IT’S QUITE SIMPLE, REALLY
The good guys at CCW*TV— comic retailer par excellence Jose Melendez and comic writer extraordinaire Elliott Serrano— are very high on the obvious talents of one Mr. Jeff Parker. They like him so much, they mention his name often and are always certain to note whenever a new “JP” book arrives. Since they turned me onto Jeff’s work, I have already mentioned him in several posts (here and here) and even reviewed his Namora #1 one-shot comic on this very Blog.
The fact that Jeff’s book– Agents of Atlas (also known as “AoA” for brevity’s sake)– was never a big hit had been quite the topic of discussion (and bone of contention) for most folks posting on the highly recommended CCW*TV Blog. So much so, when Marvel dropped the bombshell that Jeff had decided to end the current AoA run with issue #5, practically everyone on the blog declared the comic’s demise a national tragedy.
It should come as no surprise, then, that I also personally believe Agents of Atlas is one of the FINEST COMICS Marvel has printed
in well over a decade…Which makes “Jeff’s decision” to stop the book cold all the more distressing to me and other discerning comic fans. Some say Parker made the smart move to “cancel” the title himself before Marvel did it themselves… That way he could leave the book on his own terms and with his vision intact. I absolutely agree.
And even though Agents of Atlas is soon ending active publication, I strongly suggest that you make a point to pick up all the various Trade Paperbacks or Hardcovers that are available before they too sell out. Cancellation doesn’t mean a book is dead. There are a lot of great AoA adventures for you to read if you haven’t already done so!
Which brings me to Jose politely insisting that I finally read the Agents of Atlas: Turf Wars hardcover the other day. When he went so far as to double-check and determine that this new collection wouldn’t spoil my current reading of Marvel’s Dark Reign crossover books– I read Turf Wars immediately.
Upon reading the hardcover and enjoying every single page of it (despite the annoying, frequently rotating, list of pencilers)– I decided to try to determine exactly why Agents of Atlas didn’t sell– in any of its’ various incarnations– considering the huge amount of talent involved in the book from Day One.
THE GOOD STUFF
Let’s quickly run down what the Agents of Atlas creative team and the publisher did right. As already stated, Parker and company really couldn’t have devised and created a better comic book. One CCW*TV Blog poster noted that he felt Marvel had done their part in supporting the book as well– and that is true. They gave AoA like, What? 3 different chances to succeed– despite never seeing powerhouse sales? And Marvel execs certainly let Parker run loose in the Marvel U– with one-shots and guest stars from the likes of the #1 best-selling Avengers book to the popular X-Men and Hulk comics. They also contracted with the über-talented Leinel Yu to create the regular series covers… And for my money, you can’t pick any better living comic book cover artists than the triumvirate of Leinel Yu, Brian Bolland or Olivier Coipel.
So we have a fantastic book, popular guest-stars that should guarantee lots of crossover sampling and beautiful book covers… So what went wrong? Why didn’t Agents of Atlas sell?
THE 1ST THING THAT WENT WRONG
#1: Jeff Parker is too talented.
I know, I know… I can already hear you screaming, “How in the fuck is that a problem?”
Well, I’ll tell you how it’s a problem: Because Parker is so talented, people saw Comic Companies putting his name on lots of books (Underground for Image and Mysterius the Unfathomable at Wildstorm– to name just a few “instant classics”)… Yet hardly any fans knew anything about the man– let alone that he could actually write comics.
Parker is one of those rare polished professionals that jumped into a Marvel writing gig without already making a “name” for himself as a writer at some other comic company or in some other mainstream medium like television, movies or prose fiction first. In fact, prior to his current Marvel stint, Parker had mainly worked only as an ARTIST.
Get the pattern? Parker had ZERO “heat” as a writer. There was nothing to differentiate his stellar work from the hundreds of other comic book writers already busting their asses attempting to make a living.
You may have been a big fan of Jeff’s art– but chances are you didn’t know bupkiss about his writing ability. The Big Two (Marvel & DC) will tell you that in this era of $3.99 comics— not being a name writer is a big negative. Marvel definitely loves hiring all kinds of famous and semi-famous prose writers— whether they have proven comic writing skills or not. (DC, sadly, is following suit.)
Yet Marvel hired “No-Name” Parker anyway and given his awesome talent– immediately launched him on a new title… Something that is virtually unheard of in nowadays. Usually– especially when working for DC or Marvel– every creative person must toil in less popular “B” and “C” titles first… Learning their craft and building that “name”– before being given a shot at the “Big League” characters. They definitely don’t get to shepherd their own book straight out of the chute.
