Marc Alan Fishman: In Defense of the Modern Comic, Part 1
Once again, my Facebook friend Jim Engel tipped me off to another jumping-on point for a rant. I think I owe him a Coke. Seems someone at the Wall Street Journal perked up at the news that the Avengers crossed the bajillion bucks meter, and it stemmed a very obvious question: If the movie is that popular, shouldn’t there be some kind of carry-over to the parent media? And the simple answer is one we comic fans hate to admit: Ain’t no carry-over cash coming through the doors of the local comic shop over this (or any other) movie. So the WSJ writer, one Tim Marchman, decided to take his book review of “Leaping Tall Buildings” and turn it into a tirade on the industry I want so badly to call home. Now don’t get me wrong, Marchman makes a few solid points. OK, he makes a lot of them. But I know you guys like me when I’m pissy… And one point in particular boils my blood faster than Wally West got eliminated from the New 52:
“If no cultural barrier prevents a public that clearly loves its superheroes from picking up a new Avengers comic, why don’t more people do so? The main reasons are obvious: It is for sale not in a real bookstore but in a specialty shop, and it is clumsily drawn, poorly written and incomprehensible to anyone not steeped in years of arcane mythology.”
First off? On behalf of the industry as a whole? Fuck you. And normally I refrain from the potty mouth, but here is one occasion I feel damned correct in using it. Second, let me clarify where my anger lies. I agree with him about location. The local comic shop is indeed a specialty store. One that carries a stigma of exclusivity that can’t be broken, except on very rare occasion. Most comic shops try hard to throw open their doors to the general public in hopes of enticing them in with their fictiony wares, but the general public doesn’t look to consume their books off the shelf anymore. Ask Borders. But I digress.
I won’t even argue his point about continuity. I could easily argue that, mind you, and if people respond violently enough to this article I may talk about it in a few weeks. Suffice to say, yes, it’s a big barrier to entry. Anyone walking in, fresh out of the theater, would be hard pressed to know where exactly to start reading an Avengers comic. The movie-roster tie-in isn’t well-liked by any reviewer, and the modern Bendis epic-arcs (Disassembled, Civil War, Dark Reign, etc.) are amazingly dense with history. Enough at least to perhaps scare off someone from really taking a leap of literary faith. Again, I digress.
The jab Marchman takes specifically toward the “Clumsily Drawn” aspect of modern comics. Frankly, I don’t get where he’s coming from.
Let’s talk about those clumsy drawings he’s obviously so urped by. Take a look across the racks of your local comic store. Do you see what I see? I see a breadth of styles more diverse than any other period of comic book publishing. Do you think, even for a nano-second, that years ago you’d see Travel Foreman’s sketchy macabre style sharing shelf space with Mobius-inspired types like Frank Quitely and Chris Burnham? Or the crisp and clean lines of the Dodsons bunked-up nice and cosy next to the loose and energetic John Romita, Jr.? No. You’d get 17 Rob Liefeld clones boasting whips, chains, impossible guns, and thigh pouches. Go back to the 80’s? You’d get a sea of house-styled Neal Adams / Dave Gibbons / George Pérez wanna-bees and an occasional Bill Sienkiewicz or Frank Miller thrown in.
I truly believe we are in an amazing time for comic book art. Artists and editors are finding a real balance between new styles, and composition to tell a story. Not every book is perfect mind you (and yes, there is still a house style to both Marvel and DC… but assuredly not as rigid as it once was). On the whole, a comic off the rack today has more chance of being an original artistic statement than a commanded tracing of “something that sells.” While comic sales have plummeted from the false peaks of the 90’s… I truly doubt it is the fault of the art on hand. Well, except for Scott McDaniels’ stuff. Yeesh.
Now, I know that there’s some debate amongst my ComicMix brethren about this point-in-question. I openly beg for some of that debate to happen in the comments below. I’m hard-pressed to believe that on an industry level that the artwork is to blame for comics’ dwindling sales. As I look across the smattering of books I’ve been reading these days – Daredevil, Invincible Iron Man, Batman, The Boys, The Manhattan Projects… and flip through the pages of artists truly giving their all to every panel – I get a little verklempt. I want all of you to go on with out me. I think about this Marchman, and all I can think is “Ver es kon kain pulver nit shmeken, der zol in der malchumeh nit gaien!”
Now go on… discuss!
SUNDAY: John Ostrander
Okay. It’s not the art and this bozo knows nothing about that. Also, the more casual reader isn’t going into the book store but they will buy TPBs which ARE on sale at “real” bookstores and at Amazon. IMO, the real problem is that the books are NOT accessible to the general reader. The lineup in the movie doesn’t reflect what’s happening in the comics. Marvel should do a special line of comics that follows the mythology of the movies as a separate “universe”. They still wouldn’t get the numbers the movie gets. Why? because lots of people just don’t read comics. It’s a different experience.
That all said, those who watch a movie do not follow into other media in many cases. Star Wars fans who watch the movies do not follow into the books or comics in the same numbers. I’m not certain that those who play the games necessarily watch the movies and I don’t think they get into the novels or the comics.
Heck, we’ll see later this summer if those who went to THE AVENGERS go to the AMAZING SPIDER-MAN. To expect a one-to-one correlation is rather stupid. IMO. Sounds like a fatuous article.
Now excuse me but I have to go write MY column.
The article raised good points no doubt, and next week, I stick my neck out for you John, and the fine work you do. Specifically though… you’re right, but it’s a terrible shame. Comics unto themselves are a great gateway medium. As is TV, and movies. But the bigger companies do so little to cross-promote. Marvel doesn’t need to dilute it’s brand to match the movies… it need an easy way to communicate to their movie goers how to follow up. “Like Thor? Start here.” etc. But they don’t even do that.
