Avengers - The Crossing: The Terrible, Torturous Tale of TimeSlide & Teen Tony (3)

Finally, the day of judgment has arrived!

Urm, wait. Sorry. Wrong crossover. Wrong company, even.

It was a dark and stormy night deep in the bowels of the Marvel offices...

Alrighty then, no more kidding around: this is the third and final part of my overwrought overanalysis of "The Crossing," covering the four-part "TimeSlide" plus certain epilogues, epitaphs, retcons, and more. It's still not too late to go back and read the previous pieces of the puzzle here and here before proceeding onward.

Before venturing further, it bears stating: I like the storyline, but that doesn't mean I can't laugh at it. (Hard, oftentimes.) I also know that recently, Marvel released a handbook, Blockbusters of the Marvel Universe, that's got a two-page entry all about this storyline. I've read it, and it in no way resembles the narrative you've been digesting here. There are mentions of Immortus, and Space Phantoms, and all kinds of things that were only introduced into the storyline much, much later, when Marvel tried (foolishly, I think) to rework their own history to allow themselves to tell another story. (You know the one, it features the Avengers and goes on Forever.) If my recap gives you indigestion, the one in that book will have you praying to the porcelain god all week long.

If, however, your air sickness bags are full from the last two rounds, go ahead and grab new ones. I promise I'll wait. If you need clean underwear, I'm afraid you're on your own.

Avengers: TimeSlide - Now with 85% uglier art than last month! Art by Roger Cruz & Luke Ross.
With the gastrointestinal distress-inducing pleasantries out of the way, Avengers: TimeSlide opens with a situation we saw way back in Avengers: The Crossing: the attempted infiltration of Avengers Mansion...by the Avengers! Somehow, those ultra-smart Avengers decided "stopping a genius with another genius" meant using the information older Luna put in Hercules' brain to manipulate the time portal in the mansion's basement and venture back in time to snatch a 19-year-old Tony Stark forward to the present. (Was that really right before Kang started pulling strings? Or was that just the best time to align Marvel's armored Avenger with that young and shiny new Green Lantern down the street at the Distinguished Competition? What was his name...Kyle No-Brainer?) The team fights Kang's Anachronauts so they can enter the mansion while Rita DeMara returns to show we're still seeing the same events as in that Crossing special. Captain America returns to the team because sales figures weren't quite the same without him, and besides, Jarvis needs someone to take his side that his younger self would recognize in the past. The Avengers beat back Kang's armies and go through the portal, with Century's staff Parallax guiding the way to the other side sort of like how the advent of DC's Parallax paved the way for ol' Kyle!

In the past, the two Jarvises give each other headaches, and readers' migraines strengthen with ridiculous cameos by Aunt May, Uncle Ben, Peter Parker, Willie Lumpkin, Matt Murdock, Sue Storm and Ben Grimm. Young Tony Stark shows he's still an egghead, no matter his age, by showing off his holographic communicator wristwatch. (Isn't it kewl?) Tobias follows the team and arrives at the Stark Mansion where he kidnaps the Starks. Young Tony returns, the Avengers offer him a (blessedly) abbreviated version of The Story So Far and ask for his help, and he's just crazy enough to agree. He uses his mom's matching holographic cameo to track his parents to Latveria (because we just had to have yet another appearance by another character from today's Marvel U). Although Tony, in a red-and-gold costume obviously meant to remind us of Iron Man, tries his best, his parents die thanks to Tobias, yet he agrees to go with the Avengers and avenge their deaths instead of doing what any sane person would do and tell them to go screw. Malachi retrieves his brother and Dr. Doom lets the Avengers use his time platform to return to the present, taking the opportunity as they depart for an Evil Twisty Mustache Moment. Bwa-ha-ha, he'll get those rascally kids soon.

Haggard and bearded = bad. Smooth as a baby's butt = good!
In Invincible Iron Man #325 with the Avengers again in the present, 19-year-old Tony Stark is in awe of his future self's lab like any nerdy 16-year-old would be, while Masque and Hawkeye debate whether he'll be any match for his older self. Meanwhile, Old Tony mopes in his Antarctic lair, Mantis relates her life's story to her "son" Malachi, and Kang trains his "son" Tobias against a legion of his Anachronauts while regurgitating his maniacal plan to raze the Earth, yadda yadda. Mantis thinks to herself how she used to be the Celestial Madonna, but how that title was stripped from her, and since the Avengers "didn't care" she began an allegiance with Kang. She refers to their enemy as "The One Who Comes" and "The Dark One." How much more obtuse can you get? Finally, she comes to Old Tony and licks his tears away (which, oddly enough, are colored as blood).

We wisely cut away from Tony's overwhelming bow-chicka-wow-wow to Avengers Mansion, where the team determines the time portal vanished after they traveled through it. Quicksilver and Crystal lament their missing daughter (aww...), and Captain America rounds up the team for a charge on Stark's Antarctic lair only to have them all stopped by Henry Peter Gyrich and a host of Mandroids. Hey, where's Century when you need him to teleport everyone away? That's right--for no damn good reason, he still hasn't returned from TimeSlide! D'oh! I smell a deus ex machina!

Ooh! Aah! Old Tony rips Teen Tony's heart out! Art by J. Calafiore. Screams by Sam Kinison.
Believing the other Avengers are on their way, Hawkeye, Masque and Teen Tony arrive at the fortress, and Tony proves one more time that he's, well, Tony, by passing a retinal scan and speaking the magic word to enter the complex. (Was The Once and Future King one of Teen Tony's favorite books, too?) Tony and Hawkeye find a wall of Iron Man armors Old Tony's used over the years (and some he hasn't because they're just too fugly). Speaking of the old fogey, he finds Hawkeye and Masque, and Marianne Rodgers emerges! Faster than you can say brouhaha, they fight, even as Teen Tony jailbreaks one of the fugliest armors. Back at the mansion, Century finally arrives to teleport the rest of the Avengers to where the action is. Teen Tony stops his older self from killing an Avenger that's actually worth a damn (plus Masque and Marianne). They fight, and as the Avengers arrive, Old Tony makes spaghetti out of Teen Tony's heart, because if he's become a heartless S.O.B., then the young'un has to be, too. Old Tony teleports out, Kang and his army teleport in, and the Battle of Who The Hell Cares is ON! Yeah!

"The Crossing" concludes in Avengers #395, whose cover tastelessly advertises "The Death of an Avenger!" The Avengers fight Kang's crew between the bunker and Chronopolis, and that includes Cap fighting Mantis, who is a formidable martial artist (a fact neglected so far!). What is coming is on the Avengers' heads, she says--"[their] past together proved nothing but a prelude to the end of all there is, was, or ever will be" and "[her] new family is the last chance for each and every one of us." Strangling Cap, she continues: "One of yours chose another over this one, drove this one to a loveless union with a man that was not a man...spawning a monster in the form of a messiah. And if he cannot be punished for it, Avenger, you surely will be." And if that commentary didn't reveal the identity of "The One Who Comes," I'll...um, I'll explain it later.

Teen Tony has a near-death experience courtesy of the Vision, who has merged his body with the dying lad's because be obviously must survive to become the new Iron Lad...I mean, Iron Man. And Old Tony, realizing his number is up and his Joe Madureira-designed armor is so 1995, decides to redeem himself, rescuing the Cotati Swordsman, who's growing branches all over the place. Then, Vision is apparently free of Teen Tony, and comes to fight Mantis, because his choice of the Scarlet Witch over her was the event that led to everything she talked about. In pitched battle with the Avengers, Kang admits Henry Pym was his first choice to betray the Avengers, but that his attempts to bring him under control only resulted in his legendary nervous breakdowns.

Kang caused those nervous breakdowns! Art by Mike Deodato.
Old Tony arrives with the Cotati Swordsman, and while the latter wraps up Mantis, Tony sacrifices himself , redirecting Kang's weapon back at itself, saving the world! Kang gives up on the current era, high-tailing it to Chronopolis and returning the Avengers to the Temple of Agaphaur instead of the Antarctic. With his dying breath, Old Tony gives the Avengers the schematics for his chest plate so Teen Tony can survive. And to close off yet another loose end, Tuc returns young Luna to her parents. Yippee!

