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Cleaning up my longboxes

July 7, 2013

I’ve been looking at my “pull list”, the list of comics I buy regularly on Wednesdays, and it’s creeped up to over 50 titles, which is breaking the bank, not in a small way. Now, a fair portion of my list is mini-series and books that are published bi-monthly or even quarterly, but it’s still a big list, even for that.

Over the years, I’ve gotten into the habit of buying books until there’s enough of them to read in big batches, a reason why this crept up on me almost invisibly. Over the weekend, I sorted out my longboxes and took a long look at what I’ve been buying over the last 6-8 months, and have come to the inescapable conclusion that Marvel and DC just aren’t doing it for me right now.

I’ve thrown up my hands in disgust, at both Marvel and DC, several times over the decades, publicly vowing that “enough is enough” and I would never return. And, of course, I always come back.

I won’t throw my hands up again, but I am walking away from them for awhile.

DC seems to be a nightmarish swamp of bad decision-making, merging both Wildstorm and most of Vertigo back into the main DC Universe for seemingly no discernible reason. None of the “New 52” revamps are working out. There’s enough Bat-people to create another branch of the US armed forces.

Marvel’s current flagship product, the Avengers line, was going along fine under Bendis. I loved the writing, and although it dragged in spots and occasionally sagged under the weight of yearly tie-ins and too many concurrent titles, I liked it. It brought me back to Marvel. They’ve moved Bendis to the X-titles (where he seems completely lost) last year, and doubled the Avengers titles on the market. When you add retailer incentive covers, bi-weekly publishing schedules, and every major character having at least two titles, the whole Marvel line becomes expensive. Layer onto that the fact that Marvel never cleaned up all the fractures in their universe after Onslaught, and are now blithely rewriting history to make the comics look more like the movies, and you have a fairly large mess on your hands.

What I’m having trouble understanding is why both companies, who right into the 1980’s boasted alternative titles to superheroes, will now produce nothing else. Right into the 1960’s, DC’s had a ton of non-cape titles floating around, and Stan Lee’s written as many Millie the Model scripts as he has for Spiderman.

Both companies have access to creators who want (and are capable) of writing something other than capes (Matt Fraction, Warren Ellis, Brian Michael Bendis, Brian Wood).

I have nothing against superheroes. Some of my favorite comics are superhero comics: Miller’s run on Daredevil, the Byrne/Cockrum/Claremont X-Men’s, Miller’s Dark Knight, Bendis’ run on Avengers and Powers.

But, I’m tired of having to collect 10 titles a month just to understand what’s going on in just one corner of either the DC or Marvel universe. And how many times can you watch Thor and Hulk beat the crap out of each other?

I’ll also say this: I’m moving into my mid-40’s, and part of this griping is age-related, pure and simple. Comics have evolved, along with printing and distribution, and “my” comics died out in the 1980’s. Some of this is nostalgia.

Over the summer, I’m going to be paring down my list and focusing on reading some of the books I’ve accumulated over the last year. It looks like I’ll be reading very little superhero titles.

I can say, IMHO, that these are some of the best titles on the market right now:

The Massive (Dark Horse): Brian Wood’s eco-disaster comic is a direct descendant of his equally brilliant DMZ and Channel Zero before it. The characters are sharp, the artwork is consistently dazzling, and his ability to create a near-future world from current trends is amazing.

Saga (Image): Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples have built a science fantasy to rival Moonshadow and Starstruck. This is probably the most amazing book on the market right now. You Should Go Buy This.

The Manhattan Projects (Image): What if all the cold-war scientists (Einstein, Oppenheimer, Feynman, Fermi, von Braun) wanted to rule the world? And got away with it? Jonathan Hickman takes this premise and amps the suspense with every issue.

East of West (Image): another Hickman book. This time, Death has come to Earth searching for…his wife? And killing everyone who gets in his way.

Hawkeye (Marvel): Matt Fraction’s take on what Hawkeye does when he isn’t in his tights is probably the best book Marvel is publishing right now. From the bumbling Russian track-suit mafia to his budding relationship with Kate Bishop (another super-archer) to the incomparable Pizza Dog, this book is like mixing Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction with Whedon’s Avengers. I’m on this ride till it crashes into Dr. Doom’s castle.

