Monday, January 5, 2015

So, What Have I Been Up To? Me and Comics Since June 2013

I really don't know how to write this post, because, if you've been following me for any length of time - and, in particular, if you've been here because of comics, this is where I disappoint you.

I am no longer a "read 20 comics per week" kind of guy.  I'm more of a "I'll knock through a trade once a week or so" kind of guy.  My comics reading and collecting was changing before this site was frozen in carbonite, and it's continued to mutate.

y'all buckle in, because it's about to get pedantic and ornery up in here

I kind of quit trying to keep up with Marvel as a universe around Secret Invasion, which was several years ago now.  I've tried to keep up here and there with Captain America and a few other titles, but Marvel's insistence on the cross-over stunt has made that exceptionally difficult.  Pair that with the fact I read Marvel in trade collections rather than floppies or digital comics, and their "all new #1's all the time" marketing strategy, and I literally gave up trying to understand what was happening at Marvel as a Universe.  But I will be picking up some of the Star Wars books for a few months and see how I like a Marvelized Star Wars U.

DC and the New 52 kind of sent me screaming.   The quality of DC hasn't really improved much over the past two years, and it was in the basement with the launch of the New 52.  I recently read that by Spring, DC will have canceled 60 titles since the launch of the New 52, which is an indication that I'm not crazy to think they have some problems and maybe they aren't serving their audience very well.

In the past year, it's safe to say my habit of reading comics has greatly reduced.  At least the reading of new comics.  When I do buy floppies, I collect them for a couple months and read a few at a time, unless it's something that's self-contained.  And I'll talk about what I'm buying as floppies, which isn't much.

The other day I mentioned that I've recently also sold off a huge portion of my collection.  Well over half my stuff has been dispensed with since August, something like 15-20 boxes (short and long), something like 4-5000 comics.  I've also sold a huge number of my action figures, graphic novels and other items.

And - you know - I don't miss them.  I have more than a room full of great stuff that I like and feel like showing off from time to time, and it's a lot more focused than it once was.

So What Happened?

To be honest, The New 52 happened.

Stop it, Jim Lee.

I was mostly (mostly) a DC reader, and even I was on the fence as per Didio's ability to steer a universe and his actively aggressive management of the DCU.  In the past three years he, Jim Lee and Bob Harras took the DCU in a direction that was not dissimilar to what turned me off superhero comics in the 90's - a sort of misreading of adult themes in comics that lands you in a limbo where the comics are unfit for kids by content, but not written well enough to compete for adult serial narrative content that you couldn't do better with just watching TV instead.

Not keeping up with DC meant the need/ interest in the weekly shop visit went away.  Once you're out of that habit, a lot of other things go by the wayside.

But it's no secret I could go off on DC for an hour or 12, but, let's talk comics in general...

At the age when I should have been throwing in the towel, comics decided to grow up with me.  I came into comics as Watchmen and Dark Knight Returns were happening and pushing everyone in the comic market to try harder.  As high school ended I got Sandman, and as I hit college, Vertigo launched and pointed me at new and existing stuff that appealed to me as a more mature reader.  Mark Waid and Alex Ross helped steer DC into better waters with Kingdom Come and the line in the sand that book drew as per restoring a DCU that understood what superheroes could be, while also telling a story for an older crowd firmly set in the DCU.  Morrison and others pushed the envelope of what the DCU was capable of, and while not everything worked (most things didn't), it felt like DC was trying.

Marvel got through the Harras Era, and the awkward punk phase of Jemas and Quezada produced some lifeblood back into Marvel, Ultimate comics providing a blueprint for what the mainstream Marvel comics could be.  And Marvel has, upon occasion, put out some really good stuff.  But it's gotten so hampered with New #1's, cross-overs and relaunches that - as a guy keeping only one eye on Marvel, I can't be bothered with it.

At DC. the New 52 seemed like an editorial step way, way back from all that.  To stick us back at the point where we were when The Clone Saga seemed like a neat idea (hey, and it just happens to be Bob Harras steering DC the past three years as Editor-in-Chief).

The field seems caught in this weird state where they're writing for this really specific demographic, of which I am not a part, and never really was.

New Comics

I don't read digital comics for the most part.  It's just not how I spend my time online, and the output hasn't been steady enough from web-only comics to keep me returning.

I check my Austin Books weekly email and have the store set aside books for me, I go in about once a month or for special events.  It's really rare that I come in on a Wednesday just because it's "new comics day".

