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I often write that Longbox Graveyard exists in a world where it is always 1978, but regular readers of this blog will know that since October of last year, I’ve been living in the now. Specifically, I’ve been reading and reviewing the sixty-odd titles that made up Marvel Comics’ latest relaunch — the awkwardly-named All-New All-Different Marvel Now!
Given my oft-voice preference for comics of the past, why did I commit to such a sustained sojourn in this current era of high cover prices and convoluted continuity?
Well, I’ll tell you.
It was all about the Treehouse.
My love of comics is bound up in nostalgia and a desire to revisit my lost youth. I expect it is the same for many older fans (and I am on the hard side of fifty). While I genuinely enjoy and appreciate comics from the 1970s, I recognize that many of the reasons I prefer them to more contemporary efforts is rooted in that self-same nostalgia. Certainly, comics today enjoy better printing standards and an overall higher level of artistic execution than the beloved books of my youth … but I still like comics from the 1960s-1980s better than today’s offerings. I always will.
Bronze is Golden
My love of these comics is wrapped up with the life I had in those years — things I’ve touched on over the last five years of this blog, like moving to Hollywood, CA in 1974, and exploring weird old comic shops along the boulevard; meeting Forest J. Ackerman and realizing for the first time that growing old didn’t mean you had to grow up; getting deeply wrapped up with fantasy fiction in general and Conan and John Carter in particular; starting new schools and getting my first girlfriend; moving away from home; starting my own tentative career as a writer and a creator … all those life events are things I associate with comic books, sometimes very specific comic books. When I remember chasing around my backyard in Hollywood, throwing my dad’s sculpting hammer at rocks and trash cans, I also think about Thor and Hercules and Firelord taking on the insane living planet Ego — both those things are equivalently real in my memory, in that long summer of ’74.
Other memories are entirely made up. Like reading comics in a treehouse.
I did have a treehouse at the Hollywood house — more like a tree platform, actually, overlooking a canyon in the Hollywood hills. I used to go up there with my toy Winchester rifle and shoot at imaginary Skrulls, something that once scrambled a police helicopter my way. (This was a high-crime time in Hollywood, and everyone was jumpy, maybe doubly so because that was the summer of the SLA, and the house that the LAPD lit up with 9000 rounds of ammo was only about a dozen miles from my house). I don’t especially remember reading comics in that treehouse, but that doesn’t matter — the idea of comics and childhood and treehouses are all bound up together, and led directly to my dropping several hundred dollars on new Marvel Comics these past few months.
In the middle of 2015 I was in a miserable place. My health wasn’t great, my best friend from my childhood was dying of cancer, and my work was providing little in emotional satisfaction. I still had enthusiasm for comics but my attention was flagging a bit, and I was entertaining the notion of winding down Longbox Graveyard entirely (I mean, I was publishing things like Top 10 Super-Dogs, for crying out loud!). I was so distraught that I decided to medicate myself with whatever felt good, eating everything in site and ballooning up to 250 pounds (don’t panic, I’m back down to 200 now), and also indulging myself in any easy bit of retail therapy that I thought would make me feel better.
fortunately, I am The Blob no longer!
I decided that reading comics in a treehouse would make me feel better. So that’s what I did. Sort of.
Marvel’s All-New All-Different relaunch intrigued me — mostly because I was desperate — and it promised easy fodder for a series of micro-reviews at Longbox Graveyard. So, instead of closing down the blog, I’d force myself to produce daily content through much of the year. With my own original comic — 4 Seconds — coming out (I thought) toward the end of 2015, it also seemed a good idea to familiarize myself with Marvel’s latest output … if I was going to be a comics creator again, then I should know a bit about my field. I resolved to buy all the #1s in the Marvel relaunch.
This was easier said that done.
Marvel solicited the relaunch with a PDF catalogue that laid out the new titles and the new creative teams, but there was no easy way for me to just push a button and get one of everything. I either had to go into a local comics shop and set up a pull list (and I am too lazy for that), or I needed to order them online, but the online options I surveyed didn’t make it easy for me to determine which books were and were not part of the relaunch. After way too much work, I assembled a scratch list of all the books that I thought were part of the relaunch (and this became my review archive, which you can visit here). Armed with this info, I opened an account with Westfield Comics, both because I remembered them from my mail order days in the 1980s, and because they offered a nice deep discount for new customers that took some of the sting out of those Marvel cover prices.
