Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Movie Review: Superman: Doomsday

Movie Review: Superman: Doomsday
San Diego Comic Con DVD premiere: July 26, 2007, 8 p.m.

Superman must be a terribly challenging character to write. On one hand, Superman is Earth's first and most powerful superhero, vulnerable only to Kryptonite, magic, and women whose names begin with "L," so devising an original, truly original opponent is the fictional equivalent of God making a rock so heavy even He can't lift it. Yet, on the other hand, Kal-El is the orphan of an entire world that is actually willing to conceal his abilities to become a part of ours. That chunks of his home planet weaken him is both a physical and spiritual vulnerability; those little green rocks are proof that Clark Kent really isn't from around here and will never truly be human. Still, Superman is comics' most enduring character, mastering print, radio, and film in multiple capacities, so stories about the Man of Steel surely aren't difficult to come by. So why would DC Comics and Warner Brothers Animation decide to reincarnate any Superman story, even the most widely known and highest selling in the companies' rich history, for a direct-to-DVD feature length release?

Because, in its simplest form, Superman: Doomsday is the perfect Superman story. Here's why . . .

First of all, when "The Death of Superman" story began all those years ago, I didn't wait in line for the black-bagged final blow issue, because even in my formidable youth I knew that Superman wouldn't stay dead. Further, had I committed to the story, it would've lost me somewhere during the "four imposters" arc, because my Phoenix suburb simply didn't have enough lawns for me to mow and earn the money necessary for those years' worth of stories. So, when I heard that Warner Brothers Animation was going to launch their adaptations of classic DC epics with Superman: Doomsday, I wondered what pertinent plot points they would include to make a single, self-contained film. After all, "The Death of Superman" isn't just long but also mired in early '90s continuity, including an agreeable, redheaded Lex Luthor. Would Bruce Timm, in his seeming allegiance to these characters' core, retain these dogmatic details?

Thankfully, when Timm expresses that he sought to capture the spirit of the death of Superman, he did just that, essentially using DC's years-long epic as a rough outline to tell a brand new story, which is, as I asserted, the perfect Superman story. (Note: "Perfect" does not mean "best," which is a distinction only someone that has beheld every Superman story can make, and you'd have to be Big Blue to find that kind of time!) To wrap up the plot of Superman: Doomsday in a spoiler free sentence, when an alien juggernaut is unearthed and begins to destroy Metropolis, Superman fights the super-soldier to the death, and as the world mourns, Lois Lane, Jimmy Olson, and Lex Luthor find distinct ways to mourn, some of which threaten the sanctity of Superman's spirit and Metropolis' safety and prompt the Man of Steel to return. Convoluted, right? Ultimately, Superman: Doomsday is an excellent cause and effect film, epitomizing how the loss of Earth's greatest hero would affect his loved ones, his city, and the world.

Further, while I once believed that Doomsday was merely the brainchild of an editorial decision to create a much-hyped, high selling comic book arc, Superman: Doomsday establishes the behemoth as a legitimate element to the Superman mythos. (I still have similar reservations about Bane, though a good Batman story could persuade me otherwise.) Thanks to his depiction in this story, Doomsday is Superman's perfect antithesis, even more so than Lex Luthor; whereas Kal-El's Superman identity is a well thought out guise for heroism, Doomsday is a mindless strength machine void of care or concern for life. Clark goes to great lengths to conceal his identity and fit in with humankind, and Doomsday goes to great lengths to simply destroy it. His motive is as pure as the Man of Steel's -- only much more fatal, obviously. Now, don't get me wrong: I don't think Doomsday's creators intended this spiritual connection any more so than Siegel and Schuster envisioned Superman as an allegory for immigration and the American dream. Both were created with profit in mind, but that's the rub, anyway -- both stand little to gain alone.

Despite its brutal action sequences, which earn the movie's PG-13 rating by WB's previously kid glove standards, Superman: Doomsday is a surprising character study of Superman's supporting cast, as well. The Superman/Lois Lane love story is finally unleashed, addressing their inherent love triangle, and Jimmy Olson's dependency on celebrity is explored as a subtle comedic subplot. The scenes with Ma Pent are absolutely heart wrenching. Of course, Lex's grief propels the plot, eerily resonating with Michael Rosenbaum's interpretation of the character and his need for a yin to his irrepressible yang. At the risk of leaking a spoiler (which means skip to the next paragraph, spoiler-haters!), the use of cloning in the second and third acts of this film are less of a tether to the source material, or even an atmospheric "scary movie" element, but more of a scientific cry for help. Despite his lamentations, perhaps Luthor can't achieve king of the mountain status, because it would alleviate his constant need to be better. As Lois' newfound heroism throughout the film attests, Superman has that affect on everyone.

