Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Comic stores and Comic shops

I was in Chapel Hill on Saturday with my girlfriend, heading over to their Botanical Gardens. Along the way we saw the storefront for Ultimate Comics along with Season's Greetings. So, after lunch at a Persian restaurant, she went to Season's Greetings for a little shopping so I went to the comic store although I wasn't actually looking for any comics at that time.

I was confronted with a bare bones store as the store was in the process of moving and was in its last days. The clerk was helpful in telling me about the sale and the location of the new store that was already open. We talked a bit, he showed me the old sign to Second Foundation, THE comic store of Chapel Hill when I was in college. After several minutes hanging around, I decided to go to the new store just about four miles away near I-40 on 54.

The new store is very nice and spacious. Along the wall by the entrance are shelfs spotlighting various single titles while the middle of the store is devoted to bookshelves of trades, arranged solely in alphabetical order, no differentiation between companies. Near the front by the checkout desk is an area devoted to comics AND collections for kids and all-ages. Which is interesting because this means that the shelves with all of the current and new monthly comics is actually two-thirds to the back of the store with back-issues behind those shelves, almost blocked from view.

Like the clerk at the other store, the clerks here seem focused on customer service, engaging customers in conversation and freely talking about the history of the store and what they are doing in the community in regards to organizing comic shows and such. They also push a mailing list for people interested in order to communicate sales and such and talked of business, of being open to buying comics for trade, etc. They communicated their love of comics and such without actually denigrating any creators or particular style. Despite my rather odd choices for purchase, two different clerks spoke positively of them. All giving a positive shopping experience (compared to going to Acme Comics where I feel like a dinosaur as clerks freely talk about their favorites of current crops of writers, their disdain of others like Byrne).

Overall, the store communicates a very professional atmosphere. It is interesting to see the subconscious message that it communicates due to the prominent placement of trades over the monthly comics, where it sees the direction of comics going and where the money is to be made.

The store really only had two flaws against it in my eyes. One, it actually needs more trades. The place has the space to easily double or triple the shelves they have and what they carry. Especially as that seems to be their focus. Maybe that's the plan as they get more established. I didn't see any Manga collections nor recall many if any copies of the b/w Showcase and Essential volumes. While they give prominence to the trades and a professional and uncluttered look, they don't have a bigger selection of said books than Acme Comics out of Greensboro, really not much more so than your Barnes & Noble when you take into account the mega bookstores DO carry manga.

The other is that all of the current comics are already bagged and boarded. This cuts down on people handling and reading comics in the store without buying them, but it cuts down on browsing and casually checking various titles to see if you're interested in picking them up. Such as I saw they had Birds of Prey and had heard some good things concerning the title now that Gail was back on it and was a bit curious to try it out despite my ban on buying Black Canary these days. However, I wasn't going to pick it up without looking inside of it first. And, there was nothing on the racks that prompted me to go through the trouble of asking the clerks if I could open it. In fact, it did bite me in the posterior when I did pick up one book without checking the insides based solely on the fact it featured GA characters, Larsen and Image's issue of Silver Streak Comics.

I also picked up a collection of the color strips of The Norm, an overlooked gem of a comic strip from a couple of years ago. The fact that I didn't know this latter book existed and had not seen Silver Streak at any of the other stores I frequent though I had heard it had been published does speak at the very decent variety actually offered. I don't know if it will ever replace my shopping at Foundation's Edge in Raleigh, which is closer after all and I have two decades of knowing the owner nor the convenience of Acme Comics as I'm in Greensboro half the time. However, if I'm looking for something specific or they have a good sale going on, it's only an hour away from either place I call home.

Comic Reviews:
As I've already talked about them, we'll start off with the recent purchases before moving on to to other titles.

