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The New New Mainstream, Part One:
Just Like Television

 

 

Back in the 2000s — which is to say, back when someone was paying me to care about such things — the network of comics shops collectively known as the Direct Market had a little problem with genre. To wit: There weren't any. At least, there wasn't enough of a selection of genres for it not to be a problem.

Due to a ludicrous series of mishaps in the mid-1990s, the marketplace for comic books had been almost entirely reduced to two opposing factions.

On one side, and making up the overwhelming majority of the marketplace, were superhero comics. Once upon a time, such things were considered to be children's fare, but then the audience for such things were reduced by the aforementioned mishaps to a group of perhaps 300,000 men between the ages of 25 and 35, who'd been reading superhero comics for at least ten years and no longer cared for their funnybooks to be written with children in mind. Thus, the dawn of "superhero decadence," where publishers like Marvel and DC Comics, realizing that there no longer really was an all-ages audience for these things, began rewriting their funnybooks to appeal to the current audience... and no one else.

On the other side were the art-comix crowd. Art comix, or literary comics or (before DC and Marvel got ahold of the term) "graphic novels," were a way of thinking about comics as they might be created for actual, non-superhero-loving adults, particularly the ones who read serious literature, which is to say, the sort of books whose only genre was "literature." While there had been a few, isolated attempts at making such things in the 1950s, the movement really got underway toward the beginning of the 1970s, when the police began raiding so-called "head shops" and the people creating and publishing so-called "underground" comic books for the stoned hippies who frequented said "head shops" realized that they were about to be put out of a job.

Two of these people, Bill Griffith and Art Spiegelman, tried to move their wares to your local grocery-store newsstand with a magazine called Arcade, which didn't do very well and went under after producing fewer than a dozen issues. But the idea endured. A few years later, Spiegelman began publishing a Manhattan coffee-table comics magazine called RAW, which was all well and good and read by literally dozens of people. Elsewhere, three brothers living in Oxnard, California decided that they would create a comic book about whatever popped into their heads, called Love and Rockets. They never saw big mainstream success either, but a bunch of people who read their comics realized that you could do a comic book about whatever popped into your head, and before you knew it, they were doing it, too. And a few of them were actually worth reading by adults.

By the mid-2000s, therefore, there was a small space in, oh, maybe twenty percent of the comics shops in North America where you could also buy these new-fangled literary comics, as well.

Missing from the genre equation: just about anything else. Oh, there were publishers who tried to publish "anything else" in comics form — science-fiction comics, crime comics, humor comics, romance comics — publishers like Dark Horse Comics, NBM, Oni Press, Top Shelf, SLG Publishing and the like. The problem was, while the art-comix crowd had set up their own culture, with magazines and websites and such to nurture and publicize the comics they liked, there was no equivalent network for the "anything else" crowd. A few examples might rise above the floor and get the attention of one side or the other, but they tended to be the exception to the rule.

The proponents of these comics tried to refer to them as the "New Mainstream" on the sensible but otherwise unconvincing grounds that things like crime stories and romantic comedies appealed to the sort of people who didn't ordinarily read comics, which is to say, nearly everybody in the country. Like everything else about the "New Mainstream," the term "New Mainstream" never caught on among the people who visited comics shops.

For the superhero fans, the problem was that these comics had no superheroes. Mind you, this was a period where the Big Two had begun publishing superhero lawyer comics, superhero crime comics, superhero spy thrillers, superhero Westerns, superhero this-is-what-chicks-like-right? comics and the like, so they didn't see what the problem was anyway because they were fucking idiots.

Likewise, the lit-comics crowd tended to look at these "New Mainstream" comics and see middlebrow pablum that didn't measure up to their exalted standards — The good is the enemy of the better! — and didn't realize that without a solid base of reader-friendly comics accessible to the great unwashed masses, they'd never have many places to sell their preferred kind of comics because, like virtually every lit-comics publisher not named Kim Thompson, their heads were wedged firmly up their own asses.

And so it went, until a bunch of other comics fans went and set up shop in bookstores and sold a bunch of action comics and science-fiction comics and humor comics and romance comics and comics about pretty much every subject that anyone wanted to read about, and in so doing proved that you could sell comics to lots of people who otherwise didn't read comics, so long as those comics came from Japan.

 

Ten years later, despite their best efforts, people who publish comics have finally learned a thing or two about publishing comics for people who don't ordinarily read such things on a regular basis. Oh, comics shops are still mostly the same and have mostly the same problems (only now their readers are yet again ten years older than they were, and are now ten years away from having to cut back on their Wednesday purchases in order to better afford the medicine for their various bowel ailments). But now comics can be purchased in a variety of places where dipshit nerds don't have the final say in what does and does not make it to the shelves, and so a greater variety of comics has begun to flourish for a greater and more diverse audience.

