"Justice League": Exploring How Superman Returns (Again)
Film, Comic Books
The mythologies built by comics, particularly superhero comics, is often pointed out as one of the great accomplishments of the medium.
There’s no doubt the Marvel and DC universes are impressive feats of world-building. In Marvel Comics: The Untold Story, Sean Howe proclaimed the Marvel Universe “the most intricate fictional narrative in the history of the world”. If you discount DC because of its various universe resets from Crises and Flashpoints and what-have-yous, I guess that’s true. Whoever gets to wear the crown, both sets of characters have been generating dozens of stories, usually hundreds of stories, every month since the late 1930s. Erik Larsen’s Savage Dragon universe might be in third place.
Of course, superhero comics aren’t alone in this: In Japan, popular manga series also tend to get pretty long in the tooth. Osamu Akimoto’s police comedy Kochikame has been running weekly since 1976, resulting in more than 1,700 chapters collected in nearly 200 volumes. Takao Saito’s twice-monthly crime manga Golgo 13 is older, having launched in 1969. One Piece has 69 volumes, Naruto has 64, and Bleach 58.
These are amazing accomplishments, but we don’t appreciate the satisfying arc of a finite story often enough.
In case you thought it was only comics that unnecessarily sexed up female characters, fear not: It happens in all media — and the newest guilty party is Disney.
On Saturday, the studio inducted Merida of the Pixar film Brave as the 11th Disney Princess. More accurately, it inducted some alternate-reality Merida who’s thinner, wears her dress off her shoulder and exposes more cleavage. A redesign of the character appeared on the corporation’s website in advance of the induction at Disney World, and faster than you can say “Wonder Woman’s pants,” someone launched a Change.org petition, which is now approaching 200,000 signatures. Disney removed the images of the redesigned Merida, not that it matters; the Internet never forgets.
I’m being somewhat flip about this but the whole thing is kind of amazing. I loved Brave, and thought it was the animated-princess story that was so overdue. It was so refreshing to watch an animated movie that stepped away from cliches to give us a female lead who isn’t pining after a man, can skillfully defend herself, and looks and acts reasonably like a girl approximately her age. And it not once felt like an agenda movie. Really, it’s pretty stupid that these kinds of characteristics feel like such a breath of fresh air.
Two to three years ago, it seemed inevitable: Single issue comic books, derisively called “floppies,” were on the way out. Graphic novels were the future for most publishers, and floppies weren’t even working as loss-leaders. But over the past year, the single issue is on the rebound and flourishing.
While I love graphic novels, the episodic consumption of comics is one of its unique strengths. Comics can excel in either form, but they aren’t interchangeable. Just as TV shows and movies present stories differently, so too do comic book series and original graphic novels. For a time, it seemed like The Walking Dead was the last great monthly comic book because it knew how to grab with the first issue, it knew how to use the monthly cliffhanger, it knew how to utilize those 30-some odd pages, it knew how to keep the status quo shifting. It still does, and now it’s being joined by more and more comics that are embracing the episodic nature of the format. It wasn’t always that way, though, in part due to creative patterns and economic changes in the industry.
In 2010, only an estimated 69 million comic books were ordered by North American specialty stores, the lowest quantity in nearly a decade. For publishers not backed by large entertainment corporations (i.e., not Marvel and DC), single issues were starting to look like the next horse and buggy, something from a soon-to-be bygone era.
I’m totally digging Valiant Entertainment’s comics right now. When I met a couple of the guys from the company at the recent Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, they were extremely friendly and generous, especially considering I showed up at their table as the event was shutting down for the day. I stocked up on their books and have been diving in ever since: X-O Manowar was great fun; I’m halfway through Harbinger, and it’s even better; and I’m really looking forward to Archer & Armstrong, which had a funny and clever first issue I read on comiXology. Fantasy world-building is one of those things comics can really excel in, as evidenced by the Marvel and DC universes, so it’s always exciting when a new one comes along that does it so well.
However, I have some concerns about some things I’ve read. In case you don’t know, these current Valiant titles are relaunched versions of the series published in the ’90s by Valiant Comics. That company was very successful and was eventually bought by the video game company Acclaim Entertainment, which went bankrupt soon after, taking Valiant down with it. A number of years passed until a new company called Valiant Entertainment purchased all of the original properties, and began bringing them back to life. Sounds like a happy ending, and it mostly is — but there are a couple of red flags.
Before I get into all of this, though, it’s important to note that Valiant Entertainment has done nothing legally wrong. I’m not a lawyer, but as far as I know, the company is under no legal obligations to change its actions. That said, there’s a lot of goodwill capital to be gained by doing right by the creators of the original properties.
