Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Some of These Things Are Not Like the Others

I never noticed before, but DC Comics has a feature listing the "30 Essential Graphic Novels" on its website. I'd say this is a pretty good idea to promote the company's top-selling and critically acclaimed books. Except... well, take a look at the list.

1) Watchmen
2) The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen Vol. 1
3) The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen Vol. 2
4) The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: The Black Dossier
5) V For Vendetta
6) The Sandman Vol. 1: Preludes & Nocturnes
7) The Sandman: Endless Nights
8) Fables Vol. 1: Legends in Exile
9) Superman for All Seasons
10) All Star Superman Vol. 1
11) Superman/Batman: Public Enemies
12) Batman: Arkham Asylum
13) Batman: The Long Halloween
14) Batman: The Dark Knight Returns
15) Batman: The Dark Knight Strikes Again
16) Batman: Year One
17) Batman: Hush Vol. 1
18) Batman: Hush Vol. 2
19) Kingdom Come
20) Identity Crisis
21) JLA Vol. 1: New World Order
22) Green Lantern: Rebirth
23) Crisis on Infinite Earths
24) Transmetropolitan Vol. 1: Back on the Street
25) Pride of Baghdad
26) Hellblazer: Original Sins
27) Y: The Last Man Vol. 1: Unmanned
28) Kamikaze Kaito Jeanne
29) Crayon Chinchan Vol. 1
30) Ex Machina Vol. 1: The First Hundred Days

My two problems?

1) I guess nothing released before 1986 is "essential." Sorry Siegel, Finger, Kirby, Eisner, Kubert, O'Neill, Goodwin, etc. etc.
2) Jeph Loeb has more listings than Frank Miller, Neil Gaiman, Grant Morrison, Warren Ellis, Brian K. Vaughan, Bill Willingham, Marv Wolfman, Mark Waid, Geoff Johns, Brad Meltzer... AND JUST AS MANY AS ALAN MOORE.

I'm no fan of Loeb's work, but even a huge Loeb fan has to admit that Loeb has as much of a chance of equaling Moore's greatness as Jimmy Carter has a chance of getting his face added to Mount Rushmore.

I mean, seriously, Batman/Superman: Public Enemies is about as nonessential as you can get. And I personally feel Loeb's big "totally deep mystery stories that aren't actually mysteries at all and actually portray Batman a bush league detective" (Long Halloween, Dark Victory, Hush) haven't aged well, despite their popularity. But that's another post. Sale's art is gorgeous though.

But Public Enemies is essential? Seriously? To who?

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

And The Point Was, Again?

"When I was taking over Batman, and after the initial arc, I said I wanted to do something big, and this is what I wanted to do. We fought about it, discussed it – both the reasons for and against it, and in one conversation we settled it all. What it finally came down to – beyond the argument, which will be a reader argument about should any character return from the dead, and should this character come back from the dead? – was that I was less interested in the how and the why and the what of Jason Todd returning from the dead than I am about what Jason’s return will do to Batman. Now."

"The why is not going to be important for a really long time."

"I’m not saying what the hell is going on, or what we’re looking at – is this Jason back from the dead? Is he a zombie? Did he never die? Is he from another planet or universe? Is he a ghost? Go through all of it. Every fan that reads this can and will go through all of the possibilities and come to their own ideas, which is great. But again, to me, that’s the least important part."
- Judd Winick, March 31, 2005

I said the same thing too, Bruce. Just in a different tone.

Apparently Jason Todd has a big role in post-Batman RIP Gotham. Well, it's about time. It only took four years to find a storyline for him.

Remember when Judd Winick brought back Jason Todd in 2005? In the interviews that came out after the reveal (like the one above from Newsarama, which unfortunately is no longer on their site but was thankfully saved
here by Titans Tower), Winick went on and on about how it really wasn't important HOW Jason Todd came back, but the amazing creative opportunities that the return offered. In 2006 we finally got a half-assed explanation, a mixture of the absurd (Superboy-Prime punched a wall) and the typical (Lazarus Pit). Neither explanation on their own is interesting, and mixed together they are beyond preposterous, even for comic book standards.

Fast-forward to the end of 2008. Has Jason Todd been used in any sort of way to justify his return? Well, he appeared in Countdown and became Red Robin for about eight issues... then changed his mind. He's been virtually disowned by most of the Bat-books – he hasn't appeared in Batman since before the One Year Later jump (and he has NEVER actually appeared in Detective Comics since his “big return”). Just recently, Todd appeared in Robin to have a fringe appearance in the RIP crossover, and perhaps to pave his way for his upcoming new importance.

But Winick’s above quotes, plus his lack of any significant use, really says it all: Jason Todd was brought back for a quick sales spike, with absolutely no long-term plan for his use. Comic book companies do not tend to plan four years in advance, so there was certainly no concrete plan of build-up for Todd’s post-Batman RIP role.

Unlike the return of Bucky in Captain America, which has carried Ed Brubaker through years of popular stories, the return of Jason Todd has really yielded no memorable stories or consistent high sales. At the time, many bemoaned how one of the all-time memorable Batman stories, A Death In The Family, would lose its power and validity. According to Winick, the supposed storytelling benefits of Jason Todd’s return would outweigh this.

I cannot speak for everyone, but I for one am still waiting for the benefits.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

DCU Brave New World: Two Years Later

Two years ago this month DC Comics launched a sampler title in the wake of Infinite Crisis, Brave New World. At 80 pages for one dollar, the giant gave readers the chance to sample a few upcoming projects. All six were either revamps or reboots of existing characters.

