Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Ruminations

-Man, ever have one of those weekends where you read a bunch of stuff that makes you feel even dumber about the ways you choose to spend your free time?

I'm reminded of two recent posts by Tom Spurgeon: this (touching on the problems inherent in a community built on "superhero comic book ephemera") and this (some thoughts on the ascendancy of plot developments as the primary selling point in mainstream comics). I really think there is some relationship between a comics fandom which, either through publishers' manipulation or organic change, greatly values plot developments over actual aesthetic considerations. I might also lump in the tendency of fans to develop a strange sort of advocacy for certain characters, particularly minor or unpopular characters. I've harped on this subject a number of times myself--when the internal logic of comic stories, filtered through one's own expectations and prejudices, replace any discussion of the quality of writing (beyond plotting and characterization), art, or creator advocacy, you end up with a rather poor discourse.

I was planning on writing a little more, in a somewhat more pointed fashion, but I don't really wanted to get sucked into this. There are an awful lot of really, really thin-skinned people writing about comics (and I'm not referring to who you may think), which is one of the reasons I've moved away from blog criticism and towards whatever the hell it is I do here now. It's not that there are fewer bad blogs out there--if anything, it seems like the bad ones are getting worse, and inspiring other bloggers who pick up the same bad habits. But I don't really enjoy having to deal with many of these folks or their ardent followers, and I'm less and less interested in the stuff they tend to write about--upcoming summer crossovers, the latest cover controversy (been a while since the last one, hasn't it?) or whatever.

I will say that I'm not sure that the online obsession with plot development/character ownership is a true reflection of comics shop culture. I've participated in or overheard many shop conversations which go much deeper into actual aesthetics than much of what you hear online. Which is not to say that there's always a lot to be gained from such conversations--I wasted a good 15 minutes one day trying to make the case against Greg Land, of all people--but one at least gets the sense that people still read comics for reasons other than to provide themselves with ammunition for internet conversations about the shabby treatment their favorite C-list superhero is getting. Or, if they're slightly more sophisticated, to rail against those who make such complaints.

I'm not entirely sure why the internet inspires such dubious discourse, but I suspect there are two root causes. One is the nature of internet "news" sites, which mostly deliver hype for forthcoming releases* or "postmortems" of recent releases. Marvel and DC frankly benefit from this kind of hype cycle, since it allows them to keep readers' attention without having to deliver quality reading experiences. I guess it's to be expected that many blogs will follow the agenda set out by Newsarama, et. al. The other cause, I suspect, is that it's easier to discuss something like art or storytelling sequences in comics shops, where one can simply pick up a book off the shelf to illustrate one's points. On the internet, this requires scanning and uploading. Even those more interested in talking about art or storytelling rather than plot developments (like me) can find this somewhat tiresome; it certainly doesn't lend itself to casual discussions in the comments section of someone else's blog.

In any event, there are still plenty of good comic-focused blogs out there; I'm still subscribed to nearly 90. And there are certainly bloggers who manage to discuss superhero comics in a thoroughly intelligent manner. And those are the blogs which I still read.

*Admittedly, some of this comes in the form of preview pages. Maybe things have changed in months since I quit reading most superhero-oriented blogs, but the last I saw, much of this discussion revolved around trying to detect clues to future plot developments. You do see comments along the lines of "wow, that looks awesome" on Newsarama, but I don't see as much of this kind of reaction (or, better yet, elaborations on why something looks awesome) on blogs. Maybe I was just reading the wrong ones.

12 comments:

Jones, one of the Jones boys said...

I too was struck by that Spurgeon post about the ascendancy of plot. But have Marvel and DC ever really pushed the creators or quality of the work, except for a few "hot" creators? Maybe Marvel in the mid-60s, with Kirby and Lee. But surely there's a very obvious and compelling reason for Marvel/DC *not* to emphasise the aesthetic qualities of most of their product. Namely, their product hasn't got any.

What's new is just the expansion of hype-distribution. In the old days, all we had were in-house ads and bullpen bulletins/the DC equivalent. Now, with the internet, the opportunity cost for hyping any particular plot-twist is basically zero (whereas before it was limited at least by how many plugs you could fit into a bullpen bulletin or whatever). So it's all plot all the time.

As for comics fandom's focus on plot, I wonder whether it's different from any other narrative fandom. Do message boards for Lost or, I don't know, Gilmore Girls talk more about aesthetics?

Dick Hyacinth said...

I don't know--I seem to remember John Byrne getting a fair amount of hype in the 80s. A lot of it was in the vein of "You won't believe what John Byrne does with our character(s)," rather than "John Byrne is a genius," but that's maybe a bit more than anyone other than Mark Millar manages these days. Maybe Jeph Loeb, too.

And there was definitely a push towards "look at this awesome art" or "check out all the awesome explosions" in the 90s. In fact, the only books which I recall consistently depending on plot development were the X-Men books. And then DC temporarily killed off or maimed its major intellectual properties. That might have been a turning point, actually.

On the subject of the 90s, here's a thought: maybe the collapse of the speculator market in said decade removed one of Marvel/DC's prime marketing tools (ie, these seemingly stupid comics are in reality shrewd investments), forcing a movement towards ridiculous plots in the mid 90s (like that Avengers/Iron Man thing everyone always complains about) and creative teams in the late 90s--beginning with Heroes Reborn ("The Image boys are back!") and continuing with Heroes
Return or whatever they called it ("The Image boys are gone again!"). Meanwhile, DC was emphasizing its auteurs at the same time--namely Morrison, Waid, and Robinson.

