In a week that’s been marred by weird illness symptoms (no, not THAT one), severe illness elsewhere in our family (no, thankfully still not that one), news of one distant relative’s recent death (it, um…it was that one), complicated cases at work, the monotony of internet outrage, and daily-routine malaise…it’s heartening whenever I spot signs of the Old Normal popping up, like a stray flower sprouting in a scorched field.
Previously on Midlife Crisis Crossover: as a direct result of the ongoing and measurably non-resolved Coronavirus epidemic, Diamond Comics Distributors effectively shut down the comic book industry at the tail end of March, a temporary but unprecedented cessation that has vexed comic book shops worldwide and deprived habitual comics collectors such as myself of their weekly fixes of printed, single-issue graphic storytelling. We understood the decrees and the crisis at hand, but we lamented seeing a large portion of the medium paused in unison.
America’s 2200 remaining retailers, many of whom were already surviving on razor-thin profit margins, were justifiably nervous about their long-term financial stability through this era, whenever they weren’t too busy grappling with pervasive COVID-19 anxiety. Or with literal COVID-19, for all we know. Those shop owners thinking ahead wondered aloud: what happens if our customers’ habits are suspended for too long? What if deprivation begins to feel to them more like liberation? What do we do if the audience that had already been shrinking for years gets even tinier? Especially if too many of them are unemployed and can’t afford comics anymore?
Fantastic questions, those. I’m still mulling over my parts in some of those equations.
Presenting the conclusion of my 2012 C2E2 panel experience. This would be longer, but attending Saturday only left me little time for all the possible indulgences. Many events were scheduled against each other. Tough choices were required. When the dust settled, the two panels that won my attention shared a theme: two former publishers staging a reversal of their fortunes, hoping to reach a new generation of fans and avoid the mistakes that doomed their previous incarnations.
Of the two panels, First Comics drew the smaller attendance. I blame the Kids These Days. When I first discovered the joy and wonder of dedicated comic book shops in 1985, I was overwhelmed to learn that Marvel, DC, Archie, and Harvey weren’t the only options for my hobby dollars. I first learned of their existence from the comics fanzine Amazing Heroes, which reached the racks of my local Waldenbooks for a short time and opened my eyes to a whole new part of my formerly small world. My favorite of those publishers was First Comics, some of whose titles would become must-buys for me for the next several years — Mike Baron’s Nexus and Badger, John Ostrander’s Grimjack, Jim Starlin’s Dreadstar (which moved there from Marvel’s creator-owned Epic imprint), and the shorter-lived, anime-inspired Dynamo Joe (years before anime truly took off in America). Without writing a full essay about each one, for now suffice it to say they weren’t ordinary average four-color fare.
Alas, the company took a turn for the worse after they acquired the Classics Illustrated license and refocused their efforts on hiring talented creators to adapt famous public-domain novels to comics. It was such an initial success that they soon scuttled their entire publishing line except the new CI, a once-magic goose that ultimately didn’t take long to stop producing golden eggs. I was bitter for ages. When I heard First was risen from the grave and holding court at C2E2, it was pinned to the top of my itinerary.
Presenting the panel in a poorly lit room were (left to right) original co-founder/editor Mike Gold, who would later move to DC Comics for a memorable time; other co-founder/publisher Ken Levin; and original art director Alex Wald. Not pictured but also on hand was Bill Willingham, more of a household name among comics fans as the creator of Fables, who transitioned from illustrator of RPG materials for TSR to comics artist via First’s first series, the sci-fi anthology Warp (a little before my time). Willingham was double-booked for another panel, but hung out for the first fifteen minutes as a nod to the thirty years passed since First’s startup, and in acknowledgment of their value as an important career stepping stone.
First brought a few books to sell and show off at their Exhibit Hall booth. I was sorely tempted by a collection reprinting Nicola Cuti and Joe Staton’s E-Man, who began life as a Charlton Comics hero but later to First for a two-year run. If only Cuti and Staton had waited or otherwise declined the deal, E-Man might have ended up in the hands of DC Comics along with the other Charlton heroes, starring in a New 52 title and having a twisted analog paraded around in Before Watchmen. Ah, what might have been.
