What I thought of Absolute Carnage and other comics

In which this is the latest of a series of occasional blog talking about recent comics, and to start the big Marvel crossover event since the one they had in the spring, Absolute Carnage. Written by Donny Cates and drawn by Ryan Stegman this teams Spider-Man and Venom up against Carnage in a story that is virtually incomprehensible if you’ve not been reading Cates’s run on Venom, or dipped in and out of various Spider-Man titles over the years.

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If you don’t want to dive into Wikipedia, Cates does include pages of exposition in the first issue explaining what’s going on as Eddie Brock brings Spidey up to speed with what’s going on but it’s a scene that kills the story stone dead. Prior and post this scene, the comic is a pretty average superhero title with lots of fights as one would expect from a massive crossover event. The problem with these events now is they’re weighted down with so much continuity that they have to have these scenes to explain to reading just what the fuck is going on.

And what is going on is that Venom and Spider-Man have to fight loads of Carnage controlled symbiotes who are out to kill as many people as possible. It is basically what you’d expect, though Ryan Stegman’s art is nice, plus he can tell a story which is a sadly decreasing talent among many Marvel/DC artists. This is ordinary stuff, but there is one great scene at the end of the overlong exposition scene which shows Cates is capable of doing more than he is here.

Which brings me onto Silver Surfer Black.

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Written by Cates and drawn by Tradd Moore, the story is a typically angst-ridden Surfer story, which most Silver Surfer stories are. Again this spins out of another Cates written title, The Guardians of the Galaxy, to tell this story of the Surfer fighting an old evil. There’s nothing spectacular about the writing but dear me, the art is extraordinary stuff.

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Moore is a definite talent,  and his work here veers from surrealism to expressionism to whateeverism. It really is like watching a talent hit his prime, and Marvel need to be applauded for releasing this in the autumn in the same treasury format they released Ed Piskor’s X-Men work.

Meanwhile over at DC Comics, Brian Bendis is writing Event Leviathan, another crossover event wich also relies upon knowing lots of continuity but less so here as Bendis is crafting a detective story so much of the exposition flows better here, but it’s still a crossover that reliesupon characters stopping what they’re doing and telling others the plot.

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Bendis is a good solid writer, but hasn’t bothered to push himself in over a decade and he doesn’t here, but this is still decent enough stuff though it is Alex Maleev’s art which drags this up from the usual DC crossover. I especially love his version of The Question.

The problem with crossovers in 2019 is they give publishers a healthy sales boost during the spring and summer when they’re traditionally fighting against other streams of entertainment. Quality tends to go out the window but here at least, there’s three examples of good to great artists showing what they can do.

And finally, The Wicked and the Divine #45.

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Keiron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie’s superb comic comes to an end with a sort of coda set in the future when the gods are old and can mourn their dead. It is a firm, definate end. Over the coruse of the run Gillen and McKelvie carved a story which criticised and celebrated modern culture, society and the comic itself  as an artform. As a comic it was one which did a lot but recently never quite got the plaudits it deserved but it was one of the best published this decade.

It is a shame the market goes wild for an uninspiring crossovers while comics which try new things build a solid audience without the aid of empty crossovers. As a comic I wish more tried to explore the medium as The Wicked and the Divine did.

And that’s it. Another blog soon about some of the stuff clogging up comics shop shelves…

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The joy of diving into back-issue comics

Here’s a brutal fact. Most comics are crap and not worth the price on the cover. As a semi-occasional dealer this is breaking one of the rules of comic dealers which is not to downplay what you have, but no, really, most comics end up slowly rotting somewhere because they weren’t bought, or over-ordered, or just crap. Dealers who have been around a while however are a teasuretrove of delights as their over-stocks could be utter gems, or their crap something you find to be a diamond.

Back in the days of Bristol’s nearly remembered, semi legendary comic shop Comics and C.D’s, I’d spend hours upstairs in the warehouse raking through endless long boxes to decide the fate of many a comic from a Destroyer Duck to Alpha Flight through to Wild Dog as to whether they lived on in the back issues proper or ended up relegated to the 50p boxes. Today most shops sales stock tends to be New 52 crap and recent stuff which was over-ordered which might, one day, be worth a pound.

