Dream come true

Yes, the news that Dream Thief is returning for a second series is most welcome around these parts. Over five issues, writer Jai Nitz and artist Greg Smallwood span a compelling story starring John Lincoln. Stoner, womaniser, and grifter (although his worst crime [at least in the early going] is probably his use of the word “brah”), John’s decision to steal an Aboriginal mask from a museum ends up having unintended consequences, and he finds himself seeking revenge on behalf of the departed.

The concept felt fresh, and the execution marked Nitz and Smallwood out as emerging talents. So it’s nice to see Bleeding Cool throw some publicity its way. You can read the first issue for free and Nitz’s thoughts on both the first series and the future of the title here, and listen to an interview with Nitz here. Just in time for the release of the first  trade paperback! If the title flew under your radar when it was released last year, now is the perfect time to catch up. As for me, I’d better go see if I can’t dig the issues out from wherever they’re hiding.

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Two for the price of one

At some point soon, I’m going to feel compelled to write a post called “Death to floppies,” or something similar. Because this week I was hit by an epiphany: it’s time for me to stop buying single issues. Without getting into it too much now, it’s an expensive format, and between paydays my pull box becomes more and more unruly until I’m newly moneyed again. And then the process starts afresh. If I dropped single issues I’d be able to spend the money on trades/collections, which is both a cheaper and much more attractive format.

With this in mind, I’m impressed with Marvel’s newest method of promoting one of its titles. This week’s Superior Spider-man #30 also includes the entirety of Black Widow #1. Two comics for the price of one, in other words, a simple-yet-clever way to encourage people to read a book they might have ignored by providing it alongside one of the publisher’s most popular titles. I can’t imagine the extra cost to Marvel is astronomical, and if even a few Superior Spider-man readers are convinced to buy Black Widow #2, the strategy will have been a success.

There’s a discussion to be had about how the single issue format benefits the publisher much more than the reader, not just in terms of profit but also engagement. And indeed, this strategy is an example of the latter – it amounts to promoting a product to a (kinda) captive audience. But it’s also a friendly suggestion more than a forceful one. Rewarding the reader for sticking with floppies (the success of which is critical to any series published by Marvel or DC). And while it’s almost certainly coincidental, it still seems significant that Marvel has tried this approach in a title that reads best in single issues. I may be about done with floppies, but clearly they still have their uses.

Building a backlog

As the above picture will attest, a combination of pre-Christmas purchases, presents, and recent gifts to myself – coupled with a lack of time and a sincere attempt to get back into reading books without pictures – mean I’m well served for reading material. Granted, I need to finish The Book Thief, reread The Bell Jar for my book club, and work through my stack of single issues before I can make a dent in this pile, but there’s plenty for me to look forward to.

Guy Delisle’s Pyongyang was so accessible and fascinating that even my non-comicbook-reading girlfriend was won over (she might even beat me to reading Shenzhen); Batman: The Black Mirror will be my introduction to Scott Snyder’s writing on the character (no introduction needed to the wonderful work of artists Jock and Francavilla); and the first volume of Mind MGMT (a very handsome hardcover) will be my first time spent with a Matt Kindt comic.

The Immortal Iron Fist is a series I somehow slept on when it was originally released, but the talent of the creators involved means I have high hopes; the first volume of The Manhattan Projects was one of my favourite reads of 2013, so it’s high time I got caught up on the series; and I don’t know a single thing about The House That Groaned by Karrie Fransman, which is kinda refreshing. Hopefully I’ll find the time to binge read this lot in the not-too-distant future.

Eight bullets

In my last post, Number one with a bullet, I considered the pros and cons of new #1s. This time I’m looking at eight newly launched titles, and explaining why I will or won’t be back for issue two.

Black Widow #1 – An entertaining done-in-one story that argues the best way to launch a series is to establish a strong take on a character, rather than setting up future stories. Nathan Edmondson’s and Phil Noto’s Black Widow is motivated by the sins of her past, a desire to do something to make up for them, and the belief that her efforts will never be enough. The creative team do a great job staging the espionage sequences, but also handle the quieter moments with aplomb. Noto’s art deserves special praise; his loose lines echo the questionable morality under which Natasha Romanoff operates, whilst the muted colours ground her in the real world, far removed from the superheroics of the Avengers. It’s always nice to have your expectations greatly exceeded, and this is a series I’ll definitely return to.

Dead Body Road #1 – Feels a bit too familiar. Writer Justin Jordan uses too many tried-and-true tropes, taking the most obvious elements of crime fiction and revenge thrillers and failing to assemble them into anything new. And whilst artist Matteo Scalera’s rough and ready work is a great fit for the material, it fails at establishing a unique visual identity. With a creative team this talented these problems might be addressed in future issues, but first impressions count for everything, and this one left me cold.

