Weekly Reading Round-Up : 04/29/2018 – 05/05/2018

Prepare to be buried underneath a first-issue avalanche, unleashed upon you fair readers well before the week is over because your humble host is going to be out of town this weekend —

I have no idea what prompts a creator to launch a new series when a couple of the ones he’s already supposedly working on (LowSeven To Eternity) appear to have gone AWOL, but nevertheless, Rick Rememder and Image figured that now was as good a time as any to release Death Or Glory #1 — and with superb French artist Bengal on board, I guess I’d be itching to show it off, as well. Something of a socially- and politically-conscious take on the Fast And Furious franchise, this tale of bad-ass female street racer Glory attempting to pull off the first in a series of brazen robberies in order to get the money to pay for a liver transplant needed by her off-the-grid-living father figure sends plenty of mixed messages — Remender seems to venerate hard-core libertarianism on the one hand while pleading for nationalized health care on the other — but one thing that’s pretty straight-forward is this book’s full-throttle action scenes, which Bengal illustrates with considerable flair and fluidity. This is a “cinematic” book all the way, and one no doubt developed with eventual Hollywood exploitation in mind, but I’m not going to hold  that against it (much) simply because the results so far are immediately arresting and damned exciting. If Remender can avoid his usual penchant for turning his various titles into four-color psychotherapy sessions, as well as keep to some kind of regular publication schedule, who knows? This could prove to be something special. At the very least, this extra-length (and extra-priced, at $4.99) debut installment offered enough, particularly as far as the art goes, to get me to come back for the next one.

Previous projects such as The SpireGodshaper, and Motherlands have shown that Simon Spurrier has a real penchant for what’s now usually called “world-building” — particularly of the high-concept fantasy variety — and in Boom! Studios’ Coda #1 he’s at it again, limning the broad-stroke borders of a civilization where magic is not only real, but is widely-acknowledged as being the cause of a societal apocalypse of some sort. The book is populated with its fair share of con artists — not the least of which is our protagonist, who at least is pulling his various and sundry shady dealings in order to free the soul of his wife from supernatural bondage — but fantastic creatures and exotic wasteland locales abound, as well, all brought to stunning life by artist Matias Bergara, who imbues the proceedings with a distinct, and very welcome, Eurocomics sensibility by way of some stylish surrealism. I liked the story, loved the art, and definitely feel like I got my money’s worth and then some with this 48-page first issue, which also features heavy-duty cardstock covers and nice, thick paper (both of which are at least similar, if not identical, to what Boom! uses for Matt Kindt and Tyler Jenkins’ soon-to-be-concluded Grass Kings), so count me in for the foreseeable future on this one.

On the “Big Two” front, Marvel is cashing in on the success of Avengers : Infinity War with yet another Avengers #1 comic, this one from the creative team of writer Jason Aaron and artist Ed McGuinness, and this time around they’re going for an “old/new” mix with the team’s line-up, with mainstays Thor, Captain America, and Iron Man  being joined by on-and-off members Black Panther, Doctor Strange, Captain Marvel, She-Hulk, and one complete newcomer, the Robbie Reyes Ghost Rider. It was fun to see Jack Kirby’s Celestials back front and center, but apart from that this comic was a strictly by-the-numbers affair, with Aaron establishing the sketchy outlines of the threat that brings the new team together but little else, and McGuinness cranking out some rather dull, uninspired, standard-issue superhero art. You get some extra pages with this opening salvo, though not enough to justify the $4.99 price tag, but what’s really lacking here, in addition to consumer-friendliness, is a reason to stick with the title. About as bog-standard as shit like this gets — which is very bog-standard indeed.

I have no idea why Action Comics Special #1 exists. It appears that DC had one last Dan Jurgens-scripted story (this one illustrated by Will Conrad) ready to go, but nowhere to put it with Bendis taking over the Superman titles, as well as a “leftover” holiday-themed story from Max Landis and Francis Manapul that either wasn’t quite ready in time for DC Universe Holiday Special #1 or simply couldn’t fit in with that book’s page count, so they took the two of them, padded things out with a new story featuring Lois Lane at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner (how’s that for being accidentally timely) written by Mark Russell and drawn by Jill Thompson, slapped a five-dollar price tag on the whole package, and called it a “special.” It’s really only the Russell/Thompson strip that is, in fact, anything special, though, with the Lex Luthor-centric Jurgens/Conrad yarn being absolutely average in terms of both script and art (as you’d probably expect), and the Landis/Manapul “thang” being nice enough to look at and competently written — but not the kind of thing you’re going to be particularly interested in reading in fucking May. Save your time and money and skip this “inventory story” collection.

