Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Best/Worse of the Comic World in 2009

Bitterfanboy's call

Best Comic Books for your buck in 2009:

The Fantastic Four by Jonathan Hickman and Dale Eaglesham. The first story arc of this team blew me away. It’s what a comic series of a beloved, longstanding franchise should be…stories that are familiar and surprising at the same time. Not only does this team capture the magic of the FF in the days of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, but also the feel and look of the FF in ‘70s when creators like Roy Thomas, Marv Wolfman and George Perez told great adventure stories at a breakneck pace.

Ultimate Avengers Relaunch by Mark Millar and Carlos Pacheco. Carlos is and has been once of todays best pencilers. He’s the second coming of Alan Davis and deserves to be showcased on today’s top titles. Here he finally lands that big screen-like project with Mark Millar at the helm. Millar has always been a writer who can reinterpret yesterday’s heroes for today’s audiences but recently has had trouble telling a focused, strong tale. With this new Ult Avengers book Millar once again locks it in and gives us blockbuster film in a comic that would be better than any Avengers film could be realized on the silver screen. An action packed tale with a jaw dropping twist of the Red Skull being the son of the Ult Universe Captain America leaves the reader wanting nothing but more with each issue.

Green Lantern by Geoff Johns and various artists. Years and years ago, DC killed Hal Jordan for no other reason than the fact that lazy editors and writers ran out of good ideas for the hero. Then along comes Johns who proves that what Neal Adams used to always say is true: “There are no bad characters, only bad writers”. Johns not only restored Hal, the Green Lantern Corp and his title to glory for years now but Hal's ongoing story is also is the focal point of almost every large scale event in the DCU since his return. Green Lantern is THE most consistantly good book in the DCU and has been for some time now.

Deadpool: Merc with a Mouth by Victor Gischler and Bong Dazo. I have no idea who these creators are. It doesn’t matter. This title is a big, dumb, silly romp that is a blast to read. Amazingly, unlike Marvel’s problem with Spider-Man, all the of the many Deadpool spin offs so far are fun to read. Not all are must haves but this title in particular strikes the right tone with this character and also co-stars the Deadpool Zombie head from the Marvel Zombies dimension. Stupid? Yes. Fun? Hell yes!

Power Girl by Justin Gray, Jimmy Palmiotti and Amanda Conner. Like with Deadpool, this title is my guilty pleasure monthly. Its fun, it’s witty, it can be sexy and it’s another great example of a talented team of creators taking a lower tier character and making him or her popular by simply telling good stories. Connor’s simple, animation-like style grows on you. I still hate PG’s costume redesign though. Why the giant shoulder pad? That kind of useless item on the outfit is straight out of the Rob Liefeld school of costume design. Palmiotti is DC's New York, in-house golden boy currently who can be relied upon to turn in smart and fun scripts. Don't be surprised to see DC offer him an editor chair soon like Marvel wisely did with his old partner Joey Q years ago.

Invincible by Robert Kirkman and Ryan Ottley. The main storyline in 2009 was titled the “ Invincible War” and it was another blockbuster packaged in as a comic book. Ryan Ottley proved he could draw big, in-your-face action sequences like the best of ‘em along with quiet, dramatic moments that hang with you after the book has been read. Kirkman understands why anyone of any age wants to read a comic book and feeds great storytelling to you by the spoonful on one page then with a cannon to your face on the next. The character of Invincible is the best of old school Spider-man and Superboy stories wrapped up in a 21st century package.

Worst books that I spent money on in 2009 and now want a refund:

Hulk by Jeph Leob and various artists. Holee crap are we getting screwed on this title. The great “Who is the Red Hulk?” mystery…I’ve read 17 issues of this book and the plot has not moved forward in all this time. Yes, there has been action and guest stars and numerous splash pages but that’s about it. Nothing happens in this book! Ever! Leob doesn’t have a great plan here except to have whatever Marvel U characters he has an urge to write for jump thru the title, yell something, punch someone and then be on their merry way. A complete waste of any reader’s time and cash.

Spider-Woman by Brian Bendis and Alex Malev. For years Bendis kept teasing Marvel fans about a Spider-Woman title that was going to be so great the creators and editors had to take years to develop it for the great unwashed. Hell, even Apple was on board to help create and promote a new motion comic book that could really help usher in a new wave in online entertainment. It finally debuts in late summer ANNNNND it’s the most boring and ugly book Marvel currently publishes. Bendis is one creator that has lost his touch in 2009 and is now taking even longer to tell comic stories than he used to but this…this will absolutely put one to sleep at night. And while I typically have liked Malev’s work in the past, this has to be the ugliest interpretation of Jessica Drew since Carmine Infantino used to draw her in the ‘70s. This book won’t last 12 issues unless maybe the team changes. Ugh.

