THIS MONTH, WE START IN THE MIDDLE
Welcome back to Pipeline Previews, looking at the highlights of what Diamond is offering to comic book stores for the month of March 2004. As always, I highly recommend giving an issue a flip through on your own and pre-ordering what you want to buy. It's the best way to ensure you get a copy.
This month, for a change, I thought I'd start with a look at the back half of the catalog first. Down at the end, I'll talk a little about Marvel's latest attempt at creating a line-within-a-line, the so-called MARVEL AGE books.
I said on Tuesday that this would be a relatively short column. I was sorely mistaken.
I remember the first PREVIEWS I picked up. It had JOHN BYRNE'S NEXT MEN on the cover and was a relatively modest black and white squarebound publication. Cover images were few and far beween and everything was listed alphabetically by publisher. I'm not sure, but I think the adult material may have been still mixed in with it, and not separated into its own publication.
The first publisher was Aardvark Vanaheim. CEREBUS was the first book listed in PREVIEWS for years until the Distributor Wars began, exclusives were signed, and the big companies took over control of the front of the magazine. More than a decade later, CEREBUS is still the first publisher listed, but it's the first of the "rest" of the publishers.
This month, CEREBUS #300 is solicited for shipment in March 2004. Time flies. I dabbled in CEREBUS a bit in the early 1990s and found some entertainment in it, but not enough to keep going. Loved the art, but the story was too far along for me to comprehend all of it. The phone books were outside of my price range at the time, so it just had to wait for sometime in the future. I've read and enjoyed the first couple of those, now, and I imagine someday I'll want to continue with them.
300 issues of an independent self-published comic book is a remarkable feat of the highest order. Congratulations to Dave Sim for sticking to something in a world that doesn't often reward such dedication. The second half of the saga may have sparked its own set of controversies, but the title, itself, has always been a focal point for self-publishers and indie artists, particularly so in the pre-internet era.
I might just pick up issue #300 out of curiosity. I'm not too worried about spoilers. After all, we all know Cerebus is going to die alone and unmourned. Don't we?
Working their way up to Aardvark Vanaheim is AiT/PlanetLar, which celebrates its fifth anniversary in this month's catalog. They're just soliciting DEMO #5 for March, but you can see the face of the company in their ad this month. There's Larry Young, Mimi Rosenheim, and Ryan Yount standing in front of bookshelves filled with more trade paperbacks and hardcovers than you can shake a stick at. I'm just jealous of the long bookshelves. I have a bookcase that stands about 7 feet tall and 5 feet wide and I'm out of space. Someday, I'll own a big house with an extra room or two for the library. Sadly, the lottery is not in the habit of granting my fondest dreams.
And speaking of series reaching their conclusions, BONE hits its grand finale with the publication of CROWN OF HORNS, the hardcover compilation of the series final storyline. It's 184 pages for $25. I'm planning on filling in the rest of my hardcover collection of the series and then reading it straight through. BONE started to get a little continuity heavy there as it neared the end. The days of the Great Cow Race were looking further and further behind. BONE, as I recall, got a big boost in the back of an issue of CEREBUS a decade ago. I started reading it at issue #5, thanks to Don Thompson's recommendation in THE COMICS BUYER'S GUIDE. I think a lot of people heard about the book there first, too. Congratulations to Jeff Smith for making such a splash in this industry at a time when everyone else was busy with the spectacle of the speculator boom.
Fantagraphics kicks off with what could be the book of the year, saleswise. It's THE COMPLETE PEANUTS, VOLUME 1. This hardcover collects all the strips in chronological order from the years 1950 to 1952. Somehow, someone kept archives of even the earliest strips and now we can all read them (again) for the first time. It's $29 for 352 black and white pages, which is not bad at all.
By the time I started reading the funny pages, many people argue that Schulz was past his prime. By the time the strip ended, I have to admit that I didn't find much to laugh about anymore. There were some shining moments, particularly when Schulz would honor the veterans or Snoopy would have some sort of writer's block, but it all seemed so repetitious to me in the end. Now I'm curious to see what the fuss is about the strip's earliest days.
Of course, I should get through the COMPLETE FAR SIDE tome first. I need more hours in the day. Back to playing the lottery, I guess.
I reviewed BLACKSAD, Volume 1 here earlier this week. I'm happy to point out that a second story is coming from iBooks in March. It's listed on page 296. There's an additional 8 pages to this volume, which will run you $12.95. I think it's worth it. It has beautiful artwork and a storyline that's reverent to its genre.
