Game Review: Diablo 3

Diablo 3 is out. But is it a game? Or is it the most brilliant money making scam in internet history?

Movie Review: The Avengers

Okay, okay, I posted my Avengers review. Get off my back already, geez.

The Most Important Comic Book You've Never Heard Of

Action Comics #1. Detective Comics #27. Why is All-American Men of War #89 as important as these great comics -- and why have you never heard of it?.

Tales From the Vault: Lois Lane #93

If you thought Superman was a total tool before, you ain't seen nothing yet.

Mass Effect 3: The Official Review

Mass Effect 3 isn't the end of the world, it just portrays it.

Monday, August 31, 2009

Breaking News: Disney Buys Marvel

When I woke up this morning I had no idea that a pop culture apocalypse was about to engulf two entire universes. I got up and went about my routine, checking the box scores from the late game and struggling to achieve the perfect level of toastiness on my bagel, content in the sameness of yet another day. And then, as though Superboy were punching the very walls of reality, a deluge of emails, tweets and CNN Money alerts just about split my brain in two: Disney is buying Marvel Comics.

A lot of comic fans seemed ready to do their best Gwen Stacy impersonation and dive off the nearest bridge, fearing interference from Disney in Marvel’s creative process, but as more information has become available throughout the day about the buyout this has faded a bit. While there are some legitimate concerns about how this will affect both Marvel and Disney, there are also some obvious opportunities, not just on the company side but on the creative side of things as well. As a huge fan of both Marvel and Disney, then, here’s a breakdown of the merger as I see it, with commentary and speculation broken up into three major categories: the Impact on Comics, the Impact on Movies and the Impact on Theme Parks.

Impact on Comics

The biggest question most comic readers have is, how will this affect the stories themselves? In the past, Disney was not exactly known as being hand-off in their approach to subsidiary companies, and some level of creative control (or interference, depending on your point of view) over Marvel is not an unreasonable expectation.

However, I think that’s the Disney of the past more than a reflection of their current strategy, as shown by their deal with Pixar four years ago. It’s important to note that the impetus behind the acquisition of Pixar was not to implement Disney control over Pixar but the opposite. Recognizing that Pixar had seized the mantle of creativity and innovation away from Disney, Disney decided to merge in order to bring the talent from Pixar over to re-energize Disney. They weren’t trying so sublimate or even co-opt Pixar so much as they were trying on a creative level to become Pixar. And by all accounts, the result for both companies has been very successful.

With this as an example, then, I think it’s fair to assume that like Pixar, Marvel is going to remain a separate brand with a fair amount of artistic license to do their own thing. That’s not to say, however, that Disney won’t have some influence on what Marvel decides to do. The first concern would have to be the fact that most creators aren’t Marvel employees but rather are freelancers doing contract work for Marvel. In the past, Disney has not always had the best record as an employer, and it’s possible that some creators will shy away from working for Marvel because of this. It’s also possible that creators simply will not want to work for Disney for creative reasons; under Marvel editor-ion-chief Joe Quesada, creators have had a level of freedom that was previously rare in mainstream comics, leading to more mature content. It’s possible that some of these creators will now prefer to work for independent publishers like Dark Horse and Image, or publish under the Vertigo banner at DC, rather than mess around with Disney at all. And issues over creator rights – whether creators should retain rights to characters and ideas they create while doing work-for-hire, an issue that has been contentious in comic circles for decades – may become even more important with Disney now potentially holding the rights to new properties.

Because of these issues, it’s certainly possible that while Disney may not exert any direct influence over the product being created, the mere fact of Disney owning the company could lead to some turnover in the creative teams on the comics themselves. This may not entirely be a negative, either; with Disney and Pixar animators being some of the top cartoonists in the world, it’s possible that some of these artists may begin moving over to Marvel as well, which would be nothing but positive.

Putting creative issues aside for the moment, though, one of the biggest opportunities for Marvel in this deal is the potential for Disney’s unparalleled distribution and promotion systems to introduce Marvel comics to new, worldwide audiences. Not the characters, mind you, but the comics themselves. If Disney’s marketing machine gets behind Marvel, you could see a resurgence of comics on newsstands and comics could begin to be both available and heavily hyped in other venues like Disney stores, theme parks and other retail venues worldwide. This could potentially be a major game changer for the publishing side of Marvel.

However, it does have some pitfalls, as this is where Disney’s creative control really becomes an issue. Because of the more violent and graphic nature of some of Marvel’s biggest comics, Disney may have some problems promoting these books side-by-side with, for instance, their line of Princess picture books. Figuring out how to maintain Marvel as a separate creative entity while still capitalizing on Disney’s marketing power is going to be a tricky thing.

My guess is that the solution will be increased branding. Marvel has had limited success with branding different lines of comics as separate entities; the Ultimate universe has been fairly successful for a decade, and the Marvel Adventures line of books aimed at younger audiences has been fairly well received, but other brands like MAX and Marvel Knights aren’t necessarily seen as separate lines so much as Parental Advisory labels. DC, on the other hand, has had more success, with Vertigo almost considered a separate company at this point. And Disney themselves have been able to keep their more mature Touchstone and Miramax studio imprints separate from their more family friendly Disney and Pixar releases.

So I think Disney and Marvel will want to take a page from the DC playbook and aggressively brand different lines of comics. The Marvel Adventures line of all-ages books could be expanded significantly, though perhaps with a new brand name that would also allow them to incorporate kid-friendly comics based on Disney properties. Meanwhile, the mainstream Marvel Universe should, in my opinion, become the Vertigo of Marvel. Most of the content in the major Marvel books has become mature to the point of nearly needing a MAX label on it (Dark Reign: Hawkeye comes to mind) and having such a brand probably wouldn’t adversely affect current readership, as most people who are turned off by this more mature approach to these iconic characters have already quit reading the titles anyway. In sum, then, what I am proposing is basically an all-ages reboot of the Marvel Universe that Disney can aggressively promote, with the current Marvel Universe in effect becoming the Ultimate Universe.

The other issue that this idea brings up is just what Disney is planning to do with the publishing licenses for its own characters. Currently, Boom! Studios is publishing books based on Pixar characters as well as the Muppets, while Gemstone puts out comics based on the regular Disney characters. Other publishers like Papercutz also have licenses such as the Disney Fairies title that editor-in-chief Jim Salicrup mentioned in my interview with him yesterday. It seems unlikely that Disney will continue to farm out their comics when they have Marvel as an in-house publisher, especially considering Marvel has a significantly larger market share in the comic industry than any of their competitors. I don’t know how this will shake out legally, but it seems likely that Disney will eventually turn over the licenses to Marvel which should mean a much larger line of Disney comics published by Marvel. It’s possible that if this happens, the branding I mentioned above will be unnecessary and Disney will focus on selling these Disney comics through their various marketing arms, but I think that would be leaving a lot of potential growth for Marvel on the table and thus I think it’s unlikely.

Impact on Movies

Like the issue with Disney’s publishing licenses, the impact of this deal on the movie side of things is complicated by the fact that Marvel has signed away the rights to many of their largest properties to other movie companies such as Fox. This means that while film franchises such as Spider-man and X-Men may be mega-hits, they won’t be hits for Disney. In addition, the distribution rights for those films Marvel does still control are tied up with other studios as well, part of the infrastructure Marvel set up when they created their own film company.

However, from what I’ve been reading, neither of these facts are major issues on the Disney side of things. On the contrary, it appears that Disney’s interests here aren’t so much with major franchises such as Fantastic Four but more with lesser known, second tier properties. Iron Man proved that even a character that is almost completely unknown outside of comic circles can still become a massive blockbuster if it is done well by people who understand and respect the source material. Because of this, Disney is hoping to recapture this kind of success by leveraging other lesser known characters into major franchises as well.

This is very good news for comic fans for a couple of reasons. One of the major concerns many fans have with this deal in terms of the film rights is how the similar set-up between Warner Brothers Studios and DC Comics has effectively squelched DC’s ability to get movies made with their characters. Because they can’t shop their properties around (Warner Brothers has control because they are both owned by Time/Warner), DC basically is stuck with whatever decisions Warner makes, and that usually has meant obvious hits like Justice League of America and Wonder Woman get shitcanned instead of produced.

