Wednesday, February 29, 2012

TL; DR: On Giving Up Superhero Comics

Over the past few months I've started and stopped writing the same post a dozen times, but as March arrives and marks the 7th month of DC's New 52 effort, I had always planned to talk a bit about where I landed vis-a-vis DC Comics after half a year, so I've just held on to the mega-post on the topic.

And then, today, I read this blogpost from Bags and Boards.  He's been a writer on superhero comics and other comics for years, including working for Variety.  But in the post, he states that he's given up on the habits of superhero comics reading, and tied to that, the weekly trip to the comic shop.

I don't know that I'm giving up superheroes altogether, but the tone of the article and the white flag raising certainly resonates.  Frankly, if you're reading the site regularly, or you don't find all of my comics posts "too long; didn't read", none of this should come as a huge shock.  But I'm also starting to drift away from habits so ingrained that I am sure that for many of you who know me primarily through this blog or social media, you'd begin to think something was wrong.  And in some ways, I have to do some self-evaluation to wonder:  superhero comics, is it you or is it me?  And like all great romances that fail, we're likely both to blame.

In some ways, my motivations differ from Mr. McLean, and I haven't given up on superhero comics altogether.  And I don't see a future in the next decade where I'm not reading Superman in one form or another.  But its also realistic to say that the biggest impact the New 52 has had on me as a reader of superhero comics is that it enabled me to step back for a minute and re-assess everything about how I dealt with superhero comics and the habits that I'd developed over 15 years of weekly comic shop visits and more than 25 years of reading comics.

I've made no secret here of my concern regarding the quality and content of the DC relaunch, and as time has progressed, whatever illusions DC was able to cast to make it seem like they had all this well in hand have come apart, just as the overall effort is, from a creative perspective, more than a bit of a mess.  I don't watch sales, so I'll just assume the sales are still going strong.

But for me - the notion of keeping up and keeping pace with the mega-narrative of the DCU was part of the joy.  I might not have liked that DC killed off Ted Kord, but so much of the rest of the DCU was intact that overall, the DCU could take it.  And it could also open the door to Jaime Reyes.

But when I didn't have the DCU itself to fall back upon?

As a reader I'm being offered books with a crippling lack of enthusiasm behind them in many, many cases, being written by a weird mix of folks taking a paycheck or who are hack writers at best, who have managed to ingratiate themselves to the powers that be at DC either by long association with the formerly shamed editor Bob Harras or by not rocking the boat with Dan Didio (ie: just writing whatever Didio says).

Compounding the issue, rather than just starting at the beginning, DC is insisting we're 5 years into this mess.  Its an utterly baffling decision in a market that absolutely adores origin stories.  What is so hard about showing who Birds of Prey are and how they came to be?  Why would I want to do this?

Marvel I still look at, I will read Cap and Daredevil for the time being, but the endless cross-over that the Marvel U became lost my interest years ago now.  The very business of comics was so much more prevalent than the story, the characters, etc...  that I saw no particularly compelling reason to stick around.

Add in the point McLean makes about how long it takes to read these stories and the expense incurred in getting through a single storyline, and the thing that the DCNu Relaunch has shown me is that as a veteran reader who really has seen a lot:  I can stop doing this now.

I've mostly quit looking at a lot of the accouterments that went with comics, things like action figures, statues, etc... And since August I've been working slowly but intentionally in my home to reduce the morass of... stuff.  Clearing out boxes of unwanted comics, centralizing bins of unread issues and back issues.  Admitting I was never going to read this or that.  Sending some things to Salvation Army, selling some things, looking to put a lot of books up for sale on Amazon.  Clearing shelf space, clearing walls, etc...  having to ask "if this isn't dear enough for me to keep, how do I feel about everything else here?"

Its an oddly emotional experience, and, if I can try not to get too "real" here, its also been a fairly self-reflective process.  I can't say I necessarily like a lot of what I think the habits I'd gotten into say about me.  In pursuit of Supreme Comics Knowledge, I had put up a good display publicly of having some perspective regarding my bad habits, but behind the scenes, not so much.  And that's not even discussing or admitting how much money had been poorly spent.

But with the DC Relaunch timed, more by coincidence than anything, with my scheduled assessment of my collection/ comics/ however you want to describe it, I've had to reconsider a lot of things, not the least of which has been how many comics I've been purchasing for which I feel either nothing or which I haven't enjoyed.  Going through the stack as I did last August, the number of them that ended up either in the cardboard out-box from that stack was...  a lot.  Way, way too many.  No, I didn't look to see exactly what percentage it was, but it filled a fairly sizable cardboard box, and that's a lot of money represented.  And that's a problem for me (I won't generalize to the industry).

The formula sounds simple and its one of those things comic geeks yell at each other all the time online:  If you don't like it, don't buy it.  But that's easier said than done in the era of Blackest Night mini-series, line-wide cross-overs, etc...   (it doesn't hurt that DC and Marvel are great at producing a need for the one-off issues tied in with the event matter, but, man, they suck at the execution...  At $2.99-$3.99 a pop, that's unforgiveable)

All that said, I have always been someone to try things out.  And of late, the payoff on that approach has been startlingly low.

I am not a wealthy person.  I have had to think hard about what that means to have spent that money, not so much to regret the purchases, but to consider how that's going to change how I approach comics, superhero comics and all the associated super-stuff now.

The last few weeks I've picked up about two comics per week.  Hardly enough to justify a trip to the comics shop on a Wednesday.  And I'm okay with that.