Visually, Superman: Doomsday actually doesn't deviate too much from similar Warner Brothers Animation projects from the past. Not that it's a bad thing, because anything under Bruce Timm's ink brush and watchful eye is masterful, but his "recasting" of the characters (as he described in their new designs in the panel following the film's Comic Con premiere) boasts only minor changes to the original animated series' look. Honestly, everybody looks a little skinnier, from Lois' figure to Luthor's sunken cheeks. Superman and Doomsday remain respectively and comparatively massive, but that's to be expected. Also, the directing team did an exceptional job maintaining both a contrasting universal and domestic perspective, pulling the camera view back when it needed to be, exuding a grandiose essence to a story that really deserved it. At the risk of dropping another spoiler (yeah, that means next paragraph again), though we are deprived of the windows-shattering blow that finally brings Doomsday down (Timm and co. animated that sequence in the Justice Lords episode of Justice League anyway), a truly cosmic sense is applied to the monster's demise, which implies the potential of his destruction. Superman: Doomsday looks as good as it feels and maintains the integrity of the franchise's reputation in . . . well, a single bound.

Unfortunately, this DVD isn't slated for release until September, but the wait is truly worth it. I didn't anticipate that famous black-bagged issue of Superman those years ago because I didn't know what to expect, but with Superman: Doomsday, the knowledge that the death and return of a hero is handled so reverently, not to mention that I've ironically already seen the film, makes me want to rush out and buy it all the more. After seventy years of success in every medium imaginable, writing a good Superman story must be a doomsday in itself . . . but, when done right, it's by all means the easiest and most fun thing to watch.

Monday, July 30, 2007

A Year Called Comics, part 3c: Convention Revolution

A Year Called Comics, part 3c: Convention Revolution
(The third of an eight-part year-end analysis of the A Comic A Day project!)

After five days of dwelling amongst superheroes, Storm Troopers, and celebrities, waking up and returning to work this Monday morning seemed mundane and melancholy, and I actually really like my job. In fact, my office boasts many of the posters I’ve acquired from Comic Cons in the past, and in a week or so, my new Iron Man and DC Universe posters will join them. So, since I live in a proverbial anticipatory bubble for the Con all year long, a little post-event depression is natural and healthy, right?

Or am I really the only one that would genuinely endure another two hours of traffic in a mere eight-mile stretch for just one more day? (No, I'm not plugging anything Marvel there . . .)

If you haven’t been to Comic Con, or any other “convent” kind of convention, even a casual perusal of the photo round-ups at Comic Book Resources or G4 TV’s website will transport you to what looks like another world. Yes, it’s just San Diego, but for five days (I’m including Preview Night) California’s southernmost beachside city becomes an Earth-2 in itself; while still a world without superheroes, their spirit is so palpable that they needn’t exist to make a difference. Further, and perhaps more importantly, the fourth wall between artist and audience is torn down, and fans of multiple genres get to shake hands and ask questions with the architects of our escapist media. Although meeting any given writer, illustrator, or actor is proof that the characters they’ve created aren’t real (and, no, I didn’t need a reminder, but I’m convinced some of my peers do), that connection adds a make-or-break enhancement to the entire entertainment experience. Can you believe that the Star Wars empire began with a humble table at the Comic Con? How many attendees blew off that ambitious geek, only to worship him a year later? Artists actually dare to breach the fourth wall more than we think, via storytelling tricks, editorials and letter columns, and now message boards and e-mailers. The convention is just the natural next step.

Further, frankly, without the Comic Con, my A Comic A Day project may never have reached fruition, which is why the pop culture phenomenon has warranted a three part review (not to mention my news-oriented updates at Geek in the City). Despite my frequent frustrations with comics’ continuity content, printing or production quality, or niche-oriented marketing, the medium is an art first, with every issue a makeshift gallery of words and pictures sprung from the contributors’ passions. Watching an artist sketch a quick Batman grimace for an eager fan or perusing old original comic book pages, complete with crudely glued text captions, is a visual treats that reminds even the most hardened fan of our preferred industry’s charm – that before a comic book becomes a bagged, boarded, and filed addition to our collection, every page is a day’s labor from some artist’s ink-stained fingertips. Shatter wasn’t as influential as its era thought it would be, as the first completely computer generated comic book, and I say thank Granny Goodness for that. “Shatter” is exactly the word for what that could’ve done to comics.

