Countdown to Halloween, Day Three: Murder in the Red Barn

Continuing our Halloween mixtape, we come to my favorite Halloweenie musician (hell, my favorite musician period): Mr. Tom Waits, and his album Bone Machine.

Bone Machine

Waits has said that he thinks of Bone Machine as a Halloween sort of album. And considering how very many Halloween-worthy tunes he’s turned out over the years, that’s really saying something. It’s true, though. Even more than most Waits albums, Bone Machine is packed to the gills with apocalyptic songs of death, demons… and murder.

One interesting side-note about this song: the title’s evidently taken from an old horror flick from the 1930s. I don’t know much about it, but this clip I found makes it look like a great old bit of lurid melodrama:

This isn’t exactly a rarity for Waits. Bone Machine also features a song named after the British nuclear apocalypse flick Earth Died Screaming. And as a funnybook fan, I was thrilled when he borrowed the name of Eddie Campbell’s Eyeball Kid for a tune about a most singular sort of freak show attraction.

But that’s music for another day. Because, yes, we’ll be returning to Tom Waits again before the month’s over. But until next time… Good night, whatever you are.

Countdown to Halloween, Day Two: Werewolf Gimmick

Since I started my virtual mixtape last night with the first Halloween song I ever heard, I thought it might be nice to follow that up tonight with the my newest favorite. Granted, the package here might not look like much of a great Halloween experience…

Beat the Champ

…but I assure you, The Mountain Goats’ Beat the Champ album still offers up one pretty great Halloweenie tune. As the cover might imply, this is an album about professional wrestling. Or at least, about the wrestling Mountain Goats frontman John Darnielle grew up watching in the Southwest Territory back in the 70s. If you are, or ever were, a wrestling fan, it’s great stuff. A love letter to the business from one of the best songwriters of the era. There are songs here written from the fan’s perspective, but also quite a few from the perspective of the wrestlers themselves.

That’s the case with the song I’m sharing tonight: “Werewolf Gimmick.” In backstage pro wrestling terminology, a gimmick is the character a wrestler portrays in the ring. The best gimmicks, they say, are the workers’ real personalities turned up to 11. Not everyone’s that lucky, however. Some people wind up saddled with terrible characters that they have to go out and sell to the audience. Sometimes, they pull it off. And sometimes, they start “living the gimmick,” getting so caught up in the ring persona that they start believing it. They become it, turning into… well… a kind of monster. That’s what’s going on here.

Not quite the ooky-spooky extravaganza some of the songs I’ll be sharing this month are. But Halloweenie nonetheless. There’s the werewolf thing, of course, but also that sense of uncontrollable insanity, the terrifying and just slightly ridiculous tragedy of a man giving in to the beast. All set to a driving beat that makes me feel a little wild myself. Ferocious.

Countdown to Halloween, Day One: Dinner With Drac

I haven’t joined in the interweb ritual of counting down the days to Halloween in a couple-three years now, and it occurred to me earlier this week (okay, it was last night) that maybe it was time to do it again. Halloween’s my favorite holiday, after all, filled as it is with creepy weirdness and the like. But I don’t have quite the time I once did to post full entries every day, so I decided to do music this year. A month-long mixtape of all my favorite Halloween tunes.

Though my tastes in such things range pretty wide, I thought the best place to start might be with the very first Halloween song I remember hearing: “Dinner With Drac,” by the great John Zacherle, aka Zacherley the Cool Ghoul.

Spook Along With Zacherley

Let’s give it a spin…

You might notice that one’s titled “Dinner With Drac, Part One.” Well, that’s because there are two different versions of this song. Part One is the original, recorded by Zacherley in the jokingly macabre spirit of his horror hosting segments. And it’s pretty killer, featuring one of the hottest opening guitar licks ever. But there was a problem with with this version: Dick Clark (a friend of Zach’s) heard it, liked it, and wanted to play it on his show. But he thought the lyrics were a bit too gross for a mainstream American audience. So he suggested that Zacherley re-do the song in a less grotesque manner.

The result was… not as good. Not nearly as good. But, because it’s the version that Clark popularized, it was the version that most people knew for decades. I, however, was lucky enough as a wee tyke to be the proud owner of a novelty song album whose producers had the good taste to include the original version instead. Or maybe they were just too cheap to pay for the more famous recording. Either way, “Dinner With Drac” was music to my little ears, and played a big part in birthing my life-long love for horror.

But, in the interest of posterity (and because provided me with an easy link to it), I suppose I should include the second, vastly inferior, version as well:

Heh. Actually, I knock Part Two more than I should. A couple of the gags are pretty good, and that pool full of acid might actually be more gruesome than the original’s pool filled with blood. Still. If you can only listen to one… Part One is the way to go.

