Pipeline: Pipeline, Issue #311

Tue, May 27th, 2003 at 12:00am PDT

Comic Books
Augie De Blieck Jr., Columnist

FALLING BEHIND

It's all too easy to fall behind on monthly comics these days.

The allure of the complete stories told in original graphic novels and trade paperbacks is too great and takes up too much time. This week, I read HULK/WOLVERINE: 6 HOURS, BATTLE ROYALE Volume1, and ORBITER, for example.

Storylines that continue for four to six months because they're being packaged for trade paperbacks create comics that aren't nearly as interesting to read from month to month as they once were. Compare an issue of Chris Claremont's UNCANNY X-MEN to an issue of X-TREME X-MEN, currently in the middle of a four part storyline, having recently completed a six-parter.

This is the biggest problem. Stories today aren't written for the serialized audience. They're written for the bookstores and for the trade paperback compilations. Companies jump through hoops to preserve the integrity of the trade. They're limiting where double-page splashes can go. They chop out the letters column to include a text page to explain the storyline thus far. They have authors pad out stories to fill more issues to make a thicker trade.

Where's the momentum, anymore? It's lost. I don't have the same drive to read comics from month to month as I used to have. It's not a financial issue. They're just not entertaining enough in that fashion anymore. Nobody writes a serial for the sake of the reader. Instead, the monthly readers are the means to the end of the trade paperback and the bookstore shelves. Comics don't tell complete stories anymore. If you miss an issue somewhere along the line, you're out of luck. You've just missed a crucial part of a storyline. It also happens too often that issues feel like filler because they're telling the middle of the overall story arc, and aren't concerned with being exciting in their own right. The trade is more important, anyway, right?

We hear all the time about people who are buying a given comic based on inertia or momentum. They're not entertained by the comic anymore, but they don't want to give up their complete runs, or they believe that someone new will come along any day now to bring the book back to its former glory. I'm not defending those people, but they would seem to be a lost opportunity for many comics. If you can re-energize that base, you'll generate a lot of positive publicity for that title immediately, just by word of mouth.

The thing is, momentum is important in monthly serialized comics. It can get you by a bad issue. It also keeps readers coming back for more month after month. Any "jumping-on point" is also a good "jumping-off point." It's the start of something new. It's also the end of something old. But the fans don't jump off, now do they? That's momentum carrying them through. That's being lost in this new age.

We're treading in tricky waters right now, between the serialized comic format, and the comic book format. Until the next big bubble burst, it seems that the book format is the way to go. It makes more economic sense. It can even compete with movies and videogames. Some decisions need to be made soon, and those decisions will tick off large numbers of people, either way. How long do we hold onto the monthly format of comics before finally giving up the illusion that we're holding onto serialization?

We're at the point now where a 22-page read isn't very satisfying. Is 22 pages enough? It's certainly short enough to read a story without having to stop for a bathroom break. On the other hand, it's starting to feel less satisfying with each passing month. There aren't too many writers left who can tell a single-issue story. Those that do tell those stories end up looking like geniuses.

Here's the trap that I fall into too often: A new mini-series or story arc begins. It's six issues long. I read the first part eagerly, anxious to see what direction the creators are going to take and to see how the story "feels." Plus, since it's something new, it has potential to become grist for the Pipeline mill. When the second issue comes out, the first one is still fresh in my mind. I probably wrote a review of the first part, so I've read it a couple of times and can carry right on through. By the third issue, I'm less excited about the mini-series. No matter how much I'm enjoying it, it just slides down my list of stuff to read. The fourth issue comes out before I've read the third, and now I have to budget time to read both issues together. If I'm not, I've already forgotten the first two parts and now I'm just waiting for the conclusion to read them all together, or the inevitable trade. Why? The story isn't structured to appeal to someone reading a book every month. It sags in the middle. It loses momentum. It's formatted not for a monthly 22-pages-at-a-time read, but for a 132 page saga down the road under one cover.

I've got a long box right now filled with mini-series and story arcs that I haven't finished reading yet. I have occasional fits of manic reading energy that help me to fight through the box, but that doesn't stave off the creature for long.

