Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Comics: "The Free Pass"

I used to do this thing where I gave comic books a free pass in terms of assessing them for quality. A particular comic book might be mediocre, but I would say: "for a comic book, this isn't bad." Rather than saying: "this is mediocre."

What a patronizing attitude. It's like some kid making you this lumpy ashtray out of Play-Doh and you say: "for a kid, this isn't a half bad piece of sculpture."

Obviously, there are enough comics out there of a superior quality to have raised the bar on this medium a long time ago. Also, there are comics that, while maybe not on the level of "Maus" or "Watchmen," are truly very entertaining and thrilling.

But then there's the plain mediocre: books that coast along mostly because of either name recognition or the 20th reiteration of a tired old theme.

Hey, I'm not a snob. I occasionally watch stuff on TV like CSI, for example. Not the deepest series (or series of series) ever. What CSI has going for it, in terms of holding my interest, are two things: 1) The technical forensic stuff is cool (though I have read that some of it is sketchy); 2) It's hyper-stylized to the point of a captivating ridiculousness. Kind of entertaining. But not great. Plus: I don't pay for it, so that helps.

I've also read really trashy action novels, the sort of best-seller stuff they advertise on subway trains. Again: not great. But containing some cool technical bits + a captivating ridiculousness. One book is around $6-8 (as little as 25 cents or free if I really go searching them out) and takes me about two days to a week to finish.

For $8, I can buy 2.5 comic books. If they are of the same level of quality as my trashy action novel, it will take me under a half-an-hour to read. There is no guarantee I will get a complete story in those comics, or even understand what the hell is going on.

Now let's make a similar comparison with DVDs. For around $3 or less, I can watch a captivatingly ridiculous movie on a DVD rental (say, "Push"). That movie will take around 2 hours to watch. I can spend the same amount of money on one comic book of similar quality, and consume it in about 15 minutes. Again: with the comic book, I am not guaranteed a complete story. (The ironic thing being, movies like "Push," in the hopes of starting a movie franchise, are also being structured so you are not guaranteed a complete story)

I think part of the reason we still make excuses for mediocre comics is because of our fondness for the characters involved. Sometimes you will hear a fan say: "this was crap, but it was starring XXXX. I had to buy it."

I understand that. It's like eating french fries even though you know they're sort of crappy and bad for you. I do that sometimes. I watch CSI, for example. I have the first episode of NCIS: LA programmed on my DVR. I get it.

But also: the enrichment my life gets when I read a truly good comic book or novel, when I watch a really well-done movie or TV show – you really can't compare. Why don't I search out more of these good things? Is there a chronic shortage? Am I afraid that too much intelligence, too much thoughtfulness and introspection, too much creativity and innovation – that it might break my brain? Is this the "leafy greens" of entertainment – good for me, but without enough artificial flavor crystals and MSG?


  1. Sometimes I find myself reading a title out of habit... then one day I realize that I haven't enjoyed reading this comic in months and stop buying.

    Or worse, I keep getting a comic that I lov*ed*. It was terrible for a few years, but I kept buying it month after month hoping that, "This is the issue where it will be good again." That issue rarely ever comes.

    I also did that with "Heroes" on TV.

  2. Ooooo... Well said!

    Looking forward to part 2 where you name names, but this would put you in an awkward position, wouldn't it? As someone who writes for these comic companies, that'd be like gnawing the hand that feeds you.

  3. Yeah, the whole "Heroes" thing is pretty sad, huh?

    Sad, like I would rather watch one of the CSI/NCIS iterations than the premiere of Heroes.

    I think I come to CSI without a lot of expectation. Then I've never disappointed. And when they occasionally raise the bar, I do that same old thing:
    "this is pretty good for a CSI show!"

  4. I think a big part of the problem is the obligation to crank out 12 issues a year, every year. Add that to the fact that the best characters nearly all appear in multiple titles.

    Take Superman as an example. I think Gary Frank is one of the best pencillers that title has had in a while. James Robinson is capable of writing interesting work that would be ideal for Frank.

    However, not only are they not working as a team, but Robinson isn't even writing a Superman title that features ... well ... Superman. His lead is off in an unrelated third title that he is co-writing.

    Even if they were paired, there would be an obligation for them to tie into the large DC universe and fit whatever story Robinson might conjure into 12 issues that are 22-pages each. Also, each of those issues need to come out within the same calender year.

    So, instead of getting one great Superman title, we get four mediocre ones. The system is not set up for the best possible creative team to create the best possible stories.

    Middling stories at a $4 price point are going to get lost in sea of media choices. That is why dollar volumes for comics are totally flat over the past ten years, despite price increases.

  5. There's no reason why you can't have 3-4 decent Superman books a month. But I think you need to spread out the talent and not get so hung up on them all tightly interlocking continuity-wise.

    I'm all for brand consistency, but if you have three different creative teams with three different approaches to a character – all hand-picked for quality – you've got a better chance for these runs to be something great.

  6. That's exactly it. CSI and NCIS and all those other shows are like comfort food for the brain - so when they throw in some veggies, you're like, wait, whoa!

    I need to seriously cut my comics...I dropped some of the Avengers titles (something I haven't done since Avengers West Coast turned into Force Works).

    They used to have a very tight, coherent Superman line. Jerry Ordway, Louise Simonson...that stuff was was like old-school Marvel great.

  7. Anonymous2:01 AM

    Whenever I hear people ask me "what did you expect, Shakespeare?", I have an instinctive urge to destroy them.

    We as a society have been using the excuse of tritely comparing things to greater things for quite some time.

  8. First off, brilliant post!

    Think you've hit the nail on the head in terms of value ratio for comic vs other forms of entertainment. Pretty new to the comic scene myself, around 2 years, and I found myself wondering why i was paying up to £40 a month for a habbit that offered not much more than short stories that take 3, 6 or 8 months to tell.

    Maybe it's an impatience thing. Monthly titles you're only getting titbits. But it feels more exciting to read the novel hardback (a little cheaper than collecting the monthly), getting the full story in one go and feeling that excitement at the end when you're satisfied with the conclusion or you're eager for next volume.

  9. Oh yes, the excuse "it's only comic-book writing" has long overstayed its welcome. There's also a more specific version often used to fob off criticism of a specific story or story element. It goes like this: "But in comic-book X issue Y the same thing happened!" because simply because something was published in the past you're not allowed to criticize something similar in a story published in the present. The apparent assumption is that the critic of the more recent story does not have similar reservations about the older story, even if the person bringing up the often obscure "precedent" does not know if the critic was even aware of it, let alone if s/he hadn't condemned the earlier story for exactly the same reasons... (Variations of this have been used a lot to defend the OMD/BND Spider-Man stories).

  10. Anonymous6:45 PM

    I also think a big part of the problem is that a lot of DC and Marvel fans don't try to branch out. To make a fairly horrible analogy, it's comparable to people who are so dead set in their own ideology that they don't UNDERSTAND that anything else is out there.