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Friday, May 28, 2004
Comics: Pricing themselves out of a readership

Great discussion in the comments yesterday, and some interesting thoughts on other blogs as well, notably Motime and 808 Turn Volvo. [side note to Dave Intermittent, and anyone coming over from the Intermittent: I intentionally didn't say that comics aren't cool, and I hope that wasn't what you took away from the essay. I tried to stay away from making any kind of value judgment on comics as a medium or art form, or even on comics fans, because my point was that it's outsiders' perceptions of comics which keep them away, regardless of what the actuality is.]

For what it's worth, I think comics are a unique art form, and one that I hold a special affection for (even though I'd hate to be defined solely by the fact that I'm a comics fan). I embrace mainstream American comics in part because of the unique "relay race" aspect, where one creator hands off the reigns to another creator and the stories can continue to build on one another indefinitely. Comics stagnate when the characters aren't allowed to change, or even for them to be perceived as changing, because of the need to maintain a status quo for the corporate trademarks (and by change, I don't necessarily mean simply for the characters to get older, I don't actually think I like characters aging too quickly, I mean for them to learn from their experiences). In certain instances, "continuity" is freeing (witness how BMB uses continuity to build stories in Daredevil and Ultimate Spider-man); baggage, of the type that hamstrung many of the X-Books throughout the 90s, is damaging. But, like I said all too many times yesterday, that's a topic for another time, and not what I want to talk about in depth today.

I said yesterday that I thought the #2 reason that more people don't buy comics is the price point, or more particularly the perceived value for your money. Today, despite the sagging economy, we've got more expensive forms of entertainment fighting over our hard-earned dollar than ever before. And the various forms of entertainment each come with a perception of the value that they provide, mainly in the sense of how much time is spent being entertained by them.

For 15 bucks, I can buy a 45-minute long CD that I'll listen to at least fifty times in the next year (that's me, though. Other folks may only listen to it two-three times in a year).

For $8.50, I can see a two-hour movie in the theatre, and for twice that I can get a soda and popcorn.

For less than $20, I can buy pretty much any movie I want on DVD and if I watch it three times, ever, it's paid for itself (based on the cost of a movie in the theatre).

For $45-$60, I can get 22-24 episodes of my favorite TV comedy or drama, modern or classic, on DVD (that's over 16 hours of program for dramas, over 8 hours for comedies).

For forty-five bucks I can get a new video game that can provide anywhere from hours to weeks to months of entertainment (I don't play video games, so I can't even come up with an average time one spends on playing a new game).

For $15 or less, I can get a paperback copy of pretty much any book written in the last 200 years, most of which would provide me with 4-6 hours of solid reading entertainment.

Any day of the week, I can choose from probably a dozen different hour-long dramas, half-hour comedies, and hour-long reality shows during primetime on network TV alone, and those don't cost me a cent (at least not on a week to week basis). If I like soap operas, I can watch probably half a dozen every afternoon, again without paying one red penny.

And for $3, I can buy a 32-page comic book (provided I knew where to find one) that takes me 5-10 minutes to read, and which most likely gives me only part of a larger story. Oh, and there's also ads throughout the book taking up about a third of the pages, as if it were a magazine. To find the rest of the story, I have to 1) wait a month, 2) try to find the issues immediately preceding the one I bought, or 3) both 1 and 2.

If I'm willing to spend $15-$20, I could buy a "Graphic Novel," which can be either a standalone work or a collected edition of a seemingly arbitrarily designated "storyline" in a specific comic. But even graphic novels don't usually take more than an hour to read (most actually take closer to half an hour or less), and I'd guess there's probably the same likelihood that most people would re-read a graphic novel as that they would re-read a novel, which is to say, not very likely, unless it was particularly confusing, outstanding, or many years had gone by since their first reading. Of course, that doesn't even take into account that many collected editions of US comics, especially those from Marvel and DC/Vertigo, are also continued from edition to edition, so it's hard to feel like you're getting a complete story.

Looked at with these numbers, I don't think I'd be off base in saying that in most entertainment mediums other than comics, the public at large seems willing to pay about $8-$10 for an hour's entertainment (this is an estimate, but I don't think I'm too far off base), and comics just don't seem to measure up very favorably. For an hour's worth of comic reading (not counting re-reading, which I don't think many folks do right off the bat, though they may re-read an entire storyline again once it's finished), you'd have to spend anywhere from $18-$36 on monthly comics, depending on how quickly you read, and you'd rarely get a single complete story out of anything you read. For that same hour, you’d probably spend $20-$30 on the one or two graphic novels you could read during that time.

As reasonably informed comic fans, we can justify this price to ourselves (and maybe to our loved ones) with talk of the significant increases in the cost of paper over the last decade and a half (something validated by a friend of mine who now works in a printing/publishing industry) and the fact that creators are now being paid a more livable wage than in years past. We understand that mainstream comics creators are paid on a per page basis, and that they get paid the same amount (in general) for writing or drawing X-Men, which sells 100K per month, that they do for working on a creator-participation Vertigo book selling 15K per month.

We recognize the steps that the big companies take to "keep prices down," steps like printing books like Ed Brubaker's Catwoman and Gotham Central on paper that's little better than newsprint (and that seems to hold color about as well); moving the lettering and coloring in-house, thus cutting the costs of paying freelance letterer and colorist rates (oh, and putting some talented professionals out of a job); and letting the colorist "digitally ink" the pencils, thus saving money by not having to pay an inker (and putting more talented people out of work). We're told that prices would be even higher than they are now if not for these cost cutting steps, and it's implied (though I don't think anyone has out and out said so) that paying $2.99 for a top-selling book like Astonishing X-Men may help offset the costs of keeping lower selling comics like Spider-girl, also a $2.99 book, alive. But to comic book outsiders, these reasons make less than no difference. All they see are "expensive" comics.

