Sunday, March 20, 2011

Comic Book Peeved

I'm off on a comic book rant. You still have time to escape and save yourself......

Still here?


Round about 2000 a new comic book publishing company came on the market with a big splash. CrossGen Comics was the brainchild of millionaire Mark Alessi and he launched his scheme with lots of flash and splashy marketing.

The initial idea behind CrossGen was that it was designed as a coherent comic book universe. Each title had some ties to each other title and all could be read together or separately. Alessi also had a unique and yet old-fashioned way of handling the creative teams in that most of the writers, pencilers, inkers and colorists worked from the main studio in Florida. This hearkened back to the old days of the "Bullpen" at the publishing houses like Marvel and DC but by 2000 most writers and artists and Marvel and DC worked from their homes scattered across the country and even in other countries and they simply e-mailed scripts and art back and forth amongst themselves and the publishing headquarters. Alessi's bringing everything "in house" was supposedly a way of maintaining quality control and keeping costs down.

Another idea Alessi had, which was actually a pretty good one, was to have built-in 'skip' issues which allowed the creative teams to have some breathing room. Every fifth issue or so a 'guest' penciler, 'guest' inker, and/or 'guest' writer took over. These were almost always staggered as well so that readers didn't have a fill-in writer and a fill-in artist on the same issue... usually. This helped to keep the comics coming out on time and it also allowed some new artists to get some experience under their belt as Alessi usually used promising young artists for the fill-in stable.

And CrossGen comics *might* have worked. It really might have if Alessi hadn't gone overboard...

The company started with four titles -- Sigil, Mystic, Meridian, and Scion -- and those four titles spanned a number of genres -- Sigil was sci-fi adventure, Mystic was fantasy/sorcery, Meridian was a fantasy/coming of age story, and Scion was swords and knights. Each comic, however, took place on a different alien world which had some elements which put one in mind of Earth. Alessi took it as a point of pride that CrossGen did not put out a single title featuring a superhero. Although that is not to say there were not super powers present.

The thing which linked each CrossGen title was that, in the first issue of each comic one character was given a mysterious symbol by an equally mysterious person. This Sigil allowed them to tap different powers and their powers seemed to be related to their personalities. For instance, Samandahl "Sam" Rey, the hero of Sigil and a former soldier, found he had the power to reshape matter -- or rip it apart at the atomic level creating powerful explosions. While Giselle, the main character of Mystic found that her Sigil allowed her to access all the various kinds of magic which existed on her planet -- despite the fact that she had little interest in studying the various arts.

Eventually, overreach and bad business decisions doomed Alessi. He was trying to get into digital comics a good decade too early before there were all the current platforms to support them, and he far, far too rapidly expanded his line of titles. If he had been smart he would have stuck to the initial four titles for at least a year or two before expanding the line. Instead, between 2000 and 2003 the company added 12 titles in addition to the existing four! In addition to that CrossGen created a sub-imprint called Code 6 comics to publish comics which were jointly owned between the creators and CrossGen Entertainment. There were three titles published under the Code 6 banner.

Then, in 2003 the whole thing finally blew up. Rumors had steadily leaked that the company was bankrupt and unable to pay it's creators. The creative teams were rapidly jumping ship and eventually CrossGen formally filed for bankruptcy. Disney then sought and bought the rights to all of the CrossGen created characters.

For a time fans wondered about this. Disney was not really known for producing comic books and I (and many along with me) assumed that Disney would end up using the characters as fodder for their endless animated TV shows. Certainly they could have done worse. It has always bewildered me that Disney never turned Merdian into either an animated TV series or a live action one or an animated or live action movie. After all, the main character and story were squarely in Disney's demographic of young girls. The heroine of Meridian was a 14 year-old girl named Sephie who, upon the death of her father, finds herself inheriting the position of leadership of her people. She must then fight to stop her evil uncle from taking over the world all the while maneuvering through the perils of growing up, politics, and war. See? Perfect Disney heroine.

Instead Disney merely sat on the characters. In 2007 they allowed another small press publisher, Checker Publishing, to produce trade collections of the final issues of CrossGen's original comics run -- the stories that were never collected in trade because CrossGen died before they could be. But once those were produced the license ran out and Disney had no interest in renewing.

Then, last year, Disney bought out Marvel comics. Now that Disney had a comic book publisher under their belt they allowed Marvel access to the CrossGen stable...

And here's where we start getting to the rant.

