Sunday, June 23, 2013

Ugly American #33 – Valiant!

I’m going to talk about Valiant this week because I love nearly everything about nearly everything they publish. For some reason, I never seem to get around to explaining why. Time to rectify that.

Part of the problem is that Valiant isn’t doing anything revolutionary. They are not changing the way we think about comics. They are instead honoring a time when comics worked better, made a great deal more sense, and gave you value for money. All good things, but they don’t necessarily beg for a billboard. What's your headline? “Valiant: Hey, these comics won’t make you super pissed when you’re done”. Huh….maybe that is revolutionary in 2013. I don’t know.

None of the books are Diamond 300 standouts, either. Looking at the latest data, Harbinger Wars # 2 is the highest at #144, with Bloodshot bringing up the rear at # 192. The rest of the stable settles in between # 159 and # 174, most of them less than 1,000 issues apart. At those levels, these comics are not particularly profitable. Robust trade and digital sales might help, and I think Valiant customers are a little more staunch, and that makes Valiant titles a little less susceptible to attrition.

Still, the natural laws of comic book physics tell us that all things being equal, sales go down over time, not up. Given where Valiant readership is now, it’s difficult to imagine these titles being around two years from now.

That would be a shame, because the Valiant books operate as a kind of superhero “how to” manual. If there were some mythical creature out there looking to try some superhero comics, but were a bit daunted by the continuity baggage of the Big Two, this is exactly where I’d send them. I’ll put one caveat on that – one unifying attribute of the Valiant books is that they’re all smart, and they all trade in adult themes. When I say adult, I don’t mean swears and crotch shots. I’m talking about looking at the world in a sophisticated manner without a safety net.

You don’t give these books to ten year-olds, is what I’m getting at. But a fifteen year-old with a brain? Yes, ma’am. Do give that person Harbinger (my favorite title in the line) and let it rip!

So what can one of these clever and sophisticated readers expect find in the Valiant books? Here’s a couple of things that came to mind, all pulled from the handful of comics I read on Wednesday

Bloodshot’s Face Came Off

In Bloodshot # 11, Toyo Harada takes his face clean off. This is both profoundly violent and delightfully absurd. Bloodshot of course can withstand an attack like that, because his blood is loaded with healing nanites. Like Wolverine or Deadpool, you say to yourself? No, way better than that.

Unlike a lot of other comics, things make a little more sense in the Valiant universe. Rumor has it that back in the day Jim Shooter demanded that all the powers be based in some kind of science. I don’t know if the new regime still has that edict in place or not, but I can tell you that Bloodshot’s nanites can’t build new material out of nothing. They need amino acids and protein to construct the new flesh.

So Bloodshot can grow himself a new face, but he needs to eat a lot of meat to do it. It’s restricting, but it makes sense and that rule has provided a lot of fun over the issues. Sometimes he has to attack cows on the roadside. I’m pretty sure that he munched one of his arms a couple of issues ago to shore up the rest of his physique. Crazy, surreal stuff, but it makes sense in a comic book sort of way.

Bloodshot is elegant in its brutality, rivaled only by Luther Strode, in my opinion. If you want violence unfiltered with no apologies, this is the place to be. He’s a military tool constructed to deal with multiple psiots, the most powerful people on the planet. There will be blood, ‘kay?

Remember When Crossover Meant Exciting?

Bloodshot is squaring off against Harada because of Harbinger Wars, New Valiant’s first crossover event. The twist here is that this actually makes sense, and the event is being used to propel stories forward, not cram pages with characters behaving oddly until everything goes back to normal.

So here’s the down and dirty – psiots are rare folks born with latent potential for super powers. Chief among them is Toyo Harada. He’s got a plan to usher in a golden new age, and he’s going to do so by cultivating and controlling more psiots via the Harbinger foundation. Pete Stancheck and his group are renegade psiots uncomfortable with Harada’s vision and heavy hand. Then you have the US government, who are also trying to develop their own weaponized psiots in Project Rising Spirit. They control and terrorize these children with Bloodshot. Bloodshot was also the victim of some aggressive brainwashing. He’s getting better, though.