You get Sienkiewicz right and blow it on Moebius. Jean Giraud’s pseudonym has the “oe” because it’s supposed to–he’s French, you know. (Properly, the spelling should be Mœbius but the œ ligature isn’t a common feature on keyboards.) Moebius did adopt the pseudonym from the German mathematician Möbius, whose name when written in English (or in German when the umlauts aren’t available) is Moebius–the “oe” being two separate letters.
Aside from the minor nitpick, bravo.
I’m afraid that I have to disagree with you. I also read the article a few days ago and, while I had a very negative gut reaction to it, I also had to admit that the review made some excellent points. Probably my negative reaction (besides the fact that he was hopelessly condescending) was because his reasons were closer to the truth than I want to admit.
Yes, comic stories are inaccessible, not only because of their dense history but also because of their drawn out, extended nature to make continued stories. Yes, the stores are also virtually inaccessible, not only because they are in specialty shops, but also because far too many are dark and dingy if there is a local store at all. (Incidentally, Borders went bankrupt because they had a huge debt load when sales started faltering, but just because “no one anywhere buys books any more”.) While you are correct that artists are better than ever and knock themselves out, they all too often fail in the most important task: telling a story clearly. I spoke with a Star Wars fan recently who told me he had started reading Star Wars comics because he loved the movies but all too often he couldn’t understand what was happening in the panel. For that matter, I often am challenged myself.
But the most important barrier of all is this: comic publishers have done a pretty lousy job of taking advantage of the popularity of the movies to promote themselves. Last year Warner Bros. tagged the end of the Green Lantern movie with a still promoting the comics. The tag ran AFTER the credits when nobody was left in the theatre. And GL was a film they funded and distributed themselves and was their own property. Yet that very same movie had a preview attached to the front end for another un-comic-related Warner Bros. film that the theatres were required to show. And while Marvel did a slightly better job by publishing a near infinite number of Avengers titles recently to take advantage of the popularity of the film, none were promoted in the theatre with the film, even though their own production house produced the film. I spent a career in motion picture exhibition so you can trust me on this: All they had to do was require it and they could have forced publicity for the comics into every theatre showing the film.
Let’s do a little math. If Marvel’s The Avengers (note that branding!) grosses $800 million (probably an underestimate) and the average ticket price is $7.50 (probably slightly less but it too late for me to spend time doing the research) that translates into almost 107 million admissions. Even if you make the ridiculous assumption that almost everyone saw it twice you end up with 60 million people. If just .2 percent of those people were curious enough to try the comic sales would double. Sounds like it would have been worth the effort to me.
Rich — But only IF they could find The Avengers, and IF they got lucky and found an issue that started at the beginning of a new story, and IF that story didn’t tie into a million other comics published that month. Those are three huge IFs.
I’m skeptical of in-theater advertising: unless it ties into a local comic shop(s), and good luck with that, I don’t think you’re selling the potential reader an accessible product.
Teevee, otoh, is more useful but only if you’re promoting the digital editions, which both Marvel and DC (but not Mark Waid) are reluctant to do. People can order online while watching teevee — if you’re doing so at the movie theater and you’re sitting anywhere near me, you won’t live long enough to get the download.
But teevee advertising is damn expensive. Even on Disney’s and/or Time Warner’s many cable channels: they are obliged to sell commercial time to other divisions on an “arm’s length” basis. Yep, that’s a legal term. It means under the same standards by which you’d sell commercial time to anybody else.
Mike, I want to give credit to the public at large. Marvel doesn’t need to specifically make a “Avengers #1” with a direct line up from the film, and make it so “THIS IS WHERE YOU COME AFTER THE MOVIE”… But they do have to make a trade paper-back, or a digital edition… and they do need to intelligently market it to the public such that they can make that leap and give a good comic a try.
Over in merrie olde England they’ve got this weekly comic called 2000AD and this monthly comic called Judge Dredd Megazine. Both are anthologies mostly consisting of several ongoing series. Whenever they start a new storyline or they bring back a series that’s been on vacation for a bit, they usually say so right there on the cover. I believe this month’s Judge Dredd Megazine notes the beginning of two new story lines. These same comics — and others in the UK, historically speaking — used to do “boom issues” where EVERY story would start a new arc. They may still; I haven’t paid attention.
The result? Well, British sales have deteriorated over the years just like they have here in the States, but 2000AD is 1785 issues strong (plus annuals and specials) and the Judge Dredd Megazine is 324 issues old (plus annuals and specials).
How many US comic books have been published on time for more than 34 years straight?
But are those British Comics clumsily drawn and poorly written?
Speaking only on your point on the art: Name me some names. I want to know WHO is making narrative mistakes. Perhaps it’s my own long-running love of the medium that guides me to understanding what’s going on versus someone new to comics… I want to know WHO is making art that is inaccessible in the interiors.
Yes, 3 huge IFs among many others. My point exactly. You have to have an accessible product to sell before you can sell it. Then you have to make an effort to let everyone know.
My significant other read comics growing up and even loved Thor. When I suggested she should try some comics again her first comment was “But they are all continued stories. Where would I even start?” I think she represents the general public’s perception.
So I got her started on one that I thought she would enjoy by an artists that has a strong female following. She read about 6 issues and finally gave up waiting for the plot to move along.
And yes, she loves the movies.
See, I had the same gripe. When I was 13. Then I just bought the books, and eventually figured out what was going on. But if the story took too long to move (who did it, I’m curious??) then your wife was right to leave the book. I personally enjoyed JMS’ run on Thor. It was the ONLY time I bought the book. I dropped it when it had to forcibly tie into some event.