Or – “Enid Strict Might Suggest A Third Option. Could it beeeee… SATAN!?”
The bigwigs of the two largest comic companies have recently been on record with differing opinions regarding the concept known as “event fatigue.” DC’s Dan Didio believes that “event fatigue” is an excuse used to explain when your event comic (giant miniseries, resurrection, wedding, death, what-have-you) simply doesn’t work, whereas Marvel’s Joe Quesada says that event fatigue is not only a reality, but it affects the creators and editors as well as those of us in the Wednesday trenches. As their respective universes embark upon twin destinies, (a superlatively bright day and an age that might be characterized by noble action) we have to ask: What’s wrong with just plain old comics?
Historically speaking, “event comics” have always been part of the business model, but back in the day, EVERY comic was designed to be an event comic. Bigger art, brighter colors, nakeder girls, musclier heroes, all fighting to make a bigger splash on the newsstand. Heck, the existence of the comic book superteam (the first being the Justice Society of America in All-Star Comics #3 from 1940) is, at it’s essence, one of the first (if not THE first) event comics, but possibly the first giant crossover, taking the heroes of DC and All-American comics and slappin’ ‘em together in one book. But to my mind, the origin of the current event comic model came in 1963, when the Justice Society of America returned to comics in the pages of Justice League of America. There followed a summer crossover tradition, wherein the JSA and JLA would get together once a year, leading to the inevitable one-upsmanship. Each crossover got more and more complicated, bringing in heroes from other teams and Earths (the Seven Soldiers of Victory, the Legion of Super-Heroes and the Quality Comics heroes all appeared during these crossovers as well.) No matter how wonderful these comics are (and many of them are pretty amazing) the seed that would eventually become endless waves crossover events was planted here.
APRES MOI, LE DELUGE
The 1970’s were, in many ways, a period of doldrums for comics. Marvel’s boundless enthusiasm and endless invention was starting to solidify into a status quo, and DC was, for the first time, becoming known as the #2 comic publishing outfit in the world. The transition from ‘done in one’ stories led more and more to a focus on ‘arc-based’ storytelling, as guys like Roy Thomas, Steve Englehart, Jim Starlin and more began focusing on the character aspects of the various soopaheroes. Stories like the Kree-Skrull War, Hal Jordan’s Hard-Travelling Heroes period, and even Steve Gerber’s legendary satire Howard The Duck created chunks of story spread out over several issues, stories best digested in large chunks of issues rather than the traditional “Superman outsmarts Lois Lane” or “Batman uses logic to stop the Riddler” stories. Key runs in my personal collection include the hard-to-find Avengers/Defenders War and powerless Wonder Woman arcs. Both of these could be said to fall into the realm of “event comics,” in that they hinge upon a key element to change the nature of what we know and are considered stand-outs from other books of their run, but most people wouldn’t lump them in with the likes of Secret War or Identity Crisis. So, where does it all start to go wrong?
One word: merchandising. The point had always been to sell as many comics as possible to as many people as possible, take the money and run. In 1982, Marvel’s Editor-In-Chief Jim Shooter cut a deal to create action figures of the Marvel super-heroes and to run a concurrent series to help sell those books. Being Shooter, though, he had no intention of phoning the book in as a cash-in. No, Big Jim wanted the story to be huge, and so Marvel Super-Heroes Secret Wars was born. The book made major changes to Marvel’s heroes (Spider-Man’s black costume made it’s debut here, The Thing left the Fantastic Four, The Hulk broke his leg, Hawkeye ran out of arrows, Colossus dumped Kitty Pryde, and Magneto started on his path to redemption and X-Men leadership in the pages of this one) and reset the summer crossover model to something more akin to the movie industry’s eventual reliance on Summer Blockbuster movies. DC followed suit with their Super Powers book (better toys, but not so much with the good writing, and some problematic art by the legendary Jack Kirby) and the blockbusters became more and more prevalent. Secret Wars II was a pretty awful chunk of work, but DC’s next attempt at fame was a little somethin’ called Crisis On Infinite Earths. 30 years on, both Secret Wars and Crisis feel pretty dated, but most people agree that they’re both interesting titles with something to say. Event Comics had become big business, and while there was comment on their quality, it was clear that the titles were selling beaucoup issues.
