Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Modern Comics and the Identity Crisis

Stan Lee is a great person, and the things he's done for the comic industry (and by extension, America's media empire) are undeniably some of the most valuable works to come out of the United States. Unfortunately, his great epic inspired a bit too much in the world's creative youth. While Lee's united continuity worked when it was he and Kirby juggling five or six titles at a time, it quickly became an unmanageable web, ensnaring within its sprawling threads the far reaches of mainstream comic books. While it's cool that a united universe can bring us great things such as The Avengers and open our minds to the possibility that Norse gods can coexist with those of Greece and wage war with the inhabitants of far-flung planets, it has also created a great deal of conundrums. Problems which the industry seems incapable of working out.

I'm not merely talking about the obvious continuity errors and mad-dash retcons. While those are clearly a cast of negatives in this whole connectivity crisis, they are far from the most infuriating aspect. And they've been discussed ad nauseum, and I'm not looking to add my voice to that pit (tonight). What I'm talking about has more to do with the Connectivity Crisis and its influence on our world, and the innumerable migraines it has caused to me and, I'm sure, countless others.

This all came about a long time ago--half-a-decade actually, in 2007--when I really got hard into comic books. I mean, I always loved comics, but pre-2007 the only ones I bought were Archie's Sonic the Hedgehog books, and even my purchase of those was sporadic (and still is... think I'll look at a subscription). Summer of 2007 saw my move, and between one town and the next I discovered the glorious Jetpack Comics. It wasn't my first comic shop (most of my Sonic backlog came from New England Comics, and as a lad I'd made a weekly stop-in at a place called Paperback Bazaar, which I miss), but it was the first I entered with the explicit mindset of immersing myself within this sub-culture. Having no reliable transportation, I haven't really made myself part of whatever community I'm sure forms around all comic shops, but it is my place of choice should a comic need arise.

Now, I discovered Jetpack Comics during a time of firsts. I arrived and discovered a new Hellboy miniseries launching, and beside it a new B.P.R.D., which I didn't even know had its own series. Then Marvel came out with New Warriors, and Nova--books which I recognized from my dad's pre-90's collection. Those were okay, but Marvel wasn't done; Thor, one of my personal favorites, got a reboot, and he wasn't a robot this time! Tony Stark was dealing with Hypervelocity, and on the other front Green Arrow and Black Canary had just gotten hitched and Bart Allen was the self-proclaimed Fastest Man Alive. It was all good times for me, and I still have a lot of fun tearing into the ol' box and reading a few issues here and there.

By the end of it all I had amassed about half the run of Teen Titans Go!, picked up a few Batman Beyond books, yawned through the first Dark Tower mini, and been infected with Marvel Zombies. Abe Sapien and Lobster Johnson were getting spin-offs, the Metal Men were entering their own monthly, and I was beyond broke. That brokeness cleared my head a bit, pulled me off the ink-induced high and made me look at the shelves with a little more scrutiny.

How many Spider-Man books were there? Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four, Spider-Man Loves Mary Jane, The Amazing Spider-Man, The Spectacular Spider-Man, Spider-Man, oh, it just goes on! And the spin-offs! Venom had his own book at the time, and there's always (and thankfully) Spider-Girl. Not to mention each title Spidey showed up in. I think he was a frequent member of the Avengers at the time, and he seemed to appear or have a relation to every other book Marvel published at the time. The ones without him had Wolverine, and the ones without him had the Punisher. We're seeing this now with the over-saturation of Deadpool (how many books does one hero need?).

Well, looking into my wallet and watching the price of comics rise, and realizing just how many books I'd have to buy every month just to keep up with all that was going on or with one single storyline all really put me off comics. At least, off the Big Two. I mean, I still love all those heroes, and I even love most of the stories there... I just don't love going broke for it. That's what it's all about though, right? I mean, of course that's what it's all about. If they string one story thread thin enough that it can circulate through twelve titles a month, that's forty-eight dollars a month per devoted reader right now. It's madness.

Recognizing the inanity for what it was, I swore off comics for the most part. I'll still pick up something like Sonic or based off a cartoon now and then, but I really stay pretty far away from those convoluted conjoined universes. That doesn't, however, mean that I want to stay away from them. And the perfect solution for a guy like me happens to exist: collected editions. These marvelous books put the monthlies to shame when it comes to quality and price. Paperbacks usually don't run you more than ten dollars, and the book is built to survive shelf-life. They're affordable, they're nice, most of them are a little larger than the comics themselves (which makes them the HD equivalent, as opposed to digest-sized collections which I'm slowly weeding out). These would be great if it weren't for one little thing...

...The Connectivity Crisis. Because the stories are crafted in ways that entice readers to purchase twelve different titles a month, the collected editions can't exclusively feature issues from one title, even when they claim to be the collections of that title. For instance, by the time you get to the third collected volume of Green Lantern Corps you've hit the Sinestro War, and that involves the primary Green Lantern title as well as a few sideshows. While it might seem like a boon to get these other titles for "free", I assure you, it's a nightmare. In purchasing these collections, you lose all sense of how to file them. Do they go with Green Lantern or Green Lantern Corps? Do you have a separate box for Sinestro War?

But I understand. By the time the books get to the teams responsible for compiling them into a single volume, the executives have had their way with the whole thing and it's a mess. If the teams choose to strictly compile a series into collections issue after issue without deviating from the title, they run the risk of pissing off readers who are now only getting bits and pieces of a storyline, and are utterly confused when they turn to page to find their favorite character was killed off in some other book. On that same note, I wonder how the monthlies get by with doing this kind of thing... Oh well.

Still, I think it would be way easier to manage if the story lines (with the exception of very clear miniseries, such as Hypervelocity) were ignored in favor of title compilation. Readers can handle picking up the Spectacular Spider-Man volume and grabbing Amazing if they want to follow a particular plot thread. I believe all individuals are capable of this without too much fuss. And hey, accountants, this plays right into your usual method of delivering the stories. Have at it, please!

Or, better yet, stop this massive cross-orgy! I mean, the things can coexist without constantly being in each other's homes, right? Is it so hard to, say, suspend Green Lantern and Corps for a little while and launch a new series featuring this particular War of the Rings event? Just one story, one title, and when it ends you can resume business as usual? Or to maybe write the stories in ways that don't require reading everything you publish? It would be nice, is all, to have an organized system here, instead of the clusterfuck that seems to be favored.

But if you want to insist on keeping everything locked in this money-pinch Connectivity Crisis, have the decency to utilize technology that makes it easier on your readers to collect and organize how they'd like. Print on demands a simple thing, get in touch with Amazon. Just program a few apps on your website, let the readers mix and match which issues they'd like printed into a single volume, and you're done. The mess you've created, it needs to be dealt with.

And one other thing about the whole eternal crossover business: there's no franchises anymore. It used to be that the franchises were Superman, Batman, Spider-Man, etc. Now the only franchises are DC and Marvel. In the attempt to emulate and enlarge the style of Stan Lee, the publishers have taken the unique characterizations crafted for specific purposes and turned them into a bland mess. Crossovers are cool, and there's no problem with having them on a frequent basis. But it kind of hurts everything if Wolverine becomes a regular in... well, everything. He has his place. Try to keep him there.

Now, I'm going to back to sorting through this chaos... somebody's gotta manage it all...