So how did those projects do, and where are those “updated” characters now? The breakdown follows…

(Sales figures taken from The Beat)

Martian Manhunter: An eight issue mini-series, average sales of 28,156 per issue. This revamp of Martian Manhunter’s origin and appearance did not seem to do the character any favors. The “new look” J’onn made a handful of token "around the universe" appearances, such as in Amazons Attack and Salvation Run. He was also a member of Batman & the Outsiders for a cup of coffee. See Final Crisis #1 for end result.

OMAC: An eight-issue mini-series, average sales of 29,957 per issue. This mini actually started off with the highest sales numbers of the Brave New World mini-series, perhaps because of the Infinite Crisis OMAC connection. However, it then performed poorly and ended with the lowest numbers of all six series. Though this series was supposed to be about the “last OMAC,” an OMAC character currently appears in Batman & the Outsiders and is apparently not the same character. The OMAC featured in this mini-series (Michael Costner) has made no other appearances.

Uncle Sam & The Freedom Fighters: An eight issue mini-series, average sales of 27,735 per issue. The series was followed with a sequel eight-issue mini-series, average sales of 16,499 per issue. Total average (for sixteen issues) of 22,117 per issue. While I certainly am happy that Uncle Sam & Co. sold enough to warrant a second mini, the second mini sold over ten thousand less copies per average issue. The new team made an appearance in Battle for Bludhaven, also by Uncle Sam writers Palmiotti & Gray, but do not seem to have any announced upcoming appearances besides company crossovers and such.

Creeper: A six-issue mini-series, average sales of 21,379 per issue. This mini was a complete reboot of the Creeper, and the “new” Jack Ryder made concurrent appearances in the One Year Later Batman/Detective Comics crossover “Face the Face” and appeared in the 2007/8 Countdown to Mystery back-ups. However, in Countdown to Mystery the Creeper references his pre-Infinite Crisis death, suggesting that the revamp has already expired. Either way, there does not seem to be any Creeper appearances in the pipeline.

All-New Atom: Series ended in July 2008 with a 25-issue run, average sales of 25,473 for first twelve issues. Popular writer Gail Simone wrote a majority of the issues (#1-15, #17-18, #20), but the series sold at a similar level of the other Brave New World titles before ultimately drifting towards cancellation. “All-Old” Atom Ray Palmer returned just in time for the cancellation and will be appearing in James Robinson's upcoming Justice League title. Ryan Choi, the “All-New” Atom, made a number of appearances in other titles, including a semi-prominent role in Countdown to Final Crisis (#42-39, #37-33), and a team-up with Hawkman in The Brave and the Bold #9. No word on where Choi will end up next, but it seems likely the odds are in his favor.

Trials of Shazam: A twelve-issue mini-series, average sales of 33,715 per issue. While this series started in August 2006, it was plagued by delays and did not finish until April 2008. This radical revamp of the Marvel Family resulted in Freddy “Captain Marvel Jr.” Freeman replacing Billy Baston as Captain Marvel, although now Captain Marvel is apparently now called "Shazam" instead. Although Mary Marvel had a starring role in Countdown to Final Crisis, neither Billy or Freddy has made any significant appearances outside Trials. However, the "new" Shazam will be appearing in Final Crisis and Robinson's Justice League. Interestingly enough, Bone creator Jeff Smith’s all-ages prestige format Shazam: The Monster Society of Evil mini-series sold very well (31,827 per issue), and each issues cost TWICE as much as an issue of Trials. Smith’s series lead to the introduction of an ongoing kid-friendly Shazam series in July 2008. It will be even more interesting to see which interpretation will end up more successful.


The fact that none of these launches significantly caught on would not seem to be such a big deal had these characters not been heavily promoted by a $1.00 80-page sampler. However, with the exception of the new Shazam (who will be appearing in a team book), none of the characters are currently expected to appear regularly in any upcoming series. Clearly the biggest success was The All-New Atom had a short run – and the longest Atom series since The Atom & Hawkman ended at issue #45 in 1969 – and was the strongest Brave New World success. However, The Creeper, OMAC, and Martian Manhunter minis definitely failed to make these characters viable properties, and while the first Freedom Fighters mini sold as well as those three, the sequel mini sold significantly less than the first. I doubt that one clear success out of six was what DC was hoping for.

Perhaps this is why DC's latest sampler, April's DC Universe Zero, featured peaks at upcoming storylines for their top characters rather than less familiar faces.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Failing Upwards

I don’t consider myself a big fan of Kevin Smith – I think he does little to expand his films out of his "comfort zone," and his only comics work that I actually enjoyed was his great run on Green Arrow. However, I think his interview DVD, An Evening With Kevin Smith, contains some of the best stories about the complete idiocy of the Hollywood decision-making process. In particular, his commentary on the sheer stupidity surrounding the disastrous Superman Lives project is truly one of the most hysterical, yet infuriating, Hollywood stories. There’s one line by Smith that highlights the entire fiasco:

“In Hollywood, you kind of fail upwards.”

In all honesty, I don’t see why that quote cannot apply to some writers of mainstream comic books.

I don’t envy the job of comic book writers. Sure, like anyone else I think it would be fun to write stories featuring my favorite characters. But have you ever thought how difficult it is to sit down and plot out, say, twelve issues of a C-level character like Hawkman or Hawkeye? Most fans already pay little interest to the character, and heck, the company may want you to write a crossover issue to try to get a sales boost from the company’s (most likely bad) Big Summer Event. That cuts into your short-term plans. And maybe the villain or guest star you fully intend to use is declared unavailable after you already turn in your first scripts. And keep in mind that no matter how much effort you put into the issues at least a good portion of the Internet message board folks are going to say it is crap. On top of all this, most comic book writers write more than one title and end up dealing with all this junk three or four times over per month.

It certainly isn’t an easy job. If you’re a writer with any kind of name value you could make much more money in television or movies. Which is why it does not surprise me why a lot of the mainstream comics on the shelves are often poorly-written. What does surprise me is why these writers keep getting gigs.

