Sunday, July 21, 2013

Ugly American # 37 – It’s Overstreet Time!

Ugly American 37

Ugly American # 37 – It’s Overstreet Time!

The new Overstreet Comic Book Price Guide came out on Wednesday, so I have been doing little outside of devouring it. This is pretty much tradition now. I remember the unbearable anticipation of Christmas as a child….wondering – what was under that damn tree? What was in that present? It’s too big to be a Shockwave figure; too small to be an AT-AT Walker…what the hell is it, MAN??? I gotta know!

I don’t give a crap about Christmas any more, but that’s pretty much how I feel about the impending Overstreet Guide each year. Intense, agonizing, sleep-depriving anticipation.

Yes, I realize that’s a problem. But it’s my problem, and I manage it with aplomb, if I do say so myself. And I just did. I always get the hardcover. I get the hardcover because it’s cooler, and because my lifestyle requires my Overstreet to have optimal structural integrity. I reference it. A lot. Like…A LOT. It’s usually in bed with me in case I have a pre-REM bout of speculative inspiration. Yes, that does actually happen to me. My Overstreet generally sleeps at my left side, where most healthy humans would store another human for entirely different sorts of inspiration. I did admit that I have a problem.

Because it’s 2013, inter-galactic law requires a variant cover so I had a choice between the Deodato X-Men and the Andy Kubert Superman. I’m not really a Superman guy, but I thought it looked better than the X-Men, and that’s important when you know you’re going to be staring at that cover about 73 billion times in the next 12 months. Sorry, Mike Deodato. Nothing personal.

The Overstreet Guide doesn’t have quite the nasty notoriety that say…Wizard had. Lots of people in the collective do not like the idea of comics as commodities at all, though. These are odd people with undeveloped, intractable minds. These people live in a fictional duality in which one can either appreciate the content of a book or analyze the monetary value of it. To do both is simply impossible. One or the other! Nobody could do BOTH, are you crazy? And since price guide people are “the other”…grrrrr! It’s all very strange.

What’s extra ironic about the Overstreet Guide is that it’s created by people who read more comics, know more about comics, and love comics more than any of the “purists” bitching about it. That’s a fact. You don’t get into the Overstreet Guide unless comics are your life. In order to do what I do on the market side, I require intimate knowledge of the beast. I have to synch up to her all the way to the elbow, just like John Prophet would. It’s true. That may be uncomfortable for some. Hell, sometimes it’s uncomfortable for me! But it’s true. Not only is it possible to love comics and understand their value, it’s essential. You can’t accurately gauge the one without cultivating the other. If you try and run my business off a formula, you will lose big. Trust me.

I don’t love the Overstreet Guide for the numbers, although they are very sexy. I love the Overstreet Guide because the first 175 pages or so are filled with nothing but anecdotal analysis of the current comics market, as told by top industry professionals. Well, there are lots of ads, too. But it’s mostly stories about great finds, rising trends, dogs that don’t hunt no more, and musings about what it all means for the future. For 99.937% of the population, that section is a cure for Insomnia. I call it….heaven. It’s invaluable data, but much more than that.

Those early sections always introduce me to comics that I never knew I had to have. This year, my revelation is Fight Comics.

These were published by Fiction House from 1940-1954, and they are gloriously in your face with Tiger Girls, bondage, Nazis, and unapologetic violence. They are beautiful, and not a trace of bullshit anywhere. How did I not know these existed? And no, they probably aren’t good road maps for sophisticated thought on race and gender. What Fight Comics have is authenticity. They’re real, and that to me is infinitely more valuable than the aspartame-fake progressive purity that today’s comics strain through their lying little teeth. I will have me some Fight Comics. Oh yes, I will!

The other thing is, I don’t get to spend time with many market-minded folks about my passion. I do have a Web Wreckage Stephen, which is a pretty good thing to have, but he’s in another country. I don’t get to hang out with people that appreciate The Game.

Some people respect the dollars produced by my little ooptrades side-hustle, ( I took in about 20K selling comics on the side last year) but they don’t really understand it. Most think I’m a little too committed, too obsessed, maybe a little crazy. Once a year, that Overstreet Guide comes out and I get to read 175 pages of people who “get it”. In the immortal words of Billy Joel, “you may be right – I may be crazy.” But when that Overstreet Guide hits the stands, I’m reminded that I’m not the only one, and that’s important. Therapeutic, really.

I love the guide, but it does have some weaknesses. It’s very weak on evaluating modern books. Some of that we can chalk up to good intentions. The Overstreet Guide comes out once per year, so it really wants to stay conservative and avoid reporting on wispy little fads. For modern material, particularly anything published after about 1980, the Overstreet mantra is “prove it, buddy!” It’s getting better, though. The Overstreet Guide now believes a little in the modern age, thanks largely in part to the Walking Dead phenomenon, I think. I was very surprised to see a value of $80 on Peter Panzerfaust #1 in this year’s edition. I would say $200 is more accurate, but that’s a recent explosion. About the time that contributors were reporting and the guide portion was probably created, $80 was the going rate. That’s what I sold mine for. (insert sad face here) The point being, even two years ago I think the Overstreet would have valued that Panzerfaust book at something absurd like $10. There’s some awareness now that the modern market is legit – these books are trading to real people for real cash.

