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Pipeline, Issue #500

by  in CBR Exclusives Comment
Pipeline, Issue #500

PIPELINE: HALF A CENTURY MILLENNIUM AND STILL GOING, AND GOING, AND GOING

Welcome to the five hundredth edition of Pipeline Commentary and Review. With the tenth anniversary coming up in June for this column, I’ve decided to hold off on any partying and crazy celebration until then. But I can’t let the big Five-Oh-Oh go by without any notice.

Special thanks to Jonah Weiland, our gracious Executive Producer here at CBR, for putting up with this insanity week after week. Everyone owes Beau Yarbrough a thanks, as well, since he’s the one who pointed Jonah in my direction more than 400 columns ago, thus securing my Tuesday berth here at CBR. Others come and go, but I’m not leaving.

Of course, I thank each and every one of you (TIME Magazine’s Person of the Year) for clicking through to my humble offerings every Tuesday. Without you, Jonah would have kicked me to the curb a long time ago.

I don’t have any special content specifically aimed at #500, but this will be one of the longest columns I’ve ever written. Sit back and get ready to talk soap operas, lettering, The Escapist, and PREVIEWS.

And thanks for reading!

COMICS AND SOAPS

It’s a medium stuck in the past. It’s a serialized form of drama that seems completely out of touch with reality. Its characters are almost ludicrously pretty, with perfect hair and bodies that seem never to age. Its fans are getting older every year, though, and new forms of entertainment are threatening its future.

No, not superhero comics. I’m talking about soap operas. Tough to tell the difference sometimes, ain’t it?

One of the pure joys of being engaged is that you’re living life with a completely new set of eyes. At least, that’s the somewhat-romantic excuse I make for having watched far too much GENERAL HOSPITAL and DAYS OF OUR LIVES in 2006.

However, your original set of eyes never closes for long, and the inevitable comparisons between soap operas and comics have been hanging in my mind for the last week. This is hardly a revelation. It’s common currency for columnists. But I think it’s time to get these thoughts out of my head. I think that I’m picking up on a couple of comparisons above and beyond the surface ones you regularly hear talked about. So, please, stick with me for a moment here. I’m going to ramble for a little while. Hopefully, we’ll learn a lesson or two along the way.

I wrote a column once many years ago about how comic books are not soap operas. (It’s lost somewhere in the archives.) I was right and I was wrong, but I’m not here to relive that. Let’s look, instead, at what comics might learn from soap operas.

Both are serialized forms of entertainment that have been around for decades. They rely on the addiction of their consumers. They need to drag you along for the ride and never let you jump off. That means layering stories appropriately so that they never seem to end. One ending means a new beginning, but another story is at its mid-point all at the same time. If things start getting too slow all at once on a soap opera, though, they can throw a little sex into a subplot to keep things moving. (That’s what DAYS did last week. It worked for me.)

The comics industry is at a certain transition right now. The serialized object is waning, perhaps, just a little bit. Mainstream acceptance comes from a more bookstore-minded approach. People want complete stories in one volume. They don’t mind reading a series featuring a favorite character, but it needs to be in discrete complete chunks.

Soap operas will never have that. I can’t imagine people waiting for the DVDs of a soap opera, nor do I think anyone has attempted such a format. Soap operas are disposable. Even the Soap network exists mostly to rerun that week’s shows at night and in marathons on the weekends. They may relive major storylines from the past, but those are re-packaged into specific presentations with interviews, highlight reels, and historical perspective. The last attempt I can remember for soap operas taking a stab at this happened a while back when a couple of them tried to emulate the telenovela format. Tell complete stories in 16 weeks and then start a new one. Mini-series within a series. Sound familiar?

Both forms of storytelling have decades of continuity behind them. I can remember watching GENERAL HOSPITAL as a kid when my older sister would beat me home from school and get to the TV first. It’s scary to me now — nearly twenty years later — to see those characters’ children as the stars of the show. (Seeing Robin Scorpio as a 20-something doctor living with HIV and not a cute little scamp being raised by Anna and Duke was strange.)

In any case, you can see where it might be tough to bring new viewers in. But soap operas strictly abide by the theory that every episode is someone’s first. You can hear it in the writing. There’s not a scene that goes by where one character doesn’t tell another exactly what that other character doesn’t already know. The audience accepts it, because it’s positive reinforcement of the storyline for them, and a big help to any newbies out there who get confused between who is whose step-brother-in-law. (Hope’s new baby is the aunt of her 20-something-year-old’s son’s baby. It’s weird. And Chelsea, who accidentally killed Hope’s last baby a year ago, is the half-sister to that son. Yeah, I’m confused, too, and scared that I can figure this all out.)

