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The Friday of Our Discontent

This probably shouldn’t bother me, but it does.

You have to understand, if the 13-year-old me were to look around this apartment that the 44-year-old me inhabits, that kid would think that he had found the promised land. Walls lined with books– real BOOKS! — that collect entire RUNS of his favorite comics. Most of his favorite characters — Batman, Spider-Man, the Justice League, the X-Men, the Fantastic Four — are still being published, and a couple of them just got kickass new makeovers. The books are printed on real paper now, not that crappy old newsprint. Even the current television, kid’s-cartoon versions are infinitely cooler than the ones he had in the 60’s and 70’s… and they’re available for private viewing in your home whenever you want, you can just BUY them on DVD like record albums to play as often as you like. Same with the movies… and oh my God, check OUT these movies. Superhero movies that are actually taking the story seriously, movies that are tough and cool and, well… good.

And what about that respectability issue? The constant defensiveness, the vague embarrassment whenever an adult caught you reading a comic? Long gone. Comics have their own section in libraries and bookstores now — and it actually is reserved for COMICS, or “graphic novels,” not just a couple of books dumped into the bottom of the “Humor” section.

Never in my wildest dreams in 1977 would I have imagined a hardcover edition like this. Never.

Really, for fans of my generation, we are living in a new Golden Age. There are more options for readers than anyone my age ever dreamed were possible, more venues, more formats, more EVERYTHING. It seems really crass and spoiled to complain, when I remember what it used to be like.

Understand, I love the way things are now, compared to the hassles I endured in my youth just GETTING comics to read. Compare biking three miles in 1974 to a 7-Eleven that carried more Marvel books than the Village Drug did, in the faint hope that maybe THEY’D have the conclusion to that Spider-Man story… to today, booting up Amazon.com and hitting “Buy with 1-click” to get two year’s worth of those very same Spider-Man stories in one Essential volume without leaving the house. Pfft. No contest. And that’s not even counting eBay, a San Diego-convention-sized back-issue dealer’s room that’s open every day.

For all our bitching, the truth is that comics fans my age have it made in the shade, baby. We are living the good life.

So what’s the problem?

I’m not sure… but I think what’s bothering me is that it IS all seemingly designed for guys like me. At least as far as Marvel and DC are concerned.

Do a Google search on comics-Year-One and you get this...

I brought this up before, talking about the new Justice League book, and our other Greg very sensibly pointed out that lately it seems like the whole mainstream superhero comics output is slanted that same way.

And this...

I looked around at the new books on the racks and was really shocked to see how MANY of them are retellings, revamps, reboots and homages to other books… books of MY era. Just last week the Ultimate FF faced off against a version of Jack Kirby’s Forever People. In 52 we just got a new version of the Mighty Isis. Ultimate Spider-Man is revisiting the Clone Saga. Neil Gaiman’s reviving the Eternals. The Creeper just got a reboot. There’s a new White Tiger on deck at Marvel. I mean, no one adored Deadly Hands of Kung Fu and Bill Mantlo’s Sons of the Tiger/White Tiger epic more than me… but come on. How many of us out there were panting for that revival? Who other than a middle-aged comics aficionado is even going to get half of these homages and references and what-not?

And this...

Some of this stuff is great. I’m not as high on All-Star Superman as some of my brethren here on the blog, but even I can see that it’s fun and well-crafted and accessible to people under forty… but I also see that it’s stuffed to the gills with homages, winks and nods to stories that are thirty and forty years old. I love Wagner’s Batman and the Mad Monk, but how many times has DC gone to the well for this Batman Year One kind of story? And this particular one is a retelling of a story that was already homaged/retold by Gerry Conway and Gene Colan in the 80’s.

Story continues below

For some reason this new wave of homage/reboot/relaunch stuff seems way BIGGER than usual.

And this...

Marvel and DC have never been shy about going back to the same well, but this last couple of years it seems almost… cannibalistic. And really, I should be clear about this — this isn’t a problem for COMICS. Comics are doing just fine. It’s a problem for Marvel and DC superhero comics.

Okay, not QUITE a Year One. But close.

They’re the ones that are homaging themselves to death. A “Batman Year One” story made a certain amount of sense when Frank Miller did it in the 80’s, because no one had ever actually done it before. But as delightful as Batman and the Mad Monk might be, it’s still about the 27th to come down the line, and it can’t help but feel a little tired just BECAUSE it’s a “Year One” kind of story.

