Thursday, February 23, 2012

Breaking a 26-year weekly comics buying habit

It’s now been six weeks — or maybe eight; I don’t remember — since I last walked into a comics shop and bought a stack of new comics. And it may be a long time, if not ever, before I do so again. If it sticks, it would mark the end of a 26-year habit that has brought me tremendous joy but whose time may have finally passed on.

I could trot out a bunch of reasons for this change that have nothing to do with the comics themselves — namely, that there’s precious little time for me to read comics and the money spent on them is better used elsewhere with a 10-month-old in the house.

But the real reason is that comics — by which I mean mostly mainstream, superhero comics — have over time gotten so, well, small, that I have finally lost interest.

But let’s back up for a second.

I began buying and reading comics because I loved the cool stories they told. Back in the 1970s and 1980s, there was nowhere near enough sci-fi, fantasy and superhero material around to satisfy my appetite for it. I had loved animated superhero cartoons as a kid, graduating to stuff like Star Trek, Space: 1999 and, of course, Star Wars, which arrived when I was the perfect age — 7 going on 8 — to love it completely. And I wanted more. By the time I was a teenager, the sci-fi and superhero content boom inspired largely by the success of Star Wars had begun to fade out. There was almost no sci-fi on TV, and the few attempts that were made in the genre like V or the imported Max Headroom were short-lived or terrible or both. Star Wars was, apparently, done after about 1986, with the Marvel comic canceled and no other new content to come for about the next five years. Star Trek was still around with a new movie every other year, but that just wasn’t enough; The Next Generation was still a couple years way. I liked science-fiction novels like the Dune series and Childhood’s End, but comics’ visual nature and the shared universes they offered were much more interesting. 

And I ate it up, which was easy to do because comics were cheap. Taking $20 into the comics shop meant you could walk out with 10 new issues and maybe eight recent back issues. The collecting aspect was part of the fun — every new store might have the issues you’re looking for at the price you can afford — as was the simple pleasure of looking at art. Classic comic book art is a wonderful thing to look at and admire, and the old-style work that was done with traditional pencils and ink had a lot of personality. An easy way to start an argument at the comics shop was to ask people who was the better artist: John Byrne or George Perez. It was the same with writers — you could after a while tell who wrote what without looking at the credits. And there was plenty of new material to explore, beyond just Marvel or DC. When you got bored with The Amazing Spider-Man or Justice League, there was American Flagg! or Watchmen or Jon Sable: Freelance or The Adventures of Luther Arkwright or Concrete or Love and Rockets to move on to.

All of which made comics seem like an evolving and innovative art form that was vastly underappreciated by larger culture. In a word, comics were big — they were immersive, delivered old fashioned action thrills and were often much smarter than anything on TV or playing at the local cineplex. Comics felt like they were ahead of the curve — that everyone would find this stuff as great and fascinating as we readers did if only they gave it a chance. I think fans’ desire to see their favorite comics on the big screen came from a real need to prove that comics were worthy of attention, that they were ahead of the curve.

Comics kind of got that wish with the speculator boom. The 1990s really were the best of times and the worst of times. There were a lot of astonishingly bad comics that sold zillions of copies, but also some of the very best comics ever came along during that decade. Even the increasingly cynicism of Marvel and DC was masked by the fact that there still was some spark in their characters and in their books — something that excited readers whether they were kids who got turned on to the medium by the X-Men cartoon series or longtime collectors.

The industry of comics has, like every other aspect of showbiz and publishing, had to struggle with the changing landscape of making it work in the 21st century. If you had told me 20 years ago how easy it was to publish, promote and distribute comics in the digital age, I would have expected the doors of creativity to swing wide open and deliver a new Golden Age of super cool stuff. But instead, we have come to an industry that’s dominated by monopolies or near-monopolies. Its increasingly corporate nature has slowly but surely wrung the innovation and fun out of mainstream comics almost entirely. Even more sad is the creative decay, the decline in quality of comics and their near-universal slavish devotion to imitating other media or less-interesting elements of comics’ own past. I swear, I hope to never again read another superhero comic that uses first-person narration in captions. It was different when Claremont did it back in that 1982 Wolverine series, but it’s been run into the ground so much since then that by now it’s gone all the way through the planet and is halfway to Mars.

Marvel and DC were always conservative, always very corporate on the business end of things. But the last successful new character (i.e., one proven capable of headlining a solo series and not being derived from another character) created at either company that I can recall in the last 20 or so years is Deadpool. The only breakout characters — ones known to some degree in the greater population — from the entire industry are indie creations like Hellboy, Bone and Spawn.

The Big Two are not alone. The overall trend in entertainment has increasingly been over the past 20 years in general and the past 10 in particular toward exploiting established properties over any kind of investment in the new. It’s telling to look at such companies as Warner Bros. Animation and Hasbro Studios and seeing them admit they have no interest in creating new properties because it’s much easier and more reliable from a business standpoint to continually exploit and re-exploit the library.