These forces will naturally collide. Toyo will never stop hounding Pete, because Pete’s very powerful and has a knack for activating psiots. The activation process kills most subjects, but not when Stanchek does it. (still quite traumatic, though) Kris is interested in recruiting more psiots away from Harada, so PRS represents a major coup for the Harbinger kids. Bloodshot is trying to get to the bottom of who he actually is, and that means returning to Project Rising Spirit, and that means meeting up with the ultra-powerful kids he doesn’t remember killing and torturing.

That’s a powderkeg. That’s how a guy gets his face ripped off. Really, when you consider the magnitude of power Toyo Harada has at his disposal, it’s amazing that Bloodshot survived at all. That’s accounted for inside the story. I won’t ruin anything, but Swiercynzski demonstrates how Bloodshot, his nanites, and his programming are designed to counter him in a way that makes solid comic book sense.

Actions Have Consequences

In Valiant books, actions have consequences. If you buck PRS, they are coming after you with prejudice. If you tangle with Toyo Harada, say goodbye to your face and call yourself lucky. Kids who grow up in PRS compounds have significant emotional damage that affects their behavior and decision-making. Pete Stanchek did some exceptionally questionable stuff to Kris early in Harbinger, and we’re still healing from that in issue #12.

In most comic books, nothing seems to matter. In the Valiant universe, there are ripples to be dealt with everywhere. In X-O Manowar #13, Aric picks himself up off the mat in true Hulk Hogan fashion, retrieves Shanhara and proceeds to use that armor to whip some serious Vine ass in resplendent splash pagey glory. Right on their home court, too.

But when he gets done with that, the Vine priest who considers him something of a messiah hits him with this revelation:

You may be pretty pleased with yourself, and you may even be able to get your Visigoths off this rock….but we’ve got a bevy of slave races on this planet, and what you’ve done has just now sentenced them all to death, buddy.

I live for that kind of thing. I like the fact that the priest is sticking by Aric, even though he has to be disgusted by him. If you have faith in something, and the portents point to this unevolved beast, well, you don’t ask God questions. He survived the bonding process with Shanhara where generations of your people failed. And I adore the fact the larger world is intruding on Aric’s limited plans.

Ultimately, I think that’s what we’re really looking for in great storytelling, the illusion that we are peering inside the remarkable happenings of a larger world. It’s why a piece of me aggressively rejects stories like, oh, the latest Abrams Star Trek movie.

There is no sense that you’re a fly on the wall watching those characters react naturally to their surroundings. Everything is quite forcibly jammed into the conceit of the characters, whether it makes a lick of sense or not. Why did Bones stick that tribble with Khan’s blood? Because it made sense to do that? Or did he do it because we all know he’s going to need it in the third act to bring Kirk back, and also “hey kids, remember tribbles?”

Essentially, what Khan’s blood represents is the end of all disease, and probably death. This would represent the greatest human achievement in ever. Bigger than space travel, folks. Do any of the characters even acknowledge this momentous sea change in human history? No, they do not. Because the point isn’t about the world, the point is “how do you get Kirk back in the captain’s chair of the Enterprise?” Once he’s back in the chair, the rest doesn’t matter. The discovery of human immortality doesn’t matter in that story as much as that particular dude doing things we remember William Shatner doing. That kind of storytelling can be entertaining, but it has nothing to say to us as human beings. It has no spiritual nutrients.

Robert Venditi is packing X-O Manowar with plenty of consequences and spiritual nutrients. Vengeance feels good, but watch who you’re stepping on. Violence has costs. Faith has costs. All of the Valiant books do this to one degree or another. Valiant is not interested in the status quo. Valiant is interested in that magical question that Steve Gerber used to ask all the time. What happens if……?

There is no baseline that the Valiant line is committed to re-setting to. The underlying bedrock principle seems to be placing interesting characters inside a living environment and then playing out situations naturally. Even if superheroes are “not your thing”, I think it makes sense to give the Valiant books a whirl. They’re just smarter, and better.

