Saturday, November 22, 2008
Don't let the door hit your carapace on the way out: Way too many words on Blue Beetle and the singles I read and don't read
I’ve been thinking about the current DC/Marvel direct market sales model a lot lately, due to the fact that the companies both seem to be flirting with drastic price increases on their single issues—Marvel has started charging an extra dollar for not only their mature readers Max books, but also their “Marvel Knights” continuity-light books and new miniseries, while DC recently charged an extra dollar for a 23-page one-shot—and the recent failure of a particularly resilient ongoing of DC’s.
You’ve probably already heard that DC Comics' Blue Beetle has been cancelled, right?
This is actually a surprise to me, at least it is this week.
When they first announced a brand-new Blue Beetle comic starring a brand new Blue Beetle in 2006 or so, I just kind of assumed it would be cancelled within a year, 18 months tops. That's just logic: Take a mildly unpopular character unable to sustain his own title, kill him off and give his name, costume and powers to a brand-new version of the character, and you've done the neat trick of finding a way to make an unpopular character even less popular by alienating the 15 to 45 fans they actually still had (See the quick cancellations of Aquaman: Sword of Atlantisstarring Aquaman II and Firestorm starring Firestorm II for good examples of this phenomenon).
Hell, I had no interest in the title after reading the character's first few appearances, and I'll read pretty much anything. It wasn't until the steady drumbeat of online praise got so overwhelming that I eventually tried out an issue and found out that, hey, after a rocky start, this title actually kind of kicks ass (The John Rogers solo-written issues, from the Blue Beetle/Lonar team-up through #25, were all pretty great super-comics).
At that point, I still wouldn't have been surprised at all if DC pulled the plug. The book didn't seem to be selling all that well, and Rogers—i.e. the reason the book was any good—was leaving. But DC planned to soldier on with it. Surely it must be selling somewhere, right?
That somewhere, I guessed, was libraries. Whether it was the fact that the new Blue Beetle was Hispanic or a teen or that he was a superhero in a book that wasn't total shit, teen librarians seemed to dig Blue Beetle. The first two volumes were on a YALSA (Young Adult Library Services Association ) best of the year list, and it was one of the few DC superhero books on the shelves in the teen section of one of the libraries I go to (not Columbus Metropolitan Library, which seems to get almost everything in trade—everything except Uncle Sam and The Freedom Fighters, those bastards—but a smaller, suburban library).
So that must be where Blue Beetle is finding its market, I thought. Maybe it's doing respectably enough in trades that it offsets the relatively low sales of the singles (This is supposedly the case with the low-selling but still-not-cancelled Jonah Hex and pretty much every Vertigo book). Once I realized that, I didn't expect the book to be cancelled any more.
And then they cancelled it.
And the timing of the decision was, in keeping with most decisions at DC Comics these days, completely hilarious. It was the same week that the cartoon watching kids of the world were introduced to this version of Blue Beetle via a new Batman cartoon, Batman: The Brave and the Bold and, even if they aren't going to be storming their local comics shops one Wednesday a month for a new Blue Beetle adventure, I'm sure more plugged-in teen librarians are going to be ordering more Blue Beetle trades, and kids are going to be a lot more likely to have their eyes caught by trades on the shelves of their local libraries and big box bookstores their parents take them to.
Would a higher Q rating for Blue Beetle III have helped move more single issues and trades? Maybe. Enough to make it a bestseller all of a sudden? God, no. But it sure wouldn’t have hurt. (I don’t think the cancellation is necessarily a dumb move by DC, or a missed opportunity, it’s just kind of ironic coming when it did).
Now I suppose I should apologize to the Blue Beetle fans, as the cancellation is actually kinda sorta my fault. Or at least partially. I dropped the book after #26. That was June’s gimmicky (almost) all-Spanish issue, written by Jai Nitz. I liked it quite a bit, but DC was slow too slow to replace Rogers, following his final issue with that fill-in by Nitz and then two more fill-in issues by Will “Wrote Amazons Attack” Pfeifer before finally getting around to the actual next “regular” writer Matt Sturges, whose plans for the series included…Dr. Polaris II.
The couple month lag wass a real momentum killer, and it gave readers (like me!) a chance to get used to not reading Blue Beetle during a natural jumping-off point. By the time the new writer started writing, I had not only gotten into the habit of not reading Blue Beetle, but I had gotten a sense of where the title would be going in the near future, and it didn’t seem to be anywhere particularly creative (Dr. Polaris was a Magneto knock-off killed in a Geoff Johns companywide crossover series just to demonstrate how totally serious the story was, so Sturges was planning on using a legacy version of a knock-off whose knocking-off was demonstrative of everything tired about DC Comics).