Harley Quinn #1 – I picked up #0 and was glad I did – the meta, breaking-the-fourth-wall tale felt like a welcome antidote to the grim-and-gritty gloom and doom that is a staple of much of the New 52. But #1 is much more straightforward, and much less interesting for it. Harley Quinn has inherited an apartment block in Coney Island, and is trying to figure out how to pay the upkeep. Adding to her problems, various assassins are chasing the bounty that’s been placed on her head. It’s not a bad status quo for the character, but the (largely unfunny) humour and extreme violence don’t sit well together, and Chard Hardin’s artwork veers towards cheesecake a little too often (sunbathing? at night?). Ultimately, it’s a bit of a misfire.

Loki #1 – It’s amazing how a second reading can completely change your perceptions of something. First time round, I had this issue pegged as a fun enough little romp, with Al Ewing writing a quick-witted, sharp-tongued, but ultimately lovable Loki and Lee Garbett’s exaggerated expressions adding hints of both melodrama and humour. Yet a second read revealed a dense meditation on the nature of identity. Unlike Black Widow, Loki’s mission is not so much to atone for his sins as to have them stricken from the record. To that end, each mission he completes results in one bad deed being purged from Asgardian history, a deal he believes is fair. But he’s fighting not just against the past, but against himself – his determination to avoid falling into old patterns is genuine, but the sense that such a fall is inevitable lingers over the book, a point the final page hammers home. If future issues continue to explore this territory Loki will stand out as one of the most ambitious Marvel titles on the shelves.

Ms. Marvel #1 – It’s easy to root for Ms. Marvel without even opening the book. A teenage female American Muslim in a lead role is hardly the sort of diversity mainstream comics are known for, and it’s fantastic to see new character Kamala Khan given this kind of spotlight. Fortunately, the end product makes for a fantastic read. Kamala’s alliterative name is no accident – Ms. Marvel #1 doesn’t try and disguise its debt to Amazing Fantasy #15, presenting Khan as a socially adrift teen who longs to be something more. G. Willow Wilson’s ear for dialogue and Adrian Alphona’s beautiful, unfussy art create a world featuring believable characters you’ll want to spend time with, including a family Khan loves and is exasperated by in equal measure and friends who have their own hang-ups. An excellent debut.

The Punisher #1 – Nathan Edmondson’s second All-New Marvel NOW! title is less successful. The action scenes paint Frank Castle as something of a generic action hero (“Don’t touch my gun”), the first-person narration is overwrought, and the banter he trades in his local diner doesn’t really suit the character. Mitch Gerads’ kinetic artwork is perfectly suited to the carnage Castle wreaks, but that’s not enough to overcome the other flaws. One of the least successful Marvel NOW! launches to date.

The Saviors #1 – What if your sleepy little town was inhabited by aliens that’d disguised themselves as humans? That’s The Saviors in a nutshell. J. Bone’s black and white artwork is deserving of praise, particularly the early scenes of protagonist Tomas Ramirez living his lazy life. Alas, writer James Robinson takes repeated trips to the “As you know, Bob” well when establishing characters and setting. “You come out here and we smoke it up once in a while…”, that sort of thing. It’s so shameless it almost becomes endearing, but in the end it’s bad writing by someone who should know better, and makes it impossible for me to recommend the issue.

Wolverine #1 – Has Wolverine really turned evil? And given that the answer is almost certainly no, how do you build a series pretending that the answer is yes? It’ll probably take a few issues to find out: we join the tale in media res, with Logan already gone bad and working with a team of ne’er do wells. Taking the credit is The Offer, a man who always knows what to offer people to get them on his side. But exactly how he won Wolverine over remains a mystery. Meanwhile, a handful of flashbacks further the idea that Logan is struggling to cope with the loss of his healing factor. The issue is surprisingly light and breezy, choosing humour more often than sentiment, and even Ryan Stegman’s art has a hint of nudge nudge, wink wink about it. Then again, how could a book starring a body-armour-wearing, gun-wielding Wolverine take itself seriously? Entertaining enough, but I don’t buy into the premise, which is what Marvel are trying to sell the series on. That conflict means I won’t be buying #2.

So Black Widow, Loki, and Ms. Marvel have all won me back for their second issues. In a few weeks I’ll check back in on how the titles are progressing. And no doubt I’ll be buying even more #1s in March, and discussing them on this very blog!

Number one with a bullet

A new year means a hell of a lot of new titles, apparently, with Marvel and Image particularly active. Over at House to Astonish, Paul O’Brien wrote about Marvel’s curious recent practice of sticking #1s all over the shop, mocking the “Avengers #24.NOW = Avengers #1 in all-new Marvel Now” labelling that results in the cover bearing both #24 and #1. The intention is to highlight the issue as a great jumping on point without simply relaunching the title; whether the approach proves to be successful will be revealed once the sales figures are released. It should be noted that, in many cases, the issues featuring this dual numbering aren’t great jumping on points, as O’Brien points out.