Here’s Mark Millar explaining why he doesn’t want his creator-owned comics to be released in digital the same day as print:
Digital comics are like TV rights to me in that they’re the tertiary phase of all this. These are for the most casual, mainstream readers or viewers and much cheaper than the primary or secondary waves. They’re a great way of pulling people in for the next product coming out in theatres or in comic stores, but absolutely not the bedrock of your business. The fact they’re not on paper doesn’t matter as these guys aren’t collectors as such and the lower price point is very attractive to them.
That was in November 2011, when same-day release of digital comics was still something of a novelty. Now it is so commonplace that, as Rich Johnston noted, Twitter was full of confused readers last week who couldn’t figure out why the first issue of Millar and Frank Quitely’s new series Jupiter’s Legacy wasn’t available digitally.
You can’t fault Millar for not being able to see the future. It’s pretty counterintuitive to think that sales in the direct market would go up in tandem with the rise of digital media, but that’s exactly what has happened. There’s zero evidence that digital sales are hurting comics shops.
What really bugs me about Millar’s comment, though, is that he seems to be giving the back of his hand to readers who get their comics digitally. Someone should tell him there’s a large audience out there that’s fully engaged, to the point where they are willing to pay full cover price for digital comics in order to get them the day the print editions come out. Those fans seem to me to be precisely “the bedrock of the business.”
I won’t pay $3.99 for a single-issue digital comic, but there is apparently a substantial audience out there who will. Publishers and digital distributors aren’t in the business of losing money, and they wouldn’t maintain that full cover price if people weren’t paying it. Someone who will pay top dollar to get a comic right away, rather than wait a couple of months for the price to drop? That’s an engaged fan.
Are you getting excited? New teasers and trailers are being released almost every day now. The countdown to Summer Movie Season is officially on, and the big blockbusters adapting comics are looking promising. Iron Man 3 has an armada of armors flying around; can’t really go wrong there. The Wolverine has ninjas as far as the eye can see. And the bearded and brooding Man of Steel might even end up being good. Throw in a little Kick-Ass 2 and RED 2, sprinkle with R.I.P.D. and 300: Rise of an Empire, and top it off with 2 Guns, and you’ve got yourself one fun summer.
While we still get clunkers, the ratio of good to suck has definitely improved. It used to be that the old chestnut response to a movie adapted from a novel could be more often than not applied to movies adapted from comics: The book was better. And it’s often still true. But there are times when the movies do it better than comics, and while that’s great for the filmmakers and audiences, in a way it’s an indictment on the comics-makers.
Comics offer more boundless creativity than almost any medium. With comics, there’s no studio executive, no creation-by-committee made up of shareholders and board members with less experience creating and telling stories than their companies’ interns. It’s why Tony Stark being an alcoholic doesn’t fly with Disney and was removed from Iron Man 3. Comics can still include collaboration and compromise but they can just as easily be the result of a single voice. Even with the most heavy-handed editorially mandated comics, they’re still created by a fraction of people needed to make a Hollywood movie. Comics are generally more spontaneous, imaginative and clever than most major studio movies. But sometimes, Hollywood gets the jump on comics.
Every year, the Eisner Awards present a snapshot of the most significant comic books released in print and online. In 2013, the Oscars of Comics reflect a shift with the level of diversity possibly unprecedented in American comics.
As has been noted, Tuesday’s Eisner nominations have a remarkable number of nods to literary comics house Fantagraphics and creator-owned comics publisher Image, and a scarcity for Marvel and DC Comics, despite their majority hold on market share. The dominant genre of that same market has long been superheroes, but for the first time, there are hardly any superhero comics recognized by the Eisner judges. The notable exception is Marvel’s Hawkeye, which is tied with two other non-superhero books for most nominations. Despite Hawkeye‘s strong showing, the majority of nominated works are in the genres of drama, slice-of-life, humor and non-fiction, with a decent percentage of adventure, crime, fantasy and science fiction.
Hawkeye isn’t the only superhero title among the nominees: Chris Samnee’s work on Daredevil and The Rocketeer: Cargo of Doom earned him a Best Penciler/Inker nod. J.H. Williams III and Dave Stewart were nominated for Best Cover Artist and Coloring, respectively, for what they created in Batwoman, although Stewart’s is also for six other non-superhero books. Finally, Paul Grist was nominated for Best Lettering for Mudman, and IDW Publishing’s Daredevil Born Again: Artist’s Edition was nominated for Best Archival Collection and Best Design. So all told, there are only about a half dozen superhero comics that are Eisner-worthy enough to stand out from the pack.