When I come home with my weekly bag of comics, I immediately sort it into two stacks. The first is all the books that I'm caught up on and can remember well enough to read right that very minute. The second stack is all the middle-issues of mini-series or series that I've fallen behind on. I'm getting better and better about keeping that second stack low, but it's always there.

I'm also getting smarter about my comics purchases. I've yanked a number of titles off my pull list, in favor of their inevitable trades. Those are mostly Marvel books, like INCREDIBLE HULK, THE PUNISHER, UNCANNY X-MEN, and NEW X-MEN. I'm not going to fight it anymore. I've also eliminated some series that I've either fallen behind on or that I just don't care about that much anymore: CAPTAIN AMERICA, ROBIN, THE AUTHORITY, and BATMAN ADVENTURES, to name a few.

So it is that my bookshelves have overflowed with far too many spines for far too little shelf space. My long boxes are still filling up, but not nearly as fast as they once did. And those little manga books (LONE WOLF AND CUB, BATTLE ROYALE, LUPIN III) are going to require lots more little shelves...

I do believe that monthly serialized comics have a place in the grand scheme of comics' future. I just don't think enough companies or their creators realize that right now. They're in a blind rush to hit Borders and Barnes and Noble. I think that's a mistake that will backfire.

CATCHING UP WITH CROSSGEN

There's another way to lose track of a comic. It's another form of momentum. It's "company momentum," and that comes straight from CrossGen. I'm on their comp list. Once a month, I receive a big package with all their monthly titles. It's a wonderful thing. Purist collectors out there would probably be shocked to learn the way they get shipped. It's just a stack of comics in a plain manilla-type envelope. There's no padding. No peanuts. No rolled up newspapers to fill out the package. It's just a stack of comics that usually have folded corners by the time they arrive at my door. Several times, the envelopes have even had small rips at the corners. eBay buyers would go nuts to see this.

But, hey, free comics. They're perfectly readable. There's nothing wrong with them.

The problem is that the momentum is gone. Instead of picking up two or three CrossGen books a week, I'm getting none of them for a month, and then all of them on the same day. It also happens occasionally that the comp list loses an issue here and there. So far, it's only happened twice and FORGE or EDGE have filled the gaps in beautifully. (More on that in a bit.)

This week, I sat down with a pile of CrossGen books and caught up on a number of series. Let's take a look at some of those.

[Scion #29]Scion #27-34: SCION is my favorite of the original launch titles. It's held my interest the most since the beginning. The work that Ron Marz and Jimmy Cheung have done over three years of this title is nothing short of momentous.

You can see the strength of the CrossGen line in this title alone. What started out as a "little" war between nations has grown over the course of 34 issues. The characters come first, set against a strong plot and a visually dynamic environment. There's enough breathing room for the characters to evolve, while at the same time enough action and plot twists to keep the reader's interest. The romance between Ashleigh and Ethan isn't forced. Marz has been able to devote enough space to it to make it feel real. In another company's line, the race to push the story along would have come at the loss of this pivotal relationship. Heaven forbid, you might have wound up with the sort of romance you saw developed between Anakin and Padme in the most recent STAR WARS movie. How many people want to see that again? Ick.

This group of issues has done a lot to further that relationship along, allowing the two to talk about where their relationship is going and where it has come from. It's also added more depth and complexity to the series, which is already wrapped up in a multi-part war with ever-changing alliances and new parties added to the fray.

The next SCION trade should collect issues #28-33, which is mostly about furthering the romance, but also introducing the new world of Tigris, a super society that hides a nasty little secret. ("If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.") As Ethan and Ashleigh realize that their new little kingdom will require protection, they field a great offer from the people of Tigris, but wind up with more than they bargained for. Meanwhile, everything is shot to hell back in the Heron and Raven homelands, as Bron makes his return and King Dane makes a fateful decision. The plots are logical and thoughtful. They had no problem holding my attention. Ron Marz is doing the best work of his career with this title. SCION is a magnificent read.

