Thursday, 31 May 2012

Breaking Bat

Or how Piracy and Chance made me a New Comic Book Reader at Age 20

I think this is kind of implied by the whole comics blog thing, but I read (or at least used to) a lot of comic books. When I had a larger disposable income I spent insane amounts of money on comics, and even with strict budgeting I’m still probably spending more than I should. At my comic reading height I was reading marquis titles, middle catalogue titles, event tie-ins, and, at one point, three different Deadpool titles: I was a comics Pigeon.

What might be surprising is that I didn’t really start reading comics until I was 20 years old.

What might be even more surprising is that it was a disk of bootleg comic downloads given to me by a classmate in an Integral Calculus class that turned me into a ravenous comics reader.

As someone whose childhood was in the 90s I grew up with a familiarity to comic characters. My young self used to get up early and watch X-men, Spider-Man, and the superlative Batman the Animated Series cartoons. I have clear memories of playing “X-men” in the schoolyard during kindergarten and grade 1 (I always insisted on being Cyclops).1 My friends collected comics and comic trading cards and played superhero video games. So, from very early on I knew about comics and cared about the characters even without ever picking up a book.

The first comic I ever owned was a random part of the Infinity Gauntlet storyline given to me by an older neighbor kid (he gave another Infinity Gauntlet issue to my younger brother). This didn’t however, turn into a wild, immediate romance with comics. It did however convince my parents to buy cheap mixed bags of comics from the newly opened Walmart before we’d go on family vacations. These were not especially good comics and were random as all hell: I recall WildC.A.T.s,2 a kind-of-rapey issue of Submariner, some Rocket Raccoon, and some Clan Destine.3 These mixed bags also didn’t turn into comics love: the titles were strange and out of context and it was made very clear to a young me by my parents that these comics were a “special treat” thing.4

In university there was a confluence of events that got me into print comicbooks.

The first was I started to read main stream webcomics. In highschool I developed a love affair with super pulpy fantasy novels (following my Star Wars novels phase) which got me interested in online fantasy art which somehow translated into finding fantasy themed comic strips on the internet.5 At university, ownership of a laptop and time to kill between lectures introduced me to the online gag strip: your Penny-Arcades and what not. This started to express itself in the doodles that I relentlessly scrawled in the margins of class notes, especially in boring first year calculus classes.

 This led to the second, and I’d argue most significant event. A guy in my integral calculus class (who was an acquaintance of an acquaintance) noticed some Spider-Man doodles on my notes and we got to talking about superheroes and webcomics and how much calculus classes were not fun. A week later he gave me a disk with a collection of his favourite comics, some Justice League cartoon episodes, and the Mask of the Phantasm animated movie6 ALL OF WHICH WERE PIRATED.  I watched the Justice League episodes and became a giant fan of the show and gained a basic working knowledge of the DC universe and encountered many characters I had no idea existed. I then PIRATED as many other DC-WB animated series as I could find and watched all of them. Meanwhile I started to read through the PIRATED comics on the disk, which were mainly Deadpool comics spanning the era of Joe Kelly, Christopher Priest and Gail Simone. The Joe Kelly issues in particular were amazing: funny, complex, mature, and a little disturbing. This wasn’t the disjointed issues of mixed bag Rocket Raccoon from my childhood, or the EVERY! WORD! IS EXCITING! work of the golden age… this was well made, exciting genre fiction set to the kinetic artwork of Ed McGuinness. I read somewhere over 100 issues of Deadpool, moved on to the Ultimates and Ultimate Spiderman, and then found comic books by a gentleman named Alan Moore on the disk of PIRATED comics. I remember vividly staying up all night reading V for Vendetta while the rest of my family was on a vacation and having my world view veritably vivisected. I know I spent another all nighter blasting through Batman: The Killing Joke. I recall trying to read Watchmen too, and realizing I was way out of my depth saved it for later.

