Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Rant: The State of the Industry

Or: "The Good Die Young, The Bad Cash In"

This is the central paradox of mainstream comics, and why they frustrate me so: very often, quality is inversely proportionate to status and market position. That is to say, solid and well-written series will find themselves pushed to the fringe, barely making 10K, while material that isn't fit to line bird cages pulls in twenty times as much. And why? Because the latter is a superhero story, and the former is not.

Now, I'll preface the rest of this post by reiterating that I do, in fact, enjoy the superhero genre and what it has to offer. Some people tend to reject it altogether, but IMO, there's no point in casting down an entire genre - even if 99% of the output is garbage, there will always be something that transcends the limitations, something you can point to and say "This is why I like it." It's very, very easy to bash the superhero genre for its excesses, but by doing so, you're also dismissing James Robinson's "Starman", Warren Ellis' "Stormwatch", and, of course, Alan Moore's "Watchmen", among many others.

The problem here doesn't really lie within the genre itself, but rather how the industry has fetishized it to the point where anything that is not superheroes won't survive in the market. Conversely, those non-superhero books - the ones that are consciously moving out of the generic paradigms to try something new - are often superior to their spandex peers. I mean, if we're looking at them strictly in terms of quality, there's absolutely no reason why "Hard Time" has been cancelled again with June's issue #7; no reason why "Small Gods" or "H-E-R-O" or "Deadenders" were cut short. And yet they languished at the ass-end of the charts until the plug was pulled, while books with no redeeming features whatsoever (such as "All-Star Batman") reign supreme.

There's something wrong with that model, isn't there? Superheroes have basically become an all-purpose shield: however inferior the writer, however cliched the premise, there's a guaranteed level of sales any such book will achieve strictly because of the genre it's situated in. Quality isn't even a factor; just throw a crossover or a variant cover in there and shazam, instant top-seller. Meanwhile, the very act of stepping outside the box requires that you come up with a radically good idea - you're going up against the force that's ruled the industry for a good handful of decades - but once the book's on the shelf, it doesn't matter how good or innovative or interesting it is. It just won't sell. It won't even be a blip on the radar. And more often than not, the story will end up being shortened, hacked apart or just plain dropped midway through.

Come to think of it, that might explain why readers are so hesitant to try a non-superhero story from a superhero-oriented company: the underlying assumption will always be that it won't last anyway, and why get invested in a story that has no guaranteed continuation, the way we expect Batman or Spider-Man to always be in print? It's a self-fulfilling, self-defeating prophecy, and both DC and Marvel contribute to this by underpromoting and deprioritizing their non-superhero work: when they later lament the fact that the readers don't want anything else, they conveniently miss the fact that they've contributed to this mindset by not pushing the books harder.

Regardless of how much hand-wringing and whining Joe Quesada does on a weekly basis, the bottom line is that the companies are, to a large degree, responsible for the trends in the mainstream. Comic readers tend to be incredibly passive in this sense; they follow whatever the administrations dictate. When Jemas was running Marvel, he stressed turning away from everything that had characterized Marvel in the '90s, and for a while this was what readers wanted to see: postmodern, intelligent stories that more often than not poked fun at their ancestors. A big, sprawling crossover a la "Onslaught" was beyond the pale, and there was no outcry for it either. But once Dan Buckley green-lighted "Avengers Disassembled", the floodgates were open, and that became what the masses wanted. Likewise with DC: prior to that issue of "Hush", the idea of variant covers making a comeback was unthinkable. Then DC ran one, and another, and Marvel joined in, and sales went up, and before you knew it every other issue of every other series was getting special "sell-out" variant covers that ranged from sketches to alternate poses to black-and-white to foil.

This is why I place the blame for failed non-superhero books squarely on the companies' shoulders: because when they condescend to step outside the box, their efforts are deliberately half-hearted, and the market responds accordingly. If it's an individual book like "Hard Time", they just don't promote it or do anything to ensure high sales (look, kids! Variant cover by Jim Lee!). If it's an entire imprint like "Marvel Next", the writers assigned are complete unknowns who usually aren't much more than "average" in terms of skill. And then everyone's shocked that nobody embraces these characters. Would things have been different had "Arana" been written by Tamora Pierce or Tania Del Rio? Would "Gravity" have made a bigger splash if it had been written by Joss Whedon?

As a critic, it's increasingly difficult for me to reconcile my love of comics with the notion that it's so creatively restrictive, a place where any attempt to step out of generic restrictions is penalized with abrupt cancellation. And while I don't blame the superhero genre for being what it is, I can't help but feel a little resentful towards the readers, editors and administrators who contribute to stamping out anything that doesn't fit within the cookie-cutter frame.

Someone once said that in today's market, "Sandman" wouldn't have made it past issue 12. I find myself incredibly saddened to agree with that sentiment.