Monday, January 5, 2009

The Hooplah Comic Book 2008 Year in Review

2008: it was the year that saw me quit.

Now, before you get all up in arms, I didn't give up all comics; I'm not that strong. I'll still get trades/graphic novels/collections - those thick ones you see at the local bookstore. But I did decide enough is enough and have forsaken the purchase of single issues of comic books. I am finishing out two stories (Final Crisis and JSA: Kingdom Come) and once done, I can say I'm done.

Let me tell you why: it's all about cost vs. quality. Though comics have seen a resurgence in popular appeal (and both dollar-share and unit sales have gone up over the last few years), it's come at a high price. Constantly tying in an ongoing story to whatever movie or video game or cartoon is to be released damages the content; shoe-horning certain characters into a larger crossover can destroy that title's momentum and discourage new readers.

Earlier this month, I had thought about trying a comic year in review, looking at the major stories, creator moves and industry happenings, but I can't really work up that much enthusiasm. It is the year that saw me decide to quit singles, as I've said. That should be indicative right there of my opinion on these last twelve months.

It's a stretch that's seen ongoing, monthly titles not release twelve issues in a year. Delays have not always been a hallmark of the comic industry. One only has to look back at the way things were before Image set up shop - and even at the Big Two in the few years following - to see how things should be. Story and character was placed before writer and artist. The age of the comic-creator-as-superstar took firm hold with the splashy, million+ selling titles of Image in the early 90s where narrative was sacrificed for art, for flash-in-the-pan doodles that, in the end, proved unsustainable on the whole. That's Image, you say, the worst offender.

Look at DC's banner event this year, Final Crisis, or several years' back to Marvel's Civil War. Each had superstar artists and writers attached, yet neither, even with proper lead-time, could come close to a monthly schedule. A month-long hiatus was built into Final Crisis, yet it still has two more issues to go when we were to be at the finish line in a matter of weeks. We can blame artist JG Jones for the delays, which have lead to new artist hirings to Get Things Finished. Civil War just stopped and rescheduled part-way through to accommodate Steve McNiven's laborious penciling, yet for anyone who's seen the finished product, one has to wonder what he was doing with his time....

It's been a year of delays, a year of outright scheduling failures and a year of amazing wordplay on the part of Dan Didio, DC editor-in-Chief. Anything that's been received poorly, be it the ending to Batman RIP or the delays on Final Crisis or the Countdown/Death of the New Gods fiasco, were all part of the plan. To read his interviews over at Newsarama, you'd think he's unflappable in the face of criticism and the best damn liar ever. He plays with words like Jaws with Robert Shaw; there is no escape from the black hole of his blatant duplicity. The truth is absorbed and repurposed to make either DC or him the victim of outside forces beyond control. Maybe we just don't get it.

You'd think from that I'd be done with DC, but as stated, my last few singles will be DC issues - Final Crisis and JSA. For whatever reason, DC just puts out a better product, delays or not. Marvel's gotten a better hang of Event publishing, putting out World War Hulk, it's tie-ins and the whole shebang of Secret Invasion without too many hitches (Marvel leaves those for the Ultimates), but what they've sacrificed is coherency and story. World War Hulk was a two-issue fight stretched over a five-issue mini and thirty-seven tie-in issues. What story existed was reliant upon knowledge of Planet Hulk (recapped in a summary page) and in no way merited such a waste of trees and cash.

The worst offender, however, is Secret Invasion: eight issues, seven tie-in minis (for twenty-two issues) and seventy-one
related issues in ongoing series and one-shots, all for a half-day fight that we knew would end with the heroes winning. That's ONE HUNDRED AND ONE issues all told.

Brian Michael Bendis is the culprit, not Didio's opposite, Joe Quesada (himself responsible in large part for the Spider-Man: One More Day train wreck). He's been masterminding this event for the last few years through his post as chief Avengers scribe and plotter. It was a fantasy for him, a dream to write this sprawling, pulp alien invasion mega-story, and it serves as a culmination to his run. You know what? Kurt Busiek, another Avengers writer (and one a mite bit better than BMB), had a great run a few years back, and it too culminated in a mega-story, an Event featuring the conquest of Earth by the despot Kang. Great swaths of real estate were destroyed, characters died and it was truly a world-shaking story. At the end of it all, you know what?

It all took place in pages of The Avengers. No mini. No tie-ins with other titles.

