Saturday, August 14, 2010

Some rather rambling thoughts on Action Comics Weekly #601 (and Action Comics Weekly in general)

I was pretty excited to find a big stack of issues of Action Comics Weekly in a fifty-cent bin in a used bookstore.

Well, I’m pretty much always excited to find issues of anything in a fifty-cent bin, but I found this find particularly exciting because it was one of those comics I’ve long been curious about, but never had the opportunity to read (I was…11 and in the fifth grade, and still a few years away from being at all interested in comic books when these were first being published).

Part of the reason I was so curious about the book was simply that it seemed like a lot of very interesting creators, many of whom would go on to still better and bigger things, were involved with its creation.

And part of it was that it was often mentioned as DC’s only real antecedent to the weekly series 52, of which I was a huge fan, and the publisher has of late really dedicated themselves to the weekly format, a format which I think has a lot of virtues for the publisher, given how much of their focus is now on selling comics to weekly readers.

And some small part of it was simply that, as someone who observes the industry rather closely now, I’m always fascinated to see how much it’s changed over the decades.

So as far as I can tell, in 1988, just after Action Comics celebrated the release of its 600th issue, DC radically altered the format of the book. They kept the numbering, but added the word “Weekly” to the title, and then published it on a schedule that reflected the new title. Rather than being the Superman book it had been for decades, it was now an oversized anthology book, with Superman getting just two pages, in this issue at least.

There were five other features, each getting eight pages a piece…which, come to think of it, only adds up to 42 pages, while the cover boasts “48 Pages Every Week.” Huh.

Anyway, after Superman the biggest “name” feature was Green Lantern (Hal Jordan), whose book had just recently been canceled. The other characters in this initial issue were Blackhawk, Deadman, Secret Six and Wild Dog, a then only one-year-old character.

James Owsley and Gil Kane handled Green Lantern, while Roger Stern and Curt Swan did Superman, which meant the two biggest name characters in the book were being drawn by the artists perhaps most associated with them as their defining artists.

As for the other writers and artists involved, Wild Dog creators Max Collins and Terry Beatty handled that strip, Martin Pasko and Dan Spiegle did the Secret Six one, Mike Baron and Dan Jurgens (inked by Tony DeZuniga, a pretty great-looking combination) did Deadman, while the Backhawk strip was by Mike Grell, Rick Burchett and Pablo Marcos.

I’m not sure if Action Comics Weekly was ultimately regarded as a success by DC or not. It lasted some 42 issues, at which point the title returned to a shorter, monthly Superman book. That’s less than a year on the schedule, but still an awful lot of comics.

My first thought when I started reading it was whether or not such a book would be possible today. DC and Marvel’s anthology projects generally sell pretty poorly in the direct market, and neither company seems terribly gung ho about attempting such books on anything other than a short-term, limited basis.

Additionally, this was being sold for just $1.50. In 1988, that was twice the price of a regular issue of a DC super-comic, but you could get it for $2 and still have enough change left over for two games of Ms. Pac-Man. What would a 48-page weekly comic book cost now? If they simply doubled the price, we’d be looking at $5.99, although I think $4.99 would be do-able for DC. At five or six bucks a week though, that sure seems to be asking an awful lot of readers, $20-$24 a month, or somewhere in the neighborhood of $260 or $312 a year. Would that fly with today’s DC customers?

The individual features would change throughout the 42 issues, with the exception of the Superman strip and I think the Green Lantern strip, but I was struck by the fact that only three of the features in the first issue are straightforward superhero stories.

Wild Dog sort of skirts the edges of the superhero genre, but, in this first chapter anyway, seemed more like a crime thriller than anything else. Blackhawk was a war feature, although here it seems to be more of a period adventure strip than superheroics or straightforward war, and I’m not sure what to make of the Secret Six; this feature seems to be transitioning them from the war genre into something espionagey or maybe quasi-superhero…they don’t have the dumb costumes shown on the cover by the time the first story ends.

If DC did attempt a weekly like Action Comics Weekly today, I have to imagine the content would be a lot different. Maybe Superman and Green Lantern would still be around, but I can’t really imagine any of the others from this issue—certainly there wouldn’t be such a new, “young” character as Wild Dog (I can’t even think of a brand-new DCU character not derived from another character that was created in 2009, let alone one that seems primed to carry a solo strip).

Theoretically, I’d like to see DC publish something like this today because, theoretically, I would love to read 48 (or 42; whatever) pages of new DC super-comics every single week, but for the amount of money such a book would cost, it would have to be 48 really great pages, and I don’t have a lot of confidence that they could put together the exact sort of package I personally would like to read…and even if they could, would it be something that could continue to make money for 42 issues, let alone 52? Or more.

Probably not. I think there’s a possible advantage to doing so though, beyond providing me with the sort of comic I’d theoretically like to see. One way in which the market has changed since 1988 is that comics are published not only to be sold as serial comic books, but also as bound collections, so most everything DC publishes is eventually going to be sold to at least two different audiences. And what one of those audiences embraces, another might not.

