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Tue, July 22nd, 2008 at 5:37pm PDT | Updated: July 22nd, 2008 at 5:37pm

Comic Books
Augie De Blieck Jr., Columnist

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WILD IMAGE SPECULATION

(As rumored by Rich last night and confirmed by the New York Times this morning, of all places, Robert Kirkman has been named a new partner at Image Comics. It's a well-deserved honor, and congratulations to Kirkman on it. I can't think of a better person for the position. He's a child of the Image era, and now he's part of it.

That does mean, though, that the following bit of my column might look horribly dated before you even read it. Maybe Image has more surprises in store this weekend, I don't know. I have to think that digital distribution is about the least likely scenario. Keep in mind: The following is a "thought piece." Consider it a "What If?" It's always fun to speculate and to run scenarios. Don't expect it to happen this weekend, though.)

The much-hyped Comic-Con International: San Diego Image Comics panel this weekend contains this tease in its description:

". . . reveals the biggest announcement Image Comics has made since its inception."

What could that be?

Five of seven Image Founders will be present at the panel. Only Jim Lee and Todd McFarlane will be absent. Does that tell us anything? Not really. That group has been getting together an awful lot in the last year, relatively speaking. Let them continue their reunion tour. It's fun to see, even if it's at a distance for me.

The fact that Image is making a big deal of this announcement tells us that it's not anything that would change the game in a bad way. I had a theory once that Image might stop accepting unsolicited submissions. The idea being, you'd have to know someone to get looked at first. Image Central is too small an office to handle that load of submissions in a short time frame. And we all know Sturgeon's Law. Why not have a built-in editing system by having submissions vetted by known Image talent, or friends of Image, first? You could then make a big event out of having annual "open submissions" for a limited period of time.

I don't think that's it, though.

Another pet theory is that they could fundamentally change their business model, from a fiscal perspective. Maybe they would have a sliding scale of fees. Let the more successful books pay a little more to help out the lower-selling struggling fees. Creators of the Image World, Unite!

Nah.

Maybe, just maybe, Image is selling itself. That's a fun game to speculate on. Who would buy them? DC? Dark Horse? Marvel? I could give you solid reasons why they would and wouldn't for each of those: Jim Lee could convince Image to join him at DC. Marvel is already running an Image-like imprint with Icon, and could expand it. Dark Horse has movie connections that lots of Image creators would salivate at the prospect of. (And some titles have left Image for Dark Horse already, such as "Rex Mundi" and "Fear Agent.")

On the other hand, why not just sell out to a movie studio?

You could then argue that Erik Larsen left as EIC because he didn't want to be an editor-for-hire for a larger company.

Again, this is all wild speculation, and I don't think it's happening. It is, however, a very fun game to play.

What else could it be, then? I'd like to make the case it'll be in the realm of digital distribution. Eric Stephenson is smart enough to know that it's where the future is. He sees the fast increasing price of printing and shipping comics. He saw how successful Boom!'s MySpace promotion was. With Marvel in the game on a subscription basis, and DC still only creating an IP Farm over at Zuda, Image could make a big splash. Imagine the reaction to one of the Diamond-exclusive publishers going digital so early?

Even if this idea is true, there are plenty of variables still at play. Decisions would be made based on business models as much as politics and personal goals. Prognosticators and pundits like to take their guesses through the prism of their own wishes and dreams.

So rather than advocate a wild and crazy new plan, let me make some suggestions for what Image could do in a digital marketplace that wouldn't tick everyone off. You can't please everyone, but maybe you can make some compromises without abandoning the goals.

Don't abandon the Direct Market. Position the digital distribution as a "last mile" solution for those who don't have a comic shop nearby. Position it as an easy way to bring in new readers who might only see comics on-line. Most importantly, position it as a way to save low-selling books. Image publishes a lot of books, and there's a wide gulf between "The Walking Dead" and a book like "The Cemetery Blues."

In that light, don't distribute all the comics this way. Not at first. Let the Direct Market have its "Walking Dead" and "Spawn" and "Invincible" exclusively. But all of the other Image books that barely sell above the number of extant comic shops? Put them on-line, as well as in the catalog. If the retailers aren't ordering titles, how can they complain that they don't have exclusive rights to sell them? Use that as your way to put the camel's nose under the tent, then slowly phase all comics to digital as well as print in the coming years.