The whole idea of a job is that you are paid with the expectation that you are to do your job well. You turn in sub-standard work or, hell, turn in no work at all, you may get away with it at first. But be prepared to eventually say good-bye to your paycheck. Look, I am not that much of a jerk to want anybody to lose their job, but I can’t really feel sympathy for anybody who does said job poorly or not at all.

Yet this does not seem the case with many comic book writers (and artists, for that matter, but that’s another article). I have followed the careers of numerous comic book writers who constantly turn in work that sells poorly, is widely-panned, or both, yet still get gig after gig. This does not include someone like Jeph Loeb, whose work I personally don’t care for, who generates high sales. These are writers who have on a regular basis killed sales and entire books.

I hate to use an example, but I need to in order to illustrate my point: Bruce Jones and his recent run at DC comics (2004-current). Here is Bruce Jones’ recent resume:
  • 7 issues on Nightwing, critically ridiculed and terrible sales
  • A Vertigo series, a “reimagining” of Deadman, which lasted only 13 issues
  • A reboot of Mike Grell’s Warlord, which lasted even less (10 issues)
  • The final six issues of Greg Rucka’s Checkmate (never a strong seller, so I won’t count this against Jones)
  • Three mini-series: Man-Bat, OMAC, and Vigilante. The events of Man-Bat were ignored in the main Bat-titles, the new Vigilante Jones created has since been replaced by another new Vigilante, and the OMAC character introduced in the mini-series had no further appearances. All three had rather low sales and did not spin-off into any other titles.
…Yet Jones has been writing yet another recent mini-series of a concept that cannot be expected to sell very well – The War that Time Forgot – no matter how awesome the Showcase Presents volume is. I am not saying DC should throw the guy Batman or Green Lantern, but there are only so many chances a writer should get to turn C-list and D-list characters into success stories.

I have been told that Jones has done some good work in the past. But in the last five years Jones has worked on six DC characters, none of which has been successful. Sure, Nightwing is probably the only one of those concepts that is expected to sell moderately well (although did not under Jones’ pen). He might not be exactly failing upwards, but he certainly seems to be failing and is going anywhere but out the door. But perhaps this is less a criticism of Jones and frankly criticism of the seemingly endless stream of projects that DC greenlights for him that are so off the radar they might as well be stealth bombers.

Obviously somebody at DC likes Bruce Jones. Well, if the company is so high on the guy, give him some sort of substantial project. If not, stop giving him concepts that have little chance of success. I
t's not like he's a superstar like Geoff Johns or Brian Bendis, who could sell at least 50k of an issue of NFL SuperPro if they wanted. Otherwise DC might as well write "Bruce Jones Project" on a stack of hundred dollar bills, then throw it in the paper shredder.

I know Bruce Jones is a veteran writer, but sadly I can't help but wonder what veteran and often ignored writers like William Messner-Loebs, Steve Englehart, Jim Shooter, or Steve Gerber (RIP) could do with these concepts. Perhaps they would not sell any better, but at least these men do not have a lengthy recent history of failed projects.

I can only think of one writer in the past few years who turned in work that was considered so poor that he was effectively blackballed from mainstream comics: Chuck Austen. I’d tell you to look up why on his Wikipedia entry, but it seems the nice police have cut out the criticism. Suffice to say, well, this:

Click above to view Exhibit "A" of Why Chuck Austen No Longer Does Mainstream Comics

I can just imagine if this appeared in a Silver Age Superman book. The cover blurb would read: "SUPERMAN or SUPER-CHEATER?!?" with a fantastic Curt Swan cover. But I am sure that story would feature red kryptonite or an extra-dimensional space gorilla with magical powers. Austen, unfortunately, was not that creative.

Is that what it takes to be blackballed? Finally, honey, I found a job with security!

UPDATE, 7/27: It's interesting that I brought up Bruce Jones' failed Warlord reboot in this post, since it was announced this weekend that series creator Grell is returning to Warlord. Cool stuff! In an interview with Newsarama, Grell had the following comments on the Jones reboot:

NRAMA: Back in 2006 there was an earlier attempt to revive the The Warlord, but that was shelved after ten issues. Does this anything to do with that?

MG: No. As point of fact to that, that series didn't have much to do with the Warlord at all. I don't mean to be too harsh of a critic – I have the greatest respect for Bart Sears and Bruce Jones, but I was disappointed in that series with the respect to the fact that it had no bearing on the original besides the names. They did themselves a disservice attaching the name.... a new name would have better. The audience was looking for the Warlord in that book and they couldn't find him.

I think this quote can work as a commentary on not just the 2006 Warlord series, but all failed "reimagining" of characters and concepts. Sometimes they are just taken way too far from the original ideas.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Can't Forget A Classic

It’s apparently old news, but I’ve recently been told that the Dark Horse Classic Star Wars trades which reprint the Archie Goodwin/Al Williamson comic strips are out of print. A check on Dark Horse’s website confirms that they are no longer selling copies directly. Amazon.com also seems to no longer sell new copies. Although I know that the strips are available on the subscription service of StarWars.com, I think it is unfortunate that these specific editions are no longer available.

