Various commentaries


SWORD OF SORCERY #5 (DC, 1973) – B-. The first story has some fairly good early Walt Simonson artwork, but clumsy writing by Denny O’Neil. I’ve said here before that his writing is histrionic and humorless and he has a bad prose style, and much of that is evident in this story. The result is a Fafhrd-Gray Mouser story that’s not nearly as fun as the Fritz Leiber originals. The backup story is one of the few comic book stories by the SF writer George Alec Effinger.

IRON MAN #126 (Marvel, 1979) – A+. The #120s of Iron Man are the high point of the entire series, and the current Robert Downey Jr. Iron Man owes much to Michelinie, Layton and JR Jr’s version of the character. I’ve read this issue several times before, but it’s full of moments that still hold up well on rereading. One that stands out to me is the exchange “I’d like to ask if this guard here knows what a clavicle is.” “Huh? Well, uh… no.” “Surprise! It’s what I just broke!” And then another occurs on the following page, when Tony climbs over the wall of Hammer’s estate and discovers it’s a giant houseboat. As awesome as this issue is, it’s mostly setup for the next two, which are even better. However, the final page, where Tony appears in his armor and calls Hammer out, is an amazing cliffhanger, reminding me of the last page of Daredevil #232.

LOKI: AGENT OF ASGARD #2 (Marvel, 2014) – B+. There is a lot of really entertaining stuff in this issue, but the fanservice still seems a little excessive. To put that another way, I feel like this series is too obviously trying to cater to Marvel’s new crop of Loki fans. I don’t feel that it has the same level of sincerity as Loki’s previous series. I’m willing to keep buying it, though.

ASTRO CITY #10 (DC, 2014) – A. My initial reaction to this issue was that it was Kurt’s best sustained Astro City story, probably even better than Confession. I felt that he was genuinely trying to engage with questions of feminism at a mature and adult level. Then I read Chase Magnett’s negative review at , which argues that Kurt wasn’t saying anything original, and specifically that Winged Victory’s monologue at the end of the issue was excessively obvious and uncontroversial. Chase Maggett is partly right. While this story was a very powerful presentation of feminist material, it didn’t necessarily teach me anything about feminism I didn’t already know. And both of the opposing positions in this story (extreme anti-feminism and feminist separatism) are obvious strawmen, whereas Winged Victory’s position is not radical at all.

But maybe a more interesting way to read this story is as an answer to the question: What does it mean to be an ally? How can men support women and oppose institutionalized structures of sexism in ways that don’t simply reinforce those structures? From that perspective, Joey is a deeply compelling character because that is exactly what he’s trying to do. He’s a (very young) man who genuinely wants to learn from women, and one of the basic conflicts in the story is whether Vicky can accept him as a student without betraying her feminist project. Or to put this in terms that don’t emphasize men quite so much, maybe the real question of the story is how men and women can work together productively in a traditionally male-dominated profession. And that is an important question to ask in an industry which has historically suffered from massive sexism, and in which sexual harassment scandals still happen on a regular basis (e.g. the recent incidents involving Scott Lobdell and Brian Wood). So I think the present Astro City story has complexities that Chase Maggett misses.

INVINCIBLE #109 (Image, 2014) – A-. This is a significant improvement over the previous issue. In #108, Mark acted in such an insensitive and boorish way that he almost totally lost my sympathy. I almost had the impression that Mark was on the road to becoming a supervillain, just like all his alternate versions. But in this issue Mark reminds us why he’s a hero. Having been led by Robot into a seemingly inescapable trap, he saves himself not by brute force, but by cunning and persuasion. The way he not only escapes the alternate dimension, but frees it from Viltrumite tyranny, is simply brilliant. I’m still kind of nervous about what’s going to happen to Mark over the next few issues, but at least I’m rooting for him again.

CAPTAIN MARVEL #1 (Marvel, 2014) –A+. With this issue, this series returns to being the best comic with a female protagonist in Marvel’s history. (Of course there are very few other serious candidates, and the current Ms. Marvel title is one of them.) The opening sequence is all right – David Lopez draws some pretty cool aliens – but the scene in the Statue of Liberty is the heart of the comic. Lt. Trouble is the cutest Marvel character since Molly Hayes, and I love her interactions with Carol. And the line “in that one moment, every little girl flies” could almost be the motto of the entire series. This comic is making a serious attempt to rethink what it means to be a female superhero, and maybe metaphorically, what it means to be a female comic book writer.

BEASTS OF BURDEN: HUNTERS & GATHERERS #1 (Dark Horse, 2014) – A+. I am not a huge fan of traditional horror comics (e.g. 30 Days of Night), and so Beasts of Burden is one of my favorite comics in the genre, for much the same reason that I love Afterlife with Archie. If the latter series uses horror as a vehicle for humor, then Beasts of Burden moves in sort of the opposite direction: it’s full of lovingly rendered depictions of adorable cats and dogs, but the cuteness of the characters only enhances the disturbing nature of the supernatural phenomena that the animals come into contact with. In Beasts of Burden there is always a sense that death might strike at any time, and when it does, it will be permanent – whereas in AwA, even when Archie beats his dad to death, you know that Archie’s dad is still alive and well in the regular Archie title. Besides that, Beasts of Burden, much like Pride of Baghdad, also reminds us of the dark side of animal life – being a stray cat is already a brutal existence even when you aren’t trying to save the world from giant mutant alligators. I hope that Evan and Jill will return to this series soon.

RAT QUEENS #1 (Image, 2013) – A+. Given that this series is written and drawn by two dudes, it’s amazing that it depicts women in such an unromantic, unconventional and powerful way. The Rat Queens are just about the least ladylike characters ever; they’re foul-mouthed, alcoholic, drug-using, physically powerful borderline criminals. And in the context of the series, this is just normal; the fact that they’re all women is not depicted as unusual or problematic. On top of that, all four characters are genuinely distinctive. They have different racial backgrounds and body types, and as is normally the case with an RPG party, they all play different but complementary roles in combat. In terms of its depiction of female characters, this series gets everything right, and I hope that other writers and artists will learn from it.

KILL SHAKESPEARE #1 (IDW, 2010) – B-. I’ve been curious about this series since I met Conor McCreery at ICFA last year, so I was excited to find a copy of this for $1.50. On reading it I was initially disappointed, mostly because McCreery is obviously not the equal of Shakespeare as a dialogue writer. Obviously that’s not a fair comparison, but it’s a comparison that inevitably comes up because of his decision to have his characters speak in pseudo-Elizabethan prose. If he wasn’t capable of writing good Elizabethan English (which is possible, as William Shakespeare’s Star Wars demonstrates), he should have had his characters speak modern English. Besides this, the story is initially rather disappointing because it appears to be just an alternate history version of Hamlet, diverging from the play when Rosencrantz and Guildenstern refuse to cooperate with Claudius’s plot to kill Hamlet. In the last few pages, the story enters much more interesting territory when Hamlet encounters Richard III, who asks him to kill William Shakespeare. I can see how this story could develop into an intriguing piece of metafiction and/or a deep meditation on the relationship between authors and their creations. I will read further issues but only if I find them at a similar price.

MANIFEST DESTINY #4 (Image, 2014) – A. In this issue we are introduced to the Manifest Destiny version of Sacagawea, and we learn that she actually kicks ass. When she first appears in the issue, we learn that she singlehandedly killed the buffalo-centaurs that were menacing Lewis and Clark’s party in the previous issue. And she even did this while pregnant, although it’s left deliberately ambiguous whether she’s actually pregnant or not, and why her pregnancy matters so much to Lewis and Clark. The only disappointing part is that the fight is only shown for one page. Besides Sacagawea, this issue also has more of the things I liked in issue 2, including historically accurate dialogue and the fascinating juxtaposition of actual American history with bizarre monsters. After reading this issue I was interested enough that I went and bought the other three issues available.

MADAME XANADU #7 (DC, 2009) – C+. I’ve never really liked Matt Wagner’s writing, except in Sandman Mystery Theatre where he was collaborating with Steven T. Seagle. I don’t think his stuff has very much complexity or narrative depth. For example, in this issue he makes the ill-advised decision to write about Jack the Ripper, and while he’s clearly not trying to compete with From Hell in terms of literary or artistic quality, he doesn’t even add anything to this story that we didn’t already know; the involvement of Madame Xanadu and the Phantom Stranger does not make the story any more interesting. The one cool thing in the issue was the appearance of the line “The Juwes are the men who will not be blamed for nothing” at the end, and that was only cool because I recognized it from From Hell.

MARVEL ADVENTURES: SPIDER-MAN #8 (Marvel, 2005) – B-. This is a reasonably well-crafted Spider-Man story, but it slavishly follows the Lee/Ditko formula. There is nothing here that would have been out of place in the first 38 issues of Amazing Spider-Man, and that’s a problem. At its best, the Marvel Adventures line is not just an introduction to Marvel comics for new readers, it’s also exciting for new readers because it offers original takes on clichéd characters. This issue fails to do the latter.

MANIFEST DESTINY #5 (Image, 2014) – A+. More Sacagawea. The thing I remember most about this issue is her line “I will come with you. You are not my captain. I do not have to obey you.” Of course Lewis reacts in typical 19th-century fashion and refuses to let her come, but I’m sure that next issue we’re going to find out that she ignored his refusal and followed him anyway. This version of Sacagawea is a fascinating take on one of the more interesting figures in American history, although I guess you could criticize Chris Dingess for writing her as a fundamentally alien and unsettling character. I should also mention the high quality of Matthew Roberts’s artwork. On the letters page, the editor tells the reader to go back and look at the last page (a splash page depicting a horde of plant-zombie animals) for another five minutes, and with good reason.

IMAGE FIRSTS: THIEF OF THIEVES #1 (Image, 2012) – A-. This comic about a professional thief is quite readable and entertaining. The coolest part is the protagonist’s explanation of how to steal a car; it gives the impression that Kirkman did a lot of research on this subject and possibly even interviewed actual thieves, though I don’t know how he could have accomplished that. I’m not in a great hurry to read more of this series, but I will buy some more issues if I find them at a low price.

