Monday, August 28, 2006

Change or Die

Following up on my last post, it is apparent to me that unless Marvel and DC allow change we could see the death of comics or at least their continued slow decline is sales. While sales have increased slightly in recent years the overall trend is down.

As proof that change is the one great element missing in comics look at several events in comic history that prove the finite is better for sales then the infinite. A tenet of some philosophies is that we love something more because it doesn't last forever.

Marvel became the number one company because they allowed characters to age and change in the first ten plus years of Marvel's existence.

Seminal comic stories that resonate with fans are Kingdom Come, Dark Knight Returns, Watchmen all have elements where change is occurring or has occurred and we are seeing its repercussions.

The book that generated one of the longest lines for comic books and brought back tons of lapsed fans and non-fans to the stores was the Death of Superman. If that had been allowed to stand and a story followed with a new Superman we could have keep more of those readers. How well would the Death of Spider-Man or Batman sell?

If true change is allowed and the books are cleaned up a little to make them a little more all age friendly (not dumbed down) comics could be exciting again, the 24 news hungry for stories would cover these events and bring back lapsed fans and maybe generate new ones.

If a series has a beginning, middle and an end (like Gaiman's Sandman) we can tell better stories. This is not one solution fits all, but it is an approach that should be considered to give super-hero comics some life.


  1. So let's take a look at a comic series with a beginning, middle and already known end. I speak of 52, a current hot seller for DC. Each week a new chapter is out. We feel time marching forward and things change. We already know how it ends, yet so many of us are onboard for the ride and put 52 on the top of our reading piles each week. Why is that? The new characters that really hadn't been fully defined? The changes like Adam Strange losing his eyes, Steel becoming actually made of steel and Shazam now being tormented by the 7 Virtues? What makes 52 work so well? Heck, even the most undead Marvel Zombie has put down his plate full of brains long enough to read 52. Amazing feat for this series.

  2. Exactly. Plus fans are so deseperate for change then when Infinite Crisis and Civil War promise change they latch onto it in hopes something actually happens. Too often some deus ex machina fixes everything in the end.

    Plus look at Invincible, the best cape book on the stands today, and it offers a character that is growing older and changing and what happen to him means something the next issue.

  3. Actually DC and Marvel only need to look toward manga for an example - all of those comics have a beginning middle and end and they're incredibly successful. Fans just wait for the creator's next work to come out when one series ends.

  4. You haven't convinced me. (This is in some ways also a response to your previous post.)

    Sure, if what we're primarily concerned about here is whether a story observes all the dramatic unities, then you're right, it's important to let time flow naturally in comics stories. And I would enjoy comics that were written that way.

    But I can't say I'm enjoying them any less just because Jay Garrick is pushing 90 and still fighting crime. I can't say I'm liable to stop reading comics just because continuity is messy and doesn't match up well with a real-world timeline. And I don't think there are many people who would.

    I think the main attraction of superhero comics is not so much the stories as the characters. Readers (I include myself) want to see these characters doing what they do. If the story is good, then that's great; if it's not, well, better luck next month.

    If you change these characters, then you're messing with what makes you successful. It is possible to do this and still keep your characters great... but man, you've got to be careful.

    As far as the quality of the story goes: it's important, of course. But you can't tell just looking at the cover whether the story's any good or not. You can tell which characters it has in it, though.

    And to me it's six of one, half a dozen of the other whether this statement:

    If a series has a beginning, middle and an end (like Gaiman's Sandman) we can tell better stories

    is true or not. Yes, you can tell good and great stories that way. But on the other hand, writers have been telling good and great stories with ongoing characters (i.e. the series doesn't have an overall arc) for a long time now, and I wouldn't presume to choose one approach as superior to the other.

    (By the way, I recommend that you turn on the comment-verification thing on this blog; it's only a matter of time before the spambots jump on you.)

  5. Matthew - Thanks for the heads up re-comment verification.

    I'm not advocating all heroes aging at a normal pace and many heroes have built in reasons for being younger (Jay's being the speed force that he was connected to for a long time). What I am advocating is that we need to try soemthing different or we risk becoming a very small cult group. The overall sales trend in comics has been a downward spiral. The last couple of years sales jumps have only been marginal increases and we are still far away from any decent level of sales numbers. I want the industry to survive and I believe that we need to adapt to the market and strive to find ways to bring in more new blood.

    You seem to be advocating that the status quo is working and I believe that it is not.

