Wednesday, August 7, 2013

The First Doctor Revisited

   I have been spending a lot of my free time lately watching and rewatching the BBC's documentary series 
"The Doctors Revisited." The reason for the frequent rewatching is because I keep having mixed feelings about each episode and want to see if repeat viewings clarify my thoughts. I finally decided that the only way to really clarify them much at all was to express them. Since my wife is a Who fan but not the massive nerd that I am, the best expression is to write about what I think.

   I've watched Doctor Who since I was a very young child. My parents were Doctor Who fans when I was a kid (though neither of them are the huge nerd I am either they are both moderately geeky in their own ways) and my first viewings were alongside them on Saturdays on KCET 28. My parents' love of the show is easy to understand as an adult; as die-hard science fiction fans on the one hand and committed members of a pacifist Christian denomination on the other they must have eaten the show up. Though Peter Davison and Colin Baker were the current Doctors on the BBC during this period, American TV was running re-runs. Thus the Doctors who inspired my fond childhood memories of the show were Jon Pertwee and Tom Baker. Like many Brits a bit older than me, Tom Baker was the Doctor for me for a very long time despite the fact that a healthy exposure to Pertwee gave me a lot of respect for his run on the show. I did see Peter Davison's run as a kid but family time watching TV on Saturdays was no longer a regular thing before PBS finished broadcasting all his episodes. As a result, Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy (and the truly wonderful Sophie Aldred) were entirely unknown to me until my adulthood. Nor had I ever seen Patrick Troughton outside the classic anniversary special "The Five Doctors."

   That said, by the time BBC began running the documentary I had seen plenty of all the Doctors. I had rediscovered Doctor Who in college (where a friend and I used to watch episodes on the projector in a in the Bible and Religion professor's classroom late at night on weekends) and the bulk of the episodes we watched starred Peter Davison and Colin Baker. Then, several years ago when my wife and I were still living in Tennessee, the magic of the internet brought something truly special into my possession: a massive collection of all 26 seasons of the original show with the infamous lost episodes of the Hartnell and Troughton runs reconstructed through still photos taken during production over the original audio tracks. By this time I had already seen one First Doctor serial but had still never seen Troughton outside The Five Doctors. Suffice it to say it is a treasure I still exploit as often as possible. So I was very excited by the documentary. Rather than put everything in one post, I am going to write about each episode one at a time.

   William Hartnell was obviously before my time but the show I loved as a child would never have existed without him.The grand historical dramas and cheesy pseudo-historical comedies of his run are something that has been missing from subsequent runs (saving only the single story "The Highlanders" from the Troughton run and the oddball two-episode story "Black Orchid" from Davison's run) and I think this a great shame even if some of these stories were terribly bad. These kinds of shows stopped being written because the audience loved the monsters. Yet at their best the "historicals" made excellent use of an inverted perspective in which the Doctor and his companions were "monsters" whose very presence risked unraveling the fabric of history.

   Perhaps because the First Doctor is still the version of the character to which I have been least exposed, this was an episode about which I had very few complaints and only one real disagreement. I found the dissertations of Stephen Moffat, David Tennant, and Neil Gaiman (a man who really should be offered a chance to run the show and who really should say yes if ever offered the job) on how different the Hartnell Doctor was from his successors very much in line with many of my own thoughts. I could make a minor quibble here if I really wanted to. The personal authority that the First Doctor could exert if he so wished was fundamental to Pertwee's portrayal of the Third Doctor and is something only Peter Davison ever really wholly abandoned. Even the Second Doctor has a few of these great moments. This surprising authority combined with the occasional malignancy the First Doctor could demonstrate helped established the alien-ness so central to Tom Baker's legendary run, the bombastic egotism of Colin Baker's Sixth Doctor, the Machivallian ruthlessness of Sylvester McCoy's brilliant run as the Seventh Doctor, and the brooding dark side both Christopher Eccleston and David Tennant were capable of showing. Still, despite the manner in which Hartnell laid the core groundwork of the character, those watching the first series of Doctor Who after only viewing the newer version of the show from Eccleston on would have a hard time recognizing their idea of the Doctor in this curmudgeonly old antihero. 

   Yet this was Hartnell's magic, the reason I still watch his stories with relish. The First Doctor is the cranky old grandfather who is a proper bastard to almost everyone but whose love for his family shines through again and again. His combative but close relationship with Ian Chesterton is clearly the difficult relationship between a father and son of very different generations and values but remarkably similar strength of conviction. This and the amazing closeness between the First Doctor and his granddaughter Susan is the glue that created the show and laid the groundwork for the relationships between all future Doctors and their companions. Despite creating a starting point for all the future developments of the character, the First Doctor is the most unique. All his successors but the Fifth possess a manic energy he utterly lacks and this lone exception utterly lacks the crankiness and steely authority that might (when combined with a TARDIS as constantly full as that of the First Doctor) have brought him closer to his roots. One can see the First Doctor to varying degrees in the successors but nothing of the successors in the original. As the First and Original, this is only right.

