When Words Collide

Mon, June 1st, 2009 at 2:28pm PDT

Comic Books
Timothy Callahan, Columnist/Reviewer

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DANGER, DANGER! READ SOME COMICS

You Didn't Buy This...

Earlier this year, when "Eternals" stopped coming out, I didn't really mind. The only reason that series was ever worth reading was for the Daniel Acuna artwork, and after he left the book, it became even more skippable. When Marvel announced the end of Howard Chaykin's "Squadron Supreme" series, it was no surprise. That series had started with Chaykin introducing Marvel Comics analogues into the Squadron Supreme universe but its slow-burn development followed by a quick jump toward global Armageddon was some of the worst stuff Chaykin's ever written, and though it may have been a noble attempt to do something with J. Michael Straczynski's incarnation of Mark Gruenwald's version of Roy Thomas's pastiche of the "Justice League of America," well, therein lies the problem. It was a version of a version of a version of a version, and it was watered-down Chaykin at best, and a stale, pointless rehash at worst.

But the cancellation of David Lapham's "Young Liars"? That hurts.

The cancellation of Paul Cornell's "Captain Britain and MI13"? That's brutal, too.

Both of those comics were top-of-the-stack, eagerly-anticipated comics whenever they came out, which was damn consistently. "Young Liars" always took incredible narrative chances, confounding reader expectations and living up to its title again and again. It's characters, its multiple narrators, were liars, through and through, and every time we thought we grasped the core of the book, it would pull the rug out from under us and say, "no, the spiders from Mars are real," or "no, Danny Noonan is the opposite of who he thinks he is." It was an ambitious, thrilling comic that may have cracked my Top 10 of 2009 by the end of the year. Lapham was doing great work on that series.

It's still got a few issues left, and I'm sure it will be more than worth reading until the end, but the comic book readership dropped the ball on that one. Not enough of you read it, and in a marketplace where the mediocre-to-terrible "X-Men Legacy" outsells "Young Liars" by 10 to 1, it just didn't have a chance to survive. That type of thing has always been the case, of course. Something with "X-Men" anywhere near the title will always outsell a Vertigo book that's not based on a revamped superhero concept, but that doesn't mean we should just abandon hope.

Or maybe we should. If "Captain Britain," with a top-notch writer, very good artistic collaborators, a launch which tied in with the mega-popular "Secret Invasion," and one great issue after another -- if a series like that couldn't even make it close to twenty issues before cancellation, maybe there isn't much hope that quality will be rewarded in the direct market as we know it. We're not talking about independent comics that are perennially under-ordered. We're not talking about the fact that most comic shops don't even look beyond the Marvel and DC sections of "Previews." We're talking a well-crafted Marvel comic, supported by plenty of publicity, full of marketable concepts like "Dracula vs. superheroes, in space!" and it could not gain a foothold with readers.

This Is Good Stuff

Sure, the whole set-in-Britain thing is inherent in its very title, and perhaps the majority of comics fans dismissed it as some "foreign comic," or retailers knew they would think that way and ordered small doses accordingly, but such explanations don't take away the sting of the cancellation. Paul Cornell will surely go on to do more great things at Marvel, but unless he does "Wolverine vs. Captain America," he might very well struggle with the same level of reader apathy next time.

It's an age-old question: "Why do bad comics outsell good ones?" and though I have some theories about how to answer that question (briefly: readers buy the brand at large and not the contents in particular, or retailers order with that pattern in mind, which is why "Justice League of America," a comic that even the writer admits isn't very good, outsells 80% of the mainstream comics on the stands), I'm not here to try to propose solutions. The problem is too big -- and it's not just comics, of course, with top-rated television shows and blockbuster movies not tending toward the "quality" end of the spectrum -- and I don't think that reader habits or retailer buying patterns are going to change dramatically any time soon. I'm here for selfish reasons. I'm here to encourage you to buy some comics you may not be buying, because there are a bunch of comics worth reading that don't sell all that well. There are a bunch of comics that might not be in danger of cancellation any time soon, but it's just a matter of time until "standard attrition" takes its toll, and I'm back here again, whining about another new comic book series that deserved to live.

