Monday, February 8, 2010

Our Comics Decade: 2009

In 2000, I walked into a comic shop for the first time in years, not really sure what had happened to the characters I had once loved and unsure if these trips would be a regular occurrence.

Nine years later, not only had I immersed myself in the comics industry about as thoroughly as one can, I was going to be responsible for putting one of those bad boys on the shelves.

Editor Bill Rosemann was one of the first guys I became real friendly with at Marvel upon becoming their company contact. It made sense, as Bill had recently inherited the cosmic titles from the departing Andy Schmidt and thus held the fate of Nova and the Annihilation franchise in his hands, but he was also just an outgoing, welcoming dude who was always happy to talk comics. To this day, Bill remains one of the most enthusiastic folks at Marvel, a guy who genuinely enjoys being able to work in our medium and who has guided those aforementioned space-based books to levels of success never before seen by the company. Bill’s also a fellow pro wrestling fan, so we hit it off pretty immediately and are never at a loss for things to talk about.

I had actually interviewed for the position of Bill’s assistant editor only months before I got the offer in 2007 and was pretty sure I was going to get it, but ultimately did not. Still, Bill and I vowed we would work together some day beyond just the capacity of me e-mailing him for art to run a story on the new issue of Guardians of the Galaxy (and now would be as appropriate a time as any to mention that I am 95% sure Bill stole the idea for Darkhawk to be part of a secret society of Shi’Ar assassins from an e-mail I sent him without necessarily realizing it, a claim writers Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning back up as they say he presented it to them “seemingly out of nowhere,” but that he still half-heartedly denies).

Once Marvel Digital Comics Unlimited got up and running and particularly after we worked with Brian Michael Bendis and Leinil Francis Yu to produce the official prologue to Secret Invasion, I was consistently on Bill’s case that we should do some sort of digital “extra” for one of the cosmic events. I pitched stuff like doing a Front Line-esque series for Annihilation: Conquest and a series of one-shots highlighting solo members of the Guardians of the Galaxy, but for one reason or another road blocks always came up.

In late 2008, Bill let me in on the plans for the War of Kings event and I finally had my opening; I suggested that since the series would have such a huge cast, an accompanying online series would be the perfect opportunity to spread the wealth of the spotlight and he agreed. The only hurdle was that both Bill and his assistant, Michael Horwitz, were too busy with the print end of the project to handle the full brunt of this idea, but with a sly smile I suggested that perhaps I could be of assistance. Bill and the powers-that-be agreed to let me and Michael do the day-to-day on what would come to be known as War of Kings: Warriors (a title Bill enjoyed coming into my office and yelling out ala the 1979 movie’s battle cry) while he supervised closely.

(In the interest of full disclosure, Michael ended up doing way more than I did on the back-end both because he actually knew what he was doing and because he’s awesome, but still, this was my shot at the big-time and I was very excited.)

We decided we would focus on four characters over the course of what would be two regular-size comics, but come out as eight bi-weekly installments online. I let Bill choose the stars of the books and he went with Gladiator, Blastaar, Lilandra and Crystal (I of course could not help but chuckle to myself on that last one as I can’t stand Crystal, but never let Bill know that).

I proposed two writers who I was eager to work with and who I thought would be good fits for the project: Christos Gage and Jay Faerber. As I’ve recounted before, I had met Christos back at WonderCon in 2006 and stayed in touch during his rise to prominence with books like Avengers: The Initiative, while Jay had made e-mail contact with me after I complimented his Image series, Noble Causes in a Wizard online review and we’d also kept up with one another. I was looking to get both guys doing some digital work and this presented the perfect opportunity. Chris is a natural with larger-than-life action and digs big monsters so Gladiator and Blastaar were his, whereas Jay knows his way around the ladies (when it comes to comic book characters…and life), thus we gave him Crystal and Lilandra.