The third event was that I started PIRATING comics myself. I remember hearing about Marvel’s Civil War event and the Death of Captain America on the Daily Show (I think). This sounded pretty cool to my newly reintroduced-to-comics self, so being a child of the ‘90s and teen of the ‘00s, I did what came naturally and stole as much of it (and its tie-ins) as I could off the internet.7 With my childhood osmosis of the marvel universe from cartoons, reading PIRATED Civil War scans was pretty straight forward and got me up to speed on the current goings-on of the Marvel Universe. Whenever I encountered someone I didn’t recognize, or relevant past events I had no idea about I’d just Wiki them. I then went back and PIRATED House of M and Avengers Disassembled and suddenly I understood modern marvel continuity well enough to get by. I also understood that modern comic books were well written, beautifully drawn, and generally awesome times.

Events were reaching a critical mass at this point. I was actively reading PIRATED print comics and a bevy of webcomics. I joined my university newspaper and drew editorial comics, and later joke strips for them.8 I started working on a webcomic (It wasn’t very good). My girlfriend of the time, who I was trying to turn onto R A Salvatore novels, noticed they were being adapted into graphic novels and, knowing about my emerging interest in sequential art, gave me the first and second ones as Christmas and Birthday presents that year.9,10 This all culminated in getting me into a comic book store for the first time.

The first time I walked into a comic book shop it was to buy the next couple graphic novel adaptations of R A Salvatore novels since the nearby bookstore didn’t have any in stock. On a whim I picked up the newest handful of issues of Cable and Deadpool and Ultimate Spiderman (series which I was actively PIRATING). I really enjoyed the experience of reading actual comic books and not feeling unethical about how I was getting my media, so a few days later I made another foray to the shop and bought trade collections of the New Avengers and the newest issues of my favourite series from reading the PIRATED tieins to Civil War (Spider-Man, Ironman, Captain America etc…).

From there it took off. I tried new titles I was curious about and used the internet to find other books that were commonly held to be good. I learned which writers and artists I really liked, and started to consider the creative teams when choosing books to read. This got me into reading creator owned-er-ish comics, which opened up a world of comics a little broader (and considerably more daring) than super hero comics. I started to spend insane amounts of money on comics.

So why did PIRACY, stealing content, getting the milk for free, barking on the westcoast toast, get me into a comic book store and convince me to start reading comics? A lot of it, I think, was that it gave me the complete comic book experience. Reading one comic no matter how good, like in the mixed bags12, doesn’t really give you a complete story. Modern comics are super serialized by design, and it takes reading a number of issues in a sequence (at least a complete story arc) to really have a satisfying comic reading experience.13 Piracy also let me experience the concept of a comic book universe. I’ve always felt a major selling point of Marvel and DC was the way superhero characters exist in this shared organic world where they have personal histories and interact with one another. Piracy was also a chance to try a lot of different titles for free, and decide which characters, titles and (hypothetically) creators were worth following. So by enjoying the complete comic experience for free (because I was stealing) I became invested in the format and worlds of superhero comics before I spent a single dollar on a comic book. Essentially, I was sold on the concept of superheroes before the first sale.

It’s analogous to a visit to the library or borrowing a book from a friend. You get to try a book you wouldn’t necessarily be comfortable/interested in paying for for free and if you really enjoy it, you can go forth and buy more books (or that book) by that author. This is how I became interested in the majority of the novels and authors on my bookshelves… and is likely how some of you found your favourite authors too.14 This is just the unethical and legally dubious comic book equivalent.

The comic book industry has a shrinking readership and has trouble cultivating new readers, and I think some lessons about how I got into comics via piracy might be leveraged.  Essentially, I think the way to attract new readers is by providing a lot of free content. With the advent of digital technology, I think Marvel would do very well to make Civil War (and tie-ins!) or the Ultimates available free online. That way people can try comics, get complete stories, and experience a comic book universe and judge if it is something they are interested in without having to spend money in the process. Digital comics are free of print costs, advertising could probably recoup bandwidth fees (Marvel and Disney have a lot things to advertise themselves), and editorial costs have already been recouped by print sales. Better yet, they could annotate the bejesus out of whatever comic is made available free so that new readers can figure out the basics of continuity at the same time. Unless Marvel is making buckets of money on Civil War Trade Paperbacks or owes large royalties to the creators, this seems like an obvious way to try attracting new readers.

