Monday, October 17, 2016

Superman returns

When it was announced that Superman would actually appear in a recurring guest role on "Supergirl," fans rejoiced. After all, the first season of "Sueprgirl" offered a hopeful and wondrous view of the DC Universe and fans knew that it's move to the CW would elevate the nature of the show. Additionally, throwing the Man of Steel into the mix led to hopes that this version of Superman would be in-line with a more classic depiction of the character. 

Tyler Hoechlin's casting was announced and the first images were revealed. Of course, there was some kind of criticism to the first look of Hoechlin as Superman (which I addressed here: What makes him Super?), but most of the response was positive. I actually really liked the costume and I think it's the best post-red trunks on the outside version. I also think it should be the main outfit of the Superman brand, even with the shoulder things... which I think would make sense to keep and make the cape retractable as some have suggested.

My expectations for Hoechlin were high. After all, the Greg Berlanti-led DC shows have done a great deal of justice to the characters they steward. "Arrow" gives us a very Mike Grell-inspired Green Arrow, "Flash" presents a definitive Scarlett Speedster with plenty of Mark Waid and Geoff Johns inspirations and "Legends of Tomorrow" accurately represents the ensemble portrayed with necessary updates and "fits" for the CW-universe. "Supergirl" is no different, presenting a Girl of Steel drawing heavily from the Sterling Gates and Jamal Igle run. So yes, as someone who is not a fan of the DC Cinematic Universe and pretty much despises that portrayal of Superman, my expectations were astronomical.

About a week before the show aired, the first clip of Superman in action was released. There was Tyler Hoechlin as Clark Kent, completely OWNING the role. Then he transformed into Superman and joined Supergirl to save the crashing spaceship. After viewing this clip, to say my expectations shot into the next galaxy would be an understatement.

Love it or hate it, "Man of Steel" and "Batman v. Superman" did more to divide DC fandom and overall damage to the Superman brand than anything. That is of course an argument I've had many times and have addressed over and over, so I won't do it here. However, my main point has always been that when Superman divides, it's a gross misrepresentation of the character. I didn't see that division in the early images and clip featuring Hoechlin as Superman.

My feelings on the "Man of Steel" Superman are well-documented on this space and I don't really need to revisit them here. But for the purposes of my point here, "Man of Steel" presented a dour, brooding and cynical view of the world and Superman that's doesn't fall in line with who the character is or what he represents. I also reject the idea that "Man of Steel" presented a "more realistic" vision of Superman in the real-world, and I'll get to that in a minute. 

Now the question ultimately is: "Did Tyler Hoechlin's portrayal of Superman live up to expectations?" I say with great confidence, he exceeded my expectations.

In my previous Superman post, What makes him Super? I noted that when it comes to Superman, it's all about how the actor carries himself, it's all about presence. Hoechlin carried himself the way the Man of Steel should. He was confident, relaxed and optimistic. He also showed a bit of this edgier side through his passive aggressive interactions with J'onn. That's the way I've always known Superman.

I'm going to address what seems to be the main criticism off the bat... because from what I've seen, this depiction of Superman is pretty much beloved by the majority. A counter-point I've seen brought up is this, "In 'Man of Steel' he was literally Superman for a few days, in 'Supergirl' he's been Superman for 12 years." Okay, this is the typical argument that "Man of Steel" fans use to justify the insane destruction and collateral damage of "Man of Steel."

My counter-point to this is simple: It's not just his powers that make him Superman, it was also his upbringing by two good people. Clark Kent was Superman long before he wore the cape, "Man of Steel" portrays that too, but they do it in a way that makes it seem like a burden to Clark. There's also the gross misrepresentation of his parents in "Man of Steel," namely Pa Kent who'd rather let some schoolkids die than have his son reveal his powers.

So how would the world really respond to Superman? Fear? Yes, of course, but how Superman ultimately reveals himself is a completely different story. In "Man of Steel," we're treated to a brooding, secretive Clark Kent who only becomes Superman because he's forced into that situation. In almost every other depiction of a mainstream Superman, he chooses to become the Man of Steel and immediately lets his actions speak for himself. That's the vibe you get from the Hoechlin Superman. He's been around for years, sure, but he's portrayed as someone the world trusts, but let's say his reveal came through very visible actions of doing good and helping others, I do think the world would react positively. Now, based on the trailers for the upcoming episodes of "Supergirl," not everyone takes kindly to the Kryptonian visitors.

The "Supergirl" version of Superman was very quick to separate himself from the movies. Hoechlin's Clark Kent was perfect. He was mild-mannered and more quirky than outright clumsy. Off the bat we're presented with the Clark Kent everyone knows, he's earnest and says things like "lickety-split." He's also a damn good journalist and it's believable he can hold his own with the one and only Lois Lane (with whom he's in a relationship).

This Superman is also removed from "Man of Steel" by directly referencing moments from "Superman: The Movie" as part of his past. It's definitely not intended to say "this is the Ricard Donner/Christopher Reeve Superman," but like Cat Grant's new assistant, Miss Tessmacher, it's mostly just a playful nod. However, by the time the episode was finished, we had seen the best live-action Superman since Christopher Reeve.

Hoechlin was fantastic. This Superman was not a brooding god-like person unsure of his place in the world. This was a humble, confident man who can do incredible things and used those abilities for the good of humanity without the need to take credit. This was evident after Superman and Supergirl save the spaceship and greet the onlooking family (with a smile) and then at the DEO headquarters. Superman flies into the DEO headquarters, looking almost nervous and instead of acting like he's a god above everyone, he works the crowd, shakes hands and thanks the DEO agents for all their work. That was it for me. I was head over heels for this Superman.

It was more than that though, too. Grant Morrison had this great epiphany about Superman: "The most powerful man alive wouldn't be tortured but instead would be the friendliest, most relaxed person you ever saw."

That's exactly who Superman is. That's exactly the character Hoechlin (and Reeve before him) portrays.

There's also some intrigue. He and Martian Manhunter are at odds because of the DEO's insistence of stockpiling Kryptonite. We get to see a bit of Superman's temper and the tension between he and J'onn provides a subplot with darker undertones. There's an edge to this depiction, but he doesn't let it cloud his judgement. Of course, the two find common ground and resolve their differences and no mention of "Martha" was needed!

There was worry Superman would overshadow Supergirl, but he doesn't. And his presence in the show plays into the exact premise of it: Supergirl is trying to find her place in the world out of Superman's shadow and discover her own family, while balancing the needs of her real family. This is where Superman fits into Supergirl's story, but hot damn I want a 13-episode Superman series starring Hoechlin.

But truth be told, the moment that secured this depiction of Superman as being near-perfect (as near perfect as 45 minutes can get you) was after he saves a family from of one the killer drones. He turns to the boy in the family he saved and winks. This is a nod to almost every depiction of Superman since the beginning of time. There was also a moment where Superman holds a building up and prevents it from toppling over, to me this moment was a pretty direct nod to the Fleischer cartoons.

The classic Superman returned to live-action on the season 2 premiere of "Supergirl." For the most part, he's been praised and accepted, not deeply dividing the way "Man of Steel" has been. IGN pointed out that this is the first time since "Lois & Clark" that the classic Superman has been depicted in live-action. I have to agree with that. Brandon Routh played a Superman that was kind of depressing at points and Tom Welling never really played Superman.

It's also important to note that WB and DC Entertainment are indeed in the midst of resetting the Superman brand. Regardless of how you feel, the brand was damaged by both "Man of Steel" and the New 52 by presenting darker and sulking Man of Steel. DC Comics has re-introduced the classic Superman (completely killing off the New 52 version) and Superman's involvement and how he is presented following his resurrection in the "Justice League" film remains to be seen.