Of course, if you’re already reading one of these titles, it’s easy enough to ignore the numbering and get on with the story. The glut of new #1s pose a different problem: too many titles, too little time (and money). Take Marvel. This month, I’ve already bought Black Widow #1, Loki #1, Ms. Marvel #1, Punisher #1, and Wolverine #1 and plan on buying She-Hulk #1 and X-Force #1; in March, Marvel are releasing another seven new number ones I’ll be picking up. No doubt more will follow throughout the year. The Marvel NOW! initiative has, broadly speaking, been a success, with the overall quality of the line impressively high. If the aforementioned 14 titles maintain this standard, then that’s a lot more books competing for my money, of which there is a sadly finite amount. Meanwhile, Image insists on launching unique new concepts by strong creative teams with increasing regularity, demanding more and more attention and making it clear that the medium is now ruled by a Big Three.

The upshot is I’ll have to make some difficult choices, and drop several titles I’m enjoying. And whilst it does seem ridiculous to complain about the rude health the mainstream comics industry is currently in, sometimes there really can be too much of a good thing. A while back, Bleeding Cool published a piece by Reed Tucker, which amongst other things argued in favour of Marvel and DC drastically scaling back their lines.

One final topic related to #1s is worth mentioning. There seems to be a groundswell of support amongst creators, readers, and critics alike for comics to follow the TV model of “seasons.” Andrew Wheeler’s piece on the subject is required reading, making a compelling argument for this new approach. I’m on board, although I do think it could lead to more people waiting for a trade collecting the entire season, rather than buying single issues. For example, as much as I’ve enjoyed reading Young Avengers, had I known the creators had a specific endpoint in mind I would’ve waited until I could have a beautiful hardcover of the entire run on my shelf. Which may be another side effect of all the new #1s – reading via trade is ultimately cheaper than buying single issues, particularly if you purchase through Amazon. Of course, this would be devastating for comicbook stores, which are already faced with the possibility of digital sales accounting for an increasing proportion of the market.

Anyway, next time out I’ll be offering capsule reviews of the many, many #1s I’ve read since I returned from my travels.

The Return

“It didn’t begin as well as I’d hoped. Culture shocked, dripping in the heat, and unable to move in the ramshackle dream city streets of New Delhi without attracting a thousand touts offering water, shoe shines, or ear cleaning services, I’d never seen beggars with noses munched down to knotholes by leprosy.”

Grant Morrison, Supergods: Our World in the Age of the Superhero

The above is a great bit of synchronicity between my holiday and my holiday reading; the last month of my life was spent travelling around India, separated from my pull box and the news sites but still engaging my passion for comics.

“Passion” seems like a particularly important word. In Supergods, Morrison writes passionately and intelligently about the history of comics, charting a path from the origin of the superhero to the present day, whilst also recounting his own experiences as one of the medium’s leading lights. It’s a fun read. For all the reductive talk about what comics criticism should be (as though everyone writing about comics should follow a set template), if it engages with the subject in a way that is enjoyable to read it has probably justified its existence. That’s what I’ll be aiming to do throughout 2014, and given that one of my resolutions for the year is to post more frequently, hopefully I’ll be doing it on a semi-regular basis!

What the Postman Bringeth! #6

There is something deeply satisfying about receiving post. Indeed, this series exists to pay testament to the fact. Whether it be the pleasant interruption of the working day or a nice surprise upon returning home, there’s always pleasure to be taken from tearing a package open and gazing upon its contents. This is true even when you know exactly what it contains; it’s even more exciting when the contents are a mystery.

That’s one of the reasons the monthly subscription offered by Oily Comics is such a great idea. The second is the quality of the material. Having signed up for three months through to December, my first month’s package dropped through the mail slot the other day. It contained the following six mini-comics:

  • Missy
  • Noise #3
  • Real Rap #5
  • Teen Creeps #4
  • Tell God To Blow The Wind From The West
  • Word and Voice #8

The standout is Teen Creeps #4, by Oily Comics publisher Charles Forsman. It offers a window into the life of Dawn, one of the teens of the title, and her attempts to navigate the complications of adolescence. Forsman has received a lot of praise for The End of the Fucking World, and Teen Creeps is of a similarly high standard. His simple linework emphasises emotion, and his sparse panels ensure the characters are always the focus. He does a great job capturing the language of teens too; Dawn’s attempts at profundity are clumsy but earnest, while a phrase like “get your dick wet” highlights how burgeoning sexuality and immaturity are inextricably linked at that age. It’s enough to send me scurrying off to buy the first three issues, whilst eagerly awaiting the fifth.

The other five mini-comics suggest that the American underground comics scene is in rude health. In particular, Tell God To Blow The Wind From The West – based on 9/11 victim Kevin Cosgrove’s final moments – marks Nick Drnaso out as one to watch, with the heart-wrenching desperation of Cosgrove’s last words set against images of an empty cityscape. The symbolism is obvious, but that doesn’t make it any less effective.

Comics Alliance recently recommended an Oily Comics subscription as a gift. If you can bear to sign up a friend rather than yourself, you’re more generous than I could ever hope to be.

Further reading
Oily Comics
Holiday Gift Guide: Oily Comix Subscription
Oily Comics at Impossible Books