In the epilogue, Age of Innocence: The Rebirth of Iron Man, Hank Pym heeds Old Tony's last request, performing surgery on Teen Tony to keep him alive. While an unconscious Teen Tony fights for his life, those nearest to Old Tony relive their best memories of their friend and boss. Masque visits the younger Tony, shapeshifting into Meredith McCall and all the girlfriends he wouldn't recognize, including Kathy Dare, Janice Cord, Gretl Anders, Dr. Su Yin, Whitney Frost, and Bethany Cabe. Marianne Rodgers psychically visits Tony's innards (someone tell me how that works?) while outside, a shadowy enemy in a long, McFarlanesque red cape goes booga-booga and threatens that Old Tony's foes are just begging for a shot at the young one. Then it's daylight, and it was all a nightmare! No, wait--Teen Tony's still here. Oops. (Don't worry--he'll be gone faster than you can say "Onslaught.")

"The Crossing," such as it was, appeared during one of the worst periods in the history of publisher Marvel Comics. While in previous years Marvel had expanded dramatically with multiple editor-in-chiefs in charge of its major product lines, in late 1995 the line constricted during the event dubbed "Marvelcution," and was again brought under the control of a single editor-in-chief, Bob Harras. Harras was co-writing Avengers with "Crossing" architect Terry Kavanagh at the time of his promotion, and had to leave the book before the storyline concluded, as he simply didn't have the time to devote to the series.

Oddly, time, or rather the lack thereof, doomed "The Crossing," as surely as the time-traveling adversary Kang stood at the center of the 25-part epic. From the very start, line editor-in-chief Mark Gruenwald was under the gun in all facets of development. How else does one explain 21 pencilers drawing 25 stories, often with two or three pencilers working on any given story?  It's true that many artists, including Jimmy Cheung and J. Calafiore, have gone on to bigger and better things. Even still, aside from Mike Deodato Jr., few of the artists had a professional enough look to be anywhere near this high-profile a project. (Interesting note: Daredevil artist supreme Alex Maleev made his Marvel debut drawing the cover to Iron Man #321!) The wildly inconsistent art was and remains a key barrier to any mass appeal. (That, and the fact that at no time were the chapters of the storyline actually numbered.)

You're darn tootin' Ed Benes' art got better. Dig that sensational title!
While the writing team across all the books stayed relatively stable, with Harras and Kavanagh alongside relative neophytes Dan Abnett, Andy Lanning and Ben Raab, it's painfully clear the storyline had its faults, too. Particularly weak was the unending barrage of mysteries without resolutions, with writers apparently thinking there were never too many plates in the air. What's more, few of the mysteries were really all that mysterious. Tuc and Luna were brother and sister, although the question of Tuc's father remained unknown. Tobias and Malachi, from their powers and Kang's dialogue about not really being their father, were obviously meant to be the children of the Vision and the Scarlet Witch. At the very least, due to the direction of continuity guru Mark Gruenwald in the year before his death, the series of events whereby the Avengers brought a time-displaced Tony Stark to the present violated no rules of Marvel time-travel, as in previous stories (i.e. Marvel Two-In-One #50) he had well established that traveling into one's past only creates a divergent timeline and does not affect the main "616" continuity. (How this affects Kang's jaunts through time, well, *sigh*.)

Many of the key points of the storyline had their genesis in Steve Englehart's aforementioned "Celestial Madonna" storyline, to the point fans might be all but lost without having read it. That storyline was where the bulk of Mantis' development came about, including her relationship with her father, Libra, and her martial arts training with the Priests of Pama at the Temple of Agaphaur. It established the initial conflict between Kang and Mantis, and solidified the idea that Kang, Rama-Tut and Immortus were all the same being in different periods of his life. Finally, it united the Vision and Scarlet Witch, with Immortus marrying both them and the Cotati Swordsman and Mantis. That final event provided the impetus for the "villain" of the greater arc that "The Crossing" was intended to start: the Celestial Messiah, son of the Cotati Swordsman and Mantis, as all-but-stated in Avengers #395. I must say, I'd be very anxious to see what was planned for that character's eventual arrival. (The actual Celestial Messiah, Quoi, finally appeared much later in Englehart's direct "Celestial Madonna" sequel, Avengers: Celestial Quest, in 2001.)

Quoi, Mantis' "real" son and the "real" Celestial Messiah. At least 'til it's retconned.
Unfortunately, sales were flat at the close of "The Crossing," leading to an almost-immediate shift in company policy that heralded the premature end of the saga's status quo. Two series integral to "The Crossing"--Force Works and War Machine--wrapped up their runs only two months after the storyline finished. To help raise flagging sales across the line, Marvel hired Jim Lee and Rob Liefeld, two artists who'd departed to form Image Comics a few years before, and assigned them the "Heroes Reborn" event. Liefeld developed an Avengers reboot that began in the aftermath of the line-wide event, "Onslaught." (Liefeld's series would stink on ice, leading Marvel to bring Thor super-writer Walt Simonson in to "save" it. But that's another article.) To ramp up to "Onslaught," Marvel replaced Kavanagh and co-writer Ben Raab with fan-favorite Mark Waid for all of three issues (#400-402) that concluded the first series. They only maintained "The Crossing's" status quo, kicking the series in neutral until the inevitable reboot. Moonraker even put in one appearance in Avengers Mansion's medlab, recuperating from his injuries, and then he just vanished. The one new character from this brief period, Benedict (from Avengers #398-399), turned out under subsequent writer Kurt Busiek to be an android under the command of Madame Masque, sent to retrieve Masque, her eponymous clone. Her story and that of the gold coin Benedict gave the Avengers concluded in their next appearances, Avengers/Thunderbolts: The Nefaria Protocols, (Avengers #31-34 and Thunderbolts #42-44).

Busiek also took it upon himself to resolve the various plot threads of "The Crossing," to various degrees of success. Rather than deal with the impending threat of a "Celestial Messiah" per Harras, Kavanagh & Gruenwald's original intent, he brushed the entire arc aside as the machinations of Immortus. The first hint at the change was Libra's denial of having ever been Moonraker (Avengers Forever #2). As seen in a tremendous info-dump in Avengers Forever #8, the Time-Keepers charged Immortus, Kang's future self, with protecting timelines, and did not want one to take place in which the Avengers became a galactic conquering force. To that end he briefly manipulated Iron Man (not, as was claimed, for years) and he and a group of Space Phantoms staged an elaborate ploy to keep the Avengers earthbound long enough for Onslaught to require their full attention. Hence, many of the players in "The Crossing," including Moonraker, adult Luna, Tuc, Mantis, Malachi and Tobias weren't who they claimed to be, with their leader Immortus disguising himself as Kang. To date, Neut remains an unknown quantity, having no connection to any contradictory Avengers history. Gilgamesh has recently returned to life without a discussion of his previous whereabouts, so his status during "The Crossing," including his possible death, is unconfirmed. Also in Forever, Immortus admitted his story about causing Pym's breakdowns was a lie.

So glad Libra didn't mention the g'dawful movie of the same name, yeah?
Outside Avengers Forever, other writers continued to refute the events of "The Crossing." Mantis and the Celestial Messiah returned none the wiser (Avengers: Celestial Quest), and the Vision and Scarlet Witch's children eventually stood revealed as Speed and Wiccan of the Young Avengers (with a teammate who was, ironically enough, a teenage Kang clad in armor reminiscent of Iron Man). Busiek planned to address the post-"Heroes Reborn" period in an Iron Man event tentatively titled A Look Back in Armor; however, the project was never scheduled, so instead he settled on a few paragraphs' explanation of the return of Iron Man and Wasp's more traditional appearances in Avengers Annual 2001, relating them to Franklin Richards' reordering of reality that began the "Reborn" event. Stark remembered all of his previous lives, including his "death," Teen Tony's life, and all of "Heroes Reborn." Swiss-cheesed doesn't even begin to cover the state of poor Tony's brain. Maybe that's what drove him nutso and led to the Marvel Civil War?

Writer Howard Mackie also had his shot at dismantling "The Crossing" in the 1997 one-shot Tales of the Marvel Universe, where Rhodey divested himself of the Eidolon Warwear armor (which Skye, obviously a servant of the Messiah, claimed was bonded to him "forever") by sending it into Stark Enterprises' computer system like a virus. He meant it to purge all Stark's sensitive data so that Fujikawa Corp., who just took over the company, couldn't get their mitts on it. Marvel cared so little, they let the story go to press with two pages of duplicate dialogue! (But seriously, why did these stooges of Immortus'--as I presume Skye would have to be--try to get Rhodey to go into space to track the Eidolon when he wanted the rest of the team to remain on Earth so they couldn't start that galactic Avengers army? I guess it takes all kinds to make the universe go 'round.) What I wouldn't give to see that suit return, all pissed off at Rhodey for having tried to get rid of it!