While not giving readers months to consider dropping titles between runs seems kind of logical, DC seems to do this pretty often—I’ve also dropped Booster Gold and Brave and the Bold when the titles went into four-to-six-month stalling mode.
Well, with another low-selling DC super-title biting the dust, and the fear of a $3.99 industry average haunting me, I thought I’d take a closer look at what I’m still reading in single issues, and whether I’d keep reading ‘em at four bucks a pop or not.
I doubt this is of all that much value to anyone as, like, a case study or anything, as I’m only a single reader and maybe not that representative of the average DC and Marvel super-comic consumer. But I am a example, someone who goes to the shop every Wednesday to buy a handful of superhero comics to read that evening. And I find myself getting increasingly selective of what I buy, due to general destitution (the first sentence of the “About Me” paragraph in the upper right hand corner should explain why I’m not exactly rolling in disposable income), and what I read in single issues versus the usually cheaper trade format (even when prices of the trades are the same as that of the price of the individual books they collect added up, Amazon discounts will shave some cost off, and the well-stocked local libraries make reading a lot of trades free).
So here’s my system of storing comics. The regular, ongoing series I read each have their own little stacks on these bookshelves, in some cases grouped by character or franchise (Green Lantern Coprs, miniseries and specials are in the Green Lantern stack, for example).
(Above: My piles of series I'm currently reading; not pictured, a coupla more piles)
Miniseries or new series I’m just trying out are all in a big miscellaneous stack. When I drop a title, or when it’s canceled, they go into longboxes or huge pile of books that need to be put in longboxes some day).
(Above: I decided a better use of my time would be to photograph the stacks of comics I need to organize and post that picture on the Internet, rather than organize them. There an equal number of comics in a cardboard box shoved underneath that desk by the way, supporting the album leaning up against it)
This week I poked around these stacks, and wrote some thoughts on the books I’m still reading in singles…
So these are the comics I still read in single issues…
Action Comics I like Superman as a character in general, and am quite enamored of his whole corner of the DCU—the supporting cast, the villains, the settings—but I'm a fair-weather fan. I follow the creators and/or the direction of Superman comics, so I'll read them for an arc or a run, drop them, pick 'em up again, and so on.
I think the Superman franchise was one of the few that came out of the "One Year Later" jump in good shape, and probably the only one that maintained its quality since then (The hiring-of-Adam Kubert-mistake and the subsequent Chris Kent continuity fuck-up aside). I've been reading Action monthly since OYL, save for the last few chapters of the Richard Donner/Geoff Johns/Kubert arc.
Superman As with Action, I've been reading this monthly since OYL, and it's been the better of the two Superman books, in my opinion. I kind of hope James Robinson's rumored (by Rich Johnston) fall-out with DC was simply baseless gossip, as I'm interested in where Robinson's taking the title. He gets Superman's voice kind of weird sometimes, but he's obviously been laying a lot of groundwork for a big, long-term story plan and, more importantly, he uses Krypto the Superdog a lot.
Batman I hate, hate, hate, hate, hate Tony Daniel's artwork. It's just awful stuff, and every page of it I see surprises me anew that this is the guy drawing Batman. I can stand in my comics shop, scan the shelves of DC books, and pick out just about any of them that features vastly superior art better suited for DC's flagship book featuring its flagship hero (The guy doing JLoA and the guy doing Teen Titans are probably the only two that I think might not be an improvement over Daniel). Still, Grant Morrison scripting, and telling probably the most interesting Batman story I've read since, I don't know, "Lonely Place of Dying," maybe...?
Like Superman books, the Batman franchise is one I'm generally interested in, but only read when I like the creative team. The Moench/Jones/Beatty run was the last time I read Batman regularly month-in and month-out for any length of time. I've been reading Batman since the OYL direction-shift though, only for Morrison's script at this point (I skipped a few non-Morrison fill-ins).
Daniel's art is so bad though, I'm really on the fence about continuing. I may end up dropping this after the Denny O'Neil and Neil Gaiman stunt arcs, depending on the post-"Batman R.I.P." direction and who will be responsible for it. (Any of the likely candidates to take over being Batman if Bruce Wayne "dies" sound pretty boring to me, but even if no curveballs are thrown—like The Knight or Chief Man-of-Bats becoming the New Batman—if Morrison and someone who can draw a comic are involved, I might stick around).
Green Lantern I really despise Hal Jordan. I used to dislike him because he was just an exceptionally boring empty set of tights, but after Geoff Johns started writing him, I came to dislike him because he seems like such a dick. Cocky, mean and dumb, Johns has made him into a toned-down version of the Giffen/DeMatteis Guy Gardner, only John plays the asshole with a ring characterization straight rather than for laughs.
