Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Hail to the King: Remembering Jack Kirby

Today would have been Jack "King" Kirby's 96th birthday.  While Kirby is arguably better known amongst the general populace today than he was during his lifetime, he's still not a household name by far.  Kirby was one half of the team (along with partner Stan Lee) that rocked comics and popular culture on its ear with the debut of the Marvel Universe in the 60's.  The collaboration between Lee and Kirby was complicated and has led to disputes over the years as to who contributed what.  But what cannot be disputed is that Kirby left a lasting mark on comics and popular culture and was one of the most influential artists of the 20th Century.

Comics Icon Jack Kirby, August 28, 1917 - February 6, 1994

Kirby grew up as Jacob Kurtzberg in New York City's Lower East Side.  Jacob was a tough kid who used to run with street gangs until he had an epiphany on one rainy day in 1929.  Kurtzberg saw a pulp adventure magazine in the gutter that was about to get washed down the storm sewer.  He saved the magazine from its sure demise and was captivated by the fantastic imagery on the cover.  At that moment, Jacob knew that he wanted to spend his life illustrating fantastic settings and the people who lived within them.  From that spark, a legend was born.

An example of Kirby's fantastic settings influenced by the science fiction stories that captured his imagination as a kid.  Art is from Marvel's Thor #143.

Changing his name to Jack Kirby to emulate the Irish-American movie stars that he admired, Kurtzberg found early success working with his partner Joe Simon.  Together they created Captain America in the spring of 1941.  Kirby and Simon supported the view that America should get involved in World War II, and the cover of Timely Comics' Captain America Comics #1, depicting Captain America socking Hitler in the jaw, left no ambiguity as to the creators' political views.  The issue was an instant success, selling out in only a few days and cementing Kirby's reputation.

Jack Kirby's cover of Captain America Comics #1, one of the most powerful pieces of propaganda art of all time.

Kirby would soon meet a young gofer around the Timely offices named Stanley Lieber, who happened to be the nephew of Timely's publisher.  Lieber aspired to become a writer, and got his first opportunity by writing a prose "back-up" story in Captain America Comics #3 under the pen name Stan Lee.  Kirby and Lee's relationship would soon sour though.  Kirby and Simon decided that they would form an independent studio and start working for Timely's competitor, National Comics, on the sly.  They were motivated by the continued success that National was experiencing with characters such as Superman and Batman, and felt assured that they could handle the work load due to Kirby's rapid drawing speed.  However, the plan fell apart with Timely's publisher, Martin Goodman, got wind of the moonlighting arrangement and fired Simon and Kirby.  Kirby pointed the finger of blame squarely at Lee, who was doing gofer work for Simon and Kirby's studio as well, thinking that the young writer had spilled the beans to his cousin the publisher.  This marked the beginning of a strained relationship that would carry on throughout the rest of Kirby's life.

Kirby (standing) and partner Joe Simon, circa 1940.

Soon after, Kirby was drafted into the army during World War II.  Angling for an art job, Kirby's lack of political finesse and almost comical habit of being in the wrong place at the wrong time worked against him, and he found himself attached to Patton's Third Army right after D-Day.  When Kirby's commanding officer found out that Kirby was THE Jack Kirby, he assigned Kirby to the dangerous job of an advance scout.  Kirby's job would be to sneak close to enemy lines and draw accurate maps of enemy emplacements for Patton's armor, risking capture all the time.

Kirby survived the war and reunited with Simon.  The duo continued to innovate throughout the late 40's and 50's, and actually invented the genre of romance comics when the popularity of superhero comics waned in the post-war years.  After struggling through the comic book witch hunts headed by Dr. Frederic Wertham in the 1950's, it looked like Kirby's luck would finally turn.  In the late 50's, Kirby was hand-picked to draw a newspaper strip called Sky Masters of the Space Force, an opportunity he jumped at.  While comic books and those who worked to make them were looked down upon in the 30's, 40's and 50's, newspaper comic strip writers and artists were viewed very favorably.  In addition, newspaper strips offered the promise of steady pay, which was a constant worry of the freelancing comic book professional.  However, Kirby's typical bad luck would spoil this opportunity as well.  Kirby's editor sued him over a cut of Kirby's profits when the editor claimed that he was also Kirby's agent, having arranged for him to work on the strip, and was therefore due an agent's fee.  Kirby lost the case in court, and because the editor worked for DC Comics in his day job, Kirby was shut out of the largest comics publisher in the country.

Sky Masters of the Space Force was ideally suited to Kirby's love of science fiction, but it was a project destined to bring him heartache and financial worry.

Hat in hand, Kirby returned to Timely Comics, which was now known as Atlas Comics, working for his former gofer, Stan Lee, who now worked as editor-in-chief at his cousin's company.  When Atlas got into the superhero game in the early 60's, Lee, who was disillusioned with the comics field and the generally juvenile tone of the typical comics story, decided he would go out with one last hurrah, and he enlisted Kirby to help him in his endeavor.  The two created Fantastic Four #1 under the banner of Marvel Comics, and the industry would never be the same again.  Kirby was an equal collaborator with Lee, and designed the look of the characters.  Lee in turn based the personality and speech of one of the quartet, Ben Grimm, aka The Thing, on Kirby.

Kirby's cover to Fantastic Four #1; his alter ego, Ben Grimm, aka the rocky Thing, is drawn in the lower left corner.

The popularity of Fantastic Four #1 revitalized both the comics industry and Kirby and Lee in general, and the duo would go on to create a majority of the major Marvel characters of the 60's, including Doctor Doom, The Hulk, Thor, Iron Man, the X-Men and Magneto, the Silver Surfer, Galactus, the Inhumans, and the Black Panther.  Because of staff limitations and the number of titles that Lee and Kirby needed to produce, the duo of pioneered the so-called "Marvel method" of comic book creation during this period.  In the Marvel method, Lee, the writer, would devise a general plot outline and then leave Kirby, the penciller, to interpret the plot and create the art as he saw fit.  Lee would then receive Kirby's art and craft dialogue and captions that would match the art as he understood it.  This method would result in decades of speculation as to how much of the creative work was actually Lee's and how much was Kirby's, a debate that continues to this day.  It would also occasionally result in confusing stories, as Kirby might not agree with Lee's plot and would try to do his own thing in the art, only to have Lee then try to regain control of the story in the scripting phase.  However, most of the stories that Lee and Kirby produced during this period are considered classic and sophisticated works of art that helped comics gain legitimacy amongst adults and academics.

Eventually Kirby and Lee had another falling out, as Kirby had grudgingly felt that the talkative and outgoing Lee was stealing the limelight and that Kirby wasn't being given enough creative control to try his own thing after years of working in Lee's shadow.  Due to his meteoric rise in popularity during the Marvel era, DC was now willing to let bygones be bygones and welcomed Kirby back into the fold.  There Kirby unleashed his Fourth World saga, which he had created in anticipation of a split with Marvel.  The Fourth World's greatest lasting contribution to the DC pantheon was the introduction one of the DC Universe's greatest villians, Darkseid (pronounced Darkside).  The Fourth World saga was Kirby's attempt to create a modern science-fiction based mythology that commented on current social and political trends through allegory.  Chock full of Kirby's imaginative character designs, fantastic vistas, and pseudo-scientific gadgetry, the Fourth World was Kirby's pride and joy, and the ideas in the Fourth World books are continually name-checked as influential in subsequent popular culture, including, it is believed, Star Wars.

