July 8, 2012

Cheap Thrills -- FREEMIND #1

In these economic times, finding inexpensive entertainment is difficult.  Thank goodness for the local comic shop and a slew of comics nobody cares about anymore!  Each week Daniel Elkin randomly grabs a comic from the bargain bin (for 50 cents) to see what kind of bang he can get for his two-bits.  These are those tales.

Stop me if you've heard this one before.
Citing things like:
  • “publishers concentrat(ing) on superficial elements and ancillary products development instead of quality”[1]
  • “knuckleheaded editorial decisions that ... drained our enthusiasm and left us wondering 'If they don't care then why should we?'”[2]
  • “working in a corporate environment does have its merits; freedom just isn't one of them.”[3]
A group of seasoned comic book creators buck the system, rebel against the corporate structure, and strike out on their own to form a new publishing company that guarantees them creator ownership and editorial freedom.
I'm talking about Future Comics, of course, the Florida based company started in 2000 by comic book stars Bob Layton, Dick Giordano and David Michelinie.
And man, were these guys excited about their company.
With great and giddy fanfare, they announced the inception of Future Comics at Heroes Con in June of 2000. Saying things like they “believed that comics should be readily accessible and written for a general audience,” not “for a niche' audience” and that they should “tailor Future Comics projects, for lack of a better term, a little more mainstream – stuff that could be read by the 'Average Joe'”,[4] they confidently strode into the marketplace. They wanted to tell the stories they wanted to tell. They wanted to bring life back to what they saw as a floundering comic book audience. Layton, Giordano, and Michelinie stepped for into this new world of creative freedom with “plans to publish four monthly books … written by either David or Bob.” [5].
And there was more. They went even farther and stomped harder on the Terra. In response to complaints by retailers about “the callous way they were being treated by Diamond,” [6], Future Comics created an entirely new distribution plan in which they would exclusively sell their comics via the Internet through their Future Comics Retailers' Club and cut out “the auspices of a single, monopolistic (and possibly malevolent) entity – Diamond Comics Distributors” [7].
Bold stuff. Brave moves. Iron Balls.
Creators completely in charge of their creations – all the way from idea to shelf – with no muckling and middling middle-men meddling in their business. The artist's dream realized.
The future of comics.
And it began with a bang. Future Comics first publication was a title called Freemind, which Bob Layton co-wrote with Michelinie. Layton also was responsible for inking and editing the book, while Giordano took on the penciling duties. This release led critics to call this a “return to greatness” and had them referring to Future Comics as “the next Marvel Comics”.
Critical acceptance. Books on the shelves. Excitement. Energy. Possibilities. The Future.
Oh ... but then there's this.
Yesterday, I found Freemind #1 on sale at my local comic shop in the bargain bin for 25 cents.
What happened?
How does such unfettered promise end up in the bargain bin? Why was this the future of Future Comics?

