be interesting to see how Jet City grows from here, and whether it'll use its Amazon muscle to make comics stronger.

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