The cover of DC's New Gods #1 proudly proclaimed "Kirby Is Here!" to the delight of DC fans everywhere.

Despite his satisfaction while working on the Fourth World titles (which included The New Gods, Forever People, and Superman's Pal Jimmy Olsen, Kirby was growing frustrated at DC, as the publisher was requiring him to draw increasingly more projects that didn't interest him.  By the mid-70's Kirby would leave DC and return to Marvel, where he tried to recapture the Fourth World magic by creating a Marvel analogue called The Eternals.  Kirby also returned to the character of the Black Panther, a supporting character of the Fantastic Four who was the first black superhero in comics.  Kirby also continued to produce science fiction-influenced work, including an adaptation of Arthur C. Clarke and Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey.  By the mid-70's however, artistic tastes had changed, and contemporary Marvel readers didn't appreciate Kirby's art or his ideas the way they had 10 years earlier.  Kirby would never again find the success of the early days of Marvel Comics, and eventually left the publisher for good in the late 70's.

The Eternals was the cornerstone of Kirby's return to Marvel in the mid-70's.

Kirby would spend most of the rest of his career in the field of animation, with some early notable design work on the cartoon Thundarr the Barbarian (see below).  Kirby would occasionally do some work for DC in the 80's, including a short revival of his Fourth World concepts, as well as some art for the comic book adaptation of DC's Super Powers toys produced by Kenner.  Kirby would bring long dormant ideas to light through publisher Topps Comics (the now-defunct comic book arm of the baseball card giant), some of which continue to be published under other creators today through independent companies such as Dark Horse Comics and Image Comics.  In an interesting historical footnote, Kirby's concept art for a science fiction film that was never produced was co-opted as an important part of the CIA cover story used to smuggle U.S diplomats out of Iran during the hostage crisis in the 1970's.  (That effort is depicted in the film Argo.)

Despite Kirby's accomplishments, he would continue to struggle for recognition throughout the rest of his life.  An anecdote involving Johnny Carson best illustrates this.  In the early 80's, Kirby produced a one-off 3-D comic book.  The book came with glasses printed with the motto "Jack Kirby King of the Comics."  Somehow Johnny Carson learned of the glasses, and misunderstanding the context of the word "comics" (thinking it meant comedians), proceeded to do a lengthy bit that centered around the idea that no one had ever heard of this guy, and how dare he call himself the King of the Comics.  Kirby was quite upset by the disparaging remarks and contacted Carson, who eventually issued an on-air apology to Kirby.  By the early 90's, Kirby's premier reputation in comics fandom circles was undisputed, but it would continue to be many years more before his name would start to become known to casual fans. 

Kirby died in California of heart failure on February 6, 1994.  Despite years of on-again, off-again disputes with his former partner Stan Lee, it seems that the two may have been able to patch things up somewhat during the final years of Kirby's life.  Lee, perhaps bowing to pressure from comics fans, now publicly acknowledges Kirby's collaboration, though controversy continues to rage about who did what in the early days of Marvel.  Regardless of the continuing argument, it's impossible to dispute the impact that the 12-year old street tough from Manhattan had on the popular culture of the 20th and 21st Centuries.  Happy Birthday Jack, and thanks for years of inspiring and entertaining stories.

A self-portrait of Kirby surrounded by the characters of the 60's-era Marvel Universe, most of whom he co-created.

(For a highly entertaining account of Jack Kirby's life, as well as the history of the comic book medium at large, I highly recommend The Comic Book History of Comics by Fred Van Lente and Ryan Dunlavey, available in trade paperback from publisher IDW.  You can find the trade at your local comic book store or from online retailers such as Amazon or In-Stock Trades.

Thursday, July 25, 2013


Wolverine's first appearance in the final panel of The Incredible Hulk #180 (Oct 1974), written by Len Wein and drawn by Herb Trimpe.
Animal.  Samurai.  Loner.  Spy.  Soldier.  Killer.  Teacher.  Mutant.  Avenger.  X-Man.  These are a few of the many labels that have been applied to one of the most popular characters in modern comics, Wolverine, aka Logan, aka James Howlett.  The character is so popular that he's about to appear in his sixth film, The Wolverine (premiering Friday), in which the character is once again portrayed by Hugh Jackman.  A seventh film appearance is mere months away, as the character will play a major part in next year's X-Men: Days of Future Past.  This number of film appearances, which took place in a mere 13-year span, is exceeded among the ranks of comicdom only by Batman, and meets Superman's total over his entire seventy-five year lifetime.  (Though to be fair, Superman does have a huge lead in the old-timey serialized radio program demographic.  NPR, call me.)  Add to this hundreds of television appearances and thousands of comic book appearances, and it seems obvious that this character strikes a chord with audiences.

The first design sketch for Wolverine by long-time Marvel art director John Romita, Sr.  Romita and co-creator Len Wein specified Wolverine's small stature (5'5") on another sketch to further reinforce the kinship with his diminutive yet powerful namesake.
Wolverine's first appearance was in a three-part story in Marvel's The Incredible Hulk #180-182 (Oct-Dec 1974).  In that story, Wolverine was introduced as a superhero codenamed "Weapon X" who was sponsored by the Canadian government and tasked with the not-insubstantial feat of driving Hulk out of Canadian territory.  The fact that Wolverine took on the challenge of single-handedly trying to defeat a creature capable of lifting over 100 tons exemplifies his typical tough-as-nails attitude.  However, this Wolverine was quite different from the character that modern fans would recognize in several respects.  While co-creator and writer Len Wein's story indicates that he was agile, fast, and cunning, and was armed with his razor-sharp claws made of adamantium, the strongest natural metal in the Marvel Universe, there was no overt mention of his heightened senses or healing factor.  (Wein has stated that his original intention was only to give him strength and agility similar to Spider-Man)  In addition, according to several interviews that Wein has given over the years (most recently in Episode #4 of the Nerdist's Writers Panel Comics Edition podcast), he originally intended Wolvie's claws to be part of his gloves rather than a part of his body, which might explain why artist Herb Trimpe never drew them retracting into his hands (or gloves) in the origin story.

