Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Icon Comics - A Retrospective


The Icon Comics imprint was launched by Marvel in 2004 so that Brian Michael Bendis and Michael Avon Oeming could bring their superhero detective title, Powers, which had been previously published under Image. This brand new imprint was the place where Marvel’s A-list talent could work in their own  titles with more creative freedom while still retaining the rights to their characters, and without having to venture to another publisher (such as Image, which is usually the most common breeding ground for a creator to go do their own thing).

Due to recent Icon news, such as Casanova and Scarlet, it seems a good time to look back at Icon and see how this little imprint might just be conquering the comic publishing field with quality and purity of vision.

Powers

There was no Icon until Bendis came along with Powers in 2004. He had launched the superhero detective procedural series at Image with Jim Valentino and ran through 37 issues there but then got a case of itchy feet. Valentino had left Image as publisher and Bendis was deeply entrenched in the Marvel lifestyle. It made sense to put all his eggs in the one basket. Marvel were more than accommodating for Bendis, having already created another imprint, the MAX adult line, for his Alias series.

It also made good business for Marvel as the MAX line did take off successfully, with Alias doing well critically and in sales, and even receiving two Eisner nominations in 2004. Bendis was doing well for Marvel so they did well for him. It was a fruitful relationship, and it’s interesting to note that six years later it still is.

This all has an obvious connection to Joe Quesada becoming Marvel’s Editor-In-Chief in 2000. Quesada had set up the Marvel Knights line, a harder edged line of older-aged aimed titles, of which Daredevil, with Quesada on art and Kevin Smith on words, was a major tent pole. From this success, Quesada was made EiC and promptly went about supporting the creators that he lured into the House of Ideas. He was happy to create the MAX line and then just as amiable to set up Icon. And strangely enough, despite the many complaints that Quesada yields on the internet, both imprints have been successful and opened up Marvel to compete in an industry that no longer aims for the child audience that is so rarely there.

The Icon imprint is proof in hand that Quesada, and thus Marvel, is serious about supporting their talent and feeding them as well. They want them to stay, and they want them to feel appreciated. Though it might seem harsh that Icon is ‘invite only’ and reserved for the elite creators, usually those with an exclusive contract with Marvel, this also keeps a level of quality high, in theory. If you’re a newcomer beating script on the street then you still have plenty of other publishers to submit too, but as a reader you can generally go to Icon to get a great comic, or at least a very pure experience of what the creators really want to show you, uninhibited by continuity and censorship.

Finding Their Feet With Kabuki and Others

Very shortly after Powers made the smooth transition, David Mack, another Daredevil alumni, brought his Kabuki across as well. A close friend with Bendis, Mack had been the reason Bendis came across to Marvel in the first place, it made sense that both would end up on this experimental imprint. Kabuki has had a staccato publishing career and Marvel have stood by and left the imprint open to Mack whenever he is ready to publish the next storyline.

The year after brought J. Michael Straczynski into the fold with two titles, Dream Police and The Book of Lost Souls, the former being a one-shot and the latter only having six issues. There was also an attempt to repurpose old unused Jack Kirby material to create six issues of Jack Kirby’s Galactic Bounty Hunters. By this stage the imprint was small and mostly only used to put Powers out for Bendis. It wasn’t so much languishing as simply biding its time. It didn’t need to rush into anything, the good stuff would come to it.

Criminal

Then along came Criminal. In 2006, Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips launched their noir series to critical acclaim and an Eisner award for Best New Series. Brubaker was riding high off the unanimous success of relaunching Captain America and taking the reins of Daredevil from Bendis. He was a heavy hitting superhero scribe and he parlayed this acclaim into being given complete control over a title that he was so obviously passionate about.

Though sales numbers weren’t high, reviews and critical praise were universal. Criminal only got better with each issue and yet sales were still relatively low. Brubaker had included back matter in each issue, discussion and essays on the genre that would never be collected elsewhere, but still the title’s range of exposure didn’t meet the unanimous understanding that this title is brilliant. It took a quick break only to relaunch with a new numbering system, increased exposure and sales, and it now trades in continuing mini-series tales that all link together within their own shared universe. I rate this as one of my personal favourite titles, with the Bad Night arc being my absolute favourite as it is a damn fine example of just how bad noir can make you feel about the world.