I was a rather big Star Wars fan when I was twelve, but I suppose most people my age were. This was, of course, before the prequel era and was thus before the currently saturated "Expanded Universe" kicked into high gear. Some may argue that point, but frankly I find it hard to believe that writers can do superb work while trying to awkwardly fit their creative muscles between the events of a hundred comic books, video games, novels, and cartoons. It seems to me that with much less product coming out in those “interim years,” the quality control was a lot better. Plus, with less published material there was more playroom in the universe, and unlike many of the Star Wars books that come out these days there is less focus on minutiae (leading to articles like this, which touts the newest video game as "Episode III and a half"). Early Star Wars material was not written with a strict canon and could therefore explore the developing universe on a more creative scale. A great example is the novel Splinter of a Mind’s Eye by Alan Dean Forster, which came out before Empire Strikes Back was even in pre-production. The story: Luke and Leia chase after a cosmic artifact on a swamp planet – just classic, old-style science fiction with no attempt to tie it in with any history or continuity because, at that point, there was no continuity except for a single hit movie. Much of the Goodwin/Williamson strip is just that: fun sci-fi stories told by a writer who grew up reading EC Comics and an artist who grew up reading Flash Gordon. Williamson’s art is so far beyond anything you see in the comics section of a newspaper today (in part because most newspapers do not even bother to carry adventure strips) and Goodwin’s stories are, as always, full of imagination. Goodwin is one of those rare figures in comics whose work is universally praised, and he deserves every accolade that is thrown his way.

Dark Horse tried to do something different with the series rather than just paste the panels from the strip on pages and sell it as a comic book. The editors of the series reformed the panels, colored the artwork, and even had Williamson contribute new artwork to the layouts to expand the panels beyond the confining structure of a comic strip. Purists might be turned off, but as far as reprinting comic strips go it’s a unique and welcome approach. I would not suggest it for my treasured complete Popeye by E.C. Seger editions, but for an adventure strip filled with sci-fi action the approach really works. After all, this is Star Wars -- just like its film counterpart, it is supposed to be big.

If you are a Star Wars fan and never had the opportunity to pick up these editions, do so. Especially if you a fan of the original films and feel letdown about the prequels and the current unending stream of novels and comics, and particularly if you break out in sweats anytime you hear the word “midichlorians.” I hope that these collections will eventually make it back into print for those Stars Wars fans who might be a bit burned out on all the Jedi warfare. Scoop them up on Amazon or Ebay while you still can.

Monday, July 7, 2008

A Question About Speedy

You may have forgotten (because I recently did) that Mia Dearden, also known as Green Arrow’s sidekick Speedy, is HIV positive. I bring it up that way because something that anyone who knows anything about the real-life disease would expect it to be a life-altering change, however it has been hardly more than a background detail since Mia made the announcement in Green Arrow #33 (December 2004). Since then the fact that Mia is HIV positive has come up a few times in Green Arrow and never in any significant way.

In a 2004 interview with CBR, then-and-now Green Arrow writer Judd Winick stated:
“The point of this character is she's living with HIV, as many people do. There are people who have been living for 20 years through combination drug therapy and live relatively unencumbered lives. Some people are on the combination drug therapy and it's an enormous hassle and there are tons of side effects and terribly uncomfortable. It runs the gamut. This character is not about Mia dying of AIDS, it's about how she'll be living with HIV as many, many people do.”
I am all for social issues worked into comics – certainly it has worked in the past – as long as they are done organically and do not feel shoehorned in. While Winick is not particularly known for subtlety, I applaud him for not handling Mia in a particularly heavy-handed, preachy manner. But I do question why Winick made Mia HIV positive character when the revelation has since served no storyline or educational value to the title.

If the goal of including an HIV positive character in a superhero comic book series is education, I would argue that the twenty-thirty something audience of readers all lived through the mid-to-late nineties when AIDS awareness was at its peak in the public consciousness. I also highly doubt most children who read comics are reading Green Arrow, which is not code-approved and is often as sex-obsessed as Winick’s typical work (case in point: after writer Brad Meltzer had Ollie readying an engagement ring for Black Canary in issue #21, Winick had him fooling around with Black Lightning’s niece in issue #28). So the whole idea behind “using” Mia’s condition to educate young readers sort of goes the window when it is not marketed or written as a book for young readers. And even though part of the “Mia has HIV” fallout even involved her joining the Teen Titans (which is a code-approved book that probably has a number of young readers), her tenure in the Titans lasted less than a year (Teen Titans #21-31) and did not involve any sort of attempt to educate the reader. During that time Teen Titans writer Geoff Johns was busy doing the two things he does best: build up to an event and make dead characters somewhat less confusing. I guess there was not enough time for education.

I forgot that James "My Fables Covers are Works of Beauty" Jean did covers for Green Arrow.

If we are to take Winick’s words at face value – that Mia’s condition is just about how she will be living, not dying – I suppose she is like Garrett Miller. Don’t remember him? He was the wheelchair-bound Ghostbuster on Extreme Ghostbusters, a cartoon series sequel to the classic 1980s original. But that was about it – from what I understand, nothing much was made to make him into an interesting, three dimensional character except for the fact that he was in a wheelchair. Because the series did not end up lasting beyond the first season, Garrett Miller became a wasted opportunity of tokenism: an overly politically correct symbol who in a way was all the more insulting because he existed for no other reason than to be politically correct.

I think Speedy can be a character a bit more complex than this.

My point is that being an active superhero who happens to be HIV positive is something that makes Mia Dearden a unique character. While I am glad that Winick has not made her HIV status the primary focus of the title, completely ignoring what makes each superhero unique is what dooms a character to the Z-list and squanders any potential that character has. There is a balance somewhere between unnecessary heavy-handed preaching and unnecessary political correctness for the sake of political correctness.
For example, being a vegetarian is one of many unique traits that makes Animal Man a complex character, but nobody really thinks of Animal Man as the "vegetarian superhero" and you don't see him as the official mascot of PETA. Winick has not even come close to that balance in the fifty-plus issues that he has written since Mia’s revelation. She's neither a blatant symbol nor a complex character. She's just sort of... there. And that's a place she shouldn't be.

