Fred Van Lente

Why Cowboys & Aliens Needs to Succeed

On July 29, Cowboys & Aliens opens in movie theaters across the US. Directed by Jon Favreau (Iron Man), executive produced by Stephen Spielberg (do I really need to name one of his credits?), written and produced by Damon Lindelof (Lost), and starring Daniel Craig (Casino Royale), Harrison Ford (1 or 2 successful movies, can’t remember the titles) and Olivia Wilde (House). With an estimated budget of $100 million and big star names this is meant to be a big ol’ Hollywood blockbuster.

And most people may not realize it’s based on a comic book. More accurately, Cowboys & Aliens was first an original graphic novel published in 2006 by Platinum Studios and HarperCollins. The concept was created by Platinum chairman Scott Mitchell Rosenberg, and was executed by writers Fred Van Lente (Action Philosophers) and Andrew Foley (Parting Ways) and artists Dennis Calero (X-Factor) and Luciano Lima (Grifter and the Mask).

Comics are still battling a perception problem. The majority of Americans still think comic books = superheroes, maybe with a side dish of funny animals. The truth is that comics have as much if not more diversity as any other entertainment medium and art form. It’s just not as easy to find. Most comic book stores still predominantly sell superhero comics and the industry’s two largest publishers (holding over 75% of the market) almost exclusively publish superhero comics. But there a number of publishers, like Dark Horse Comics, Image Comics, Fantagraphics Books, First Second Books, Drawn & Quarterly, Boom! Studios, Archaia Entertainment, and lots more, that are carrying an ever-expanding selection of great material for readers of any shape and size that could fill up every section of a library. A change is happening, but even so, the perception is still comic book movie = superhero movie. This is reflected from the entertainment press and marketing to audiences’ own descriptions.

Cowboys & Aliens graphic novel (HarperCollins)

Perceptions are changed slowly and gradually. The problem is that a series of big successful Hollywood movies based on a comic book that isn’t superheroes has never really been trumpeted as based on a comic book or graphic novel. There have been notable exceptions, but the lasting impression doesn’t seem to stick. The Mask, Men in Black, From Hell, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, Ghost World, A History of Violence, Road to Perdition30 Days of Night, and Red all did reasonably well but either lacked in reach or in leading with the message about their source material. Sin City and 300 are about as good as its gotten but largely because of the strength of Frank Miller’s name. The Walking Dead on TV has been a big leg up. But when this summer season alone has four big superhero movies enforcing the perception, it’s an uphill climb.

With comics sales leaking away every month, comics needs a big influx of readers looking for a wide variety of entertainment. To help put a kick in that awareness, Hollywood and their audiences need to see that big (and successful!) popcorn movies can come from comic books that aren’t about superheroes. And Cowboys & Aliens fits that criteria perfectly with a great high concept, fun setting and lots of explosions.

This year has already seen two failures for non-superhero comic book movies. Priest was based on a Korean comic (or manwha) of the same name by Hyung Min-woo. It was published in the US by Tokyopop, which was in the midst of shutting down its domestic publishing arm as the movie was released. Surely not a good sign. The movie performed about as well as you’d expect, despite some eye-catching trailers. Before that was Dylan Dog: Dead of Night starring Brandon Routh (Superman Returns). The movie was based on the Italian comic book series Dylan Dog, an acclaimed horror comic created by Tiziano Sclavi. Unfortunately it failed to capture the surreal nature of the comic and the main character’s charm in reacting to the horror he investigates.

Both of those movies failed for any number of reasons, but that they have the common link of being adaptations of foreign comic books not about superheroes isn’t good. Cowboys & Aliens needs to be the start of a new trend where Hollywood (and their audiences) starts to see the value in non-superhero comic books that are filled with ideas and concepts people want to experience. It can’t establish this perception all on its own, but with no other movies that fit the bill this summer, it needs to at least push the needle in the opposite direction.

Also released this summer is The Smurfs, which is adapted from the classic Belgian comic Les Schtroumpfs by Peyo, but it’s more associated with the popular animated series that ran on NBC throughout the 1980s, or the little figurines. The Belgian comics have rarely been translated and published in English, which surely contributes to this perception. Papercutz has been doing a great job importing these fun comics to the US.

Otherwise, it’s up to The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn in December, based on the Belgian adventure comics by Hergé.

Copyrights and comics

As a preview to their upcoming Comic Book Comics #5 by Fred Van Lente and Ryan Dunlavey, Evil Twin Comics has posted a 6-page excerpt titled “The Grabbers”. It does an excellent job encapsulating and presenting copyright law and how it has effected the history of comic books. The piece focuses on Superman, so this is a great prequel to that BBC Superman documentary where we see Superman’s creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster a few years after the events depicted at the end of this comic.

