Friday, July 24, 2009

Quest for the spark

Comic creators are by their very nature freelancers, meaning that even in the best of the times, they prefer to have several upcoming projects lined up in advance. With the global economical depression, the possibility of having paying work waiting on them for several months ahead would certainly seem in doubt for some of the more cynical authors. 

Speaking of American publishers, the predominant superhero giants are already working to the best of their ability, utilizing all of the characters in their libraries, at their most commercial. Yet, even among dozens of books they print each week, there exists an upper limit on the number of titles feasible in the market, thus limiting the options of the talent pool. What's more, the specific art style largely in vogue at both Marvel and DC is not something that most of the independent publishers looks upon with favour, or specialize in.

Of course, any of the established creators can always look forward to royalty checks made by reprinting their work, but there's no doubt that most of them seek current assignments, which would bring them a little more security in these hazardous times.

San Diego "Comic-Con" started off with the news that Jeff Smith, a world-renowned independent artist and publisher, has decided t continue the work that brought him most acclaim. The success story that was "Bone" is still being reformatted, actively bringing the younger readers to the field that has lost touch with it's original audience. With the advent of two new spin-offs, it would appear that Smith has decided to forgo the work on "RASL, his edgier current comic, in order to put all his energy into the all-ages title that he has made his name on.

For surely, even with his level of success in the American market, the decision to guide his career by sticking to his best-selling property currently seems the wisest one he could have made. After all, "Bone" has already had a couple of special projects added to it, notably the painted "Rose" graphic novel. But, it's actually "Stupid, stupid rat tails", that saw Smith teamed-up with writer Tom Sniegoski, which will set up the blueprint from the new stories. Reuniting the writer of the mini-series with the "Bone" creator is again, by all accounts, the business model that seems very stable, just like the announced publishing schedule.

Taking all this into account, perhaps some other creators will follow suit, deciding to come up with a strong creator-owned business plan. Despite the "Golden age" of comics being set firmly during the Great Depression, it is highly unlikely that the turbulent times will see the rise of new creations targeting wider audience. American Direct Market is very predictable in that it has exited for decades by servicing ever-dwindling fan-base that has time and again shown what it's tastes are. Therefore, presenting them with follow-ups to the rare successful creator-owned series seems like the most profitable idea outside the established systems of the dominant superhero publishers.

By their very nature, comics are a serialized form of entertainment, thus seeing spin-offs to the previously "finite" series seems like a very natural thing to do. In most cases, the creators of the series famous in 1980s and 1990s are still working, if not directly involved with the comics themselves, then a related entertainment field. And, not coincidentally, almost all of them look upon their own work with the same emotion that drew them towards comics in the first place, thus green-lighting just such a project wouldn't seem like such an unlikely idea. DC's "Vertigo" imprint has recently failed to negotiate the terms of Neil Gaiman returning to "Sandman", the comics series that brought him to fame. Reportedly, the writer and the editorial couldn't come to the terms with the salary he was to be paid for in order to script the prequel to one of comics' most acclaimed sagas.

Speaking of "Vertigo", a similar case could be made for "Preacher", the other of their best-selling series. In this instance, the creators have gone on record to note that they could not agree with the editorial regarding the printing of a very controversial special issue. In this instance, going back to rethink the publishing decision in light of the hopefully different censoring criteria, could potentially lead to rekindling the creators' interest to return to the property that was successful for everyone. With almost any longer narrative in sequential form, there has always been talk of developing the ideas hinted at, or discussed at some point in the series' history, which could potentially be reworked back into the original plan, instead of showing up in an unrelated project, where they would have to be marketed again.

Of course, the fan-interest would probably be the highest in the field of comics that were, for whatever reason, cancelled before the end of the their overarching story. By no means a rare occurrence, this unpopular method has seen a large number of critically-acclaimed work stand to this day uncompleted. In some instances, the very publishers who have given up on the titles because of the financial losses, have seen a new revenue stream by reprinting the work in question. Which brings even the most benevolent editor to a real task, gauging whether there is a chance to attract new readers to reengage a once cancelled classic series. Despite all the good will, this would seem to be a near-impossible task, also serving to demonstrate Steve Rude's financial difficulties related to his efforts to complete the long-in-development final act of "Nexus".

And that is discussing some of the most famous genre work produced in America in the last twenty years. Discounting the creators' decision to stem off the crisis by returning to some of their less famous assignments, they would still face an up-hill battle in today's market. But even when their most successful projects were independent comics some of them still managed to continue engaging the audience for year after year, like Terry Moore's "Strangers in paradise". The possibility of a return to the known quantity in American market, whether for actual creative reasons, or purely to behind the power of an already built franchise, could in the long run prove very opportune to both the creators and their readers.

