For DC and Marvel, the content of their books is the least of their problems

by  in Comic News Comment
For DC and Marvel, the content of their books is the least of their problems

Well, that’s a cheery title, isn’t it? I’m going to write about Futures End and Original Sin, both of which had a “zero” issue that I didn’t read and both of which shipped their #1 issues this week. So, um, SPOILERS be below, arrrrrr!

To start: I didn’t hate either of these books. I didn’t exactly like them, but I recognize that I’m not the audience, and while I could rant about some of the storytelling, I’m not going to (or at least I’m not going to very much).

Why did I buy these two issues, if I wasn’t terribly interested in them and probably wouldn’t like them very much? Well, you know me – every once in a while I like to dip my toes in the Big Event Pool and see what’s what, after which I run screaming back to my hipster indie books and weird-o corners of the Marvel Universe (the DCnU doesn’t seem to have any weird-o corners anymore, unfortunately). I wasn’t going to get Original Sin #1, but once I decided to pick up Futures End, I figured I should go for the two-fer. But why did I get Futures End #1?

Well, I missed the Free Comic Book Day issue #0, because I was too busy getting those aforementioned hipster indie books, but then I read about it on Caleb’s blog and regretted not getting it, if only because I missed yet another DC hero getting a limb cut off.

I mean, that’s just tremendous commitment on DC’s editorial and creative teams to ensure that a hero gets a limb chopped off every few months or so. Plus, the panel with Frankenstein opening his shirt to reveal Black Canary’s face stitched onto his chest just might be the greatest panel in the history of comics. So I read Caleb’s thoughts about it. I had already read Chris Sims’s thoughts about it. Caleb linked to Jog’s thoughts about it. Then I read that Mark Waid was, um, talking smack about it? Is he? Is he not? You be the judge! So a lot of people were writing about Futures End #0 and wringing their hands over the state of DC Entertainment. Everyone agrees that Futures End #0 is wildly derivative of a bunch of disparate, better sources, and everyone agrees that it’s a pretty crap issue. Everyone also agrees that if DC was going to put out a FCBD book that shows what you get in 2014 from a DC book, this is a perfect distillation. Sims comes as close as he can to unironically crying “Won’t someone think of the children?!?!?” in his best Helen Lovejoy voice, which cracked me right up because he considers Snyder and Capullo’s Batman one of DC’s best comics right now (it might be, but that doesn’t make it a good comic, and isn’t it the one in which the Joker just went around wearing his own skin as a mask, which doesn’t scream “kid-friendly” to me). I’ll get back to this idea of “kid-friendliness,” as it’s kind of the point of my post. First, Futures End #1 and Original Sin #1 came out. What’s up with them?

Futures End #1 starts off with Batman (the Beyond kind) getting attacked by a cyborg, but there’s nothing terribly objectionable there. Then we switch to Stormwatch, where Apollo pays for his filthy, sinful lifestyle by getting fried by some energy beam just before the Midnighter pays for his filthy, sinful lifestyle by getting blown up on the Stormwatch ship, where his enabling teammates get the same treatment. Before we can process that, we switch to a suburb, where a kindly dad is getting shot in the head. Then his wife gets shot several times. It’s okay, though, because it’s Grifter, killing evil “Body Snatcher”-type aliens, including the one inhabiting the little girl in the house (to their eternal shame, DC doesn’t show Grifter putting two in her head). I mean, if you’re going to be derivative, at least you make sure Grifter explains that they’re being derivative (which he does). Then Jason Rusch interrupts Ron Raymond about to have sex with a girl so that they can become Firestorm and fly to Seattle to help Green Arrow, but they reach him too late (thanks to Ronnie’s inability to keep it in his pants) and our pal Ollie is dead. So things are off to a rousing start!

Meanwhile, over in Original Sin, Captain America, Wolverine, Black Widow, and Original Nick Fury (wait, isn’t he dead?) are eating at a diner talking about steak. Dear sweet Jeebus, are they talking about steak! They get a call about something weird happening on the moon, so they all head there, where they find Uatu dead. Yeah.

Then it’s all about gathering teams to find Uatu’s eyes and the gun that killed him, with a bunch of B- and C-list Marvel heroes hooking up (ew, not like that) and plotting. Before we get too bored, we find a Mindless One that suddenly has a mind tearing up New York, and before Ben Grimm and Spider-Man can stop it, it commits suicide by sticking the Ultimate Nullifier at its head and pulling the trigger. And then we get a few more pages of the heroes gathering, before we end with the villains, one of whom is holding one of Uatu’s eyes. That’s the final image of the issue.

