Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Civil War

At the right, you see a preview image from Marvel's upcoming "Civil War" event. Marvel's largely been touting this as a big, brother-against-brother, this-will-tear-family-and-friends-apart type of event, but there's been the odd reference here and there to what it's actually about. I tend not to play into company-generated hype any more, so I haven't paid too close attention to what the storyline's actually about, but what I've gathered so far points to some sort of government proposal to regulate/monitor super-powered individuals and the heroes are split as to whether or not this is a good idea.

That's certainly suggested in the confrontational line-up in the image. Captain America, Wolverine and the Human Torch are staunch individualists with a deep belief in personal freedom. Iron Man, Sentry and Colossus tend to prefer looking towards what they consider the "greater good" and that sometimes means sacrificing some personal liberties. Spidey strikes me as belonging more to the other side, generally, but recent events in Amazing Spider-Man put his loyalty directly in line with Iron Man's.

Here's a couple of issues I have with the premise. First, we've done this already. Back during Acts of Vengeance, there was a whole sub-plot running through some books whereby the government wanted to regulate super-powered individuals and Mr. Fantastic pointed out any number of logistical problems with that idea. How does one identify a super-powered individual? Equipment that detects genetic variations would gloss over people like Iron Man, and what would be considered a baseline anyway? There's inevitably some genetic variation from every individual to every other individual so what where would you define a cut-off? I can forgive Marvel somewhat on the redundancy factor since that story was written in a time when terrorism wasn't really an issue in the American public consciousness, but since we've already covered this, I've got something of a been-there-done-that feeling about that basic premise.

The other issue I have is with the marketing of the story. The notion is effectively an ideological debate and clearly different characters are going to have different opinions which, as we all know, can lead to arguments. So you've got plenty of fertile ground for drama to be sure. And with Mark Millar writing, I'm fairly certain they'll be a reasonable amount of addressing the issues. But then, the promotion material makes it look and sound like a seven-issue slugfest among all the heroes.

Personally, I don't care about that one whit. We've already done two Contest of Champions series, not to mention that almost every first team-up between two characters results in a "misunderstanding" that leads to the two protagonists trying to knock each other senseless. Maybe it's just me, but I don't know that it makes sense to sell this whole series on a premise that, within Marvel, dates back to long before Marvel was even called Marvel!

To be sure, an event that will tear the Fantastic Four or New Avengers apart doesn't necessitate a pro-wrestling style smackdown, but all of the promotional material suggests that's what we're going to see. Now, I'm savvy enough to know that it's advertising and Marvel's trying to grab people's attention by suggesting that Captain America is going to hit Tony Stark in the face. Effectively, it's no different than saying that I'll be popular and have lots of fun by drinking Pepsi or driving a Vibe. But, for some reason, Marvel's efforts rub me the wrong way.

Back in the day, Stan Lee mastered the art of hyperbole to sell comics. How many times did say that the next issue promised to be the most exciting thing in comics... until the issue after that? That's continued, after a fashion, to this day. (Need I remind anyone of Joe Quesada's "crack the Internet in half" line?) But I think there was always some sense of acknowledgement that we, the audience, knew that they were exaggerating. Stan did it a very self-effacing way, and Joe tends to use metaphors that are simply beyond the realm of true believability. But this campaign strikes me as more subversive.

Fans have long had a rather open relationship with Marvel. They took a great deal of personal ownership in the characters, and Marvel generally listened to what they had to say. Going back to the early 1960s, it was fairly well documented that a lot of complaint letters came about how absurd and asinine the Impossible Man was as a character. Not only did Stan not use him again, but it took Roy Thomas over five years to persuade Stan to even let the character show up again. Much more recently, Mark Waid was fired from writing the Fantastic Four, only to have a groundswell of fan support help to reinstate him almost immediately.

But this subversive-seeming advertising almost strikes me as coming from a different Marvel. A Marvel that has less respect for their readers. Maybe I'm wrong, and the "Civil War" event will have lots of hero-versus-hero battles and the imagery is perfectly apt. Maybe I'm seeing things that aren't really intended and the image above is supposed to be more symbolic than factually representative. But for the moment, I've got my eyebrow raised and have some concerns whirling in my head.