The reasons for my diminished interest in seeking out new stuff on the shelf are legion (and I'm just giving my perspective, not some universal perspective), but some are:
  • I've been around long enough on this orb that it takes more than some well rendered panels or a wacky hook to convince me to try a comic.  Fool me once, fine.  Fool me for three decades on a nigh-monthly basis, well, buddy...  I need good word of mouth or trusted creators.
  • $4 is a lot of money for 20 pages of decompressed storytelling.  $5 is even more, Marvel.
  • Crippling realization that I wasn't ever going to be able to read all this stuff, so wasn't going to pretend like I was going to if I just spent all of my money...
  • When it comes to non-Big 2 comics - I see a lot of ideas forcefully crammed together, which was a clever thing maybe 10 years ago.  Now it feels like it's been done to death.
  • Pre-awareness of a concept can sell books.  I'm picking up Star Trek meets Planet of the Apes, but I also can walk past a whole lot of licensed stuff without even turning my head since I know I don't care about the franchise.
  • I kind of like what I like at this point.  I'll pick up something new if the right reason strikes me, but I'm spending plenty of money on comics.
I was thinking a bit about this last point as I was considering what I'll be picking up in future months.  Superman.  Captain America.  Even those new Marvel Star Wars titles.

Princess Leia, action hero, by Mark Waid?  To whom do I give my money?

I've tried and liked some New Avengers.  The new Rocket Raccoon title is worth checking out.  Bob's Burgers has been a hoot.  I have to give it up to Geoff Johns and Romita, Jr., because they finally breathed life into New 52 Superman which had gotten just awful.  And while I'm only reading it in collections, Wonder Woman under Azzarello was a worthy entry, even if it challenged me as a Wonder Woman fan.  As always, Garth Ennis' war comics from Dynamite were fantastic.

I pick up the Fantagraphics trades of Carl Barks and Don Rosa's Donald Duck and Uncle Scrooge comics.  And I've picked some stuff of Chris Roberson's that's made it into trade paperback (he's still a great writer across genres).  I was reading The Shadow when Roberson was on, but Dynamite is struggling with the character or license or something, so I've kind of quit paying attention to new Shadow material.

Old Comics

But I've also been spending time, money and effort on my "collection" as it were.  Even as I've gotten rid of comics, I have some goals for my actual "collection", so it's a curated, managed thing rather than "here's several thousand comics".  In the end, when I croak or need to get rid of my comics, the value of the collection will ultimately be better for the next owner if it's well-managed.  And I like this stuff, so it's not like I'm giving up on comics.  It's just another way of staying in the hobby.

I would literally rather spend money on this random Superman comic I Googled than 98% of what is out there.

These days I'm basically working on collections of:
  • Action Comics
  • Superman
  • Superman's Pal, Jimmy Olsen
  • Superman's Girlfriend, Lois Lane
  • Wonder Woman - Vol. 2 (the stuff beginning in 1987 or so)
and appearances of Enemy Ace across the dozens of titles where the character has shown up, from Our Army at War to Detective Comics.

I've also been picking up some Superboy and Adventure Comics issues, as I'm grabbing back issues with Krypto on the cover as I tumble across them.  

I'm fortunate to have a local comic shop with an astounding back-issue selection that seems to obtain a lot of the kind of stuff I'mm looking for, if not in one area (Wonder Woman), then another (Jimmy Olsen tends to trickle in).  I've broken my ban on purchasing back issues online, because some stuff just never shows up, or shows up at a really low price point.

Look, after doing for a long time, I'm invested in some of these properties/ characters in a manner that's pretty different from being entertained for a few minutes of reading.  Someone, somewhere along the way did their job properly, enough so that I think of these comics in a totally different way from the newer stuff.   In case you hadn't picked up on it, buying, reading and managing my Superman collection is a different thing for me than dealing with New Comic Wednesday.  And that isn't really a bad thing.  That's a point I think a lot of comic readers hit if they stick with it.

All this to say...

So, I still love comics.  But not in this "Everybody love comics!  Indiscriminately!" way tumblr keeps selling me.  

I never just liked comics just to like comics.  It's a medium.  I don't love all paintings, or all radio shows or all movies or all of TV.  I don't love "comics" for existing, I endorse them as a legitimate form of narrative storytelling and art, which was not commonly accepted fifteen years ago.

I'll get in my rocker, sit on the porch of comics and shake my fist a little here, but being told to love something just for existing doesn't work.  I won't confuse celebrating "trying" with "showing up and making a comic, even one that's awful".  Horse hockey.  I want artists and writers who are reaching down deep to tell a story, whether it's original and creator owned, or whether it's an assignment for DC or Marvel.  Especially at the price of a new comic these days.

