Episode 4.5


I have a general policy against buying licensed comics. In general, although not always, they're just not very interesting; they're formally boring, by nature the writing is not very inventive, and they're weirdly placed in relation to the main stories of whatever property is being turned into a comic. Licensed comics (in fact, anything that's adapted from one medium to another with the express purpose of drawing fans of the first thing to the adaptation and not of making a unique work with its own successes and failures) assume that what I like about a particular thing is the plot and perhaps the general outline of the characters and not whatever artistry made the original thing worthwhile. Remember: the movie can't ruin the book, because the movie and the book aren't the same thing, because the joy of watching a movie and the joy of reading a book are not the same. 

The fact that comics adaptations tend to forefront plot and characters is a more acute problem than it is elsewhere. The difference between the licensing of television and movie properties for comics and the adaptation of, for example, books into movies is that the economics of the two are significantly different. The latter is much more expensive, and it behooves who ever is putting up the money to make sure that the product is good (of course, that doesn't always pan out), while the risk of putting together a licensed comic is much smaller. I can't imagine that the market for comics based on the original Battlestar Galactica television show is particularly strong, but, because the production of those comics isn't very expensive, Dynamite doesn't have to sell more than a few copies to turn a profit. Such comics are designed to attract rabid fans of a particular property and no one else, while the Battlestar Galactica reboot was able to draw new fans in on its own merits. These comics are for those who can't get enough, who will do anything for more of the thing they love. Accordingly, the creators assigned to such comics are new, or not highly regarded, or just not very good, because they don't have to be. This is part, although not all, of the reason that we go batshit when they turn a comic into a movie, but why nobody cares when, say, Django Unchained  or Fight Club is turned into a comic book. 

Star Wars is, of course, a fundamentally different kind of property, although I can't say I think any differently about the Star Wars comics than I do about the Battlestar ones, at least, until this new Star Wars #1. Marvel isn't exactly betting the farm here, but I've read that there are at least a million copies of this book in existence, which is an incredible number, even when you factor the equally incredible number of variant covers (my store lists fifteen, and surely there are at least a few more floating around). Even the top selling individual issues for the last several years have topped out at around a third of that number, and the last time that this many sales of an individual issue was reported it was 1993

So what's different? Well, the excitement about the new Star Wars movie, for one-- Disney is hoping that it can turn that into sales figures for comics and toys, as well as revenue from shows like Star Wars: Rebels. The mere fact that the muscle behind these releases is Disney and not a pretty well respected comic book company like Dark Horse is another. Even so, I have a feeling, call it a gut feeling, that we'll be seeing these Star Wars #1s floating around and easily available for awhile, like those Spider-Man Obama variants from 2008. I don't know a ton about the economics of comic books, but it'll be interesting to see whether or not Marvel chooses to reprint this issue, and how many of the next few issues they produce; check back in a year, and I expect the number of copies will be a lot closer to what that market is actually able to support.

There's also a difference on the level of the comics themselves, though, and that is that they might actually be good. Look: except for some my parents bought me when I was a kid, I've never bought a Star Wars comic, and there's nothing particularly exciting about these new Star Wars comics, except the creative teams involved. I remain disinclined to buy a Star Wars comic, but I will absolutely buy one or two issues of a Star Wars comic written by Jason Aaron and drawn by John Cassaday just to see if, maybe, two creators I really like could make it worthwhile. 

And, in fact, they more or less have. Star Wars #1 is a pretty good comic book, which is extraordinary given the fact that its hamstrung by its setting in the timeline, right after the end of A New Hope. If the stories that Cassaday and Aaron were going to tell were of real importance, they would have already been told. Instead, we got The Empire Strikes Back, which I think we can probably agree is better than the best case scenario Star Wars comic. The problem is not that we already know what happens in the end, although that does limit the potential opportunities for dramatic tension. Instead, it's just sort of hard to shake the feeling that these stories don't matter, that they're just vehicles for profit through fan service, products for fans who want just want more, which is, of course, exactly what they are. 

Aaron and Cassaday's key choice was to understand what was at the core of these comics, and embrace it. Star Wars #1 is chock full of moments that seem tailored to get the eight year old in me excited; there are lightsabers, AT-ATs, a smooth talking smuggler, a badass princess, and a cliffhanger ending that suggests an upcoming fight scene between father and son. Aaron's character beats are perfect, particularly his C-3PO, and Cassaday is back to old form, something that probably has to do with the seriously long lead time he had for this book. On the whole, it's competent and well executed, even if some of what goes on in the first few pages is an attempt to do in comics what movies do well. In other words, it's everything that bad licensed comics are not, with just a dash of what they are. This series isn't going to break any ground, and its not going particularly interesting or exciting, but I do think we can count on it to be fun. Which I think is worth a lot, although maybe not $4.99 a month. 

What's particularly revealing here is that Star Wars #1 feels a lot like a contemporary Big 2 comic book, even if its not, not really. It may be that, as Marvel and DC Disney and Warner Brothers find new ways to make cross medium profits by synergizing their traditionally-mostly-comics properties is that comics from those companies will increasingly look like this, even as things have already sort of been this way. I know that Marvel and DC aren't really at the cutting edge, and haven't been for a long time, but I do believe that, as recently as a year ago, the former was at least giving some interesting things a shot, putting out books drawn by interesting young writers and drawn by talented artists. They've stopped doing that in favor of what I gather is likely to be a kind of gimmicky reboot, and some of these books have been canceled, but many, like, Black Widow, remain. From this vantage, the landscape looks a lot different. And maybe that's ok-- the creative aspects of the big two companies has seemed moribund for a long time, with occasional, line wide blips of hope. We've got good stuff, really good stuff, coming out the years these days. If the Big 2 want to step into the position of providing comfort through branding, maybe it opens up room for some of that other stuff to see a wider audience. And, I feel strongly about this, creativity finds a way. Good mainstream superhero comics aren't over, but we may have to strain harder to find them from the swaddled comfort of what's to come. 

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