"Those who have free seats at the play hiss first."
What's not to like about FREE COMIC BOOK DAY? Even though the primary goal of the event is to attract new readers and customers to the delights of comics art, existing fans also have a chance to score some free samples of titles and styles which they haven't yet experienced in their sequential art sojourns.
The mainstream media has been fairly kind to Free Comic Book Day. Sure, you still see the occasional "Zap! Pow!" headline from clueless copy editors, but, all in all, our art form and industry have been steadily gaining recognition and respect from the world beyond our comics shops.
It should be noted that I am not an active participant in Free Comic Book Day. Sadly, there are no comics shops in my hometown. Indeed, the only places to find even the most mainstream of comics titles here are in the children's sections of our public libraries and on a precious few spinner racks scattered among the community's chain and grocery stores. Slim pickings.
There are some comics shops within a 50-mile drive of my home, but none of them offers the variety which would inspire more than the occasional visit. Instead, most of the comics I read come from creators and publishers seeking reviews; the rest are bought from a small subscription service or borrowed from my friends. Am I too old for the hunt or just too picky?
Regardless of my own situation, I think Free Comic Book Day is one of the best ideas in comics history. I may quibble about this or that aspect of it, such as tying it to the release of a "Marvel" movie for the third year in a row and on a major family holiday at that, but I love the concept. It's one of the few things in comics that makes me wish I were still an active player.
What I can do, even from the relative comfort of a home office that looks like it's been tossed, robbed, and beaten with an inch of its life, is look at the free comic books which were distributed on last year's Free Comic Book Day. I'll be rating these comics on two levels: first, on the basis of their quality, as I do with the not-free comics I review here every week, and, second, on how well they introduce themselves to the neophyte reader and entice him or her into coming back for more.
This column rates comics and other items on a scale of zero to five Tonys, each "point" symbolized by my disembodied smiling head. If you'd like to know what these ratings mean, you'll find a handy sidebar explanation elsewhere on these pages.
One more thing. The Free Comic Book Day comics reviewed here and in subsequent columns - this will be a three-part series - came to me courtesy of two fine establishments: EARTHWORLD COMICS, 537 Central Avenue, Albany, New York; and THE GAME ROOM, 3131 Sylvania Ave., Toledo, Ohio. I thank them for their assistance.
Let's hit the reviews...
ALTERNATIVE COMICS is a mature-readers sampler of cartoonists published by the company of the same name. The intriguing cover by Steve Weissman really stands out, thanks to both the main image and the bright red background. I probably would have put the advisory on the front cover instead of the back cover, but I always was the cautious type.
The contents are a mixed bag, but most of the strips are good and some are outstanding. James Kochalka's "Power Stone" was good for a smile, as is most of his work. Matt Madden's silent strip, untitled save for a "Mexico" notation on its final page, got my attention, but I'm not sure it could have sustained my interest for more than its five pages. In "He Stands By His Brand," Robert K. Ullman's dialogue and pacing put in mind of Harvey Pekar's earliest comics and that's not a bad place to be. Joel Orff's "We All Gonna Crash Here Tonight" was my favorite, but there were also notable pieces by Josh Neufeld, Saron Varon/Graham Annable, Jen Sorensen, Jeff Mason/Nick Bertozzi, and Greg Stump.
If this were an introduction to an ongoing anthology title, I would rate its "salesmanship" value higher. As it is, a sampler of full books by its contributors, I'm not sure it gives a new reader enough of a taste of any one creator to open that reader's wallet. For example, the single page of Sam Henderson doodles is unlikely to generate interest in his work. On the flip side, Greg Stump won me over with a quartet of half-page strips.
ARCHIE FREE COMIC BOOK DAY EDITION featured the book-length "The Kid Who Wrecked Riverdale" by writer Angelo DeCesare, penciler Jeff Shultz, and inker Al Milgrom. In the tale, a devoted Archie Comics reader gets transported to Riverdale where he tries to solve the conflicts which have driven the stories since the 1940s. Do I need a spoiler warning to tell you that the result isn't what the kind-hearted lad expected? I didn't think so.
