Letters to Holly

Tuesday, April 4


Now, I’m starting to feel the effects of switching the clocks. I drag a little bit. But it’s nice to see the sun at 7:30 p.m. again.

I got my monthly haul of comics yesterday, and I mention this only because DC Comics (the Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman folks) are rebooting their comics once again to make it easier for new readers to jump aboard. Superman, for one, has within the space of two issues, become my favorite comic again. The talent strata of comics is clearly defined, and until recently, DC has been content to give their most prominent titles to b-list creators. The reboot signals a renewed commitment to make the most popular heroes also the most enjoyable to read. Marvel Comics (X-Men, Spider-man, Hulk) already do this, but they hand over so many title to such a small group of writers. I don’t think it’s far off to say three guys write a dozen Marvel titles. It stretches their skills thin. This makes DC’s reboot also well-timed; they offer stronger, fresher takes on established characters right as the Marvel gang seems stale.

Here -- sit you down, and let me ramble:

Since I moved to Mayberry, my comics have been shipped to me from my old comic store, The Tangled Web. I shopped from that store since I was in college (my math is bad, but that’s at least three weeks ago). The owner has always taken care of me as a customer, and I don’t think there’s ever been an item he hasn’t been able to get for me once I requested it. Great customer service all around.

Because comic distribution is essentially a monopoly, the store owners are often over a barrel when it comes to ordering comics. They can’t send back leftover issues, and if they short-order a hot title, they’ll run into problems getting any later on. Worse, they might get copies from subsequent printings, and those are less valued by collectors. They have to guess what the demand for comics will be so to minimize overstock and wasted money. To take some of the guesswork out, comic stores often give discounts if customers provide a list of what they want. I’ve had a pull list with this location going back to when it was owned by someone else and operated under a different name.

The current owner, Daniel, came in and made a smooth transition for the customers. If you never bothered to look the employees in the eye – a possibility with some comic fans – you’d never know there was a change. But Daniel has since turned a simple comic store into a significant hub for pop-culture lovers. He caters to fans of card games, Japanese products, videos, and collectors of models and various licensed memorabilia. It’s clean, well-lit, and organized for easy access to everything. I love the place. I miss being in there. It was a weekly highlight to walk to the store, take in the ambience, talk shop with Daniel, and trade reviews with other readers. There are a lot of comic stores out there that are gloomy, dirty and generally unwelcoming. I’ve been in stores in Michigan, Charlotte, and Columbia, S.C. where I wasn’t even addressed by an employee. Not that comic stores only have crappy service, but given that they are generally mom-and-pop (or rather nerd-and-geek) businesses, they literally can’t afford to drive off new customers. Compare that to stores in Tennessee, Boston and Greenville, N.C. where the owners have bent over backward to help me find something without crossing the line into creepy, space-intruding pests.

When I moved, we set up a deal where I get my comics shipped to me once a month and then I mail a check. I could shop at the local store in Asheville, but it’s unimpressive. You’ve seen it, I think. It’s leaning toward the gaming crowd, but it does boast a nice variety of comics and trades. It’s not a bad store, and the owner remembers my name even as his never sticks in my head. But it’s not home cooking. It’s not Tangled Web. Daniel’s earned my loyalty as a customer, and I think we’re friends. As a friend, I’m supporting his business. Just so happens my friend offers the best option. Win-win for all.

Anyhow, I wanted to give you an overview of what kind of stuff I read and hopefully display the variety available to readers. Your Sister is still reading all the Elektra material I have, and I hand her random comics that are accessible for casual comic readers. One has to beware of excess reliance on backstory -- a tenet publishers still don’t remember.

She-Hulk: What started as a straight-forward character spin-off of the Incredible Hulk – Bruce Banner gives blood transfusion to wounded lawyer cousin; she makes with the green and angry – has morphed into a cheesecake wink at comic conventions. Her original by-the-numbers title gave way to another heavily influenced by the “Moonlighting” TV series; she often talked directly to readers as she struggled to make sense of pig-costumed space truckers and villains with bells for heads. The character realized she could become tall, green, and strong without being a giant angerball and for a long time stayed in that form instead of her original mousy persona. Her current title sees her as a defense lawyer for supervillains in a comic that revels in comic absurdity while providing genuinely funny and touching stories. Marvel Comics likes to compare it “Ally McBeal.” As if anyone remembers that show.

New Avengers: Marvel established a superhero group to compare to DC Comics’ Justice League, more popularly known as the Super Friends. The Avengers now includes Wolverine, Captain America, Spider-Man, Iron Man, and others. A new creative team jumpstarted a new series run and changed up the membership. This is simple superhero comics. No innovations of storytelling in art or writing. But it’s bright, kinetic, and witty.

Solo: DC Comics is printing this title which lets an artist have an entire comic to draw whatever he wants. The initial run has been stellar in variety and quality. It’s a textbook in techniques and storytelling. Of course, it’s going to be canceled soon.

