When Words Collide

Tue, December 28th, 2010 at 11:58am PST | Updated: December 28th, 2010 at 12:07pm

Comic Books
Timothy Callahan, Columnist/Reviewer
7

COMICS: MY YEAR, REVIEWED

I was originally thinking that this end-of-the-year column would be some grand "Year in Review" thing, where I reflected on the big events in the comic book industry and pontificated about what it all means, in the larger scheme of the universe.

But I honestly don't care about doing any of that.

Instead, this is My Year in Comics, Reviewed. My thoughts about what was important, even if sometimes maybe it really isn't. My tour through 2010, comics-experience-wise. I already did my Best of 2010 list, so you know what comics I thought were worth checking out. But what else mattered to me? What else do I have to say about 2010?

The iPad is Kind of a Big Deal, But…

I started using an iPad in July, and I have used it every day since. I honestly can't think of a single day when I have left it on the shelf, unused. But I don't love it. And even though I love comics, and love convenience, the iPad is not an optimal comic book reading experience for me.

I use it every day for email, and checking Twitter, and generally wasting time reading things I don't need to read and only find vaguely interesting but someone I know linked to it and so I feel compelled to check it out. You know, the usual internet time-suck stuff. But when it comes to reading comics, I'll take them in almost any form before I will resort to reading them on the iPad. I'll crack open an oversized hardcover or a tiny manga volume. A thin floppy or a beat-up old trade. But the only time I'll read comics on an iPad is when I'm away from home, and I don't have comics in any other form with me.

When I was on vacation this summer, out of desperation, I started reading "Justice League: Generation Lost," and I kind of liked it, with the "Guided View" technology that Comixology uses. But after a week back in the real world, I stopped reading that series. Never bothered to pick up an issue at the shop, and never bothered to download the rest of the (still-running) miniseries. I did the same with "Skullkickers" a couple of weeks ago, when I was at my in-laws' place in New York, and didn't have any comics laying around. I liked "Skullkickers" quite a bit -- it scratches that RPG-as-comic itch that I didn't really know I had, and never wanted -- but will I ever download another issue? I doubt it. I'll just wait for the trade.

The only thing iPad comics are superior than would be comics on the computer screen. I've read probably a hundred comics on my laptop or desktop, between review PDFs and those Marvel DVD-rom collections that they used to put out before they realized that digital comics might be worth more than pennies per copy, and the iPad experience, the comfort of holding the digital comic in your hand, trumps the on-screen computer-reading experience.

But that's it. And I've tried to enjoy them on the iPad, and I use the damned thing, as I said, every day. But, no, iPad comics just aren't for me, unless there's not a single thing to read nearby. The screen is too small, the digital page flipping (or panel shifting) isn't a satisfying experience, and a big part of my reading enjoyment is the sense that I know where I am -- I feel where I am -- in the story. I like to have a sense that I'm halfway through a trade, or that I'm nearing the end of an issue. Even with page numbering, that physical orientation is missing in digital comics. And it suffers without it.

The iPad is a big deal. And it looks like 2011 will be loaded with iPad knock-offs and various tablet PCs. Maybe one of them will be a better fit for comics, but I still don't think they'll convince me that they're a suitable replacement for paper and print.

While I'm in a Naysayin' Mood, How about 3D Movies?

I know 2010 wasn't "THE YEAR OF 3D" or anything, but now that everything seems like it has a 3D release, I might as well say it: why do people assume that 3D movies are in any way better than 2D movies? Are dioramas better than paintings or photographs?

2010 Was the Year of No Events, Almost

Hey, remember a year or two ago, when we were all full of Event Fatigue, and we didn't want any more Countdowns to anything or Invasions, Secret or otherwise? And we, as readers, complained and complained about how we just wanted to read good stories and let the writers and artists do their thing without having to wedge in some Skrull or some story about how Evil Had Already Won, even if they didn't seem to know what that all meant?

Yeah, it turns out, and the powers-that-be at Marvel and DC already knew this (and said as much in interviews over the years), even if they tried to give us what we said we wanted, that Event Comics drive sales. Readers complain about too many events, but when they put good creators on good comics "Wolverine: Weapon X" or "Thor: Mighty Avenger," and those comics don't tie in to any crossovers, then those comics die. Nobody reads them.