  6. It's not that the status quo is working; if you had a comic shop you know a lot better than I do whether it is or not. I'm just saying that I don't think continuity, or lack thereof, aging characters, or lack thereof, or finite stories, or lack thereof, is the reason why.

    I think it has more to do with the fact that comics can only get to readers through a relatively small bottleneck, which is the population of comic book stores in North America. How can people decide casually to buy a couple of comics for the first time if they first have to find one of the few little stores in their neighbourhood that sells them? I don't have a solution, but I do think that's the problem.

  7. Matthew - I had a comic book store for four years and the Death of Superman brought in people like never before, the subsequnet resurrection did not.

    If you make a product that interests people you will build a larger audience.

    Sales are down and have trended down for years. Comics are now marketed for an older (25 plus) market that is not likely to turn over ever 5 years as before.

    Without trying anything new the industry and stuff that we love maybe lost once we stop buying comics. My thoughts are suggestions, but I think it is an idea whose time has come.

  8. the Death of Superman brought in people like never before, the subsequnet resurrection did not.

    Well, sure. Superman is the most famous character in comic books, and his death would be a big event. Hype. Of course it would bring people in. Not because of narrative closure, but just because it's a Big Thing. The resurrection? A gimmick. There were, I'm sure, people out there who believed that Superman's death was going to be final and permanent; those people probably felt betrayed by the resurrection. But Superman's death sounds like something major; Superman coming back to life is the kind of comic book thing that happens all the time.

    Sales are down and have trended down for years. Comics are now marketed for an older (25 plus) market that is not likely to turn over ever 5 years as before.

    I believe it.

    Without trying anything new the industry and stuff that we love maybe lost once we stop buying comics. My thoughts are suggestions, but I think it is an idea whose time has come.

    On the one hand, if I'm right, it's not the quality or structure of comic-book storytelling that's getting in the way of comics sales increasing, and therefore to make the kinds of changes you're talking about, even if they result in better comics (which I don't think is necessarily so), wouldn't help much. On the other hand, to permanently change core characters with finite story arcs may damage the appeal of these characters to the fan base you already have, and therefore make the situation even worse.

    If you want to argue for these kinds of stories on aesthetic grounds, I can support that to a certain extent. (I read someone's blog entry a couple of months ago that contrasted the two attitudes toward change in mainstream superhero comics; I wish I could remember which site it was on. But you're definitely on one side of that argument.) But to argue for it on economic grounds... I just don't see the cause-and-effect relationship.

    I don't want you to think I'm not concerned about the future of superhero comics. I am. I just think that the solution's shape must be a lot different from what you're talking about.

  9. Matthew - Then what would your solution be. I respect a disagreement from my viewpoint, but what would you offer as a way to improve the market or do you believe it should stay where it is?

  10. Here's my observations from having talked with dozens of comics fans all over the country from varying age groups and backgrounds. Change is needed to keep superhero comics going. In the 90's much change was made. Hal went nuts and Kyle was the right guy in the right place. Ollie was killed and his son, Connor, took over. A new Superboy hit the scene with a bang. Wally really started kicking into gear as a solid replacement for Barry. A new generation of heroes was created for a new generation of fans. Let's face it, no teenage kid wants to listen to the music his/her parents do or read the same comics his old man did. That's one of the reasons Marvel was able to overtake DC in the early days. Their characters were hip anc cool compared to DC's mainstays. When the market started going belly up, DC and Marvel started un-doing the changes they'd made over the past 10 years. No only was there no more advancement, but we're actually about 20-30 years back from where we used to be. Wheedon brought back the Claremont/Byrne X-men. Kevin Smith brougth back Ollie and reset DD to the Miller days. All the kids who grew up in the 90's have felt that DC and Marvel stuck them in the back as they killed the characters they grew up loving and replaced them with the Old Guard. They feel betrayed and abused. They were given new characters only to have them taken away. As the superheroes they loved were killed, their interest in comics went with them. If you want to bring in a new generation of readers, which has to be done if the genre is to survive, you have to create new heroes. We are now in the first age where no new heroes are being created. What was the last successful superhero created? Spawn?
    So let the change begin or else superhero comics will surely die. Instead of erasing what Morrison did, embrace it and go forward from where he left you. New villains, new heroes, new supporting characters. That's what's needed to get readers back. Who wants to read another Wolverine vs Sabretooth battle? Does anyone really want the return of Venom? And I think we've all seen enough of Hush to last a lifetime. Get those creative juices flowing and give up some freshness. If the contestants on Who Wants To Be A Superhero can do it, why can't today's comic book writers??

