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#47: Action and Reaction
Peter Capaldi Is My Spirit Animal
Greetings, audience, and welcome to another fine random installment of this Newsletter. Hope you’re all doing all right this morning, or whenever you happen to be reading this. So let’s get started.
This past week or so, having hit something of a lull between shows that I was watching finishing up and new series not yet having started, I wound up finding myself going down the rabbit hole of watching reaction videos on YouTube. And i found this interesting, in that it’s about the closest you can come to seeing a particular film or episode again for the first time, by experiencing it secondhand through the proxy of a viewer for whom it is real. It was especially telling to see that, on a classic film such as BACK TO THE FUTURE, almost all of the reactions lined up closely. Which is to say that the jokes and dramatic moments landed for almost every viewer, regardless of age or background. And also that, despite having entered the lexicon to famous works, most people were unaware of even the broad premise of the film. It was stunning to me how often these viewers were shocked when Doc Brown gets gunned down towards the end of the first act. And again here, this shows how well that moment was syncopated within the film itself—up to that point, you don’t really see this as a film in which somebody gets shot and killed in a mall parking lot.
A bunch of what I ended up revisiting were DOCTOR WHO videos, in particular ones for key episodes. And in particular, I found myself gravitating back to the Peter Capaldi era of the series. Upon reflection, while I’ve liked all of the modern day Doctors, Peter’s version is probably the one closest in temperament to myself: prickly, off-putting, a bit of a curmudgeon, but with a bit of a silly and playful side as well. This revisit also solidified some of the strengths of the Steven Moffat era of the program. While not every episode was a gem, and all of the complaints about his narrative choices and his tendency to eat his own feet in terms of story concepts, it must be said that pretty much every episode under his regime is full of great lines of dialogue, memorable interactions, and beats that function strongly even apart from the plot of that particular episode. And the best episodes in the period are truly great. It was also amazing to see both how many and how often people were moved to tears by that show, almost regardless of where you dropped in. I hadn’t really considered DOCTOR WHO as a crying show, for all that it tended to play into the emotional weight of its events on its characters with clockwork regularity. But just about more than anything else, it’s that ability to create an empathic bond between the viewer and the cast and them make it vibrate is the secret to the show’s success in the modern era. I don’t know that I can point to many other series of its type that make this such a priority
But enough about me. We got a relatively large number of questions this past week, so let’s dive right in, beginning with this from David Baroldy:
I’m curious how much input editors have on paper stock for a series. Lately, I’ve noticed more Marvel first issues with thicker covers akin to what we used to see before Marvel changed to flimsier covers a while back. I also noticed that the Doctor Strange Fall Sunrise mini is printed on different paper than most Marvel titles. Is this something that editors influence, or is it a decision made elsewhere in the process? How difficult is it to get approval to deviate from standard materials?
The matter of paper stocks and the like are all handled by our Manufacturing Department, and don’t really have anything to do with Editorial. So no, we don’t get any real input into questions such as that, David. And these days, it’s quite often a question of what supplies of paper we’re able to secure for printing that decides what we’re going to use.
A question about event tie-ins. As I’m currently making way through the Empyre event, I’m curious, how do the tie-in, side stories come about? Does the event’s editor reach out to creators and have them pitch stories that would work alongside the main event? Or are there story ideas that the event coordinators come up with, that they then offer to certain creators? I imagine the answer is along the lines of: it depends.
In most cases, the editor of the project in question puts together a briefing memo about the story in question, outlining the particulars as they are then known as well as the places where there are opportunities for tie-ins. From there, that memo is distributed to the editorial staff, who then shares it with the creators on their titles as applicable. For the most part, each editorial office and creative team are able to decide for themselves whether they want to be a part of the Event storyline or not, though there are times where the nature of the story being told necessitates certain tie-ins in order for the story to work. But we largely try to keep this on a volunteer basis as much as possible, rather than forcing creators to be part of a story they feel they have no stake in. As an example of the sort of briefing memo I’m speaking of, I posted the text of the one for CIVIL WAR over on my blog a while ago. You can read it here.
Steve Bryant asked an interesting question on Twitter: Which First Issues really grabbed you and won you over? And by this he meant the First Issue of a New Character— reboots or relaunches do NOT count.
This made me realize that I couldn't think of a First Issue of a New Character where, after just that one issue, I said "This is great! This is for me!" So many great books took time to find their legs and voice. FANTASTIC FOUR and SPIDER-MAN— two of the most important comics ever— had comparatively weak first issues.
Of course, it's also getting harder to find First Issues of completely New Characters, at least at Marvel and DC. You have to go to Image, Dark Horse, Kickstarter, or some of the digital platforms.