Still, the fact remains that WB and DC are returning to a classic Superman. Trying to reshape the character to something he wasn't just hasn't paid dividends.

Superman can be altruistic, he can be earnest, optimistic and kind. He's supposed to be. "Man of Steel" made him the product of a dark and cynical world, but that's one of the many places they got the character wrong. Superman is who brings light to the darker, cynical world with a wink, a smile and using his abilities to help everyone he can, no questions asked. Given today's social and political climate... this is exactly what we need in one of the biggest pop culture icons in history.

Quick story to share. My twins (boy and girl) are almost 4. My youngest boy is 2. They know superheroes and what not and the day after the show aired, I showed them that scene of Superman and Supergirl saving the spaceship. We started with Clark, all three asking who he was. My answer was "oh I don't know!" My boy twin (a die hard Batman fan as far as 4 year olds go) lit up with a smile and yelled "That's Superman!" When Clark ripped off his shirt, revealed the "S" and took off. My girl twin (who loves Wonder Woman and Supergirl) cheered as Supergirl flew out the window. My youngest let out an amazed "Where they going, Daddy?"

When they cut to the spaceship, the twins were wrought wondering how they would land. "Maybe Supergirl will catch it" my daughter said... moments later "She caught it!" When Superman flew in, all three yelled "There's Superman!"

We watched the whole scene, all three watching with wonder and amazement. My daughter then went to my wife to recount what she just witnessed and my boy twin looked at me and said "I like Superman" before saying "I like Batman too."

I was beaming with tears flooding my eyes, the look of pure joy on my kids' faces. This is why the portrayal of these characters and what they stand for is incredibly important. They are America's mythos.

Tyler Hoechlin portrayed the classic Superman we all know and love. His portrayal of the Man of Steel is in the same league as Christopher Reeve. Sure, it's only been two episodes, but every chord was struck perfectly. This is the Superman we aren't supposed to relate to, it's the Big Blue Boy Scout that makes us roll our eyes, but is the embodiment of the ideal to strive towards.

Hey there! If you enjoy my posts and my take on Superman and other superheroes, please consider supporting my latest comics project on Kickstarter where I'm reviving a golden age one-hit wonder: The Atomic Thunderbolt.

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

The Nature of the Pop Culture Convention

There’s been some discussion regarding an article in The Hollywood Reporter about the amount of money TV stars can and have been making at conventions. At first glance, you might read it and say “wow, what a racket!,” but as a comic creator who’s been doing cons for the better half of a decade, this kind of story isn’t news to me. In fact, most comic creators will tell you that we already knew that celebrities make a decent amount of money at cons. It's really not that big a deal.

Still a lot of creators and commentators have been debating the article, so I thought I'd add a little perspective from the standpoint of a small press/independent creator. With that said, I felt compelled to do this post for a couple of reasons.

I've previously detailed the reality of my status of an independent creator here: The Reality of Indie Comics,  so I'll try not to rehash too much.

There are a couple of things about that article that I felt were lacking - one of them being the state of the con business in general. There are a lot of conventions. I mean, it's at the point where it's almost over-saturated. It's still lucrative for many, but I've always felt when you get the point where cosplayers are considered guests, we've got a real problem.

To really understand conventions and the abundance of comic conventions, you first have to break them down into categories. I'll do my best to run down the way many of my creator friends classify them.

There are the big pop-culture cons: San Diego and New York, and to a lesser extent, WonderCon, Emerald City and MegaCon. There are big comic-centric shows/traditional comic cons: Baltimore, HeroesCon, Long Beach and Boston, among others. Regional shows are moderate sized: East Coast Comic Con, Vermont, GraniteCon (these examples are primarily to give you a size idea). And small shows are the one run at the library or local gym.

Comic creators will attend and sell their wares at a variety of these shows throughout any given year. Sometimes they do well, sometimes not so much.

The big pop-culture shows are huge gambles for people like me and we will likely not recoup costs... but they are a hell of a lot of fun and that experience is worth it.

Creators will frequent the other types of shows, but as I mentioned in my previous post, it can be tough to cover table cost, hotel, food and transport when you are just an independent creator and not a “guest." A "guest" is typically someone with more of a reputation or history in comics (or media) and will often have a table or accommodations comp-ed.

What shows do creators typically shy away from?

What some have colorfully adopted as "star fucker" shows. These are typically conventions that have "Wizard World" in front of them. Now, this is not to disparage any celebrities, creators or fans who attend these cons, not at all. But comics and creators - especially independent and small press - are an afterthought at these shows. There are some exceptions for sure, but Wizard World is more focused on the celebrity and PR stunt market that I’m not going to spend $250 on a table to compete with the cast of The Walking Dead or Ryan Lochte for a sale. 

Don't get me wrong, kudos to Wizard for cornering that market. They’ve also made it much easier for fans to get an autograph, photo or both from their favorite stars. If fans are willing to pay for a little facetime with their favorite star and the celebrities pocket some good change while doing it — good for them. Additionally, if it does help subsidize their earnings because of any residual cuts as THR suggests, I can’t imagine anyone wouldn’t try to take advantage.

Also consider this for a second. These celebrities are human. Often times, they are working insane schedules during the week, especially on TV shows, and the weekends may be their only reprieve. They also may not be paid as much as you think on their shows or movies. A common misconception about Hollywood jobs is that everyone is just raking in millions of dollars. That's far from the truth. So at the very least, you've got to give them credit for making themselves accessible.

It's interesting to see the article make mention of some of the Wizard shows and other conventions struggling to make a profit, while having potentially lucrative results for celebrities. As I mentioned, there are an over-abundance of these conventions. Between overhead, trying to get artists/vendors/creators to gamble on high table costs multiple times throughout the year and trying to draw in attendees who possibly just attended a show is tough. I'm not surprised some of these shows struggle. On top of that, a lot of celebrities and other guests will likely get a guarantee and will have travel, lodging and other expenses covered (that's normal for these things). So yeah, it should surprise no one that the results are less profitable for organizers, more so for guests.

Now, with my description of Wizard World shows, you might think I’d put Heroes & Villains in that category too. I don't.

I remember the first advertisements for Heroes & Villains. They made it very clear that it wasn't a "comic convention," it was more of a meet and greet show. They actually did something kind of brilliant. They took Wizard's formula, cut the pork and made it celebrity-centric. There are of course vendors and what have you, but the attraction isn't pop culture, it's the stars. That colorful term used for Wizard World doesn't apply because Heroes & Villains doesn't try to pretend to be something it's ultimately not.

I actually feel that the article did a disservice to Heroes & Villains - and while this is speculation - I think that might be why Stephen Amell was less than thrilled about the article.

Oddly enough, I've yet to attend a Heroes & Villains show mostly because a giant blizzard and a scheduling conflict, respectively, kept me from the two that have been held in New Jersey. But I know enough about them to be able to confidently describe what sets them apart. Back to that blizzard in a minute.

In the interest of full disclosure, I've met Amell a few times. It's also no secret if Patriot-1 ever got optioned for a movie, he'd be my first choice. He's a nice guy and he's really driven to - basically - do cool stuff. Whether its business ventures, charity T-shirt campaigns, his impressive social media presence or wrestling in a match at SummerSlam – Amell has built a solid brand that breaks from the mold of many of the pre-conceived norms of a television star.

So judging by his reaction to the article – he did a Facebook Live video wearing one of his charity T-shirts – it was easy to tell that he was bothered by the idea that he and other TV stars had taken over the celebrity con-circuit purely for monetary gain.

The reason I would counter that notion has everything to do with that blizzard in 2015 that canceled one day of the first New Jersey Heroes & Villains Fan Fest. I was supposed to go for a work thing, but the blizzard was coming in hard and I would have absolutely been stranded an hour from home in New Jersey for at least a day. Much to my wife's relief, the cancellation of the first day left me snowed in at home with the kids.