If need be, establish a rule: comics with pre-orders under 10,000 copies will be distributed digitally as well as in print.

Since you have the Image Founders at the panel, why not announce the first year of books like "Savage Dragon" and "Spawn" and "Youngblood" via this digital distribution channel? It would be a great way to build up the on-line catalog, featuring titles that people still associate with the company. Trades are available for all of those books, but they'll be getting more expensive, too.

Make today's comic releases day and date, not six months later. Release the comics on the same day digitally as in print, so that digital readers can be brought into the discussion of the current comics scene, and not segregated off.

Furthermore, lower the price. These books are not being printed. They're not being shipped. They're not taking up shelf space in a strip mall. $1.50 should be the max. Server space and processing power isn't zero, and Image should take some overhead cost. If Apple gets 30% on their Apps store, then Image should, as well.

Let creators opt in. The cost of putting a book up on the web site should be minimal, but if a creator would be silly enough not to choose this option, let them.

The biggest barrier to this plan is the very word "distribution." I don't know what Image's contract with Diamond is like. If it's ending soon, then this is the perfect time to go digital. If it isn't, then they'd have to negotiate something with Diamond on this, and that would be a major sticking point. Losing catalog position or profit margin would hurt in the short run.

I have zero insider information on this. Wish I did. Sometimes it's more fun to speculate and play thought games. Let's "war game" this. And then let's see what Image actually announced this weekend, so you can all point at me and laugh at how wildly wrong I was.

But, seriously, if Eric Stephenson announces a new anthology book centered on the music of The Smiths or The Pixies or The Kinks, I'll be disappointed.

DO THE RIGHT THING - DON'T GO?

Also in San Diego news, we have a political uproar to report on, as many plan to flee the Hyatt as their hotel bar hot spot in protest of the hotel owner's political point of view. That is, he's given money in opposition to California's recently-passed same sex marriage law.

The problem with this plan to protest or boycott the hotel bar is that it doesn't go far enough. I have some more suggestions for you. By the time you're done reading this, you'll want to stay home, lock up the door, turn off the power, and cower in a corner.

There is no safe place, not even in San Diego.

Don't get me wrong. You have every right to express your point of view and take your business wherever you want. God (Politically Correct Substitution Needed) Bless America. But between the outlandish exaggerations that now surround this hoopla (one blog said Comic-Con goers would be making the hotel owner "rich" by drinking at his bar, as if he wasn't already), the selective focus of it, and the lack of any substantial result of this tempest-in-a-teapot, I felt the need to point a few things out for the "progressively-minded."

Famed supermarket, Ralph's, was involved in union-busting not too long ago. Maybe you should all boycott Ralph's (where Heidi McDonald said to stock up in deference to the Hyatt bar) in protest of this.

Heck, there's a FedEx Kinkos inside the convention center you might want to think twice about. Their drivers aren't unionized in the way DHL's and UPS' are, despite their drivers' active attempts.

There's also a Starbucks inside the convention hall that you'll want to avoid, after they sued Kieron Dwyer over his parody of their logo. If Starbucks wants to rip up The Constitution, how can you support them with your coffee money? Or, perhaps it doesn't matter. Starbucks is already closing 600 locations, including ten in San Diego. The convention center location is not on that list.

Instead of the Hyatt, how about shifting your drinking to the smaller bar at the Omni Hotel? No, I'm afraid you can't do that. That's the very San Diego hotel that once "censored" Margaret Cho only to replace her with, of all things, "Sweet Home Alabama." Double zinger! Perhaps a comic company would like to sponsor an open mic night as a fundraiser?

The Marriot Hotel wants to expand its size to be 25 rooms bigger than the Hyatt, mostly by paying employees what some are calling "not a living wage."

And the Hilton? Do you really want your money trickling down to Paris Hilton? Are you mad? (Wait, you don't believe in the "trickle down theory," do you? Nevermind.)

How are you getting to San Diego? An airline? Well, you might want to protest the war in Iraq by refusing to pay high gas prices to fly across the country. (We can debate the link between those two some other time.) Or you might want to protest the way obese people are made to buy two seats to fly. There will be a few of them at the convention this week.

Southwest Airlines has kicked at least one person off a flight for "inappropriate clothing." Maybe all the people showing up in costume ought to fly another airliner?

Don't turn on the televisions while you're there. It was a local station that hosted Platinum Studio's "Comic Book Challenge" a couple of years ago, after all, and we all know how well that turned out. Paging D.J. Coffman. . .