Reboots/relaunches are another matter. There are PLENTY of those that pulled me in right away. Alan Moore's SWAMP THING. Mark Waid's DAREDEVIL and FANTASTIC FOUR. Hands down my favorite is Dan Slott's SUPERIOR SPIDER-MAN. The issue that revealed Ock and Peter had switched minds was PERFECTLY put together! I fell for it hook, line and sinker. Genius work.
This also brings up the question: What makes a great First Issue? Obviously you have to establish the concept and characters, with both being as engaging and interesting as possible. I know Mark Waid feels very strongly that a first issue should be self-contained, but I don't necessarily agree with that. But if you ask me, the elusive, essential element is that there is something at the end of the issue revealing that— as much as you've loved what's come before— there is something MORE in store for you, something you didn't expect that DEEPENS your interest in the comic. THUNDERBOLTS is the best example of this, but Waid's FF (with Reed's revelation as to why he made them celebrities) also works. Even my own IMPOSSIBLE JONES ends the first issue/chapter with the moment where most main characters would dedicate themselves and their new powers to fight evil— but in IMP's case she swears revenge on the SOB's who left her for dead, signaling this isn't your typical superhero story.
These are good questions, Karl, thanks for asking them. I don’t know that I’m going to have answers that are equally good, but let me see what I can come up with. In terms of reading first issues of entirely new characters and properties that gripped me from the first, I think WATCHMEN did that effectively for me. Like yourself, i was part of the generation who got to read WATCHMEN serially, rather than all at once in collected form, and I can remember my crowd’s fascination with that first issue. We went over that first issue with a fine-tooth comb, trying to piece out the specifics of this familiar-but-strange world—what’s up with all of the blimps? I’d say that the same thing was true for me of THRILLER, a forgotten series from the early 1980s that never entirely found its footing but which was chock full of memorable characters and moments. Were I at DC, I would do a revival/reimagining of THRILLER in a hot second. Beyond that, it gets trickier—largely because, growing up in the 1970s, my local 7-11 where I bought my comics most of the time had a tendency not to carry new books. It was rare to find the first issue of anything there while it was my only source of new books, and so I came to most series a number of issues into the run.
In terms of what makes a great first issue, I’ve come around to agreeing with Waid a bit more strongly than I might have in the past—and with Tom DeFalco before him, who advocated for starting off any series with a few stand-alone issues before building out longer epics. I’ve been experimenting with doing this more often of late, and I think it’s no coincidence that the titles where I’ve done this: IMMORTAL HULK, MOON KNIGHT, the current run of FANTASTIC FOUR, have all been embraced by the audience and found some commercial and critical success. But the thing I’m trying to achieve in any first issue is to create a singular reading experience, a story that has something to offer that a reader can’t easily get elsewhere. In other words, i want a book to have a strong point of view and ethos that it conveys right out of the gate. (I also feel that a similarly strong second issue is also mission-critical in making this formula work.) With the high costs of comics these days, readers are almost looking for a reason not to follow a new title, so by giving them a satisfying and singular reading experience, that tends to be enough to get most of them to take a chance on the second issue. And if that one delivers in the same way, you begin to build up an audience.
And speaking of projects that Karl Kesel worked on... I really enjoyed those "From the Marvel Vault" one-shots that came out in 2011. Are there other examples of that sort of thing still in "the vault"--work that's particularly interesting, and complete or nearly complete, but has never been published and doesn't fit with current continuity?
Glad you liked it, Clive. But no, there really aren’t any other almost-completed projects of that sort lying around. Most of the ones we printed were hold-overs from the last time editors were required to have a ready fill-in issue in the drawer, to plug into a run when and if the standing creative team couldn’t make a deadline. Most of those were relatively old when we did that VAULT release—and it only came about because we were moving offices, and so wanted to clear out a bunch of that material rather than shipping it to our new digs.
Has there even been any sort of vendor confusion with "biweekly" means both "twice a week" and "every other week"?
Not to the best of my knowledge, no. Given that our standard release increment is monthly, it stands to reason that most Retailers understand biweekly (or “twice monthly” ) in that context.
Here's something I've been wondering about: now that you've edited a number of Avengers runs where nearly every character has a solo book, doo you have any thoughts about how that differs from the rosters that mix solo stars with exclusive characters? My assumption is that having fewer exclusive characters makes it harder to do character development, but I don't know if that's actually true (since character relationships can be exclusive even when characters aren't).
The question occurred to me when I saw the new roster, where everyone has been on the team since (I think) the 1970s, but all but one of them have a solo series at the same time, whereas in the '70s (again, I think) Carol Danvers was added to the roster only after her own series was canceled.
