Friday, May 26, 2006

Whither the Try-Out Book? - Part One

Last month, at the Paradise Toronto Comicon, I snagged a big stack of books from bargain bins. Among these were 10 or so copies of Marvel Premiere from the late 70s and early 80s. I have had some books from this title previously (the Liberty Legion, Ant-Man and Doctor Who issues), and I was happy to pick up some more. To me, this is a great way to introduce a new or revamped character. In particular, I always liked the Scott Lang Ant-Man books, along with his appearance in Marvel Team-Up.

Both Brave and the Bold and Showcase served DC well as a launching pad for new ideas in the 60s. Sure, it was a bit hit and miss and for every Justice League of America, there was a B’wana Beast, but it’s impossible to deny how much goodness came out of these two titles.

In the 60s, Marvel was able to (and forced to, due to distribution limits) introduce many of its successful new characters in already established titles, but these were not true try out books. By the 70s, however, Marvel decided the time had come to launch titles whose primary goal was to test how well readers would respond to new or revamped characters. By the mid-70s, Marvel had two titles dedicated to the premise. Ostensibly, Marvel Spotlight was supposed to give existing characters (Nick Fury, Deathlok) another kick at the can, whereas Marvel Premiere was to introduce brand new characters and concepts. Of course, there were exceptions to this rule, but I’ve read that was the plan.

Personally, I think try-outs books were a great way to test the waters, but I can’t see how they’d work in today’s Direct Market. In the 70s, a kid was likely to spot an issue and buy it off the shelves, but today’s marketplace does not really allow impulse buying. That’s too bad – but c’est la vie. Here’s a quick look at some of my recent reads

Marvel Premiere #32: Monark Starstalker

This is a decent little space western, with Chaykin transferring a Jonah Hex-like character to the deepest regions of space. It’s not bad stuff, better than most of the high concept stuff produced by both Marvel and DC. Chaykin’s artwork gets a it muddied in the printing process, but there was some real promise here – as Chaykin’s demonstrates that he is a unique creator (With hindsight, we know he covers much of this ground repeatedly, but judged on its own merits, it’s a good read.

Marvel Premiere #33 & #34: Mark of Kane

Roy Thomas and Chaykin team up for a pretty pedestrian adaptation of a Robert E Howard story. The Solomon Kane stories in the b&w magazines were superior to this one, but that’s not saying much. Kane is a one note character, and absolutist philosophy makes one feel like they are reading a Steve Ditko comic. There’s not much characterization here, as the second half of the first issue is one prolonged swordfight. The second issue takes us on ridiculous manhunt to Africa - with some typical 70s voodoo and gorilla justice thrown into the mix. I guess Howard fans must have been happy to see their Puritanical hero in colour, but I wasn’t feeling it. I guess not every pulp hero truly deserves his own title in the 70s.

Marvel Premiere #54: Caleb Hammer

This time, Marvel doesn’t even bother putting Jonah Hex in space. This smells, looks and feels like a Jonah Hex comic book (right down to the Clint Eastwood-like appearance and Tony DeZuniga inks), but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. After years of publishing only reprinted western tales, Marvel reenters the western genre (as it is on its death bed) with this Peter Gillis about a Pinkerton with a tragic past. This art by the Gene Day/DeZuniga team is perfect for the story and in a different era, Caleb Hammer might have had a future. Sadly, this was 1980 and six shooters were out of vogue. There is one major flaw with this book – as occurs with most Marvel books. We learn Hammer’s full back story in this single issue. Part of the charm of Jonah Hex was his mysterious background, and analyzing the various hints that were dropped regarding his Confederate jacket and his scar.

That’s it for now – I’ll be back with a look at some more Marvel Premiere books in the near future.

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