So, as weird as it sounds– Agents of Atlas’ sales have been a “victim” of Jeff’s superior talent– as Marvel gave Parker the book long before he had the chance to build the huge fan following most writer’s acquire before being offered such a major opportunity.
At $3.99 per issue, current readers cannot afford to give new talent a shot… Unless, of course, someone pairs the newbies with a already popular creative partner or places them in “creator proof” titles like Spider-man or Batman… In other words, books that have proven over time to sell well despite the quality of the creative teams involved.
Agents of Atlas was far too obscure a title to ever be considered “creator proof”… And Marvel taking a gamble by putting Parker at the helm is a commendable decision. It is also a very hopeful sign that Marvel actually values and looks for something other than exceptional pencilers when evaluating potential new comic book employees.
Parker’s overabundance of talent brings us to the MAIN REASON Agents of Atlas did not sell well. The reason being so simple that I must fault Marvel for not catching on and doing something to correct it.
THE 2ND THING THAT WENT WRONG
#2: The strange, giddy SYNOPSIS PAGES that Parker wrote for every issue of the continuing Agents of Atlas’ comic book.
As noted above in Reason #1, the new $3.99 price point makes a casual comic buy virtually a non-existent animal these days. Most comic enthusiasts are not going to pick up a new book– especially a continuing book they aren’t already reading– just on the strength of a cool cover drawing. They need much more. And with the popularity of huge company-wide crossovers diminishing by the year, the Synopsis Page is one of the only major tools left to convince a possible new patron to take a chance on a new title.
Whenever you have an exceptional writer– especially one that decides to work in the comics field– their work/vision tends to eclipse the power wielded by their editors. This is not a phenomenon that only adversely affects the comic book industry. Every medium has popular writers that get away with bloated, eccentric works— simply because they can.
Now, it’s very clear that Parker was not given the freedom to indulge some of his wilder eccentricities because of overwhelming popularity. He was far too new at the scripting game to enjoy such creative license. I believe Jeff “got away” with his quirkier dalliances because the Powers That Be couldn’t bring themselves to stifle his creativity– and wanted to keep this wonderfully talented man satisfied and working for them (and not the Distinguished Competition) for a very long time to come.
As a person who has made a pretty satisfying career out of entertaining folks, I can tell you without equivocation that every writer needs an editor… If anything– just to encourage said writer to keep going down the “good paths” in his or her work. Writing the SAYL Blog is one of the hardest “assignments” I have ever undertaken… Not for the sheer volume of grunt work that a Blog requires– but because I am own editor.
So we’ve got Jeff Parker– great writer– seemingly given little editorial guidance or interference when writing a series of weird, off-putting first page synopses for every issue of Agents of Atlas. How these pages ever saw print is amazing– as they contradict everything one might learn in a “Marketing 101″ class. Every person involved– including Parker’s AoA Editor– obviously did not understand or give enough credit to the valuable importance the Synopsis Page now holds in determining what books comic readers buy.
And it is my considered opinion that no one told Parker to quit writing these extremely important marketing blurbs just for CURRENT Agents of Atlas reader.
Rarely (if ever) did Jeff write a catchy, straight forward synopsis that might benefit or encourage a non-reader to purchase his book.
As a reader from Issue#1, I can tell you I loved the cool, wacky synopses that Parker wrote. At least he was attempting to do something different… Right? But I’m not the person that Jeff or Marvel should have worried about. I was already a true believer in the comic. But after reading several of these complicated, overly mocking introductory segments back-to-back– I knew the tone used in these pages was a horrible mistake. I could literally envision thousands of comic fans picking up different Agent of Atlas issues for their beautiful Yu covers or popular guest characters– only to quickly place them back on the racks after reading the near indecipherable, almost always impenetrable Parker synopsis.
I know it’s tough to believe that something so seemingly inconsequential could be the main culprit that led to Agents of Atlas demise. Could it really be that everyone’s hard work was wasted just because of a few quirky synopsis pages?
You damn well better believe it could.
Consumers are literally overwhelmed with choice these days– hence all the overtly titillating product enticements and quick-cut movie trailers that tell you a film’s entire plot in 2 and 1/2 minutes. If the potential object of desire doesn’t hook you instantly— or expose itself so frankly that you can relate to it immediately— Chances are you are going to ignore it and move on to the next bright & shiny thing that does.
So before you go blaming Marvel completely for canceling your favorite comic, please try to realize that– like all things– there is more than enough shared culpability here. I have no doubt that Jeff Parker’s wildly inventive style is mere months away from gaining wide mainstream acceptance. I can also easily see Jeff eventually considered as the “American” equivalent of an Alan Moore or Warren Ellis.
Unfortunately for Agents of Atlas fans– that day isn’t a reality… yet. But take heart. It IS right around the corner.