Tuesday, July 4, 2017

OPINION: How I saved DC Comics (and by extension, the entire comic book industry) — Part I

So, what's wrong with comic books today . . . 
and how did they get that way?

As many of you know, I work as a newspaper reporter. Yes, I am a real life Clark Kent. And one thing that has always amazed me is the backflips of self-deception editors and publishers will perform to  explain the cratering of circulation in recent decades.

People have stopped reading newspapers, they'll claim with the utmost confidence,  because of the internet, or the economy, or, more lately, the hounds of hubris have declared the readers themselves are to blame. When editors are not complaining of short attention spans, or the Kardashians, or the short attention spans of Kardashians, they'll tell you the average person today is just too stupid to understand the importance of stating informed. They. Just. Don't. Get it.

As many of you know, I am also a life-long collector of comic books. I'm nearly 50 and cannot remember a time when comic books were not an integral, often all-consuming, part of my daily existence. And lately we've seen the same kind of excuse making come from that editorial area. Yes, for years the conventional wisdom has been that kids stopped reading comic book books because of television, or video games, or the internet. But lately we've seen the same blame-the-customer conception taking root. Readers are against diversity, we are told, or (and I've actually seen some creators say this on social media), they just "don't get it," — i.e. readers today don't know how to read comics, or why they should

Well, there's a certain amount of truth to that last statement, and I'll get to that in the moment. But I'm about to piss off every comic book professional who may stumble across this post in the same way I've become persona-non-grata to every newspaper publisher and editor I've ever worked for. Yes, industry power player, I'm going to make your blood boil by by asking you one simple question: To wit, have you ever considered the problem could be your product? That, maybe, it's just not that good?

And here's the thing, the fact that it's not that good is why many readers don't get how to read comics, and why they've turned away to other media. Readers didn't walk away from comics in favor of television or video games or the internet simply because those things exist, they did it, and continue to do it, because those other storytelling forms are a better entertainment value, and, also, more accessible. You can watch most any tv show and like it or not, decades of continuity knowledge is not a prerequisite for having Clue One about what's going on, and nobody has to learn how to watch a television screen.

So, before we wade too deep into solutions, lets spend a moment tracking the history of the problem.

GREEN LANTERN #80, Page 5, on-sale
August 25, 1970. ©DC Comics. An
example of page layout gone wrong.
The practiced comic book reader
knows who went mad for this book
knew to read from the first panel at
upper left to the next top panel, then
down. But for the casual buyer
everything in Panel 1 leads the eye to
the bottom panel, leading to hopeless
confusion and ultimate frustration.
To my mind, it all begins with Neal Adams.

Neal was THE hot property in his youth. The still-nascent fan press went coo-coo-go-nuts for his work, starting in the mid-1960s. And rightly so. Great stuff. Visually. But not always so much in terms of telling a story. Wonderful drawings, true, but with panels jutting back and forth across the page, characters breaking panel boarders with impunity, and all the effort put into the emotion of individual panels instead of how those many drawings hung together to advance the story, it all became more than a little confusing for the uninitiated. Each page was a work of art, and amazing art it was, but the art had stopped serving its primary function — to tell the story.

And so, casual readers — that is to say, the kids who read comics for a few years, buying them here and there as the mood struck them, rather than the hard-core geeks who were fanatic followers of everything on the stands — they began to turn away.

Now, it's true enough that distribution was also an issue. Comics have had a crime component from the beginning, and not merely as a subject genre. In fact, it's a fairly certain thing that DC owes it's existence to the mob connections of company (co-)founder Harry Donnenfeld. But by the late-1960s, the issue was not so much control of newsstand distribution by the mob, but the ease with which disreputable warehouse managers could simply lie about sales, and so pound away mad profits.

And here the fans were involved. Some young, enterprising comic book dealers would not want to spend the time and money needed to snatch up copies of Adams' GREEN LANTERN/GREEN ARROW series off the stands. Instead, they'd go direct to the distribution warehouse and make a deal to buy hundreds of copies at a time, at a deep discount from the newsstand price, before they ever went on sale. The distributor would then pocket that money by reporting the comics as unsold.

All of that is well documented, and so it is true enough that comic book fans played a large role in killing the comic book industry. But what I suggest to you is that the comics that did not immediately disappear into the back issue market were all but incomprehensible to many casual readers who bought comics off the stands. So, not only did DC lose sales to graft, but the comics that actually made it to newsstands didn't sell all that well. And yet, because of the fan press making a fuss, the publishers kept trying to replicate what a vocal minority of the readership wanted, in turn producing stuff the bulk of their buyers actually did not care for.