In short, it didn’t take me long to figure out who was who. Yes, it’s often clumsy and the acting isn’t subtly nuanced. But it’s pulp entertainment, cheap and disposable. Who cares? Just keep moving the story along. Move the pawns into place. Drag the story out to a cliffhanger at the end of the episode. Repeat. Over and over and over again. I admire the effort put into creating cliffhangers, plot twists, and new relationships at every turn. Yes, it’s basically the same old plots over and over again — Steve just recovered from his amnesia, but is now suffering from possible brainwashing?!? — but you throw them at different characters to see how they react to it.

Comics used to keep new readers better informed. The move to the trade meant that the expository dialogue was cut, because it would be redundant in the story’s preferred trade paperback format. Even with an introductory text page in its place, it serves as a barrier to entry that new readers have to struggle harder to overcome.

Even worse, comics don’t stick to any sort of publishing schedule anymore. Sure, they’re nominally monthly from Marvel and DC, but does anyone expect that anymore? The “art” is more important than the serialization. Soap operas don’t go into reruns. They don’t take holidays off — rarely, in the case of Bowl games or special programming. Soaps hold as much of their audience as they do because they’re never out of sight or out of mind. They might run the risk of burning out an audience member or two, but you’ll never leave them alone to be caught by some other medium’s fancy. Once you’re locked in, you know you never need to look elsewhere; the show will be there five days a week, without fail, reruns, or fill-ins.

Comics don’t do that anymore. Even the bedrock titles are susceptible. How many issues of FANTASTIC FOUR and AMAZING SPIDER-MAN came out this year? On the flip side, how many regular creative teams disappeared for an issue or two to keep the schedule going over at DC in 2006? While soap operas may occasionally recast their roles, it’s never for the short term.

The parallels run much deeper than formatting and presentation, though. Soap opera fans tend to be older. They’re either house mothers who are home all day with the kid(s) and no immediate way to get outside entertainment, or older folks who never fell out of the habit. Sure, you’ll get some teenage girls over the summer or on holiday breaks catching up on old friends, but that’s not the bulk. Comic book fans are 30-something and older men who’ve been with it most of their lives, or teenagers reading manga.

You see a weird divide inside soaps today to try to deal with that. First, the old stalwart characters never go away. They keep coming back. They may leave or they may disappear for a little while to make room for other plot lines, but they’ll show back up eventually. How many times can GENERAL HOSPITAL bring Luke and Laura back? Forget credibility; putting those two actors on screen guarantees them ratings, so manufacture whatever weird medical conditions you need. Your audience will forgive you. DC needs only the flimsiest of excuses to bring Ted Kord back, and the audience would embrace him to high sales for a month or two.

On the other hand, the cast also gets younger, to bring in a younger audience hoping to see more of their lives mirrored in the soaps. Thus, you get odd internet dating and blogging references on DAYS OF OUR LIVES, as the young seek romance with each other. (He hasn’t confessed to her yet, but he did nail her drunken mother. I kid you not.) It reminds me of the divide in comics, where you have AMAZING SPIDER-MAN running 500 issues with the high school Peter Parker now out of college and married, while AMAZING SPIDER-GIRL features a teenaged descendant donning the tights. Or perhaps ULTIMATE SPIDER-MAN is the better analogy. Or MARVEL ADVENTURES: SPIDER-MAN? Or perhaps the comic world’s obsession with teenaged sidekicks is a better example, but that kind of thing today is used only for sexual subtext and dirty jokes. It’s not even a serious plot point anymore.

Next time you’re discussing a comic book series you enjoy with a friend and refer to the “soap opera” parts of it, think about what you’re saying. You’re discussing the relationships, the character interactions, and the non-violent stuff. Meanwhile, the soap operas have plenty of attempted murders, assassinations, kidnappings, rapes, arson, car chases, and violent crime. (Did I mention the time John Black dressed up as a nun to assassinate someone in church? That actor is one of the worst I’ve ever seen, but he’s completely mesmerizing. You’re entranced by his delivery. Sadly, you can’t see it now. Soap’s answer to William Shatner is in a coma. Go figure.)

What I mean to say here is that soap operas have much the same action and adventure as comic books, but it’s the focus that’s different. Superhero comics thrive on the action. Soaps use them to drill into the minds and hearts of their characters.

In the end, soap operas and superhero comic books are flip sides of the same coin. If men are from Mars and woman are from Venus, then men flock to comics as women flock to the soaps.

