Permanent Damage

Wed, June 3rd, 2009 at 4:58pm PDT

Comic Books
Steven Grant, Columnist

Send This to a Friend

Separate multiple email address with commas.

You must state your name.

You must enter your email address.

Read about the unfortunate cancellation of CAPTAIN BRITAIN & MI-13, one of several interesting off-shoot titles Marvel's been pumping out over the last couple of years, like GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY and, intermittently, THE INCREDIBLE HERCULES and YOUNG AVENGERS. Despite an excellent writer, Paul Cornell (best known here in America, perhaps, for excellent episodes of DR. WHO and PRIMEVAL, and I'm probably dating myself by admitting I keep wanting to rewrite his name into Ted Carnell), a good art team of Leonard Kirk & Jay Leisten and a decent premise. And it was fairly obvious from the start that it stood little chance of lasting long.

Most books don't last long, certainly not in this market. Certainly many publishers would like to have long-running (which is to say, franchise) titles, dependables that reel readers and their cash in month in and month out (or, these days, week in and week out), and a few relatively recent comics have accomplished that, but there's a strong perception out there in the market – and the big companies have certainly, if inadvertently, done their best to promote the notion, that only the stalwart characters, the ones who've been around for a long time, deserve to have long-running titles. That, in fact, it's a travesty if they don't. (How dare Marvel cancel THOR, regardless of sales?! Whoop, there, he's back again!) But there's plenty of evidence that the new standard for new titles is first issue interest followed by a steep downward curve usually concluding, by #4 or so, in freefall, desolation and banishment, until such time as someone hauls it out of mothballs for another run. Even some very long-running titles have only maintained their "popularity" via periodic life support by their publishers, suggesting longevity is largely a function of a publisher's willingness to pump money into a particular book over time. Not surprisingly, willingness tends to be a function of anticipated profit – this may seem too inanely obvious to merit mention, but an awful lot of people just don't get it – and faith usually runs no deeper than the pocketbook. Publishers may sometimes see an unprofitable property or talent as an investment in the future, against a day when everyone else (or, at least, some wildly extravagant film studio) will see what the publisher sees, but few can afford this behavior on any appreciable scale.

Even among those who'd theoretically love a series, the tendency becomes more marked with each year to skip the comics publication for the now seemingly inevitable trade paperback collection, though relatively few series are actually collected. Dan Didio has suggested this means they don't really want to read the stories, while others have suggested it means they want to read the stories whole, without artificial breaks and extended delays, but it remains that the more this becomes standard reader behavior the more readers will incline toward not reading the material at all, unless publishers give them reasons beyond nostalgia or inertia to feel vested in it. The situation isn't helped by many writers, often at the behest of editors, publishers or artists, to stretch what amounts to a two-issue story out to four or six issues for easy repackaging rather than developing stories that genuinely need four to six issues to tell.

But dwelling on those subjects is a distraction, because quality is rarely a factor in cancellations, except occasionally to stave them off as a publisher waits/prays for an audience to build. (Pretty rare that they stall, pretty rare that the series catches on, Neil Gaiman's SANDMAN being the poster boy for success in that area. But those were different times.) Comics fans like to believe the series they like are canceled because they were "too good" for the unwashed masses to appreciate, while series they don't like are canceled because everyone could see what crap they were. Go with whatever explanation strokes your ego best. There are rare exceptions – Steve Gerber had a couple series canceled due to moral outrage despite their relative tameness – but generally series are canceled for two reasons: sales aren't sufficient and other revenue streams are non-existent or underperforming, or the publisher believes there's more money in a different version.

Most likely, CAPTAIN BRITAIN & MI-13 fell into the former category; I can't see Marvel trotting out a revamped version anytime soon. Beyond the post-mortem of "most series get canceled," though, the book always seems to present special problems.

Starting with Captain Britain.