Overstreet doesn’t have it quite down cold, yet. I found the New 52 Batman listing a bit curious. They’ve got # 1 at $5, and # 13 (first “Death of the Family” issue) at $6. Wrong on both counts, and it has things bass ackwards. That first issue in NM trades for $40, easy. Overstreet doesn’t like reporting big numbers on new books like that, which is fine. But Batman # 13 trades at $10-15….even if we’re being extra-conservative, # 1 should still outpace # 13. Nobody on this planet would trade their (equivalently graded) Batman # 1 for a # 13. If I’m wrong about that, please do contact me. I’ll trade you all day long. And then giggle.

The guide misses lots of little pockets, and of course no guide can perfectly encapsulate everything. That’s why it’s called a “guide” and not the Overstreet Incontrovertible Truth. I get that. But I feel that Overstreet is missing some really low-hanging fruit with stuff like Amazing Spider-Man # 601, and 606-607.

If you’re not familiar, these are some really fantastic cheesecakey covers by J. Scott Campbell featuring Mary Jane and Black Cat. ASM # 607 in particular is super fun and tawdry. Naturally these covers have made the comics very popular, and have been for some time. In NM condition, each of those issues is easy to sell at $20-$30. None of those issues even get their own line listing in the guide. I get missing some stuff, but Amazing Spider-Man is a fairly popular title with a reasonably solid historical track record. Those prices should be reflected in the guide.

I found no listing at all for Orc Stain or The Nightly News, and that’s disconcerting. Maybe I just missed them? I don’t think so - I’ve got the alphabet pretty well solved. Issues of Orc Stain regularly trade for $10-$20, and sold as a set, the first seven issues often command $100+. More importantly, James Stokoe is a hyper-talented creator. When the dust settles, I think he ends up being one of the more important artists of this generation. I’m talking about a Paul Pope, Moebius level of importance. His work needs to be represented in that guide, or the guide suffers for legitimacy.

The Nightly News is even more inexplicable to me. Jonathan Hickman is a burgeoning comics legend, and currently helming The Avengers franchise. How in the world does his critically lauded Image debut not merit a listing? Baffling.

None of these things are deal-breakers, mind you. Overstreet is still indispensable for Bronze Age material and older. That’s what most of the contributors and readers are most interested in, so it does what it intends to do at a very high level. As for the modern stuff, I guess the moral of the story is that we’re feeling the absence of Wizard and the Comics Buyer’s Guide. Rich is dipping his toe in the waters with Bleeding Cool magazine, but nothing is fully in the pool yet. I think there’s a need for something like that.

You know two years ago when the Overstreet guide was released I wrote a column on the old Chronic Insomnia blog making a case for investing in four modern comics. Just for fun, I looked up how they’ve done since. I’d like to point out that I stand by all four recommendations. Some of them have panned out better than others, but two years is a pretty short window, and these were long-term investments, not “flips”. Just to clarify, I’m using the 2011 Overstreet NM values for comparison with the 2013 edition.

Thor # 337 $15/$20 (+33%)
Batman Adventures # 12 $3.50/$75 (+2,043%)
Megaton # 3 $22/$25 (+14%)
Hellblazer # 41 $5/$5 (+ 0%)

Boy, that Harley Quinn is something, isn’t she? So, imagine if you’d purchased one each of those recommendations at guide in 2011, and then sold them at guide in 2013. Life doesn’t really work like that, of course, but it’s in the ballpark and we need some basis of comparison. Had you done that, you would have spent $45.50 and turned that into $125 for a 175% return on your investment. How did your ETF do for you over the last two years? This just in: I’m pretty good at this shit.

As long as we’re talking market stuff, why not go into overtime on this Overstreet edition and look at some interesting stuff popping at the moment!

Spawn “Homage” Covers
You may have noticed that Spawn has recently been featuring “homage” covers. (Spawn # 221-231)
Sometimes Todd takes a whack at iconic covers he had nothing to do with like Dark Knight Returns or Walking Dead. Sometimes he takes a classic McFarlane cover from a different title and then Spawnifies it. They all look great, and carry a whiff of desperation about them.

Spawn is no longer a million-selling title. There is a hard-core, steadfast audience to be sure. But that book languishes on the wrong end of the Diamond Top 300 now, and continues to decline no matter what outlandish tactic McFarlane does to try to prop things up. My all-time favorite has to be installing himself as writer under the nom de plume Will Carlton.

Issue # 232 featured the tagline “32 straight issues with the SAME creative team!” I’m not sure what the comic’s sexual orientation has to do with anything, but I am pretty confident that this selling point will not be enough to drag Spawn back to the top. Maybe it should…but it won’t. The latest issue grabbed a megaphone and shouted “Spawn costume origin story begins here!” If that excites you, by all means hop back on board. I would like to live in a world in which Spawn exists; I’m just not enthused about actually reading it.

At any rate, I think those homage covers were partly to grab attention on the racks and try to drive sales a little, but I think a different market was predominantly responsible – namely the original art market. Love him or hate him, I think Todd has established himself as the marquee name for that 90s era of art. Personally, I adore that stuff.

Heritage Auctions recently sold the original cover to Amazing Spider-Man # 328 and got a paltry $657,250 for it. I think that got Todd’s attention. I think Todd said to himself – “Self, if that pretty darned good but not legendary ASM cover of mine can net $650K, I bet I could make a million dollars a week churning out cover art with timeless mass appeal.” And so he set about doing that. Incidentally, that makes him a brilliant business person, not a hack. In case you were wondering. Todd McFarlane is going to make a metric shit ton of money selling that art, if and when he chooses to do so.

