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Tue, November 18th, 2008 at 2:28pm PST

Comic Books
Augie De Blieck Jr., Columnist

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GO AHEAD - HIKE THOSE PRICES UP. MAKE MY DAY.

I "invested" in comics at a good time. As the price of a floppy moves to $3.99 these days, that gigantic stack of unread comics and trades that I acquired mostly between the years of 1998 and 2006 are starting to look very approachable. There was a time when I bought everything that looked good, thinking that I'd eventually find time to read it. It was a couple years ago that I realized how wrong that thinking was, and I began to cut back. It also happened at the same time I was paying for my wedding, buying a house, and having a kid. Those all played a factor, no doubt.

It's also the reason why I'm not participating in this economic downturn. My belt's been tightening for three years now. I'm in relatively good shape. My car is almost paid off. My mortgage is much lower than what all the mortgage brokers and real estate agents were trying to convince us that we could afford. And the best perk of writing this column is free comics and a little extra income to spend, guilt-free, on comics.

But $3.99 is ridiculous. While Marvel and DC aren't officially raising the price on their monthly books yet, everything else is $3.99. Check out what Conor wrote up at iFanboy recently. It's getting to the point now where half of Marvel's weekly releases are at the $3.99 mark. Marvel can measure their words as carefully as they like about holding out on the $2.99 price point, but I think my original prediction for a December $3.99 price point is coming true, anyway.

And you know what will happen if comics, as a whole, goes to $3.99? I have boxes filled with trade paperbacks and hardcovers I haven't read that I bought at a time when the format was just flourishing and I had the spare cash for them.

I have 15,000 comics or so sitting in long boxes, 99% of which I haven't read in the last couple of years. Perhaps it's time to get more value out of them by rereading some of the fondly-remembered books of yore.

I bet I'm not alone.

So go ahead, Comics Industry. Raise your price point to $3.99. I still have plenty of comics to read. By the time you all wise up and go digital to something that's affordable, I'll be about a quarter of the way down my unread stack. (Speaking of digital, I'd love to have a full-color Kindle type of device with comic book downloads, day and date.)

Now, where should I start? I wonder if John Byrne's "Namor" is still as cool as I remember it? Maybe the original "New Warriors?" I haven't read "Marvels" or "Kingdom Come" in years. Ooh, "Young Heroes in Love." Maybe it's time to go back to the Chuck Dixon glory years of the Batman family of titles? Or the Dale Keown-era "Hulk"? I'd like to look at the Jimmy Cheung "Scion" issues again. And Peter David's "Star Trek" run. Ron Lim's "Silver Surfer." Norm Breyfogle's "Batman." Dan Jurgens' "Superman." Ooh, those Jurgens/Perez "Teen Titan" issues were fun. (I'm one of the few who liked that series.) Maybe it's time to go back to Erik Larsen's first 50 issues of "Savage Dragon." Kurt Busiek's "Untold Tales of Spider-Man." Ostrander's "The Spectre." Don Rosa's "Scrooge McDuck." "Boris the Bear." Jim Lee's "X-Men." Is it time to go back over the first 125 issues of "Ultimate Spider-Man?" That would take a month, at least.

Like I said, I have plenty of great comics already, many of which have faded so far into my memory that they'd be like new comics today.

Suddenly, I don't feel rushed to get to the comic shop on Wednesday. I have plenty of options open to me. With libraries and on-line discount retailers stocked full of comics, $3.99 isn't such a big deal anymore. It's easily avoidable for the slightly creative thinker.

THE CREATIVE ROLES OF "SPAWN"

Spawn's crotch: It's electric!

The first issue of the new "Spawn" storyline ("Spawn" #185) by Todd McFarlane, Brian Holguin, and Whilce Portacio is a decent start. Most of the book is taken up by the apparent powering-up and powering-down of our titular hero, but there's enough meat on the bone to bring me back for another issue or two to see where it's all going.