I think it all depends on what sorts of character development you’re talking about, Jaime. If we’re speaking about soap opera material, in particular romantic interactions, then sure, that’s easier to manage with characters that are only appearing in AVENGERS. And at some points over the years, those sorts of characters were often given priority. By the same token, characters such as those tend to be less popular overall than the characters who are also carrying their own titles, and so AVENGERS tends to sell better when it has more of those players in attendance. I think the trick is really in maximizing whatever interesting character interactions you can come up with regardless of whether the heroes involved are appearing elsewhere or not at the moment (because that isn’t a solid-state situation either—characters can sometimes get new series while already appearing in AVENGERS.) The buy-in, what people are there to see, is not just these heroes all fighting alongside one another, but also interacting in interesting fashions. This is why it’s often good to have characters who don’t get along, who don’t share the same point of view or come from the same background. But it’s really the same process whether the group you’re fielding are all AVENGERS-only heroes or folks who all have their own titles. It’s actually more status quo changes and costume changes and the like that cause difficulties. For example, right as Jason Aaron was building up to the climax of his run on AVENGERS, in which the Black Panther had been the leader since the start, incoming BLACK PANTHER writer John Ridley wanted to do a story that would see the Panther on the outs with the Avengers. In the end, everybody compromised and was happy with the outcome—but things certainly would have been easier for Jason if he hadn’t had to write the Panther out of AVENGERS at that particular time.
Do you think Stilt-Man would be such a silly c-list villain today had the character simply been named something other than "Stilt-Man" when he was first created? OR is the reason he's still around today because of his totally oddball name?
I've always dug the character/armor design. I think it makes for some wild visuals and unique action sequences. Telescoping limbs are rad (Inspector Gadget, Machine Man).
Well, I think the Stilt-Man was a pretty silly character even when he was first introduced, Steve. But there was something about that design that struck a chord with creators, who found it cool and therefore found ways to bring him back again and again. I don’t think it’s the name, I think it’s the rather absurd fact that he walks around the city on stories-high stilt-legs. I don’t have a problem with it—in comics, there are always going to be aspects of these stories that are ridiculous, it’s almost a pre-requisite. But I think Stilt-Man’s day was done after Frank Miller had him clobbered by his perennial hapless thug, Turk, who proceeded to swipe his costume and shtick, at least for one story. After you’ve been punked by Turk, it’s hard to claw back your self-respect, you know?
The Alan Moore Ant-Man pitch just made me think of a fun idea for a line of comics:
Current Marvel creators adapt unmade pitches from classic creators! It's possible that something like this has been done before, but there has to be a well of those pitches/proposals sitting around somewhere!
I don’t know, given that the only pitch Alan ever gave for Ant-Man amounted to, “I might be interested in writing Ant-Man”, I don’t think that anything another writer attempts to build from that is going to amount to anything. But hey, it you like, you can imagine that the most recent ANT-MAN series was completely based on Alan’s take for the character—it wouldn’t have any less to do with Alan’s “pitch” than any other one would.
Do future collected edition sales play a big role today in deciding whether to greenlight a series (and determining how intertwined with continuity a miniseries might be)? Or is the periodical side a little more distanced from the collected editions side of the business? It does seem like Marvel has fewer perennial bestselling collections than DC (or Image, Dark Horse, or especially Scholastic) despite a multitude of good stories. I think part of that is that many of Marvel's best stories are segments of a long-running soap opera (The Dark Phoenix Saga, The Galactus Trilogy, even to an extent Daredevil: Born Again) while DC's evergreens are a bit more standalone (Watchmen, the Dark Knight, Year One) but it also seems like there's a weird failure to market/reprint some of the better stories that do stand quite well on their own (a lot of old Marvel Graphic Novels like The Death of Captain Marvel, Daredevil: Love and War, and Doctor Strange/Doctor Doom: Triumph and Torment stand alone quite well, along with the aforementioned Alan Moore runs, but you never see these in Barnes & Noble or at an airport bookstore. Tom King's Vision story seems as close as Marvel has come to the endless reprint cycle of self-contained classic runs that DC has perfected. Even miniseries I don't enjoy as much, like the Loeb/Sale "color" books, seem like they should be ripe for frequent reprints, but I don't see them at bookstores that often these days).
