What's Wrong With Comics According to Me

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Jack of Spades
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What's Wrong With Comics According to Me

Post by Jack of Spades »

I think there are two sets of comics fans, which I call the superhero fans (fans of the characters) and sequential art fans (fans of the medium). I happen to be both. The big two are alienating both.

Superhero fans are the ones going to the movies. Marvel Studios is giving superhero fans superheroes–recognizable versions of the classic character. DC’s movies are doing less well with the superhero fans because the Superman in BvS and Justice League doesn’t seem like the guy from John Byrne’s Man of Steel. At the same time, the animated DC universe is nailing it. BTAS is THE Batman for at least one generation. Superman and Lois has a Superman I can recognize–and Netflix gave us recognizable versions of Daredevil and the Kingpin.

Historically, only comics could manage to portray superheroes effectively. They require big visuals, but they weren’t achievable on screen until, at the earliest, the Richard Donner Superman: The Movie. Now that those visuals are coming in reach of a television budget, comics have lost their lock on superheroes.

Not all superhero fans are comics fans. Having moved into other media, the characters can gather fans from those who don’t care for sequential art. I’d argue that the majority of the fans of the Black Panther know little about his comics version, and don’t care; they want the T’Challa from the movie, not the one from Black Panther and the Crew.

Sequential art fans are the people who read Love and Rockets alongside Invincible, manga, and back issues of Eisner’s Spirit. They are not going to be seduced away by film, because film is a different medium with different strengths. Sequential art fans want still images and words working together to tell a good story. This is the domain of the writer-artist or the writer/artist team. We couldn’t have had Watchmen without Moore and Gibbons, or The Dark Knight Returns without Miller’s ability to write and draw.

The big two are also losing fans of the medium, because their “superstars” are not turning out examples of great sequential art. No matter how good a writer’s ideas or prose may be, they won’t work unless they are suited to the medium and paired with an equally great art team. And let’s not forget the letterer, as much a part of the team as the composer & sound designer on a film. The big two have no one producing first-rate sequential art, and I think they’ve made themselves largely a hostile environment for it by emphasizing superstar writers and event stories.

I generally don’t care for Brian Bendis’ work, but that’s the superhero fan in me talking. He can do his part of good sequential art, and did creating Miles Morales; he managed to not turn me off with Miles because he was writing a character I had no investment in being other than who Bendis made him. Teamed with Sara Pichelli, we got sequential art strong enough to create an enduring character that hooked the superhero fans.

Danger Girl, for all its cheesecake, is really good sequential art; take a look at the panel layouts and the flow of the action, how pin-ups are used to tie pages together (something Todd McFarlane started in Infinity Inc.), and the use of sound effects as visual effects. Really, really impressive. Compare an action scene in Danger Girl to one from New Avengers; the J. Scott Campbell layouts have people doing things that have results, while the Finch and McNiven scenes just have people standing around posing while Bendis puts words in their mouths (I’m not sure if the blame goes to the writer or the artists for having nothing happen, but Bendis seems to be the common element.)

At this point, only the big two can appeal to the superhero fans. They own the intellectual property. Superheroes not associated with the DC or Marvel universes will have an uphill battle achieving acceptance. I have hopes for Invincible, but even there Kirkman had to create, and then hand off to the TV production team, a universe that suggests the depth and complexity of the DC or Marvel universes, mostly by using expys.

Sequential art is, in a lot of ways, thriving. It’s just not thriving in comic books. Sequential artists have moved to the web. (JL8, anyone?) The webcomic follows an evolution that started with graphic novels and self-publishing of enabling more artistic freedom. A web comic can have any page count, change page size in mid-story, use subtle color without regard to print costs, and even mix in sound and animation (shading toward film). Unfortunately, it also enables freedom from editors, and creators who hate editors the most often need them the most. I believe the big two, in their pursuit of continuity-changing events and fawning over superstar writers, are driving away good sequential artists who want to tell their own stories using established characters – and that if you’re not going to use the Marvel and DC characters, there is no reason to work for Marvel or DC.
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Re: What's Wrong With Comics According to Me

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Sequential art is, in a lot of ways, thriving. It’s just not thriving in comic books. Sequential artists have moved to the web. (JL8, anyone?) The webcomic follows an evolution that started with graphic novels and self-publishing of enabling more artistic freedom.
Look at the work of creators like Raina Telgemeier (Drama, Smile, The Baby-Sitters Club), Grace Ellis (Lumberjanes), Kim Garcia (Teen Titans: Raven), and others... There's an entire subgenre of Young Adult Graphic Novels out there and it's booming. The vast majority of them are autobiographical or semi-autobiographical "slice of life" or "coming of age" stories, a significant chunk of them are fantasy adventures... and over the last two or three years, Marvel and DC have actually started putting superheroes into books of this sort.