From the sounds of it, though, Disney and Marvel have quite the opposite in mind. Because Marvel has their own studios, they themselves are in control of what they make and now Disney is coming in and basically saying that they want Marvel to make even more movies, not less. And since Marvel is going to benefit from Disney’s enormous financial backing, they now will have the financial wherewithal to not only make more movies, but make them with budgets large enough to ensure they are up to snuff.

In addition, there is a positive parallel that can be drawn from the DC comparison as well. For years, DC has been more likely to keep struggling series going because they can rely on the larger Time/Warner infrastructure to absorb the losses; this allows them to keep publishing critically acclaimed stuff like Jonah Hex, in part to help set up potential film tie-ins (and in part because they recoup more in the trade market as well). If Disney does push Marvel to make more films featuring lesser known characters, it’s likely that those characters would not only get their own series in order to help promotion but also that the series, once started, would be more likely to stick around even if sales on the comic itself aren’t good. The result could be an expansion of Marvel’s line in general with a new emphasis on some of the less popular characters that currently get bumped from the schedule to make room for more proven sellers like another Wolverine or Avengers title.

Beyond feature films, of course, there are some other areas where the merger of Marvel and Disney is going to impact things. One bit that has been widely circulated is that Marvel met with Pixar head honcho John Lasseter to discuss how Pixar’s experience with Disney has gone and this discussion turned to the possibility of making some films. I don’t think it’s likely that Pixar will be making any movies based on Marvel characters (despite the fact that they have already done so in The Incredibles), but there is a strong possibility we will be getting a slew of new direct-to-video animated movies instead.

Of course, this could be bad, but on the other hand Marvel is already occasionally putting out direct-to-video cartoons anyway; this will simply ensure that they are of high quality. And if you like those cartoons, there’s a good chance you’ll be a getting a lot more of them in the future. There are some negatives, of course. The main question is what audience these movies would be produced for. There is a large, built-in audience for Disney videos, and not just people who were fans of the original Lion King and want to read the newest sequel. Some families buy Disney videos across the board regardless of the specific content because of the power of the Disney brand. Bringing Marvel into this might open up a huge new stream of revenue as well as a potentially vast new reader base, but it also would necessitate tailoring the movies to that audience rather than to the current comic book readership.

This is the essence of the fear most comic fans have: that they are going to be phased out in favor of a different (and much larger) new readership. I don’t think that’s going to happen entirely, but it wouldn’t surprise me if it were true to a degree and the most likely place for this to occur isn’t in the comics themselves but in the direct-to-video market. If that were to take off enough to start influencing the comics, then there might be an issue, but if so it would be several years down the road.

Impact on Theme Parks

Of course, many people’s immediate reaction upon seeing this news was “what’s going to happen with Universal Studios?” As part of their Islands of Adventure theme park, Universal has a Marvel Island, including Spider-man and Hulk rides among others.

Now, chances are that, like the film and licensing deals, Marvel has some sort of long term contract with Universal that allows them to use these characters. Unlike those relationships, however, I suspect that the marriage between Marvel and Universal is going to come to a swift end when (and if) this acquisition from Marvel goes through. It’s true that Disney will probably want to get the characters over to their park as soon as possible, but I think the main impetus is going to come from the Universal side. After all, why would Universal want to be giving free publicity to its main rival?

Because of this, my guess is that the two sides are going to quickly come to some sort of mutual arrangement in the form of a buyout or something and that Marvel Island will soon be a relic of the past. Now, it’s possible that Universal will hold on to Marvel Island to try and stick it to Disney – I wouldn’t put it past either side in the theme park war – but my gut tells me that one way or another, Marvel’s relationship with Universal will come to an end as soon as this deal is finalized.

So, where are those Marvel characters going to end up? My guess is at the theme park that used to be Disney/MGM Studios. MGM and Disney recently ended their relationship, meaning the park and attractions have been and are being altered to remove the MGM aspect of things. With superhero movies being such major business these days, it makes perfect sense for Marvel Entertainment to step into this gap and provide some of the content for the park. A re-imagined Disney/Marvel Studios would allow them to hype their brand while also bringing in Marvel characters to wander the park and new Marvel themed rides, all within the larger existing structure of the popular Disney Studios theme park.

If this does happen, the ripples will also be felt overseas at the other Disney theme parks. For example, there is a Disney Studios theme park right next to Disneyland Paris, and giving this park a new Marvel twist would make sense as superheroes are now one of the main bits of American culture being sent out to international film audiences. It also opens the doorway for Disney’s merchandising arm to get a foothold in new marketplaces in terms of selling and promoting Marvel characters. Disney theme parks are among the most effective tools Disney has to publicize their characters to foreign audiences who may not be familiar with The Little Mermaid but who are very familiar with Disney World and Disneyland; adding Marvel to the theme park mix will introduce a huge new demographic to the idea of Marvel characters, which in turn means more fans, more viewers, more readers and, of course, more money for everyone.


From my point of view as both a Disney and Marvel fan, I think this deal makes sense for both sides. While there are some legitimate concerns about how the merger will affect the creative side of Marvel and some tricky legal questions about how to regain control of certain properties, overall I think the upside significantly outweighs the downside. Having access to Marvel characters helps renew the Disney brand and, like their deal with Pixar, could invigorate the company as new ideas and new creative talent joins the company. Likewise, having the huge marketing and financial might of Disney behind them could allow Marvel to expand their publishing and film concerns while exposing their product to a nearly infinitely larger audience than is currently reading their books. It may not result in the same Marvel we currently have, but it could result in a bigger and ultimately better Marvel and, who knows, maybe even help revive the failing comic industry as a whole.

And just the possibility of that happening is enough for me to give this deal a big thumbs up.

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Sunday, August 30, 2009

Seven Questions with JIM SALICRUP!

Our newest interview subject needs no introduction, but just for the sake of propriety we'll go ahead and give him one. For nearly 40 years, Jim Salicrup has been an industry mainstay, first as editor on just about every major Marvel title, then as editor-in-chief at Topps, senior editor at Stan Lee Media and now as the creative force behind Papercutz. In his "spare" time, Jim also is on the board of trustees at MoCCA -- the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art -- and somehow still makes the time for conventions, fan interaction and interviews. Like, for instance, this one:

1. For those of our readers who may not be familiar Papercutz, what can you tell us about the company and your upcoming schedule?

Sure! Papercutz is essentially a successful graphic novel publisher whose titles are primarily sold in bookstores. We started up about five years ago, and amazingly each new series launch of late has be been bigger and more successful than the last. So, while we're still a relatively small publisher, we've got a lot of big talents.

You may have noticed I've very carefully avoided mentioning exactly which titles we're publishing and who our intended audience may be. The reason for that is, some folks might mistakenly leap to the wrong conclusion about us, so I wanted to ease into it. Y'see, even though I often say that Papercutz produces graphic novels for all ages, some people think that means "for kids only." So, while some of our titles are primarily for kids, others truly are for all ages-- titles such as TALES FROM THE CRYPT and CLASSICS ILLUSTRATED for example.

The reason my Papercutz publishing partner, Terry Nantier, and I decided to produce graphic novels for all ages, is that we both felt that the comics industry wasn't paying enough attention to kids, especially girls, and we wanted to see if we could produce great comics would reach that audience. Terry and I both grew up reading some of the best comics in the world-- Terry loved the great European graphic novels, I loved 60s Marvel Comics, and we both are crazy about Tintin -- so we both know that kids can appreciate great writing and great artwork in comics, and we both hate the idea that comics should in any way be dumbed down for kids. We remember how smart kids really are.

As for our upcoming schedule, here's a good example of what I'm talking about -- we'll be launching early next year DISNEY FAIRIES, featuring Tinker Bell and her fairy friends in Never Land. We want the writing to be on the same level as Carl Barks's Uncle Scrooge comics, and with Stefan Petrucha as our writer, I'm sure we can do it! Stefan wrote The X-Files comic at Topps Comics, and most fans found the writing to be just as good as the TV series, and in some cases, even better! Stefan has a lot of experience writing Disney comics, as he's written many Mickey Mouse stories for the European market, many of which have been published here by Gemstone. As for the artwork, let's just say, we're aiming to make this perhaps the most beautiful Disney comic ever created. How's that for ambitous?