The legacy of "The Crossing" is alive and well in Suzi Endo.
The only remnant of "The Crossing" that has weathered the 15 (!) years since the storyline ended is Suzi Endo, whose origin is an intriguing one. Originally she wasn't the Cybermancer of Force Works #17; rather, Stark brought another universe's Suzi (that term comes up a lot, doesn't it?) to the main Marvel Universe, and put the real Suzi on ice. After "The Crossing" concluded, in the two-part Force Works finale in #21-22, the members of Force Works that didn't run away screaming back to the Avengers thawed "our" Suzi, and she became Cybermancer in order to help stop the evil version of herself. Greg Pak, a name familiar to readers of this blog, took a liking to Endo in recent years, using her in his War Machine series and even more recently in his Silver Surfer miniseries, the latter as a herald to the High Evolutionary and love interest to the Surfer himself. Not bad for a character who started as a bit player in Force Works and whose evolution leapt forward in a storyline most Avengers fans openly revile.

Overall, while Busiek's dissection of "The Crossing" was grist for the mill for his from-the-ground-up revisionist take on the Avengers' relationship with Kang and his many alternate selves, it really did genuine "Crossing" fans a disservice by reducing their favorite situations and characters to bit players in what amounted to an elaborate stage play--the ultimate metafictional creation that's become even more ludicrous to think about in its new context. What could have been a terrific story engine, with Moonraker's struggle against himself and his adjustment to this new parallel reality, to the developing mystery of the Celestial Messiah, to the eventual reunion between the Vision, the Scarlet Witch, and their sons, to the ongoing dramas involving Rhodey's Eidolon Warwear and yes, even the further adventures of Teen Tony, all of it's been wiped away, most by Busiek, some by other writers.

He's a Space Phantom, she's a Space Phantom, wouldn't you like to be a Space Phantom, too?
More than any event in comics over the last several decades, Busiek's Avengers Forever demonstrates a contempt for the source material. Just because he didn't agree with facets of the storyline, debatably didn't have any way to find out how other writers planned to continue it, felt that many Avengers fans shared his opinions, and had his own story to tell that he felt worked best by bulldozing continuity, that didn't give him the excuse to dump on a story that had some potential diamonds in the rough. Avengers Forever could have worked quite well without reducing "The Crossing" to an even more ridiculous shell of its former self. It reminds me of what Marvel also tried to do with Spider-Man during the same timeframe as "The Crossing," inserting the Spider-Clone as the "real" Spidey and hence implying that the last two decades of stories didn't matter because we were now being told the Spider-Man in them wasn't the real Spider-Man. That one smarted, and Marvel even had to concoct a one-shot, The Parker Years, just to deal with fans' fears. Still, Peter Parker eventually returned as the one, true Spider-Man because fans felt slighted.

I'm not saying "The Crossing" was a great story, or even a good story. But I do like it, and I like it because it was ambitious, perhaps overly so. So Tony Stark killed who again? The Avengers' nanny, Force Works' PR lady, and somebody who was only an Avenger in an annual a few years back? His targets were damage control in and of themselves. I liked the idea of exploiting Kang's utmost advantage over the Avengers--that he was such a master of time travel, he could disappear and then reappear fully armed for another round of battle, or specifically, he could monkey with the timestream, manipulating your friends into your enemies, sowing sleeper agents. I liked the idea of a Marvel hero with a suit of alien armor, and Rhodey worked because he wasn't Tony Stark. I liked the suspense of the door in the basement. I liked the idea of having to go back in time to see an uncorrupted version of the hero-cum-sleeper-agent...although it would have been nice to see exactly how Kang gained that foothold in Stark's psyche--and perhaps stopped him instead of launching into the Teen Tony nonsense.(Yes, you'd have to have some method of changing time for good, as apparently Kang had, else how was he able to mold Stark as he did?) I liked the lapsed Avenger gone bad, with Mantis becoming the mirror opposite of what she'd been in the "Celestial Madonna" storyline. I liked the idea of her son becoming what Kang perceived as a great, cosmic-level threat, and wondered about the implications of such a being's relationship with the Avengers. And Moonraker, in spite of the ridiculous name, I enjoyed for his complex relationship with Force Works in general and Spider-Woman in particular. (A fascinating idea, that his history from a parallel world came with him.) The pieces were all there for a grand Avengers epic, but spread out across too many titles, like the Spider-Clone storyline that ran for over two years. The storyline blurred focus, with too many plates in the air, and with the art especially it suffered.

But yes, Teen Tony ranks among my guiltiest of pleasures, mostly because for one brief, shining moment, I saw the utter lunacy of what could have been. Of course he couldn't have stayed a teen and eventually we'd have to get the old Tony back. (Am I wrong in thinking of Teen Tony every time I watch Iron Man: Armored Adventures?)

So let's all have a moment of silence for "The Crossing," not for what it was, but what it could and should have been.

And then, let's get back to laughing at it. But not too hard, for pity's sake.

Let's see this puppy in collected editions in '12, yeah?


  1. Iron Man #319
  2. Avengers #390
  3. Avengers: The Crossing
  4. Force Works #16
  5. Invincible Iron Man #320
  6. Avengers #391
  7. Invincible Iron Man #321
  8. Force Works #17
  9. War Machine #20
  10. Avengers #392
  11. Invincible Iron Man #322
  12. Force Works #18
  13. War Machine #21
  14. Iron Man #323
  15. Avengers #393
  16. Force Works #19
  17. War Machine #22
  18. Force Works #20
  19. Invincible Iron Man #324
  20. War Machine #23
  21. Avengers #394
  22. Avengers: TimeSlide
  23. Invincible Iron Man #325
  24. Avengers #395
  25. Age of Innocence: The Rebirth of Iron Man


DCnU Follies: Biting the Hand That Distributes Them

Much has been made of DC Comics' recent announcements to relaunch their entire line of regular series with new #1 issues and begin same-day digital distribution both beginning in September. Fans and retailers have lined up both for and against the company's initiatives, even as DC has continued to make announcements. All 52 series and their creators have been announced, and DC employees and executives have committed to "taking the show on the road" to many public events and private retailer mini-conferences over the summer. When the original news broke, I made my most urgent opinions known. Now, after more news has come to light, I'm digging deeper along the winding road that led to DC's--let's call it brave and perhaps foolish--decision.

I recently interviewed a comic shop owner in Pennsylvania and read a host of articles written by Mile High Comics owner Chuck Rozanski, as well as an excellent Comics Journal article series by Michael Dean, and what I found brings to light two huge details. Number one: the digital comics revolution is to the 2010s what the Direct Market was to the 1970s and 1980s. Number two: DC Comics has gone from conservative follower of trends, to the company that takes risks in order to potentially reap great rewards, and is doing so against the wishes of those in the current print distribution framework.

As previously mentioned, DC had an upper hand in comics distribution in the 1950s, when distribution was severely curtailed in the wake of the infamous Kefauver hearings in the U.S. Senate. Those hearings drew links between comic books and society's evils in a similar fashion to Wertham's Seduction of the Innocent book, among other things. Many publishers severely cut back or even eliminated comics from their plans altogether. Marvel Comics (then Atlas) signed a very restrictive distribution deal with chief competitor DC Comics (then National) just to stay in existence. The deal included allowances for only eight titles to be distributed per month (or sixteen bi-monthly titles). Really, DC controlled Marvel's publishing future, and I doubt the former seriously considered the latter any real competition.

In 1956, then, DC ushered in comics' Silver Age with the introduction of a new Flash. In 1959 they introduced a new Green Lantern, and in 1960 they united all of their most popular superheroes as the Justice League of America. Then, Marvel publisher Martin Goodman let Stan Lee loose, and his attempts to emulate DC's newfound success led first to the development of the Fantastic Four, followed by the Hulk, Ant-Man, Spider-Man, and the many others that followed. The distribution deal remained in place, so Marvel found creative ways of keeping its new host of characters visible, with bi-monthly scheduling for most books or using a "split-book" format to host two characters in a single title (i.e. Tales To Astonish and Tales of Suspense).

Tales To Astonish, one of Marvel's many "split books" in the 1960s.

Such tactics remained until 1968, when Goodman sold Marvel to Perfect Film & Chemical Corporation, which soon became Cadence Industries and assumed control of Curtis Circulation Company, former distributors of The Saturday Evening Post. This situation enabled Marvel to break their distribution deal with DC, which led to the explosion of new titles from the publisher that same year (which explains the dissolution of the "split-book" series into two titles apiece, one per original star).

