Leverage

So, did you check out Leverage on Sunday night? The second episode, “The Homecoming Job”, airs tonight at 10 PM on TNT with this description: “Leverage Consulting & Associates opens for business as the crew reunites to help a reservist who’s been wounded in Iraq by private military contractors.” The mercenaries are refusing to pay for his medical care, so the team gets involved.

I was pleasantly surprised by it, enjoying it enough to keep watching. Timothy Hutton does a good job as an honest guy at the end of his rope put in charge of a group of super-thieves with flexible morality. I appreciate the way he motivates them to do the right thing by using the way they think about things instead of arguing from his perspective.

And there just aren’t any other good caper shows! The double-double-crosses are fun, as is the acknowledgment that someone who would think about hiring them in the first place may not be the most trustworthy client. I liked that there wasn’t just one big set piece, but several smaller cons.

The characters are all cliches — super-hacker (the black guy, who usually gets to be tech-savvy in some way), the crazy-damaged-beautiful sneak thief, the silent-but-deadly tough guy (Lindsey from Angel), the con artist chameleon (if this was The A-Team, she’d be Face) — but they’re played with charisma, enough to make them watchable on a weekly basis. And seeing underdogs get the better of corrupt corporate big-wigs is immensely appealing these days.

(The way Beth Riesgraf, as thief girl, says her deadpan crazy lines has just the right level of “is she serious?”, while Christian Kane’s laconic modern cowboy is attractive in the way he wisely says what everyone else is thinking.)

This isn’t a rave, but it is a recommendation. The show is fun light entertainment. There’s also an online game at LeverageHQ.com with a top prize of $100,000.

John Rogers’ New Project: Leverage

I enjoyed Blue Beetle largely because of John Rogers’ writing. He’s not writing it any more. (Matthew Sturges (House of Mystery) has taken over.) Instead, Rogers has moved to television, with a new TNT series called

He’s executive-producing this “action-packed drama” along with Dean Devlin (Independence Day). Timothy Hutton stars as the leader of a team of thieves and con artists who steal from those who deserve it in order to help those not so well off. It’s got a 13-episode commitment, and Rogers co-wrote the pilot. (He also wrote and produced the unsuccessful pilot for Warren Ellis’ Global Frequency and co-wrote the movies Catwoman and Transformers.)

In addition to Hutton, I recognize the brunette, Gina Bellman, who played Jane in Coupling, and Christian Kane, who played evil lawyer Lindsey McDonald on Angel.

The show premieres, commercial-free, December 7 at 10 PM Eastern. You can watch a promo trailer here.

C2E2: Mark Waid, Comics Retailer vs. Mark Waid, Digital Publisher

I went to two panels at C2E2. One was on Digital Comics; the other was titled “Mark Waid, Comics Retailer vs. Mark Waid, Digital Publisher”, which I thought was the best panel title ever.

Mark Waid C2E2 panel

From left to right, Mark Waid, Troy Peteri, Christina Blanch, James Tynion, and Jason Pierce

As Waid explained, he launched Thrillbent.com, a digital comics site, in 2012 with John Rogers (Leverage, Blue Beetle). Digital comics were considered by some retailers to mean the death of print, the end of comics as we knew them overnight. Last year, Waid bought a comic book store, putting him on the “other side”, although as he went on to explain, it’s not that simple. (In my personal digital history, Mark Waid was also the very first person to show me an iPad. He’s been ahead of the curve for a while.) The other panelists were

As expected, some of this panel was promotion for the Thrillbent 3.0 relaunch — more on that later — but much was also discussed about the bigger picture.

Waid began by presenting the virtues of digital, summing it up as a “pants-free experience”. Some people will leave print for digital, but the net gain is tremendous, because everyone who has internet access now has access to comics. They don’t have to travel to a comic store. Plus, stores can’t afford to carry everything someone might want on a whim. “The first lesson I learned as a retailer”, he said, “and I’ve been to every third comic store in America — was that I’d been a jerk for hoping that retailers stocked every copy every Wednesday of everything I wanted to find. You’d go out of business in a week if you ordered one of everything in the catalog.”