Long story longer, the secondary market has been responding very favorably to all of those homage covers, but most specifically Spawn # 221, honoring the cover to Amazing Fantasy # 15. It currently trades for about $20 in nice condition. Many of those covers are difficult to find on shelves, so it wouldn’t surprise me to see more Spawn homages follow suit. I really like Spawn # 229, reminiscent of that classic McFarlane cover to Hulk # 340. These are fun! You should probably indulge just on that basis.

Last of Us: American Dreams
The Last of Us: American Dreams is a 4 issue mini-series prequel story for the Naughty Dog video game release. I know and care nothing about video games, but I was following this title because of Faith Erin Hicks. While I was at the last Hal-Con, I really fell in love with her art. So I knew I would like the look of it, and was curious to see how she would do as co-scripter of this game prequel. It’s there to introduce you to the post-apocalyptic world, and flesh out one of the game’s characters, Ellie.

The first issue of the comic shipped in April, two months ahead of the video game release. In fact, Naughty Dog liked some of Hicks’ contributions so much, they changed elements of the game to reflect them. The point is, I smelled money on this comic because if the game became popular, initial orders on the comic would not represent real demand.

Well, the game is pretty popular. Game Informer calls it a “grim masterpiece”, and sales are brisk. Naturally, that interest has carried over to the Dark Horse comic, and prices have risen dramatically on all three issues that are currently available. Issue # 1 regularly trades for $30+, with issues # 2 and # 3 trading for around $10-$15 per.

When things go crazy, prices are not stable, but those are good current ballpark figures.

I’ve got a good history with video game books. I’ve made very nice profits selling Dead Space, Assassin’s Creed, and Resident Evil comics. It’s not a situation where I’d recommend backing up the truck on anything just because there’s a game attached, but if you can feel out a scenario where print runs just aren’t keeping up with the zeitgeist, there is money to be made.

Todd: The Ugliest Kid in on Earth
Readers of this column are no strangers to Todd, so you all went out and grabbed yourself five copies of each issue, right? Right???
Well if you did, there’s a little windfall in it for you, because Ken Kristensen and MK Perker have optioned Todd to Tit-Mouse for an animated series! This is good news on a couple of levels.

It’s good because movie news means instant skyrocketing back issue prices. There is a small, slightly insane group of speculators that like to jump on every piece of movie/TV news and try to catch the next Walking Dead on the way up. That’s just not the way to play The Game. There is no next Walking Dead. (except maybe Saga, but Vaughan says he’s never optioning that property) You will never see the Ugly American paying nosebleed prices on books less than a year old. That’s when you’ll find the Ugly American selling.

Again, when the market explodes, prices get difficult to pin down. Issue # 1 of Todd is currently going for $40-$60 in nice shape. Runs of the first 4 issues are reaching into the $100 range. It really seems to me that issue # 2 is the most difficult to actually locate, so be aware of that.

Most importantly, however, Tit-Mouse are the fine folks responsible for shows like Venture Brothers and Metalocalypse. These are wonderfully dark and clever degenerates who will know how to handle Todd properly. I’m very pleased to see the property land there, because what separated Todd: the Ugliest Kid in on Earth from its peers was a giant set of balls. Tit-mouse will not neuter Todd. Hurray for depravity!

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Ugly American #36 – Marvel: a tale of booty, and re-booty!

I have no idea why, but I spontaneously became interested in the age of Marvel’s current stable of books. Now, DC was very open about re-setting their entire publishing slate in September of 2009. Well, it was kinda open about it. They were adamant that it was a “soft reboot”, which was mareketese for: “We’re keeping some continuity for the five books that sell for us, and throwing the rest in the trash.”

I do know that everything got a new # 1.

Across the street, Marvel responded with the NOW! initiative. The core titles got fresh new creative teams and new # 1s on the covers. There was no erasing of any continuity, or at least no more than usual. I mean, if Bendis wants to represent Emma Frost in a manner that strikes absolutely no resemblance to the woman she’s been at any point in her history, well…who’s going to argue with Bendis? But that’s just business as usual over there.

So, pretty much all of the DC books that came out last month had a # 21 on the cover. Pure curiosity set me to wondering…how many Marvel books featured a number higher than that? My general sense was that about half of the Marvel books would qualify. What I discovered is that there were 10:
• Journey Into Mystery # 653
• X-Factor # 257/258
• Red She-Hulk # 66
• Astonishing X-Men # 63
• Venom # 36
• Wolverine & The X-Men # 31/32
• Ultimate Comics X-Men # 27/28
• Daredevil # 27
• Ultimate Comics Spider-Man # 24
• Avenging Spider-Man # 22

That was a shockingly low figure to me, but that number was about to shrink, because I smelled bullshit on some of those titles. Journey Into Mystery,
for one. What I really wanted to track was how many titles Marvel was publishing with a longer consecutive history. JIM took over from Thor’s numbering at # 622, so the figure is sort of 34 issues, not 653. But really, JIM switched characters and creative teams in mid-stream, so Journey into Mystery # 653 is actually Sif # 8, if we’re being honest with ourselves. Sorry, you don’t qualify as a more veteran book than the DC books.

X-Factor is also weird, because Marvel gets pretty cavalier with its numbering habits. In this case, Peter David has been telling a consecutive, unbroken narrative for about 109 issues beginning in December of 2009. That’s positively ancient by today’s standards. Unfortunately, after issue #50, we got issue #200, so that puts X-Factor at about 59 issues without a re-boot. So it still qualifies as older than the DC line, but the 258 issues is a bit of a sham.

