Thursday, November 02, 2006

Don't Eat Poo / It's Not Good For You

Many years ago, during the "Acts of Vengeance" crossover, a story ran in the pages of the Fantastic Four detailing a trip the team made to Washington, DC. It was something of a lead-in to Walt Simonson's abbreviated but spectacular run on the series -- a breather after Steve Englehart's lengthy but unsatisfying run, three issues written by Simonson but not pencilled. It's kind of fun as these things go -- the whole point of "Acts of Vengeance" was that a consortium of super-villains (led, secretly, by Loki, duh) decided to gang up on really inflict some punishment on their arch-enemies. They actually succeeded in doing this fairly well by switching foes, which made for some fun match-ups. Where else are you going to see Daredevil fight Ultron?*

Anyway, the crossover part in Fantastic Four was basically played for laughs. Instead of trying to find an actual villain worth battling for the FF, Dr. Doom uses a variation on the same device he used to bust up Reed & Sue's wedding, psychically attracting every two-bit, no-name supervillain to try to take them down. People like Plant Man and the Eel, basically every lame supervillain that Scourge hadn't killed. The best sequence occurred when, after being beset by all these lame-brained losers, a report comes in from the Air Force that Apocalypse has been seen flying near the DC area. Well, the FF run out to change into their costumes, thinking that this is going to be a real fight . . . and then the report comes back that Apocalypse was just passing through, flying near the capital on his way to somewhere else. And they have to go change back out of their costumes in order to continue testifying in front of Congress.

Anyway, this story recurred to me today for some odd reason. The whole thinjg was predicated on the FF being called to Washington to testify on the matter of a proposed Mutant Registration Act -- an act that, if I recall correctly, was used as a MacGuffin throughout the 80s and early 90s, the constant threat of which hung over the heads of Marvel's mutants. Anyway, there's a lengthy sequence where Reed pontificates on how such an act is not only misguided but would be counterproductive and open to abuse -- using Spider-Man as a specific example of a hero whose crime fighting activities would be seriously curtailed by the requirements of registration, if and when the Mutant Registration Act was ever broadened to cover the entire superhero community (which, he reasoned, was practically an inevitability given the proposed act's nature). Given all the uproar over the recent Civil War business, that made me laugh when I remembered it. You know it's bad when someone who hasn't bought a regular monthly Marvel title in years can punch a whole through your premise with a half-remembered plot from twenty years ago . . .

Now, I suppose it is too much to ask that anyone writing a Fantastic Four story have to keep up-to-date on every Fantastic Four story ever written, but dammit, it seems that somewhere along the line, someone should have spoken up to say that not only was this exact same story told a little less than twenty years ago, but the same character was on the exact opposite side of the debate. And they wonder why the long-term fans are up in arms . . . the Powers That Be in charge of superhero comincs have got this idea in their heads that any controversy is good controversy, and as long as it gets people talking, they'll continue to buy the books. And as much as the long-term fans scream about it, they'll continue to do so as long as it sells the books. And it will, because people will continue to buy the crappy comics regardless of what their common sense tells them. And that is the secret of capitalism right there. Right now there is no market premium on quality, in terms of consistency. There is a premium on controversy, because that's the only thing capable of shocking moribund sales to life.

And you see this across the superhero industry. I am morbidly amused by the fact that, despite the sales success of Infinity Crisis and all the crossover titles leading up to it, almost all the post-Crisis spin-offs have been losing readers at a precipitous rate. If the purpose of the Crisis was to build interest in new long-term properties, it failed miserably. 52 is a success, but that is because, from what I have seen, it keeps a sense of the large-scale, widescreen adventure that worked so well for the Crisis. The market is so desiccated that the only thing that gets any attention is massive upheaval, the storytelling equivalent of an adrenalin shot straight through the heart. Anything else just withers on the vine.

And sure enough, all these titles that are spinning off out of Civil War? Some of them will probably continue to do well, but most of them will start shedding readers at frightening speed once the crossover is over. The new, inevitable Thor relaunch that will most certainly be the end push resulting from Civil War will be a classic example here. I can predict the outcome, barring any major upheaval: it will premiere big, maybe even the biggest seller of that month. But after a year, regardless of the creative team, regardless of how good the book is or is not, it will be lucky to still be moving a third of the numbers as it premiered with. And then they'll look around and realize the only thing that juices sales is events, because that seems to be the only thing that does work consistently. So then they'll eventually figure out how to create a state of constant anticipation and building tension in a vain attempt to keep sales at a plateau.

Which is sorta what DC did in the year building up to Infinite Crisis. The problem was that eventually it had to build up to something, and when that release came, it was inevitably an anti-climax as compared to a year and a half of epic buildup. When the release came and they had to get to the business of just telling regular stories, everything started sagging again. But then, DC was smart about that -- even as they are trying to pitch a new direction, they're still planting seeds for a potential new cataclysm, certain to be bigger and louder and even less satisfying than the last one.

*This wasn't actually as mismatched a fight as you might imagine: Dr. Doom rebuilt Ultron in order to sic him on Daredevil at the Kingpin's behest, but Doom didn't do a very good job so Ultron came out all kinds of crazy, with every different programming iteration of Ultron's personality vying for predominance. He was schizoid with religious delusions -- a perfect match for Daredevil, who was at the time bumming around the country, half-crazy and depressed himself. Fun stuff.

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