SUPERGIRL #5 (DC, 1997) – A-/B+. This is a reasonably good Peter David comic. It strikes the same sort of balance between seriousness and comedy as Young Justice did, though the characters are not nearly as engaging. This issue also features art by Gary Frank and Cam Smith, meaning it’s a reunion of Peter David and his best collaborators on the Hulk. The main problem with the issue is the trite plot. Chemo is a very boring villain who only shows up when the superheroes need a giant monster to fight. The plot of this issue is that Chemo turns out to be just a misunderstood creature who only wants to be alive, and Supergirl discovers this but destroys him anyway; this would be fine except that I must have read several dozen other comics with very similar themes.

THE FLASH #85 (DC, 1993) – B+. Out of context, this issue is a fairly simple story in which Wally battles a new super-villain, Razer, and his criminal employer, and wins a decisive victory. With knowledge of the next few issues, this issue takes on a very different tone. At the end of the issue, Wally’s victory leaves him feeling confident and even arrogant. But there are also a lot of scenes throughout the issue that foreshadow the storyline starting in #88, in which Wally is sued by a woman who he failed to save from crippling injuries during his fight with Razer. Clearly the purpose of this issue is to raise Wally to a peak of confidence, so that he can be subsequently toppled from it. So this issue is not all that important in itself but it plays a crucial role in Wally’s ongoing character arc.

ARCHIE #621 (2011) – C-. This is a boring story which revives a lot of old clichés about jungle girls and lost worlds full of dinosaurs. The unoriginality of this story is not surprising considering that Tom DeFalco wrote it. It’s too bad that he left Archie and moved to DC where he had the opportunity to do serious damage.

MY LITTLE PONY: FRIENDSHIP IS MAGIC #17 (IDW, 2014) – A+. Katie and Andy are back. The main appeal of this issue for me is Andy’s obsessively detailed artwork; the fact that this story is set in Starswirl the Bearded’s library means he has even more opportunities than usual for inserting gags. But there is also an interesting story here. The panel where Celestia says “What do you think is worth it?” is one of this series’ most poignant moments so far, and it suggests that this story is going to tell us some surprising things about Celestia’s past. Also, I don’t know what’s up with the tyrannosaurus with Fluttershy’s cutie mark, but I hope we see it again.

MS. MARVEL #2 (Marvel, 2014) – A+. The first issue of this series was probably the most important comic book of the year. I haven’t reviewed it yet because I wasn’t able to find a copy and so I read it on Comixology, which, in my opinion, doesn’t justify including it in these reviews. I know this is a hypocritical thing for me to say, considering that in my research I’m trying to argue against fetishistic attitudes toward print comics, but on a personal level, I have this superstitious belief that if I’ve only read a comic in digital form, I haven’t truly read it.

Anyway, about the actual comic. Ms. Marvel is important for many of the same reasons that the MLP: FIM comic is important. This series was a risk for Marvel because it appeals to female readers and because it features a character from a racial background which is almost never represented positively in American popular culture. And the risk paid off. Ms. Marvel #1 was Marvel’s top-selling digital title last month, which is almost as impressive of a feat as MLP: FIM #1 selling 100,000 copies, and for the same reason. It suggests that Ms. Marvel is enabling Marvel to reach non-traditional audiences, and that the basic demographics of comics fandom are shifting.

Also like MLP: FIM, Ms. Marvel is an extremely high-quality comic. I didn’t much like G. Willow Wilson’s previous comic, Air, and I have her novel Alif the Unseen but have not read it yet. However, her skill as a writer is very clear. She reminds me of Salman Rushdie in her use of popular culture tropes as metaphors for South Asian identity. Until I reread some of the publicity about this series, I didn’t realize that Kamala’s actual power was shapeshifting. Now that I realize this, the bizarre events of the first two issues make much more sense, but more importantly, shapeshifting is a powerful metaphor for the immigrant experience; it reminds me of Rushdie’s use of Dorothy’s ruby slippers for similar metaphorical purposes. In addition to that, the dialogue in this issue seems quite plausible, and Adrian Alphona’s artwork is even better than when he was drawing Runaways. And this comic even uses the word “embiggen” twice. When Ms. Marvel #3 comes out, it will probably be the first comic I read that week.

SEX CRIMINALS #5 (Image, 2014) – A+. This issue concludes the first storyline on a rather depressing and anxious note. As I wrote below, the basic argument of this series seems to be that sex has powerful liberatory potential, and that for this reason, repressive forces in society want to stamp it out. I know that I’ve encountered similar claims in critical theory, and I can’t remember if it was in Freud or Foucault or Deleuze or what. I wish I’d had the chance to talk to Ramzi Fawaz about this series at SCMS, because I don’t know enough queer theory or gender theory to be able to apply them usefully to this comic. But anyway, this story ends with Jon and Suzie on the run, suggesting that the forces of repression are in ascendancy over the forces of polymorphous perversity, but that the battle is not over yet. I also find it interesting that in the next-to-last scene in the issue, Suzie is working at the library when she meets a little girl who she describes as “a little version of me … looking for infromation in a world that seemed like it was designed to keep everything secret.” There’s no actual sex in this scene, but there is an implication that sex and knowledge are deeply connected. And maybe one reason is because sex and knowledge are both desirable purely for their own sake, and not because they serve the capitalist system. They both represent a sort of Bataillean expenditure without reserve, if I understand that concept correctly, which I probably don’t. And therefore, both sex and knowledge are unacceptable in a society where everything is all about money.

When I bought this comic, at Xanadu Comics in Seattle (an excellent store), the clerk asked if I was reading the letter column. I am, though not as attentively as I could be, and it’s the best letter column in comics right now. Not only is it hilarious, but it also presents some interesting discussions of things that people are usually too embarrassed to talk about publicly, like woods porn.

USAGI YOJIMBO #66 (Dark Horse, 2003) – A+. Back issues of Usagi are so hard to find that when I discovered that Xanadu had a bunch of them for $3 or $4 each, I bought five of them. This issue is the first of a three-part story about kaiju, which I knew before reading it. But I didn’t realize it was also about Japanese ink painting, since the plot involves a villain who has the power to summon monsters into existence by painting them with a magical ink set. I only have a very basic knowledge of Japanese calligraphy and ink painting, and have never tried them myself, but as a scholar of handwriting and typography, I obviously find these topics utterly fascinating. And in this issue, just like in the tea ceremony story in #93, Stan shows a sensitive understanding of this fascinating art form – even when it’s being used for evil purposes. The silent page in which the villain paints a monster into existence is beautifully poignant.

SMALL FAVORS #6 (Eros, 2002) – A-. I bought this at the Fantagraphics store in Seattle. This series was Colleen Coover’s first notable work, and it qualifies as a pornographic work not just because of the explicit sexual content, but also because of the storyline. It’s all about people having extremely fun sex with very little emotional baggage, which seems like a perfect definition of pornography, as opposed to more serious genres of writing about sex. It’s all extremely funny and entertaining, though, and Colleen’s characters are adorable, though her facial expressions are not as refined as they are in her later work.

AVENGERS ACADEMY #1 (Marvel, 2010) – B-. Avengers Academy was one of Marvel’s better comics while it was coming out, but either it’s already becoming dated, or it took a while for Gage and McKone to get going. This story initially reads like a very ordinary teen superhero comic, and serves mostly as a very basic introduction the characters. At the end of the issue, we learn that the characters were chosen for Avengers Academy not because of their heroism, but because of their potential to become villains. This is a powerful twist but unfortunately I already knew it was coming.

BATMAN: LI’L GOTHAM #12 (DC, 2014) – A. Unfortunately this is the last issue of what was easily the best current DC title (not counting Astro City or Sandman: Overture). The first story is a very silly affair involving the Condiment King, who i am surprised to discover is actually a previously existing character. The backup story is a very cute and sweet retelling of a lot of previous Batman continuity. The only disappointing part of it is that I’m a massive Dick/Kory shipper, and in this story we learn that this universe’s version of Dick ends up with Babs.

SUPERBOY #137 (DC, 1967) – D-. Like many Superboy comics from this period, the two stories in this issue make no logical sense and insult the reader’s intelligence. In the first story, Clark Kent has to move to another town and pretend to be blind for some illogical reason. This story is extremely ableist: everyone in the new town treats Clark as if he’s completely incapable of doing even the simplest things for himself, and Clark appears to be fine with this insulting treatment. In the backup story, a superpowered baby is left on the Kents’ doorstep and then starts aging rapidly, but it turns out to be a practical joke. I don’t know why the writer, E. Nelson Bridwell, thought this was funny.

ATOMIC ROBO: DEADLY ART OF SCIENCE #3 (Red 5, 2011) – A+. Again, this comic is difficult to comment on because like Groo, it’s the same joke every issue. (The joke in this case is that Atomic Robo is an adorably cute robot who uses SCIENCE!) This particular issue is an effective example of that joke, and also develops Robo’s relationship with his dad and his new girlfriend.

RAT QUEENS #4 (Image, 2014) – A. This issue is just a giant fight scene, but Wiebe and Upchurch manage to make even that entertaining. The villain in this issue (well, one of the villains) is especially entertaining because she’s a grotesquely fat troll, yet she’s not fat in a funny way, and she’s a genuine threat.

PRETTY DEADLY #4 (Image, 2014) – B-. I’m sorry to say that I’m still having trouble getting into this series. I don’t quite understand its sensibility, KSDC’s writing still seems kind of awkward to me, and while I enjoy Emma Rios’s artwork, her panel structures are sometimes excessively convoluted. At least by now I’m starting to understand who all the characters are, but again, I wish Kelly had made that clear at an earlier point. I feel obligated to keep buying this series, though, because I feel that there’s something about it I’m missing.

ELRIC: THE SAILOR ON THE SEAS OF FATE #3 (First, 1985) – B+. There is something deeply visual about Michael Moorcock’s writing, something which makes it ideal subject matter for comics. Yet “Sailing to the Present,” the crossover story with Agak and Gagak, seems resistant to adaptation in a visual medium, because it deals with entities that are too fantastic to be grasped by the senses. In this issue, though, Thomas, Gilbert and Freeman do a more than adequate job of finding a visual form for this story. Michael T. Gilbert’s artwork is appropriate for this story because it’s powerfully epic while still quite abstract; he doesn’t try to fix Agak and Gagak into a single visual form. P. Craig Russell could have done an even better job with this material, though.

