Comic Book Company Resurrection Scorecard, Part 2 of 2: First Things First for First

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.

C2E2 First Comics panelPresenting 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.

Necessary "Necessary Monsters" creators

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.

Fillbach Brothers @ C2E2

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.

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