Monday, June 20, 2011

"You can't fire me because I quit"

In September, I'm going to stop buying monthly comic books from Marvel and DC. Yes, this decision was in part influenced by the DC relaunch. But there's more to it than that.

This is not a boycott

First, I want to make it clear that this is not a boycott. I'm not doing this out of spite or to punish DC or the direct market as a whole. I'm not angry or hurt or depressed about the recent announcements. I'm pretty sure that in September some of DC's new books will be good and some will be terrible. The majority of them will probably just be kind of mediocre. This is the way it has been since I started reading monthly comics (not that long ago) and I see no indication that it's about to change.

The one thing that is abundantly clear about the DC relaunch is that it's not all that it's cracked up to be. Underneath the superficial change (new costumes, younger characters, shuffled creative teams), it's going to be pretty much business as usual. There hasn't been a fundamental shift in the way DC approaches characters or stories. There's a lot of talk about attracting new readers, but I don't buy it. Putting Barbara Gordon in the Batgirl uniform, unmarrying Lois and Clark, putting a #1 on Action Comics, or trying to recreate the style and fashion sense of 1990s Image comics - nobody at DC (unless they are fucking idiots) can possibly believe that these things are going to attract new readers. Oh, sales might go up slightly, but it's going to be a blip on the radar as people who are already part of the Wednesday crowd decide to check things out, then quickly lose interest.

I think the problem with the way mainstream comics are conceived, produced and marketed is that DC and Marvel only ever seem to think about short-term sales boost. Everything they do, all their PR, all their event comics, all their big announcements, it's all designed to generate interest in what they are doing now, but there isn't really a sense that any thought going into building a long-term plan for that audience. And it also seems to rely on fans having a very short memory, because they keep using the same tricks over and over again and expect people to keep falling for them. But since the audience is shrinking rather than growing, one has to come to the conclusion that it's not working. People do, in fact, get tired of the same shit, and they move on to something else.

Existential crisis

This DC relaunch gave me a perfect opportunity for me to rethink my relationship with monthly comics. As a reader and as a consumer. And I came to the disturbing conclusion that I wasn't getting a lot of value for my money.

Think of it this way. I bought Chester Brown's graphic novel Paying for It last week. It's a nice little hardcover book, almost 300 pages, elegantly designed. It's written and drawn by a single author. It's about one thing. It has a beginning, a middle and an end. I knew exactly what I was getting when I decided to purchase it, and when I got home and sat down to read it, it was exactly what I expected.

I'm not saying anything about the quality of the book, whether I liked it or not, whether it was "good" or "bad." I'm just saying it is what it is. Nobody came to Chester Brown halfway through his book and said: "The next issue is going to be part of a crossover event with this and that comic. Try to fit that into your story somehow." The style of the drawings doesn't randomly change in the last chapters because they had to bring in a fill-in artist to finish it. No, this is the work of a single writer/artist, who had a vision, a story to tell, and he did it, and I bought it, and I read it.

This also happens with collaborations and books that are serialized. I have on my bookshelf Greg Rucka and Matthew Southworth's Stumptown, for example, or Evan Dorkin and Jill Thompson's Beasts of Burden. These books are satisfying to me. I don't get pissed off halfway through them because of stupid editorial decisions or unexpected shifts in creative teams. So it's not about having a single author, but about having a consistent creative team who share a vision and see it through to the end.

But superheroes are awesome!

On the other hand, superhero comics do have something that these other books don't have - namely, these characters that I know and love, who live in this vast shared universe and have been in publication for decades. That's true. And I do get something out of that that is different from what I get from other genres. But I never said I would stop reading superhero comics. I said I would stop buying monthly comic books from those companies.

There's a wealth of back issues available for me to explore. Some of them get collected in very nice hard cover editions and trade paperbacks. The ones that aren't are still usually available in back issues if you look for them hard enough. I have no intention to stop buying and reading those comics. I feel like it's easier to pick out the good stuff from the back catalogue. Because it's already finished and out there, so when you pick it up you know exactly what you're getting. No surprise, unsollicited fill-in artists.

Teen Titans #96 (consider this a review)

Consistency of creative teams is very important to me. Apparently, DC and Marvel think that this doesn't matter to most readers, and maybe they're right. But it matters to me and I just can't understand how people can put up with it. I've already complained about the train wreck that was the latest volume of Birds of Prey. Last week, I got another example of it when I picked up the latest issue of Teen Titans. I've been buying this book since the beginning of this creative team: J.T. Krul writing and Nicola Scott pencilling. I buy it for two reasons:

1. J.T. Krul has introduced a new character that I'm interested in - an Indian girl named Solstice.

2. Nicola Scott's art is beautiful.

We are currently right in the middle of a story arc. The Teen Titans are stuck in some kind of netherworld, trying to fight their way out of it. There are only two issues left (after last week's) and then not only does the story conclude but the series gets relaunched along with the rest of the DC Universe.