BULLETS & BRACELETS #1 (DC/Marvel, 1996) – C+. For a John Ostrander work, this comic was rather disappointing. It begins with the somewhat implausible premise that the Punisher and Wonder Woman have a child together, and ends with the unsatisfactory revelation that the child, after being kidnapped, grows up to become Master Kanto from Apokolips. Which I suppose makes sense given his parents, but it’s also annoyingly similar to the origin of Validus. What’s even more unsatisfying is that once Diana and Frank discover what happened to their baby, they seem to forget about him completely. A further annoying thing about this comic is that most of the characters are taken directly from one universe or the other, rather than being amalgams of Marvel and DC characters. Surely instead of just using the original Female Furies or Kanto, Ostrander could have come up with some preexisting Marvel or DC characters to combine them with.

HELLBOY: THE FURY #3 (Dark Horse, 2011) – A-. I really had no idea what was going on here, but it all had a very epic scope to it. I’d like to read this story again with more knowledge of Hellboy continuity. I still think Duncan Fegredo’s artwork is almost indistinguishable from Mignola’s.

QUANTUM & WOODY #2 (Valiant, 2013) – B. This is funny, but it still seems too similar to the Priest/Bright original, adding very little that wasn’t in the original series. I would rather just read back issues of the original Quantum & Woody.

DAGAR THE INVINCIBLE #3 (Gold Key, 1973) – B. This issue introduces Dagar’s love interest, Graylin, who was named after Don Glut’s former wife. The story is quite formulaic, but it’s sufficiently well-drawn and excitingly written to be worth reading anyway. At this point in Jesse Santos’s career, his art was notable more for his distinctive linework than for his storytelling or page layouts. His stuff would get more bizarre and crazy as his collaboration with Glut went on.

MARVEL APES #0 (Marvel, 2008) – A+. This issue reprints Amazing Spider-Man #110 and #111, and the grade of A+ is mostly because of the former, which is one of the few Lee/Romita Spider-Man comics I hadn’t read. This issue has some fantastic soap opera-esque scenes involving the love triangle between Peter, Gwen and Flash (or at least Peter thinks it’s a love triangle). But the reason it’s reprinted here is that it introduces the Gibbon, who is depicted here as a truly tragic figure, rather than a joke villain, as I would have expected. Or rather, he is a joke, but he becomes a villain because he’s sick of everyone laughing at his simian appearance. The Marvel Apes miniseries, in which the Gibbon becomes an actual hero, is an effective continuation of this story. Issue #111, which I had already read, is not nearly as good because it’s written by Gerry Conway instead of Stan. There is also an original story by Karl Kesel and Ramon Bachs, which retells the machinery-lifting scene from ASM #33 with monkeys. The trouble with this story is it’s not nearly as long as the original scene. The joke would have been funnier if the monkey version of the scene had had the same epic scope as the people version.

SHE-HULK: COSMIC COLLISION #1 (Marvel, 2009) – D-. One of the worst PAD comics I’ve read. In this issue PAD attempts to convey some kind of serious message about love and hate or something, but he does this in such a ponderous, heavy-handed way that his argument loses all effectiveness. His abortion and AIDS stories in Incredible Hulk had the same problem. The artwork in this issue is not especially good either.

WHAT IF? #21 (Marvel, 1991) – C-. “What If Spider-Man Married the Black Cat” is interesting mostly for unintentional humor value. The premise of the story is pretty stupid to begin with – it requires Peter to be an even more irresponsible idiot than is normal for him. And as often happens in this What If series, the initial premise leads to a series of wild and implausible plot twists, including the deaths of numerous characters. Many writers seemed to use the What If format as an excuse for killing off characters who were inviolable in the regular Marvel universe, and this issue is no exception. The other bizarre thing is that the story ends with Spidey getting together with Silver Sable of all characters. Silver Sable’s role in this story is so disproportionately large that it made me wonder if the writer of this issue, Danny Fingeroth, created her (he didn’t).

USAGI YOJIMBO #67 (Dark Horse, 2003) – A+. Another amazing piece of work. This story is partly an excuse for Stan to do a story about kaiju, but it’s more than that besides. For example, as foreshadowed by the very impressive cover, this story gives Jotaro a chance to play the hero. Having been imprisoned so that his blood can be used to make ink, he single-handedly frees himself and the other children held captive with him. He even has to kill a creature that’s pursuing them; while Stan declines to show this scene on-panel, I feel like it’s a key moment in Jotaro’s character arc, because it indicates his ability to take difficult actions when necessary. It reminds me of the scene in King Conan when Conn kills someone for the first time. If the point of the “Travels with Jotaro” storyline is to show Jotaro growing up into a young man worthy of his father, um, I mean uncle, then this story depicts an important step in that process.

DAREDEVIL #35 and #36 (Marvel, 2014) – B+. I’ll comment on these issues together. This story is disappointing because it’s yet another story in which Matt gets blackmailed or guilt-tripped into defending a known criminal. This already happened once in this run of Daredevil, and it previously happened in Karl Kesel’s first Daredevil storyline and even in Frank Miller’s Punisher storyline. It’s an effective plot device because it’s a dilemma that criminal defense lawyers often have to face in real life, but it’s getting old at this point. And the further frustrating part is that Matt is willing to allow himself to be blackmailed into defending Donald Ogilvy. It takes an intervention from Elektra (whose guest appearance in this story is not necessary) to get him to realize that he needs to seek a way out of this dilemma. Which he finally does, by revealing his secret identity in open court, but I also found this part of the story to be unconvincing. Did Matt really have to unmask himself in court, thereby making a mockery of the case he was trying? Couldn’t he have held a press conference instead? What I did like about this story was Chris Samnee’s artwork. Besides David Aja, Samnee is Marvel’s preeminent artist at the moment. His work reminds me a lot of early Mazzucchelli in its linework and its use of flat color. And some of his page layouts are awesome.

CEREBUS: CHURCH & STATE #12 (Aardvark-Vanaheim, 1991) – not rated. I didn’t understand a word of this issue. Besides that, though, the form of the story is very strange. Almost the entire story is a monologue delivered by one character to another, and the events described in the monologue are never shown on panel. I would be curious to know why Dave did this, because it seems like a gross violation of the principle of “show, don’t tell.”

SUPERGIRL #18 (DC, 1998) – A+. Significantly better than the previous PAD comic I read. This comic deals with serious religious themes, but in a way which is both funny and poignant. On the first page, we meet an old man whose grandson claims to be God, but just as we’re getting used to the ridiculousness of this premise, we learn that the old man’s wife just died. PAD manages to maintain a fine balance between humor and poignancy throughout this story. He also writes a quite admirable Supergirl, and I squeed a little at the line “You’d make any father proud.”

MAGNUS, ROBOT FIGHTER #1 (Dynamite, 2014) – B+. I’m a big fan of Magnus, and I think this series may be worth reading because it’s written by Fred Van Lente and because it provides an interesting new twist on this classic concept. The story starts out in Maury’s Peak, a utopian society where humans and robots coexist, and then transitions to a more familiar version of North Am where humans are oppressed by robots. Van Lente seems to be presenting robots as a potentially positive force, whereas Russ Manning typically depicted robots as the enemy, and I’m curious to see what Van Lente does with this premise.

EAST OF WEST #2 (Image, 2013) – C-. This was a typical Jonathan Hickman comic because it made no sense to me at all.


SCMS paper

Posting this here so I can read it off my phone while running my presentation off my laptop. Accompanying presentation is here:

