Better than that big ball dropping in New York, it’s time for CBR’s year-end round-up. For those readers who are new to this annual phenomenon, it’s an opportunity for several of our news staffers to get together and gab about the events or trends they witnessed over the past 365 days in the comic book industry – and in their positions, they see a lot.
Like anybody, our contributors have opinions. Good or bad, logical or semi-coherent, this round-up gives our writers an opportunity to share their points of view – and occasionally vent – on what they’ve seen during 2008. Joining us for this year’s escapade are Timothy Callahan, Kiel Phegley, Dave Richards, and George Tramountanas.
It seems that 2008 gave CBR’s writers much to talk about, beginning with "Invincible" writer and new Image Comics partner Robert Kirkman's controversial video manifesto, and we continue now with a subject at the forefront of most superhero fans' minds and wallets.....
EVENT COMICS: THE NEVER-ENDING SECRET CRISIS
Tim Callahan: It currently seems that we are stuck in an endless event rollercoaster at Marvel and DC. Secret Invasion, which ended up being one of my least favorite events ever (after what I thought was a strong start) just leads into Dark Reign and so on. Final Crisis seems to be strangely ignored by the rest of DC continuity, so I don't know what's going on with that. But surely none of us think that Final Crisis will be the final event. We know The Blackest Night is right around the corner.
I'd like a break from it all, but at the same time, I know that Marvel and DC titles that don't take part in these events seem to "matter" less to readers… and then I'm less interested in them. So I must like something about the event model. Something keeps me coming back for more, even if it’s more of the same.
Dave Richards: As long as people keep voting with their dollars, the yearly "event" cycle will continue. Events make too much money, and with the penchant for many comics fans to pay money for stuff they supposedly hate, I don't see the event train stopping or slowing down.
I didn't read "Batman R.I.P." or "Final Crisis" or their tie-ins, but I did read Secret Invasion and, hey, I liked it. It set up a very interesting status quo for the Marvel Universe. So, like Tim, there's something that keeps me coming back to the event model, and I think it's the anticipation of sweeping change and what it will mean.
Kiel Phegley: Sure, event comics continue to dominate, but I think there needs to be something more to the story for us to address it, otherwise we're having 2006's argument abut House of M versus Infinite Crisis – or 2007's argument about Civil War versus "52" – all over again.
To me, the most interesting thing about the publisher's push for big event comics is how much their smaller solo titles can suffer because of the events (think about books like "Agents of Atlas" and "Immortal Iron Fist" on Marvel's side, and all of Vertigo and Wildstorm on DC's side) and how much a publisher can suffer if they fail to deliver their marquee event books on time. Just two months ago DC took a double percentage dip in sales because the anchor titles "Final Crisis" and "Batman” failed to ship. I don't know. Maybe that's not an interesting hook either. But there should be something new to say on this topic, otherwise we're just snoozing.
George Tramountanas: You want something new, Kiel? How is this for a question: are event comics the “hologram covers” of this generation? I’m going off a point you just made, so allow me to explain…
During the late ‘80s/early ‘90s, companies put out tons of variant covers (they still do now, but not to the severity that they used to). There were hologram covers, covers with trading cards, die-cut covers – all kinds of ridiculous “collector” covers that fans would buy in hopes that they were purchasing a valuable commodity. Naturally, this made sales numbers rise, so the publishers kept doing it. Eventually, the fans figured out that two hundred thousand people (or more) owning the same hologram lessened the collectability of the item substantially – plus the fact that the content inside the cover was less-than-great – so they stopped buying. Then the bubble burst and the market went boom.
Events are feeling much the same way to me now. Publishers are putting out events to see their books at the top of the sales charts (and to tell a good story too – at least, in theory). Naturally, when they don’t have events, their overall sales aren’t as substantial, so they need to keep cranking out Invasion after Crisis after War. They create their events so that one leads to another, which itself creates a self-perpetuating situation that allows them to stay on top sales-wise.
But what happens when an event stinks?
If they’ve tied their entire line to a single event and the fans don’t enjoy themselves, they’re in trouble... the same kind of trouble DC is seeing right now. While the Infinite Crisis books and “52” performed terrifically for the company, the Countdown and Final Crisis events have soured many readers on DC’s events, as shown by the sales on both anchor titles and their tie-ins -- neither performing badly, but nowhere near their predecessors. DC’s latest misstep was to tie “Batman R.I.P.” into “Final Crisis” #6 without notifying fans ahead of time. Eventually, fans may wise up (one would hope) and stop showing up for events if they aren’t getting a good, complete story (and don’t get me started on the non-ending of “Secret Invasion” #8 being a teaser for Dark Reign).
