Friday, July 15, 2005

Oh, Lordy

And in other news the sky officially fell to the earth the other day as a result of the fact that Marvel comics aren't selling so much like hotcakes anymore. Everyone's getting heart palpitations because Batman is cooler than Wolverine and books like OMAC: Not The Jack Kirby One So Who Fucking Cares and Not Really Secret Society of Super-Villains But Who Are We Trying To Kid are selling better than House of Millie. The world is going to run screaming off its axis because, oh Lord, we cannot trust the Marvel hype machine to give us our day our daily bread.

What amazes me is not so much that DC is suddenly gaining on Marvel in both solid market share and anecdotal "buzz", but that it took this long. From a business standpoint, Marvel hasn't really had a lot up their sleeve for a while. More importantly, they seem to have forgotten how to make the comics people want to read. By which I mean: DC is having incredible success with their run-up to Infinity Crisis, with all the assorted tie-ins as well as the general sense of cohesion that seems to be affecting the entire line. Which of course makes dirty liars out of every fanboy who ever screamed about horrible line-wide crossovers ... and yet the moment they actually brought the beasts back these same fanboys ran out and bought every variant-cover reprint of Day of Fudge-Mint on the stands. Unless, of course, there's another large and silent group of fanboys out there somewhere who are steadfastly boycotting DC until they make every title totally self-contained again.

For years and years you couldn't give most DC books away, and the reason was fairly simple: even the best DC books were written in such a manner as to be safe for Old People. Yes, you could give any random mid-90s issue of Superman or Batman to your sainted grandmother and you could rest safe under the assumption that there would be nary a palpitation anywhere between those two glossy covers. Certainly, it began to look as if the Big Guns at DC might be getting ready for their permanent vacation, a gold watch and a trip to the glue factory. But it's important to remember that the perception of change is more important than actual change. They can't change the Big Guns, the most they can do is shuffle the pieces on the periphery around a bit. And somehow, by moving the pieces around at a slightly quicker pace, they've actually created the perception that DC is the happening place to be.

As much as Joe Quesada and Co. did to turn Marvel around in the late 90s and early 00s, it must be admitted that they don't have a clue what to do now that they've lost their momentum. Looking at something like House of M or Secret War (from a distance, mind you) should be enough to convince anyone that they lost something very vital in the intervening years: they lost the intuitive insight as to what their core customers want. Over the years, regardless of whether Marvel was up or Marvel was down, when the books sucked and when they were just mediocre, they still knew how to manufacture the core of their line to fit the desires of the steadfast. When Joey Q. and Co. came in, they recognized, quite correctly, that most Marvel books sucked and that the only way to shake things up was to change things up. They threw a lot of crap at the walls, but for every Truth or Trouble, there was an Ultimate Spider-Man or New X-Men to keep them going. Even less successful critical darlings like Milligan & Allred's X-Force and Runaways proves that they were at least willing to roll the dice. To a degree, it paid off. I mean, if I got in a time machine, traveled back a decade and told you that Marvel would ever actually have "critical darlings", and that their flagship X-Men book would get a series of sterling reviews in the Journal, you would have told me I needed to take my medication.

But, of course, change for the sake of change only gets you so far. The problem is that Quesada, along with creators like Bendis, Millar, Ellis who do a great deal of the heavy-lifting around the Marvel offices these days, have a very set idea of what makes a good comic. Which, you know, is admittedly a refreshing change from the days when Marvel editorial paid more attention to quality control for the staples than the stories. But the problem is that for the most part their notion of good comics came up pretty hard against what most fans really like. DC moves slowly because it is a top-heavy bureaucracy, so it took some blows when Marvel was getting into top gear. But the advantages of a large corporate superstructure are rather obvious in light of recent developments across the DC line: when they decide to move onto a new course, they can move single-mindedly and with methodical efficiency towards a singular goal. It took a while, but now, for the most part, almost every single mainstream DC book seems to be interlocked into a massive macro-continuity. This kind of silliness drives dilettantes and jaded commentators nuts, but there is no arguing with results: this shit is popular. It sells. It is what the kids want.

