I wasn’t too worried about the new Dan Nadel/Tim Hodler revamp of TCJ.com, but it’s off to an even better start than expected. Now, I’m not offering anything close to a comprehensive review; one nice thing here is that there’s quite a bit to dig into and most of the articles, columns, interviews and reviews are relatively lengthy. Just a few thoughts on the ones I read first:
Tucker Stone on Johnny Red - Tucker’s a good reviewer, but it seems like he exposed a soft spot here. This sounds like a raft of formulaic, derivative old sub-Enemy Ace bollocks—why not let rip with some anti-aircraft fire? I realize he knows one of the other three people (Grant Goggans) in America who might be getting this book, but still. (Note: I just realized I wrote this after a loving review of a book of Adam Hughes’ T&A covers. My daughter was embarrassed by Power Girl’s cleavage.)
Sean T. Collins interviewing Blaise Larmee. Jaunty Sean T. is a thoughtful interviewer and Larmee is an exciting young talent. But while Larmee isn’t insulting, I wasn’t really into the games he was playing here. Which is fine. Maybe from now on I’ll just focus on his lovely comics. (Note: sometimes we shouldn’t interview artists we like. For me it was Kevin Huizenga, but it didn’t ruin my affection for his comics.)
R. Fiore’s Funnybook Roulette. Hey, Fiore’s one of my favorites and I’m glad he stayed on. The line about Toy Story 3's characters exchanging one god for another is brilliant. Still, call me a dick editor but if I was Nadler I'd want to launch this new webmagazine edition of “Funnybook Roulette” with something about actual funnybooks. Not cartoons. (Note: this kind of attitude may be why nobody lasted very long with me editing them at Comic Book Galaxy.)
Bob Levin on the Frank Frazetta stolen artwork case. This is the best piece I read yesterday, and it’s not even in my top 20 Levin pieces (never mind his full-length books). It was sad/funny to see commenters on the piece ripping him for a) not appreciating Frazetta’s artwork the way they do, and b) practicing an un-tabloid reporterlike restraint by not intruding further into the lives of the hurting, feuding Frazetta kids (Bob could get another good piece about how we consume Art while not really caring about the artists themselves and the pain that results in or from their art). There’s a kindness in his method, and in not pressing too hard on what seems pretty clearly an opinion that Frazetta’s work was simplistic, didn’t evolve, and even suffered some technical failings in the classic sense of believable light sources and the like. He also maybe thought Frazetta was kind of a loudmouth, if only judging by the TCJ Gary Groth interview years earlier.
While the piece offered no new revelations in the story (and even missed one or two recent developments), I appreciated the psychological insight of it. If your world-famous Pops moved your family out to the boondocks, that might feel a little stifling, might cause some resentment. I liked Levin’s problem-solving here; lacking juicy quotes or an obvious hook for the story (he hitches a ride on the Art of the Steal/Van Barnes story, but it’s not enough of a parallel with Frazetta to get him very far), he turns inward, seeing in the aging lion Frazetta and the void his passing left for his survivors his own struggles and obligations with his elderly, stroke-surviving mother. That’s more of a fiction writer’s technique, feeding off one’s own life when inspiration ebbs. It works nicely here. (Note: I just really like Bob Levin’s writing).
I’ve been aware of Adam Hughes’ artwork from pretty early on—not his Maze Agency stuff but Justice League and onward. At the time I thought, this guy is a pretty good replacement for Kevin Maguire! Since then, I guess I developed an attitude where guys like Hughes and Brian Bolland—guys who started doing interiors and now only do covers—were somehow not really living up to their potential. It’s like, by not portraying the exploits of our beloved superheroes in sequential form, they weren’t really contributing to their history, weren’t really connected. It’s nonsense, I see that now.
I picked this book up in my local library on a whim. I do get to some comics late in the game but don’t live under a rock, so I’ve known for many years how good Hughes was as a cover artist, even if I was mainly experiencing it in thumbnail-sized solicitation copy or a quick scan at a comic shop shelf of new releases. That he has had a long, venerable run depicting Wonder Woman wasn’t lost on me, but clearly, I didn’t really appreciate how good he is.
