SUPERMAN: EARTH ONE OGN
About halfway through this original graphic novel, I was bored. J. Michael Straczynski wasn't writing a story so much as he was engaged in a writing exercise to rearrange familiar plot points into the same old story. This time, Pa Kent is back to being dead, but Clark Kent has still just moved to Metropolis, looking to make his mark, caught between two worlds, between honor and duty. He's an alien in a world that's not his home. His parents are wise beyond imagining, the very epitome of home spun advice to set any man on the right path. There was a ship that crashed, a boy that became a man with super powers, and everything else you'd expect from Yet Another Superman Origin Story. Except, this time, Clark Kent was a little lankier and trendier looking.
The good news is that the main plot for the story kicks in somewhere past the halfway point, with a new alien race set to invade earth and tear it apart unless Superman shows himself. It's a no win situation for Clark, and one which his entire future may hinge on. And that, thankfully, is when things start going better for the book. For starters, there's a downright Joss Whedonesque moment in this script delivered with typical Straczynski humor. No, I don't think Straczynski was aping Whedon's work. Straczynski's always had a strong sense of humor in his science-fiction writings, but most comic geeks today are more familiar with "Firefly" than "Babylon 5." At the end of the week, after this book has been out for a few days, I'm sure I could find an example somewhere of someone saying Straczynski ripped off Whedon somehow. Not so. If you want to look for the moment, I'll give you a hint: It's Straczynski's use of a common supervillain trope to good plot effect that's so impressive. He's also found a new angle on Krypton's death, while presenting a grave peril to the earth that's believable and scary, particularly when viewed from Kent's angle.
On the whole, it's a nice start. It's weighed down by the need to re-spin the origin tale and pick and choose the moments the author wishes to emphasize: Is this an illegal immigration story? Gay teenagers? A racism allegory? It's to Straczysnki's credit that he never hammers one particular angle home, instead touching on a few and letting the reader choose. The good news is that when the plot kicks in, it's an entertaining and nail-biting piece of work. Sure, there are some background bits that might seem like modern clichés - the military experimenting on the original Kryptonian craft, for example - but a slight modernization of the tale isn't unwarranted.
This is the book that they need to get out of the way to start getting to the good stuff, I think. Like most superhero movies, it gets too bogged down on the origin story, hiding what could be its strongest assets for later editions, should the series be so lucky.
The bigger problem for me is the art of Shane Davis. It bores me. The coloring from Barbara Ciardo saves it by providing an interesting palette and great choices of texture. It's subdued, very earthy, but also gritty. The problem is that the skeleton underneath it - the art - does not work for me at all. It almost looks phototraced, but without the photos behind them. It's weird, like Steve McNiven's work without the life. People walk around the book stiff and bored, even when striking dramatic poses at key moments. Hands jut out of long sleeves looking not terribly attached to much of anything at all. Those hands on the book's cover are positively Liefeldian.
Images of Superman in costume are horribly uncomfortable. It looks like the photorealistic head is pasted onto a more idealized superhuman figure. It's tough to find a model to shoot photoreference of who looks like Superman, let's face it. It comes back to good old fashioned cartooning for the body in a style that tries to stay as similar to that which is used in the phototracing. It's the worst of both worlds. When Tom Welling finally dons the cape for "Smallville," this is almost how I picture it looking - like a familiar face with a really garish costume on his body.
And then, Jimmy Olsen is using the kit lens with his Canon camera, which bothers me for some reason. From a story point of view, it might make sense: The Daily Planet has seen better days, the newsprint won't show high detail anyway, so why spend money on buying a better lens? Olsen's shots look to be mostly mid- to wide angle, so the lens is capable of taking most of them. Since he was shooting in broad day light, his exposures probably worked out fine. For some reason, though, I'd like to think the Daily Planet at one point in its life invested in better glass, and that the lenses lasted long enough for Jimmy Olsen to still be using them.
Next, I'll be asking William Shatner about the combination lock on Captain Kirk's locked in that one episode of the original "Star Trek." I know, I know.
In any case, the packaging on the book is great, with the image printed directly on the cover, so no dustjacket is required. For $20, you get good paperstock, a book that opens and stays open easily without breaking the spine and strong production values. I have my qualms with the book - the art and the first half of the story - but I'm likely not the intended audience for it, either. I think it shows promise for the new line, but I really hope a second volume starts to pay off on it.
THAT'S SO 90s! PART II
This week, we start with a couple of quick artifacts from my letterhacking days. For those of you that have only been reading comics for the last decade or so, there was a time when comics regularly published a page - or even two! - of fan letters in the back. Prior to Pipeline, that's how I vented my opinions. In the span of a decade or so, I had about 300 (or was it 400?) letters printed.
Occasionally, I would get responses from the companies in the forms of postcards. For those of you under the age of 20, a postcard is a thing the post office (you've heard of them, maybe?) offered for a lower rate than even a standard letter-sized envelope. You didn't get much room to work with, but you could cram promotional copy, editorial messages or quick responses on them. People used to send them to their families while on vacation as a memo from their travels. Yes, this was before the smart phone came about.
In any case, here are a couple from my collection:
Dear DEFIANT Fan,
Thank you for taking the time to write and let us know how you feel about our Universe thus far. All of us here at DEFIANT are dedicated to bringing you the best possible stories and artwork we can, and your feedback is essential in helping us determine if we're on the right track.
Thanks again for being in touch.