The below is a great video of Jim Rugg, Ed Piskor and friends searching through the dollar boxes of a local shop for diamonds and they find many a diamond for next to nothing.

Even as a bitter, old, entrenched old bastard like myself feels a spark when finding something gloriously cheap. I mean I’d kill to pick those Jack Kirby 2001 comics up for a buck each but on this side of the Atlantic it isn’t going to happen. Nobody over here is that public spirited!

I bring a few boxes of overstocks/crap to the bigger shows I do. I do throw some gems in there as a public service but you’ve got to be fast or you’ll miss them. Come along next year at the Edinburgh show and you’ll see what I mean. Til then buy more comics, and search out those diamonds in the rough…

In praise of John Byrne’s Superman

If you talk to most comics fans they’ll reel off the big turning points of comics in the 80’s. Watchmen, Dark Knight, Maus will be first out the block. Maybe Frank Miller’s Daredevil run, possibly Love and Rockets, maybe even Crisis on Infinite Earths which did kick DC Comics back to life. Few will mention John Byrne’s run on Superman from 1986 to 1988 which is a pity as this showed not only to handle Superman, but how to revamp a character by bringing in newer, updated elements while staying faithful to the roots. Not an Alan Moore style total reimagining,  but something fresh and old at the same time.

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And it is forgotten how huge Byrne’s Superman was. The mainstream media picked up on it which helped turn Superman from a comic which barely registered on most people’s radar to the essential purchase if you were a superhero comic reader, or indeed, just a reader of comics.

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See, for most people in 1986, Superman was one of four, maybe five superheroes (the others being Batman, Spider-Man, Hulk and Wonder Woman) the general public knew on sight. Everyone knew who Superman was, and the idea John Byrne was revamping him so that anyone could jump on board from Man of Steel #1 and get what was going on. Which they did. And it sold bucketloads. True, shops did over-order and you can spot how long a dealer has been in business by how many copies of Superman #1 they’re selling cheap, but the fact Superman titles were selling was extraordinary.

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Byrne played it right. He seriously depowered Superman so he could be beaten in a fight but a villian who wasn’t as powerful as a God, plus he made Clark Kent likeable and interesting. Byrne also slowly bled in the scale of the DC Universe, so eventually crossovers happened and Superman became a Big Thing in DC’s titles again.

For a few years Byrne crafted some great little superhero tales,  and for me it’s his run on Action Comics that show off how to do the team-up book (I’ll skim over the dreadful Big Barda issue) while keeping it always accessible but editoralstarted making clear demands of him which came to a head over a stoyline where Superman had to kill General Zod; a decision which split the readership apart.

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Reading this 30 years later all of it seems odd as superheroes now kill all the time, but this was a Big Deal. To be honest, Byrne had written himself into a quandry so killing Zod was the only option, but it was his last big contribution to Superman that still lingers on today.

After this Byrne’s time was past anyhow, Sure, things like Next Men sold, and his Spider-Man run for Marvel later in the 90s was fun,  but he wasn’t as box-office as he was. The industry had moved on and he was no longer the sales draw he was as tends to happen to many a creator. However his Superman run changed things. It showed how Superman could, and possibly should be done, while making readable comics which brought in tens of thousands of new readers who had a few years of fun before Superman slowly became over-powered and what he was again. But it was still Byrne’s character. That mix of Christopher Reeve and Byrne’s idea of what a superhero should be never really changed even to today, where the version of Superman (although long since bastardised) is still drawing upon what Byrne did for a few years in the 80’s.

So give it a try and the credit it deserves.

How will Brexit affect the comics industry in the UK?

As it stands, Boris Johnson will be leading the UK out the EU on Halloween, which is going to affect a load of industries, as well as every single one of us living in the UK. How it’ll affect comics is not something that’s headline news but it will be affected, and it will be something many dealers, con organisers and assorted parts of the industry will not be prepared for.