I think that's a good thing by the way—Johns has given Hal Jordan a personality, even if he's not the sort of person I would want to be around in real life, or even think is particularly heroic sometimes. That, coupled with the fact that Johns is more of a comics script builder than an comics storyteller, would seem like reason enough to have dropped this book long ago, and yet I'm still reading.
It's not always good, but it's never that bad, and Johns seems to have been afforded his pick of DC artists (or at least, he never gets stuck with a bum one), and the fact that he's writing most of the rest of the DCU means that GL always seems particularly plugged into the shared setting. It's one of the DCU-iest DC titles, if that makes any sense.
Justice Society of America I've been reading this for longer than Geoff Johns has been writing it now, when it was first launched by James Robinson as a JLA-like book. The current storyline—all 20 chapters and counting of it—is pretty damn tedious, and I'm not quite convinced that the sequel to Kingdom Come needs to exist nor needs to involve the Justice Society, but this seems like the only competent DC team title at the moment. A writer who gets the characters and seems to be telling his own stories rather than working off a memo from company execs? Check. An artist/s who can draw well, stay on-model, serves the story and know the difference between drawing a comic and drawing three pin-ups per page? Check. A coherent, seemingly long-term plan or direction, rather than a string of event stories alluding to other event stories? Check. I can't say that about JLoA, The Titans, Teen Titans or Batman and The Outsiders. All of which makes JSoA seem like a masterpiece, even if it's just pretty okay most of the time.
The Secret Six Writer Gail Simone sometimes tries a little too hard when it comes to infusing her stories with humor, but there's a lot of humor that's inherent to this group of characters that come across organically, and the Nicola Scott/Doug Hazelwood art team just really know their stuff. I suppose there will come a point where this book might really get on my nerves, as Simone's super-long run on Birds of Prey did in its last year or so, but three issues I'm still liking this and looking forward to the next issue.
Trinity I'm not sure what the right word for this 52-part limited series is...it's going to have a lot more issues than a lot of cancelled series ever get, but it's so big that even the word "maxi-series" doesn't seem quite big enough. Visually, this is probably the strongest of DC's three weekly series. As for the story, it has the same grand scale as 52 and does a lot of the connection-drawing and idea-generating that 52 did so well, although those ideas usually aren't as grand as those in 52. It's almost always a good read though, and I'm going to be sad to see it end, in large part because it's a nice place to read about characters you like whose own books are so bad you can't stand them anymore (For me personally, the JLA, Wonder Woman and Flash, although Trinity also gives plenty of panel-time to book-less second-stringers like John Stewart, Hawkman and Firestorm II). While this won't be around too much longer, a DC weekly of this caliber quality would be exactly the sort of book I'd keep reading in single issues in the event of all $2.99 books becoming $3.99 books (In fact, it might be the only kind of book I'd keep reading then).
Tiny Titans I had no intention of reading more than an issue of this just out of curiosity, but it is really cute and really funny, and my curiosity's been replaced with affection. If it were printed on slicker paper and DC started charging more for it (right now it's only $2.25), I might drop it, but other than that I can't see stopping reading it any time soon.
The Incredible Hercules I'm running out of ways to say how much I dig this book; suffice it to say it's my favorite ongoing monthly super-comic. An issue has yet to pass that I didn't love, I usually laugh out loud—or at least giggle—at least once an issue, and it's solidly entertaining from the recap page through the cliffhanger ending. And as fun as it is, it's not mind-less fun—there's actually stories being told in here, character development and everything. It would probably be possible for me to trade-wait this book, but man, it would be hard.
Avengers: The Initiative The only Marvel Universe Avengers title I'm still reading, having dropped Brian Michael Bendis' New and Mighty books when they stopped having anything at all to do with the Avengers, and became Secret Invasion: Front Line and Brian Michael Bendis' Secret Invasion Outtake-O-Rama. The plots have generally tied in to whatever big things going on in the Marvel Universe at the time—it launched out of Civil War, got involved with World War Hulk, is currently detailing the Secret Invasion hero vs. Skrull war that SI sort of suggests is going on—but writers Dan Slott and Christos Gage manage to tell their own stories using their own sprawling cast of characters using those events as backdrops. So rather than interruptions, the tie-ins seem essential to the plot. This could change when Slott leaves the book, but at the moment The Initiative really feels like the "spine of the Marvel Universe," the only book you really need to read to know what's going on universe-wide.