Then I forgot about it. One of the downsides of an outfit like Westfield is you secure those deep discounts by ordering months in advance, which can take some of the heat out of purchases made in the heat of the moment. And the purchase really was made in the heat of the moment, and was more than a little irrational. I’ve made much about getting rid of stuff here at Longbox Graveyard, and now here I was ordering dozens of floppy comics that I would read once and toss (or eBay, I guess). But, darn it, I was in a painful place and I just wanted a box of comics to read in a treehouse with my friends.
So when the box showed up, I rounded up some friends. Billy King, Chris Ulm, and I weren’t friends when we were kids, but it feels like we were. Comics give us a shared memory of youth that was separated by miles and years in actuality. Chris and I have been friends for thirty years, and we have a rich comics history between us, but it has mostly been professional, like when I was writing comics for Chris when he was Editor-In-Chief of Malibu Comics, or when Chris has joined me for podcasts and guest columns at Longbox Graveyard. I haven’t known Billy as long, but we have still been friends for a dozen years, and recently he pitched in with character designs and story architecture for 4 Seconds. The three of us all work together in the mobile games business, and we have lunch hours to kill, so … they were my built-in Treehouse Comics Pals, and the Treehouse itself was a spare conference room at our office, where we’d show up a couple times a week, unpack our lunches, and sort through my big box of new comics.
It was great. The experience, I mean. The comics were OK (and more about them in a moment), but the experience of getting together with my friends, and all of us kind of going back in time to read the same characters we’d loved as kids — that was nice. We’d share the books we thought were good (rarely), or bitch about the things Marvel got wrong (more commonly), or better yet just set aside the darn books and get into geekfights about Marvel’s characters and creators, or maybe we could trigger an Ulm Rant about his Malibu days and the state of the direct market or some unprintable story about the true origins of Image Comics or the Ultraverse. I should have recorded those Treehouse sessions — they would have made a dynamite podcast. But, really, it was the free and easy nature of just showing up and reading comics with friends that made the magic. There were no expectations. And over the period of weeks and months that followed, we read a lot of comics, and I got some of the healing that I needed. Things are better now. I’ve got good and caring friends. They are a blessing.
But how about those comics?
On the most basic level, they did the job. Taken as a whole, the comics of Marvel’s latest relaunch were about what I expected. Maybe a little better than I expected. There weren’t any real lightning bolts in there, but neither were there a lot of outright stinkers. I think I gave about half of the books a “thumb’s up” by saying I’d read a second issue (the only kind of review score I attached to this project). That’s pretty good. The launch was mostly B-level books with a few that might grow into something better, and a couple sad-sack titles that never should have seen the light of day. But every book in the launch had something to offer; I’m glad I read them all, both because of the joy of being in the Treehouse, and because it was educational to take such an in-depth and focused look at the state of Marvel Comics circa 2015-16.
Even after reading all those books, and writing the reviews, and arguing them out in the Treehouse with the guys, there’s still one thing I don’t understand, though.
Just who was the All-New All-Different Marvel Now supposed to reach?
Was it to attract new readers? If so, the initiative failed (and I don’t mean just in terms of sales numbers, which have been pretty soft). No, just looking at this relaunch as a jumping-on point, it earned failing grades. It spun out of a cross-over event (Secret Wars 2) that ran late and wasn’t wrapped up until well after the first wave of relaunch books hit the street, and aside from some of the books referencing some vague cataclysm that came months before, there was no spark or starting gun or anything, really, to mark the start of this new start to the Marvel Universe. Precious few of the books were genuine #1s — in too many cases, readers needed knowledge of prior continuity to make sense of what was happening (and even prior knowledge didn’t always help — I read sixty relaunch titles and never found out what happened to the Fantastic Four, or why Ben Grimm was now part of the Guardians of Galaxy). Looking back over my reviews, you will see where I noted that book after book failed to measure up for new readers. Now, sure, new readers come into ongoing comics series all the time, and figure it out as they go … but Marvel made a point of relaunching everything in their line with new #1s, and I don’t think it is too much to expect that most of these first issues would be actual first issues.