And this story lasted for months and months, essentially the last year of Busiek's tenure. Surely it could've been a four-month event, if the story could've been disassembled and scattered around two or four-issue minis featuring Spider-man and Wolverine and Thor and the Great Lakes Avengers and etc. But Busiek – and Marvel at the time – were a little smarter and still contained stories so you didn’t generate Event Fatigue, what we suffer from greatly now. DC managed this also, from the time of the original Crisis through the Death of Superman, Batman's breaking, Zero Hour and even that odd non-event, The Kingdom. Heck, Identity Crisis had ramifications in other titles, but the story was a done-in-one-miniseries, a small "e" event.

In ye olden days, an event such as Secret Invasion would not have crossed over into every other title but stayed contained in one Avengers' mini, with the side stories being woven in or dropped, and only Avengers-centric comics propelling the story forward. X-Men or Spidey titles could reference after the fact, but not be interrupted.

Probably the best example of major event referencing was in Grant Morrison's JLA, when Superman briefly became electric (boogey woogey woogey). It wasn't a big thing, just a throwaway line (and a great use of the new powers), but were the same to happen today, you can know that all the Supes titles plus JLA and maybe some of the other major player books would've had a piece of the story.

It's not enough to write a good story anymore. All comics have to be Events. I think this, over everything else, is just ruining the monthly comic trade.

Sure, the price point for entry is higher than ever (completely beyond inflation), but you can trade-wait and get discounts per issue, or use subscription services that offer up to 35% off. Singles can be made affordable, and there might, in the future, be a backlash with creators offering their titles for less at independent publishers (Warren Ellis is good for this).

No, Event Fatigue, as I mentioned above, saps the will to read these stories. I can't get full enjoyment, the thinking goes, unless I read all fifty issues of this story, regardless of how thin the connection is between The Runaways and an X-Men event, or Adam Strange and a Wonder Woman epic. It's a barrier erected for sales that erodes readership long-term. You don't win fresh, life-long readers with a continuity-laden, dozens-of-issues-spanning story.

Where are the single issue tales? What happened to them? Why do we need to spring from catastrophe to Armageddon to universal undoing and then back to street-level disaster that spawns a major conflict?

I love comics and the opportunity they offer creators to tell visual stories big and small without the budgetary restraints of modern Hollywood. For all the current deficiencies, I cannot see myself giving them up entirely, but singles? I can't do it anymore.

Any thoughts, Buck?

Buck: I’ll start with a brief comment about trade-waiting. The only real problem I have with it is the continued tendency from the Big Two to publish every collected storyline in a “prestige” or “deluxe” (and I use those terms very loosely) hardcover format. If the softcover edition were published simultaneously, this wouldn’t be a problem. But as it stands now, the more inexpensive softcover editions are not published until several months, sometimes up to a year, later. I can only assume there are people who are actually shelling out $20-$25 for a book that would have cost you $18 if you’d bought the individual issues. Whereas I, the consumer who waits for the softcover, usually pay $13-15 for what would have cost $18. It saves me money in the end, but the practice of publishing virtually your entire output in hardcover first is infuriating. The only problem is that by waiting for the collections, sometimes by the time I discover a title, it’s already been cancelled. It’s a Catch-22 when dealing with the second-tier books from each publisher.

Hooper: As a trade-waiter, I must agree. I cannot abide waiting the extra months for the softcover of a series that should never have a hardcover release. In my eyes, HCs should be reserved for the big deal books, not every story arc. Though it is one of the best comics being published, do I need an HC of each Booster Gold trade? Of course not, it's ridiculous.

A few more points:

Just for the record, I was done with singles over a year ago. The only single issues I’ve bought since making the decision have been the two event miniseries of 2008, Final Crisis and Secret Invasion, and Matt Fraction’s excellent Thor specials from Marvel.

Regarding McNiven’s art on Civil War…to be fair, McNiven’s art is far from horrible. I actually enjoy his work. I assume you mean it’s not extremely detail-oriented, and that’s why you’ve questioned the delay. If that’s the case, I agree.

Hooper: That is exactly the case. I can understand the hyper-detailed work of Bryan Hitch, Frank Quitely or, say, Ladronn taking more time, but McNiven would skimp on background and faces. There is a quantity of art I expect from delays, not just a quality.

