I hadn’t intended this blog to become an outlet for all of my complaints regarding the comic industry. I’m sure I’ll run out of vitriol before too long, but for now, we’re knee-deep in my four-color bile. Maybe I should turn it into a regular column and call it something like Back in My Day, with Uncle Cranky or Shawn’s Grumpy-Time Comics Rant. Well, for now at least, on with the grousing…
I’ve had sort of a love/hate, on-again/off-again relationship with comics for over twenty years. When they’re good, comics are an amazing form of entertainment, merging the best aspects of novels, movies, and illustration. When they’re bad, they’re basically overpriced picture books. Unfortunately, the good-to-bad ratio is pretty small. There are two ways to fix this: either make more good comics, or make fewer bad ones. The former may not be possible; the latter is possible, but not profitable. Either way, the problem with comics today is that there are just too many of them.
Case in point: At the height of my comic collecting, back in the 90s, there were four monthly Spider-Man comics being published. Today, there are only three titles, but one of them comes out three times a month, so that’s five issues of Spider-Man comics every month. I consulted an online comics database and found that there have been over 1,300 Spider-Man comics published as part of ongoing series. That doesn’t include one-shots, limited series, annuals, team-ups, guest appearances, or alternate continuities (like Ultimate Spider-Man or Spider-Man 2099). If you added those in, I’m sure the count would at least triple.
Now, of those thousands of Spider-Man comics, how many are really good? And by “good,” I mean an issue that is memorable, and that does something new with the character, or the storyline. I’d be willing to bet that it’s a fairly small percentage. When you focus on quantity, quality has to suffer. So we’re left with hundreds of Spider-Man comics that seem like their stories were generated from a Mad-Lib: “Peter Parker is on his way to meet [CURRENT LOVE INTEREST] when he sees [SUPER-VILLAIN] robbing a [BANK/ARMORED CAR/WAREHOUSE]. He quickly changes into his Spider-Man costume and dispatches the villain. When he is late for his date, [LOVE INTEREST] gets mad. Later, he [GETS CHEWED OUT BY J. JONAH JAMESON/WORRIES ABOUT AUNT MAY].” That’s an over-simplification, clearly. And to be fair, there have been a lot of really great stories told using that formula. But there are only so many times you can rehash the same material before it gets a bit stale.
Appearing several times a month is only half the problem. The other half is the longevity of any popular character. Spider-Man made his first appearance in 1962, meaning he’s been swinging around New York for nearly fifty years. Dozens of writers and editors have made their mark on the character, and some of them have taken him in strange directions. During the “Clone Saga,” it was revealed that Peter Parker was actually a clone, but no one liked that, so it later turned out that he was the original after all. J. Michael Straczynski (the creator of Babylon 5) revamped Spider-Man’s origin story by suggesting that he didn’t actually get his powers from a radioactive spider, but was actually an avatar for some kind of mystical spider spirit. And of course, in one of the biggest events in comics history, Pete got married to his long-time love interest Mary Jane Watson, only to have the whole marriage erased from history thanks to a deal with the devil. After a while, it all starts to get a bit absurd (which is really saying something, when you consider that we’re already talking about a guy swinging around Manhattan in tights).
Now, I love me some Spider-Man. If it seems like I’m picking on him, it’s only because he’s my favorite, so I’m more aware of his comics’ faults. But most of the major superheros from both Marvel and DC have had a lot of the same problems. The DC universe has been around so long, and has gotten so convoluted, that they’ve had to reboot the entire universe on more than one occasion, and now have alternate dimensions to explain the many different versions of their characters. Marvel’s characters Wolverine and Jean Grey have such complicated back stories at this point that only the most hard-core fan would even try to unravel them. Both companies’ universes are bloated by decades of material being mass-produced like the product that it is.
And yeah, I get it: Marvel and DC are in business to make money. If there are five Spider-Man comics being printed every month it’s because that’s how many they can sell. Supply and demand, and all that. Also, this issue is not unique to the comic companies. It’s the same path-of-least-resistance mentality that has infected Hollywood (hardly surprising, considering that both Marvel and DC are now part of huge media conglomerates that also include movie studios). It’s why there are relatively few movies being produced any more that aren’t remakes, or sequels, or adaptations of toys or video games or old Saturday morning cartoons. And it’s why popular TV series keep on running long after they’ve lost the spark that originally made them great. It’s safer to reuse an idea that has made money in the past, than to take a chance on something new.
I don’t begrudge these companies their profits; I want them to be successful. But they could make money while still producing a higher-quality product. They stick with the tried and true because it’s easy and safe, but that’s not the only option. Consider Ricky Gervais’ series The Office. The original English series was original and hilarious, and very short. It was two six-episode seasons and one holiday special; less than eight hours of footage. It wasn’t canceled; that was just how long it was intended to be. It told its story and it ended. The American version, on the other hand, is now in its seventh season, and each season has about twenty-five episodes. The series was pretty good at first, but it’s dropped off sharply. Gervais went on to make Extras, another nearly perfect run of twelve episodes, while the American The Office is still lumbering on in mediocrity. Even though the show’s main star (Steve Carell) is leaving, the show will continue. They’ll keep making it until it’s gotten so terrible that no one watches it any more.
So, after all that, I don’t know how to fix it. I’m just making an observation. The sad truth is that mainstream comics have become products, distinct from whatever artistry or creativity had once made them great. There are still good comics being made, but you often have to sift through a lot of crap to find them, and some of the best stuff is no longer coming from the Big Two. But in my perfect world, comics would operate more like English TV than American TV. I’d love to see comics released in well-crafted one-shots or limited series, rather than the monthly production line that we have today. I’d rather that a comic was produced because someone had a good story to tell, instead of a deadline to meet.