I have recently been introduced to the brilliance that is Roger Langridge and Chris Samnee's "Thor: The Mighty Avenger." It's smart, accessible, thrilling and delightfully charming in ways that few comics are -- and it didn't even last a year. My introduction to this gone-too-soon comic went hand-in-hand with my continuing growing awareness of which comics are selling and which ones are flailing. All of this crystallized this week's piece in my brain as something I have to write now even though this is a problem that has plagued the industry for at least the last decade and change.
The vast majority of comic book fans will only read books that "matter," even though I'd argue (and will argue) that a comic book "mattering" has never been essential to being good. In fact, the majority of the truly great comics don't "matter" at all.
"But, Brett," you're whining, "what's with the quotaaaaation marks?" Comics that "matter" mean that they are necessary to read in order to understand The Big Picture, the overall narrative that a company is trying to tell. These books can be recognized by the popularity of the creators involved or whether or not they tie into crossovers every three months, or whether or not Big Changes are being made to characters in that series that other titles then have to reflect.
"Thor: The Mighty Avenger" had the double-whammy of being marketed as an all-ages book in addition to being published alongside Matt Fraction's high-profile run on "Thor."
For a recent example, Jonathan Hickman's "Avengers" matters because it has an A-List writer (Hickman) and big name artists (modern legend Adam Kubert; hot up-and-comers Jerome OpeÃ±a and Dustin Weaver). "Avengers Assemble," however, could be viewed as not mattering. Writer Kelly Sue DeConnick (one of my favorite writers working today) is on her way up to Hickman-level, but isn't there yet. The artists are solid, but not being groomed for dominancy like OpeÃ±a. "Avengers" sells over twice what "Assemble" does, despite "Avengers Assemble" containing the exact perfect blend of action, humor and characterization that made me fall in love with comics in the first place.
I can go into detail with every corner of the Marvel Universe. "Fantastic Four" outsells "FF," "Superior Spider-Man" outsells "Avenging Spider-Man" and Brian Bendis' X-Books outsell "Astonishing X-Men." If any of these lesser selling books were duds, I would be able to see why the sales are the way they are. But I listen to comic book fans talk. I listen to comic book podcasters measure books in terms of "mattering." I've heard editors say those very words. I know what I've thought in the past, as well. These books sell less because readers don't think those books will contain anything essential to understanding whatever this quarter's big event is.
But readers are, almost uniformly, missing great stories because of this mentality. I've stopped reading comics as if I'm studying for a big quiz. I didn't read the majority of the "Avengers vs. X-Men" tie-ins and I did just fine, thank you. I've started seeking out stories and measuring them on their own merits. In fact, while "Avengers vs. X-Men" was taking over Jason Aaron and Kieron Gillen's X-Men series (the ones that "mattered"), I became the biggest fan of Marjorie Liu's current run on "Astonishing X-Men" and Brian Wood's run on "X-Men." Both of those books were great because they weren't concerned with using story elements being used in every other comic book that month. I was reading about the Phoenix Five in every Marvel Comic that "mattered." Why would I hold it against a comic for not using them?
When you think back to the late '70s and early '80s, when Chris Claremont was hitting new heights with "Uncanny X-Men," he was just writing his story. He had ideas and he did them. He didn't have to worry about tying in with "Daredevil" (which itself was going through a similar high). If the weird "mattering" rules that comic fans have so firmly set in place nowadays had been applied back then, wouldn't every Marvel Comic have had to include a "Dark Phoenix Saga" tie-in in order to really "matter"? Can you imagine how poorly remembered "Dark Phoenix Saga" would be if Phoenix was forced to show up in as many books back then as Norman Osborn did during "Dark Reign"? A few years ago every book wanted to shove Norman Osborn and H.A.M.M.E.R. in just to "matter," but why should they have to? Why can't telling a great story be good enough, and why don't the books that are telling a different story sell?
For two X-Men comics that didn't really "matter" (listen, the quotation marks aren't going anywhere; they're sarcastic air quotes at this point), Wood and Liu were putting in a ton of work. Liu made the new Warbird a character I feel sympathy for in addition to portraying one of the most realistic and complex gay relationships in comics. Her latest issue had Wolverine dealing with emotions brought up by hunting down an alternate reality version of his dead best friend. Judging by storytelling style and quality, Liu's "Astonishing" could have been the lead/only "X-Men" comic in the early 1980s and people would have been satisfied. An X-Men comic does not need the Jean Grey School or the time-displaced X-Men or any Phoenix fallout to be good. Maybe it needs those near-ubiquitous elements to "matter" in the "long run" (more sarcastic quotes!) but Liu's run is still doing just fine without them.
Brian Wood's run on "X-Men" last year is even more evidence that "mattering" doesn't matter. In his brief tenure on the book, he turned Storm into the hands-down best character in the X-Universe again and told a trio of pulse-pounding thrillers that put pretty much every other superhero book to shame. I loved it. Marvel did too, which is why they're relaunching it with an A-List artist (Olivier Coipel) and really pushing the book. They're trying to bump "X-Men" up a couple rungs on the ladder, but the few thousand people who have already read his "X-Men" run know they can expect more of the same ridiculously-high quality.
Of the X-Men comics that mattered last year, I would say that Gillen's fell victim to the ugly side of "mattering." Of the 20 issues published in his run on "Uncanny X-Men" volume two, 15 of them had some sort of banner on the cover tying them into a big event. Nine total issues were devoted to "Avengers vs. X-Men" alone. I love Kieron Gillen's work, but I don't know if we even got to see Gillen do what he does best on "Uncanny" because he had to accommodate crossovers. Is that the cost of "mattering"? Looking back on 2012, I can tell you exactly what a Marjorie Liu or Brian Wood X-Men story is like; I'm really sad that I can't do the same with Gillen.
People who are hesitant about reading comics that don't matter need only look to the greatest comics of all time for reassurance. How much does "All-Star Superman," "The Dark Knight Returns" or "Watchmen" matter to DC Comics? Those were all self-contained stories done by creators left to their own devices. They didn't concern themselves with anything happening elsewhere in the DC Universe. Not being tied into "52" or "Infinite Crisis" didn't hurt "All-Star Superman." And how many awards did the current "Daredevil" series wrack up without springing forward from "Fear Itself"? Yeah, company-wide crossovers can be fun. Tie-ins can be fun. But the sales charts seem to indicate that readers only want those comics, completely unwilling to try out lesser known books starring characters they love. Try them out.
This next point is me dipping my toes into a much bigger article regarding whether or not continuity even matters, so I'll just throw it out there and back away: how dated are bits of Grant Morrison's "JLA" because it was forced to include Blue Superman (and thusly "matter")? Ten years from now, even the absolute best comics that "matter" are going to have elements that date them in possibly distracting ways. Odds are you aren't going to reread every Marvel Comic from 2013 in one sitting the way you would one specific arc from a title. Which ones are going to feel timeless? And now I back away...
Comic books are a way to tell stories. Stories are what should matter, first and foremost. At times, the shared nature style of the Big Two can make that point a little murky and "mattering" can get in the way of stories. It shouldn't. Do yourself a favor and pick up a comic book that you have previously accused of not "mattering" and judge it by the merits of its storytelling, because storytelling is the only thing that matters (no sarcasm quotes).
Brett White is a comedian living in New York City. He co-hosts the podcast Matt & Brett Love Comics and is a writer for the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre show Left Handed Radio: The Sequel Machine. His opinions can be consumed in bite-sized morsels on Twitter (@brettwhite).