Saturday, January 1, 2011

Myth Conception: Superhero Surplus!

Ron Marz wrote his latest weekly CBR column on the glut of superhero titles on the rack, and equates it with eating nothing but pizza every meal.  He is not alone in this assessment, and when you look at the new comics rack of your local comic shop, it feels natural to believe the industry has a superhero problem.

Ron Marz
My response?  Bull excrement.

My piece here is not an attempt call out Marz or lambaste his ideas, which make sense for the most part.  I get why he comes to the conclusions he does.  He's just wrong.  While it seems intuitive and has traction with highly regarded geniuses, the idea that comics' problems have anything to do with the number of superhero titles offered is demonstrably false.

What's interesting is that Marz has the antidote to his own false assumption buried in the argument:

"There are more good, diverse comics being published now than ever before. I firmly believe that. But in terms of copies sold, superheroes still rule the direct market roost. So we end up with a majority of what's published directed at a very narrow audience, and much less product directed at everyone else. Why is that? Are there too many superhero titles because that's what the existing audience demands of publishers? Or are there too many superhero titles because that's what publishers are forcing down the throats of the existing audience? Kind of a chicken-and-egg question, isn't it?"

 There are more good, diverse comics being published now than ever before.  That is the truth.  If the situation were that comics publisher stifled creativity or shelved new ideas in other genres, we would have a problem.  Particularly if the Big 2 were to stop trying to innovate or test different kinds of work, the medium could be artificially stunted.  But this is most demonstrably not the case.

Historical Fiction
Think about it carefully and ask yourself: what type of storytelling isn't readily available in comic book form?  I defy you to find one.  It's very easy to name off genres and find not one but a half dozen of every kind, whether you're interested in mysteries, horror, comedy, romance, biographies, period pieces, political thrillers, or westerns.  There are comics and in fact entire lines tailored to suit the tastes and needs of everyone from the youngest of new readers to the most sophisticated elite.

Are there a great many superhero titles on the racks?  Certainly.  But there is also Queen & Country, (black & white realistic spy book)and Fables, (modern fairy tales) and Beasts of Burden, (cute animals solving mysteries) and Age of Bronze,  (historical fiction about the Trojan War) and Jonah Hex, (straight John Wayne style gunslingin')and Scalped, (pure noir crime fiction) and Archie, still the king of teenaged romance and comedy.

NOT supehero fare
We have a comic currently being published at Image called Meta 4 in which an amnesiac astronaut is assisted in his search for self by a muscle-bound woman named Gasolina, and you mean to tell me that there isn't enough choice available?  I just saw on a comics rack recently a comic called The Saga of Rex, in which an adorable little fox is abducted by aliens and transported to the magical world of Edernia, where he befriends a quirky biomorph with a flying saucer.  And somebody wants to make a case that comics lack diversity???  It's nonsense.  Absolute nonsense.

But of course they don't sell.  They're always around, and nobody buys them.  Marz wonders if the cause is the audience or the publishers jamming things down our throats.  In point of fact it's the non-superhero titles that are jammed into holes that don't want them, and they fail time after time.  Where is that Minx line, any way?  It's gone.  Nobody wanted it, least of all the young women it courted.

So what's the problem, then?  If DC had created three of four Minx lines, would that have crowded the technicolor supers off the rack and made it fly?  I guess we'll never know, but I put the odds long against that.

ACME Novelty Libray Vol 20
Do the non-superhero titles suffer from lack of exposure?  I wonder if we could really make a case for that.  Ask yourself this: has any comic material in recent memory ever received as much love as Asterios Polyp?  I can't think of one, with the possible exception of the obligatory affection heaped annually upon Chris Ware and his ACME Novelty Library series.

Look at Comic Book Resources recent "Top 100" comics of 2010, and notice how it is incredibly representative of the unpurchased indies and away from the standard superhero fare.  Ifanboy's 2010 "Book of the Year"?  Afrodisiac, Adhouse books.  I'm not suggesting that it wasn't an honest or worthy choice, but I know this - you don't demonstrate your expertise or "cool factor" by extolling the virtues of The New Avengers.  Comics propaganda, where it is exists, slants always toward the hip and path less taken.  And I'm fine with that, by the way.