With all of this emphasis on art, I would like to digress to say that, as a Warren Ellis fan that, like almost 10,000 others, receives his Bad Signal e-mailer sometimes thrice a day, hearing him talk during his Avatar Press sponsored spotlight panel was a delight. Beholding his wit was the intellectual equivalent to watching a talented artist draw, but on cases of Red Bull and cigarette deprivation.

Making such a connection with fans seemed to be the driving force behind this year’s Con, starting with a gag reel starring Jon Faverau introducing the audience to a clip of preliminary Iron Man animation, only to jokingly play the Hanna Barbara style cartoon from the ‘60s and ‘70s. This good humor continued through Stephen Spielberg's’s Indiana Jones clip, in which he sincerely expressed that every scene is shot with the franchise’s fanbase in mind, then he introduced Karen Allen, reprising her role from Raiders of the Lost Ark, by carrying in a chair reserved for Dr. Marion Ravenwood. Sometimes, however, a definitive disconnect with the audience was detected, like during the Masters of the Universe Mike Young Productions DVD release panel, in which almost every question was answered with a “cannot discuss at this time” type response. A prototype He-Man action figure, utilizing the classic design with a modern sculpt and points of articulation, was briefly on display in the Mattel booth, but the panel regarded it with a very “meh” attitude. This dichotomy represents the potential for an audience’s long-term investment in any given franchise to swing either way via the artist/audience rapport. Sometimes, establishing a connection with fans is the existential equivalent of signing over a creation’s ownership to them.

So, the real question about the Comic Con is, has Hollywood devoured its spirit? The G4 crew asked this question during their four hours’ worth of coverage on Thursday and Friday, with the at-home audience favoring “no” by a narrow percentage. Still, one cannot help but observe that only half of the exhibit hall is diminishingly reserved for comic book retailers. Speculation that the Con will change venues or splinter into two shows will run rampant for the next year, with allegiances to either decision undoubtedly as fervent as the Lutheran/Protestant division, or something.

At the beginning of this three part series-in-a-series, I asked if your town could accommodate thousands of geeks for a five day nerd-a-thon. If you live in San Diego, based on traffic, parking, and hotel accommodations, I dare say that your answer is rapidly approaching the negatory category. Heck, the Comic Con can hardly accommodate itself anymore. The influence of comic book culture has exceeded room capacity.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

A Year Called Comics, part 3b: Convention Convolution

A Year Called Comics, part 3b: Convention Convolution
(The third of an eight-part year-end analysis of the A Comic A Day project!)

Some decisions at the Comic Con are just made for you. When the parking lots and garages are full in and around the convention center an hour before opening time, you have no choice but to troll San Diego’s Gaslamp and Little Italy districts for precious vehicular real estate. (Further, when DC skywrites “ha ha ha” to promote next summer’s surefire blockbuster The Dark Knight, you cannot help but wonder if God is actually mocking your commitment to comics.) When you wait in line for over an hour only to discover that the daily allotment for the Con exclusive you’ve wanted has depleted, you have to decide whether or not to try again tomorrow. When a hall fills to capacity for some world premiere, you have no choice but to sit next to that deodorant-free dork whose sheer mass already requires half of the seat you’ve managed to score.

Yes, at the Comic Con, sometimes you have no choice. But, before even any of those challenges, you have the chance not to make the choice. Let me explain . . .

When my friends and I left San Diego’s Hotel Circle an hour and a half before the Con opened on Friday, we thought ninety minutes would be plenty of time to travel eight miles. After all, we scored a parking space in the convention center’s structure on Thursday with only half an hour to spare. So, rather than park in a lot some distance away and take a shuttle, a completely rational option, we tried to replicate the previous day’s success – for naught. After finding an open space, getting a cup of coffee, waiting for and enduring the shuttle ride, four hours later, we landed at the Con. Our trip could’ve been expedited by skipping the gamble and seeking a spot outside of downtown’s immediate vicinity in the first place, but after we made that choice, we then had no choice.

