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Thursday, April 15, 2004

The blame game. 

There's a discussion going on over at Fanboy Rampage about a comment made by Andy Diggle, writer of The Losers and Swamp Thing. His money quote goes something like this:

"The X-Men back in spandex. Doom Patrol goes 70s. Wildcats 3.0 cancelled. What fucking century is this... ? I need a drink."

The usual responses are coming from all around. Those that concede with what Diggle's said want to blame either the DM and readers (as if they were one entity), or the publishers (in this case, the Big Two, DC and Marvel, also treated as if they were one entity.)

And once again we see the basic flaw in thinking that many, many, many otherwise intelligent critics and comic fans wear on their sleeve when this discussion (or one like it) comes up. Everything's in black and white. It's either this or it's that. You're either a Marvel or DC fan, you either love nothing but superheroes or hate superheroes with the searing heat of a thousand white-hot suns.

As we know from real life, one side or another in every artistic medium cannot bear the full blame. Black and white mentality never solves anything. The issue is always, always, always much stickier than that.

The arguments go something like this:

It's the Big Two's fault: "The Lords and Masters of Marvel and DC hate all creativity and would skin their money directly from the backs of Ethiopian orphans if it were possible. Innovation is the enemy. They all sit in smokey boardrooms and talk about how they can fuck over the youth of American in new and interesting ways. Their stagnation is the death knell of the industry. Blah blah Quesada blah blah sellout blah blah corporate blah blah Barnes & Noble blah blah capes blah blah man-panties."

Problems with this argument: Yes, it's quite true that a lot of Marvel's and DC's current policies seem to indicate they're backtracking. There's a potential revolution on their hands that they're not going for. But you know what?

Revolutions cost money. Revolutions are risky and quite dangerous to public image and to the wallet. Publishing risky books in high quantities, advertising for them as you would a new Superman/Batman crossover, all that shit equals a lot of money spent that simply won't be made back for a long, long time. Trends emerge slowly and catch on with the mainstream audience years after their heralds are first published.

The Big Two are in the rather precarious position of being the yardstick by which the entire industry is measured and gauged. Both are monoliths in comparison to places like Image or Dark Horse or Oni, but are absolute peons when you compre them to Simon & Schuster or Paramount Pictures. The money scales are so vastly different, and the industry so much smaller, that Marvel and DC simply cannot afford to publish tons of risk titles.

Everyone likes to bitch and gripe about how bankrupt the industry is, how it's always on the very precipice of utter failure, and then turn around and bitch at Marvel for putting out five Spider-Man titles instead of a bunch of watered-down Chasing Amy-esque semi-autobiographical wankfests written by self-important nobodies (lord knows I've bitched about it.) And they fail to see the connection. Marvel and DC do not have a lot of money. In order to get a lot of money that can be spent on aforementioned wankfests, they must first generate disposable profit. How is this accomplished?

By releasing twenty (yes, twenty) Spider-Man books in the month of May, for starters.

Do you understand, now? Do you get it? These are corporations that must, at all times, turn a profit. Comics sell little enough as it is. These companies do not have the room to release title after title of untested, unreliable material. No corporation in the world works that way; why do we expect the Big Two to operate differently? If one of them did operate that way, they'd sink in about two years. Can you imagine what the comic book world would be like if Marvel or DC tanked?

A fucking warzone, that's what. Love them or hate them, the Big Two are essential to the survival of the craft.

It's the DM's and comic book readers' fault: "How dare you insult our superheroes? Look, if it's really their fault, why don't you just quit bitching and stop buying the superhero books? Obviously that's the solution to the problem: If you disagree with me, just don't talk about it. Since Avengers/JLA sells so well, this must obviously be what the people want. Blah blah fanboys blah blah juvenile blah blah manga blah blah Wildstorm blah blah if fans want something new they can look elsewhere." Interestingly, this argument is supported by mindless fanboys and kneejerk all-superheroes-suck cynics alike, if for different reasons.