Monday, February 27, 2006

Original Comic Art

Many people collect comic books, but fewer collect original comic book art -- the actual artwork created by the artist for use in the publication of comics. Several years ago, a couple of interesting twists in my life presented me with the opportunity to become a collector of original art.

My first piece was the opening splash page from Fantastic Four, vol. 3 #33 by Salvador Larocca. I bought it largely because, at the time, I had just had some great e-mail conversations with Salva and wanted to "commemorate" the event. I asked him what he had available, and he referred me to his art representative in the U.S. Nothing that was in stock at the time struck my fancy, and the rep said that I could reserve any future page that I wanted; however, the next several covers were already claimed. But, thanks to the infancy of the Internet, I was able to get one of the earliest previews of the upcoming issue and saw that it had a great opening splash, which I promptly sent off a check for.

That was my one piece of art for a couple of years, until I won Diamond's "Comics' #1 Fan" contest in 2003. Part of the prize package included several pieces of original comic art. Admittedly, they were not particularly high profile artsits or characters, but, overnight, I found that I had over a dozen pieces of art in my instant collection.

And so I began as a collector of original comic art.

My background in graphic design makes me somewhat privvy to the production process. So it's more interesting to me to see how the original artwork was created FOR the production process. I have little interest in obtaining commissioned pieces or convention sketches -- I'd much rather have the origianl art that was used in creating the comic book stories that I enjoy. I also think it's more interesting to see how different artists approach the same type of work.

My favorite piece in my own collection, so far, has to be the one shown here: Fantastic Four, vol. 3 #55, page 5 by Stuart Immonen. It's certainly a great piece of art in its own right, but it also showcases the actual production process that's gone into it. The inker, Karl Kesel, worked from an electronic copy, so all of Immonen's original pencil lines are left intact. You can even see his non-repro blue pencil underneath! Plus, there's the interesting blending of detail with shortcuts -- note his refernece in the third panel to stat the background of the fourth. Wonderful piece, in my opinion.

I also like this piece (at right) by Tom Morgan. It's page 43 from Fantastic Four Annual #22. The emptiness of the first panel always bugged me. It looked like something had been left out. Sure enough, once I received the art, I could see that the second panel was originally intended to break up into that area. Why it was changed, I don't know, but I now know it wasn't designed to be dead space. This page also sports gutter notes from Morgan. Evidently, as he was laying out the page, he scribbled in some directions about what was happening in each panel -- presumably to help him follow the story while he was still drawing it. Most are fairly straightforward descriptions, but the final panel notes the appearance of "Woofer, the Wonder Bunny!"

You don't see that kind of behind-the-curtain material just anywhere, and I find it fascinating to examine how my favorite medium is put together. It gives me a greater appreciation of the final story that I read in the printed page.

Sunday, February 26, 2006

Comic Book Shops

I've had the priveledge to browse through many comic book shops throughout my life, and I've been fortunate enough to find two very good stores that I have been able to call "mine." (As in, "I went to my local shop on Wednesday," not "I own a comic book shop.") I used to go to Queen City Comics until I changed jobs a few years ago, and it became somewhat difficult to keep going there regularly, so I had to switch to Bookery Fantasy. Both are excellent examples of how comic shops should be.

So what makes them good shops? And why do I enjoy them?

First, they both have a fairly good selection of books. Not just new issues, but rather healthy back issue collections as well. And not just Marvel and DC, but I've been able to pick up and sample some fairly out-of-the-mainstream titles as well. A decent portion of the books I currently get, in fact, are because I was able to sample them in the store itself. And the managers at both locations know their stock well, so if I am expecting to see something on the rack and don't, they're usually able to tell me whether it's sold out already or wasn't shipped on time or whatever.

Store layouts are always a little awkward, as the manager has to work with whatever space he can, but at both Bookery and Queen City, they have a relatively open sense of space, despite the density of long boxes running throughout the area. I've been in too many shops that would make anyone feel claustrophobic. There was one shop I visited (now long out of business) that felt smaller than my college dorm room, and it was literally packed floor-to-ceiling with long boxes, which were almost impossible to look through because they were packed so tightly. Now, maybe he couldn't afford a larger space, but filling the shop with every last comic you own to the point where you can't even look at them seems a worse idea to me than making a nice place with a smaller selection of back issues.

