Thursday, January 27, 2011
Back that thing up
Not that long ago, as prices on comics started to rise to $3.99, companies were looking for ways to justify the price increase. Before DC decided to reduce their page count to 20 pages and the price to $2.99 and Marvel decided to, uh, randomly reduce certain titles to $2.99 but ignore the rest of their line, the main solution seemed to be back ups.
DC bombarded the market with back ups, including Blue Beetle, Metal Men, Black Canary, the Question, and Legion of Super Heroes. All of the back ups were for characters with devoted followings, but not followings large enough to support an ongoing. The hope was that not only would fans find that they were getting their money’s worth, but that featuring these cult favorites would drive sales on these titles. Despite using some top notch creative talent, like Greg Rucka, Geoff Johns and Cully Hamner, the back ups were largely met with indifference.
The only one of these back ups to generate any real buzz was Metal Men, by the JLI team of J.M. Demattis, Keith Giffen, and Kevin Maguire. Many, myself included, thought it was better than the Doom Patrol stories it shared a book with. DC was certainly more public with their efforts, but Marvel quietly got in on the act as well. Captain America began running a back up starring Nomad, an obscure alternate universe Bucky. And in Bendis’ Avengers titles, we got a text piece about the history of the Avengers through a faux book about their history. DC recently released two new back ups, a Jimmy Olsen story by Nick Spencer and R.B. Silva and a Commissioner Gordon back up by Scott Snyder and Francesco Francavilla. On top of this Marvel is putting additional material in the Amazing Spider-Man every month by top tier talent like Dan Slott and Fred Van Lente.
However, it seems that the days of back ups are coming to an end. DC’s switch to $2.99 have cut their page count by 2 and killed their remaining back ups. The remaining chapters of their current back ups are being burned off in one shots. Comics fans on the internet seem to be disappointed, but as Thor the Mighty Avenger fans can attest, that doesn’t really seem to matter that much. While I understand the logic of this publishing decision to cut back on content to keep prices static, it’s a bit aggravating for me, as it seems they finally nailed how to run a back up feature. The Jimmy Olsen and Commissioner Gordon back ups really seemed to find a way to make the format work. They were really enjoyable and complimented the tone, if not the content of the main story. The loss of Jimmy Olsen, in particular, is tragic. It was my favorite thing that Nick Spencer has written thus far, had amazing art, and a ton of goofy fun, something that is dreadfully missing from mainstream super hero comics.
Even better, both of these back ups seemed to find a way to integrate themselves into the main story without being obtrusive. The presence of vultures on Dick Grayson’s balcony in Detective Comics is ominous and creepy if you read just that story, but if you read the back up you find out that all the birds got released from the zoo. Wondering who the sniveling LexCorp lackey is in Action Comics? Why he’s Jimmy’s arch nemesis in the back ups. It was a nice, subtle way to integrate the backups beyond simple tone that wasn’t in the least obtrusive, but rewarded anyone who read both. Marvel’s getting rid of Nomad in the near future, but replacing it with some stories about Steve Rogers. Back ups seem to be a part of the Big Time relaunch for Amazing Spider-Man, but we’ll see once the title progressed beyond that. And Bendis certainly has enough material to do his Oral History of the Avengers for years.
However, I just can’t help but feel there’s a lack of enthusiasm for these things. With only 10 (or so) pages to work with, back ups are extremely difficult to do. In addition, I think between the mediocrity of DC’s first round of back ups, comic fans impatience with anything that doesn’t “matter,” and consternation over the $3.99 price point, the major companies are going to eventually conclude its just not worth the trouble. Which is a shame, because if we’re going to have $3.99 comics, and I’d bet that sooner or later it’s inevitable, these are the kind of stories I’d pay a bit extra to get.
Of course comic prices are ridiculous today, and at the end of the day, I’ll be happier if we get cheaper comics. But the whole point of these back ups was to add extra value to these comics and make it worth your dollar. I know we’re never going to get a Jimmy Olsen ongoing by the Spencer and Silva, but hell, I’d pay an extra buck for 10 pages of their stuff every month.