Is it time to leave the past behind?

September 3rd, 2010 Posted by david brothers

Brian Michael Bendis has been writing Avengers-related books since 2004. Across three series, six years, and something like 100 issues, Bendis has been the main architect for the non-X-Men part of the Marvel Universe. A stray thought flickered across my brain earlier tonight and it kind of bothered me. I’ve read most of Bendis’s Avengers, and liked some of it, but this thought just wouldn’t go away. “How many villains did Bendis invent for the Avengers to fight?”

The answer is one. In The Collective, the third collection I believe, he introduced Michael Pointer, a man who was possessed by mutant powers and was also maybe Xorn? Other than that, everything else Bendis introduced is a new, or mediocre, spin on an old idea. Hawkeye becomes Ronin, skrulls shapeshift into heroes, and a Spider-Man villain causes problems. Luke Cage and Jessica Jones having a daughter should maybe count as being a new idea, which raises the total to two.

That’s a one new idea every fifty issues average.

The biggest takeaway from Darwyn Cooke’s interview the other day is about ideas and originality. His point about changing characters to pander to the audience is a good one, and sparked some interesting (and asinine) discussion in the comments. It’s also an argument I keep coming back to when looking at cape comics and trying to decide what’s worth buying. I think that legacies, and the kind of worshipful attention to continuity that legacies imply, is both interesting and odious.

Okay. For whatever reason, there are stories that matter more than other stories in the Big Two. They advance the stories of characters people are about, etc etc. You already know this, I’ve already called it dumb, and veered dangerously close into whiny “Why don’t people like what I like” territory at the same time. But it is what it is, and that is what sells. When you get a chance to play in the side of the Shared Universe playground, when you get to the point where you’re Geoff Johns or Brian Bendis or Jonathan Hickman or whoever, you want to 1) have your stories matter and 2) play with all the toys.

That’s the fun of shared universes. You get to contribute to this amazing tapestry that existed decades before you were born. You can reference all of your favorite stories and hopefully create new favorites for others. If you’re open to it, you can even create some new concepts or spin an old character off into a legacy character, thereby staking out your own claim on the tapestry.

If you’re coming into comics now, you’re coming into an industry with a history. Fans expect to see Dr. Doom in Fantastic Four, and more than that, they expect to see your take on Dr. Doom. He haunts every run on the book in a way that Paste Pot Pete doesn’t. This is true of the Joker and Batman, Lex Luthor and Superman, and Hypno Hustler and Spider-Man. There’s a reason that Grant Morrison threw Magneto into New X-Men the way he did. You have to use these characters because that’s who these heroes fight. This is established behavior.

The Avengers fight Avengers villains. Bendis’s run seems to show that this is how it works, isn’t it? Even the story about the new villain ended up being about Magneto in the end. But the breakout, Sentry origin, Civil War, Secret Invasion… they didn’t actually introduce much, did they? Skrulls invade, heroes beef, and the latest verse sounds a whole lot like the verse that came before it, doesn’t it?

I think that, past a certain point, telling new stories with old characters is going to end up being diminishing returns. If the Avengers only fight Avengers villains, where’s the new blood going to come from? Who are the next Avengers villains going to fight? Is there a good reason for the Fantastic Four to fight Dr. Doom once every couple of years beyond “Well, that’s how it is?”

I think legacy characters often have the same result. You trade a lot in favor of a little. Two simple, and fantastic, examples: Renee Montoya and Crispus Allen were two stand-out characters from Gotham Central, which was probably the best bat-related book on the stands at the time. Montoya self-destructed, Allen died, and the series ended. Later, Renee becomes the new Question and Crispus becomes the new, goateed Spectre.

We traded four characters for two, and I don’t think that was a fair trade at all. Montoya and Allen both had very interesting roles to play, and their new superheroic identities often don’t seem to have much to do with that. Allen was an upright and moral man, and his role as part of the Spectre is apparently to go “Hey hold on now do we have to turn this guy into an elephant and sell his tusks on the black market? That’s ironic, yes, but it’s also cruel. Also I miss my family.” Montoya had turned boozing into an art, and while her climb back to sobriety was a pretty good read, none of it actually necessitated her being The Question to get it done.

