Master Of The Obvious: Issue #2

Tue, August 10th, 1999 at 12:00am PST

Comic Books
Steven Grant, Columnist

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I walked into a comics shop on the Upper West Side of Manhattan one

day in 1983, shortly after Capital Comics released WHISPER #1. (For

those who came in late, Whisper was my first creator-owned project: a

woman who pretends to be a ninja and then finds herself trapped in the

role; the series, a cult item but hardly a general hit, was published by

Capital and First throughout the decade.) The clerk, recognizing me,

raved about how happy he was the book was being published.

"You liked it?" I asked.

"Not really," he admitted. "But it's the only comic my girlfriend reads, and

if I can get her hooked on Whisper I think I can get her to read the

X-Men." I didn't really see the connection, but I wished him luck, made a

mental note to carve his image on a candle and hold a voodoo mass, and

went on my way.

One of the cherished beliefs of the industry is that there is a vast beast out

there called "comics fans," and that among these there's a subset called

"superhero fans." In the mid-60s this may have been true - while the

superhero was on the ascendant then, there will still lots of other-genre

comics, from MY GREATEST ADVENTURE to MILLIE THE

MODEL to THE TWILIGHT ZONE - but as we push to the next

century, we should probably admit that comics fans are a subset of

superhero fans. Or they're intersecting sets. But they're not synonymous.

All kinds of fingers are pointing these days over why the comics audience

has dropped off so precipitously from the glory days of only half a

decade ago. Kids spend all their money on videogames. There are no

entry level comics. Comics are too complicated. We abandoned the

newsstand. All wrong.

Sure, kids play videogames. Some videogames. Most videogames die on

the open market, just as most comics do. Some videogames are

compelling. If comics were as compelling as video games, kids would be

reading them.

"There are no entry level comics." All

comics are entry level comics.

Whatever comic book gets a

non-comics reader interested in comics,

regardless of content, is an entry-level

comic.

"Comics are too complicated." Again, some are. What "complicated"

really means is "it bores me to the point I don't think it's worth my while."

A thousand different names and 6000 accumulated years of history for

5000 variant parallel Earths may be daunting on the surface, but if you're

interested enough it becomes fascinating. I've watched 9 year olds

studiously memorize the name of every known Pokemon, as well as their

battle attacks and various other data. Very complicated. But they do it

because they're interested.

Instructive on these points is DC's decision several years back to rent the

Mighty Crusaders from Archie Comics and turn them into the "entry

level" !mpact line. The practice: the DC universe had 60 years of

backstory and was too complicated for new readers, so a new line

would be created without all the complications. The practice: obsessed

with creating a vast coherent world, !mpact developed a sprawling

backstory for their line that immediately complicated the hell out of their

titles.

This was the common flaw of all the "universes" created in the gold rush

of 1993: ignoring that Marvel was built over a decade and DC over five

decades, they tried to compete as wholly developed universes and

backstoried themselves to death, squeezing out whatever energy might

have remained in what was, let's face it, nothing more than a marketing

gimmick.

Let's review: kids play videogames = comics aren't interesting. There are

no entry level comics = comics aren't interesting. Comics are too

complicated = comics aren't interesting.

As for newsstands, the comics business didn't abandon the newsstand for

the direct market. The direct market was created because the newsstand

abandoned us. They don't want us. Even at $2.50, comics are a low

profit space consuming commodity for most newsstands. Want to get

newsstands interested in comics again? Publish books that take up very

little space that they can sell for $7.95 instead.

Some comics are still on newsstands anyway. I go into local

supermarkets and superstores and I see comics on the magazine racks.

It's interesting which ones: THE SIMPSONS, various Archies, a handful

of the more popular Marvel and DC titles. You want to see variety in

comics, check out newsstands. Want to

see a variety of comics on the

newsstands? Forget about it. That

won't happen until both the price point

and the readership jump, and it's

unlikely both can jump simultaneously.

Unless we start publishing really

interesting comics.

The undercurrent of all the

pre-translated "why comics are dead" arguments is that, really, there's

nothing wrong with comics at heart. This is where you can start to

separate superhero fans from comics fans, because only superhero fans

make that argument, and comics are largely published by superhero fans.