Kick-Ass

To hold an Icon title you also had to be responsible for the business side of the show and a big part of this is the advertising portion of the game. Mark Millar, a man known as his own best promoter, began a buzz when he disseminated teaser images for a title known as Kick-Ass. Just the image of a John Romita Jr. drawn hand punching some goon in the face was enough to get people spreading the word of mouth.

This was the beginning of a two year phenomenon of exaggerated hyperbole and extreme violence that would be Kick-Ass, a tale of a regular high school kid trying his hand at being a street level superhero. Millar was constantly delayed in bringing the pages onto the shelves and many credit this problem as being connected to the fact that Millar sold the story to filmmaker Matthew Vaughan and instantly set to work developing the project while still writing the series. It perhaps wasn’t the greatest way to create a comic, some could see it as a bit of a knock to the comic form as Millar possibly used it as a movie pitch platform instead, though credit should be made that Millar and Romita Jr. did eventually finish the series, and just before the movie hit screens, too.

Sales on this title only continued to escalate, despite delays, most likely due to growing movie hype hitting a variety of readers. The collected edition has already sold quite well and made plenty of money for the creative team. Millar has already stated an intention to follow up the series with a sequel in 2011.

Incognito

Brubaker and Phillips took a hiatus on Criminal to bring us the new tale of pulp intrigue mixed with neon superheroics and villainy that is Incognito. The series centers on a supervillain who has been put into Witness Protection Program after he sells out his boss. It’s an interesting premise and it quickly drew in more numbers than Criminal had been reaching so far in its run. Sell outs and reprints raised hype and soon the sales numbers were finally living up to the critical reviews.

Incognito is currently nominated for an Eisner award for Best Limited Series, as well as Brubaker being nominated, as usual, for Best Writer, and Sean Phillips being nominated for Best Cover Artist. The series was a complete success and a follow up is planned to hit this July/August now that another Criminal arc has been delivered, and Sean Phillips is taking a little time away from Brubaker to work on one of Marvel’s Dark Tower minis.

This title would be my favourite output of Icon so far, it's harsh and twisted and blindingly well written as Phillips makes everything look like it was invented by an Underwood typewriter years before by a hack who lived on a diet of gimlets and cigarettes. The back matter essays by Jess Nevins are excellently research, especially the last one about the Zeppelin Pulps.

Nemesis

Millar is currently riding high of the success of Kick-Ass by releasing Nemesis, a story that pits a billionaire playboy who has decided to take the villain path instead of using his many advantages in the world for good. The usual Millar hyperbole has been attached to the title, with him even selling it with the high concept tagline of “What if Batman was the Joker?”, and it is another collaboration with fantastic artist Steve McNiven. The title hasn’t opened with such a great response with many reviewers painting it as a shallow attempt of splashing ‘aw, cool’ moments against a concept but not necessarily a story.

Even still, Nemesis has sold well, and will most likely continue too, especially for what equates to an independent comic, and Millar will no doubt follow it with his second dip into the Kick-Ass story. Millar is enjoying the freedom Icon brings him and he’s delivering plenty of money and exposure for Marvel.

Casanova

Matt Fraction’s brilliant and face-melting creator owned series, Casanova was originally launched at Image years ago. It has been on hiatus for the last two years because, as Fraction says, it simply wasn’t selling enough to truly support the creators and they do have bills to pay. Fraction even says that he’s, as yet, not actually made any money himself from the title, which is a true shame and such an indicator of how little independent comics usually sell. The title is now being ported across to Icon and will start by reprinting the first 14 issues with new colouring and lettering and once that is completed, and hopefully everyone is caught up, the third story arc will kick off with original artist Gabriel Ba back on board, and he’ll be joined by twin brother Fabio Moon on the next arc.

To learn more about how exactly Casanova will be relaunched, and why in fact it is so insanely gorgeous check out my in-depth retrospective here. Suffice to say, the series was nominated for an Eisner for Best New Series and scored unbelievable amounts of critical acclaim that didn’t correlate to readership (one of my favourite pieces about the series was by Tim Callahan, check it out).