Would Montoya becoming a PI appreciably change any of her stories? I don’t think they would. The Question is pretty low-tech as a concept, so all you really need is a hat and a trenchcoat. Why not keep both? Why use Renee to revive The Question trademark? Why use The Question to prop up Renee?

I’ve seen people argue that it’s better to have these characters in stories than not, so better that they change form than languish in obscurity, but I don’t buy that line of reasoning at all. I think that the value we get from having Montoya or Allen showing up once or twice a year these days isn’t worth the loss of the four characters that make them up. If characters aren’t appearing, then no one has stories to tell with them. Write stories with them or don’t write stories with them, rather than playing Dr. Frankenstein.

100 or so issues, one brand new villain. Four characters reduced to two, and the two that remain are decades old. Do you see how ridiculous that looks? That’s what happens when you have this kind of reverence for your shared universe. It’s stifling, isn’t it? If you don’t introduce new concepts and keep bowing down to the altar of old folks’ comics, all you’re going to make is old folks’ comics. It’s like if every third James Bond movie featured him fighting Jaws, or if Spike Lee kept doing movies about Radio Raheem.

A good story trumps everything, obviously, but the more I think about legacy characters, the more I feel like it’s time to jettison that entire idea. No New Legacies. We’re stuck with the ones we have, obviously, but why did Jaime Reyes have to be a Blue Beetle? Was Jason Rusch as Firestorm a choice that was worth it in the end? What if he were a different, all-new character instead? Why wasn’t he an all-new character? Why did he have to be an old character in new clothes? I know that if I never see Black (Established Hero) again, it’ll be too soon. I understand why it happens, both from a charitable view (Someone wants to add to the tapestry and had a good idea how to do it) and a cynical view (they want to trick colored folks into reading their comics by ticking a box on the Diversity Checklist), but I would absolutely rather see someone all-new, maybe with connections to the old character, under a brand new name, rather than a replacement.

Should you have to make thin connections to established heroes to make your character a minor success? I feel like if the Big Two can’t support new concepts, then the Big Two are broken. Is that unfair?

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Fourcast! 59: Fortnight in Review

August 30th, 2010 Posted by david brothers

-Two Weeks of Comics!
-Several minutes of reviews!
-Esther read stuff like Tiny Titans, Superman/Batman, Action Comics, and Dark Wolverine.
-David hasn’t been to a comic shop in a couple weeks, so aside from New Mutants, he’s been reading regular books.
-Books like Peepo Choo, Chi’s Sweet Home, Lobster Johnson
Here’s what Chris Butcher said about Chi’s that finally got me to buy it.
-6th Sense’s 4a.m. Instrumental for the theme music.
-See you, space cowboy!

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Atlas #1: “My three-dimensional fade is clean cut”

May 21st, 2010 Posted by david brothers

I like a lot of crappy characters. It comes with the territory, I think. Everybody has those weird little crap characters they like. More specifically, though, I’ve got a perverse fascination with crappy black characters, which should come as no surprise to anyone who has read more than ten words of this site before. I mean, I’m just saying that I [slang term], [rap reference], [animated gif of someone shaking their head], y’know?

But there’s something I love about all these characters that were just dashed off back in the day. Moses Magnum has the greatest name in comics, the kind of name you just steal outright if you ever get a chance. Hypno-Hustler has a great name and backup singers. Shades & Comanche are the down-on-their-luck scrubs that litter every story about the hood. I don’t even have to defend my love of these characters, either. There are people out there who want to read about people whose only power is “I shrink.”

One crappy black character I never liked, though, was Triathlon. Delroy Garrett was introduced in Kurt Busiek and George Perez’s Avengers, in a story with Moses Magnum no less, but I never took to him. He was boring. He had some weird Fake Scientologist entanglement, his costume was ehhh, and his powers were lame. Oh, you are as strong as three guys? Congrats, I’m happy for you. Learn to shoot lasers or use a sword.

