Monday, May 21, 2007

Image and continuity porn

-For some reason, Friday's entry was set to "do not allow comments." Don't know how that happened, but it did. Sorry about that. My apologies to anyone who wanted to comment, especially since the post in question was rather critical of Tim Leong's plans for Comic Foundry. But the comments on said post are open now, and I'll be double checking all future posts to make sure they stay that way.

-Rich Johnston reports that DC's current Countdown series is counting down to something tentatively titled Final Crisis. Bleaugh. Final Crisis? And then there's the recent news that Marvel seems to be meandering down basically the same path of relentless eventeering.

Is this all the Big Two have left? Things were looking better at DC about a year and a half ago, when it efforts like the All-Star line and Alex Ross' Justice seemed like the evidence of a dual publishing strategy, combining short, out-of-continuity prestige projects (like Jeff Smith's Shazam) with more fanboy-friendly, continuity-heavy offerings (most everything else).* But here in 2007, the All-Star line is losing credibility and I never hear anyone talking about Justice (possibly because bloggers--including myself--tend to dislike Ross' tediously realistic art). Smith's Shazam is certainly an online favorite, but we all seem to view it as something of a hothouse flower, especially in light of the rest of the DC line. Marvel, meanwhile, is certainly winning the post-big event sweepstakes (at least in terms of sales), but it's too early to tell how much of this is easily-satisfied curiosity. It's telling that Marvel editorial is already starting a new Things Will Never Be the Same!!! hype cycle while the corpse of the last Things Will Never Be the Same!!! event is still warm (and, for that matter, while the Hulk mini-event is just getting started).

Sometimes I wonder if the direct market, ruinous speculation aside, was in better shape in the much-maligned early 90s. We look back at the attention given to the Image founders as laughable, but I would gladly trade Hot Artists for Event Fever. I mean, DC and Marvel might be reluctant to do so--after all, people can leave, while intellectual properties and years of accumulated continuity can't. But for the rest of us, I think an industry driven by popular creators is much more healthy than one driven by...whatever it is that motivates people to buy Geoff Johns comics. It's hard to imagine an equivalent of Image starting today, largely because there are no figures of comparable stature to Liefeld, Lee, and McFarlane c. 1992. Johns, Loeb, and Bendis all sell books, but only books featuring established, beloved characters. And there really aren't any unfathomably hot artists who weren't already hot in the mid-90s; the closest would probably be John Cassaday or Bryan Hitch, and they're nowhere near as popular as Todd McFarlane was in his heyday. The absence of new, mega-selling artists is part of this larger phenomenon of fans' seemingly contradictory fascination with continuity and change, which has all but supplanted the creator-as-selling-point model of the 90s (with the exceptions of Lee and Ross, two talents who managed to establish themselves before the current epoch).

On the other hand, I don't know that people appreciate the extent to which Image presaged the current, continuity-heavy era. We typically blame the downfall of Image on the founders' eagerness to play media mogul, particularly their horribly ironic embrace of work-for-hire practices. There's certainly truth to that, but I think it's worth considering how quick some of the Image founders were to put themselves in a position which necessitated hiring outside creators. These guys weren't satisfied to make their own bestselling, fully-owned comics--they all wanted to be world-builders as well. Youngblood and WildCATS weren't enough to fully shape out the convoluted mythologies Liefeld and Lee--easily the worst offenders--felt compelled to produce. It's one thing to develop a rich backstory in the process of making a comic, but too many of the Image founders apparently thought this was a prerequisite for making superhero comics. Having grown up reading Chris Claremont's X-Men, they just couldn't fathom producing comics without deep layers of intrigue, red herrings, mysterious strangers from the past, secret betrayals, unspoken alliances, and ornate taxonomies of aliens, mutants, mercenaries, and cyborgs. But while Claremont weaved this dense skein over time, the Image boys tried to do so right out of the gate. And so their comics were dense and colorful, yet utterly incomprehensible and totally unsatisfying.