(Except that it was too much to expect).
a comic book Bigfoot, a creature every bit as mythical as a new comics reader
Was this relaunch intended to reactivate Marvel’s existing base? Maybe, but if so … it may have done more harm than good. Save from temporarily goosing the sales of some series, this relaunch doesn’t seem to have fired up the readership in any meaningful way. The relaunch didn’t create a breakout hit, and sales numbers have largely returned to pre-relaunch levels. Renumbering and relaunching is risky, as fans might as easily see it as a jumping-OFF point as a place to jump on. Renumbering ongoing series that were only in their first year (like Squirrel Girl) seemed especially unwise.
guilty as charged
Maybe the relaunch was intended to attract mainstream Marvel movie and TV fans? After all, the Avengers movie franchise is the biggest thing in the world, while the comic is lucky to sell 100K copies — theoretically there are a lot of movie fans out there who might be interested in reading a Marvel comic. But, no … while this comics line had a S.H.I.E.L.D. book that TV fans might recognize, too much was scrambled up and significantly at odds with the movie take on these characters to welcome movie fans as new readers. The All-New All-Different Marvel Now has female Thors and Wolverines; dozens of Spider-Men (and the only one of them that was Peter Parker was nearly unrecognizable as such); an old man wearing Captain America’s costume (and another geezer swinging Wolverine’s claws). There were several Inhumans books, but none for the Fantastic Four. Jessica Jones was on Netflix but nowhere to be found in the relaunch. The Avengers lineups (across all the many Avengers books) didn’t map to the canonical characters so popularly portrayed in the films. Some of these ideas worked fine in the context of comics, but they did nothing to roll out the welcome matt for film fans. Quite the opposite.
my son at the Marvel Movie Marathon several years ago … and he still doesn’t want to read comics!
Was this relaunch intended to bring back lapsed fans? Well, it did get me to buy several boxes of comics, but I was emotionally wounded and kind of in a unique situation. Neither Chris nor Billy, my Treehouse pals, were monthly Marvel readers before this relaunch, and they really haven’t changed their position. Chris may collect a few of these books in trade (something he was doing anyway), and Billy plans to collect a (very) few books up through issue ten or so, but after that, he’s out. For my part, I’m not buying any #2s, though I might catch up with a few of the series as Billy brings them in, or when they spool up on my Marvel Unlimited digital subscription service. But I have zero enthusiasm to keep up with any of these books on a monthly basis.
At best, mixed results in this area.
those kids are out there, someplace, and all grown up, too!
So if this relaunch wasn’t aimed at new readers — or even old readers — and if it didn’t drive movie fans to check out the comics, and if it didn’t drive new readers into comic shops to open up new pull lists, then why blow everything up and relaunch at all? Was it just for the sales bump? If so, it’s kind of like that Daffy Duck trick, where he blows himself up on stage. It wins the contest with Bugs Bunny, but what do you do for an encore?
(A rhetorical question, I know. We can look forward to more events and relaunches and renumbering and etc. and etc. until the business stabilizes or the last fan goes to that big longbox in the sky … but that’s a subject for a different article).
Coming out the other side of the relaunch, I do have a firm idea of what I want from Marvel Comics, though. Not that I expect Marvel to do this, but if I had magic powers, I would want a Marvel where there were fewer books but higher quality; with stories that are complete in one volume; about characters that I recognize that don’t invalidate most of what I remember about them from the Silver and Bronze Ages; with enough continuity that the stories fit together without collapsing under the weight of ridiculous trivia; provided in a format that was easy to buy and collect without making it my part-time job to scour the solicitations and place blind orders months in advance with no clear idea of what was and was not part of the relaunch or event I was trying to follow; and I want the stories to have broad enough appeal that I could share them not just with my Treehouse pals, but also with my wife and my kids and just regular friends who don’t sleep, breathe, and eat comics all the time.
It will never happen.
Except, actually, that it has.
It’s called the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
My sad realization after reading all these Marvel Comics is that the Marvel Comics I most want to read are the Marvel Movies. They hit every criteria I noted above … I get two or three movies a year, maybe a TV series, all of pretty good (sometimes great) quality, and they are major pop culture events that I can share with pretty much everyone in my life. They are the characters I know and love made fresh with contemporary interpretations that keep the best stuff from the past while ignoring the nonsense and serving up familiar surprises about what comes next.
And so for me, the future of Marvel Comics isn’t comics at all! At least, it isn’t contemporary comics … I will still go back to 1978 for a comics fix now and then. But these latest books? Good, but not good enough to change my habits. So it goes.
Ah, but … what about DC Comics, you ask? Aren’t they about to relaunch on their own, with a “Rebirth” event that will make the New 52 old news?
Well, yes they are. And it just so happens that I’ve ordered the first wave of those books, because I want the Treehouse to continue. One way or the other, I’ll be reading thirty-odd DC books this summer, and maybe more if I like what I see in the first wave.
The question for you, dear reader, is should I review DC’s Rebirth the same way I did Marvel’s All-New All-Whatever Blah Blah Blah?
Vote in my poll, below!