It’s All About Character

I’m particularly impressed with Harbinger. If you remember, it placed #7 on my Top 10 for 2012, and barring some major weirdness, it’s going to place much higher this year. I had lots to say about Joshua Dysart’s character work, which is extraordinary, but I’m running long here.

Let me just share this - I didn’t like Torque in the old Harbinger book, and I’m not in love with the new one, either. He’s a bit of a “broheim”, which just rankles me on an epic level. These are the idiots that stuffed my head in toilets during high school, and I will simply not forgive that. Torque’s bravado is all an act, of course. He’s really just a young bumpkin who’s been crippled his whole life, and developed an elaborate fantasy of wish-fulfillment to compensate for being cooped up in a shack for his entire young life.

When Pete activates him, he’s able to turn all that wish-fulfillment into powerhouse physical reality, and he becomes Torque. Since that time, he’s been constantly under attack and way out of his league, and well….he’s just a kid. So Dysart packs him in a room with a bunch of other psychologically scarred psiots, and there’s where you get your classic Valiant “What if” moment. What if we packed a bunch of hyper-powerful kids with no social skills together into a Vegas convention center?

Well, what happens is that Torque is looking to finally flirt with an actual girl, in this case a psiot named Telic, who can sort of read the future like she’s peering into the Matrix code. She can sense that he’s about to do something that will put her out of her comfort zone and warns him off. But Torque is just a teenage kid, so he doesn’t even know what he’s going to do. So when he tries to get Telic to dance with him, he puts his hands on her and all hell breaks loose.

Enter Pete:

I still don’t really like Torque…but I’m really starting to feel for him. He’s just a kid, and he’s been through too much. And that’s life. And that’s Valiant.

I also heartily endorse X-O Manowar and Bloodshot. If you’re a fuzzy bunny, Archer & Armstrong is your new favorite comic book. You’re welcome. I hope these comics are around for awhile, but I’d rather not hope. I’d rather get a bunch of you on board, because you’ll love them and they need to survive.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Ugly American # 32: Fabulous Killjoys # 1 Review!

Script: Gerard Way/Shaun Simon
Pencils: Becky Cloonan
Colors: Dan Jackson
Letters: Nate Peikos
Gerard Way is probably best known to readers of this column as the creator of the precociously delightful Umbrella Academy. Everybody else in the world probably knows Way best as the front man for My Chemical Romance. His co-scripter Shaun Simon is also a musician, which makes sense. The most important element you need to understand about The Fabulous Killjoys is that it isn’t prose fiction fused with pictures, but lyrical poetry.

The plot is fairly straightforward, well-trodden, and steeped in the usual trappings of dystopian futures. Life in Battery City is grim and choked by the greed of the BL/ind corporation. Citizens and rebels are either killed to fill quotas or converted to Scarecrows and bent to the cause with mind-altering masks.

Regular folks are murdered for having their headphones on too loud, and Porno Droids are forced to purchase increasingly inferior battery charges at ever escalating prices. Nobody is out of BLIs reach. Around any corner, the Draculoids are there waiting to effectively suck the life out of everything.

Outside are the denizens of the Desert, where freedom comes at a price. You never know where your next meal is coming from, and you have to remain on constant alert just to stay alive. Once upon a time there was hope in the form of The Fabulous Killjoys, but they were lost in battle. They traveled with a little girl – a little girl some believed to be some kind of messiah.

This comic is the story of that little girl, still un-named at the conclusion of the first issue.

The story is told over a bed of lyrics put down by renegade DJs, broadcasting when they can to give hope to the remnant fighting BLI. I think those scat messages are a good barometer for the book as whole:

“Empty Spaces. Lost Traces. Battery City Races. Getting taller as our desert – smaller. Dreams. Visions. Suicide missions. Anniversaries are lies if we forget why the confetti flies.”

It’s a little over-the-top, for sure. If that kind of thing is going to grind at your sensibilities, then Killjoys is just not for you. But it surely separates itself from the pack.

