One Fan's Opinion: Issue #81

Sat, August 4th, 2007 at 12:00am PDT

Comic Books
Erik Larsen, Columnist

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"So, how was San Diego?"

That's the inevitable follow up to comics' big show. This year was no exception and the answer is pretty much the same as it is every year - fun and frustrating and everything in between.

There were numerous people I had every intention of meeting and hanging out with or striking up some kind of conversation with and nine times out of ten I never even saw them.

What a pisser!

On the plus side I finally was on a Kirby Tribute panel - even if I was at a loss as to what to say. And it was great fun being reunited with the rest of the Image founders for a panel. I still see those guys all the time, but it was nifty to get 'em all in one room together. It was actually the first time that we've all been on a panel together.

There were simply not enough hours in a day to do everything. I had limited signing times this time out so I could go look for old comics and go to panels and meet folks elsewhere. The times I did have to sign were taken up by people trying to pitch books.

Ugh.

This really has to stop. I know guys are desperate to get some feedback, but the vast majority of the stuff I saw was beyond hopeless. It's really unfair to everybody else in line to have folks force their wretched samples on me. There simply is not enough time to teach all of these basket cases even rudimentary drawing much less three-point perspective and composition.

Sigh.

But I got some kick ass old comics! True, I didn't have time to visit every dealer and I ended up missing out on quite a few because of the limited time I had at my disposal, but I did the best I could with the time I had available.

What's up with all of this?

More funnybook fodder for "The Next Issue Project!"

And what's that, you ask?

The first "Next Issue Project" release, "Fantastic Comics" #24, cover by Erik Larsen.
Well, I haven't brought it up here yet, but I guess this is as good a time as any. Starting this December, Image Comics will publish a comic book anthology featuring characters that readers haven't seen in over half a century. "The Next Issue Project" is a new book that picks up where old comics left off.

The idea is to line up the top talent of today and have them continue the adventures of Golden Age characters that have fallen into the public domain. We'll literally publish the next issue of a forgotten or neglected Golden Age book, with modern interpretations of the great Golden Age characters found therein. Sometimes that means super heroes - other times it's a neglected jungle queen, robot, space opera, horror anthology, western or funny animal.

The idea of doing this goes back quite a while. Alan Moore revived and reworked a number of Golden Age heroes with his America's Best Comics line at Wildstorm. A lot of readers aren't aware that there used to be a comic book called "America's Best Comics" back in the Golden Age and just as Alan breathed new life into "Swamp Thing" at DC and reinvented "Marvel Man" for Warrior Magazine (later re-naming the character "Miracleman" when he got his own title at Eclipse) he took an existing property and gave it a twist in order to make it his own.

There have also been a few homages to comics of old - from the books at AC Comics to our own "Big Bang Comics" to Alan Moore's "1963" series (also from Image) to the "Fantastic Four: World's Greatest Comics Magazine" that I foolishly spearheaded.

The idea isn't new, but the approach is.

The idea is not to try and duplicate an old comic. I don't think much of anybody wants to see modern creators try and draw like old cartoonists. The idea is to bring old characters back to life.

In any case, it's an idea I've been working on for quite some time. And over the years we've managed to line up some top tier talent willing to participate. Mike Allred, Steve Niles, Joe Casey, Bill Sienkiewicz, Kyle Baker, Frank Cho, Howard Chaykin, Phil Hester, Frank Espinosa, Dan Brereton, Ivan Brandon, Eric Canete, Gerry Duggan, Jay Faerber, Ashley Wood, Steve Gerber, Brandon Graham, Fred Hembeck, Tony Salmons, B. Clay Moore, Moritat, Tom Scioli, Jim Valentino, Ryan Ottley, Joe Staton and myself have all signed on to play along.

As anybody that has read this column before knows (or may know), I grew up reading my dad's comics. He collected comics back in the Golden Age and it was through him and his collection that I learned to love comics from every age. After my house burned down in 1991 and all those comics were lost, I've made an effort to reassemble a collection of cool old comics.

