While I've been AWOL from blogging, the good folks at Flashback Universe -- about whom I've written previously -- released three new comics in fairly rapid succession. It was a long wait since their first release way back in August and I'm glad to see that logjam broken...not least because if you're trying to build a new business model for comics publishing (or anything else) it's good to give your audience reason to keep coming back on a steady basis rather than giving people a brief taste and then allowing them to drift away, with the novelty and initial enthusiasm slowly dissipating.
This is a problem also facing ComicSpace -- about whom I've also written previously -- having gone through massive initial growth following a plug from Warren Ellis and a surge of promotion on countless blogs, only to leave its users saying "great, we're here, now what do we do with the damn thing?" Well, look, building new things isn't easy, especially when you have no way of judging in advance what the public response will be and you want to have a slow, careful rollout. And success is delicate, especially online: this year's MySpace or ComicSpace could be next year's Tribe...or even Friendster. You can be poised to take over the world a la Google, and then make one bad decision that drives away your users en masse and destroys all the buzz you've developed. Whether you do too much or too little, too quickly or too slowly, people are fickle. I'd urge everyone to be patient with ComicSpace: it's there, it has untapped potential, and uses for the site that its creator never foresaw may well bubble up from the user base. A little slow deliberation on his part is no bad thing.
But I digress; we were talking about Flashback...
I can't claim to be remotely unbiased, for reasons that will be obvious to the keen-eyed reader who takes a look at their download page...but I genuinely enjoy the books they've released. When they made their debut, the format and distribution method seemed like the most interesting thing. Comics designed to be downloaded and read on screen, with transitions and storytelling techniques that just wouldn't be the same in print, and readable at your leisure from your hard drive rather than through the intermediary of a website. And the downloads are free, the whole venture being supported by voluntary donations. Jim Shelley says he's broken even on the first issue, which isn't something many (if any at all) self-publishers of print comics can ever say. Is reading a comic book onscreen inherently less good than reading a paper comic book in your hands? Well, having highly affordable comic books on really cheap newsprint was better too. Having 25 cent comics on sale at every newsstand was better too. Come on, grandpa, comics have to reach a freaking audience somehow! Cost and lack of widespread availability is smothering the medium, and I don't think the remaining comics readers realize just how bad the crisis has become.
So: Flashback has come up with most of the pieces of the solution -- I await the day when they add more potential revenue streams, like Flashback t-shirts and caps and action figures, not to mention the day when Hollywood buys the animated film rights -- and they've used the format in a way that capitalizes on its strengths, vis the storytelling techniques alluded to above...but you'll have to read the comics themselves to get a sense of that. (Come on, it's as free as reading this blog. Could it hurt to give it a try?)
What really drew me in, though, is the unashamedly retro joy that Jim and his Quebecois artist Pierre Villeneuve bring to the stories. It's something that can't be faked. Too many attempts at "comics like they used to be" are tainted by archness or self-conscious irony. (This is what spoiled Alan Moore's 1963 for me; the sense that it was a pastiche whose message was "look how loveably awful those grand old comics were," an effect achieved by making stories that were deliberately more awful than the best of those old comics actually were.) Or they're done by people who turned to "retro" style by default because they weren't quite skilled enough to pull off more modern styles, or out of a rigidly conservative refusal to admit there might be some good in comics other than the ones you read when you were twelve. My point is, these guys are doing this style out of a genuine affection for the comics of the late Sixties and early Seventies -- the same impulse which informs the very different Astro City -- and their affection isn't at all condescending. As comics mature as an artform, there has to be room for us to go back to approaches from the past and try them on...not for pastiche or homage, but to find what may still work and what can be brought back to revitalize the future. Particularly when I look at Marvel these days, I have to wonder where mainstream comics may have gone off the rails and wonder how we might retrace their path and get things going in a more healthy direction.
My friend Howard just read one of the recent Flashback titles -- it was the League of Monsters story "By Butterfly Betrayed" -- without reading any of the backstory of the characters or additional info on the site, and he compared the in media res experience to picking up, say, a random issue of Marvel Team-Up from the mid-Seventies, and trying to figure out who all these characters were and what was going on. The mere fact that he can get that feeling from one of these books -- and doesn't feel the same way when picking up a random Marvel or DC book of today -- tells me that Flashback is definitely onto something here.