Epic Failure

As the Secret Invasion has begun and we sit on the cusp of the Final Crisis, I’m going to take a step back and look rather hard at the state of (superhero) comics right now. I can’t help but think that the Big Two have really rather missed the whole point. It’s possible that we’re beyond some critical point and the future of comics is well and truly screwed.

I’d like to think differently, but the state of affairs in the two companies is so antithetical to actually being, um, successful.

Secret Invasion is the fourth of Marvel’s annual tie-in event miniseries (after House of M, Civil War, and World War Hulk), and the current culmination of story threads that Brian Michael Bendis has been laying out since Avengers Disassembled. That’s a storyline that’s been going back four years actively, and likely has threads going back even further (depending on what Bendis may have done before he started writing Daredevil and what he wants to mine from Marvel’s past.)

The initial response to the first issue has been fairly positive, indicating that Bendis has delivered the goods and presented what should be an enjoyable story. I expect that, much like the earlier miniseries, a good chunk of the story, and likely a few of the issues in the run, will be given over entirely to super-powered individuals beating the crap out of each other.

The series is going to sell very well. It’s got all the hallmarks of one of the most popular writers in comics (Bendis), a popular artist (Lionel Yu), a strong lead-up advertising campaign, and it’s got all the heavy-hitters from the Marvel U taking part. Fans are (and will) be eating it up.

Final Crisis hasn’t started yet, but it’s the culmination of a storyline that also ostensibly began in 2004 with Identity Crisis and Countdown to Infinite Crisis. While DC hasn’t quite done the annual event series like Marvel has, the leadup to Final Crisis is long. Infinite Crisis in 2005 led directly to the weekly series 52 which led directly to the weekly Countdown (to Final Crisis). There have literally been two years worth of weekly books from the end of the last huge event series to this one.

Expectations are high, but perhaps somewhat mitigated because Countdown has been rather lackluster. However, Final Crisis also has the popular writer (Grant Morrison), popular artist (J.G. Jones), and all the heavy-hitters doing lots of hitting each-other. The advertising campaign has been unsteady (the early ad “Who Lives, Who Dies, What Changes?” was particularly laughable), but ultimately it does seem to have similar promise to Secret Invasion.

Likewise, it’s going to sell well. As a story, it’s likely in good hands. Morrison is possibly the best writer working in the comics medium (at least as far as understanding how it works and how to get the best effect from it), plus he’s got an incredible love for superhero history. His bibliography is littered with stories he’s done that reference small forgotten tidbits from the past. I’d not be at all surprised if he somehow manages to tie in a number of such into the story here.

So we’ve got two high profile series, with high profile creators, doing big things with the big characters in big ways. Sales are guaranteed. The biggest question is which of the two is going to be bigger. (Marvel tends to be a big stronger in monthly sales, and Bendis is a bit more popular, currently, than Morrison, so I’d bank on Secret Invasion.) So what’s the problem?

The problem is who’s reading these things. Or rather, who isn’t.

Among the comic crowd, these are the sort of books that “everyone” will be picking up. Fans (or fanboys, really) who have been keyed into the Big Two for years and are keeping apace with all the nuances and hints dropped.

In short, these are books that are going to be lapped up by the current readership.

For everyone else, though, they’re a bit opaque.

And that’s a problem. These are the two highest profile series of the year. And they’re not being written at all for the potential fan. Even worse, said fan is likely to be completely confused if dropped into these.

The friendly staffer at my chosen comic shop has pointed out that Marvel has constructed Secret Invasion such that you don’t need to read any tie-in books to get the story (which was also the case for the three previous annual events). This may very well be true, but there’s still a fair bit of knowledge to even get the story.

Note this post by a comic newbie. While she finally, reading through it, gets’ the core CONCEPT of Secret Invasion (it’s a big series to get everyone together), she’s still rather lost on the whole: “As an outsider reading this, I felt just like that: an outsider.”

Marvel’s biggest book of the year, and it’s alienating to new readers. I really hope I’m not the only person who sees a problem with this. Hell, it’s practically designed to be offputting to the casual reader.

While I’m overall more optimistic about Final Crisis, largely because Morrison is a significantly better writer than Bendis, I’m only feeling good as the experienced comic fan. Were I a newcomer, I’d probably feel as lost and confused as the lady who wrote the aforementioned post. It’s a superhero prom, and there’s a whole year or two of schoolwork that needs to be done before you can go.

This isn’t new. Ever since the rise of the event miniseries (and crossover stories) in the mid-to-late 80s, and the coinciding rise of the direct market, the comic industry has been moving along a path that’s more insular and self-referential. There have been positive blips here and there, but by and large the big two have continued to cater increasingly towards the extant fans rather than actively encourage new fans.