I have one week in there where, somehow, DC has clustered together a large number of titles, but I'll be honest, I'm pretty much switching to trades on both DC and Marvel stuff at this point.  And we'll see how badly I think I actually need to read this Court of Owls mess in Batman now that DC has made it sprawl out over 15 titles.  Kind of makes my life easier if I choose to not to get on board.

And I know...  I know...  I'll be told how good that storyline is, and the internet folk will talk it up, but here's the difference:  I'm totally okay with knowing that story is out there, but I'm not going to be reading it.  And that's new.

For the target market of 18-25 year old white males with discretionary income:  enjoy it, and love it.  Try to understand the narrative is what makes it work, not the flash or artwork you'll look back on in ten years and see as hopelessly dated.  Try to learn as much about the medium as you can, and it will pay you back in ways you'll never expect.  Don't forgive sloppy work.  Ask the genre to be better than it is, because in many ways, its the refusal of the genre to continue to grow with those of us leaving superhero comics in our 30's (way, way longer than we ever expected to hang in there) and the creative laziness of the editors in charge that will mean that at some point, you're going to also start wondering why you should bother if this is all they're willing to do...

After a particularly good bender, Grant Morrison once suggested that the DCU was a living, aware entity that told us its stories and we were seeing glimpses of whatever that entity contained.  In some ways, I think Morrison was right.

One common thread you hear from writers of all fictional media is that, at some point, those characters take on a life of their own and begin speaking with their own voices and making their own motivations known.  And what is the DCU but a collection of those things, cultivated and crafted over 75 years?  That's thousands of years in print crammed into a timeline of the DCU that was always generous with its flexibility, its openness to change, and which gave up the best stories when writers and editors got the hell out of the way and let the tales unfold with the characters truest to themselves.

Can the caretakers hurt the DCU by asking it to be something its not?  By assuming that editorial decisions are their own?  In the abstract if not the metaphysical sense, I am inclined to believe so.

I do know that I'm coming to the end of what has been a multi-year love affair with comics, and that while I am in no way done with them, like all intense relationships, this one was bound to change.  I was going to grow older, and with that, priorities would change, my tastes and those driving the comics would diverge.  And here we are.

Perhaps its fitting that Morrison did write the last Superman story of my era in All Star Superman.  No matter what, I'll be able to think of that as the good-bye to what was in many, many ways.

I know its ending.  I'll keep hitting the store regularly, if not every week.  Here's to change.  And moving on. And here's to new adventures and the unknown.


Simon MacDonald said...

I'm with you Ryan. Initially the DCnU had me buying 11 monthly titles which has petered out to 0 now that Swamp Thing #7 has been released. While I will continue to look at getting Swamp Thing and Animal Man in trades I've pretty much run away from all the superhero books. One could argue that both Swampy and Animal Man are horror books.

While I will continue to read and love comics my tastes have certainly changed as I've gotten older. My shelves are getting filled with Chew, Morning Glories, Unwritten, Sweet Tooth, Locke & Key, Atomic Robo, Walking Dead, American Vampire most of which couldn't be further from capes and cowls. Probably I will pick up the new Batman and Daredevil trades/digital as I'm hearing such great things about them but I'm sure I'll be buying more Uncle Scrooge than Green Lantern this year.

The League said...

Sounds familiar! Unfortunately, I haven't been making enough time or space in my budget for stuff like some of the books you mention. I've had a few other things I've enjoyed, and I've highlighted them here, but there's pretty consistent, positive mention of stuff like Locke & Key that I need to dig into.

Its weird to realize I think I am done with Green Lantern and Justice League for the time being.

For the record - I will clarify my stance on Superman and Superman related comics, collectibles, etc... And I am sure the difference in how I approach that character will not be tolerated in that way that the internet demands sweeping absolutes. I didn't cover it here as the post was already too long and I saw no reason to muddy the waters further.

Jake Shore said...

Wow. That sucks. I got away from comics about 15 years ago (with a few exceptions). But over the last year, I've gotten back into them. So the difference for me is that I've got 10+ years of comics to catch up on, which I means I get to pick up the best of the last ten years. So, only recently have I read All-Star Superman. I am just beginning to read Superman Birthright and Secret Origin, the Green Lantern run beginning with Secret Origin, etc.

I was excited about the DC relaunch, but that's turned out to be a dud. I agree with you and the Bags and Boards guy completely about the state of comics, the big two in particular.

I've disliked the state of comics for a long time now, so I kinda grieved about this years ago. But it's disappointing that the problems have only gotten worse, and nobody in the industry either cares or is willing to do anything about it. And it's symptomatic of the larger problem of the lack of creativity not just in comics, but film and TV. Damn near everything is a remake, reboot, sequel or adaptation.

Do the top creators out there see this? They've got to. Are they doing anything about it?

The League said...

Well, the interesting thing about the internet isn't just that we have web distribution, but that these creators (both writers and artists) don't necessarily need DC or Marvel in the middle. They can find each other online and they can start making, marketing and distributing comics through Diamond or other publishers.

Today was, on Twitter, Creator Owned Comics day. And of course some folks like Chris Roberson have gone at least half creator owned, and walked away from DC and Marvel. Other folks like Cullen Bunn are doing a good job of balancing work-for-hire and not dropping their creator-owned stuff.

I may find him a bit doofy, but Kirkman is really the model for the possibilities and potential.

Inside the Big 2 - I have no idea. I suspect the DC higher-ups are just looking at meaningless stats like "market share" in the meager Direct Market and still high fiving in the wake of September. And the certainty that "Before Watchmen" will be a hit, and, frankly, I think DC's "Earth-2" initiative will be a big hit with its "even more edgy for 18 year old boys" approach.

The 90's took a long while to wind down in comics. I expect this will, too.