Jul 3, 2014

Back to the 80s?

Walt Simonson is having Thor fight the Midgard Serpent. His wife Louise is writing an event bringing much-loved characters together to fight their common foes. Walt’s old studiomate Howard Chaykin is drawing a series not set in the present that has a fair dose of grit and sex, and writing and drawing another series that resurrects a gritty pulp hero. Their contemporary, George Perez, is drawing a team book filled with attractive women. Alan Moore is using a new format to experiment with the various possibilities of the medium. Wait, what decade is this?

Three decades after the 1980s changed a whole lot about comics, from the quality of the stories to the ways they were produced, some of the best talent from that era are still getting work, and more importantly, seem to have the ability to dictate what kind of work they're doing. Walter Simonson's Ragnarok, for instance, brings him back to the genre that really put him on the comics map: Norse mythology. Known for his work on Marvel's Thor, revitalizing that title when it was on the brink of cancellation, Simonson's always loved different versions of the Aesir, from the old Poetic Eddas to the works of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, and despite the fact that he's still known for having the definitive run on the god of thunder, he's still able to pull from the original source material to come up with new twists and premises.

Walt's new Ragnarok series works off the idea that Thor (who seems, in this version, to be based significantly more strongly on the mythical version, with his red hair and beard and a shorter handle for Mjolnir) wasn't around for Ragnarok to slay the Midgard Serpent, which leads to all the bad guys winning and all the gods dying. Thor returns centuries later, and the story kicks off from there. Simonson's love of Norse mythology comes through even with the very few preview pages we've seen.

Of course, it helps that they look like this.

Meanwhile, there's been very little to really dictate what George Perez's Sirens is going to be all about, except that it has nine superheroines, all based on real-life cosplayers, and all the other characters are going to be based on real people as well.

Perez has promised that it will span multiple time periods and settings, which sounds to me to be an excuse to have him draw whatever the hell he wants to draw, which is important, because Perez has gone on record that he will stall and be unmotivated to work if he doesn't feel like drawing what he's supposed to be drawing. (In the mid-90s, Perez signed with Malibu to draw Ultraforce, at around four times the page rates of Marvel and DC at the time. Unmotivated, it took him four times as long to get any product out, thus making the whole thing a wash.)

Nevertheless, the idea of Perez working on a team book featuring attractive women thirty years after handling Starfire, Donna Troy, and Raven in the New Teen Titans is kind of heavy. Do you realize the man is 60 and just got off eye surgery, and Boom! Studios is counting on him to make sure this book is successful? But Perez has always been among the best at being able to draw distinguishable faces and body types and expressions, regardless of the size of the cast, and I'm confident that, bad eye and all, he's going to use his visuals to infuse the nine different main characters with their own distinct personalities.

To be honest though, Walt and George being successful probably won't take much work. A quick look at the ICv2 sales rankings for May 2014 shows that the highest-selling comic at the moment not being published by Marvel, DC, Image, or Archie, or based on a licensed product (like My Little Pony or Buffy, which carry with them guaranteed sales) was Chaos #1 by Dynamite, which was about bringing together some old creator-owned characters from Chaos Comics in the 90s. That sold close to 20,000 copies, so there's your baseline for a successful comic not published by the big four or based on a licensed product from other media. After that, it's the new Hellboy comic and then Doctor Spektor, the comic based on the old Gold Key character and written by Mark Waid, which moved 16,471 copies. Walter Simonson has 10,341 likes on Facebook and George Perez has 12,506. I'm not saying all their followers are going to be buying their books, but I'd say those numbers are indicative of how well their titles will be doing. Is that a sad commentary on the current market size? Sure, but we're also not factoring in continued sales via collected editions and digital copies, so you never really know.

It's also important to note that the five creators we're talking about here aren't just among the best  crop of talent to come out of the 1980s, but also did things that are commercial enough to really acquire a following. "Walt Simonson Thor" is a brand, and though Ragnarok isn't going to sell anywhere near as many copies as Marvel's God of Thunder, it will sell based on the fact that Walt Simonson is doing Thor. "George Perez team book" is a brand, and that will be enough to carry the sales of the titles. "Howard Chaykin period piece with sex and violence" is... okay, that's just "Howard Chaykin," and it's a smaller brand, but it's a brand. Satellite Sam, which Chaykin is drawing under Matt Fraction's script, has gotten good reviews and the last issue sold 10,000 print copies. That's a success in this day and age, and this being the day and age of reprints and new editions, that 10,000 is going to end up being an unfairly low indicator of how many people are actually reading. Chaykin's new version of The Shadow might even sell more, considering that the Shadow still has a pretty strong following.

