The Trouble With Comics

Opinions (especially from those who don’t read comics)?

The point that stuck me most is how the big two rotate writers and artists. The only long writer/artist continuous run I can remember in recent memory is Bendis/Bagley on Ultimate Spider-Man (eventually the superior Immonen replaced Bagley). Even the Bendis/Maleev run on DD was interrupted a bit.

Whereas with Walking Dead other than the beginning by Moore, it’s been Adlard on art for 60 issues straight. Ottley was also on Invincible for about 60 issues straight (Cory Walker, the original Invincible artist is now doing a 2 issue guest stint). And because Vertigo is completely editorially independent from DC, they manage to be extremely consistent (Dillon on Preacher, Risso on 100 Bullets).

I want to say that the rotation is relatively recent and completely driven by the publishers wanting easier TPB collections. Maybe 8-9 years or so ago, Grant Morrison had a lengthy run on JLA, followed by Waid and Joe Kelly… Also Geoff Johns was on JSA for a goodly time. Now it’s get your 4-6 or maybe 12 issues done and get on to the next title.

Which makes every story feel like a throwaway. I mean let’s face it, besides Grant Morrison, Chris Claremont, and Joss Whedon’s X-Men runs haven’t pretty much every other X-Men comic ever been a throwaway?

House of M, sure it had a huge impact, but that was Bendis just screwing with the pot and not even eating what he cooked.

I like comics and superheroes in passing, but would never buy any apart from a contained, independent series, like Watchmen, or Phonogram. The guy in that interview nails it on the head, I think:

Continuity. I, as a reader – can’t comprehend most comics from Marvel or DC. If I can’t – and I’ve been reading this stuff for over 30 years – how can they expect anybody else to be able to read it? When Jim Shooter was running Marvel there was a lot of bitching – and he had some stupid rules along with his sensible ones – but the sensible ones led to comics that were extremely accessible. I hadn’t read many issues of Thor prior to Walt Simonson’s Thor but I could immediately grasp what was going on. When attempting to read most books these days – I’m just lost.

That’s absolutely spot-on. My reading comprehension skills are not to be sniffed at, and I have a strong grasp of the concepts and the history of quite a few superheroes even if I don’t read comics. The JLA game inspired me to go on a quick wikipedia trawl to brush up on the characters a little. Have you ever done that? It’s nonsensical and utterly fucking incomprehensible most of the time.

I reckon it ties in to the fact that the characters are all long-running, in the same universe, interconnected, and too iconic to ever really alter the status quo. Watchmen was like a good TV series, almost - structured, episodic, tightly narratively focused and executed beautifully using the techniques of its chosen medium. The long-running characters are a nightmare for the writer and reader because they’ve all just sprawled way beyond any sort of narrative cohesiveness. Why would you pay money for an ongoing story that (by necessity) picks and chooses arbitrarily from what’s happened before, and that only makes some vague semblance of sense if you’ve an encyclopaedic knowledge of the subject? Coupled with the fact that a lot of them seem to end in contrived mcguffin-popping and are likely to be summarily disregarded on the whims of the next writer anyway, what’s the point?

It’d be like watching Lost exclusively for years, getting jerked around but enjoying it, and then discovering that the island is actually a small mole on Sylar’s bum or something. If you’re watching Lost but not Heroes, then, uh, what? And even if you are it’s fucking stupid and you hate yourself.

It’s an interesting point but I think it kind of conflicts about Larsen’s complaints about too much continuity- the great thing about so many of the epic single runs is how the writer can really work on long term subplots, character development, etc. Which is one of the reasons that I loved Johns’ JSA run- events from issue 15 will still be coming to play in issue 75. But it makes it harder to just pick up a random trade and really get what is going on.

From a personal standpoint I far prefer the continuity heavy approach but I can understand why the market doesn’t necessarilly favor it.

Overall I agree with Larsen’s assessments and complaints, but a few rejoinders:

  • American comics can basically be divided into two groups: Superheroes and Everything Else. Superhero comics have all the problems which Larsen cites (and perhaps a few more). With Everything Else, OTOH, I think the problem is mostly one of exposure and marketing: so many never leave the direct-market comics ghetto that they never get the chance even to be noticed by mainstream readers.

