Sunday, December 2, 2012

Gun Machine

Gun Machine

Published by Mulholland Books, Little, Brown & Co., 2013

By Warren Ellis

Releasing a novel a week after Christmas may not seem to be the best strategy for those hunting for gift ideas right now, but a lot of people get gift certificates for Christmas and many others get books they will want to exchange, so putting out a new title in January isn’t that bad an idea.

Warren Ellis’ second novel is a police thriller set in New York. It starts with a couple of New York’s finest answering a call, a naked man with a shotgun is causing a disturbance. In very short order, two men are dead (one a police officer), an incredible weapons cache has been discovered, and Det. John Tallow has a nightmare of a case on his hands.

I enjoyed Ellis’ first novel, Crooked Little Vein, but its focus on weirdness pretty much for weirdness sake often took me out of the book. I often felt like I was surfing his site as much as I was reading a story. Not so this time. Gun Machine is very tightly written thriller. I’ve read a lot of Ellis and I’ve never felt like he wasn’t in complete control of his craft, but he has really stepped up here. Arguably a chance encounter with a woman puts too many pieces together for Tallow too easily, but apart from that things develop very organically. The cast is largely completed by a couple of Crime Scene techs—because it’s all about the science these days, at least in novels and on TV—but it’s the bad guy who sucks the reader into the story. “The Hunter” lives in an invisible world of pre-colonial Manhattan and Ellis draws you into his mind so convincingly you start to wonder just what kind of novel this is. Is he writing a straight forward detective mystery? Is he mixing genres? Time periods?

This could be the book that raises Ellis’ profile from a comics writer and columnist, with a large and dedicated fan base, up into mainstream success and recognition.

It's Only a Game

It’s Only a Game

Published by About Comics, 2004

Charles M. Schulz and Jim Sasseville, Edited by Derrick Bang

After seven years of finding insight and humor in the existential crises of pre-adolescents, Charles Schulz decided to try his hand at something new, It’s Only a Game, a series of single panel gag cartoons focused on people’s recreation and pastimes. I’ve always been a fan of his Peanuts strip, and I shelled out more than I should have to buy a copy of his Li’l Folks strip from the Charles M. Schulz Museum, but It’s Only a Game has a special draw for Schultz fans. Of the three series it is the only one to feature adult characters in any capacity at all.

Done over a fourteen month period, beginning in November of 1957, the strip focuses on adult leisure activities –and how stressful they can be. The one featured most often is bridge. Not being a card player myself, I have to admit that was a problem for me. A large number of the strips simply did not resonate with me at all. Several others were dated, with jokes about women drivers, etc, but the priority given bridge was easily the biggest stumbling block for me. After a couple of months Schulz delegated much of the work to friend and fellow Minnesotan Jim Sasseville, who worked from rough sketches provided to him. Sasseville had known Schulz from art school and had worked on the Dell comic version of Peanuts (though never the strip itself). He provides commentary and insight into the development of the strip. The strip was initially picked up by thirty newspapers. After more than a year the number was still at thirty and Schulz decided to call it a day and concentrate on his primary strip. He never attempted another strip.

Overall I enjoyed it, but it’s definitely one for the fans.

47 Ronin #1

47 Ronin #1

Published by Dark Horse, 2012

Written by Mike Richardson, Art by Stan Sakai, Coloured by Lovern Kindzierski, Lettering by Tom Orzechowski and Lois Buhalis, Editorial Consultant Kazuo Koike

The story of the 47 Ronins is now over three hundred years old. It was then, at the beginning of the 18th century, that the events that inspired this story took place. Now when it comes to spoilers, I have certain rules. They date back to 1999 and the release of the movie Titus. I was talking about it with a co-worker when a second co-worker spoke up and said, ‘I haven’t seen it yet. Don’t spoil it for me.’ We stopped talking immediately, but after a moment I thought, no, this story has been around for four hundred years. You’ve had plenty of time to familiarize yourself with it. We asked her to go somewhere else so we could continue talking about the movie. When it comes to comics, my rule of thumb is one month or the release of the next issue, whichever comes first. Of course, it’s usually the former. With this issue I am going to go light on the details. No spoilers. The story is three hundred years old, but I’m going to give you the next month.

I first heard this story years ago, when I saw the 1962 movie Chushingura. The real events are actually somewhat muddled. Censorship laws at the time kept many of the details from ever being established. Essentially what happened was that a rurally based lord, Asano, was called to the court of the ruling Shogun. Because his knowledge of etiquette was somewhat rustic, he was sent to a court official named Kira to be instructed. Gift giving is an important part of Japanese culture, even today, and Kira thought that the gifts Asano had given him were insufficient. Asano thought Kira was trying to extort bribes from him. A seemingly trivia conflict, but out of it grew a story of revenge and honour that would cause dozens of deaths and become one of Japan’s most popular stories.

