Monday, January 22, 2018

How DC Comics found its soul in Superman's red trunks

In 2011, DC Comics made a drastic move and (almost) completely rebooted their entire universe. Some things like Batman and Green Lantern remained relatively the same, but others changed dramatically, especially Superman. This movement, of course, was called "The New 52." It was meant to update the characters and universe. The DC Universe took on an overall darker, more cynical tone - which was kind of antithetical to DC's history.

There was a lot of speculation as to exactly why DC did it. One of the speculated reasons was the long dispute over the ownership of Superman between Warner Brothers and the families of Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel. It's a really muddy and messy lawsuit - and though I am all for creators rights and acknowledging creators of these characters as much as possible, I don't believe the Shusters and Siegels have any ownership claim. Regardless, it was around 2011 that the litigation really heated up and Warner Brothers started production on "Man of Steel," which according to some analysts, also affected the lawsuit.

CBR recently took on this claim:

However, the biggest picture in terms of Superman as he related to the New 52 and "Man of Steel" was that DC and Warner Brothers embarked on a bit of a soul-searching endeavor for the most enduring fictional character of the 20th century.

The Superman soul-searching didn't really begin in 2011. You have to go back a little further. Onc could make the argument that "Superman Returns" - even though mostly an sequel to Richard Donner's "Superman" and "Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut" - started to explore a more burdened Man of Tomorrow.

"Infinite Crisis" also toyed with the idea of a more burdened Superman, albeit some different forms such as Superboy-Prime and Earth-2 Superman. But it was in 2010 that DC sort of went into overdrive with J. Michael Straczynski's "Superman: Grounded" - the notorious storyline where Superman walked across the country and barely used his powers and denounced the United States - and "Superman: Earth One" which depicted a new origin story and a really angry version of Superman.

The New 52 took this a little further. Superman became younger, a little unhinged and teetering towards "angry god." He was an orphan (again) and back to beating up mob bosses. There was no romance with Lois Lane - there was an eventual one with Wonder Woman - and for all intents and purposes, Superman became nearly unrecognizable.

This new version of Superman also brought about a new costume. One that abandoned many of the conventions of the classic iteration. There were no more red trunks or yellow belt, the cape featured a black "S" (which was once taboo for Superman to wear black on the classic suit), and the costume was made of armor. Not just any armor though, it was Kryptonian armor that phased in from the shield. Why would Superman need armor? The basic design itself wasn't terrible, but it didn't stand out. This armor was coupled with a T-shirt and jeans early version that appeared in Grant Morrison's run on "Action Comics," which was a play off of the Golden Age version of the character.

I have long said that the quality and success of DC hinges on the treatment of Superman - whether they realize it or not. There is perhaps no greater evidence of this than the journey the character has been on from 2011-2018.

New 52 Superman never truly resonated with readers. "Man of Steel" became a major point of controversy amongst fans, as did "Batman v. Superman." The push seemed to be "make Superman an angry god." It never really worked, except for the "Injustice" franchise which takes place in an alternate reality and saw the "real" Superman from the prime Earth defeat the "evil" Superman of the "Injustice" Earth. But the real reason these concepts never picked up a ton of traction has a lot to do with the fact that at the end of the day, Superman is more human than he is Kryptonian or godlike.

Speaking of "Man of Steel," the evolution of Henry Cavill's Superman is also an interesting example of the soul-searching DC and WB were doing for the character. Of note, this exploration also saw changed to the costume that were somewhat noticeable as they tried to figure out who this Superman was. The original suit was designed to look alien, and it certainly did for Superman. The red and yellow of the "S" was muted and the blues were very dark. The trunks were gone and there wasn't even a belt.

These elements were brightened for "Batman v. Superman," and he was given something that looked a little more like a belt, but it still didn't feel right. However, this was overshadows by the character's actions and personality were completely unrecognizable that even his "death" had very little impact. By the time "Justice League" rolled around, Superman was more recognizable, the costume was brighter and he felt like the genuine article for the first time.

When Greg Pak took over Superman in "Action Comics" from 2013-2015, the New 52 Superman started to become much more recognizable in his attitude. The New 52 look was tweaked to make it a bit more streamlined, but the basic red and blue color scheme remained. Though he lost his powers for much of the storyline - donning jeans and a very Fleischer-esque "S" shield T-shirt, Superman was much more recognizable.

