I’ve loved comics since my age was in single digits. Comics can tell stories in ways no other medium can, and vice versa which is why I love any form of good storytelling. I have my genre preferences but not really a format. Comics are amazing in the way they can tell a story…which is why seeing sales numbers drop and comic stores closing in a time when adapting them into movies, cartoons, and video games is at an all-time high makes me sad.
Why are comics doing so poorly? I don’t think you can point to one or two factors or even something recent. There isn’t one movement or one mindset to blame. This has been going on since the 1990s and the stupid speculator bubble altering the way people saw comics, and not necessarily for the better. It’s been going on since writers and editors decided Watchmen should be the rule rather than the exception. However, it is more recent mindsets that I think is responsible for the comic book losing its status as a storytelling format. Where comics used to be everywhere now they’ve gone into hiding except on the internet. And no, I don’t think digital comics are a big factor in reduced floppies and graphic novels. This is of course something I think about a lot and while I can’t say I’ve most definitely isolated every problem or have THE solution to the falling cultural value of comics I think I have identified a few things the industry as a whole needs to work on besides the distribution issues mentioned in yesterday’s Morning Article Link. I’m not saying following my advice will “save comics” or anything like that. Comics as a whole still has life online and in the independent and self-publishing fields, but these are things the comic industry should start thinking about…and probably won’t.
Let’s get the most controversial one out of the way so the rest of you can scroll past it to the rest if you’re tired of hearing it.
The political issue
Yeah, you probably saw this coming. I don’t join movements so I’m not necessarily part of ComicsGate, the movement looking to eliminate or at least tone down how politics are affecting…pretty much a good chunk of the rest of this list. However, when people who agree with you (liberals) are telling you to stop preaching and just get with good stories by good writers who care about the characters they’re writing and the genre they’re writing in, it might be time to listen. There is a hard-left philosophy, commonly referred to as “Social Justice Warriors”, or “SJWs”, who want to use every last second of your life to convince you to rise up, be angry, and change all the things without realizing eventually people will get sick of the message even if it’s an issue and solution they agree with. (And disagreeing with a solution isn’t the same as disagreeing there’s a problem to be solved.) These leads to stories with a strong bias toward one message that is heavy-handed and not a good story to read regardless of the reader’s affiliation.
Yes, I’ve heard the example of Captain America, a character created by two Jewish men to convince people Nazis are bad at a time when we didn’t realize how bad the Nazis really were. (As opposed to 2019, when we can’t get the definition right, but I’m trying to get off the political side of this as quickly as possible. BW Media Spotlight is not a political blog nor do I want to turn it into one.) However, go back and read some of those old stories. They were stories first and messages second. I forget which Art Soundoff I mentioned this in but the best way to get a message into a story is through the theme, not the circumstance or the visual aspects of the story itself. Turning Donald Trump into a M.O.D.O.K. style dictator of a post-apocalyptic future is hardly subtle, which is what the early Captain America stories were, even in war-time. They were a product of the period they were in, which was World War II. You can do a commentary for or against an issue without turning off your own side or making people who disagree with you look so terrible that you can’t convince them of anything and just run them off.
This means the only ones left are as hardline as you, and note to conservatives, I am talking to you as well. If your solution is “let’s do a heavy-handed book promoting our point of view”, all you’re doing is making the problem worse and chasing off your side who just wants to use escapist entertainment to (shock of shocks) escape all the ideology and vitriol they’re surrounded with lately in the rest of the world. However, to blame everything on SJW politics is to miss all the other problems that exist in comics right now, such as…
The OTHER distribution problem
Out of sight, out of mind. Where do you even find comic books nowadays. There was a time when they were everywhere. My first exposure to comics “in the wild” was at the local drugstore, where they had a big selection in the back. I also picked them up in convenience stores, grocery stores, magazine racks, at Sears, and I even picked them up in a smoke shop where I was buying wrestling magazines for a while. (I don’t smoke and this was when I was still into pro wrestling.) Soon they were regulated to comic shops and bookstores, and now in the latter you can only find graphic novels. Outside of Stop & Shop you can’t find regular periodical type comics except in the comic store or those 80 page giants DC tries to distribute through Walmarts, which would be great if they sold enough for Walmart to circulate them properly. And those are usually one original story and a bunch of reprinted stories nobody wanted to read the first time.
