Tuesday, January 10, 2006

The Death of Comic Books

For a person who often is associated with comic books, I've barely touched on the subject here in my itty-bitty nook of the interweb. A lot of that has to do with the fact that I stopped collecting them. When I write "collecting" I mean it in the sense that I don't buy single issues on a regular basis, letting my obsessive-compulsive side get the better of my wallet and what little unused space my etcetera-saturated, humble abode has. It's been a couple of years since I stopped going to conventions, looking for those elusive back issues to series that I yearned to have in order to fill the missing holes that plagued my life---Aztek: The Ultimate Man #9, for instance---even though I'd long ago stopped reading them. Why I stopped collecting isn't a story of a triumph of the human will over its own body's miserable, debilitating habits; while I was quite the fanboy, I never had it that badly. Between the ages of 11 and 20 I probably amassed two thousand comics at most---and that's a generous guestimate---which pales in comparison to the eight to ten thousand comics a couple people I know now have stored in long cardboard boxes. Rather, this has more to do with my own maturing coupled with the evolution of an industry that has, since the mid-1950s to the mid-1990s, been more-or-less stuck in perpetual pre-adolescence.

A Very, Very Brief History of the American Comics Industry Since 1954, or Why Comics are the Way they are (More-or-Less, as I Know it)

A number of you may already know about the Seduction of the Innocent scandal---Dr. Fredric Wertheim's well intended, but misdirected book associating juvenile delinquency with comic books. In the aftermath of the book's publication were some instances of parents burning their kids' comics, congressional hearings, and eventually the industry's own establishment of the Comics Code Authority. The Comics Code, which had a similar purpose to the MPAA's rating system, was meant to be a symbol of which comics were appropriate for kids, and which comics were lurid drivel. (Some examples of rules the CCA laid down are "In every instance good shall triumph over evil and the criminal punished for his misdeeds," " No comic magazine shall use the word 'horror' or 'terror' in its title," "All characters shall be depicted in dress reasonably acceptable to society." Obviously some rules were adhered to more strictly than others.)

Amid all the hoopla surrounding the Wertheim's book, the fact that a fairly large part of the comics reading audience were older---former G.I.'s from World War II, for example---was simply forgotten about. Sales that were already slumping due to the bad publicity, but when the Code virtually dictated that the content of comics be geared toward children, the industry lost another significant portion of its readership.

Once the Code was instituted, pretty much every comics publisher finagled their stable of comics to adhere to the new rules. Not having the CCA stamp of approval was the kiss of death for a comic book. Your average corner store wouldn't carry comics that were missing the CCA logo on their covers for fear of being accused of selling obscene material to children by overzealous parents. And at a time when newsstand and drugstore sales were the driving retail force of the industry---comic book specialty stores weren't conceived of at this point---that meant if you didn't have a CCA stamp adorning your books, you couldn't sell any comics.

One conspiracy theory has it that the rules of the CCA were drawn up specifically to put EC Comics out of business. EC Comics was one of the most popular and successful comics publishers of the time, churning out mainly crime and horror comics, which featured a number of things explicitly banned by the CCA. In the end EC's only publication to survive was MAD Magazine.

The death of EC Comics left the racks open for superhero and romance comics to proliferate. Eventually most of the romance comics fell by the wayside and superheroes became pretty much the only game in town (resulting in comics readership being almost exclusively male). And this was the way things stayed for about 35 years, with a couple of exceptions. First, there was a fairly successful underground comics movement in the 1960s---its most famous patron being R. Crumb---which is known mainly for acting as an outlet for subversive political and sexual ideas, though it appears to have had relatively minimal impact on popular culture. Second, in the mid-to-late-1980s there was a shift in the market and some comics began to skew toward some darker themes. DC comics began publishing dark fantasy and horror comics again with the likes of Swamp Thing as written by Alan Moore and Sandman by Neil Gaiman. Meanwhile Marvel helped establish the anti-hero as the most popular type of protagonist in superhero comics---the Punisher and Wolverine being the two most recognizable characters in this mode.

It was also around this time that the distribution system changed, comics became increasingly scarce at newsstands and corner stores, while at the same time comics specialty stores began setting up shop. This new direct market was partially the result of kids who'd grown up reading comics and never stopped. As adults they were able to hold onto their childhood hobby by turning it into a profession, turning into collector--purveyors. At the same time the comics that a lot of people collected as kids in the 1960s had been thrown out by parents. Propelled perhaps at first by nostalgia or an obsession to fill out gaps in a collection, but later as much by these motivations as pure capitalism, the comics collectors began searching for those now rare, old comics from yesteryear, and thus the back-issue market was born. Rare back-issues became valuable commodities due to their relatively high demand.