More importantly, at the Con, I had to make the critical decision whether to peruse the exhibit hall, which is elbow to armpit full of freebie hungry geeks, or endure potentially hours’ worth of wait for a panel of interest, usually regarding anticipated movie or publishing projects. On Thursday, I opted for the latter, seeing previews of Iron Man and Neil Gaiman’s Stardust and catching a two-month premature showing of the straight-to-DVD DC animated Superman: Doomsday film. I stood around a lot, sometimes moving only inches in minutes, but it was worth it, especially since I forwent that option today to explore the showroom. I found and purchased plenty of comics I’d wanted, including Starslayer #2 and #3, which feature the first appearances of the Rocketeer, and took a risk on a few trade paperbacks that may either become instant favorites or collection-filling regrets. Either way, I can rest assured that these decisions were mine alone.

Regretfully, by my observation, the quietest places on the Con floor are the comic retailers. I spent quite a few unencumbered hours thumbing through dollar bins, blackening my fingertips with back issue dust and assured my oft forsaken backpack was safe outside of the trampling feet of a main thoroughfare. If one enjoys simulating sardine conditions, he need only lumber his way to the video game booths or movie studios’ displays. I understand that this venue is designed to celebrate the popular arts, but the greatest art exhibited at the Comic Con is corporate marketing. “Comic” precedes “Con” now in name only.

Still, I can’t complain. With both Friday and Saturday sold out, I’m grateful just to be here, and the giveaways alone are worth the price of admission, with T-shirts, posters, pins, comics, and even Mini-Mates aplenty flooding the floor like porno on the streets of Vegas. DC is promoting their latest crisis du joir, Marvel is pushing Iron Man and their DVD release Dr. Strange (for which I walked out of a world premiere with the temptation to redub the character Dr. Snooze), the CW is distributing large Smallville burlap bags perhaps in an attempt to environmentally discourage the use of plastic bags, and ABC Family is cramming Kyle XY and his navel-free midriff down everyone’s throats. Thanks to these sneak peaks and innovative promotions, I’ll be able to choose my vices wisely even after the Con.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

A Year Called Comics, part 3a: Convention Retention

A Year Called Comics, part 3a: Convention Retention
(The third of an eight-part year-end analysis of the A Comic A Day project!)

Can your town accommodate 100,000 geeks? Imagine that, for five days every year, tens of thousands of comics and film fanatics converged right down the street, clamoring for the latest pop corporate giveaways, teaser movie trailers, and C-list celebrity sightings. As hardcore as you are, could you bear it? Welcome to San Diego in July. Consuming this otherwise beautiful ocean-side city for a week, not to mention the very stratum of subversive American culture if you believe the hype reported in Entertainment Weekly and on the G4 and E! networks last week, the Comic Con is the convention of all conventions, though by no means the only comics convention of significance. So, fortuitously, the next few days’ worth of marvelous immersion will provide a real time reflection of the role conventions have played in the A Comic A Day project.

Just in time, eh?

In the past several years, I’ve attended several California comics conventions and have decided that these venues can be classified into two categories: the convening and the convent (each maintaining the popular “con” prefix, thank you very much). The convening is perhaps more classically dubbed “the tradeshow,” in which retailers convene in one place to wheel and deal their wares. The most notable convening I have attended is the Frank & Sons Collectibles Show in the City of Industry, California, which is open both Wednesdays and Saturdays, is a prime source for both one’s weekly mainstream comics and obscure back issues and collectibles, and is advertised in the Wizard Magazine classifieds every month as a testament to its consistency. Another monthly show of note is the Los Angeles Sci-Fi Convention, and, although this show frequently hosts celebrity panels, it primarily offers floor space for dealers, retailers, and small press exhibitors. Basically, a convening is little more than a cooperative pop culture garage sale, but its sheer volume promises fortuitous returns depending on your objectives. For A Comic A Day, I pillaged twenty-five to fifty cent long boxes aplenty, sometimes selecting issues based solely on their peculiarity. The convening is a prime place to establish or expand an eclectic collection.