Now, to judge by the fan press of the time, you'd think GREEN LANTERN sold gangbusters. And, in truth, while pricy, it's not at all difficult to find issues today to put together a collection. But to judge by reported sales, you'd think issues of the series would be ultra-rare objects on the order of unicorns, leprechauns, and fiscally-responsible progressives.

According the Statement of Ownership and Circulation in GREEN LANTERN #89, the series had an average press run over the previous year of 276,000 copies per issue, but sold 147,188. That means better than 47 percent of all comics printed were either sold by collectors to collectors though back channels (which is why high-grade copies are so easy to find today) or else rejected at the newsstand. From DC's perspective, the title was less popular than WONDER WOMAN, HOUSE OF MYSTERY, and even SUGAR & SPIKE! All logic would seem to dictate that DC do more female leads and baby humor. And yet, it tried to give us more of what it could not sell, in part because it knew the open secret everybody shared — that certain comics were circulating in the fan community, even if they were't selling to the regular folk who didn't write fan letters, or (worse) making the company any money.

Now, at around the time Adams was befuddling casual consumers, those readers who were practiced in the fine art of reading comic books broke through, as the first wave of fans entered the field. Before this, comic book writers, editors, and artists were professional craftsmen, creating a commercial product for mass entertainment, things meant to be enjoyed and then largely disposed of once they'd served their  initial home entertainment purpose. Those artists and writers did not come by their paychecks having grown up as readers of comics books because, before them, such things did not exist. They created it. Sure, most were influenced by newspaper comics, but the comic book, and in particular the super-hero — they built that.

But the actual fans who turned pro, they approached the business of creating comic books with an entirely different sensibility from those who came before them, an those different from the vast majority of the readership at the time.

Already, Stan Lee was building a universe over at Marvel, and little-by-little DC followed suit. It wasn't just that the various characters existed in the same world and could team up from time to time — both companies had done such things going back to the dawn of the industry — but things began to coalesce into a cohesive whole. It wasn't just that Spider-Man could share an adventure with Daredevil. No, as it evolved, what happened in a Spider-Man comic book mattered to and could alter the course of events in a Daredevil book, even absent any crossover. And thus, continuity was born.

DC editor Julius Schwartz once famously responded to a fan letter which complained that characters from Saturn in two different issues of STRANGE ADVENTURES bore zero resemblance to each other by saying, in effect, shut up, it didn't matter. Continuity counted within the confines of the story, he said. Everything from beginning to end of a single tale had to be logically connected. But if two different stories offered up in two separate issues gave two totally different histories of civilization on the ringed planet, that did not affect to the quality of either individual story.

But then, all of a sudden, it did matter.

As fans entered the field, they brought their love of the medium with them, and, so, they naturally wanted to build upon what had come before. Connections were increased and deepened between the various titles at the Big 2 publishing companies. Suddenly, not only did some things matter, everything mattered, and the retcon (retroactive continuity) was created, thereby allowing these fan/pros to "fix" the many conflicting details that he grown up over the decades. From that point forward, you could not have a Saturn populated by red-skineed warlike demon men with pointed teeth and by yellow-skinned emotionless scientist with pointed ears without having an entire story, later an entire limited series, and eventually an giant inter-company crossover event, chronicling the full and complete history of Saturn from the dawn of time to the end of the universe, all to explain how such a discrepancy could have possibly happened.

Then DC made the worst mistake of its entire existence.

sale January 3, 1985 ©DC Comics.
Designed to streamline and simply DC's
shared universe and decades of story-
telling continuity, the result was instead
to make the company's comic books even
more insular and hard to unpack for all
buy the most diehard super-hero fans.
By the mid-'80s, the conventional wisdom among the back office bean counters was that comic book continuity had become needlessly complex. The wagging digit was pointed at the multiverse concept — what was, in truth, a simple and elegant means of explaining why different versions of the same character might exist, and to even allow them to appear occasionally in the same story, to the delight of fans of both characters.

Meanwhile, the fan/pro creators wanted to hit the reset button.

Once upon a time, the belief was that comic book readership completely turned over every three years or so. Kids, mostly boys (but not always in the early years), would discover comics, read them for a few years, then grow out of them as they developed new interests — like, say, for instance, girls. That was all fine and dandy during the Baby Boom, when the supply of new children must have seemed like an infinite well from which to draw sales revenue.

