Sunday, October 18, 2009


I was employing a standard where the culturally ubiquitous Superman and its hundreds and hundreds of issues of Action Comics and related titles was the accepted ideal. While I had always rejected the crass measurements that so many people in comics used that were basically cultural versions of the Thing vs. the Hulk, here I was applying a variation of my own.

The perniciousness of this bias struck me recently when I saw an article on "Classic Avengers" vs. "Bendis Avengers" and through it entertained the notion that there are some fans out there that to varying degrees considered a specific line-up of muscled superheroes to be the correct way to bring into some creative reality a really loose concept with thousands of possible variations. They did so for the simple reason, I think, that they had always been catered to with that particular solution. This is sort of like expecting Terry Bradshaw to still be quarterback of the Pittsburgh Steelers, or for all your friends to still be just as excited about a new RUSH album the way they would have been in 1985, or for Walter Cronkite or someone looking like him to be hosting the CBS News.

- Tom Spurgeon
There is no law stating that the X-Men must always be the most popular franchise in comics. There is no guarantee that those titles which are most popular today will be the most popular in five or ten years or even next month. The fact is that the mainstream comics industry is built on consistency of a kind that is fairly rare in entertainment, in that it is built upon corporate-owned properties that have survived and thrived for many multiple decades with little or no interruption of production. Dr. Who was canceled for fifteen years with only one horrible TV movie produced for the whole of the 1990s. Star Trek was nonexistent for ten years between the cancellation of the show and the first movie, and even after The Motion Picture it was still almost a decade before the show returned to TV.

But these are anodyne examples: Guiding Light ran for seventy-two years in one format or another, before finally being canceled. It was canceled last month, incidentally. Considering the show had been in production since Franklin Roosevelt's second term - just one year older than Superman - you would have expected there to have been a huge uproar upon its cancellation. Anything that runs for 72 uninterrupted years has to be some kind of American cultural institution, right? But the reason Guiding Light was canceled was simply that no one was watching it anymore, and furthermore, attempts to update the show's format and content had met with precious little success.

Think about this for a minute in comic book terms: can you imagine a world without Action Comics? Even if, like me, you haven't bought an issue of Action in decades, it still feels like something that should be definitively "forever", doesn't it? Just the idea that someday DC might publish an issue of Action with the words "LAST ISSUE" emblazoned on the cover feels, I dunno, slightly wrong. It's been a part of the architecture of our particular corner of the universe since the very beginning. It was the beginning, for Chrissakes. But think about the fact that Action will turn 100 years old in 2038. That's almost thirty years, a long time, but barring national catastrophe most of the people reading this blog right now will probably still be alive in another thirty years. Do you think Action is still going to be around? Or is it going to be something else - say, some kind of fanciful future format digital download? Or will the property just be gone?

Mainstream comic book companies in America operate under the assumption that things are always going to be the way they are now. Meaning: DC will always publish Batman and Superman, Marvel will always publish Spider-Man and the Hulk. Disney and Warner Brothers (putting aside the fact that they own Marvel and DC now) don't rely on this kind of perpetuity for their quarterly profits. Sure, Disney is extremely concerned with not letting Mickey Mouse pass into public domain, but in all honesty, how much money did Mickey make for the company last year? He's a symbolic figurehead. If someone at Disney passed an edict saying that no one could ever make another new Mickey Mouse cartoon or movie, I don't think many people would really be too concerned with the company's future profitability. Ditto for Bugs Bunny. No one - or, very few people - are sitting around with dynamite Mickey and Bugs stories in their back pocket anymore. (I'm not talking about the comics adaptations of these characters, mind you, for obvious reasons.)

In other words: if a new Mickey Mouse cartoon tanks, it's not the end of the world. There is no assumption - or if there is, I'd be surprised - that a large percentage of the company's profits each and every month will be generated by Mouse-related media and assorted spin-offs. They've got other stuff like High School Musical or Hannah Montana or who the fuck knows what animated series with dancing gophers or some such. They're going to think of something new tomorrow and probably the day after that as well.

Marvel? They keep trying to come up with something new, but last I heard Runaways was due for yet another reboot. Seriously, for twenty-five years X-Men was their go-to title: even before it was their sales juggernaut, it was their cutting edge. It was the book that other books wanted to be when they grew up. New Teen Titans was DC's biggest success for many years specifically because it was the X-Men with Robin. When I asked the question, "why aren't the X-Men as popular as they used to be?", the unspoken corollary to that question is that the fact that the X-Men are on the wane is in some way unusual. Think about it: one property which had been either ascendant or dominant throughout the entire industry for the better part of a quarter-century slows down a bit, and suddenly you've got the British infantry band playing "The World Turned Upside Down" at Yorktown.

One of the reasons we have this idea regarding the X-Men's invincibility is that Marvel put it in our heads. Just like a few generations of Americans grew up with the idea that "what's good for General Motors is good for America" ringing in their ears, its been CW that "what's good for the X-Men is good for the direct market". It goes without saying that without the X-Men there would be no direct market as it currently exists today: the mainstream industry would probably have imploded in the late 90s if Marvel had declared Chapter 7 instead of 11. All the independent publishers who didn't have fuck-all to do with superheroes would probably have gone by the wayside if all the major specialist distributor channels had dried up - all you folks who love buying your new comics-with-spines down at Borders or Barnes & Noble, cast your minds back to a time before those retail channels existed. Marvel almost destroyed the industry when they bought Hero's World, but the fact is that it was their product that kept the stores alive in the long aftermath of that bloodbath. Look at the charts: Marvel's rough market share percentage hasn't changed in over a decade, not since Image and Valiant imploded. For most of that time the largest part of Marvel's dollar and unit share was X-Books. It's not anymore.

The weird part is that Marvel as a company aren't ready to acknowledge that the franchise has peaked - or even that, if it hasn't peaked, it needs some time off before it can perform again. When the X-Men were the number one franchise in comics they built an incredibly powerful editorial apparatus around the books to guide and control the direction. The books were so important that nothing could be allowed to pass unexamined: every creative decision was micromanaged and second guessed, characters and creators were treated as interchangeable and at the same time jealously guarded. This worked to a point - in the early-to-mid-90s when the books were at their inarguable peak, the machine ran smoothly. When things sputtered late in the decade, the weaknesses of such a top-heavy system became obvious. Suddenly the problem wasn't just editorial conservatism but editorial indecision: creators were allowed to do strange things but those strange things were almost always undone. Things became impermanent to an almost surreal degree, even for mainstream super comics.

And when sales started to decline in the 2000s, Marvel didn't know how to react. How to deal with the fact that the company's number one cash-cow for over two decades needs a rest? Keep pushing it up the hill under the assumption that it just needs a second wind, that what is needed is just a new direction, another new direction, maybe this one will stick. The X-Men have always been the biggest franchise in comics, its merely an aberration that they aren't, it doesn't have anything to do with changing demographics or creative exhaustion or simple overexposure. It doesn't have anything to do with the fact that people may have reached a point where they just don't need twelve X-books a month, that maybe the market would be much better suited to handling six. It shouldn't feel surreal, even if it does - it's just business. When a Mickey Mouse cartoon flops, Disney's first reaction isn't to turn around, retool the brand and spew out another Mickey cartoon three months later. At some point chasing after the old hegemony has to be seen as throwing good money after bad. But on a very deep level Marvel is incapable of doing that, and I would be willing to bet money (although there's no way to prove such a supposition) that one of the reasons for this is simply because the people at Marvel expect the X-Men to be number one in the same way that we expect that a new issue of Action Comics is always going to be sitting on the shelves. It's not business, it's faith.

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