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A View From The Cheap Seats:
The 2002 Top 10
By Rich Watson

01.02.03


2002. The year where Hollywood made us believe a man can crawl up walls. The long-awaited film version of Spider-Man surpassed the wildest of expectations to become the year's most lucrative film, shattering all sorts of box office records, but what did that success mean for the comics industry? Certainly, we're seeing more graphic novels and trade paperbacks in bookstores now, which is a positive step. However, for all the outreach efforts made this year to make comics palatable - whether initiated within the industry (Free Comic Book Day) or without (Teen Read Week) - a Texas retailer can still get convicted for selling adult-themed comics to another adult. A major Hollywood film (and potential Oscar contender) based on a graphic novel can distance itself from its source material in its promotion without anyone noticing. A publisher can have several television shows based on its books, both animated and live action, yet cannot find a way to market those books outside its aging and insular demographic.


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Sure, sometimes it feels like the whole world is conspiring to keep comics down, but sometimes we do a pretty good job of it ourselves. How else can you explain stupid things like the Captain Marvel "controversy?" Sure, it led to a better comic, but it was also responsible for Marville, the hubristic waste of paper that epitomizes the regime of a man who, for all his short-term success in turning Marvel around, continues to employ creators who cannot meet deadlines. The latter has lead to so many late books that one retailer, Brian Hibbs, finally decided to hold Marvel accountable and filed a class action lawsuit, an act mocked by the editor-in-chief as "rain[ing] on everyone's parade," coming as it did immediately after the release of Spider-Man. Boo hoo.

Meanwhile, distributors LPC and 7 Hills closed their doors for business and the wind changed direction, as more and more indie publishers swore their allegiance to Diamond. One publisher, Top Shelf, was saved from oblivion by a miraculous one-day online campaign, while another, Chaos, fell by the wayside. And a radical upstart publisher from Florida declared war on the Marvel empire and vowed to see its clothes-less emperor fall.

We had a little bit of everything this year, no doubt about it - the best and the worst. Regardless, the comics themselves have never been better: Mark Waid and Mike Weiringo restoring the glory to Fantastic Four; Barbara Kesel and Steve McNiven working magic on Meridian; Ted Naifeh crafting a Gothic charm with Courtney Crumrin and the Night Things; Jason Yungbluth tipping sacred cows in Deep Fried; and so much more. We're closer to growing up now than we were before… but we're still not ready.

And at this point I'm not sure what it's gonna take before we will be. Movie adaptations are great, and a lot of fun, and I look forward to them like any other fan, but they're not enough. We gotta change the way we think about comics before we expect anyone else to. That means me, you, your local retailer, Wizard, Comics Journal, Diamond, Newsarama, Bill Jemas, Todd McFarlane, Stan Lee, every one of us who considers themselves part of comics in any way, shape, or form. Me? I don't claim to have the answers. I just have questions, like: why have we always done things this way? Is it possible to do things another way? Do we have the patience to stick with a good idea even if it seems like it's not working? And if it's not working, how can we make it work? What are we really in it for?

This was the year I began to make the shift from monthly issues to trade paperbacks. The price of the standard 32-page pamphlets continues to rise, and not just with the corporate books. One of the most talked about titles this year was 30 Days of Night, the 3-issue horror book from neophyte publisher IDW (even Wizard went nuts over it). I read about it and was genuinely interested, until I saw the cover price - $3.99. Fine, I figured; I'll wait for the TPB. Then IDW announced that the TPB would be an unconscionably priced $17.99 for 80 pages! (I've since learned that this price is meant to cover the cost of extraneous additions such as a full script.) This is an extreme (and admittedly, unique) example, but the point remains the same - comics are reaching the point where the "standard" price can no longer justify the "standard" size.

A related problem has more to do with how the major corporates - Marvel and DC - do business these days. They raise the prices on the weaker-selling titles in an attempt to keep them profitable, and when that doesn't work, they cancel them and restart them with a new look (Thunderbolts and Young Justice fans will gladly tell you all about it). Meanwhile, the major marketing and promotion - including making TPBs on a regular basis - goes to the "A-list" titles. In Marvel's case, the books that get the best TPB support - and by extension, the shelf space in bookstores - are usually the ones that best conform to their back-to-basics philosophy, one with as few overt ties to the past as possible. In short, the corporates do not treat all their titles equally. Either they're unwilling to give their lesser-selling titles the support they need, or they're incapable of it. Personally, I believe either scenario is equally possible.