  11. Jeff - Well said. I know that a lot of younger 20 somethings have been very upset that Kyle and Connor have been kicked to the back of the bus. As Astonishing X-Men continues I think it's emptiness and total homage to the Claremont/Byrne area has become tired.

    Sure a big super star team can jolt sales for a while, but when you just rehash old stuff you are only just barely keeping the fans you had.

    Make it exciting, make it dynamic and the old fans will stay and new fans will find it.

  12. Then what would your solution be. I respect a disagreement from my viewpoint, but what would you offer as a way to improve the market or do you believe it should stay where it is?

    I don't know. I don't have a solution. But I believe that whatever solution exists takes the form of 'making comics more widely available and easily accessible', and not 'make subtle changes to the storytelling strategies within comics'. I've read somewhere or other that comics will never go back on the newsstands, because it just isn't cost-effective, and I'm willing to accept that... but something comparable to that is what's needed. Maybe putting comics up on the web? No idea.

  13. Matthew, I don't think that getting comics more accessible would help given the product that is on the stands today. Today's comic book holds no appeal to anyone under age 14. The cover price is too high. You get only one part of a six part story(let's not forget that 6 months to us old farts passes in the blink of an eye while for a kid it seems like forever). There is heavy continuity that you must know before fully understanding the story. There is little action and too much sitting at a table over a cappuchino chatting for a kid's taste.
    Right now what we have is a product that is aimed at current readers with no thought to getting new readers into the hobby. Comics fans now are ages 25 and up and no attempt is being made to bring in new readers. Diamond Distributors is rumored to be making plans to get a larger presence in book stores quickly as they see the rapid decline of the direct market in the next 10 years. So it's a Catch 22. They need to make comics more accessible to kids and get them back into the hobby, but comics are currently being written for 25 and older and hold no appeal for kids. Many superhero comics are outright inappropriate for kids 10 and under. The 2 big comic publishers are operating under a very short-sighted business plan right now. Joe Q has been on record saying that the days of the floppy are over and that trades are the where comics are heading. It'll be interesting to see what happens in the next year or so. Personally, I know several long time collectors who have either given the hobby up completely or switched to trades exclusively. Are trades the future?

  14. I'm all for making comics more accessible to kids. But we're changing the subject a bit. Back when kids were the primary readers of comics, the stories were ongoing and not finite. The characters were intended to be written about again and again, and not with a finite story arc. So if we're trying to bring the kids back, wouldn't making the storytelling changes you advocate be counterproductive?

    Putting more action, lighter content, and briefer stories in comics sounds like a good idea to me. In fact, it mirrors what I want to happen in my favourite comic (LSH, obviously). But it's not what we were talking about.

  15. Okay, so here's why ongoing used to work whereas now it does not, at least in my opinion. First, ongoing stories were written better. They weren't told in forced 6-issue, ready for the trade arcs. There was the main plot, then several subplots that would brew in the background over many months before bubbling to the top. Subplots have all but vanished. Second, the consumer model used to be 5 years and out. A fan would get into comics, be a rabid fan for about 5 years, then lose interest and drop the hobby. This allowed creators to re-use story ideas and plots every cycle without fear of fan backlash. As old fans left, new ones came in who were unaware of previous storylines. Didn't know, didn't need to know. Somewhere along the line this changed. Fans are now staying with comics for the long haul. This does not fit the ongoing format however. Recently, based on comments from the terrific CosmicComix Conversations(check them out at I picked up Mike Carey's X-men. It was good, but such a feeling of deja vu. Haven't we already seen Sabretooth going to the mansion for help? Everything felt so redundant to me, but that's cuz I'm famiiar with X-lore. To a new fan, these stories might be more gripping.
    That's the problem in a nutshell. Ongoing series with no end in sight get very repetitive for long time fans who've been there, done that. Works well with a recycling fanbase, but that's not what we have now. So without real, meaningful change, storylines start feeling stale and cliche. If you're not gonna get new fans, you better be willing to make lasting change in books to keep things fresh.

  16. Well, I'm no fan of writing for the trade, but that's not a necessary component of long-term-ongoing-comics-storytelling anyway, so we can just set it aside.

    The five-years-and-out consumer model... okay, if this isn't applicable anymore, then it's not good enough to recycle stories. (Especially since trades and back issues and so on are now available, which they weren't in the Silver Age.) Recycling stories is the lazy way out anyway. But that's not the only way to tell long-term-ongoing-comics stories. There's still room for originality and new ideas in superhero comics without irrevocably tampering with the core of a character. Isn't that what DC and Marvel are trying to do, with mixed success, right now?

