Wednesday, September 26, 2012


Avengers #30

With one year of the Nu52 revamp in our rearview mirror, and the imminent beginning of Marvel NOW! at the next exit, there is an uneasy hush across the mainstream comics industry. AvX was, predictably, a blockbuster - at least by the degraded standards of our comics industry in the Year of Our Lord 2012. But in a manner that should be familiar to anyone whose memories extend as far as Fear Itself, Siege, and Secret Invasion, it has ended not with a bang but the most demure of whispers. Because the nature of the comics industry is such that launches, reboots, and plot twists are perforce advertised months in advance, every significant event of the past few years has been undercut by the very fact that by the time the last issue of the event drops, readers are already living three or four months in the future. So even though AvX #11 featured a "death," we know for a fact what the consequences of the climax are going to be because, hey, we've seen the covers for Uncanny Avengers and know for the most part who is going to be one each Avengers and X-Men team following the shake-up. (I place the word "death" in this instance very gingerly into scare-quotes for the simple reason that it was a terrible, unclear death scene of the kind that can be reversed at a moment's notice, if in fact the reverse isn't already a part of the story, which is precisely how the "deaths" of Captain America and Thor were handled in Fear Itself.)

In any event, Avengers #30 has already garnered a small amount of notoriety owing to the fact that it - along with New Avengers #30 - essentially spoiled the ending of AvX #12, still a week away as I write this. Chad Nevett put the problem quite succinctly:
I’m a little fascinated by the fact that both New Avengers #30 and Avengers #30 seem to take place after the end of Avengers vs. X-Men and… things are fine. We all expect that to be the case, but it’s more than that. Things aren’t just fine, they’re almost ‘normal.’ You could put either issue in a different place in Marvel’s history and not much would change. . . . This is the event that Matters (capital M, of course) and Will Change Everything Forever (for now) and, before it’s over, we’re being treated to comics that demonstrate just how much it doesn’t matter. At all. It’s just another crisis — another big event.
As he points out, none of this should surprise us in the least. We all "know" nothing is going to significantly change. But that's hardly the point - we're none of us ten years old. The median audience age for superhero event comics is not young enough to be fooled by even the illusion of change, we know full well. And because we're all savvy, the illusion of suspension of disbelief matters progressively less with every year that passes. So, yeah, let's just move past the crossover in the most perfunctory fashion, and get onto the real business of the next event - that is, the conclusion of Brian Michael Bendis's tenure as shepherd of the Avengers franchise, after an impressive eight year run. So that's what we have here: pet characters Luke Cage and Jessica Drew are receiving some kind of closure for their character arcs as prelude to the actual concluding storylines that begin in the next few weeks.

The real problem with Avengers #30 (and New Avengers #30, and for that matter a large percentage of Bendis's books in general, but he's hardly the only person against whom this complaint can be accurately leveled) is not that it spoils the ending for AvX - that's pretty much a given at this point. It's not even that it's barely a crossover in the first place - the whole concept of "red sky" crossovers is a reference to Crisis on Infinite Earths, which should tell you that insultingly tangential crossover issues have been part and parcel of crossovers since there have been such a thing as crossovers. No, the problem with this comic - an issue of the flagship book of Marvel's flagship franchise, and the concluding issue of a half-year crossover with the company's major crossover initiative - is that it takes literally five minutes to read.

This isn't an isolated problem, this isn't some kind of rush-job, this wasn't padded out to fulfill an obligatory and unwanted crossover obligation. Bendis was one of the architects of AvX, and furthermore, he's been writing the Avengers books almost exclusively for eight years. Not only can we be fairly secure in assuming that this is exactly how Bendis wanted this issue to read, but we can also say with some confidence that Marvel is really extraordinarily happy with how this books reads - enough so that Bendis has come as close in the last ten years to establishing his specific style as the new Marvel "house style" as any single creator since Stan Lee himself.

