KC Column: Into each life some reign must fall, some days be dark and dreary

Captain America #600 cover

Captain America #600 cover

by KC Carlson

We’ll return to our discussion of Big Comic Book Events, and specifically, Marvel Comics’ current Big Events, after this slight digression – which I promise will make sense later. Thank you.

The Digression

In the summer of 1992, I was back working at DC and living in Northern New Jersey in a small town that had no comic shops, although it seemed like there was a sports card shop on every other block. At this point, most card shops hadn’t gotten involved much with comics, but that was all to change with the increasing influence of many superstar artists and the speculation around their high-profile projects, like Todd McFarlane on Spider-Man. Smelling money, many of the card shops started putting in racks of comics – mostly just the top sellers, the obvious Marvel, DC, and Image titles.

This is exactly what happened at the card shop in my neighborhood. While walking by one Saturday afternoon, I noticed the comic racks in the window. I stopped in to check it out and quickly realized that the selection was what I just described above. With not much to interest me, I think I picked up the current issue of WildCATS (then with Image), which confused the clerk. I quickly discovered he was the owner as we struck up a conversation. He was obviously new to comics and was fishing for information about what was popular and why people were buying what they were buying. For me, he wanted to know, “why are you not buying any DC or Marvel comics?”

I explained that I worked for DC and that getting comp copies of most of the DC and Marvel comics was one of the perks of the job at that time. “Oh, so you read them, then?” he asked, like it was a foreign concept for him. I told him that, yes, I indeed read them and that I had been reading them since I was about five years old. “Really?” he asked, and I began to think that I was the first person that he had ever met that read comics. Speculation on comics as an investment was huge in those days, and apparently, that was the only kind of comics buyer he was getting.

It was a very strange conversation, almost like two people talking different languages. He also had trouble understanding that I was only buying WildCATS because I liked the artist (Jim Lee). I explained that there were many reasons that people bought comics, but that the major ones were because people really liked the characters, the stories, or the artwork.

“You don’t buy them for the money they will be worth later?” he asked.

“No, that really doesn’t enter into it for me,” I replied. “I generally like to read them.” I acknowledged that the investment angle was becoming a bigger part of the industry, and it was also a main reason for people buying comics in those days. But I warned him that generally only very old and/or very scarce books would be worth real money and that speculating on which current comics were going to be valuable someday was a potentially dangerous thing to do, as only a very few ever got to be worth anything.

“So you’ll help me then, okay?” he asked me.

“Well, no, I can’t really do that, because I’m really not interested in what comics are worth,” I said. “I can tell you what comics I like to read, but that won’t help you much, because my tastes aren’t always in the mainstream, and I don’t always understand why some comics get popular and some don’t.”

“But you work at a comic company? You must be smart about these things.”

I laughed. “No one really knows about these things. They just happen sometimes.”

Death of Superman cover
And then The Death of Superman happened.

And then my “friend” at the card store wasn’t happy that I hadn’t told him about that. “I missed out on that,” he said, kinda blaming me without saying the actual words.

In actual fact, almost everybody missed out on that. Certainly, no one at DC suspected that it would take off like it did. The creators themselves thought that they were just doing another in a long line of “Death of Superman” stories, a tradition going back for decades. This time it was presented a little more elaborately – with Superman not appearing in his own comics for several months – which inadvertently fanned the flames after the mass media picked up the story on a supposedly “slow news day.” The death book itself, Superman #75, sold out instantly, leading to multiple reprintings, special editions, and collected editions – and increased sales for all of the other Superman books and widespread speculation on the part of “investors” as well as many comic shops.

Because there were so many inexperienced retailers (like my card shop “friend”), many people over-ordered on the reprints, leading to an eventual glut in the marketplace, which led to the inevitable devaluing of the books. It was a nasty learning experience for many, especially for those who weren’t around for a previous glut of over-ordering on the Jim Lee X-Men #1 and Rob Liefeld X-Force #1, egged on by various incentive covers and gimmicks. To this day, there are still unopened cases of these two comics sitting in the backrooms and storage areas of shops that were around back then.

I certainly didn’t have any knowledge of what the Death of Superman story or stunt was about. It was already all worked out and completed while I was temporarily away from DC in early 1992. Using the Time Machine function of my favorite comics research site, Mike’s Amazing World of DC Comics, I was reminded that the first DC book during my editorial run, Legion of Super-Heroes v. 4 #38 (a book that I barely worked on, yet earned the co-editing credit after saving it from being killed) shipped just two weeks before Superman #75.

And yet the Superman speculation wasn’t over – the upcoming Adventures of Superman #500 was promising a big culmination to the Death storyline, which most people (rightly) speculated would be the return of the character.

The Saturday after Adventures of Superman #500 shipped, my weekly visit to the local card shop was vastly different. First of all, the normally neat and clean shop had a mountain of comic boxes stacked up about six feet high in the center of the store. I was horrified to discover that all of the boxes were labeled as being AoS #500, and that they were all unopened. “Uh, oh. This is not good,” I thought…

Then the owner spotted me and it got worse. “YOU!” he screamed. “Look what you did to me!”

