Or – “There’s A Reason Why The Comics Market Never Seems To Expand…”
When I started reading comics, the Silver Age was a thing of the past, the Bronze Age was coming to an end, and comics were in as much of a nadir as I’ve ever seen. DC had just gone through their ‘DC Implosion,’ an event which in retrospect was a lot more serious than we the readers were led to believe. (It has been intimated that many of DC’s employees were expecting the company to go under entirely, and sales didn’t really recover until New Teen Titans in ’82.) Marvel’s output was, to be honest, pretty soulless, as Peter Parker spent his tenth or eleventh year as a grad student, Iron Man was in a funk after his ground-breaking ‘Demon In A Bottle’ arc, and Captain America just sort of wandered about Brooklyn. In the decades since I’ve been reading, I’ve seen bad girl crazes, black and white explosions, and Image desertions, but seldom have I felt that my imaginary friends were spinning their wheels as madly and as fruitlessly as the comics industry of today…
The Tao Of Kyle
Before we get started, I’m going to let you in on a little secret: I have never liked Kyle Rayner. To me, Kyle is an example of a time when storytelling in comics was stunted, at best, and he represents a little more homogenizing of a great concept. (Plus, his original mask looked like massive green facial herpes.) From 1961 until 1993 or so, Green Lantern was a cosmic policeman, a member of a vast corps of heroes who likewise wield a ring in the cause of justice. By the time he was retconned, Hal Jordan was a fortyish, white-haired veteran of the psychic wars, and while he certainly wasn’t as popular as he had been, there was obviously more gas in his tank (as his current resurrection and central status to the DCU should show us.) Kyle was a lone tough guy in his mid-20s, whose early adventures were all bravado and attitude, and whose heroic arc started with the senseless death of an innocent. But you know what? All that said, I thought then and still think now that Hal Jordan, once dead, should have STAYED DEAD. And given that DC editorial created this character, this Rayner kid, to entertain us, they had a moral imperative to make the character work on his own terms, without constant comparison to his predecesssors.
For all the flaws of comics in the mid-90’s, at least some of the things that they were trying hadn’t been seen in comics before… The ultra-violence and hyper-sexuality of Sin City, the artistic leanings of Madman, even the aborted attempts to change the status quo at the Big Two Companies had the aim of making the books EXCITING, or at least unpredictable. Our current crop of comics seem aimed more at tingling the nostalgiac nerves in the back of your head, making you remember how wonderful a Gardner Fox/Gil Kane issue of Green Lantern or a Lee/Romita Spider-Man tale could be. While these are truly some wonderfully enjoyable comic book issus, the point of any form of art shouldn’t be solely to remind you of other (presumably greater) works of art. Ever since the influx of fans like Roy Thomas, Len Wein and company in the 1970’s, the comic industry has been controlled by fans of what has come before, and like any fans, they were well-versed in their fav’rite characters’ history and lore. Fan is, after all, short for fanatic, and every fan has a clear view of what they think is the correct path for their beloved characters.
The Issues With These Issues
With an industry run almost entirely by fans, we now find that many shared universe comic book experiences have become (thanks to Otter Disaster for the specific phrasing) “Authorized Fan Fiction.” Entire issues seem to be devoted less to telling story than to proving the point that “X character is the one, true version.” Witness Jay Garrick, the ORIGINAL Flash, being given a line in Flash: Rebirth wherein he talks about how Barry Allen taught him what it means to be the Flash. (That would be like FDR reminiscing about how he learned to be Presidential by watching Nixon.) Witness Peter Parker being forced by editorial caveat into the role of single, broke, hopeless schlub because that’s the way the character was when the editor was young. Witness the Legion of Super-Heroes rebooting yet again, and not only reverting to a previous iteration of the team, but reverting to a previous iteration of the team MINUS THE STORIES THAT THE WRITER DIDN’T LIKE. The fact that a professional writer has gone on record as saying “This is the Legion you remember from your youth, but only up to Legion volume 3 number twenty-seven” should be more than enough explanation as to why the audience for comics keeps shrinking, and why so many have so much trouble getting into a new character.
To me, the job of comics writers and artists should be simple: Create a story that people want to read. The marketing, the gimmicks, the crossovers should be secondary to that goal. If we accept the assumption that the likes of Geoff Johns or Joe Quesada are stuck in the past, writing love-letters to characters and concepts long gone, should we presume that they are responsible for the rather moribund state of the industry? While it would be nice to be able to blame a high-profile creator or editor, the real blame comes from a much more uncomfortable place: This situation can only be blamed on us, the comics fans. When Steve Rogers was shot, and Bucky Barnes picked up the shield, how many of us refused to accept that anyone but Steve could be Captain America? When Oliver Queen’s son took over from his dead father, how many of us flooded the Usenet with hate-messages about poor Connor Hawke’s sucktitude? When DC published a simply dreadful series that promised to return Barry Allen to life (even though he had been replaced not once, but TWICE in the role of Flash) who made the story a best-seller despite it being incoherent, aimless and RIDICULOUSLY late?
