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Comicscape January 26, 2005

The Penultimate Column: Disturbing Trends in Comics

By Tony Whitt     January 26, 2005


Cover to AVENGERS 500 DIRECTOR'S CUT.
© Marvel Comics
My thanks to everyone who has already written in with well wishes for my future success, and to those who wrote in with suggestions for my last two columns. Of the many interesting ones that came in, the one that had the sort of "last word" quality that seemed to suit a pair of "final" columns - came from Nick Leshi, who wrote, "How about an overview of the trends you've seen in comics over the few years you've been doing your CINESCAPEcolumn?" I figured I'd go you one better this week, I'll talk about the trends I've observed that have nearly driven any hope for the future of comics entirely from me. Next week, I'll give you the opportunity to do one final reader response (to me, anyway) about what trends and/or developments are giving you renewed hope about the future of comics. In other words, I'd like to know what you're looking forward to most (besides a COMICSCAPE column without all the silly jokes in the listings, that is). I'm starting with the disturbing trends first simply because that's the sort of "up" guy I am and if you disagree with me about them, well, too bad, because I'm leaving. N'yah. Then next week, we'll leave everything on a positive note unless you can't come up with anything encouraging, either. So, here we go!



REBOOTS, RELOADS, RETREADS: It's as inevitable as death and taxes: as soon as a title or franchise seems stable or hits a state of equilibrium, the Powers That Be decide to restart it from scratch or reformat it, "just to shake things up a bit." There's one primary fiction at work in these actions: if something is "new", it's bound to be more appealing than something already established. Thus we get such "events" as "X-Men: Reloaded", which implies that the X-Men franchise is akin to a buggy computer program that one can fix by simply rebooting the machine, whether it needs it or not; CAPTAIN MARVEL getting restarted with #1 in the "U Decide!" campaign simply to boost its flagging sales sad to say, but it didn't help much; LEGION OF SUPER-HEROES beginning at number one, again, for the second time since 2000, for reasons just as nebulous as the first one; the restarting of both CAPTAIN AMERICA and IRON MAN (in the case of the first one, after that title had just been rebooted post-9/11); Bendis' much-criticized "Avengers Disassembled"; and so on, and on, and on... I know this list seems pretty Marvel-heavy, but I'm sure if you cast your memory back, you'll find equally egregious examples in the DC camp. Even things as simple as changes in creative teams are now hailed as "new chapters in the epic saga of So-And-So" and it's here we see DC come into its own, touting how "new" SUPERMAN, BATMAN, and JLA have become simply because a new writer has taken over. And when does this not happen when a new writer takes over? Whether it's necessarily a "new" trend or not, the comics industry still appears to be paying more attention to Ezra Pound ("Make it new") than to several other, wiser, and less Fascist people ("If it ain't broke, don't fix it").



STORY ARCS AND TRADE PAPERBACKS: The industry also has slowly drifted further and further away from discrete stories told in a single issue or a pair or trio of issues to stories that can only be told in groups of five issues or more the better to sell you a collected trade paperback later, my dear. I've heard some people actually claim that monthly issues will eventually become a thing of the past and that the only comics we'll ever see are those nine to twenty bucks a pop collections of "chapters" in a story arc. That's probably not all that likely to happen as little as I know about the industry, I can make a solid guess that it would collapse were it not for the steady monthly income it makes from monthly titles but given the proliferation of trades out there, you really can't blame people for thinking that. "Stand-alone" issues are now something of a relatively rarity, and when they occur, they're called "jumping on points" for readers new to the book. This also

Cover to AVENGERS 500 DIRECTOR'S CUT.

feeds into the "reboot" problem, particularly the bait-and-switch tactic of a company announcing that a new creative team is joining a title, then only giving that team a six-month run. I remember prepping my first major interview with a creative team, Jeph Loeb and Jim Lee, when it was announced they were taking over BATMAN, and asking them all sorts of questions about the "new direction" they'd be taking the character in. Imagine my embarrassment to discover that the "Hush" storyline they were writing would only be for twelve issues. Granted, a year-long run is pretty decent, but why announce it as something "new" for a book when someone's coming along in another year or six months to take it in another new direction? Answer: more opportunities to sell trades! True, there are still some decent one-shot stories being told out there the recent HUMAN TARGET #18, for example, is one of the best comics stories I've ever read, hands down but the story arc format has been with us since long before Neil Gaiman told those beautifully lengthy stories in THE SANDMAN, and whether it's for good or for ill I can't really say yet. Seeing all those trades out there is pretty annoying, though. And that brings me to the next disturbing trend...