Batman & Robin by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely then other artists. So this title starts off great then Quitely quickly jumps ship and since that loss a parade of artists begin to line up to soldier the book on. Sorry DC, once an artist like Quitely leaves a crazy Morrison storyline, the party is over. It’s like switching the lead cast members of a film one third of the way in. What the hell ever happened to these publishers stocking up on completed issues with problem artists before a title is launched?

All Superman and Batman titles by any current creative DC team. Let’s take both Clark and Bruce out of all their main monthly titles for a year or so and to boost sales! DC takes the two icons that hold the house up and remove them at the same time. This will go down as one of the dumbest ideas in comic publishing history. As the 2009 month to month sales figures show, this was a colossal blunder by editorial. We are at the end of a year of the mess and still have not found the bottom in monthly order numbers for any of the family of titles. It’s also a big problem DC refuses to face and doesn’t plan to course correct for at least another 6 or 8 months. Both storylines are so awful and dragged out that I can’t care enough to recap specifics here. I’ll go read older, better Supes & Bats stories again until the whole mess blows over. Fuck you Didido.

The Jury is still out on:

New/Dark Avengers by Brian Bendis and various artists. Great storyline at first but overly padded in 2009. Throughout all the crossovers, one-shots and mini-series tied into the Dark Avengers saga, all we have really come to learn in the past year is…'gasp!'...Harry Osborn is evil and crazy. Really hope this goes somewhere interesting very soon. Btw, dump penciler Mike Deodato and all his assistants off of Dark Avengers. The guy is awful at laying out a story and I’m sick of him tracing Tommy Lee Jones photos for Norman Osborn’s face. On New Avengers, really happy to see artist Stewart Immonen kick it up to the next level. His recent work on the book has been great. Surprisingly so since I can recall how dull his work on Superman in ‘90s was. Currently, he’s a keeper.

Flash Rebirth: Geoff Johns and Ethan Van Sciver. Look, I am one of the few still reading comics who have followed the history of both the Barry Allen Flash and Wally West Flash for decades and I can’t tell what the hell is going on. I have a soft spot for Barry as the Flash and want this series to be great. So far this does not feel like it’s going to pay off as well has Hal Jordan’s Rebirth did. The other disappointment so far is Van Sciver’s poor artwork. He’s become progressively worse as the issues pass by. His figures are ugly and he’s forcing himself to make too many poor panel/page layout decisions. Forcing small panels with too many tiny figures or action within them. It hurts the storytelling. And my eyes. All the Flashes legs are about as long as most people’s bodies.

Blackest Night by Geoff Johns and Ivan Reis. DC editorial finally figures out a way to get Zombie heroes and villains into the DCU. The build up to this saga was strong, the first issue was cool, surprising and drawn oh so well…but since then, again, a lot of padding has filled the recent issues. The storyline hasn’t moved forward in the past two issues. It feels like in the end, this will be at least a good storyline but the bad habit of padding is getting to be too much to take. Not telling clean stories with momentum is a serious problem both publishers have exhibited throughout all of 2009.

So DC, Marvel, here's a New Year's resolution for you: start moving these big storylines along in 2010. At $4 a book now, stop fucking with what readership you still have hanging on and tell more focused and less drawn out stories. Keep it moving!

Monday, December 28, 2009

Stan the man is 87 years young today

No shit 87 years old. The guy was writing comic stories by candle light early in his career! Pretty sure the most iconic and prolific comic book creator of the 20th Century actually has a super power. Longevity. His own personal fountain of youth power pack.

Wish I knew what the secret to be that active and fun at 87.

Happy Birthday Stan.

The Bittergeeks 2009 Best/Worst of list begins

Because everyone loves to publish ‘Best/Worse of’ lists this time of the year, here’s one that came to mind while the Bittergeeks reflected upon their shopping experiences of 2009.