   The one disagreement I did have with this show was with the episode chosen as Moffat's "Adventure with the First Doctor." Not because I do not love "The Aztecs" nor because it is not a classic example of a form largely ignored since Hartnell's tenure. It is merely that, to me, the greatest story of the Hartnell era will always be "The Daleks" while the most profoundly influential (if not as good from a viewer's perspective) is "The Keys of Marinus."

   "The Aztecs" was the first story starring Hartnell I ever saw. Its portrayal of one of the Doctor's companion as the fundamental source of all the crew's troubles during their visit is a profound use of the science fiction aspect of the "historical." While the villians Tloxtol and Ixta are appropriately diabolical, the real reason for the conflict is shown in Tloxtol's sidekick Tonila. He is a basically good man who is defending his culture from an invader seeking to conquer it and profoundly twist it to suit her idea of what it should be.The fact that Barbara is trying to save the Aztec civilization from Cortez is beside the point. She is the "alien" in this story and it is the manner in which the villains view her as a dangerous monster to be destroyed that drives the action. Human sacrifice may be something we can all agree is evil and wrong today, but the Aztec perspective was different and Tonila is a brilliant demonstration of this perspective. Tloxtol and Ixta are fundmentally evil people using treacherous means to protect positions threatened by Barbara's reforming zeal. Tonila is occupying a role much like that of Alistair Lethbridge-Stewart in "The Web of Fear", "The Invasion", and the entire run of the Third Doctor: he is the defender of his civilization's way of life. For all this brilliance, however, I suspect "The Aztecs" was chosen because it was easily combined into a two hour feature. As an historical drama its influence is minimal on a show that has since become an adventure in Lovecraftian sci-fi horror combined with high comedy.

   On the other hand, "The Daleks" is classically representative of the show and a grand look into the future. Though Moffat says that Hartnell emerges as a hero in "The Dalek Invasion of Earth" it is here that he first faces the creatures that Russell T. Davies made the fundamental focus of his term as showrunner and who Moffat calls the Doctor's most iconic enemies. It is here that the Doctor essentially makes a decision (even if his companions do bully him into it) to save the threatened Thalls from the Daleks' plan to finally "win" their hideous war by destroying all life on their planet but themselves. It is the story that planted the fertile seeds of two of my very favorite Doctor Who moments: Tom Baker's masterful performance in "Genesis of the Daleks" and the Seventh Doctor's coldly reflective decision to undo the Fourth Doctor's mistake in Sylvester McCoy's tour de force performance through "Remembrance of the Daleks." Most of all, "The Daleks" is the first great Doctor Who story. Every serial before it was decidedly inferior and very few since have matched it.

   "The Keys of Marinus" immediately precedes "The Aztecs" and is often considered decidedly inferior to it. It also has comparatively little of the Doctor himself. The cast is split up to search for different components of the titular maguffin of the story and the Doctor's companions and the supporting characters Altos and Sabetha are frequently the focus of the action. Yet like the best of the Sixth Doctor's stories the Doctor himself has a grand moment at the story's conclusion. Indeed, it could be said this episode set the formula that Eric Saward used for much of his run as script editor: the Doctor is the catalyst whose insertion into an already existing conflict or crisis finally resolves the issue but his companions and their local allies are the primary focus of much of the story. It also, by introducing a common thread that links otherwise very disparate episodes into a coherent story, set the standard that was used much more subtly by both Davies and Moffat in creating story arcs for each series of the show under their tenure. Most importantly its formula was responsible for the very best storytelling arcs of the Third and Fourth Doctors. Both the grand cycle of the Master in the 8th Series (in which Roger Delgado is essentially a regular and the Master plays a role in every story) and the Fourth Doctor's grand epic "The Key to Time" (the root of my biggest beef with the documentaries, though that must wait til I write about the Fourth Doctor) make use of this formula to arguably greater effect than this underappreciated little story. This serial is better than it is given credit for being and every fan of Jon Pertwee or Tom Baker would not be able to help but remember its influence.

   Is it unrealistic to want to have seen one of these serials featured in place of "The Aztecs"? Probably. "The Daleks" lasted seven episodes and clocks in at three and a half hours. "The Keys to Marinus" lasted six, clocks in at three hours, and frequently does not even feature the Doctor. So I understand the choice of "The Aztecs." It consists of four half-hour episodes that make perfect tv-movie viewing and I even agree it is probably superior to "The Keys of Marinus." I just can't help but cling to the idea that either would be more representative of how the First Doctor affected and continues to inspire the future of the show instead of offering an isolated picture of a part of the show's past future writers would discard almost entirely.

   I guess, like the First Doctor himself, I am a curmudgeon.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Superman: The Quest (Update)

After more than a year, the second part of the prologue to my Superman fan fic is posted. Other projects have kept me busy, but this is finally up. One more part remains before the story itself begins.