Personally, I would just hate for it to turn out that Mia’s condition really served as nothing more than a goodwill publicity stunt. She can be so much more than that and I would like to believe that Speedy’s unique story was going somewhere and that she is intended to be something greater than another Garrett Miller.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Back to (Bronze Age) Basics, Marvel Style

Marvel Comics has recently taken DC Comics to school on sales, but Marvel certainly can’t quite give Spider-Man the “Rebirth” treatment that DC has turned into a license to revive failing concepts.

Scipio over at the top-shelf comic blog The Absorbascon made a clever observation comparing DC’s trend of returning their characters to the Silver Age basics versus Marvel’s recent attempt to do mostly the same thing with Spider-Man. Of course, while DC’s recent moves to bring back their Silver Age stalwarts have clearly been financially beneficial (and generally had positive fan reaction), the court of public opinion (and sales) are still out on Spider-Man’s new status quo. I still think it is a little early to read into sale figures for a change of this magnitude – and it is pretty tough to find comparison average sales figures considering the Spider-Man titles went through a string of events pre-Brand New Day and (in the case of Straczynski's
Amazing Spider-Man) infrequent shipping. Suffice to say that as it stands now, sales keep slipping little by little.

Although the continuity alterations brought on by, well, the unexplainable power of magic, are still widely criticized from a storytelling standpoint, the changes have brought Spider-Man more inline with his Bronze Age status quo. Minus, of course, the still-dead Gwen Stacy.

Poor Gwen. Everyone’s invited back except you. Say “hi” to Uncle Ben for us!

Since then Marvel has put would should be enough star power on the thrice-monthly Amazing Spider-Man, including editor Steve Wacker, Dan Slott, Bob “Back to the Future” Gale, Steve McNiven, Mike McKone, Phil Jimenez, John Romita, Jr. and … Marc Guggenheim and Mark Waid. Didn’t I just write about them? Honestly, besides writers with the popularity on par with Brian Bendis or Geoff Johns (who are busy writing whatever they feel like writing) or superstar artists (most of whom don't have a prayer of doing a monthly title on time),
I can't think of anyone who would bring more attention to the title.

Of course, we all know that the main fault with the Brand New Day revamp was the execution, which left a bitter taste in plenty of people’s mouths and probably prevents more than a few of them from picking up Amazing Spider-Man. This is comic books after all and "magic deal with the devil" is not all that different from "Superman reverses the rotation of the earth" or "giant yellow space bug turns you evil," but the comic book audience as a whole is the type that does not want to feel that a poorly-crafted story is treating them like idiots. Others may be assuming the new status quo is once again temporary and (like Spider-Man’s 2006 unmasking, which had as much chance of lasting as the Death of Superman) will be changed once again. Frankly it seems that bar really poor sales, the Brand New Day status quo is the long-term direction for Spider-Man, and there still is a strong chance of it working out in the long run.

Certainly with the box office success of Iron Man and the planned “movie universe” the time may be right for the “back to basics” approach for other characters if Marvel feels the need to do so. But unless sales on Amazing Spider-Man level out or improve, it may be a very long time before Marvel tries a similar Brand New Day revamp of one of their characters – and considering the fan backlash over One More Day that might be a good thing for Marvel and Marvel fans' sake.

(Obviously I should point out that the whole intent of the Ultimate universe was to clear the slate for every character, yet Marvel has never quite been willing to put the Ultimate universe on the same level of importance as their “main” universe. That appears to be why an unmarried Spidey in the Ultimate books just wasn’t good enough.)

Monday, June 30, 2008

The Future of the Flash, Part IV: How Things Run From Here

That's the point of comics – they don't have to die, because they're fictional creations... We can do anything with them, and we can make them come back and make them defy death... And that's why people read comics, to get away from the way life works, which is quite cruel and unheroic and ends in death.
Grant Morrison

I am writing this under the assumption that Barry Allen is returning for good. This could all be proven wrong at the end of Final Crisis #7 if Barry makes another spectacular sacrifice to save the universe but… well, I think only the permanent return of Barry Allen would warrant enough “buzz” to make it into the New York Daily News.

With that out of the way…

Bringing back Barry Allen to revitalize the Flash franchise is a financial no-brainer for DC Comics. The return of the “classic” versions of Green Lantern, Green Arrow, and Hawkman worked very well for the company, rejuvenating concepts that had, in some ways, lost their way. As shown by the spectacular debut issue of Flash: The Fastest Man Alive, there is plenty of interest in the Flash property. Also, as the late 90s/early 00s have proven, the Flash characters are one of the cornerstones of the DC Universe and can support several titles and team books.

With that in mind…

Here are five major moves DC needs to make to ensure a successful re-launch, or there is a very real chance that fan apathy and ever-dropping sales will result in DC not having an ongoing Flash title for the first time since 1959, something that is really inexcusable for one of their top half-dozen franchise characters.

