Comic Vine Roundtable - Cosmic

Hello all, welcome to the Cosmic themed roundtable.  The field of experts is a little slimmer today than usual with only two participants, but they are the two go to guys for cosmic based stories (though to be fair with a Marvel bias.)  So I bid a hearty welcome to JLoneblackheart and ThanosRules.

JLB:  I'm jloneblackheart. I've been reading comics since the early nineties and have been on CV for 3 years, and a moderator for probably 2.

TR:  thanosrules here. I am a collector, reviewer and big fan of comics. IMHO, Printed comics are the best form of entertainment money can buy - they span beyond the written word, through illustration and with today's technology every other media outlet imaginable. I am currently working on attaining the perfect balance between work, life, family and comics - including the reading/reviewing of monthlies, blogging, as well as starting my own comic based weekly podcast. 

That’s great, so what have you guys been reading recently?

JLB: Besides my monthlies? I've just finished going through Marvel Presents (1975) and just started reading Nova (1994).

TR:  I have way more comics on my pull list than I seemingly can keep up with. My favorites right now are sadly all very terrestrial: Chew, Adventure Time, The Shade (mini) and All-Star Western. Recently, I have been working on reading/reviewing comics from very small and unknown artists and creators I meet at the various cons I attend. Though none of these are remotely cosmic (of the ones I have run into so far), my ultimate fondness for comics lies with the deep and wide open spaces of the universe and beyond (this happens to go for comic fiction and non-fiction science. Carl Sagan and Stephen Hawking FTW!)

The cosmic setting is a wide open one from things all the way from the early adventures of Buck Rogers, to masterpieces like 2001 or Star Wars (let’s just say the original trilogy to avoid controversy.)  The medium of comics is everywhere and anywhere in between, having just about  every type of cosmic setting.  So what is your favourite setting inside or outside of comics. 

JLB:   Best cosmic based setting? SPACE! As in, anywhere not on Earth.

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TR:  Some of my favorite cosmic settings lie in the "oops we flew way farther away than we expected, now we are stranded with what we arrived here with and have to figure out a way back home" kind of setting. Think Star Trek Voyager... at least that was my watermark for a while (when I was most impressionable). Today's closest (and pretty darn good if you ask me) is the Green Lantern: The Animated Series - in this we see Hal and Kilowog stranded with an advanced AI far far from Oa. They "befriend" a Red Lantern and start learning more and more about "Lantern Lore".  I also really dig cosmic crossover stuff between DC and Marvel. The Green Lantern / Silver Surfer and Superman / Silver Surfer books were very entertaining, albeit campy, but still, I love it when aspects of separate universes mix. 

 What is it about the cosmic setting that appeals to you?

JLB:  Like above, I like to imagine things beyond this world. There is so much more out in space and so much more to contemplate. In space, the things we know on Earth need not apply, and that "suspension of disbelief" grows more into the unknown or unlimited possibilities of reality than opposed to just assuming it has to be that way because it's a fictional comic like the Earth based volumes.

Hanna-Barbera 1967 Cartoon
Hanna-Barbera 1967 Cartoon

TR:  My favorite "recent" cosmic story is still Annihilation and related books/arcs. I really enjoyed the "Annihilation Classic" series to see some of the "roots" (Groot pun intended) of our favorite characters. Moreover, I loved how so many super-charged characters are put together, in one story, on a galactic scale. This is one of my most favorite aspects to cosmic stories - they are BIG. They have to be, otherwise they would simply happen in the meat-packing district on Manhattan island... On a much smaller, yet still cosmic scale, the recent issues of Fantastic Four and FF are also very intriguing. Still involving a bit of cross-universe action (between the Negative Zone and our Universe), this story add much to the "Marvel Cosmic lore" - even some surprises that I did not expect (e.g. Franklin Richards' place in the universe).  Every successful cosmic story has to be BIG, and the creators have to think BIG. I agree with jloneblackheart's sentiments - imagination beyond earth is key - it is something we as lowly Earth-dwellers have been dreaming about since we were able to look up at the night sky and wonder "Where do those lights come from?". Whether it is far out in the outer reaches of this universe, side-ways through the multi-verse, or back and forth through time - the concepts of BIG cosmic are not limited by what we see in everyday life, or anything for that matter. It is this limitless possibility that make cosmic stories, the best kind of stories. Period. Everything else is just filler waiting for the next BIG thing. :)  All this said, I have to say, my all time favorite cosmic story awards all go to Douglas Adams.   The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy five part trilogy and   Starship Titanic  to name a few... His books fit all of what I love about cosmic stories. 

