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SDCC09 Day Two: Reds, Whites & Blues

Saturday, July 25th, 2009

redshehulk

This is Red She-Hulk, because Marvel are not out of new ideas, no sirree. Sure, they’ve done the ‘female version of male character’ thing a lot lately, with the likes of Black Panther, Ultron, Hawkeye, and so on, and they’ve done the ‘evil version of good character’ thing even more, with Red Hulk, Daken, and the entire Dark Reign thing. But ‘evil female version of male good character’? That’s some crazy innovation right there!

I expect the creative process was exhausting, too. ‘Do we go with ‘Red She-Hulk’, or ‘She-Red Hulk’? Let’s have another writers’ retreat’.

eisnerlogo

Last night saw the announcement of this year’s Eisner award winners at Comic-Con, with deserving wins for Comic Book Resources, Matt Fraction’s Invincible Iron Man, Art Baltazar’s Tiny Titans, and Image’s Comic Book Tattoo. Grant Morrison’s All Star Superman won Best Continuing Series, despite not being a continuing series. Whoops. It is a terrific book, though; it’s just in the wrong category (or a badly named category, perhaps).

Get the full results at The Beat, courtesy of Heidi MacDonald.

losersposter

The movie version of The Losers is apparently coming along nicely, as series artist Jock released a comic-art poster showing the names of the cast. What’s interesting is that the comic book cast was at least one-third ethnic - Pooch and Aisha. The movie cast has a black actor playing Roque. A Spanish actor is playing Cougar, so presumably he’s being played as  Hispanic. (My comments tell me he was in the comic as well. I don’t recall, but of course, we never saw his face.)

This is a particularly strong example of an odd trend in comics-to-movie (and TV) adaptations. Alicia Masters turned black in Fantastic Four. Kingpin turned black in Daredevil. Pete Ross turned black in Smallville. Iron Man opted for the black Nick Fury. Hollywood is not known for its embrace to diversity, but when it takes on a comic book story it actually has to add black characters. Existing ethnic and female characters also often get a profile boost. Comics are so bad at this stuff that even on a mature readers Vertigo title, Hollywood takes the medium to school. Hollywood. It’s like getting racial sensitivity seminars from Pat Buchanan.

Aside from the Eisners, the biggest news out of SDCC yesterday was that Marvel has acquired the rights to Miracleman, or rather, Marvelman. For years Marvel insisted that we call him Miracleman, now they suddenly want us to call him Marvelman again. So indecisive.

marvelman

Marvelman was created in the 1950s by Mick Anglo, and famously reinvented by Alan Moore in the 80s. Fans are treating the acquisition of Marvelman as a big deal, but it’s really just the long-anticipated fulfilment of something set in motion years ago. The purpose of the Neil Gaiman Marvel comic 1602 was to raise money to sue Todd McFarlane for his unauthorised use of the character, and to clarify once and for all who actually held the rights. Even then it was clear that the eventual intent was for Marvel to take ownership and reprint the comics (though it sounds like Marvel does not yet have all the story rights).

The name reversion was also always part of the plan, but it may suggest a worrying development for fans of the character. It seems inevitable that Marvel will try to integrate the character with the Marvel universe, but Marvelman is basically a Superman analogue (by way of Captain Marvel), and as Sentry has proved, Superman analogues do not fit well in the feet-of-clay Marvel world. Squeezing Marvelman into a world of crossovers and Red She-Hulks will be like having characters from The Wire dropped into One Life To Live.

Showing the full extent of his sophisticated understanding of Marvelman, Marvel editor Joe Quesada said, “It is arguably the JD Salinger of comic book characters”. JD Salinger is an author, of course, and not a fictional character. Quesada may have been thinking of Charlie Salinger, Matthew Fox’s character from Party of Five.

boycotthyattposter1

An update on the Manchester Grand Hyatt boycott, which I wrote about earlier in the week. I don’t know if the comic industry has taken notice, but the folks at the Hyatt certainly have. Their marketing director stopped by my blog yesterday to say that Doug Manchester has recanted his position on gay marriage. “Mr. Manchester believes that every American is deserving of the opportunity to receive all of the benefits from civil marriage, gay or straight.”