That should do it for this time out, but Saturday is Free Comic Book Day, and even though I’ll be in the great Pacific Northwest, something tells me I’ll find time to pop into a comic shop and grab a few of the offerings, so those are probably what we’ll look at when next we convene our column in, oh, about ten days or so. Hope to see you then!

A “Marvel Legacy” Of Mediocrity

You may as well buckle in, because this one could take awhile —

It doesn’t take a genius to see that Marvel Comics (as opposed to their Hollywood arm, which is really the tail that’s wagging the corporate dog now) is in a bad place these days. Sure, they’re still the number one publisher on the Diamond sales charts most months, but you should take that as literally as possible — they’re well and truly the number one publisher, as in, they publish the most stuff. They crank out, on average, 20-30 more periodicals per month than their nearest competitor, DC, and therefore they sell more units, and take in more dollars, almost by default. But when you look at things a little bit more closely, the news for Marvel is almost all bad:

For the last several months running, for instance, Marvel hasn’t had a single comic book or trade paperback collection sell over 60,000 copies; the overwhelming majority of their books are selling in the 20,000-30,000 range; each of their much-ballyhooed cross-over “events” for the past four years running has sold in lower numbers than the previous one; once-venerable franchises like Captain America, Iron Man, the X-Men, and the Hulk are having trouble moving 20,000 units per month; it’s been nearly a year since any Marvel book other than the first issue of an “event” has cleared the 100,000 sales threshold; each of Marvel’s last four nearly-annual relaunches has resulted in lower sales, even for the “new” first issues, than the last one.

All of these various trouble signs, concerning as they are, really are just symptoms, though — the “disease” itself is more amorphous, but infinitely more serious : the comic book-reading public just doesn’t seem to like what Marvel is putting out these days, by and large, and the reasons for this are many and varied :

Marvel’s previously-referenced constant re-launches have become tedious in the extreme; the combination of Marvel’s high cover prices and shoddy physical product doesn’t offer good value for money; that incessant stream of cross-overs results in series that people are following and enjoying being hijacked for months at a time and most readers jump off, rather than on, when that happens and don’t come back; the overwhelming majority of Marvel’s titles feature continuity-heavy, derivative stories, mandated by mans of editorial dictate, that aren’t welcoming to new readers; the quality of the art in most of their books has gone noticeably downhill in recent years; there are more cost-effective ways of following the goings-on at Marvel than buying their printed product, most especially thanks to their Unlimited digital service, which gives consumers access to almost their entire back catalogue for only ten bucks a month and is now running only six months behind their periodicals. In short, Marvel is actively giving readers plenty of justification to not go down to the LCS and pick up their books.

What may be noticeable to some by dint of its absence on that list is Marvel’s purportedly “progressive” political stance, which a small but vocal (and angry) contingent of fans maintains, armed with plenty of inference but no actual evidence, is driving readers away in droves. I put no credence in this school of “thought” simply because, if handled properly, Marvel’s semi-recent diversification of its line-up could actually bring new readers in, and because those clinging tight to this particular hobby-horse really aren’t seeing the forest for the trees : Marvel Comics exists as an IP farm for Marvel Studios now, and unlike their printed-page counterparts, the silver screen versions of Tony Stark, Steve Rogers, Bruce Banner, Thor and the like actually age, and like it or not, they’re going to need to be replaced at some point. There’s a reason that the new cinematic Spider-Man is purportedly 15 years old, and characters like Riri Williams, the Jane Foster Thor, the Amadeus Cho Hulk, and Kamala Khan have been introduced in the comics with the same logic in mind — they’re here to be long-term replacements for and/or reboots of characters who are getting long in the tooth in the movies. Their introduction has precisely fuck-all to do with a so-called “SJW agenda,” no matter how much the troglodytes who are doing their level best to “port over”the “mind”set of “Gamergate” to the comic book scene may claim otherwise.

That being said, these trolls do represent one more contingent of readers who don’t like the ideas coming from the once-branded house of them, and once you remove their noxious, mouth-foaming racism and sexism from the equation (I know, that’s kind of like saying “if you just ignore that whole slavery thing, the confederacy maybe had a point about local, decentralized government”), their displeasure with Marvel isn’t necessarily all that different to the one being advanced by rational, civilized human beings — namely, that this is a company that has lost its way and doesn’t know how to connect with its readership anymore.