Red She-Hulk has some of the same issues that plague Journey into Mystery. It started out as the Jeph Loeb Rulk book, and then became something entirely unrecognizable – new creative team, completely different lead character. That comic should really be Red She-Hulk # 10. Again, newer than the New 52.

Most everything else on the list looks older than DC, but those higher issue numbers simply reflect Marvel’s practice of double-shipping. Ultimate X-Men, Ultimate Spider-Man, and Daredevil seem senior at first blush, but they were all born in September of 2011 just like the New 52. At best, it’s a tie. I scratched them off the list. Same with Avenging Spider-Man (born November 2011), and can you believe Wolverine & The X-Men? Jason Aaron and company cranked out 32 issues of that comic between October 2011 and June of 2013. I can’t decide if that’s more impressive or depressing. In either case, I don’t count them as having a longer publishing history than the re-launched DC titles. Chronologically, they’re younger.

So after all that, how many Marvel titles have legitimately longer, non-rebooted, non re-numbered histories than the New 52? Buckle up, kids. It’s a grand total of 3 books:

Astonishing X-Men with 63
X-Factor with 59
Venom with 36

Astonishing X-Men is unequivocally the grande dame of Marvel Comics, published consecutively without a reboot since May of 2004. And in true Marvel fashion, the title with their “richest” history is a book they clearly should have stopped publishing years ago. As soon as Whedon was done, everything unique and relevant about that comic left with it. But as per usual, Marvel is better at making dollars than making sense. (there’s another horrifying pun for you, Monster Mike) (Ahthankyousir - Monster Mike) Astonishing is also rumored to be on the chopping block.

No rumors necessary for X-Factor, confirmed to be ending with # 262. Rich Johnston is convinced that Marvel will announce X-Fatcor re-boot news at San Diego, because why wait for the body to get cold before you take another run at her? I suppose if it gets me my Layla Miller fix, I shouldn’t complain.

Which means that in the very near future, that Venom book Rick Remender started writing WAY back in March of 2011 will be the longest tenured book in the Marvel publishing line. How crazy is that? I don’t consider it a good thing or a bad thing, really. To me it’s an interesting thing, because Marvel is not what I would consider the subtle half of the Big 2, but they’ve very quietly turned over everything real quiet like, so nobody would notice.

I wouldn’t expect them to be done turning things, either. They went about 50 years without re-numbering the original X-Men title, to the point where they trotted out reprints for several years instead of re-starting it. Now we get a new Uncanny X-Men title about every other year, and will probably continue to do so. The next Wolverine ongoing will be what…the 13th or 14th iteration? If you can’t keep Wolverine afloat, that would cause some concern, one would think. Marvel doesn’t seem to mind.

DC, on the other hand, does seem to mind about these things. Because they were so vocal about it, they almost can’t go back to the re-boot whip without looking like colossal failures. Which might be the case.

Share “Your” Universe

Speaking of colossal failures, let’s get to the new “Share Your Universe” farce - I mean initiative Marvel is parading around at the moment.

Where to even start? I wish I could tell you exactly what this program entails from the Marvel perspective, but I can’t. I say that as a man who just finished listening to the press conference. The reason why I can’t explain it is that it was presented with little concrete detail. Plus, the conference was constantly being interrupted by what sounded like aliens from District 9.
Apparently, that was actually just the rudest person on the planet typing throughout the conference call.

I think that “Share Your Universe” has something to do with pointing other people, preferably younger people, toward Facebook and like, stuff? Facebook and like, stuff will then point these young people to comics they have absolutely no intention of reading. By the way, they point-blank admit on the call that there really aren’t any kids comics at Marvel to point them to. Not that it matters. R kdz Evn abel 2 rd hole wrdz thz daze? OMG ROTFL

Joe Quesada and Dan Buckley painted a verbal Rockwell on that conference call, in which parents pass the comics torch down to their children, nieces, cousins, and annoyed strangers. I guess it’s sort of like an old Saturday Evening Post cover, only with more bong mist. Hey, somebody introduced you to comics, old timer! Time to go forth and do likewise. Why?


Well, according to Dan Buckley, because it’s YOUR universe, and you will receive an unlimited supply of warm fuzzies by bonding with your loved ones via YOUR universe.

Ummmm, Mr. Buckley? One problem. I don’t want to belabor the obvious here…but if it’s my goddamn universe, exactly how many points am I getting, and why hasn’t my incentive check arrived?

Huh. That’s weird.

I guess if King Kirby never got his points, I probably shouldn’t hold my breath waiting for mine, should I? Yeah, probably not.

So let’s be real, here. I know facing down reality isn’t really en vogue in 2013, (although En Vogue was pretty much the cat’s ass in about 1990)
but it does have some benefits, contrary to popular belief. The Marvel universe is not my universe. It’s a product I have enjoyed, when it hasn’t priced me completely out. I like reading some of those comics. Hawkeye and Avengers Arena? I buy these books, I adore them, and I often write about them. Publicly, even.

Marvel is a business, and it isn’t mine. Share “my” universe? That’s a farce, and an offensive one. Stripped of all bullshit, this initiative would be titled:

“Marketing to new readers is tiresome and expensive, so….hey, you stupid assholes already forking over way too much money for our product? Yeah, you do it for us, instead. For free.”