So then, do we blame Claremont for the current predicament? Gardner Fox for integrating multiple continuities into the same "multiverse"? Roy Thomas for taking this seven or eight steps beyond what Fox had intended? Mark Greunwald and Len Wein (I think) for The Official Handbook to the Marvel Universe and Who's Who, respectively? Carmine Infantino and Stan Lee for hiring fan-creators? Or do we just buy Josh Simmons' really awesome-looking House**, thank the appropriate deity that we like a rather broad range of comics, and hope this all blows over without doing too much damage in the process?

*Tom Spurgeon was the first person I saw advancing this idea, but it was so long ago that I'm not even going to try to find the original article. I do recall him alluding to Night of the Hunter in his framework, which might be why it sticks with me so long after the fact.

**Just to be clear, I'm going to do this regardless of what DC chooses to call its next mega-event.

-This was the saddest thing I read this weekend, assuming it's not a joke. I do so hope it's a joke--I mean, I'm not unrealistic about this kind of stuff, but it's the internet, for god's sake. Even if you don't want to lie, you can at least avoid these kinds of subjects.

15 comments:

Chris said...

Personally, I've liked Justice quite a bit, though I'm not as burned out on Ross' stuff as most. There's no real plot per se, but for SuperFriends Ross-style, it hits the mark.

That said, I definitely should have waited for the inevitable hardcover trade, which is what I assume 99% of those interested are doing, which is why you haven't heard much about it.

Alex! said...

If it makes you feel better, I'm only a mild stereotype of a comic shop owner... I mean, I have shaggy hair and glasses, but I live with a most excellent girlfriend (rather hot, if I do say so), and I have a semblance of a life outside of debating Green Lantern Corps policy.

So know that no matter how many walking stereotypes you see, there are some (mostly) normal people [on the scene.

Also, I love you.

Dan Coyle said...

I liked Justice for the first few issues, up until "HA HA! my perfect plan to incapacitate the top members of the Justice League worked!"

"Yes, Luthor, but you forgot contingency plans for Captain Marvel, Elongated Man, Black Canary, and others."

"Guuuuuh."

seth said...

Great post.

Steve Flanagan said...

I definitely should have waited for the inevitable hardcover trade, which is what I assume 99% of those interested are doing

No, I'm waiting for the paperback. Of course, that's so long coming that I might have lost all interest by then,

Ross's finishes to Braithwaite's sequential art are fine. It's his cover compositions that are deathly boring. Even his cover for The Greatest Flash Stories Ever Told shows the Flash just standing there with his arms folded, which misses the essence of the character by, oooh, about 100%.

Quite a few of the Fangirls-related blogs are praising Ross's upcoming Power Girl cover, as a contrast to the Michael Turner monstrosity. Even so, it's yet another standing-still-with-arms-folded job. Maybe a bit less inappropriate this time.

TonPo said...

I'm hoping that all this event-fever will blow-over for good with the death of the 22 page floppy.

Matter-Eater Lad said...

In fairness to Ross, the art for the "Greatest Stories" covers is repurposed from posters he did a few years ago.

Ditko Hands said...

Well, sure, the Image books tried to create a world really similar to Claremont's X-Men right out of the gate, having little patience for the time it took for, say, Lee/Kirby/Ditko to create the Marvel Universe in the early 60s. But every new line of comics did/does that, including Malibu, CrossGen, etc. Image has never had the kind of full reworking of the line that DC and Marvel attempt virtually every year now. There is much that you can pin on Image that remains today, like an appetite for late books among the major companies, but this is a bridge too far. Since each Image book was controlled by one creator/studio, there was never even a line-wide crossover, only a creator crossover (Jim Lee on Savage Dragon, etc.).

The more apt comparison is with Valiant, not Image. The absurdly long Unity crossover and aftermath ("See who dies!"--remember Rai #0?) is a clearer blueprint for today's crossovers. Character goes evil and tries to remake the world in their image? Check. Lots and lots of new books spinning out of others? Check. Tight continuity that is incomprehensible without reading every book in the line? Check. After Valiant collapsed following Shooter's departure (wasn't Quesada's Ninjak the company's last big hurrah?), they tried rebooting the universe several more times to no success.

Dick Hyacinth said...

Yeah, but I liked Valiant, so it's different.