Which brings me to the emergence of CrossGen as a major player this year (regardless of where they're listed in Previews). To put it simply, they do everything right. All of the CG titles get the TPB treatment, regardless of how much or little they sell. In addition, they're offered online and in compendia collections, an idea so ridiculously simple it's a wonder the corporates still don't do it. They bend over backwards to make their titles accessible to everyone - and I don't just mean Fandom Assembled, I mean the other 99% of the world that has only a casual interest in comics at best. CG books come in different languages; they can be found in bookstores, libraries, classrooms. They can be read individually or collectively. And the majority of them (the ones I've read, anyway) are very, very good, with captivatingly written stories and drop-dead gorgeous artwork.

So why aren't enough fans taking notice? There are a number of possibilities - too unwilling to try anything unfamiliar (read: not superhero-related), not enough money, no interest in the stories. Although lately I'm beginning to see a little more interest in CG, I suspect far too many other fans are simply unwilling or unable to break the old habits ingrained into them by a lifetime of reading superheroes, like sticking with a title they don't enjoy in the hopes that it'll get better. (Admittedly, that one's tough to beat. I've certainly been guilty of that.) I was a skeptic, too, but now that I've gotten into CG's books - and seen the respect they've shown for fans and retailers and distributors - I'm a believer.

Don't count comics out yet. There's still time to turn things around. But it's gonna take some work.


THE PICKS

A few things before we get to the Top 10: As always, my picks are based solely on the books I've read this year, and are not intended to be "the best," simply my favorites. If they invite further debate and discussion, so much the better.

Of the books from last year's list not on this year's list:

- I switched to TPB format for Powers and Strangers in Paradise, so I didn't get to read them as often. And in SIP's case, I was getting disappointed with the story's direction.
- Dog & Pony Show was a one-shot; Murder Me Dead a mini-series.
- Herobear & the Kid, Dork, Private Beach and Askari Hodari didn't come out as often this year (though when they did they were very good).
- Amelia Rules simply missed the cut. There is a TPB now available of the first five issues of this awesome book, so check it out if you haven't already!

And then there's the honorable mention list:

- 9-11: Emergency Relief (Alternative). A classy anthology of personal accounts of September 11, from a wide range of indy talents.
- Creature Tech (Top Shelf). A bizarre and entertaining sci-fi romp that combines religion, science, and demonic cats.
- Fables (DC/Vertigo). Classic fairy tale characters in the modern world? Bill Willingham makes it work - and work quite nicely.
- Noble Causes (Image). Fantastic Four meets The Osbournes, with solid writing by Jay Faerber.
- Powers (Image). As I said, I switched to TPBs for this, so I only read about half of this year's issues, but this book still kicks ass like it always has.
- The Pro (Image). Look past the blowjobs and anal sex and you'll find a truly profound and meaningful story. Really.
- Scion (CrossGen). High-tech medieval fantasy with a positively Shakespearean plot and gorgeous art. Reading this makes me feel like a kid again.
- Teenagers From Mars (no imprint name). Quirky and hip, with stellar artwork. And all indications are that this is only the beginning.
- True Story Swear to God (Clib's Boy). Unabashedly romantic, unflinchingly honest, undeniably entertaining.
- Way of the Rat (CrossGen). A fast-paced and fun kung fu epic with a talking monkey. Nuff said!

And now (finally) the Cheap Seats Top 10 for 2002!

10. Vogelein [link] (Fiery). One of the nicest successes of the year has to be this little fantasy mini-series. Jane Irwin's tale of a centuries-old automaton dependent on humans to survive goes beyond its Pinocchio-like trappings to convey a larger conflict; that of man versus nature. Vogelein feels the pull of two worlds tugging at her throughout this story: the primitive, magical fairy world and the modern, mechanized human one, and it makes for some genuinely intriguing drama as she struggles to discover which one she can ever feel truly at home in. The painted artwork works very well for this story, and at times even gives it a dream-like quality. Following this book all year has been a distinct pleasure. The deeper into it one goes, the more involving and multi-layered it gets, and there's every reason to believe that there are more tales that can be spun out of this. I certainly hope so. Books like this are why I have faith in the future of comics.

9. Supernatural Law [link] (Exhibit A). I went into detail about why this book is so very entertaining in my SPX column months ago. Although Batton Lash won the Eisner award this year for his work on Radioactive Man, it is this title - about a pair of lawyers with monsters and other weird creatures as clients - that he remains most identified with, and with good reason. For one thing, he's been at it for awhile now - with close to forty issues under his belt, he's entering territory occupied by Strangers In Paradise, A Distant Soil, and Bone, which in this day and age, is impressive enough. Earlier this year I wrote about how Exhibit A's primary distributor, 7 Hills, went out of business. While I naturally hope he and editor/wife Jackie Estrada can continue on their own despite this (hopefully) temporary setback, it would be nice if, say, Slave Labor or even Image were to decide to carry their book and increase their audience. Either way, I'll do my part to help spread the word about this delightfully funny and enjoyable book.