Through the luck of a well made Batman movie and a little publicity, the John Q. Public now knew that (a) comics still existed and (b) some of them were worth more than a Benz. The result was a huge influx of new comics buyers. While a number of them were in it for the fun of reading and collecting, there was also a strong contingent of speculators---people who bought comics based on their promise for future value with the goal of reselling them at huge profits. The problem here was that speculators were buying multiple copies of comics that they thought would be worth a pile of money later on, while at the same time the number of collectors skyrocketed. Over the next couple of years print runs went through the roof, to the point where copies of supposedly landmark comics like Superman #75 (the issue where Superman dies) and X-Men #1 sold multiple millions of copies. Of course, this threw the supply and demand equation all out of whack. More comics existed in the market than potential buyers. All of those comics people bought, with the expectation that they'd one day be able to sell them and retire, were actually worth bupkiss because everyone already had multiple copies of them.

While all this was going on, what did the major comics publishers do? They had a gift-horse dropped in their lap---rapidly increasing audience and profits, which seemed to be based on the fact that comics were worth money. They flooded the market with "collectors items" and replications of proven formulas: issues with limited edition alternate covers; new spin-offs of popular series that allowed for those big sales of coveted #1 issues slavered over by collectors; team-ups; big slug-fests; and copycat artists who swiped the styles of the most popular artists of the time. In the end, most of what was produced were poorly written and poorly drawn, schlocky power fantasies. Good storytelling was out the door in favor of gimmicks in order to make a quick buck. Once the collectors got wise to what was going on (and it took a couple of years, 'cause lets face it, fanboys aren't necessarily the swiftest cats in the barrel), they stopped buying. After all, who would want a bad piece of art that wasn't worth the paper it was printed on? Publishers went from selling hundreds of thousands of copies per issue of their most popular titles, to tens of thousands. The market went bust. Big time. Marvel Comics, the biggest comics publisher in the nation, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy by the mid-1990s, and comic stores all over the nation started closing shop.

At this point, the companies really had nothing to lose. A number of industry insiders were predicting the death of comics in the next five to ten years. An editorial shake-up at Marvel coincided with its financial reorganization. Over-hyped team-ups, big crossover events, and embossed covers were out. Fresh faces who'd cut their teeth in a re-surging indie comics scene, or in other media, were in. Emphasis was put on good, old fashioned storytelling rather than market trends. Companies' flagship comics that had been mired in stories requiring knowledge of years of continuity had been replaced with fresh spins on characters and clever new takes on old ideas. "Relaunch" was the word of the day.

The success of the first Matrix and X-Men movies put comics back in the spotlight of the mainstream press. Coming to terms with an audience that was closer to an 18-to-35 year-old demographic than the 8-to-14 year-old age group that comics had a reputation for serving, made publishers realize that making comics aimed at 8-to-14 year-olds probably wasn't the best way to move units. Since the mid-1980s the comics industry began catering increasingly to this older set of readers, but it wasn't until the late 1990s and early 2000s that major publisher's mainstream titles began to, in terms of tone and subject matter, regularly tackle more complex political, emotional, psychological, and sexual issues. (Here are some examples. Marvel Comics began its Marvel Knights imprint, which published Daredevil stories tackling issues like death and child abuse; Black Panther plot lines had him hunting down the killer of the poster child for a humanitarian aid organization while at the same time negotiating his way through a coup de tat of his throne; a post-9/11 Captain America re-evaluates his purpose as an American symbol and America's role in an increasingly tension-filled global society. Meanwhile, the other big gun, DC Comics, publishes the likes of Kingdom Come, a critique of the popular anti-hero figure within mainstream comics, with near photo-realistic watercolor paintings as its interior art; its Wildstorm imprint launches, Ex Machina, a series about a fictional mayor of New York---and former superhero---and his political doings; Vertigo (DC's imprint geared specifically to mature readers) finally escapes from the shadow of its most popular titles, Sandman and Preacher, to establish itself with a diverse stable of books including Y: The Last Man (a dramedy/adventure dealing mainly with the politics of sex and gender) and Lucifer (a series that delves into postmodern definitions of good and evil); and Alan Moore's ABC imprint, which explores a variety of pulp genre's, but manages to analyze them all in Promethea, a philosophical discussion of the origins of storytelling and its purpose, wrapped in the guise of a sci-fi fantasy. Meanwhile, smaller publishers are getting in on the adult action too. Dark Horse continued to publish the likes of Frank Miller's Sin City and reprint landmark manga like Akira and Lone Wolf and Cub. Pantheon, Top Shelf, Drawn and Quarterly, and Fantagraphics all have been working to publish more literary works that have garnered incredible critical praise and true mainstream press attention, such as Jimmy Corrigan, Persepolis, Box Office Poison, Blankets, Berlin, and Safe Area Gorazde. The list goes on. I've yet to even mention Image Comics, AIT/Planet Lar, or SLG.)

