Tuesday, April 20, 2004


So I’ve been reading “Millennium” lately. Don’t ask why – really, is there a possible good answer for that? I mean, reading “Millennium” is the comic book equivalent of a horseradish enema. It’s not fun.

And yet I’m reading it. Apparently the Guardians of the Universe, who had left the universe sometime either right before or right after “Crisis,” have decided to return to the planet Earth with their Zamoran brides and usher in the next evolutionary stage of mankind. This involves ten people chosen totally at random by the Guardians in order to fulfill the cosmic prophecy that Earth will spawn the next race of galactic immortals. But, here’s the hook to really get all the kids – the Manhunters are opposed to this, so they want to stop the Guardians and the superheroes from bringing about the next step in human evolution – which everyone refers to as “The Millennium.”

Does this make sense? Thought not. See, the Manhunters are this ancient organization of beings who were really the Guardian’s first experiment in law-enforcement technology, and they really have it in for the little blue fellows.

I have a feeling that this is all Roy Thomas’ fault. Because there’s this almost unreadable issue of Secret Origins in the middle of this story that features – heh- the Secret Origin of the Manhunters. And I mean every Manhunter, from the multiple Golden Age Manhunters (who had been published by separate companies even), to the Kirby Manhunter, to the Simonson Manhunter – it just gets deeper and deeper. Someone decided that everything in the post-Crisis DCU had to refer to everything else, so there is no such thing as coincidence anymore. Every character who ever called himself a Manhunter, and every story that even slightly referenced the concept of Manhunting, is part of this Millennia imbroglio.

This is all filtered through the hyper-paranoid Cold War atmosphere that was thick throughout every DC book in the late 80's. Everything is muddy browns and ugly blues. There are constant and depressing reminders of nuclear war and the rising tide of Islamic fundamentalism. There's one issue where - I swear to God I couldn't make this up - the Blue Beetle travels to Iran to rescue this woman in a burka who has been selected by the Guardians for the Millennium project. She is, of course, stoned for her blasphemy against Allah. I have to wonder what kind of special crack they were smoking when they were plotting this thrill-a-minute crossover.

And it is a crossover in only the very best sense of the word, meaning that every title published by DC during the duration of the story was a crossover. Even stories that didn't have anything at all to do with Millennium still had the "Millennium" logo on the cover. And there was a caption on the front page of every story that said you had to read that week's issue of Millennium for this book to make any sense. Man, this just gets better.

The best part was that they decided to have Manhunters infiltrate every segment of the DCU, in order to gather information and sabotage their plots. So, wouldn’t you know it, the entire town of Smallville turns out to be . . . that’s right, you guessed it, Manhunters! Commisioner Gordon, he’s a Manhunter too. Hey, the Greek demigod Pan? He’s a Manhunter as well. Makes so much sense my teeth hurt. Makes so much sense, they decided that this story was so cool they never mentioned it again.

Comic books are the playground of the retarded. Whether your particular retardation is social, physical, sexual or mental, if you care enough to read this you are a retard. Reading “Millennia” brings this truth painfully alive for me. As un-PC as it may seem, it’s the diggedy-dang truth.

“Crisis on Infinite Earths” is the kind of story that really only makes sense if you were dropped on your head as a child – I see that now. I know we’re not supposed to care about things like “continuity,” but how is it possible to ignore the facts? If Batman and Green Lantern have been around and fighting crime for many years, and Wally West has been a superhero long enough to grow from a young teen to an adult – how can Superman have only been around for a couple years? Batman would have to have been Batman for at least ten years by the time of Millennium: he didn’t get Robin until Year 3, Robin had enough time to grow from a pre-teen to a grown adult and become Nightwing, and Bats even had enough time to find a brand new sidekick in Jason Todd – but Superman has only been around for a couple years. Yeah, OK. Even though every other story ever written contradicts this. If this whole thing doesn’t insult your intelligence, you don’t have any.

So, why do I read these things? Er, next question. Is it is a strange compulsion or deep-seated masochism? I don’t know. I’ve got a strange love-hate relationship with bad superhero books: I hate them, and yet I love to throw away hours of my life which I will never be able to reclaim in order to read them.

It makes me wonder, really, why people like Larry Young bother. I mean, really, it’s obvious that if you’re still in comics at this point and you’re Christian name isn’t Geppi, you’re in it either out of love or a misguided sense of idealism. Well, folks, idealism can’t pay the bills. The really good comics don’t sell.

Used to be, mid-to-bottom list titles like “Guardians of the Galaxy” could have nice, healthy runs without setting the sales charts on fire. I mean, “GotG” lasted 62 issues, with four annuals and a spin-off limited series. Obviously there was enough of a demand for the Guardians to bolster the series through five years and change of continued publication. It never set the world on fire, but enough people cared to keep it afloat for a long time. I think you can judge the health of any publishing field by the strength of the midlist. Anyone can make money selling a blockbusters, best-sellers that everyone wants to read – but if you can make money on mid-and-low performance titles, well then you have a healthy and diverse industry. You can publish books like “X-Men” that you know everyone is going to buy, but enough people are buying the books that you can branch out and have a little something for everyone. You’re not subsidizing the lesser titles at the expense of the big shots, but there are enough people buying comics that you can make money off of niche titles.