Keep in mind, I'm talking mainstream comics from the Big Two. These are comics that are readily available, already ordered by your local comic shop, but they could use more readers. They could use more people on their side, so they don't suffer the same fate as "Young Liars" and "Captain Britain." These are the comics that might be slightly under your radar, depending on how finely-attuned your radar is. For some of you, this list will be obvious, but for others, these might be comics you've vaguely "heard good things about," but haven't picked up for yourself. And if enough of you do that, and enough of you ask your retailer why these keep selling out before you can get your copy, and we can keep these few alive and kicking, then maybe I'll have a few more good comics to read each month. Maybe we all will.

TEN "UNDER-THE-RADAR" COMICS YOU SHOULD READ

"The Mighty" Might Surprise You

1. Northlanders Maybe the "under-the-radar" label is misleading, because there's no way that Brian Wood's Viking masterpiece is flying below your notice, right? I've reviewed plenty of issues since its launch, and I'm constantly astonished by how good this comic is. From the opening Modernism-vs.-Savage Paganism concerns of the Shakespearean "Sven the Returned" arc, through the brutal Lindisfarne raid, and the recently-concluded, and heart-breakingly twisted "The Cross + the Hammer," Brian Wood has done some of the best work of his career on this comic. And in the most recent issue, the phenomenal Vasilis Lolos illustrates a single man-to-man battle around which Wood frames the entire history of Viking combat. Yeah, you really should be reading this comic.

2. The Mighty I'd love to believe that a comic like this -- a comic that looks great and takes a swerve with the superhero genre -- can exist in the land of mega-crossover events and multi-media tie-ins. Peter Snejbjerg draws the way I want my idiosyncratic superhero comics to be drawn, and writers Peter Tomasi and Keith Champagne are slowly building an interesting story about this Alpha One character. This is a variation of the story Mark Waid is telling in "Irredeemable," and I think there's more than enough room for the two of them. Check it out. Keep it alive.

3. R.E.B.E.L.S. I've read every issue of "L.E.G.I.O.N." and the original "R.E.B.E.L.S." and this Tony Bedard scripted series is already better than both of them. Is that blasphemy? I don't care, because Bedard and his artistic counterparts (who have brought a delicacy and sense of scale that's needed for a space opera like this) are creating a fun comic that plays with the toys of the DCU without being sickly bound in the ropes of continuity. It's in continuity, but it's not suffocated by it. This is the comic that "Guardians of the Galaxy" wants to be. (And I think "Guardians of the Galaxy" is pretty good these days.)

4. Scalped Okay, I know what you're thinking. How could Jason Aaron's "Scalped" possibly be under the radar when Aaron's a rising star at Marvel and everyone and their mother (and Bill Hader) keeps talking about how great this comic is? Well, it still only sells around 8,000 copies a month, that's how. I know that it's sales are consistent, and even go up sometimes, and the trade paperback sales are good enough that Aaron and company don't have to worry about cancellation any time soon, but why aren't even more people reading this comic? It's possibly the best thing that comes out each and every month, and yet it only has a fraction of the readership of "Ultimatum." Insane. Let's make sure we keep reading this series (or start reading it) long enough to let Aaron finish his brilliant story.

Jordi On "Jonah Hex"

5. Jonah Hex I have to admit that I sometimes think about dropping this series. It doesn't always blow me away, and because Justin Gray and Jimmy Palmiotti have made this a series without hardly any issue-to-issue continuity, there's no real impetus to keep buying it. No real momentum. You can tell single-issue stories and still have an overall master plot, but Gary and Palmiotti have chosen not to do that here. These are (mostly) one-shot stories, often artistic showcases, that explore a single conflict, a single thematic strand. But as much as I'm not compelled to keep buying it, I'm always happy that I do, as each issue gives us a punch to the gut, often accompanied by some of the best comic book art in the business. Paul Gulacy recently drew the best looking comic of his recent career on this title, and we've seen Darwyn Cooke and J.H. Williams III come in and do some great-looking work on "Jonah Hex" in the past year. I would hate to see opportunities like that disappear anytime soon.