I think you’re coming at this from a bit of a misapprehension, Peter. First off, Marvel has plenty of perennial best-selling collections to speak of, they just tend to have names such as SECRET WARS, INFINITY GAUNTLET, CIVIL WAR. ULTIMATE SPIDER-MAN Volume 1, MARVELS as well as two you mentioned; THE DARK PHOENIX SAGA and DAREDEVIL: BORN AGAIN. In the case of the stories you mentioned, while they were all released as part of Marvel’s 1980s Graphic Novel line, the difficulty with releasing them as stand-alone collections is that each and every one of them is simply too short to stand on its own at this point. You need more material to make up a book release than the Death of Captain Marvel or Torment and Triumph allow for. In recent years, both of those stories have been reprinted in collected editions, they’ve simply been packaged with other related material so as to achieve the necessary page counts. But switching back to your first question: yes, we take all forms of publication into account when we greenlight a problem. But your question seems to imply that there are stories which will sell poorly in single issues but somehow achieve enormous numbers in collected form, and that really isn’t the case. While there are occasional outliers, it remains a truism that the series that sell the best as collected editions tend to be ones that also sold well as single issues. So there really isn’t a way (apart from simply hoping) to determine that a particular work will magically connect with an audience as a collection when it doesn’t as a periodical release.
Mortimer Q. Forbush:
Q1: I presume a writer or artist gets a bigger cut of a unit sold when I buy a creator-owned series than when I buy work they do for the Big Two. Is that even true? Is there a rough rule of thumb one can follow for how different it is? For instance, "Ernest Scribbler makes 1.5x as much on his creator-owned "PassionProject — A Muse Tale" as he does when he's writing "Captain Superpower" for Superlative Comics, the wholly-owned subsidiary of Global Amalgamated Petrochemical."
Or is all over the board depending on a constantly-changing set of x-factors?
Q2: I can buy a series as monthly magazines from The Golden Orange comic shop; collected as a TPB ordered from Amazon; digital purchase via the Marvel app; or "stream" the comic on Marvel Unlimited. How much can you broadly share about how much more / less a creator will make depending on how I read their work?
Or is all over the board depending on a constantly-changing set of x-factors?
Well, it really all comes down to what the deal is under which Ernest Scribbler is working on his various projects, Mortimer, and that can vary a great deal. If Ernest is working on a Marvel title, he’s earning an up-front page rate for the work even before it is published, and then incentives if the periodical release sells beyond certain sales thresholds. He also gets an incentive based on the circulation of any collected edition incorporating his work, on a pro-rated basis depending on what else is in that same collection. And the same thing with any digital release. On a creator-owned project, while Ernest may get a bigger piece of the pie, he is often working completely for the back end, meaning that there is no page rate paid up front—or if there is one, it may be credited as an advance against eventual royalties. In some instances, if Ernest is a creator with some popularity, a creator-owned outfit may agree to pay him a page rate up front as well—but even there, there may be trade-offs in terms of his ownership stake in the property he’s working on. So there really isn’t one-size-fits-all answer to this. In the end, if you like Scribbler’s work, you can feel comfortable supporting it regardless of the format or whether it’s for a big company or creator-owned. And the answer to your second question really comes down to: it doesn’t matter all that much at all which format you buy the work in. The only caveat there is that, if you wait for an eventual collected edition rather than buying a series new, either tangibly or digitally, you run the risk that enough other readers are doing the same thing, to the point where the periodical release isn’t profitable and the series gets shuttered. But in the end, you should support whatever format appeals to you the most.
"there’s an expectation in friendship that you will use your abilities to assist your friend. To me, though, doing so would be a violation of the Editor’s primary responsibility, which is to the project he or she is shepherding. I must make creative choices honestly, and not be swayed by personal relationships."
I think we ought to try to respect other people's viewpoints even if ours differ. So I definitely feel your professional associates should respect your choice not to use the power you have for any purpose other than making and selling comics. As you point out, that's what you were hired to do. But unintentional though it may be, it does come across as though those with a different view are a bunch of self-interested, envious people lacking in integrity and looking for cronyism, and you are the lone "man with a code". You've said many times in the past this isn't really an issue of an aversion to cronyism or abusing your position to bestow riches on buddies; if there was a creator you had no personal relationship with, but recognized their enormous contributions to the field, I believe you've said you would base your hiring considerations solely on what they were doing right now. And I think anyone (particularly those who like comics) should be able to respect someone whose top priority is making the best possible comic. This isn't a "What have you done for me lately" Mort Weisinger kind of thing where you're looking for how you'll benefit professionally and tossing aside those who aren't going to bring in the bucks anymore. Even if you actively chose to make bad comics from now on, you're at a point in your career where you're pretty much set. You take this approach because it's what you believe is right.
But I would submit that the folks with a different view are just as likely people of integrity with a strong moral code; it's just that they would disagree with you that "nobody is owed work", that people only merit earning a living based on what they're contributing in the moment... they would argue those folks have in fact morally earned a lifetime of work based on their lifetime of contributions, and that taking care of other human beings is always the number one priority, even if it means the occasional stinky comic. Maybe they're right, maybe they're wrong. But either way, it seems like both sides base their views on what they believe to be the biggest moral issue, and when it comes to moral issues, I don't think anyone can claim with certainty that their perspective is the only one that's right and everyone else's is wrong.