Wolverine's first full appearance in Incredible Hulk #181 (Nov 1974), drawn by Herb Trimpe, as Canada's "first and greatest" superhero.  A little piece of Captain Canuck dies inside every time he sees this cover.
Wolverine's personality did differ significantly from the character that fans would come to know years later.  This Wolverine was full of bravado and bluster, to the point of being a bit of a smart alec in combat, and lacked his rough edges.  Wolverine's morality in the story (he wasn't really a villain, yet he definitely wasn't on the Hulk's side either) established the character as an antihero, an increasingly popular trend at the time.  The most shocking aspect of Wolverine for readers in the 70's would have undoubtedly been the claws.  Traditionally, superheroes pursued non-lethal means to take down an adversary.  Batarangs, web-shooters, and boxing glove arrows (yes, really) were the order of the day.  But with Wolverine, we have a character who uses weapons that are undeniably meant to maim and kill.  This was partly a reflection of societal tastes (Dirty Harry and Death Wish, films featuring hard-nosed cops and vigilantes who shot first and asked questions later, were extremely popular at the time), and partly a break with campiness that was epitomized in some 60's comics, most notably DC's Batman.  Wolverine was a contemporary of other "gritty" comics antiheros, including Marvel's Punisher and Ghost Rider and DC's Manhunter.  The Comics Code Authority, the self-governing censorship panel of the comics industry, ensured that these characters rarely killed explicitly in these early appearances, and that blood was never shown.  But eventually these standards would loosen, and Wolverine became one of the forebears of an increasingly gritty take on superhero comics that would culminate in the "extreme" storytelling style that dominated the 1990's, where senseless violence and spectacle often trumped story and character.

While Wolverine is inexorably linked with the X-Men, he wasn't explicitly created with that team of mutants in mind.  In fact, the X-Men title was on a publishing hiatus due to a now-unimaginable lack of popularity when Wolverine debuted in the Summer 1974.  It would still be several months before the publication of Giant Size X-Men #1, which introduced a whole new team of international mutants that would take over for the original team of Cyclops, Marvel Girl, Angel, Beast, and Iceman.  Several sources, including interviews with Wein and the book Marvel Comics: The Untold Story, indicate that the project to relaunch the X-Men had been circulating around the Marvel offices for a few years.  Wein states that he pre-positioned Wolverine as a mutant so that the writer eventually assigned to re-launch the X-Men book could use the character if desired.  As it turns out, the author designated to relaunch the X-Men was none other than Wein himself.  This stroke of serendipity insured Wolverine's inclusion in the new line-up, though not without a minor redesign from artist Dave Cockrum, featuring a new mask that did away with the "whiskers" on the face and added longer "ears."

All-new, all-different: Wolverine was one of the few already-existing characters included on the roster of mostly new creations for the relaunch of the X-Men in 1975.  Cover of Giant Size X-Men #1 (May 1975) by Gil Kane and Dave Cockrum.
Modern fans might be shocked to learn that Wolverine was initially the most unpopular member of the otherwise massively popular new X-Men team.  Over the first year or so of the book's revival, many readers would state their dislike of the character in the title's letter column.  This was probably a reaction to his lack of respect for authority and hotheadedness, which Wein had introduced and emphasized in the character's appearance in Giant Size X-Men.  However, things would start to gradually turn around in the popularity department for the diminutive mutant as writer Chris Claremont began to pen the mutants' adventures starting with the next regular issue, X-Men #94 (Aug 1975).

Over the next seventeen years of Claremont's iconic run on the title (soon to be known as Uncanny X-Men), Claremont would start to fill in details about Logan's background, including the fact that his claws actually sprang from his hands (X-Men #98, Apr 1976), that his powers included animal-sharp senses (X-Men #100, Aug 1976) and a healing factor (X-Men #116, Dec 1978), and that his skeleton was also coated in adamantium (X-Men #126, Oct 1979), making his bones unbreakable and his punches land with the force of a sledgehammer.  Wolverine's personality was expanded upon, and his loner edge started to soften as he discovered that the X-Men were the family he never had.  He would become a mentor to several younger X-Men, most notably Kitty Pryde and Jubilee, and he would often engage in philosophical debates with his best friend Nightcrawler on the morality of taking a life in the interest of the greater good.  It was revealed that he was significantly older than he appeared, that he encountered Captain America in the days prior to World War II, and that he spoke fluent Japanese and spent time learning the arts of the samurai in Japan prior to finding work as a spy for the Canadian government.

In my opinion, this rich backstory and continuous character growth are why Wolverine has remained so popular when so many other one-trick antiheroes have fallen by the wayside.  Take the Punisher's vendetta away from him, and what do you have?  Ditto the Ghost Rider's compulsive need to seek vengeance.  And don't get me started on the lousy 90's wannabes like Lobo and Deadpool (I look forward to your angry letters, Deadpool fans).  Wolverine, on the other hand, has evolved from the "psycho runt" that he was initially portrayed as in his first X-Men appearances to the headmaster of a school dedicated to the memories of Charles Xavier and Jean Grey, two of the most important influences in his life.  At the end of the day, Wolverine is a character continually trying to improve himself.  He may never be a role model like Captain America, but he's doing the best he can.  And I think that's something that a lot of modern readers find appealing.

Full disclosure: Wolverine has been my favorite character since I saw him get stuck in a wall in an episode of Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends. (Not his greatest moment.  And why did he have an Australian accent?)  Realizing that many people are only aware of Wolverine through his cartoon and movie appearances, I've put together a list of what I feel are essential Wolverine comics for those seeking to learn more about the character.  I've assembled these in publishing chronology versus character chronology, because like the Star Wars films, you read need to consume these in the order in which they were made, otherwise the occasional contradictions will drive you nuts.  Also, this isn't by any means a comprehensive list of the best Wolverine stories; there are many more out there.  These are (mostly) outstanding stories that reveal something essential about the character or his history.  So, without further adieu:

1) X-Men #109: Turns out that the Canadian government didn't take it so well when Wolverine left their service to join the X-Men.  In #109, the Canadians dispatch Wolverine's former friend Weapon Alpha (aka Guardian) to bring Wolverine back.  While there were a lot of great Wolverine moments in the early issues of the new X-Men book, this is the first issue to feature shine a spotlight on Wolverine and where we really start to see him open up to the X-Men a bit.  Reprinted in Marvel Masterworks Uncanny X-Men Volume 2.

2) X-Men #118-119: Issues #118 and #119 provide an interlude wherein the X-Men end up in Japan on a long journey home after being held captive by Magneto.  In these issues we learn that Wolverine speaks fluent Japanese and we are introduced to Wolverine's other great love interest, Mariko Yashida (the first being Jean Grey).  Reprinted in Marvel Masterworks Uncanny X-Men Volume 3.

3) X-Men #133: The final panel of the previous issue, X-Men #132, is easily one of the most iconic images of Wolverine over the years: Logan, assumed dead, pulls himself out of a raging storm sewer and declares, "Okay suckers -- you've taken yer best shot!  Now it's my turn!"  That aftermath is featured in this issue, considered the first solo Wolverine adventure.  Part of the Dark Phoenix Saga, easily one of the best X-Men stories ever told, this story features Logan smashing his way through the Hellfire Club to free the rest of the X-Men.  Reprinted in the X-Men: Dark Phoenix Saga trade paperback.

4) X-Men #139-140: In the aftermath of The Dark Phoenix Saga, Wolverine and Nightcrawler head to Canada so that Wolverine can peacefully sort out his differences with Guardian and the Canadian super-team Alpha Flight.  This story features the debut of Wolverine's brown/tan costume that he sported throughout the 80's.  More significantly, this story really marks the beginning of the friendship between Wolverine and his best friend Nightcrawler.  Reprinted in the X-Men: Days of Future Past trade paperback.

