Monday, August 09, 2004

All Apologies
An Open Letter to Kyle Baker

My favorite mainstream superhero title is Kyle Baker's Plastic Man. I was excited when I first heard about the book, and my excitement did not waver when I got the first issue in my hands. It quickly became my absolute favorite.

I don't read any of DC's mainstream superhero books. I read a few Marvels, but not many. Plastic Man is a reason for me to get to the comic shop every month, without fail.

I was scanning the Pulse recently when I came across their monthly examination of DC's sales figures. I can't seem to link to the article itself so I will reproduce the numbers here:

12/ 2003: Plastic Man #1 -- 31,512 (copies sold)
01/ 2004: Plastic Man #2 -- 22,681 (-28.0%)
02/ 2004: Plastic Man #3 -- 19,196 (-15.4%)
03/ 2004: Plastic Man #4 -- 17,191 (-10.4%)
04/ 2004: Plastic Man #5 -- 15,877 (- 7.6%)
05/ 2004: Plastic Man #6 -- 14,885 (- 6.3%)
06/ 2004: Plastic Man #7 -- 13,648 (- 8.3%)
6 months: -56.7%

"God-awful numbers. Barring a small miracle, expect PLASTIC MAN to be axed any day now."

I must admit that for the first eight months of the series' existence I didn't devote a lot of time to wondering how it was selling. Of course humor books never sell well in the direct market, but still - it was a high-profile JLA spin-off by one of the foremost cartoonists alive. if ever there was a no-brainer, it would be this.

But of course, I wasn't thinking. Sure, DC's Plastic Man Archives have been a surprise success. That series surprised more than a few by selling as briskly as it does. There have been six volumes in the series to date, whereas most Archive series are stalled at one or two volumes for lack of enthusiasm. I think a large percentage of these sales probably come from a generation of cartooning fans who were turned on to Jack Cole's work by Art Spiegelman and Chip Kidd's Forms Stretched to Their Limits essay book. I would predict that Fantagraphics' recent collection of Cole's pin-up work will see similarly brisk sales. My holy grail remains a collection of Cole's full-color Playboy work, and perhaps we shall see that sooner rather than later.

But all this attention to Cole has not necessarily meant an increase in attention for Plastic Man as a character. Its not hard to see why: the character has always been so intimately identified with his creator that any attempt at updating or modernizing him has come across as unbelievably limp. Mostly, the character is represented as a wise-cracking buffoon, a pliable court-jester in the Justice League. Not hard to see why no-one likes him.

But Kyle Baker gets it. He gets that Plastic Man isn't a comedian. Plastic Man is, oddly, the straight man in his own adventures. His body and his powers are odd and funny, but his own personality, as defined by Cole, is about as low-key and easy-going as it gets. Everything around him is strange, and that's the beauty. Anyone who tackles Plastic Man has to be able to grasp what Cole was trying to accomplish, by making their comics pages as gleefully wacky as Plastic Man is able to make his body.

Baker doesn't have a lot of patience for the self-importance in modern superhero comic books, and neither do I. His latest storyline, beginning with issue eight, stands poised to take the piss out of just about every unbearably pretentious and unbelievably silly trend in superhero storytelling of the past few years. The fanboys will scream and moan, undoubtedly - the few who actually read the book, that is. It's obvious not many of them are.

I wish I could make some sort of point out of this. I wis hI could say "this is proof that the direct market is broken" or "this proves that superhero fans are philistines". I'm not going to use this is an excuse to trot out any of these tired arguments, because I don't want to get into any arguments.

The fact is, I will be very sad to see Plastic Man go. It seems to have drifted down past the point where mainstream DCU titles are routinely cancelled, and is headed towards levels where even Vertigo titles are axed. We are probably well beyond the point where a reader initiative a la Spider-Girl would do any help - Spider-Girl sells about twice as many copies as Plastic Man does. I don't think the book would necessarily appeal to kids, either, because even though its drawn in an appealingly cartoony manner, the humor is too conceptual and sophisticated to appeal to the kindergarten set. It is that rarest of superhero titles: a book intended to be enjoyed by intelligent and discriminating readers with a wide knowledge of the medium's proud and distinguished history. Are there that few of us?

Part of being a comics fan is having favorite titles that come and go, while mediocre books that no-one admits to reading are consistent sellers. The direct-market comics industry just can't support anything even slightly left-of-center. Even most hardcore superhero titles fail to find an audience, becuase there are only so many readers left, and those readers only have so much money.

I feel bad for Kyle Baker. He gets nothing but praise for his graphic novels, which are perrenial "real world" successes. His latest, Birth Of A Nation, written by The Boondocks' Aaron McGruder, will almost undoubtedly be a success as well, perhaps his biggest to date. But whenever he comes back to the ghetto of mainstream comics, he gets a proverbiual heap of shit for his efforts. Never mind that The Truth was a beautifully produced, thought-provoking and intelligent examination of racism and war - there are hundreds of retailers across the country who are using unsold copies of the book for insulation. The reason for this can probably be placed on Baker's artwork. Only in comics could an instantly accessable, easy-to-read and blatantly commercial art style like Kyle Baker's be so radically unpopular. The man is one of the most gifted natural cartoonists of his generation, and in the superhero direct market he can't even get arrested. No wonder he's so fucking cynical.

But it boils down to this: I wish Plastic Man wasn't selling so poorly. Its not as if Baker's going ot have any trouble finding something to do when the book inevitably gets canned, but I like what he's doing now. I'll continue buying Plastic Man for as long as they continue making it, putting it right on top of my pile every month until it no longer exists. And when it is gone, my already thin pile of monthly comic purchases will become that much smaller.

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