My 2012 Comic Books in Retrospect: the All-Stars and the Abandoned

Kid Loki and Leah in "Journey into Mystery" #639, story page 11, panels 1-22012 was my worst year for comic book enjoyment in the last fifteen years. I’ve collected them for thirty-four years, ever since the well-stocked spinner racks at Marsh Supermarket caught my eye at age six and opened new worlds of imagination and heroism. For the majority of my life they’ve been my primary hobby among all my hobbies. Once upon a time, friends could count on me to spout the occasional essay about a particular series, event, historical recollection, or rage-filled response to an aesthetic offense. When I launched Midlife Crisis Crossover last April, I thought the topic of comic books would inspire a lot more posts than they have so far.

I have no plans to wave farewell to the medium altogether, but my personal backlash started during the last half of 2011, when DC Comics purged their continuity yet again and rebooted their entire universe with the “New 52” initiative. The first time they rebooted after Crisis on Infinite Earths, I was fourteen and the combined talents of John Byrne, George Perez, Marv Wolfman, Mike Baron, and others were more than enough to convince me that this new direction was right up my alley. Twenty-six years and countless post-Crisis emendations later, DC and I are no longer the same entities under the same conditions. I can handle reboots to a certain extent, but when the new versions are poorly thought out — or worse, prone to twice as many crossovers as they used to be — I exercise my right as a consumer to opt out.

Marvel’s response was to concentrate on crossovers for a while longer, then roll out their own restarts without rebooting. I’ve found their results a little less alienating, but they’re still leaving some of my money on the table. Image stepped up mightily for a while and snatched some of my leftover Big Two bucks, but their titles have varied in quality and performance. I was glad to see other publishers continue earning attention from me as well — Dark Horse, BOOM!, IDW, Red 5, Valiant, and even Aspen. Again, results varied, but I appreciated the alternatives they offered.

Even though I’m increasingly disappointed with the current majority readership’s predilection for overspending on prequels, crossovers, and do-overs, my year had several bright spots in the world of monthly titles. (For purposes of personal categorization, I treat original graphic novels and trade paperback collections as “Books”, which are grouped and ranked separately from “Comic Books” in my head. Those might be fodder for a separate MCC list.)

The following were my favorite comic book series throughout 2012:

* Journey into Mystery — Kieron Gillen, Rich Elson, and other artists delivered one of the very few series that inspired any MCC thoughts at all, and ended their two-year storyline on a note of epic tragedy. After seeing the reincarnated Kid Loki and his best frenemy Leah through so many misadventures (not to mention the only A-plus crossover tie-ins of any crossover by any company in the last two years), I felt helpless and bereaved to see it all coming crashing down ’round his ears. Marvel’s formerly unrepentant trickster god was so close to redeeming himself for his previous lifetime of treachery and lies, albeit by finding clever ways to wield treachery and lies as forces for Good, only to see everything fall apart because of the lies he told himself and us. I wish every series aspired to thematic examinations this complex and riveting. More fire-breathing angry puppies like lethal li’l Thori would also be welcome.

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Comic Book Company Resurrection Scorecard, Part 1 of 2: the Valiant Return of Valiant

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.

C2E2 2012 Valiant Panel

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.

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