The nature of my work allows me to listen to internet audio of all kinds, so naturally I download the geekiest podcasts I can find. I usually only write in this space if I have some kind of conclusion, and today it is this: The North American comic book industry is laughably out of touch with reality.
More specifically, I’m talking about the larger companies, Marvel, DC, and Image. All they seem to do is languish in the creative tide pool that is superhero comics. There is constant talk about how they’ll be able to re-invent characters 20, 30 or 50 years old. The current crop of superhero films are running off of storylines that haven’t been published in just as many years. Nobody seems to be asking, why do we need these characters at all? After all the arguments about continuity, non-continuity, ret-con and elseworlds, are we so creatively bankrupt a society that we can’t end, I mean finally end the Supermen, Spidermen and Batmen of the world and come up with some new characters? Why are we dealing with titles that change so many hands creatively? And why is Brian Michael Bendis the most critically acclaimed writer in the industry?
No, seriously, why? I can’t make it through one of his books without acquiring a bad taste in my mouth.
Most importantly, the podcasts, the fansites and magazines still seem to consider Manga and graphic novels as this new foreign thing, but if you look at the bestseller charts at Barnes and Noble, the graphic novels you see are predominantly titles like Bleach or Naruto. When Japanese comics written for a Japanese audience are outselling American comics, then it is truly a desperate situation. I’m not about to proclaim that the American comics industry should roll over and hail glorious nippon, far from it. However, it needs to get with the program if we consumers are going to see better comics.Here are 5 ways to get back on track.
1) New characters
The industry is full of talented and varied artists, yet few, if ever are allowed to create titles on their own. The new crop of stories may not be the next Spawn, in fact 90% of them won’t be. It’s going to be the one or two megahits that pay for the rest of the titles that are shuffled off to the bargain bin. This is the cost of doing business in any entertainment business, be it movies, music, or publishing.
2) Finish it already!
Now if we’re going to introduce a new crop of characters, and there is a certain amount of budget committed to marketing each one, there should be a way to tie off loose story lines and cancel a title gracefully, rather than leave the few fans it has with open questions and closed wallets. A complete, cohesive story is much more likely to cross over into other media, like movies.
3) Cut the Turkish Prison crap
The Death of Gwen Stacey was regarded by many as the day that comics lost their innocence. Peter Parker’s girlfriend was a victim of Spider-man’s success as a superhero, and the void that she left brought Mary Jane into Peter’s life for good. That one death precipitated one of the greatest storylines in comics. These days when I pick up an issue of Ultimate X-men, they often kill hundreds of people in the space of a single issue, and I feel nothing. I saw the action figure of Gwen Stacey’s corpse from Ultimate Spider-man, so I’m pretty much precluded from picking that book up ever. It’s almost as if critical acclaim in comics now comes from torturing the characters in the worst possible fashion. It’s not fresh or innovative anymore, it’s just depressing!
4) More stylized art
The trend toward big eyes and anime style in comics is not necessarily a good one. Lots of published “anime style” comics lack the foundations that made the originals so appealing. Furthermore, artists in the west have a duty to produce art that is completely distinctive from anything else in the world. Mike Allred of Madman fame is a good example of the kind of unique and specific art that is needed to create new brands that will revitalize the industry.
5) New business model
I personally have yet to see a benefit to collecting monthlies. I picked up my first Ranma trade paperback in 1993. It was 10 issues for about $2 per issue. Your average cover price for a monthly is about 5-6 dolars, and half of it is probably ads! In what universe is this considered economical? It’s too expensive for an impulse buy, and meanwhile Shonen Jump is publishing 250 pages for about 8 dollars. That’s about 10 times the content for only twice the price! The monthly comic book has become little more than a pamphlet for the trade paperback, and if they can’t make it into the hands of potential customers, then they can’t even perform that function. Web publishing may be only way to get new titles out to the general public at any recoverable cost.