As for the rest our line, we offer BIONICLE, a world populated only by robot-like creatures; CLASSICS ILLUSTRATED, featuring stories by the world's greatest authors; CLASSICS ILLUSTRATED DELUXE, featuring much longer adaptations of stories by the world's greatest authors; GERONIMO STILTON, which I'll get to in a little bit; THE HARDY BOYS, all-new adventures of Frank and Joe Hardy; NANCY DREW, the world-famous Girl Detective; and TALES FROM THE CRYPT, the classic horror comics anthology with a tad more twisted humor and sick satire.

2. You’ve expressed some concern on your blog over the fact that the acclaimed Classics Illustrated series put out by Papercutz isn’t carried by many comic stores that seem to cater only to superhero fans. Does the direct market system help the industry, or is it in danger of marginalizing “mainstream” comic business while bookstores enjoy a boom in alternative formats like manga digests?

Well, I don't want to sound like I'm complaining, because I'm not! Papercutz is doing very well in bookstores, schools, libraries, and even in foreign markets and as downloads from GoComics. The truth is I love comicbook stores, and I want them to do better, but outside of the top 200 stores, the stores that really know what they're doing, it's as if the rest of the stores are determined to go out of business.

The problem is that too many comicbook stores sell that same comics month after month to the same customers, and then they wonder, especially during tough economic times, why their business is hurting. While the most successful stores do indeed carry all sorts of comics and graphic novels, many stores still perpetuate the myth that non-super-hero comics don't sell. That's what they said about Manga, and now you can find a Manga section in every major bookstore. Guess what? Now bookstores are opening up shelf space for Kid's Graphic Novels sections -- again the majority of direct market comicbook shops have missed the boat.

Case in point-- our most recent launch was for a series called GERONIMO STILTON. This series is certainly aimed at younger readers, and it's featuring the title character from a series of kids books that have 35 titles in print, and each one sells an average of 185,000 copies! Let's put that in perspective -- in May of 2009, according to industry experts, not a single new comic sold over 100,000 copies. So here's a property that outsells every single comicbook in the comics shop, and other than the smartest comicbook stores, the direct market couldn't be bothered! Instead, they just continue to buy more of the same ol' stuff, at higher than ever prices, and wonder where their customers are vanishing.

Now, what if a comicbook store actually ordered a few copies of GERONIMO STILTON, and placed 'em prominently in their store window? Maybe kids who weren't aware that GERONIMO STILTON was now in comics form and available in graphic novels would actually, perhaps for the very first time, venture into the comics store and buy a graphic novel! And what if that kid showed it to his friends who might also be avid GERONIMO STILTON fans?

But, as I said, GERONIMO STILTON is clearly aimed at younger readers -- he's a time-traveling mouse, in case you're curious -- and comic shops will insist such a graphic novel won't sell. That's funny, 'cause we sold out of every copy we brought to sell at the San Diego Comic-Con.

3. Besides your work at Papercutz, you’re also on the board of trustees for the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art (or MoCCA). What can you tell us about MoCCA and what is it that you do there?

Papercutz really does take up the majority of my time, but I do love comics, and the opportunity that MoCCA founder Lawrence Klein offered me -- to help start a comic art museum in New York City -- was truly an offer I couldn't refuse. After all, I love comics, New York City, and museums, and this combines all three. So, if starting an all-new comics company wasn't a big enough challenge, try starting a not-for-profit museum in Manhattan.

It's been quite an adventure, and I can't tell you how exciting it has been. MoCCA is an almost entirely volunteer organization, which means people are their simply because they believe in what MoCCA is doing. Mostly I'm a glorified advisor to MoCCA, but I'm really their happiest MoCCA member-- it's almost as if I have comics museum of my very own with great exhibits and incredible programming designed just for me. The truth is, that anyone who becomes a MoCCA member or volunteer can feel the same way. You simply need to get involved, and if you have a great idea for an exhibit or a panel, or whatever, you can help make it happen. Currently, there's a wonderful show up that's just been extended due to popular demand: "Sounds and Pauses -- The Comics of David Mazzuchelli." On display are pieces from Daredevil: Born Again and Batman: Year One, to his current, many-years-in the-making Asterios Polyp graphic novel, and lots of stuff from in-btween too. Please go to for more information, especially on how you can support MoCCA by becoming a member, a volunteer, or attending the annual MoCCA Festival. Chairman Ellen Abramowitz and Director Karl Erickson are bringing MoCCA to new heights of glory, and it's great to be a part of it all.

4. One of my vivid memories from reading comics as a kid is an essay you wrote in an issue of Marvel Age where you discussed the term “Marvel Zombie”: someone who read and collected Marvel comics to the exclusion of all other companies. I have to admit I was not a Marvel Zombie, but I had friends that were and they proudly embraced the title. Where did the term originate and how do you feel about the recent wave of wildly popular Marvel Zombie comics?

I know who created the term Marvel Zombie, but that person had requested that I not reveal this top secret information, so I will honor that request until I'm told otherwise. The first few editorials I wrote about the term "Marvel Zombies" were somewhat outraged on my part, as I simply don't like name-calling of any kind. I still find terms such as "hot," "geek," "nerd," "jock," to be dehumanizing, and to some extent offensive, but I recognize that's a battle I'll never win. So, if you can't beat 'em, join 'em, and I started using "Marvel Zombie" in MARVEL AGE MAGAZINE as a badge of honor, as opposed to the originally intended insult. I was soon proclaiming MARVEL AGE "The Official MARVEL ZOMBIE Newsmagazine!"

As for the recent MARVEL ZOMBIE comics, they seem to be fun, and I've enjoyed the ones I've picked up. I was wondering when Marvel was going to bring back TALES OF THE ZOMBIE, got tired of waiting, and we've worked in a parody of good ol' Simon Garth in the "Diary of a Stinky Dead Kid" spoof in TALES FROM THE CRYPT comicbook #13 (to be collected in TALES FROM THE CRYPT graphic novel #8, coming in November. It's by Stefan Petrucha and Rick Parker, and it's good sick fun.

5. During your time at Marvel, you edited some of the best loved runs in the company’s history, including the Phoenix Saga in X-Men, Todd McFarlane’s run in Amazing Spider-man, the Stern/Byrne era in Captain America and the Fall of Yellowjacket storyline in Avengers. What do you consider to be the highlight of your time as an editor at Marvel and why?

First, thanks! I really appreciate that. Second, how can I possibly answer that? It's like being asked, who's your favorite child? Actually, it's much harder, because I only have one step-daughter, and she's incredible! This reminds me of what someone once said to me, when I was sitting at my desk in "the Spider-Man office." Seeing how much I obviously loved working on Spidey -- I had decorated the office with all sorts of Spider-Man toys, posters, you-name-it -- this kind soul asked, won't you really be sad when you're no longer editing Spider-Man? I answered "A little, but as much as I love Spider-Man, it's comics in general that I love! I'm happy editing anything you throw at me, and figuring out not only how to make the stories and art as good as possible, but how to make it as successful as possible as well!" Which is exactly how I feel today editing NANCY DREW, working with writers Stefan Petrucha, Sarah Kinney and artist Sho Murase. In fact, unlike Spider-Man which had already been done brilliantly by creators Stan Lee and Steve Ditko, and later writers Roy Thomas and Gerry Conway and artists such as John Romita, Gil Kane, and Ross Andru, we were the first ones to ever create NANCY DREW comics, and I suspect what Petrucha, Kinney, and Murase are creating today, may be looked back on, generations from now, as the definitive NANCY DREW comics.

All that said, and as much as I enjoyed every single comic I ever edited at Marvel, I probably enjoyed editing THE FANTASTIC FOUR with John Byrne the most. John was very passionate about producing a great FF comic, and it was a real joy to not only watch and witness what John was coming up with, but I even got to toss in a very crazy ideas, and John made them work brilliantly. I remember being excited whenever new FF pages from John arrived -- it was like being a kid again, and eagerly devouring the latest issue by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby! When you're job is that much fun, you ALMOST feel guilty about getting paid.

