Sunday, May 06, 2007

Pirates vs. Ninjas #1: FCBD Edition: FCBD Exposed! part 3

Pirates vs. Ninjas #1: FCBD Edition, April 2007, Antarctic Press
writers: Fred Perry, Robby Bevard, Wes Hartman
artist: Craig Babiar
coloring: Wes Hartman & Robby Bevard
letterer: Wes Hartman

Just imagine: you’re the editor-in-chief for an up-and-coming comic book company. Plenty of talented contributors are producing dynamic stories and beautiful illustrations under your banner, but, in the sales department, you still feel like a child playing with the big boys in the sandbox. Suddenly, you’re presented with an opportunity to reach more potential customers than ever before, through a widely marketed cross-industry promotional event that involves hundreds of comic book stores, many of which may not have ordered your books before. You have just one chance to make that long-awaited splash, something you couldn’t even accomplish on the convention circuit . . . and you can only choose one of your comic books to do it. This dilemma is what dozens of comic book publishers face every year thanks to Free Comic Book Day. These supposedly B-list companies have become very credible names in the industry, attracting creators that appreciate their editorial freedoms, yet, try as they might, their material pales in comparison to blockbuster movie franchises like Marvel’s Spider-man, or even IDW’s Transformers. Yet, for one day, just one of their comics can stand up to these juggernauts, equal in price and availability.

With a diverse library of titles at your disposal, what would you do?

Well, many of these publishers opt to offer an anthology issue, with snippets of story from their most notable ongoing series. Others create a jam issue starring their wide array of writing and artistic talent. Others still offer a single full length story, teasing what one of their stable titles feels like. In each of these cases, and specifically of each of the six comic books I read today, none of them present new material. Now, I understand why. Producing and publishing a comic book is no easy task, which is why any given title reserves a monthly schedule even in today’s world of Internet-fueled pop cultural immediacy, so to stop the press to create entirely new material for free distribution would affect the schedule and sales of their above board business. Psychologically, reprinting current material as a “FCBD edition” implies, “We have great stuff on the new release stands right now! We’ve no need to make up something new – go see what we’ve already put out there!” Indeed, Free Comic Book Day isn’t an artistic opportunity, like Scott McCloud’s 24-hour comic challenge. It’s pure business model – Marketing 101. Create demand.

So, today’s slew of reviews is an experiment. All of the issues I’ve read each contain more than one story, a veritable smorgasbord of series in the hopes that one will stick. Further, since every experiment needs a control, this post is headlining Antarctic Press’s Pirates vs. Ninjas, a reprint of its first issue, to determine if the single story format compares or contrasts to the sample issue. Here we go:

Actually, despite its format, Pirates vs. Ninjas is a wise offering from AP, what with Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean making its third and final(?) foray into theaters this month. Even if this issue featured another story, abbreviated its feature installment, kids of all ages would’ve been drawn to its concept – I mean, you don’t see Marvel using FCBD to attract attention to its summer-long World War Hulk crossover, do you? Why, it’s all about Spidey, man! Fortunately, parallels to current cinematic trends aside, Pirates vs. Ninjas is a highly entertaining and unashamedly raucous issue, pitting, yes, pirates and ninjas in a fight for the old pirate Shadow Beard’s treasure. Hand to hand combat, cannon fire, and a touch of magic drive this inaugural chapter’s action with explosive tension, while establishing a contrastingly scholarly navigator as the primary protagonist and ultimate go-between for the two iconic bands of warriors. Perry, Babiar, and company are obviously foremost fans of these colliding genres, treating them respectfully while utilizing their clashing stereotypes to create some fun moments of frivolity. It’s a well balanced issue, and, although I’ve never proactively sought either pirate or ninja fare before, this is one treasure I might plunder again.

Heroic Publishing’s Liberty Comics is a period piece, as well, favoring comics’ Golden Age through the World War II era adventures of Liberty Girl, “America’s Bronze Goddess of Freedom!” Essentially a female Captain America, two of the four stories in this issue actually inspire thought about the material: the first tale implies that Liberty Girl inadvertently saved that classic wartime photograph by Alfred Eisenstaedt of a sailor and a nurse sharing a post-conflict kiss when a nuclear missile threatened to fall on the harbor. Although Liberty Girl was later removed from the photo by an image-conscious government, this little twist provides an amusing sense of relevance to her adventures. The last story in this issue is similar, and though the art barely holds its own, Mike W. Barr’s script about wartime internment camps challenges of the Goddess of Freedom via her very nickname, and in the end, she chooses to side with her government, a controversial yet patriotic move. I don’t know if Liberty Girl is for me, but I enjoyed this brief glimpse into her world . . . especially in our forsaken world without a Captain America.

