Saturday, June 30, 2007

Chimaera's Challenge 3: Funtime's Over


'"" is a death word in comics these days...(it) automatically kills off a lot of your sales...I just hope that the "fun" label doesn't hit us too hard. If so, it's just another sign that current readers don't want "fun" comics.' Mark Waid, talking about the potential damage done to sales of THE BRAVE & THE BOLD by reviewers characterizing the book as...well, guess.

My eternal quest to avoid doing actual work regularly takes me to numerous comic-related websites, some news-oriented, some commentary-based, a few review sites. And I've noticed on several of these sites the blame for the current dearth of "fun" comics being laid at the feet of DC Vice President and Executive Editor Dan Didio. The claim that Didio holds to the dictum "Fun comics don't sell" is a common one, though if he has actually said such a thing publicly, I've yet to find a direct quote.

Even if he hasn't said such a thing, the prevailing wisdom at the Big Two (even Three, though when it comes to superheroes, Image no longer has the overall market pull or presence it once did) seems to be decidedly anti-fun, and arguably has for quite some time. Marvel has turned some of its greatest heroes into what are essentially villains, and then allowed those same villains to prevail, on the grounds that this is more reflective of the realistic world which Marvel's characters supposedly live in. (Someday, I want to do a Marvel miniseries about a kid who gets bitten by a radioactive spider and dies of cancer.)

DC, in spite of books like DKR and The Watchmen still generally considered the more traditional of the Big Two, has also progressively darkened its superhero universe in an effort to keep readers involved in storylines. Characters, countries, worlds, and universes are being slaughtered in record numbers, or so it seems to my jaundiced eye.

The rise of darkness in superhero comics has been accompanied by something of a return to '90s style publishing stunts designed to generate interest in titles/properties/characters through something other than the merit of the stories in which those characters appear. (Please note that I say "stories", rather than the merits of the characters themselves, which are only as good or bad as the creator's craft or reader's eye allow them to be.) Variant covers artificially boost sales numbers, company-wide crossovers force writers to put their actual stories on hold to deal with stuff happening "over there", noted creators are brought in to write for established properties (Todd McFarlane made a big deal when he brought four Big-Name Comic Writers in for an issue each of SPAWN; these days, rather than aiming for superior writers who've established themselves in the comics medium, companies are looking to the wider entertainment world, bringing in screenwriters and TV creators to give books a boost.) (Which, now that I think of it, is a weird thing to do, as the companies' money is in the characters, not the creators, and I have a hard time believing sales on ASTONISHING X-MEN will be nearly as good without Joss Whedon and John Cassaday involved.) (Note also that Whedon's pulling away from writing comics for Marvel, precisely because he does see the interconnectedness between titles both Marvel and DC are trading heavily on these days as overly restrictive to him as a creator.)

The term "continuity porn" has been thrown at books like COUNTDOWN and, if it hasn't been already, could be attached to something like Marvel's ILLUMINATI (which, if co-writers Bendis and Reed's critics are to be believed, has less to do with examining hidden chapters of Marvel's history than with wholesale rewriting well-known chapters of same.) There's an element--if not the biggest element, certainly the most vocal--of fandom that does enjoy recognizing the purpose of the lightning rods in the latest JLA/JSA crossover prior to it being revealed to the unenlightened reader who isn't well-versed in 1960s Legion of Superheroes continuity.

To some extent, former members of that element of fandom are the ones who're currently steering things at the Big Two. They realized their dreams and now create stories with the characters they love, stories that are considered "real", or at least legitimate, by other long-time fans who actually have something emotionally invested in the Beyonder being a flawed cosmic cube rather than an Inhuman mutant.

I don't know if I'm part of the fanbase that really enjoys stories steeped in continuity. At this point I'm more inclined to let a continuity gaffe slide (assuming I notice it at all) than I am a writer (or, possibly more likely, an editor) twisting a character's actions out of (my admittedly subjective interpretation of) their established personalities.

But what sells in superhero comics isn't about me, or it shouldn't be, anyway. And it shouldn't be about those fans who are going to buy the next issue of X-Men no matter how much they think it's sucked for the last 20 years. The continuity-laden stories running rampant at the Big Two these days cater to those fans, and that's a clear and present danger to the well-being of superhero comics as a genre, if not North American comics as a medium. Because books laden in continuity are going to alienate new readers, and the old readers are getting older all the time and will die eventually.

Will a non-comics reader coming to a Marvel or DC book think it's an entertaining read? Will they even find it intelligible?

I have a hard time seeing it. And reading something you don't get, that you have no chance to get without reading the last five years of Amazing Spider-Man, is not going to be a positive experience for a theoretical non-comics reader who picks an issue up at random. It will be no fun. Because what's fun for the hardcore fans is not fun for someone who's not one of the Cool Kids.

The accessibility of Chimera's books should be an advantage the studio has over many other superhero comics publishers. Or it would be, in a sane world. Unfortunately, given the state of the direct market, the people most likely to pick up a new superhero book at this juncture are also the ones who enjoy continuity porn, company-wide crossovers, variant covers, etc., etc.

This could be a problem for the creators of the Chimaera Superhero Universe. In the absence of a viable distribution model outside of the direct market, we must find a way to create comics that are fun to both the new comic reader, and marketable to the old.

To Be Continued, as always, If I Feel Like It.


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