Killjoys is poetry, colors, and nostalgia. All of the names in this book seem to sing to me about my past. “Vinyl” recalls old records….like hair-metal Poison records. “Poison” was the leader of the Killjoys. Also on the team? Kobra… know, like GI Joe?

Instead of eating, our protagonist spends her last funds on Poison’s mask. And there are pogs for sale at the counter as well. Can you believe they’re still trying to sell those damn pogs in the dark future?

I feel like I know where this book’s heart is at, and I sympathize. I think it’s human nature to glorify one’s past as the “good old days” and fear for the changing future. So I’m a little wary of that impulse. On the flip side, I can’t help but feel a palpable sense that life has turned a bit plastic and rote.

I just….I remember watching that old Eurythmics video for “Sweet Dreams”. There’s Annie Lennox
with utterly striking hair and eyes. For reasons that neither science nor sorcery can explain, Dave Stewart is playing what looks like a cello next to a goddamn cow. He rolls his eyes to the back of his head so that only the whites are showing. If somebody paid you five million dollars, you could not explain why he does so.

The music is haunting, Lennox’s voice is exquisite, and that piece of art is indelibly branded on the brain for eternity.

Where I’m going with this is…I don’t think that video happens in 2013, certainly not like that. We seem to have life cracked these days, in all the worst ways. The science of marketing has run the numbers, analyzed the focus groups, and determined the correct neuro-linguistic programming techniques to squeeze the most dollars out of the most sheeple.

It works. But it sucks.

I don’t know what was going through the minds of the folks that shot “Sweet Dreams”, but I don’t think it had anything to do with replicating past techniques, creating brand awareness, correct product placement. I’m not convinced they were strictly thinking of money at all. I think they were just trying weird things because it seemed like a worthy, or dare I say fun thing to do.

Back in the 1980s, this was how things worked. David Lee Roth was jazzercising in his red leather pants and mixing in his vocals as the loudest element of the track, because well, he was David Lee Roth. Murray Head could get regular airplay with “One Night in Bangkok”, which regales the listener with tales of competitive chess players. I’m not even kidding.

What the hell has happened to joy, and strangeness, and trying things just to see what happens when you flip your switch? I don’t think Columbia Pictures released Total Recall
last year for the joy of it. I think a bunch of people with nice clothes and impressive degrees got in a room, found a brand to exploit, attached a trio of recognizable pretty faces to drop into it, and bought a bunch of serviceable special effects to distract the audience from the fact that there was no soul anywhere near that corpse of a movie.

And like I said, it works. One of those pretty faces was Kate Beckinsale, so I gave them my money like a dutiful citizen of Battery City. But like I said….it sucks. I think if Phillip K. Dick could see what his story became, he might throw up a little.

I think this is what Killjoys is about – celebrating the vibrant, and the inspired, and the chaotic, and the wonderful. I think it’s about lamenting how grey and processed and unbearably inevitable our increasingly soulless existence is becoming. I don’t know that I have that correct, but I do know this –

I don’t read a lot of comics these days that prompt that kind of thought and emotion out of me.

There are things to nitpick, if one likes to pick nits. There’s a fight between Val’s little V Squad and a pack of Draculoids. (“Black-and-whites”, the DJ calls them, code for cop cars, enforcers of the law just like the Dracs, see how clever and nuanced the book is?) The outcome of that fight is completely unclear from a storytelling perspective. Did they kill the Draculoids? Run them off? Whu happen? One minute they’re fighting, the next minute the Draculoids have disappeared and the Vs are wondering what to do with their dead friend Volume.

It’s poetry, people. You don’t go to West Side Story to examine fight choreography. You go to watch the singing and dancing. Same thing here.

And you may have to give it multiple readings to draw everything you need out of the comic. When I got done with my first spin, I was attracted to the tone, but came to the conclusion that the story didn’t make a lick of logical sense. It took the second go ‘round to determine that there is an incredible amount of information presented in Killjoys, but it does throw you into the deep end of the pool. Everything you need is there, but you need to be a good swimmer.

