Monday, January 15, 2007

51... 51... 51...

I've been keeping half an eye on DC's 52 series; there's a part of me that is interested in the logistics of the format, while there's another part of me that is anxious to rubberneck at a terrible car crash. I think, with 36 weeks down, I can safely say that the result is not exactly the terrible car crash that many predicted, but man, are these the most unerringly cynical comics I've ever seen.

I'm not really referring to anything that happens inside the actual book itself: everyone knows the content of the mainstream super-doopers have been getting increasingly cutthroat lately, and 52 is no exception to this trend. I really don't have any of the vestigial nostalgic interest in most of the DC characters that I do for Marvel, so there isn't even that much of an appeal for me; even characters I do care for, like Lobo or Animal Man, are only as strong as the stories they're in, and this is a pretty weak story by that measure. What is cynical about 52 is the absolutely calculated way in which everything about the book has been designed to appeal to the most basic fanboy impulses. Not that I should be surprised, but man, it's not usually this bald-faced.

The Big Two publishers have learned well the lessons of the past few years: after a time spent dallying with "story-centric" approaches that were created with the goal of appealing to mythical new readers, Marvel and DC have thrown their hands in the air and retrenched their business model, going back to the basics of tight continuity and line-wide storytelling. Decompressing stories for the trades and writing every feature like a B-list FX action drama didn't bring the great wide world banging down the industry's door; the only thing left to be done is to flog the long-term customers for every cent they're worth and run the trade backlist like a separate business entirely.

But if you aim the product specifically at the fanboys, then you must recognize that the fanboys have very specific desires. They don't want to just read a well-executed story or compelling drama. They're invested in these characters but also inured to artificial shocks. The stakes have to be kept incredibly high but also convincing: more than anything else, whether we're discussing 52, Infinite Crisis, Civil War or whatever else is high on the charts, the reader is being primed to believe that the stakes have never been higher and that actions have long-term consequences. Things matter and it's worth it to be in on the discussion down at the shop on Wednesday: even if the things that happen are lame or disappointing or totally out of character, as long as it's not boring it will sell.

Notice that in almost every recent instance, sales for crossovers and peripheral events have been incredibly strong, but once a post-crossover status quo has been established sales have again resumed their previous (almost inevitable industry-wide) freefall? The readers are so accustomed to shocks and thrills that anything less than the end of the world is just window-dressing. Anyone reading comics now grew up reading comics in a time when comics were still fairly static. Most superhero comics throughout history have been static creatures, dedicated to the maintenance of the status quo across hundreds of issues and multiple decades. Modern readers really desperately want to be tricked into thinking that it's no longer like when they were kids and that things today will have an impact on things tomorrow, so modern creators have to bend over backwards to provide the illusion of permanence.

Which is why 52 is such a well-crafted set-up. All of DC's "Big Guns" are conveniently offstage -- from what I've seen, no Superman, no Wonder Woman, and very little Batman. Secondary folks like Green Lantern and Flash are also gone. In place of these necessarily static trademarks we've got the Question, Steel, Animal Man, Rip Hunter, the Elongated Man, Will Magnus -- C-listers by any stretch of the imagination. But their minor-league status allows the creators the luxury of doing things they'd never be allowed to do with Superman and Batman. They can take these characters apart and put them back together any which way they please. Of course, in the long run they'll all probably return to their baseline status quo, but at least the secondary and tertiary characters can maintain the illusion of change with much more conviction than, say, Batman. (Which is not to say that this can't change on a moments' notice: if, for instance, the CW wanted to do a prime-time adventure show starring, say, the Question, there is no doubt that Vic Sage would in no time flat be back behind the ol' blankface for the comics tie-in. You could say it was a case of the tail wagging the dog, if you still believed for one second that comics were the dog.)

So yeah, it can't help but seem insulting to me, but I guess I'm not the audience. I mean, the product is unavoidably mediocre: writing by committee, art by seemingly whomever the hell happens to be walking by the office on any given day, character motivation by fiat. But readers get the visceral thrill of believing that the book "matters", and that the contents of each week's adventure will be important, and that they will suffer for missing it. Just as with Civil War, notions of relative quality take a back seat to fan service. I have to admire the Marvel brain trust for their Quixotic decision to delay the book out of allegiance to the creative team: they could easily have replaced the creative team with Chuck Austen and Rich Buckler and people still would have bought it, as long as Massive! Earthshaking! Upheaval! was promised within.

In the future I predict the mainlines for both Marvel and DC will resemble 52 more than anything else: fast, relatively cheap, dedicated to constant fan service by way of increasingly gratuitous and sensational storytelling. Essentially, boiling down the absolute worst impulses of corporate comics into a flat product that delivers a high adrenaline rush but without even the lingering aftertaste of craft or irony of which well-executed superhero comics are still capable. So, Japanese adventure comics, then, only dedicated to trademark perpetuation.

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