Around this timeframe (late 80’s to early 90’s) the larger comic publishers began identifying storyarcs by name on the cover of the books, something that hadn’t been done before, but something that helped to support sales. After all, Batman #417 is one of hundreds of Batman comics out there, but Ten Nights of the Beast Part One seems much more like a valuable issue. Speaking purely anecdotally, this is also the time where I became aware of my own first moments of Event Fatigue, as Marvel followed the sublime Kraven’s Last Hunt arc with the godawful Mad Dog Ward issues. Having had such a wonderful series of issues followed by ANOTHER named series bothered me, especially given the difference in quality (subjectively speaking, obviously) in the two books. To this day, I do not own the Mad Dog Ward arc (although I have read it, and found it to be less odious than I thought, mostly due to the lovely writing of Ann Nocenti) and have no real impetus to go find it. This early 90’s period also turned Event Comics from a focus on characters or storyarcs to a focus on superstar creators, hot concepts, and controversial subject matter. Does anybody remember Bloodfire, the superhero whose gimmick was that he had HIV? No? How about Triumphant Comics, where every issue has it’s own unique collectible serial number? Yeah, me neither.
PERSONALLY, I BLAME ROB LIEFELD
So, when we enter the modern age (I tend to think of it as the Chromium Plated age of comics) we find that many characters and companies subsist ONLY on event comics. (Indeed, Joe Quesada really hit big in the 90’s working for a company CALLED Event Comics.) The lesson that the last speculator boom brought with it is that every issue needs a gimmick. Silver covers, diecut comics, even comics with a bullethole through the whole issue were tried to drive sales, and what seemed to stick was the concept of the Event Miniseries. DC’s success with rebooting their universe in Crisis on Infinite Earths led to a second shot with Zero Hour, which led to numerous “housekeeping” series in their world. Marvel, for their part, chose not to keep rewriting the past, and instead became notorious for alternate future storylines and mini-arcs (The X-Tinction Agenda, the Phalanx Covenant, Avengers Forever.) Somewhere along the line it became the norm to have each crossover lead into the next seamlessly, as DC’s Identity Crisis fed into Infinite Crisis fed into 52 fed into Countdown et al. Marvel’s House of M fed into Civil War fed into World War Hulk fed into Secret Invasion. (I think… Maybe it was the other way around?) Marvel’s recent motif has been for a line-wide tone rather than a crossover, as with Dark Reign, but even if there weren’t 8 monthly issues of the book, Norman Osborn’s ubiquity has definitely given the event the FEEL of a crossover, and I’ve felt on multiple occasions like the whole thing needs to just STOP, that the Dark Reign ran it’s course quite a few months ago, and now we’re just riffing on themes waiting for the next big thing.
Dan Didio’s point, that “Event Fatigue” only exists when the event itself is flawed, has merit but we have to take into account another factor: Dan’s definition of success may be much like our definition of quality in a recent Major Spoilers podcast. It’s kind of an undefinable factor. If a book sells 1,000,000 copies (as X-Men V.2 #1 was reputed to) it can be considered a marketing success. But as recently as Free Comic Book Day 2010, Gatekeeper Hobbies has been GIVING AWAY many of those million issues for FREE, just to get them out of our storage space. Blackest Night #1 through #4 were, in my mind, an amazing achievement, but the plotting of the last four issues was not as successful. Add to that that the final issue of the series ended with a CLIFFHANGER that tossed us seamlessly into Brightest Day, and it’s easy to make the case that the events have become a self-sustaining entity, each with diminishing returns. Take the example of World War Hulk: a scant three years ago, the Hulk was being intergalactic Conan and the Illuminati were the de facto villains of the piece. Now, Bruce Banner is yet another of Marvel’s nebulous super-genius-technical-guys and the focus of the Hulk titles is on a completely different Hulk entirely! In practical terms, the event-based stories have changed the entire pacing of comics to be (ironically) less static than they’ve been since Stan, Jack, Steve and company were cranking out those beloved Silver Age Marvel titles, wherein the status quo changed radically from page to page, much less issue to issue. Viewed in those terms, can we really say that it’s a bad thing?