That sounds good, but it’s only words. Nothing has changed. Mr Manchester spent $125,000 to help strip Californians of their rights. He’s now donating $25,000 to support giving them different rights, plus hotel credit to lure gay customers back to the hotel. That does not balance the books. If Mr Manchester truly believes that every American deserves equal rights, we need action, not words. Let’s see an equal or greater donation in support of gay marriage, from the same wallet that donated $125,000 to take those rights away.

spartacus

I’ll leave you with a little palate cleanser; the trailer for Sam Raimi’s new swords-and-sandals TV show Spartacus: Blood and Sand, which debuts in January on Starz and sees Raimi re-teaming with Xena star Lucy Lawless. It looks gloriously violent and shamelessly sleazy - all thighs and biceps as far as the eye can see. While HBO’s Rome did everything on an expensive set, Spartacus is shot on cheap-and-cheerful green screen, 300-style. It will be terrible in all the best ways.

Sources: CBR, Newsarama, The Beat.

SDCC09 Day One: The View from Up Here

Friday, July 24th, 2009

I’m not in San Diego for the Comic-Con. I’ve been three times before, and I was thinking of going again this year, but it’s too daunting a prospect. Tickets and hotel rooms both sold out at such a rate as to suggest the whole thing was going to be a hellish scrum, and that doesn’t seem the best way to spend my money.

So instead I’m watching the news from afar. The big news from yesterday as far as the mainstream media is concerned was the Twilight panel. I twittered last week; “I predict there’s going to be a Twilight-fuelled mob riot at SDCC this year, and at least one comic creator will be killed. Mark my words!”

I was wrong. Well, so far. But the LA Times did report on squabbling in the shanty town that sprang up in the queue for the Sparkle Vampires days in advance. Do I feel like I’m really missing San Diego this year? Who wouldn’t want to be in the same place as thousands of dirty cranky hormonal Twilight obsessives, I say!

breadline

It seems the young girls in the queue (aka Twilight’s intended audience) were being bullied and jumped by the over-entitled ‘Twi-Moms’, the crazy Jean Teasdales who make the Twilight phenomenon so terrifying. It’s one thing to have inappropriate stirrings for buff 17-year-olds, but quite another to be loud and obnoxiously tribal about it at the sprightly age of 40-something.

In tech news, Comixology has announced an app for reading comics on the iPhone, which is interesting, but not necessarily compelling. Reading comics on a screen may be (part of) the future, but I personally don’t much enjoy reading text on a screen the size of an iPhone, and I don’t see comics being any more fun to read that way.

Longbox also announced a few more names signed up for their digital comics service, including NBM, Dabel Brothers and Archaia - but still no ‘killer name’, which is what I think they’ll need to be a big success. The closest they’ve come is the news that some Image creators will be signing up with their own work, but I had already assumed that would be a the case when Kieron Gillen mentioned that he’d written such a provision in to his contract.

grantandadolf

Robot 6 at CBR is running a quote of the day for SDCC, and for preview night they ran a quote from Grant Morrison, which included this:

“I don’t care about geeks, you know? Geeks shouldn’t be given power. When geeks get power, you get Hitler.”

No, Grant, you get Barack Obama.

Actually, that’s bullshit, but it’s not as big a pile of bullshit as the Hitler comparison. It’s so dispiriting to see how readily creators turn on fans when they get mired in crossover, event, and marquee superhero comics and get a greater exposure to the outspoken maniac minority. For whatever reason, the average quality of Grant Morrison’s work was higher before he started writing mainstream DC titles, and if that realisation is making him insecure, he shouldn’t take it out on the fans. That’s totally what Hitler would do if Hitler was writing Batman.

A few movie posters have been unveiled, including one for the boys, and one for the other boys:

hexprince

DC Western Jonah Hex is not a comic series I’ve ever read, but I was mildly interested in the movie. This poster has killed that interest stone dead. It looks sterile, tacky, and full of Megan Fox, and it conjures up bad memories of LXG and the laughably bad movie version of Jean Giraud’s Blueberry.