However, I followed the event on social media throughout the blizzard day. Amell, John Barrowman, Katrina Law and the other stars attending the show not only made themselves accessible to the fans that were also stranded, but they provided live updates on the show's status as well as interacted with fans making the best of their situation.

It was an interesting situation to see unfold. When you look at coverage of these Heroes & Villains events, they have all sorts of activities to go along with the signings and photo ops. Even though I've admittedly been unable to attend, I get the sense that there is less a convention feel and more of a community-like feel to the show and that's something unique. Baltimore and Boston comic-cons often have that feel.

This is important because The Hollywood Reporter article doesn't make mention of this. It doesn't mention how accessible these celebrities are willing to be at a show like Heroes & Villains. Instead it focuses heavily on the profit margins as opposed the brand-building and genuine appreciation for fans. With that in mind, it's easy to see how the "inside baseball" rundown in THR could upset someone like Amell, who is actively working to build Heroes & Villains as a more friendly, accessible and welcoming show that feels more like a big fandom family than a typical Wizard World.

I can’t speak to the idea that Amell is irking traditional booking agents by wanting to control his part of his operations, but as a guy who decided to just go ahead and start my own comic publisher to make my comics, it makes business sense. If it makes financial sense for someone to take control of their own business ventures and destiny – while at the same time building a viable brand – why the hell wouldn’t you? That’s just simple, smart business and it allows him to manage his own brand which is something I admire.

The article also makes mention of stars like Mark Hamill who support a California law requiring a certificate of authenticity for autographs. This too is nothing new to comic creators and fans. At most comic cons, if a fan wants to get a certain key issue signed and graded, often times there will be a CGC (comics grading service) witness to verify the certificate of authenticity. I’ve also seen artists charge a small autograph fee for issues they have done that could end up on eBay or CGC’ed. It’s an understandable practice if an autograph-seeker intends to turn a profit.

Next year, Heroes & Villains: New Jersey will most likely run against New York Comic Con. On the surface, this may be a fool’s errand and a few years ago, it would be. But the con landscape has changed, and I’m actually really interested to see how Heroes & Villains does across the river from the biggest comic con in the country. I personally think they will do fine, and perhaps perform even better than normal with NYCC in town.

As a comic creator, it's easier to determine Heroes & Villains isn't a space for what I do right now, but they don't pretend that it is as opposed to Wizard.

If nothing else, that article in The Hollywood Reporter just leaves out a lot of details about fandom, the con business and the accessibility of the celebrities in favor of trying to shock people with the amount of money they make. If a person is willing to pay a few bucks for an autograph, photo and some facetime with a celebrity and the celebrity is willing to meet that demand in a manageable way, that’s their prerogative, after all, that’s supply and demand economics.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

What makes him Super?

Earlier this year, I wrote some posts that were about Superman. I have a deep love and admiration for the character that began as a little kid wearing a red cape and enacting the Fleischer cartoons as I watched them.

Here are the three Superman posts:

Why we look up in the sky...
"Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice" review 

My "treatment" for a Superman movie here

I've been critical of the current movie version of Superman - very critical. I like Henry Cavill, I think he's a fine actor and he's very charming (see the criminally underrated Man from U.N.C.L.E.) and he has the look to be Superman, but the Zack Snyder films lacked a basic understanding of Superman and because of that, Cavill doesn't have the right presence to carry the weight that is Superman.

You can put an actor in a a red cape, blue tights and the famous Superman shield and they can certainly look the part. But can they really be Superman? Can they embody the very demeanor and attitude that makes Superman the Man of Steel?

That is ultimately the more important question.

Recently - and much to my delight - Superman was announced for Supergirl season two. He showed up in season one through Kara's blurred vision and often spoke to Supergirl online. But now he's going to be a full-fledged recurring character on the show played by Tyler Hoechlin. It's a version fundamentally different from the movie version, one that Hoechlin says:

“It’s Superman as I think he was intended to be,” Hoechlin said with regard to his take on the Man of Steel, “which is just an incredible symbol of hope to kids that they can do anything, that they can be good people, and that good people can triumph over evil. You don’t have to be dark and brooding and always in this state of masculine toughness. He sits in that very hopeful and optimistic place that Kara tends to be in.”

All of that sounds pretty damn perfect to me.

As more and more images are released of Superman from the show, the response has been positive for the most part. I actually love the suit and I think it's the best version of the suit since the red tights were ditched when the New 52 launched. Sure, I'd still tweak a few things, but overall it's a good suit and I think Hoechlin looks good in it.

But not everyone shares that sentiment. I've seen "wimpy," "skinny" and "small" among a few other choice expletives to describe Hoechlin as Superman. The main criticism seems to be that Hoechlin - a very athletically-built and lean muscular guy - isn't muscular enough.

This is where a common misconception of Superman comes into play. Cavill looked like a pro-wrestler and extra padding in the suit gives the movie-verse Superman a very bulky, Mr. Olympia look. But remember how I said Cavill doesn't have the presence of Superman? That's not something you can blame him for, the material he was given was bad and hindered the ability to really be Superman. So it ultimately doesn't matter if Hoechlin looks like a body-builder, what matters is how he carries himself as a farmboy from Kansas.

Let me give another example. Christopher Reeve is hands down the best live-action Man of Steel. Reeve was tall but he wasn't big. He didn't look like a pro-wrestler and in fact, he and Hoechlin have similar builds. As the story goes, producers were hesitant to cast Reeve became he was skinny. In order to avoid padding the suit, he started lifting weights with David Prowse (the body of Darth Vader) to bulk up for the role.

Still, it's not Reeve's physique that made him Superman - it was the way he just portrayed the weight of Superman. He was optimistic, charming, inspiring, he treated everyone - even his enemies - with respect and playful snark. When Reeve smiled as Superman you believed not only in the idea of what Superman is, but you also believed that the man on the screen IS Superman. That's one of the reasons Reeve is so beloved in the role. Other portrayers weren't bad, Kirk Alyn, George Reeves, Gerard Christopher, Routh, Dean Cain - each perfectly fit the role for the type of story being told.

I remember when Heath Ledger was cast as the Joker. No one thought he would make a good Joker. In reality, his performance as the Joker was so good that it overshadows many flaws with The Dark Knight. Fan outrage over castings tends to be normal and most of the time fans are proven wrong, but the reaction to Hoechlin is an interesting case study.

This idea of what makes Superman who he is isn't limited just to live-action. DC Comics recently killed off the New 52 Superman - a version that was temperamental, uninspiring, angry and generally much darker than previous versions. They replaced him in DC Rebirth with the Superman that John Byrne laid the blueprint for in 1986, one that through the 1990s and 2000s became something of a definite version of Superman. This has been one of the most well-received aspects of DC's relaunch, a Superman that inspires hope and has compassion... a Superman that is an ideal to strive for.

I've said this before and I will say it forever: Superman is not a character we are supposed to relate to, we are supposed to aspire to be him. We are meant to feel inspired by his word and actions. He's arguably a god-like being, but because of who he is and the people that raised him, he's a compassionate person that represents the good, and the very best in all of us. That is what makes him super. Not his powers, not how much he can bench - but how he treats and inspires others.

To be completely frank, I don't always like when Superman is portrayed or drawn as this hulking, muscular being, and that's actually part of what really intrigues me about Hoechlin's casting. He's doesn't have a body-builder's physique the way Cavill does. He's leaner and he's only 6'0 tall compared to Reeve's 6'4. (Cavill is only 6'1).