  1. Do not kill off Wally. This one goes without saying. DC had three Flashes (Jay Garrick, Barry, and Wally) at the same time for two decades before Crisis on Infinite Earths and during Waid’s run on Flash there were as many as a half-dozen speedsters running around the title at any time. With four “main” Green Lanterns (and thousands more throughout the universe) there is really no reason why the DC Universe could not have multiple Flashes. If nothing else, it certainly opens up many new storyline possibilities. Clearly many fans were not happy with the sudden death of Bart Allen to clear the deck for Wally’s return, and redoing that for Barry’s sake would probably lead to the same criticism.
  2. Do not kill off Wally’s children. Yes, it is obvious that they are not popular and the “domestic direction” of the book is killing sales. But again, while it was a quick sales boost, Bart’s death seemed to be an unpopular decision and I sincerely doubt that the deaths of Wally’s infant children (no matter how rapidly they age) would go over any better. Stick them in a “paradise dimension,” have them lose their powers, de-age them back to infants , have Norman Osborne steal them and then hide them in Europe – whatever the writer deems best – but simply killing them off smells of a lack of creativity and would probably generate more negative buzz than the Flash property can afford at this point.
  3. Get a high-profile creative team who has a long-term commitment to the book. As I pointed out in Part III, Flash has always performed best with a strong writer committed to the success of the book. High-profile writers and artists almost always boost sales, which Flash desperately needs at this point.
  4. Have a direction and stick to it. The Green Lantern franchise has benefited tremendously by the build and success of the “Sinestro Corps War” and now the slow build to “The Blackest Night.” Geoff Johns was able to pull off similar success (though to a lesser extent) during his last Flash storyline, “Rogue War” (issues #220-225), proving that the Flash is just as capable of building to and executing a successful event. Now it is time to raise the stakes.
  5. Promote it, preferably with honesty. The New York Daily News is a good start, but what DC really needs to do as a goodwill gesture to fans is to be upfront with the new direction – that there will not be anymore quick death fixes, that there will be a clear direction that will not be rapidly changed, and that the creative team will stick around for the long-term. Admit that mistakes have been made with the franchise but the company is making every attempt to get it back on track at a level of quality it deserves (and thus sell at the level it should be selling).

Of course, there are a thousand other suggestions – particularly story related – however I feel that the above five are broad enough to get Flash selling like it should. For the most part they are pretty general in terms of launching a new book in this market, but DC Comics owes it to themselves to get Flash selling among their top ten or twelve titles, and if the last few years have taught us anything it is that a quick fix will not cut it. The best chance they have is with Barry Allen, but DC Comics has to do it right because a character deemed “too dull” over twenty years ago cannot do it on his own.

Even if he did save the universe.

(I would appreciate any feedback on this series – I plan to follow it up in a few months to see how the Flash franchise is recovering. And please keep visiting for other commentaries!)

Saturday, June 28, 2008

The Future of the Flash, Part III: How Things are Running Now

Please note that I didn't think it was a good idea to kill The Flash but those were my marching orders, so I did the best I could to make his death as moving as I could... Much of the reason the people in charge didn't care for Barry Allen was that he was considered dull.
Marv Wolfman

Marv Wolfman has often stated that it was an editorial decision to kill off Barry Allen in Crisis on Infinite Earths because the higher-ups felt the character was rather boring and that his story – he was acquitted for the murder of his wife Iris’ killer and then happily reunited with her not-quite-dead self – had reached a happy conclusion. Of course, killing Barry off, even in a heroic sacrifice, sort of takes away from the "happy ending," but I digress. The decision was made to have Barry’s sidekick, Wally West, become the lead of a new Flash series.

Twenty years later, as Infinite Crisis approached, Flash was coming off of a long popular run by Geoff Johns that typically sold in the low-to-mid-40k area, a solid, but not stellar, performer. Like Barry, Wally’s story was heading towards a happy ending after a period of tragedy. With the upcoming Infinite Crisis looming, the decision was made to have Wally’s pseudo-sidekick, Bart Allen, become the lead of a new Flash series. It certainly came off well all those years ago.

There was one problem. People liked Wally. They really liked him.

Okay... probably not the best example to illustrate my point.

Wally West is unique among all replacement characters in comic books because he had been a qualified success for twenty years, longer than Kyle Rayner (who had a solid run as Green Lantern) and Connor Hawke (who was never given much of a shot of being Green Arrow since Oliver Queen was always intended to return) combined. Wally’s Flash series featured lengthy and highly acclaimed runs by William Messner-Loebs, Mark Waid and frequent co-writer Brian Augustyn, Mark Millar and Grant Morrison, and Geoff Johns that greatly expanded the mythos of the character and the entire Flash property. For a few years in the late 90s/early 2000s the Flash franchise was so popular that Wally appeared monthly in Flash, JLA, and Titans while Impulse appeared in his own spin-off title and Young Justice. Counting Jay Garrick, the Golden Age Flash who was a regular in JSA, Flash characters were regularly appearing in at least six titles per month.

I picked this month at random -- June 2000. Flash characters starred in the above six titles.
I did not even count mini-series or one-shots.

All things considered, Wally remained popular even when he was given his “happy ending” – so much so that regardless of how the Bart Allen experiment did Wally was still going to be brought back by Meltzer and Johns in “The Lightning Saga” crossover. When the Flash: The Fastest Man Alive failed, DC determined that the best possible course of action was to kill Bart off in favor of having Wally as the “main” Flash.

Yet the current Wally-lead series is not selling poorly. How come? Wasn’t the dismal sales of Flash: The Fastest Man Alive proof that fans preferred Wally as the Flash?

Yes and no. Here are three major factors to think about:

  1. “Wally West is the Flash” is a very different concept than “Wally West is the Flash with two super-powered rapidly-aging kids,” a new direction that for one reason or another is not working. The whole “domestic life of a nuclear family of superheroes” dynamic (which many have compared to the recent Disney-Pixar film, The Incredibles), is not one, to my knowledge, that has ever been a major success in mainstream superhero comics.
  2. As the Speed Force blog points out, there has been no long-term Flash writer since Johns left the title at the end of 2005. While creators jumping on for four-to-twelve issues is a common occurrence these days on other books, Flash, as pointed out above, always thrived on the work of long-term writers. Since Flash: The Fastest Man Alive launched there have been no less than five different writers on the Flash titles, with a sixth on the way. This lack of long-term direction really causes the book to suffer.
  3. Simply enough, the death of Bart Allen barely a year into his Flash career, along with the merry-go-round of writers that has followed, has burned away fan goodwill. DC promoted Flash: The Fastest Man Alive #14 (which later became the “bridge” one-shot All Flash #1) and Flash: The Fastest Man Alive #15 (which later became Flash #231, continuing the number of Wally’s earlier series) with the same hush-hush secret solicitations that accompanied Marvel’s death of Captain America. Of course, there were major differences between the two events: Cap’s death plotted over the course of two dozen critically acclaimed and high-selling issues written by a proven comic writer, while Bart’s Flash series was a sales disaster which lead to the decision to kill off the character after a handful of issues and completely change directions. It is difficult for fans to get excited about and purchase a book when a creative team can change the whole direction again in three months or less.
The facts are that a Flash re-launch with Bart Allen did not work, nor has the current ongoing saga of Wally’s children and their rapidly-aging powers. But obviously DC is aware that the Flash property cannot last much longer in this condition.