 For this next question, I am going to give my take on a particular part of comic book history.  Up until the late 1950s, comic book characters were based primarily around ideas of the occult.  Though there were some characters such as Superman that had cosmic origins, there were lots more that had occult based origins.  When the silver age hit, a lot of cosmic characters were newly introduced (Silver Surfer, Adam Strange) and others were re-imagined (Green Lantern, Hawkman.)  In the long run some of these characters have of course been very popular, but in comparison to other characters at DC and Marvel they have not been always able to hold down a series as well as say Spider-Man or Superman, or even Iron Man and Wonder Woman.  So after that large lead-in, the question is, do you think that these characters have never quite made it to the A-List because they just weren't around as long, that there is just something about the cosmic setting that is not a guaranteed sale or some other contributing factors?


JLB:  The cosmic setting was huge for a long time, and it grew even larger when our own space programs were just getting going and the world began it's excitement for what was beyond the earth. I'd say up until the early eighties it was very popular, and even after that had some continued success. But the age of wonder had to come to an end. It's hard to say why the genre has become less popular. It may just be trends. Before the space operas began, it was mostly crime and romance that everyone wanted. Now, it's the superhero era. I would say modern readers want a hero they can relate to, but I think that's up to the individual. I feel like the Silver Surfer is much more easy to relate to than Batman. But as long as Batman sells, he will be marketed more to new people in all forms of media.

If I really went out on a limb, I would say the national interest in the space program and lack of ambition and innovation have taken space out of the minds of everyone. While this has effects on society in the forms of technology, national pride and a common goal, it may also hurt the cosmic scene in comics. Naturally, this is only the US I speak of, but that's where the main publishers are located.

It's also hard for these characters to get on top. Even though Silver Surfer and Green Lantern have had success and long running series, they still have to compete with Superman, Batman, Spider-Man, the X-Men and now all of the Avengers. These characters have proven popular and I can't think of a single form of media or merchandise they haven't appeared on yet.

While us cosmic fans continue to read, no new readers are going to look for old back issues of characters they are seeing as a guest spot in one of their comics (usually as a plot device or poorly written). It's less risky to put out another Spider-Man book then to give Quasar a new series, especially without properly building him up before release. A cold character getting a new series is almost always destined to fail with low sales.

TR:  Nowadays, at least from what I have seen, there aren't too many writers ready to tackle the cosmic story. While Annihilation was a fantastic event, it was just that, an event, not a long running 600+ issue series. That said, I believe the Fantastic Four have had a pretty successful and +600 run which as of late has been primarily cosmic. I believe it is their "grounded" + cosmic presence that makes them so successful - that coupled with the fact that they have been a fan favorite for over 50 years, even makes up for the "bad issues/arcs" they may have suffered. It does appear that Jonathan Hickman has a pretty good grasp on the cosmic story with his F4 and FF runs, but his time on these series is coming to an end. Who knows what will happen once he is replaced.

The only other series that are remotely cosmic (lately) are the Defenders and The Mighty Thor. They have attempted to dabble in the cosmic realm, even adding the Silver Surfer and/or Galactus to the cast of characters, but have wholly missed the "feel" of what cosmic needs to be and what it used to be in the glory days.

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Even though I have stated many of my opinions above, I was tempted to (as I usually am) to just "+1" jloneblackheart's reply. I agree with him from the relationship to the US space program to the simple fact that cosmic stories are generally not as new user friendly as their very terrestrial counterparts. In the end, people are always going to be more willing to pick up a new Avengers book (seriously, look at how many new titles they have) than a Silver Surfer, Nova or Quasar book. It is possible that with Carol Danvers taking the Captain Marvel reigns, we may see the emergence of a new wave of decent cosmic stories... unfortunately, that is likely highly dependent on if she still stays linked to something Earth based like the Avengers. 