6. As editor on Avengers, you were editing writing done Marvel EiC Jim Shooter. How did the process of editing your own boss work? And how did the experience of working so closely with the EiC influence your own later stints as EiC or senior editor at Topps, Stan Lee Media and Papercutz, if at all?

Working with Jim was a constant learning experience. I didn't even know how much I was learning from Jim at the time, and I'm eternally thankful for the opportunities he gave me. Working with Jim as his editor though was a little awkward, as he had this impossible job of being Editor-in-Chief at Marvel, and the notion that he could write a monthly title as well was wishful thinking on both our parts. As Editor-in-Chief he'd say I should fire Shooter the writer, but I liked his ideas so much that I didn't want to lose him.

As I said, I learned a lot from Jim, and I hope I've been able to incorporate that knowledge in what I later did at Topps Comics, Stan Lee Media, and now at Papercutz. It's funny, one of the things Jim pushed for at Marvel was more self-contained stories, and now that's almost all we do at Papercutz. Jim's constant emphasis of the basics of storytelling has well-prepared me to edit graphic novels that need to be clear enough for young readers, yet sophisticated enough for older readers. It's amazing how confusing comics can be for non-comics readers, and part of what we try to do at Papercutz is produce comics that anyone can easily access. Just simple things like making sure the characters are well-introduced have a big positive impact on the overall stories. Of course, I learned a lot from others as well, especially Stan Lee and Roy Thomas, but Jim's advice may be most helpful when dealing with the nuts and bolts of comics storytelling.

7. Lastly, what’s one specific storytelling technique you use that you could share with new creators to help them hone their craft?

It'll sound obvious, but since comics are a visual medium, try to make your stories as visually interesting as possible. Yes, the old "show, don't tell" bit of advice is usually most helpful to new creators. Having the right powerful image can add tremendous impact to a comics story -- just think of the images that you remember from comics, and ask yourself if there's something in your story that could be conveyed more powerfully or poetically or even subtly through the right image.

Furthermore, and it may at first sound like a contradiction, so many comics creators today are trying to emulate film so much that they've abandoned literary techniques that are still effective in comics. Like a novel, to a certain degree, comics can also get inside characters in ways that would be awkward in film-- think of film adaptations that feature all the actions, but little of the insights of the book. If the captions or dialogue offers something that would've been impossible to glean from just looking at the art, then you're doing something right.

Thank again for this opportunity, Scott! And just to prove I learned something from all my years working with Stan Lee, let me wrap-up by saying "Watch out for Papercutz!"

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Saturday, August 29, 2009

New Comic Cavalcade: Hikaru No Go #16

One of the most popular magazines in America – not just in the comics community, but within the publishing business as a whole – is Shonen Jump, which compiles popular manga from Japan and translates it for the English speaking audience. Shonen Jump has delivered a number of mega-hits, including Naruto and Bleach, but in addition to these amped up action strips it also includes a number of lower key sport and game themed comics. And the best of these is not, in fact, Prince of Tennis but rather Hikaru No Go.

Frustratingly for American audiences, though, Hikaru No Go – which follows the story of young Hikaru Shindo, who becomes obsessed with the board game Go when he finds an ancient Go board haunted by the ghost of Go master Sai – got dumped by Shonen Jump partway through the series. Instead of getting a monthly dose of the story, then, readers now have to wait for the digest compilation which only comes out every three months. There are some benefits to this, of course; reading the story in larger doses gives it better flow, and you don’t have to waste your money on crap like Dragonball Z in order to get to it. But it's still somewhat annoying.

The newest volume of Hikaru No Go, #16, finally came out just a couple weeks ago and proved to be a more satisfying read than the previous volume. One of the downsides, of course, of such a long storyline (all told it’s roughly 180 issues in total) is that when it’s broken up for reprinting, the dividing lines are often fairly arbitrary or, at least, unsatisfying. Hikaru No Go #15 is a prime example of this, as Hikaru spent nearly the entire volume wandering around Japan in search of Sai. As part of the larger storyline, it’s a necessary bit of character development, but in terms of a single volume it’s pretty annoying. You just wanted him to get to the point already so something would happen.

Well, something happens in #16, although it’s not necessarily what you might be expecting. The whole “not playing any Go while I look for Sai” plotline Hikaru is going through doesn’t get resolved until the final page of this volume, but rather than being another annoying delay, it’s fairly welcome for one reason: the return of fan favorite Isumi.

In story terms, Isumi – one of Hikaru main friends and rivals – had been missing in action for an entire year, ever since he finished fourth in the pro tests (where only the top three advance). This volume, though, brings him back as a major player, catching us up on what he’s been doing during that time and focusing on his attempts to strengthen his game before the next pro test. It’s a bit unusual as nearly two thirds of the book follow Isumi and barely mention Hikaru at all, but considering that most readers have been punching puppies for the last year wondering where Isumi was, this is nothing but a good thing. Author Yumi Hotta even manages to tie things together at the end beautifully, as Isumi’s return into Hikaru’s life after this absence proves to be the driving impetus behind Hikaru resolving his search for Sai, thus tying up the last two volumes nicely and setting the stage for the final four books in the series.

With so little room left, though, this volume did leave me wondering how they were going to manage to resolve everything they have set up in such a short period. One of the main problems with any narrative drama based on a sporting event or game is that, in the end, there are really only two possible conclusions: either the main character wins, or he loses. Hikaru No Go does have some other things going on as well – mainly the questions of whether Hikaru will manage to pull off the legendary Divine Move that Sai’s entire existence has been devoted to – but in the end, the series will basically come down to whether Hotta has Hikaru beat his rival Akira Toya or whether he loses to Akira. It’s going to take some tricky writing to finesse the finale in such a way that readers aren’t let down one way or the other, since everyone assume Hikaru is going to win – either they will be let down because they knew it all along or they will be let down because Hikaru loses and they were rooting for him.

It’s a dilemma that has sunk many other, higher profile works on sports, but here’s hoping that Hotta and artist Takeshi Obata are able to pull it off. They’ve managed to surprise several times so far, and bringing back seemingly dropped threads like Isumi and Hikaru’s old Go club members for the final push hints that they do have a larger vision for the series.

And hey, if it doesn’t work out, no problem, right? After all, there’s always Prince of Tennis.

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Friday, August 28, 2009

Tales From the Vault: GODZILLA #24

On our final day of our week-long exploration of the mad marriage between Marvel comics and their various licensed properties, we look at the second part of the battle to end all battles: Godzilla vs. the Mighty Avengers!

Details: Once again, this July, 1979 offering is brought to you by the dream team of Doug Moench and Herb Trimpe, with Al Milgrom on editor duty. I should also mention that the inking is done by Dan Green; if I don’t, Bob Almond will probably karate chop me in the face. Plus, it’s particularly important here because I’m not sure any major comic artist has ever been as influenced for good or bad by his inker as Herb Trimpe. I don’t know if this means his pencils are just bland and forgettable as some people say or if it means he’s just really solid, but the quality of his work varies wildly depending on who is inking him. Green is one of the good ones, and as a result this issue looks pretty good.

Synopsis: When last we saw Godzilla, Yellowjacket and Wasp had thoroughly cleaned out his inner ear, which tickled so much that the giant dinosaur toppled into the Hudson River. Now he’s back on his feet and ready to resume his major throwdown with the Fantastic Four, the Avengers and SHIELD. But mostly with the Avengers.

Or, rather, he’s ready to ignore all of them and knock over the Empire State building instead, because, you know. Why not, really? This is something that our heroes just cannot allow, so the Avengers, the FF and SHIELD all rush into action. All except Thor, who instead stands on a rooftop and tries to figure out some kind of strategy to beat Godzilla. Man, this would be a good time to have some brilliant tactician on your team like Captain America, huh? Too bad he’s playing Pong with Wanda back on monitor duty. Good job, Thor!

(Side note: as Godzilla walks towards the Empire State Building, he passes an office where a nice scene of sexual harassment is taking place. Ah, the swinging 70’s! Stranger, for some reason Moench decided to name the sleazy boss Jarvis. Out of the billions of names available, why would you go with one of the handful that your audience is guaranteed to identify with one of your characters? I think “Mr. Smith” might have worked a little better here.)