The problem with this isn't that Bendis is a bad writer. For all the shit he gets - and certainly, I've shoveled more than my share of it in the past - he's usually pretty good, certainly never less than competent, if doggedly unable to overcome the extremely pronounced limitations of his style. The problem is that this style produces a comic that costs $4 and take five minutes to read. The more I have thought about it, the more I have become completely convinced that this surpasses the level of mere fanboy gripe and is actually one of the primary structural weaknesses of the contemporary comics industry - Marvel in particular, since - lest we forget - they're the ones who pioneered the $4 comic.

One of Bendis's strengths as a writer is that, regardless of his own limitations, he's very good at writing to the strengths of his collaborators. The last six issues of Avengers - the AvX crossover issues - have been drawn by Walter Simonson. Simonson is still a very good artist, even if I don't think Scott Hanna's inks work to his benefit. But despite the great respect that creators like Bendis pay to their collaborators, I think they've adopted a particularly dangerous attitude regarding the way style translates into storytelling economy.

Allow me to explain. I think most comics readers, even so-called "good" readers, can be very mercenary when it comes to judging how long it takes to read a certain comic. That is, there is a small coterie of educated readers who appreciate all the intricacies of craft and style and can spend many minutes poring over single pages by superior cartoonists. This is something we can do with mainstream comics since - beginning at the tail end of the 80s and proceeding further with the rise of Image and the quantum leap in printing and coloring standards that followed - most mainstream comics are reproduced sufficiently well to allow the work of good artists to be showcased to its best advantage. I recently reread Todd McFarlane's Torment - a very interesting book in 22 years' hindsight, for a number of reasons. In his introduction then-Spider-editor Jim Salicrup makes an extremely basic, but no less crucial point, regarding the success of McFarlane's adjective-less Spider-Man work. McFarlane was one of the most popular artists in the history at Marvel, and - by 1990 - perhaps the single most popular artist in all of comics. (His only real competitors at the time were Rob Liefeld and Jim Lee.) The problem was, as Salicrup put it, McFarlane's work was too detailed for the printing technology of the time to handle. Amazing Spider-Man was a standard newsprint book with standard newsprint printing, which - circa 1989 - was pretty piss-poor. Salicrup lobbied to have Amazing upgraded to Baxter paper (or whatever the equivalent was at the time), but Marvel didn't want to raise the price on one of their flagship titles. The only alternative was to give McFarlane a new book that could better bear the cost of the improved printing necessary to showcase McFarlane's work to its best advantage. The rest is history, and it's worth noting that within five or six years every book published by Marvel, DC and Image was being printed with an attention to technical detail that had already far surpassed the impressive leaps signified by Spider-Man #1. Of course, the books had also become significantly more expensive right on the eve of a huge industry collapse - and the fact that the price of Amazing Spider-Man doubled between 1988 and 1994, from $0.75 to $1.50, probably didn't help. Sure, the books looked a lot nicer - there's no doubt about that - but the books didn't really take any longer to read, and a 100% price increase in just 6 years was hardly keeping pace with inflation.

Flash forward to 2012. Avengers #30 is certainly a fantastic looking book, but - and here's the clincher - it doesn't really take very long to read. I'm not - let me underscore this point - I'm not saying that we should roll back the years and start printing these things on cheap newsprint and go back to the era of flexographic nightmares. That's silly. But in terms of the most basic considerations of value, and whether or not readers are getting their money's worth from these books, I don't think the reading experience itself is commensurate to the price. Because, let's be frank, most artists aren't Walter Simonson. Even the best art should carry the expectation of being paired to a story worth reading. And even though I love Simonson, I don't think a $4 comic book should take 5 minutes to read. There is no way that this reading experience represents a rational return on the money invested.