A Postscript: If you don’t know who the hell Zacherley is…


But secondly… HOLY CRAP YOU HAVE TO LEARN ABOUT ZACHERLEY! Though not the first local TV horror movie host (that honor goes, I believe, to Vampira), Zach wasn’t far behind, and was by far the best-known of the era. He recorded albums, hosted a teen dance show (!) in addition to the horror flicks, and… Oh, hell. Here. Just watch this:

The A-List: Catching Up on Late Summer’s Best

So while I’ve been vacationing and discussing the state of the funnybook business, the funnybooks themselves have been piling up. I’ve got a couple months’ worth of backlog sitting on my desk here, and it’s time to clear that out. So, without further ado… CAPSULEREVIEWSAREGO!!!

Providence 3&4, by Alan Moore and Jacen Burrows

Burrows Providence 3

As Alan Moore gets deeper into his story here, the structure of the thing becomes clear. He’s giving us a tour of Lovecraft Country, drawing connections as he goes between the various evil wizards and pagan space-god cults that dot the author’s New England landscape. As an amateur Lovecraft scholar myself, I can see where it’s all heading now, and that leaves me both excited and mildly disappointed. Excited, because it’s so much fun spotting these characters as they appear, and disappointed because much of the mystery of the thing has now been dispelled.

I suppose I’ll have to content myself with admiring Moore’s craft here, which is as always pretty damned impressive. He’s handling the gender double-speak of his closeted gay hero with aplomb, keeping the nature of his romantic entanglements obscure even in the private journal entries we’re getting in the back of each issue. He’s becoming less open, in fact, the deeper he gets into the countryside and the more he feels like an outsider.

The depths of his closeted nature become more apparent over time, as well; in issue three, we learn that he’s Jewish. Or that he has “some Jewish ancestors,” as he puts it in a flustered response to someone who “smells” it on him (the weird cannibal guy from “The Picture in the House,” for any Lovecraft aficionados reading this). That plays out in a very weird prophetic dream he has that envisions the Nazi concentration camps, conflating the gay subculture with the Jewish. “Hebrewsexuals” winding up in the showers together, that sort of thing. Brr. Nice to see that Moore hasn’t lost his ability to horrify.

Grade: A

Well, that wasn’t much of a “capsule,” I don’t suppose. Or, actually… Considering how much there is to talk about with Providence, maybe it is. At any rate. I’ll have to get a bit less verbose if I’m going to whittle this stack down to size…

Injection 4&5, by Warren Ellis & Declan Shalvey

This one continues to be a slow burn, with even the series’ first climax unfolding at a deliberate pace that accentuates the horror. Which is all good as far as I’m concerned; that’s not something you see very often anymore, and I like it. I also, increasingly, like the book’s premise: a team of geniuses let loose an AI that thinks it’s something out of British myth. Or that at least chooses to communicate as if it thinks that. Or that, maybe, actually IS something out of British myth, given a foothold in reality by the AI. Every time I decide it’s one thing, Ellis throws in something else that makes me wonder if it’s another. I like that uncertainty. Am I reading sci-fi or supernatural horror?

Shalvey Injection

Or some kind of steampunk fantasy bollocks?

I don’t know, and that is a wonderful thing.

Grade: A-

Casanova: Acedia 3&4, by Matt Fraction & Fabio Moon

Moon Casanova Acedia 3

As the new Casanova series unfolds, I’m slowly coming to realize that it’s a lot more complex than I initially thought. In fact, as I sat down to peruse these issues for review, it hit me that it might be time to re-read the whole thing in one go before the next issue comes out. Hmm. At any rate, these two issues deal primarily with the life of Emil Boutique, told piecemeal, jumping around as memories tend to do, filling in details as they go. But there’s a lot more going on here than I thought, and my head’s starting to spin. I was so captivated by issue four’s tale of war and refugees, for instance, that I completely forgot the cliffhanger ending of issue three.

And it doesn’t help that Fraction’s mixing and matching characters and names and concepts here, riffing back and forth on who all these people are now, and who they used to be in previous volumes, some switching sides, at least one switching genders, and others conspicuous by their absence. It’s the uncertainty again. That feeling that I’m barely keeping it together as a reader, and don’t quite actually know what’s really going on, but trusting based on past experience that it’ll all come together in the end. Knowing, in fact, that when I sit down for that re-read, that so much will come spilling out of the pages that I hadn’t seen before, hadn’t realized.

I love that feeling. This is why I read.

Grade: A

Mind MGMT 36/New MGMT 1, by Matt Kindt

Kindt New MGMT 1

My favorite new series of the last few years has, in spite of that cover, come to a close with an uncharacteristically… upbeat issue that sees Meru establishing a new Field Manual that stresses mental health over paranoia, and helping people rather than controlling them. It’s a bright new day… except for a queasy ending that includes a censored prediction of the reader’s own death, and might… just might… imply that this whole issue was something other than reality.

It was awesome, in other words.

