The Pipedream Comics Sunday Digest is going to take on a new format this week. Instead of rounding up the week’s stories from the website, we’re going to do some quick reviews of some great digital comics which we’ve been enjoying this week, but not reviewed fully on the site. Enjoy…

The world is going Avengers crazy this week, thanks to the launch of the rather excellent movie in cinemas, so it seems only appropriate to have a look at a couple of related titles in this weeks Pipedream Pull List, both of which have had an influence on the success and style of the new movie as well as the fortunes of their parent company.

The first is Avengers Reborn #1, published in 1996 by Marvel and was revealed this week by Comichron, to be the best-selling Avengers comics of all time, with a whopping 276,374 pre-orders.  So what was the secret? The Heroes Reborn story arc was Marvel’s first attempt to reboot it’s core titles, and saw them outsource the titles to their former star artists Rob Liefeld and Jim Lee (who oversaw an equally successful Fantastic Four and Ironman reboot) who were now running their own studios under the Image Comics banner. Both had left in 1992 to found Image and create phenomenal sales for their new titles, and Marvel were desperate for a cut of the action and gave these key titles to Liefeld and Lee in order to spike sales. With the storyline idea that the heroes were sent to an alternate reality by Franklin Richards where their histories were updated and amended for a new generation, the Avengers Reborn would see Thor as the man rescued from the ice, rather than Steve Rogers, and would see Loki attempt to outfox the newly formed team to attempt to gain the power of the lost Odin-son. (Sound familiar?)

With a story by Liefeld and fellow Image founder Jim Valentino and art by Liefeld and his protege Chap Yaep, Avengers Reborn sums up everything that was bad about late 90s comics and the ‘Image style’ that had developed. Liefeld’s unorthodox anatomy with his improbably posed female characters and contorted, muscled up monster males reach almost parodic levels in Avengers Reborn. While his  ability to give his character only two facial expressions – shouting and grimacing – give the whole story a very hollow feel. The dialogue is clunky and the story is confusing and cliched, introducing too many characters and not giving them much to do beyond standing in forceful poses and grimace. However, despite it’s flaws, it’s major positive is that it set an interesting precedent of moving away from the established Marvel canon set down by Kirby and Lee and opened the door for later, more successful reboots.

Despite the critical mauling Heroes Reborn suffered it sold well (thanks in no small part to Liefeld and Lee’s involvement), and so Marvel were not put off the idea of relaunching their core titles using ‘name talent’ and six years later in 2002 relaunched the Avengers as part of their Ultimate universe, under the helm of Mark Millar and Bryan Hitch. Millar and Hitch had made their name at Image on books like Wanted and The Authority, but unlike Liefeld and co they were on the upswing of their careers, developing a new and gritty style of books that would become the template for the entire Marvel Universe, not to mention it’s movies, rather than rely on past-glories and lots of cross-hatching. Rather than re-write the origin for the sake of it and be ham strung by which character they could include, as Liefeld and Valentino had done, Millar was given a blank canvas and took the ‘classic’ Avengers starting point of Steve Rogers in the ice and updated it for a post-9/11 world. In Millar’s world superheroes were not paragons of virtue, but were global super cops who were the only ones capable of dealing with these world-changing threats and events. Out went the colourful spandex of the 60s and in came leather flight suits and combat chic while the heroes were given real world issues and story lines, rather than just stand around looking pneumatic and grimacing.

The first issue focused on Steve Rogers in World War Two and how he ended up in the ice but this was much more than your standard origin story retread. Set in 1944 it was packed full of action from the start with Rogers literally leaping from a plane into the thick of the action, and would set the tone for the new world which these characters would inhabit – just as the Captain America movie would for Avengers Assemble. Ultimates #1 focused on a gritty, bloody, rain soaked world, that most importantly realistic.  In doing so, Ultimates would become a bona fide modern masterpiece over the course of it’s 12 issue run and would directly influence the development of the film, not just in the casting of Samuel L Jackson as Nick Fury but also in the updating and modernising of the story and language to reflect modern values and expectations. (Not just drawing them in the current art style du jour!). Thanks to Hitch’s expansive, epic style and Millar’s punchy dialogue it was comics as cinema, before cinema became all about comics, and would help turn around Marvel‘s fortunes making them viable and current for a new generation. This upturn in their fortunes would in turn give them the chance to develop their core characters for the screen and ultimately led to the film filling theatres this weekend.