Jeff Parker and Gabriel Hardman, though. Those guys looked to be featuring Delroy Garrett in his new role as the 3-D Man in Atlas. I couldn’t even really say that I was skeptical. I think I knew he was going to be in the book going in, but Parker has rarely done me wrong. I liked his Agents of Atlas work both times around. They were pretty clever and deftly written little books, weaving into and out of Marvel history without feeling like a Crisis or a history lesson.

This week’s Atlas #1 is the grand return of the Agents of Atlas. The first series (which had fantastic covers) was an introduction and establishment of a status quo for the Agents. The second series placed them squarely within Marvel’s Dark Reign status quo, kind of like how the second Runaways series tied in a little closer to the greater Marvel Universe.

This third one, though, feels like something different. It also stars Delroy Garrett as a has-been hero. He made some hard decisions during the Skrull invasion, and the aftermath of those decisions is that he has been completely ostracized by his peers. He’s looking around for a new career in Los Angeles with his actress girlfriend when he runs into trouble. Garrett ends up being accused of murdering one of his mentors, on the run from the police, hunted by some mysterious entity, and suffering from vivid nightmares. The nightmares point directly toward Atlas.

The tone of Atlas is something like ’50s paranoia, like in Invasion of the Body Snatchers. There’s a creeping feeling of mystery and danger that runs through the issue. Everything Delroy trusts is either wrong or broken, and his one lifeline is a comatose old man. He’s one man against the world, with no friends and no allies to speak of.

As befitting the tone of the book, the agents haunt Delroy. They appear in nightmares, news reports, and as silent characters up until the end of the first story. They infest his dreams and while they don’t come across as villains, exactly, it is clear that Atlas isn’t your same old super-team.

This book was excellent. Hardman and Elizabeth Breitweiser’s art was appropriately moody and subdued, Parker’s dialogue and pacing were on point, and (pregnant pause) it made me a fan of the 3-D Man. His new status quo works for me in a way that Triathlon never did. I never thought that would happen, but what can you do? I picked up the first issue on a whim, rather than waiting for the trade like I usually do, and it paid off huge. Huge enough that I’m buying it monthly from here on out. Check out the preview at CBR and go pick it up.

Looks like next week is going to feature another Jeff Parker bullet to the dome, too. Good show.

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That’s mighty white of ya

May 13th, 2010 Posted by david brothers

* finally, I’m not sure I understand either Sean Collins’ piece on superhero regression or the piece that inspired it, but it seems to me kind of dopey to pin racial diversification on swapping people out of costumes. The worlds that the superheroes live on have such a hopelessly retrograde and inadequate sense of anything other than their white people that I don’t hold out for them ever getting better.

-Tom Spurgeon, Random Comics News Story Round-Up 05/12/10

He’s right, of course.

Most cape books barely have a handle on decent characterization, and expecting the Big Two to catch up with reality is dumb. Sorry, Charlie, but that just ain’t gonna happen.

I’m not saying that they don’t manage to do nice things with colored folks sometimes. I quite liked Jason Rusch as Firestorm, and Jaime Reyes as Blue Beetle gave DC a nice Spider-Man character. Cassandra Cain had a fantastic hook, and John Henry Irons was a nice twist on the super-scientist character. Even boring old John Stewart is not without his charms.

But, when you get down to brass tacks–all of these are third stringers and supporting characters now. And guess who gets the axe when the time comes to up the ante? Guess who can fade into obscurity with minimal impact on the status quo? If you expect the Big Two to push a more diverse or realistic cast rather than pandering to the idea of legacy or iconic characters… well.

How’s that working out for you?

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Battle for Asgard

April 28th, 2010 Posted by david brothers

Comic fans are funny.

From the Guardian the other day, in an article about Idris Elba playing Heimdall in Marvel’s Thor movie:

His view was not shared among the more vehement of the comic books’ fans. “This PC crap has gone too far!” wailed one. “Norse deities are not of an African ethnicity! … It’s the principle of the matter. It’s about respecting the integrity of the source material, both comics and Norse mythologies.”