The staffs at both locations are courteous and helpful. The reason why The Simpson's Comic Shop Guy gets so many laughs is precisely because we've all run into variations of that same person. They're so absorbed by the fiction they read, that they don't think to try not alienating customers. Even though the owners are/were often fans first and foremost, running a comic book shop is a business and you have to keep your customers happy if you're going to remain in business. I've run into several of them at locations other than the comic shop, and they've remained cheerful and pleasant.

I don't have all the secrets to running a comic book shop. It doesn't strike me as a good way to make a lot of money, and I really don't think I'm going to try it myself any time in my future. But I do know some things that strike me as relatively key factors in the success or failure of a shop, and it surprises me how many shops don't seem to have any clue about any of them.

Saturday, February 25, 2006

Sean's History in Comics, Part 2

As you may have guessed, I have an affinity for the Fantastic Four. It's quite clear for me just when that came about, as it was the Fantastic Four that moved me to become an actual comic book collector, as opposed to a kid who read comics.

My first encounter with the Fantastic Four was not a particularly pleasant one. In the "collection" I inherited from a friend of my parents were Fantastic Four #111-112. In the story, Mr. Fantastic has been able to find a cure for the Thing, allowing him to change back and forth at will. However, it affects his mind and the Thing goes on a mad rampage through New York and has a glorious brawl with the Hulk. At the end of #112, though, the Thing's girlfriend calls his name at exactly the wrong moment and he takes full-on a Hulk fist to his face. Mr. Fantastic and the Human Torch then arrive and announce that he's dead.

When I first read that, I was pissed. Here I'd spent an entire two issues reading mostly about this Thing character, only to have him die at the end of the story. Plus, everyone else was running around angry, and the stress level in the comic was really high. Clearly, I was much too young for the story when I first read it, and I had no intention of trying to track down another issue.

I grew older and was starting to come to the point where I felt I was outgrowing comics. I'd seen Superman save Lois any number of times; I'd seen Batman capture the Joker over and over; I'd seen just about every superhero get put into an "inescapable" situation, only to escape in a nick of time. I was just about ready to give up comics.

But then I turned eleven.

For my eleventh birthday, my parents got me -- among the usual collection of clothes and toys -- some comics. Most of them were the same kind of fare I was getting tired of, but then there was Fantastic Four #254. It was engaging, it was funny, it brought up some interesting concepts. And, most interestingly, Mr. Fantastic died at the end of it! The difference this time was that I cared about the characters. The characters, who before had been irritable and agitated, were now charming and approachable. I didn't want Mr. Fantastic to die, and I had to buy the next issue to see if his teammates could save him. (I don't think it'd be considered a spoiler at this point to say that he was saved.) The next issue brought Annihilus to Earth, and ended with the Fantastic Four rushing their son to the hospital. So I bought the next issue as well. And the next. And the next.

Before I knew it, I had a subscription to the series and was hunting at flea markets and comic shops for the first 253 issues. And, so, another comic book collector was born.

Friday, February 24, 2006

Sales Figures

I was in a recent discussion on a message board where someone was asking about sales figures now compared to the early 1990s. He was surprised to learn that even the top selling titles today are little more than half some of drek that was being published back then. The conversation reminded me that I did actually do some research on the sales figures of the Fantastic Four comic (and a few related titles) over the years. I thought I'd take a moment to present what I have...

First a little about the numbers themselves. Everything prior to December 1984 is based solely on the circulation numbers presented in the statement of ownership, published yearly. Since they only list yearly averages (and one single issue) that's why most everything is fairly even and flat. From December 1984 until May 1995, I'm using the circulation averages multiplied by the relative increase/decrease in sales from Capital City Distirbutors. That explains the sudden increase in volitility. For about a year, starting in June 1995, Marvel books were distributed by their own distribution company (Heroes World) and I resort to circulation numbers again for that period. Diamond Distributors picked them up at that point, and I'm using their pre-sale numbers until May 2003, at which time sales numbers were reported after the fact and should reflect a more accurate estimation of month-to-month sales.