I think manga is blatantly bringing in more of that soap opera feel to the sequential narrative, and that’s why it gathers more female readers. It relies more on relationships, with the major plot points just being outside influences to get the emotions stirring in some direction.

Soap fans, though, aren’t much different from comic fans. They have a dedicated internet fanbase that like to spoil upcoming stories as much as possible. Soaps are filmed a few weeks in advance, so there’s always spoilers roaming about. Actor contracts also give away enough things to keep those rumor mills churning, as creator exclusivities do in comics. In comics, we can look at PREVIEWS to see what the stories will be in the stories two months down the road. In comics, you can hop on a website and see who lives and who dies a couple of weeks ahead. I haven’t looked too deeply into it, but I’m sure there’s a Soap Opera Blogosphere whining over the firing of Alan Quartermain, or ticked off that Marlena is acting like a spirit guide instead of a doctor over her comatose husband. And there’s likely a snark site or two picking apart the shows they live for all their contrivances and laughable bits of dialogue and clothing choices and behaviors.

I’ll leave all of that as an exercise for the reader.

What I just spent a couple of thousand words to say is this: Comics need to be more approachable. They need to be regularly scheduled. They need to be more friendly. They need their gimmicks to be shorter term events. And they need to own up to their pulpy roots. I’d even say the monthly schedule is too slow, but the industry isn’t built to handle anything faster than that.

LETTERING COINCIDENCE OF THE WEEK

With all the free fonts floating across the web and relatively cheap fonts available from comic book font specialty houses, you see a lot of comics that look alike these days, from a lettering point of view.

Sometimes, font paths cross at very odd angles. A couple of weekends ago, I read Dark Horse’s OUTER ORBIT #1 and then DC’s DETECTIVE COMICS #827. Both used a deco-inspired font. That’s not out of place for a Batman book, but it’s a little more adventurous for a comedic science-fiction book. The two fonts are indeed, completely different, but do share several points in common. The most obvious are the relatively-bloated “O” forms. While every other letter looks compressed and tall, those “O”s really stick out in a word. The mid-level bar across the “E”s are up very high, as it the end of the semi-circle at the top of the “R”s. Very art deco.

But there are enough differences between the two to see that they’re different fonts, but with very similar inspirations. The Batman font is very linear — every line is drawn with the same amount of pressure. The OUTER ORBIT font varies its thicknesses more. The strokes running horizontally on the “F”, for example, are a little fatter than those on the vertical line. The Batman font also looks like more of a display font. No effort was made to make it appear as if it was hand-lettered. It’s purposefully sterile, which might actually work, given that it’s used for Batman’s thoughts. The OUTER ORBIT font is more hand crafted, made to look as if it was lettered by hand. In some ways, it has a very European look — lots of tall, thin characters, but not with that sheen of perfection that makes it look like something you’d use on the front of a 1920s building in New York City. In fact, when I ran a lettering sample through What The Font?, it mistakenly thought it was Comicraft’s Ladronn font, which is based on the lettering style of the European Mexican artist.

One thing that both fonts have in common, though, is that there is only one version of each letter. Take a look at the word “COFFEES” in the penultimate panel of the OUTER ORBIT sample. Those two “F”s and “E”s are identical, something which many letterers today attempt to avoid to prevent that too-perfect sterile look. In such cases, the SHIFT-“A” and the regular “A” will feature minor variations.

While I’m in this mindset, I also came across THE ESCAPIST last weekend, which we’ll talk about more in a moment. Tom Orzechowski did the lettering for the series in his usual style, but then varied it up a little bit for the gritty comic book story-within-the-story. It shares an inspiration with the other fonts I’ve just discussed, though it’s a little less pronounced. Also, the x-height on the characters errs lower rather than higher. Check out how low the middle line of the “E” is, or how far down the semi-circle on the “R” goes. Most notable is how large the top part of the “S” form is as compared to the lower half.

It’s both an effective change of font for a good cause in the comic, but it’s also a well-chosen one, as you want to harken back just a bit to the older days of the Escapist’s comics inside that comic.

So there you have it: four similar fonts being used in completely different ways, some more effectively than others. The next time you look at a comic book, give a brief thought to the reason why a letterer chooses a specific font. It might just be out of expediency or house style. It could be to fit the tone of the book. Or it might be as small a font as the letterer could get away with to fit all of the writer’s words on the page.

After that, ask yourself how effective the choice was. That’s all that matters, at the end of the day.

Also, webcomic creator Jon Morris weighs in with his plea for hand-lettering.