The same must be true at DC and Marvel, though they avoid saying it. Given both companies’ history with creators from Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster to Jack Kirby, no experienced comics creator with a great idea is going to give it to either company under traditional work for hire terms. And even if there is some kind of co-ownership agreement worked out where the creator gets a share or say in the use of their creation, it’s never going to be worth a corporation’s time or money to deal with the restrictions such a relationship would impose on them when they have so many other properties they own outright and can do with whatever they choose whenever they choose to do so.

The same issue has plagued pretty much all of entertainment, except maybe for TV, where the demand for content is high enough that new ideas can still get a shot. But look at the big studios’ biggest releases, the ones they pour tons of money into in the hopes that the payoff will be flush enough to keep everything going. They’re all mined from other sources — adapted or recycled from elsewhere. Even book publishing has gotten in on the act with silly ideas like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. I find it fascinating that so many properties are tied up now that public domain titles have become popular fodder, like the upcoming John Carter movie and competing feature projects based on Snow White and Frank L. Baum’s Oz books.

The problem with this approach is that universes that do not grow are by definition stagnating. Adding new characters, new stories, new series is essential to maintaining healthy long-term interest, and that simply does not happen anymore at either publisher. When you think back to the most interesting eras for either publisher, it was when they were doing new things. When Stan Lee, Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko and others were creating the Marvel Universe, each new series was a major event. Each new storyline promised the potential of a new character as cool as Silver Surfer or Darkseid. It’s true for other publishers, like Valiant Comics, which for me evoked similar excitement during its earliest days when Jim Shooter was writing everything and sometimes even drawing the books. It was a cohesive universe that was growing organically and it was exciting to watch — until Shooter was forced out and a more conventional, short-term vision rather quickly began to unravel what had been done to that point.

On the indie side of comics, there are some bright spots. I still think some of the most exciting books of the 1980s and 1990s to discover were unique indie books, like Bone, Strangers in Paradise, Cerebus, From Hell and Stray Bullets. Dark Horse remains what it was back then — a unique mix of decent licensed comics and some really cool, high-quality creator owned comics like Concrete, Hellboy, Sin City and John Byrne’s Next Men. Dark Horse has always taken chances, and I continue to appreciate that, even though a lot of the newer original content they’ve come up with leaves me a bit cold. Image still publishes some of the coolest comics these days and are welcome as one of the few places left that is open to creator-owned comics.

The biggest problem with most indie comics — and with creators new to the comics field — is they seem to consider comics like a first draft of a movie proposal more than a medium of its own. When I was on staff at Variety, I got tons of horrible comics published by wannabe filmmakers who thought that, since comics were hot, all it took to get their script bought and made was to turn it into a comic first. There also were established filmmakers who sought to forestall studio intervention on the creative front by establishing their stories as comics that studios could not change without risking a Comic-Con backlash. In short, with a few exceptions, I haven’t found too many indie books that deliver the kinds of thrills and alternative takes on adventure stories, superheroes, whatever that rivals the best indie work of the past. Add to that the inability of most of today’s creators to get a book out on a regular schedule, with consistent writing and artwork, and even the most promising series can arrive stillborn (I’m looking at you, Nate Simpson’s Nonplayer).

So it is that the comics business has dwindled to a de facto single distributor in Diamond, a near duopoly on the publisher’s end with Marvel and DC splitting more than three-quarters of direct market sales between them, and a stagnant creative field that seems happier treading water and imitating sub-par movies or TV shows than coming up with anything really new. And the constant reboots and alternate universes, from Ultimates to All-Star to the New 52 just became wearying. Why can’t we move past origin stories anymore?

And it finally got to me.

After more than a quarter century, I found reading the last big stack of Marvel and DC books I brought home at tremendous expense to be the last thing I wanted to do. Trying to read the last few of them was incredibly difficult — the art was detailed but unclear, the scripting was clever but not informative, and the stories inched along at so slow a pace, with so little happening on any given page or in any given issue, that nothing registered as being remotely interesting. Six weeks later, or however long it’s been, I not only do not miss my weekly comics shop visit but I feel somewhat relieved. I no longer have to keep track of what I have and don’t have, what the big crossover of the moment is, or how much it’s going to cost and whether I can still afford it.

None of which means I stopped reading comics or have no more interest in comics. I’ve been focusing on artwork of late, and have found myself interested in the recent bounty of classic comic strip reprints. I’m well into the first volume of IDW’s The Complete Terry and the Pirates, by Milton Caniff, and digging the hell out of it. I also have a bunch of vintage graphic novels I plan to catch up on, including digging into the rest of Alan Moore’s run on Swamp Thing and an Al Williamson Flash Gordon volume I picked up a while back but never got around to reading. I also want to dig into the Williamson and Archie Goodwin strip Secret Agent X-9, and I  still have a few holes in my run of 1960s X-Men comics to fill.