OK, that out of the way, I've marked specific issue numbers where several of the significant spikes occur. With one three-issue run as an exception, every one of those spikes is an anniversary "let's increase sales with some type of gimmick" type issue of some sort. The exception I mention is the three-issue run just prior to #350 that was drawn by Arthur Adams and featured Ghost Rider, Punisher, Hulk and Spidey. That's why -- despite fans complaints of holo-foil-stamped-die-cut covers -- Marvel kept doing them for so long: they worked! Sales are noticeably higher on gimmicky issues. Heck, you can almost see the correlation back as far as FF #200, and certainly by FF #296 and #300.

Marvel was at the height of it's popularity in the mid-to-late 60s, and their flagship book's sales reflect people's overall interest in Marvel, I think. (Of course, I'd like to see what X-Men and Spider-Man numbers look like by comparison, but I'd wager the trend is very similar.)

Comics Fandom

I've been reading comics for the better part of three decades now. When I first started as a collector (several years after I had began reading comics, mind you) I was fascinated in learning all I could about the characters. What and how their powers worked, certainly, but also what their histories were and who they are as characters. Once I had a pretty reasonable handle on that, I found that the characters became more of a vehicle to see how their entire world worked. (This is obviously more applicable to Marvel and DC than any other publisher.) To a degree, I still enjoy that aspect of comics -- trying to figure how Spider-Man's appearance in The Avengers corresponds (or doesn't) with his own titles, not to mention his appearances in whatever other comics he happens to be appearing in. Indeed, I've been on the Board of Directors for the Marvel Chronology Project for several years.

But however much I learn from and understand those stories, there is simply a finite amount of information that I can uncover. I am inherently limited by the published stories and, many though they are, everything there is currently to know about She-Hulk, as a character, has been published. There are holes in the character's lives to be sure, but they're holes because those portions of those lives simply don't exist. What did Thor do on his 250th birthday? Could have been anything. But, more to the point, it still can be anything. Until and unless a comic book writer decides to develop that story, it simply isn't a part of the character's history.

So with that said, I have had two interests in comics that I think will sustain my interest in the medium for the rest of my life. First is the history of the comics themselves. How exactly did Martin Goodman get his information about the success of the Justice League of America, and how did Stan Lee and Jack Kirby take that concept to come up with the Fantastic Four? There's some commonly held beliefs about these types of things, naturally, but no one really knows for sure. Which means that I can spend the rest of my life studying arcane bits of data to uncover the real story behind the story.

The other thing about comics that fascinates me is comics fandom. What possesses someone to read a comic book month after month for years, if not decades, on end? What kind of mentality prompts someone to create a costume and regularly dress up as a fictional hero? Why do people pay thousands of dollars for deteriorating paper that was created years before they were even born? Why am I sitting here at a computer terminal, writing a daily blog about comics when I can easily think of a dozen other more productive things I could be working on?

The picture at the right is that of Jerry Bails, often considered the founder of modern comics fandom. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, he did a lot of letter-writing and fanzine publishing that pulled people together from across the United States (and, I expect, the world) by linking them through their hobby. I talked with Jerry back in 2004 and much of his intent in those early days was simply to help connect fans. So he hopped from project to project, helping to get them started and passing them along to someone else soon after.

Right now, I'm reading a history of science fiction fandom up through the 1950s called All Our Yesterdays by Harry Warner, Jr. originally published in 1969. My initial thought was that -- given the lack of published material on comics fandom -- there might be a handful of analogies in science fiction fandom that might prove insightful. What I've found so far, though, is that the two types of fandom were nearly identical in most respects! The same types of groups sprouted up in exactly the same way in not-dissimilar locations. The same types of people gained prominence and notoriety, and the same types of people caused the same types of rifts within the communities. The only significant differences seem to be the names and the dates. It is indeed proving more insightful than I might have guessed.

I'm also looking forward to receiving the recently completed documentary on the fans of Joss Whedon's Firefly and Serenity called Done the Impossible. I think the comparisons among the comic book meidum, the science fiction genre, and the Serenity sub-genre should prove most intriguing. The documentary debuted at WonderCon recently (but I have yet to see a review of it) and they claim that they're mailing out the DVDs as soon as they can get them burned.

