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What we need to see happen

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I was recently reading Superman: Earth One. And it got me to thinking. I didn’t actually care for the story. Long story short, I thought it was contrived, and really was just treading the Origin Water that I’ve read in Superman: Birthright, Superman: For All Seasons, Superman: Man of Steel, and even in the television series Smallville. But if you want me to go even more in depth, just go read my review over at Mickey’s Tavern from a couple of weeks ago.

But what I was thinking about was why the book was so well received. Let’s ignore, for a moment, that some people have different tastes and that what I consider to be shlock may be art to my neighbor. Let’s look at the other factors surrounding this book, which led to it being put on the New York Times’ Best Seller list (wait…what? One of ‘dem picture books? Being looked at like an actual book?).

I want to posit a few reasons that this book was so well received by what I will be calling the “non comic book reading public.” Outside of comics, I don’t think many people know J. Michael Straczynski’s name. Sure, he created and guided Babylon 5 for the entirety of its run, and yeah, he wrote some episodes of the Ghostbusters cartoon in the 1980s, but people may remember those shows without really knowing about the talent behind them. No, I don’t think we can say that people flocked to this because of the name, which might be what a comic book fan would do (I would do that. I’ve done it before, for certain writers, and I’m sure to do it again).

This book, it is a complete story (without closing off the possibility of a sequel), it is accessible, and you can actually go into some stores and find it. I can’t imagine that George Gene Gustines went into Joe’s Collector Den to buy Superman: Earth One so that he could give it his polished fancy pants review in the very legit NY Times. You can bet your bottom dollar that he went into a store like Barnes and Noble or Books a Million and found this thing on a shelf of “Best Sellers” or “What’s trending” or whatever they make shelves out of these days.

Now, I mentioned being able to find the book, and I mentioned accessibility. They aren’t the same thing. I can go into my local book store and find the DC Comics big event from 2011, Flashpoint on the shelves in the Graphic Novel section. So anyone who bought Superman: Earth One could also find Flashpoint if they wanted to. No, accessibility means that this story doesn’t have a decade and a half of backstory that is like a prerequisite in an upper division college course. Anybody can read this. I think we’d all love nothing more than for people who maybe look down on our hobby of reading comics to be able to pick up a comic that we love and read it themselves. But far too often, you have to pick up books that collect comics from the last decade just to understand what the heck is going on. Messiah CompleX leads to Divided We Stand, leads to Manifest Destiny, leads to Utopia, leads to Nation X, leads to Necrosha, leads to Second Coming, ad infinitum. There is no end to what leads into what, and what order you should read the books. It’s no wonder that people on the blogosphere are always talking about the audience shrinking and why I’m seeing more and more people praise IDW and Dark Horse and thumb their noses at Marvel and DC. It’s bloody impossible to keep up with all of this madness unless you don’t have real life (Job, school, occasionally interacting with other human beings, if that’s what you’re in to) to distract you, and a golden meteor fell into your yard so you can afford it all (it’s real expensive, is what I’m getting at).

Superman: Earth One circumvents all of that. It’s accessible, and it’s isolated. Heck, maybe those two things are one in the same. You can no longer HAVE accessibility without something being set in an alternate universe away from the rest of the DC Universe. And that, itself, is kinda sad. Maybe what the comic book industry needs, desperately, is more books that are isolated and self contained, which is what Superman: Earth One did. This doesn’t necessarily mean that every title that DC or Marvel puts out should be set in another universe, in the way that Superman Earth One was in a separate universe from whatever was happening in Action Comics at the time. But maybe the best way to sell more comics and get people back to reading them is to do what Superman: Earth One did. Allow me to illustrate.

Let’s say, if Superman has 2 ongoing series’ right now (Superman and Action Comics), then four times a year, Superman has a book come out. An actual book sized graphic novel. This is quite different from Superman: Last Son collecting issues 844–847 of the monthly periodical called Action Comics. Sure, we all like that our characters have a history, but when you try to build up a story that cannot exist WITHOUT that history, what you have is a mess, and the primary reason that DC comics reboots every 20 minutes. They cannot remember how to tell stories that capture the accessibility. They have to have 40 years of nonsense that just turns your brain into mush. No, we need stand alone graphic novels that are original material being put into book stores for the first time, with nobody having read the story first. Now, this does happen SOMETIMES. The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: The Black Dossier, Brian Azzarello and Lee Bermejo’s Joker graphic novel, and Batman: Death by Design. These stories existed without needing all the complex long running crap that makes me ashamed to admit that I like comic books. They just happened, and people could pick them up and read them just as casually as they might tune into an episode of Breaking Bad.

