Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Lamenting the demise of a good superhero comic

I guess I'm not really surprised that The Order will end with its tenth issue, though I obviously wish it wasn't. That's just kind of the way it goes with superhero comics these days--if a title doesn't involve characters which are at least 10-15 years old, then it's a real struggle to keep it alive. The whole market is so dependent on nostalgia and the ersatz gravitas which it lends to something as silly as dudes wearing spandex and beating up other dudes in spandex. Marvel and DC have been exploiting this mentality for years, flattering fans' nostalgia by tying it to solemn events driven by fears of death and continuity reboots. In this kind of environment, it's no wonder that "fun" is anathema--"fun" comics remind the reader of the inherent goofiness of superheroes, thus suggesting that perhaps life offers more than Spider-Man comics.

But that's not really a fair analysis, is it? There's clearly a large market for comics which seek to do things other than kill off obscure Teen Titans or determine which version of Hawkman is in continuity. Look at the top selling comics for January, if you will. Ultimates 3 #1 for the month, and it promised no continuity reboots or deaths of long-established characters. Now, you could argue that it did promise to set classic characters (for which readers probably had some nostalgia) in a serious, modern, ultra badass kind of setting. After all, that's what the previous two Ultimates series had done. But surely most of those reading it were turned off by the contents of the first issue: Loeb's frenetic script and Madueira's cartoon-influenced art. If sales of subsequent issues drop (and I think most of us expect they will), it should indicate that readers want a tone more similar to the first two series: photorealistic art, a slower pace, a stronger action movie influence.

Even if you dismiss the strong sales for Ultimates 3, there are other high-charting books to consider. The Sinestro Corps War, running in the Green Lantern titles for the past few months, was surprisingly popular. The story didn't run away from the goofier aspects of the Green Lantern concept--if anything, it embraced them by creating six other color-themed groups with basically identical powers. There's no apology, no attempt to cover up the silliness of superheroes by slathering on a layer of solemn reflection of the important legacy of sacrifice or whatever. I mean, for all I know that stuff is in there, but I'm pretty sure that's not what the story was about. Specific plot points aside, this is a story which could have been written in 1970. And yet it was a tremendous success in 2007, appealing to an impatient, jaundiced readership.

So why don't Marvel and DC focus on those kinds of things? Well, I'm not entirely sure that either publisher realized the extent of the demand for these kinds of stories; now that they know, we'll probably see more of this type of thing. But I think we'll still Superman-is-crying-blood-on-the-Captain-America's-shield type of events as well, unfortunately. Stories like World War Hulk and The Sinestro Corps War depend upon execution--and that's all in the creative team's hands. Quesada and Didio can plot all this out in creative summits, but the quality of the book will be largely determined by work done by the writer sitting alone at the computer and the artist sitting alone at the drawing table. For these kinds of events, the creative team is responsible for making a comic which people want to read. If readers had been dissatisfied with the early chapters of the Sinestro storyline, then we wouldn't be talking about it now.

Compare that to the big event which promises that NOTHING WILL EVER BE THE SAME. Massive changes are their own reward; the quality of the comic is secondary. To be fair, some people will buy the upcoming Secret Invasion comic because they expect it to be good. Many others, however, will read it because they've been promised big important events, the kind which adds an illusory weight to comics featuring a guy made out of orange rocks. Which is not to say that Ben Grimm should be limited to desperately, self-consciously "fun" stories where he plays poker with Hercules and chases the Human Torch around the Baxter Building. It's just that Secret Invasion, like Civil War and House of M before it, rely less on the quality of execution and more on the promise that NOTHING WILL EVER BE THE SAME. It's a lower-risk proposition for Marvel/DC to commission these types of comics; all you have to do is set expectations high enough and attach a high profile creative team.

But the success of the Sinestro Corps War and World War Hulk provide hope that DC and Marvel won't limit themselves to big event comics. Dan Didio is already tripping all over himself to promise more of these kinds of stories; Quesada is probably doing the same in private (having fewer reasons to string together mea culpas, at least for now). It remains to be seen if this leads to an increase in quality. The recent Ressurection of Ra's al Guhl event, though more modest in scale, hasn't exactly set the world on fire, and it probably won't improve any of the titles' overall sales like the Sinestro Corps story did. There are a couple of lessons to draw here. The obvious one, the one which Didio seems to cite most often, is that readers don't want long, sprawling crossovers. That's undoubtedly true, but I have to think the appearance (perhaps illusory?) of this being a creator-driven event might be equally important. Didio and Quesada ignore this lesson at their own peril.