My bottom line on The True Lives of the Fabulous Killjoys is that it shows a wealth of promise and represents must reading. I’m not ready to give it my unreserved approval yet, because I don’t know how in love I am with the lyrical nature of the book. It’s also dancing on the edges of papier mache lefty politics, and you can imagine how thrilled I am waiting for that other shoe to drop.

For now, though, I like what I see. If you’re into early Love & Rockets, Brazil, or Repo! The Genetic Opera, this is certainly in your wheelhouse. I recommend any comics reader, hell, any reader at all give this a whirl, because it cares enough to take chances, and there is more than enough skill and craft to warrant your attention.

Curious to hear any opinions on the book – if you’ve read it, please do chime in by commenting below!

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Ugly American # 31: Comics and fridges and death, oh my!

I want to talk about Avengers Arena again this week, because it’s fun and it’s worth it. The comic itself is several grades more interesting than it gets credit for, even from its supporters, in my opinion. It’s an interesting artifact, and what’s even more fascinating is watching people react to it. Does any comic encapsulate what’s right with comics and wrong with the people who read them more perfectly than Avengers Arena? I say thee nay!

The only thing I like better than good comics is watching humans respond to them like deranged amoeba in my personal petri dish. The whole package is too delicious.

A good number of the amoeba have really freaked out about Avengers Arena # 10, to the point where Bleeding Cool ran a story on it. Sister Grimm “dies” at the end of the issue, and this produced quite the fit of Pharisee robe-tearing, over-taxed tear ducts, and many a “fuck Dennis Hopeless”. Which when you think about it is sort of a sweet offer, but I’m betting he already has someone lined up for those duties. But I digress.

You may have noticed that I didn’t announce any “spoiler” warnings about the Nico “dying” bit as I normally would. This is actually related to my main point about all these histrionics:


Why is anybody shocked or upset that their beloved characters are dropping like flies in this thing? That’s what they said they were going to do! If the idea of a character dying in this comic causes you strife….I don’t know….maybe this isn’t the comic for you? Just a thought.

Imagine going to a restaurant and ordering from the nice French waiter.

YOU: “Yeah, how’s the Peking Duck? Just to let you know, I don’t like things that are salty. Love Peking Duck, but just can’t handle a lot of salt.”

WAITER: “Zee Peking Duck is tres magnifique, madame, but I’m afraid eet eez quite salty. Quite salty.”

(Apparently Batroc the Leaper is your waiter, which is awesome. Good to see him working)

YOU: “OK, I’ll take the Peking Duck, then. And some raspberry tea.”

BATROC: “Oui, madame. I would just like to remind you, howevair, zat zee Peking Duck eez very salty.”

YOU: “Uh-huh.”

BATROC: “Very well, madame.”

Now, if you get your Peking Duck and you don’t like it because it’s too salty….who is to blame? Is it the chef’s fault? Would it be reasonable to start shouting and cause a scene, then run to the internet and start trashing the restaurant about how crappy the food is and how poorly they treated you, or are you just a stupid asshole who didn’t listen to what the waiter plainly told you? I will let you, dear reader, solve that mystery for yourself.

Meanwhile, the chef wrote the shit out of that issue. Listen, the traps are easy to identify. If this is just a mousetrap built for blood, it’s pandering to the worst of the worst of us. But that’s never been what this book is about.

Avengers Arena is a giant character study about what happens to (mostly) good people when you strip away the trappings of civilization and throw them into pure survival mode. It’s not a “snuff comic” any more than Nolan’s Dark Knight was a snuff movie. Same themes, same questions, except Hopeless has a lot more space to make the drama breathe, and he’s been using it to grand effect.

The point of AA # 10 isn’t that Nico “dies” at the end. The point is the continued ascendancy of Katy, and the fact that nobility took a major hit this episode. Katy is a Machiavellian bitch on wheels, a joy to root against, and a fantastic example of a comic book creating something out of nothing. I didn’t care about Katy, or Death Locket, or Cami, or Kid Britton six months ago. They all mean something to me now. What are you reading these days that means something to you now? I’m digressing, though.