Say Alan Moore's work is commercial to a hardcore Moore-niac, though, and you'll probably get someone defensive going "No! He's an artist!", as if creating art and creating something that sells well is mutually exclusive. Moore tapped into the most commercial and lucrative "new" type of story in the 80s, which was that of deconstructing the superhero genre, and he was really really good at it. When he formed his own publishing imprint called Mad Love in the late 80s, he tried going as uncommercial as possible, but even though the imprint folded (because, I think it must be said, Moore is not a great businessman) relatively quickly, two of the imprint's titles — Lost Girls and From Hell — still ended up being good sellers (Lost Girls has a slipcase hardcover edition and From Hell shows up on almost every "best graphic novels" list). What I'm sure would have been my favorite comic out of that entire line, Big Numbers (Alan Moore, Bill Sienkiewicz, and math? Did they just pull words out of a "Things Duy Likes" hat and put them together?), didn't finish but somehow ended up being a cult hit anyway. Now of course these experimental works don't sell as much as superhero works, but that doesn't preclude them being successful in a relatively small market that doesn't usually reward such offbeat experimentation.

Electricomics, though, is Moore's attempt at taking a new format/medium and seeing what he can do with it. Although I don't actually fully understand the details (it's crowdsourced but it'll have set creative teams? Huh?), the fact that Moore is recruiting many creators with strong followings, such as Garth Ennis and Colleen Doran, into a new digital landscape is pretty exciting. What kind of stuff can they come up with? This has always been the kind of thing Moore was interested in doing, the kind of thing that lets him truly have fun. I've long said that Moore's biggest strength was his ability to amplify and strengthen the visual capabilities of his artists, and now here's a new format that's basically new to him, so it's like the beginning of a whole new journey. Of course, the fact that he's having fun and that he's Alan Moore will give this the attention it needs.

Clearly, though, the most important project currently being done by the creators I listed is Super Secret Crisis War, written by Louise Simonson for IDW. Putting together a bunch of Cartoon Network characters (The Powerpuff Girls, the Eds, Samurai Jack, Ben 10, and Dexter) against their enemies is just the kind of stuff that I want to give to the kids.

(Yes... the kids...)

I think we can see a few common threads here with these five creators who truly made their mark 30 years ago. First of all, they're all visual creators. Moore writes his scripts with the artist in mind and tailors them to amplify their strengths, and Louise also works very closely with her artists. Walt and Chaykin were studiomates and see the words and pictures as one unit (Chaykin recently said "the writing in comics is done mostly by artists, and I'm not talking about the words, because the language of comics is a visual vocabulary"), and Perez, ever since New Teen Titans, has had considerable input on what is being drawn and how. (Kurt Busiek once mentioned that he would plot Avengers with one sentence representing one panel, but Perez would just treat that very, very loosely, so four sentences could end up being 12 panels.) That helps them all write specifically for the medium of comics, and as long as they're having fun, they can create anything. They don't have to wait for Marvel and DC to knock on their door, because they can keep doing whatever they want to do and someone, at some point, will back them.

But these are also people who carved out their own niches and built up their own audiences by working substantially on all-time titles and stories. Walt Simonson has the most acclaimed run on Thor. George Perez launched The New Teen Titans and drew Crisis on Infinite Earths. Alan Moore wrote Watchmen. Louise Simonson wrote X-Factor, where she, among other things, co-created Apocalypse. Even Howard Chaykin, the least commercial creator on this list, worked on American Flagg!, which was about as commercial as a non-Big Two comic can possibly be, and is considered an all-time classic. Whatever the case, they created works that led to sizable and loyal fan followings. Can we make sense of this and try and figure out why these five creators have those loyal followings while people like Jerry Ordway and Chuck Dixon seem to have a hard time finding work? Unless we want to get really subjective (and discounting the whole "Don't bash people you might want to work for" factor in the case of Dixon), the only answer can really be the idea of having fun with ideas and properties not owned by the Big Two. Louise was handed Super Secret Crisis War only because she was actively seeking a job with IDW and this sounded fun (imagine doing the research for it). Walt has Ragnarok because, well, he just loves Norse mythology and wants to do Ragnarok. Sirens exists because George Perez wants to draw a bunch of cosplayers and Boom! is willing to pay him to do it. Howard Chaykin is drawing things he's always had fun drawing, and Alan Moore's doing what he's always wanted to do.

I'm glad these guys are still working and I'm so on board for Ragnarok and Sirens that I've already informed Comic Odyssey about putting them on my pull list. I'm probably gonna buy the trade of Super Secret Crisis War and will keep up to date with Electricomics, and maybe I'll even read Satellite Sam eventually. Three decades after the 1980s changed comics, with everyone on this list in between 60 and 67 years old, it's nice to see some of the legendary creators from that era still getting work, and still, clearly, having fun doing it. And if there's any lesson here, it's probably that you can pursue the things you feel like pursuing is probably worth it, and that you can earn the kind of loyalty that keeps these pursuits going, even if thirty years have gone by in the meantime.

After writing this column, I started thinking about which other 80s creators I want to come out and do more work outside of Marvel and DC. Roger Stern is one, because I've always kind of wanted to see what Stern would write like outside of the classic playground. Another is Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez, which is always unlikely so long as he's under contract to DC, but it would be an interesting look. And of course, there's always Frank Miller. No matter how offbeat he gets, comics is richer whenever Frank Miller's in it.

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