Thanks for the patience. :)

Thursday, April 15, 2010

What About Lloyd Alexander?

With the success of 'Lord of the Rings' as a movie franchise, the expectations of Guillermo Del Toro's film adapations of 'The Hobbit', and the ongoing production of 'Chronicles of Narnia' movies there has been a massive revival of Hollywood interest in young adult fantasy literature over the latter part of this decade. This has had some excellent results (in my mind the best thus far is the 'Harry Potter' franchise, which are completely true to the books even if they cannot include every detail), some mixed results ('Eragon' was an enjoyable movie, but the source material is somewhat derivative and the movie too slick and modern in its 'feel'), and some just plain bad ones (I've heard 'The Spiderwick Chronicles' are fun books, but turning such a long series into one movie did not do justice to either books or the finished movie... and let's say nothing about 'The Golden Compass' except that people who saw the movie should not let it stop them from reading the books) when all is told.

People my age or a bit older will remember (or have deliberately forgotten) Walt Disney's 'The Black Cauldron.' Wikipedia claims that come critics blamed the movie's failure on 'the dark nature of the book', but we're talking about a Disney movie so let's keep in mind the source material and the final product had relatively little in common except names of characters and some very broad concepts. Nor is the source material in question substantially darker than "Lord of the Rings' or 'Harry Potter.' Indeed, it has quite a lot in common with the latter.

'The Black Cauldron' is a mish-mash of the first two books in Lloyd Alexander's 'Chronicles of Prydain.' The fact that the two books have completely different stories and entirely disparate supporting casts (though the young hero and his small cadre of friends remain the central protagonists in both) did not lend itself to a very polished final product. In the revial of interest in young adult fantasy literature, both on and off screen, I am often surprised to hear

There are five books in the series: The Book of Three (on the story of which the Disney cartoon was largely based), The Black Cauldron (some elements and characters of which were combined with the basic plot of the first book to produce the final movie), The Castle of Llyr, Taran Wanderer, and The High King.

Whereas Tolkien and Lewis peak early (I still believe The Fellowship of the Rings to be the best book in LotR and that Narnia is all downhill after* The Horse and His Boy), Alexander's series improves with each volume. More importantly, like Harry Potter after him, Taran the Assistant Pig-Keeper grows up over the course of his series and the books grow up with him.

The Book of Three
is a rather standard fairy tale story with the dark elements of traditional European fairty tales but a heroic, happy ending.

The Black Cauldron
is a darker book in which the hard facts of death, loss, failure, and the real cost of heroism are faced without flinching... but once again the ending is happy and heroic for the protagonists and good conquers evil.

The Castle of Llyr
is more complicated. It is a break from the titanic struggle of the first two novels. There is no grand conflict between good and evil, but petty court politics and ugly revenge plots. There are touches of high adventure and romance, but the core of the story is the ambiguity of early adolescence and the knowledge that those closest to us are not necessarily there forever. Here the end is bittersweet rather than happy: though Taran has foiled the villain and saved the life of his best friend (with whom he comes to accept he is a bit in love), he is still left with the fact that he must go home and she really has moved away.

Taran Wanderer addresses the hard part of adolescence: those years when we stop being defined by our family life (in this case Taran's rather idyllic farm life with warrior-turned-farmer Coll and ancient enchanter Dallben) and begin to decide who and what we want to be. The conflict with good and evil is reduced to individual encounters with adults who seek to instill their own values in the protagonist. The hot-tempered, larger-than-life, and soft-hearted King Smoit offers Taran what he wants most, at the cost of abandoning his search for who he really is. The amoral, sensualist Dorath illustrates the dangers of freedom bereft of a moral compass. The wicked sorceror Morda provides a stern challenge that Taran must truly face and conquer on his own without the aid of those on whom he has long relied. Most dangerous of all, the heroic but terribly flawed Craddoc (a crippled farmer scratching his livelihood from a near wasteland) demonstrates the dangers of finding what we're looking for and not liking it one bit. The folk of the Free Commots instill the value of hard-work, responsibility, and independence... and each craft that Taran studies teaches him something about life far more valuable than the mere crafts themselves. Gazing into the Mirror of Llunet, Taran finally sees who he really is. Yet, in the end, Taran returns home to rejoin his family eager for the reunion. The happiness, sorrow, heroism, and tragedy are not in the destination but the journey.

The High King returns to the grand struggle between good and evil with renewed urgency and the greatest threat of all. The tragedy of life is faced as friends and family are lost to the horrors of war and the ravages of time. The final triumph does not bring the happiness that the hero thinks is his; though the ending is certainly a happy one it also teaches the last and hardest lesson of growing up. As children, we think it will all be easier when we have grown up. As adults, we discover the real work is only beginning and it was childhood that really offered us the ease and shelter we never appreciated as children.

