Pipeline: Pipeline, Issue #276

Tue, September 24th, 2002 at 12:00am PDT

Comic Books
Augie De Blieck Jr., Columnist

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EDEN'S TRAIL

[Eden's Trail]If you like the colors yellow, orange, and brown, then you're going to flip for Marvel's forthcoming EDEN'S TRAIL. It's the yellowest/orangest/brownest comic I've ever read.

If you haven't seen the solicitations information for it yet, EDEN'S TRAIL is a new six issue Marvel mini-series from Steve Uy and Chuck Austen. It's done in the Marvelscope format, and tells the story of -- well, I don't know who, exactly. We'll get to that in just a bit.

It's a western/science fiction mix that have many already making comparisons to the TRIGUN anime. Although I've only ever seen one episode of that show, I'd have to say that the resemblances are merely superficial. The cover shows a guy with a long jacket and a gun. Big whoop.

There's also been some talk about how the book is stealing from MERIDIAN, based on its original PREVIEWS write-up. I can tell you right now that the first issue has absolutely no resemblance to the CrossGen series.

The book is beautiful. I have full color printouts of the first issue from Marvel to base this review on. Even as a copy of the comic that was just printed out from the computer at Marvel, it's a beautiful looking book. UDON have outdone themselves in color-keying this issue, giving everything a cohesive look with their usual soft coloring style. They've also done nice work on the forthcoming XIN book from Harris Comics, but that's a review for another column.

Whoops. I've just been informed that Steve Uy colored the book himself. UDON had nothing to do with it, as a quick look at the credits on the dotcomics version of the comic would show. My apologies to Uy. UDON still did a great job on XIN, though. ;-)

Steve Uy's art is everything you could ask for in the book. In addition to telling the story easily and using clear and consistent character designs, Uy uses the format of the book to his best advantage. There are no dull panel layouts in this book. It's not a simple two-tier layout, but does move to that where it works. Uy smartly chooses panel widths to guide the eye through the reading process, which is a tricky thing to do with a landscape-formatted book such as this. It's also necessary to keeping the reader clued in. Take a look at what Butch Guice does on RUSE, for example. The panels that just make it past the fold between the pages is what is used to guide the eye across the pages and then down them. On the other hand, Michael Avon Oeming's POWERS layouts (or are they Bendis'?), are a bit more tricky. I'm not always sure whether I'm reading a two page or single page layout until it's too late. Uy makes sure the gutters alternate to bring the eye in the right direction at all times.

I'd love to scan in some of the pages from the book to show you here, but I'm afraid any scanning job I do at 72 dpi won't bring out the full beauty of the book. Most of the book is available from Marvel's dotcomics program, though. It stops short of the entire issue by only a small number of pages. It's also a bit of a pain to read on-line. The long and tall panels mean that the Flash player has to pan up and across certain panels. The reading experience is far from ideal for this dotcomic, but it'll give you an idea of what to expect.

If you don't have Flash availability, or just don't want to wait for the download on your dial-up connection, then trust me when I tell you that EDEN'S TRAIL is the best looking comic book that Marvel is putting out this fall. It's a great example of the modern comics creation process, where artist and colorist work in perfect synergy.

The biggest question about the book remains the story. The first issue is a tense barroom standoff with an explosive ending. It's a nice piece of action storytelling. My problem is that I don't know who the lead character is. There are at least a half-dozen characters named in the book, and any of four of them might be the lead characters. As it stands, perspectives shift so often in the book that I'm not sure if the star of the book is the barkeeper, the sharpshooter, the sheriff, or the over-the-top one-dimensional bad guy. I'm hoping that gets cleared up in the next issue.

The first issue is due out in November, and was solicited in last month's edition of PREVIEWS. Ask your retailer to order it today. You have a couple of weeks before their orders are due for EDEN'S TRAIL #1.

There's another issue at work here, beyond just the comic. It's the marketing of the comic. Marvel advance solicited the book, meaning that the first issue showed up in two consecutive PREVIEWS catalogs. Then, most of the first issue was given away for free on Marvel's web site to give people a taste of what the book is about. Even after that, readers still have two weeks to let their retailer know what they think of the book. This kind of openness and public information campaign is the kind of thing that will promote good word of mouth and increase sales for quality books such as this. It's fair to the fans and the retailers, both, who have a better idea of what they're getting into before the series debut is even ordered.

Let's use this as an example to reward Marvel for its marketing strategy, as well.

LETTERS! WE GET LETTERS! NOT ANYMORE...

DC's editors have officially killed the letters column.

Eleven years ago, I began letterhacking. It was a great way to vent my opinions on the various comics I was reading at the time. In lieu of the internet, writing letters was the way to do it. Plus, the egoboost from seeing your name in print is intoxicating, although it wears off more quickly than you might imagine.

Nevertheless, ten years ago there were letters columns. Real letters columns. DC had two page columns at the time printed in a decent font: black lettering on a plain white background. It looked like a newspaper and had an air of credibility to it. The editors answered the letters personally and took interest in what the writers had to say. You had interesting columns that developed over time to reflect individual personalities. Remember the columns for JLI/JLA, or SUICIDE SQUAD, or even STAR TREK? Involved editors, interested writers, great letters columns.