Rachel Rising (Abstract): Terry Moore walked away from Strangers in Paradise and followed it up with Echo, a great sci-fi series. He’s now writing a horror romp with Rachel Rising. Like Echo, I suspect you’ll find references back to SIP in this, but Moore’s consistent monthly schedule, beautiful art, and tight plots make reading his work a joy. You know ahead of time that the book will move consistently forward and keep you on your toes.

I have many other books I’m collecting right now, but those are the ones I wait for every month.

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. July 7, 2013 4:04 am

    One thing I’ll say is that I don’t believe you do need to buy that many books to understand what’s happening. For one thing, the recaps will actually tell you what you need to know anyway. More important, all you ever really need to do to understand what’s going on in the comic you’re reading is to read that comic. Yeah, there’s some references you won’t really get if you haven’t read the previous issues, but those are mostly details. All you really need to do is just accept what’s there, and go with it. I’m willing to bet money it’s what you did when first started reading comics as a kid; you’d find random issues of random comics, and you wouldn’t have read what came before, but you’d still enjoy it, because you just accepted that things are the way they are.

    Another thing I’ll say, though, is that Marvel’s lines aren’t too bad, right now, as far as interconnectivity goes. Hickman’s Avengers and New Avengers are almost certainly going to tie together, because it’s what Hickman does, but Uncanny Avengers is separate, and so is Young Avengers, and Avengers Assemble. All-New X-Men and Uncanny X-Men have some ties, because they’re both Bendis (and for the record, I found his Avengers run to be mediocre, too impersonal, while I’m loving his X-Men stuff), but Astonishing, Legacy, adjectiveless X-Men, Uncanny X-Force, Cable and X-Force, and Wolverine and the X-Men are all largely doing their own things. Even the Bendis books have moved apart of late. So you don’t need to read any one X-Men book to understand what’s going on in any other X-Men book. And the same holds true for the Avengers.

    Of course, both franchises are moving into events – Infinity for the Avengers, Battle of the Atom for the X-Men. Even so, I suspect that, by and large, you won’t even need to bother reading the events to understand how they relate to any books you’re reading that tie into it.

    As for why both companies are so reluctant to write non-superhero books, the answer is simple: They don’t sell. In fact, NOTHING sells unless it has the Big Characters in it, the ones who’ve been around since the ’60s (or earlier). The sad truth is that Marvel has no real reason to put out, say, another volume of Man-Thing, because nobody’s going to buy it. Nobody’s going to buy a Millie the Model-type book. If it doesn’t have Batman or Wolverine, people just don’t give a damn at this point.

    • Jeff Wyonch permalink*
      July 7, 2013 4:12 am

      On the topic of whether non-cape books sell, I have 3 words: The Walking Dead. And I’ll follow that up with: DC’s sales are in the toilet right now, so obviously capes aren’t doing it for them.

      You have a reasonable point in that I never followed anything other than the main Bendis Avengers titles and could understand them, mostly. But I knew that getting everything was important if you wanted to understand the whole picture. I’m just not willing to do that anymore.

      I’m willing to agree to disagree, though. Like I said in the post, I always come back for runs on things from both publishers when they put out something that interests me. Right now, they got mostly nothing, at least for me.

      • July 7, 2013 5:45 am

        The Walking Dead is one of the very few exceptions. And DC’s sales are strong on certain books – Batman, Superman, and the like. The Big Character ones are doing well, for the most part. For the most part, for Marvel and DC, if it doesn’t have any of their Big Characters, it doesn’t sell.

        And one of my big peeves is the idea that if someone doesn’t read one thing they won’t understand something else. I think that viewpoint is bullshit, and I think it’s part of what turns people off of comics. Understanding comics is easy. You just have to accept what’s going on in the issue in your hands. That’s it. I don’t read DC. I haven’t read anything from DC since the mid-’90s. But there is not a doubt in my mind that I could pick up an issue of any series they’re putting out right now, and more or less understand what’s going on. Even if I’ve never even heard of a single character appearing in the comic, I’ll understand it. It’s just a matter of not overthinking things, of simply accepting that what’s on the page is what’s happening.

        I just think comic book readers need to be better at catching onto that, and about spreading that message. We need to stop spreading the perception that comics are impossible to understand, because they’re really not.

      • Jeff Wyonch permalink*
        July 7, 2013 6:42 am

        Is Adventure Time also an exception? Transmetropolitan? Sandman? Bone? Cerebus? Preacher? Strangers in Paradise? Both Saga and Manhattan Projects have gone to multiple printings.