This is a flat-out terrific story, one which I think veteran Archie readers will enjoy immensely. However, I also think it was too far outside the box to be an effective come-on for new readers. It exposes the character roles and running gags so thoroughly that it could leave said new reader with the impression that he or she has already seen everything Archie comics have to show. Given that Archie comics have always been among the most accessible comics on the rack, and among the few comics aimed at and uniquely suited to young readers, this misplay of the company's Free Comic Book Day offering disappoints me.
The AVATAR GRAPHIC NOVEL SAMPLER was more miss than hit with me. I didn't expect actual stories in this, but I did expect more substance than tease to the come-ons for the various graphic novels which Avatar publishers. My gut feeling was that this sampler was preaching to the choir and not the potential new readers.
The first half of the sampler is devoted to Warren Ellis books and graphic novels. Two entries, for ATMOSPHERICS and BAD WORLD, did inspire some interest. The others? They seemed more concerned with portraying Ellis as hip and edgy than with selling the books, nor did the accompanying art do much to alter that perception.
The sampler's most effective come-on was for Steven Grant's MORTAL SOULS. The text told me enough about the GN to make me want to read it while the sample pages reenforced that.
The Alan Moore section is effective if a reader already knows and appreciates Moore's work, but, as with Ellis, it won't do much for the new arrivals. That said, the come-on for A SMALL KILLING (drawn by Oscar Zarate) is a good one. It makes me want to dig out my old copy and reread the story.
The last section of the sampler plugs DICKS by Garth Ennis and John McCrea. It does a decent job of giving the reader a taste of the trade paperback and allowing him to make an informed decision on buying it or, in my case, not buying it.
DC's Free Comic Book Day entry was a special edition of BATMAN ADVENTURES #1. The cover of a grim Batman protecting foes Two-Face and Poison Ivy from unseen gunmen was particularly striking, though marred by the big white space provided for individual store stamps or stickers.
Ty Templeton wrote this issue's lead story. "No Asylum" finds Batman outlawed by Gotham's new mayor, the Penguin, just as masked assassins invade Arkham Asylum. Just a pinch more exposition would have been helpful to a new reader, but there's no denying, at least not by me, that Templeton, penciler Rick Burchett, and inker Terry Beatty delivered an action-packed thriller. Kudos are also due to colorist Lee Loughridge, one of the best in the business.
In "Who Am I?", writer Dan Slott retells Batman's origin and presents a satisfying battle between Batman and the Cavalier in an amazingly tight-but-not-cramped five pages. Templeton shifts from writer to penciler here with Beatty and Loughridge repeating their roles inker and colorist.
The "salesmanship" on this issue is top-notch. Two complete stories with the first having enough of a cliffhanger to bring the reader back for more.
My only "minus" isn't really a minus. This BATMAN ADVENTURES edition should entice new readers into coming back to DC for more. If they do, they will only find one other DC series (JUSTICE LEAGUE ADVENTURES) with similar sensibilities. I'm not sure those readers will be drawn to DC's rank-and-file super-heroes, which generally lack the classic elements and storytelling found here.
THE BEST OF DORK STORM #1 features a selection of strips from various Dork Storm titles. Most of the strips have some connection to fantasy role-playing games, but, fear not, they remain perfectly understandable to those of us who don't know an Orc from a troll, much less how many dice-points you need to rescue the hot princess. I'm not laughing at gamers, I'm laughing with them.
On the minus side, the cover of this issue is kind of a yawn: four characters walking or flying from one side of the cover to the another. You can have a quiet scene like this if you have exciting or funny copy to pick up the slack. No such luck here.
(Dork Storm needs its own "Stan Lee" or a reasonable facsimile thereof, someone to write catchy cover copy that alerts gamers to the fact that these comics are gamer-friendly without automatically turning off other readers. Just a thought.)