So an Action Comics Weekly style anthology would provide a way to get enough material to publish trade collections of something that might sell well in trade, but wouldn’t be able to sell enough copies month-to-month to carry an ongoing. Like, imagine Magog trades were beloved by critics, and a big seller to youth library collections, but it wasn’t feasible to publish the monthly because, seriously, who wants a Magog comic book? Well, maybe Magog can’t carry a book, but he can fill eight pages of a weekly anthology long enough to generate the page count necessary for a new trade.

I thought that was the idea of some of DC’s back-ups, like Blue Beetle in Booster Gold, as I know Blue Beetle trades were popular with youth librarians (and then there was the added benefit of publishing something for Hispanic readers to identify with, or younger kids to identify with, or to keep the IP alive while DC tried to sell a live-action TV show, whatever), but the Blue Beetle back-up evaporated, so who knows.

Man, I’m really off track now, aren’t I?

Anyway, Action Comics Weekly—it looks pretty cool, and wouldn’t it be neat if DC could publish something like this today, and if they did, that it turned out awesome? (If this subject fascinates you as it does me, I’d like to hear your thoughts on what features a 2011 Action Comics Weekly should feature, and why).

I wasn’t planning on reviewing every single issue of Action Comics I bought from that fifty-cent bin, despite my habit of compulsively reviewing almost every single comic book I read on my blog, so, in lieu of that, here are some things I noticed about Action Comics Weekly #601.


Blackhawk looks eerily like a tiny little Superman standing on Superman's shoulder in this cover by Dave Gibbons, doesn't he?

By 21st century DC Comics standards, the violence is shocking in how restrained it is. In the Green Lantern strip, Hal Jordan's sometimes girlfriend, sometimes evil villain Carol Ferris/Star Sapphire has come looking for Hal to do him in, but the only one home is Katma Tui, so she gets killed—"hacked to pieces," in John Stewart's words—instead.

This was a good half-dozen years or so before the murder of Green Lantern Kyle Rayner's girlfriend, the event from which we got the term "women in refrigerators," but this is certainly an example of a character being "fridged,' or killed to provide a little tragedy to motivate the protagonist. It's the sort of thing we've seen waaayyyy to frequently in DC super-comics over the past decade or so, but I can't imagine such a scene being presented like this today. Where's the blood? Where's the gore? Where are the torn-off clothes? The bone shards? The organs?

This is a scene in which a character gets brutally murdered, but it's as if the murder is being presented as merely a plot point to move the story forward, rather than something to provide sensational, gross-out imagery.


Also, note how much Star Sapphire's costume has changed in the past 20 years:

I was most surprised by the Superman strip, which I didn't realize was only two pages long until I actually read an issue of the series. Not only is it very short, but it's laid out so that the two-page spread functions as a single, uninterrupted lay-out. You can't tell from the terrible, just-there-because-I-ran-images-to-illustrate-my-other-observations scan there, but there are three tiers of panels, all of which read right to left horizontally, just as the title of the strip does, ignoring the gutter.

Due to the short length and the somewhat unusual use of the space, this actually ended up reminding me quite a bit of Wednesday Comics, where each strip was give a single, huge page every week (although the number of panels varied from strip to strip, so in effect those single pages could be anywhere form one to four pages worth of "normal" comics).

I understand the Superman strip was an attempt to homage or at least replicate the feel of old Superman newspaper strips, so I guess Stern and Swan's strip here was drawing inspiration from the same place that Wednesday Comics was, but it's sort of neat to see a kind of quasi-proto-Wednesday Comics strip in a DC weekly from over 20 years ago.

Wow, look at all those words! I'm not sure exactly what Mike Gold is talking about in the ten thousand or so words of his that fill the space which will, presumably, feature letters from readers in later issues. I'm not sure, because I hate to read words that aren't in dialogue bubbles or little yellow boxes floating along the top of comic book panels.

I skimmed it though, and I believe he's talking about the new format of the book and introducing the various features and creators.

In those pre-Internet days, I guess it made sense that editors had to take advantage of such pages in comics to communicate to readers and fans, but that looks like a book's worth of words compared to what you find in the back of DC comics today (I should note that the above is the first of two-pages from Gold talking about...whatever he's talking about. Comics, probably). What's the average length of a DC Nation column, do you think? 250 words, if that? Heck, they don't even have "Next Issue" boxes in DC comics any more...

After reading one whole issue of Action Comics Weekly, my favorite features so far is the Blackhawk one, based on the smooth, clean artwork and the leisurely, not-much-like-anything-else-in-the-comic story. Also, one-eighth of it is devoted to Blackhawk being a comics critic.


Ha ha, I used the prefix "quasi-" twice in a single post. Man, I suck...

So, those were some thoughts on ACW #601; thoughts on future issues to appear here in the future.


frinklin said...

The Blackhawk series in ACW, followed by the ongoing later on, is some of the best stuff DC has done in 30 years. It's fun stuff.

Adam said...

