Week 47: The Celestial LongboxOne of the keys to this week's issue is, as Filby noticed last week, that Dr. Magnus has built a new version of his Plutonium Man. The Plutonium Man? You might have seen him here, or when that story was reprinted 19 years ago here. But otherwise, unless you have an impressive back-issue collection, a really good local comics shop or a serious eBay habit, there's very little chance you might have stumbled across him before. His appearances in the '70s run of Metal Men aren't quite on the "rocketed as a child..." level of canon that everybody who's read a couple of stories about the Metal Men knows; in order to catch what's going on, you need to have access to something that can refer you to the right story--something like this site, or one of the DCU discussion boards elsewhere--and then you need to have access to a long-out-of-print issue.
Which, of course, you do, if you're reading this on your computer. Oh, you can't get a physical copy of Metal Men #45 without some legwork and some cash, but it's not terribly hard to track the story itself down without paying, thanks to the magic of .cbr files. That would be fine for reading purposes (and actually I bought a physical copy a few months ago), but it makes me scratch my head a little about what the future of comics-as-a-business looks like. There's a solid argument that comics downloading is competing directly with the physical retail sales business; see, for instance, the kajillions of discussions going on this past week about the Dan Slott vs. torrented She-Hulk business. But there's also a good case to be made that, especially for out-of-print material, comics downloads are taking care of a niche that the comics industry simply isn't addressing--and one reliable guideline of the Internet is that whatever or whoever gets to a niche first is very hard to dislodge from it.
If you're expecting a slightly rickety analogy between the comics business and the music business, you're right, and here it comes. Digital music theorists have been using the phrase "celestial jukebox" since at least the early '90s to describe the ideal of making anything ever recorded instantly available with no more effort than it takes to punch in a song on a jukebox; iTunes and eMusic aren't quite that, but they're trying to move toward it, and by the time you get to Soulseek and BitTorrent and such, you have to have pretty damn arcane tastes to look for something you can't find. Still, one enormous mistake that the music business made (among many) was failing to jump on the digital-music-for-sale idea instantly, and not realizing that the long tail was where the money was, before users had already grown accustomed to digital music being something that was always available in exchange for a little bit of effort and no money.
The analogous situation in this medium is where the big comics copyright holders are in something of a bind. I get the sense that they're looking into potential initiatives, but the clock is ticking for people to get in the habit of buying old comics stories via something along the lines of iTunes. I also suspect that what the online market's profit-drivers might be aren't the Dark Knight-type perennials, but the long-tail oddities that can't support print republication and distribution, old stories that get referred to in new ones (like the hail of references that 52 has provided), the "historical documents" of the fictional universe. And customers are going to want to be able to get everything they want in one place, as with iTunes. Call it the celestial longbox.
That's going to require a conceptual shift, or rather a conceptual broadening. The comics economy as we know it is built on physical artifacts. All comic books are collectible--not in the sense that they necessarily appreciate in market value, but in the sense that people like to accumulate and own them. Trade paperbacks and hardcovers look nice and are convenient to have on one's bookshelf. What you're paying for when you're buying digital music, though, isn't an artifact: you can't hold it in your hand, you can't furnish your dwelling with it, you can't sell it if you decide you don't want it any more. You're paying for part of what you get when you pay for a CD--total access to its contents, any time you want--and you're also paying for something else, the convenience of not having to put in time and effort looking for it in the first place.
The same thing applies for digital comics. You can't hold them in your hand; you can't ask the clerk how much they're going to be worth; you can't get whatever "aura" there is to a mass-produced physical artifact that is easily available for a few weeks or months and then increasingly inconvenient to find after that. Those are important things to a lot of people who read comics; they're important to me (well, not the asking-the-clerk one, especially since I used to be that clerk). Without them, part of what I love about the comics-reading experience is missing. But part of it is still there.
At the same time, the standard ethical (rather than legal) argument against unauthorized downloads of copyrighted material--that it deprives copyright owners of reaping the financial rewards of their work--is somewhat less durable when you're talking about material that's not commercially available in any form that benefits its creators or rights-holders, and not likely to be any time soon. (The counter-argument is that unauthorized downloads of out-of-print material affect back-issue sales at retail stores, and that that trickles down to affect what they order of new comics, and therefore to affect the state of the comics publishing business--but I've stacked the deck, since the example at hand is 30 years old.)
To put it a different way: Right now--this specific week--there's an enhanced market to sell some inexpensive, easy-to-find copies of Metal Men #45, and maybe by extension some of the rest of the '70s Simonson run, and possibly also some other Steve Gerber or Walt Simonson or Metal Men comics. That market will be drastically diminished after this week, and nobody's selling that particular issue right now except for a handful of stores that have yellowing print copies in yellowing plastic bags. But I bet a bunch of people are going to be reading it anyway. Which is to say: if Jane Q. Fiftytwofortyseven can have a 30-second, 99-cent transaction to get a digital copy of Metal Men #45, she might well do that. If she wants to but can't, she's much more likely to spend an hour and a half digging around for a torrent of .cbr files of the complete run of Metal Men. And once she's got that already, the likelihood that she's going to want to pay 99 cents for a digital copy of #45 in a year and a half is vanishingly slim.
