Image Comics’ Perfect Hardcovers

revival_cover_inlineI just received my copy of the Revival Deluxe Edition hardcover in the mail, and it has let me to this major conclusion: this is the perfect way to read comics.

Now, when I say “perfect”, of course I mean “perfect for me”. Other people have other tastes, like floppies or digital or Absolute editions. But for me, Image Comics has pretty much hit the nail on the head with their standard hardcover book design. What are the elements that make these books perfect?

Ten to twelve Issues. This is a perfect number. Most modern comic books run in 5-6 issue story arcs nowadays, especially at non-Big-2 companies like Image and Oni. A 12-issue hardcover trade usually covers two story arcs, roughly a year of the book. It’s a perfect slice for a day or two of reading, and makes it easy to have an annual release schedule for hardcovers. Image’s books bear this out with long-running series like The Walking Dead and Invincible.

No dustjackets. I’m an outspoken opponent of dustjackets on pretty much any book. Ostensibly, they’re designed to “protect” the underlying book by taking damage in lieu of the actual cover. That’s totally fine if I’m in 5th grade and my dustjackets are hand-made from a grocery bag. But from a collector’s standpoint, the dustjackets are just another component that contributes to the overall condition and can become damaged, and much more easily than the actual hardcover of a trade. On top of that, it they’re awkward and cumbersome when trying to read, so I end up just taking them off when reading anyway. If the dustjacket was supposed to protect against fingerprints, the purpose is already defeated. TL;DR version: fuck dustjackets.

Consistent spine and cover design. I cannot stress enough how important this is for OCD comic book collectors like me. When I’ve shelved a long-running series, I absolutely Can. Not. Stand. when the spine design changes. It looks so damned sloppy. Marvel and DC are terrible culprits in the inconsistent spine design arena. Image, on the other hand, has kept the cover design and spine design for long-running series identical, even if it might not be the best (as is the case with Invincible). And that’s all that matters to me. I don’t give a flying fuck if the newer covers are more appealing to focus groups or fit some change of theme – just keep them the same.

$30 to $35 cover price. What a spectacular price for what you get. The overall price of the trade ends up being cheaper than floppies, and in return you get (in my opinion) more value in a sturdy, looks-awesome-on-a-bookshelf hardcover. I don’t have to bag-and-board it, and they’re more durable than most softcover trades (I find a lot of softcovers to have less-than-stellar quality control). Most hardcovers of this size fall into this price point, with a few exceptions like the 100 Bullets Deluxe Editions, which clocked in at $50 a pop. Marvel seems to have moved toward releasing 5-6 issue hardcovers (like All-New X-Men) for $25. Half the content for 85% of the price? Yeowch. And yes, I know they’re cheaper on Amazon, but we’re discussing SRP’s here.

fear_agent_cover_inlineAll of these factors lead to my perfect reading conditions. Twelve issue hardcovers are easy to handle and read, unlike Absolute editions or Omnibi. While I absolutely LOVE the production design on books like my Fear Agent Library Editions or The Sixth Gun Gunslinger Edition, their sheer size does make them a bit hard to handle. The lack of dustjackets means I get a beautifully designed cover (the cover on this Revival book is *fantastic*) without the pain-in-the-ass of having to fumble with or outright remove an annoying wrapper. And at these prices, why would I want to pay $40 to $48 for the floppies, or even similar prices for softcovers, especially when even my comic shop gives a decent discount off of cover on trades?

Image just nails it. Other companies have followed suit in design, but not in price: IDW’s collection of The Cape looked spectacular, but was $50; the same goes for Icon’s Criminal collections. I wish that everyone would adopt the same size, style, and price as Image’s hardcover collections, because if they did, I would never read comics any other way.

Floppies, Trade-Waiting, and Guilt

For the last few months, I’ve been in the midst of a dilemma.

I’m a huge comic book fan. I read a ton of books – almost all of which come from Image right now. I have a list of subscriptions at my local comic shop, and about every six months or so, I’ll pick up a hardcover trade collecting the very issues I subscribe to. With the number of books I read and like, I’m usually picking up a couple of trades every month, and that’s not including back-catalog stuff that comes out in a format I like.

It’s getting expensive. Pretty much everything I read now has a $3.99 cover price. And now, with the July solicits from Marvel, a number of their books are pushing upward to a $4.99 cover price. If this price increase takes hold on a wide scale, it will officially price me out of buying single comic issues.

My dilemma, though, is trying to figure out whether that’s actually a problem or not.

Over the last several years of hosting the Trade Secrets Podcast, my on- and off-air conversations with my cohorts on the show have taught me a lot about myself as a comic consumer. One of the biggest revelations is that I don’t really enjoy consuming comics in serial form. If it were up to me, monthly comics wouldn’t exist, and everything would be a 12-issue hardcover collection.

