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…

The Author

Matthew Peterson

Matthew Peterson

Once upon a time, there was a young nerd from the Midwest, who loved Matter-Eater Lad and the McKenzie Brothers... If pop culture were a maze, Matthew would be the Minotaur at its center. Were it a mall, he'd be the Food Court. Were it a parking lot, he’d be the distant Cart Corral where the weird kids gather to smoke, but that’s not important right now... Matthew enjoys body surfing (so long as the bodies are fresh), writing in the third person, and dark-eyed women. Amongst his weaponry are such diverse elements as: Fear! Surprise! Ruthless efficiency! An almost fanatical devotion to pop culture!

And a nice red uniform.

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18 Comments

  1. 4 8 15 16 23 42
    June 4, 2010 at 12:24 pm — Reply

    I agree with the “Issues about these issues” thing. I read comics in the early to late nineties, left for a few years, and came back about two years ago. My favorite when I was growing up was Superman. When I came back to the comic I found out all the things that made the Superman I read Superman were erased. Instead there was someone who looked like Christopher Reeves running around with the silver age origin to boot. The Supergirl I read growing up was possibly sent to oblivion for, again, the pre-crisis version of her. I think the root of the problem comes from consolidating way too much editorial power into a select few. (Johns at DC and Bendis/Palmiotti at Marvel).

    • 4 8 15 16 23 42
      June 4, 2010 at 12:27 pm — Reply

      Shoot, that’s Quesada not Palmiotti

  2. MaximusRift
    June 4, 2010 at 12:24 pm — Reply

    Like the article, but my mileage varies is some places.

    Placing the blame solely on the fan is untrue. That blame is shared with writers & editors. Yeah, we (the fans) might cringe at change, but that doesn’t mean we’ll come around if you sell us on how your change is awesome. Joe Quesada might have dropped a stinky deuce with OMD/BND, but he damn made sure people would come around by having big names come into the book and making it go weekly. Accepting change is good, but at the same time you can’t expect the reader to wait forever for that change to get good.

  3. Russell
    June 4, 2010 at 12:30 pm — Reply

    I really like this but do disagree with a few things. I totally agree that the problem with comics is that they have turned into fan fiction. I agree that the focus on nostalgia is poor story telling that most likely does not bring in new fans. I agree 100% with your statements about event books. However, I disagree that changes in a character’s status quo will alleviate the problem. Instead, I feel like that’s part of the problem.
    I think if a fan finds that a certain character has become boring, maybe it is time for them to move on to a different comic.
    I loved Peter David’s run on the Hulk. However, I don’t think the changes he had the Hulk go through were very good for expanding the Hulk’s aduience. I think an eight year old who picked up a copy of the Hulk as the smart head of the Pantheon with 1/2 the dialogue being aimed at people over 15 would just be confused. I think it would have been better for Peter David to have created a new character to tell the stories he wanted to tell with the Hulk.
    I think that major changes in a character can work well with stuff like Promethea and the Goon. I don’t think they work so well in Spiderman or Superman.
    You wrote “1963 story wouldn’t fly in 1982.” Maybe not when just forced in exactly as they were, but I think John Bryne had great success telling slightly updated 1963 Fantastic Four stories in 1982. I think that Walter Siminson’s Thor was pretty close to that as well. I think he was basically working with the Thor established by Kirby and Lee once they had gotten the character down and from Kirby’s Tales from Asgard backups. It didn’t work for Byrne with Spiderman in the late 90s, but I think that had more to do with obsessive fanboys finding their new best friend in the internet than with the quality of the comics.
    In short, I agree with you about the problems, but (and I might be misunderstanding your point of view) I disagree with you on the solution. I don’t think comics should be retro (and the Jay Garrik line you quote is really, really horrible) but I do think they should relate to the characters’ core concepts.

  4. June 4, 2010 at 12:53 pm — Reply

    Very well phrased. I know a lot of people think it’s cheap to blame the fans (who, sadly, include many of the pros you listed), but whether they be professionals or readers, they do allow this to happen. It’s something that all fans, myself included, are guilty of to different degrees. I can think of two particularly sad examples, one pro and one fan.

    The Pro was JMS, who objected to “One More Day” but didn’t do anything until it was done & the checks had been cashed, reserving his hissy fit for its conclusion. If you felt that strongly about the storyline’s potential quality, you shouldn’t have taken the job, I’m sorry; it’s not like JMS is a starving rookie.

    The Fan was a women I’d say to be around Matthew’s age (though probably older), who decided to show her displeasure with a plot twist by buying two more copies, ripping them up, and sending them to DC/Geoff Johns to “show him how she felt”. When I pointed out how this was actually giving them more money & thus rewarding them for what she felt was a bad story, she just didn’t get it.

