Creating A Monster: A Review of Creator Owned Heroes #1

 


I have a magazine fetish. It’s not too much of a problem most of the time since I simply don’t allow myself to buy them. I’ve been this way since I was a kid and yes, it may have something to do with comics. I’m not entirely sure where those two demons met and began to influence me. It’s the texture of the fluid pages, the glossy covers, and most importantly the combination of words and images in sharply defined, often contrasting colors. The fonts alone are enough to make me glance through a magazine. What are they going to use in combination? Does it really work? It’s always a new form of visual poetry, clashing or flowing. But magazine content can often be inane and I try not to further strain the floors of my house with ephemera that I don’t have more of an intellectual investment in.

The trouble started when Dark Horse started releasing Dark Horse Presents again and it was pretty gorgeous. The covers were great, the wide array of contents drawn by different artists, often painterly in style. Of course I had to buy them.

Then something worse happened: Creator Owned Heroes finally hit the shelves. At first, I honestly thought it was a comic book with anthology contributors. I wasn’t aware that things would be a little different until I picked it up in the shop and it felt just a tad heavier than I expected. And then there was the cover that wasn’t quite a comic cover somehow. Dread set in.


There were at least a half-dozen fonts on the cover. In multiple colors. With feature images. It was definitely a Jimmy Stewart in Vertigo moment. The cover of issue 1 is ridiculously attractive; the color palette of greys, greens, the occasional dash of yellow conveyed a lot to me about the content. It said spy, action, futuristic settings, and I really couldn’t recall ever having seen anything quite like it from it’s poised, alarmingly placid gun-toting action muse to the text-popping layout. But the real vertigo was when I realized there were two covers. The second cover featured that burnt orange typical of grindhouse 70’s films and presented a cast of disaffected survivalists of some kind seeming to zoom forward out of the page. Double jeopardy. I was a little afraid to open this thing, really, so after a quick glance, it sat for a few days on my table while I occasionally changed the cover facing “up”.

But I had to know and it got to me eventually. The debut of American Muscle kicks off the new enterprise and what better way to convey the energy and desires of a new “vehicle” than with a car-chase set in a deserted future wasteland? Artist Kevin Mellon’s style immediately steers the reader away from mainstream comics expectations. Sharp, active, with a liberal dose of frame-breaking page layouts, it seems to owe some homage to manga while insisting on some of the weightier aspects of realism. Writer Steve Niles jumps in with rapid-fire storytelling and shorthand character introductions while maintaining a fair amount of tension. Neither the narrative nor the dialogue get in the way of the “action” at the heart of the first installment.

Trigger Girl 6, also the slick visual masthead for the cover of issue 1, establishes its own visual tone right away. Its milky colors, veering from silky pastels to sharp 1960’s reminiscent contrasts of red, black, and white seem to hover in an alien world of uncluttered panels. Its spidery font confirms a certain foreignness to the reader, establishing the visual language of the comics’ new world very quickly while silent panels emphasize a certain elegance of visual storytelling. It’s an old story but a good one: this is what comics can do and where their strength lies, in well-planned panels and accessible layouts. Not to mention Trigger Girl 6 is a force to be reckoned with, steeped for all the clear storytelling, in mystery: who exactly is she and who controls her? It’s a no brainer to want to read more next time. Writers Jimmy Palmiotti and Justin Gray introduce some masterful storytelling with a minimum of excess.

Following the comics installments, Creator Owned Heroes really reveals its multifarious nature as it plunges into magazine features which capture that old magazine appeal of not being exactly sure what you’re going to find. A welcome from Jimmy Palmiotti, a personal list of best movies this year from him, a rambling soulful commentary from Justin Gray on what he hopes this magazine will be: that’s just the beginning. But it’s not purely about entertainment, though I’m sure the creators would agree that entertainment is their top priority.

The unusual place of this magazine in the industry and the rather elaborate gestures which it, by its very existence, is making about the nature of comics creation and fandom come to the fore in the second half of the magazine in varying forms. Justin Gray states simply that in many of the arts “creator ownership has traditionally been a rare thing”. The conversation is a prescient one since you can’t go more than a few days without reading something on blogs or twitter about lawsuits, ownership, hero-creation, or even the trials and astonishing successes of Kickstarter-funded projects. Things are changing but I wouldn’t say that it’s clear exactly what the nature of comics-creation ownership will be even a couple of years from now. Gray also points out that economic crises have cause a ripple effect whereby well-established comics commodities are being remade and repackaged over and over again, threatening to choke us with overexposure to our own favorite characters. A return to curiosity, and a willingness to expand experience may just save the day. The eclecticism of issue 1 falls right into line with this philosophy.

An up close and rather direct interview with Neil Gaiman touches on these themes, particularly the “exploitation of the creators” typical of comics in the past, but the hopeful, small steps he and others have made to establishing the voice of the comics creator in a field now dominated by big industry. His last piece of advice to writers, to insist on producing good material through mastering your craft, reminds us that plenty of “good” material may be choked out of the market without determined strides toward self-publishing as seen in this new magazine.

You’ll notice, as you flip through Creator Owned Heroes issue 1, that the ensemble cast each gets a look in and a due space to extend a word to the reader. This is another unusual feature for comics, but not, perhaps for magazines, suggesting some of the good things the mixed medium can supply. This is another way in which, as Steve Bunche says, the magazine is “coming to you straight and undiluted from its makers”. If this were a farmer’s market, the farmers are there to assure you that they pulled it all from the bare earth with their two hands. Needless to say, there’s plenty of well-deserved pride in telling the reader “I made this” rather than having to take a backseat to corporate branding. The sense of getting to know the creators is also enticing; readers get the real-world back story of how these guys came to be working on such a gutsy comics-first enterprise, random comic convention photo ops included for delectation. Taken together, these articles tell the story of Creator Owned Heroes. It’s an origin story for a new entity and it allows the reader to see the faces and hear the voices behind the pages.

Two other non-comics related features round off the first issue: a substantial article presenting Juli Abene and her sister Alex Abene as they cosplay Trigger Girl 6 into photo-realist life, and a featurette interview with photographer Seth Kushner, whose book with Christopher Irving, Leaping Tall Buildings, has brought an engagingly visual documentary feel to the history of comics. Kushner’s current work, helping curate the literary arts salon website, TripCity.net, with Dean Haspiel highlights another mode of self-publication in comics currently on the rise: establishing a digital presence to make practical steps toward readership.

[Photo by Seth Kushner]

It’s a hard day for us comics fans when a new comics magazine comes out and it leaps into taking itself seriously from the first page onward. That means we not only want to read it, but we should read it if we care about the future of comics. For all the time spent in chats and arguments on the internet about the role of commodities in comics and the vices of cynical publication practices, there must be a moment or two in the day to support a new form of publication that avoids many of these gray areas in the comics industry. When I reached for a comic, I bought a magazine. I wanted to read it for the magazine style but stayed for the content. Creator Owned Heroes establishes several very dangerous precedents here. And I’m pretty sure that if we go back to the days of the comics magazine, it will be all over for me. I’ll be one of those people hoarding things and skittering away in front of night-vision cameras on reality television shows before too long. Thanks, guys. You’ve created a monster.

–This was written by Hannah Means-Shannon, aka Hannah Menzies on FB and @HannahMenzies on Twitter

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