This volume is an eye-opener into not just how good Hughes has been and for so long, but how hard he works to keep getting better. With a witty, self-deprecating tone, Hughes walks the reader through cover after cover, including preliminary sketches. We learn where he feels he went wrong, where he picked up a valuable bit of insight into, say, how best to depict the values of metallic clothing, or how Diana’s lasso can be not just an Art Nouveau design element but also one that serves a storytelling function, leading the viewer’s eye along an intended path. With each image, one comes to appreciate the fierce-yet-joyous, vaguely Mediterranean face of Diana, and where Hughes cops to making her too harsh here, too busty there, and boy, those boots are hard to get quite right. It’s amazing; the guy really has a strong opinion about those boots, and he’s sorry but he’s going to keep drawing them that way. Technology like Photoshop has by Hughes’ own admission been a godsend to his work, but the tools and toys are absolutely in service to a real artistic vision, a thoughtful and often humorous journey for beauty. I’ve surprised myself, but I really need to own this book.
If you watch any reality television like Top Chef or Project Runway, you will notice that there’s always that one guy who expresses a kind of superficial shock and empathy when the person who’s just been cut by the judges comes back into the waiting room. “Really?! You’re kidding me!” A lot of comics readers are like that, or at least a lot of the ones who post in comments threads. I’m not trying to be negative here—it’s a nice gesture that at its best lets the people who were producing the canceled comic know that the few people who were buying their comic liked it and wished them well and an easy transition to other projects.
Still, the cancellation of DC’s First Wave imprint shouldn’t have been a surprise to anyone after the first month. The premise of a pulp fiction milieu for Golden Age comics characters like Doc Savage, The Spirit, Crimson Avenger and others to interact in a universe where they were the big heroes and the only superhero was a pulpy, out-of-continuity Batman, was going to be difficult to make a success under the best circumstances. None of these characters have endured in the public consciousness in a way that would bring in many non-comics readers, nor have they been particularly successful comics characters for many years.
Matters of taste aside, having Brian Azzarello script a lead-in one-shot and miniseries to introduce these characters wasn’t a bad idea. Azzarello has his fans. Using Batman as a way to lead superhero readers over to the line was also a sensible idea. Where DC went wrong has much to do with scheduling and marketing, and those problems are not unique to this line, nor other comics publishers.
Publishers often have a perverse sort of Darwinism when it comes to publishing new titles, offering three or four in the expectation that that offers better odds for one succeeding than just publishing one and focusing on making that the best it can be. Of course, many times the editors in charge of putting these books together don’t have much choice. Here, DC owns these characters and eventually must publish something featuring them, so there is some logic to doing it all at one time and hoping that generates more buzz than a single title. The problem, then, is that the prospective new customer is led to believe that he or she might need to buy all the titles to understand the line, and so it becomes easier to pass. Instead of a shared universe, it’s a fishbowl with maybe only enough food for one fish. There is no camaraderie here. Do you think Seth MacFarlane was happy about Bob’s Burgers? It’s a competitor for his viewership. First Wave launched with the first issue of the lead-in miniseries, but it wasn’t designed well as a lead-in because they scheduled the release of the Doc Savage and The Spirit books within weeks of its first issue, rather than building off the momentum of a hopefully good conclusion to the miniseries. The fact that those series didn’t feature any of the talent who did the miniseries itself would also dull the excitement, unless readers were as excited by the new creative teams.
When it comes to the marketing, it seems reasonable to criticize DC for how little they promoted these titles, or indeed most ongoing series once they’ve debuted. I liken DC to a mama pig with a litter of piglets but only two teats, so only the two strongest piglets get fed. And having fed, they’re going to be stronger than the others and thus able to keep getting fed, while those others get weaker and weaker, with many eventually starving to death. I can’t blame DC for putting more time and money into promoting the projects and titles that either have already been selling or show more signs of crossover appeal, as in your Brightest Day and DC Universe Online and Batman and Green Lantern books. That just makes sense. But then again, if you’re not going to do much for other books but one house ad, why bother? What expectation could DC have that this Doc Savage is going to be the one that takes off? I think it’s probably reasonable to assume that most of DC knows that such titles aren’t going to do well, so perhaps they publish them knowing they’ll fail, and the lack of marketing push is just an attempt not to throw good money after bad.
With the First Wave line, it also occurs to me that those appear to have been approved and developed prior to Diane Nelson taking over. It’s common practice in the motion picture industry, at least, for a new studio head to underpromote movies greenlit by the previous studio head, so that their failure will only reenforce that firing the last guy was the right move. I don’t know how it works with publishing, but it’s just human nature that one will work harder to make something succeed if it started on your watch. Having no attachment to First Wave, once it had performed its first function of trademark renewal and shown the titles were underperforming, it only helps Diane Nelson to show her bosses she’s watching the bottom line and culling the books that are draining profits.
