Monday, September 28, 2009

The Topping Problem

No, this does not refer to my somewhat guarded attitude to 'The Devil Goblins From Neptune'. (Yes, I have things up on the Internet other places than here. Don't worry. What you and I have is special.) No, this is more about a problem that happens in comics, something related to my issues with metastory (which I have ranted about in the past.) Specifically, it's the tendency of comics writers...and probably editors want to write the "ultimate" story.

Actually, the Ultimate universe is a good place to start. "Ultimatum" is, by all accounts, an over-the-top, Grand Guignol, Ragnarok-style finale to the Ultimate universe. (I have no direct, first-hand observations of this, because I no longer buy comics that I think I'll really, really hate.) It features dozens of deaths of major characters, a bloody finale to the rivalries between Professor X and Magneto and Doctor Doom and the FF, tidal waves crushing New York, and generally is a sort of be-all-and-end all super-hero epic.

Except that a few months later, they're publishing "Ultimate Comics: Spider-Man" and "Ultimate Comics: Avengers". You see the problem. In an industry that relies upon the income generated from long-term fan loyalty, and specifically on long-running series that have stable, devoted fanbases, you can't do a "be-all-and-end-all" story because you have to follow it up next month.

This problem started all the way back with the original "event", 'Crisis on Infinite Earths'. At the time, Marv Wolfman and the DC editorial team didn't think of this as an "event" comic (although they were pretty quick to capitalize on the sales excitement it generated.) They thought of it as a painful, necessary one-time adjustment to the fifty-year-old DC universe that would set it up for fifty years of new stories. But once fans got to see a thousand universes perishing, a battle between every super-hero and every super-villain ranging over five Earths at once, and a titanic struggle at the dawn of time for the fate of the multiverse, it was hard not to want something more...and more crucially, once writers read 'Crisis', they had a natural instinct to try to top it.

But the nasty part about trying to go out and top the last "event" story every time is twofold. First, it means that you're constantly having to top the last event story. The amount of shocking, not-to-be-missed, amazing once-in-a-lifetime developments you need for each story keeps going up and up and up, and it's easy to lose the thread of an actual story in the need to outdo the last one. (It's like the Spinal Tap joke. "Our crossover goes to eleven.")

And then the next crossover will have to outdo yours. When you title a story, "Final Crisis", you're creating the expectation among the fans that this is the ultimate, the untoppable, the literally final crisis that ever there is. When the actual story turns out to just be, "Darkseid takes over the world, Superman stops him and fixes everything, be sure to pick up next month's comic for more exciting adventures!" ...well, it's anti-climactic. That's the issue in a nutshell with "ultimate" stories. Everything after that is anti-climactic.

In the end, and I do keep hammering on about this but I think it's the core truth of everything that's gone wrong with the comic book industry, the emphasis has to be not on "important" but on "good". At every level, fans, writers, artists, editors, and all the way up to editors-in-chief, there needs to be less of an emphasis on, "You must not miss this shocking change to the status quo!" and more of an emphasis on, "You'll really get your money's worth in terms of enjoyment if you buy this comic!" Because there is a law of diminishing returns to shock and awe, and for many people, comics hit that point over a decade ago. And with every passing year, more and more fans become too jaded to care about the big events. But nobody ever becomes too jaded to care about good stories told well.


Eric Qel-Droma said...

You, sir, hit the nail on the head more consistently than anyone else I know. It's like you trained with Mr. Miyagi.

I just wish that the comic companies would read and follow your advice.

Michael Penkas said...

The first thing I thought of when I read this post was Paul Dini's run on Detective Comics. Remember that? Single issue stories with a couple recurring subplots, but basically done-in-one stories. They were great. They weren't leading to some great showdown with whoever. I just knew for about a year that, every time I picked up an issue of Paul Dini's Detective Comics, I was going to get a good Batman story.

And then it crossed over with that Return of Ra's al Ghul thing. And then there was the Heart of Hush thing. And then it all sort of fell apart.

I've had an event idea for a while that I would love to see both Marvel and DC try. Instead of a year-long story arc or another seven-issue event mini-series, how about an entire year where all of the major titles consist of single issue stories? Twelve issues of stand-alone stories that don't feed into a greater arc, don't require a lot of mini-series to explain. Just twelve solid stories told in twenty-two pages each.

Could the modern crop of writers even manage this sort of thing? There are potentially hundreds of stand-alone stories possible with the extended Corps in the Green Lantern books. Batman could fight a different member of his rogues gallery every month for ten years without repeating ... and the same goes for Spider-Man.

I'd love to see this happen; but the sad truth is that I'm probably in the minority. If "event" books were hated by the comics community at large, the companies wouldn't be making them any longer because no one would be buying them. The fact is that "event" books do fantastic sales, apparently even when they're not all that good.

It's the reason I tend to fish through back-issue bins more and more for comics to read. There were a lot of great stories being told thirty years ago.

John Seavey said...

Actually, my idea is for the "half-price double issue" event. Once a year, every title coming out that month tells a stand-alone story designed to introduce new readers to the title, complete with instructions on how to find a comics store and/or subscribe directly to the series.

Then the issue is sold at half-price, and every reader is asked to buy two copies and give one to someone that doesn't read the series.

Anonymous said...

"every title coming out that month tells a stand-alone story designed to introduce new readers to the title"

I remember that being tried many years ago, actually. I remember very little about it except that I had liked the stories, stories which mostly recapped the hero's origin and focused the story on introducing the supporting cast rather than on any particular event or major plotline. However, it was a disaster among the fandom, hated so much it effaced most of my memories of the event.

Fans write letters of outrage to the local fanzines (this was in the days before the internet) complaining that the issues had been a waste of their time because "nothing happened" in them.

I think the sour memory of that experience may still haunt the editorial staffs, decades later.

Anonymous said...

"And with every passing year, more and more fans become too jaded to care about the big events. But nobody ever becomes too jaded to care about good stories told well."

Too true!