While Thor hurts himself trying to think, The Fantastic Four decide to actually do something, so Reed Richards comes up with his own brilliant plan: pigpile on Godzilla! This accomplishes about what you would expect, namely widespread destruction and loss of human life. Luckily, while the FF is totally bungling everything, the Avengers are around to save the people of the city, which they do in a nice segment where Thor stops some falling debris and Iron Man saves some people from a burning building. It’s always cool to see superheroes actually helping people instead of just fighting villains.

However, that’s not going to keep the Empire State Building from falling over, so it’s time for plan B. Ini a pretty awesome display of might, just as Godzilla is about to knock the building over, Thor swoops in and props it up. Thor and Godzilla then both shove on the building from opposite sides, neither able to budge the other, until finally the building itself begins to shatter under the pressure. Damn right!

So now, as Wasp says, it’s desperation time. There’s only one thing left to do: a bigger pigpile on Godzilla! This time the Avengers and SHIELD join the FF in an “all-out blitz”, leading to a thoroughly sweet double splash of Godzilla taking them all on right in the heart of Manhattan.

Unfortunately, this moment of pure comic bliss is interrupted by the whiny little snot Rob “lizard lover” Takiguchi. Freeing himself from his SHIELD captors by kicking them in the shins – man, why didn’t Hydra ever think of that? – Rob rushes out onto the Helicarrier’s… uh, helipad… and begins weeping like Kate Gosselin. While all the heroes stand around, frozen by the tenderness of this moment, Rob implores Godzilla to stop fighting and just sort of walk over there into the ocean.

Moved by the kid’s heartfelt plea – or, more likely, eager to get away from this little whinebag as soon as possible, Godzilla does just that: he turns and walks right into the ocean, vanishing forever. And, wouldn’t you know it, just as he does so, Spider-man finally shows up, just in time to take that photo J. Jonah Jameson has been screaming about for two issues. Interestingly, we never see this picture, but context clues suggest that the photo he took is actually the cover of this issue. So for everyone who wondered what Peter Parker’s award winning photography looks like, wonder no more: it looks like it was drawn by Herb Trimpe.

And that’s… THE END!

Extras: Interestingly, there’s no mention in the letter column -- or as far as I can tell anywhere else -- that this is the last issue of the series. It’s implied a few places, but not actually stated outright.

Also of interest is the Hostess Fruit Pies advertisement in this issue. It features Thing fighting the robot Torgo, a.k.a the Ultimate Weapon. You may recall Torgo from a number of storylines in Fantastic Four, most notably the Slave Pits of Kral epic in Fantastic Four #91-93, which in some ways was a precursor to the popular Planet Hulk storyline from a few years ago. It’s a bit unusual for a Hostess ad to feature such a well known villain instead of some made up nobody. All you Torgo completists, get out your checklists!

My Grades: I really enjoyed this issue, though not quite as much as the last, due mainly to the sappy ending that you could see coming from another universe. I’ve still got to give it a B+ though, with an A+ for the great (though brief) Thor/Godzilla tussle.

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Thursday, August 27, 2009

Tales From the Vault: GODZILLA #23

Next up in our week long exploration of Marvel's licensed properties is a review of Godzilla #23, where Godzilla comes face to face with... the Mighty Avengers! Oh, yeah.

Details: This instant classic comes to us from the halcyon days of June, 1979. The unbeatable creative team behind it? None other than the legendary duo of Doug Moench and Herb Trimpe. Now, I know what you’re thinking: where did I leave that bottle of sleeping pills? But don’t worry, we’ll get through this together. Plus, this is actually during Trimpe’s strongest Kirbyesque era, so it’s pretty decent, and Moench has his moments as well. And, hey, it could be worse: Al Milgrom is the editor and he could have assigned himself pencils. Anyway, let’s get to it.

Synopsis: We jump right into the action (apparently continued from Godzilla #22) to find Godzilla rampaging through Manhattan. The only people who can stop him? The Mighty Ave… wait, it’s the Fantastic Four. Hmm.

Okay, whatever. Yes, the Fantastic Four – and by “Fantastic Four” I mean Reed Richards and Johnny Storm, because the others aren’t anywhere to be seen – are duking it out with Godzilla while high overhead the SHIELD Helicarrier watches the action. And by “high overhead” I mean, they’re floating about 50 feet off the ground. Maybe I should choose my words more carefully from now on.

Anyway, for whatever reason, Godzilla has become enthralled with the Helicarrier and has decided to bash it to pieces (my guess? He’s a skrull). I should also note here that this version of the Helicarrier is basically a big floating Lego; it’s little more than a big flying brick. I imagine this was much easier to draw than the original version, but it also looks like total crap compared to the awesome design the Helicarrier used to have, so I’m a bit put out by this.

Reed uses his gigantic brain to come up with an infallible solution to this problem: have the Helicarrier lead Godzilla to the river and then, I dunno… hope he’s made of salt. While Dum Dum Dugan complies with the order (no sign of Nick Fury anywhere – they probably realized Fury could have beat Godzilla with one hand tied behind his back so they had to leave him out of the story), Reed rushes off to find Ben and Sue while the Human Torch goes to summon the Avengers. That’s right, you pussies, go bring in the real heroes.

While they do this, Godzilla continues on his rampage and we meet some weepy little snot of a kid (Rob Takiguchi) who apparently loves Godzilla or something. You know the type – this kid is almost certain to save the day by making everyone realize Godzilla is gentle. Plus, judging from the name he’s part Japanese, so he probably has a leg up on Godzilla to begin with just through genetics.

At this point we get a fantastic little vignette of Godzilla approaching the Daily Bugle. J. Jonah Jameson is reading the riot act because nobody can find Peter Parker to take photos of Godzilla when the Godzilla shows up right behind him. JJJ’s response? He leans out the window and starts screaming at Godzilla, shaking his fist and warning the dinosaur not to mess with J. Jonah Jameson. It’s fantastic (go ahead, click on it to enlarge).

Of course, Godzilla basically sneezes and blows JJJ’s entire office to hell, then wanders off while, across town, the Human Torch arrives at Avengers Mansion to find them all sitting around playing Monopoly. A caption here says that this story takes place prior to the roster shake-up in Avengers #181, which makes sense; even the Avengers themselves appear to have been bored to tears by the fill-in issues that came after the end of the Korvac Saga.

Johnny quickly brings them up to speed and now we get something really interesting (well… to me, anyway). It seems that Thor is now chairman of the Avengers (which… he definitely was not during this era). We discover this because, as they rush out to fight Godzilla, he decides they need to leave people behind in case a bigger menace shows up somewhere (like… Ego the Living Planet? What’s going to trump Godzilla, exactly?) and so he assigns monitor duty to, um, Captain America and the Scarlet Witch.

In other words, we now know why Thor is rarely chairman of the Avengers, because that’s maybe the worst command decision in Avengers history. But I’m not too surprised at this, because I’m not quite sure Moench and Milgrom have a handle on the Avengers – for example, Cap says that if they need more help, he and Wanda will “come in the RAMJET.” Like, wtf, bro? The Ramjet? Jesus H. Christ.

Back aboard the Helicarrier, Kid Godzilla (who I guess is the Helicarrier cabin boy?) arrives and tells people they shouldn’t F with Godzilla. Thanks for the news flash, kid. But the Avengers are now on the scene, along with the entire Fantastic Four, so it’s time for a big league throwdown. They attack, and Godzilla begins smacking them around in a pretty beastly fashion, even flinging Thor into the atmosphere with a mighty roar.

Luckily, the Avengers have two aces in the hole (quite literally, as we’re about to see): Wasp and Yellowjacket. While everyone else makes fools of themselves, Hank and Jan hang out on a nearby windowsill and watch, talking about how tiny and insignificant they feel. Of course, in the words of Crow T. Robot, they always feel insignificant, but this is even more so. While Hank complains about being useless, Jan comes up with an idea (dammit, Jan, that’s always your mistake, isn’t it?!). The conversation goes like this:

Wasp: I just had an idea. Godzilla is already on the docks – close enough to topple into the river. If we were to fly into his –

Yellowjacket: I get it – and it’s the best idea I’ve heard all day. Let’s go.