As an aside, it's probably not coincidental that America's first youth culture sprang up to serve a that Boomer population spike, and that comics, particularly Marvel Comics, grew and matured along with them. Marvel comics famously appealed to college-aged readers right when Baby Boomers first began going away to college. And, over the intervening decades, the median age of comic book readers has climbed steadily. We have "mature readers" comic books today at least in part because, as you can tell by hanging out for any length of time in any comic book store, the average reader is in his 30s at least, and more likely, like me, pushing 50.

There were, as mentioned tangentially above, real and serious problems with newsstand distribution that necessitated the creation of the direct sales market in the mid- to late-1970s. But it's also true that as the Baby Boom and Gen X generations grew, they began to do what any orgamism that grows old will do eventually — they began to die off. Problem was, those aging readers were not being replaced by new ones, not only not at the pace they had been at the height of the kiddie bubble, but by and large, at all.

End of aside.

Returning to the multiverse "problem" — as a way to "simplify" comics and give creators  fresh sandbox to play in, DC in 1985 initiated the first of many subsequent reboots. Marvel has taken similar steps over the years, though rarely in as dramatic and all-prevasive a fashion. I have always maintained that CRISIS ON INFINITE EARTHS was a fine idea. Even, a noble idea. But it should have concluded with the multiverse intact, leaving all previous worlds (and continuities) as places that remained in the hearts of fans who held each as a particular favorite, and this, remained as places that could be re-visited from time-to-time. The only change should have been to switch the story-telling focus, for some titles, to a new Earth, even if we elected to call it Earth-1 and renumber the previous holder of that designation. In short, Crisis should have been to 1985 what SHOWCASE was to 1956.

Instead, DC, in its wisdom, elected to smoosh all continuities into one world, and one timeline. From that point in, it was not possible to have different versions of, say, The Flash, for instance. All Flashes, evert single iteration, had to be connected somehow in a timeline that flowed one to the other. In his case, this was fairly easy, though the original had to be overhauled  couple of times as World War II receded into the past. In other case, the links were harder and convoluted to make. Hawkman was, and remains, a hot mess. But for the most part things would work okay for a while, until someone somewhere did something in one book that would necessarily ripple out into the others, as it had long since been decreed that there shall be one continuity to bind them all. And so, increasingly, stories became not stories at all, but metatextual treatise on the status quo. Whole story arcs where built around the fact that Wonder Woman wasn't a member of the JSA. Or a JLA founder. Until she was. And she was once again in the JLA. Except it was her mother. Now, instead of the fan/pros adding to what had come before to create a rich tapestry, they were busy as often as not ripping apart previous threads to bind everything tight in a new, unbreakable knot. The problem was that, as a reader, one had accept mutually exclusive editorial dictates. one had to both know what the old continuity was in order to appreciate why things were changing and accept that previous stories, however much-loved, not longer happened.

And so, we went from "everything matters," to, "everything matters, but what matters to you doesn't count." It became hard to be not only a casual reader, but any kind of reader at all, especially when new stories, either to goose sales, or to feign a mature readers approach, or to cow-tow to the latest over-arching continuity change or mega-event-crossover reveal, began to seem more an more like so much fan fiction. Where once Superman = Superman, it now seemed, counterintuitively, like new rules amounted to no rules, and you never knew if Superman might suddenly become a submissive, resembling something the author had once posted to rec.arts.comics.alt.lick-my-boots. Which is no bg whoop, wrote what you love, after all, but no longer was this an alternate or elseworlds Superman, this was supposed to be accepted as THE Superman! At least until things changed and invalidated everything that had come before, whether you happened to like leather-clad Lois, or not.

But of course, the reason comic books stories have begun to resemble fanfic is because they are, for the most part these days, created by fanboys. The problem is that works created in this context are not written an drawn for the benefit of the reader, they are conceived and executed at the pleasure, or more correctly, the whim, of the creator.

Those who came knocking on publisher doors staring in the late-1960s, portfolios and resumes in hand, were, as we've noted, mostly fans of the medium. And, as it turns out, all many knew about writing comics, and to an even greater extent, drawing comics, they had learned from the comics. As often as not, these artists learned by aping the styles of their favorites. And so, simple draftsmanship was lost as artists got work who had little to no idea of the fundamentals. They could draw like their favs, but they had no idea why things were drawn or laid on on the page a certain way. The primary concern was that it looked cool. Thus, just as a lie grows bigger down the line in the classic "telephone" game, comic book art took what Neal Adams and others like him had done, and completely bastardized it. The result was not only comic book pages with hyper-detailed drawings of highly emotive, muscle bound heroes, but pages with few if any establishing shots, no clear idea who anyone was talking to, or what was happening. Anyone not an established uber-geek who happened to pick up a comic book not only found it hard to tell what order the panels should be read in, they were, even when they happened to stumble upon that mysterious codex, utterly, completely, and hopelessly lost.