But the industry does not need 3 books in the last 5 years that are original graphic novels. Here’s where your jaw drops. The industry needs the entire comic book market to be original graphic novels. Back to my wacky proposal. No more Superman, the ongoing series, or Action Comics, the ongoing series. Superman gets 4 standalone books a year. Maybe, if you want J Michael Stracynski to have a series of books, then you can let his Superman be called Earth One. And Earth One can exist right beside Mark Waid’s Superman, and George Perez’s, and Kurt Busiek’s, etc. As long as none of these single interpretations of Superman wildly contradict the other, then casual fans can walk into a well lit bookstore that doesn’t feature employees and customers who treat them like they have the plague when they walk in (what I’m saying is comic book shops themselves quite often need a lesson in “accessibility.” Far too often I hear people complain that the internet is putting comic book shops out of business, but I think the sad truth is that sometimes, comic book shops are putting themselves out of business. I’ve walked into more than a few that are filled with people who act like they don’t care if you buy from them or not, and don’t even seem interested in helping you find what you need. This makes me all the more thankful that my local shop is run by a nice guy who is approachable and doesn’t look like he wants to kill me). This is what the market needs. Likewise, this could work, because if you don’t want ongoing books that are all part of a larger series from the same author, you can just have Superman’s name plastered on the cover, and it can be entirely 100 percent stand alone. I’m not saying the writer would be incidental, but authorial importance would take something of a backseat to how important the character (or characters, since we’re not really talking about just Superman, here) is. You could probably go for many more than just 4 books a year, but I think that’d be a good place to start, because if Action Comics is monthly, then 12 books a year, six issues per “arc” (usually, it seems), 2 arcs per year, so 2 actual books a year.

Just think of how many problems this would solve. How many times have you heard someone say “This issue is a GREAT jumping on point for new readers!” Well, with this new approach, if the editors got their butts in gear, EVERY SINGLE STORY would be a great jumping on point for new readers! Because, in the front cover of Superman Earth One, vol 2, you just tell readers “Also available is Superman: Earth One!” and tell who wrote and drew it and where they can get it (not gonna lie, retailers are probably fuming at my proposal, because it potentially puts them out of business. But this would be where the companies, if they aren’t the haven for soulless demons we sometimes make them out to be, would throw the retailers a bone. Say “Hey, True Believer! Call 1-800-Comic Book for FREE and find out where your local comic book shop is! If you’re interested in Superman: Earth One, you might also like some of these titles!” This would mean that the mean retailers I mentioned earlier would have to start being a little bit more user friendly, in case somebody DOES come in through the door because they bought Superman: Earth One at Books A Million, and they want to know where they can get more stuff like that). This also goes back to the problem of what comes next that I alluded to earlier. People who read serialized fiction like the Hunger Games or Harry Potter or Twilight or Percy Jackson or Game of Thrones don’t have to go through a week’s work just to find out what order to read the books in that series. In 20 seconds, they can find out what book comes first, if it’s not numbered, like the Superman: Earth One books seem to be doing. And that’s only if the books are serialized. This whole process would open up all kinds of possibilities of standalone stories that can still sell (like Batman: Death by Design and the recent Walt Simonson book Batman: The Judas Coin. Both are standalone and you don’t NEED to read one before the other, because neither effects the other. This too, would need to be something the big companies would need to embrace more readily. Stories that aren’t part of a serial line of other stories, where you must read one before the other. That can drive away even the most raging fanboys and fangirls. It’s part of what drove me away from the X-Men).

Many people would say that this takes away from the writers who have long running runs on a monthly title. For example, Chris Claremont’s X-Men is one of my favorite runs of not only the X-Men, but comics in general. And so much of what he did was built on telling a story in the issue and building a B-story in a few pages, and continuing to do that over time. And sure, that specific kind of storytelling would be lost. And while what I’m talking about would mainly seem like the death of serial comic books, it wouldn’t necessarily have to be. But the original graphic novels being sold through the big booksellers of the world, those would be our primary source of revenue, if done right. You could still do the monthly comics, with the understanding that, even there, things would have to change. Gone are the days where you can’t even know if the comic you buy is crossing over with anything because statistically, over 9,000,000 percent of all comics are crossing over with something else. I recently read some old X-Men comics from the 1960s collected in Essential X-Men Classic volume 3. That volume also collects assorted issues of the Hulk, Marvel Team Up, and the Amazing Spider-Man. One thing I’ve realized that I REALLY miss are the issues that you can read without needing 45 years of backstory collected in dozens of books. Even though I wasn’t reading Spider-Man for issues upon issues, I could still take in everything I needed to know for that particular issue. And it wasn’t even really a “stand alone” issue. It had been continuing from something that had been building for what I guess was a few issues. This is what needs to be done again in comic books. Actual story arcs need to not be any longer than 3 issues long. 4 issue arcs would be a special occasion. You can and will keep people if you keep your B plots going even after the A-plot is dealt with. This could just be a taste issue, as I personally am finding it harder and harder to read comics these days, since it just seems like each issue is less of an issue and more of a chapter taken from a really long, never ending novel with pictures.