First, although it’s not directly relevant to this paper, I want to use this forum to say that one of the problems confronting comics studies as a field is fragmentation. Before coming to this conference I had the impression that film and media scholars were not interested in comics. Now I realize that that isn’t quite true, but rather that the comics scholars in English departments and the comics scholars in film departments are not in dialogue with each other. And like Scott Bukatman was saying the other night, one thing that would help advance the field is if these two segments of the comics studies community could interact more.
The actual paper is about how comics can serve as a prototype of synergy between print and digital media; comics are a productive example of how print and digital modes of publication can exist in a mutually supportive rather than an antagonistic relationship. On July 25th, the Onion, America’s finest news source, reported that the medium of print had died. SLIDE 1 The cause of death was attributed to print’s inability to compete with digital and social media. Yet just six days earlier other evidence suggested that print was only mostly dead, which is the same as slightly alive. SLIDE 2 At a Comic-Con panel on the topic Digital vs. Print: Friends or Foes, industry executive Jeff Webber said that comics were the only segment of the print marketplace that had not been negatively impacted by digital media. The print comics marketplace is surviving, albeit in a highly reduced state compared to the fifties when comics were a major mass medium. And yet digital comics are also a massive industry, probably far more popular than print comics. So in the contemporary comics landscape, print and digital are coexisting and it even seems like each is driving sales of the other. And this paper seeks to suggest some reasons why this is. What are comics doing right that other media aren’t doing? What can we learn from comics about how new and old media can interact productively?
So in the first place, an argument I have often made is that comics, compared to text-based literature, are much more likely to exploit the specific physical features of their chosen media – that in comics, materiality tends to have a level of prominence that is comparatively very rare in prose literature. There are just all kinds of comics, both print and digital, that could never conceivably be reproduced in digital format without destroying a large part of the reading experience. In terms of print comics, examples that come to mind are Sunday Press Books’s giant editions of Winsor McCay, SLIDE 3 or Chris Ware’s Building Stories. SLIDE 4 And there are just as many digital comics that equally resist translation to print, and I assume the stuff Drew will discuss in his paper will be an example of that. It’s mostly because of this that Hillary Chute has said that “Comics is a site-specific medium; it can’t be re-flowed, re-jiggered on the page; hence, it is spatially located on the page the way that poetry often must be.” Now in an article for the Atlantic, Noah Berlatsky claimed that Chute was wrong because of counterexamples like Charles Schulz’s Peanuts, which was originally published as a 4-panel comic strip but was later reprinted in paperback books which used horizontal or square formats. SLIDE 5 In a post to the comix-scholars list which I’m quoting with permission, Jeet Heer pointed out that Berlatsky in fact was wrong; Peanuts is capable of being reprinted in different formats because Schulz consciously designed it that way. But he went on to explain how Chute and Berlatsky’s positions could be reconciled: “All cartoonists … have to be thinking in spatial terms, whether they choose to be spatially flexible (as Schulz did) or spatially fixed (as McCay and Ware did). Spatial awareness is inextricable from comics, whatever the choice might be.” And I think this tension between fixity and flexibility is an important formal property of comics. Paradoxically, comics are irreducibly tied to the material form in which they are embodied, and yet they are also capable of being remediated into other material forms. We could also think of material fixity and material flexibility as two different options both of which comics are equally capable of employing. And material flexibility, in particular, explains how a single comics text can exist simultaneously in print and digital form at once without the two being competitive. In order to see how this works, let’s look at my primary example, which is the work of Monkeybrain Comics and in particular their best-known comic, Bandette. SLIDE 7
Monkeybrain is an independent digital comics publisher which was founded by Chris Roberson, a comics writer, and Allison Baker, a film producer. In an interview with me, Roberson and Baker said that they chose to start a digital versus a print comic company largely for practical reasons; print comics require a massive capital investment and are not easily scaleable and Diamond has a monopoly on distribution. This also meant that Monkeybrain was less constrained in the sort of comics they were able to produce. Monkeybrain comics cut across a wide variety of genres and are often difficult to categorize in generic terms, which makes them difficult to pitch to print publishers. An example here is their most critically successful title, Bandette, which is about a French super cat burglar and it’s just the most awesome comic ever and if you all haven’t read it you need to. SLIDE 8 The creators, Paul Tobin and Colleen Coover, apparently pitched it to numerous print comics publishers and were repeatedly rejected. It was too weird for superhero publishers and it seemed too much like a superhero title for indie publishers. And this was despite the fact that Paul and Colleen were both established creators who had published in both the superhero and alternative comics markets. So Chris and Allison approached Paul and Colleen and told them to do whatever they wanted, and Bandette was published through Monkeybrain and became an incredible success and won an Eisner Award, and Dark Horse, who had previously rejected the project, now picked it up and published it as this hardcover book. HOLD IT UP This is a rare success story but many of Monkeybrain’s comics are similar in that they’re done in a style similar to that of so-called mainstream comics but they explore more quirky subject matter and are often directed at an all-ages audience.
Now the above account suggests two important things about Monkeybrain. First, the only thing they contract for is digital rights; everything else remains the property of the creators. For Bandette, for example, Paul and Colleen were free to make a deal with Dark Horse for print rights. And second and more importantly, Monkeybrain comics are not specific to the digital medium but are also capable of being translated into print form. Unlike Thrillbent, another digital comics publisher founded by writers of print comics, Monkeybrain comics do not include digital-specific features like motion or touchscreen functionality. This seems to be partly due to differences in emphasis or interest between the two companies. The way Chris explained it was, “With Thrillbent, Mark and his partner John Rogers and company are experimenting with digital as a form; with Monkeybrain, what Alison and I and the creators we work with are doing is experimenting with digital as a distribution mechanism.” So Monkeybrain’s goal is not to do things impossible in print, but to publish comics that could be published in print but for which print publication is not currently economically viable. In the case of Bandette, its success on Monkeybrain made the printed edition possible, by proving that there was in fact a market for this title no one was willing to take a chance on at first.
So the example of Bandette proves the flexibility of comics, it suggests that a given comic is not irreducibly tied to the material form for which it’s created. At least some digital comics are capable of being printed and vice versa. But this is not to say that comics can be translated perfectly from print to digital form. There will always be subtle but important differences between the two, both in terms of form and in terms of the affective experience of reading, and that’s why one format can drive sales of the other. Now let me again demonstrate this with Bandette. While Monkeybrain comics can be printed, they are also powerfully shaped by their digital format. Monkeybrain comics are distributed primarily through Comixology, the major app for purchasing and reading digital comics, and are probably most often read on a tablet. SLIDE 9 And this is a Comixology T-shirt that I’m wearing. So on a tablet, or at least on my Kindle Fire, the screen is too small to easily read a comic page by page, so the most convenient way to read comics on a tablet is by using Comixology’s Guided View functionality, where panels are displayed one at a time. SLIDE 10 This radically changes the reading experience because it fragments the page into individual panels, almost turning it into a very limited animation. And it prevents you from noticing the overall design and layout of the page, or from paying attention to what Thierry Groensteen calls arthrology, the network of connections between both adjacent and nonadjacent panels. As a way of mitigating this effect you can choose to view each page all at once both before and after reading the page in Guided View, but again, when you do that you can’t read the individual panels easily. So this creates a separation between what I suggested earlier were the two modes of comics reading, the reading of the page as a unitary whole and the reading of each panel individually. Another more practical effect is that for Guided View, Comixology divides each page into separate blocks which may or may not correspond to individual panels. I don’t know yet how exactly this works, but either there is some person at Comixology who formats every page for Guided View, or they use an algorithm that does it automatically. Either way, the choice of how to format the page is not necessarily made by the actual artist, and it sometimes has weird results. In issue 1 of Amelia Cole, another Monkeybrain comic, when you view this panel in Guided View, it skips over the left-hand side of this panel here, which actually contains important visual information. SLIDE 11 And Guided View doesn’t work well at all with pages that have more complicated layouts. Another Monkeybrain comic, Aesop’s Ark, uses full-page compositions without traditional gutters or panel borders and therefore reading it in Guided View is an awkward experience. SLIDE 12 Guided View works best for comics that have clearly delineated panels which are the same shape as the tablet screen. So one reason Bandette works well as a Comixology title is that it fulfills that criterion. I don’t think there’s a single panel in the entire book that has a diagonal or curved border. SLIDE 13 This is probably not deliberate, I have another Colleen Coover comic here which also includes only rectilinear panels, but it does suggest that Colleen’s artwork is ideally suited to the specific demands of Comixology. SLIDE 14 Obviously the subject matter here is rather different.
So if Bandette is such a perfect work for Comixology, then why is there a print version at all? One obvious answer is that the print version of Bandette is marketed toward existing comics readers who do not have a tablet or who are unwilling to read comics in digital form, or who are simply unaware of the existence of Comixology or Monkeybrain. And there may be enough of such readers to make publishing Bandette a financially viable proposition, because comics fans are notoriously passionate about print. For example, in my own case, I have a collection slash private library of well over 10,000 comic books and I routinely buy comic books whose stories I’ve already read in reprinted form and I enjoy the smell of old newsprint. SLIDE 15 And printed comic books satisfy this desire for sensuous engagement with materiality more effectively than tablets do. Not to say that tablets do not have physicality, but compared to the comic book, the tablet is a much more slick and smooth artifact with much less tactile or sensory richness. And incidentally I have not yet read Ian Hague’s Comics and the Senses but he argues at great length that senses other than vision play a crucial role in comics reading. This means that even for readers who have read the digital version of Bandette, the print version offers some value-added. To go back to an earlier point, it allows you to read the individual panels and the entire page simultaneously, and it also seems like a more substantial, permanent artifact, something you can keep in your library – which incidentally is kind of odd. Something that came up in my interview with Chris and Allison is that prior to the ‘60s or ‘70s when the modern collector culture began to develop, the comic book was viewed not as a permanent part of a collection but as a disposable artifact, and I’ve seen several old references to kids throwing comic books away after reading them, which is still the case with manga magazines in Japan. Whereas now the disposable form of Bandette is the digital form, which may be automatically deleted from your tablet to make room for more recently downloaded comics. In my own case, having read most of Bandette digitally, I found both that I don’t like reading comics on a tablet and that I wanted to make the comic part of my library, and so I was willing to shell out for the hardcover version despite already having read much of its content.
So the point is that Bandette exists in both print and digital form at once, and these two versions of the text offer different reading experiences and cater to different desires. As a further step beyond this, we could envision a comic where the print and digital versions actually work together to provide an experience that’s unobtainable with either version alone, and this would constitute digital/print synergy on a formal as well as an economic level. Currently the best example of this that I know of is not a comic but an artist’s book, Amaranth Borsuk and Brad Bouse’s Between Page and Screen, where you have to hold the book up to a webcam in order to actually read it. SLIDE 16 And Marvel is currently doing a rather half-assed version of this with their augmented reality comics. But the point I’m leading up to is that if digital-print synergy is possible, if these two media platforms can coexist harmoniously rather than the one causing the death of the other, then comics offers us a vision of how that can happen.


Commentaries on comics read this month

I think I may start calling these commentaries rather than reviews, because the point is not to evaluate whether each of these comics is worth reading or not, but just to record some of the things that went through my mind as I read each of them.

MARVEL ADVENTURES: FANTASTIC FOUR #19 (Marvel, 2007) – B-. This is a rather simplistic and preachy story in which Reed, thanks to a battle with Arcade, learns the importance of being nice to other people. It’s not actively bad but it reads like an average episode of a Saturday morning cartoon. I don’t think that this series was ever as creative or experimental as the other Marvel Adventures titles.

X-FACTOR #32 (Marvel, 2008) – B. Lately I’ve been trying to finish all the unread comics I had before I moved to Atlanta in 2011. This was one of them. PAD’s second run on X-Factor is not my favorite work of his, partly because it’s difficult to understand without having followed it from the beginning, partly due to excessive seriousness. I typically prefer funny PAD to serious PAD. This issue is reasonably effective, but it’s the conclusion of an extended storyline which seems to have been written for the trade, and I think I would have enjoyed it more if I had read it in that form.

X-FACTOR #33 (Marvel, 2008) – B+. Artistically this issue is a massive departure from the previous one. The artist is Larry Stroman, who I believe worked with PAD on X-Factor in the ‘90s, and I find his art to be an acquired taste at best. His people look grotesquely cartoonish, and his portrayals of black women are especially unflattering; I actually thought I detected some racism here until I remembered that Stroman himself is black. The story in this issue is just average. I don’t particularly like most of the characters, and I actively dislike Jamie Madrox.