But to the fan/pros creating comics, losing casual readers was no big deal, really. As comics became more and more insular, playing only to the front row, as it were, those creators actually cheered at losing what they saw as stupid techniques that served no purpose other that to aid the people who clearly did not care what they, the creators were doing. They were deadly serious about their work, and they wanted that work to be taken seriously as an artform, at least amongst their fellow fans. Thus, even as more populist output like romance and teen-humor comics faded away as distribution shifted to no-return sales outlets dominated by super-hero fans, quaint old-fashioned gimmicks in the creators toolkit, like the thought balloon and the narrative captions, were happily chucked to the curb. Increasingly, writing a comic book was viewed as being akin to writing a movie script — because to be an art comics had to resemble a real artform, defined, naturally enough, as the form that made the most money. Eventually, the only words that appeared on a comic book pages were those that might be "heard" if the sequence were to be filmed.

SPIDER-MAN #1, Page 19, on-sale June
19, 1990. An example of decompressed
storytelling, using an entire page just for
"Spider-Man swings across the city
feeling good about himself." And, at just
50 words for the sequence, that's a lot
of precious real estate chewed up in a
22-page tale without contributing
one iota to the plot of the adventure. 
As that happened, the business of creating those panel-to-panel sequences become more decompressed. That is to say, it took more an more real estate on the page to depict the action as comics came to resemble not only movie scripts, but the storyboards used to plan out filming. In time, a scene of Batman swinging down from the rooftops to confront one of the cowardly and superstitious lot — storytelling business that once would have taken a single panel in order to place the character for advancement of the plot — came to take on multiple panels, and even multiple pages. In a comic book issue where the story is only 20 pages long, two whole pages of Batman swinging to the street, no matter how well-crafted to capture every sinew-stretching moment, does nothing at all for the story.

This decompression also has resulted in stories that used to take a single issue to tale — providing a full reading experience with beginning, middle, and end under one cover —expanding to two, four, six, and 10 issues. At a monthly publication rate, that means a person has to invest at least several months into a story, keeping in mind all details in the 30 days between chapters, each one of which only does the tiniest bit to advance the plot. In point of fact, plotting itself has become a lost are, and many, of not most comic books stories are launched these days with the writer (and editor) having no clear idea what the ending is going to be — or, if an coda has been contemplated, how to get there. The result is some issues that, in order to stretch things out to fill and eventual trade paperback collection, pure filler. That, and the decompressed style, along with fewer panels per page over the years, means most single issues can be read in less than 10 minutes.

So, someone who happens to pick up a Batman comic — if, say, he's inspired to do so by the latest feature film and has actually managed to find a comic book store — will see a cool-enough looking sequence of Batman swinging into action, but he can be forgiven, I think, it he reaches the end of the issue saying, "For that I paid four bucks?!"

And therein starts the death spiral. As comics became more an more insular, playing to, and very-nearly only readable by, an increasingly aging (and dwindling) base of core buyers, the publishers found themselves able to sell fewer and fewer ads. That meant cutting pages and printing dimensions, then, to save on production costs, cutting the size of original art (from "twice up" to 1.5 times larger than the printed image, contributing to the decrease in panels per page), then cutting any and all supplementary editorial material, like letters columns and such, and, at every point along the way, charging a higher and higher cover price.

The result is that the average comic today costs $3.99 and can be read in about 8-10 minutes. When I was a kid in the mid-'70s, a comic book costs 30-35¢ (roughly $1.26 to $1.46 in 2017 dollars) and, with the lettercols and promo pages would generally consume about 40 minutes of my time. By contrast, when I have a choice between spending $8 to see a 120-minute movie, or $4 on an 8-minute read, it's not really all that hard a decision to make. At roughly 50¢ per minute, even phone sex is a better value for my entertainment dollar!

Of course, yes, I grant you, how long a comic book story takes to read is not the primary indicator of its quality. A quick read can be a classic and a slow one a long slog into an aneurism. But on balance, people will gravitate not just to subject matters that interest them but, if just on an unconscious level, those that give value in terms of both quality and, yes, the pocketbook.

Unfortunately, where modern comics are concerned, even when a non-fanboy (or girl) does deign to give comic books a chance, they are hard to find, hard to read, and, once read, hard to understand.

So, how do we begin to solve this problem?

That, dear friends, is the subject of Part II.

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