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Analogy Munky strikes back, or ‘The Mainstream Superhero Comic as Slot Machine’

A couple of weeks back, I did an interview with a local journalism student on the current state of superhero comics, with particular reference to the Death of Captain America.

We got talking about the spate of crossovers recently, Civil War and Infinite Crisis, mainly, but I got to thinking about the way the current crop are rolling from one crossover to the next.

With DC, you get Identity Crisis to Countdown to Infinite Crisis to Rann-Thanagar War/Villains United/Day of Vengeance/Omac Project to Infinite Crisis to 52 to WWIII to Countdown… With Marvel, it’s Disassembled to House of M to Civil War to World War Hulk to the Initiative to Fallen Son.

I started thinking Marvel and DC and their recent crop of crossovers as one-armed bandits. The ‘fun’ of playing a slot machine isn’t yanking a lever, or even necessarily getting a payout… it’s that moment of anticipation of what’s going to happen next. What you’re paying for isn’t the pay-off, but the chance you MIGHT get a pay-off.

With a slot machine, you put in money and you get that feeling of anticipation that maybe something good will happen soon. Most of the time, you’re disappointed… so you put more money in.

Same with these comics. It’s like “This issue may be shit, but seriously, wait’ll you see the ramifications, next issue!!!”

It’s a continuous bait-and-switch where you keep reading hoping the next issue’s gonna be the one where it stops sucking.

And, like a one-armed bandit, 99 out of a hundred times… you get disappointment… but it might start getting good just around the corner!

It’s very clever. They’ve basically figured out a way to sell nothing, with the promise MAYBE of something better later on.

It’s quite astounding, and in a way, quite brilliant.

P.T. Barnam would be proud.

This way to the egress.

15 Comments

Brilliant.

The House always wins.

The only difference I would point out is that slot machines are a thriving and successful industry.

Other than that, great analogy.

Awesome post. Well put.

From the point of view of someone who reads most TPBs of sereis not really affected byt he big crossovers, I view comics as really good books that come out on an insanly fast schedule. Every 6 months or so is incredably fast compared to any other type of book I follow.

They do seem to work on the same principle (the name of which escapes me)- basically, that people (and maybe some of the smarter rodents) prefer irregular but “big” payoffs to steady smaller ones. So the series that’s just solid and consistent will lose out to the event book that drags for a few months but then ZOMG EVERYTHING CHANGED.

Rohan Williams

April 5, 2007 at 1:31 am

There’s definitely a bit of that in the superhero comics biz, but at least the superhero books that I’ve held onto have entertained me pretty consistently lately.

Morrison’s work with Supes and Bats, Kubert’s Action Comics run, Dini’s done-in-one stuff… none of it’s reinventing the wheel, necessarily, but I feel like I’m getting my money’s worth out of the slot machine.

By the way, Pol, where was the journalism student from? It might be for the same course I interviewed you for last year.

Rohan: No idea. I’m just such a media slut, I never ask questions.

And yeah, there ARE a lot of good comics, but they tend to be the exception, rather than the rule. Sadly enough, the analogy seems to work quite well for a lot of mainstream comics where people continue to buy, say, Spider-Man, because they like the character and, even though it’s sucked for 3 years solidly now, it MIGHT get better next issue.

Cha-ching!

Rohan Williams

April 5, 2007 at 2:26 am

That’s very true. I actually considered picking up a Spidey book the other day when my Spidey 3 invite came through, just so I’d have some idea where the character was at, but yeah, none of the current in-continuity titles looked too good. How can Amazing Spider-Man be so unappealing, for so long now?

Having said that, I realise it totally floats a lot of other people’s boats, so I guess it’s just a matter of sticking with the slot machines you enjoy.

Exactly, and with so much reprint material available in trade, if you absolutely NEED a Spider-Man fix (for example), there’s no reason to submit yourself to crap.

Rohan Williams

April 5, 2007 at 4:42 am

Yeah, the Essentials are great. I hear wonderful things about ‘Spider-Man Loves Mary Jane’, too. The hardcover looks worth getting.

I wonder, though, considering the amount of fun new books that are available, is the ratio of ‘good’ to ‘bad’ comics any worse than it was thirty years ago, or has the proliferation of comics blogs and the like– and the tendency for said blogs to be used for the sort of ‘the sky is falling and comics are dying!’ arguments that fans have always been fond of– made things seem worse than they are?

That’s absolutely not a knock on this column or this blog, which points out far more good comics than bad ones- I mean, just look at the post directly above this one- but more the blogosphere in general.

But had, say, Jim Shooter been exposed to the level of internet fanboy exposure in the ’80s that Joe Q is today, would we have such fond memories of ’80s Marvel comics? Or would most fans with a keyboard have spent a disproportionate amount of their time knocking the bad titles the company put out?

I don’t know.

I will point out that this isn’t a new thing (and here we go again, crossover-boy talking on and on…) During the 90s, yearly crossovers were a regular thing. In fact, most “families” of Marvel and DC books existed in a near permanent state of crossover…in order to follow one X-Book, you had to buy them all and so on. The phenomenon seems to come to an abrupt end when ‘Our Worlds At War’ and ‘Last Laugh’ come within a couple of months of each other; there’s a long period after that where no company has any big event crossovers coming out (ending around the time of ‘Avengers Disassembled’.)

Make of all that what you will; I make it that the “yearly crossover” thing is like trying to harvest your crops every three months. Eventually, all you’re getting is bedrock.

I’d also point out that Jim Shooter absolutely WAS subjected to the same microscopic fan scrutiny during his tenure. The Journal practically made it a holy mission to denounce everything Shooter was doing and Groth’s reaction to pretty much every Marvel announcement in the 80’s was apoplectic rage. At least that’s how it seemed in print.

The differences were that A) Fan-press publications were a lot less widely-read than the internet, and far more importantly, B) Shooter didn’t really care that much because there were still a lot of NON-hardcore fans buying the books on newsstands. Now that we’re the only ones left buying Marvel and DC superhero comics, the big two spend a lot more time trying to figure out what WE want and how to make sure we need to buy every book in the line. The constantly-rolling crossover serial, slot-machine mentality’s part of that; it’s a chicken-or-egg argument whether we trained the companies or they trained us, but that’s the landscape we’re left with. I tend to think we trained Marvel and DC to do comics that way, simply because companies follow the money. Art is the afterthought; they produce books that they think will sell.

Watching tv last night made me realize that your slot machine analogy works with Lost, too. Why am I still bothering with this show? Someone please help me stop.

Rohan Williams

April 5, 2007 at 8:10 pm

Yeah, veghead, I have a feeling a lot of the stuff we read/watch fits into Pol’s analogy. That’s why he’s THE analogy monkey. Accept no substitutes.

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