1: We also played “Star Trek” and I would insist on being Jordy La Forge. We were a cool bunch.
2: The kid friendly cartoon WildC.A.T.s, not the supergritty-90s WildCats.
3: These mixed bags of comics were….kind of… a mixed bag!
4: My family has experienced some upward mobility throughout my life, and although the important things (education, recreation, nutrition) were always taken care of, money was pretty strictly budgeted when I was a kid. We didn’t buy books if they could be found at the library for instance.
5: An early standout being Faith Erin Hicks Demonology 101.
6: This being the amazing movie spinoff of Batman TAS.
7: Incidentally, this was A LOT of it.
8: The best of these comics are taped to a structural wall in my lab workspace.
9: These were by benighted Devil’s Due Publishing, in case you are interested.
10: My birthday is like a week after Chritsmas. It kind of blows for me and those that are obligated to buy me gifts.
11: My favourite being Comics Alliance.
12: These comics were not the best single issues.
13: There are great single issue comics, but the best ones rely on a certain amount of context or character knowledge. That Frank Miller Daredevil comic with the Russian roulette game between the title hero and Bullseye means a lot less unless you know about their relationship and history. Civil War the Confession, the comic where Tony Stark pours his heart out over the corpse of Captain America (not actually his corpse…) is amazing, but only if you understand the context of the situation and their roles in Civil War.
14: If anyone is indeed reading this-this-this-this-reverb-erb…

Thursday, 24 May 2012

So I Read King City

A 250 word (or less) review of King City Complete Series Trade Paperback
By Brandon Graham, Image/Tokyopop comics

King City by Brandon Graham (written, drawn, etc) is well worth a read.  The plot of this book is pretty insane. The protagonist, Joe, a Cat Master ( someone whose cat, Earthling JJ Catingsworth III, is basically a superpowered multi-tool), returns to the metropolis of King City to reconnect with his old life and gets embroiled in a conflict against poorly-defined-evil-forces. Along the way he interacts with his best friend Pete Thaifighter, a kind-of-luchador who is trying to save a water breathing alien lady from extraterrestrial trafficking criminals; and Anna Greengables, his moustache-graffiti artist ex-girlfriend who is dating Maximum Absolute: a war veteran of the Korean Zombie Wars addicted to a zombifying narcotic called Chalk. This insane plot is unabashedly ignored throughout the book in order to focus on whatever off topic thing Mr. Graham felt like drawing (like a King City Board Game, or Connect-the-Dots within story pages). The result of this is that King City, both the book and setting, ends up being this mixing pot of diverse genre fictional influences. Now I am far from as well or widely read in comics (snoot, snoot) as Brandon Graham, but I can clearly see Manga, superhero and sci fi influences all over the place (and a veneer of Moebius). The result is this beautifully rendered celebration of comics from all over the world: comic fusion cuisine. King City is also great value (since I care about this), being 424 pages for ~$25 (CAN). Also it has some exceptionally delightful puns.

Word count: 250.

Wednesday, 23 May 2012

Atoll Comics

My Ten On-going Titles

Due to poverty and an urge to buy better comics, I have decided to be super-selective about which superhero comics I read. Harnessing the Awesome Power of Maths, I have determined that I can afford to read 10 ongoing titles. So I get to read 10, and only 10, titles published by either Marvel or DC as well as one trade paperback a week of my choosing.

The following are, in no particular order, the ten survivors:

Batman: I love me some Batman. For my money, Batman is one of the most interesting and well developed characters in cape comics and as a result I will almost certainly always read at least one Batman book. Batman, by Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo, is easily the best Batman title included in DC’s new 52 launch (since the other Batman titles are nigh unreadable). It is also really good comics, with solid and engaging writing, a compelling plot, and a consistent and enjoyable visual style (superhero-cartoonishness coupled with a heavily shadowed palette). Basically this one is on the list because it’s a Batman book with a fantastic creative team. It’s a no brainer.