The series would be better served by live action treatment than a cartoon and by screenwriters interested in telling its stories rather than using its trappings to tell pleasing heart-warmers. Disney may still have the movie rights tied up, I don't know, but a studio looking for a good young adult fantasy property could do far worse.

What is important, however, is not that more movies be made. If someone is actually reading this, they should go out and read the books at their library or buy them for their kids. I can say from experience that children of all ages could do far worse.

* C.S. Lewis said, during his life, that he felt the books should be read in the proper chronological order of the stories rather than the order of their publication. The single volume of the series published to tie-in to the release of Prince Caspian was so ordered at the request of his literary estate. However, most editions use the chronological order of publication. Thus, when I criticize what comes 'after The Horse and His Boy' as inferior, I specifically mean the last two written: The Magician's Nephew and The Last Battle. This is not because of their religious allegory, which I find very simple and sweet, but because they (especially the latter book) are simply not as tightly plotted and well characterized as the better books in the series.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

There Really Are People Geekier Than Me...

... or so I thought when I found the Marvel tarot in an obscure corner of the web.

Of course, I then went about proving myself wrong by trying to improve on it. The original listing of the Major Arcana is at the given link. Here is my version:

The Fool - Dr. Doom

The Magician - Hawkeye

The High Priestess - Storm

The Empress - Sue Richards (The Invisible Woman)

The Emperor - Reed Richards (Mr. Fantastic)

The Hierophant - The Watcher

The Lovers - Peter Parker and Mary-Jane

The Chariot - Tony Stark (Iron Man)

Justice - Nick Fury

The Hermit - Rogue

Wheel of Fortune - Bruce Banner (The Incredible Hulk)

Strength - Ben Grimm (the Thing)

The Hanged Man - Matt Murdock (Daredevil)

Death - Wolverine

Art - Alicia Masters

The Devil - Namor (the Sub-Mariner)

The Tower - Galactus

The Star - Charles Xavier (Professor X)

The Moon - Johnny Storm (the Human Torch)

The Sun - Captain America

Judgment - Magneto

The World - The Red Skull

Some of these may make perfect sense to you. Some are surely really out of the box. No fear. I shall explain my choices.

The Fool : The original lists Spider-Man, who is a good, solid, and obvious choice. Dr. Doom was listed as The Devil. Yet upon consideration and reflection, Victor von Doom struck me as the prototypical fool. So arrogant that it borders on innocence and an honorable man as long as one excepts his premise of the universe, Doom has absolute faith and his own left-handed wisdom. He is also one of several cards in my selection that strikes upon a basic theme: we are far more often reversed than we are upright.

The Magician: Hawkeye certainly surprises you, so I feel the need to explain my reasoning. First, the original card in the tarot deck was Le Mountebanke, a very different kind of conjurer. Second, a list of the card's qualities soon suggests Hawkeye to be a far better representative of the archetype than one might think.

The High Priestess: One of my few really obvious choices. Who better to represent natural, spiritual female power than a goddess?

The Empress: Storm and Sue were reversed in the original, but the one quality absolutely unique to The Empress is that she is that of the mother. Beyond being a literal mother, Sue is the mother to her friends and teammates and a font of unsuspected power.

The Emperor: Reed goes with Sue, the father to the mother. He also embodies leadership, experience, and common sense. He is not the man who shouts 'Avengers Assemble!' when the arrows fly... but is there anyone who doesn't listen when he has something to say?

The Hierophant: I really think this one is on the obvious side. I almost made him The Hermit, but his apparent isolation is an illusion. He is very much involved with others despite being alone in his stronghold.

The Lovers: Who else would it be? I mean, seriously. Pete and MJ embody starry eyed love, good and bad, like nobody else in comics.

The Chariot: The first of only two cards I did not change from the original linked above. Because it's too damn perfect to change.

Justice: Go on wikipedia or a tarot sight and read the qualities of the card. Then read the 'Mother Russia' arc of Garth Ennis's MAX Punisher series. The good colonel IS Justice.

The Hermit: This is based purely on symbolism rather than character. Until someone cheated with a certain Cajun's superpowers, Rogue was truly alone even in the middle of a crowd and could never be anything else. Not everyone who dwells apart from mankind does so by choice.

Wheel of Fortune: On a good day you're a brilliant scientist with a brilliant and gorgeous wife. On a bad day you're a rampaging monster who can't be stopped. The trouble is, on a good day, you are still entirely aware of who you are on a bad day. So when are you really lucky?

Strength: I love Luke and Danny as much as the next geek, but seriously? Who else is it really going to be?

The Hanged Man: I kept the original with one small alteration. 'Daredevil' isn't the one whose life keeps getting ruined. It's Matt who's hanging by the ankle.

Death: Okay, so this one is terribly obvious. Except 'Death' is a card all about new beginnings and regeneration. Who needs both more than a man whose past changes with every new writer?