When I was a kid, I had a $5 a week allowance (which was docked incrementally if I didn't do certain chores) that I spent entirely on comics till I was about 13. I'd head to the shop on Fridays (new comics came out on Fridays in those days, at least in Missouri) after school and I'd come home with around eight comics. I don't know what kids' allowances are these days, but for them to buy that many comics, they'd have to spend in the neighborhood of $24 a week! If kids still only get $5, or even $10 a week, they're looking at being able to buy 2-3 comic books, giving them maybe 30 minutes worth of entertainment. Add in the fact that parents, who are typically more money-conscious than kids, would largely perceive the entertainment value per dollar as being pretty low, and it's no wonder kids don't buy comics!

To Shane's point, even those adults who don't perceive the geek-factor and who are interested in comics/graphic novels as a storytelling medium have trouble with the amount they would have to pay to get a complete story. Can you imagine if someone wanted to get a complete Hulk story? Aren't we somewhere in the neighborhood of 7 trades into Jones' run now with no resolution in site? At $15 per, that's $105 so far, for one yet-to-be-completed story! The good news is that indy and art comix collections/ graphic novels generally tell a complete story (SiP being a noted exception), but those are even harder to find (and sometimes more expensive) than the mainstream comics.

You want to know why manga sells better than US comics these days? While I think that the diversity of content and energetic art are contributing factors, I think that the number one reason manga does so well is because, for those people who are spending the money (i.e. parents/adults) or overseeing the purchase, the perceived value for your money is right in line with what they feel comfortable spending. I think it's pretty notable that Viz and Dark Horse, who arguably have the rights to better quality manga series' than Tokyopop (who tends to reprint mostly bubblegum manga), didn’t have particularly high sales on their manga volumes until Tokyopop pioneered the paperback-book sized format of about 200 pages for $10. Since then, both Viz and DH have begun releasing manga (Viz is even reformatting their entire back-catalog) into the Tokyopop size/pricepoint.

It took Marvel and DC three years to realize that the size and price point (again, perceived value for your money) of manga is what's really helping the sales along, and they're only just now getting started with digest-sized reprints of younger-skewing titles at less than ten bucks. I think they're finding out that their bookstore sales (or sales to non-comics readers) are going up exponentially faster now than they ever did when they used faux manga art. As Sean Collins said in a post that I can't find right now, if it looks like manga, it'll be shelved with manga and it'll probably sell like manga. (by the way, does anyone have any insight into Abstract Studios' experiment with digest-sized SiP reprints at $17.95 for the first volume? Seems counter-intuitive to me.)

The problem that I foresee is that Marvel and DC will either flood the market with subpar volumes (the Marvel Age Spidey and FF come to mind as off-base in concept, but I can't speak for the execution) or they won't be able to keep up with the demand of a new volume every two months and will lose readers (much like Image lost readers by putting out so many late books in the early 90s). They need to set a timeline of maybe eight different series reprinted in digest, with one coming out each week for two months, and then starting the cycle over. More importantly, they need to concentrate on consistency for 8 months to a year to see how sales go, before increasing or decreasing the line. If I ran the zoo, I'd use titles with a more or less consistent creative vision, like Ultimate Spider-Man or Sandman, as the launch titles. I might also consider doing a dialogue touch up on a book like Uncanny X-Men, Stan and Jack's FF, or Roger Stern's Avengers and running those series as digests. While I don’t think the books need to be redrawn with the subplots shaved off like they're doing in Marvel Age, I think a dialogue polish to make them easy to read for today's readers might do some good, though it will surely piss the purists off. Unless I'm mistaken, Tokyopop's "translators" do as much dialogue updating as they do straight translating.

Oni seems to be the one indy publisher that seems to consistently get it with the $10 digests, and I expect that their sales to non-comics fans are pretty good, as well. That said, is it just me, or are all of their digest-sized series different sizes? I have three Blue Monday digests and I can't seem to get them to even line up with one another!

As for monthly series', $3 for an incomplete 22-page story with 10 pages of ads doesn't cut it anymore. If Marvel and DC want to stay competitive with manga, and to boost sales of their recognizable characters, they need to figure out a way to either cut the prices down to $1.95 (the highest price that I think people might find to be reasonable) or to give consumers more value for their money by beefing up the content to 50-60 pages of story, with maybe one new story and two reprints which also continue from month to month.

Since many of DCs books are treated as loss-leaders for the eventual collection, why not package them in a way to increase the sales? I suggest a 125-150 page monthly squarebound magazine for Wildstorm, one for Vertigo, and one for the Cartoon Network books, each with 5-6 stories (some ongoing, some four to twelve-part minis) which continue from month to month, priced at around $6.95. They can keep the ads (ten pages or so), and use some space to pimp the collected editions of the series' when they come out. The collections of each series, then, need to have no fewer than 150 pages and be at a price point of $10-$12, and the prices need to remain consistent across the line.

For the DCU, they could go one of two ways with the magazines. They might consider offering $6.95 magazines based around themes, with one Superman, one Batman (maybe even separate magazines for Superman and Batman family books), one JLA (which has one story each for the JLA, Wonder Woman, Aquaman, Flash, Green Lantern and maybe one rotating feature with other heroes), one for other teams (JSA, Teen Titans, Outsiders, etc), one for other solo heroes (Firestorm, Hawkman, etc), one for "fringe" books (Hero, etc) and one for "mature readers" books (Fallen Angel, Green Arrow, etc). Or they could base them around editors, with each one being anchored by a Batman or Superman story and backed up by a wide variety of other superhero stories. These could be titled using old school DC titles like "Thrilling Comics" featuring Batman, Green Arrow, Hero, the JSA and Wonder Woman. [one other semi-unrelated side note: once a creative team has told their story with a character/team (other than, say, Superman, Batman, WW, the JLA), replace the feature with something else and don't bring the retired feature back for a few months/years or until a new creative team is ready with a specific story for that character or team]. DC can then use their judgment to collect storylines or features from the magazines that deserve to be collected, but the collections should be edited in such a way that they each tell a complete story, even if there's a cliffhanger or unresolved subplots that they use as a hook to get readers to come back.

