Journalism: The Buy Pile

How does it all work?
Common definitions

"How did I get here?"

After years of writing music and book reviews for the likes of Vibe, The Source, Rap Pages, Sci Fi Universe and MTV Online, Hannibal Tabu was working as the senior producer of a geek-minded retail website called NextPlanetOver. He interviewed and championed the hiring of a man named Eric Stephenson, who asked Hannibal to pitch in writing reviews of comic books. Hannibal followed Stephenson to a short-lived independent site called Spinner Rack, and -- finding he liked reviewing comics every week -- Hannibal continued doing the reviews on his own.

At first publishing reviews on his site, the column was soon picked up by a New York website called Underground Online. The column continued there, building its audience, until switching over to Comic Book Resources in March of 2006, where it has been published sequentially ever since.

How does the Buy Pile work?

Every week, Hannibal Tabu picks up a stack of comics at a retailer, then divides those comics into two stacks -- "buy" and "read." The ones on the former are books that have consistently proven their merit, initially going three "buy"-worthy issues in a row to gain "buy on sight" status and then keeping that rank until the same title has three not-so-good issues in a row. Everything in the latter category is being evaluated to see whether it meets the reviewers standards and is worth "jumping" into the pile of purchases.

The Buy Pile centers on writing about comics that either hook Hannibal with their premise (example Noble Causes), recommended titles that won him over (example: Fables, the longest running "buy on sight" title in the column's history) or series where Hannibal has a strong grounding in the characters and/or story (examples: Avengers, Justice League of America) where he believe he would have an interest in owning the comic if the story is strong enough.

To quote, "If I've read something for a long time and it's consistently gone badly over an overwhelming amount of time, I stop reading to save myself the aggravation."

"I reserve the right to like and not like anything I read based on reasons aesthetic, literary and financial as circumstances permit."

What does all that mean? Well, for example, there used to be a comic called Monolith, written by Jimmy Palmiotti and Justin Gray. It was well drawn, well plotted, well conceived and well executed. However, Hannibal found it boring because he could not find a place where he could relate to the story. As a trained writer and editor, he was able to recognize the skill and craft of the work while recognizing that he did not like it. This level of differentiation was perfectly reasonable, and in order to not give a well-done piece of product a series of lackluster or possibly negatively-perceived reviews, he stopped reading. The column's position was that it never wanted to tell anybody that Monolith was a bad comic book -- there is no empirical way one could make such an argument. However, Hannibal didn't wanna sit praising a comic that he essentially didn't like -- that seemed to take something away from the reviews. No harm no foul there.

As for event comics, Hannibal said, "I keep reading many of those to stay abreast of many things happening ... or in the case of Superman, always hoping that I'll somehow recapture the wonder the character used to inspire in me before I saw him as a self-righteous toady of the oppressor class.m? I don't read everything -- I can't, there's not enough time and I'm not cognizant enough to speak on what's happening with any authority."

"How do I narrow it down? It's easy, most of the time. If I don't have a vocal, clear positive reaction at least three or four gimes, I am not buying the comic. Most weeks, so many books fail to accomplish that, it's normally a slaughterhouse. 'Good enough' isn't normally good enough for me. I don't want to spend a lot of money, I don't find most books entertaining enough to pay for (I use the model of TV -- I watch much more for free than I would pay for) so that means just getting things that really do it for me."

Beloved by some and loathed by many, its a relentless and unflinching look at dozens of comic books pretty much every week.

Fair? Maybe. Happening? For more than a decade at Comic Book Resources alone, yes, and showing no signs of stopping. Read on below for definitions of some common terms used in the column.

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Read the work on Comic Book Resources

Definitions of commonly used terms

NOTE: The following is culled from a blog post written in the first person perspective by Hannibal Tabu

TV GOOD: When you're flipping through channels and you land on something that looks interesting enough to sit and watch. You might even set a TiVo for it or add it to a Hulu queue. The point is that it's good enough to enjoy if it doesn't make you go to any extraordinary lengths: it's not a pay-per-view, it's not a premium service like On Demand, it's just on the TV you have and you are willing to look at it as long as it doesn't cost you anything extra or make you work for it. Many "okay" comics fall in this category for me (and therefore for the column). Often used in conjunction with or in place of "not bad."