Here's a character created as a marketing gimmick (by two Americans; Chris Claremont may have been born in England, but wasn't there long enough for much besides anglophilia to rub off) to give some local color to Marvel reprints in the U.K. It's hard to imagine hundreds of thousands of nationalist British comics fans (are there hundreds of thousands of British comics fans?) warming up to the character, who, among other things, has been saddled with a convoluted back story (like the vast majority of lower tier Marvel characters now) and (sorry, Alan) horrific costumes. (If you want an iconic Brit hero, Marvel, Union Jack has a far superior look.) He has never had a consistent or very interesting personality (for a long time he was generally stuck in the role of being the token male dullard in the company of what amounted to supremely capable warrior-goddesses, and being set alongside the likes of Pete Wisdom and Blade didn't help highlight his interesting side) and, like most characters in CB&MI13, he's been kicked from here to there across the Marvel Universe so much that pretty much all readers have come to think of him as filler. There have been successful superhero teams conglomerated from what were generally considered to be throwaway characters, but these can be counted on one... wait, one finger? Or have there been any? I was thinking of DC's Outsiders, but those were mostly new characters and a Big Player, at least in the first version.

I can understand why Brit writers would love to see him be a center stage player – in fact, a strong subtext of the current run was "See? England's an important place in the scheme of things too!"; it's a message that, frankly, just doesn't mean much to most American readers; - and I enjoyed Cornell's unapologetic "I am hero, watch me roar" take on the character, and a matter of fact "Here's how things are now, let's get on with it." But even at that, Brian Braddock came off as a touch thick, and Cornell might've been better served by overtly demonstrating why Captain Britain – all the characters, really – were worthy of special attention this time around. At minimum, if you're going to name a book after someone he ought at least be presented as the central figure. The book's central figure was Warren Ellis' mutant right bastard spy, Pete Wisdom; with Warren still a fairly hot ticket in the MU, they might have emphasized Wisdom's participation instead. (WISDOM'S 11?)

But if Captain Britain was likely a walk-inducer for many readers (and probably The Black Knight, still one of my favorite Marvel characters but another who has been rung through the wringer virtually to oblivion, and Blade, fresh off his own failed series, and I seem to recall a small ruckus over Cornell & Kirk's creation of a Muslim woman to be the new spirit of Britain or something) he was hardly the biggest obstacle.

That would be magic.

I can't blame Cornell for trying to carve out a niche in the current Marvel universe, and magic is wide open territory there now, with Dr. Strange all but gutted from continuity. (There seems little doubt that magical villain The Hood, now running New York's underworld with Norman Osborn's blessing and secretly operating as evil god Dormammu's disciple, is destined to eventually duplicate the Dr. Strange origin story, turn on evil, and become Marvel Earth's new sorcerer supreme, but that's probably a ways off.) Just one problem that's rarely mentioned: as a rule, superhero fans hate magic.

Sure, there are exceptions. Maybe you're an exception, maybe you love "magic stories." Maybe your favorite series has a magic gimmick. But a lot of readers view magic as sheer laziness, for the same reason that a lot of writers love magic: no rules. Joe Quesada once said something along the lines of every writer wants to write Dr. Strange, but nobody wants to buy it. It's true. At its height in the '80s DR. STRANGE sold nowhere near the level of most Marvel superheroes and for most of the rest of his existence the character has never sold in his own series at all; bear in mind that in his initial incarnation, Dr. Strange rarely interacted with the rest of the Marvel universe (sure, there was a great AMAZING SPIDER-MAN ANNUAL but it was a novelty that didn't lend itself to common usage) and was mainly a vehicle for Steve Ditko to exercise his moral/ethical dramas and get fabulously loosey-goosey with his art. Even Thor was rarely a top tier character for Marvel, and certainly not during the '60s heyday, and we remember him as an icon now mainly because he was a Stan & Jack creation, and a founding Avenger. (But remember that in the earliest days of THE AVENGERS there wasn't a lot else to work with, and to some extent the book was designed to multiple expose characters who needed it.) Zatanna. Never sold. Dr. Fate. Never sold. Shadowforce. The Spectre, a little. Even at the height of Alan Moore's press, his SWAMP THING, with all its talk of elementals and uncles from hell etc., never sold especially well.