He continued, “I so rarely bet on the right horse”, but he believes digital helps create new customers. It drives people into stores, which offer a curated experience. They can make recommendations and build community. Digital is outreach, while stores provide guidance. No one experience is better than the other.

As a creator, he learned print is expensive to do. More than half of the gross profit is taken up by it. Funding creation of a comic ahead of time eats up a lot of money. A physical comic takes deep pockets. With Thrillbent, he could create these stories digitally or not at all. Then, they can create collections and comics based on existing digital stories, where the costs are already covered. If it’s already popular digitally, there’s less risk for the retailer, too.

Thrillbent 3.0, announced at WonderCon, launched the past week with an iPad app and new pricing structure. (An Android app is in development.) Previously, they offered free online comics every week, with the ability to buy download versions from the webstore or comiXology. Now, while there will always be free material on the site, they’re asking for a $3.99 per month subscription for all content access.

That price will include a relaunch of Waid’s Empire series with a Volume 2 drawn by Barry Kitson; a new horror series, The House in the Wall by James Tynion IV, Noah J. Yuenkel, and Eryk Donovan; a new chapter of Insufferable, “Home Field Advantage”; and the first comic written by novelist Seanan McGuire. Plus, new subscribers get a free PDF copy of the 192-page Empire graphic novel. All for the cost of one print comic.

During the panel, I asked about future plans, because it’s easy to put a lot of great stuff together for a launch, but I was curious about four or six months out. Waid says there will be more announcements coming this summer, and their goal is to release at least four comics’ worth of material a month in the long term with 2-3 new chapters a week.

Waid’s slogan, which I quite like, is, “Nobody gets rich, everybody gets paid.” He continued, “I love doing what I do, and making money allows me to keep doing what I do.” They’ll be divvying up the revenue among creators in terms of traffic, downloads and page views per particular property. He also knows that marketing and promotion is everything on the web, and that piece requires constant attention. Getting attention is, in his opinion, a bigger issue than piracy.

During the ending question period from the audience, when asked about Amazon, he said, “As a digital publisher, Amazon doesn’t bother me so much; as a retailer, knowing they have contact info for everyone who ever bought a comic from comixology creeps me out.”

DC Kicks Off “Year of the Villain” With Necessary Evil Documentary

Warner Bros. Home Entertainment and DC Entertainment have announced they will be producing a documentary entitled Necessary Evil: Villains of DC Comics to be narrated by classic bad guy Christopher Lee. From the press release:

In this new documentary film, the malevolent, sometimes charismatic figures from DC Comics’ hallowed rogues’ gallery will be explored in depth, featuring interviews with the famed creators, storytellers, and those who have crafted the personalities and profiles of many of the most notorious villains in comic book history.

Noted Geoff Johns, best-selling author and DCE’s Chief Creative Officer, “DC Comics is known for many things, but chief among them is the compelling, diverse and legendary society of super-villains who populate its universe. From the monstrous Solomon Grundy to the brutal Black Adam to the charismatic Sinestro, there is no single greater collection of villainy in all of fiction. These villains are hugely popular comic book characters in their own right and, quite honestly, many are often times more popular than some of our iconic super heroes.”

Jeff Baker, WBHE’s Executive Vice President and General Manager, Theatrical Catalog, added “The DC brand is enjoying a huge resurgence thanks to the entire leadership team at DC Entertainment which is driving opportunities not only for new theatrical properties, but for brand extensions as well. This new documentary will reinforce this evolving strategy and leverage DC assets across the entire studio landscape.”

Johns also reiterated that this year’s initiative will be a turning point for DCE. “It’s time we deconstruct these complex and sinister antagonists and celebrate the role they play as the engine and energy of some of the greatest storytelling in comics. 2013 is the Year of the Villain at DC Comics.”

From my perspective, this fits in with what DC’s comics are already doing, but with more emphasis on bad guys, bad acts, and bad behavior. Plus, count the buzzwords in the studio quote! “Brand extensions” “evolving strategy” and “leverage” are the big three, but “leadership team” also indicates a focus on company over creators.

They’re announcing it now because they will be filming fans dressed as DC villains at WonderCon this weekend at the DC booth Saturday from 10:30 to noon. They’ll be doing something similar at the San Diego and New York comic cons. It has not yet been announced where this film will be available or when. This might make a nice bookend with Secret Origin: The Story of DC Comics, which came out in November 2010 both as a stand-alone disc and included as a box set extra.