Prince of Persia… well, Jake Gyllenhaal still doesn’t look very Persian, and the wig still looks like a wig, and the choice of font is just odd, but what the hell, he’s pretty, so I am going to go and see this.

jeftevoodoo

Talented Spaniard Jefte Palo has been announced as the artist on the new Brother Voodoo title at Marvel, written by Rick Remender, and the previews look lovely. I refuse to call it ‘Doctor Voodoo’, as I think it’s patronising and racist to suggest that a black character needs to be called ‘doctor’ to get some respect. If the counter-argument is that ‘Brother Voodoo’ sounds too cliché, well, maybe you shouldn’t be publishing a book about a Haitian houngan with a skull painted on his face? You’re either committed or you ain’t, Joe.

On a final note: a lot of my friends are freelancers for major publishers, and this is a busy week for them, so they probably haven’t had a chance to read my piece on the Hyatt boycott in defence of gay marriage. Here’s the problem: I’m calling on the comic industry to show a social conscience, but the comic industry isn’t taking my calls.

This is my plea to my friends and to anyone else in comics or comics reporting; please spread the word. Whether you agree with the boycott or not, you must agree that it’s better that people make informed choices. “I didn’t know about the boycott” or, “I don’t know what the boycott is for” is the popular meme of the moment. People should know. Please, pass the link around.

Credit: I’m getting my news from CBR and Newsarama. You should too!

Comics’ Night of the Long Boxes

Tuesday, June 23rd, 2009

longbox

This past weekend at HeroesCon saw the announcement (but not the launch) of Longbox, a digital distribution system for comics that formula dictates I must compare to iTunes. It’s going to be like iTunes.

I’m excited about this. I’m an out-and-proud comics nerd, but my credentials are dented by one small but crucial detail; I rarely buy comics. After twenty years amassing thousands of the damn things, I was forced by financial necessity to go cold turkey some years back. When I found myself sufficiently solvent to go back to reading comics, I realised that the addiction had passed. I’d broken the habit. I no longer bought indiscriminately.

At one point I was spending around £20 a week on comics that gave me all of a couple of hours’ of entertainment, even while ranting on about the rising cost of cinema tickets. Comics are terrible, terrible value for money. God knows how anyone who both reads comics and smokes cigarettes can afford money for beer. So money was definitely a key factor in dropping the habit, but not the only one.

Comics are also inconvenient - you can only buy them from specialist shops, via a monopoly distributor. For too many people, comics are a weekly appointment they feel obligated to keep. Comics also produce clutter. They accrue in every available nook and cranny like tribbles or wet gremlins. No-one can own both an extensive comic collection and a nice house.

Oh, plus, they’re shit. That’s a generalisation, of course, but 90% of anything is shit, except comics, where the number rises to about 97%. That’s because comics are a Cinderella medium that rarely benefits from best efforts or high standards, and because the major publishers often hold their own audience in contempt, and anyway the audience mostly deserves the shit they get shovelled; it’s not like they’re exercising critical judgement.

batmandj

I’ve been hoping someone will come along with something like Longbox for a while now, becasue it solves most of the medium’s problems. Digital distribution brings the price point down to within the realms of ‘value’. It bypasses the comic shop distribution monopoly and the need to go to a specialist store. It completely eliminates the need for actual physical longboxes, and that’s no small deal - I’m quite certain that the clutter factor is a major reason why many people give up comics as they get older, even as they keep playing video games and watching sci-fi - it has nothing to do with ‘outgrowing’ it. I’m at the point in my life where I no longer want to live like a student. I no longer have shelves full of CDs or DVDs - everything is tidied away or digitised - so spending money on clutter goes against the grain, and disposing of comics seems like a hassle. Better to just not buy them in the first place.

Longbox might even help with the ‘quality’ problem. That’s not to say that digital distribution will get rid of bad comics; but it should increase the number of good ones, because independent creators will be able to increase their reach while simultaneously reducing their costs. That should change the landscape of the industry significantly.