We don’t live in this world anymore. You either sell out your print-run or you are in imminent danger of cancellation. You either have a solid, proven property or you will be cancelled in a year.

There are more dead and forgotten properties than ongoing and successful franchises. And – here’s the kicker – it’s impossible to resurrect a dead franchise. Let me explain this one:

Say you’re a comic book publisher and you have an old property that you think might be due for a relaunch. You can take any old property – doesn’t matter if we’re talking “Alpha Flight” or “Firestorm,” it’s the same principle. On the one hand, the people who have never read the book are probably going to be skittish about picking up a new book that has years and decades of back continuity – because even if the continuity is kept to a dull roar, most readers would know that it’s still there, and that is a discouraging factor for many readers. And on the other hand, the people who have been your bread-and-butter for years – the fanboys, the intensely, painfully retarded fanboys – they want the book to pick up where it left off. They don’t just want the same character. They will be happy with nothing less than a retroactive uncancellation of the title in question. They don’t want to read the adventures of the All New, All Different “Alpha Flight,” they don’t even want to remember the 1997 relaunch that didn’t last past #15, they want Marvel to pick up publishing Alpha Flight again with issue # 129. Actually, that’s not quite true – they want the book to be retroactively relaunched from issue #29, because #28 was the last Byrne issue.

Oh, boy, but I wish I was exaggerating here. The sad fact is there are three types of comic readers today: those who know what the terms pre- and post- Crisis mean, those who know but don’t care, and Manga readers. And there are probably about 50 of the third type for every one who belongs to either of the first two types.

So, what does all this have to do with Larry Young and “Millennium”? Damn good question.

The comics industry, at least, the mainstream direct market, is fucked. The comics field is stronger than its been in years, with kids and women reading Manga, “art” and “alternative” comics racking up critical acclaim and respectable sales totally independent of the direct market, online comics coming into their own after a turbulent adolescence, and even the dead newspaper strip showing faint signs of life. But there are still not enough comics readers to support books like “Wildcats 3.0” and “Stormwatch: Team Achilles.” This tells me that not only is the average mainstream comic reader functionally illiterate, as well as sincerely retarded, but that we have a deeply unhealthy industry. If we can’t support even a few critically-acclaimed but low-selling titles, we can’t even pretend that there’s enough market diversity to power a 60-watt lightbulb.

Am I telling you anything you don’t already know? Well, look at this: “Sleeper” is probably the most popular cult book around today. It’s getting a brand new relaunch and Wildstorm is confident enough that the trades will sell to put their tentative support behind the book, for the time being. But do you know what had to happen here? The people who like “Sleeper” had to move heaven and earth to drum up the necessary support for this. This ain’t a television series like “Star Trek,” we’re talking about a small comic book that maybe ten thousand people read on a good month. Is this insane or what? You could probably get everyone who really likes “Sleeper” together in a medium-size gymnasium and have Ed Brubaker tell the stories in pantomime for less trouble.

We have lost the ability to change. When you have to have a huge line-wide crossover in order to simplify your books, instead of just, you know, simplifying your books, that seems to me to be the first indicator that something is wrong. They say we need to drop the continuity, but frankly, it doesn’t matter whether we publish “Ultimate Spider-Man” or “Infinity, Inc.” Everything kowtows to everything that has come before, simply by virtue of their having been something before. Try as they may, I don’t believe that the new “Doom Patrol” will be able to escape the stigma of blatantly retconning some of the most beloved stories of the last decade into Hypertime/oblivion. Anyone who would care enough about the Doom Patrol to actually want to buy a “Doom Patrol” comic is going to be offended by the retcon. And if you don’t know who the Doom Patrol are, you’re likely not going to care anyway unless they get Jim Lee to draw it.

The fact that “Powers” is going to triple or quadruple its orders by moving to Marvel is a sign that we as an industry have reached the point of no return.

I love reading crappy old comics like “Millennium.” It cleanses my soul, kind of like the self-inflicted scouring that medieval monks put themselves through. As much as I love sitting down and reading something new and great like “Astronauts in Trouble,” I almost don’t want to do it anymore. I don’t want to become attached to something just to see it die – or, if it doesn’t die, it will languish. I don’t know. Maybe it won’t. But the fact that something like “Astronauts in Trouble” has to compete for shelf space with the All-New All-Different “Alpha Flight” is suicidally depressing. If people like Larry Young really and truly cared for the comics industry, they’d put a slug in our brain and call it mercy.

We’re at the event horizon. There really is nothing we can do about it at this point. This world shall die and from our ashes shall rise the New Gods, and the twin world of Apokalips and New Genesis. Gary Groth shall bestride the cosmos like a titan, and he shall eat your “Millennium” back issues, transforming them with the cleansing fire of his belly into mulch for the new constellations.

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