Marvel Spinner Rack: Avengers, Defenders, Captain America, Wolverine & the X-Men

There were a couple of series I don’t talk about here that I enjoyed reading, but since I’m catching up on a teetering stack, those issues were a month old. Under the premise that superhero comics that aged are stale, I’ll instead try to talk about those titles when the next issues come out in the next week or two.

Avengers Academy #27

Avengers Academy #27 cover

written by Christos Gage
art by Karl Moline and Jim Fern

Who knew? This crossover issue — well, not really a crossover, since the Runaways don’t have a book — was good. We learn something about each of the team members for both teams. We get to see similar and different characters interact across groups. There’s a mission — reuniting the boy with his missing dinosaur friend that I can get behind and go “awww” over. (Although last time I remember seeing the Runaways, I could have sworn that one of the girls had the dinosaur bond.) Typical of this title, there’s some secret plotting, as not everyone has the same motivation.

There was a character I didn’t recognize who wasn’t identified, either in the story or in the introductory text page. That’s the kid riding the Sentinel. His name is Juston, apparently, but I don’t know anything else about him. That’s surprising, since there’s plenty of exposition-speak elsewhere — but I didn’t mind the occasional flat tone, since I appreciated the information.

Still, there were enough cool little bits, from Striker’s public coming out to Tigra’s distraction of little girls by showing them her “kitten” son, that I enjoyed the read. I would like to see more of Klara, particularly, since she’s from a century ago and speaks amusingly anachronistically. She’s responsible for Tigra pointing out that it’s actually sensible for her not to wear very much, the first time I’ve ever heard that explained.

Avengers: The Children’s Crusade #9

Avengers: The Children's Crusade #9 cover

written by Allan Heinberg
art by Jim Cheung and Mark Morales

Almost two years for that? Spoilers follow… if you don’t want them, skip to the next heading.

So the end result of this is that the Avengers look like hypocrites several times over, a promising hero is dead (because there are never enough dead girls in superhero comics), the Young Avengers are blown to smithereens (figuratively), and, most important for Marvel, everyone’s ready for the Next Big Event.

The whole series is best summed up by an accidentally (I assume) placed ad break. On the left-hand page, someone says, “So what do we do now?” On the right is an ad for Avengers vs. X-Men. Never mind the moral debates or mourning, just rush right into a big ol’ battle to sell comics.

What’s heroic about quitting? Especially when you provided role models by being black or female or gay for kids who didn’t see themselves in the regular Marvel universe. But hey, at least the boys got to kiss. That’s nice, but it doesn’t make up, for me, for the bigger losses.

Avengers: Saving the Day

Avengers: Saving the Day cover

written by James Asmus
art by Andrea Di Vito

Most of the movie Avengers characters are joined by Giant-Man and Spider-Man for this comic to promote financial literacy and the value of saving and budgeting. Giant-Man’s there in order to allow for lots of silly size-changing jokes, especially on the part of Hulk (stupid version), which gave me a giggle. (Although the scene were tiny Thor flies up and smacks the bad guy on the cheek was funny, too.) The team has shrunk to sneak in and prevent a bank robbery. Along the way, we get to hear about how great banks are and all the neat things they do for us.

This comic isn’t one for the ages — although it may be entertaining in another decade or so as an example of this era’s attempt at propaganda — but I enjoyed seeing the characters interact with each other in so light-hearted a manner. It was also good to see a straightforward mission that didn’t spin an issue’s worth of plot into four or six, or one that can’t be enjoyed without a bunch more tie-ins.

I know, saying “this isn’t as bad as the main books” isn’t really praise, but I did want to point readers to this. After all, it’s free.

Captain America #9

Captain America #9 cover

written by Ed Brubaker
art by Alan Davis and Mark Farmer

I’m always glad to see more work from Alan Davis, and the concept of exploring what makes Captain America special by taking away his super-serum enhancements isn’t a bad one, but I’m ready for the story to be over already. Read monthly, this and the previous two issues have felt like treading water. In fact, I picked up this installment, started reading, and had to double-check that it wasn’t #7, since it felt much too similar.