Grade: A

Sex Criminals 11 & 12, by Matt Fraction & Chip Zdarsky

The least pornographic sex comic ever has returned from hiatus, with a new storyline in which Our Heroes go in search of other people like themselves (which is to say, people who can stop time with their genitalia). It’s an interesting change from the intensely character-driven direction the series had gone in before the break. That’s not a complaint or anything; the book’s just as good as ever, and it’s cool to see it expand its scope a bit. But now we have, like, tentacled cum angels…

Zdarsky Sex Criminals 12

…and that’s not a place I ever expected it to go.

Grade: A-

Lazarus 18 & 19, by Greg Rucka and Michael Lark

I am always a bit nervous when a series starts to mess about with its status quo. “Things Fall Apart” is never as interesting for me as “How Things Work.” And at this point in Lazarus, things do seem to be falling apart far worse than I expected. Family Carlyle and Family Hock have gone to war, and the war’s not going well for the Carlyles. In part, that’s because Hock has managed to put Malcolm Carlyle, patriarch of the family, out of commission. His heirs are trying to run things in his stead, and the situation is proving that they’re not up to the task.

So that’s rather fascinating for me, from a How Thing Work perspective. In spite of all the training, all the preparation, all the hard-assed tough love Malcolm has shown for his kids… They may not have what it takes. Plus, there’s a bunch of military stuff going on. Guns are fired, Forever gets shot in the head…

Lark Lazarus 19

…and her strike team pushes on without her in a sort of reverse parallel to what’s happening back at HQ. Of course, because Forever is the Lazarus of the title, she gets back up. But with things falling apart so very badly at home, I’m not sure how much good it’s going to do…

Grade: A-

Phonogram: Immaterial Girl 1&2, by Kieron Gillen & Jamie McKelvie

McKelvie Immaterial Girl 2

New Phonogram! New Phonogram focused on one of my least favorite Phonogram characters, mind you. But, still! New Phonogram! I have to be excited about that. This is one those series that, despite quite good word of mouth, didn’t sell well enough to support its creative team before they went off and made a name for themselves doing corporate spandex. But now they have, and now it’s back, and I couldn’t be happier.

Anyway, if you’ve never read it (and sales figures on the previous series say that’s actually kind of likely), Phonogram is about music and magic. It’s about a bunch of music scene kids who care about music scene kinds of things, and… You know, a lot of people probably hate this book, because of the kind of people it’s about. It can be a little like reading about snotty record store clerks sometimes, and that has to be a turn-off for some. I used to be a snotty record store clerk, though (kind of like how I’m a snotty funnybook reviewer now), and the thing I like about Phonogram is how very much it gets it right. How much, beneath the cool kid veneer, these characters genuinely love and care about the music. How much it means to them. How much it defines them. Because, yeah. That’s it, exactly.

Which is why, by way of getting back to the actual review, I’ve never been fond of Emily Aster, the immaterial girl of the title. There never seemed to be much to her beyond that cool veneer. She didn’t seem to actually care. I mean, I knew she must. If she didn’t, she couldn’t actually do magic. But her exterior was so very irritating that I kind of wasn’t looking forward to reading about her, even as I was chomping at the bit to get more Phonogram.

Of course, Gillen’s now digging in and getting at exactly why Emily is the way she is, and I’m as fascinated as ever. It seems she sold half of herself away for magical power.

McKelvie Immaterial Girl

It was the troubled, insecure, self-destructive half, of course, and (stories being stories) that half is now rearing its gothic head again. But somehow, now that we’ve met the Other Emily… mean and angry and vindictive as she is after being sold down the river into a world of music videos… I find that I actually like her better.

Not sure that’s what Gillen intended, but there you go…

Grade: A-

The Wicked + The Divine 13 & 14, by Kieron Gillen & Jamie McKelvie

McKelvie Wicked Divine 14

Hey! It’s those Gillen & McKelvie kids again! With their OTHER on-going series that probably irritates the crap out of people! I mean, it irritates the crap out of ME sometimes, and I really like it. This one’s about celebrity and death, which probably explains my irritation. Death, I’m okay with as a literary theme (#NONEMOREGOTH). But celebrity annoys the crap out of me. I just don’t care about the trappings of fame, or the problems that go along with them. I mean, sure, I’m sympathetic to the privacy concerns, and the paparazzi problem, and all that. But do I want to read about it? Not really. So yeah, this book irritates me sometimes. Or rather, maybe I don’t care about it as much as I might, as much as I want to, considering how well-done it often is. And THAT irritates me. I dunno.

What I DO know, though, is that issue 13 was kind of touching and sad, and added layers to the mystery at the heart of the series. And issue 14… Holy crap, issue 14. It’s composed entirely out of images from previous issues, cut and pasted together to tell a new story.