Fellow fans were quick to nod their horn-helmeted heads.

“At the risk of sounding like a bigot, I think this is nuts!” said another. “Asgard is home to the Norse Gods!!! Not too many un-fair complexion types roaming the frigid waste lands up there. I wouldn’t expect to see many Brad Pitt types walking around in the [first mainstream black superhero] Black Panther’s Wakanda Palace!”

I had a hunch, so I got on the googling machine and found out that they were from (wait for it) ComicBookMovie.com. The guy also hit up everyone’s favorite bastion of good taste and peaceful tolerance, Newsarama! The conversations on both sites go about how you’d expect. The usual protestations against political correctness, “what if it was a black guy being replaced by a white guy,” blah blah blah. It’s the same argument you’ve seen on every comics site ever since Elba was announced as playing the role. I’m sure you can find it on CBR, Scans Daily, and whatever forum you care to name. Sometimes people are reasonable, sometimes people fight back against affirmative action. There’s a range

But, really, Captain I’m Not A Racist BUT has a point. Heimdall is a Norse god, and specifically considered to be the whitest of the gods. Idris Elba… isn’t. It’s race-changing for no good reason, beyond having a little more color in the cast and a talented dude getting work. It’s no different than Michael Clarke Duncan as Kingpin in Daredevil (though he is the only actor I can think of with the physique for that role) or Alicia Masters in Fantastic Four.

But on the other hand… Marvel’s Thor is a sci-fi infused mythological remix, where gods dress like people from outer space and live in golden, gleaming spires. Asgard’s most popular non-Thor deities are a space horse, Errol Flynn, Charles Bronson cosplaying Genghis Khan, and Falstaff. Liberties have already been taken, what’s one more?

I guess what I’m really trying to say is…

sucks to be you, homey. There’s no pity in the city.

(Schadenfreude? What’s that?)

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Death to Canon

April 28th, 2010 Posted by david brothers

A large part of the appeal of superheroes is the ongoing narrative. Like soap operas, wrestling, and movie franchises, people like to drop in and see what’s going on with a character. While there are Elseworlds, What Ifs, dreams, alternate universes, and house shows, there’s a clear series of stories that are “real.” You can trace the biography of Clark Kent from 1938 to 2010, and buy books that tell that story from the beginning. Regular reinventions re-tell his origin, but with rotary phones replaced with touchtone phones, and then newspapers replaced by the internet, and then the internet replaced by newspapers again.

This has expanded from a biography into a mythology. It’s not enough to have Clark Kent from ’39 to ’10. You need to know Clark Kent’s place in the DC Universe, and how he relates to thousands of other characters. There is a narrative, whether on a small scale or a macro scale, that you can follow from A-Z. Superman died [mumble] years ago and this is how it affected Blue Beetle. Peter Parker fought Norman Osborn in college, and here is how that affects the Marvel Universe. Stories that do not fit into that narrative are either handwaved away in favor of the new interpretation of the character or deprecated and consigned to the realm of “imaginary stories.”

The idea of “real” stories is one that Marvel and DC both have wholly embraced. It is the stuff that runs in the veins of big events, and the reason why comics fans claim that they hate events but buy them anyway. “I want to know what happens! This matters!” You want that next chapter in the ongoing story, you need to know what happens to Peter Parker in Civil War, and you want to know the effects of Secret Invasion on the greater Marvel Universe. You’re invested in the narrative.

That investment leads to the immediacy that drives the direct market. You can go to the comic shop every week and get an update on whichever universe you prefer. If you don’t have that immediacy, that lust for the periodical, you have no reason to hit a comic shop and can just order the completed stories a few months down the line and read them at your leisure. DC’s recently stated wish to push back against trade waiters and emphasize the monthly comics (a move I find, frankly, idiotic and backwards) is their latest attempt to maintain their stranglehold on that market. These are the lifers, the ones who go in, buy their comics, complain, and buy them again the next month.

