Saturday, May 05, 2007

Who Wants to be a Superhero? Free Comic Book Day Preview: FCBD Exposed! part 2

Who Wants to be a Superhero? Free Comic Book Day Preview, May 2007, Dark Horse Comics
writer: Stan Lee
artist: Will Conrad
colorist: Michael S. Bartolo
letterer: Zach Matheny

Huff. Gasp. Pant. This is me, catching my breath, after a tour de funnybook shop to acquire all of the complimentary issues available today, the second best "gimme" day of the year after Christmas: Free Comic Book Day. Of the forty-three different comics offered, I found all but two – the Comic Shop News issue (which is about comics and not a comic itself, thus ineligible for review) and the Virgin Comics' Ramayan 3392AD 2007, which was ironically unavailable at the Virgin Megastore I visited, the same one where Borat met Pamela Anderson at the end of his trek across America. My trek today wasn’t as noble but was just as fulfilling, and while Borat went home brokenhearted, I find myself excited and impressed by these forty-one issues (not to mention the HeroClix Batman and Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer poster), each a distinct representation of the eclectic contemporary comic book industry.

Reviewing each of these issues in a relatively succinct matter of time is another issue entirely. Indeed, my trek has just begun . . .

Before I dive into the actual comics, I’d like to offer some quick commentary about the comic book stores my (abundantly patient) girlfriend and I visited this afternoon, one of which is a well-established shop, another a hybrid gaming/comics shop, another brand spankin’ new, literally opening its doors today for the first time. After speaking to a few retailers about the FCBD phenomenon, I learned that this year Diamond Comic Distributors was charging shops a $50 registration fee and a subsequent five cents per issue cost for participating in this supposedly free event, a move that might understandably deter struggling store owners that would have otherwise benefited from the exposure. Therefore, presumably, only the more successful shops (a relative term in this business, I know) can afford to participate, the ones that might not need the hassle anyway. The three kinds of shops I visited conveniently represent this spectrum: the established store with a core customer base limited its FCBD offerings to a few choices per attendant, while the gaming and grand opening stores had free-for-all tables to generate that base. (Virgin had a thin stack of the gold sponsors’ stuff available only if you asked.) As I speculated yesterday, I wonder what the comic book fanboy/casual customer ratio is; if I didn’t frequent these places, I wouldn’t know they were giving out free swag today, and I’m pretty in touch with the happenings in my community. Could the price of participation consume retailers’ abilities to promote the event in the first place?

Nevertheless, I got my comics, and that’s all that matters, right? In determining the best way to review these forty-one books in a timely manner (The A Comic A Day challenge only has less than two months to go!), I’ve strategically divided them into six different categories: mainstream publishers (i.e. DC, Marvel, Image, Dark Horse, etc.), kid-friendly fare (many of which feature generations-old characters like Micky Mouse, Charlie Brown, and Gumby), independent comics, comics about comics (i.e. Wizard’s “How to Draw” Sampler 2007, innovative comics (issues that challenge the nature or format of the medium), and, for today, cross-promotional comics. These issues, like yesterday’s Spider-man 3 Movie Prequel, boast some sort of tie-in to a film project or franchise. So, in order to crank out more than one review in a single post (I’m getting ambitious in my old age), each of these entries will have one “headlining” issue with brief synopses of succeeding issues, emphasizing story, art, and, as I indicated yesterday, their stick-to-itiveness – whether or not I would actually buy an issue of said title based on its free sample. So, without further adieu . . .

Who Wants to Be a Superhero? is an excellent appetizer from the FCBD menu; it’s a quick eight-pager, but even a quarter of a standard comic scripted by Stan Lee is more fun than most full-length issues on the stands today. Introducing Feedback, a superhero that absorbs the power and abilities of the video games he plays (and the winner of the SciFi Channel’s reality show by the same name, I presume), Lee’s script is the usual dose of melodramatic exclamations (the first caption says simply, “Midnight!”), though I was a bit unsettled by his unnatural use of, er, modern vernacular: “You dissed my pal!” Dissed and pal don’t strike me as compatible terms, but Lee’s charm and endurance invites inevitable forgiveness, especially since this concept is surprisingly original – reality shows like American Idol rarely offer their respective mediums something new, but this isn’t about assembly line pop music . . . no, artist Will Conrad makes this a real comic book, not some TV show knock-off, and colorist Michael S. Bartolo spares no expense with lighting and special effects. While the concept doesn’t appeal to me personally (I stopped playing video games when I realized I couldn’t beat Berserk for my Atari 2600), the overall package makes a positive first impression. This issue wasn’t Dark Horse’s main offering, so the additional eight pages are a welcome and revealing inclusion into the Free Comic Book Day arena.