Unfortunately, the accuracy of the title makes the brevity suffer. But that’s exactly what’s happening here. This is a business, and a business, mind you that produces BILLION dollar movies and has decided the problem with print comics is that the customers AREN’T DOING ENOUGH.

Where do they find the audacity? And why are there so many of them?

I’ve got it coming from all sides, now. Marvel has decided I need to be doing pro bono marketing work for them. Eric Powell wants a Goon movie. Fine. Why bother with investors you might have to share profits with when you can just Kickstart a $400,000 story reel from fans in exchange for…..nothing. Backers weren’t promised so much as a file of the reel, much less tickets to the movie that may or may not ever get made. Powell got $441,900 toward a goose that might shit golden eggs, and the fans got zilch.

Then there’s Gerry Conway attempting to crowdsource fans into providing paperwork and research toward getting himself and other people paid large sums of money – again, in exchange for nothing. Listen, I hope Conway gets stacks and stacks of money for his creations. I really do. But that’s his money, and his problem.

Near as I can tell, the issue with DC now is that Levitz isn’t doing the paperwork for the creators any more, and the company won’t pay retroactively for use of the characters. So if you created the Psycho-Pirate or something, and he’s appearing in the upcoming Justice League movie, you need to file your paperwork in advance to be compensated.

So here’s the deal – if you really want the money, pay attention and hire a lawyer. Let me assure you, if I had the potential for thousands of dollars coming my way, all the horses in King’s Landing could not pull me away. If you’ve got a payday coming, and you can’t be arsed to bookmark latino review and keep an eye on things, then clearly you don’t want it badly enough. Pick a bone with Warner Bros. over having to do the work if you like, but how is it ever my responsibility to make you money?

Where does this prevailing, creepy, bizzaro, collectivist thinking come from, and how do I make it go away? Let me spell it out clearly for the uniformed:

When seeking monetary gain, you must offer value in return. We have a word for profiting off another while offering nothing in return. It’s called stealing.

I’m not talking about charity. I have given money to Peter David for medical expenses, and to aid Gary Friedrich in a time of need. Nobody was looking to get rich in those instances. I wouldn’t assist Friedrich’s legal battle for royalties without a piece of the action on the back end, as an example. I was looking to make sure the guy had a sandwich to eat and maybe a roof over his head.

If Marvel wants to grow their business, I recommend they offer a great product at a reasonable cost. They’re pretty darned good at the first part, and need significant work on the second. Maybe if they fixed that piece of things, they wouldn’t have so much trouble getting new readers hooked in? Just a thought.

Look, I’m the paying customer. I don’t mind making Marvel rich, provided they give me value in return. When I buy the books, I’ve already done my part and then some. They’re in business because people like me are buying Daredevil and Young Avengers. That should be cause for celebration, not disappointment. They should be going out of their way to make me happy, not attempting to squeeze the last drop of blood from my turnip body with free PR work.

It presumes on the relationship, and has everything backward. It would be like approaching a guy that was kind enough to loan you some money in a pinch and go:

“Hey, you’re the dude that gave me that $20, so you should definitely help me move this weekend.”

Wha-huh? No, dude, you have it backward. If that guy did you a solid, you should be helping HIM move, not compounding your social debt by demanding even more.

I’m not responsible for growing your business, Marvel. It’s your booty…you dig it out, dig? It’s sort of bizarre that a concept so simple needs explaining, but here we are. Space Brothers, I am ready for pick-up! Things do not make sense here.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Ugly American # 35 – The Rundown!

Because the Ugly American found nothing in the news sludge worth dissecting, (although he’s sure that will change during the upcoming San Diego Comic Con info-dump) here is some stuff he read and comments you may or may not find edifying:

Five Weapons # 5 – Image Comics
Script: Jimmie Robinson
Art: Jimmie Robinson

There is good news and bad news on this one. The good news is that this was supposed to be the final issue of a limited series, but I see a solicitation for a sixth issue. Apparently, sales have been strong enough to warrant an ongoing, and I like to see creator-owned projects succeed, particularly when the content is strong.

The bad news is that the deeper I get into the series, the weaker I find it. Five Weapons is an all-ages mystery book in which a hyper-clever protagonist uses his Encyclopedia-Brown-level observational skills to survive as an outsider in a school full of lethal weirdos.

Each of the issues ends with a cliffhanger. This issue opens with our hero completely out of ideas and facing off against the president of the gun club…completely unarmed. Now that’s a situation rich with tension, and worthy of a series finale. Unfortunately, all of that tension is resolved in the least satisfying manner possible as a Deus Ex Machina stumbles into the party with all the grace of a drunken rhinoceros.

I’m sure if I go back and reference the back issues for clues, Robinson laid groundwork for the character’s appearance. One of the strengths of Five Weapons is that Robinson always leaves clues in the text for all of Enrique’s revelations; nothing appears out of thin air. The problem is that all of that Vera stuff still ruined what should have been the biggest payoff in the series in exchange for her griping, which the reader has no way to care about.

I think the book still works on the whole, particularly for a younger crowd. Enrique is a very solid, likeable main character, and the parts where he builds relationships with his peers and battles his elders are strong. The puzzle-solving piece of the equation is really hit-and-miss, though, and the book has a little more whimsy than middle-aged Ryan is interested in. So I think I’m out. If somebody asked me to recommend a comic for a tween, though, this is what I’d give them.