A couple of creative choices piqued my curiosity. For starters, McFarlane is listed as the "digital inker." When I first read the book, I didn't see that completely. Once I saw the credit, I noticed it more. While most of the book is inked in solid black lines, there are lots of spots of mere pencil work that's had the contrast boosted on it so that it shows up on paper. In some places, this technique works. I like the way it's used to create a shadowy area with a little more depth. It tricks the eye into seeing soft light with texture on it, rather than solid black shadows. In other spots, it winds up looking lazy, like on a computer keyboard where the keys look hastily dashed in, rows of simple squares and a squiggle underneath to represent -- er, something else. Maybe you could make the argument that it makes the background recede, but it's not used consistently enough to make that claim.

That's my whole problem with the digital inks. The shaded pencil areas come and go without rhyme or reason. They look good in spots, but then disappear for a couple of pages before popping up on a random panel. I think it might add to the "look" of the comic, overall, if used consistently.

How, then, do we explain the solid black lines? Is McFarlane inking in Photoshop on a Wacom Tablet, or with a Cintiq? Or is he hand inking some pages and scanning them in, leaving some pencil areas to the computer to fill in? I don't know. I'm curious now.

On top of all that, while I know how gauche it is to say, "I liked your older stuff better" to a creator, well. . . The McFarlane line that I fell in love with wasn't present in this book. Is that because Portacio's pencils are so tight and strong? Is it because McFarlane is doing the inks digitally? Or is it because McFarlane's line has evolved over the years into something different?

The other part of the comic that caught my eye was Tom Orzechowski's lettering. Orzechowski's been lettering the book since the first issue. His hand lettering was magnificent in those early issues. You might recognize it better from the Claremont era "X-Men" titles, but the look is distinct, complete with letters that pop out of line for emphasis and adjacent balloons that don't join up so much as they overlap with a small break in the line.

"Spawn" is very obviously computer lettered. Orzechowski does a respectable job in approximating his style with the computer, but it still looks stiff. The balloons and their tales look too tight and then too large in spots. The letters popping off their line almost work -- particularly with the color added in -- but then look constrained by the balloons they're in. Where the lettering floats freely in sea of virtual black ink between panels, everything looks great. My biggest issue with the comic comes in the balloons.

I know Orzechowski hasn't lost his skills. Take a look at recent issues of "The Savage Dragon," which he's now lettering. Those look terrific. The balloons have character. The tails have little bends. Everything bounces off the page. I'm just torn on the computerized version of it in "Spawn." It needs some more work.

Tangent time: I wonder how that "Spawn/Batman" book McFarlane announced in San Diego in 2006 is coming along? Haven't heard much about it lately. DC could certainly use the prestige book right now. . .

THE PIPELINE REVIEW CHALLENGE: A MUG

I've been writing this column long enough that nearly nothing surprises me or leaves me at a loss for words. OK, that bit about Gareb Shamus serving on Platinum's board of advisors is so loaded with punch lines that my overwhelmed brain still can't pick just one. But that's a different situation.

This week, Dark Horse is challenging me. They sent me a mug.

When someone sends you a mug for possible review, how do you respond? I admire the thought process which leads a marketing department to send a reviewer a mug in a box. It's like they're poking me. They're daring me to say something about it.

"Here. Take this mug. Drink from it. Experience it. Review it."

Dark Horse, I accept your challenge!

How does one review a mug, though? It's a hunk of dried clay, fired at hot temperatures, from which you're meant to drink hot chocolate or coffee.

I don't drink coffee, and my sugar free hot chocolate packets are a year old. I need to freshen those up.

Coffee mugs have long been an easy gift item, to the point where nobody gives them anymore because everyone already has too many. It's like the cheap t-shirt giveaway you might see at a high tech meeting or convention. But Dark Horse is trying to sell this item to you for $12.99. It's my job as a serious web critic and bon vivant to advise you as to whether it's worth your hard-earned savings.

I'm talking specifically here about a mug related to "The Umbrella Academy" by Gerard Way and Gabriel Ba. It's the fun and quirky mini-series of the last year focusing on a group of super-powered kids, a talking monkey, a monocled leader, and the dangerous power of music. The series skips around the timeline a little bit and features a leading cast of nearly a dozen characters, so read it all in one go for maximum impact. (The trade paperback edition is out now.) It is crazy fun. The mug that I'm looking at this week made its most famous appearance in the fifth issue of the mini-series, as carried around by that talking monkey.

