Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Mutants drift further from Utopia, but Batman and Spidey are doing quite well, thanks

It’s taken me a awhile to get to reading the giant stack of comics that piled up the past few months. Reading them has been sadly dull — I don’t know if it’s the comics or if it’s me, though I suspect if everything was a great read I wouldn’t have written what I just wrote. So let’s get to it.

Dark Avengers/Uncanny X-Men: Exodus #1 (Marvel, $3.99) is the conclusion to the Utopia crossover storyline, and it’s reasonably good. That’s to be expected when you have folks like Matt Fraction writing and Mike Deodato and Terry Dodson drawing. The Utopia storyline was pretty overtly political for X-Men, starting with an initiative called Proposition X that would require medical birth control for all mutants. That leads to the mutants, who’ve established San Francisco as their new home base, going on the riot path and H.A.M.M.E.R. director Norman Osborn bringing in his Dark Avengers to restore order and discredit the X-Men and install his own lackeys — the Dark X-Men — as the public face of mutant kind. It’s a heavy handed and painfully obvious attempt to tie the mutants into the gay rights issues that are at the forefront of society. And that would probably work, but there’s such a sense of change fatigue when it comes to the X-Men franchise that none of this really has a chance to stick. It was only a year ago that the X-Men came to San Francisco, and nothing about that switch really stood out as meaningful or interesting — and now we’re on the move again to the remnants of Asteroid X, now renamed Utopia. It would have been nice for the X-Men to have stuck around San Francisco long enough for that setting to made a difference. And it’s hard when your arcs all run four, five, six issues to establish a real sense of place the way comics used to back in the days when they were periodicals through and through. I think of the first Wolverine series from 1982, where that setting of Japan really came to life and was important to the story. Nowadays, even with a half dozen spinoff titles, the X-titles (and Marvel titles in general) have become kind of cookie cuttered in the Bendis mode — where characters’ dialog rarely has much to do with the story and the overall tone is self-conscious and self-referential to the point of inanity. All of this was fresh 10 years ago, but at least for me, this style has worn out its welcome.

I also read the Utopia tie-in issues Dark X-Men: The Confession #1 (Marvel, $3.99), X-Men: Legacy #227 (Marvel, $2.99), both of which suffer from much the same symptom. Confession is basically an entire issue of Cyclops and Emma Frost having it out over the status of their relationship and their respective guilt and responsibilities in the whole thing. And character is important — it’s part of what made Marvel great — but this exemplifies the self indulgence that I think is plaguing the X-books in particular. Another example is The Uncanny X-Men #515 (Marvel, $2.99), the first issue of the new “Nation X” storyline that heralds the return of Magneto, usually a big event with lots of drama even when it’s not done well. But here, it’s sudden and just seemingly random. Even the things that should work don’t — a minor character dies in a rather nice scene, but again it’s a character who hasn’t been around long enough or done anything interesting enough for the reader to care about his passing with the same passion some of the X-Men display.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Kirby Heirs' Claim a Tougher Row to Hoe

As if the news from comic book land couldn’t get any more sensational, the heirs of Jack Kirby have notified Marvel and the movie studios making Marvel movies of their intent to reclaim Kirby’s rights to the likes of Fantastic Four, Hulk and X-Men.

Like the news of the similar, successful attempt by the heirs of Superman co-creator Jerry Siegel against DC Comics, this news raises questions among fans about the future of these iconic comic book characters. Adding to the interest is the involvement of attorney Marc Toberoff, who is representing the Siegels in a court proceding that will determine how much DC owes them for the use of Superman since 1999.
Toberoff has had a lot of success with this sort of case, both in the courtroom and in making headlines. In this case, sending out 45 notices of intent to terminate the transfer of copyright to Marvel, Sony, Fox, Universal and more, just weeks after Disney agreed to buy Marvel and its catalog — a large portion of which Kirby had a hand in creating — for $4 billion.

But there are some pretty major differences between Kirby’s case and the Superman case. Namely, that Siegel and his partner Joe Shuster had clearly created the character of Superman prior to working for DC Comics and selling all rights to that company, while Kirby was had been working for Marvel as a freelance artist for several years before he and Stan Lee collaborated to create the characters that become the backbone of the Marvel Universe.

When the copyright laws in the United States were revised in 1976 to include provisions for original rights owners to cancel the transfer of rights, it also made clear that the same right does not exist for material created as work made for hire. That law clearly defined work made for hire and what kind of relationship qualified as WFH.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Mutant Mysteries: Giant-Size X-Men #1 and X-Men #1 cover changes

One of the fun parts of a hobby like collecting comics is the right to obsess over things no one in their right mind would give a second thought. For me, one of those has been the small variations that have cropped up whenever the cover image to X-Men #1 and Giant-Size X-Men #1 were reprinted.