If the appeal of the event comic “dies,” will it cause a new kind of implosion in the comic market? I hope not, but I’d challenge the Big Two to go a year without publishing an event book and see what kind of sales they would have. It’s kind of a scary thought, actually…
Kiel Phegley: I don't know if I can hop aboard the train that's carrying such a statement across the land. Sure, there's a chance that in the next decade, those of us who are still around kvetching about superhero comics online will cast aspersions on events like we do about gimmick covers now. But in general, I think a big difference between the two ideas is that one is obviously nothing more than a promotional stunt, and one can make a claim towards some kind of story legitimacy (even if it's a weak one).
Hologram covers and their ilk were made to pump up sales in a totally collector-driven market, and these days, whenever you see an interview with guys who dominated the sales charts in the '90s, they'll openly mock their former desire to do such gimmicks so they could buy a third sports car. Today, Brian Bendis will tell you that "Secret Invasion" and the tie-ins built off it are there to work different story angles of a concept, and I have no reason to second-guess his motives there. Sure, with all the event titles and ridiculous tie-ins out there, it's very easy to call the whole enterprise a hollow commercialized shell, but I personally think we all get more out of engaging the works on their own terms – good or bad.
And as for the whole "the stories never end and it's unfair for fans to constantly be expected to follow all of this stuff to enjoy it" argument, I just plain ol’ don't agree/don't care. For one, I think the idea that DC somehow bamboozled its readers into having to buy "Final Crisis" after "R.I.P." because the story didn't truly end is a totally manufactured argument, and one I'm not interested in having with anyone. "Batman R.I.P." ended with the eponymous hero defeating the schemes of the Black Glove. "Secret Invasion" ended when the invasion that started in issue #1 of the series was finally put down. I don't understand the big fuss and think that if you're all worked up about the stories the publishers are trying to spin out of these events, then you should just stop buying superhero comics for a while and pick up something from Drawn & Quarterly.
George Tramountanas: So which is it, Kiel? You don’t agree or you don’t care? I, for one, do care. The comics-reading market, unfortunately, is fairly static – it doesn’t grow. In years where we see an increase in comic sales, I’d wager that the number of comics readers has stayed close to the same, but those same readers are just buying more.
I realize that’s a pretty big statement – and I wish I had the hard data to back it up – but in reading online comments from retailers (such as Andy Battaglia of Comics Etc.) I think it would be difficult for anyone to argue that comic audience is growing. Think about it – the number one movie this year was “The Dark Knight,” but there was no appreciable increase in the amount of Batman comics sold (discounting the effect of “R.I.P.” of course).
So what happens when publishers put out an event comic that requires readers to buy four other books they don’t normally purchase? They are draining a finite audience of their finite resources (i.e. cash). Now, if the story is fantastic and – as mentioned – complete, the reader may feel like it was money well spent. However, if the story was mediocre and they then discover they need to spend more to get the actual end of the story… well, who could blame them for feeling a bit insulted? It’s like giving a friend the last $20 in your wallet, and then he comes back an hour later and asks for $30 more.
One imagines that publishers would want to put out books to expand their readership base, not ravage it with convoluted, unending events. It should be noted that some companies have made these attempts the past couple of years and achieved terrific results; for example, “Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Season Eight” from Dark Horse, the Barack Obama comic book from IDW, Tori Amos’ “Comic Book Tattoo” from Image, and Stephen King’s “The Stand” series from Marvel.
In closing, I’m not saying that companies should never have events. Heck, I can’t imagine what my inner fanboy would do without my “Absolute Crisis on Infinite Earths” or “Secret Wars Omnibus.” I’m just asking that an event do the same thing that I expect from any comic I read – tell a good story with an interesting beginning, a tense middle, and a satisfying end.
We’d love to hear your thoughts on the subject matter discussed above. Swing by the CBR Forums and let us know if you agree, disagree, or have a completely different take on any of our Year In Review topics. Hey, variety is the spice of life!
And don’t forget to check back with CBR tomorrow to find out what our staff has to say about the business side of comics, including discussions of increasing cover prices and digital distribution.