Sunday, November 21, 2010

When Killing Spider-Man is Your Best Idea, You're Out of Ideas

Okay, I'm going to level with you here: the main reason for this post is to break up the monotony of Minimate custom posts. If I'm not careful, this blog will devolve into nothing more then a home for them... and we don't want that, do we? I'm more then just a Minimate customizer. I've got thoughts, feelings, opinions that should... nay, must be shared, for the good of society.

On the other hand, I suppose I also post Sporcle quizzes, so... ah, I've already started typing. Might as well keep going.

The biggest problem in comics these days (not the only problem, mind you, but the biggest) is that the companies rely too much on stunts and gimmicks rather then good solid storytelling to sell comics. Now, I'm not saying that good solid storytelling has disappeared, but rather that books don't succeed or fail because of their quality. I can't tell you the amount of comics that have come and gone recently that everyone seems to like, but can barely sustain a readership above 20,000 copies a month and are thus canceled within two years. The reasons for these failures are varied, I'm sure, but basically it all boils down to a matter of perception. Books that don't "matter" don't sell, period, regardless of quality.

I put "matter" in quotes there because, well, it's just comics. Nothing really matters. I remember Valiant Comics once referring to an issuer (Rai #0, if memory serves) as "the lynchpin of history". Which was a great little line, but ultimately meaningless, particularly after Valiant went bankrupt. Hyperbole has become such the norm in trying to sell comics that it's just a bunch of empty calories. I recently read a Marvel solicitation that referred to "legendary artist Barry Kitson". Really? Legendary? No offense to Barry Kitson; he's perfectly fine. But I doubt anyone's writing ballads about him.

Hyperbole... I keep expecting people to become numb to it, and maybe they are. Maybe that's why readership is falling so precipitously; people just get sick of all the hype, month after month, and just stop reading altogether. Each subsequent stunt and gimmick does worse then the one that preceded it, and overall sales fall, forcing the publishers to rely more on stunts and gimmicks.

Which finally brings me around to what I want to talk about today: Marvel's announcement this week of their latest gimmick, "the Death of Spider-Man". Now, don't get too excited: it's not really Spider-Man that's dying. It's Ultimate Spider-Man, a bait-and-switch worthy of your local nightly news. Just for fun, here's some copy from the press release, and one I made up: "...the groundbreaking new story that forever changes the Ultimate Comics universe..."; "...this is the story that no comic fan can afford to miss ..."; "...he one thing that could be bigger than the CREATION of the Ultimate line..."; ...should be up there with the very small number of events that really mattered."

Good lord. Coming on a little strong there, don't you think? I guess they could have said "if you don't buy this comic, your entire fucking life will have been pointless", though I think that's implied. Or am I inferring?

The Ultimate Comics line, I think, makes a fine case study for what's ailing comics. Begun in 2000, the Ultimate Universe was designed by Marvel as a way of rebooting their characters without blowing up the regular Marvel Universe. Characters were modernized; whereas regular Spider-Man was a chemestry whiz, Ultimate Spider-Man was a computer prodigy. Continuity anchors were shucked, allowing creators to tell stories without worrying about having to make their work jibe with decades of history.

And it was a big deal. The Ultimate titles (Spider-Man and the X-Men) sold very well right out of the gate, and subsequent books were all hits, with the peak probably being Mark Millar and Bryan Hitch's the Ultimates (aka Ultimate Avengers). Hell, even Ultimate Fantastic Four was a big seller, something that can't be said about the regular book since John Byrne left in 1986.

Personally, I was never a big fan. The whole thing seemed a little pointless, since much of the Ultimate line seemed dedicated to rehashing storylines that had occurred in the Marvel Universe over the course of it's forty-odd years. I read the first volume of Ultimate Spider-Man, and thought it was terrible. But I was clearly in the minority, and readers and talent flocked to the Ultimate books. At one point the Ultimate version of Marvel Comics seemed so much more popular then the regular one that it seemed to me replacing the latter with the former made a lot of sense.

But it was not to last. I can't say when it happened, exactly, but at some point Marvel seemed to focus all the attention they'd given to the Ultimate line back to the regular universe, and the fans followed. Here's the funny thing about Marvel Comics: they are by far the dominant publisher in American comics, but they only seem to be able to get their fan base really behind one area of their line at a time. In the '90's, it was the X-Men and their fifty billion spinoff titles (a conservative estimate), and everything else played second fiddle. For a while there, it was the Ultimate books, and now it's the core Marvel Heroes books carrying the standard. And I can't really say why this is, except to take it back to the earlier point about stunts and gimmicks. It's almost as if Marvel says "these are the books that we're focusing on; these are the ones that matter", and readership blindly follows.

Marvel tried to reignite the Ultimate line a couple years ago, cancelling all the core titles and running a stunt series called "Ultimatum". Even by the dubious standards of "event" comics, Ultimatum was a critical disaster. Written by Jeph Loeb, comics' answer to Michael Bay, Ultimatum both sold very well and killed off any lingering interest in the Ultimate line, as well as a score of characters. The core titles were relaunched with new numbering, but Ultimatum was so poorly received that much of the readership used it as a jumping-off point, and even formerly solid sellers struggled to regain their pre-Ultimatum sales numbers.