Marvel are losing market share to DC at a dazzling speed, and it is not going to get any better until they remember how to make the kind of comics that the bread-and-butter fans want to buy. At their most basic, superhero comic books are comfort food. While I don't doubt that most people can appreciate a good comic, what keeps the majority of readers coming into the stores week in and week out is not the good comics but the crappy comics, and for proof of this I direct you to a sales chart -- any sales chart will do. When Marvel brings out a new Secret War, people want to see two things only: action and melodrama. A bunch of goons in garish costumes wailing the tar out of each other, over-emoting at extraordinary volume, preferably with copious reference to past stories and subplots. They don't want to see a low-key study in pseudo-noir espionage, filled with naturalistic dialogue and quiet character bits. Putting out a story like that under a title like Secret War is borderline criminal, in terms of false advertising: every single person in comics, from Gary Groth on down to Herb Trimpe, could tell you what to expect from a comic called Secret War. The only people who don't seem to understand why the fans were justifiably disappointed are the people who actually make the comics at Marvel. (The fact that the last issue never shipped couldn't have helped matters either - but if it had been a story the fans wanted, it wouldn't have mattered how long it took.)

People always complain that nothing happens in some comics anymore - specifically Marvel comics. Well, that's not strictly true. A lot of things happen, even in the most decompressed Bendis book. Sometimes even stylish, interesting things. But people don't want that from their mainstream comic books. They just plain don't want what the folks at Marvel are selling, because the comics Marvel makes now are substantively different from the comics Marvel has made through every other era of their history. The comics that DC makes are essentially identical to the most slavishly garish and unimaginative crap that has ever been popular in the genre, albeit spiced up with a bit of "mature themes" melodrama like rape and murder. Fans want to believe that every second of every single comic is filled to the brim with an almost unbearable tension that will never quite be fully released. It's an almost sexual relationship between anticipation and climax. This is what Stan Lee figured out all those years ago. Even when Stan and Jack and Steve left and the quality of the average Marvel book fell drastically, they still had a sense of urgency that carried them through. This is what DC has figured out. They put that urgency back into the books. It's exploitive, it's melodramatic, it's puerile and sometimes it's downright insulting, but I'll be damned if the books aren't selling -- and the high print-runs for second and third reprints proves that, for the most part, people are actually reading the stupid things. Which is, on the balance, a good thing for comics retailers still stuck in the Direct Market system (that is, most all of them).

Look at House of M. It's not a bad comic book, not by a long shot. It's done a pretty good job of building mood and setting so far, putting the characters through their paces in a fairly familiar What If? style story. Even if some of the characters are occasionally out of character (a common malady at Marvel these days), the story still carries a fairly solid internal logic. The problem is that all of these things are essentially besides the point when we're talking about a major summer crossover event. People picking up a big super-duper slugfest don't want mood, or setting, or internal logic. They want to see high-stakes action in the Mighty Marvel Manner, twenty-two pages of pulse-pounding excitement and the never ending battle against evil. When they say nothing ever happens in modern Marvel books, they mean that nothing happens the way that it used to: two or three extended fights every issues, lots of exposition utilized to cover lots of narrative ground, characters behaving in ways that are consistent with how they have always behaved. There is a reason why books like the original Secret Wars and Infinity Gauntlet and even the fucking Contest of Champions are still in print. I guarantee you that if Marvel put out a book like that right now, it would leave whatever DC was doing in the dust. Not without reason did that Spider-Girl Last Hero Standing thing do surprisingly well. Most people hate Spider-Girl, and yet they wanted to read something big and dumb and action-packed.

If Joe Q. wants to keep his job, he had better figure out why things like House of M and Secret War are not clicking with his audience. The attrition from readers is only going to get worse as time goes by and it becomes obvious to more and more of the hard core that Marvel is flying blind in reference to what they really want. It is frustrating for me to see a business model so willfully ignorant of its customer base. It is also interesting to imagine the consequences if DC were to permanently break Marvel's stranglehold on the direct market - what would happen if the duopoly were ruptured into something more lopsided and less inherently stable? The best thing you can say about Marvel and DC being relatively equal is that their perpetual death match provided a kind of stability. With both of them straining against the other with relatively equal force, they bolstered each other. But if one were to seriously stumble, even temporarily, what would happen to a desiccated and inherently unstable retailer base? Part of me wants to say that there would be no essential difference if mainstream readers bought Marvel and DC comics at a 45/55 ratio or even a 40/60 ratio - the same money essentially rechanneled.

But Marvel has a history of doing strange things when they get desperate. There's not a lot of room in the Direct Market left for fancy maneuverings.

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