Is this mug, then, a loss leader for the second "The Umbrella Academy" mini-series, which debuts next week? Maybe Dark Horse is playing games with my mind through the vessel of hot beverages known as "the mug?" Should I expect a "Hellboy" pencil sharpener in advance of the next "B.P.R.D." mini-series?

It's a cute mug -- jet black, with a logo on the outside, and the words "Thank you for the coffee" written on the bottom of the inside part of the mug. I like the imagination there. I like the creativity. The font is instantly legible. The logo outside is easily associated with the property (and perhaps an insurance company.)

I like the box it came in, not because it's corrugated cardboard and thus strong enough to package a mug in for minimal breakage. I like the Gabriel Ba artwork of a monkey in a suit, lifted straight out of the fifth issue. I like the way the art wraps around the box, with nice design choices on the other half. It's colorful. It's glossy. It opens easily to reveal the ebony chalice.

I even got a giggle out of the product warning, thanks to the State of California, which warns you that some hazardous chemicals were used in the making of the mug.

What more could you ask for? It's an honest and legally-proper mug, after all. If a doctor diagnoses me with cancer tomorrow, the State of California will likely "tsk" and say, "Toldja so."

I field tested the mug. I filled it up with water -- a clear beverage that would allow me to see through it to any defects in the cup. No problem.

I measured the liquid to see how much the mug can hold comfortable. It filled three and three-quarters four-ounce baby bottles. (Hey, you use what you have handy sometimes.) The box states the mug can hold 11 ounces, and my tests confirm that. Problem is, you can't pick up the mug without a very steady hand without spilling something. So stick with ten ounces, max, when you fill this bad boy up.

The handle fit in my hands and allowed me to tilt the mug to my lips. No problem. My freakishly large hands might dwarf the mug, so keep proportions in mind with that picture.

It delivered the refreshment from the mug to my mouth. When I was done, it sat flat on a table and continued to hold the liquid within.

What more could you ask for from a mug?

I haven't washed it. I'm afraid I might chip it or dull the polish. I know that, as a reviewer, I'm supposed to do that. But we don't fold comics in half after we read them to test their durability, do we? Thankfully, no comic has needed that since the "indestructible" comic covers made of Tyvek in the early- to mid-90s from Continuity Comics. They're indestructible, all right; they're also available in a quarter bin somewhere today.

When I use the mug again, I'll give it a thorough bath in hot soapy water and let you know how it works out.

So, the mug. It's cute. It functions properly. It's sleek and shiny. It's everything you could ask for in a mug. I give it four out of five stars, docking it one star for not featuring a monkey on the mug, itself. Who doesn't love a good monkey-with-a-monocle?

"Umbrella Academy: Dallas" #1 (of 6) hits stores next Wednesday, the 26th of November. The first mini-series, "Apocalypse Suite" is available as a trade paperback today. The mug came out to the comic shops and novelty stores who ordered them last week.

And water has never tasted sweeter.

Seriously, thanks to the gang at Dark Horse for passing along the mug. As much fun as I had with it this week, it is a spiffy memento of a fun series. Get it for the teenaged emo "My Chemical Romance" fan in your family. I enjoyed discovering my product photography techniques are seriously lacking.

I'm sorry to say that the "Tom Strong" review I've been promising the past couple of weeks didn't make it into the column this week. It's almost there. You'll see it soon, I promise.

The Various and Sundry blog is still updating Monday through Friday, recently with an explanation for why I hate six out of seven days of the week. There's also some more "Wall-E" talk that didn't fit into the column last week, more DVD release news, links dumps, and more.

My Twitter stream flows briskly, carrying random thoughts through the ether with the force of white rapids. Very Zen.

The daily news bits that grab my attention in the worlds of tech and comics and more can be found at my Google Reader Shared Items. Several items are added to that page every day. I'm an RSS feed junkie.

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 -- more than 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, spawn, umbrella academy, todd mcfarlane

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