But see, the business model of the comic book industry makes that untenable. Like ratings for a TV show, a comic book’s success or failure is solely determined by monthly sales. If a book doesn’t sell enough copies, it gets canned, which means that it’s even less likely that the hardcover trades I love so much will even get produced. And, even worse, a canceled book never gets to finish telling the story that it set out to tell.

The entire industry, from publisher to distributor to local comic shop, is based around these monthly sales. I can get a discount at my LCS as long as I maintain a certain number of monthly subscriptions, which helps me when I want to buy trades. A 20% discount on trades keeps my comic shop competitive with Amazon, on most accounts, and when all things break equal I’d rather support my shop.

The issue (ha ha) is that I don’t want to get singles anymore. My problem with floppies is three-fold: 1) they’re fucking expensive – I currently spend about $60 a month on single issues, and that total has been as high as $150+, 2) I’m effectively getting double-dipped by buying single issues and then invariably buying a hardcover collection, and 3) it’s just not the way I like to consume the stories anymore.

Why is it a problem? Because the entire industry and comic community is built around making me feel guilty for not buying individual issues. I’m inundated with tales of how my favorite book will get canceled if I don’t buy it monthly, and how my comic shop relies on those monthly sales and orders to stay afloat. I’ve seen fans and creators alike use the term “trade-waiter” as a pejorative.

Not only this, but the business model at the LCS level doesn’t support – from a financial perspective – my desire to read books in trade form. If I were to cancel my subscription box, I’d lose most (maybe all?) of my discount on other items – namely trades. I can’t set up a subscription box solely for trades (holy hell that would be fucking fantastic). So, by not subscribing to the floppies, my comic shop is basically driving me to buy my trades on Amazon or CheapGraphicNovels, where I can get a 30%-50% discount.

That’s nothing to sneeze at. The average hardcover – my preferred format – costs me between $30 and $50. Getting $8-$10 off of a $30 trade when I’m buying 2 or 3 a month rounds out to a huge cost savings for me in the long run. And, if I’m not getting double-dipped anymore by being forced to buy floppies, I end up saving myself – quite literally – over $1,000 a year.

But that’s not what the industry wants me to do, and even though comic companies make a significantly heftier margin on trades than monthlies, the majority of the community would have me believe that the industry would fall apart if everyone wanted to consume comics the way I do. Hence the guilt-trip.

On the one hand, I absolutely love my comic shop. I love buying things from them, I adore the people who work there, and I really enjoy the time I spend there. On the other hand, it’s becoming increasingly difficult for me to afford the associated cost of maintaining the industry status-quo. I’m broke, and single issues are just too damned expensive for me now.

And I think I’ve reached a breaking point. All the guilt is making me tired, and I’ve realized that I don’t like feeling this way. When I think about all the parts of being a comic fan – from reading and talking about comics to attending conventions to spending time at my comic shop – I’ve come to the conclusion that the only part that’s massively important to me are the stories. I want to read comics, and I want to read them my way – which, for me, means shifting to trade-only consumption.

I’m not sure when I’ll pull the trigger on changing my buying habits. I’ve been babbling about it for months, but there are still several books that I’m sort of “in the middle of” when it comes to individual issues, and I don’t want to give up on them yet. But soon, it’ll be time to give up on floppies, and leave that side of the industry to other fans.

Comic Conventions and ECCC

My first experience at a comic book convention was in Portland, Oregon, within a few weeks of the launch of Image Comics. The show took place in a gutted department store at one end of a mall, and five of the six Image founders were in attendance (they were sans Erik Larsen). I can trace my hardcore comic fandom directly to that show, and to my overwhelmingly positive experiences meeting Jim Lee, Todd McFarlane, and Marc Silvestri. Spawn #1 had not yet released but I was a huge fan of McFarlane’s Spider-Man, and when 13-year-old me got to tell him so, he actually pulled me behind his signing table and talked with me for 15 minutes about comics, the Blazers, and Spidey. It was a formative moment for me.

In the late-80’s and early-90’s, meeting creators from your favorite Marvel and DC books was not an easy endeavor. The guys in charge of some of the most iconic characters of all time were cloistered and egomaniacal (from a fan’s perspective), and experiences like my moment with Todd McFarlane were almost impossible to track down. Back then, when San Diego Comicon was still actually about comics, creators never really seemed to be encouraged to engage their fans on a personal level. Even this experience, I believe, was only possible because the founders of Image were already trying to change how the industry worked.

I began to understand why these experiences were unavailable during a trip to a comic book convention at Seattle Center when I was in high-school, in (I think) 1994. It was a tiny show, occupying only two rooms, with a smattering of artists and writers around the edges signing autographs. I had sketches done by Dan Norton and Joe Benitez, milled around the back issue bins, and finally – after waiting what seemed like forever – got to meet and get a signature from Walt Simonson.