If there's one shortcoming to this run of issues, it's that Jimmy Cheung's art is absent for most of it. In fact, he only drew two of all these issues. Jim Fern (and a variety of inkers) drew the rest, but it pales by comparison. Fern's characters look uncomfortable much of the time, and his style isn't as close a match to Cheung's as, say, Paul Ryan's is to Butch Guice's on RUSE. It's not bad art, necessarily. It just doesn't hold the same crisp line that Cheung's does.

There are four SCION trades available now and the next one should be out later this summer or early in the fall. If you like the look of a medieval world, mixed with strong characterization and high stakes, this is the book for you.

[Crux #19]Crux #19-24: Chuck Dixon's series looks as brilliant as ever under the guiding pencil of Steve Epting, who's doing the work of his career here. Unfortunately, it's the story that's falling short right now.

One generalization about CrossGen books that you can make is that they all pay attention to backgrounds. There are two page spreads in books dedicated to showing off a building, a town, or a cavernous ruin. None of them are lacking, either. From pencils to inks and colors, they're show-stoppers. With this run of CRUX, Epting draws western ghost towns, the ruins of Atlantic, and some remarkable skyscrapers of futuristic Los Angeles over the course of six issues.

Dixon's story meanders too much, however. While it starts off strongly with a western theme, he's busy tying together plot lines from the entire run of the book, while spinning different groups of characters off into their own plots. It gets particularly bothersome with Thraxis. Now off on his own, the creature gets a couple of pages each month devoted to fighting random creatures and wandering about. The series comes to a dead standstill whenever he appears on-panel. If he doesn't tie back into the main plot soon, it's going to be very bothersome.

Mark Waid started this title as a superhero team cast as a science-fiction/fantasy story. It worked really well, particularly in the character interactions and their motivations. I'm not so sure it works that strongly anymore. Dixon has written the kind of stories he likes to write, with westerns, a Conan homage of sorts, and now a World War II dogfight. I'm just afraid it doesn't add up to enough. Without the team interacting together, the series threatens to become an anthology series.

At the same time, though, there is a compelling major storyline right now with dissention amongst the ranks of the Atlanteans. What do you do when you have a split from the inside that threatens to rip apart everything you've been working for since reawakening from a 100,000 year slumber? Things seem to be coming to a head in that department by the end of issue #24, but the main characters are still so spread out that it's tough to follow it all.

One odd thing about this run: I was missing CRUX #20, but thankfully had the issue of FORGE that it appeared in. After reading one issue in that smaller page size, reading a regular-sized comic feels like opening up a coffee table book. The art looks much larger than it actually is, and your eye picks up details you never noticed before. I think the smaller size might help out those who think that CrossGen books aren't dense enough. At a smaller size, there appears to be more going on with each page. Maybe those Traveler-sized books will have the unintended consequence of making the material look more dense. That could be a good thing for some people.

Still, if ever there was a book from CrossGen that cries out to be reprinted in a nice oversized hardcover edition, it would be this one. I'd pay the extra money to see Steve Epting's art in full glorious detail.

[Negation #13]Negation #11-16: I watched STAR TREK: NEMESIS on DVD the other day. It was a frustrating experience. The kind of special effects they did for that movie can be done today on the small screen with limited CGI work. The story they told was almost cookie cutter to everything Trek has become in the past decade of its limping life. I kept hoping for something a little nastier and a little dirtier. I didn't feel like there was any danger for the characters, and I didn't think that Picard's bold gambit was anything that hasn't been done in Trek movies multiple times already.

Then there's NEGATION. It's everything STAR TREK could be, if it chose another path. It has the bold new worlds and new civilizations. It has the human at the center of it with a mission and a sense of morality. Unlike TREK, NEGATION is unpredictable and more sprawling. The main cast features a team of aliens from all over the universe with various powers, not all of which are fully understood or utilized yet. The stakes are as high as they come. It's about returning home, yes, but it's just as much about survival and doing whatever it takes to live another day in the hopes of getting home. There's a sense that anything might happen from issue to issue. Oftentimes, it has. The death toll on this series has been as high as anything I've read in comics in recent years. Writer Tony Bedard isn't afraid to shake things up, and his characters are just unpredictable enough to make for exciting stories that aren't fait d'accomplis.