There’s a lot today’s comics could learn from guys like Caniff and how well he used the weekly and daily formats. In many ways, the classic comic strip could foretell the way forward for comics, as all media have been moving toward shorter, more intense bursts of content. As we’ve gone from newspapers to magazines to web home pages to blogs to Facebook and now to the 140-character limit of Twitter, short and sweet chunks of story seems like the natural way for comics to go. A comic book series used to deliver 12 stories a year; and even when there was a multipart story, each part was still complete enough in itself to be interesting. Now, with four-, five- and six-part stories the norm, you get only maybe three complete stories a year. I think is part of the reason the established comics franchises are split into so many books — you need four or five series at that storytelling pace to keep up. I would love for decompression to be declared officially over and for comics to go back to being, well, comics.

If they do that, I might at some point come back. That could happen next week, next month, next year or never. But until then, I’ll be taking my comics interest into a past that’s largely new to me and promises to be a lot more fun.

16 comments:

Kyle said...

Absolutely fantastic post, and one which is eerie in its similarities to what's been going on in my own life.

Indie books are basically what's keeping me invested in the medium these days.

Keith Philip Silva said...

Mr. McLean,

Thank you for a great piece of journalism and a tale well told. I've gotten 'back' into comics after a ... hmmm ... 20 year hiatus. I started with the new 52 books, but I'm in a bit of a 'refractory' period at the moment with the Big 2. I started a blog http://interestedinsophisticatedfun.blogspot.com/ a few weeks ago to harness some of my enthusiasm for the comics I'm reading and use some of the fancy words I learned in grad. school lo those many years ago. I'm already tired of the capes and cowels crowd and I'm searching for 'other worlds' at the moment. I'm gung-ho on comics at the moment, but I fear the malaise that you express. It's a great medium for telling stories, here's hoping the stories find the medium to their liking!

Rick Diehl said...

An all around excellent post. It's been about a year since I went to a comicstore and I just don't see that changing.

Evan Narcisse said...

Does this mean that you're going to stop writing about comics, Tom?

Michael Payton said...

Every new title that I follow, I buy in digital format. If a publisher won’t release their comic digitally in 2012, then they just lost a potential sale.

I can collect every title that I still enjoy, and try out hundreds of comics cheaply that I may otherwise may never have known of, because the LCS just doesn’t have room on their shelves for something obscure when there are 27 new issues of the Avengers being belched out by the brain trust every month.

I read more now that I ever did. Mostly indy stuff from Image, IDW and Dynamite, with just a few Dark Horse titles. I still get my Batman books every Wednesday, since he is not only my favorite character in fiction, but most of the Bat-books are actually worth reading.

Paper comics, I reserve for special books. I’ll get Fantagraphics’ Carl Barks and EC reprints, plus the odd strip collection from them or IDW.

Truthfully, even if the direct market collapsed tomorrow, there would still be comics. I might not have 3-4 Batbooks a week, but indy creators would shift exclusively to digital and carry on. Frankly, following DC and IDW’s digital exclusives like Batman Beyond and Transformers Autocracy, I think we’d be better off if digital WAS the format comics took in the future. Keep the LCS for specialty stuff, like record store do for music today.

Anonymous said...

Buddy, you have just shown the courage it takes to do what many comic fans wish they could. Me personally, I don't even LIKE most modern comics--I grew up with 1990's superhero cartoons, and consider the DCAU/MAU versions of characters to be FAR superior to the majority of the comics stories out there from the 2000's.

Sean Kleefeld said...

Congrats on the decision and, more importantly, for articulating your reasoning so well. I came to a similar decision on the tail end of Marvel's Civil War, but had difficulty in saying much more than "This isn't fun any more."

FWIW, I've found a lot of interesting and new stories in webcomics in recent years. It's required culling through a LOT of chaff, certainly, but I've come across some of the most rewarding and personal experiences I've had in comics for years.

Brian E. Smith said...

I sympathize with you. I actually broke my comics habit back in 1999 because I waqs spending a ridiculous amount of money ($50-75 per week) because I got so wrapped up in the stories that I had to quit cold turkey. Granted, it helped that I ran out of money but still...

I do, however, take exception to your notion that TV still gives new things a shot. The networks (broadcast & cable) are owned by the same large conglomerates that own Marvel & DC. As an actor living in L.A., I can tell you that it's a serious meat grinder in terms of how many new shows are pitched each year versus how many pilots ever make it to air, let alone getting picked up for a series. Even with the proliferation of very niche cable networks, most of their extremely limited budgets are spent on "reality" or game shows that they can then show ad nauseum on a daily basis for extremely low overhead.

