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Tue, January 12th, 2010 at 2:28pm PST

Comic Books
Augie De Blieck Jr., Columnist

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COMICS GO IN CIRCLES. AGAIN.

DC's "Brightest Day" announcements on Monday annoyed me in a weird way.

On the face of it, it's something we've all longed for to varying degrees: a return to brighter and shinier superhero comics. A signal, perhaps, that the recent darker storylines were coming to a natural conclusion and that, at last, they were leading up to something more fun.

Problem is, Marvel's been promising us pretty much the same thing in recent months. "Siege" is leading to a new brighter and shinier Marvel, following on the heels of a series of crossovers that built upon one another and engulfed half the Marvel lineup along the way.

While I'm more than happy for Marvel and DC to move towards Bright and Shiny Happy Superhero Comics again (I liked "Heroes Reborn"), I can't help the nagging corner of my mind that knows it will only last a few months until one tries something "new" and the other copies it a few months later and the escalations begin anew.

Everything is cyclical. I know that. I've been following the comics industry for long enough to know that it's all generational and everything repeats itself. When the zeitgeist shifts, comics shift with it.

It's just pathetic, though, the way The Big Two follow each other so religiously. It's not so much that Marvel copies DC blatantly or that DC blatantly copies Marvel. Every industry has that. (Windows copies Mac. One car company copies another's innovations. One football team has success with a new defensive scheme, and others follow suit.) It's just that I'm tired of it. Can any company do something on its own? Can any company follow its own mandate and stick to a guiding set of principles? Can any company think long term instead of short term?

Cover designs, creators, character deaths, character resurrections, events, publishing initiatives, etc. etc. etc. There's not a dime's worth of difference between Marvel and DC. And I don't feel right now like giving either of them too many more dimes of my money for their repetitive facsimiles of one another.

And, yes, you can get away with raising the price of your titles, because the increased profit margin makes up for the readers you've scared away. Of course, you've just scared away paying customers, but let's meet this quarter's goals first, eh? Completely unrelated: the company that publishes "Ultimate Comics Spider-Man" just took its stock off the market, and is now trading under a larger company's banner. This is why I'll never run such a company.

In 2009, I fell behind on most of my comics reading, as my newborn daughter took precedence. I thought things had stabilized enough that, by 2010, I'd be going back and playing a little bit of catch-up. I missed "The List" and most of "Dark Reign." I read hundreds of reviews over the course of the year, read plenty of interviews, and followed the comics press. I kept up to date, but my actual comic book reading fell off.

Now, I'm ready to write off the whole year. Why bother? All of those stories were just meant to be catalysts to next year's stories. I can start fresh. I'll miss some of the artwork, but this is a whole new year of Big Event Stories that will no doubt lead into the Next Big Thing that I'll want to be on board for. Right?

I'm not so sure. Maybe taking that time away was enough of a break to help me see the forest for the trees. Maybe it's time to jump off the hamster wheel. I don't intend to give up on superhero books completely. I just won't be getting wrapped up in the big picture. Give me those quieter books off to the side that are doing good self-contained work, instead. And, yeah, I'll fall into the trap every now and then, but life's too short to get obsessed over it.

Besides, is there anyone out there who could explain to me the proper reading order for all the Avengers titles of the past 15 months? There's probably a Wiki for that somewhere, right?

This weekend, I ran across a copy of "Dungeon" (NBM) sitting in a box in a closet of my parents' house. It's Lewis Trondheim and Joann Sfar. I've read nothing but great reviews for it, and while its publication strategy is a bit nutty, it sounds like a lot of fun. I'm going to read that.

I'm going to read a fondly-remembered run of comics from 1990-1992 that I mentioned in Pipeline recently that I'll do up a Pipeline Retro about.

Maybe I'll pick up a couple of those books that hit everyone's Top 10 of 2009 lists. ("Asterios Polyp" is already in the Amazon cart.)

But the race to get the next issue of Big Company Crossover Event Leading to Next Big Company Crossover Event That Looks Just Like the Other's Companies' Publication Strategy? Nah, not so much.

365 SAMURAI AND A STRONG SENSE OF DESIGN

I wish I had read this book when it came out at the beginning of December. It would have made my Top 10 for 2009 list, easily.

"365 Samurai and a Few Bowls of Rice" (Dark Horse, $16.99) has a simple story: a swordsman travels Edo-period Japan's countryside, killing samurai and looking for enlightenment. As always, it's not about the story itself, but how the story is told. That's what will grab your attention and keep you turning the pages until you come to the book's conclusion -- which, in this case, is nearly 400 pages later.

Creator J.P. Kalonji has an eye for design. Every page in this black and white book consists of a single panel. Most of the book is silent, but Kalonji lays out his pages in such ways that you marvel at how well designed they are, in addition to how well they tell the story. As Ningen's goal in this book is to kill 365 samurai, you know there's bound to be repetition of "Ningen walks into a new area, faces new menaces, slices and dices." Kalonji mixes things up, with close-ups, wide angle shots, details, expressive faces, and dynamic environments. The fights in this book take place in the forests, on the hillsides, in the fields, in snow-covered mountains, and more. There's rain, snow, wind, falling leaves, etc. Every page is worth a look, whether it's for the amount of implied detail between the lines Kalonji draws, or for how much story can be told in such simple images.