Also interesting about this incarnation of Superman is that Mehcad Brooks who plays James Olsen is taller than Hoechlin. I actually really like this kind of physical presence that Hoechlin is bringing to the role. Not only does it create an unassuming Clark Kent, but it presents the idea that the shadow of her cousin looming over Kara isn't a physical one.

What makes Superman isn't the muscles, the tights on the outside or the spit curl. What makes Superman - and his portrayal - memorable and "right" is the way he carries himself. If Hoechlin's quote proves true and we are presented with an optimistic, smiling and relaxed Superman, he will have nailed it. The Superman that is infallible in his moral standing, inspires others and even treats his enemies with compassion.

Given the tone of Supergirl and producer Greg Berlanti's handling of DC's characters, my anticipation to see Hoechlin's portrayal as Superman is palpable and I hope he becomes the live-action Superman we deserve.

Sunday, September 4, 2016

The reality of indie comics (Or why I took a semi-sabbatical from cons)

I love Baltimore Comic-Con. It's a great comic-centric show, there are always a who's who of comic creators and there is just a general sense of acceptance and friendliness among the creatives down at the Inner Harbor. The Inner Harbor is also nice and over the past few years I looked forward to heading down to Baltimore for the con. Perusing social media, it looks like this year is a great show and part of me wishes I was there, but this year I had to take a bit of a sabbatical from the convention scene.

The 2015 con year was... maybe challenging is the right word? At the end of 2014, I ran the successful Kickstarter for Patriot-1. I did the 2014 Baltimore show to great success, 2014 New York Comic Con - the first NYCC I set up at since 2011 - was pretty solid. Things were going pretty well and I started to focus on conventions. As 2015 began, I started looking at cons to set-up at and the majority of them just so happened to more towards late Summer/Fall.

The thing about cons for me is simple. I can't afford to travel very far. I also don't like to. There are a couple of reasons for this. I don't fly, like ever. That's mostly because my wife and I aren't big travelers, we never really go anywhere we can't drive. I also don't travel for work, which admittedly is an amazing feat at my job, but any time I've had to do anything, it's been local. Now I've flown plenty of times, just not in the last 10 years or so (which also is kind of amazing), but that's mostly because I've never needed to. I'll fly if/when I absolutely have to, but because of my lack of flying in my adult life, it comes with a bit of anxiety.

So you weigh the cost of flying - both economically and mentally - and you consider realistically what you'd do sales wise with a small press book while also factoring in table expenses, food, hotel etc., etc., and you begin to see the harsh reality of making comics at this independent level.

I know, I know - in the long run there are considerations for exposure, new markets and all that. But I also have to consider I have two full-time jobs. One has been my regular day job at WWE for nearly seven years - which overall is a pretty cool gig. The other is a bit more exhausting - I have three kids. Nearly four-year old twins and a two-year old. I'm really involved with my kids... it's my favorite job, but it can also be really taxing. When it comes to doing cons and being gone for a weekend, my wife and I have to factor a lot of things, including who is going to help with the kids. And on top of these regular jobs, there's fitting in time to write and plot and all that fun stuff.

Would I love writing, comics and developing my intellectual properties like Patriot-1 to be my full-time job? Of course! But that doesn't cover insurance or pay my mortgage right now.

Cons aren't cheap for the indie creator. Many of us aren't going to get the "guest" status which means we have to pay out of pocket for the table space and other expenses - and that adds up. And when we have to do that, there is no guarantee we'll have good placement, or that the quality of work around us is on par with our own. It's kind of frustrating, honestly. And then you factor in the constantly rising cost of getting a table. You're hard-pressed to find one under $200 anymore. For writers, that's really, really tough. Artists can do commissions and sell prints and generally have an easier time of making up that costs. Writers don't have that luxury and the rising cost of these tables is starting to get both ludicrous and cost-prohibitive.

Also, consider this is all in addition to the swelling costs of actually producing the comics. Then marketing them, then depending your distribution, factoring how much of a hit you'll have to take per unit. It's not a cheap hobby or tradecraft.

When my con season came around finally in 2015, I had virtually everything going for me. Patriot-1 had won an IPPY Award and was picked up by Diamond for distribution, ExtraOrdinary had launched, some cool stuff at the day job was going down... everything was promising.

I did a few small appearances and "cons." Nothing I had to pay for, sold a few books and mostly just hung out with other creators. There was Special Edition: NYC, which was okay... I had a good time meeting a lot of great people at that show more than I liked the show itself. Then the first bigger show rolled around... I did decent, was ready for the next. The second one about an hour away, two day show. Was able to go home at night and everything. The show itself was okay overall. Not great, not the worst. When I got home at the end of the show Sunday, I found out my parents - who came to help with the kids - left suddenly. Come to find out, my grandfather - and my first son's namesake - had taken ill and was hospitalized. And it was one those things that wasn't a case of "if" but "when." So the week went on, there was nothing I could do but wait (my grandfather lived very far from me). After much debate, I continued to the Baltimore Con the next weekend. Took my mind off everything, but at that point it just cost a lot of money to go. I wasn't splitting the cost with anyone.

My placement wasn't great in Artist's Alley - most Artist's Alleys have become so overrun with print sellers that it's hard to standout, but as I've learned... you've just got to make the best of it all. However, the second day of the show rolled around, I wasn't doing that great sales wise... and then I got the call. My grandfather passed. It was a weird feeling... I was okay with it all, I had a week to process it all. He lived well, he was 86, and he had just seen all my kids a few weeks prior. But still... it was my last grandparent.

I used to have a traveling partner for cons. We'd do a lot of shows together, but he was in a serious relationship (they're getting married now) and he traveled to last year's con with her. He was also tabling with the artist of his phenomenal book, and most of my other friends - mostly established pros - were attending the Harvey Awards that Saturday night. As a result, I was alone. It was fine - I like being alone... but it was just a weird moment in time to take everything in.

I left Baltimore with a bizarre feeling. I frankly didn't do as well as I'd hoped, the personal news stuck to me and I just felt tired. It was a weird thing... everything was going so well all year and then there was this massive slow-down.

A few weeks went by and it was time for the big one... New York Comic Con.

I love NYCC. I have a sordid history with it, but I love it. In the past few years I've been lucky enough to have a friend offer me space at his booth in Artist's Alley. And I also get to see a lot comic book world friends I don't see often. My experience was overall pretty brutal for 2015. I decided to drive into the city every day. You might think this is foolish, but in the past? Not a problem. HUGE problem in 2015. Every. Single. Day. The worst was Saturday, when I had to do a favor for the guy giving me booth space and didn't head into the city until noon. Two and a half hours, a trip through Queens and across Manhattan later, I finally made it.

Overall, NYCC 2015 was a grueling experience. I was happy/relieved when it was over. A lot of my friends did really well in Artist's Alley, and I once again did "okay." (My placement wasn't great, but I couldn't argue).

2015 started great... ended well... yeah.

2016 was a fresh slate and I booked my first show... East Coast Comic Con. I even paid extra for a "corner table." Let me rephrase, I paid extra for a table in the corner away from the main entrance, near a bathroom and a concession stand that did the least amount of traffic imaginable. I sold one book. The show was barely crowded and hardly anyone came by my table. Needless to say, I took the loss and stayed home with my wife and kids the next day.

It was on that drive home that I decided I needed a break from cons. They've gotten very expensive and the crowds are more interested in prints and Funko POPs than looking for books outside the norm. I canceled plans for Boston, Baltimore, a show in New Jersey, Vermont, two in Connecticut and Saratoga.

I was tired of being placed between print sellers or (as pretentious as this sounds) creators whose quality of work was nowhere near on my level. (If you've seen my books, they are high quality and professional). This is the reality for small press and independent creators. We spend a ton of money on a crapshoot when it comes to cons. I don't speak for everyone, and I have friends that do really well, but for me it was just an off year or so.

