Archive for the 'vertigo' Category

on Swamp Thing

I’m kind of stunned at Steve Bissette’s account of SWAMP THING abuses, inspired by some production errors in the latest edition of that title.

I was (pleasantly) surprised when visiting Neil Gaiman’s home last November that they were sending page proofs of The Absolute Sandman to Neil — to proof color, too, if I recall correctly. Nothing like that has ever, ever been asked of any of us connected to Swamp Thing. This shows where we sit in the DC/Vertigo universe pretty clearly — I’m just glad the generation after us (Neil, Grant, etc.) are afforded more caring and better treatment.

On the one hand, DC doesn’t consult Bissette or Totleben regarding reproductions of their work (despite the presence of multiple known problems with DC’s files, which the artists have offered to help correct). On the other hand, they not only run the new Sandman pages past Gaiman but also pay Todd Klein to completely re-letter Absolute Death, including 8 hours to design a totally new font for a single character. I have nothing but admiration for Todd (who’s done a bang-up job on our new League of Extraordinary Gentlemen), and bravo to him for convincing DC to let him make the project everything he always intended it to be. And I realize that Absolute Death is going to sell huge quantities and generate revenue that easily dwarfs the expense of Todd’s time. With the amount of money DC has made from Neil Gaiman books, they could well employ a full-time Gaiman Liason who stays in touch with Neil and makes sure he approves their every move (by my understanding, Scott Dunbier played something close to this role for Alan Moore for a while, though there was considerably less “approving” going on). Very few creators sell in those kind of numbers, and publishers unfortunately can’t afford to give everybody the full VIP treatment. But is not making your creators hate you really such an impossible task?

Oddly enough, Scott Nybakken seems to be the editor for both Absolute Sandman and the Swamp Thing hardcovers. Here’s him and Gaiman in 2006 calling for original art buyers who could help them reconstruct early Sandman pages. And the results were well worth it: Absolute Sandman is a revelation on par with the best film restorations, making Sandman (especially the Sam Kieth pages) a completely new, more beautiful book, thanks to Daniel Vozzo’s recoloring. The Kirby Fourth World restoration by Dave Tanguay and Drew R. Moore, edited by Anton Kawasaki, is flat-out incredible. When the budget and passion are there — even if the original creator is not — it’s clear that DC can produce outstanding editions. On Swamp Thing they seem to have had neither budget nor creator cooperation (though original series creator Len Wein contributes a helpful new introduction).

As a fan, I’m sorry to see that no recoloring has been done — Tatjana Wood made some great, bold choices, but many of them have become extremely dated, not to mention the color separations which were inaccurately placed to begin with:

swamp-thing-244(Note the sloppiness of the green along the bottom third of the page, the extra orange under Woodrue’s crotch, the arbitrary swaths of pastel painted across the detailed dead guys in the middleground, and the total washout of the background in screaming red. I guess Totleben’s inking style (with delicately inked shading and textures instead of bold Kirby outlines) simply didn’t lend itself to 1984’s color-separation techniques… By 1987 colorist Sam Parsons was making Totleben look gorgeous in Miracleman at Eclipse, I’m not sure by what process. And I confess I don’t remember the later Totleben/Wood Swamp Things from 1986; maybe they’re great?)

The linework beneath is stunning, from page one onward, but I’ve personally watched new readers pick up Swamp Thing and immediately put it down because “it looks bad.” If you’ve come straight from Fables and Y: The Last Man, exactly as Vertigo hopes you will, or if you saw the Watchmen film and have picked up another title from the same author and publisher, exactly as DC has paid money to suggest you do, you’ll have a really hard time getting over the hump of these colors. Again, I have seen it happen. Would the book sell better with a modern coloring job? Definitely. Enough to cover the expense of reconstruction? With the additional publicity, more enthusiastic endorsements, stronger word-of-mouth, and the possibility of paperback sales, quite possibly. While I’m at it, I also wish they hadn’t used this weird sticky semi-reflective ink/paper. Also, I want a pony.

More importantly, as a member of the industry, I’m even more frustrated that Moore, Bissette, and Totleben have become so estranged from their own work. It’s as though they were “grandfathered in” to the company with a certain level of respect written into their contracts, and while the industry has grown around them, DC is determined to keep them at that (low) level.

Deer-headed man kills 4, delights blogger


Brian Wood’s Northlanders, published monthly by Vertigo. Art by the stunning team of Davide Gianfelice and Dave McCaig.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one

Over at The Savage Critic, Abhay Khosla reviews a new series from Vertigo, The Vinyl Underground. I haven’t read this comic, but I feel like I have, and I suspect that’s (a) why I enjoyed reading Abhay’s review and (b) why his reaction was so negative.

