Mar 4, 2011

The Self-Perpetuating Problem of Mainstream Comics (or Why Mainstream Comics Have Lost Me)

You may have been wondering where I've been. I know I usually come up with four to five posts a week, with at least one of them being gigantic and long-winded, and lately I've been on a string of usual short features. Well, I've been here, and I've been busy. I got a promotion at work, and we all know what comes with a promotion (more work). But the truth is, I needed time off from comics. I've been reading a bunch of the classics, rereading MAUS and reading Walt Simonson's THOR run for the first time, and a bunch of indies, such as LOGICOMIX and THE ADVENTURES OF UNEMPLOYED MAN, but other than that, I'm fed up with the mainstream. Unfortunately, just like all of you out there, it's easy to suck me back into the mainstream if I stayed too close to it, so I really needed to step back.

In the meantime, I had this to keep me company.

If you're a follower of the Comics Cube on Facebook, you'll see some of the issues I've had lately with mainstream comics. Oh, sure, I still buy some mainstream ongoing comics — three, to be exact — but the main products that the Big Two are putting out have completely lost my interest, and it's done so for a while. I have what people in the business call "event fatigue," the condition under which I am sick of the big events in comics. Or maybe, just maybe, I am getting old and I want these kids off my lawn.

Nah, I doubt it.

The truth is that big events do work in increasing readership. Big blockbusters always make more money, and even people like me who aren't big movie buffs (or movie buffs at all) will at least be curious as to what the next big screen blockbuster will be like, regardless of whether I actually end up watching it or not. So it does make sense that in the comics world, you can get things like CIVIL WAR or BLACKEST NIGHT and, of course, everyone will end up at least curious. Who doesn't want to see Captain America fight Iron Man or see Green Lantern and Flash fight a bunch of superhero zombies?

From Paul Cornish's excellent blog,
The Amalgam Age of Comics

Wait a second, I think the question should be who does?

And I think the fact is that while people like me who grew up with these characters may be interested in what happens (not enough, mind you, to buy it and actually read it), and people who watch the movies may be interested in what happens, who actually goes to the bookstores and buys these? Already existing comic book readers. And who goes into comics stores to buy these? Or, for that matter, who goes into comics stores at all? Already existing comic book readers.

I feel like there's just a steady rotation of people buying different titles in comics. I've got absolutely nothing substantial to prove that feeling, just a bunch of inferences. If you look at the sales charts over the years, you'll notice a steady drop in readership. Now there are many possible explanations for this, and I don't think it's the drastic drop in quality, because I don't think that all mainstream comics have drastically dropped in quality over the years. Let's just say it's external factors, such as the advent of digital, comics piracy, and, of course, the world economy. When you look at the charts from the last five years, more or less, the same titles have held the same positions on the charts — implying that when the only people left in the comics readership are the people who are so into it (me) and can afford it (not so much me), the same comics remain popular.

I'm sure the exact distribution changes every now and then — I wasn't reading Spider-Man four years ago, and I know that some people reading four years ago aren't reading now. I know that some people were reading four years ago and are still reading now. But I think that barring few exceptions, the proportion remains the same with each title. And for the titles that have gotten more popular, the exact same formula for more success applies. Big-draw creators (some bigger than others) on big-draw books and headline-making stories (note that nothing here is said about quality, though I don't think any headline-maker of the last few years has been legitimately bad) will get you sales. For example, Grant Morrison, the biggest post-60s writer in comics next to Alan Moore (who's not doing anything mainstream today) teamed up with Frank Quitely (with whom he has a legendary partnership) working on Batman on a storyline where Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson are both running around as Batman is a guaranteed sale.

I personally think Dan Slott's run on AMAZING SPIDER-MAN is much better, or at the very least, more consistently entertaining. And in fact, Spider-Man is the number 1 solo character Marvel has in terms of sales, as shown in January when its 651st issue outsold Iron Man's anniversary 500th issue. But Dan Slott is not as big as Grant Morrison (though I think he's on average the better writer — Morrison's work is too polarizing for me to be consistent); Humberto Ramos, Stefano Casselli, and Marcos Martin (as awesome as Marcos Martin is) are not Frank Quitely; and let's be honest here, with the Batman movies being as big as they are, Spider-Man is no Batman.

This is the best comic of 2011 so far.

However, remove Grant Morrison from the equation, and you've got DC's flagship title, DETECTIVE COMICS, coming in at number 27 in terms of preordered books. A big name creator does wonders. But again, who's reading the Morrison Batman books? I'm sure they're Morrison fans — comics readers from years before. Is this just an industry where the market tries to steer the already-existing audience to their particular products without really paying much attention to expanding their audience?

The thing that sells the most though? Big status quo–changing events. Always, always, big events. Batman dies. Johnny Storm dies. BRIGHTEST DAY. BATMAN INC. And it's just... I'm sorry, I don't care. Let me say this again: I just don't care. And the reason I don't care is simple. There's just too much of it.

I'm not going to disparage big events as a concept. A big event got me into collecting comics. That's this one.