Where were we? Oh, right, talking about this week's 52. Space B is a sort of celestial longbox of its own: "this, your universe" is of course the DCU, and lucky Buddy has access to Week 51 already. There's some good theorizing on the DC boards that Space B = the Bleed, which has been seen in Ion = the space between panels in comic books, the "outside the collection" negative space that works about the same way as good old Hypertime.
Beautiful cover this week (the dagger popping out of the image and over the logo is a very nice touch), but oh, that episode title--not only does it have the standard mis-citation of "Revelation" that we've talked about before, but it's a curious choice for an issue in which, really, nothing is revealed. Also, we appear to have gotten shorted two pages this week--the lead story's only 18 pages. What, did Montoya get laid again?
Pg. 1: I can find no previous documentation of a "Thörgal ordeal," or indeed of a "Thörgal" (this doesn't count). Although if we're talking about top-selling comics involving ritual sacrifices, it's worth mentioning that this volume apparently sold 280,000 copies in France. Isn't it amazing what comics can sell, he asked rhetorically? Yes, I've been obsessing over Comichron this week. Remember: in 1969, even 52's current figures would have paled before eighth-tier hits like Texas Rangers in Action (more comics should have cover copy ending with "Oh yeah!").
Also: The koan the monk offers Tim on this page is a familiar one--familiar enough, in fact, that both that link and whoever wrote this sequence make the error of trying to explain it. (The solution suggests The Invisibles' recurring theme that language makes reality.) I also like the familiar symbolism of the monks rolling the stone to block off the cave...
Pg. 2: Vashnu is a follower of Rama Kushna who first appeared here, created by the sorely missed Arnold Drake.
Pg. 3: As commenter premiani pointed out, Crippen is Dr. Hawley Crippen. Kürten is German serial killer Peter Kürten, "The Vampire of Düsseldorf" (whose one on-panel DC-published appearance was here). Gacey is probably a misspelling of John Wayne Gacy, who... oh, never mind. "See my kingdom rise anew upon the Earth," besides its obvious overtones, may be another tease of the Kingdom Come stuff that DC seems to be hinting at lately.
Pg. 5: You would think that with their ties to the underworld/assassin culture, these cultists would've heard of David Cain and maybe even his twice-named daughter. (Not this David Cain.) Not to mention that her mom has ties to several other members of 52's cast.
Pg. 6: Where'd he get all that plutonium this time, considering he had to smuggle in supplies for e.g. tin? Also, you don't want to be cavalierly throwing around plutonium, given that a thousandth of a gram is lethal.
Pg. 7: I like mini-Tin and mini-Mercury being the angel and devil in Magnus's pockets, especially since they're both offering the same advice.
Pg. 9: Another Invisibles-like sequence--this is a lot like the "initiation" sequences, especially Yellow Alien Dude's assertion that "out here, there are no sides." Doesn't Buddy look a little like Speedball in that top panel? I hope Ellen moving on doesn't make him put on an inside-out porcupine outfit.
Pg. 11: Just, you know, to underscore that Natasha has Learned A Whole Lot since Week 1.
Pg. 12: "A band": good choice of words, especially since that's the self-description that the 52 writers used, at least at the beginning. (And I wonder if there's going to be any kind of reunions once this tour is over: it'd be neat to see a 52 special or two written by the four of them, at least, without the GOTTADOITNOW pressure of a weekly.)
Pg. 13: A deck-clearing scene. Aren't "hard work" and "elbow grease" the same thing?
Pg. 14: If she's ringing the doorbell, wouldn't that mean somebody buzzed her in?... although maybe that was Dick or Jason or whoever's wearing the Nightwing outfit. A building ritzy enough to have a zillionaire living in its penthouse, though, is a lot more likely to have a doorman than buzzers. "Z. Wie Funfzig," plus an umlaut and a bit of rearranging, is German for "52." And "T.O. Twiffy" is T.O. Morrow's anagrammatic cousin.
Pg. 15: Well, at least Kate finally got an actual Hanukkah menorah--just in time for Passover! You'd think the Watchmen-style window damage would've been noticed by more people outside the building, though.
Pg. 16: You know, the last time Diana went all normal-and-mortal, Wonder Woman read even more than ever like a bondage fetishist's dream series. Of course, all that changed with the advent of women's lib and the return of her powers and costume. Oh wait: no it didn't... at least not immediately.
Pg. 18: The solicitation for next month's issue of Batman suggests that that's where we're going to find out what happened here. Curious that it's the cliffhanger in 52, then--! So he comes out of the cave and sees his Bat-shadow and it means we wait four more weeks to find out what happens next?
The Origin of the Teen Titans: Mostly notable for the look of Kerschl's art--somewhere between the standard superhero style of the regular Titans series and the cartoonier, distorted approach of Teen Titans Go!--the blue lines of Raven's costume, in particular, have that animation-cel vibe to them.