The comic also covers the legal shenanigans involving Bob Kane (Batman co-creator), Bill Finger (Batman, Robin and Joker co-creator), Jerry Robinson (Robin and Joker co-creator), Joe Simon (Captain America co-creator), and Jack Kirby (co-creator of Captain America and half of the rest of the Marvel Comics superhero universe).

What’s amazing (and kind of sad) is that a lot of these legal battles are still being fought.

New Graphic Novels, Comic Books for You – 12/23

Never read a graphic novel before? Haven’t read a comic book in years?

Here’s some brand new stuff that came out the week of December 23 that I think is worth a look-see for someone with little to no history with comics. That means you should be able to pick any of these up cold without having read anything else. So take a look and see if something doesn’t grab your fancy. If so, follow the publisher links or links to buy yourself a copy. Or, head to your local friendly comic book shop.

Disclaimer: For the most part, I have not read these yet, so I can’t vouch for their quality. But, from what I’ve heard and seen, odds are good they just might appeal to you.

Action Philosophers!: More Than Complete – $24.99
By Fred Van Lente & Ryan Dunlavey
320 pages; published by Evil Twin Comics; available at

Imagine Plato as a wrestling superstar of ancient Greece, Nietzsche as the original ubermensch, and Bohidharma as the grand master of kung fu. These are not just great thinkers they also make great comics. Action Philosophers details the lives and thoughts of history’s A-list brain trust in hip and humorous comic book fashion. All nine issues of the award-winning, best-selling comic book series have been collected into a single volume, making this a comprehensive cartoon history of ideas from pre-Socratics to Jacques Derrida, including four new stories. You’ll never have more fun getting the real scoop on the big ideas that have made the world the mess we live in today! Tom Morris (Author of Philosophy for Dummies, If Aristotle Ran General Motors, and If Harry Potter Ran General Electric).

I’ve got an issue of this that looks at Ayn Rand and it’s excellent. Fun and informative. This same team is working on a comic about the history of comics, which astoundingly has never been done before to my knowledge, called Comic Book Comics. Here’s an 8-page preview of Action Philosophers looking at Carl Jung.

The Great Anti-War Cartoons – $24.99
By various; edited by Craig Yoe
184 pages; published by Fantagraphics Books; available at

For centuries, cartoonists have used their pens to fight a war against war, translating images of violent conflict into symbols of protest. Noted comics historian Craig Yoe brings the greatest of these artists together in one place, presenting the ultimate collection of anti-war cartoons ever assembled. Together, these cartoons provide a powerful testament to the old adage, “The pen is mightier than the sword,” and remind us that so often in the 20th century, it was the editorial cartoonist who could say the things his fellow newspapermen and women only dreamed of, enlightening and rallying a nation against unjust aggression.

Readers of The Great Anti-War Cartoons will find stunning artwork in a variety of media and forms (pen-and-ink, wash, watercolor, woodcut — single images and sequential comic strips) from the hands of Francisco Goya to Art Young, from Robert Minor to Ron Cobb, and from Honoré Daumier to Robert Crumb, as well as page after page of provocative images from such titans as James Montgomery Flagg, C.D. Batchelor, Edmund Sullivan, Boardman Robinson, William Gropper, Maurice Becker, George Grosz, Gerald Scarfe, Bill Mauldin, Art Spiegelman and many more. The book also includes an Introduction by 2006 Nobel Peace Prize winner Dr. Muhammad Yunus and a Foreword by Library of Congress curator Sara W. Duke.

This book is neither ideological nor parochial: The cartoons range across the political spectrum from staunch conservative flag-wavers to radicals and hippies, and span two centuries and the entire globe (Australia, Russia, Poland, France…). But their message remains timeless and universal.

What better way to celebrate the season of peace than this collection of anti-war editorial comics? Well, OK, maybe there are better ways, like donating to charities or volunteering with anti-war movements, but this is a good way, too. Here’s a 10-page preview in PDF. There are comics dating back to the 1800s. Pretty fascinating. I particularly like the one from 1915 by Luther Bradley and the one from 1920 by Jay “Ding” Darling.

The Original Johnson, Volume 1 – $19.99
By Trevor Von Eeden
128 pages; published by IDW Publishing; available at

At last – The Original Johnson, Trevor Von Eeden’s personal and heartfelt graphic novel biography of Jack Johnson, the first African-American heavyweight champion of the world, international celebrity, and the most controversial American of his time. This is the artistic achievement of Trevor’s career (Batman, Black Canary, Black Lightning, Green Arrow), more than four years in the making and worth every moment.

Originally published online at, this has been in the works for over 12 years. It is a passionate and unrestrained depiction of Johnson’s life and the racial tension of America at the time. You can read the first 100 or so pages at ComicMix. (Oh and by the way: IDW, update your online store.)