So as you can imagine, in the next scene Wasp zooms right into Godzilla’s ear, while Hank unfortunately flies up his urethra instead. Whoops!!! Dammit, Hank, let the woman talk!

Okay, no, they both fly into Godzilla’s ear and for some reason instead of using their blaster guns or whatever, they decides to irritate him by flapping their wings really fast against his ear wall. Ew, now my wings are covered in Godzilla wax! Gross! It does work, though, if by “work” you mean “has no effect”. Oh, sure, Godzilla does fall into the river. And then in the next panel he just stands up. In other words, now we’ve got him in the river, Reed, so what exactly is the next part of your big plan? Oh yeah – there is no next part. Good one, big brain.


Yes, that’s the end. It’s continued into the next issue which we’ll take a look at… Tomorrow!

Extras: The letter column is interesting, as the letters seem to be fairly split. There are a couple people that like the series, but most of these are kind of along the lines of “considering how terrible this comic should be, you’re not doing so bad I guess.” Not everyone is so charitable, however, as seen from this missive:

Godzilla #17 is the worst, most insulting piece of garbage on the stands.”

Yup. Also of interest in this issue is a house ad for the new Fantastic Four cartoon featuring Herbie, the Robot! It’s “the boldest, most exciting animated action series” around. Huh. I wonder how that worked out for them? There’s also a blurb welcoming Michael Fleisher to Marvel, in which they actually mention his DC stuff, going so far as to cite his “superb work on the Spectre and Jonah Hex”. And there’s a mention of another Avengers crossover the same month, into Doctor Strange #35 where they finally get around to investigating the mystery of Black Knight’s statue from Avengers #157, which was a full two years earlier.

My Grades: Despite my reservations about the creative team, I really like this issue so I’m giving it an A- overall, an A+ for the JJJ scenes, the Avengers playing Monopoly and Thor being chairman, and a F- for calling the Quinjet a Ramjet. In fact, I might give them a G for that, it’s that egregious.

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Wednesday, August 26, 2009

What If: Marvel's Great Licensing Experiment

Previously in the licensed worlds of Marvel Comics: Rom, Spaceknight evolved from a failed toy to an acclaimed centerpiece of Marvel continuity that became both the best team-up book ever and the primary force behind one of Marvel’s first mega events. That was yesterday. Today we’re going to take a look at some of the other crossovers between Marvel superheroes and their licensed properties as we continue to explore one of the stranger chapters in Marvel history, when toys, cartoon characters and superheroes all mingled together in one fantastic world.

[Note: this is not, by any means, a comprehensive list, it's just a cross-section of interesting examples. I'm not Sean McQuaid here, folks.]

You may recall that during my discussion of Rom yesterday, I described that series as being the only licensed book to be fully integrated into the Marvel Universe. However, that’s not technically true. There was one other long running licensed comic that was also firmly placed in Marvel continuity – it was just so small that I overlooked it. So let’s start off our crossover overview with a look at these tiny sci-fi heroes: the Micronauts.

The X-Men and the Micronauts

During the late 70’s, it became clear to Marvel that X-Men was turning into a massive hit property, so they quickly did the logical thing: they pimped the sweet hell out of them. Within a period of five or six years, the X-Men managed to team up with other superheroes (see: X-Men and Alpha Flight), other companies (see: X-Men and the New Teen Titans), angry magazine mascots (see: Obnoxio the Clown vs. The X-Men) , random civic potlucks (see: X-Men at the State Fair of Texas) and, of course, homemade comics from young fans (see: Kitty Pryde Meets Scott Harris Under the Bleachers #1-245). So from a marketing standpoint it only made sense for Marvel to throw the X-Men together with their hit toy property, Micronauts.

The surprising thing here is that, unlike most of these team-ups, this one got its own series. The X-Men and the Micronauts lasted four issues and told the tale of, well, microscopic astronauts appearing on Earth and the X-Men shrinking themselves down to tiny size. I mean, what else was it going to be about? We’ve already seen from the way Rom storylines affected Uncanny X-Men that Chris Claremont and Micronauts writer Bill Mantlo are comfortable working together, but to be honest this series is just kind of meh. It also has the unfortunate side effect of reminding everyone that the Micronauts are, you know, subatomically tiny, which makes it harder for me personally to take uber villain Baron Karza very seriously.

One side note of interest: like Rom’s supporting cast, Marvel owns the rights to characters it created during the duration of Micronauts. Because of that, some Micronauts, like Bug (who is currently appearing in Guardians of the Galaxy), are still part of the Marvel Universe, while those that were based on the toy line (like Acroyear) are not. Weird.

Fantastic Four and the Shogun Warriors

Hey, remember Shogun Warriors? They were giant robot toys from Japan that were imported to America to try to capture some of our big capitalist toy market. In a lot of ways they were like prototypes for the Transformers – they sort of fit together and came apart to form giant robots, but not exactly, and like the Transformers, they turned to Marvel to try and help develop some sort of actual reasons for kids to buy this stuff (though the anime compilation show Force Five did a much better job of this). Heck, there was even a Shogun Warriors villain named Megatron back before Marvel got around to naming the main Transformers baddie the same thing.

Unfortunately, the comic was a giant flop, so Marvel decided to pull out the stops and bring in the Fantastic Four for issues #19-20 as a last ditch effort to jump start the series. Written by Doug Moench, the stories are sadly (but not surprisingly) lame as all hell, featuring a classic Hero Misunderstanding Battle between the FF and Combatra when the Shogun guys head to the Baxter Building to warn Reed Richards that their arch enemy, a glowing space cookie named the Primal One, was aiming to snuff him.

One interesting thing does take place here: Moench, as writer of the Fantastic Four, has an epilogue in FF #226 that ties up loose ends for the series. So the three readers in the world that wondered what happened after Shogun Warriors ended, now you know where to look.

Spider-man and the Transformers

Now, here’s a comic that will make continuity buffs explode in a ball of fire and blood. During the original 4-issue Transformers mini-series (which was, of course, expanded to an ongoing title thanks to high sales), none other than the Amazing Spider-man showed up to help the Autobots out of a jam. Specifically, he was trying to help save that annoying Witwicky brat from, I dunno, getting drunk in a Walgreens and smashing his hand or something.

The point is, this crossover is treated as though it’s perfectly reasonable by everyone in the comic, even though it makes no sense for Spider-man to be in the Transformers world and even less sense for anything the Transformers are doing to be in the Marvel Universe (though, that would have been kind of awesome). I, however, have developed the perfect explanation for this, which I mentioned earlier this week. It goes like this: who cares! All that matters here is that Spider-man is hanging out with Optimus Prime; and when something completely unbelievable and awesome happens, asking how it could possibly be happening is beside the point and, I might add, a big turn off to the ladies (trust me). Just enjoy your, uh, web-slinging and leave the questions of continuity for lesser minds.

Spider-man and Red Sonja

Speaking of which. Marvel Team-Up #79 and Chris Clarmeont bring us a tale of magic, mystery and, well, complete fanwanking. Basically, ancient evil wizard Kulan Gath gets brought to the present though an evil amulet. Who can stop his nefarious powers? Well, how about Mary Jane Watson?

As far as I can tell, the main purpose for this comic to exist is to get Mary Jane into that ridiculous chainmail bikini of Red Sonja’s. In other words, it’s a grand and noble purpose. Through magic, Red Sonja somehow inhabits Mary Jane’s body and she then teams up with Spider-man to take down Kulan Gath. The only down side to this plot line is that, thanks to Mephisto, this has probably been retconned to say that it was Aunt May taken over by Red Sonja instead.

The best part of this story is that, in typical Claremont fashion, Gath would go on to appear again in many other comics, including one of my favorite stories ever, Uncanny X-Men #190-191 where he transforms Manhattan into Hyboria and faces off against swords and sorcery versions of the Avengers and X-Men. It might not be chainmail bikini awesome, but it’s pretty effing awesome!

