Come In Alone: Issue #26

Fri, May 26th, 2000 at 12:00am PST

Comic Books
Warren Ellis, Columnist

[Ulimate Spidey]This is the sound of the enemy. Listen:

"The entire point of the Ultimate line is to reclaim the mainstream media with comics. If they even gain a fraction of the goal, the readers of regular titles will be dwarfed in comparison. That's a VERY dangerous thing for us."

This is an excerpt from a posting found on the Usenet newsgroup rec.arts.comics.marvel.xbooks, devoted to discussion on the topic of Marvel Comics' X-MEN family of comic books. I choose not to source the poster because frequently the posts are identified by email addresses only, and I don't want to be responsible for someone mailbombing some poor bastard to death - and because so many of the opinions flow together into one. I excerpt the posts in application of "fair use."

The above post was made in connection with the announcement of Marvel's proposed "Ultimate" line of comics. It was made by a fan of the current X-books. And it stinks of fear.

For those of you unaware of industry machinations: The Ultimate line is an attempt by Marvel to reintroduce some of their core characters and concepts to people who have no interest in entering at the wrong end of a forty-year-long soap opera. In the words of Bill Jemas, Marvel President Of Publishing And New Media, "What we've done with the Ultimates… is swapped out the traditional backstory and replaced it with a new, self-contained year 2000 context. These characters that we grew to know and love as teenagers are teenagers again, dealing with year 2000 issues."

This idea is being kickstarted at a time where two high-profile Marvel-based big-budget movies are expected within the next year to eighteen months. It seems that, for once, Marvel has gotten organised enough to capitalise on its ownership of or participation in major commercial properties, perhaps finally feeling the sting of massive missed opportunities like MEN IN BLACK and BLADE. Jemas again: "The Ultimates will be our most comprehensive, focused, well-financed imprint in the Marvel Comics line. We'll have our biggest and best media push in our history, which includes the X-Men movie, behind this. We'll have a fan interest in our characters at an all time high, and we're going to leverage that demand to fuel growth in comic book readership. That's essentially what the Ultimates are all about - comic books targeted to new readers."

A-ha. Comics targeted to new readers. We know a song about that, don't we, children?

"We've all heard comic book publishers sing this same song - they want to bring in new fans, but the truth is that the collective efforts of publishers and distributors in the comic book business to bring in new customers have failed. Readership continues to drop, and stores continue to suffer financially, as have all the business that service the comic book business."

So driving brand new footfall into the comics stores is a good thing, and that seems to be the intent here. A hundred thousand UNCANNY X-MEN readers is not enough. Jemas adds, "A very good core-market book, almost by definition is not going to be accessible to new customers. The fans love the complexity, and the new fans are baffled."

So far, interesting. I have serious doubts that releasing new iterations of Spider-Man and The X-Men is the smart way to bring in new readers to comics, but at least they're trying something. There's at least the strong implication, backed up by common sense, that the core market - the regular direct-market X-Books - will be protected and are certainly still desired. But check this out:

"I'm not saying that the new line will replace regular continuity right away with just a few titles, oh no. But if they can't raise the readership of normal continuity, which I can't see how as long as titles such as the Spiderman books are unreadable, then why continue them if Ultimate is successful? That's a disturbing thought, but it's a very serious one down the road if Marvel continues to try and save a dying industry by supplanting stores with better made books to draw people the lesser ones of old. Think about it and read the figures Marvel is hoping for with Ultimate. Scary stuff."

This is one of the many comments of a similar nature currently to be found on the heavily-patronised rec.arts.comics.marvel.xbooks, in response to Jemas' annoucement.

These are the enemy. These are the people who like the comics culture just the way it is; stunted, marginalised, dying in the dark. These are the people who don't want art from their comics. These are people who can barely stand intelligent entertainment from their comics -

"We're losing the characters we've come to know and love. I'd rather read junk about characters I know and love than well-written stories about characters I do not care about."

-- and there's a hundred thousand of the bastards. They are the dominating population. And here is their voice;

"I'm pretty good at determining what I like and don't like, even before I see it, read it, listen to it, etc. I can probably count on one hand the number of times my gut instinct has been wrong..."