It's worth noting that Solstice, the character I am most interested in, and Nicola Scott, the artist whose art I love, are nowhere to be seen in September's relaunch. In spite of all the talk about diversity, somehow this young Indian woman who we were led to believe would be joining the Teen Titans got lost in the shuffle. And Nicola Scott's gorgeous art was replaced by the atrocious, painful-to-the-eyes ridiculousness of Brett Booth's 1990s Image-style craptacular costume redesigns, with all the superfluous straps, pouches, tattoos, and feathers you'd expect. How this makes ANY FUCKING SENSE WHATSOEVER is beyond me, but whatever. At least we have the last few issues of this story to look forward to, right?


Even though her name is on the cover of Teen Titans #96, Nicola Scott's art is absent from this comic book. I bought it thinking that I was going to get the next chapter in the story I've been following for several months by the same creative team, but that's not what I got. What I got was noticeably inferior art by a fill-in penciller and two fill-in inkers, whose names I won't bother mentioning because DC didn't even think they were worth putting on the cover.

Oh, was it a mistake? They forgot to update the cover? Was the cover already typeset by the time they realized that, in fact, Nicola Scott had not drawn and submited the 20 pages of art for this issue and they had to hire a new creative team and it all happened so fast nobody had time to change the cover? Or did they just let it slide knowing that a lot of people are buying this for Nicola Scott's art and that putting someone else's name on the cover might hurt the sales?

It doesn't matter. I don't care what the reasoning was. I don't care whose fault it is. The fact remains: I paid for something that I didn't want. I'm not interested in what they're doing with the Teen Titans in September. All I wanted was to get to the end of this story and have a few more issues of Nicola Scott's beautiful art to look at. Was that too much to ask?

Moving on

This kind of thing happens to me every week. Every single week, on Wednesday, I make my way over to the comic book store and I spend on average $30 on comic books. And every single time, at least one of those books pisses me off because of some unexpected fill-in artist or some other bullshit.

With that money, I could buy one or two graphic novels or collections. Wouldn't that make more sense? Wouldn't that be a better use of my money?

UPDATE/CLARIFICATION: Since I posted this, I've noticed a few people seemed to miss an important nuance. When I say I won't be buying monthly comics in September, I'm talking about mainline Marvel and DC only. I don't think the same problems apply to creator-owned works. Sweet Tooth, for example, doesn't get subjected to cross-over events or fill-in artists... unless Jeff Lemire specifically wants to let other people contribute to his story, as he did with the issues that featured Matt Kindt and others doing short stories. So with comics on Vertigo, Image, etc., there's less chances of being screwed over by editorial decisions.


D June 20, 2011 at 12:01 PM  

I stopped reading mainstream superhero comics about 12 years ago, for the reasons you're discussing here. This problem has been going on for a long time. When I made the decision, it was very much a matter of principle – I felt that Marvel & DC were more or less being dishonest, by advertising new creative teams, and then replacing them – sometimes after only 2 or 3 issues!

grace June 20, 2011 at 12:39 PM  

This post was extremely interesting to me because I have been going exactly the opposite direction. I've always read, here and there, graphic novels or something collected into trades (Sandman, Watchmen, Fun Home); within the past few years I got sucked into the comics community itself via friends, and then sucked into the weeklies. I'm only subscribed to, like, 4 things (none of the Marvel or DC, I don't think) but considering that last year at this time I was at zero, this is kind of a big leap.

But the things you're pointing out are some of the reasons it took me so long to get into this form. I read novels--I'm used to stories that start and end and have one arc and one author (ie, creative team). The idea of trusting a story based on character alone was completely foreign to me (and still is, mostly). You can have the coolest idea ever and the wrong touch will ruin it. But as I'm learning how comics "work" and which artists and writers I know and trust, I'm getting better at figuring out what I want to read.

But this is always one of the roadblocks to new comics readers that people are talking about--the thinking that you have to know a lot of things in order to get started. I'm lucky--I'm dating a comics encyclopedia man, and I can pick something up and he'll know enough about it and who made it to know if I'd want to risk it. Most people don't have that luxury.

Sorry, I veered a bit off topic. Basically: interesting post, thank you. :)

grace June 20, 2011 at 1:08 PM  

ahhh, re: your update

so we're basically doing the same thing now, but we arrived at it differently. cool.

*is bad at nuance*

Yan Basque June 20, 2011 at 1:40 PM  

Haha. It's okay. I should have made it clearer to begin with. You're not the only one who made that mistake. :)

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