Where am I going with this post? Well, as we're still in the early days of my blog here, I think it makes sense to establish the "ground rules" of what you can expect to read about. Sure, my blog has "Comics" in the name, but that's still a wide subject to focus on. With these initial posts, I'm trying to establish what I consider fair game for this blog and some of the background of how I'm approaching the subject.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Iron Boy

So I was at my local comic shop yesterday picking up my weekly stash of books, and picked up the latest issue of Amazing Spider-Man. Lo, and behold, the cover graces us with a full-page image of Spider-Man in his new Tony-Stark-designed costume. I had heard about it previously, but didn't give it much thought. The shop manager just shook his head as he rang up the issue, and we had a brief discussion on just how long this new costume would last. (We both hoped it would be shorter rather than longer, but the only thing we could say for sure is that he'd certainly be back in something approximating his classic togs by the time the next Spider-Man movie is released.)

I took the book home, and read it last night.

Now, I'd like people to realize first that, while I do like Spider-Man as a character, I do not have the long-standing affection for him that many Spider-fans do. I've certainly been aware of Spider-Man since the earliest days of my youth, but he was never tops on my list of favorite heroes. I'd also like people to realize that I'm not a big J. Michael Straczynski fan. Not that I dislike his work per se, but it doesn't resonante with me the way a Kurt Busiek or Fabian Niceiza does. What those two comments mean are that A) I'm not overly concerned with stirctly adhering to years of Spider-Man continuity, and B) I'm not going to let the creator's name sway my opinion of the story one way or another. Tweaking the origin around to include the totem theme was no problem for me; I thought moving Spidey into the Avengers was okay; I wasn't keen on the rape (literal and metaphoric) of Gwen Stacey; and the Spider-Man reborn thing seemed a little trite.

So I read the latest issue. Tony Stark gives Spider-Man a new costume, with more advanced technology that gives him some additional abilities like gliding and being bullet-proof. Not a great direction to take the character, but it's an interesting extension of having Spider-Man be an Avenger and having access to those resources. But then Spider-Man asks why Tony Stark would do such a thing. Tony responds that, as Iron Man, he would like to have some solid, trust-worthy back-up and feels that Spider-Man would be an ideal choice. Here's where I start running into some problems...

So Iron Man wants back-up. Easy for me to swallow -- he's outfitted others with variations of the Iron Man armor before. He doesn't fully trust the other Avengers. I can buy into that, given that most of the team are fairly unknown quantities for him and he's had several philosophical differences with Captain America in the past. Iron Man also wants their agreement to be relatively secret. No issue there -- he's got a long history of not being terribly open with everyone. I can even see Spider-Man agreeing to the deal, since he's done covert work in the past (most recently in Brian Bendis' Secret War) and is in a position where he feels indebted to Stark for any number of things. But something about that scene feels... wrong.

There's enough minor disconnects in those last pages that prevent me from buying into the story and premise. In the first place, Tony's characterization throughout the issue is very manipulative. Not that he doesn't have that trait, but it's the only real aspect of the character we see here. In the second place, if he's trying to be secretive about this agreement, why invite his civilian wife to the conversation at all? But I think what bothers me most of all is that the way the conversation is handled, it reads to me as if Spider-Man is taking up a sidekick role, not as a successor or potential replacement for Iron Man. More of an Iron Boy, than Iron Man 2. And, of course, that is very much NOT the role Peter Parker needs to play.

I obviously have not read anything further than this ersatz prologue; I have no real indication of what direction Straczynski will be taking the story. I have no intention of condemning future issues based on what I haven't seen. This issue, in and of itself, wasn't horrific. But I have to say that the end of the issue really struck me as missing the mark, and left a relatively sour aftertaste.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

The Price of Entertainment

One of the running complaints that have been heard among comic fans for the past two or three decades has been the spiraling price increases of comic books. "I remember when comics used to only cost a quarter!" So, using the Fantastic Four comic as a baseline, I've tracked the actual price increases since 1961, compared that against the inflation rate and come up with a "real price" index of comics over the past four and half decades.

As one might expect, all the lines trend upwards over time. The pink line represents the actual price listed on the cover and obviously has several periods of constancy with somewhat abrupt and noticable increases. The blue line represents inflation, as tracked against the value of one dollar in 2004. The yellow line represents the "real price" of a comic. In 1961, you could buy Fantastic Four #1 for ten cents. But that ten cents was worth more then than it is now, and what amount of value that ten cents could buy for you is what it's "real price" is. So, if you had ten cents in 1961, you would be able to purchase something which we would consider today worth about 65¢. By the time the actual cover price reaches 65¢ in 1985, though, that's what we would consider today worth about $1.15.