Does anybody with even a passing interest in comics NOT know about Love & Rockets, or Joe Sacco, or Blankets?  Are these well kept secrets that a backwards industry is shoving into a dark corner to force superheros onto a duped clientele?  Maybe I'm wrong about this, but I really don't think so.

Top Seller at Comix Experience
Certainly comic shops could help themselves a little more.  These books don't sell partially because retailers often don't sell them.  Asterios Polyp did well at Comix Experience in San Francisco because owner Brian Hibbs knows his customers and sold them the book.  He knew the product, matched it with customers who could reasonably be expected to enjoy it, and physically put it in their hands.  He offered store credit on a return if they weren't satisfied.  If you aren't talking up the gold you're sitting on, you don't have a genre problem - you have a commitment to your business problem.

I don't know. Perhaps there are comic shops out there that only order the X-Men and Batman.  I believe that such a shop exists.  Even so, this has never stopped a trend in the past.  The history of comics has (until recently) been a story of changing tastes from comic strip reprints to superheroes, to crime comics, to horror comics, etc.  Even in the midst of the superhero domination, a cult sensation like a black-and-white book about mutated ninja turtles will take the country by storm, if the country feels so inclined.

And that was back before the age of the internet and forum chatter.  Can anybody imagine a comics readership secretly pining for a new genre, if only they knew it existed?  It's completely preposterous in a day where word-of-mouth advertising is literally instant and global.  The idea that there is this huge dormant population of comics fans who simply don't know there's a superhero alternative is so absurd in 2011, and so distracting from the real issue.

Not all
The real issue is that nobody seems inclined to visit a comic shop anymore.  And it isn't just that civilian would-be readers aren't going, but of course they aren't.  I doubt most civilians even understand that comic shops still exist.  Even as the intellectual properties of comics produce billions at the box office, you'd never understand that from watching those films, because they either can't or simply won't mention it.  The problem is that even the existing base of comics readers is dwindling. It's hard to sell even superhero comics these days.

There are lots of reasons for that, none of which have to do with the superhero genre.  I have heard a lot of pithy punditry from a variety of sources about how "guys in underwear bashing each other" just can't sustain interest.  One hears this from all corners; from the esoteric and grouchy Alan Moore to the affable everyman Jimmy Palmiotti.  I think that argument is weak and does not hold up to even casual scrutiny.

To boil superhero books down to "guys in underwear bashing each other" is to engage in the laziest of reductive thinking.  Does that sound like James Robinson's Star Man?  Not to me, it doesn't, or any other rational human. How about Irredeemable?  Is that just a guy in underwear bashing things, or is that an examination of power and trust gone wrong?

Neil Gaiman maintains that comics are a medium, not a genre.  It's an empty glass that you can fill with almost anything.  He is correct.  I maintain that you can also fill the superhero genre with almost anything, and the reason why I maintain that is because I'm living and reading it. 

The sublime Secret Six

Ron Marz claims that superhero comics are just an endless stream of pizza.  I wonder if he's still reading them.  Some of the trappings look similar, but Ed Brubaker's Captain America and Palmiotti & Gray's Power Girl scratch very different itches.  They don't do the same things, are not constituted with the same nutrients.  They're both superhero books.  Compare Gail Simone's Birds of Prey with Secret Six.  Not only the same genre, but the same writer!  Are you going to read those two titles and tell me that they're homogeneous?  They're on different planets in terms of tone, theme, audience, objective.

The bottom line is that I detect no predilection on the publisher's parts to slavishly follow the superhero formula.  There's no conspiracy to keep non-superhero titles off the stands.  Marz never directly implicates the publishers, but if it isn't implied, what's his thesis then...that the retailers are mucking it up, or the customers should want things they don't want?

No, there is no conspiracy.  Marvel, in particular, is only interested in collecting its next nickel.  If they can do that selling books about puppies, they will do that.  If they can earn two nickels publishing adaptations of the Rachel Ray show, they will switch to that.  We have superheroes because that's what we want right now, and when we want something else, we'll just buy more copies of what's already out there.  Because if you always wanted to read about alien abducted foxes....comics have you covered.

- Ryan

1 comment:

Discount Comics said...

Ah yes, but the general movie audience seems more inclined to go see a superhero movie than something a bit more interesting. Maybe Judd Apatow or Todd Philips should start testing ideas using indy books!