THE INFINITY GAUNTLET is a story that quite literally doesn't matter. It's a story about heroism and an excuse to get George Perez to draw all the Marvel heroes all at once, and when it ends, things are, barring a few details, exactly the same as they were before. It was really good and it still holds up to this day.

The few details that were changed directly led into the big event next year, INFINITY WAR, which was not as good.

This poster, however, is excellent.

And then the details that INFINITY WAR changed directly led into the big event of the year after, INFINITY CRUSADE, which was mind-numbingly horrible even back then (with pretty Ron Lim art).

I learned this lesson as a teenage reader: whatever it is that you do in comics, when you try too hard, it falls too flat. You immediately dilute the historical importance of the INFINITY GAUNTLET because of the INFINITY WAR and INFINITY CRUSADE. On its own, INFINITY GAUNTLET would have stood out as a big event with a good story about the nature of heroism and omnipotence. So who cares if it didn't really "change" the Marvel Universe as we know it?

With the two sequels, INFINITY GAUNTLET becomes the first of a series that foreshadowed the rest of the 90s and the 2000s — one big event after the next, each one with less significance.

Moving over to the other side, DC Comics had CRISIS ON INFINITE EARTHS in 1985.

It legitimately changed everything, and it was followed up by a new direction for DC that gave way to John Byrne's SUPERMAN, Frank Miller's BATMAN, George Perez's WONDER WOMAN, and other such projects. However you judge those projects, the focus was clearly on revitalizing characters and character-centric stories. A bold new direction for the stories that would take place within these pages. So when DC put out INFINITE CRISIS to celebrate its 20-year anniversary, I was excited. And once again, it changed everything.

But instead of giving the readers time to enjoy the new status quo, DC goes and promptly changes it again with 52 — the gimmick here being that it was a weekly series that moved in real time. And then, before 52 was even over, they announced that they were coming out with FINAL CRISIS, once again changing... stuff.

And then over in their own books, characters are being put through events of their own. Green Lantern has the SINESTRO CORPS WAR, which immediately led into BLACKEST NIGHT, which immediately led into BRIGHTEST DAY. (Did I also mention that BLACKEST NIGHT had pretty much every comic book DC was putting out interacting with it, so you'd have to spend over 75 dollars in order to get the whole story?) BRIGHTEST DAY will be leading into something as well.

BATMAN gets the great Grant Morrison on him, and it's fine and consistent, and then Batman dies and then Dick Grayson takes over and then Bruce Wayne comes back and now we have two Batmen. It's an intriguing idea, but I just. don't. care. I am, quite frankly, exhausted.

The FANTASTIC FOUR have their best run since John Byrne, culminating in the "death" of the Human Torch and Spider-Man joining their team this month. I know people keep saying it's good, but I can't find the necessary emotion to invest in it. I'm wiped out.

In fact, the one superhero title I'm currently buying and enjoying, AMAZING SPIDER-MAN, is one that I enjoy partly because it doesn't try to be gigantic and big. That's not the concept. Sure, he gets a new costume. For a while. That costume is part of the story. Sure, a long-running character (who's barely shown up in forty years, considering) dies, but she's so minor that you actually believe the death might stick. It carries more weight. It carries more emotion. And I don't care if the concept is smaller.

That's one of the things I miss with comics today. Creators are so enamored with the long-form story that they feel the constant need to write one big blockbuster after another. If a story only has enough meat to run two issues, they'll get padded out so they run six and can therefore be compiled in a "graphic novel," instead of using the remaining four issues to tell complete short stories. Where are our "The Kid Who Collected Spider-Man" and "A Day in the Life of the Titans" stories? Where are the stories were Batman solves a mystery in one issue, where Superman actually goes and saves the world by punching out a big monster in one issue instead of WALKING ACROSS AMERICA, where the Mighty Thor would escort the last Viking into Valhalla in the span of 22 pages? Few and far between.

But what can the Big Two do? Like I said, it seems like the fan base stays the same, and it just gets shuffled around. And what is the one thing that keeps the fan base in one concentrated area? Big events. And when Marvel does a big event, is DC going to lose the market share voluntarily by not putting out one?

Of course, the self-perpetuating problem of mainstream comics is that by constantly pandering to the fans who flock to these big events, we're not actually any closer to a solution in expanding the fan base. We're just keeping the guys who are already reading.

As for me, I'm exhausted. I can't take any more of these "Everything is going to change!" storylines. I can't care enough for FEAR ITSELF, and I honestly didn't think that if you told me five years ago that DC was putting out a big event centered around the Flash in FLASHPOINT, that I wouldn't be buying it. But I won't. These events have gone on for so long and so constantly that all the joy and fun of reading them is gone,  and when you can't have joy and fun when you're reading superheroes, there is no point in reading superheroes.

I've always thought that the best thing to come after a big event (that actually changes things) is what comes after — telling stories within the new status quo. The best series on the market right now is, I kid you not, LIFE WITH ARCHIE by Paul Kupperberg and Norm Breyfogle. Yes, it was borne out of a big event (ARCHIE MARRIES...), but the stories that came afterward in THE MARRIED LIFE, featuring two different status quos, have been nothing short of excellent, focusing on human interest and truly capturing the subtleties of human emotion. I kid you not. (Read my review of LIFE WITH ARCHIE here.)

