20 November 2009

Flashmob Fridays #006: Scalped, Vertigo, and the State of the Floppy

Introduction by Alan David Doane

We're back with another episode of the semi-regular Flashmob Fridays, but it's a little different this time. Usually, someone suggests a comic, and within a couple days whoever wants to participate can weigh in with their thoughts. This time, one of Christopher Allen's columns this week garnered a lot of reaction -- some from readers, but even more from the other TWCers (Troublers? Twickers?), who turned out to be big fans of Jason Aaron's and R.M. Guera's series, Scalped. First up, Chris expands on his thoughts, then the rest of the gang piles on weighs in.

Christopher Allen

My goal in reading Scalped #31 and the other two Vertigo books was pretty simple, though admittedly I didn't put a lot of thought into the ramifications of it. As I think I've written before, I hadn't been reading many monthly comics for a few years, preferring to pick up hard-and-softcover collections of things I'm interested in or that had good reviews/word of mouth. But in getting back into much more frequent reviews and enjoying the renewed practice of hitting the comics shop every Wednesday, I figured I'd check out these three series about which I'd been pretty curious. In the case of Scalped, it very well may have been a recommendation from Johnny Bacardi a month or so ago that planted that seed in my head.

So, anyway, I know the score: monthly series from Marvel, DC, Image, Dark Horse, IDW and others (you can call them "mainstream" if you want; I'll just call them genre comics) are structured so as to be fairly easily collected in hardcovers and trade paperbacks not long after each story arc concludes. But, without ill intent, I just wanted to see if a random issue of one of these Vertigo series (and Vertigo was chosen only because I was interested in those particular books) could provide a satisfying reading experience on its own, without being too confusing for a new reader. Would it be clear enough, and good enough, that I would want to go back to the beginning as well as continue forward? And so I approached the books with those parameters, which to me seemed fair enough.

I was surprised at the passionate Scalped support that followed from Matt, Johnny, David Wynne and Marc Sobel, who either thought I was too tough/unfair on the book, and/or that it was unfair to judge either that series or Vertigo books in general that way, as a) the series needs to be read from the beginning, or b) Vertigo's story arcs are intended for collection, so one should only review the collection.

I did, and do, bristle at those assertions, I have to admit, though it was throughout a respectful exchange with all of them. To me, I do believe in that old saw about every comic being somebody's first. Yes, there are plenty of series where I've taken the plunge and bought the first trade based on word of mouth or liking one of the creators, but I also pick up semi-random monthly issues, too. If I like it, I might just wait for the collection and give the one issue away, or continue with the monthly issues. I have my methods.

Although there was some attempt at a correlation between monthly comics and complex cable TV shows like Deadwood, I couldn't really agree with the idea that it would be nearly impenetrable if one decided to start in the middle of the second season. Episodic television like that, and The Sopranos, Mad Men, etc., may have long, overarching storylines, but there's always a story that begins and ends in that one episode, plus at the 46 to 50 minutes, there's a lot more room for the stories to develop, and for lots of characterization, than in one issue of a monthly comic. Is it Jason Aaron's fault that in the original format for his series, he only gets 22 pages a month to move his story and characters along? No. Is it his fault that he chooses a decompressed style where the action depicted would equate to about ten minutes of screen time, at $2.99? Sure it is. Or I should say, "fault" isn't quite the right word, but it's a storytelling choice he has to live with, just as he has to live with not putting his best foot forward on what appears to be a fairly pivotal issue of the series and instead lacks memorable dialogue and seems filled with cliched or one-note characters.

But again, I gave the benefit of the doubt to the series that what was there wasn't too bad and I might want to start from the beginning. It wasn't really about Scalped, anyway; that just kicked off a larger discussion. And getting back to that point, yes, I think it's perfectly fair to judge an entertainment product on its own terms, be it a television show, comic, book, whatever. If I had the slightest interest in Twilight: New Moon, I might go see and review it, without having seen the first or having read any of the books. It would only be fair to throw those caveats into the review, but sure, I could review it. If Vertigo, DC and any other publisher choose to continue to put out comics in this format, then they can be judged in that format.