Thanks for reading, voting, and (I hope) commenting below. I consider all the many online friends I’ve made through Longbox Graveyard, both here on the blog and through Twitter, to be part of my extended Treehouse family, and nothing would please me more than shooting the breeze while reading a box of comics with all of you. Since I can’t do that, this blog has been the next best thing, and I will keep it going awhile longer whether I review the DC books or not. But please cast a vote, to guide me in what I should do next at Longbox Graveyard … and I will see you in the Treehouse!
NEXT MONTH: #159 Fire And Water: Human Torch vs Sub-Mariner!
My first excursion to the Longbox Bookshelf concentrated on “coffee-table” books of interest to comics fans — this time, I offer thumbnail reviews of several comics and film-related reference books that I consulted while creating my original digital comics story, 4 Seconds, for Thrillbent.com. I’ve had most of these books for years, but they’ve gathered some dust as I have been away from writing — it was good to make their re-acquaintance! Even if you don’t aspire to be a creator, many of these volumes will help deepen your appreciation of comics … read on for capsule reviews from the Longbox Bookshelf!
Comics & Sequential Art by Will Eisner, Poorhouse Press, 1995.
Mostly what I get from this book is crushing depression because I will never be able to draw comic books, but in this I am in good company, as most people who can draw comic books will never be able to draw so well as Will Eisner, either. I consider this essential reading, but it may be the least approachable book on this list, reading as it does like Eisner’s lecture notes, with deeper meanings maddeningly elusive. There is also the aspect of a master explaining what comes easily to him, and making it sound simple at the time … but when you try to put the knowledge to work, a yawning gulf of genius opens at your feet.
I still come back to this book every couple years, and I always find something new — this time it was the role the size of comic book panels play in the pace of story and the passage of time. Eisner’s storytelling advice in the way characters are posed and framed is more relevant than ever, but some of his techniques are sadly being lost to the march of time — few contemporary creators leverage text treatments as well as Will, and Eisner’s approach to page and panel architecture requires re-examination in this era of “guided view” digital comics and their nebulous page dimensions. Eisner’s unstated position that words are necessary only to the degree that pictures fail to do the job is a bitter pill for a writer to swallow, but hard to dispute in this particular art form.
Reinventing Comics by Scott McCloud, Perennial, 2000.
Less concerned with the form and importance of comics than his other works, Reinventing Comics is more like a call to action for comics creators, trumpeting the need for more diversity in comics stories (and the people who create them), and new business practices to reinvigorate a wounded comics market. Written on the edge of the digital comics revolution, McCloud’s anticipation of the modern digital marketplace was prophetic, but he missed the bugaboo of discoverability, which has limited the ability of fresh voices to be heard in what McCloud hoped would be a more egalitarian marketplace permitted by digital distribution.
This volume hasn’t aged quite so well as McCloud’s other books, but the author’s challenge that creators should be trying new things in new ways (and not lose sight of the fact that they are artists) is welcome in any age. I’ve tried to take that cause to heart in returning to the comics field.
Save The Cat by Blake Snyder, Michael Wiese Productions, 2005.
The New Testament of screenwriting, building on the work of Syd Field (below), but going beyond the structure of the screenplay to consider the whole product — starting with building the log line to pitch the story, and then showing how that log line is a north star through the process of writing your script, and even how that same well-realized log line helps Joe Moviegoer decide to see your movie on opening weekend. Comics aren’t film, but they are related media (especially as comics have evolved), and while the structural advice for screenplays that Snyder offers has to be filtered before applying it to comics, Snyder’s enthusiastic advocacy for a strong log line was of critical importance in creating the fifteen-second pitch that sold 4 Seconds.
The structure and “beat sheet” Snyder provides has come in for criticism as being Patient Zero for the plague of formulaic screenplays that have taken over Hollywood, and Snyder does sometimes make it seem that writing a screenplay is akin to manipulating the gears of a clock … but what I find fascinating is that even if we the audience know that the “Break Into Two” falls on Page 25 and “The Dark Night of The Soul” must come between Page 75-85, we still sit in the theater and thrill to these stories, again and again, as if they were something entirely new. The magic is in giving the audience “the same thing … only different!” A thoroughly entertaining and very approachable screenwriting book that I recommend even if you aren’t particularly interested in writing.
Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting by Syd Field, Bantam Dell, 2005.