The convent is much more consuming and, as its title implies, is a veritable sequestering of one’s time, energy, and (if you’re like me) finances. This convention is a vacation, centered on a tourist-oriented metropolis like San Diego, San Francisco, Philadelphia, or New York, and devours days’ worth of programming potential. Comic Con and Wizard World are the two most influential convention circuits, each with its subsequent mini-cons throughout the year, dwarfing other venues which still survive thanks to their niche markets. (I’m looking at you, Anime Expo.) I’ve never attended a Wizard World, but considering the Comic Con schedule, attaining a hotel room is a mere luxury considering its near twenty-four hour cycle of activities and events, including industry discussion panels and late night kung-fu movie marathons. If hygiene wasn’t an issue, I’d consider crashing at the Con itself, or at least forgoing a night in a bed for an ongoing evening of geeky goodness. I’d literally live from dusk ‘til dawn, watching From Dusk ‘Til Dawn. Think about it.

In other words, this kind of show puts the “convent” back in “convention,” with all the habits the term entails. (Yeah, that was bad. Sorry.)

As of this writing, I’ve experienced nine and half hours of Comic Con programming, including the incredibly crowded Preview Night, and I’m already exhausted. I’ve purchased comic books I’ve wanted for a long time at a very reasonable price (specifically, Dell’s The Monkees and Get Smart adaptations at two for five bucks), acquired swag that in the wrong hands will make a small fortune on eBay, and beheld footage from Stardust, Iron Man, and J.J. Abrams’ elusive monster movie. I’ve seen Abrams, Leonard Nimoy, Neil Gaiman, Jon Faverau, and enough special effects artists to open my own Skywalker Ranch. While I’m not buying back issues with A Comic A Day in mind, as I did last year, I’m still a student to the medium and its many, now multi-media facets. Forget if San Diego can accommodate the crowd. Can my head accommodate all this information?

Obviously not, since this installment in my year-end report warrants separate parts in itself. To be continued!

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

A Year Called Comics, part 2: Cover Me!

A Year Called Comics, part 2: Cover Me!
(The second of an eight-part year-end analysis of the A Comic A Day project!)

There I stood, in front of the new release rack at my favorite local comic book shop, with a difficult decision to make. Two of the issues I’ve most anticipated in recent months were displayed side by side, by sheer alphabetical happenstance: IDW’s Star Trek: The Next Generation: The Space Between #6 and Oni’s Stephen Colbert’s Tek Jansen #1. One promised to climatically conclude a miniseries, the other promised to grandiloquently launch one, and while I had been anxious to quickly grab my copies from the shelf for instant consumption (three deep from the front, of course, because who knows who’s fingered that first issue!), I was unexpectedly forced to take pause and to ponder a question many fellow fanboys in that position oft consider: “Which cover do I want?”

Oh, yes, nowadays the cover does much more than protect a comic book’s interiors, and when someone (namely, me) has decided to read one issue from a different series every day for a year, the cover isn’t simply representing its respective contents, but the potential of an entire title! So, when one has every issue of, say, Marvel’s Tomb of Darkness at his disposal, which issue’s cover demands instant purchase? What does it do that the others didn’t? Check it out . . .

Like any work of art, the comic book cover intends to elicit a dual reaction from its audience: one that establishes a visual and perhaps even emotional connection and one that elicits a commercial, “I must have this!” appeal. Several months ago, when I was flipping though a local hobby shop’s back issue bin of horror-oriented comics for an entertaining Halloween read, Tomb of Darkness #14 struck me as a beautifully illustrated, comprehensive example of an ideal cover. Featuring a stitched up, lumbering hunchback, we only know what this monster looks like thanks to a well placed mirror behind its cowering victim, who has this cover’s center stage. The audience is effectively sharing the creature’s perspective, just as allured by the beautiful blonde as perhaps also disgusted with its reflected grotesqueness. This masterful instance of character blocking is coupled with the Marvelicious teaser text, “Death’s dark image! A twisted tale of vengeance from beyond the grave!” For a dollar, I felt like I was practically robbing the hobby shop of a Bronze Age work of pop culture art!

