Thor

Year in Review: Superhero Comics double down

The New 52 hits comics stands

Much of this year was a struggle for most of the comics industry, but it seemed particularly apparent in the primary publishers of American superhero comic books, Marvel Comics and DC Comics. Those two publishers also comprise about 75% of the comic book market, as tracked through North American comic book stores, so if they’re struggling, the entire industry struggles. For the first 3/4 of 2010, sales at comic book stores drifted away.

Some retailers began to complain that Marvel and DC weren’t providing any big high profile comics to bring readers in. Through much of the 2000s, both publishers had released big summer events that consumed much of their respective lines. These big crossover events, like DC’s Identity Crisis (2004) and Marvel’s Civil War (2006), garnered some headlines from mainstream media and definitely got fans talking. Most important, it got them buying. Soon, much of their publishing strategies were built around the next event, with comics devoted to teasers, prequels, accompanying mini-series, spin-offs, sequels and so forth. It got to the point where it would literally cost one or two hundred dollars to get every issue that was part of one single event, if one was that much of a compulsive completionist (and let’s face it, plenty of superhero fans are just that). Toward the end of the 2000s, readers started to complain of what became called “event fatigue”. The never-ending cycle of an earth-shattering, teeth-gnashing crisis leading right into the next bleak crisis was losing appeal. So DC and Marvel took a break from them, although they kept publishing smaller more contained mini-events. Unfortunately, with a few exceptions, they didn’t replace these sales magnets with compelling comics that would bring readers back (or, to dream the impossible dream, bring new readers in).

So to answer retailers’ concerns, instead of innovating, they returned to the same trick: big line-wide crossover events. Unfortunately it didn’t work this time. Marvel’s Fear Itself and DC’s Flashpoint were largely met with lukewarm sales and reviews this summer. Meanwhile, Hollywood was showing that it could actually do halfway decent superhero stories, certainly more accessible, entertaining and populist than their current comics counterparts. All summer long, big screen audiences were hit by Thor, X-Men: First Class and Captain America: The First Avenger, with no compelling reason to carry any interest in the characters to comic book stores. Even DC Comics’ valiant promotion of rolling back or holding cover prices at $2.99, instead of the increasingly common and excessive $3.99, didn’t do much to turn losses around.

So it finally became clear something truly big had to be done. Waving arms around yelling “hey look!” in the traditional fashion didn’t get anyone to really notice or care, so it was time to bring back the old stand-by of adding in a hearty table flip. Just after their Flashpoint crossover had started, DC Comics announced that their entire superhero universe would be (sorta) reborn. Every series would be cancelled and an entirely new line-up of 52 comics would start over the next month. In many ways, it’s the mother of all events, and similar to a move DC Comics made in 1985 with Crisis on Infinite Earths, where their entire universe was reset for the first time. The difference this time is that there would be a clean break. Starting August 31, every DC Universe comic book was set back to issue #1, with updated costumes and streamlined origin to create a younger, hipper world of superheroes. The New 52 got a lot of press. DC’s chief executives and architects went on an aggressive tour of comic book stores to win over support of the massive gamble. They offered retailers great incentives and the ability to return unsold comics. They did interviews for radio, TV, newspapers, websites. They made TV commercials that airing on cable networks, played before movie trailers and streamed online. Yes, they did something almost unprecedented: they did real marketing to people outside of the current comics reading habit. Letting people know that something they might like exists is a foreign concept to most comic book publishers, but somehow it worked. Sales have been great. In many cases, sales of relaunched books doubled the first month of the launch. DC Comics’ market share jumped to make them the #1 comics publisher of North America for the last quarter of 2011, after at least a decade of being #2 to Marvel. Some other publishers have even reported improved sales for their own unrelated comics as a possible side effect of the New 52.

Miles Morales stars in Ultimate Comics Spider-Man #1

So the industry is saved, right? Well… not quite. Reviews have been mixed, the consensus seems to be that some books are good, some are OK, some are bad. There are concerns over excessive violence and objective depictions of females, just as there were before the relaunch. After five months, retailers are already seeing sales settling back down to how their stores were selling DC books before the New 52 launch. Unfortunately that has historically been the pattern with events. Initial enthusiasm reflects in temporary sales bumps. But without  sustaining quality that speaks to larger audiences, it’s always temporary until the next big event needs to be concocted.

