A Weekend Spent on an Egyptian Riverbank

If you have read comic books for any length of time at all, you have done this.

I have preached against it and yet I've often done it myself; my colleagues here at CSBG have preached against it, but I know they've done it too; all over the internet you will find screams of anguish from bloggers and superhero fans that blame the perpetrators of this act for everything they dislike about the current state of the art, and yet I am certain they do it as well.

By now I imagine you've caught on, but if you haven't, I'll spell it out. Why in the world do we buy comics we KNOW we won't enjoy, and very often even buy them when we are sure those comics will actually make us ANGRY?

I was thinking about this phenomenon this week for a couple of reasons. One, of course, is the endless speculation about Spider-Man and the "One More Day" campaign...

...which I gather is possibly right up there in tastelessness with 1-900-KILL-ROBIN, or cardboard Super-coffins. (It makes me sort of sadly amused that the whole speculative frenzy is based on "Who's Gonna Die?" At this point, you know what would be REALLY shocking and new? No gratuitous deaths at all.) Lots of folks are talking about how much it's going to suck -- but I never see any of these angry people suggest simply skipping it. (Except Burgas. And now me. But I still expect it to sell through the roof.)

Speaking of Mr. Burgas, oddly enough, another instance of this phenomenon was our other Greg hanging in there with the Checkmate/Outsiders crossover knowing it was really bad -- at least the Winick half of it, though I think he mentioned that the Rucka chapters weren't All That, either. And certainly we should acknowledge our many blog readers who are apparently still grimly buying and reading Brad Meltzer's Justice League after almost a YEAR of hating it. And let's not forget that our mighty overlord Cronin's latest Theory of Comics post is about a formula for bad comics, based on a bunch of Chuck Austen books he read...

...which pre-supposes that Brian read whole runs of bad stories, stories with flaws so symptomatic of this writer's work that Cronin named the bad story formula after him.

And then there's me. I've got plenty of these to my credit too. Jim Starlin's Batman run. Larry Hama's Batman run. The horrible Titans years after George Perez left... hell, I kept up with that book for years after Perez left the SECOND time, continuing to buy it for no good reason.

I've gotten a lot better about this, but the habit still manifests every so often. I hung in there a lot longer with the Judd Winick Red Hood arc on Batman than any sane person should have.

Pol Rua theorized once in this space that it's a bit like being a compulsive gambler, pulling that slot-machine lever time after time hoping for a jackpot in spite of the odds being astronomically against it happening. And I suppose that's part of it. But I don't think it's really gambling when we know we will not enjoy a book... and buy it anyway.

Reviewers get a little bit of a pass, since after all we are expected to take a bullet once in a while. Part of our job is to slog through crap so you don't have to. But I am dead certain that there are many times we've bought comics we knew we would dislike and never bothered to write up the experience.

Understand, this is not about "giving the book one more chance" or anything tentative like that, though that's usually the excuse fans give when we're caught spending money on crap. But that's dishonest, a way to weasel out of admitting how stupid we can be. After all, after the first couple of issues I knew going in that I was not going to like Batman by Judd Winick, but I kept on buying it blindly nevertheless. How long was he on the book? A year? A couple of trade paperbacks' worth at least. And I own all of them. Can't really explain why. They all suck.

I suppose you can chalk some of it up to the collector's impulse, the obsessive-compulsive twitch to have the entire run of something, but that really doesn't cover it either. It's not fear of "breaking up a run," at least not for me; I'm not exactly a collector, I don't bag-n-board or anything like that. I buy comics to read. I hunt back issues of things I like but I'm equally happy to have them in trade paperback or Essential format, I just like being able to read them.

As it happens, I recently encountered the stories that epitomized my first brush with this compulsion. Essential Defenders volume three, which contains the last of the Gerber/Buscema run and the beginning of David Kraft's tenure on the title.

Steve Gerber's Defenders was a revelation for me when I first came across it. When I found it, with #21, it was instantly my favorite comic book series, it got better and better as it went on, and it remains one of my favorites to this day.

It was weird and cool and really goddamned smart, and it did the outcast thing better than any other comic book out there at the time. If you haven't read it, I would urge you to check out the Essential reprint books collecting it; that's volumes two and three.

But volume three also contains one of the hardest and sharpest left turns from grandeur to crap this side of Morrison X-men to Austen X-Men. You think that was a crash, well, you should have seen the difference between Steve Gerber's Defenders and Gerry Conway and David Kraft's Defenders. Oh, my God. And the train wreck just kept going on and on and on.

Now, this run has its fans, and more power to you -- but I am certain that any virtue those books may have had was utterly eclipsed by the brilliant Gerber stuff. The best you could say about David Kraft's Defenders was that it was occasionally amusing. Mostly it was pedestrian, generic superhero fight stuff. Hardly anyone argues that, after what Gerber was doing on the book, it was a huge letdown.

I knew I hated every page of it, back then. But I kept buying it. Gerber's last issue was #41 and I finally gave up after #63, above. That's twenty-two issues, almost two years' worth. Two years of sucky comics. Rereading some of those stories last week in the new Essential reprint I am forced to conclude that, though the Kraft-Giffen stories were maybe not as completely horrible as I remembered, they were still pretty bad. Now, folks buying Essential Defenders volume three HAVE to buy the Kraft stories to get the Gerber ones -- but in 1979 I really had no excuse. I just did it. Knowing I would hate them. Thirty-five cents a month that I might as well have been dropping down a sewer grating.

Today, with comics costing what they do, there's even less excuse. It's possible to burn fifty, a hundred bucks on books you'll hate. Why do we do this?