Richardson first heard of the story in 1986 and has been waiting to tell it ever since. For those who don’t know, he is Dark Horse’s major domo, its founder, publisher, and president. He’s been working on his script since 2004 and certainly the first issue is excellent. He introduces the main characters and the conflict. He has a large cast and a story that hinges on obscure points of etiquette, but he keeps everything sharp and focused. (From my knowledge of the story I even feel sure who the narrator is.) His best decision was to hire Stan Sakai to draw it. It was Sakai’s involvement that gained my interest. If you’re not familiar with his Usagi Yojimbo, well, there’s no excuse for that at all. It’s funny, Usagi has an animal cast, but when you’re reading you forget that as you’re drawn into the stories. This was the first time I’ve read a Sakai story with a human cast, but in no time at all you forget that and get absorbed into his rich visual knowledge of the period. And in colour! It’s a beautiful comic and a fascinating story, and one well worth your attention.

New Reviews

I've certainly been neglecting this site. Its been months. Sad part is, I have been posting reviews in forums. I just haven't bothered to copy them over. Not many, but more often. So, that's what I'm going to do. Starting with my next post...

Saturday, August 18, 2012

How To Sell Superheroes To Children

Another one from Power Honor Grace. Children love superheroes: the movies, cartoons, costumes, T-shirt, and other merchandise. How can we get them reading the comics?

There comes a time when all bloggers feel the need to tell the comics industry how to save itself from any number of problems and concerns. I am not feeling quite that ambitious today. Instead I am simply going to point the way to selling superhero comics to children.

While there has been a lot of much needed calls to make the medium more hospitable to women and minorities, the future of comics is in the hands of today’s kids. The 8 to 10 year olds of today are getting older every day. Just this week Publisher’s Weekly reported a study that showed 23-33 year olds have now become the single largest group of book buyers. That’s the generation that grew up reading Harry Potter, first published 15 years ago. Potter’s success fueled a huge demand for Young Adult novels and created the generation of readers now buying all kinds of books.

Publishers haven’t been blind to the demand for kids’ graphic novels either. Scholastic’s Graphix imprint, built on the success of the Bones and Wimpy Kid series, has been a great success. The Wimpy Kids series alone has over 30 million books in print. Imagine a 7 volume superhero comic with over 30 million comics in print. But I am focusing my attention today on the Big Two. DC and Marvel. This is an area where they could do a lot better.

The idea of writing this article came to me while I was reading a copy of Teen Titans Go! I enjoyed it, but while reading it I couldn’t help but think there was a better model out there for getting kids to read superhero comics than basing them on TV cartoons: comics written before the mid-80s. From their inception right up to the introduction of dark and gritty characters in the 80s, it was assumed that the principle readership for comics was mostly children. All those Golden Age tales, the Silver Age revival of Scwartz, Infantino, Fox and so many others at DC. Lee, Kirby, Ditko and the bullpen at Marvel. Kirby’s New Gods, Starlin’s cosmic adventures, Gerber’s comix sensibility. All for kids. Comics like Teen Titans Go! forget this. The results are far too self-consciously “kids” comics. Especially the art, which ignores the generations of far more complex and rewarding work that people once assumed was what kids wanted.

So, should we just start marketing comics to kids? No. Comics have changed, but I see no reason why we can’t have superhero comics written for children as well as for grown ups. But in writing comics for children we should look to the comics of the 60s and 70s instead of Saturday morning cartoons. How would that change things? Not very radically.

The sex and violence would have to be toned down. Violence is a basic part of the genre (men and women dress up and fight), but the levels of gore and bloodshed don’t have to be as high as they sometimes are. No more girlfriends in refrigerators, for example. As for the sex, there would be no actual sex, obviously, but the change here would most likely be reflected in how female characters are presented. When I was a kid I could easily see that characters like the Scarlet Witch, the Black Widow, and Storm were attractive women (yeah, I read a lot of Marvel back then), but artists didn’t present them as though they using a Victoria Secret’s catalog to develop their character model sheet.

The second change is character. The characters’ character. The good guys are good guys. Even when they make stupid mistakes or are conflicted, their intentions are clear. It is possible to generate conflict without dirtying up a character. Namor was a good guy, an enemy of mankind, and serious threat to Sue and Reed Richard’s relationship. I think children are more capable of appreciating a character’s complexity than they are often given credit for, but this is an area where parents will protest. Good guys don’t casually rip through hordes of bad guys with their adamantium claws. Mom and Dad won’t like it.

