Master Of The Obvious: Issue #109

Wed, August 29th, 2001 at 12:00am PDT

Comic Books
Steven Grant, Columnist

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The second MOTO. It's funny repeating a column calling for an end to repetition, but irony is my life. In the 2+ years since I wrote this, there've been small signs of change. Companies are finally starting to give up on the superhero as cure-all for the industry. The two things stopping them are the question of what to replace superheroes with and the reluctance of many editors (not to mention writers and artists) to admit the superhero has petered out as a marketing gimmick. But Vertigo has had considerable success with straight crime books like 100 BULLETS and AMERICAN CENTURY which totally lack the superhero/fantasy elements imposed on most other comics. Marvel has declared themselves not solely about superheroes anymore -- though there's been very little actual evidence of it so far, at least the declaration was nice -- and, though I doubt Stan Lee ever wrote a story based on someone throwing a toaster out a window, Marvel editor-in-chief Joe Quesada has more or less pledged to avoid that kind of old-hat story and aim what superhero comics Marvel does continue to produce into hot new directions (what he called "new voices"). Graphic novels are moving increasingly away from superheroes, and becoming a bigger and bigger part of the market. At San Diego this year, publishers were specifically asking me for non-superhero material, and those publishers still interested in superheroes were specifically asking for angles that have never been explored.

So...

Awhile ago I wrote a biography of Pope John Paul II for Marvel. As it became apparent that the world at large was going to pay attention to the book, people suddenly came crawling out of the woodwork to take credit for it, and I started reading articles citing pretty much everyone at Marvel but me as the author of the book. I finally went to editor Jim Salicrup and complained about it. I think Jim was a little pissed off that I was being egotistical, but it wasn't really a matter of ego, just credit. If there hadn't been any discussion of who was writing the book, I'd've let it go. But since the matter had come up, I wanted to make sure people got it right. A couple days later, I went back up to Marvel, where Jim saw me in the hall and told me he'd set up an interview with US magazine for me. "Happy now?" he asked. I thought about it a second and said, "Well... happier..."

Am I happy about recent shifts of attitude in comics? Not yet. This business is often built on self-delusion, and I'm hearing a lot of talk and not seeing much action. But at least I'm hearing talk. So I'm happier...

[Whisper #1]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 rationale: 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, then provide a million customers.

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 gamblers call 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. It's rare to hit one, and behaving otherwise is gambler mentality, which is why most gamblers go out losers.

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 being produced 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.

Still a few details to work out, but odds are PERMANENT DAMAGE will take MOTO's place on September 19th. Until then the MOTO reruns, with commentary and updatings, will continue. If there's any particular column you'd like to see again, e-mail me and ask for it. There's one slot open yet, since I've already chosen the last MOTO rerun. In the meantime, you can check in at my Delphi forum, GRAPHIC VIOLENCE where a number of subjects related to writing, comics and other pop culture are constantly being discussed.

Question Of The Week at the Master Of The Obvious Message Board: How much money, on average, do you spend on comic books and comics related material (including graphic novels, trade paperbacks, action figures, online site connection fees, etc.) per month? Do you feel you're getting your money's worth?

Whatever questions you might have about me can probably be answered with a quick trip to Steven Grant's Alleged Fictions. You can also express your own views at the Master Of The Obvious Message Board, or send me mail. Bear in mind that while I read all my mail, time constrains me from replying in most cases. Thanks.

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