Late September Reviews

Greetings, and welcome to this week’s New Comic’s Day. We’re still tinkering a bit with the format, so bear with us. Or should I say, “Me.” I’d hate to blame Julian and Matt for any of this.

So Crossgen is kaput. Well, okay, not kaput exactly, but clearly hurting, possibly mortally wounded. Last week Marc Alessi engaged in a bit of “restructuring” that seems like a harbinger of the end. Even if the company stays afloat for the next few years and continues publishing books — which, by the way, I highly doubt — it won’t exactly be Crossgen anymore, at least not the Crossgen Alessi sold to the public a few years back.

The whole concept of Crossgen baffled me from the beginning. The idea of a big building where all the artists sat at their cubicles and worked for salary, put in set hours, apparently worked on a variety of books with varying amounts of credit doesn’t quite jive. I can see the appeal from a practical standpoint. Artists with kids know where medical insurance is coming from, know their money will be steady.

Creativity isn’t like the lights in my apartment, or my girlfriend for that matter — you can’t turn it on just because you pay a few bucks and know where the switch is. It’s elusive. Granted, pretty much any writer worth his or her respective salt will tell you that one needs to establish a routine and stick with it, that inspiration only comes with sitting down at the desk and trying to work even when the work won’t come. But there’s something to be said for taking a hot shower or drinking a glass of wine or reading a few pages of your favorite author to get a kick-start on work when the juices aren’t flowing just right, and I would imagine the Crossgen bosses might take exception to their employees laying back in their chairs wearing towels, sipping Merlot and reading Emerson during work hours.

It’s hard to say whether or not this aspect of the experiment failed. True, it does seem to be ending as Alessi is switching many workers over to page rates and encouraging many to seek freelance work elsewhere, thus turning the Crossgen office into a place where you can hang out and work as opposed to your one and only workspace. Just because the finances didn’t work out with this particular company doesn’t mean that the Comics Assembly Line approach didn’t make it, either. And yet, after thumbing through more than my share of Crossgen titles while working part time in my local comic shop, I can’t say that it appeared successful. The books were always professional looking, and damned if they didn’t ship on time right up until that (now kind of fishy sounding) computer hacking incident that delayed some titles. But the books never looked inspired to me, they just looked complete. They looked finished the way a good landscaping job looks finished, not the way the Pieta looks finished. No matter how many times I put the damn books on the shelves, I could never tell them apart. Solus, Sojourn, Sigil, Scion…

The partial demise of Crossgen, what looks to be the beginning of the end, is doubtless unfortunate. It would be nice if even mediocre companies could publish middle of the road books thanks to a healthy market. Crossgen’s recent woes certainly make starting a new publishing venture in comics seem like a bad idea.

But can we really blame the industry for this one? Yeah, Crossgen started with a lot of money. They recruited some solid mid-range talent, on occasion some top tier people. Sure, their con presence was huge. But what in the hell did they think was going to happen? Alessi positioned Crossgen as though it would, within a few years, be drawing a respectable chunk of sales in relation to Marvel and DC. Alessi’s comments to the press indicated that he was looking to be one of the major players. He had some solid ideas, too, from bookstore presence to the fairly innovative TPB programs.

Alessi, however, seems to have overlooked two major points.

First off, the average comic reader isn’t interested in universes. Vocal online presence may suggest otherwise, but what the hell do they know? If Marvel and DC published according to fanboy message board chatter, Silver Surfer would sell 200,000 copies and Green Lantern wouldn’t have avenged the assault of homosexual friend, he would have beaten him down himself. While the dyed-in-the-wool fan / letter writing crew may obsess over the details of a connected and expansive universe, most people just want a good story. I like Batman and I like Sleeper, but I don’t give a rat’s ass about Gotham Knights or W.I.L.D.Cats. While I worked in the store, only a small handful of customers seemed truly concerned about the cohesiveness of the Marvel Universe, or even the details of the X-Universe, for that matter. Most people just didn’t want to pay three bucks for a shitty comic.

Crossgen, from the outset, seemed overly concerned with immediately constructing a cohesive universe. The books were all linked by several premises, all of which escape me as I’ve never been able to read a Crossgen book from beginning to end. Why, exactly, was that so important? The early issues of Marvel and DC show fairly little concern to connectedness or continuity. Yeah, Spider-Man meets the Fantastic Four every now and again, but they could just as easily exist without one another. The connections come over time, after titles have found their stride and over the course of countless stories.

The second problem: Alessi’s eyes were bigger than his stomach, so to speak. He wanted to take a big bite out of the comics industry, to claim a large percentage of sales. To be the number three company, anyway. But how long did it take Marvel and DC to become juggernauts? Neither was started with the clear intention of being a funnybook superpower. Stan Lee himself was basically making shit up as fast as he could to survive and built the Marvel empire, thanks to the help of some brilliant artists. Luck and timing are key. The kind of relative success a Marvel or a DC undergoes is a happy accident, not a calculated plan.