The Old Testament of screenwriting, codifying the gospel of plot points and three-act structure. My original edition of this book fell apart as I read it a thousand times while writing scripts for Malibu Comics a quarter-century ago, and while this newer edition featured a few more contemporary movie references (including some back-handed praise for Pulp Fiction), at its core it is still all about the very sound wisdom of the Sultan of Structure, Syd Field. While I never satisfactorily mated Field’s screenplay golden mean with ongoing, episodic comics writing, Field’s book did give me a deep respect for the importance of story structure, and gave me a place to turn when decoding why one of my scripts fell apart (hint: it usually had something to do with … structure!).
yep, I did cards … then promptly threw out that whole first act!
Between re-reading Field and discovering Snyder’s Save The Cat, I decided to go whole hog and plot 4 Seconds using story cards, something I rarely did in my old turn-and-burn comics writing days … and it helped! My script for 4 Seconds effectively penciled out as the first act of a screenplay, and if I am somehow fortunate enough to be able to continue my story, I will have a running start because of the structure I’ve already laid down for the potential finishing acts of the tale.
Setting Up Your Shots: Great Camera Moves Every Filmmaker Should Know, by Jeremy Vineyard, Michael Wiese Productions, 2000.
I stole this book from the shelf of my old pal, Chris Ulm, intending to give it to my son as he heads off to film school, but ended up using it myself. The stories we are telling at Thrillbent aren’t cinema, but they have strong cinematic elements, and it is useful to familiarize yourself with the visual grammar yielded by our hardwired cultural understanding of film.
Hundreds of film terms are described, with diagrams. If you want to know the difference between a “Spin Around” and a “Spin Look,” then this book is for you!
Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud, Kitchen Sink Press, 1993.
A great read in that it looks at something you think you know (comics) and then shows you all sorts of things you never noticed. Many of the things that McCloud notes will be of interest only to creators and academics, but as I check both of those boxes, this book was right up my alley, and I always welcome an opportunity to read and re-read it.
Much of the text is concerned with definitions and examples (a necessary evil in academic work), and a big part of the book is an appeal for consideration of comics as serious artistic work (which is certainly doing a good deed, but I don’t much care). Where McCloud is most interesting is when he tries to unravel the way time works in comic storytelling, with a particular emphasis on the reader participation and imagination required to leap across the “gutter” between images in sequential art. In this he builds on Eisner’s book and reveals a kind of ordinary magic that I’d long since taken for granted. A foundational book that every comics fan should read!
Wally Wood’s 22 Panels That Always Work, by Wally Wood
Not a book, but a scan of legendary visual storytelling advice by the legendary Wally Wood. The pictures speak for themselves, as does the admonition against dumb writers and their lame characters sitting around and talking for page after page — something I honestly tried to keep in mind while crafting my dialogue!
Writing Treatments That Sell by Kenneth Atchity and Chi-Li Wong, Henry Hold and Company, 1997.
An obscure book about an obscure subject — the story treatment, that feathered fish spawned from the bowels of Hollywood, which is essentially a story about a story. You hear about treatments all the time, but guidance on what they are (let alone how to write one) is thin on the ground. This volume doesn’t help that much, but it does describe the treatment as “… a relatively brief, loosely narrative written pitch of a story … in user-friendly, dramatic, but straightforward and highly visual prose, in the present tense … the closest analogy we can think of is a vivid and intense letter to your best friend relating a series of amazing events that you’ve just experienced.” So, there’s that.
The book would benefit from more examples of actual treatments (that sold, or otherwise), but it does have some useful advice if you are trying to plot a television story, or create a series bible … neither of which was important for 4 Seconds, but the book did give me a running start at doing a little three-page treatment for my script, which bought me some time at the beginning of writing process (by showing I had more than fifteen seconds worth of ideas!) That same treatment revealed that I had a big problem with my opening sequence, which I ultimately discarded when it came time to write the script. The treatment also gave me something to share with my inner circle of creative godfathers, affording critical early feedback on my story.
Words For Pictures: The Art And Business Of Writing Comics And Graphic Novels by Brian Michael Bendis , Watson-Guptill Publications, 2014.
This was an impulse-buy at my local bookstore, but I’m glad I did it — not because of the book so much as the affirmation it provided. The script and plot examples will be useful for anyone wanting to see how comics are written, and the spotlight features of creators like Ed Brubaker discussing Captain America and Matt Fraction on Hawkeye were timely and insightful, but not in a here’s-how-to-do-it roadmap kind of way.