Maybe after FLASHPOINT, we'll get FLASH issues that are compact and will remind us of the reason we love the Flash so much, stories with complete beginnings, middles, and ends.

But somehow I doubt it. Somehow I think that it'll just give us more stories that are padded out to fit a "graphic novel" format, with I'm sure great ideas because Geoff Johns is a great idea man, with solid beginnings, solid middles, and ends that do nothing really other than to set up the next big event after FLASHPOINT.

That is, of course, if the next big event running after FLASHPOINT doesn't actually come right after FLASHPOINT, which I wouldn't be surprised at.

So with very, very few exceptions (AMAZING SPIDER-MAN, and even there, I hope that Dan Slott doesn't drag the webhead into Big Event territory, and BATWOMAN, which I'm assuming is safe for the short term), that's it for me and mainstream comics for now, folks. Call me again when DC and Marvel realize that the only reason a knockout punch in boxing is actually exciting is because the rest of the punches being thrown aren't knockout punches.

In the meantime, buy these and support the best comic books on the market today:


Pól Rua said...

Two of my favourite Batman stories in recent times have been (1) the two part guest story that ran during Dini's run of 'Detective' where a madman attacked Wayne Industries HQ during a benefit and Robin had to defeat him, while Bruce stayed at the benefit, co-ordinating Robin's actions and keeping the people there calm, and (2) The King Tut story-arc in Batman Confidential.

In both cases, the reasons were the same, awesome Batman adventure stories.
No world-shattering events, no great status-quo-shaking changes, just well executed stories where Batman is faced with a challenge and uses his skills and wits to overcome it.
Mainstream comics need more of this.

Paul C said...

I'm a sucker for the big events, but I know what you mean. I'm loving Morrison's Bat-stuff but I also kinda miss the smaller type of Bat stories we had pre-Knightfall in the days of Grant and Breyfogle.

Also, like just about everybody else, I'm ready to see Superman back in Metropolis and the Daily Planet building. It's no surprise that Gates and Igle's Supergirl got such good reviews. It was the only place we got to regularly see Lois, Jimmy, Lana, Cat Grant and the rest. It gave us a bit of that soap opera element that has been missing from Superman for yearS.

You're so right about Slott's Spidey. One of the best things about the title since Brand New Day is that Marvel have let the title grow and develop without derailing it with some big crossover.

kilawinguwak said...

personally, as a non-reader, it's the big events that draw me in and make me want to consider buying volumes instead of the singular 20+ page comic book with a self-contained story.

i totally get your point of how the big two should build on the characters with the new status quo before shaking the universe tree again, but i compare it to standard short-form stories and long-form novels. for some reason, collections of short stories from struggling but decent writers hardly sell unless you're talking to hardcore literature readers, while you slap a big name (or a theme) to a novel, and you've got a sale.

we're not even talking fans here. dunno how it works for comics, but for the non-reader, i'm guessing that the value of, say, Gaiman's smoke and mirrors is less than, say, american gods, because gods is a bestselling fantasy thriller over a hundred pages, while some of the stories in smokes and mirrors don't even hold up to the length of a chapter in gods.

i'm not really sure how to put this concretely, but i'm thinking it all boils down to utilisation. for the man who reads comics voraciously, the one-shots could hold gems that the non-reader wouldn't even recognize unless it had alan moore or somebody of equal popularity slapped on it. don't even know if your average reader'd appreciate george perez, or dwayne mcduffie. or even know who they are / were.

whatever the reason is, i blame hollywood.

Duy Tano said...

Pol: My favorite Batman story of the last few years has been the Club of Heroes story Morrison did with JH Williams. I just thought the concept was really cool, and of course, Williams knocked that one out of the park. I wanted to see the Club of Heroes used more, but soon after that when it was clear that the Bat-books were leading up to a gigantic event (RIP), it lost me. And Dick Grayson is actually one of my favorite DC characters. I've been saying for a long time that I wanted to see "Prodigal" done right, and I'm sure this is it, but the level of event fatigue I've suffered has completely prevented me from enjoying it.

Paul: I think we're all suckers for big events. One of the reason I had/have to step away for a while is because I know that if I let myself buy into the big events, I'll end up buying a shitload of the crossovers. And then I'll look at it two years later and feel bad that I spent money on all that, which all added up wouldn't count as a complete story. I'm actually worried about Slott's run on Spidey leading into a big crossover. As you said, one of the strengths of Spidey post-Satanic divorce is the lack of that.

Martin: No, you're right. It's the big events that draw new readers in, but I just don't think the new readers it draws in (note how you said you consider it rather than actually do it) is enough to offset the people who leave the medium for other reasons. And then we've got a chicken and egg situation. Yes, Moore and Gaiman are big names now, but how did that happen? Through comics.

Also, I'm willing to bet on one thing: If you started reading the big events now and paid money for it and bought all the spinoffs, you'd be exhausted as well within two years.

Unknown said...

Completely, spot on. No wonder I lurk in the Silver Age.

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