I don’t know why this bothers me, since I’ve always been one of those guys that said support the good stuff and ignore the bad stuff and it’ll all shake out, no one’s holding a gun to your head and making you read comics you don’t like. And God knows there are lots of things out both old and new that I DO enjoy reading. There really has never been a better, easier time for the adult consumer of comics to get hold of the good stuff. NEVER. The difficulty — “difficulty,” he calls it — is that there are so MANY comics coming out that you might miss something cool in the tsunami of books flooding every issue of Previews. Some difficulty. I’d have loved to have that problem in 1979.

But I still, in my heart of hearts, love Marvel and DC comics and I’d like to see them succeed and branch out and bring in lots of new readers. Right now it doesn’t feel like that’s the game plan, though. Right now it seems more like they’ve decided that there are only about 50,000 guys like me reading superhero books, and the key to success is to get every one of us, rather than go after the other MILLIONS of people out there who maybe aren’t reading their books at all.

Somebody explain to me how you get Neil Gaiman on board to do anything he wants -- and both projects are rebooted superhero books. That's... well, it's weird.

That seems unhealthy and stupid and a dumb way to do business. After all, we’re all middle-aged and getting older, and there’s really no big next wave of fans coming in behind us. A glance at the last decade’s sales charts will tell you that. So, as much as I like feeling cosseted and catered to by the Big Two, I can’t help feeling vaguely guilty about it. Because, you know, they really shouldn’t be sucking up to guys like me. They should be going after new readers, casual browsers, the college kids and the 13-year-olds of today. I can’t really enjoy all this stuff when I feel like I’m in the last dwindling generation of fans that’s going to get to see it.

But maybe that’s just me, being a morbid old man. I hope so. I’d love to be proven wrong.

See you next week.


I may be way off-base here, but I would think that the precise reason some of these homages/recuts/redos is to bring in new audiences to the books.

Maybe not new READERS, nice as that would be, but more like getting X-Men fans to read Superman comics via Morrison, or getting Image fans to like the Avengers via the Ultimates.

All the winks and nods may be there to placate old-time fans who would tear the book apart besides them, but I have to believe that books like “Mad Monk” are not there for the Batman fans who read “Year One” and every other Batman comic in the following twenty years as much as they are for the potential reader who just borrowed “Year One” from the library and is looking for more of the same.

Sean Whitmore said …”I may be way off-base here, but I would think that the precise reason some of these homages/recuts/redos is to bring in new audiences to the books.”

Well, no. I mean, you could be right, certainly, but I rather think it’s more to go after the same jaded fans who may not be reading that particular TITLE. But never expanding beyond the base fifty or sixty thousand people who go to the comic shop every week.

“Maybe not new READERS, nice as that would be, but more like getting X-Men fans to read Superman comics via Morrison, or getting Image fans to like the Avengers via the Ultimates.”

Yes, exactly. That’s what worries me. It seems very incestuous and short-term.

To me, it’s not so much the content they’re revisiting. It’s the packaging and presentation. Today’s comics aren’t cheap and disposable entertainment like in the old days, but they’re not normally high literature either- so what the Hell are they?

The current insularity is a problem- and again, I don’t think it’s that Marvel is reviving the Eternals or DC worships its own Silver and Golden ages, it’s that these homages and tributes are done in such a way that nobody outside the existing fandom would “get it”. They’ve basically given up on the mainstream, they can’t get comics in major outlets so why bother?

It’s becoming a niche industry, with virtually nonexistent deadlines and an attitude that accessibility is for the kiddie books. I’m an RPG fan, and that industry is very much a niche, hobby one, where people do it for the love of gaming, but that I can understand as it’s something you do have to take some time to get “into” and something that won’t attract a wide audience. To see something like comics, basically pictures in sequence, actively making itself harder to penetrate, is downright confusing.

wait, you’re just NOW noticing that mainstream comics is a diseased ouroboros? Thats pretty much been their stated intent for the last few years.

I’m not tring to be smarmy, you’re completely right on the money that this is a huge problem that Marvel and DC will be paying for in the long term, but the short term is working out well enough that they won’t be bothered.

Once in awhile they’ll pull out something like Runaways or Ex Machina (I didn’t mean to name two Vaughn titles, those are the first I could think of so he’s just aparetnly really good at what I’m talking about) that is at least partially free of the whole incestous nerd-mongering, but its probably not enough.