On the artistic side, as Bill had far more experience with Marvel’s stable of talent there, he mostly made the selections, but I was certainly pleased with who he got; Mahmud Asrar would handle Gladiator—kinda neat because he normally did Dynamo 5 with Jay, but here he’d work with Chris—Adriana Melo was on for Crystal, and Carlos Magno came aboard for Blastaar. Originally, Timothy Green II was lined up to finish things off with Lilandra, but when he had to bow out due to scheduling issues, we were fortunate to land Ramon Perez.

When it came to the stories, I was more hands on plotting some than others. From when the project was conceived and Bill let me know we’d likely be using Gladiator, I locked in on wanting to tell his origin, going so far as to do the research on all his prior appearances both to make sure the story wasn’t already out there and to get the facts on his background straight. Chris was very onboard and we were both pretty jazzed to get the opportunity to give the back-story on a character created back in 1977 by no less than Chris Claremont and Dave Cockrum. I gave Chris my idea, he refined it, and we went back and forth a few times, and then brought Bill into the mix. Bill made the great note that Gladiator should be really be a tragic but heroic figure ala Red Star back in New Teen Titans #18 by Marv Wolfman and George Perez, a story we both loved, and we were off to the races.

Chris pretty much knew what he wanted to do with Blastaar already (“He’s a space barbarian…it’s not difficult to find something cool there”), so the next character I really ended up digging into was Crystal with Jay. Since he’s actually quite a fan of the character, Jay shot some ideas my and Bill’s way and I initially suggested he play off her history with characters like the Fantastic Four and Avengers—after the decision to tell Gladiator’s origin, the plan became to set all the stories either in the immediate or distant past—but Bill wanted to play more with her current status quo. Jay came up with a neat idea to do a sort of CSI mystery where Crystal got to show off her elemental powers in a new crime-solving way and I helped him smooth it out and we were ready to go.

With Lilandra, the direction I gave Jay was that it might be neat to do something set in her childhood explaining why she was always so different than her violent siblings and he kinda took the ball from there; the most important thing we agreed on was that this was a character who had always only been somebody’s girlfriend and we needed to show her as a hero. As Lilandra ended up dying in War of Kings and Warriors ended up being her last real starring role, I thought the story took on an extra element of poignancy.

With the plots in place, Bill gave me a crash course in the process of editing a comic book. I learned in short order how to give art notes, make corrections between pencils and inks, place lettering balloons and much more. Needless to say I gained an immense amount of respect for the guys and girls who do this for a living as it is not easy work at all and it’s rare when editors get recognized for their labors unless something goes wrong. As comic book editor has always been a dream job of mine, the experience was both rewarding and also somewhat telling as I enjoyed it but am not sure I have the stuff to do it on a regular basis; time will tell I suppose, but my hat is off to editors.

Bill and I pretty much supervised Gladiator, the first story, and then a good deal of Crystal, before Michael took the lead on Blastaar and especially Lilandra. For the most part, everything went smoothly, although Michael negotiated a few potholes here and there with the grace and dignity only an 80-pound man can muster (I love Michael Horwitz).

I actually caused one “not funny at the time but looking back now, sure” hiccup myself with the covers of the books. At the time, we were not sure in what form these comics would see actual print, though we knew they likely would; however, we were announcing them at the New York Comic Con and wanted some sort of cool art to show off, so Bill put that on me. He had referenced me the talented Jeff Renaud, who has since become quite the accomplished cover artist for Marvel, who I commissioned to produce four painted pieces of the stars of our series that could serve as covers to the individual books and also be put together as one teaser image. Jeff did a tremendous job and the pieces came out great, but one of the Marvel Vice Presidents calmly explained to me later that it probably wasn’t the best idea to shell out a tidy sum for covers of online books when we could have just Photoshopped something out of the interior at for free; well, it ended up fast-tracking the books to print so we wouldn’t waste the covers, so you live, you learn!

One very cool part of the War of Kings: Warriors process for me was getting to promote the book via websites I had relied on to catch me up with comic goings on over the decade prior like Comic Book Resources and Newsarama. I also got to appear on my first panel as a member of Marvel at the aforementioned New York Comic Con, which was a cool 180 from sitting in the crowd at San Diego listening to Geoff Johns, Brad Meltzer and Judd Winick and deciding I wanted to do this for a living five years prior. I thought I handled myself well, but love that the only sound bite of mine that really got quoted was when I joked that we might see the characters from Sean McKeever’s Inhumans series as “cannon fodder” (sorry, Sean).