    I’ve told people that comics fans can be very “abused girlfriend”, and when they ask why, I’ll point them to this article.

  5. Mark
    June 4, 2010 at 1:17 pm — Reply

    I still say get rid of continuity in general. It’s nothing more than mental masturbation for all of the people who have read up to this point. “I remember how in issue whatever that Spider-Man fought that one guy”.

    But, the inherent problem is that comics are old media. Why bother reading a comic when you can watch a movie which has a beginning, a middle and a definite end? Why wait for stuff when everyone wants it now, now, now.

    One of the reasons why I am giving up collecting is that it never ends. There is always going to be something new and at some point it stops being fun. If keeping fans interested means doing fan fiction as you call it, so be it.

    But, no matter what you do – there will be no future generation at least not a large scale one. And for those pointing out comic sales for those written by celebrities, that’s more of a blip and not a long term answer and you damn well know it.

    • vistapa
      June 6, 2010 at 3:41 pm — Reply

      As someone said once “Continuity is respect for the work of those that came before you” and as the term itsefl indicates the stories should “continue” otherwise you will end with 20 comics telling you the first time spiderman fougth the same guy (ala Geoff Johns), shoehorned continuty and retelling the stories to fit your vision it’s were the problem is.
      I personally think that long running characters should have a coherent history tie to a continuity that indeed move the character forward

  6. bob
    June 4, 2010 at 1:59 pm — Reply

    Good article.I collected for over 20 years,primarily Legion.I was there for the Great darkness saga and found this book to be the best out there.Crisis came and I wondered how it would affect my favorite book.It went from bad to worse but I kept buiyng it.
    I expanded into other books after that(x-titles) but found I was spending money on comics just to have them.Big story arcs came and went and in the long run meant nothing.
    Then Zero Hour came.I thought they’d fix the problems that were created.Instead they wiped the slate clean.I’d have to watch my team grow up again,but differently.Not to mention the other messes created(killing off the JSA).So after afew months I stopped.No more comics.I was not enjoying what was going on and refused to take part in the industry.The last 2 or 3 years I’ve been tempted to jump back in but have not.
    Crisis was meant to fix the DC universe,it made it worse.Old friends kept getting revamped,to whatever suited the story teller.So until I see a real change in direction from either company,I’m staying on the sidelines.Getting my superhero kicks from Smallville,video games and of course,Major Spoilers.
    Long live the Legion!

    • June 4, 2010 at 4:54 pm — Reply

      Agreed. I opted out during the same time period and for the same reasons (I think a lot of us did–the 90’s gets a lot of deserved hating). And we saw that there was some significant changes as soon as sales slid away from their huge, post-Burton Batman peak.

      Great article, Matthew.

      Numbers 1 and 4 will be tough, though. When reading any piece of fiction that is truly touching, we should be able to plow our little fingers deeply into the psyche of the characters. If that kind of mind-melding is possible, then that character (and that characterization) is forever emblazoned within our own thoughts.

      When Neil Gaiman’s Sandman started, Morpheus was an arrogant, cold god-thing. He sent a woman to hell because she said she wouldn’t marry him. He held few feelings for anyone but his sister. By the time the book ended, his character had changed 180 degrees. But this took place gradually over 7 years and 75 issues, and the progression made SENSE. And since his death, we rarely see him (isn’t that always the way?).

      We can’t say the same thing for other versions we’ve seen of characters. Sometimes, we’re attached to original versions. Sometimes we’re attached to the ones that were best-written. For each of us, it’s different.

      I would say that we should enter into these with a degree of moderation. We must accept that there may be [many] valid versions of a character [but not all]. Spider-Man as a clone was not considered to be a valid version of that character by the readers. Sales slipped, and he was ret-conned out.

      There’s a reason why Hamlet 2 (the movie) was funny. We have an idea who Hamlet is. We know his mind. To suddenly make him a time-traveling avenger is a complete contradiction of the character that Shakespeare created.

      We must also be willing to accept change [that is well-written]. Now, I know this is dangerous. It’s a judgment call. But there is always going to be an element of subjectivity to any fiction. And here, I am saying that a good writer is one that can tell a good story.

      Does it make sense for Ted Kord–a two-fisted adventurer for decades–to suddenly become an overweight dilettante with a heart problem? Well, no. Not really. but Gail Simone wrote him well, and gave him a depth we hadn’t seen in the character for years.

      Overall, love the piece. Makes total sense. The fault, dear Brutus, lies not in the editors or writers but in ourselves.