Five Ghosts of Fabian Grey # 4/5 – Image Comics
Script: Frank J. Barbiere
Pencils: Chris Mooneyhan

Five Ghosts: The Haunting of Fabian Grey is the story of a pulpy Indiana Jones type, blessed/cursed with five literary ghosts after exposing himself to something called a Dreamstone. When the Ugly American exposes himself, all he gets is a stern lecture from his parole officer, not super powers. That’s bunk.

One of the problems with Five Ghosts is that you tend to get more usable information about said five ghosts from the solicitation copy or the back matter than you do from the contents of the book itself. Issue four is nice in one sense because it goes a long way toward clarifying the rules of Fabian’s affliction, while adding another cool layer – the ghosts inside of him are pissed.

It’s a nice twist that raises the stakes, and Five Ghosts # 4 is about Fabian Grey taking a journey inside of himself to make peace with his ghosts. I call that a world-class hook.

Unfortunately, the execution is lacking. Grey is forced to endure a series of tests where he must receive the approval of a particular ghost before moving on. Sherlock Holmes tests him by raising some kind of spirit-demon and chasing him through the streets of London. The supernatural would represent something the uber-rational Holmes would scoff at, not exemplify. Used correctly, that test should have shown Grey using his reason and senses to defeat the demon by proving it a fraud.

Instead, our super adventurer “defeats” the threat by running away like a scared little girl into Holmes address – 221B Baker Street. The ghost of Sherlock Holmes watches this travesty of superstition and cowardice and declares him a pass. Wha-huh??? The greatest detective in literature is comfortable that he’s found a worthy host because he remembered an address? Weak. WEAK.

On the plus side, I find Chris Mooneyhan’s pencils to be divine. I think the book is colored oddly, but I’m sure a real auteur like Monster Mike will correct me on that. This comic looks fantastic, it’s paced briskly, the designs are great, the core concepts are fertile for imaginative expansion…it just needs a little more meat on the story bones. At this point, I’m very excited to look at Five Ghosts, and not in a terrible hurry to read it.

Avengers A.I. # 1 – Marvel Comics
Script: Sam Humphries
Art: Andre Lima Araujo

The Ugly American did not read Age of Ultron, but he did smell something akin to a wet dog’s dirty diaper every time he passed it on the rack. That’s my way of saying I didn’t have high hopes for Avengers A.I., spinning directly out of AU. On the other hand…..It’s got Vision, a surly Doombot, and a Victor Mancha. It also has a $2.99 price point. All right, let’s crack her open and see what the guts look like!

The book opens with a random Atlanta hospital being bombed for absolutely no reason, and then a title page. That title page contains some awkward computery language introducing the concept of the books as such:

Yes, please do eject that clunky ass recap. Why would I want to read that book? Pym of the past helped Pym of the present, so he’s a new man….what does that even mean? The unanticipated variables are what…that it’s now the age of A.I.??? That tells me nothing, other than the fact that it sort of confirms my suspicion that Age of Ultron was a time-travel debacle best left avoided.

Well, after that warm invite we meet Monica Chang, and she’s kind of acting as an Amanda Waller for SHEILD, and she’s been assigned to create a Suicide Squad task force aimed at stopping Hank Pym’s Ultron antidote.

She brings in Pym and explains that the artificial intelligence he created has gained a form of sentience, and has a 99.98% chance of ultimately exterminating the human race. And at that point I thought to myself –

This thing is practically guaranteed to wipe out our species, and the “recap” page is telling me this book is about Hank Pym being a new man??? Talk about burying the lead! Here’s your new credits page:


Bang! Now that’s a book I might even want to read. Hank Pym is a new man…don’t make me yawn. Marketing aside, at least they’ve given the book a purpose and a focus. Most of what the Big 2 put out can be encapsulated as “the superhero adventures of X”. Avengers A.I. knows what it’s about, and has a prime force to move the plot along. Very nicely constructed.

The characters are all distinct, and Humphries has clearly thought about his approach to each. Not sure how fresh or deep they are, but he’s clearly thought about it. Pym is sort of an arrogant, excitable goofball, and bears no resemblance at all to the cat who was an instructor at Avengers Academy. (they did warn me he was a new man, I guess) Victor Mancha is having identity issues, which is made evident by the fact that he changes his code name to something more absurd about every six panels, just in case you forgot. Vision has levelled up after curling up into the fetal position near the sun for a while. And the Doombot hates everybody, and is not shy about sharing that fact. If he didn’t have a charge in his head ready to deploy a mini-black hole, he would certainly kill us all.

It’s basically the bit that Warren Ellis ran with Aaron Stack in Nextwave, only less subtle. If that’s even possible. Honestly, why isn’t Warren Ellis writing this book? He was born to do it. I don’t know, Avengers A.I. is perfectly competent, and maintains a surprisingly light, fun tone for a book about a bunch of people who don’t like each other basically forced to work together against their will to stop an extinction level threat.

I can definitely imagine a possible audience for this. I’m just not it.


Other Stuff
All of that seemed a bit disappointing, so I thought I’d talk briefly about a comic I really adored – Hawkeye # 11. It’s a story told entirely from Pizza Dog’s perspective, so there’s almost no verbiage. Just a few key words that a dog might focus on.

It would be very easy for something like this to get a little too cute and waste all that story space basking in its own self-indulgence. My take was that it was a wonderful departure from the standard reading experience, and I think I got more out of that story trying to decipher Aja’s symbols, not less.