It started with "Captain Marvel Adventures," but it soon grew from there. I got to a point where the issues of "Captain Marvel Adventures" I needed were getting fewer and far between. My run was almost complete. I knew there was other stuff out there, but I wasn't sure where to begin. Joe Keatinge, our promo guy in the Image office had stumbled onto a web site that showed a bunch Fletcher Hanks stuff and he's really taken with his work. At a recent WonderCon, Joe got a copy of this Golden Age comic book called "Fantastic Comics" and it contained a couple stories by Hanks as well as a half dozen stories by other creators. Joe brought it into the office and I got a gander at it.

This lead to a conversation where we talked about how much cool stuff is out there, in the public domain. Nobody owns these characters! And it's mind-boggling that others haven't jumped all over this stuff because there are some pretty cool characters out there that have been neglected for 60 years or more.

It can get complicated, of course - some of the names of characters have been reused and trademarked, so it's not as though a person could just start up a new comic book and call it "Daredevil" or something but still - there are toys just sitting there waiting to be played with. A few years back there were these great books published that ran thousands of covers of Golden Age comics and I poured through Photo Journals looking for cool old comics. I put together a list of like 50 different books - some just had great logos, others had great looking characters and I took it from there. I've been hunting down these books ever since and the San Diego show was a tremendous resource. I grabbed up all kinds of goodies to add to my heap of Golden Age books!

Now, the reason a lot of these comics went away was because they just weren't very good. But even the bad ones had something good to offer. And don't forget - not every character started out as strong as what they became after years of successive creators adding and altering them. The thought was to grab these guys and do what Stan Lee and Jack Kirby did when they revived Captain America in the "Avengers" or Sub-Mariner in the "Fantastic Four." There have been numerous times throughout the course of the history of comics where people grabbed some old characters and pumped new life into them. I don't know how many people are aware that Mr. Monster was a character from the Golden Age that Michael T. Gilbert took and tweaked and brought to a modern audience. That's the idea here. To wake the dead.

Some people have expressed some concern because they expect to be confused, but that's really not a problem. Stories in the Golden Age were, for the most part, self-contained and there was very little that you need to know. We take continuity for granted these days and expect that one story will affect the next, but years ago you could read an issue of "Superman" or "Batman" or "Captain America" or most anything and you'd be presented with all the information you need in order to enjoy a story. Once you know that Superman is Clark Kent and that he works for the Daily Planet and that his girl reporter Lois loves Superman, but doesn't give Clark Kent a second look, what else is there you need to know? If you say he was rocketed to Earth from Krypton and raised as an earthman - that's more than enough. That's all you need in order to enjoy a Golden Age comic book. These guys were very aware that readers may not be able to get every issue of a book so they made an effort to keep things simple. Many covers boasted that all of the stories in their books were self-contained.

The whole notion that one story impacts another and without part one you're lost reading part two is a relatively recent invention. Most characters can be boiled down to a sentence that contains enough information that a reader has a decent idea what they're all about.

And just for fun, we'll put up the jpegs of the issues we have on the Image site so fans can get an idea what we had to work from. Readers will have as much information as any of us.

At the end of the day these will succeed or they won't and if they end up failing, the issues that came out will have been complete. It's not as though readers would be left hanging. The whole idea here is that every issue will be complete and self-contained.

"Crack Comics" #63, Cover by Mike Allred
People aren't used to it these days, but comics used to be 64 pages long with little to no ads and almost all of them had somewhere in the neighborhood of eight to twelve different features. There'd be a lead story, which would be the longest story in the book and the rest of the book was filled with a variety of stuff. Almost all super hero books would have funny animal or "big-foot" stuff in them - a couple of pages of gags and what have you. And a lot of comics would be all over the map with every conceivable kind of character in it. Just because there was a super hero on the cover or something akin to a super hero, it wouldn't mean that there couldn't be a knight in medieval times fighting dragons or a science fiction kind of story found in the back of the book. There wasn't necessarily a rhyme or reason for the way these books were thrown together. A book could be called "Mystery Comics" and not have any mystery in it.