More importantly, though, it's one of the few super-comics that seems to be adding something to its fictional universe, rather than subtracting things: Slott, Gage and company not only dust off minor Marvels by the handful to use, they are continually inventing new characters to inject into company's expansive character catalogue. There's something terribly exciting about this. It's not just the drama of knowing that Cloud-9 or Trauma could get killed or turn out to be Skrulls or traitors or get married or join religious cults or go to jail for cocaine possession or whatever because the company isn't as heavily invested in them as they are in Iron Man, Spider-Man and Captain America, but the vitality inherent in a stream of new character creation. It gives the sense that the Marvel Universe is still expanding rather than contracting as opposed to the DC Universe, where "new" characters too often means Blue Beetle II or The Question dying so Blue Beelte III and Question II can take over.
Ultimate Spider-Man Sometimes it's hard to believe that the guy who writes all those shitty Avengers comics and crossovers is the same guy who writes this engaging teen melodrama/superhero coming-of-age story, that rare corporate owned superhero comic that does and continues to do everything right in terms of being new reader friendly/potentially appealing to people who don't already read new superhero comics every Wednesday, as they have for the last 10-20 years.
Brian Michael Bendis' bad habit of decompression is sometimes still in full effect with the book (moreso in the first 50 issues than the last 75 or so), but when Mark Bagley was cranking these things out every three weeks, it didn't seem to matter so much. On a few occasions I've been tempted to drop the singles—during weaker arcs like the Deadpool/X-Men crossover and a couple of the Goblin stories, and when Bagley passed the torch to Stuart Immonen—in part because of the book's consistency. After a certain point, it became clear that this would continue to be pretty consistent in terms of quality, and that it would always be collected (a few years ago, that every series would eventually be collected wasn't a certainty, and I think there was a stronger motivation to buy riskier, more random titles like, say, Uncle Sam and The Freedom Fighters or The Omega Men miniseries, because it seemed reasonable that if the monthlies tanked, they wouldn't be trade-collected).
I can never quite bring myself to drop this though, as much as I'd prefer to have a shelf full of it in trade instead of the unwieldly stacks of singles I've amassed of it at this point.
Wolverine First Class God, I hate the X-Men. I've tried and tried to read X-Men comics from all eras and by all kinds of different creators, but it almost always seems like I'm trying to read a book in a different language or something. And yet this is a whole lot of fun, thanks mostly to writer Fred Van Lente following Jeff Parker's X-Men: First Class example of telling short, all-ages stories more concerned with entertaining the reader than winning a theoretical argument over whether comics are serious or mature enough for adults. The wait between trade collections of this title wouldn't necessarily drive me crazy, so this is one I could pretty painlessly stop reading singles of some day, but the done-in-one formula—which all but two stories in the short run have adhered to—makes the single-issue reading experience preferable to a trade.
Marvel Adventures Avengers This title is Marvel's best-kept secret. The line-up is essentially the A-List of Marvel's superheroes—the Avengers as Marvel's JLA—and more often-than-not writer Jeff Parker managed to turn it into a comedy book somewhere along the way. Parker left for a while (and I dropped it for a while), but he's come and gone since, sometimes with Paul Tobin in tow. The last issue was Tobin solo, but Tobin's style is quite close to Parker's.
This would be relatively easy to drop and read in trade—I read the rest of the Marvel Adventures line in trade, as the digests often end up being cheaper than the singles (and are easier to store).
Captain Britain and MI13 I'm on the fence with this title; I've passed it by on a few occasions now, although I go back and get the back issues on slow weeks. I recently dropped Nightwing, Invincible Iron Man, Green Lantern Corps, Runaways and Guardians of the Galaxy; if I need to make any more cuts to my monthly purchases, this one will probably be it. It seems like it will just fine in trade, and while the first two story arcs have been entertaining enough, there’s no real urgency about them.
These are the limited series I’m currently reading in singles: Age of The Sentry, The Twelve, Avengers/Invaders (I hope Ross and company’s next Marvel project is a Twelve/Invaders crossover), Secret Invasion (I really should have known better after House of M; I thought Bendis had changed), Batman: Gotham After Midnight (I’ll read anything by Kelley Jones), Ambush Bug: Year None, Vixen: Return of the Lion, Final Crisis (The most disappointing Grant Morrison comic since his Authority and WildC.A.T.s relaunches!), Final Crisis: Legion of Three Worlds (I’ll read anything by Perez)
And these are the comics with weird schedules I get in singles whenever they come out: All-Star Batman and Robin, The Boy Wonder, Billy Batson and the Magic of Shazam!, Special Forces (Kyle Baker), Rasl, Comic Book Comics, Johnny Hiro, Superior Showcase, Doc Frankenstein and Shaolin Cowboy (Whatever happened to these Burly Man series, by the way…?)