Hawkeye # 11 is a noir detective story where the hard-boiled dick is a dog missing an eye, and the femme fatale is literally a bitch. Without words to shorthand for you, it takes some time to parse what the symbols mean and whether they represent a scent, a sound, or a memory. The end result is that this “silent” issue actually takes more time to absorb then most text heavy books, with the possible exception of Turf # 1. It’s got action, drama, broken hearts, and a major turning point in the Clint/Kate relationship.

Wonderful, wonderful stuff as usual from Fraction and Aja. Hawkeye is pretty close to perfect. There’s more vitality in one issue of Hawkeye than in 2/3 of DCs publishing slate put together. That’s because they haven’t outlawed fun and creativity at Marvel. If you look at the numbers, turns out that’s actually a good business decision. Didio….Johns….Lee….is this thing on? Can you hear me?

And then there’s Lazarus. Oh, Lazarus. I’m running long here, so I’m definitely not attacking it this week. Maybe just better to leave that one alone entirely. But I may not be able to help myself…tune in next week to find out!

Monday, July 1, 2013

Ugly American # 34 – Captain America # 320!

• Script: Mark Gruenwald
• Art: Paul Neary/Dennis Jahnke
In honor of the impending 4th of July festivities, the Ugly American thought it might be appropriate to devote a column to the adventures of Captain America, the star-spangled Avenger! Paying attention to the appropriateness of stuff is new to the Ugly American, so bear with me.

I was talking to Hetero Lifemate Dave this week about Cap, and how he may be the most difficult character in comics to write. (Also difficult: Superman, Reed Richards, and Dr. Strange) Cap is tough because the core of the character is supposed to be authentically pure. That’s hard to represent on a page, and pretty much impossible to present without seeming desperately lame. If you play it straight, he’s either going to come off sounding stupid, or phony, or both.

To his great credit, Mark Gruenwald took the tough road and played Cap straight and he pulled it off as well as it can be done for an extraordinary length of time. This Captain America doesn’t use curse words, opens doors for his dates, drives his van at the posted speed limit, and would stop a child on the street to talk to him about the perils of truancy if he found him during regular school hours. It’s all very horrifying. But it’s also sort of charming and comforting. As Captain America becomes less culturally relevant, he paradoxically becomes more needed and important. But I’ll get to that a bit later.

For now, the plot – Cap # 320 is the finale of the Scourge Saga. Once upon a time a vigilante in a skeletal mask named Scourge used a machine gun with explosive rounds to murder just about every C-List villain in Marvel’s books. People get upset about Dennis Hopeless and his Avengers Arena…pfft. He don’t know nothin’ 'bout killing. Gruenwald had Scourge off more characters by 9am than Hopeless does all day.

As the resident guru of all Marvel lore and continuity, Gruenwald was probably the only writer in house who remembered most of the deceased. All of those bodies did make quite a splash back in the day, though. This was more extreme than what Punisher was doing, frankly (I get it! - Monster Mike).

Were this sort of thing attempted today, it would no doubt be an event book with 38 bannered tie-in companion comics. In 1986, the stories resided mostly in the Captain America title as a B-plot with a crescendo at the end, plus a few stray issues in other books chiming in. No announcements on the cover, no fanfare. It was understood that the characters shared space, not shouted from a bullhorn. Every once in a while a hero would tangle with a has-been baddy, and suddenly a masked figure would shout “Justice is served” and then put a few explosive rounds into the poor bastard with a “pum! pum! pum!” to go with it. Then Scourge would slip away into the shadows.

By Cap # 319, Scourge had racked up enough corpses where the villains decided to gather together and have a confab about what to do about him. It never occurred to any of them that gathering into one room was just making things easier for the killer. Scourge ends up being the bartender at the “Bar With No Name” and shoots all 18 of the attending villains dead.

Water Wizard was supposed to be at that meeting, but he lucked out and caught a flat on the way. When he finds the carnage, who can he turn to? Cap. You can always turn to Captain America, who will do the right thing even if you’re a piece of garbage with a really unfortunate trident on your chest.

And that’s where issue # 320 picks up. Water Wizard arranges a meeting with Cap via his toll-free hotline. That’s right, folks, Captain America had his own 1-800 number so that regular citizens could call him for help. It’s so LAME, but it’s so right. And it does mean something to have this bedrock of American values available, fictional though he may be.

In “real” life, Reagan was knee deep in Iran Contra, and no administration has skated a clean program since. I mean, where do you start in 2013? The lying and covering up the Benghazi disaster? Or the lying and covering up the Fast & Furious debacle, or the lying and covering up of the IRS travesty? Or how about the lying and covering up of the massive domestic spying programs? No, if you can’t trust Mr. Hope & Change, there’s really only Captain America left. He talks like a dork, and his break room stories aren’t as good as Wolverine’s, but we need him. I don’t have a sentimental bone in my body, and I NEED HIM.

Naturally, Water Wizard tries to jam Cap with a water fist as soon as he shows up at the docks. It’s just tradition. You’ve got to have an action element at the beginning of the issue to get the ball rolling, and you’ve got to roll out a Marvel Misunderstanding. In this case, Gruenwald provides a decent alibi. Wizard can’t trust anybody at this point – when a mysterious figure shows up, better to go on the offensive. If it’s really, Cap, he’ll beat it.