Problems with this argument: Look, it really isn't as simple as all that. Do you know why Fables doesn't sell 100,000 issues a month? It's not because "the dumbass fanboys" (or "the people," if you happen to be one of those "dumbass fanboys") just really prefer to see a dude in tights kicking another dude in tights's ass.

There's a fuckton of other factors to consider, some of which have been touched on in recent columns all over the internet. (My preferred flavor is the one that stated that most people go to comic books for superheroes because their other needs, in drama and horror and sci-fi and so on, are adequately met in other media, such as novels and movies.) And we also, inevitably, come back to finances.

Fables, a fine comic, does not sell 100,000 copies a month because it does not and cannot command that kind of audience. I don't care if you give it the hugest marketing push in the world (which costs money), gave away free 8-page samples of it on the street (money again), or forced every single DM to carry a stack of them each time it came out, no matter the size of the store (dinero). Despite all those hypotheticals, it's still trapped in a DM store, which is a specialty shop. Despite all those hypotheticals, it still sits next to Ultimate Man-Thing (or whatever) on the shelves, and people are going to go with what's familiar, because going out on a limb costs them money, just as it costs the publisher money to push a risk. They would prefer to spend their money on a product they know will satisfy them, then take risks every single week.

(A quick aside: I don't want to hear any shit about how comics is the only place where the audience seems to go for the same characters over and over again and never wants anything new. The assumption is that only lameass fanboys go to their entertainment for a pleasing sense of comfort and, to some degree, sameness.

To you types, I invoke John Grisham, Michael Crichton, Meg Ryan, Michael Bay, Bruce Willis, Dave Barry, Top 40 radio, the romantic comedy formula, and a host of other people, story structures, and repetitive media we see churning out pretty much the same product year after year after year. And people buy or otherwise patronize them. Why? Because people know what they like and they seek it out. Not everyone is an entertainment adventurer looking for new thrills every single time they go to the theater or bookstore. And I'm not going to be the kind of cultural fascist that suggests everyone should be. I don't have that right, and neither do you.)

And there are those comic shops that simply cannot afford to cater to the smaller print stuff out of vanity. Do you know why? Because it doesn't pay the fucking rent, end of story. Tower Records has filed Chapter 11, largely because they sell a lot of specialized product (such as as their large selection of zines and indie publications) that cannot pay for the floorspace they take up.

We are a cottage industry, ladies and gents. We don't yet have the room to publish a bunch of vanity and experimental titles in truly significant numbers. Those titles come through, bit by bit, in Oni and Avatar and Vertigo and AiT/PlanetLar, and for now that's about as much as the industry can handle. You want things to change? Get active about it.

The "everything's fine" argument: "It's always been this way. Why do you care about the X-Men going back to spandex? I see no obvious greater significance of that. This is what people want. Why are you bitching? This is how it's always been and always will be. You're just whining."

Problems with this argument: Thanks, guys. Your apathy is duly noted. Next time, if you have nothing to contribute, just don't talk. You don't have to voice an opinion on everything, especially if your opinion is to not have one.

Do you get me now? That this isn't one side's fault or the other, that pat answers will solve nothing? Change is affected when it is made benficial for both sides of an argument.

Example from the movie industry: I was watching Last House on the Left the other night, specifically to listen to the director's commentary. The experience was enlightening. Prominently mentioned was the fact that this film was budgeted by a collective of independent movie theater owners who wanted to produce cheapie films for their teenage audiences. This was a fairly common practice in that where and when, and seemed to work out pretty well for a young writer/director named Wes Craven.

Do you understand the implications? Business owners interested in profit funded young, untested filmmakers to make a movie because it was something that benefitted the both of them. The owners got their dirt cheap product and made money off of it, and the filmmakers got a jumpstart on their careers. You can scoff all you want at the importance of Wes Craven and the slasher/shock genre of movies (and they are important to the history of film, whether you acknowledge it or not), but you will find no greater instruction of how change in an artistic medium can be effected.

Whew. That's all for now.

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