THE (INSERT NAME HERE) UNIVERSE WILL NEVER BE THE SAME! AGAIN.
The worst fallout of the inevitable focus on event-based storytelling comes for fans who want to follow their favorite heroes or teams throughout the various universes. Astonishing X-Men (an event-based comic book, albeit a favorite of the type for me) took Kitty Pryde off the playing field for many months, leaving her fans in the lurch. As for me, as an Avengers fan, I came out of Civil War following FOUR different monthly titles, wildly variant in quality and tone, but each containing characters about which I cared. The Age of Heroes promised a change, but replaced the four monthly Avengers titles with FIVE more that split my allegiances again. Another key example comes with the circa-Civil-War changes in Spider-Man’s book, wherein he went public with his identity. While it was true that the kind of stories that got told during that period had never been attempted with Spidey before, the conceit itself led to far fewer overall storytelling opportunities in the long run, and was relatively quickly reversed.
YOU WON’T BELIEVE THE SHOCKING LAST PAGE ENDING!
So, what have we learned? Didio is correct, in that the crossover-event-clusterschmozz books that I enjoyed (The Kree-Skrull War, 52, half each of Blackest Night and Secret Invasion) make me believe that the spotlight title publishing plan is good. But, Joey The Q makes a valid point as well, in that I find myself resenting a book like Brightest Night not because of any inherent flaw, but because it once again wants to be all-encompassing, the center of the DC Universe, nexus of all stories. Even a story like Batman: RIP, which promised the death of it’s main character was sacrificed to the gods of the Event, as the actual death took place a couple of months later in Final Crisis.
The obvious missing factor is the one thing that nobody can really quantify, best explained by the late Cajun Chef Justin Wilson who, when asked what his faviorite libation was, responded “I like de wine dat I like.” In my assessment, Event Fatigue is only the latest term for audience displeasure with the current state of comics. When I was very young, Marvel referred to a similar concept as “The Dreaded Deadline Doom,” wherein they occasionally interrupted an ongoing story with a hasty reprint because somebody dropped the ball in production. When Bruce and I were in college, we used to complain about “Those Image Comics” and the negative aspects that came when superstars were allowed to create things that (to our eyes) had no craft or merit. In today’s publishing field, the Big Two companies have found that they CAN manipulate the audience with earth-shattering developments, to the point where it truly became impossible to read Marvel’s books circa Secret Invasion without reading Secret Invasion. All the major titles were doing support work for the top-tier limited series, and all of Marvel’s series were less coherent if you weren’t involved in the main story.
With those arguments in mind, we must conclude that Event Fatigue DOES exist and we must accept that it is a real and quantifiable state of being for the comics audience. That said, the conclusion is unavoidable: The cure for Event Fatigue is NOT for Marvel and DC to stop publishing event comics. The cure is for you and I, Faithful Spoilerites, to stop supporting event comics because they are event comics. When Captain America is murdered, when Batman comes back from the dead, when the Fantastic Four is once again relaunched to a new era of greatness, don’t read it because you feel you HAVE to. There is no event in comics that is so “important” that you should spend your hard-earned money just to keep up with the Rick Joneses. Read the books that appeal to you. Stop thinking in terms of “completing runs.” Be wary of “great jumping-on points.” Vote with your dollars, and support books that you love, even if nobody else is reading ‘em. Tell everybody you know about how wonderful your favorite indy comic (or undersupported mainstream comic) is. Everybody from Dan D. and Joey Da Q on down needs feedback, or else we’ll always get what we’ve always gotten…
As always, your mileage may vary.