Series that don’t tie into the narrative sink like rocks. Barring aberrations like Deadpool’s current status, who ride a bubble of interest until it fizzles out, anecdotal knowledge says that niche books don’t sell. Recent casualties: Blade, Blue Beetle, Captain Britain & MI-13, SWORD, and Brother Voodoo. Books like Runaways and Agents of Atlas are repeatedly relaunched, repositioned, and revamped in an attempt to keep readers. Runaways in particular was changed to tie directly into the greater Marvel Universe for its second volume.

Those books get cancelled because retailers know that readers want important stories, so they order accordingly. Who cares what happened in Runaways? Is Spider-Man even in that? And The Mighty? Who is that? Is Green Lantern ever gonna guest star? “Save ______” campaigns, barring the amazing dedication of Spider-Girl fans, rarely work. The books get resurrected, retailers order a couple extra copies at best, since the last series failed, and then we’re left right back where we started: “Save ______.”

Simple question: why? Why are the books that are “real” considered more “real” than the others? In the end, the only thing you get out of reading a “real” story is a different set of fake information about a fake character. Both results are equally fake. You think somebody who only ever watched The Dark Knight cares that Batman once fought a dude with eyeballs where his fingertips go? Or that Spider-Man getting married matters more than that time Venom drove a truck in the Spider-Man cartoon? No, because here is the truth: all stories are fake stories. Granted, there is a certain amount of pleasure in following a character’s ongoing adventures, but let’s be real: all stories are fake stories. Being part of a string of fake stories doesn’t make it any more real than the other fake story.

So, why is Amazing Spider-Man more real than Spider-Man Noir? Easy: Marvel says so. Or DC says so. Or whoever. They have a vested interest in keeping their captive audience, for lack of a better phrase, so they maintain something approaching a canon, a group of stories that are “real.” Those other stories, Elseworlds and What Ifs and whatever, are fake, and you don’t need them to know what’s going on. If you buy them, that’s great, but look–Siege is what you need. Buy Green Lantern because it’s important.

My least favorite question in comics is “Is this in continuity?” That’s a frustrating question, especially when recommending a book to someone. There is the implication that stories that are in continuity matter more than ones that don’t, when that is undeniably false. I read Spider-Man comics for a few years without ever picking up Amazing Spider-Man.

Nowadays, I think the thrice-weekly Amazing Spider-Man is a great book, one of the most consistently good cape books on the stands. It has had its low points, its dips in quality, but the overall package is good. Last January, it was moving about sixty thousand units.

Spider-Man Noir is honestly one of my favorite Spider-Man stories. The writing was on point, the art was excellent, and it all came together very well. As far as Spidey stories go, it hits all the notes to make it a classic. It shipped thirty-one thousand copies.

Why the discrepancy? One is real, the other is not.

The problem with this system is that quality does not matter. Avengers Disassembled and Ultimatum were deck-clearing exercises. Everyone hated Spider-Man: One More Day, but it sold 150k. Identity Crisis was a terrible mystery and Blackest Night ended when a ghost popped up in the last issue and told everyone how to beat the bad guy. But, since these books are important, they sold gangbusters. Add a logo or a banner to a low-selling comic, script a tie-in to the important event, and watch the sales jump while people see what’s going on with the greater continuity. And then watch them fall once the continuity cop stuff is over.

Death to canon.

I hate the way it’s used in comics. Rather than having stories that matter, treat every story like it matters, Elseworlds or no. You can still do the ground-shaking status quo events, you can do sequels, and you can do long-running series. In fact, the way Marvel collects its events already does this. If you go to the store to buy Annihilation, you have Annihilation Book One, Annihilation Book Two, and Annihilation Book Three. They contain several stories from a variety of writers, but all tell the story of the Annihilation Wave. House of M has been collected into several softcovers. And in the bookstore, these books do not have any primacy over Spider-Man Noir or Agents of Atlas.

What’s important is the story and the creators. Not the canon, not the format, not the wrapper, not the company that made it. The story and the people who created it are the only ones that matter in this equation. By removing that fixation on the canon from the situation, comics fans can find themselves dozens of new books that are just as good, and sometimes better, than the canon-centric titles they buy in droves and talk about online.