 It is interesting that the US Space Program has been mentioned, as this is a very real application of science towards the exploration of space.  Science fiction comes in two varieties, the hard stuff which is based on real science, and the soft which is more based off of futurism (with thing like flying cars or space elevators).  One of the most famous cosmic sci-fi movies of all time, 2001, was pretty hard compared to most science, but then about ten years later was Star Wars which was just about as far away from real science as you can go.  Where do you find that the best balance of cosmic stories rests?  I know both of you are fans of guys being able to fly surfboards through stars, just as I am a fan of a ring that can let you travel to the center of the universe, but do you like completely soft science fiction, or somewhere in between?

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TR:  I have to admit, the more fiction in my science-fiction stories, the better. I love it when the ideas are so "out there" that they really makes your imagination stretch. Then, when someone can take far-fetched sci-fi and ground it with a bit of real technology, even better. I have always loved the geeky part of sci-fi. One of my favorite TV series of all time is Stargate SG-1. I mean, I loved the movie, but the series, its characters and the raw materials the creators had to work with was astonishing - best of all, they were able to turn those raw materials into something millions of people enjoyed for over a decade. I think this was due to the fact that even though the sci-fi aspects of the series were "out there", they were almost believable - and when they were not believable at all, Jack was always there to lighten the mood. This brings up another point, which I believe is related - if sci-fi gets too ridiculous, it is always best that the story is somewhat self-aware. Comedic timing is just as important in sci-fi stories as any other type of story.If I boil it down, the best recipe for sci-fi in my book =   Generous Portion of Fiction + Dash of Tangible Science + Sprinkling of Comedy.

JLB:  A good mix of fantasy and reality is good. Obviously, there's so much we don't or can't know, so things will have to be embellished or fabricated to make things interesting.  

While its not something I prefer, pure fantasy works, but pure science usually doesn't.  

Also, Star Trek > Star Wars. Just saying....

On the same token though early space based stories often were based on the Moon or on Mars with people feeling as though there might be intelligent life there.  Of course we know better now.  I do agree with you that cosmic needs a certain amount of fantasy but don't you think the genre dates itself in this way a little?  Like for how much John Carter bombed at the  box office I think some of the blame lies on the fact that this was a compelling story one hundred years ago, but now we know there are no such things as Martians, so the suspension of disbelief has to go a step further.  Not to mention that some John Carter stories occurred on the Martian moons, both of which are small enough to fit in the confines of New York City.  

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TR:  I do have to agree with you that the mystery and thrill are deflated now as compared to the "good old days of Sci-Fi" when Twilight Zone episodes such as "To Serve Man" and "Will the Real Martian Please Stand Up" rocked the minds of the viewing audience. People love those episodes to this day, but it is for nostalgic reasons, not for how riveting and cutting edge they are by today's standards.I think it is the nature of today's beast - it is much more difficult to entertain people. Heck, it is hard enough to get people's attention, let alone keep it for 2+ hours during a film. John Carter failed for a couple reasons... I believe the marketing was horrible. No one knew what it was. It took a pretty "in the know" comic fan to realize what a movie named "John Carter" might be about - in fact, many may have mistaken it for a film completely out of the sci-fi genre. I do agree with you that even if "Mars" was in the title, people would dismiss it because the shine has completely faded on "close to home space stories".

Unfortunately, people seem to want more horror in the mix with sci-fi to keep them interested. There are a few sci-fi movies coming out later this year (e.g. Prometheus) that mix the two and will likely do way better than John Carter... The other end of this is the "cheesy factor" - if another cosmic/sci-fi movie came out that was really campy or cheesy, it may do well. Comedy / Sci-Fi / Cosmic stories seem to do pretty well, but then again are we to feel that cosmic stories can never be taken seriously?

Whatever the mix of fantasy, horror, and comedy is, great cosmic stories are meant to stretch our paradigm beyond where we are normally capable of imagining. The current monthly titles fall short of this "great mix" and thus are not providing the reading public any good options to explore the cosmic genre... and AvX is really not doing anyone any favors with its tie into the Phoenix Force and its unholy destructive path through the universe. Bringing cosmic concepts back to Earth is always difficult. The cosmic scale simply does not fit here on Earth. This is why a lot of them flop - well this, combined with writers that just don't "get it".

