Sunday, February 27, 2011

The Economics of Comics: Prologue

I was speaking with my father last weekend and mentioned how fun it would be to write a book about the economics of the comic book industry. Yes, you read that correctly – a book about the economics of the comic book industry. Boring you say? Not at all, I riposte! This is big business! How big? Remember when Disney bought Marvel for USD 4 billion? What about the blockbusters about to hit theatres around the world? But did you know that Marvel went bankrupt a decade earlier? This is a very BIG (and interesting) story.

(Okay, okay, calm down, Mark. Don’t start spending the movie royalties yet.)

I was also prompted by a lecture by a journalist who covered the 2008 economic meltdown. As he spoke, he mentioned – booms, busts, and bubbles – all occurrences that have happened to the comics industry – just as they’ve happened to tulips, housing and tech-stocks.

But when I went to the internet, I found scant details. And because of this, I’ll be stepping-up to write it myself. Of course, I’ll be doing this in my spare time, which will be erratic, due to upcoming exams. But, how cool would it be to parlay something like this into a book? A quick check reveals mostly ‘How To...’ texts when the keywords ‘comic book’ and ‘industry’ are entered, so I may have a market. There is one book – Comic Wars – which examined the bankruptcy of Marvel Entertainment, but this reads more like a Gordon Gekko-style Wall Street battle and it only mentions in passing, what I believe to be the most interesting episode of modern comic book history: the speculators boom of the early 90s.

So that’s what you can expect from WGTB in the next little while. For your enjoyment I thought I’d post two contrasting images. The first is the monster itself: X-Men #1 (above). This is still the highest grossing comic of all time, selling an amazing 8.1 million copies in autumn 1991. The second is a clip from Fantastic Four #111 (1971). I took this photo because it shows the X-Men title relegated to a secondary group of comics. Remember, new X-Men stories were stopped in March 1970 only to be brought back in 1975. Look carefully in the bottom left corner and you’ll see what I’m talking about. Quite the juxtaposition, isn’t it? Zero to hero is 16 years! Well, that’s what I'll be writing about in the upcoming series of articles. Farewell for now.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Book Review: Tales to Astonish: Jack Kirby, Stan Lee and the American Comic Book Revolution

Greetings loyal readers! All of three of you. This is my first hardcover review for WGTB so enjoy. The book reviewed here is Tales to Astonish: Jack Kirby, Stan Lee and the American Comic Book Revolution. It was published in 2004 and its author is Ronin Ro. I recently found it at a used bookstore in Toronto, Canada. Lately, I had been itching for something more substantial about our medium and decided to give it a shot.

This book is both interesting and frustrating.

It’s interesting because it will supplement your knowledge of Jack Kirby, Stan Lee and growth of comic books as a medium from the Second World War until recent times. It will explain to you why Kirby, Lee and others are so important to comics, and will help you understand how the history of comic fiction developed into clearly demarcated ages, with key players and dominant companies.

It’s frustrating because of how it does this. My biggest issue with the book is that it takes a very ‘macro’ view and is almost completely devoid of dates and context which is immeasurably important for someone with less than a specialist-grade knowledge. The tumultuous history of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby is a gripping story. Simple dates would be immeasurably helpful in explaining when the big comics were released, why they were so groundbreaking, and why they're so expensive for collectors today. Okay, maybe this a case of linearly-minded historian nit-picking. But ground-breaking comics occurred at important periods in time in history and there is a connection. Captain America #1 was a World War II story; Fantastic Four #48 was a space-age story; and OMAC #1 was the quintessential future-fearing story from the 1970s. If you don't know the dates of these issues, this book will be a Journey Into Mystery for you.

It also has some peculiar sentences and grammatical and punctuation errors. This, however, I blame on poor editing. Everyone knows that a good writer ALWAYS has a better editor. My blog is evidence of this.