The bulk of the current storyline is the attempt to rescue the slightly-stronger-than-usual baby Memi from the villainous Negation. In the attempt to save the kid, we have a daring space rescue (with one coincidentally similar event to what happened in NEMESIS), double-dealing, desperate scrambles, ruthless villains, and surprising alliances. This book is as unpredictable as they come, and Bedard pulls it all off intelligently. It works because Bedard doesn't have any strings of continuity or decades-old rules and logic to work against him. By creating something out of whole cloth, he can create a fascinating world.

Paul Pelletier is the regular artist on the series. He has the unenviable task of creating dozens of alien species, keeping them all straight, and handling spaceship battles all around them. His art might look bubbly and friendly, but there's a sinister streak to it that subverts reader's expectations. Credit also has to go to inker Dave Meikis and colorist James Rochelle for that.

Issue #15 was a "Key Issue," and works well as one. Bedard keeps the story simple, focusing on the battle between Obregon Kaine his nemesis, trapped on a hostile alien world away from everyone else. There's enough caption work in the issue to explain what's going on, and enough character work to make the story interesting.

There is a plot thread or two from CRUX that crosses over into this book, but it's explained as you go so it shouldn't throw you completely off from the book. And while CRUX may sometime cross into NEGATION, it never happens in reverse, which is a little odd.

In the end, NEGATION is a book that's holding its own in the CrossGen line, providing science fiction fans a new outlet in the world of comics.

[Way of the Rat #18]Way of the Rat #7-11: This series comes off much better than Chuck Dixon's other book, CRUX. Things are much tighter here. The plot doesn't meander as much. There are a lot of characters with a lot of secrets, but they all confine themselves to the main plot. Whereas the first storyline was completely centered on protagonist and thief Boon Sai Hong, this second storyline features a more ensemble cast, with Boon and monkey pal, Po Po, in the middle of the madness. They all relate directly back to the main plot, though, which is something that CRUX doesn't appear to be doing as strongly right now.

WAY OF THE RAT is one of the strangest action/adventure pieces I've ever read. It's disguised as a martial arts flick, but it's more than just that. It's an all-out action series that happens to feature characters who can punch and kick. It has a wicked comedic streak to it, mostly embodied by the sharp-tongued Po Po. Boon and Po Po form one of the funniest pairings in all of comics today. The chemistry is natural between the wizened elder and the impetuous youth.

This is one CrossGen book that is definitely not losing any of its steam over the course of its eventual second trade paperback. The second storyline is just as strong as the first without being repetitious. It flows logically from the first. This one centers on a threat from within, but features all the all-out madness and threat that we've come to expect after the first storyline. WAY OF THE RAT is the dark horse favorite of the CrossGen line. While movies all over are going for wire fu and martial arts fighting, WAY OF THE RAT is carving out its own niche, blending some of those techniques in with a book that feels like an actual period piece, but isn't.

Jeff Johnson may use his martial arts knowledge to inform his art, but everything else about the book looks just as good. He has the Asian architecture looking authentic. He's not afraid to draw large landscapes and detailed buildings. He can stage action to be dramatic, and he draws expressive characters. This book is much more personal and centered than some of the other universe-spanning and world-spanning titles from CrossGen. Johnson's gift for subtlety in showing emotions isn't quite up there with Kevin Maguire's, but some of his faces share certain traits with that great artist.

One trade is already available, collecting the first six issues of the series. The second should be out in a few months. I think it's the best action piece that CrossGen has published to date. This title is fast becoming a cult hit, and deservedly so.

Next week: I should be attending the Philadelphia Wizard World convention on Friday. Look for a report back on that in this space next Tuesday. Next Friday is also the return of Pipeline Previews. I'll be taking a look at the books scheduled for August 2003 in that column. It's a busy week ahead.

Various and Sundry had a very busy week, above and beyond the finale of AMERICAN IDOL. It also has reviews of the BUFFY finale and the new Weird Al Yankovic CD. There are thoughts on MATRIX RELOADED, Annika Sorenstam, the Fall 2003 TV lineup, M. Night Shyamalan's next movie, 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.

Somewhere around 500 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.

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