The point is that in issue # 9, a group of the kids finally understood that Katy was a real threat that probably needed to go for the good of the group. For wonderful character-driven reasons I won’t ruin for you here, that seemed like the wrong thing to do.

That decision split two very good friends and fellow Runaways, Chase and Nico. Nico couldn’t pull the trigger on Katy, but the lessons of Murderworld have been teaching Chase that he can’t necessarily afford his best impulses, so he dissented. Nico kicked Chase out of the group, and then Katy used Chase (against his will) as a tool to destroy Nico. Heart-rending stuff, and all plausible given the mechanics of Katy’s power set and Chase’s new toy. Nico, for her part ushers the rest of her group to safety and then stands off against an entire pack of combatants that includes her best friend in the arena and a friggin’ SENTINEL.

Now, if you’re paying attention at home, here’s what the scorecard looks like - Dennis Hopeless just engineered a result that includes perfect emotional poignancy while escalating the tension of the plot while simultaneously forwarding his moral themes. And by the way, all of that unfolded seamlessly in the organic action of the story, without shaking the car or making you reach for the KY bottle. What in the FUCK are you people bitching about? That was virtuoso. This is comics at their best.

And by the way, people, look at the last page again. Nico has no bars lit on her life-o-meter, but her last act was to grab the Staff of One (with the only hand she has left) and cast a “help” spell at it. Maybe that spell was too late, and maybe it isn’t. Maybe next issue the staff brings her back. Maybe she doesn’t come back until Bendis or somebody important decides they want to use her again a year from now.

To me, that 'aint the point. To me, the point is that this book is really about to ramp up and get down to the nitty and the gritty. There’s a bunch of young people on Murderworld now who have no choice but to realize that this game isn’t a game, and that a moral code is a death sentence. Sympathy and friendships are death sentences. How will the remaining players react? I don’t know, but I can’t wait to find out. For me, that’s the point.

The points on the hater boards seem to revolve, as they always do these days, around Southpaw Bunny politics and blind emotion. Lots of talk about “fridging” Nico, which doesn’t impress me. You can’t just reference “Women in Refrigerators” and drop the mic like you said something meaningful.

Well, you can do so on the comics news sites, but that doesn’t play here at the Ugly American. I think it’s possible to have a debate about the frequency of female death/trauma in comics, or the validity of the “helpless female useful only to drive male vengeance” stereotype.

The Bunny side is going to lose that argument to about 15 minutes of real research, because this just in…every character in comics suffers atrocities. It’s kinda part of the gig. Remember that Capt. Everything Goes Right All The Time For Him series? No, you don’t. Because it never got pitched, much less published.

So yes, we could have that debate, but that’s not what’s going on over at the boards right now, or on your local Twitter. It’s a pervasive reactionary mindset that says “I didn’t like it, the character was female, so it must be sexist”. If you disagree with them, then you’re sexist, too.

Actually, I think pervasive is the wrong word, though. I think the vast majority of comics readers either don’t care about this stuff, or maintain a more reasonable attitude. The problem, in my opinion, is that this hyper-vocal manic minority get a lot of ink on what passes for comics news outlets, offer little in the way of dissenting opinion, and it gives the nonsense more weight than it deserves.

One of these idiots actually had the audacity to post a hate-tweet post script of:

#okay kill the Asian woman that’s totally fine…

I wonder if that person recognizes that their “defense” of Nico is uglier than any imaginary bigotry he ascribes to Dennis Hopeless. I’m guessing not. No, there’s no thought process necessary to hear clapping at the end of your rage any more. It’s just “I didn’t like it, the character wasn’t white, therefore it’s racist.” Absurd.

No charge of racism or sexism against this series in particular will stand up to an ounce of actual rational analysis. Meanwhile, Marvel just had Brian Wood build an X-Men team of X-Women, and they’ve been actively courting pitches on what Tom Breevort is calling a “Black Avengers” book. Does that sound like a publisher cultivating bigotry to you?

To recap on a more positive note - Dennis Hopeless is putting on a clinic, and regardless of what you may have had tweeted at you, Avengers Arena is fantastic in all areas.

