Okay. Picture this scenario.
You have been at your job, oh, four or five years. You do pretty good work; not really setting the world on fire or anything, but you bring a sense of craft and care to it, your boss is happy. So you get a promotion to a different part of the business, a higher-traffic area where you are working with a larger number of customers. At this point a customer at your company decides he's not crazy about the service you gave him in a particular instance and starts yelling about it. You didn't actually do anything WRONG, mind you. He was just really happy with your predecessor's style of working and this change has thrown him; he was expecting something other than what he got, although you did your usual workmanlike job and the job he asked for and that you gave him is the same service the company's always provided for him. Nevertheless, he is hugely dissatisfied. He tells other people. He writes letters to your bosses and to your bosses' competitors decrying the service you gave him. He goes to company functions and industry events and spreads horrible rumors about you. Pretty soon these rumors gain enough traction, simply through the constant repetition, that you start to become seriously inconvenienced. It starts to feel like you are being stalked.
That's kind of a creepy scenario, right?
Now let's add one thing -- your profession is writing superhero comics. Add that and suddenly, well, hell, it's just another day at the office. Because this craziness is standard behavior from the audience in comics.
What the hell's that all about? Why is it not creepy when comics fans act like this?
It always gets worse at event time, and with Infinite Crisis and Civil War and 52 fresh on everyone's mind, and new X-Men and Superman movies on deck, I guess an upswing in Seething Fan Rage is only to be expected. Still, it really is reaching the point where I'm getting embarrassed for people.
I blame the internet for a lot of this. Yes, I know this is very hypocritical. I like having the internet, I spend a lot of time looking at message-board sites and news sites, I get a tremendous kick out of writing the column here... but honestly, I think I would cheerfully give up the lot of it and never look back, if I thought it would make a difference in how companies currently treat the readership. Because right now, the sense I get from reading the editorial output of the major publishers is a vague mixture of fear and contempt... as though they think of us collectively as a big stupid animal that might bite them if not kept safely placated.
Worse, I think that attitude's probably deserved in most cases. I think it was Mark Waid that said writing for comics was the only profession where every one of your customers thinks they can do a better job than you. The criticism I see on the net, over and over, is that companies don't think of the fans, they don't listen to the fans, they are mean to the fans, they are screwing the fans, they are always doing something awful to the poor fans.
Honestly? I think the fans probably had it coming.
This is the part where, reading this, I imagine you sit up a little straighter and say, "Hey, hold on there, fella, I'M a fan and I never STALKED anybody. Those people are crazy. There's nothing wrong with liking comics and wanting them to be better. I'm passionate about my likes and dislikes, is that a crime?"
Okay. Fair enough. You've never stalked anyone. Have you ever...
...angrily claimed that a plot point in a superhero comic was 'raping your childhood'?
...bought a comic you hated, vibrated with rage the whole time you were reading it, and kept buying it even though you knew perfectly well you were going to hate it?
...badgered a creator at a convention or on an internet message board?
...suggested on the internet that so-and-so should suffer bodily harm for writing a story you didn't like?
...and so on. Look, I daresay lots of us have gotten carried away about this sort of thing more than once. Lord knows I really, really hated Jim Starlin's work on Batman, and I've been pretty vociferous about it in person and in print. I'd like to think, though, that I can tell the difference between Jim Starlin the person and what Jim Starlin puts on paper. I am certain that I would never follow Jim Starlin around, trying to cut him out of jobs and badmouthing him all over the place to anyone that might employ him, suggesting that he was utterly lacking in ethics. But I know other creators who've had EXACTLY that scenario take place with zealous fans. Hell, Ron Marz probably has a whole bookful of war stories, just because he took a last-minute assignment from an editor to revamp Green Lantern in the early 90's and tried to do the best he could with it.
Understand, I am not talking about the WORK. The relative merit of "Emerald Twilight," to take the most widely-known example, has no bearing on the fact that Ron Marz didn't deserve to have a herd of lunatics yelling at him and writing crazed hate letters to him and basically stalking him for the next decade. But that's always the defense that gets offered, a sort of half-hearted, "Well, no, some of that stuff was probably out of line, but people were really REALLY UPSET ABOUT HAL JORDAN!" In other words, he was asking for it.
Horseshit. Sorry, but nobody deserves that kind of craziness. Not Ron Marz or Geoff Johns or Brad Meltzer or Dan Didio or Joe Quesada or whoever. I don't give a damn WHAT new suit they put on Spider-Man or HOW many superhero wives go homicidal. They're just comics, for God's sake. Get a grip.
Consider this. What if a lot of these controversial stories are actually the PRODUCT of fan craziness? What if DC and Marvel's constant stunting is the result of watching the sales spike every time there is a fan outcry? What if these editorial efforts to mess with your favorite characters are not coming because companies "never listen" to fans but because they are CONSTANTLY listening to you and your continual foaming-at-the-mouth complaints and they know that the more they wind you up, the better the books do, sales-wise? Jemas and Quesada were masters at this, and Dan Didio looks to be playing pretty good catch-up ball there too.
I never have cared for stunt-driven comics. And I think lately for mainstream publishers they're ALL stunt-driven comics. Those are apparently what sell. I hate the idea that they sell just because people buy them so they "know what's going on," and not because they actually like them. I can't think of anything more pathetic than grown men who spend money on books they hate simply so they can scream about them on the internet to other grown men who are just as livid. But we all know that it happens. Despite the fact that no one really seems to LIKE Civil War or Infinite Crisis or any of the other ones we've had inflicted on us in all the years since Secret Wars (which was, itself, pretty awful) nevertheless there are a lot more of them than there used to be, because they always sell. We buy them because, being crazed fans, we can't stand not knowing what's in them even if we hate them.
What worries me is that over the last decade, publishers have figured that out too, and are counting on it to prop up sales in an otherwise dying industry.
Imagine what a transformative effect it has on comics when they are designed not to placate a continuity-conscious fan base, but simply to please a reader wanting a story. Hell, we don't HAVE to imagine it, we've seen comics like that, and from mainstream publishers, even. New Frontier. Solo. Ex Machina. But they don't light up the internet, because they're just good comics. There's really nothing to do except read them and enjoy them. There's no overarcing need to make them fit into some gigantic fictional tapestry.
Try this idea on for size. Maybe it doesn't MATTER what happens with Superman or Spider-Man because they're, you know, not REAL. Maybe if we remembered that the stories would be less about the stunt and more about the story. Maybe that's a better tactic for getting the comics you want than the current one of buying a lot of crap and then freaking out all over the internet about it.
We've had a couple of decades' worth of vocal fan involvment with the industry. Maybe it's time to go back to the older model, the one most other forms of entertainment media use -- the one of being a passive audience, voting only with our pocketbook and nothing else. Because, as much as I enjoy being a comics fan in touch with my fellow fans all over the world, I can't help noticing that the books seem to suffer for it.
See you next week.