While Liberty Girl decrees that this land is our land, Aspen Comics shoves our head under water, then in the clouds, with its sampling of stories from Fathom, Soulfire, and Shrugged. Initially intrigued by Shrugged and its ethereal themes, I was interested if its inclusion in this comic would grab me, but honestly, each of these samplings was so brief that I couldn’t get a handle on any single one of them. The problem is the very nature of Aspen Comics – their series are so desperately trying to establish a modern mythology, if not through Fathom’s undersea lore, then in Soulfire’s two futuristic tales of magic, that big picture context is critical in attracting new readership. I’d imagine that any single issue of these series is barely enough to accomplish their monthly objectives, so one could only fathom (heh) what just a few pages from these books can really do. I was a fish out of water, unfortunately, and though each story was masterfully illustrated, if I can’t tell what the thousand words are, what’s the use of the picture representing them? (I could be stretching that metaphor a bit thin there . . .)

Arcana Studio almost suffered the same fate, if not for their 100 Girls short story, which was self-contained glimpse into a nomadic girl’s global journey of self-discovery. Her attempt to eat a sandwich (apparently from the garbage) is thwarted when a band of thugs tries to beat up a Middle Eastern, who rewards her with a fresh lunch. Their brief, translated discussion is an interesting dialogue about racial discrimination and identity, a phenomenon thankfully not limited to American controversy. The other two stories in this issue were a little less grounded: Kade is an undead bounty hunter of sorts interrogating a suspect with nearly no results, and Clockwork Girl is a Frankenstein-like origin yarn about a tic-toc girl and her mad scientist maker, who obviously took a page from Back to the Future’s Doc Brown haircut guide. Clockwork Girl reveals some promise, but again, these two offerings barely wound me up. I felt I was interrogating them, wanting more information, with Kane’s bad luck on my side. If Arcana hadn’t spent their inside front cover on an essay about how great they were, and again on the last few pages introducing blurbs for books that weren’t teased, I might buy into just one of their titles. Sometimes too much information isn’t a good thing.

Which explains why I liked Boom! Studios’ flipbook. The first halves of two different series, I could at least get a sense of some momentum, I could at least feel like the publisher left me hanging, since I actually grabbed hold of something. Salvador is a beautifully painted, surprisingly silent book introducing a futuristic, faceless, fragile savior, whose light-weightedness enables him to fly with just two oversized feathers. This imagery taps into the true potential of comics’ visual power, utilizing vivid, fantastic imagery to tell a story – or in this case, at least, make a favorable impression. Just the cover, a glowing, expressionless human form holding aloft those two magnificent feathers, is a work of art worthy of museum exhibition. Further, what Salvador has in style Hunter’s Moon has in substance, introducing a successful businessman, his mistress, and his broken family apparently on the eve of a life-changing week of camping in the woods. Written by James L .White, who also drafted the award-winning screenplay for the biopic Ray, Hunter’s Moon is a character piece that offers both an escape and an eerie sense of familiarity – dynamic family interplay could be just as dramatic and compelling as a futuristic, genetically engineered savior, which is why I understand why Boom! coupled these two seemingly unrelated works together. If you don’t dig one, you’re sure to raise an eyebrow for the other.

Finally, Rude Dude Productions’ Nexus FCBD special takes the reprinted material phenomenon to a whole new level, and if one were to have explained it to me, I wonder if I would’ve rejected the concept. Yet, experiencing it, I enjoyed it quite a bit – in this issue, in anticipation of the first new Nexus issue in ten years, writer Mike Baron offers some of artist Steve Rude’s greatest hits on the series, reprinting just two to four pages from any given issue, not necessarily even in sequence, embellishing them with some commentary and asserting Rude’s inarguable talent. Yes, the writer actually forsakes the need to tell a story simply to praise the contributions of his headlining collaborator, praising his page layouts, character designs, and sense of mood and ambiance – and I have to tell, it’s enough to sell the series. Nexus is a fan favorite in many circles, and has survived a few different publishers before Rude started his own small press company, and it’s obvious why this interstellar space opera has such staying power. Its creators are passionate about their work, so much so that they’d rather give us a “mixed tape” over a whole track. Still, I’m sold.

So, what’s the verdict? Does the single issue format of Pirates vs. Ninjas beat the reprint anthology sampler? Of the six books I read today, a total of twelve series were established – excluding Pirates, that’s an 11:5 ratio, and since I’m mildly to wildly interested in six of those titles (I’m including Shrugged and Clockwork Girl, to be generous), I’d say it’s a tie. Aw, don't tell me you didn't see that one coming. As a comic book fan, I'm just a glutton for shallow conflict, I suppose -- and when it's comics vs. comics, I win!

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