Okay - I'm rambling - but it's hard not to get enthusiastic about putting comics together. We're having a ball.

In any case, the first book we're doing is "Fantastic Comics #24." It stars Samson along with Space Smith (a Buck Rogers-ish kind of thing) and Stardust, which is also kind of a space character. The book also has the Golden Knight, which is pretty straight up knights in shining armor kind of stuff, then a couple pages of Professor Fiend, which is supposed to be funny but falls pretty flat. We'll see if we can inject some actual humor into that strip. In any case - it looks to be a blast.

I've been involved in a few anthologies over the years and often the focus is so broad that I'm left stymied. It's like when you're asked to draw at a convention. When I'm asked to draw a specific character, I know exactly what to do - when I'm asked to draw "anything" I want, I have to think a bit.

The thought here was to start with something and go to creators and say, "What can you make of this? Oh, and you've got six pages to do it in!" Most of these characters have no origins to speak of and not much of a background. They just jump right into it - telling a story in a few pages and letting it go at that. In a world where creators are used to six-issue arcs, it's a real challenge to have to tell a story in six pages. It can be done and there are examples all over the place to prove it, but it's not something folks are used to doing anymore.

Naturally, we had some tough choices to make. We could have insisted on doing these in a strict Golden Age format with crappy, out-of-register color and all the rest, but I don't think any more than a few readers would appreciate that. We're opting for a Golden Age sized book - a comic, which is somewhat wider than a modern comic but with better paper and printing. Not the glossy paper that's found in most comics, but something akin to what Chris Ware uses in his "Acme Novelty Library" volumes. They'll have a similar look, with flat color-not rendered to beat the band but at the same time I think it would be a waste of time to have a modern creator draw exactly like the guys of old. Asking Bill Sienkiewicz to draw like Dick Sprang would be a waste of time. Why would you do that when you've got someone who can bring something different or cool to the page? The idea is to modernize these characters to an extent-without trashing or redesigning them.

And, as you might expect, if things go well, we might just do the next issue after the last issue. So, instead of just creating a "Fantastic Comics" #24, and leave it at that we could also make issue #25 and let other creators get a crack at these characters. I expect some creators will want to do more with the characters that they worked on, and use them in their own work. I wouldn't mind bringing Samson into "Savage Dragon."

He'd be a good fit.

Now, once we've created these new versions of a public domain characters, nobody else can come along and continue our stories. They could make their own versions of course, but these stories and these takes on these characters are ours. Mike Allred's version of the Clock is his and his alone. Somebody else can do a version of the Clock, but if there's some hint that it's springing off Mike Allred's work, that's not cool. They can only do their own versions of the characters based on the original characters from the original comics. Much like anyone can do their version of Santa Claus - one doesn't prevent or get in the way of the other. And honestly, we're going to fudge things a bit. Essentially what we'll do is treat each one of these books as a "best of" book. We'll comb over the entire run of a given series and continue the best that a particular book had to offer.

In a lot of cases these books suddenly became jungle romance or horror or science fiction titles in their crazy, desperate, attempts to keep them afloat. I don't think we need to pick up exactly where they left off. There's no point in ignoring good characters just to make it dovetail exactly with a book that jumped the shark half a century back. We'll use the best logo from a book's run and use the best costumes on the best character. In a lot of cases characters went through quite a few different costumes over the course of a run. We'll just pick the ones we like and take it from there.

The next book after "Fantastic Comics" #24 will be "Crack Comics" #63 and Mike Allred will take the lead with "The Clock." And it's been a cool project to be part of. A lot of creators have contacted me over the last few months, ready and willing to participate and that's all very gratifying.

And if these characters end up being the basis of a whole new universe for a new generation - well, worse things could happen.

Needless to say, I had a ball in San Diego and I'm looking forward to my next show - in Baltimore.

You'll find me there, signing autographs and hunched over the back issue bins looking for buried treasure.

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