Aside from Dr. Strange and Loki (and an ill-considered Spider-Man story involving voodoo) magic never had much place in the Stan & Jack version of the Marvel Universe. It came into its own, briefly, when Steve Englehart and Jim Starlin new-aged up the place – at that point it was even hip, tying into mind-bending popular discussions of alternate realities and cosmic perception and dancing on the cusp of the horror hero comics, many of them launching off occult gimmicks, that became Marvel's response to a downturn in superhero business – but they unnerved many with implied drug connections (and we all know Aleister Crowley would never have had anything to do with drugs) and the new age elements either transliterated into Starlin's trippy life/death version of science fiction or vanished, as writers decided to milk the occult as needed while leaving all New Age traces beside evil Mansonesque cult leaders behind. Even with the "monster heroes," they were generally most effective when having nothing directly to do with the Marvel Universe (e.g. Marv Wolfman & Gene Colan's TOMB OF DRACULA, whose sideways entrance into the Marvel Universe kicked open the floodgates). What didn't work about Dracula in the MU is the legacy that CAPTAIN BRITAIN & MI-13 inherited.

There are two common ways to go with magic in a superhero universe. Either it's mainly an excuse for amping up threats and special effects while dodging physics and logic (and, after all, isn't that what aliens are for?) with no limits but the arbitrary ones the writer concocts so the hero can, ah, pull a rabbit out of his hate and win the day, or the writer can set up rigorous rules for magic use and lay down a theoretical framework for magic (such as, to some extent, Grant Morrison has in series like THE INVISIBLES and SEVEN SOLDIERS OF VICTORY, or Steve Englehart attempted during his DR. STRANGE run) and that can be very effective. But the problems are that other writers will continue to write "magic" as little more than unrestrained and mostly unimaginative wish fulfillment or the province of drooling sub-pulp acolytes in druidic robes poising curved daggers over the breasts of buxom women chained to stone altars, and there's virtually no chance of writers or publishers adopting even a well-reasoned framework for magic. It's just too restrictive, and the whole point of magic in comics is to be able to, oh, erase villains' memories or turn back time so your hero is no longer married and no one remembers he pulled off his mask on television.

Probably at this point there are magic fans (or, at least, those who don't mind its use) crying foul, because science in superhero universes functions the same way as magic does. You're right, no doubt about it. The cosmic cube is nothing more than a fancy magician's wand. But there are cultural connotations as well. Science fiction may still be somewhat scoffed at, but the public perception of science fiction is that it's based on science; maybe it or something like it could happen. Magic, though, is fantasy, and fantasy can't happen. And, yes, the general public enjoyed LORD OF THE RINGS and HARRY POTTER, but those have completely different contexts. Our context is the superhero universe as we know it, and even if you view the superhero as intrinsically silly, most use of magic in superhero universes has been more silly. Don't believe that? Catch a rerun of last week's BATMAN BRAVE AND THE BOLD on Cartoon Network. The one co-starring Bat-Mite, magical imp from the 5th Dimension. It's the epitome of how magic has traditionally been used in superhero comics. Maybe the odd Mr. Mxyzptlk story played as good fun in SUPERMAN comics once in a blue moon but no one would've stomached a steady diet of them, and what was that "Superman's only vulnerable to kryptonite and magic" bit? Why should he be vulnerable to magic anyway, and how many times was that used as a total cheat in stories?

I doubt it's impossible to sell a "magic" comic – I gather Warren Ellis' right bastard "combat magician" GRAVEL is doing okay at Avatar (then again, he's his own context), and Vertigo has turned "magic comics" into basically a cottage industry. But again: context. Probably someone out there has a great idea for a magic comic that can fit tastily into the Marvel or DC superhero universes, but it's not just a matter of context. It has to be recognized that some types of material face greater prejudices, for lack of a better word, than others in that market, and special consideration has to be put behind any attempts to sell that material to that market. Even if some Big Event is the horse it rides in on.