Lewis Trondheim produces an odd assortment of comics. NBM, thankfully, is more than happy to keep presenting them here in America. This time around we have MR. O VOLUME 1. It's a collection of one page silent gags starring a character in the shape of the letter "O". It's just a bizarre enough description to win my $12.95. It's in the 9x12 inch hardcover format.
Oni Press gives us another dose of QUEEN AND COUNTRY with the fifth volume collecting the series, OPERATION STORMFRONT. These are the issues drawn by Carla Speed McNeil. The hardcover is $30 on this go-around, which is a 152 page volume. The softcover is available at the same time for $15.
TokyoPop's bizarre entry for March is BATTLE VIXENS, Volume 1. Can this be anything like "Chicks With Sticks?" Let us hope not. Here's the opening of the description: "A young girl named Hakufu Sonsaku has a burning desire to beat people up but her mother has forbidden it."
Now that's good parenting. Sorta.
It's a four part series at $10 a pop, if you're into that kind of thing.
BACK ISSUE magazine hits its third installment with a theme of funny comics. The highlight here is an interview with Keith Giffen, J.M. DeMatteis, and Kevin Maguire talking about their original JUSTICE LEAGUE run.
COMIC BOOK ARTIST #3 counters with a feature on Darwyn Cooke, whose upcoming NEW FRONTIER book for DC looks gorgeous.
OK, one more: WRITE NOW! goes with Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale for their cover. Chuck Dixon and John Jackson Miller also appear in the issue.
We haven't had this many good comics magazines in this industry in more than a decade. I long for the days of AMAZING HEROES and COMICS INTERVIEW and even COMICS SCENE.
AND THE FRONT THE HALF. . .
Dark Horse has a birthday present for me this year. On March 3rd, they're releasing B.P.R.D.: A PLAGUE OF FROGS #1, the first of a five-issue story by Mike Mignola with art by Guy Davis. This one brings out characters back to the plot elements of the first trade, complete with frogs a plenty. If Mignola doesn't have time to draw HELLBOY, I'm more than happy to see more Davis artwork. He's an amazing artist who goes woefully underappreciated.
Frank Miller and Will Eisner have a discussion. Dark Horse transcribes it, puts it together with a lot of illustrations, and sells it to you in softcover full color book for $20. I have no idea when I'll find the time to read it, but it's a fascinating idea. This is an advanced solicitation. The book isn't due out until the end of April.
DC has TEEN TITANS #9 drawn by Teen Titans favorite, Tom Grummett, with a funny cover featuring Impulse driving the Batmobile. Be afraid.
Interesting trades in March include the second volume of THE MAXX, the collection of the recent FORMERLY KNOWN AS THE JUSTICE LEAGUE mini-series, and RELOAD/MEK, collecting two of Warren Ellis' mini-series. RELOAD wasn't bad, but I haven't read MEK yet. I successfully waited for the trade on that one.
Leonard Kirk is drawing H-E-R-O #14, proving he can't be tied down to any one book at a time. Two issues of JLA hit the shelves, starting the reunion of the Claremont/Byrne team. I can't wait for the next swipe DC takes at Marvel policies with one hand, while appropriating their successful ideas with the other.
Image continues the Kirkmania with INVINCIBLE, Volume 2, collecting issues #5-#8 of that deceptively light teen superhero yarn. Meanwhile, Kirkman's REAPER debuts as a 64 page one shot, featuring the art of Cliff Rathburn. This one features assassins, kung fu, action, and twists. That's enough for my $7, even in black and white.
Neil Vokes returns to Image with another black and white graphic novel. This one, THE BLACK FOREST, runs 96 pages in black and white for $10. This is a monsters and zombie story set in World War I Europe. The preview pages look just as beautiful as his work on PARLIAMENT OF JUSTICE.
THEN THERE WAS MARVEL
Marc Silvestri's run on WOLVERINE is mostly collected in WOLVERINE LEGENDS, Volume 6, come March. I remember those issues fondly. I wonder if they'll hold up at all ten years later? I believe they were reprinted already once in the ESSENTIALS volume, but this will be in full color for $20. The book contains 216 pages.
And the third volume of Walter Simonson THOR tales is coming also. 10 more issues for $25.
The most interesting solicitation for Marvel this month, though, is their new MARVEL AGE: SPIDER-MAN title. I never thought this thing would see the light of day in the post-Jemas world. Believe it or not, this is an Epic title. Sorta.
You see, Bill Jemas had bigger ideas for Epic above and beyond what the talent search might have led you to believe. The ability of the original Epic concept to create books with a low overhead meant that a greater variety of books could be produced. This included both the off-beat and the experimental. One of those experiments was a THOR project that would have been an anthology series. It's been discussed here and there across the 'net, so I'm not giving anything away there. The book had a high concept, and writers would be asked to write one-off stories to plug into that series. It had a political bent to it, but it allowed new ideas and new talent to come through.