In spite of its successes, Marvel remained second-place finisher to DC in the late 1960s. Their true ascendancy didn't come about until 1972, when they schemed to make all of their titles 52 pages in length. DC caught wind of the plan and intended to follow suit, but a funny thing happened after that first month of 25-cent, 52-page wonders hit newsstands: Marvel decided not to keep up the practice, instead returning to 32-page series and reducing prices to 20 cents. (All in-progress giant-size stories were summarily split in two parts, for publication in the following two months' worth of issues.) When DC kept up the increased page count and price on all its titles for a year, sales declined and Marvel became top dog of the sales charts, which is largely where they have remained ever since.

During the wars with Marvel, Kinney National (owners of parking lots and funeral parlors!) bought DC in 1967, and Warner Bros.-Seven Arts in 1969. Shortly thereafter, they renamed themselves Warner Communications, and the rest, as they say, is history. Throughout the 1970s, DC tried to play catch-up to Marvel, most notoriously with the "DC Explosion," an initative launched by then-new DC publisher Jenette Kahn whereby dozens of new titles flooded the market, some with inflated page counts like the giant-sized regular titles of 1972. Warner saw that the initiative failed to deliver and cut DC's purse strings, leading to another infamous event, the "DC Implosion" which saw the cancellation of many books. Luckily also in the late 1970s (right in the middle of the emergence of comics' Direct Market), Warner Communications developed Superman: The Movie. Its gains helped to temper the losses from the Implosion, as Marvel's licensing of the "Star Wars" franchise helped buoy that company's otherwise poor late 1970s output.

As mentioned, the distribution market underwent significant changes in the 1970s as newsstand sales lagged. Enter Phil Seuling's experimentation with the Direct Market (as relayed in my earlier article). The 1979 Irjax antitrust lawsuit put an end to Seuling's distribution system and freed up his subdistributors to make deals directly with Marvel Comics, then in a renaissance under company president Jim Galton and editor-in-chief Jim Shooter. As happened so often during the decade, DC was in perennial "catch-up" mode, first in sales and now distribution behind Marvel. To think, if they never offered Martin Goodman the 1957 distribution deal, there likely wouldn't have ever been a Marvel in the 1960s! They needed an edge in distribution after the dissolution of Seagate Distributing.

DC had Warner's legal team behind them to help fight the Irjax lawsuit, an advantage vis-a-vis Marvel. They followed a cautious, wait-and-see approach, eventually settling with Irjax, but did not explore further distribution venues like Marvel did. They were content to see how Marvel developed the Direct Market, and eventually jump in to dominate that system. They wanted another "1957 moment" whereby they could again gain control over Marvel. In the wake of the Irjax lawsuit, the extant comics distributors (including a less powerful Seagate) banded together to form the International Association of Direct Distributors (IADD). Comfortable with Marvel's new distribution terms, they worried about a lack of new terms from DC.

Paul Levitz, former VP of DC Comics. (Photo by Luigi Novi.)

Enter Paul Levitz, former publisher of The Comics Reader, a comics fanzine, and freelance writer at DC, who'd since become first an editor and then company vice president under publisher Jenette Kahn. Whereas Jim Shooter, Levitz's counterpart at Marvel, was sympathetic to the comic industry more than to any corporate culture, Levitz thrived in Warner/DC's methodical management environment, outlasting Shooter by many years and presiding over a number of the company's creative successes. (You can read Chuck Rozanski's contrast between Shooter and Levitz's styles in his "Tales From the Database" articles here and here.) In 1981, part of that early success involved selecting certain members of the IADD coalition to be distributors. This plan in turn relegated the others who were not selected to being subdistributors of that group. In effect, DC's plan determined which distributors would survive and which would die off, as those primary distributors enjoyed greater discounts than they could in turn offer to the secondary distributors. This competitive disadvantage eventually led to two main distributors handling the majority of the Direct Market accounts: Diamond and Capital City, with the others being gobbled up by the larger ones. It hastened the path toward Diamond's current monopoly.

The 1980s continued DC's attempts to achieve greater market penetration, with the advent of the original graphic novel (which succeeded far better under Marvel), and other new formats including the prestige format volume enjoyed first by The Dark Knight Returns and the "New Format" (better paper) enjoyed by The New Teen Titans and Swamp Thing. They experimented with the line-wide crossover event in Crisis on Infinite Earths, which Marvel emulated the next year with Secret Wars II. Marvel remained market leader in spite of DC's many critical successes.

Hastening the impending distribution chaos was DC's "Death of Superman" event. DC aimed the scheme at the general public, intending to get them into comic shops to purchase a "piece of history." What the public didn't know was that DC had no intention of truly killing off a "cash cow" like Superman, and that they were counting on public interest to drive sales upward in hopes of--again--overcoming Marvel in market share. The state of the Direct Market was tenuous in 1992, with the bigger distributors having struck sweetheart deals to bring in hundreds if not thousands of undercapitalized retailers, and Superman #75 just contributed to a rising delusion that there was a lot of money to be made in comics speculation. (Nevermind that the larger the circulation, the less the actual books could possibly be worth. Economics 101!) And when it became apparent that DC was just riding a market wave and heralded the Man of Steel's return, that's when the "bubble" began to burst. The public lost faith, followed by comics fans, and then the retailers went under by the thousands. Marvel's behavior during that same timeframe didn't help matters (with its own events that have given rise to the even more grandiose events of today). As I've said before, it wasn't one factor but several that brought the comics market low in the mid-1990s.

In the interim, DC has still lagged behind Marvel in market share, having come close but never quite equaling with the "Death of Superman" event. They continued event after event, with "Emerald Twilight" introducing a new Green Lantern, "Knightfall" replacing Batman and "Where Angels Fear To Tread" doing the same to Green Arrow, all in the Superman mold. "Zero Hour" ostensibly rebooted the DC line, introducing several new titles and giving birth to a month-long initiative where all series were renumbered with a "#0" issue as a jumping-on point. They again renumbered virtually the entire line for a month with the "DC One Million" event.

But, getting away from DC's publishing plan for a moment, we must address the impact of Marvel's purchase of Heroes World, the third-largest distributor, upon both DC and Diamond. The move (again, detailed elsewhere) threw distribution into cataclysm; after all, if neither Diamond nor Capital City could distribute Marvel inventory, then that was a vast market share that disappeared from their coffers. Inadvertently, Marvel's actions (which blew up in their faces) prompted both major distributors to solicit exclusive agreements from any publishers they could. Capital City applied a bit too much pressure, and so DC became the first to sign with Diamond, with Image and Dark Horse to follow. Soon enough, Diamond bought out Capital City, and Heroes World failed, leading Marvel to crawl back to Diamond, and voila! The distribution system we have today.

(* Also, the mid-1990s were a time in which owner Ron Perelman nearly drove Marvel into the ground. As recounted in Dan Raviv's brilliant book, Comic Wars, DC even hedged their bets during their competitor's bankruptcy, with parent company Warner having looked into purchasing the company in 1998! If you think the 1957 distribution deal was a lofty ideal for DC...!)

However, conspiracy theories have arisen over DC's original exclusive distribution deal with Diamond, driven by a memorandum "discovered" by The Comics Journal that detailed a clause in said contract allowing for DC to purchase Diamond outright. DC has never publicly acknowledged the authenticity of the document, but it certainly seems like a plausible enough circumstance. After all, if DC believed Marvel's Heroes World venture was doomed to fail, then they would have a "leg up" on Marvel, potentially able to buy the comic industry's key distribution vehicle. The result would be a situation very similar to the 1957 distribution deal, where Marvel, if forced to re-ingratiate with Diamond, would be at the mercy of its competitor's policies. (Note for economists: wouldn't DC owning Diamond amount to vertical integration?)

Regardless of the truth of the memo, Mile High Comics' Chuck Rozanski extolled the virtues of DC's deal. DC really saved Diamond's employees by being the first company to make an exclusive deal. However, the deal also put the kibosh on any attempts to resuscitate the multi-distributor system by including a clause prohibiting anyone reselling DC comics they purchased from Diamond to another retailer. (The article linked is tremendous. Please read it!)

Interestingly, the Diamond/DC exclusivity deal as originally written was a 16-year deal, which ironically means that the deal expired this year. And now we have the digital distribution deal arising! I know, I know, there's probably no correlation, but it brings me to my next point. DC saved Diamond back in 1995, so is 2011 the year when DC says "thanks, but no thanks"? If I were in Diamond's shoes, I'd be worried right now at the very least, and supremely pissed off at worst. From what I hear, Diamond is upset at DC for subverting its own digital distribution plans, and it's hard to blame them. As many plans as DC appears to be putting in place to avoid the appearance of going all-digital, including retailer incentives like more senseless variant covers, an elaborate limited-returnability policy, and kickbacks if they offer a portal to DC Digital on their websites.