Is the answer to be found in the pages of Freemind #1?
Freemind #1 is all about set up. It runs at a pretty good pace: introducing characters, setting up conflicts, locating the reader and establishing tone. It is, as promised, a mainstream book that could be read by the “Average Joe.” It's not heavy-handed, it's full of action, and, as I said, it barrels along at a relatively engaging clip.
It features serviceable art by Giordano:
It's got big old robots breaking things:
And it's got some quiet moments of character building:
It is what it is. It's a story about interfacing the human mind with a robot's body and the complications that this process engenders. It's got hapless but dedicated scientists, moments of human heroism and a larger conspiracy in the service of something bad.
What it doesn't have is Freemind in it. The dude on the cover is nowhere to be found in this book. But Layton and Michelinie are obviously playing the long game here and are placing all the dominoes on the table, awaiting the flick of a finger to set the whole thing cascading.
On his blog, Interested in Sophisticated Fun, fellow Comics Bulletin reviewer Keith Silva just recently posted a conversation he had with “one of the greatest comic book blogger minds this side of Kuala Lumpur, Justin Giampaoli,” about what makes a good First Issue. Somehow, in the course of their discussion, they ended up with something they started referring to as the Giampaoli matrix. Boiled down, (as I interpret it) it consists of the following:
  1. Both the art and the writing have to work in conjunction with each other, and they both have to be “clicking” – as it were.
  1. There has to be a “hook” of some sort, something new and unexpected.
  1. It has to have a uniqueness either in idea or presentation of something seen before (Silva and Giampaoli quibble a bit about the subtleties of difference between 2 and 3)
  1. It needs to be accessible without being didactic. It should have just enough mystery to keep the reader guessing, but not “so obtuse and laden with inter-textual Easter Egg references or some non-linear stream of consciousness style of scripting that I can't get a foothold on what's going on or why I should care.”
  1. The creators need to have demonstrated that the reader can trust them.
This seems to be a pretty good matrix for judging the effectiveness of a First Issue, and it's certainly easier to use this one than to go through the trouble of cobbling together one of my own.
So, back to Freemind #1. In this first issue, the art and the writing are fine and work together well. Nothing is groundbreaking or overly unique here, but it is not meant to be as it is the story it is, created with a specific intention. The book is certainly accessible, and all the creators have enough comic book credibility to warrant our trust.
According to the Giampaoli Matrix, then, Freemind #1 is a pretty good first issue.
And yet Freemind #1 was sitting in the 25-cent bargain bin at my local comic shop.
How does this happen? As I've said, there was great fanfare at its debut. Its creators were solid and known properties who had the opportunity to create the kind of comic book that they wanted to, unfettered by corporate interests. In 2002, when the book came out, there seemed to have been an ample market-place interest in its success.
So how does a work of art with this much momentum at its inception end up amongst the detritus of comic book culture?
From what I can tell, it comes down to the business of comic books. It seems that when Future Comics collapsed, so did the value of its output in public eye.
Future Comics closed up shop after just two and a half years of operation. Freemind only ran for seven issues. After that – the bargain bin.
The reasons for Future Comics untimely demise are a bit amorphous. There's a lot of finger pointing at the management level, at the distribution level, at the competition level, even at the retail level.
Editor-in-Chief Bob Layton likes to paint the picture of a small rebel alliance crushed under the black boot of a evil corporate conglomerate empire.
In a report that he composed to Future Comics Investors, which you should absolutely read, Layton sketches out the scenario. His jeremiad points to the evil and corrupt nature of Diamond Comic Distributors, who was out to “break the back of a little publisher that dared to defy the 'Overlords of Comic Distribution'.” He rails against retailers, calling them “penny-ante dabblers whose whims change with the drop of the proverbial hat with little or no business sense whatsoever” for not having the balls to stand up to Diamond. He claims that, at the time, Diamond, Marvel, DC, Wizard, and Quebecor were working “closely and clandestinely to control the marketplace and unfairly squeeze out any competition.”
Layton frames the narrative in an epic manner. All the power and influence of the great corporate structure were marshaled to destroy this upstart group of creators who were bucking the system to get their art out, clean, to a public desperately in need of a new voice, a new direction.
And Future Comics closed. And Freemind #1 sits in the bargain bin.
Point all the fingers you want, create the myth however it best serves your interests, but the reality is that all these great hopes, great ideas, talent, commitment, heart, sweat and labor are now alluvial sediment on the banks of the great river of Pop Culture.
It's not a failure of the intention. It's not a failure of the talent. It's not a failure of the drive for the creator to be free to create. It's not a failure of the art itself. What it is, perhaps, is a lesson.
So what is the lesson we can learn from the story of Freemind and Future Comics? As Comics Bulletin Publisher Jason Sacks wrote in hisManifesto column a little while back, “Comics is a cruel, cruel business.”
Failure is always a possibility in every human endeavor. The failure of creators is, perhaps, even more tragic as they have invested so much of themselves in their creation.
But I applaud each and every one of you who attempts. Who strives. Who puts it out there.
I used to say in this column, “Just because you are capable of creating a comic, doesn't necessarily mean that you should.” After some time off from this column and some brutal introspection, I not only want to retract that statement, but I also want to apologize to everyone for ever saying it in the first place.
One of the most heroic things an individual can do is to create art from the heart and then put it out there for public consumption. Each and every one of you that has that drive and does that act is a hero of epic proportions. You want to give to the world a piece of yourself, and for that I embrace you, I commend you, I am in awe of you.
Because ultimately what is at the heart of all creative endeavors? Perhaps it is to form connections, things that bind us together, opportunities for us to share experiences and find commonalities.
Let Freemind and the story of Future Comics be a clarion call to all of us. Failure is always possible. The rewards of the creative act are rarely financial. But we all benefit from the attempt. The artist is a hero. You are a hero. We can be heroes.

[2] Dick Giordano's editorial in Freemind #1
[3] Ibid
[5] Dick Giordano's editorial in Freemind #1
[7] Ibid

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