Digital distribution also benefits the big publishers, who have real problems launching new titles, and instead are forced to stretch their known brands ever thinner. By the time critical buzz has grown on a title like Captain Britain And MI:13, the only way I could sample it is to buy a twenty dollar trade paperback. Frankly, even four dollars seems too big a punt to risk on something I may not like. And this is why that book got cancelled, despite strong reviews and good word-of-mouth. Yet if I can buy an issue for a dollar - or the first six issues for, say, four dollars - I’m much more likely to suck it and see. (Note: sucking on digital comics is dangerous and should not be tried without proper supervision.)

ironmancrash

Marvel and DC have come up with some really inane solutions to the challenge of comics’ dwindling marketplace - apparently ending Spider-Man’s marriage was going to save the whole industry - but digital distribution has always been the sensible option that they were too big and too creaky to properly pursue, which is why it takes a fresh-faced third party like Longbox to get the revolution started.

I haven’t forgotten that Marvel has its own digital comics offering. It isn’t good. It only allows you to buy the right to access the comics on the site, and what’s on the site is not up-to-date. The ‘newest comics’ section currently boasts Son of Hulk #2 (first published just under a year ago) Annihilation: Nova #2 (from 2006) and Psi-Force #7 (from 1986). It’s a pathetic offering, because it’s completely dissociated from the publisher’s current output. If I wanted to find out what the fuss about Captain America #600 was all about, the most recent issue I’d be able to read is from two years ago. This is not an alternative distribution channel. This is a supplement for the ever-decreasing number of people with the will and the time to go to a comic shop.

If Marvel or DC is worried that putting their current comics online will increase the risks of piracy, someone needs to tell them that this particular horse-faced space-god has already bolted. Music, movies, books and TV are all digital now, and the digital releases go on sale the same day as the store releases. The time when a publisher might have claimed they were being innovative by adopting a synchronous digital distribution strategy has long passed. Now it’s merely ‘the least they should be doing’ - and still they’re not doing it. I’d try to second guess the reasons for their laggardly approach, but I can’t get into the mindset. It’s like trying to see through the eyes of a dodo.

It is better, though, for comics as a whole that Marvel be part of a shared system - like iTunes! - rather than a proprietary one, so in that sense I should be glad that Marvel’s efforts have been dismal. On the other hand, it suggests that they might not sign up to be part of Longbox, and that’s a shame. Where Longbox might once have seemed bold, now it seems necessary, and Marvel and DC - and Dark Horse, Image, Oni, IDW, Devil’s Due and the rest - need to recognise this necessity for their own good, as well as for the good of Longbox. Currently the only publishers signed up for the service are Boom Studios (Irredeemable, Farscape, Warhammer 40,000) and Top Cow (Super-Boob Lady, Gothic-Boob Lady, Unfinished J Michael Straczynski Project), and Longbox needs more and stronger publishers if it’s going to be a viable concern.

fasaud

Longbox also needs a sensible pricing strategy. The suggested price point is $0.99 per issue, and that’s reasonable. People talk about how cheap comics used to be on the newsstand - Action Comics was 10c in 1938, and Amazing Fantasy #15 was 12c in 1962. Adjusted for inflation, those comics ought to be $1.50 and $1.00 today, so 99c and down for a comic with low overheads seems like the right ballpark.

There’s also talk of subscription and bulk models, and that’s far more interesting to me, because a regular subscription would presumably reduce the price point further, and encourage users to sample more comics. The digital model also makes free samples more plausible - a huge, huge promotional benefit. In fact, a savvy big publisher would make the first issue of every new ongoing series available free online.

What does digital distrubution mean for comic retailers? It need not be the end for them. I think stores relying on weekly single issue sales could be in trouble, but comic book shops could do well, because digital comics will not entirely replace the desire to own a physical book, and I’m sure digital comics will actually drive people to want to buy collections of their favourite reads. I’ve long argued that digital comics with a voucher for the trade could be a successful strategy. Apparently the guys at Longbox have been listening in on my loud and boorish pub conversations, as that seems to be part of the plan.

But if the Longbox model takes off - and I hope it does, and that others follow suit (because the industry does not need another distribution monopoly) - it will mean the end for a lot of retailers. And, sad as it is for the people who’ll have to find other jobs, that’s as it should be. There won’t be any bailouts for redundant businesses in the comic industry.

What’s more important is that Longbox could be good for the medium as a whole, dragging comics away from the fringe to a place where everyone can access them, without prohibitive costs or geekish mess. If the mainstay publishers don’t want to embrace that, then it’s probably time to say goodbye to the mainstay publishers.