Kalonji's style is cartoony, with a strong ink line that will remind you a bit of Jeff Smith's. He knows how to vary his line weights, and he knows that he's drawing for a black and white book. There's not a page in here that needs a spot of color to aid the reader's eye. Kalonji is in perfect control of every page. Take a look for yourself. CBR ran a preview with more than 30 pages. Those pages will give you a sense of what you're in for with this book.

I got so swept up in the action and adventure of the title that I had to read it a second time to look for the deeper meanings in the book. They're there if you look for them. They're not terribly well hidden or anything, but I found myself caught up in the moments of the book the first time. After reading the ending, you'll want to read it again with a fresh eye, one that is perhaps less caught up in the flash and the design work.

"365 Samurai and a Few Bowls of Rice" is only $16.99 for roughly 400 black and white pages. It's in a smaller page format, but that doesn't adversely affect the art at all. Kalonji's style works well at this size, with its simple layouts and bold graphics. If that helps to keep the price down, all the better. Even at $19.99, this is a book that would be worth it. I liked it that much.

RAIJIN ON AND THEN OFF

Chris Butcher has a wonderful analysis of what went down earlier in the century with "Raijin Comics." I guess I fell into the trap a bit. At the time I had just started reading manga, mostly thanks to "Lone Wolf and Cub." I subscribed to "Raijin Comics" immediately when it appeared. And for the first three months or so, I enjoyed keeping up on the weekly serializations, favoring "Slam Dunk" and (still one of my favorite manga series) "The First President of Japan." The others were hit and miss. "City Hunter" was good, but weird and dated. It's tough to say that, especially as a child of the 80s, myself. "Revenge of the Mouflon" came about later and stole the magazine for a few weeks, but then I began to falter in my reading. "North Star" never did anything for me, and Butcher's description of it makes me glad I didn't bother with it. Later additions to the magazine, such as the done-in-one longer tales, were a welcomed addition, though the all-ages friendly material was not.

Sounds like I was the type of person the magazine was initially aimed -- superhero comic fans in their 20s, at their oldest. Maybe if I had been five years younger, I would have better appreciated some of the other entries in the magazine.

I was sad to see the magazine die, and I did get a check back for my unfulfilled subscription, so it's all good, I suppose. Here's a bit of what I wrote when the magazine died in 2004:

The ray of hope in all of this is that it's just a "hiatus." They're not shutting down and going away just yet. I hope they find a way to battle back and come up with a publishing program -- even one without the magazine -- that allows us to get more great works like the books I mentioned above.

That ray of hope never panned out to be anything more, and "Slam Dunk" just got picked up by another publisher in 2009. Sad. I reviewed the initial trade paperbacks in Pipeline #313 (10 June 2003), and am happy to report that "Mouflon" did get a two volume collection.

It's interesting to read about it now a few years later from a completely different angle. Butcher is doing a great job in highlighting the decade in manga now, with lots of insightful and informative writing. Go check out the whole series, still in progress.

PIPELINE PODCAST AT FIVE

Last week, we celebrated the fifth anniversary of the Pipeline Podcast with no less than three new podcasts.

Tuesday: The traditional weekly Top Ten list for new releases of 06 January 2010. Last week, it looked like this:

  • 10. VIZ Media's "One Piece" avalanche

  • 9. "Haunt" #4

  • 8. "Dark Reign: The List" HC

  • 7. "Daffodil" #1 (of 3)

  • 6. "Stumptown #2

  • 5. "Siege" #1 (of 4)

  • 4. Kazu Kibuishi "Copper" SC, "Missile Mouse" Volume 1 Star Crusher GN

  • 3. "Suicide Squad" #67

  • 2. "B.P.R.D. King of Fear" #1

  • 1. "Life & Times of Scrooge McDuck" Volume 1 HC

Wednesday: Everything else that came out that week, with the usual bits of random commentary.

Friday: I uploaded the first video podcast to the feed. It's a slideshow of graphics used for the fifth anniversary of this column back in 2002, along with my narration. It's a format I've been wanting to play with for a long time, and finally now have the tools to do it with. Let me know what you think. I have another one lined up to go later this week, if it proves successful.

ONE LAST THING

Going ahead with "Ultimate Spider-Man: The Movie" could be a smart move on Sony's part, if you put aside the way they apparently just ran Raimi and Co. out of town on rails.

Doing it without a Brian Bendis script, though, is a tragedy. I don't believe for a second, though, that any sort of letter-writing campaign to Sony will cause them to see the light. It's just one of life's little frustrations.

If this works, how long until those rumored reboots of "Fantastic Four" and "Daredevil" get greenlighted?

Next week: More reviews. I have two or three directions the column might go, so we'll see how it pans out next Tuesday afternoon.

I'm selling comics. I'm Twittering, photoblogging, and blogging..

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