8.11.2008

"Asps... Very Dangerous"


For the seven of you out there who actually care, I’m back home this week and the regular review cycle should resume. Due to my Northern California travels, I was actually able to purchase this week’s books at Lee’s Comics. What a treat it was to be back at a “real” comic shop after being away for a couple of years. This proof by counter-example exercise reminded me of how disturbing I find it that San Diego (home of that little comic book get together you may have heard of recently) is one of the worst metropolitan areas to find a local comic shop with the depth, breadth, and professionalism that I personally expect.

I picked up everything I intended to (listed in the previous post), as well as Okko: The Cycle of Earth #1 and The Bond of Saint Marcel #1, both from Archaia Studios Press (ASP). I don’t really remember these two books being in the list of Diamond New Releases, but I could have easily missed them in my mad dash out of San Diego last week. In any case, it got me thinking about ASP. Now, I’ll preface this heavily by saying that I really have enjoyed ASP’s lineup to date. They burst onto the scene with a diverse line that was quickly the recipient of critical praise and industry awards. I think The Killer is brilliant, Mouse Guard is entertaining, The Secret History is ambitious, the Artesia books have both educated and titillated, and the creators themselves whom I’ve met, have been pleasant, cordial, and wonderful additions to the industry. The inevitable “but” is that it’s no secret ASP’s publishing schedule has been comically sporadic at best and it’s gotten to the point where I’m questioning the stability of ASP as a publishing house and the long term viability of their… “model” seems like a strong word, so let’s say their publishing “habits.”

This week, four of their books (on my radar screen anyway) appeared mysteriously from the ether. The Killer #7, Okko: The Cycle of Earth #1, Titanium Rain #1, and The Bond of Saint Marcel #1 all belched out after a long, cricket-chirping calm. The former being two critically praised, long-awaited follow ups, and the latter being two debut issues of new properties. This just two weeks after the San Diego Comic Con International. Now, hear me out… It’s been 10 months since ASP belted out the last two issues of The Killer, bizarrely on the same day no less, and a few months since the preceding Okko: The Cycle of Water wrapped. Titanium Rain and Saint Marcel have been adverted for months. First, I question the reasoning behind releasing all four books on the same day. Why not space them out at a once a week pace and have an entire month of new offerings lined up? Wouldn’t that build up some sustainable momentum around your line? Second, if you do choose to release them all in one week, why not release them at the San Diego Comic-Con where you have a captive audience and create some buzz that way? While I was at the convention, three people (who I’d dragged to the ASP booth last year to make purchases) asked me where the ASP booth was. I honestly didn’t know off the top of my head if ASP had even bothered to attend this year. After some searching, sure enough, we found their booth. Huzzah! There was David “Mouse Guard” Petersen signing. And there was the creative team from Awakening. The inevitable “but” is that after a quick scan of the booth, there was not a single new comic that I could detect. Everything they had to offer I’d already read or had already come out months before. There was nothing new for anyone to buy. Yet, just two weeks later, there’s a shotgun blast of four new books. Now, I don’t know all the ins and outs of working with printers, the shipping and distribution challenges, etc., but ostensibly this just seems like a less than efficient method for introducing people to your line.

I haven’t read all of the books I purchased last week, but I got to some of them. Fraction’s Invincible Iron Man, despite some stumbling over the accuracy of the medical vocabulary, remains interesting. Regardless of the specifics of the plot threads, it has a sense of purpose and confidence in storytelling that I find deeply engaging. Regardless of the overly photo-referenced art (I spy Danny DeVito, I spy Jessica Alba…) with unintended celebrity “cameos” that push me out of the panel, Larroca’s tech depictions, SHIELD bits, and action sequences are right at home – and that’s mainly what I want from Iron Man art. I quickly re-read Brian Wood’s DMZ trade and this collection of stand alone issues not only holds up, but almost reads better collected – seemingly disparate stories uniting thematically to showcase gripping personal accounts of civil war in New York City. I haven’t yet read ASP’s The Killer or Okko: The Cycle of Earth. I pushed those to the bottom of the reading list, having some familiarity with the properties, assuming they’d be the best, and wanting to savor them. I decided to read Titanium Rain and The Bond of Saint Marcel first.

The Bond of Saint Marcel feels like retread in so many ways. Last year, ASP put out a book called Revere: Revolution in Silver, which was solid enough. It mixed some history (American Revolution, Paul Revere being a silversmith in reality) with some fantasy elements (namely, battling werewolves during the British Invasion). The Revolutionary War is interesting, but what’s the noticeable fascination with this time period? Artistically, I cracked it open and thought to myself that it looks like The Red Star. And sure enough, Christian Gossett is listed as artist. I’ll say that I quite like The Red Star, but Gossett isn’t really known for his punctuality. I think he’s managed to put out three issues of the latest arc in as many years. This doesn’t bode well for the timeliness of this new book. And then I see the next issue purports to be out in November of 2008; so that’s what… quarterly? Does that ever work? The story is certainly informed by Whedon's Buffy The Vampire Slayer mythos. The dialogue is stiff and expository and it comes from off-the-shelf stock characters. The art really isn’t Gossett’s best effort. It lacks clarity in the panel to panel transitions; notice how one character’s uniform changes styles three times in two pages. Many of the poses are hard and awkward, such as the opening shot of protagonist Katherine. Overall, there’s nothing new or fresh here. It pains me to say, but the execution feels sub-competent. I don’t see any real reason to return, and by November I won’t remember anything about this first issue anyway.

Next on the reading pile was Titanium Rain. Any book that starts with a quotation as an attempt at gravitas or importance feels like a cheat, a lazy writer’s tool. Your words should provide the reader with meaning, not leeching off someone else’s. I found the Chinese Civil War map interesting, but the name of the very first set location strangely can’t be found on the map. The photorealistic art is jarring to look at and just comes off as creepy. It’s like an old collage that a grade school girl would make, cutting out pictures of Simon Le Bon and Roger Taylor from magazines and pasting their heads onto the pictures of people standing next to her, eyes strangely looking askance, odd perspective angles, and expressions that are out of context. The overly staged poker game fails to deliver as an analogy to the conflict. The year is supposedly 2032, but the soldiers are still using charming racial epithets like “Ivans” and “Japs,” which haven’t really been in widespread parlance since WWII. And is anyone really going to still be using a dated pop culture reference like “young padawan” 24 years from now? With its poor grammar (“suppose” vs. “supposed”), repeated misspellings (“intellegence”), and quarterly schedule (again, November of 2008 for the second ish), it doesn’t matter how fun the military procedural bits are, there just isn’t any reason to come back to what feels like amateur hour.

My faith in ASP has been officially shaken. The basic sentiment I’m reeling from is “I waited this long, for this?” Not only does it feel like the quality of the product has slipped considerably, but the business practices of the company wouldn’t help a higher quality product anyway. This is not sarcasm – I wish you luck, ASP. I want you to succeed. I know that it must be traumatic and disruptive when a co-publisher departs the company. At this point in time, I’m honestly not optimistic – but I’ll be here waiting for improvements, trying to hold on.

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