Now, looking at the chart, you can see that the cover prices rose pretty close to the inflation rate up until the early 1980s. That tracks well with my memory, as I recall the price increases not really an issue to me personally until I saw them start to jump from 60¢ to 65¢ to 75¢ to $1.00. It's not surprising that corresponds with when complaints began to be actively voiced.

But let's take a moment to look at this... It took from 1961 until about 1980 for the "real price" of comics to go from 50¢ to $1.00, and then from 1980 until 1997 to rise to $2.00. So, from the middle of the 20th century, it's taken about 20 years for the "real price" of comics to double. And from 1997 until 2006, we've seen the "real price" rise about $1.00, about half of the $2.00 "real price." Which means that we're on track for a comics' "real price" to be around $4.00 by 2015. Of course, that's $4.00 in 2004 terms. Assuming an average annual inflation rate of 3%, that would mean that the cover price can actually remain at it's current $2.99 and still achieve its historical doubling on schedule!

I'm doing some "back of the envelope math" here, and there's certainly quite a number of variables that I'm glossing over. But I think it's interesting to look at how things have worked historically and try to predict or model future changes based on those old trends. I recently had proven my theory from a year ago that, despite perpetually falling sales numbers, Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa's Marvel Knights 4 title was safe until early summer 2006 -- and that was based on "back of the envelope math" with the book's historical sales figures.

So, if you're one of the ones who's complained about ever-increasing comic prices, I think you can breath easy for at least a few years. I think that, barring any major changes that might affect the industry, most comics will remain under $3.00 at least through 2010, and probably a few years beyond.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Sean's History in Comics

With my first official post, it seemed logical to me to spend a little time letting people know who I am and why I think it's worth my adding yet another blog about comic books to the already ample selection that's already online.

Like many comic fans, I've been reading comics as long as I can remember. Batman #237 (at right) stands out as one of the earlier books that attracted my attention, and it's THE example of why I enjoy the comics medium. In the first place, it's got a fairly high pedigree -- it was written by Denny O'Neil, based on some ideas from Harlan Ellison, and it was drawn by Neal Adams and Dick Giordano. So it shouldn't come as a surprise that the story is fairly well-executed.

The story is self-contained and revolves around Batman tracking a murderer to a Halloween party. Not just any Halloween party, though, but one of Tom Fagan's legendary Halloween parties. Fagan was a huge comic book fan in the 1960s and 70s and held a costume party once a year that began with a parade through Rutland, VT and ended at his house where everyone in attendance dressed up as comic book characters. The party was attended by the biggest comic book fans of the period and a number of comic book professionals, including Roy Thomas, Marv Wolfman and Wendy Pini. What struck me was that, in the comic, a great many guests are seen in costume: Superman, Batman and Captain Marvel, naturally, but also Spider-Man and Thor. (Well, legal near-approximations of them, anyway.) So, despite the fact that Batman and Robin were the only actual heroes in the book, it was clear to me that they all inhabited the same universe and, more significantly, they were known by "normal" people like Tom Fagan. It occurred to me that each comic book was a window into a small portion of a larger world. In one title, I might see Batman; in another, I could see Aquaman; and in another, the Green Arrow. There was even a fourth book -- Justice League -- in which I could see where those worlds intersected! Captivating stuff!

Many years later, I'm still peeking into those windows and seeing what's happening on those other worlds. But in my attempt to truely appreciate what I read, I've spent a great deal of time studying the medium itself as well as its history. What did Windsor McCay contribute to later comic artists? What impact did the Comics Code really have on the industry? What were the influences on Stan Lee and Jack Kirby that helped shape the Fantastic Four? How does today's editor-in-chief positions differ from the editor-in-chief positions from 20, 30, 40 years ago?

So that, in a nutshell, is where I'm coming from. I've run a blog before, but it was more of a stream-of-consciousness piece with comments ranging on every subject imaginable. With "Kleefeld on Comics", I'd like to use this as a forum to discuss some of my thoughts and ideas about my favorite medium where I don't otherwise have a readily available outlet.