The Norm: A great collection of the Sunday strips and a few notes in the back talking about a few key strips and what the Michael Jantze was trying to do. Norm is a twenty something working in the world of publishing, navigating the worlds of best friends, girl friends, and later married life, in-laws and unemployment and having a baby conversations. Along the way, we get what it is to be a man in the modern age, of being a man on the inside but often feeling like a boy in a man's body given to flights of fancy. Unfortunately, the Sunday strips don't really show the strip always at its best and it seems to skip many of the ongoing events and narrative of the overall story such as him just waking up one day married and a whole year of his life gone by. Instead, we move from strips with him hanging out with whatever girlfriend he has and his best friends to just being married. Funny when it was part of the narrative, but this snapshot approach, it feels clunky and non-sensical. Also a downer is that the strips are at different sizes, a couple of them done at an extra large size that a single Sunday strip extends across the spread of two pages. This doesn't work as it doesn't take into account the center fold of the spread and so details and text are completely lost in the gutter. Still worth the money for the creativity that Jantze shows in his approach to the medium and storytelling. If you want to see a bunch of the strips and just how much his art and storytelling grew over the years go to gocomics.com.

Silver Streak Comics: I really have myself to blame. I wasn't too impressed with their Fantastic Comics in the Next Issue Project and given the fact that the comic was bagged and boarded so I couldn't check the insides first, I should have listened to that little voice in my head.

Larsen's Daredevil story is a thin-bare plot suitable for a Hellboy comic but without the charm or spookiness. Larsen's writing has always been episodic, much like a soap-opera. He writes action scenes and vignettes that build into a larger narrative. However, as standalone shorts like this, what we have is just a vignette or a scene not a story.

And, it's the best out of the bunch. The rest is full of self mockery and pastiche, not playing the characters as straightforward heroes but as commentary either on superheroes or the differences in the times. Silver Streak and Captain Battle almost succeed but have that same undercurrent of not taking the characters seriously. The one-page comedy strip has to do it with a post-modern bent and instead of coming up with something funny delivers something that makes you want to slash your wrists. Actually makes you want to read the Superpowers versions of the characters.

Speaking of Larsen's comics, I recently picked up an issue of Savage Dragon as it guest-stars Daredevil. Sadly, it looks as if he has embraced modern coloring. Everything was dark and intense, and the colorist putting highlights on individual muscles making them look plastic. I couldn't get past the coloring to even see if the story itself struck me as being any good.

DC Universe: Legacies: DC has launched a new mini-series, a sorta Marvels as a look at the history of DC comics starting with the golden-age and working more or less towards the present through the eyes of a common man.

As the first two issues deal with the JSA and the golden-age, and has artwork by Andy Kubert inked by papa Joe Kubert, they were pretty much must buys. It is interesting to note that the title is fairly literal. The heroes prominently featured are ones with modern day legacies: the Atom, Sandman, Crimson Avenger (though his legacy is very minor), Dr. Fate, Spectre, etc. The scenes of the various heroes also seem to be mostly from actual GA stories, the exception being the Atom and Sandman working together on a case but not as part of the JSA.

Now, with a universe that undergoes major continuity revisions every couple of years and minors ones constantly appearing in ongoing titles, a series like this can be helpful in smoothing out a few wrinkles and setting stuff up. Yet, with the second issue, the mini already goes astray in that it applies an all new retcon on top of other retcons ie it makes TNT and Dyna-mite the replacement heroes for Green Arrow and Speedy in the Seven Soldiers of Victory.

This is a bad retcon on several layers. One, the Seven Soldiers are a team of non-powered heroes. The Shining Knight is the powerhouse in the sense he has magic armor, sword and a flying horse. TNT and Dyna-mite upset that dynamic. Not only that, they are so powerful that although they are the retcon characters, they are now the power-houses of the team. It violates the spirit and balance of the team. Two, there are already retcons in place that explain who replaced Green Arrow and Speedy. Two retcons actually. The first was just the promotion of Billy Gunn and Wing to full status. Not a good explanation really since both are partners of other members it still leaves no one to plug into Green Arrow segments of the adventures. A second retcon was of the Spider whom James Robinson had made into a villain and traitor. Again, not a comfortable fit since it adds un-necessary baggage and not one I like as it takes a hero and recasts him as a villain, a specialty of Robinson's. But, it is an explanation. So, unless a later retcon is going to come along and clear things up and be a better fit... but, that brings us up to point number three. Some fans with whom the Spider as a traitorous member and/or TNT's death in Young All-Stars doesn't sit well, optimistically rejoice, seeing this as over-writing both events. Others, are just curious what this actually means for TNT and Dyna-mite as well as the Spider. The story involved does not implicitly contradict anything concerning previously published history of TNT and Spider as TNT may have just been a member before his death and it was that death that lead to the Spider joining. Which means, this would be a retcon without any purpose since it doesn't really correct anything. But, it's also one that instead of answering or addressing any questions, it raises questions and concerns, instead of simplifying things it complicates them.