Wonder Woman: When I set about cutting my comics consumption down to ten titles, I did not expect Wonder Woman to be among them. Wonder Woman, as a character, often feels kind of contrived to me… she is a lady superhero made to occupy a niche for a lady superhero1. She has an iconic look, and a healthy place in the pop-culture zeitgeist, but often seems to lack a complete sense of person. Even when she has been written properly as a person, there is generally this weirdly disjointed attempt to get her to live in the DC superhero universe. I’ve always found it distracting. But the new Wonder Woman book, written by Brian Azzarello and drawn mainly by Cliff Chiang, is really good. I think the key to my enjoyment of the book is that they create this remixed greek mythological world, where the concept of a super powered Amazonian princess feels organic instead of an excuse to have a female character. Add to this smart writing and great artwork and Wonder Woman is a book in my top ten.

The Flash: This is a really pretty book. Of the books DC is currently offering, I think Flash could make a case for best looking: beautiful pencils, colours that pop, and a sense of design/layout that amplifies the story and really sells the Flash’s speed powers (which strikes me as a challenging thing to do). This all makes sense since the writers of Flash, Francis Manapul and Brian Buccellato, are the penciller and colourist respectively. The actual writing is fine too (sort of based on the idea of things that challenge a guy who can move really quickly with a veneer of sci-fi) but this takes backseat to the beautiful artwork. This book makes the list for the art.

Batwoman: If Flash isn’t the best looking book at DC, I’d wager Batwoman is. J H Williams III is an artistic juggernaut who pretty much has free artistic rein on the book (he co-scripts it with W. Hademan Blackman as well as pencils every second arch). When he is drawing the book it’s like nothing else: elaborate layouts, different artistic styles and motifs for different characters and situations, and brilliant visual storytelling. It’s breathtaking. That said, the writing isn’t quite at the same level as the art and can be confusing and a bit tone deaf at times.2 Still, worth it just for the sweet sweet artwork.

Daredevil: This might be the cleverest book published by Marvel or DC. From the way blindness is constantly integrated into the plot (without ever seeming contrived), to the dialogue and humour, to the visual design and aesthetic of the book…. It’s just clever. And fun while still being challenging and maintaining a sense of danger and consequences.  Writer Mark Waid and main artist3 Paolo Rivera are just churning out a superlative comic. If you like superhero comics this one is pretty much a must.

The Invincible Ironman: Tony Stark is a pretty compelling dude. He is simultaneously gifted and deeply flawed; a normal human and a prosthetically enhanced superhero; and a genuinely good person who is kind of a dick. In Invincible Ironman you get a fully realized Tony Stark trying to invent a better world in the face of financial ruin, organized opposition, and his own inherent weaknesses. It’s quintessentially what I want from an Ironman comic. It also doesn’t hurt that the thematic core of Ironman as a character is about relating to technology which is pretty central to modern life. I’m a huge fan of the book’s writer Matt Fraction who just finds the right narrative tone for this book and Tony Stark (and genrally just kills it). Add to that a consistent art team of Salvador Larroca and Frank D’Armata, who, despite some distracting ticks4, render the hell out of fighting robot suits and technology. Great character, great story, great creators.

Winter Soldier: This one is a case of creative consistency. Winter soldier, aka Bucky Barnes, aka temporary-replacement-Captain America, has had a story arch in progress since I started reading comics again as an adult. I’m pretty invested in the character and the events surrounding him (he is clandestinely trying to stop the sins of his past from starting a world war) and since Captain America is currently fighting dream-Hydra (or something) this book also fills my Captain America fix (which is the book it spun out of).5 Add to this the very talented creative team of writer Ed Brubaker (who has been writing this character for basically a decade), penciller Butch Guice, and colourist Bettie Breitweiser  you get this terrific (and consistent!) noir espionage thriller as viewed through a snowstorm of whitenoise in a comic book universe… which is pretty damn cool.

Thunderbolts: This is a fun book with great characters. Basically, it’s the misadventures and character studies of old school thunderbolts and a lovable collection of D-list Marvel. I once worried that T-bolts would be a super-rapey-angst book with its team-of-villains premise. However, while the title villains occasionally do legitimately awful things, the book is charming, funny and oddly cute. Jeff Parker and Kevin Walker do a great job writing and drawing (respectively). Basically, Thunderbolts is a great book that is light and fun, but with enough edge to stay engaging.