McKelvie Wicked Divine Remix

Or rather, to tell a remixed version of events from previous issues, filling in gaps in our knowledge and revealing new stuff. It’s the clip show raised to an art form. It’s pretty freaking cool, is what it is, a triumph of formalism that, if you weren’t paying close attention, you might not even realize was anything but a regular issue with some cool pop-art coloring choices on the flashbacks.

Nicely-done, gentlemen. Nicely-done.

Grade: A

Aaaaaannnnddd… Holy crap, those last two were anything but capsules. So I think that’s gonna have to do it for this week. I really hit the highlights there, too. Still… Looking at the stack, I’ve got plenty more to catch up on next time. So until then…

Beyond the Big Two: Into the Indies

So I’ve been a gloomy bastard of late. Discussing the failure of bold publishing plans on the one hand, and a fading funnybook Camelot on the other. I’ve been talking crap, in other words. And while that’s easy (oh, so easy!) I don’t like doing it. It’s not good for the soul. Also, a friend of mine actually told me that last week’s Marvel piece made him sad. And that’s no good. I don’t want to make my friends sad.

The solution, obviously, is to talk about what I think is going right in the funnybook business. Which is good, because I think there’s an awful lot going right in the funnybook business these days. As I believe I’ve said before, it’s a great time to be a comics fan, maybe the best since the late 80s. You have to look beyond the Big Two to see it, but there’s an explosion of creativity out there in the comics mainstream.


Which… That last statement maybe begs a bit of discussion. In comics, the term “mainstream” is often used only to refer to super hero titles. Sometimes, it’s even used exclusively in reference to the stuff Marvel and DC are putting out. The waters get muddied a bit when you’re dealing with huge licensed series like Star Wars, which are hard not to call mainstream, because holy crap you don’t get much more mainstream than Star Wars. But for the most part, “mainstream” in comics means corporate spandex. I’m using the term here in a far broader way, though, to refer to all the wide range of genre fiction being done out there that has an appeal to the average reader. Sci-fi, fantasy, crime, spy, detective… There’s a ton of this stuff, and to call it anything but mainstream just seems dumb to me.

Of course, in the wider world of fiction publishing, “mainstream” refers mostly to realistic drama, and genre is relegated to its own special (if large and lucrative) ghetto. But in comics, that’s crazy talk. So I’m not taking the argument that far. Baby steps. Baby steps…

(But one day, this could seem like the most mainstream comic possible.)

(But one day, this could seem like the most mainstream comic possible.)

Anyway. Semantics aside, there’s a ton of great mainstream genre comics out there, and most of them are coming from what have traditionally been called indie publishers. But these days, the line between the indies and the major labels can be pretty thin. Image Comics, for instance, is widely recognized as the biggest and best indie publisher out there, and they’re knocking on DC’s door in terms of market share.

The difference in how Image and the Big Two conduct business, however, is huge. Image offers (and I’m probably over-simplifying here) just publishing services, with maybe a little marketing tossed in. The creative teams behind the books work as (or employ) their own editors, ad-men, and whatever else comics publishing demands. That means there’s also more risk involved: if your book doesn’t sell, you don’t get paid. The trade-off for that risk is that the creators retain ownership of their work, and they also get to keep the bulk of the money.

Other indie publishers work on more traditional publishing deals, with full editorial and advertising support. The risks are less, as are the pay-outs. But some excellent comics are coming out under those deals, as well. As regular readers know, I’m awfully fond of Matt Kindt’s strange and excellent Mind MGMT, a multi-layered story of psychic spies. And, of course, Alan Moore’s been working under those kinds of deals for ages now. His most recent work of that kind is the Lovecraft pastiche Providence, which is thus far one of my favorite comics of the year.

But whoever’s doing it, and under whatever circumstances, the basic impetus for working with those publishers is the same: ownership, and a greater share of the money than you’d see with the Big Two. This is, as I said last week, why we’ve seen such a big writing brain drain at Marvel: the top talent’s leaving for greener pastures. What lead to this exodus? A lot of things: the success of peers on the independent scene, frustrations working in corporate comics, a desire to tell their own stories… But some people think it might also have had something to do with this:

That’s The Kirkman Manifesto, an open statement to the comics industry from writer Robert Kirkman. After his massive success with The Walking Dead (an excellent comic that I just happen not to like very much), he challenged other top names in mainstream comics to, essentially, follow him out of the work for hire ghetto and into the light of a new day.

Funnybook Messiah

(Well, okay. It wasn’t as dramatic as all that. For one thing, he wasn’t wearing a cape.)

He also showed a bit more tact than I just did. What he actually said was that the comics industry is backwards. Nobody gets into filmmaking, he said, with their end-goal being to make Pulp Fiction 2. But in comics, that’s exactly what happens: young writers start out with the goal of writing characters they don’t own, created by other people, often before they were born. In part, that’s because they grew up as fans of those characters. But it’s also because, traditionally, that’s where the money was. I won’t go into the history of funnybook publishing here, but to say it’s a business that seldom worked in the best interests of the people who actually made the comics is something of an understatement.