Bookstores wised up about the same time as comics publishers and began setting up small sections in stores dedicated to graphic novels and collected editions of serials. For the first time in over a decade, comic books were finally available in relatively large quantities outside of comics specialty shops. Needless to say, this extra exposure (along with the films and write-ups in publications like the New York Times Book Review) helped draw in new readers, and a new type of audience---the casual reader. The advent of the collected editions and one-off original graphic novels, meant that people could pick up a book, go home and read it, and not be left hanging for the continuation of the story until the next issue came out a month later. They got the whole story in one shot and never had to get in the habit of making monthly or weekly trips to the comics shop to finish a story. It seems like a small thing, increasing the page count of a comic book, but moving from novelties to novels has slowly begun a massive shift in the comics industry.


fishbaine said...

check out the most recent issue of "New York" magazine, the one with 123 reasons to love new york. on the page with 20 some odd young people that says something like, "because in the next five years, some of these people will be justly famous" or something, one or two of them are "graphic novelists." i didn't really put two and two together at the time- just thought it was a hip new art-form. really it's not new at all.
that was a fascinating documentation of the history of the comic. i'm gonna go read that copy of sandman that's been sitting unread on my shelf for the past two years now.

Ben said...

Wait, Superman died?

Flushy McBucketpants said...

Yeah. He was killed off in 1993. It was a huge event in the comics world. He, of course, was restored to his proper place in the DC Universe after about a year. Though he had long hair fora while...

Anna said...

That was very well written. I have absolutely no interest in comics whatsoever, but I found myself unable to stop reading. Kudos on the excellent writing and vast knowledge of the illustrated storytelling world.

Ben said...

I guess it was a failed attempt, but my previous comment was meant to be sarcasm. Damn this tone-less medium!
I, of course, read the death of Superman (and the following drivel with the Eradicator, the cyborg, Steel, and all that crap). I found it to be a major letdown in many ways, not the least of which was the fact that he wasn't really dead, due to reasons beyond my comprehension.
On a related note, here is an interesting essay on the flaws in modern comic books.

Flushy McBucketpants said...

I would have thought you'd read the Death of Superman... but didn't want to make an ass of myself, if you catch my drift... though it looks like I did anyway. But, yes, sarcasm is a sticky wicket here in cyberspace.

As to the flaws in modern comics, I get where the author this article is coming from, but I think he's missing the point. I mean, yes, I suppose the continuity problems are a flaw, but frankly after 70+ years of stories, you'd have a little continuity cleaning to do. Also, just because you've grown tired of a character after reading it for a few years, doesn't mean everyone is tired of it. The fact that Superman doesn't change in any significant way is important for his character. If he did change, he wouldn't be an icon, he'd be transient. Transient things aren't icons by definition. This episodic independence, as he calls it, is tricky. If you have episodic independence (and I'm pretty sure there are some instances where it occurs in Superman comics, and certainly in many DC comics and most Marvel comics) then you essentially have stagnant characters. Everything in the end goes back to the status quo, therefore nothing is ever truly learned.

I would like to point out that there are storylines where Superman grows. Two of them are the stories that the author uses as his examples. For instance his marriage to Lois: Certain sexual tensions are resolved, Superman has a greater sense of security in his personal life. Does it make for good drama? That depends on how it's written. Regarding the Death of Superman, the ramifications of his death are felt for at least a couple of years after his return. He realizes that he too is mortal. He suffers from lack of confidence as he comes to terms with the idea that he can be wholly defeated.

If you're going to complain about modern comics, don't complain about continuity, which is trivial bullshit for the most part. Complain about lack if ingenuity, or innovation, or shitty generic art, or flooding the market with superhero books instead of taking some real risks on truly new formats, new creators...new ideas!

Flushy McBucketpants said...

And thank you, Anna. I tried to make it clear and concise and not too boring. I'm glad I did okay by you, as you, I suppose, were really my target audience regarding all this history stuff.

Flushy McBucketpants said...

... and one more note. Regarding this "massive shift" I mention in the last line of this entry, I refer to a shift to the OGN (original graphic novel), which I think will eventually become the driving force of the industry. OGNs have a longer shelf life, don't require a ton of prior knowledge to be able to read, and seem to accommodate more varied subject matter more easily (no real page restrictions, fewer format restrictions, etc.). Not that I think the serials will die off any time soon. I just think that they will evetuanlly become marginalized in the comics industry , or at least, function mostly as previews to an eventual collection.

leanordgibson4326 said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Ben said...