5) Wolverine #1-4 (Limited Series) and Uncanny X-Men #172-174: Wolverine wouldn't get his own series until 1982, and this is widely considered one of the best featuring the character.  This story, which forms the basis for the film The Wolverine, features Logan heading to Japan to face the crime lord father of his love Mariko.  Also, ninjas.  Lots of ninjas, as Frank Miller introduces the rivalry between Wolverine and the mysterious Hand, previously featured in his Daredevil work.  The story then continues in Uncanny X-Men, in which the team travels to Japan to attend Wolverine's wedding to Mariko.  Reprinted in the Wolverine hardcover collection.

6) Uncanny X-Men #210-213: This run features the Mutant Massacre story arc, one of the first major crossover events in comics history, in which a group of assassins annihilate a secret society of mutants living in abandoned subway tunnels beneath New York City, and seriously injure several long-time X-Men during their ill-fated rescue effort.  This series is notable for introducing the rivalry between Wolverine and his greatest enemy, Sabretooth.  Sabretooth was originally a two-bit nemesis of kung fu hero Iron Fist who was retconned to have a mysterious and complicated tie to Wolverine's forgotten past, resulting in one of the great match-ups in superhero comics history.  Reprinted in the X-Men: Mutant Massacre trade paperback.

7) Incredible Hulk #340: Returning to the book where he was introduced 14 years earlier, Wolverine and the Hulk face off in another epic battle.  Only this time, it's the Hulk (now in his original savage, gray persona) who wants to exact payback, while Wolverine, who has taken on the mantle of X-Men leadership in Storm's absence, wants to walk away.  But things don't go quite the way Logan planned, and old habits (and enemies) die hard.  Reprinted in Incredible Hulk Visionaries: Peter David Volume 2.

8) Marvel Comics Presents #72-84: Marvel Comics Presents was an anthology title in the late 80's and early 90's that was regularly headlined by Wolverine.  In this particular run, readers finally learned how Wolverine came to be part of the Weapon X Project, and we see where and how he received his adamantium.  This story, written and drawn by the incomparable Barry Windsor-Smith, is a uniquely horror-laced and suspense-driven Wolverine tale.  Reprinted in the Wolverine: Weapon X trade paperback.

9) Uncanny X-Men #268: This issue revealed that Wolverine is much older than anyone previously guessed, and that he encountered a still wet-behind-the-ears Captain America in the days prior to World War II as they fought to protect a certain young girl from an alliance of Nazis and Hand ninjas.  Easily one of the most fun Wolverine stories that you'll ever read, with stunning art by Jim Lee.  Reprinted in the X-Men Visionaries: Jim Lee trade paperback.  Reprinted in the X-Men by Chris Claremont and Jim Lee Omnibus Volume 1 hardcover collection.

10) Origin #1-6: In 2001, Marvel's then-publisher Bill Jemas decided to shake up the fans by revealing the true origin of Wolverine, much to the chagrin of many readers.  The series reveals that Wolverine was born as a boy named James Howlett to a wealthy family of Canadian ranchers in the late 1800's.  Forced to leave after a tragedy befalls his father, James takes up the alias of Logan.  The story then follows the character's growth into manhood.  This story ranks very low on my list of Wolverine stories, but it was important for finally revealing the character's early days.  Unfortunately.  Reprinted in the Wolverine: Origin trade paperback.

11) New Avengers #1-6: The X-Men are no slouches, but in this arc Wolverine finally joins the major leagues as he becomes a member of the premier super-team in the Marvel Universe, over the protestations of Captain America.  Iron Man convinces Cap to let Logan stay when he explains that the team needs Wolverine to "go to that place that we can't.  And you know exactly what I mean."  Collected in the New Avengers Volume 1: Breakout trade paperback.

12) Wolverine #20-32 (Volume 3): These issues comprise the epic "Enemy of the State" arc, in which one of the Marvel Universe's worst case scenarios is realized: Wolverine is brainwashed by the Hand and turned into a superhero-hunting assassin.  Finally breaking free of his conditioning, Wolverine then sets to make up for the damage he's caused in the second half of the story by enlisting with Nick Fury's SHIELD.  Collected in the Wolverine: Enemy of the State Ultimate Collection trade paperback.

13) Wolverine #66-72 (Volume 3) and Old Man Logan Giant-Size #1:  These issues make up the "Old Man Logan" storyline, in which super-villains have conquered future America, and most of the Marvel heroes are dead.  Enter Logan, who now ekes out a meager existence on a farm in California, cares for his family as best he can, and has vowed never to pop his claws in anger again.  But when a blinded Hawkeye appears to offer Wolverine a job that can save his family from dying at the hands of Hulk's twisted descendants, Wolverine rides into action one more time.  Reminiscent of Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven, this story gets my highest possible recommendation.  Collected in the Wolverine: Old Man Logan trade paperback.

14) X-Men: Schism #1-5:  The growing rift between Wolverine and an increasingly militant Cyclops exploded in this series, the repercussions of which are still being felt in the X-Men's corner of the Marvel Universe today.  Wolverine's disagreement with Cyclops causes him to form his own faction of X-Men, dedicated to providing a safe haven for the mutant children of the Marvel Universe, while Cyclops would end up pursuing his efforts to protect mutants everywhere from extinction.  Collected in the X-Men: Schism trade paperback.

15) Wolverine and the X-Men #1: The beginning of the post-Schism era, in which Wolverine, Beast, Kitty Pryde, Iceman, and others establish the Jean Grey School for Higher Learning on the site of the original X-Mansion.  This is a fun, offbeat book that features the next major step in Wolverine's progression.  Collected in the Wolverine and the X-Men Volume 1 trade paperback.

If all of this isn't enough, hit me up for suggestions in the comments...there are many more where these came from.  Enjoy!

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Comic Con Survival Guide, Part 2: In the Trenches

So let's assume you're going to your first comic con, maybe even the Comic-Con (i.e., San Diego Comic-Con International, which kicks off with its Preview Night festivities tonight and continues through Sunday).  You've done all of your pre-show prep as outlined in last week's post, and you're anticipating the wonders that await you inside.  But your training isn't over yet padawan...there are some additional tips you should know to help you get around the convention relatively hassle-free.  Here's my best advice for making the most out of a comic con experience.  (I'm going to focus on the "big" con experience, generally those with 10,000 attendees or more a day, but really these are good tips to follow for any convention you might attend.)

1) The Zen of Waiting in Line:  A level head and a calm demeanor are the most important things that you'll want to bring with you to a comic book convention.  Nearly every activity that you want to participate in will have a line attached.  Lines for popular panels usually start to queue up outside the conference room door about 30 minutes to an hour before the panel starts, while the room's prior panel is still ongoing.  Free swag is sometimes just handed out to passers-by, but the bigger booths (DC Comics is a champ at this) usually form organized (and strictly maintained) lines for their freebies, which are often worth the wait and include free comics.  Many artists and writers can be approached at signings with a minimal wait of a couple of minutes, but fans looking to chat with some creators who are super-popular or who rarely make public appearances can expect to wait in line for one to two hours.  The worst thing that you can do in any of these lines is to blow your top.