PLOT'S NOT TIGHT/DRIFTING: There are comics that feel perfectly balanced on each and every page. Most of the issues of Dingo for example or a couple of Astro City pieces (the one with Beautie, for certain, and the Infidel's dinner with the Samaritan). On the other hand, there are issues that start strong and peter out near the end (the first issue of that recent Black Widow series) or ones that chatter on endlessly without having any real story beats (most Avengers books) or hit plot points without making them mean anything through characterization (a lot of Kirkman books like Invincible). Those are all examples where a plot tune up is needed, likely by a more certain editorial hand (and many of the sure editorial hands have seen their workloads increased while the number of assistants they can call on diminishes).

THE TRAILER PARK THEORY: This was huge through DC's onslaught (52 and Darkest Night/Brightest Day in particular). It goes like this. Show a few pages of something happening to somebody. Move on. Martian Manhunter gloomily considers his past, and gets an idea to go somewhere to check something out. Cut to the new Black Aqualad standing dreadlocked in the middle of a desert looking around like "WTH?" Cut to Hawk punching somebody and Dove looking worried. Cut to Aquaman and Mera with some oceanic backdrop. Cut to some supposedly suspenseful scene with Aliveman or Whiterstorm. End comic book. That's not a story. That's a series of movie trailers, stapled together and sold for three or four bucks. Not cool. It's like decompression's ADHD little cousin.

BALANCE OF BANTER AND BASHING: A good comic compels. There are issues of Transmetropolitan that had literally nothing but people talking, yet contained such dramatic tension that it didn't matter. The average capes-and-masks book needs to balance action scenes (mostly melee combat, but you can make with a good chase scene or even a particularly thrilling rescue) with plot development/character scenes (talking/working on stuff in labs/pointing at the sky/fixing stuff/et cetera). Balancing this is hard. I went to college to learn it and still stumble. When it happens it's amazing. When it misses wildly it can disappoint or break your heart. There's a lotta ground in between.

RETROGRADE: Let's say you started reading comics in the early 1990s. Let's say, suddenly, you have a chance to write for a major comics company. You start pitching a story where a super powered team of misfits who sometimes have problems getting along work for the government, bringing down the bad guys. Or, as many people would call it, "X-Factor" or "Stormwatch" or "many iterations of The Avengers" or "Suicide Squad," et cetera, ad nauseum. Does your approach have a really unique spin (don't say "Some characters are gay!" or I'll scream "The Authority, in their Stormwatch days" and don't say "they're people of color!" because I can dig through and find some examples of that, just probably not from major companies)? What's different about your approach, so much so that it's worth my money?

What's that? You just wanna retell the stories you grew up on, adding gratuitous violence, pop culture references or prurient content for shock value to show how extreme and hip you are? I'm sorry, we already had The Ultimate Universe. BE ORIGINAL ... or as original as you can be, or I'll label your work "retrograde," meaning "been there, done that, no improvements found here." To be fair, there's nothing new under the sun, but even when Image Comics asked me to come up with a way to have "Luke Cage done right" I changed almost everything I could, from geography to family to power set to source of the powers. That never got made, but whatever, let's stay on target here!

PEDESTRIAN: I don't remember when I first saw a fan image of Hal Jordan as a White Lantern, but I do recall that it was at least six months before it actually happened in a real comic book. If plot elements are that easy to predict, that far out, then it feels like anybody could be coming up with this stuff, as common as any of the feet falling on concrete and blacktop.

MOMENTUM: You're telling a story, and you somehow manage to draw the crowd in (doesn't matter how, be it stunning visuals or intriguing developments or an action sequence that grabs you by the throat, flips you over and has its way with you, like the first twenty minutes of Saving Private Ryan). Once you've captivated them, you veer off into a nineteen point dissertation on procedural points for a fictional governing body. In developing your story, you might need to know those details and intricacies, but unless you're producing a reference work, your reader probably doesn't need to. Stay on target. Keeping momentum once you have it helps create those "I couldn't put it down!" kind of reads, and those are far too few in the comics world, IMNSHO.

NAZIS/ZOMBIES/PIRATES: Sorry, if I see any of these types of characters, my eyes starts to glaze over. The Nazis perpetrated the largest atrocities of the twentieth century, and were the last people to help push an entire world towards war with their fascism. This is the twenty first century. Terror is the enemy, whether your opponent is a suicide bomber, a Predator drone or a paunchy cop with a bad attitude. It's a new day, and the horrors of yesteryear served their purpose. I believe in looking forward while still being able to remember what happened before.

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