James Owsley (who changed his writing credit to Christopher Priest) has stated he regrets killing off Katma Tui, but it was editorially mandated. That said, his stories in ACW are pretty good and deliver a prequel of sorts to his extremely fun and readable Green Lantern: Sleepers trilogy (of novels, not comics). And of course, Priest was the brainchild behind Green Lantern: Emerald Dawn, which was a phenomenal post-crisis origin story. IMO. (However, Priest's REAL claim to fame is his Black Panther series.)

In a few issues, Titans writer Marv Wolfman presents a truly fun Nightwing/Speedy team-up. You also see some fantastic Black Canary and Catwoman tales as well. ACW was a real treat in its day.

Which brings me to the most disappointing line in your entry - the fact that as a 5th grader, you were far from interested in reading comicbooks. Seriously?!? I think this is the problem with modern-day books. They're not written for "the intelligent 14 year-old" as Grant Morrison once claimed as the ideal target. Instead, they're written for 30-something man-children who are just salivating for plastic rings and hundreds of action figures.

I read my first comic at age 5 (a Star Wars mag in 1977), and have been a fan ever since. My "fanboyish" days were easily from 5th grade through 12th grade when I drew pictures of superheroes, played superhero RPGs, and debated with my friends about "character x" vs. "character y." During my college years, I started to realize popularity and hype did not amount to stellar storytelling and following "favorite characters" led nowhere. These days? I only read a handful of books and annually cull my collection of unwanted material.

I'm happy to say the entire run of Action Comics Weekly is still in one of my longboxes.

Randal said...

Action sure was an experimental little thing for a couple years. It took over the DC Comics Presents role of Superman team-ups after the Byrne reboot, then it turned into Weekly (both iterations I absolutely loved). That was certainly a fun time to read Superman books.

Caleb said...

I had no idea James Owsley and Christopher Priest were the same person. I loved The Ray, Justice League Task Force and what little of his BP of his I've read,

Which brings me to the most disappointing line in your entry - the fact that as a 5th grader, you were far from interested in reading comicbooks. Seriously?!?

Yeah. I probably would have been into Marvel's G.I. Joe comics at the time, but I wasn't really interested in superheroes at the time, as they seemed like something I had just grown out of (I was into the Super Friends series from the '80s..."Galactic Powers" or "Super Powers Team" or somesuch...but when they stopped making that, super heroes fell off my radar).

It wasn't untill Batman '89 told Young Caleb that Batman was actually kind of cool that I tried out some Batman comics, and Batman was my gateway superhero (I have a post about my "secret origin" as a reader somewhere in my archives, but DC/TSR's Advanced Dungeons & Dragons was my first comic, and that, Sandman and the Mirage Turtles eventually got me hooked on comics in general.

Oh, wait a second, I should probably look that up you go, if you want to read a ten million word version of the above paragraph:

Diabolu Frank said...

Some Points:

1) I suspect with John Byrne leaving Action Comics, and their superstar talent spread out amongst the DC icon reboots, the weekly format was a bold move to keep readers through content.

2) Green Lantern Corps was an idiosyncrasy team book in its final two years, and suffered from middling sales for some time prior to that. As I recall, the book was canceled in part to reinstate Hal Jordan as the Green Lantern, as well as to anchor Action Weekly with a true headliner.

3) Blackhawk was a continuation of Howard Chaykin's mature readers prestige mini-series, which followed the group's post-war adventures and put the lie to "legends" from the old comics. For instance, "Chop-Chop" was the handsome brains of the team, not an obscenely racist Chinese caricature. It was the underrated Marty Pasko who wrote the series.

4) Wild Dog was one of those book conservative DC had misgivings about publishing, but had a vocal enough following to rate inclusion.

5) The Superman strip was a sort of consolation prize to Curt Swan, and kept Big Blue present in a small way.

6) Deadman was also coming off a well-received but modest selling mini-series, thanks more to artist Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez than the character himself. Still, he was commercial enough for the anthology.

7) Secret Six was pure trademark maintenance.

8) Action Comics Weekly sold decently, but the effort to produce the thing was greater than the publisher felt it was worth, especially since George Perez became available to return the title to a solo Superman book.

Martin Gray said...

I remember being excited by the idea of ACW but not so much by the features. Any book with Wild Dog in it was onto a loser, and only two pages of my guy Superman?

I dropped it with the Katma killing, which, as you say, was a hymn to subtlety by today's standards. It made Carol Ferris a tad radioactive to me, as if the costume wasn't enough (though I love Gil Kane's original design, with Carol looking as if she ought to be selling cigarettes in a nightclub).

ACW was the first place I came across Oprah Winfrey, when she guested in the GL strip.

I love those old text pages - talk about added value. The DC Nation pages are a waste of space, there's never anything sybstantial.

Backseat editing time ... I'd try a modern ACW with: Night Force, Amethyst, Nathaniel Dusk, Chase, 'Mazing Man and Arak. Hmm, that doesn't actually sound very 'today', does it?