An anecdote: I was waiting in line for Chris Claremont to sign some stuff at the New York Comic Con, and he was taking the time to talk about certain books as he signed them, real inside baseball stuff.  There was this older guy about three people behind me in line that got lippy and started telling everyone around him how Chris needed to speed it up.  It wasn't obvious if Chris heard him or not, and he continued to be gracious to the fans and tell his stories.  The best featured fascinating trivia about an issue of Marvel Team-Up that he wrote in which Spider-Man met the Not Ready For Prime Time Players from Saturday Night Live.  He talked about how the story got pitched and who among the SNL cast were Marvel fans.  It was an awesome story, but I guarantee that the toolbox behind me didn't hear any of it because he was so worked up.  I continued to hang around after I got my books signed (and got into a pretty deep discussion about the X-Men character Phoenix) and watched what happened as the malcontent got to the head of the line.  He handed his books to Chris, who signed them in utter silence, only to pick up conversation again once the jerk was out of his hair.  So I guess he had heard the guy's rantings after all.  

Yes, this actually exists!  Chris Claremont went on a five-minute tangent about Marvel Team-Up #78 (Oct 1978, cover art by Dave Cockrum) for a fan who asked him to sign her copy at New York Comic Con, and most of us in line got to hear the story too.  Except for the loudmouth that was blowing his top behind me.

The moral of the story?  Remember, you're at a convention to have fun.  Chill out.  Take a deep breath or three, and take advantage of the down time in line to read a new book that you picked up, chat with people in line, or just take in the sights (the best time for people-watching is while waiting in line on the convention floor) and sounds around you.  I guarantee that you'll be happier, the people around you will be happier, and you'll probably experience something memorable.

A final note on lines: try to ask booth or convention staffers if they have an estimate of how long a line will be or when it's OK to start lining up.  This way you don't waste time or show up after the line is capped to capacity.  You might also try to ask fans hanging around the booth who might've been through the process before.  For popular creators like Jim Lee, some booths will only officially form lines one hour before a scheduled signing.  However, fans will actually start lurking in the booth up to three hours prior and will agree upon an order to form up in once showtime actually happens.  Depending on the convention, lines for popular TV and movie panels can actually start the night before.  That's because most cons don't clear the rooms between panels, and so someone who wants to guarantee that they get into the Marvel Studios panel at 6PM on Saturday may try to get in the room first thing the night before and then stay camped out there into the next day.  Not my idea of fun, but to each their own.  Just try to be prepared accordingly, and it doesn't hurt to have a back-up plan if your line gets capped or the room you've been waiting for fills up.

2) Get Your Bearings:  Comic book conventions are actually pretty consistent from year to year, and once you figure out where stuff is located your first year, you can usually find it pretty quickly in subsequent years.  But how do you get that knowledge in the first place?  My recommendation is to get in as early as possible on day one and hit the show floor first thing if your schedule allows.  The first hour of each day is relatively calm, and you can take a quick stroll up and down the aisles to figure out the major points of interest.  You can keep an eye out for one or two must-buy items and pull the trigger if you see them at a reasonable price, but try to hold off on shopping until that initial sweep is done.  If you do see stuff you're interested in, note the vendor, booth number and price in your handy pocket notebook and swing back around after you've made the rounds.  You won't believe how much more smoothly this can make your con experience go.  When you're pressed for time and only have 30 minutes between panels to get some shopping in, or you quickly want to get from signing A to signing B, you'll have a leg up on the confused masses milling about.

3) Heads Up:  Getting around at large cons can be very chaotic.  I've driven around LA during rush hour, and I'd take that headache any day of the week over trying to get around the show floor at San Diego Comic-Con on a Saturday afternoon.  As I mentioned above, getting to know your surroundings helps, but there's no way you can account for what other people will do.  While fairly well-established lanes of foot traffic do form in the aisles, people cut across traffic all the time, and other people will cause the lane to bunch up behind them because they decide to stop and take photos mid-stream rather than moving off to the side.  Looking well ahead down the aisle can help you anticipate some of these problems so that you keep moving to your destination as smoothly as possible.

While this trick works 95% of the time, it is possible to spend too much time looking ahead so that your immediate situational awareness is diminished.  Case in point: at large cons, there are typically camera crews everywhere conducting on-the-spot interviews.  You'd think it would be difficult to miss bright lights and a large video camera, but it can happen when you're in a hurry to get somewhere.  Submitted now for your approval (and my eternal embarrassment), watch me walk unawares right into writer Joshua Dysart's interview for the Vertigo imprint of DC Comics (he now writes Harbinger for Valiant Comics) as I tried to hustle to a Saturday afternoon panel at the 2009 San Diego Comic-Con.  (Fast forward to the 6:20 mark to see me make an idiot out of myself!)

Along these same lines, don't get so caught up in where you're going that you forget to look around occasionally.  As long as you continue to go with the flow, you'll be in for some treats.  While walking the floor in San Diego, I've not only seen a lot of impressive cosplay and snagged some good freebies (everything from Pop Chips to Green Lantern power rings!), but have gotten glimpses of Stan Lee, Seth Green, Felicia Day, Mark Hamill, Leonard Nimoy, Bruce Willis, Helen Mirren and Anthony Hopkins to boot.

This is the kind of thing you'll miss if you don't look around every once in a while as you walk around a comic convention.
4) Getting Funky:  Yes, comic book conventions are jam-packed with activities for days, but that's no excuse to neglect the basics.  Yet many attendees, particularly adolescent and young adult males, tend to do just that, and the result can be some pretty ripe-smelling individuals.  As an attendee, I've run into this a few times, and unfortunately it's completely out of your control if you encounter it; the only thing you can do is get away from it as quickly as possible.  However, you can make sure that you're not part of the problem.  Shower every day.  If you're a cosplayer, don't wear the same costume on multiple days without washing it.  You'd think these tips would be obvious, but it happens year after year, and I've noticed that more conventions are placing reminders in their program books.  Yeesh.

Frank Cho addressed the problem of smelly comic book fans in his Liberty Meadows comic book.  You've been warned.  (Strip appears in Liberty Meadows Volume 3: Summer of Love by Image Comics.)

5) Fuel the Engine:  Along these same lines, other basic functions like getting enough sleep and eating at least one or two good meals is important.  I like to take advantage of breakfast as a chance to get some good nutrition and sample some local restaurants while buttoning up last minute details for my day.  I'll usually eat a light lunch that I pack into the show with me, and then grab more local fare for dinner after the show as a chance to unwind.  You'll get a good feel for some local culture this way, and may get to discover some awesome food that is unique to the city where the con is being held.  And while events can run past midnight at larger cons, know your limits and your schedule and make sure you get enough rest so that you can maintain that even temper that I alluded to above as essential.

6) See the Sights:  Unless you're a native to the city where the convention is being held, take some time to get out and see some of the city.  Most major programming winds down by 7:00 P.M., which will give you plenty of time to grab a bite and walk around the city a bit.  I really can't recommend this enough, especially in cities like New York, San Diego, and Chicago.  If you can afford it, it's an even better idea to get there a day or two early to make the most out of your trip.