So what Kirkman was really suggesting was a system that works more like novel publishing, where original stories and ideas are the norm. Or at least the prestigious, big-money deal. It’s far from a perfect system, but it’s at least one that treats the individual creators better than the comics industry historically has. As someone who dabbles in creative writing himself (shameless plug), I can only see that as a very good thing indeed.

Other people did not agree. The Kirkman Manifesto caused a bit of a stir in fan circles at the time. I remember some particularly bitter comments coming from the hardcore super hero fanboy set, who seemed almost threatened by the idea. Kirkman’s additional suggestion that super heroes should be written more for an all-ages audience might have something to do with that, too. Really, though, I got the sense they were just afraid that someone was going to stop them from getting their monthly dose of men in tights.

But there goes my funnybook snob gettin’ all uppity again. For the record, I’ve got nothing against men in tights fiction. My library’s full of the stuff, and I still read a bit of it when it’s well-done. But in the face of this particular brand of Fanboy Rage…

(Thaaaaaat's it. Feel the burn...)

(Thaaaaaat’s it. Feel the burn…)

…it’s hard for me to not be more harsh than Kirkman was when he got so many panties in a bunch with this Manifesto of his. Because fuck those guys. If you want good comics, support the people who write and draw them. Not the companies that exploit their copyrights.


In contrast to their readers, the guys who were actually working under those Big Two contracts mostly kept quiet after the Kirkman Manifesto hit. But one by one, as their contracts expired, they didn’t re-up. And one by one, they started putting out new material through Image. Ed Brubaker was maybe the first, taking his noir series Criminal to Image from Marvel’s pidgen-Image Icon imprint, and following it up with an array of top-notch pulp, horror, and spy material.

And now we’ve got a cornucopia of great funnybooks out there, everything from the glossy meditation on celebrity and death that is Gillen & McKelvie’s The Wicked + The Divine to the gritty near-future sci-fi realism of Rucka and Lark’s Lazarus. And all of them (or the best of them, anyway) are stories unique to their creators. Stories they really couldn’t tell at the Big Two, and that are often, frankly, better than anything they could have turned out under the restrictions of corporate spandex.

Just look at Jonathan Hickman, for example. In the work for hire world, he’s known as a deep plot man. He plans his runs out far in advance, planting seeds and clues in his earliest issues that bear fruit somewhere two or three years down the line. Hell, Secret Wars makes it look for all the world like he planned out his entire Marvel Comics tenure. It’s kind of brilliant. But the consistent criticism I see leveled against him is that his work is too clinical. Too cold. That he doesn’t deal enough in character drama.

In his indie titles, though, that’s not really the case. While he avoids soap opera dramatics, I certainly wouldn’t call this stuff “clinical.” His apocalypse western East of West, for example, features a number of characters who feel well-rounded and warm. Or, if not “warm” exactly (it’s not that kind of book), they at least feel real. Flesh and blood. And that’s not something I can say about many of his work for hire jobs. Even in the alternate history farce Manhattan Projects, there’s a visceral quality to the cast, and even a depth that’s not always easy to pull off in comedy.

Pitarra Einstein

But it’s Matt Fraction who’s probably the best example of a writer who’s blossomed in the indies. Even on his work for hire stuff, he was always best on second-tier books where he could be left alone to write what he wanted: Iron Fist, Hawkeye, his criminally-under-rated Defenders… All great comics, and far better than his more high-profile runs on Iron Man and Thor. But it’s on his creator-owned stuff that he really shines. Sex Criminals, with artist Chip Zdarsky, is his breakaway success, and rightly so. It’s funny, honest, and profane, dealing with a subject that’s too often either avoided, or sensationalized into meaninglessness.

What? It's a technical term.

What? It’s a technical term.

The equally profane Satellite Sam, with Howard Chaykin, hasn’t made as big a splash, but it’s a minor masterpiece of ensemble period drama, weaving multiple disparate storylines around a tight group of themes, and writing a cracker of a mystery besides. And I’ve loved his reality-hopping spy-fi series Casanova since before he became a big deal at Marvel. The second series still stands as one of my favorite comics of all time.

It’s also a sign of the changing times: the first two volumes barely sold well enough for Fraction to pay his artists (Brazilian twins Gabriel Ba and Fabio Moon). That kind of indie comics failure is what lead a number of big-time writers back to the safer territory of the Big Two. Warren Ellis and Ben Templesmith’s Fell, a weird crime series, failed around the same time as Casanova, which broke my heart a little. In retrospect, that was the last really good work I read from Ellis before his current return to form with Trees and Injection. So maybe it broke his heart, as well. Hmm. Regardless, both Ellis and Casanova are back now, and (by all reports) doing pretty well.