Art: The card is 'Temperance' in many decks, but I just like Crowley's take too much. Add to that a blind sculptor in love with a good-hearted monster? Too good to pass up.

The Devil: The original, as I noted above, was Dr. Doom. I considered Norman Osborne and a friend was sure the right answer was Magneto. I really thought about it and then I really read the qualities of the card. Materialism, ignorance, stagnation, lust, egoism, anger, obsession, instincts, sexuality, and pessimism? Namor breathes the qualities this card possesses. Self-deception and self-enslavement are never far from his life.

The Tower: Who else would it be?

The Star: People think of the good Professor's intellectual qualities, his immense power, or his iron will so often they tend to forget that this is a man who has devoted his life to taking care of kids so they can grow up and be happy and loved. This side of him drives everything.

The Moon: This is usually a feminine card, but Johnny embodies its traits in a pure and natural sense. He's the little brother in his family and he's always struggled to grow up.

The Sun: Come on. Someone else better out there?

Judgment: Not all punishment is 'fair.' Sometimes the true consequences our foibles and failings are far harsher than we want to believe we deserve. The fact that judgment can be so cruel and merciless does not mitigate the fact that we deserve to be punished. This is another quality that is reversed in life far more than it is upright and Magneto reflects that.

The World: This is the single choice most outside the box, likely because The World was the hardest card to imagine. It comes down to this: in a universe where Magneto is Judgment, deep down there is going to be a good reason for that. More than anything else, the life we live and the world in which we live it are reversed far more often than upright. This card reflects that. Judgment takes the form of a Magneto so very often because, whether we like it or not, the world has far too much of the Red Skull in it.

Lots of people will hate some of these choices. Some of it says more about me than about tarot or the cards. Still, that's the point of a deck. It needs to speak to the person holding it.

Sunday, January 31, 2010

Magazines, Trades, Pamphlets, and Digests: How should comics be sold?

At the risk of answering the topical question too early in the essay, I would say 'All of the above.'

The question is foremost in my mind for two reasons.

The first is this past week's 'One Fan's Opinion', in which Erik Larsen suggested selling magazine or digest sized collections of smaller sequential art stories weekly in a larger format with a higher price point. Basically: sell less titles, more often, for more money. I don't always agree with Mr. Larsen and I think much of what he writes would be better packaged under the heading 'One Cartoonist's Opinion' or 'One Publisher's Opinion', but he writes a good column and he always makes me think. Even when I think he is completely wrong about something, I can see his logic and why he's thought things out as he has and this forces me to consider whether my initial reaction is correct.

I don't know that the weekly digest or weekly magazine is the way to go. People willing to shell out some $50 a month for all their comic books might not be willing to shell out twenty or thirty bucks a week... that would add up to a lot more per month and I think even comic book fans would know that. More importanly, most mainstream and indie comic book writers and artists have been writing for the 22 page pamphlet (or larger) for so long that the five or six page story is a lost art outside the newspapers. While digital technology may address the issues of coloring and lettering (which is a shame, because I truly wish there was someone to claim Todd Klein's mantle today) there is still the problem of writers and artists meeting a weekly deadline. Whilce Portacio and Frank Quitely, to name two fan favorites, have trouble meeting monthly deadlines. Where would they be in a weekly comics industry?

I also don't think that the digest format does full justice to modern comics artists or even writers, as it shrinks the panels and makes the readers work harder to enjoy a medium that has already been accused of requiring too much effort from its fans.

I do think that the magazine format, on the same bi-weekly, monthly, bi-monthly, and annual schedules used by various extant comics in their pamphlet form.

The second reason was a discussion of Wonder Woman's costume in the rotating 'Wonder of Wonders' column. Columnist Martin Gray suggested a new costume for Wonder Woman be launched in issue #600 and several posters noted that while this might be too short notice, such a costume launch could be connected to Wonder Woman's upcoming anniversary.

Now I'm not terribly invested in either the current costume or a costume change. I don't have a theoretical problem with a change/update. Though the basics are still the same, costume has evolved quite a bit more over the years than some others. I do admit to a certain investment in Olivia Munn dressed in the current costume that might undermine the feminist credentials I am going to attempt to establish in this thread. That doesn't change the fact that I can see the clever use of a new Wondie costume as a publicity gimmick and even support it up to a point.

The problem is that the point stops fairly short if it is just a gimmick.

As I said in one of several over-windy statements in the discussion thread of said column on CBR's Forum:

I'm not sure I see the real point to a costume change.. the way it is described here makes the change read like a straight marketing gimmick and gimmickry will only ever produce temporary results. It won't widen the audience significantly if the product isn't accessible and if the publisher doesn't keep it so.

There is something I think has a lot of potential, something I used as an example of a test case in a thread on the topic of comic book magazines: 'Wonder Woman Magazine.'