7) Paper or Plastic:  Cash is definitely the standard for most dealer and merchandise booths at a convention, but technology like Square readers for smartphones are enabling more and more retailers to accept plastic.  ATMs are always available onsite, but the transaction fees are steep, and they may actually run out of cash late in the day.  Your best bet is to figure a daily budget and then bring enough cash to exceed it by 25-50% in case you find a deal that is too good to pass up.  You can then readjust your budget accordingly for the following days.  That way, you're not carrying around too much cash and you won't miss out on that must-have collectible that you've been looking for.  A credit or debit card is a handy back-up, but keep track of your's really easy to spend a couple hundred dollars before you know it.

8) Hit the Alley:  There are many exclusive items that you can find for purchase on the convention floor.  Your first stop for these should be Artists' Alley.  This is where the majority of the comics artists and writers will set up base for the weekend.  Each creator typically has a six-foot table to themselves for running signing opportunities and selling sketchbooks, prints, and comics that they've worked on.  The advantage to this is that 100% of the money is guaranteed to go to the creator, so you're supporting their work directly without a middleman like a publisher getting a cut.  Most creators will sign for free at their tables, and some will sketch for free, but the latter is by no means the rule.  Some may even have freebies that promote a new project.  Don't be afraid to ask questions or spend some time chatting.  A big part of the comic con experience is getting to give feedback directly to the people who make the entertainment, and it's really what sets the comics community apart from other fields like film and video games.

So there you go.  Follow these tips, along with those presented in the last post, and you'll be ready to maximize your comic con fun.  While I won't be attending Comic-Con International this year, I do plan on attending the inaugural Cincinnati Comic Con (not to be confused with the Cincinnati Comic Expo) in September.  Stay tuned to the blog for news on that show.

Next week, it's all about the Canadian with the claws, Wolverine.  Catch you on the flip-flop.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Comic Con Survival Guide, Part 1: Pre-Show Planning

A lot of times when I tell people that I'm going to a comic book convention, they think I mean the massively hyped extravaganza that is Comic-Con International in San Diego.  And while Comic-Con is the popular catch-all name for any comic book convention these days (similar to the way that a lot of people refer to all adhesive bandages as Band-Aids) the fact is that comic book conventions occur all over the country all year long, in practically every city.  The shows come in all shapes and sizes, ranging from tiny conventions with no more than a dozen six-foot dealer tables set up in a local meeting hall to major extravaganzas that host well in excess of 100,000 attendees a day like next week's San Diego show.

Comic cons can be REALLY overwhelming to first-time attendees, be they casual or hardcore fans.  There can be complete sensory overload, and it can be easy to get lost in the shuffle of so many people.  However, with a little planning and foreknowledge, you can minimize that confusion and increase the likelihood that you'll have a fun time.  In this post and the next, I'm going to try to share my tips and tricks for a successful comic con based on my own experiences over the years.  Today I'll focus on some prep that you should at least consider prior to getting to the con.  The next post will focus on tips for the actual day (or days) of the show itself.  Without further adieu, let's dive into it.

Attendance figures for the fifteen largest North American comic book conventions in 2012-2013 (so far), as reported by Publisher's Weekly on June 19, 2013.  The original article can be found here.
Tip 1: Research

Once you've decided you want to attend a comic con, the first thing you'll want to do is try to find out a little about the show.  How big is it?  Does it have a tight focus on comics, or are there other pop culture interests represented as well?  Do celebrities attend?  How much do passes cost?  How early do you need to order your passes?  What do prior attendees think of the show?  A lot of these questions can be quickly answered with about 15-minutes of Internet research.  Most comic cons now have web pages, Facebook pages, and Twitter accounts that give easy access to a lot of this information.  Comic book news sites like Comic Book Resources can also provide valuable insight.
Tip 2: Exercise, Exercise, Exercise

Getting in shape is definitely not the first thing that most people would associate with a comic book convention, but it's important, especially at larger cons.  You don't need to be able to run an 8-minute mile, but you should be able to walk a couple of miles at a time without getting winded.  Some of the show floors are massive, and odds are good that you'll be doing a lot of walking to and from and around the floor during your time at the show.  As an example, I did a back-of-the-envelope calculation to figure out how far I walked in a typical day during my first San Diego Comic-Con trip in 2009.  Between walking between the convention center and my hotel, shuffling (and sometimes running) between conference rooms for different panels, and just taking in the show floor, I easily walked about 10 miles a day for four days straight, all while carrying about 50 pounds of books and other goodies around on most days.  The reality is that in most cases you'll be on your feet for a majority of the day, even at smaller shows, so it might not hurt to hit the treadmill or go for an evening stroll at least two or three times a week to prepare yourself.

You don't need to train like Captain America to get ready for a comic con, but it might not hurt to get off of the couch and go for a walk a couple times a week.  Art from Avengers #19 (Aug 1965) by Don Heck.

Tip 3: Determine Your Objective

It'll be practically impossible to do everything you want to do at a mid-sized or larger convention.  Accept that truth now.  Artists and celebrities only autograph stuff at certain times each day.  Panels stick to a strict schedule, and there are different panels running concurrently all the time.  Lines are usually long to snag con-exclusive swag like comics with variant covers, toys, and t-shirts.  Something has to give, and you just can't be everywhere at once.  So it doesn't hurt to spend a couple minutes to ponder why you're really going to the con in the first place.

I like to jot down a list of a few things that I really want to accomplish at each convention, and then rank those by how important they are to me.  For example, I love meeting artists and writers at shows, and will gladly wait in hour-long lines for some, but not so much for others.  If an artist or writer whose work I admire is going to a show, then meeting them is probably at the top of my list, especially if I've never met them before.  For others, a priority might be getting into that Walking Dead or Game of Thrones panel featuring cast members from the show to see if any hints about the next season get leaked.  Others might be into cosplay and want to make sure they attend the con's masquerade or costume contest.  Aspiring professionals might be going to get portfolios reviewed or to meet editors.  Everyone is different, and making a plan ahead of time will help make sure that you get maximum enjoyment out of your comic con experience.

Most cons will release their panel and activity schedules anywhere from one to three weeks prior to the start of the convention, and taking the time to figure out what interests you on each day is a big help.  You can also follow creators and celebrities on Twitter to figure out when they're signing or participating in a panel discussion.  If the big publishers like Marvel, DC, Dark Horse, or Image have a booth set up for the show (and this isn't guaranteed; they usually only show up for the bigger conventions, with attendance in excess of 50,000 per day), then they also likely host one-hour signings with different creators throughout the day.  Publisher signing schedules usually aren't released until a day or two before the show starts though, so be patient. 