I say “revealing” because the comic book medium is rapidly becoming married to the film and television media – not that cinematically inspired projects haven’t been rampant in comics before (I’m looking at you, ALF-comic-I-read-a-few-weeks-ago!), but with adaptations swinging both ways now, it’s become a chicken-and-the-egg syndrome. For example, if DDP’s Hack/Slash actually makes it to the silver screen (as its byline has been boasting), will moviegoers know they’re going to see a comic book movie? I’ve read and reviewed a Hack/Slash comic before, but this FCBD sample, offered as a flipbook with, of all franchise, Family Guy, is so visually grotesque, it’s perhaps best left to today’s teenybopper-targeting goremongers. “Hack,” whose lunch lady mother killed the bullies that tormented her daughter and served them in the school cafeteria, is a serial killer hunter, in this installment captured by a psycho that has peeled off his own skin and is systematically cutting off her toes. Yes, I said this is packaged with a Family Guy yarn, which, albeit unfunny, is a draw for young fans of the series and thus a rather shocking contrast as an overall attempt to attract a general audience. Consider me having left the theater early . . . and the movie isn’t even out yet.

IDW’s Transformers: Official Movie Prequel is another story entirely. Its seemingly mythological establishment of the Decepticons conflict could be loosely interpreted as a modern parable for war, if liberals are willing to connect the Transformers’ worship of the “allspark” with the oil in Iraq, or something. Since I preferred the Go-bots as a kid (go ahead and laugh), I’m not terribly familiar with the major players here, and frankly, despite artist Don Figueroa’s incredibly detailed art, I couldn’t tell these robots apart. Still, Chris Ryall’s script was smooth and poignant, with dynamic character development and insight into what a Transformers novice like me will be getting into this Independence Day. I might not finish off this four issue miniseries, but I’ll be in line for that midnight premiere, too.

I’m happy that the gang at Bongo Comics chose to offer their usual assortment of Simpsons/Futurama silliness, rather than place a promotional emphasis on the forthcoming Simpsons movie. While the Transformers franchise could use a second wind to recapture its old fanbase, the Simpsons is a propellant force in pop culture, an unyielding yet unchanging animated vaudeville that anyone can enjoy at anytime. Their free offering is an excellent example, starring Bart as the sympathetic winner of Krusty toy store shopping spree and consequently a makeshift Santa for every needy and greedy citizen in Springfield. The rest of the stories are really B-list compared to this feature, but the two one-page Futurama ads stole the show, if you ask me. Nothing compares to that comedic televised timing, but this issue could convince that the comics have a unique voice in this animated empire, too.

Dynamite Entertainment’s Battlestar Galactica/Lone Ranger flipbook desperately attempted to establish the essence of these respective series but fell flat in their transparent attempt. As a diehard fan of their new Lone Ranger book (I reviewed the first issue’s director’s cut earlier this year), I was disappointed in the convoluted lesson laced in this otherwise “Ranger saves the day” tale. Writer Brett Matthews, usually very adept in his syntax, couldn’t seem to get a solid sentence together, and in fact this eight-pager was essentially one long run-on; however, Sergio Cariello is the true hero here, his visuals as stunning as ever, especially with the help of colorist Dean White. The Battlestar Galactica installment was a fair introduction to the franchise’s characters and circumstances, but I’m afraid it preached to the choir. I guess when you’ve been aboard the Enterprise for as long as I have, no other starship compares. Still, this brief visit is what Free Comic Book Day is all about, so at least I can proclaim I’ve now taken the tour. I've been predicting that Dynamite is the publisher to keep an eye on this year (with IDW a close second), and I stand by that statement.

Finally, Archie Comics’ Sonic the Hedgehog surprisingly stands out in this bunch as the only tie-in to a video game rather than film, and also as the longest standing character to the medium, soon to star in his 175th issue, excluding the spin-off titles his costars have acquired. While the story was a hyper-race to stop a mind-controlled Sonic from taking over the kingdom – very popcorn and streamlined in comparison to the other offerings I reviewed today – I can understand why this specific franchise has such a durable with young readers. Like them, it’s always moving – very action-packed, very tongue-in-cheek. If Feedback from Who Wants to be a Superhero? plays this game, we’d all be in trouble.

I’m grateful I reviewed these tie-in comics first. Not only do they transition from yesterday’s Spidey-centric prologue quite well, but, since these characters are already established as relative geek domain, my familiarity with some of them eases me into the groove of reviewing more than one issue a day, at least for the next week. Further, from the macabre violence of Hack/Slash to the depreciating humor of the Simpsons, the range of material is indicative of what the comic book has to offer, despite the struggles of its marketplace. Sure, not everybody wants to be a superhero, per se, but everybody wants a slice of their native medium! Today, that slice came for free, yet with a price: take it from a guy that would drag his girlfriend to three comic book shops in one day – once comics pull you in, there’s no such thing as freedom!

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