I know that at first this seems like a pretty significant loss from what is being charged now, but I truly believe that the added sales (assuming they can get the right distribution) for each magazine and for the cheaper collections will more than make up for the difference.

As you can see, I have my own ideas as to how the mainstream American publishers could "fix" the problem of perceived value for money (unlike the geek factor, which I think will be more difficult to overcome), and there's probably other ways to overcome the problem, too. However, as long as comics continue to be priced in such a way that the average consumer will recoil from buying a comic book or graphic novel due to sticker shock, comics will never pick up new readers in enough volume to remain economically healthy. And I haven't even begun to discuss the problems with distribution and availability.

Thursday, May 27, 2004
Comics: The Elephant in the Room, or The Real Reason American Comics are Failing

Today I was going to talk a couple of specific criticisms of the "X-Books," however, as my good friend Indy is going on vacation tomorrow, and I'd like to get his thoughts on this post, I'm finally finishing off a post I started weeks ago regarding my thoughts on why I think more people (primarily adults) don't read comic books. I'll get to the X-Books later today or tomorrow, I'd imagine. If you normally skip the comics posts, I'd encourage you to read this one and post your comments, because I'd like to hear your thoughts on the subject.

Fans of American comics (not people who primarily read Japanese manga, which is another discussion altogether), especially those who are active online, regularly resurrect the discussion of why more people (both adults and kids) don't read comics. Some background, for those of you new to this game (and I'll keep it short, as it isn't essential to my point). For those of you comic folks, I realize my summary is a pretty gross simplification, but it's enough to make my point, so bear with me:

In the forties, it wasn't uncommon for single issues of specific comics to sell over a million copies. After WWII, when comics sales went into decline, most comics published by mainstream comics publishers sold in the neighborhood of 500K per issue. It's been fairly well-publicized that the cancellation threshold for a book in the seventies and eighties was 250K (meaning a book selling fewer copies than that per month was due to be axed). Today, however, there's rarely more than a dozen comics a month that sell over 100K copies, and the cancellation threshold is more like 20K (though DC, owned by media giant Time Warner, is sometimes able to keep a few comics afloat at significantly less than that, if the powers that be believe that the eventual collected edition will make their money back). In fact, most books not sold by Marvel, DC, Image or Dark Horse sell fewer than 10K.

How did this happen? There's a variety of reasons, and others smarter than me have written about them at length, plus it doesn't serve my point to go into too many details. Suffice to say that the market couldn't maintain the sales levels (in the millions for many new #1 issues) brought about by the post-Batman movie collector's boom (everyone remember all the newspaper articles from 1989 detailing how much old comics, and even not so old comics, were selling for?), combined with the publishers' willingness to pump out comics of a distinctly lesser quality than they had in the past in order to maintain market share. There are other issues involved, and I could spout on at length about them if you ask me to, but since it really doesn't serve the point of this essay, I'll leave it here for now.

With so few people buying mainstream American comics today, nearly every book that doesn't have Superman, Batman, Spider-man or the X-Men in it is in danger of cancellation at almost any given moment, and many smart people (fans, retailers and pros) think that the comics industry is teetering on the edge of collapse if sales can't pick up. And for those of us who love comics, the tales of doom and gloom always leave us scared for the future of our hobby. Let me be clear as well, that comics are not alone in this slump. Though I have no first-hand knowledge, I've heard that the RPG industry and many other somewhat "fringe" industries are in a similar situation, and the people involved with them are also trying to get more "regular people" to spend more money in order to "save" their industry.

I don't think "comics" as an art form are ever going to go away, as long as talented (and not so talented) people have access to paper and copy machines, regardless of whether or not there's a "comics industry" or even any money in making comics. I do think that mainstream American comics are at a crossroads, though, and there may be little they can do about gaining new readers for their traditional comics because of one simple fact, sort of the "elephant in the room" if you will, that it seems like few people ever mention: to the public at large (at least to those for whom comics are even on their radar), comics just aren't cool.

This is a hard pill for some folks to swallow, I know, and I want to state outright that I don't think reading comics is any geekier than any other hobby. In fact, I'm more than willing to hear any arguments to the contrary, but I think to most people over the age of 13, comics (and RPGs, and games like Magic and Heroclix) are the purview of overweight, basement-dwelling no lifes, who spend their time arguing about whether or not Aquaman is cool (side note: in one comic shop in LA, one that usually gets props for being cooler than most, I actually heard four guys standing over the backissue bins having this argument and actually yelling at one another. I couldn't have been more embarrassed to be in that shop). I've been to lots of comic shops, and my share of cons and we, as comic fans, know those types exist but they are the exception, rather than the rule.

I don't think anyone can argue that there isn't an audience outside of comics for superheroes. The box office numbers for comic-based superhero films like Spider-man, X-men, and even the ones that many people consider to be "failures" like Punisher or Daredevil can't be based on comics fans alone. Audiences flock to TV shows and movies about larger than life "superheroes" like John McClain, Neo, the Skywalkers, James Bond, Indiana Jones, Jack Bauer, Sydney Bristow, Buffy and many, many more. But this audience doesn't translate to comics. Even comics based on successful non-comics franchises like CSI, 24, Buffy and Star Wars struggle to find an audience these days. Why not? Because comics, as a medium, has a social stigma and people (and for the purposes of this essay, I use "people" to generically describe non-comics fans) don't think comics are cool.

For support, I'm going to use some examples of people I actually know, because I think they represent a pretty broad cross-section of "regular people" and I think most comics fans can recognize the types. To my friends, I'm sorry for using you as a type, and for trying to get into your head, but I won't say who you are, and you don't have to own up to it, though I'd be very interested to hear your thoughts on why you don't (or won't) read comics in the comments section.

