CCI: First Comics Panel

There was a time when First Comics was one of the most innovative, revolutionary and entertaining publishers producing comic books and graphic novels. During their heyday from 1983 to 1991, First published popular ongoing series "Nexus," "Badger," "American Flagg!," "Dreadstar," "Grimjack" and "Jon Sable" (to name a scant few) and boasted a staggering output of graphic novels, in the days before that term was so easily bandied about. In the days before Dark Horse's emergence as a comics powerhouse and Image Comics' prominence as a showplace for creators, First published creator-owned properties, often starring characters that weren't superheroes. Never a comics colossus like Marvel and DC, the publisher was held in high esteem by fans and pros alike as an alternative to the big companies, as well as a reliable source of quality material. Though First quietly ceased active publication away in the early '90s, they never fully closed shop and over the years, there has still been some output with the company's name attached, though it has been infrequent at best.

In advance of their Thursday afternoon panel at Comic-Con International in San Diego, First did not make an announcement of their return so much as a note in the CCI schedule did it for them. There was no intent to trumpet the grand return of the company, simply plans for an panel featuring a discussion of their plans. As such, a full contingent of First Comics principals, including AiT PlanetLar publisher Larry Young, filled the stage to discuss the immediate future with several dozen fans.

Although it was First Comics co-founder and director Ken F. Levin who presided over the events, Young started the panel. With as much enthusiasm as fans in Hall H downstairs have for movies, Young proclaimed his love for First Comics,. When he heard that Levin planned to reopen First and publish books again, he told the audience he asked who he had to kill to get involved. He is now First's director of publication.

Levin then took the microphone, giving a short history of the company as an introduction for the audience, though with the knowledgeable crowd, it was probably more of a refresher. Perhaps ten years ago, he said, there might not have been a need for an entity like First Comics, but in the early '80s, when the market was dominated by comics starring company-owned superheroes, the world of independent comics was a wasteland. First began with everything but superheroes, not to disparage the superhero comics that Marvel and DC were doing, but because there was no sense in doing superhero comics if they were being done so well elsewhere. It was never the intention, Levin said, to compete with other indie comics, but to add more options for creators who were interested in releasing material they owned.

Levin introduced the panel gradually, stating their name and function with the company and letting them speak fully about their upcoming projects and their experience so far with the revitalized publisher. He was often overcome into speechlessness with awe at the assembled talent with him on stage.

The first creator introduced has produced First's most recent and perhaps most visible book, "Necessary Monsters." The book's writer, Daniel Merlin Goodbrey, described the project as featuring classic monsters going on suicide missions, "a spy monster movie."

At this point it was noted that Levin, also an agent to comics creators and an executive producer of a number of Hollywood movies, is developing many of these properties to be made into feature films, including "Necessary Monsters."

Levin went on to introduce perhaps the two biggest names working with the new First, beginning with Bill Willingham, creator and writer of the enormously popular "Fables" for Vertigo. Willingham's very first work was published by First, a Valeria the Insect Queen back-up story that he drew for First's flagship title "Warp." It is this early work that connects Willingham to the new First, as the publisher plans to re-release the material in a collection. Willingham jokingly exclaimed that this was only done to embarrass him, but he has agreed to let the material be released if the profits from the book are given to charity. There have also been discussions about him doing further work for First.

Photo by JK Parkin

Mystery novelist Max Allan Collins was the next big name to be introduced. Collins had written the graphic novel on which the film "Road to Perdition" was based. The fact that "Perdition" was a graphic novel made into a movie with no superheroes in sight changed how comic book movies were perceived and accepted. Collins' First connection comes by way of "The P.I.s," a crossover starring Collins' popular creation, Ms. Tree, and detective Mike Mauser. Collins attended the panel to announce that there are plans for First to produce a complete collection of Ms. Tree stories as well as a new graphic novel with Collins' collaborator, artist Terry Beatty.

Levin continued his introductions, citing "E-Man," another series that First had published and will now be producing again with plans to issue a complete collection of "E-Man," overseen by its creators, writer Nick Cuti and artist Joe Staton, who were present at the panel. Alex Wald, First Comics' original and current art director, recolored the entire book.

Copies of "Unnecessary Monsters" and "E-Man: The Early Years" were available at the convention in limited quantities with plans for a wide-release in October or November. Also present in the initial CCI offering was "Frickin' Butt-Kickin' Zombie Ants," written by Steve Stern, who was also present on stage, and drawn by the Fillbach Brothers, a cowboy hat-wearing pair who were seated in the audience.

The fourth title available at the convention was "Zen: Intergalactic Ninja 3D Convention Special," written by creators Stern and Dan Cote, who were also present at the panel. The issue uses revolutionary 3D methods, as well as traditional ones, to be viewed in the comic with the included red-and-blue lensed glasses. QR codes appear throughout the story, allowing readers to scan them with a smartphone and see animated 3D images. At this point, Levin introduced Brian Mullins, founder of Daqri and QR director. Mullins was involved with the creation of the innovative 3D for the comic and, being a comics fan, hopes to be involved with expanding the concept of augmented reality into comics, including a graphic novel told completely with these images, another future project for First.

Susannah Carson, editor of "A Truth Universally Acknowledged: 33 Writers on Why We Read Jane Austen," was introduced as First Comics' YA editor, proclaiming the company's intention to publish material for young adults.

Levin also acknowledged Christian Gossett and Tom Zahler, who were in the audience. Gossett, creator of "The Red Star," has been talking to First about a new project, as well as helping to the publisher import foreign comics to the United States. Zahler, creator, writer and artist of "Love and Capes," will do some design work for the company.

The panel was clearly pressed for time and First Comics is so overflowing with planned material that Levin was unable to mention "Four Norsemen of the Apocalypse," a graphic novel written by "Jack of Fables" and "House of Mystery" writer Matt Sturges and drawn by John Lucas. Also not mentioned at the panel was a new, currently-untitled graphic novel by Goodbrey, to be released in the spring of next year.

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Tags: bill willingham, first comics, ken levin, larry young, e-man, american flagg, cci2011, badger, shatter

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