Still, none of this means that all is lost, does it? I mean, about 15 months ago DC was in a pretty similar spot, with nothing outside of Batman selling worth a damn and everyone writing the company’s obituary in advance. Then came DC Universe Rebirth, and yeah, while most of their line has reverted to “New 52”-era sales numbers, for a good few months there nearly all their books were selling like hotcakes and a solid half-dozen or so are still selling a lot better than they used to even to this day — and hey, fans generally seem much happier with the direction of their comics (I’m not one of them, but for our purposes here today that’s actually and entirely beside the point). Crucially, the company is also back in the “black” in terms of profitability after spending a couple of years in the “red.”

Now, if you’re Marvel, you’re going to notice this, of course. And if you’re Marvel, you’re also tapped-out in the “new ideas” department, so you’re simply going to try to copy what worked for your competition given that your own publishing strategy just ain’t working anymore. Enter Marvel Legacy.

Of course, a few wrinkles are necessary in order for Marvel to look like they’re not just completely aping what DC has already done, so to that end they’re reverting, by means of a complex and frankly nonsensical formula, back to “classic” numbering for all their series rather than starting everything over at #1 yet again; they’re keeping all their books at $3.99 rather than knocking the price back a buck; they’re sticking with a monthly publishing schedule for their titles rather than upping ’em to twice per month; they’re leaving most of the extant creative teams on each series in place, albeit with some notable exceptions.

Still, the message they’re at least trying to send to their readers with Marvel Legacy is more or less the same as that telegraphed by DC Universe Rebirth — “We’re going back to basics and we’re determined to bring you the type of storytelling you love. We admit we kind of got off-track there for a spell, but that ends now. Give us another chance, you won’t regret it.”

But have they really changed their ways? Do they even know how to pull out of their creative and commercial tailspin? I would submit, based on the evidence offered up in Marvel Legacy #1, the “blockbuster” oversized special kicking off this supposed “new” direction, that the answer to both questions appears to be an emphatic “no.”

Again, we’re presented with basically no choice but to refer back to Rebirth. Much as I actively detested that comic and most of what’s followed in its wake, they did a few things right with it : pricing it at $2.99 was clearly a smart move, as was putting the entire project under the supervision of one person. I would have preferred that person to be someone — hell, probably anyone — other than Geoff Johns, and I still and always will despise the idea of bringing the Watchmen into the DCU “proper,” but the notion of an over-arching storyline that allows for each series to go in its own direction while tying back into the main narrative if and when the situation calls for it at least makes good sense on paper, especially when a company is trying to come out of a period that seemed directionless at best, downright misdirected at worst. Marvel seems to be kind of on the fence about the whole centralized narrative thing, though, as Legacy offers up a few different potential avenues for that without seeming to settle on any of them, and on the dollars-and-cents side it probably comes as no surprise that they’ve eschewed the bargain introductory price point altogether, slapping a whopping $5.99 tag on this special (but, hey, it’s a got a big, fancy gatefold cover by Joe Quesada, Kevin Nowlan, and Richard Isanove — featuring mostly characters who don’t appear in the book at all). You know what, though? Those negatives actually fall pretty far down on the list of complaints here.

Let’s look at some of the bigger ones, then, shall we, starting with — who’s in charge here? Okay, yeah, Jason Aaron is the writer of Marvel Legacy #1, but he’s a freelancer, and not even one who’s signed to Marvel exclusively. His job is done here, he’s going back to writing Thor, and whatever comes out of this clearly won’t be based on his, sorry to be grandiose here but, “vision.” But is anything going to come out of this?