Those sections are of-a-kind with the rest of the book, which is less about how-to-do-it than it is an encouragement to just do it, by any means necessary. Bendis preaches hard work and passion, and pulls few punches about the reality of the business side of comics (you aren’t likely to get rich, kid). Lavishly-produced, Words For Pictures should have plenty of cross-over appeal for fans who will never write a word of comics, but maybe want to better appreciate the craft — the art and layout is more closely akin to a coffee table book than a reference work, and it was startling to recognize that most of the images had no words to speak of. This seemed unusual for Bendis — who can be one of the wordiest writers in comics — but in his afterword, Bendis noted that he didn’t want his book to be about the Bendis Way, but instead to represent many different voices and approaches. In this he was successful, and in turning over so much of his book to wordless pictures, Bendis also underscores another of his primary messages — that comics are a visual medium, and the wise writer will take every effort to collaborate with his artists and empower them to do their best work. From reading his Tumblr I already had the impression that Bendis was a genuinely good guy, and this book cements this opinion. It gave me warm fuzzies. Recommended.
NEXT MONTH: #157 Punisher In Marvel Super-Action #1
A funny thing happened to me on the way to San Diego Comic-Con …
It’s been a couple weeks — a strange, dream-like, couple of weeks — since I won an open mic pitch competition at San Diego Comic-Con to publish an original digital comics series on Thrillbent.
You can read about it at the New York Daily News (and also see one of the rare decent photos of me in all of creation). Thrillbent Publisher Mark Waid blogs about it, here … and the announcement of the pitch contest that led to this unlikely turn of events is also available for your review.
I’ll give you the short version: I’m now writing an original short comics story for Thrillbent, publication date TBD.
The longer version …
Once upon a time, I wrote comics. I covered that era in the early days of this blog, writing about Rune and a bunch of black & white books that I did in the late 80s/early 90s, and I’ve talked about my work on a podcast or two, but aside from that, Longbox Graveyard has been all about other peoples’ work — the Silver and Bronze Age superhero stories we all know and love.
I haven’t hidden my own brief history as a comics creator, but I haven’t written much about it because, really, there’s not much to write, and it was a long time ago and of limited interest. Having created comics myself gives me a little additional insight when reviewing and appreciating them, but for the most part, this blog has been a fannish activity, without ulterior motive aside from trying to come to grips with having an out-of-control comics Accumulation (since tamed), seeking to rediscover my love for comics (now in full bloom), and only tangentially making peace with my brief and not-terribly-successful time as a comics pro.
This blog will still mostly focus on comics of the past, but permit me a brief victory lap as I return to the comics business for the first time in two decades (excepting only a video-game based story I did for Heavy Metal a couple years ago).
I am genuinely thrilled to be working with Thrillbent — not just because of the creative platform it will provide, but because I think Mark Waid is a smart guy and I’ve been a fan of Thrillbent from the start, having kept up with Insufferable week-by-week, and binge-reading everything else on Mark’s site since my magical moment at Comic-Con last month. Mark is a digital comics pioneer who is genuinely interested in advancing the form, and he’s talked the talk (and walked the walk) since his very public announcement at WonderCon 2012 that the future of comics is digital. If you haven’t yet visited Thrillbent, you should do so — it’s a home for digital-first comics that embrace this new medium. They aren’t motion comics, or guided view versions of paper books — Thrillbent stories are their own genre, still very much a comics-reading experience, but employing camera techniques recognizable from cinema (and a few innovations unique to Thrillbent) to tell comics stories in new ways. Plus, Thrillbent features creator-owned content. It checks all the boxes. It’s great. Go look.
Thrillbent is available on your computer or tablet of choice
So. The pitch.
I like to pitch. I’ve done it a lot and it is a thing I do well. When I saw that Thrillbent was taking cold pitches at Comic-Con, I knew I had to do it — not because I had any great expectation of winning the competition, but because it was the perfect thing for me to try. Comics. Thrillbent. A pitch. My favorite things. I was going to be at Comic-Con anyways, so I decided to give it a shot.
I blew the dust off of a comic book idea I’ve had kicking around in the back of my head for twenty years, an idea that I had tried (without success) to sell to Malibu Comics during their Ultraverse days. I scrubbed through my old files, re-familiarized myself with what I liked about the idea, threw out a bunch of stuff, and over the course of a week or two honed my fifteen second (!) pitch for the panel:
The Powers of Molly Powers is a romantic comedy about a midwestern girl named Molly, who is married to a loveable slacker who’s whole plan in life is to somehow luck into superpowers. When Molly gets powers instead, they spend as much time fighting with each other as they do with the bad guys.