Because here comes Barry Allen. And he was the Flash.

(Coming in the final part of this series: what problems DC should consider with a new Barry Allen Flash series)

Friday, June 27, 2008

The Future of the Flash, Part II: Acting on Impulses

The costume will be very familiar, although you may not
want to get too attached to the first Flash you see.
Dan Didio

Bart Allen was not always marked for death. If the post-Infinite Crisis re-launch of the Flash series had not bombed beyond what anyone thought possible, Bart could still be the Flash today. Or alive, at the very least.

Of course, The Flash: The Fastest Man Alive debacle has since become a blueprint (along with the 2006 Wonder Woman title) of How Not to Do a High Profile Relaunch. As a side note, even though both re-launches suffered from different problems I would be remiss not to point out that both were written by television writers who had limited comic book writing experience. But that, of course, is a whole other article.

For reasons of secrecy not much was said about the future of the Flash post-Infinite Crisis even after it was announced that the writers for the relaunched title would be Danny Bilson and Paul DeMeo, the writers of the short-lived Flash television series from over fifteen years prior. Their first issue, released in June 2006, had phenomenal sales of over 120k copies. As far as Bilson and DeMeo were concerned, their run was open-ended. In an October 2006 interview with Comic Book Resources’ Robert Taylor, the two writers had this to say about their future plans on Flash: The Fastest Man Alive:

Robert Taylor: How long are you guys planning on staying on the book?

Danny Bilson:
We are planning on staying on the book as long as it's mutually agreed upon by us and DC. There was never the idea that it would be a limited experience or we'd only do it for a few months. We have a lot of plans and a lot of stuff laid out going forward.

Paul DeMeo:
At this point we have outlined all the way through issue 12…

Danny Bilson:
…and beyond!

However, sales immediately plummeted – I will leave speculation why up to the reader (although I will address it somewhat in Part III of this series). As a result, Bilson and DeMeo’s open-ended run that was at the very least plotted through issue #12 was cut short at issue #8. In November 2006 it was announced that Marc Guggenheim would be the new writer starting with #9, the January 2007 issue. However, as late as December 2006 Dan Didio seemed to still support the idea of Bart Allen as the Flash. In an interview that month with Newsarama, Didio said on the controversy:

If you don't change, fans generally start crying out for change. Then, if you change something, the fans – sometimes the same ones – will start crying out that they didn't want the change. You're never going to be able to please everybody – you've got to go out there and do it, and almost, damn the consequences. And it keeps going – we've got fans who are still arguing whether or not Flash should be Barry Allen or Wally West, but at the same time, we're getting a new set of voices who like the idea of Bart as Flash. And for those fans, Bart Allen is their Flash. He's the one that they want to see and want to keep. Likewise, I'm starting to see acceptance of Jason Rusch as Firestorm, even after the outcry about Ronnie Raymond. So there is an evolution, but the real trick for all of us is to stay true to the course of what we've done and stay true to the plan of the changes we've made so that these characters are able to take root – and not to go running backwards and changing things, just because it seems like it was a mistake.

On March 22, 2007 in a post on ComicBloc, Bilson elaborated on the duo’s plans for issues beyond #8 had they remained on the title. This proved that as far as they knew Bart Allen would stick around as the Flash and they would have continued writing the title had sales remained high:

What was planned included a new Trixter and a return of the Nightshade from our old TV show. It was also going to feature appearances by Heatwave and Captain Cold. A big team up with Jay Garrick, and Bart would finally defeat Inertia in book 12 in a freeway chase against traffic.

That's just a small part of it. Feels kind of wierd [sic] to lay it all out...it's not the fiction. That's in Mark's [sic] hands now.

Clearly Bart was not, as DC later argued, always intended to die, since Bilson and DeMeo plotted out their stories until (at least) issue 12. Regardless, by the time Guggenheim was announced as the new writer, DC apparently judged that the poor sales of Flash: The Fastest Man Alive were a result of fans not liking Bart as the Flash and had come to a decision about the fate of Bart Allen. In a July 2007 interview with Newsarama, Guggenheim confirmed that from the beginning his five-issue run came with very specific instructions:

Marc Guggenheim: …Taking things in reverse order, I was told that my run would be five issues; I was told that it would end with whacking him, and I was even told that the Rogues had to play a pivotal role in being responsible for his death.

Wally West conveniently returned in Justice League of America #10, released the same day Bart was killed off in Flash: The Fastest Man Alive #13. Oddly enough, Brad Meltzer and Geoff Johns apparently always intended to return Wally to the scene, regardless of Bart’s altered fate. From another interview with Comic Book Resources:

[Guggenheim explained] that due to the tie-in with the top-selling "Justice League of America" and "Justice Society of America" "Lightning Saga" crossover, writing Bart's death was a fairly simple process to execute. "It really helped that Brad [Meltzer] and Geoff [Johns] had a very clear and very well planned out sense of where they were going, so I just wrote towards that."