The Human Fly and Ghost Rider

Human Fly is one of the odder entries on this list (which is saying something) due to the fact that the Human Fly wasn’t a toy or a pulp character: he was an actual guy. I don’t know exactly how the deal between the real Human Fly (a stuntman named Rick Rojatt) and Marvel worked, but basically in the comics he was exactly what he was in real life: a crazy stuntman who wore red longjohns and a Mexican wrestling mask.

The truly terrifying thing about his run-in with Ghost Rider in issue #2 is how much it must have scared young readers. After all, Marvel stressed that Human Fly was a real guy, and you could see Human Fly on TV and in the papers. So if he was meeting up with Ghost Rider, didn’t that mean that, ipso facto, Ghost Rider must also be a real person? A horrifying demon from hell itself who could show up at any moment and fix you with a penance stare to make yo pay for cheating on that phonics test?

I’m guessing this comic caused more eight-year-olds to crap themselves as they discovered the downside of logic than any other educational tool ever.

Thing and Doc Savage

Doc Savage is one of those old pulp characters that seems to have been infinitely more appealing to the writers at Marvel Comics than the readers. During the late 60’s and early 70’s there was a resurgence of interest in the pulp stories and heroes of the 1930’s. Marvel had already scored a huge success with its licensing of Conan, so it probably made sense (to Roy Thomas, anyway) to give Doc Savage a try. Despite repeated efforts, though, including both a comic book and a large format black and white magazine, Doc never really caught on.

He did stick around long enough for this team-up with the Thing in Marvel Two-in-One #21, however. This story is actually kind of cool. The Thing and Doc Savage end up on parallel investigations, each in their own era, dealing with two generations of people from the same family who are obsessed with some weird magic device. In the end, this device brings Doc and Thing together and merges the bad guys into one giant baddy named Black Sun, who they then defeat. No word on whether this was an inspiration for Soundgarden or not.

As a side note, DC now apparently has the rights to Doc Savage, as they recently announced they are doing a whole pulp universe inhabited by people without super powers like Doc Savage, the Shadow and the Spirit and… I dunno, whoever. I’m not sure they’re going to be any more successful than Marvel was trying to make Doc Savage popular today, but it sounds interesting, anyway.

Spider-man and King Kull

Yes, in Marvel Team-Up #112, Spider-man teams up with King Kull! If you think this is awesome, well, congrats. That means you might be the only person in the universe who cares about King Kull. Yes, I get it, Robert E. Howard is great. Really, everything he ever did was genius. Hell, I eat Bran Mak Morn cereal for breakfast, okay? But I still don’t understand what audience was clamoring for this team-up.

The plot contrivance this time around is that Spider-man has been poisoned by… poison… and the only place to get the antidote from is the distant past. So Dr. Strange sends Spider-man’s astral form back in time to locate some antidote and, of course, he teams up with King Kull as part of it. I guess as far as plot devices go, this works as well as any. After all, Marvel Team-Up’s usual plot involves Spidey randomly stumbling across something while he swings past on a nearby flagpole, so anything that isn’t complete coincidence is a step up. But really. King Kull?

Thor vs. Conan

Finally, we have the granddaddy of Marvel licensed characters, Conan. When Marvel got the rights to Conan back in 1970, I’m guessing they had no idea the comic would turn into a mega-blockbuster that they would publish in multiple comics and magazines for decades to come. Interestingly, though, while they seemed to have no problem throwing the rest of their licensed properties into the MU, including (as we have seen) other Robert E. Howard characters like Red Sonja and King Kull, they seemed hesitant to do the same with Conan.

Instead, Conan’s out of continuity adventures were clearly labeled as such by appearing in the pages of What If?, which brings us this classic tale: Thor vs. Conan. If I had seen this as a kid I would have been so excited I probably would have given birth to a Roc right in the comic store. In this tale, we learn what we probably all suspected anyway – Thor really likes being in Hyboria. He kind of likes it more than the rgular MU, actually, and he gets to do all sorts of rad MMO stuff including meeting Crom himself.

In fact, the only problem with this comic is that it’s so cool it makes you wish they just sent Thor back to hang out with Conan all the time instead of, you know, stranding him in Oklahoma. But as far as team-ups between Marvel superheroes and licensed properties, this story is right at the top of the heap.

Tomorrow: Wait, didn’t someone say something about Godzilla? Don’t worry, folks. They said it couldn’t be done! They said it shouldn’t be done! They said it wouldn’t be done! They even said it pudding be done, but that was probably trying a little too hard! Yes, tomorrow we take a look at the epic to end all epics: Godzilla vs. the Mighty Avengers! See you then.

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Tuesday, August 25, 2009

The Marvel Universe according to ROM: Spaceknight!

Today we continue our look at Marvel's licensed books with an examination of what is without a doubt one of the more curious comics in Marvel’s long history -- Rom: Spaceknight. The history behind Rom is nearly as weird as the story in the comic itself. Created by two inventors as one of the first electronic action figures during the late 1970’s, Rom was purchased by Parker Brothers, who were so intrigued by the idea that they branched out of their usual board game niche to try taking a stab at the toy market. They managed to get Rom on the cover of Time Magazine, but it was soon clear that the toy was a flop and it was quickly discontinued.

Strangely enough, however, the comic book that Parker Brothers had licensed Marvel to create as part of their promotional push ended up being vastly more successful than the toy itself, one of the few times that a licensed comic managed to overshadow the item it was licensed from. This unprecedented success can be attributed to two sources: all 75 issues were written by the legendary Bill Mantlo, and Rom was the only licensed character to be fully integrated as part of the mainstream Marvel Universe.

During the first few issues of the series, while the toy was still being produced, there’s not a lot of overt references to Marvel. Other than a very brief cameo from Dr. Strange in Rom #5, for the most part Mantlo was content telling the story of Rom’s landing on Earth and his dealings with the human supporting cast that quickly glommed onto him. As the run continued, a few other characters from Marvel began sneaking into the book – such as an appearance in Rom #13 by garish douchebag Jack of Hearts and an attack by Fantastic Four villain The Mad Thinker – but the first 15 issues or so are a fairly self-contained arc, telling a nice if unspectacular science fiction story.

But then something interesting happened. By this point the toy was a failure, yet the comic was still selling well enough to keep going, assuming a new narrative impetus could be found. The basic premise – Rom hunting the shape shifting wraith who were infiltrating Earth to conquer it – could be sustained ad infinitum, but there had to be some hook to get new readers to check out the book in the first place now that the tie in from the toy was gone. Luckily, Mantlo stumbled upon just the thing: guest stars out the ass.

Power Man, Iron Fist and... the Hybrid!

Since Rom was already established as being in the Marvel Universe, after all, why not really blow the doors off? Since the wraith menace was supposedly big enough to endanger the entire planet, it only made sense that other heroes would be involved, so starting with #17 Rom became essentially the newest team up book in Marvel’s stable. That issue kicked off a two-part storyline featuring the X-Men (fresh off the loss of Jean Grey) helping Rom battle a mutant/wraith halfling called Hybrid and it opened the floodgate of Marvel characters to come.

The next issue brought the Space Phantom into the mix, which makes sense considering limbo featured prominently in Rom’s backstory, and in issue #21 Grade Z superhero Torpedo joined Rom’s regular cast as a sometime rival and sometime ally. By this point the crossovers were coming so fast that Rom couldn’t contain them all, and #23, featuring Power Man and Iron Fist, ended up crossing over into that title as well, leading to thousands of present day readers wondering why their Essential Power Man and Iron Fist skips an entire issue (answer: because Marvel no longer has the license to Rom, they can’t reprint any of his appearances).

It’s too bad, because this crossover is sweet. Since Rom is constantly blasting wraiths out of existence – and since they are shapeshifters who usually are in human form at the time – Rom is frequently mistaken for some sort of mass murderer by Earth authorities. In this story, J. Jonah Jameson helps spark a panic by publishing accounts of Rom killing people, which leads to a manhunt by a wide array of Marvel heroes including Spider-man, Daredevil, Moon Knight and Captain America. Power Man and Iron Fist end up helping Rom break into the Baxter Building in order to hijack a rocket so Rom can return to his home planet of Galador. Eventually, the Fantastic Four show up and give him his jet. Of course, this whole thing could have been avoided if superheroes knew how to use a telephone, but it’s still a pretty cool story.