This week’s new comic book releases included such noteworthy publications as the final issue of Paul Cornell and Ryan Kelly’s drama based on UFO folklore, Saucer Country, the latest installment of Marvel’s line-wide crossover-event series Age of Ultron, the one-issue return of some of Marvel’s fan-favorite Runaways characters in the tie-in Ultron #1, the latest issue of the best superhero comic book on the stands, Hawkeye, and the final issue of the Mark Millar-written comic-as-movie pitch series Secret Service, maybe better known as “What Dave Gibbons has Been Up to While DC Published Before Watchmen.” And those were just the serially published comic book-comics.
The comic I heard the most about this week by far, however, was Saga #12, the latest chapter in Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples’ deservedly popular space fantas. And the reasons this particular issue was so talked about? Early in the week it seemed as Apple had rejected it for distribution for a couple of images of gay sex (although Wednesday afternoon, comiXology CEO David Steinberger said the move was actually due to his company’s mistaken interpretation of Apple policy).
I’m a somewhat-casual consumer of comics news these days, and yet I encountered iterations of this story over and over this week. And in the time between the story’s initial reporting and Steinberger’s clarification, I’ve seen stories on numerous comics news sites and the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund’s blog. A Google News search for “Saga #12″ and “Apple” brings up 9,370 results, the top two being for The Washington Post and NPR, so obviously the mainstream media bit on the story as well.
Having actually read the comic book, though, the content that earned the mistaken, temporary pre-banning was so small and inconsequential, I probably would have missed it. (Note: Some images below may be not safe for work.)
The National Coalition Against Censorship has written to Lee Ann Lowder, deputy counsel for the Board of Education of Chicago, questioning the school district’s authority to remove Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis from seventh-grade classrooms. The letter is signed by NCAC Executive Director Joan Bertin and Comic Book Legal Defense Fund Executive Director Charles Brownstein, as well as representatives from PEN American Center, the National Council of Teachers of English, and other organizations. I don’t usually find myself on the opposite side of an issue from these folks, but my own opinion is that this case has been overblown.
Here’s the backstory: On March 14, employees showed up at Chicago’s Lane Tech to physically remove Persepolis from classrooms and the library and ensure no one had checked out any copies. This seemed sinister, to say the least, and word spread literally overnight. As parents planned a protest on March 15, Chicago Public Schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett backtracked and said the book was to be removed from seventh-grade classrooms but not from school libraries. Byrd-Bennett said the district would develop guidelines for teaching the book to juniors and seniors, and possibly in grades eight through 10 as well, but it’s not clear whether the books also were removed from those classrooms.
I think the issue here is really not the removal of Persepolis but rather the way the Chicago Public Schools handled it.
Is the goal for comics to become a mainstream form of entertainment an unattainable goal? That seemed to be the angle Tom Spurgeon took on Monday’s Deconstructing Comics podcast and in his additional commentary at The Comics Reporter. He feels the industry is better served by regaining a few hundred thousand more devoted readers to restore unit sales to mid-six-figure levels. While comics have shown there is longevity in niche markets, that doesn’t eliminate the possibility of also attaining a larger readership.
With March’s estimated direct market sales figures showing yet another double-digit month of growth, manga publishers giving anecdotal reports of the manga market stabilizing, and something of a convention boom going on, there’s no better time than now to re-examine how comics can secure a healthy and vibrant future. Taking advantage of this growth is tricky because, as Spurgeon mentions, no one is exactly sure why the turnaround happened. Although people complain about DC Comics’ New 52 being a mess and Marvel crossovers not having the punch of the Civil War days, overall sales are rebounding. Was it digital comics? Was it the mainstream press for the New 52 or Marvel NOW, or some other stunt? Is it the Hollywood movies?
A couple of weeks ago, I posted some thoughts by Chuck Austen about moving on from a project that didn’t go well — in this case, his graphic novel trilogy Boys of Summer, which was to be published by Tokyopop but was only given a limited release in the United States. (Chuck talked to me in detail about the experience in a 2011 interview at CBR.)
Shortly after the post ran, Tokyopop CEO Stu Levy asked me if he could post a response. It seemed to be the fair thing to do, so here is what he has to say (and as with Chuck’s, I’ll add that what follows is his words, not mine):
In response to Chuck Austen’s March 18, 2013 article on CBR
I respect the right of free speech and firmly believe that people should be able to express their opinions online, in a public forum. While I don’t enjoy negativity directed at me, it’s an inevitable part of working in the media industry. In fact, I learn a lot from the constructive criticism that I read online.
However, I do not believe it’s appropriate or permissible for someone to outrageously distort the truth. Unfortunately, that’s what Chuck Austen has done.