Neither of these issues is all that good, but that’s not really the point, is it? Mike Deodato and Frank Martin turn in some nice art, as Deodato continues to evolve in his work (hey, if only someone were doing a series of posts about artists’ evolution over the years!), although the use of a Photoshopped moon is kind of annoying. Patrick Zircher does a pretty good job on Futures End, although there’s a sequence when Terry fights the cyborg that I can’t parse. Zircher has turned into a dependable superhero artist, although I prefer some of his more experimental art from previous years.

On event books, the art is often ahead of the writing, and it does feel a bit as if Aaron (on Original Sin) and Misters Azzarello, Lemire, Jurgens, and Giffen (on Futures End) are phoning it in a bit, but there’s nothing terribly egregious about the stories. I’m sure that we’ll read plenty of posts about how DC is driving away any casual comics fans and kids will never read their books and other stuff, while no one will mention that the big moment in Original Sin is the Watcher lying on the ground with his eyes scraped out of his noggin. Marvel just sells this shit better.

So what’s my point? Well, I’d like to ponder the idea that Sims brings up, about DC comics not being aimed at kids. Sims doesn’t have any children (I’m reasonably certain I’m right about this fact), although I don’t know if he has nephews and nieces (or, heck, even young cousins) in his life. Caleb doesn’t have any children, either, but he does write about his nieces often, so I assume they exist (unless he’s writing the longest work of strange blog fiction in the short history of blogs). That doesn’t mean they can’t write about comics for kids, of course, but I wonder if they really hang out with kids that often, or if they’re viewing these books through the lens of their own experiences when they were 7-14 years old. I just don’t know. My daughter, sadly, is more interested in prose than comics (she reads some comics, but she’s not that into them), but I have been volunteering a lot at her school this year, so I have been hanging out with a lot of third-graders. With regard to Futures End and Original Sin, I have one thing to say with regard to 8-year-old boys:

They would eat this shit up with a motherfucking spoon.

Look, the world is different than it was in the gauzy past, when The Dukes of Hazzard was about all kids could handle in terms of sex and The A-Team was all they could handle in terms of violence.

I don’t know about you, but if there had been even more violent stuff on television back then, I would have been all over that shit. Kids are bloodthirsty – even girls. The only reason we think of these comics as not being for kids is because when we were kids, they didn’t make comics like this. Kids aren’t delicate flowers who need to be protected from stuff. Sure, I wouldn’t want my daughter to watch certain things on television or read certain comics, but I’m talking about stuff like Game of Thrones or Faust. I wouldn’t have any problem with her reading Futures End or Original Sin. She’d probably laugh at Uatu’s misfortune. I can guarantee you that I know plenty of kids in Norah’s grade who would see what happens to Apollo and say “Cool!” Kids are vicious bastards. I love ’em to death.

The people who complain about these comics not being for kids are the parents, not the kids. I get that parents want to monitor what their kids consume, but comics like Futures End are not going to scar any kids. Original Sin‘s worst sin for kids is that there’s not enough carnage, so it might bore kids to tears. At least Futures End has a pretty good body count-to-page ratio – after 1½ pages of stupid talking, a cyborg almost drills (literally) Batman’s head off – with a drill that extends out of its mouth (see above); on page 7, Stormwatch’s ship attacks the team; on Page 9, Apollo gets fried to a crispy skeleton; on Page 10, the ship explodes, killing everyone on board; on Page 11, Grifter kills two people; on Page 12 AND 13, he fires more bullets gratuitously into the corpse of the “mother”; on Page 14, he kills a “kid”; on Page 20, we get the full-page splash of Oliver Queen’s corpse that I showed above. The grossest thing in the book for a kid would probably be Ron Raymond and Emily with half their clothes off!

The problem with comics like this and the comics cognoscenti is the same problem popular television shows and popular movies and popular music has. Futures End and Original Sin are crap, but people love crap. NCIS is shit, The Big Bang Theory is shit, the Transformers movies are shit, Iggy Azalea’s “Fancy” is shit. It doesn’t matter. Many people, especially ones who aren’t as into a certain thing as others (like comics, or television, or movies), don’t care too much about quality, they just like something to pass the time. We all know this is true, but when we’re confronted with evidence, like the fact that DC apparently sells enough limb-removing comics to make it worth it, we rail against it.