All of which begs the question: What exactly are people trying to sell to this new audience, anyway? It's been a good six years since anyone paid me to answer such a question, but I must confess to a lingering curiosity over the subject. Since I've foolishly decided to again start writing for the Internet, I traveled to my local library and hunted down the graphic-novel shelves.

A few things jumped out at me right away:

  • Judging from the sheer number of volumes available in the kids' comics shelves, the young-adult shelves and the adult comics shelves, I'm going to go ahead and call First Second the winners in the Library War, with Scholastic a very close second just for the massive listings they have in the kids' section.

  • Of course, that still leaves the question of superheroes and manga. Both categories are well represented, with the superhero-comics shelves being as numerous as the everything-else shelves next to them in the young-adults section. You don't notice this at first, however, since for every shelf in either category, there's three shelves of manga sitting directly on top of it. A dozen years' on, and manga still owns their Western competitors, where teenage readers are concerned.

  • There are a few superhero comics in the kids' section, but not many. The adult section has one or two superhero books, titles clearly intended for the young-adult section until some parent or other complained. Likewise with the few paperback-sized manga series in the adult section. It must be said: More than a few of the superhero comics in the young-adult section are still wildly inappropriate for said section. Thankfully, this is no longer my problem as a writer, so I can finally ignore them and set "superhero decadence" to bed as a topic deserving of my attention.

  • There are three copies of Inio Asano's Nijigahara Holograph in the adult section, and I find that one or two are usually checked out whenever I visit. Ha!

  • Apparently, I'm writing about comics for the Web. Understand: I spent a good six years swearing that I'd never do this again. I've had this website up and running for what, two weeks? Really? I revert to type this quickly?

The adult section contains any number of titles I'd have expected: a couple from Fantagraphics and Drawn & Quarterly, a couple from Pantheon, and more than a few from Vertigo and Image. I've no interest whatsoever in zombies (sorry, Robert Kirkman), but I've recently discovered Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staple's Saga, and boy howdy, did I ever enjoy it.

Many of the books in the section, however, probably wouldn't have existed ten years ago, before the idea of an adult graphic-novel section in your local library or bookstore caught hold, including the many, many comics adaptations of book series by popular prose writers — which is Marvel's big "in" with this section, incidentally, courtesy of Stephen King.

Having only recently returned to the medium that I once loved enough to throw away a career over, I've decided to try ten books in the "based on a book by..." category. They seem to break down into two subcategories anyway, so this week we'll take a look at five books from the first subcategory: comics that would really rather be television series...

 

Richard Castle's A Calm Before Storm
Written by Peter David; illustrated by Robert Atkins with Al Barrionuevo, Carlos Rodriguez, Scott Elmer and Andy Owens; color by Chris Sotomayor
Marvel Worldwide, Inc.
120-page hardcover, $19.99
ISBN: 9780785168188

Richard Castle's Unholy Storm
Written by Cullen Bunn; illustrated by Robert Atkins, Scott Hanna, Will Sliney and Andrea Mutti; color by "Sotocolor"
Marvel Worldwide, Inc.
112-page hardcover, $24.99
ISBN: 9780785190295

Actually, this one almost is a television series, and while it isn't actually based upon a series of books by a popular author, it's a clever fake of same. I've seen exactly one episode of Castle, a semi-lighthearted TV crime drama on the ABC network. It features a private detective named Richard Castle, who writes crime novels on the side, and his adventures with a female NYPD plainclothes detective. Castle struck me as standard action fare, competently written and acted, with enough wit and flirtation to make it halfway interesting to someone sitting in front of a television set with a second beer in hand.

The conceit of these books is that they're graphic-novel adaptations of the crime books written by the TV-show detective, which star a private detective with CIA connections named Derrick Storm — they go so far as to include "about the author" pages in the back of each volume, with photos of the actor playing Richard Castle, smiling an author's-photo smile as he sits behind his desk. All told, it's just meta enough to make for a good promotional tool for the series without feeling like that slapped-together Star Wars comics paperback from the 1970s. You know, the one that Howard Chaykin drew? Man, that thing was crap.