X-FACTOR #34 (Marvel, 2008) – C. I read this issue about three weeks ago and I hardly remember anything about it. This story is a lead-in to an extended storyline with Longshot and Shatterstar, which provides the bizarre revelation that each of them is the other’s father, but this issue itself is only the setup for that.

SABRINA THE TEENAGE WITCH #74 (Archie, 1974) – The first story in this issue takes place in a graveyard, and has some moderately spooky artwork that would not be entirely out of place in a horror comic. I can’t think of anything else in this comic that’s worth commenting on.

“FOREVER PEOPLE #11 (DC, 1972) – A+. I have this entire series in a black-and-white trade paperback, but I’m slowly collecting the original issues, and it’s nice to read them in color. This issue, the last issue of the series, is an extended fight scene in which the Forever People battle Devilance the Pursuer, and it ends with them getting stuck on an Edenic uninhabited planet. This is both a satisfying send-off for the characters and a useful hook that other writers might have used to develop new Forever People stories. Unfortunately the characters were never seen again until J.M. DeMatteis’s 1988 miniseries, which was execrably bad.

DAREDEVIL #29 (Marvel, 2013) – A-. This continues to be the best Daredevil run since the ‘80s. In this issue Matt and his client Nate Hackett have to escape from a courtroom which has been completely taken over by the Sons of the Serpent. Therefore the issue is a long series of action sequences which are very well executed, but the really impressive part is that the Sons’ takeover of the legal system is genuinely frightening and seems almost plausible. One scene, where Matt narrowly saves a black man from being shot by a corrupt cop, is eerily reminiscent of recent real-world incidents of police brutality against minorities. A possible critique of this story, though, is that the Sons of the Serpent are rather cartoonish and implausible villains, and are clearly not a plausible depiction of actual white supremacist terrorists. It could be argued that by depicting them in this way, Mark is trivializing the problem of right-wing domestic terrorism. I’m not particularly bothered by this, but another reader might be.

DAREDEVIL #30 (Marvel, 2013) – A+. This one, however, is just all kinds of fun. I am not a Silver Surfer fan, but the idea of a Daredevil/Silver Surfer team-up is appealing precisely because these characters have so little in common and come from opposite sides of the Marvel universe. Mark and Chris effectively exploit the comic potential of this premise; the best thing in the issue is the two-page splash with Matt surfing on the Surfer’s board. If Mark and Chris are the best Daredevil creative team since Miller and Mazzucchelli, then this is because they’ve found a way to integrate the serious and fun sides of the character. To put it very reductively, there are two major ways of writing Daredevil – as a light-hearted, wisecracking Spider-Man-esque swashbuckler or as a grim, realistic Batman-esque vigilante. Since Miller, most major Daredevil writers (e.g. Nocenti, Bendis and Brubaker) have adopted the latter approach, while a couple (Karl Kesel and Joe Kelly) have chosen the former approach. But Mark Waid seems to be striving for balance between the two halves of the character. He emphasizes Matt’s basic cheerfulness and lust for life, and this is reflected in Samnee and Rodriguez’s artwork, which is bright, cartoonish and full of primary colors, quite distinct from Michael Lark or Alex Maleev’s art style. And yet Mark does not let us forget that Matt’s character has been shaped by a series of awful personal tragedies. This balance between seriousness and fun is what makes this series an original and compelling take on what had previously been a rather tired character.

DAREDEVIL #31 (Marvel, 2013) – A-. The critique I mentioned in my review of issue #29 is even more relevant to this issue, which is a thinly disguised retelling of the Trayvon Martin case. The twist is that after the George Zimmerman character gets off scot-free, the Jester tries to incite a race riot by revealing the names of the jurors on live television. I honestly don’t know whether I approve of this story or not. A Marvel comic hardly seems like an appropriate forum for addressing such a sensitive issue, and yet Mark does depict the Trayvon Martin verdict as the gross miscarriage of justice that it was, and he doesn’t offer any easy solutions to the structural racism of the American justice system. I suppose Mark deserves credit for his willingness to engage with such risky subject matter.

PRETTY DEADLY #2 (Image, 2013) – B. I am having a lot of trouble getting into this series. Emma Rios’s artwork is powerfully evocative, especially the back cover and the page with the butterflies. But KSDC’s writing is seriously unclear. At this point I more or less understand what’s going on, but I still wish she had just explained from the beginning who all the characters are and what they have to do with each other. Also, the pseudo-nineteenth-century dialogue seems annoying rather than authentic. The “death rides on the wind” poem is particularly grating, since it doesn’t scan at all. I’m willing to continue reading this series, but it’s not among my favorite current Image titles.

MANIFEST DESTINY #2 (Image, 2013) – A-. This, on the other hand, I really like. The premise is fascinating – Lewis and Clark with monsters. Both the writing and the artwork seem historically accurate and realistic, creating a sense of plausibility that contrasts effectively with the plant zombies and buffalo centaurs. Chris Dungess seems to have done a fair amount of research into the era, and he writes dialogue that sounds plausibly close to actual early-19th-century English. After reading this I was curious to read more of this series.

DAREDEVIL #32 (Marvel, 2013) – A-. In this issue Matt goes to Kentucky to look for Werewolf by Night, I forget why, and gets caught in an attempted lynching. Mark’s depiction of the people of Stone Hills, Kentucky verges on offensive stereotyping; he wants us to see them as stupid racist hicks who pull out the torches and pitchforks as soon as they hear there’s a black person in town. It turns out that the people being lynched are monsters (Werewolf by Night, Satana, etc.) and not African-Americans, so the townspeople’s mob behavior is actually justified, but this doesn’t change how the reader perceives them. By the way, I wish I could say I saw this plot twist coming, but I didn’t. Besides that I have little else to say about this issue.

AQUAMAN #41 (DC, 1968) – B+. This is an early issue by the Skeates/Aparo team. It’s part of an ongoing storyline in which Aquaman searches for the kidnapped Mera, but the main plot of this issue involves Aquaman’s encounter with some undersea people who live in tandem with a bunch of giant sea monsters. It turns out that the sea monsters provide energy for the people, and in exchange the people allow the sea monsters to eat them. The surprising thing is that when Aquaman discovers this, he just escapes, rather than trying to do anything to change the situation; in a more typical Silver Age DC comic, he would have come up with some magical solution that would have allowed the people to sustain their civilization without having to be eaten by monsters. The implication is that Aquaman either can’t do so, or won’t, because as he mentions at one point, being devoured by sea monsters is part of these people’s culture, and they don’t know any different. It’s an interesting case of moral relativism, analogous to human sacrifice in Aztec culture.

DAREDEVIL #33 (Marvel, 2014) – A-. This issue is mostly free of racial politics but is full of supernatural phenomena. As noted above, for the last thirty years most writers have depicted Daredevil as a grittily realistic character, and he almost seems to exist in a different universe from characters like Dr. Strange and the Silver Surfer. Which is a strange thing about the Marvel Universe – that it’s not one universe but many, belonging to many different genres, which occasionally intersect. But Matt’s total incomprehension of the supernatural side of the Marvel Universe is actually part of the appeal of this story. An example of this is the scene where Matt thinks “I wonder when the scare tactics start,” and then the next panel shows that he’s standing inside a mountain shaped like a snake’s open mouth. This issue is also an example of a story that takes advantage of Matt’s blindness: Matt is able to survive all the supernatural illusions that are directed at him in this issue because they appeal mostly to the sight.

BATMAN, INC. #5 (DC, 2011) – C+. Not so long ago Grant Morrison was the preeminent writer in the industry, but his career has taken a serious downturn, largely because he’s so popular that no one dares to edit his stories. One result of this is that his writing has become impossibly confusing. Grant’s Batman comics are incomprehensible unless you’ve been following them from the beginning. It’s not possible to just pick up a single issue of Batman, Inc. and figure out what’s going on. He has some fascinating ideas, but it takes entirely too much work to understand what those ideas are. Also, Batwoman, who appears in this issue, seems quite out of character.

X-FACTOR #7 (Marvel, 2006) – B-. I alluded to this briefly above, but one problem I have with PAD’s X-Factor is that I don’t especially like any of the characters, except Wolfsbane. And I’m not sure that PAD even wants us to like them. Jamie Madrox, for example, just seems like an insufferable cocky jerk. And in this issue, when Siryn is told that her father is dead, she doesn’t believe it, instead assuring everyone that of course he’ll be back soon. Clearly the reader is not supposed to approve of this reaction (even though it was justified – Banshee did come back to life in Uncanny Avengers last year). I would enjoy this series a lot more if it contained any characters I could sympathize with.

X-FACTOR #12 (Marvel, 2006) – C. I barely remember this one. It’s the conclusion of an ongoing storyline that I didn’t read, and even if I had read it, I probably wouldn’t have liked it. The one notable thing about this story is that it includes a scene where a woman opens her refrigerator and an old man uses some kind of superpower to manifest himself to her from inside the refrigerator. Incredible Hulk #400 also includes a scene that fits that exact same description. And this was not a reference to “women in refrigerators,” because it predated the Green Lantern story that was the origin of that phrase. So either the scene in X-Factor #12 was a very subtle (possibly unconscious) homage to the scene in Hulk #400, or PAD has some weird obsession with refrigerators.

PRETTY DEADLY #3 (Image, 2013) – B+/A-. Here the story is starting to become clearer; I’m finally starting to understand who Sissy and Alice and Ginny are and what they have to do with each other. However, I wish KSDC had provided this exposition at the start of the series, rather than introducing these characters with no explanation of who they were. Emma Rios’s artwork is the major draw of this series; her page layouts are innovative if overly convoluted, and she creates a powerful sense of eerieness. I still haven’t felt motivated to read issue 4.