The lead story of issue two covers the influence of the JSA, causing a heroic explosion of individual heroes along with other super groups such as the Seven Soldiers and the Freedom Fighters in a nice two page spread. The spread shows the core heroes of both groups along with others such as Mr. America, Air Wave, Sargon and Zatara. Of course, in the real publishing history Zatara preceded the JSA. And, there are no depictions or mention of the Fawcett characters such as Minute Man, Bulletman, Mr. Scarlet, etc and their GA superteam Crime Crusaders Club. In addition to an overview of the history and the dissolution of the JSA we get a wonderfully rendered look at the Guardian and the Newsboy Legion. Wonder if we'll see an account of what happens with them over time in the future issues?

The back-up story covers an adventure of the Seven Soldiers establishing TNT and Dyna-mite as members. It also may be a retcon of an actual story as in this story the team is challenged to stop a series of crimes by Black Star. Which they do in individual vignettes before teaming up to take down the master villain... the Dummy! Only, the Soldiers really did have an adventure fighting against a mystery villain called the Black Star. Just like the retcon of TNT, this story only raises questions.

Justice Society of America #39: Mr. T's plan on undoing the bleak Nazi controlled future is revealed and we see the powerless heroes fighting back to give him a chance. We also find out a little more just how the Fourth Reich took over the world with a little snide remark about America not liking having casualties while waging a war. The more time they spend on this, the more holes it has. We don't see who actually organized all of this, that came up with a way to neutralize ALL superpowers on the planet including power-rings and magic. And, how, realistically they managed to take over America so seamlessly with only a handful of super powered joes that they couldn't even use while keeping the powered heroes in check... so how did they have a huge enough army to fight America's armies AND non-powered heroes? The longer they spend on it, the more glaring these improbabilities become.

Overlooking that, it's a fun issue full of slambang action and a bit of fun in picking out the characters with them looking quite a bit older and out of costume.

The Phantom: Moonstone may have lost the rights to the Phantom so that Ross can do his revision update on the character, but at least they are going out with a bang by putting out several Phantom comics at a time. There's the monthly Phantom (with a purple cover and no logo this go around) that sports the wonderful art by Silvestre Szilagyi. Then Phantom Generations that has text stories and art by a different creative team each month focusing on Phantoms of different eras. And, the weakest of the bunch, The Phantom Double Shot with b/w artwork and two stories, one featuring the Phantom and the second another luminary of Moonstone, this time Captain Action.

Moonstone is also advertising "The Return of the Originals" ie various pulp heroes such as G-8, the Black Bat, Phantom Detective and Domino Lady whom they already publish. I'd be excited if not for the fact that so far, the Phantom has been the exception and not the rule in regards to Moonstone's handling of the various characters. They are just as guilty of modern revisionistic takes that bear little to the spirit of the original characters beyond superficials.

Alex Ross meanwhile sees the Phantom running through the jungle in a purple costume as being unrealistic, that painting himself in red berry juice is more realistic and edgier. And, he's right. It is unrealistic. So is Batman wearing a costume that limits eyesight, a cape that enemies can grab, and spending all that money on gadgets and such to fight crime when he could have just joined the police or FBI. Or teenage Peter Parker who could make a fortune with his temporary adhesive (but thought the best way to make money was entering a wrestling ring) and then uses a costume to fight crime that makes him a target of both crooks and the police. Or pretty much every other costumed crime fighter. What part of the Phantom is a superhero does he fail to understand? It not only works within the conventions of the genre, the Phantom is pretty much the first guy to do so and establish it! Tell you what, Alex, how about we see you actually create a character and story and stop trying to put your name on everyone else's.