Cap is naturally miffed, but he’s keen to get to the bottom of this Scourge business, at which point Water Wizard takes him back to the Bar With No Name and shows him the bodies. Interesting choice here by colorist Ken Feduniewicz, who washes out any would-be gore with
blues. Nothing to even hint blood. The only real visual indication of violence are the bullet holes punctuating the wall behind the figures, who otherwise could be confused as napping. Yup, the comics code authority was in full effect in 1986, not that Gruenwald needed any artificial restrictions to keep things classy.

From there, Cap puts the Water Wizard into protective custody, and Gruenwald starts drawing parallels between Scourge and Cap. Both figures climb into their respective battle plans and begin plotting. Scourge contacts his mysterious accomplice “Domino” to find another victim. They decide to go after Diamondback, who also happens to be Captain America’s off-and-on love interest.

Meanwhile, Cap coordinates with local law enforcement and the press to cook up a fake story about how Mirage survived Scourge’s attack at the bar. He knows that potential family members will see this lie on the news and he still does it. Not only that, but he actually dons the dead man’s costume (ostensibly with the bullet holes in it and blood still on it) so he can draw Scourge out and attempt to arrest him.

Gruenwald has now painted a scenario where it’s clear that both Cap and Scourge are operating outside of the law, and both men will have their codes tested. Scourge is still clearly the more repugnant of the two characters…but they’re beginning to converge a bit.

Scourge takes Cap’s bait, of course. He’s a little suspicious about the story, claiming to have confirmed all of his kills at the bar. (What, did he check 18 pulses after shooting the place up? Gross.) Still, he can’t afford any loose ends, and he doesn’t want to leave the job undone. Domino feeds Scourge the intel about Mirage’s location at a secluded cabin, and the final battle commences.

Scourge fills the cabin with explosive rounds, but the wily Cap left a dummy in the room for bait. When Scourge gets drilled with Cap’s shield, he quickly surmises that he’s been set up and flees the scene. During the ensuing chase, Cap hears Scourge run his clip dry and decides to wing his shield at him again. It connects, but Scourge reloads before the now defenseless Captain America can close the distance.

At this point, it’s Scourge who has a decision to make. He sees himself as a hero, and a punisher of super-criminals. But Captain America isn’t a criminal. On the other hand, if he doesn’t put Cap down, his career as a “hero” is over. What to do?

Scourge can’t pull the trigger. Captain America binds his hands and unmasks him, at which point Scourge recounts his own origin story. Turns out his father was in the movie business, (thus explaining his gift for disguises) and his brother was a piece of crap super-criminal. He just couldn’t take the family disgrace any more and put his brother down. Then he just kept going.
In my opinion, this is where Gruenwald loses some ground by offering up straw targets and straw arguments. There’s a personal motivation regarding his brother, but it feels weak that he would indiscriminately go after anybody else with a costume.

Here’s what I mean. Gruenwald is tapping into a genuinely juicy topic. The American justice system is designed to protect the innocent, not punish the guilty. The burden of proof is on the accuser, and the burden is onerous. In the end, that’s probably a good thing. Liberty is a precious commodity and worthy of protection, but it comes with a price. It doesn’t take much wobble for the system to get out of whack, at which point the law-abiding citizen is free from false imprisonment, but awash in unpunished degenerates.

What do you do when the subway is crawling with predators and nobody can get to work or go home in safety, and the law doesn’t seem to care? Bernie Goetz had an answer. Looks like George Zimmerman had an answer for the rash of ignored burglaries in his community. There are real-world consequences to this tenuous balance. I live them every day at work trying to stop dirty little thieves while still respecting people’s civil rights. It 'aint easy. These are good things to wonder about.

Unfortunately, Scourge is too crude a tool to really get to the bottom of things. If the goal was really to delve into the merits of vigilante justice vs. rule of law, I would have spent more time with Scourge, and have him be a little more discriminate with his victims. Scourge only attacked convicted criminals, but made no distinctions past that, which is sort of silly, and doesn’t allow the audience to take the position seriously. If Gruenwald could have taken the time to flesh out the heinous nature of certain crimes and the consequences wrought by career criminals, then Scourge’s actions have more meaning. As is, you can sort of dismiss him as a crackpot taking shots at undeveloped cartoon costumes.

I’m not suggesting that Mark Gruenwald dropped the ball, to be clear. Captain America comics in 1986 are not a perfect venue for deep deliberation on the justice system. But Scourge does make a valid point to Cap about their respective impacts. They are both vigilantes, and it’s possible to make a case that Scourge’s methods have had a greater impact on crime than Captain America’s have. That’s a little scary.

The issue ends with the now familiar cry of “Justice is served”! A shadowy figure (presumably Domino) shoots Scourge from the bushes. Captain America is faced with another dilemma – stay and try to save Scourge’s life, or go after his attacker and punish the guilty.

By now, we know the choice is clear. Cap chooses saving lives over making arrests. He chooses what is right over what is lawful. So he stays to help Scourge, though the effort is futile. He shows us how a good man and a good American should behave, regardless of how painful and frustrating the business of freedom and morality can be.

While it may not be the most sophisticated treatise in the world, Mark Gruenwald did a pretty darned good job of tackling some real contemporary issues inside of the trappings of superhero conventions. What he did was certainly more interesting than what that story would likely look like in 2013 - a tedious, neutered anti-gun polemic. Blechh.

So that’s what I’m thinking about as we approach the 4th of July here in ‘Merica. Much as I appreciate what Brubaker did with the character, I must confess I do miss the simpler, lamer Captain America. He’s good for the soul.

What are you thinking about?