Buck: In light of the comments regarding Didio, I’ll also mention Marvel’s explanation (or lack thereof) for the mechanics by which Spider-Man was made a bachelor again following a deal with the devil. The explanation from Marvel Editorial about just what happened at the conclusion of the One More Day story arc? “It’s magic. We don’t have to explain it." That’s sloppy, and a slap in the face to your core audience.

Lastly, don’t think that by venting our frustrations we’re condemning the entire output of DC and Marvel. Far from it. I can recommend several good titles from each publisher. For DC, Green Lantern has been very entertaining since its relaunch, and Geoff Johns is about to re-take the writing reins of the Flash, a character he was born to write. Johns’ work on Action Comics has also drawn good reviews. I’ve been enjoying Blue Beetle, though I was late to the game and the book has already been cancelled. And as for Grant Morrison’s All-Star Superman…well, every other comic book should hope to be half as good as that. On the Marvel side, I can recommend The Immortal Iron Fist, Captain America, Runaways, Daredevil, Avengers: The Initiative, Marvel Adventures: Avengers (these last two being far and away better than the two banner Avengers titles), and Matt Fraction’s Thor work without hesitation. Ghost Rider, Agents of Atlas, and The Amazing Spider-Man have also drawn some good critiques as of late.

So we’re not abandoning comics, and we’re certainly not abandoning DC or Marvel. We just wish they’d put a little more quality into their flagship efforts.

Hooper: Buck is right. Frustrations are as cyclical in comic books as flashes of brilliance. For every Event that is delayed and screws up half a dozen other on-schedule books, there's a Booster Gold, Green Lantern, Immortal Iron Fist or Captain America that renews not only our faith in the industry as Industry, but in comic books as great pieces of entertainment.

2009 promises to be another banner year for comic book publicity: several big-name movies are coming out (Watchmen, X-Men Origin: Wolverine), and if The Dark Knight succeeds in getting major award recognition at the Oscars, we can expect more people taking a chance on the source material. Will what they find be up to snuff with some pretty stellar storytelling?

Judging from 2008, I don't have much optimism in snagging a bucketful of new readers. Marvel will be entrenched in Dark Reign, the ludicrous follow-up to Secret Invasion that has the US government handing over control of all superhuman response to a known psyche case and mass-murderer. X-Men, from the few things I've heard, continues to improve, but it's still stuck in the mire of continuity. But DC invented continuity, and it ain't breaking free in 2009. Everything builds on everything. The stories are great for old hands, but not fresh fish.

The uncollected backlist might lure new readers, finding those great old series that linger in back issue bins and repackaging them in affordable trades. DC is doing this with Justice League International, the acclaimed series from the 80s and early 90s. These old stories are unfettered by current Events, and many have set beginnings and endings, so a reader can get four or six trades and feel satisfied, whereas now they have to slog through the wasteland of ongoings, delays, rescheduling, the crossovers without end….

If DC and Marvel have, roughly two-thirds of the market, then the great hope for comic books becomes the Other Third: independents. Dark Horse, Image, IDW, Oni, Top Shelf, etc.: these are the publishers who have the greatest potential to lure in new readers with – fancy this – new stories, engaging characters, lower cost-per-story since there are fewer Events to consider. You get more genres covered, not just "superheroes," and creators are better able to flex their muscle without editorial mandates to consider. Look at Boom Studios! and their growing catalog of genres covered: high fantasy, space opera, horror, conspiracy, crime, heist, cop, supernatural. I could go on, and that's great! Other companies offer "realistic" fiction, the sort of real-world stories many don't understand are present on the racks of their local comic shop. And I'm not mentioning manga, the bookstore juggernaut sub-medium.

If all were fair, that Other Third would become the Second Half, spurring a renaissance in comics as literature and a truly engaging form of mass entertainment.

Cross(over) your fingers.

-Hooper (w/ Buck)

And by the by, thank you
Wikipedia and ComicBookResources for your excellent tie-in tallies for major event comics. Tie-ins need to mean something, as described by Alan Moore in his Twilight of the Superheroes proposal:

"The perfect mass crossover would be something like the following: it would have
a sensible and logical reason for crossing over with other titles, so that the
readers who were prompted to try a new title as a result of the crossover or
vice versa didn't feel cheated by some tenuous linkage of storylines that was at
best spurious and at worst nonexistent."

Looking over these tie-ins to find the total number of issues involved, while dollar amounts might be different or far closer, Marvel's approach is ridiculous to spread the plot out so much in a blatant cash grab, as it alienates readers new and old.

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