130 pages, with 122 pages dedicated to content and 80 pages (sometimes more) dedicated to actual comics content. 8 full page adds and no more. Run comics the same size, per page, as the current floppy... letter-box them with ad-space so one can cover costs without sacrificing content. Make sure the ads fit the theme of the magazine, 'girl's adventure' for teens and twenty-somethings and a bit younger/older. Nothing TOO 'girly', so that boys can read it if they like the characters, but nothing so obviously 'for boys' that girls feel left out. Set the tone of the comics content so that it appeals to the fans of Stephanie Plum and V.I. Warshawski: lots to appeal to the female reader but 'tough' enough for the boys.

There is a big market untapped by the comic book industry, superhero or otherwise. Marvel and DC know it is there and periodically flounder in spastic efforts to find some way to tap into it and then declare such efforts a failure when they either totally mismanage them or refuse to invest in them.

I refer in the quoted text to 'girl's adventure.' I don't use this term as a pejorative, but rather to describe fiction with an action/adventure/suspense focus written by women in a manner broad enough to be comfortable for male readers but particularly respectful of and sensitive to the tastes of a female readership. This 'ubergenre' boasts a significant portion of crossover spans who cover all the traditional fictional genres: action/suspense thrillers (the FBI novels of former romance novelist Catherine Coulter), mystery/crime fiction (the above mentioned characters Stephanie Plum and VI Warshawski, as well as Kinsey Millhone and other hard-boiled ladies... Tami Hoag has no series characters, but her individual novels are great and her ability to team a hero/heroine pair is amazing), fantasy (of which the Heralds of Valdemar probably take center stage though more than a few excellent writers have written strong novels or series with male and female leads themselves... and it is here that writers like Julian May and Mercedes Lackey have shown the ability to write male leads as well as female leads), science fiction (the Dragonriders of Pern and the various heroes and heroines of the Darkover novels take center stage here, though I am also very fond of the genre-busting sci-fi/fantasy of C.S. Friedman and, again, these ladies write men as well as they write women), and horror (though I don't like the Anita Blake novels personally, the character is tremendously popular and her more recent clone Sookie Stackhouse is even moreso, and the Diana Tregarde novels are well worth hunting down) and the list goes on.

Marvel has some properties that could appeal to this audience and DC has more than just Wondie, but no single character carries the potential to appeal to this audience like Princess Diana. There are many people with a great attachment to Wonder Woman who do not read the comics, but the question can be raised: how many of them would read the comics if they were available in the supermarket magazine aisle or their nearest bookstore? How many of them would read them if they were written in a vein more in line with the general sensibilities of the 'girl's adventure' ubergenre than with the essentially adolescent male sensibilities of the direct market comic book readership?

The idea that comes to my mind as I described above started out as a random example of one comic book magazine in a discussion of possibilities for comic book magazines. In a thread dedicated to more concrete ideas for the actual marketing of Wonder Woman comics to a broader audience, it crystallized. I think it bears merit, to the point that I am now genuinely disappointed in DC for not having tried it before I thought of it.

A 130 page magazine sounds thick, but that is actually the perfect length. It leaves room for ad space without allowing ad space to dominate the magazine. It means that the first issue (and perhaps every six to twelve issues) can lead with a full length Wonder Woman origin story and that every subsequent issue can lead with a shorter (5 or 6 page) recap of the origin. The beauty of 122 pages of content and 80+ of comics content is that 5 or 6 pages can be dedicated to the origin story every issue, so new readers always have an immediate point of entry, in the very front of the book without ongoing readers feeling cheated of new content. The centerpiece of the magazine should be a 22 page (the length of the typical Marvel or DC comic book, in content) Wonder Woman feature. In addition, the centerfold should be made available for a two page spread as the centerpiece of each story. So 24 pages for Wondie's feature, in total. Add to that two 18 page co-features: 'Birds of Prey' (to hit the international thriller angle) and either 'Catwoman' or 'The Question' to hit that hard-boiled detective angle. I leaned toward the latter because I am such a huge fan of Renee Montoya, but Selina would pack a lot of punch as well. Include a shorter 14 page regular back-up feature with either Power Girl or Supergirl written from a sci-fi angle. I lean toward Power Girl, because I (and some friends who happen to be women, which might be more important) tend to see Supergirl as kind of insipid and annoying but Supergirl could have a great effect on a teen audience and certainly enjoys more name recognition. She also allows for 'Legion of Superheroes' guest stories that would expand the sci-fi theme of the back-up feature. So she might be the better choice, despite my belief Power Girl is a stronger character who would benefit from the placement.

