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Friday in a Fantasy World

by  in Comic News Comment
Friday in a Fantasy World

Friday came early again. As luck would have it I actually have time off from all my various jobs so I’m going to get this posted, turn off the computer for a day or two and spend quality time with my bride. (Oops. There goes all my street cred as a comics nerd.)

As you may recall, I’ve been reading older, non-superhero books a lot the last couple of months. Well, I’m still working my way though a lot of older stuff that came in the mail, and by the way, check out THIS awesome haul —

— pause for the gloat —

(It’s embarrassing how gleeful that makes me. As much as we all claim to be readers and lovers of the artform, I am certain that inside each of us there still lives a collector who secretly really enjoys the simple obsessive-compulsive pleasure in getting a complete run of something.)

(It’s not a COMPLETE run, no, but it knocks off over half of it, and only a couple of weeks after rhapsodizing about them here. So. Gleeful chuckles from the Hatcher household.)

…anyway. Sorry, lost focus there for a moment. But I was reading through these, and some of the old Conan books I’ve been getting in the mail, and I started feeling crabby again about the current stranglehold superheroes have on adventure comics, and then it occurred to me to wonder —

Why can’t Marvel and DC sell fantasy?

Well of course it’s all fantasy, isn’t it? But I mean “high” fantasy, the swashbuckling kind with swords and wizards and dragons and stuff.

Think about it. Comics fans are all over this stuff when it’s NOT in comics. There is a HUGE overlap between the people who regularly buy Marvel and DC books and the people who play “dark fantasy” videogames, who enjoy Dungeons & Dragons, who stood in line for the opening night of the Lord of the Rings films or the latest Harry Potter, who know the works of Anne McCaffrey and Robert E. Howard backward and forward — but almost always, when Marvel or DC puts that stuff in a comic book it sinks like a stone. The big fantasy success stories in comics are Conan the Barbarian, Warlord, and Elfquest. All gone now except the Conan revival at Dark Horse, which is doing okay numbers but not record-breaking or anything.

So what’s up with that? Where are the fantasy geeks in comics fandom? I know you’re out there — I overhear you talking about gaming in comic shops.

I don’t actually have an answer. It just has been bugging me. To a lesser extent, I’m a little befuddled as to why no one’s been able to make science fiction really work in comics since the early 60’s. Even Star Trek never really did that well as a comic book, despite having fan-favorite Trek novelists like Peter David and Michael Jan Friedman writing the books.

This isn’t to say that publishers don’t try. And I’m thrilled to see DC, especially, taking a chance on non-costume books like Hard Time, or even the Vertigo line, though Vertigo seems to be trapped in this sort of adolescent goth/hipster/horror mode; I don’t think there’s as much overlap with the D&D fantasy folks there as there is with the superhero audience.

So you can’t really blame the publishers. It’s not them… it’s us. We don’t go for the stuff. Kull, Weirdworld, Michael Moorcock, Amethyst, Arion, whatever, in comics it’s poison.

Why? What is the deal-breaker here? The best of Marvel’s Kull books, for example, certainly were as good or better than the Conan stuff they put out at the same time, but the Conan sold and the Kull didn’t. Neither did Tor or Stalker or Starfire or any of the other attempts to follow up on Conan’s success in the 70’s. Kull and the Barbarians was essentially the same damn magazine as Savage Sword of Conan was: the Marvel crew turning out faithful Robert E. Howard adaptations, under the watchful eye of Roy Thomas. But Conan’s book ran two hundred and thirty-plus issues and Kull’s ran three. Go figure.

I guess the reason this keeps worrying at me, these questions of genre narrowing and re-packaging formats and the fannish refusal to try new things, is because I love comics as a form, particularly adventure comics, and I can’t shake the feeling that we are squeezing the life out of them. I keep looking at the old Marvel and DC output and comparing it with the new, and boy, the new stuff just looks sad. Not in terms of the execution, so much as it just seems like it’s… cannibalizing itself. Endless reboots, revamps, “revisiting” hero origins and Year One stories, retelling the old stories with new writers and artists. Why can’t Matt Wagner talk DC into doing an epic fantasy instead of another story of Batman’s early years? As much as I love Batman and the Monster Men, how many more versions of Batman’s origin do we need? And this is Matt Wagner for crying out loud, the guy who did Grendel and Mage. DC doesn’t trust him to do something original?

In my cartooning classes, the stuff that grabs the kids right out of the gate is the fantasy/adventure, fairy-tale stuff. They eat it up. I get so many of my girl students drawing princesses with butterfly wings you wouldn’t believe it. They don’t get it from U.S. publishers, so they find it in the manga books from Tokyopop and Viz. I’d think we could get some of the U.S. talent on the fantasy/SF bandwagon here and break a little new ground. The companies have shown a willingness to try… Dark Horse keeps trying to get an Edgar Rice Brurroughs franchise up and running, Warlord is coming back from DC for another run, Marvel periodically tries stuff like Deathlok or Star-Lord.

But for some reason, by and large we choke the stuff off. I wonder why.

Speculation is welcome, because I really don’t have a clue. Comment away.

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