Thursday, June 19, 2008

A Fan’s Survival Guide in the Face of Comic Apocalypse

So recently, in case you haven’t noticed, this blog has been a bit down in the mouth about comics. It is not just we four either, I have noticed a general malaise settling over the blogosphere like fog in some bad horror film. Well, let the sunshine in because I have some quick, sure fire tips to get you through these dark days of four color printing.

Option One: Go for a company’s second tier titles.

There has been a lot of moaning about Batman, Superman, Spider-Man, Wolverine, Justice League and other flagship titles and characters. I should know, I have been doing some of the complaining. The problem with the top billed is that they have too much editorial control, too many eyes watching, too many fingers in the pie. Didio wants Ras Al Ghul back. Quesada wants Spider-man single. As a result we get months, sometimes years, of crap.

Back in the day the term B-movie referred to the lower budget, less publicized film in a double feature. These films were basically created to fill screen time but no one expected them to have any importance or be any good. But you know what? Some of them were brilliant. In fact, it is the B-movie system that led to the creation of many the great film noirs that survive today. The studios paid less attention and therefore the directors were able to put out great, inventive pieces of cinema.

One should apply the same idea to a company’s roster of comics. Blue Beetle, Wisdom, Checkmate, the 2004 relaunch of Alpha Flight had the ability to be gems because it feels like editorial mandate is low. The writers just get to write good stories. Of course there is a danger in these B-side comics: sales will most likely be low. That will lead to either A) cancellation or B) forced tie-ins to hike up profits. Think of the “Sinestro War” issue of Blue Beetle or the “Amazon’s Attack” issues of Catwoman. They were terrible and just an example of forced plots messing up a good thing.

So if you are going to go with this option be careful because it can be just as unrewarding.

Option Two: Go outside of your comfort zone.

When I was a comic shop clerk, I always heard people complain about the state of the superhero genre. Sure. What surprised me was the flat out refusal of said people to read anything else. Sure some of them dabbled in Star Trek or Star Wars comics but you give them something, say Hellboy, and they look at you like you have handed them a dirty diaper. It’s weird and I never understood it. Why cut yourself off from significant portions of a genre you love?

That is like being an avid music fan and saying you just don’t listen to rap. That might not be your thing but if you ignore it you will never hear the wonders of “The Black Album.” That is like being a film buff and saying you just don’t watch romantic movies. That might not be you thing but if you ignore it you will never watch some truly moving flicks like Truly, Madly, Deeply. That is like being - you get the picture.

In this dread time take the opportunity and really branch out. Grab Polly and the Pirates, grab SCUD: The Disposable Assassin, grab Scott Pilgrim or Street Angel or the Popgun or Flight anthologies. Grab something out of the ordinary. There is a world of books out there that you might not have looked because you are capes and cowls only. I ask, what has capes and cowls done for you recently?

Option Three: Go back in time.

I do not mean this literally, although how awesome would that be? What I am saying is go back and read those books you loved before. I just got the Starman Omnibus and it has filled my last week or so with joy. When I am feeling down about what is coming out monthly I reread Planetary or the “Black Reign” story arc in JSA. It is like being away at camp and you are scared and unhappy but you have your lucky blanket to get you through the nights.

Also, now is the perfect opportunity to read those books you have always been meaning to. I just read the whole run of Invincible, all fifty issues. It has blown my mind. Man, that book is good! For years people have been telling me to read it and for years I have just tap danced around reading it. Well, I am reading less monthlies and so Invincible it was. From it I got a few days of something I couldn’t complain about, something that renews my faith the quality of the genre.

Maybe it is time grab that copy of Batman: The Long Halloween you have been putting off or committing to Preacher. Take a trip back in time and pick up something good.

This is how I have been dealing with recent trends.

How Have You Been Surviving?


Harvey Jerkwater said...

What I did was to follow the advice of a clerk at a comic shop I went to back in yonder days, when I had the same problem. He said, "go ahead and walk away. They'll be here when you get back."

Escaping the hamster wheel of drama that is the Marvel/DC superhero machine was both harder and easier than I thought. The initial break wrenched my nerdly soul. And yet, a month later, I was fine. I've been away for a long time now, and I don't know if I'll ever come back fully.

Free from the weekly or monthly binge, I can indulge in Ben's suggestions. I pick and choose from the second-tier books that have internet buzz and look at independent titles, knowing that I don't have to shovel a stack of money into the fiery maw of mediocre comics.

What really rankled me wasn't the time lost, or the bad stories per se, but the economics of it. If I spend forty dollars for a stack of four-color mayhem, and it ends up as a thirty-to-forty minute experience no better than "meh," that pisses me off. That's a lot of money to throw at a short-lived, unsatisfying experience. I could have bought a couple of DVDs or several regular books for that money and had a much longer and better experience.

Don't underestimate the charge that comes from seeing Marvel or DC put out a mega-crossover that nobody likes and realizing that you aren't paying a dime for it. Oh, so sweet.

When you're free from the momentum, the quality of your purchases rises hugely and the amount of crap on the market matters less. If "The Immortal Iron Fist" is super-awesome, and it is, do I care that "Secret Invasion" is slow and annoying? I missed the entire "Infinite Crisis" fiasco, and my life is not one bit worse for that. My wallet was happier, too.