I really liked the movie version of the character, and I’m ready to see his modern-day adventures, but it seems that you can’t read his stories these days without already being familiar with his supporting cast and old villains, since this leverages both to make this tale seem more important than it is. Can I just get a story where Cap tries to do the right thing but has to confront how the definition of that has changed over the decades? I’d also like to see heroism and good intent win out at the end, while I’m dictating. Or is Captain America another hero, like Superman, who is more entertaining in the concept than in actual stories?

I also object to all the pseudo-scientific equipment being used to investigate Cap’s condition, since it’s clear to me that causing 80 or so pounds of muscle to disappear instantly isn’t a scientific process.

The Defenders #4

The Defenders #4 cover

written by Matt Fraction
art by Michael Lark, Stefano Gaudiano, and Brian Thies

When I read this piece last week on how the Defenders sales are dropping hard (link no longer available), my thought was, “it’s probably because it’s not very good.” Then I read this issue, and I liked it a lot. (One might think that my brain is wired wrong, so that only books that are going to die entertain it, but that would be mean and jaded to suspect about me. I prefer to think that my tastes aren’t well-served by the direct market, which is geared to get material to an audience not like me.)

By focusing mostly on Dr. Strange and some of his relationships, Fraction provides a hook for me to deal with these wacky characters. Plus, I like the mystery of the weird, twisted-pipe machine and its magical abilities.

Strange’s power is solid, but it’s clear that it’s wielded by a very human man, and his decisions on that level shape the story. I hope to see more of Molly, Strange’s embarrassed one-night stand. Yet he’s still wise enough to outsmart an upstart wannabe who thinks he’s got Strange where he wants him. I’d like to see more like this. I hope it’s not too late.

Wolverine and the X-Men #7

Wolverine and the X-Men #7 cover

written by Jason Aaron
art by Nick Bradshaw, Walden Wong, and Norman Lee

It’s really neat to have an X-Men book to look forward to reading. It’s imaginative. It’s got creative use of powers, a diverse group of neat kid characters (who act like teens in their egotism and treatment of others), the teacher/student setup that works so well to create problems (as the kids rebel) and restore order (as the teachers fix things), fascinating and fresh ideas, and most importantly, a sense of humor.

This issue wraps up a three-part storyline, so it may not be the best place to start, but I’m intrigued to find out how Kitty handles the baby Broods inside her and how Wolverine and Quentin Quire (a great new creation, for new meaning “within the last decade”) escape the interstellar casino they’ve been rooking and how the shrunken students wandering around inside Kitty survive.

(For those who think I’m being inconsistent by not complaining about use of the Brood, I don’t feel like I’m missing out on anything with them. The part I need to know — that they’re crazy killing group aliens — was clearly explained to me through the previous two issues. Plus, now I know more about student Broo.)

I like that there’s more to this than just a showdown, as a galactic xenobiologist is attempting to perform a particularly destructive type of science to maintain the “natural order”. And I like the Bamfs, one of the supporting cast that are used judiciously in just the right amounts to be entertaining without overdoing it. Leave the audience wanting more, right? They also acknowledge the history of the franchise while treating it in new ways for new readers.

The Art

I did a bad job here in not talking about the art. None of it impressed me enough to note it, but none of it failed so badly that it got in the way of the story. Overall, these books looked good.

Devil’s Due Dumps Diamond

I hadn’t been following the tribulations of publisher Devil’s Due, mainly because I don’t read any of their comics. Most of what they’ve put out this year are a handful of issues of Hack/Slash, Jericho (based on the canceled TV show), and Presidential parody Barack the Barbarian. Nothing’s come out since April.

Last year, Rich Johnston reported that they owed a lot of money to their creators — one of whom even won a court judgment against the company — to which publisher Josh Blaylock responded that bookstore returns had been a problem for them.

We’re still dealing with hundreds of thousands of dollars in book store returns that rocked us in late 2008 and into 2009, right in the middle of an already aggressive restructuring. … It’s a reminder to publishers not to be too over leveraged in the book stores.

