Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Superhero anthology comics for the 2010s: A proposal

This is a post about superhero comics anthologies. This doesn’t have to do with anything regarded to Wyatt Earp, or indeed anything I have any control over or input into. You may indeed wish to skip it. It’s just a typical fanboy kind of thought I had while eating my lunch and reading this post at Comic Book Resources’ Comics Should Be Good blog.

Now, fans always say they want anthologies, but they rarely sell well. The relaunched Marvel Comics Presents lasted just 12 issues about a year back or so. I think this is because modern anthologies tend to lack strong lead features. Look at the Adventure Comics in that blog post I linked to. It’s Adventure Comics Starring Superboy, or Adventure Comics Starring Aquaman, or Adventure Comics Presents Dial H For Hero. MCP was headlined by two serials: one about someone or something called Vanguard, and one about someone or something called Weapon Omega. Neither of those had strong name recognition, and the talent wasn’t the kind of name draw (your Grant Morrisons and Brian Michael Bendises) you need to lure in comics fans, an audience notoriously reluctant to take risks, to an unfamiliar property.

(Out of fairness, though, I should mention MCP did have a rad Hellcat serial by Stuart and Kathryn Immomen that got a fair amount of word of mouth.)

So how would you do a successful anthology today? All the specifics (creators, characters, titles) I’ll use here are just examples. I’m going to use Adventure Comics as the title just because it’s in the post I linked to, and I understand DC’s doing a relaunch of that title. But this could very well be applied to Marvel as well. The point is, it is a mainstream superhero comic idea.

You make Adventure Comics a 48-page, $3.99 book, or whatever the price point is going to be for 48-page books now. I believe this would give you something like 32 pages of editorial content.

You set aside 16 pages for a lead, and that lead should be something with a lot of name recognition, but perhaps a property that’s not always a sure seller. For the sake of an example, let’s say the Legion of Super-Heroes. They’ve been around forever, and DC usually seems to feel they should be publishing it in some form, but they don’t always seem to be able to support their own book. You get big-name talent on it—a consistent team, not a rotating one. Get Geoff Johns to write it, because everybody wants him to (and I’m reading Legion of Three Worlds, and it’s the first thing I've read by him that I’ve really enjoyed). You can get a big-name artist on it, too, and that’s the great thing—with the reduced page count, it will be easier for that artist to keep a monthly schedule.

So you treat the lead feature just like you would any comic series, except the individual installments are shorter. These aren’t vignettes or character pieces, and they’re not little out-of-continuity miniseries. For all intents and purposes, this is DC’s ongoing Legion of Super-Heroes comic, full of all the subplots and action you’d expect to find in a book with their name on it.

Next, you set aside eight pages for a consistent back-up feature in the format of a six-issue serial. Again, this should be a character with name recognition that hasn’t been able to carry a book in awhile—Aquaman or Captain Marvel or the Metal Men or somebody. Now here’s the gag—you make the creative team for this feature even bigger names than your lead. You can afford to do this because of the short page count. JG Jones apparently can’t draw 22 pages for seven months, but he could probably do eight for six months, right? Grant Morrison and JG Jones do a dynamic, redefining Aquaman story in serial format with cliffhangers and everything (Morrison knows his old-school Doctor Who, so he should know how to do this). At the end, you’ll have a nice 48-page story you can repackage in a prestige format. And then you get Neil Gaiman and some rad artist on Captain Marvel or something for six months, and so on.

The last eight pages are one-offs. You can do the character piece vignette if you want to, or you can introduce a new character or reintroduce an old one who’s going to be showing up in Teen Titans soon, instead of devoting a whole one-shot special to him/her beforehand. This would be a good place to showcase some new art talent you’ve got, or try out an story by a newcomer writer—even if it doesn’t go over well, hey, who’s going to complain when they’ve already gotten through the two top-talent lead features?

That’s the pitch. Two things would be necessary to make the book work—one, writers and artists would have to condense their modern storytelling techniques to make each 16- or eight-page installment “worth it,” and you’d really have to hit that monthly deadline, because eight weeks is a long time to wait for eight pages. But I think this would be economically viable, and I think it’s what fans mean when they say they like “anthologies,” even if they don’t necessarily articulate it that way. It may even be what DC’s planning to do with their new Adventure Comics title, I don’t know.

Hey, looks I wrote longer than I meant to. But you know how it is being a comics geek; you get an idea about superheroes in your head and you just start to ramble.

NEXT TIME: How to spearhead a Battlestar Galactica-style reboot/revival for Charles in Charge.

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