Fraction hopes that the shift to Marvel, and the fact that he’s spent his recent years writing an Eisner winning run on Invincible Iron Man and also guided The Uncanny X-Men into their latest major storyline might just mean that more fans will follow him back into Casanova Quinn’s brilliant universe. This is a good move for Icon as Casanova has been synonymous with very high quality and is definitely a great slice of news for Casanova fans who have waited over two years for the next story arc.

Scarlet

Bendis is retuning to some creator owned work, a field that he made his name in originally but has now traded so as to lead the overall tone of the Marvel U by penning numerous event titles and a handful of Avengers titles, not to mention over 100 successive Ultimate Spider-Man comics. He is bringing with him the artist from his Eisner winning run on Daredevil, Alex Maleev. They have spent the last year working on Spider-Woman and Maleev cited a burn out on the need to do something else. This something else is the latest Icon title being added titled Scarlet.

Maleev has never worked on a creator owned project before and it seems like the best way for him to wash out the taste of having to draw Jessica Drew repeatedly over seven issues, as well as the motion comics. Scarlet looks at the tale of a woman who becomes fed up with the way the system works and so starts to push back against it. The system then pushed back down on her and thus the story begins. It sounds like an interesting tale and considering the history that Bendis and Maleev have together I would think that the title is going to look very damn good, it should read pretty well, and sales should be enough to keep it afloat.

I’ll be interested to see exactly how sales go on this title because Bendis, when writing the Avengers or a main event, is a top ten sales guarantee, yet his other work is not such a lock. His Spider-Woman launched comfortably but slowly slipped into steady losses each month until the title was soon put onto hiatus after the close of the first arc. I think it would be best to compare sales on Scarlet to other Icon titles instead.

Award Winning Talent

You may have noticed that the word Eisner appears pretty consistently throughout this article, and that has been a conscious decision on my behalf. The Eisner Awards are the premiere honours in the comic industry and it is interesting to see just how many Eisner related talents are involved in titles within the Icon Imprint. There’s quite a lot and I think that does tell us something.

Bendis and Brubaker have both won Eisners for Best Writer, and Bendis was also the recipient of the now defunct award of Talent Deserving of Wider Recognition. Both Powers and Criminal won Best New Series awards, and Matt Fraction won it last year for Invincible Iron Man, and was nominated the year before for single issue. Brubaker and Fraction relaunched The Immortal Iron Fist to a nomination for Best New Series. Fabio Moon drew Sugarshock! which won for Best Digital Comic and Gabriel Ba has been nominated for Best Artist and Best Covers.

This year nomination include Brubaker for writing and single issue as well as Incognito for new series, the Nemesis team for Old Man Logan for story arc, Steve McNiven is up for art, and Sean Phillips is up for covers.

I’m sure there have been plenty of others nominations and wins that I haven’t even found, I know J. Michael Straczynski has been nominated in plenty of ways over the years, as has Mark Millar, in the past. The imprint is full of award winners, in fact, every single Icon writer and artist (and even Criminl/Incognito colourist Val Staples) has been nominated for or won an Eisner, or been involved in a nominated venture except for Mike Deodato. That’s a pretty strong pedigree for an entire history of an imprint, no matter how nascent it is.

The Future

Icon Comics have quickly and completely made themselves a brand that stands for mainlined creator ideas and execution of stunning detail and brilliance that wow fans and critics in a very high strike rate. They now have eight titles in various stages of publication and perhaps they will get a few more as the years go by, though expansion is not exactly necessary. Quality is what they strive for and usually what they produce. Even if you don’t agree with a specific title’s quality (as I don’t with Kick-Ass) there is no doubt that the Icon Bullpen is a breeding ground for unrelenting success.

Were Icon to welcome any more creators into their fold in the future you could assume they would be high quality creators who have proven themselves elsewhere already. And with talent like Jason Aaron and Jonathan Hickman, both of who are critically acclaimed creators and have exclusive contracts with Marvel, it wouldn't be surprising to see the Icon imprint welcome them into the fold.

Even if the imprint doesn’t expand it will certainly have cemented its position as an arena of comics that stands toe-to-toe with anything else the industry is publishing. It’s a great step forward for Marvel Comics by showing that they’re not just after spandex clad crossovers, they do foster other genre work from their contracted talent and the Disney purchase doesn’t seem to have slowed their commitment to putting out the best comics they can at all times.