The most obvious affect is the state of the pound which right now is £1.00 gets you $1.21. It is basically, fucked for an industry which is reliant upon US imports so dealers will put up prices, which means people will cut back which means less money (and less sold books) in the market. A $3.99 import will have to sell around £3.6-80 to make any money, and believe me, the profit margin on new imports is thin as fuckity anyhow so a lot of dealers are going to work hard to make the business work. The likes of Forbidden Planet will be ok, but smaller dealers could well go bust.

But that isn’t the worst of it. Right now the entire scene is in an over-inflated bubble thanks to ‘geek’ culture, the Marvel films and the fact more people than before are interested in comics, or at least the characters. That bubble has been growing since 2008 and is due to pop so if you’re a comics dealer you may survive as there’s always going to be collectors, but we’re in new ground in regards much of the ancillary industries like cosplayers, artists, or pretty much any of the oddities that now populates the modern comic convention. Bluntly put, if you offer a shit product and you’ve been skimming by on the seat of your pants now, just wait til people choose between eating and whatever you offer them. I’ve been through at least three recessions as a dealer/publisher and there are always casualties even with businesses run well, but this recession promises to hurt and badly.  I made a deliberate choice to scale back the one day events in the last half of the year so I could concentrate on larger events or the really good one day shows because all the signs are there for the bubble bursting.

For con organisers this isn’t good. The less traders there are, the less money coming in. It then becomes hard to put on a show that isn’t a glorified mart with a few bleak looking cosplayers and someone selling bubble gum flavoured Deadpool shaped chews. The actual realities of Brexit means it will be harder and more expensive to ship in guests from Europe and America, assuming guests see the UK as an attractive place to come to.

It isn’t all bad. Bubbles need to pop to clear out the chaff but this will be more than that as the UK isolates itself from the world because some racist pricks heard Polish spoken on the bus once. This will be hard, and you’ll need to think hard what you want to do to survive and yet again, my only real hope is that Scotland becomes independent because otherwise I can see things being awful for years.

Wizard magazine and the 90’s speculator boom

The 1990s now seem like a Golden Age  The Cold War was over and the sheer insanity of the post 911 world was far, far away. For comics the decade started with an explosion as Marvel had found themselves a handful of creators including Todd McFarlane, Jim Lee, and Erik Larsen who were able to draw in hundreds of thousands of sales while expanding the market. By the time these creators create Image Comics people normally making money off the stock market were buying hundreds of copies of Spawn #1 in the hope that one day they’ll make millions off them.

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Marvel and DC tried to catch up, and other new companies jumped onto the bandwagon throwing money around like water to cash in because this wasn’t going to end right? Like any bubble though, it was due to burst and when it did lots of people from publishers to retailers to speculators to ordinary fans. When the shit hit, it didn’t spare anyone. By 1995 the party was well and truely over but was there one thing that helped drive this insanity?

Sort of. Wizard Magazine certainly has some blood on its hands.

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Wizard was a mix of articles, interviews and art but really it was about the price guide it published each issues of ‘hot’ comics. From 1991 to 2011 it pushed out some, well, awful content, as well as pushing out all the ‘hot’ comics you could swallow. In reality Wizard was a sewer which helped bloat the industry to the point where certain books were selling for vastly over-inflated prices purely off the back of a Wizard mention.

Take one book, Rai #3. Today it’s a 15 buck book but realistically you’ll be lucky to get more than a few quid for it. Back in 1993 it was 50 quid plus partly because of low distribution, but mainly because Wizard told people it was a ‘hot’ book.

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In fact Valiant Comics were overall heavily pushed, but so was Image to the extent where Wizard and Image were ridicuously close in the early years and people literally were buying dozens of copies of comics hoping they’d be worth money but are now barely worth 50p.