8. Ruse [link] (CrossGen). Emma Bishop is my new hero. In the space of little over a year, I feel the co-star of this book has become more real to me than at least 90% of the rest of the characters out there. She's physically beautiful, to begin with (Butch Guice claims he draws her like Cate Blanchett, but I keep seeing her as Nicole Kidman). She commands respect on her terms, and though she doesn't always get it, that doesn't stop her from trying. She's resourceful, possessing an analytical mind almost as keen as her cohort, Simon Archard, detective extraordinaire (a fascinating character in his own right). She has a strong commitment to honor and duty that guides her in her chosen profession. She's not a complete paragon; she can be vain, elitist, and more than a little sarcastic at times. She can also be warm and witty and playful. Guice, Mike Perkins, Laura Depuy Martin, Mark Waid and Scott Beatty have done much to make Emma and Simon - and the pseudo-Victorian-England world they inhabit - a convincing and vital one, and nowhere does it show more than in the creation of this most delightful of characters, who makes this Eisner-winning book come alive with every issue. Emma Bishop is the reason I read Ruse...and you should too.

7. Negation [link] (CrossGen). So there I was, inside Big Planet Comics in Bethesda, Maryland this spring (a fine store, highly recommended), hanging with my friends Denise, Laurie and Lee for a weekend. All of us were leisurely strolling around the store for awhile, and then it came time to pay for what we were gonna get. I almost wasn't gonna get anything - but then I happened to see a few back issues of Negation on the shelf. I had heard about this book by Tony Bedard, Paul Pelletier and Dave Meikis, though I thought it was a mini-series for some reason. I flipped through it. Black lead character; that's a plus right there. Lots of cool looking aliens. Action oriented. Memories of Deep Space Nine and of how much I lived for that show came to mind. I asked Lee, thinking she might have some knowledge of CrossGen, whether this was any good. She said it definitely was. I figured I'd give it a shot, since I was slowly becoming more interested in CrossGen's books, so I bought a few issues. Eight months later and I am a most happy camper. Unpredictable, exciting, funny, and just plain cool, this tale of a bunch of fugitives trapped in a hostile universe, fighting to get back home, is pure adrenaline from start to finish. So to Lee, I say thanks, and to CrossGen, I say - keep it up.

6. Fade From Blue [link] (Second2Some). It was a move only an indy comic could have made. One single dollar was all it cost for the debut issue of a feature-length, black and white book about the lives of four half-sisters by two unknowns with minimal hype. From the creators' point of view, it was a calculated risk, but a risk nonetheless. Good thing they had such an outstanding story to back it up. Myatt Murphy and Scott Dalrymple put their money where their mouths were and made it almost impossible to pass up their title, and those who took a chance on them - whether shelling out the dollar or receiving it gratis at the conventions the duo went to this year (including SPX) - were rewarded with a story about believable, sympathetic, and real-looking women in a wide variety of situations. Subsequent issues may be fifty cents extra, but that still makes it the best bargain in comics today - especially when it's worth so much more.

5. Y: The Last Man [link] (DC/Vertigo). In the old days, long before the genre was defined by aliens and gadgets, science fiction had more to do with imagining how our world would be different if a given element was changed, or eliminated, or added, hence the term "speculative fiction." Y: The Last Man is very much in that tradition. Brian K. Vaughn, Pia Guerra and Jose Marzan have put together an intricate, fully-thought out, and utterly captivating series that revolves around a single change made to the world we know: the elimination of all men - except for one, of course. If it only had a potboiler of a plot (which it does), that would be enough, but the characters - and their various agendas and ideologies and temperaments - are captured so well and defined so sharply, one can hardly believe each issue is only 22 pages each. The artwork is solid, clear, and convincing, which it needs to be. This book was practically an overnight success, which is very encouraging in terms of its long-term prospects - because this is one title I hope sticks around for a very long time.

4. Catwoman [link] (DC). I never cared about Catwoman much before. I barely understood her origin and she was usually depicted as a bad-girl stereotype, balloon-sized breasts and all. Then came this relaunched series. The animated-style art of Darwyn Cooke and Mike Allred (and Cameron Stewart, later on) was a joy to look at, as was the costume redesign. Ed Brubaker actually made some sense of Selina Kyle's origin while being true to continuity, and then surrounded her with believable supporting characters (most with ties to the past) and gave her a new purpose. The result was a stylish neo-noir crime book that's exciting and distinctive. And after Cooke left, he did a Catwoman graphic novel, subtitled Selina's Big Score, which was a good-old-fashioned heist yarn straight out of the movies. Throw in the Secret Files one-shot and the trade paperback The Dark End of the Street and it's clear that Catwoman's nine lives are far from used up.