Over the past decade, DC has slowly sucked the life out of their letters columns. By sheer laziness, their editorial staff has doomed the art of the letters column. Gone are the editors who printed critical letters and responded to them in print. Gone are the editors who took the time to put together two page columns. Gone are the editors who gave a damn about the letters columns.

The last excuse I want to hear is that it's a time drain and that editors are too busy today. It's never been easier. Most letterhacking is done via e-mail. The editors -- or their assistants -- no longer need to engage in the tedious process of retyping snail mail into a format suitable for print, with the potential for typos that went with it. All they have to do is pick a few good letters, compose a few good responses, and they're done. How much time should that take?

Answer: Not nearly as much time as the editors of ten years ago spent. The work is minimal and the reward is high.

Instead, it's gotten to the point where editors just patrol the DC Universe message boards for comments and reprint them in the letters column, complete with asinine-sounding AOL handles. Gone is the sense of community, replaced with a contest on the internet message board.

A chicken-and-egg argument might be made here. I've heard from more than one editor who has complained about the lack of intelligent letters being written for their letters columns. Quite honestly, I'm certain it's one of the reasons for my own letterhacking success. In the land of the blind, the one eyed man is king and all that. On the flip side, one has to wonder how much excitement it generates for a literate letterhack to write in to a column filled with barely-cogent chicken scratch. Like attracts like, and it's one of the reasons for the successes of the letters columns of a decade or more ago.

There's an argument floating around that says the internet has taken the place of the letters column. It ignores one important point: Not everyone is on the internet. In a day and age when it seems like the number of blogs and message boards equals the readership of certain titles (think SUPERBOY or MIDNIGHT MASS here), it's an easy assumption to make. You'd be surprised how many people aren't actively participating on the on-line comics movement. There are even people -- professionals, included -- who choose not to have internet access, or even a computer. To say that letters columns are an anachronism is to spit in the faces of those who don't spend their spare time surfing the web.

Marvel may very well adopt this as their official policy next. It wouldn't surprise me. The loss won't be quite as great, though, because Marvel has never had great across-the-board letters columns. While there have been a few scattered highlights, they've traditionally been banal, particularly in the last 6 or 8 years. They very rarely made two page columns, and those seem to have been done to give creative teams on X-Books a one page break on their deadlines. Slowly, though, Marvel has eliminated the letters columns from many of its titles. They haven't made an official statement on this yet, but don't be surprised to see them cop to it in a future phone conference.

To see what letters columns are all about, you have to go to the independent section of your comic book shelf. Brian Bendis has a silly and mostly inane letters column in POWERS, but it's entertaining. (I wish he'd stop cheating and reprinting on-line news stories, though. After all, isn't that useless in a day and age when letters columns are unnecessary since everyone has internet access?) Erik Larsen has been running long rambling letters columns since the very first issues of THE SAVAGE DRAGON. When he didn't have letters yet on the first issue, he wrote a text page. Remember the days when editors would write a page or two of text for the first couple of issues of a series? Today's editors don't seem too anxious to do that. Slap another useless house ad into the back of the book, instead. Give us the same stock image of the same overhyped piece of crap that's being released next.

I understand Dave Sim is back to doing letters columns in CEREBUS again. His columns throughout much of the past 20 years are models upon which the rest of the industry should base their own. The CEREBUS letters columns did in their day what the Warren Ellis Forum did in its own. It was a strong sense of community and activism for Getting Things Done.

Now DC has done away with theirs. Truth be told, I'm not all that upset. If anything, it's a mercy killing. Put the things out of their misery. It's obvious that very few people over there have cared in recent years. There might very well be higher orders from up the food chain at DC to not give a damn. That wouldn't surprise me, either. I'll be very interested in seeing what the replacement informational page looks like. Will it be like DC's last attempt to make their editors look like stars, in lieu of any star creators? Will it be rehashed material from PREVIEWS? Will there be anything interesting in there? Will the pages have any character, like you used to see with the "Meanwhile…" pages?

I'm not very hopeful.

In fact, what would be the point in reprinting promotional material that would most likely be easily found on the 'net, through DC's web site or any of a dozen comic book news sites? Aren't all of DC's readers already on the web? Isn't that one of the reasons that letters columns are dead?

It's a shame.

A couple of people have asked how this would affect me. To tell you the truth, it won't. I'm semi-retired from letterhacking at the moment. I don't think I've written more than a dozen letters of comment all year, and most of those went to THE SAVAGE DRAGON, which I don't even write to every month anymore. After a decade of doing it, I could use the break. Like I said at the top, I can work all of that critical stuff out of my system through this column.

I have to wonder, though, if part of my antipathy towards letters columns right now doesn't come from the way they've been so badly mishandled in the past few years. There are so very few exciting ones that I don't want to bother with most of them anymore.

Perhaps this will just be a phase. Maybe this will join the chorus of "noble" failures in an attempt to be more modern, such as Marvel's mixed-case lettering. Change for change's sake can't win in the end, can it?

We'll see.

My blogger is up and running at VariousAndSundry.com. Click over there for thoughts on recent DVD purchases, the Emmys, and more things that would be off-topic here.

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 400 columns are archived here at CBR and you can get to them from the Pipeline Archive page. They're sorted chronologically. The first 100 columns or so are still available at the Original Pipeline page, a simply coded piece of HTML.

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