On the plus side, the comic's inside front cover has brief and helpful synopses of its four features. The new reader won't pick up on much of the backstory, but he'll learn enough to allow him to follow and hopefully enjoy the strips.
John Kovalic's single-page "Dork Tower" strips star a group of gamers. I laughed out loud at a couple gags, smiled at the rest. A nice sample of the feature.
"Nodwick" by Aaron Williams is a medieval comedy/fantasy and also good for laughs. For this edition, he tells a satisfying tale in eight pages.
"PS238," also by Williams, is about a school for super-powered youngsters...but without the bald telepath. I do like the concept, but the six-page story needed more focus or more pages with which to achieve that focus.
Finishing up the issue, Kovalic teams with artist Liz Rathke for "Snapdragons," a strip about pre-teen gamers. It's yet another cute concept. The six-page story is paced well and pays off with an amusing punch-panel. I liked it.
From a salesmanship standpoint, the cover's lack of any blurb targeting fantasy gamers bugs me. The retailers will have to work a bit harder to sell Dork Storm titles, but, if they have any kind of crossover clientele with gaming stores, or if they sell gaming stuff themselves, I think they will do well with most and possibly all of these comics.
The above column first appeared in COMICS BUYER'S GUIDE #1574 [January 16, 2004], which shipped December 29. The cover story was "The Changing Shape of Comics" and it listed what the CBG editors considered the ten top stories of 2003. I'll be talking about the list in the next item.
The second lead reported that Marvel Comics had acquired Cover Concepts, "which specializes in the distribution of free, sponsored materials to public schools across the country." Those materials include "textbook covers, coloring books, posters, bookmarks, and other educational materials."
This is a terrific deal in terms of reaching out to kids who aren't buying Marvel comics at present. The free materials should be very attractive to public school systems under assault from the current administration's inadequate funding of educational programs and siphoning of public school money through vouchers for private, usually Christian schools. By the way, this is not something Jesus would do. I asked Him.
One note on my own column. My editors liked the "Tony scale" sidebar so much that they have run it several times since. They've also asked me to prepare a biographical sidebar as well as one that briefly details my reviewing policies. Those will run here as soon as I actually write them.
CHANGING SHAPE OF COMICS
These are the top ten comics stories of the year as rated by COMICS BUYER'S GUIDE:
1. The guard changes at Marvel
2. CrossGen implodes
3. Epic imprint comes - and goes
4. Comics movies draw more attention
5. Convention, auction, and series set records
6. Long-delayed JLA/AVENGERS crossover ships
7. Comics sales send mixed signals
8. CGC market evolves
9. Fantagraphics announces full PEANUTS plan
10. Captain America lawsuit is resolved
I think most of these stories are of far less import than CBG gives them credit for being.
JLA/AVENGERS is a major story? Why? Did someone misplace all the other DC/Marvel crossovers which have come out in the past ten years? The only distinguishing feature of this crossover is that Jim Shooter nitpicked an earlier version into oblivion and, as much as I'm all for Shooter-bashing, it ain't no big deal.
The Epic imprint coming and going is news only to those folks blissfully unaware that comics publishers have been screwing comics creators since the dawn of the industry, since the days when Major Wheeler-Nicholson used to stiff the Depression era contributors to his NEW FUN and MORE FUN titles.
The Captain America lawsuit would have been bigger news if Joe Simon had gotten his character back. I sincerely hope he's pleased with whatever settlement he received, but, for a while now, DC has been quietly going around cutting checks to Golden Age creators to lock up the rights to properties DC might otherwise lose. I'll concede that this story is news, but it would have been far more important news if Marvel had lost Cap or been forced to license the character from Simon. Until Marvel or DC loses one of these lawsuits, they (and other publishers) won't embrace the concept of treating all of their creators fairly from the get-go.
Marvel is a large part of the American comics industry, but is it really news that Bill Jemas is out and someone else is in? Only if it brings bigger changes than a handful of Jemas-driven projects ending up in the dustbin. Perhaps this will turn out to be *the* big story of 2004, but it didn't amount to much in 2003.