I think we’ve argued this point in the past, Matt, and I have to say that I still disagree with your assessment in general. While I certainly agree that at least in most cases, those with differing viewpoints are certainly people of integrity, I do not believe anybody is owed work, which is the key point over which you and I differ. In the same way that the person who fixes my car isn’t entitled to fulfill that function forever so long as I have a vehicle to service, I don’t believe that simply because somebody got an opportunity to make comics, to work on certain titles in the past, gives them any claim to work on such titles in the future. This is an entertainment-based industry, and just as the popular stars of today in film and television won’t necessarily be the popular stars of tomorrow, so too does one’s ability to do the job hinge on their ability to perform at a certain level in the here-and-now, regardless of how good the television show they were in five years ago was, or how nicely my car ran eight years ago, or whatever. Times change, tastes change, audiences change, and you either adapt to that and are able to move forward and maintain your relevance, or else you fall by the wayside to some degree, just as the creators who came before you did, and the ones who came before them. The circle turns, and it comes for everybody eventually, even me. I tell our young editors regularly that in this job, you cannot save everyone—and that, given enough time, you can’t save anyone. And I believe that to be true. And I saw and lived through practical situations where an editor put personal relationships above the series they were working on, and while that was admirable, it didn’t work out well for anybody in the long term, even if it lengthened the tenure of some folks in teh short term. Now, I know you feel differently about this—but, respectfully, you feel that way as a reader and a fan from the outside, who doesn’t really have to be concerned with the welfare of the company or the many people who work for it. Speaking as somebody who has been doing this job for more than three decades, who has seen and witnessed a lot in that time, I believe that my assessment is correct. I know it’s not a popular thing to say, and that it makes me perhaps seem cold and unfeeling. And everybody has creators of days gone by that they’d love to see doing new work again. But the reality of this is not so simple. And that is why an editor’s first loyalty has to be to the book, rather to those who are producing it at any given moment.
Do you have any thoughts you want to share on the announced DC movie slate? For my part, I’m happy with how much emphasis James Gunn placed on existing comic books in his announcement, especially that of “Supergirl: Woman of Tomorrow.” Words can’t express how much I loved that book, but a movie adaption would be a tall task for me. It’ll be difficult to put forward something as visually striking as the comic!
I hope it all does well, Jason, but honestly I don’t have all that much more to say about any of it at this point. I have a good amount of trust in James Gunn’s taste and opinion, so that’s a plus. But any project can turn out well or poorly based on a million different decisions, so I feel as though it’s simply too early to have much of anything to react to. But given that I feel like it’s been forever since I last truly enjoyed a film based on a DC property (the last one I felt that strongly about was probably THE DARK KNIGHT, which is way old today—though I’ve enjoyed a number of the DC television projects) I certainly hope the result here is a bunch of movies and etcetera that I really like. But only time will tell. We’ll see.
Behind the Curtain
.This time out, we’ve got an old photograph to share with you. But even beyond the surface, there’s something extra-cool about this image, which I’ll articulate in a moment.
All right, based on the various comic books that can be seen on the racks in the background, this photograph was taken in April of 1939—which is the very month that Batman made his first appearance in DETECTIVE COMICS #27. There are other DC titles from this period visible, though there isn’t a clear show of DETECTIVE #27. But it’s possible, and even likely, that one of these kids may be reading the first appearance of Batman at that very moment.
One of the comics on display that can be made out on the rack in the background is ACTION COMICS #12, which contains the Greatest Superman Story Ever Told! If you want to experience this wonderment for yourself, I wrote about it at this LINK
Pimp My Wednesday
More shots of wood-pulp adrenaline to keep your heart pumping this Wednesday:
SAVAGE AVENGERS #10 wraps up this series from David Pepose and Carlos Magno with a finale that is as bombastic and insane as anything else that’s appeared during the run thus far. This iteration of the title was a bit of a last-minute surprise, and had to be assembled relatively quickly, but I’m happy with what the team did—and in particular, it’s worth pointing out that Carlos Magno didn’t miss an issue, he did all ten in a row. Fans often talk about wanting consistency in their creative teams, but when it happens, they rarely seem to notice—or if they do, they don’t often comment upon it.
And from Associate Editor Annalise Bissa, we’ve for the third of our PUNISHER WAR JOURNAL quarterly releases, this one subtitled BASE. (Quick aside: originally, this issue was going to be titled BILLET, but then there was some concern that people wouldn’t understand what BILLET meant, and so here we are. The things we choose to care about…) It’s another firecracker of a one-shot by Torunn Gronbeck with art by Djibril Morissette-Phan, and it’s set back in the day, before Frank Castle’s family went for that fateful Central Park picnic. I think this is my favorite of the three PWJ specials that Annalise put together in order to give the PUNISHER team extra time to deliver their 30 pages per issue.