I do have to say that there is one main stream animated series doing "cosmic" right, and while some do not like the art, the stories are pretty good - Green Lantern: The Animated Series on Cartoon Network (as I have referenced previously) is reminiscent of Star Trek Voyager (stuck many light years beyond rescue) and has a nice mix of comedy, fantasy and lantern-based science. :) It also does a great job with how BIG cosmic stories need to be... It certainly has urged me to purchase all of the new Green Lantern titles I can get my hands on... it is just unfortunate I have not had the time to really read any yet...

JLB:  I don't think we've lost our fascination with Mars just yet. Like thanosrules said, the distributor helped make that movie fail. It's true, today's movie audience can't be bothered with something they have to think about, at least not in the sci-fi genre. Most people probably don't even know it's a book. I love the books, it's one of the best stories of courage, integrity and friendship there is, and even I didn't go to see the movie.

It's an interesting point that the genre also requires comedy or horror to help make it a success. Somehow adventure and drama took a back seat, when I think those are the two that make a compelling, exciting science fiction story.

There are some characters who are cosmic in origin, such as Superman, who even have a lot of adventures in the cosmic setting, but rarely get mentioned by cosmic fans.  Why do you think this is?  Is it because for instance the Green Lanterns have the Guardians and Silver Surfer Galactus, and so have powerful external alien overlords?  Or are they just more cosmic in some way?

TR:  I think it has to do with where they spend most of their time. I am no Superman buff, but from my limited viewpoint (mostly from movies and TV) his life as a hero really has been grounded here on Earth. I realize he has spent time off-Earth and there are many cosmic scale Crises that he and the other DC characters deal with, but the majority of folks see him as an Earth based hero. Also, he is just a regular guy where he came from, right? Surfer and the Lanterns are powerful wherever they are... not sure how much that makes a difference.

As far as having powerful external alien overlords, it certainly adds to the myth, legend and fantasy aspects of the stories, but I am not sure that it makes them more cosmic than someone that has roots in the cosmos but spends the majority of this time on a rock orbiting his primary power source...

As I think on it more, I believe what may make Galactus, Silver Surfer, the Lanterns - heck even, Rocket Raccoon, Groot, etc. - more cosmic is simply that they spend all to most of their time in space. Then, there are some, like the Cosmic Defenders (Eternity, Infinity, Lord Chaos, Master Order, Watcher, Epoch, Celestials, Kronos, Living Tribunal, etc.) that are strictly cosmic - as it would be really very difficult to conceive of them anywhere other than deep space. These, I could easily label as "most cosmic" as compared to anyone that frequents planets full of humanoids for any period of time...

JLB:  I have to agree with thanosrules again. The majority of the time, Superman is on Earth or dealing with a problem related to Earth. Then again, you could similarly say that the Fantastic Four are in the same boat. They reside on Earth and deal with Earth problems, but I might consider them more of a cosmic team based on the nature of their adventures and the sci-fi feel of the team. I wouldn't say "full cosmic," but closer than Superman.

It may be that I am just not too familiar with any Superman stories to respond accurately, but I believe he is more the superhero genre than the science fiction genre, which seems to make the difference. I always thought if Superman would leave Earth for some good space adventures, I'd check it out (especially now with the lack of cosmic titles out. Marvel has practically nothing).

Good stuff, so as a final source of input,  finish this joke -  Silver Surfer, Buck Rogers and Green Lantern walk into a bar ...

JLB:  ... and you'd think with cosmic awareness, pilot reaction times and power ring sensors one of them would have seen it.

TR:  +1 to that and...nuff' said! :D

OK here is my version “… the bartender looks at them and says ‘sorry we don’t have space’”, so thanks for participating!

TR:  Thank you for the opportunity! I really enJOYed the cosmically mind expanding discussion, topic, and company. :D

JLB:  It was my pleasure. Now everyone go buy more cosmic books.

Now it is over to the readers, let us know of your favourites in this genre and if there are any people out there that actually liked John Carter (in addition to me.)  Also that Star Trek being better than Star Wars comment should not be allowed to stand.  And as usual if you are interested in joining the discussion, do so below, or PM to get into the main discussions themselves.