VAUGHAN’S OVERLOOKED MINI-SERIES

Think of this as the trade paperback review that I’m writing before the trade paperback is announced. I have no doubt that there will be a trade of this mini-series before the end of the year. None. Dark Horse isn’t stupid. But it hasn’t been announced yet, and I just finished reading the six issues that this theoretical book will eventually collect, and I can’t wait until then to talk about it.

Brian K. Vaughan’s THE ESCAPISTS mini-series is a must-read for anyone who has ever read a comic book and thought about doing one of their own. It’s a must-read for those who are familiar with the industry and its workings. It’s a multi-layered approach to a story that could so easily have gone down a navel-gazing rat hole. It is, after all, a comic book about the making of a comic book.

THE ESCAPISTS follows a young man who uses his inheritance to purchase the rights to a mostly forgotten superhero character that his father had idolized. Putting together his creative team and marketing the book to a public that doesn’t care about comics — let alone this “ancient” character — is what the book is all about, plot-wise. And while the lead character muses over the state of comics today and his hometown’s role in them, there’s a character-driven story wrapped loosely around him that keeps you coming back for more.

The series was Brian K. Vaughan’s love letter to the comics industry, though not always syrupy sweet. It’s very realistic, to the point where you begin to wonder how much of the main character’s monologue is his, and how much is Vaughan’s, using a convenient fictional mouthpiece. I imagine this book was great therapy for Vaughan in one or two spots, most notably as the lead character shows some vulnerability and sensitivity to critical reaction to his work. No, I don’t think this is Vaughan whining at all. Just the opposite — I appreciate the honesty and the openness is took to write those pages.

There’s more to this book than just that, though. The lead also discusses Cleveland’s role in the history of comics, from the creation of SUPERMAN to the creators in the industry today. There’s a somewhat cynical look at corporate comic characters, and how susceptible they are to big corporations with big pockets, even if the one specifically used in this mini-series is a little more outright evil than the real world counterparts. He also touches on issues with mainstream adoption of comics and centers the books around one or two staged bits of guerilla marketing. It’s a wonderfully creative story set in a very familiar world to comic readers, who can appreciate the Inside Baseball parts just as much as the character-driven moments.

The art is mostly by Steve Rolston, who’s a perfect fit for the book. Philip Bond did the first issue, which originally saw print in Dark Horse’s earlier ESCAPIST anthology title. Rolston came aboard for the last five issues as a close art style match. Additional art comes from Jason Alexander, whose work appears as the pages of the Escapist comic that our stalwart protagonists are seen creating. Lettering, as previously mentioned, is by the archetypical superhero comic book letterer, Tom Orzechowski. I think it’s just large enough to look right in a slightly smaller presentation. In other words, I wouldn’t be surprised to see the trade paperback collection of this book be an inch smaller on either side.

In the end, the mini-series is perfectly self-contained, telling a complete story rich in background and character. Despite some truly horrible things happening to the characters in the fifth issue, the sixth issue resets the scene and refocuses them in a brilliant way. I was surprised at just how much I cared for the characters so quickly. The last issue — and the whole series — should be read by any aspiring comics creators today.

The six issues of THE ESCAPISTS are already out there in back issue bins and eBay auctions waiting to be picked up. If you can wait a little while longer, I’ll be sure to give you a pointer to the Dark Horse solicitations just as soon as the trade paperback collection is listed in it. It doesn’t look like that’ll be happening until the summer, at the earliest right now.

I think it’s an overlooked little gem that deserves greater attention. Even if you’ve never read a word of Michael Chabon’s KAVALIER AND KLAY, this book is perfectly accessible.

PREVIEWS FOR MARCH

I promised last week that I’d whip through the rest of PREVIEWS this week, so let’s have it. This will cover everything in the catalog aside from Marvel and Dark Horse.

DC starts with a trade paperback collection of the first five issues of Paul Dini’s DETECTIVE COMICS run (as well as the one fill-in issue). Titled simply BATMAN: DETECTIVE, the book will run you $15. Dini’s stories are all nifty done-in-ones, featuring top notch villains such as the Penguin, the Riddler, Poison Ivy, and more.

Fans of The King can ogle JACK KIRBY’S FOURTH WORLD OMNIBUS, the first of a new oversized hardcover collection of Kirby’s legendary 1970s series. Each will cost $50 for nearly 400 pages of full color comics, presented in original chronological order.

SGT. ROCK: THE PROPHECY is a collection of Joe Kubert’s six-part mini-series in softcover form. It’s $18, and well worth it for 144 pages of Kubert’s beautiful war art.

