Reader’s burnout is a phenomenon that many of us are prey to, I think. I’ve talked about it a couple of times here myself, I’ve had friends of mine crabbing about it (Heidi over at Comics Fairplay has been having a bad bout of it lately) and it just seems to come with being a fan of superhero comics.
Actually, I think it comes with being a fan of any series that’s been going on for a long time, that you’ve been following for a while. I got to thinking about this after we watched Casino Royale the other night, and being reminded that A) I really DO still love James Bond stories, after all these years, and B) there are basically two news stories that get written about Bond movies. The first one is “Is the Bond franchise finally finished?” and the other one is “New life for the James Bond franchise!”
I’ve seen the “new life” story being written for Live and Let Die, For Your Eyes Only, The Living Daylights, Goldeneye, and Casino Royale… and its opposite number, the impending-doom one, for each of those films’ immediate predecessors in the Bond series. That’s how ancient I am. And I’m betting the two stories got written as far back as George Lazenby, or even Connery’s You Only Live Twice. (Probably both at the same time for poor George, the press had a fine old time with him. But, you know, he said defensively, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service holds up a lot better than some of the others.) The plain truth is, those various 007 facelifts were necessary. Sorry, Connery diehards, but you know it’s true.
Here’s the great dilemma of continuing entertainments. You want to keep your fans happy, you want to give them what they fell in love with in the first place. But if you intend to have any kind of longevity, that means adhering to a formula, which breeds repetition. And endless repetition is dull. So you have to figure out a way to repeat yourself that’s not dull.
Good luck with that. Many have tried.
Or perhaps this one…. it’s easy to be smug in hindsight, and I’m not trying to be snarky when I say this — but really, how many NEW ways are there to tell these stories?
This is not to say that a series formula is something inherently BAD…. though there are those critics who seem to think so. Mileage varies. Some folks appreciate a well-executed formula story with a minor twist while others roll their eyes and yawn in boredom at one. Whatever. The beauty of the current comics landscape is that your kind of book, whatever it might be, is probably readily available to you.
The trouble is that we rarely look for them. What we superhero fans mostly do is get so invested in a title or a character that we think we want OUR book done OUR way till the end of time… even though if our book really is done our way till the end of time, we will eventually get bored with it and become restless. We want it the same… but different.
Now, I am certain that each specific example I posted up there has its defenders and its detractors. (I tried to pick relatively neutral examples, as best I could.) I’m talking about trends and general tendencies.
The tendency for superhero fans is to want the books to stay the same — but different!– and so the tendency of superhero creators is to keep trying to appease that schizophrenic need. So we get things like big Event Death stories, or a Bold New Direction, or Getting Back To Basics… I mean, come on. If you’ve been following Marvel and DC for any length of time you know how it goes. Big Sweeping Change, then a new team comes on or an editorial regime changes and suddenly the Big Sweeping Change is undone.
Green Lantern’s the most obvious example, of course, but there are lots of other ones in superhero comics; I could have just as easily made the case with the Teen Titans, or the JLA, or the Avengers, or whoever.
And you’d have all known instantly what I meant. The trouble is that once upon a time, you could get away with this kind of back-and-forth pendulum swing approach… back when comics readership turned over. Now you can’t. Because readers nowadays are the ones that came to comics and stayed. For years. (Sometimes even if we hate what we’re buying… but that’s a different column.)
What’s worse, today more than any other time in comics publishing history, the old stuff is available to new readers. All the previous revamps, reboots, new directions, and so on are right there on the bookshelves. The one thing you notice right away when you read the Essentials and Showcases reprinting the older material is that, Jesus, these were never meant to be read all in a row like this. Especially stuff like the Essential Human Torch or Showcase Presents Aquaman, where the back half of the book occasionally contradicts the front half.
So now superhero publishers are in a real fix. How do you keep your books from looking tired and flabby when your readership is so demanding of both familiarity AND change… and worse, we remember all the OTHER tricks you’ve used to keep us interested, so you can’t keep going back to the same well any more? We’ve seen the girlfriends die, we’ve seen the best friend turn evil, we’ve seen the roster change and the costume change, we’ve seen you put a new guy in the suit, we’ve seen you put a new girl in the suit, we’ve seen the grim-n-gritty re-imagining, we’ve seen the back-to-basics-old-fashioned-fun. We’ve seen it all.
Whatever reaction anyone might be having to Disassembled or Infinite Crisis or Countdown or Civil War or whatever, the one reaction hardly anyone has any more is genuine surprise. The comics readership is as jaded as Emperor Nero’s Rome.
So where do you go from here, if you’re a publisher of superhero stories? What’s left?