I eagerly devoured Tomb of Darkness #14 on Halloween, anxious to read the adventure of that ominous ogre, but to my horror, of those four reprinted tales of terror therein, it was no where to be found! The cover, which had single-handed earned my whole dollar, had deceived me! Alas, I’m still proud of that purchase because, in addition to its entertaining interiors, it represents the effectiveness of the iconic cover, the first of three cover types I discovered throughout A Comic A Day. Often reserved for number one issues, the iconic cover is a visual summation of a series’ spirit, plain and simple. As an anthology title, the cover of Tomb of Darkness #14 isn’t required to reflect any of its contents – only the fact that its interiors, like every other issues’ in that series, are eerie. Consider the cover of Marvel’s Free Comic Book Day offering Amazing Spider-man: Swing Shift, which forsakes even the baggage of a background only to present the ever-agile Webhead, conveying the unspoken promise of continuity-free superhero action! The iconic cover has become such a valuable compliment to the comic book that contemporary issues usually employ and credit “the cover artist,” whose notoriety is usually as attention-worthy as the illustration itself. Consider Dynamite Entertainment’s new Lone Ranger series and the work of John Cassaday as a definitive example; those poster-worthy covers drew me to the character, with whom I’d no other connection, and now I like everything about that book. When it comes to considering a new series, iconic covers are really just a few letters away from answering the question, “Should I pick up this issue? I can!”

Some comics aren’t as easy to sell. After all, with thousands of Spider-centric comic books available, Spidey can only be illustrated in so many different poses, even considering his different outfits over the years. No, sometimes the easiest way to cover an issue is to summarize its contents – the synoptic cover, I’ve dubbed it. Although Amazing Spider-man #4 wasn’t a part of the A Comic A Day challenge, it perfectly represents this concept; while some artists choose to recreate an interior panel for the cover’s sake, artist Steve Ditko actually conveyed a four-panel strip to introduce the Sandman, keeping the layout uncluttered and simple enough to establish the story’s villain and enrapture potential readers! (The effort has resurfaced in the upcoming Friendly Neighborhood Spider-man #24, with moderate success.) One of my favorite examples of this concept is Eclipse Comics’ The Rocketeer Special Edition #1, a three panel grid that effectively captures writer/artist Dave Stevens’ culminating trinity of subplots (and considering the eighteen months that had transpired since the tale’s previous chapter, the visual catch-up was undoubtedly necessary). Further, in addition to exclaiming captions, cover speech balloons tend to say a lot with a little about a comic book’s story; consider the cover of Lone Star Press’ Ex Parte #1 by Mike Wieringo, in which a captured alien warlord proclaims, “I want to speak with my lawyer!” This image actually acts as the issue’s first panel while still expertly summarizing its super-legal concept. In this case, one should judge a book by its cover!

Finally, I’m going to dub the last category of cover as “the black flag.” The explanation has little to do with comics, actually; see, when the Atari’s cover of Don Henley’s song “The Boys of Summer” was released a few years ago, my initial impression of the punk interpretation was positive . . . until I’d heard the line, “I saw a deadhead sticker on a Cadillac” changed to “I saw a black flag sticker on a Cadillac.” This reincarnation pulled me out of the song and, while I understand the need for modernization, I felt the lyric was forced and ultimately unnecessary. Well, I told you it had little to do with comics, but the black flag cover is effectively a revamped, ultimately reused illustration – what many artists and fans dub “the swipe.” (Erik Larsen has commented on the phenomenon in his Comic Book Resources column One Fan’s Opinion, and I sparked an Image Comics message board debate on the subject a few months ago.) Generally, while the black flag implies a certain sense of laziness, it also asserts kinship with similar material, asserting that imitation is a sincere form of flattery (hence oft crediting the previous artist, i.e. “McFarlane after Kirby”). In some cases, the concept is effective in fulfilling the roles of an iconic or synoptic cover; the cover of Boom! Studios’ Mr. Stuffins #1 mimics the Casino Royale movie poster, with a teddy bear in James Bond’s stead, visually establishing the series Teddy Ruxpin-meets-secret-agent vibe. Still, does the end justify the means? Is the black flag a funeral banner for the death of artistic originality? That debate is assuredly alive and well.

So, I know you’re wondering, which covers did I buy for those two comics I’d anticipated last week? I picked the Joe Corroney cover for The Space Between #6, boldly depicting the Enterprise NCC-1701-D and its top three officers; though I enjoyed the Worf-errific alternative, I preferred the portentous image since these characters are scarcely spotlighted anymore. Also, I actually picked the standard cover of Tek Jansen #1 over the John Cassaday variant because I appreciated its airbrushed homage to sci-fi magazines of old. As a fan and collector, these decisions had to be as intentional as the publishers’ choice to offer them, which is, above all else, a marketing ploy. If every comic book is a proverbial tomb of darkness, the cover is its revealing ray of light, and if money wasn’t an issue, I’d buy them all . . . but in that regard, I have no one to cover me.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

A Year Called Comics, part 1: Comic Shop Blues

A Year Called Comics, part 1: Comic Shop Blues
(The first of an eight-part year-end analysis of the A Comic A Day project!)