The companies might disagree with this, citing the lines such as Marvel Adventures, Ultimate Marvel, and Johnny DC, but the fact is that the bulk of their advertising and energy is dedicated to the core lines.

(Marvel may Ultimate Line might be an exception, but after eight years, it’s carrying a fair amount of baggage of its own. While it may only have a few ongoing books, it is at the point where knowledge of the history is fairly critical to understanding the actions in a given book. Additionally, while Ultimate Spider-Man may still be appealing and aimed at a newcomer market, the other Ultimate books are very uneven in tone comparatively. If I were introducing someone to Ultimate Spider-Man, I’d be a bit concerned if that person later picked up the Ultimates and found a horny Hulk wanting to eat Freddie Prinze Jr. It just doesn’t mesh.)

That’s really a shame, because the two junior lines are chock full of some fantastic comic material. DC’s recent Tiny Titans is wonderful, a book of sheer joy that I’ve not experienced outside of Azuma’s Yotsuba&. And anything Jeff Parker writes for Marvel Adventures distills superheroic action down to its core principles without requiring a huge backstory. In DC’s case, these junior books are largely tie ins to the phenomenally successful (and usually very well written) animated series, but

Of course, once you venture into the main universes, there’s a slippery slope between the good and the tied in. Any book that demonstrates an ability to sell due to strong internal quality will invariably be given a crossover with another book to try and get some readers to try both. Conversely, any book that has strong internal quality but isn’t selling will get a crossover with another, more popular book to try and boost its sales.

Historically, neither case is likely to make the book better, or even keep it at the current level. The recent crossover between Checkmate and Outsiders showcases this extremely well. The quality for the storyline was well below the previous Checkmate stories. (Admittedly, it was a step up from previous Outsiders stories.)

Arguably, the crossovers aren’t likely to boost flagging sales in either direction. Indeed, it can backfire and cause a loss of fans. Many years ago, I was an avid Birds of Prey reader, but over one six month period I was greeted by four different crossover issues in two different Batman storylines. I had little interest in reading any other books in the line except Catwoman, and decided that BoP wasn’t worth it. (It took Gail Simone to get me back, and even that wasn’t immediate.)

This isn’t to say that all crossovers are bad. Sometimes a story can be constructed to gain the benefits of multiple books. But the reality is that most of these are marketing gimmicks. Designed to get the existing fans to buy as many different titles as possible, in hopes that they will keep buying said titles.

The miniseries event works much the same way. Many books in the company’s line will be tied into it in some fashion. Marvel did this brilliantly, from a marketing standpoint, with Civil War: well emblazoned logo across all titles showing that each book took part in this mega-event.

However, where does this leave the casual fan? What is one to do if there’s only one or two titles, out of the entire line, that appeal at all? The event has large ramifications that aren’t readily apparent. Sure, there’s the chance the reader could buy into the whole shebang and crossover to being a big fan, but that’s not likely.

If a newcomer starts in on comics, without familiarity, how do you introduce them? What books do you showcase?

More than likely, you might be showing them something from Marvel Adventures. Good books, sure, but they may get the distinct sense that they’re not catered to. And the industry isn’t constructed to get them to transition to the main lines. Some books are for kids and casual readers, the rest are for the fans who’ve been here for 20 years (and are shrinking as a group.)

Welcome to the recipe for disaster.

For long term growth (or at least sustainability), it would be more beneficial if books were allowed to live on their own terms, without the event tie-ins and crossovers. If the standalone fun of the Marvel Adventures were allowed to exist in the main universes.

It’s not likely. There’s a cycle of incestuous support to the industry. Fans buy into the big events, which boost sales numbers at the expense of smaller books, so the companies produce more of such work, which appeals to the fans, but not anyone else. And any smaller books are likely to be folded as the sales droop, which loses more fans.

I’m not saying that ALL events are bad. Marvel’s Annihilation was a brilliant story. But it succeeded largely because it was entirely self-contained. The mini-series involved only related to each-other. Likewise, Seven Soldiers of Victory was incredibly enjoyable. Both of these stories managed to provide the epic wonders that all events promise, without intruding on other books in the line, even though the effects of the stories could be felt elsewhere.

While such things could happen more, I’m not optimistic. I fully expect that next year we’ll be talking about the next big Marvel Event. Trinity will be coming to a close and DC will be pumping the next weekly series which will lead into another big event series. It’s a shame, because in that time, a number of highly enjoyable books with marginal numbers will be canceled.

After a while, these stop being epics. They just become epic failures.