Worst Toy Retailer of 2009: Target

It’s difficult to call the exact point that Target ran off the rails this past year. For years Target was THE mass market retailer producing year after year market share gains in toys for most brands and vendors. They were also the undisputed first stop for toy collectors. The exclusives alone in brands such as Star Wars and Transformers were always innovative and exciting ‘must haves’ for any collector. These exclusives always seem to sell through quickly and continue to find life on the secondary market. They also had a good handle on chasing inventory for the more popular toys and compared to other retailers, managed turnover in action figure assortments well throughout the year. This important feat needs to be carefully managed quarterly in the bread and butter collector lines such as die-cast vehicles like Hot Wheels and Disney/Pixar Cars as well as in action figure lines such as Star Wars or GI Joe to name a few. In 2009, Target seemed to loose just about all of these skills.

Summer movie tie ins (Wolverine, Transformers & GI Joe) were lack luster. Slow sales caused stale assortments to pile up for too long. Exclusives were overall boring and included a lot of repainted toys we previous purchased. Bad decisions to carry poor performing brands such as Star Trek and Terminator were made despite a long history that confirms otherwise. (Although all retailers made that mistake. Buyers are too young and don't look back on historical data. Too much work. Still, they were bad calls.) We also understand from industry pals that Target lost market share to it's competition in several toy categories it once easily dominated.

We’d have to guess the fall of the Target toy team started at the last Toy Fair in February where Target’s buyers passed on the offering of Zhu Zhu Pets. How do you pass on cute hamster toys that also perform tricks and retail under $9.99? Especially in the girls plush category that really hasn’t had anything interesting since Webkins died off. How is that even a risk? Not only did they pass on it, they didn’t pick them up until well after the fall transition in July when both Toys-R-Us and Wal-Mart had been garnering free press coverage and brisk sales while they had been already selling them for a few months. By the time someone in the buying dept at Target finally convinced themselves they needed to be on board with the hamsters, it was far too late to lock up any significant inventory for the majority of the Christmas shopping season. They had empty shelf space dedicated to the line starting in October if for no other reason than be able to say to guests: “Oh we carry them too, we just don’t have any right now...”. Meanwhile both TRU and Wal-Mart had been placing orders for the fall season all along.

Pricing issues and control plagued the Target toy aisles in 2009. Target’s own exclusive line of DC Universe super-hero figures under the Justice League Unlimited banner started off the fall transition with a major blunder. What should have been a $19.99 6-pack set of figures rang up at $4.99. Well below even Target’s cost. They sold the initial order’s inventory within a week as collectors were quick to take advantage of the mistake. Later, not only would the Target buying team correct the mistake, they then raised all the retails of all scales of the struggling DC Universe lines significantly even though they were sitting on dead inventory they already couldn’t sell off at the old retail prices! This move, as always, then halts the need to order new inventory which of course means fresh assortments the collectors are waiting for, rarely arrive. This is a delicate dance in the industry Target’s team lost its edge on in many key brands and not just the DCU. They had to drive a lot of toy industry brand managers at companies like Hasbro and Mattel crazy all throughout 2009.

The great Holiday retail price wars are another battle Target lost. I’d like to say fought and lost but it was clear early on that Target was not going to take an aggressive stance on capturing the consumer’s attention early in the most important quarter of the retail year. Short and simple: Wal-Mart, Toys-R-Us and even kicked Target in the nads, then kicked them again when they fell and took money out of their coffers while they were down. This isn’t just blame that the Target toy team should take as all areas of company clearly had a failed strategy to not get involved in the pricing wars until it was too late. I don’t know how they thought they could navigate any season without being super competitive when the previous year’s history should have taught that same lesson. But Target was the major player that posted a negative comp in November against the same time last year. Think about that…a negative number in Nov 2009 against the worst November in decades when the economy had just tanked and all of America was griped in fear and panic. Retailers not only had a full year to recover from that nightmare but adjust all aspects of doing business and attract the consumer through the doors. Every retailer was ready with strategy, pricing, inventory and marketing. Well, almost every retailer.

Speaking of marketing…our last example is a doozy and pretty much exemplifies just how flawed, no wait… stupid is a more accurate term…how stupid the current leadership of Target really is. Target’s TV commercials were pretty awful again this year. Once again going for a cute theme over actually trying to convey any reason why shoppers should spend money with them rather than anyone else. You know, they type of message Wal-Mart was hammering home successfully all year. Price, family, entertaining, sick children, quality brands, etc. Unlike the Target spots showcasing buffoons. You’ve seen them, spots that confuse you upon first viewing. Typically some couple is having a disagreement about gifts they purchased for Christmas, cannot assemble properly or some such nonsense. Of this series, there was one spot featuring a couple of parents on Christmas Eve discussing how there really is no Santa Clause. This spot ran all over prime time and was seen by countless children who then turned to question their dumbfounded parents. Target’s guest service center lit up after a few of these spots ran and that specific commercial was pulled off the rotation.