They're tapping into the Holy Grail of marketing demographics here: middle-class and upper middle-class girls ages 12-16 with vast amounts of disposable income, insatiable appetite for more content, and a notable tendency towards forming incredibly loyal fandoms. (I know women who are well into their Fifties now who read Sailor Moon or Fushigi Yugi in their teens who will still get into screaming matches with each other over `shipping drama from these series! These women have GRANDKIDS!)

Marvel and DC should be going after this market and going after it hard.
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Re: What's Wrong With Comics According to Me

Post by Jack of Spades »

Possibly I've been missing these due to not having much exposure to young adults any more. I'm glad to hear it! As a fan of both the medium and the characters, I want to see both succeed.
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Re: What's Wrong With Comics According to Me

Post by NoOneofConsequence »

Batgirl III wrote: Mon Apr 12, 2021 8:13 pm
Marvel and DC should be going after this market and going after it hard.
DC is. It's why they've made stuff like I Am Not Starfire, Nubia, and whatever that gay Aqualad thing was.

It's almost like they are trying to fail.
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Re: What's Wrong With Comics According to Me

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Batgirl III wrote: Mon Apr 12, 2021 8:13 pm Marvel and DC should be going after this market and going after it hard.
Yes. They should.

The other market that they seem to loathe to tap into is the 40-60+ year olds who USED to read super hero comics. Most of my genre-fan friends used to be comic book readers. Actually, several of us still are, but we read old comics. Whether back-issues we collect, or comics we find on-line, or just perusing our own collections, we still read comics.

We just don't read NEW comics, or if we do it isn't very often.

We're super hero fans, yes, so we watch the Marvel and DC films. Well, some of the DC films; we give Snyder a hard pass. Several of them watch the CW super hero shows. We play super-hero RPGs. And if there were comics worth getting, we would. But we don't. Not with every comic writer thinking he's writing the Great 19th century Russian novel and containing more grey-and-gray morality then one would find in a moral relativists convention.
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Re: What's Wrong With Comics According to Me

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Ken wrote: Fri Apr 16, 2021 10:06 pm The other market that they seem to loathe to tap into is the 40-60+ year olds who USED to read super hero comics.
Say it louder, for the people in the back.

They should also be going after the 8-12 year old market who don’t read comics, but love the movies, the cartoons, the action figures, and the official branded underwear... and they need to get them via the tried and true spinner rack at the corner convenience store.

Marvel, DC, and the rest all seem to think they can survive on just the twenty-somethings who frequent speciality shops and want to read books written by and for Woker Than Thou Twitter-ers.

Time-Warner and Disney don’t care about the comics as anything but IP farms for films and television.
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Re: What's Wrong With Comics According to Me

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Jack of Spades wrote: Mon Apr 12, 2021 7:58 pm Superhero fans are the ones going to the movies. Marvel Studios is giving superhero fans superheroes–recognizable versions of the classic character. DC’s movies are doing less well with the superhero fans because the Superman in BvS and Justice League doesn’t seem like the guy from John Byrne’s Man of Steel. At the same time, the animated DC universe is nailing it. BTAS is THE Batman for at least one generation. Superman and Lois has a Superman I can recognize–and Netflix gave us recognizable versions of Daredevil and the Kingpin.

Historically, only comics could manage to portray superheroes effectively. They require big visuals, but they weren’t achievable on screen until, at the earliest, the Richard Donner Superman: The Movie. Now that those visuals are coming in reach of a television budget, comics have lost their lock on superheroes.

Not all superhero fans are comics fans. Having moved into other media, the characters can gather fans from those who don’t care for sequential art. I’d argue that the majority of the fans of the Black Panther know little about his comics version, and don’t care; they want the T’Challa from the movie, not the one from Black Panther and the Crew.
I think that Jack really hit more than one nail on the head here, but I think there is something else worth considering: how a character's perception shapes the audience's expectations.
Let's consider one of my favorite panels ever:
Image