To be fair, its kind of hard to come up with a new iconic hero. No matter what you make, it’ll somehow fall into one of the five basic categories of hero. Even the best new characters and concepts of today can’t help but seem a little derivetive (Invincible could be broken down alchemicly into 1 part Superman archetype and 1 part Spiderman archetype while Runaways would be Batman and X-Men archetypes). Of course, the simplest solution to that would be to try a different genre for your new books that allows you to create a new archetype right out the gate, but what are the odds of that happening?

I think this says it all right here in the comments. Discussion of how comics could expand their audience comes down to how they could or should make their current titles more accessible or how they could create more accessible new superhero titles.

I don’t want to play a really old tune, but how many new readers do you think they can attract with only those strategies? Is this really as far as the creativity of the comic community, as readers and producers both, extends for ideas?

The last book I lent to friends of mine that I could tell they really enjoyed was the first year of Mark Waid’s Fantastic Four run. I was surprised. It just happened to be sitting on the coffee table when they grabbed it. And they loved it.

Looking through it, I noticed something that you don’t find in a lot of Marvel or DC books now, just a couple years later – they are completely accessible to someone who has NEVER READ A FANTASTIC FOUR STORY IN THEIR LIVES. Anything that needs to be explained is explained simply and cleverly.

I remember Mark Waid saying he tries to write every issue like it’s somebody’s first, and looking on the stands now, I can’t find any examples of that mentality.

I absolutely believe that one of the many reasons that comics are not catching on with new readers is the fact that they are not sold in convenience stores, at newsstands, etc. anymore: places where non-comics readers would have access to them. Isn’t that where many of us bought our first comics? Now, they are sold mainly in specialty stores. Why would a non-comics reader even set foot in one of those places unless they were dragged in by their comic-reading significant other? Granted, trades and collections are sold at Borders and Barnes & Noble, but what non-comics reader is going to plunk down $15+ to read their first superhero comic?

Also, why is it that DC and Marvel seemingly insist on a policy of no mainstream marketing of any kind? Kevin Smith has a legion of fans, yet in his various mainstream magazine and TV appearances, Marvel has never had him play up his comics work for them. A lot of non-comics readers, especially women, watch “The O.C.” Why doesn’t DC take out a 30-second spot during the show to promote Alan Heinberg’s run on “Wonder Woman?” The latest superhero movies have been blockbusters; why not a trailer promoting the comics on which they are based?

I know that these things won’t cure all of the comic industry’s ills, but they just seem like missed opportunities…

Kevin Smith went on Jay Leno to promote his Spider-Man/Black Cat book. I don’t think you could get any more high profile than that in terms of marketing. Promoting Wonder Woman during the OC is just ridiculous. The cost for a 30-second spot even for that show would be totally out of DC’s league (Fox is not owned by DC’s parent company, either).

Comics are definitely still sold in convenience stores, at least in L.A. Many many drug stores shelve them with Mad and crossword puzzles, and a lot of them (perhaps more than have comics) have Wizard. There is no lost opportunity; they’re there. Comics just aren’t cost effective in that market. $3 for 20 pages of a 5-part story? Ridiculous.

The singles market in music has virtually disappeared in the U.S. Only big chains like Virgin carry them anymore. So where does the prospective single purchaser go? iTunes. One song costs a dollar. Make of that what you will.

Much of Mr. Hatcher opinions are shared by many on the Byrne message board. Yup, the industry is painting itself into a corner …

Funny for someone who uses the “no backgrounds” motif quite often, John Byrne’s done more than his fair share of that paint job. Personally, I agree with a previous poster that the constant reboots are a way to reheat the same stories for a broader (or more focused, depending on the project) audience reach.

The original post said: “Some of this stuff is great. I’m not as high on All-Star Superman as some of my brethren here on the blog, but even I can see that it’s fun and well-crafted and accessible to people under forty… but I also see that it’s stuffed to the gills with homages, winks and nods to stories that are thirty and forty years old.”

Replace All-Star Superman with Man of Steel in that quote for a laugh. :)

Ditko Hands: I agree with you about the prohibitive cost of comics these days. Even I have had to significantly trim down my monthly load. The argument is always, “Well, kids are willing to spend $50 on a video game,” but I think that most kids and adults perceive computer and video games as giving them a lot more “bang for their buck” than comics, for various reasons. Plus, most kids don’t buy a new video game every week.

I would almost be willing to see comic publishers drop the glossy paper and fancy computerized coloring from the books if it could result in a significant drop in price. (Back in the mid-80s, DC and Marvel used the advanced coloring processes that were just coming on the scene as one of the justifications for price increases.) Save the high-end treatment for the trades and collections. If comics could go back to a price of, say, $1.99 per book, perhaps new readers might be inclined to give them a try? Or would a return to newsprint and old-school coloring not make that much of a difference in pricing?

