There is a facebook page entitled “Has DC Done Something Stupid Today?” The caption on the page reads “Are you tired of having to comb through dozens of articles trying to figure out if DC has done something cringe worthy today? Would you like to be the first person to know how long it’s been since DC alienated fans?” Call me crazy, but I suspect there might be a bit of bias there.
DC and Marvel have always represented opposite sides of the comic playground, even though the same creators often bounced from one company to the other. Beginning with Marvel’s creative heyday in the 60s, fans usually choose one side or the other, either proclaiming themselves a Marvel Zombie or a DC Fanboy. Of course, in the days before the internet, most of this allegiance was based simply on the characters and the perceived quality of the stories. It was no less passionate. Even then, you picked your side and stuck to it.
As it did with so many things, the internet brought change to comics fandom.
In 2012, Sean Howe published a book entitled “Marvel Comics: The Untold Story”. It is an interesting read and I recommend it…unless you are a Marvel fan. It details the various eras of Marvel and all the behind the scenes politics and maneuvering that went on before all those comics ever saw print. Even during the Stan Lee era there were inter company feuds and resentment over who-got-what-credit. The crucial difference was comic readers had no idea what was going on behind the scenes. We read the books, enjoyed the stories on their own merits and largely assumed those stories either sprang to life via magic, or that they were fashioned by happy, larger than life artists for no reason other than to create legends and make us happy.
Yes, I know. Was it possible people were ever really that naïve?
Contrast that with today’s post social media world. Today, when a writer or artist gets bent out of shape over any perceived slight, more often than not, they immediately tweet about it. The internet reports these stories and often the drama behind the comics is more compelling than the drama within them.
Interestingly, the drama actually serves to help delineate some of the differences between DC and Marvel that currently exist. Both are corporate entities, entirely driven by profit, but their views on just how to make that profit differ. Even before Marvel was bought by Disney, they had been following its model. Marvel, like Disney, views its properties as its primary business, rather than the stories about them. In other words, Marvel makes its money because it owns Spider-Man, not because it makes Spider-Man comics. In their view, the real money is to be made by licensing Spider-Man’s image out to companies who make lunch boxes, T-Shirts, bottle openers, action figures and doo-dads of every imaginable type. The comics themselves? Well, they need to be kept going, so that Spider-Man remains an active property, but whether they are great comics is largely irrelevant as long as they remain out there to keep Spider-Man in the public eye so the property can continue to be exploited.
This is not to say that Marvel Comics are never good. Sometimes they are quite good. But that is usually more of a happy accident rather than any careful stewardship on Marvel’s part. Marvel wants the books published, so they hire people to edit, write and draw them. Sometimes those people who are writing and drawing them do a great job, sometimes they don’t. It really doesn’t matter a whole lot to Marvel because what Marvel does really well is marketing and so they will sell the books with only nominal regard for the content.
On the other hand, DC focuses on the books themselves. Sure, they market their books, just not as effectively as Marvel, so they remain convinced the best way to sell more books is to make them better. There are people who would view this as adorably naïve. Because of this, DC is much less willing to give free reign to its creators. They have a larger plan for their universe and want creators to do their best work, but at the same time stick to DC’s editorial direction. One thing that hasn’t changed over the years: creative types usually prefer to be left alone. So is there any surprise DC’s stricter involvement is chafing some of its creators?
Understand, I’m not completely defending DC. Any company is made up of a variety of people and it is rare that egos and agendas do not start to at least partially drive the management machinery. All I’m really saying is this is not new, nor isolated to DC. Of course all this puts comic fans in something of a dilemma. We vote with our dollars and have to decide which is more important to us. While we love the characters and want to see them continue, we also love the creative teams who make them come alive and know that without them, our favorite stories would never have happened. It would be nice if it was as simple as choosing between corporate product and artistic merit, but the best comics have always been driven by a little of both.
All of which makes me want to go pull out some old Jack Kirby comics. He created or co-created hundreds of characters under work-for-hire contracts and never got anywhere near what most people feel he deserved for them. Does this make his work any less wonderful to read? I’ll leave that to you to decide.
Lately my son has been reading through a hefty Omnibus of the John Byrne run of Fantastic Four issues. He remarked how different they felt from modern comics. At first he couldn’t quite put his finger on what was different, but eventually it came to him: a lot of space was devoted to filling the reader in on background details that were relevant to the story. Comics today seldom do this.
There is a great deal of irony here. First, the comics industry desperately needs new readers and seems clueless as to how to acquire them. And yet they continue to pump out stories that are so deeply buried in continuity that they are uninviting for a new reader. Certainly, comics today are more sophisticated in their storytelling. Fans point to this increase in complexity as a sign of how much comics have improved in the past few decades. And in many ways they are right. However, this same complexity means that someone new cannot pick up a comic with any hope of understanding what is going on.
Frequently someone will wander into my store having just seen an Iron Man or Thor movie and ask about the comics. I do my best to summarize what is going on, but the current plotlines are so convoluted they inevitably get confused and leave without purchasing anything. DC’s very successful relaunch of their line of comics in 2011 did wonders in allowing new readers an entry point into comics, but already many of those books are beginning to get some weighty continuity of their own. And Marvel’s success at the movies means most of the casual people off the streets are looking for a Thor or Iron Man or Avengers comic to read and Marvel is simply not “new-reader” friendly.
A second irony is this: thirty years ago you could pick up most comic titles off the stands and start reading without confusion. These books were numbered consecutively, so chances are you would be picking up Fantastic Four #240 or Thor #310 or some other high number. Once the numbering began for a book, the publishers kept it going, no matter how many times the readership might turn over. Conversely, these days a book is lucky to make it 50 issues before the publisher restarts the numbering for some arbitrary reason. Wolverine in particular keeps getting restarts even though the story in the “first” issue of the new series is likely continued directly from the “last” issue of the previous series. So what that means is thirty years ago you could pick up Captain America #287 as an introduction to the series and start reading with no problem, where today you might pick up Captain America #1 and be completely confused as to what is going on, unless you had happened to read the last twenty or thirty issues of the preceding series.
In their defense, I understand why the publishers do this. Every day someone comes into my store and asks for a good series to read. If I direct them to any title with a number past the single digits they inevitably put it back on the shelf and ask “Don’t you have anything that… you know….just started?” Which brings me to irony number three. Potential fans are obsessed with getting in on a series at the beginning, and yet at the same time they want an iconic “brand name” character. Unfortunately they are about fifty years too late to pick up the first issues of Hulk or Spider-Man, but they are not interested in giving something like Bloodshot a try because it is an unknown quantity (i.e. – no movie yet). So instead they fall for Marvel’s marketing gimmick and pick up the latest Number One, and wind up totally confused at the bogged down story that is already well underway. These potential comic fans aren’t coming back, folks. It’s easier to just go watch the latest movie. And still the publishers scratch their heads and wonder why sales continue to erode year after year.
Giving the people what they want is not always the best idea, especially when what they think they want is yet another Wolverine #1.