What DC planned to do with the Flash title with Bart and Wally both among the living is unknown, but obviously Meltzer wrote his Justice League of America issues far enough in advance that the possibility was certainly there. Because of the advanced planning, DC already had the comfortable option of bringing back Wally West as the "main" Flash. I have since speculated that it was an “escape clause” if the Bart experiment did not pan out, but I do not have any source to back up that speculation. In any case, Bart’s death issue sold very well, but much less than his #1 issue.

But this did not fix things. While DC scrapped their plans with poorly-selling Bart Allen, sales of the current Flash series featuring Wally and his super-powered kids are far below what one of DC’s top characters should be selling, in fact it is now selling below what the pre-Infinite Crisis title sold:

(Sales figures taken from The Beat. The biggest spike was the first issue of Bart's series, while the smaller one was from his death issue.)
The question “should DC have backpedaled on Bart Allen so quickly?” certainly looms over here. There was evidently enough interest in a new Flash series, since Flash: The Fastest Man Alive #1 sold three times as many copies as Flash #230, the last pre-Infinite Crisis issue. But by Flash: The Fastest Man Alive #12 (the issue before Bart’s death), the title was selling about the same numbers (give or take two or three thousand) that the last five issues of the previous Flash series sold. The one-year change was basically zero. While Bilson and DeMeo were clearly not interesting new readers, it was not an impossibility that sales could have recovered long-term with a better writer and an interesting Wally/Bart/Wally’s kids dynamic. But that was not the direction DC decided to take the failing property.

However, as it stands now, the Flash property is more radioactive than Three-Mile Island and sales could scarcely be more embarrassing for one of DC’s top characters. As explored in Part I, a back-to-basics approach certainly worked with Green Lantern, Green Arrow, and Hawkman, so at this point it looks like a return of Barry Allen could just be what the property needs to get back on track.

But there stands Wally West. And he is (currently) the Flash.

(Coming in Part III: why it was so hard for DC to replace Wally, and how the series stands now)

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

The Future of the Flash, Part I: Back to (Silver Age) Basics

(This is the first part of a four-part series that analyzes how DC Comics has handled the Flash series over the last few years, and how they can get it back on track. Feedback is definitely appreciated!)

Is bringing Barry Allen back a good business move for DC? Well, Barry has already made four or five brief visits from beyond the grave since his death in 1986 and those temporary flirts certainly could not help or hurt sales in any earth-shattering way. But precedent set by the return of other classic characters forecasts that a permanent return for Barry Allen would be a good move on DC’s part. After all, three have been very positive long-term moves. In order of success:

  • In 2005, Silver Age Green Lantern Hal Jordan was brought back to dynamite sales in Green Lantern: Rebirth, resulting in one of DC’s best-selling franchises (the Green Lantern and Green Lantern Corps titles), and “The Sinestro Corps War,” DC’s most positively-received crossover in years. Both titles are currently building towards another crossover in 2009, “The Blackest Night.” Popular writer Geoff Johns is certainly committed to the character for the long-term, so DC can probably count on continued success.

  • In 2001, Green Arrow Oliver Queen was brought back by filmmaker Kevin Smith and enjoyed a 75 issue series that ended to make way for a high profile wedding to Black Canary and the re-launched “shared” title, Green Arrow/Black Canary. Ollie also had a fairly prominent role in Identity Crisis, the crossover that help set the direction for the DC Universe over the last few years. While sales of Green Arrow/Black Canary are not at Green Lantern levels, Green Arrow is still enjoying solid success.

  • Hawkman and Hawkgirl both enjoyed prominent roles in JSA after their returns from comic book continuity hell, as well as a spin-off solo title. Jimmy Palmiotti & Justin Gray had a strong run that generated positive buzz and regained sales before the title was changed to Hawkgirl at issue #50. Sales soon dropped harshly and the title was cancelled at issue #66. Currently Hawkman still appears in Justice Society of America and Rann/Thanagar: Holy War while Hawkgirl appears in Justice League of America, so both characters are certainly doing better post-return despite their main title being cancelled.

All good moves, DC!

Curiously enough, it appears all recent attempts by DC to significantly alter one of their “icons” have poor long-term results:

  • Aquaman was close to cancellation in 2005 but received a gigantic jump in sales with issue #40 when it was revamped by Kurt Busiek into a sword-and-sorcery series with a brand new Aquaman. However, interest did not last and even fantasy novelist Tad Williams, who took over from Busiek with issue #50, failed to bring the numbers back up (although personally I thought his run was really well-written). Cancelled with issue #57, the Aquaman property seems to be taking a rest.

  • While the All-New Atom was the longest-lasting Atom series since the 1960s, the sales were never that great and the title was recently canceled with next week’s issue #25. Silver Age Atom Ray Palmer appears in the last few issues and will also be appearing in James Robinson’s upcoming Justice League title.

  • Martian Manhunter’s recent mini-series revamp did little to revive interest in the character. See Final Crisis #1 for the end result.

Ouch... Better luck next time?

Taking all of the above into account, it is clear that the classic versions of DC’s characters are far more successful than revamped versions. Of course, the Atom and Martian Manhunter never had the sales power that Green Lantern or even Green Arrow had, yet neither did Hawkman, who has never been a top seller since the Golden Age, and he has done fairly well. The Flash, however, is certainly as high-profile a character as Green Lantern, so logic dictates that by following the “back-basics” model DC would have another blockbuster.

Except for one major problem: over the last few years the Flash franchise has been nothing less than a total sales disaster.

(Coming in Part II: some truth about Bart Allen’s hasty exit…)



A four-part series looking at the state of DC Comics' currently troubled Flash series, how it got that way, and analysis on how DC can repair the franchise by following similar methods that they have recently used to revitalize other characters.

Hope you enjoyed the early retirement, Barry. Planning to stick around this time? DC sure hopes so!