Months came and went, the series went up on Marvel Digital Comics Unlimited to some fanfare and then the day arrived when I could walk into Jim Hanley’s and purchase multiple copies of War of Kings: Warriors #1 with Gladiator streaking skywards on the covers and “Ben Morse” listed inside as an editor. For the little kid who used to hitch rides from his mom to New England Comics in Brookline and even the college student who used to rush to Sarge’s every Wednesday, it was a feeling that could not be matched. Seeing Warriors debut on the Diamond sales charts at #87 was just icing on the cake.

Every year over the past 10 has given me at least one huge reason to be excited as a comic book fan and proud as a member of the industry; I can only hope that holds true over the next decade, and frankly, I’m feeling pretty good about it. See you in 2020!

When the decade kicked off, I was 17, and the book I'm closing out this writing experiment with is a title I completely wish I'd read back when I was still too young to buy cigarettes: Black Hole.

When it comes to universally acclaimed, genre-defining books like this subtly dark look at high school, I'm swimming in excuses for why I haven't read them yet. Love and Rockets, all of Bone, Epileptic, Claremont/Byrne's X-Men...the list goes on and on and regrettably on. As recently as October 2009, Charles Burns's Black Hole was on that list until I was heading to Ben's wedding and needed something to read on the train ride up to the ceremony. I had the hardcover edition on hand cause I bought it a few years back and it just sat on my shelf. I chose the hardcover cause my softcover versions of fat collections have a tendency to lose their cohesiveness on the spines and burst apart when I'm around 3/4 of the way through. It held together like the motherfucking Enterprise during a Klingon fleet attack, though.

Knowing that Burns started the book in 1995 and finally collected it in 2005 (its own little decade) is so stunning because his ink-thick, moody style stayed mirror-image consistent THE WHOLE TIME. I don't think I've ever done anything the same for more than 5 years, much less 10. But there they are. All the creepy teens with their horrific STD that causes them to mutate until the ugly truths of who they really are begin to surface as lesions and tails and odd-pattern baldness and skin growths and, in some cases, murderous tendencies. Like trying to explain where you've been to your parents after a hotbox session driving around your cul-de-sac, details of some occurrences in the book aren't 100% clear to readers or the characters. I'm paraphrasing way too heinously, but it's a frightening lesson about life's futility and capacity for triumph, and I can't recommend it highly enough - especially for anyone looking to give a teenager a gift or curious to re-identify with their own teenage years.

But even beyond just identifying with the story, the realization that I can still find surprises in comics - no matter how cynical I can be about them or how much I learn through work and my own genuine rabid fandom - like I did here excites me to no end. There are thousands and thousands of books I haven't read yet even though I've been reading for over 2 decades. And even if I read for 200 more, I still couldn't finish it all. So leaving the 2000's and entering the 2010's, that's the lesson I'm taking away from Black Hole and every other book I've stumbled across in my whole life: Good or bad, I have no idea what's next. But rest assured there IS something next. And that unknown void is ELECTRIFYING as shit.

Is it weird that none of us have written about Scott Pilgrim yet?

Look, the five volumes Bryan Lee O'Malley and Oni Press released over the past few years collectively make "the book of the decade" as far as I'm concerned. Do I need to go over the reasons why? OK. Fine. It's funny. It's exciting. It tells a story that's perfect for comics in a way that could only really work as comics. It's cool and nerdy and full of silly pop culture stuff but not in the way that's all "Hey everybody, I'm making a Stone Roses reference. Bad ass, right?" all the time. Most importantly, Scott Pilgrim is built on characters who feel and act like real people with real emotions who really fuck up. And even though you get a little mad at them for being them, you still love the lot of exaggerated brush strokes and the not-so real world they live in. They're your friends.