But enough with the negative. If I sound like some mean-spirited critic who is nastily panning this effort, this hostility may stem from a begrudging respect. As I comic fan who understands how complex of a story this is, I can only imagine how difficult this book must have been to write. The tumultuous story of Jack Kirby and Stan Lee began during WWII and carries on to this day, almost two decades after Kirby's passing. And, frankly, I envy Ro. I love my legal studies, but if someone offered me good money to research Bullpen Bulletins and read comics all day? Well, that would be an Amazing Fantasy!

So give this book a read if you want some background on Marvel’s early history and are looking to expand your knowledge on why some books from 1966 or 1971 are worth more than others. You’ll move though it quickly and it will make you appreciate Stan Lee’s creativity and business acumen and Jack Kirby’s artwork and creativity.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

New Captain America Photos

Although, I'd much rather see an Alpha Flight movie, I'm sure Captain America will be AMAZING. These new film photos were just emailed by Marvel. Enjoy!

In tribute to past and future co-operation between Canada, the USA and the UK; here are some gratuitous covers and pictures of their representative heroes.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Was March 1966...

...the best month for comics? That’s hard to say. But it was quite a month. If I had a time machine, there’s a couple things I'd do. One would be to head back to see the Sex Pistols perform at the Manchester Free Trade Hall on 4 June 1976. There I would have met and partied with Johnny Rotten and future musical legends Morrissey, Ian Curtis, and Tony Wilson.

I might have taken the time machine back to medieval Japan and watched the Tokugawa Shogun take over in 1603. Seeing King John sign Magna Carta would have been a sight as well.

But one thing I'd have really liked is being a Marvel subscriber in February 1966. How awesome would it have been -- after enjoying a decent story on the Inhumans -- turning the page and seeing...

What I wouldn't have given to buy Fantastic Four #48 for only 12 cents! I 'd have bought Thor #126 that month too. Thor v Hercules? What's not to like?!?

(The photo is from my personal copy of Fantastic Four #47)

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Random Reviews: Alpha Flight #59 "Puck's Back"

I checked one of my favourite websites today and saw this. Fortunately for WGTB, I had just finished Alpha Flight #59 (1988) and now get to post a review AND link it to the latest news about those courageous Canadians.

Have you ever wanted to visit Tibet? Are you sympathetic to the plight of the Tibetan people? If so, you’ll enjoy this comic. Heck, you might enjoy it if you’re completely A-political too – I don’t know. But I think this book is great because it has all the elements I think a good story needs -- travel, adventure and ideologically charged conflict! Indeed, the reason (besides by passport) I've always enjoyed Alpha Flight is that it almost always gets political. I remember, the first time I ever visited Ottawa, I was not impressed with the Canadian parliament because it was a place where laws were made. No, I thought it was cool because it once served as Alpha Flight's headquarters! (Warning: Spoilers Below)

The story is Bill Mantlo and the art Jim Lee. Now, this story is known as one of Lee’s earlier greats, but I honestly believe the true genius of this comic is the written story. It revolves around Alpha Flight stalwart-turned-reject, Puck as he tries to find solace in this isolated corner of the world. To his dismay, he arrives right at the time that PRC forces are about to massacre a group of Buddhist monks. The monks use their powers (this is a comic book after all!) to resist, but are soon overwhelmed by a combination of military technology and comic-style power – in the form of the Jade Dragon – a soldier who adapts the powers of his namesake mythical monster in the service of the People’s Revolution.

Puck manages to escape to the lamasery where he meets the “High Lama” who himself is a cross between Dr. Strange and the Dali Lama. The Jade Dragon follows into this house of worship, where he confronts the Lama, and the resulting conflict opens a gate for both Puck and this holy superhero to pass through and find what they've been searching for.

As someone who has always wanted to visit Tibet, and has a profound respect for the Buddhist faith, I thought it was great place to put a comic book story. It was also really neat to see state-sponsored heroes fight. Indeed, the story carries on into the next issue and involves the Canadian Prime Minister. As a former political staffer, I found this particularly amusing.