An unpleasant example that, while sales to comic stores are non-returnable, sales to bookstores may be imaginary, and all your stock has the risk of coming back. Given those circumstances, it’s surprising that Devil’s Due is still in business, but they wouldn’t be the first comic company to stick around longer than expected by the simple expedient of not paying artists. Now comes an unexpected press release that states

Devil’s Due Publishing has pulled its distribution of comics and graphic novels from Diamond Comic and Diamond Book Distributors, effective today. The Publisher will soon be announcing its new book store distribution partners and will offer product direct to comic book retail outlets, as well as distribution through Haven Comic Distributors.

According to Blaylock, Diamond has been taking their revenue to cover debts Devil’s Due owed to the comic distributor. So while Devil’s Due comics were selling, DD wasn’t seeing the money, so they couldn’t pay their creators.

This release raises more questions than it answers. Such as, how is DD going to pay Diamond now? How is DD going to continue to sell comics, now that their tenuous financial position is so visible and Hack/Slash has moved to Image? Why isn’t Blaylock giving up now, if he’s under such financial pressure? Why would anyone order from his company? Does Diamond have the right to seize incoming funds that way?

Graeme McMillan asked Blaylock some questions to clarify, but, well, when the publisher is saying things like this:

If not for [Diamond's] withholding of moneys for the past year, according to my estimates DDP would have been able to pay not only all talent owed, but many other creditors as well, plus a considerable amount paid back to Diamond. Instead, funds have been trickled down to us, we’ve had to slash the publishing, and hence each month the ability to rectify the situation gets smaller and smaller.

You can see why Diamond wouldn’t find “but we want to pay other people we owe before we pay you what we owe” a compelling counter-argument. It’s not Diamond’s purpose to keep tenuous publishers going. Blaylock, sadly, sounds like a dreamer who can’t face the truth that his company is unlikely to recover. And just to add insult to injury, here’s a scathing review of Blaylock’s book on How to Self-Publish Comics, which appears to be out of print.

Disney/Marvel Acquisition Webcast Notes

Following up on the Disney acquisition of Marvel, I attended this morning’s investor call. A full transcript is supposed to be available later today; in the meantime, here are some quick notes I took. I apologize in advance if there are any glitches; I was trying to type very fast to take down statements.

The call was opened by Lowell Singer, Disney’s SVP of Investor Relations. Bob Iger, President and CEO of Disney, began with prepared remarks. Several times, Marvel’s portfolio of “over 5000 characters” was mentioned as having potential value for development. Terms like “value”, “leverage”, and “revenue synergies” were used frequently. Disney expects that “synergies over time will drive value creation”, that is, they’ll make money by being able to incorporate Marvel characters into their many distribution areas. Also said was “vertical integration removes friction” (which I read as meaning not needing to pay outside companies to do what they can do in-house in terms of movies, properties, licensing, etc.). Comparisons were made to the successful acquisition of Pixar three years ago.

The deal is expected to be complete by the end of the calendar year. I found it interested that, when talking about characters, Iron Man was listed first before Spider-Man and X-Men. Marvel was praised by Iger for showing strength in “increasing the appeal of characters not known outside fan community”. Iron Man was seen as a great example of that, making money from an unknown character who was turned into a huge property.

Iger also said something about how the popularity of Marvel characters and stories transcends gender and age, which I disagree with, but once Disney gets a hold of them, that will likely become more true. Discussion also covered the potential of international expansion to add more shareholder value.

Disney has a “proven ability to maximize value of properties across markets” which they’ll use on Marvel’s “treasure trove of content” across both “traditional and new media platforms”. They aim to “build a business stronger than the sum of the parts.

They then switched to Morton E. Handel, Chairman of Marvel’s Board of Directors, who mentioned in his prepared remarks how both companies have their roots in great storytelling and how Disney will be the perfect home for their great collection of characters and stories. They look to effectively expand their licensing businesses across many media platforms.

Thomas O. Staggs, Senior Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer of Disney, gave some followup on strategic value. The “fit is clear” and they find it “financially compelling” as well. They think Marvel will be more valuable as part of Disney than on a stand-alone basis because of the “many areas of synergy”.