By contrast, these books demonstrate enough care in their creation and production to seem like they might actually appeal to the TV show's audience. Take Richard Castle's A Calm Before Storm, for example. It's a breezy little book, with a story lacking in any real originality but composed of spy clichés polished well enough to fit together in fairly pleasing fashion, and art drawn in that tolerable, Neal-Adams-meets-George-Peréz-in-a-blender funnybook realism that seems to be the benchmark these days for mid-level comics not deemed important enough to have A-list talent working the Wacom. Well, at least at Marvel: DC Comics seems to be having quality-control problems lately, if the books found at my local library are any indication.

 

Storm's dad dreams an action sequence with which to open the story, from Richard Castle's A Calm Before Storm, ©2013 ABC Studios.

 

Writer Peter David frontloads this volume with more "meta" than that already implied by source material and corporate-decreed set-up: In this third book of the series, we begin with Derrick Storm having sold his detective agency to a wealthy, high-profile detective named Jake Palace, whose life has been fictionalized in a TV series overtly modeled on the Castle series powering these books' existence, right down to the logo. Now living on his own yacht and drinking entirely too much top-dollar wine, Storm is yanked out of the endless party by a phone call from his father, followed by the discovery of a human head in the waters next to his boat which in turn is a message for said former federal-agent father. The head, it turns out, belongs to a Russian diplomat, and has a semi-swastika carved into it — the symbol of an assassin called The Fear, it turns out, although the head is apparently otherwise staged to cause a diplomatic incident between Russia and Germany, for reasons that don't hold up to scrutiny if you think about it for more than a minute only why would you?

Add the international element, the introduction of Storm's former CIA partner and the fact that this The Fear fellow killed Storm's mother, and we're off and running. Oh, it's all fairly rote spy-thriller stuff, but then few people read James Bond-level spy thrillers for the subtle characterizations and brain-taxing plots — seriously, have you ever read Ian Flemming? Peter David keeps the pace flowing at a good clip, makes the dialogue snappy and the voiceovers both clever-sounding and in character, punctuates everything with a gunfight or other set-piece every twenty pages or so, and that's basically what you need for these sort of books.

And speaking of Ian Flemming: Writer Cullen Bunn's Richard Castle's Unholy Storm serves as the Live and Let Die to Peter David's The Spy Who Loved Me on more than just a... no, it's pretty much all surface level, come to think of it. Still. Unholy Storm finds Derrick Storm operating out of the back of someone else's cheap storefront in New York City, his yacht having been destroyed at the end of the last book. Storm's latest client is a rich man whose daughter has been ritually murdered in the bathroom toilet stall of a trendy nightclub, the only clue being an arcane symbol painted on the wall in the victim's blood.

Naturally, the aforementioned symbol will lead to zombies, voodoo rituals, a graveyard gunfight and adventure in the semi-exotic locales of New Orleans and Haiti, with Castle's good CIA friend along for the ride once again. I just mentioned zombies, so let me note that, while the cover heavily implies the standard, George Romero living-dead variety, Bunn is above such supernatural twaddle, preferring instead to make use of the Serpent and the Rainbow puffer-fish model for his shambling servants of evil. His approach to such things is more sophisticated than the material would otherwise lead you to believe, and the results are fairly solid throwaway entertainment.

When I say "throwaway entertainment," I'm not trying to be dismissive so much as placing this book, and David's before it, in its proper commercial context. These comics are consciously modeled to read like television action-adventure offshoots, their purpose not only to entertain the reader but also act as a link back to the source material, serving as both advertising and goodwill ambassador to Castle, now appearing weekly on ABC. This is how a modern, mainstream corporate tie-in is supposed to work, and the fact that it's not supposed to read like advertising or a corporate tie-in is all part of getting the job done in satisfactory manner.

 

Hey, it's the guy from Live and Let Die! You know, the one who used to sell 7-Up? Surface versimillitude, courtesy of Richard Castle's Unholy Storm, ©2014 ABC Studios.

 

And whatever else you may think of the results, it's a job well done as defined by commercial dictates. Peter David and Cullen Bunn have differing strengths as writers: David delivers snappier Moonlighting-esque dialogue, while Bunn's story has mildly more reach and depth — he at least does more than token research into his locale and storytelling environment, which is more than David can be bothered to do. Seriously, David's Moscow may as well be Detroit for all it matters. And whether the visual layouts are solely the responsibility of lead artist Robert Atkins or whether his writers had any significant input, the fact remains that the pacing is solid and professional throughout both volumes for the purpose of action storytelling in a modern comics narrative.

Both of these books could've made the cut as solid, entertaining episodes in a Derrick Storm network television series, and one gets the feeling that this is more-or-less what they set out to do. So near as I can tell, that means it's a job well done.