For me, the bigger mystery was always Giant-Size X-Men #1. For years, the reproductions of the cover that I saw in various reprints all looked like this (click for a close-up, hi-res look):

The real cover looks like this:

There’s only one difference between the two: the cover date. For whatever reason, all the images that I had seen over the years had a cover date of May. That’s how the cover appeared reprinted on the inside back covers of X-Men Special Edition #1 and Classic X-Men #1 (which sports an awful re-coloring of the classic cover). It’s also how it appeared in Marvel Masterworks (the volume featuring Giant-Size X-Men #1 was first published in 1989) and the 1991 Marvel Milestone reprint that even included all the original advertisements of the original comic, and in the reprint in the first hardcover collection of Ultimate X-Men, which came out in 2002 or so.

But Marvel obviously also had access to the correct image, which appeared in 1988’s The Official Marvel Index to the X-Men #4, and in the 1994 update of that series. It also showed up correctly in the 1996 first printing of Essential X-Men Vol. 1.

So, where did this version with the May cover date come from, and how did it become the primary — but not only — version Marvel used? The original artwork — which can be seen here — includes none of the trade dress and offers no answer. My only credible thought is that a version was prepared for a house ad that might have appeared just before the issue came out. But I’ve not been able to find such an ad anywhere online, so it’s all just supposition on my part.

The May date is probably correct. X-Men #93, the last reprint issue of the series, had a cover date of April 1975 and X-Men #94 had an August 1975 date. The gap between Giant-Size X-Men #1 and X-Men #94 make sense, given the now well-known story about how the story intended for Giant-Size X-Men #2 was broken up into two issues and run as #94 and #95 when editor and writer Len Wein left Marvel. The May cover date also places the release of this issue in January or February of 1975 (I always go by my memories of the May Marvels coming out in the direct market in January, usually a few weeks ahead of issues showing up on newsstands). But looking at the actual indicia for Giant-Size X-Men #1 shows the only cover date to be 1975, and the frequency of the book as quarterly. Giant-Size X-Men #2 similarly only has a 1975 cover date, but the frequency had been bumped up to annual.

Anyways, the mystery of where the May cover date came from and how it became so commonly used by Marvel over the years is likely to remain a mystery.

The changes on X-Men #1 are in a lot of ways not as obvious, but definitely more significant. Here’s the real thing:

And here’s the version that appeared in the original Marvel Masterworks, Marvel Milestones, etc.:

Some of it’s just minor stuff — changes in coloring, etc. But there’s also changes to the artwork, and someone at some point added a circle around the “In the Sensational Fantastic Four Style!” blurb, even though the lettering looks exactly the same. Also, the blurb about Magneto changes from reverse type (white on red) to black on red.

I recall reading somewhere – I can’t find the piece or remember where I read it — that the version with the grass background and power effect for Marvel Girl was part of the original artwork that Jack Kirby and whoever inked this cover turned in. Taking a closer look, it’s clear that more was changed between that version and the one printed than those elements just being dropped out.

A close look reveals that Marvel Girl, Angel and Beast were moved up and spaced out a bit, perhaps to make each more distinct on the cover. There’s also a few motion lines dropped over near Angel. It’s kind of horrifying now to think that this classic cover might have been cut up with an X-acto knife and the characters all re-pasted into their new positions in Marvel’s production department.

But it’s not that the original was changed that’s so much of a minor mystery as, again, how the non-published version was reprinted so often. Someone at Marvel, however, has noticed the difference, as it has been corrected in the revised editions of the Marvel Masterworks series to match the published version of the original comic.

Maybe someday, convincing answers will come forth and allow me to settle this errant thought. But if not, it's also fun to roll this completely inconsequential bit of trivia around in my brain every now and then.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Marvel, DC changes will have long-term repercussions, but for now, just relax

The worst part about being away from this blog so long is the mental hurdle that has to be overcome in order to get back to it. Just for the record: I’m not dead. A combination of work, a spirited 40th birthday party for my aging fanboy self and a lengthy sojourn to France and Italy have kept my comics reading to a minimum. There are a number of posts that I’ve thought about in the past couple months that I’m going to try to get to in quick succession, just to get things rolling here again. But, first things first …

Yes, that was the ground shifting beneath the comic book industry in a historic week that saw Disney buy Marvel for a whopping $4 billion and the restructuring of DC Comics as DC Entertainment that includes the departure of longtime exec Paul Levitz.

Of the two, the DC news is more important for comic book readers because Levitz was by all accounts the stabilizing force at DC that kept both the company and to a large extent the industry on an even keel during the darkest days. Lots of folks who’ve worked with Levitz over the years have published their thoughts on his contributions and lauded him for keeping DC steady, while others have criticized his stewardship of DC as being excessively timid.