  • On a related note, I find it fascinating that they have this lengthy conversation about What’s Wrong with American Comics when they don’t deal with the white elephant in the room: Why Is Manga So Popular. Not I think (or particularly want) American comics to be more like manga, but maybe they could learn a few lessons on marketing and product placement from the genre of comics which actually is successful? Or is that just crazy talk? I know the bloom has faded somewhat from the manga rose, but the most popular titles still sell crazy numbers here.

  • There is something of a contradiction - or at least tension - between “superhero comics have too much continuity” and “creators aren’t allowed to build up long-term continuity on a single title.” I think I know what he’s trying to get at, but as stated it sounds like a bit of a paradox. [Though I will note Bendis has written Ultimate Spider-man for its entire decade-plus run and that didn’t save it from its own problems with continuity.]

  • I will also note that what I’ve read of the Marvel Adventures line - their “kiddie” versions of the main titles - is pretty good (I especially like Jeff Parker’s run on Avengers) and address a lot of Larsen’s complaints: clean art, all-ages stories (nary a rape nor gory death in sight!), continuity porn is at a minimum, most issues tell a single self-contained story - in short, they’re fun and accessible to casual readers without insulting their intelligence. The fact they aren’t selling by the truckload to the very audience which Larsen wants to court is a damn shame and colossal screw-up on Marvel’s part, IMHO.

I think I’m pretty uniquely qualified to answer this question because I love, LOVE superhero comics…but I can’t stand reading them. My only real problem with this piece is it seems almost like his answer to “what’s wrong with comics today?” is “Pretty much everything”. I’m probably not the ideal “expansion market” audience, since I already stated that I love comics, but I’m a pretty good example of why they can’t retain the audience that they should have wrapped up.

This is what resonated the most with me. There’s simply too much noise, and not enough signal. Every once in a while, somebody here, or one of my friends will say “This is an absolute must-read, this will be an iconic book for Awesome-man for all time.” Then, I walk into a comic store and I have to remember which one of the 30 books with Awesome-man on the cover it was, and that’s assuming it’s even there. I don’t have the time or money to keep up with things as they’re happening, and that same overwhelming quantity of titles continues to overwhelm in the TPB / after-market.

Additionally, I know, vaguely, that even among hard-core fans, a number of these books that are labeled as iconic are essentially standalone or re-boot series. The whole debate about continuity vs. consistency doesn’t need to be re-hashed here, but that’s really the way I approach the characters. The strength of these characters is that they’re iconic archetypes, not that they’re necessarily interesting people in and of themselves. And if you’re going to work so hard to prevent characters from evolving over time, why not just reject using the linear timeline?

I think he skirts the issue like Manga is a dirty word, but the connection is clear: manga does many of the things right that he lists superhero books as doing wrong: bright, clear artwork, lack of burdensome inter-book continuities, value for money, etc. The Japanese veneer is just the latest hotness, and (in my opinion) doesn’t have much to do with the success of the books.

There is an interesting point to be made here re: continuity, though. A lot of long-running Japanese series (Detective Conan comes to mind) don’t really have to make any attempts to advance the main story’s conflict because the audience accepts that yes, eventually he will become an adult again, so there’s really no reason to show it. This understanding with the audience allows people to do daily stories without worrying about overall continuity. (I could talk about this more, but that’s my own little hobby horse, and not really relevant to the topic at hand).

Well, that’s kinda my point: there is a clear example of popular comics in the U.S. right now which does a lot of what he wants, yet Larsen and the interviewer just ignore it completely: “Gosh, why doesn’t anybody in the U.S. buy any comics any more? It sure is a mystery!” Same thing with webcomics: they bring them up, agree they don’t care for them, then move on, as if nobody in the universe has figured out how to make a living off them.

It’s like they’re calling for change but their heads are buried so far in the sand they don’t realize the market is already changing. To paraphrase something Tycho once said: it’s like they’re trying to figure out how to drive up horse-n-buggy sales in the era of the Model T Ford.

The Japanese veneer is just the latest hotness, and (in my opinion) doesn’t have much to do with the success of the books.