It also leads right into the next epic, which features Nova and the New Champions and eventually a multi-issue confrontation with Galactus himself. Rom becomes Galactus’s new herald and leads him to the wraith homeworld, hoping to end the wraith menace once and for all – or at least get rid of Galactus. And indeed, Galactus is unable to consume the planet because of its dark magic energy, so he ends up turning tail and fleeing. Wow, that has to suck if you’re Galactus. So much for your oversized rep, big man.

Rom returns to Earth in #28 to help clean up the messes Torpedo has been making, but who cares about Torpedo, right? So I’m not going to recap that. Instead, we’ll jump ahead a couple issues to one of the more interesting chapters in Rom’s forgotten history – a battle with the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants in Rom #31-32 that features Rogue in one of her few appearances as a supervillain.

Rogue and the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants

This is, in fact, Rogue’s second appearance. Sort of. I say sort of because this story came out the same month as Uncanny X-Men #158 and seems to take place at the same time and roughly the same place; one story is at the Pentagon and the other is at a prison that is also set in Virginia. If you read them both, it’s kind of hard to reconcile the stories as they seem to be mutually exclusive, so we’re going to use this bit of logic to solve the question: we’re going to ignore it. Who cares!

What’s interesting is that this story is extremely important to the development of Rogue. After Rogue and Mystique break the rest of the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants out of jail, they run straight into Rom, who proceeds to pummel them hardcore. He quickly whacks Avalanche, Pyro and Blob, so the female members of the team come up with a new plan: run like hell. Unfortunately they run right into the lair of the disgusting mutant wraith known as Hybrid.

Hybrid and Mystique, though, soon realize they both hate the X-Men and Rom, so they agree to team up and Mystique and Rogue set a trap for Rom. This essentially has no effect, because Rom is pretty badass, but it does lead to a key exchange between Rom and Rogue. During Rogue’s attack, Rom questions her motives:

Rom: “Why do you do this, child? Unlike Mystique, I sense no evil in you.”

Rogue then kisses Rom in an attempt to steal the power from his human side. However, this fails completely because the only part of Rom that is human is his soul. Instead of draining his power, then, she ends up connecting directly to his soul, leaving both stunned and suddenly giving Rogue a new outlook on things, as shown by these captions:

“What is there Rogue can say? She attempted to absorb Rom’s power, only to discover that that portion of humanity grafted to the cold spaceknight armor possessed no power… but only a kind of decency which Rogue, in her young life, has never known.

“She finds that she likes it.”

At this point, Hybrid reappears and starts crushing Rom big time. Mystique decides this is a good time to run away, especially considering Destiny has realized that Hybrid’s plan is to enslave mutant women and use them as breeding slaves for his own pleasure (um… yeah). Rogue, however, refuses to abandon Rom and, ignoring Mystique’s commands, she jumps into the fight to help save Rom.

In the end, just as Hybrid is about to overpower and slay Rom, Rogue grabs Hybrid and drains some of his power at great cost to herself since he’s a disgusting alien sex convict. Rom is able to destroy Hybrid once again thanks to Rogue’s help. The Brotherhood then leaves, with both Rom and Rogue wondering if they will ever meet again, each secretly hoping they will, for they have sensed in each other a kindred spirit.

It’s interesting that this takes place at the same time as X-Men #158, where Rogue is still hardcore, trying to kill Carol Danvers again and thrashing the X-Men. My assumption is that Mantlo was aware of Claremont’s long term plans for Rogue and this influenced his depiction of her, but I’m not sure. Whatever was going on behind the scenes, though, this encounter seems to be a major turning point for Rogue as she begins to question Mystique and instead embrace her heroic side.

ROM: Endgame

Most of the crossovers that immediately followed, of course, didn’t have nearly as much impact on the Marvel Universe as that story, but they are still fun to read. Namor the Sub-Mariner makes an appearance in Rom #34-35, followed by one of the more unlikely team-ups you’re going to ever see in Rom #38-39 featuring Shang Chi, the Master of Kung Fu. And following that is a Dr. Strange appearance in Rom #41 that also features the Living Tribunal, The In-Betweener and some Lovecraft knock-off called The Dweller on the Threshold, all rendered in probably the best art Sal Buscema has ever done.

During this era, the guest stars are so numerous it’s hard to do more than list them without making this essay a 50 part series, but Ronan the Accuser shows up in #44, followed by the Soviet Super Solders (or whatever the hell they were called at the time) in #45-56, a return by Hybrid to fight the New Mutants in Rom Annual #3 and the long awaited throwdown between shapeshifting aholes: the Skrulls versus the Wraiths in Rom #50.

This story seemed to really kick the series into overdrive. The Wraith menace became revealed to the world at large, leading to cooperation between Rom and the government and an all-out war between humanity and wraithkind. As a result, the series had a brief period where the guest stars lessened as the stories became more focused, but this was offset by having one of Marvel’s oldest characters become a members of Rom’s regular supporting cast: Rick Jones.

Joining the cast in #54, Rick begins to pitch in with Rom’s efforts to end the wraithwar, and other Marvel stalwarts such as Dr. Strange and Nick Fury soon join the fight. Alpha Flight shows up For #56-57, followed by Ant-Man in #58-59. Throughout these issues, the war heats up and Henry Peter Gyrich begins appearing as a liaison, which leads to one of the other major contributions Rom made to Marvel continuity: the introduction of Forge and the subsequent loss of Storm’s powers.

This doesn’t take place in Rom itself, of course, happening in the pages of X-Men, but the story is that the government gets a hold of Rom’s neutralizer long enough to study it. The only person who can make sense of it is Forge, thanks to his mutant powers, so he quickly comes up with his own version – a version which strips mutant powers and ends up being used on Storm instead of Rogue. And that story leads into a major arc in X-Men which includes a two-part wraith attack in the pages of Uncanny X-Men itself, in #187-188.

This is part of the huge company-wide crossover that took place at the time with Rom as the epicenter. It’s interesting because this can be seen as one of Marvel’s earlier company-wide mega events, early enough that there’s no branding going on. Less than a year later, Secret Wars II would take place and the era of the mega-crossover would truly begin, with each comic involved getting its own blurb to tie things together from a commercial standpoint. But before this, Marvel experimented these prototype, unmarked crossovers, and this story in Rom is one of the first and biggest. As the wraithwar engulfed Earth, Wraiths began showing up in major storylines in many Marvel books, including Avengers #244-245 among others.

It’s no surprise, then, that the last issues of the wraithwar in Rom feature essentially the entire Marvel Universe. As the wraiths summon their homeworld in an attempt to merge it with Earth, Rom marshals of all Earth’s heroes to battle in a last ditch attempt. And I do mean all of them; the Avengers, the West Coast Avengers, the Defenders, the X-Men, Beta Ray Bill, the Soviet Super Soldiers, even all the random foreign heroes from Contest of Champions like Shamrock show up. And it's all presented by the truly unlikely art team of Steve Ditko on pencils and P. Craig Russell on inks.

With the menace of the Wraiths finally ended, Rom finished the series by returning to Galador in some great issues that tied up all the loose ends of the series, leaving Rom as one of those rarities in mainstream comics: a complete and finite story. But the guest appearances weren’t quite over; as part of the subplot clean up, Rom #72 featured probably the best Secret Wars II tie-in of them all, where Rick Jones temporarily becomes the Hulk in order to save his friends; and in Rom Annual #4, that purple punching bag Gladiator makes an appearance as well.

All in all, Rom ends up as more than an oddity in the annals of Marvel. Thanks to the fact that it tells one complete story over its 75 issue run, it’s probably the best team-up book ever published, because all of the stories take place in a larger context and structure that lends a greater meaning to the stories. Marvel Team-Up, Marvel Two-In-One, DC Comics Presents, Brave and the Bold – all of these seemed to rely mostly on random chance to set up meetings between unlikely characters. Rom used plot and narrative flow to do the same.

Not bad for a comic based on a failed toy and a character who, while not even owned by the publisher, had a greater impact on Marvel Comics than most of the titles they developed themselves.

Tomorrow: We take a look at some of the other random crossovers between licensed characters and Marvel superheroes. It’s not always pretty, but it’s always interesting. See you then.

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