        There are many great books that sell very well. Terry Moore and Jeff Smith both eat very well. So would Mark Millar and Warren Ellis, even if they never did another cape book again.

        So I think there are more exceptions then you might think. And I grew up in the middle of the creator rights revolution in the 1980’s, so diversity in publishers and genres is a pet peeve for me.

        I think what turns people off comics is walking into a retailers shop and seeing nothing but superheroes. The North American industry has a strong perception issue that isn’t present in European or Japanese markets that have a strong diversity of genre offerings.

        I worked in a retail book store for 7 years, ordering stock and tracking sales figures, and I can say from personal experience that diversity of genre matters to sales. Yes, there is a core set of books that are perennials or current best-sellers, but they are supported by a very large long tail of books that don’t have their sales figures, but are important for maintaining walk-in traffic and browsing. Without that long tail, a bookstore is just a drug-store best-seller spinner. And you can’t pay the rent with that.

        So, if your sales argument is that Marvel and DC should only ever produce books that have high sales figures, that they should support sales models that crowd diversity off the shelves, and that the retailers should put up with it because capes sell, then those retailers will be shooting themselves in the foot. Considering that the comics specialty store market in North America has shrunk in the last 10 years instead of expanding, I don’t think Marvel and DC are helping anyone, including themselves, by locking themselves into a single genre.

        I guess you can pick up any comic and read the story for what it is. Just like you can watch Season 6 of The Big Bang Theory and eventually pick up all that’s going on. But you’d probably appreciate it more if you watched the previous 5 seasons. And yes, I just finished Age of Ultron without reading a single tie-in and got it. Same for Civil War and the last 5 tie-ins. But I always knew in the back of my head there were pieces missing. And it bothered me.

        So, we may be speaking about different things, there. I’m not necessarily talking about comics literacy. Although I wouldn’t hand Transmetropolitan to a kid. And I think something like Alan Moore’s Lost Girls or Dylan Horrocks’ Hicksville, while easy on the surface, deserve many re-readings to get it all.

        Thanks for the comments. Agreeing to disagree…
        Jeff

      • July 7, 2013 8:07 am

        My thinking is actually that you could pick up an Age of Ultron tie-in and understand it even without reading the main event. Here’s my thing with the “you need to read that to understand this” argument: If you watch Star Wars for the first time, there’s a lot of stuff being thrown at you off the bat that doesn’t really get explained. There’s a reference to Clone Wars, but there has never been a single person who’s watched Star Wars and thought, “Wait, Clone Wars? Am I going to be missing something by not knowing what that is?” Every piece of fiction has backstory that usually doesn’t really get explored, but people accept it. That doesn’t seem to be extended to comic books, though. To continue using AU tie-ins: If I pick up Avengers Assemble #15AU (which was an amazing issue, one of the best of the year) without reading AU, there’s no reason why I should have trouble understanding what’s going on. Ultron’s conquered the world – boom. That is literally all the backstory I need to know to enjoy the issue. Any other comics are the like the Star Wars Expanded Universe – there if I want more details and more stories, but by no means necessary for the enjoyment of the story I’m reading. And I think that’s really what we need to be telling people who might be thinking of getting into comics. Saying it’s hard to understand what’s going on is just going to scare them away. Teaching them how to just go with what’s on the page will make them more comfortable, and more willing to try comics out.

        As far as sales go, it’s worth noting that a lot of the ones you mentioned are older comics. Adventure Time is a popular cartoon, so it gets a sales boost from that. Even then, it’s barely in the top 100. In fact, if you look at the sales charts for, say, April of this year, only 5 books in the top 50 aren’t from Marvel or DC, and one of them is Star Wars. Only 10 of the top 100 aren’t Marvel or DC. May had only 9. Superhero comics still dominate the sales charts. And any time Marvel or DC try something different, it fails, because readers want to stick with what they’re familiar with. That means the Avengers and the Justice League, the X-Men and the Titans, Spider-Man and Superman, Wolverine and Batman. DC’s Fables is different, and its sales are only around 16 000.

        In theory, I agree that they should be diversifying their lines. In practice, any attempts they make to do so fail because they just don’t have the sales to support it. They’re in the business of making money, so of course they can only put out books that make them money. Unfortunately, Dark Tower and All-Star Western don’t make them money.

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