How To Train Your Publisher
I read one opinion column recently which gave once and for all the secret to ending stupid resurrection storylines: Stop killing the heroes. The End. That same kind of common sense approach applies here… When DC tried to pitch Bart Allen as the fourth Flash, we stopped reading, we stopped buying, and the story ended. If we, the readers, are ever going to overcome the “Fan Fiction” mentality, there are four important things that need to happen:
1. We need to give up the notion of the one, true anything.
If any concept has led to idiotic publishing decisions, it’s the thought process that one given iteration of a character is superior to any other. A smiling square-jawed Batman is just as valid as a Dark Avenger of the night. A grown-up Spider-Man with a wife and a kid is no more or less awesome than a teen Spider-Man with no money and a crush on Gwen. Most of all, we need to be able to accept that change is the ONLY thing that will make these characters and their stories continue on for us to enjoy in the future…
2. We need to accept that death can be and SHOULD be permanent.
Was it a good idea to kill Colossus? Probably not. But returning Piotr Rasputin to life has had no real lasting conseqences, save for some cute scenes in Astonishing X-Men. While I am a big fan of those scenes, I feel like the integrity of the X-Men’s reality would have been far greater is some OTHER kid stepped up to be the team tank. It’s not as if there’s a shortage of super-strong mutants in the world. (After healing factors, it’s pretty much the most common thing mutants GET as a power.) Wouldn’t it be nice to see Rockslide, or Armor, or Big Dumb Guy #14 get a chance to become your NEW favorite character?
3. We need to stop buying books just because we think they’ll be important.
The main 8-issue Blackest Night story was a great setup with spotty follow-through and a climax that didn’t quite live up to the hype. BN: Teen Titans, BN: JSA, BN: Superman, and BN: Wonder Woman didn’t even have that going for them. I purchased the Siege crossover solely for review purposes, and as soon as my “not going in the collection” longbox is full, it will be making it’s way to the used book store or library dropoff. If I hadn’t had a job which made me purchase the book, I wouldn’t have, because it didn’t appeal to me. Many regulars at the comic store where I work (GATEKEEPER HOBBIES, Huntoon and Gage, Topeka! Ask us about our T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents back issues) told me point blank that they were reading Sieg because they felt that they had to, because they thought it was too important to the ongoing Marvel Universe for them to pass it up. Repeat after me: THERE IS NO COMIC BOOK TOO IMPORTANT TO MISS.
4. The most important change is that we be accepting of change.
If Steve Rogers is going to eschew his chaimail suit to go be Fighting American with a photon shield, there’s no use grumbling about the one, true Cap being sidelined. If you want to read about Captain America, there’s a whole title about Captain America. If you want to read about Steve AS Captain America, I have three rows of back-issues you can peruse. If you just want to read about Steve, he’ll be appearing in ten percent of Marvel’s books in the next year. One of the few decisions that I’ve liked recently is the direction of Daredevil, taking the character from fighting the evil ninjas known as the Hand to LEADING the evil ninjas known as the Hand. Rather than being a long love-letter to Frank Miller, they’re going in a direction that no one would have expected. (Which, oddly enough, makes the book more like what Frank Miller did back in the day.) Same goes with the Punisher’s recent direction… Franken-Castle may be a departure from Pun’s previous works, but at the very least, it’s something new and different that we haven’t seen a dozen times before. Moreover, you can also read Frank’s adventures as regular old not-undead Punisher ever month, as they’re both being published at the same time!
Comic books and the comic industry go in cycles. What worked in 1941 wouldn’t necessarily play in 1963, and that 1963 story wouldn’t fly in 1982. So, why are we now almost CONSTANTLY seeing comics that are throwbacks to 1982, or 1963, or 1941? Because, folks, that’s what they think we want, and until we as consumers decide that we’re NOT going to blindly read something because we used to like it, or because we have a complete run, or because it’s just like what Marv or Stan or Roy or Fletcher Hanks did, they’re never going to see any benefit in changing their sales techniques. In short ,(though it’s about 1700 words too late for that) they sell us retro because we’re willing to pay for retro, and unless we stop supporting books that do nothing but remind us what comics were like in 1967, they’ll just keep cancelling all the books that actually TRY something new in favor of another Deadpool or Green Lantern title. (Maybe it’s all Ryan Reynolds fault?)
As always, your mileage may vary…