We get the comics industry we deserve. By focusing only on the Universes, you miss the good stuff. I shifted my perception and found a wealth of books I would’ve otherwise ignored that rocked my socks off. I’m a firm believer in liking what you like, but at the same time, if I ruled the world? Comics would be a whole lot different than they are now. Fake stories are fake stories, no matter what anyone says. Once I started treating them like that, I started liking comics a whole lot more than I did already.

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Realm of Kings For Cheap!

April 20th, 2010 Posted by david brothers

Amazon’s running a 71% off deal for the Realm of Kings hardcover that drops later this year. Summary:
Collecting three Realm of Kings series in one power-packed hardcover. In Imperial Guard, one hazardous mission may be the solution that everyone is praying for, but are the opinionated and fractured Guard tough enough – and united enough – to accomplish it? And in Inhumans, now led by Queen Medusa, the battered and bruised royal family struggles to maintain their grip on the reigns of power. Courtly intrigues and external threats are beginning to erode their rule, but the biggest threat may lurk within the family itself! Then in Son of Hulk, meet a new monster for a new age, and a challenger to the warring Kings of the Cosmos…he is Hiro-Kala, Son of Hulk, and this young apocalyptic visionary has a destructive destiny: obliterate the Universe! Collects Realm of Kings: Inhumans #1-5, Realm of Kings: Son of Hulk #1-4, and Realm of Kings: Imperial Guard #1-5.

These were all pretty good, and eleven bucks for 330+ pages? That’s a great deal. Preorder it if you like.

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Guest Post: Andrew Bayer on Digital Comics Pricing

April 12th, 2010 Posted by david brothers

Andrew Bayer is a friend of mine, and he had a few things to say about digital comics pricing, specifically with regard to Marvel’s iPad app. I thought it was interesting, maybe you will, too.

With Marvel’s iPad/iPhone app coming out and receiving gobs of acclaim for its presentation and usability, we seem to have finally gotten to the point where digital comics distribution looks like a viable business. There’s a distribution mechanism, a gorgeous UI, and most importantly, the buy-in of one of the Big Two. There are still big questions to be answered, the same sorts of questions that had to be answered for digital music and still need to be answered for digital books – how do we get the ability to buy a comic and read it in another app, on another platform, etc? How do we get to a standard file format for digital comics? How do we get rid of DRM? Of course, that last one plays into all the others, but the simplest answer there is that we, the consumers, need to prove to the publishers that there’s a strong enough market for digital comics, and a strong enough demand for portability, that they can see that DRM is not needed in order for digital comics to be a money-making endeavor for them. And that brings up the biggest question of all – how should digital comics be priced?

My initial reaction to Marvel pricing single issues of digital comics at $2 was that they were setting too high a price point – that’s been the general reaction I’ve seen pretty much everywhere, in fact. After all, Marvel’s already paid for creative, editors, legal, etc, and while there’s still production/distribution overhead for digital comics, that’s definitely going to be a lot less per issue than it is for physical floppies. So digital comics should be really cheap, you’d think. But if a publisher sets up digital comics pricing with the assumption that all the costs involved in producing the comic other than those specific to the digital edition are already covered by the print edition, they’re doomed. If the digital edition is significantly cheaper than the print edition, you’ll start seeing sales moving from print to digital – the eternal fear of the content companies that the digital version of something will cannibalize sales from the physical version. And if Marvel’s making less revenue for each digital issue than they are for the same comic in print form, then they’re going to lose revenue for every sale that switches from print to digital.

For that reason, the lowest possible price for Marvel to charge for a digital issue is one that nets them the same revenue as they’d get from a print sale of that comic. That’s the only way that digital comics can be a viable distribution stream for the publishers. They have to work under the assumption of a worst-case scenario – what if every print sale turned into a digital sale instead, with no increase in the number of copies sold? If the publisher makes less on each digital sale, well, then that worst-case scenario destroys the publisher, and they can’t take that risk. I’m working on the assumption that $2 hits that sweet spot for Marvel, where they’re taking in as much per digital issue sold as they would from a print sale. That seems about right to me – cut out the printing and shipping-to-Diamond costs, and then strip out Diamond’s cut, and finally the retailer’s cut, with the addition of Comixology’s cut, and $2 is probably the closest round number. Marvel’s not charging that because they’re trying to gouge the digital comics consumer – they’re charging that because they have to or the business model falls apart.