Will DC Comics be abandoning local comic shops? It appears not, but at the same time, digital is the sweeping wave of the future, and to have the company embracing digital distribution marks a shift in management, perhaps due to their closer liaison with Warner Bros. in the wake of Disney's 2009 purchase of Marvel. DC Entertainment is now more accountable to Warner than at any previous point in comics history, and the parent company expects results. Upper management evidently wanted DC to increase its comics' prices to $3.99 like Marvel, but DiDio and Lee resisted in favor of the "Holding the Line" initiative which has proven less than successful.  I've heard Paul Levitz was largely against digital distribution and based on his years at DC, he probably would have preferred Marvel take those first steps--again, playing to DC's old methodical management style. But it appears the Mouse House owning the competition has put fire in Warner's veins, leading to these current initiatives that reek, frankly, of desperation. Levitz is gone from his lofty position, relegated to a consultant role, and the "new" DC is taking drastic moves which really go against their stodgy reputation. They'll either succeed and do so in a huge fashion, or they'll crash and burn, leaving Marvel to pick up the pieces of a market that's been on the verge of collapse for a decade and a half now.

Diamond's got to be quaking in their boots right now. However the industry can be saved, I don't think they imagined something like this.



Quick Reviews: Hulk #34-35, Incredible Hulks #631

(I swear, my review for last week's Alpha Flight #1 is forthcoming!)

Let's see, what else is on the way? "Crossing" retrospective finale? Check. A blistering op/ed on DC Digital? That, too. A talk about why the Hulk had to change in the 1980s? You betcha. For now, here are three reviews for my adoring masses, due to popular demand. (You know who you are!) Where, you might ask, is my review for Skaar #4? My weekly comic shipment arrived without it, but it's apparently on the list for next week. Stay tuned, true believers!

Hulk #34-35 - Marvel Comics, $2.99
By Jeff Parker, Carlo Pagulayan, Danny Miki & Jesus Aburtov

"Planet Red Hulk" is the name of the game in this two-part storyline. "Thunderbolt" Ross starts out trying to help some Russian cosmonauts on a mission in space, but finds himself swept through a wormhole and living an adventure eerily similar to the one the Hulk had a few short years ago, deposing an alien monarch and becoming an, erm, "Red King." All the while, he's left wondering who's really behind putting him in such a similar situation as Banner, even contributing the scenario to Banner himself, only to find the real culprit and their true rationale in the concluding chapter.

One can't help but feel the very theme of this storyline is a blatant cash grab by conjuring fans' pleasant memories of Greg Pak's monumental "Planet Hulk" storyline. The storyline is similar enough, and it also features beautiful artwork by "Planet Hulk" illustrator Carlo Pagulayan. Fortunately, of course, the storyline is only two parts and not fourteen, which makes the effort only slightly more palatable than the initial concept implies. Unfortunately, writer Jeff Parker can't maneuver the plot points in a way that truly elevates the material beyond a near-slavish homage.

When Parker and artist supreme Gabriel Hardman last teamed together (issue #33), the threats Red Hulk was facing appeared imminent, so it would take drastic means to divert the ongoing storyline's momentum. "Planet Red Hulk" and the upcoming "Fear Itself" tie-ins appear to stall all that momentum for the sake of gimmickry, pure and simple. Although Pagulayan's art here is revelatory, almost superior to Paul Pelletier's efforts on the competing Hulk book, the story is such a distraction that I long for Hardman's return and the return of the many ongoing plots that have been cooking since Parker came aboard. The rationale for the entire "Planet Red Hulk" journey just underscores the bad timing of such a diversion.

Beautiful art. Distracting story at best. Quick verdict? Skip It.

The Incredible Hulks #631 - Marvel Comics, $2.99
By Greg Pak, Paul Pelletier, Danny Miki, Morry Hollowell & Jesus Aburtov

When writer Greg Pak brought in a mess of old Hulk villains at the end of the first part of "Heart of the Monster," his swan song on the series, I called it the one misstep in an otherwise solid start. This time out, Pak wisely wastes no time in breaking up the team of evil titans so that they might menace the Hulk and his family on a more one-on-one basis, roughly in the order they appear on the interlocking cover images of the next three issues. This issue centers on the immediate aftermath of last issue's cliffhanger, and then shifts focus to the spotlight battle between the Hulk and the unusual tag-team of the Bi-Beast and the Wendigo who, next to Tyrannus, are the Hulk's oldest foes to grace this narrative. (Interestingly, the order the bad guys appear on the covers roughly coincides with the order in which he met them in his long history. Coincidence?)

Now, the key mystery driving the final arc is "What was Betty's wish?" Amadeus Cho has an interesting theory about the wishes being made before he, the Hulk, and even the Wendigo have their various wishes brought to life in some fashion this time out. Bi-Beast acts credibly in-character, and Wendigo is...well, much the same Wendigo he's always been. The main fight is terrific in scope, mostly due to the Hulk's unfortunate wish. The story this time out was well-paced and kept moving at a freight train's pace right up to the end--another cliffhanger that will certainly prove to make the Hulk even angrier next issue.

As before, Paul Pelletier provides powerful penciling this time, and Danny Miki delineates to the best of his ability. Morry Hollowell, assisted by Jesus Aburtov, gives the resulting inked work a considerable, colorful flourish. If all parties can keep this up, "Heart of the Monster" may be the best-looking of all arcs since The Incredible Hulks began. Certainly it's proving to be a lot of fun seeing the Hulk and his family put through their paces during the last issue and this one. I'm enjoying the ride in spite of my initial misgivings. The Hulk is certainly making his share of awesome feats of strength and derring-do, and I expect those feats to only increase in remaining issues.

Face it, effendi, my quick verdict is that you should definitely Buy It!



Whither Nemesis?
(Lost Tales with the Avengers & UltraForce!)

Hey, heroes!

It's been a few days since my last post. You know, there's only so much fanboy prattling about distribution problems or the End of Comics As We Know Them or bad movies like Catwoman and Green Lantern before you just want to scream! (Yes, I realize some of you out there actually like GL's feature film, which is why I won't belabor the point. I saw it Friday. Not impressed.) So, where does that leave us before we dive back in for the third and final entry of my "Crossing" retrospective, or the next big review post on Hulkish things, or the essay I've got brewing about the end of the Hulk's innocence in the 80s, or the one about DC Comics and Diamond Comics Distributors?

How about we look at one of my favorite unusual characters to come from the mid-1990s? Yeah, yeah--that era that made many people stop reading comics in droves, and the era that brought you not only "The Crossing" but also "Knightfall," "The Death of Superman," "Emerald Twilight," "Rise of the Midnight Sons," "Siege of Darkness," the Spider-Clone saga, and...well, you get the idea. Remember that briefly upon its inception, Image Comics was something of an imprint of California-based Malibu Comics, just long enough to get their feet wet in distribution channels? They left in 1993, but Malibu soon began their grand experiment in superhero comic books in the form of the Ultraverse, an often writer-driven line of titles. Their "brain trust" included writers Larry Niven, Gerard Jones, Len Strazewski, Steve Englehart, Mike W. Barr, James Hudnall, Steve Gerber, and more. The books had improved production values over many of Marvel and DC's books, and had an in-house coloring department that was second-to-none.

Fast forward a year and change, and the industry went belly-up, Malibu was canceling books left and right, and Marvel Comics set their sights on that shiny coloring department. Within a few months of veteran artist George Perez having been recruited to play with the Ultraverse "toys" on the Justice League-esque UltraForce series, Marvel Comics bought the distressed publisher and promptly set in motion a plan to merge the Ultraverse with their existing comics universe. And the Ultraverse characters trod down the long thorny road to..."Black September."

It all began with Thor--continued with Loki--and ended with the seventh Infinity Gem.

