Tuesday, September 7, 2010

In which I rant about comic books

If you've looked at this blog for over 5 minutes, you'll know that I'm a fan of comic books.  I say comic books because I think saying "graphic novels" or "sequential art" sort of undermines the whole endeavor by implying that there is something inferior about comics that requires them to be dressed up to allow for public consumption.  Note that when I say comic book I don't mean exclusively superhero comics.  Contrary to popular opinion (and I'm including most comic fans in this) there is a huge variety of comics out there.  To paraphrase Scott McCloud, comics are a medium not a genre.

1.  Comics are (mostly) terrible
The impetus for this rant comes from a letter written by Kurt Busiek, a popular comic writer for both Marvel and D.C. Comics, about the state of the mainstream comic industry.  Though I disagree with the specifics of the letter (particularly the critique of Jonathon Hickman), it got me thinking about my relationship with mainstream comics.

My approach to comics has always, in some sense been academic, I first read Watchmen and V for Vendetta because of their reputation (this was before either was made into a movie) and I started reading Maus because of its literary status, not because of its status as a comic book.  I was never one to wait outside my lcs (local comic shop, obviously) for the latest issue of Spiderman or whatever, nor did have I ever particularly cared when a favorite character is killed off in a giant comic event.  With that said, I have been actively reading comics, thinking about comics, and writing about comics for a number of years now.

Writing it all out like that makes me sound more pretentious than I intend, but I think its important to know my perspective before you read what I say next.  Stated simply, I think the vast majority of comics are terrible.  Though there is some interesting storytelling here and there, I think the majority of comics are compiled from a boring story written over even worse artwork.  I don't mean to be particular harsh on comic artists.  However, comics are a visual medium, so (for me at least) bad art tends to ruin the experience more than bad writing (unless said bad writing comes from someone like Jeph Loeb).

2.  Comic fans are (almost entirely) terrible.
So I happen to think that most comics are boring and poorly drawn... so what?  In a very real sense my opinion doesn't, and shouldn't, matter.  I don't really buy comics month to month.  If I'm interested in a story I'll either wait for the collected edition, borrow it from a friend, or acquire it through some other means.  The problem lies in the fact that I'm not exactly outside the target demographic for most comics currently being published by Marvel and D.C.

Though they'll never acknowledge it outright, most comic publishers have long given up on selling comics to children (See D.C.'s Identity Crisis, most of Marvels output) and have begun to cater to a relatively small group of die-hard fans.  Further complicating matters, many of the current batch of comic creators are members of this same small group.  Thus, the industry is left with a small group of fans who are increasingly interested in comics for their nostalgia value and a crop of creators, including Kurt Busiek actually, who feel the same.  I'm not saying that no original comics are being written or drawn, though mainstream comics increasingly seem to be made up of the same ideas over and over, original work just doesn't seem to sell.  Matt Fraction's Casanova is a really interesting piece of sci-fi pulp storytelling... that is only being published because Fraction writes X-Men comics for Marvel.  Image Comics, once one of the biggest comic publishers in the country now publishes some really original stuff, all of which sell significantly less than 10,000 copies.  The only thing that seems to sell are nostalgia comics and big "event" style comics.  All over the internet (and in comic shops) you'll hear people complaining about this, but ultimately this is what brings people buy, so this is what the comic industry sells.

3.  The comic industry is startlingly behind the times.
Comic fans aren't entirely to blame with for the dearth of good comics.  The comic industry went through an exceedingly rough period during the mid to late 90's and in many ways has yet to recover.  Part of the reason comics are now marketed towards an increasingly older population is because no one else is buying them anymore.  I've already discussed some of the implications of this in creative terms without discussing the cause.  Increasing competition is probably part of it, as was the transition from a wide distribution of comics (in drug stores, newstands, etc) to the rise of the comic specialty stores.  However, the industry is suffering from an inability (or lack of desire) to adapt to the changing market.  Increasingly comic fans (including me) are buying collected editions of single issues at bookstores or online.  However individual collections are often difficult to find and generally lack simple things like page and volume numbers.

Piracy has been a problem for comics for as long as there has been copy machines.  However, the internet has revolutionized comic piracy.  Almost every comic published in the last five to ten years has been scanned and uploaded to the internet within 24 hours of its publication.  I know for a fact that the entire Vertigo line is available for easy download, as is the majority of both the Marvel and D.C. libraries.  Why comic piracy has been so successful probably has something to do with the rising price of individual issues (the industry is currently transitioning to a $3.99 per issue standard), but probably has even more to do with the high quality of the pirated versions.  Official comics released online are notoriously of low quality and are generally ignored.  In contrast piracy groups have created software that makes sharing high quality comics online incredibly easy.

The industry has long resisted any significant online distribution of comics, choosing instead to release terrible motion comics and low quality versions of comics from 20+ years ago.  The market is obviously there for online comics with the iPad and other tablets providing an incredibly appealing vector for such distribution, but I doubt the comic industry will embrace it before its too late.  Something like iTunes but including comics would probably do a lot to increase distribution to comic fans and non-fans alike.

4.  Final Crisis
This post is getting entirely too long and there is a lot I haven't talked about that deserves in-depth discussion such as creator rights, manga, webcomics, and non superhero comics.  I'm frustrated with the lack of quality and original work in the current industry because there is such a ridiculously large amount of potential for good, original work.  Though a lot of the writing and art in mainstream books is boring and mediocre, both major comic companies employ lots of really talented people.  Many of the more creative end up leaving to work somewhere with more creative/financial freedom and end up creating really interesting work that no one reads.  The medium of comics provides some really interesting methods for storytelling (See Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics for more on this) and there are certainly talented people working across the industry.  What is frustrating is how little any of this potential is realized.  A book like Pax Romana is a really original way of presenting a narrative, its just too bad that comic fans would rather read yet another story about Superman fighting Lex Luthor with barely passable writing and muddy art.

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