And yes, it’s another prong of the ongoing Great Vertigo Symposiblog of 2007 that’s spontaneously arisen in the last month. Like I said over a year ago, writing about American Virgin, “our shelves are filled with overpretentious underexecuted shortlived Vertigo series from the 90s.” At the moment, aside from a few stars (Fables, Y, DMZ, 100 Bullets) the bulk of Vertigo’s output feels like… bulk Vertigo output. As Abhay states (more clearly in the comments to his post than in the original post itself), The Vinyl Underground looks like well-trodden territory for the imprint, and I suspect the irritation comes less from a particular lack of quality in this book than from the sameness that it shares with its siblings, combined with that smug assertion of edginess and originality which is Vertigo’s trademark.* It’s telling that one character claims to be “the only on-line porn star who never goes all the way.” Abhay and Paul O’Brien have already poked fun at the naiveté of this line, but based on the reviews, she’s a lot like the book that contains her: asserting the novelty of a concept which has been done before and wasn’t really that interesting to begin with.

*the smug assertion, that is, not the edginess and originality. [Let the record show that back on The Engine I once suggested that maybe we needed a resurgence of “smirking” comics. Not sure where I stand on this at the moment. But I do like Matt Fraction.]

“Pull back for a double-page spread of… THE KITCHEN!!!”

Guy Major’s color palette, subtly mocked by Abhay, is problematic for me too in the PDF preview. The subtle gradients are certainly miles better than the dark ages of mid-90s Photoshopastrophes, but somehow they end up stiflingly warm and unexciting. Dull? Pale? One of those words. Again, it feels vaguely “Vertigo house style.” I much prefer Major’s coloring in Suburban Glamour, where he rightfully cranks up the pop (the blue in Astrid’s eyes and on Dave’s shirt!) to match McKelvie’s impossibly-charming visual style and carefree high-school setting.

(Is it possible for colors to be described as shiny vs. matte? I feel like that’s the difference here. Vertigo books feel very, very matte. Somehow you can tell even when you’re looking at both of them on a computer screen.)

This ties into a larger question of house style. Every publisher has an identity. Especially in the small world of comics, the taste of an editor does a lot to determine the look and feel of his/her books, from the simple decision of which projects to publish all the way down to details of execution (That’s what fascinated me about the last line of this Minx overview by Valerie D’Orazio). And once established, those patterns become self-fulfilling — Top Cow publishes Top Cow books because that’s what the fans want. And this is all well and good — I like that Oni books feel like Oni books. Top Shelf too. Publishers work hard to develop a public image. But at what point does “reliably consistent aesthetic” slide into “off-puttingly repetitious”?

At the point where a book lacks the unique magic that makes it stand out from the pack, I guess. And that’s not the worst thing in the world. Like I said before, Vertigo was putting out filler material even when Sandman and Preacher were at the height of their powers. Nobody bats a thousand. Thus has it ever been. The Vinyl Underground isn’t a Sign of the End for Vertigo (not that anybody said it was, I guess) — it’s just another book. (Kim Thompson once argued that more “just another book”s is what we need.)

Those covers are pretty sweet, though. Kudos to Vertigo for taking a chance with the layout.

PS. Of course, I’m sitting across from my bookshelf staring at Jonathan Hickman’s sublime The Nightly News, which is more what I was hoping the book would look like based on the cover. I’m with Todd here: IT’S LIKE, WHY DO THEY EVEN FRIKKIN’ MAKE OTHER COMICS?!

Growing out of the magazine business model, part 876534

The latest meme is that Vertigo and (especially) Wildstorm are losing single-issue sales, and therefore in danger.

First of all, nobody knows anything about the numbers except the publishers, so this is a ridiculous discussion to be having.

Secondly — confessing that I don’t know anything about the numbers — I’m pretty sure that when it comes to stories that real humans might read,* single issue sales are a fraction of the story. Quick, which has sold more: Sandman #21 or Season of Mists? Bone #10 or The Great Cow Race? Black Hole #6 or Black Hole? All the Year Round for 4/30/1859 or A Tale of Two Cities? Look, guys, a paperback edition is not “a cheap and easy way for latecomers to catch up with what they’ve missed.” (1991 is <— that way.) It’s a book. It’s the only thing libraries will stock, it’s the only thing bookstores will sell, it’s the only thing NYRB will review, it’s the only thing most people in the world are interested in reading.** The book’s the thing.

Related point: a purchase of a book in a given format is not an ideological declaration of allegiance.*** For years I’ve been hearing “buy the book in X format or you’re a traitor.” “Our team is losing! Buy single issues of She-Hulk or there may never be a collection!” “CIVIL WAR: I’m with Waiting-for-the-Trade Man.” You guys read too many comic books! There are no teams. Consume the media you like, in the way that makes sense to you, and the market will recalibrate itself to suit the consumption trends that emerge.

*i.e. stories in which Green Lantern does not appear and the female characters do not habitually stand such that you can see all their erogenous zones simultaneously.
**Excluding digital and disposable formats.
***With apologies to my lit theory prof.

Now then.

As for this question of profitability. Why doesn’t Vertigo cancel its low-selling books? Profitability is a really complicated concept, and I imagine the mechanisms behind a title’s cancellation are considerably more complex than some are implying.

