"A doting father, giving what he can. A computer meant as a toy, to provide his sheltered son with amusement. Instead - it opens the world."
-from FREEMIND #2
MegaCon 2003 was a thoroughly enjoyable experience, but, since I'm writing this column from my Orlando, Florida hotel room and the convention has another doubtless fun-filled day to go, you won't be getting my trip report until next week. We might - fingers crossed - even have a photo or two of the event.
This week, I'm writing about Future Comics. I flew to Florida a day early so that I could spent the day visiting co-founder Bob Layton in the company's Tampa offices. Prior to the visit, I read all of Future's published comics to date. After the visit, I read the two issues which were making their debuts at MegaCon. During the visit, I saw issues in progress. It was like flashing back to my 1970s days in the Marvel bullpen, though the Future offices are even smaller than those cramped quarters of olde.
Fear not. I am resisting the urge to wallow in nostalgia for several hundred words, but I do need to go to full disclosure mode as preface to my reviews of FREEMIND and METALLIX.
Layton and co-founder Dick Giordano are friends of mine. It's probably a good rule of thumb to assume that I know and like most of the creators whose works I review in these pages, or would like them if I knew them. I didn't get to be "America's most-beloved comics writer and columnist" by being a grumpy-puss. My affection for comics folks doesn't influence my praise or criticism of their work, but it's there.
In the case of Bob and Dick, we've been pals for more than 30 years. Before I got into the comics biz, Dick was one of the first editors to offer me encouragement and much-needed advice. He was instrumental in my writing HAWKMAN for DC in the 1980s and, along with Mike Gold, my 1990s BLACK LIGHTNING.
Bob started working in comics a few months after I did, but I first met him when he was publishing wonderful fanzines with other fans from the Midwest. The "CPL Gang" included John Byrne, Roger Slifer, Roger Stern, and the late Duffy Vohland, all of whom ended up becoming comics pros as well. One of their zines even featured a story I had written a few years earlier. At one time or another, all of them stayed with me for a few days here and there, first in my Cleveland, Ohio, apartment and later in Brooklyn, New York. No wonder I had to move so often.
So Bob and Dick and, for that matter, writer David Michelinie, the only member of the Future Comics ruling triumvirate who doesn't live in Florida, are all friends of mine. This would not stop me from giving them less-than-favorable reviews, but I would probably compensate for the bad reviews by also writing about their selfless work with needy widows and orphans.
On to the reviews...
FREEMIND is "the hero of the future." McKinsey Flint is a man who has overcome his severe physical limitations - paralyzed from birth, he has feeling only in his right hand - to become one of the world's most brilliant scientists. He has created a process and a mechanism for transferring his consciousness to artificial bodies. The Freemind Project is his escape from a lifetime of confinement, an important asset to his company, and a powerful tool for, in the right hands, helping humanity. The first few issues shows readers both the right hands and the wrong.
FREEMIND #0 ($2.25) didn't offer a truly compelling taste of how good the regular series would be. Set after the regular book's first arc, it was a mishmash of elements from this series and two other Future titles: METALLIX (just a brief tease) and the yet-to-be published DEATHMASK. This preview issue portrays Deathmask as a brutal vigilante; there will have to be a lot more to him for me to be interested in his title.
This zero issue was co-plotted and scripted by Michelinie, penciled by Giordano, and co-plotted and inked by Layton. Though the visual storytelling and production values are high, the story itself isn't engaging. That's often a danger with previews of this nature, but my awareness of that doesn't earn FREEMIND #0 any mercy points. I can't give it more than three Tonys.
Michelinie, Giordano, and Layton quickly redeemed themselves with FREEMIND #1-3 ($3.50 each), their "origin" arc. These issues are where we get to know McKinsey Flint and watch the development of the Freemind Project from its crude beginnings to the powerful android body into which Flint is able to project his consciousness. Once you get past Flint's obvious similarity to Stephen Hawking, he can be seen for the complex character he is. Even paralyzed, he is a dynamic leader and scientist, albeit one prone to impatience in the pursuit of his goals. He is sometimes insensitive to the folks who work for him, but that's a logical extension of a life largely devoid of sensation. There are layers to this character and, given his new-found freedom, I expect Michelinie and crew will be peeling them away for our entertainment.