So it looks like Kirkman was right: indie comics can sell, and once you get enough big-name creators doing them, you hit critical mass. They become an accepted norm, sales rise for everyone, and we get better funnybooks. Everybody wins!

Well… Except the major super hero publishers, of course. They’re stuck with young up-and-comers and people who can’t make the indies for work them. But I’m kinda okay with that. They’ve had the pick of the litter long enough.

How New? How Different? Marvel Under the Lens

Okay, so last week I intended to play catch-up on my funnybook reviews, but got side-tracked discussing the apparent failure of the DCYou publishing initiative. This week, though… This week, I’m focused and on-track, and– Oooo, what’s this shiny thing…?

ANAD Marvel

Why, it’s the All-New, All-Different Marvel! A publishing initiative at least (at least!) as worthy of mockery as DCYou. Even if the comics are likely to be a little bit better. But why do I care enough about it to write a whole column on it? Well… I don’t, really. But it’s a great jumping-off point for what I do want to talk about. To whit: after I posted my DC piece last week, I got into some interesting discussions on social media about the state of mainstream comics in general. So I thought I’d spin those conversations off into another column, this one looking across the aisle at Marvel, but also at why both of the biggest publishers in comics are experiencing what I consider to be a bit of a creative slump, while the industry as a whole is in one of the most fertile creative booms I’ve seen in 40 years of reading comics.

Maybe the biggest reason for that slump, I think, is also the oldest reason in the world: money. While the Big Two pay well, established writers and artists stand to make more working in the riskier world of creator-owned comics. The comics alone pay better for some. But the real money comes when and if your stuff gets optioned by Hollywood. Because then you get it all, as opposed to whatever back-end royalty deal your work for hire publisher might offer.

Hell, even those royalty deals don’t seem all that reliable (see the recent kerfuffle over “derivative copyright” on the Killer Frost character as she’s being used on the Flash TV show). And then there’s the whole deal with Alan Moore and Watchmen. Now, I’ve bitched about that enough over the years, so I won’t go into it again. But I’ve got to think that, if you’re a comics freelancer, and you see the greatest comics writer of your generation getting dicked over by a major publisher on the greatest super hero story ever written…

Rorschach Hurm

(prepare your arguments against that claim now, fanboys…)

…you’d really have to think twice about your profession. Why on Earth would you sell your best ideas for page rate, when you can take a little more risk, and keep all the money for yourself?

This is a problem for the work for hire publishers on two levels. First, nobody’s creating great new characters for the Big Two anymore. And even when they do, those “new” ideas are often remixes of old ones.

Spider Gwen

This is not to knock Spider-Gwen, I hasten to add. I haven’t read the book, so I can’t say if it’s any good or not. It IS very beautiful, I’ll give it that. But, quality considerations aside, it’s a book about Spider-Man’s dead girlfriend getting Spider-Man powers. Not exactly a shockingly original new character concept from the House of Ideas. The new Ms Marvel is better in that regard: she really is a brand new character, with what looks like a cool weird power set. And the book, though it’s not really my cup of tea, is quite well-done. But she’s still “Ms Marvel.” A name first trademarked almost 40 years ago. So even then, there’s limits to how new she really is. And that’s a problem. How many times can you reinvent older characters for new generations before they turn into bad Xerox copies of themselves?

(with apologies to Raphael Grampa)

(with apologies to Raphael Grampa)

That lack of originality is becoming even more of a problem now, though, because we’re also at a point where the best writers in mainstream comics aren’t working for the Big Two at all. Ed Brubaker, Matt Fraction, and Greg Rucka have all moved on. Mark Millar, the guy who wrote the comics the Avengers movie franchise is largely based on, hasn’t done work for hire in years. Warren Ellis (the guy from whom Millar cribbed most of his ideas for those comics) still pops in for six issues here or there, but that’s all. And now Jonathan Hickman’s in the process of leaving, too, with Secret Wars being his work for hire swan song.

Not that those guys created many great new characters, either. But at least they produced comics that were a notch above. Now they’re gone, and I’m not seeing much new blood coming in that’s of the same caliber (Jason Aaron being a rare exception). That’s a serious brain drain.

Now, you’ll notice that I’m primarily talking about writers who’ve worked at Marvel here. And there’s a reason for that: DC ran the best talent off years ago. They spent the 80s and 90s attracting it, with better contracts and unprecedented (for mainstream comics) creative freedom. This century has seen that erode, however, first with less attractive contracts for their Vertigo line, and in recent years with an editorial regime that at times actually sounds hostile toward creators. Tales abound of stories being changed by editorial fiat at the 12th hour, necessitating hasty rewrites, pages of story and art being done over in a weekend, without compensation.

In the face of that, it’s been extremely difficult for DC to hold on to anyone of great talent. Grant Morrison has stuck it out, most likely due to editorial letting him do pretty much whatever he wants.

(Day-Glo Batman? Go for it!)