I disagree. I think the novelty of manga has worn off, hence the dip in sales in recent years; the market is seriously over-saturated with titles. But I think they are sufficiently distinct from American comics - in terms of art styles, pacing, narrative structures, approach to continuity, and of course cost - that comparisons are not only merited, but necessary to figure out why Naruto and Bleach sell so much better than Superman and Batman in their own home countries. Writing them off as “just a fad” is both a disservice to the medium and short-sighted, IMHO.

And think about all the kids in this generation who have grown up reading manga, yet never bother with American superhero comics for all the reasons cited. For them, manga will be what they consider “normal” comics; it’s American comics which will seem like a weird little subgenre.

A lot of long-running Japanese series (Detective Conan comes to mind) don’t really have to make any attempts to advance the main story’s conflict because the audience accepts that yes, eventually he will become an adult again, so there’s really no reason to show it.

A lot of manga series exist in the same sort of status quo as superhero comics or shows like the Simpsons: i.e., the ground rules are firmly established, the world is largely static, and the cast neither ages nor evolves significantly. When those series end, they usually simply cut off. But there are also quite a few which tell distinct tales, with a bona fide beginning, middle, and end; there may be filler along the way to keep a popular series going, but it at least has actual progress.

One big difference from American superhero comics is there’s little shared continuity: most manga (and anime) are self-contained universes; sequels, spinoffs, or shared universes like, say, Gundam are the exception to the norm. So if I start reading Bleach from the beginning, I know I’m not going to be told to go read Kenshin or Naruto or Lone Wolf & Cub to get the full story; whereas you leap into any given Marvel or DC title and it’s practically guaranteed to tie in somehow to the latest crossover du jour.

I used to read comics back in the days of Claremont X-men, and I have to say that comics now seem a much more unfriendly thing to buy into. I think that the guy is right when he was saying that they’re writing for the fans now, and not for newcomers. Comics also got hurt by collectors. The same people who don’t open toys because they lose their value will barely handle comic books or take them out of their sacred packaging. You can also see this same trend with Baseball cards.

I have no idea how to fix it, but I do know I stopped buying comics when I couldn’t afford to anymore. They need to be priced so kids can buy them.

This is one reason I love Invincible. I know there are other comics set in the universe but I’ve never read any and I never feel like I need to (I am interested in some of them but what’s the rush?). This is also probably why I tend to enjoy “one off” series like Watchmen or Preacher more.

Isn’t that more of a 90s attitude? Does anyone actually think that current market comics have a real collectible value now? Sure there are variant covers and the like but it I think that the days of “I keep my pristine copy of Geoff Johns’ Green Lantern #1 in a safe deposit box” are largely over. Seems like most back issues now are worth less than cover price, not more.

Hell, if anything is becoming collectible these days, it’s trades. Some of the out of print trades can go for $40 or more on Ebay.

Hey man, I feel like I’m 100% agreeing with you, but the you’re talking like I’m disagreeing with you. I guess I may not have been clear.

My point was trying to be that the “Japanese-ness” of the titles has little to do with the success of the Japanese books, and more to do with the business and creative model that those books represent. Western artists and authors that can (and do) emulate that model have had just as much success in the market as the titles that are actually from Japanese publishers, regardless of their art style. It’s exactly as you say, while the novelty is now gone, the things that manga does correctly are things that anybody can do correctly.

I similarly agree with everything you said on the other points.

One interesting difference is that manga have a different set of archetypal characters than American comics do, and they also have a very strong stable of iconic imagery. I think that’s the wedge that the western comics should be using to differentiate themselves while competing in the same market pool that manga exists in. I don’t think there’s anything inherently more appealing to their audience about Bleach than about, say, Iron Man.

I haven’t really thought this out well, but I also feel that DC and Marvel should each embrace what makes their pantheons distinct from one another, rather than trying to play in the same pool. I think they’ve been doing a good job with this recently (contrast Civil War with Infinite Crisis), but they could probably target their books more successfully by embracing that further. I’m not sure how though, as I said, it isn’t something I’ve thought hard about.

I honestly have no idea, since I haven’t really been back in comics lately. Perhaps it’s an impression that needs to be broken out of?