One friend loves movies and TV shows about larger than life heroes. I don't think he's much for the capes and the tights, but he and I have had long, detailed discussions about the intricate details, the continuity and the future of such franchises as Star Wars, The Matrix, 24, Die Hard, Bond, and many more. In college, he somehow came upon a copy of Art Speigleman's Maus, which he showed me and announced it's brilliance. I read it (having never read it before), and while I thought it was good, I had certainly read other comics that were as good in my opinion. But when I broached the subject of whether he'd be interested in reading some of my other non-superhero graphic novels, he said that he wasn't interested in "comic books." I tried explaining that Maus was really a comic book, but I was informed that it was a "graphic novel," the implication being that it was somehow elevated from what I read.

Another friend invited me to go to the San Diego con with her during my first summer in LA, without even knowing that I was a comic fan. She explained to me that it was a fun experience, and she loved getting dressed up (not in costume, but certainly in different clothes than she usually wore) and watching all the freaks. I was excited. Perhaps I had met a fellow aficionado of comics? But alas, though she reads comics from indy publishers like Oni and SLG, she and I had many conversations about how she "doesn't really like comic books." I was shocked to hear her utter disdain for comics and comic fans, despite that fact that she read certain specific comics. Interestingly, since she "wasn't really a fan," she had no fear about approaching certain comics luminaries, those who appeared to be interesting people to her, at the bars after the show. That said, I've almost never been more humiliated that when she would introduce me to a writer/artist/editor of a comic that I liked by saying "this is Otto, he's a comic fan" (or worse, when she wouldn't introduce me at all, even though I was standing there). I don't hold it against her (and hopefully I don't sound bitter, because I honestly am not), but she's a perfect example of non-comics fans perception of fans, even those who they know shower every day and never discuss whether Thor could beat up the Hulk.

A third friend is a huge sports and music "geek." You ask him any minute question about the history of football, baseball (maybe even basketball, I haven't tried that one), punk rock, blues jazz, or even classic movies and he can go into a lengthy speech answering the question off the top of his head (in fairness, most of what he knows is actually interesting, or at least his storytelling makes it so). This is similar to the knowledge that I have about comics, including storylines (often from comics I've never read), background detail on creators (mostly who wrote or drew what run of a book, not details of their personal lives), and the history of comics, yet my knowledge is regularly goofed on by him and others for being geeky, while his is only considered "geeky" by me and a few other comics fans. I submit him as an example of people who can be fanatical (or at least extremely knowledgeable) about accepted mainstream hobbies like sports and music, yet he won't read a comic book or "graphic novel." Why? In fairness, he may have enough hobbies as it is, and he says he has nothing against comics, but convincing him to read a comic, even one in a genre that I think he might like, is akin to pulling teeth.

My fourth example is a friend who used to read comics, specifically Captain America, as a kid. He still remembers the details of certain Captain America storylines very well (if you ask him on a good day), and he will even wear a shirt with Cap's shield on it. However, he probably makes fun of comics, and the people he knows who read comics, more than anyone else I know. Does he tease because he knows he could easily fall into the trap of enjoying comics again, and he doesn't want to be seen as a geek? I don't know (I think so), but he is very aware of the general public perception of comic books, and he knows that he isn't interested in being perceived as a part of that subculture.

Next, my wife (and bless her for supporting me and my hobby) came into our relationship with virtually no preconceptions about comics. However, even though she could never voice the reason why, she was hesitant from the beginning to actually read a comic or graphic novel, and certainly not one with "superheroes" in it. [I should break here and explain that my wife is far and away the most intelligent and well read person I know. She reads several books a week, mostly novels these days, or books on the history of language, but she's very picky about what she reads: she won't read anything in the sci-fi, fantasy, mystery/thriller or "chick lit" genres, sticking mostly with contemporary general fiction.] This made it hard for me to find graphic novels for her, but she's been pretty willing to try almost anything I have given her (Sandman, a lot of OniGNs, the first couple volumes of Strangers in Paradise, Jimmy Corrigan, Palomar, that type of thing). What I keep hearing from her, over and over, is that while she doesn't actively dislike any of the graphic novels she's read, she feels like the only ones that are as interesting and engaging as the novels that she likes are those by Chris Ware, Los Bros Hernandez and Dan Clowes (though after Eightball 22, she won't read Clowes anymore because she thinks he "writes like a girl," and to her any guy who writes like a girl is creepy). To her, comics just aren't as interesting as novels, and if she had the choice, she'd chose a novel every time. And, though she won't touch superhero comics (even the "good ones" like Watchmen or Promethea), she'll sit through almost any superhero movie (oddly enough, she really likes Alex Ross's art, and she may have actually read Kingdom Come one night, which is strange to me because I have no particular love for Ross's style of painting, and I wouldn't think it would appeal to someone who doesn't like superheroes).

Finally, I can speak for myself. I love comics, and will try just about any comic someone recommends, but I won't touch anything other than comics (and even those are few) with fairies or elves in them (okay, I did like LotR, but that's an exception). To me, books, TV shows and movies with "fantasy" settings (and I use fantasy to encompass everything from Xena to Legend) are somehow "too geeky" even for me. The same goes for most syndicated or cable sci-fi shows, though I'm generally willing to give big screen sci-fi and non-Star Trek network sci-fi, like The X-Files, a chance. I can't even say why I think these things are geekier than I'm willing to go, because 1) I don't really care what people think of me, as long as they don't think I'm mean and 2) I have enough geek-like hobbies and interests, what difference would a few more make? I think that many people think about comics, as an art form or medium, the same way that I think about elves, fairies and anime (another thing I won't touch, despite enjoying some manga).

I know that some people are able to overcome the geek-factor of comics, and come to them after their teenage years, but I don't think I'd be incorrect in guessing that these folks are the exceptions. In fact, I admire people who came to comics late, because they don't feel any particular ties to keep buying a book that they've bought since they were 8, and they can look at what's available in the medium with an unbiased eye toward what they might like.

There are other factors involved in why more people don't buy comics; the second largest (next to the geek factor) is probably the price point or the perceived value for the money, and the third is simply difficulty in finding the damn things, but those are discussions for another time.

Then again, my perceptions could be way off, so feel free to refute me in the comments section. [I expect that I'll probably get comments from people who think I'm just turning my feelings about myself in relation to my hobby outward, but I'm actually pretty comfortable with my hobby, I just think I understand what "outsiders" think of it, if they think about it at all].

