Ray Van Horn, Jr. is a veteran entertainment journalist whose writing and live photography has been featured in Blabbermouth.net, Dee Snider’s House of Hair Online, Fangoria.com, Horror News.net, About.com Heavy Metal, MetalManiacs, New Noise, Music Dish, AMP, Hails & Horns, Unrestrained,Noisecreep, Impose, Pit, The Big Takeover.com, Rough Edge.com, Pitriff and others. His blog The Metal Minute won a “Best Personal Blog” award in 2009 from Metal Hammer magazine and he wrote and produced his own hard rock e-zine, Retaliate.

He has contributed essays to UK author Neil Daniels’ Iron Maiden and ZZ Top biographies. Ray’s fiction has been published in various periodicals and anthologies, including his flash fiction piece “Off the Record” for Akashic Books’ “Mondays Are Murder” noir series. His recent short stories “Before the Ball” and “Widow” were featured in subsequent editions of Alex S. Johnson’s Axes of Evil anthologies. Ray wrote serialized original superhero fiction for Cyber Age Adventures and five of those stories appear in the anthology Playing Solitaire. He was the winner of Quantum Muse’s fiction contest in 1999.

Ray is a former NHL game analyst for The Hockey Nut and one-time host of the forum “Comic Books” at ReadWave. He has done beat reporting, photography and lifestyle articles for Metromix, an affiliate of The Baltimore Sun, Carroll Magazine, The Northern News and The Emmitsburg Dispatch.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

The Power of "1" in Comic Books

There's something about the number one that people not only identify with, they ascribe to it as creed.  First counts for everything in terms of sports, social status, prestige, acumen and material acquisition.  We always want to be the lucky folk who can brag on our favorite sport teams "We're number one!" and have it count in the form of a championship.  People live vicariously through sports, after all, football being tops.  It's never acceptable to come in less than first in a beauty pageant, since no one remembers who came in second.  Ditto for Olympians.  It's not just enough to medal anymore after competing against the world's best.  Gold or nada.  Number one.  Back in the day when we camped out overnight for major event concert tickets, being the first in line was the most coveted spot there was.  Otherwise, you subconsciously feared the show would be sold out before you got to the ticket booth and had pissed all night away on a sidewalk.

"1" carries a spot of honor and distinction, but underlying that is the competitive nature of life it takes to achieve that placement.  In comic books, "1" is a different story somewhat, but not really.  First issues of popular characters in comic books used to carry an allure about it, largely because most of the superheroes we've come to embrace in pop culture started in the time of our parents and grandparents.  We were hardly alive to have a crack at obtaining those issues off the spindle racks in five and dimes of yesteryear for a mere dime.  Of course, a dime back in the Great Depression and World War II when a lot of these comics came to life, could provide a full meal, much less a fantastical diversion we've somewhat taken for granted in modern times. 

As I've spent much of my life wrapped inside comic books with about a decade's pause to pursue my music and film journalism path, I've come to see the number "1" downplayed a bit.  Rather, it's been overused.  I believe that  many of the publishers are trying to keep their products flourishing in a transitional period for both the economy and the print medium by halting existing titles at their last issue counts and wipe the slates clean.  Both Marvel and DC, the big guns of the genre, have gone back to the "Go" spot and restarted their titles.  It's worked for them, but is there a price to pay later?

I worked retail in comics back when I was in college, so I saw firsthand what the power of "1" did for sales.  The launching of a new title during the nineties was relatively a big deal, considering all of Marvel's successful attempts to branch the mutants into subdivisions of their own teams and solo series.  Then there was the rise of Image and Valiant, who were putting out numerous new books and characters that were gobbled up in curiosity by the reading public.  Todd McFarlane's Spawn became one of the biggest hits that I can remember and we were soon ordering second printings at the comic shop to keep up with public demand.  Only the notorious "Death of Superman" story arc sent the buying public into a bigger frenzy.  I'll never forget seeing a long line of people queued outside the store on Black Friday in 1993, waiting to get their mits on Superman # 75 where the assumed killing stroke of the Man of Steel came about.  Those were second printings, for the record.  Fellow comic nerds, I invite you to tee-hee over that one.

So I get it.  Trust me, I was a marketing major in college and I studied intently what was selling and what was not at the comic shop.  We had one of Rolling Stone's writers as a regular customer, so I routinely memorized what he was reading while ringing him up so I could at least check out what entertained someone doing something I would one day do myself as a music journalist. 

The influence of "1" is an attention-getter.  It subversively summons value in the backs of the minds of the average reader.  If you've been paying attention, an original copy of Action Comics # 1 (from 1938, not the contemporary New 52 reboot) featuring the granddaddy of superhero comics, Superman, fetched $2.13 million at a recent auction.  Bank!  Yet, of-late, "1" is cropping up more than it should.

There are tons of new books coming out these days that you have to be a regular habitué of the comics scene to know when to jump on something as it's (often) hitting the masses for the first time.  The introduction of new characters and concepts is so very hard to launch, especially for the independent publisher.  Not everyone has the luxury of kicking their number counts of familiar characters back to start and have readers stay on board.  Rebranding has become the norm in comics and I'm not yet sure I like it, albeit the results have frequently been astonishing with the introduction of new creative teams and new angles.  As Depeche Mode has said, it's a competitive world, but they also said everything counts in large amounts.  Top Cow Comics initiated their universe overhaul dubbed "Rebirth," but kept their titles rolling in sequential order instead of starting over.  Food for thought.

I remember trudging two miles through ankle-deep snow one Saturday in 1982 after I was handed my allowance.  I was 12 and the overall four mile excursion was nothing to me then, but my destination was the convenience store on a busy throughway, which I wasn't allowed by my parents to walk on, for obvious reasons.  I knew a back way through the woods out of my development and thus I stomped through the snow and found Marvel's G.I. Joe, A Real American Hero #1 on the spin rack at the store.  As a younger child, I'd played with the full-sized G.I. Joe (no kung-fu grip, but he did have that groovy felt beard on him) all the time, so I just about sank to the floor with excitement when I saw that book.

I bought G.I. Joe # 1 and the latest Amazing Spiderman along with a Whatchamacallit candy bar and blew my allowance just like that.  As I slogged home with numbed ankles, I didn't feel a thing until I  got home and got my cold and wet duds off of me.  I was ordered to the bathtub to warm up and there I sat with G.I. Joe # 1, feeling like I'd netted the biggest prize of all-time.  Too bad # 1 issues don't feel like that anymore.

                                 Listenin' to:  Blur - Parklife

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