Thursday, March 25, 2010
If you want protection you can't hide behind this Shield
As comic fans, we've all have books cancelled from underneath us that we felt weren't given their fair dues. The 90's were particularly rife with short, often troubled runs. DC certainly had a plethora of them, most of them trying out new heroes (Morrison/Millar's Aztek; Chris Preist's Xero) or new iterations of old heroes (Black Condor) but even established heroes had books that just couldn't hold up (Black Lightning; the great Mike Parobeck-drawn Justice Society of America). It was the 90's though. Comics were at their sales apex and publishers were flooding the market trying to see if anything and everything would stick.
DC and Marvel are a lot more conservative these days and titles that don't have anchor characters or superstar writers attached are not likely to be successful, hence why they keep expanding their Superman/Batman/Green Lantern/Spider-Man/Avengers/Deadpool/X-titles lines. It's nice to see them get daring. I mean a Power Girl comic, who would have thought we'd ever see her headlining her own series, but how long is it really going to last? Captain Britain and MI13 was a curious little gem that was cut down just as it was ramping up. Kirkman's Irredeemable Ant-Man was something quite unique. Nextwave was a slice of Warren Ellis' mad genius.
In DC's June solicits, I see that their "Red Circle" titles, The Shield and The Web are coming to an end at issue ten. I'm not sure there are going to be many tears shed. I can't attest to the Web (as it's first issue left me wildly unimpressed and I notice it's been through a host of creative changes over its first six issues) but The Shield is currently one of the most underrated action-superhero books on the stands, and I'm deeply disappointed that I won't be getting any more of it. Eric Trautmann (currently also co-writing Action Comics) has crafted his own a unique slice of the superhero pie, and really approached the superhero-as-soldier idea from a fresh angle. Playing the concept straight, the Shield doesn't go freelance, he's a soldier and goes on missions and does his duty. He follows orders but not blindly, and Trautmann seems to really grasp what it means to be among the rank and file, super-soldier or not. On top of it, Marco Rudy and Mick Gray dish out some absolutely incredible artwork, dishing out some stunning action sequences and really inspired page layouts and visual techniques. Obviously inspired by J.H. Williams III (whom Gray used to regularly partner with), Rudy hasn't just copped his style, he's figured out his own way to do things. With the Shield kaput in the coming months, you can bet Rudy's going to move on to higher profile gigs. This kid's going to be big.
So, obviously it was low readership that tanked the book (side note: issue 7 came out last week, I discovered, and when I asked my store why I couldn't find it, they said they stopped ordering it because nobody was picking it up, and they've since had a handful of people asking after it), but if the creative team was so good then why is it getting cancelled, shouldn't word-of-mouth at least bought the title another half-dozen/dozen issues. Well, blame DC on that one.
Let me break it down:
1) DC's original intent with acquiring the "Archie"/"Red Circle" superheroes was to integrate them into the main DCU (alongside the Milestone heroes and Thunder Agents) so as to make them an indistinct part of the pantheon, much as they did with the Fawcett characters (Captain Marvel and family) and Charlton characters (Blue Beetle, Question, Captain Atom). Of course it took years to integrate both of them, and the DC Universe had to be completely rebuilt (via Crisis on Infinite Earths) to do so.
Their initial impetus, which was the right one, was to have J. Michael Straczynski (freshly poached from Marvel) introduce and incorporate them into the DCU by way of teaming them up in the Brave and the Bold which he was taking over. Plans changed.
2) Instead, DC had JMS write four interconnected one-shots, released in the same month, under a unifying "Red Circle" banner. Kiss-of-death.
Seriously. If you want to incorporate other characters into your universe, don't keep them at arm's length, don't put them all under a group banner. What cache do these "Archie" heroes hold? Next to none. There are few living comic fans who will remember them when they were firt introduced in the 1940's, the 1980's line lasted about 2 years with the longest running title (The Mighty Crusaders) reaching 13 issues, and the previous stab at utilizing them, DC's "!mpact" imprint was a failure (a highly enjoyable one, but still a failure).
Next to nobody was looking forward to reading these characters based on character recognition alone (especially considering they were yet again redesigned, making them different from any previous iteration), and very few readers would be drawn base on the (extremely short lived) "Red Circle" banner (by the time the '80's The Mighty Crusaders was cancelled, it was operating under the "Archie Adventure Series" masthead, not Red Circle.
3) Both the Web and The Shield were introduced at the new-to-market $3.99 price point in the midst of an economic downturn. Back-up features help round out and justify the price, but if one Archie hero wasn't an immediate draw what made them think two would be? I believe that the back-ups (the Hangman was featured in The Web and Inferno backed-up The Shield) actually provided a deterrent to picking up the book. If DC *REALLY* wanted to incorporate the Red Circle heroes into the DCU, the back-up features (if absolutely necessary) should have featured semi-popular DC characters instead of introducing unestablished characters.
4) Efforts were made to show integration into the DCU in both books, but with The Shield it was Magog and The Great Ten. The stories with them were really well told, but what kind of draw are Magog and The Great Ten. Neither are solidly established characters with any real fan-base. Both of them have their own series (The Great Ten being a mini-series), and I doubt Magog is much longer for the world than these books.
5) The Mighty Crusaders. A one-shot solicited for May which brings the various Red Circle heroes (and their creative teams) together in super-team form. See point 2. If the "Watchmen" (and as much as I like some of the Archie characters, I really shouldn't be comparing The Mighty Crusaders to the Watchmen, alas) had actually been, as intended, the Charlton characters instead of Moore/Gibbins-created analogs, those characters would have been absolutely spoiled for the DCU. Bwa-ha-ha Blue Beetle from Giffen-era Justice League wouldn't have existed. Captain Atom, Suicide Squad's Nightshade, The Question... okay, well, the question might have been okay... but the point is it would have been a losing battle to incorporate the Watchmen into the DCU.
Is there a future for the Red Circle heroes at DC? It's doubtful. Who knows, there might be future plans after these cancellation notices (there were a few group interviews with the various creative teams in the past month discussing the future of the characters as if they had one... but then again Mark Guggenheim did the same thing when he was writing the Flash and Bart Allen was killed off a couple months later, so deceit has precedence), but chances are the licenses for these heroes will lapse, Archie will use them sporadically to maintain their copyrights, and in another 15 years someone will try to give them another go.
Even though I have little attachment to the characters themselves, I have a keen interest in dead-universes, so I've got an almost complete run of the !mpact line as well as a slowly growing collection of the 80's Red Circle books (all pulled out of quarter bins). Mostly I just hope Trautmann, Rudi and Gray find something else, and quick, because they're a really solid team.
First Wave fans, I'll likely see you back here next year for a similar conversation.