Pipeline: Teddy Ruxpin, Rob Liefeld, comiXology & "Frozen"

Tue, April 15th, 2014 at 2:58pm PDT

Comic Books
Augie De Blieck Jr., Columnist

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DIGITAL COMICS SELLS OUT? OR UP?

I think that's what makes me saddest about Amazon's purchase of comiXology; it's another data point that the ambitions of the little guy will always be swept away the second a company with deeper pockets throws money at them. I understand it. Heck, if I built a big and powerful company and someone offered me life-changing money for it, I can't say I wouldn't sell, too.

It's just... sad that we've lost that ambition. The only one in recent years with the guts to not sell his company in the face of billions of dollars is Mark Zuckerberg. He turned down some amazing acquisition offers over the years and is now in the position to do all the buying.

Looking at the numbers on CrunchBase, we see that comiXology has received $2.4 million in investments and just over a million in debt financing. Overall, those numbers seem tiny for a company that was bringing in decent and recurring revenues. But who knows how much it cost to get there? There's a lot of wheeling and dealing work being done, a lot of content distribution to account for, and lots of development and new programs left to finance. None of that is cheap. $3 million can go away in a heartbeat, even in the best run company.

Let's back off the tech company acquisition analysis and look at the comics industry side of things:

One of the problems with digital comics since the beginning is that it's replaced one middleman (Diamond) with another (comiXology and, for the most part, Apple). Spending the money to build an IT infrastructure to sell one's own comics seemed like such a daunting task not that long ago. The best deal was to let comiXology do it and give them a cut in return.

Times might be changing, though. Image sells its own DRM-free PDFs. Dark Horse has its own service. Marvel is clearly moving in its own direction. We're getting to the point where the single point of purchase is already going away. The hopes of an iTunes for comics, now basically achieved, might be starting to whither, as all participants fight for a bigger part of a growing pie. That means comiXology's power is lessening. comiXology's biggest problem is and has always been that it's dependent on the companies that it provides a service to. comiXology can't sell Marvel and DC Comics unless those two companies allow them to under their own terms.

Being the single point of sale for the entire industry is a noble goal, but one that IP owners have been avoiding at all costs since Apple saved the music industry from Napster and then became such a dominant player. Apple is a victim of their own success in some ways. There are lots of things that people want the Apple TV to be, for example, but that Apple could never make happen because they'll never get that level of buy-in from the cable companies or the cable networks or the major television networks or the producers of that material. The same goes for Amazon and Google and all the rest looking to make living room set-top boxes. We know what we'd like, but there's no way in heck that the producers would ever disrupt their business model in such a fundamental way. (Even the major sports apps still have blackout rules against local teams. Maddening!)

comiXology now finds themselves at that crossroads -- if they can't convince publishers to let them carry their IP, there's nothing they can do. So if the owners of that material decide to go their own way, comiXology is screwed. The question now is, does comiXology's new deal make them a more attractive distributor with the power and brand recognition of Amazon behind them? Or does it make them look more scary, like the monoculture that the publishers are afraid to get into bed with for fear of behind forever beholden to them?

At one point, we would have gladly welcomed Amazon into the world of comics distribution. Nowadays, we hesitate, wondering if we don't want to replace Diamond with the notoriously hard-dealing and cheap power of Amazon. Do you want to replace Steve Geppi with Jeff Bezos?

Look, there's every possibility that this could work out well in the end. Amazon does keep its feet on the ground for the most part. Its list of purchased companies include money-makers that have been easily integrated into the Amazon infrastructure, or left alone to continue to do their own thing. Amazon doesn't buy companies on a moon shot to build some crazy radical futuristic idea. Even its own drone program is related directly to its core business.

Amazon must think there's enough money in comics to buy comiXology, right? That might be the most hopeful thing of all of this.

ONE MORE ABOUT THE AUCTION

I received a copy of the Christie's Paris book (hardcover!) for the recent original art auction that brought in over five million dollars.

As expected, it's beautiful. The production quality on the book is top notch. For what is essentially a catalog for an auction, they spared no expense. This is a better quality of paper than any comics are currently printed on. It has a slight sheen to it to help show the colors. There's no bleed through, and there's no reflective quality that makes reading the book impossible under ceiling lights. The most impressive part was in the blow-ups on the art, where you can make out the different shades of black in the inks. Check out the Uderzo pages, in particular, starting on page 236 for that detail.

It made me wish there was more art in the auction, just so we could have more pretty pictures in the catalogue.

It's not an art book, per se. Most of the art is still shown at quarter-page size, at best, but it's still worth it. The larger images are gorgeous, and the overall cross section of art styles is amazing.

It's also completely in French, so you'll miss a lot in the art descriptions. Still, it doesn't matter. You could get lost randomly flipping to different pages in this book. You may never see the words next to them.

Keep an eye on Christie's site for when the catalogue becomes available for sale.

