The Astounding Wolf-Man #1, May 2007, Image Comics
writer: Robert Kirkman
artist: Jason Howard
letterer: Rus Wooton
Ever since the "Got Milk?" ad campaign began several years ago, I've wondered why it exists in the first place. I mean, has milk ever been in danger of going out of business that it needed some positive p.r.? Like air or land, milk has always struck me as an irreplaceable staple in the realm of necessary consumption; one cannot dip cookies in juice or eat their cereal in soda. What else is like milk that it needs to advertise its worth to the world? It's always been here, it isn't going anywhere, and even if we turned our back on it for a while, we'd eventually need something to drink after a peanut butter sandwich. 'Nuff said.
Many would feel the same way about DC and Marvel Comics. Their properties are so well known, their characters are branded on kids' underwear. In fact, I dare anybody out there to go an entire day without seeing Superman, Batman, or Spider-man. You can't get a Slurpee without spotting old Webhead, nor can you stroll through a Target without spotting them on T-shirts, school supplies, or fruity gummy snacks. Really, DC and Marvel stopped making comics tomorrow, their companies could thrive off of licencing rights for the rest of their shareholders' lives.
So why do they need Free Comic Book Day? What does DC and Marvel gain by just giving these priceless icons away, even for a day? Honestly, it's all about image . . .
Pun intended. Through the A Comic A Day challenge, I've learned a great deal about comic book publishers, specifically that many other comic book publishers have existed! Eclipse and Comico are just two of the "secondary" companies that thrived in the '80s, yet none held a candle to the mass market impact of Image Comics' debut 1992, when the creator-driven model inspired collectors of all types to flood specialty shops for their multi-cover commemorative number one issues. Of course, as is the case for most comics' enthusiasts nowadays, when entrepreneurs realized that they couldn't sell those books for big bucks because everybody that wanted one already had one, Spawn and Youngblood #1 ended up in the quarter bin. From what I've perceived, Image has changed their business model quite a bit since then, and if their beginnings left any mark in the industry, it was the resurgence of the secondary publishers' market. Would we have Oni, IDW, or Dynamite Entertainment without the hasty rock 'n roll antics of early Image? It's a worthy debate about American capitalism, if anything, that's for sure.
So, DC and Marvel had to raise their game. Superman died, the cosmos wrestled for the Infinity Gauntlet, and fans found a balance between their superhero fare of their childhood and the more mature material offered by up-and-coming companies. The Astounding Wolf-Man is one such title. Though not blatantly "mature" in the existentially introspective sense of the term, this reinterpretation of a classic Universal Studios-esque monster boasts the bottomless depths of Robert Kirkman's imagination, and if his Invincible is any indication, I'm not fooled by this inaugural issue's happy-go-lucky domestic formula. When Gary Hampton was fatally wounded by a creature in the forest, he fully recovered only when he transformed under a full moon into a werewolf, a change in himself he didn't discover until a full month later, when the next full moon produced the same result, now captured on his home security cameras. Although his family is supportive of his struggling self-owned business, his wife isn't quite all that she seems, and when some old vampire shows up in time for a last page splash to take Gary under his wing, you know things are about to get complicated. Thus far, The Astounding Wolf-Man has been one of the best issues I've read that was offered during FCBD, not just because of its content, but because of its context: this is a brand new series starting with this issue, which stars a recognizable character (a werewolf), sans the baggage of decades' worth of continuity. If a casual reader asked me which free comic book might immerse them into the hobby, I'd recommend this one. Jason Howard's art is crisp and easy on the eye, and Kirkman's script balances domestic drama with the supernatural superbly. A very image conscious offering, in more ways than one.
Not that DC and Marvel didn't play their A-game, either. Each company offered two comics, as both gold and silver sponsors, and their efforts were an obvious attempt to reach a multi-generational audience. For DC, the new Legion of Superheroes in the 31st Century is their strongest tie to the cereal-munching (with milk!) Saturday morning cartoon enthusiast, matching past year's The Batman Strikes! and Justice League Unlimited cross-promotional samplings. Legion is by far the most ambitious of these kid-friendly titles, since its characters are less familiar in the mainstream, but in this issue by emphasizing each character through their first impression of nerdy Clark Kent, aloof readers attain a casual first impression of them. Hopefully, kids can get their heads around this kind of storytelling, because I doubt they'd comprehend New York Times best-selling author Brad Meltzer's Justice League of America #0, a yo-yo through the past, present, and future of the League, like we haven't been through that before. Despite the incredible array of artists that contributed original material to this issue, which explores the relationship of DC's "trinity" Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman through various stages of DC continuity (if any of it even exists anymore), I don't understand why we readers are subjected to these now frequent self-styled history lessons. Listen, Justice League: Incarnations was more than enough; please stop trying to legitimize your present work by roping it in with the successes of the past. Seriously, you have some of the most dynamic illustrators at your disposal to create a comic book starring three of the most globally recognized characters in modern fiction which will be distributed for free, and New York Times best-selling author Brad Meltzer gives them a script rife with talking heads. Is DC trying to eat that old bullet of theirs or what?