Never giving up also comes with the territory. I've been working on the second Patriot-1 book, is chugging along and The Atomic Thunderbolt is coming. In June of this year, I attended Albany Comic Con... which served as a reset. The first show I ever set up at with TJ Comics was Albany back in 2009. I also did it this year with my frequent editor - someone who has become a very close friend - just as I first had in 2009. It's a one day show and I drove up and back to Albany that day and on the way home, I really did feel like I hit the reset button.

I decided to maintain my semi-sabbatical on cons, though. The exception was to be New York Comic Con, but after getting shut out of Artist's Alley and Small Press, I may just attend as the traveling pro this year. If my friend offers me space at his booth, I'd be hard-pressed to pass it up but if not, it's all good.

I'm hoping and I'm optimistic that 2017 will be a huge year. I'm getting ready to book a number of cons. Patriot-1 is going to have a new life as book two will enter into production towards the end of this year, ExtraOrdinary has been very well-received and The Atomic Thunderbolt is coming.

I guess the point of all of this was partially therapeutic, partially to highlight the realities of doing this comic thing. It's a grind... but it's something I love and I don't want to give up. I want Harveys and Eisners and the ability to keep making comics.

In the meantime, if you want to support my books... you can get them here: TJ COMICS SHOP.

Thursday, September 1, 2016

The Comics Industry is Dead! Long live the Comics Industry!

There's been some discussion the past few days about the direct market in comics. By discussion I mean a passionate rant by Jude Terror of the Outhouse that did hold some level of truth followed by a rebuttal from Comics Beat's Heidi MacDonald that was much more level-headed and then as Jude pointed out to me as I wrote this... another rebuttal.

All of this was more or less sparked by the unfortunate news that Marvel has cancelled Nighthawk. (Disclaimer: I thoroughly enjoy Nighthawk, especially Ramon Villalobos' art).

I'm not going to dissect the rights and wrongs of either argument, but rather just toss out an opinion based on my experience as a creator, customer and a retailer. I've been a part-time retailer for 14 years. In the past few years, I've taken on a somewhat "silent partner" role in the store. Eventually, I will take the store, it's been in business for 30+ years and it's a store that has outlasted countless others in my city following the '90s boom and collapse.

Given my experience, some of the Terror Manifesto struck the right chords with me, some of it didn't. Heidi's approach - which was more analysis than rant - also struck a lot of the right chords also.

Essentially, there HAS been a shift in the way comics are consumed. Much more dramatic than comics no longer being sold on newsstands and grocery stores is the shift from monthly floppies to graphic novels and trades. I LOVE getting my comics every week. But I also love my ever-expanding graphic novel library. Hell, I buy the majority of my graphic novels from Barnes & Noble usually through gift cards and the constant discounts they offer. In fact, a recent discussion with my store's owner about product placement and store layout was about putting more of an emphasis on the graphic novel and trade stock while reducing the monthlies.

For the reader, sometimes consuming in trade and graphic novel form is much easier. Admittedly, I've moved that way for some titles as well. An example is the phenomenal Sheriff of Babylon. I get the issues every month, but I also wasted zero time getting the trade because that is a perfect example of a book that one must sit down, read and really digest. Reading it in one sitting is a completely different experience than it being serialized. When DC announced Omega Men was cancelled and then wasn't and then was, I decided that I would stop reading the monthlies and pick up the trade. It arrives this weekend and I can't wait to sit down and just read it all at once.

These are just two examples, but it does represent the way some readers consume. I also read A LOT of comics every week. So many that I can barely keep up and for me, it's easier to wait for the trades. I do religiously certain floppies as I always have like Action, Detective, Superman, Batman, Green Arrow, Captain America, Moon Knight etc.), but even some of them, for example Green Arrow and Moon Knight, I always buy the trades.

I'm just one guy and obviously my reading habits don't reflect every reader. I've also been in the comics game since I could read, so I'm not exactly representative of a casual moviegoer or someone who happens to wander into a store.

In terms of the direct market, no I don't think it should die. But that isn't to say there can't be improvements made. Is it burning? Well, yes, for a number of reasons and the majority of the problem isn't with retailers and customers. There is some blame to put on the system for sure.

The preorder system is both a blessing and a curse for everyone involved, but it's relatively low-risk for the publishers and Diamond while it can cripple a store. Here's a pattern I'm sure other stores see. Captain Comic #1 comes out. Marvel and DC load up the marketing, must have issue. If it's Image, they are sending emails to retailers berating them for not ordering enough (these are totally real). Captain Comic #1 and all it's variants sell out. All the regular readers want it, and all the people who saw it in USA Today or on Good Morning America want it. So what does a retailer do? Up the order for issue #2. A month goes by. You MIGHT see issue #2 sell out, but odds are the regular customers get it and a few people who picked up #1 come back in and get it. Everybody else? They made their $20 on eBay. So now, we have a retailer left with some unwanted #2s, do we have enough time to cut the order of issue #3? No? Shit. We've also got an influx of #1 reprints coming in. Captain Comic #3 comes out. Now we're just down to regular readers and the one or two new readers. Let me throw $20 at Facebook and target the shit out of selling this book. Issue #4 comes out. Now only half the regular readers are still getting it. The initial order of #1 was 200 copies, we're down to 10. Issue #5 comes out, now it's only 5 or 6 regulars with a subscription. Issue #6 is the last issue... book has been cancelled. Now the retailer is left with all this unsold, nonreturnable stock while the publishers and Diamond get ready to do it again. This is just one example of the vicious cycle that exists.

Customers are encouraged to preorder the books. A lot of them just don't understand that system, especially the ones without subscriptions, so when Captain Comic #1 sells out and they don't understand how that can happen, it's kind of awkward to explain how much of a gamble ordering something like that is.

Another quick example is this: Super Awesome Man #24 will feature the debut of a new Super Awesome Man... except now it's Super Awesome Woman. Huge news. It's so big that the publisher has spoiled the issue, two days before it releases - Christmas for Rich Johnston. Bleeding Cool runs the story. Newsarama and CBR runs the story. has about 50 articles asking the same question 20 different ways. Jude Terror has some snarky hot take. All the usual suspects do their thing. Then the mainstream news, USA Today, Entertainment Weekly, The TODAY Show. This is huge news. Someone goes on Colbert. Someone gets mad at Nick Spencer.

That Wednesday, the phone is ringing off the hook, "I need Super Awesome Man #24!" The kicker? Three months ago, the issue was just "Super Awesome Man #24," there was no indication that this would in any way be a special issue. No additional copies were ordered. All five for non-subscribers sell out in a matter of minutes. Now you're just losing business because as a retailer, you weren't privy to how big of an issue this was going to be and now you and every other store are scrambling to reorder. What's the logical thing to do? Double or triple your order for Super Awesome Man #25. The casual readers don't get the preorder system, so you have to blindly compensate. The next month, you know what doesn't sell? Super Awesome Man #25. There's no marketing. No USA Today, no morning news. Rich Johnston has moved on and The Outhouse is just fighting with Dan Slott again.

I'm not trying to sound negative about this, I'm actually really optimistic about the future of comics, I'm just pointing out a reality. DC Rebirth has been really, really great from a retail standpoint. And even better is the box of unsolds my store owner has been itching to return. And that's not meant in a bad way, because now he can take that money from the returns and try different product or spread it around a little more without having to worry about storage or using up bags and boards to stuff them in our perpetually 30% off back issue bins.

Like I said, my store has been around for 30+ years and used to sell Spawn by the caseload in the '90s. To an extent, the owner is set in his ways, but he's really trying to sell these comics based on characters everyone loves. Characters that are literally everywhere now.