As I neared the front of the line, it was obvious that several of the people in front of me were comics dealers. Every one of them had stacks upon stacks of comics for signing, including multiple copies of the same book, and manners were nonexistent. Mr. Simonson was visibly frustrated. The straw broke the camel’s back with the guy in front of me, who plopped down a stack of easily fifty-plus books, and began smarming at Mr. Simonson as though the two of them were on the golf links together.

In one of the most memorable moments of my life, Walt Simonson stared this guy down as he jabbered, stopped him from talking with a raised hand, and said “Excuse me. When did I give you leave to address me in the familiar?” He then took the top book off of this guy’s stack, signed it, replaced it, slid the entire rest of the stack to the side, and waived me up to get his signature.

This, for me, encapsulated everything that was wrong with the comics industry in the 90’s. At age 16, that moment changed how I looked at the books I bought and read. Over the next couple of months I completely changed my buying habits, shifting my entire mentality away from seeing comics as collectibles, and seeing them now as entertainment media.

At all the comic book conventions I had attended throughout the 90’s, I walked away with maybe 15 signed books. At that time, conventions that weren’t NYCC or SDCC were dealer’s shows, populated entirely by comic book shops and collectors plying their wares, with the occasional small group of creators as a draw for fans to come into a giant comic book flea market. I had very few positive experiences with creators after the one with Todd McFarlane, mostly because the creators I was meeting desperately wanted to be interacting with fans, and most of their interaction ended up being with people trying to make a quick buck.

We’re going to skip a few years, because in 1996 the vast majority of my comic book collection burned up in an apartment fire, and I bailed on comics entirely until the middle of 2002. Once I was back into comics, I found a dearth of local comic book conventions. I’d been to a few smaller ones like the Walt Simonson was at, but nothing really compared in scale to the larger ones in New York, Chicago, or San Diego. Talent didn’t really come up this way, so I pretty much gave up on the idea of getting anything signed again or interacting with my favorite creators in any meaningful way.

Until Emerald City Comicon came along.

I didn’t attend the first few years of the current incarnation of ECCC. They were held at the Qwest Field Event Center, and I didn’t really hold out much hope for them being any different than the shows at Seattle Center had been. The first time I attended was in 2008, the first year they held the show at the Washington State Convention Center, the same venue where PAX Prime is held. They occupied only two halls in the WSCC, and one of those halls was solely for the queue. In spite of the (comparatively) small size, one of the things that struck me about ECCC was the atmosphere.

Around half, if not more, of the space they occupied was dedicated to Artist’s Alley. Yes, there were exhibitors in the hall – all the local comic shops were there, a couple of video game dealers, and small booths for Dark Horse and Image – but the real focus, it seemed, was on small tables where creators could interact with fans. Due to my prior experiences, I was really wary of this setup. I expected a bunch of money-grabbing dealers surfing around tables full of grumpy creators who just wanted to go home. Nothing could’ve been further from the truth.

Fans were respectful and engaged, and because of that creators were all in fantastic moods. I met and spoke with Bill Willingham for the first time, having only just begun reading Fables. I had started collecting the Invincible hardcovers, and got to chat with both Ryan Ottley and Robert Kirkman. I was introduced to Greg Rucka’s work at that show. It was the most fantastic comic-book convention experience I’d had since I was 13 years old.

The size of the show worried me at the time. Having seen so many other shows come and go in the Pacific Northwest, I was worried that ECCC just wouldn’t last, and that it was as big as it would ever get. The shows in 2009 and 2010 were about the same size, but the attendance had doubled, and blew my expectations right out of the water. This show was here to stay.

In 2011 I’d been doing the After The Fact podcast for about two years, and decided I wanted to do a comic book podcast using the same format. I cemented the plan after recruiting Andy Podell, whom I worked with at the time, to be the co-host. Andy was already a pretty regular cast member on ATFP, so when I say “recruited” I mean that I walked up and said “Wanna do a comic book p-“ and he’d said yes before I ever finished the sentence.

We recorded Episode 0 of Trade Secrets at ECCC 2011, and the con has been an integral part of our show ever since. After that first year we decided to get a table at the show, an investment that has been paying dividends ever since. I’m not gonna lie – I’d pay for this Artist’s Alley table every single year for the sole purpose of having a designated place to sit at the convention.

Emerald City Comicon has exploded in size since I first attended in 2008. The attendance has grown from 10,000 to almost 70,000 in that time, and the physical floor space has increased from one part of one hall to the entire WCCC and a few surrounding hotels. And yet, in all that growth, the convention has still maintained that amazing atmosphere, a feeling that encourages one-on-one interaction between comic book fans and the creators of the work we love so much. Yeah, there are more exhibitors and media guests, but more than half the show floor is still occupied by simple six-food Artist’s Alley tables where some of the biggest names in the industry still sit down and sign books and take duck-face selfies with people who love their work (I’m lookin’ at you, Kelly Sue).