How does this happen? You are a major retailer who makes the majority of your sales of the year based partly on the myth of Santa Clause delivering a shit load of gifts to children everywhere. It should be a theme baked into the DNA of any marketing team any retailer uses during the Christmas season: "Do not let on that there is no such thing as a Santa Clause!" So here comes Target, too cute for their own good shooting themselves in the foot. Again.

I would not want to be any team within the company recapping the past quarter as they try to figure out what happened and where they need to go next. As in any large, overblown corporate culture, we imagine a lot of finger pointing will be going on within the bullseye right now and for the next few months.

Better luck in 2010 gang. You obviously need it.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The party is over for the rodents and the scalpers

By now everyone knows the runaway hot toy of Christmas 2010 has been the Zhu Zhu Pet Hamsters.

Every year the media, mass retailers and ebay scalpers need at least one in-demand toy to drive interest and profits. And every time one is crowed the season's hottest of hot toys, there is always an endless army of dumb parents and grandparents that are willing to pay way too much on the secondary market just to have both the item itself and a story to tell their friends and family about how difficult or expensive it was to land the prize. Or the toy is gifted with the misguided hopes that this grail will provide a life altering moment for a kid who will most likely play with the mass-produced hunk of plastic and faux fur for maybe an hour on Christmas day then disregard it for their Wii games and ipods.

In the meantime, the hot holiday toy is a profit center primarily for the professional toy scalper (yes, there are pro toy scalpers, thousands of them), or any informed shopper with an ebay account who gets lucky enough to come across the rare prize on a store peg hook. During the heart of the shopping season, a Zhu Zhu Pets hamster that costs an average of $10 apiece, easily netted a ebay sale price of $50 or more. Beyond the profitability, you could sell the item and be paid within minutes of listing it online. It's the greatest example of supply and demand in U.S. consumerism.

Here in the final week of shopping week prior to Christmas, everyone is learning the other side of the lessons of supply and demand as Wal-Mart, Toys-R-Us and even Target are finally flooding their stores with Zhu Zhu Pets inventory. A quick visit to my local Target this morning confirmed a large supply of hamster inventory on their shelves. And while the toy section was busy, no one was making any mad grab for the rodents. While standing there I did a quick check on ebay with my phone and confirmed secondary market prices have crashed back to earth. Completed auction searches confirmed the rodents were not even selling for a few dollars mark up over store prices. Now that they can found with little effort, few actually need them anymore. Another example of scalpers driving demand more than those who want to buy the toys as gifts.

So another Christmas toy fad abruptly and officially ends. Everyone will begin to find Zhu Zhu Pets and accessories all over the place and store inventory will begin to pile up as all the scalpers who stayed at the table and gambled too long now discover they cannot make a profit much less any investment back will return the toys in droves on Dec 26th when retailers return policies are more lax. Now the realization will be made, as it is every year, that the "hot toy" was not really in demand because it was something children actually wanted, it was a only easy money for ebay scalpers and driven by a lazy media who repeat the same ‘hardest to find’ toy story weekly all during the season.

Of course by next November this lesson is forgotten, the next hot toy is crowned and the dance begins all over again.

Thursday, December 17, 2009


Mattel and their collectors site, Mattycollector, continue to go from strength to strength in terms of pissing off their customers, and the most recent Matty offering (on December 15th) has taken the crown as the worst offender ever from the previous record-holder, August.

Please note that August was only 3 months ago, so expect more shenanigans in the near future – like on, say, December 23rd when their first fake Mego and the real site-crasher, DCU 11, goes on sale.

So what happened this time? Well, first the site went to shit within minutes of the noon EST launch time. Customers couldn’t check out, quantities greater than one weren’t being recognized, error messages were the norm and many encountered what has become affectionately known as RSOD or the “Red Screen Of Death.”

15 minutes into this clusterfuck the Matty Facebook page was updated with a message that stated they knew there was a problem and were working on it. Then, nothing.

Customers were forced to spend upwards of an hour trying to place orders that should take seconds to complete. Many had to order each item individually as a workaround to the uncooperative shopping cart, incurring extra shipping charges (and why does Matty charge tax to everyone, even when they do not operate in every State?).