That brings up a third and very important point. As adults we may put money down for collected volumes that can cost $100 to $150, but parents won’t spend that much on a comic for their kids. And when I say comic, I mean graphic novel. Keep the cost under $10. They may shell out a few dollars more for things like Bone and the Wimpy Kid books, but these are limited series. If you want little Tim and Janey’s parents to keep buying Batman and Spiderman, keep it under $10. I am not speculating here. I work in a bookstore. Parents don’t want to spend more than that. Cheaper books will mean shorter stories, but by shorter I only mean page count. Comics of the era I am referencing typically had a lot more story per issue than we’re used to seeing today. So plot out your story for the usual half dozen issues, then condense it down to four.

There you are: look to the comics of the 60s and 70s for a role model, tone it down, value integrity, keep it short, but full of story, and remember the costs. It seems so simple!

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Ah, Stephanie

From Power Honor Grace: Women and the new 52. It’s been getting a lot of press. Again. Much of it following the news that Stephanie Brown will not be appearing as Nightwing in the new Smallville comic after all. It was writer Bryan Q. Miller’s intention, but editorial fiat told him that Brown would have to be replaced. Questions why eventually brought reports that someone at headquarters considered the character ‘toxic,’ but there was no explanation as to what that might mean. Bleeding Cool suggested that it may only mean that DC is keeping her for something special. We can only hope.

For those new to Wonder Girl fandom, or those baffled by it, Stephanie Brown was introduced into the DCU about twenty years ago. Calling herself the Spoiler, she is the daughter of C list villain the Cluemaster. Stephanie blamed her father for the sorry life she and her mother found themselves in, and vowed to keep him in prison. She was featured heavily in Dixon’s Robin run, often as a love interest for the Boy Wonder, and is Batgirl Cassandra Cain’s BFF. She was a likeable, upbeat C lister and everyone seemed happy with that. Then, in 2004, DC gave her a big promotion: she became the fourth Robin. Batman and Robin, the Girl Wonder.

It made sense for the character. She’d always worked hard and sought approval, or at least acceptance, from the Batman. Now she’d gotten it. And readers got the promise of a new boy-girl dynamic to the dynamic duo. (No, not like that!) But it was all a lie. Editorial wasn’t giving Stephanie their approval at all. Instead, they were setting her up to be tortured and killed. Readers were upset. And even more than the heavy handed story manipulation, what upset them was that Stephanie never got the respect given the last dead Robin. It’s accepted that Jason Todd was an angry young man and a poor choice to be Robin, but he got a memorial in the Batcave. He was Robin, he died, he got a memorial. Stephanie was Robin, she died, she got butkus. Nothing. Zip. At that point she became something more than a C lister. She came to represent the lack of respect shown to both female characters and female fans by the Big Two and by DC in particular.

Eventually DC back tracked and brought her back. In comics the dead are always with us, primarily because they rarely ever stay dead. And she got another promotion: Batgirl. This relaunch was a part of some wide ranging changes to Gotham, following the (again temporary) death of Bruce Wayne. I picked up all the titles and followed them for a while before letting them all go. I don’t usually follow mainstream comics beyond the odd big event, but lately there had been so many big events that I hadn’t been following much at all. As a Bat fan I made an exception here, before dropping them. A few months later I was faced with a problem that all long term comics readers deal with from time to time. Lots of stuff out there, but nothing was really grabbing me. What did I want? I wanted something upbeat and engaging. I likeable character. Something well written and fun. Something, I realized, very much like Miller’s run on Batgirl. But why get something like it, when I can just go back and pick up Batgirl again? I wasn’t going to trade wait it. (Did you know that only about half of Cain’s Batgirl run was ever collected?) I put it back on my subscription list and picked up the copies I’d missed. All was well. Until DC did it again. No, they didn’t kill her. They cancelled her run and replaced her with the original Batgirl, Barbara Gordon. Stephanie Brown was consigned too… we have no idea. From what little we know, the whole subject is strictly verboten at 1700 Broadway.