Before closing, I'd like to say that I wish this weren't the case. I wish comics had the same respect that TV, movies and books do. What's even sadder is that I can't think of a damn thing that can be done to improve comics' image at this point; it may just be a losing battle.

If you've made it this far, hopefully you have at least some interest in this topic, so maybe you'd be willing to provide some feedback, to test or refute my thesis. Here are some questions to get the conversation started, but feel free to say whatever you want about the topic.

If you read comics, and have for a while, do you think you're a geek? Do your non-comics reading friends think you're a geek? Have you ever tried to loan a comic to a non-comic reading friend? What was their reaction?

If you don't read comics, do you have any specific biases against them? Would you read a "good" superhero comic book or graphic novel? Would you read a "good" non-superhero comic or graphic novel? Why or Why not?

If you came to comics late, what got you interested in the medium, and did you bring any biases with you when you started reading them? Do you have any opinions of comics fans, now that you've entered the subculture?

Wednesday, May 26, 2004
Comics: Ten Underrated Marvels

Been busy today, with no time to think through any proper posts/reviews at the moment (probably more tonight, since the missus is still out of town). In the meantime, I've been thinking recently about really good/fun runs from Marvel comics past. I seem to read a fair amount about certain "classic" modern runs like Simonson's Thor, Claremont/Byrne's X-Men, PAD's Hulk and X-Factor and Byrne's FF (granted, not all recent discussion of this one has been good), while other runs which I really enjoyed seem to go pretty much ignored. So, in the interest of reminding folks of some other really fun comics, and maybe sparking some discussion, here's my list of the top ten underrated runs on Marvel comics (sorry DC fans, I was a Marvel kid growing up):

1. Walt Simonson on FF. To me, this run was probably the closest the book ever came to hitting the fun science fiction superheroics of the Lee/Kirby run. She-thing, Ben Grimm in Thing armor, visits to the Negative Zone, this run had it all.

2. Roger Stern (and Ron Frenz?) on Amazing Spider-man. Classic Spidey. Mystery (who IS the Hobgoblin?), gang wars, soap operatics. Most importantly, Stern wrote Spidey stories that would only fit Spidey (as opposed to the mystical nonsense that seems to be going on recently) It really is a shame his run was cut short and he never got resolve certain plotlines (like who the Hobgoblin was meant to be).

3. Stern and John Buscema on Avengers. Again, I don't know that the Avengers ever topped these stories. Under Stern's mighty pen, the Avengers had all of the grandeur they were meant to have, despite focusing mainly on characters other than Cap, Thor and Iron Man. I'll go on record saying that the storyline where Masters of Evil beat the tar out of the Avengers is the best Avengers story of the last twenty years.

4. Steve Englehart on West Coast Avengers. To be honest, I always liked this title better than the main title (at least while I was reading them). Maybe Englehart got all the good characters (Hawkeye, in particular, was a favorite, as were peripheral cast members Dr. Pym and the Vision). The high point of the run is the "times past" arc, or whatever it was called, when team members were all stuck in different time periods.

5. Peter David on Peter Parker, the Spectacular Spider-man (mostly with Sal Buscema, I think). Sin-eater, the Death of Jean DeWolff, the Black Cat, even the Puma. These were powerful stories which captured all of the classic Spidey qualities, including humor and his ongoing trouble with the ladies, but most importantly David captured the Spidey theme that great power means great responsibility, and the fact that even Spidey can't save them all.

6. J.F. Moore/Adam Pollina on X-Force. Bear with me on this one, as I know it's an X-book, but in my opinion Moore really captures the feel of being young and trying to find one's own identity as one leaves the nest. Despite being interrupted for several issues by Operation: Zero Tolerance, the road trip arc was particularly good. And Adam Pollina's artwork is positively fantastic (the book lost some of the magic when Pollina left).

7. Joe Casey/Ladronn on Cable. Yes, on the surface it was mired in X-continuity, but Casey really brought out the essential humanity of Cable, a character I NEVER cared about before. And with Ladronn in full-on Kirby mode, the book was really something special (who can forget the random panel of someone's foot that Ladronn inserted into a fight scene?). As soon as Casey and Ladronn left, even though the new writer was writing the conclusion the same story, it completely lost me. The best arc was the one in Wakanda featuring the Black Panther and the villainy of Klaw, Master of Sound (I just like saying that).

8. Jim Owsley (Christopher Priest) and M.D. Bright on Wolverine/Spider-man. Okay, it's not a run, but this, the first Wolverine special edition, was just a great read from beginning to end. Both heroes were in character, and the story actually made sense in continuity for both characters. Maybe they didn't need to reveal the Hobgoblin's ID as Ned Leeds here instead of in Spidey's own book, but it worked in the story.

9. Ann Nocenti and JR jr on Daredevil. Things got a little silly towards the end of the run, with all that Blackheart/Mephisto stuff, but the first year or two of their run was as good as DD ever was between Miller and Bendis. Very good, street level stories and JR jr never looked better.

10. Chris Claremont and Alan Davis on the first year of Excalibur. Yeah, things got a little silly after that, what with the seemingly interminable "Cross-Time Caper," but the first year of Excalibur was really the X-Men the way they should be done: manageably cast, fantastic art, low on angst (but not necessarily on drama), and most importantly it was fun without being too silly. If only they had been able to keep it up.

Alright, I admit I cheated a bit, using relatively modern runs of Cable and X-Force, and a one shot which isn't technically a run, and I also realize that some of these probably wouldn't hold up very well if I were to re-read them today, but still these were some fun comics.