Another idea is something that's now morphed itself into MARVEL AGE, recycling yet another old trademark for something completely different from what it meant ten years ago. The idea behind MARVEL AGE is to produce books aimed at the younger readers by new talent that could use the helpful hand of Stan Lee's original scripts to guide them. New writers could create one-off stories based on the early adventures of Spider-Man, Daredevil, and X-Men. (Those were the characters theorized last summer to me. I don't know if we'll see the latter two somewhere down the road or not.) The writer's goal would be to take the heart of one of those old stories, modernize it to today's setting, and make it completely all-ages appropriate. Each story stands on its own, so that it can be picked up and read and enjoyed, just like a coloring book or any children's story book might be. Keep your collector's mentality out of this. Don't ask silly questions about continuity. These comics would be available, appropriate, and economical for both the audience and the producers.
In my mind, the concept meant stripping out the on-going neverending subplots, reworking the dialogue, and giving the book a faster pace. Those Stan Lee stories hold up, but they're packed so tight that there's no breathing room. Kids today respond to faster paced things than kids 40 years ago did. Watch MTV. Watching anything on Saturday morning. I got a headache watching something as simple as the kiddie version of JUNKYWAR WARS once. That camera never sits still. Nothing against Stan and Steve, but those SPIDER-MAN stories drag in comparison to every other storytelling medium kids enjoy today.
The idea is a great one. I've been in my comics shop when a parent comes in with their child and asks about an appropriate Spider-Man or X-Men comic to give their kid. There's never too many options. There's a sad dearth of truly kid-friendly comics out there. When there is a good example, it's often a $10 or $20 trade paperback already, and not something a parent can just pick up on a whim for their kid. The future of comics might not be the little kids, but the fact that we don't have anything for them at all is disheartening. This is an attempt to help bridge that gap.
Kids comics don't sell well in comics shops because there aren't that many kids in them. Under the Epic production line, the costs to produce the material could be lower so the price point could be kept down and lower sales wouldn't make them unprofitable. Comics shops would have more material to sell to kids, and Marvel wouldn't lose its shirt in the process.
I know all of this because I talked with Bill Jemas about it all last summer. He invited me to try my hand at it. I discussed with him some of the issues I had with the concept, including giving proper credit to the works of Lee, Ditko, and Kirby. And judging by the credits in the solicitation this month for MARVEL AGE, they didn't ignore that issue. In any case, I gave it a go. I used AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #7 in my attempt. It's the first Electro appearance, and it contains about three issue's worth of storytelling in it, by today's standards. I worked to strip out the on-going romantic subplots (while not losing the feel of Peter Parker's issues with women) and heighten some of the action, while neutering some of the more violent bits, such as the prison break. I know the mere act of showing guns is considered repulsize by parents today, so I worked hard to get around it as much as possible without sacrificing the logic of the story.
To make a long story short, I never finished it and never submitted it. It was a great writing exercise. Analyzing a story like that page by page and panel by panel is something I'd recommend to any wannabe writer. I just realized it wasn't for me. As Jemas got quieter and the rumors started, I figured it was a dead concept anyway. I also realized that writing a comic script can be a deathly tedious process, and not something I enjoy all that much. You'll be spared from any writings from me outside this column for a while, I should think.
It looks like at least this one Jemas concept survived his departure, possibly because it wasn't all that well known or linked to him. I bet we won't see his name linked to this ever again, unless it tanks.
It also looks like the concept has morphed a bit. It's not produced under the Epic system, and it may not exactly be first-time writers and artists handling it. But the age-appropriate nature is thankfully still there, and the price point is low enough.
One last thought: Yes, there are plenty of great comic books out there for kids. AMELIA RULES!, the Disney Duck books, TEEN TITANS GO, SCOOBY DOO, ARCHIE, etc. But when a kid sees the Spider-Man cartoon on television or a commercial for the movie on DVD and wants a Spider-Man comic, what do you have for him? Not much, I'm afraid. And not all kids are going to sit still for an ARCHIE DIGEST in lieu of the superhero they want to read. I hope MARVEL AGE does well.
Special thanks to the gang at Dewey's Comic City in Madison, NJ, from whom I've just appropriated the term "Kirkmania." You don't want to know about the nation of "Kirmanistan."
Pipeline Commentary and Review returns on Tuesday with something new.
Various and Sundry looks at Apple's new initiatives, the allegedly-lost lottery ticket saga, and various and sundry other musings.
Nearly 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.