SUPERGIRL #42 (DC, 2000) – B+/A-. I have a lot of issues of PAD’s Supergirl but have been hesitant to read them due to unfamiliarity with either the storyline or this version of the character. But I actually liked this issue a lot more than the X-Factors reviewed above. There are scenes here that have the same sort of humor as in Young Justice, like when Linda’s roommate walks out of the shower naked, not realizing that Linda’s boyfriend is visiting. And unlike the X-Factor characters, Linda is quite appealing; she’s goofy and naïve but in a charming way. I think I want to read more of this series.

THE FOX #4 (Archie, 2014) – B+. This is a deliberate throwback to an earlier era of superhero comics, and so it’s all fast-paced action with bright primary colors. It’s interesting as a departure from the excessively dark and depressing material that Marvel and DC are currently publishing, but I’m not sure what there is here that’s genuinely new. I never thought of Dean Haspiel as a superhero artist – I’m mostly familiar with him because of his collaborations with Pekar – and his artwork here is excessively loose and cartoonish. Still, I like the idea behind this series and I’m willing to stick with it for at least a couple more issues.

THE SANDMAN #42 (DC, 1992) – A+. I’ve already read this story several times. The main thing that occurs to me on rereading it is what an insufferable jerk Morpheus is. Everything Death says about him in issue #8 (“”You are utterly the stupidest, most self-centered, appallingest excuse for an anthropomorphic personification in this or any other plane!” and so on) is completely true. For example, in this issue, after being dumped by Thessaly, Morpheus has a temper tantrum and makes it rain until everyone in the Dreaming is completely drenched, and then he acts rude to Delirium when she comes to visit him. One of the key story threads throughout the series, though, is that Morpheus’s relationships with other people gradually teach him to be human – he tells Will Shakespeare in issue 75 “I am not a man. And I do not change,” but it’s not true. “Brief Lives” is important to Morpheus’s character arc because it gives him a chance to act like a genuine big brother to Delirium (who is one of the other truly great characters in the series, and has much in common with Pinkie Pie).

DAREDEVIL #34 (Marvel, 2014) – A-. Overall this is a satisfying conclusion to the Sons of the Serpent storyline, but there’s one thing about it that annoys me. The story ends with Kirsten McDuffie giving a big inspiring speech about how mob mentality sucks, and when people tell you that a certain group is the cause of all your problems, you should ignore them. This is fine, and rather uncontroversial. But the example she uses is problematic: “Pay close attention to your colleagues and peers. Ask yourself which ones are constantly telling you exactly what you want to hear about your problems – that it’s the blacks or the wingnuts or the one-percents [emphasis mine] or the have-nots out to get you – and then decide if that anger serves them more than it serves you.” Does Mark seriously think that anger against the 1% is equally as unjustifiable as anger against black people? Even though he himself has spent most of his career working for comics companies which are run by one-percenters, and has regularly been screwed over by them? I hope that this line was inserted by an editor and that it doesn’t represent Mark’s actual feelings about economic inequality.

COURTNEY CRUMRIN #10 (Oni, 2013) – A. Until I finished reading this issue I didn’t realize it was the conclusion to the entire Courtney Crumrin saga. Unannounced final issues are very rare in comics, and I was pleasantly surprised to find that Ted Naifeh was able to conclude this series on his own terms and with such a satisfying sense of resolution. I didn’t understand everything that was going on here since my knowledge of this series is limited, but it seems that Courtney ends up as a normal girl, with Uncle Aloysius’s brother restored to life as her brother. It’s an elegant conclusion that leads us out of the realm of fantasy and back into the real world, kind of like the end of Spirited Away. I don’t know if Ted Naifeh is a major artist, but he has developed a completely unique sensibility, which is expressed most effectively in this series.

DARK HORSE PRESENTS #100-2 (Dark Horse, 1995) – A-. The stories in this anniversary issue are of widely varying quality, but the best of them are quite interesting. The possible classic here is “The Chained Coffin,” a possible origin story for Hellboy. Mignola’s artwork in this story is extremely impressive, but the best part of the story is the last line, which is a bizarre non sequitur: “Abe Sapien dreams of fish.” There is also a brief Eddie Campbell story which is a preview of After the Snooter, a book I own but have never gotten around to. Next there are two stories by people I’ve never heard of, both of which are complete gibberish, but the quality improves again with a Roberta Gregory story, which is quite funny although it follows the standard Bitchy Bitch formula quite closely. Finally there is a wordless story by Paul Pope, which has no narrative to speak of but is quite attractively drawn.

SUPERMAN #652 (DC, 2006) – A-/B+. This is part five of “Up, Up, and Away!” In this story Clark finally starts to get his powers back, which is almost disappointing because Kurt and Geoff had been doing such a good job of depicting a powerless Clark Kent who was gradually learning to live like anyone else. Lois’s reaction to the return of Clark’s powers is actually quite frustrating: she says that she’s like a fireman’s wife, who has to constantly watch her husband run into burning buildings. Besides the sexist implication that all firefighters are male and heterosexual, this is annoying because it suggests that Lois is content with an essentially subservient and passive role in her marriage, whereas the previous parts of this story had depicted Lois as being far more competent and aggressive than Clark. I’d prefer to think that Geoff was responsible for this scene, not Kurt. Overall I kind of wish Clark had remained powerless for even longer, although I did enjoy Kurt’s subsequent stories involving a fully powered Superman.

JOURNEY INTO MYSTERY #116 (Marvel, 1965) – A+. Given my general low opinion of Lee and Kirby’s Thor, I was surprised at how much I enjoyed this issue. Easily the highlight of the issue is the panel where Odin gets out of the bathtub and puts on a bathrobe and fuzzy slippers (this panel can be seen midway down the page at This is especially funny because just a couple pages ago, Odin was sitting on his throne, giving commands and looking regal. There is other stuff in the issue that’s almost as fun: Thor and Loki have to fight a bunch of carnivorous plants, and Daredevil and the Avengers make cameo appearances that fit perfectly into continuity. Reading this story, I genuinely felt that Stan and Jack were having fun writing and drawing it, which is an impression I don’t always get from ‘60s Thor. For once, the Tales of Asgard backup in this issue is worse than the lead story; its highlight is that the villain wears a very silly-looking helmet.

ASTRO CITY #2 (Image, 1995) – A+. I read this story when it came out in trade format in the ‘90s. Reading it again almost two decades later, I remember the main plot very well (especially the last panel with the “shark stops train” headline), but I think that on my first reading I missed a lot of the subtle references and I didn’t realize how accurately Kurt and Brent depicted 1950s America. One example of a subtle point I missed in the original story is that Eliot Mills never mentions what became of his girlfriend Leslie, but on his desk he has a photograph of a woman and two children (I can’t tell if the woman is supposed to be Leslie or not) and he’s drinking from a “World’s Greatest Grand-Dad” coffee mug. And the story is full of referneces to names like Feldstein, Meskin, Briefer and Tripp. When I first read this story I thought that the ending was extremely depressing and disappointing, which it is, but it also has a warm and pleasantly nostalgic tone which almost compensates for the anticlimactic shock ending.

GLADSTONE’S SCHOOL FOR WORLD CONQUERORS #2 (Image, 2011) – B+. Mark Andrew Smith, the writer of this comic, effectively ended his own career when his Kickstarter project failed spectacularly and he blamed the artist for it. After his disgraceful behavior during that debacle, I imagine he will have a hard time finding either artists who are willing to work with him or fans who are willing to support his work. I think the comics industry will get along fine without him. This comic is cute, funny and well-drawn, and has an innovative premise (which is explained in the title), but it’s nothing spectacular.

CAPTAIN ACTION #3 (DC, 1969) – A+. The impressive thing about this series is how seriously it takes itself, considering that the comic was based on an action figure. According to Wikipedia, the concept behind the Captain Action toy was that he had the ability to change into other superheroes, but DC was unable to use this concept because some of the superheroes in question were owned by other publishers. Therefore, in writing the comic, Gil Kane had the opportunity to take the character in a different direction, essentially creating a new superhero universe, and he took full advantage of that opportunity. The story in this issue combines bizarre Kirby/Ditko-esque cosmic stuff (sample line: “He plucks whole nebulae from swirling clouds of gaseous crystals, only to be swallowed into a multicolored spray of intergalactic chime-tones”) with melodramatic pathos (one panel depicts a baby crying over its father’s corpse). As the previous summary suggests, Gil Kane’s writing style is extremely histrionic, similar to Will Eisner’s writing but even less subtle. But this can be attributed to inexperience – in the letter column, there’s a letter from Gil thanking Julie for the opportunity to “develop and evolve a character in my own fashion.” So this series can be seen as sort of a preview for later Gil Kane works such as Blackmark and His Name Is… Savage, neither of which I have read, but I get the feeling that they were both more mature works than this one. The other highlight of the issue, obviously, is the art; Gil Kane’s action sequences are as gorgeous as usual and his pencils are beautifully inked by Wally Wood.

HELLBLAZER #66 (Vertigo, 1993) – A-. This issue is extremely disturbing. It’s the conclusion of Fear and Loathing, in which Constantine tricks the archangel Gabriel into defiling himself, then cuts his wings off. I don’t know exactly why he did this, and it’s kind of hard not to agree with Gabriel when he says “Why is it… when people like you see something pure and good and beautiful… that you have to kick it down and drag it through the mud?” Both the writing and artwork in this issue are very well executed, but the story is kind of hard to enjoy; maybe it would have left less of a bad taste in my mouth if I had read the entire story continuously.

THE OCCULT FILES OF DR. SPEKTOR #2 (Gold Key, 1973) – C+/B-. At this very early point, this series was just a standard horror comic. Glut and Santos had yet to seriously develop the characters of Dr. Spektor and Lakota, who are the most interesting thing about the series, even if Lakota is a rather dated and offensive stereotype. The first issue is a standard piece of Gothic horror which is notable only because the villain is named Howard Rogo. Don Glut liked to use names of real people in his stories, so I assume this character is named after Howard Rogofsky, a dealer who was active in fandom at the same time Glut was. The backup story is even less interesting since it doesn’t feature Dr. Spektor or Lakota at all.