(Day-Glo Batman? Go for it!)

But even he’s exploring other publishing options now. And that pretty much leaves them with Geoff Johns (who’s been given executive power), Scott Snyder (whose Batman work sells well enough for him to be left alone), and Gail Simone (who’s been treated well in comparison to some, but who’s also expressed frustrations). And honestly… I don’t consider any of them top-notch writing talent. I mean, sure, they sell well, but…

I suppose my fiction snob is showing here. I look for writing with layers. With complex plots and characters that aren’t explained to me every few pages. I want themes to chew on, things to figure out on my own, maybe a little metaphor here and there. I want something that makes me work as a reader or, failing that, something that wows me. Work so batshit crazy, so powered by incredible ideas, that I’m dazzled. Distracted by the grandeur to the point that I don’t care if the story’s maybe a little dumb. The very best comics offer all that, of course, but I don’t demand the full package. And that’s good. Because work for hire comics aren’t offering much of any of that stuff right now.

To be fair, they seldom have. It generally takes periods of great upheaval, of desperation in the face of declining sales, to force editors to go for such a shocking idea as to offer really good comics. That’s what spurred Marvel’s creative renaissance in the Noughts, and it’s what inspired DCYou, at least in part. But I see the former starting to fade, and the latter… Well, I dissected that in detail last week.

It’s not all dismal, though. There’s lots of cool ideas out there these days, and that makes me happy. Marvel’s been quietly doing what DC attempted with DCYou for a while now, and doing it better. Call it the “Hawkeyeing” of Marvel, if you will. They’re placing a lot of their second-tier characters in new and interesting situations, in comics with approaches outside the usual men’s/boy’s adventure stuff. Dan Slott and Mike Allred’s Silver Surfer (while I’m not a huge fan) is maybe the best of that lot, with Chip Zdarsky’s Howard the Duck (which I do like) a very close second. Then there’s Spider-Gwen, Ms Marvel, a new Spiderwoman comic, a series starring MODOK…

Infinite MODOK

A lot of it doesn’t appeal to me, and I think a lot more of it suffers from the same mediocrity that plagues the DCYou stuff (though Marvel is generally, as I said, doing it better). But I’m glad to see the Big Two taking chances and doing something new and different. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: I want comics for young people, comics for old people, comics for men, comics for women, comics for you, comics for me, comics for everybody. And while I wish more of them were really good, at least they’re trying to have a broader appeal. And that’s got to be a good thing.

DCMe? Redux: When Interesting Comics Fail

So lotsa funnybooks happened while I was on blog vacation. So many that I’ll play catch-up with some capsule reviews here in a bit. But first, I wanted to talk about a bit of news that’s broken this past week: the “DCYou” publishing initiative, known internally as the “Batgirling” of the line, has evidently been a dismal failure. DC Comics posted a two million dollar shortfall in expected profits for the last quarter, anyway, and that would seem to indicate a fairly negative reaction to the books.

If you’re not familiar with what they were doing, I discussed it a couple of months back. But if you don’t want to take the time to click that link… The idea was that they’d remake the whole line in the style of Cam Stewart, Brendan Fletcher, and Babs Tarr’s Batgirl revamp, which saw the character moved out of the Batman Family’s grim-n-gritty morass, and into a far more contemporary, far more female-friendly, set-up and tone.

Babs Tarr Batgirl

That book’s success surprised DC higher-ups, so they asked for similar paradigm-shifting, thinking-outside-the-spandex-box proposals across the line. But that approach didn’t translate to line-wide success, it seems, leading to this two million dollar shortfall, and an apparent editorial dictate to return to meat and potatoes super hero storytelling, sooner rather than later.

This makes me kinda sad. I was happy to see a major publisher taking chances the way they did here. The freedom the creative teams were reportedly being given was also good news, the sort of thing that generally leads to better funnybooks for everyone. And you know, even on books whose execution left me cold, I found the concepts really interesting. Dick Grayson: Super-Spy? Cool! Omega Men: Heroic Terrorists? Bold! Red Hood and Arsenal: Heroes for Hire? Derivative as all hell, but Power Man and Iron Fist ain’t using the gimmick right now, so why not?

Lots of good ideas there. So the question then becomes, why did it fail? What lessons do we learn? Well, the most obvious lesson, the one that shouldn’t greatly surprise anybody, is that fanboys are some conservative bastards when it comes to their spandex hero fiction. They’re only going to deviate so far from the same old thing, unless the level of quality is so very high that it compels them to try something new. And they’re especially not going to go for something new when that new thing is so obviously aimed at a new/young/female/mainstream audience.

click to embiggen the scary empowered ladies

click to embiggen the scary empowered ladies

Which brings us to another obvious lesson: there are not yet enough new/young/female/mainstream readers to support an entire line of more esoteric approaches designed to appeal to those audiences.