Granted, "Bone" is pretty much unparalleled in the level of widespread interest it has generated, but that should not necessarily discourage fellow cartoonists. Actually, for that same exact reason, following upon any of Jeff Smith's business moves should seem like a very sound advice. And that's not even taking into account the cross media interest that could result from the creators returning to their signature work.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Ultimate Wolverine vs Hulk #1-6

"Ultimate Wolverine vs. Hulk", Marvel's long time in development project has recently been completed, making it a 6 part mini-series that took more than three years to come out. Spinning out of Mark Millar's "Ultimate X-Men" and "Ultimates", the imprint's best-selling titles, the nominal goal was presumably to recreate Wolverine's historical first appearance of main Marvel superhero universe. Due to the increased profile the more mainstream friendly Ultimate versions of their characters had, for a long time Marvel was very careful not to overextend it's imprint, building a brand name by hiring high-profile superhero talents, such as the Filipino-born artist Leinil Francis Yu. The company opted not to feature a traditional comics writer, but instead engaged the services of television's Damon Lindelof

Most famous for his work on "Lost", the writer ended up devoting so much of his time to the show, that his scripts started getting delayed further and further, up to the point where for all intents and purposes the series had been cancelled. Since that point, artist Yu has went on to collaborate with Brian Bendis on his "New Avengers" work, eventually ending up pencilling the company's 2008's "Secret invasion" event, with "Ultimate Wolverine vs Hulk" seemingly remaining only in the memories of fans, who kept asking the editorial about it at the comics conventions. And yet, upon completing his work on the high-profile project, Marvel revealed that Yu's next assignment would be finishing up the long-delayed Ultimate mini-series. Apparently, Lindelof has completed all of his scripts, making the company secure to finally green light the once-successful series once again.

Sticking to the project's intended goals, it's easy to see what Marvel was hoping to accomplish. Yu is a certified comics artist, well known for his detailed and dynamic style and has a history with Wolverine. On the other hand, Lindelof is a well-known comic-book fan, who has exhibited both the ability for capable non-sequential storytelling, along with well-developed characters in "Lost". Apparently, the publisher thought that pointing him to Mark Millar's approach would be enough to make this "Ultimates" spin-off a fun and interesting mini-series on it's own. Marvel is well-aware that the 1970s "Incredible Hulk"#180-181 is going to attract only existing fans, so recreating the story with incarnations of their characters more attuned to their counterparts, in a modern setting would have a much better chance of attracting new audiences. In any event, their hardcore fans would surely find the new story a capable read, particularly as a part of the successful "Ultimate imprint".

In retrospect, had it come out in the promised, bi-monthly fashion, the series would have had a much better chance of retaining the sales level it had when it debuted. But, even then, it is a project with some of it's own particularities. From the continuity point of view, the changes to the original Wolverine/Hulk meeting are perhaps the most visible part of the project. Clearly, substituting the "Department H" with SHIELD is a commendable idea, in keeping with the Ultimate universe streamlining the more familiar aspects of regular Marvel continuity. On the other hand, the absence of Wendigo is a glaring difference, but one that may in the end work to the story's strengths. Even in the story as over the top as "Ultimate Wolverine vs Hulk", the presence of arctic were-beast would be uncalled for. Substituting him with a Ultimate make-over of another, much more popular Marvel character, is a much sounder idea that the company could benefit from, working to the strengths of a tale, pitting two such large egos as Wolverine and the Hulk. 

Actually, Lindelof's story strips the original down to it's premise, of a government agency using Wolverine's services as a black ops soldier to quietly take down the Hulk, where the army and the other superhumans have failed time and time again. "Ultimate Wolverine vs Hulk" follows up on the Mark Millar and Bryan Hitch's "Ultimates II", but is actually very accessible to the readers with working knowledge of any incarnation of the Hulk. What's more, Lindelof makes almost no reference to "Ultimate X-Men"'s continuity, preferring to use an almost universal version of Wolverine, which is in keeping with the story's focus on Bruce Banner. Lindelof's exploration of Wolverine mostly stays on his distinctive character, with a couple of visual nods familiar to his longtime fans, in the way of his signature hat, and an eye-patch that he picks up on his visit to Hong Kong. Truthfully, most of the writer's fascination with the character seems to come from his regenerative abilities, which for once play a large part in the story.

The creative team actually spends most of the series convincing the readers that Wolverine is the only one capable of sustaining intensive physical damage, seemingly needed in order to have a prolonged conversation with the Hulk. Yu is a very capable penciler when it comes to depicting the gore involved in a way that is both very detailed, and yet nonsensical. This, of course, calls back to the "Ultimates", which managed to do all that and elect pathos, by having Hulk commit mass-murder. In contrast, "Ultimate Wolverine vs Hulk" sidesteps that particular stylistic conundrum by taking place in Tibet, effectively eliminating the possibility of human causalities

Lindelof effectively ties up some of Hulk's murders as a part of the joke at one moment, with Yu memorably depicting the monster as having a harem. The silliness of the situation shows how the creators are dealing with the story, positioning it's emotional center on the Bruce Banner/Hulk psychological dynamic, with the violence as the visual extension of the rage. Dissociated from some of the "Ultimates"'s intended depth, they actively work to make "Ultimate Wolverine vs Hulk" as much of a comic-book story as they can, with no real pretense of a political message. The story actually revels in it's immaturity, like a novice storyteller incapable of letting the best parts of his tale spill before he even gets to their place in the narrative. 