We like being comics snobs, because we like to pretend we’re too good for shit like Futures End or Original Sin. “If I read DC comics, I read Wonder Woman and Batman ’66 because I have taste,” we sniff. “And look at that Matt Fraction, totally reinventing comics on Hawkeye!” But most people like popular culture like this. They aren’t huge fans of any medium, they just like to mildly entertained every once in a while. That’s true whether they just want to sit down in front of the television and vegetate for a while, pick up the latest thriller by Brad Thor (that can’t be his real name, can it?), go see something with big explosions on the big screen, or read a comic where Green Arrow ends up dead. The vast majority of people don’t care that it’s crap. And that’s okay. As I’ve noted before, I don’t read comics that way, but everyone reads or watches or listens in a different way. DC and Marvel don’t care if I don’t read these event books.

The problem, as usual, is not that the content is crappy. It’s that these comics aren’t available and cost too much. I hate to beat this dead horse, but it’s true. I went to FCBD, as I’m sure many of you did, and both stores I visited were packed. They were packed with kids, too, because parents saw that it was Free Comic Book Day, saw the word FREE, and thought it would be a good idea to get something for nothing. My retailer did quite a lot of business, too, so he liked the day even though he had to pay for the books. Kids love comics, parents love comics, and kids would love to read shit like Futures End or Original Sin. But, as has been noted for years, you can’t find comics at 7-11 or at random places a kid might go. It’s a bit better than it was in the recent past, as Marvel and DC are trying to get into places like Wal-Mart (and they might be there, for all I know – as a snob, I avoid Wal-Mart like it’s your mom after her latest night of rough trade). But I rarely see kids in my comic book store, and those I do come in because their dads (usually) buy comics. Kids don’t go on their own to comic book stores, and that means they’re not developing the habit of buying serialized fiction. Comics is an active pursuit, like movie-going and unlike television, because you have to go out and find it. Many of the people I’ve given comics to over the years enjoy them but don’t have the urge to seek them out. That kind of obsessive behavior is very hard to instill in people when they’re older – you have to hook them when they’re young. DC and Marvel have the product, but they don’t have the accessibility.

Obviously, price is a big factor too. I know so many people have gone over this again and again, but it’s worth mentioning. Original Sin #1 is $4.99, which is just too spendy for a kid, no matter how many shots the Watcher takes to the dome. Futures End #1 might be “only” $2.99, but it’s weekly, and that adds up. Parents want cheap entertainment for their kids, which is why they buy them video games and let them play them until their eyes bleed out of their sockets. Even if kids get hooked on comics through FCBD and they have easy access to a comic book store, are they or their parents really going to invest so much money into the product?

That’s one reason why digital comics are handy, because of accessibility, but I guess most companies charge the same fucking amount of money for a digital comic that they do for a print one. That’s, not to put too fine a point on it, insane.

DC and Marvel, like a lot of movie companies, have reached a point where I doubt if they care too much if people read the comics. Movie companies have reached a point where butts in seats for their movies isn’t the entire point, and might not even be a major point. Ancillary revenue is the point, and it’s why Amazing Spider-Man 2 can do fairly shitty box office but Sony doesn’t give a shit because every kid in the country is getting Spider-Man Happy Meals (and remember: girls only like pink Spider-Man accessories!). I suspect that DC and Marvel don’t care too much about the comics selling because they feed into the movies (let’s hope Ed Brubaker is getting mad royalties for the latest Captain America movie), where all the crazy cash is. They’ll keep publishing the comics and hope that old farts like me keep buying them, but they don’t particularly care about reaching out to new readers. Kids know who Batman and Superman and Wonder Woman and Spider-Man and Wolverine and Captain America are, and they get what they want out of them from the movies. And DC and Marvel are perfectly fine with that.

I know I’m beating an old dead horse with this, but it’s worth saying every so often, especially when other people get up in arms about DC and Marvel not publishing comics for children. Almost all of DC and Marvel’s publishing output is perfectly fine for kids, even ones in which Batman’s arm gets lopped off or Uatu’s head gets perforated. I know at least two third-graders who have seen both Hunger Games movies and loved them, even though as a parent I don’t think they’re all that appropriate for third-graders. Kids are far tougher than we think they are, and not much DC and Marvel publishes in their regular, mainstream superhero line will affect them too much. Their problems aren’t about what’s in the comics, it’s about the fact that they can’t the comics into the hands of kids. They could easily hook new readers if they fixed that, and they wouldn’t even have to stop publishing charming stories where Grifter shoots children or villains carry eyeballs around in their hands.

But, as usual, what the hell do I know?