And over on AVENGERS UNLIMITED, Alex Segura and Jim Towe’s current storyline continues, with Captain America and Spider-Woman making their way through a zombified town in search of the missing Moon Knight—and finding someone unexpected.
A Comic Book On Sale 40 Years Ago Today, February 19, 1983
First Comics was one of the big new players in the opening Direct Sales market in the early 1980s. They came in with the clear intent of being a major player, fielding a strong line-up of diverse titles, each one anchored, at least initially, by a strong creator or partnership. And while they weren’t quite able to weather the decade and remain in business, they put out some impressive titles during their tenure. One of the books that was a part of their launch was E-MAN, a revival of the character and series that had been originated by Nicola Cuti and Joe Staton at Charlton in the early 1970s. The original E-MAN ran for only ten issues, but it was fondly remembered by a small but devoted fan base—so when First was looking around for things to add to its publishing launch, it seemed like a natural, especially as it had the veneer of being a super hero book (a category that First was noticeably short on initially.) I’m not privy to all of the details, but while Joe Staton was available and willing to return to the character, Nicola Cuti either was not, or he wasn’t pursued. Instead, First Comics turned to Marty Pasko, a writer who had made his bones at DC before largely segueing into animation work. Pasko’s approach to E-MAN was a bit different from what had come before. While the Charlton version was whimsical, in the vein of Jack Cole’s PLASTIC MAN or the golden age Captain Marvel, Pasko’s approach was still humorous but a lot more biting, with a lot more anger and nastiness behind it. This was probably no more apparent than in the second and third issues, which featured a pointed parody of not only the X-Men, but of several of the Marvel creative people working on the series. Pasko had had disagreements with a few of them publicly over the question of creator’s rights, and so he seemed to take this opportunity to skewer not only the X-Men as a beloved fan concept, but also the psychology and intent of the people making it. This was not an affectionate sent-up, but rather a savage critique, and it caught the attention of the fan press of the day. Which, I’m sure, pleased First Comics greatly, as it meant that they were getting a batch of free publicity right at start-up. Pasko definitely didn’t make any friends on the Marvel side for his efforts, but the story was legitimately funny as well as being nasty, and so it was memorable. That said, Pasko didn’t remain long on E-MAN, and ultimately Nicola Cuti wound up returning to the book and reconfiguing it back more in the spirit of how it had initially been done. And to teh best of my knowledge, these two issues of E-MAN have never been reprinted or collected. But they’re worth hunting down if you ever get teh opportunity.
A Comic Book On Sale 20 Years Ago Today, February 19, 2003
I’m only spotlighting this issue of JACK STAFF, the first one published under the Image banner after a dozen self-published issues, so that I can talk about my very small role in the book’s creation. And it wasn’t something that I did but rather something that I didn’t do. A short time earlier, creator Paul Grist had done a smattering of work for my office, including the DAILY BUGLE limited series I wrote about some time ago. This was still early internet days, when physical materials were still being sent into the office via Fed-Ex and the like. In one communication, at the end of a cover letter, Grist included a small drawing of Union Jack and inquired about the possibility of doing a limited series featuring the character. But this was around the time of the Marvel bankruptcy, and so I didn’t think that such a project was going to be something that I could get approved. I did save the letter in my files, though, although it’s vanished in the time between then and now. Anyway, at a certain point, Paul realized that he could simply create his own patriotic British hero and be able to use most of the material he’d been thinking about for Union Jack. And so, Jack Staff came to be. So I didn’t really help in its creation or anything, I simply ensured that it would come into being by not being able to make Paul’s Union Jack series a reality.