“I didn’t tell you to order these.” I actually never told him to order anything.

“No, but you never told me not to order them either!” he shouted, as I quickly realized that this was not going to go well.

Actually, we never really discussed the Superman situation at all, except for me telling him that it was a complete fluke and yet it was an amazing phenomenon. But he was still upset that he had missed out on the big Superman #75 pay-out, and it was obvious that he wasn’t going to miss the next one. So he kept bumping up his orders on AoS #500, which left him with a mountain of unopened and non-returnable boxes of comics. He obviously needed somebody – other than himself – to blame. And so I let him yell at me for a few minutes, and when he asked me to leave, I did. And I never went back.

Several months later, the card shop was gone, the storefront empty. Not too much later, several other card shops in the area that had been carrying comics were gone as well. I wasn’t that surprised – there were just too many card shops in too small of an area. Once they got into something that they really didn’t understand, it wasn’t surprising that they all couldn’t last. Only a couple, those who put more thought into their comic stock and orders, survived.

I stuck to comic shops pretty exclusively after that.

End of Digression

That is why, when I started seeing the solicits for Captain America #600 and Rebirth #1, that little “Uh oh” in the back of my head started to bring back this particular bad memory. Bottom line, while the announcement of the death of a cherished fictional character will probably always be news, the announcement of the character’s return almost always becomes cliché. Especially in today’s comics world of seemingly meaningless demises and the ongoing attitude of the “revolving door of death” of current publishers and many creators.

(In the real world, it’s amusing to realize that the exact opposite is true. Death is an every day, although sad, thing, but the resurrection of a beloved dead person would actually be the real news story!)

It wasn’t surprising to me that the media announcement of Cap’s return wasn’t the huge spectacle that his death had been, or even as big as Marvel hoped it would be. To be fair, this was a real no-win situation. Marvel pre-announced (or more accurately, hinted at) media coverage because they probably felt that they had to warn comic retailers that there was going to be an announcement coming. (There was no warning – and lots of grumbling after – regarding the death announcement, and plenty of folks were caught unaware when the story took off.) The absolute truth is that no publisher can control the media, nor does the media have much control over what the general public considers important on any given day, what with the internet, texting, and social networking. Some news outlets didn’t even cover the return story until the day after the announcement.

As a result, it looks like there was neither a huge glut nor massive rush on the books in question, with the books pretty much falling into the normal sell-out and reprint cycle that’s become an industry standard of late. I do suspect that the books did sell better than the immediate previous issues. And I haven’t heard of any unopened cases of Cap #600 sitting around, so it’s good to know that the industry in general is getting better at handling these things and learning from past experiences.

Cap Is Back?

Is anyone really surprised that Captain America is back? I’m not. I was mostly surprised at how long he was gone (and was very amused to read in Ed Brubaker’s recent Marvel Spotlight interview that he was originally only going to be “dead” for a few months).

Captain America #600 was a little disappointing after all the build-up, since there was no actual appearance of the man in question, just the possibility that he may still be alive. The chapterized anthology approach actually worked against the story, I thought. (Although that made it much easier for the many hands working on the extra-length story to all hit their deadlines.) It was the only way to go with the fragmented-by-necessity nature of the story. The story went off in too many directions and spent too much time setting up other stories or recaps rather than just getting to what everybody wanted to see – Cap’s return, which we didn’t get.

I was very happy to see that Roger Stern and Mark Waid’s stories weren’t reprints, as I originally feared. (Note to Marvel Previews: Please spend more time being precise with issue descriptions instead of being – allegedly – clever. Thank you.)

Stern’s story was a touching tribute to the characters of one of my favorite “eras” of Cap, the Brooklyn Heights era, and I was very happy to see them again, if only for a few minutes. Waid’s story was also excellent, a touching and multifaceted tale about memorabilia and its true value.

Captain America: Reborn #1 was a little shocking in how super-hero-y it all was, which on the face of it is a pretty ridiculous thing to say since Cap is pretty much the ultimate superhero. I had become so accustomed to Brubaker’s espionage-like stories in Cap’s regular title over the last couple of years, accompanied by noir-like character treatments and artwork by Steve Epting, Butch Guice, Luke Ross, and others. After their potent-yet-old-school art treatments, it was surprising to see the in-your-face superhero dynamics of Bryan Hitch – although Guice inking Hitch was a great idea. Although we’re seeing a lot of Cap “unstuck” in time here, he’s still not actually back to being the Captain America. The excitement of actually seeing that is still a few months away. So, while I rate this series very highly, my delayed expectations are keeping me from totally raving about this book until I see its outcome. I anticipate this will be much better read as a graphic novel, upon its completion.