FEARLESS DEFENDERS #10 (Marvel, 2013) – B+. This story introduces Ren Kimura, a Japanese-American dancer who joins the Defenders to get away from her stifling parents. Ren is a pretty interesting character, and also quite visually distinctive thanks to the giant razor ribbons on her arms. Her overly strict parents do seem rather stereotypical, but she herself is a distinctive and mostly non-stereotypical character. Unfortunately, with the cancellation of her series I expect she will end up in the same limbo as so many of Marvel’s other female characters of color. I should point out again here that the cancellation of Fearless Defenders is really unfortunate, because how long will it be before there’s another Marvel comic with an entirely female cast which includes multiple women of color? Thankfully the cancellation of the series has not deterred Marvel from publishing more comics with female POC protagonists.

SANDMAN: ENDLESS NIGHTS SPECIAL nn (DC, 2003) – A. This preview comic consists of one chapter from the Endless Nights anthology, a book I have not read. The artist is Miguelanxo Prado, whose album Streak of Chalk was the subject of part of my MA thesis. That book is interesting both for its narrative depth and for his gorgeous painted artwork – as a painter, Prado is on the same level as Lorenzo Mattotti. Prado’s artwork on this story is not quite up to that standard, but his backgrounds are often gorgeous, and his facial expressions are more or less perfect. The plot of this story, however, is a little unconvincing and perfunctory. I find it hard to buy that Killalla and Sto-Oa would fall in love after knowing each other for just four pages. And Morpheus begins the story by describing Desire as his favorite sibling, but Gaiman never shows us any evidence that of Morpheus’s fondness for Desire. And when Morpheus discovers that Desire set Killalla up with Sto-Oa, his attitude toward Desire takes an immediate 180-degree turn; he tells Desire that they’re not friends anymore and Desire should stay out of his business. I would have found all of this much more plausible if the story had been developed at greater length. What is far more interesting about this story is the way that Neil develops the prehistory of the DC universe. For example, there’s a scene where Despair gives Rao (Krypton’s sun) the idea of evolving life on an unstable planet. It’s just one throwaway line and yet it seems so perfect. Maybe this story illustrates how Neil is sometimes better with small details than with the big picture.

THE MIGHTY THOR #14 (Marvel, 2012) – C. I mostly bought this because of the Walt Simonson cover. The story inside was quite forgettable. It has little if anything to do with Kieron Gillen’s Journey into Mystery saga, and despite the recap, I didn’t really understand who the characters were or how they fit together. The Endless Library is a cool idea, and I love the visual gimmick of the goblin in a business suit. However, I just finished reading Pratchett’s Guards! Guards!, and in that story the concept of an infinite multidimensional library is executed in a much funnier way. (To say nothing of Borges’s “The Library of Babel.”)

KING CONAN #7 (Marvel, 1981) – A-. In general this is quite a satisfying Conan story, especially because in this issue Conan finally gets the chance to kill his old enemy King Yezdigerd of Turan. However, the story suffers from a lack of structure. The plot, which is adapted from de Camp and Nyberg’s novel Conan the Avenger, largely seems like an excuse for Conan to re-encounter a bunch of characters from earlier stories. These encounters often seem both implausible and unnecessary to the story. For example, when Conan gets on board a pirate ship, it just happens to be commanded by an old enemy of his from his pirate days. And the issue ends with a scene where Conan meets Yasmina Devi from “The People of the Black Circle,” but this scene has nothing whatever to do with the overarching story of Conan’s search for Zenobia (and it even makes Conan look bad, since he cheats on Zenobia with Yasmina). Scenes like this make this story seem like less an epic quest than a parade of Conan’s greatest hits.

MY LITTLE PONY: FRIENDS FOREVER #2 (IDW, 2014) – B+. I kind of wish this series were called My Little Pony Team-Up (or My Little Pony: Team-Ups are Magic). The team-up in this issue is between the Cutie Mark Crusaders and Discord, which is kind of an awesome idea, and Jeremy Whitley and Tony Fleecs take full advantage of the premise by having Discord insert the Cutie Mark Crusaders into a variety of bizarre situations. The coolest scene in the issue is when the CMC transform into a Voltron-esque “Mega-Pony” and battle a giant kaiju monster who strangely resembles Gummy. The issue includes lots of other scenes of this nature, and these scenes illustrate one of the cool things about the MLP characters: their ability to be reimagined in the context of lots of different storytelling genres. Until I started writing this review I forgot that Jeremy Whitley was also the writer of Princeless. I love the premise of that series, although I felt its execution and its production values were kind of amateurish, and Whitley is certainly well qualified to write a story with young female protagonists.

SHE-HULK #2 (Marvel, 2014) – A-. I think Charles Soule is the first She-Hulk writer who is actually a lawyer. Earlier She-Hulk comics have depicted basically a caricatured version of how the law works, but Soule’s first two issues of She-Hulk have revealed an insider’s knowledge of both the law and the legal profession. Because of this, his depiction of Jen’s professional struggles (e.g. not getting work due to being badmouthed by her previous employers) is especially realistic and poignant. This situation has some serious potential for feminist critique – it seems like people don’t take Jen seriously as a lawyer because she’s a physically powerful woman – and I hope this is where Soule is going with this storyline. The second half of the issue, the part with the Hellcat team-up, is not quite as good, but I still look forward to issue 3.

AFTERLIFE WITH ARCHIE #4 (Archie, 2014) – A+. This might be the third best monthly comic right now, after Saga and Sex Criminals. The appeal of this series comes both from Francesco Francavilla’s beautifully atmospheric artwork and from the completely serious, deadpan style of the storytelling, which is completely the opposite of what we expect from these characters. The best example of this is the page where Archie uses a baseball bat to beat his zombie father into submission. On this page, images of the actual beating are intercut with bright yellow panels showing Archie’s cherished memories of his dad. It’s a powerfully moving scene that wouldn’t be out of place in a series like The Walking Dead, and yet you can’t read this without remembering that this is an Archie comic, for pete’s sake. And I think that sense of an impossible contradiction between the characters and their situation is exactly the effect that Aguirre-Sacassa and Francavilla are going for. In fact, because this is an Archie comic, it’s actually more scary than if it just involved some random characters.

CHEW #40 (Image, 2014) – A+. I didn’t realize it until I looked at the cover again, but this is actually the conclusion to “Family Recipes.” The conclusion raises more questions than it addresses, but at least this story gives Toni Chu a nice send-off. The page where she walks off into the sunset (and then nearly gives Tony a heart attack by reappearing to tell him something else) is genuinely poignant. Chew is a grossout humor title, but Layman and Guillory have succeeded in making me care about their characters anyway. There is one cool panel where John, while hallucinating, holds up a case file and the letters fall off of it. This is an interesting example of how comics blur the distinction between text that is internal to the storyworld and text that is external to it.

RAT QUEENS #5 (Image, 2014) – A. Another exciting and unconventional Image comic, which I picked up partly because Eric Stephenson cited it in his speech (discussed in earlier blog posts) as an example of an Image comic that appeals to female readers. (Not that I’m a female reader myself, obviously; I just find that comics which appeal to female audiences often appeal to me as well.) This series has been billed as an all-girl version of Lord of the Rings, but having played a lot of Baldur’s Gate lately, I think it has much more in common with Dungeons & Dragons. All the events and characters in the story are standard RPG cliches. The twist is that all the main characters are women, and not only that, but women of widely varying races and body types – even one of the villains is a grotesquely fat female troll. Like Fearless Defenders, this series is by an all-male creative team, but it stars a diverse cast of female characters and it treats them with respect. This sort of thing is a serious step in the right direction for the comic book industry, and I look forward to reading more Rat Queens.


The most important speech given to a comics industry audience since 2004, part 2

As discussed in the previous post, Eric Stephenson’s comments about female readers were spot-on. His speech shows a clear understanding of why reaching out to new audiences is the comics industry’s most important task. Where he began to go wrong was in his comments about licensed comics, and this is the part of the speech that has inspired the most controversy. Indeed, the public reaction to this speech has focused largely on Stephenson’s criticisms of licensed comics, while ignoring his claims about female readers. For example, on Bleeding Cool the story about Stephenson’s speech is deceptively headlined “‘Star Wars Comics Will Never Be The Real Thing’ – Eric Stephenson, Publisher Of Image Comics, Talks To ComicsPRO.” I don’t know whether people have no objection to Stephenson’s claims about the importance of female readers, or whether they just don’t care.

Anyway, what Stephenson said about licensed comics was this:

We talk about being obsessed with expanding our audience, but if publishing lesser versions of people’s favorite cartoons, toys, and TV shows is the best we can do, then we are doomed to failure.

Simply reframing work from other media as comic books is the absolute worst representation of comics.

We can invite readers to innovate with us, but repurposing someone else’s ideas as comic books isn’t innovation – at best, it’s imitation, and we are all so much better than that.

And subsequently, after talking about Walking Dead:

Like I said, THE WALKING DEAD comic book was selling great before it was a television show.

Now it sells even better.

And that’s because the show made people aware of the comic – and those people came to your stores to get that comic.

Because they want the real thing.

TRANSFORMERS comics will never be the real thing.

GI JOE comics will never be the real thing.

STAR WARS comics will never be the real thing.

Those comics are for fans that love the real thing so much, they want more – but there’s the important thing to understand:

They don’t want more comics – they just want more of the thing they love.

Those comics are accessories to an existing interest, an add-on, an upsell, easy surplus for the parent products – icing on the cake.

Comics are so much more than that, and this industry has existed as long as it has because of the ingenuity of men and women all over the world who yearn to share the fruits of their imaginations, not simply find new ways to prolong the life of existing IPs.

I think the controversy is justified. First, this part of the speech is undignified because it reads like a petty attack on IDW and Dark Horse.