Conclusion

It may have only popped up in the last decade but Icon is a brand that demands your attention. With the addition of Scarlet and Casanova to the crew, Icon is looking to a bright new future of letting creators really do whatever the hell they want. This will not always be a perfect recipe, though their process of only inviting the best of the best does mean that it should usually self-moderate to be a publisher of only the finest four colour stories. DC has long had Vertigo and Icon is finally setting itself up as the Marvel alternative. No matter how the battle plays out comics readers will be the winner when this sort of content reaches our shelves.

If you haven’t yet read any of the titles above then I highly suggest you go out and track a few down in trades, I don’t think you’ll be massively disappointed. If you have read any of these titles before let us know what you think of them in the comments. Also let us know if you plan to pick up Scarlet or Casanova at all. We’d love to hear from fellow Icon acolytes.


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13 comments:

brandon said...

The only things I've read from Icon have been Criminal/Incognito and Kick Ass and the two properties are vastly different.

To me, Criminal/Incognito is one of the best things I've ever read and it is so much more enhanced by the essays.

And I agree the Zeppelin one may have been the best. Apologies to RKL's Aussie Noir one :)

Based on how much I love Criminal/Incognito I keep my eye on whatever Icon puts out though which is a good thing.

Nice piece down-under-brutha

Marc said...

I enjoyed JMS's Dream Police and always hoped it would develop into something more than just the one-shot. It'll probably never happen at this point, especially since JMS doesn't seem to be working much with Marvel anymore, but I guess you never know. I would encourage anyone who hasn't read or heard of it to pick it up if they get the chance...it's only one issue and there's a decent chance you could find it floating around in your LCS's quarter bin.

Yoyocool said...

It seems weird that warren Ellis supports Avatar as much as he does when Icon is there. That's food for thought.

Henrik J said...

Honestly i dont have much interest in these titles, crime fiction in general doesnt interest me, but mostly it is because i dont like any of the artists on these titles (apart from Steve McNiven.

Yoyocool : Ellis has mentioned before that he wants to support some of the smaller comic publishers, that is why he puts out his work with them

Ryan K Lindsay said...

I'll say that I only support Criminal and Incognito here, and support them massively as they're both some of the best comics ever, and I will also now add Casanova to that list as it was also brilliant. I would like to try Scarlet but at $3.99 I am not sure it will make the cut, Maleev, as always, is a big draw, though.

@Marc - I hadn't even heard of Dream Police until I researched this piece. I would definitely check it out if I could find it.

Anonymous said...

Just because of the retrospective you guys did for CASANOVA, I checked out the 1st issue on ImageComics.com and was blown away.

It really showed me what I've been missing in Matt Fraction's writing. Since then I've gone back and checked out his Iron Man and Thor work.

Shoot, I almost forgot the new Casanova in July which I WILL be picking up.

natureboy_HH said...

Like brandon, I've read only Criminal, Incognito and Kick-Ass. Kick-Ass started good but turned out to be lame, but Criminal and Incognito are must reads.

Obviously Icon won't be coming out with anything like Sandman or Swamp Thing, and Vertigo currently has more mature and compelling titles coming out on a monthly basis. But as Ryan pointed out readers are the real winners, and I hope for more titles from both Vertigo and Icon.

Not too eager for any of Bendis' work but I'm definitely getting Casanova (thank you very much for the Hype Machine, Mr. Lindsay).

Ryan K Lindsay said...

And this is why I love this site. You get to see honest positive reactions from readers whose reading catalogues I have affected for the better.

@Anonymous, I am glad you even dipped into some other Fraction work, those Thor one-shot's were the business.

@natureboy_HH, I agree that Criminal and Incognito are insanely great, I think I've said that enough around here, but I'm glad another fan is now going to give Cass a chance. And I disagree with the Sandman Swamp Thing statement, Icon very well could do that, I mean, Vertigo was only founded for Swamp Thing and applied it retroactively, didn't it, so it didn't flood the market instantly, it's been well over a decade brewing, so I see Icon as slowly but surely getting there.

brandon said...

one thing I forgot to mention is that I would like to see Remender do some creator owned stuff for Icon. His Fear Agent and End League were some of the best things I've read in recent years.

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