Comics are everywhere. Outside of the funnybooks we fanatics purchase every Wednesday, comics in their native strip form can be found practically anywhere print meets page – and even if you’ve survived an entire week without spotting some sequential art, comics are determinedly delivered to your doorstep in the Sunday paper. Think about that; sometime in the last century, someone thought that comics were so important that they deserved their own full color section in the most widely distributed edition of every newspaper in the country. Does any other medium elicit that kind of reverence, in spite of the fact that, as Dr. Egon Spengler has firmly stated, “Print is dead?”

So why, on more than one occasion this past year, did I have such a danged hard time finding comics?

Don’t worry; I already know the answer to that question, which is the unfortunate inspiration of my periodic case of the comic shop blues. Simply put, thanks in large part to the recycling efforts of World War II and the subsequent Senate hearings about their juvenile suitability, when comics meet books they are publicly regarded as collectibles, not story-based periodicals, and are thus horded away in the most peculiar corners of the marketplace. Only recently has the comic book, now more stoically dubbed the graphic novel, earned a section in global bookstore chains, achieving significance in the strata of pop culture as viable source material for blockbuster film-making. As a longstanding fan, the exposure is bittersweet; while the medium’s overall circulation expands, its infrastructure seems to retract, favoring mass market material (namely, superhero fare) over the full range of genres the comic book boasted in, say, those perilous ‘50s: fantasy, horror, romance, western, and detective titles, specifically.

Therefore, despite the comic book stores, antique and hobby shops, conventions and trade shows, swap meets, flea markets, Borders, Barnes & Nobles, Virgin Megastores, Target magazine aisles I frequented to acquire the over 365 comics I needed to fuel A Comic A Day, on a few memorable occasions, I simply couldn’t find anything other than capes and tights, which was only a bad thing in the context of my horizons-spanning goal. Fortunately, most of the time, I discovered plentiful caches of comics at hobby shops or flea markets, where I mass-acquired very inexpensive (ranging from a quarter to two dollars) Silver and Bronze Age issues – I fondly remember Mighty Samson #5, Space Adventures #52, and Forbidden Worlds #139 starring Magicman (from which I discovered my favorite quote in a comic book, “I've got muscles and I've got strong magic! What can beat that combination?”), to name a few. Fortunately, many of these comics weren’t overtly superheroism but rather simply toured the spectrum of science fiction through the googie lens of yesteryear. They’re the guilty pleasures of comic book collecting and unfortunately buried under dusty stacks of Life magazines at an antique store probably surprisingly near you.

So, those days when real life consumed nearly all of my waking hours and I was desperate for some graphic goodness, when I should’ve been rushing to a comic book store, I ended up rushing to the local 7-11 for the comics-centric Heavy Metal or Nickelodeon magazines.

No, I don’t think we need a comics shop on every corner, in between the Subway and Starbucks. I do think that, at a time when comics are influencing film, television, and mass merchandizing more than ever, comics shops need to adapt a more versatile sales strategy. Perhaps such shops’ success is regional, but where I’ve lived, in both Orange County and the Phoenix metropolitan area, I’ve witnessed comics shops with the most coveted storefronts in town fold like cheap spandex . . . and I was rarely if ever surprised. It’s the kind of thing that elicits the thought I think every fanboy has had: “If I owned a comic book store, I would . . .” This past year, I’ve fancied those thoughts more than ever. To liken my philosophy to contemporary politics, I’ve determined that running a comic book store is a lot like running for President: you must appeal to your base while correspondingly attracting a larger audience, proving both your commitment to longstanding tradition and your cutting-edginess toward significant trends. Specifically, your target is me, the diehard Batman fan that has decided to try Bone for the first time . . . oh, and maybe 364 other obscurities.

Now you’re dying to know how I’d run a comics shop, right? No? Good, because I’m not going to tell you. Instead, I humbly offer a few tips to those “comic book guys” still in business, in the hopes that they merge these ideas I’ve seen respectively represented at shops to create one uber­-shop, preferably biking distance from my home or work.