You may disagree below.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Ugly American # 30 – It’s a Trap!

Let’s talk about the end of Justice League of America # 4 because it has many layers, and some of them are even vaguely interesting. I guess I’ve decided not to spoil anything specific, but in order to talk about the book, you need to understand that the issue concludes with what appears to be the “death” of a fairly prominent female character.

So…..where to start? I guess I’ll start with some of the market aspects. I know Monster Mike was worrying about folks finding a copy, thinking that a pack of dirty speculators (like myself) may have erased all available supply. It appears that won’t be an issue for a couple of reasons. One being that there really doesn’t seem to be much of a fervor in the secondary market on this, which I find exquisitely fascinating. To me, that’s bold and direct evidence that the golden goose of empty hype may have shat out its last egg for a while. You can only go to the whip on the same magic trick so many times before the audience becomes numb to it.

The comics audience has been particularly resilient (some might say moronic) about maintaining their fascination with the “Death” bit. But as I type this, there are copies of JL of A # 4 available all over the place for cover price or less. I can even grab a copy of the Howard Porter variant for the same price as the regular edition over at Lone Star. So much for death fever! And in any case, I don’t think Monster Mike needs to worry about speculators ruining the reading party any more, at least for 95% of the comics material out there. Mark Millar is making the digi-heads wait a little bit for Jupiter’s Legacy, but most everything you’d like to catch up on is available (for rent) from Comixology, infinite copies in the supply, and all you need is internet access.

This is not to suggest that speculator runs can’t do any damage. I think we should be rewarding any interest in our local comic shops. If a patron, particularly a new patron heads to said local shop only to find that the super exciting “what’s all this hullaballoo about?” issue isn’t available for purchase….well, that’s a problem. That’s an interested party that may never come back. But again, that doesn’t seem to be the case here. I was in my LCS today a good three days removed from launch and there were stacks of this issue available.

I wonder, though, does the lack of mania here actually reflect the masses finally giving in to richly earned cynicism, or is the fact that DC was actually able to keep this a secret partially to blame? It’s pretty common for the punditshphere (myself included) to lambast the publishers for leaking their big reveals to the press early. But when you think about it, whether we’re talking about Johnny Storm , or Miles Morales, or Superior Spider-Man, or the nineteen other secret Marvel deaths they’ve bungled, it never did seem to hurt sales, did it? So maybe they knew something we didn’t.

Hard to say. I still think this is just mass apathy from a very tired and abused comics constituency. Whatever the case, I don’t know of any fellow comics reader or article on the usual sites that really believes this “death” is real or will stick. Which is a bit sad. We’re jaded past the point of no return, which is kind of frightening, but also kind of liberating. The Big Two have been using empty hype like a bad drug for too long. There will be some withdrawals coming down from that, but the recovery is surely going to be better than the junk we’ve been getting lately.

Contrast that with Alpha Flight # 12, circa 1984. Different time, different attitude. In 1984, John Byrne killed off Guardian and we all considered it deliciously ballsy. It’s not like comic book deaths were rare or permanent back then, but there was no obsession with the hands of the puppeteer, and no sense that the publisher was “just fucking with you”. I guess I don’t know why Byrne decided to ace the team leader of Alpha Flight, but I suspect it had to do with A) Introducing a sense that anything could happen at any moment and B) Forwarding the character arc of Heather Hudson.

Who could forget the final pages of that comic? The good guys were not doing particularly well, and this was in keeping with the themes of Alpha Flight to that point. Mac Hudson was a scientist, not a military guy. Same with Sasquatch. Shaman and Snowbird were mystic protectors, sure, but the Beaubier twins were basket cases, Marrina was psychopathic more often than you’d like, and Puck was just a midget with a giant “P” on his chest. How’s that gonna work? And what the hell was Mac doing dragging his non-super-powered wife into that mess? That ship was destined for trouble from the start, and boy did it hit the rocks in # 12. It isn’t just the fact that Guardian died, though, it was the way he died. His battle suit failing catastrophically, a harried Mac Hudson is interrupted at a critical moment by his wife Heather. No telling for sure if that’s what ultimately sealed his fate or if he was doomed any way…but if you’re Heather, how do you not interpret that as causing the death of your husband? A few seconds after that interruption, there was nothing left of Guardian but a little pile of ash. Heather had a lot of growing up to do, and grow she did, right on the page.