JLA Classified: The DC version of Avengers, except this title hands the team over to different writer/artists teams to tell one story and then pass it on. It’s the classic membership: Superman, Wonder Woman, Batman, etc.

Astonishing X-Men: Marvel gave the writer of “Angel,” “Buffy,” and “Firefly” his own title to write Marvel’s mutant franchise. He’s knocking it out of the park, referring back to decades-old continuity and introducing new angles. He’s made this the best of the many mutant titles, by far.

Fantastic Four: This is Marvel’s flagship title, the one that started their superhero universe and the touchstone for the Marvel elements of cosmic weirdness, internal conflict, arrogant villains, and big ole monsters. I drop the title and pick it up every few years as creative teams arrive and run out of steam. The recent film got virtually nothing right about the comic except for its flavor.

Uncanny X-Men: The first title of the mutant franchise, and this is by the writer who made the X-Men the comic book for years and years. X-Men was the Harry Potter of comics in the ‘80s and remains my touchstone for involving comic book drama. He’s lost a step in the last few years, and his clichés have become crutches. But it still sparks the same emotional chord it plucked when I was barely a teen.

Ultimates: Here’s a prime example of how comics get confusing. Marvel wanted to make its properties more accessible to new readers coming in, hopefully, from the many recent movies. But Marvel will enrage their loyal customers if they just drop all stories and reboot. Instead, they keep the current titles and continuity and start a new line of comics with their own shared universe. New costumes, new personalities and stories. They keep the names and costume themes. Ultimates is the newer, alternate version of the Avengers, not to be confused with the old-continuity title called New Avengers. I told you it’s confusing. Whereas New Avengers feels like a well-done superhero comic, Ultimates feels like a well-done action movie.

Nextwave: This is a comic that doesn’t take itself seriously yet provides all the big comic action and attitude. It’s written by an often-drunk Scottish misanthrope who loves cutting edge technology. A group of minor heroes fights a terrorist group using monsters to attack America. A recent story featured the team fighting Fin Fang Foom, a giant lizard who wears purple underwear.

Hellboy: Here’s a horror action comic reliant on world myth, Edger Allan Poe, and H.P. Lovecraft. I mean, come on, this is right up my alley. The movie got a lot right but shoehorned in a needless love story. Hellboy is not about love; it’s about fighting predestination. The hero is a demon who is crucial to a prophesied Armageddon, but he fights for the good guys and stomps the nasty monsters.

Ex Machina: In this alternate history title, a former NY superhero becomes mayor. It’s very mundane, dealing with political and bureaucratic policies much like ”West Wing,” but the mayor uses his weird super power to smooth things along. Most notably, his presence alters 9/11 and the city’s reaction to it.

Tom Strong: A science-based superhero in the style of Buck Rogers and Doc Savage protects Millennium City from a host of cartoonish threats. This is a comic book unafraid to be a comic book. It doesn’t try to lure readers with trendy angst and headline-ripped subplots. It’s just good comics.

Planetary: In this world, the Fantastic Four are bad guys and control the dissemination of technology and super powers. A secret group investigating global weird archaeology decides the bad guys have controlled the world long enough. It’s both a world-spanning adventure and a personal story of redemption and vengeance. It’s cool and smart, written by the aforementioned drunk creating Nextwave.

Superman: As DC readies for the new movie, they are reviving a character that gets surprisingly dull every few years. The obvious point here is that he’s been around forever and can do anything. Given that attitude, yeah, it might be hard to write Superman comics. But all one has to do is look at the unique properties of the comic – superhero lives undercover married to a fellow newspaper reporter in a city economically dominated by his archenemy, fights threats from bank robbers to cosmic invaders, vulnerable to rocks from home planet and magic, is seen as the lynchpin of the superhero community, dotes on adopted farmer parents – and I can give you two years’ worth of stories in an hour. That’s a fundamentally ripe orchard for comic stories.

That’s what I read, apart from random miniseries and independent-publisher graphic novels.

Picture of the Day
Joy of joys. My current favorite wrestling gimmick, the evil male cheerleader Spirit Squad, won the WWE tag team belts last night. Even typing that makes me smile like an idiot. Did I mention they cheat with help of a mini-trampoline? And they really can’t cheer worth a damn?

In the news
Tom DeLay won’t seek re-election. It’s not that surprising. He’s been a non-factor since stepping down as Majority leader, but he did just win the GOP primary for the Congressional seat. His departure separates his tarnished image from the party before the November elections. He hurts them in a few ways:
a) his top aide just plead guilty to charges stemming from the Abramoff lobbying scandal;
b) he’s fighting the campaign corruption charges in Texas over gerrymandering and laundering;
c) he reminds people that the GOP is willing to chuck aside the party platforms of state sovereignty and individual privacy, as it did over the Schaivo case.

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Saddam is being indicted under additional genocide charges, including gassing Kurds.

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