Readers want events. People even bought "Shadowland," which was one of those new-fangled (actually, old-fangled) mini-events that Marvel rolled out to give us a break from Major Events, and "Shadowland" was a terrible comic. It had terrible tie-ins. Embarassingly bad issues, even by Event standards. (And I've read "Atlantis Attacks!") But it still drove sales more effectively than the seemingly-good strategy of a strong creative team on an iconic character.

Same thing with "Blackest Night," which was the last DC event, and, apparently, the lead-in to the next DC event with 2011's "War of the Lanterns." "Blackest Night" was a zillion times better -- it looked better, and it was absurd and goofy in all the right ways, while "Shadowland" was just full of clichés that rolled out laboriously -- and even "Brightest Day," which isn't really an event, so much as an anthology series that uses its quasi-event status to sell more stories about Firestorm and Deadman and Aquaman than any of those characters could sell on their own. It's clearly a shrewdly-conceived plan to give these B-list characters their chance to shine, in a marketplace that cannot sustain a good Thor comic, and it reads like just such a marketing plan. "Hey, let's make Black Manta terrifying, to make Aquaman seem cool." "Hey, if we use the Black Lantern Firestorm as a villain, Firestorm will have a suitable nemesis." "Hey, Martian Manhunter is sad, because his family is dead, but what if we made him sadder, like, a lot?" But "Brightest Day" works, as transparent as its intentions are, because of the skill involved on the creative side. Geoff Johns and Peter Tomasi can pull off the populist superhero epic, and the art has been competent-to-outstanding, depending on the penciller.

So, what does it all mean? What does it matter? It means that Matt Fraction and Stuart Immonen sound like a pretty great creative team to tackle "Fear Itself," and even if we all moan about Event Comics, we will rush out and buy all the issues of that series, won't we? And they have a decent shot at being compelling, fun reading experiences, in the way that normal, continuity-driven monthly comics so often just aren't.

I guess that's the lesson. Big Superhero Events may rarely create phenomenal comics, but they do make the grand narrative of Marvel and DC more compelling, which raises the interest level, if not the quality, in the mid-list titles. Without Events, you end up with some unreadable "Teen Titans" and "Green Arrow" comics and a stack of "Deadpool Meets Godzilla" issues.

Readers want comics that matter, even if what "matters" is dictated by profit margins. That might sound cynical, but if the comics that sell medium-well don't feel like they matter, and the comics that are actually good don't sell well enough to last, what are you left with? Mainstream superhero comics in 2010, pretty much.

The "First Wave" Line Kind of Failed Already, Didn't It?

It may be too late to even bother talking about "First Wave," DC's attempt at bringing the pulp heroes to the 21st century mainstream. The line seems dead in the water, with the main Azzarello/Morales series limping, delayed, to the finish, and creative team changes after the first few months of "The Spirit" and "Doc Savage."

But though the last issue of "First Wave" was the worst so far, the "Doc Savage" series has been revitalized by the arrival of Ivan Brandon and Nic Klein. It's a series worth reading, finally, and I'm sure not enough people have stuck around to see that happen. "The Spirit" is the best of the bunch, and has been since David Hine stepped in as writer. Moritat makes this comic look like no other, and it's the first time we've ever seen Denny Colt involved in multi-issue (pulpy!) stories, as far as I can tell. Will Eisner's best Spirit stories used the character as a device to play around with form, or used him as a supporting character as he examined far more interesting denizens of the city. Darwyn Cooke didn't do Eisner's version, but he did his riff on Eisner's version, with single-issue tales that had some kind of tightrope-walking formalism or some kind of O. Henryish twist in the classic mold. Hine and Moritat turn the Spirit into a two-fisted adventurer in a larger-than-life crime-ridden city. It's almost cracked my Top 10 for Best Comics of the Year.