If it's creator owned comic, dammit, do not just show me your clever spin on something I've already seen 10,000 times before.  If you're going to do that, you better be really damn good, and you better have something new to say.  Otherwise, come up with something weird or which looks or behaves different from everything else on the shelf.

And if it IS an assignment for DC or Marvel , do some @#$%ing research.  Don't phone it in.  Know the characters and know why that character works - because your audience does know.  Dig deep.  I'm not asking for All Star Superman every month, but I want to feel like you're not just marking time on the title.  And, if it is all you have to say on Superman - get off the book.

And, for god's sake, no more hashing into Batman's origin.  Just tell a new story in which he acts as a detective and then punches someone.

For that matter, not all characters are Batman-lite, no matter what Dan Didio thinks.

I can't tell you how much I miss comics not being about themselves.  I never used to know what that meant, but boy howdy, has the post New 52 DCU ever climbed right up it's own butt.  For as basically good as Wonder Woman is under Azzarello, it's still very much about Wonder Woman solving Wonder Woman's family issues - not really about hero-ing (still, if you're gonna do this, be at least this good).

I'll be watching DC over the next few months.  I have a few pet theories about what a post-West Coast move/ post-Convergence DC Comics might look like, but I'm not watching DC all that closely these days as a company, so I'm loathe to make any solid predictions.  

I am basically able to pick up a few monthly titles out of habit, and it's so few at this point, it's nothing I feel guilty about.  I am moderately served as a longtime fan of specific properties, even if I'm dropping Meredith Finch's Wonder Woman like a hot potato.*

But I'll say this - and this is my blog, so I can:  I shouldn't walk around the comic shop and feel bored.  But that's how I feel looking at the racks of new comics.  The back issue bins shouldn't feel like the place where the interesting stuff is happening.

When I watch TV, I'm not a CSI, Two and a Half Men kind of viewer.  That doesn't mean I have some amazing critical eye, but I don't find anything with which to engage on these programs written for easy laughs or to wrap up a murder in 44 minutes of screentime.  And I don't have to care about how popular those shows are.  They aren't for me.  But give me a Mad Men or The Americans (or, I'm two episodes in to Peaky Blinders and holy shit, y'all), and I'm your huckleberry.  Give me something I can work with, not something I won't remember two seconds after it's done.

yeah, yeah.  I'm still on about Mad Men.  Welcome back to The Signal Watch.

I don't know too many comics that are even trying for that level of storytelling - with nuance and character and plots I have to wade through in hip boots.  The 80's gave us comics that made "Best Of" on book lists for 20 years - and many of those came from Marvel and DC.  I don't see too many comics out there even trying for that sort of thing.

From 10 years of blogging and industry watching, I always knew there would be a point at which I just wasn't going to be that interested in new stuff hitting the shelf.  I want to be challenged as a reader.  I want to see what comics can do.  I don't care about all new #1s or a retread of one of Dan Didio's four ideas he trots out like clockwork.

We'll see what 2015 brings.  We're due for something better.

*that first issue was terrible.


horus said...

"At the age when I should have been throwing in the towel, comics decided to grow up with me. I came into comics as Watchmen and Dark Knight Returns were happening and pushing everyone in the comic market to try harder."


Jake Shore said...

Based on what I've read on your blog over the last few years, I wasn't as into comics as you were. And I never collected comics as much as you did, so the separation from comics wasn't as dramatic for me.

I had very little patience for comics when they started to suck and got easily discouraged when I tried to test the waters and the continuity was all over the place.

After high school, I flirted with Image Comics, and was pretty much done. Then one day, while in the Marines, I walked by a comic book store and saw that awesome teaser poster for Kingdom Come - you know the one with the Spectre looking down at images rising from his hand, with the tagline, "The dreamer, The Thunder, The Bat, The Eagle, The Angel." And that sucked me back into comics and forced me to familiarize myself with the as yet mostly untouched DC universe.

Then I was out again. The Ultimate titles sucked me in again for a short time, but collecting Marvel required getting sucked into these giant cross-over events, and again I said "no thanks." Then DC started to look interesting with All-Star Superman and New Frontier. Unfortunately, the New 52 followed and was (and is) as you described. And I've been out ever since.

I'll be checking out Marvel's Star Wars, as well, but at this point, it would take something radical to suck me into comics again.

I still like to tinker with my collection which is only around a thousand or so. But I imagine it feels good to unload some of that stuff. With the state of things, however, it will be years before you work off that store credit.