By the time the problem was fixed (about two hours in) the message boards were on fire with horror stories and the re-release of Skeletor was sold out, which further aggravated already pissed-off customers who had wasted two hours trying to simply buy Mattel product.

The comments ranged from Mattel apologists on one side to enraged customers who vowed to quit the lines.

How did this happen? Good fucking question.

Mattel has been running this site for nearly a year, and it has been plagued with issues the entire time. In August, lots of orders were lost, cards were charged and customers were left frustrated trying to get a response, many of which remain unanswered.

Mattel’s e-commerce partner, Digital River, is a huge company whose slogan is “Nobody Offers More Ways To Build Your E-Commerce Business.” Apparently, Mattel chose the "shitty" option from the Digital River menu.

Certainly Digital River deserves plenty of blame, but Mattel is the real problem.

First of all, after nearly a year of class-a clusterfucks, why are they still using Digital River? Of course Mattel has a contract with DR, but this can easily be broken if the partner fails to deliver, unless they signed the worst contract ever, which, considering the way Mattel has operated over the last few years, may be the most likely answer.

Second, after nearly a year of class-a clusterfucks, why are they making their largest product offering ever without solving the problems first? We’re not even taking into account that Mattel was planning to offer DCU11 and the Green Arrow Mego on the same day - until they suddenly realized that either a) they would not have product in time (the official story) or b) that shipping is a profit center and that they could improve their margins with two offerings in one month, causing the same customers to place twice as many orders and pay twice the shipping (our guess).

Of course Matty knob-polishers like Julius Marx and his ilk (who would never criticize the company because their free product pipeline might get cut off) failed to address the issue at all in their toy news sections although their message boards were on fire with angry customers who rightly called it like they saw it.

Speculation ran rampant, mostly focused on cart issues. Did scalpers buy up all the Skeletors because the cart wasn’t functioning properly (not honoring the limit of 10 pcs per customer)? Did the cart artificially tabulate a higher number of sales, meaning that there really were fewer sold than the faulty cart indicated?

Instead of addressing the disaster, Matty & his human nerd puppet “ToyGuru” were busy “answering” fan questions on various collectors websites, an exercise that makes as much sense as eating twinkies while working out. And why not? After all collectors don’t want you to tell them if their money has been hijacked when they could be getting informative answers like these instead:

“Q4. Is there any chance we might see small villain groups for the DCUC line such as Royal Flush Gang, Brotherhood of Evil or Fearsome Five? Each of these have a build-a figure character potential (Ace, Mammoth, Monsieur Mallah & the Brain) that would be awesome to see 4horsemen style!

A4: Definitely a chance, but nothing we can confirm right now.

Q5. Whenever the Legion of Super-Heroes are released for the DCUC line can we expect to see them have a whole wave like wave 8 was for JSA or will they be peppered into other waves?

A5: We have some great plans for LOSH but it is too early for us to get into these specifics. “

While he was busy not answering questions (under the guise of answering questions), ToyGuru was ignoring the growing anger of his disenfranchised customer base.

Finally, the Facebook page was updated with a message stating that Mattel hadn’t gotten their full allotment of Skeletors from the factory and that the figure would be re-offered in the spring.


Mattel has been crying foul on production issues for three years now. Initially this was justified as Chinese factories closed and product and parts vanished without notice. This cost Mattel a small fortune and sent the company scrambling for excuses as they pissed off vendors and fans by failing to address the issue in a timely manner.

But they have been re-using the excuse to cover up other failures and passing the cost of the loss onto their customer base by increasing the price of their products by 30%. Other companies suffered similar issues at the same time and were able to overcome them, why not Mattel?

It’s difficult to imagine that this Skeletor shortage was a surprise to Mattel unless they are even more incompetent than they have demonstrated themselves to be over the last few years. It’s hard to imagine with a bar set this high, but certainly not implausible.

So were they trying to meet a year end number to justify the ongoing Mattycollector site experiment? Are they, as has been whispered in El Segundo, looking for an excuse to throw ToyGuru out on his inexperienced ass?

It’s impossible to know, because, as usual, Mattel remains tight-lipped and unhelpful in addressing any of their ongoing issues that affect their dwindling customer base, but they plan more releases through this frustrating and ineffective system.

Clearly they are in over their heads on a number of levels, including manufacturing, distribution and line management. It’s too bad that this potential profit-center is being destroyed by poor execution.

PS: Look for our long-in-the-works upcoming series “Why Superhero Toys Suck Part One: Mattel” coming soon!