Secret Reign

“Delayed expectations” seem to be a watchword at Marvel these days as actual storyline resolutions seem rarer and rarer. I’ve come to expect that the one-story-leads-to-another method of serialized storytelling has been more and more elongated by decompressed, for-the-trade pacing, but it now seems that actual resolutions only happen when creators decide to stop their run and move on to something else. Nowhere is this more evident than in how Marvel’s Secret Invasion begat the current Dark Reign “storyline”. (The reason for those quotes later…)

Secret Invasion Cover

Secret Invasion Cover

Secret Invasion was great in the way that old ‘50s sci-fi movies and roller coasters are – they’re a lot of fun and even scary while they’re happening, but they wear out their welcome and can even make you sick if you do too much of them at one time. Thus, I was really happy to see the Skrull Invasion storyline come to a conclusion at the end of SI, because it was just long enough. I am much less happy to see the unresolved threads of SI still lingering, including the status of many of the replaced-by-Skrulls characters, most notably the delayed explanation of the what and when of Jessica Drew: Spider-Woman. There’s also the matter of the Skrulls’ role in the larger Marvel Universe (alluded to in Secret Invasion: Inhumans and – I guess – being dealt with in the War of Kings event (that I have not read – sorry, Marvel, I cannot afford your entire line of books anymore). Plus, there are the ramifications of the Wasp’s death and Hank Pym’s return from Skrull captivity. And then there’s many-pronged storylines arising out of the last-minute rescue of Earth by Norman Osborn and the handing over of the keys to the planet to him and all the fallout thereof, including the fall of Tony Stark and the fall of SHIELD. It’s all these lingering loose ends that are giving me that queasy “I’ve been on this ride too long” feeling.

Handily, Marvel has collected all of these dangling story threads under the banner of Dark Reign – the Event that isn’t. So if it isn’t an Event, then what is it? you may ask. Well, for better or worse, Dark Reign has become the standard, every day status quo of the Marvel Universe. Need proof? Count up how many Dark Reign banners there are in any given week of Marvel Universe books. Kind of a lot, hunh? And the ones that don’t have the banner are generally long-in-place ongoing storylines (Captain America, Hulk, Thor, Daredevil) or all the SF/space books (Nova, Guardians of the Galaxy, etc.), which have been involved in the War of Kings Event. And the X-books, which mostly have all been off in their own little world for a while now.

Dark Reign Accept Change cover

Dark Reign Accept Change cover

So Dark Reign has become the catch-all designation for the stories involving either Norman Osborn (who really gets around these days for a formerly dead guy), his team of villains as Avengers (Dark Avengers… pretty scary, huh, kids?), or leftover Secret Invasion storylines (many of the Dark Reign mini-series). The Dark Avengers really crack me up, as they are just an extension of the hoary old Avengers and JLA stories where criminals would clobber the heroes and put on their duds and cause trouble, usually in less than 22 pages.

The thing about Dark Reign is that there is really no over-arcing storyline here, other than when will Norman and his Dark Goons finally get their comeuppance, and from whom. To my mind, the only really satisfying ending would be Cap and Shellhead, finally working together again, CRUSHing Norman. But for that to happen, we first have to wait for Cap to get out of the timestream and get his bearings back and for Tony to regain his self-respect – and that could take years with today’s storytelling! Good grief!

Oh wait, I almost forgot about Utopia, the X-Men/Dark Avengers/Avengers crossover, except without much Avengers in it (at least so far). I seem to remember reading somewhere that the intent of this series was to move the Dark Reign “story” from the Avengers-centric books over to the X-Men franchise to help put the Mutants back into the spotlight again (at least Event-wise). The whole plan strikes me as a weird sort of football lateral. Here, I can’t actually throw the ball right now, but If I toss it backwards to you, and then you throw it, it might confuse everybody!

Excellent plan! It’s certainly confusing me!

New Avengers #56 cover

New Avengers #56 cover

The weird thing is, some of the individual books/arcs contained in Dark Reign are really well done. The core Avengers books by Bendis are continuing the outstanding run since Secret Invasion, and Mighty Avengers by Dan Slott is quirky fun too. And I can’t wait for my old pal Stuart Immonen to start pencilling New Avengers after his stellar run on Ultimate Spider-Man! Secret Warriors is a constant high point, especially for a new title. Iron Man is back on my must-read-first list. And the recent Amazing Spider-Man American Son arc was well-thought-out, because it was weird that Norman was back and not really paying any attention to Spidey – but I really didn’t need to see the very pregnant Menace on the cover of #598. Ew.

So, there is some good Dark Reign stuff. There’s just too much Dark Reign stuff.

I’m also not really pleased to see the recent creation of the Dark X-Men, although I’m happy to see Namor getting something interesting to do other than being a lust object for Sue Richards. The whole villains-as-heroes thing has a limited shelf life and, frankly, has been much better done elsewhere. (I miss Classic Thunderbolts!) Dark Avengers: Fool me once, shame on… me. Dark X-Men: Fool me … uh … Don’t get fooled again!

Something like that…

KC CARLSON really wants summer to be over — right now! Humidity sucks! The title for this week’s column is based on a quote from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

Purchase:

Secret Invasion SC

Dark Reign: Accept Change SC

War of Kings: Road to War of Kings SC

Death of Superman SC

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  1. KC on Dark Reign and Event Ordering » Comics Worth Reading Says:

    [...] comic events, KC this week covers Marvel, with the return of Captain America, Secret Invasion, and Dark Reign. After a entertaining digression about ordering comics in the days of the Death of Superman. [...]

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