Instead of furthering my E-Man collection (which today stands at a paltry three issues, two of those from the Charlton run), I chose to sample an original graphic novel called Necessary Monsters, written and drawn by panel guests Daniel Merlin Goodbrey and Sean Azzopardi (pictured above). Lurking in the pop-culture-supergroup subgenre as League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and Monsters vs. Aliens, the book imagines a covert-ops team comprised entirely of movie-maniac homages. I’ve ceased being a horror fan in recent years, but I’m sometimes a sucker for stories of evil versus eviller (see also: Gail Simone’s Secret Six). Our curious, dysfunctional viewpoint character is a serial killer’s daughter who inherited his power to murder in dreams, but acts less like Daddy and more like the Punisher until the American government conscripts her into service for humanity’s greater good. The art is a little cruder than I’d prefer (faces in particular), but in general the protagonist’s emotional conflict and a plethora of demented ideas (a chicken-headed chainsaw murderer? You saw it here first!) might merit further viewing by fans of the genre. For a value-added bonus, the introduction is by the Kieron Gillen. Completists who love Phonogram and Journey into Mystery now suffer the heartbreak of Gillen incompleteness without this tome on their shelves.
Also at the panel were the Fillbach Brothers, artists of Dark Horse Comics’ Clone Wars Adventures original faux-manga. As the new First plans to be a haven for creator-owned works, the Fillbachs hope to launch their own title, Frickin’ Butt-Kickin’ Zombie Ants. I can’t possibly add anything else to a paragraph that contains a title like that.
I failed to take a decent photo or write down his name, but the last guest was the artist of an in-the-works relaunch of Zen, Intergalactic Ninja, a title that’s bounced from publisher to publisher for decades. Creator Steve Stern was unable to attend due to a serious car accident. Zen was never my thing, but I believe it has its fans.
To be honest, not much of this sounded at all like the First I knew and loved. This seemed like an idiosyncratic slate of launch titles, which doesn’t have to be a bad thing. Levin spoke of talks with Mike Baron about the possibility of a Badger revival in 2013, but had nothing firm to announce otherwise about old titles, except that the chances for Nexus returning to First from Dark Horse were zero.
My mild concern turned into eyebrows-raised skepticism when Levin announced that the new First plan for reaching comic shops nationwide involved avoiding Diamond Comic Distributors altogether and selling their books directly to retailers. I can’t say I’m an avid fan of the near-monopolistic system that the hobby seems to require today, in which any publisher wanting to sell more than a hundred copies must work chiefly through Diamond, if not exclusively. Granted, yes, Diamond can be circumnavigated. Books that do so are often referred to as “small press” and are fortunate if they can sell copies beyond their immediate geographic region, unless they’re based on a popular webcomic.
Today, two months after that panel, I’m at a loss to find encouraging results online. Necessary Monsters has a dedicated website, but no direct means to purchase it, and no updates since the week before C2E2. One formerly official First website malfunctions if you try visiting directly; if you Google “fillbach zombie ants”, you can backdoor into it, try adding ten million copies of #1 to your cart, and watch as nothing else happens. Another official First website promises to see us soon in San Diego, but I’m not sure if that’s this year’s San Diego con or last year’s.
I’m hoping I’ve merely caught them at a bad time, and that they haven’t already finished before they’d even begun. I do plan to keep an eye to the future and a few dollars set aside, just in case the outlook improves. One tangible upside to this: we couple dozen who showed up for the panel were graciously allowed a free First Comics T-shirt. As it hangs proudly in my closet, I prefer to think of it not as a reminder of what might have been and right now fails to be, but as a memento of what it used to be and what it meant to me.
Two months ago at the third annual C2E2 comics/entertainment convention in Chicago, I had the pleasure of attending separate panels celebrating the return of two different comic book publishers that collapsed in previous decades. Each company had a comeback plan, an experienced staff, and creators ready and willing to create. I didn’t write about my experience at the time for a few weird reasons, even when I shared my C2E2 photos with friends, but I’ve kept it in mind as I’ve followed up on their respective results.
Of the two panels, Valiant Comics drew the better attendance. Back in the ’90s, while Image Comics stole the spotlight with superstar artists and characters made of action lines, Valiant offered a more writer-driven approach and built a large following over time through rock-solid storytelling fundamentals and consistent new material every month. That was my understanding, anyway. I avoided Valiant during its prime because every book I flipped through looked pedestrian. (As opposed to Image, where so much looked exciting but read pedestrian.) In its later years I jumped aboard for the Kurt Busiek/Neil Vokes revamp of Ninjak, Fabian Nicieza’s Troublemakers, and the ultimate buddy-hero odd-couple series, Christopher Priest and Mark Bright’s funny-cerebral Quantum and Woody. Naturally, as soon as I became a fan of Valiant, Acclaim Entertainment bought the company and dragged it into the grave when it filed for bankruptcy.
