By Matt D. Wilson
Each week, Matt Wilson, co-host of the War Rocket Ajax podcast and author of The Supervillain Handbook, examines at a major comic news item and picks a few winners and one loser among the week’s comic book releases.
If you took a cursory glance at the comics Internet this week, odds are you saw your share of essays lamenting the demise of four DC Comics titles: “Dial H,” “Demon Knights,” “Legion of Super Heroes” and “Threshold.”
In particular, the end of “Dial H” sent quite a few critics who prefer their mainstream superhero comics to come with a more highbrow sensibility into pits of despair, and it really is a shame it’s not going to be around anymore. Among DC’s offerings, China Miéville’s story had a self-awareness and willingness to go to weird places that none others really did. The enterprise was hurt a bit by what I found to be mostly grimy art, but I saw the appeal.
This is, of course, just the latest round of cancellations since DC launched The New 52 back in September 2011. In those 20 months, I count 23 cancelled books, all of which have been replaced with new titles. That means these four (which bring the cancelled count up to 27) will likely also be replaced.
Whether it’s DC’s wide-eyed devotion to the number 52 — a number that originally had significance simply because it was the number of weeks in a year — or, perhaps even more troublingly, Marvel’s breakneck output of not only a simply breathtaking number of titles, but also multiple issues of those titles every month, there seem to be more comic books coming from the big two now than I can recall. If I’m counting this month’s solicitations correctly, there are 60-plus different Marvel titles being published, and 10 of those books are putting out two issues.
I never thought I’d be saying this, but that’s just too many comics. And I think it’s that, as much as anything else, that undercuts the chances for books such as “Dial H” to find its audience.
Not that I think Marvel should ever return to its 1960s-era publishing limitations, but I was really struck by how author Sean Howe’s “Marvel Comics: The Untold Story” recounted the way the publisher was restricted to eight monthly superhero titles, as a result of a weird agreement under which its comics were being distributed by DC, as it was skyrocketing to immense popularity after the introduction of The Fantastic Four, Spider-Man and the Hulk. The restrictions forced Marvel to produce eight books that were superlative. If it couldn’t flood the shelves, it was going to put out eight comics that you had to buy.
There’s no way either of the major publishers could publish only eight titles anymore, but it wasn’t that long ago (ten years, or thereabouts) that Marvel was publishing forty-some titles instead of sixty-some. DC was publishing a little over 40 superhero titles, too. It was also around that time, when I had more free time but less money, that I’d give a new series like “Agent X” or “Runaways” or “H-E-R-O” a chance.
Maybe it’s just because I’m older and busier, but it seems harder to do that now. When you’ve got what seems like a dozen books with “Avengers” in the title or just as many Batman family books crowding the shelves, what chance does a book like “Dial H,” a concept with a long history in the DC Universe, but certainly a, for lack of a better term, quieter book that almost certainly would have to build an audience through trades and word of mouth, have? When a smart book is just one among the dozens, it’s really easy for it to become just another comic you don’t have time to read.
I get why publishers do this. If someone’s going to buy every “Spider-Man” comic, why ask them to buy just one per month? Why not five or six? But buying five or six must-have comics with one’s favorite character in them requires money that a customer could spend branching out and trying something new.
And here are aberrations, of course. “Hawkeye” is some kind of miracle comic (though its direct tie to the Avengers probably helps), and “Animal Man” continues apace. But for the most part, comics that probably deserved a little more attention, like “Dial H” and “Demon Knights,” end up little-loved and short-lived.
Some books deserve to be cancelled, though. That “Legion” reboot has been a mess.
And now the comics of the week!
“Ultimate Comics Spider-Man” #23
(Marvel Comics, by Brian Michael Bendis and David Marquez)
This issue thrusts Miles Morales ahead in time a year following the tragic events of the previous issue, and the conceit really works. This is a dialogue-heavy comic, but rather than just filling up the page with words words words like Bendis sometimes does, all the conversation fills in the gaps of what exactly happened when Miles took a break from — or perhaps permanently quit — being Spider-Man, how his relationships have changed and how he has grown. There’s a great scene in which Miles and his father have dinner at a restaurant and have a warm exchange that is tinged with sadness. Marquez knocks out the art here, too; his art has a slickness to it that one might think would be at odds with depicting emotion in a believable way, but it’s all there, without having to be stated. This book needed its moment of quiet after the roar of the previous issue, and the creative team got it just right.
“Dream Thief” #1
(Dark Horse Comics, by Jai Nitz and Greg Smallwood)
Single issues of comics are just a piece of a story, which means it’s difficult, particularly in a first issue, which also has the job of introducing characters and conflict right away, to throw multiple plot twists into them. “Dream Thief’s” first issue has them in spades though, from the mid-issue turn into an entirely different story than it seemed to be setting up, to a last-page reveal that takes it somewhere else completely. Nitz, Smallwood and the rest of the team have a real knack for clever storytelling, too; panel shapes and coloring techniques say as much as the dialogue balloons do at times. You may be tempted to let the not-terribly-likeable lead character put you off from this comic. Don’t.
“Regular Show” #1
(Kaboom!, by K.C. Green and Allison Stejlau)
I have to say, I was a little worried about just what the “Regular Show” comic was going to turn out to be after I read the story included in the Kaboom Free Comic Book Day issue. That story, by Brian Butler, is printed here again, as the backup, and I feel like it fundamentally got the characters’ voices wrong. It just didn’t match the tone of the show. I’m happy to report the main story in this issue, however, nails the tone of “Regular Show,” probably my favorite cartoon series of the moment. Stejlau’s art is dead-on, while having a look of its own, and the story almost reads like a lost teleplay for an episode, as Mordecai and Rigby recruit Muscle Man to pep up a sleepy concert. It’s funny, it’s got elements of the unexpected, it’s beautifully weird. It’s “Regular Show.” You did it, guys.
“Wonder Woman” #20
(DC Comics, by Brian Azzarello, Cliff Chiang and Goran Sudzuka)
Who would have thought that Wonder Woman’s solo title would end up being the best ensemble book of The New 52? What’s particularly refreshing about the book, and it’s particularly clear this issue, is how, even though characters may be separated into factions, those factions aren’t monolothic in terms of motivation. Lennox may be on Hera and Zola’s side for the moment, but he’s got reasons all his own. It gives a lot of the characters — and it may help that so many of them are mythological — a wild-card sensibility, one War shows quite clearly here. The art is once again stunning, and particularly Matthew Wilson’s (not me, the other guy) colors make images pop off the page. The fight between Artemis and Wonder Woman as they fly above London is really something to behold.
“Age of Ultron” #8
(Marvel Comics, by Brian Michael Bendis and Brandon Peterson)
Eight issues into a 10-issue series really shouldn’t be the time for the audience to be asking, “OK, so where is this going?” I’ll give “Age of Ultron” this: It’s a big story. But its tentacles have reached too far. We’re to the point now that the story isn’t even what the title says it is anymore, with this issue being about an alternate-timeline Avengers (here called the Defenders), their struggles with a feisty Morgan Le Fay and how it all made them paranoid kooks. It’s pretty late in the game to dump a whole new set of chess pieces onto the board, and at this point, I’m not even sure what the conflict is. Things would appear to come back around to Ultron by next month’s issue 10, but dang it if I know how they’re going to get there.