Revamps and new #1s aren’t solving much. In this week’s MEANWHILE … column, Menachem tackles one of superhero comics’ biggest problems.
By MENACHEM LUCHINS, owner, Escape Pod Comics, Huntington, L.I.
There’s a problem plaguing the Big Two. It’s not a crisis that’s going to ruin the industry, or anything that hasn’t been addressed more than once. It’s a problem that has been tackled multiple times but keeps coming back. It’s a situation commented upon by fans ad infinitum for years but one that, historically, isn’t worth the price of fixing, business-wise. The problem, of course, is continuity.
I can feel the force of your eye-roll from here, reader, so let me start by clarifying. The largest issue with continuity, as so perfectly expressed by the late Dwayne McDuffie, is the St. Elsewhere Effect. (Click the link, please, as my explanation is going to be super-cursory.) McDuffie pointed out that if television worked the way comics companies and fans insist their super-hero books work, we would all see how ridiculous the idea of super-connected continuity is. This isn’t what I want to talk about. I agree with McDuffie, as anyone who knows me knows, but I think companies have proven time and again that they don’t feel fans want stories that stand alone. At my shop, countless conversations have raged over whether Bryan Hitch’s JLA is “on Earth One”, or when, exactly, The Darkseid Wars are supposed to be taking place.
You can’t, therefore, even say the companies are wrong. The problem I am referring to is the straight up lack of out-of-continuity stories. In the last two years, DC has launched and cancelled out-of-continuity series for both Superman (Adventures of) and Wonder Woman (Sensation Comics Featuring) and begun to plant modern characters in Batman ’66. Marvel? Well, they destroyed the Ultimate line, kept it, did Secret Wars and are now launching a whole new universe whose very continuity begs questions. Yes, Marvel has books like Spider-Gwen but due to her popularity, she now has a “portal opener” that brings her to the “real” Marvel Universe for cross-overs.
And you know what? I’m fine with it. No, really, I am. People seem to want this stuff, so the corporations are giving it to them. I sell these books and I even read a few of them.
But it’s still a problem. A big one.
Not a week goes by without someone coming into my shop looking to purchase one of their first comics. Sometimes it’s like the dad and son I had last week, where the father proudly announced it. Or like the 12-year-old kids who spend an hour scouring the $1 bins until they pay for 2 issues with quarters. Most often, though, it’s someone buying for someone else — a buyer who might have even been told what to get.
But being told “Spider-Man” really isn’t much help in today’s market. Nor is, “anything cool with Ant-Man,” even. You just can’t simply hand someone a random issue and reasonably expect that the person will be able to understand it. The lack of stand-alone (or at least unencumbered) super-hero books is a damn shame and a detriment to gaining new readers.
Over the two years I’ve been in business, I’ve seen the struggle of new readers. Even those reading for years may only really follow a few creators or one company. The fierce continuity — even if you’re talking about a long-running series as opposed to a whole universe — can be very daunting. And even when the Big Two release another wave of #1s or “perfect jumping-on points” they still lose people, as many read only an issue or two before they’re lost (or, maybe, they balk at committing to a monthly $4.99 price tag).
And every time the publishers find something that works, they also seem to find a way to mess it up. The Earth One series of graphic novels from DC was a wonderful concept, but the idea of integrating them all is a turn-off to a lot of people.
Adventures of Superman and Sensation Comics were critical successes, with sales that put them on par with many series whose sales have remained in the same range for months. They weren’t bonanzas but they moved nicely, and that’s not even counting the digital sales.
Of course, I only know what I hear and see at my shop and from other retailers, but we all have stories of selling those books to someone who just wanted to try something — something that didn’t demand that you memorize a Wikipedia page beforehand. Yet those titles are gone.
There’s some guarded hope, however.
Seeing the success they had with Young Avengers, Ms. Marvel, Spider-Gwen, and Squirrel Girl, Marvel seems to have realized that teen heroes are a good business move, so not only is Miles Morales making his inexplicable way to the “real” universe but, showing that they hadn’t totally missed the point that every one of these books had little-to-no backstory, there will be an all-ages book about a newly bitten Peter Parker, with the classic title of Spidey.
This title seems promising, using a different artist for each story arc, as the now-canceled SHIELD did. (The upcoming Agents of SHIELD will not continue the stand-alone nature of the previous series.) Currently, the only Spider-Man title on the market even closely resembling a stand-alone title is one in which stills from the current Disney XD show are turned into panels with word balloons. (Though Joe Caramanga does an amazing job on those Ultimate Spider-Man comics and you really SHOULD pick them up.)
The scary part, though, comes when Marvel vows that somehow these stories will be “in continuity.” I’m not exactly sure what that would mean or what it would mean for sales, but I can tell you that it’s not a good sign for these books being truly independent. You would think with almost 70 books coming out over the next few months, Marvel could risk a bit more to make something truly stand-alone.