WILDSTORM FINE ARTS: SPOTLIGHT ON J. SCOTT CAMPBELL is the follow-up to the recent comic featuring the works of Jim Lee. I enjoyed that one a lot for the honest annotations done for the art by Lee, as well as the selection of pages the book included. I hope to see much of the same in this one, from the artist who started out on GEN13 and has come a long way since. It’s $3.50 for 40 pages.

Image is once again drowning in trade paperback collections, and I mean that in a good way. BUCKY O’HARE AND THE TOAD MENACE, CASANOVA, COMMON FOE, THE CROSS BRONX, THE WALKING DEAD Volume 2 HC, PHONOGRAM, INVINCIBLE Volume 8, and Richard Starkings’ ELEPHANTMAN: WOUNDED ANIMALS HC. Pretty nice lineup.

I would be remiss, though, if I didn’t give a nod to TEXAS STRANGERS #1, a new mini-series on-going series (!) drawn by a Belgian artist, Mario Boon. Gotta love that! Antony Johnston (author of far too many Oni minis and OGNs to count, I think) and Dan Evans III write it. It’s a western tale with magic, as twin sisters twin siblings have an all ages adventures. It’s done in a cartoonier style, and it looks cool.

One of the few good things Wizard does is their “Director’s Cut” features, where they present panels from a recent big mini-series or comic and talk to the creators about it. The ABSOLUTE BATMAN: HUSH edition reprinted one of those, as I recall. WIZARD EXTRA is a $20 trade paperback collecting those segments from “Hush” as well as ASTONISHING X-MEN, IDENTITY CRISIS, and more. George Perez, Brad Meltzer, David Finch, Brian Bendis, and more are all part of this. If you’re like me and skip the magazine on a monthly basis, here’s a good chance to get some of the good parts of it, without paying for the excessive frat humor.

About Comics once again gives us a 24-HOUR COMICS DAY trade paperback, with highlights from 2006’s big event. The black and white 256 page package is just $12.

Checker Book Publishing gives us more CrossGen with a collection of my favorite series from there. SCION Volume 6: THE ROYAL WEDDING gives us issues #34-39 for $16. That’s by Ron Marz and Jimmy Cheung, whose art you’re likely just now seeing at Marvel in the ILLUMINATI mini-series, or perhaps from YOUNG AVENGERS. Yes, folks, he was just as good a couple of years before that.

Dynamite Entertainment is collecting the six issue LONE RANGER series into one nice hardcover for $25 in March. It’s been a good read thus far, though a bit frustratingly quick to read. I think putting it all together into one book will be a big help for the overall story.

IDW brings out CSI: DYING THE GUTTERS as a trade paperback in March, hot on the heels of the final issue of the mini-series being released last week. This is the Steven Grant-penned epic tale of the death of Rich Johnston. Yes, it’s all very incestuous to this web site, I know. I should explode just for mentioning it here, but I’m looking forward to reading it now for just $20.

THE COMPLETE MIKE GRELL’S JON SABLE Volume 6 has to be mentioned here, because it includes the issue drawn by Sergio Aragones. No, that’s not a typo. I miss the wild and crazy days of the independent 80s sometimes. . .

Oni Press is collecting the first batch of Antony Johnston (him again?!?) and Chris Mitten’s WASTELAND into one trade paperback for $12. This is the post-apocalyptic science fiction/fantasy tale set on a dry Earth that I originally reviewed last June. The trade is titled “Cities in Dust.”

WONTON SOUP is a new graphic novel that sounds like something straight out of the back catalog of a manga publisher. No, it’s from Oni. It’s the story of a culinary star turned trucker who must win a cook-off years later to save the galaxy. Or something like that. It’s just crazy enough to work. James Stakoe is the creator on this one, which will run 200 pages for $12.

That’s it for PREVIEWS for this month. Next month: Even fewer column inches devoted to it! I still haven’t given up hope on doing a Pipeline PREVIEWS podcast, either, folks. Stay tuned. . .

Don’t forget to look for this week’s Pipeline Podcast later tonight. I’ll be back next Tuesday for the 501st edition of the column.


Once again, here are the links to my MySpace page and my ComicSpace page.

My blog, Various and Sundry is refocused for the new year, and I hope you’ll all give it another look. I’m working on less link dumps and more full scale write-ups. I’ve discussed the so-called second season of television, Meat Loaf’s life performance on New Year’s Eve, NBC’s Poker After Dark, the new GREASE reality series, 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 700 columns are archived here at CBR and you can get to them from the Pipeline Archive page. They’re sorted chronologically.

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