Digital Comics Re-Examined – Seven Months Later

A while back, I wrote a pair of pieces about several new digital initiatives in the comics industry. I talked about the growing rise in creator-owned content on the Substack platform, partnerships between major creators and digital publishers, and a pivot towards new mediums of distribution for more traditional superhero stuff. Well it’s been seven months since those articles were published and I think it’d be a cool idea to revisit the stories I discussed in that one. And maybe talk about a few others because I have, in fact, subscribed to a couple of Substacks and I want to talk about their products so far. So this is basically going to be a lightning round of little mini-reviews. So hit the jump and let’s talk digital comics.

Wayne Family Adventures on Webtoon

Let’s start with the easiest to talk about. DC’s webtoon comic, Wayne Family Adventures continues to be the best traditional superhero content its putting out. The comic’s premise hasn’t really evolved much in the past seven months, it’s still a really goofy and heartwarming look at the members of Batman’s family. But what’s really been impressing me is the confidence with which the creators have been going about building this adorable little series. Despite the cute art style, the jokes are razor sharp, and the characterizations of these version of these classic characters are starting to shine through. I love that this version of Batman seems to genuinely care about upper class manners and takes time to teach his sidekicks stuff like table etiquette (by force if necessary). Meanwhile, for the first time in a long time, the various sidekicks actually get to feel like a family of teenagers and twenty-something’s. But with the advent of multi-part storylines, we’ve also added a serious dose of heart to the proceedings. Overall, a really fun, and joyful romp that you can read completely for free right now.

The Best Jackett Production Round Up

The first article I wrote on this subject focused primarily on Scott Snyder’s new Best Jack Press publishing house and the deal he’d struck with Comixology. This deal was marked by the release of three brand new series: We Have Demons, Clear, and Night of the Ghoul. There are several more series in the pipeline it looks like, all of them still collaborations between Snyder and various high profile artists, but these three were the opening salvo for Snyder, Best Jackett and Comixology. With all three wrapped or close to being wrapped, let’s break it down.

Night of the Ghoul:

In the first article, I called this the most traditionally Snyder-ish comic. It’s a horror story about fatherhood, vintage media, and hidden histories. Overall, over the course of 6 issues, this was a straight forward ghost story of sorts with a great art style that evoked the sort of classic black and white films that the book itself was about. There was one detail I really liked that I kind of wanted to talk about though. Often times in these Urban Fantasy stories there’re a bunch of shadowy factions that know The Truth and seek to either exploit or defend against the supernatural goings-on. These would be your cults and secret society types places. In this story, those kind of factions used to exist but the whole thing has basically been reduced to one senior-assisted living center in Southern California. It’s great and subtly evocative of the book’s themes about how nostalgia poisons our viewpoint and traps us in the past. I think the physical trade of this, when it inevitably comes out, would be a great Halloween gift for the horror fan in your life.

We Have Demons:

We Have Demons was the Best Jackett series with the most hype in the buildup to launch. It was the tip of the spear, the series written by Snyder with art by his long time collaborator Greg Capullo. Snyder and Capullo are on the level of Morrison and Quietly (or King and Gerard if I’m being honest) as far as being a team of artist and writer who just click with one another, and We Have Demons definitely shows off that synergy. The full series ended up being a sci-fi action/horror romp with some great, gnarly fight scenes and a lot of that great smart people banter that Snyder loves to write. My one big complaint is that We Have Demons feels less like a complete story (though it totally is one) and more like a preview of an ongoing We Have Demons series that Snyder desperately wants to write. In practice, this was more like a proof of concept, and while I had fun, it was like a flight of samples from a beer festival, tasty but fleeting, gone too soon and you aren’t sure when you’re going to get more.