Not bad. I’d still like to do that series someday. But what I realized the night before the panel is that while this was a perfectly good comic book pitch, it wasn’t an especially distinguished Thrillbent pitch … because while it described engaging characters and vivid conflict, and suggested fun plot lines, it was better suited for a continuing series than a one-off short story, and (most importantly) it didn’t take special advantage of Thrillbent’s storytelling technology. This would make a fine paper comic, or a weekly free three-panel webcomic (and if a great artist wants to go in on this with me, let me know) … but it wasn’t the kind of story that might best be told — or might only be told — as a Thrillbent story.
I decided not to pitch.
It wasn’t that I was afraid to lose — I just didn’t want to step up to the mic with my dick in my hands. So to speak. The pitch was all for fun but it was serious fun, and I wasn’t going to do it unless I thought I could nail it. In my mind, it had taken me twenty years to come up with that Molly Powers pitch and there was no way I was going to come up with something better in twenty hours.
Unless … I could.
One of the reasons I haven’t worked in comics these past two decades is that I’ve been in the video game business, designing games and creating original characters, stories, and worlds for gamers. It’s been fun but it’s even further afield from this blog than my comics career, so I haven’t mentioned it much. But something I learned from games that I think applies here is that good design springs from constraints. Having firm limitations in terms of deadlines, budgets, and hardware capabilities focuses creators on what is possible. As an engineer friend once told me, “We can do all of this stuff, but we can’t do ALL of this stuff!” Creating means choosing, and the wise creator chooses a subject that works (and hopefully thrives) within the limitations he is handed.
I decided to give it an hour, to work backwards from Thrillbent’s specs, and see what I could come up with.
I made up a little list. First, I knew I wanted this to be a comics story, first and foremost. It wouldn’t be a movie trying to tell itself in comic book form, or an internal novelistic story with pictures, or a talking head teleplay with minimal visual appeal. It would be the kind of story that comics do better than any other form — a story that married the relentless visuality of cinema with the internal story of a hero we can cheer for. This gave me a litmus test for any wild-ass ideas that came to mind. Regardless of subject, the story had to meet my idea of what comics do best, or I’d reject it on the spot. Fine.
Next, I thought about what Thrillbent does well. Thrillbent does a lot of things well … but one of its most distinguishing characteristics is how Thrillbent stories extend the information value of a comics panel by manipulating text and changing (sometimes subtly) the content of an otherwise-static image. Sometimes this is a change in a character’s expression, other times it is some surprise bit of action with a character bursting into frame, sometimes it is an inset panel that spins the man composition in a different direction. When Thrillbent is at its best, it creates a kind of storytelling velocity or persistence of vision through the power of the reader’s imagination.
I wanted some of that.
I flashed on the idea of precognition. A Thrillbent story about a character who could see the future as a series of cascading possibilities that collapsed into one fatal certainty would be visual and a lot of fun.
The problem with knowing the future is that it’s dull.
Gilbert Gottried told a joke years ago about being frustrated over lunch with his friend Nostradamus, because every time he tried to tell a story, Nostradamus cut him off by saying, “I know, I know.” Paul Muad’Dib aside, people who see the future are either dull, or madmen. If they can see into the future with perfect clarity, they buy a lottery ticket, and their story is over; if they see into the future in riddles or flashes … well, that can be fun, too, but it lacked the snap I needed for a short tale.
But what if you could only see a few seconds into the future? Hmm.
We all “see” a few seconds into the future. It’s called planning. It keeps us alive, and it distracts us from the zen ideal of living in the moment. But what if you could see, with a certainty, what would happen just a few seconds from now? It’s potentially the most useless superpower in the world, but for a clever character it opened up all sorts of vivid and visual possibilities. It wouldn’t make you omniscient, but it would give you a little edge. What would you do with that edge?
I worked up my pitch, saved it to my phone, and went to bed.
The next day, while riding into Comic-Con with my old pal and creative partner Chris Ulm, I laid both pitches on him — Molly Powers, and this new one that I’d come up with in an hour. Chris liked the Molly Powers pitch, but rejected it in favor of my new idea — and not just because he vaguely remembered Molly from when I’d pitched it to him while Chris was Malibu’s Editor-In-Chief all those years ago! He liked my second idea better — more precisely, he liked the first part of my second idea better, but he rejected the second half because it took things in a direction he didn’t like. He liked the premise of limited precognition, but not what I’d done with it. He said the second half of the pitch should tell me the emotional stakes of the story and define a relationship that was important to the hero.
I took his advice to heart and re-worked the pitch. Six hours to go. No problem!
… but what few people know is that Matt is a veteran of dozens (hundreds?) of Hollywood story pitches, having worked the town for years as a screenwriter. Like Chris, Matt is a guy I respect and trust so I laid my pitch on him — he thought about it, and agreed with Chris that the premise was strong, but my resolution was weak. He said that I had a hero who could do something “just in time,” so her conflict should be that she didn’t have enough time to do something, like pull off a job that would save her life.