THE GLUTTING OF THE MARKET: Have you noticed lately how many actual titles there are out there, and how many imprints each of the Big Two has under its belt? Marvel alone has its Ultimates line, its Marvel Age line, its MAX line, its Icon line, its Marvel Knights line, and now its Marvel Next line. (I'd mention the Epic line, but certain people get understandably teary when I bring that up.) DC is no better, even if it's a tad more diverse, offering us Vertigo, Wildstorm, Focus, ABC, 2000 AD, Humanoids, CMX... It's as if the Big Two decided to create a line for every single sub-genre out there in a bid to corner the market. It's also led to a proliferation of new series, ranging from those which seemingly have no real raison d'Ítre (MANHUNTER, anyone?) to those which have no real reason to continue (ALPHA FLIGHT, anyone? Anyone?). I used to think only Marvel was guilty of this sort of thing, since it mirrors the pattern they established for themselves in the 1970s and the 1990s (remember all those series that premiered, such as OMEGA THE UNKNOWN and 2001, that never made it past their first year?), but then I remembered that DC was just as bad at this sort of thing (RAGSMAN - I rest my case). Sure, this has led to some surprisingly good books I'm told by many readers that BLOODHOUND, a series that looked to me like the comics' equivalent of a mid-season replacement, is a strong read but it's also led to some surprisingly bad ones (people are still howling over John Byrne's DOOM PATROL - probably because they sat through that six-issue long prologue to it in JLA...). But the worst offender has to be Marvel's pumping out the X-Titles, which leads me to...

MUTANTS, MUTANTS, MUTANTS: Goddamn, but there are a lot of mutant titles out there right now! (And yes, this is a complaint

DC: THE NEW FRONTIER.

[specifically leveled at Marvel, so hush.) Let's see...this month alone on the stands we have X-MEN, UNCANNY X-MEN, ASTONISHING X-MEN, EXCALIBUR, NEW X-MEN, DISTRICT X, X-FORCE (but don't worry, it's almost gone), and EXILES. Then we get the solo titles: NIGHTCRAWLER, WOLVERINE, ROGUE, MYSTIQUE, GAMBIT. Then there are the miniseries (X-MEN: PHOENIX ENDSONG, X-MEN/FANTASTIC FOUR) and the titles that are best described as "X-Men-related" (CABLE/DEADPOOL). Then there's X-MEN UNLIMITED to look forward to on its bimonthly schedule, to say nothing of all those Wolverine miniseries and one-shots we were subjected to a little while ago for that character's "anniversary"... Good Lord, it's like we stepped into a time machine and traveled back ten years! How many friggin' mutant titles do we need, anyway? Spider-Man comes a close second for titles devoted to him, but I can handle reading more Peter Parker I don't know how much more mutant stuff I can handle, unless Joss Whedon is writing it.



"SPECIAL" ISSUES: I've also noticed a great deal of books that have seemingly been put out strictly as promotional material in other words, they have no real value in and of themselves except to spark more sales for the titles they're tied to; or to create the feeling that said book is "collectible" and will spike in value in years to come. Some of you have already told me how you feel you're stepping into the Way-Back Machine whenever you see a solicitation for a "variant cover", and certainly this particularly 90s-esque phenomena looks like it's been making a comeback, not only at the Big Two but at other comics companies who should know better. (How many damn variant covers of FRANKENSTEIN MOBSTER do we need, really?) Then there are the "informative" books like the OFFICIAL HANDBOOK OF THE MARVEL UNIVERSE and DC's SECRET FILES, which charge an extra two or three bucks a pop just so you can read character bios for people you already know about, or read brief snippets of stories that can't appear in the titles they're promoting because those titles are in the middle of a story arc. And finally my personal favorite there are the "Director's Cut" variants, which charge an extra two or three bucks a pop just so you can read all sorts of "extras" like interviews cadged from web sites, artists fretting over the decision to move this panel here or there on this one single page, and ads for other books. It all comes together to support the last trend I've noticed and one which has probably dogged comics for longer than I've been reading or writing about them...