In all seriousness, you're right that Valiant was guilty of the same sort of impulses, but I thought it was much easier to figure out what was going on--the reveals were intriguing, not off-putting. (At least this was the case when I was 16; when I've tried to re-read them as an adult, I've been much less impressed.) I do think Valiant made a big mistake by piling title upon title--it made the line much more unwieldy and greatly diluted the talent pool. (Alienating the more talented creators, namely Barry Windsor-Smith and Shooter himself, didn't help.)

wordswordswords said...

Great post and all too accurate about how fans are responding to Marvel and DC's "events" these days.
A few of your points have driven me to remark upon them:
--I had actually forgotten that All-Star Batman and Robin is by Miller and Lee. I'm serious. I knew Miller was writing, but I mis-assumed his usual team was doing the art, not Lee. That Lee is doing the art, however, explains the year off between issues, let's be honest. And this leads to me next point....
--Jim Lee has a rather cushy situation worked out for himself at DC, with an official company title and (I'm presuming) first pick of illustrating whatever covers/books he feels up to. Frank Miller, meanwhile, is one of the few genuine working legends in the industry, and DC likely considers itself fortunate to still have him. With that in mind, if you ran DC and their book was late, it's not as though there is ANYthing you could do to put pressure on them to get the thing on schedule. My point in this being that DC (and Marvel) have sort of backed themselves (and their readers) into a corner; the generally accepted best way to sell books is to put hot creators on big name titles. But doing so ties your hands as a publisher, as you lose the ability to exert any sort of scheduling control over those creators. You can't fire them, you can't afford to eat their contract and re-assign the book. The result: All Star Batman and Robin is nearly a year late. Comic readers and retailers lose out.
--Which brings me to my last point, regarding the comment you made about there not being a crop of creators that could go out and form a new comic company that would make a splash on the level of Image in the 90s. I offer you these five: Ellis, Bendis, Loeb, Vaughn, and Whedon.
I'm cheating here, of course, by using Whedon, but his comics come out with more frequency than most, so I'll feel ok including him.
I'm not cheating, though, by including only writers, as opposed to artists (which most of Image's stable were). People were excited about the Image books because, at that time, readers were excited about the direction comic art was moving in. Now readers are more interested (IMO) in the writing and plotting. I don't think I know anyone who buys a book based on the artist alone anymore (whereas I knew plenty of people in the 90s who'd buy anything Liefeld or McFarlane put a pencil to).

Guy LeCharles Gonzalez said...

I offer you these five: Ellis, Bendis, Loeb, Vaughn, and Whedon.

Except for Whedon, none of those guys break the 25k mark on their creator-owned work, so I don't think you'd see the same buzz as Image had back in the day. The current market is driven by hot creators AND established characters, with a healthy dash of continuity thrown in, not just the creators themselves.

That said, I think that quartet (I'd leave Loeb out of the mix) could definitely launch a viable second-tier publisher to compete with present-day Image and Dark Horse. Imagine if Fell, Powers, Y, Ex Machina and Buffy all came from the same publisher? Pull Brubaker (Criminal) and Fraction (Casanova) in and you've got an easy 5% market share from the start and a strong case for a 5th premier publisher.

Marvel and DC will never let that happen, though.

Dick Hyacinth said...

I was basically going to say the same thing, Guy. I'd also argue that all those guys would have to give up their Marvel/DC assignments in order to maximize the impact. It would be pretty interesting to see something like this happen in reality, given the major changes in the industry since 1992. The increasing importance of graphic novels and the bookstore market are especially worth considering.

Does anyone know how well Millar's semi-recent independent work sold?

Jeff Rients said...

From your link to Brian Hibbs:

My final thought: one thing 52 did show us was that it is possible to consistently and regularly release a piece of serial fiction. In my mind, that makes high profile delays, like Ultimates 2, or All-Star Batman, even that less excusable.

Honestly, books need to keep their schedules. Those schedules don’t have to be monthly. But when they have a schedule, they need to keep it, otherwise the audience becomes unhappy.


Why is this not obvious? What the hell happened to the comci industry along the way that made publishing late an acceptable practice?

Dan Coyle said...

I believe Wanted peaked at around 30-50K, though the delays didn't help it. No idea how much The Unfunnies or Chosen sold.

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