6. Ghost Rider This is another Jason Aaron project that can't possibly be under the radar, because I talk about it all the time, but yet it sells barely enough to stay afloat, and, in fact, is shutting down and relaunching as mini-series to boost sales for Aaron's final arc. The mini-series will happen no matter what, as far as I know, so I guess there's not much point in championing this series anymore to CBR readers, but if I think there's even a glimmer of hope that a huge spike in sales might persuade Marvel to let Aaron tell more Ghost Rider stories, or at least stories about the All-New Orb, then I recommend going out and telling your friends at the comic shop about what a great job Aaron has done with the Ghost Rider universe. Have them tell their friends, and then have the whole mob demand multiple copies because they're going to want to read the hell out of this excellent series.

This Unknown Soldier Should Be Read

7. Immortal Iron Fist Astonishingly, this series didn't even sell particularly well when Ed Brubaker, Matt Fraction, and David Aja were doing it. But it was such a critically-acclaimed monster of a comic, that you couldn't possibly consider it under any kind of radar (except the kind that reads "Status: Is it a book where Wolverine prominently appears?"). Under Duane Swierczynski, "Immortal Iron Fist" has lost a step, but not much of one. I'd argue that it's only the heights reached by the previous creative team that makes this comic look less than top-notch. Had it launched with the Swierczynski/Travel Foreman team, I'm sure it would have received rave reviews for being such a cool kung-fu/supernatural action comic. But, like "Ghost Rider," it's going on vacation for a little while before coming back in a presumably new form. When it does, pay attention to it.

8. Unknown Soldier I think Josh Dysart needs to develop the supporting cast a bit more and play up the mysterious connection with previous incarnations of this character, but this is a nicely-developing series right now. Moses Lwanga is not "unkown" like the Robert Kanigher creation, but he's having plenty of trouble determining who he is in the world in which he lives. The current arc has him in position to kill an Angelina Jolie humanitarian celebrity analogue, which would shift American attention and resources to the horrors of Uganda, and its told as a thriller, not as a political mission statement. This is a good comic that's getting better as it moves along. Give it a look.

9. Agents of Atlas This Jeff Parker series isn't in any danger, and it sells over the 30,000 copy mark each month, which keeps it safe from cancellation, but I think Parker's just getting warmed up on this series. I think he has a lot more in store for us, and if standard attrition drops this series down a few thousand copies over the next few months, then we might see this series go the way of the "Ghost Rider," or even worse, "Captain Britain." I am not completely in love with everything that's going on here -- but it's always a solid 3 ½ star comic, and I want to see how Parker takes this team and builds upon its mythology to create something really special. I know he can do it as long as we give him enough breathing room.

Mythology In The Balance

10. Incredible Hercules The Fred Van Lente factor is strong on this one. It seems like Van Lente is writing everything these days, but his work on "Incredible Hercules" seems to be his best mainstream scripting so far. I know Greg Pak is his collaborator on this, and I'm sure his contributions are invaluable, but I also know that I didn't particularly like anything Greg Pak did on "Incredible Hulk," including "Planet Hulk," which was shockingly mediocre and one-note, and I like almost everything about "Incredible Hercules." This is a fun comic, playing with the gods and goddesses who have become a part of the Marvel Universe over the years, and it's smart too. Jeph Loeb's "Hulk" is fun, in the way that a comic about smashing stuff real hard should be, but "Incredible Hercules" is fun with a brain, even if its main character acts as if he doesn't have one at all. Yes, it's surely not in any danger of cancellation, either. But it still sells far below many Marvel comics that don't have as much wit or action as half an issue of this series.

So there you have it. Ten mainstream comics that might be under somebody's radar, and if enough somebodies don't buy these suckers, then we all know what will happen. We've just seen it with "Young Liars" and "Captain Britain." We've seen it with "Nextwave" and "The Irredeemable Ant-Man." We've seen it with "Automatic Kafka" and "Chase." We know how this story ends, but sometimes it's not too late to change it. Lets read the comics that are actually good, and leave the ones that are not quite-so-good sitting on the shelf, collecting dust for a change.

In addition to writing reviews and columns for COMIC BOOK RESOURCES, Timothy Callahan is the author of "Grant Morrison: The Early Years" (which explores "Zenith" in great detail) and editor of "Teenagers from the Future: Essays on the Legion of Super-Heroes" anthology. More of his thoughts on comics can be seen every day at the Geniusboy Firemelon blog.

Follow Tim on Twitter: gbfiremelon

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TAGS:  when words collide, captain britain and mi13, young liars, hercules, unknown soldier

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