STYLE OVER SUBSTANCE: This may not be the best phrase for what I've been seeing, so let me describe the situation to you... A mini- or maxi-series is described as the thing that's going to change a set of characters or even an entire comics universe forever. The writer is a best-seller whether of comics or of novels, it doesn't matter which. The artist is described as "up and coming". The colorist is described as "up and coming". Even the bloody letterer is described as "up and coming". The book is plugged a good six months to a year before it hits the stands, whipping up reader enthusiasm to a fever pitch even before a single issue has been read by anybody. And then, when the book finally hits the stands...bleh. "This is what we've waited for all this time?" the readers ask. "This is the big, awe-inspiring change we were anticipating?" The book simply does not live up to all that hype, for one reason or another ("They did what to the Scarlet Witch? The killer of Sue Dibney was who? Superman did what to Thor?"), and life goes on...until the next hype fest.



There. That's what I'm talking about.



I'd probably have more hope for the future of comics, even with all those other factors in play, were it not for this one cropping up so often. True, there are

Jim Lee's BATMAN #608

books that live up to the hype, either because they were underhyped to begin with and thus surprise us by how excellent they are (SUPERMAN: RED SON springs immediately to mind) or because, gosh darn it, they were simply that good (both DC: THE NEW FRONTIER and JLA/AVENGERS come to mind in this category...no matter what Superman did to Thor). But for every DC: THE NEW FRONTIER, there's an IDENTITY CRISIS; for every WANTED, there's a LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN VOLUME II. I've also heard at least three comics creators bemoan the fact that, for as many good writers as there are in the industry today (Bendis, Straczynski, David, Milligan, Simone, Johns, and so forth), there are others who still crank out any old crap without reflecting on whether it's a truly decent story or not. (A recent DRABBLE comic strip had a computer with a "stupid-check" that would tell you if what you were writing was stupid and ask if you wanted to keep writing it anyway. There are a few in the industry who need such a utility on their computers or if they have it, they should stop pressing the "Yes" button.) There's a lot of good out there, but there's still a lot of bad. Hopefully the former is overpowering the latter...



So, if you've got some thoughts on the good that's out there that's going to make all these negative trends immaterial, or that will make us feel so expectant of things to come that we won't care about them, tell us about it! Send those things that give you hope for the future of comics to me either here or here by no later than midnight on Saturday, January 29, and I'll print the best ones and respond to them one more time. And as always, don't forget our discussion boards! In the meantime, here's this week's listings:



THIS WEEK:



Remember when Ben first clashed with the Hulk? No? It was only forty years ago, True Believer! Anyway, now's your chance to relive that halcyon moment - not the first moment you took the drug of the same name, mind you - in MARVEL AGE: FANTASTIC FOUR #12 ($2.25). And the first four issues of MARVEL AGE: HULK are collected in the HULK VOL 1: INVINCIBLE DIGEST digest trade paperback for $5.99. At prices like that, you can buy one for yourself and your kids!



And if your kids are not quite ready for the fun and frolic that is TEEN TITANS GO! #15($2.25), you can pick them up CARTOON NETWORK BLOCK PARTY #5 ($2.25). And if they don't appreciate that...smack 'em.



There's lots of rock-'em-sock-'em style robot action in the 2000 A.D. A.B.C. WARRIORS THE MEKNIFICENT SEVEN trade paperback for $12.95. I'd give you a longer description than that, but you know how complex these fancy European-style comics get. Too much for little ol' me to comprehend.



Peter must confront an old friend (whom we've of course never heard of before) turned dangerous villain in AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #516 ($2.25), while the past catches up with him in the appropriately named AMAZING SPIDER-MAN VOL 8: SINS PAST trade paperback for $12.99. Hint: that ain't Gwen!



Yet another Mighty Marvel imprint begins with ARANA: HEART OF THE SPIDER #1. You can also buy the variant edition at the same low price of $2.99, but honestly, why would you? This isn't 1996, after all...that thing ain't going up in value any time soon...



The retro-activity continues in a miniseries that'll make you mourn the Scarlet Witch going crazy that much more in AVENGERS: EARTH'S MIGHTIEST HEROES #6 (of 8, $3.50).



Only one Bat-title this week, but it's a doozy as Judd Winick continues his tenure with BATMAN #636 ($2.25). Totally reboot free!



It appears that Natasha is not as unique as we'd all thought when she investigates her origins in the Black Widow program in BLACK WIDOW #5 (OF 6, $2.99) Sounds like some kind of Soviet Weapon X thingee, dudn't it?