However, don't stick to your plan so rigidly that you keep yourself from taking advantage of really cool opportunities that may spring up unexpectedly.  You might skip an Avengers panel that you wanted to attend because a big-name creator like J. Michael Straczynski is giving away free con-exclusive variants of his new book to fans who attend his panel.  (He did this with his new book Ten Grand at this year's C2E2.)  Keep your eyes peeled during signings for unusual chances to converse with your favorite creators, like getting to stand-in as a bouncer for author Ed Brubaker for five minutes while he eats a doughnut for breakfast in front of a line of 75 patient and not-so-patient fans.  (True story: this happened to me at Emerald City Con in Seattle in 2011.)  Bottom line, if you show up to a comic con with a plan, but you're ready to adapt as conditions warrant, you'll probably have an awesome time.

Tip 4: Make A List (And Check It Twice)

If you're going to a comic book convention, you're likely going to want to buy something.  Sure, some cons have freebies (again, typically the bigger shows where publishers have a booth presence), but at the end of the day capitalism is really what it's all about.  In addition to comic book, toy, game, art supply, and clothing retailers (the amount and distribution of each varies from show to show) selling their typical wares, there may be exclusive versions of comics and other goodies that you can only get from the con (or from eBay later at three times the price).  Prices can vary widely on some collectible items from booth to booth.  So in addition to knowing what you want, it's a good idea to know what a fair price is for those items.

A strategy that works for me is to jot down a list of books, shirts, figures, etc. that I might want to find in a small pocket notebook.  I'll then spend some time on eBay or Amazon to research what prices retailers might be asking for those items.  Since I mainly read trade and hardcover collections instead of periodicals right now, this works out great because trades are easy to find on Amazon.  This step is even more important if you read periodical (or "floppy" magazine-style) comics though, as prices for single issues may vary widely in different parts of the country based on local demand and distribution.

This process can take some time (I've spent up to an eight-hour day assembling my want list and researching prices), but it can pay off.  Nothing feels worse than finding out a week later that the stack of books that you bought for $15 a piece were available regularly on eBay for $5 a piece.

Tip 5: Assemble Your Kit

Batman would never go into action without his trusty utility belt, filled with crime-fighting gadgets like smoke pellets, thermite grenades, and fingerprint powder.  And while you likely won't need any of that at a comic con, it's a good idea to assemble your own utility kit to make sure that you're ready for any obstacles you may face.

You probably don't need lockpicks or a laser torch at a comic book convention, but there are a few things that you might want to assemble to make your trip easier.  Batman's utility belt is a trademark of DC Comics.
The first thing you'll want to procure is a good bag, probably a backpack or messenger bag.  Each has its pros and cons.  A backpack tends to give you a smaller profile, allowing you to more easily squeeze through tight aisles and booths on the convention floor.  The dual shoulder straps generally make it more comfortable to carry more weight as well.  On the other hand, messenger bags typically allow easier access to and storage of items without needing to take the bag off.  My personal bag is a laptop bag.  While it's larger than either of the options previously mentioned, which makes it kind of a pain in crowded aisles and booths, it's got lots of zippered compartments and pockets, many of which are padded, and it's rigidity helps to keep my books protected from bends and dings.

Once you've settled on a bag, what should you pack in it? I've got a few items that I take with me to every show.  In no particular order, they are:
  • A lanyard, since most modern convention passes (i.e., tickets) are badges that you have to wear at all times.
  • A smartphone for keeping in touch with friends and reviewing the con schedule via the show's app (if available).
  • A pad and pen for jotting down want lists, artist booth locations, etc., because even though a lot of shows do have elaborate apps now, most convention halls aren't equipped to handle the demands on wireless data that a big con can generate, which means you won't be able to access the app when you need it.
  • A highlighter for marking activities of interest in the convention program book.
  • Two permanent markers, one black and one silver, for book signings and autographs when you catch a creator or celebrity on the fly.
  • A charger and/or a spare battery for your phone.
  • A good camera.  You just don't have enough options for zoom, shutter speed, etc. on built-in smartphone cameras.
  • Your preferred pain reliever and some adhesive bandages, because you will likely get at least one headache due to sleep deprivation, hunger, or the general noise level, and paper cuts happen. (Ouch!)
  • Hand sanitizer, because there are invariably a lot of germs floating around the convention floor, and the people who generate them just touched the same book you're holding now.
  • Disinfectant wipes in case you want to grab a bite in the convention hall's food court and need to wipe down a table or need to use a restroom stall. (Trust me, you'll thank me for this one later.)
  • Unless you're exceptionally outgoing, an MP3 player to pass the time when you're waiting in a long line or three.  (May I recommend the exceptional Word Balloon podcast for your listening pleasure?)
  • A water bottle, because no one wants to pay $3.00 a bottle for soda all day. I attach mine to a carabiner on the outside of my bag; it provides easy access, lets me stay hands free when I'm browsing, and prevents accidental spills inside my bag that may ruin the loot inside.
  • Some granola bars, preferably without a lot of chocolate, which will likely melt in the warm summer months when comic cons are usually held.  Other good snack options are nuts, trail mix, dried fruit, or jerky.  I take enough stuff to make up a light lunch so that I'm not forced to pay $9 for a slice of questionable pizza in the aforementioned food court every day.
My typical comic con survival kit and its contents get me through just about any situation I may run into, without expensive shark repellant or tear gas pellets.

These tips are merely a starting point to allow you to shape a con experience that's right for you.  They work best for me, but these tips are certainly by no means the "right" answer.  I'd be interested in hearing about any good pre-con prep advice from my readers in the comments section.  Next week we'll move on to the next step: you've done everything you can to prepare, and now you're at the convention.  Now what?  I'll discuss what you can expect, and give you some more survival tips that I've learned the hard way.

Bonus Unsolicited Recommendation!

Looking for something new to read?  May I suggest Image's Lazarus #1 by Greg Rucka and Michael Park, out in stores now?  Lazarus is a science fiction book set in a near future in which governments are irrelevant and society is run by a few powerful families, each of which sponsors a genetically-enhanced operative known as a Lazarus.  Dealing with topical issues of poverty, genetic engineering, and ethics, this book has got a lot of promise.  Give it a try.

Michael Lark's cover to Lazarus #1, out now from Image Comics.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Happy Independence Day, Marvel Style

No blog post this week due to the holiday, but next week I'll be back passing along tips for a successful comic con experience, just in time for San Diego Comic Con.

In the meantime, enjoy this patriotic image that was the cover of the 1976 Marvel Bicentennial Calendar.  Enjoy your holiday USA!

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

The Indie Scene

Last week I reviewed Marvel and DC, the two biggest comic book publishers in the United States.  While these two companies control the vast majority of the American comics market, there are literally dozens of smaller companies that cater to every literary taste under the sun.  The bread and butter of these companies is typically non-superhero fare like crime, horror, and sci-fi books, but just about every genre under the sun is represented somewhere.  Marvel and DC cover some of these areas too (primarily in DC's Vertigo imprint and Marvel's Icon imprint), but the majority of their output is increasingly focused on superheroes as their corporate owners use the comics publishers as R&D houses for future film and TV projects.  This means that if you're looking for something outside of the capes-and-tights set, then you're likely going to have to look outside the mainstream.

I could probably write a half dozen more posts on the topic of indie publishers, and I still wouldn't cover them all.  In addition to the established publishers, many creators, both old and new, are taking advantage of new crowd-sourcing options like Kickstarter to fund independent, self-published books.  This has led to an explosion in independent offerings beyond anyone's wildest dreams of a mere decade ago.  Add to that the possibilities for self-publishing brought on by the digital revolution and online comics, and you have a veritable explosion of new and exciting titles to check out.

