Monday, October 10, 2011


I've been trying for some time to formulate an adequate response to the massive existential changes currently tearing up the comics landscape, but it's been a busy month, what with starting a new job and new classes in a new town. Also, whereas normally I would have been tempted to post any old thing just to have something on the site, I've been wary of posting anything substantial on the site until I am done with my Cerebus series. I have a bad history of unfinished series, and I am loath to do anything that might otherwise impede the completion of my Cerebus thoughts. I'm trying to be better about these things . . . but the end result is that, since the Cerebus posts have been incredibly time- and thought-intensive, I jhaven't been posting anything at all. But I can promise you that as of this writing the final - or at least what I am foreseeing as being the final - Cerebus essay is half-done in draft form. It will be finished hopefully within the next couple days. And then hopefully I won't have to write anything about Cerebus ever again. (Unless of course I actually write that book about Cerebus I like to threaten myself with when I'm being particularly bad. But even if I did that it would be many, many years from now before I could even begin to think about devoting the resources necessary to a more in-depth explication of the book.)

But that doesn't mean I haven't been paying attention to the slow roll-out of the Nu52 relaunch, or even the death spasms of Marvel's extremely boring Fear Itself crossover. (Just a quick aside because I don't think the series deserves any more attention than I've already given it: how weird is it that FA would almost certainly read better if the main series had not been published - if all we had to read was the crossovers in the Avengers family of titles and a few of the satellite minis? Think about that for a minute.) I just haven't had anything to say. I briefly - as in, for about two minutes - toyed with the idea of doing the requisite rundown of all 52 new titles, but soon thought better of it. Because, you know, the vast majority of them have sucked. But the most depressing thing about so many of these books is not that they're bad - which they are, but which isn't exactly a crime and is hardly novel - but that DC finally seems to have figured out something about which they were blissfully ignorant for the longest time.

The secret lesson of the Nu52 is that they no longer feel as if they have to pretend that crappy comics are anything more than crappy comics. Without having to worry about whether or not this or that book will be "good" on any kind of arbitrary scale, it frees them up to be a lot more efficient and ruthless in the kinds of stories they tell. So that is exactly why we have so many titty books, whereas titty books had been somewhat underscored in recent years: it's not that T&A books never sold, but for whatever reason the particular publishing culture at the company had moderated against early WItchblade / Jim Balent Catwoman-style T&A. Which is not to say that there was no T&A - God forbid - but that the T&A usually existed in a slightly mediated form, and in other contexts. But now there is no real desire to provide any kind of ameliorating context. We can just have T&A books like it's 1995 all over again, and they're going to sell well because, as I said, they haven't really been doing them like this for quite some time. As crazy as the Star Sapphire costumes are, there's a big difference between a book that has T&A elements and a book that exists exclusively as a T&A delivery vehicle. Suddenly, they realized that for all the good reviews and critical goodwill the early-00s revamp of Catwoman received when reimagined as a slightly more sophisticated, less specifically T&A property, the best way to sell Catwoman comics is still just to go - pardon the expression - balls-deep into the realm of vaguely R-rated content. (Still no nipples, but just about everything else.) If you give up on the idea that you should at least on some level be publishing "good" comic books, that frees you to be a lot more ruthless in your determination about what exactly the core strengths of any potential franchise might be. The T&A in Catwoman and the Red Hood book was no mistake, and complaining about the sexual content is a bit like complaining that Spam is salty. It's supposed to do that.

The few truly good books produced by the revamp are, tellingly, books that most people were expecting to be good going in. Animal Man is a delightful series, perhaps the best of the Nu52, but most people could have predicted that it would have been at least more interesting than the bulk of books that surrounded it because Animal Man as a property has always depended on a high level of execution for its relative success. Ergo, the best way to "sell" Animal Man is to frame it as one of the line's few "prestige" books, the proverbial Merchant-Ivory production sitting next to the sea of Michael Bay joints. You can say similar things about Batwoman, but that's a special case inasmuch as the book would likely have existed in much the same shape whether or not the line had been rebooted.

Most of the other "good" books in the relaunch are not so much spectacular creative achievements as solidly conceived genre material that will probably hold up reasonably well in collection: Batman, Stormwatch (the second issue of which was massively better than the first), Swamp Thing. But at this point in the genre's history the ability to pull together solid creative teams on any given book seems to be as much alchemy and luck as any kind of outgrowth of legitimate aesthetic sensibility. Batman is a bog-standard book enlivened by some fairly spectacular artwork by Greg Capullo - but Capullo's art would have enlivened any other book to which he had been assigned. Swamp Thing has promise but so far seems far less impressive than the similarly themed Animal Man, and this is especially noticeable inasmuch as both books appear to be participating in a larger shared storyline, the size and scope of which is still mostly inchoate. Aquaman is pretty much exactly what you'd expect a relaunch of Aquaman by the company's number one creative team to look like, and as such it succeeds precisely to the degree you would expect. (OMAC is a freak that doesn't really fit any model because it is so obviously only good because Keith Giffen is doing some of the best work of his career on a story that is otherwise fairly tepid, and it will be a miracle if the series lasts a full calender year.)

So DC has finally learned a lesson that Hollywood has taken as dogma for decades: any creative endeavor is essentially a set of variables. The success or failure of any endeavor will depend (or so this model goes) on the ability of the producers to control every possible variable. Execution - as in, whether or not something is actually, legitimately good - is the hardest possible variable to predict with any certainty. This explains why, even though serious dramas usually cost significantly less than action movies or even star-vehicle comedies, its harder to get dramas made at major studios than ever because the success of a serious, potential award-bait movie is dependent on things that no producer or studio can ever completely control - the temperament and talent of artists. (This also explains why most larger studios have almost entirely subcontracted the production of serious movies to cheaper boutique labels such as Fox Searchlight or Miramax - lower overhead, less risk.) So there are only a handful of truly good books in the Nu52 by design: those are the maximum number of dice rolls that the company felt they could legitimately get away with. Most of the other books, inasmuch as they are or are not dicey commercial prospects, nevertheless represent familiar types produced by dependable craftspeople who can be counted on to produce the exact product for which they are contracted to produce. T&A books usually don't need A-list creators, and neither do ultraviolent paramilitary stories or low-key superhero action books, and it is as avatars of these discrete categories that the books will be packaged and sold both to veteran readers and to the supposed newcomers attracted by hype and investment potential. They are less aesthetic genres as product descriptors. And if the logic of capitalism has been evident throughout the industry for a long time, this is still the first time in a long time that the strings have been quite so clearly visible. The best DC can hope for these books is that by producing so many of them in such a rigorous and industrial fashion, they will be producing stories that can most easily be packaged for sale in the same way that thrillers, supernatural romance and science fiction have traditionally been packaged: as impulse buys for travelers and casual readers. That's progress, of a kind.

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