Sunday, December 06, 2009

Splash Page: Are Mainstream Comics Increasingly Lame, or is it Just Us? (Part 1 of 2)

You know the routine by now, Chad talks, I talk, we all talk. This week's topic: What's going on in mainstream comics these days, and why is the overall feeling one of funkiness, but not in a good way?

Chad Nevett:
In our column discussing Warren Ellis and Geoff Johns, Tim made a rather bold statement that I will quote now for those who are too lazy to go back and find it: "...the mass of mainstream superhero comics is floundering in the second half of 2009." Now, Tim is a bold man and is taken to making bold statements that he then backs up. It's something we share and bond over (our collective boldness). At the time, I let it slide since we'd talked a lot and this seemed a perfect topic for another column. Well, that column is this one. Tim, expand upon and defend what we said a while ago, quite possibly just because it sounded big and exciting and cool without thinking it through entirely (as those are the funnest things to say, I must admit).

TC: Okay, that was a few weeks ago, so let me get back into that mindset. Wait for it. There. Got it. Maybe.

I was talking about the general feeling I have that if you created a line graph of the overall quality of superhero comics from 2008 through 2009, you'd see a pretty high standard of quality for a while, and then it would start to dip in maybe February or March of 2009, and continue its downward slide through the summer and fall of this year. I base that not just on the amount of comics I just plain stopped buying this year (and while I was easily reading 25-30 comics a week in 2008, I'm down to 8-10 a week right now), but also the distinct lack of chatter about these superhero comics from the internet intelligentsia.

(The above graph has been peer-reviewed and independently confirmed by at least seventeen comic book scientists.)

Whether it's David Brothers or Douglas Wolk, Geoff Klock or Jog, the guys that had been commenting on mainstream comics have seriously cut back on their own discussions, and even when those critics weren't buying that much stuff to begin with -- Klock, even in 2008, had cut back to only a few titles -- they were part of some larger conversations about superhero comics.

It seems like that spirit of enthusiasm has died down across the board as this year has plodded along, month by month.

Maybe it's the Morrison lull that I'm feeling -- or we're all feeling -- with the giddiness of "Final Crisis" and "Batman" being replaced in recent months with the atrocity of the most recent "Batman and Robin" arc. I'll take Tony Daniel over Philip Tan any day, if I were forced to make such a choice. Or maybe it's the kind of events we're seeing now compared to last year. I don't think "Blackest Night" is aesthetically worse than "Secret Invasion," but Bendis's event comic at least sparked plenty of discussion. With "Blackest Night," the conversation amounts to, "who's going to come back as a zombie next?" And even though you may or may not enjoy the series -- I do, and you don't -- nobody seems to care about the answer to that question. And justifiably so.

Even the good-but-not-great stuff like "Immortal Iron Fist" and "Ghost Rider" has disappeared, or barely comes out, this year. And what has it been replaced with? Not much. Not many new voices in comics this year, really.

And we don't even have "Wednesday Comics" to look forward to anymore, as 2009 draws to a close.

What's your take on all of this?

CN: As I said at the time of your statement, I don't necessarily disagree. I'm buying the same amount of books, if not one or two more, but the increase in the books I'm buying hasn't come from the superhero genre, but from Vertigo, which keeps hooking me with their one dollar first issues, or from mini-series that won't be around in a few months. Then again, this week, I've reviewed four comics for CBR, all superhero books, and three of them were given four stars... Granted, one of them is "The Boys," which is a superhero book technically and may not factor into the above. I wonder if the actual quality has decreased or if it's just that there was a certain energy, a buzz in the air, last year that just isn't here now -- which has nothing to do with quality necessarily. I think people are just tired. It's been a long few years and "Secret Invasion" and "Final Crisis" looked like the end of the big events... the points both companies had been working toward and neither paid off in the way that anyone expected/wanted. Both events left people feeling let down and I think the mood shifted then. There have been a few high points since, like the day "Batman and Robin" #1 came out, but, really, no one cares as much.

But, there are still plenty of books with good quality. I mean, there's "Detective Comics"! JH Williams III! And there's also... yeah, I don't know. "Captain America" has been replaced with the lesser "Reborn" mini-series. The Avengers books are at the same level of quality as always (which is good-but-not-great). "Thor" sort of fizzled out as "Siege" had JMS leave the book with a whimper, not a bang. And... dammit, you're right. I can't really defend things. Why are we reading these books still, then, Tim? Please help me out...