David brought up the question of old back issue pricing on Twitter – right now, Amazing Spider-Man #1 is at the same price in Marvel’s app as the latest issue. Admittedly, that doesn’t feel quite right – shouldn’t prices be different for issues from the ’60s than those from today? But I’d argue that Marvel again has no choice – single issue pricing must be consistent. What business case is there for selling the old issues for less? Yeah, the cover price is a lot lower than it is on a new comic now, but it’s not like you can go buy a new copy of a book published in the ’60s for lower prices than a book published a couple years ago (assuming the older book is still in print, of course). Why should digital comics be any different? Now, Marvel is missing a key feature in their store – the ability to buy an “album” of comics. Say, the first 50 issues of ASM for $30 – just as it’s cheaper to buy an album of mp3s on Amazon than it is to buy each song individually, it definitely would make sense to have similar bundling with digital comics. But Marvel can not budge from the $2 price for single issues, no matter how old the actual comic is – if they make ’60s comics a buck a piece, they’re setting a new floor for digital comic prices. If people can buy a Marvel comic for $1, why do they have to pay $2 for a different one? Marvel would end up facing pressure to drop prices on new single issues as well – and that’s just not viable as a business. There can be flexibility in pricing bundles – $30 could buy you the first 50 issues of ASM, but the same $30 might only buy you the first 25 issues of Brand New Day-era ASM – but I don’t see how Marvel could have the same sort of flexibility in single issues. Whatever you set as the lowest price for single issues, you’re going to end up having as the price for any single issue.

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Booze, Broads, & Bullets: Elektra Lives Again

April 12th, 2010 Posted by david brothers

Go read Chad Nevett on Sin City: The Hard Goodbye. I’ll wait. Promise. I got plenty of booze and broads right here, but the bullets are in my other jacket pocket. Index of posts here.

Elektra Lives Again is a Frank Miller/Lynn Varley joint from 1991. The title really says it all. This is the story of the return of Elektra, who died in Miller’s classic run on Daredevil, and the effect she has on Matt Murdock’s life. Elektra Lives Again is about obsession, in other words. Murdock doesn’t mourn her so much as he is haunted by her. The Hand want revenge on her for her disrespect, and will stop at nothing to get it.

Why is this book significant? It was Miller’s first stab at the character since 1986’s Elektra Assassin with Bill Sienkiewicz. Miller has admitted that his writing that book adjusted the way he approaches making comics due to the back and forth and explosion of ideas between Miller and Sienkiewicz.

Elektra Lives Again comes after that, and after that time Miller dropped four classics between 1986 and 1987. Nearly ten years had passed since his run on Daredevil began. Elektra Lives Again, like Dark Knight Strikes Again ten years later, was Frank Miller coming home again, going back to what made him a name.

Like Ronin, Elektra Lives Again is on another level visually. While all comics are group efforts, this is one of those that simply wouldn’t be the same without Varley’s painted colors. Miller is credit with script and line art, which I assume means that he inked himself. Most of the definition and shading seems to be courtesy of Varley, whether it is the diseased flesh of the zombies who hunt Elektra or Murdock’s feverish face while he dreams.

Ronin had a palette that brought to mind decaying organics and broken futures. This book, on the other hand, has a subdued palette. Even scenes that are lit by flames are dark and dreary, perfectly reflecting Matt Murdock’s mental state. Lynn Varley counts, though most of what i’m about to say is about Miller in particular.

There is a sequence of pages in this book that I’m in love with. It is the first of perhaps three major action scenes, and begins after Murdock has tried to heal his pain through sex with a client. It didn’t work, and he calls it “a sad thing.” He goes walking in his underwear, wrapped up his own thoughts, and ends up at her grave. Ninjas attack, demanding to know where Elektra is, and then Elektra rises from the ground, literally rising from her grave, and laying waste to the ninjas. Murdock and Elektra meet face-to-face, neither speaking, before Elektra makes her getaway.