The problem is that Marvel has almost completely lost sight of this principle. On the one hand, it's a good thing that the creative culture at Marvel currently offers a great deal of respect to artists' work, in terms of the quality of reproduction, coloring, and paper. But on the other, I think that many of the most influential creators and editors at the company have lost track of the principle that - regardless of how good the art is - a comic book can't be judged simply on how dynamite the art looks. Again - and I'll keep harping on this principle - if the book takes $4 to buy and five minutes to read, it just doesn't represent a good investment of the reader's money, regardless of how awesome the art looks. So I'm sure that everyone at Marvel was really psyched to have Walter Simonson back, and was more than happy to give him a run on the company's flagship title, and was thrilled with the finished pages once they started to roll in the door. But the stories themselves - the stories Brian Michael Bendis gave Simonson to draw - are beyond rudimentary. Whenever the topic comes up on convention panels and interviews, creators and editors are quick to note that narrative captions and thought balloons have become hopelessly passé. I think as comics readers we've developed a long racial memory that fixates on the negative examples of Don McGregor and Jim Shooter - completely over-the-top, often redundant, sometimes simply bizarre purple prose, sometimes simply basic narration concocted to cover up the deficiencies of uncertain art. With the median age of comics readers having inched ever-upward as the years have passed, there is a strong conviction that those kinds of redundant and often condescending narrative tropes have no more place on the comics page.

The problem with this is that serial comics need to represent as dense a reading experience as possible. Foregoing captions and thought balloons may indeed help make the storytelling more "naturalistic" in terms of being better suited to replicate the rhythms of conversation and the kinds of communicative subtleties that might be otherwise papered over by the admittedly didactic narrative approach of "old-school" caption heavy books. "Melodrama" is a bad word. But one very real side-effect of lessening the amount of words on the page is that it takes a lot less time to read your average comic book. So a book like Avengers #30 takes the better part of an issue to give us a single conversation between Hawkeye and Spider-Woman. There's nothing particularly wrong with the conversation itself. We can quibble about minor issues of characterization, certainly, but the basic idea - that Hawkeye and Spider-Woman are both terrible at relationships and are having to eat crow about the fact that they both carry huge piles of personal baggage behind them - is certainly fine. The problem is that if this same conversation had been printed in a comic not ten years ago it would have taken probably half the space to show and twice the time to read. That kind of compactness - the density that has almost entirely disappeared from mainstream comics, and is actively eschewed by many leading creators - enabled your average issue to cover a lot more ground with a lot more alacrity. This is how team books were traditionally made: go back and read any vintage run of Avengers or Legion of Super-Heroes and you'll find a book with perhaps dozens of characters that also somehow managed to keep every character active and engaged in the ongoing storyline. The storytelling itself could be abrupt and highly melodramatic - but those weren't accidental techniques developed by primitive creators. Those were creative strategies consciously designed to maximize the amount of story content that could be stuffed into your average single 22-page issue.

Oddly enough, when comics cost less and sold a lot more, creators seemed to be far more concerned with actually providing a significant reading experience for the readers' money. I promise that any comic you can find with a cover price of $1 or less will take far more time to read than your $4 issue of Avengers by a wide margin. The art may not be anywhere near as good, or at least reproduced as well, but a $1 comic that takes 15-20 minutes to read is a fine return on your investment. Do readers today want comics that read like they were published during the Kennedy, Nixon, or Reagan administrations? Probably not - for better or for worse we've evolved a significantly different style, a thoroughly contemporary style, that is probably too well ensconced to be easily dethroned. The word "decompressed" barely even covers it, because the current style has developed far beyond Ellis & Hitch's initial run on The Authority. It's expansive, it what it is. And, to be fair, there are lots of good comics still being published today under these creative constraints - interesting, well-designed, engrossing stories by creators at the top of their game being produced by both major mainstream companies. The problem is that if the rapidly dwindling audience of hardcore comics fans has been trained to expect that $3 or $4 for five - maybe ten minutes of reading material and pretty pictures is money well spent, there are precious few people in the wider world who will look at this equation and see anything but pure, suicidal insanity.

1 comment :

Jonathan Hamilton said...

You hit the nail on the head here. It's like you read my mind with this post. I was profoundly disappointed with the value I got for my money when I bought the digital edition Uncanny Avengers #1 yesterday. Looking back at older Marvel books in particular, I can say without nostalgia that you definitely got more story, period.