When you rail against episodic characters, you argue exactly for what the article does. You say that they do not grow, and his point is that neither do icons. While an episodic charater requires an implicit understanding on the part of the reader to work, so too does an icon.
You are right when you say that transient things aren't icons, but icons are also not good characters; they tend to be flat and predictable. The Statue of Liberty is an icon, and it's perfect because we don't sit down and watch it. There's no story there, but there's no expectation of story, either. "Fighting for truth, justice, and the American way" is a swell mantra, but it's not a life. You see this often in television: what happens when a character becomes his or her catch phrases? I'm not speaking only of fictional characters, even. Look at what's become of John Madden, for example. He's gone from an insightful broadcaster to a parody.
I know you'll say that he's become that, just as all this type of character does, because that's what we want. We like it, so they do it, right? Agreed, but what we need is not necessarily what we want. We all like it when the hero triumphs over easy and gets the girl, because it's easy and it feels good. But that doesn't make it robust. And even if it's a good story the first time around, after a while, it'll get old.

Ben said...

Also, does the day to day life of a park ranger always involve keeping bears from stealing pic-a-nic baskets, or is that only a Jellystone thing?

Flushy McBucketpants said...

My intention was not to rail against episodic independence.

Let me re-word my points.

1. The author of this essay makes some gross generalizations about "popular modern comics." Marvel has never had to have a big revamping of their coninuity. Many of their titles have a lot of character development: X-Men, Daredevil, and even Spider-Man. While there seems to be a back-to-basics/relaunch of the characters ever 10 years or so, I don't see that as anything to complain about. Wiping the slate can be good for fresh takes on the characters and allow them to shoot off in previously uncharted territory.

2. After 60+ years of stories involving hundreds of writers and artists, and dozens of editors, you're bound to have problems with continuity, especially when the main characters in your story don't really age.

3. The author of this essay concludes that episodic independence (which he claims that most modern comics lack) is a good solution to character growth problem (or lack-thereof). I argue that it really isn't, as after every episode/storyline everything reverts to the status quo and thus everything remains stagnant. And, in fact, despite our author's claim to the contrary, this is really how most "popular modern comics" function. One example of this is the Death of Superman story, which he uses as an example of a non-story. However, within the Death/Return of Superman, there's quite a bit of character development and tension (something inherent in stories that are not boring). A world mourns the death of its hero; Lois must deal with the loss of a loved one, while at the same time sorting out the mess of the four imposters, which causes her a fair amount of stress; Superman, upon his return is a changed character. Whereas before he was basically invincible, now his life seems almost as precarious as anyone elses--it shows his humanity. At the same time, the basic status quo of their circumstances of living is more or less the same as before the whole event. Superman is back to living his double-life, defending justice, etc.: the adventures of Superman continue.

4. For certain characters, there's nothing wrong with adhering to the status quo. It's more-or-less worked for Superman for 68 years (constant minor changes aside). People still buy and read the stories he's in and they seem to still like them. A little good triumphing over evil seems to work pretty well for some people.

5. There are a number of modern comics that don't adhere to a status quo, or require continuity revisions every five years. Here's a list for you: Y The Last Man, Powers, Preacher, Sandman, Pop Gun War, We3, Transmetropolitan, Promethea, Top 10, 100 Bullets, Box Office Poison, Strangers in Paradise, Blankets, Berlin, Safe Area Gorazde, Persepolis, Torso, Jinx, Fortune and Glory, Kabuki, Jar of Fools, Ex Machina, Palestine, V for Vendetta, Hicksville, Starman, Astro City... the list goes on. There are hundreds of comics out there that satisfy the criteria that this author seems to think would make for good comics. My advice is stop reading stuff that you don't like and read stuff you do like.

As a side note, frankly, I thought that out of all those overhyped crossover events, the Death and Return was one of the best. In hindsight it may seem a little silly and melodramatic, but overall, I actually think it holds up pretty well. There's a ton of action and excitement, and yes, even some character development.

Ben said...