Fantastic Four/FF: Fantastic Four/FF is the best Science Fiction book being published by the Big Two.6 While it has all of the superheroics and family-centric dynamics that have always been integral to the Fantastic Four, under writer Jonathon Hickman it has also become a very classic sci-fi book. In amongst the stories of punching and Earth-Shattering-Dangers there are tales of a man who lives millennia, a monster who is a man for only one day a year, an interdimensional council of world builders, alien cultures, lost civilizations, and time travel. And all of this is built into a complex and engaging central plotline that keeps the whole thing moving. It’s the best of the fantastic four and the best of the pulp Science Fiction that spawned them.

Ultimate Spider-Man: Spider-Man is another character that has a special nostalgia-powered niche in my heart. It’ll be a sad day when I can’t find a Spider-Man book worth reading. Luckily, Ultimate Spider-Man is a solid title: with over 100 issues written by the same writer (Brian Michael Bendis) and drawn by only a handful of excellent artists7 (with simpatico styles) it is both very good and shockingly consistent. Consistent to the point that a change in title character (they killed off Peter Parker, and replaced him with new Spider-Man Miles Morales) has done nothing to damper my enthusiasm for the book. So Ultimate Spider-Man makes my list for being the best ongoing Spider-Man title.8

1: I like female characters in my comics, and wish there were more good ones. I also which there were more good people of colour and queer characters in comics. The issue is that many of these characters seem to exist due to editorial mandates or a perceived need for such characters (which there is!) without a concurrent commitment to making these characters complete people. Sort of a “look a super lady” level characterization, instead of “hey check out this awesome character, who happens to be a lady”. I think it’s a shame this is the level of portrayal we generally get: Carol Danvers often gets pigeon-holed as a generic female avenger, instead of the awesome character with a great back story and character beats (fighter jet pilot gets super powers from aliens, has issues with alcohol and control, has a reason to not be down with mutants… etc) we would have if she were a dude. It’s like in real life: my female friends aren’t my friends because they are female, but because they are great people. This is what should be reflected in comics.
2: There was a sequence that had a liaison between the protagonist and her love interest rendered in soft artistic tones alternating with the violent stabbing of a supporting female character that had sexual overtones. It was an uncomfortable choice? Maybe purposefully so, but it was way too rapey for my tastes.
3: I say “main” artist since there is a lot of rotation on this book. While Paolo Rivera has done the most issues, a pretty talented bunch including Marcos Martin and Chris Samnee have also filled in. To a certain extent it’s great: everyone on the book is super-talented. But I like consistent visual styles in books… and I don’t think artists are interchangeable picture machines. It devalues the artist and can hurt the tone of the book. It can also kill my interest in a book… a recent Mighty Thor arch had a fill in artist for the final issue and it just wasn’t very good and destroyed what should have been a rewarding pay off. Rotating artists to increase publication speed also makes comics budgeting hard to do and may eventually force me to cut further titles.
4: Human faces are often obviously celebrity photoreferenced, and by my count both Reed Richards and Captain America both have had cases of Brad-Pitt-face during this book…
5: Captain America may not be a main character in the book, but as an unseen participant his influence is everywhere. I feel Captain America (Steve Rogers) works best as an inspiration engine, and the niftiest thing about him as a character is his ability to affect other characters. Winter Soldier is essentially his golden age protégé trying to live up to the ideals of Cap (who is in turn a kind of personification of “American” ideals…) I think it’s a niftier dynamic than following the adventures of Steve Rogers himself.
6: Calling Fantastic Four and FF one book is kind of a copout, but honestly the books are so intertwined that reading only one of the two titles would be a disservice. If you read one, both are pretty much mandatory. Also: it gives me an excuse to read an extra comic every month.
7: In about ten years of Ultimate Spider-Man comics the only artists have been: Mark Bagley, Stuart Immonen, David Lafuente, Sara Pitchelli, and now David Marquez.
8: I miss Brand New Day guys, I really do. Those were quintessential Spider-Man stories, light on continuity, that were hard-hitting and significant. There was a proper supporting cast of people I gave half a damn about and new characters that were interesting. Amazing Spider-Man, under Dan Slott, is not a comic book for me: for one thing it’s heavy on trying to reclaim 90’s Spider-Man continuity which, as a dude who didn’t read comics in the 90’s, is pretty frustrating.9
9: Who is the Spider Queen? Why do I care about this? Why is there a furry green geneticist? Is he related to Agent Brand? Who is this fan service for?!  