Both companies are well aware of the importance of the book trade; no matter what they say in public, it's pretty clear that the powers that be at both companies see a future driven by graphic novels rather than short comic books. One would have to assume that both companies are constantly looking for evergreen stories (especially DC, given the incredible success of titles like Watchmen or Sandman over the years). I feel pretty comfortable speculating that collected event comics have a much shorter shelf life than graphic novels collected works by prestigious or popular creative teams. In the long run, which do you expect to sell better: Infinite Crisis or All-Star Superman? DC has tended to cover both flanks by hyping DM-directed events like the former while releasing potential evergreen titles like the latter. The deterioration of the All-Star line doesn't bode well for the future of this strategy, but maybe the Sinestro Corps War (a potential evergreen) will kick-start it. In contrast, I think Marvel has tried to publish event comics with a veneer of prestige. That was clearly the case with Civil War, a NOTHING WILL EVER BE THE SAME comic gussied up with a clumsy stab at real-world relevance. But the ongoing ill will fostered by the title, along with the publisher's insistence at jumping from mega-event to mega-event, have probably doomed the title to obscurity five or ten years down the line. Perhaps Marvel will try a dual bookstore/comic shop strategy in the future. Keep an eye on the creator-driven Immortal Iron Fist, a strong potential evergreen title. If Marvel keeps supporting it in spite of its modest DM sales, then maybe it has adopted a bifurcated publishing strategy.

But even if there is a somewhat brighter future ahead for creator-driven content, that still doesn't do much for The Order. It was a well-written, well-drawn book which touched on many of the themes and employed many of the tropes which define the most popular comics on the market. You just can't attribute its failure to anything other than the lack of established characters. Some might try to attribute the enduring popularity of classic superheroes to their mythological resonance, but that's the kind of analysis never really convinces me. It's fair enough for DC's characters, but the Marvel universe always seems much messier; it lacks the clear hierarchies of age and prestige which give DC's fictional universe a sheen of classical orderliness. I think we're really talking about nostalgia here, and that's a much more problematic thing for Marvel and DC. It's harder and harder for creative teams to extract anything of value from characters like Batman or Spider-Man, which probably explains the greater excitement surrounding books featuring second and third tier characters like Green Lantern and Iron Fist.

It sure would be nice for either publisher to infuse their comics with some fresh intellectual properties, but creators are rather reluctant to repeat the mistakes of the predecessors by surrendering control of their creations to Marvel and DC. And even when they do create new characters, as Matt Fraction and Barry Kitson did in The Order, it seems that today's readers just aren't interested. Maybe things would have been different if Marvel could have slapped a thin layer of nostalgia on the title by calling it The Champions.

14 comments:

Paul said...

Too bad. That was a great book. Barry Kitson was doing the best art of his life on that title. (Or at least in a couple decades...it's been so long, I don't remember what he was like on LEGION or whatever came before that.)

Alicia said...

I think older megacrossovers have some legs in trade form. Stuff like Secret Wars and Infinity Gauntlet is still pretty easy to read and I recommend them to people from time to time. Crisis on Infinite Earths is less accessible but still comprehensible on a basic level.

The problem with stuff like Civil War and Infinite Crisis is that it's so reliant on tie-in books to understand the story that the plot effectively can't be collected in one convenient volume, rendering the "spine" series a difficult and in some cases dissatisfying read compared to, say, Identity Crisis.

Chris Mautner said...

I want to say All-Star Superman would outsell IC down the line, but then I see where the original Crisis on Infinite Earths is not only still selling well, but warrented it's own Absolute Edition, which, I believe, did very well for DC. Casual readers are very quick to believe these event-driven comics are REALLY GOOD just because of the hype surrounding them, same reason people go to see Alvin and the Chipmunks. Quality very rarely wins out.

Joe Willy said...

Maybe people still read Crisis on Infinite Earths because how else could you possibly understand what's going on in 90% of DC comics right now without reading it? It's like being a Christian without reading the Old Testament at least one time.

I figured when The Champions name was shelved the book wouldn't last. Maybe another reason it failed is because Fraction simply hasn't built up his name yet with many fans (I doubt 97% of Marvel readers have heard of Casanova). If Marvel wants him to carry a solo title with no major characters they need to give him an X book or something first- I"m not sure co-writing a very great book with not great sales figures helps much. After all, Criminal still doesn't sell in huge amounts and Brubaker's a pretty well known brand with art by the guy drawing Marvel Zombies!

Caleb said...

I wonder if Civil War will be evergreen at all. It seemed to me that by the time the seventh issue shipped, the post-9/11 freedom vs. liberty zeitgeist it was (rather clumsily) seeking to address had totally shifted from where it was in #1 even. (I wonder too about how the Ultimates will hold up--that's a problem inherent with trying to be relevant, I guess).