Marvel decided to relaunch two of the CrossGen titles in order to test the waters. One of the titles they chose was Ruse. Now Ruse was originally CrossGen's answer to a Sherlock Holmes comic book. The main character, Simon Archard, solved mysterious mysteries in the city of Partington on the planet of Arcadia. There was a healthy dose of Steampunk to the story as Arcadia was a planet where technology advanced based on Victorian lines. There was also, however, a healthy helping of the supernatural. Under CrossGen Simon's snarky and independent assistant, Emma Bishop, was the Sigil Bearer with an ability to seemingly stop time but unable to use this power except in dire circumstances.

With the Marvel relaunch the decision was made to jettison the whole "Sigilverse" idea of CrossGen. This really didn't make much impact on Ruse as writer Mark Waid (who wrote much of the original run) seldom used the Sigil aspects of the series. So now Ruse takes place on Earth in the Victorian Era (rather than on a planet somewhere in the future), Emma Bishop has no powers but the city is still called Partington and it exists alongside London and there are still supernatural elements about.

On the whole the comic is delightful and a lot of fun... you should check it out.

BUT the other title Marvel decided to go with... was Sigil.

I LOVED the original Sigil run. It was fascinating and complex. Sam was a foot soldier, not a general or a leader, and he had been cashiered from the military and had turned mercenary along with fellow soldier and friend Roiya. When Sam recieved his Sigil Roiya was killed. Thanks to a mysterious man named JeMerik Meer, however, Roiya's soul was bound to her and Sam's starship. She was literally a Ghost in the Machine. Meer joined the group along with Zanniatti Oribatta, a young woman who had married the abusive leader of the planet Tanipal so that she could spy on him. Oh, and did I mention the war? The humans of this planetary system are at war with the Saurians -- a lizard-like race. More disturbing is the revelation that the Saurians literally "are what they eat" -- they take on the attributes and even knowledge of the things they eat and recently they've been eating the humans they take captive in the war... Over time Sam finds himself reluctantly pushed into the role of leader in the war and he discovers as well just how powerful his Sigil lets him be...

The comic ended without a resolution to the final story arc as CrossGen died. For a while, though, it was a really terrific space-opera romp. There was action and adventure, there was romance and mystery there was character development and kick-ass villains. It was everything you could want in a sci-fi movie but so rarely get.

So imagine my surprise when I go to my comic book shop and see an issue of Sigil on the stands and instead of seeing something like this:

I get this:

So I'm thinking: "Where's Sam? Where's Roiya? Where's Zanni? Where's are the spaceships? Who is this chick?"

I leaf through it and discover to my horror that everything I loved about Sigil is gone. Despite my disinterest the owner of my comic book shop slipped a copy into my bag for free. He was a fellow CrossGen fan and I guess he was hoping if I read it I might like it.

I read it anyway.

I didn't like it.

It wasn't *just* that my sprawling sci-fi epic was gone (although that alone would be enough to make me curse this change) it's that what they've replaced it with is unimaginative drivel.

That girl on the cover? That's Samantha "Sam" Rey, a 16 year-old high school student still dealing with the after effects of her mother's death a year ago in an as-yet undetailed accident. Sam is struggling in school, dealing with a female bully, and now seems to be suffering from strange dreams and even waking trances in which she sees another time, maybe even another world, where pirates fight for an unknown treasure. And now it seems that that world may be more than just a fantasy created by an overstressed mind. The world just might be real and Sam just might have a place in it.


The whole story is filled to the brim with paint-by-numbers plotting, stilted dialogue, characters who are overused stereotypes at best and paper dolls at worst. Even Sam's reaction to her mother's loss seems stereotypical and stilted as she goes and actually sits on her mother's grave and talks to her mother (at the risk of being late for school. I mean, seriously, she can't wait until after school to visit her mother's grave? Or wait until the weekend? Is she doing this daily? If so I really don't think that's necessarily healthy from an emotional standpoint.) There's nothing here that makes you care. The whole thing is so murky that you don't really know who's fighting or why. You don't know where or when Sam is, you don't know who the good guys are you don't know who the bad guys are, you don't know what's a stake, and, quite frankly, you aren't given a reason to care. It's okay to be mysterious in a first issue in order to hook a reader in but you have to give the reader SOMETHING! I've complained about this before (and I'll probably complain about it again somewhere down the road) a first issue has still got to give readers a reason to CARE. We have to know what the stakes in this game are. What happens if the good guys lose? What happens if the bad guys win? CAN our heroine be killed here? We've just not got enough to go on!

So, in short, if you're on old CrossGen fan (like me) or a new comic book reader go ahead and pick up Ruse but dear God stay away from Sigil.

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