In every area of publishing, some products are (strictly speaking) profitable and others are (strictly speaking) not — it’s a fact of life. In fact, MOST books are unprofitable. Every publisher uses the revenue from the high-performing products to subsidize the loss from the low-performing products. Additionally, it may take a product many months or years to make back the investment that produced it — particularly at a company which pays high page rates and/or advances. If every publisher canceled a title the instant it dipped below the strict “profitability” line, almost none of them would last long enough to make real money, and the publisher would go bankrupt.

There are a dozen reasons why a strictly “unprofitable” title might be continued:

  • expected revenue from future formats
  • contractual obligations to the creators (I believe Rushkoff was promised at least one TPB when he signed Testament, and I suspect this is standard)
  • public relations and other intangible/indirect profits (could DC really just cease production of kids’ comics? could Vertigo really cancel 80% of its line? what would people think?)
  • editorial preference/indulgence
  • contractual obligations from a movie option (GOT NO LEGS BOY must remain in publication because they might make a GOT NO LEGS BOY movie)
  • etc.

With the first bullet point being the most significant, in most cases.

And for that matter, a low-selling book may have considerably lower production costs than a higher-selling book. So it may not be nearly as unprofitable as it looks.

more on American Virgin

I had the highest of hopes for AMERICAN VIRGIN. IT’S A BIRD showed Seagle was a thoughtful guy, Becky Cloonan‘s name speaks for itself, and covers by Quitely were icing on the cake.

But I don’t think I’ve ever been so disappointed by a comic. I hate every character. They don’t talk like any human I’ve ever met (and I grew up in the South). Their actions make no logical sense. The plot barrels along from one non sequitur setpiece to another, leaving no time for the characters to reflect or talk about their feelings, or even to have consistent personalities. The sole purpose of the dialogue is to lay out the plot or set up one of Seagle’s terrible jokes. Pithy lines are spit out at the end of scenes, smacking us in the face with the force of how clever and insightful they must be, when in fact they’re as weirdly illogical and out-of-place as everything else in this damn book. It’s like Brian K. Vaughan without the heart, or the logic.

Issue 4, pp 1-4:
[backstory: Adam is a young, hyper-Christian, motivational speaker for abstinence. African terrorists have captured and killed his fiancee. Previously he found her body, but it had been beheaded. Adam, his sister Cyndi, and their hired mercenary Mel are driving a Jeep through the desert to get her head back.]
ADAM: Hurry the fuck up! [page turn]
CYNDI: Language, Adam. You’re Christian, remember? And could you also remember that you were goin’ to Mozambique, claiming your fiancee’s body, and taking it back to Florida? ‘Cause that’s all I agreed to! Not off-roading to Swahili for–
MEL: Swaziland.
CYNDI: Are we payin’ you to drive, Mel? Or to correct me?
ADAM: It’s not her whole body. Part of it is missing. Do you understand, Cyndi? Do you get that?
CYNDI: Sure, I get it. Like all guys, you’re looking for a little head–


[the jeep hits a rock and flips onto its side. The characters emerge from the car and yell at each other for a while. Adam screams at Mel that they’ll never catch the terrorists now.]
MEL: Swazi’s smaller than Rhode Island, mate– Help me drop the Jeep and we’ll be in Mbane before you can say– [page turn]
ADAM: Jesus save me!
CYNDI: Drop the Jeep with what? A crane? Want me to call AAA– the African Automobile Association?
MEL: Like anything, ya just need the strength to make it happen. [he starts pushing the Jeep]
ADAM: I have faith. [he joins Mel in pushing the Jeep]
MEL: Didn’t say “faith.” I said strength.
ADAM: They’re the >NHH< same– thing!
MEL: Are they?
[the Jeep flips back onto its wheels.]
ADAM: Yeah. They are. Let’s go.

Sounds nice, if you don’t think about it too hard. But no, it’s one of the clunkiest bits of dialogue I’ve read in months.

Even Cloonan’s work seems crippled on this book — characters are often awkwardly posed, looking like their heads are about to snap off or their eyeballs to erupt from their sockets. I absolutely love her work, so a) I think she deserves better than this book, but also b) I think she’s miscast, and this would be a stronger book with a different artist.

AMERICAN VIRGIN is starting to remind me of a Ross Campbell comic. I don’t enjoy him either, but at least that’s a matter of taste, not of competence.

I’ve only read through #4 — maybe once Adam resolves the girlfriend thing he’ll stop being such an inconsistent psychotic douchebag — but my hopes are no longer high. It’s gotta slow down the pacing, polish the dialogue, give us more time with the characters, and take the time to make the logic of each step in the story more coherent. Show us a character actually learning something. Show me a character I can like.

I want to keep getting this book for historical reasons, and because I hope it will improve, but our shelves are filled with overpretentious underexecuted shortlived Vertigo series from the 90s. I won’t hold out forever.

Leigh Walton talks comics and maybe other arts. (RSS)
He also works for the very excellent publisher Top Shelf Productions (which does not necessarily endorse the views and opinions, etc, herein).


Header by me. Contains an interpolation of the final panel from All-Star Superman #1 by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely. Speaking of which.