But maybe that can be said of all new books. New books are generally marketed as novelties, this week's model, but the problem with novelty is that it wears off. Much of Marvel's recent problems with their Ultimate line, once rumored to be a backdoor reboot of the Marvel Universe, comes from one or three titles being something of a novelty, but six or eight books aren't so much a novelty anymore. Novelty is easier than most things to market, but maneuvering a title from novelty to habit is a lot dodgier. And some things, like magic, work best as novelty; if you want to get a book with a magic premise past the novelty stage, you better have a game plan. Then again, it's hard enough getting books like that onto any stage at all. As CAPTAIN BRITAIN & MI-13 demonstrates, cancellation doesn't mean a book is bad, but being pretty good is no defense.

1000 reviews in 1000 days (days 129-135):

From DC Comics:

FINAL CRISIS AFTERMATH: DANCE #1 by Joe Casey & Chris Cross ($2.99; comic book)

Read a Morrison interview recently where he said the philosophy behind FINAL CRISIS was he'd seen CRANK (and what's the point of making an action flick anymore if it doesn't star Jason Statham?) and wanted to get that feeling of pure shotgun action and movement back into comics as well. Fine and good, but don't forget CRANK had a straight line throughstory, and a concept you could sum up in ten words. (No, "The Day Evil Won" doesn't begin to sum up FINAL CRISIS.) It also didn't play as though only one in every 18 frames had been included in the movie. But though the series kind of inflated past the point of rescue, it was at least far more ambitious than most superhero comics, and peppered with... okay, no so much backdoor pilots as trailers for backdoor pilots, concepts ripe for exploration. Among them was a hilariously ineffective Japanese teen pop superteam (their leader was rich, and declared he had "the power of money") and DC smartly enlisted Joe Casey to flesh out The Super Young Team in this mini, exploring how superheroes can be marketed like pop singers. Pretty slick and funny until a short, nondescript fight scene; you can tell where Casey's interests lie, and it's not in fight scenes. I've never much cared for Cross' work before, but he does a shiny, happy job here, abetted by a small army of inkers. The Japanese pop marketing is a little dated in American terms – not sure that would rouse the slightest interest here these days – but an interesting variation on the superhero theme. But Casey's dialogue skills are on full burn, fleshing out the kids' characters with the sort of semi-decadent self-ironic patter that only Howard Chaykin can best. Kind of sorry to see the deep conspiracy enter into it, but I guess something in it has to scream DC Comics. Good start.

From IDW Publishing:

30 DAYS OF NIGHT: JUAREZ by Matt Fraction & Ben Templesmith ($17.99; trade paperback)

That answers that question. I was wondering how much life could possibly be left in 30 DAYS OF NIGHT, and the answer is: fumes. A huge string of prostitute murders in Mexico (200?!! Even in the most corrupt places on earth, that number draws attention) attracts a family of vampires that inexplicably wear clown makeup and a private detective with a violent secret who narrates by speaking hardboiled dialogue out loud. (Didn't I already do that gag?) It's mainly an excuse for vulgarity and swearing, with characterizations as ephemeral and transitory as the plot logic, with Fraction trying to bull his way through it via quirkiness. I couldn't shake the long shadow of Robert Rodriguez's FROM DUSK TILL DAWN, another Mexican vampire bit of popschlock. Templesmith virtually never draws badly, but here he abandons the beautiful grotesqueries of the original 30 DAYS for a much cartoonier style that seems inspired in equal parts by Ted McKeever and Sergio Aragones. The strangest thing about the book is its almost total lack of dramatic tension, with low comedy sporadically trying to pick up the slack. Given the pedigree, it's pretty disappointing, with about as much in common with its namesake as hamburger has with ice cream. Both started with a cow somewhere, but that's as deep as the connection goes.