During DC's "Convergence" storyline, different eras and events from DC's past were revisited. One of the Superman series during convergence saw the return of the pre-New 52 Superman. In this storyline, he didn't have powers and Lois Lane was pregnant. At the end of the series, his powers returned, Lois gave birth and the short series was met with high-acclaim. Shortly thereafter, this version of Superman was revealed to have somehow survived Flashpoint (which created the New 52) and had been in hiding, living with Lois and raising their son Jon.

All of this led into "Rebirth," which saw the death of the New 52 Superman and returned the pre-New 52 to the New 52 timeline. Confusing? Basically all you need to know is that classic Superman returned to the comics. He had a very "Man of Steel"-esque costume with blue boots, but he was definitely The Man of Tomorrow and he was finally a father, adding a new and long experimented element to the character.

At the same time, the CW's show "Supergirl" gave us a new live-action version of Superman, portrayed by Tyler Hoechlin. I've praised this portrayal of the character as one of the best ever and I stand by that because Hoechlin gave us a Superman that was universally recognized, fit in elements of the Christopher Reeve portrayal and was the smiling, hopeful character fans expect. This version of the character was also universally praised, leading to fan demand for a spin-off series. Hoechln's Superman costume was actually a decent design, the best I'd seen with no red trunks. The cape had gold clips to attach it, and the red belt had gold accents. It's worked and it looked good on screen.

This eventually brought us to 2017's "Reborn." This was the clearest indication yet that DC and Warner Brothers had found what they were searching for - the classic Superman. Quite frankly, I love the Reborn design. If you're going to go without red trunks, the Reborn look has been how to do it. But the Reborn storyline also once again revamped Superman's history. It essentially erased New 52 Superman from existence and instead took the most classic elements of the character's origin and history and presented that as his true origin. This was the result of a merging between Rebirth and New 52 Superman - Mr. Mxyzpltk revealing that the one constant at the heart of the DC Multiverse has to be Lois and Clark. It was a beautiful story and it has returned Superman to his truest form - and kept the fact that he is married and a father, a dynamic that has worked exceptionally well ever since.

All of this has brought us back to the present. The milestone Action Comics #1000 is on the horizon and DC revealed that after seven years, the red trunks are back. In fact, the classic costume is outright back, with the added wrist cuffs. They have now - for all intents and purposes - completely restored the Superman they abandoned in favor of the New 52. The entire journey has been pretty astounding, the soul-searching of DC Comics basically takes on a physical form in that of Superman's red trunks.

I'm going to be completely honest. I've really loved the Reborn look, but there was NEVER anything wrong with Superman's costume. It's a perfect design, it's iconic and it has stood the test of time. Who cares about the red trunks on the outside? Sure, you could argue it's outdated, but you could also argue it's wholly unique to Superman. In fact, I think Supes should be the ONLY character with this feature going forward. (The Batman Rebirth costume is PERFECTION, let's not mess with it).

Who cares about the details, whether it's Kryptonian or his mother made it, what matters is that the classic look of Superman has been the enduring symbol of hope and American mythos for 80 years and it will continue to be.

The success of Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy certainly brought with it a desire for DC Comics to explore a darker side of their own soul. They've redefine characters and reset timelines multiple times and have now come full circle by restoring Superman in Jim Lee's cover to Action Comics #1000.

Superman's return to his most recognizable and classic look also brings DC Comics fully back to its roots, and reminds us why we look up in the sky.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

My quest to open a comic store

I got my first real job when I was 17. I was lucky that I didn't absolutely need one until then, but it came when the owner of my local comic store needed someone to cover while he went on vacation. As a patron for the store for as long as I could remember, I was more than happy to step in and help out.

After that, it became one of my two Summer jobs during college. A year after college, I moved back to my hometown so my wife could go to grad school, it was 2007, the economy wasn't doing great and I had a hard time finding a job for a while, but the store was there for me and helped put much needed cash in my pocket.