That's why I've been pushing him to heavily sell the culture of comics in addition to the comics themselves. But even that is tough. Around the corner is Gamestop, which sells the Funkos, T-shirts and action figures at constant discounts and it doesn't affect their bottom line if they don't sell through immediately. There's also Barnes & Noble, which is a store I love, but they can actually return stuff to Diamond. How do I know? We opened a case of Heroclix once that still had the Barnes & Noble price-tag on it.

I am one of those people who believes comics should be in grocery stores and "newsstands." But I don't think they should be the same comics you can get at a comic specialty store. Let me explain.

When Avengers: Age of Ultron came out, there was a one-shot called Avengers: Operation Hydra. It featured the movie cast, in the movie costumes, in movie canon. It was pretty much all-action and it was accessible to all-ages. It's not ground-breaking, but it's a fun comic. I love that book and to me, that's the kind of book that needs to be anywhere but specialty shops.

Writing for the trade makes up a majority of story-arcs and storylines now. And that's fine, I don't disagree with that strategy and I embrace it. I do however think that model has partially created some of the problems in the comics industry for larger and more iconic characters.

I've long been a proponent of the major publishers doing two lines. One is the standard continuity stuff- your Civil War II or your Rebirth - the other are standalones featuring characters in their most recognizable form, featured in quality stories for no more than $2 found (primarily) everywhere but comic shops. Call me optimistic, but that's a way to get both young and new readers. A good example of this is Spidey, or even the Adventures of Superman and Sensation Comics anthology styled books.

When I was a kid, I could go to the comic store (the same one mentioned) and I'd usually buy Superman comics from the '60s, '70s and '80s. Many of these books would stand on their own. There would be larger plot threads over multiple issues sure, but most of them gave 8 year old me a satisfying (sometimes ridiculous) Superman story. As for current books, I could go to the comic store or the convenience store near my elementary school or the grocery store and find arrays of books still following that pattern.

In middle and high school, I spent Summers at my grandparents' house where there wasn't a local comic shop, but the grocery store and all the convenience stores carried the books I needed - usually the Superman books, Batman, Spider-Man and X-Men. Again, I realize this is just my experience alone, but I do think it speaks to a broader point.

I think print comics need to be available in more accessible forms everywhere, especially the major characters. I haven't really talked about digital comics and I'm not going to, because I don't think digital sales swing the pendulum significantly in either direction - they are a revenue stream and a convenience. Anyway, with the right marketing, 20 page, $2 standalone stories could sell at Toys R' Us, movie theaters, grocery stores and local shops. I really, wholeheartedly believe that and I believe it will have positive effects on overall readership.

Rounding back to return-ability. I do agree that in some fashion, Diamond and the publishers have to make the books returnable. My store isn't alone in the aforementioned vicious cycles. We're left with all this backstock that doesn't sell and lately Diamond comes knocking for the next round's payment when stores haven't broken even on the previous week's. This isn't all stores, but it's also not unique to mine. I know of two within a 50 mile radius that haven't received new comics since mid-July because Diamond refuses to send them.

Diamond used to grant leeway to local shops. Retail itself is a tough business and comics retail isn't any easier. As I mentioned, my store has been in business for 30+ years. There's a relationship with Diamond and one that often allowed for leeway when it came to payment. This has been the case for many retail shops. Then this Summer there was a shift. Something happened and suddenly, Diamond started demanding payment or else no books would ship. From the outside, it makes business sense, but from the inside, suddenly there's a panic... you can't make the payment for the week because you've got double the amount of books coming and last week DC didn't release anything and Marvel only had six books. But you need next week's shipment because it's a huge publisher relaunch, you'll be able to make up the difference, but after all these years, Diamond finally says no. Why? What happened?

Is it just business or is it the $1.5 million elephant in the room no one is talking about? I've talked to a number of stores all over the country and Diamond's shift in policy toward them seems to happen all around the same time - Hastings going under. Now, I'm not saying Hastings is responsible for a store's plight, nor am I saying they are responsible for the collapse of the industry, but $1.5 million is a big piece of revenue for Diamond and I just happened to notice it all occurring around the same time.

So yes, I do believe there is a bit of an unfair burden placed on the retailer. Especially small retailers who can't afford Midtown Comics-level advertising because they are mostly just worried about selling enough to get next week's books while maintaining their own bottom line and profit margin.

But I do believe there has to be an emphasis by publishers on evergreen stories for casual readers. A casual reader might pick up the Kelly Sue DeConnick Captain Marvel trade and head into a local shop looking for more of the same. What they will find is a drastically different Carol and overall tone in Civil War II than they do in Kelly Sue's phenomenal book, and I think that's a turn off for some casual readers.

And please, for the love of Zeus, at least put the Comic Shop Locator web address with your movies and TV shows. PLEASE.

With all of this said, we ARE in a Golden Age of comics, just not the mainstreams. Creator-owned and indie comics have so much talent and quality that I wish we all had the marketing budgets of Marvel and DC - we'd outsell them. This is why Kickstarter has become an incredibly crucial tool in the advancement of the comic industry. It allows creators and publishers to sell direct, cultivate an audience and make backers feel they are part of the story.

I've run Kickstarters, I've been carried by Diamond, I sell at cons. It's a grind, but I love it. I love comics and I want to see the industry broaden and reach a point where a small press can say 50,000 copies is considered a success, not 5,000.

Both Jude and Heidi are right. And the state of the comics industry is equal parts the everything is fine meme and Nero playing a fiddle while Rome burns. But the future can be really, really bright. The future can be a place where we look up to the sky in wonder again.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Comics and politics

 I've been waiting to post this one for quite some time. At first I was waiting for Bernie Sanders to officially endorse Hillary Clinton... then some other things got in the way, but now in the midst of the completely insane Republican National Convention, I wanted to make sure I finished this up.

Much of the divide and infighting amongst the comic community has been about Bernie vs. Hillary. Now that doesn't mean every comic creator or member of the community is a liberal or progressive... but the majority arguably are. There are some Trump supporters out there, some conservatives that are "falling in line" and others who are genuinely lost at the hijacking of their political party.

So I'll get this right out of the way. If you follow me on Facebook or Twitter, you know that I am a VERY opinionated political watcher. I'm a liberal, an independent and a close follower of politics. It's more than social media posting for me... I've been legitimately considering running for office for a long time, my mindset just isn't there right now. That's me. I'm not ashamed of it, I don't hide it and I will gladly talk and debate politics in a civil manner any day of the week on all sides of the spectrum.

Anyway, there are a lot of strong personalities in comics. After all, we're all creative types.

There are a few creators who stand out more than others in their political views... namely: Nick Spencer, Billy Tucci, Jamal Igle and Ethan Van Sciver to name a few. There are times that politics influences writing and storytelling, there are also times politics influences and effects interactions with fans. Every now and then, creators get into it with each other.

I've also seen criticism along the lines of: 'keep politics out of comics," often in regards to Marvel in their push for greater inclusion and diversity. Sorry, but politics have been a part of comics since Captain America debuted with a punch to Hitler's face. For someone to suggest that a character named "Captain America" keep politics out of comics is kind of ridiculous. In the case of Steve Rogers, he's certainly not a liberal or conservative by today's standards, he is and always has been a New Deal Democrat. That's part of what make Steve Rogers and Captain America work - the era he comes from. Cap is also a soldier and for the most part can remain apolitical.

A great influence on my social and political views comes from Denny O'Neil and Neal Adams' run on Green Arrow/Green Lantern. That run is the epitome of politics in comics and continues to speak to many of today's issues.