For a comic book fan, this is perfect, but it requires significant prior knowledge of the character. We, as fans of the character, expect Thor to be constantly bragging, shouting and pushing his teammates onward. Seeing him using just seven words and in what seems (or rather I imagine) a normal tone of voice conveys all the gravitas of this moment: this is when the shit hits the fan.
What about a casual reader?
This is the problem that both Marvel and DC contended with for decades. Unless we are talking about really big names like Superman, Batman, Spidey or Wolverine, who have become true pop-culture icons that exist beyond their original medium, expectations from the general public are much more undefined. While you can get a glimpse of a character is supposed to be from a single issue, this requires a creative team that has a really good understanding of the character, the medium and the story. It means that the "shock value" of the story is less important than the overall coherence of the global narrative.
Unfortunately, this also means that the publisher (via the editors) must find a way to keep all the authors under control and, above all, market "secondary canon" products in a way that is immediately recognizable. This is something that was relatively easy to do in a "cottage industry", but utterly fails apart the moment you bring in big-name superstars and give them free rein. Now, it would be easier to put the blame on the shoulders of Image Comics, who popularized the idea of the "superstar author", but I don't think that would be fair. Image was a "creator-owned" company and the key idea was that the artists were free to do whatever the fuck they wanted because of it. The Pinis and Eastmann & Laird did the same way before Image was a thing. The problem is when this model of business seeped in Marvel and DC.
Jack of Spades wrote: Mon Apr 12, 2021 7:58 pm Sequential art fans are the people who read Love and Rockets alongside Invincible, manga, and back issues of Eisner’s Spirit. They are not going to be seduced away by film, because film is a different medium with different strengths. Sequential art fans want still images and words working together to tell a good story. This is the domain of the writer-artist or the writer/artist team. We couldn’t have had Watchmen without Moore and Gibbons, or The Dark Knight Returns without Miller’s ability to write and draw.

The big two are also losing fans of the medium, because their “superstars” are not turning out examples of great sequential art. No matter how good a writer’s ideas or prose may be, they won’t work unless they are suited to the medium and paired with an equally great art team. And let’s not forget the letterer, as much a part of the team as the composer & sound designer on a film. The big two have no one producing first-rate sequential art, and I think they’ve made themselves largely a hostile environment for it by emphasizing superstar writers and event stories.
The general issue is putting one or two artists and what they want to say above the character and the setting.
Now, I'm not saying that it automatically wrong, but if I want a Spidey story written (for example) by George R.R. Martin in his own particular style, then this should be a self-contained product that emphasizes the author over the character, a graphic novel or a limited series. In this case, the artist rules and use the character.
Sergio Bonelli, arguably one of the most influential publishers of the Italian comicdom, often said that when he had to choose a new author for a series, he made sure that this writer would work "in service of the character". This should be a key principle of any serial medium with multiple authors: you are here to tell the story of [insert character], not your own.
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Re: What's Wrong With Comics According to Me

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Either you're not addressing the point you quoted, Woodclaw, or you're missing my point. Sergio Bonelli was talking about long-running series with multiple creators. Busiek and Perez, above, are masters of their craft as well as knowing how to work in service of the character. But too many of todays creators are not good at their craft, even if they do manage to respect the character. Respecting established characters goes to the "superhero fan" side of things. Jab's recurrent complaint that characters are impossible to stat up because they don't do anything goes to the "sequential art fan" side of things.

The page you posted is great sequential art. A lesser team would've made it just a splash page, with Ultron standing squared off or maybe looking over his shoulder, Firestar in front of Thor where she could be seen better, etc. Dialog scattered in the gaps the artist left. It might be a single really great image. But the three panels tell a story beat–Ultron is about to smack down his family, when something behind him explodes (note the sound effect bridging both panels, making them feel nearly simultaneous, like a sound effect in a movie lasting through a cut). Then Thor delivers his line, and Ultron (again, starting to speak while "off camera" and carrying through as we cut to an extreme close up) reacts with renewed menace and hate. And why do you "hear" Thor speaking calmly? The letterer has put the words in Thor's typical "calm speech" font and balloon, with bold italics for emphasized words as one does in normal speech, and simply punctuated with a period. Craft.

I'm not saying anything about the skill of the individual artists and writers. It is very possible to be an outstanding illustrator and not be able to lay out a page. Or be a mediocre illustrator, and yet be able to tell stories in a way that makes the page more engrossing than any single panel. The same with writers; writing a comic is not like writing a screenplay or a novel, even leaving aside whose characters they are. A screenwriter writes and a filmmaker films action you see on the screen; a comics creator must put the motion between the panels, because what you actually see is static and it has to convince you it moved.
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Re: What's Wrong With Comics According to Me

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Busiek and Perez also treated their work as work. They rarely missed deadlines, they worked on multiple titles at a time, and they got shit done. Busiek’s work only really started to slip behind schedule when the guy got mercury poisoning(!) and even then he mostly just pushed his less commercial work like Astro City from “ongoings” to “limiteds” and continued to crank out work for the Big Two.