Three hours to go, but I was feeling fine. Assisted by creative godfathers like Chris and Matt, I felt like I was loaded for bear.
that’s me, Farzad Varahramyan, Matt Wilson, and Chris Ulm … creative godfathers all (Farzad did the header for this blog, which is like asking Michelangelo to work with Play-Doh — love these guys!)
I showed up for the panel early, sitting through the Thunderbirds presentation with only half an eye on what was happening (and what I saw looked very cool!) — but mostly I was tweaking my pitch on my phone, and trying to commit it to memory. The Thunderbirds panel ended, and the Thrillbent guys streamed in, and a very nice person asked me if I intended to pitch, and asked me to sign a release. I did, and I did.
The panel began. Mark gave some quick Thrillbent updates, and put the dozen or so Thrillbent creators he had with him on his panel on the spot by asking them to pitch their current series in fifteen seconds or less. Then it was time for the audience to pitch, with Mark saying this was his attempt to democratize the creation of comics, and apologizing that we’d only have fifteen seconds to do our stuff — but there were a lot of pitches to hear, and concision was the soul of a good idea.
I was the second of the hundred-odd pitches in the session. That made me a little nervous, but what the hell … it meant that my idea would definitely be heard, and it also gave me a slight advantage in that if I could set a high mark, every pitch that followed would automatically be compared to mine, constantly reinforcing my title and my pitch in the minds of the panel.
I stepped up to the mic, and said,
4 Seconds is a noir thriller about a petty thief who discovers she can see four seconds into the future. That’s just enough precognition to get into trouble, but not nearly enough time to pull off the heist that will save her sister’s life.
That’s about 14.8 seconds — I know, because I timed it — but time seemed to stretch toward infinity in the silence that followed. And that was fine — it was my job to make the pitch, not to judge it. Once the pitch is made, it’s like you’ve shot an arrow. It will find the target, or it won’t, but it is out of your hands.
If you’ve shot the arrow to the best of your ability, all you will feel is bliss.
I had plenty of bliss. And I was very pleased when Mark said, “That’s a great pitch!” I also knew I’d hit the target, because Mark immediately called out how my idea was strong because it would work so well with what Thrillbent does best. I’d taken a little risk because nothing in the pitch said how 4 Seconds would use Thrillbent to best advantage, but Mark had instantly seen how a story about precognition would work on his platform. Score.
Mark asked me to come up and stand in front of the crowd while he heard more pitches. Most of them were pretty good, and a few were excellent. On another day, several of them might have won, instead of me. Only a couple people got buzzed out for going over time. Nearly everyone had put a lot of thought and heart into their pitches (and Mark has gone on record about how pumped up it made him feel to realize there is such honesty and creativity out there, trying to make it into comics). Several other creators hit the target and made it to the “elimination round.” It was an honor to stand up there with those guys — most of them younger than me, with less experience doing this kind of thing. I tried to high-five or congratulate them all.
I knew I had a good chance to win, but I wasn’t hung up on it. It was all about the pitch. I made a great pitch! If it wasn’t right for Mark, I could take it somewhere else, or just put it away in a box, mission accomplished. Several of the ideas that I heard were just as worthy as mine and they might easily have been chosen instead of 4 Seconds, but I was fortunate to emerge on top in the second round (which mostly consisted of our re-stating our names and titles while the panel conferred). A fist pump, some handshakes, some nice people congratulating me, and then I got the hell out of there! I’d won, and sticking around could only screw things up!
There was a nice woman standing right behind me when I won — she was also in the final group, and had given a strong pitch. In a good-natured way, she whispered that it was a shame about my car accident … and suddenly I felt like Miss America, because I knew if I failed to follow-through on this idea, there were a host of runners up ready to take my crown.
okay, this is getting weird
But I will tell you what I told her — that everyone was a winner, just by having the courage to pitch. They’d all passed through this thing and they would come out the other side stronger for it. I also told her and anyone else that would listen that this didn’t have to be the end for their idea … that they should email Mark and thank him for the chance to present their idea, and network the hell out of their fifteen seconds and that sooner or later, something would happen for them.
For my part, I feel less like Miss America than I do this guy …
I pulled the damn sword from the stone! Now, what do I do with it?
I have finished fifteen seconds worth of 4 Seconds. I’m working on the rest. I’ll let you know how it goes.
Thanks for reading!