I've been at conventions where I'm tabled close to Billy Tucci on more than one occasion. If you've ever met Billy - he's loud, he's opinionated and he's funny as hell. I've heard plenty of anti-Obama rants coming from him and I generally disagree with most of his views, but that doesn't change my personal feelings that he's a genuinely good guy and obviously extremely talented.

Conversely, Jamal Igle is a good friend of mine and we share MANY similar views. He's also politically active on Facebook. He's also extremely talented. But word of advice, if you ever think about debating politics with Jamal, be prepared because I witness him shut people down with facts and real substance on a daily basis. It's quite admirable.

However, I actually disagree politically with a number of creators and personalities I greatly admire. For example, Chuck Dixon is a staunch conservative and Republican, but he's one of the finest comic book writers out there and a big influence on me. In fact, the greatest influence on my writing is the late Tom Clancy, who wrote some of the finest spy and military novels imaginable. Clancy was also a conservative and another example of someone who politically I don't necessarily agree with, but he was a good man and he is probably the greatest single influence on my writing.

See that's the ultimate difference when it comes to politics and comics - even entertainment in general. You shouldn't judge a person's work on their politics if it doesn't affect the quality of their work. Now, if the politics of said person affect their character in a way that just makes them seem generally nuts, that's a different story.

Politics do influence my writing. "Patriot-1" dabbles in it a bit, but the sequel I'm currently writing? HEAVY influence. "ExtraOrdinary" also has a great deal of social and political influence.

What really drives me nuts is when someone says, "I respect you as a comic creator, but I can't follow you on social media anymore because politics" or "your political views that are different than mine are making it difficult for me to support your work."

Unless I'm directly a jerk to you - either about politics or something else, which is rare - then I really can't wrap my head around that bit of self-righteousness. As I've mentioned, I welcome civilized political debate, but absolutism of such a nature gets us nowhere overall.

If you're going to stop supporting someone's work - especially someone who you claim to respect or previously respected - do it because of their character or because they are directly an ass to you - not because they share different political views. For example, there is a writer whose work I REALLY enjoyed. Lined up with my interests, a hell of a storyteller - his politics didn't match up with mine... but it didn't affect my enjoyment of his work. What has affected it is the fact this creator has been the subject of numerous sexual harassment incidents and is generally flippant towards fans and criticism.

I understand politics can be touchy, especially in today's climate. But when you stop supporting someone's work or someone in general solely based on ideas being different and not because of their character - well, then you're just part of the problem.

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

About that Steve Rogers: Captain America thing


I was honestly trying to avoid a commentary on this topic. But people keep asking. Because of things I wear in public, my kids wear, things I look at in stores, purchase, etc., it keeps coming up. Because my social media feeds are a cavalcade of comic-related things, it keeps coming up. And people keep asking me. Why do people keep asking ME? If you've been here before, I hold Superman in very high regard. If you didn't know that about me... read this.

That same regard, possibly even higher, is held for Captain America. That title of course belonging to one fictional character, Steve Rogers. I love Cap.

I've also loved Cap for a very long time. At one point my dream was to write (and even star!) in a Captain America movie - something I actually made known in the offices of Marvel Studios when I was just a mere intern making trips to the Coffee Bean on Santa Monica Boulevard. That was 2004. But that kind of admiration for a character was birthed in reading all his comics, all his stories and seeing the type of character I really like - the ultimate good guy. The ultimate pinnacle of what America is and can be.

I've always been fascinated with, but never served in the military. My marquee character, Patriot-1, is modeled after Captain America. A modernized version of Cap. Those ideals of doing the right thing no matter what thrown into the muddiness of today's wars and politics. Politically and ideologically, I'm not a hawk. I'm not conservative. I'm very liberal and I abhor war, but I do quite understand that some things, no matter how disgraceful they may seem, are necessary. This is the world we live in.

What Captain America embodies, what he represents is what America is supposed to be. It's what a lot of people think we are as a nation, but we're really a long way from it.

What is it you ask? It's the perfected image - real or not - of the men and women who literally dropped everything, even in the face of economic ruin, to fight a war. The embodiment of what America was always meant to be - the good guys fighting against tyranny and oppression - after all, there's one thing Cap hates and that's bullies.

Steve Rogers is representative of that generation - the Golden Age of comics, unwavering in their righteousness and ability to do good. Steve Rogers is representative of a different time and a different place in American history. That time we actually did rise up and fight the bad guys, fight evil and liberate the world. It wasn't pretty, we did some things that were necessary but we got the job done. There were men who went and fought simply because it was the right thing to do. The Nazis represented - and still represent -  clear evil unlike the world has ever seen. This is also why whenever we get these stories about Steve Rogers "passing on the shield," and someone else taking up the mantle, they all end the same - with Steve Rogers as Captain America.

It's because Captain America doesn't work without Steve Rogers. Sorry, it's true.

I have read just about every issue of Captain America there is to read dating back to the 1940s. If I don't own them, I've read them in some collected form or online. Back when I used to do reviews for Comics Bulletin, I reviewed almost every issue of Ed Brubaker's incredible run. There's even one of my pull quotes on the back of one of the trades. There are multiple long boxes between my garage and my basement devoted solely to Captain America comics. Cap is also on my "writing bucket list." So I'm not saying I'm some kind of expert on Cap, but I've read a few stories.

And yes, I LOVE the movies. First Avenger is a very special movie to me because it's the love child of what I consider the greatest film ever made - Raiders of the Lost Ark - and the phenomenal film adaptation of a comic that has had great influence on me - The Rocketeer. The Winter Soldier and Civil War are also "top shelf" films. The Winter Soldier ranks near Raiders on my top films of all-time, and they perfectly represent who Steve Rogers is. On that same token, Chris Evans is PERFECT as Cap. He is to Cap what Christopher Reeve is to Superman, and it will be hard for someone to eventually fill those boots.

This of course, isn't about that stupid "make Cap and Bucky lovers" nonsense. Want to know why they are close pals? Watch or read Band of Brothers.

What this is about is that twist in Steve Rogers: Captain America #1. You know, the one where he says "Hail Hydra" at the end, and the book possibly reveals that he's been always secretly been a Hydra agent?

So this book has caused quite an uproar. Writers and editors have received death threats (seriously), some weirdo burned his copy (could've donated it to a library), the final page became a really funny meme and some people have been shouting that it's anti-semitism (it's not).

You now know how I feel about Captain America. This was my honest to Zeus reaction to the reveal: "Well, this is interesting."

As far as first issues go, this was phenomenal. It gave readers a solid recap of how we got to this point, it featured Captain America in action, his supporting cast in their roles, the artwork was jaw-dropping (seriously, just buy this issue and look at the pretty pictures) and the shock was exactly that - the shock.

For some ridiculous reason, people feel betrayed. Like this is Hulk Hogan is the third man, nWo-style betrayal. Hulkamania is dead! I'm using a pro-wrestling reference not because of my day job, but because the parallels here are pretty obvious. What is the most shocking thing that can be done to drum up interest in our product? Take our paragon of righteousness and make him go bad!

But here's what people missed. This issue was so brilliantly crafted by a very talented and smart writer in Nick Spencer, that about halfway through I realized something was amiss. I went in with no spoilers other than "there's a big twist," and by the end of it I was hooked. I've read a lot Captain America, I know how these stories end, what I want to know is how we get there. What has caused this sudden change.

And let's be clear, this isn't a "status quo" change. This is a storyline. Just like Operation Rebirth, just like Death of Captain America, just like The Iron Nail de-aging him and making him old. All of these things were touted as permanent. Why? Because that's the job of creators, editors, publishers... to tell stories, to keep you buying their books. Relax.