That’s actually a very open question. Unlike Rebirth, Marvel clearly isn’t using this as an opportunity to clear the decks — the handful of plotlines that are touched upon here spring more or less directly from stuff already underway in their titles, which leads into another problem : this book isn’t especially welcoming to either new or returning readers. In fact, if you’re “out of the loop” about what’s been going on in the so-called “616 Universe” these days, you’re going to be totally lost here from jump, and nothing that happens on subsequent pages is designed to pull you back in. We’re basically shown a disconnected series of events involving a small handful of heroes from the point of view of an omniscient narrator who seems to be able to “see” both past and present, as well as to cast his or her gaze into deep space. We start with a brief look-in at the “1,000,000 B.C. Avengers” that Marvel has been hyping in recent weeks/months before cursory visitations serve up various vignettes (how’s that for Stan Lee-style alliteration?) centered on third-tier (at best) characters like Starbrand and the Robbie Reyes Ghost Rider, we’re introduced to what could possibly, I suppose, be (yet another) new Avengers line-up of Riri Williams/Ironheart, the Jane Foster Thor, and the Sam Wilson Captain America (except everyone knows that Sam is going back to being the Falcon next month), we find that Loki’s up to some typical shit with the Frost Giants, and somewhere in the midst of all this we’re asked to give a shit about a mystery crate that’s being cleared out of S.H.I.E.L.D. headquarters — along with everything else, because the organization itself has been dissolved in the wake of Secret Empire.

The contents of said crate lead to what could arguably be labeled as the one “major” revelation this comic has to offer, since a dude driving a beer truck comes upon it after the entire convoy transporting it is overturned, but come on — if there’s one “long-lost” Marvel character who’s probably going to turn up again hauling a load of beer cross-country, who do you think it’s gonna be? Here’s a hint in case you you haven’t figured it out :

Anything else in here that might grab ya, then? Not really. We get a rapid-fire appearance from Ben Grimm and Johnny Storm; there’s a pit-stop at an empty Avengers Mansion, which shows that the statue they keep out in the backyard appears to be different for whatever reason; we learn — and don’t ask me where the fuck this comes from — that Wakanda has established a space-faring, intergalactic empire (I actually read Black Panther every month and this is news to me); Steve Rogers and Deadpool each turn up for a page for reasons that not just escape me but don’t appear to exist; and we find out that in some way, shape, or form the Celestials have something to do with all this (whatever “this” even is), because hey, there are very few Jack Kirby creations remaining that Marvel hasn’t strip-mined for all they’re worth already, so why not one more?

Artists Esad Ribic, Steve McNiven, Chris Samnee, Russell Dauterman, Alex Maleev, Ed McGuinness, Stuart Immonen, Wade Von Grawbadger, Pepe Larraz, Jim Cheung, Daniel Acuna, Greg Land, Jay Leisten, Mike Deodato Jr. and David Marquez (all colored by Matthew Wilson) comprise our “all-star lineup” on the visual side, but the same lack of inspiration that infects the script seems to have made the leap over to them, as well — it all looks fine, sure, but none of it is especially memorable.

Unfortunately, the same is true of the cliffhangers here — what’s in that mystery crate? Why, it’s an Infinity Gem . Yawn. And who does our unseen narrator turn out to be? Why, it’s Valeria Richards, seen traipsing around the universe with her brother, Franklin. Double yawn. And that’s Marvel Legacy #1 in a nutshell.

A less-than-bold prediction before we close this out, then : Marvel’s highly-publicized vow that they’re taking “at least” an 18-month break from cross-over “events” is going to turn out to be bullshit. The Celestials thing, the Infinity Gem thing, the search for Reed and Sue Richards — one, more, or all of these are going to suck everything into their orbit the minute sales begin to lag again (assuming they even get a “bounce” from this).  My money’s on any Infinity Gem-centric story, because let’s face it — every time one of these things shows up, a cross-over is never far behind. Those other sub-plots probably won’t prove to be “red herrings,” but they’ll most likely be “localized” into just a few titles. Now, assuming this proves to be an accurate Criswell imitation on my part, that means —

Nothing. Has. Changed. Here. Okay, bringing back the FF and the “real” Logan seems to be a signal that Marvel is ready to integrate Fox-owned cinematic properties back into their printed-page universe, but seriously — that’s my only “take-away” here, and I went into this thing more or less expecting disappointment . In fact, it honestly felt like the entire comics world was resigned to defeat in regards to Marvel Legacy going in, and rumors (possibly originating from Marvel itself) have already begun to circulate  that this whole damn thing is just a “stalking horse” for another, bigger re-launch that’s in the planning stages for late 2018.

Normally, of course, I’d be rolling my eyes at this point, and for good reason. We’ve all been down this road way too many times. But in this case, I actually hope the scuttlebutt is true — I freely admit to not being much of a Marvel fan, but without a healthy, robust, and popular Marvel Comics, your local shop and mine are probably finished. We may not like Marvel, but our retailers need them — and if there’s not a second, and better, re-boot in the works at the back end of Legacy, then the days of this publisher, and of the store owners who rely on them, are probably numbered.