Avengers Reborn and Ultimates are available on ComiXology for £1.49 each

It’s been a milestone week this week as Image Comics celebrated their 20th anniversary. As a comics fan growing up in the early 1990s, I was a massive fan of all things Image and so it fills me with a great sense of pride and nostalgia to look back on what they meant to the comics industry and to me personally. As a kid my heroes weren’t sportsmen or movie stars, they were comic artists. I worshipped every pen and ink stroke of Todd McFarlane, Erik Larsen and Rob Liefeld. I knew every panel of early issues of Spawn, Savage Dragon and Youngblood and still do to this day.

So when these three super-artists left Marvel in 1992 to form a new company alongside Jim Lee, Jim Valentino and While Portacio I had no idea what the significance was, or why there were doing it, just so long as I could get new and exciting books from my heroes – and what could better than them writing and drawing their own titles? I didn’t understand that they had left Marvel to pursue creative autonomy and would shape the future of modern comics by putting the emphasis on the creator rather than the corporation, I was more interested in searching high and low for every new Image release I could get my hands on.

After all the weeks and months of talk, it’s finally here. The DC52 relaunch has happened. Whether you agree with their tactics or not there’s no denying they have created a buzz about the comics industry that we haven’t seen in years. Forget Civil Wars, Secret Invasion, or the death of Steve Rogers, Bruce Wayne et. al., this is the most excited I’ve been about a mainstream comic since 1991. Back then I was a wide-eyed 13 year-old and Marvel released Jim Lee’s X-Men #1, now here he is again changing the world of comics, but will it be for better or for worse?

Back in 1991 with the launch of X-Men#1 the comics industry was at the peak of the 90s boom. X-Men #1 sold over a million copies thanks to multiple variant covers in foils and bags and was (And still is) the most successful comic of all time. The aftermath of this was a few more years of boom for Marvel, but would quickly be followed by bust as the bottom fell out of market as a result of over exposure to variant collectors editions. However for Lee himself it would be the catalyst for the formation of Image Comics and a new generation of creator owned titles via his Wildstorm studios.

Fast forward 20 years and Lee is top dog at DC, and he is again relaunching one of the comics world’s top titles in Justice League. But this time, instead of pushing the multiple variants of print editions it’s all about the power of digital. Justice League will not only be a huge selling print title thanks to it’s big name creative team but it is being released and pushed heavily via the DC Comics app and via ComiXology’s Comics. There is no doubt that this will be the best selling digital comic of all time within 24 hours of it’s release and it’s effect on the potential digital market is huge. Lee, a self confessed Apple geek, has clearly learned something from the Cupertino computer giant with his strategy of midnight opening at comic shops, but he is also keenly aware of the impact that digital is going to have on the future of comics.

A lot of industry analysts scoffed when the pricing structure was released and we learnt that the issue 1s would be $3.99 compared to a standard $2.99 for future, but just as Apple don’t compromise on price, neither does DC. Lee, Geoff Johns and co are making hay while the sun is shining and making money from their cash cows while they can, however they are also maximizing the influence their major titles can have in order to create a trickle down effect for the entire comics market. This price won’t deter the hardened comics fans who will buy both print and digital edition and won’t stop Justice League and the others from being the best-selling books of the year. But thanks to the ease of digital purchase, it may just encourage readers to buy other titles from this relaunch once they experience the simplicity and quality that comes from buying Justuce League. Once readers see how easy it is to simply click on Action Comics, Batman or Booster Gold while browsing through the comics app then DC will rely on these readers looking to do the same thing again in 4 weeks time (or when they receieve push notifications from the app to remind them of just how easy it was to buy that initial title) Gone is the need to go into a comic store on release and day and pay with real money, with an app and micro payments a reader can buy every book they want and the bill will magically appear a few days later. This is the tipping point for print and digital and just as Lee was a central figure in the last shift in the business in the late 90s, so here he is a again in 2011. Let’s hope this is the start of a new golden age, not the pinnacle of another boom.

One final question remains though, as a comic is it any good? Quite simply, it’s superb! I’m prepared to concede I am not a massive DC reader, but it is casual readers like me who haven’t read DC titles in years (if at all) who this relaunch is aiming at. Just as Ultimates refreshed the Marvel line up in 2000, so this will refresh and bring in new readers by updating continuity and re-telling, not just origin stories, but early tales of how character met and formed bonds before they had 30 years of back story to muddy the water. As always, Lee’s artwork is bristling with finely honed detail and stunning characters and settings. His Batman still bristles with the grit and edge of his Hush artwork, but it is Hal Jordan’s Green Lantern that is the real star of the book with Jim’s over active imagination crafting amazingly complex backgrounds out of Hal’s super powered creations. But it is also Geoff Johns’ script that is a winner. Mixing humour and character and crafting a fantastic revised DC Universe uncluttered by multiverses and extraneous characters, this is good old fashioned comic book story-telling but with a true 21st century look and feel. Well worth investing your time and money in.