I agree with Ditko Hands, res196e7, AND Greg: superhero comics have a format problem, a distribution problem, and an accessibility problem – all of which is to say they’re being marketed towards people who started buying them twenty, thirty years ago when it still made sense to have a market that looked like this, and they’re ONLY being marketed to this group. That has to change if this genre’s going to outlive its current crop of readers.

I hate to hammer away at this, but why are we all so specifically interested in saving Superhero comics?

Look, I don’t want to be that guy. I love Superheroes. I love Superhero comics. I’m with Greg completely on how much this is oddly a Golden Age of its own for availability and games played with classic formulas, however I also agree with overreliance on the “safe” Superhero format.

Not only do I think more readers could be brought to comics if the US industry made a genuine effort to expand their repertoire, but I think Superhero comics would improve. There would be more money and, as such, more titles and more talent in the industry. The people working on Superhero comics could be exclusively people who are genuinely excited to be working on them and feel they have a real story to tell about Superheroes instead of just people trying to make a living.

Having the health of an entire nations output in a medium on one small subgenre is not good for anyone, including fans and creators within that subgenre.

This may not apply so much to Ultimate titles and Year-One stories, but I think Eternals White Tiger etc. getting revisited may be due in part to what the larger company sees as its core business. Anyone able to compare the profits from Ultimates sales vs. the profits from the Ultimate Avengers DVDs?

I don’t know whether its the parent company, or merely an offshoot, but I read a press release from Marvel recently where the boilerplate at the end described Marvel as something like a “Characters-based entertainment company”.

Finding ways to exploit all the characeters that have ever appeared in Marvel comics–movies, merchandising, cartoons, etc.–may have become Marvel’s core business. Publishing new comic stories would be a small subset of that, but comics also support the core business as being a cheap test market for old characters and situations, a way to throw stuff from the stockroom against the wall and to see what sticks.

Plus, its not like the ig movie houses and TV studios are exactly innovative? Are there more Law & Order series or X-Men titles? Is the new Eternals more or less irritating than the Bewitched movie?

Also, companies do remakes because they don’t have to spend as much time and money explaining the character and situation to an audience. That’s half the reason comic properties are so hot in Hollywood lately.

I’m hesitant to get into this because I really do want to save something for future columns and I imagine we’ll be visiting this topic again. But I do want to clarify something, particularly for those who think the argument is something about “How do we save superhero comics”?

See, I think in their present form not only are they beyond saving, but they DON’T WANT TO BE SAVED. That’s the part that has me completely befuddled, this sort of resigned surrender. I mean, they are not even TRYING to reach out any more. It’s all for us — the faithful-every-Wednesday, pull-list-maintaining crew.

Comics are clearly morphing into a book publishing industry, not a newsstand periodical one. I already did the column about how stupid it is for Marvel and DC not to embrace that, ride the wave straight in to Barnes & Noble and really duke it out with Tokyopop and so on, grow up and earn a real share of a real market and give us all better books to read in the process. That’s how it SHOULD go in my little fan utopia.

But the thing that baffles me, looking at the new JLA and all these other blatantly kissing-my-middle-aged-fanboy-ass projects, is that they apparently decided NOT to do that, but rather blindly cling to us geezers and OUR lunatic loyalty to a completely outmoded format. How is that good business beyond, oh, the next five years?

What’s the thinking from Marvel and DC here? Why kiss my ass? Guys like me aren’t really leaving, and publishers know it. I absolutely don’t get it. That’s this week’s column. One more in a series of “Where the hell ARE we going, anyway?” that you get from Hatcher’s Friday thing every so often. It’s something I keep worrying at.

moose n squirrel

September 9, 2006 at 7:10 pm

I hate to hammer away at this, but why are we all so specifically interested in saving Superhero comics?

I’m really not – most of my favorite comics have all fallen outside the superhero genre – but this is overwhelmingly a superhero blog on a superhero site. Yes, domination by a single genre has left the American comics industry utterly dysfunctional, but I think that’s (1) a separate and more complicated discussion, and (2) one that’s not going to be productive to have in a forum where a majority of readers – or at least a sizable plurality – don’t read much at all outside superhero books and don’t feel a desire to.