If you have a storefront window, use it! Comic book stores aren’t just peddling funnybooks anymore. They’re trading in viable pop culture and should capitalize on the medium’s success. Every comics shop I’ve frequented has significant storefront space, and so few of them use that built-in billboard to exploit the mainstream trends that would attract a casual customer base! For example, this month my storefront would feature Transformers and Captain America paraphernalia, since both franchises have captured headlines lately. (Not to mention that Cap stuff would celebrate the Fourth quite nicely, too!) Seriously, when kids are bugging their parents for a Bumblebee toy, where do you think they should go, Wal-Mart or Mile High Comics? With an effective storefront in a busy part of town, parents will know where to go for all of their child’s Bumblebee needs and can rest assured they won’t have to wade through aisles of guns or Tupperware. With an effective storefront, the local comics shop would have the reputation for specializing in . . . well, what’s cool that day.

Clutter and cleanliness are compatible! Of course, the term “comics shop” is a misnomer, since comics shops often also offer action figures, posters, various clothing, statuettes, busts, props, and anything else on which DC can slap a bat symbol. (“Comics and comics related merchandise shop” is just too long a distinction.) As a fan of stuff, these accessories create a visually textured shopping experience, but many small strip mall spaces can hardly accommodate one month’s Diamond catalog, let alone an accumulating inventory’s worth. I’ve been to plenty of shops where I’m stepping over PVC figurine sets, or even wiping cobwebs from action figure pegs to find Captain Obscure with Safari Action Gear (not a real figure). Further, have you ever looked at your fingertips after an hour of back-issue-hunting? If the inventory isn’t going to move, how difficult is organizing it, maybe even in aisles like any other commercial business? Do shops in short distance of one another communicate, because what one store might have in abundance another might need? The comic book medium is always attempting to offer its readers clean slate – so the stores that carry them should, too.

Offer customer incentives! Many comics shops offer preorder discounts via the Diamond Previews catalog, but as I eluded earlier, this incentive only panders to the fanboy base. The way I see it, comic book stores attract three types of customers: the dedicated Wednesday regulars, the casual fans that shop for whatever whenever (which is what I’ve become thanks to the A Comic A Day challenge), and the pedestrian attracted by a trend or sheer curiosity. While weekend sales (preferably themed with trends or specific overstock) benefit everyone, a friend once told me about his shop’s “trial by issue” plan, whereby the shop actually loaned new titles to frequent customers for either future purchase or a trade to try again. Through this process, the shop doesn’t actually lose inventory but in fact potentially gains new business, as a reader daring to try anything once, if I don’t like WildStorm’s The Highwaymen #1, it doesn’t have to clutter my intricate filing system as a solo installment. How about a “buy nine, get the tenth free” card? I’d eat through those like Pac-man. “Comic book guys” should yearn to gain customers and move inventory, but if it’s simply all talk, I just won’t buy it, period.

(Aside: Despite The Simpsons’ stereotypical Comic Book Guy character, most comics shopkeepers I’ve met are really skinny, almost emo-types. Is this indicative of a more emotional subtext in the modern medium?)

Of course, the ideal comic book store is simply the one with comic books in it. While we all remember the old “this is not a library” speech, some shops, like the Isotope Comic Book Lounge in San Francisco, have embraced a “hang out” mentality. Other shops have become hubs for gaming, and Meltdown Comics on Sunset Blvd. has an oft-changing artist gallery (I caught some breathtaking Scott Morse stuff a few years ago). Recently, Atomic Comics in Phoenix landed the elusive Warren Ellis for his only store signing all year. These gimmicks are exciting, but merely bait. For all of its validity and validation in pop culture, for as frequently as one can find it, comics, like the shops that carry them, are still looking for their niche. In fact, I think it’s this floundering that makes the modern medium so ultimately accessible, as it inspires forays into different genres or artistic efforts that stretch the bounds of graphic storytelling. Sometimes the attempts are elusive, both physically and artistically, but when the chain from creator to publisher to distributor to retailer to customer (with an occasional yard sale or antique shop detour) is well linked, the bond stems well beyond any one year commitment.

If print is dying, the comic book is its last gasp, blending its two finest forms – words and pictures – into a form of entertainment that makes such an impression, its fans either clamor to make it or sell it, either way passing it on for others to enjoy. No wonder comics are everywhere.