While Marvel hasn’t done something quite as aggressive relaunching their entire line, they have been making changes, amid a series of layoffs and cutbacks. Probably their highest profile move was their new Spider-Man, the multi-racial Miles Morales, in their Ultimate Comics imprint, also first announced in USA Today. They’ve also announced plans to release in 2012 a new line of original graphic novels updating the origins of their most popular characters. Previously swearing that original graphic novels just didn’t make financial sense to them, the move is presumed to be a response to DC’s successful Superman: Earth Oneoriginal graphic novel, released in 2010.

Both Marvel and DC also stepped up their schedules in releasing digital comics. DC announced they would release their comics on the web and mobile devices the same day their print comics are released in comic book stores the same day their New 52 began, August 31. Marvel has been slowly rolling out a similar strategy instead of a line-wide shift all at once. They announced to Gizmodo in November that by March 2012, all of their titles would be on a simultaneous digital/print release schedule (excluding licensed comics and their mature MAX imprint). Marvel was the first of the two to experiment with this kind of release. Comic shop owners have been nervous about digital stealing away customers, and their vocal protests is believed to be the reason for the staggered pricing schedule that has become standard for day-and-date digital releases. For digital comics released the same time as their print counterpart, their price will match the print version’s cover price (typically between $2.99 and $3.99). After a month, the price drops to $1.99. Both Marvel and DC tend to have sales that drop some prices to $0.99, and some issues are available for free.

Did DC’s New 52 just stall the inevitable? How will Marvel respond to regain their lost market share? How will retailers who rely on superhero comics deal with digital comics? 2012 will be an interesting year.

Rumor Mill: Marvel Animation studio to open

A California Raisin tells me Marvel Studios is expanding. A state-of-the-art Marvel Animation studio is currently under construction in Glendale, California. Employees will apparently work in the neighboring city of Burbank, possibly at the Walt Disney Animation Studios, until construction of the Glendale facility completes.

Marvel Animation is part of Marvel Studios, the film and TV production company of Marvel Entertainment, which obviously grew out of Marvel Comics. Located on the other side of Los Angeles in Manhattan Beach, Marvel Studios is behind the successful Iron Man, Thor and Captain America: The First Avenger movies. The recently-created Marvel TV division is run by Jeph Loeb (producer on Lost, Heroes), and has authority over Marvel Animation. And of course the entire Marvel structure is owned by Disney.

Marvel Animation was formed in 2008 and has put out direct-to-DVD animated features such as Planet Hulk and Thor: Tales of Asgard (concluding their 8-film partnership with Lionsgate), animated TV series like The Super Hero Squad Show on Cartoon Network and Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes on Disney XD, animated comics (souped up motion comics) such as Thor & Loki: Blood Brothers under the Marvel Knights Animation banner, and the Marvel Anime project from Japan.

Known future plans at Marvel Animation are somewhat limited. There’s the Ultimate Spider-Man show, based on the comic of the same name, debuting next year, and a Hulk cartoon in development, both for Disney XD. Whatever else is in the pipeline, it appears they intend to increase production capabilities on the animation side.

Do you have any tips for the grapevine? Email me.

Comic Book Movies and TV Shows for the Rest of 2011

Well the big summer blockbusters are all done. But that doesn’t mean comic books are done invading pop culture entertainment. I always think the source material is better, but checking out comic book adaptations, whether TV or film, can be a good way of sampling. Here’s what’s coming down the pike for the rest of 2011:

Piled Higher and Deeper: The PhD Movie – Live action comedy about graduate college.

The Walking Dead returns to AMC this October

The Walking Dead Season 2 – Live action horror TV series about a small group of survivors of a zombie apocalypse.

Batman: Year One – Animated feature-length movie about the noir-ish retelling of the early days of Bruce Wayne’s superhero career.