Tuesday, May 25, 2004
TV: 24 Season 3 Post Mortem

Just finished watching the 24 season finale and I have to say that the season ended on a definite up (not necessarily upbeat) note. If you haven't watched the finale, stop reading here because there are most definitely big fat

SPOILERS AHEAD

(that means stop reading now, indy. You can comment on this post when your VCR gets fixed)

As far as a finale for this season goes, I don't think I could've asked for a better wrap-up. There was action, emotion and pretty much every character got to wrap up their major plotlines for the season. And the good news is that next season they can start pretty much fresh, with only a few familiar faces returning, and no chance whatsoever that we'll see Chappelle, Nina, or more importantly Sherry Palmer ever again. There's even a good likelihood that we won't see the Palmer Brothers or Tony Almeida, either, which is also probably a good thing. The only thing more I could have hoped for would have been for Chloe, the worst character ever, to have had a tragic accident. I suppose there's always hope that she could suffer toxic shock or something in between seasons, but somehow I think they'll keep her around just to annoy me.

Overall, this season had more lows than highs, in my opinion, but the when the virus plot with Saunders really got going, it certainly had me captivated. I think the biggest problem with the season overall is that they really don't seem to have known where they were going with the plot or the characters from the beginning. I'll admit, it's got to be pretty hard to keep a single plot going for 24 episodes (then again, they didn't really bother with a single plot, did they?), but a show like 24 just cries out to have a tighter plot and better defined character arcs. They had some good ideas for early cliffhangers (Jack's on smack! Jack's daughter loves his partner! Jack's gone rogue and freed Salazar!), but unfortunately many of those selfsame cliffhangers led to disasterous plots, which the writers perhaps wisely ignored except when they need to keep the action moving. Honestly, as a smack-addicted man with a heart condition, Jack shouldn't have been able to do half of what he did and I've seen Trainspotting, I know what quitting the horse cold turkey does to your bowels. When did that happen to Jack?

Some of the bad: Chloe has a baby! No she doesn't, she's covering for Chase! Now the baby is mysteriously gone (did they spirit it away to CTU daycare?). Chloe thinks Tony can't lead them, forcing a confrontation with Michelle! Oh, nevermind, he's fine. Chloe thinks Kim can't do her job. Oh, wait, I guess she can. Michelle has the virus! Wait, no she doesn't. Yes, she does! Whew, we were wrong. She's one of the 1% who's immune. Adam's sister is infected and he can't do his work! Oh, I guess he can. And just when you thought you were safe, here comes Sherry Palmer! And Nina, yeah that's the ticket!

Actually, most of the bad, aside from the meandering plots in Mexico (seriously, did they need to spend 7 hours prepping for and then going through with a phony transaction?), came from the President Palmer subplots. Don't get me wrong, in previous seasons, I thought Palmer was one of the best characters. A no-nonsense president who was decisive and took responsibility for his actions. This year, though, Palmer was in the season 2 Kim role. I kept waiting for a cougar to show up in his office to keep him cornered for an episode. Seriously, by the end of the season, Palmer had been manipulated by his brother into making bad decision after bad decision in his personal life, and I would have been disappointed if the season ended any way other than with him being ousted from office.

The Palmer of old wouldn't have considered breaking the laws he broke, in dealing with blackmail threats from his girlfriend's ex, Alan Millikin (did he ever exactly say what Millikin had over him? Why did he have so many senators in his pocket?), and finally Sherry by way of whathisname, the opposition cadidate (are they stuck with him being president next season? They made a big deal out of the fact that it's too late for Palmer's party to nominate another candidate). Has any single person ever been blackmailed more in one day? That and it seemed like they dropped plots left and right. Early in the season, he had some sort of residual health problems that he was keeping from the public and his girlfriend/doctor had to run tests on him every hour or so. Yet when she got the boot, everyone forgot about the health problems. It got to the point that I cringed more when Palmer was on than Kim, and I hated Kim during season 2!

In point of fact, I actually didn't mind Kim this year, probably because there were only two "Kim's in danger!" plots, and neither of them were as silly as what they put her through last year. I don't think the Kim/Chase romance angle was necessary, but it provides a possible office romance for next season when, I'm guessing, Krycek, I mean Chase, is either in Tony's role as head of CTU office operations or he's in Michelle's and she's in Tony's.

So what was good? Well, the few hours spent on the jailbreak were pretty intense (though I don't believe for a second that the Salazar's would have kept Jack alive once they got him to Mexico). Any time they're on a manhunt across LA, whether it's for the virus-mule kid, the guy who left the hotel and spread the virus (speaking of which, there's one plot that didn't get wrapped up. How exactly do they plan on containing the virus?), Saunders, or Saunders' courier, things got intense. I actually liked the Saunders/Jack connection, which echoed season one (I've said in the past that I like episodic dramas with meta-stories that go from season to season. Wouldn't it be cool if the producers/writers actually had a meta-story involving something Jack did in Kosovo that it turns out that's why all these villains from that time in his life keep popping up?). I enjoy any of the intense moments where Jack is torturing someone for information, or playing Russian Roulette, or almost shooting Chase (speaking of which, I'd pay cash money to see a crossover with Alias where Jack's Bauer and Bristow worked together to see who could break more laws and abuse more prisoners in the name of national security).

I suppose I liked any time when the action was so intense that I could overlook the plot holes ("leave your thinking cap at the door"), because that's what 24 excels at - being a big screen popcorn flick on TV.

I will say that seeing Jack finally, after such an intense day, break down and cry in his SUV at the end of the finale, really brought back Jack's essential humanity, so important in the decisions he made during season 1, but lost in favor of "Jack Bauer - Super Agent" the last few seasons. Whether it was the let down of his adrenilin or the smack withdrawl kicking in, it was a good way to close out the season.

So, Where should they go from here? I suppose most folks have heard by now that 24 won't be returning until January, when FOX promises to air the entire season sans reruns (though I'd bet that it'll get pre-empted a few times), which gives everyone involved in the show a chance to slow down and think.