I don’t have to go to a bookstore to find books, a music store (the few that still exist) to pick up a CD, or a magazine shop (if any still exist) to pick up a magazine. All that is in general of course. I don’t even have to restrict finding a video game to Gamestop. I can find most of these almost anywhere. Comics used to have that kind of range but now they don’t. I love my local comic store. Most of my oversized comic collection came from them. They are not what got me into buying comics, certainly not during the aforementioned single digit age years. They’re not where whomever bought me that three-pack of Justice League Of America, Batman, and The Spectacular Spider-Man that first introduced me to the medium found them. I suggest that comics be put out there in these other locations again, draw new readers in. Then they could go to the comic store to find back issues and more obscure titles, plus they should serve as a meeting place for comic fans to discuss and debate the medium they love and find exclusive titles and merchandise. Save the graphic novels for the bookstores (my local comic store tells me that the trades don’t sell very well so they don’t stock them but will get them for you upon request). Speaking of which…
Enough with the trade padding!
Watchmen began as a 12 issue maxiseries (that a very long miniseries, also referred to as a limited series but “maxiseries” sounds more exciting and makes for a better marketing buzz). Stories like Iron Man‘s “Demon In A Bottle” are long-running storylines or subplots that take part in a regular ongoing. Events like Crisis On Infinite Earths tell a very long story and I’ll get to them in a moment. These are special events and it makes sense to collect them as a trade to make it easier to find than going all over creation trying to find that one issue you’re missing. That is until the trade is no longer published and becomes obscure itself. These were successful because the story needed such a long chunk of storytelling real estate that they had to make enough issues to collect later. They were popular because they created a new normal, and I’ll get back to that, too.
Nowadays however every story has to be at least four issues long to push the trade collections. Original graphic novels are now the venue of smaller and self-publishing, while it’s rare to see an original graphic novel out of DC or Marvel anymore. (DC did have the recent “Earth One” series of graphic novels but what has Marvel done lately?) It’s all about getting graphic novels on the bookstore shelves and it’s hurting the monthly periodical, or “floppies” as I’ve also heard them referred to. I’m not against a trade collection but now they only write for the eventual trade even if the story ends up too long. It ruins the serialized nature or even done-in-one stories that the floppies are best for. This has caused some to become “trade waiters”, waiting for the trade and ignoring the periodicals, which has hurt their sales. Others have called to drop the monthly comic altogether, insisting they should follow the manga example, which is not how most American comic fans or even creators think about comics. Japanese comics are good and I own manga, but some of them are also trade collections, serialized in anthology comic magazines like Shonen Jump, which we also get in America. I say let the periodicals do what they do best, save the trade for specific storylines, and let the graphic novel tell the type of story it tells best. One way to reduce the trade padding is another problem that I’ve actually put a name to.
Long time readers of my site already know what Eventitis is but I’m sure you can guess from the context: too many event storylines in comics. I’ve gone over all my problems with publishers’ obsession with event stories, from the large crossovers to the small events relegated to one group of titles. Events change the status quo but when all you have are events there is no status quo to start with. How much of this is related to trade padding I couldn’t tell you. I don’t have anything against events done right but when overdone wrong it cheapens the gimmick. And that’s not the only gimmick comics are falling back on.
That cover up there is from Boom Studios first Incredibles miniseries. It’s good, as is the follow-up ongoing long before anyone knew a second movie was even likely. However, that cover there is one of a series of covers that when put together form one picture. All five covers…ARE OF THE SAME ISSUE NUMBER! You had to buy five of the same issue with a different cover to form the full artpiece. I have nothing against interlocking covers but I’m not wasting money on five copies of the same issue just to get a different character, or a different art style that’s not even in the comic. I don’t need a variant where they’re all cats or drawn by an artist who isn’t working on the title. Just sell a poster and call it done!
Variants are one of those leftovers from the speculator boom, when a bunch of people heard Action Comics #1 was selling for a boatload of money without knowing why and thought any #1 issue would put their kids through college. They’re a waste of money not just for the customer but for the company, which just adds to the next problem.
Comics when I was a kid was 75¢, and that’s not old man grumbling on my part. Nothing is worth what it was thanks to the poor mismanagement of our economy, but again–not a political blog. However, comics are still too expensive. Kids used to be able to go to the store with allowance in hand to buy a bunch of comics. Adults would toss some money out during their lunch break for a horror, romance, or crime comic or pick something up for their kids when they’re sick. Comics used to be easy to find but they also used to be easy to buy. Not anymore.