So we've got 30 pages of Wonder Woman (allowing for a six page origin and the two page spreads), 18 pages each of BoP and either Catwoman or The Question, and 14 pages of either Power Girl or Supergirl. That's 80 pages of comics content right there, every issue, and 42 pages that can be used for overflow (when one wants to run another full size WW origin or add a special 22 page lead to play with other deserving characters) and non-comics content. A letter section (a page or three, let's say two and leave an even twenty) is a classic, and I think it would have a specific appeal to Wonder Woman fans... though I could be wrong about that and it could be dropped if it didn't work. I also think that a fanfic or slashfic (tasteful, nothing porn-y!) contest is a must-have feature for a full size comics magazine. Dedicate ten pages to this and another ten to editorial content, essays on Wondie or her supporting cast or the other featured characters, and maybe (as cheesy as it sounds) a 'What Would Wonder Woman Do?' advice column for younger readers.

Price it at $8.95 an issue. This is on the high side for a magazine, but the content is worth it and it is the equivalent of something close to four full single comics in comic book content alone... and that is a savings of nearly three bucks (compared to four $2.99 comics) or seven (compared to four $3.99 comics) for nearly the same content! I think what I've described is a good buy for $8.95. I pay that price per issue for 'The Ring', which is the same size (130 pages, generally 122 with content of some kind) and with slightly less content than I would read than a quality comics magazine. Established readers can kiss off the origin story and older readers can kiss off the advice column and/or the letters page to boot and people still won't feel cheated. One could realistically charge a lower cover price with the increased ad space available to the format. I am deliberately pricing it high to make a point regarding the content.

Wonder Woman is not the only Marvel or DC property that can be marketed in this format, but she is the most obvious and the one with the most potential for success and the most ready made market. The next two franchises with the potential to really sell in magazine format are 'Justice League' and 'Avengers', with the magazine format giving the double advantage of regular team exposure and more frequent solo exposure for popular characters unable to carry their own books who always end up on one of these two teams as a result. 'Green Arrow & Black Canary' may be hit and miss selling on their own, but could add real punch to 'Justice League Magazine.' Prince Namor always gets the short stick in solo books, but as a steady feature in 'Avengers Magazine' he might really be a hit.

There is one drawback to the magazine format. It requires strict adherence to deadlines and monolithic ownership of content. This means it will work great in the work-for-hire format but may prove problematic in a creator-owned environment. Marvel and DC, the companies with the most potential to succeed with this format, are the companies least likely to try it. More innovative companies face more challenges in bundling content into one book and keeping creators happy. Dark Horse has the most potential for success here with possibilities like 'Hellboy Magazine' (bundling the main Hellboy title with 'BRPD' and 'Lobster Johnson' co-features in lieu of separate books) or 'Sword and Sorcery' (with a Conan feature and Solomon Kane and King Kull as co-features) coming forward at once.

Companies that simply help publish creator-owned comics and true, self-published indies would probably have to rely on the existing pamphlet format and graphic novel and the natural trade and digest sized collections that flow from same. They would also likely depend more on the direct market than companies with either a strong work-for-hire system or an easily collected set of associated material by one or associated creators. However, more comics in the general retail market would mean more exposure to comics and more advertising for comic book shops. This would be good for the direct market in the long run and what is good for the direct market is good for the indies that burnt-out superhero fans discover when they are just about to give up on comics.

The problem is that all this requires a major shift in the thinking of the people who publish and market comic books. These aren't people who believe in the virtues of risk-taking or the positive nature of change. Having destroyed the mass media market for comic books once by instituting no-return policies that removed most comic books from news-stands, it is hard to see them taking the necessary steps to carry out a successful strategy to return comic books to prominence in general retail outlets.

Kinda sucks, really.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Print is Dead? Or is it really the future?

I don't write here very often. For a long stretch my involvement with my political blog (and the other blogs with which I engaged in one manner or another) consumed all of my blogging time. Recent medical issues had me away from the computer for longer stretches and I find that politics are depressing me more and more. Worse (for me, at any rate, as I always expect to be depressed by politics) is the fact that I am actually beginning to get frustrated by the argument/debate that goes along with this activity. This is rather significant for me, as I love an intelligent argument and this love was one of the reasons I began blogging.

However, as I have begun to recover, I have been spending more time at Comic Book Resources than I did before my illness. I still haven't begun to budget reading comics back into my monthly luxury allowance (I dropped them when I was let go from my last job working for someone else) but I am planning to do so and like to keep an eye out at what I think is the best fan site out there.

As I was working today, two articles caught my attention. The topic was digital media versus print media and how digital media would affect the comics market. The first article I read was by Brian Hibbs in his 'Tilting at Windmills' column. Mr. Hibbs was championing print over digital and explaining why there was not going to be an immediate digital revolution.

The second was by Erik Larsen in his excellent, but sometimes inaccurately named, column 'One Fan's Opinion.' Mr. Larsen's article was championing digital media over print and explaining why the digital revolution, regardless of its immediacy, is inevitable.

While there is some appearance of opposition in these articles, they are actually less opposed to one another than they first appear. Mr. Hibbs does an excellent job of outlining the reasons for which the digital revolution will not be immediate and I agree with him one hundred percent... but Mr. Larsen points out just how quick and easy it would be for a smart businessperson (perhaps an oxymoron today, especially in the comic book industry, but one never knows) to eliminate those obstacles and get the digital revolution rolling very soon thereafter.