Surely I'm not the only one who enjoyed season one the best, and that was the season when they were literally flying by the seat of their pants from episode to episode. Why then, when they ostensibly have more time to think through the season's story, did seasons 2 and 3 seem so disjointed, both in plot and character? For season 4, I hope that "they" (producers, writers, etc) all sit down in a room over a week or two or even a month and sketch out the plot and the character arcs for the entire season. They don't have to plot out every last cliffhanger, just draw a rough outline of where they want the plot to go over 24 episodes (or 21 episodes, with three two hour eps, as I'm hearing they're planning), and where each character will go, either in service to the plot or in terms of developing their character (something 24 is very short on). They can even plot out some red herrings (like Mexico this year), they just need to make it clear to the writers that they have a plan (hell, David Chase planned out the broad strokes of last two seasons of Sopranos several years ago, and he had room to add characters and expand into a sixth season without making it feel like there isn't a point).

Making a plan will make the story flow better, will help keep the audience's attention, and will avoid traps like Kim last year and Palmer this year. Oh, and they should get rid of Chloe, did I mention that?

They've got the time, they've got an audience, is it too much to ask that they tighten up the show?

TV: Deadwood

I've been writing an awful lot about Deadwood, haven't I? So much so that easily 95% of the Google searchers who find their way to this particular coffee shop do so while looking for more information on the various characters on the show. I guess that's flattering, but since none of them ever leave any comments, I don't know if they find what they're looking for here or not. Ah well, once more into the breach then, my friends.

This week's Deadwood really emphasized Swearengen, who if you don't know by now is far and away the breakout character. So much so, in fact, that my favorite characters, the doc and E.B. Farnum only got about a scene each, but I'll get to those later. This week, we saw Swearengen, the political creature. As I've said before, he wants to stay in power, but he knows that to do so, he must be as honest and open in his duplicitous dealings as possible. The scenes with Wu were absolutely priceless, both in their comedy value ("Glad I taught you that fucking word") and in Swearengen's struggle to make himself understood (and to understand) his business partner. Ultimately, he made the only choice he could make, regarding which of the dope thieves to hand over, in order to maintain his standing in the community. Much as I hate to admit it, though, I'm glad he dragged Adams along, if only so that he'd have someone to explain his reasons to (I hate to admit it because I might not have understood otherwise. I hate being a stupid viewer who needs to be spoonfed, but in this case, I welcomed the info).

Rev. Smith is growing on me, if only because he's so pathetic. His final scene with Bullock and Star was more heartbreaking than his scene with the Doc last week, when he explained what he was going through, as he tried to decide if his senses were telling him the truth. He comes across as something of a child being able to trust his senses, but odds are we all might under similar circumstances. And, while I'll reiterate my hope that his "unsolved" murder might actually be a mercy killing, I suspect that Swearengen will ultimately be the one who orders him killed, and the piano may be the instrument of his undoing (not that he'll be killed with the piano, just that his love for the music may drive Swearengen to order his execution). The great thing about what we've been learning about Swearengen is that I can believe that he'd have Smith killed both as a mercy killing and as a way to keep him out of the Gem.

I don't have much to say about Bullock this week, though I'll reiterate what I read somewhere that Timothy Olyphant really embodies the role of Seth Bullock like almost no one else could. When I first saw him in Doug Limon's Go (one of the most under-rated films of 1999), I never would have guessed that he could be so captivating as a conflicted hero in a western. His growing frustration at his inability to stay out of some form of law enforcement is palpable due primarily to the strength of Olyphant's non-verbal acting.

Ah, E.B. It wouldn't be Deadwood without my favorite ex-Larry, and seeing him prance around in his poncey suit was priceless. I love how he thinks that being mayor makes him above such things as being shut out of the Gem or, more especially considering his post-appointment antics last week, dallying with the local prostitutes, yet he still calls Swearengen "sir" and defers to his orders. And the fact that one of said orders had to be "don't steal any of the bribe money" was priceless. Much as I love Swearengen and Bullock, and am captivated by the local politics in a virtually lawless society, it's the little characters like Farnum, the Doc and Merrick who really make this show what it is.

Update: Slate has a fantastic, spoiler-free essay on linguistic brilliance of \Deadwood, including some pretty spot-on speculation as to why more people aren't tuning in to the most captivating hour of TV. I have to admit that I hadn't really been paying attention to the characters speaking patterns up till now, though I'll confess that Swearengen certainly speaks in somewhat Shakespearean rhythms.

TV: Sopranos

Wow, whatta ride. I think we all pretty much knew that Adrianna wasn't long for this world from the beginning of the season, but I must confess that even I, jaded Sopranos fan that I am, found myself hoping that she and Chris would go into the program and live happily ever after. At least until that absolutely heartbreaking scene (which I haven't seen mentioned everywhere else) where Ade leaned in to comfort Chris after he almost freaking choked the life out of her. As we've seen before, though, Adrianna is a perpetual victim, and despite her protests that she wanted Chris to get out of "the life," she has put up with any number of beatings, and always stayed with him. A few seasons back, I would have loved to see Chris get out, too, but he's become almost as morally loathsome to me as Paulie (who's much more fun).

The biggest news of the episode, though overshadowed by the whacking, is that Tony and Carmella got back together. I think if this season has shown us anything, it's that Carmella likes being Tony Soprano's wife, as much (if not moreso) than he likes having her. She likes the power; she likes the possessions. There may be less chance of escape from the life for her than for anyone. We also learned, Sunday night, that Carmella is little more than a high-priced whore, getting back together with Tony for a mere $600K. I've seen some discussion about whether or not we can expect to see a return of the bear in the backyard, overbearing symbolism though it may be. I'd like to submit that the bear is already back: did anyone else notice the scene with Tony sitting in his robe in the backyard, overlooking his closed pool, smoking a cigar? C'mon, who needs a real bear when you've got that?

And finally, Johnny Sack, one of the best characters on the show, and certainly the most ruthless (though Silvio shooting his niece like she was some kind of rodent puts him in the running), gets to be the boss. Why? As far as I can tell, simply because little Carmine didn't like all the killing (though I never thought he was particularly good at even pretending to be boss). The scene between Tony and Johnny under the bridge, where Tony tried his best to prostrate himself before his friend and to convince him to make it quick when he whacked Tony B. (a fairly blatant personification of Tony's failures) should go down as one of the best scenes yet in a series full of great scenes. From Johnny's comment about meeting Tony under the bridge being "undignified" to Tony's final "Fuck you" to John, this is one meeting that will have lasting implications.