Between the hiring of big name writers (stick a pin in that one) and artists, plus the shiny paper they insist comics MUST be printed on, the cost of making comics has risen far higher than it should have while our wallets have not caught up. This means what little money the purchaser has will go to more familiar comics, leaving the smaller publishers in the dust. Alterna Comics has tried to cut their costs by using a sturdier form of newsprint, but the old newsprint comics I have are not in bad shape. We know how to handle comics better now, but even some of my more well-read issues aren’t in terrible shape, though a few I admittedly have replaced with better-condition back issues. When other businesses have been cutting costs where they can comics have failed to do so, and now DC and Marvel are reaching prices of the smaller publishers. Meanwhile, Alterna has been selling comics at 99¢ and trying to get into more places than just the comic store. And somehow they’ve become a target for the creator community for it.
Remember, comics became a popular medium because kids would go and buy a lot of them, which is one of the things Fredric Wertham had against the medium and guys like Bill Maher today use to STILL treat comics as a “kids medium”. Leading to the problem I need to give a theme song to.
Trying to play to the “cool kids”
I know that everybody wants to be the live-action theatrical movie. You aren’t a success unless you are, a mindset I’m on record as finding ridiculous. But Great Caesar’s Ghost are comics so low in self-esteem than any other medium out there. Maybe because video games can at least try to emulate movies, but there has yet to be a decent video game movie not made by Japan (and even some of them kind of suck). And yet comic creators still think that if they can just push the Watchmen envelope just a bit further maybe Sempai Maher will notice them and realize comics aren’t just for kids and get off their back.
NEVER GOING TO HAPPEN! EVER! Get over it!
The more you push the more they’ll ignore you. Maher, like Wertham before him, doesn’t like comics, doesn’t care about comics, and will not research the kinds of stories that come out of comics. He doesn’t think a writer was controversial in the 1800s because we consider his or her work a classic piece of literature in this century. He will never give you a break, and he’s a trollish @#%hat anyway. They will never accept you, and any acceptance the comic industry has today is because of those of us who grew up on comic books, decided to stick with them, and know they aren’t just for kids. And no matter how you insist on changing Dick Grayson’s first name to avoid jokes about his first name (which if longtime readers of BW recall even Wertham made) it will not make you popular with the popular people and get you invited to the best parties and get the captain of the football team or head cheerleader to notice you. They will never take the time to actually look at a comic to see it isn’t just a kids’ medium any more than they will a cartoon so just enjoy what you like and the heck with them. Not that it maters since…
Comics are trying to abandon children anyway!
When I was a kid I got a Batman comic that, if you didn’t read that review I linked to earlier, was about Batman investigating the murder of homeless people via poisoned coins, leaving that coin in their eyes and thinking he ended her suffering. They took the coin and dropped dead. If they were to tell that story now either the poison would cause them to bleed out of their eyes or they’d decapitate the person and leave the coins in the eyes of the body-less head while smiling in a way that would give a Marine Sargent nightmares. And yet the first example (which was in a polybag so they couldn’t look at it anyway) was perfectly fine to give to that single-digit kid.
I’m not saying that comics were always meant for your average four-year-old and that’s not what I’m talking about. I think I was eight or nine at the time. I was reading Superman stories at age seven but I can’t think of a recent Superman story, especially with Bendis’s current take (that pin’s still there) that I would be comfortable showing to a seven-year-old today. That is so very wrong. The same goes for “Shazam!”, who will always be Captain Marvel to me, a superhero specifically created FOR kids. He’s a boy who turns into a man, gets to experience the benefits of adulthood, and then goes back to being a kid to get those benefits, and is later joined by his sister and best friend who get to join in the fun. Geoff Johns, who last I heard is maintaining a stranglehold on Billy Batson, doesn’t seem to realize that.
Even ComicsGate has gotten this wrong. Few are any of the books being promoted by the group kid-friendly, while the SJWs take a formerly kid-targeted property and age it up so we can’t share it with our own kids. Or they’re more interested in a diverse cast than they are putting them in a good story or what we loved about the actual characters, and defend themselves from critique by saying “it’s just a kids story, it isn’t for you”. I’ve talked about that stupidity as well.