There’s still collectors but for the most part, the speculator market is dead.

I actually have made some money off selling comics but that’s just because I buy a lot of independent stuff, and often those #1’s actually do become rather rare because no one buys them. So I’ll sell them and grab a second printing to keep. But that’s really no different from when some Atlus game becomes rare in America.

Larsen has manga influence in his work. But the manga model so far has proven mostly unsuccessful for American creators in America. And with sales of manga dropping (I remember Dark Horse having a lot of trouble with sales) I think we need to wait a bit. Half of Oni Press’ output is those digest sized books though (Larsen mentions Scott Pilgrim). But I don’t think any of them other than Scott Pilgrim were really a success and they’ve been going at it for a while. And their titles pretty much offer what most people says western comics should take from manga. Also don’t forget that DC’s Minx line completely bombed despite having quality work and very cheap prices.

Simply put, I think that most of his grievances toward the American superhero market are correct, but to the problem of why they aren’t selling it’s simply distribution and perception.

My personal take on how to save comics is this:

Keep one or two titles (I say two for those who lurves their Spideys/Batmans/Supermans twice a month or more) running that keep continuity.

But make most of your line either limited series or fresh, different takes on characters. Examples: Spider-Man, Ultimate Spider-Man. Uncanny X-Men, Astonishing X-Men. Let guys go nuts with iconic versions of the characters. Don’t get bogged down in 40 years of continuity.

Whedon’s Astonishing is an example of how to do this well. Let the neckbeards keep an X-Men title with their backlog of issues, but if someone wants to do an X-Men story that doesn’t really fit in that rocks on cake? Let 'em. Johns wants to do a long run on JSA, then someone else has a spiffy JSA idea that’d clash? Knock yourselves out.

Manga comics either don’t get bogged down and are basically just like House as far as a series goes, or they have a beginning and an end. Let more comics be like that, let some guys tell some stories and I think you’ll get readership up across titles.

Also, they really do need an “iTunes” kind of digital store for downloading their comics. And they need to make both physical and the theoretical digital comics cheaper than they are now. Paying $60 a month for like 15 titles is a killer to your sales more than anything else.

Okay so the first part:
The Big Two never want to do that. Those Batman/X-Men titles sell like crazy. They can smear shit between the covers, it really doesn’t matter. To Marvel’s credit, I think making Amazing Spider-man the only Spider-Man book and having it thrice a week was a good move. I mean sure, that’s plenty but it’s very easy to follow. But they still had Spider-man Extra! and Spider-Man Family for filler. Now they merged those two into Web of Spidey. So thats four completely new Spidey books a month. Still not bad. Then add Ultimate Spider-Man. And then they’re now launching Spider-Man Clone Wars (a remake of the 90’s storyline), Spider-Man 1602 (Spider-man in Gaiman’s 1602 universe), Spider-Man and the Secret Wars (retelling of Secret Wars) and all sort of other nonsense.
But honestly if you just get the ASM book 3x month, that’s all that necessary though USM is pretty good also. The other books are minis or supplements but they still make the buyer feel crowded with books.

Now about a digital solution, there’s a lot of companies trying (especially with mobile devices) but for the desktop, hopefully, Longbox, when it debuts will do well. No Marvel or DC books but a lot of indie publishers and creators signed up (I believe Gary Whitta’s future book will be here, as long with Kieron’s Phonogram, and William Harm’s Impaler) and books are only a $1 by default which is the right price. Personally I’m going to buy a ton of shit when it launches.

I feel like you’re basically agreeing with me here. Keep one or two “continuity” titles, then the rest is miniseries/limited series/Ultimate style books. I know that Spidey and Batman and whatever sell like hotcakes. So do all the spinoffs, which is basically what I’m proposing: more spinoffs with quality stories. More “The Ends”, more “The Nails” more “Astonishings”. Peter David wants to write more Hulk? Fine, publish it alongside the Red Hulk stuff. Everybody wins, since you can still get your X-Men fix, and more standalone series should make the market more approachable for new readers.

What I guess I was trying to say is that there tends to be way too many of that side stuff and it confuses people on what to buy.