And really, what good would Alessi have done if he turned Crossgen into one of The Big Three? Proven it’s possible, I suppose. But would The Big Three have been any better than having a Big Two? Probably not. The ideal situation would be to have a Big Ten or a Big Twelve, but then they wouldn’t exactly be big, now, would they? It would be nice if Fantagraphics and Top Shelf and Drawn & Quarterly could get sales percentages like even Image or Dark Horse. Maybe they will someday. Maybe they won’t. Either way, I loved Box Office Poison and Blankets and Peepshow and Hate. I remember these books, and I’m not the only one. I doubt they’ll all be forgotten in ten years, maybe not even out of circulation.

Can you say the same thing about Sigil? That, friends, is the problem.

And now the reviews…

Batman #619

So it’s over.

We know the identity of the Hush Killer. Much to my dismay, it’s not Bill’s Clinton or Jemas, Dick Cheney or me. What a letdown.

If Loeb expected the conclusion not to be a letdown, he’s as crazy as the Chicago psychopath who shares his name. After eleven issues of mystery, having the killer be anyone so mundane is pretty much asking for an irritated critical backlash.

I said before, at some point, that the inherent danger in writing a story wherein the prolonged tension involves the identity of the villain is that the big reveal has to be suitably grand enough to justify the preamble. A two issue mystery, it can be whoeverthefuck. But string me along for eleven issues and the heavy better indeed be heavy.

The pisser is, Loeb’s decoy actually made for the perfect villain. For those of you following along at home but not reading the book, Jason Todd is NOT the Hush killer. And a damn shame, too, because that would have made for a conclusion with enough emotional impact, to say the least impact on future storylines and continuity, to make the wait worthwhile. How cool would it have been to have a back-from-the-grave Robin as a new Batman villain? Writers are forever trying to create new rogues as interesting and potentially long-lasting as the current ones, and they almost invariably fail. (The last freshly created major villain in an established superhero comics franchise I can recall is perhaps Venom in Spider-Man.) But Jason Todd would have been a cool enough villain to warrant the kind of repeat appearances given to Penguin, the Joker and others.

But instead we get… well, we get what we got is all I’ll say, in case you’re waiting for the trade. Which was entirely anti-climactic and pretty obvious following last issue’s letdown. There’s nothing worse than a mystery that doesn’t play by the rules, as this is certainly one of them.

On the plus side, Jim Lee’s art was damn purty. I’d say that it will be a shame to read Batman without him drawing the book, but since the next artist is Eduardo Risso, it’s hard to get too broken up. I’ll miss Lee’s pencils, but Risso is a nice replacement.

That being said, exactly one page of the book is not artistically up to standard. In fact, the difference between it and its neighbors is so blatant that even an artistic ignoramus like me instantly noticed the difference. About halfway through the book we get a page that opens with a panel of the Huntress standing and looking… Huntressy. This entire page is bizarrely inadequate, as though Lee decided to let his wife or an old college buddy take a crack at drawing for awhile. The previous page is fine and the subsequent pages are great, but this one page is just odd looking.

Overall, “Hush” was a decent ride. As usual, the status quo remains the same and nothing much in particular happened. It could have been a great Batman story, but instead it was only a great selling story.

The Flash #201 and #202

I’ve never read an issue of The Flash in my entire life. I remember the old TV show, the one where Dawson’s dad (Wesley Alan Shipp, or something like that) was The Flash. Decent show, that, but I’ve never even been tempted to pick up the comics.

Thanks to some frequent harping by that other reviewer who works for this site, I picked up the last couple of issues. The result is decidedly mixed.

Wally West has forgotten that he is The Flash. Keystone City wonders where its hero has gone while Wally gets a job repairing cars for the cops. He and his wife continue to mourn the loss of their unborn children, and she blames the absent Flash for the deaths. Wally, of course, has no idea that she is actually blaming him.

One day a mysterious stranger puts a ring in Wally’s hand and tells him that it’s time to run again. And run Wally does after a truly preposterous and unclearly choreographed car crash sequence in which Wally’s car is lifted off the ground by a bolt of lightning. After this, he runs real fast, which is different from my dad who got hit by lightning once. All he got was pissed off.

Now Wally is trying out his super speed, although it doesn’t seem to work whenever he wants it to. This proves particularly trouble some when he’s assaulted by a band of thugs.

I kind of like The Flash, really. It’s nicely drawn by an Eduardo Risso clone who half-asses Risso’s stylistics and makes the look more mainstream. It’s not great, but it’s nice enough.

The problem is that the book is too serious. Yeah, it’s nice to add a little credibility to a comic, but at the same time, how far can we take realism in a book where a guy hides an entire suit of clothes in a fucking ring. Nevermind the fact that NOBODY ever asks Wally why he wears a ring with the Flash’s insignia on it. (One thing’s for sure, I can’t imagine that they assume he’s got a goddamn wardrobe hidden in there.)

I like the “Ultimate Flash,” as Matt put it, approach Johns is taking. It’s a nice idea and it makes for a smooth jump-on point for a new reader. But the Flash is goofy and he has a goofy rogues gallery (Captain Cold, anyone?) who are actually referred to throughout the story as “rogues.” This is supposed to be silly, fun stuff, and when you try to put too straight a face on it, it winds up being unintentional comedy.

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