Yeah, I realize the last concept doesn't exactly follow hot on the heels of the first two. The rest of what happened in the interim won't make too much sense, either. The storyline (referred to as the "Ultraverse Spine") mainly concerns Loki falling through a rift between universes (established in the Godwheel miniseries) and seeking the six Infinity Gems that the Ultraverse's resident vampire, Rune, absconded with in the Rune/Silver Surfer one-shot. Heroes like Hardcase, Mantra, and the Night Man, as well as villains like Lord Pumpkin and Rune, encounter the various gems and come in contact with Loki, who'd always end up with whatever gem the narrative revolved around. (Although if anyone can find me the issue where Loki found the Space Gem, I'll gladly send you a No-Prize!) Meanwhile, Black Knight and Sersi of the Avengers emerge in the Ultraverse (after leaving the Marvel Universe in the wake of the Proctor debacle, in Avengers #375). While the Knight joins in with the UltraForce team, Sersi succumbs to her madness, and falls under the thrall of the heretofore-unknown seventh Infinity Gem, henceforth called Ego. (No relation to a certain Living Planet.)

The story of the Infinity Gems was well-known to anyone who'd followed Jim Starlin's "Infinity Trilogy" between 1991 and 1993. The gems were once a being who was, for want of a better word, God. The being committed suicide, and its essence was separated into six gems with the attributes of Soul, Power, Mind, Time, Space, and Reality. Several attempts had been made in recent years to bring those six gems together, as their wielder would have dominion over all the gems' attributes and, in effect, become a god himself. After Thanos' ill-fated Infinity Gauntlet affair, the Living Tribunal forbade the gems ever functioning as one in the Marvel-616 reality (a fact which recent writers seem to have forgotten...). With that ground rule in place, it made sense that if there were anywhere for the gems to again be used as one, it would be in another reality--the Ultraverse. There would be located the lost seventh gem, totally separated from the others for all these years. And since it had been isolated from the other six for millennia, you knew it had to be Trouble with a capital "T."

The blending of the Ultraverse and the Marvel Universe reached its apex in the five-part "Countdown to Black September" throughout UltraForce #8-10, UltraForce/Avengers Prelude and UltraForce/Avengers, with Marvel's own Avengers/UltraForce one-shot occurring between parts four and five. With the previous plot information already unspooled in the first four pieces, Avengers/UltraForce (by writer Glenn Herdling and artists Angel Medina & M.C. Wyman, hardly Marvel's A-list talent) begins with Marvel's Grandmaster on the trail of the missing gems, including the Mind Gem he'd previously possessed. Loki agrees to a game whereby if he loses, he will forfeit the Mind Gem, but if he wins, Grandmaster will disclose the location of Ego, the seventh gem. Grandmaster's pawns are the Avengers, and Loki's, UltraForce. Everyone fights everyone (except, ahem, Starfox and Contrary), but in the end Loki wins and Grandmaster summons Sersi, who possesses the Ego gem and divests the God of Mischief of the other six. The Ego gem casts Sersi loose and begins to incarnate before the assembled Avengers and UltraForce teams, re-forming that original being--that original god--Nemesis! And of course, the first thing she does upon reforming is see that the heroes' universes are flawed and usher forth her "creative energy" to wish them out of existence.

Speaking of A-list talent, the story continues in UltraForce/Avengers, by writer Warren Ellis and artist George Perez. Nemesis, the gestalt entity recreated in the union of all seven gems, recreates reality in a unique hybrid of the Marvel and Ultraverse universes. We get a couple of interesting ideas, from a Ghoul-Hulk amalgam; to Kevin Green (the Ultraverse's Prime) in the role of Rick Jones, head of the Teen Brigade; to Bob Campbell as Prototype to substitute for Iron Man; to Mantra taking the Thing's place in the Fantastic Four. Upon contact with Loki, the illusion of the new reality crumbles, and we see Marvel and Ultraverse heroes alongside their amalgamated counterparts. Nemesis is still creating, not on a blank canvas but right over top of not one but two universes. The assembled heroes engage her in battle, and the Black Knight somehow gets in close enough to split the gems from Nemesis' crown, causing a cataclysm that dispels the goddess and disperses the Infinity Gems throughout the Ultraverse. Marvel's heroes are shunted back to their own reality along with one of the two Night Men from the Ultraverse. The Black Knight remains in the Ultraverse while Sersi returns to the Marvel Universe.

So, holy crap, Marvel ended up using UltraForce/Avengers as a Crisis on Infinite Earths-like event to reorganize the Ultraverse as they saw fit, with changes here and there to the characters' histories, many of which were never explained. And they used the "goddess of creation," Nemesis, to accomplish it! Now, this event wasn't Warren Ellis' strongest script, although it did have its moments. (Watch for the flying priest!) George Perez worked well with what Ellis gave him, coming up with dozens of designs for the amalgamated Marvel/Ultraverse characters based on Ellis' madcap ideas. Rumor has it that this project enticed Perez back into the fold at Marvel and led him to a second go-round with the Avengers alongside writer Kurt Busiek in 1997. So I guess this story ultimately did some good.

Whatever became of Nemesis? Although four of the Infinity Gems (Space, Power, Mind, Soul) were shown merged with Ego's essence and morphing into strange creatures in the Black September #∞ (Infinity) one-shot, the Soul Gem soon reappeared in Tom Lyle's 1998 Warlock miniseries, and all the gems returned in Jim Starlin's short-lived 2003 Thanos series, none the worse for wear. Marvel has played fast and loose with any associations between its universe and the Ultraverse in recent years, and Editor-in-Chief Joe Quesada has gone on record as saying they are unable to use the Ultraverse characters due to some undisclosed "dirty laundry" that is bigger even than the sweet deal Malibu established with the original creators. (Jim Starlin couldn't even use Rune's skeleton in one of his Thanos storylines.)

How beholden Nemesis and the Ego Gem--as well as the four gestalt 'gem creatures'--are to the Malibu deals remains unknown. However, it seems Marvel is willing to err on the side of caution, in which case it'll be a cold day in Hell before they again deign to use or even mention the characters/concepts in any ongoing storylines. That's a shame, honestly, because there are doubtless some good storylines for Ego/Nemesis still out there. (And oh, how it would've been interesting to see Starlin get ahold of her...!)

Nemesis, we hardly knew ye!



Meow Mix (Awaiting the Emerald Hairball)

So, on the eve of another potential turkey in the making, it occurred to me, you guys don't know the secret story of how I first (and, for that matter, only) saw that hairball of a movie...

Yeah. That one.

I don't remember what movie I bought to get that Movie Cash to see Catwoman, but get it I did. It had to have been something good, because I can't see buying a DVD just to get one ticket to see one lousy movie I likely wouldn't have seen otherwise. There was a theatre, not too far away from where I lived at the time, probably newly opened not long before, come to think of it. I do believe I went on opening night. And I almost didn't see it at all. Would you believe that?

It's true! The fates tried to steer me away and I stubbornly forged onward. Y'see, when I went to purchase a ticket for the movie, the girl selling the tickets gave me one for the wrong film. Maybe it was the latest Harry Potter. Like an idiot, I actually fussed and said I really wanted to see Catwoman. (Stop smirking!) If you came to the theatre and had a pass to see one crappy movie, but the theatre gods took pity on your poor soul and gave you a ticket for a completely different, highly-reviewed movie, you'd probably not have hesitated, not have refused. But yeah, I did. I'm a sucker.

When I got to the actual auditorium in the theatre, it was one of the smallest screens in the place, with probably only 60 or so seats in it. I sat a few rows up. It was one of those stadium-seating theatres. Soon, a duo of older women joined me in the theatre, sitting in the row behind me. The real terror then began when the lights dimmed and the projector ran. However bad I could have conceived it, the end result was worse. It started out as just boring but veered off into "unintentionally hilarious" territory.

And I laughed.

Yeah, pretty hard.

Patience Philips gets murdered? Tee-hee. A cat breathes green fumes on her and gives her super-kitty powers? Bwa-ha-ha. Her boss gets skin like "living marble" because she's been using some funky skin cream for too long? Hee hee, ha ha, ho ho! I admit, I laughed hard enough that the women behind me had to shush me. Still, I kept up with the giggle-fits. And don't get me started on poor pretty boy Benjamin Bratt, unable to act his way out of a paper bag. Or maybe it was all just the limiting script. Y'know, that award-winning script. The Golden Raspberry winner for Worst Screenplay, just like the movie won other similar awards, for Worst Picture, Worst Actress, and Worst Director.

Worst DC film ever? I don't know. Unlike Marvel, who in my opinion has a few turkeys here and there, Catwoman has a lot of company. Superman III and IV. Batman & Robin. Jonah Hex. The Return of Swamp Thing. And, oh yes, we daren't forget Steel.