Wizard gamed the market  which is bad enough, but people working for Wizard also advertised their comic shops in the magazine, so they’d push issues in articles with a handy ad on the facing page selling these comics for an ‘exclusive’ price. Effectively it was a con and they got away with it even after the bubble burst in the mid 90s. The damage however lasts until today, but thousands of shops went burst not including companies and even though DC made it through thanks partly to having what seems now to be an amazingly diverse series of books; Marvel were fucked. They’d went from bathing in cash in 1990 to the verge of bankruptcy in less than a decade. Everything that could be sold was trying to be sold (one of the reasons Marvel/Disney have an issue with film right lies in this time), and job losses were rife in the company. They managed to just turn things round starting in 1999 but the revious half decade was by now scattered with casualties as speculators deserted as fast as they came.

I saw dealers vanish between conventions/marts at the time. Stories of people making huge punts on runs of Valiant and Image meant when the shit hit, that they’d maybe at best get a third of their investement back. People coming to cons selling what they though was a valuble collection ended up being burned and there were piles and piles of unsold comics in warehouses everywhere.

The reason this comes to mind is because of the excellent YouTube channel Cartoonist Kayfabe (who are Ed Piskor and Jim Rugg) talking about Wizard, and this video especially where they cover their dubious business practises.

I’d recommend watching those Kayfbabe videos about WIzard as they are an amazing document of a time in comics where a new comic could literally be worth four or five times the cover price, maybe more, within days of release. I mean, we’ve learned our lesson now and we’d never do that again.

Why the direct market monopoly has damaged comics

Back in the 1980s the comic book direct market was seen as a saviour of the industry. Comics were struggling to compete with this new thing called video games and shipping comics directly to comic shops seemed liked the best way forward. I explain here more about the history of the direct market to give you an idea of what it is but basically it is the one thing most responsible for how the comics industry looks like here in 2019.

And it is probably one of the major reasons why the industry today is so damaged.

To explain; the direct market today is run by a monopoly. I‘ve explained this and the history of it before, including my own wee part in shaping the industry back in the 80s so if you want the full story regards the below image, click on the link.

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I write this as we’re at a time when comics are everywhere and nowhere at the same time. Spider-Man was the subject of a recent big story but few media outlets spoke about the comics because why should they? The characters and ideas have been absorbed into the mainstream but they didn’t bring comics with them. Comic conventions are held over the world every single week with very, very tenuous connections to comics and shops are opened up by people who see comics as a sideline to Funko Pops or games. Yet none of this bubble would have existed without comics.

And again, we can look at the direct market for part of the reason. Monopolies are not good so Diamond have a clear shot at goal but they miss because the industry is unable to move to cope with change because a monopoly is a juggernaut. Shops have product pushed upon them, and Diamond’s rules over minium orders affects publishers and retailers so  if you ever wonder why variant covers are still a thing, it’s because publishers use them to hit thresholds that mean Diamond can list them which in turn means dealers take punts on unseen titles that means dealers run a gamble on every order.

Seeing as dealers have to order months in advance and there’s no sale or return because this is the direct market, not the newsagent industry, means this locks dealers into a Kafkaesque hellscape every month with the Diamond order form turns up trying to work out what covers will sell, and what won’t.

The obvious solution is to open up the market and create competition, but this isn’t the 80s and the Big Two, Marvel and DC, aren’t going to use anyone else so the fact is we’re in a massive comics bubble where what was designed to see the industry free from the shackles of distribution has instead locked us into an ongoing battle for survival. My solution would be for regulators to break the monopoly but that’s been tried both sides of the Atlantic and shot down, so I know no other industry where a single company controls all the market and is even tolerated by some.

Which means we’re not screwed but if you wonder why the industry is loaded with comics that are all sort of the same, or why shops are often parades of products that range from the quality to the tacky or why comics aren’t punching their weight, then look at the industry at the top and you’ll find the answer.

Though this doesn’t let shops off the hook. More of that another time.

Saving Spider-Man

Sony and Disney have been unable to continue their agreement over the use of Spider-Man in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, so from now on Sony will be making Spidey films starring Tom Holland. Cue outrage from fans promising boycotts and petitions.

Yet if half of these people pick up a comic they’ll be able to get what they want.

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And of course, by 2022/3 after a few duff films the deal will be back on or Disney will have bought Sony as they swallow the world of media whole.