  • Schedule: Released on DVD, Blu-ray and for download on Tuesday, October 18.
  • Based on one of the seminal DC Comics graphic novels, Batman: Year One by writer Frank Miller and artist David Mazzucchelli. The story was originally published in Batman comic books in 1987.

X-Men Anime Series – Animated TV series imported from Japan featuring the mutant superheroes Cyclops, Wolverine and others fighting for a world that fears and hates them.

  • Schedule: 12 episodes starting Friday, October 21 at 11 PM Eastern on G4.
  • Based on various X-Men comic books and graphic novels published by Marvel Comics over the years but specifically narrowing in on New X-Men by writer Grant Morrison and various artists, as well as Astonishing X-Men by writer Joss Whedon and artist John Cassaday.

The Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes Season 2 – Animated TV series about Iron Man, Thor, Hulk, Captain America and their superhero friends fighting evil.

  • Schedule: 26 episodes starting on a Sunday in October at 10 AM Eastern and Pacific on Disney XD
  • Based on a whole slew of Avengers and other comic books by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby and others, as well as The Kree-Skrull War by writer Roy Thomas, artist Neal Adams and others, and Secret Invasion by writer Brian Michael Bendis and artist Leinil Francis Yu, published by Marvel Comics. Plus there’s definitely inspiration taken from the Iron Man movies.

The Adventures of Tintin: The Crab with the Golden Claws

Green Lantern: The Animated Series Season 1 – CGI animated series about a sci-fi superhero with cosmically powered jewelry.

  • Schedule: This was originally set to debut last week but now a preview is going to air this Fall, possibly in November, with the full 26-episode season to start in Spring 2012 on Cartoon Network.
  • Based on countless Green Lantern comics but more specifically this summer’s Green Lantern movie and recent Green Lantern comic books and graphic novels by writer Geoff Johns and others published by DC Comics.

The Adventures of Tintin: Secret of the Unicorn – CGI animated 3D feature film using performance capture technology. It’s about a plucky journalist and his dog going on a globe-trotting treasure hunt.

Did I miss any? Let me know in the comments or email and I’ll add them in.

Free Comic Book Day 2011 is this Saturday

Do you want FREE comics? You’re in luck! This Saturday, May 7, is Free Comic Book Day!

After enjoying the new Marvel Studios movie Thor opening this Friday, head out to your local participating comic book shop and get yourself some all-new comics for absolutely nothing. It’s a great way to discover comics for the first time, get back in to them if it’s been a while, or just celebrate the American art form of comics! (It’s also a great way to prepare yourself for the other big comic book movies this summer: Priest (May 13), X-Men: First Class (June 3), Green Lantern (June 17), Captain America (July 22), and Cowboys & Aliens (July 29).)

You can get exclusive comic books made just for Free Comic Book Day featuring the Amazing Spider-Man, Avatar the Last Airbender, Star Wars: Clone Wars, Green Lantern, Betty & Veronica, Darkwing Duck, Kung Fu Panda, Richie Rich, the Dark Crystal, the Simpsons, Captain America, Thor, Inspector Gadget, Sonic the Hedgehog, the Tick, Mickey Mouse, Young Justice, Batman: the Brave & the Bold, and so many more. See here for a complete list of free comics available at participating stores.

Lots of stores are also holding special sales and events including signings with comics creators.

Locally, comic stores all around Los Angeles County will be celebrating with free comic books, discounted comics and graphic novels, guest appearances by comic book artists and writers, and more! Additional announcements will probably be announced this week, so keep your eye on your favorite store’s website or Facebook page.

Some stores have really pulled out all of the stops:

Golden Apple on Melrose will be open an hour earlier than normal for the big day. Starting right at 10 AM, there will be comics creators giving free autographs and sketches all day, plus 20% off everything, free Lipton Brisk Green Lantern tea & hot dogs, free Priest movie stuff, a bounce house for kids (!) and more! Creators signing: 10 AM – Top Cow Productions president Matt Hawkins, writer Jeff Cahn (Red Spike), writer Owen Weisman (Samurai’s Blood) and cartoonist/animator Scott Shaw! (The Flintstones, Simpsons Comics); 12 noon: actor/writer Walter Koenig (Things to Come); 2 PM – writer Robert Kirkman (The Walking Dead, Super Dinosaur) and artist Jason Howard (Super Dinosaur); 4 PM – writer Marc Andreyko (True Blood: Tainted Love, Let Met In: Crossroads), and writers Brian McCarthy & Michael Lent (Brimstone).