What everyone agrees on is that Paul Levitz is a class act, and I can throw my two cents behind that wholeheartedly. A few years back, at one of the New York Comic-Cons, I attended one of the media dinners DC occasionally throws at such shows to let various press folks mingle with execs like Levitz and some of the talent. I was seated at a table between Levitz and Keith Giffen, and got to listen to them talk about the old days of working on the likes of Legion of Super-Heroes and Ambush Bug. It was very entertaining and I found Paul to be very amiable and easy to chat with. He’s also a very canny executive, which made the few opportunities I’ve had to interview him on the record a little frustrating as he was not the easiest person to get a quote out of, or sometimes even a clear answer to the question.

It’s clear that Levitz has a real love for comics and that despite nominally being an executive in a Time-Warner company, he was really one of us — a guy who grew up on comics and loved them unconditionally the way they were. Others attest with detail to some of the things Levitz did to ensure DC continued to publish comics the way fans wanted them and found a way for DC to function relatively free from interference within the massive Time-Warner hierarchy.

And that’s the real reason why his departure from the executive suite is such a big deal. That Warner Bros. would one day take a greater interest in DC was a given. Thankfully, it’s come at a time when comics are seen as popular and when a library such as DC’s is seen as extremely valuable and not worth messing with too much.

So that leads to the arrival of Diane Nelson as president of the newly named DC Entertainment. The press releases and statements that heralded the announcement of her new position were full of typical corporate Hollywood jargon that made a lot about extending brands and maximizing synergy and other meaningless terms. What’s interesting to me is Nelson’s background is exclusively marketing and brand management. She’s got lots of experience selling movies to audiences around the world, and it’s no small thing to have shepherded the Harry Potter franchise — which WB has done an outstanding job with — through the filmmaking process. She’s obviously been put in this position to help the company make more money off the DC library rather than micromanage the ins and outs of comic book continuity. What she’s not is someone with creative experience. She’s not a producer, not a writer and not a development exec, so I think it would be very surprising if she did much meddling in the creative side of the comic books. The press releases make a point of saying the comics aren’t going anywhere and seems to indicate that some interesting plans are in place for DC’s 75th anniversary next year.

With Levitz no longer publisher, though, that leaves a pretty big job open at DC, and whoever ends up sitting in that seat could have a huge impact on the content of the comic books. I expect someone from outside comics will come in to the job, much the way DC brought in Dan Didio — a former TV executive — to be editor in chief of the superhero comics a few years back.

Whoever takes the job will instantly become the most criticized person in comics. There’s a few things that it would be nice to see such a person tackle — mostly shaking things up in the books and in the DC offices, which often exude a sense of being unpleasantly corporate and lacking in morale.

The choice of new publisher also will reveal more about Warner Bros.’ intentions and goals for DC’s comic book publishing efforts. Will the increased expectations the studio is placing on the division lead it away from the current publishing model of periodical comics and the relatively small direct market for a more conventional magazine or book publishing arrangement? Will we finally see DC superheroes in digital comic form? Or will the small size of the publishing market be too little for Warner to even want to bother with? (I think the latter is highly unlikely — based on Marvel’s stock reports, DC surely makes a decent profit on its publishing and Warner Bros. is smart enough to know how foolish it would be throw that away.)

All of which is a very different situation from the Marvel-Disney deal. I expect it will take years before the impact of this deal is noticeable in Marvel’s comic book line, but when it is felt I expect it will be major. But for now, I don’t see much to worry about. Disney paid a premium to buy Marvel because it likes what Marvel is doing and how much money it’s making. You don’t buy a company that is working as well as Marvel is to start micromanaging it or tinkering with it for the sake of tinkering with it.

But over time, Marvel will change just by being part of Disney. It’ll happen as Marvel interacts with Disney, and especially as executives come and go. When Ike Perlmutter or David Maisel or Joe Quesada leave their respective positions, it will be Disney that decides who’s going to replace them. Barring any sudden departures, I think it’ll be years before enough changes are made that readers of the comic books will notice a significant difference.

Will we look back at this moment five years from now and call it “the week comics went corporate?” In some ways, these kinds of shifts have been inevitable for some time given the way superheroes and comic book imagery have infiltrated the culture the past decade. But there’s always that old nagging issue that won’t go away — if the world loves comics so much, why don’t they sell better? And there’s fear with that — fear that the traditional comic book periodical and the industry that’s been built around could finally give up the ghost and go away for good, replaced by slick bookstore graphic novels, video games, DVDs, TV shows, whatever digital comics become, and, of course, movies. There’s hope here that greater investment from the likes of Warner Bros. and Disney could be great for comics, that their muscle could open up the lines of distribution and make comics more available, especially to kids. But it’s also just as plausible that the overall decline of print prompts those corporations to make a real bottom-line decision and ditch publishing altogether. I think as long as comics sales make money, Disney and Warner will see the value in keeping them around. But given what’s changed in the past 10 years, who knows where we’ll be 10 years from now?

It’ll be interesting to watch, however it turns out.