TC: Exactly. Though you may have given a few four-star reviews in recent weeks, and certainly I have as well, the really great superhero books are few and far between. Maybe the average quality has stayed the same, but there's less excitement about a few key books. Brubaker's "Captain America" feels like a generation ago, because this "Reborn" stuff is coming out too slowly, and though it's in keeping with what's been done with the character before, it just feels, I don't know, a bit too stale. Bucky-Cap was interesting on his own, and it seems like Brubaker could have kept him going by himself for a while. Disappointment is a good word, and it fits for the anticipation-and-then-release of the event books last year, too.

"Detective Comics" is probably the only superhero monthly I really and truly love right now, but that lasts for exactly as long as Williams III draws the pages. "Punisher" is second -- and I know you hate that one -- and "Batman and Robin" is third, just because the most recent arc killed me. It was a weak sixth issue, to be sure. I think it will rebound with Cam Stewart on art. Strike that. I know it will rebound with Cam Stewart and become a #1 comic in my heart and mind again. But for now, I can still taste the Tan.

And even when we do give some of the superhero comics 4 stars or more this fall, how much of that is based on the overall weakness of the comics? I mean, would "Dark Avengers Annual" have been a four-star comic if it came out in the same time period as a "Captain Britain," and "Iron Fist," a "Final Crisis"? Those were four-star books a year ago. The scale slides. It has to. Otherwise you'd have to compare every comic to "Swamp Thing" #21 and "Animal Man" #5 and whatever else lands in the "greatness" range, and most of the stuff we praise in a given week would be, from a long-term perspective, completely average. Everything would get 2.5 stars except one or two things a year.

I may be overstating that, but that's the general feeling I get about this season of comics. Not that they're bad. Just that something's missing.

To be continued at GraphiContent!


Chad Nevett said...

And, for all, the second half IS up at my blog...

Timothy Callahan said...

People keep linking to this discussion but nobody's using the graph. Come on, folks, we live in a data-driven society!

Jeff DeWitt said...

Pathetic. Once again superhero comics are being bashed by people who really don't like superhero comics to begin with.

If you thought Final Crisis was the apex of superhero comics then you don't really like superhero comics.

Morrison is about the worst superhero writer out there. He needs to stick to Vertigo so all the Morrisonites out there can quit making their biased comments about mainstream superhero comics.

Lavina said...

I think it has to do with the different angles that indie comics, movies, etc are bringing to the graphic novel genre. Superhero comics have been very black and white, and in some cases, immature. The rebirth of certain beloved heroes as morally grey, darker beings is more relatable to the modern reader than the happy-go-lucky hero of another time. People want to see real stories, real challenges, and real pain.


Timothy Callahan said...

"People want to see real stories, real challenges, and real pain."

Which people? Not the ones going to the movies and shooting stuff like Twilight and Transformers 2 to the top of the box office.

Also, Jeff: Try to make sense next time you post a comment.

Lavina said...

My bad. I meant REAL people. Those who watch Twilight and Transformers 2 are sheeple.

Timothy Callahan said...

I don't know. I mean, yeah, they are "sheeple," but realism is my least favorite literary mode. And if you look at what people actually read and watch, realism is a niche market. Even more than superheroes.

Lavina said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Lavina said...

Then can you explain the boom of reality TV shows vs fictional TV shows?

Not to mention that some of the more critically acclaimed series have more elements of realism in them (despite any science fiction or fantasy settings) than a lot of the mainstream ones. I'm referring here to elements of realism: rounded characters, relatable challenges, moral ambiguity...etc.

Quality Research

Timothy Callahan said...

I'd argue that reality shows are anything BUT realism. They are romanticism through and through. They are Cinderella stories mixed with game shows -- the popular ones are, at least.

And, yes, plenty of critically-acclaimed shows use elements of realism -- "The Wire" comes to mind (and like everyone else who's seen it, I do love that show) -- but as I've said before, we are still stuck in a 100-year rut of thinking that "realism" automatically equals quality, even though realism is a relatively recent literary mode.

The mythic and the romantic have been around for a long, long time for good reason: they take the essential human conflicts and present them symbolically. Realism can certainly be done well, but it's not inherently superior.

I just read Ba and Moon's "Daytrippers," which I'll review this weekend. It's more realistic than the work they've done with Fraction or Way. And it's not nearly as good.

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