“See, I think in their present form not only are they beyond saving, but they DON’T WANT TO BE SAVED. That’s the part that has me completely befuddled, this sort of resigned surrender. I mean, they are not even TRYING to reach out any more. It’s all for us — the faithful-every-Wednesday, pull-list-maintaining crew.”

YES. Nail on the head.

I understand what you’re saying, moose n squirrel, however the problem lies in the incredible short-sightedness of the debate. There is essentially no way to save Superhero comics in America from the tiny niche ghetto they’ve firmly implanted themselves into without comics pushing themselves outside their current boundaries, both from an artistic standpoint and from a marketing standpoint.

Granted, if Warner Communications decided it was a major priority to get people to read DC Comics, they could take an all-out campaign to advertise them everywhere and make sure they got in people’s faces as impulse buys. As this, or anything like it, is never, ever going to happen, we’ll dismiss this.

The only solution is in smaller, but substantial risks to stretch the boundaries of what American comics can be and how they are marketed.

When paperback books sell for $8.99 on impulse, there’s no reason that the digest or Manga-style books can’t be published and sold in the same price range and at the same places, if someone would take a risk and create something appealing outside the current bounds and sell them in a new way. They can contain 10 times the reading material of a flimsy comic magazine, that’s only half the cost and is ridiculous to store or pass along to anyone but obssessive geeks.

Imagining a goal of reviving and expanding the industry of selling 22 page Superhero comic magazines, regardless of how much any of us may hold affection for them, is entirely futile.

Though the sad meta-irony is that, frankly, the vast bulk of nonsuperhero comics don’t sell well enough for most publishers to manage to get them into trade. For every Transmetropolitan or, going well outside the Little Big Two, every Art Spiegelman or Chris Ware project that gets notices and perpetual bookstore presence, there are loads of comics that perish without so much as a trade, or that are TPBed but don’t turn up in bookstores in the first place. There are exceptions for the nonsuperhero stuff that’s gotten film deals — Road to Perdition, Crumb, etc. — but you’re not going to stumble over Strangers in Paradise or Love and Rockets at the newsvendor or the Barnes and Noble.

You can go mad trying to find a bookseller or anything besides a DM-style comics shop that stocks anything besides superhero collections, a few of the aforementioned critical darlings, and manga. And in the case of manga, not much in the way of non-Japanese material seems to do all that well. If I may imporperly treat manga as both a style and a format for a moment — and in the American market, that’s what it amounts to — you don’t see loads of Scott Pilgrim digests lining the shelves outside of specialty shops either.

And in fairness, Scott Pilgrim and Strangers in Paradise and dozens of other celebrated indie comics tend to wind up playing off of either superhero, action, or alternate geek-niche genres. (Sorry, lads, something like the once-touted Amazing Joy Buzzards is an amazingly geeky comic; it’s just not superhero-geeky so much as more generally geeky.)

In Europe, comics had the advantage of both a history of acceptance as a medium and even then, in the UK, underwent an almost deliberate reinvention that took place at a time when American superhero comics were doing quite well too. In Japan, comics were adopted as just another medium, rather than being confused with niche genres.

In the USA, comics got knocked on their cans in the 1950s, and the reinvention that might’ve taken place in the 1970s only occurred in limited ways and in connection with a small subsection of a generation-specific counterculture. But that didn’t produce an American Herge, for instance, or an American Moebius, or an American Koike. It produced, for the most part, a load of Baby Boomer autobiographical comics and shock gag strips.

There are remedies, of course, but what those remedies will take is time. And in the meanwhile, the sort of diminishing-returns genre stuff that’s been perversely made synonymous with the medium — to the point that “manga,” as noted above, isn’t treated as a different way of doing comics so much as it is something not comics, some sort of wonderful, exotic foreign import — is in a great many ways the only thing buying the rest of the American comics creator community the necessary time to pull something off.

Good luck to them.

But American comics have had an American Herge or American Tezuka in Carl Barks, who went on to develop plentiful styles that were imitated, even spawning a hit TV series. The problem is the lack of recognition to Barks, and also, to a lesser extent, the comparisons between newspaper strips and comic books. Some people I talk to about comics don’t even recognize or think that there are creators behind these books, and that is treating a that is the major cause of inbreeding. Comics weren’t artistic expression when they were seducing the innocent, but cheap entertainment, because of the general perceptions surrounding them, so the audience outside of kids wasn’t very much.