  7. litanyofthieves
    June 4, 2010 at 2:21 pm — Reply

    While it’s true that it’s not just the editors or the fans, it’s some combination of the two, I think that Matthew is pretty much dead on here. As fans, our vote rests firmly with our dollar. It’s not uncommon or dangerous for one person to have a bad idea – but when that bad idea gets picked up and carried on by hundreds, thousands of others… that’s when it gets out of hand. That we stop buying books that are bad just because they were once our favorites, or they’re the linchpin of the latest event, is key here… yes, it’s possible to bring Hal Jordan or Barry Allen back in a way that works, but here, it’s pretty clear that a lot of the fans don’t think it is.

    • litanyofthieves
      June 4, 2010 at 2:23 pm — Reply

      ..to continue: yet they keep buying the books, thinking specifically since their favorite incarnation is back, that at some point it’ll get good, or out of loyalty or whatever. It’s just not working. Something’s gotta give, and it may not be the something we want to.

  8. TaZ
    June 4, 2010 at 4:10 pm — Reply

    Personally, I blame the Democrats (salute to “American Dad”).

    • June 4, 2010 at 11:36 pm — Reply

      Personally, I blame the Democrats (salute to “American Dad”).

      I tend to blame the French. Choose your scapegoat. :)

  9. arcee
    June 4, 2010 at 4:52 pm — Reply

    Great read! Keep’em coming.

  10. BallsMonkey
    June 4, 2010 at 5:25 pm — Reply

    I pretty much agree with your points, but number 4 is debatable.

    If there’s one thing I’ve learned about comics is that somethings will never change. There are jut certain elements about comics that I believe will never change, or at least not permanently. Like the status of death. In a medium where characters cheat death all the time it’s too easy not to do that. As much as they say dead is dead, there are some characters who can’t stay gone. Like Steve Rodgers, and Hal Jordan, and Thor, and and Barry Allen. Despite the fact that they may create a suitable replacement, that character will always have their fans and someone will always have a idea on how to bring them back for a new generation. Little things may change, but major changes in comics rarely last. I mean, look at Crisis.

  11. Crash
    June 4, 2010 at 7:42 pm — Reply

    Love the article Matthew. The fact that Quesada and other editors feel they need to stunt the growth of their characters pisses me off to no end.
    I’d also have to agree with your point about people not being able to accept other versions of characters we love. For instance, I think I may be the only person I know who LOVED the Scarlett Spider as the new Spider-Man. Impact webbing is brilliant people, get with the picture!

  12. tidge
    June 4, 2010 at 8:03 pm — Reply

    #1 is IMO the most important. As a corollary I offer:

    #1b: There is no need to p*ss on (or undo, or wish away) another era’s books from your own publisher…no matter what your opinion is. I picked up Busiek’s Avengers after the Heroes Reborn kerfuffle, and you know what…it didn’t matter that those issues existed! Somebody at DC has some serious hate for the Giffen/DeMatteis JL(I), despite the current ongoing book!

    As a corollary to #2, I offer:

    #2b: Don’t go and kill character(s) you haven’t been writing, especially if its going to happen in a single issue or panel. Alpha Flight? Gone in a blink of the pen.

    I’ll accept some sacrifices: El-Boring Barry Allen was ready to go, and he went out in a big way. Hal Jordan may not have had a graceful exit as GL, but he was also as dull as dishwater…with only Peter David’s brief Action Comics Weekly run offering anything that looked like future potential for the character.

  13. Damascus
    June 6, 2010 at 3:47 pm — Reply

    I agree to a point, if you don’t like something, don’t buy it. I do think that a publisher should publish whatever sells, and with the way things go in comics, even if you don’t care where something is going, eventually that character will probably come back around to a place where you can buy back into them. The run that you hated will probably be a series that someone else really enjoyed. I know that I first got into comics during the ’90s and while it gets bashed all the time, I loved it. Granted in the 90’s I was young and I never bought consistently and usually got stuff from the quarter bins so I never got turned off by full stories. I am always for bringing back a dead character as long as somebody does it for a serious reason and feels like they can do that character justice, then go for it. One of my favorite things is to be able to introduce people into certain story arcs or to characters that maybe they haven’t read before, and it is insanely hard to find or get into old storylines if you’ve never read comics before, so I would like to know that these characters I really liked are still around in some form that new readers can have a chance to enjoy them too. I’m for continuity in that it can tie some history together, but some stories can be told for that single story and enjoyed for what it is. If the end of the story is made exceptional by the death of a Flash, then go for it. I don’t like when someone like Martian Manhunter is dispatched for no good reason and without any flare, simply to lead into something else.

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