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.

13 November 2009

Flashmob Fridays #005: Gates of Eden #1

Introduction by Alan David Doane

In 1982, Gates of Eden was ahead of its time, an independent comic that the market didn't quite know what to do with, packed with idiosyncratic contributions from a who's who of talented comic artists, including Steve Leialoha, P. Craig Russell, John Byrne, Fred Hembeck, Michael Kaluta and others. For this edition of Flashmob Fridays, we start with a reminiscence of the title's troubled publishing history from former FantaCo employee Roger Green, and continue on with reviews by the Trouble with Comics writers. Anyone interested in FantaCo's history is invited to browse Roger's blog, as it's a semi-regular topic of discussion there.

Roger Green

Gates of Eden, which came out in the spring of 1982, was a great FantaCo comic book, but a tremendous drain on the company. Gates was very much the brainchild of Mitch Cohn, from the Dylan-inspired title (Mitch was a huge Dylan fan) to the selection of the artists, Gates really represented his sensibilities. Most, though not all, of the artists appeared in the book based on Mitch's urging. I don't know that he knew all the artists going into the project, but he had a Rolodex of potential contributors he had put together from friends and friends of friends.

I suppose Mitch was like a kid in a candy store, putting together his dream book. I recall him on the phone practically gushing to his comic art heroes. Unfortunately, the vast majority of them were not big commercial draws. John Byrne, who had done work for FantaCo's Chronicles series, had a following. So did Fred Hembeck, who FantaCo had published since 1980. But most were popular as "underground" or "ground level" artists. I wasn't directly involved in the structuring of the book, but I always thought editor Mitch was a great advocate for the artists to get as much money as possible, quite likely more than the market would generally bear. Meanwhile, owner/publisher Tom Skulan was more of a bottom-line guy, wanting to put together a package as inexpensively as possible. The one thing that they did share, however, was care for the production values; they both wanted it to look good.

If I had specific numbers, they are lost in the mist. I do know that Gates of Eden #1 was not profitable. Unlike other items were published around that time, such as the Chronicles dedicated to the Avengers and Spider-Man, we were not getting the either the distributor reorders, or the mail order/store sales we wanted/needed. Gates #1 and other situations put FantaCo in a real cash crunch that it took a couple years to get out of.

So when Gates of Eden #2's low preliminary distributor numbers came in, Tom and Mitch, with some input from me, brainstormed about what to do. Lessen the quality of the paper stock was considered, as was raising the cover price from $2.95 to $3.50. Ultimately, though, this would have meant resoliciting the title, and we didn't think that would help. So Tom pulled the plug on Gates #2. From a business point of view, it was probably the correct thing to do, but I'm fairly sure that Mitch felt he had lost face with the people he had contacted to contribute.

Ultimately, the fact that Mitch was both an employee of FantaCo's, and therefore of Tom's, and yet was an independent contractor of sorts putting together this package for FantaCo caused all sorts of muddled lines of communication. And I sometimes got caught in the middle as a sounding board for both sides.

Johnny Bacardi

I don't remember much about the whys and wherefores of the release of Gates of Eden; I probably saw an ad in the Comics Journal, which featured that gorgeous Mike Kaluta cover -- and since I was a connoisseur of all things MWK as much in 1983 as I am in 2009, I would have bought it for that if nothing else. Basically a themed one-shot, said theme being a look back at the Sixties, It features a host of contributors, many of which were stalwarts of the Underground scene of that time like Foolbert Sturgeon, Lee Marrs, Kim Deitch, Rick Geary, and Spain. The story which still stands out the most to me is Steve Leialoha's look back at Altamont, the free festival which soon turned into a nightmare as someone was stabbed by a Hell's Angel member during the Rolling Stones' set, the Angels being there to ostensibly provide security at the behest of the Grateful Dead. That show was said to be the death knell for the Hippie Dream. More than anything, I just enjoy seeing Leialoha on full art again -- he's been pretty much inking Mark Buckingham on Fables for years now, and his idiosyncratic style (which was also being brought to bear on Marvel/Epic's Coyote at about the same time) is pretty much subsumed there. Trina Robbins, who was really turning out a lot of work at the time for a number of companies, is also represented with a look at Hippie fashions, right in her wheelhouse -- it even has cutout dolls. Another enjoyable reminiscence was brought to us by Fred Hembeck, who shares a story of longsuffering Mets fandom, which culminated in their 1969 World Series win. Jeff Jones turns in one of his Idyl-style pieces, and Craig Russell also contributes an psychedelic two-page spread. I had forgotten exactly how much was stuffed in this one issue!

Guess it didn't sell all that well, because they didn't do another one to my knowledge. Too bad; there's some fine storytelling and a lot of good art in this collection. It's a look back at a time which gets more and more romanticized, and while there's a fair amount of that going on here, several of the entries also take a more level-headed point of view as well for balance, and all in all, this was a lot better than I remember thinking it was back in 1983 when I first read it.

Christopher Allen

You know, I actually own a copy of this comic -- a gift from ADD -- but I never read it until now. I have to admit I'm glad he brought it up again. Maybe I needed an audience. Anyway, this comic gave me a warm feeling, in a way, as it reminded me of my dad's side of the family. They were all kind of hippies in the '60s, and my aunt has long had an art supply shop in Haight-Ashbury. The stories in here reminded me of them because of the combination of idealism and creativity. It's one thing to see a documentary about the '60s, but quite another to have a group of cartoonists telling their own personal '60s remembrances. Although some of these guys were maybe somewhat associated with the '60s underground comics scene, none of them are particularly radical. These are not stories that push the boundaries with a lot of sex and drugs. Rather, they're stories of people who were young and trying to find themselves during one of our more turbulent times. a time of great fear and great hope. Steve Leialoha's "Altamont" is a standout. Even though I'd seen the film, Gimme Shelter, and knew the details, Leialoha brought a real artistry. Mick slings his hips just right. The tension builds. There's confusion even amid the clear storytelling. Really excellent work.

We also get a nice piece on the '68 Chicago convention riot, lots on Nixon, LBJ, JFK, communes, fashion, the miracle Mets, and an eye-opening story by Sharon Kahn Rudahl on the difficulties of trying to get an abortion in the '60s. It's almost like publisher Tom Skulan and editor Mitch Cohn made a list of everything important in the '60s and handed it out to all these cartoonists, except that kind of thing wouldn't have really worked. Somehow they just picked the right talent, and the talent knew the right stories to tell. Pretty fantastic.