In the 70’s, that perception bar has been crossed by everyone well versed in the medium, but not outside. Before, people reading comics and newspaper strips accepted them as just funnies, something light, but when imaginative comics were credited with tehir creators, people began to notice thematic threads in comics and the artistic quality in them, paving the way for Gerber and Rip Off Press. Unfortunately, comics did not overcome the public’s perceptions, just its audiences, leading to even more incest as the only people who would honestly accept comics as a form of expression, not entertainment, were those picking up comics regularly, so, naturally, very few people read comics besides thsoe who can honestly appreciate their quality, and the only audience for comcis as a whole became the direct market; newsstands still saw comics as disposable entertainment, so people who bought comics didn’t even want to buy them at their recurring place, thus creating the direct market where the core audience bought the books and the potential audience was cut off, because that potential audience didn’t really see comics as of any quality anyways, so who needs ‘em!

And here we are, needing them.

Hey Omar, “Crumb” was not a “film deal”–it’s a documentary about Robert Crumb made by a close friend over a period of years; it was not based on his work. And you can certainly find Love & Rockets at these stores–I’ve seen Luba at Borders, Locas at Virgin.

Indie comics that play off of superhero comics are, virtually without exception, incredibly boring. There are hundreds of great works that do not do this, thankfully, and these are among the best American comics ever. Los Bros Hernandez, Crumb, Spiegelman, Ware, Clowes et al are far beyond “Baby Boomer autobio comics and gag strips” (and are much better than [bleh] Herge, to my mind). Have you read Crumb’s account of Philip K. Dick’s late-in-life visions, for example? Now that’s comics.

I think the problems are twofold. One, video games are not as expensive as you guys think. I can pick up a game that delivers anywhere from 40 to 100+ hours of entertainment for $30-$40, less if I’m buying used. I can buy video game systems with games for less than $100. Comics aren’t just an inefficient medium; right now even TPBs are grossly poor when it comes to delivering bang for the buck. Video games also, to be honest, tell better stories _on average_ than comics. Ie, the best comics stories beat the pants off the best video game stories, but the average video game story is more interesting and entertaining than the average superhero comic story. And for disposable entertainment, that’s what matters.

Two, while the industry was hyperfocused on superheroes, kids who did want cheap, disposable entertainment about a variety of subjects went out and started buying manga. $5 for 200-250 pages of Shounen Jump or Shojo Beat comics once a month? I don’t even like anything that runs in that magazine all that much and I still enjoy picking one up now and then to read over lunch. $8-10 for 250 pages of a favorite book, already bound and ready to display on a shelf? Also factor in that it’s a story that a) you can read from the very beginning, b) will most likely have a permanent ending so you know you can collect it all, and c) you know that some other dickhead writer won’t come along later to undo? Superhero comics, as they are now, absolutely cannot compete with this.

Video games and manga aren’t going away, either, so I get the feeling that in the past few years, DC and Marvel have just given up on getting kids to read the comics. Now they try to reach them purely through the licensing– particularly movies, cartoons, and video games. The comics are mostly for the long-time, old-school, hardcore fans who can still be relied upon to spend triple-digit figures per month on superheroes. The logical end of this is the comics becoming obsolete and the licensed versions of the characters becoming more vital, but… I dunno. I can’t see it working out well. Even now I’m getting a bit tired of superhero movies, and I have more of an appetite for superheroes than most people do.

Here’s the thing…people generally enjoy reading the same story over and over again. We all do. It’s familiar, comforting, and not incredibly challenging, which is what many people are looking for in the 20 minutes or so the average comic takes to read. There are very few people over the age of eighteen (maybe younger) who are picking up comics for the first time, and most of us are still getting or trying to get the same sense of pleasure we did as children. It’s the same reason most people (myself included)are more likely to pick up a CD by a past-their-prime favorite band than a new group or genre of music. That familiarity is part of the whole enjoyment of the medium.
The real problem occurs when familiarity is all we get, which seems to be the case lately. The readers keep coming back for more, the writers keep creating it, and that is okay to some degree…but we need to be careful as consumers not to confuse a new idea with a new twist on an old idea. What constitutes “groundbreaking”?
Uncle Ben will still be shot. So will Batman’s parents. Superman will still come out the hero in the end, and Wolverine will still be a grumpy loner who straddles the line between killing machine and human at the end of the day. It’s why we were attracted to them in the first place. What we need to start asking ourselves is “What will I get out of this that I couldn’t get from reading my back issues instead?”

As a relatively new reader, allow me to offer some perspective.

I got into comics after picking up a CrossGen paperback at the local library. The production values seemed out of this world and the story was interesting and captivating. I started picking up other CrossGen books. I was hooked. The whole line seemed so new. So vibrant. So innovative. So exciting. And, most importantly, it was, for the lack of a better term, ours. Something that new guys can get into, something the new guys could embrace and call their own.