(Or, as in the case of Marvel where the publishers don't seem to know

what they're publishing, the editors are superhero fans.) Comics shops

were mostly started by superhero fans.

Don't get me wrong: I'm not saying you shouldn't like superheroes. Be

my guest. But the mentality that says the long term goal of introducing

people to comics is to get them to read X-Men (or Spider-Man, or

Green Lantern, or Wildcats, whatever) has killed the business. The idea

that any story worth telling is worth telling as a superhero story (and I've

had more than one person tell me with a straight face that the superhero

genre can accommodate any kind of story, when it only comfortably

accommodates one kind of story) has

killed the business. The sheer stubborn

unwillingness of the comics industry to

accept that somewhere it took a wrong

turn has killed the business.

There's something in gamblers called

the prime roll, which is that hot streak

where you just can't lose. Prime rolls

end, and when they end they end hard.

The comics industry went through its

prime roll in the first half of the 90s and operated like it would never end

and the world was theirs to pick off at will. But that roll has been over for

a long time and aside from financial cutbacks everyone's continuing as if

all they have to do is keep behaving as they did in the prime days and

those days will come back.

But it's rare for gamblers to hit two prime rolls in a lifetime.

The secret great event of the 80s was the sudden plethora of different

material available. LOVE AND ROCKETS. Ed The Happy Clown.

WATCHMEN. SANDMAN. A comprehensive list would take pages.

These projects got noticed, they brought in a lot of readers who wanted

to be interested in comics. They wanted to like more comics. And

publishers tried to feed them superheroes instead. Marvel, for instance,

turned the graphic novel - potentially a major breakthrough item for

comics if they had put anything of substance in them on anything

resembling a regular basis, instead of making people go hunt for them -

into little more than longer issues of MARVEL TEAM-UP, and flooded

the market with them. There were superhero fans who had grown up in

the 70s who wanted more sophisticated (not the same thing as

complicated) fare to feed their expanding tastes. They all went away

because the industry got to a point - mainly prompted by the fratboy

marketing frenzy of the Image era - where nothing was being produced

that maintained their interest.

Those readers are the great untapped resource of the comics industry.

There's no reason to believe they couldn't be enticed back - if there were

comics they wanted to read. They're the people with money, and now

with families. Forget the myth of the kid stumbling across comics for the

first time on the newsstand; while I'm sure it happens, it's much more

common to be introduced to comics by friends or relatives who already

read comics. That's the chain we broke. In houses where parents read,

children read. In houses where parents read comics, children read

comics. That lost generation will feed us the next generation, if we can get

them back.

To get them back, we have to make comics interesting again. That may mean something other than superheroes, it may mean an interesting superhero concept. But until comics can compel readership, it's not going to happen. Designing the right costume isn't going to make it happen. The only thing that's going to make it happen is getting fresh content - real content - into a medium stale to the point of extinction.

Which means endlessly reiterating the material we dug as kids in an effort

to recapture the excitement we felt then has got to stop. A comics

industry that is conservative in nature is not an industry that can compete

on the entertainment landscape. The past is the past; it's not the road to

the future.

As the nights grow long and the days grow bleak, it's time to figure out

what is.

A couple notes: thanks very much for the overwhelming response to my

debut column. My e-mail server has been overwhelmed as well, and

while I've been reading every message, there are now far too many to

respond to. I appreciate that many of you printed out the column to show

to others; I'd appreciate it even more if you just gave them the URL and

got them to check it for themselves. (Economics, you know.) Several of

you asked if I'd critique your unpublished work, but time and my lawyer

unfortunately forbid it, and when I go into critic mode, I turn into a nasty,

nasty man, so your self-image is probably better off without me anyway.

Rule of thumb: the only person whose opinion of your work counts is the

editor you're trying to sell it to. (This counts just as much if you're

self-publishing.) Until you think your work is good enough to show to an

editor, it's not a good idea to show it to anyone.

If you're going to be at the San Diego Con this weekend, I'll be signing at

the Chaos Comics book from 1-3 on Thursday and Friday and

1:30-3:30 on Saturday and Sunday. Also look for me at the "Wrestling in

Comics" panel on Saturday at noon, with special guest WWF superstar

Mankind. I'm easy to spot: I'm the one in black with white hair. See you there.

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