Ambidextrous 281: What I Know Now: Chapter Two

Unknown Soldier #1

Welcome back to the Ambidextrous Year End Extravaganza…

If this is the first you’re hearing of this, then you’ve already missed things about the torrid affair between comics and Hollywood, the greatness of an Iron Fist omnibus, reasons to buy Secret Six and Air, and a year filled with dozens of reasons to “forgive” One More Day. Catch up here before it’s too late, and then sit back and enjoy more of what we learned from comics in 2008. As always, comments welcome below.

Best Meets Best-

Matt Fraction and Jason Aaron are the two best writers in comics…according to me, anyway. Both of them have spent the entire year consistently delivering fantastic work, some of it on the biggest properties in comics, some of it on more personal creator-owned work. Both of them are creative voices that’ll be driving some of the best material in comics next year, and we should all be thankful for it. How can I boldly proclaim something like that, you ask? Well, that’s easy, ladies and gentlemen---it’s simple mathematics.

Fraction closed out a critically acclaimed run on Immortal Iron Fist, in conjunction with Ed Brubaker and a crew of great artists, by writing the best issue of his entire tenure with #16. He also wrote a series of Thor one-shots and a Secret Invasion: Thor mini that made it obvious that if JMS ever leaves the main title, Marvel doesn’t have to look very far for an excellent successor. He and Ed Brubaker have sparked a new era in the X-Men titles, relocating the team to San Francisco and turning Scott Summers into the official shepard of a dwindling mutant race. The Order (a book more people should’ve read) turned into the prologue of Invincible Iron Man, which was one of the best launches of ’08. And Casanova!? Man, that book only had one of the greatest twist endings in the history of twist endings wrap up its recent arc. Sure a hardcover of that is only one of the great Fraction related things to look forward to in the new year.

Meanwhile, Jason Aaron’s work is anchored by the gloriousness of Scalped. After I finished reading the Casino Boogie trade, I spent fifteen minutes explaining to my girl just why the criss-crossing narrative was one of the most impressive things I’d ever seen ever. Then the next arc “Dead Mothers” broke my heart into tiny pieces. Then the two-parter about the highly dysfunctional relationship between Carol and Dash culminates in a moment that stepped on whatever was left. And in a week or so, we’ll all learn what happens after poor Dino comes face to face with the horrible Mr. Brass and his black bag.

Somewhere around all that, Aaron has also managed to turn Ghost Rider into his second Vertigo monthly, pen a deeply entertaining and deeply violent arc of Wolverine, and show everybody why Wakanda is not to be _____ with in a fantastic Secret Invasion-inspired arc of Black Panther. Next year, we’ve got more Scalped, more Ghost Rider, and a new Wolverine monthly that stands a chance at being one of the best launches of ’09. And keep in mind, this is only the stuff we know about. Sure to be a couple surprises down the line as well.

Skies No Longer Red-

Now obviously, the point of a line-wide event is to encourage the fans to buy as many of the satellite books as possible, but I don’t remember a time when so many of them were actually worth it. Oh, there’s some questionable content out there, but the size and scope of these stories almost forces some of the cool moments out of the main series. There are just too many characters and too many plot threads running concurrently to devote adequate space to them all. The books would be too long and then they’d never come out, which would turn into a whole other problem I won’t get into. But the mission statement for these has to be daunting---we’ve come to expect not only a great story, but one that was forecast months (possibly years) in advance, whose conclusion effectively lays the foundation for the next years’ worth of stories. No pressure at all there, but what is allowing the crossovers to pick up additional layers and perspectives is the willing inclusion of other creators.

Secret Invasion was Bendis’ baby, but I think it was a more complete event because of the things that happened in Avengers: The Initiative. Where else would 3-D Man of all people have received such a prominent spotlight? The ascension of Norman Osborn was obvious to anyone following Gage’s short stint on Thunderbolts, as was a new status quo for War Machine, who received an important message from Tony Stark the minute a world full of Starktech was compromised. The new Captain Britain series used SI as a great launch pad, showing that the Skrulls’ assault was so comprehensive, it included a plan to control all the world’s magic. Black Panther and Storm repelled a war party in violent fashion in their book, and so on and so on. No, they weren’t essential to the main narrative, but was there room in the main book for any of this? Absolutely not, and several people made the most of it.