But I'm not sure that's why I'll remember 2009 as the year of Scott Pilgrim. Because as good as the books are (which you can read else on the internet), what really heightened the Scott Pilgrim-iness of the past five years and last year in particular was the passionate, buzzy, "let's dress up like Scott and Ramona" outpouring of excitement that's accompanied each new volume with more and more fervor.

Damn near a year ago from when I'm writing this post, the fifth volume – "Scott Pilgrim Vs. The Universe" – debuted at New York Comic Con, and as someone who was around, I can attest that it was mega, super duper fun. The gang at Oni and O'Malley went out of their way again to make the book's release an event no matter where you were with the tricked out foil cover on the first printing but even the little "this weekend only" touches like the multiple signings and parties and the goofy pink wrap-around on the book helped make people who already really wanted to read that book get their hands on it even sooner (as impossible as that may sound). It was more like they were throwing a party that selling a product.

For me it was fun too to be there and talk to O'Malley for a minute specifically about all that stuff and then watch Jonah chat him up on video like he did the SNL dudes or Chuck D or whoever. Scott Pilgrim is one of the few things where I worry that my covering it will just come off as fanish wanking, but I hope that we did a nice job of sharing that legitimately buzzy, newsworthy craziness of the book owning (pwning?) that show for people who were waiting for copies to get mailed to the Des Moines Borders to pick it up.

I never got way into the thrill so many had following the final Harry Potter volumes hit the stands, but I'm more than pumped that Scott Pilgrim scratches that "read it at midnight on Rickey's couch where I'm sleeping for the weekend of the show and then e-mail all my comic buds to discuss it ASAP" itch. I don't know if I've enjoyed all that stuff more than the Scott Pilgrim books themselves, but some days it feels really fucking close, you know?

And next year, it'll kick up to a new level I'm sure. The final book. The movie full of hip and gorgeous young people doing back flips. The video game. I've been preparing for Scott Pilgrim to hit bigger amongst the people in my life (and in the world) who aren't following comics all day for a while. I've loaned the books to my buds. I bought my 14-year-old brother (who loves video games and whose occasional comic buying is centered around things like Death Note and Bleach) that Borders three pack of the first books for Christmas. I want to see the comics crossover in a way that'll in some respects take the community and love and madness comics folks have built around a really great story out of our hands.

It might not happen of course. The movie might do just all right despite what we all expect to be rave reviews. The books might see a tiny but unspectacular bump in book store sales. The youth of America may not spontaneously start wearing Sloan t-shirts everywhere and saying things like "If your life had a face, I would punch it" at the dinner table to confuse their parents. But things will still be different once the book's run wraps, and for now I'm just really glad to have been along on the ride to see what happens.


Sean McKeever said...

I will NEVER forgive you, Morse. NEH. VERR. And you can count on it. Or something.

Rickey and Kiel still kick butt, as ever.


Ben Morse said...

If it helps, we didn't actually kill any of them.

But I totally would have. In a heartbeat.

Justin said...

Fellas, I'm actually going to miss this feature quite a bit. Well done.

Ben Morse said...

Aww, thanks jaclin, that means a lot.

I'd say we'd do the 90's, but if this feature has taught us anything it's that our memories are going pretty fast.

Rickey said...

Sean, Kiel and I learned our butt-kicking from YOU.

Kiel, it's been too long since you slept on my couch with your coat on and your computer on your chest. Come home.

Also, I have no idea why none of us did Scott Pilgrim until now. There's just TOO MUCH GOOD COMICS to talk about!

Justin, I miss YOU quite a bit.

demoncat said...

Ben why did you not ask to kill gladitor also besides Lilandra for never liked her. or Gladiator. Kiel they are both right too many books to cover like Scot Pilgrim. Ricky surprised you were that age had you pegged as in your early twenties or eighteen at least that young back then. can not belive it

Ben Morse said...

I had no say in stuff like what characters lived and died, demoncat, I was just the co-editor on the online tie-in comic ;-)

Rickey is an old soul. Actually, he's probably the furthest thing from that.