FREEMIND #1-3 have action, characterization, drama, industrial intrigue, and a solid sense of storytelling throughout. On a pure technical level, Michelinie's writing is first-rate. But he knows how and when to tug at the reader's heartstrings as well, which is what makes this more than just another super-hero comic.
Visually, there aren't too many artists who can tell a story as well as Giordano. Events flow smoothly from panel to panel with the drawings within those panels combining the fantastic and the realistic to great effect. Even when others share the art chores - Bob McLeod pencils the second issue and inks the third - the art is up to the standard set by Giordano. If you miss the days when clarity and realism were as important to comics as excitement and flash, you'll love the look of FREEMIND.
FREEMIND #4 ($3.50) is my favorite Future Comics book to date. Plotters Michelinie and Layton spin an action-packed tale in which Flint and his associates are attacked by a mysterious technology in their new research complex. There is nary a super-villain, or, for that matter, *any* villain involved in the life-and-death struggle; it still keeps you on the edge of your seat. This one is penciled by Mike Leeke and inked by McLeod.
FREEMIND is old-style craft and quality informed by science as modern as tomorrow. The first three issues earn four Tonys apiece with the fourth picking up the full five.
Corporate intrigue and super-science are also key elements of METALLIX, cover-identified as "comics' first tag-team super-hero." The title "character" is Metal X, a programmable smart metal which can be formed into a protective suit and even equipped with weapon systems. Unfortunately, there's only enough of the rare Metal X to create one suit; the members of the Metallix team trade this suit back and forth depending on whose skills are needed to accomplish the immediate task at hand.
Whereas Flint is FREEMIND's star, METALLIX has several major players. There's the ingenious-but-megalomaniac Maxwell Krome, who perfected Metal X, concealed his private agenda for the metal from Redstone Research, the company which funded his work, and ended up out of a job. Metal Y, his second creation, is almost as powerful and more destructive, but has the alarming side effect of bonding with him permanently. Vicious and unstable, he's sworn revenge on Redstone CEO Owen Parrish and those who stand with Parrish.
Parrish has recruited a team of specialists in various fields to "man" the Metallix suit. His business plan is to find ways to help humanity while making a profit. The specialists, each of them an intriguing character in his or her own right, trade the Metallix suit back and forth and, when not wearing it, act as a support team for whoever's wearing it. The philosophical conflicts between some members of the team add to the mix.
METALLIX #1-3 ($3.50) are co-plotted by Michelinie and Layton, penciled by Ron Lim, and inked by Layton. The team's first battle with Krome is the focus of the first two issues while the third has them going to Antarctica to investigate the loss of communication with a research operation there and, if necessary, to rescue those researchers. All three of the issues are high on characterization and thrills. Backing up the lead tales is an "Origin of Metallix" serial by Michelinie, Lim, and inker Brett Breeding.
I'm enjoying METALLIX every bit as much as I am FREEMIND. I'm awarding each of its first three issues four Tonys. That adds up to 32 floating Isabella-heads for Future's initial releases...and isn't *that* a disturbing image.
A few more odds and ends for this review:
The first Future Comics covers were a bit tame for my taste, but they've been improving rapidly and steadily. They reflect the story while avoiding the tiresome pin-up and punch-up motifs which are so prevalent elsewhere. Good for them.
Future needs to redesign its inside front covers. The current layouts are ugly and way too crowded. They need to go simpler and, on the credits, smaller, and they need to start including "what has gone before" info. Future's developing a consistent universe worth visiting again and again, but they need to make it even easier for new readers to cross the border.
Future's production values are top-notch. Part of the credit for that goes to letterer Albert DeGuzman, who is among the best in the industry; colorists Moose Baumann and Tom Smith; and design and production master Scott Friedlander.
The occasional text pages could use some punching up. The big three (Giordano, Layton, and Michelinie) are passionate about their titles, but sometimes the editorials smack of fire-and-brimstone. The Future books are clearly different and, in many ways, superior to their super-hero competition in what they publish and how they go about publishing it. It's time to move past pointing out those differences and concentrate on the fun and excellence these books are bringing to the audience. He can't take any credit for the above issues on account of he was just hired the day I was visiting the Future offices, but let's give it up for comics veteran Pat Broderick, who has come onboard to handle art direction duties for the company's ongoing and coming titles. Broderick is best known for his outstanding penciling on FIRESTORM (for DC) and THE MICRONAUTS (Marvel) back in the day, and I think he's a terrific addition to the Future team.