Are we ready for Green Lantern to join such illustrious company? Worse yet, are we ready to see the $200-million project deliver a black eye to DC's line of feature films, which have been, let's face it, pretty unspectacular aside from the majority of their Superman and Batman franchises? Comparatively, Marvel has had great success in bringing their characters to life on the silver screen. Can DC catch a break? I'm beginning (heh) to doubt it.



A Brief History of Comics Distribution (And That Pesky Industry Collapse)

A few short weeks after the news first came down the wire that DC Comics was adding same-day digital distribution to supplement their print line and relaunching all their titles with 52 new #1 issues in September, I've got more to say on the subject. However, before I can address my key points, it's very important you, my readers, understand comics distribution in a historical context. Herewith is a brief overview of distribution channels as they developed from the 1930s through the present day. Along the way I'll address societal changes, emerging demand for back issues, and new comic formats like the limited series, the graphic novel, and the collected edition. (Expect a longer discussion about the limited series very soon!) Much of the research in these matters I must attribute to articles written by Chuck Rozanski of Mile High Comics, Michael Dean of The Comics Journal, Torsten Adair of The Beat, and other sources.

The comic book industry began mainly to reprint comic strips published in newspapers during the 1930s, but soon the industry changed with the commission of original strips for the format. Newsstands were plentiful in the 1930s and 1940s and the industry flourished. It wasn't long before circulation for many publications reached a million or more copies per issue. (The most successful comic book of all time, Walt Disney's Comics & Stories, had a circulation of 3 million copies at its zenith in 1953.) Comics were also more varied in genre in the early few decades, with funny animal, romance, crime, science fiction, horror and spy books filling the shelves beside superhero fare.

After the 1940s, circulation began to fall, and most superhero books disappeared from stores. Frederic Wertham's 1954 book Seduction of the Innocent led to a crusade against comic books and their creators. blaming increasing rates of juvenile delinquency on the medium. With additional stigma heaped on crime comics and superheroes for all manner of innuendo, sales continued to decline. Wertham and his supporters began the movement that led to comics' self-regulating body, the Comics Code Authority (in a similar fashion to the video game industry's Entertainment Software Rating Board).

Another factor in comic books' declining sales was the continuing development of television throughout the 1950s and 1960s, which had the unfortunate effect of lowering readership in general and hence, declining newsstand sales. Sales were so bad for Atlas/Timely in the 1950s that they signed a distribution deal with DC/National Comics that only allowed them to publish eight titles per month--a tactic of apparent generosity that would come to bite them on the ass with the company's resurgence as Marvel Comics in the 1960s. (The deal ended in 1968, leaving Marvel free to publish as many books as they desired--and boy, did their line explode!) Alas, since newsstands already barely reaped any profits from comic books in the first place, newsstands cut back orders or even eliminated them altogether in favor of product that supported their bottom line. Circulation had fallen dramatically between the heyday of the 1940s-1950s and early 1970s, and distribution channels were drying up. How could the industry survive?

Enter Phil Seuling, who pioneered the Direct Market almost single-handedly with his Seagate Distribution company. One of the keys to Seuling's success centered around the idea of returnability, or rather, the lack thereof. Whereas newsstands had standard policies whereby their unsold books were returnable, Seuling approached the main comics companies such as Marvel and DC with a scheme whereby he would purchase books directly from them at rates comparable to newsstands, with the difference being that his company would be unable to return the books. Such a scheme was immensely favorable to the comics companies, and they readily agreed. Seuling set up a group of sub-distributors to which he shipped the books, and the first hint of what would become the Direct Market system took shape.

The nonreturnable quality of the Direct Market was not only advantageous for the comics companies; it also became profitable for retailers, who for years had trouble obtaining comics for back issue sales. By placing their orders through a main distributor, they received their books at least a week ahead of their newsstand competitors, and also received enough copies to reasonably sustain their business through aftermarket sales. Regular practice, then as now, involved holding onto back issues and repricing them at a premium in subsequent months. (Of course, retailers still didn't have access to previews of coming months' stories--such catalogs that helped anticipate demand for individual issues came much later, in the mid-1980s.) These practices--first the increased availability of issues in the wake of non-returnability, and later the advent of preview solicitations--would account for the vast availability of back issues from roughly 1980-up compared to previous years.

Seagate came into trouble when a wannabe competitor, Irjax Enterprises (remember that name!), filed an antitrust lawsuit in 1978 against the comics companies because of what they saw as a monopoly they wanted to break up. This situation, together with the involvement of Seagate sub-distributor Chuck Rozanski, who wrote a scathing letter to Marvel Comics in the same year, precipitated a situation where multiple (former sub-) distributors were allowed to purchase their comics directly from Marvel. This situation gave birth to a very prosperous Direct Market where nearly two dozen distributors operated from coast to coast, but also a very competitive market where everyone vied for their share of the pie. In the meantime, DC Comics mainly dealt with Seagate, while within the space of three short years, the Direct Market grew from seven or eight hundred shops to over three thousand. Rapid growth, indeed!

Eventually, Seagate Distribution folded, having greatly overextended itself. Irjax also folded, but from its ashes would rise Steve Geppi's Diamond Comic Distributors, Inc. Capital City and Heroes World would also become major players in the distribution network over the 1980s. The advent of the so-called "Air Freight Wars" of the mid-1980s decimated the distribution network, with the larger distributors able to ship at great volume and speed for low cost, making the smaller distributors with lesser volume unable to compete. Still, life was good for the comics business throughout the 1980s, regardless of a few factors that would begin to eat away at readership.

Regardless of the signs of trouble down the line, the proliferation of the comics specialty store that the 1970s brought gave birth to an explosion of experimentation in the 1980s. That explosion could never have occurred in the age of newsstand distribution and here I should make it clear: the Direct Market likely saved the comic book from extinction in the late 1970s-early 1980s. I can't knock it in that regard. The Direct Market brought with it the rise of a huge independent comics movement, virtually none of which could have found an audience without the wide distribution channels the Direct Market afforded. The market experimented in other ways, including but not limited to the short-lived revival of tabloid-size "treasury" editions, the limited series, the original graphic novel, press posters, and collected editions of popular storylines (in first softcover, and later hardcover, formats). The "big two" still employ a few of these formats today to varying effect.

The diversity of the market that the Direct Market brought was not without its drawbacks. With the movement of most comics sales from the newsstand to the Direct Market, one of the main avenues for new fans to enter the hobby began to shrink. After all, if you couldn't find a comic at a newsstand, or a supermarket, or a bookseller, then you had to really go out of your way to find one--to a specialty store or some manner of hobby shop that stocked comics. Hence, with key entry points largely removed, the fan base gradually grew older. How would I have entered the hobby if it weren't for the spinner rack at my uncle's butcher shop? Good question, indeed!

Another problem came with investor Ron Perelman's infamous purchase of Marvel Comics in 1989. In his nearly eight-year reign, his policies, one may successfully argue, all but decimated not only Marvel, but nearly the entire comics industry. Scheming to amplify the worth of the company, he put into place a number of policies whereby the number of titles in the Marvel line was greatly increased along with the per-book cost. These plans alienated many longtime readers who enjoyed collecting every book in the line, a venture that had been feasible in the earlier days of the Direct Market when the full Marvel and DC lines of about 40 titles only cost about $25 each per month. Even when Marvel's previous owner, New World Entertainment, increased the pricing in the line from 65¢ to $1 and output to 50 titles, most fans remained, but with a tripling-plus in output to nearly 150 titles, and a doubling in pricing, many opted to jump ship altogether instead of merely curtailing their purchasing habits. Add in countless events and cover gimmicks that contributed to the speculator boom of the 1990s, and you could see where this was all heading. Sales fell precipitously across all comic lines in late 1993 as blowback from the speculator boom caught hold (the result of the death and subsequent return of Superman spanning nearly the entire previous year, along with other factors).

Keep in mind, by the mid-1990s, most of the Direct Market distributors had fallen by the wayside or been absorbed by their larger brethren so that the biggest distributors were Diamond, Capital City, and Heroes World, with a few other smaller distributors still extant. Perelman and his team blamed the falling circulation not on the inflated pricing and the line's glut, but on an inefficient, untrustworthy distribution system. In 1994 they resolved to fix the problem by purchasing Heroes World, the third-largest distributor to the Direct Market, in an effort to self-distribute. (The prevailing theory goes that Marvel wanted to open up comic shops from coast-to-coast which distributed exclusively Marvel Comics products. This would have been in the mold of the "Marvel Mania" restaurants at Universal Studios, and a one-time display the company had at FAO Schwarz in NYC. How was this a good idea?) The ensuing disaster led to a maelstrom that had the remaining two major distributors fighting over exclusive rights to distribute the remaining companies' books. Eventually Capital City lost the competition, and Diamond assumed all distribution rights over a market that only continued to dwindle over the coming years.

