I am in many ways a romantic when it comes to print media, though I try to fight this tendency knowing that our society is making an unstoppable forward march into a digital world. Even I, through my clouded perception, can honestly see so much of the positive potential this shift has in store. I was, however, still surprised and excited when I first caught wind of, Creator-Owned Heroes the new collaborative project from Jimmy Palmiotti, Justin Gray, and Steve Niles, along with others, being published through Image Comics. I first heard about this project, not through Comic Shop News, or from my local retailer, or even in an advertisement in another monthly book, I heard about it on some comics website or another (though I can’t remember specifically which one), which really brings me to my point: despite the fact that it is backed by an established publisher and has a decidedly pro-look, this magazine is essentially a throwback to the indie fanzines of yore, which the wide reach of the blogosphere has more or less eradicated with a few remarkable exceptions.
The concept is straightforward, but enticing. Each issue features two 11-page ongoing creator-owned comics, along with a slew of other material ranging from interviews to op-eds all with the intention of promoting and supporting not just the creators themselves, but the whole concept of creator-owned comics. Last week marked the second issue of Creator-Owned Heroes and already, I am pleased to say, I see substantial growth in the content and execution of this magazine. First I am going to take some time to review the non-story content of the magazine.
First up is the interview. An interview with a noteworthy member of the comics community has been a staple of the first two issues and the creators seem to view it as a cornerstone of the publication since it is has been the only content, other than the comics featured prominently on both covers. Issue number one included an interview with Neil Gaiman. I certainly see the benefit of putting the name of such a rockstar of the industry on the cover to help boost some first issue sales, and it was a fun interview, but I did find myself asking, “OK, so it’s Neil Gaiman, but what’s the point of putting an interview with him in this magazine? What comics fan is not already acquainted with his work and why should I pay $3.99 for it rather than read one of dozens of interviews I could easily find with a simple Google search? This is really the important question that this magazine’s success hinges on: what can it provide, in this day and age, that can’t be found for free and immediate consumption all over the World Wide Web? This issue, I think stepped it up a notch by featuring an interview with Paul Pope, an indie comics maverick responsible for Heavy Liquid, 100%, and one of the less conventional, more memorable Batman interpretations Batman: Year 100. Pope is an underexposed writer/artist who’s every word is not instantly reported through sites like Bleeding Cool and Newsarama. He is a creator who I had never read an interview with and who fits the spirit of the book exceptionally well. The interview itself was a nice mix of nuts and bolts comics industry fair about his working habits and inspiration with some more “out of left field” type questions not found as frequently in your typical interview. This makes for a fun read, but it’s also fair to say that some of the non-sequitur style questions posed gave nice insights into Pope’s personal values and attitudes.
Much of the content of both issues has been made up of opinion pieces written by Palmiotti, Niles, et. al. that I don’t want do injustice to by calling rants, but have lacked a certain focus and have seemed a little bit pre-occupied with hammering home the idea of creator-owned work. I think it’s typical of new publications to spend some time emphasizing their mission statement and it can be difficult to bring outside voices into a publication that hasn’t fully taken root yet. I also appreciate the fact that much of the comics reading public may have a genuine need for some creator-owned comics 101 to help them fully understand the concept and the value of this approach. That being said, I hope the content continues to branch out to other writers and that the focus in individual articles begins to narrow within the context of creator-owned publishing.
My favorite piece in each issue has been what I am going to call the “outside of the box” article. Issue number one featured an interview and photo-shoot with a cosplayer who had put together a costume based on Trigger Girl 6, the titular character from the Palmiotti / Gray / Noto comic. This article was fun for the geek in me who loves to see comics characters come to life in all their black-leathered glory, but I think it was also successful in exploring a comics-culture phenomenon that is not often looked at from the creative end, and hopefully encouraged readers to exercise their own creative muscles when it comes to cosplaying. Issue number two went in an even less conventional direction by featuring an interview conducted by Jimmy Palmiotti with his friend Victoria Pal, an LA area personal trainer. I will admit when I first saw this piece I thought “boy, they’ve already run out of material so they’re calling in personal favors to fill space.” I really shouldn’t be so cynical, but I learned my lesson and it won’t happen again, at least not in relation to Creator-Owned Heroes. The interview fit because it was predicated around the idea of recognizing those who have taken risks to make alternative career choices that have paid off. In addition to learning about a very interesting person, the interview left me motivated and inspired. That’s what I like most about the tone of this magazine, despite at times drifting dangerously close to desperation and crankiness, it manages to, on the whole, create an atmosphere of excitement and encouragement. It is all about empowering readers to be active members of the comics community as consumers, of course, but also as creators, cosplayers, spokespersons, and essentially as fans. This is the real answer to what this magazine can deliver that the internet cannot, or at least has not so far. Fan-interaction sites exist, and people are certainly talking about these topics, but there is also something to be said for the solitary experience of reading a print magazine and being given the space to let these ideas percolate without the constant presence of message boards and user-comments that can quickly turn a good thought into a divisive battle before anybody has really internalized what’s being presented.
The comics aren’t bad either. I was already familiar with most of the creators involved before reading their stories in the first issue. I’ve enjoyed their output and respect them as creators, but most of what I have read was in a mainstream context so it was exciting for me to read some of their more personal output. Both stories are a lot of fun so far, and I have really enjoyed them equally, though they are very different. This publication is first and foremost about the unadulterated fun of engaging with the comics medium as both creators and readers so it is fitting that both stories are visceral off-the wall thrill-rides. American Muscle, written by Steve Niles and illustrated by Kevin Mellon is a post-apocalyptic road adventure about a band of runaways who have fled the closed compound in which they live in hopes of finding something else for them in the wide-open world. So far they have found only devastation and radioactive mutants! The artwork is gritty and minimalist with just the right splash of gore and camp. Though it treads well-worn territory, the well-developed characters, break neck pace, and unbridled enthusiasm lends a freshness to the execution. The second story, Trigger Girl 6 by Jimmy Palmiotti, Justin Gray, and Phil Noto is an espionage thriller set in either a near future or alternate world. This story features a cool aesthetic that mixes spy motifs, science fiction, and a twist of social satire. This story hits the ground…err… glass…err… undercarriage of a jet… running with no exposition or background. The reader is immediately mesmerized by the high stakes of the action and by a dozen questions including: who is Trigger Girl? Why is everyone either terrified of her or infatuated with her? And why does she want to kill the president? Eagerly awaited answers seem to be coming next issue. With two short stories that feel like issue-length narratives and loads of extra content, Creator-Owned Heroes is really a steal at $3.99. This book is a spark that comics needs right now and I look forward to watching it grow in the coming months.