It’s standard when spelled out, but the execution is obscenely beautiful. Miller lays out the page with enormous panels, generally two to a page and stacked vertically. They are packed with detail, whether that’s the intricate brickwork on Murdock’s brownstone, the constantly shifting graveyard, or the various weapons the ninjas use while attacking. Miller keeps the camera in motion during the fight, zooming in or out as needed, while leaving the background fluid.

But the mind-blowing part, the part I keep coming back to, is page twenty-three. Murdock hops off his railing, lands on a wire, and bounces to a rooftop. Anyone who has read a Batman, Spider-Man, or Daredevil comic knows it well, but I bet you’ve never seen it rendered like this. Matt’s form is practically angelic as he comes off his railing, and the only hint that he is in motion is the splash of snow he left behind.

He hits the wire and we capture a perfect moment between moments. Murdock is still in the process of landing on the wire, a split-second before his muscles shift and he launches himself upward to his next perch. In that split-second, we see that the snow that rested on the wire is still in mid-air, and he’s split it perfectly.

This is poetry in motion, one of those scenes that makes you pause and marvel. There’s a later page that is almost as amazing. Page 30 features Elektra pausing and then punching through a ninja as his momentum carries her off the hill. It’s great, but panel two, page twenty-three is king. It has a message, and that message is this: Frank Miller knows exactly what he is doing, and he is very good at what he does.

Look at the figures. There is none of the verve, none of the unlikely acrobatics that normally illustrate these kinds of scenes. There is no foot swung out wide, bat-symbol boots on display. No spider-web tangled and looping through and around the scenery. There is just a listless man, broken-hearted and blind with grief, going through the motions of what he does. But, despite the rote nature of the act, there is a certain level of beauty to be found there. There is grace.

Miller undoubtedly drew scenes like this hundreds of times in his career at this point. It is a classic superheroic action. Leaping from rooftop to rooftop is how everyone from Spider-Man to Speedball to Batman to Captain America gets around town. If you can’t fly, if you don’t have a fancy car, you take to the rooftops. It doesn’t get more superheroic than a hero on a roof.

But this isn’t superheroic at all. Murdock is just a man here. It’s something different. This is Miller pushing his limits. He’s done straight superheroes. He’s reinvented the biggest cape in the business. He got to have his cake and eat it, too, and then he blew your mind with Elektra Assassin. Ronin showed a certain restlessness in his art, a refusal to settle down. Elektra Lives Again is another signifier of that restlessness. This could’ve easily been just another Daredevil comic, but instead, it feels vaguely European. The storytelling is all wrong, the panels too big, and the star of the book too broken and haunted.

Murdock’s body language on the line, the broken snow, the enormous panels that waffle between claustrophobic and spacious– Miller is refining his art and growing up in public, here. This kind of graceful hero doesn’t really show up again in his writer/artist work, or at least not as blatantly as it does here. His Sin City yarns are big on bombast and not so much on the subtle storytelling. Perhaps in 300, but nothing comes to mind.

Panel two, page twenty-three keeps coming to mind when people talk about Frank Miller having lost it. It means a lot, more than I thought it did when I first read Elektra Lives Again a few years back. It’s a clear sign of a man pushing his craft forward, experimenting with new things, and breaking out of an old shell. It’s a killer page, and a small part of a beautiful book.

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The Top Three Marvel Heroes for DC Readers

April 6th, 2010 Posted by Esther Inglis-Arkell

At this point I stick to the DC side of the Faux Comics War merely because I’m not prepared to memorize the continuity, seek out the current stories, (Seriously, Marvel, what is wrong with your website?) and be enraged about the twists of yet another universe full of superheroes.  There are only so many hours in a day.

Still, there are a few characters out there who are fun enough and simple enough for me recommend wading hip-deep into murky water of weeklies, if only to pick up an issue or two for when DC weeks are lean.

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