The larger issue it brought up to me is that I really think the decompressed style you see in a lot of monthly comics are really hastening their demise. I remember a few years ago wondering if "compression" would be the next big thing -- to me a sound strategy to add more value to the expensive comic book. Aside from Warren Ellis's Fell and the odd effort here and there (I just read the first Agents of Atlas trade and it's exceptionally brisk), it hasn't really happened. I'm not asking for anthology titles with bang-bang six page complete stories, or a series with every issue a "done-in-one" story. I just think when editors and creative teams allow stories to feel stretched out, when not a lot happens from issue to issue because the writer's got three issues of story he has to make last six, then what they're doing is selling that series short. It could be canceled earlier, if enough fans get turned off, or it could be one of those books that everyone loves at first and then it overstays its welcome, like 100 Bullets, maybe Preacher. Is Fables still a passionate read for many, or more of a duty or habit now? I dunno. I better stop now before all the Fables, 100 Bullets and Preacher fans jump on me.

I promised my colleagues I would get off my soapbox and let them have the last words. I thank JB and Matt below (as well as Marc and David, who added their own sharp comments on our email group but didn't have time to formalize them here) for the lively discussion.

Johnny Bacardi

I've been reading Scalped since the first trade, and I believe that the more you get into the story, the more some of the characters and their motivations will become apparent. Chris is right in that there are a lot of standard crime-drama beats being hit, and the setting is providing novelty, but Aaron has built his characters up slowly, and it does help to at least read an arc to get a feel for them. It's kinda like judging Deadwood after watching one mid-season two episode. Guera's art had to grow on me a little, too-- it's really an amalgam of a dozen different artists, but he's good at staging and creating dynamic-looking pages, and capable of doing emotions well (something that comes in really handy, given all the angst).

Guess you can tell I'm in the bag for this series, huh!

Really, though, the gist of what I was going to say is that the corrosive Dash/Carol relationship that caused consternation is one that's been coming to a head through the last dozen or more issues, and I can see why it wouldn't make sense coming in cold. But I don't think I'd want to see a lot of expository dialogue explaining things either, so I guess that's just the nature of that particular beast and I see your point in that respect. I still hope you sample a bigger set someday!

I re-read the first issue this morning, and I was a bit surprised how clunky it came across in places--Aaron was trying to establish a lot of things through dialogue, and a lot of it read flat and obvious. Once he got established, though, I think it got a lot better in that respect.

Matt Springer

You may not know this but the Trouble With Comics writers room frequently breaks out into near-mudwrestling matches over such trivial topics as the quality of Howard Johnson's room service and the length of Wolverine's pubic hair. (It's shaved. SHAVED I SAY YOU VARLOT!)

I confess, I helped begin the latest tussle with my reaction to Chris Allen's reaction to Scalped, Air, and Northlanders in a recent
of his excellent Daily Breakdowns.

Overall, his reviews seemed to indicate that he believes any comic book series should be accessible every issue, without fail, to a new reader. Personally, I can see where that would be a virtue for mainstream superhero series but I think it's pretty well-established at this point in the comics world that Vertigo series tend to be large, rich stories told in arcs/chapters that aren't usually easily accessed randomly.

Vertigo is actually doing two things to encourage that viewpoint -- the $1 first issue and the $9.99 debut trade. It might be more fair to judge the series on their first trades since that seems to be the method they're encouraging. The issue of jump-on-ability is almost secondary to the issue of Vertigo's specific strategy, if that makes sense -- Vertigo has clearly chosen a path that emphasizes trade collections with the floppies acting as merely a secondary concern toward making back perhaps cost. At least that would be my guess based on the apparent success of something like Fables which still sells easily under 10,000 copies per issue.

So ultimately, saying you can't really jump onto a Vertigo book at any point is sorta judging them on standards they themselves reject, which gets me to the issue of floppies as a viable entertainment unit at all. I feel like we're actually watching floppies die before our very eyes. I'm not gonna value judge that statement, like "Let's set a fire to help them die" or "Let's save them with polybags and lotsa luuuv!" I'm just saying that pretty much across the board, comic book series have rejected the notion that "every comic is someone's first comic," and that's not necessarily a bad thing. Honestly, these pamphlets are
basically being sold into the same dwindling audience of obsessives, and we all know the drill, so what does it matter?

It makes me think of HBO shows; most of the long-form series I've watched in the HBO model (Sopranos, Wire, Rome, Big Love, Mad Men) are pretty damn impenetrable if you just picked up the remote one night and said, "Hey, I'll give this a try." I think you could get a really good feel for the tone and the mood of the show, and possibly decide if you liked it or not, but plot-wise, you'd be lost.

Again, let me say I don't think this is a bad thing; I think the opening of this vista in both print and television has enabled some amazing storytelling that would have been unimaginable even twenty years ago. But let's not pretend something should still be true when the vast majority of us all know it isn't: No modern-day comic book is really anybody's "first comic," and floppies are going the way of Wolverine's pubic hair.

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