Complaining fans have been stonewalled by the company and mocked by fanbots online. You hear all the standards: we don’t own the characters, we’re too caught up a given era, and, if you’re a male fan, isn’t it a little pervy that you like a young female character? Well, no we don’t own our favorite characters, but it’s not really that simple, is it? Most comic fans—fans of the Big Two—have a preference. Marvel or DC. They may like both, but not equally. We buy into a shared universe, literally. We spend our money following favorite characters, crossovers, and events. We commit. And for our commitment we are rewarded precious little. The idea that we’re stuck in a given era rings hollow when talking about Batgirl. After all, DC has turned the clock back on Batgirl to the time of INXS and Rain Man topped the charts, ignoring two decades of character development. The third criticism speaks more of those who are making it, than those it is directed against. Apparently they can only view female characters in terms of their sexuality. That there are such fans is hardly surprising. That they assume they are normal would be laughable if it didn’t say so much about the comics industry.

Last week Heidi MacDonald posted an interesting essay, arguing that the Big Two will never seek out a female fanbase. They have a market and they don’t want to dilute the brand by seek out a more diversified customer base. This met with some intelligent criticism, but I would like to point a couple of other things out. First, while her argument does seem to make some sense from Marvel’s perspective—Disney did buy the company in order to reach boys, having already all but taken over girls’ merchandising—it doesn’t really work for DC. No one at Warners is looking to dominate the children’s toy and television market in the way Disney seems to feel is their due. Second, as a parent of girls I can readily confirm something TV programmers have known, and openly admitted to, for years: boys won’t buy girl’s things, but girls will buy boy’s. Marketing to women is not a threat to the brand. You don’t have to dilute anything. You just have to stop treating girls as though they have cooties. Give them stories and characters they find interesting. Stop viewing them as a problem that needs to be avoided or placated and give them good stories. So, I guess it doesn’t really apply to Marvel either. And really, when these companies are thinking about money from comics, they aren’t even thinking of comics. They are thinking of using the characters in movies, games, cartoons, toys, clothing, and countless other things. But, honestly, if gaming can reach gender parity in its users and sales, there is no reason at all that comics can’t.

Reading people’s comments on webzines, blogs, tumblr, and forums I can’t help but feel that a big part of the resistance to Brown is that girls like her. Girls have cooties and girls like Stephanie Brown, so Stephanie Brown must have cooties. Of course, I could just denounce it as sexism, which it is, but who is going to listen to that? What comics need is someone from outside the industry, someone who isn’t a fanboy turned creator turned publisher, to take the reins. Someone who hasn’t come to see the excesses of fanboy-dom as the norm. I don’t expect that to happen any time soon, but not because of the success of the Avengers movie or the sales figures for the New 52 (after all, month after month, they continue to ‘settle’). No, the reason I don’t expect any outside intervention is because the comics themselves aren’t important to their parent companies. They only exist to provide merchandising material.

*****

As for me and the New 52, I feel my reading it just going through the motions. I picked up Batwoman for a while, then dropped it when I heard they were dropping Hadley. Having two artists I liked on it was the draw for me. The story never gripped me and I cannot for the life of me figure out what she is doing with the DEO instead of working with the Bat-family. I have been reading World’s Finest, but it looks like the first arc will be all set up. And I just read the new Batgirl trade, The Darkest Reflection. It was mostly okay. The art did nothing for me and the concept behind Mirror was a bit heavy handed. One interesting reversal: Barbara is Gordon’s natural daughter again. She was originally, then her backstory was revised to make her Gordon’s biological niece, whom he had adopted. Now she’s his daughter again. No idea why they felt that was necessary.

If however, Bleeding Cool is right and DC has just been saving Stephanie Brown, I promise to buy at least two copies of each issue. One for me and one to share. I’m sure the stockholders would prefer that to waffles.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

My Pull List

I haven't posted a pull list in a while.

Here's what I am picking up at my local comics shop:

Alabaster: Wolves
B.P.R.D.
Casanova
Courtney Crumrin
Darkhorse Presents
Fatale
Fatima
Mind MGNT
Mouse Guard
Manhattan Projects
Prophet
Rasl
Spaceman
World's Finest

Also on my pull list are:

Infinite Vacation (Which hasn't lived up to the promise of the first two issues, but only has one issue left. Eventually.)
Hellboy (Hellboy in Hell. Coming the end of 2012.)

And, if they should ever seen print again:

Fell
Liberty Meadows

And here's what I am getting at Comixology:

Digital comics:

Ame-Comi
Double Barrel
Legends of the Dark Knight

Older titles that I picking up an issue (or two) per week--and the next issue I'll be picking up:

Robin #24-25 (the 1993-2009 run)
Doom Patrol #22 (Morrison's run)
Chase #2

I also pick up older arcs. My next will be Batman: Prey, starting in Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight #11.

The only current, non-digital, series I am getting is Rachel Rising. I've gotten the first two issue and will get issue three this week. My digital comics day is Monday.