This of course goes back to my earlier point about the “cool kids”. The current league of creators hate being told they shouldn’t be reading a “kids book” by elitist jackenapes who have a warped perspective of what qualifies as “approved reading for adults” (granted this is from the guy who watches Paw Patrol and has friends in a generation that still watch the new My Little Pony) and have gone to lengths to make the more adult tales like Watchmen not just the rule of superheroes but the only option for comics. While there are still creators out there who want to make comics for kids, a few even exclusively making kid or kid-friendly “all-ages” titles–and remember, all-ages means ALL-ages, as in kids and adults alike–the current crop wants to cut kids out entirely, even among superhero or general webcomics. Since it’s kids that made comics and especially superheroes popular, pushing them out is calling for the end of comics in a few generations. It’s not even a question of quality among the writers, which means it’s time to finally get to that pin.
Putting good (and bad) talent on the wrong books
I’m not talking about Roger Stern, even though I used an image from a book he did. Stern is on the list of novelists who understand comics and superheroes, even if I don’t always agree with some of his specific plotlines or views on this or that character. That’s just difference of opinion. However, DC and Marvel specifically have ignored all the writers who would love to be making comics their whole life like their hero Stan Lee did and instead have turned to young adult and adult novelists to pen their mythology. Often these new writers are big names in the prose world (maybe not the biggest names but big enough to bring an audience, which is the goal) but have little to no interest in comics, do not understand the story structure of a comic story versus a prose story, and have as much interest in superhero adventures or the decades-long mythology as Bill Maher. (I know, I keep picking on him and Bendis. It’s just so easy.)
Even the talent they do get from the comics world are misused. My problems with Brian Michael Bendis isn’t that he’s a bad writer, it’s that he doesn’t care about continuity or getting a character he didn’t create right. Ultimate Spider-Man was a well-written series but even there, where he was creating his own continuity, multiversal continuity was tossed aside. Mary Jane was suddenly a science geek like Peter, a problem Gwen Stacey has dealt with in the Spectacular Spider-Man cartoon and the Amazing Spider-Man movies, because Marvel writers can’t get over thinking that a science nerd can’t possibly get involved with a beautiful woman who isn’t into science, if at all. I wonder how many real world scientists have attractive spouses who aren’t into science? Probably more than Marvel thinks, but I’m getting off-topic and I’m already over 3000 words here. I didn’t even get to creator treatment of fans, but I wrote about that once too.
The analogy I like to use is would you want Steven King writing Harlequin romance novels? If you said yes, you are either a weirdo or you assume talent alone is enough, that any writer should be able to write any thing. You probably also think a veterinarian should be able to remove YOUR gallbladder. It’s still medicine, right? You have to use the correct writer, and the correct editor, on your comic if you want it to be good. I don’t mean a good story, because that’s somewhat easier. I mean a good story in that genre with these characters that people are familiar with. Bendis doing an original property with original characters is going to be better than anything he’s done with Superman or Scarlet Witch because he doesn’t have to worry about getting the characters or the world they’re living in right. And given what he’s done with Superman and Scarlet Witch it’s obvious he doesn’t worry about it when he should. Then you have Dan DiDio, who maybe a good publisher and advocate for his vision but it’s clear he doesn’t understand or care about the way the DC Universe should be written, while over at Marvel they have writers who aren’t interested in superhero stories at all and were hired either because they had a good following elsewhere or could tick off some diversity checklist even though they’re writing a genre they don’t care about.
In conclusion (finally!)
I’m not saying that every comic needs to cater to kids or can’t enjoy a writer from outside the medium, that it can’t have a big event or form a trade, will immediately become popular outside of the comic community by casual readers, or…no, I am saying get rid of variant covers except for convention exclusives or something. What I am saying is that comics need to stop trying to appeal to people who aren’t interested in comics, go outside their fanbase while trying to bring in new fans, and can try to make sensible decisions in this economy without being self-defecating snobs. Comics are awesome but dropping what made them awesome is part of the problem. There is a place for everything but by denying kids and casual fans, by putting the wrong creative team together on the wrong project regardless of talent, and being more about a message than a story on a level even good PSA comics have avoided, they are hurting the comics industry and making sure the community eventually ages out. Even if that doesn’t happen in our lifetime it shouldn’t matter. Leave these icons and this medium for the next generation just as previous generations have. In the end it’s all about a love of comics. We may not share that with everyone but shouldn’t we be trying to get as many as we can? You do that not by forcing everyone to be what they think a “true comics fan” is but by allowing everyone to have “their” comic while working to create something new for a new audience. This is a medium that predates World War II, and at this rate it may not make that World War III I keep hearing is coming.
Comics are like anything else. They’re an entertainment business whose first rule is to entertain. However, you can’t entertain an audience if you don’t have one.