25 January 2012

DESPERATE BUT NOT SERIOUS

I got an email from a prominent comic book retailer a few days back. He wanted to let me know that more and more of his customers are checking out Image's 2012 books, and how excited he was for the year to come. He predicted Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples' Saga would be likely be one of, if not the, biggest selling books of the year in his store.

It was an inspirational and uplifting message, but his kind words about Image's ongoing commitment to creating good comics – good new comics – only barely masked a seething disappointment with Marvel and DC. And not just on his part, but his customers' as well. He said readers were tired of being force-fed the same stories, as though nobody recognized they were regurgitating the same ideas – recent ones, even – again and again. He praised Image's commitment to maintaining a fair cover price on so many of our books, whilst Marvel and DC paid lip service to "holding the line" at $2.99. Worse, he bemoaned the increased frequency of Marvel's books, noting that readers might be excited by that if the quality was there, but concluding it simply wasn't.

That last part really made a dent in my thinking, because it's not the first time I've heard or read comments like that from a retailer. I think everyone has noticed that Marvel has started publishing a number of their books more than once a month. They've been ramping up on this for a while, and it's something I've kind of shook my head at, because it's a desperate ploy to gain marketshare that doesn't promote sustainability on any level. It's a cash grab, pure and simple, and when you couple that with the fact so many of their books are creeping up on $3.99, I shudder to think of the long-term effects.

And I can hear you shaking your own head now. Okay, maybe I can't hear you doing that, but I can imagine the chuckling: "Desperate? Marvel is the number one publisher in comics!" – but I'll stand by my words. When DC launched their new 52 last September, Marvel didn't fight back with awesome. They fought back with the only real tool in their shed: more. They're not increasing the frequency of their books out of generosity, they're doing it to dominate the market. And in the absence of anything even resembling new, all we get is more.

I mean, they keep doing these events that are based around the same mix and match concepts: Other characters get the Hulk's powers. Other characters get Spider-Man's powers. Other characters get hammers like Thor. Now, if that recent Iron Fist image from an upcoming issue of New Avengers is any indication, a bunch of characters will be imbued with the Phoenix Force. I know DC went green by using recycled paper, but maybe Marvel's trying to recycle in other ways.

Also central to these "ideas:" Everyone vs. everyone! I poked fun at this last week, when that hilarious Avengers vs. X-Men cover image was released online, but it's the truth. Civil War, House of M, World War Hulk, Secret Invasion, Shadowland, UltimatumFear Itself, Spider-Island, X-Men: Schism, and now, Avengers Vs. X-Men. It's all-out hero on hero action in the mighty Marvel manner, again and again and again.

These are not serious creative statements. It's more like a bored child reaching into the toy box trying to find new ways to wring some meager enjoyment out of faded old playthings. The fun lasts for a little while, but you can only tell yourself something's all-new and all-different so many times before those words ring hollow. Avengers vs. X-Men wasn't a new idea when Marvel did it in 1987, and it's not a new idea now.

Ultimately, though, it doesn't matter if it's new, or even if it's good. All that matters is that it sells, which it will. But it won't sell as well as the last big "event," and I'm willing to bet the one after that (and oh, don't you just know there will be one after that...) will sell even less.

That's why I use words like "desperate" and "sustainability." These "event" books – whether they're from Marvel or from DC, and whether it's Avengers vs. X-Men or Watchmen 2  – whatever – they're just short-term fixes. They spike sales, but they don't sustain interest. And instead of seriously looking for ways to engage new or lapsed readers over the long haul, it's just more of the same – an approach as worn out and tired as the phrase "wash, rinse, repeat."

That's worrisome to a growing number of retailers, like the one referenced above, but truthfully, it should be to anyone with an interest in this industry's future. We're at juncture where we can either embrace creativity and move forward...or we can just sit where we are and chew our own tails, month-in and month-out.

Me? I've kind of lost the taste for it.