Or, maybe it won't. You see, that's what I love about the Sopranos: it's the only truly character-driven show on TV. Every single plot is there to push the characters along, to develop them in one way or another. And if bringing up an old plot would be simply rehashing, they just don't bother. Great examples of single episode plots that have long lasting implications on the characters, even though the actual details of the plot don't matter (since they'll never be revisited) include:

*Artie and the soccer coach in season 1
*Melfi's brutal rape in season 3
*The infamous Russian from the Pine Barrens ep (why everyone still focuses on the Russian, I'll never know, as that episode clearly was just a vehicle to deepen the characters of Chris and Paulie, and their friendship/rivalry.
*Big Pussy struggling with wearing a wire to A.J.'s first communion
*Janice's recent anger management classes and Tony pushing her over the edge.

I could go on (and on), but my point is that the writing team for the Sopranos is able to make the show character-driven without constantly reminding the viewers or the characters of incidents, no matter how important they may seem at the time, which affected them either positively or negatively. It's kind of like real life that way, huh?

Movie Review: Taking Lives

I know, I missed a day yesterday. I just couldn't work up the energy to write about anything other than the fact that Mrs. Coffee Shop is in Texas right now looking at houses while I sit up here having only cyber and phone input, and I know most folks who read this could care less about that. But I'm back now, and hope to have a whole mess o'reviews across the pop culture spectrum in the next few days (or maybe even hours). As usual, be warned, there will be SPOILERS AHEAD.

Taking Lives (i.e. the movie with Angelina Jolie, Ethan Hawke and Keifer Sutherland that no one saw).

I caught this at the local discount theatre last weekend, as there wasn't really anything showing at the first run theatres that I hadn't seen (or wanted to see). The thriller is actually pretty stylish, thanks to the cinematography and the rain-drenched Montreal setting (which seems wet even when it isn't raining). Actually, the streets and the architecture of Montreal are much more interesting to look at than the usual LA/New York/DC settings of your typical serial killer film.

Angelina Jolie is an FBI agent on loan to the Montreal PD to help profile a serial killer (since, y'know, those wacky Canadians don't have enough experience with serial killers to profile him on their own). For some reason that is never explained, she is obsessed with death, which I suppose helps her in her profiling, and she surrounds herself during meals, sleep and even the bath with pictures of the corpses. Olivier Martinez is the French Canadian cop who doesn't want the American's help, and Ethan Hawke is an art dealer who witnessed a killing, and is the only person to have actually seen the killer.

I suspect that the movie is attempting to subvert conventional gender roles, insofar as the killer only kills men, and Jolie is the hardened, death-obsessed FBI agent with Hawke as the weak victim/love interest. I say attempts to subvert because by the end of the film, the roles are back in more typical territory, or at least they appear to be. (There's a thesis in here somewhere, as even those movies where a woman is the cop/FBI agent they turn into the victim, or at least the pursued, at some point in the film, much more so than men do when they play the protagonist).

The killer's alleged MO is unique, at least unique among serial killer flicks I've seen. Each victim is a year older than the last, and the killer appears to be actually posing as them for a year or until he finds his next victim. This definition of the MO, given by Jolie to the Montreal cops, holds water primarily because it's the conceit of the movie, but if you think about the fact that the only three bodies found during the main action (the body at the construction site, the one in the parking lot that Hawke witnesses, and the deliver guy found in the ceiling of the killer's apartment) had nothing to do with the killer's MO, it kind of falls apart as an obvious MO, plus he seems to kill at least sometimes for fun. Otherwise, things proceed pretty much by the numbers according to my "Kiss the Girls theory," until I realized that Sutherland was also in the movie (I had forgotten), which threw a monkey wrench into my theory for a few minutes (didn't last long).

The only element which really threw me out of the film was when the still-unidentified killer surprised Jolie by grabbing out at her from under the bed in his mother's basement. Why did the killer, who had a perfectly good apartment and alibi going for him, go back to his mother's basement, where he hadn't been in years? And how did he get into the basement, when the only entrance had been blocked by a heavy bookshelf which was in front of the door (which opened out) when Jolie came to check it out? The cops said he came in through a second story window, but how would he have replaced the bookshelf, and more importantly why? I'm willing to suspend my disbelief through a lot of things, but glaring errors that are overlooked in order to provide the shock of someone being where they aren't supposed to be can really throw me out of a movie.

That said, my problems with the movie really lie after the false ending, which, by the way, might have actually been a good twist if someone other than a very well-known actor had been playing the romantic interest.

THIS IS A SPOILER WARNING, AS I'M ABOUT TO GIVE AWAY THE END OF THE FILM.

At the end of the movie, it turns out that Jolie has set up Hawke, who has been revealed to be the killer and has escaped, to believe that she's pregnant with his children, living all by herself in the country with little contact with the outside world (except for the Montreal police chief, who I suppose helped her set things up). My question is, at what point did the set-up begin? Was she really fired from the FBI? Are we supposed to believe that she spent seven months, pretending to be pregnant, wearing a fake belly (or multiple fake bellies, as she grew), and living a solitary life, all as set up to catch the killer, even though she was no longer a cop? And that Hawke had been in her house, knew where everything was, including her hidden guns and the baby paraphernalia, but he didn't find the smaller fake bellies, or any trace that she might have been faking? And what if he had come in on her in the shower, or during some other time when it would have been obvious that the belly was fake? Or what if he had actually killed her by strangling her, like he had done all of his victims, instead of stabbing her in the (fake) belly? And what if he had removed all of the possible weapons from the house, how would she have caught/killed him? There's so many uncontrollable elements of her "plan" that I just couldn't believe that she had set him up.

I know that these things are formulaic, but I can usually enjoy them for what they are, but the ending really ruined what would have otherwise been a perfectly diverting serial killer movie. Don't waste your money on this one (and it looks like most people didn't).

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