Come to think of it, the convention center is right in the heart of the Gas Lamp District. Maybe we should hold off going back to San Diego until they remake it into the "Solar Panel District." Calling Governor Schwarzenegger!

There's a big pirate ship down the street that the tourists like to visit called "The Star of India." Hasn't Hollywood taught us all that piracy is wrong? I'm surprised they flock to the convention while being so viciously opposed to the kind of piracy that flourishes just up the street.

I know it just burnt down, but that bar down the street that they filmed a "Top Gun" scene in helped make Tom Cruise a superstar. Who doesn't want to protest that these days? Perhaps you just want to protest Scientology, in general?

To top it all off, did you know that the San Diego Convention Center hosted the 1996 Republican National Convention?

Run for your lives! San Diego isn't safe!

Or, maybe, I'm just jealous. I'll be home this weekend and not at the convention. Maybe I'll pop open a can of Diet Pepsi, charge myself $3 for the pleasure of pouring it in a glass overstuffed with ice, and scream to hear myself over a loudspeaker, content that I've done my part not to enrich a political enemy.

Uh oh.

EVERYTHING OLD IS NEW AGAIN

* How long will it be until we look back at the conventions held in San Diego between 2006-2008 and say, "Oh, yeah, remember when Comic-Con got flooded by Hollywood for those few years?" "Yeah, I'm glad it got back to comics again, but I miss the wild parties."

* "Final Crisis" #2 saw the return of the ages-old internet argument of "Is Grant Morrison incomprehensible, or are you just too stupid to understand such simple storytelling?" I amongst the stupid people, I fear. I plead ignorance, though, more than stupidity.

* Some responses to my essay last week about the inevitable rise in comic prices brought me back to the old Warren Ellis Forum days, as people suggested the "Supermanga" format as if it was a new idea all over again.

* The comic industry works in circles. I'm looking forward to what happens after "Final Crisis" and "Skrull Invasion." Perhaps the universe-wide crossover will recede once more, bringing comics back to more segregated storytelling inside larger universes. That's the first thing Quesada and Jemas did when they took over Marvel. That got lost a few years back. I think it's time for a return, as these mega-crossovers burn people out, as well as they might sell.

* Scott Kurtz has added in the daily PVP strip to his RSS feed. I like the idea, support the concept, and urge you all to subscribe to the feed and buy stuff from him today.

THE JOY OF SUBVERSION OF MINI-MARVELS

Picture a comic in which Reed Richards secretively reverts a back-to-human Ben Grimm to his Thing form. Imagine a world in which everyone knows Peter Parker is Spider-Man, Aunt May is seriously out of her mind, Venom wants to eat everyone's brains, and Norman Osborn trains his son daily in killing Spider-Man.

That's just some of the plot points covered in "Mini-Marvels: Rock, Paper, Scissors," a new digest out from Marvel this week. It's a compilation of Chris Giarrusso's "Mini-Marvels" work, in a smaller form factor for just $10 (96 pages).

Honestly, it's for kids. All of your favorite Marvel characters are redesigned into a rounded big footed style. They act like children, in many ways, with simplified humorous little adventures. (Wolverine goes out for cereal. Spider-Man has a paper route.) The great thing is that the basic storylines are explained and independent enough to stand on their own. If you're a Marvel Comics fan, though, you'll recognize "real" Marvel events from the last few years that Giarrusso is riffing off of. There's even a bit with Spider-Man trying to collect his newspaper route money from Hawkeye, who was busy at the time leading the Thunderbolts. The T-Bolts are having a difficult time reforming, which leads to a very funny running gag.

For Marvel fans, it's a subversive little piece of work. The characters are cute as heck, but they're doing some seriously deranged things. But it's still safe to share with your kids or nieces and nephews. At $10, this is the perfect form factor for this material.

The other interesting thing to note about the volume is that, for as humorous and light-hearted as most of it is, Giarrusso is still a very good action storyteller. There are many dynamic poses that he's able to contort his characters into. The occasional action pieces are easy to follow and a treat for the eyes. Giarrusso is a funny guy, but also a cartoonist who knows his material well enough to mimic it convincingly. I hope this book sells well enough to justify doing more like it. We could use this kind of work.

If you're in San Diego this week, look for Chris G. in Artists Alley. He's usually there doing incredible sketches for low prices. I have a Nightcrawler and a framed Thor that I fell in love with. I'm not even a Thor fan, but I had to have that one.