Those of you that are gearing up to protest that YOU never indulge in this heinous practice, that you only support Good Work, that your purchasing power is constantly geared towards the solitary purpose of raising the bar for Art -- well, congratulations. The column's not about you. Move along.

But I bet if you are honest with yourself, you can look back over your years of reading comics and think of a time when a title you loved had gone bad somehow, for whatever reason -- creative team leaving, dumb new direction, editorial mandate, doesn't matter -- the point is, you knew it was well and truly off the rails and yet you stayed with it, knowing this to be true. The length of time varies -- my point is that if you bought even one issue of a book knowing in advance you probably would not enjoy it, then you don't get to exempt yourself.

It's that certainty of displeasure I'm talking about here. Is there REALLY any chance that, oh, say, Chuck Austen will suddenly start writing the X-Men or the JLA the way you think they should be done between the last book of his you hated and this new one? No? Then why buy the book with his name on the cover? That's not a gamble. That's not pulling the slot-machine lever. That's just dumb.

Not to single out Chuck Austen, though he's an easy example. Other folks feel the same way about Grant Morrison or Warren Ellis or Brian Bendis or whoever. The question remains. Why do we do this?

This weird phenomenon of buyer's denial seems to be confined largely to superheroes, in comics. I think it has something to do with our personal investment in the characters. Over at ComicMix Denny O'Neil says that's one of the benefits of serial series fiction, you get readers invested in the characters' lives on an ongoing basis. So we keep reading about them not because we are enjoying the stories, but because we need to know how they're doing, what they're up to.

I remember when the first Spider-Man movie came out. My cartooning students were ALL OVER that, they wanted to know how it was going to turn out for Peter and Mary Jane, they were so worried about that... you wouldn't have believed it.

And the kids kept asking me about it in class for weeks after, like Peter and MJ were real people and I got postcards from them or something. It amazed me at the time, the power these characters had over my 6th and 7th graders. The thing that was interesting about it to me was that the kids knew there was more to the story, even though hardly any of them had ever seen a Spider-Man comic -- they still knew the stories were OUT THERE somewhere, there was a history to be tapped into. (Somewhere inside that phenomenon there's a paper about the power of modern folklore waiting to be written.)

But the kids didn't care about folklore. They only wanted to know one thing -- what happened next? My favorite iteration of this was when I got asked, "how much of what was in the movie was real?"

Well, none of it. It's all made up.

And even if you take that question to mean, how much of the movie is from the comics -- well, which comics? My students wanted to know what "happened" to Peter and Mary Jane, but did that mean the ones in the core title? The Ultimate version? The animated series? Which animated series? And so on.

At the time, J. Michael Straczynski had just taken over the main book and Peter and Mary Jane were in the middle of a marital separation. I didn't want to tell the kids THAT. It was too much of a downer. Leave that kind of depressing take on Spider-Man for when they're older. Nevertheless, they wanted to know about the "real" comics, and that's what the core titles were doing with the relationship between Peter and Mary Jane.

Then I had a brain wave.

"They grew up and got married and now their daughter fights crime as Spider-Girl." As an answer, it delighted them; and as a bonus it gave me a chance to turn them on to a fun book that was age-appropriate. Why not? It's as valid an answer as any, and God knows it's preferable to, oh, "Mary Jane eventually died due to Peter and her having radioactive sex."

That whole episode in class resulted in an epiphany for me, though: We can choose how we relate to the characters we invest in. It's not necessary to keep buying and reading bad books about characters we love just to "keep up." It really is possible to look away from the scene of the accident.

Mark Evanier called this Krypto-Revisionism. Don't like a particular run of books, or the direction a company is taking with a character? Screw it. It didn't happen. Ignore it. Like those people who refuse to believe there are real James Bond novels other than Fleming's. "John Gardner? Who's that?" For me, the JLA stopped having adventures after Mark Waid's White Martian story. That kind of thing. Just walk away.

It's really freeing. Most of the time I can do it. It gets easier all the time. I still have my occasional bout with refusing to admit I've fallen out of love with a book -- with my very favorite characters like Batman it can be difficult to give up, and sometimes it takes a year's worth of crappy Red Hood comics to hammer home the lesson again. But my stern rule today is that I don't spend money on books I don't enjoy. Period.

Because, you know, Marvel and DC don't really care if you hate the books you buy. They still get to keep the money.

We here all feel that Comics Should Be Good. But even more than that, they should be Enjoyed. Remember, it's okay to not know what's going on... these things aren't news dispatches from an alternate universe. They're meant as entertainments. If you aren't being entertained, then they are failures, and you have wasted your money. Don't get so wrapped up in keeping up that you forget the point of the whole exercise. Keep your eye on the ball.

Of course, there's a sub-set of comics fans that seem to enjoy being pissed off all the time. Anger somehow exalts them. My great fear is that, given the in-your-face nature of the most recent Marvel and DC crossover craziness and event-death storylines, is that publishers are getting the impression that this is where their biggest sales are to be found.

I sure hope not. At any rate, I'm trying real hard to not be one of those readers any more, and I urge each of you out there reading this not to be one either.

We comics fans have a great capacity for denial. But let's at least try to channel it in a healthier direction. Instead of being in denial about how dumb it is to spend money on comics you hate, embrace being in blissful ignorance about the abuses publishers are heaping on your favorite fictional heroes.

Especially since, if we stop rewarding those abuses with giant sales spikes for these artificial "events," they might even stop perpetrating them. Probably not, but if I'm going to be idiotically optimistic about something, I think I'll choose that. If nothing else, it's easier on my wallet.

See you next week.

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