This convention is directly responsible for our continued devotion to Trade Secrets. We’ve developed relationships with several creators whom we’ve had on the show, mostly at ECCC. Even outside of Trade Secrets, I’ve had the chance to have some absolutely lovely conversations with some of my favorite people in the industry. And you just won’t find that kind of interaction anywhere else (especially not at SDCC).

I know, I know. Now I’m gushing. But let me be frank here for a minute:

Comic book conventions, when I was growing up, were not positive experiences (for the most part). I’ve had terrible run-ins with creators, dealers, and other fans, and some of the shows I attended were downright scummy. With the exception of that one experience with the Image creators, the majority of my con experiences were awful – and even at that show the good was balanced by a terrible run-in with Rob Leifeld that sparked enmity in me that stands to this day.

For me, Emerald City Comicon has turned that all around. In the last few years I’ve managed to get well over a hundred signatures from my favorite creators, and every single one of those came with a personal experience, if not a longer conversation, with that person. It’s one of the most fantastic shows in the industry, and one that has given me experiences I’ll never, ever forget.

Thanks, ECCC. See you next year.

Reader Perception And Quality Control

I recently read a couple of posts on Chuck Wendig’s blog over at TerribleMinds regarding a self-published author’s responsibility for the quality of the work they publish. For your reading pleasure, the whole discussion started with this post on John Scalzi’s blog HERE, where he drew an analogy between the writerly life to that of a baseball player. Wendig furthered the discussion HERE and HERE.

The gist of Wendig’s point is that, while self-publishing is easy and has destroyed the barrier to entry in the publishing industry, each author who self-publishes now holds the responsibility to do right by their readers. He posits that authors should act as their own gatekeepers, and that the moment an author asks someone to pay for something they’ve written they have a responsibility to the reader – their customers – to present a professional and complete product.

I won’t further that particular discussion except to say that I couldn’t agree with him more. While I was reading through these threads another dynamic was brought into sharp focus: readers’ tendencies with regards to association of quality. Here’s what I mean:

For a moment, let’s take self-publishing out of the picture and rewind to the days where traditional publishing was just called “publishing”. If a reader suffered through a bad book – be it poorly written or unprofessionally executed – that reader associated the lack of quality with the author. Rarely (and this is demonstrated in some of the responses to Wendig’s posts, and echoed all over the internet) did a reader associate poor quality with a particular publisher or the industry as a whole. The inverse was also true: read a good book, follow the author. I can’t remember a time that I’ve ever read a fantastic novel and thought to myself “Man, that publisher really knows what they’re doing.”

Fast forward to the modern era. That dynamic I mentioned still exists with traditional publishers. While the idea of self-publishing has brought publishers in general more into the limelight, readers still don’t tend to associate good or bad quality of traditional books with the publisher or the publishing industry – the quality association still falls squarely on the author. The same cannot be said of self-published work.

When a reader buys a self-published novel and it turns out to be fantastic, that author now has a new fan. The reader associates the quality of the novel directly with the author and that association is more pertinent without a publishing house acting as middle-man. But when a reader gets ahold of a bad self-published book – again, be it poorly written, edited, and/or produced – the mentality no longer defaults to “I’m not going to buy any more of that author’s work.”, it tends to be “Fuck this self-published crap.” The onus of quality now rests on an entire segment of the industry, full of individuals who have nothing to do with one another, the best of which now get dragged down by players whose attitude is simply to dump a block of text onto Amazon without a thought to its quality.

I think that mentality originates from the idea that the traditional publishing industry, with its gatekeepers in place, has developed a reputation for at least upholding a minimum standard of quality. Readers intuitively know that – for the most part – when they pick up a book at Barnes & Noble they can expect it to have run through several editorial passes and have been proofread a few times. Please note that by “quality” I am simply referring to editorial professionalism, not the quality of the actual stories being told.

Of course, the same cannot be said of self-published work. While the barrier to entry has been razed to the ground, so has the expectation of professionalism. Without “gatekeepers” in place, no one is held to any kind of standard at all, which allows any overzealous author to take advantage of the system – of readers – to collect money for sub-par work rather than hone their craft prior to charging for it. Which is exactly Wendig’s point: Without that ingrained expectation of quality that the industry took decades to build in the minds of readers, the responsibility now rests solely on self-published authors’ shoulders to not foist snake-oil onto their customers.

I am never going to be the person to say that a writer shouldn’t be allowed to self-publish (and neither is Wendig, so please don’t assume that as my point). In fact, the ease of self-publishing is likely going to be the reason my book sees the light of day. While I don’t necessarily think that “gatekeepers” – the traditionally difficult standards of entry set by agents, acquisitions editors, and publishers – are healthy in an environment that is beginning to value creator’s rights more than it ever has, I think that publishers will morph their role into that of curators of content rather than locking all the doors and holding all the keys, and in a scenario where self-publishing digitally becomes simple and ubiquitous, it might be time for service providers and device manufacturers to take an active role in building up the quality of self-published work.