Tuesday, 22 May 2012

Welcome to my Darwinian Comicbook Nightmare-Hellscape

Or the ten comics I would bring with me to a desert Island

What would you do if you were about to be exiled to a desert island and you were only allowed to bring 10 comic books? What would they be and why would you choose them? What if the island is on fire and populated with mutant dinosaurs? What if the dinosaurs are radioactive?

It’s arbitrary and silly: create a scenario, choose a category, set an arbitrary limit on the number of choices, and force people to choose their favourites.1 But if taken seriously it offers a framework for assessing what you value most, and if enforced creates a Darwinian atmosphere of pitting your chosen favourites against one another and everything else. It’s Thunderdome meets contrived-reality-television-show-premise. It’s the Hunger Games and Secret Wars. And it’s how I purchase comics.

Comic books are expensive these days (at $4-5 [Can] per comic with page counts under 30 they are also, in a dollars-per-content sense, pretty awful value when compared to most other forms of entertainment). As a graduate student living on a student stipend, TA wages, and the forbearance of a significant other with a real-person-job money is perpetually tight. In the interest of being more responsible with my earnings I have been forced to reassess how I purchase comics.

In a basic sense, this means “buy fewer comics”. But I love comics, and responsibility is no fun. So I have devised a twofold strategy to maximize my comic experience for value and enjoyment:

The first part of my plan is to buy more trade paperback collections from independent-er-ish sources (Image, Icon, Vertigo, IDW, etc). Part of this is simple economics: in a dollars-per-content sense trades are a better investment. When buying trades you essentially get ~six comics for the cost of 4 or less monthly books. Another reason for buying collections is a growing interest in comics outside of the superhero genre as they tend to be more literary and seldom fall into the cycle of cyclic recycling so prevalent in cape comics. I’m also keen to spend a larger portion of my money on creator owned works (going from ~30% my budget to ~70% my budget) since it gives me the warm/fuzzies and supports the people who make the books I love. Trades also have the added benefit of collecting larger parts of story to read all at once, which is appreciated in the more complex and compressed story telling in independent comics (seriously, compare the first issue of Bendis’ Avengers with Carey’s The Unwritten for content… ).

The second aspect of my plan is to be super-selective about which superhero comics I do read. I got into comics as an adult due to a synergy of nostalgic love of superhero characters and an appreciation of the quality of writing in many modern comics and so I’m not willing to go cold turkey on my Marvel/DC fix (despite some despicable behavior from both companies). Harnessing the Awesome Power of Maths, I have determined that 10 ongoing titles is the limit of my budget. So I get to read 10, and only 10, titles published by either Marvel or DC as well as one trade paperback a week of my choosing.

This blog then, is me working through the process of deciding which 10 superhero titles I think are the 10 worthiest of reading.2 I’ll discuss why I love certain books, and outline the changes I make to my top ten as I go: which titles am I tying out, which titles am I dropping, and my rationale for both. I’m finding it kind of an interesting process, and maybe some other persons on the internet-net-net-net3 might as well. (I also, as this writing sample displays, need some practice writing).

I’m also planning on writing some abstract style (>250 words) reviews of the various trades and graphic novels I have been reading lately as well as exploring the hypothesis that creater-owned-er-ish comics are better than big two superhero comics. I may also write about other comic related things.

Welcome to my Darwinian Comicbook Nightmare-Hellscape. Hello.

1: I am Canadian, and believe that words should be spelled propourly. Deal with it.
2: “Worthiest” according to my own alchemical (and probably terrible) taste. There are many good and even great comics out there that I am not currently reading. I don’t mean to insult books not on my list, or their creators. This is about what 10 comics I like best (which are published by Marvel and DC).
3: I am not under any particular illusion that anyone is reading this.4
4: This calls into question the sanity of writing footnotes.