Regarding existing agreements (such as Marvel movies), Disney felt Marvel had “attractive licensing and distribution agreements with third parties”. Disney will assume those agreements as part of this transaction. As licensing agreements conclude over time, Disney will either bring them in-house or pursue third-party agreements depending on what they feel will most create value. I think that this would also cover things like theme park agreements, deals to show the Marvel movies on TV, etc.

There was concern about Disney share dilution, so Staggs stated that Disney intends to repurchase as least as many shares as they issue in this transaction within the next year. Then came Q&A, where I lost track of who was answering which questions. Here’s just some key points I found interesting.

John Lassiter met with key Marvel executives recently to talk about the potential of combining Marvel with Pixar. Everyone was very enthusiastic. “Exciting product may come from that; sparks will fly,” said an executive.

Someone asked how this would impact the film rights of characters at other studios. Disney said they thought Marvel did a good job putting attractive deals in place, and those deals would stay in place under the terms Marvel entered into.

Several time it was reiterated that Disney trusted Marvel as a “good group of people”. They said they were not only buying properties but “buying people who know the brands, stories, characters very well, and they will be relied on in this process. No one knows their characters and stories better than the folks at Marvel.” Disney said they were impressed by both what they’ve done and what they’re doing in approach from both a creative and business perspective. They feel Marvel has managed both smartly and diligently.

Someone asked about other bidders. Disney stumbled a bit on getting started on this. They said they reached out a few months ago to get to know them better, and then, as talks continued, both sides felt this was a unique combination. They also haven’t made any real estate decisions (I think this related to Marvel Studios in Manhattan Beach).

Are there benefits towards Disney in the comic book business? “We have a robust children’s publishing business.” They look to broaden both companies’ publishing and think there are opportunities there. I was disappointed not to hear more on this; it seemed a non-specific answer to me.

“The goal is not to rebrand Marvel as Disney but to shine a spotlight on the Marvel brand.” They aim to create value over and above the purchase price by bringing Marvel into Disney. In summation, they think Marvel has great creative people and great intellectual property and Disney can enhance their value by reaching more people globally.

Note that the NY Times article on the deal (which basically rewrites the press release) does add this context:

The acquisition comes as Disney, with its vast theme park operations and television advertising business, has been struggling because of soft advertising sales at ABC and ESPN and drooping consumer spending at theme parks. Disney’s profit in the third quarter, which ended June 27, dropped 26 percent.

So maybe Disney’s looking for a jolt in the arm of new properties to jazz things up? Or maybe that’s much too superficial an analysis, and I should let the financial pros figure all this out?

Things of Interest on the Internet Tonight

I feel kind of weird having caused Tokyopop to have to do damage control all over the net. That certainly wasn’t my intention. (If I stop to think about it too hard, I’ll get writer’s block.) It’ll be interesting to see which of the cancelled titles eventually come out when, but so long as we get the promised continuation of Aria with book 5 in March, it’s all been worth it. (Although I wonder how it’s going to be on sale in March when it wasn’t offered in either the January or February Previews? Probably some other retailer communication I don’t know about.)

Comic Foundry 5

I’ll miss Comic Foundry, but the cover to issue 5 made me giggle, due to its completely juvenile tagline.

David Brothers will be posting daily on superhero comics and race for Black History Month. Right now, he’s asking for input on what you’d like to see talked about. I expect he’ll have some great insights to come.

Ka-Blam Digital Printing has announced that they will offer their print-on-demand customers direct market distribution to comic shops though a new service called ComicsMonkey. The discount to retailers, 35%, is lower than standard, which may make this a tough sell. (What incentive does a comic shop owner have to order a lesser-known title when they make more money on a better-known one?) Publishers who sell through the site will receive 40 cents on a $3.99 cover price comic (although that is subject to change), a low profit but one without risks or costs.

Yay! Leverage got renewed for a second season of 15 more episodes.

The owners of the New York Comic Con, held this upcoming weekend, have announced that this is their last winter show. Next year, they’re moving to October permanently. (Never mind that that the Baltimore Comic-Con and SPX already take place in that timeframe.) More importantly, they’re expanding — and challenging Wizard’s ailing conventions — with an April show in downtown Chicago in 2010.

Thank you, Mad Magazine. Without you, there’d be no Weird Al Yankovic. It was Mad that pushed the case that eventually declared that song parodies were legal. Here’s the story.




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