Ultimatum and its' high body count apparently weren't the sign of ultimate desperation (yes, pun intended. I think it's rather clever) it seemed. No, that's certainly "the Death of Spider-Man". Well, just think about the Marvel Universe- any Marvel Universe- without Spider-Man around. Who would want to read that? Whatever momentary sales boost the related titles will receive from the curious will be undone by the absolute collapse of post-Spider-Man sales. I've no doubt we'll be reading a lot in six months about how "exciting" an opportunity it is to tell stories without Spider-Man around; I also have no doubt we'll be reading about the end of Ultimate Comics this time next year.

Of course, in saying that, I'm making the probably foolish assumption that he's going to stay dead. After all, why wouldn't he? It's just Ultimate Spider-Man. Who cares?

Friday, November 19, 2010

Minimate Customs: the Demon, and Bonuses

One of the things that delights and frustrates me is that there are several other little collectibles out there of a compatible size to Minimates. While it's irritating to see figures of characters that have never become Minimates (and, in the case of DC, probably never will), I'm always looking for ways to adapt these for my customs. One of my favorite, though ghastly, methods is lopping off their heads. Yes, this is basically just what it sounds like. Here's an example, the first time I did this, based on someone else's suggestion:

That's Black Manta, Aquaman's arch enemy, with a head from a DC Direct Pocket Super Heroes figure. Basically, you remove the head, then cut off the neck piece from a Minimate torso (which is a pain in the ass, let me tell you), and glue on the new head. Sure, it doesn't move, but it looks great, doesn't it?

The problem is that most of the figures of compatible size- Marvel's Super Hero Squad and DC's Action League, mainly- have goofy heads that wouldn't really work as a Minimate. With at least one notable exception: Jack Kirby's Demon, Etrigan!

As soon as I saw him, I knew that he would suit my purposes nicely. Unfortunately, as you can see, his noggin is a little big for a Minimate body, but I balanced that out by attaching it to Ma Hunkel's cape, which is nice and wide. I decided to use the torso, arms, and little skirt from the new Spider-Man villain Menace, which has a nice Medieval feel to it. Consequently Etrigan's not as bulky as you normally see; I like to think of him as based on Matt Wagner's version of Etrigan. Rounding things out are the hands from Ultimate Sabretooth, and a pair of Deadman booties colored with a purple Sharpie to match the rest of his outfit.

I was so pleased with him that I ended up throwing together a quick custom of Jason Blood, his alter ego:
He's a Sub-Mariner head and Clint Eastwood hair, colored red and silver. What pleases me most about this custom is that the Demon is a character I'd basically written off as being beyond my abilities, until I got a little creative. And he's not even the best Minimate I've made from an Action League figure....

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Minimate Customs: Quasar

I don't make many Marvel customs, for a few reasons. For one thing, the Marvel Minimates line is still going strong, so it's always possible, likely even, that my custom will be replaced by an "official" one. Conversely, DC 'mates were prematurely ended, and there are lots and lots of characters left that I want and will never see any other way. And the basic truth is that I've always been more of a DC guy then a Marvel guy, so my heart leans that way. But there's a handful of Marvel characters that I really like that haven't been made, forcing me to take matters into my own hands. Foremost among them: Quasar.
Quasar is, I think, the most underrated character in the Marvel Universe. He managed to support his own series for some five years in the '90s. Written by the late, great Mark Gruenwald, the series peaked in the late teens to the mid-thirties, when it featured superb art by Greg Capullo (who then went on to become a terrible Todd McFarlane clone... sigh) and, briefly, Steve Lightle. But the series, never a big seller, suffered through inferior artists the rest of it's run, and Quasar himself drifted into the background of the Marvel Universe.

But I still like him. I'd long wanted a Quasar figure in some form, but he's never had the honor. So making him as a Minimate was always on my mind, but his classic costume is fairly unique, as seen here by Capullo (image courtesy of the Quantum Zone):

But he finally came together when Marvel wave 31 arrived. That's when two pieces for this guy were released: Captain Britain's hair (the perfect Quasar hair) and Mar-Vell's chest, and the First Apperance Angel's head. Add Mary Marvel's arms (though Marty McFly's will do also), some Ocean Master wrist bands, the Sentry's cape, and Ultimate Spidey's crotch and legs, and you've got yourself a Quasar!
He's not perfect, unfortunately, because his chest symbol doesn't look quite like Mar-Vell's. My ultimate plan is to paint a C3 Alt Superman's cape blue, then use this decal here:

But he'll do for now. Oh, the energy blast from the second picture comes from an Iron Man 2 figure. Fits on the bracelet just right.

EDIT: I did, in fact, make that modification. Here's the updated Quasar; my apologies that the flash washed the decal out a bit:

Monday, November 1, 2010

Minimate Customs: Grendel

Well, I've fallen tremendously behind at posting these. I was trying to go more or less chronologically, but now I think I'm just going to pick and choose my favorites. First up, one I just finished: Matt Wagner's Grendel.

Grendel's pretty simple; he's just black and white, after all. But there were some tricky things about this one. First off, in order to get his mask right, you need to use Deathstroke's, which is not easy to find any more (and I didn't really want to sacrifice mine). So I had to buy an extra Deathstroke, which ended up taking a while.

And then there's the mask detail, which can't simply be painted on (at least not by my shaky hand). I managed to put together a decal based on Wagner's existing art, but had no way to print it. Enter Minimate Factory guru Luke Porter, whom was kind enough to print this out as part of a trade we were making. He even sent me an extra, so I might end up making Grendel Prime one of these days.

Finally, here's my decal, for anyone out there that might want to give him a shot. The chest, by the way, comes from one of the Ghostbusters, and his arms come from Blackhawk. Enjoy!