Understand that Jemas is talking about saving comics. I might not agree with his ideas, and I remain aware that he's really talking about saving comics for Marvel - and the last time Marvel tried a stunt of this ilk they ended up concentrating all the financial power in the industry into Diamond's hands - but at root he's talking about obtaining a new audience and pushing new people with wallets into the comics store environment. Which is precisely what I've been banging on about here.

And the online conversation - which is to say, the only broad-based, massively multiparty conversation possible at this juncture - is led by people terrified that their fantasy life-surrogate is somehow going to be subtracted from their lives by the agency of people who haven't read comics before trying the medium out for the first time.

"It is my purely subjective opinion, hence it cannot be wrong."

Some people talked about leaving the medium if the X-Books family was truncated or deleted. One comment following these statements of intent was:

"Neither of you will be alone, but because we would do this I don't think Marvel would cancel our books."

Our books. Our medium.

When someone explained that these books would initially be written by the excellent Brian Michael Bendis, a popular writer whose profile is quite high right now, the reaction can be typified by the following post, made in all sincerity:

"Wasn't he the actor who starred in Dream On on HBO a few years back. I think he's married to Madeline Stowe."

And, when someone suggested that this newsgroup isn't an accurate representation of the comic-buying public to begin with, someone else made the truly chilling suggestion that:

"Yes, this has been said, but a part of me thinks it is somewhat of an accurate representation. There aren't many comic-buying people to begin with. We may be the majority of what's left..."

Think about that. The one ray of hope here is that Internet opinion has historically not represented the groundswell of audience opinion. In a broad generalisation, the Net-capable has tended to split between the "Spawn fukkin rools" group and what Mark Waid called "the forty-year-olds on Compuserve." The fresh produce of the American education system and ageing conservatives, basically. But the actual buying audience is shrinking. And the number of people with Internet access is climbing massively.

So what if these people are the majority of the remaining readership?

"I'd rather read junk about characters I know and love than well-written stories about characters I do not care about."

This is why my sermons occasionally become hate rants. Because I've seen this kind of person up close. And there are more of them than you think. And make no mistake, they are the enemy. They are the people who like things just the way they are. They want comics to remain defined by sick little family-surrogates with spandex fetishes. To them, this is all the medium needs to be, and anyone who says otherwise is evil and to be shunned. Comics must remain the small world that they hide within.

And if you don't act, they win.

I wrote The Old Bastard's Manifesto for a reason. I've written columns on activism here for a reason. Damnit, I wrote the Counter-X books as contemporary no-baggage jumping-on-point comics for a reason. Because of people like this. Because if they win, everyone loses. If they get to continue to dominate the comics culture, then we're fucked. Tolerance is no longer an option.

Today's CIA has been brought to you by the letter X and the emotion Hate.

I can be contacted by email about this column at warren@comicbookresources.com. My terribly beautiful website, updated earlier this week and now containing an online store (carrying most things listed in INSTRUCTIONS) and a 24-hour rolling news service, is http://www.warrenellis.com.

BAD WORLD, a new series of occasional articles by myself, is at http://www.themestream.com/gspd_browse/browse/view_column.gsp?column_id=6666.

INSTRUCTIONS: Read TRAVELS IN HYPERREALITY by Umberto Eco (1967, 1986), listen to THE BOY WITH THE ARAB STRAP by Belle & Sebastian (Jeepster, 1998), and hit Julian Cope's website at http://www.headheritage.co.uk/headheritage.html. Julian Cope was the central figure of the early Eighties band The Teardrop Explodes (title cribbed from a Daredevil comic, I think), has had a troubled solo career touched by mad pop genius, and has written two excellent books, the autobiography HEAD ON/REPOSSESSED and the indispensable guide to megalithic monuments in Britain, THE MODERN ANTIQUARIAN. He's a serious contender for Greatest Living Englishman and you need to go to his site now.

Today's recommended graphic novel is BILLY BUDD KGB by Jerome Charyn and Francois Boucq, and I can't find my copy anywhere despite having re-read it yesterday. Around 1990, from (I think) Catalan Communications.

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