As far as the execution of the books, it feels wrong to knock them too hard when they’re down and almost out, but Azzarello’s cynicism never seemed a good fit when he wrote Batman stories, so Golden Age pulp heroes seem even more out of his comfort zone (though I could see him as a decent fit on The Shadow with his knack for conspiracy stories). On Doc Savage, well, they took a chance on a novelist with little comics-writing experience and it didn’t work out. It happens, though one would think that there had to be an established comics scribe who had some affection for the Savage novels. Asking a contemporary novelist to take someone else’s character and adapt him to a less familiar medium seems like an added degree of difficulty. Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark notwithstanding, I would prefer someone who’d already written musicals to do the book for a superhero musical than hiring a superhero comics writer for the job.
As for The Spirit, that was a lovely book, both Mark Schultz and David Hine managing to take a character with a tone and look wedded to the ’40s and adapt him pretty successfully to a grimmer, somewhat contemporary urban setting with his essence intact, aided by the great artwork of Moritat. Those issues are worth tracking down, and one hopes those creators find their next gigs soon and that they’re at least as satisfying and of longer duration. As for DC, it remains to be seen whether they’ll learn anything or continue to dump too many related books on the market at a time and let them cannibalize each other.
The Steve Ditko Archives Vol. 2 - Unexplored Worlds
Writers - Joe Gill, Various
Artist - Steve Ditko
Editor - Blake Bell
Publisher - Fantagraphics. $39.99 USD
This second volume of Fantagraphics’ chronological (in terms of creation rather than publication) reprinting of comics by moralizing maestro Steve Ditko finds the young cartoonist rebounding from a battle of several months with tuberculosis in 1956 to emerge into the beginning of a great period of prolificacy. Ditko found work at Timely/Atlas, which would eventually become Marvel Comics, including his first collaboration with Stan Lee, but the majority of the work here was produced for Charlton, which paid less than the industry standard but at least paid on time.
The other benefits for Ditko were steady work and very little editorial interference, so that he was able to refine his style and storytelling skills quickly. If one story didn’t come out quite the way he wanted, there was always another script ready for him to start drawing.
Although it’s unclear who wrote these stories, it’s certain that Charlton regular Joe Gill wrote many of them. He was their lead writer, and at a rock bottom rate of $2 a page, Gill had to keep the work coming to make a living. This quantity-over-quality approach results in most of the stories here being, in Gill’s own words, “shitty.” Most of them are science fiction or horror stories with slim premises just deep enough to warrant the four or five pages they’re given. The best ones have a predictable, O. Henryesque twist ending, not unlike the work Stan Lee was writing for Marvel at the time, and the worst ones seem to cut off abruptly or with slapdash, even nonsensical endings. It’s possible Ditko may have written a few, but if so, his Objectivist philosophizing and intense outsider ethos have yet to emerge in his writing. There may be a tale or two here that does find a character who wants to get away to a better world, like the vaguely pedophiliac “The Man Who Stepped out of a Cloud,” but if this isn’t unlike some later Ditko-scripted stories, well, it’s also logical that a script monkey for a third-rate comics publisher like Gill or other Charlton writers might share those fantasies.
The value in this volume is not in the stories themselves, which are not just generally poor but irritating in large doses, but in tracking how Ditko’s art develops. Amid the stock characters of hapless dullards, five o’clock shadow Everymen and saturnine businessmen and the typical rocketships and ray guns of the day, Ditko gains confidence and consistency in his depictions, and an ability to pack more information into fewer images and to guide the reader’s eye across the page for maximum impact. His ability to convey otherworldly horrors flowers as well, especially in a story like “A World of His Own,” which benefits from a terrifically colored sequence where Ditko alternates panels of yellow, gray and orange, the figure within the same color as the background, as if with a filter used in film. It’s not a steady progression but a fascinating one, as taking these stories in order, one sees Ditko constantly experimenting with line weight to mixed results, the amount of effort put into creating texture with ink sometimes diluting the power of the composition. Still, there’s a good deal to enjoy in seeing how Ditko solves problems and attempts to add drama and imagination to the hokey stories.