Not quite the unstoppable machines like Kirby, Dikto, Eisner, and the rest of the old guard... But a hell of a lot more disciplined than a lot of today’s prima donna artistes.
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Re: What's Wrong With Comics According to Me

Post by Jabroniville »

The note about Webcomics being big is a good one- Jeph Jacques, creator of Questionable Content, has a Patreon backed by *12,237* people. A lot of creators there make a lot of money off of it. To be fair, the market fell a little bit thanks to oversaturation and many of the top names ending their comics, but this showed there was life in "sequential art".
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Re: What's Wrong With Comics According to Me

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Jack of Spades wrote: Sun Apr 18, 2021 6:28 am Either you're not addressing the point you quoted, Woodclaw, or you're missing my point. Sergio Bonelli was talking about long-running series with multiple creators. Busiek and Perez, above, are masters of their craft as well as knowing how to work in service of the character. But too many of todays creators are not good at their craft, even if they do manage to respect the character. Respecting established characters goes to the "superhero fan" side of things. Jab's recurrent complaint that characters are impossible to stat up because they don't do anything goes to the "sequential art fan" side of things.
As it often happens I got lost in my own argument.
My point is that being an author in an ongoing production (being a comic series, a TV show or anything else) requires two very different sets of skills that are independent and yet interdependent. One half is being a good creator, someone that understands pacing and storytelling, which is what is required to produce great sequential art... but that's not enough. You also need to know the characters and the world they live in, because that's what makes the story work in a larger context. As you said the problem with many of the current creators is that they fail at one or the other (sometimes both).
The other point I was trying to make is how much our expectations as an audience shape our perception of these faults.
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Re: What's Wrong With Comics According to Me

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Those are indeed valid points and well taken. I agree that's a lot of what's happening with comics that are losing the superhero fans; I hadn't really thought about the failures in that context.
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Re: What's Wrong With Comics According to Me

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I'm probably a broken record at this point, but I think a major contributing factor to the problems with current superhero books is as simple as a change of focus.

Earlier on, at least with the truly good writers, it was about writing the CHARACTER. Guys like Roger Stern treated writing a comic book hero like they were caretakers being entrusted with a part of American folk lore, and they wrote stories to showcase why these characters were important.

I always go back to my toybox analogy in this case, because that's the earliest and purest example of what I'm talking about. A shared superhero setting is like a big toybox full of toys that have their own identities and histories. Little dings and scratches that show a lifetime of playtime. The goal of any writer / child should be that when you find a toy, you have so much fun playing with it and tell such good stories with it that you make other kids want either listen to your story, or play with the toy themselves to tell their own stories with that toy.

Today, it feels like the emphasis is on the CREATOR, rather than the character. The creator no longer sees the characters as something to be taken care of and to shape stories around. They see the character as a means to get their own ideas out to the largest audience. The character / toy isn't really important, it's the platform that character / toy gives them. So they have no problem taking toys and drawing a Nazi symbol on them to tell their story, because they don't care that what they're doing will potentially damage that toy until some other caring kid comes along, cleans it up and tries to repair the damage done. They don't care if it's out of character for the heroes they've taken in to behave this way, because it isn't about them, it's about the creator and their story.

It's no longer about making good stories for that character, or even figuring out what are the character's core concepts and what are the superficial ones that can be tweaked without harming the character. The character is no longer a toy that people have emotions invested in, that they actual love, that they want to tell stories with and that inspire good things in them. The character is just a loudspeaker that they use to amplify their message, with no more care given to it beyond the making sure the batteries you bought for it are the right kind.
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Re: What's Wrong With Comics According to Me

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I’ll never forget the time that I was in a new city, looking for a new comic shop, and starting a new pull list... Batman, Detective Comics, Batgirl, and whatever else was in the “Bat Book” lineup at the time. The proprietor of the shop asked why I wanted those books in particular, to which I replied by saying that the Batman and Batgirl were my favorite characters.

He told me it was stupid to follow characters and I should follow artists or writers instead.

The dude owned a comic book store.

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Re: What's Wrong With Comics According to Me

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Batgirl III wrote: Sun Apr 18, 2021 6:46 pm I’ll never forget the time that I was in a new city, looking for a new comic shop, and starting a new pull list... Batman, Detective Comics, Batgirl, and whatever else was in the “Bat Book” lineup at the time. The proprietor of the shop asked why I wanted those books in particular, to which I replied by saying that the Batman and Batgirl were my favorite characters.

He told me it was stupid to follow characters and I should follow artists or writers instead.

The dude owned a comic book store.

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Well, that's depends on where the emphasis is: if you're a fan of sequential art it might be a good thing to follow a specific creator.

In that regard, there was a pretty interesting observation in one of the first issues of Otaku Club Genshiken, when the main characters went to a comic shop in Akihabara and compared the criteria to buy comics: one of them bought everything related to certain franchises no matter the author, another followed a few selected authors irrespective of what they were writing... then there was the guy that bought everything without looking at the price tag :P
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