All of the book's outlook can actually be summed up in Yu's rendition of Bruce Banner, who is divorced from the neurotic look that Bryan Hitch gave him. The new penciler gives him a much more familiar heroic look, with chiseled features, of a more traditional comic-book hero, that is not really in keeping with the book's humour, but serves to further cement the book's dualistic nature. It's almost like Marvel is consciously gearing their Ultimate releases to appeal to an adolescent fan base, that is supposedly both thrilled by the superhero setting, but at the same time attracted to the garish jokes and scantly-clad females. This is nowhere more clear than in the sequences featuring Tibet as it may have existed in a distant past, in order to proceed with a couple of off-beat gags. Still, once the reader has embraced the story's stylings and internal logic, some of the more inspired touches can somewhat ease off some of the series' more exaggerations, with a wonderfully twisted dream sequence starring a panda as a particular highlight.

Still, most of the series goes for a particularly mixed violent tone, that is familiar to superhero readers, albeit defined by the constant jumps around in time. Similarly to Lidenlof's "Lost", but even more exaggerated, it seems like no two sequences follow each other chronologically, with the writer using a particularly fragmented method to control the pacing and choose to only spotlight the thematically linked events in each issue. That way, the creative team controls the pacing for the most impact, while also constantly hinting at forthcoming scenes that the reader should await on. Lindelof's story thus alternates between dialogue heavy, and somber scenes, entire issues of exposition, even, and their more fast-paced and explosive counterparts. As it stands now, it's difficult to judge what kind of story it would be like, had it been told in a more conventional chronological sense.

"Lost"'s influence extends to even to some Easter eggs, that seem to pile on in the later issues. It's not really jarring, but a fan of the show could start anticipating the visual references and actually get taken out of the story for a moment. Similiar to Kevin Smith's work, Lindelof's screenwriter frame of mind makes some of the characters discuss movies and make similar analogies much more often than usual for the comics, but not to an extent that would work to the detriment of the story.

As for the supporting cast, what little there is of it, they're all introduced to the story in a very organic way. Even a particular bit player with a role that is no more than a plot-device has been set-up in advance, making the story stronger and more realistic for it. Concentrating of the main females, both are given enough room to feel like somewhat developed characters of their own, with Yu's female physical model working in particularly against the script. The artist refuses to differentiate between the more intellectual, professor's body type and that of Hulk's fiancee, which bizarrely adds to the mystery about which one of the two will be revamped as the Ultimate version of a familiarly well-endowed Marvel character.

Of course, besides Wolverine and the Hulk, the other most notable character is Nick Fury, who ends up being the focal point of all the outside problems this series has had. Of course, both Lindelof and Yu present the familiar Ultimate incarnation of the character, as established in "Ultimate Spider-Man" and "the Ultimates", which has actually changed since the series debuted. Because, during the "Ultimate Power" crossover with the than popular "Squadron Supreme" series, Nick Fury actually left the Ultimate universe for the separate continuity of the JMS' series. Thus, all of his interactions with Wolverine and Hulk in this much-delayed mini-series actually take place prior to the Ultimate universe's current events. Not only that, but the haphazard decision to move Fury into a completely different series belay the problems that have befallen the Ultimate imprint since the days when "Ultimate Wolverine vs Hulk"#1 was first published. In that way, the Lindelof/Yu mini-series is perhaps the last example of Marvel actively hoping to build the Ultimate brand by contacting the high-profile talents, before contacting Jeph Loeb to try and set the new direction for the failing line.

And it's Nick Fury that draws the convoluted story to a close, after one too many McGuffin has appeared in it's finale. Fury leads the two of Marvel's icons to the tale's non-conclusion, the only possible event given their high-profile. For all of the shocks, reveals and heightened emotions, "Ultimate Wolverine vs Hulk" achieves little but introducing a related Ultimate character. Even the retelling of the original "Incredible Hulk" story is an afterthought, as the main selling point here are two of Marvel's most recognisable characters. Just like Nick Fury has recently returned from his sabbatical to the Ultimate imprint in Jeph Loeb's and David Finch's "Ultimatum", with #6 "Ultimate Wolverine vs Hulk" seems to have also completed it's inconsequential journey back to where it started.

In the end, Marvel has went to a lot of pains to ensure that the remaining fans see the completed story the editorial has planned with Damon Lindelhof more than three years ago, only to see but a smothering of their customers return. And even they already seem to remember it only for the high point of it's absurdity, an image of scarred Hulk tearing Wolverine in half, featured in it's 2006 debut.