When I found a regular day job, I worked at the store every Saturday and covered when the owner was out. That lasted until my wife got pregnant with our third child. I never really left the store per se, I set up all the social media accounts and tried to sway what was carried in store and how the operation went.

For years, the owner and I always talked about me taking over or opening my own store whenever he was ready to pack it in. Frankly, owning a store has long been a dream and ambition of mine. But, I didn't expect the call to come shortly before Christmas.

After running a pretty successful sale for the owner, he gave me the news - he got offered a real job and he was finally able to move on from the store. After 28 years, this was a longtime coming for him and he'd been ready to shut the door whenever the right opportunity presented itself. He'd lost interest in recent years, and as a lifelong Marvel reader, the state of Marvel throughout 2017 pretty much assassinated his enthusiasm for the industry as a whole. Although overall sales lagged, the store remained above - or treading water.

After I got the news and processed it, my first thought was this: "Okay, it's finally time."

I never wanted to open a store that competed with him. He was the last store standing after the '90s boom and I've always been pretty loyal to him - as a customer, worker and friend.

We had some discussion about me buying the store outright, but, long story short, the numbers weren't adding up and it wasn't a workable situation. Thus, he kicked off his Going Out of Business sale. After that, I got to negotiating the lease with the landlord. He gave me a great offer, but he needed to know immediately and I didn't have anything in place adding to the overall risk. In other words, it wasn't on my terms, which is a bad way to start a business.

Add in that I have a solid day job and things tend to get a little more complicated. I would absolutely not leave said job, so the biggest issue became finding a handful of trustworthy people to run the store during the day, and in a relatively short amount of time. I had a couple old friends willing to help out, but it wasn't enough to make the full commitment in time for the landlord. Trying to pull together a store of this nature is risky enough, trying to do it in a month with these factors just adds to the overall heavy lift of getting it off the ground, and ultimately, growing the business. Part of what makes a store great is the personality, and one thing I want to do is make sure my love of the business comes through and I need more time to do that.

In the month or so that opening my own store finally became close to reality, I heard opinions from every side. Not to mention the constant barrage and criticism of the industry as a whole, so I was fully prepared to deal with the "are you crazy?!" type comments.

Do I think the comic book industry could use a kick in the ass? Absolutely. But I also don't believe - and see evidence - that comic stores are falling victim to the same fate that other retail outlets suffer. Comic stores have to evolve beyond the monthly and weekly books. Lots of stores fall victim to high rents, and that's unfortunate, but many stores don't totally evolve to match the market. It's a tricky market and I don't pretend to know everything, but comics and pop culture have been constants for 80 years and I don't think they are going anywhere.

I'd do A LOT of things differently than the owner of my (now defunct) store. And by A LOT, I mean I'd focus on different areas like subscriptions, a massive online presence, collectibles, heavy focus on graphic novels. I'd also introduce other products like retro and used games, second-hand DVDs, collectibles and what not. Not to mention there'd be more events like signings, involvement around town, the whole nine. You've also got to follow trends: for example at New York Comic Con, the most common T-Shirt I saw worn was The Bullet Club, so yeah I'd carry those.

I've always wanted to open and run my own comic store. My hometown is a decent market for this kind of specialty shop, and timing didn't work out this time around. I'm still looking into it fairly aggressively, but many factors such as timing, capital, strategy and growth potential are certainly still at play. Plus, maybe it's time for a new location and a new outlook. While being next to the lingerie store has been an adventure the past couple of years, it doesn't help the stereotype.

There's also the fact that the comic market (and I'm including pop culture broadly) is VERY difficult to explain to someone who really doesn't understand it. Sure, business is business and economics is all that really matters, but these specialty stores are a unique beast.

I'm hopeful it works out, I just need more time. I'm not one to give up on accomplishing goals and making dreams a reality.

In the meantime, check out my Kickstarter campaign for The Atomic Thunderbolt #2!

Sunday, January 7, 2018

Being a Comic reader without a store...