From there, I made a fairly easy leap of looking at books from the “Big Two” companies. I loved some of the newer titles, as well as titles with “legacy” characters. As a history enthusiast, I got a kick out of the idea that there was all this history behind the new heroes and that in both universes, things actually move foreword and develop. There were plenty of new characters. And even some of the older characters, especially on Marvel side, went through intriguing changes. All and all, it was an exciting time to be in comics.

And then, things started to go wrong. CrossGen went under. Newer concepts were either cancelled or reverted to the old status quo. And the legacy characters were either inexplicably replaced by their prior incarnations or moved closer to their prior incarnations. All the sudden, the new ideas seemed in short supply.

It seemed unfair, somehow.

These days, I usually buy indies or older trades.

Again, I think we’re all underestimating new readers. I think a great number of the books cited or pictured in the article- ‘All-Star Superman’, ‘Fantastic Four: First Family’, ‘Batman and the Mad Monk’, ‘Justice League’- are BRILLIANT books to show to new readers who are interested in getting into superheroes.

When you were a kid, had you read every Marvel and DC comic ever when you started picking them up? Obviously not. But did it stop you from enjoying them? Were you able to pick up on the backstory and the continuity easy enough? Sure, or we wouldn’t all be here.

Just because the references and winks are there, doesn’t mean a new reader has to get all of them to enjoy the story. These stories can work on two levels: straight-forward super-hero yarns for new readers, and sly homages and loving references for older readers.

In my opinion, the question isn’t whether they’ll understand or enjoy them if they get them, it’s whether they will get them at all. I know I only have so many comic dollars to spend and when I’m trying to decide which of a couple of books I’ll buy, I often put down the one that looks like it might be heavy on continuity I don’t know… not because I can’t handle continuity, but because I only have so much to spend and most days I’d rather use those for something I know I’ll just enjoy and not merely appreciate after a series of Google searches. Just safer, most of the time.

That said, I, at least, have jumped onto a story and learned the continuity many times. Most of those times, I even enjoyed the process of it.

So, if I, a grizzled comic vet who knows that continuity learning can be fun avoids it, what of people who don’t read comics at all? Why would they buy these books in the first place to find out that they’d enjoy them?

There’s right ways and wrong ways to do continuity: I sometimes feel like a one-trick pony, but I keep coming back to Starman, which successfully reinvented a classic hero, told a compellingly complete story, and added a tremendous amount of shine & lustre to all of the other heroes who got touched. It was a glorification of continuity without being unreachable – I certainly didn’t know anything about the silver age heroes (having been a kid during Claremont’s X-men), and they were invented for me in such an amazingly compelling way that they feel “realer” than much of the new superhero books.

The essence is this: write good stories, avoid Deus ex machina (storytelling style, not the wonderful comic by Vaughn), and allow the characters to tell their own stories. Sadly, too many stores are basically “mine’s bigger than yours” comparisons, and that doesn’t make a compelling story for me.

I’ve been pondering this question recently as I read a book called “The Long Tail.” The author, editor of Wired magazine, basically outlines a major shift in business and consumption.

He bases his thesis (and I’m simplifying here) on the fact that fully one-quarter to one-third of all music downloads are songs that are not on the Billboard charts. Approximately the same amount (1/3 to 1/4) of Amazon’s online sales are books that are not in retail outlets — these books don’t have enough sales to warrant it. He has a number of other examples.

Essentially, as content can be produced and distributed more cheaply, the consumer market fragments into niches. My own take on it is that eventually comics will become some of those niches.

I’d be willing to download PDFs of comics if it substantially reduced my expenses. I could print them if I wanted. I could also store them by burning thousands of issues onto DVD. That’s much easier than filing them in my longboxes, which long ago became an albatross around my neck (I’ve been steadily replacing them with trades whenever possible). If I felt strongly about a particular storyline, I’d buy the trade later, just to have it on my bookshelf.

The bottom line is that the comics industry will have to adapt. They can do it voluntarily, or they’ll ultimately be forced into it, but it’s going to happen.


Sorry, but I have to disagree with you that superhero comics are beyond saving. The Marvel and DC universes are beyond saving and those companies don’t want to be saved, this is true. But the genre of superhero fiction is certainly open – IF certain things happen:

1) A legitimate publisher realizes that Marvel and DC do NOT have a lockdown on the supehero genre, and proceeds to look for other superhero content (of which there is plenty to be had) and produces and markets it correctly (format / price points, product placement, etc).