On a more serious note...
As I write this column, the online comics community has been witness to some incredibly vicious rumors about Future Comics, its financial status, and its business practices. I won't dignify the rumors beyond acknowledging their existence. However, what I will do is share with you my overall impression of Future Comics, based on the company giving me access to anything and everything I could possibly have wanted to see.
I think Future Comics has an incredibly sound business plan, one which allows for continued growth and the fair treatment of the creators and freelancers who contribute to the company's success. That Future has suffered some financial hits is undeniable, but the files I saw have convinced me that those hits were not of Future's own making. Indeed, knowing what the company has gone through over the past few months, I'm truly impressed by how swiftly and surely Layton and crew addressed the problems and took steps to solidify the company's operations. If I'd had to deal with that stuff, I'd have jumped out the nearest window. Of course, what with Future's offices being on the ground floor and all, that might not have been very dramatic. But I digress.
The bottom line? I believe Future Comics is here for the long haul. Readers, especially those who enjoy well-crafted super-hero comics in the classic tradition, are going to embrace these titles. Readers like myself, who also like their super-hero comics grounded in reality, are going to groove on the modern-day corporate clashes and the not-completely-fiction-science to be found in FREEMIND and METALLIX. If you fall into either group, I strongly recommend you check out the Future Comics titles.
Next: my MegaCon report!
The above column first appeared in COMICS BUYER'S GUIDE #1532 [March 28, 2003], which shipped March 10. The cover's lead story announced that DC Comics has acquired worldwide publishing rights "in all formats and languages as well as media and merchandising rights" to ELFQUEST. As an ELFQUEST fan since day one, and also as a friend of Wendy and Richard Pini, I hope this arrangement leads to many new ELFQUEST adventures. As someone who has seen DC sit on any number of terrific characters - Black Lightning, Ms. Tree, and the Milestone (Dakota) heroes leap immediately to mind - I pray my friends have cut a deal that allows them to retain control of their creations. DC has a poor record in this area. No poorer than that of other major companies perhaps, but poor nonetheless.
IN THE NEWS
I had an absolutely wonderful time at PLANET COMICON in Kansas City last weekend...and I'll be writing about it for CBG in a week or two. On returning home, I had three days of newspapers waiting for me and it took me most of the week to get current. It would've taken longer, but I'm down to just two papers these days: the Akron Beacon-Journal and the Cleveland Plain Dealer. Herein lies a tale and a comment or two.
The Medina County Gazette's best writer was a gent by the name of Craig Williams. He was their entertainment editor...and also a funny, insightful columnist. He won awards for his columns, which often dealt with politics. Had those political columns been of the right-wing variety, he would doubtless still be working and writing for the Gazette.
Medina is very conservative...and I'll make a distinction here between historical conservatism and the mean-spirited version that has come into vogue of late. Except for the obvious exceptions-- GOP-holes and related creeps--I never felt our local conservatives had any problem with diverse viewpoints being aired in the public forums. Indeed, they respected both the need for and the right to express those diverse viewpoints.
However, the publisher of the Gazette ordered Williams not to write about politics in the paper ever again or he would be fired. The publisher also ordered him not to write about being ordered not to write about politics or he would be fired. A man of principle, Williams wrote about both and then resigned.
Were it me, I'd have written the column and made the publisher fire me...and then taken my severance pay from his cold, soul-dead hands. Williams is clearly the more noble of us.
Williams was the reason I continued to subscribe to the Medina Gazette. Never a particularly informative newspaper--the Akron and Cleveland papers would routinely have better coverage of the truly important local issues--the Gazette was moving further and further to the right. It had neither fair not balanced coverage of local, state, national, and global issues. Even the comics page was lame, carrying only one or two worthy strips that weren't also running in the other papers.
So I canceled my Gazette subscription and wrote this letter to the editor:
Thanks to the mess Bush and his band of corporate pirates have made of the economy, I started looking for ways to cut my expenses. The Gazette's publisher made one cut very easy for me by first attempting to muzzle and then driving away award-winning columnist Craig Williams.