In that respect, the DC stuff about Crisis seem to be a little more timeless in that the Monitor vs. Anti-Monitor is its own thing as opposed to this guy representing John Ashcroft goes into a room where we've drawn Donald Rumsfeld into the background, while Cindy Sheehan has a meeting with Iron Man or whatever.

Dick Hyacinth said...

Yeah, I was going to mention the enduring popularity of Crisis on Infinite Earths. I think it's basically right to say it's one of the cornerstones of the modern DCU, both in terms of continuity and theme--it's a great big epic (some might say interminable) book about DC and only about DC, plus there are a lot of deaths thrown in. So it probably seems less dated than, say, Secret Wars. And DC keeps reusing the word "crisis," kind of establishing it as its own brand. And let's not forget that it's a pretty potent object of nostalgia in and of itself.

I don't think Infinite Crisis will have any of these advantages, especially with 52, Countdown, and Final Crisis muting its impact. And, frankly, I don't think IC is the kind of title which really lends itself to being read in that format--the appeal is totally "I've GOTTA know what's happening." The appeal of All-Star Superman is in the execution, and I think that's going to give it a longer shelf life. But yeah, it's never going to outsell COIE, sadly.

Matthew J. Brady said...

Man, now I wish I had been reading The Order. I wasn't sure if I wanted to get it at first, and when I started hearing that it was good, I decided to wait for the trade. Bummer, maybe one more copy sold would have tipped the scales. I guess I can still read it whenever it gets collected though.

Brex W. Foldingham said...

I don't think Sinestro Corps War is as innocent as you make it sound. It builds off of a Don Rosa like obsession with incorporating Alan Moore's Green Lantern Corps stories in to the current mythos. You have to know and care about the Anti-Monitor and how it relates to Superman-Prime. And much of it is based off the Yellow Fear Monster/Parallax retcon too.

Plus half the story took place in the Green Lantern Corps title, where rubies like these fell from the pen of Peter Tomasi:

I'm not here to let someone else fight the good fight. I wear a ring. A GREEN LANTERN ring. I'm here to make a DIFFERENCE. Unfortunately, so's the bad guy. He calls himself SUPERMAN PRIME...I don't trade any quips, insults, or banter. I'm corps, not a comedian. We go down together. I burn him. He burns me.

All-Star Superman it's not. Though ASS could use some internal monologue about "going down" and "burning people."

Katherine said...

I love The Order, but they really shot themselves in the foot by pulling a bait-and-switch in the first issue -- firing most of the original team and then bringing in new characters. It was a gutsy move, but it's the kind of thing that alienates readers even in long-established books -- in a book that was brand new, it was a very bad mistake.

I'm not sure that "nostalgia" is the right word for the attachment superhero fans have to their favourite characters. Not everybody who has such an attachment grew up with the characters. The crucial point is that it is the characters they're attached to, and not the stories or the creators as such. I'm inclined to call it "fannishness", myself, because I've seen similar attitudes in media fandom.

Dick Hyacinth said...

I should point out that I never read the Sinestro Corps War based on advice received here, and that I'm basing my analysis mostly on positive reviews read on the internet.

Katherine, I think nostalgia is central to it because of the apparent reluctance of fans to embrace new characters. That's not true of American fan culture at large, obviously. It doesn't have to be that way for comics, but I think creators and publishers alike have created a market full of consumers who greatly prefer comics featuring characters from their youth.

Brex W. Foldingham said...

This discussion of acceptance of new characters brings up something I've been wondering about for awhile. Is it possible for there to be another Image Comics explosion? Also where did the audience for those books come from? I read them when I was young, but I can't recall why/how I heard of them. Probably Wizard.

matches said...

I don't think Civil War will be evergreen. I think five years from now its attempt to seem politically relevant will be met with a chuckle. (Frankly, it's attempt to seem politically relevant has ALWAYS gotten a little chuckle from me.)

The Marvel crossover I think might have legs is House of M, largely because it can mostly be read as an alternate universe story. It has the same kind of appeal as something like Days of Future Past.

Simon Mac Donald said...

I'm saddened to hear that The Order has been cancelled. I'm a big fan of Matt Fraction.

I couldn't agree with you more that the Sinestro Corps War was a great read.

If you are looking for a couple of good super-hero titles that don't take themselves uber seriously try Invincible, Nobel Causes and Dynamo 5, all from Image Comics.

Sandy said...

I think Marvel made a mistake by cancelling The Order before the first trade paperback came out. I have the feeling that it is the kind of book that many people would have picked up in trade, especially after many critics have recently been praising the book. Why would Marvel announce the cancellation in January, right after all of these year-end best-of lists were talking about the book, and before the trade was released? Bad business decision.