Clear:

Of Best Jackett’s initial offering, I think Clear was the most surprising series. Firstly, I’m a sucker for a good neo noir story and this is absolutely that. While the book’s aesthetic is pure cyberpunk, this book really feels closer in style and tone to a 1950s detective novel. It’s like if Aldos Huxley wrote a Dashiell Hammett novel. You’ve got all the troupes and hallmarks. A disgraced detective with a troubled past. An enclave of rich socialites ready to ride out the collapse of civilization. A mystery that’s far bigger than our intrepid outsider hero suspects. Class division and the socio-political implications of hypothetical future technology. It’s all here. But honestly, it was the thematic world-building that surprised me the most with this one. Snyder has said the inspiration for this series was his fears of a world his kids might inherit, particularly with regards to the the sort of media saturation they might face. Clear takes place in a world where China defeated America in a sort of truncated World War III and Americans have coped by escaping into fantasies through the use of devices called Veils. Veils let people forget about the world around them, and submerge themselves into whatever kind of world they desire. The idea of existing outside of these illusions is referred to as being “clear.” Over the course of the story, our main hero usually keeps his Veil turned off but it turns out that being clear might not be so cut and dry as he thinks. It’s a blunt metaphor but one that Snyder gets an impressive amount of mileage out of, especially a plot twist in the fifth issue that radically recalibrates the whole setup in some delightful ways.

The Substack Books

So like I said, while I’m still a bit hesitant about the Substack model but over the last seven months, two projects have come up that genuinely intrigued me enough to sign on.

3 Worlds/3 Moons by Johnathan Hickman and Various

3 Worlds/3 Moons or 3W/3M to those of us in the know is a new project spearheaded by writer and noted lover of superhero infographics, Johnathan Hickman. Hickman is a really strong, though quixotic writer who takes a very systematic approach to crafting these long, epic sagas. Most recently, he completely reimagined the X-men from being a bunch of superpowered teachers in Westchester, New York into a literal global superpower on their own island. But 3W/3M is something completely different. It is, as Hickman himself has said more like a Concept Album than anything else. Hickman basically decided that he was going to build an entire sci-fi universe from scratch and he was going to bust out his rolodex of famous comic book writers and artists to help him.

The result has been fascinating to watch develop. The first couple of months were rough as very little information seemed to trickle out but in recent months, the project has been producing about a full comic once a month. In the meantime, it’s basically functioned as a Behind the Scenes look at how massive comic projects like this one are made. subscribers have been privy to a lot of really interesting documents and essays wherein the writers talk about the various systems Hickman has tasked them with building. One writer will talk about economics and the next will be building a religion complete with pantheon. All of this has been complimented with concept art of a really wild, and colorful setting. Basically, this is a solar system (consisting of three worlds and their moons) that operates in millennia long cycles wherein the laws of the universe are governed either by the powers of science and reason or by the powers of faith and magic. As one ebbs the other grows. The stories are so far taking place at the apex of one such age as the current systems and institutions start to fail. All of this takes place in a world that has an aesthetic that is gonzo yet perfectly coherent. This is less of a Star Wars or a Star Trek and more akin to The Incal or the other works of French artistic luminary, Moebius. I’m not sure if the content has been worth the price I’ve paid for it, but it’s been really cool to watch a project like this come together nonetheless.

Love Everlasting by Tom King and Elsa Charretier

On one hand, oh yeah that’s the sort of content I’m here for. On the other hand, goddammit yet another comic essay that I’m writing features Tom King. I feel like an obsessive. Anyway, Love Everlasting is, to me, the quintessential example of what a Substack comic can and should be. It’s something totally unexpected and different from the work that the creator is putting out with the major publishers. This legitimately feels like something King couldn’t get published at his current residence in DC Comics. Plus, it’s totally free. While they might be available a few weeks late for free readers, every issue of Love Everlasting will be free for all readers. Subscribers get early access as well as the perquisite goodies like concept art, scripts and essays from the creators. Which in this case, feels like a pretty good deal, especially because Love Everlasting feels like a much more tightly focused package compared to something like 3W/3M. So what is this brave new series? Well, I feel like the only way to talk about it is to provide a quick rundown of the first issue.