Whether WonderCon stays in Anaheim is still up in the air, but no doubt it’s already becoming a favorite event for Southern California. Year Two already appears exponentially more successful than last year, when WonderCon first took up residence in Disney Town.
Three-day badges and badges for Friday and Saturday sold out early, when last year you could easily do a walk-up on any day. The fast acceptance of WonderCon is at least in part due to those burned out on Comic-Con International or frustrated at the five-second sellout looking for a local alternative. It’s not just a good substitute, it’s a great convention. It also had the first big comics announcements of the year to kick off convention season. Looking through coverage here at Comic Book Resources and beyond, there were plenty of things that ranged from boring to intriguing to exciting, but three stood head and shoulders above the rest because of their potential to appeal to larger audiences.
With comics sales on the rise, these publishing moves not only do their part in boosting momentum but in helping the gradual shift of social perception of the comics form. Comics like these always excite me because it’s a reminder of the unique reach comics can have in grabbing people’s attention when the right pieces are in place. More and more these days, there are comics for anyone and when innovative thinking is applied as it is here, they stand a better chance in reaching people that don’t make it a habit of seeking out comics. Of course, comics have long had a problem getting these kinds of things right, so as we’ll see there are challenges, but the potential is exciting.
Apparently we misunderstood: The New 52 doesn’t refer to the number of titles DC Comics publishes each month but rather the number of times each title changes creative hands. That’s what it seems like sometimes, what with firings by email, quitting on Twitter, rehirings and more. The general impression from behind-the-scenes tales is that the New 52 is in chaos. However, the end product might suggest DC is actually somewhat holding it together.
Creative changes are nothing new; turnover is inevitable. The key is how that turnover is managed. The ideal is to have a long and satisfying run by a cohesive team smoothly transitioning to a new team. Lord knows that doesn’t always happen, and we’ve certainly been hearing about it not happening recently.
With all of the news of creators coming and going, or going before they even get there, it’s easy to get distracted from the results of the finished product. So, I decided to take a look at a sampling of DC’s New 52, from its launch in late summer 2011 to today, and see how the stability of various titles was affected by creative changes. For my survey, I looked at the Justice League family of books, which includes the flagship Justice League, as well as Wonder Woman, Aquaman, Green Arrow and others generally associated with the JLA that haven’t had a big Hollywood movie.
“I want to remind readers of this column that all the Marvel NOW! launches are going strong — none have been canceled or RE-relaunched in a whole new direction after 3 or 4 issues — which is a testament to the talent and coordinated effort of our writers, artists and editors,” Marvel’s Axel Alonso said in last week’s Axel-in-Charge column. Yeah, it’s another trademark swipe by Marvel at its competition, but he isn’t wrong. Putting aside the snarkiness, there’s something to be said for a.) making a plan and sticking with it, b.) having faith in the choices you made, and c.) not undermining your creators and your fans with sudden shifts in creative teams.
I of course have no insight into how things are really being run at DC. But from an outsider’s perspective, it feels like its editorial strategy is inspired by the likes of The Hunger Games and Battle Royale. Every man for himself, blink once and they’re gone, blink twice and their replacement is gone. On the day DC announced the new new writers for the Green Lantern books, I remember seeing a tweet that said something like, “Oh, I figured they wouldn’t announce the new writers until [next weekend’s] WonderCon.” My first thought? Just wait — maybe they will.
The U.K. comics community has been getting its knickers in a twist over the whole Ian Gibson/Bristol Comic Expo “nude Halo Jones” saga. Twitter and Facebook completely blew up over it Thursday morning, with the usual mix of knee-jerk condemnation and some occasional voices of reason rising above the din.
Some sterling detective work by Paul Holden revealed that the image at the center of the dispute wasn’t even originally Halo Jones, but a character from Gibson’s long-gestating LifeBoat strip. I’m glad, because some of the criticism on the matter sailed too close to being personal attacks on Gibson, which made me uncomfortable for a number of reasons. For starters, “The Ballad of Halo Jones” is a longtime cause celebre for those arguing for creators’ rights within the United Kingdom, especially in the matter of how oppressive the old status quo of IPC and DC Thomson could be.
Gibson is the co-creator of Halo, but sees little to no financial reward from (current owner of 2000AD) Rebellion’s continuing exploitation of the character. If Gibson were to somehow try and monetize his history with the character by working on commissions or selling limited-edition prints featuring the strip’s cast, would that be such a bad thing? The perspective of fans and publishers on such issues is radically different: After all, Marvel sued Ghost Rider co-creator Mike Friedrich for a similar matter. Besides, the Bristol Expo website makes it clear that all these limited-edition prints are being sold for charity.