From TwoMorrows Publishing:

THE BATCAVE COMPANION by Michael Eury & Michael Kronenberg ($26.95; trade paperback)

THE BATCAVE COMPANION? Really? As it turns out, no. This volume covers the development of Batman from Julie Schwartz's "New Look" of the mid-'60s through the '70s, covering virtually every aspect – Carmine Infantino, the Batman TV show, the Batmobile, the Neal Adams revamp, the Batusi, villains, Batgirl, and tons more - except the Batcave. Strange. But lots of good information, interviews and art for hardcore Batfans. Very good for what it is.

From Antarctic Press:

DEMON CLEANER #1 by Miles Gunter & Victor Santos ($3.99; comic book)

Speaking of subject matter with no more gas in its tank. Know why comics writers like demons? Their very presence screams "cosmic battle of good & evil," you don't have to explain why they do bad things 'cuz they're, like, demons, dude, what would they do if not wholesale random butchery and, like, soulraping, and that lets you get right to the good part, the bloodletting and badass nasty stuff. Toss in a big guy with a big gun, and you've got... pretty much this. No rationale for him either; so far this fits in the Wally Wood "there are good guys and there are bad guys and the job of the good guys is to kill off all the bad guys" mode. But it's okay. Writing's decent, the art's in the DEAD@17 mold, and whatever the colorist's on, I want a few hits. Not an idea to be found, though.

From Image Comics:

CHEW #1 by John Layman & Rob Guillory ($2.99; comic book)

On the other hand, even hoary old dead-end concepts occasionally generate new ideas, as demonstrated by this horrifically funny take on cannibalism. The book's stroke of sick brilliance is its hero, a cop who psychically reads the history of anything he eats, and, following a horrific discovery, starts to crack crimes by eating perps. Layman's earlier work was marred by a tendency to go overboard and scattershot on the craziness, but here his impulses, and dialogue/plotting, are perfectly controlled, and so's Guillory's storytelling and cartoony but strangely slick art. A good start to what has the potential to be a very original series, and the best new horror (?) comic idea of the year so far. Check it out.

From Marvel Comics:

MARVEL MYSTERY COMICS 70th ANNIVERSARY EDITION by Tom deFalco and Chris Burnham ($3.99; one-shot comic)

Why?

From Dark Horse Comics:

THE RAPTURE#1 by Taki Soma & Michael Avon Oeming ($2.99)

Lemme see if I've got this straight: hundreds of superheroes basically destroy civilization then head into space for a final battle there, while leaving the world at post-apocalyptic nightmare stage. In true Captain Marvel (the Shazam! One) fashion, a girl is visited by a Spectre-like apparition, who provided her with a magic spear that makes her a superhero who can save the world and find her missing, presumed-dead ex-boyfriend, who she dumped just prior to everything going MAD MAX. Again, it's okay, though, again, I'm not sure there are any actual ideas here. On the plus side, I can't begin to fathom where this will go over six issues, except that the starcrossed lovers will inevitably find each other again, and probably tragically. (At least temporarily.) On the minus, I have to admit that the instant anyone uses the word "destiny" in a comic these days, as in telling a central character "It is your destiny..." especially in conjunction with "save the world," that's where they pretty much lose me. Think maybe it's time we, as an industry, start beating the ghastly, easy clichés out of comics instead of graspingly embracing them? Since comics are so obsessed with religious connotations now, that's one miracle I'd really like to see.

Woo-hoo! Only 865 days to go!