A Comic I Worked On That Came Out On This Date
Well, what else could I possibly talk about today? The first issue of THUNDERBOLTS saw print on February 19, 1997, some 26 years ago today. Plenty has been written about the series over the years, much of it focusing on the twist ending at the close of this first issue, which Karl Kesel alluded to above. But to run it all down a little bit: THUNDERBOLTS was created in the run-up to a Marvel editorial retreat that Kurt Busiek had been invited to. I had been working with Kurt on UNTOLD TALES OF SPIDER-MAN and we had a fruitful and collaborative working relationship. In particular, this Retreat was going to be focusing on what we could do with the Marvel publishing line given that we were losing many of our most popular characters. This was at the point where HEROES REBORN was about to begin, in which the core of the Marvel Heroes line of characters were being outsourced to Jim Lee’s Wildstorm Studios and Rob Liefeld’s Extreme Studios to produce. The heroes had been written out of the Marvel Universe in the ONSLAUGHT Event—but now the question before everybody was, what could we do to replace them during this indefinite time? Kurt had an idea, and he pitched it to me both verbally and thereafter in an actual document. It was actually a reworking of an idea he’d had for an AVENGERS run—in that earlier version, a number of new members would join the Avengers over a number of issues as established members were sidelined by one thing or another. The twist would come in that the newcomers were all the Masters of Evil in disguise, posing as new heroes to infiltrate and take down the Avengers from within. Kurt proposed that we do this same idea, but without the Avengers. The team, and indeed, all of the popular optimistic heroes of the Marvel Universe were gone and believed dead. What better time for a new seemingly-optimistic super hero team to show up and capture the public’s fancy. But they’d secretly be the Masters of Evil, intending on using their new position and access to information and resources and public trust to further their villainous aims. Kurt and I—mostly Kurt—wound up pitching it to Editor in Chief Bob Harras in the bar following the first day of the Retreat. Bob gave it the go-ahead on the spot, but there were a couple of wrinkles along the way. For one thing, he didn’t like the name Thunderbolts, and so for a week or ten days, Kurt and I brainstormed a long list of truly horrible alternative names for the group—one of the few I remember from this effort is THE ALL-AMERICANS. Ugh. It’s no wonder that Thunderbolts stuck. There were also some minor design quirks: we had envisioned Zemo’s new identity as Citizen V as being a cross between Captain America and Batman, but Bob hated the fact that he wore a cape. Capes, he felt, were for DC heroes. On that point, we were able to get him to relent. We also got extraordinarily lucky in being able to bring Mark Bagley on board to draw the series. Bob wasn’t a huge fan of Bagley’s work, and so he’d found himself maneuvered off of AMAZING SPIDER-MAN, his future uncertain. But we wanted Mark for THUNDERBOLTS, and that put an asset that Marvel had a commitment to in a place where Bob wouldn’t have to worry about him. And Bags was amazing, not only fast and hard-working but also willing and able to draw a team series and give it his all. He had thought that the book was only going to be a limited commitment, and even once it was successful, he talked about leaving around issue #25, but he wound up staying on for 50 issues, only departing when ULTIMATE SPIDER-MAN with Brian Bendis became a thing. Vince Russell, the inker for the first year, was a gimme to Bob, who wanted to put a more X-Men-style inker over Bagley to modernize his style. Perhaps the greatest difficulty we ran into while getting the book ready to debut was in keeping the secret of the twist endings at the end of #1. And in truth, we really didn’t—marvel’s sales department was so nervous that nobody would order the book without knowing the actual hook that they wound up stealth-spoiling it ahead of time by sending out a press release listing a few different options for what the deal with the Thunderbolts might be. We also dodged a bullet in the team’s debut in INCREDIBLE HULK when Peter David became aware that the catalog solicitation for that book revealed the secret, which would have been devastating—he got editor Bobbie Chase to change it before it could see print. And even with the gaffes and near-misses, most readers were knocked out of their chairs when they got to that last page—partly because there hadn’t been much of any warning that there even was going to be a secret reveal at the end of the book. Consequently, it’s a twist ending that’s been held up as a gold standard in the field, which is very gratifying. (Some readers asked why we’d revealed the secret so soon, why we hadn’t left it for issue #3 or #4. But the answer, of course, is that if we hadn’t revealed it when we did , there wouldn’t have been a #3 or #4…) THUNDERBOLTS became something of a surprise hit, and while it eventually settled in as a midlist title, it was rock-solid in its sales, completely steady for a ridiculously long time. I can recall Joe Quesada, when he became Editor in Chief, asking me about it and me telling him that it was a non-repeating phenomenon, that I’d worked out how to maintain the sales numbers on THUNDERBOLTS but that the approach only seemed to work on that one series. Anyway, THUNDERBOLTS lasted a good long time, far longer than anybody would have guessed at the outset, and it keeps coming back in one form or another. And now, while the eventual end product may not have much to do with our version, it’s about to become a film in the MCU. Which seems especially gratifying to me. I’ve had other things I’ve worked on used as the basis for MCU projects before, but those tended to feature characters that had existed long before I got there such as Captain America or the Avengers. But Thunderbolts is a dopey thing that we just made up, it wouldn’t exist if not for the work we did, and that somehow feels more genuine an accomplishment to me. And when you go to see that film, remember: if things had been different, you’d be watching the All-Americans!
The first page of Kurt’s THUNDERBOLTS pitch, faxed to the Marvel office. The unused “Too Good To Be True!” tag line was mine.
I did color designs for all of the main T-Bolts characters, with input from Kurt and Mark.