At Earth-2 Comics both store locations will have plenty to do, like free sketches from 10 AM to 12 noon by Todd Brocasso Harris (in Sherman Oaks) and Justin Rodrigues (Northridge). Then from 12 noon to 2 PM, writer and DC Comics Chief Creative Officer Geoff Johns (Green Lantern, The Flash), and writer and Executive Vice President of Marvel Television Jeph Loeb (Batman: Hush, Spider-Man: Blue) will be available for autographs in Sherman Oaks. The two will be at the Northridge location from 3 to 5 PM. The store will also have an Earth-2 exclusive Green Lantern comic.

Free Comic Book Day 2011 (by Darwyn Cooke)

Meltdown Comics will be holding amazing special events all day long! From 11 AM to 3 PM, including a free screening of Jim Henson‘s classic movie The Dark Crystal and life-sized Skeksis statues used in the original 1982 movie! Writer Brian Holguin, who wrote a new Dark Crystal story in the free comic book flip book released for Free Comic Book Day, will be on hand for autographs, as will David Petersen, writer/illustrator of Mouse Guard, which makes up the second half of the flip book. Plus free posters, prizes, giveaways, and gourmet grilled cheese from The Grilled Cheese Truck. At the same time, from 11 AM to 2 PM, Jason JFish Fischer of Studio JFish will be present to sell his new underground comics, the adults only Junqueland #1, art anthology Fine Literature #2, and fantasy/adventure Jaephisch and the Dark Rainbow Chapters 1 & 2. At 1 PM, Shane and Chris Houghton, creators of the all-ages comic Reed Gunther, will hold a comics creating class just for kids. From 2:00 – 3:30 PM, writers Jeff Cahn (Red Spike) and Owen Weisman (Samurai’s Blood) of Benaroya Publishing will be signing. Finally, at 4 PM in the Meltdown Gallery, there will be a Graphic Noir panel with writer Joshua Hale Fialkov (Echoes, Tumor) and writer/artist Kody Chamberlain (Sweets, Punks: The Comic), as they discuss their creative processes and influences, followed by a brief signing.

Burbank’s House of Secrets will be going all day long, from 11 AM to 7 PM. From 12 noon to 2 PM, they’ll have Tom Kenny, the voice of SpongeBob SquarePants and Sherm Cohen, cover artist of the new SpongeBob Comics.

The Comic Bug in Hermosa Beach has a ton of creators lined up, scheduled for 12 noon to 3 PM giving free sketches and autographs in addition to huge sales and live super-heroes for photo ops. Their line-up will include writer/artist Mike Mignola (Hellboy, Baltimore), writer Steve Niles (30 Days of Night, Criminal Macabre), TV & comics writer Christopher Yost (Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes, New X-Men), writer Joshua Williamson (Fractured Fables, Yo Gabba Gabba Comic Book Time), writer/letterer Richard Starkings (Elephantmen), animator/artist Phil Ortiz (The Simpsons), Jeff Stokely (Fraggle Rock) and lots more. Artist Joe Benitez (Lady Mechanika) will be there 3 – 5 PM.

Collector’s Paradise Comics & Gallery in Winnetka has a full day of events planned, including featured guests like Whilce Portacio (Wetworks, Artifacts), Tomm Coker (Undying Love, Daredevil Noir), Joshua Fialkov (Tumor, Echoes) and a lot more giving autographs and/or sketches to raise money for the non-profit organization The Hero Initiative from 12 noon to 3 PM. Plus the store will be having its biggest sale of the year, costumed superhero characters, and the Calbi gourmet food truck.