Now, I have very selfish reasons for preferring print media to digital media: I am nearsighted and wear glasses to do everything but read a book in my hands. My computer screen is at just the right range that I have to wear my glasses to read my screen and type. It is much easier for me to read a book without my glasses and with no risk of eyestrain from staring at my computer screen. I do have several comics on my computer, but they often sit there unread for long periods and I cannot devour them the way I can a print booklet or a trade. It's just unpleasant for my eyes. If I want something badly enough for repeat reading then I buy it in print unless it is simply impossible for some reason. As soon as it becomes possible, I get it.

I agree with Mr. Larsen that the digital revolution is inevitable in some form. When someone markets an affordable reader and prices content reasonably, we will see an increase in electronic media for reasons of convenience, disposability, and storage.

I understand why Mr. Larsen, as a creator and publisher (and let's be frank, it is creators and publishers to which the digital medium primarily appeals, for economic reasons that his column outlines very eloquently) would be drawn toward the opportunities created by digital media. Nor is it hard to see why Mr. Hibbs, as a retailer (the people with the most to lose from a digital revolution), feels very much the opposite. The fact that I agree with Mr. Hibbs' sentiments but think Mr. Larsen's predictions are likely accurate does not sit well with me.

The problem with digital media is that, despite the statements to the contrary made by supporters of the internet, digital media is not democratic but rather fundamentally elitist. It presupposes the existence of disposable income to purchase a means of viewing digital media. Whether that is a personal computer, a cellular phone, or a Kindle is beside the point. One pays an added cost to view digital media that one does not pay to view print media, and it is generally a far more significant cost than charged for the content itself. Reading comic books already tends to the expensive side and the current comic book readership is very likely to own a personal computer. So this does not appear a significant obstacle at first glance.

Creators, publishers, retailers, and critics all note the need for comic books to pull in a wider readership than they do at the present time. Sure, when things are great they ignore this and many publishers address the issue poorly even when they pay it attention: a case in point is the (very good, but quality is not the sole point in drawing in a wider readership) attempt to bring in more female readership by Marvel with their 'White Tiger' mini of a few years back (or the Daughters of the Dragon series before that, or the Dakota North mini before that, or the original Daughters of the Dragon mini, or Spider-Woman... see my point?) which attempted to drag in female readers with a female main character and a popular young adult novelist writing the title. The concept was perfect, but the book was Daredevil with a female lead rather than a book designed to appeal to a different audience than Daredevil already reached. Despite this failure of execution, however, even publishers agree they need to reach a wider audience.

Which turns back on the elitism of digital media. I just don't see the typical casual reader abandoning books for Kindles on a large scale. People who don't buy comics because of the price tag aren't going to buy digital readers.

I don't mean to say that the comics book industry won't do better than it is now by switching to a digital medium. They might.

I do mean to say that the elusive wider audience we all wish comics would pull in is not hiding on the internet. The people who will buy digital comics are the people buying print comics now. The industry may make more money off them, but as difficult as the project has been the wider audience is in print. Not in silicon.

The digital medium just might be successful enough to drive people like Mr. Hibbs out of business, however.

The history of American business suggests that this is inevitable, but I don't have to like it.

Hopefully, I'm not the only person who doesn't care for the eyestrain that comes from reading comics on the computer and that will make the difference.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Superman : The Quest (Notes Entry for Prologue: Strange Visitors - Part One)

I have begun a rather large undertaking, an exercise in fan fiction that I have been considering in various forms for some time. It is called 'The Uni-Verse' and I hope to do quite a bit with it, and I hope others get as much enjoyment from it as I do.

The first leg of this project is called 'Superman: The Quest.' The first entry can be found here.

The story itself is about how Clark Kent became Superman. There are plenty of versions of this story. This mine. It is in no way canon for the character in any media but this one, and that is deliberate. DC Comics/Time Warner owns the character, who was created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster.

The prologue is about how and why Superman came to be on Earth. If the first portion posted is not completely clear, I hope the remainder of the prologue will answer some of the questions posed by this part of the story. Future Uni-Verse Superman stories, subsequent to 'The Quest', will answer any questions raised by the prologue but left unanswered by this story.

I hope to approach General Zod from a very different direction than usual, and to make him a more central character in Superman's story, in a more multi-dimensional way than the most ambitious previous attempt by the television series Smallville. I also have my own conception of Brainiac, which combines what I feel to be the best of of the Golden Age Brainiac and the Brainiac of the Superman: the Animated Series. These are left for the future, these characters only appear in the Prologue of 'The Quest.' Their purpose in appearing here is to set the tone for Krypton and its fate in the Uni-Verse. More of this will be elaborated upon in the course of 'The Quest'.

Please, enjoy.