THE DARK KNIGHT - NO SPOILERS

Everyone else has already done their reviews of the movie. I'll sum it up this way: I liked it a whole lot. And I can't wait to see what they do with the third now. This movie really is the superheroic equivalent of "Empire Strikes Back."

Let's run down some bullet points from my movie-going experience and the movie, itself:

* I've never enjoyed a set of movie trailers more in my entire life. A new Ridley Scott movie, "Watchmen," "The Mummy," and a new Terminator movie? Pretty nifty. I think I'm forgetting one, too.

* Did any retailers complain that they didn't know about the "Watchmen" trailer in advance?

* "The Watchmen" trailer was a pleasant surprise. I was expecting something cheesy and bad. But I recognized some moments from a comic I haven't read in years, and there weren't too many embarrassing moments. I'm excited for it now, and look forward to reading that "Absolute" edition of it before the movie hits.

* I didn't hate Katie Holmes in the first movie, until I saw how effortless Maggie Gyllenhaal made it look in the second. I realize now that I filled in the gaps for Holmes in "Batman Begins." I wanted to believe the character, so I did. That doesn't mean Holmes sold it, at all. Gyllenhaal made it look natural and effortless. . .

* I went to a sold-out 9:45 p.m. showing on Saturday. Packed crowd. No laser pointers, cell phone rings, or babies crying. It was one of the best crowds I've ever seen a movie with in my life, so long as you look past the fact that we were all giggling at a homicidal maniac's one-liners.

* Am I the only one who thought of David Mamet during this film? There were so many false endings, misdirections, and lies upon lies that I started to think I was watching "The Heist" with better makeup.

* Heath Ledger does a great job in affecting a Joker persona for the role. It's more than just a tone of voice or a facial tick. It's a well-rounded performance. Is it Oscar-worthy? I'm not sure I'd go so far. I think that buzz is just there because Ledger drugged himself to death and Hollywood loves that kind of story. If he does get an Oscar nomination, though, then the screenwriters deserve one, too. It's their nuanced script that gave Ledger such a meaty role to chew on.

* Do yourself a favor and listen to the most recent episode of the "Creative Screenwriting" podcast, featuring an interview with Jonathan Nolan, the co-writer of the movie. It's a fascinating look into the script, with lots of references to the comics they used in creating the movie.

* I can't wait for a third installment now, even though I suppose it won't be out for two or three years. So sad.

* I hope Bat-Mite is the featured villain in the third movie.

* The previous bullet point was a joke. Everyone knows it's going to be Egghead.

PIPELINE PODCAST FOR 16 JULY 2008

It was an expensive top ten list last week. To buy all the books listed in this week's top ten, you'd spend more than $230. Granted, there are two books in each of two slots, but that's still a big tab.

The final podcast ran 17 minutes, but slimmed down to a mere 4 megabyte file.

10. "Jeff Smith Bone and Beyond" HC
9. "Universal War One" #1 (of 6)
8. "Back Issue #29, "Rough Stuff" #9
7. "Elephantmen War Toys TP Vol 01 No Surrender"
6. "Zot TP Vol 01 Complete Black & White Stories 1987 To 1991"
5. "Unearthed Cemetery Blues" TP Vol 01
4. "Final Crisis Rogues Revenge" #1 (of 3)
3. "Comics Journal" #291
2. "How To Draw Stupid" SC
1. "Howard The Duck Omnibus" HC

Also in this podcast: Skaar returned, and Orsen Welles searched for frozen peas. It's a crazy show.

Next week: If there's any comic book news next week, we should discuss it.

The Various and Sundry blog carries on with new music, DVDs, Twitters, and the pain of User Interface design on ATM screens.

If you're really interested in what daily news bits grab my attention in the worlds of tech and comics and more, the best way to track is it at the Google Reader Shared Items. Several items are added to that page every day. I'm an RSS feed junkie.

The only social network I use anymore is Twitter, for all my thoughts 140 characters at a time. People also are finding me on Facebook and Linkedin lately, though. I'm there, just not terribly active.

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 800 columns -- nearly eleven years' worth -- are archived here at CBR and you can get to them from the Pipeline Archive page. They're sorted chronologically.

TAGS:  pipeline, mini-marvels, robert kirkman, image comics, comuc-con international

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