 

Trouble Maker Books One and Two
Written by Janet and Alex Evanovich; illustrated by Joëlle Jones
Dark Horse Books
112-page hardcovers, $17.99 each
Book One ISBN: 9781595824882
Book Two ISBN: 9781595825735

The reason why I've tried so hard to give the Castle books their due as solid-if-rote action/adventure comics is that I've seen what happens when the genre doesn't work. In these books, the genre definitely doesn't work.

Trouble Maker reads like an ineptly assembled version of a Moonlighting-style action series. It's what would happen if you took a standard adventure/rom-com television drama, shot it with silent-film levels of physical overacting, removed most of the wit and botched the pacing and character work. The weirdest thing about these books is that you can often see their disparate elements start to gel into something better, only to fall apart again a panel or two later. They sometimes threaten to almost work... but ultimately fail.

Our story centers around Alex Barnaby, a NASCAR mechanic with a tendency to find trouble, and Sam Hooker, her race-car driving associate with a tendency to be a shallow male jerkface stereotype. Our problems start here: Neither character has any kind of discernable personality beyond what I've just written. You can kind of get away with that where Alex is concerned, as she serves as our narrator as well as one of the two principal leads, and so her reactions allow us to get into her head and sympathise with what she's going through. Sam, however, doesn't have that out, and at no point does he ever display a recognizably likeable personality trait... or, hell, any kind of personality trait whatsoever. Given that he's our potential romantic lead, that's something of a problem. The Ladies Evanovich want him to be a loveable rogue, but he never even fully makes it to "rogue."

Anyway: the plot finds Alex and Sam coming to the aid of Alex's ditzy friend Rosa, who's fallen in over her head after coming between her no-good boss Walter and a sleazy, voodoo-practicing thief named Nitro, both of whom are trying to retain posession of a voodoo statue that may or may not hold a literal key to Spanish explorer Ponce de León's hidden treasure. Along the way, there'll be a bomb, a rocket launcher, a stolen boat, a Molotov cocktail-throwing voodoo priestess, henchmen to be avoided, moderate amounts of gunfire — clichés of the genre they may be, but these are also individual elements that play well together in these sort of stories. So why doesn't it work?

 

My question exactly. Panel from Trouble Maker Book One, ©2010 Evanovich Inc.

 

Part of the problem is an inability of the comic's basic elements — plot, dialogue, artwork, pacing and scene construction — to work together in anything even vaguely ressembling a seamless whole. The story's various elements are clichés that never get modified to fit a specific, personalized story. You've read every line of dialogue a thousand times, and no one ever bothered to file away the serial numbers from its previous owners. The art, while lovely to look at, frequently resorts to hopelessly exaggerated gestures and faces, so that many of the characters spend an absurd amount of time mugging for the camera. Pacing is stretched out for pages when it would be better served by tightening up to panels.

And it never mixes well. Nothing ever properly gels in these comics. This is particularly true of the story's romantic-comedy elements. The dialogue strains to hit an arch note of love-me-hate-me banter, which clashes with the frequently over-the-top staging endemic in Joëlle Jones' art. Something has to give, and nothing ever does: Either you tone down the writing and let the visual exaggeration sell the idea of romantic friction, or keep the text and tone the body language way down. Leaving both set on top volume at the same time, then stretching out the pacing to where moments with barely enough content to fill a panel or two are padded out to two pages or more? This just doesn't work as basic comics, let alone as satisfying storytelling.

Whole scenes don't work as scenes, and the above problems only amplify the effect. The most obvious example is an early visit to Sam's mother, staged for seemingly no other reason than so said mother can badger our leads with her desire to see them married and having babies as soon as possible. This scene is cringe-inducingly awful from beginning to end: The mother's clumsy, clichéd monologue, drawn with all the subtlety of a conversation in a Three Stooges flick and dragged out to four long pages... and at no point does the story ever present a reason for the scene to have been included in the first place. The fuck...?

Individually, you could imagine each of this book's three creators doing good work. The mother/daughter team of writers certainly throw themselves into this with enough confidence that they don't seem aware of the potential for bellyflopping on this grand a scale, and one has to acknowledge: Janet Evanovich is a bestselling author. Surely, at some point in her career, she's demonstrated the ability to write her way out of a paper bag at least once? And Joëlle Jones is an accomplished cartoonist who's worked, successfully and to critical praise, for a number of publishers and in collaboration with writers ranging from Matt Wagner to Jamie S. Rich. The talent was there, at least on paper. The problem is, the talent never showed up on this paper.

