Sporadic Sequential
Thursday, July 19, 2007
Corporate Comics Complaints

Several months ago, I was surprised to find that I enjoyed a preview of Blue Beetle #11. I happened to see the TPB collecting that issue at the library, so I checked it out. Blue Beetle: Road Trip is the second collection of the new Blue Beetle ongoing series and it covers issues #7 through #12 of that series. Since I hadn't read the previous six issues, I may be at somewhat of a disadvantage when it comes to fully understanding everything that takes place in this volume, but here are my reactions having missed half of the story so far.

My first reaction occurred before I even cracked open the cover: Holy cow, is this book thin! Looking at it, I was reminded more of those old square-bound "prestige format" comics DC used to put out than a trade paperback. Didn't TPBs used to be thicker? Is it because TPBs now collect fewer issues or because the paper stock is thinner? Just to make sure I wasn't simply misremembering things, I pulled out an old square-bound comic to compare (and threw in another book, just to make things even more interesting):

[Click for gratuitously large version]

From the top, the books pictured are:
* DC's site lists the page count at 192 pages but the book itself has page numbers and they only go up to 144

To the naked eye (or mine at least), Twilight and Blue Beetle appear to be very close in size, while KCDS appears to be at least three times as thick as BB. I know people have complained about the apples and oranges nature of these comparisons when I've done them before, but I do wonder if things like this factor into people's judgments of perceived value when they're deciding which comic to spend their money on. If you only had enough money to buy one graphic novel and were trying to decide between BB and KCDS, don't you think something like "Well, Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service looks like it would be a meatier read, and it's two bucks cheaper" would cross your mind? (This is of course assuming you could find a copy of KCDS at your local bookstore to begin with.)

As for the book itself, I found it OK but nothing that would inspire me to seek out previous or subsequent volumes. There are too many references to other comics and events for the book to feel like it has its own identity independent of whatever crossover calamity DC is promoting this week. Which really isn't that surprising considering that this title spun out of the continuity-heavy Infinite Crisis crossover, an unfortunate pedigree that the collection spends the entire first chapter rehashing. (I might be wrong, but weren't the events in BB #7 already shown in an issue of Infinite Crisis? Why spend an entire issue retelling those events yet again when it seems most fans just want to move on from that "event"?) Later chapters are spent examining the Blue Beetle legacy with Dan Garrett's granddaughter; retconning the Scarab from an ancient Egyptian mystical artifact to a piece of advanced alien technology (shades of Hawkman's upgraded origins); learning about how Peacemaker fits into all of this (in a nice touch, Peacemaker received the "instruction manual" for the Scarab, while Jaime Reyes bonded with the actual suit, so Jaime has to figure things out as he goes in a manner reminiscent of "The Greatest American Hero" with Peacemaker acting as the gruff but lovable older mentor); galavanting with a couple New Gods on a death-trap planet; and finally meeting the alien beings behind the Scarab, The Reach.

One of the problems with embedding every single one of your titles so deeply into a shared universe is the feeling of inaccessibility for those not immersed in said universe. Years ago, I probably would have caught all of the references in this book, either because I was following all the titles and characters referenced or I was willing to spend my free time online tracking down answers and backstory. Now, however, I want to read stories that are relatively self-contained, even if those stories happen to span multiple volumes. With Blue Beetle, I get the sense that following this title would at some point demand an investment in other series I'm not interested in buying. And looking at the future solicits for BB, this unease appears justified since the book becomes even more entangled in the larger DCU and its many "events" every month. It's the double-edged curse/benefit of a shared universe: some fans will be excited by all of the interrelated connections between all the characters and series, while others will be put off by the thought of incomplete stories teased in one book and continued in another (and likely not even resolved then). Myself, I read BB #11 and wonder who or what it was that Lonar was searching for and why we were never told even after he apparently found it/her. Was it an oblique reference to an old New Gods story? Was it a subtle ending to some unresolved plot point from long ago? Was it some set-up for a crossover with DC's next BIG EVENT WHERE EVEN GODS CAN DIE???? On the other hand, there are BB fans who are hopeful that plugging BB into every DC crossover will save the title from the chopping block. (Does that trick ever work? The only thing it seems to do is derail the series' own plotlines, leaving fewer issues to devote to wrapping up dangling story threads before the inevitable cancellation comes.)

OK, one nice thing about the book: The work of new regular artist Rafael Albuquerque is quite nice. He has a style reminiscent of Brian Stelfreeze, and it's a good continuation of the look established by Cully Hamner, who designed the new Blue Beetle costume and started off as the book's initial regular penciller. (According to GCD, Hamner only contributed art to six issues (two with assistance from others) before Albuquerque took over regular art chores with issue #11.) Which brings me to another feature of corporate superhero comics that strikes me as a hindrance: the rotating art teams. I don't think this used to bother me much years ago, but perhaps reading manga with its consistent, singular artistic vision for each series has spoiled me. Now it's a bit jarring to see the appearance of characters change from issue to issue. When reading this volume, for example, I didn't immediately recognize Jaime's dad in chapter eight because the artist in that issue decided to change the dad's facial hair from the full beard shown the issue before to a thin goatee. Yes, there was a line of dialogue to clear up the confusion, but I still flipped back a couple pages to see if I'd imagined the father's different look. A minor quibble perhaps, but it's still something that draws attention to the storytelling instead of making it seamless.

Finally, one closing thought about coming into this series midway through (because I know there are superhero fans who will complain that I didn't give the series a fair chance by starting with the second volume): If DC wants to package their stories this way, I feel it's fair to judge them accordingly. There's nothing on the exterior of this book to indicate that it's the second volume in an ongoing series. And even if it did have a big number "2" on the spine, I'd still expect this book to be satisfying on its own. I've picked up later volumes in several manga series (such as vol. 2 of Uzumaki and, more recently, vol. 4 of Antique Bakery) and been intrigued enough to go back and follow the series from the beginning. If Marvel and DC really want to compete in the bookstore market for more casual readers, they really need to rethink the philosophy of simply slapping together a set number of floppy comics and calling it a book.

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