It was also nice to read a story by Bill Mantlo. As you may be aware, Mantlo was victim of an accident almost twenty year ago, from which he has not completely recovered. He wrote some great comics, including the complete seventy-five issue run of Rom: Spaceknight, a title I’ve always felt is underrated. He also did a twenty issue run of Iron Man and an amazing sixty-eight issue run of the Incredible Hulk, where he discussed important issues such as child abuse. Even more impressively, in the mid-80s, Bill went back to law school and ended up working as a public defender. As a late-arriving law student myself, I can’t tell you have much respect I have for this. Defending the accused is never an easy job, but always a necessary one.

I’m not sure if you’re an Alpha Flight fan. It’s obviously one of the smaller fan-bases in the Marvel universe. But if you’re looking for a good old’ fashioned Indiana Jones-type story, you’ll enjoy Alpha Flight #59. In fact, if I remember correctly, an original locale for the Last Crusade was going to be China. Hmmm.....

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Awesome Annuals: Thor Annual #5 “War of the Gods”

One of the great things about Thor is that he can find a role in so many stories. He’s at home with The Avengers, he can fight the Silver Surfer in the cosmos, and he’s got a place in the supernatural world of Asgard. This annual from 1976 is one of those instances where Thor demonstrates his versatility -- this time in the ancient mythologies of both the northern and southern European peoples.

(Warning: Spoilers Below)

And that is what makes this makes this annual a treat. If you’ve ever wanted to see gods clash, or wonder who would win between the Asgardians and the Olympians, this comic is a good place to start. In the story, two characters that eventually become staples in the Marvel universe, Thor and Hercules duke it out, along with their Norse and Greek worshippers. If it sounds a little anachronistic, you’re probably right – a quick Internet check will tell you that the vibrant and expansive Norse did expand through Russia, Belarus and Ukraine, eventually finding their way to Constantinople. But this happened during the Byzantine Empire, by which time the Greek gods had gone dormant, awaiting their return to Earth via comic fiction. But don’t let historical or theological realities distract you. The premise of the story is still pretty cool.

The cover is classic Jack Kirby, owing to his return to Marvel in 1976. Steve Englehart is the writer and its interior artist is John Buscema. The artwork has a more contemporary feel to it than Kirby’s cover, and that works in this particular instance. The comic begins with the Norse creation story, which, at first, appears a little out of place, but is actually is quite helpful in placing all of the subsequent Marvel characters (ice giants, gods, mortals, trolls, etc.) that would appear in the Thor continuum. It also helps with the introduction of Thor, that sometimes hot-headed and always enthusiastic fellow we know him to be.

The story then moves forward to a battle between the Greeks and Norsemen “somewhere near the Arctic circle”. Both warrior groups invoke the name of their favourite gods, and this escalates matters considerably when Hercules and Thor show up. Of course, this isn't the first time they've fought in comics, but (to the best of my knowledge) it's the first time historically. Ultimately, the battle ends in a draw and the two groups decide to settle matter at a later date, returning to their respective abodes.

Once Thor and the lads head back and discuss this affront to their status as both gods and Norsemen, Loki gets it in his mind to stir things up and heads off to Olympus where he pushes the Olympians towards rash and violent action. There is then another battle and it eventually ends in a major win for the Northern side. Or does it?

And this is when we get to the crux of the story. After the battle, Thor and Zeus have a discuession about what happened. Unbenounced to Thor, Zeus and Odin found d├ętente during a secret meeting as the battle raged. Afterwards, when the thunder god and his king are discussing matters, Oden says of gods and mortals: “While men of our lands believe we exist, our power and our lives are beyond the Olympians reach. Likewise they cannot end by our devices.” Clearly, Zeus understands that the Norse gods, like their Greek counterparts, are tied to the mortals who worship them and without, lose all power. That’s certainly an interesting commentary about belief, faith and the plurality of religion even in today's world, and it certainly gave this reviewer something to think about. Just as all good fiction should.