In the late ‘70’s and early ‘80’s, the emergence of the home video game console experienced a similar issue. Atari created a console that was (comparatively) easy to program for and had almost no barriers to making games for it. Everyone from the big guys like Namco and Activision, down to programming teams of 2 guys in a basement, started making games. The result was an explosion of garbage – sometimes in the form of games that literally did not function. All of a sudden, there was a huge glut of expensive, quasi-functional trash, and no legitimate way to tell the good from the bad. Consumer confidence tanked, Atari went bankrupt, and the video game industry as a whole crashed – hard – and almost didn’t recover until a little Japanese company called Nintendo joined the fray in 1985.

Nintendo set a new standard for video game console manufacturers by providing a system that was easy to use and affordable for consumers, but simultaneously holding their publishers to a standard of quality by running every game through a battery of tests before it could be manufactured for Nintendo’s console. That system is still in place today at all the major console manufacturers, where all of them have a certification department that runs a series of tests on every single game to make sure that it adheres to a set of guidelines for usability and functionality.

These certification departments don’t judge the subjective quality of a game (if they did, we’d be blessed to never see another Petz or Babiez game again) instead simply making sure that a game functions properly, uses the correct terminology, and won’t break the console or hamper the user experience. And, in the face of a huge self-publishing boom in the video game industry, these certification departments aren’t going away – they’re adapting to the boom and working to help small video game developers publish games that never before would’ve seen the light of day.

The same model could be applied to self-published books. A company like Amazon could have a certification department full of proofreaders and copy editors whose jobs were nothing more than to comb over manuscripts and hold them to a certain level of production quality. Like the cert departments at Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo, they would not comment on the quality of the stories, and they certainly wouldn’t act in a true editorial capacity (just like the cert departments don’t act as bug-testing facilities), but they would be able to identify the mechanical problems with a manuscript and have the power to reject one until it passes muster.

Granted, this would require an investment of people and funds from companies like B&N and Amazon who – at the moment – have exactly zero motivation to do so. Quality isn’t their concern, and they make their 30-70% off of every book sold whether it’s crap or not, so it behooves them to promote high quantity with a low barrier to entry.

Atari once thought the same thing.

We may never see something like that come to pass unless Amazon gets a rude awakening like Atari did, which is unlikely to happen in the modern publishing climate (at least not anytime soon). This, I think, is why publishers as curators will become the next wave of business in the publishing industry. The model that immediately jumps to mind is Image Comics.

Creator-owned comics were mostly unheard-of up until the early ‘90’s. Comic book creators, fed up with the Big 2 paying them a pittance for their work and taking their creations away from them, were looking for a new way to do business. Image Comics was formed with what was, at the time, a revolutionary idea: Let the creators keep the rights to their work. Image acts in a publishing capacity insomuch as they provide editorial support, access to printing and distribution, and a unified logo under which readers can assume a certain level of quality.

Image does, to some degree, act as gatekeepers just like Marvel and DC do, but the trade-off for creators is that they retain the rights to their creations. One of the primary drives, for authors, behind the self-publishing movement is creative control and the preservation of their rights. Image has been successful in this practice, which has been followed by other companies like Boom! Studios and MonkeyBrain, and the model seems ripe for introduction into the publishing industry.

It’s unlikely that any of the major publishers like Tor or Random Penguin would ever concede rights to new properties to their authors. The industry seems ready, however, for publishers to act less like gatekeepers and more, as I said earlier, like curators of content, sifting through the morass of self-published books to offer a middle-ground solution for authors who want to couple the benefits of unified brand clout with the flexibility of creator-ownership.

The publisher can develop a brand identity unheard of in traditional publishing, where mainstream readers can go to find works they like based not solely on the author’s brand, but also the publisher. The author retains the rights to his or her work, and can build a brand of their own with the support of a larger entity. Readers would have a way to parse creator-owned work more than just by author, finding a stable or series of stables of curated content that fits their reading tastes. It seems like a win-win-win proposal, but I’m also not a business major.

I don’t think traditional publishing is going away. Nor do I think that self-publishing is steering the industry toward some inevitable implosion. I do, however, think that new business models will emerge that incorporate the best of both worlds, and maybe with a little bit of quality control on the service-providers’ ends, we could see a more balanced renaissance in the publishing industry that serves the business, the creators, and the consumers alike.

For now, though, all a fledgling author like me can do is ride out the storm, and try desperately not to suck.