Having been around for so long and spoken to so many people who were there over the years, I feel like I have a good understanding as to what working on staff at Marvel was like going all the way back to the 1960s. But I can’t say that my understanding of the equivalent DC experience is anywhere near at the same level. And that’s why I’ve been enjoying Paul Kupperberg’s new book DIRECT CONVERSATIONS so much. In it, Paul reminisces with a variety of other people whom he worked alongside at DC in the 1970s, and it paints a picture of just what that environment was like in that era. If this sort of behind-the-scenes info is something you’re interested in, then it’s worth seeking out. Having started reading comics with the DC releases in 1973, these anecdotes are very meaningful to me.
Switching over to television, as I mentioned at the top, I had a little bit of a lull this past week or two, where I wrapped up a bunch of shows and nothing new had appeared on the horizon yet. In addition to my YouTube viewing, I also took in the first two episodes of the revival of NIGHT COURT, which has been getting mixed-to-poor reviews but which appears to be a great success in terms of attracting a broadcast audience to watch. And it was fine, light and totally non-challenging, but a bit like a faded photocopy of the original. The big piece that’s missing, of course, is Harry Anderson. No slight to Melissa Rauch, who is fine, but she can’t carry the show the way Harry did, at least not yet. And it was nice to see John Larroquette back as Dan Fielding, but even there the character has had to be so softened for modern sensibilities that he doesn’t quite yet have the crackle he once did in the role. The rest of the cast is forgettable, pale pastiches of the originals. So it' isn’t a great show. But it’s completely inoffensive, and if you’ve got some nostalgia for the original (I do, even though I only watched in infrequently when it aired) it may be worth a few minutes of your time.
Elsewhere, I’ve begun watching two reality series that were recommended to me by members of the Marvel staff following a conversation about the genre. THE MOLE on Netflix is an updating of the original, and it’s pretty solid. It falls into the same sub-genre as THE TRAITORS or BLACK SHEEP GAME, shows that I enjoyed. In this instance, though, the audience is as unaware of the identity of the Mole who is working to undermine the game as the players are. There are aspects of the production that I don’t love: the rules of elimination appear arbitrary and subject to easy manipulation by the producers for effect.
I’m also catching up on PHYSICAL 100, also on Netflix, and it’s an absolutely astounding Korean game show the likes of which we simply don’t make over here. The premise of the series is to find the person with the most perfect physique in Korea, and the show does this by recruiting 100 extraordinary people of all sorts—not just bodybuilders, but dancers and CrossFit experts and mixed martial artists and soldiers and Olympic athletes, really people of all sorts of backgrounds with superior physical prowess. And then they are pitted in contests with one another that require different aptitudes in strength and ability, with the losers being steadily eliminated. It’s all treated with a certain seriousness and a sense of good sportsmanship, which is pretty cool to see—all of these people have a lot of personal and professional pride on the line, and yet they conduct themselves with proper decorum at all times. It’s the range of contests that make this show interesting, coupled with the personalities of its wide-ranging cast. So far, we’ve watched to see who could hold themselves aloft for the longest amount of time, who could win in a head-to-head competition to win and keep possession of a medicine ball in two very different arenas, and a team competition where each group needs to carry bags of sand up a flight of stairs and across a rope bridge to deposit them inside a vertical cylinder. The whole thing is pretty cool in that way that Korean game shows tend to be.
And finally, the black sheep of STAR TREK shows began its third and supposedly final season this past week. STAR TREK: PICARD has so far proven to be an absolute disappointment, with a whole crew of very talented writers and producers botching storylines and story logic left and right, resulting in an unsatisfying mess of a series that only works at all through nostalgic attachment. This season, though, the producers appear to have said the hell with coming up with something new, and are instead steering hard into nostalgia for the 1980s STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION. Judging by the one episode that’s aired so far, that may be the best decision they could have made. Because while it’s not genius, the show is a lot more satisfying and entertaining than it had been up until now. If nothing else, the interplay between Patrick Stewart and the returning Jonathan Frakes is warm and on point. It’s too soon to tell whether the show will be anything more than comfort food, but honestly the first two years lowered the bar to such a degree that it shouldn’t be difficult to clear. So as of right now, I am cautiously optimistic.
Posted at TomBrevoort.com
Yesterday, I wrote about Roy Thomas’ first sale as a comic book writer, SON OF VULCAN #50
And five years ago, I wrote about Jim Steranko’s HISTORY OF COMICS which was a seminal book in my life.
Boy, these things do take a while to get written, and hopefully to get read as well. So congrats on making it this far! Now rest up, because in theory there’ll be another one coming your way in just seven short days! And it won’t be a party without you!
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