Marvel, on the other hand, still wants us to make them ours, as their two free issues star characters with huge public appeal: Spidey, the Hulk, and Iron Man, the latter of which is obviously thrust into the spotlight to build awareness and anticipation for his feature film next summer. (Tell me you didn't see a bit more of the Sandman over the last year, in action figures and more widely circulated comics like Target's Marvel classics compilations, if only to introduce him to younger readers.) The Spider-man story is a day-in-the-life yarn of the hard luck hero, epitomizing the perfect balance of heroism, humor, and dynamic illustration (Phil Jiminez!) in a continuity-free lead story that all ages would enjoy. (This type of Spidey script is exactly what I described in my review of Spider-man 3, and I hope it convinces layman fans that Peter Parker can pull off a win in the end, at least in the heart of his forgiving aunt!) A back-up excerpt from Amazing Spider-man is more entrenched in current Marvel happenings, but who can blame them for an opportunistic teaser, if only as a disclaimer that not all monthly offerings are as light as the headlining story. The Marvel Adventures issue is similarly continuity-free, with simple, character-driven tales about Iron Man's dual identity and ingenuity and the Hulk's reclusiveness yet ironically big heart. Thankfully, both of these characters will soon star in their own ongoing Marvel Adventure series, so younger readers ignorant of the recent Civil War or World War Hulk arcs can still enjoy these icons without spending all of their money on back issues just to know what's going on. Nice to see Marvel giving peace a chance, eh?
No, for all of my talk about various comic book companies, I didn't forget about Dark Horse, which has arguably experienced the most success aside from the DC/Marvel juggernaut thanks to Mignola's Hellboy franchise. As its name would imply, Dark Horse has been a steady underdog in the industry since its inception twenty years ago, strategically acquiring licencing rights to Star Wars and that dangling issue of The Rocketeer, while taking chances with prospective talent-driven niche books like The Goon and its most recent gloom fest The Umbrella Academy. While their corporate identity hasn't specifically settled on the horror genre, macabre is a better word to describe their preferred imagery, and as a widespread genre, it holds its own against superheroes and monster mashes. I liked The Umbrella Academy and its strange twist on the X-Men paradigm, featuring a band of young anti-heroes with weird powers and their hard-nosed professors that will seemingly go to abusive lengths to teach them a lesson. Their powers are surprisingly original (whatever "the Rumor" says comes true and "the Horror" is a walking house for transdimensional pet monsters) and their adventures are appropriately raucous; if this story is any indication and the gothic coming of age adventure shtick is well played in their ongoing series, I'm sold. Plus, Gabriel Ba's Mignola-meets-Wagner style is a perfect match for Gerard Way's eccentric script. Follow-up samplings of Zero Killer and Pantheon City weren't as innovative and struck me as variations of titles I've read before, like Rush City and Terminal City, respectively, as an off-the-cuff reference for each. Believe me, this is one dark horse you can place your bets on; if their subtle marketing strategy is any indication, they're going to be around a long time.
I have a confession: I don't really like milk. I'm the kind of guy that needs Nestle's chocolate, strawberry, or banana varieties to consume my daily calcium supplement, if at all. When it comes to comics, I've only just begun to appreciate the variety of books that are hidden in back issue bins out there, but my inner child will always betray a fondness for these superheroes. I don't need any sugar to sweeten their taste, and, in fact, from Meltzer's inundation of DC history to Marvel's ongoing wartime efforts, I've learned I prefer less to more. It's once in a blue moon that a title like The Astounding Wolf-Man opens the door for new readership to swing toward either side of the aisle, from superhero fantasy to character-driven drama -- and without the baggage of a lifetime's of collecting, it's whatever image they first perceive that will help them make a decision. Comics . . . they do a mind good!