RIP TEDDY RUXPIN

The man who created Teddy Ruxpin died last week. Ken Forsse was 77 years old. His story is an interesting read, particularly for those of us who were on the kid-facing side of that toy back in the '80s. It contains nuggets like this:

Earl Kenneth Forsse was born on Sept. 17, 1936, in Bellwood, Neb., where his father ran a grain elevator. When he was 6 his family moved to Burbank, Calif., where he built furniture and toys and learned painting from his sister, Mary. He also learned to draw 3-D comics.

He went to work in the Disney mailroom after high school and eventually joined the studio’s vaunted animation team. In 1959 he was drafted into the Army and assigned to decorate officers’ clubs. He returned to Disney and built models for amusement park attractions.

Emphasis mine.

Comic book people are everywhere.

LIEFELD THE INKER

Rob Liefeld posted this image on Instagram a couple weeks back. I couldn't help notice his ink lines on the close-up. Liefeld doesn't get nearly as much credit as he deserves for his inking. Yes, it's stylistic and best used with the kind of work he does, but you know what? There's some serious chops behind that. Check out the lines on the bottom half of Cable's glove. They're perfectly consistent in their weight, going from thick on the bottom to thin as they reach up. Their length changes to provide an effectively round line at the top. Then look at the little lines on Cable's up-stretched forearm. The long lateral lines define structure, but those little perpendicular lines running horizontally add great texture and style.

For someone who gets nicked sometimes as just a guy who draws lots of little busy lines to cover his art up, Liefeld does know what he's doing. Those lines appear to be there with specific intent. They have good weight distribution, not just a bunch of ink pen-drawn lines that any hack could pull off. He includes solid areas of black to give some weight to his images, too.

It might not be the most sophisticated and nuanced style, but it works for his art and shows an awareness of more fundamentals than you might think to give him credit for.

AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #303: "Dock Savage"

Spider-Man joins up with Silver Sable and Sandman to take down a neo-Nazi. Meanwhile, Peter Parker and Mary Jane make a decision about Peter's career...

The storyline about Peter's job offer in Kansas ends pretty quickly. Mary Jane agrees to move to Kansas with him, and Peter Parker decides to go back to school instead. The potential fireworks for the situation are diffused quickly, as both feel side effects in their "day jobs" thinking about the situation rather than the job at hand. I'm sure there will be no hard feelings on either side, and everyone will live happily ever after.

Until Mephisto makes them a deal a decade later...

You can see David Michelinie and Todd McFarlane starting to work together with this issue. It feels like Michelinie is starting to sense what a jolt of energy McFarlane's art is for the book, and gives him plenty of chances to show off. The first two pages are blatant expositional recap of the last couple of issues, but they're delivered in thought balloons by Spider-Man as he swings across the city and perches on top of the Chrysler building. Any excuse to let McFarlane draw Spider-Man in costume swinging around is a good one. It gives McFarlane a chance to stretch his legs and draw what he's best at. The perspective on the Chrysler building feels off somewhat on the second page, but it's really just a two page sequence to show us some of Spider-Man's moves. Very few people probably looked closely enough to see if the perspective made sense. They were blinded by Spider-Man's pose in the next panel, I'm sure.

McFarlane's art is a little inconsistent in this issue again, with some pages looking like he either rushed it or was bored by it. Heavily detailed pages are followed by sparsely-inked pages. Thin lines are followed by thicker ones. But he lets his inks loose on Sandman's pages, working hard to draw the sand texture of Sandman's body.

Spider-Man goes up against some guys in a jet pack in a sequence that I really loved. It starts off with a wide angle shot of Spider-Man swinging two flyers together, and then popping the pack off a third with a cute quip. It's the funniest line I've read in a Michelinie script. I'm appropriating "Flap your arms! Flap your arms!" for any time I need some useless quip suggestion in the face of impending doom. It'll be the new "Stupid, stupid rat creatures" in no time flat. (I'm kidding about that last part, but I think I will adopt this for my bag of quick response tricks. )

Another of the funs of pre-Adobe Illustrator-driven lettering in comics is how easy it is to tell when a last minute patch job had to be performed in the bullpen. The lettering styles never matched up perfectly, and no matter how lowly you might think of Rick Parker's lettering, the patch jobs were always worse. Here's one example. Check out that third panel.

My only question is, were the Spidey sense signals added to the art in post-production, too? If they were already there, the thought balloon isn't necessary. Maybe this is a case of hitting a problem with both suspenders and belt? Show the sense and ALSO explain it to help ward off any angry letter writers?

McFarlane averages about once an issue where a close-up on a character's face leant itself to a different inking and lighting style. These are the panels he takes Rembrandt lighting to the max.

The final page introduces a dark and shadowy triumvirate of smoking men bent on ruining Peter Parker's world. I don't think it's explained directly in the next issue, but I do believe these are the book publishers who publish a book of Peter's Spider-Man photos and send him on a book tour.

That's it for this week. Next week we'll move to Peter Parker's book tour and the mayhem that results. And, with the book going bi-weekly, it's time for a guest inker!

BONUS VIDEO LINK

Check out this video for "How Frozen Should Have Ended." Hint: Elsa joins a certain school for mutants. She and Bobby Drake would make such a cute couple, don't you think?

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TAGS:  pipeline, todd mcfarlane, spider-man, amazing spider-man, rob liefeld, comixology

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