Put these first two lessons together, and you might come to the conclusion that this DCYou thing might have worked better if they’d done it in stages. Started out with a few core books, letting the buzz for them build while they continued on with more traditional fare elsewhere, to ease the transition. Or you might come to the conclusion that they just shouldn’t go whole-hog with anything, ever. Do some traditional spandex books with tight continuity for the people who like that. Do some books with strong individual creative vision for the people who like that. And do some books for that elusive mainstream audience comics have been chasing and not catching since the days of Lee and Kirby. Because hope springs eternal, and all that.

Another lesson, I think, is not to lead in to your massive new shockingly different publishing initiative with the worst crossover event since… Well, I was going to say Secret Wars II, but honestly? Convergence might ultimately have been even worse than that tale of Jheri-Curl Jesus on Earth Painfully Eighties.

...well, okay. Maybe that's going too far.

…well, okay. Maybe that’s going too far.

Now, I hate to dump on a book I didn’t actually read, but reports on Convergence were not good. I know the whole thing was intended as a “band aid,” a bunch of comics farmed out to freelance editors and creative teams while DC moved their offices to the West Coast. And I’m given to understand that some of the comics released outside the bounds of the core mini-series were kind of fun. But, man… I don’t think they could have handled the marketing of it any worse than they did. Those Chip Kidd covers, for instance…

Hawkman Convergence

Kinda cool, when there’s just one of them, and it’s graced with some classic Silver Age artwork. If that was all they did, that thing would really pop on the stands. But a whole line of them just becomes this long smear of primary colors. I mean, just check out this page of search results:

Chip Kidd Convergence

click to embiggen the colors, man… the colors…

What were they thinking?! For that matter, what was Kidd himself thinking? His design work, while often repetitive, is usually at least well-conceived. But these things… Holy crap. It’s hard to tell which book is which, and they give you no clue as to what’s inside. And did I mention that the mini-series these books were ostensibly connected to was also bad? I did? So, yeah. Top to bottom, Convergence was just terrible. It attracted no new readers, and gave a lot of existing readers a really good excuse to stop spending money on DC Comics and never look back.

Not that the DCYou marketing gave them much reason to reconsider that position. While it did a nice job showcasing the smaller, lesser-known characters and creative teams, that was kind of overshadowed by the one image that got more press than any other: Bat Bunny.

Bat Bunny

So there’s another lesson for you: Don’t let the advertising for your new publishing relaunch make your most popular character, whose appeal is that he’s a dark, mysterious creature of the night, look like a rabbit.

Night of the Lepus

(Because Night of the Lepus scared exactly NObody.)

Now, I’m sure those ads, as widely ridiculed as they were, didn’t impact Batman sales that badly. But what they did do was make the DCYou relaunch look like a joke. And that’s never good. Once readers have dismissed you on that level, it’s going to take some damn good comics to win them back. And, unfortunately… DCYou hasn’t delivered on that front.

Don’t misunderstand me here. It’s not that the books are bad. They’re not. All the ones I sampled seemed like sincere good efforts, and most of them, even the ones I didn’t like, are of at least average quality. Some (like Omega Men or Midnighter) are ambitious, but flawed. Others (like Bizarro) are quite good, but not to my taste. And even the books I did like weren’t things that set my world on fire. I’m digging Brendan Fletcher and Annie Wu’s “rock star” take on Black Canary, for instance, but it’s a B- read at best. Prez is better (and, god help us all, prophetic in the face of the Trump candidacy). But it’s still no more than a solid B/B+.

I’m even enjoying Gene Luen Yang and John Romita’s powered-down, t-shirt-wearing, identity-exposed Superman…


…but almost from a clinical distance. I mean, I like the very journalistic reasons his identity’s become public. And it really is interesting that, over in Greg Pak & Aaron Kuder’s Action Comics, they’re tackling issues like police brutality in such an up-front manner with this particular character. It’s a nice pay-off on Grant Morrison’s idea of a more socially-conscious, socially-active young Superman, and it makes the character feel genuinely contemporary for maybe the first time in my life. But in spite of all that, I think I’m more fascinated that they’re doing this at all than I am riveted by the storytelling. It’s solid, workmanlike funnybooks. But it’s no more than that.

And therein lies the problem: none of these books are actively bad, but none of them are actively GOOD, either. And they needed something good here, a book of exceptional quality to generate some excitement. Something flashy, something splashy, a critical darling capable of winning over the hearts and minds of the Funnybook Nation. Something so good it made people forget Bat Bunny and start taking DC Comics seriously. One book might have been enough. Two would have been even better. But they didn’t go for that. They went for pretty good. Across the line, pretty good. And much as my heart’s with those pretty good books with big new ideas… They just weren’t enough.

Aaaaaannnnndddd… I’ve run off at the mouth for so long about the failure of DCYou that I’ve left myself no time for catching up on actual funnybook reviews. Ah, well. Maybe next time…