Friday, July 8, 2011

The Return of First Comics

The big news in comics today (for me, at least) is the return of First Comics.

First was an independent comic book publisher in the 80's and early 90's.  During their day, they were one of the more successful independent publishers; along with Comico and Eclipse they were part of the 'second tier' of comic book publishing (behind Marvel and DC, but ahead of everybody else).

First published a number of intriguing and entertaining original series, including Grimjack, Jon Sable Freelance, American Flagg!, Dynamo Joe, and Mars.  They also managed to acquire several from various defunct publishers, including Nexus, Badger, and Whisper from Capitol, E-Man from Charlton, and Starslayer from Eclipse, (they would also lure Evangeline away from Comico, and somewhat later, Dreadstar from Marvel/Epic).  They also published several adaptations of various characters from Michael Moorcock's 'Eternal Champion' cycle, Corum, Elric, and Hawkmoon.  They didn't publish standard superhero fare (the few books they did publish with superhero motifs were of a more quirky and offbeat nature), instead giving readers some much needed variety in terms of other genres being explored.  

Back in their prime, First was probably the most consistent publisher in the field in terms of producing quality books.  Simply put, they refused to publish crap.  Many of their titles, especially early on during First's existence, were truly exceptional reads.  If they never managed to publish the equivalent of a Watchmen or Dark Knight Returns (the closest they came in that regard was probably the first twelve issues of American Flagg!), they still managed an amazingly high percentage of their output that would knock it out of the park, month after month.  Even the worst of their books were no worse that other companies' 'average' titles.  From First, you never got anything nearly as dire as, say, Countdown to Final Crisis, or Chuck Austen's run on Uncanny X-Men.  The standards were simply too high.

Which isn't to say that all was perfect.  One of the mistakes they consistently made was to publish a title after the original creators had left the book.  What would follow wasn't necessarily bad, but it usually wasn't as good as what had come before, and perhaps more importantly, didn't necessarily fit the vision of the original creators (this was less of a problem with an artist leaving instead of a writer; Grimjack stayed consistently good even after fan-favorite artist Tim Truman left the book, due to the continued presence of write John Ostrander).  If First hadn't felt the need to publish these titles every month, but had instead perhaps went with the 'series of mini-series' approach that Dark Horse would use to such good effect in more recent years, then the overall impression may fans have of these series would not have been diluted by lesser efforts that eventually followed.

It's also questionable just how many of the original titles, that fans still have positive memories of, would be published by the new First. The original publishers burned a lot of bridges when it became clear to the various creators that, despite what they had thought, they didn't actually own the characters and concepts that they had come up with, but instead merely had the right to buy them back from First (apparently Mike Grell managed to escape this fate; rumor has it that his original contract negotiations were enhanced when a large-caliber firearm just 'happened' to be in his briefcase when the contracts were being drawn up).  Many of the original books have since found new homes at other publishers.  For better or worse, the new First will most likely have to start from scratch, at least for the most part.

There's also the question of whether or not a new comic book company can really make a go of it in today's marketplace.   It's not impossible, to be certain, but the odds are certainly against any new company managing to find success in the long haul.  The direct market is littered with the corpses of companies who have went the way of all flesh just over the last few years.  Still, win or lose, it should be interesting to see what titles the new First has to offer, and how they adapt (or fail to do so) to the 21st century comic book marketplace.

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