Tuesday, April 25, 2006

State of Comics

I'm currently reading 'The Legion Companion', a book I picked up because I knew next to nothing about the Legion of Super-Heroes but was aware they had a devoted fanbase, and wanted to find out why. It's been of sod-all use in that regard (it's a collection of interviews with various Legion writers and artists, designed to be read by people who are already intimately familiar with the LSH), but it does give me an idea of why comics today are failing.

Reading these interviews, you'll find old writers, editors, and artists talking about comics at newsstands (when was the last time you saw a comic sold outside of a comic shop? OK, yes, maybe a bookstore, but they don't sell them in drugstores, at supermarkets, or anywhere the direct market can't reach.) They talk about letters columns (vanished as well.) They talk about how they wrote self-contained stories for the casual reader (multi-part stories used to be taboo at DC, now they're mandatory everywhere.) They talk about doing eye-catching covers (sure, superdickery.com jokes about 50s DC covers, but as crazy as they were, they certainly made you want to buy the issues.) They talk about how they didn't expect anyone to be into comics for more than two years, so they had to keep doing things to get new readers interested (nowadays comics writers assume every reader is a long-time reader and is intimately familiar with the characters' backstories and key historical points.)

It's like a glimpse into an alien world.

Now, I'm not saying every single one of these changes was a bad thing--I'd be crazy to suggest that there's no room for multi-part stories, for example. But it does occur to me that comic books, as they were constituted for the first sixty or seventy years of their existence, were designed for the general public (if only the juvenile element of the general public), and that they had a goal of getting as many people as possible to look at a comic, see the cover, and at least consider purchasing it. For the last twenty or thirty years, they've marketed to an increasingly smaller, self-selected market, counting on brand loyalty to outweigh the fact that nobody knows their product exists anymore. And they wonder what's going wrong...

I'd have to say, if I were to be put in charge of Marvel/DC, the first thing I'd do is market a "Comics Treasury" monthly. It'd be a magazine, say 100 pages, and it'd have four or five self-contained comics featuring flagship characters on a rotating basis, it'd have letters and spaces for fan-art, articles on the company's history, continuity, and so forth that would be fun, interesting, and glorified ads for their other products...and most importantly, it would be marketed wherever anyone had a magazine rack. And the advertising department would make sure, every month, to have at least one page of ads for local comics stores, and those local stores could purchase ads at a discounted rate.

That'd be just the start--I'd also tamp down on excess continuity, rampant cross-overs, reboots, et cetera, and ramp up the newsstand programs and bring back the letter columns...but at the very least, I'd want a single product out there aimed at casual readers that would increase visibility of my entire line of products.

Something like that is necessary, I think. They have to start growing their business again. Because at this rate, comics will soon be down to the point where they're trying to sell every single copy to one very rich fan. And that's just not a viable business model.


Anonymous said...

It's verrry, verrry hard to get into Legion "continuity" at this point, because there are far too many versions (I was going to mention them here, but there's too much. :) )
I think the stories that comic writers are telling are more interesting to me today than they have been in the past. I love Geoff Johns, and would consider reading anything with his name on it (I didn't buy his Flash or Green Lantern titles, though). I even muddled through Avengers when he took that title over for a few issues. He saved JSA and made it into the best title at DC.
I'm all about continuity. Geoff Johns is a master of that, as are the other writers I have really liked in the past. Nothing annoys me more than people like Grant Morrison taking apart classic characters for the sake of updating them ("Weapon Ten", "7 Soldiers of Victory"). It's not necessary to chuck "continuity" to have a successful comic... Geoff did a fantastic job with JSA and his other titles.
I agree with you, though, that there ought to be a newsstand comic that has rotating stories of popular characters... for DC it might be Superman, Wonder Woman, Batman, the Titans, Green Lantern, the JSA, and so on. Marvel? I don't much know. I haven't even bought Joss' X-Men stories, though I might pick up a collected graphic novel or something. I couldn't deal with "Avengers Disassembled" and everything else that's going on over there at Marvel.
BTW, I think you'd like the new Legion (get it before the Supergirl and... starts), and especially the letter column. The reader mail is read and answered by characters from the comic.

John Seavey said...

I like continuity too--part of what's complicated about this is that I think that the 50s comics went too far in the opposite direction (simplicity, self-containment, and a belief that only kids read comics, and then only as a phase.) That's why Marvel trounced them, because readers were looking for more growth and development. There's room for continuity in comics.

But I think that what you've got now is writers pandering to our desire for continuity, like heroin dealers giving us increasingly stronger drugs even though we're on the verge of overdosing. Everything's about introducing new, big, life-changing events every six months. Everything's obsessed with what already happened, with bringing back the past. It makes it very hard for new readers to get involved. (I noticed when I picked up "7 Soldiers" that there was a distracting feeling of having to assume every flashback was a reference to an old comic, because it was so old-comics obsessed. And I agree with you...stuff like killing off Dr. Thirteen was just unnecessary, ditto with most of the other deaths. Very little irritates me like the current comics trend of bumping off second-string characters to show how "serious" an event is.)

(Although the Weapon Ten stuff was great, it added to the mythos rather than revamping or subtracting from it, I thought. The idea that Wolverine is part of something even bigger, that there was a Weapon V and a Weapon I...I thought that was cool.)

I'd like to see a happy medium found between fans like me and kids like the kid I was when I first discovered comics, because I think it can be there and I think it's been lost.