I've long considered Williams the paper's best writer. He was a rare liberal voice in the increasingly ultra-right Gazette. Though the right-wingers love to whine about the so-called "liberal media," that's been shown to be the "big lie" time and time again. Print media and its broadcast counterparts, which would serve their readers best by keeping to the middle, have been drifting to the right and even far right for years. It's now reached the point where they define the "center" as a little bit left of Attila the Hun. With the departure of Williams from the Gazette, I can think of no reason to spend my money on the paper. I've canceled my subscription.
Any publisher who would lose a writer like Williams is several sections short of a full newspaper.
There were other canceled subscriptions and letters, but the Gazette publisher decreed the paper would neither mention Williams' departure nor print any letters of complaint. Fair and balanced, my liberal ass.
Ironically, the question of open expression did come up in the newspaper shortly after Williams resigned. To quote from a recent Gazette editorial page:
CHIDINGS: to Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia for banning broadcast media from covering his speech at the Cleveland City Club. Scalia had been selected to receive the City Club's Citadel of Free Speech Award.
In a proclamation written for Scalia's appearance Wednesday, the justice was praised for protecting free speech in Supreme Court decisions: "Justice Scalia has consistently demonstrated a commitment to the values of free speech where it counts most: protecting the speech of those whose views we disagree with most."
The City Club usually tapes guest speakers and broadcasts the speech later on public television station WVIZ. Scalia offered no explanation; the City Club explained banning TV and radio coverage of his speech was one of Scalia's requirements for accepting the award.
We are offended by Scalia's supreme arrogance in accepting an award for free speech and then forbidding coverage of what was probably a routine acceptance speech. We wish the City Club had withdrawn its award and given it to a worthier candidate.
This is one reason lifetime-guaranteed jobs send the wrong signal to the recipients. The power to make such sweeping, almost dictatorial pronouncements outside the courtroom, with no accountability to the public, is insulting to all true champions of free speech.
There are lots of points I want to make here, but I'm going to try to make them as briefly as possible.
1) I think Scalia should be behind bars for his role in the coup that put faux-President Bush into the White House.
2) Given that one's vote is perhaps the most vital expression of free speech in this country, Scalia's usurpation of the rights of voters to put his party's candidate in power renders him totally undeserving of any free speech award.
3) The City Club should be roundly condemned for giving Scalia the award in the first place.
4) Scalia was well within his rights to demand conditions for his appearance. I don't allow people to tape my convention panels unless they've cleared it with me first, though, in my case, it's because I don't want anyone selling tapes of my appearance without cutting me in for a piece of the action.
5) The City Club should have rescinded the award rather than accede to Scalia's demands.
6) The Gazette is calling the kettle black.
7) Newspapers are public property, but, by their very nature, they have a responsibility to inform the public of all sides of the issues of the day. If they are unwilling to do this, if they are going to offer but one view...and squelch all others within their pages...they should make it clear from page one that they make no claims to true fairness and balance.
ZERO: Burn your money before buying any comic receiving this rating. It doesn't *necessarily* mean there's absolutely nothing of value here - though it *could* - but whatever value it might possess shrinks into insignificance before its overall awfulness.
ONE: Buy something else. Maybe I found something which wasn't completely dreadful in the item, but not enough for me to recommend it when there are better comics available. I only want what's best for you, my children.
TWO: Basic judgment call. I found some value, but not enough to recommend it. My review should give you enough info to decide if you want to take a chance on it. Are you feeling lucky today, punk? Well, are you?
THREE: This denotes something I find perfectly respectable. There are better books out there, but I wouldn't regret buying this item. Based on my review, you should be able to determine if it's of interest to you. Let the Force guide you.
FOUR: I recommend anything earning this rating. Unless you don't like the genre, subject matter, or past work of the creators, I believe you'll enjoy this item. Isn't it uncanny how I can look right into your soul that way?
FIVE: Anything getting this rating is among the best comicdom has to offer. You should buy/read this, even if the genre/subject matter doesn't appeal to you. It's for your own good. Me, I live for comics and books this good...but not in a pathetic "Comic-Book Guy" sort of way.
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