I can't imagine that the future of the "First Wave" line looks too bright, and that makes me a bit sad, because I'll keep reading "Doc Savage" and "The Spirit" for years, as long as the comics are as good as they are now. And I even heard rumors, earlier this year, of a major new Brian Azzarello series with an amazing artist, set in the "First Wave" world. I hope that series happens, though I suspect that reader apathy toward the line might prevent the launch. For all I know, it's already been abandoned. We'll see.

Scott Snyder's Rise to Power

In case you've missed it, though I don't know how you could, I've been tracking Scott Snyder's rise to comic book prominence all year. Last March, I posted a "Who is This Guy?" interview with the man. I talked with him again in August and September, about his work on "American Vampire" and "Detective Comics" and our mutual love for Grant Morrison comics.

I suspect his run on "Detective Comics" will be on my shortlist for Best Comics of 2011, and I say that with some knowledge about what's coming up in the next six months.

Though I didn't meet Snyder until the New York Comic Con this summer, I've known him (the way that I've know most of my comic book acquaintances, via email and social networking) for over a year. I got to know him before any of his series, even "Iron Man: Noir," hit the stands. We certainly have a lot in common, and I think he's got the chops to write some phenomenal comics.

It didn't take long for many others to recognize the quality of what he's doing.

He's also approaching it the right way. Beyond getting Stephen King to co-write his Vertigo debut, which is obviously a great way to boost sales from the start, Snyder has also been out hustling and making sure everyone knows that he's writing some damn fine comics. He's posting review links on Twitter, he's emailing comic book journalists, he's personally sending out copies of his comics. Even though he is writing the comic with DC's name in the title, he's still out hustling, trying to get the word out.

And because his comics are good, because his writing is precise and razor-sharp without being overly sensationalistic, and because he's been paired with top-notch artists, his self-promotion has substance to it. He's not out there shouting, "My comics are great!" and then failing to deliver. He's out there shouting, "I'm writing some comics, take a look and see if you like them," and then people can make up their own minds. He draws them in with his enthusiasm, but holds on to them with the quality of the comics themselves.

Scott Snyder may not be writing a ton of comics right now, but between "American Vampire" and "Detective Comics," he's delivering quality stories, twice a month. And I'm sure he's just getting started.

Fusion Comics: "King City," "Orc Stain," and Friends

In July, Frank Santoro posted a couple of interesting observations and/or notes about what he termed "Fusion Comics." If you don't already know, Santoro is one of the best thinkers in and around comics. He is always worth reading, and his sensibilities run from the outlandishly obscure to the deviously mainstream (he'll ruminate on "The Saga of Crystar: Crystal Warrior" far longer than anyone else you know). Above all, he delights in artistry, and in artists who play with form and color and page layout. He studies it, and he revels in it.

With his observations about Fusion Comics, Santoro attempts to grapple with the idea that there's a crop of comic book writers and artists (and writer/artists) who are filtering their influences in rapid-fire fashion and churning it into something genre-based but outside the mainstream (yet delivered in mainstream-esque packages). It's not quite alt-comics as genre comics, but it kind of is, and Gary Panter is probably the patron saint of the whole thing, even if none of the comics Santoro cites, like "King City," "Orc Stain," "Bulletproof Coffin," or "Lose," owe anything to the Panter look.

But there's something in that Panteresque mash-up of superhero comics iconography, and the rawness of underground art -- or graffiti -- that feeds into the Fusion effect.

Then again, Paul Pope's "THB" would surely be an early, and influential, bit of Fusion, so Fusion isn't anything unique to 2010.

It does seem to make sense to find some sort of category to put these kinds of comics in, because they are more than just alt-genre comics, and they are certainly some of the best comics of the year. The sheer abundance of these kinds of comics (from the examples mentioned above, to new Picturebox releases like "If-n-Oof" and "Powr Mastrs Vol. 3," and even "Prison Pit" #2 and "Dungeon Quest," not to mention the wallowing-in-genre-brutality work of Benjamin Marra) seems to demand that they be recognized, labeled, as something.

I don't have an answer, and "Fusion" seems like as strong a term as anything else. I just wanted to point out that these comics are out there, and growing in number, and that is something we should appreciate. Because they're good.

Better than most. Better than "Shadowland."

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

Follow Tim on Twitter: TimCallahan

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