As a lifelong reader, a retailer and a creator, I see something a little different surrounding the outrage. People are really upset because suddenly their T-shirt or Funko Pop means something different in their mind... when in reality it doesn't. Why would I say that? Because people who are upset aren't real comic book readers, they are "comic book fans" in trend only, collecting the latest trinkets but ignoring the comics and not reading them. They are the movie fans who occasionally buy a comic or a collected edition of a popular or adapted storyline. What's my proof? It's all in the sales numbers, kids. Real readers wouldn't be (and aren't) outraged because it's one issue. The first issue of a storyline. They keep reading, knowing how these stories go.

Nick Spencer is a very good writer. He's also a very smart guy and he gets some flak for his politically-charged Twitter. Many of my views align with his, so I really enjoy following and interacting with him. He's also a very layered storyteller and that was on display in the first issue of Steve Rogers: Captain America. It's blatantly stated in the dialogue that something isn't right. It's blatantly stated that the Red Skull and Baron Zemo are at war with each other within Hydra, trying to get an edge up on each other. It's clear as day, both in the story and in interviews with Thunderbolts writer Jim Zub (who has said the Cap book and Thunderbolts are connected), that the sentient cosmic cube in the form of little girl Kobik - who gave Steve Rogers his age back - is far from finished with this storyline. The evidence is all in front of you. My analysis may be wrong, but the point is that there is enough evidence and foreshadowing that this story can go six different ways before reaching the outcome. That's what's so great about it.

As a seasoned Cap reader - and I could be wrong - but it seems as though Kobik (the cosmic cube) has altered reality and Steve's past to implant these Hydra memories - this idea he's always been Hydra. This is likely manipulated by Skull of Zemo... the best weapon is your greatest enemy. What's the tell? Elsa Sinclar, the Hydra recruiter in the flashbacks. The red she wears is the only real color in the muted flashbacks. In fact, the only prominent color in the flashbacks is red. It's a tell. That's your first clue.

What do I think happens? Steve Rogers - or one of his supporting cast members - eventually figures out that something is wrong and Rogers pulls through - his true identity, that stalwart, unwavering pinnacle of hope we know and love, and he never was a member of Hydra. Because these types of stories are meant to challenge his resolve, to prove he is incorruptible. And what of the young hero he supposedly kills in the first issue? 1) we don't see him actually die and 2) again, cosmic cube, reality-altering.

Could that actually be the endgame here? Maybe? Not just sales and publicity, but an actual story that strengthens Steve Rogers' resolve? That even in the face of reality being altered, he cuts through the shit and stands tall, shield raised high in the air? You know, I think that may be exactly what's happening here. Why doesn't he have is original shield right now? What's with the new outfit? It's because he's not himself and subconsciously he knows it. Now his resolve is to be tested in a new and different way. I read these books religiously, these are the best kind of Captain America stories, the ones where even the cosmic cube can't win in the end.

If the cosmic cube sounds too crazy and far-fetched to you, clearly you've never read a Captain America comic. And trust me, your childhood isn't ruined. Shut up.

Cap comics are also often classified in the spy genre and as political thrillers. That's exactly what Nick Spencer has established in this first issue. I mean really, the twist is shocking - sure - but this isn't that far off from some of Cap's most classic stories.

The uproar over the issue - again, literally the first issue - is insane. Like really insane. I can understand some people not liking the twist or criticizing it for being nothing but a publicity stunt - especially to off-set the buzz surrounding DC Comics Rebirth. Hell, I don't like every Cap story. I wasn't a huge fan of Rick Remender's run. Cap in overly science-fiction settings just isn't my thing. And that's fine.

Though if every single person expressing outrage over this issue actually bought it - it would be one of the best-selling books of all-time. But half of the people outraged have no idea what's really going on. They use social media - Twitter, specifically - to attack creators, say horrible things they likely wouldn't say in person, and generally hide behind a firewall of anonymity. Seriously, if you have Twitter and there is something in the news or something like this Cap storyline, odds are you're going to hate it. Social media can be exceptionally negative and really bring out the worst in people without fear of consequence, and that plays a role in things like this. 

All of this for the first 30 pages of a serialized comic book. I mean, seriously. The outrage is honestly overblown and petulant. And that goes for ALL OF IT. And the death threats... anyone who threatened anyone's life over this is a complete ass.

Of course Marvel is going to hit the media circuits and tout this as some big change. They do it all the time. When Cap died, when Sam Wilson "took over" as Cap... etc. That's the purpose of publicity and PR - to sell the product. That's all they want to do is sell their product and drum up interest.

As for anti-semitism... no. Let's clear up one bit of fiction. Hydra were not outright heavily associated with the Nazis until the first Captain America movie. In the movies, Hydra is the Nazis' deep science division. This was an adaptation and a decision made to tell a larger story that didn't have to rely on Nazis. And even then, Hydra is bigger than the Nazis were, that was the point of contention between Hitler and The Red Skull... Skull took the occult belief structure further than Hitler did in the movie.

In the comics, Hydra is not a Nazi organization. There are former Nazis in their ranks, and Red Skull and Baron Zemo are often closely associated with them (especially in Steve Rogers: Captain America #1), but they are not Nazis. They are a terrorist organization hell-bent on order and ruling the world, yes - Nazis, no. They were formed in 1965 as a rival spy organization to S.H.I.E.L.D. So you can take that ridiculous "this is anti-semitism" argument and throw it out the window. Seriously, it's a thin argument and a load of bullshit.

While thinking about this post, I saw two friends post on Facebook in regards to Captain America. One of them was referring to the "No, you move" speech that has been floating around political memes as of late. My friend - an Army Vet and all-around good dude - said this: 

"I've seen the comic book pages from which this came shared frequently of late. There are times in our history when this sentiment would have been very patriotic, unfortunately now isn't one of them. With politics so radicalized these days, I feel this sends completely the wrong message. Apply these words to racists and homophobes; should they stand by these words right now? Religious extremists who want no Muslims in America: should they stand by these words? People who prefer Bernie Sanders over Hillary Clinton: should they stand by these words right now? We've tipped so far out of wack with any kind of balance in this country, these words are the worst possible words we could use to inspire us right now. Just because they came from the mouth of Captain America doesn't mean they are right."

And then another friend - a Navy Vet I greatly respect - posted his distaste for the Cap twist, saying:

"I get the story idea and what they want to explore, but this was the wrong character at the wrong time.

With the bitterness of this election year and our extraordinary lack of faith in our political leaders, to turn a character which is to many the symbol of what is great in America into a villain is a poor choice.

America has always had its symbols, and Captain America has been an almost unwavering constant of American values. Even to his "detriment" at times. 

While he has feigned changes to go undercover in the past, we all knew he was faking. But these announcements from Marvel staff are telling us otherwise - and it makes me sad. Even more so on Memorial Day."

But maybe that's what Nick Spencer is trying to tell us - that we as Americans aren't who we pretend to be. With all the political vitriol, the madness of the election cycle, the racism and disrespect toward the President, Donald Trump being a Presidential candidate - that America has lost it's way. Somewhere along the line our history was altered and the end product is the social, cultural and political divides that clearly exist today. How do we pull through this? How do we find our way back to being like those men and women who stood up to evil by storming beaches and just generally doing the right thing?

Maybe we should all pay closer attention to this Steve Rogers: Captain America storyline. Either everything you've ever known was a lie and a gross distortion of reality, or you step back, re-center yourself and who you are, and throw your shield in the air.

At the end of the day, this is a comic book. It's a storyline and believe me, Marvel - and more importantly, Disney - is not going to suddenly change the status quo of one of it's most popular characters in such a manner. So buy the books, enjoy the storyline and see where it goes. Remember, nothing in comics is absolute - not death, not de-aging, not the timeline and certainly not reality.

If you're really upset and want a good story with a good guy doing the right thing... I don't know... buy Patriot-1 here.

Oh, and Hail Hydra.