First let me say that I have no stake in that article. But I think the author's point is that the modern comic book, as a generalization, lacks character growth. Plus, I think he's focusing more on the comic heyday of the 90's.
My point, on the other hand, is that too many comic writers simply rely on the same mechanical story lines and slap a nifty cover on it with a cool image and text like "The Killinator Gets His Revenge". "Good over evil" can be a good story -- just as any story can be -- in the right hands, but when you have an entire medium predicated on that theme, it cheapens that medium. I'm sure there are many who want the escapism and simplicity of good over evil, but literature need not be simple. I grant that Sturgeon's Law (90% of everything is crap) applies, and that there are nuggets of gold amongst the chaff. But too many of the big books are afraid to take those risks. Even when they do, some later event comes along to fix the changes. How many times has a new X-Men story (for example) overwritten what happened in previous stories, thereby rending invalid any chances taken therein? We could go all the way back to the Dark Phoenix Saga, or jump ahead to more recent events with Wolverine losing, but subsequently regaining, his Adamantium. Too often comic writers resort to deus ex machina to make things okay. And I think this is because too many of the writers come in wanting to write the kind of stories they read as kids, and they want to retain the characters that they remember. But that's not daring, and it doesn't make for good stories.
And as far as the overhyped super events go, you mean to tell me you didn't love the Marvel vs. DC crossover? That's sarcasm, by the way. Wolverine beat Lobo, for Pete's sake!

Flushy McBucketpants said...

Yes, I get the author's point and I'm saying that, really, that's not so bad (see #4 in my response above). I'm also saying his suggested solution isn't really a solution to the problem he seems to be pin-pointing (see #3). I would also argue that character development has NEVER been a major component of mainstream comics. This is not a purely modern issue. Mainstream comics have always been plot driven, at least ever since Superman appeared in the 1930s. On the whole, it's never been about daring stories. It's about formula and hype. As for this deus ex machina business, most main characters in mainstream comics are the deus ex machina. And anyway, you have to remember that comics were geared more-or-less exclusively toward kids for about 40 years. And what excites an 11 year-old won't necessarily appeal to a 20-something in terms of story contents. Remember Voltron? Remember how great that show seemed when you were 8? It was the same story with different monsters every episode. Yet, we still watched it and enjoyed it. It was still exciting. Just because it's repetition doesn't appeal to our adult sensibilities, doesn't mean that it was a poorly constructed show. It entertained millions of kids. There was no character development there.

As for the medium--at least in America--in terms of variety of content, it's expanding at an incredibly rapid rate. There are multiple publishers that are producing comics one could find in any book store that have nothing to do with good vs. evil, at least in that black-and-white, men-in-tights-beating-the-shit-out-of-each-other way. I can give you another list in addition to the comics I've listed above, if you're interested. People who are complaining about lack of anything in American comics right now aren't paying attention to what's happening in the medium. If you specifically want Marvel or DC comics with character development, then read Bendis's run on Daredevil, Priest's run on Black Panther, Astro City, James Robinson's Starman, Top 10, Promethea, Powers, Gotham Central, Guardians, Sentinel, Marz's Green Lantern, and, yes, even Aztek: The Ultimate Man. Those are just some examples from Marvel and DC. That doesn't cover any other publishers--Image, Dark Horse, Fantagraphics, Top Shelf, or Drawn & Quarterly.

I would argue that mainstream comics have more well-rounded characters now than at any other point in comics history. Do they have a fairly long way to go? Sure. But for a fairly young medium with a stunted growth, that's not a bad start. As you said, "too many of the writers come in wanting to write the kind of stories they read as kids." Well there's a whole stable of writers in mainstream comics who grew up reading Watchmen, Ronin, and the Dark Knight Returns. Complexity is the new khaki.

Ben said...

First of all, you leave Voltron out of this, you bastard! He's done nothing to you but give his love, and this is how you repay him?
While I know that comics have been aimed at kids since the Golden Age, that doesn't make my point that they were simplistic any less true. Perhaps it provides some mitigating circumstances, but kids can handle things that aren't simple, too. Go read "Dear Mr. Henshaw" by Beverly Cleary if you doubt me. That books for ages 9-12, but it just might blow your twentysomething mind.
I agree that the sun is rising on the realm of comics, though; never has there been this much quality work coming out. And there even seems to be some legitimization going on, which is vital, because I put little faith in Marvel or DC. Perhaps Marvel and DC have learned their lessons, but I can't help but feel like it took them too long to do so, and if they are slow on the uptake once, what's to stop it from happening again?

Flushy McBucketpants said...

I agree that Marvel and DC are certainly holding the industry back. However, they do have their moments. Marvel is publishing Kabuki now, which is probably the most artistically experimental narrative comic around, and DC's Vertigo imprint, while still generally producing genre work, continually publishes books with real depth in terms of story, characters, and themes.

The future of the medium is in publishers like Pantheon and Top Shelf, which publish truly mainstream comics--comics that almost everyone, rather than solely males ages 18-30, can enjoy.

As for Voltron, I do believe giant robots fighting giant monsters may have been the greatest idea ever in the history of ideas.