Nobody had a clue that was coming, mind you. There was no such thing as Previews or Newsarama to spoil things for you. There was simply word of mouth after the fact, and Alpha Flight 12 left quite a few jaws on the floor. Perhaps I’m not remembering correctly, but there was no speculator run on that kind of thing in ’84, either. Alpha Flight # 1 cost more than cover, because, DUH, but after that the issues in demand were # 13 and # 17 because they had goddamn Wolverine on the cover, man! Don’t you know that Wolverine on the cover is big bucks, man!!! Talk about a magic trick that’s lost its magic.

No, everything was a secret. Any info you had on upcoming projects was likely to come from the publishers themselves in the form of house ads. They didn’t tell you much, either. Can you imagine the emotional wreckage that would be the comics landscape if there were an internet just before Marvel unveiled the New Universe? None of us would have survived. Our brains would have been burnt little nubs, and Kickers, Inc. # 1 would have produced a brief burst of incalculable rage and then instant death. As it was, we got a few months of a purple lightning bolt on the back cover our Marvel books. We were lucky.

Or were we? I feel like we were better off then, but maybe not. The downside was that there was no rational way to make decisions about your reading habits, other than live communication with other actual human beings (the horror!) and quizzing them about what was going on in the comics they were ingesting. There was no solicitation telling you that Frank Miller was about to unleash perfect comics with Born Again. One month, Daredevil was absolute rubbish. Then came Born Again, and then you blinked and the month after that you got goddamn Madcap by Mark Gruenwald. To call that a jarring shift of the gears would be the understatement of the millennium. That was life. You either collected Daredevil or you didn’t, and there was no way of discerning the potential quality until you dove in face first. Sometimes you got some poop on your face doing that, but at least in the Born Again era, the feces only cost 75 cents, so you almost didn’t mind.

Most retailers will tell you that prior knowledge is critical to the game at this point. It’s hard to order non-returnable comics correctly, and the money is made on the hits. You don’t make any money ordering 5 rack copies of Firestorm. Yeah, you’re ordering at a discount, but if one of your readers drops the book, and another takes a vacation and buys her copy in Sarasota instead of your shop, you are fucked. There’s no upside, and there’s no margin for error on most comics. You make money with hits. If you order 50 copies and two people drop the book and one goes to Sarasota, you’re still OK.

So if the Justice League of America # 4 contains the “death” of a prominent character, that’s something a retailer wants to be privy to if he or she thinks it will sell a ton of copies. Sure, some folks will take the time to request a re-order or get a second print on a sell-out. But really, if you miss the boat on a hot book you just lose. Everybody loses, actually. The reader is disappointed, the retailer is out some significant money, the publisher is out a small amount of money, and there’s just bad will all around.

The retailer needs to have some indication about how to order, but of course you can see the problem when said retailer has to rely on the publisher to give them that information. I don’t know how to tell you this…but the publishers are slightly biased about the number of books they are sure will be big hits and change everything about comics forever. In fact, if you listen to the publishers, you’ll find that they are producing a dozen of these books every single week. It’s amazing.

And that’s the problem with Previews. The reader wants information about the upcoming books so they can make informed decisions about where to spend the ridiculous sums of money it takes to buy comics these days, but how can the publishers relay that information accurately without spoiling everything? The retailer wants the same info to order correctly and serve their customer, but it’s in the publishers best interest to spin everything as The Next Big Thing, and again, how can they tell the retailer what they need to know and preserve any kind of surprise? If Admiral Ackbar were here, he would promptly bark at you that the whole situation is a trap. And he’d be right.

The solution? Destroy the internet, I guess. It’s only going to end up as Skynet, right? We don’t need it.

That’s my answer. You may offer alternative resolutions by commenting below.