Same exact thing with Final Crisis. Martian Manhunter dies almost off-panel in the first issue, and Pete Tomasi turns that moment into one of the best single issues anyone released last year. Geoff Johns reunites with his former Flash collaborator Scott Kolins to reposition the Rogues, presumably for the upcoming Flash revival, and Johns teams with George Perez to give the Legion the same treatment. Then he takes the opportunity to further introduce the Red Lanterns, teasing what I’m expecting will be a massive GL push once “Blackest Night” starts. But the series I’m really impressed by is Rucka’s Final Crisis: Revelations. Not only does it reunite Cris Allen and Montoya in probably the weirdest epilogue to an acclaimed crime comic ever, but it also fully explores that window of time Morrison left in the main series. Love that the Anti-Life Equation has a full and terrifying definition, but here is where we see it in practice. And how faith ties into it in a clever way.

Plus, Grant himself is filling in the blanks with one-shots and minis, really giving everyone the best of both worlds---a main series that can be read independently of everything else, but so many other creative takes that it’s hard to actually stick to that. Least it was to me, but obviously, I’m a sucker for these types of things, especially when there’s good creators attached. If we’ve gotta have these things every year, then this is the smart way to do it.

Not Impossible…Inevitable-

Okay, so once the prices of comics go up across the board (and they will, think about it), what happens after that? As much as we protest, the icons will likely survive relatively unscathed, which is why I think Marvel is trying to start the monthly bumps there, as it can potentially subsidize everything else and keep a good majority of the regular line at three bucks. The biggest problem there is that it’ll likely force a decent amount of the audience to become further entrenched into their favorite franchises, which will turn our already high allergy to new books and characters into something untreatable. I love the guys to death, but everything having to be directly tied into Spider-Man, Batman, and the Avengers just to have a chance of being profitable is utterly depressing.

We might have to abandon the old rules and potentially adopt some format changes to soften the blow. What about bumping page counts by two or three pages? Or packing the books with behind-the-scenes material, or shorter back-up stories from premier artists that don’t have time to commit to a regular gig? Or cutting together little teaser reels for subsequent issues? I mean, any number of things can be done, some definitely more cost-effective than others, but raising the prices on every standard comic and hoping no one notices is just going to send people running for torrent sites and waiting patiently for trades.

Something else I really like the idea of is doing a regular reprint anthology, which Marvel appears to be starting up in February. Take four or five important stories from four or five different series, slap an affordable price on it, and use it as ad material for books that need a little additional push. Instead of these kinds of books only showing up when you want to launch a bunch of new titles with a similar theme or focus, this should become a permanent fixture of the catalog.

Also great to see companies like Top Cow turning it into a clever marketing tool, and I hope to see more independent companies going out there and planning similar initiatives to try to bring in more interest. Call me crazy, but I’m a firm believer that spreading the money around in an industry will only benefit all involved.

Buy This Book-

Unknown Soldier, by Joshua Dysart and Alberto Ponticelli

Think this was announced almost two years ago at San Diego, and I’ve been waiting for it ever since…or possibly before, I honestly can’t remember. See, during that same con weekend, I had lunch with Dysart (he’s good friends with my man Nate) and he told us all about the incredible amount of research he’d done for this book, which included a trip to Africa where he visited several of the places that appear in the book. His stories made the fabled “dark continent” sound like an incredibly interesting, though immensely depressing locale, and there’s no hiding that in Unknown Soldier.

There’s a punishing realism to the book, especially in the depictions of the lives of women and young children. The level of brutality and violence that some of them are routinely exposed to is truly horrifying, and the reasons for it are even worse. Trapped in the middle is a good man who was only trying to help and has been permanently damaged for his trouble. It’s a complicated work to be sure, but Dysart strikes a great balance in keeping his narrative crisp and clear, while finding enough room for education and exploration. It’s really a great book, even better than expected, and a perfect fit for Vertigo, which is known for their challenging and groundbreaking material. Hopefully, they’ll be giving it the same treatment that Air is receiving in a couple months, with a bargain priced trade and a welcoming one-dollar issue. It truly deserves it, and there’s literally no other book like it on the stands. If you can’t take my word for it though, feel free to drop by the writer's dedicated site. Script excerpts, research materials, photos, videos, etc. await those seeking more.

And that concludes the second chapter of What I Now Know. In two days comes the packed conclusion, with thoughts on an under appreciated writer, comics made for us and by us, the next great DC franchise, and how things never quite go according to plan. Until then, and hope everyone has a great holiday.

The Fiction House

Twitter activity