There's more of that fancy European-style action in CHALAND ANTHOLOGY VOL 2: FREDDY LOMBARD trade paperback for $14.95. If you're the sort who prefers to call that side item "Freedom Fries", then you're not likely to enjoy this.



Just in case you forgot that there was an event almost twenty years ago that really f**ked up DC continuity, the CRISIS ON INFINITE EARTHS trade paperback provides a reminder of the low, low price of $29.95.



From Dark Horse this week comes the BERSERK VOL 6 trade paperback for $13.95; Kurt Busiek's CONAN #12($2.99); SHI JU NEN #3 (Of 4, $2.99); and USAGI YOJIMBO #81 ($2.99). Just thought you'd like to know.



The Martian Manhunter is guest-starring in DOOM PATROL #8 ($2.50), which means it must be time to boost the sales...



Can even Mark Waid protect our team from the wrath of the Invisible Man? And no, we're not talking about the H.G. Wells character... Find out in FANTASTIC FOUR #522 ($2.99)!

In FLASH #218 ($2.25), we discover what drove Heat Wave to a life of crime - and it features art by Peter Snejbjerg! See? There had to be a "must-buy" somewhere in all this mess...



Image is shipping out fun for the whole family with AMAZING JOY BUZZARDS #1 ($2.95); SPAWN #142 ($2.50); and WITCHBLADE #82 ($2.99). In all that there's got to be something you can read...



The Golden Age fun comes to an end in JSA: STRANGE ADVENTURES #6 (OF 6, $3.50). Considering the Golden Age fun has come to an end so many times already, there's really not much you can say about that, is there?



The LEGION OF SUPER HEROES find out how hard it is to be rebels without a cause in #2of their newly rebooted series (see above for snappy commentary). It goes for $2.95, by the way.



With a title like MIGHTY LOVE, you'd think this softcover graphic novel by Howard Chaykin would feature some of the steamy sex that BLACK KISS used to. It doesn't - and for $17.95, it probably should.



The X-Men make an appearance in MYSTIQUE #23($2.99) - though which ones I'm not entirely sure. Will it be the Astonishing team? The New team? The Uncanny team? The...um, the other team? Pick up a copy and find out!



It's Year One again in NIGHTWING #102 ($2.25)? Geez, do we really have to?



Yet another waste of money and paper floats your way in the form of the OFFICIAL HANDBOOK MARVEL UNIVERSE: WOMEN OF MARVEL 2005 for $3.99. Honestly - they can't have added so many female characters in the last year that we'd need to keep track of them, can they?



Gwen's little girl keeps trying to get into Petey's pants in SPECTACULAR SPIDER-MAN #24 ($2.25). Will M.J. make it in time to lay down the whoop ass?



It's all new material in a story literally thirty years in the making as STOKER'S DRACULA continues with #3 (OF 4, $3.99). Just bear in mind: comics are not like wine, and they tend not to get better with age...



The team are still in the N-Zone - which has nothing to do with football - in ULTIMATE FANTASTIC FOUR #15 ($2.25); some issues or other get collected in the ULTIMATE SPIDER-MAN VOL 7: IRRESPONSIBLE trade paperback for $12.99; and the rip-off of "The Most Dangerous Game" continues in ULTIMATE X-MEN #55 ($2.25).



From Vertigo this week: Constantine's demonic offspring - all of whom look just like Keanu Reeves - continue to raise...um, hell, in HELLBLAZER #204($2.75); a two-part story that doesn't feature Keanu Reeves at all begins in LOSERS #20($2.95); and in WITCHING #8 ($2.95), Elsa tries teaching magic to Sook by making Keanu Reeves disappear. (No, not really.)



Although the story "The Torture of William Leather" in Wildstorm's PLANETARY #22 ($2.95) sounds like it's about S&M, it's not. Nor is there anything of the sort in the self-proclaimed "all-girl spy extravaganza" that is SLEEPER SEASON TWO #8 (OF 12, $2.95) - no matter how much you beg for it.



And finally, that pesky spooky ghost thingee is still scaring the crap out of the newbies in NEW X-MEN #9($2.99); there's a new Black King of the Hellfire Club (and I'm not even going to venture a joke on that one) in UNCANNY X-MEN #454 ($2.25); and that other Marvel Next title continues (but apparently, like myself, not for much longer) in X-23 #2 (OF 6, $2.99).



Have fun while it lasts, folks!


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