Second, it also reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of the way that transmedia storytelling works. As Henry Jenkins explained in 2007, and as I’ve explained it to my students, the whole point of transmedia storytelling is that no single element of a given intellectual property has an exclusive claim on being “the real thing.” My Little Pony comics, for example, are no less “real” than the corresponding TV show. They are designed to be effectively coordinated with the TV show, while also allowing the writers and artists a degree of creative freedom. In his Twitter chat with my class on Friday, Andy Price emphasized that he and Katie Cook receive a significant degree of input from Hasbro, but that Hasbro does not force him to follow a specific horse style, I meant to type house style but I will let the typo stand. (This is a difference between the MLP comic and other licensed comics such as Peanuts, which is drawn in a much more standardized style.) This means the MLP comics are both a genuine labor of love and an independent element of the franchise, unlike many earlier licensed comics, which really were just ancillary works that did not expand on the source material in any way. Probably that was the sort of comic Stephenson had in mind when he said that licensed comics were not the real thing. But MLP is not that sort of comic, and neither are, for example, the IDW Transformers comics, which seem like genuinely high-quality works; I haven’t read any of them, but I’ve seen excerpts from them that look quite intriguing. It is also worth remembering that licensed works often make important contributions to the narrative of the parent work, and so on; we all know that kryptonite first appeared in the Superman radio show, not the comics, and people have pointed out that many Transformers characters were originally developed in the Marvel comic rather than the cartoon. The notion that licensed works are inherently second-tier, ancillary works has never been entirely true, and in the age of transmedia storytelling, this notion is less true than ever.

But third, if Stephenson’s goal is to attract new readers to the comics medium, then empirical evidence suggests that licensed comics can do that effectively. This is a key point that IDW publisher Ted Adams makes in his response to Stephenson:

– My Little Pony has brought in tens of thousands of new readers to comic shops. I’ve been traveling a lot in the US and every city I visit, I stop in to the local shops to learn what’s working and what isn’t. Every single store I’ve visited tells me that MLP comics have brought kids into their shops in a way that no other title has. This has led many stores to start or increase the size of sections aimed directly at kids. In case it’s not obvious, over time, kids reading comics turns into teenagers and adults reading comics. We all had to start reading comics somewhere and even though those comics aren’t “real” in Eric’s world, they are for the kids who love them.

– IDW titles are regularly sold through Scholastic Book Fairs and Books Clubs. This season we have books featuring My Little Pony, Transformers, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. The print runs of each one of those books is 3 or 4 times the best-selling comic in the direct market. Why is this important? Because if the kids who buy those books at school want more, the next place for them to buy them is their local comic shop.

The MLP comic has been phenomenally successful in bringing in new and younger readers, perhaps more so than any other comic in recent memory. And this is not just because of its exemplary level of quality, but also because IDW has effectively marketed it to children who are already fans of the show, placing it in venues like Scholastic book fairs where it can reach children who would never enter a comic book store. In that sense, licensed comics can be a gateway drug that gets children into the comic book store and sparks their interest in the medium more generally. In fact, this is exactly how I got into comics. When I was about 7, my dad took me to the College of Comic Book Knowledge in uptown Minneapolis and bought me some Transformers and GI Joe comics, because I was already a fan of the corresponding toys and TV shows. Somehow my interest in those particular comics transformed into an interest in comics in general, and now I’m a comics scholar. Mine is an extreme case, but it suggests that licensed properties can be as effective as original IPs in attracting new readers, perhaps even more so because of those readers’ existing familiarity with the material.

Now Stephenson himself admits that this process can work in the other direction — that licensed properties based on comics can drive sales of the original comics. He says:

Like I said, THE WALKING DEAD comic book was selling great before it was a television show.

Now it sells even better.

And that’s because the show made people aware of the comic – and those people came to your stores to get that comic.

As anecdotal proof of this, on Saturday I shared a taxi with a middle-aged couple, and when I told them I was going to a conference on comics, the wife said that she had started reading Walking Dead comics because of the TV show. And this woman was obviously not the stereotypical type of person who would normally go into a comic book store. So clearly Image is doing something right when it comes to using licensed works to promote the original comics. (On the other hand, of course, Marvel and DC have been famously unsuccessful at using their movies to increase sales of their comics. I’ve never understood why Marvel and DC can’t do this effectively, but that is beyond the scope of this post.) Stephenson’s mistake, however, is to assume that this process can only occur in one direction — that licensing is only good for the comics industry when comics are adapted into other media, and not vice versa. Again, one of the core principles of transmedia storytelling is that transmedia properties have multiple entry points, and that readers can start with any of the works in the franchise and move on to any of the others. (For example, in my own case, I encountered Queen Chrysalis in the MLP comics before I had gotten to that episode of the show.)

So I think that Stephenson is wrong about licensed comics and Adams and Richardson are right. Ultimately, though, the similarities between their positions are more important than the differences. The key point here is that comics are a versatile, flexible medium, capable of offering many different pleasures to many different audiences, and the benefits of reading comics should not be reserved for adult men like me. Stephenson, Adams and Richardson are all aware that the central problem facing the comics industry is how it can reach out to people outside its traditional target demographic of adult males. Their disagreement centers around whether the best way to do this is through licensed properties or original IPs, but these two options are not mutually exclusive.


The most important speech given to a comics industry audience since 2004, part 1

This is the first post in a two-part series. In 2004, I was lucky enough to hear Michael Chabon give the keynote speech at the Eisner Awards. He spoke powerfully on the need for more and better comics for children. At the time I thought it was one of the most impressive speeches I’d ever heard, because of the rhetorical force with which he identified the comics industry’s failure to serve its traditional target audience, and challenged the creators and publishers in attendance to do better. Ten years later, the problem Chabon identifies is still far from being solved. However, Chabon’s speech seems to have captured a widespread feeling that the comics industry needed to do a better job of attracting younger readers, and the industry has made significant efforts to do that, both through traditional comic books (Boom, IDW) and graphic novels (Scholastic, First Second, Papercutz).

On Friday, Eric Stephenson gave a speech at ComicsPRO which I think is equally important, and for the same reason: because it powerfully argues that an audience which has historically been neglected is in fact central to the mission of the comics industry. The key passage in the speech is as follows. I’m sorry for the long blockquote but I think this is worth quoting in its entirety:

Right now, the fastest growing demographic for Image Comics, and I’m willing to speculate, for the entire industry, is women.

For years, I’ve listened to people talk about bringing more women into the marketplace.

Over the last few years, with your help, we’ve been doing exactly that.

You’ve seen the audience that’s building up around SAGA. You’ve seen how female readers respond to books like SEX CRIMINALS, LAZARUS, VELVET, PRETTY DEADLY, ROCKET GIRL, and RAT QUEENS, and one of our best-received announcements at Image Expo was Kelly Sue DeConnick’s new series BITCH PLANET.

We’re not the first to put out material that appealed to women – there’s a whole roomful of incredible people I wouldn’t be able to look in the eye if I made that kind of ludicrous claim – but I think we are among a select group in this industry who realize that there’s more to gain from broadening our horizons than by remaining staunchly beholden to the shrinking fan base that is supposedly excited about sequels to decrepit old crossovers like SECRET WARS II.

It is comics like SAGA that get new readers in your door.

I know this, because I have met SAGA readers.

They read SAGA, they read RACHEL RISING, they read Julia Wertz, they read FABLES, they read Nicole Georges and Kate Beaton, they read Hope Larson, Jeffrey Brown, and LOVE & ROCKETS…

They read all of that and more, but even better still:

They are hungry for more.

There is a vast and growing readership out there that is excited about discovering comic books, but as long as we continue to present comics to the world in the Biff Bang Pow! context of Marvel and DC, with shop windows full of pictures of Spider-Man and Superman, we will fail to reach it.

The biggest problem with comic books is that even now, even after all the amazing progress we’ve made as an industry over the last 20 years, the vast majority of people have no idea whatsoever about how much the comics medium has to offer.

As an industry, we still cling to the shortsighted and mistaken notion that presenting ourselves to the world as Marvel and DC, as superhero movies, is the key to reaching a wider audience, and it’s just not.

People know what Spider-Man is. People know what Superman is. They know Batman. They know the X-Men.

And you know what? They’ve already made their mind up about that stuff, and that’s why the success of those movies has yet to translate into an avalanche of readers into our industry.

We have trained the world to think of comics as “Marvel and DC superheroes.”

And the world has stayed away.

We need to fix that.

If we want to reach out to new readers, to different readers, we need to look at what we’re pitching them.

More than that, we need to look at who our customer base is – not just who is coming into the stores, but who ISN’T – and ask what we can do to make our marketplace more appealing to them.

ANYONE who isn’t currently buying comics should be our target audience.

THAT is who we want coming into comic book stores, and it is new creativity that is going to pave their way to your door.

Stephenson’s basic point here is that if the comics industry is going to survive, it needs to look beyond its target audience of people like me and to attract new readers, particularly female readers. I’ve believed this for many years and it seems like an uncontroversial notion to me. Yet even a few years ago, one could argue with a straight face that publishing comics for women did not make business sense. In 2008, when DC’s Minx line was cancelled due to low sales, Andy Khouri wrote: “Multiple sources close to the situation agree Bond and DC aren’t to blame for MINX’s cancellation, and that this development should be seen as a depressing indication that a market for alternative young adult comics does not exist in the capacity to support an initiative of this kind, if at all.” This was obvious bullshit: Minx was cancelled not because there was no audience for it, but because DC failed to market it effectively or to get Minx comics onto the shelves of big box bookstores. Yet in 2008 it was possible to plausibly claim that there just wasn’t a market for comics directed at young women.

Now in 2014, the publisher of one of the largest comics companies in America is publicly claiming that his company’s fastest-growing and most important target demographic is young women. That is a sign of a paradigm shift in the way the comics industry sees itself. And that paradigm shift is visible even in recent publications from Marvel comics. Marvel’s top-selling digital comic in February was Ms. Marvel. And the shower scene in Loki, Agent of Asgard #1 was an obvious example of fanservice directed at female readers, something which was completely absent from Marvel or DC comics until quite recently.

I would argue that it is because of Image’s success in capturing nontraditional readers that they are currently the industry leader, not necessarily in terms of sales but certainly in terms of creative quality and relevance. And Marvel has remained relevant, while DC has stagnated, largely because Marvel has actively sought to capture new audiences while DC has remained entrenched in a by-fans-for-fans mentality.

I have more to say about this speech — specifically, I want to examine Stephenson’s controversial claims about comics based on licensed properties — but I think that deserves a post of its own.


URL for Meanwhile presentation