So you may be thinking…if the lion’s share of the work is going to be going into the original graphic novels which will come out quarterly, then how are Marvel and DC going to keep up with the single issues? For one, I say they need to reduce the production costs on single issues. Bring it back down to a non-glossy paper. If you have a series that isn’t selling as well as you would like, then try going for a couple of arcs in just black and white. It’d be amazing where some of the money you are pumping into the book could be cut, if you want to see if the book can still survive in a different form. Books like Manhunter, Crossing Midnight, She-Hulk or the Legion of Superheroes, comics that SHOULD be selling like hot cakes, if the excuse is that they aren’t selling well (some of these are not so much canceled as they are reimagined to the point where it might as well be another comic book), then do them in black and white. Heck, try doing them as a digest sized black and white that you could sell in the lines of grocery stores. It amazes me that people will pay almost 5 dollars for less than 30 pages of a comic book in a given series, but in the Manga format, you can pay 7 dollars and get about 200 pages of story. That’s about 10 times the length of a single issue comic book, which you are paying more than half the money for. There’s no reason why Marvel and DC shouldn’t at least be experimenting with this. I’m not saying it would need to be the ONLY format that they put their books in, but it should be one. My gut feeling tells me that it would prove financially profitable for them. And if you don’t listen to common sense, then at least listen to the fads that are popular right now. Teenagers LOVE Manga. Specifically, teenage girls. You want to tap a demographic, try putting out a Manga of Batman when he’s training. You would think it was illegal, with all the money you’d be raking in.

There are other possibilities we could pontificate, if we’re still spitballing on ways to makes comic books more accessible. What if we went back to the way things were done in the 1970s? A bigger package (not quite a trade paperback, but a thicker single issue) with a couple of new stories inside, and then a reprint of an older story that is pertinent to the new stories within. Especially if this was done with the cheap paper I was talking about, this would not at all be an expensive way of trying things out. It’d be a nice little way of giving a new creator a shot at an important character. Oh, this new wet behind the ears guy wants to write a Batman story? Let’s let him! Put Scott Snyder’s story up front, put his name on the cover, and then let Joe Shmoe do a story. It’ll be a chance for Joe to spread his wings, and the company is not losing money on a guy who might not quite be talented enough to hold his own book. And if you did this, you could still put out your single issues, but you wouldn’t quite have to do as much content, which means you could put a little bit more of your talent towards the original graphic novels which, again, would be where you would be putting most of your energy.

The point is…I feel like the entire comic book reading and selling industry is so caught up on doing things the way they’ve always been done, that they are turning their backs on the way things COULD BE. In fact, the only reason this weird crazy manifesto of mine even includes keeping single issues as a format around is because of fans who might actually leave the hobby if their expensive insular market was taken from them.

Before I get carried away with myself, I want to make it clear that I am aware that Marvel and DC are trying SOME new things. It’s just that they still can’t seem to understand that they’re not really doing themselves any favors by doing this. Recently, the big thing seems to be digital comics. I am not a fan of digital comics, but I don’t really begrudge people who do like them. The only problem I do have is that I’m afraid eventually we will no longer have print comics being sold because someone will have discovered the best way to put comics on a digital reader and make a bazillion dollars. Right now, that doesn’t seem like a possibility, because there is no standard size and shape of a comic book panel. This comic might have a big double page spread, but then later in the book, you might have something like 20 or more panels spread across 2 pages. I, in fact, read a comic like that earlier today. And what happens when word balloons are spread across 2 panels? There’s no good way to put these existing comics into a Kindle or Ipad and make them readable. I’ve seen the suggestion that what the big companies should be doing is doing original stories that are designed from the get-go to be read on an Ipad. And that could work, but again, you’re excluding the people who don’t have any interest in buying an ipad just so they can read comic books. I don’t even like the idea of reading comics digitally, but regardless of that, I can see that Marvel and DC refuse to spread their wings and be sensible about this. They are trying to experiment with what they think is the new best thing that could make them lots of money, but they don’t want to take a risk. It’d be like if all the taxi cabs in the world were 200 year old Model T cars, when the Ferrari is sitting right there for the Taxi companies to use and make their jobs simpler. In this case, the 200 year old car is the mode of business that comic books have refused to pull themselves out of, and all of these not exactly crazy suggestions of mine, I’m not saying that they are solid gold, but they couldn’t hurt, right? We’re constantly seeing people talk about how comics aren’t selling today like they were 25 years ago, and I just wanted to throw my two cents out there, even if it’s unlikely I’ll be heard.

I feel like I’m spinning my wheels, so I’m gonna put this thing to a stop here. I really don’t think any one of these ideas is especially crazy…if you employed just one of them at one of the big companies, it might not do immediate numbers, but I think you’d see a slow crawl of dollars being brought in. The important thing is, things don’t have to be done in the same way they’ve always been done, especially if it’s loosing the company money. And if it’s loosing the company money, it’s no good for us either.

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Last Updated ( Sunday, 14 October 2012 16:40 )  
Author Profile: RJD

RJD has written fan letters, reviews, and examinations of various qualities, mostly on the Tavern.

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