Deborah Purcell, Editorial Director
Ed Polgardy, Associate Editor
I mentioned Defiant in last week's column. This is a sample postcard that they sent to their letter writers. I imagine this thing saw mass distribution to all letterhacks that targeted Defiant early on. I received a personal letter from one of Defiant's authors later, but that was because he was a new writer who had started out as a letterhack and he recognized my name. It was a small world back then, even with the larger print runs.
Here's something you may have heard of. I've never won a Marvel No-Prize, but I do have a pair of "Baldy"s to my credit. Here's one from 1991:
Congratulations for an outstanding contribution to our publication!
Lex Luthor II
P.S. Be on the lookout for Superman #63!
This is a coveted Baldy Award, given out to letters printed in the Superman family of titles for - well, it's a little sketchy. In the upper corner of the postcard, it describes the portrait on the front and explains the meaning a bit:
The official portrait of Lexcorp found and President, Lex Luthor. Lexcorp is the corporate sponsor of the Zenith Award for Excellence in Journalism, more commonly called "The Baldy" for obvious reasons.
Can you picture Luthor having a sense of humor about his hairless state?
I imagine the inscription is the handwriting of an assistant editor at the time. I have another postcard written by Mike Carlin in response to a letter I had sent in, but the handwriting doesn't match up.
But the thing I wanted to highlight this week is something I've alluded to before in the column, and that's Malibu's Ultraverse's "F.A.N." group that I was a member of in the early 90s.
Here's a scan of the original invitation I received. I don't have a date on it, but I believe it was late 1993 at this point:
I want to thank you for all the support you've shown the Ultraverse. It's obvious you really care about the company, and that's the reason for this letter.
I'm putting together a group of 25 people to act as an advisory committee. The responsibilities of this committee are simple, each month I will give you a book slater [sic] for discussion. Your part in this is to take that book and analyse it completely. After breaking it down, tell me both what you liked and what you hated about the book.
Unlike other companies, we're really interested in what you have to say, and this committee will have a great deal of influence in the rest of our decisions.
If this is something you think you'd be interested in joining, please let me know. I'd need comments from you once a month.
As a reward for being a member of this committee, I'll give you some advanced previews of material. For instance, I may send you a few interior pages from our new Freex artist Scott Kolins, or perhaps send you five pages from UltraForce, so you have a taste of what the book will be like. That sort of thing.
I hope to hear from you, one way or another very soon.
These days, the "Fan Liaison" position is called "Social Network Specialist."
I completely forgot that Scott Kolins did any work for the Ultraverse. I don't remember much of his work pre-"Flash."
There were 25 people on the committee? At least one of them has to read this column, right? Maybe? Drop me a line if you were there, too.
I, of course, responded in the affirmative. Back then, that meant typing out a letter, printing it out, addressing an envelope, mailing it off, and never being 100% sure that it arrived. Somehow, we managed. In this case, they received my acceptance.
Here comes the welcome letter:
Thanks for being a loyal Ultraverse fan Augie, we appreciate the time and effort you put into all your letters. That's the reason I selected you to join the committee.
The committee, which has been names [sic] F.A.N. (Fan Advisory Network), will be reading whatever issues you normally collect and rating them on a scale of 1-10, which I'll provide (it'll be in terms of story, art and layout). In addition, you will be asked to go into detail about one book in particular. We're still working on whether you'll need to get that book yourself, or if we'll be providing xerox copies of it for you.
Obviously, you won't be asked to grade what you don't collect, as we all know that it would be a financial burgen, and you can most certainly refrain from giving comments about a comic you do not collect. However, I will be needing these grades and analysis one a month. I hope this won't be a problem.
That should clarify exactly what the committee does, if you have any other questions, please le me know.
'94 is the year of the Ultraverse, and we're all working together to take this industry by storm
I certainly appreciated his enthusiasm. Not sure that 1994 goes down in anyone's book as "The Year of the Ultraverse," though.
And, wow, the editor in me is having a hard time not correcting the grammatical errors in these letters...
So the F.A.N. group went. I didn't keep too much material from it. I recall getting a lot of black and white photocopies of issues, including a couple that were sent out early to get letters to run in the backs of early issues of new series. Malibu would sent out a monthly care package with a checklist of the month's books and a form with space for your mini-essays on what went right and wrong with a book.
I distinctly remember one of the follow-up letters mentioned that lots of people had complained that the covers were too earth-tones, so Malibu changed the cover coloring scheme to be brighter, with more primary colors.
Completely unrelated to F.A.N., I did win something for having a letter printed. This letter is dated October 4, 1993:
Congratulations! You are now a proud owner of a fully holographic covered comic from the Ultraverse! As stated in the Ultrafiles, any person who had a letter published would receive their holographic copy… and we meant it!
You'll find your letter in one of our most recent publications. This comic is just a token of out appreciation for all the support you have given Malibu Comics so far. Thanks, and keep it up!
Diane M. Botta
The holographic comic in question was "Hardcase" #1. At the time, those comics were going for close to $80 a pop. In 1993 dollars, that's at least 40 comics. I'm not so sure I could even sell my copy anymore today. Sadly, if I found it, it wouldn't scan well at all, so you'll just have to trust me.
While we're at it, here's the 1993 Malibu Christmas card, drawn by Norm Breyfogle:
You know, there's less than two shopping months to go before Christmas Day. Start your Amazon Wish Lists today!
Next week: Comics! And stuff!
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