In my opinion, the father of indie comics is Will Eisner.  Eisner's career began in the early days of comics, and he was nearly sued by National Comics at one point because his employer ordered him to create a character that was a thinly-veiled rip-off of Superman.  Eisner eventually set out on this own and created The Spirit, a masked detective character that ran in newspapers from 1940 to 1952.  Eisner's Spirit strips were ground-breaking in that he, not a company or syndicate, had complete ownership rights to the character from the beginning.  This creator-owned aspect would become a cornerstone of indie comics.  Eisner would go on to invent what is today commonly referred to as the "graphic novel", a stand-alone story printed in a larger format than a standard periodical comic book, usually on better paper stock with a square-bound spine.  His stories, including his groundbreaking Contract With God trilogy, focused on urban life, familial relationships, and religion.  For more on Eisner, I highly recommend the book Eisner/Miller, which features transcribed discussions between Eisner and Frank Miller on topics ranging from comics history to storytelling techniques to technical tools of the trade.  The book was published right around the time of Eisner's death in 2005.  DC currently holds the rights to Eisner's Spirit strips, and they are available in a series of hardcover archival volumes.

One of the most famous covers of The Spirit from the October 6, 1946 issue by Will Eisner.

I'd also be remiss if I didn't include a mention of Dave Sim in any discussion on indie comics.  Sim self-published Cerebus the Aardvark for 17 years, from 1977 to 2004, ending the title with issue #300.  No other independent comic book has ever achieved this kind of longevity.  The book initially started as a parody of Conan the Barbarian, but soon metamorphosed into a highly experimental and ambitious saga, as Sim used the book to comment on aspects of society such as marriage, religion, and politics.  Don't let the fact that the character is a cartoon aardvark fool you.  Back in college, I jumped on board the Cerebus train starting with issue #200, and I can assure you that it is a thought-provoking and challenging read.  It also features amazing art by Sim and background artist Gerhard (whose work began in issue #65).  The entire series has been collected in trade paperbacks which fans refer to as "Cerebus phonebooks" because they look like, well, phone books.

He meant to grab his umbrella instead of his sword before leaving the house.  The titular hero of Dave Sim's Cerebus the Aardvark

While many independent publishers came in went in the 70's and 80's, Oregon's Dark Horse Comics has stood the test of time.  Started by comics shop owner Mike Richardson, Dark Horse has been the home of several popular and acclaimed series in different genres, including Mike Mignola's Hellboy horror/mythology series and its spin-off B.P.R.D., Frank Miller's Sin City crime series, Peter Lenkov's R.I.P.D. about ghostly cops that pursue rogue spirits, Gerard Way's Umbrella Academy about a dysfunctional family of adopted superheroes, and Miller's historical epic 300 about the Persian invasion of Greece.  Dark Horse is also an industry leader in publishing comics based on licensed properties, and currently makes books based on Star Wars, the Whedonverse (Buffy, Angel, Firefly, and Dr. Horrible), and the Aliens film series.

The first appearance of Big Red himself, Hellboy, in Mike Mignola's Hellboy: Seed of Destruction #1 (1994) from Dark Horse Comics.
Our next indie spotlight, Oni Press of Portland, Oregon, prides itself on its lack of superhero titles.  Some of their most popular books include the supernatural Western The Sixth Gun by Cullen Bunn, the Scott Pilgrim series by Bryan Lee O'Malley about a slacker 20-something (that's redundant, isn't it?), Greg Rucka's carefully researched spy thriller Queen & Country, and a series of short stories featuring Kevin Smith's Jay and Silent Bob characters.  Oni has even published a comic based on Stephen Colbert's Tek Jansen character!

Licensed to kill:  Queen & Country's Tara Chace kicks more ass than James Bond and Nick Fury put together!  Author Greg Rucka meticulously researched the real world of espionage for this series.  Cover to Queen and Country #1 (2001) by Tim Sale. 
The Internet was abuzz on Monday afternoon with the news that Archaia Studios Press was merging with another indie publisher, BOOM! Studios.  And while BOOM! started out strong, I frankly don't think they have published much of note in the last couple of years.  Archaia, on the other hand, is a powerhouse.  They've produced a strong assortment of progressive sci-fi titles, but they really excel in making all-ages books that both kids and adults can enjoy.  Some of Archaia's most popular and critically acclaimed all-ages titles include David Petersen's Mouse Guard series about a society of mice living in medieval Europe, Royden Lepp's retro sci-fi series Rust, and Cow Boy by Nate Crosby and Chris Eliopoulos about a kid bounty hunter in the Old WestArchaia's books are typically some of the best looking volumes that you'll find on the market, both in terms of art and production value, and all of the above get my highest recommendation if you're looking for something that you can enjoy while introducing your kids to comics.

And don't you come around here again Walt!  David Petersen based his comic on characters that he and his friends created for role-playing games.  Cover to Mouse Guard: Fall 1152 trade paperback by David Petersen (2008).

The final publisher that I'll mention has a bit of a storied history.  Image Comics started in 1992 when a group of Marvel's hottest artists (Todd McFarlane, Rob Liefeld, Jim Lee, Erik Larsen, Marc Silvestri, Whilce Portacio, and Jim Valentino) defected over what they saw (probably correctly at the time) as a stifling editorial environment.  The early Image books all featured superhero stories and sold very well initially, with Todd McFarlane's Spawn being the breakout hit of the group.  However, perennial lateness among many of the initial titles caused sales to fall off, and offers from Marvel and DC lured away some of the creators, particularly Jim Lee, who took his books to DC and is today one of the company's co-publishers.  Image diversified its offerings and steadily bounced back from its initial troubles, producing comics from all walks with a decidedly adult appeal.  Today Image is probably best known as the publisher of the hit post-apocalyptic comic book series The Walking Dead by Robert Kirkman.  Other best-selling Image titles include the space opera Saga by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples about former soldiers from opposing sides in a galactic civil war who are trying to raise their daughter while evading both armies; Chew, a quirky crime comic by John Layman and Rob Guillory about a guy who receives psychic impressions from anything he eats; and Fatale, an occult noir by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips.  With the recent move by DC to scale back its Vertigo imprint, it seems that Image is poised to take the lead in providing diverse adult comics entertainment.

Not your daddy's space opera: the cover of Saga #1 (Mar 2012) by Fiona Staples.

This overview just scratches the surface of what the modern indie comics scene has to offer.  I haven't even mentioned other publishing houses like IDW, Valiant or Top Shelf, or defunct publishers like CrossGen, all of which have made some remarkably good comics.  I hope that this brief article illustrates some of the diversity that the comics market has to offer, in addition to some of the excellent offerings that Marvel and DC produce month after month.  As always, these titles and more can be found at your local comics shop, or through online retailers such as In-Stock Trades and Amazon.  If you need any additional information or are looking for other recommendations, feel free to leave a comment.  Thanks for reading!