Notes from under the floorboards:

Huh. Got an email yesterday from one of my Hollywood contacts (seems I'm rumored to be approaching another moment of fleeting notoriety; this'll be the fourth time or so if it happens, but more on that when it happens and until then there's no reason for anyone to take the notion seriously) that some Hollywood comics-film people collective (writers, artists, managers, aficionados... who knew?) called Comic Book Sunday apparently meets once a month to discuss the businesses, and recently put together a list of non-superhero comics that should be made into movies. Somehow THE SAFEST PLACE got on there. (For those who don't know, THE SAFEST PLACE is a David Morrellish thriller I co-wrote with Victor Riches, drawn by Tom Mandrake and published by Image last year. As far as anyone told me it was pretty much ignored by the comics market, but I guess it wasn't ignored after all. Huh.) It wasn't at the top of the list – those were BONE, AMERICAN FLAGG!, and, of all things, MR. A (now that would be something to see, at least in the negotiation stage) – but, as they like to say around Oscar time, the nomination is the award. Thanks to all the voters. (If you're interested, the remaining choices were ELFQUEST, METROPOL, TRANSMETROPOLITAN, CALVIN & HOBBES, KABUKI & BLANKETS. Quite the eclectic list, but that's Hollywood for you.)

Jammed up for time this week, so the notes will have to keep until next time. I do have to ask the O-Ring, though, when they're going to start dismantling the National Security State instead of reinforcing and amplifying it? Pretty sure turning into modern England wasn't the "change" anyone had in mind, and it's not like we need to broaden the definition of terrorism...

Congratulations to Russ Kazmierczak, the first to spot last week's Comics Cover Challenge theme was "crows." (For the many who wondered about the FLASH cover – and one of my all-time favorite stories from my childhood – villain Vandal Savage is an immortal Cro-Magnon. Sometimes it helps to read comics.) Russ wishes to point your attention to his blog, The Inner Child Speaketh. Check it out. (I love the TERMINATOR: SALVATION review.) Danger.

For those who came in late, almost every week I run a Comics Cover Challenge: the covers of seven seemingly unrelated comics (thanks to The Grand Comic Book Database for the covers) from throughout comics history are spread, usually not in any particular order, down the column. But a secret theme – it could be a word, a design element, an artist... anything, really - binds them together, and the first one to e-mail me with the correct solution can promote the website of their choice, subject to my approval. IMPORTANT NEW RULE: PLEASE INCLUDE WITH YOUR GUESS THE WEBSITE YOU'D LIKE TO PROMOTE IF YOU WIN. As in most weeks, here's a secret clue cleverly hidden somewhere in the column. I'd hide two but some things just aren't safe. Good luck.

Those wishing to comment should leave messages on the Permanent Damage Message Board. You can also e-mail me but the chances of a reply are next to nil these days, given my workload, though I do read all my e-mail as long as it's not trying to sell me something. IMPORTANT: Because a lot of people apparently list it in their e-address books, this account has gotten a slew of virus-laden messages lately. They're no real threat but dealing with them eats up time I don't really have, to the extent I can no longer accept unsolicited e-mail with attachments. If you want to send something via attachment (say, art samples) ask me first. If I say okay, then send. Unsolicited e-mail with attachments will be wiped from the server without being read.

IMPORTANT PUBLIC NOTICE OF COLUMN POLICY: any email received in response to a piece run in this column is considered a letter of comment available for printing in the column unless the author specifically indicates it is not intended for public consumption. Unless I check with you or the contents of your e-mail make your identity unavoidably obvious, all letters are run anonymously.

Please don't ask me how to break into the business, or who to submit work to. The answers to those questions are too mercurial for even me to keep up with.

The WHISPER NEWSLETTER is now up and running via the Yahoo groups. If you want to subscribe, click here.

I'm reviewing comics sent to me – I may not like them but certainly I'll mention them – at Steven Grant c/o Permanent Damage, 2657 Windmill Pkwy #194, Henderson NV 89074, so send 'em if you want 'em mentioned, since I can't review them unless I see them. Some people have been sending press releases and cover proofs and things like that, which I enjoy getting, but I really can't do anything with them, sorry. Full comics only, though they can be photocopies rather than the published version. Make sure you include contact information for readers who want to order your book.

TAGS:  permanent damage, captain britain and mi13, paul cornell, doctor strange

Permanent Damage Home | Permanent Damage Archives

 
Permanent Damage