Valiant has shed the Acclaim label and returned to the living with the intent to reboot and make up for lost time. Left to right at the panel were: our humble moderator; Chief Creative Officer Dinesh Shamdasani; X-O Manowar writer Robert Venditti (co-creator of comic-turned-Bruce Willis flick The Surrogates, who was very gracious at their exhibit booth — he came out from behind the table and offered to autograph my Valiant Sampler before I realized who he even was); Executive Editor Warren Simons (formerly of Marvel); and Publisher Fred Pierce (a previous Valiant VP). Also present but out of camera range was Assistant Editor Josh Johns.
Much of the panel was devoted to projection-screen previews of their first four titles, all of which looked fantastic on screen but will understandably be printed at less grandiose comic-book size in the final product. I’m not the intended audience for some of their plans, such as smartphone interactivity, variant covers and eventual crossovers, but I did understand their decision to set their titles at an initial price point of $3.99 per issue. I wasn’t the other guy in the audience booing them about it. I figured booing the inevitable crossovers wouldn’t change their minds, so I kept it to myself. If they’re too pervasive or catch me in the wrong mood, I reserve the right to abandon ship immediately.
Their launch title, the new X-O Manowar, began in May. For the sake of comparison and for a great price, at C2E2 I also found a bargain-bin copy of an old trade paperback reprinting the first four issues of the original version. Venditti’s new version is paced more deliberately — by the end of issue #2, our hero Aric has just now donned the alien exoskeleton that will allow him to become the one true protagonist. In the original version’s first issue alone, Aric had already been kidnapped from his backwater point of origin, acquired the suit, escaped his alien captors, relocated to the strange new world of present-day Earth, and befriended his first supporting character. His grasp of English was’t up to kindergarten level yet, but he was working on it. The written-for-the-trade approach to today’s version does allow artist Cary Nord more room to show off, with grand visions of attacking armies and alien ship environments and such. (By comparison, maybe it’s cruel hindsight or poor printing to blame, but the original X-O art appears to be Barry Windsor-Smith on rushed, cramped autopilot.) I did, though, have to raise at an eyebrow at a scene where our powerless, atrophied, crippled hero somehow dodged a healthily wielded point-blank laser despite years of incarceration. This still has a way to go, but I’m curious enough to keep tabs on it for the time being.
Their second title, Harbinger, began this month with a disturbing sort of cat-and-mouse game between Toyo Harada, evil businessman with abnormal history, and an amoral runaway teen with mind-control powers and a deadbeat best friend who’ll doubtlessly make everything worse. It’s more engaging than I can make it sound. Writer Joshua Dysart last impressed on the DC/Vertigo title Unknown Soldier (setting aside the revenge-fantasy aspect that grew too disturbing for me after a while) and builds up a great start with artist Khari Evans (from Image’s Carbon Grey), portraying what it’s like for a telepath whose powers are constantly on, and who finds it hard to resist the temptation to abuse his talents for selfish, young-stupid-male gain. So far I’m on board, albeit without knowing how this stacks up against the original Harbinger, whatever it was about. I assume there were super-powers.
Two more titles arrive later this summer: July will bring the revamped mercenary Bloodshot, which Warren Simons described as being “like a house on fire, and the house is rolling down a hill, and it’s filled with dynamite.” Count on explosions, then. And I have to wait until August for the new Archer & Armstrong from Fred van Lente, co-creator of the wondrous Action Philosophers! and former co-writer of the once-divine Incredible Hercules. Van Lente’s name alone was enough to guarantee my purchase, even though the first issue promises to have at least four different covers by series artist Clayton Henry, David Aja, Mico Suayan, and The Neal Adams. A preview of the first five pages is now online, but I dislike reading previews of comics I already know I’ll be buying.
The promo art at C2E2 also teased the return of other old characters like Rai and the Eternal Warrior, but Valiant is taking their time with their world-building instead of releasing fifty-two new series at once and waiting to count the casualties. June figures are obviously not in yet, but the May sales for X-O Manowar #1 estimate a healthy 42,700 copies, which in these days of our waning hobby is positively gargantuan for anything not Marvel, DC, or The Walking Dead.
I look forward to seeing future results, unless Valiant becomes all about crossovers, crossovers, crossovers. I might even forgive that if a cataclysmic in-story event can serve somehow to bring back Quantum and Woody, and their little goat, too. I’d pay at least a good $4.99 for that.