Friday, August 31, 2012

Comic Wars

Comic Wars: How Two Tycoons Battled Over The Marvel Comics Empire — And Both Lost. Dan Raviv. Broadway Books. 320 pages.

By Richard Pachter

The business of comic books is a fascinating one, in many ways a microcosm of American industry. It all began in the early part of the last century as a means of using otherwise idle color presses. Its original "content" was compilations of previously published newspaper cartoons. But when these compilations sold well, a new industry quickly formed, and original material was required.

With the success of its first genuine star, Superman (whose strip was a cut-and-paste job originally intended for newspaper syndication), the need for new strips exploded. Scores of new publishers seemed to appear overnight. Assembly-line principles produced thousands of pages of comics by editors, writers, pencil artists, ink embellishers and colorists in "bullpens" based mainly in New York City, the center of the American publishing industry.

Fast forward. By the late '40s and early '50s, this once-thriving business hit on hard times. The number of publishers were down to a handful, decimated by wartime paper shortages, then a politically motivated attempt to tie comics to a rising youth crime rate — as if "juvenile delinquents" were avid readers! The growing popularity of television didn't help sales either. By the 1960s, most of the survivors sold out to larger corporations. And as consolidation continued, one of the largest remaining comics companies, Marvel, was a ripe target.

The scene is then set as Dan Raviv's book, due out next week (on the eve of the release of the Spider-Man movie), opens:

"Ronald O. Perelman — America's richest short, bald, forty-six-year-old chain-cigar-chomper — seemed to have a delicious deal when he bought Marvel Entertainment Group in January 1989. This was not a hostile takeover. It was simply a matter of negotiating a fair price for a property that seemed to have untapped potential.

The owner dumping Marvel was New World Entertainment, a Hollywood production company that garnered very limited payoffs from made-for-television movies featuring the Incredible Hulk and other Marvel comics superheroes. New World had gone flat and wanted to pump itself up with new genres of TV and movies. So Marvel was on the auction block, and when Perelman saw that half a dozen companies were making bids he hardly needed to check his credit line. He simply outbid the others at $82.5 million. The delicious part was what Wall Street calls leverage: He had to put up only a small percentage of the money. All the rest was somebody else's."

It's an interesting account — up to a point. The problem is, the book is about deals. Raviv relishes the subject, but most of the, well, color of the comics business is essentially missing. The various wheelers and dealers (Ronald Perelman, Carl Icahn, Isaac Perlmutter and Avi Arad) are a bunch of rich guys playing with bonds, zero coupons and leverage: boring stuff irrespective of the specifics of the business.

Raviv, a distinguished journalist whose distinctive — and breathless — reports for CBS Radio are always sharp, unfortunately fails to elicit much interest from the reader as he describes interminable exchanges of faxes, attorneys' letters, impromptu meetings and the like. Also absent is any real knowledge of comics on the part of the author. For example, not even journeyman artist Sal Buscema's mother would call him "one of the great Marvel artists" as Raviv apparently does.

Similar errors appear throughout, but that's not the big problem with Comic Wars. Although a current Marvel exec recently confided that he's having a lot of fun with the book, the rest of us will have to look elsewhere for tales to astonish. 

Originally published in The Miami Herald

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Another batch of short reviews
League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Century 2009. Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill. Top Shelf. 80 pages. $9.99.
If all you know of LOEG is that dreadful film, you’re missing one of the richest and most-entertaining series in comics, which also serves as a powerful commentary on decadence, the necessity of a diverse culture and its relevance to life. This final chapter in the third volume of stories continues Moore’s heady blend of occult, politics and adventure, culminating with the coming of the antichrist and the subsequent arrival of … well, that would be telling.
As usual, there’s an all-star assemblage of borrowed characters, though few are specifically named. The identity of the antichrist drew a bit of contrived controversy when this book first appeared in the UK, but the presence of this corrupted persona is well within the traditions of literary satire. Century 2009 is a mostly satisfying conclusion to this volume, nicely setting up Moore’s next tale — a visit with Captain Nemo set in an earlier time, due in 2013.
Get Jiro. Anthony Bourdain, Joel Rose and Langdon Foss. Vertigo. 160 pages. $24.99.
Chef, author and TV personality Bourdain’s manic parable posits an epicurean dystopia with bloodthirsty chefs and food to die for. The violent fable deftly skewers feckless foodie pretensions, especially in California, and Foss’ well-done art imparts a delicious and tasty sizzle.
Batman: Earth One. Geoff Johns and Gary Frank. DC Comics. 128 pages. $22.99.
Though no one yearned for yet another retelling of the beginnings of Batman, Johns and Frank deliver a startlingly fresh take that incorporates many elements of the first origin of the Dark Knight while adding some smart and engaging emotional beats. Frank is one of DC Chief Creative Officer Johns’ go-to guys, and he once again rises to the occasion with powerful and effective pencils, ably delineated by Jon Sibal.
Jerusalem: Chronicles From The Holy City. Guy DeLisle. Drawn & Quarterly. 320 pages. $24.95.
Another eloquent and sensitive cartoonist attempts to explicate the conundrum that is Jerusalem, the Holy City of three religions. If you’re unfamiliar with the complicated and conflicted landscape, DeLisle brings the divergence down to ground level. The Canadian’s art is simple and effective, and he doesn’t preach or proselytize as much as gamely attempt to explore and find meaning in the mundane and ordinary aspects of life in this far-from-ordinary setting.
The Lovely Horrible Stuff. Eddie Campbell. Top Shelf. 96 pages. $14.95.
The From Hell artist and Alec auteur’s painfully honest and often hilarious look at money, relationships, life and art delves deep into his family history and world explorations. Campbell is quite a character, and his experiences and insights on how we deal with high and low finance make for a funny, rewarding and frankly educational experience.
Gone To Amerikay. Derek McCulloch and Colleen Doran. Vertigo. 144 pages. $24.99.
Master storyteller McCulloch’s wise and poignant tale of Irish immigrants coming to America, weaving three different time periods in parallel, is soulfully illustrated by veteran artist Doran. It’s a heartfelt and genuine story of human emotions and drama; nothing post-modern, snarky or ironic here, just believable behavior depicted with lyrical dialog and rich imagery. You’ll want to re-read it as soon as you finish to savor and reflect upon the transcendent intelligence and artistic vision responsible for this masterpiece. Highly recommended.
Fairy Tales of Oscar Wilde: The Happy Prince. P. Craig Russell. NBM. 32 pages. $16.99.
Wilde’s beloved allegory is beautifully and smartly adapted by master craftsman Russell. The story, timeless and relevant, centers on a statue of a chastened prince who aches for his poor subjects and aids some of them with the help of a friendly, anthropomorphic swallow. The tale of the lifeless boy and the faithful avian is conveyed sweetly and with great heart. Special mention to Lovern and Jesse Kindzierski for their intelligent and sympathetic coloring.
Harvey Pekar’s Cleveland. Harvey Pekar and Joseph Remnant. Top Shelf. 128 pages. $21.99.
In this, one of the American Splendor creator’s final projects, the reader experiences an intimate portrait of the late Pekar’s life and work. Considering the autobiographical focus of almost all of his stories, it’s pretty amazing, but the casual revelations about himself and his beloved city are bracing and revelatory. More than a coda, it’s a wonderful conclusion to one of the medium’s great bodies of work. Remnant’s art is fresh and familiar, and one of the best of a long series of collaborations between Pekar and other expert and simpatico illustrators. Harvey lives!

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