The Spectacular Spider-Girl #2 of 4: Gang war has engulfed NY and half the crooks are running scared due to reports of the Punisher returning. The balance already upset, his quarry decides to bring his own powered operatives into play, one of whom seems to be May's clone who has the venom symbiote and is calling herself Mayhem. Great, old fashioned fun and artwork by Tom DeFalco and Ron Frenz. This time out, the back-up serves more of a purpose as it follows up on one of the scenes in the main story and follows how the gang war is affecting other heroes of the MC2-verse, in this case the Buzz and American Dream.

Star Trek: Leonard McCoy, Frontier Doctor #2: The review of this issue is a bit late due more to the fact that it either 1) didn't show up at my usual store or 2) they sold out. So, I didn't get it until the same time as #3. Byrne tells the story of an alien race that is mysteriously dying of no apparent cause. Dr. McCoy's irascible nature gets the better of him as the race has very specific customs and laws that not only hinder his work but gets him into legal trouble as he tries to delve into the mystery of both the deaths and the secret that the race is guarding. We see Scotty appearing in a guest role. Romance between Duncan and Theela move along at a quick pace.

The coloring is not as much a distraction this time out, a few places where it creates patterns on the alien skin and adding definition in the faces where the artwork doesn't call for it. In places where less is more, the coloring seems to want more is more, over-doing it. At least the coloring is not too dark and dense.

Star Trek: Leonard McCoy, Frontier Doctor #3: This issue brings in various characters from Byrne's little corner of the Star Trek original series universe all together, as McCoy and company end up on the planet where warlike clones were left in the Assignment Earth mini and so Gary Seven and Roberta Lincoln aren't too far behind. However, everything needed to follow the story is pretty much explained in the issue, not requiring the reading of the other minis.

I don't know if it's deliberate, but Byrne's inking seems harsher, both grittier and splotchier in the blacks fitting a grim and gritty world. The flashback is marred by the benday dot screen, meant to get across that it was from an older comic. Of course when that is used, it usually refers to a comic printed in the 1980s or before or a comic within a comic, setting up a level of unreality between the comic and the story-within-a-story. The only other throw-out is the space battle where the explosions in space are obviously generated through the computer and thus not fitting the style of linear artwork. Like the previous issue, a little too much effort is given to painting in definition on the faces.

However, Byrne's handling of the Star Trek characters and his telling single issue stories makes me wish they'd just go ahead and greenlight an ongoing series set in the original series universe and time period (and maybe incorporate a few of the alien crew members from the cartoon, giving the crew a more interstellar mix beyond just Spock).

The Torch #8: The mini ends about where one would expect where Torch and Toro must fight a more powerful version of themselves but leaving both characters intact to continue along their way in the Marvel U. What it doesn't really do is set them up with any kind of lives or status quo beyond existing. It does establish the Mad Thinker though as a major bad guy and a veritable threat as he tends to stay one step ahead of everyone else. May not be the definitive Torch storyline, but it comes almost off as the definitive Mad Thinker story.

As I talked about the coloring of the Star Trek books, this one is full of all the bad coloring that is pretty indicative of the Dynamite books. It's often too saturated and dark. So flesh tones are high contrasts and orange where the Star Trek books excelled in subtlety. Several scenes of blurring backgrounds, using the coloring to providing textures, etc. It's hard to judge the pencils due to the overpowering colors.

Sadly the followup is a modern Invaders comic. As much as I like golden-age comics, my interest in Bucky-Cap is in the negative numbers. And, the work on this comic was passable but never outstanding and it's the exact same team. So, we'll wait and see.

** Interesting little note, while writing this, I was listening to an old radio show of the Green Lama. In the radio show, everyone knows Jethro Dumont is the Green Lama, his phrase accompanied with "the Green Lama strikes!" seems to give him some super-strength. It also gives an explanation of why the color green. In "The Last Dinosaur" the script is peppered with educational proverbs much like the pulps were. Strangely, his assistant is not called Tsarong but Tulku, a form of address of honor generally used by Magga and Tsarong in talking to the Green Lama. With the Green Lama calling his assistant Tulku, it would be establishing Tulku as his mentor and teacher.