The Internet has helped ameliorate this a bit, with the barrier to entry being lowered considerably for content creators to get their work directly before the public (i.e. web series like "The Guild" or the newer zombie show "Bite Me"). However, much like with indie comics it can be extremely difficult to turn that into a viable revenue stream without the support of the same conglomerates that wouldn't put your idea on their networks in the first place.

In any case, I think that breaking any long-term spending habit is difficult, whether it's buying comics, junk food or re-treaded TV shows. I applaud you for your choice. sometimes it's good to break the cycle in order to get out of your comfort zone. Granted, even 13 years later I still avoid comic stores, but still...

Anonymous said...

Hallelujah. Thank you for this - I though I was alone.

I stopped buying new comics altogether when Alan Moore quit his own ABC line, popping back in for Garth Ennis's 'The Boys,' and that's it. Same reasons you gave - basic burnout, disillusion with the continual retreading, rehashing and double-dipping into an ever-shrinking pool of worthwhile material.

It's interesting to note, too, how the emphasis at conventions has shifted from the comics themselves to cosplay. More evidence of the medium's failure to live up to itself: the books no longer sustain the interest of their purported readership.

My happiest comics-related moment of the past zillion years was finding a pre-Pogo issue of Dell 4-Color done by Walt Kelly at a yard sale. Think I'll keep going that route instead; maybe someday I'll run across those issues of 'Herbie' or 'The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis' that I still need...

Paul Allen said...

I've found myself in nearly the same position as you for nearly the same reasons (even down to being a new father; I have a 2 year old).

I haven't ripped the Band-Aid completely off (I'm loathe to put an end to my run of Fantastic Four issues), but it's definitely dangling at this point.

Good to hear that it's going well for you, and to know that someone else finds Marvel and DC as creatively stagnant as I do. I had been wondering if it was just the onset of cynicism (i.e. would my 13 year-old self be geeking out over X-Men vs. Avengers, or whatever).

Anonymous said...

I'm kind of in the same boat as you are but my reason for not being in the local comic shop every has been due to financial reasons (I.E. broke and unemployed). Then again, charging fans almost five dollars for one issue of a story that is dragging on forever doesn't help matters.

I definitely agree that the industry has done nothing but stick to the "business as usual" method of comic book writing rather than evolve and create something original.

I guess my frustration began with Marvel after Secret Invasion. An entire storyline that was overdrawn and killed off a main character out of shock value only to drag on another plotline that no one wanted got me so PO'ed it made me swear off Bendis and event crossovers for good. I like him as a writer when he does solo characters (Ultimate Spider-Man) but his team books just plain suck. I bet I could ask one fanboy to tell me which Bendis written Avengers storyline would rank up alongside the classic Avengers sagas and would get a blank stare and no response. Bendis, Joe Q, and others has basically turned a once great team book and made it into the equivilant of a McDonald's Big Mac. Bland, mundane, and yet sells to the masses because they don't know better. And I'd rather not get into DCnU for that is one can of worms I could write a whole article about its faults and flaws.

I'm hoping to come back into comics and find something new & exciting. But as long as the companies stick with the "Business as usual" method, the only change we'll see is finding out what overhyped gimmick they'll run up the flagpole next. -_-

Mr. Q

Doc Redbat said...

Ah brother, I've wrestling with this myself. I think you pushed me one step closer to pulling the plug.

Kevin Parks said...

Well said, I have been contemplating the same thing, it seems it is more of an addiction lately than something I look forward too. My unread pile goes back more than a year. I think it's time for me too to leave the new weekly's behind and get back to the stuff I look forward to reading. Thanks for putting this into words so eloquently.

Virtual Stranger said...

Couldn't agree with you more, Tom. I gave up on comics after Peter Parker sold his soul to the devil. I'd been collecting since the mid-seventies, when I started with titles like Star Wars, Micronauts, ROM, and Amazing Spider-Man of course.

I think what's the most frustrating thing--the thing that made me give up--is that the Big Two keep heading down this path of making things more complex and more mature and more involved, yet refuse to see a connection between this and their flagging sales and fading interest. It's like dealing with an alcoholic who keeps going back to their bottle no matter how clear it is that it's destroying them.

Ahhh, well. I'll always have the original Hobgoblin...

Ronn Roxx said...

All well said. I myself still prefer superhero comics - superheroes are comics to me. And being in my mid 40's I still prefer 'floppies' to trades, but more and more I am starting to wonder if its worth it to wait 30 days for 20 new pages of story. I would much prefer one 30 or 40 page Batman comic instead of a 20 page Batman, 20 page Dark Night, 20 page Batman Inc. etc...

Tonebone said...

Man, you said it! I think the "New 52" was the last, sad straw for me. I am perfectly content, now, to read the past 75 years worth of material from here on out. Sigh.