    And for that matter, changing the core of a character can be done successfully. But it's best done carefully and seldom. You have to know that you'll be able to continue to tell entertaining stories about the character after the change.

    Really there are three choices:
    a) keep the important characters viable through adherence to the core concepts, with changes to these core concepts to be done only after careful deliberation, or
    b) allow radical changes to the important characters in the pursuit of better storytelling, with the understanding that this may (and eventually will) lead to the end of a character's artistic/commercial viability, which means you'll have to either:
    1.) stop publishing, or
    2.) come up with some great new characters to write about, which is easier said than done.

    I'm not sure which kind of audience is better - the five-years-turnover fanbase or the diehard fanbase. I guess the best of all would be to have both, with both populations as big as possible. And of course a good product will help in attracting and keeping these audiences. The places where we... I don't know if we disagree, but these are the points I keep coming back to:

    - I don't think storytelling changes are sufficient to increase the audiences by any significant amount. I think only logistical changes can do that.
    - I don't think that your suggestions for storytelling changes would have any necessary effect on the overall quality level of superhero comics. I think you're addressing a problem that isn't really a problem, and your solution carries no guarantees with it.

  17. Matthew said:

    There's still room for originality and new ideas in superhero comics without irrevocably tampering with the core of a character. Isn't that what DC and Marvel are trying to do, with mixed success, right now?

    I say: what comics are you referring to? Certainly not any of the Civil War books. Civil War itself is an unoriginal idea in every way. The characters in it are not acting as they have in the past and don't ring true in their presentation. And Wheedon is just re-doing the Claremont/Byrne era stories. The current one is almost ver betum the Wolverine vs Hellfire Club tale.
    I agree that there is room for originality and new ideas, but it cannot be found in the mainstream superhero universes at DC and Marvel. No, for originality you have to go to Dark Horse, Image and other Indies. Invincible is hands down the best superhero book on the racks. Goon is an imaginative breath of fresh air. Fell and Walking Dead strike a chord with every one I've given them to. If we could get these terrific, mostly non-capes books into the hands of the 20-30 somethings I think that would help revive comics. Check out Gentleman Corpse and Action Philosophers! Sure fire entertainment for all those who think comics are just superhero slugfests for kids.

  18. I say: what comics are you referring to?

    I don't have the budget to read a whole lot of comics these days. Plus I'm strictly a DC guy. The comics I'm getting regularly include Supergirl and the Legion, 52, Justice League and The All-New Atom. Now, maybe none of those are so groundbreaking as to set the world on fire, but when reading them I certainly don't think to myself that I've seen all this before.

    Not that I dispute you about the indie stuff; I'm sure it's as good and original as you (and many other people) say. But you ask the key question yourself: how do we get these books to a wider audience?

  19. Very good question. Where I live, there are 2 newsstands. Comics are readily available at both, fully returnable for the newsstand owner. I asked both owners who was buying comics at their places. Both told me that 10 year old boys are more interested in trying to buy the latest copy of Maxim or FHM than they are comics. They sell a few, mostly to older collectors who don't know where the direct market stores are. Do you remember about 14 years ago when DC was spending lots of money on tv ads? On basic cable, mostly Comedy Central, they would run 3 spots an hour pushing the Vertigo line. Don't know how it worked for them, but they don't do it anymore. I think the answer is to make the product more all ages friendly, get it to more places kids pass by and will see the product, figure out a way to advertise in whatever magazines kids are reading to raise awareness of the product. However, the course DC and Marvel are taking is to make the product only suitable for those 14 and older, speed the trades out which they can offer for less than the monthlies' cover price, and get these trades into book stores where more people will have access to your product. After all, there are only about 2,500 direct market stores in the US, much fewer than the number of book stores. The transition to the book store has not been going that well, but they making inroads. With Joe Q saying that book stores are the marketplace he wants to be in, doesn't bode well for the long term health of the direct market.

  20. I still go back to the Death of Superman. There were lines outside comic book stores on that day. The right book will bring people back and if you make this stories mean something they will be back again and again.

    Matthew the franchise is Batman - not Bruce Wayne, Spider-Man not Peter Parker.

    Yes change can be dangerous, but wihtout change it becomes meaningless.

    If we don't try something the mediumn as we know will die.

    Remember people never believed radio programs would die. Yes radio still exist, but no radio shows exist.

    The world changes and unless you bring something new to the table you eventually loss your audience.