Read more on the history of Free Comic Book Day… (more…)

Interview: Stan Goldberg

Archie Marries... (click to buy from publisher Abrams ComicArts)

Speaking with comics artist Stan Goldberg was an honor, and I’m very grateful for his generosity with his time. I definitely did not expect this to go 45 minutes but he had a lot to share, and it’s worth it to hear him talk about all of this. His love for his work comes across quickly. He really loves what he does. It’s clear that this is a man still enjoying and exploring his craft and the process of storytelling despite already being a master at it.

I was also struck with how unfortunate it is for someone who has lived and breathed the Archie characters for the last 40 years, who has been the artist on their most commercially successful and buzz worthy books (for good reason), now finds himself with some uncertainty. Fortunately he’s still immensely talented. His abilities not only haven’t diminished, but may be stronger than ever. And he remained classy throughout, with not a bad word to say about his former employers. Already plans are in the works for the next phase of his career, and that to me is exciting. With over 60 years in the biz, he still has a lot of creativity to give.

Here’s the audio of our interview:

MP3 Download

Here’s a breakdown of what he talked about:

  • His 40-year career with Archie Comics, characters he clearly loves and respects, and his recent departure from the company.
  • Creating the color designs for Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four (the Thing is colored like “a wrinkled orange”), the Hulk (his pants were meant to be magenta, not purple), and the rest of the Marvel Comics universe, including the villains like Dr. Doom.
  • Being asked by Marvel to draw the Fantastic Four 50 years after coloring the first issue in 1961.
  • His work being reprinted in prestige hard cover books: Archie: The Best of Stan Goldberg [Amazon link] and Archie Marries… [Amazon link]
  • Being mentored by Stan Lee the art director in the ’50s
  • Using the Marvel Method for Millie the Model
  • Creating Kathy the Teenage Tornado (reprint this, Marvel!)
  • On the comics industry during the Senate hearings of the 1950s and the industry’s response: “It almost destroyed the whole industry.” He says the Comics Code Authority, the industry’s content watchdog, went overboard: “They made some corrections, but I guess they had to show what they were then getting paid for.” Marvel even lost their distributor for a time, which resulted in Stan having to go freelance.
  • His work on Millie the Model influencing women in fashion design and magazines like Cosmopolitan, McCall’s and others.
  • Collaborating with Michael Uslan on last year’s “Archie Marries…” story starting in Archie #600, which sold 50% better than Marvel & DC comic books at the time. His pure penciled artwork for the covers of those six issues was reprinted in IDW’s recent Archie: The Best of Stan Goldberg
  • The story of the surprise debut of Archie Meets Punisher and the plans for a sequel that never came to be.
  • And perhaps most exciting of all… teasing a future project he’s creating with a writer.

Archie: The Best of Stan Goldberg (click to buy from publisher IDW)

(Also a cameo by my cat Cleo climbing up the back of my chair if you listen carefully. I should also apologize for the volume disparity between his voice and mine. Fortunately once we get started, it’s mostly him. Ah the joys of technology. I’ll try to work that out for the next interview.)

FF #1 variant cover by Goldberg (50th Anniversary of Fantastic Four #1, Marvel Comics)

Make your own comics at Marvel.com – like this one but probably better

My comedic genius at work. Click image for higher quality version at Marvel.com

Hey, look what I made!

Marvel.com has a fun little program where you can create your own comic strips and comic books using clip art. It’s kind of a limited selection but it’s plenty to tinker around. I’m sure younger kids would have fun playing around with it and sort of learning how comics are made (more or less). You can pick Marvel characters like the three I picked above, as well as the X-Men’s Wolverine, Beast and Colossus, the Fantastic Four, the Hulk, a few villains, and more. You can choose your panel layouts, pick your backgrounds, speech balloons, type in your own dialogue, and add sound effects.

If you sign up with an account, you can build a portfolio, save the comics at Marvel.com, save them to your computer as PDFs, and email them to friends. Marvel.com apparently saves all of them on their website. There’s a gallery here where you can see some fun comics posted, although it doesn’t look like they display ones created without setting up an account since I don’t see mine there. Other users can rate and leave comments for each comic.

I don’t know when this was added but it’s a fun feature. Maybe I’ll torture you with more of these.

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.