In any event, I'd still say the current plot-heavy style emerged c. 2005 with Countdown to Infinite Crisis and House of M, with both companies primarily concerned with raising the stakes ever since.

Agreed that fans of television shows tend to focus on plot, though I might add that they (at least in my experience) are more sensitive to acting than many comics readers are to art. At least on the internet.

Alicia said...

The ascendancy of plot isn't unique to comic book fan communities. It is something that crops up in just about every internet fan community focuses on an "ongoing" source material.

It is so prevalent in anime fandom that illegal fansubs for people impatient to hear the latest developments of a series are alleged to be seriously eroding sales of DVD collections; the fans stop caring once they know what happens. Scanlations frequently serve the same role for major manga like Naruto and One Piece.

You can also see the same syndrome at work in any organized fandom for an in-production television series, the long, mostly online history of Harry Potter fandom, or video game fans following production cycles of games yet to be released.

MarkAndrew said...

I see the plot heavy focus as basically cyclical. Crisis on whatever and Secret Wars 14 were plot heavy. Silver age DC Comics were plot heavy... Hey, Superman got turned into a pink monkey with eyeballs that detach and declare themselves lord of South America is a plot, right?

But what's the alternative? Speculator "Here's some more X-men bullshit with a shiny cover you should put in a bag and NEVER READ"

....

Good advice...

Or legitimately touting creators as the most important aspect of the comics?

See what happened with Image.

Marvel does not want another Image.

And, honestly, I PROBABLY wouldn't say this on my blog...

But given that the discourse is about brightly colored juvenile power fantasies that STILL basically exist to pander to their audience, I'm surprised at how bright comic fans are.

Even the stupid "Fuck you Quesada, you killed Spoiler" gals are acknowledging that there ARE real people involved in the creative process.

They don't understand what those real people actually DO (or the idea of "creative process," usually) but they're showing at least some ability to distinguish between fantasy and... well, fantasy BASED in reality. I guess.

You sometimes don't get that in Anime fandom. (Er, so I've heard.)

Dick Hyacinth said...

Oh, comics fans are (generally speaking) VERY smart people. They frequently have very smart things to say about stuff other than comics, a lot of which matters much more than comics. And this only adds to my frustration.

Alicia, I've read Final Fantasy fans complaints that they had to play through one of the recent spinoffs, when they really only wanted to watch the cut scenes. Blew my mind at the time.

MarkAndrew said...

I dunno... If they (we, I) were that smart, wouldn't they be reading Joyce and listening to Louis Andriessen, though?

Hugh Stewart said...

markandrew, I think I'd have to disagree a little. I think part of the emphasis on plot has to do with something somebody (Dick, maybe?) mentioned a while ago when one of those debates about 'canon/continuity' was raging.

It seems like, at least on a subconscious level,the DC/Marvel universes can be like real places, and fans buy their monthly comics in order to find out what happened there since the last comic they read. Hence the emphasis on canonical/in-continuity storytelling. It's like a little window into what The Flash has been up to since February.

Tom Spurgeon said...

My memory is that both companies have gone through periods of pushing creators and quality of work -- actually, it was such a part of DC in the late '80s that people made fun of Marvel for not doing it. There are related items that work into that expression of culture: Image's success was a repudiation of not paying attention to those issues, while names on the cover and the rise of Vertigo were in part because of the value people saw in such endorsements of expression.

What I'm talking about isn't so much a hard and fast division of what's being hyped and how as how focused that specific element is when compared to other elements. The first Crisis on Infinite Earths had its "look what happens" element to it, but it was also pushed as an awesome, can't-miss experience to a much greater extent than that last goofy thing was. "Supergirl is dead and it's freaking awesome and you must buy this comic" vs. "A major character dies; can you fathom the repercussions?" Even John Byrne's Superman take-over was about John Byrne and his being awesome as much as it was about the new Superman. Ditto Frank Miller's DC projects, which was all about seeing what the hell Frank was going to do, not what the hell was going to happen to Booster Gold. (This is ironic because much of the initial and even lingering power of Dark Knight Returns was its being the "real" ending to the "real" Batman to paraphrase Alan Moore.)

Basically all comics events now are a cross between Dark Knight Returns and Secret Wars. And considering how successful those were, it's not surprising.

Hugh Stewart said...

DC Comics: Look how awesome these comics are going to be in eighteen months!

Alicia said...

Dick, it's sad how prevalent that "stupid game getting in the way of my cutscenes" mentality is. After a major new "epic" RPG like a Final Fantasy or a Xenosaga has gone up, it's usually a day or so before all the cutscenes have been ripped from the disc and are being torrented or YouTubed.

(This doesn't happen with the Atlus games I know you follow, because those are actually a joy to play and don't rely purely on cutscenes for storytelling.)

That said, Square-Enix has sort of brought it on themselves. A lot of their recent "brand extension" sequels for FFVII have simply not been good games, banking instead of players' attachment to the FFVII cast to make them play it anyway. Of course nobody wants to play Dirge of Cerberus or Crisis Core, and pairing interesting cutscenes to lousy gameplay is just insulting.

It's kind of comparable to how DC is effectively using Countdown and similar lousy continuity interconnections to "hold hostage" characters they know fans obsess over anyway, and will feel compelled to follow.

Tucker Stone said...

This is a pretty great post. I think you're crazy to say that comics readers are "generally intelligent," but otherwise, pretty fantastic stuff.

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