Right now the big trend seems to be the mega-saga, the epic that takes a year or two to unspool: a gigantic sprawling story that goes through a whole line of books and involves dozens of creators. Well, that tactic has the virtue of at least taking a long time, so you’ve bought yourself a few months’ grace while you figure out what to do next. But it doesn’t really strike me as a viable solution. Especially since you are taking the gamble — admittedly, a reasonable one, given the record — that readers will hang in there with you for the whole two years’ worth of crossovers and tie-ins and whatever else, even if they’re not happy.
But in the end, that burns readers out even quicker; Civil War pretty much prompted me to cancel my Marvel pulls, especially when it became apparent that it was going to go on and on and on long after the mini-series itself was over. And both Heidi and our own Brian Cronin have voiced their disenchantment with Amazons Attack and its non-ending. All over the comics landscape you see readers and even some retailers expressing a general discontent with the publishers’ assumption that yes, we will buy whatever we need to in order to get the whole thing.
Lately this trend towards the endless sprawl has extended even to the collected trade editions. I was appalled to get to the end of the recent Iron Fist hardcover collection — a hardcover!! — only to find that it ended on a cliffhanger. And I’m a good audience, damn it. I don’t stand ready with my Tomahawk of Snark the way so many other reviewers do when they see a new book. I was completely ready to enjoy this, I wanted to love it, I have tremendous affection for previous versions… and instead I put the book down thoroughly annoyed, feeling vaguely like the victim of some sort of con game. I was hardly even able to consider the story on its merits because I was so pissed off at the deceptive way it was packaged.
And I only picked it up used, cheap, on a whim. Imagine the fury of someone who bought it new with that same confidence that by the time the story made it between hard covers it would be complete.
The mega-story is just the natural outgrowth of the whole continuity obsession that’s been building ever since Stan Lee thought it would be fun to have his books cross over back in ’64. And I think a well-executed crossover can be entertaining, I’m not a snob about it.
But the key word is fun. What good is a gigantic two-year mega-epic if it’s no fun? Was Civil War fun for anyone? Is Countdown? The sense I’m getting from fans across the internet is that they’re getting tired of this kind of storytelling. It costs too much, the pace is too slow, nothing ‘counts’ (seriously, it’s reached the point where no one believes any change will stick longer than a year) and as far as I can tell no one’s really having a lot of fun.
The fun seems to be happening out-of-continuity these days. All-Star Superman. Marvel’s Ultimate line. Monster Society of Evil. Marvel Adventures. Justice.
What I notice about these various superhero successes is that they are successful in large part because they aren’t dragging around the albatross of reader expectation. And isn’t that where MOST of the superhero successes and critical darlings of the last twenty years have come from? Like Watchmen? Miller’s Daredevil and Dark Knight? Morrison’s Doom Patrol? Hell, Morrison’s X-Men?
For that matter, some of the freshest Marvel and DC work in the regular line in the last twenty years has come from those folks who just said “screw it, I’m doing my own thing,” and ignored anything they felt like if they thought it was in the way.
Which gives me a notion.
We are already tiptoeing up to the idea with things like the Ultimate and All-Star lines. Marv Wolfman proposed it with the original Crisis and DC almost did it with the John Byrne Superman and Zero Month and “One Year Later.” The trouble is, editorial always chickens out and stops short… and doing it incrementally doesn’t work nearly as well.
So why not… just hear me out, now… what if they really, you know, did it?
Reboot the whole line. Period.
Because, really, what do you lose? Especially nowadays, with all the old stuff within easy reach at your nearest bookstore?
Think back to 1986, John Byrne’s reboot of Superman. Whatever you may think of the stories themselves, the IDEA was intoxicating, and at the time, really revolutionary. The traditional Weisinger-era Superman got a lovely send-off, everyone took a bow, and that story was done.
And then…. an honest-to-God fresh start. Huge press, huge bump in the Superman readership, we were all jazzed to be reading about the big guy again.
How freeing would it be if DC and Marvel really tried that tactic line-wide… a for-real, brand-new reboot of their superhero books? Instead of having to do these convoluted explanatory miniseries, or event books that turn out to not really be very eventful so much as expository… just pick a date for the current books to wrap up, and START OVER. Give plenty of notice — maybe a year — and put as much into the wrapup as you do into the reboot. Let every book have that same kind of satisfying ending… then an absolutely clean slate. Start anew.
Why the hell not? They’re practically doing it already. How many “Year One” mini-series have we seen? How many series have started over at #1? How many more are coming? Not to mention all the “Last Stories” and The End specials and one-shots. Really at this point, it would be about coordinating the timing more than anything else. Clearly readers are not nearly as opposed to the idea as some might think.
One might even suspect DC’s already playing with the idea: At one stroke give us all a chance to shake off the accumulated baggage of the last couple of decades and start over, the way Marv Wolfman and Len Wein pitched the original Crisis. How cool would that be if that was what Final Crisis REALLY was going to do? Even burned-out cynical old fogeys like me would be on board for that. After all, the name “Final Crisis” must mean something…
Call it the Daniel Craig solution.
See you next week.