Comic Book Review: Revelations #1

This is a comic book review I wrote for on January 3rd, 2014.

revelations_coverUntil I began doing some research for this review, I had absolutely no idea that Revelations is a re-print of a six-issue miniseries that was originally published by Dark Horse Comics in 2005. Which is surprising, because I love Humberto Ramos. I loved his work on Spectacular Spider-Man, DV8, Runaways, and even his vampire comic Crimson. His style is one of the most unique in the industry, and I find him sorely underused. Which is why, when I saw his name on the cover of Revelations #1 at my local comic shop, I picked it up with no prior knowledge.

In Revelations, writer Paul Jenkins crafts the story of the death of Cardinal William Richelieu on the grounds of the Vatican. Although the case seems cut-and-dry when ruled a suicide, Cardinal Marcel Leclair recruits his long-time friend, Scotland Yard investigator and self-proclaimed “prolapsed Catholic” Charlie Northern to take a look at the case. I am a bit curious why a Scotland Yard investigator is allowed any jurisdiction in Vatican City, but I’ll just let that one go for now.

Charlie Northern’s acerbic, chain-smoking, conspiracy-theory-loving detective plays a lot like a cross between Robert Langdon and John Constantine, in a very good way. He’s not as unlikable as Constantine nor as pretentious as Langdon, so it’s easy to get caught up in his distaste for his former religion and its trappings when he gets dragged to the seat of its power. Northern is really the only fleshed-out character in the first issue, and he’s surrounded by a somewhat one-dimensional supporting cast. I expect to see more from characters like Marcel and the antagonist Cardinal Toscianni, but the focus of issue one was squarely on Charlie.

The plotline plays much like a Dan Brown novel, as well – a crime thriller with a religious focus and high-conspiracy underpinnings. I’m glad I get to go into it without any knowledge of the previous publication, because it looks to be a fun ride.

And oh man, the artwork.

I’ll preface this by saying that if you already don’t like Ramos’s style, you’re not going to like it here. This book is VERY Humberto Ramos, but with a twist. In much the same way that Matteo Scalera’s art is transformed by Dean White’s painterly colors in Rick Remender’s new book Black Science, the coloring team of Leonardo Olea and Edgar Delgado take Ramos’s lines and create an entirely original look, dominated by pastels and colored pencil style sketch lines. The result is, while thoroughly steeped in Ramos’s exaggerated figure construction, a stunning and different direction for his art. This book looks absolutely fabulous.

The relative lack of information about the original publication may very well be why Boom! Studios chose to reprint it, especially with the talent attached. Although, it might also generate the question “Why reprint this?”. It’s rare for a company to re-serialize a book when they acquire it, so maybe they’re attempting to reach a wider audience and build hype prior to continuing the series beyond this first 6-issue arc. At least, that’s what I can hope.

I don’t know how the original print run sold, or even how many copies were printed, but I’m hoping it turns out to be a hit for Boom! Studios. I really enjoyed this first issue and love the potential it sets up. If you’re not turned off by a story set in the Vatican and all that that entails, go pick this one up.

Everything Needs An Ending

I’ve had several conversations on my comic book podcast, Trade Secrets, about continuity in long-running comic books and how “mainstream” books differ from creator-owned works. It became very apparent to me this week, when I realized that my subscription list at my comic shop contains only a single Big 2 comic book: Rick Remender’s Captain America.

I grew up on comic books, but I never really grew up on the Marvel or DC lexicon like many kids did. I’m not sure what it was that kept my interests away from them, but they just never grabbed me like other books. Before I started getting comics of my own I’d read my brother’s books, which consisted mostly of Vigilante and ElfQuest. When I started buying my own stuff it was related to my favorite cartoons, so my first comics were Transformers and G.I. Joe.

When the ’90’s rolled around and Image was born, I was all about the first few comics they made. I was a humongous Spawn fan, and I really enjoyed The Savage Dragon. I had collected some of the lesser (at the time) Marvel books like X-Factor, but Marvel’s premier books and DC’s stuff just weren’t my thing. Over time, I even began to drop my favorite Image books, because I kept losing interest. Stories dragged on and on and there was never any resolution to anything. Everything was a cliffhanger, and for every plot thread that closed, two opened.

When I look at my current habits in consuming all kinds of media – be it books, television, movies, or comic books – I realized how much I want endings. I don’t want to be indefinitely strung along by a character’s plight. People don’t live forever, and when I see that Peter Parker is still in his mid-thirties after 60 years of comics, or that Bruce Wayne is still the same grumpy, mid-40’s playboy he was in, well, the mid ’40’s, I just lose interest. No matter how good an individual story might be involving those characters, they’re never going to end. I’m never going to get any kind of closure.

I don’t generally watch TV shows that are still running anymore (and I’ll limit this statement to dramas, because sitcoms don’t really count). I have become reluctant to go to a movie that I know is part of a series that won’t be finished for years (a perfect example: I haven’t seen The Hobbit yet, and I probably won’t watch any of that series in theaters). I won’t start a book series unless I know there’s a definitive end to it, which is why I haven’t started The Song of Ice and Fire yet.