So all in all, Thor Annual #5 is a great comic book. It has great art, a good story and is well worth worth the couple dollars, pounds or euros you might need to spend. Pick it up if you can, and keep watching the stars!

Friday, February 11, 2011

A Good Summer Ahead!

We comic book fans are going to have a great year! With Thor, Captain America, Green Lantern and X-Men films all being released in summer 2011, I expect it will be one good weekend after another! Personally, I'm most looking forward to Thor. So far, that trailer looks to be the best of the lot and, let's face it, Thor kicks ass whatever his medium. With the trailers out recently, I'd thought I'd pass along the movie posters. This is the type of stuff I normally 'tweet' but I thought it would be good to post something on WGTB while you wait for my next review. Hints: it's an annual and it hails from more than one 'bronze' age.

Here are the movie posters. Keep watching the stars!

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Random Reviews: Batman (Prestige) "The Cult"

Not long ago, I stumbled across a website that might interest you – the top 25 Batman graphic novels from IGN. As graphic novels seem to be eclipsing pamphlet comics these days, I encourage anyone out there to bookmark it and go back when you’re looking for a good Batman read. I’m not sure about the ratings (Dark Knight Returns is #1 in my books!) but it’s good to have them assembled in one spot for quick reference.

A couple months ago, a friend of mine uncovered a box of comics in his basement. It had been given to him by his uncle (via his father) and he didn’t want it anymore. I looked trough and I decided what I wanted and one of the stories I picked up was the four issue prestige format called Batman: The CULT (1988) by Jim Starlin, with Berni Wrightson and Bill Wray doing the graphics. On the above mentioned website it was ranked #6, along with a statement that it`s relatively unknown. Frankly, before the website I didn’t know of its existence either. Well, I’m here now to say I’m glad to have stumbled upon it.

The story begins in media res, with the antagonist, a one-off villain named Deacon Blackfire. He’s your typical cult-leading charismatic figure who is ‘assisting’ the homeless and poor of Gotham City by adding them to his cult. At the beginning they manage to kidnap Batman and brainwash him into joining the group. Eventually, the Dark Knight escapes the cult’s clutches and heads back to Wayne Manor for some choice advice from Alfred and much needed recovery. As Bats is recovering, a couple Gotham politicians are assassinated and the main island of the city is taken over. The army is soon called in, but they too are nullified. Once again it falls on the Dark Knight to save Gotham and he heads back in a ‘Monster Truck’ looking Batmobile to retake the city and kick some butt.

The Cult is a good Batman story for two reasons. Firstly, throughout Batman is riddled with self doubt and defeat. He seems to be very vulnerable in this story and it’s always great to see him experience negative emotions. That`s why he`s a superhero, right? If the Batman can’t bounce back, none of us can.

Secondly, it also breaks the mould of the Batman/Bruce Wayne as a caped crusader out not to hurt, but to seek justice. Here, Batman is hurt severely and when he starts his quest, he wants revenge. Indeed, Robin and him even depart with machine guns. If the plot sounds a little familiar, there is a lot of the Dark Knight Returns in this story. Blackfire`s cult is an awful lot like Miller`s “Mutants” and both groups seem to have the a similar modus operandi. It doesn’t develop in the say way as Miller`s masterpiece does, but it`s also much shorter so we probably shouldn’t expect the same plot intricacies. The story climaxes with a good battle and, well, what can only be called a brutal showing on Batman’s behalf. The end of the story is gripping and this makes it a great, albeit even darker than normal Batman story.

The Cult is a good, fast read that it might be worth picking up in the ‘collected editions’ bin at your local shop. Of course, it’s always strange seeing firearms in the hands of the Dark Knight, and in this instance they don`t seem to work as well as they did in Barr`s Batman: Year 2. But if you can get it – go for it – you’ll find it entertaining.