2) Fandom realizes that Marvel and DC’s characters are not the only characters worth reading about and becoming willing to give new superhero properties an equal chance. Why the hell read five to seven Batman / Superman / Spider-Man stories each month and constantly complain about them, if you were able to buy five to several different concepts which might be just as entertaining (possibly moreso) and at least would be a diverse selection of titles to read?

First an aside: As someone who also bicycled to his local 7-11 for comics back in 1974, I find it amazing that there are any “near mint” comics from the 1970’s. Those old spinner racks were not kind to comics . . . .

Anyway, I just got back into actively following comics again about 3 years ago after a 10-year hiatus. I definitely agree that this is a golden age for reprints. I can’t believe what is now covered in the DC Archives and Marvel Masterworks, and that’s just the (expensive) tip of the iceberg of reprints.

Some comics I have personally enjoyed a lot in the last few years are Mark Waid’s Fantastic Four, Kurt Busiek’s Astro City and just about anything by Dan Slott. Brian Michael Bendis on Ultimate Spider-man. Common features of all of the above are: 1. I had no problem jumping into any of these stories. Continuity was always at the service of the story rather than the other way around. 2. They were basically optimistic stories (with the notable exception of Slott’s GLA stories) and 3. These writers often mix humor into their stories. I’ve enjoyed these stories as much as any comics I’ve ever read.

Waid’s FF had an optimistic feel of the best of Marvel’s Silver and Bronze Age, with a wonderful modern sophistication. Busiek’s Astro City is a great meditation on super-heroes, but he never forgets to tell stories that work as stories. Slott writes with a sense of fun that I remember so fondly from the bronze age comics of my youth. In fact, I think his Spider-man-Human Torch story involving the spider-mobile is my all-time favorite single issue “bronze age” story, even though is was written in the last couple of years. And Bendis writes Spider-man with the focus that the best Spider-man stories of the silver age had i.e. on Peter Parker first and Spider-man 2nd. I also really like that Bendis has kept Peter a teen-ager for as long as he has, because I think it really opens up story possibilities that were cut off prematurely in Amazing Spider-man by having Peter graduate from high school so fast.

Having a 10 year game in my comic reading background, I find a lot of the mainstream super-hero titles from DC and Marvel hard to follow. Also, most modern superhero comics have virtually no significant non-superhero suppporting casts. Supporting characters are now killed off so regularly that Spider-man, which used to have a supporting cast of a couple dozen non-super-heroes has been pretty much reduced to two: Mary Jane and Aunt May.

Marvel fans have always made a relatively big deal about continuity, but some of the most important continuity in the Marvel Universe involved the supporting charcters. in most cases, the continuity involving the super-heroes in villains usually involved a note or two describing past encounters and how a villain who was seemingly left for dead had managed to evade the grim reaper. With virtually no regular supporting cast, continuity in both Marvel and DC superhero comics has been reduced to a sort of pointless game of tracking who is mad at whom, who is more powerful than whom, who has picked up (or lost) which special powers, which characters have been killed off this month, etc.

I loved Dark Knight, Watchmen and Miller’s Daredevil when they first came out. However, I think it is truly tragic that such a large percentage of today’s comics seem to lean on only the grim and gritty feel of these comics. Simonsen’s Thor, Byrne’s Fantastic Four, Stern’s Avengers were also terrific back in the 80’s. Why not try telling more stories like those as well? For example, Stern’s Avengers had stories involving dozens of heroes and villains. However, they could all be enjoyed whether or not you knew much about past continuity.


I think the “problem” (if there is one) might be that most of the people turning out comics grew up reading comics and they are rehashing what they read when they were kids. The now-legends who built the industry grew up on books and radio and movies and had a deeper well of influence from which to draw, which helped make their stories richer and more fantastic. The current crop of pros are referencing comic books to write comic books and, like a snake eating its own tail, there’s only so far that will get you.

It’s a half-assed theory and may not be valid at all, but it crossed my mind . . .

“The now-legends who built the industry grew up on books and radio and movies and had a deeper well of influence from which to draw, which helped make their stories richer and more fantastic. The current crop of pros are referencing comic books to write comic books and, like a snake eating its own tail, there’s only so far that will get you.”

Interestingly, similar comments could be made about movies today i.e. movies used to draw on books and plays, whereas today many movies seem to just draw on other movies for their inspiration.


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