The first issue is an anthology, where all the stories are episodic but connected by a common theme. As suggested by the title, this is a romance comic and in our first story, Meant to Be, Joan Peterson is a girl with a problem. She’s new to the big city and just took a job as a secretary. Her new boss, George is hunky, dreamy and an absolute charmer. Joan can’t help but fall in love with him almost immediately. Which is a problem since as far as she knows, George is dating her best friend Marla. Except no he isn’t. Marla is a bit of a floozy and has since broken up with George in favor of a new beau. So there’s nothing preventing Joan Peterson from marrying George! What a happy ending. Now let’s jump to our second story, One Last Kiss. In this story, feisty 60s teenager Joan Peterson is chaffing under the strict, conservative rules of her father. Which is a problem because she’s just fallen head over heels in love with a hunky, singer songwriter named Kit. Kit’s a bit of a beatnik though, definitely not the type who Joan’s father would ever approve of. She’s supposed to marry that sweet boy George….right? Wait, or was it Kit that she’s in love with? Well whatever, once more a third act reveal saves the day and the lovebirds unite. Which brings us to our third story, Fight For Love. This time we’re in Cowboy Times ™ and we follow a bright, hopeful girl named Joan Peterson. She’s the daughter of a rancher and her father just hired a new hand named Bill Harper and NOPE! This is all wrong. Joan, who by now we’re pretty sure is the same person from the past two stories, snaps and flees the ranch on horseback, riding for days until the horse collapses and she can’t run anymore. I won’t spoil what happens next but it’s one hell of a hook for a new series and great conclusion to what is honestly one of the best first issues I can remember.

Love Everlasting is a celebration of the genre of romance comics that used to dominate magazine racks right alongside superheroes in the Gold and Silver Ages. It’s also a scathing deconstruction of the promises made in those books with their clean cut stories, perfect female leads and utopian endings. It is, in short, a Tom King comic. This is the book that basically made me realize that Tom King might be this medium’s answer to David Lynch. Unlike other writers who revel in deconstruction like Mark Millar or the great Alan Moore, King seems to genuinely love comics and has sincere nostalgia for the past of the medium’s most mainstream elements. But he’s very critical of the promise those comics made to their readers (what he called the “dream” while talking about his series Strange Adventures) and isn’t afraid to keep pulling at threads until he and reader arrive at some pretty dark conclusions. But all of this works because King himself seems to love writing those same sorts of lighthearted romps. Love Everlasting is no exception. His critiques of the romance genre are pointed and insightful but he’s also just having so much fun writing cliched romantic schlock. We’ve only gotten three issues so far but each one has been equal parts thriller and loving homage to old school romance. Even three issues in, King is confidant enough to be throwing some pretty exciting curveballs at the reader as we follow Joan Peterson’s seemingly endless attempts to escape from a purgatory of cheap and easy romance cliches. I should also mention that none of this would be quite as effective without the stellar art from Elsa Charritier. She doesn’t try to recreate the art from the comics of this era directly. Instead, her art which is bright, expressive and highly stylized, is meant to evoke the period. Her faces in particular are great as she can shift a character from smooth but vapid joy to troubled consternation, sincere anger or genuine terror in the space of a single panel. Joan has something like a panic attack halfway through the first issue and it’s the first time we see real, genuine emotion breakthrough the saccharine sweet plot. It’s a pivotal part of the narrative and King just lets the art speak for itself.

Conclusions

Alright so there we go. The state of Digital comics is sound. A lot of these are free to read and I highly recommend you go trac them down for yourself. Especially Love Everlasting, that’s the sort of story I’d recommend to even non-comic book fans. Plus, I hope it and 3W/3M represent the sort of thing we can expect from this creator owned renaissance in the digital space, fun, creative and above all idiosyncratic comics from writers and artists who want to explore in ways the Big Two might not always allow them to.

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