Delving into the indie scene has been less successful for me. The good-to-crap percentage is shockingly small, and the good stuff tends to be so overhyped that letdown is nigh-inevitable. "Street Angel," based upon the internet buzz of a few years back, was the Greatest Comic Evar. Truth be told, it's amusing, a little over-reliant on pop culture riffs, and not as clever as it thinks it is. "Polly and the Pirates" lost me by issue two, when I still couldn't give a crap. "Elk's Run" was great.

Going back in time is a great suggestion. The best comic purchase I've made in ten years was "Essential Defenders," volumes two and three. Insane Marvel of the Seventies is a favorite, and to have the peak of weirdness in bulk for cheap? Oh hell yes. The Essential and Showcase Presents volumes are wonderful things. And "The Immortal Iron Fist" in trade. Can't forget that one.

The best advice I can give is to walk away from comics for a bit. Don't make them your most important, or worse, sole means of entertainment. Branch out, and leave comics to do what they do. They'll be there when you get back.

Nate said...

I just re-read all my Fables trades. I'm much better now.

Devon Sanders said...

Excellent post, Ben!

I'm reading Essential Howard The Duck and man...

it's illuminating!

Steve Gerber was Grant Morrison & Gail Simone before Morrison & Simone. Gene Colan's visuals are just beautiful as well.

Going back in time has helped me stay a fan.

Capt. Britain and MI:13 gives me hope as well.

CalvinPitt said...

I've found that I mostly use Option 1. I mostly read Marvel, but it's Marvel that exists in its own worlds, like Spider-Girl or Ennis' Punisher. Or it's books that are in the Marvel Universe, but in their own corner of it, like Iron Fist. With those books, it seems like if they get involved in the Big Event, they can do it more on their terms since they aren't considered all that important. If I really want to know what's going on with Secret invasion or Final Crisis, there's a dozen places on the Internet that can keep me in the loop, without me paying for it.

For the most part, that strategy's worked pretty well for me so far.

Cascade/Jordan said...

Personally, I don't think this is the "end times" for comics. Nonsense. Just nonsense.

Now, I agree with everything you put down here, but really this list is just a list of ways to enjoy comics even more. A nudge to force those reluctant to read anything "old" or anything off the map (Oni, Top Shelf, D+Q, Fantagraphics).

Right now, I think comics are in a great place, and a lot of the malaise that surrounds them now is around the "event" books, which I tend to like. You just have to roll with the punches, after all 1) you dont work there, 2) if you dont like it, dont buy it. You can complain about it, but dont buy it.

Jon said...

Option 1 is something that I've been doing naturally (and mostly unintentionally) for years. It caused a lot of pain in the mid 90's when something I read got cancelled seemingly every couple of months. It's always made sense to me, as a means of getting purer stories. I like Batman for example, but I don't touch his titles- too much scope for crossovers and editorial medling, as you mentioned.

As for going back in time, I've been catching up on Hellblazer this year. Always liked it, never collected it for more than 6 issues at a time, for some reason I can't quite figure out. I've gotten 15 trades this year, and it rocks.

Anonymous said...

It is a hard month I've noticed it as well, great advices though

CandidGamera : said...

I don't see things being that dire. I'm reading and enjoying most of DC's current superhero output.

Unknown said...

Editorial mandate and crossover trauma don't affect me much, possibly because I read a lot of Option 1, second (or third) tier books. I like all the iconic characters, but I don't read their books frequently. Wonder Woman is probably the highest-profile book I'm reading right now, and that's only because Gail Simone is writing it.

Final Crisis sounds like it will be fun, and Grant Morrison doesn't sound terribly interested in mandating crossovers and impacting ongoing book continuity. Hallelujah. Secret Invasion sounds simple in the big scale (alien invasion) and complicated on the small scale ("so if Sharon Carter has always been a Skrull, does she know she was brainwashed by the Red Skull, or was she cooperating?"). That's fine. I'm not reading any Avengers titles so I'm not involved in the current Bendis-maelstrom of continuity checks and the wrangling of nine thousand plot threads.

In hindsight, though, these things rarely seem like good ideas. Civil War? Terrible idea. Infinite Crisis? Decent idea, bad execution. (Really, how does that book end? What did it do?) Are they learning from their mistakes or not? That's what editorial, which should have a longer career life than any given writer, should concern themselves with. "Last time, the fans said they hated that the story had no real conclusion. Let's try to have a conclusion this time, guys."

(And I just want to take a moment to say, I can't believe there won't be anymore Y:The Last Man coming out in trade. If Brian K. Vaughn turns up missing, it's because I've abducted him and chained him in my apartment, where he can write me stories about Yorick and 355 forever.)

--that sounded more stalker than I was going for. I am torn up about it, though.

Bill D. said...

I'm doing all of these things. I get my Big 2 superhero fixes from the books that have the least to do with the main events going on (Blue Beetle and Immortal Iron Fist, for instance, and based on the buzz, I'm curious to check out Incredible Hercules) or even nothing at all with them (Marvel Adventures, Johnny DC), I'm taking more chances on smaller press books than ever (Skyscrapers of the Midwest, people! It's confusing and illuminating all at once.), and I'm definitely mining the past for good reads, both classic material and more recent stuff that I just managed to miss somehow.

That's my favorite thing about comics right now... even while the major publishers are pumping out stories I have no interest in, there's still no shortage of incredibly high quality material, whether classic or modern, on the shelves today.

ASK said...

Mostly complaining, to be honest. The superhero titles that I've been enjoying the most lately have been Johns's SUPERMAN and Morrison's work in general. I've also liked Pekar's latest AMERICAN SPLENDOR.

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