I no longer collect comic books from the Big 2, because I know that no matter how much I love a story or a creative team, that story is never going to be the end of the story, and the creative team will be shuffled around at some point.

Marvel NOW! was the first time in a long time that I was excited by mainstream Marvel titles. The creative teams were astounding and it looked like they were going to give a fresh take on some of their tried-and-true heroes. I picked up Uncanny Avengers, Avengers, and Captain America, and quickly realized that I got caught up in the hype and may have made a mistake. I dropped Uncanny Avengers pretty fast, and this last week dropped Avengers. I’m going to stick with Captain America for a little while because it reminds me heavily of Remender’s Fear Agent (one of my all time favorite books) and it’s effectively an “elseworlds” or “what if” title that will hopefully come to a reasonable conclusion.

But that’s just it: Although Marvel NOW! and DC’s New 52 represented new beginnings for these long-running franchises, they still don’t represent any kind of ending. There is no promise of self-contained stories. There is still no permanent death for characters. No meaningful aging, and rarely any lasting growth. There will never be any closure.

And I can’t stand the thought of that. Continuing stories with characters that I love are great, but I want even the longest ones to END at some point. I need to know that there is a denouement, and that I’ll get some satisfaction that my favorite character’s actions were actually meaningful. They don’t have to be heroic or even happy, but without an ending, nothing has any meaning. There’s no arc It’s just a series of false heartbeats in an eternal flatline, and while the first few might represent some semblance of hope, eventually cynicism sets in and there’s no longer any reason to care.

So now, if I don’t have at least a decent inkling that an ending is coming, I won’t partake until something is already over. I don’t watch ongoing TV shows until they’ve ended anymore (with Supernatural being the one exception right now). I don’t start book series unless I know how many books the author intends. I generally don’t watch movies that I know don’t have some semblance of a wrap-up. And I don’t collect ongoing comics anymore.

I’ve fallen in love with independent and creator-owned comics of late. When people look back on the best comics ever made, most will shout to the stars about books like Preacher and Y: The Last Man and 100 Bullets. All books which are great because they’re self contained. They’re stories – not just ongoing background noise. I’m not saying that there haven’t been phenomenal stories told within the pages of Batman or X-Men or Captain America. But the longer a series runs and the more creative teams are given access and input, eventually those older stories get twisted, ignored, or outright shit on.

When I know a book has an ending, I’m all over it. My favorite books right now are maxi-series like The Sixth Gun and The Massive and Fatale and Locke & Key. These are series that have the best of both worlds: long runs that allow for spectacular development, and a definitive arc that comes to a real conclusion.

It’s possible that I’ll become invested in these stories only to find out that the author is incapable of developing an ending that lives up to their ideas (which is my typical experience with Brian K. Vaughn). But I’m willing to take that risk, because – even in that terrible instance – at least it will be over. And maybe once each one of these stories is finished, I’ll look forward to more work from those creators, because they will show me that they’re capable of telling interesting stories.

Review: Seven Warriors #1

Story by Michael Le Galli
Art by Francis Manapul

Seven Warriors, a historical fantasy tale set in the fictional north-African kingdom of N’nas Amon during the middle ages, begins at the fall of the capitol city of Tamasheq. Queen Tsin’inan recruits a crew of six female Sarmatian warriors to escort her son to the hidden city of Jabbaren, away from the danger of the impending war.

Amongst all of the historical references and abundance of apostrophes, Seven Warriors is a simple adventure tale. Le Galli laces the story with excessive dialogue at times, spending a few too many words explaining somewhat straightforward situations. The book begins on a sex-scene that the writing in the book never adequately explains, relying on artwork that doesn’t fully clarify its place in the story. The story picks up pace once the introduction to the world is handled, but perhaps not enough. The end of the book feels forced, ending in a cliffhanger that creeps up almost as an afterthought.

Francis Manapul’s art is strong throughout, evoking Michael Turner-esque style of his Aspen and Top Cow roots. The story is as much about its environments as its characters, and Manapul doesn’t skimp. From the ancient city of N’nas Amon to an alpine snowscape to a long-forgotten underground passage, the book’s environments are given solid attention to detail. Unfortunately it’s sometimes difficult differentiate some of the characters, leading to the aforementioned confusion regarding the book’s opening.

It is of note that the book is also presented in a strange square format, reminiscent of Archaia books like Mouse Guard, but still printed at standard size. This leads to large bars of blank white at the top and bottom of every page, almost like letterboxing, and feels like a lot of wasted space.

The last few pages of Seven Warriors can be forgiven when taken as a set piece in a larger tale. Although this wasn’t the strongest first issue, there’s potential for a fun medieval adventure if the right beats are put in place.

