Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Change of direction and the value of the protracted Second Act (PART ONE)

Faced with decades of history of creator-owned genre ongoing series, it's easy to highlight some of the established trends. Following the brief turn in the 1980s where the creator owned titles continued past their originators, making for seldom sequels of Dean Motter's original "Mister X" run, the non-Mike Grell "Sable" follow-up, and perhaps most famously, additional "American Flagg" material with no participation of Howard Chaykin (all of which probably had to do with the contracts drafted with publishers), the advent of self-publishing lead to a different set-up in the next decade. And while some of the 1990s creators opted for a long but ultimately finite story, like Jeff Smith with "Bone", most of the creators were still forced to confirm to the realities of the market and strike a deal with the existing publisher. And while some of the creators were adamant that the publisher respects the envisioned ending of their work, such as Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon's "Preacher", this has still lead to some of their peers deciding to retain a presence in the market with more than the collections of the already published work.

Continuing with the Vertigo example, the publisher's move into 2000s book reflects this philosophy. On the one hand, DC's creator friendly imprint provided for the acclaimed "Y the Last Man", a finite story that would stay in print thanks to the good will of the fans and kind reviews, it's another title that has fully exploited its popularity in precisely the manner which pertains to this post. Bill Willingham's "the Fables", an eminently likable title that still exhibits all of the weaknesses of the major publisher's flagship title, has from the start mapped out a sprawling story geared with a seemingly clear endpoint. It's doubtful that its creator, who himself debuted in the pages of a 1980ies independent title, had a clear idea that it's appeal was going to win over so many fans and cement itself as the imprint's premiere title. Yet, with the advent of a spin-off ongoing, it was clear that the publisher was eager to change its plans to support the demand for more stories in the same general vein.

Yet, coming into 2010s, rare are the fans who wholeheartedly endorse the creative team's decision to continue past of the obvious endpoint of the story. By continuing the subplots, Willingham was certainly able to tide over the fans and have the new direction feel like an organic continuation, but it's difficult not to think that something was lost in the translation. Of course, this turn of events is nothing new when it comes to serial published genre work. Looking over at Dark Horse, it's easy to see Mike Mignola coming to a natural, if unwieldy endpoint for Hellboy in "the Conquerer Worm" mini-series. Faced with a market that was still positively responding to his creation, and the advent of the movie adaptation on the way, the writer/artist was determined to find a way of launching a less ambitious yet quality genre spin-off, while he reworks his signature creation into another direction. Interestingly, due to the strength of the talent involved with "B.P.R.D.", the title formed a separate identity while retaining enough of old Hellboy charm, but "Hellboy" the series continued in a very uncertain direction.

A couple of short, distinctively patchy mini-series followed, testing the resolve of the fans, before Mignola settled for handing over the artistic duties, a major part of the series' charm, to another artist. Following the terminated collaboration with Lee Bermejo, Mignola gave the script to Duncan Fegredo, a considerably accomplished artist in his own right, which finally provided for the continuation of a much teased and very controversial second phase in the life of Hellboy.

Continuing in the direction of the acclaimed short-stories featuring the character leaning in a more mythological direction has meant for some puzzling and very disconcerting events. A vocal majority of Mignola's fans defended the new direction, but it's clear that it's at odds with the initial pulp-inspired roots of the character. Just like "Fables", "Hellboy" had taken a significant overhaul when it comes to it's initial story structure to assure it's continued existance in the second decade of its publishing. Right now, as it enters its third decade in the American direct market, from editorial standpoint the title's never been stronger, but it comes at the expanse of "B.P.R.D." undergoing a major change in the direction, and the main title entering it's third, and supposedly final transformation.

Both the Vertigo and Dark Horse flagships, with their numerous spin-offs, changes in direction, and growing lists of contributors have long since abandoned their initial set-up, but the real question is have they lost some of their appeal with all the reshuffling?

To fully comprehend the answer, one must ironically look back at their superhero predecessors, which is pertinent considering that both Willingham and Mignola made their names in the industry by working on superhero titles.

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