Let us go then, you and I,For the sixth issue of Blackest Night is nighAnd we’ve been about as patient as we’re able;Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,We muttering entreatsOf fantasies depicted in panelsAnd lurid stories they are wont to tell:Never mind the sometimes tedious argumentsOr mercenary intent;Which leads us to an overwhelming question ...Oh, not “don’t ask -- just buy it!”More like “it is here, so why not?”
Fun fact #1: junior year in college I wrote a paper called “If Adventure Has A Name, It Must Be J. Alfred Prufrock.”
Fun fact #2: the original poem actually does use the words “crisis” and “magic lantern.” Note, however, that at least I stopped short of saying In the room the fanboys come and go/Talking of Corps and Sinestro.
Anyway. Surely the most direct road to pretension goes through a T.S. Eliot reference, but I must admit feeling a little Prufrockian about this week’s trip to the comic book shop. Eliot’s woebegone hero lives in his own societal bubble, a closed loop of faux-interactivity which is equal parts daydream and futility. While it’s demonstrably more bleak than the every-Wednesday habit -- at least I hope it is -- the latter is still something of a ritual.
Certainly it is a learned behavior, encouraged by the Direct Market’s characteristics. I first started visiting a local comics shop in the fall of 1984, when newsstand distribution was still going strong. Compared to the spinner racks and magazine shelves at the local groceries and convenience stores, the LCS was like a shrine: newsstand comics arrived a month early and weren’t in danger of being pawed by the unthinking masses; and the back-issue boxes let latecomers catch up easily.
Needless to say, the last time I made a regular trip to a comics shop to buy only one issue was at least twenty years ago, probably around the end of the year when neither DC nor Marvel had much to publish. Prior to that, for a very brief period at the beginning of my revived comics fandom, I bought only DC’s first Star Trek series. Curiosity (mixed with a little boredom, no doubt) eventually prodded me back the other Fridays of the month, and soon I was an every-week regular.
Even after twenty-five years, these weekly visits still strike me as odd, because there are few comparable rituals in consumer entertainment. Movies premiere on Wednesdays, Fridays, and the odd Thursday, and DVDs come out on Tuesdays. As far as I know, though, there is no dedicated group of fans who are at their local theater every week, or haunting the Best Buy every Tuesday, without fail. The every-Wednesday comics habit (formerly every-Thursday, before that every-Friday) is not only critical to the Direct Market’s success, it’s become part and parcel of the DC (or Marvel) fan’s overall experience. I haven’t been in the LCS on every single new-comics day, but I can’t think of too many times when I’ve missed two in a row.
Naturally, this week would have been a great opportunity to skip. If I weren’t following Blackest Night, I might well have -- but I am, and I have to know, and I don’t especially like reading print comics on my computer.
That need to know is, I think, the crux of the every-Wednesday ritual. The Big Two are selling individual stories and books, sure; but they’re more interested in creating an immersive experience. Although Wednesdays are the main point of connection, thanks to the Internet they’re not the only one. In the ‘80s, the ‘90s, or even the early ‘00s, I might have spent the week between new comics in relative isolation -- maybe re-reading them, re-reading back issues, writing the occasional letter of comment, or even talking to friends. Now, though, I spend that week largely online, concerned not just with the newest books but with those yet to be published. Current solicitations run through March 2010 (and later for collections and OGNs) and advance hype stretches to September 2010 (for the first “Earth One” OGN).
To be fair, I first started reading the solicitations some twenty years ago, back before Diamond’s monopoly, in the pages of another distributor’s (Capital City’s?) Advance Comics. Still, today that is only part of the publicity machine. Online there are interviews, reviews, previews, teases, rumors, and of course the blogosphere’s perpetual conversation. I suppose that last bit makes me part of the problem, which is fine -- but I can’t help but notice how different my “fan time” is these days.
The overwhelming question, then, is whether the rituals (and by extension the system they serve) are worth that shift in priorities. I’m definitely spending less time re-reading the new books, because it’s easier to grab a collection or an OGN off the shelf. My office contains multiple stacks of unbagged issues, and my storage shelves are filled with longboxes. These are all valid arguments for converting to collected editions and becoming a wait-for-trader ... but that would mean climbing out of the moving stream which is a big part of modern DC fandom, and I’m not quite ready for that.
As exasperating as the comics blogosphere (and yes, writing a weekly column in said blogosphere) can be sometimes, it also brings home the immediacy of each new-comics batch. I compare it to sports fandom: you watch all your team’s games, or as many as you can, as they happen. You don’t wait for the end of the season to absorb them all in one fell swoop. Moreover, evaluating the books on their merits includes evaluating how well the creative team works within its particular format. Regardless of whether it’s written for the trade, a particular 22-page portion of story reads differently in a collection than it does individually. We each bring unique circumstances -- mood, surroundings, knowledge of previous stories, etc. -- to our experience of a work, and if we experience a story serialized over several months, the highs and lows that story produces are affected accordingly. I can tell you exactly how I felt upon reaching each cliffhanger at the ends of Crisis On Infinite Earths issues #10 and #11 (not to mention Watchmen #s 10 and 11, Dark Knight #3, various issues of Morrison's JLA, etc.), and it made me that much more excited to read the next issue. I can’t imagine the collections producing similar experiences, because the passage of time -- no matter how long -- necessarily affects one’s reaction to the end of a chapter. For a superhero comic it could be a month; for “The Best Of Both Worlds” it was three months; and for Han frozen in carbonite it was three years.
This doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate having Crisis collected, or being able to watch both parts of “BOBW” back-to-back. One tends to forget the various degrees of frustration a cliffhanger produces. However, if you’re not a little eager for the next chapter when you’re finished with the current one, then the storytellers haven’t done their jobs. Likewise, if you find yourself racing eagerly through a collection, as for example I did with the first Madame Xanadu book, you may be inspired sufficiently (as I was) to start getting the book on a monthly basis. It’s a trade-off (no pun intended) between the convenience of a thick(er) book and a periodical’s immediacy.
There are other trade-offs too, of course. As Matt Fraction told Denny O’Neil, “what works in a 22-page magazine every 30 days, might read like garbage if Reed Richards is reminding everyone [of his origins] every 22 pages. It’s going to be like Memento or something.”
Still, when one of those 22-page issues works, it’s not because of the format’s redundancies, but because of the format’s strengths. The main Blackest Night miniseries will take January off in favor of assorted miniseries and other tie-ins, so the ending of this week’s #6 needs to have enough momentum to carry readers all the way through February. Personally, I found the issue a little uneven, but overall I’m left with that good kind of frustrated, so I think it did the job.
Again, though, did I have to get BN #6 the day it came out? Could I have waited another week, and written about something else today? (Do I dare disturb the universe?)
Sadly, no -- and thus I sympathize with the doomed Mr. Prufrock. We both recognize the limitations of our habits, but neither of us are entirely willing to give them up. It does, however, sound like I get more of a thrill from comics than he does from socializing (and wow, how sad does that sound?). We every-Wednesday readers may not measure out our lives either in coffee spoons or weekly pamphlets, but there is still some value in our ritual.