Marvels – $24.99
By Kurt Busiek & Alex Ross
248 pages; published by Marvel Comics; available at

“MARVELS is a giant leap forward in the evolution of illustrated literature.” — Stan Lee

Welcome to New York. Here, burning figures roam the streets, men in brightly colored costumes scale the glass and concrete walls, and creatures from space threaten to devour our world. This is the Marvel Universe, where the ordinary and fantastic interact daily. This is the world of Marvels.

Originally released in 1994 to much acclaim and enthusiasm, this new printing provides a great introduction to the world of superheroes and the superhero world of the Marvel Universe in particular. Looking back at it now, the painted art feels like it’s a little much (do superheroes really need to be that realistic and life like?) but with superhero movies now a pretty normal occurrence, maybe it was never that big of a leap. Either way, the story is told from the point of view of a normal guy in Marvel’s New York struggling through life as flashy dressed people with extraordinary abilities start running around the city and inevitably break things. There’s a small preview at the Amazon link above.

Footnotes in Gaza – $29.95
By Joe Sacco
432 pages; published by Metropolitan Books; available at

From the great cartoonist-reporter, a sweeping, original investigation of a forgotten crime in the most vexed of places.

Rafah, a town at the bottommost tip of the Gaza Strip, is a squalid place. Raw concrete buildings front trash-strewn alleys. The narrow streets are crowded with young children and unemployed men. On the border with Egypt, swaths of Rafah have been bulldozed to rubble. Rafah is today and has always been a notorious flashpoint in this bitterest of conflicts.

Buried deep in the archives is one bloody incident, in 1956, that left 111 Palestinians dead, shot by Israeli soldiers. Seemingly a footnote to a long history of killing, that day in Rafah—cold-blooded massacre or dreadful mistake—reveals the competing truths that have come to define an intractable war. In a quest to get to the heart of what happened, Joe Sacco immerses himself in daily life of Rafah and the neighboring town of Khan Younis, uncovering Gaza past and present. Spanning fifty years, moving fluidly between one war and the next, alive with the voices of fugitives and schoolchildren, widows and sheikhs, Footnotes in Gaza captures the essence of a tragedy.

As in Palestine and Safe Area Goražde, Sacco’s unique visual journalism has rendered a contested landscape in brilliant, meticulous detail. Footnotes in Gaza, his most ambitious work to date, transforms a critical conflict of our age into an intimate and immediate experience.

I’m a big admirer of Joe Sacco and his work, and here it looks like he’s going one step further in developing comics journalism, where he targets one specific story to investigate. Here’s a great preview (PDF) that pulled me right in. I need to get this.

Luke on the Loose – $4.99
By Harry Bliss
32 pages; published by Toon Books; available at

Luke looks on at the pigeons in Central Park, while Dad is lost in “boring Daddy talk,” and before you know it—LUKE IS ON THE LOOSE! He’s free as a bird, on a hilarious solo flight through New York City.

Harry Bliss, the renowned illustrator of many bestselling children’s books, finally goes on a solo flight on his own with a soaring story that will delight any young reader who has ever felt cooped up.

This looks very cute. Recommended for kids age 4-8, but I won’t tell anyone if you’re older and get this because it looks very charming and fun. Here is a preview of the kid running through the city with his new pigeon friends causing mayhem.

Alec: The Years Have Pants (A Life-Sized Omnibus) – $35.00
By Eddie Campbell
640 pages; published by Top Shelf Productions; available at

For the first time ever, the groundbreaking autobiographical comics of master cartoonist Eddie Campbell (FROM HELL) are collected in a single volume!

Brilliantly observed and profoundly expressed, the ALEC stories present a version of Eddie’s own life, filtered through the alter ego of “Alec MacGarry.” Over many years, we witness Alec’s (and Eddie’s) progression “from beer to wine” — wild nights at the pub, existential despair, the hunt for love, the quest for art, becoming a responsible breadwinner, feeling lost at his own movie premiere, and much more! Eddie’s outlandish fantasies and metafictional tricks convert life into art, while staying fully grounded in his own absurdity. At every point, the author’s uncanny eye for irony and wry self-awareness make even the smallest occasion into an opportunity for wit and wisdom. Quite simply, ALEC is a masterpiece of visual autobiography.

ALEC: THE YEARS HAVE PANTS (A LIFE-SIZE OMNIBUS) collects the previous Alec books THE KING CANUTE CROWD, GRAFFITI KITCHEN, HOW TO BE AN ARTIST, LITTLE ITALY, THE DEAD MUSE, THE DANCE OF LIFEY DEATH, AFTER THE SNOOTER, as well as a generous helping of rare and never-before-seen material, including an all-new 35-page book, THE YEARS HAVE PANTS.

I don’t know, that blurb kind of says it all. Here’s a 16-page preview.