Review: Orchid #2

Story by Tom Morello
Art by Scott Hepburn

Intellectual escapee Simon and headstrong prostitute Orchid, along with Orchid’s little brother Yehzu, have been captured and sold into slavery. Although Simon insists that escape and rebellion are not only possible, but right, his words fall on the deaf ears of his broken fellow slaves. Moments before being sold at auction, Simon devises a plan to escape and gain entry to Fortress Penuel, where he will mount a rescue of the rebel leader Anzio…

While the first issue of Orchid, by necessity, focused on introductions and world-building, Morello spends significantly more time building on the personalities of his protagonists here. Simon is a know-it-all who runs his mouth too much, and spends much of his time confusing Orchid into discounting his ideas. Orchid is stubborn to a fault, single-mindedly focused on her and Yehzu’s survival after their mother’s murder. The character moments can be heavy-handed but they work, and never distract from the budding adventure at hand. The historical asides help to build Morello’s post-apocalyptic vision – one that is not devoid of life but teeming with it, and all of it dangerous – and serve to provide context for “present day” events.

Hepburn’s art is strong throughout, an interesting mix of gritty and cartoony that serves the character depictions well. His character designs are intriguing and distinguishable, and his monsters are suitably scary – whether they be animal or human in nature. His backgrounds are lush, showing us the swampy remains of a once waterlogged world rather than the standard desert terrain typical of the genre.

Orchid has its flaws – primarily in dialogue – but a lot of story is told in a small amount of space, and the world being built is a unique blending of different sci-fi and fantasy genres that, so far, works well. A new character introduction at the end of the book leaves us on a great cliffhanger, eagerly anticipating next month’s issue.

Review: The Occultist #1

Story by Tim Seeley
Art by Victor Drujiniu

Rob Bailey is a successful college student with a beautiful girlfriend. Everything was going his way until he was possessed by an ancient spellbook called the The Sword that grants him magical powers. A suspect in the murder of one of his professors, Rob must figure out what The Sword – and its pursuers – want with him while avoiding any police entanglements.

The Occultist #1 picks up immediately following the events of The Occultist #1. If that sentence confused you, imagine how I felt reading the book. It was originally a Dark Horse one-shot in 2010 that, while critically well received, didn’t make much of a splash. Unfortunately, this new start reads too much like a second issue, dropping readers into conversations and situations that require far more setup than the meager intro paragraph can provide.

Tim Seeley, typically deft at blending comedy and action in his creator-owned Hack/Slash series, misses the target for much of this issue. The lack of successful humor could be forgiven if balanced by tension, but even the action and horror scenes merely plod along, attempting to toe the line between exciting storytelling and necessary exposition but failing at both. The result is a lack of narrative arc that’s absent of stakes.

Drujiniu’s art is solid, and Dalhouse’s colors give it a painted feel that’s well suited to the material. One panel gives us a glimpse of Drujiniu’s traditional style, though, which I’d like to see shine through a little more. Unfortunately, two characters in the book look distractingly like celebrities (Rob’s roommate as portrayed by Anthony Anderson, and an eyepatched menace that’s clearly William Fichtner). One of the character designs – a bounty-hunter that looks like a girl in “female Indiana Jones” cosplay – is just absurd.

I feel like The Occultist is floundering for a direction. The creative team either needs delve into a grittier interpretation or embrace its absurdity. As it stands, though, it’s just a little bland.

Review: Abe Sapien: The Devil Does Not Jest #2

Story by Mike Mingola and John Arcudi
Art by James Harren

Concluding the short mini-series, Abe Sapien: The Devil Does Not Jest #2 picks up immediately after the unfortunate lapse in Abe’s focus that landed him in hot water at the end of the last issue. He awakes injured and hallucinating, conversing with the ghost of a dead demonologist.

The presentation of this conversation is excellent, providing a well-crafted fantastical framework for some necessary historical exposition. It’s an interesting look at the subject of the first issue, and leads us directly into the events of the second half of the book. That transition was a tad confusing, though, and it took several re-reads to really understand. Once that was handled, the rest of the book is a fun, old-fashioned monster bash.

There is a very small side note of a story featuring Salvatore Tasso and Hellboy that could have been left out of the issue entirely. It feels pointless in the context of Abe’s story, and only inserted for a lame punchline in the last panel that actually serves to weaken the payoff at the end of the book.

James Harren’s artwork is considerably stronger in this issue than the first. The historical segments and hallucinations are well rendered, and one particular panel involving a demonic transformation is exceptionally creepy. His monster designs are suitably gruesome, and his action during the primary fight sequence is kinetic and engaging. I was pleased with the art throughout, which is well complimented by Dave Stewart’s colors.

As an individual issue, this one weighs in a little light, but it’s a better-than-average conclusion to the overall tale. I think this story would have been well served by editing it down to a fat one-shot rather than splitting it over two issues.