(A change in management at DC Comics would be far more major. Paul Levitz has been running DC for well over a decade, keeping the ship more or less afloat in perilous seas. Consistency may not be news, but Levitz moving on would be huge. Speaking as his friend, I think it would be good for him - he's too good a writer not to be writing - but he has resisted using the files I keep hiding in the cakes I send him.)
My major difference with CBG here is that they think Marvel is far more important than I do. The same can be said about the paper ranking the CrossGen Implosion as high as they do. It's a terrible thing for those creators and staffers who suffered as a result, and I do sincerely hope that the company can be set to rights, but it's not that significant in an industry which saw the disappearance of such once major players as Comico, Eclipse, and First.
No one can dispute that "comics movies" drew the attention of the mainstream media, but the biggest stories within that story are AMERICAN SPLENDOR, which I think is going to do more for the comics industry than all the super-hero movies, and DC's seeming inability to get anything on the big screen. One might want to take note of 2002's ROAD TO PERDITION, based on a property published by DC, but, through lucky happenstance, not shackled to a Time-Warner company. It got made and it was a major hit. Maybe DC needs to look outside the corporate box for its future film aspirations.
CBG's list gives considerable weight to convention and auction growth, and the evolving CGC market, but these are areas of little concern to anyone other than those who go to cons, participate in auctions, and slab comics. I understand why CBG is interested in these areas - it is, after all, the comics division of the largest hobby publisher in the country - however, I think the bigger story is the comics sales made through eBay and other online sources. Those transactions have already changed the way new and old comics are marketed.
"Comics send mixed signals" avoided stating the obvious: that new comics sales remain a crap shoot. Sure, you can spike BATMAN's sales for a year if Jim Lee draws the series, but then what? Yes, you can sell healthy-for-the-current-market numbers of four issues of JLA/AVENGERS, but then what? Moreover, CBG's summation ignores what really was the biggest story of 2003, the story that affected the growth of comics outside the comics shops.
English-language translations of Japanese comics are kicking our American butts. They offer better value for their cover price. They are attracting the readers - kids and women - we have ignored for decades. They are taking over the "graphic novel" sections in the mainstream bookstores. In fact, the only thing I can see that might slow manga's growth and success in this country is, strangely enough, its growth and success.
Existing manga publishers are going to be releasing a lot more manga in 2004. Other publishers are jumping on this trend. I see a risk that the supply will so far outstrip the demand that a manga implosion would be inevitable.
Instead of trying to duplicate the success of manga, American publishers might be better offer seeking creators and works with a greater appeal for mainstream readers than...sob...our much-beloved super-heroes. Works like BLANKETS and PERSEPOLIS have shown up on "best books of the year" lists. Not "best comic books," but "best books." We should not minimize the significance of this in looking towards the future of the comics industry.
Conversely, I'm not ready to give up on the super-hero genre. Publishers can best protect their investment in these characters by not desperately sacrificing them to the flavors of the month in the hope of a temporary sales spike. Yes, characters must change with the times, but this change should be thoughtful and consistent with the core personalities and spirits of the characters. Outrageous might sell for a year or two, but it's a lousy long-term business plan and an even worse creative objective.
That leaves us with the "top" news story which was of greatest interest to me personally. Fantagraphics announced its twelve-year plan to publish the entirety of Charles Schulz's PEANUTS, all fifty years of what was arguably the best and most important comic strip in the history of the medium.
The first volume is scheduled for April. I could quibble as to whether or not this belongs on a list of top stories from 2003, but I won't. Not even I can play the naysayer 24/7.
THE COMPLETE PEANUTS could be a major hit for Fantagraphics. Its success could draw attention to the many other fine books and comics the company publishes. I'm hoping for a ripple effect that leads to a heightened mainstream awareness that, love them dearly though we might, comics are not all about Spider-Man and Superman, and that comics can, should, and most certain do contain multitudes of expressions and possibilities.
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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