There were enough flaws in these pages for someone to have caught the problems in pacing and presentation before too many pages had been drawn. So what happened? Were the editors asleep? I can't tell you, but I sincerely hope that the resulting two (two!) books sold few enough copies to avoid justifying further volumes. Crimes against the reader such as these should never be repeated.

 

Patricia Briggs' Mercy Thompson: Hopcross Jilly
Written by Patricia Briggs and Rik Hoskin; illustrated by Tom Garcia; color by Mohan
Dynamite Entertainment
144-page hardcover, $24.99
ISBN: 9781606906682

Now this is what I call a competently produced, all-ages, family-friendly horror comic. Someone's been reading their young-adult novels...

The story takes place in a world where werewolves are "out" to the world and trying to assimilate, alongside faeries, witches and other fantasy archtypes. We open on a pack of wolves out on a nights prowl, only to discover a humanskeleton in a ditch near an old farm. One of the animals changes to human form, pulls a phone from the bag she'd been carrying and calls the police. Meet Mercy Thompson, our nominal heroine.

The farm turns out to be the burial grounds for a number of bodies, most clearly buried in ritual fashion. Rumors spread throughout the small town of Riverview, making life particularly difficult for Mercy's daughter Jesse, already something of a social pariah for being the child of werewolves. But when it gets out that her parents found the bodies...?

Despite the tie-in to fantasy author Patricia Briggs, we're clearly in the hands of veteran comics makers. Briggs is credited as a co-writer despite the fact that the bonus script pages in the back of the book are clearly labeled as the work of Rik Hoskin — presumably Briggs had some sort of input with the plot, at least? In any event, the story flows smoothly and clearly enough that our being dropped into the middle of a detailed story doesn't interfere with our understanding of the setting. I had no trouble picking up the details of the world on offer.

 

Everyday teenage life, even for a werewolf's daughter. Sequence from Patricia Briggs' Mercy Thompson: Hopcross Jilly, ©2015 Patricia Briggs.

 

Jesse gets much of the narrative focus in this story and is as much the protagonist as her mother, perhaps moreso. Because she's not a werewolf herself, Jesse provides a needed distancing effect which gives the reader a human perspective from which to view how the presence of fantasy creatures might change and shape our world while still leaving it as recognizably "our world." This is a storytelling element already familiar to young readers, as any Twilight fan will tell you: By keeping the inhuman monsters at arms length and presenting most of them as, well, human-ish first and foremost, the fantasy elements become the scary-adventure backdrop to what is otherwise a firmly-grounded, stock family drama.

While Mercy and her husband search for clues that might shed light on the numerous bodies turning up, Jesse deals with an increasingly hostile student body, with the only person still willing to talk to her being the new girl, Jill. As Jesse and Jill hang out and become friends, they deal with the common cruelties of the teenage world, go to the mall and generally hang out. Along the way, Jesse begins to get increasingly creepy vibes off of Jill. Say, you don't suppose...

Meanwhile, we hear a number of flashbacks to tales of the creepy old woman who once lived at the house where the bodies were found, who we eventually discover to be a supernatural creature called Hopcross Jilly. She's the one element in the story that I never quite bought: Visually presented as a clearly demonic, inhuman hag of the fairy-tale variety, it's difficult to watch other people, particularly children, interacting with her as though she were perfectly normal.

 

Not entirely convincing as a next-door neighbor, is she? Sequence from Patricia Briggs' Mercy Thompson: Hopcross Jilly, ©2015 Patricia Briggs.

 

By and large, anyone with even a passing familiarity with the horror drama will see most of this book coming, but it's a good fit for the younger teenager in your life: I'd feel comfortable handing this off to a twelve-year-old girl without much worry. Hopcross Jilly is creepy without being overtly nightmare-inducing, and the closest it comes to questionable content is in the opening pages, when Mercy's initial transformation from animal to human form involves a minor display of "TV nudity" that adroitly avoids even the slightest trace of salaciousness. This is solid family fare.

While all of the books mentioned here are safe for teenage readers, this is the volume most obviously created from page one, panel one with teen readers in mind. I have to confess: It's been a while since I've seen comic books that demonstrate the basic, accessible storytelling values that, ten years ago, were only available in your better-selling manga paperbacks. I have no idea the extent to which such books are actually reaching their intended audience — indeed, the fact that I found this on the adult graphic-novel shelves is a worrying sign — but I nonetheless hope that books like these are given every chance to reach young readers. They'll have to, if comics are to ever again become anything like a mass medium.

 

In part two, we look at five books with a potential appeal to comics' great lost audience: women.

 

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