Lots of chatter about the comic book direct market lately. 1) A lot of it is totally Marvel's fault and I've got some thoughts on that for another time. But anyways... so this week A Timeless Journey - my comic shop in Stamford, CT, which I have been a part of for the past 17 years and have gone to since I can remember - announced we were closing. This is due to the owner getting a new opportunity and the time just being right. A lot of these other shops I see closing are in ridiculously high-rent areas and haven't totally diversified products etc. (painting with a broad brush here). Truth be told, I am looking into opening a new store or continuing the legacy of A Timeless Journey, as has always been an ambition, but I noticed something this week that I always knew was an issue, but really experienced it for the first time.

I've always had access to a comic store... if it wasn't A Timeless Journey, it was Dream Factory/Flamingo Street in Norwalk. In college, it was Comics for Collectors in Ithaca (and for the semester in LA, Meltdown)... whenever I go to any town, I sniff out the comic stores (I used to drive from Lake George all the way down to Greenfield Center to go to the original Comic Depot when visiting my parents on college breaks). Oh, and at my grandparents during summers in middle and high school, I could always ride my bike up to the P&C and they always had the books I needed (yes, grocery stores need comics again).

So, when Paul (A Timeless Journey's owner) understandably canceled the orders, I was left needing to figure out where to get my comics (after all, I don't drink, I don't smoke, I read comics). The two closest options are Heroes in Norwalk (25 mins away) or Aw Yeah! in Harrison, NY (30 mins away). Now, Heroes comes with a little baggage because of a history with A Timeless Journey, so I didn't want to go there just yet, and a regular there told me they were sold out of a couple books I wanted. Aw Yeah! is one of my favorite stores ever and if you don't know Marc, there are few finer people in comics (seriously). But Aw Yeah! would take a not insignificant portion of my day and a lot of time, because I love talking to Marc. I also have to factor in cost in not only comic haul, but time and gas (being part of a store for so long, these were never really factors for me).

So where to get my comics? A first-world, niche problem, sure... but this is also an industry I have some involvement in, so whatever. So here's what I did:

I ended up getting Batman #38 off of eBay because it's sold out. I checked availability with Marc at Aw Yeah! and then had a friend pick up Captain America, Justice League and Iron Fist. Finally, I ordered Green Arrow, Superman and Phoenix: Resurrection from Midtown Comics (which I consider the last resort. If you know comics, you might understand). Many stores were sold out of some or all of these books (Midtown included).

I paid a little more than normal (especially on the Batman issue), but I got my comics for the week (or at least they are on their way). I did find a new store that offered a great discount to fill-in for the time-being to get my books, but more on that momentarily.

I had to go to three different places - two online and one proxy - to get the 7 books I will absolutely read. I say "absolutely read" because I have a massive stack of unreads.

Anyway, this a hyperlocal problem to Stamford not having a store after 35 years - Stamford is city of about 130,000 according to the Census, but the store would serve much of Fairfield County. Also of note, Stamford is a major commuter town for the New York Metro area. Having two stores within 30 minutes may not seem like a big deal - and I've sure been spoiled over the years - but it really highlighted another issue about the comic market... accessibility.

Stamford used to be a big comic town. There were a half dozen stores or more in the 90s, and comics were still available at convenience stores and the grocery store. Nowadays, you're lucky to find them outside a specialty shop. This ultimately hurts readership overall - as is often noted - but it was really wild that I had to go to three different places - two online! - just to get 7 comic books. That - to me - is part of the problem with the direct market. The stock is so limited, and the sales are so mediocre that books like Batman and Superman are hard to track down. In a perfect world, I would have gone to one of the bazillion convenience stores in Stamford - or the grocery store - and boom, there they are.

Part of the problem is return-ability, part of the problem is Marvel's mediocre editorial direction. Also, part of the problem is the general lack of emphasis Marvel - who dominates the most important entertainment market - puts on comics doesn't do anything to push them.

I did find an online outlet that is convenient for my needs and budget, which is great. It's a comic store out-of-state that offered me an easy subscription, a really solid discount and cheap shipping. But I'm a diehard comic reader and a part-time retailer of 17 years, I know how to work my way around the market. Most people don't, and I really wonder how many people, put in the same situation I was, would just drop reading weekly comics completely?

This is one reason I'm exploring finally opening a store of my own. I believe the market has a lot of untapped potential, but I also think it needs to change or else the weekly 20-page comic side of the industry is going to collapse.