Since Diamond Comics Distributors took control of virtually the entire comics market in the mid-1990s, logically an old issue came up all over again: was Diamond a monopoly? The Department of Justice investigated just that between 1997 and 2000. Interestingly, they concluded that Diamond was not in fact a monopoly, on the basis that while they did distribute nearly all comic books, they didn't distribute all periodicals, period, and so no monopoly could be levied against them.

Huh? Say wha? If you'll remember, the very same charges had been levied against Seagate in the late 1970s, which resulted in the dissolution of Phil Seuling's apparent monopoly and the rise to prominence of his many sub-distributors as distributors themselves in the explosion of the Direct Market. How in God's name could the same situation not hold true with Diamond now that every comic shop in America had to answer to them? The answer lies in the testimony of Chuck Rozanski before the DOJ. In one of his many Tales From the Database entries, Rozanski claimed the following:

Chuck Rozanski, owner of Mile High Comics. Photo by Luigi Novi.
"It was on that fateful day that I could have potentially caused some serious damage to Diamond. I chose not to take that course of action, however, because I honestly felt that it was not in the best interests of anyone in the comics world. No matter how much I might have disagreed at the time with some of the things Diamond and/or Steve Geppi appeared to be doing, there was no way that I was going to do anything to weaken the only viable comics distributor left in the business. Instead, I stressed to DOJ that the comics industry was so fragile at that point in time that the Diamond exclusive agreements were really quite necessary to provide Diamond with a large enough stream of revenue to continue operating. I also stated that I saw no benefit to breaking up Diamond, nor did I see where eliminating the exclusive agreements would work for the public good."
Rozanski's actions seem self-serving but also have the ring of truth about them. Unlike in the late 1970s, there was no ring of sub-distributors waiting to take up the slack from the dissolution of Diamond. In fact, DC Comics, one of Diamond's exclusive distributors, even put it in their contract that they were to not subdistribute their products. That clause was a barrier to any competitor to Diamond ever arising, and it would be extraordinarily difficult if not impossible to have a new distributor arise out of the blue. (This situation, and their previously having been burned with an attempt to directly distribute outside Diamond, is doubtless the basis for why Marvel, under their new owners Disney, have as yet refused to use the Mouse's vastly larger distribution channels for their product.) Distribution is in a rut as result of Diamond, and without the chance for another distributor, with the Department of Justice having found an antitrust lawsuit without merit, you can see the comic book industry is in about as dire straits as it's ever been.

To make matters worse, in the early 2000s Marvel took another huge initiative. First, they scaled back the continuity between their titles and stopped overprinting their issues, instead preferring to print to order, a sharp difference in practice. Stores then increased their orders, and this idea briefly created an upswing in the back issue market because collectors perceived the books as "rare." The market for back issues, revivified after the tremendous overordering of the 1990s, soon crashed and burned in the wake of Marvel's next move, that of kicking their collected editions program into overdrive. With oversize hardcovers, Premiere Edition hardcovers, softcovers, Essential black-and-white collections, and the renewed Marvel Masterworks program, they decimated the back issue market that used to be so essential to comics retailers. Who would want to buy back issues at premium prices when you could get a softcover or hardcover collection at or under the price of the individual issues (and even cheaper on Amazon and the like)? Whereas previously, companies were content to let stores absorb the funds from back issue sales, this more corporate incarnation of Marvel (with DC and other companies to follow) wanted any profits they could get, at the cost of the retailer. It also became Diamond policy to discourage retailers from offering back issues, preferring to have them offer a healthy selection of collected editions to keep the comic companies' and Diamond's own profits rolling in.

And all of the above is why DC Comics' digital distribution program has become so critical.

Next: DC Comics deigns to bite the hand that distributes them...



Sketch Time: The Hulk - Mr. Fixit (Pittsburgh Comicon 2011)

By the inimitable Scott James, who's done a few pieces for me over the last couple years. This year's treat from Pittsburgh: They call him....Mr. Fixit!

This occasion marked the first time Scott, who's a HUGE fan of the Fixit incarnation, actually drew him in a sketch! Interestingly, this wasn't the only piece I got in Pittsburgh this year that featured the Hulk in one of his more notorious guises. Stay tuned!

On the way soon: more "Crossing"! More DC Comics relaunch criticisms! And Warren Ellis & George Perez' nigh-forgotten mid-90s collaboration!



EXCLUSIVE PREVIEW: Incredible Hulks #631!

Courtesy Marvel Comics, hot on the heels of yesterday's interview with Greg Pak on "Heart of the Monster," here's an EXCLUSIVE preview of the next issue, Incredible Hulks #631, on sale June 22 at a comic shop near you! As in the last issue, art is by Paul Pelletier, Danny Miki and Morry Hollowell, and as you can see, these pictures are worth...you know! (Click for full-size versions.)

Is it my birthday?



5 Questions With Greg Pak: "Heart of the Monster"

This week marks the release of the first part of writer Greg Pak's swan song on The Incredible Hulks. Since beginning work on the Hulk character in 2006 on "Planet Hulk," he's become an authority on ol' Greenskin and easily the most admired writer to pen the series since the departure of Peter David. What opening salvo of his ultimate arc would be complete without an interview with the man himself?

(If all goes well, this post will soon be updated with new preview art!)

DELUSIONAL HONESTY: So, "Heart of the Monster" is your final Hulk story. What's it all about, and why end your story here?

GREG PAK: We're finally getting to the core of who the Hulk really is and what he really wants. And that's a very, very scary place. This is the culmination of the five-and-a-half year arc of stories that began with "Planet Hulk" back in 2006. Over the years, the Hulk, who always said he just wants to be left alone, has surrounded himself with friends and family. He's grown from monster to hero and then wavered back and forth a few times. And he's seen the terrible price that those who are close to him tend to pay, again and again. In "Heart of the Monster," the Hulk has finally had enough. And he'll finally get what he's always really wanted. Lord help us all.

DH: It appears Tyrannus and Red She-Hulk will be central to your finale, with their involvement in "The Spy Who Smashed Me" and that shocking conclusion. How did that tableau come to mind, and how do the characters stand to impact "Heart of the Monster"?

GP: Tyrannus and Red She-Hulk absolutely will pay a key role in this final story arc. Red She-Hulk, a.k.a. Betty Ross, is, of course, Bruce Banner's first love. There's no one who can push his buttons like she can -- and we're about to learn what she's really after. And Tyrannus is the Hulk's oldest surviving arch-enemy. He's had plenty of time to prepare for this final conflict.

DH: Why bring back these Hulk villains (Tyrannus, Umar, Armageddon, Wendigo, Fin Fang Foom)? Personal nostalgia, fan request, some combination or something else entirely?

GP: A big part of the story centers around a wishing well. Everyone's going to get what he or she wants, for better or for worse. And I guess I might have granted a few wishes to myself along the way. These are all Hulk villains I've loved forever and this seemed like a great place to be able to play with them. But they're all great characters with the right backstories and objectives to hit the Hulk in just the right way in this final, climactic storyline.

DH: Do you have any extra guest stars or villains in store for these last 6 issues?

GP: A brilliant and lovely Italian crypto-mythologist might make a reappearance. And a man whom some might call Bruce Banner's best friend in the superhero community will play a big role in the last two issues.

DH: What have you learned about the Hulk & his cast over your tenure?

GP: Whoa. That's a big question. Let me think...

The amazing thing about writing the Hulk is realizing how far previous writers were willing to take their stories and how willingly audiences followed. The Hulk's almost ridiculously simple -- when Banner gets mad, he Hulks out and smashes. But great writers and devoted readers have explored and embraced all of the different, deep, emotional stories that stem from that setup. The thing I'm most impressed by is how far Hulk fans are willing to go with the tragic aspects of the character. It's a human truth -- when you give yourself over to wrath, no matter how justified, your story more often than not will turn into a tragedy. I'm grateful for readers who are so willing to grapple with stories like that -- and who understand that the triumphs our beloved green goliath occasionally achieves are so much sweeter as a result.

Many thanks to Mr. Pak for teasing us with all the turbulent times just around the corner for everyone's favorite Green Goliath! Incredible Hulks #630 is now on sale at your local comics retailer. (Please support them!) The series ships biweekly, and the final issue, #635, is now available for order in Diamond Previews with several variants, including a blank one upon which you can obtain a snazzy original sketch!