3. 100 Bullets [link] (DC/Vertigo). This was a banner year for Eduardo Risso. Taking home both the Eisner and Harvey awards for best artist helped to firmly cement 100 Bullets' place as the premier monthly comic today. What makes him so appealing? For me, it's several things. He has an unusually graceful and curvilinear line that gives an organic and often times sensual look to everything he draws. He has a wonderful way with facial expressions, from pouts to sneers to smirks. He brings a sharp sense of design to his images; he's very aware of the page as a whole and his layouts reflect that. Risso's art doesn't look like anything else you see on the racks; it's not a manga clone, it's not oldschool Image, and it's not very Kirbyesque either, and that may be key to its success. Risso and Brian Azzarello continue to impress with this title. Here's hoping the best is still to come.

2. 9-11 [link] (DC/Dark Horse). I first wrote about these remarkable benefit books back in January, when they came out, so there's not too much more for me to add here. The stories (both real and fictitious), pin-ups, and text articles alike, resound with the emotions borne from the nightmare of last year's terrorist attacks: rage, frustration, sadness, empathy, optimism, hope, and even humor. The writing and art represents a cross-section of comics' best, from the A-list superstars to the more obscure, all at the top of their game. The project itself united a group of disparate publishers (including Image, Oni, and the now-defunct Chaos) in a show of solidarity unprecedented in comics history. And the impact of its value to both die-hard fans and casual readers worldwide is immeasurable. That it took a disaster of global proportions to bring this title about is tragic and terribly, terribly sad. However, its existence, as well as that of the many other tribute books published by the comics community, large and small, stands as a firm testament to the power of the human spirit, and of its ability to weather any crisis with compassion, dignity, hope, and above all, love - the only thing that can conquer the forces of hate. Don't let anyone tell you otherwise.

1. Three Fingers [link] (Top Shelf). The first time I thought Rich Koslowski could do more than just gag humor was when he relaunched The 3 Geeks as Geeksville. In addition to a 3 Geeks story (and an Innocent Bystander story by Gary Sassaman), he added a new feature called "True Tales From the Comic Shop," short stories based on actual accounts given him by comics retailers and drawn in a more realistic art style. This was my favorite part of the book, even moreso than the 3 Geeks (who, by this point, were quickly becoming little more than a one-trick pony), and when he announced that Geeksville was cancelled, I was hoping he'd do something along these lines in the future. To say that Three Fingers exceeded any and all expectations is an understatement. Koslowski takes a semi-wacky premise - cartoon characters as real-life Hollywood actors - and not only sells it, he brings a level of satire to it that borders on the truly disturbing and shocking. By reimagining these disguised cartoon icons as a minority species struggling for equality, Koslowski forces us to perceive them in an entirely new context. This is perhaps best typified by the image of Martin Luther King at his march on Washington, flanked by not only humans but toons. That image offended me at first until I thought about it in terms of the story as a whole, and I realized what a remarkable accomplishment it was. Three Fingers is about the price of fame, and in a world where people pay thousands of dollars for cosmetic surgery, rigid dietary programs, and even drugs to enhance their physical appeal, what the toons do to themselves is not so shocking after all… and the guilt that "Rickey Rat" bears, especially after all the evidence suggests the toons did what they did willingly, is heartbreaking and quite tragic. Koslowski has created a mesmerizing and thought-provoking graphic novel that, with any luck, will last as long as the legacies of the toons he so twistedly caricatures in it.


AND A BIG THANK YOU:

There are a few people I'd like to thank who I haven't mentioned much this year and would like to: David LeBlanc at Digital Webbing, Bob Stronach at ORCA, and Brian Jacks at Slush Factory for carrying my column this year; Ed Mathews and Neil Kleid, also at Slush; Elayne Riggs for helping with the Hilda Terry piece; Bibi Sandstrom for helping with the Thor Badendyck piece; Kristen Siebecker at MOCCA; Rick Olney and Tim O'Shea at ORCA; and as always, Brent Erwin at SPC, who's been with me from the start.

Now it's time for that big announcement: Starting January 6 and continuing every other Monday, I will be writing a brand new small press feature called "DIY" for the website Pulse! This will be different from "Cheap Seats" in that its focus will be exclusively on self-publishing. I've always written about them in "Cheap Seats," and always will, but over the course of my time here, I've expanded my range to include independent comics in general (and corporate comics occasionally). "DIY" will take me back to my roots, so to speak. I'm delighted to be working with Jen Contino, a dear friend who has played a very influential role in my own small press career and is without a doubt the hardest working woman in comics! My first story will be on someone I've written about here before - Crash Comics creator Tom Williams. Afterwards, "DIY" will alternate Mondays with "Cheap Seats." (Don't worry, I'll be sure to remind you. It's not as confusing as it sounds.)

So head over to comicon.com/pulse January 6 for the debut of "DIY" and then return here on January 13 and we'll start another year in the Cheap Seats! Have a happy new year, everyone!

 

 
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